Elder Cultivator 263

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“How close do we need to get?” Anton asked the members of the Grasping Willows. They were already within the domain of the grandfather willow, a canopy that stretched kilometers around it and dangled thin branches everywhere. Though, they were only thin by comparison to the trunk of the tree. While a normal sized grasping willow had branches no more than a finger in thickness, these were as thick as a man’s arm. Much more difficult to cut through, but still apparently flexible.

“Going all the way to the trunk would be best,” Elder Ivo replied. “Though we should soon take a break to attune ourselves to the grandfather willow. We would not want anyone to accidentally fall into danger.”

Anton himself would simply have to deal with avoiding the branches, which could be difficult as the tangle of plants increased in density and began to overlap. He wasn’t the one intended to benefit from this training expedition, though. He might still grow, but it was the weaker cultivators of the Grasping Willows that were the focus of their mission.

As Elder Ivo had said, they stopped for a time not much further in. They found a particularly large branch and gathered around it. Anton could feel the way their energy synchronized with the tree, feeling like little extensions of it in a way. It wasn’t a stealth ability like others he had sensed, at least not to the same degree. They weren’t so much attempting to fool people as they were the plant itself, and even that was not quite right. They sought to emulate the tree as more than just a way to avoid danger, but to capture a measure of its power. 

It was the same with the Ninety-Nine Stars. Anton had forty stars inside of him, though they were a mere shadow of the power held in a real star. He doubted that even ascension cultivators could begin to match that level of strength, though he wasn’t sure what sort of advancement they had beyond that point. Was it the end… or was there more to it? He wouldn’t get to see, but that didn’t matter. There was little point in having so much personal power. Anton much preferred what he was doing now, raising others up while not neglecting himself.

Eventually everyone was ready to continue, even the weakest of the group in tune to the point that the grandfather willow wouldn’t trouble them. That didn’t necessarily say the same for everything else, though. Which was part of why Anton was present.

Anton caught sight of a giant mantis hiding in the brush. It was much larger than a normal insect of its type, but the tall and thin insect was only about half the size of a human. That put its strange grasping claws at about the size of a shortsword or a long dagger. 

It would have only taken a single arrow to take out the creature, but that would run counter to their goals. They were here to train some of the younger generation, and that didn’t mean just bringing them to the grandfather willow and letting them sit around it for a while. Energy cultivation was important, but being able to make use of enhanced abilities was just as important. Combat experience was critical, and related to that was the ability to spot enemies.

He was fairly certain Lev and Elder Ivo had spotted the creature as well, but even if they hadn’t it wouldn’t be able to harm them unless they specifically lowered their energy defenses. The younger cultivators could be injured, but Anton knew he would be quicker than the creature if it came down to it.

As it happened, one of them did spot it in time. A young man named Roch, if Anton recalled correctly. “Orsola, we’ll flank it from either side.” The other disciple he spoke to nodded her head, and they both approached the creature at an angle.

The creature seemed unsure which of them to attack as they got close, but ultimately it didn’t matter. It sprang towards Roch in the end, but he was ready for the sudden reaching movement, stepping to the side. As it moved, Orsola lashed out with her hair, long enough to trail on the ground if she had not restrained. Thick ropes of hair wrapped around the creature’s left claw, binding the hook to the rest of the appendage. The inside had blades and hooks meant to sink into a creature and hold onto them, but the outside was relatively tame. At the same time Roch made a similar attack, but using the flowing sleeves of his robes instead of his own hair. His hair and beard were growing out, but were not at an effective point for combat just yet. 

With the creature’s weapons tied up, the two cultivators pulled to either side. It couldn’t reach towards either of them with its insectile mouth, and instead simply tried to pull away. The two cultivators held firm for a few moments before finally it got free… in a manner of speaking. The arm on Orsola’s side was torn off, and Roch still held on. A moment later Orsola slashed out with a sword at her waist. Once the creature was dead, the disciples turned to Elder Ivo for appraisal.

The man considered for a few moments. “A reasonable success.”

“Reasonable?” Roch asked. “We subdued it with no injuries.”

“Yes, the ability to foresee trouble is important. Your teamwork was top notch as well,” Elder Ivo said. “But it was not a terribly strong creature. Either of you could have defeated it alone.”

“There’s no reason not to call upon allies when they are available,” Orsola noted.

“That’s right. But there are still more of your fellow disciples. Even if you wanted to leave most people free to watch for more trouble, a third member would have done you good. The two of you couldn’t go in for the kill while holding it like that.” Elder Ivo knew there were more flaws than that, but he didn’t want to be too harsh. “Overall, an acceptable success in combat. But did you consider something else… like avoiding the creature entirely? That would have been the safest option.”

“There’s no guarantee it wouldn’t come after us later,” Roch grumbled.

“Fair enough,” Elder Ivo agreed. “But I know you didn’t even consider it. Not everything has to turn into a fight, even here on a training expedition.”


There were more minor battles to be had, not all of which went quite so smoothly as the first. There were several injuries, though for the most part cultivators could avoid being actually injured with sufficient defensive energy. Either way weakened them for the future, however, unless their avoidance techniques were sufficient.

Anton took out several problematic creatures. Constricting snakes wouldn’t quickly kill one of the weaker cultivators, even if they were left alone, but a venomous snake could strike swiftly and cause significant damage immediately. There was an acceptable level to the power Anton was willing to deal with. He could quickly kill most of the creatures they had come across, but he wouldn’t always be able to make a judgment of whether someone needed saving in battle. So he thinned down the enemies to a more acceptable level.

In addition to using teamwork, their grappling abilities, and weapons, the Grasping Willows had another option at their disposal. The environment. There were the smaller offshoots of the tree in many places, and the branches that dangled down to the sloping floor of the valley and trailed along the ground were extremely dangerous as well. The natural inhabitants of the area were capable of avoiding the willows, obviously, but in the middle of combat they weren’t always so lucky. 

Roch and Orsola were the first ones to drive a creature back into one of the trees, entangling it without either of them having to risk themselves or expend much energy. They even allowed creatures to chase them into an area, stepping over or even on the branches of the grandfather willow. It truly didn’t react to them, though Elder Ivo cautioned that they not linger in their contact.

At the current moment, Anton was looking at a bear six meters tall strung up by a large vine, which was wrapping yet another layer around it as it thrashed. It was pulled higher and higher into the canopy above them until it could barely be seen. He had been considering weakening the creatures, but the disciples had spotted it quickly enough and set up their ambush. They were all planning to remain out of reach, so it had been safe enough. In a real battle they could have tripped or gotten stuck, but with three Essence Collection cultivators watching out for them it was an acceptable risk. Unlike if they were engaging in close combat, where a small slip up could result in severe wounds, there would be slightly more time to react. Enough to take out a bear even of that size.

Though animals that had energy tended to grow to enormous proportions like that particular bear, in this area there were smaller creatures that survived through virtue of cunning and having sufficient energy. Being smaller was also an advantage, as it allowed them to slip under the dangling branches more easily.

Anton sensed the incoming group first. A sizable pack of wolves, several dozen in number. They indeed outnumbered the cultivators, but not by all that much. Their individual prowess Anton might compare to early Spirit Building cultivators. If one didn’t include the Essence Collection cultivators it might be a reasonable combat, but obviously the wolves didn’t have a proper sense of how strong they were. 

When the battle actually began, however, it was clear they had a strategy that would normally have worked. When the battle began the wolves pushed forward aggressively, working in pairs to force people to retreat. It was exactly like the disciples had been doing earlier, except for one thing. When they stepped into the grasping willows, they were ignored.

Anton took a few shots at some of the wolves menacing the Body Tempering cultivators, the weakest of the group. Elder Ivo and Lev also contributed to those who were struggling, and soon the wolves were in a poor position. They had managed to push many of the disciples into positions that would have killed or greatly disadvantaged them, but when they were still able to fight just fine the wolves were unsure what to do. It only took a few moments for the disciples to rally themselves and go on the attack. The wolves had never really wanted to fight to begin with, so as soon as they began to take losses they began to flee. 


It wasn’t too much longer before the group arrived at the base of the grandfather willow. Instead of a tree it looked more like a giant wall of wood, but from the right angle the actual details came out, the various branches splaying out above them finally gathering into the great tree. This was what they were here for, though Anton knew that didn’t mean they were done with the hard part. 

They would be remaining in one place for a period of several days at least, which would allow various creatures plenty of time to take notice of them. Some of them would no doubt sense Anton and the other stronger cultivators and stay away, but not every beast could judge opponents by the level of their energy with any accuracy. And there was always the chance that there was something that would provide a real challenge, and wouldn’t like the thought of other powerful creatures moving into its territory. 

The Grasping Willows made trips to the area often enough that they cleared out many of the problems, but there was no telling what might have moved in since the previous year. For the moment, however, things were peaceful.

The disciples gathered around the trunk of the tree. It was the most boring part, but it had the important core of the energy of the grandfather willow, the part that guided the rest of the trees. It had enough power that even Anton thought he could gain some insights from studying it, even though he followed a completely different cultivation style. Though he wasn’t sure if something like that would be of use to him. He would focus most of his attention on searching for threats, though he certainly wouldn’t pass up the chance to observe such an impressive tree. It didn’t move– except when entangling prey- but it had an interesting flow of energy throughout the trunk.

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