It was difficult to plan for an invasion at a vaguely known time in an unknown place. The elders of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars were no different in that regard from any others. Grand Elders Kseniya, Matousek, Fodor, and Zajoc were meeting along with the handful of others who were at least temporarily filling the positions. It was somewhat uncomfortable how temporary those positions had been with all the turnover in the last decade.
“This is a serious problem,” Kseniya wasn’t the most senior Grand Elder by a great deal, though strangely enough she was now in the top half despite her only being in the position for a few years. However, she spoke with the confidence of someone whose words were important. And they were, even if her perception slightly deviated from the norm. “At best, I can see less than a sixth of the way across the country. From this height, that distance of a hundred and fifty kilometers or so is my limit for how far I can shoot right now. Even if I expanded that, it’s not enough.”
“You are not responsible for defending the whole of Graotan yourself,” Elder Matousek reminded her.
“Who else will? They could show up anywhere. Our position here is the best for our training, but it’s far from centrally located. If attackers appeared in the east, even if a message immediately reached us we wouldn’t be able to respond for days, or at least a handful of hours.”
“I don’t think that is as important as improving our defenses,” Grand Elder Zajoc commented. “They’ll be coming for the sects primarily, from what we know. Places with concentrations of resources.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have any then,” Fodor suggested. When he saw the blank looks on people’s faces, he clarified. “If we minimize the amount of extra resources we have, preferably by using them to increase everyone’s combat capabilities as much as possible, then even in the worst case scenario they get less. And in the best case, we drive them off with fewer casualties.” He shrugged, “Obviously equipment will need to be distributed for use, since it would be foolish to give up our combat potential.”
“The problem there is when and how to allocate resources, as it always is,” Matousek commented. “There should yet be decades until it is time. Unfortunately we don’t quite know more than that. Perhaps we will get a clearer picture as it approaches. For now, I suggest we continue our steady approach to raising our disciples. With the swelling numbers… our resources will be used up naturally anyway.”
Zajoc grinned, “With Vincent and Anton, I can’t think of a time recruitment has ever been so high. Our numbers could triple in a few decades. That’s compared to before the recent conflict, even. Depending on the timeframe, we might even swell our ranks of Life Transformation cultivators to higher than it had been before.”
Matousek nodded her head. “There are more than a handful of promising candidates.”
“Let’s be candid here,” Kseniya said. “There are five who are guaranteed to reach Life Transformation in that time if they don’t die, and there are a couple dozen promising candidates on top of that.”
“If they survive,” Matousek nodded slowly, “Which is far from a guarantee, despite their success so far.”
“Vandale’s grandson won’t die,” Zajoc commented.
“You can’t guarantee that,” Matousek said. “Even at the price of your own life. And even if it did, it would only be… of marginal benefit.”
“Oh, his value would be much more than mine,” Zajoc smiled slightly. “But I’ve seen him fight. More than just cultivation talent, I know he’ll just refuse to die.”
“That only works until someone cuts your head off,” Matousek grimaced.
“I suppose that’s true in most cases,” Zajoc conceded. Certainly, the Order didn’t have any techniques for miraculous recovery after such fatal events.
“I don’t mean to drive the conversation in a negative direction,” Matousek explained. “But counting on people to advance without issue is quite different from guaranteeing they will survive until that point. Unless we sequester them away, but in that case most of them would stagnate.” Matousek shrugged, “That Catarina girl would probably be fine as long as we locked her in with cultivation resources, but it would hardly be worth it. We can’t expect the world to stop for a while while we ready ourselves for this. Even if every cultivation sect focuses on this same goal- which we certainly can’t guarantee- we’d all run out of resources without some adventuring around.”
“Elder Howland has been doing an excellent job managing our crops,” Fodor commented. “But it’s not as if we have breeding programs for powerful beasts and metal deposits don’t usually just migrate until they’re under a sect.”
“I remember that one,” Zajoc nodded, “Heavy Mountain Gate was quite surprised to find their mineshafts filled in with ore after a few years of neglect. But it’s certainly impossible to count on such fortune.”
“Regardless,” Matousek said. “We have built up significant resources over the years. Even if we are unsure of the specific timeframe, I agree we can afford to be a bit more generous in doling things out. Perhaps even some specific rewards for advancements in anti-ascension techniques. Though we don’t want people to neglect their basic cultivation either.”
Exact details would be hammered out over time, but that was something they both had too much and too little of. It was hard to raise up a whole new generation of cultivators to the peak in a few decades, but it was also difficult to manage resources on a scale longer than that. Perhaps there was a reason Everheart had chosen the particular timings for his announcement. Or maybe he just liked pushing people to their limits.
Anton stood atop the mountain, staring up at the sky. The flat ground he was standing atop was not natural in the slightest, but instead was the result of observatory rubble having been cleared away. Only some of the outer structure had remained intact after the battle that resulted in Vandale’s death. It was unfortunate, but it was gone. There had been some talk of rebuilding it to respect his memory, but it hadn’t yet happened. Vandale had been the only one who used the observatory regularly, at least among the Grand Elders. Personally Anton thought that was a mistake, but even if they were going to rebuild it it would take some time.
Large, carefully crafted pieces of glass didn’t just appear from nowhere, and the original craftsman had died. Of age and nothing else. It had simply stood atop the mountain for many decades both before and after his death. It wasn’t impossible to replace it, but it would take some time.
That didn’t stop Anton from staring up at the stars. His bare eyes were much more effective than most people’s, given his training focused in that area. He would still benefit from a telescope, and he had commissioned a small one… but it would be nothing close to the actual observatory.
All of the directly practical components of the Ninety-NIne Stars were well documented, so perhaps people didn’t need to study the actual stars. But for Anton, at least, he felt more connected to things when he took some time to study the sky. It was kind of funny, actually, since every celestial body was incomprehensibly far away. Except perhaps the moon, which was just very far. He’d been there, though. He remembered the vision of the world from up above clearly.
And he wanted to keep it safe.
Anton finished his study of the stars and the moon, eyes lingering on other planets he could only see in vague detail. Were there cultivators on those? Vandale had indicated there wouldn’t be, at least not on any planet they could see, but it was possible there were things that could survive in the extreme cold or heat those other planets would have. Though having a working ecosystem would certainly be more difficult.
When morning came, Anton found himself still staring up at the sky. It wasn’t strange for a cultivator to spend hours or days focused on a particular task, but Anton found he was quite the opposite of that. His focus wavered even to the point that he did something he would usually have avoided.
He looked directly at the rising sun. His first thought was to look away, to shield his eyes… but in truth he didn’t need to do so. A tempered body alone might not have resisted some amount of damage, but the steady infusion of energy enhancing his sight also helped reduce the incoming intensity.
It didn’t stop Anton from almost falling off his feet, though. It was staggeringly beautiful, even as it reminded him of Vandale’s death with its intensity. Red, orange, yellow, white. It was all of those things, and transitioned through them as it moved throughout the sky. Its intensity drowned out all of the other stars to the point they couldn’t even be faintly glimpsed. Anton felt the heat on his skin, the sensation of the greatest fire that anyone he knew had ever felt, yet distanced enough to be simply pleasant instead of destructive.
Not that the sun was stagnant or calm. He could see many different shapes swirling on its surface, though he only knew they were moving from long experience. He knew they might be incredibly fast, but the various bits and pieces seemed to be standing still due to the vast scale of the star.
Having reached the midpoint of Essence Collection, Anton had been searching for an area of focus. His Essence of promoting growth could lead towards many things, but in the end it brought him to this point. Anton wouldn’t have considered providing the widest possible spread of growth a ‘focus’, but he certainly felt it to be possible. Anton wondered how he could reconcile that with caring about specific people, but it was easy enough.
Even the sun shone more on some places than others. While Anton knew that was simply due to the angles involved and not a choice on the part of the sun, Anton wasn’t a burning ball of fire in the sky. He was a person. A cultivator. He wasn’t restricted to being exactly like the object of his focus. Otherwise he would have to burn up, and the Grasping Willows would have to actually become trees.
As he watched the sun move across the sky, Anton wondered what that particular focus might mean for his cultivation. While cultivators advanced mainly through the intake of energy and using it to temper themselves, for Essence Collection it was more related to concepts. He might indeed be able to advance by focusing on the wide growth of the world, not too different from what he’d already been doing… but how would that affect him in battle? His techniques?
He didn’t know exactly, but he would have plenty of time to think about it, as long as he didn’t spend too many nights and days staring up at the sky. If he was going to do that, he at least wanted to make sure he took time for practical things as well.
Though nearly everyone would have been quite content if the world continued peacefully for the next several decades, that simply wouldn’t happen. Not everything required the attention of Essence Collection cultivators, but Anton couldn’t resist the call of former allies. To the south, in Droca, trouble was brewing.
Perhaps most people might not have considered people they traveled with one time for a few weeks as close companions, but that didn’t stop Anton from being willing to answer the call for help from Caeus and Printza, two young members of the Iron Fist Sect. They were not even located particularly far from the Order, though the general terrain of Droca was much rougher and less habitable than Graotan.
Most of his frequent companions were occupied, and none of them had ties to the pair regardless. Anton had only met them when on his way back Cruhull during the height of the Twin Soul Sect’s killings. As it turned out, it was the best decision all of those traveling together could have made, since there had been an attack.
Anton could have gone alone, but he still recruited some people to come with him. Devon was free and inclined to seek out new experiences. There was also Alva, who was unoccupied and absolutely not going to let Anton leave her behind for any reason. It wasn’t as if he could say anything was ‘too dangerous’ for her now. If it was too dangerous for her, he also shouldn’t be going. While the difference between early and mid Essence Collection was not insignificant, it wasn’t so strong of a divide as Essence Collection and Spirit Building.
So even if he still felt the desire to protect his young granddaughter, he knew he couldn’t do so by excluding her from anything. So instead he would simply have to make sure both of them were as strong as possible so they could handle anything that came up.
Anton cared about Devon too, of course, but he didn’t have the advantage of being young or cute. That was probably just as well, since it would help Anton make more logical decisions about how to fight with him. He worried about a possible day where he was in a battle along with all of his granddaughters and how he could focus on battle properly instead of unnecessary worry. Perhaps the mentality of a warrior still hadn’t quite overtaken him, even after a decade.