When putting on a combat for people to see and learn from, Anton was unable to work at his full capacity. Especially when doing so for lower level cultivators, most would only be able to perceive one of the two endpoints of the battle. If Anton actually cared about winning that would be a problem, but he had worked with Chikere to put together a reasonably viewable setup for the battle.
They started slow. Anton took a few dozen shots with his bow and Chikere cut them out of the air with her sword- or dodged them, letting them fly off into the sky. Both combatants focused on the skill of their movements more than the power, because teaching people the lesson that overwhelming power trumped proper technique wasn’t useful, even if it happened to be true. Though obviously having both was the best option.
Anton brought another pair of bows into the equation, one the sword-bow and the other the bone bow. Chikere responded in kind by making use of more swords and not just staying on the defensive. She allowed herself to fight suboptimally and allow Anton points where he could retreat from melee so the demonstration could continue.
As the battle continued, it gradually became more serious. Neither side was trying to hurt the other, but at some point they stopped trying not to injure each other. Anton found himself with a myriad of small cuts that were indicative of what could have been much greater wounds. In response, he started a rain of arrows from those that had ‘missed’ and were simply circling in the distance. It wasn’t a particularly useful tactic given how he could only maintain a few dozen shots at once, but it certainly surprised the students.
Some of Anton’s shots made it through Chikere’s flurry of defenses, and her ability to dodge attacks by a hair was insufficient against Anton’s ability to predict her movements, forcing her into bad positions with a rain of arrows. He even made use of ascension energy, but the outcome of the battle had been decided from the start. Chikere was not only better suited to close combat but higher in cultivation as she had both the great talent and youth.
Anton was glad to have people to stitch his muscles back together, as he was not terribly familiar with recovering from debilitating wounds and never intended to be. It took him a long time to heal regardless of whether or not he could accelerate it with the use of natural energy, and he wasn’t a fan of pain. Allowing himself to get injured in battle was sloppy anyway. He would tolerate injuries as they happened, but never voluntarily choose to receive them.
Even an hour after the battle had ended, some of the spectators were stunned to silence. Others couldn’t help but try to discuss with each other, but putting what they had seen into words was difficult. Most people didn’t get to see battles of Life Transformation cultivators, and it was even less likely to have been done for the purpose of teaching them. They would be given some days to digest the information before there were other demonstrations by different cultivators.
Several months passed in what felt like an instant to some. In the end it was an extremely lengthy and costly competition, and not just because of the distribution of rewards. Monopolizing the time of dozens of Life Transformation cultivators wasn’t cheap, either in direct cost or because of what else they could have been doing. Anton firmly believed the value of teaching younger generations was worthwhile, and he was not alone in that belief, but some had required payment.
As for the rewards… they were distributed through the system that had been devised. It was complicated, measuring the growth of cultivators relative to each other. The important part was that everyone who put in the effort got some sort of reward beyond their learning. Everyone had some number of points to choose rewards, from cultivation resources of various sorts to equipment, some of which was unique. Certain things had requirements beyond the points, generally things that showed the cultivator could actually make use of them.
The Million Sword Vault provided quite a few pieces of equipment under those restrictions, quite similar to how they did things back at their sect itself. They had swords, of course, but the majority of things on offer were the additional pieces of equipment they had collected over the lifespan of their sect.
Anton added one of his own offerings to the lot. The bone bow wasn’t really suited for him, but it was absolutely suited for Nthanda. Unfortunately just giving it to her might seem like a sign of blatant favoritism, so he had to require an appropriate amount of points to get it… plus a little challenge. All that had to be done was to hit a target with it. Anton had also contributed other bows of lesser difficulty for the same purpose.
Nthanda wasn’t the first person to make the attempt to fire the bow, nor was she the first to succeed. However, the man who managed to be the first to hit the target passed up on his opportunity to obtain it, coming to the same conclusions as Kseniya. She wasn’t even wrong. It was a bad bow… for most people. After all this time, Anton was pleased to have found someone it suited, and who needed it. When Nthanda finally saw that it was available, she hurried over to take her chance, and of course succeeded in hitting the target. She had been using the bow during training, after all.
Anton wasn’t sure what sort of bow she would need if she ever reached Life Transformation, but perhaps by that point she would have been picked up by a sect who could help her obtain more specialized equipment. Essence Collection cultivators didn’t just grow on trees- unlike swords, apparently- but not every sect wanted to welcome someone unfamiliar. Cultivators who were too strong could drive a sect in a direction the leadership didn’t want by the influence they would naturally gain due to their strength. But even if Nthanda didn’t join a sect, he saw a good future for her.
Then there was Ingram. The competition had caught him at an awkward stage of development… or perhaps it came at the perfect time. He had many flaws that needed fixing before he could really develop, and his results hadn’t been that impressive. Cultivators in the Body Tempering Stage didn’t get that many rewards, though they could still be meaningful for those individuals. Anton knew he had decent potential, but it was nothing so impressive that sects would be clambering to pick him up. Though if he was willing, Anton was going to invite him to join the Order. He was early enough in his cultivation he could change his core style, if he was willing to make the effort.
Then there was Florry, who had apparently been decided to be the apprentice of Chikere. That is, Chikere had decided she was now her disciple, and Florry didn’t have the ability to object. Not that Anton thought she should pass up the opportunity, but the girl was rather timid and unable to express her opinions to Chikere. Personally Anton thought their styles were quite different, but that didn’t mean they would be a poor match. Swordmaster Rahayu was extremely different from Chikere with his single sword style versus her… every sword style. Anton had to assume that was Chikere’s ultimate goal, to wield every sword at once. Or at least, some sort of ridiculous ambition to that effect.
As various efforts to prepare the world for a coming invasion progressed, an ominous feeling descended over the world. Life Transformation cultivators were the first to sense it, a shifting in the skies and the very energy of the world. It was weak, at first, but gradually growing stronger.
Nobody had to ask what it was. It was the weakening of the barrier between worlds, forewarning of the invasion itself. By the best estimates it was still approximately a decade off. That was comforting, as that was sufficient time for talented individuals to reach early Essence Collection… or others to reach Spirit Building. For Life Transformation experts of the Order, it was enough time to advance between a handful of stars for those earlier in Life Transformation and with great talent to a single star for those closer to the peak, or closer to the limits of their abilities.
It was a warning… and a deadline. Comparing to the grandiose ancient sects like the Luminous Ocean Society, Anton felt the top ranking sects of their current time were lacking. However, he hoped it was merely in ornamentation and enduring fortifications… and not actual strength. He knew that at least the Luminous Ocean Society had some access to anti-ascension techniques, but with the whole of the cultivation world aware of them it should be more impactful. Likewise, it was impossible to say what percentage of the population had been able to cultivate during previous invasions, but the general population was developing rapidly in that regard.
Cities were growing larger as individual farmers were able to produce more higher quality crops to feed people. The changing world did come with some costs. Those with lower cultivation talent often found it difficult to keep up in their various trades and professions. That was unfortunate, but Anton knew that there would always be those who were less talented in certain areas. If a craftsman was exceptional at his job, he could still outperform cultivators with less experience and knowledge of the crafts. They would simply lose out to those who were good at both aspects, as cultivation made people better at both mental and physical tasks.
One more decade, more or less. Anton would be close to a hundred and fifty years old when it came. A hundred years in his ‘normal’ life, and fifty as a cultivator. If he was fortunate, he would surpass seventy stars by that time, placing himself just shy of mid Life Transformation cultivation. It was an arbitrary milestone, but it would let him at least provide some challenge to most Life Transformation cultivators.
As for ascension cultivators… he had no way to know for sure. Even ‘memories’ of the battles didn’t really tell him everything he needed to know. If they couldn’t recover their ascension energy, would they be the strength of peak Life Transformation cultivators? Would their insights make them stronger? Or, perhaps, they might be weaker due to their reliance on a particular type of energy they no longer had access to.
There were so many factors to consider that they had no way to know. Perhaps the Exalted Archipelago might know something, but further interaction there was risky. Even if the Worthy Shore Society and a few others were welcoming to visitors, the area as a whole was not- and they had the power to wipe out anyone they didn’t like moving through their waters. Just accepting that they would not engage in aggression beyond their waters was necessary to even have any hope for the future.
The threat of the coming invasion filled Anton’s mind, especially since he had many people he cared about. Family who had survived the destruction of Dungannon, such as Alva, Annelie, and Devon. Family who he had met after, like Catarina. New family… like the children of Anish and Annelie. That particular union was still causing changes in their sects, and especially the Frostmirror Sect. The faction that was merely learning to suppress emotions when they chose to was winning out over the old guard who had completely severed theirs.
But Anton didn’t care about just family. He had friends and companions all throughout the world, but his desires to protect didn’t extend merely that far. With the growth in his power, he felt an ever-widening responsibility for the world around him. He knew he couldn’t actually protect the whole world with just the strength of early Life Transformation. Not even with all of his best companions or the sects he had influence in.
Unfortunately, he would have to limit himself in scope, at least at first. Working with the Order and the other growing sects within Graotan to defend what they had would be the first priority, after which they would seek out other locations of conflict… if they could.
There were only ten more years, as the skies beyond the skies cracked and weakened beyond mortal senses.