Tracking all of the invaders was impossible, but the particular group that had attacked the Order had been marked by the formation. Or rather, a separate more subtle one unrelated to the sect-wide barrier. The latter was nothing more than scrap now, its power and its future expended. Perhaps utilizing Everheart’s techniques hadn’t been efficient, but they had needed every scrap of power the formation had been able to provide.
Now came the process of organizing the rest of Graotan to fight. Agreements had been drawn up before the time of the invasion, but because they could not know precisely where attackers would be coming, each sect and large settlement generally saw to their own defenses. It wasn’t efficient, but few people could be convinced to abandon their homes. The attacks had mainly focused on larger cultivation sects, but by the time that had been determined it was too late to mobilize large numbers of people.
Now the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars was organizing with Edelhull and other nearby cities to make a march towards Stregate, with whom they had lost contact. Stregate and Windrip had grown together into a sort of unified whole, and they were either a critical location to provide assistance to, or a source of many potential forces. Possibly both.
The harassing tactics of the Order had pushed local enemy invaders away, but that made it even more of a priority to organize everyone they could from the city militias. The state of the world was unknown, but if similar invading forces had arrived at the major sects- and only major sects- the world was in a desperate state. Things were clearly better than the potential utter annihilation had they not prepared, but organizing forces was now key.
The damaged walls of Edelhull were still startling to Ghadir, no matter how many times she walked past them. No conflict had come to the city in her lifetime. How could it, with the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars a stone’s throw away?
At first the call for guards had gone out, it seemed rather silly. But with people in general beginning to cultivate, it seemed a worthwhile endeavor. Those assigned inside the city were indeed necessary for stability, but a post on the walls… that was just a stable, riskless endeavor.
Ghadir had been assigned to both streets and walls many times in her career, happily collecting an ever increasing pay as her cultivation steadily improved. She trained to fight and even ended up in a few scuffles throughout the city, but she still found it hard to believe the news of some invasion coming, years away.
By the time everyone began to feel it, it was too late to regret days spent slacking off on training. Ghadir personally thought that nobody could push their limits every day. She had still taken cultivation seriously, but when the time came… it wasn’t enough.
With the Order nearby, she had felt the strongest cultivators passing by, whether they came through the city or not. She at least had a general sense when Essence Collection or Life Transformation experts got close enough, even if she couldn’t clearly identify them. There were Essence Collection cultivators among the city guard, and when the invasion approached their official transition into a militia had attracted a captain who was in Life Transformation. She had felt safe, knowing that the invaders couldn’t possibly harm them… but she was wrong.
The attackers who came to Edelhull were only a small part of those that attacked the Order directly. The city had felt the shockwaves of the battle, but it had ended before they could do more than organize their forces. Nobody was in a hurry to aid them because… they had to be fine, right? The Order had been the pinnacle of Graotan for centuries, even before the cultivation boom.
But the limits of what Ghadir knew were twisted to the point of breaking. A random portion of those who retreated towards the city still had Life Transformation cultivators among the invaders, and the devastation…
Well, Edelhull was lucky that the Order had been willing to assist with defensive formations for little cost. The city had grown greatly and the materials for the formation had seemed prohibitively expensive. Ghadir remembered people complaining about how much of their taxes were spent on them, even as most grew more wealthy. Now, nobody would complain, except maybe that there hadn’t been enough.
It was the first time she experienced battle and death. People were cut down like straw, men and women who weren’t any weaker than herself. Yet the initial wave of the battle was cut short when they actually repelled an assault. Holes were opened in the walls, but soldiers organized to stop those making their way through. The invaders retreated, but not before leaving a scar on the city.
Ghadir was afraid. She found it hard to imagine anyone wouldn’t be. She thought the stories were exaggerated, that it couldn’t be possible the whole world would be at risk. But it was. She clutched her spear tight, remembering how she had stabbed an Essence Collection cultivator with it, despite being only at the peak of Spirit Building. Calros had been involved as well, and several others. Any of them could have died, but the anti-ascension techniques worked, even on those who weren’t necessarily “Ascension cultivators”. Ghadir shivered at the thought of them, as even getting close to them might kill her by accident.
She was afraid… but she didn’t regret her choice to go on her current life path. She just wished she’d pushed a little bit harder in training. She hadn’t believed these invaders could exist, but now that they did… she couldn’t stand to let them stay. She glanced over at Calros, who was likewise pacing back and forth. He nodded.
These invaders couldn’t have their city, their country- their world. They would fight, though Ghadir felt insufficient to make any real difference.
It was uncanny to be part of an army where one person could shoot an arrow beyond the horizon. Not only that, the old man did so regularly, declaring something about his targets. The strangest part was that Ghadir was able to see the results for herself, when they arrived at the location sometimes up to half a day later. That was at a ‘leisurely’ march, of course, but it made her feel worthless. She understood, practically, that there were hundreds like her, and only a handful like him- and that together they could make a difference- but it was still difficult.
“What is it?”
Ghadir started as the old man looked at her. Had she been staring? Maybe she had been. She didn’t know when she hadn’t been staring lately. “Nothing, Elder Anton,” she hung her head.
The man slowly made his way towards her. It could have been intimidating, if not for his gentle smile. Ghadir was assigned to a squad near the archers, though she was pretty sure she was there to just be another body getting in the way and not because anyone thought she could actually help. The old man spoke gently, “No really, I mean it. What is on your mind? You have questions about me, perhaps?”
Well, she couldn’t exactly refuse to say something now. “I was just thinking…” What was something inoffensive, “How long it would take me,” Ghadir hesitated. “…or someone with the proper talent at my level to reach the same level as you.”
“How long do you think?” Elder Anton asked.
That… wasn’t an answer. And now she had to guess. “A century? Two?”
Elder Anton snorted. “How old do you think I am, huh?” Fortunately, he didn’t seem to actually want her to answer that. Cultivators could take pride in their age, but also could dislike being called old. “A hundred and thirty, more or less,” he offered. “Of which, that thirty some years is how long I have cultivated. And you… two decades, perhaps?”
Ghadir’s eyes widened. Could that really be true? Wasn’t it difficult for people to cultivate at an advanced age? But he was right about her. “I…”
“What a shame,” the man stroked his chin. “The structures in place are still lacking.” He shook his head, “But what can be done in a single generation?” His focus returned to Ghadir. “You learned the modified Ninety-Nine Stars, correct?”
“Well, yes.” Edelhull was immediately bordering the Order, and the Body Tempering section had been available… forever. When she was old enough to begin cultivating had been around the same time as the Order was pushing for more people to cultivate. Sometime after that they distributed a version that functioned much the same but didn’t have the same signature, mostly so that its practitioners wouldn’t be mistaken for actual members of the Order. “I don’t really have much talent,” Ghadir admitted.
“That may be true,” the old man countered, “But I imagine it’s more of a lack of motivation. Oh, you may have been devoted to your duty but… you didn’t need to grow stronger. Not really.” She turned her eyes down. That was how she’d been thinking. “But you’re close to that threshold anyway. What do you know about Essence Collection?”
“Well, um… you focus on something core to you to grow stronger.”
“That’s basically correct,” Elder Anton agreed, “But remarkably vague. An Essence is something core to you, or to what you want. That can be power, but it could be protecting people or… swords. But it has to be the most important thing. If it’s not… you have to make it that.”
“… I don’t even know what I want most,” Ghadir admitted.
“That’s the hard part isn’t it?” the old man said. “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that either. But I can say that it’s acceptable for it to be for your own sake, or for others.”
Tomorrow would be more marching, but Ghadir couldn’t help but lay away in her tent. Focusing on others was obviously the more noble path. She had a brother she wanted to keep safe, and his family. The city, too- and Graotan beyond that. She hardly had experience with anything further, but nobody deserved to be weak.
Yet it didn’t feel right. All she could think about was her jealousy at the strength of others. Elder Anton hadn’t insulted her cultivation speed, just pointed it out accurately. Even if he had, she couldn’t have blamed him. She’d been coasting along, especially in the latter part of Spirit Building. Each small increase in bodily power was difficult to attain, and she hadn’t really cared to have more. More wealth would barely make a difference, as she had everything she needed. She wasn’t terribly interested in luxury beyond occasional meals somewhere nice. She only really cared about growing strong once the invasion came, and she began to fear for her life.
She was still going to fight, but she didn’t know how to get stronger so she wouldn’t have to be afraid. Even if she made it to Essence Collection, would it be enough? No. Not even the coveted Life Transformation was enough now.
It took a long time for her to fall asleep, and no answers came to her.
“What are you shooting at?” Ghadir worked up the courage to interrupt Elder Anton once more. “Are there enemies?”
“No,” the man admitted. “It’s just practice. I pick a target, and try to hit it… though usually I stop short. No point in sullying the countryside.”
“Are you close to a breakthrough?” Ghadir asked.
“Then does it matter? We’re heading for a battle. Why waste your energy?”
“It’s never a waste,” he said. “Though I will admit that training at times like these has to be conservative. I’m limiting myself to ten thousand or less per day.” His eyes focused on her, and she could sense… something. Her training in Emotion was quite decent, but his greatly superior cultivation made him hard to fathom. “The second shot at Marrow really does better with constant work. You can even cultivate on the road.”
She probably shouldn’t have been surprised that he knew that was the area she was still lacking, before the final tempering. Twenty-Six stars, and lately she hadn’t even managed one per year. “It takes a lot of concentration…”
“So did walking, when you were a baby,” Elder Anton countered. “And talking. Now you do both without even thinking hard.” Elder Anton held out his hand, “Start somewhere small. Just a little bit of energy circulated around inside your bones. Work your way from one end to the other and back, then you can do more.” His energy formed a single path through his body, moving through every bone, “Trust me, it will be much easier before your bones are old.”
“… I thought you said something about beginning to cultivate at a hundred. Was that not true?”
“It was. That’s how I know it’s not comfortable.” As they walked, she made an attempt- and he guided Ghadir where she was lacking. Occasionally, he would shoot his bow into the distance. Sometimes, he summoned a great amount of power all around himself, forming bows in the air- and drawing a few physical bows he held separately. A great volley of them all at once made Ghadir wonder why they even had the rest of the archers. “That one was an enemy scout,” Anton commented. “Ascension energy stands out so much here that they’re easy to pick out. One moment.”
Anton went on ahead, apparently talking to other members of leadership. That ultimately resulted in the pace increasing, as they didn’t want the scout to be missed before they reached their next destination. The increased pace began to strain even a cultivator’s tempered body a little bit, and doing so even more with her own energy made Ghadir wonder if it was a good idea… but she worked on a small piece at once, so she wouldn’t end up exhausted. It shouldn’t hurt to try, even if she was too late to really make a difference.