With the loss of immediate threats, one might have supposed that the lack of pressure would result in cultivators taking their time with their cultivations. And perhaps they did, but only so far as they avoided using risky methods. Everyone was still eager to advance themselves, and the practical experience from battle was simply overflowing. Over the next few months and years it was more astonishing if those involved in the fighting didn’t continuously step forward.
People had cultivated before the invasion, of course, and the same reasons still existed. Personal power and ability, protesting others, and the simple possibility that it could be done inspired people. Not all reasons were selfless. Some were greedy, thinking about how they might take from others as had been done before. Humanity as a whole hadn’t changed just because they stood united for a short time- and even then there had been betrayers like the Eternal Sword Hall.
During the course of the war, due to the weakening of various sects or their complete destruction, the wild lands had broken free. Though the cultivators could claim dominion over their entire continents, wild beasts had always existed. Now they were more of a concern, with fewer available to take care of them. They could swell in numbers over the course of the next few years. Perhaps that would not be terrible, as it would redirect people’s attention away from each other.
That was Anton’s desire at least. At some point there would be more large scale conflicts- he was resigned to that. But he would do his best to make sure they were as far off as possible. Could they manage a decade? Two? A century? The latter was a bit much, but Anton hoped for at least a full generation.
Every Life Transformation elder of the Order of the Ninety-Nine Stars was gathered together. There were barely more of them than Grand Elders at the current moment. Nine Grand Elders, and fifteen Life Transformation experts. Sixteen, now, with one of the recent advancements. With those numbers, it was impossible for none of the Grand Elders to be part of Anton’s inner circle. There were two of them in fact.
Catarina was an obvious choice. As the most prominent formation master in the sect, and vying for best in the world, it was only natural that she have a place. She was young by cultivator standards, still less than seventy years old, but cultivation talent was one of the most important factors to consider. Her understanding of formations was also an important factor when making sect-wide decisions.
Anton was the other. He had tried to refuse, noting that they didn’t need two archers in the position of Grand Elder. When it was brought up that it was more for his role as a teacher, he couldn’t refuse. Besides, someone needed to take the position and most of the others weren’t ready. Hoyt would certainly take the position of Grand Elder someday, but he wasn’t ready quite yet.
At some point the topic had come up of how Grand Elders might be replaced. They could always step down to allow someone else to take their place. They could be forcibly removed, though the process for that had not been needed in living memory. Finally, they could die. That had been the cause of all of the most recent changes, and was really not something that was wanted. Especially when there was technically another option. It had never happened, but was nonetheless the best option for everyone.
That was for someone to ascend. Of the various Grand Elders, Zajoc was the most likely candidate. Matousek would have been there, but had perished. Zajoc was in late Life Transformation, and might even reach the peak within half a century. It might take longer, but was unlikely to be shorter than forty years even if he were quite quick. Not that anyone was in a rush to turn over more positions among the Grand Elders, but the possibility of ascension was enticing.
So now, along with the Grand Elders, the other Life Transformation experts were working together to develop the last step of the Ninety-Nine Stars. Or rather, the hundredth star. It had been so long that they were known as the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars that nobody really thought that they should be the Order of One Hundred Stars. Even Vandale had not achieved ascension, though that was not because of lack of talent.
Unfortunately his insights into ascension had applied only to himself, and were not sufficient to create a proper path that could be followed by those following after him. But with the insights he had shared with others, the elders Matousek and Zajoc, plus actual completed cultivation techniques courtesy of the Worthy Shore Society, they were gathered to put it together.
“The problem is the hundredth star can’t be the same as the others, right?” Catarina commented.
“Yes. It might be possible to ignite it the same way but…” Zajoc shook his head, “It would simply be another star, a dead end in cultivation. It would not be ascension, but merely a roadblock.”
“It is not a terrible surprise that the hundredth star must be something special,” Fodor commented. His cultivation did not quite match Zajoc, but he was significantly younger and had the potential to surpass the man before Zajoc reached the peak. “It could even be so simple as forming a proper connection with ascension energy and forming it that way. In fact, I would expect that to be the standard…”
“Sounds awful,” Catarina commented. “Look what happens when people like that have to fight without full access to ascension energy.” She traced a line across her neck, “They were strong, but not as strong as they should have been.”
“There is something to be said for the differences between individual cultivators and our organization that helped with that,” Fodor replied, “And in our case, it should not be a significant hindrance. I should imagine none of us will be involved with invading other ‘lower realms’, will we?”
Grand Elder Kseniya cleared her throat. “Perhaps not. But we do not fully understand the situation there. It is unlikely that our world is the only one subject to invasions, and some of us may wish to return here to help defend during the next cycle. Reaching the optimum effectiveness there would be something to consider.”
“A fair point,” Fodor admitted. “Yet it is still the most achievable. The ‘Integration’ stage does seem to be referring to integrating upper energy into oneself. It does not appear to be a faulty path, either, though it would have its faults. I imagine any other method would have different ones.”
Zajoc pondered for a few moments before his next input. “I think it would be proper to have notes about our doubts in that area, until we manage some method to both have people ascend and communicate back with us somehow. Perhaps that simply involves waiting for the next cycle, but practical experience will be necessary. It might then become a problem for future generations, but we should at least make our thoughts as clear as possible. That method would be the standard, and I have to admit it’s likely the method I will attempt when it is time.”
“It is unfortunate there aren’t any notes from post-ascension,” Anton said. “But I suppose if those exist, they will be jealously guarded. The Worthy Shore Society was already quite generous to share what they did with no real benefit to themselves.”
“They must want something,” Hoyt said. “Even if us being stronger was part of their goal, that can’t be the end of it.”
“Perhaps,” Zajoc shrugged, “But it does seem that the Exalted Archipelago and those who invaded us aren’t exactly friends, either. And we have found no flaws in the techniques as a whole- nothing that appears malicious, at least. Everything has some flaws. Yet I agree with the sentiment. We should consider what they wanted… and whether they have it yet.”
The discussion continued, as well as more detailed analysis of various techniques and how one might go about forming the hundredth star. If it was to be formed of ascension energy, it would have to be accessed- and not through the methods of Fleeting Youth.
The world almost returned to a routine, functioning as it had for many years. But things weren’t exactly the same. Many positions were empty, and vacant lots littered many of the largest cities. It was a bittersweet feeling, survival at a great cost, but the celebrations of victory year after year reminded people of how things could have been.
It was difficult, remembering everything that had been lost. Yet the focus was not on that, or even how things could have been. It was about everyone left, and the refusal to admit defeat. The time for memory was there, and great memorials were erected in the honor of the fallen. Some places also promoted heroes, the greatest warriors who helped defeat the invaders. Anton didn’t discourage such displays, but he did his best to remind everyone that it couldn’t have been done without the common folk, the city militias and everyday people who joined in the fight.
The times of memories didn’t just focus on the war. It became a time to remember anyone who had been lost, at least for many. Anton remembered Vandale, dying in an attack on the Order. That memory was ultimately a good one, as the man saved many others with his efforts. There were others, ranging from the strongest cultivators Anton had known who died in various wars all the way down to the people of Dungannon, who had not a single cultivator among them and had no real power to defend themselves. The ache of their deaths had faded but would never completely go away- yet Anton used it to remind himself of why he was doing what he did.
He continued to promote cultivation in everyone. Not just that, but the ideas of the common folk fighting and standing up for themselves. That it was possible with a little power to gather together against those with great power. It was difficult still, but he hoped it gave people a choice. And if it made great cultivation sects and clans think more carefully about how they acted, all the better.
With the prompting thoughts of the gathering of the elders to complete the One Hundred Stars, Anton thought about his own cultivation. Over the past few years it had been advancing as expected, a few years per star. He didn’t know what he might need power for. Yet he couldn’t imagine in his lifetime there wouldn’t be something. Even if it was to care for his grandchildren… many generations deep- to the latest generation from Annelie and Anish. Wolter, Lucas, Gudrun… it seemed like so many, but in fact they only had a child every few years and were rather conservative with it even after the war.
Even if he didn’t ever have to fight again- something he could wish for but never truly believe- Anton’s cultivation would not remain stagnant. He helped others grow, and in turn it was the same with himself. There were always things that cultivation could do to improve any profession or craft, and Anton wanted to make sure that thought was never forgotten. He didn’t want people to slip back into complacency, though he couldn’t really influence the whole of two continents himself. But he could influence some individuals, and they would in turn spread his ideas to some extent.
As his cultivation surpassed seventy stars, Anton had to consider that he would potentially reach the peak of Life Transformation. That was still decades away, and he still had to surpass the hurdle of the 77th star, the eight prime tempering. Twenty-three more from there and the sum of the first nine primes would end at one hundred. A long time away, yet he was in Life Transformation. If he failed to attempt contemplating reaching the next stage until he reached the end, he would certainly never accomplish it.
Ascension was impossible of course. Anton understood that, but he was in the process of confirming it. There was some chance that Everheart was wrong, and that all of his intuition was swayed by his trust in the man… but as much as Everheart wasn’t someone he would trust in the traditional sense, nobody ever held onto the idea that he didn’t know what he was doing with techniques, no matter how much they disliked them or how forbidden they were for various reasons… they still worked.
Yet talking with the projection, there had been one comment. He couldn’t achieve ascension, but maybe he could do something better? That stuck with him, because as much as he was content at the moment- and had accepted he could die of old age in time- he wouldn’t mind having more time to do something. Especially if it became necessary. So searching before it was too late seemed to be the right option. For the moment Anton only had vague ideas, but he had decades to figure something out. Or not.