A borrowed bow was clasped in Anton’s left fist. His right hand trembled as his fingers clutched the string, pulling. A single arrow shot into the distance, disappearing beyond the horizon. Anton shook his head as he let his energy fade. His body wasn’t quite ready for that yet.
He wondered what had gone wrong. It could be any number of things, ranging from simple to complicated. Maybe he wasn’t good enough. Perhaps he had been too casual- he waited for the right time, but surely there were more preparations he could have made, resources he could have prepared for himself. Or maybe the entire method was flawed to begin with. Anton placed his hand above his navel and felt the fire burning inside him. Not entirely flawed, obviously. But he ought to have had a chance to succeed in good health.
It wasn’t simply a situation where he lamented his own failures. Instead, he hoped to learn from them. The probability of others following in his path was low- Anton wasn’t entirely sure if it could even be accomplished while he was alive- but either way people could certainly learn something from his attempt. Even ascensions were extremely limited in available information, and this other method… whatever it might be called, it was singular. Two at most, if Lev could be considered to have done the same thing. That was something they would have to discuss, once they met up again.
First Anton had to get back from Aicenith. There had been discussions of taking a ship, but the possibility that there might be some sort of attack by the Exalted Archipelago couldn’t be overlooked. He wondered if they had it out for him in particular, or just anyone attempting a crazy cultivation step. He doubted the entire Exalted Archipelago was in on it, or they would have sent more… though they would have also risked more discovery. Of course, they failed which was the worst possibility for them. The chance of a coincidence attacking Devon and Paula in the forest was… not worth considering. And random banditry didn’t look better for them.
Instead of going by ship, they decided to head back to Brogora through teleportation, taking a circuitous route. The teleportation areas were well guarded- any trouble near them would require a full invasion. Anton was feeling well enough to travel- and though he wouldn’t know for sure until he ended up in battle, he had the feeling that even in his current state he should be close to as strong as before. At least when using purely energy. His meridians were certainly not fully recovered, but he could call upon energy swiftly… and he seemed to have sufficient amounts.
Marevelous Rabbit Mountain had been quite accommodating, but being back home would be more comfortable. Thus, they would be leaving almost immediately. Anton would have some favors to repay later, but he would best be able to fulfill those when fully recovered.
Not an hour later, they were on the road and Anton was feeling uncomfortable. Or rather, uncomfortable with how comfortable he was. He wasn’t sure where Anish had obtained a palanquin, but being carried around in it made him feel awkward. He might have preferred to ride piggy-back if someone was going to carry him, but that was a personal preference. At least it wasn’t gaudy.
A carriage would have been more appropriate if they were not traveling off road, but they were. Anton told people to let him walk until his own grandson and grandson-in-law shoved him into the palanquin… gently. Now he was just taking advantage of not having to focus on anything else to concentrate on his recovery. While generally circulating his energy throughout his own body promoted healing, focusing on individual points was always more effective. A knuckle that wasn’t quite right or a small section of a particular meridian could be gradually improved as he focused on the fine details.
There was only so much a body could do in a day, however. At the minimum Anton had to take some breaks to focus his mind on something else… and he was too paranoid to never scan the area around them. Or cautious, since people really did want to kill him. It made sense. If he recovered, he might be a threat… but he wasn’t going to make it easy for anyone.
It seemed his efforts reaching for the sun had been fruitful, as his senses stretched further now within the atmosphere, and he knew they would continue to improve with time. How rapidly he could not say, but the further points he could sense had improved by a few kilometers, with a significant improvement in his omnidirectional sensing as well. Though keeping track of everything that was happening around him could be difficult. He certainly couldn’t focus on hundreds of squirrels all at once, so he had to selectively ignore things.
By the time several days had passed, they were getting close to their destination and Anton was itching to run around- but he was lucky his body functioned at all, and making it work too hard would simply stunt the healing. The main thing he was doing was stretching to make sure his muscles didn’t become too tight or heal awkwardly.
“The last stretch is clear,” Velvet reported. Like every time before, and she’d been right. The Soaring Air Sect had managed to get a handful of people into the area when nobody was ready, but no sect could afford to just fling Life Transformation cultivators at a problem after some died.
Anton still didn’t let his guard down until they were on the teleportation formation, sheltered by the surrounding structure. Now all they had to do was power it. After checking that the Order’s backup was ready on the other end and things were clear. That was separate from the personnel working the formation itself, but instead even further people to escort him. It was a lot of fuss for one person, but if Anton was honest he couldn’t say it was unjustified. If a few dozen people spent a few days or weeks to ensure his safety, he’d just have to pay that back. To the individuals or the world as a whole or both.
Once confirming everything was safe, Anton began inserting his own energy into the formation. Regardless of how much energy came from storage devices, he had to reduce the amount of personal energy he was holding- teleportation required natural energy stores to be considered as one factor of effort.
His energy flow, at least, was performing quite well. Along with the others the formation was powered within a few minutes, and then just as quickly they were somewhere else, with the familiar disconcerting shift in reality.
Anton expected to be fatigued after such an effort. He should have used more than three-quarters of his energy, after all. And as far as he could tell upon feeling his energy stores afterwards, he hadn’t made a mistake there. Yet there was only the momentary feeling of emptiness before he felt himself filling back up. It wasn’t sudden, but it didn’t require conscious effort or pulling in external natural energy. Or at least… not through the normal means.
The star inside of him was producing the energy seemingly from nowhere, but upon closer inspection it was clear that it all made sense. It was simply pulling from somewhere else- much like Fleeting Youth. Except instead of drawing upon ascension energy, he had simply tapped into a tremendous source of natural energy. The actual sun. That had always been the intention on some level, he just hadn’t expected it to actually work.
Considering he was fairly sure the solar flare that had made the sun feel just slightly closer could have wiped out the planet many times over, Anton assumed he was drawing upon just the tiniest fraction of the sun’s power. And if he’d gotten any more he would have absolutely killed himself so he considered himself fortunate.
“How are you feeling?” Velvet asked, looking him over.
“Quite well, actually,” Anton admitted. “This third century might be interesting.”
“Your lifespan has increased so much?” Devon asked.
“Who knows?” Anton shrugged. “I’ve resolved to not think about it. Perhaps I have the same scant decades as before, perhaps less. Though it should be more, with my cultivation improved.”
“You are far too relaxed about this whole thing,” Devon said. “Not just your lifespan, but this whole achievement. The hundredth star, without ascension. Not long after someone finally did things the ‘proper’ way, either.”
“I’ll be more celebratory when I finish recovering,” Anton said. “And when people will let me walk around on my own feet again.”
Things were rather awkward on Rouhiri. After Swordmaster Rahayu’s appearance, the whole expedition had just retreated and they had returned empty handed. No, it was worse than that. They weren’t just left with nothing, but instead Alva was officially in the hole, as if it was her fault the mission failed. Even though it was the fault of the mission details being lacking or the ‘leader’ Rahmi’s cowardice. Of course, with the new information coming in from Hoyt via Catarina and the others, it made sense. The Harmonious Citadel had felt weird, and now she realized they meant to entrap people in their system. If they worked hard and rose through the ranks? Good. They were now part of the Harmonious Citadel. If they wanted to leave? They just had to make sufficient contributions… and if they fell behind, they couldn’t leave. What a scheme.
The worst part of it all was Vari. She seemed to have decided that Alva was her friend. “It is our own fault, for failing the Saints.”
“You may have failed or whatever,” Alva said, “But I followed every order I got, and took down more than a handful of enemies. Where are my contribution points for that, hmm?”
“Of course it cannot be expected that you would receive rewards for a failed mission.”
Alva was not particularly tall, but she did her best to lean over Vari, imagining she was atop Fuzz. “Why don’t you go ask Rahmi how many contribution points he received and then get back to me.”
“Of course it is expected that a leader would receive more rewards than the others.”
Alva pressed her fingers to her forehead and took a deep breath. “So you grew up here, huh?”
“Indeed I did. I was fortunate to be born into the shelter of the great Harmonious Citadel.”
“Uh huh. Tell me about these saints or whatever.”
Alva didn’t actually intend to listen to Vari talking, but it made them blend into the surroundings better. Alva didn’t actually feel pressured to go out on a mission at this exact moment. The Harmonious Citadel had to be more patient than that, willing to bleed people dry over years, decades, or centuries. She was quite certain that any way off-world was watched more carefully. At least she hadn’t gotten close to Chikere- who was a wanted fugitive now for abandoning their cause. Even though she’d been fighting an enemy so they could retreat.
Though technically Chikere probably deserved it. If she hadn’t joined up with those ‘bandits’ and Rahayu, then she was dead- and it wouldn’t really matter what people said. Alva couldn’t guarantee survival, though in any situation that didn’t involve that particular swordmaster she would have bet on it. Rahayu might think fondly of Chikere, but two swordmasters fighting… she shook her head.
Alva’s eyes stopped on Vari. “What’s that?” she asked.
“What’s what?” Vari tilted her head.
“This,” Alva reached out and snatched a strand of energy floating out of Vari.
“I… don’t see anything?”
“This strand of energy.”
Vari frowned, “Are you alright? I can recommend a place for you to stay, if you need some rest.”
“No, I’m fine,” Alva said. “Go back to whatever you were talking about.”
“The Saint of Light! Leader of the whole Harmonious Citadel!” Vari’s eyes sparkled. “I don’t know exactly who it is, but they’ve been in place for several decades, after the last one passed on.”
“Who killed them?” Alva asked.
“What do you mean?”
“The last uh, Saint of Light. Who killed them?”
“Nobody killed them. They retired and passed on their position.”
“So if I were to go try to find the previous Saint of Light now, where would I look?”
Vari shook her head, “The likes of us would not be allowed into their presence.”
“Where does this former Saint of Light live?” Alva asked straightforwardly. “Some big palace?”
“Well, one of the towers, I presume.”
“With one of the regular saints?” Alva raised an eyebrow, “I thought you said that one occupied each of those ridiculous towers.”
“You were listening. Yes, each tower is exclusively for the access of one of the other saints. So there must be… somewhere else. And the towers are great works of art!”
Alva just nodded. So, someone was compensating for something… and the former Saint of Light had been killed by the new one. Or some equivalent. Maybe they just couldn’t admit they could die. She reached out and snatched another strand of energy leaving Vari. What was it? Certainly not natural energy, nor ascension energy. Both were struggling to leave her grip and head off in a certain direction, but she was interested to see if she could do something with them.