There was something to be said about cultivator’s thirst for power. It could be considered the root of many of their problems… but sometimes it was useful and power wasn’t always destructive or corrupt. Anton liked to think that Ceretos was doing… alright. At least it enticed people to officially become allies with Rutera in the middle of a war, whether they worked in the capacity of a mercenary or something else. There was a general agreement that cultivators from Ceretos could keep all or most of the loot from ships they brought down- the vessels themselves were of value, even when broken. The equipment of those on board came in various qualities as well. As for the people… most of them died. There was little likelihood of anything else when cultivators wound up in space over an enemy planet.
If what Merve said was true- and Anton believed she was honest to her knowledge- despite the trouble the invaders were able to cause they weren’t important. They were mainly castoffs and extras, which made Anton wonder what Azoth- and the other systems connected to them, apparently calling themselves the Sylanis Cluster- considered exceptional. Did they truly have so many people and such wealth that they could afford to throw away Life Transformation cultivators? Even if most of the invaders weren’t at that level, Merve was. There had been many more through the time of the war, some captured and some killed.
Combining Merve’s helpful knowledge with what tidbits they had extracted from others, they were able to confirm some of their theories. The multiple systems thing was new information, however. Only three, as far as Merve knew- but it seemed they were heavily populated. That was concerning, not just to Anton, but to everyone who heard it- in Rutera, Ceretos, or Weos. Just because Ceretos hadn’t been a direct target didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen. Their other neighbors had been so it was just a matter of time- so they preferred to join this war before they were forced into it.
As for Merve herself, she still seemed to be of the opinion that Anton would betray her eventually. That was the vibe Anton got from her, but she also clearly preferred the tiny sliver of possibility over rotting in prison. Though she looked as if she was ready to get her hopes dashed at any point, Anton was fulfilling his end of the bargain. At this exact moment he couldn’t take her to Ceretos- and he was personally responsible for her actions- so he was working on the other part of his promise.
“I’m going to be honest,” Anton said. “Your cultivation method is ghastly.”
“Wha- is it?” Merve frowned. “Angelic Providence is one of the least invasive methods I had to choose between. I know it feeds off emotions but that’s better than like, souls or blood, right?”
“That part is fine,” Anton said. “Probably. But taking a look at it, I thought at first it was an incomplete technique.”
“Do you expect me to have the ability to acquire a better one?” She shook her head. “That’s for people from a clan or large sect.”
“Even the One Hundred Stars remained incomplete for centuries. I didn’t expect yours to be complete either. But it’s not incomplete, despite appearing so.”
“Then you mean…” Merve looked down at herself. “My talent really isn’t sufficient? Is that why I can’t even reach the peak of Life Transformation?”
“You’re not old enough to worry about things like lack of talent, yet. If you were truly lacking, you would not have reached where you are. No, it is the fault of the technique. It’s not incomplete. Instead, it’s tainted. Sabotaged. As are many of the others The only question is, how many people must you have to produce high tier cultivators like yourself with such methods.”
“I’m not… high tier,” Merve disagreed. “Any clan disciple could crush me in battle.”
“And how much of that would be reliant on their equipment?” Anton asked. “The rest would be their presumably non-tainted methods and access to special training that doesn’t directly improve cultivation. Besides, late Life Transformation is close enough to the peak.”
“Yeah… but then there’s still Worldbinding or Ascension beyond that,” Merve sighed.
“Worldbinding?” Anton frowned.
“Isn’t that… what you are?” Merve questioned. “I assumed…”
“It might be, by another name,” Anton replied. “I termed it Assimilation. As the first of us from my system… there was no naming precedent.”
“Oh, that’s…” Merve’s eyes were filled with awe, and fear. “Wow.”
“Someone must be the first for everything, and it appears it simply happened to be myself in my particular locale. Do you know how many… Worldbinding cultivators Azoth has?”
“Azoth?” Merve shook her head. “I don’t know. They’re like… one in a billion. I don’t know about ‘Azoth’ but the Sylanis Cluster has around… a hundred billion people? I think. So probably around that many. Maybe three or four per planet on average.”
“This is… very bad news,” Anton said. “And extremely important. If they attack here, we must be ready.” Anton stood, “Come.” Merve was his responsibility now, so she had to remain with him… or at least within a ‘reasonable’ distance where he could watch her.
“Okay,” Merve said, rapidly reaching her feet. “I don’t think you need to hurry though. It’s not easy to accomplish Worldbinding to begin with, so I doubt they could sneak one here onto Ceretos.”
“We’re not on Ceretos,” Anton pointed out. “We’re on Rutera. And they wouldn’t have to sneak onto the planet if they wanted to cause wanton destruction.” He paused, looked at her. “I feel like we’ve had some sort of miscommunication.”
Even though his frown was only of concentration, Merve staggered back from Anton. “I wasn’t trying to lie! I’m sorry! I’ll make up for whatever I did wrong!”
“Calm down,” Anton said, controlling himself to be as calming and peaceful as possible. “I did not say you lied. But… not everything everyone says communicates exactly what they want.” Anton wished it could be so, but even with his Insight things were lost. “Why did you think we were on Ceretos? Or did you simply misspeak.”
“I- we’re not? You said you would bring me to Ceretos.”
“And I will,” Anton said, “I just haven’t yet.”
“But… you’re a Worldbinder. And you’re… still overflowing with power here. I haven’t met any others, but I saw them- and you’re supposed to be weaker when you’re away from your world. Or did you break through while here?”
Merve was clearly quite confused, and her previous reticence had turned into an overflow of words as she tried to explain herself. “Neither,” Anton said. “So… I take it to mean that Worldbinders you know of are bound to a single planet?”
“Not just that… one region. Some large, some small. “
“Just one? Never more?”
“I’m sorry,” Merve looked as if she would cry. “I don’t know.”
Anton’s grandfatherly instincts wanted to hug away her tears, but they were not yet so close. Instead, he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder- hoping that it would be taken well. “It’s okay to not know things. Especially if you’re honest about it. Everything anyone knows had to be learned at some point, so not having done so yet isn’t a reason for you to be punished. I would prefer to reserve that for actions you have taken, such as… attempting to kill me. But worry not,” Anton followed up swiftly, “I have already forgiven you for that.” Almost before she did it, because he more or less tempted her to try something. It wouldn’t be fair to judge someone desperate for life when they’d done little else. Joining a war against Rutera was something different, but it seemed she and many others had little real choice to do otherwise.
The dark haired ‘young’ woman reached for his hand, perhaps to pull it away or to grip it for comfort, but in the end she did neither, and let her hand fall to her side. At least she seemed somewhat… recovered. “You mean that?”
“Of course,” Anton said. “I understand your interaction with those who don’t wish you harm has been limited, but I have no reason to lie to you about this. If I was angry with you, you would know. And it wouldn’t serve me to pretend otherwise.” A pause, “Now then, back to the topic at hand. You don’t know, but have you heard of Worldbinders binding multiple locations, on the same or different planets?”
A few moments of thinking allowed Merve to respond with a clear, “No. But… I haven’t heard it’s impossible, either. I just assumed that.”
“I shall assume, then, that it is not extremely common. And it is a good reminder that Worldbinders will not be joining any offensives,” Anton gestured as he turned. “Still, I should speak to someone about this.” He’d sent a message- but only that he needed a meeting with Nicodemo. His communications should be secure, but he wanted the man to be ready for the information to be dumped on him.
“What about-” Merve hesitated. “Is it alright to ask… about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t answer… how you’re strong here. Have you reached an advanced Worldbinding stage?”
“Has anyone from the Sylanis Cluster?”
“Not… to public knowledge. It’s theoretical.”
“Good. And, no. I’m still relatively new to this stage.” Anton smiled as he looked back at his ward. “I have quite some way to go before I advance to another true level. As for the answer you seek…” Anton thought for a few moments. If he had any sense she had the inclination or even the ability to report back, he wouldn’t share the information he had. But he sensed no such intent from her- and no control of other energies that could influence her otherwise. “I Assimilate with stars.”
“Stars… p-plural?” Merve stuttered.
“Only the one in my current system is relevant, though.”
“What about…” Merve hesitated, “Binary star systems?”
“A good question I have not yet found the answer to,” Anton said.
“…Okloi has two stars,” Merve said, speaking of her home system.
“Really?” Anton asked. He had, of course, relayed information from Merve as it came. She’d found it difficult to provide coordinate information on where the other systems besides Azoth were, since she was not a navigator, astronomer, or even enthusiastic stargazer. She only knew they were neighbors. “This seems like relevant information, but I guess I didn’t ask.”
“Sorry. I was underground until recently so I didn’t even think that places might have just one star. It seemed normal, so I didn’t mention it. And I don’t really know about the other systems.”
“The education system in the Sylanis Cluster is very lacking,” Anton grumbled.
“S-sorry,” Merve hung her head.
“It is still not your fault,” Anton reminded her. “Especially if you are intentionally sabotaged.”
For the moment, Anton had a lot to digest. Three systems had been trouble enough, but potentially a full hundred Assimilation cultivators? Or some close equivalent. They needed to step up the mutual defense negotiations with Weos- grouping them with Rutera and Ceretos. They certainly didn’t have a good opinion of Azoth which was apparently just part of the Sylanis Cluster, but they were hesitant to immediately involve themselves with a war after their own civil war. Anton could understand that, but this was a matter of survival.
And there was what, a hundred years- certainly less than a hundred and fifty- before the tides of the world might allow another invasion from the upper realms. If they were lucky, the Trigold Cluster would choose to go after the Sylanis Cluster before Ceretos or Weos. If they were unlucky… they might find themselves invaded while the others didn’t. Certainly, Merve didn’t have any knowledge of Okloi being invaded- and she would have been alive for the last one. Anton had no belief that the Trigold Cluster wouldn’t send people for revenge on their little lower realm world, but he could hope they- or anyone else in the upper realms- would spread out a bit and perhaps take notice of the Sylanis Cluster. Or that they could manage to suppress the Sylanis cluster before then. There was no thought in Anton’s mind of actually overcoming so many cultivators, but then again… who could say what the next century would bring.