From tiny points of light a barely fathomable distance away, the twin stars drew close until they were pulsing embers of warmth that Anton could almost reach out and touch. Even so, it took more effort just to reach that point than when he bound to Rutera’s star mostly by accident. Part of it had to be the distance- even from Rutera, Okloi was still several times further than the other systems had been. On the other hand, Anton felt the stars tugging against him alternately, as if either one might slip away.
His grip tightened on them, attempting to pull their power into him. Yet as one drew closer, the other pulled away, as if he were trying to pull together a pair of magnets. The closer they drew to him and each other, the more repulsion there was against all. Was it impossible, then, to Assimilate two stars at once? Perhaps he might still do them in sequence, but if they still rejected each other… then his activities in the Okloi system would actually be limited instead of empowered. In the worst case, he might simply require two of his stars to function in a single system for no benefit.
That would be… a disappointment. One that he was unwilling to accept, unless he was certain that it had to be that way. As of now, he was barely persuaded. So there had been a little snag. What was that compared to nearly incinerating himself for his first Assimilation? He didn’t intend to push himself to such lengths at this moment, as a disappointing failure would be better than wasting everything he’d worked for, but nobody said cultivation was supposed to be easy.
He wrapped his hands around the two stars, pulling them closer. As they approached, they strained against him and each other, their power flaring in his palms, the heat scorching him. Yet the flames could not harm him, not at such a magnitude. Only if he let them run uncontrolled inside of him would he find himself concerned, especially with the backing of Rutera’s star right next to him. The heat on his actual body was massive, though something he felt naturally adapted to with little need for natural energy to shield himself.
He continued to draw the twin stars close to himself. They had to at least exist together within his dantian, but he didn’t need to force them to hug each other. He allowed them to retain some distance, but it was clear they were still far closer than they would like.
As he pulled them closer, feeling them wrestle against him, Anton worried briefly that he was making a mistake. The resistance was unlike anything he’d encountered before- was there a Worldbinding cultivator working against him? If someone already had a prior attachment, advancing further would be a danger.
He paused, feeling the pull as the stars kept their energy from him. No, this wasn’t an active resistance, no conscious control of a cultivator. This was simple natural resistance that Anton imagined would go away completely if he chose to focus on just one target. But he found the struggle enjoyable. It was more pure than a life or death battle, the strain of exercise and the fatigue of a good day’s work.
Inside of his dantian, two orbs of fire pulled apart, straining at the limits of the space available to him… but settling into place, orbiting around the edges of the space, a warmth of power flowing through them. Anton smiled to himself. Though his cultivation would advance naturally with training, it seemed the main benefits came upon securing more stars for himself, the hundredth star and beyond replacing the weaker motes of power he created for himself as he connected to actual stars.
Inside of his dantian, it took time for things to settle down. Anton continued to meditate where he was for a day or two, perhaps longer, just to make certain everything was stable. It certainly wouldn’t do to allow the power to explode inside him once more.
Eventually, he nodded to himself. He had succeeded. He couldn’t be quite sure what the effects would be until he experienced them from a closer distance, but Anton was certain that the effect would be better than simply latching onto a single star. The test of his abilities was also beneficial, and Anton could feel the distance between himself and the stars he drew upon lessen slightly.
During his short time away, Anton had left Merve in the care of a few individuals from Ceretos. He was still responsible for her actions, and keeping watch on her was best for both her sake as well as others. Many citizens of Rutera would like an opportunity to seek revenge on one of their enemies for those who had died- children, siblings, spouses, friends. It didn’t matter that Merve hadn’t killed anyone. Anton wasn’t even going to argue that she was innocent- because while she hadn’t been successful, she still came with the intent of war. Likewise, simply because circumstances forced her into the position didn’t stop her from being responsible for her actions. Anton was well aware that she would have killed, just like she had to survive to her current cultivation level.
She wasn’t being forgiven for nothing. Anton was taking some of the price upon himself, but her cooperation was also important to Rutera, and the rest of their alliance. The Sylanis Cluster was a greater danger than previously perceived, and Merve had many other answers as well. Obtaining such information sooner would have been beneficial, but the prisoners had been surprisingly difficult. Not because of specific conditioning, but simply an aspect of despair the Sylanis Cluster developed in those they considered lower. Anton had suggested some methods for Rutera to connect with further prisoners, but Anton didn’t have the time to actively engage in such things on his own. Besides, even if they were official allies now Rutera needed to handle as much of its own affairs as it could.
Merve still took a bit of work, but even though she didn’t entirely believe Anton, she still allowed herself to indulge in her moments of freedom, and to dream. “What do you think? Should I aim for Ascension, or Worldbinding?”
Anton took the question seriously, of course. Her talent was sufficient that with his help she could manage either, even if she still wasn’t certain of it- or that he would keep his promises. “That would depend… on what you want. Do you want to see the mightiest splendors in the universe, to struggle for the best there is to offer? Or can you remain content with the appearance of the mundane?”
“I… don’t really know how to answer those questions,” Merve admitted.
“I will give you another perspective, then. Would you accept moving from a position at the head of the pack to the middle of a greater power? Or would you prefer to find yourself a king among those you knew?”
“I want… to be strong. As strong as possible…” Merve frowned. “I don’t feel like you chose either of those options, though.”
“You are correct,” Anton said. “My reasons for my choice were quite different… but given your admission that you have none you care to return to, my personal choice of protecting my world and the majority of my family and allies will not appeal to you. In truth, I made that choice long before I realized what it meant. I gave up the path to the peak of power for it… at least to my knowledge. Perhaps Assimilation might match the likes of Augmentation and Domination eventually, but none on Ceretos have had the time to find out.”
“I don’t know much about Worldbinding besides its existence,” Merve admitted. “Or how strong those other stages are. But I think… none of those I’ve heard of are that much stronger than any other Worldbinding cultivator. And if they were, they would have made it widely known.”
Anton nodded, “Good. Then we can hope they are still in the same range of power… though I and the others are still novices regardless.” He’d only been an Assimilation cultivator for a bit more than two decades- compared to what he could only assume was centuries for some individuals. The main hope was to draw any Worldbinding cultivators away from their domains, should they need to combat them. Or, maybe, Anton himself could do something in Okloi. “Back to your question, if you were particularly fond of some people, some place here, then I might suggest Assimilation. You seem to have had the misfortune to be treated as one of the ‘lessers’ where you came from, so it could suit you. Or… if you choose to ascend, I can at least guarantee you would have access to proper allies and companions, not just competitors.”
She had no immediate response to that- Anton could see thoughts churning in her head. It was unlikely she would trust the promise of companions- but once she truly ascended, she would know Anton’s promises weren’t just empty. And of course, she would be free to follow whatever path she wanted… though without any backing, the upper realms would be difficult.
“Attacks have begun to decrease in frequency and intensity,” Nicodemo shook his head. “I’m sure you’ve noticed as well.”
“That’s right,” Anton nodded. “You are concerned about what it means?”
“If we’re lucky, it means that the presence of strong defenders here has caused enough damage to deter them, and they’re now hesitant to continue. Perhaps they might even end the war.”
“And you believe that?” Anton raised an eyebrow.
“You know better than that,” Nicodemo sighed. “Based on what we’ve learned recently, I have doubts that they would stop with just this. Weos’ tales indicate they could send more. So… they should be preparing for more concerted attacks.”
“I would assume that as well,” Anton admitted. “I’ve grown more adept at dealing with them, and at this point I do believe I outmatch their barriers’ adaptation, but I can only cover so much area.” His range was slowly increasing with his cultivation, but it could take centuries before he could cover even a moderately sized planet. He wasn’t ashamed of needing others, though. Besides, if an attack was powerful enough he could simply move to meet it… as long as the area he left behind had its own defenders.
Nicodemo sighed, “I remember just before we came into contact with Ceretos, how we were so excited to explore the galaxy and find other life. Then it turns out three systems want to kill us for no good reason. I’d rather my position be obsolete.”
“Hey, don’t forget that the first system you came in contact with was reasonable,” Anton smiled. “And it just turns out those guys that want to kill you got a head start. I’m still hopeful that the galaxy is worth that exploration. Even the upper realms… it certainly has some powerful, troublesome groups. But it’s not all bad.”
“Yeah, well…” Nicodemo shook his head. “We were kind of expecting something… different. Not more humans.”
“It’s not a coincidence. Clearly, someone settled your world. But in a way, you should be glad. At least you’re free from the influences of the upper realms.”
“For the moment,” Nicodemo agreed. “But perhaps because we weren’t ‘good enough’.”
“I imagine they’d be quite surprised with what you have developed. Rutera will be strong, it just requires some work with your cultivator foundations. With your technology to support you, you’ll be difficult to counteract.”
“If we don’t get wiped out first.”
“That’s an eternal problem cultivators must deal with, it seems,” Anton shrugged. “Though perhaps we can change that, in our little local region. We merely have to overcome a single significant foe, with three of us in the alliance.” Anton grinned, intentionally leaving out the part that each of the Sylanis Cluster’s systems had more population than Ceretos, Rutera, or Weos. No need to bring down the mood. And… once he got a chance, he was going to try a little excursion into Okloi. Just to test things out, though he intended to remain far from actual populated areas. He didn’t want to provoke stronger conflict, not when they weren’t ready.