As might be expected, it was rather difficult to develop new formations to synchronize transmitters over a vast distance, and even more so when one wanted to convey complicated information. Anton had been expecting that to be an eternal project for Catarina and Everheart, but here he was mere decades after the project had begun, looking at a printed technique from the upper realms, one that had a decent semblance of the insights that had been woven into the original. Yes, printed- with Ruteran technology. Modified, of course, into a unique machine of great price.
It was too bad that it had taken a month for the technique to arrive after it had overcome the time delays between them. In short, there was no way to rapidly trade techniques. They had to choose carefully what they wished to exchange. To the upper realms, they first sent Worldbinding techniques- they were less personal than Assimilation, but might still contain useful information. Catarina and the rest of the group already had access to nearly everything from Ceretos, and thus most lower realms techniques weren’t that interesting. In a somewhat selfish request, Anton had asked for a modern version of the Harmonious Citadel’s archery techniques to be one of those first transmitted from the upper realms. Everheart had a version that was over a century old, but seeing how they were developing would be useful.
Anton still wished they could personally exchange insights, comparing their divergent paths, but that would have to wait. Not forever, but the time Anton spent with those who had now ascended would match the time they were apart. All assuming, of course, that he lived that long. His internal examinations were still unclear about his lifespan. He wasn’t feeling older as his cultivation grew, but neither did he feel younger. The one who might have the best insights into the subject he preferred not to discuss actual worries with.
In front of Anton, sitting with him in the Sect Head’s lounge was a man who he had a great fondness for… but it was his benevolent nature that meant Anton didn’t spend as much time with him as he should. Elder Vincent was not a man of war, despite his technical ability to fight. And despite having a good sense for who could cultivate, the man was not supremely talented himself. Though Anton had to remember something important- it was abnormal for himself or anyone else to reach the peak of Life Transformation in a century. It just so happened there had been an unusual batch of cultivators all at the same time which was… strangely more likely than a small number, according to what records existed.
“A hundred and fifty years since you set me on this path,” Anton said. “I’m glad you’ve reached this point. Congratulations are in order.”
The man smiled. He was younger than Anton, and maintained that look as his cultivation advanced. He didn’t look to be in his prime like some, but he was at most middle aged. A few wrinkles, maybe some stray gray hairs. But Anton honestly didn’t believe he would have felt right if he looked younger. “Don’t congratulate me just yet,” Vincent said. “I have not yet taken the next step.”
“And yet,” Anton countered, “Most also don’t reach the point where they could take this step. Besides, I have seen your devotion. I believe you will succeed.”
“I can’t help but have doubts,” Vincent sighed.
“My talent. My chosen path. Whether it’s even possible… and whether I should bother. If I don’t make this attempt…” he furrowed his brow, “I still have centuries of life to look forward to, doing what I enjoy.”
“If that is what you choose, I will not fault you,” Anton said. “That is merely a matter of priorities. You don’t need more power to seek out disciples, or to provide guidance to those beginning their paths. But,” Anton paused on the word, “I sense that you would regret not making this attempt. You have to decide whether that regret would be greater than what might be lost if you fail.”
Vincent sighed, “How do you choose such a thing?”
Anton shrugged, “You just have to. I might suggest conveniently being rid of most of your worldly attachments and near the end of your lifespan. It’s a great motivator.”
Vincent laughed, “Perhaps I will. Or… perhaps I won’t. I suppose I could wait centuries and make the choice then.”
“If you seriously consider that option, don’t forget Vandale,” Anton warned. “Though in your case, you won’t necessarily be giving up an ambition. It’s different for those going through Ascension.”
Vincent nodded, “Though it is quite appealing to have all of the upper realms to spread the One Hundred Stars, we have little structure to support people there, despite the amazing things I have heard. And… my ambitions are not so wild that I cannot be satisfied with a few billion individuals to work with.”
“Don’t forget Rutera and Weos,” Anton said.
“I’m not sure they would be happy with me poaching talented individuals.”
“It’s called ‘promoting immigration’,” Anton grinned. “Besides, if it’s truly suitable for them it would be better. And… maybe we should be creating branch locations already. Being centralized here in Graotan is not bad, given the availability of teleportation formations. Official locations in other systems seem prudent at this point.”
“Sounds interesting,” Vincent admitted. “But I have plenty to roam here on Ceretos for the moment. Maybe I’ll change my mind next century.” He stood up from the table after finishing his tea. “I have made my decision. I don’t know what will happen should I fail… but don’t expect anything spectacular no matter what happens.”
“You’re making the attempt at Assimilation, then?” Anton asked.
Vincent nodded. “The Order doesn’t need me anymore. Perhaps it hasn’t needed me since I recruited you… that was the most impactful decision I made, thinking nothing would come of it. But… I would still like to remain here for the Order, and see how far I can go.”
Anton watched, without interfering or being an oppressive presence, as Vincent made his way around the Order. But while observing such a thing was in a way an invasion of privacy, ignoring a potential Assimilation would leave potentially valuable cultivation insights by the wayside for no reason.
Vincent certainly didn’t do any of the ‘typical’ steps, as if there was such a thing for Assimilation. Except for one thing, which involved powerful sources of natural energy. Instead, he was just walking around the sect, talking to people and shaking hands. Elder Vincent was likely known by more people in the sect than Anton. Oh, sure, everyone knew Anton’s name. He was the Sect Head, after all. And while Anton was by no means unfriendly… he didn’t know tens of thousands of people. Maybe hundreds of those in the Order, but that was it. Vincent, however, had recruited maybe one in ten- which was an insane proportion given the explosive growth of the Order in the last century and how many people were attracted to it simply from hearing about it.
There were standards for entry, of course. Not cultivation talent anymore, but measures of personality and morality. People didn’t have to be flawless, but they had to strive towards what was right, even if they failed.
And Vincent was frequently out in the world finding those who were suited to join. More than that, he remembered those he recruited. The only reason he’d been unclear on Anton near the beginning was because he had expected Anton to perish in his pursuit of cultivation rather than achieving rapid successes.
As Vincent moved between people, Anton felt it. The strings of connection, like those of Alaia- but not quite the same. Alaia’s had been impersonal, a bond formed for the sake of convenience. This, on the other hand, was merely the strengthening of something that existed. Even if they only interacted with Vincent infrequently, everyone recruited by him remembered him fondly.
The differences between Worldbinding and Assimilation were more a matter of perspective than mechanical differences. Both, at least, were a method to step beyond the boundaries of Life Transformation without Ascension. Both allowed connecting to people or places, with rarer connections to concepts. Vincent had access to information on both, putting together this path for himself, as all had to.
Through the connections that Vincent was strengthening- they already existed, if not in the same form- Anton felt small bits and pieces of the man lingering behind. A serious commitment- if his method failed or was not completed, the results would be devastating. Then again, how could he hope to step into the next stage without risk? That was not how cultivation worked. Though of course, the risks were lesser if one strode the right path for themself.
It took days for Vincent to pass through the whole of the Order, and when Anton thought he was finished, his task complete, Vincent stepped out of the gates of the sect onto the road. Certainly, not everyone Vincent had recruited would be present at the Order at all times… but seeking them out was likely less efficient than waiting for them to return. If he got in contact with them remotely, they might all come to him.
But that wouldn’t have been Vincent, if he chose that route. Anton hoped things worked out for him as intended. He could possibly step over the threshold at any point… or fail right before the end. And nothing Anton did would be able to help.
By all of Anton’s calculations, his message to the Hidden System had passed into and then through their system some years prior at the latest. There had been no response- either something had caused a response to fail or more likely there had never been a response to begin with. It was possible it had been missed, despite being intentionally obvious, but Anton found it easier to presume that the system cut itself off on purpose and preferred to maintain its status.
He took a moment to visit each of the places he had left communications devices in the surrounding systems, finding them intact and undisturbed. That also didn’t mean anything. Perhaps they did not survey their nearby systems, or simply hadn’t in the last decade or so.
Anton had simply hoped there would be a response. Knowing why they were isolated- outside of mere speculation- could provide some catharsis. At a certain point, however, he was unsure if there even really was a system where he speculated. Now that he had returned, with some more experience under his belt, he felt not only the unnatural tides but also the presence of stars. His Assimilation made the latter possible- and he was quite careful to avoid forming any actual connection. With the tides as they were, he couldn’t determine anything more. Was it a binary or other such system with multiple stars, or several systems packed closely together? He was curious, but no answers were forthcoming.
Though Anton felt as if he were simply waiting, he was never truly unoccupied. Cultivation filled any gaps in his time, but there were many responsibilities to fulfill. Though he wished it were otherwise, Ceretos didn’t just remain at peace with itself all on its own. It required constant oversight and a bit of an implied threat. Assimilation cultivators were slowly forming throughout, which unfortunately made it more likely that there would be a return to competition of some sort.
Fortunately, resources and space were no longer limited in the same way they had been. It was possible for people to expand outward rather than fight each other. Though Anton wasn’t willing to settle for deferred troubles. Instead, he had to keep up with the other sects, arbitrating issues in some cases and in others simply overseeing deals. Hopefully, that would head things of permanently… or at least as permanently as anything could be in the world. If nothing else, it should last until the arrival of a common foe in the next invasion.