It was hard to figure out why Anton wasn’t dead. Hoyt didn’t think he was a frail old man, but when he responded to both excitement and depression with more work it was hard to figure out when the man ever stopped. Perhaps that was the trick. Maybe he was cursed. Unable to stop… forever. That had to be it. Because otherwise Hoyt would have to admit that sparring with an old man two-on-one tired him out. If he kept going, he didn’t think he could move for a week.
Technically they would have beaten him with the two of them together. Probably. What happened in an actual battle couldn’t be predicted with certainty. It was possible Anton would put a hole through either him or Catarina before they could take a step forward, but once they were up close they were able to grind him down. But… that was the limit of what they could do. They could never land a solid strike, as if he could predict every move they made. Since they’d sparred with each other an exactly equivalent amount of times- it was literally impossible for that to not be true- Hoyt wondered how he did it. Except, of course, the answer was plain. Spirit Building. Anton was traveling down the path of Intuition for the moment, as the eleventh star. Hoyt wasn’t sure if the results were supposed to be so immediate, but then again Anton was always good at reading movements. He’d even trained a technique for it at some point. Written by that crazy Archer elder, if Hoyt remembered correctly.
But while two people could match Anton for a while, it was absolutely certain that just one of them would die quickly. A significantly more well trained and talented lower tier cultivator could potentially fight one at a higher level and win, but that’s where the qualifiers came in. The lower tier cultivator had to be better than the higher tier one. Anton had a good foot into Spirit Building and was absolutely not worse than either of the other two. The only real chance they had to win was if Catarina set up a formation ahead of time, but it was possible for Anton to just break through it if they were careless. Plus, they would have to remain in one area- which just meant he could just shoot them from a distance.
Hoyt shook his head. It was crazy that Anton had started cultivating at a hundred, and now a year later he was in Spirit Building. However, Hoyt couldn’t complain. The man worked hard… and he wasn’t selfish with his insights. The elders at the Order weren’t secretive either, but there was a big difference between personalized advice and what was said to a roomful at a time. With the month Anton had been crazily training for the rematch, Hoyt and Catarina hadn’t been idle. They had nearly reached the eighth star, and after the training started Anton had pushed them past that. They were rapidly approaching the ninth star and wouldn’t be too much longer to reach the tenth. It might still be a month each, but that was quite rapid. And while Anton had pulled ahead, once they reached Spirit Building they wouldn’t be too far behind. A couple months wasn’t so bad in the cultivation world. It was just relevant in the early stages especially where geniuses were involved, and at points like the threshold of a new stage. Hoyt wasn’t sure if he could consider himself a genius, but he wasn’t so humble as to say he lacked talent. But if anyone deserved the title, it was probably Anton. Even if a young genius might be faster growing… so what? It wouldn’t be by much.
Hoyt picked himself up out of the dirt. They were traveling along to the north of Ofrurg. There were mines with more slaves from Dungannon there. It was hard to believe just how many slaves the country had, but Hoyt had the perspective of growing up in a decent country instead of a trash pile. A trash pile with fancy cities and strong cultivators, but that was all it was with the way people were allowed to be treated.
“This was a good decision,” Hoyt said.
“Oh?” Anton raised an eyebrow. “You want to continue, then?”
Hoyt held up his hands. “I meant coming with you. I doubt I’d train more efficiently at the Order, and we can actually do some good for the world. At least a little…” Hoyt shook his head.
“A little bit now, a bit more later…” Anton shrugged, “And maybe a whole heap in the future. I’ve got big ambitions.”
“I heard of ambitious people before. Usually people mean they’re clawing for power.”
“Am I not?” Anton asked.
“Well…” Hoyt shrugged, “You’re not stepping on everyone along the way. So I prefer your method.”
“I’ll need good backup,” Anton said. “Lots of it. It’s purely self-serving.”
“Really?” Hoyt said. “If I said I was leaving tomorrow, would you keep training me?”
“How would I do that if you left?” Anton asked.
Hoyt laughed, “Good point. But I might have somewhere I need to go, in the future.”
“Just bring me along, then. As long as I’m not in the middle of something critical…” Anton looked down the road. “It’s already been a year. Another year and I’ll hopefully have done everything I can here. There might be a few difficult points, especially with Annelie.. But I’m not going to be doing just this forever. Especially once there are no more slaves at all.”
“At all?” Hoyt raised an eyebrow, “Ambitious. Maybe don’t let the wrong people around here hear you.”
“Bah. I’m just an old man,” Anton shook his head. “Nobody will take me seriously. Though I wasn’t planning to announce it in the cities. Not until at least Constellation Formation. What do you think, two years? Three?”
“Even the best take five.”
Anton nodded. “I guess I could settle for four, then, but I’m not made of time.”
Hoyt could tell that response was half a joke. The other half was the supreme confidence that he would reach Constellation Formation. And while five more years was about a quarter of Hoyt’s life, it was basically nothing for cultivators who could increase their lifespans by decades in each stage. Even ten years would be considered quite fast from Spirit Building to Constellation Formation. He had to be there to see it with his own eyes. How long would it actually take?
The young woman who traveled with them, Catarina, was an oddity. Pete was aware that women could be cultivators. That wasn’t the weird part. It was just… her. Whenever they stopped, she would fiddle with things. He had to ask, but he couldn’t dive straight into it. “Excuse me. You are… Anton’s granddaughter, right?”
“Yes,” Catarina replied curtly, not turning to look at him. She was adjusting sticks and piles of leaves.
“I never saw you in Dungannon, that I recall.”
“I wasn’t,” Catarina stated. “Technically, I’m his… great-great granddaughter.”
“Oh.” Pete wasn’t sure how to respond to that. It made more sense, of course. “You have a lot of cultivators in the family?”
Catarina shook her head. “I was the first.” She paused to think for a second. “That’s a strange thought. I didn’t have reason to… wholeheartedly throw myself into it. I lived out west.”
“But… there’s also Anton and…” Pete wasn’t sure if he should bring up Devon, considering the circumstances.
“Grandpa Anton didn’t begin cultivating until after… the incident. I met him after that.” Catarina picked up a small rock, placing it carefully, then she picked it back up and threw it away. “That one doesn’t help.”
“Why doesn’t it help?” Pete asked.
“It had negligible effect on the flow of energy. I thought it did, but it was just a random fluctuation.”
“Oh.” Pete thought for a moment, “Anton… he’s really only been cultivating for a year? I saw the match. Well, I was there watching. I can’t claim to have really seen anything that happened. It was so fast.”
“Yes. Absolutely. My grandfather is very talented. Determined.” Catarina pointed. “Move that one.”
“This stick?” Pete said. “Like this?”
“Yes.” Catarina thought for a moment. “You got it just right.”
“Well, you talked about the flow of energy, so I just…” Pete waved his hands.
“Yes. Good. You will help with formations,” Catarina stated. “We will gather energy… right here.” Catarina moved to stand in a spot. “But not too directly. We don’t want to crush whoever is here.”
“I get it. Kind of a spiral, right?” Pete looked around them. “A formation, you call it? It’s almost like magic. Though I thought all cultivation was magic two months ago.”
“It’s not magic,” Catarina said. “But it’s not not magic. As much as magic exists, this can be it. Now, that one.”
Pete couldn’t say he fully understood what was happening. She seemed to just assume he would understand. When he didn’t, she just corrected him without getting angry. He did his best to change the flow of energy in the area. It was hard to describe exactly how it worked, but the physical arrangement of objects was more than it appeared to be on the surface. Pete wasn’t sure if he actually made the whole process slower with his presence, but he knew it was something useful. Even if he couldn’t do much now, if he could actually help in the future he might be able to start paying back Anton just a little bit.