A dozen individuals of varying ages, from Botros himself to those as young as his granddaughter Nasima, were arrayed in front of Anton as he walked through the fields of the sect grounds. “So you see,” he concluded his short speech. “If you take care of the crops, the energy you provide to them will be returned to you even greater.”
The local branch of the sect was far too young to have positions such as senior disciples and elders. It had only been a few short seasons, not even enough time for the speedist cultivator among them to reach Spirit Building. Even so, he still made sure they showed deference for those who came before them. Though it helped that the family of three had a head start on cultivation, and worked hard to keep their lead. Aykorkem was now behind only Nasima, both because of the former’s speed and the latter’s age. Even so, Anton knew that many sects would have been glad to have someone growing as fast as Botros. While it was true that part of that was due to Anton’s personal attention, he thought everyone deserved such guidance. So all of the members of the small branch sect would be receiving his personal attention for the foreseeable future.
Aykorkem, the mother, was clearly interested in having status within the sect. Anton was willing to accommodate that, as long as he could see she was performing her duties well and not taking more benefits than she was due. The sect had a modest budget for cultivation aids of various sorts, and Anton didn’t supplement the supplies with anything of his own. For one thing, it would be dangerous for people of lower cultivation to use most of the pills he had- and he didn’t have an infinite supply of anything. His personal wealth was not limitless, and it was best to use it efficiently. Finally, the sect had to be able to manage itself.
When he had gone away from the fields, Aykorkem came to him. “Sect Head Anton,” she caught his attention. “I have some matters that require your attention.”
“Yes?” he asked. “I do believe you should be able to handle most everything.”
“Almost,” she admitted. “But it does concern you even still. It is the matter of your name. And your presence in general,” she said. “Negotiations become easier if you have the proper backer. I’m sure you know this.”
“You want permission to use my name?” Anton asked. He nodded slowly. “You may, but I think it should be constrained to external consideration only. By which I mean… it would be better for you to manage things as if I am not here.”
“What do you mean? Are you going away?”
“You know I travel frequently,” he said. “But I have no intent to leave for good. But consider what would happen when I was away, if you relied on having me.”
“I see,” she nodded. “I will be cautious, then.”
“As you should be,” Anton said. “But… perhaps there are some exceptions. How should I say this… don’t make enemies without reason. But sometimes, things must be done no matter the danger. There are things which are simply unacceptable. If I hear you stood by while innocents were killed…”
“It would be better for us to die in battle than do so,” Aykorkem surmised.
“I believe so, but do not take that as a threat. Because if such a case arrives, most likely I will do nothing. But… unless you could justify yourselves to me, that would be the end of our relationship.” Anton shook his head. “I would understand if your lives were more important than doing what is right. And I would truly hope you don’t ever have to choose.”
“I understand. And you know I would prefer not to make enemies. It is just… growing to understand more about cultivation, it seems inevitable. At minimum, we are implicitly at war Stauso and their sects.”
Stauso was one of the bordering nations, responsible for the vast majority of the refugees that Anton was focused on recruiting. It was natural that they would be enemies, even if politics hadn’t required it. The role of sects within a nation was to join together with others in times of war. There were certain qualifications that had to be met, but eventually the One Hundred Stars would have a duty to fight as well. Anton had founded the branch of the sect knowing that, having weighed the various options.
While this was a war where nobody was truly in the right, there were more than a few sects in Stauso that were too eager to destroy people’s homes. If Anton wanted a perfect country, he would have to found one of his own… and then leave it.
“Vochaye will likely be calling upon us soon,” Anton said.
Aykorkem nodded. “The same would be the case even if we had not joined you. Except instead of fighting as cultivators, we would be cannon fodder given no value.”
“I wish I could change the status quo in just a year… but I have not the political standing. Nor would I wish to attempt the same by direct force. As with everything, it will take time. First, we cultivate ourselves. The One Hundred Stars will grow in power and integrity. The intent is to spread throughout Vochaye over the decades. From there, we will reassess and determine where the future might lead.”
Catarina looked down, feeling how the formations of Xankeshan descended into the earth. She was glad she had prepared specific anti-Everheart measures, woven into the fundamentals of the formation. Because despite their temporary alliance, and even her grandfather’s understanding of the man, Catarina knew Everheart was fickle. He was not to be trusted, and he was dangerous.
She had no doubt he could have broken through the formation despite what she had done. It would have simply taken him longer. Long enough, perhaps, for Tauno and Zazil and the fleets to move in on him. Catarina wondered what would have happened if he found the formations lacking. He had to still be bitter about taking over the planet he’d once called his own. Not even Anton’s most charitable interpretation of the man could put him above such pettiness.
Having grown up on Ceretos, she was aware of how truly unlikable the man was. In fact, he cultivated that image intentionally. Anton had postulated and Catarina was convinced that the man cultivated spite as a form of devotion. Even so, she could not help but be impressed by his achievements in the area of formations. A majority of her style was based on his work, and most of her cultivation was based on the study of formations.
“You’re thinking about something,” Timothy drew her away. “Something you should probably speak about.”
“Just about advancing to Augmentation,” Catarina said, looking around the room.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for spying formations.”
“You built all of these formations,” Timothy said. “You should know if there are any. If anything, I’d be more concerned about technological things.”
“No, he shouldn’t know how to do that yet,” Catarina shook her head.
“And who is ‘he’?” Timothy asked.
“What does he have to do with Augmentation?” Timothy questioned sincerely. Because he hadn’t felt any sort of deflection in his wife’s voice throughout the conversation.
“Everything,” Catarina admitted. “I can learn the most from him. From his work, I mean. I have no interest in speaking to him personally. I might have gotten some of his projections to reveal secrets to me, but that would just make him even more cautious about sharing his knowledge. I’d rather not fall for something convincing and incorrect.”
“Alright,” Timothy said. “So it’s about formations. Are you coming up with one to help you advance to Augmentation?”
“No,” Catarina said. “Yes. Not really.” She paced around the room. “To complete the formation I require, I would likely need to be in Augmentation. And I don’t think this advancement should come about in that manner. In other words, I need to develop my understanding even further so that I can naturally advance, then I can do what I plan.”
“And how is that different from normal?” Timothy asked. “You are always studying and improving in the field of formations. That is your essence, after all.”
“It isn’t, really,” she admitted. “I just want to make sure I don’t waste time.”
“Why?” Timothy asked. “What do you need this formation for?”
“Xankeshan,” Catarina said. “To completely cut off Everheart. His formation style has bled into the wider area of the Scarlet Midfields, so countering him counters pretty much everyone else. Though I’d like to get some more samples from the Exalted Quadrant and Trigold Cluster.”
“Okay,” Timothy said. “Let me know if I can do anything. Otherwise, I will be doing my own training. I don’t want to fall behind.”
“Sorry dear,” Kseniya shook her head when Alva came to her. “I have no insights to share with you. I’m still hovering around the midpoint of Integration.”
Alva sighed, “I wish grandpa were here.”
“Doesn’t everyone? He’s the one who pushed me to this point. Otherwise I would have just remained an old woman in Life Transformation.”
“It’s just not the same to get something written down, instead of seeing him,” Alva said.
“Can you imagine if it were me instead?” Kseniya grinned.
“I don’t think I’d understand anything,” Alva admitted. “You saw the bow saint, right? How was she?”
“Mediocre,” Kseniya said. “I don’t know how they all reached Augmentation. No, I do. But stuffing yourself with devotion isn’t a good method, I think we can agree.”
“True.” Alva scratched her head. “I’d ask Fuzz but I don’t even know if he’s trying to reach that stage. And you know, the whole wolf thing.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” Kseniya shrugged. “Now then, while I can’t do anything for you specifically, perhaps we could both gain something from a little shooting competition?”
Hoyt faced off against Prospero as they often did. Their styles of combat were still quite different, but the divergent factors of Hoyt’s usage of Falling Stars was natural instead of an intentional pushback.
Great meteors of energy orbited around Prospero, while Hoyt preferred to manage only a small few projectiles around himself, and perhaps charge in on his own.
The two of them were perfectly serious, but even in such a battle they could carry on conversation. “Everyone is itching to reach Augmentation,” Hoyt commented.
“I would not be in a rush,” Prospero said. “After all,” he twisted the orbit of his energy, so inner and outer layers crossed perpendicular to each other and blocked Hoyt’s approach, “I spend longer than this in Life Transformation.”
“Only because you didn’t want to leave the Order without you,” Hoyt pointed out as he used his axe to cleave apart half a dozen meteors, intersecting them at oblique angles where he didn’t have to wrestle with the majority of their momentum. “None of us are going anywhere this time. But everyone is worried about what the future might bring.”
“So it is,” Prospero acknowledged. He fired a series of attacks in sequence, curving them around as Hoyt dodged away from them. “But I think the truth will be revealed to us when we reach the peak of Integration. No sense in making too much of a fuss before then. We barely have any information on advancing to Augmentation. A few testimonies from our alliance, and the nearly useless captured knowledge of the Harmonious Citadel. Don’t be in a rush.”
“Oh please,” Hoyt grinned. “You’re not fooling anyone. You’re quite eager to be young again and see how far you can get.”
“I’d say the additional centuries I have prove quite well that I am not rushing, thank you very much,” Prospero smiled in return. “And I don’t mind being the one to pave the way for others.”
“You think you can be first?”
“Depends on whether we’re counting that Chikere lady,” Prospero admitted. “Seems like she’s assumed to be advancing at any moment.”
“Within the next few decades, or perhaps she’s dead already,” Hoyt shrugged. “We’ve long since passed the point where we can afford to worry about how she handles her cultivation. So we just kind of have to assume it will work for her another time.”
“Maybe that same confidence in herself is how she is successful,” Prospero said. “In which case, I know quite a few confident individuals who I should expect the same from.”