After it settled down, Anton felt that the new star with proper fusion still had absolutely nothing to recommend it. A star with fusion was like looking for a bow and someone advertising that it had a string. It was certainly important, but not exactly something special. But regardless, he returned to the little star and found it flickering happily. Its raw power was as small as a true star could get, but he still bound it to himself because of the connection they shared. It wasn’t deep, despite Anton’s hand in the fusing of the brown dwarfs, but it was more than the surface level of Anton finding a star that was somewhere he needed to fight or in an interesting system.
The brown dwarfs had been given a designation before Anton even approached them, with the new name simply dropping the ‘a’ and ‘b’ they’d had attached to their shared name. But Anton came up with his own name for the little star that he found appropriate. Joy. Perhaps it was inappropriate to ascribe emotions to an unliving celestial body, but that was how humans did things.
Joy was a sign that he could affect things on the scale of stars- even if it was literally the least impactful end of that scale. Not physically smallest like neutron stars, but least massive and outputting the least energy. The results made him hopeful for what he could do in the future, should he have reason to make another attempt. Like he intended to do with Poriza, armed with the knowledge and experience he had now. But he would need their full cooperation and buy-in first. It should improve their cultivation, but would draw attention which they might not want.
Nasima didn’t know exactly how strong her father had been, since he didn’t talk about cultivation in front of them. She didn’t have a real chance to see him in action until the end, when the rest of them were occupied with fleeing as he held off enemies. But no matter how strong he had been, Nasima was quite certain that she was stronger at her current moment.
She didn’t fool herself into believing that she was invincible. Essence Collection wasn’t the peak of cultivation. If there even was a true peak, it came somewhere after ascension. She wasn’t even in Life Transformation yet.
Yet. What a crazy thought, as if she found the idea inevitable. Sure, she currently possessed a manual that purported to guide her through Essence Collection and to break through to Life Transformation, but it couldn’t be real, could it?
Of course it could. With Anton involved, she found it easier to believe. She’d never gotten a serious spar with him, but she was quite certain he wasn’t in Essence Collection like he indicated. Among other things, she’d seen him on the battlefield.
While she could admit that a lifetime of experience and an Essence Collection cultivation might be able to strike down foes like that man did, that only accounted for a fraction of the power she’d seen. She hadn’t noticed in the first battle, or in the tenth. But gradually she began to get hints of something odd happening.
No member of the Order had died in battle where he was involved. And they should have. Not that Nasima wanted any of them to die, but the situations dictated that was what would happen. And Nasima knew it, because she had been one of them.
After the conclusion of the war between Stauso and Vochaye, the Order had been hunting in neutral territory, tempering the sect by battling beasts. Bitterblack Swamp bordered both nations without properly being between them, vaguely claimed by both or perhaps neither. Either way, it was a good tempering ground specifically because of how horrid it was.
Nasima considered herself a warrior, so she wasn’t squeamish around bugs or snakes. But there was a certain size that anyone with sense would be rightfully cautious of them. Bloodsucking flies the size of an apple were the least of it. The leeches could drain an unprepared individual in less than a minute, or simply tear out a chunk of your leg. Snakes mixed in among dangling vines, pretending to be something they were not.
She had to watch out for the others along with them, because they were her responsibility. Nasima had an official position and everything, beneath only the sect head in the same position as other elders. It was strange to share such a title with family far older than her, but that was how things went.
A snake leaped at one of the new apprentices. Nasima flashed a burst of light into its eyes, throwing it off just enough for the apprentice to cut it down with his sword. A sneaky leech nearly got its horrible teeth on one of the others, but Nasima yanked the disciple away.
“Keep your senses active,” she said. “They are part of the swamp, but not quite perfect in their concealment. Those little details matter.” It was strange to hear herself more or less repeating words from Anton while he was watching nearby, but everything she knew about cultivation stemmed from him in one way or another. Even most of the techniques she’d studied about other cultivation methods were obtained by him- and ultimately he was the one who established the Order and made the rest possible.
Everything had been going well even after they caught the tracks of a large beast, claws digging into the muck. No doubt it would be a challenge for some, but its hide and claws would make good material for equipment.
One of the disciples spotted it first. Or rather, she was first to announce it. Anton undoubtedly had spotted it already. Nasima knew that much, at least. Either way, it hadn’t managed to ambush them. They faced a lizardlike creature half poking out of the water. Not quite a crocodile, because while it had spiky ridges on its back and long jaws, the legs were somewhat longer.
It also had some sort of weird spikes inside its mouth, something Nasima discovered as the creature spat them at the approaching group. She punched forward, a ray of light blasting them away, and the battle truly started. The most confident disciples moved forward to engage with the creature. It should only be the equivalent of late Spirit Building, so with good coordination it could be beaten with numbers.
That wasn’t where the trouble came from. Instead, the danger came from the interruption while they were fighting.
She only felt a vague sense of their presence before she heard the booming voice. “The Wandering Tiger Cult is here!” a voice announced. “Leave our prey behind and you shall be allowed to go unharmed.”
Nasima naturally expected Anton to tell them to screw off, but it was instead her mother who performed that role. “What prey of yours is it that has no scars of battle?” Aykorkem responded.
“We have been tracking it,” said a large man, who appeared rather young to be the strongest among them. Not simply compared them, but just strong in general.
“That gives you no more claim than us,” Aykorkem declared as the disciples continued to clash with the beast. Nasima kept half an eye on both threats. “And we have arrived first, so it is ours to slay.”
“Perhaps you don’t know who I am,” the man displayed his cultivation with great intention. “I am Cord, the head of the Wandering Tiger Cult. And when I say something is our prey, it is.”
Nasima thought she saw her mother briefly glance at Anton, but she couldn’t feel anything on the man’s face. His reaction was unclear to her, at least. “It is not. And our disciples have already wounded the beast. Perhaps a compromise? We can fight it together and split the materials.”
A compromise? With the Wandering Tiger Cult? Nasima held back her protests. It was better to show unity. But still, she didn’t like the idea of having any sort of peaceful interactions with enemies.
“No,” Cord declared. “It is ours, so we shall take all of it. This is your last chance to walk away.”
“And this is yours,” Aykorkem declared. “Do not think we are mere babes to be ordered around as you please. Leave now or face the consequences.”
Of course, he didn’t. Instead, he charged right towards her. Not that Nasima would let that happen. With a burst of speed powered by mimicry of light, Nasima arrived in between them. Training in light was difficult, though Anton was able to show her impressive applications of the power. She stabbed with her spear a beam of light emanating from it, but an image of a tiger appeared around Cord. Its jaws snapped down on her attack, the man’s defensive energy blocking her attack.
Then they were engaged in a frantic melee, with the Order at a clear disadvantage. Many of their disciples were already locked in battle with the lizard, after all. She couldn’t stop thinking about the danger they might be in. The chaotic energy of the battle overwhelmed her senses, but she thought she felt flickers of light aside from herself.
Nasima thought she should be proud that Anton focused on some of the elders of the Cult instead of aiding her. It indicated some trust in her abilities, though she found herself hard pressed to deal with the flurry of the attacks from the man. He slashed at her with long claws weapons attached to his forearms and guided by his hands. She dodged and parried as she could, trying to blind the man or break through his defenses.
She thought she saw an opening, and she took it. Her spear thrust forward… but even as she committed to her attack, she knew she’d made a mistake. Cord was ducking backwards while slipping towards her, his claws prepared to cut under her guard and rake across her chest. And that was what happened… though he only made it as deep as her ribs. Not that such an attack was shallow, cutting through her defensive energy, armor, and muscle, but it didn’t cut entirely through her so she was at least still able to rectify her mistake as they circled back around to face each other.
As they faced off Nasima couldn’t help but notice a small mark on the man’s wrist, one she was certain hadn’t been there a moment before. That stuck in her mind to the conclusion of the battle which she managed to draw out enough for Anton to slowly injure the other Essence Collection cultivators among them. The Wandering Tiger Cult began to flee.
The fleeing cultivators began to fall one by one. “You did promise that it was their last chance to walk away,” Anton shrugged by way of explanation to Aykorkem. “And running doesn’t change that.”
They fell one by one, until only Cord was left, having slipped out of sight beyond the horizon. And then… Anton took one final shot. Nasima felt the clashing energy, and could picture the result in her head. Most likely, the shot went right through his heart. “I thought you said that Horizon Shot only reached the Horizon?”
“Am I not allowed to improve things?” Anton raised an eyebrow. But Nasima felt like he was avoiding the question.
She looked at the bodies of the enemies around them. Distinctive marks of Anton’s shots were easily visible on some of them, but there were others that were better hidden. Pinpoint wounds that perhaps even the cultivators themselves didn’t realized had happened. And Nasima thought of tiny flashes of light. That was when she began to understand that there was something happening beyond her comprehension. She wondered how long it had been happening.
Over the following years, she had begun to focus on that feeling, and she indeed found that arrows came from mysterious angles. And if she watched closely, she could make out thin bands of energy stretching away from Anton and into the sky. There was no way that was a practical limitation of a technique. Instead, it was a way of concealing something Nasima couldn’t even properly comprehend. But while their disciples ended up injured, none died or even suffered incurable injuries.
Some took a long time to recover, but Nasima came to understand that Anton had complete control over the battlefields he was on. And she also understood why he didn’t tell her. He didn’t want to inflate people’s perception of their ability, such that they would die without him. They still felt the true fear of battle, and the understanding that they could have died, even if they didn’t. In fact, Nasima was willing to bet that those who became arrogant would find their battles slightly more difficult.
She was quite glad he was on their side. But given what she knew of him, it would be strange if he was not. This was just Anton, doing his best to make sure the rest of them grew strong. She wondered if he ever really needed them at all. Certainly not for the work he’d lured them in with, and maybe not for anything she’d experienced yet. But if there was some enemy he couldn’t handle alone, Nasima wouldn’t mind being there to aid him if he asked.