Various things that the lower realms might want to do at the end of the cycle were dependent on a wide variety of factors out of their control or only ascertainable at a later time. They couldn’t be entirely certain that the upper realms would make any further attempts to assault the alliance, given the previous victories. But then again, assuming they would just give up was a risky gamble.
Any counteroffensive, even if it was possible, would hinge on the circumstances after the assaults, if they even had sufficient forces in fighting shape. Perhaps they were already being too hasty, assuming they would win.
One thing that did come up was attempting to predict the invasion routes. From the side of the upper realms, they had launched attacks on the border planets. But predicting the flow of the tides on a scale beyond local hadn’t really been done. But now, the people of the lower realms- Anton especially- could range more widely. And though it was still far off, Anton still had a bit of a stronger feeling than everyone else.
But while nothing concrete was settled, nor could it be for some time, the ball was set rolling for the future. Thoughts remained on the events that would inevitably come about once more.
The great tree in front of Anton must have been centuries old when Anton first saw it. Perhaps more, as that was closer to a normal lifespan for a tree. The Grandfather Willow might have stood tall through multiple cycles, or perhaps it was young and insignificant for the one prior to Anton’s experience. It was difficult to say for certain, though most likely the Trigold Cluster would have chopped it down if they knew of it.
Another two centuries shouldn’t have been that much for such a thing, but Anton could see significant changes. Its size was creeping up into the sky to the point Anton wondered if the top layers had trouble getting sufficient oxygen.
“That’s quite a transformation, Lev,” Anton said.
He shrugged, “I barely did anything. This old guy was encouraged to grow all on his own. A bit more natural energy seems to have done him good.”
“Oh?” Anton nodded. “I had the feeling it was more related to a certain threshold.”
“Who can say?” Lev shook his head. “I don’t plan to do anything so wild and fusing a star.”
“Your path is not too different from my own, though,” Anton pointed out. “I’m thinking about calling the stage Enrichment. Or perhaps this is another branch. The difference between us is small given that you have access to the majority of the energy here, while I only use a miniscule fraction of the energy of a star.” Anton leaned back against the tree, looking up to the great canopy above. “Soon enough this thing will provide shade for all of northern Graotan.”
“Not everyone’s thrilled about that,” Lev said. “Though it doesn’t attack people on instinct anymore. Not since it first came under my control. It still eats beasts in the wider forests, as its starting bowl is almost entirely occupied by disciples of the Grasping Willow now.”
“More sects should relax under large trees,” Anton said. “Get in tune with nature that way. I think the world would be a better place.”
“Isn’t that what you’ve been doing for the past few centuries?” Lev asked. “Getting people to do that?”
“Not all of them have grown big trees yet,” Anton said. “And perhaps it’s my fault, but all the effort to get people to improve at doing things sometimes results in them failing to improve at… not doing things. Even though rest is an important part of the cycle.”
Silence reigned between them for a while. A few minutes, maybe an hour. Anton didn’t really care, as he could spend all day and night there. “So,” Lev began, “How are the branch sects doing?”
“Quite well, I think,” Anton said. “I think the one on In’istra could have been a bit more developed if I had searched for more leadership. But then again, the structure doesn’t have to be exactly the same everywhere. I did happen to find just the right group of people on Poriza.”
“You told me about them before,” Lev said. “You might just be partial to old fellows.”
“It’s never too late to cultivate, if you’re determined,” Anton said. “And maybe a bit lucky, and given the right guidance.”
“The only thing you got was basic instructions,” Lev pointed out. “Vincent didn’t even think you were going to survive, did he?”
“No, but he still gave me the technique. I do know it doesn’t always work out the same way,” Anton shrugged. “But I prefer people to be able to make the choice. Take the power into their own hands.”
A longer time of quiet, once again broken by Lev. “I miss Fuzz.”
“Me too,” Anton admitted. “I heard he’s had a bunch of adorable little ones in the upper realms. And a few mischievous ones.”
Anton could have literally stayed there for weeks, but he settled for three days. Then he moved on to reconnect with others.
Anton visited all around Aicenith and Brogora, and then the former Exalted Archipelago. The Worthy Shore Society and a few others were an important reminder. From the Exalted Quadrant had come a few good people. Maybe not as many as Anton would have liked, but enough. The same was probably possible with the Trigold Cluster. Obviously they had only seen the worst of them. But if they weren’t able to prevent the invasions- or didn’t care to- then there was still a clear issue that had to be dealt with.
But that was for other people to deal with. Anton had to go talk to a turtle. Not that the turtle ever said anything.
“How are you doing, Paradise?” Anton said, patting the turtle on his nose. “Big as always, I see.”
Erin had come upon sensing Anton, of course. And a bunch of curious disciples watching from a distance. “Not as well as I’d hope.”
“Is there some problem?” Anton asked.
“Not that I think you can do anything about. He hasn’t been eating lately. Which is a significant change because he used to eat… well, anything. Perhaps not often, but more than now.”
Anton looked the turtle in one eye. “He wants something,” Anton said.
“Really? I… hadn’t noticed,” Erin frowned.
“I don’t mean in general. I think from me specifically,” Anton looked at the turtle. “If only you were motivated to speak.”
Paradise said nothing. Instead, he just turned his gaze to the sky. Anton tried to follow his line of sight, but he couldn’t find anything interesting there. “I’m not sure what he wants.”
“Maybe to look at some stars?” Erin asked. “We could wait until nightfall.”
“Then wait we shall,” Anton said. “Until then, I’ll be with your archery students. You need strong defenders here to keep the riff raff off of Paradise’s shell.”
Nighttime didn’t bring any particular insight to them, except that Paradise wasn’t looking at a specific spot in the sky. Anton couldn’t pick out a particular star- or any other sort of celestial body- and there was no chance that the turtle’s vision was better than his.
“Any ideas?” Anton asked. “You’re the one who lives on the turtle.”
“If I had them, I would have tried them long ago.” Erin sat down on the turtle’s head. “What do you want, huh?” At that, Paradise began to dive under the water. “Oh, are you finally going to eat something?”
The formations on Paradise’s back kept the Island Tenders and everything else from being swept away as he dove. But as he went deeper into the sea, Anton didn’t get the sense he was going for any of the nearby sea life. Instead, he just continued downward at an angle, then suddenly swerved back up. Paradise wasn’t known for swimming quickly- though he maintained a consistent if ponderous pace most of the time. Only in time of battle or when hunting for food did he have any significant speed relative to his size.
Anton couldn’t figure out what he wanted, swimming back towards the surface. Until they breached the surface, dangling in the air for a few moments. Before then splashing back into the water, creating massive waves. Anton looked at Erin, who looked back at him.
Erin frowned. “I think I know what he wants. Maybe. Though it’s a bit silly.”
“Go on,” Anton said. “It might not be that odd.”
“He wants to experience flight,” Erin said.
Anton looked at the turtle’s eye. “Is that so? You want to fly?” No response. He wasn’t particularly communicative at the best of times. “Well, there’s an easy way to try that out.”
“Is there?” Erin tilted her head as Anton jumped into the water.
Underneath Paradise, Anton moved towards the center of his shell. It was easier to balance his energy from a central point, and Paradise wasn’t some lightweight thing he could just forcefully carry from one side. If he hadn’t advanced his cultivation, Anton would have been uncertain about the prospect. Even as it was, if Paradise had any sort of objection he would easily be able to stop Anton.
But Paradise seemed quite willing to let Anton’s natural energy spread out below him as Anton drew upon Ceretos’ star, as well as the others clustered nearby. He was careful to not use too much power all at once, as he didn’t want to cause any damage. Then he began to lift, both himself and the rather large island. Anton had the feeling Paradise was a little bigger than when they’d first met.
When they rose out of the water, Paradise continued to wave his flippers like he was swimming. Anton didn’t feel like it was any sort of struggle, however, but instead a wistful response.
Where the actual struggle took place was in his arms. He wasn’t using his muscles to lift the turtle, obviously. But somehow he felt just as massive as the planets Anton had shifted around. To be fair, they weren’t held back by gravity pulling them down and he wasn’t really pushing them but encouraging them to drift closer. Even so, Anton wondered if Paradise wasn’t eating because he was on a diet. Not that turtles could probably get fat.
Anton’s view of the flight was rather less inspiring than for others, he imagined. He could see the ocean below, but half of his vision was blocked by a turtle shell. Even so he pressed onward, reaching into the sky. Paradise still expressed no discomfort, and that was something he always made very clear, even if it was without words.
As they broke through the clouds, Anton saw a renewed enthusiasm. The turtle seemed to quite enjoy swirling around the clouds with his giant flippers. Anton dipped up and down into them a few times. Then, slowly, he brought the turtle back to the sea. It was difficult to maintain such a high output continuously, and Anton wasn’t specialized in the area of carrying things. Not since he’d been a young man, despite his later stubbornness.
When they settled down, instead of going back to drifting Paradise swam in circles… excitedly? That was what Anton interpreted it as, at least. He returned to Erin. “He seemed to enjoy that.”
“Indeed,” she agreed. “And I have the feeling this wasn’t a simple whim. I can’t help but feel there is some goal. Though I’m still worried about his lack of eating.”
“Is he getting weaker?” Anton asked. Overall Paradise felt stronger, but that didn’t mean anything when he was comparing decades of growth to a recent patch of time.
“I… don’t think so,” Erin admitted. “He just doesn’t eat.”
“Perhaps he’s maintaining himself with natural energy,” Anton postulated. “For a very large creature that would be much harder than a human, except he is also a turtle without a particularly rapid metabolism.”
Erin frowned. “Even if that is true, I can’t help but wonder why. He seemed to really enjoy eating.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Anton said. “If you figure out something that you need help with, you know how to contact me. And I won’t find it so difficult to come visit, either. Though it would be preferable if it was resolved before I left. That should be a good year or so still,” Anton shrugged.
“I suppose I should have tried to be more in tune with his desires before,” Erin said. “Obviously we do our best to support his natural energy, but he never really seemed to ask for anything except not being jerks. Like that turtle clan that found themselves sunk.”
Anton nodded. Did Paradise just see Anton flying and want to do that too? If so, Anton really couldn’t blame him. Flying was great. Though he much preferred doing it without having to carry an island with him.