Two old men talked, both appearing more youthful than their actual age- but the older of them seeming much younger. Though Vincent was perhaps not that much older than Anton. “I understand that the Order doesn’t wish to be warmongering, but don’t you think the problems with Van Hassel merited more of a response?”
Vincent held up his hands. “We didn’t know the full extent of what he could do. Our borders are secure now. We won’t forget about that failure anytime soon.”
“That’s not quite what I mean. If a cultivator from Graotan went and publicly caused chaos in Ofrurg, there wouldn’t just be a passive response.”
“…” Vincent refrained from commenting about Anton’s actions in Ofrurg. “You’re right. But I’m not in charge of any of that. I mostly work with simple recruitment. The Order had no specific sect or clan to blame, and the general policy to not escalate conflicts…” he shook his head.
“Do Spirit Building Cultivators just pop out of the ground in Ofrurg?” Anton asked. “Two of them, even.”
Vincent sighed, “Van Hassel’s former sect has expelled him years ago. There is no proof of any continued connection.”
“Which sect?” Anton asked.
“We can get you that information later. I will remind you to be cautious around them, because even if the Order chooses to support you, they’re not nobodies. And they might really have no connection to him anymore. If you catch him outside of Ofrurg- or if we notice him outside of Ofrurg- that will be something different.”
“If he is officially expelled, they cannot act to protect him.”
“Well,” Vincent shrugged. “It’s not like they become physically incapable of acting. It won’t do much good if you get killed in the wilderness. You’re much stronger now. I’m not sure if it’s enough to face him and Slusser, but if you keep growing stronger I am confident you’ll be able to accomplish your goals.” Vincent hesitated for a few moments. “I just hope you don’t get yourself or any other promising individuals killed in the process. I won’t say you shouldn’t try, though. Just be aware of the full situation. We can give you more information, since you’re strong enough to get yourself into real trouble now without it. And please keep the Order informed about your actions. We can add some more official backing to you, if you act within certain parameters.”
Anton understood caution and a resistance to change. He had been pretty set in his ways working on the farm, though nobody could argue that what he did worked. Then the catastrophe in Dungannon had torn his life apart. In the past year and a half he’d changed greatly, though most of that was in the area of his cultivation abilities and his knowledge of the cultivation world beyond the bare bones. He was just finishing his points to Vincent. “… I have the feeling that change is coming regardless of what the Order chooses to do. I would like to be an active part of that change instead of a bystander.”
“Alright,” Vincent raised his hands, “That’s quite sufficient. You don’t have to convince me. Just everyone else.”
“I doubt it will be so simple,” Anton said, “It’s not as if I’m the first to pass through Spirit Building and train Voice. Everyone will certainly have their own view of the way things work, and should work.”
“It is what it is,” Vincent shrugged. “The biggest practical problem is the concentration of our forces. We can’t just scatter people across Graotan without leaving people short on natural energy. A year or two doesn’t matter much, but as the decades drag on the lack of concentrated natural energy will drag people behind in cultivation.”
“About that… where does natural energy come from?”
“It’s from the world itself. The sun and the stars, the earth, and especially all forms of life. Though I must admit I am not the best person to speak to on the subject.”
“That fits with what I remembered… and observed. The area here grew in natural energy as we tended to it and the season progressed.” Anton pondered, “There must have been a drop I failed to sense as we were removing some of the native life, but now that things are growing the land is vibrant.”
“There’s something,” Vincent stroked his chin, “The way the energy flows…” he shook his head. “I have recently pushed myself to learn more about formations. I’m still very much an amateur but it seems you might have arranged it into a bit of a formation. Otherwise, I can’t imagine it would produce more natural energy than wild land. At least I don’t sense anything special here, only standard plants and decent soil.”
“A formation, huh. We should speak to Pete.”
“Which one is he?” Vincent asked.
“There,” Anton pointed. “The third star. He’s in charge of some of the finer details, and he was learning about formations from Catarina.”
“He might have a gift for formations.”
“He’s a decent cultivator as well. He’s one of those that plans to officially join the Order once the season is over.”
“I am certain he will have no trouble,” Vincent said. “He seems capable enough. Come, let us speak to him about if you’ve made a formation here.”
Everyone turned to look at Vincent as he passed. Anton wasn’t surprised- he was somewhere in mid Essence Collection, the strongest cultivator they’d ever seen. He took the time to introduce him. “This is Vincent. He’s an elder with the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. He was the one who found me after what happened to Dungannon and offered me the opportunity to cultivate.”
Vincent grinned sheepishly, “I honestly didn’t expect your current results in the slightest. I should have spent some time personally instructing you, but…”
Anton understood. He had also needed to chase after the bandits. Besides, nobody had expected Anton to have any sort of talent in cultivation. It was just a kind gesture to let him die trying to grow strong. Then he had. Of course, he wasn’t strong enough yet. Not for his full revenge, and not for everything else he needed to do afterwards. “Pete!” Anton waved, “We had a question, if you’re not too busy.”
“I can take a break,” he said. “We’re not too busy right now anyway. What is it you need?” He kept his eyes focused on Vincent, taking in his level of strength.
“We should cut straight to the point,” Vincent said. “The two of us were discussing the area. Anton noticed an increase in natural energy. You have some knowledge of formations. Is there something like that covering this area?”
“A formation?” Pete asked. “I suppose it’s turned into something like that. We sort of went with the form of the land, moving with natural windbreaks and the like. I just sort of went with what felt right. Should we not have a formation?”
“There are no laws or guidance against it, unless it’s permanently drawing energy from the area around you,” Vincent clarified.
“Oh. It’s not,” Pete confirmed. “This just sort of enhances what’s already here.”
“Then it is a desirable outcome,” Vincent said. “Though it may be best to consult a formation master if you expand to a grand scale.”
“Like Catarina?” Pete asked. “I miss having her around to ask questions.”
“I don’t know if she is a master or not,” Vincent said. “Truthfully, the term is somewhat vague. Past a certain point, everyone is called a master. Based on what I heard of your travels, she might have reached that point- though I am not the right one to judge that.”
Hearing that relieved Anton. He sometimes worried about Nirmal Slusser, the formation master who had worked with Van Hassel. He’d seen what Catarina could do, and had been worried he would be many times more powerful. They would still need to be cautious, but at least it wasn’t something equivalent to Essence Collection. It was still too early to think about Catarina matching him in early Spirit Building, but he and Van Hassel had been active for more than a decade. Since they were thought to still be in Spirit Building, at least their rate of growth should be something Anton and Catarina could catch up to.
Vincent stayed for several days, helping out with the mostly trivial tasks they had between planting and harvest. He also spent some time guiding people in cultivation, though Anton was the one who felt he got the most benefit from that. He felt like he was very close to the twelfth star. He just needed one more step.
Fuzz was dismayed when they left the pack behind, including one of the pack leaders. But he knew Catarina had a reason. They had a mission of some kind, or so he thought. It wasn’t long before he realized it was something else. They weren’t leaving the pack, but instead reuniting with it.
Their pack was so much bigger than he could have imagined, but the evidence was plain for his nose to smell. The same sort of energy that flowed through the rest of the pack members ran through everyone at this Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. In addition, the pack’s territory was full of rich, invigorating natural energy. He felt like a pup again as he ran about, and supposed he actually was a pup still. He’d seen some ‘normal’ wolves, and he was bigger than them already but he still had more growing to do. He wanted to be at least as tall as the other pack members. Though he walked on all fours and they stood on their hind legs, he thought his parents had been that large. They had died, but his new pack took good care of him.
Except for when Catarina made him eat nasty clumps of rancid dirt. The ‘medicine’ smelled bad and tasted worse, but it was supposed to be good for him. He had to admit he had an easier time walking around, the muscles in his rear legs fully obeying his commands instead of merely acting like his thoughts were suggestions. Even that had been an improvement over when his new pack adopted him, but now he could move around freely. He liked to do so, but Catarina informed him of a particular area he was allowed. Perhaps the other pack members didn’t want him messing up their sub-dens.
He spent some of his time in the group of dens that Catarina had claimed for her own. One of the four was empty, but smelled of Anton- one of the other pack leaders. Hopefully he would return soon. The third pack leader, Hoyt, was much further away- but Catarina let him roam to see him. He kept out of the fields and away from packs of people he hadn’t been introduced to- with such a large pack, it would take them some time to know his scent, so he had to be careful.
The other two in the set of four dens were a man and a woman. Young, like Catarina and Hoyt. The woman was Velvet. The man was Timothy. Catarina said he was a close friend, but he didn’t smell like her and they didn’t visit much. Fuzz was still getting used to human speech, but he thought that didn’t seem right.
Much time passed. He ran across the mountain, growing big and strong. Catarina continued to take care of him, assisting his energy flow. They even visited the forest to hunt occasionally. Like that, a ‘season’ quickly passed. Then Anton returned. He brought with him some of the other, smaller pack. But before even saying hello, he settled into his own den to ‘cultivate’. It was like sleep, but done in a different posture- and it involved manipulating energy. Interrupting people from that was bad, so Fuzz waited patiently in the courtyard ready to greet him. As he did so, he felt Anton grow stronger. Another little fire ignited inside of him. He opened his eyes, smiling, and Fuzz jumped on him and licked his face. It was good to have more pack leaders around.