The elder escorted Anton to the top of the mountain. Not the central area where all of the facilities were located- that was closer to the starting point of the journey. Anton was quite confident that just a year before he wouldn’t have been able to make the journey. Traipsing through the forest for a hunt was one thing- and he really probably shouldn’t have been doing that- but climbing a mountain, even with proper paths and stairs, was quite a bit harder. Anton had only heard about the air thinning at the top of a mountain, and had never experienced it before. If his lungs and heart had not been tempered, he wasn’t sure how far he could have gone. Perhaps the elder escorting him could have carried him, but it was embarrassing enough to accept that in an emergency situation. If he couldn’t at least traverse the mountain on his own merits, he wasn’t sure he deserved to meet with a Grand Elder. He wasn’t certain about that regardless, but he wasn’t the one who made that decision.
The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars had many elders, including a collection of ninety elders on the council that formed the backbone of their strength, as well as nine Grand Elders. Anton would have thought that was far too many elders to include in any sort of council, but numbers had meaning in cultivation. For the most part, the Grand Elders would handle important decisions among their smaller number, with the advice of ten elders serving below them.
Anton looked down the mountain behind him, at the land blanketed by sunset. He had no idea how many steps he’d taken, but it didn’t seem to be a specific count. A thousand, nine thousand… The steps seemed instead practically placed when necessary. The thin air around Anton was offset by greater concentrations of natural energy. However, despite or perhaps because of the density of the energy… Anton found it quite difficult to draw it in. The lower areas of the sect were much more optimal, at least at his level. He also found his ability to use energy weakened from his previous exertions.
Just a small way further in front of Anton were a number of structures. The one he was being led toward was a large dome with a curious protrusion out of the top. Inside was one massive and dark room, nearly empty except for what Anton now realized was a massive spyglass… and a single old man sitting next to it. Anton couldn’t see his eyes, but a glimpse of one gnarled hand indicated that this was likely the one who had appeared in the sky to save Thuston.
Anton felt a slight tingling all over himself, and then the figure turned slowly. The eye was clearly the same. Its intensity was unforgettable. However, it appeared Grand Elder Vandale only had a single eye. At least, he kept his other eyelid closed, and Anton didn’t see the shape of an eyeball pressing against it. “Anton Krantz.” Grand Elder Vandale’s voice was raspy and almost weak… but when it struck Anton’s ears he couldn’t help but listen intently. “To my senses and my eye you are almost two different people. My eye sees before me an old man who has lived many hard years, enduring many hardships. Yet my senses tell me there is a newly growing cultivator.”
Anton waited a moment, then supposed a reply would be in order. “I never had the opportunity to become a cultivator while younger… though I don’t know if I would have taken it, regardless.”
Grand Elder Vandale nodded. “Perhaps the far corners of Graotan have been overlooked… though we have certainly taken more care in recent years.” He paused for a moment, “Young Vincent told me of what happened in your region. He thought he could handle it alone… and with it being so far from our center of power, we let the problem continue for far too long. Relationships with Ofrurg have always been touchy…” he shook his head sadly.
Anton still wasn’t sure why he had been called to see Grand Elder Vandale. Was it for a sort of apology on behalf of the sect? While Anton certainly was still bitter about what happened, he could never find it in himself to blame others for actions that weren’t theirs. “Elder Vincent was trying to hunt them down for years. Apparently, only a formation master would have helped.”
“We have far too few of those,” Grand Elder Vandale shook his head. “Come, let me show you something.” He walked over to the base of the large spyglass. “This is a telescope. It is much like a spyglass, but made for much further viewing. Stars are… an almost unfathomable distance away.” He placed his eye against a small segment on the side of the telescope, then turned a crank which rotated the telescope- and the whole dome- just slightly. Another one adjusted the angle vertically a small amount. “Look at this. What do you see?”
Anton stepped forward and did so. It took a moment for his eye to focus, but he saw that it was now fully nighttime. He could see a cluster of stars, lustrous against the black sky. “A group of stars. They’re quite a sight to behold like this.” Anton had certainly taken pleasure from looking at the stars, but they were so much more clear through a telescope.
Grand Elder Vandale made a sound like a dry cough that Anton took a moment to realize was a chuckle. “Certainly, they would appear to be a group. Though studious observations have told us that they are quite far removed from each other.” Anton turned to look at the Grand Elder. “The Ninety-Nine Stars has little tangible connection to actual stars in the sky, but in my case I find that the observation suits my style of cultivation. Anything in the world can give insights, if viewed in the right way at the right time.” He retook his position from Anton, moving the telescope once more. “Here. This is a nebula. A collection of mere dust, similarly unfathomable in size like anything beyond our home here. Yet see how it sparkles.”
Anton enjoyed looking at everything Grand Elder Vandale showed him. It was a relaxing time, and it continued well into the night. However, he wasn’t sure as to the purpose of him being called. There weren’t many things that had been said. If the sort of apology wasn’t it, then perhaps it was that he should seek insights from the world? Certainly, he shouldn’t take any of the words of a Grand Elder casually.
It was very late into the night when Grand Elder Vandale sighed. “I should not keep you forever. You have been quite patient with me. You must have questions. About me, the sect, cultivation… feel free to ask any of them.”
Anton nodded. He had questions… but he wasn’t sure if any of them were good questions. He might as well start off with something straightforward. “How does one grow in cultivation quickly? How can someone reach the same level as you?” Anton couldn’t feel the exact strength of Grand Elder Vandale. He wasn’t hiding it, but Anton just wasn’t prepared to sense it. It was like looking into the sun. From what he knew, however, any of the Grand Elders were likely in Galaxy Construction- and perhaps near the peak of known cultivation.
“Two questions that almost sound like they might have the same answer,” Grand Elder Vandale showed a smile that had many missing and crooked teeth. “I can’t answer the former. Honestly, I don’t know. It took me hundreds of years to reach this point. That hardly seems quick. I suppose that might answer the second question as well… but that’s not a very helpful answer, is it? I would have to say… dedicate yourself to cultivation, but don’t forget why you wish to grow. If you cultivate for temporal reasons, your growth will likewise be impermanent. Though it is possible to merely have a change in focus. If I cultivated… it would be for the Order.”
“… do you not cultivate?”
Grand Elder Vandale shook his head, “I find myself unable to take the next step. Cultivation is quite difficult on this old body… though I’m sure you have some idea of that. Cultivation can maintain and restore youth, but only if you make progress rapidly enough. Since I’ve hit the limit of both cultivation and age… I merely continue living out of duty. I can’t do much but defend the sect anymore.”
Anton sensed something more from him when he said that. While Anton could certainly feel power from him, it was not just hard to pin down… but almost muted. With a day of rest- not counting the trip back to the sect and up the mountain- Anton had recovered somewhat from his fatigue. He had been able to fill himself full of natural energy once more. However, Grand Elder Vandale seemed as if he were almost empty. If Anton were to compare himself, he was like a bucket. Filling it up was not difficult, but filling up a great lake or a sea like the Grand Elder was much harder. Energy that was merely several times denser would be insufficient for rapid recovery. As for the difficulty of using energy at a far distance, Anton could only imagine. “Are there any insights you can give me for once I step past Body Tempering?”
“I could. And maybe I will, if you have need of them. But first, you should think about the purifications yourself.”
Anton half grinned, “That will be at least eight months from now.”
“Why not sooner? Ah.” A dry chuckle once more, “I forgot. Here.” Grand Elder Vandale pulled out a scroll. “The full Ninety-Nine Stars, continuing past Body Tempering.” Anton looked at him for confirmation before cautiously taking it. “What, are you worried about that rule? The one year thing… it doesn’t mean anything for you. There are many exceptions made. It is just the baseline until we determine whether we want someone to be able to continue cultivating the Ninety-Nine Stars. It’s not like we would deny someone the continuation of the technique after they reached the peak of Body Tempering, if they are a decent person.”
Anton thought for a moment, then nodded. “Good. I was actually a bit worried.”
“You’ve been here four months. At your rate of progression, I can see why you’d be concerned about reaching the end of Body Tempering with nowhere to go.” Grand Elder Vandale breathed out slowly. “I must be off. Do not hesitate to return if you have questions only I can answer. Though you need not walk all the way up here for much, since the other elders can answer most things just as well.”
Anton bowed before turning to leave. He really didn’t have any proper questions to ask, and he was eager to take a look at the full version of the Ninety-Nine Stars. Just completing Body Tempering would merely get him to the weakest point he could truly think about revenge.