Despite another year of effort, the only thing Anton was able to provide Aipra was a slight relief from the pressure of distortion beasts and a few useful techniques. Most of them weren’t impossible for the local cultivators to come up with, but they had little time to devote to anything but bare survival. He was able to exchange cultivation pointers with Nalini, but they had branched down different paths so it was not like he could properly guide her. Just give her ideas for further development.
“If only you could reap the benefits of a sun…” Anton sighed.
“Are they really so valuable?” Nalini asked.
“For you specifically?” Anton shrugged. “It would likely throw off your cultivation. But Aipra is on the verge of losing a functional flow of energy.”
“It has been this way for generations, and will continue to be so. We will not let our planet fall. It merely requires everyone to continue working together.”
“So it is,” Anton nodded. “Thank you for your hospitality. And good luck. I plan to return for another visit at some point, but I cannot guarantee that I will. I could misjudge your trajectory and never find you again.”
“We will be no worse off than before we met you. No, in truth you were quite helpful,” the icy archer said. “But we had no expectation nor hope for your arrival, so we shall not count on more benefits from you.”
“I intend to tell others about your existence, if you do not mind. I imagine some would be interested in seeing this place as well. They would make it worthwhile, I am certain.”
She thought for some time before eventually answering. “Only if they return with you. From what you have said, many outsiders are untrustworthy. We would need to be certain.”
“Of course,” Anton said. “And we would not wish to treat you as exhibits to gawk at… but I know many intelligent individuals who may be able to provide ways to improve the quality of life upon Aipra.” Even some simple technology would be helpful, though it was unlikely they would have the fuels required to run non-cultivator tech. Anton could imagine people would be happy to spend effort developing ideas for the chance to visit a subspace rogue planet. Anton really hoped he would be able to return, but his measurements could only be so accurate with what he had on him.
“Very well. I am certain Aipra would be happy to see you return.”
“There is one more thing,” Anton frowned. “I am sensitive to the flow of devotion, and aware of its value as a cultivation aid. Some number of strands are directed to me from this planet. I don’t mean to disrupt your cultivation practices…”
“Worry not,” Nalini said. “You will receive only what is proportional and fair for the value you provide.”
“Good. I would not wish to damage Aipra’s already limited stores of energy. That’s not why I helped.”
“We are aware. Otherwise, you would have intentionally spread your name and face to many, instead of simply assisting with the disaster relief. Either way, the stronger ties you feel would have been lost without your aid so nothing is lost.”
Anton truly hoped he could return some time. It seemed they likely had deeper knowledge about devotion, and while he didn’t want to exploit people… understanding it was not going to hurt anyone.
“I must be off,” Anton said. “Or we may remain in conversation for another year. Hopefully I will see this place again before too long.”
As Anton flew away from Aipra he took a short detour by each of its moons. He’d visited them and found nothing of interest- mainly just chilled rock that the people would be unable to exploit. But he came back to get some samples, just in case someone could find value. This place really needed everything it could get. The fact that it had life at all was already amazing, but Anton wanted them to have every little advantage he could give.
It was strange, moving away from the rogue planet. Normally he wouldn’t be in subspace until he was much further from any sort of celestial body. This time, he had simply already been there. He had been quite surprised to see an actual feature instead of simply experiencing nothingness flow past him, and he hoped to do so again some day. Though he wasn’t certain if he wanted to find other places just like them, given their struggles.
He made his way towards the closest star. The planet was moving fairly quickly through subspace, but it hadn’t put him very much off track. Less than a lightyear, even given the oddities involved.
Stopping next to a real star and filling himself with his heat was a luxury he would try to never forget. Even the coldness of Gnadus was mitigated by a star, if one that was distant and dim. He wondered what that planet could have been like if its inhabitants had worked together. Actually, he supposed he didn’t have to. Gnadus was more unified now than ever. Only people who chose to endure the environment for training stayed, and others had the option to leave. Some traditional groups would doubtless keep all its members for generations, but that was their choice. Anton hoped Aipra could have a choice eventually.
A quick survey of the system he was resting in gave Anton time to fully recharge. He found nothing particularly notable about the planets- no doubt there would be many interesting places, but without life one of his main drives was missing.
Instead of leaving immediately, however, Anton remained around the edges of the system, simply looking. He looked not just at the stars and what was around them, but at the in between. The spaces of nothing- or nearly nothing. His interest in rogue planets had grown, knowing they could be more than just bare rock or balls of gas. If people lived upon them, he wanted to find them.
But of course, they were not easy to find. For all his efforts, Anton found exactly one- a large gas giant that he nearly missed. He was lucky to notice it as it passed in front of a distant star, causing minute distortions. It took all his efforts to confirm he actually saw something instead of making it up. It had only a small energy signature, easily dwarfed by the relative power of the closer planets in the system behind him. But there it was, outside of subspace. Though that should really be the norm.
He decided to visit it, even if it was days away from anything else at his fastest pace. It was comparatively much warmer than Aipra, though that wasn’t much of a surprise. The movement of its various gasses would let off some heat, even if it left the planet well below freezing temperatures for water. Yet even that was still ‘warm’ in comparison. To establish their civilization, Aipra must have been founded by cultivators. Not that he expected different, but he still wondered why. Was it on purpose, or some accident? Perhaps they were traveling through subspace and crashed there. Either way, he admired their durability.
As for this rogue planet, it wasn’t anything much. Though he did log it for the sort of people who cared about that sort of thing.
“A planet in subspace!” Matija waved her arms around. “Do you know how many theories this affects?”
“No,” the Great Queen said straightforwardly. “Also, this planet sounds like a terrible place to make a colony. I do not think any offspring could survive.”
“Is that all you have to say?”
“That is a primary concern to be considered,” the Great Queen replied. “Uniqueness isn’t of concern to me. Shall I take it that you are running off to this place posthaste?”
“Nah,” Matija shook her head. “I’m not going to just give up on the work with you. And it’s just a planet. If he found a star there? Well… I assume he’d probably bind to it, actually.”
“That is most likely. He has more to gain from uniqueness than my kind.”
“How come you’re not following him around? I’m sure you could find good planets to colonize.”
“There are greater benefits to be obtained than my own improvements,” the Great Queen said. “And planets without a human presence would be lacking. There are many things we cannot establish properly, given our size. At least not at a tolerable rate. Besides, I do not believe we should expand for its own sake. That would only draw ire.”
Vincent was not surprised but also not expecting communication from Anton. Did he need something from the Order? Perhaps he had an estimate for when he would return. But it need not remain a mystery. It was a short message without much substance. It just thanked him for taking care of the affairs of the Order of One Hundred Stars while Anton was gone. An unnecessary gesture, but appreciated.
As for when Anton would return? It seemed it would be a few more years at least. Perhaps a decade. That would be unfortunate for some aspiring archers who could use his guidance, but on the other hand… Anton had plenty of writings that could guide archers in many styles. And for the sect as a whole, he continually updated the Path to One Hundred Stars, with notes not only from himself but other Assimilation and Ascension experts.
Among those people was Vincent himself. It was strange, really, because Vincent hadn’t ever seen himself reaching such a level. Or even the peak of Life Transformation. It wasn’t that he had lacked talent, but his motivation for cultivation was minimal. For his purposes of recruiting he had mostly been strong enough. It was only around the time he recruited Anton he found himself lacking. If he could have stopped what happened to Anton’s village… that would have been best. Though he was unsure what the current state of the world would have been like, without Anton beginning his path of cultivation. Certainly different in many ways, and most likely far less prosperous.
Vincent had been most motivated when Anton surpassed his cultivation. It was also something about the way he encouraged training. Anton valued cultivation for it making people better at whatever they were already going to do. Combat power was a sometimes necessary side effect. In Vincent’s case, he had been encouraged to continue his recruitment efforts, and simply increasing his own travel speed and perceptive abilities helped with that.
Now, most people came to the Order without any contact with him. They were famous across multiple worlds, after all. They weren’t limited to just one location, either. While it was possible to travel around a planet or between planets much more easily than it had been a few centuries prior, it was still a bit difficult for those without much money, generally early in cultivation. The alliance didn’t really have anyone who didn’t cultivate at all, but some were certainly more casual about it, or perhaps unable to find a method that suited them and assuming they were low in talent.
Vincent still delighted in making personal connections, however. So in addition to visiting all of the branches of the Order, he still personally reached out to a few individuals he felt had good potential, or otherwise fit the Order. Because he always thought and Anton agreed that it was better to have disciples that fit the spirit of the Order rather than ones who were simply good cultivators.
The personal touch Vincent had certainly made a difference. Before becoming an Assimilation cultivator, there were almost so many that he wasn’t able to remember everyone. But of course, that was a detail he truly cared about. He never wanted to encounter a situation where he recruited someone and then later forgot them if they didn’t stand out from the crowd. How would that feel? In other sects, it might simply be the norm but Vincent didn’t have to like that. He understood not everyone could keep a personal connection with so many, but he could at least remember names and details. What good was cultivation if he couldn’t memorize a few little things?
But as much as he affected many people in little ways, Vincent still thought Anton managed to do more. He was concerned with both individuals and the collective, and his friendly nature shone through. It was why Vincent had decided to approach the man in the first place. Teaching him cultivation hadn’t ever been part of the plan. Vincent smiled as he imagined the current Anton tutting at him for assuming a ninety or one hundred year old couldn’t begin cultivating. Though to be fair, it did take special caution. Or a reckless disregard for life and a driving passion.