The fact that Hoyt won the Spirit Building portion of the tournament wasn’t exactly a surprise to Anton. The surprising part was when he realized he was somewhat comparable in strength. It seemed like a blink of an eye since he’d begun cultivating. What was another five years in a life like his? Whatever balance of factors worked together for Anton to be able to cultivate at a similar speed to the best of the upcoming lower generation was something for him to be grateful for.
Yet while he saw boundless potential all around him, he was concerned about the future of the Order. If he was concerned, doubtless the elders who had been around for longer were even more worried. While the young generation might have the ability to replace the Grand Elders who had recently been lost, just maintaining the same amount of strength that the Order previously had wouldn’t be good enough. Trouble loomed on the horizon, and Anton was most concerned that he didn’t have any idea how far away it was. He almost wished he could go back to a life of farming, where he could anticipate the challenges of each season as the years passed.
Perhaps it was presumptuous of Anton to be appraising the younger generation like he was a more experienced cultivator than they were. Even so, he could say that more than just the Order had a promising next generation. That was good, but also concerning. Grand Elder Vandale had some observations about the rising and falling cultivation talents between generations, and when there were suddenly myriad talents… it could be assumed that great trouble was approaching. They had an idea of what that trouble might be, but not the true magnitude of it.
As he waited for the next section of the tournament, Anton idly thought about the future. Specifically, the growth rates of cultivators. If the best cultivators could reach peak Spirit Building in five years, more or less, then in twenty years they could have four batches of people. And by that point, an entire new young generation would be growing up. He wondered how many cycles they could have, and what the limit was as the population of the world grew. That was something he would have to spend more time delving into, and asking elders who might already have some of that information. Like Vincent.
Anton noticed a disturbing lack of members of the Order in the Essence Collection tournament. While they had a significant population of cultivators in the stage, many of them were older and either beyond the age limits or had given up on advancing further and thus found no benefit to participating in a tournament. While Anton was aware that at least some of those who might participate were occupied with important missions, it was still disheartening to only see a dozen of their members enter the final stage of the tournament. Anton knew very few of those participating.
Outside of the Order, he was most interested in Chikere’s progress. She was still in early Essence Collection, but that was not unexpected. If she’d actually made it to mid Essence Collection since they’d last seen each other, it would have actually been more concerning. A talented cultivator could surpass Spirit Building in five years, but Essence Collection should take two decades at the barest minimum. Fifty years would still be considered good, and most people who reached Life Transformation took a hundred or two hundred years. So a couple years to advance several steps in early Essence Collection was still reasonable.
The Vessel of Insights lay quiet next to Anton, barely functioning. Even if using it wouldn’t be potentially seen as interfering with matches, they were all too distant to pick up any insights. He preferred not to use it around those who hadn’t given him permission, even if it caused them no harm. Thus, he kept it at a lower level of functioning, only potentially reaching members of the Order. While they were all simply sitting in the stands observing matches, it could actually be taken as cultivating. While the insights gained might be small, someone would likely learn something from each match that occurred.
That was Anton’s main focus at the moment. He’d actually had some small ideas from watching Alva’s matches, but there were other archers in the tournament. But he could gain insights even from those that weren’t archers, if he looked at things the right way. There were fewer matches occurring at once now, so he focused his eyes to pick out more details from each. Most battles occurred in melee range, though a few people used archery or attempted to make use of formations. Even fewer made use of long range energy projection similar to Vandale, something that certainly couldn’t be called archery.
Anton saw dozens of different movement techniques, defensive techniques, and fighting styles. What he learned from each match was quite minimal. Sometimes, it was merely that his eyes weren’t always sufficient, despite the tempering he’d done to improve them. Those an entire stage above him were still beyond his ability to even consider fighting… at least in a one-on-one battle. And he wouldn’t want to take on a Life Transformation expert no matter how many similar strength allies he had on his side. Well, not with less than a hundred or two hundred, anyway. As long as they knew how to fight together.
Eternal Sword Hall had more than a handful of cultivators in the tournament. Whether through coincidence or fate or conspiracy, Chikere found herself matched with three of them. The first was a young cultivator around her age… and several steps below her in cultivation, barely even having entered Essence Collection. Three sword strikes was all it had taken her to defeat him. The second she had defeated in two, but she received a wound in her shoulder in retaliation. She hadn’t thought anyone would counterattack so viciously even when it would directly lead to their loss, but she had been wrong..
When she was matched against the third cultivator, Chikere realized this might have been their plan. Their hope, at least. Eternal Sword Hall wasn’t in control of this tournament, unlike the local one they had refused to honor her victory in. Their influence shouldn’t be enough to set her matches against them, but instead they had to rely on advancing through the tournament and randomly matching her. She hoped. If not, she couldn’t really do anything about it as an independent cultivator.
The man facing off against her now was an old fogey. He was barely young enough to even be in the Essence Collection portion of the tournament, which had generous allowances for age. The trouble was that he was ahead of her in cultivation by several steps. Even then, Chikere was confident in defeating him. But the look in his eyes said he wasn’t going to try to win the match.
She considered what he might be able to do. Even if she won, this match would likely be her last victory. Cultivations of those remaining were beginning to outstrip her significantly, until only those in mid Essence Collection and later would be left. Though she’d really like the experience of fighting someone more powerful than her in a controlled environment.
That is, someone with no malice towards her- not another member of the Eternal Sword Hall. She was used to their fighting style anyway, and had grown bored of it. There was nothing technically wrong with it, but it was so… rigid and inflexible. Overly proud of itself, like their disciples and elders.
Could she die? She thought it was possible. Formations weren’t perfect. And while she would like to see the hell that rained down on Eternal Sword Hall if they killed her, she had no intention to die. She wasn’t going to surrender either.
She drew the sword she’d obtained from the tournament as her prize- even though she’d had to steal it to get her hands on it. It wasn’t even her best sword anymore, but it was still in the top ten, which meant it didn’t matter too much if it was in her hands or not.
If her opponent was going to try to kill or maim her, she just had to be that much better. Since she couldn’t kill her opponent- without backing it would be laughable of her to try, even if her opponent wanted to do the same- she would just have to defeat him with style and lose the Eternal Sword Hall as much face as possible.
Her feet shifted into the stance of the Eternal Sword Hall’s main style. When the match began, she matched her opponent blow for blow. She was certain she had a name, but she wouldn’t do him the honor of learning it. He was just number three. Or fifty something, if she counted outside the tournament.
Number three’s attacks were predictable. Chikere found something interesting as they fought. The Eternal Sword Hall’s techniques weren’t the best in the world… but it seemed they were one of the best defenses against their own style. She could see how each move matched up and flowed into the next, the fighters on both sides dancing back and forth. She saw an opening, but it was a fake. No, a real opening, but if she took it her opponent would seek to mutually wound her.
Chikere and number three moved back and forth, trading blows repeatedly. Her cultivation was lower, but even though she didn’t use the Eternal Sword Hall’s techniques as her primary fighting style she knew how to use it more efficiently. She wasn’t falling behind, but neither was she gaining an advantage. Perhaps she should give up on being stubborn, but she was waiting for something. All of the rest of her swords would hang from her waist until then.
A vicious swipe caused Chikere to lean back just slightly, but the actual attack was a thrust from another sword, drawn stealthily during the attack. Chikere drew another sword looted from a disciple of the Eternal Sword Hall. It was number ten, but it was enough for her to parry the blow. Unfortunately, the quick draw technique used was still part of the Eternal Sword Hall’s techniques.
“You’re going to have to learn something new,” Chikere taunted. “How long have you been studying the sword? Eighty years? Ninety? It seems like you don’t even know the basics yet.”
Finally it worked. Number three only frowned slightly, but she felt the pace of his attacks change. And when she stepped into a stance only good for parrying one particular move he telegraphed, number three attacked with an unexpected move. Even Chikere didn’t know what it was going to be, in fact. But that was the point.
The angle was all wrong. Too much power leaning to one side as he slashed up from beneath her on the right while chopping horizontally with his other sword from her left. There was no way she could hold her two blades that would match the Eternal Sword Hall’s style to block those. In fact, she would be hard pressed to move her guard to catch either of them. So she simply stepped forward in a textbook double thrust.
It was probably excessive to block both of the swords on either side with four each, but it was better to be safe than sorry. And that way she could bind them from different angles so he couldn’t even pull back. Chikere was somewhat disappointed her opponent chose to let go of his swords and pull back instead of letting her hit him, but it was the logical move. It seemed he was only willing to go to a certain level of risk against her, and having his kidneys impaled wasn’t one of them.
There was a cracking sound. “Oh, oops. Your swords broke. I thought your energy would still be protecting them.” The eight swords floating around Chikere continued to slice the former swords to ribbons. Nothing was easier to cut than a static object unprotected by a cultivator’s energy. She could sharpen her own energy to the finest point without worrying about it holding up to an incoming attack.
There were no rules in the tournament about destroying opponent’s equipment. Otherwise, someone could block with a weapon entirely unprotected by energy and their opponent would have to completely cease their attack. That said, she wasn’t allowed to keep anything disarmed from her opponent after the battle. So… it had to become scrap metal.
“You surprised me, you know,” Chikere grinned. “I thought the Eternal Sword Hall’s technique was the best in the world, yet you suddenly used something different… so I reacted blindly.”
The old man facing her didn’t have just one pair of swords, but she could see the pained look on his face as he drew two more. He totally deserved that, aiming for the hardest places to heal and not what would have defeated her the most easily.
Chikere menaced with ten swords, one in each hand and eight more floating about her. She hadn’t actually used the Eternal Sword Hall’s techniques much before, but now that she had she was going to incorporate a bit more of it into her defensive technique. And screw the rest. She was going to crush this guy… and then lose spectacularly to her next opponent and learn whatever she could from it.