The golems offered cumulative points for fighting them- though repeated performances at the same level gave significantly less. One category of rewards offered was medicine, and simple recovery from wounds was easily accomplished given a few days and some expense. Those few days were still critical parts of the month, and Anton wished he and the others had been able to enact a larger retaliation for Lev. Not that he felt like they weren’t able to be effective.
The Heavenly Lion Sect had taken care to not bar cultivators from some of the strongest sects, but all of the independent cultivators and smaller sects were still reasonably outraged. Some of the larger sects spoke up as well, though their outrage could have been an excuse to promote their rivalries. Either way, it suddenly became harder for them to act as they pleased. Spots were filled up just before they attempted a trial of some sort, and rewards their members were eyeing were taken by others before they could obtain them.
Despite Anish’s proclamations, the approaching end of the training session only seemed to encourage people to cause trouble for others, though generally in less extreme ways than the nearly direct attacks. There was also perfectly acceptable competitive spirit that didn’t involve sabotaging others as people pushed for the last few days.
With Lev healed, the group decided to try their hand at The Gauntlet one final time. Either they would sustain injuries they couldn’t recover from in just a few days or find success. They thought they were close on the last attempt, though they couldn’t be completely sure.
It was not a surprise to find that The Gauntlet was already busy. Others had the same idea as them, and were likewise making use of teams to try to push through the trials. It was impossible to know exactly how far others had gotten, but it seemed no one had reached the end just yet.
The first challenge always involved some sort of physical or combat test. This time it was a series of traps. Not hidden ones, but obviously swinging blades and gouts of flame. Picking a path through and advancing with the right timing was the safest bet, though anyone with sufficient cultivation could simply plough their way through. Interestingly enough, the group found that this time that was more literal. Traps were usually never damaged and if they were damaged the formations quickly repaired them, but there was a straight path through the first room. Anton went through first just to make sure it wasn’t some sort of trap and things were actually active, but he didn’t spot any changes from the obvious- and arrived at the other side unscathed. At least they didn’t have to expend their effort just yet, though it threw them off slightly.
Future trials had nothing to destroy- though they did see some damaged floors as they continued through the pressure trial. They passed puzzles and the knowledge as well as another round of traps that were only slightly damaged. Then they came to the golems.
Everyone was quite confident in defeating the golems, but it seemed a group was already there ahead of them. It seemed to be a dozen members of the Heavenly Lion Sect, with cultivations ranging from just entering Spirit Building to one member on the border between mid and late Spirit Building.
They would have been quite content staying out of things and watching the fight, but apparently entering the room was sufficient to trigger more golems. Eight more golems, one with a curious cut on its otherwise flawless body, stepped out into the area. They headed towards the new entrants, but things didn’t end there.
The members of the Heavenly Lion Sect had clearly noticed them. The strongest one among them-who should have been the “Senior Brother Zvonko”- shouted orders. “Formation C!”
There was sufficient room for the two groups to fight the total of twenty golems, but the members of the Heavenly Lion Sect began weaving themselves among the others, drawing their golems along with them. The group that was slightly more than half members of the Ninety-Nine Stars responded in kind.
Nobody could directly attack another, but standing in front of someone while a golem punched with a multiple ton fist did just as well. It became a mess of fighting the golems while getting in the way of other combatants- while not also being blocked by them.
Anton found himself forced into melee- even if he retreated, the members of the Heavenly Lion Sect would follow him with two or three members, since they had some spares. The golems likewise came with them. While Anton was still able to avoid the ponderous attacks of several golems, since they were intentionally being drawn towards him instead of fended off like his companions normally did he was less effective at damaging them and simply ended up drifting back towards the larger mass of people.
Marsen had the most direct effects on the Heavenly Lion Sect. His frost could make the ground extremely slippery, but he was in no obligation to withdraw it when others moved through the area. Thus, he spread the effects wildly without directly touching anyone, limiting their movements while he simply removed ice where it would inhibit his companions.
Timothy’s approach was the most… extreme. When he found it difficult to direct attacks to their competitors he seemed to simply devote himself to battle- but then he suddenly jumped in front of someone who was being attacked. A member of the Heavenly Lion Sect, specifically. He raised his shield- a new one obtained in the various trials- directly intercepting the attack. It was then that his purpose became clear. He hadn’t suddenly decided that working with them was the best option. Instead, he was struck and sent rocketing backwards- into a very surprised cultivator who wasn’t prepared to dodge someone launched by the golem. Timothy simply rallied all his energy for defense and let himself be catapulted into the man. Both of them crashed into the wall, but only Timothy quickly brushed himself off and was moving.
Despite all the efforts to sabotage each other, the golems were steadily being defeated. It didn’t seem that anyone could leave until they were all gone, so the end results were drawbacks for both sides. They expended much more energy than they should have and both sides sustained at least minor injuries. Both sides glared at each other as they moved on, neither willing to give the other priority.
If he had the slightest bit of faith in the integrity of the Heavenly Lion sect, Anton might have advised letting them go first and promising to not interfere with them- but he thought it most likely that they would attempt to set up something to harm them even if Anton and the others were sincere. It wasn’t just idle speculation- there were their previous interactions to go off of as well as his ability to read people. The emotions on display from both sides were anger and annoyance, which Anton couldn’t really blame. Though the Heavenly Lion Sect was entirely at fault for the conflicts beginning in the first place.
The next room was the formations room. Zvonko’s face lit up and he pushed forward a skinny young man in early Spirit Building. “Time for you to do your thing.”
The instant he began pulling out formation flags and throwing them about the area, Catarina leapt forward and started doing the same. The formations already set up in the area had various dangers- fire and lightning were very prominently featured, but instead of being triggered by pressure plates they were constantly active, filling the whole area. The two who were trained in formations matched off against each other as they advanced their own groups forward.
The young man was quick, and Catarina seemed to be falling behind. She wasn’t even able to retrieve all of her formation flags as they pressed their way forward.
“Tell me how I can help,” Firdaus offered.
Catalina just held out her hand, fending him off. He was the next most proficient with formations in their group, given their relation to enchanting equipment. His help would have been useful, but Catarina seemed to have taken the current situation as a personal challenge.
Anton watched her in pure concentration as she continuously moved through the area, only occasionally directing them to their normal tasks of helping her place flags in the shifting formations. The Heavenly Lion Sect continued to get further ahead, until at the last formation they were able to complete it with time to spare before the others could even reach it.
The formation user wasn’t done with just that, however. He was setting up more flags around him. “I need contributions of your energy!” he called to the others.
“You heard him,” Zvonko said, contributing his own energy to the growing formation, a barrier of golden light.
“Hmph,” the formation user held his head high. “You thought you could compete with me? I’m a journeyman in the formation arts already!” As he proclaimed that the barrier completed, while Catarina was left just watching. Anton could sense how difficult it would be to tear apart the barrier.
“A journeyman?” Catarina questioned. Then she stepped forward, pulling out another formation flag and stabbing it point first into the barrier in front of her. “What low standards.”
As her flag pierced into the barrier, energy swirled through all of her other flags in the area. Anton didn’t feel like it would be sufficient, but as he was about to add his own energy he felt a sudden flood of energy as the effect spread to previous formations- making use of the other flags that had been ‘forgotten’. He’d sensed Catarina’s haste, but hadn’t read the undertone of her true intentions until that moment.
The power of the formations inherent to the chamber they were in all activated, pressing against the barrier with mixes of fire, lightning, and pure force. There were a few moments where nothing happened, then the barrier cracked. Instead of the elements washing over the members of the Heavenly Lion Sect, it simply shattered the barrier then turned into a massive whirlwind.
All of them were sucked into it and pulled back to the beginning of the room while Catarina stepped forward and towards the next room. With a flick of her wrist she pulled her formation flags to her- though she left the other flags scattered about in the final section. She smiled, “The formations here are amazing. I’m just starting to get the slightest idea of how they work.” She looked longingly at the spare formation flags. “Unfortunately, the restrictions on this entire place are too enigmatic for me to completely learn.” As she stepped through the door into the next room, Catarina waved. “Good luck, mister Journeyman! I hope you have spare flags!”
The next room was empty. Completely empty, and worrying for that. There was simply a closed door and a simple sign on it. ‘Please wait’.
Anton looked around. “Any traps?”
Catarina shook her head. “It seems to be fine.”
“About what you did in there… I’m not going to complain, of course, but I would have liked some advance warning you could do that.”
“Sorry,” Catarina shrugged. “Honestly, I wasn’t quite ready for something like that. I’ve been studying the formations here, of course. Everything is buried behind myriad other layers. I just got the idea… and I kind of picked up on that particular flow as I was going. I was planning to get ahead and encircle them with that formation I was setting up, but I slowed down once I got the idea.”
“…” Firdaus seemed speechless, “You’ve been cultivating for… how long?”
“Almost three years,” Catarina said. “Why?”
“Ah. I had initially assumed all of you were closer to the upper end like myself. Four or five years. How foolish of me.”
There wasn’t much more to say, and instead they just waited. There were no signs that the Heavenly Lion Sect would be joining them, but they remained cautious as they circulated their energy to refresh themselves. After fifteen minutes, the door in front of them opened. A disheveled looking woman with a sword at her side calmly walked out. She looked at all of them, then shook her head. “Didn’t make it. Good luck.”
With what seemed to be two swift steps she was gone, and back in the previous room- where they couldn’t catch a glimpse of the Heavenly Lion Sect at all.
“That was…” Lev stared back behind them, “That was Chikere, right? She’s a hair away from Essence Collection.”
Anton tried to recall that name. “Oh yes. She’s the other one at that level. An independent cultivator, even. I wonder what sort of trial stopped her at the very end. Assuming this is the end.”
The door ahead of them was still open, and a voice called out from inside. “Oy! I don’t have all day! Or at least, you don’t. Get in here or get out.”
All of them looked at each other, then hurried inside. Once there they saw… another Everheart. His appearance changed as they looked at him, suddenly growing a longer beard and adopting a different posture.
Everheart frowned, then patted his chest and felt his face. “How did I…?” he scanned the people in the room, the pointed to Anton, “What the hell man, why’d you have to throw everything off? Women want a dashing young fellow, not a nearly middle aged man. You threw off the average so much.” Anton avoided commenting to wonder if being a ‘dashing young fellow’ ever worked, either. Yet he was answered anyway. “No it doesn’t work! But it will someday! Though I’m just a projection so I’m not long for it anyway.”
“Is the real Everheart still out there?” Anton asked.
“Eh… maybe. What year is it?” the projection in front of them frowned. “Probably dead. Or immortal or whatever. Couldn’t be bothered to come back and check on us if he is alive. Selfish asshole.” He stomped his foot on the ground, cracking it. “And yes, I know that’s me! Now are we fighting or what?”
Everyone blinked. “That’s the trial?” Anton asked.
“The last one.” Everheart punched a fist into his palm. “Gotta at least get a little bit of entertainment out of this. Now come on! Let’s do this.”