The Order wasn’t willing to withdraw from the Secret Realm right away, but they also weren’t confident in safely escorting their prisoners back with just a small escort. So for the moment some of the elders were watching over the captives.
“Thank you for your efforts,” Anton inclined his head. “I know you’d rather be seeking your own fortunes than standing guard on a few Spirit Building cultivators.”
“Unlike you,” an older woman responded, “We’ve been cultivating for quite some time. We’re not going to suddenly make any improvements. Better to allow you up-and-coming disciples a chance.”
They were all bound nearby with strong chains that prevented them from cultivating and gathering natural energy. Though they were very useful to restrain defeated enemies, they were not only expensive but impossible to use in combat. Even if an opponent was slow enough to have manacles slipped onto them, the chains wouldn’t suddenly make them incapable of acting. Until they expended their energy they would be able to fight almost as normal.
Zvonko and Tonina had already levied countless insults at their captors and of course Anton and the others. At the current moment they were gagged, though they also grew tired of whining on their own. With their cultivation suppressed they felt sluggish and weak, even if they were technically more hearty than a normal human.
Van Hassel was a strange exception. He wasn’t staying quiet out of an abundance of caution, but instead had a blank look on his face. He rarely seemed to focus on anything, except when Anton walked in front of him and his expression became somewhat confused. As if he was still trying to figure out how Anton could have been part of Dungannon, a random village full of commoners.
Anton wanted little to do with them, but after the previous events much of the Order’s forces were concentrated around the tower. It was the most secure location for the moment.
As they descended into the depths below the tower once more, Anton was glad that they weren’t focused on resisting the pressure with their bodies, because his hurt enough already. Even the small amount that filtered through their defensive formation of energy pressing down on his heart was enough. Though cultivators healed quickly from wounds, that was only relative to normal people. Since things like having a wide hole stabbed in your heart normally weren’t survivable, the fact that he was still alive at all was already more than he would have expected before. Not that anybody had been prone to stab him when he wasn’t a cultivator. Only a few times in the century he’d been alive.
Still, the stitches held him together- and if he couldn’t handle walking around with some pain, he wouldn’t have walked at all past ninety.
The battle had been over a week ago. If things had gone a little bit less in their favor their own members could have been taken down first and things would have tumbled in the direction of the other side of the battle. Yet because they had come out victorious, it was quite beneficial to all of them. Surviving life and death battles was always good for cultivation, and doing so under extreme circumstances even more so. The pressure of the tower had actually been beneficial to them because of how some of their opponents reached them. Though Zvonko had actually made it to the top of the tower himself, he and several others had climbed it again without the beads on them to obtain more for their plot. Though it allowed more people to come after them, they were unfit to fight in those conditions.
Van Hassel and Slusser in particular… Anton didn’t think highly of their abilities. Then again, if they were particularly skilled they might not have chosen to prey on defenseless commoners. Though they weren’t so weak they couldn’t have done something more profitable. They seemed to have simply thought nobody would care about random villages. They were wrong, of course. In more ways than one.
But Anton knew he shouldn’t dwell on that topic. He should be focusing on the descent. The Vessel of Insights had given him many thoughts about how to better deal with the energy from their own group and those they fought. Though they were all brief snippets they added up one by one until they were able to smoothly continue their descents. They were the forerunners, along with Anish and a few others. Even if there was no particular reward at the bottom, the glory of being the first was something relevant. Even if Anton himself cared little for it, he knew his younger compatriots could do with a morale boost. They weren’t all thinking about things decades ahead of them yet. Yet they probably had the most future to think about.
The final leg of the tower ramped up the difficulty once more. The pressure was about the same as before, gradually increasing with depth, but simple things added up. Uneven stairs, some particularly tall. Narrow ledges. Simple slopes. All of those were dangerous with the pressure upon them. They had to make sure they could get back as well.
Then they came to the most dangerous parts. If the cuts in the stairs weren’t so precise, it might have seemed like the stairs crumbled and fell apart- but everything was almost like new. But several stairs at a time were missing- instead dropping down to landings a floor or two below. A drop that size could break bones upon landing. More importantly, the pressure was working against them on the way up, meaning that they had to not go too far without considering if they could get back.
But another week of training allowed them to begin making the jumps, a quick hop that reminded Anton of times before he was a cultivator. It was so easy to get his sense of what he could do distorted by his new power. Fortunately, they didn’t overestimate themselves. They hopped over holes and sidled across thin ledges and walked down stairs as the very stairs nearly cracked under their weight to finally arrive within sight of a door.
Anish was not far behind them, but they’d passed him up. Once they could see the end, there was no way they were going to turn back. It was quite tempting to just run down the last flight of stairs with reckless abandon, but they resisted. Most of them, anyway. Chikere broke off from the rest of them, stumbling halfway and only stopping herself by driving a half dozen swords into the walls on either side to slow herself. She quickly took the last few steps and opened the door.
“Ha. I win!” she stuck out her tongue at them and stepped through. They were less than a minute behind her, however. When they stepped through the door it was with great relief as the pressure lifted from them. Chikere was just looking at them waving a paper. “What’s up with this, huh? Just a stupid note.”
Anton and the others exchanged glances. “May I read it?” Anton asked.
“Sure. Doesn’t say much.”
The letter had an annoyingly familiar handwriting. “Congratulations on passing this test! Sorry I took all of the condensed essence beads they had here, but I needed them for my own training. Since I don’t have any rewards to leave behind, I’ll leave you with some thoughts instead. Why do you think someone would need to resist immense amounts of pressure? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not just for diving into the ocean to beat up sharks. -E”
Anton looked at it and shook his head, “Who wants to bet Everheart took all of the treasures in this place already?”
“I do!” Catarina said. “Wait, does that mean we’re betting on the same thing?”
“I doubt any of us would bet against that,” Hoyt said.
The same determination was soon made by the Order as a whole, and the other sects. It was still beneficial for developing cultivators to undergo the trials, and formation masters were deep in study of the whole area. A stable secret realm was a treasure in and of itself, even if there wasn’t anything much they could take away unless they started dismantling buildings brick by brick. The exception to that were plants and parts from beasts. Living things had managed to survive, including several other herb gardens. Though the plants had often grown wild and gotten entangled with each other to the point they barely grew, the best sorts of herbs could be grown from new seed. There were also stores of knowledge to be gained- though key pieces were sometimes missing. Everheart clearly hadn’t made copies of everything, but he’d at least been courteous to leave some useful pieces of information related to the herbs he replanted before he left. He was a selfish bastard, but he didn’t tear the whole place up by the roots and leave it bare. Just mostly. If they’d actually arrived shortly after him, Anton would have bet on there only being one plant of each type.
Chikere was coming with the Order back to Graotan. Her official reason was she wanted to see justice done in regards to the captives- though the more likely reason was she was concerned about being ambushed by someone. But she was their friend, so nobody was going to say she couldn’t use them for a bit of shelter. Even as they were similarly responsible for the ire of various foes that tried to murder them together, they fought back against them together. That was bound to deepen ties between people- or show they really weren’t suited to work together.
Since most of the contingent of the Order was travelling together, nobody dared to bother them. Even if they’d gone as quickly as they could, the Heavenly Lion Sect wouldn’t have been able to return to their sect and gather an army to attack. There was no guarantee that they weren’t planning to, but the journey would be longer than that. The Order had already sent missives back to Graotan- and received replies. They were watching the border quite carefully.
After arriving in Graotan, the trials of Zvonko, Tonina, and Van Hassel weren’t immediate. Though the Order could have justified immediate executions, they were prepared to give them as close to a fair trial as possible. They even reached out for outside judges, unrelated to the incidents. One was from the Frostmirror Sect- who nobody could doubt were going to be logical and calculatingly impartial. The second was from the Desert Fox Society based in Droca. Finally, the third was from Infinite Wisdom Palace in Estary.
The lawyers who had defended Tonina before were brought in for the defense of the three- but it was hard for them to raise a real defense. Tonina wasn’t supposed to be present at all. That was the easiest case to open and shut. There were previous legal declarations from Ofrurg about that situation. If she hadn’t been physically captured in relation to another offense they might have not been able to enforce a large penalty, but they had bountiful evidence. Van Hassel required bringing in more witnesses to his deeds, and that included people from Ofrurg who to declare he sold them the illegal slaves. It took some pressure to get them to do so, but it shifted the blame away from them so they were willing. Slusser was also convicted for posterity- though he had perished in the battle.
For the sake of Zvonko, it took quite a bit of bringing in witnesses to put together the case. It wasn’t sufficient to just accept the word of the accusers. That would hardly be a trial. Instead, witnesses were important. Nobody else was physically present for the fight, but there were people who saw his behavior- and most importantly, saw him conversing with Van Hassel and Slusser. Not just the association around Everheart’s Tomb, but a few cultivators saw them sneaking together into the tower after Anton’s group. That association and the previous attack as well as the reasonable certainty in the facts of the second attack were sufficient to also declare him guilty.
But things didn’t just stop there. With Kohar’s help to get it done properly, the Order put together formal charges against the Heavenly Lion Sect for their association with illegal slavers. Within the laws of Graotan all slavery was illegal, but the standards were sufficient even by Ofrurg’s law in a way that couldn’t be refuted entirely.
All three judges unanimously agreed to the guilt- to a level justifying execution- of the three parties directly involved. The judges slightly disagreed on how responsible the Heavenly Lion Sect was as a whole, but that was more of a political move. It wasn’t as if they had any members beyond Zvonko in hand. But those matters would continue another day. Before that, the execution date was set- and movement in Ofrurg showed that it wouldn’t go smoothly.