The first person to arrive to back up Grand Elder Kunibert was an elder of the Frostmirror Sect. She was at the peak of essence collection while remaining at a relatively young age for her level of power. Adelina, if he recalled correctly. There weren’t too many names of Life Transformation experts or those who were close to remember but Kunibert didn’t focus on knowing people’s names.
“I’d appreciate help, if you can,” Kunibert gestured to the multilayer formation. “You’d think that squashing the people holding this thing together would weaken the formation, but all that blood seems to be making the situation worse.”
“I understand,” she nodded, her face impassive. “Break me a way through the outer layer.”
That was something Kunibert was well suited to. Just a swing of his hammer and he cracked a hole for her to slip through. She reached out towards one of the members of the Flying Blood Cult, who made no move to defend herself. Kunibert had no idea what sort of madness infected them that they had no regard for their lives, perhaps fanatical devotion to a leader… or some expectations of rewards in another life. Either their lives or deaths could power the formation.
But when Adelina touched the woman and killed her, there was no blood that flowed into the formation. How could it, when it was frozen solid? The purpose was accomplished by disconnecting the cultivator from the formation without spilling their blood. She was able to reach two more people before they realized what was happening, and they started to defend themselves.
Kunibert supposed he could accomplish something similar. If people wouldn’t defend themselves, he simply had to accomplish an attack that would knock them back no matter what they did. He had to widen the impact area. He took a swing past the barrier, slamming someone outward. Normally it was better to condense his attack into a smaller area to cause the most damage, so he hadn’t immediately considered the option.
Flames burst into the area. Medved was an elder of the Glorious Flame Palace, quite a bit older than Adelina yet stuck at the same threshold. Kunibert couldn’t fault him for that, he himself spent several decades clawing his way into Life Transformation after all. It was a difficult step. And Medved was effective enough. The cultivators manning the formation now understood that they had to retaliate to keep the formation working, and a wave of darkness met the fire that swirled around Medved.
The tendrils of darkness attempted to seep into the elder of the Glorious Flame Palace, but where they reached inside fire burst out from him, burning it away. Kunibert wasn’t certain if such a method could truly be considered a defensive technique as it clearly harmed the user, but preventing the intrusion of an enemy’s energy doubtless deserved a prompt response. Medved continued to step forward towards his target, a wave of fire bursting from his hand and breaking through his opponent’s defenses. Whether or not he got the message about their blood powering the formation, all that was left behind was a pile of ash.
All of that was well and good, but the progress in the center continued unabated. The final handful of sacrifices were about to be finished off, and whatever would result from that would ultimately be bad for the world. Kunibert wondered where Vandale was. Any of the others would be of help too, but Vandale was the strongest of them. And if Kunibert wasn’t incorrect the two in the center of the formation were both at the peak of Life Transformation. He wasn’t familiar enough with the Flying Blood Palace or the unnamed darkness sect to guarantee it, but he knew they at least had an amount of power close to that threshold.
With the help of Medved and Adelina, as well as others breaking into the area, the outer layer of the formation was falling apart. That made it easier to reach the inner layers. There was no more time for Kunibert to consider whether he could win an engagement with the two in the center. He had to go there… and not contribute any of his blood, if he could help it.
He stepped past the next layer of the formation. He couldn’t afford to expend the effort with every attack, and had to be there himself. The two figures, bloody red and midnight black, didn’t seem terribly surprised when he began to attack them. A big sweep of his hammer forced them back, and then he grabbed one of the remaining figures who had not yet been slain. He didn’t feel anything special about them, but he hoped they were important as he shoved them out of the formation. It was easier than anticipated, but then again most formations weren’t meant to stop attacks going outward. In return for his action the crimson figure impaled the last sacrifice, and the shadowy figure lashed out at him with some sort of whip. It coiled around his arm, energy burrowing into it.
An instant later Kunibert stepped away, but his movements brought the energy with him, though not the whip. He felt it intruding into him, ignoring his flesh but burrowing deeper into his meridians. He made a quick decision. His instincts had kept him alive up to this point, and he’d do his best to continue that trend. He dropped his hammer and grabbed his right shoulder with his left hand, then tore. His dismembered arm was tossed into his storage bag, and the open wound on his shoulder was sealed shut with his energy. He wouldn’t contribute even a single drop of his blood if he could help it.
Kunibert felt the powerful buildup of energy in the formation and the two figures. Were they attempting to ascend? He wouldn’t mind if they were out of his hair, but given recently acquired information they couldn’t count on that lasting forever.
His hammer was in his hand and he was behind the bloody figure. He hoped that causing them injuries wouldn’t somehow empower the formation, but he couldn’t help it. A one-armed swing was significantly less powerful than he liked, but his aim was true. When the figure broke apart into a bloody tornado he knew there wouldn’t be a solid impact… but this wasn’t his first time hitting those without solid form. As his hammer swung through the cloud of blood, it trails of red dragged along with it, even away from where his weapon struck. A good few liters of blood splattered against the far wall while never even being in the intervening distance. If that was a normal person they’d be nearly out of blood, but this figure had many times that amount. Even so, he could tell it hurt them to be separated from some of it.
Once more the whip coiled towards him, but he was ready for the attack, despite the hidden nature of the energy. He realized he couldn’t really resist it, so he absolutely couldn’t let it touch him. Even if that meant stepping into the bloody tornado to give himself a moment. The swirling liquid had no real physical impact, but as it touched him he felt it pulling his blood away. To the best of his ability he pulled back, until he was able to simply be somewhere else. That location was behind the dark figure, with his hammer already swinging.
He hadn’t expected to crush the man to a pulp, but he was a bit insulted that the figure stopped his attack with one hand again, even with the formation weakened. At least it looked like it took some effort. But Kunibert found the energy was still building, even as the second layer of the formation and the cultivators powering it were being defeated. He couldn’t possible keep track of all of the powerful energy, as late Essence Collection cultivators and even a handful of Life Transformation experts clashed on each side.
Attack. Dodge desperately. Distract. Delay. That was all Kunibert could do. Even keeping his blood from flowing out of his shoulder became more and more difficult. Then he heard a loud cracking. At first he thought it was the formation, and he wasn’t entirely wrong. But what the actual sound came from in that moment was the ceiling of the keep above. It had been fortified ot prevent the intrusion of energy, and that also prevented sensing to some extent- so even Kunibert was surprised when Vandale dropped down along with the ceiling. That very same ceiling hit the dome of the formation and was mostly deflected, but Vandale rode a portion of it down like one of his usual Falling Stars.
Vandale swept over Kunibert with his eye, clearly seeing his missing arm. “I’m sorry I was slow.” Kunibert saw Vandale was not without some injuries of his own, though they were less extreme.
“I’d say you were right on time.”
Vandale pulled Falling Stars out of the sky, forcing the two peak Life Transformation experts to dodge his attacks. Even the Flying Blood Cult leader had to be concerned about being destroyed by the power held within them.
Vandale wasn’t the only one to come in from the roof, as more allies and opponents alike joined the fray. But for the most part, it was him and Vandale against the two leaders. The shadow dodged one of the Falling Stars with a significant amount of power behind it. Kunibert thought it would be a shame if it missed, so he batted it at the man. Even though he’d dodged, the man’s defenses weren’t inadequate. A barrier of darkness blocked the burning orb, merely rippling like a pond with a rock tossed into it as the light was snuffed out.
Then Kunibert slipped up. He’d thought that the blood on the floor below him was part of the ritual, but some of it belonged to the Flying Blood Cult leader. It reached up and grabbed onto his leg, sinking into his pores. At the same time, it pulled on his blood, exchanging his own for the intruder. Before he could make the decision of whether to give up the leg, the blood pulled out, leaving a dessicated mass up to his knee. It still supported his weight, but it couldn’t really be called alive.
A burst of fire blasted the cloud of blood, forcing it to coalesce back into the shape of a man. Medved’s wrinkled skin was also blackened from his own power, but he half-grinned as he staggered to the ground. The Flying Blood Cult leader backed away, skin scorched as they approached the darkness cultivator. Then at the same moment they attacked each other.
Darkness and blood swirled together, combining in a reddish-black mass. The blackness won out, and seemed stronger for it as the man smiled. Power overflowed from him as he smiled towards Vandale and Kunibert. “You were too weak. You missed your opportunity.”
Kunibert felt the power of a massive falling star being formed above. The world began to tremble, both from Vandale’s power and that of the red-tinged dark figure in front of them. Just before the man dodged to the side, Kunibert wrapped his elbow around the man’s throat. He had no illusions about what that would mean for him. Darkness immediately started tearing into his arm, face, and chest- but he squeezed with all of his power, focusing on causing the most damage to the man as possible- and preventing him from defending against the attack. As it struck, he was glad for the way it burned him away- at least it destroyed the darkness that was like wriggling worms heading for his dantian.
Even if he was unwilling to accept Grand Elder Kunibert’s sacrifice, Vandale couldn’t have stopped his attack. He only wished that he could have done even more, because his actual target yet lived. Except for a line on his throat the entire front of him was charred to the point of showing muscle and bone, but that wasn’t enough to kill the man. Vandale charged forwards. He called more Falling Stars from the sky, but the energy filling the man had reached a zenith, and he couldn’t afford him a single moment to recover.
Vandale charged forward, flames flaring around him and air distorting. He held a dagger outstretched, focusing his power into its point. On the other side, a wave of ice bore down on the man. His own attack was met with a sword stabbing in return, but he would not give up his charge. It pierced through his chest, but he kept it away from his heart. His own attack struck true, piercing through the figure. Then there was an explosion, throwing him to the edge of the room and through the wall.
Vandale lay on his back, staring up at the sky. He would bet his life- what remained of it, at least- that his attack wasn’t fully successful. It certainly wounded the man, but the explosion of energy registered as the energy of ascension. He clamped his remaining energy around the wriggling worms of darkness inside him. He felt members of the Order gathering around, protecting him. He hoped the rest of the battle had been settled favorably as he tried to drag the energy out of him but found it inevitably working its way into his dantian. Rather than let it take over, he did his best to seal it inside with his remaining energy. Then his consciousness faded.