Decades in the past, a struggle continued beneath the earth.
The two combatants fell, down, down down. The Emperor was able to continuously damage Barrett as they fell, having reached some top speed. However, they had long left the area of the formation supporting him, so he was unable to kill Barrett quickly. Trapped inside a shell of living metal, he settled for coating Barrett in fire and burning him away piece by piece.
Barrett concentrated most of his efforts on keeping them moving downward. Most of him was the earth around them, then the living metal keeping the Ostain Emperor mostly restrained, then finally whatever remained was delegated to his own body. That wasn’t much. Honestly, there wasn’t much of him to give for any part of anything. Even without The Emperor’s attacks, his body would be withering away as he drew on all of its current and future capacity.
So they fell, through the earth and stone and magma and everything under the ground. Barrett avoided thinking about anything but keeping up his task, hoping to crush The Emperor under the weight of the ground above him if he couldn’t do anything else. He had no idea how long they fell, but it was many minutes, perhaps an hour of continuous motion and expenditure of stamina he couldn’t afford to use. Beyond that point, he lost track of time and space and himself.
It was only some time later that he noticed he was no longer under attack. The body in front of him had gone limp, having lost its shape long before under the weight of the world. His own body was… perhaps even worse. It wasn’t even really a body at all, but some piles of ash drifting downward through the ground, until it came to a complete stop. At that point, Barrett would have been considered dead. He thought he was dead, except for one thing. He still was aware. Maybe not fully, but slightly. Perhaps he was a ghost- though he had the thought they were less aware than normal people. Certainly, the ones he had fought were.
For some time, he remained where he was- with a pile of ash that had been himself and a crushed pile of living metal and unrecognizable organic matter that had once probably been shaped like a person. He could feel the weight of the earth pressing down around him, pressing down on… the other ground.
His consciousness lapsed, but instead of fading into nothingness it returned slowly. Barrett thought he was prepared to die. He didn’t want to, but he had accepted that when he made the attempt. Upon reaching his current position, he felt the same… but something about it didn’t fit. What was he? Certainly, the bits of ash and the remains of The Emperor weren’t alive. The living metal remnants of his armor and weapon… couldn’t think. He tried to move it, but either he had no stamina left, it wasn’t part of him, or he was merely far too deep to struggle against the weight of the earth.
With nothing better to do, Barrett meditated on himself and what was around him. What was he? First, his soul… still existed. It was beaten and battered, but it lived on. He had a physical location, deep in the ground. His body was… maybe nothing. But did that matter?
For some time Barrett waited as he thought he would fade away. However, he didn’t. In fact, the one part of him he was certain existed recovered… very slowly. He had tempered his soul to take on the traits of his body, namely durability and regenerative properties. Without any apparent source of power, it was a very slow process… but he was recovering.
There was still the concerning question of what he would do with a soul without a body. He tried, out of curiosity, to move himself… but he couldn’t. He wasn’t even sure how. Perhaps he would have to reverse his ability to touch the ephemeral with the physical. Before that, he should speed his recovery.
Where could he draw in power? There were extremely tiny traces of magic in the remains of The Emperor. Even less of that had once been his. Even so, he pulled on it with his soul. It flowed into him, speeding up his healing by some miniscule amount. Now there was just living metal and rock pressing down from above.
Perhaps that was it. Gravity had a sort of power to it. Could he harness that?
The answer was both ‘no’ and ‘yes’. It had no interaction with his soul, so he couldn’t do anything. It did interact with the area around him, and the crushing of the deep rocks had a sort of static power to it he could draw upon. It could have taken days or weeks, but the integrity of his local area weakened, compressing even further as he pulled upon it as a source of power.
As he fueled his recovery, his healthier soul was able to access more of the power around him. At some point, he returned to his full capacity. He found he could move by pushing against the ground, but even moving himself up a single centimeter took so much out of him. Perhaps it was not really having a body, or just the depths he’d ended up in entrapping him. What could he do?
The answer was much the same as what he was used to. He could cultivate, tempering the only part of him that remained- his soul. However, he could only do so much of that without attempting something. A destruction. Mostly that worked with his body, but it had effects on his soul. He remembered saying something vaguely profound about body and soul being the same. He believed it… and focused upon himself.
Perhaps it was just the lack of sensation in recent memory, but that first new destruction became the most painful thing he had ever experienced, even more than the vague memories he had of his entire body being destroyed bit by bit not long before. It was so painful that he wished he would just die… but instead of that happening, he lived. After all, he was quite an expert in the area, having applied it to more than just himself but also stone pits and living metal inside himself and more. When performed correctly, he would recover… and he did. He found there were some flaws in the process, especially related to his intake of power to recover… but he could smooth those out as he continued. Because as much as he wished for death when there was pain, he even more wished to live when his thoughts were truly his own.
As he continued to cultivate, Barrett found himself able to draw upon more diverse and far reaching sources of power. He used the weight and structure of the earth around him but he could also reach further for the heat of magma. It took some time to notice, but all of the rock around him was hot- it was just some was much more so. He drew upon everything, reaching further and further as he increased his cultivation.
Barrett wasn’t sure what he was working towards, except some sort of step that would allow him to… function. Using his soul as a lever against the ground barely moved him at all. But, of course, that wasn’t quite the right way to think about it. He could be the earth.
Unfortunately, that was a bit of a dream. As he attempted that, he found one key thing missing. He needed to draw upon stamina, and that mostly required a body. His soul had a source of energy he drew upon as well, but it wasn’t quite right.
He was just too weak to do anything… so he continued to improve his strength bit by bit. Barrett was aware that he would need perhaps two decades to reach eighth tier if he had a body. He had no sense of time related to anything but himself, so he had no idea if he was being quicker or slower than he should have been. He just continued, breaking his body-soul and letting it heal, over and over. He grew used to the new sort of pain, but didn’t hide from it. It was one of the few things that told him that he was probably alive.
Eventually the time came. He knew he was just on the threshold of breaking through to eighth tier. If he failed, he would die. There was no way that wouldn’t happen in his current state. However, there was no doubt in his mind about the risk. If he didn’t try, he would die anyway. Besides, why would he fail? Just because he didn’t have a body?
He didn’t answer that question, instead focusing on how he was and what he wanted his body-soul to be like. At the point of stepping up to a new tier of cultivation, the largest changes might happen based on the mindset of the cultivator.
He had no body… but what was a body but a collection of matter that provided him with structure and a source of power? In that case, he had a body all around him, the very earth he was trapped in. He spent perhaps a year using his very limited abilities to painstakingly rearrange bits of earth into something resembling a talisman formation. Its purpose was merely to draw in the most power from all around him as possible. Then, with a thought and a twist of power inside him, he began the destruction.