Hundreds of people once more found their way to the main hall of Everheart’s ‘tomb’. There wasn’t anything else they could do- all of the facilities had stopped working and even the standard amount of natural energy was dropping back to ambient levels. The atmosphere was confused but slightly excited. Confused, because it was still well short of the promised month. Excited, because they wanted to see the prizes- especially the grand prize.
The Everheart in long flowing robes was once again present. It wasn’t clear if he was more ‘real’ or just the one used for formal announcements. “Let’s get this started. Beginning with the second through fourth place prizes were two who made great strides in their own cultivation. Bags of assorted cra- cultivation resources for each of them!” For a moment Everheart’s true personality almost shone through the formal projection. Everheart tossed two storage bags to Anish and Chikere, the two with the highest cultivations- but also the most personal talent. A third one went to Zvonko of the Heavenly Lion Sect. “Then we have smaller prizes for a myriad of others.” Several dozen storage bags and hundreds of small boxes were distributed to people.
Anton looked down at his empty hands in surprise. He’d thought he’d progressed an above average amount. It was only a single star and a bit, but he was in mid Spirit Building. He wouldn’t complain, though, because he’d already received some very useful information. Even just the chance to cultivate in the area for twenty-five days was greatly beneficial. He was just starting to turn to leave when Everheart continued.
“Now I’m sure all of you are wondering about the grand prize. You might even wonder about the rest. It’s all about remembering what I said. ‘Most cultivation improvements’ isn’t just about raising your rank. It’s about practicing techniques as well. Most importantly, it’s not just about your own cultivation. Half of you didn’t even work in cooperation with your own sects! A shameful display. But the grand prize goes to the one who, overall, was most responsible for the greatest amount of cultivation improvements.” Everheart held up a pot. Then he stepped forward into the crowd. “Hope you like dealing with jealousy, because you have to learn it eventually.” He set the pot in Anton’s hands. A silence fell over the crowd. Before they could fully process everything, Everheart’s form wavered slightly, and the ground trembled. “Well, that’s that then. My advice is for everyone to run like hell. This whole place is coming down. I matched its stability against its future, so all of the remaining stuff has been decayed for centuries. That includes the walls and ceiling. Don’t bother trying to dig it up, though I won’t be here to stop you if you want to try.” Another tremble. “RUN!” Everheart commanded.
Anton was already obeying, but was finding it difficult to get through the crowd in front of him. It wasn’t a long distance down the path away from the main hall before they got outside, but the rumblings went from ominous to cataclysmic very quickly. As he was passing Anton scooped up a few of the slower Body Tempering cultivators, ignoring their sect affiliations and simply gathering two or three in each arm as he balanced the pot on his head. Moments later, Anton was outside and setting the handful of others on their feet.
An arm grasped towards him, and Anton ducked. However, the true target was atop his head. Anton felt the figure he recognized as Zvonko grabbing the pot while at the same time there was a flaring of powerful energy he barely had time to even comprehend.
Two sources of energy clashed- one Anton recognized as Elder Kseniya, and two members of the Heavenly Lion Sect working together to stop a hail of arrows.
Anton already had his handaxes in hand and was spinning about, slashing towards Zvonko’s arm. Then everything froze. The buff figure of Everheart showed up as everyone was frozen in place. “I do believe I had a prohibition against fighting. However, I also had one against stealing. I never said those were over. So I am going to let the actions here play out as they will. Just remember, there are always consequences for actions.” Everheart’s voice boomed loudly, “Never ignore my proclamations!”
Perhaps nobody was ever frozen at all, because the momentum of the scene continued directly from where it was before. Anton’s axe swung up towards Zvonko’s arm that was grasping the pot he’d received, but Zvonko was already withdrawing. But Anton had allies willing to watch his back, and Lev had seen the attempt coming. Tendrils of his energy wrapped around Zvonko’s outstretched arm, preventing its withdrawal. The sharpness of the axes Anton received from the tomb’s rewards could not be underestimated, and Anton cleaved right through Zvonko’s defensive energy, skin, muscle, and bone. A severed hand fell to the ground out of which Anton grabbed his pot.
One of the two late Essence Collection cultivators from the Heavenly Lion Sect charged towards Anton as Zvonko screamed in pain. Anton knew he had no way to defend against it, but no Spirit Arrows came from Elder Kseniya. Then he realized it was because she was suddenly standing in front of him.
“Treachery!” yelled the elder. “How dare you maim one of our disciples under the protection of neutral ground!”
Elder Kseniya’s presence didn’t match the vision of a great arm and eye in the sky from when Grand Elder Vandale had rained stars down on the beast horde, but it was also much more present than that event. Though she was only in early Galaxy Construction, she still possessed immense power. Her normally subdued aura flooded the area. “There was no treachery on our part. Your disciple openly attempted to steal from one of ours, in the presence of hundreds of eyewitnesses. So you have two choices. First- you can bow your heads to the ground and beg for the forgiveness of my disciple. Second- you can all die.”
The white haired elder from the Heavenly Lion Sect held his back straight under the suppression of her aura. “You can’t get away with that under the treaty.”
“Maybe not,” Elder Kseniya conceded. She had an arrow drawn and pointed at him, brimming with condensed power. “But nobody here has the justification to stop me either.”
Two more presences made themselves known- from Glorious Flame Palace and the Frostmirror Sect respectively. The second was in response to the first. The older man from the Glorious Flame Palace spoke first. “One sect breaking the rules does not justify excessive retaliation. Stand down.”
“Your Glorious Flame Palace is far too eager to jump into conflict,” the seemingly ageless woman from the Frostmirror Sect countered. “The rules state that whoever breaks the peace first shall be beset by all of the rest. But you knew that. You just want an excuse to lay down ‘justice’ against a powerful opponent. It is my opinion that we should follow the rules and side with those who were attacked.”
Zvonko had already backed away a dozen meters from Anton and Lev, clutching his severed forearm. “I was just trying to get back what was mine. The old man stole my prize.”
“That’s a lie.” The same or very similar comments rang from the mouths of at least a dozen people. Anton himself, his companions, five members of the Frostmirror Sect, Anish, Chikere… and most damning of all one of the members of the Heavenly Lion Sect. The latter was one of those Anton had scooped up and brought outside during the collapse- which was now quite complete, the great plateau being half rubble behind them.
Elder Ksenia didn’t seem to have been influenced by the surrounding circumstances. “You have ten seconds left to kneel down and apologize to my disciple and the Order of Ninety Nine Stars. You two and that kid.”
There was a long pause as the elders from the Heavenly Lion Sect considered the situation. “Zvonko. Do as she says,” they concluded. “We apologize for the improprieties committed by our disciple,” they clasped their hands and inclined their heads.
“What do you think, Anton?” Elder Kseniya asked.
What he thought was that he didn’t need any more enemies, but he supposed that was already impossible given the events of the day. More importantly, the Heavenly Lion Sect was already on that list no matter what. “They didn’t even get on their knees, let alone bow their heads to the ground.”
Anton could sense Elder Kseniya’s smile as she fired four sudden arrows. The elders of the Heavenly Lion sect weren’t without defenses, but each of them ended up with at least one shattered knee, staggering them. “Done. We can forgive you now.”
The disciples of every sect had already been separating into what they perceived as allied groups. The Frostmirror sect subconsciously followed Diana, Annelie, and Marsen to stand with Anton and the others. Many independent cultivators were already slipping away, but Chikere stayed, standing with Anton. Likewise, those who had been harmed by the Heavenly Lion Sect’s short-term monopoly of training facilities stood against them. The Heavenly Lion Sect was not without their own allies, but they looked somewhat outnumbered. All disciples looked towards their elders to see if a battle would happen.
The two elders of the Heavenly Lion Sect made themselves stand on their shattered legs. “We leave. Don’t think you’ve heard the end of this.”
“Those could have been through your heart, you know,” Elder Kseniya warned. “But I chose to avoid irreparable harm out of respect for the other sects’ opinions.”
The elder from Glorious Flame Palace had folded his arms in front of him and frowned, but he clearly heard Anish’ declaration of the lie, and saw his positioning. The other disciples had all followed their foremost senior, of course. “These results are barely acceptable.”
Somehow, all the sects split apart smoothly without any further conflict. While destroyed kneecaps might have been crippling injuries for most, Elder Kseniya had taken no steps to prevent their healing. Thus, it was little more than a slap on the face for Essence Collection cultivators to receive such injuries. Such insults could be taken just as seriously as killing someone, but in terms of the agreement between sects it was relatively minor.
Anton clutched the pot to himself and breathed deeply as they walked away. He would have to thank Elder Kseniya… probably. Though she had also prodded him into digging a deeper hole for himself. Not maliciously, he was certain, but she was the ‘growth through adversity’ type. He’d been quite happy to have removed much of the conflicts from his life, but now he doubted that could ever be achieved. Then again, if he continued cultivating maybe he was just fooling himself that it could be peaceful.
The Grasping Willows were going well out of their optimal path to travel along with the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars, but it was quite a bit safer for them to do so. It also gave some time for Anton to catch up with Elder Varela, and Lev also regaled him of the events in the tomb.
“The grand prize, even,” Elder Varela shook his head, “Did you plan that out?”
“Ha!” Anton laughed, “I wish. It just seemed like the best thing to do. Personally, I find I advance best in such conditions. I’m not a solitary genius cultivator, even if I managed to push through the first few stars alone.”
“Everyone’s looking much different for a month,” Elder Varela said. “Stronger cultivation and enchanted treasures abound. One wonders what they might all do.”
“You could just ask,” Anton said. “The answer is, I don’t know.” He opened the pot and peeked in. There were strands of energy visible to the eye swirling about. In addition to that, he saw a pile of cultivation medicines and crafting resources contained inside what was apparently a space similar to a storage bag, given the pot was rather small on the outside. At least there didn’t seem to be more forbidden techniques in there. “Swirls of energy and resources.” He couldn’t tell what the pot did as it clearly wasn’t active at the moment, but he would carefully investigate. If it was dangerous Everheart would have probably given a warning, but he might have just assumed Anton knew to be cautious. Unfortunately, Firdaus had split off- Cloudtop Summit was in the opposite direction. The Order had competent appraisers and crafters, but they simply weren’t part of the crowd that had come. “I’m sure it does… something ridiculous.”
“You can be certain of that,” Elder Kseniya commented. “You’re right to be cautious. On that note… that includes any further techniques you picked up. I doubt he didn’t hand any out.”
Anton looked down at the bag at his side completely stuffed full of them. “He had a few, for certain.” He was planning to destroy most of them, but the first category of forbidden was simply arbitrary suppression by powerful sects- that just meant they were worth looking into.