Though he had somehow managed to get Alva to take cultivation ‘slowly’, after slightly more than half a year of cultivating she was close to the second prime tempering, the fifth star. Even at that speed her road hadn’t been entirely smooth. Anton and the others had been carefully monitoring her progress and there had been several points where it was clear that her still growing body responded differently to body tempering than an adult. If it were so easy to begin training five or ten years early, it would be commonly practiced.
The correct thing to do was to prevent Alva from cultivating, but that wasn’t possible anymore. Anton wasn’t sure if it had ever been possible. Everyone she might reasonably be taken care of was a cultivator or at least learning how to be one, and Alva would certainly have coaxed them into teaching her or found the technique manual herself at some point. Then she would have been doing something dangerous and entirely unsupervised. The best Anton could do was impart on her the knowledge of the danger and take care of her.
He was currently satisfied that she probably wouldn’t kill or injure herself in cultivation. A small comfort, since she was eager to participate in real battles. He could forbid that as well, but that was impractical. He and the others who could watch her were heading to Everheart’s ‘tomb’. Only physically imprisoning her would stop her from running off into the beast forest or on some dangerous mission. By the Order’s standards, she was able to become an official member with the proper benefits that provided.
The only other option was taking her along with him, but that simply guaranteed she’d get into danger that she wasn’t prepared to handle. The difference between the fifth star, when she reached it, and the fifteenth star that Anton was at were more than just a factor of three. Anton could probably fight ten of her without trouble.
“You need to stay here,” Anton said. “Keep training as I’ve taught you. Work the fields or any other job you like, to improve yourself and grow your resources. And Uncle Pete will be around if you need any advice.” Technically Pete wasn’t her uncle or a relative at all, but it was close enough.
“But I want to go with you! I’m much stronger now.”
“You’re not ready for real danger yet.”
“You always say that,” Alva pouted. “I know you were fighting beasts in the forest a month after you joined the Order!”
Having smart grandchildren was a curse. But at least he had one more way to wiggle out of that. “It was only a month after I joined the Order, indeed, but I was at the fifth star at the time. If you reach that level and find a team, you can hunt in the forest.” It was best to compromise, especially if it would keep her overall safer. She’d already been in danger many times more than a normal child of her age, but that didn’t mean exposing her to more danger was a good idea. “Don’t go outside of the proper depths. I’ll know if you ‘get lost’ and go deeper than you should. You have a better sense of direction than that.”
“And,” Catarina took the chance to interject. “You’ll have Fuzz with you. He’ll be there to keep you safe, but if you go somewhere too dangerous he could get really hurt. You don’t want that, do you?”
Alva shook her head. “No… I want Fuzz to be happy and run around like normal.”
“One more thing,” Anton said. “You have to buy some equipment from the equipment hall. A good bow you can wield or some protection- but preferably both.” That should delay her… another few weeks maybe. Alva worked hard, but she wasn’t the sort to go from dawn to dusk and she didn’t have Anton’s years of experience. The amount of contribution points she could earn that way was much less. And if she did work extra hard, well, that was training. Hopefully she wouldn’t push herself too hard though. “I don’t know when we’ll be back,” Anton admitted, “But since the Order is involved, you’ll be able to ask the elders what they know if it’s more than a month or two. The trip will likely be a few weeks, so we can’t really return sooner than that.”
“I understand,” Alva nodded. “Then you’ll take me with you on the next thing, right?”
“We’ll talk about that later,” Anton hedged. If she reached Spirit Building, he couldn’t reasonably refuse to take her along with him. That shouldn’t happen for another year, maybe a couple months less even at her more cautious rate of advancement.
With the vague terms of the ‘tomb’, all sorts of members of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars were making the trip. That included many there to guard the rest, since there would doubtless be sects they had conflict with heading there as well. Of the escorts, Anton recognized Vincent and Elder Kseniya. There were a few more Essence Collection cultivators thrown in, and if it weren’t for the circumstances it would almost be equivalent to an invading army. Though Elder Kseniya was the only Galaxy Construction cultivator among them, sending just one was already significant. The exact number wasn’t public, but the Order didn’t have more than a couple dozen cultivators at that level, with only a handful in other sects in Graotan. Most sects didn’t even have a single one, even sects considered relatively powerful.
Of the cultivators planning to participate in whatever trials would be in Everheart’s tomb, Anton knew more than a handful. There was himself, of course. The usual group with Catarina, Timothy, Hoyt, and now Velvet. There was also Sterling who introduced Anton to the grounds and Marcio the archer. Oskar and Devon would both be participating as well, being at peak Body Tempering and early Spirit Building, respectively. Anton was surprised to see two Constellation Formation cultivators who were traveling as part of the hopefuls instead of as guards. They still looked quite young, so if Anton was right they might have been cultivating for less than a decade.
He hadn’t thought that much about how wide the definition for a new cultivator might be perceived. He knew he felt knew at two and a half years, but a full decade? Well, it wasn’t as unreasonable as he first felt. For most cultivators, a decade was indeed very new. Cultivation was seen as a lifelong endeavor, and even those with modest talents tended to live more than a century. If they were practicing a trade, Anton would have considered those with ten years of experience as something like journeymen. Not necessarily new, but not masters either.
The vast majority of the hopeful participants were young. Early twenties for the most part. There were a few just at the third or fourth star, and while Anton was certain that they would fit the mantle of ‘new’ if Everheart wasn’t more crazy than he already knew. There was the smallest chance that it was all a farce and the ‘tomb’ was empty except the outside formation or only available to cultivators with a month or less of experience. Anton thought it would be sort of funny, but he wasn’t sure if even Everheart had that much free time and resources to set up that sort of thing for centuries later.
As a cultivator, Anton rarely traveled with a group that he wasn’t part of the leadership. He didn’t mind following instructions, but he found it strange not having to make any of the plans. All told over a hundred cultivators from the Order as well as a few from other sects in Graotan were traveling together. Fortunately the elders had magic bags full of trail rations. Nothing tasty, but they didn’t have to rely on buying fresh food from every village they marched through. They still usually did, of course, and the villages and cities appreciated the business- but relying on random availability of spare food was foolish. Though Graotan was prosperous enough that it was generally not an issue.
The first half of the roads were familiar, but instead of turning more towards the north they continued directly east and even slightly south towards Floelor. The border guards on either side showed no surprise at such a large group. Floelor was quite aware that they wouldn’t be able to stop the flood of cultivators heading towards Everheart’s new tomb, so they simply prepared travel routes that would bring people directly to the destination with minimal opportunities to get into trouble. The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars and Graotan’s cultivators in general had a good enough reputation that Floelor wasn’t concerned about them in particular.
As they traveled away from the border and the scenery changed, Anton could only describe the area as barren. Barren of plant life and barren of natural energy. Yet there were still large cities occasionally, and the cultivators watching over those cities were still of respectable power. He noticed several Essence Collection cultivators in just a single city- and he was certain they weren’t part of other traveling sects.
When he asked about it, Vincent had an easy answer for him. “The tomb is out in the middle of nowhere. Likewise, the route was chosen to bring us through the least relevant areas with no resources to steal. I have been through Floelor previously, and though many areas are like this, some places have an abundance of natural energy and vibrant plants and beasts. Even here there is more than immediately meets the eye.”
With that information, Anton kept his eyes and other senses open. He had to admit that Vincent was right. While the plants were mostly clumps of scrubgrass and scraggly bushes, there were occasional solid trees and robust and tall grass. The natural energy was still minimal, but he realized that much of it was condensed into what little plantlife there was. That included wheat fields, and Anton knew that eating grains with condensed natural energy would be almost as good as taking cultivation boosting medicines with fewer potential side effects. Anton didn’t mind that in principle, but it seemed that lower level cultivators had trouble advancing without connections. Then again, wasn’t that true anywhere? Even Anton had just been handed a powerful technique in the form of the Ninety-Nine Stars. It wasn’t secret but the number of copies was still limited. If Vincent hadn’t done that for him he might not have even been able to acquire any form of cultivation technique to start off with. That just reaffirmed Anton’s plans for the future.
The terrain gradually grew arid and hot. There were also more craggy hills and tall, freestanding rock structures. Some stood alone like towers while others had wide, flat tops. The soil itself was now reddish brown and claylike. Not good for farming much of anything, though the few plants that grew in the area seemed happy enough.
Most of the terrain was completely ignorable, and there wasn’t much of anything to see. However, as they approached one of the large freestanding plateaus Anton could see other people. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. They must have reached the destination.
The first thing he saw, while they were still far off, was the image of a tall man. Not a statue, but not really a person. Unless the man were eight feet tall and able to stand with his feet well above the ground. Possible, but he would have sensed the fluctuations of energy from the horizon. The way the light didn’t hit his face quite right confirmed Anton’s theory.
From what he’d heard, the chiseled jaw and sharp features were just the sort of thing Everheart would use for a projection of ‘himself’. Broad shoulders like an ox and muscle filled out the rest of the figure who had no shirt and barely anything covering his lower half. He was standing there in the air, grinning at the crowd of people.
As they approached closer, Anton managed to recognize a few further figures. Elder Varela and Lev weren’t exactly a surprise, though the young man was almost unrecognizable. His back was straight, and though his presumably still useless arm was concealed in an oversized sleeve, he radiated confidence.
The next two were a surprise. Faces he had only seen in drawings. Anton tensed up as he saw Maximillian Van Hassel and Nirmal Slusser in person. He thought about trying to put arrows through them then and there, but in addition to the fact that they felt like they were in late Spirit Building there were both formal and informal agreements about conduct in such situations. The Order would be justified to not support him if he were to attack, and he would find himself mostly alone. Even if his usual allies supported him he wasn’t certain of victory, and the two didn’t seem to be alone.
Finally he saw a face he’d wanted to see for two and a half years. In that time Annelie had gone from a girl to starting to look like a young woman, but there was no way he wouldn’t recognize her no matter how much she grew. She was standing at the center of a group of people with similar auras, presumably the Frostmirror sect. Each group was cordoned off from the others.
Anton knew he wouldn’t be allowed to casually approach, but he was going to make the attempt. That was his intention, anyway, but around the time they were just a couple hundred meters away from the crowds of cultivators the large floating ‘Everheart’ spoke with a booming voice.
“Welcome, everyone, to my tomb! Or your tomb, if you are not worthy. This one is specially prepared for new cultivators.” Somehow the figure’s back became even more straight, and Anton thought his muscles bulged unnaturally as his arms flexed in front of him. “You might be wondering who counts as a new cultivator. It’s quite simple. Just try to enter and if you fit the bill you won’t get knocked on your ass!” Anton had never heard a laugh that would have sounded like someone good spirits in other contexts feel so malicious. Though Anton could see a smirk that indicated it would at least be fun for someone. Though Anton doubted a projection could actually feel mirth, it sure acted like it.
As crowds of people started pouring towards an ornate entrance in the rocky plateau, Anton realized he would have to find a chance to see Annelie later. Hopefully inside, where she would have fewer people around her.