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On either side of the entrance into the plateau were large statues posing proudly. They were reminiscent of the floating projection of Everheart, though unique in their own way. People were already starting to rush towards the entrance, and Anton saw people either pass through easily or get violently thrown back. Interestingly enough, nobody seemed to be injured no matter how far it flung them.
For example, one eager man from the front of the pack landed right at Anton’s feet still over a hundred meters away. He was a man of about thirty years of age, but he had clearly been rejected harshly. Though Anton would have thought he could have reacted while in the air to have a smooth landing with his cultivation in mid Spirit Building, he landed directly on his rear and sat there stunned.
Anton and the other proceeded forward at a natural pace, and the area in front was starting to somewhat calm down. People seemed to have noticed that if they were moving at a moderate rate they wouldn’t get flung too far back. That was presumably less embarrassing for them, though it left everyone looking at them as they struggled to pick themselves up and staggered out of the way.
One man barrelled into the entrance once, landed on his rear, then charged it again. The second time he was flung twice as far and instead of landing gently if in an undignified manner, he struck the dirt and tumbled. Anton focused his eyes to see the man lying on his back staring up at the sky with a bloody nose. It didn’t look serious, but the escalation was a clear warning. Most people got it.
Anton clicked his tongue as the remaining disciples of the Frostmirror sect pulled out of the way, having been some of the first to reach the entrance. Those who could enter had already done so, and the rest stood to the side trying to look like they hadn’t been rejected.
Though the situation precluded the various sects from engaging in violence with their enemies, it didn’t stop verbal barbs and jabs. A member of the Heavenly Lion Sect jeered at someone who was unable to enter, then found himself similarly rejected.
The members of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars tried to keep a neutral composure though some couldn’t suppress their eagerness, running forward ahead of the rest. Some made it inside, but others had to make the walk of shame back towards the main body of the group.
Anton and the others kept a measured pace. There had been nothing that said admittance was limited, and more people were rejected than able to enter. There was no need to rush.
When Anton and the others around him were about ten meters away, Anton picked out Van Hassel and Slusser trying to enter. They were swiftly rejected, with Van Hassel sliding past Anton. His eyes couldn’t help but follow the man, and for a moment their eyes met. Anton was close to just whipping out his bow and killing the man as he was in the midst of their group, but that would give others a reason to attack them. He also couldn’t justify his actions without taking long enough for the man to prepare himself or retreat. Even if he did, any accusations would likely be taken as, well, an attempt to justify killing the man. It would be, even if it was just.
His vision simply lingered on Van Hassel as he approached the entrance, and the surprisingly well kept man glared. “What are you looking at, huh, old man? Where are you going? You think you can enter when I can’t?”
Anton refrained from comment, but had already made himself seen. He just kept his gaze on the man as he continued walking.
Van Hassel got up on his feet and gestured. If he’d been gutsy enough to pull out a weapon Anton might have tried to manipulate the situation, but mere impotent threats weren’t sufficient. “Hey! Answer me you-” the sound was cut off as Anton felt energy wrap around him. It was powerful, and stopped his movements. He prepared himself to be flung backwards and resolved to land with as much dignity as possible, but then his step continued and he was through the barrier. He wasn’t sure if the pause was even enough for most people to notice, but he certainly felt it.
He turned to Hoyt who walked next to him, whispering, “Did the barrier slightly stagger you?”
Hoyt shook his head, “I felt nothing.”
Anton frowned. That was concerning, but he was clearly inside- and proceeding deeper down the hallway. Soon enough he stepped into a large hall with at least a dozen doorways leading away from it, where there was of course another Everheart. This time it wasn’t a muscled man, but instead a young handsome fellow in long, flowing, royal robes. He had his hands covered opposite sleeves and bowed as the final group behind the Order trailed in. “Welcome, new cultivators. Five years. That is the threshold I allowed for entry, allowing my generous and magnanimous and quite relaxed stipulations to bring so many of you inside.”
Given the crowd outside, it didn’t really seem like many people had made it in- but Anton couldn’t really consider it few either. He scanned the crowd casually, estimating around a hundred people in Spirit Building including around ten from Graotan, mainly the Order. There were several hundred more in Body Tempering who were confident enough in themselves to come to one of Everheart’s ‘tombs’.
“Honestly,” Everheart continued, “I find myself disappointed. A generous five years, and not a single Essence Collection cultivator. How far things have fallen.” The man’s gaze rested on a few towards the front who had the aura of late Spirit Building. “Not too far, but that step is quite important. Well, I suppose five years might be a bit too short to expect from people. This could just be one of those things. I wonder if I’m a few years off from a good cycle.” The last part was muttered to himself- though quite easy for anyone to overhear regardless.
“You said five years?” a young man standing with the disciples of the Frostmirror sect asked. “Why is there an old man here then?” He looked pointedly towards Anton.
At that point, Everheart’s facade of civility and proper demeanor shattered. With a flick of his voluminous sleeves, the young man was flat on his face. Then Everheart was crouching in front of him, legs spread wide and a lazy expression of contempt on his face. “Listen up, maggot. There are two problems with what you said. First, I’m not ‘you’. I’m Everheart. Great Golden Emperor of the Most Powerful Techniques Everheart. Though everyone else can call me Senior Everheart if they’re polite about it.” Everheart poked the top of the young man’s head. “Second, I don’t make mistakes. If I say the old man has been cultivating for less than five years, he has.” An uncomfortable number of gazes were on the young man on the floor, but even more were on Anton. Everheart snapped his fingers, “Oh, a third thing. My word is law here. Even if that wasn’t true, if I say the ceiling’s a floor, it’s a floor.” With another flick of his sleeve the young man ‘fell’ to the ceiling, where he was similarly stuck flat. “Now then, where were we? Oh yes. Go ahead and explore for a few days. The test starts after that.” With a swirl of sleeves and light he spun around, then disappeared from view.
Even with many people running down different hallways at the announcement that they could explore, far too much attention was on Anton for his own preference- but something good came of the situation. He ignored the young man glaring at him from the ceiling as if the situation was Anton’s fault and focused on a head poking out from the crowd. Annelie’s eyes were wide and her jaw was hanging slack. Anton smiled gently and he gave a little wave. “Finally found you. I hope you’re doing well?”
Several of the other members of the Frostmirror sect stepped in front of Annelie defensively, but she tried to push her way through them. “That’s my great-grandpa!” she exclaimed.
Another voice responded to her statement. “The one you said was invincible and could do anything?” The figure that spoke that line stepped forward, a woman just past her teenage years with an icy demeanor. “What use is he if he couldn’t even defend your village?”
Anton’s hand covered Catarina’s mouth as she was about to say something in his defense. He would prefer to maintain cordial relations with Annelie’s sect, at least for the moment- the disciple on the ceiling already being a lost cause. “That’s true. I’m not even remotely invincible and there are many things I cannot do. But I would still like to see my great-granddaughter.”
The woman looked like she was going to reject, but Annelie’s hands appeared on her shoulders and her chin rested on the woman’s head. “Diana said you were dead but I told her you couldn’t be. I was right!”
Anton smiled sadly. “I could have been, though. In most cases, she would have been right. How are things?”
“Fine,” Annelie said from her weird perch. The woman she was resting on kept an impassive yet stern expression even as she was being climbed on. “Cultivating is fine but I don’t have any friends.” She blinked then exclaimed, “You’re a cultivator! I thought so! How strong were you before?”
“I was not a cultivator when we last saw each other,” Anton stated. “Only from… shortly after.”
Seeming to be finished with Annelie clambering on her, Diana gently but swiftly lowered her to the ground. “You should not believe him. That is not possible. Even if it was, there are opportunities to seek. We must be going.” She started pulling Annelie behind her down a hallway.
Annelie looked back, “I believe you! We’ll talk more later once Diana loses track of me!”
“That’s not the sort of thing you should say in front of me,” the woman admonished.
Given the demeanor of the other surrounding disciples, Anton declined to attempt to follow her. “Fare well, Annelie. See you soon.” At least he could confirm she was alive and in something like good spirits, though he didn’t think much of her sect mates. Cold and uncaring… or a bit too emotional like the young man apparently permanently relegated to the ceiling. He was ‘standing’ now, walking around and trying to find a way to get to the other hallways- while still occasionally glaring towards Anton.
“She’s terrible,” Catarina commented. “Diana, I mean. Annelie seems great.”
“Ah, I forgot to introduce you,” Anton shook his head. “Well, there will be chances later, I’m certain.” He wasn’t happy with the brevity of the meeting, but his heart was uplifted. “Let’s go check out these death traps, shall we? There should be reliable rewards if we can pass them.”
The other disciples from the Order had already left, except for the core group. Timothy, Hoyt, and Velvet were still nearby.Hoyt spoke up next, “The Frostmirror sect is one of those that tends to divest themselves of emotions instead of handling them. Luckily Annelie there is still in early Spirit Building as far as I could tell, so she should have barely begun the process. It would be better if we could retrieve her from their care, but that might be difficult.”
“Is removing your emotions that bad?” Velvet asked. “Do cultivators really need them?”
Hoyt shrugged. “It depends on who you ask. But I will say this. You have two kidneys. You don’t need both of them. But I doubt you would divest yourself of either of them just because they might inconvenience you in the future.”
Velvet wrapped her hands around her belly. “Right.”
“Much better to be able to suppress emotions for a short time than entirely remove them,” Anton said. “It’s literally impossible to be happy about the results, nor sad. If properly handled, positive emotions can be made to outweigh the negative. Even if it takes much effort.” Anton was making use of his training at the very moment, trying not to remember the emotions from two and a half years prior, when he’d last seen Annelie. Breaking down crying wouldn’t do any good right now. He could just do it a little bit inside. He didn’t need to pretend the meeting was only happy though.
The group had been strolling towards the nearest hallway. When they arrived, another Everheart with coiffed hair and tailored clothes that were probably fashionable in a previous century was just finishing an explanation to a small crowd. “… and that’s about it. Just follow those instructions and you probably won’t get yourself killed.” His eyes turned to the five just entering the area. “No, I’m not going to repeat myself. Figure it out.”
Somehow, Anton found Everheart’s intentionally provocative attitude reassuring. He could take his mind off of problems he couldn’t solve right now with a little bit of mortal danger. He looked down what seemed to be an empty hallway with little decoration by tiled floors and started scanning it with his eyes and senses, while the others did so as well.