Elder Cultivator 127

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Before any of the members of the Order could discern whatever rules governed the hallway, someone started making their way through it. They took four steps, each one matching the one meter length of the tiles on the floor, before the fifth step unleashed a volley of darts from the wall. The man twisted his body in place to avoid most of them, but one still stuck into his shoulder as it pierced through his energy. If he had been willing to step off of the tile he was standing on he could have certainly dodged them completely.

Anton was quite amazed at the trap, he hadn’t been able to tell the pressure plate or the tiny holes in the wall had been there until it activated. Afterwards, he still wasn’t sure he could really pick it out or if he was just seeing what he wanted to see.

“Anything?” he asked Catarina and Velvet. 

“It’s not a formation, I don’t think…” Catarina frowned. “At least, I can only discern reinforcement for the walls and floor and nothing more.”

Before Velvet had the time to give her opinion, a strong woman stepped confidently onto the first tile the previous cultivator had stepped on. In response, a dozen spikes pierced through that very tile into her foot. She screamed in rage and pulled her foot away- Anton couldn’t be sure, but he doubted she was seriously injured, outside of her pride. After all, she was able to stumble back to the safe zone without consequence. She looked like she was about to yell at the projection of Everheart, but thought better of it. Perhaps she remembered the man who was doubtless still wandering around the ceiling in the main hall. “Senior Everheart. I thought you said there was only one path through the hallway. Why did it change?”

“Hmm,” the fancily dressed Everheart stroked a well manicured beard, “Did I say that?” He looked pointedly towards the five who had come in last. “Who knows? I might have, I might not have.”

The woman grumbled but chose to walk back towards the main hall rather than trying to continue down the hallway or argue with the proprietor. Anton thought that was a reasonable choice, though he doubted the other hallways would be intentionally less obtuse.

Several others of those waiting tried stepping onto the tiles, but most were met by various traps. One more person managed to step several tiles in along a different path, before the leading cultivator had made his decision and took a step to his left. With no response, he then continued forward.

A ball of compressed energy dropped from the ceiling, and the man flung himself backwards. Losing progress was one thing, but he absolutely could not be hit by the ball of energy. As it passed through the spot he had been standing it simply exploded, sending a shockwave down the five meter wide corridor. The cultivator wasn’t quite prepared for that and was blasted into the ground.

Anton exchanged glances with the others. He wondered if they noticed what he did. He still wasn’t sure how everything worked, but he moved forward to the left end of the five tile wide hallway. He stepped onto the first tile and nothing happened. The second in front of him. The third to his right. Then right once more and a large axe blade was slicing towards his legs. He hadn’t been able to anticipate the attack, but as soon as it was happening his training in Instinct took over and along with his previous intentions propelled him backwards, leaping over the tile between himself and safety. “I think that’s quite enough of that for now,” he commented.

Others began to try, not finding any real path to success. The paths people chose all seemed to be wrong, with traps triggering at unexpected moments and forcing them to retreat with various levels of injury before anyone even got ten tiles into the hallway that was a hundred meters long. People started filtering out of the hallway, leaving only the five from the Order and the first cultivator to step into the area. The wound on his shoulder had barely bled, but Anton could see occasional glimpses of it and saw what looked like yellow and purple bruising in the area. It hadn’t been a wide impact, so perhaps it was some sort of poison causing the discoloration.

Anton sat down, then gestured for the others to do so as well. “I have an idea.” When the unknown cultivator didn’t respond, Anton waved him over specifically. “You should join us as well. We might be competition, but the chances of us getting something if we work together are higher.” The man reluctantly sat down. “I’m Anton. You?”

“Firdaus,” he said reluctantly.

“Good enough. We’re all part of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars, but if you work together with us we can agree to give you an even share of whatever treasures are at the other end.”

“What do you need me to do?” he asked.

“Listen to my ideas, and if you don’t have thoughts to prove my ideas wrong one of us will run down the hallway.”

Which one of us?” Firdaus narrowed his eyes.

“Either you or me. At your discretion. I’m sure you’ll understand why later. First, I’ll say what I’ve observed. I’m sure some of you have as well. Firdaus, what can you tell about why the tiles activate?”

“Nothing,” he shook his head, “It seems entirely random. I can’t discern a path to the end.”

“That’s it,” Anton said agreeably. “Entirely random. Does everyone else feel the same?” Everyone nodded in agreement. “But there’s more to it.”

“Before you share that,” Velvet interjected, “Perhaps it would be best for Firdaus to share the rules he heard. Since we’re offering our insights to him.”

Firdaus shrugged, “Sure. For all the good it’ll do you.” He closed his eyes in concentration, then recited. “There is only one path through the hallway. Each tile has the potential to release traps. The only rule is that you must step on adjacent tiles for the whole path.” He held out his hands, “That was the whole thing, though he said it with more drama,” Firdaus inclined his head towards the watching projection.

“That last part is actually important,” Anton said. “Very useful. I might have made a mistake without that.”

“How’s that useful?”

“Because I was just going to leap as far as I could to avoid stepping on as many tiles as possible,” Anton admitted. “But if that’s an actual rule I imagine it’s enforced,” he couldn’t read anything from the smug expression of the nearby Everheart. He doubted that face was ever not smug. “There were two specific things I took note of. Anyone want to guess?”

“The traps are always the same,” Hoyt commented. “They’re not actually random. Each tile has the same one every time it triggers.”

“The formation doesn’t make the effects,” Catarina confirmed, “I’ve been able to observe it. It simply fortifies the walls and perhaps helps reset the traps, but the traps are certainly real if nearly impossible to detect with the senses.”

“It’s good to have confirmation on that,” Anton admitted. “Having the traps be the same isn’t too bad, and there’s one other factor that I think makes this safe enough to risk. Anyone?”

Nobody answered for a few moments until Timothy finally spoke up, “I’m not sure about this… but I don’t think I ever saw a trap trigger when someone stepped backwards.”

“Exactly!” Anton slapped his thigh to emphasize his enthusiasm. “I don’t think Everheart wants to kill people with this. At least not in a boring or unfair way. People have the option to retreat. I think everyone else subconsciously realized that. A good deterrent.” Anton turned towards their temporary companion. “So,” Anton continued his earlier line of thought. “One of the two of us should just run down the hall. If we don’t stop, we can avoid the traps. If something changes, I believe we will still have the option to retreat.”

“Why would I go first, then?” Firdaus asked. “I can’t find any fault in your observations, but you could still be fatally incorrect.”

“Simple. Though we might split things evenly, whoever goes first will get first pick of similarly valued items. The same for each of us. Whoever goes last will have the easiest time avoiding traps, in theory, so even if they get a fair split they don’t have priority.”

“I’m not sure. But so you can’t later say I didn’t contribute, I’ll go second.”

“Perfectly reasonable,” Anton said. “Any objections from anyone else? Good.” Anton shifted to his feet. “Might as well get started.”

Anton stepped forward, coating himself with his energy. He always had some protecting him but now it was actively controlled and at a higher intensity. He needed defenses but also agility. Still, it should be slightly easier than a real combat because he wouldn’t have to also worry about any sort of attacks of his own. 

He picked the line where he was familiar with the first five traps, then started running. Each foot hit a tile. The first one sprayed gas towards him, but by the time it reached the target location he was already on the next tile. That one didn’t trigger. Anton had no reason to divert to the left or the right since most of the traps were still unknown, so he might as well make the most progress possible. 

As he ran, Anton focused on his training in Swan Steps to augment his movements while he relied on his memory of the next two traps to avoid them, then had to rely solely on trained Instinct. Blades and spears and rocks flew at him, poisonous darts and gas and pretty much everything. One tile even fell away from under his foot as he stepped, but his momentum carried him forward to the next step. Anton didn’t think about what was happening behind him or what might happen ahead- he merely focused on what he needed to do in the moment.

One step in front of the other, a twist to avoid an incoming attack, fortifying his defenses on an arm where he had to block, breathing in and out. This hallway was a test of agility and reaction as well as general cultivation power. It wasn’t a real deathtrap. Anton was certain of that. If Everheart just wanted to kill people, there was no need to pretend to have fairness. Though Anton couldn’t say what the results might be if he angered one of the projections. Then all logic might be out the window.

After a minute, Anton realized he was standing still. He’d told himself to keep going until the reached the end of the tiles, and he had. He looked back at the hallway which was filled with flame, gasses, dust, and weapons. The weapons retracted into the floors or walls while the projectiles were retrieved by some mysterious force. The gas dispersed and the flames faded, leaving behind no scorch marks on the surroundings or indeed any signs of his passage. 

As for himself, Anton was still breathing heavily and had nicks and scrapes and burns all over, with traces of poison in his system. His movements hadn’t been perfect, nor his defenses. He took a few steps away from the tiles and sat down, circulating his energy to jumpstart the healing process while he watched to see if Firdaus would really make the attempt. 

Firdaus stuck to what he said and ran straight down the middle, along the same path as Anton. There were still many differences in the dangers he encountered, since the triggering of the tiles was quite random. There was a stretch of nearly eight tiles where nothing happened, then one that hadn’t done anything for Anton suddenly tilted, flinging him to the side and to the right end of the corridor. He hit the wall but was running as soon as his feet hit the tile below, narrowly avoiding a blade chopping out of the wall. He continued running down the right side of the corridor, triggering traps with every other step. Anton found that the danger seemed more real when he could see all of it instead of just moving past it, but it was all somewhat appropriate. Firdaus used his spear to parry blades on the very last tile and then stepped to next to Anton.

“Very good,” Anton said. “Instead of trying to get back on the path you just kept moving. That takes bravery.”

“… Thanks,” Firdaus didn’t seem to know how to respond to the complement. “Honestly, I just didn’t think about it.”

“I didn’t either,” Anton admitted. “I just had to keep going. Still, whatever mental training you have done was sufficient.”

“That’s what Spirit Building is all about,” Firdaus said. He sat himself near Anton and watched down the corridor, also taking the chance to start healing small wounds.

“Not going to try to attack me and claim everything for yourself?”

“That would be pretty stupid,” He said. “I know the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. I hope you will uphold the reputation of honesty, and I’m certain you would uphold the tradition of strength.” He stroked his chin, “Is it really true you’ve also been training less than five years? You don’t… look like it.”

“My opportunity came very late in life,” Anton said, “But it is true that I only began recently.”

“Close to mid Spirit Building in that time… given your age, I’m quite impressed. The rest of your group seems talented as well.”

“Yes. We were lucky to join the Order at similar times.”

Timothy was currently running down the hall, yelling at the top of his lungs. In his defense, it was a cry of determination and not fear, but it was a bit funny to watch. Anything that came from his left was skillfully deflected with his shield, and fancy footwork and simple forward momentum took care of everything else. He arrived with the other two soon enough, the least injured of the three.

Catarina was next, though it seemed the others had also been eager to try their hand. She relied less on judging attacks after they came and instead had memorized most of the dangers that would appear in front of her, dodging them before they could even be a threat- sometimes stopping short instead of continuing at full speed like the first three. There were still a few that were new and she had to react to without knowing what they would be, but she made it to the end in good health, though clearly fatigued like the others.

Hoyt seemed eager but let Velvet go next. She was clearly less aware of the pattern of traps she would be facing, since memorizing things like that was more in Catarina’s field, but she still used her speed and agility to weave her way through the traps- and was even willing to step to side tiles instead of sticking strictly to the middle, despite possible unknown traps.

When it was finally his turn, Hoyt’s response to most of the traps was chopping through them. Though the method was aggressive, it was effective. Darts split easily, but while fire wasn’t something that could be cut with a blade, energy could wedge it apart. That was even more true when the energy in question was also fire. Though chopping seemed as if it was a method of brute force, it actually took as much finesse as parrying everything. He still had to align his weapon precisely, he just wasn’t meeting the threats with intent to solely deflect. He ran into some trouble with the floor spikes that were fortified to not break, but even in that case his axe pushed him away from the spikes. 

Soon enough six relatively healthy people were at the end of the hall, with an impatient looking Everheart looming over them. “Finally. Will you look at the rewards now? Honestly, I haven’t seen people so willing to wait for rewards in my entire life. You didn’t even peek your head in the doors!”

Anton shrugged, “Sorry, Senior Everheart, but I wanted to see my companions successes.” Besides, were the treasures just going to run away? Actually, he supposed they might.

Everheart sighed, “Yes yes, loyalty and all that. We have two things. First, the door on the left. It has rewards for all of you. One item each. The other is for training. One hour per day per person.”

“Ah… too bad we don’t get to split everything. Still, second pick should be worth something, eh Firdaus?”

The man nodded. “Let’s see what there is. If I know one thing about Everheart, he is generous with rewards.”

//Author’s note: Another long one! But no need to split it up when I can just write more for next time! 🙂

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