Shortly before Everheart’s proclamation in a expansive room with walls smoothly carved out of the plateau’s stone, dozens of cultivators pushed themselves forward against the pressure of the area. Oskar felt his muscles straining as he was nearly forced off his feet. One section ahead of him he saw Devon, likewise struggling to resist the pressure of the area.
The rules of their current test were simple. Reach the furthest point that one could without collapsing. Some candidates attempted to improve their results by moving as swiftly as possible, but the second part of the rules resulted in that rarely being to their benefit. The participant’s location over a certain period of time was averaged- thus, if someone could run from the front of the room to the back but collapsed at the end, they would only count as having reached the middle. The participants instead needed to match their stamina and the strongest place they could resist, moving as far as they could quickly while not going too far and suffering defeat.
The weight bearing down on Oksar was oppressive energy, but he welcomed it. Though he now practiced the Ninety-Nine Stars, his first experience in cultivation had been in mines where the natural energy was far too dense for a normal human to operate. Even without any training as a cultivator he had been able to feel the energy there, and he had chosen to let it inside to slow the pressure instead of trying to hold out against it. That could have easily been the wrong choice- if so, he would have died slightly sooner. Of course, he wasn’t dead and in fact had set himself down the path to power with his decision.
He used that same experience now to let the pressure flow through him, easing the burden on his body. The effects were easy to discern- Oskar had reached his current point next to several cultivators in early Spirit Building, and he felt he could go further. Not much, but at least to the next section where the pressure would increase strongly once more.
Ahead of him, Devon seemed to be relying on another method to continue forward- pure grit. Though he was certainly using all of his technique to lessen the pressure on himself, he kept moving forward through the power of will, despite his body trembling in exertion and pain.
At least half of the participants had already collapsed, with some of those who rushed ahead despite the stated rules being the first. Their rewards would be the least, though Oskar wasn’t certain that the rewards themselves mattered. An area like this required powerful formations- the likes of which even the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars would find too expensive to sustain for long periods. It was an excellent training method, though Oskar knew that if he tried to use it as his only training method he would end up quite flawed. Notwithstanding that its effects would be most helpful for body tempering, diversity in training was important. Energy was extremely important to a cultivator, but Anton had taught him that properly making use of whatever energy was available for training and combat was more important.
The energy flowed over him and through him, and though it wasn’t in a pure form where he could absorb more than a modest amount into himself, he took advantage of what he could. He carefully guided it through his meridians starting at his head and exiting his feet with the greatest portion he could handle diverted into his dantian where it would be refined and used as his own.
His steps forward were slow and determined, bringing him to the edge of the next section. Every minute one or two more people were unable to continue, some ahead and some behind. Oskar stepped forward and felt a weight crash down on him. It was like a full tub of water, washing over him and destabilizing him. However, he withstood it. More than that, he comprehended it. Personal control of energy was important to Oskar, and he’d resolved that his first step into Spirit Building would be Spiritual Connection. It couldn’t wait for the prime tempering, and thus completing it first was the most efficient. As he stepped forward, he felt himself also take the more metaphysical step into Spirit Building. He wasn’t at the completion of the eleventh star and wouldn’t be for some time, but fundamental changes were starting inside of him.
He continued forward, each step feeling as if he had a boulder on his back. He could push himself further than he had thought, though each step took several seconds to complete. He could barely raise his feet off the floor, and ahead of him Devon was merely shuffling his own feet. Yet the two of them continued to make progress. Oskar soon found himself one section further than he’d thought he could reach, though he merely stood across the threshold with his body trembling, fearing he would stumble if he continued. Devon stayed ahead of him, stopping before the threshold to the next section for some time before flinging himself forward. Oskar thought he could hear Devon’s bones creaking- though that may have been his imagination in the relatively quiet hall. Before he collapsed ten seconds later, Devon had made it not just through one section but into the next as well, though barely. When Devon collapsed, he did so with a contented sigh.
Then the announcement from Everheart came. A decree they would be staying inside for a full month and having a competition to increase in cultivation for the greatest prizes. It didn’t sound like anyone was allowed to refuse, but Oskar merely determined to be cautious in efforts. That was why he had chosen this particular room- it didn’t have anything that would be deadly, unless a cultivator actually chose to push themself to the brink of death. However, when people collapsed the pressure on them was released- so Oskar wasn’t even sure there was any possible danger besides embarrassment in this particular challenge.
Outside of the tomb, the reactions of the various sects were quite varied. Some immediately attempted an attack on the entrance or the projection of Everheart, but in both cases he simply laughed. The attacks rebounded off of the barrier at the entrance and simply passed through the projection, respectively. “I’m afraid you will simply have to wait until the time is up. The danger inside is no higher than it was before, so I should not think it would be a problem. Unless you believe your disciples are too stupid to know their own limits?” Nobody answered that one at all. “Then please do not attempt another attack on the barrier, or I’ll have to break my fully neutral standing and remove some of you.” As he said that, just to prove he did have power to affect people, he waved a muscled arm and toppled all of those who were close to the entrance of the tomb.
Most of the sects involved were quite calm about the result. As Everheart said, the danger hadn’t suddenly changed- just the option for their disciples to withdraw. There was little they could do about it regardless, not without endangering themselves or possibly their disciples.
Among the members of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars, the elders and those who had been cultivating longer than the allowed duration, Elder Kseniya was thinking about something else. She was an archer, and had eyes that could pick out a specific target on the horizon. She would of course notice anything happening right in front of her gaze. Her current feeling was regret at not having brought along the woman known as Kohar Tolvaj. Her training in law was irregular for a cultivator but had proved extremely useful for Anton’s goals.
Kohar was currently working with the Order on something as well. If things had ended with everyone leaving Khonard and nothing more the Order could have merely expressed disapproval that a lawsuit had been required to free unlawfully enslaved people. The attack by mercenaries and the trouble at the border, however, gave them some ammunition. The problem was using it in a way that did not harm the greater interests of Graotan for the sake of petty revenge. The mercenaries had generally gotten their just desserts- most of them were killed in the attack with nothing to show for it. It was simply those who had hired them who hadn’t yet been punished, and that would require some maneuvering. Along with direct legal advice, Kohar was knowledgeable in how to manipulate people. It wouldn’t be useful to just make a declaration and assume that Ofrurg would enforce their will. Instead, they had to take advantage of their internal politics to make certain parties interested in taking the action they wanted from them.
All of that was probably more important, but when Elder Kseniya saw a criminal right in front of her eyes she wanted to just shoot his head off. She’d seen Anton resist the urge, however, and she would hope she was somewhat more responsible than him. Even though Van Hassel wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list of the Order’s enemies, because of Anton and the company he kept many elders were aware of him. And it would be so easy to just shoot him. She could even declare he was a criminal, and since he had been formally removed from the Heavenly Lion Sect they shouldn’t be able to respond. Yet it would still probably be seen as a breach of the contract of peace for events such as these. So was following him as he left and killing him in the wilderness. Of course, nobody would be able to do anything about that second one, but anyone strong enough to get involved would be missed.
So Elder Kseniya did nothing except keep careful track of how close Van Hassell stood to the Heavenly Lion Sect and also the few exchanges he had with his uncle and some of the others. They prevented anyone from overhearing their words, but they couldn’t stop her from trying to read their lips. Sadly, she saw nothing incriminating beyond the very fact that an expelled disciple was still able to engage in pleasantries with his former sect. Then he left, along with many others- all of those who weren’t chosen were being escorted away by part of the elders, while the others remained to escort the rest at the end of the month.
There was one last chance to shoot him, after he was just over the horizon. A simple Horizon Shot would be able to take him out, and nobody could say they saw her shoot the arrow that killed him. But they could say an arrow much like hers did it, and that she shot one at the right time. Maybe she should teach Anton that. Though by the time he could learn it, she would be extremely surprised if he hadn’t already killed Van Hassel through other means.
“…and thus I propose this particular course of action,” Anton concluded. He looked at his current companions- including Firdaus, who had been included in the discussion.
Having expected strong disagreement, Anton was pleased when Catarina was the first to speak- and in support of his ideas. “I concur with the idea. Even if it does not go well, it should not diminish our relative standing in the competition.”
“I’m not sure,” Velvet said. “How will we enforce anything? What if we help someone and then they refuse to contribute in turn?”
“There is an entire month here,” Anton said. “We’ll take things one day at a time. If someone decides that one hint or piece of assistance we give is so valuable that they wish to take it without contributing in return, we shall simply ignore them. Of course, I am not suggesting we try to work with absolutely everyone. We should take stock of those who might be amenable to teamwork with other sects. I do believe I would immediately discount the Heavenly Lion Sect as whole, though that might be unfair to some of their individual members.”
“Probably not,” Firdaus said. “Nor do I think they would agree to cooperate in any fashion.”
“We should take careful stock of the allegiances of those involved,” Hoyt commented. “There are more than direct enemies of the Order, and some of those who are technically neutral are allied with them. Being as open as possible is fine, but we should not cross that line.”
“Fair enough,” Anton agreed. “Perhaps more in-depth examinations of people before we make the offer, then. Though of course we should coordinate with the Order and the Grasping Willow sect. As for Cloudtop Summit,” Anton looked to Firdaus, “What do you think? The personal offer to you will remain open of course, regardless.”
“I cannot say Cloudtop Summit is an ally of the Order, but we are certainly not enemies.”
“Neutral is fine,” Anton said. “Even with excellent training conditions, one month is still merely that. We shouldn’t significantly impact another sect on the whole, and even if we somehow do they should be more inclined to be friendly towards us. This might drive a rift between certain groups but honestly… cultivators aren’t naturally inclined to get along anyway.”
Nobody had hard objections to the plan- but some were cautiously optimistic about the possibilities while others were just cautious. Before they could even determine if they’d actually be able to accomplish anything useful, they were first going to seek out their allies and ask about the other areas. It wouldn’t do to miss out on the basics.