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The extent of the facilities were quite impressive. Even for top tier cultivators in Life Transformation- the analogue to Galaxy Construction- resources weren’t infinite. Of course, Everheart was the sort that would happily plunder the bounty of his enemies, and he had many of them. It wasn’t inconceivable for him to have made more than one ‘tomb’, but together they had to have been the work of a century.
Anton was in one of a handful of rooms that had golems in them. Many things could be called golems, but the general idea was something made of sturdy materials, imbued with energy and mobilized by a formation. What Anton saw was a man made out of rock nearly four meters tall, though details of facial expression and musculature were ignored in exchange for smooth shapes.
He held his bow loosely, looking at his opponent. As far as anyone had been able to tell, they were always accurate about when the challengers started the battle, but he didn’t want to accidentally initiate combat early. He had watched a few fights and now was imagining himself in combat against the construct. After he’d gone through several iterations, he decided he would have to fight to truly know.
His bow came up, and the moment he was creating and drawing his first Spirit Arrow the creature moved. It seemed ponderous and slow, but that was merely due to its bulk. Each step took it twice as far as a normal person, so its speed could not be underestimated. Anton’s first arrow flew straight towards its head, only to be blocked by a stone fist. A colored mark appeared on the back of its hand where he hit, not real damage but instead an indicator of what the damage might have been, if they were able to be damaged at all. It was a faint red blush that indicated minimal damage- but there was the possibility for there to be none at all, so Anton was satisfied.
The creature barrelled towards him, and Anton mobilized his energy to strafe around the room while firing arrows at the golem. With his age having returned he was less able to rely on his body for his movements and drawing his bow, but his energy was sufficient that he was still a real threat. At least, to normal opponents. Unbreakable golems sadly didn’t get weaker as the battle continued, nor did they tire. Thus, while soon it had red blushes on every one of its joints and a deep red mark on its neck, it continued with the same unliving vigor it had begun the battle with.
This was the part of the particular trial that was difficult. One had to keep going, doing as much damage as possible while avoiding attacks. More than that, it wasn’t possible to voluntarily withdraw early. That meant keeping enough in reserve to withstand at least a single hit by a several ton rock fist empowered by energy. Fortunately, the actual energy enhancements were mostly defensive- otherwise Anton doubted anyone below Essence Collection would have been able to survive a single hit. As far as he could tell the golems didn’t adjust themselves to their opponent’s cultivation, either. Dangerous.
Anton felt himself slowing down. He just wanted to get in a few more hits… then he would have to take one. His arrows struck the golem from behind, taking advantage of its inability to block or deflect attacks from the rear. Then he maneuvered towards the center of the room. He wasn’t sure if he needed to actually fully take a hit, but apparently some people who dodged too well did not manage to trigger the proper defeat sequence.
He planted his feet and trusted that Everheart wasn’t just interested in killing him. Otherwise, he was dead as soon as he entered the room and the door shut behind him. He formed his energy around him into a solid layer of armor, ready to take a blow head on. Golden Armor wasn’t something he used often, but there were a few situations he was glad to have it. He looked at a fist coming for him… and decided that he could do with a little bit of impact softening. He prepared to jump back as the attack hit him. He was sent flying all the way to the edge of the room, where he rebounded off of the wall. His Golden Armor was shattered, but it distributed the impact across his body equally. That meant that he would simply be bruised everywhere, front and back, instead of having a hole in his torso.
Anton was glad to see that the golem had returned to its stationary position and the door opened. Perhaps he needed to work on Golden Armor more, if he was to keep training with the golems. At least he’d done a reasonable amount of damage. Unlike the trial with the trapped corridor, combat with the golems was cumulative. He was saving up points for a nice breastplate he saw in the rewards- and if someone got that first, there were other interesting things available.
There were two areas Anton hadn’t yet gone to. First was a room for dismantling and setting up formations. He should at least see what he was able to do there, but he didn’t expect much in the way of results. The other one was the most dangerous. It seemed to be the culmination of everything else. Trapped corridors, both involving formations and not. Crushing pressure. Golems. Puzzles. Random questions about cultivation. Everything had dangers, and unlike many other places it didn’t allow for easy retreats. The further one progressed the more danger they would have to face on their way back out. There was no official name, but the cultivators had taken to calling it The Gauntlet. The only reason anyone knew all of the different aspects it covered was not because someone had gotten close to the end, but instead that which order things were arranged changed every day.
After the announcement that everyone would be challenged for a month, several new areas had opened up. Specifically, rooms for people to sleep as well as a mess hall and finally a library. Anton found that the food in the mess hall was highly nutritious and plentiful. It also tasted like mud, but to be fair to mud sometimes it tasted like very little. The food in the mess hall didn’t have that wonderful feature. Still, it was beneficial to his training and he would endure it for one month. His rations would probably last, but they wouldn’t taste much better and would be less helpful.
The library was something special. Anton wasn’t sure if that was good, but it was full of all sorts of techniques written by Everheart. Some of them nobody would bother declaring forbidden, but some… Anton only looked at to be certain how to counter them. He had no desire to implant parasites that would tear people apart from the inside even if it was ‘highly effective’.
Of special interest was an ancient copy of the Ninety-Nine Stars. Anton found it fascinating to see how things had changed over a few centuries, as it was both significant yet also minor. It was clearly still the same technique, but the older version was more difficult to practice and had significant weaknesses. Yet along with that, some of the difficulty added increased strength. Little things that would slightly enhance prime temperings if performed correctly or a whole second layer of circulation through the meridians that could be maintained at the same time for either nearly a twenty percent increase in cultivation speed or… probable crippling of the meridians and dantian as energy exploded inside the cultivator. That seemed to only be intended for Essence Collection and later, so it was possible the Order still carried that information in sections he hadn’t been allowed to access yet. He still took careful notes regardless.
There were also the core techniques for the Heavenly Lion Sect and the Frostmirror Sect. Likely similarly out of date, but still useful to look at. Anton wished he could say he spotted a significant flaw inherent in the Heavenly Lion Sect’s technique that he could use to defeat Van Hassel with ease, but honestly it seemed quite sound. He was more familiar with the Ninety-Nine Stars, of course, so deeper study might be useful.
He wondered who else was reading up on the Ninety-Nine Stars. Unfortunately, he did not have the time to constantly watch the library. In fact, he was only allowed a single hour per day- like everyone else. He could conscript twenty-three others to help him, but that would be a monumental waste of time. He would just assume all his worst enemies would know. That gave him the idea to simulate some of the weaknesses that the Ninety-Nine Stars no longer possessed. He’d give that a try. Eventually.
Each sect had staked a claim on certain sections of the individual rooms. Each room was identical, so there was little benefit to particular ones except a slightly shorter walk, but they preferred to keep separate. At the moment he was waiting outside the Frostmirror Sect’s section.
He first spotted Diana approaching, but through her legs he could see some of another, smaller figure. He inclined his head. “I hope your cultivation is going well.”
“It is,” she declared without emotion. “I wish the same for you.” It felt more like she wished him to be covered in ice and frozen to death, but perhaps that was just… her.
Annelie pushed her way past Diana. “I’m ready to go!” She turned to Diana. “Thank you for allowing me to study with my great-grandpa.”
“It would be… unreasonable of us to forbid you to interact. Please remember to consult me on what he teaches before attempting to practice it. We don’t want to introduce any flaws to your cultivation.”
“I’ll be back in an hour!” Annelie waved. Then she grabbed Anton’s hand and started pulling him away. They’d met a few times, but he’d only recently managed to get permission for Annelie to join their training group.
Besides Firdaus and those he’d known before, the group also included more members of Cloudtop Summit and one more member of the Frostmirror Sect. There were also a dozen members of some other major sects and twice that many from small sects or who were independent. A few others attended irregularly.
“Oh!” Annelie paused for a moment when she saw the member of the Frostmirror Sect. “Marsen, you’re here too. What convinced you to join when none of the others did?”
“Practical,” he said. He was similarly inexpressive of emotions as Diana, but Anton had the feeling he’d always been more like that instead of it being a result of training. “An exchange of knowledge for knowledge.”
The group training sessions were much different from what Anton was used to. For one thing, the majority of those participating didn’t practice the Ninety-Nine Stars. Thus, it wasn’t possible for Anton to directly guide people. But his still did his best to fulfill the role of a leader. That meant even if he couldn’t help someone finding who could. Occasionally there were disputes to settle where people felt the value of what they received was unequal, but most of those who would be dissatisfied quickly simply stopped attending. Now people exchanged cultivation thoughts almost without reservation, assuming that eventually they would similarly be advised by others.
After checking in on everyone, Anton took Annelie aside and began instructing her. He’d read over the Frostmirror Sect’s technique, and he had to know if certain parts were the same or different. “In the Spirit Building section, when does the severing of emotions come?”
“I don’t… know if I’m allowed to say that. Sorry. I’m sworn not to reveal details. Even to friends and family.”
“I understand,” Anton said. “I wouldn’t want to push you. How about this. I will describe something, and you can say whether it is the same… or whether it is not. “
“That… should be fine.”
“Excellent. Let’s continue.” Anton’s primary goal was trying to get her to modify the emotion severing. Even if the Frostmirror sect’s technique allowed that part to be ‘incomplete’, he still found the ability to willfully remove emotions while still having them was better. Wherever it was necessary for her training she would still be able to divest herself of emotions, but she could still have them where useful.
The only problem was trying to slip that training past Diana, but while Annelie had sworn not to speak of her cultivation technique she had no qualms of directly taking his advice on how to cultivate without passing it by Diana first. She would likely still end up telling her one way or another, but as long as the proper results were reached Anton didn’t mind. Annelie had some leeway as a talented cultivator, and Diana was really meant to be protecting her more than controlling her.