At the end of the first week of the competition, it had been widely accepted that completing The Gauntlet was impossible. It was a slog of endurance, combat, and mental challenges that weren’t possible for a single person to have accomplished in five years of training. Even if they were the sort of genius who reached Essence Collection in that time, it seemed unlikely they would have also been able to learn knowledge on a variety of topics including formations and equipment crafting and enchantment.
Yet there were no rewards for partial completion. Nearly everything else had rewards based on progress. In the case of the trapped corridor, there were initial rewards in the form of equipment and ongoing rewards in the form of the training area. Though Anton and the others were fairly certain that having to pass through the traps every day was also intended for training. It would be a waste to not go every day, because the single hour in those training chambers was worth at least several days of normal effort. Only a certain portion of people were willing to repeatedly go through the area for the benefits, and those below Spirit Building generally weren’t able to pass the hallway- so throughout the course of the day everyone who wanted to was able to fit in one of the available slots.
A week was sufficient time to settle into a routine, and Anton gladly settled into a routine where he visited a dozen different trials every day as well as spending time training with others. This ended with him getting five to six hours of sleep per night, which he felt was quite sufficient. During the planting and harvest a farmer needed to work hard all day or miss the optimal opportunity. There were times for slower work, but this wasn’t one of them. None of those who came to the tomb were coasting along, but not everyone knew how much a human could be pushed for a month. Anton saw some people with bags under their eyes already and knew they would run into trouble by the next week at best. Even if they didn’t make a terrible mistake during training they’d be significantly less efficient. Another two hours hour of training per day were meaningless if they had even a one in ten decrease in effectiveness throughout the day.
Before it had been declared impossible, Anton’s interest in The Gauntlet was minimal. He had made an attempt, but when it started with formations he quickly backed out. One other time it had been far too busy, and he didn’t want to get locked up in circumstantial damage from others’ combats or traps.
After nobody was there, he actually became more interested. He wasn’t the only one- Hoyt suggested that perhaps they try it together. Specifically, a group with the widest variety of talents they could. Either they would quickly fail… or they might actually find a way to success.
They put together a group- most of the members were from the Order, of course, but they also had Firdaus, Lev, and Marsen join them. Annelie was invited as well, but she made the decision on her own to stay out of it. She was many ranks lower in cultivation and unsure if she would be able to pull her weight. Anton was quite glad that she had some sense of self preservation, unlike Alva. For the same reason of cultivation level Devon and Oskar would not be going with them. There were many challenges to test themselves against that were less dangerous.
That left eight people to show up at The Gauntlet, where only one other person was present- and leaving. “Can’t believe formations are near the front again,” the young man shook his head as he walked past the group. “Good luck to all of you, I guess.”
“Near the front” did not mean first in this case. It was instead the pressure test. It didn’t reach the levels required for the actual room, but it also wouldn’t release the pressure on anyone who collapsed. Several people had to be pulled out by sect mates when they went too far and could no longer move.
Before entering, Anton thought about why he was making the attempt. Risking death for no reason was a terrible idea, and he didn’t count nebulous ‘rewards’. If he was saving someone he would be quite happy to take on the risk, but it was simply unnecessary. However, that was if he had no other ambitions. If he was just content to continue as he was, growing steadily in cultivation and having a modest impact on the world. If he was willing to accept Annelie’s word that she wanted to be part of the Frostmirror sect without her knowing he could help change that. If he was willing to give up on killing Van Hassel and dealing with inevitable retaliation from the Heavenly Lion Sect. If he didn’t want to free all of the slaves in Ofrurg- or the entire world. Some of those goals were worth dying in pursuit of, and that included some level of risk in how he grew stronger.
He stepped into the area, feeling the physical force press down on him. His inner voice propped himself up with confidence, strengthening his energy. Being in a proper mental state had great effectiveness on a cultivator’s results, which was why completely divesting emotions allowed for a cultivator to avoid potential pitfalls- but they also couldn’t reach quite the same heights. Consistency was good, but consistency with potential was even better. It was also more difficult. Anton had only done so well with training the emotion related stars because he had experienced a full life and could look over everything from a far perspective. Yet even then, there were some things close to himself that still tried to overwhelm him with emotion. A few years wasn’t enough to truly erase the memories of Dungannon- not that he really wanted to forget.
He set aside his worries and stepped forward confidently. He was falling behind, and he didn’t want anyone to have to wait for him. The others resisted in their own ways- sometimes as straightforwardly as Hoyt and Timothy, while Catarina seemed to be finding weaknesses in the field that she could move through. To Anton, everything felt uniform but the way she weaved around had to have a purpose.
Soon enough they were all past the first part of the challenge. That wasn’t unexpected, because The Gauntlet wasn’t just one thing. It was about whether or not they could pass through all of it safely.
This time, the second trial was golems. Unlike the training exercise with them, there were no requirements to fight and get hit by them. They could be ‘defeated’ once a proper amount of damage was done to them.
As the group stepped into the area, an important moment of truth arrived. Whether or not they were actually allowed to proceed as a group would be decided here. Eight large stone golems stood out to face them, matching them in number. Anton was the one who began the combat by firing a shot at a golem to the side of him. The golems had quick reactions and tough bodies, but he knew they weren’t particularly flexible. They were meant to face one opponent at a time, and were best at fending off attacks from the front. He still only managed a small red mark on the golem’s chest as his arrow slipped between its forearm and elbow, but it was red and not just a slight blush.
The golems all rushed forward at the opponents in front of them- but Hoyt intercepted his and Anton’s together, while Timothy intercepted another two. So far there hadn’t been any adverse reactions, and Anton continued firing at whichever target was convenient while circling around the room. He had a target he wanted to reach, but for that he needed a different angle.
Velvet was the first one to achieve that goal. It was only a few moments into the battle that she disappeared from sight among all of the combatants, and then shortly after that she appeared as she stabbed one of her new daggers ‘into’ the ‘spine’ of one of the golems, in the middle of the back. To reach that height she actually had to jump off the ground, but for her efforts she got a dark red mark. Then the golem immediately lowered its arms and started trudging away.
It wasn’t known if that was a real weak point of the golems since it still didn’t cause any damage, but it was considered one by this system. A powerful enough attack could take them out by hitting that point, or another one just below the rear of the neck. Fatal points on humans were not always as valuable as targets, so there was some other logic to it.
Anton continue around to the back, and now that there was one fewer golem the pressure on those fighting was lessened. It was still more than one per person, but everyone was a capable fighter. Catarina and Velvet were swift with Firdaus nearly matching them, Hoyt and Timothy were strong, and Lev and Marsen were able to limit their opponents in different ways. Lev primarily used his energy as tendrils to wrap around the golems, and while he couldn’t directly resist them he was able to make supple energy constructs that would stretch but not snap under their movements- slowing them. Marsen created ice on the ground, which made it easier to disrupt the movements of the golems.
Everyone was building up damage on the golems in front of them, but Anton was at an angle where he could start firing arrows. The golems attempted lateral dodges to avoid his arrows, but their movements simply weren’t enough. When some tried to turn to face him they found their backs open to the others. Velvet also continued to take out the golems who had trouble tracking her, and she and Anton were basically solely responsible for half of the golems going down while contributing to the other two. That didn’t mean they were more important, because without the teamwork of the others they couldn’t have reached the critical weak points without some risk.
After the golems were defeated, they were able to take a short break. It seemed that after fifteen minutes or so golems would once more come out to face them, so they had to move onto the next area before then.
The next area was one involving formations. Catarina stepped forward and threw out formation flags- she had been collecting them as rewards from the various different trials, and her new set matched quite well, even synchronizing with the ones she got from the Order. The first section was passed easily as Catarina finished solving whatever needed to be done before Anton even figured out what was going on.
“Next up is a trap. Be careful. Follow my movements precisely,” Catarina instructed.
They did so, but it seemed her meaning of precise and the others’ weren’t entirely the same. A centimeter to either side resulted in some electrical shocks, and though they could deflect those with their energy it was still draining. They needed to keep as much stamina as possible for the rest of The Gauntlet.
“Next is a barrier.” Catarina placed flags stuck ‘into’ the air, arranged in a square like it was flat on the ground. “Everyone attack together in the center of the flags. It will be easiest to break it with force rather than try to dismantle it.”
Anton trusted her judgment attacking was the ‘right’ choice and carefully built up power. One perfect spirit arrow would be better than a dozen poor ones. While he was still not terribly knowledgeable about formations, he knew that once anything was broken the weak points could be exploited for further damage. Eight simultaneous attacks shattered the invisible barrier, at least between the formation flags Catarina had placed and they stepped forward.
“Next is…” Catarina began to explain, but instead started swiftly throwing out formation flags, sticking them into the ground. “Everyone needs to power one! Steady and even, preferably matching everyone else.”
Anton moved for one of the further ones, since he knew that some of their members wouldn’t be as quick to react to Catarina’s commands. He injected his energy doing his best to match Catarina’s output. Everyone was close enough in cultivation that they were able to match, but…
“Stop!” Catarina called out. She reached out, using strands of energy to pull the flags to her. She then threw them out to different locations. “It’s a shifting formation!”
The meaning of that quickly became obvious, because everyone had to scramble around from location to location. Catarina had the worst of it, because she had to find the points they needed to react to as well as being the one that maintained the link between their energies. After an exhausting half hour, the waves of energy settled down. They were able to move onto the next room but-
“That’s it,” Catarina said. “I can’t keep going. It’s not possible to manage all of that alone. We need to train together on formations.”
“That’s not really something I know anything about…” Lev shook his head. “But I’ll try.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll still be taking the core, but I need people to be able to anticipate the changes with me. It shouldn’t be too bad, and just speeding our teamwork should be sufficient.”
They had to move back through the previous formations- but half were still disabled. Then they had to move through the rooms with the golems again. That was the danger of The Gauntlet, along with the fact that it didn’t pull any punches. Except they didn’t have to defeat the golems, just avoid them.
Some of their group engaged while others helped ease the pressure. Anton and Velvet actually found it easier to take one out to let the others break their engagements, and they were all running a moment later. There was a moment of panic as Timothy was struck in the back. He was sent flying past everyone, but as he struck the wall of the room he managed to land on his feet. He looked back and wiped some blood from his lip. “Come on! Let’s keep going!” He’d certainly toughened up quite a bit.
Passing through the pressure from highest amount to lowest was quite a bit easier, and soon everyone was sprinting and then… safe. They still had some strategy to talk about, but it was quite clear everyone was willing to make another attempt.