One week of training was hardly sufficient to be a formation master, or expert, or even really an apprentice. However, the heightened level of understanding provided by Spiritual Connection allowed Anton and the others to learn from Catarina enough for her to direct them better. They treated it just like they would combat, requiring quick movements and precision. Catarina was able to set up a version of the formation that Everheart was using that made it easier to feel the flow of energy.
“Now I no longer feel like I’m running around an empty room,” Timothy said. “I can at least see some nodes of energy.” Timothy and Hoyt were having the most trouble learning, since they’d chosen to forgo training Spiritual Connection so far. That didn’t mean they weren’t able to improve their sensing and control of energy, but it took a bit more effort. Catarina had to spend more time training them, but they put in the effort to play supporting roles. The fact that they had a team of eight meant that not everyone needed to be as good at that particular section anyway.
At that point, the team was ready to attempt The Gauntlet again. They’d made improvements in more than that one area, and were better able to coordinate in other ways as well. Some of their abilities weren’t as useful in certain situations, but the whole point of the team was to be a cooperative venture. Just because Lev was lower in cultivation couldn’t seriously harm the golems didn’t make his abilities useless. He was one of the top three in sensing and manipulating energy, after Catarina and Firdaus.
When they returned to The Gauntlet, it was again sparsely populated. They waited for the few people in sight to move on to the next room before beginning their plan. Currently the first room was a trap room. Instead of static traps like the hallway they had dealt with earlier, each pressure plate changed slightly depending on how people moved through the area. It wasn’t possible- at least not with cultivation in Spirit Building- to just run through the gauntlet of traps. Each of them was capable of seriously injuring someone if triggered.
It was a test of perception and pattern recognition. There were minute differences in how a dangerous tile looked compared to safe ones, and each tile changed others around it. The one rule that everyone knew was that a safe tile would never become dangerous while depressed. Thus, it was possible for the whole group to move through together. They weren’t certain if multiple people standing on the same tile would be safe, but with two groups- one led by Velvet and one by Anton- they started moving through the area, each person several tiles apart.
Anton looked carefully at a tile in front of Catarina. “It’s safe, right?” she asked. “My path here should have made it in the same state as when you crossed.”
Anton nodded, “I do believe so.” Either way, he didn’t see any of the signs that it was dangerous. He needed to see the smallest of differences in resting height but from just a handful of meters away with the use of Hawk Eyes, even height changes less than a millimeter were clear.
The group eventually made their way into the next room, which was one they hadn’t seen before. A projection of Everheart was standing in the middle of the room, a book under his arm as he shook his head at the cultivator standing there. “That’s three marks. You fail. Try again later.” Then he swung the book with both hands like it was a club, flinging the young man out of the room and nearly onto the traps in the previous, before the door swung shut. “Very well, next.” This Everheart was somewhat more subdued in size and looks, portraying a handsome if scruffy man without so much muscle or physical prowess as others before him. He kept a neutral tone as he spoke. “Each person must correctly answer ten questions on various topics before getting three wrong. There is a time limit before your answer must begin.”
“Senior Everheart, are we allowed to consult each other on the questions?” Anton asked.
“I am the one who will ask questions here,” Everheart said.
“Well, he didn’t say ‘no’. I’ll go first,” Timothy stepped forward. He had seen Everheart unceremoniously bat the fellow beforehand out of the room, so he knew what he was getting into. Most importantly, this was one of the trials that had the smallest danger. Their information gathering over the last few weeks had merely resulted in people being annoyed that they lost due to ‘random chance’ and ‘tricky questions’.
Everheart asked several questions Timothy knew on his own.
“Which weapon has the advantage?”
“Why are different materials used in equipment?”
“How long would it take for a cultivator moving at this speed to reach his opponent?”
“What is the purpose of cultivation?”
Timothy hesitated slightly on that one, but began his explanation. “Cultivation is for the empowerment of the individual, with different goals such as seeking immortality or to defeat enemies.”
“… good enough,” Everheart said, sounding disappointed. “What is Northern Creeper used for?”
Timothy immediately turned towards Anton and Hoyt, knowing they had worked with it. Before Anton could speak Lev chimed in. “It fruit is used in cultivation enhancement pills to store energy, though its spines can be used as weapons or to medically alter the flow of cultivators who have lost control of their own energy.”
Timothy nodded and turned back towards Everheart. He seemed to blatantly ignore that Lev said anything. So Timothy repeated it. Without saying anything, Everheart moved onto the next question.
Throughout the slightly more than eighty questions the group had to answer they covered martial combat, cultivation in general, botany, equipment crafting and enchantment, formations, and beast lore- with a smattering of lesser topics. They managed to get a few wrong or delay too much, but so far everyone had passed. The questions seemed to have generally increased in difficulty from person to person, so perhaps their teamwork plan wasn’t quite as useful as they thought. Marsen was the last to go up, and he currently had eight correct questions but two failures.
“What is my name?”
Some of the questions were tricky, some simply difficult in subject matter. None were so straightforwardly a trap of some kind. Perhaps he had some other name that they were supposed to know. Nobody had an answer for Marsen, but he didn’t even look to the rest and straightforwardly answered, “Great Golden Emperor of the Most Powerful Techniques Everheart.”
Everyone else couldn’t help but get strange looks on their faces. He’d technically said that but… Everheart didn’t respond.
Then the slightest smile lit up his face. “Ooh! You get the bonus point. That means you’re done.” He waved his hand towards the door.
Despite the next room containing golems that almost immediately attacked, the group mostly seemed interested in discussing what had happened while they fought. “I can’t believe you said that with a straight face,” Lev commented to Marsen.
“I considered that it would likely be a good answer,” Marsen said. “He said it himself, two weeks ago.”
“Still,” Hoyt said, “Don’t you feel shame just saying that?”
“No,” Marsen said as he hooked his leg behind the ankle of one of the golems, sending it tumbling on slippery ice as Hoyt’s axe chopped into its chest. Its flailing fist clipped his face, the speed and friction leaving a bloody mark along his forehead. “I do not feel shame. Nor anything else, as a competent member of the Frostmirror sect.”
“I still don’t think that’s the right method,” Anton commented as he shot several arrows.
“I agree with your assessment,” Marsen agreed, “But it is unlikely I will be able to change my current status without harming my cultivation. It seems that Junior Sister Annelie’s attempts to modify the structure are going well, however. Diana is livid. With the small percent of anger she still feels, anyway. I believe she might be jealous.” Marsen shook his head as the last golem left. “I should not add more details.”
The group was able to push themselves further than the previous time. They even completed the formation room in half the time, and with less expenditure of resources. They knew they had to be getting close to the end, but there were still weeks left for them to make further attempts and they were beginning to feel the fatigue. In the end, they relied on Marsen’s emotionless judgment that pushing themselves further was unwise along with their own fears of danger against their anticipation of achieving rewards.
They were glad they did, because they were all exhausted and nursing various wounds when they got back to the beginning. The wounds might have been quite serious for non-cultivators and indeed they would affect their ability to fight, but they could recover in a few days instead of a longer period of time.
As they were returning to the common areas, someone stepped out into their path. Marsen’s, specifically. “There you are!” the young man declared. “I should have known. Colluding with outsiders still. Why must you cause trouble for our Frostmirror sect?”
Marsen met the young man straight in the eyes. “There was no trouble for any member of the Frostmirror sect in any way related to me, until you blocked my path.”
“Don’t try to make excuses. You’re working with other sects just to improve yourself.”
“So?” Marsen asked. “This does not in any way harm the Frostmirror sect’s goals.” He turned to Lev, perhaps sensing something- or perhaps choosing his own interpretation of Lev’s face. “I see you are confused, Lev. You might not recognize this fellow disciple of mine. This is ceiling boy.”
“I’m Jeston! Senior brother Jeston, to you… Marsen.”
“That is incorrect,” Marsen said. “It is only proper to call someone senior brother on the condition that they are stronger than you, have more talent than you, or that you respect them. None of those are true for you. Now, are you going to challenge me to a duel, thus cementing your intention to cause conflict with your own sectmate?”
“A duel? Give me one good reason I shouldn’t teach you a lesson right here!”
“First, because there would be many witnesses of your misdeeds. Second, because such a violent outburst would result in chastisement by the sect. But most importantly, because Great Golden Emperor of the Most Powerful Techniques Everheart said so, and I’m certain he’d enforce that.”
Despite his bluster, Jeston was part of the Frostmirror sect. He was not going to get his emotions enflamed to uncontrollable levels. Yet he clearly still had them. He seemed half a step away from attacking anyway, but seeing that he was outnumbered, and perhaps remembering his time on the ceiling, he restrained himself. “In fact, I was planning to challenge you to a duel. You have chosen to train with outsiders instead of with the sect, and are a traitor.”
“That is not how being a traitor works,” Marsen commented flatly, “But I accept your challenge. Tomorrow.”
“Fine.” Jeston said. He turned to glare at Anton, “I still can’t believe he let an old man in here.” Then he walked away.
Marsen turned to Anton, “What I can’t believe is that he’s currently walking on the floor.”
“Perhaps Everheart got bored with it,” Anton said. “But anyway, is this alright? We would not wish to set you against your sect.”
“You have not,” Marsen said. “Jeston is an individual. Just in case, I shall properly remind others that they not only would not have been assisting me with training but that they were also allowed to train with our alliance. It is simple logic that I would make this choice.”
“I’m honestly surprised we haven’t had more trouble before now,” Hoyt commented. “The prohibition against fighting outside of duels is one thing, but that only goes so far.”
“Yes,” Anton agreed. “I expect we will run into more trouble in the coming days. Hopefully not because we were trying to help people grow.”