The rooms reserved for duels were fairly sparse. There was a small section for viewing and a section where the duelists could place bets. Other than that, they were just empty spaces of varying size.
In one of the smaller arenas, Marsen and Jeston faced each other. They were watched by much of the training group as well as a few members of the Frostmirror sect- including Annelie and Diana. One of the two combatants was the very symbol of impassiveness, and the other was obviously annoyed even before the battle started. Marsen had no visible weapons, while Jeston carried a large sword in two hands.
The instant the barrier in the middle of the room disappeared they sprang into action. Jeston swung his sword at Marsen, who evaded the main attack but wasn’t able to completely avoid the trail of frost that spread from it. As he moved around the attack he countered with his own palm strike to Jeston’s side, leaving a trail of ice behind where he moved.
At the two continued to match each other, even the walls at the edge of the arena began developing frost crystals. The breath of the two combatants soon became visible as they moved about on the ice at their feet. Jeston continued to swing his sword with reckless abandon, with Marsen left with little choice but to avoid it and sneak in attacks where he could.
The clothing of the two young men began to stiffen, and the cold had clearly begun seeping past their defensive energy. Jeston couldn’t catch Marsen with a solid blow, but the reach advantage of his sword meant he was able to sustain a number of cuts while only receiving insignificant blows himself. That was the disadvantage of unarmed combat- weapons were meant to multiply the force of an attack, and without it one had to rely solely on the effects of their energy. Against another member of the Frostmirror sect, Marsen found his opponent quite resistant.
The sweat of exertion froze as it trickled down the faces and bodies of the two combatants, layers of frost building up on their bodies and turning their skin blue. “Alright, enough of this!” Jeston stepped back, taking a wide stance. A swirling vortex of icicles surrounded his sword, extending beyond it in all directions. Marsen rallied his energies as well. A sweep of the sword flung icicles in a cone in front of Jeston, many of them piercing into Marsen’s arms which covered his face. However, Marsen moved in towards Jeston along the trailing edge of his sword and grabbed his arm.
While most of the audience expected them to begin wrestling for control, everything just stopped. Neither of the two of them moved, frozen in space. One second. Ten seconds. Thirty. After one minute, a cracking sound rang out from one of the combatants. A thin but clearly extremely powerful layer of ice fell off of him.
Jeston stepped back, having broken out from the freeze first. He immediately raised his arms to bring his sword down onto Marsen’s head. It cleaved directly down, striking him. There was a shattering sound and a cry of pain.
Marsen then finally moved. The layer of ice on him sloughed off like the end of a winter thaw and popping sounds came from his joints. He shook his head at his opponent in front of him whose arms were twisted in ways they were never meant to be. “You thawed far too quickly. You’re far too reckless and emotional.”
With that, Marsen walked over to the box where the bets were kept. It opened, signaling his victory. Yet Jeston chuckled from the ground. “What were you hoping to find in there?”
“Your dignity. But apparently you didn’t have any.”
Jeston’s face twitched and he passed out on the floor.
Marsen walked over to Anton and the others, smiling. “That was fun. Or rather… satisfying.” Marsen touched a hand to his chest and ‘composed’ himself, his face returning to a neutral position.
Anton grabbed his shoulder and leaned in close, using his energy to make sure only Marsen could hear his whisper. “Feelings aren’t a weakness. It’s not a failure to have kept some.” Then he straightened up and clapped him on the back. “Good job, that was a resounding victory.”
“Of course. I did not spend that time training for nothing.”
As they were leaving, Diana cut them off, clearing her throat. “Excuse me. Your… group… has clearly been causing a stir among those of our sect. To that end, I will be participating to make sure nothing untoward is happening.”
“Will you?” Anton asked. “You can, but you have to follow the same rules as everyone else. You need to contribute to others’ growth.”
“I understand,” she nodded. “I will follow your rules.”
“Then there shouldn’t be any issues,” Anton said.
The vast amount of training resources available in the ‘tomb’ greatly accelerated everyone’s cultivation speed. By the end of the third week, they had the equivalent of another half a year’s training putting them solidly one rank further.
Anton himself trained Mental Liberation, and he found that the best place to do that was in the pressure training hall. The pressure’s suppression wasn’t purely physical, but also partially mental. That was the case with all suppression from a cultivator’s aura, unless someone was simply physically restrained by the greater power of another cultivator.
His next star- the seventeen and the next prime tempering- was going to be Earthly Connection. Even with partial training in it, he felt it advancing his understanding of others beyond his previous capabilities. He had been somewhat concerned about Diana joining their group, but she was actually quite helpful with Annelie’s training once they were more open about things. He was also able to discern her real reason for wanting to join them.
It was the same basic reason as why anyone joined groups. Personal power was on the list, of course, but there was something more fundamental. Loneliness. Even among other members of their sect, it was possible for cultivators to be lonely. Anton suspected that was why the cultivation courtyards were arranged the way they were- to make it more likely for people to develop connections with at least a few people. While they could have made larger complexes that had many people, having just a few people constantly around was a better starting point for some. Those who desired even more people around had other places to meet them.
By its very core the Frostmirror sect tended towards emotionlessness. Without emotions, one would not get lonely. They would be able to focus solely on improving their cultivation without distractions. But Anton was no longer sure it was even truly possible to divest oneself of emotions completely. There were always things that clung to a person, things fundamental to their person. Diana was lonely, but she wasn’t alone. Independent cultivators notwithstanding, many of those who joined the training group simply couldn’t find companionship amongst their own sects. The fact that it also helped improve their training was a good excuse, but there was more to it than that.
Having completed Voice previously and knowing his inner thoughts, Anton was surprised that his beginning in training Earthly Connections revealed some of that same loneliness in himself. But it was only a small amount- an old wound that had mostly healed. Though he would never quite fit exactly with Catarina and the other youths, they were still a real source of companionship. Of family, in addition to the family he had managed to regain after the point where everything could have been lost to him.
Another attempt was made at The Gauntlet. People began to notice that it could be attempted with a team, but Anton and the others had been spending work on coordination for the whole duration of the training already. While some other groups might have some success, they still thought they had a competitive chance to be the first ones to complete it. They would just have to make new attempts as soon as they recovered fully. It seemed that they must be close to the end, but there was only so much they could do at once. Still, they were certain they’d passed every challenge and merely had to face them all at once. The next attempt could very well be it.
Some conversations needed to be straightforward. It was somewhat difficult to pry Annelie away from Diana- or rather, the other way around- but he got some moments alone with her. “How do you feel about the Frostmirror sect?”
Annelie thought for a few moments. “I like it. They take care of me. I’m suited to the technique as well- though I agree with you about the emotionless aspect going too far.”
“I see. What do you think about leaving, and coming to join the Order with me?”
“I-” Annelie hesitated. “I don’t know. I’d rather not see Graotan right now. My parents…”
Anton shook his head. Neither of them had made it. “They won’t be there. But Alva would love to see you.”
Annelie held a hand over her heart. “I… want to see her too. But this is the best way for me to grow. You saw those two- late Spirit Building now, if they weren’t before. I can’t just let them live. Walking around like they haven’t done anything wrong.”
It hurt, realizing how much like him she was. “I don’t plan to leave them alone, either. Are you sure you wish to stay with the Frostmirror sect?”
Annelie nodded. “Yes. Though sometimes people are distance, I am taken care of. Not quite like back home, but… it’s better that way, I think.”
His appreciation of his great-granddaughter’s emotional maturity was dulled by the fact that she should still be acting like a girl, barely a young woman. She still had her emotions- and his assistance with her training should ensure that- but the troubles of her life had robbed her of some of the way things should have been. Another crime to attribute to Van Hassel and one likely shared by the Heavenly Lion Sect as a whole.
Platinum oak formed the shaft of the bow. It was not quite so silver as its name implied, but it certainly was expensive like that very same metal. The bowstring was made of the sinew of a great cat from the Beast Forest. Together with some auxiliary pieces they formed a whole bow, one that Alva held above her head triumphantly as she walked out of the armament hall. She had done all sorts of stupid work to get enough contribution points for this thing, but she finally had it. She supposed the work was also training and was useful because it produced stuff, but it was so boring. It made her want to fall asleep, which was even worse when she was tired from spending extra hours working and training. But she had it and now she could go on a hunt before great-grandpa Anton got back. And she would do it with a bow just like his.
Well, it wasn’t just like his. The materials were different. It was also a lot smaller. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do with a bow taller than her anyway. There was no way she could draw it that far with her arms. A shortbow suited her just fine, and anyone who made fun of her for it would get an arrow to the face. She had bought arrows too, but they weren’t anything fancy. She was still trying to learn Spirit Arrows, but it was… difficult. She needed to ask for help with that later.
But before later happened, she needed to go on a hunt. She had gotten to the fifth star now and tempered her muscles, and she was strong. She was maybe not as strong as those who were older than her and also cultivators, but at least as much as a normal adult man? That seemed right. She was listening to the advice she’d been given to make sure she didn’t hurt herself by cultivating too quickly, and there were many elders around to help if she asked. She didn’t really want to talk to most of them, but Elder Vincent was a friendly one. She’d even seen him once or twice when he came through Dungannon. But she didn’t want to think about that.
She wanted to hunt. Fuzz was obviously going with her. She also needed more people before it was probably considered a proper team. Fortunately, she knew just the right people. She didn’t know Pete much outside of being from Dungannon, but she knew Patricia. She was a nice lady, and she was also a cultivator. She’d been cultivating for longer than Alva but she was also at the fifth star. She said she was ‘taking it slow’, though Alva didn’t know why anyone would do that.
There were also a couple other people in the same complex as them. Gerd was a round woman that was far too nice for Alva to call her fat, and Malcom was… a fifth person. There wasn’t anything really wrong with him, but Alva didn’t really care if he came along. Since he was from the same complex, it would be weird not to invite him- and it didn’t hurt to have more people along.
Alva was a bit on the weaker side to be going with them. Pete was more than a full star ahead of her, but since she didn’t know anyone else it was fine. Besides, the rest of her family would probably be happier that she was being safe.
She did intend to be safe, too. That was why she had a saddle for Fuzz and everything. He was fast and could run away from anything coming at them as she shot them with her bow. She wasn’t sure how she would be against beasts, but Pete had watched her and approved of her skills. He even called her a ‘Little Anton’ which made her turn away and blush. She wasn’t that amazing yet. But she would be.