While it seemed a little bit unfair to fight an eight-on-one battle, Anton wasn’t sure who it was unfair towards. The advantage of numbers should have been useful, but the way Timothy was flying past his head he was going to say the advantage was held by the one with greater cultivation. Though he wasn’t an actual person, the aura around the projection of Everheart was similar in magnitude to an Essence Collection cultivator. He’d felt it change as they entered the room, so presumably it was matching them in some way. Whether that was to be fair or not was a different question.
Everheart’s blows were as powerful as the strikes from the golems, but he was much quicker and also a smaller target. Spirit Arrows flew past him as quickly as Anton could fire them, but striking him seemed impossible even as he dodged numerous other attacks.
Everheart’s projection fought without weapons, but that was simply because they weren’t necessary. Weapons were for providing reach and multiplying force. The latter was completely unnecessary when fighting them, and if he used a weapon he would simply kill them. Though Everheart could be an ass, he was at least basically fair in his trials. Anton was even starting to doubt the legitimacy of calling this place a ‘tomb’, though some careless fellows had died- mostly in The Gauntlet during the early days.
One bow, two swords, a pair of daggers, and an axe were the weapons of the members of the Order. Lev fought mostly unarmed, relying more on the effects he could produce with his energy rather than physical attacks. He created tendrils of energy meant to restrain as well as leaving traces of his own energy that attempted to burrow through Everheart’s defenses. Though Marsen had fought with no weapons against the other member of the Frostmirror sect, he was currently using a staff with which he primarily targeted Everheart’s lower body. Marsen of course also made use of his frost abilities. Firdaus primarily made use of his spear, though he also took advantage of bladed gauntlets and boots he wore, kicking and punching where advantageous. He incorporated lightning into his attacks, resulting in the area being a mix of colors.
Everheart was so relaxed he could talk while fighting them. “Your swordsmanship isn’t anything to speak of,” Everheart said as he swiped an elbow over Catarina’s head, “You should probably try to focus on those formations of yours.”
Of course, she was trying to do that. Everheart just kept moving her formation flags and moving to attack her directly, disrupting her efforts as she had to defend herself.
His fist slammed into Timothy’s shield, sending him staggering back several steps but not catapulting him through the air. “Your ability to take a hit is fine I suppose, but what’s the point in blocking if you can’t even reflect the damage to me?” Everheart’s hooked his leg behind Timothy’s knee and whacked him on the back of the head with his fist as he lost his balance, “And your stance sucks.”
Everheart’s eyes constantly scanned his surroundings, looking for his next target. He found it, grabbing Hoyt’s axe just below the blade and stopping his attack. He twisted it to block a spear of ice shot by Marsen.
“Your technique sucks,” he said to Hoyt. “You’d do better focusing on external projection rather than your physique.” He tossed Hoyt’s axe at Marsen, “Your face isn’t as unreadable as you think. Seems the Frostmirror sect still doesn’t have any actual mirrors.” His next target was Lev. “An interesting technique you’ve got, but that arm at your side is slowing you down. Better to just remove it.” As if to punctuate his point, Everheart jabbed Lev in the guts on the side of his useless arm. At the same time, that ‘useless’ arm slammed into Everheart’s face, getting the first solid blow on him in the battle. It didn’t do much more than damage his defenses briefly, but Everheart’s eyes flashed with anger. Then he laughed. “What a dumb technique. Using your energy to control your own useless arm from the inside like a parasite on yourself. I love it!” That declaration didn’t stop him from kicking Lev halfway across the room, though.
Anton kept up a steady rate of firing arrows. He was beginning to see some patterns in Everheart’s movements. The others were also acclimating to fighting one powerful and smaller enemy rather than dealing with golems of their own. As a group, they’d never fought a single person so they weren’t as familiar as they could be.
“Where is…” Everheart looked around, then kicked his leg up behind him, sending Velvet flying into the ceiling. “There you are. Too much killing intent right before your attacks.” She twisted her body to hit the ceiling feet first and sprang back down towards Everheart, slicing out with her daggers. He avoided, of course, but Marsen was able to clip him with his spear, drawing their first blood for the battle. Everheart caught the spear as it was being retracted, basically ignoring the electricity pouring out of it against his energy. “You should work more on how to use equipment. It’ll help with making it too.” Then Everheart snapped the spear in half. “Also, try not to freeze up in battle. It lets your opponent do whatever they want.” During that whole exchange he was dodging others’ attacks.
Catarina was actually seizing the opportunity to build up her formation. The energy she was providing was beginning to flow through them, and slightly slowing Everheart. Likewise, Lev’s energy had successfully burrowed its way into one finger and was causing internal damage. Those making more standard attacks were managing to land blows, though most of them didn’t puncture Everheart’s defensive energy. Anton kept his arrows densely packed with energy to have a chance to break through, though some of the time he simply intended for Everheart to avoid and take a lesser blow from someone else.
When Everheart appeared right in front of him, Anton wasn’t surprised. “Why the hell are you old, though?” Perhaps if he weren’t so thrown off by the question Anton could have avoided the straight punch to his face- but only on a good day. His head snapped back and blood gushed from Anton’s nose.
“Couldn’t not be,” Anton responded. He spun a nice new handaxe he’d gotten from the reward points, slicing at Everheart’s chin but only cutting a few beard hairs.
“I feel that,” Everheart said. “But you just started.” Anton managed to jump over a sweep of his leg, and Everheart had to respond to a half dozen other attacks which prevented from following up. “Why start cultivating at your age?”
Anton shook his head, “I couldn’t not. I had things to do. Still do, really.”
“I know what you mean. There’s always more. You know, the Ninety-Nine Stars kind of drops the ball in the first half of Spirit Building. You should have swapped them and done body first. You’d break fewer ribs.” Anton knew the attack was coming, but he couldn’t avoid the spinning kick to his chest. He only barely reacted in time as it hit his sternum, his hastily constructed Golden Armor shattering under the blow. And, as predicted, many of his ribs.
Anton coughed up a bit of blood. “So?” His response was punctuated with an arrow. He sent himself with it, feeling all of the energy of everyone else. Velvet was not quite directly behind him, Hoyt and Lev on one side with Firdaus and Marsen taking up the other side. Timothy had inserted himself on the front. The Spirit Arrow went past Timothy’s ear as Firdaus forced Everheart to hop into the air. The Spirit Arrow curved as it needed to on its way to Everheart’s heart, piercing through his defenses- until suddenly they increased in magnitude, shattering the arrow. Blows from all around him rained down on Everheart, and he slammed into the ground, sending out cracks in all directions- throwing all of Catarina’s formation flags into disarray.
Anton had noticed him steadily growing stronger throughout the battle, nearly matching their teamwork, but he hadn’t expected a sudden increase. One or two at a time, Everheart used a single strike to send those around him flying with various numbers of broken bones. With impossibly swift movements he reached Anton to backhand him on the side of the head before tossing him, then he ran around the room and grabbed all of Catarina’s formation flags, throwing them around the sudden pile of people suddenly atop Catarina.
“Ah.” Everheart looked at the pile. “Maybe I overdid it.” He prodded the pile, and heard a chorus of groans. “Nah, it’s fine. Hey! Get up! Time for rewards and crap.”
Somehow Anton understood the words through his concussion, but he was still the last to get to his feet except Catarina, who had ended up at the bottom of the pile of people.
Everheart threw open the large doors at the back of the room, to display another room where piles of books and scrolls were haphazardly placed. “Hope you all like forbidden techniques, because that’s what I’ve got.” Everheart looked at the pile. “Huh. And a staff technique, I guess.” He tossed a scroll at Firdaus’ head, and the young man barely managed to catch it before impact. “I’m glad it was a group that did this first, because honestly I doubt anyone can use all of these themselves.” Everheart looked at the dazed group. “Well go on, get looking!” Everheart shook his head, “This group here,” he waved his hand vaguely, “Is only forbidden because they’re good. I suppose you can start there. This pile is for self-destructive techniques. This bunch just has really awful side effects for whoever you attack with it.”
“What about that one?” Velvet asked, pointing to a lone scroll in the corner.
“Hmm.” Everheart walked over to it and opened it up. A swirling void opened up in front of him, and he swiftly rolled the scroll. “I thought I got rid of the world destruction techniques.” Everheart ripped the scroll into tiny pieces. “If you see any of those, best hand them over. You kind of live in the world, after all.”
Among the various techniques in the pile were a dozen copies of Candle Wax. Anton browsed them just to make sure they were the same, but they were identical in every respect. Still just the worst side effects. Most of the other techniques were of marginal value, as well. Nobody wanted to sacrifice their life to create a giant carnivorous forest. Lev did scan that one, but he carefully placed it back.
Velvet claimed a stealth technique that Everheart claimed could let you sneak into- and with sufficient proficiency out of– any sect in the world. She let Anton take a look, and while he didn’t understand the profoundities behind it he did think it was probably true. It was just that minimum requirements to begin training it were Essence Collection and proficiency in ‘about a dozen’ other stealth techniques. It wasn’t expected that good techniques would be easy to train, but Everheart’s techniques varied widely in usability.
Everheart tossed books at people as he browsed through the pile himself. “Oh, the formation books aren’t here by the way.” He gestured to Catarina, “Except this one.” He held up a manual titled ‘Soul-Sucking Sanctum’. “This actually belongs in the fourth category of ‘all of the above’. Though it has some normal insights on formations still.” He looked at Lev. “You’re some kind of planty guy?” Everheart tossed him a scroll from the first pile, seemingly written on a large leaf. “A nice book on gardening.” Anton wondered what about gardening might have been forbidden by powerful sects, but he supposed he could ask Lev. “Oh, here’s a good one. It’s a joke book,” he tossed a book from the third pile to Marsen. “Also other forms of mental disruption and soul freezing and crap. But you should look at the jokes. I got them from this great guy. Really funny.” Everheart crossed his arms in front of him as he looked at Anton. “The best one for you isn’t here, sorry.”
“Best how?” Anton asked. “An archery book or…?”
Everheart posed dramatically and pointed, “Fleeting Youth! Using the power of the grave to dredge out your potential. Perfect for an old new cultivator. It’s not here, but I can tell you where it is.”
“Really?” Anton asked. “That sounds intriguing. Is it dangerous?”
“Only if you use it wrong. Probably. It was like… ninety percent finished when I was made here. Should have worked out the kinks.”
“That does sound useful,” Anton admitted. Though Everheart was deemed crazy and dangerous by almost everyone, nobody ever claimed his techniques didn’t work. Even an incomplete one could be valuable. “Do you know where other things might be? Anything about raising the cultivation of people on a large scale?”
“Trying to boost your sect for merit, huh?” Everheart asked. “I have one in that third pile. You might not want that though.”
“I was thinking wider scale. I’ve been trying to determine if it’s viable to raise the minimum cultivation level of everyone, so that cultivators can’t just run rampant over peaceful towns and villages.”
“Oho. Interesting. I don’t have a technique for that,” Everheart admitted, “But I do have some notes. Should still be sealed. I could tell you where it is. Or that technique for yourself. Fleeting Youth is one of my best works. You’d have to pick one though.”
“The notes,” Anton said without hesitation. “They should be more beneficial to the world.”
“Tch,” Everheart clicked his tongue, muttering to himself, “Should have spent more time hyping it up. You sure? You could rule the world with the other one.”
“Yes,” Anton said. “I don’t want to ‘rule the world’ if people are helpless without my intervention.”
“Fine.” Everheart took one of the scrolls in front of him, unraveling and then wiping his hand across it. All of the colored inks in it were ripped from the pages, leaving it blank. Then he slapped the scroll, leaving behind instructions and a map. Everheart looked it over. “Yeah, that should do. Here you go.”
“Thank you,” Anton accepted the scroll.
“Well,” Everheart said. “Time for you to get going.” He scooped up all of the remaining techniques with his energy and tossed them into a bag, which he threw to Anton. “Do whatever with those. It’s time for the end!” Everheart stood tall, proudly announcing. “Everyone! I’m sure you’re glad to hear that the trials are over. No complaints that it’s only been twenty-five days! Come to the main hall. All facilities will now become defunct.” Everheart waved to the group. “Shoo. Go. Don’t delay.”
Ignoring Everheart’s projection seemed like a foolish idea, so they all started running. There was nothing blocking their movement- though they did see members of the Heavenly Lion Sect milling about outside the room where the golems would have been, awkwardly heading towards the main hall when they realized nothing was active for them to exploit.