There were reasons Secret Realms could maintain their hidden status, despite people looking for them. First, the entrance to them did not need to be large. Often they were little more than what was comfortably sized for a human, or a few walking side by side. Merely by their existence it could be concluded that there was a powerful formation in the works, either natural or artificial. Those same formations could conceal them as well as sustaining the alternate dimensions that they made up. Finally, many were intentionally placed remotely so that even if a sect was conquered the victors couldn’t take away all of their resources. The latter depended on the purpose of the Secret Realm- some were intended for training disciples or sealing away prisoners. Upon investigation, the Secret Realm in Droca was not the latter kind, though it would be unlikely for anyone inside to survive to the current day even if it was.
Considering that this particular Secret Realm was accessed by several kilometers of tunnels- including some formerly narrow passages that didn’t seem fit for people to traverse- it wasn’t strange it had stayed hidden so long. The Black Earth Clan had only stumbled upon it while exploring the caves for unrelated reasons because its concealment formations were failing and it was starting to reveal the significant energy behind it. Upon finding that they couldn’t enter on their own, they decided to announce its presence.
That led to the current situation, with many different sects gathering together in one of the larger caverns near the entrance to the Secret Realm. As people tended to do, they separated into vaguely friendly subgroups. With the intention to not be too quickly embroiled in trouble, the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars intentionally placed themselves several groups away from the Heavenly Lion Sect. The previous encounter between them had ended with only a small amount of bloodshed- but severe negative feelings. The two late Essence Collection cultivators from the Heavenly Lion Sect were present, their knees looking quite healed. Deeper among their number Zvonko could be seen. Though he had a long sleeve to conceal it, it was clear that his hand had not somehow been restored. If he’d been given the chance to retrieve it, reattaching it would have been fairly easy… but that hadn’t happened.
It took some time to pick through everyone present, at least several thousand figures. This wasn’t just an opportunity for the younger generations, but the sects as a whole. While the official language of truces on neutral ground would apply, a Secret Realm was generally large enough for different groups to be isolated. If someone was killed with no witnesses, what could be done? Even if someone had a particularly recognizable piece of equipment, there was nothing to guarantee that someone didn’t simply come across their dead body. Of course, actions like that could still perpetuate further conflicts, regardless of innocence or guilt.
Nearly all of those Anton knew from the Order were present, disregarding certain elders. Oskar and Patricia were busy with their six month old second child- but Pete, Gerd, and even Alva were present. It was unfair for Anton to try to deny Alva her opportunity to show up when she was at the peak of Body Tempering. She was strong enough to participate along with the others from the Order. Besides, this would be her best chance to see Annelie again. It seemed that the Frostmirror Sect had not arrived yet, but there were still several days. Unlike Everheart’s Tomb, things wouldn’t just suddenly be started at a whim. The major sects had agreed upon a time and would be quite motivated to stick to it.
Along with familiar and vaguely friendly faces such as Lev from the Grasping Willows and the independent sword cultivator Chikere, there were more ambiguous figures such as Anish from the Glorious Flame Palace. Glorious Flame Palace members were just a bit too eager to try to enforce whatever form of ‘justice’ they felt was proper in any situation. In short, they were combative. But, despite their power they weren’t significant threats. At least they probably wouldn’t be looking to find people alone so they could kill and rob them. Anton had his doubts about the Heavenly Lion Sect on that matter. Though to be fair… he would happily kill any of them he found as well. But he hadn’t been the one to start their various conflicts.
Anton was lucky enough to spot Masozi among the various milling cultivators. He had no affection for the man that had once been Tonina Potenza’s guardian, but he could understand that it was just business. His involvement in the events had mostly been secondary. That didn’t mean Anton would trust him or attempt to befriend him… but he had no intention to seek him out and kill him. He did, however, follow his gaze towards something unexpected. Tonina herself. She was among a group of cultivators in flowing red robes. If Anton remembered the symbol correctly, that was the Flying Blood Cult, from Ofrurg of course. “Three years sure doesn’t seem as long as it used to. Feels more like a year and a half.” Of course, that was because it had been a year and a half. She was still supposed to be imprisoned.
Devon narrowed his eyes from next to Anton. “You’re right about that. I’m sure they have a good excuse for being off by a factor of two.” The way his energy swirled around him menacingly wouldn’t be noticed among everyone else around, though of course it didn’t escape Anton’s notice.
“What do you want to do?” he asked. “We can go cause a fuss right now.” He turned his head to look at another section of their group. “Kohar has kept track of the situation involved. Or… we can look for her inside.” Anton wouldn’t consider himself a murderous sort, but where it involved family he didn’t mind if revenge came where the blood was a little bit cold.
“I’d much prefer the latter,” Devon said. “I’d rather not hear about stupid technicalities or get money thrown at me like it solves everything.”
Anton nodded. “I do believe I shall converse with Kohar regardless. It might be usable as ammunition later.” Devon nodded in return.
After Anton pointed her out, Kohar pulled out a large book of law as well as some other documents, muttering to herself and making notes. “Good. This should help with things.”
Anton smiled, “I’m surprised you came here. You’re not the most popular figure around.”
“I had to weigh the pros and cons. I determined that for my intentions, I needed to improve my cultivation. This is a significant opportunity. With the Order providing official protection, I shouldn’t be more at risk than anyone else in early Spirit Building. Most people will be seeking their individual opportunities and won’t be looking for petty revenge.” Kohar glared towards a group bearing the symbol of the Iron Ring. “And my looks weren’t well known anywhere, even before I changed things up,” she gestured to her hair, cut short against her head. “It’s surprisingly easy to escape notice by changing small details.”
Anton wondered if he should have taken some steps to disguise himself. He certainly had plenty of enemies. He couldn’t be sure if the whole Heavenly Lion Sect would be out for his head, but certainly a part would like to get their hands on him. The same went for the Iron Ring and probably some groups working with them that he didn’t directly know.
But disguising himself didn’t seem right anyway. He wasn’t too proud to stay with strong allies or to run away if he needed to. All of his friends and various allies knew the risks of associating with him, and of course the benefits. Unlike Kohar, his own cultivation was respectable enough to properly fight for his own sake. She’d only recently achieved Spirit Building, since her main focus had never been on cultivation. Her talent was decent enough, but she had higher priorities.
Since there were several days until the specified time to open the Secret Realm, the various clans, sects, orders, and independent set up camps in the large cavern they had gathered in. There were a few minor scuffles over the next days, but for the most part people kept to themselves. The cavern didn’t have enough energy for everyone to cultivate to their full extent, so they tried to pass the time as quickly as they could. Then the time came.
By the morning of the agreed upon time, the Frostmirror Sect still hadn’t arrived. Whispers and rumors abounded as to what could have happened. Even so, at the agreed upon time everyone began moving towards the Secret Realm. At the front of each group were of course their highest ranking elders. As they moved further into the cavern it narrowed- but a shimmering light soon became clear. It was only as wide as a barn at most, with a handful of people able to comfortably step through. The entrance to the Secret Realm.
Though it seemed entering wasn’t exactly the problem. Cultivators began to pass through the portal without issue, having already checked to make sure it was safe. Even if the Black Earth Clan’s information was reliable, the situation could have changed. Anton felt a strange sensation as he passed through the shimmering portal, as the far side was somehow colder than the cave they had just been in. It wasn’t freezing, but still a bit uncomfortable.
On the other side he found himself stepping in sand, and heard the sound of waves. Anton had never been to the sea, but he knew what the salty smell represented. Yet he couldn’t see it, either. There was a translucent barrier preventing anything but the vaguest fuzzy blue image. The barrier preventing entry. In a way, Anton supposed it made sense to place it inside the Secret Realm. It was easier to conceal that way… and angry foes were somewhat less likely to just destroy the entrance if they were trying to break inside. Of course, depending on the desires of individual groups they might prefer that access be cut off rather than letting anyone else have what was inside.
There was enough room inside for people to begin to spread out again, back into their accustomed groups. The various elders of the powerful sects were standing in front of the barrier, raising their energy as they prepared to break through the barrier, with the guidance of formation masters. As the last people were trickling into the Secret Realm and it was about to be opened, a woman flickered inside.
Her impassive face and the aura about her indicated she was a member of the Frostmirror Sect, at peak Essence Collection despite looking quite young. That said, many cultivators who were advanced in age did their best to appear young regardless of the truth. She made her way to the others by the barrier. “The Frostmirror Sect apologizes for the delay. We were held up by unforeseen circumstances.”
“It’s not a problem,” Elder Kseniya laughed, “We would have just left you behind.”
“It is good you are here to do your part,” the elder from Glorious Flame Palace declared. “Everyone should contribute properly.” He glared at those around, “It is important that everyone use their full effort.”
Anton understood what he meant. While there was no doubt in his mind that their combined forces could break through the barrier- he felt it power fading, even if it was well beyond what he could deal with- nobody wanted to be at a disadvantage. If Elder Kseniya or one of the others didn’t help but instead kept themselves fresh, they would gain an unfair advantage.
After a few more inconsequential comments, the opening of the barrier finally began. Gouts of flame along with spikes of ice and every other sort of attack rained down on the barrier. The various formation masters directed the attacks, with Elder Kseniya contributing with precise arrows stabbing into various key points. Each attack from the elders seemed like it would be enough to wipe Anton out of existence, though he had to admit he was still quite new to cultivation in the grand scheme of things and it wasn’t so unreasonable. Three and a half years could hardly compare to fifty or a hundred.
The barrier began to tremble, waves flowing through it as it bent and distorted. Then, it shattered like glass. Ahead of him, Anton saw a vast sea- yet with islands clearly visible under the clear skies. The waters sparkled and energy flowed over him, no longer contained by the barrier. It was peaceful… yet powerful. Anton had to wonder what the ancient sects were like that they could make such a place… and what could have happened that they were no longer around.