Though the mangrove lotus doubtless had some effect on providing safety for the boat, the larger factor in keeping them safe was rather straightforward. The beasts in the seas had grown large and violent over the ages, but still had caution in regard to each other. When new factors arrived- that being humans- they were thrown into a frenzy. But as they entered a feeding frenzy to attack the humans and each other, their numbers dwindled. Now that some time had passed and everyone had reached at least the first island, the seas had to calm down somewhat.
That didn’t mean that travel was safe, since the more cautious but also more dangerous predators still lurked in the depths, but it did mean the second journey wasn’t such a constant battle. Though distance was hard to determine on the strange sea, they were about halfway to the next island they had targeted when the first curious beast approached. It was easily dissuaded by a warning shot from Anton.
The next one was more aggressive, coming from straight underneath. However, Devon was ready for it. Against a horde of undersea creatures leaning over the edge of the boat was ill advised, but when dealing with just a single target it was safe enough. Chains made of energy extended down beneath the boat, wrapping around the spear-like nose of the charging fish. He redirected its movements to the side, resulting in it briefly breaking the surface of the water. Devon held it still while it tried to dive back down as Hoyt hacked through it.
With the beasts more spread out there wasn’t an immediate frenzy over the blood and body, and they were able to continue onward with only a few more interruptions.
The island they were approaching stood out from the others on the basis of having a large tower. A lighthouse, from the looks of it, but there had to be more to it than just that. For one thing, it would be pointless to have a lighthouse on a lone island in an area that seemed to have no fog or inclement weather of any sort.
Upon arrival it was clear that others shared in the same judgment, because there were at least a handful of other groups on the island. It was hard to tell exactly with different cultivation techniques and how they were spread out seemingly randomly inside the tower. As the group approached the entrance, they began to sense more about the tower.
The formation made no attempt to hide itself, and because of previous experience everyone recognized it as something similar to the pressure formations Everheart had. As they entered the base of the tower they felt the energy pressing down on them quite clearly. But unlike Everheart’s, the formation was more or less arranged vertically. In short, the pressure seemed to increase as one went up the tower on the spiraling stairs. For an equal amount of effort from the formation, it was somewhat harder and more dangerous than what Everheart had. After all, climbing stairs was harder than walking on flat ground- it was just that neither were generally relevant for cultivators.
Fighting against the pressure while raising one’s body higher would actually be a decent test. As for the danger, a cultivator who had completed Body Tempering had little to fear from falling down, or even tumbling down a flight of stairs. They weren’t so fragile as to be damaged from either, but that was considering normal gravity- or equivalent gravity. With the pressure pushing them downward, if they fell the wrong way they would be facing multiple times the force. It would make little difference until the point someone collapsed, but that made pushing oneself to the limit more risky.
As they stood at the bottom of the stairs, the feeling of those up above became more clear. Some familiar techniques were sensed- including members of the Heavenly Lion Sect. One particular sensation stuck out to Anton.
“Zvonko,” he declared.
“Should we be concerned?” Devon asked.
“Perhaps. I would suggest none of us get too far apart.” Anton shook his head, “If I didn’t know better, I would say that he wouldn’t openly attack us. But considering the last incident between us, he clearly is willing to do so.”
“A sore loser. Though he should be weaker now,” Devon gestured to his own arm.
“Perhaps,” Anton agreed, “But some people grow stronger in adversity. In addition, I didn’t achieve that entirely on my own merits. He’s late Spirit Building in cultivation. The Heavenly Lion Sect’s technique is not poor, so my own abilities aren’t a match. Previously Lev assisted me, and Zvonko was unable to gather much energy to attack or defend since it was a surprise attack. I’m not unconfident in standing against him now, but I certainly wouldn’t assume my victory.”
Velvet looked up the spiral stairs. “What’s the purpose of this tower? Just training? Should we expect any sort of rewards?”
“It doesn’t seem like a practical defensive formation,” Catarina said. “I see no indication there was an exception for those who belong. So its purpose was likely training. The gradual nature of the increase makes little sense for anything else. As for rewards…” she shook her head.
Velvet sighed. “Right. They would probably be handed out by the sect. But there might instead be something at the top.”
“It’s worth the attempt,” Hoyt said. “And setting up something like this for training is beyond even the Order.”
Everyone agreed they might as well try- it was something they were all capable of improving with. As they began to climb the tower, they split apart based on the speeds people were comfortable with moving. For perhaps the first quarter of the tower- somewhat difficult to tell from the inside- they all remained together, feeling little effect of the pressure. As it increased Timothy naturally ended up in front, with Hoyt close behind him. Catarina was next, resisting the pressure with skill more than direct effort. Anton was somewhat behind, close to Velvet. While the others had all reached the eighteenth star- including Velvet- Anton was not quite there yet. It was also tiring to draw upon the mysterious energies of Fleeting Youth, so he kept himself to a moderate but sustainable pace.
Devon fell somewhat behind, though he kept a steady pace. He had managed to close the gap between himself and the others, but he was still only somewhere like the equivalent of the fifteenth star. He was the only one of them that didn’t cultivate the Ninety-Nine Stars, so the measurement wasn’t quite the same for him.
In the interest of staying together, Catarina attached herself to the front three. As they were climbing the tower, sensing with energy became less exact. Just because they could feel others ahead of them didn’t mean they had a good grasp of the details. Recognizing cultivation style or individual was one thing, but their exact locations were more vague. Devon began to push himself to keep up with Anton and Velvet. Anton would have been happy to slow down- but he wasn’t going to disparage his grandson for beginning his cultivation in a less optimal environment. There was little else keeping them separate but time. If Devon didn’t want to seem weaker, Anton would happily maintain his pace.
Anton focused on the pressure around him as he walked the stairs. Each one was not too high, he simply had to properly raise his leg and firmly place it. The weight upon him made it harder than he was used to, but not yet unbearable. It was the way the pressure interacted with his internal energy that he had to deal with first. Creating a stable balance pushing back was the most optimal use of his energy, keeping him from being knocked down but not wasting any energy.
He focused on that aspect of the climb, but he was still aware of his other surroundings. The circling stairs were almost hypnotic in their repetition, but that made any changes stand out more. Not that he needed to be hyper aware to notice someone tumbling down the stairs, cursing.
Anton spread his legs, taking a solid stance as he stretched out his arm to the side. His arm wrapped around the torso of the tumbling man as he went head over heels down the stairs. The momentum he carried rocked Anton backwards, but he kept his feet as he anchored his energy to the tower walls and stairs.
“Hello there, young man,” Anton greeted him as he stood him on his feet. “Careful of that step.”
“Ha. Thanks.” The young man brushed himself off, then got a good look at Anton. “Oh! It’s you again. You’re… Anton, right? You saved me from Everheart’s collapsing tomb. I almost got trampled.”
“Ah yes, I thought I recognized you.” The young man was one of the Heavenly Lion Sect. If Anton recalled correctly, his own sect mates had ignored his peril. “I don’t believe I got your name.”
“It’s Nowell, Senior Anton. I must thank you again,” he bowed his head.
“It is not a problem.” Anton looked up the stairs. “Did you run into trouble?”
“I… just got ahead of myself,” Nowell commented.
Even if Anton hadn’t noticed the burst of energy from above, the young man wasn’t very good at lying, not that Anton thought that was a problem. He’d been quite willing to speak up for him when Zvonko said he stole the Vessel of Insight- though nobody knew what it was at the time. “Is that so?” Anton asked. “Well, you can continue along with us for a while at least. No need to rush. I would expect to take days to conquer this challenge, if we can. It seems a bit too much to brute force.”
“I wouldn’t want to be a bother…”
Anton shrugged, “Go at whatever pace you feel comfortable with.” He started walking up the stairs at about what they had been going before, and Nowell naturally fell in step with him and the other two, though they were stretched out over a dozen stairs.
Nowell circulated his energy as they began to climb again. He had quite a few scrapes and bruises from the fall- and perhaps a bit more than that. He was fortunate to not have anything broken, at least, though the pressure of the area would doubtless make the wounds ache more than normal.
They began to pass other cultivators along the way, mostly those in early Spirit Building. They passed a member of the Frostmirror sect who was in mid Spirit Building, but he didn’t even glance over at them as he continued at a set pace. Likely whatever he had determined was optimal.
Then they came face-to-face with another member of the Heavenly Lion Sect. He glared at Anton and Nowell, but did nothing as they passed him by. That might have had something to do with the way Anton rested his hand near his belt and the handaxes attached to it, but he couldn’t say for sure. The next one was braver.
“Stop right there,” a young woman radiating the aura of the Heavenly Lion Sect crossed her arms.
“Excuse me?” Anton raised an eyebrow.
“Not you,” she said flippantly. “You have nothing to do with this. This is an internal affair of the Heavenly Lion Sect.”
“Is that so?” Anton asked. “What a strange place to deal with internal matters. Because just a week ago I’m quite certain you all must have been in your actual sect, were you not? Why not handle it then?”
“… shut up,” she said unconvincingly. “Just stay out of this.”
Anton covered Nowell’s mouth when he was about to say something that probably amounted to letting him handle it and it being his own problem. He smiled gently as he looked at the young woman standing in front of him. “Let me ask you something. Have you been standing there long?”
“What’s it to you?”
Anton shrugged, “I was just wondering if this is as far as you can go. You seem like you should be able to climb higher. But maybe not.”
“I can,” the woman stomped her foot, glaring at Anton. “I just… have to deal with this.”
“Why?” Anton asked. “This is a location for training. That is the best use of your time. Yet someone has you standing here, dealing with ‘internal matters’… but why?” Anton stroked his chin, “It’s almost as if they are afraid of others growing stronger. Do you think that’s why Zvonko ordered you to block the way here?”
“Well, I-” she was a better liar than Nowell, but not good enough to avoid Anton’s focused insight. “I don’t know what you mean. He can’t order me to do anything.”
“A good answer,” Anton said. He started walking up the stairs patting her on the head as he went by. “Try to remember that one.”
“Buh- you-!” she balled up her fists, unsure how to react but clearly aware of how she was outnumbered. She glared at Nowell as he passed, but didn’t make a move towards him.
After they were quite a bit further on, and out of earshot, Nowell thanked Anton once more. “I appreciate your help, really, but you can’t always remain with me.”
“That’s true,” Anton said. “Do you have your own group? Others from the Heavenly Lion Sect you trust?”
“Yes, a few here with me. We didn’t think it would matter if we split. But I can meet up with them at the end of the day.”
“Good,” Anton said. “Though you don’t necessarily need them.” He suddenly stepped towards Nowell, pushing his shoulder. As he began to fall back, Anton grabbed onto his shirt. “You’re used to balancing in normal circumstances, but you haven’t quite adapted here. You should get some practice in a difficult environment.” Anton stepped down to be parallel to him, the steps wide enough they could both stand on the same one somewhat comfortably. “You need to be ready for sudden changes, and not just the gradual push of the tower. I think the rest of us could use a bit of practice, too. Since we might end up fighting here.”
Nowell raised an eyebrow. “Sparring? Here?”
“Just light sparring,” Anton said. “Pushing and grappling, unarmed. I think we could all learn something.” He had the Vessel of Insights active, so that if they really did learn something they might get a little bit extra for later. So, on an empty stretch of stairs, two pairs of cultivators began some of the slowest sparring matches for cultivators in mid Spirit Building. They weren’t exactly slow, but the speed at which they moved was certainly restricted by the pressure. Any connecting blow felt more significant with the threat that they might fall down the stairs- though they very intentionally aligned themselves so that people would be more likely to impact on the outer or inner walls instead of beginning a rolling descent. Though Devon would later suggest they just try rolling on purpose to see how they could protect themselves.