Climbing a tower under constant pressure was quite an ordeal- and once a cultivator reached their limits they had to descend safely, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded. It was certainly less dangerous than fighting all day, but ultimately quite draining.
An important detail about the Secret Realm was discovered at the end of the day. Or rather, because the day didn’t end. There was no cycle of day or night, but instead a constant light emanating from the sky. Thus, even at the time when it would have otherwise been night, it was still just as bright. However, just because the sun was up didn’t mean cultivators would be. They still had to rest, and to do so they gathered into camps.
So far there had been no signs of rain or other inclement weather, but tents were still useful for the purpose of not being in the bright sun. While Anton had to admit that he liked an occasional nap in the sun, fully sleeping was easier with some proper darkness.
The others groups of cultivators were also gathering into camps. The Heavenly Lion Sect wasn’t quite one camp, with two adjacent segments. Nowell and some others were in one, and the other had Zvonko and some of his loyalists. Of course, it was perfectly normal for disciples to hang on to other talented and favored disciples for a chance to share in success, but Anton hadn’t seen either from him. But he had to admit that his experiences were limited- perhaps if they hadn’t been willing to stand up against the scheme in Everheart’s tomb, his group would have flourished significantly because of it.
Zvonko looked over while Anton was observing him. Anton was ready to shoot him if he even took a single step closer, not willing to risk the more experienced cultivator get close. But it seemed he had some level of restraint, because beyond a glare and flaring his energy, there was nothing else. Maybe he’d realized that he couldn’t just attack people in full view of everyone.
Anton eventually took his seat by the fire in his own camp to check on what was cooking. It seemed to be smoking fillets of various fish. With a bit of seasoning they should be quite tasty, and of course they were as fresh as could be.
Among his various enemies, Zvonko was one he was most willing to bury the hatchet with. He hadn’t suffered any serious losses, so it wasn’t as if he was being magnanimous with that thought. He doubted that Zvonko would be interested in ending their strife, however. Even if it was entirely his own fault that he lost his hand, Anton knew he wouldn’t see it like that. Perhaps he even somehow convinced himself he truly deserved the Vessel. Anton had seen people hold grudges over much smaller things.
Before the members of the Order went to bed, Catarina finished setting up a defensive formation. Even though the Order would certainly retaliate on their behalf if they were killed in their sleep, that would be little comfort to any of them. Likewise, even though the area should have been safe, they set up a series of watches. With six people each of them could take watch for an hour and some. Though Anton would probably be awake for half of the night anyway. He needed some sleep, but rarely more than a handful of hours. Nothing of particular interest happened the first ‘night’.
In the morning, the group entered into a discussion with each other about how they would proceed. The three who had gone further ahead had already been caught up on the situation with Nowell. “Given their willingness to attack a sectmate,” Anton said, “Even splitting into two groups seems an unnecessary risk. I understand that this will restrict some of you unfairly, but I think it’s for the best we stay together.”
“Of course!” Timothy agreed. “If we thought they’d be so brazen, we would have never gone ahead.”
Hoyt and Catarina nodded.
“Actually,” Catarina suggested, “I have an idea that should be beneficial to all of us. Assuming there’s an actual prize at the peak, that is. If we work together, we should be able to go further. I can’t guarantee we’ll surpass Zvonko, though. A late Spirit Building cultivation is a significant advantage, even for an idiot like him.” Catarina frowned, “How long do you think he’s been cultivating? It should have been less than five years at Everheart’s Tomb… a year ago.”
“It has to have been close to five,” Hoyt said. “Even with abundant resources, he’d need some cultivation talent to reach that point. Close to us, really. Though there’s always the possibility that he just inflated his cultivation level somewhat. Pushing to reach higher tiers without fully completing each step.” Hoyt shook his head, “But cultivation ‘genius’ and actually making wise decisions are not connected, as can be seen in many cases.”
“Hmm,” Catarina frowned, “I really can’t promise we’ll surpass him then. Relying on him being reckless seems a bit presumptive. But combining our efforts should increase our efficiency.”
Working together to resist the pressure of the tower was somewhat similar to their previous efforts dealing with formations- the part where they felt the flow of energy, at least. Devon hadn’t been part of their efforts in the The Gauntlet since his cultivation had been significantly behind, but they were confident he would be able to work with them. Nothing guaranteed synergy between blood relatives in regards to cultivation, but it was a fact that half of their group was related. Even if it didn’t have tangible benefits, it provided a mental boost.
Catarina was the center of the effort. She was the formation specialist after all, and most familiar with manipulating the flow of energy on a larger scale. The pressure from the tower pressed down on them as they formed one large barrier with their energy, diverting it around them. It took a few hours of practice in the lower sections of the tower to be confident in their stability, then they began to proceed higher.
The first day of climbing together they made it about the same distance as Catarina, Hoyt, and Timothy had before- slightly more than halfway up the tower. They could have pushed further, but they took some time to spar with each other on the steps. Separating into two groups showed that if they were combining their efforts, whoever had Catarina at the lead was most effective. When individually resisting the pressure it was very difficult for Devon, who was still lower in cultivation. After some practice, it was determined that Timothy was best suited for leading the second group’s efforts. He had practice with controlling defensive energy on a wider scale, related to using a shield in combat.
After spending time getting used to the pressure, the group began to descend once more. There was only so much they could do in one day, and they had other aspects of cultivation to practice… and some insights to go over. Each little sliver from the Vessel of Insights was barely a passing thought, and most of the time Anton couldn’t glean much in the way of improvements for himself or others… but each little extra helped.
When they had climbed the tower, many people threw them interested looks. That was the same on the way down. It was possible some other groups would try to replicate their efforts, but if they were successful… that was their own merit. Using methods that other people had that worked could be considered stealing techniques, but if it could be done simply by observing then it was hardly inappropriate.
In addition to the various groups and individuals they had seen the previous day, there were new arrivals. The first one was a person they’d had little interaction with- but that little bit was generally positive. Chikere was an independent cultivator, focused on the way of the sword. While many cultivators used swords as weapons, she was one of the sort so focused on the weapon that her actual cultivation technique was secondary. She’d stood on the side of the Order during the conflict that didn’t quite happen after the Tomb. Since she’d been able to just stay out of the altogether, that was some credit to her- even if it didn’t come to blows.
She inclined her head to the group. “Greetings. Are you planning to reach the finish line before me once again?”
While some people might have been bitter when saying that, Anton read that she was actually curious. “That’s certainly the plan,” he grinned, “You’ll have to put in a good effort to beat us.”
She nodded, “Good. One cannot simply compete against themself indefinitely.” She stepped past the group and continued on her way up.
“… I hope she doesn’t just reach the peak right now,” Catarina said after she passed. “She’s strong enough. I thought she was in Essence Collection for a second. She was so close before, and she’s certainly stronger now… but not quite there.”
“I sensed the same,” Anton confirmed. “It’s not easy to make that step, it seems. Though without the stability of a sect, she’s walking an even harder path.”
The second person was much less pleasant to encounter. Devon was the first to react to the particular energy signature, his energy rousing itself to be ready for a fight. Tonina Potenza was just below them.
Anton put a hand on his shoulder, “You know I will support you, but do be aware of the consequences should you act. And the escorts.” Devon nodded gruffly, but didn’t settle down.
Tonina came up the spiral staircase surrounded by a handful of other cultivators. Members of the Flying Blood Cult, who she’d been with when they first spotted her outside the Secret Realm. In a way they were doing something similar to the group from the Order- but instead of working together, the five mid Spirit Building Cultivators were simply reducing the pressure on Tonina while otherwise acting independently.
Devon stepped forward, chains beginning to form around his arms. “You’re supposed to be imprisoned for another year and a half. And it seems you didn’t follow the restrictions even during that time.”
“Hmph.” She turned up her nose- an effect that was somewhat comical consider her position beneath them on the stairway. “And you were supposed to be dead.”
One of the other cultivators next to her, a somewhat older woman almost on the border between mid and late Spirit Building, looked between Tonina and the others. “Are we fighting?”
Tonina shook her head. “No, Inha. This isn’t the right place.”
“Hmph. Too bad,” she licked her lips as she looked over the group. “Maybe next time, then.”
The stairway was just wide enough for the two groups to pass while brushing shoulders. Devon didn’t push things any further, though everyone remained tense as they passed each other.
Anton spoke what everyone was thinking. “I anticipate further trouble.” He put his hand on Devon’s shoulder. “I know it’s not easy to wait, but…”
“I understand,” Devon said. “Besides, I’d like to be able to publicly display her head, before throwing it to Fuzz.”
“Don’t make Fuzz eat her!” Catarina chastised him. “That’s gross!” Catarina paused, “Also don’t feed him any other people.”
“I wouldn’t actually do that part,” Devon said. “But I would like to be able to publicly defeat her.”
“When we find the right chance,” Anton agreed. “You’re strong enough now, you know? Though I doubt it would be easy.”
“No worse than some of the arena fights,” Devon commented. He looked down at the chains of energy wrapping around him, mirroring his scars. “And quite a bit more fair than the worst.”
Anton pondered how rules of propriety were most restrictive to those that hardly needed them. Those who were already inclined to behave decently were bound by formal laws, while those who would ignore them just hid behind them. Yet he didn’t think that not having laws of any sort was the correct solution. Though if people ultimately only followed the law of the strong, he intended to be one of the strongest. Too many people avoided consequences for far too long.