Several more days passed, and the tower found itself with a growing crowd. Not everyone who arrived chose to stay- some passed on to seek out opportunities elsewhere in the Secret Realm. However, many also chose to stay.
Keeping track of the progress of others was difficult. The distortion of energy made it difficult to discern more detail about others in the tower except whether they were ahead or behind, with perhaps a vague sense of distance. The only information the Order had about Zvonko’s progress was that he was generally higher than them- and they had reached three-quarters of the tower’s height. Chikere was ahead as well, and it seemed like either of the two could reach the peak in short order.
If Chikere were to reach the top first and receive some sort of exclusive awards, Anton and the others would not be upset. However, if Zvonko obtained something instead they would regret it. Even if it wasn’t anything significant, nobody wanted their enemies to prosper. Together they continued to push ever upwards. As before, people began to copy their efforts. However, only a few groups could pull it off properly.
Even if they had the technical skill- someone who could lead the group’s control and individual ability- it didn’t always work out. Both groups from the Heavenly Lion Sect attempted to copy the efforts. Zvonko’s group tried it for a single day, before returning to how they were previously doing things. The glances Anton had seen exchanged between members when he spied on them outside the tower seemed to indicate something had caused bad blood between them. He was actually somewhat happy about that. A petty victory, but a victory nonetheless. Though Nowell’s group was generally lower in cultivation and considered to be less talented, they continued to attempt working together in a formation. Even when they made little progress for several days, they kept at it- until they were climbing the tower with great efficiency.
Not quite like those from the Order though. It was impossible to say their ascent was effortless. Each of them worked themselves to exhaustion at the end of the day, or as near as they could afford to be. But there was a large difference between tiring yourself out and being tired as a group. There was a sort of happy harmony that came together from shared trials. Each of them was able to go further because they knew the others were with them, and even if someone staggered they would share the load.
They climbed the tower once more. They quickly passed those low in cultivation who couldn’t even make it more than a quarter of the way up. Yet about halfway up the tower the group from the Order found themselves being passed by determined individuals. But that didn’t matter. They kept a steady pace, not hurrying through the lower levels nor slowing on the upper levels. Each step they took was much the same as they would do on a relaxed stroll.
At the three quarter point, the pressure bearing down on them was more than any of them could handle individually. Even with additional force pressing down on them as a group, however, the ability to distribute the load in a more bearable fashion allowed them to keep going.
Catarina’s focus was unwavering as she minutely adjusted the flow with each step they took- when people were slow on their rotation up the stairs she coaxed them to retain their positions, each separated by a fixed distance.
They were passing late Spirit Building cultivators, including those who had rushed past them earlier in the tower. They continued until nine-tenths of the way up the tower. The top felt so close, yet so far. The weight pressing down on them strained their body and spirit, but they continued.
There were very few people ahead of them. One of those was Zvonko, but they were closing in step by step. Anton regulated his emotions so as not to throw off the others. His anger towards the man was quite valid, but unhelpful. The others would sympathize with his anger, and they could easily be thrown off together.
Zvonko came into sight around the bend and was soon a dozen steps above them. They kept going, each step adding more weight. Zvonko trembled in front of them as he tried to step higher. He took one step, then looked back. Though such an act could have easily weakened his resolve, it seemed to bolster him, his back straightening as he looked down on them. They stopped. “Hmph. I’m certain you all feel quite grand for nearly matching me,” he grinned slightly, “But I came here under my own power. The six of you are merely cheating the system.”
Anton knew he could fill Zvonko full of arrows. While fighting would disrupt their formation somewhat, the others could handle it while he made his move. Of course, then what? Declare it was someone else who filled him full of holes… or burned the body to ashes? There were so few people near them, though another member of the Heavenly Lion Sect was not far behind. Anton wondered if Zvonko realized they could kill him. Perhaps he did, and thought they wouldn’t dare. But that wasn’t the reason Anton chose. If he wanted the world to not be just about the strongest murdering others, he had to restrain himself. The others looked over at him, and he shook his head. Then he spoke to Zvonko, “I wouldn’t brag about being incapable of basic teamwork, you know. Even the strongest cultivators are not able to ignore the weight of numbers.”
They continued walking. They hadn’t stopped because they couldn’t continue, but because it was a safe distance to think… and a good place to spend some time adjusting. They returned to their pace, pressing upward. Zvonko just stared as they stepped up to where he was- and then past that point.
Rather than let himself be surpassed, Zvonko began pushing himself to advance further. His energy twisted and pressed against the crushing pressure, lightening his body. He bounded up the stairs two at a time. Anton’s group continued to walk at a measured pace.
Eventually, they had to slow down. But they continued to advance. The top of the tower was so close they could almost taste it. Zvonko was ahead, but unmoving. The distance was close enough that they were certain Chikere was merely a few steps beyond that, something they were able to confirm as they rounded the spiral.
Zvonko was down on one knee, breathing heavily. Veins stood out in his face, and he somehow was both red and pale at the same time. Sweat dripped from him, pooling on the stairs. That was one area that matched the group from the Order. But they didn’t let themselves stop until they passed him, taking as much of wide berth as was possible around him in case he got any stupid ideas. Timothy placed himself on the point closest to him, shield at the ready.
Then they stood between him and Chikere- who was standing, one leg up on a higher step but seemingly unable to continue. She was clearly fatigued, but not quite as poor looking as Zvonko. She turned back towards the group. “Are you once more going to complete what I can’t?”
Anton shrugged- though lifting his shoulders was surprisingly difficult. “Maybe. But who says that you can’t? I imagine you can keep going some. Sure, you might collapse onto your face… but I promise to catch you as you come rolling by.”
Though his words were meant as both encouragement and joke, Chikere reacted much more strongly than he thought she would. At first it was a snort. Then a giggle. Then she burst out laughing. Hard enough that she fell over onto her rear, landing on a stair above her. But it didn’t stop there. She continued laughing until she was so out of breath her face was almost blue.
Then the situation was rudely interrupted. “I don’t get it,” Zvonko said. “Do you think you have the energy to waste on something like that? You couldn’t even take another step. You’ll be down below me soon enough.”
It took a few moments for Chikere to catch her breath. Then she stood up. She pointed her sword at him, arm trembling. “You speak big words for an ass-kissing sheltered disciple. I know fighting words when I hear them. You want to fight?” her sword gleamed with light. Zvonko just glared back. “No? I can come to you. It’s not a problem.”
Chikere took several steps down towards him. Zvonko’s eyes widened… and he turned on his heel and started stumbling down the stairs. Anton almost wished he’d fully slipped and begun to tumble, but he would probably just claim they pushed him if that happened. If he wasn’t injured, he could say whatever he wanted and little would come of it.
Chikere sheathed her sword before turning to Anton and the others. “Well, last time we met I failed at the end. Even if I do so again this time… I’ll hold you to that promise. Be aware, I might roll pretty fast down these stairs,” she grinned widely, involuntarily chuckling some more. Then she turned around and started back up the stairs. “… catch me. Pfft.”
She didn’t move quickly… but she continued step by step. Everyone else looked around at each other, then synchronously began to move. They were a bit slower than her. Chikere’s energy was raising high, pushing to its very limits. Her whole cultivation was revealed, and they could feel the rate her energy was draining. She couldn’t make it far… but there wasn’t far to go. And something was changing.
Anton felt his Vessel of Insights trembling as they continued forward. Ten more steps. Seven. Five. They slowed. Three. Two. Each step felt like a mountain pressing down on them. One more step. Another. Then they saw it. A door. Chikere was just a few steps away as they saw it. They continued moving, but she hadn’t stopped. Three. Two. One. She threw open the door and stepped through.
Then she began laughing madly. “This feels great!”
It took a full minute for the group from the Order to climb the last stairs to her, a mere few handfuls. But as they stepped out onto the roof of the tower, the weight was lifted from them and they felt like they were flying. At the same time, their cultivations so drained of energy were freed from their burdens. Energy rushed into them, filling them up.
Anton felt his own cultivation pushing through to the eighteenth star. Energy flowed from his dantian into his body and back, the connection strengthening. Devon was breaking through as well, and the others seemed quite close. But that was nothing compared to Chikere. After all, she had already been at the peak of Spirit Building, for more than the last six months. Now she was fully stepping through into Essence Collection, and the energy vortex she was pulling in from the surroundings flooded the area around them with energy- though the tower helped.
“Congratulations,” Hoyt offered once everything had settled down. “Reaching Essence Collection is a big step, and even more difficult for independent cultivators.”
Chikere turned to him and grinned. “Thanks. I feel great. Congratulations on your own advancements as well.” She looked over them. “I have to say, being in a sect seems to have its advantages. But I’m not willing to give up my freedom. Still, maybe I can’t do everything alone. How about an alliance?” She held out her hand. “It doesn’t have to be anything big. We don’t have to swear to fight to the death for each other. But I think we could get along. You watch my back and I watch yours.”
Before anyone could even say anything, Velvet was in front of her. She used both of her hands to grab Chikere’s outstretched hand, shaking it. “Of course I will. What else are friends for?”
Anton thought it was a little bit early to call them friends, having met approximately twice for short periods. However, he also couldn’t say that they weren’t friends. He offered his hand, though it took a moment for Velvet to give up her own grip. “Though my own cultivation is currently inferior to yours, I would be glad to accept your offer. Though be aware that I am absolutely flooded with mortal enemies.”
Even though she had made the offer, Chikere seemed hesitant to take Anton’s hand- until the thing about mortal enemies. “Great! It’s hard to know a person until you meet a few of their mortal enemies. That guy was one of them, right? With the whole hand thing.”
“That was all his decision,” Anton shrugged, “But it does indeed seem to be the case. And likely much of the Heavenly Lion Sect in general.”
“Yeah, his father’s one of the elder’s or something. You know how it is.”
Hoyt tried to not react obviously to that, while being the next one to offer his hand. “As Anton said, I do not know if this is a fair deal for you at the moment, but I would gladly exchange aid with you as suits us both.”
“It’s fine,” Chikere said. “I mean, seriously, he said he’d catch me when I was rolling by?” she looked at Anton and snickered. “Just imagining myself tumbling down the stairs and bowling people over,” she giggled, “…but that’s terribly dangerous.” She frowned, “Though now that I’m in Essence Collection…” Hoyt slowly let go of her hand. “I was only kidding about that. That would just kill people, and if I’m going to do that…” her sword was suddenly in her hand, pointed at the sky. “It would be with this!” Her sword swiftly returned to its sheath with a snapping noise. “But seriously I’d appreciate backup if it came down to it. I can fight a half dozen, dozen chumps easily… but I have my own enemies as well, and some of them have lots of guys to throw at me, if they’re okay with losing them. Which they are.” Everyone else also agreed to the somewhat casual alliance, shaking hands one at a time.
Then they turned to look around the roof. With all of the relief that came from the pressure being released, they had sort of glossed over that it was more than just an empty surface. Though perhaps not much. There was only a single pedestal, on which stood seven black beads. Catarina quickly moved forward, checking them out as she leaned around them. Though before she could say anything, Chikere picked one up.
“Neat. It’s surprisingly heavy.”
“That could have been trapped!” Catarina said.
“Nah. This is a reward or something.” Chikere stuck out her tongue. “It’s not food, or a pill. Maybe materials?”
Catarina rolled her eyes and picked one up. She held it close, staring into it. “Ooh.” She nodded seriously to herself. “I see. The tower also goes down.”