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The first thing everyone did was to descend back down the tower. Unlike previous times where they had pushed themselves and then had to retreat, reaching the top of the tower had not only been beneficial for improving their cultivation, it had allowed them a chance to rest. They were fresh as they headed back down, and though they had to face the worst pressure at the beginning they were adept enough it was little more than a minor inconvenience. Not that they would be running up and down the tower- especially since a fall could still be a real danger- but they progressed downward to where it was simple to walk in a handful of minutes. Chikere remained near the group from the Order, though she relied on her own energy instead of attempting to synchronize with them.
They received various looks from people as they descended- friendly, unfriendly, indifferent, curious- but nobody seemed to have realized that they actually made it to the top. They likely just thought they were done for the day. And they were, but only because they anticipated that the next section would be harder. They each had little beads that Catarina predicted would let them head down from the tower entrance, and they wanted to do more than just take a break to refresh before attempting that. If nothing else, they had to spend some time stabilizing their cultivation from their breakthroughs- and a good sleep would do them wonders.
On their way down they passed by Anish, of the Glorious Flame Palace. Though Chikere greeted him and the others from the sect politely, Anton saw she was displeased about something. His prime tempering of Earthly Connection allowed him to make those judgements more easily, but he also thought she’d somewhat let her guard down around them. “Do you have a problem with them?” he asked when they were a safe distance away.
“Not with those people in particular. Anish is fine,” she shook her head. “It’s the Elders of the Glorious Flame Palace that are the problem. They several times suggested I marry into the sect. As if that wouldn’t doubly ruin the point of being an independent cultivator. I’m not like this because I didn’t have the talent to join up anywhere else, you know.” Chikere shrugged, “Anish is just the one that is brought up when they broach the subject. After all, ‘you must join with someone equally talented’.” She rolled her eyes, “Perhaps he has that talent and anything else a woman might want… but that’s only if she wants anything to begin with.
Anton nodded, “Marriage can be quite nice, but it’s not all positives.”
“You’re married?” she asked. “Is your wife not a cultivator?”
“She wasn’t,” Anton confirmed. “Before you ask, yes, she’s passed away. At a ripe old age, I might add. That was before all the troubles.”
“… should I ask?” Chikere questioned.
“It’s related to those enemies I spoke about,” Anton said. With that, he gave her a quick summary of what happened in Dungannon, and his journey of cultivation.
“Wow,” Chikere said, “You got a lot of enemies real fast. Maybe even close to as fast as I did!” she said enthusiastically. “And now you’ve been cultivating… three and a half years? That’s amazing for an old guy.”
When Anton didn’t broach a response, Timothy interjected, “I remember when you used to complain about people referencing your age.”
Anton shrugged, “I’ve come to terms that people will see me as an old man before they see me as a growing cultivator. Besides, I’ve had to accept it for other reasons.”
“Oooh, mysterious reasons,” Chikere’s eyes sparkled. “Some sort of secret technique? You don’t have to tell me, but I know you guys got something from Everheart.”
Anton smiled, “He has so many forbidden techniques. Though we cautiously avoided the majority of them.”
Chikere didn’t press any further, and soon enough they were at the bottom of the tower. Though it was probably a bit early to sleep, it was difficult to tell what time of day it was supposed to be with constant clear and bright skies. Regardless, though they had refreshed their energy supplies they were still fatigued from their efforts. Chikere set up her tent as part of their camp, though it was basically just a piece of cloth held up by a couple of sticks. She didn’t even have a bedroll, though clearly if she’d wanted one she had access. Any cultivator could get mundane supplies with no trouble. Instead, she seemed fine laying directly on the uneven rocky surface of the ground.
“I should have allies more often,” Chikere declared. “It does wonders for getting a good night’s rest, not having to sleep with one eye open.” Anton had the feeling that she wasn’t just using it as an expression- perhaps she actually had some way to be only half asleep. An independent cultivator had to be prepared at all times, after all. Especially those who were prone to making enemies.
After eating, they made their way into the tower. They waited for a moment that nobody was immediately watching. While what they were doing didn’t necessarily have to remain a secret, it might be troublesome if there weren’t more beads for others to access the area. It was yet unclear if there were simply seven and they had all of them, or if the tower produced one for each of them. Seven was not a number that would be randomly chosen, but it could have had significance to the sect who created the Secret Realm, or that could have coincidentally been what was left.
As they stepped into the tower, they saw the spiral staircase go up above them. However, as they pulled out the beads, Catarina stepped forward on the other side. The floor in front of them swam and shifted as they approached.
“There’s still a barrier here,” Catarina said. She pressed the bead to it, but her hand just slipped through. “Holding this should be enough, I guess.” She took a few minutes to carefully examine the area, trying to determine how the barrier worked. Once she was satisfied in her curiosity, they continued onward.
Stepping onto the stairs felt like dunking in a freezing lake. Anton had done that several times when he was younger, before he was sensible enough to not do things that were painful. It came with a pressure just as strong as the top of the tower, but it bore down on them from all angles.
If it was just that, it would simply be a continuation of the tower. A reasonable test or training method, but that wasn’t where things ended. As they moved down the stairs, it became dark. Of course there were no windows leading to the outside to brighten the area- they were underground, or perhaps under the sea. Regardless, once they made a full rotation there was no light left. A cultivator could still navigate in perfect darkness by their senses, but those too were muted.
Anton attempted to strike a torch- it never took him more than a strike or two, but the sparks weren’t lasting long enough to light anything. He protected the torch with his energy and finally managed to get it lit… for a full second, before it flickered out. It was also possible to produce light with the use of energy- though anything more than simply illuminating a small area took a proper technique. Normally sustaining a small light was trivial, but while he was able to manage its creation Anton could feel it being pulled away. “Something about this place doesn’t want light. Ah.” He gestured, “The stairs. Instead of continuing to spiral along with the ones above, look. They turn.”
Simply walking into a wall in the dark was nothing more than an embarrassment to a cultivator. Even a normal person might only hurt their nose- though stumbling into other things could be more dangerous. But if that was all it was, there would be no reason to specifically make lighting fail. It was part of the challenge, somehow.
Anton let the light fade. “It’s difficult to hold on to it.”
Velvet spoke up next, “I’m having trouble sensing things. Beyond the seven of us, I can vaguely sense the people in the tower above- but even less than before. As for the walls and floors.” She kicked her foot at one of the stairs. “They’re nearly invisible.”
“That’s the challenge, then,” Catarina confirmed. “Sustaining a light source or sensing the area, while at the same time resisting energy pressing down on you. I imagine there are worse problems ahead than just the stairs turning.”
“Hmm,” Chikere swung her sword, which flashed briefly, leaving behind a transient trail of light. “This also has the danger that you fall towards more difficult areas. I guess that means if I go tumbling I want to be above you all.” It was hard to sense if she was smiling or not, but at least there was mirth in her voice. “I’ll go first, though I think I’ll not go far for now.”
Everyone proceeded slowly. They could barely sense the steps under their feet, but at least they could hear well enough. No one was so skilled in creating light that they were willing to split their focus for that task, so for the moment they were navigating in the darkness.
Something about the way their steps echoed tipped Anton off. “Hold on. We need some light.” Chikere slashed her sword around the area. The light lingered for only a second, but it illuminated enough. “Aha. A pit. No, in fact it’s just an open stairway.” He crouched down. “If we went too far to the left here and fell off, we’d go down… two or three stories. The good news is, there’s a landing there- nice and wide- to catch us. The bad news is… with this force pressing on us, we could easily break a leg or worse. It wouldn’t be the same as an ordinary fall.”
The group continued onward. With all of them sensing they could each notice different things, so they called out different things. A wall on one side. Straight stairway, curved, a full spiral for a while, and of course any ledges. Those always seemed to lead down to more of the descent and survivable falls, but nobody was much interested in testing that at the moment.
“I know I still feel capable of going further,” Anton commented, “But don’t forget that we have to climb up to get out. Even if the pressure lessens as we climb, we need to head back with enough energy to do so. I’m not confident in resisting this pressure with just my body.”
“Maybe I should try that,” Chikere said. Anton wasn’t sure if she was joking, but she didn’t withdraw her energy.
They all returned to the surface, and though the sunlight briefly hurt, it was a welcome relief. Everything they could see stood out so much more once they actually could, and having their senses unrestricted was like suddenly receiving a new pair of eyes.
As it turned out, there weren’t just seven beads available. Over the next few days others managed to reach the top of the tower. Zvonko was one of them, but there were also a few others from different sects. Soon enough Anish would reach the top as well, but he’d arrived later and was still getting used to how the tower worked.
Along with new arrivals and people passing through the area came information about other islands. Most of the ones mentioned were already cleared out- thus the reason people continued to travel about. The new arrivals also brought other information, about the Secret Realm in particular. Though they doubtless had tidbits they were keeping hidden, a number of individuals agreed on at least the name of the group that set up the Secret Realm. The Luminous Ocean Society. As for what it was, nobody knew. Perhaps their sects had record of their existence, but nobody remembered reading about it. That was true of even the more powerful sects and some knowledgeable elders. Thus, the Luminous Ocean Society had to have been extremely secretive… or very old. Perhaps both. If nothing else, they hadn’t been active in a good five centuries. But being entirely unknown when they had the power to create a realm of the size people were in… brought up many questions. Just like the ones Everheart had left. Anton wondered if he left notes elsewhere, but nobody had mentioned them. But why would they, if they thought it would provide them some advantage?