For the majority of time training as a cultivator, Anton had been part of the driving force. Not that the others had been unwilling to train, but he’d took much of the organization upon himself. Though sometimes training was difficult, Anton liked to think that his own training was reasonable. He wasn’t sure if what he was currently doing was reasonable at all.
Step by step, he ran up the tower. He was less than a quarter of the way up, so it should have been relatively simple. He’d been to the top, and started the descent, both of which were many times more difficult. But running up the stairs was hard.
His muscles strained as he moved. Even swinging his arms as he ran was tiring them out. His back ached as it held his body straight. He even felt his internal organs jostling about, his bones creaking. Missing from the equation was one important ingredient… energy.
Somehow, Chikere had convinced everyone to attempt climbing the tower without energy. At least she was sensible enough to actually start from the bottom, unlike when she casually mentioned it while they were at the very top. Though her cultivation technique was different from the Ninety-Nine Stars, a cultivator could always continue to temper their body. Whether or not it was useful or efficient was another question. Unless the focus of a particular rank was on some form of body tempering, time could usually be spent elsewhere.
In Anton’s sake, he happened to be at a strangely inconvenient point in his training. The eighteenth star connected body and spirit. Now he was retracing the steps of Body Tempering, starting with his meridians- connecting spirit and body took the place of full body temperings. He felt he wasn’t getting as much out of running up these stairs as the others, but he wasn’t going to just leave them. There were far too many enemies around to separate from his allies.
Anton considered another angle as well, as his feet rhythmically impacted the stone stairs. Perhaps his training could be more efficient. Since he wasn’t using any energy to support himself climbing the tower, his meridians weren’t particularly in use- but the pressure was still trying to squeeze his energy out of him. Most things he could think of to do with his energy would end up having the same effect of reducing the pressure on the rest of him, but just circulating it internally would probably be fine.
That lasted for a short time, but people began to reach their limits. Anton had already been pushing himself pretty hard, but trying not to show it. He didn’t mind being physically behind, but he didn’t want to limit whatever benefits others might derive from this training.
Chikere was the exception to being exhausted, of course. She was now in Essence Collection, a very significant amount of cultivation beyond the rest of them. In addition to that, while as a group they were able to resist the pressure of the tower and climb about equal to her, without using energy they couldn’t balance the load. They all had to work alone with just their own bodies.
She looked over her shoulder at the rest of them. “I’m going to continue on for a bit. The rest of you should go back down, before you start rolling.”
Anton agreed, and though Timothy and Hoyt looked like they could go a little bit further they turned around with the rest of them. On the way back down, Anton continued to circulate his energy internally without actually trying to stop the pressure. It was like squeezing molasses from a pipe, but it still moved, if slowly.
Then he began to call upon the energy from beyond, the power of Fleeting Youth. It was more than just one definite thing. It was energy from future incarnations, from ascension, from places beyond. He thought it might not be accessible within the Luminous Ocean Society’s Secret Realm, but it seemed no more difficult. It was just there, waiting. All he had to do was reach out for it. That wasn’t as simple as it sounded, but it was there. Interestingly enough, the pressure from the tower seemed to have little effect on it. Perhaps that should be expected- though he only managed to gather a few small pieces of the energy, it was much denser than the natural energy from the world around him. It had more power condensed in one spot, so it was less restricted.
His body let him know that the world still had some balance. He’d be feeling their little run for longer than the others would, and his body wouldn’t grow as much stronger with each star. But with Fleeting Youth he could make up for that small deficiency. Quite frankly, compared to most cultivators he was extremely well off. He was just in a position where he had to compare himself to talented friends and younger family who were acquiring their own supplemental techniques, and the Ninety-Nine Stars by itself wouldn’t have been enough.
Though running up the tower without energy had been something of a fun diversion, soon enough they got back to the task of entering the lower portion of the tower once more. Most cultivators were still climbing up the tower, but a few dozen from different groups had actually reached the top and eventually determined that the beads granted access to the depths- it wasn’t as if Anton and the others could hide themselves completely, and it wasn’t impossible for others to figure it out. If one of the first following cultivators hadn’t been Zvonko they would have even gladly shared the information. In the end he was only frustrated for a few hours, but that was good enough for Anton. If Zvonko had seemed to have any remorse- or at least no intentions to continue their conflict- he wouldn’t have reason to care.
As they descended, Anton began to feel something. There were certain differences between different cultivation styles that could be felt. The stars of the Ninety-Nine Stars were like warmly glowing lights, Glorious Flame Palace cultivators felt like a furnace, Frostmirror Sect members nearly froze energy that touched them. Those traits extended to less elemental sorts of things, like when the cultivation style focused primarily on a weapon. Those cultivators tended to be sharp. Occasionally they felt like a weight hammer, but sharpness was the norm. Anton felt at least a dozen drawn blades below them, nearly flinching as he touched them with his energy- though they couldn’t actually cut him with their aura. At least, not at their cultivation level.
Chikere commented on it around the same time Anton finished analyzing them. “Those cultivators are moving rather slow- oh. It’s the Eternal Sword Hall.” Chikere had given them an abbreviated list of those that might seek trouble with her- mostly those she sensed joining the area around the tower. “I’m surprised they reached here so easily. They arrived not long ago…”
“Should we risk advancing forward?” Anton began to ask. Then he smelled something behind them. Very few types of energy registered as a smell, but the bloody scent was unmistakable. “Do we have a choice? The Flying Blood Cult is behind us. It could be a coincidence.”
The unmistakable sound of a sword being drawn came from Chikere. “Maybe they’ll be smart and not choose to fight. But I’d be ready. It seems like…” she nodded, “Yes, one is at early Essence Collection, and another is peak Spirit Building. The others are all weaker. I can probably take the strongest two, but I’ll need you to keep the rest off me.”
“Of course,” Timothy said. “We agreed to do so.” He hefted his shield and drew his sword.
The group advanced downward. The particular section they were in had zig-zagging stairs, with open areas to the next layer. Though the pattern was regular enough that there would be no accidental falls… nobody was expecting any accidents.
As they approached, the sharpest among them stepped forward slightly. Specific features were obscured by the darkness and the difficulty of clear sensing, but at the very least it was clear he was the Essence Collection cultivator. “Return what you stole and we might let you live.”
“Oh?” Chikere asked, swinging her sword around. “Do you mean this?” There was the sound of other swords being unsheathed, not from the cultivators in front of her but directly around her. “Or did you mean some of these?” The swords hovered in the air next to her. Then she pulled out yet another sheathed sword from her storage bag. That one thudded to the ground, causing the stairs to shake even back where the rest were standing. “Or this one, the prize of the tournament that I won and you refused to hand over?”
“All of them.”
“Gladly,” she said. Of course, the words only matched her action from a particular angle. The swords were indeed being moved towards the members of the Eternal Sword Hall. They just were going point-first.
Anton wished he was able to be more than a few steps back, but remaining as part of the formation was most important. Both he and the others would be weaker if he moved out of his position. And even if he was able to back up… he was concerned about the Flying Blood Cult. Even if they weren’t actually intending to come for him, they might just decide to do it anyway. They were that sort of group, but nobody was able to find their base of operations. At least, nobody would admit to it. Some groups clearly were willing to work with them despite their murderous proclivities.
An arrow formed on his bow. It released… slowly. Like it was flowing through water. But his target, a sword cultivator in mid Spirit Building, reacted with similar speed. In fact, he was even slowed somewhat more by the pressure around them, barely managing a half-dodge. The arrow still struck him, piercing through his energy before glancing off of a rib- though Anton thought he’d cracked that rib as well.
Timothy and Hoyt moved forward at the front of the formation, flanking Chikere on either side. As several swordsmen charged up the stairs towards Chikere’s left, Timothy raised his shield. As they tried to step past him to reach her, they found they could not. His physical shield was little wider than his body, but extending beyond that for a full meter on each side was a greater manifestation of his shield. The group of course directed their attacks towards him, but he remained firm. They staggered back, and one of them even teetered close to the edge of the stairs. Hoyt slashed his axe, leaving a trail of fire. It didn’t last as long as it might elsewhere, but along with flashes of sword light the area became revealed to more than just energy senses.
Catarina balanced the energy of the group as they moved, and since there was no room for her in the front she moved to whatever position was optimal, focusing solely on that. The stairs were wide enough for several people to fight side by side, but a cultivator could cover a wide area. Velvet remained in reserve back with Anton, while Devon took advantage of the reach of his chains to hinder anyone trying to reach Chikere- except for her called targets.
There were at least a dozen swords involved in the part of the battle involving the strongest combatants- and with only three cultivators there, it showed how hands weren’t the only method for wielding a sword. Chikere maneuvered her primary sword with two hands, and each of the others had a sword in their right and a somewhat shorter sword in their left. The remaining swords floated around Chikere, stabbing and slashing along with her.
Anton continued to fire arrows. The entire battle felt like it was in slow motion, yet both sides should have been equally restricted. That was what Anton surmised, at least, but it seemed like they were suppressing the extra members of the Eternal Sword hall quite handily with both a numbers and cultivation disadvantage. Dealing with either one of those made sense given the way they were lightening the load on each other, but both… his arrow shot into the foot of someone who telegraphed their attack on Hoyt attack a little bit too much. He aimed for a foot- so either they could withdraw their attack and dodge, or take the hit. They tried to do the former, but were too slow, and his arrow pierced into the top of their foot. His movements were as if the pressure of the area was much higher on them just a few steps lower. But Anton could sense that it wasn’t. Perhaps the battle might be more in their favor than he thought- though there was still the approaching Flying Blood Cult to worry about.