Time. That was what cultivation required. For the moment, Anton had it. Even while spending time diversifying himself Anton still had sufficient time to improve the core of his Spirit Building cultivation. For him, the twenty-second star would be a refinement of muscle, connecting him to that portion of his body more deeply. It would be the final refinement before the true midpoint of the latter half of Spirit Building, which when taken as a whole meant he was close to late Spirit Building. A realm unfathomable to him four years prior when he was first cultivating, and yet seemingly insufficient at the same time. But he wasn’t going to let the gap in cultivation between himself and the best in the world intimidate him. Instead, he would treat it as a lofty goal. If he gave up so easily, all the cultivators who strived for decades to not even get as far as he had would rightfully be able to call him pathetic. He had been quite fortunate to have the right temperament and talent while also obtaining the right opportunities to push himself forward.
Things hadn’t settled down in the world. The abductions in Facraona still had not been resolved, though there had been no further activity. That made it seem as if whoever was responsible already had enough. Yet despite the troubles- or perhaps because of them- they were still going to go ahead with a tournament they were planning. It was the sort of setup where juniors of sects would get together to display their power and bring honor to their groups. This particular tournament had little to do with Anton- there were restrictions on actual age and not time since someone started cultivating. He supposed it was likely rather difficult to tell the latter, though of course Everheart had a method to do so. Everheart did everything, including a vast number of things he probably shouldn’t have.
With the tournament being only a year away, Anton had no chance of making it to Essence Collection, also known as Constellation Formation, where he could participate. The cutoff for the Body Tempering category was thirty years, Spirit Building was sixty, and Essence Collection cultivators could be up to a hundred and twenty years old. Though even if Anton miraculously reached Essence Collection with five total years of cultivation he would be merely at the early stage, and much weaker than most of the participants.
Instead of participating, he would rather help others with their training. That included all sorts of people, from his most steadfast allies to an ever growing selection of people throughout Graotan.
The most powerful cultivators from the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars stood together. Half of their Galaxy Construction members, all ten qualified to be Grand Elders were it not for the hard limit on that title. The realm of cultivation known as Life Transformation to cultivators in general allowed for great things to be done, but only a very small portion of people could attain those heights. Along with them were about a third of their Constellation Formation members, sixty in total.
Grand Elder Vandale’s single eye narrowed as he looked down on the valley below. There was nothing to see, at least not as far as his purely visual senses were telling him. “Do you think he would have wanted to come along, if he knew?”
“Absolutely,” Elder Kseniya said. “But I think he would have heeded words of caution.”
“Perhaps,” Vandale shrugged, “But we’re here.” Vandale looked across the valley, to a frozen peak that wasn’t particularly lofty. “Looking forward to being a Grand Elder?”
“You know I don’t care about titles,” Kseniya said. “And it’s hard to believe that so man positions would open up with the forces arrayed here,” she gestured towards a peak with heat waves coming off of it. “Our forces should be able to overwhelm them.”
“That is entirely the plan,” Vandale said, “And that is why I can tell you it will not happen so smoothly. Perhaps when you are old like me you’ll understand.”
Kseniya laughed, her wrinkly face smiling. “Nobody ever ends up old like you.”
“It’s time,” Vandale said. “We can’t wait any longer.” He stretched out his arm. “I wonder what they’ll think of this.” He stretched out his hand, gathering energy beyond even the power of his own. The power beyond Ascension, and from future reincarnations. Yet it was only sufficient for a single attack. Among other things, he was not quite so brave as Anton. He did not have the fortitude to reach Ascension, but neither did he have the heart to fully give up on it. The same was true with future reincarnations. Perhaps he would weaken himself in his next life, but as surely as anyone did, he would have one. Even if it could barely be called himself.
The first falling star streaked down into the ‘empty’ valley, striking against a barrier that became visible by virtue of the way it resisted his attack. A full dome rising to half the height of the peak and nearly filling the entire valley below at its widest. Vandale smiled slightly, since while the barrier didn’t shatter… it at least trembled under his attack.
From the other peaks, frosting ice and burning fire rained down. It was unfortunate that none from Facraona had arrived yet, but they couldn’t wait. Vandale had already ignored the impatience on his nerves as long as he could.
The Frostmirror Sect and the Glorious Flame Palace weren’t the only ones participating in the assault, but they were among the most prominent. It was their scouts who had perished to find this place, and them who called upon the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars for aid. Even with no formal alliance, Vandale and the others couldn’t refuse the call- even if they hadn’t felt the looming sense of dread.
There was little finesse involved in the barrage of attacks, but they were at least aimed for critical points in the defensive formation as guided by those with the proper understanding. Vandale could at least pick most of them out on his own, but he was also happy to have experts. Falling Stars rained down with other attacks from the Order, arrows from Kseniya and many others as well. Grand Elder Kunibert Ivarsson was the strangest of the lot. Though he stood atop the peak next to the rest, he swung a hammer with no regard for the distance to the barrier. He didn’t even project a great image of it into the sky, enhancing its size. Instead, the hammer simply struck the barrier as if he were standing atop it.
His hammer pounded down in two hands, creating the first substantial cracks in the barrier. Black smoke spilled out of the formation as the area below gradually began to become visible. Kunibert continued to swing his hammer, battering the formation from all sides without taking a step from his position. Then the barrier shattered, revealing a towering castle shrouded in dark mist.
Cultivators with black eyes and shadowy faces stood atop the walls next to impaled bodies, slowly dripping blood. Vandale hesitated briefly as he realized that some of those who were impaled were still alive, or had been moments earlier. Then he narrowed his focus, protecting those who were moving in on the walls, where they had to attack at close range. He couldn’t be concerned if lives were being used to power defensive formations. Those inside would not live past this day if they just sat and waited, and though he couldn’t say what the exact consequences would be if they allowed events to continue unhindered, not one innocent soul would actually be spared. He would prefer if their deaths weren’t through his own hands, but he was willing to act regardless.
Targeting individual enemy cultivators on the wall wasn’t of much use, but though their figures and cultivations were somewhere concealed by the dark haze over the whole castle he was able to pick out some who were stronger, and thus more important. There wasn’t just one layer of defenses around the castle, but he was able to pierce his attacks through every once and a while, striking down some targets he hoped were critical. During that time, the scent of blood thickened throughout the valley as cultivators clashed, even reaching him at the top of a nearby peak.
Kunibert was standing on the outer wall of the castle, sweeping his hammer through a handful of people trying to stop him. The impact did not knock them backwards, instead it tore through them like he wielded a blade instead of a blunt instrument- though leaving much larger wounds. But even as their blood sprayed around the area, it began to crawl towards the center of the castle. Kunibert looked up at Vandale, who nodded. Before Vandale even began his quick descent down the mountain, Kunibert was in the first courtyard, battering his way through blood-red gates.
Each swing of his hammer was enough to not only cause the giant gates to buckle, but also cracked the stone around them. One swing, two swings, three swings and he burst the gates open, which disturbingly splattered dark red liquid everywhere as they broke apart. His next swing was an upward one targeted at the portcullis at the far end of the hallway. There was no way he could reach it from where he stood, nor could he get the head of his hammer underneath it. But he struck it directly on one of the tips locked into the ground. Enchanted stone cracked as in return blood washed over Grand Elder Ivarsson. Blood, and cultivators resembling blood. The Flying Blood Cult was present, but they weren’t the only ones.
Black fog still permeated the area, while the sect that held the castle struck only from the shadows. Kunibert continued to swing his hammer, battering it into the portcullis and cracking stone, while at the same time ignoring the poisoned blades attacking him, disappearing just as they were about to impact him. He stood behind the portcullis, swinging his hammer once in front of him without even turning around. The portcullis shook.
Then he was on the other side, a dozen attacks passing through his momentary location and clattering against the walls and floor. He reached down with one hand and grabbed the portcullis, yanking. It didn’t quite move the first time, but the second time the final locks holding it into the ground broke and he pulled it up. Behind him cultivators were streaming forward, Frostmirror sect, Ninety-Nine Stars, and Glorious Flame Palace alike.
But he had already delayed enough. He rushed forward, stepping past enemies and sometimes simply never passing close at all, merely being in front and then behind. He felt his blood being pulled towards the central keep and the hundreds of lives inside. Vandale and the others were following behind.
A large circular formation was set up in the vast central keep, a hundred cultivators placed in an outer formation with two hundred more forming several inner layers. Around them was a grim reminder of all of those who had been captured, most of them with their throats slit littered around the floor.
Kunibert took a great swing at the figures in the middle, little more than a mass of swirling blood and shadow. The shadow raised its hand, catching his hammer. It seemed that bypassing the formations made his attack far too weak. His next swing hit several of those around the edge of the area, but he quickly felt some regret. Though the cultivators died, their blood pooled on the ground and pulled towards the center. That wouldn’t quite work. He reached out an arm at what appeared to be empty space, pushing with his palm. Three people were ejected out of the formation. When he did it again… the cultivators let their chests be crushed instead of letting him toss them. Maddening. And he could see that the two in the center still had at least a dozen bound individuals around them that they were piercing with ceremonial daggers, one at a time. Fortunately, more allies were pouring in and they could hopefully provide more useful methods of breaking the formation.