It was only after several more days that Anton noticed a strange, uncomfortable feeling. After he was aware of it, he found it hard to place but unfamiliar. It wasn’t anything so obvious as someone or something following him around. He knew that feeling well. No, it was something else. Something about himself.
He wasn’t terribly familiar with Essence Collection, but everything about that felt absolutely right. All of his energy felt perfectly alright. It was the energy that wasn’t quite his that was the problem. Anton had always been aware of the unnatural nature of having energy from beyond ascension and drawn from future incarnations- but now it felt unstable. Much like when facing the techniques of the Luminous Ocean Society.
That was it. At least, Anton felt a certainty that a majority of the feeling he had was due to that. He had actually avoided excess combat during the week or so he’d been wandering the extensive forested area. Ascension energy was something used for emergencies, so when he wasn’t actually calling upon it he barely felt it.
Yes, something in the area was destabilizing that energy. As for what it was, as far as Anton could tell… it was everything. Beyond the lifeless soil and a majority of the stones, every plant and creature that had been injected into the ecosystem had some small effect on disrupting ascension energy. That included the fruits he had been consuming. Anton had the feeling that he would be in a sorry state if he had actually ascended himself, instead of just stealing away the energy with Fleeting Youth.
That also included the pregnant doe he was with. Anton carefully summoned a handful of energy- kept quite literally contained in his palm. It was likely enough to kill a normal person or a low ranking cultivator, but as far as ascension energy went it was only a minimal amount. It wavered in his hand, still functional but less in his control.
Then the doe licked his hand. He felt the energy get wrapped up in her tongue and pulled away. His most immediate concern was not losing it, but what happened to the energy. It wouldn’t just disappear. His question was answered almost immediately, as the doe began to radiate a stronger presence- though composed entirely of the energy he was used to. Anton was tempted to try it again and see how much the doe could absorb, but in her pregnant state rapid ingestion of energy might not be advisable.
The doe still nudged his hand with her head, as she did when he was hiding acorns. Anton held out both his hands. “It’s gone, see?”
The doe flicked away her head, as if turning up her nose. He suspected she didn’t believe him, and technically that wasn’t incorrect. He could summon more whenever he wanted, especially in that quantity. It might not be a good idea, though. He’d wait at least an hour to see if there were lingering effects.
With the majority of his worry assuaged, Anton continued on his way. He felt drawn towards a certain area, and had the feelings others would be as well. Hopefully he might encounter some companions, either his usual group or at least cultivators from allied sects.
Devon had a less than optimal start to his cultivation. He was only taught it at all to spice up arena battles, and had little resources given to him. He had to make do on the merely adequate amount of natural energy that had been available to him and his own skills. After he had been freed, his grandfather had helped him re-lay his foundation, but he stuck to the core of the technique he had been taught, despite it not being deserving of a proper name.
The core was the only thing the same, however. Devon had modified it on his own, finding it inefficient, but with the experience of Anton and elders in the Order he’d turned it into something else. He didn’t draw upon the semblance of the stars to empower himself, but he had adapted to temper every part of himself just like the Ninety-Nine Stars.
The decision had been made out of stubbornness, but since his cultivation hadn’t come to a screeching halt Devon supposed it had been right. Or at least, not the worst he could have made. He was progressing regularly, and given time he might match the group of his grandfather and companions. Being effectively a year behind out of six meant it would take some time to properly catch up, but the biggest issue was that each was at peak Spirit Building if they had not yet stepped into Essence Collection. He would only hold them back right now.
Devon also found himself as something of a loner. Though with that said, he hadn’t elected to wander through Everheart’s tomb entirely alone. He was with three others from the Order. Kalpana, Allen, and Marcio. The first two were closer to his own age of around five decades, while Marcio was a good ten or fifteen years younger. The last of their number was a young man who interestingly enough used a fighting style similar to Devon himself, though with a very different origin. His name was Lev, a member of the Grasping Willows.
Elder Varela of the Grasping Willows had been present for Devon’s rescue- a bold and honorable move for someone from a smaller sect who had little to gain. Except, of course, the friendship of a cultivator who was merely starting out on the path to true power. Or two, since Devon himself had advanced quite far since that time, surpassing the Elder in question.
After he was saved by Anton, Lev had been training hard to catch up. Devon understood that feeling, but given that his grandfather was advancing at more or less the rate of the top tier of cultivators, it wasn’t such an easy feat. Only time would allow the gap between them to lessen, perhaps five or ten years and the power gap between them would be marginal. If they could actually keep up.
The group of five had come across quite a number of fortuitous encounters in the wilderness they were wandering… or perhaps it would be more correct to say they’d found a number of intentionally placed prizes. Even if every fruit being perfectly ripe was a product of Everheart’s formations, the fact that it was made that way for the trial led to them being more rewards.
There were challenges, of course. Beasts that wanted to consume those very fruits or who were simply territorial. There were many dangerous plants as well, but Lev was able to identify them- even if they were unfamiliar species of plants. The Grasping Willows emulated an exotic plant of the same name, and Lev’s experience nearly dying to a strange parasitic moss had led him to widen his knowledge of plants even further.
“We’re getting close,” Kalpana commented from the head of the group. She was the member of their group most trained in scouting. “Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll have to deal with another group coming in.”
Despite the different circumstances of this particular place, most cultivators were following the general rules laid down for any such group excursion. Regardless of whether or not they thought the rules were good, it was beneficial to follow along. That included trying to minimize conflicts, especially deadly ones. While killing your opponents would silence them once and for all, regardless of official actions grudges would form. Allowing others to leave a conflict with lives intact was generally safer for both sides. Especially since so far there hadn’t been any extremely problematic groups, like the Flying Blood Cult.
Devon’s thoughts worried that he might have just caused them trouble, but as they drew closer it was determined that the group was from the Desert Hippo Sect. Devon didn’t know about them, but Kalpana had some information. “They’re a combative bunch,” Kalpana explained, “But they don’t have the reputation of being thieves or murderers. They likely won’t give up this prize without a fight, but we should be able to arrange some terms. If I identified them correctly, of course.”
“Any connection to Crunching Hippo River?” Devon asked.
“The origin of their styles, I believe, though they are currently unaffiliated.”
At least that meant a lower chance that they had a Life Transformation expert just wandering around, though the Order had more than one anyway. Devon and the others would just prefer they stay out of this entirely.
As they approached the area with the treasure that they had sensed, they found a group of six large men waiting for them on the other side of some sort of berry bush. The dark skinned men ranged in size from a tall, lean warrior to an absolute giant close to two and a half meters tall and finally to a man thick with fat. For the latter, it had to have been an intentional choice- cultivators had many methods to burn away excess fat if they so desired. Even if they didn’t, they tended to end up thinner simply because it was a chore to eat beyond the level required to build and maintain muscle.
It was the giant who spoke as they approached. “It seems we come upon the same prize together,” the man said with a booming voice. “There is only one thing to be done. We fight for it.”
“See?” Kalpana said, looking at the others. She then raised her voice to be heard by the men from Ambati. “What terms should we fight on?”
“Given the size of our groups, it seems appropriate to have a series of matches. Three in total, with two victories claiming the prize.”
“And what of the others?” Kalpana asked.
“Of course, we will be standing by for the sake of ensuring there is no foul play. Either from ourselves, or a third party interfering.”
A fight of five versus six wouldn’t be in the favor of Devon and the rest. If one of their members were sequestered in a match and they were betrayed, four versus five wouldn’t be much worse. “What else?” Kalpana probed, “The rules of the matches.”
“They continue until one side is defeated. Usually, that would be through surrender, but clear incapacitation will of course count as well.” The large man gestured nearby, “There is a sufficient area there to fight without leaving the rest.”
The group discussed among themselves, but nobody had any objections. All that mattered was that the members of the Desert Hippo Sect intended to keep to the terms. “Very well,” Kalpana said. “Who shall go first?”
“Kayode,” the giant said. “You are to go first,” he waved a man forward. “Your side may pick whoever you please.”
“I’ll go,” Devon said. His cultivation was close enough to his opponent around the border between mid and late Spirit Building.
With no objections from his side, Devon moved forward.
Once they were both in place five meters from each other and out of close proximity to the rest, the start of the match was called by the giant after they declared their readiness. A moment later, Devon had a massive man barreling towards him.
Devon could feel the ground shaking, a combination of the man’s weight in muscle and fat as well as his energy propelling him forward. Though a certain sort of honor might have compelled him to meet his opponent head on, practicality called for a different response.
Chains of energy shot forward from Devon to either side, wrapping around trees on either side before meeting in the middle. Two more went directly forward. The charging man ignored both entirely, letting them wrap around his legs and arms respectively.
As the chains wrapped around the tree snapped taut, Devon found himself thrown forward. He tried to slow himself and his charging opponent by dragging his feet into the ground, but it hardly helped. Devon might have been able to hold on until the trees snapped, but he would settle for what he had. The man’s momentum slowed slightly at least. The chains wrapped around his arms didn’t do much, but as their imminent collision approached he pulled the arms in towards the man’s sides.
Then Devon leapt forward, sailing over the man’s head while at the same time releasing the chains attached to the man’s legs. He didn’t just drop them, but thrust them down to meet their counterparts down below, where they formed into a single loop. As soon as that happened and the chains hit their full length once more the man staggered. Happily enough, he fell forward- though the trees cracked and groaned under the force and Devon’s chains strained.
A simple fall onto the man’s face likely wasn’t a significant victory, so Devon had to hope that he caused some damage or at least made him expend more energy than he’d used himself. Though he was also moving to take advantage of the opening of his prone foe. It seemed unlikely for the man to be terribly agile, so despite his tough body and strong energy defenses he had to take the opportunity. He held the man’s arms tight around him and charged back towards the man, since the spikes clearly weren’t enough on their own.