Elder Cultivator 232

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The tall and skinny man covered in spiked armor, Alhaji, faced off against Kalpana who wielded two warhammers, one side of each head with a spike while the other was blunt. This would be the final match of the three, with one win for either side. While Kalpana’s weapon were indeed suited for her opponent, she wouldn’t necessarily have an easy time getting in a solid blow that allowed her weapons to pierce through his defenses.

As the countdown finished and the match began, Alhaji charged forward. The members of the Desert Hippo Sect all had a similar straightforward style, but Kalpana judged that just because his movements were simple didn’t mean he would be easy to strike. He moved with great speed and momentum, forcing Kalpana to make the choice between counterattacking and protecting herself. If it were a battle to the death, one she was certain to have ample time to recover afterwards, she might be willing to take a swing at his vitals in exchange for a hit. 

The tall man crouched low, at least compared to his height, his arms outstretched to cover a larger area. She ducked under and took a swing at his side, but his assault had actually made it difficult to land a proper blow. He also reacted to her ducking around him, swinging his arm like a spiked weapon that scraped along her skull, damaging her energy. 

She didn’t expect him to swivel around on his heel, nearly instantly reversing his momentum, but she reacted nonetheless. With one hammer she knocked his arm up, and with the other she hammered into his side, knocking him off course. She thought she might have cracked one of his ribs, but she couldn’t be certain. This group was tough.

A flurry of hammers and spikes twirled around as Alhaji began to show what else he could do besides a straightforward charge. Punches and kick and leg sweeps all came with the added danger of spikes sticking out at odd angles. He was obviously familiar with their location, never hindering himself but always using it to make Kalpana’s life more difficult. But while she was kept on the back foot, she was actually planning her attack. She slowly gathered energy, preparing for the right moment. When it came, she struck without hesitation. Alhaji overreached a bit too much with a punch, allowing her a moment to swing up one of her hammers, the spike driving into the inner side of the elbow. He was trying to move past her, but that allowed her to yank him to a sudden halt. Her other hammer came down on the spot she had battered before, striking with intensified force as sparks flew even before hammer struck armor.

She aimed slightly down, piercing into his ribs at an angle where she wouldn’t hit his heart. That was a courtesy that was appropriate, though other than that it couldn’t be said that she held back. Even as she managed that, Alhaji reached around with his good arm to try to pull her in and crush her, but she danced away. They faced each other for a few moments before Alhaji reached up to his side, where blood was flowing freely. “I surrender. It is your victory.”

As he said that, the remaining members of the Desert Hippo Clan inclined their heads, backing away from the bush that was the object of their contention. Both sides had injuries ranging in intensity, but they should be able to recover in a relatively short time frame. Going any further would just leave them vulnerable.

“Good fortune to you,” Bongani and the others said as they began to turn away.

Devon quickly gathered the others around, whispering to them, then called after them. “Wait!” The Desert Hippo Sect turned, looking back curiously. Devon pulled a handful of berries off of the bush, tossing them. “It was a good match. You should take some.” Before they could object, Devon continued. “Just promise us this. If you are able to grow the plant first, share the details with us.”

Bongani had easily caught the handful of berries, looking at them in his hand. “Grow them?” he questioned.

“Absolutely. My grandfather would kill me if he knew I didn’t at least try to grow something like this. The instant gratification of a little power is nothing compared to the eventual payoff. At least, if something suitable is found.”

Bongani nodded, “Very well. We shall try some soils near us. Though none are quite like this area.”

Both sides parted peacefully from there. Devon knew it was only a small chance that they’d actually get anything in return, but the Desert Hippo Sect members would be leaving with a good opinion of the others. While they might never meet again, there could be a need for some allies in the rest of the tomb.


“Alright, that’s about it then,” a voice appeared from nowhere, and though Anton had only heard this particular iteration of the voice several times before he wasn’t going to mistake Everheart for anyone else. “All of you have had your fun gathering everything as you desire. But you didn’t come here for fancy plants. You came here for Ascension. And while I can’t guarantee even a single one of you will reach that point, some of you are going to come away from this armed with new knowledge.”

Given the general way the voice was speaking, Anton presumed that everyone else heard along with himself. He didn’t suppose it would respond to questions, though he didn’t have a good one ready anyway.

“I’ve opened up the final trial. Some of you are much closer than others, but that’s fate. Or whatever. I don’t know if that crap actually exists, but I won’t hear any complaints about it. Everything goes to those who can get their hands on it first. And I mean it. Touch any of that stuff in there, and it’s yours. I don’t mind little squabbles happening, but once someone has something that’s it. I expect you all to be civil. After all, nobody would want to miss out on valuable information about ascension.”

The more he reiterated that point, the more Anton wondered if it was some sort of prank. It was possible Everheart really didn’t care about handing out the information, having already ascended or died himself, but the mere way it was said made him wonder what information Everheart could actually have. Then again… if this place was made after he raided the Luminous Ocean Society- which was quite likely- he might have some exceptional secrets.

Or the most difficult place to get to would have a note that suggested something like climbing a mountain to achieve ‘ascension’.


As soon as Everheart finished talking, Anton could sense where the next trial was. It was extremely obvious… and also quite nearby. He calculated in his head the chance that the timing was random, and determined… he didn’t know. It was also possible that there was more than one entrance to the final area, though he could only sense a single concentration of power. If there were others, their presence was overwhelmed by the one he felt.

As he walked along, Anton looked over at the doe. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to come with me. But I suppose there’s no way to know except to try.” He continued to walk towards the energy signature he sensed, just fifteen minutes away by his estimates. He felt other people nearby as he approached, and Anton was quite certain a few Life Transformation experts slipped in ahead of him. They were the ones to which information on Ascension was most important, after all.

He soon found stairs heading down, the opening sticking out in stark contrast to the forest around it as if it had torn out a part of the world around it. In fact, there was half of a rock on the edge of it, cleanly cut. So nobody could have possibly stumbled upon the final trial early, since it hadn’t existed.

The doe was reluctant to go down the stairs, but Anton helped her along, supporting her weight as needed. She clearly didn’t enjoy the process, but she also wanted to stay with him. She was able to walk down the stairs, at least, and after the first few she was less nervous and clacked her way down until the hit the bottom which led directly into an open room. Three doors stood across from them.

Everheart’s voice came to Anton once again, but this time it sounded more authoritative. More imperial. “Ascension. Each bit of knowledge can bring one closer, but likewise misinformation can lead one a step away. What is ascension?”

The three doors before Anton had no labels in the traditional sense, but he felt something from each of them. One of them carried a great power with it, and he recognized it. Yet the same sense was down other corridors as well, though less potent. The first seemed to be the easiest solution. Ascension was the great power that came beyond Life Transformation. The other two hallways were harder to interpret. 

“I don’t suppose you could tell me what each one is supposed to mean?” There was no answer, either from Everheart or the doe nor anything else.  Anton shook his head. “Wonderful.” He almost went immediately for the easy answer. It should bring him forward, and he had to get to prizes first. But… it didn’t feel quite right. The second hallway seemed to register as ‘a different source of energy’. That was right, too.

As he walked towards it, Anton took one last look at the third hallway. He wasn’t sure how, but it resonated in his mind as ‘a place cut off from the rest of the world’. Anton stopped. All the answers seemed to be correct. But was one more correct? From what he had learned… the third was actually the most important, though only part of the full picture. He decided to traverse that way, to see if he could determine what Everheart was actually looking for.

He ended up in a small room with a tiny pedestal in it. On the pedestal with a shard of crystal the size of Anton’s pinky nail. Yet it was filled with an overwhelming amount of energy.

“All answers are true,” Everheart’s voice came. “But some are more true than others. Reach for your prize, if you can snatch it.”

Anton carefully reached forward, wondering what was going to attack him. Would it be the crystal itself, or some other trap? In the end, however, there was no danger to him. Because there wasn’t actually anything there. As he touched the crystal, his fingers went through it and it scattered into light.

“A basic understanding of ascension is hollow and empty. Perhaps it will grow into something, and perhaps it will not. Until then, it is intangible.” Anton would have just preferred if Everheart had simply said, ‘no prize’ instead of taunting him with a reward. But there was still more to explore. “Given that ascension is a place cut off, what does that mean for you?”

Anton was beginning to understand that the hallways that split off weren’t exactly even a specific answer, but rather limited by his own comprehension of things. The second hallway was a complete blank for him, with nothing there. The first spoke of breaking free from the world to ascend. And the third was like it, implying a barrier in the way. 

The difference was unclear, but Anton was inclined to move towards the latter. Because while a barrier might indeed prevent them from ascending easily, it wasn’t necessarily keeping them trapped either. 

The doe wandered along behind Anton, seeming to be unsure about the strange stone rooms but otherwise not reacting to anything. 

“Barriers go both ways,” Everheart’s voice spoke as Anton stepped into the next room. “Is that sufficient?” Once more there was a pedestal.

Anton approached closely, taking a good look at the shard of crystal, ever so slightly bigger than the previous one. Perhaps he could have attained the other, if he knew what he was doing. He could feel the dense energy, one he had handled before himself. He was unsure how it might be solidified into a crystal, but ascension energy was certainly familiar. He reached out for it, trying to control it. But it once more faded into nothing.

“Upon ascending, a cultivator has reached the peak of his path, becoming something akin to an immortal.” Everheart’s voice spoke with clear authority. “None can hope to stand against them.”

Anton immediately rejected the first thought in front of him. ‘Ascension makes one undefeatable’. Of course that was not true. Unless people who had ascended simply couldn’t fight. By the standards of the world he currently lived, he imagined that ascended individuals might indeed be unstoppable, but compared to their peers, there had to be those who were stronger and those who were weaker.

Setting that aside, Anton  was immediately drawn to the third hallway. It spoke to him of fragility and weakness, a mere hollow and brittle form covering up the truth. That didn’t ring quite true to him, but something drew him to it anyway.

Once more there was a small crystal, marginally bigger. He tried to make use of a small bit of technique he’d learned to counter ascension energy, hoping to snag the crystal, but once more it was gone.

“Everything is finite. Everything has its weaknesses,” Everheart declared as he stood in the room. “Until, in the end, one goes beyond ascension to reach true immortality.”

Anton didn’t hesitate, finding his answer immediately. Perhaps it was the cynic in him, but the thought of ‘everything dies’ resonated with him too strongly to even consider other options.

“A pity,” Everheart commented as he entered the next room. “You know so much, and have such talent, but you’ll never reach ascension.”

It took a moment for Anton to register an actual form standing there, talking to him.

Anton shrugged, “I know. But I made this choice.”

Everheart snorted. “Hah. If I was actually here, I’d slap you for that. Most people don’t have a choice.”

“I don’t know if giving it up was really a choice, though. Nothing says I would have made it.”

“Don’t pretend you aren’t a genius,” Everheart said. “I didn’t think it would matter for this place, so I didn’t take stock of everyone’s cultivation time when they came in. But knowing you used Fleeing Youth, I had to know how long you’ve been practicing. Six years to reach Essence Collection might put you into the second rank of geniuses, if you weren’t a century old.” Everheart shook his head, “I thought you’d maybe started training Fleeting Youth, oh, four or five decades ago. But you’re still new at that too.” Everheart’s eyes drilled into Anton. “Do I sense some damage to your lifespan? I don’t suppose it was Candle Wax?”

Anton nodded. “That’s right.”

“Look, just because Fleeting Youth functions better at the end of your life didn’t mean you had to push yourself there.”

“I’m not that careless. I had to save someone. I’ve not used it in quite some time.”

Everheart looked at Anton a while before nodding. “Yeah, sounds about right. Listen. If you make it through Essence Collection- and I can all but guarantee you will- you would have reached Ascension. But it’s gone now. And don’t tell me you didn’t guess that. At the very least, you had to at least be aware of this messing up an unknown number of reincarnations.”

“An unknown number?” Anton asked. “I was under the assumption that I might not reincarnate at all.”

Everheart shrugged, “Maybe not. I have to point out I didn’t actually use that one. But I’m good enough at predicting side effects to tell you that your next few incarnations, if you have them, will be perfectly normal people.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Anton said.

“Too bad you can’t ascend now,” Everheart said. “I’m sure someone like you could do a lot with it. Well, I’m sure when the time comes you’ll come up with something better anyway.”

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