“… what?” Anton squinted at Everheart. “What’s ‘better’ than ascension?”
“If I knew that, I would have done it,” Everheart said. “Besides, do you think I know everything? I’m just making wild conjecture. It doesn’t really matter though, if you reach the peak of Life Transformation while keeping up with your Fleeting Youth training you’ll kick the ass of anyone below Ascension. And that’s all that you need.” Everheart’s teenage form leaned against the wall casually, “Though you’ll die of old age pretty quick, I bet. How’s your lifespan holding up?”
Anton shrugged, “I’ve got at least two decades in me right now.”
“Not bad,” Everheart said, “Should have another fifty though. That late start really made things hard, huh?”
“I suppose so,” Anton said, “But I have nothing to compare to.”
“Yeah, well,” Everheart shrugged, “Look, I don’t actually know everything, even everything Everheart knew. But I do know that you have to carve out your own path. And I had a thought that maybe ascension wasn’t the only one. The only way to find that out for sure is to do it, or die trying. Though it may do you some good to hang around for a while…”
“Because of the ascended individuals coming to attack, I presume,” Anton said with as much casualness as he could muster.
“You know about that?” Everheart said. “Others too, I hope?”
“Yes. We found the secret realm of the Luminous Ocean Society, and sifted through their ruins to find some techniques that can combat ascension energy.”
“Good, good,” Everheart continued to nod. “Then you might have a chance. Not at winning, of course,” Everheart quickly clarified, “But of not being completely wiped out.”
“Will you help us?” Anton asked.
“I’m just a projection. Besides the knowledge and crap contained here, I can’t really do anything.”
“I mean Everheart,” Anton said.
“I’m dead,” Everheart’s projection said. “Everyone knows that.”
“Or you ascended. You should have a pretty good idea of whether or not that happened,” Anton said. “And given this place, I can’t imagine you got close enough to guide others without taking that step yourself shortly after.”
Everheart shook his head sadly. “You make the assumption that one precludes the other. But I know you know that even if I ascended, I’m dead. Too many enemies. And, if, just if I survived somehow… do you think I’d help? I may have messed around with these stupid tombs, but I’m ultimately just a self-serving asshole. This was a fun little side project. If it lets you all kill a single person when they come, well… that’s just a little revenge I set up for myself in advance.”
“I don’t believe you,” Anton said. “This is far too much work to go to, too much expense, just to maybe kill someone who might have killed you.”
“I appreciate your optimism kid, but you know what they say. You can’t take it with you.”
“…” Anton found Everheart very difficult to read. His flippant nature was certainly an intention affection to a certain extent, but some parts of him were genuine. “I have it on good authority that you can, in fact, ‘take it with you’. Otherwise there would have been a pile of stuff left behind whenever people ascend, and these raids would be pointless.”
“Crap,” Everheart said. His expression looked genuinely upset. “I didn’t think of that.”
Anton couldn’t help but laugh. Because either Everheart had really missed the fact that he could bring his wealth with him, or he’d set up a whole lot of complicated places for the sake of pushing others onto a path for their own protection and never once tried to get anyone to appreciate him for it.
“Don’t laugh,” Everheart stomped his foot.
“One of us has to,” Anton said. “And I figured it wouldn’t be you.” He walked forward, looking at the pedestal. “You can’t actually get these crystals, can you?”
“Nah,” Everheart said. “But one guy’s coughing up blood every time they disappear. It’s hilarious.”
Everheart left in short order after the conversation finished. Anton hadn’t gotten anything but a better understanding of his conscious and unconscious thoughts about ascension, which he supposed didn’t count as nothing. But he didn’t get anything to help boost his cultivation, after the forest at least.
He didn’t end up with any more questions, eventually arriving in a room where several Life Transformations cultivators stood, looking at the wall. On the wall was a large circle, with two needles protruding from it and hanging parallel. One pointed directly upward, and one slightly to its left. If Anton recalled correctly, it was similar to a timekeeping device. Most cultivators had no need of them, and few people had need for precise timing. Such devices were usually large and clunky, though most didn’t take up a whole wall. Anton felt it with his energy senses, and instead of the expected formations running, the thing sensed a large collection of metal rods and gears.
“Any idea what this is?” one of the Life Transformation cultivators asked as Anton entered. He was the one Anton knew was from Crunching Hippo River, though he didn’t know the man’s name. The large man waddled over to Anton, and Anton knew he wasn’t just asking, he was demanding to know.
“I don’t know, senior,” Anton said. “Except that it might be a timepiece.”
“For what?” the man asked, though he clearly didn’t expect Anton to have that answer.
Anton looked at it anyway. “I hope it’s not until the next potential invasion. Because if so, it doesn’t appear we have much time.”
The man squinted his eyes, grabbing Anton’s shoulder before he could even sense him moving. “Invasion by what? What do you know?”
“Senior,” Anton explained calmly. “Information from the secret realm and ruins of the Luminous Ocean Society indicated an attack in the past. One enough to erase them, and probably other very strong sects, from the history of the world.”
The grip on his shoulder relaxed, though Anton himself did not. “Foolishness,” the man said as he turned away, though his worry was plain for Anton to read.
Though the hands on the clock seemed to be completely stationary, Anton could feel them moving. It was ever so slow. If it was actually a measurement from the last incident, then there was less than a tenth of the time in between remaining. Though given that it had been several centuries at least, Anton thought they might have a few decades. At least that thought was slightly comforting. It didn’t look good though.
More and more people ended up at the end of the final trial, speculating on what it might be. Among those people was Grand Elder Kseniya, who raised an eyebrow at Anton’s presence before her, but didn’t say anything more. He could have simply been closer or chosen answers more quickly, though Grand Elder Kseniya knew that not everyone would arrive at the end. His eyes indicated he had things to say, but also that they would best be said in private. She also looked at the doe he brought along with him, but had little to say about it.
Another hour passed before Everheart appeared, his annoying teenage form leaning next to the clock. “This is good enough,” he said. “I’m sure many more people can make it here, but all the high ranking cultivators are present. Now, I’m sure some of you might be wondering what happened to those people who didn’t make it through the doors. You might presume they were taken back to the beginning, to be returned down below. But actually, they’re dead.”
A pile of equipment suddenly appeared in front of him. Everheart judged the reactions of everyone in the room, which ranged from apathy to disbelief to a little bit of anger.
“Now, I’m sure you all are wondering why they would be dead. Some of your sects are missing a few members that bolstered your numbers, it seems. Except… you aren’t. Only fakes are missing, cronies for those who think themselves better than you.” Everheart shrugged, “Hell, they might even be better, but the point is they were lying to you.”
There were a few whispers among the crowd, and Everheart picked up on them.
“That’s right. The ‘Twin Soul Sect’ among others. Tainted by those not from here, traitors now and in the future. Willing to give up their lives for the promise of one somewhere better.”
“How foolish,” one cultivator said. “Nobody can help you in your next life.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Everheart said. “I’m sure someone could. I don’t know if they were actually going to follow through on the promise, but whoever is involved definitely could, if they chose to.” Everheart looked at some of the people in the room. “Tempting, right? It’s not so hard to find someone’s soul after they’re dead, if you know where to look. You can help it along, guide it into the right new birth or any number of other things.” Everheart’s face blackened as he glared at them. “Or you can tear it to shreds and make sure that they’ll never live again.” Everheart spit on the ground. “Don’t even think about following through on that temptation. If you seek out those from beyond this world, I promise that when your fellow cultivators tear apart your body, I’ll do the same with your soul.”
Anton wasn’t sure if he Everheart could actually do that. Oh, he absolutely believed Everheart had the ability, and that everyone who had been brought into the deathtrap would have had it happen to them after they died… but outside this place of control, Anton grew more skeptical. But he wasn’t going to contradict the man either.
“So it’s true then,” Kseniya said. “Influences from beyond ascension who somehow influence people here.”
“More than that,” Everheart said. “They can come for a little visit. Sometimes.” He gestured towards the clock. “Shouldn’t be long now. So in addition to what you know so far, here’s what I have to say about Ascension. Screw it, and everyone who dips their filthy hands into our world. But on a more practical note,” Everheart said. “I know you found the Luminous Ocean Society. Good job.”
Anton wasn’t going to mention that Everheart had learned that tidbit from him. That seemed a bit unnecessary and likely to get him in a pointless squabble.
“I saw their place too. They had some nice techniques for fighting ascension energy. And they still got wiped out to the last man. Because let’s face it, none of you are strong enough. All of you together, and your sects, and everyone who didn’t make it here…” Everheart shook his head. “Probably also too weak. And I’m going to say this. If you know any techniques that can fight them, they won’t let you live. They’ll stomp you out and remove you from history.” Anton realized he couldn’t move. “So that’s why none of you have the choice but to learn it. Everyone’s going to know how to fight them, whether you like it or not. If you don’t want to get wiped out, you’d better make good use of it.”
Anton had never felt so intimidated by someone telling them he was going to learn something, not even when Grand Elder Kseniya dragged him off for training. Now, he found himself being pulled into a different place. At least his mind.
Information bombarded him from every angle. Some of it hurt less, not because it wasn’t dense but simply because he had some idea about it. He had the feeling that he was being inundated with a bit of ascension energy as well, but he actually had experience with that. Along with his beginning study of the techniques to fight it, he was actually not all that harshly affected. At least that was what he determined later when he was returned to his body and found only passed out individuals all around him, while he himself was able to sit up off the floor briefly and look at them before he passed out for a good twenty hours.