Just sitting, waiting for an attack was nerve wracking. The central part of the Order had the rewards hall, armory, and other tempting targets for invading attackers. When the warnings of danger had come, many of the disciples of the Order were nearby.
Elder Evan immediately began to hand out weapons and armor and anything else that might help. It was foolish to keep it locked up when they might need it. If they survived, it would be given back.
If they survived. A morbid thought, but one that Catarina didn’t think was unrealistic. After all, cultivators died all the time. Many of those who died today would be from the Order. Though specific information hadn’t been distributed, it was clear this wasn’t just a small scale attack. Otherwise someone else would be controlling the formations. Someone like Elder Galli.
Even if the Order didn’t have an overabundance of qualified formation masters, Catarina thought there should have been someone better than her. But that thought didn’t suddenly make someone else show up.
The idle thought to try to improve on the formations passed through Catarina’s mind, but she knew better than to try. Even if she had the time to make sweeping changes and access to the materials, there was no guarantee anything would be better. She was a top formation expert among those at her age, but older formation masters were better. Elder Galli was able to make things on a whim she could barely comprehend, and Everheart… even though he had been gone for centuries, he still had formations that were nearly impossible to sort out.
The ones the Order had should function fine on their own… when they weren’t getting seriously bombarded. When the enemy arrived and concentrated their attacks on one area, Catarina needed to be ready to respond accordingly. But she also couldn’t overreact and weaken other parts too much. But if she messed up, it would only mean an army getting through to attack hundreds of fellow disciples, most of which were in Body Tempering or early Spirit Building. Catarina wouldn’t be in too much peril, given her distance from the outside of the formation.
That was the worst part, knowing that if she failed others would die. She could accept personal consequences for her failure, but others dying left a sour taste in her mouth. Yet there was little hope that the formations would hold forever whether she was the one in control or someone else was.
Anton was working at the border. It seemed likely he would have been the first to face danger, but she couldn’t let her worries cloud her thoughts. As the first attacks fell on the formations surrounding the compound, Catarina felt strangely alone. She didn’t want to focus on that feeling, but she couldn’t help it. She wished she had her grandfather, her friends… Timothy. The last one was the biggest because he had always been around, but now he was gone… out on some mission for the Order.
The assault on the fortified structure on the southern edge of the mountain was resulting in many deaths for the Twin Soul Sect, but they were making real headway. Several of their members had broken past the front ranks defending the doorways and made it inside, and the main defenders were injured as well. The ranged attackers on the roof were still causing serious damage, but soon enough they would tire.
A single Life Transformation expert could entirely tip the balance in the battle, but none of them joined. They would instead be looking for other opportunities. While they might receive some merits for slaughtering those well below their level, it would be very little compared to tackling the targets only they could handle. While wiping out the younger generations was valuable, crippling their leadership was also important. The time wasn’t all that far away, and weakening a sect like the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars could allow enemies not directly associated with the Twin Soul Sect to take revenge, further weakening them.
The Life Transformation members also stayed out of the fighting to keep themselves as secret as possible. There was no chance they had all gone unnoticed, but it was a matter of measuring themselves against the others. It was known that Grand Elder Vandale was still present, but since none of the others had yet gone to reinforce the locations being attacked, it confirmed there were few of them. He wouldn’t be alone, of course. The Order wasn’t so foolish as to truly leave just a single Grand Elder present. However, if they merely had to deal with half of the Life Transformation cultivators of the Order, somewhere around ten of them… then the Twin Soul Sect was confident. Their own members might all die, but that didn’t bother them.
Deciding that they had waited long enough, a dozen figures began to make their way up the mountain from various sides, along with several times that many spare Essence Collection cultivators. It was a shame that the Twin Soul Sect had fallen so far that they could only manage a real assault on a single target, but there had been massive damage to them at the opening of Everheart’s Tomb. Before that point, they could have easily crushed any single sect. Though if they had tried that, it would have provoked much too strong of a reaction, resulting in an attack much more powerful than that at Black Soul Valley.
As they climbed into the denser energy that was gathered towards the top of the mountain, the Life Transformation cultivators coordinated their movements to arrive at the same time. All of them could feel Grand Elder Vandale, brimming with power and almost taunting them. Perhaps a cultivator at the peak of Life Transformation deserved that sort of arrogance, but no matter who else he had with him, they would all die.
Unlike in other areas, most of the Essence Collection cultivators remained back, away from the others. Except for a few sent into the dome structure in front of them to check for traps, the others remained scattered around the area to slow down incoming targets. Fighting only a small number of the Order’s Life Transformation experts at a time would be more efficient, and their sacrifices would be meritorious.
Yet as they approached, nobody could sense anyone but Vandale. That made them nervous, wondering how they could fail to find the others. The leading Essence Collection cultivators stepped into the observatory with Vandale. One of them would at least be alive long enough to call out how many others there were.
“It’s just me here, you know?” a deep voice echoed out from the structure. “What are you afraid of?”
A half dozen cultivators were thrown through the walls of the building, leaving it full of holes. Vandale stood in the middle, clearly visible.
Strangely enough, half of those who had been thrown out were alive. “It is… just him…” one of them spoke through ribs more made of breaks than not.
Silent glances from the Life Transformation cultivators indicated that they doubted that to be the truth, but few cultivators could be invisible in a wide open room. At most they would expect one in there. Easy enough for half of them to take out, with the forces being three to one. Any more and they might interfere with each other’s attacks.
The other six remained distant, gathered around the mountain peak. There were other buildings that could be concealing enemies skilled at hiding their cultivation, or through the use of formations. They wouldn’t let their guard down. And they were right not to.
As the half dozen stepped forward to surround the observatory, there was a loud sigh. “Is that all I can get? How unfortunate.” The structure burst into flames, cracking and falling apart in an instant. At the same time power surged from Vandale, more energy flowed in a crashing ocean, forming a barrier around the seven cultivators in the center. “Well, this will have to do.”
It was unfortunate that the observatory was the best place to hide the center of the formation. Vandale had hoped that it would remain intact for others to use, after he was gone. But carefully removing an expensive telescope would have tipped off those approaching. It would simply have to be rebuilt.
As huge lenses shattered from the heat around Vandale, his energy suffusing throughout the area, he took stock of his opponents. Two with spears, one with a myriad of different throwing weapons, one with no visible weapons, and finally a sword wielder and one with daggers. That spoke of how they would fight to some extent, but he knew the real event would be focused around whatever illusion they tried to deceive him with.
Vandale felt something squirming inside him, trying to get out. This would be just the time it was meant to act up, since it failed to kill him. The man who had appeared to be their leader had now ascended, but he’d left an unpleasant memory with Vandale on his way out. Vandale just hoped his own flames had left a mark on the man as well.
The squirming blackness inside Vandale couldn’t be safely removed, but if he left it as it was it would disrupt his ability to fight. But things had already gone beyond the realm of safety. Even if none of his opponents were as close to the peak of cultivation as he was, Vandale knew that fighting six suicidal enemies was pushing himself. No, it was downright impossible. If he meant to live, that was. But just because his opponents didn’t care if they died didn’t mean he didn’t care about their deaths. He cared about it very much, and would make it happen.
Inside of him, fires began to burn brightly. It scoured the blackness from inside of him. Vandale had a sudden feeling of inspiration. He’d long said he’d given up on reaching ascension, and while that was true as much as it could be, he found himself realizing he’d kept a tiny strand of desire inside of him. Once he burned that away, the path forward was clear. But he wasn’t going to bow out and leave six dangerous enemies for his sect to deal with. Besides, given what he’d heard from those who visited Everheart’s latest mess, he wasn’t sure he liked the idea of ascension even if he wouldn’t be abandoning people he cared about.
Power gathered above Vandale, forming into a number of glowing spheres of varying size and power. The power radiating from him might disrupt illusions from those around him, or it might not. But if he simply attacked everywhere, then it wouldn’t matter if he could figure out his opponent’s locations or not. A manic grin lit his face as he started raining destruction down all around him.
He twisted his body between the spears as they stabbed simultaneously, deflecting other weapons with his palms. For some of the rest he simply relied on the fires burning inside him to provide the power to resist. Meanwhile, explosions rang out all around him, bombarding his six opponents and scouring the land.
Vandale wasn’t sure if the sword that stabbed into his gut from behind was an illusion or not, but it didn’t matter. When he found himself in an awkward position he simply turned up the intensity of his power. Stars rained from the sky, but Vandale himself was another star. One near the end of its lifespan, but as an enthusiastic student of the skies, he knew that stars only grew more powerful near the end. But he also knew there was no going back from it.
Seven cultivators without regard for their own lives fought, and if there had been any structures still standing around them it would have been flattened and pitted within an instant. Six had the idea that they would be rewarded for their behavior, reincarnating into a life where they would have abundant resources to empower them in their next lives. They were unafraid of death because they didn’t believe it was the end.
Vandale knew he might in fact reincarnate, but without special circumstances he wouldn’t remember anything. For all practical purposes, he’d be a different person. But he was fighting without regard for his life because it no longer had enough value to keep. It was dwindling already, near its end no matter what he did. If he could save those of value to himself, he would take that trade any day.
Vandale continued to glow brighter, distracting from the falling stars up above. Before things reached their end, he made certain to feel the integrity of the formation around him. He could sense fighting beyond it, but the barrier held. Good. Vandale smiled as he pulled down the greatest falling star he’d ever created from above, directly towards all of his enemies. Of course, with them surrounding him it actually went towards himself.
If their illusions were hiding their locations, it might have seemed that they had a chance to survive. But nobody would be able to know what was real and not in the aftermath, because as the final Falling Star impacted Vandale, he also exploded from the inside out in a crescendo of power. The formation trembled around him and held… but inside of it the only thing that remained recognizable were a few melted pieces of weapons and armor.