Two figures walked through the unpopulated wilderness. An older man, and one much younger.
“I appreciate you coming along with me,” Anton offered to Agus. “Being alone grows old quickly. And an extra pair of arms to fend off danger is appreciated as well.”
“I’m not exactly doing this altruistically,” Agus pointed out. “It’s to return a favor, and maybe gain some standing within my sect.”
“Decent enough reasons, but you were still the first to extend the offer. So I am thankful. What do you think we’ll find at this next place?”
“Given the rest, a pile of dirt and brick,” Agus speculated dismally. “Though I haven’t actually been to this one. It’s further than the rest.”
All of Everheart’s ‘tombs’ had been in out of the way locations. The man had a knack for picking areas where even cultivators wouldn’t expand to in the course of time. Yet they were also reachable, appearing mainly in barren stretches of land. The Tomb Seeking Cult had quite thoroughly combed through the locations nearest to themselves, but they confirmed there was little remaining but collapsed facilities and occasionally extremely rusted weaponry with faded enchantments.
Anton had gone to confirm, not because he didn’t believe them but to get a good idea of the state things were in. Some of the locations even had entirely new levels of topsoil that had formed over them in the time since they were active.
Now they were moving towards one at the top of a mountain. Carved into the stone where nobody would bother traversing regularly, it had still also been concealed until the designated time. If it had been intended as a sort of training it hadn’t been obvious, as it mainly had traps and little explanation. Only warnings by a projection of Everheart to keep out… which of course had the opposite effect.
The journey did not take long for two Essence Collection cultivators, and they soon found themselves outside of what had been the entrance. Rubble had fallen to close the mouth, but if that was the only thing it would have been trivial to deal with. Anton carefully weaved his energy through the area, slipping between the cracks. This particular facility had seemed appropriate for Essence Collection cultivators, which meant it was actually quite a bit more extensive than the first one he had visited. Yet the branching corridors actually allowed him to get a decent picture of how it might have once been.
“I still feel the remains of traps in the walls- though in the form of rusty spikes for the most part. The treasures were at the furthest point, I presume?”
Agus nodded, looking at the copied documents in his hands. “That’s right. Past a flooded chamber, I believe.”
“It’s collapsed now,” Anton said. “But there’s still a pool in some of it. And then-” Anton frowned. “Strange.”
“What is it?” Agus asked.
“There’s a sarcophagus.”
“Oh, yeah. He loved to throw those around as decoys. It’s listed here.”
“Right, but this one is intact,” Anton pointed out.
“That’s… interesting,” Agus admitted. “Think we can dig it out?”
“I’m not sure,” Anton admitted. “It doesn’t seem particularly structurally stable, but on the other hand the main damage seems to be to artificial supports. We might have to shore up the passageways. Do you have any experience with mining?” Anton asked.
“Nope,” Agus admitted. “I was raised in the sect after my parents died. Mostly because they wanted loyal disciples.” Agus shrugged, “I have to admit, it worked. I got to visit one active tomb, and was hooked from there. And I have no reason to give up on being a cultivator.”
“Well, I have worked with a few miners lately,” Anton explained. “We’re not trying to take out veins of anything, so it’s actually quite simple. We’ll have to put in a bit of labor though.”
Thus they started. The outer layer of rubble was mostly ‘smaller’ rocks, less than the size of their torsos. That meant they could lift each piece, which they chucked out of the opening into a nearby pile. It wasn’t necessary to open the whole passageway, but Anton had them focus on one side where they could uncover natural stone. They added simple bracings made from nearby trees. Using unseasoned wood meant that their work wouldn’t last forever, but it was more than good enough for a few days. Slicing apart the trees with any sharp instrument was easy enough, though Anton avoided using his swordlike bow because it felt like some sort of heresy. But Anton carried a selection of tools with him, and the extras he was able to purchase in a nearby town.
There were various routes they might take, but some paths had large chunks of stone regardless. Breaking apart stone was trivial, but breaking it apart without affecting everything around it was more difficult. Anton could have done it on his own, but Agus was eager to show off his precision with his spear, piercing into a rock as tall as himself and splitting it into neat quarters, which were then further broken down for convenience.
Each meter of progress took a few minutes even with their natural energy supporting them, and it was a very long pair of days for them to finally reach the sarcophagus. “What do the papers say about this one?” Anton asked.
“Let’s see. We had no disciples in the deep chamber when it was discovered. We showed up a little bit later, but as the vault was looted the entire place began to collapse- the sarcophagus was only determined to be empty and that was all.”
“It’s not covering anything,” Anton determined. “But this chamber isn’t collapsed in the same way.”
“Oh, you’re right,” Agus agreed. “I can still see the worked pillars. And they… don’t seem to have a formation active.”
“They’re just worked stone. It can last thousands of years if left untouched. I think this was probably here before Everheart, who merely took advantage of it. This particular room, anyway.” Anton placed one hand on the sarcophagus lid. It was carved with formation runes, but they were inactive. “This was some sort of defensive formation to keep people out, I think.”
“That seems right,” Agus nodded. “But it doesn’t feel familiar. Most of us learn a bit about formations, given Everheart’s proclivities, but he had a very specific style. This doesn’t fit.”
“As an expedition to learn about Everheart, it’s a bit of a failure,” Anton admitted. “But this is an interesting discovery regardless. What do you think happened to the body?”
“I would say it decayed,” Agus frowned, “But looking at the quality of this thing, it had to be for a powerful cultivator. It should have lasted for some time. I’m guessing… Everheart took it to study.”
“… Yeah that sounds right.” Graverobbing wouldn’t be beneath Everheart. In fact, cultivators weren’t known for respecting the graves of those they could consider to be their enemies. The practice of burying people with valuables waxed and waned, but sometimes the prize was the corpse itself. Things could be learned from the corpse of a powerful cultivator, if someone knew how to look. Anton hadn’t delved deep into that topic, but some weaknesses Twin Soul Sect’s techniques were gleaned from the corpses of their members. A bit morbid, but practical. And they deserved it. “So who would it be?” Anton wondered aloud.
“Everheart had many enemies, and information about them often died with them,” Agus shrugged. “I suppose I would note that the lid was removed peacefully. But that could simply be for practical retrieval.”
“Right,” Anton nodded. “I think we’d have to study the potential power of these formations more. For that, I think it would be best to retrieve it from here and bring it to some experts.”
“We would very much like to study it,” Agus pointed out.
“Of course, you’re the first option there. But I hope you aren’t averse to hiring outside consultants.”
“It’s more that they’re averse to us,” Agus admitted. “Some people find us… unsettling.”
“I think the worshipful attitude towards a pretty terrible person is what does it.”
“Hey!” Agus grinned. “We know he was terrible. But he was also strong, and other groups elevate worse people just because they’re strong.”
“Worse than Everheart?” Anton raised an eyebrow.
“He didn’t go around slaughtering innocent people, or use them as test subjects,” Agus pointed out. “That we’ve heard of.”
“That’s a fair point,” Anton admitted. “The common person had little to fear from him.”
With some difficulty they began to move the sarcophagus into their storage bags. Though it was little larger than a person on the inside, it was made of heavy stone. Anton suspected it was extraordinarily durable, but didn’t attempt anything more than a superficial test in case it wasn’t. Like many materials cultivators used, that strength came with its own weight. The lid was easy enough, but the main body of the sarcophagus required both of them straining with the majority of their energy, while the magic bag was stretched open to the limit to slide it in.
“Before leaving, I want to take some notes on the formation markings here,” Agus pointed. “Some of them haven’t fully decayed. This is Everheart’s stuff. It doesn’t seem new, but complete information is better.”
“I’m surprised any survived at all,” Anton admitted. “Given its future was bet against it. But I suppose it didn’t need as much resistance to aging, so it lasted better afterwards?”
“It’s hard to say,” Agus admitted. “Replicating the effect is nearly impossible since most of the pieces of the formation to do so are likewise subject to the effect and destruction. The only hope is getting it when it’s active, but Everheart preferred to keep most of that on the far sides of walls, where people couldn’t snoop.”
Anton helped Agus take notes, his limited training in formations with Catarina helping immensely. The biggest part was taking note of the locations of bits and pieces relative to each other, since everything was quite incomplete.
After surveying several more locations in a loop, none of which had anything else quite so interesting, Anton and Agus returned once more to the center of the Tomb Seeking Cult. Many of the people present were different, with the notable exception of Maxine. She was quite excited to hear what they found.
When they pulled out the lid, she nodded. “This is… definitely not Everheart’s work. It’s too… restrained? And enduring. He didn’t make things to last forever. He made them to last exactly long enough for his purposes and no more. I remember reading about this sarcophagus, but since the place collapsed shortly afterwards everyone assumed it was crushed in the process- but since he didn’t make it…”
“Do you know who might have?” Anton asked.
“I don’t recognize anything right away,” she admitted. “I’m not exactly a formation master, but I’m still familiar with many current and ancient styles. So it’s a bit odd, actually. And this um… it seems to have been intended to decay the body faster?” Maxine gestured to some of the runes on the inside of the main section.
“Why?” Anton asked. “Couldn’t they just burn it or something?”
“A good question, to which I have no answer.”
“That means Everheart might not have emptied it at all,” Agus pondered. “It could have been just a skeleton. A pile of dirt maybe?”
“Whatever it was has been cleared out,” Maxine determined. “If it even worked at all. I can’t tell what the power source would have been. It looks almost like it relied on ambient natural energy, but without any gathering ability? A formation like that would hardly stand up to one good punch from a Spirit Building cultivator, let alone anyone important. Or able to move this thing.”
A few weeks of travel and investigation, and all they had come away with was a mystery. One that might not be related to what Anton wanted to find- though in truth, he was basically just confirming what he already assumed- that there was no useful information left. But perhaps this sarcophagus might reveal something interesting regardless.