The Tomb Seeking Cult called in others they trusted to aid Maxine in studying the sarcophagus. Anton contributed what he could but his knowledge of formations was limited to the few pieces he instantly recognized. But that was exactly why having a variety of people with different specialties was important. Nobody could do everything, no matter how much time they had to learn.
The ultimate conclusion they came to was… confusing. “There’s no way this ever did anything,” Maxine proclaimed after weeks of thoroughly poring over the fine details of the sarcophagus. “No matter how much natural energy was present, it wouldn’t be enough to activate it. But we did learn some things. Like, despite how it looks, the sarcophagus wasn’t meant to last forever. It was supposed to fade away on its own, when its work was done.”
“What was wrong with it?” Anton asked. “Why can’t it work?”
“We can’t tell,” Maxine shook her head. “Everything seems highly intentional. It just shouldn’t be able to function. Even if a Life Transformation expert were placed in the sarcophagus, the density of their natural energy would be insufficient to activate it.”
“I think that leaves a pretty clear picture then,” Anton waved his hand. “Doesn’t it?”
“What else could-? Oh. Ohhhhhh…” Maxine’s face lit up. “No wonder. Yes, of course. It had to be for someone who had achieved ascension. It fits but… why bother? If you were going to destroy a corpse, why do it slowly and inefficiently?” She frowned. “Something doesn’t fit. I would expect allies to be preserved respectfully and enemies to be straightforwardly eradicated. Perhaps there’s some cultural significance missing?”
“It could be,” Anton shrugged. “But maybe it was somehow practical for something.”
“It might help to see it active. Unfortunately that requires-” her eyes flickered to Anton. “Ascension energy. Do you think you could…?”
“I’m not going in there, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“No no, of course not.” Maxine waved him off. “That would give us a single instant of observation at most. A complete waste of your life. But you have practiced Fleeting Youth, and thus can call upon ascension energy. If you can activate it at all, that will confirm our theory to some extent.”
“I still have less energy than a Life Transformation expert,” Anton pointed out. “Just because I can call upon some doesn’t mean it will work.”
“Right, but I think you could possibly make a small portion of the formation react. We should try it. As for how to do that safely…” Maxine stood in thought for a bit.
Eventually they decided to have him extend a bundle of ascension energy into the sarcophagus, while others held up the lid. It would be set down to cut off his connection and contain the results of whatever happened when his energy interacted. There were a few tense moments leading up to the actual implementation of the plan but the end result was… a few runes briefly glowing. But it at least lent some credence to the idea.
“Right, so, it’s meant to activate with ascension energy,” Maxine said. “The natural energy we had here wasn’t good enough. And it would take quite a lot. The question still is- why?” Neither Anton nor Agus had answers for that, and the other formation experts weren’t much help either. “Someone like that, it should just take a flick of the wrist to destroy the body. Quite thoroughly, I imagine. If that’s what they wanted to accomplish, why bother bringing something like this?”
Evelia was the one to answer that with some more speculation. “Perhaps they were worried about the recovery time? It’s not actually that insignificant a portion of their energy, I imagine. A tenth or twentieth, maybe? Anton, how long does it take to recover your ascension energy?”
“Not terribly long,” Anton admitted. “A day or two at most and I can draw upon it even if I exhausted my access. More or less the same as replenishing my stores of natural energy.”
Evelia shook her head. “That can’t be it then. It could matter, but to go through all this instead of just holding onto it for a safe day or two… seems excessive. It can’t be that easy to make something like this.”
“I’d have to agree,” Anton said. “Especially considering this likely was part of the previous invasion. If it were easy to make this, why would they need anything here? Well, that question applies anyway.”
“We can ask some people as we tear them apart,” Maxine suggested. “This is our world and they can’t have any of it!”
There were sentiments of agreement from everyone present. People were almost becoming impatient for the attack, though they also needed all the time they could to prepare.
Over the next year Anton went to visit the rest of Everheart’s tombs on Aicenith, finding them just as destroyed as all of the others. There weren’t any lucky finds like the sarcophagus, and the dangers were likewise destroyed. It was just a process of going from place to place and being ready to accept disappointment. Agus was quite apologetic that the Tomb Seeking Cult hadn’t been able to help, but Anton reminded him he hadn’t really expected anything. One continent had nothing, why should another?
During that journey he had passed by the Scorching Mirror Desert where the Million Sword Vault stood, and now he was returning to enter it once more. Some familiarity with the area helped him be more at ease, but it was still an unpleasant journey. He couldn’t really use his eyes, and even his energy senses were distorted by the swirling reflective sands. But he knew where he was going, and the increase in cultivation had extended his sensory range somewhat further so he didn’t even have to get as close as before.
He wasn’t tracking anyone this time, but he also didn’t worry about avoiding disciples. If he encountered any, he was planning to approach them. They should remember him, and his bow that he won from them.
“I can’t believe you chose to come back here,” Agus complained, but in a good spirited way. “It’s very unpleasant.”
Even though they were no longer looking for Everheart’s tombs, Agus decided to remain traveling with Anton. He got cultivation advice, and having a traveling companion was useful in emergencies. Besides, without any other duties wandering the continent was basically the main objective of the Tomb Seeking Cult.
“I’d say you get used to it… but in truth you learn to very much appreciate shelter.” He had a better tent this time, more suited to the desert. It kept a reasonable temperature inside even in the worst of the desert. It wouldn’t protect against an actual flame attack, but it was excellent during the midday heat. Other than that, Anton relied on a special compass tuned to work in the desert where normal compasses often failed. “Not much further now.”
A few moments later, two dozen swords stabbed into the sand around them, creating an uncomfortable barrier surrounding the two. Agus raised his spear and looked around in panic. Out from the sandstorm a voice called. “Who dares disturb the sacred lands of the Million Sword Vault?!”
“They’re sacred now?” Anton asked.
“We have so many swords,” Chikere said as she stepped into view. “How could it not be sacred?”
Agus immediately picked up on the distinct lack of hostility and relaxed slightly. “Seems like you were recognized. She’s one of them?”
“The last time I came here she was in a bloody battle with over a dozen of them. So yes, they’re good friends.” Anton knew that Agus probably thought he was exaggerating, but that wasn’t the case. Though ‘spar’ might have been more appropriate than battle for the friendliness. The blood was real though. “Is that one new?” Anton gestured to a sword.
“Good old number fifteen! Or new, rather.” Chikere nodded. “That’s the third number fifteen I’ve had since we last met. I’ve tracked down a handful of decent weapons in the last… year?”
“Eight years,” Anton pointed out.
“What, really? I haven’t gotten into nearly as many battles to the death as I thought I would have for that long. I guess having a sect backing me helps.”
“Are you one of the ranking disciples?” Agus asked.
“Well, I’m technically more like a guest. But they respect all aspiring swordmasters and honored my master.”
Agus leaned forward intently. “Ah, you’re… the singular disciple of Swordmaster Rahayu?”
“You heard of him? Good! He was pretty great.”
“Is it true you saw him cut his way to ascension? What did it look like?”
“Like this!” Chikere slashed the air. For more than a few moments, not a single speck of sand swirled into the area, leaving a strange gouge in the atmosphere. Then everything returned to normal.
Anton grinned, “Oh, much closer. You’ve made great progress.”
“Right? Still not that close though,” Chikere shrugged. “Sorry uh… spear guy. It’s not really the same. But I tried.”
“No it’s…” Agus shook his head to deny her. “I just couldn’t say anything because I was astounded. You’re hardly even over than me,” he sighed. “Too bad I wasn’t trained by anyone that strong.” He sheepishly turned to Anton. “No offense, master Anton.”
“Don’t worry, I understand. But she was actually quite strong before her encounter with Swordmaster Rahayu. They only trained together for a few months.”
Agus began to sweat from more than just the heat. “Is that so? I… will have to think about that.”
“Anyway,” Chikere redirected the conversation. “I assume you’re not just here to see me, are you? It’s pretty far.”
“Not just to see you, no,” Anton admitted. “I was hoping to enlist the help of your sect in finding the remnants of ancient sects. Even those that have already been explored. I’m hoping to find… something. Some sort of clue. But I can’t really say if I even know what.”
“Interested in an expedition, huh?” Chikere nodded. “Elder Wardah might be able to direct you. He knows where everything in the vault came from, after all.”
“I appreciate the suggestion,” Anton nodded. “May we enter?”
“Of course. Though you should probably officially ask at the gates.” Chikere flicked her swords back into their sheaths and began walking. “This way.”
It was a relief to be inside the stone halls of the Million Sword Vault. The heat was much diminished, and Anton was finally able to see properly once more. A number of disciples greeted Anton respectfully, but more bowed to Chikere as she walked past. The reactions to Agus were mixed, from disinterest to pity to confusion. Spears were perfectly legitimate weapons, but carrying one in a place full of sword-obsessed lunatics he stood out. Nobody was hostile, but Agus clearly didn’t belong. Anton intentionally chose to have the sword-bow visible instead of his less finger-chopping alternatives. But Agus would do better to not have a sword, because he might be challenged to duels that he wasn’t prepared for.
After they found their way towards the actual vault area, finding Elder Wardah wasn’t difficult. Upon Anton’s explanation of what he wanted, Elder Wardah looked at him and nodded. “Information? Sure, you’ll just have to fight me for it.”
“Fight you…?” Anton looked over the man. He was a Life Transformation expert. One of the strongest in Million Sword Vault, no doubt. “To what end?”
“Oh, that’s simple. I just need to make sure you can survive. Of course, if you only want the locations of the weak sects I can send you out with a pile of paper and a smile.”
“I assume I don’t have to win somehow?”
“Of course not. But you’ll need to be serious so I can get a good read on you.”
Anton nodded. “I know your doctors are unsurpassed at repairing slashing wounds. How are you with puncture wounds?”
Elder Wardah looked almost offended. “There are thousands of legitimate stabbing moves for use with swords, including varieties with very fine points. We can absolutely handle anything you can do to me.”
“Good,” Anton nodded. “I wouldn’t want to run into issues because of a stupid assumption. Where do we fight?”
“Outside,” Elder Wardah said. “Unless you want to be in here?”
“I’d rather have a bit more distance,” Anton said. “Or a lot more, if that’s possible.”
“Having seen you shoot, I can’t give you more than five kilometers.”
“That… should be enough for me to at least show off a few moves.” Anton knew it wouldn’t take the man very long to travel that distance, and he’d be able to focus on dealing with Anton’s attacks exclusively, but it was still better than starting close. But if the man was anything like Chikere, he didn’t want to use his sword-bow against them. They were far too familiar with blades.