Elder Cultivator 326

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A captain trusted by the Million Sword Vault took Anton on the relatively short journey from the Mantane Piers on the eastern shore to the island that once was inhabited by the Chain Harmony Sect. Agus continued to travel with him, and Chikere decided to tag along as well. There were also a smattering of Million Sword Vault disciples led by Elder Vasu, while Elder Wardah continued his duties at the sect despite his desire to come himself. Apparently being reminded of some of the features in the area encouraged them to send an expedition once more. 

As they approached the shores, Anton took in the island in front of them. “I wouldn’t have expected an ancient sect to have been here, if you didn’t tell me,” Anton admitted. “I can’t feel much of anything.”

“That’s by design, I think,” Elder Vasu nodded. “Plus the interference of the volcano. I’m sure you can sense it power.”

“Yes,” Anton nodded. “It’s quite… distracting. It feels as if it could erupt at any moment.”

“It does appear to be eruption season, so that feeling isn’t incorrect.”

“Of course it is,” Anton sighed. “Besides the obvious dangers… don’t the circumstances damage the remains of the sect? I heard there were bodies but…”

“Oh, they’ll still be around. Just buried a bit. We dug out some tunnels to get to them from below, which should still be the same.”

“That’s… nice,” Anton looked around. “I imagine everything else is fairly well picked through?”

“Pretty much. Except one area inside there. Some sort of trap. We use it for training though.”

“What is it? Lava spilling from the ceiling, poisonous gasses, blades filling a corridor…?” The last one seemed like something Million Sword Vault would be fond of.

“Nah, none of those,” Vasu shook his head. “Just an energy draining array. Suppresses everything in the hallway. That sort of thing.”

“Like a weighty pressure? I have some experience with those.”

“Not quite. It directly draws energy from those in the area. It’s actually effective on all cultivations. It’s quite impressive.”

“What’s beyond it?” Anton asked.

“Don’t know,” Vasu admitted. “No one’s ever gotten past. We’re pretty sure there aren’t any swords though.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Nobody has taken the initiative to stay when out of energy. It could just kill someone,” Vasu shrugged. “But as long as you aren’t careless, there haven’t ever been any surprises. That’s just there, however. Plenty of traps exist in the rest of the place.”

“And the rest of the island?” Anton had some idea, but he wanted to know Vasu’s evaluation.

“Just a few wild beasts to fight through. Nothing important.”

—–

As his arrow cut off the head of a giant panther, Anton was bringing his definition of ‘a few wild beasts’ in line with Elder Vasu. He’d known they would be quite different even from just what he could sense at the shore, but he understood why the captain of the ship had weighed anchor so far from the actual land. 

As the beasts came to attack, Elder Vasu had so far not made a single move of his own. Not that he needed to. Chikere held the front quarter arc of their formation by herself, and the other disciples held the sides. Agus held the rear with Anton, where it was his responsibility to kill anything that got too close. That basically meant Anton left a few for Agus intentionally, both to allow him a chance to gain some experience and to conserve his own energy.

Soon enough the uncomfortably numerous pack of panthers ceased their assault, with some of their members retreating. They seemed particularly aggressive, but perhaps that was because none of them had memories of previous times humans had come to the island and they thought them weak. Except for Elder Vasu the Essence Collection cultivators were vaguely reasonable for them to consider defeating, but humans made much more efficient use of their energy than beasts. Especially with regards to condensing energy onto a weapon.

After the battle, Agus did something to quickly recover his energy. It was more than just absorbing the abundant natural energy around them, or he would have created a massive vortex in the minute or two it took him to recover the half of his energy he had spent. “What technique is that, might I ask?”

“Everfull Cup,” Agus replied easily. “I’ll be exhausted later, but I can more or less choose the time within the next few days.”

“Ah. Of course.” It wasn’t strange that the Tomb Seeking Cult would use such a technique. “Does it work in combat?” If it did, a person might be able to double their capacity, in a way.

“Not safely,” Agus admitted. “If you’re interrupted, you can immediately trigger the backlash… and it ties up your energy regardless. It used to happen a set time later, but we’ve developed it to be more convenient.”

“Interesting.” Anton knew there were probably more downsides he wasn’t immediately speaking of, and he wouldn’t ask for more in mixed company. He might not wish to share at all, but he likely would. It was just a question of whether or not Anton would choose to take on that sort of risk. 

Before they could get close to the volcano, around which the remains of the Chain Harmony Sect were nestled, it began to rumble and roar.

“Here it comes,” Elder Vasu said. He drew his sword. “Let’s press forward.”

Anton knew that the majority of a volcanic eruption should be rock and ash, but something about this volcano in particular made the downpour more molten rock than solid. It produced a sort of orange-red-black rain of molten rock that varied in size from standard raindrops to massive boulders. The larger ones were cut into pieces by the pack of cultivators as they approached, but there was too much of the small stuff to deflect or dodge. People just had to accept some level of impact and heat.

The temperature of the individual pieces was even hotter than that in the magma chamber with the great lizards back in Droca. However, the fact that it wasn’t in constant contact allowed Anton to sustain a temperature where he did not burn, even as his energy was slowly worn down. The group moved forward swiftly, and if everything stayed the same they would reach the base of the volcano with plenty of energy to spare. Anton sensed some actual structure there that would hopefully protect them from the effects of the volcano.

No beasts bothered them on the way. Surprisingly enough, the lush forests around them were only partially on fire or crushed- much of the plants were surviving. It was a strange smoke and fire filled run until they got close to the base of the volcano itself… and the impending wall of lava.

“Looks like the entrance is sealed off,” Vasu commented. “I’ll cut us a path.” With two swipes of his sword, both sides of a meter wide pathway were cut. A third flung spewing lava up to either side of his slices. 

The group of cultivators charged forward, following his lead. Vasu’s blade continued to flash every ten or twenty meters, cutting a conservative path for their next few moments. Then he hopped over an opening. “In there! Let’s hope the formations still work.”

Anton presumed they did, as the area didn’t seem to be completely filled with lava. A few moments later, everyone found themselves inside a black stone hallway, the visible glow from the underside of a lava flow lighting the hallway in front of them.

It was there that Anton saw the first bones. “Are these… the ancient cultivators?” From what he had heard, they should have been more preserved than the few scattered pieces he saw.

“Don’t think so,” Vasu admitted. “These should be others who died here at some point. Nobody from our sect, or we would have retrieved the bodies.”

“I assume that means there are traps here?” Anton looked around, feeling carefully.

“Some. Many don’t work anymore for various reasons. Lack of energy or wear and tear. And of course you can see where the area was just destroyed,” he gestured.

While Anton was still calculating the best path forward, Chikere- closely followed by disciples of the Million Sword Vault- was already moving. She ran forward at a high speed, not quite randomly triggering traps. Or rather, the way Chikere flipped and turned her way through an alarming number of blades indicated she’d chosen those traps in particular, while avoiding others.

“I’d suggest you follow me, after you see my path,” Anton said to Agus. “I intend for something less flashy.”

Unlike Everheart’s traps, either due to how they were constructed or just time, the various openings for the blades and other traps features were quite easy to see. It helped that Anton’s observational skills could penetrated through denser materials and see finer details, but some things were quite obvious, even if he hadn’t seen blade swing out of the cracks moments before.

Anton began his route with some dart traps- or rather traps that used to have darts. Some of them still had a few, but most had been triggered so many times that the supply had run out. It seems they were either not retrieved or the mechanisms failed at some point. A flame trap was easy enough following that, and swinging blades in smaller numbers were not too difficult to avoid. Anton did get about a quarter of the same traps as the group that had run in front, since knowing how the attacks would come gave him a great leg up. Compared to facing off against attacks from Elder Wardah, he found it a walk in the park. 

As Anton waited for the various gasses to filter away, he took note of several levers on their side of the trapped hallway. It seemed likely that those would add more complications when manually triggered, and of course in the case of an actual battle there could be attacks from cultivators thrown in… and perhaps barriers. Yet Anton was pretty sure this particular entrance hadn’t come into play in the actual invasion. It was far too intact for that, when Ascension cultivators could have just smashed it apart.

“Alright,” Elder Vasu said. “Let’s stop by that formation first, see if it’s still intact. Then I can bring Anton to look at the bodies.”

It sounded a bit morbid that way, but it was technically what they were going to do. A good portion of the sect was untrapped, though Anton saw many signs that there had been formations in place. For the most part empty halls greeted them, as valuables- including furniture- had been taken away. He even saw indications that some pillars had been removed in various places, though the area still seemed structurally sound.

Everyone continued to be very aware they were walking further into a volcano when the ground shook, but everything continued to be as it had for centuries. There were several more half-trapped areas, but unless they were stumbled into on accident they were barely a threat. 

Anton saw the runes making up a massive formation going down the hallway in front of them. It was merely a hundred meters long, and seemed as if a cultivator could cover it in an instant, but he knew it was much more than that. He curiously extended a strand of energy into the area, only to have it immediately devoured. He couldn’t sense beyond it, and he found he couldn’t sense around it either. As he felt out the wall through the ground, the outside of the formation reacted in the same way.

Others were testing the area in various ways. A few disciples simply stepped into the formation to feel it directly. Anton could feel the formation gaining power from their presence. Yet it also drew from the volcano itself, if he was right. He recognized many patterns in the area, but couldn’t put together the whole of what he did. Not quickly, anyway. He simply didn’t have the experience for that. As his knowledge of formations grew, the ones he had to deal with also advanced. 

Anton moved forward to test the formation himself. It wasn’t a violent or terrifying feeling as the energy drained away from him, but it was unpleasant. He relied on natural energy for many things, including maintaining the strength of his body. It was difficult to do without. No cultivators could- not even those who specialized in a continuation of body tempering beyond the early stages. Natural energy was still require during the tempering process, and used in battle. 

After perhaps a tenth of his energy was drained, only a few steps in, Anton made his way back beyond the borders of the formation. He found himself quite curious about its purpose, and if there was actually anything beyond it. There certainly could be, if there was a way to disarm it. But he would come back later. There were other things to at least take a glance at first. Specifically, some preserved bodies.

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