Elder Cultivator 448

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Taking an alternate route through the Smithy ultimately proved to be the correct choice. Even with additional caution required after the treasure room, their pace managed to keep up with the Twin Soul Sect group. They still had some injuries they hadn’t recovered from yet, but they could hope the other group would be the same. In the worst case they could give up on the bounty rather than risk their lives- saving time would be useful to them only if they lived to have that time. Nobody wanted to overestimate themselves and become part of the death statistics.

Everyone was relieved to see daylight again, and to be free from the repeated hammering sound. They could still hear it on the slope, but the intensity was greatly reduced. Their quarry was still more than a day’s travel ahead- Rouben must have kept near his maximum pace even around danger to pull that off. But Fuzz now had a scent they were almost certain was his, less confused by the particular group in front of them.

“It’s strange,” Fuzz warned the group by writing on the ground. “It’s familiar yet unfamiliar. I haven’t smelled him before but…” Fuzz shook his head. He couldn’t explain it. Perhaps when the scent was more fresh- too much detail was lost by distant steps and tiny fragments of energy left behind.

The route down the mountain had to be chosen carefully, not just to avoid annoying lava flows but also to avoid the notice of their competition. Even if the Twin Soul Sect didn’t recognize that they were enemies, knowing they were going after the same quarry might encourage them to deal with their group first. They didn’t want to fight that battle if it could be avoided, and if it was going to happen it was better for it to be on their own terms, not the Twin Soul Sect’s. At least Fuzz could help them avoid potential ambushes, as scent was less frequently concealed. Even for the purposes of hunting beasts, most stealth techniques only reduced the scent to a point incautious creatures wouldn’t notice it- one like Fuzz who had developed more like a proper cultivator could pick out the signs.

A faint hammering sound became an exceptionally loud ringing as the top of the volcano exploded. The odds of it erupting while they were present was… not that low, honestly, but eruptions every few weeks meant there was a better than average chance they shouldn’t have had to deal with this. They quickly changed tactics to avoiding the raining debris instead of focusing on stealth. Though they could withstand the heat, the kinetic impact could still be significant. They also had to keep away from a rolling cloud of noxious superheated gas.

At least everyone else would also be focused on the same thing. More than a dozen groups of cultivators could be picked out, and whichever direction they had previously been going the only appropriate one was down the mountainside now. With their energy roused all of the cultivators stood out more which in a way made them less individually significant. 

The group of seven had two cultivators with an emphasis on defense, and they remained closely packed so Timothy and Vari could shield them from anything they couldn’t dodge. If the group had the luxury of remaining stationary a formation would have greatly boosted their defense, but while mobile they could only attain the basic benefits for working together. Through no fault of their own, Spikes and Vari were the least familiar with the group and those tactics, minimizing the functionality of a group formation. It would take years of teamwork to reach a proper level of functionality in that regard.

The slope of the volcano that was the Smithy led directly into the Gardens, though the borderline was rather vague since the Gardens were at least the size of a proper country. Regardless, the wilderness itself would soon be a threat- though that by no means meant there was no danger from traps. Challenges set up by Everheart still existed within the Gardens, and not all of the area was wild. There were also the dangers from other cultivators- intentional or unintentional. Some set traps for beasts with no regard for who might stumble into them.

The trick was navigating around dangerous beasts while tracking someone who was absolutely running through their territory to provoke them. That was the main issue keeping them from catching up as quickly as they would like, though keeping a watch for other pursuers was important as well. After a full day of travel into the gardens, it had to be assumed that anyone nearby was after Rouben.

Then there was the other issue. Fuzz and Spikes had put a great amount of effort into retrieving a giant bone, but so far they hadn’t been able to scratch it yet. Its dimensions were too large to fit into any of their storage bags, so it was awkwardly strapped to Fuzz’ side. He was still fast enough, but it made his pace uneven.

Their group still had to rest occasionally, both to recover their energy and to continue to mend the wounds they got from obtaining the ‘rewards’. It couldn’t be long before whatever conflicts would begin, so they had to be at the top of their game.


Rouben continued to run, though ‘running’ implied that his feet were touching the ground. They did, occasionally. Mostly, he was leaping through the air. It was inefficient in some ways, but as a cultivator he was able to maintain his forward momentum and not just crash into things. He had slowed down occasionally to allow himself some rest, but he was mainly sustaining himself via food dense in upper energy and medicines that would temporarily boost his power. There would be consequences later, but he wasn’t going to see later if he didn’t push himself.

According to what he felt, the Twin Soul Sect was still a good distance behind. Perhaps the blooddrop spiders along the way would slow them down. The steelhide gorilla should at least cause someone trouble. A copse of trees in its territory burning down should have gotten it riled up. Thankfully he could do that from a significant distance, or it might have locked onto him as a target. Instead, he did his best to make his attack come from another direction.

He was so focused on his plans for beasts in the area and the more obvious threats behind that he almost barreled into an area of fog. But his memories helped him, and he hadn’t survived so long in the Tomb without developing good instincts. He came to a screeching halt before the fog thickened. What was off about it? It was strangely dark, yes, but more unnatural was how it was confined to a small area. He immediately made up his mind to go around, though it would cost him dearly in distance. 

Then it began to come to him. When they took action he could sense the figures inside. Individually they might not be an issue, but together he was concerned about defeating them… quickly or not. But he couldn’t just turn and run, either. That would bring him back in directions he didn’t want to traverse.

He didn’t want to make a scene, so he clutched a ball of fire in his hand. Anyone close enough would have already gotten an idea of his location from his power output while running, but he had to hold back enough to not directly mark his location for people further away. One ball of fire after another streaked its way into the fog, forcing the individuals to spread out while Rouben ran tangent to the fog, attempting to make his way around.

At first he thought he might make it. The fog was almost sluggish in how it reacted, but then it began to flow more quickly, beginning to creep over him. It didn’t help that he had to dodge droplets of water shot at him. Such a thing shouldn’t have been a concern, but he had the feeling letting one touch him would be a regrettable failure. They had the same sort of wrongness that the fog did. Poison, perhaps.

His attacks weren’t effective enough to deter his opponents, and he didn’t have the speed to get away. Perhaps he should have waited until his cultivation was higher, but that was an excuse he could have used forever. It was already something to have survived forty years in Everheart’s Tomb, especially with his early cultivation being how it was. The factors had all seemed to align, he just hadn’t predicted people would come after him so immediately. This was supposed to be his chance to break through to Life Transformation and recover more of his memories.

He found himself hard pressed to keep the fog away from his skin. It was reaching for his pores, and he could guarantee if it got inside he would spiral his way to death. Might as well reveal himself to everyone within a hundred kilometers. At least then people might fight each other. He might be able to find a chance in that.

He pulled directly away from the fog to buy himself a few moments. His arm raised, but no ball of fire formed within it. Instead, it formed far above him in the sky. Not just one, but many. Falling Stars rained down, building up momentum and power to blast away the fog and those controlling it all together.


Anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention could not miss the scene. Energy forming in the sky had nothing blocking it from others’ senses- or just being directly spotted with the eyes. 

“There he is!” Vari pointed. “It’s not far! Let’s go!” She looked at the others with blank expressions on their faces, “Look, I know it was probably too obvious to need to be said, okay? I was just trying to motivate us.”

“There’s no way,” Hoyt said. Not to her, but the others who practiced the Hundred Stars. “It’s just a coincidence, right?”

The discussion was not taking place at a comfortable walk, but a brisk pace that was getting incrementally faster without the conscious input of most involved. 

Timothy shook his head. “It could be, I suppose. It doesn’t feel… quite right.”

“It’s Falling Stars,” Catarina confirmed. “But it doesn’t have the same base.”

“How would anyone know that?” Alva countered. “He invented it himself! We didn’t have any contact with the upper realms.”

“Someone from the Twin Soul Sect, maybe…?” Hoyt said doubtfully. “They could have observed it and replicated it.”

“You know it’s not that simple,” Catarina said.

Trees flew by them as they moved. Angry beasts occasionally made themselves known, but most backed away upon taking a better look at the group. The others found themselves chopped down by Hoyt without slowing.

“Umm… who?” Vari asked. “And what? I assume Falling Stars is that attacking technique. But who is ‘he’? Rouben? Do you know him?”

“It can’t be,” Hoyt shook his head. “He’s dead.” He looked towards Vari. “Yes, that technique is the Falling Stars. It was created for use with our cultivation technique. I’d recognize it anywhere because… it was my grandfather’s technique.” Hoyt took a deep breath. “I don’t know how someone got their hands on it, since as far as we know it remained secure. But I’m going to find out, one way or another. For that… we’ll need a clear path.” 

The fires wrapping around Hoyt that he was using to chop his way through beasts flickered out as he focused all of his energy elsewhere. His grip on his new axe tightened, as he focused on the heat it produced. His energy spread to its utmost limits, then formed itself into distinct points.

Hoyt had to admit that he was cheating the technique a bit. He wasn’t as practiced as his grandfather had been, but the power of the Integration stage was sufficient to make up for his lack of proficiency. Hundreds of Falling Stars rained down, lacking the pinpoint targeting Vandale was known for and instead carpeting a long strip of forest in front of them, burning away plants and animals and anything that might get in their way. No doubt it would put Rouben on guard, but with an unblocked path their speed would be several times his- and they already knew his location. It was impossible for him to escape.

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