Though simple, the training facilities were sufficient. Dense energy gathered in enough quantity for everyone to make as much use as they wanted to. That included activating the Vessel of Insights at full power, taking advantage of the plentiful natural energy. Unlike the tomb, there were no special facilities with golems for combat or traps or pressure training areas, just energy.
The higher one got in cultivation, the less difference a week or two gathering energy made. As the two cultivators at the lowest rank, Alva and Devon were progressing the most quickly. Alva focused more on honing her technique compared to just pushing higher in rank, conceding to the continued cautions of Anton.
With the Vessel of Insights, Alva was the one to benefit the most. She was practicing archery just like Anton, and whenever the vessel produced one of her insights Anton was able to compare to his own experience. The one area he found she suffered in the most was patience. Each shot had to be intentionally aimed to its utmost degree. Even if it only took a second or a fraction thereof, shooting hastily led to wasted energy. For her age, not even quite a teenager, Alva was remarkably patient- but she wanted to keep up with Anton’s speed. That simply wouldn’t be possible, with decades of experience as a hunter and then a more compressed experience of multiple years fighting as a cultivator. She would be able to catch up with the latter- the former was something she would just have to wait for.
Elder Tshering had only recently advanced into Essence Collection. Even in a good training environment, his insights were few and far between. When Anton was able to absorb one, he rarely managed to think of anything of his own to contribute. If he for some reason needed to fight with his bare fists the insights would help him, but they didn’t significantly propel his growth. If he could get insights from Elder Kseniya… his head would probably explode, but if it didn’t it would be quite powerful. According to what he knew, however, the Vessel of Insight had its own limitations that seemed to make it most useful in Essence Collection.
Catarina spent the majority of her time studying the unseen formations around them. According to her, they weren’t so intentionally hidden as in the tomb. Insights from her in that category generally went over Anton’s head, but he collected the thoughts and feelings for later, if his knowledge advanced sufficiently to make use of it.
Days of training and simple sparring turned into weeks, and people started to wonder if Everheart was actually going to be able to create some sort of trial for them. Short of the years or decades mark, of course. Then he came to see them- briefly.
“I’m approaching a critical point in forming the trial,” his current dignified form informed them. “Two more weeks. However, I need to not be disturbed. Thus, I will be sealing the entrance to the surface. I trust you all have sufficient supplies for that time?”
Anton nodded. It wouldn’t be the same as being able to hunt for fresh meat or forage for vegetables or fruits, but they had rations available to them that could sustain them for months. “Should we just wait outside to avoid disturbing you?”
Everheart shook his head, “I need to attune it to match all of you. If you leave… my efforts will be wasted. I don’t know if I have the energy to repeat the process. Now then, time for me to get back to it.”
Like that, another week and more passed. Spending a month in focused cultivation wasn’t particularly strange for cultivators, even those early in their efforts. In fact, Anton had effectively spent his first three months doing nothing else, except morbid duties such as burying the dead. Compared to that, a pleasant environment with friends, family, and allies was quite comforting.
Though a powerful cultivator could theoretically go without sleep for long durations, that was only by pushing themselves beyond proper limits. There were always consequences for such things, and even if he needed only a few hours each day they were important to Anton. With little but a hallway, a training room, and the stairs leading up… the room below the stairs was sometimes used as somewhere to sleep. That way the fluctuations of energy from the others wouldn’t disturb anyone.
That was why Anton was surprised to wake up to the feeling of danger. Not to himself. It was more distant than that. But danger, to be sure. He stretched out his senses. No problem with the others. He felt everyone was safe, mostly sleeping with only Devon and Elder Tshering training at the current moment. Fuzz was actually sleeping in the training room, the way only a canine could.
Where could the danger be, then? Anton only took a moment to send his senses up above, to Rainbow Lake. The dry bed that had once been called that, at least. He immediately found the source of the danger. A bird, much like an eagle but on a completely different scale- its wings each wider than a man was tall and with a beak large enough to tear a man in half. Beneath it was a small group of people. Normal people, not cultivators. The energy the bird displayed and its size were each sufficient to kill all of them easily.
Anton only hesitated a moment. He felt the barrier at the stairs, and determined it simply kept too much from entering down where he was. Leaving wouldn’t break things and screw things up for everyone else. They could have their trial and get whatever rewards they were allowed. At the time, he didn’t realize how strange it was that he could so clearly feel the situation above through that barrier, but later he realized how he was tricked.
He leapt out of the hole they had created in the dry dirt with an arrow drawn, immediately firing it towards the great beast as it swooped down. His arrow flew straight and true, but he hadn’t expected the creature to pivot and swing its wing towards him. The energy coating that wing shattered his arrow and continued onward with a dozen feathers that shot towards him.
Even as he dodged the feathers, he shouted towards the group that seemed to be a family- a middle aged man and woman, plus two young children. “Get yourselves to safety! I’ll handle this!”
The feathers were not inherently sharp like those of the razorwing, but as they impacted the ground in front of him the force kicked up clouds of dust as they created small explosions. A couple of those wouldn’t kill Anton, but he certainly couldn’t afford to let himself take any damage.
Even as he continued to fire arrows at it, the eagle didn’t immediately swoop in with its claws. It continued to circle around, deflecting his arrows where it needed to and raining explosive feathers down on him.
Anton tried a few tricks, like varying the speed of his arrows and causing them to swerve wildly. He also timed it so that they would arrive at his target simultaneously, but that simply caused the eagle to roll laterally, swiping the attacks away with its wings and barely sustaining anything that could be deemed a real injury. Each time it responded with feathers- and they didn’t just fly straight towards their destination. The energy around them also allowed them to reorient slightly. Sometimes Anton wasn’t able to retreat quickly enough to get away unscathed.
The family was only at the edge of the dry lake. That was the problem with commoners, they were not particularly fast. Even if they were faster, the dangers of the jungle around didn’t make it safe to run at top speed. But Anton kept attacking the eagle to draw it away from them.
Eventually, perhaps because it ran out of spare feathers, the creature decided it had enough. It swooped down towards him, claws extended. He fired several quick arrows, but instead of using its wings as it had before it sliced down on them with its beak, using it like a curved blade.
The creature continued to pick up speed. Anton was not just standing stationary, but he had to break into a full run towards it. It could clearly turn to catch him anywhere else, but if he dove underneath it he hoped to force it to pull up. However, it seemed unconcerned about his motions, diving even more steeply.
As its claws came for him Anton already had his axes in hand. He thought chopping into its talons would deter it, but most of its energy was focused on them. Even as he tried to slide out of its reach it wrapped one set of talons around an arm and another around his torso, flapping its wings in a single powerful gust that stirred up a small dust storm, stopping its downward momentum nearly instantly.
Even as he began to struggle, trying to twist his body to escape its grasp, he felt the sudden appearance of another source of energy. One that took advantage of it focusing entirely on its talons and him. Anton didn’t even really sense Velvet until after her attack was finished, two lines angling down the creature’s neck to meet in the front in a V. Even as it screamed those screams turned into a strange gurgle, and its grip relaxed. Anton wasn’t going to bet that the wound was fatal, instead wrapping an arm around one of its legs and pulling himself higher up to the creature, swinging his axe into its chest before it was able to redirect much of its energy.
Then he had to roll out of the way as the creature fully fell, collapsing and shuddering the ground. Anton inclined his head to Velvet. “Thank you. But you didn’t need to give up your chance at the trial.”
“I don’t know what I could possibly get from that,” she replied. “Certainly nothing worth more than your safety. You understand. You’re out here for four people you don’t even know.”
Anton nodded. “Indeed. Speaking of which, we should go see them.” Anton hurried over to the stunned family. “It is good to see you. Is anyone injured?” he didn’t see or feel any injuries on them.
“No, we are fine, thank you,” the father bowed his head. They were all clearly from Ambati, with their darker skin.
“Good,” Anton smiled. He was glad they could understand him. While cultivators spread languages throughout large regions with their travel, those from small villages might speak older languages or have different dialects. “Why are all of you here? It’s quite dangerous, I’m sure you know already.”
The mother bowed her head, “We had to lee our village. A small one, to the west, after a beast attack.”
“An attack?” Anton asked. “Tell me more. How long ago?”
“This was well over a week,” they admitted. “It won’t be possible to save anyone who hasn’t saved themselves.”
Anton sighed. Life could be so cruel, especially to those without cultivation. “Did you have any warriors there?”
“Not many,” the father admitted.
“Let me provide you with help,” Anton said. “I can give food, but more than that, a way to defend yourselves. It might take some time, but I can teach you to cultivate.” Anton patted the ground next to him as he sat down.
“Umm… so quickly?” the father asked.
“No point in delaying. I have nothing else to do now, either. Unless you have urgent business I can help with?”
“No,” he admitted. “Thank you.”
Anton pulled out some food- just terrible rations, but perhaps he could cook up that eagle later. He began to ask them about themselves, the beasts, everything he could. Then he lost himself in trying to teach them cultivation. Before long, a day had passed.
“Well now,” a powerful figure appeared next to him. “I do believe I told you to stay down below,” Everheart was quite an imposing figure when he wanted to be, even without using energy to bear down on someone.
Anton frowned, “Did I disrupt your concentration? I didn’t intend to ruin the chances for the others. I thought you could just go on without me.”
“No point,” Everheart said, “Considering you already passed.”
When things he was certain were there suddenly faded from his senses, Anton turned with a start to look over his shoulder. But the family was gone, and the eagle as well. Even the pieces he’d taken were no longer cooking on the fire.
Everheart grinned, “I thought about drawing that bit out further,” he admitted, “But I thought I’d just skip to the important part. You see, I have excellent judgment if I do say so myself. And of course I do.” He nodded to himself. Anton saw no reason to stop him from talking. “When I heard you came here for those notes I hadn’t even finished, I wondered if it was some sort of trick. Choosing that over an amazing technique that could let you rule the world. Preposterous. Then you just gave that up to save some weaklings.” Everheart frowned, “I’m not sure if I would have done the same. But… at one point, I wanted to be a person like that.” He folded his arms in front of him and huffed. “Well, don’t just stand there! Get your butt downstairs! I have piles of cra- important notes to give you.”
Somehow, Anton thought he should have known- but that was the thing about Everheart. If you knew he was always going to trick you and counted on it, he probably wouldn’t. Anton started moving, while Velvet stood nearby awkwardly.
“You might as well go too,” Everheart said. “I think you sort of passed the trial.” Everheart snorted, “And I can’t even really say anyone failed. How boring.”