With most of their forces killed in battle, the Still Wind Erudition had few capable of defending their sect grounds. Taking over was simple, and they gathered up every technique manual and all of the equipment, either to be destroyed or taken away. Given proper time, Anton would have preferred to find a more elegant approach to dealing with their opponents, rather than just slaughtering them all. Well, he did implement an alternative for some. Specifically, those who were young or lower in cultivation. Instead of death, they simply had their cultivation burned out of them. Anton made the attempt to do it in such a way that they might cultivate again later, though he erred on the side of nothing at all if it meant they might practice the same assassination techniques.
There was no time to personally interview everyone to determine if they signed up willingly or were forced into it, but Anton wasn’t willing to slaughter people who were effectively defenseless and had not directly participated in the battle against them. It was the same with those who fled- he couldn’t know if it was merely fear that drove them away or if it was never their intention to participate to begin with. People deserved a chance, and he was comfortable enough with his new strength he could give it to some.
Though perhaps those who lost their cultivation might die anyway, either through their own choice or because of others. The Exalted Archipelago still had separations between those who cultivated and those who did not… and if the cultivators treated the others poorly, they might not survive for long without their abilities. But that was a fate they’d sown for themselves.
After having participated in the most recent battles, Anton was more confident in his new power. He was a step above anything that could be sent after him, and the local area was quite depleted of anyone who would try. He still didn’t want to stay longer than he had to, not because he was worried about himself or the rest of those with him should further fleets come after them, but because he didn’t want to kill more people than he had to. Returning to some sort of peace with the Exalted Archipelago would be easier if they avoided what conflicts they could. They’d already made a sufficient show of force.
There was only the Soaring Air Sect to deal with now. Unless something momentous happened to draw another sect into the conflict, that was where they would stop. They had taken note of those who came to attack, but the lesser sects could be forgiven more easily.
What Alva had thought would be wind rushing past her turned into fire. Somehow, she was falling with enough speed for the air to ignite around her, which was rather troublesome as it obscured her vision. She needed her sight clear to shoot at the scaled beast flying at her. And to dodge the arrows and spear hurtling through the air. And the darts? That one had an unpleasant black sheen on it.
Her hands moved quickly, firing arrows for offense and defense, taking down the various projectiles. They had some energy enhancing them- upper energy, which meant they were a threat even to an Ascension cultivator like Alva. Vari was even more vulnerable since she was merely in Life Transformation- Alva wasn’t sure if that was a good cultivation speed or not in this world, but the point was she was weaker. There were others who leapt down with them, having traveled from Rouhiri here to Everheart’s Tomb- whatever it had been called before having been forgotten- but Alva didn’t even consider helping them.
She did help out Vari though. While the woman might have been foolish, naive, brainwashed, or any other number of things, Alva didn’t want her to die. She didn’t deserve that. Thus, Alva devoted a few of her shots to deflecting projectiles coming for Vari. The woman had formed some sort of patterned barrier around herself, but it simply wouldn’t be sufficient against a direct hit.
Her descent wasn’t perfect, but eventually the ground was getting close. Fortunately there was no fire- she seemed to have slowed down enough- but she still needed to be cognizant of her landing. She didn’t want to exacerbate any of the injuries she took as she fell, since this wasn’t a place where she wanted to be below peak fighting fitness. Even if the Tomb itself didn’t kill her, other cultivators might.
She landed, a cushion of energy slowing her fall, allowing her bent legs to absorb the last of the impact. Projectiles were still everywhere, so when Vari landed next to her, Alva grabbed her by the collar and dragged her along. There was a safe area in the archway leading inside, though Alva wasn’t sure if it would be safe beyond that.
When they were in the archway- which was well over ten meters tall, and about half as wide at the bottom- Alva dropped Vari on one of the large stone slabs. “Well look at that. You survived.”
Vari blinked a few times, beginning to stand up. Then she stopped, looking up at Alva. “Are you… actually one of the Saints?”
“What? No, of course not.” A thin strand of energy came towards Alva, and she automatically attempted to bat it away with her hand- but as she touched it, it automatically melted into her meridians. It wasn’t as if it bypassed her defenses, but rather as if she’d subconsciously accepted it as part of her. Power coursed through her, bolstering her. It wasn’t anything great- perhaps a few days worth of cultivation- but it happened so cleanly. “Of course not. I’m not even part of the Harmonious Citadel.”
“Oh.” Vari said. “I… understand.” She stood up. “You’re not one of the Saints.”
She said that, but Alva knew she didn’t believe it. “Are you sure you can’t see this?” Alva said, squeezing another thread of energy between her fingers.
“Your fingers?” Vari tilted her head. “They display the signs of devoted practice.”
“Why do I even bother. Well, we should get going.”
“Of course. Where do you wish to go, your grace?”
Alva made a face. “It’s Alva.”
“If you wish, lady Alva.”
She really wished she had Fuzz with her. His devotion wasn’t weird at least.
Alva took in her surroundings. In all directions were other cultivators, unfamiliar buildings, and signs of danger. According to the contact with Catarina, there were several notable landmarks. The Gardens, the Great Hall, the Library, and the Labyrinth. There were also a great many less notable locations, but if they found some of the greater ones they could meet up. There was just the slight issue that she didn’t know how to navigate to any of them, and the Tomb wasn’t exactly… small. It took up an entire planet, after all.
It was probably smaller than her home Ceretos. She really hoped it was, because otherwise it could take weeks or months to traverse in one direction- and that was without obstructions. The Tomb hadn’t been fully mapped out yet, but what was known was that smaller features changed constantly… and that it killed people. Yet there were also great rewards to be had for passing certain trials. Though this place had a deadlier flare than those from Ceretos, and had remained active for much longer. Then again, everything in the upper realms tended to be more, so why would this be any different?
“We’ll head in here,” Alva said confidently.
“Very well, my lady,” Vari said. “Let me provide you with what little support I can offer.” She held her hand out, waiting for permission.
“Fine. Go ahead.”
Energy stretched out from Vari. Ascension energy- upper energy- but controlled with amazing precision for Vari’s cultivation. Alva was still getting used to the shift, but Vari should have lived with it her whole life. The energy spread out in a dome over Alva, a honeycomb pattern formed out of many smaller panels. Unlike simply protecting her with energy, the barrier was solid and seemed likely to last without active control.
“Interesting,” Alva said. She looked down at her feet. The barrier flattened out below her, but protected her from below as well. It likely wasn’t enough for her to rely on, but it was a welcome addition to her own defenses.
Alva sniffed the air. That was usually Fuzz’ job, but she knew that scent was one of those things that most cultivators didn’t consider when concealing things. The scents of metal or mismatched stone or an unexpected breeze could give away the location of a trap. Alva didn’t sense any ahead of them, but that just made her look more closely.
Vari had already begun walking forward, so Alva eventually just followed behind. If Vari wanted to be a sacrifice, that was her prerogative.
The archway led to a long hallway. With how wide and tall it was, in other situations Alva might have been willing to call it a great hall- but the actual Great Hall was apparently a kilometer across with a statue of Everheart stretching as high as a mountain. Meanwhile the walls here were lined with mismatched statues that were only a few times life size- no more than ten.
“Are the differing designs meant to distract us?” Alva wondered aloud.
“I believe it is because these come from different sects,” Vari answered helpfully. “The Majestic Herb Estuary, the Viridian Sea, and many others,” she gestured. “And…” she stopped.
Alva looked, and found she recognized the statue. A stern looking man with a sword the same height as himself, standing like a cross in front of him. She hadn’t really paid much attention, but her memory was good enough to recognize it. The style was also annoyingly familiar recently. “The Harmonious Citadel,” Alva said. “That’s the sword saint, isn’t it?”
“Um, well, yes,” Vari said. “But obviously this is a replica. The real one is still on Rouhiri.”
“I’m sure it is,” Alva nodded. She wasn’t a great purveyor of the arts, but she’d seen many beautiful pieces in her lifespan, simply by virtue of meeting many great cultivators- some of who cared about such things greatly. The technique and skill required to make the statue that almost seemed as if it could come to life. Everheart was many things, but an artist was not one of them. Alva also imagined that he was not interested in forcing someone to make a replica for him. No… this had to be the original. Stolen quite some time before, and replaced in secret. Because obviously the Harmonious Citadel couldn’t have something stolen from their seat of power, could they?
It also told her something else. The image of the sword saint was young, but she imagined every statue of the saints would have been made more flattering for those who were not impeccable. Yet the fact that it was here meant it had been made long before.
“How long has the Sword Saint maintained his position?”
“Since time immemorial,” Vari said.
“… How old are you?” Alva asked.
“Only a hundred and fifty,” Vari said proudly.
So at least that long then. Not that it was surprising for someone with high cultivation to live longer, of course.
The question was if new statues were purloined for this place. Was Everheart still active? The changing components could have been set up via formations. Unfortunately, Alva had no way to recognize any of the figures- and Vari was only able to report a few small details about those not from the Harmonious Citadel.
“What about that one?” Alva pointed.
“That’s… I don’t know,” Vari admitted.
“How do you not? It has the aura of the Harmonious Citadel.”
“It must be a fake, then,” Vari said.
Alva looked at it carefully. It depicted a woman holding a spear. The face was strangely worn, though the other statues were pristine. Then she reached out her hand, yanking Vari back. With a click, the statue moved, its spear stabbing across the corridor. Then it returned to its former position.
Strange. The only part that was worn had nothing to do with the movements it made. Oh well, at least she’d seen a trap. It made her more comfortable.
But what was up with these stupid strands of energy from Vari that she claimed to not see? A day before they wanted nothing to do with her, and now they wouldn’t leave her alone. She needed to find someone else who could see them, someone she could trust. Catarina would know… once they found their bearings.