The Hidden Forest. If there were one place all across the Barbarian Continent avoided like the plague, regardless of cultivation, it would be the Hidden Forest. It bore that name because of a brume that clouded its entrance, an entrance not many dared brave in the first place.
Across the Ancient Crystal World's history, beneath the Divine Rank, none managed to make their way out of the Hidden Forest. And even above the Divine Rank, those who did often failed to reconstruct the events they'd experienced there. Only a scant few could go in and out unscathed.
Berken and Gulistan were naturally among those.
And now, they stood before the Ancient Crystal World's tallest tree, a one-hundred kilometers tall tree whose branches stretched across several miles. And looking at that tree, for once, Gulistan's face shone with gravity.
A succession of wailing sounds akin to that of toddlers echoed from that tree. And hearing them, neither Gulistan nor Berken could keep a straight face.
"The World Tree wails."
Gulistan stated, the four words carrying incomparable gravity; gravity that put even her shoulders under crushing pressure. This one-hundred-kilometers tall tree was the Ancient Crystal World Tree. In mortal worlds, World Trees were the sources of spiritual energy. Without one, cultivation was nigh impossible.
For that reason, worlds devoid of World Trees were referred to as "Barren Worlds."
The wailing sound of a World Tree was a disastrous omen. An omen heralding an era even Berken dreaded. And indeed, as the wailing sound echoed, a faint shade of grey began spreading across the previously green tree.
Seeing this, Berken's frown deepened, and he stretched his hand toward the World Tree. However…
…a formidable force field rose to repel his hand, preventing it from getting any closer to the World Tree. Undaunted, Berken released the full-might of his cultivation. However, even his Divine Ascension cultivation base wasn't enough to break through the barrier.
This meant that on the current Ancient Crystal World, depending on might alone, no one could force his way in. Defeated, Berken pulled back his hand and lowered his gaze toward the fruits at the base of the tree.
Those were Life Fruits. The most valuable nutrients for nurturing physiques to the pinnacle. They grew at precise intervals, and before, the top experts of the two faiths would compete to rob them for their own.
But now, no one had access to them. Meanwhile, Gulistan's eyes never left the grey shade that slowly but surely stretched across the tree.
And at that time, a rumbling sound came from the earth below, soaring toward the sky where the two Sages hovered. Their frowns further deepened.
Berken ordered, and in a golden haze, vanished alongside Gulistan to return to house Serkar. The two appeared in the Serkar Elders' meeting room, and as soon as they did, all rose to greet them.
However, before the elders could finish their greetings, their patriarch's voice echoed:
"No need. The situation looks grim. I'm afraid the World Tree's withering…began."
Berken declared, the words startling the Serkar elders who despite their age and experience failed to shoulder such a blow.
"The Withering…then that means…the Ancient Crystal World's spirituality…"
An elder began, and before he could finish his words…
"Is coming to an end."
…Gulistan cut. Her confirmation caused the elders' eyes to widen in disbelief.
"How could this be? The Ancient Crystal World's cultivation history is merely of one-million years. What Mortal World ever suffered Withering after one-million years? This is completely unheard of!"
Another elder exclaimed, his tone full of fright. And none could blame him. Although the Withering didn't claim lives, it completely shattered a world's cultivation future. Resources would stop growing, refining the energy between heaven and earth would become impossible. Crystals would no longer produce any spiritual, holy, or divine energy, and Life Fruits would stop sprouting.
The cultivation world would instantaneously be thrown into irreversible decline, the end of which being…the end of cultivation.
How could they not be startled?
"Indeed, this situation is abnormal, and I suspect this disaster of being man-made."
Berken replied, causing more confusion within the hearts of his house's elders.
"As you all know, when the World Tree withers, its leaves turn into formidable weapons possessing two invincible abilities effective on all targets beneath godhood. At that juncture, whoever controls the access to them is undoubtedly the Ancient Crystal World's Sovereign.
Gulistan and I have examined the scene, and a barrier now wards the World Tree. A barrier even I cannot break through. Moreover, beneath the ground, a hidden force brews.
If I am not wrong, that force should be…the Zenith Ants."
"Impossible. Those rogue demons have long since been exterminated by our founder. How could they possibly remain within this world?"
Another elder opposed. But Berken shook his head.
"Nothing is set in stone. It's not impossible that a few survived and chose to bide their time. In any case, regardless of the reason, the fact of the matter is that the Withering began. Now, unless a World God rises to master the world, this planet's cultivation realm is doomed.
We only have two choices, either support someone to become the Ancient Crystal World God in the coming years or hasten the Holy War, make our faith supreme, then rush toward the Infernal Realm."
"But for now, the Infernal Cult enters an emergency mode. We must start preparing for the inevitable and put the little that remains of our Merit Reserves to good use."
Merit reserves were divided between house and cult merit. With house merit being unique to the given houses, and cult merit serving as the overall reserve. The Serkars lost all their merit reserves to Summon Talroth. A risky move that could have ended with no reward besides death.
Afterward, they squandered a vast quantity of cult merit to unleash a plague Konrad turned to his advantage and ended up gaining nothing from it.
Now, the cult's reserves were at disturbing levels. Although thanks to Talroth's boons, their house was undoubtedly the Ancient Crystal World's number one, they knew that if they didn't tread carefully, the future didn't look bright.
And while analyzing the current events, Gulistan deeply regretted her previous move. If she received Marduk's body from Konrad and exchanged it to the Merit Stele, the situation could never be this critical.
In the meantime, Konrad was standing before his Refinery Cauldron 1 , about to melt several materials and Divine Artifacts to form his new crown and seal.
One of the System Rewards of the previous quest.