Sometimes there were people who seemed able to do anything they set their mind to. Anton Krantz was one of those. Reuben was aware that a farm had many different things it needed, and Anton could take care of them all. It seemed that even when the man hit a hundred the only reason the rest of his family had work to do was because he let them. The patriarch of that family was someone that everyone in Dungannon knew. But now he was different. Though honestly it felt just like the next step.
A cultivator always felt like something different from a normal human. Reuben hadn’t really changed his assessment. Anton and his companions were different. People who were so willing to throw themselves into action were exceptional. They also had a wolf. That was just… something Reuben had observed.
Beyond just learning to cultivate himself, Anton seemed to be proficient enough to teach it. Reuben had given a serious try for a few years but it just didn’t click. Then he talked to Anton for an hour, and everything made sense. It still took a week for him to really have enough sense and control of natural energy to really feel like a cultivator, but the path had been laid out for him and he just had to walk it. Sometimes paths were rocky and full of twigs trying to snag you, but at least you knew you were going the right way.
Learning to cultivate was empowering… but Reuben hadn’t realized it would be so frightening. Actually being able to sense how strong cultivators were was intimidating. Anton had already been the sort of person who felt overwhelming when he was in action but like just a man otherwise, but the feeling was amplified. Others weren’t so restrained. There was the dark-skinned Ayotunde. A mercenary. He was even stronger.
Seeing some of the cultivators spar for training was entertaining, but when actual battle happened… that was where he felt fear. When Dungannon was attacked he’d seen people die. So many people, for no reason. As they approached the growing gorge, he felt people die. To the right, to the left. Powerful presences that were simply snuffed out. It made him realize just how much further he had to go if he wanted to really be a cultivator. What was the first star, even, against the attacks facing them?
Arrows he was certain could pierce through him and the man behind him flew in both directions. The ones from up on the cliff were greatly weakened by a sort of barrier set up by Catarina and another mercenary called Elisa. Enough that the villagers could block with the shields they had been given. Reuben held his shield above his head, doing his best to reinforce it with his energy. He should probably dodge, but he didn’t know if he could do it in time- and that might just leave someone else in danger.
The arrows from their side were fired by Anton. Just him, yet he matched a handful of other archers. He didn’t even have arrows, making them purely from energy. They didn’t look like much, but the sharpness that radiated off of them combined with their speed and power made Reuben feel that they were indeed very real.
When Dungannon had been attacked, nobody could do anything. Now Anton was so strong. Reuben wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t too far from the stronger bandits. Since they’d had no real opponents, it was impossible to say.
Now the villagers of Dungannon were still weak, but they had hope. They were free- yet people were still trying to claim them. Reuben knew he was far too weak to matter, but he stepped forward anyway, just inside the edge of the barrier. Devon was right there as well, looking towards those approaching from the bottom of the gorge. Most of their warriors were atop either side, fighting opponents who outnumbered them. Reuben wasn’t sure if he could harm some of the stronger figures approaching, but he was certain he could try.
Each arrow was aimed at a precise spot. It wasn’t always where someone was unprepared for an attack, or at least not where people thought they were unprepared. Anton was beginning to sense the subtler fluctuations of energy. He realized that there were always weak points, even in a person’s defensive energy. He might have thought he had an even layer covering him like armor, but some places were simply weaker. When one of those matched up with a weakness in actual armor, he could use less than half as much energy to achieve the same result. Usually, that was killing someone.
None of his attacks were ever intended to go easy on someone. If he could kill them, he would. If he could wound an arm instead, that would make things easier for the future. People tended to overcompensate for areas they were injured, shifting to cover the weaker area with excess energy. Even if it was just a small change, he could catch someone while their energy was moving about and not perfectly placed.
It wasn’t enough to kill other Spirit Building cultivators in just a few shots, but it could certainly distract them enough that they weren’t able to fight effectively. Against late Body Temperers, he took them out by his third arrow in most cases. It helped to have strong allies on the front lines suppressing people. He was glad he’d hired all four of the mercenaries he did, because they were quite worth the expense just for this one battle.
He saw Ayotunde maneuver his large sword to change from a slash into a stab with his two-handed sword, piercing into someone’s neck. The old woman, Lera, was a poison user- but Anton wasn’t sure if anything was more dishonorable than trying to own other people or fighting for them. Poison wasn’t a weapon he wanted to learn how to use, but he saw its value. Velvet, Hoyt, Timothy, and the small man known as Ross also performed excellently. They were nearly finished with their battle when the front lines of the group coming down the gorge arrived.
Another dozen body temperers and four at Spirit Building. The wide variety of cultivation styles indicated they were a mercenary group and not a sect of some sort- hopefully the Heavenly Lion Sect hadn’t connected the dots yet. He’d done nothing directly against them or their little ‘former’ disciple Van Hassel. Not yet, anyway. He didn’t mind painting a target on himself, but he didn’t want it to be that big until he could handle it.
The barrier in front of them shook. A direct attack, even though the origin of the attack was still thirty meters away. They weren’t an archer, but not far from it. A man had formed spikes of condensed energy, but they were unlike Spirit Arrows. They depended mainly on their size to cause damage- and Anton had to admit it was effective. A hole appeared in the barrier and some of the Body Temperers started pouring through. Devon and Fuzz were there to head them off, with Kohar providing her support, but the situation was concerning.
His arrows continued to fly. Someone tried to chop into Devon with an axe, and while Anton’s grandson handily protected himself the act wouldn’t go unpunished. An arrow into the neck, curving right under the helmet was an appropriate response. He also fired shots to help the villagers who were much weaker and in more danger, though they managed to keep enemies at bay with at least three or four spears prodding at each of them.
Anton had to twist his body to the side as spikes of energy flew towards him. He’d been taken as a priority target, and he didn’t mind responding in kind. He couldn’t afford to have an enemy who could target any of his friends or family. As his hands grasped his bow, Anton took careful stock of how his energy covered it. Some parts needed more, but he could thin it out on others. The main spine of the bow only got the bare minimum to protect it in case of an attack, but he wouldn’t get much power from adding energy there. He needed to be efficient with his energy because his muscles were old and tired once more. Having completed Body Tempering he was still stronger than even the strongest who didn’t cultivate, but somewhere at half of his peak.
He couldn’t launch attacks simultaneously, but Anton managed a continuous barrage on the man, while he had to dodge four or five coordinated attacks at once. That wasn’t impossible. In fact, it was made easier by the way the spikes moved in formation. He had to dodge further to the side, but he also slipped through the middle once or twice and they didn’t curve towards him. Without anything to propel them but the energy themselves, the way they accelerated was also predictable. Anton got a few scrapes but he managed his energy defenses to resist before focusing on his enemy’s weakness. He needed to win before the other Spirit Building enemies joined the fight in earnest.
A two handed sword like Ayotunde’s was actually light and agile, without the sort of thick blades that were suited for cutting off someone’s head. He could still do it though. It just took a bit more energy sharpened to a fine blade and a bit more muscle. That was something he had in abundance. The final Spirit Building cultivator was finished off by him. Sadly the shrimp had gotten one alone and half killed that one, so Ayotunde couldn’t tease him. He hadn’t gotten the axe wielding youth to help, but he had to admit the shield and sword one was quite competent as well. He was a bit weaker in cultivation, but the way he stood by Ayotunde’s side and coordinated with him without previous practice was excellent. Being able to ignore an attack and instead counter with an attack of his own was quite liberating.
That was the end of those up with them. The plan had been to get Anton up to them for a good vantage, but clearly that wasn’t happening. Ayotunde ran over towards the edge of the unnatural gorge. It simply didn’t fit quite right into the area. How strong would someone have to be to…?
He’d consider that later. “Hey! Mercenary dimwits!” he shouted to them. “I hope you got paid in advance, because I look forward to looting it from your corpse. But that doesn’t mean you can’t run. We could use a few people to inform others not to work for those idiots who hired you.”
Honestly, this group could have been enough. If they’d walked into the ambush, things would have gone the other way quickly. He still felt there should have been a fourth group to catch them from behind, but… he looked with his eyes and senses. Nothing. Perhaps they were short on men, or bad at tactics.
“I mean it! Run, and only the slowest of you will get shot in the back!” Morale was important for mercenaries. He was honestly surprised they hadn’t broken already. Still not running. Twenty meters down? That seemed fine. Ayotunde leaped directly down towards one of the Spirit Building cultivators who was flinging ranged attacks at the group. He had no room for subtlety or complicated attacks, instead settling for a giant overhand swing. His target didn’t miss out on something so important as a mid Spirit Building warrior leaping at him, and he leapt to the side, admirably protecting himself and only getting one arm slightly cut through. If he didn’t have bracers… he’d still be dead the same way, because Anton followed up with a perfect shot right into the man’s waist, disrupting his footing and letting Ayotunde stab him through the heart. He needed to work with archers more.
The enemy mercenaries were turning to flee, and Anton began to relax. Then his eye twitched as he saw Alva running forward towards one wrestling with Fuzz. He was almost impressed how she managed to actually stab into his thigh. It took most of her energy concentrated into that attack, but it was well done. Anton’s arrow was already on the way, but he filled it with extra hate as Alva was backhanded by the man and sent flying a dozen meters. His arrow went up through the bottom of the half-prone man’s jaw, and he swore to himself that if Alva was seriously injured he would hunt down every fleeing mercenary, his nearly drained reserves of energy be damned.
He should have told Alva she couldn’t fight no matter what. As he reached her side, she was already standing up. She was trembling and blood dripped down her face, but she propped herself up with the butt of her spear. “Yeah! You better run!”
“That’s right,” Anton said. “They should run. Which is why you should have let them instead of continuing to fight.”
Alva turned up to him, blood streaming out of her nostrils. “It’s fine. Just a broken nose.”
“A little bit more and you could have died!” Anton chastised.
“Nu-uh. Broken noses don’t kill people.”
Anton didn’t know what to say, but Catarina arrived to say the exact thing he’d chosen not to. “You can. The bones in your nose can be pushed into your brain,” Catarina gestured. “It’s not pretty.”
Alva turned to the side and threw up. What followed was a frenzy of activity as everyone tried to recover from the battle. They hadn’t been lucky enough to be able to just avoid their enemies, and the consequences were severe. None of their top cultivators were dead, but Hoyt had a nasty gash on his arm and Devon had either reopened old injuries or gotten new ones in similar places.
It was honestly impressive that they’d only lost a handful of people against the enemy forces. They were outnumbered in terms of real cultivators, and there was only so much a little bit of edge in cultivation and skill could do against that.
Anton wondered if it was his fault the people were dead. If he hadn’t taught them to cultivate, they would have been more cautious. Were his ideas wrong?
Something tapped his ankle. He looked down to see a man on his belly craning back to look up at him. “Thanks,” the man said. Anton just recognized him as Reuben under all the blood. “I got to actually fight, instead of just being helpless.” Then his head dropped face first into the dirt.
Anton flipped him over, seeing bloody wounds all over the man’s chest. Before he did anything else, a quick check with his energy- and he found Reuben was alive, if only barely. He used his energy to keep as much blood in the man as possible while his hands moved as quickly as they were able applying coagulant powder, stitches, and bandages.
He still felt awful, but despite all the weary faces around him, he saw them strong and determined rather than giving into despair. These people had a second chance at life, and they were going to do their utmost to take it.