Technically speaking, there was no need to try to draw out anyone if Chikere’s method of detecting them was reliable. However, moving from one person to two people potentially randomly encountering someone still wasn’t efficient. It might be possible for Enchanter Stasiuk to teach others, but the method was somewhat obtuse. Nor could it be guaranteed to work for everyone they wanted to find. If their method was discovered, it would be simple for people to hide their true weapons in a storage bag, or acquire weapons with different origins.
The Ears of the Fox had another reason to not wait. Besides the fact that Chikere’s method hadn’t been tested extensively, the sooner they could get information the sooner they could sell it, and there were many people looking to buy. They even had a bit of a personal vendetta, since some of their junior members had been attacked as well.
With Chikere’s plan to draw people out involving members of the Order, it brought other factors into play. While their disciples could technically do whatever they wanted, the Order was also invested in keeping them alive. Beyond that, as a righteous sect they were invested in stopping the attacks as soon as possible even if it weren’t going to affect their disciples directly. But if it was, they would want to take special precautions.
The problem was figuring out a way to keep them properly safe without scaring off the would-be attackers. More than that, even if they managed to draw out a group, gaining any benefits from the operation was questionable. Killing a few enemy cultivators might be beneficial, but it wasn’t necessarily worth the risks. What they needed was concrete information that could be used to unveil more people.
Author’s note: The last time Elder Matousek showed up I accidentally was referring to her as male. Whoops! I guess that’s what happens when someone doesn’t show up for a hundred chapters. Should be fixed now.
Grand Elder Bohdana Matousek hadn’t been present at the battle in Black Soul Valley. That hadn’t been her choice, but at the behest of the Order as a whole. Even if she would have been able to sway the tide further in their favor, someone had to stay to defend the Order. She couldn’t help but think that some of the others would have survived, or Vandale avoided injury, had she been present. But excessive dwelling on the past never benefited anyone. It was important to focus on the task at hand.
Despite the Frostmirror Sect’s location high in the mountains and the fact that many of their buildings were formed from ice, it was actually a rather pleasant temperature in the areas meant for visitors. With a bit of effort ice could be made not to melt until it was much warmer than the standard freezing point, making it easy to build with.
Even though ice was effectively free, the Frostmirror Sect was not cheap. The ready availability of materials allowed them to make walls many times thicker than most, all bolstered by formations to enhance their durability. They were also intricately designed, with beautiful carvings all along the walls. It was one of the few non-practical things that the Frostmirror Sect allowed. Though perhaps it was practical in a way, to have defining features on the walls to keep every corridor from feeling the same.
“Still freezing the place?” the final arrival asked brashly.
Elder Adelina of the Frostmirror Sect- still quite young despite her title and early Life Transformation cultivation- settled her eyes on the last woman. “Sarka. Just because Glorious Flame Palace cultivators like to sweat does not make this particular temperature freezing. It is intentionally made to be comfortable for the widest variety of people.”
The fact that Glorious Flame Palace and the Frostmirror Sect were working together didn’t make them suddenly friends. But Matousek was glad that at least that was as far as the words went. There was one more woman present, a woman from the Ears of the Fox. Robinson. This particular group being all women was simply a coincidence, since men also liked to be in on plotting and planning for combat.
Once they actually got started, there were quite a few ideas thrown around. Elder Sarka was of course more interested in a straightforward attack, but none of the members of Glorious Flame Palace were really suited for stealth. Their movements were generally obvious, and thus they were easy to avoid. Grand Elder Matousek didn’t actually mind their straightforward nature, but sometimes it was unsuitable for a task. In this case, if they were going to put in so much effort they really needed to get something out of it. It wouldn’t do just to risk the lives of their juniors.
The entire plan was predicated on the probability that there would be another attack if a particular group remained in an area with high visibility for some time. The Ears of the Fox actually confirmed the likelihood of something happening in regards to Chikere. Some people just drew conflict to them, and she seemed to be one. Likewise, Anton from the Order also ran into a significant amount of trouble. Probably not as much as Chikere since he was more careful about making enemies of large sects, but he’d ended up fighting off one of the attacks despite not being a target.
The Ears of the Fox would be working to subtly spread the right amount of information about their presence, while concealing certain other things. The others would be responsible for supporting as they could. The exact strategy wasn’t agreed upon quickly. Even after a few days, there were still many discussions. Though she was one of the oldest herself, Matousek had the feeling that older cultivators seemed to lose track of how much time was reasonable. Every day, there was probably another attack- just because so much time had passed already didn’t mean it wasn’t worth being expedient.
In between discussions new information came in. It wasn’t exactly relevant to their current situation, but it was important news for everyone nonetheless. Another one of Everheart’s ‘tombs’ had shown up. Normally that would have been news simply worthy of disseminating to junior disciples as a tempering opportunity, but this one caused an itching in the ears of the highest elders. It was supposed to be related to ascension, and even those who weren’t at the peak of Life Transformation were still interested in that topic.
Perhaps it was some sort of awful joke. It was entirely possible that people would gather together with hopes of learning about ascension, only for there to be nothing available to them except a taunt. Yet nobody seemed to believe it would be just that. While Everheart might overstate or understate certain details about the various places he’d made, the information he chose to reveal before the opening was never entirely incorrect.
But that disruption was only temporary- there was more than a year until they had to deal with that, and Matousek really hoped their plan wouldn’t take more than a few days to formulate. After that, it might take a month or more of hard work to actually make it come to pass, but at least they would be implementing instead of planning.
There were few concerns in Anton’s mind about whether he would actually reach Essence Collection. It was normal to spend time stuck at the border. He had in front of him many fine examples of that. Chikere, for example, had spent around a full year at the peak of Spirit Building before breaking through, and she was one of the few anomalies that tended to cultivate even more quickly than his own group.
Though on that topic… Hoyt had broken through to Essence Collection as well. Anton would not have been surprised no matter who made the leap first, but the circumstances had been what surprised him. He’d actually begun to spend time with his grandfather, Grand Elder Vandale, despite having avoided any interaction for the previous five years. He didn’t think they hated each other or anything, but it was still a surprise. A welcome one, since Anton was all too aware that family could be taken for granted, even if they wouldn’t always be around.
Catarina, Timothy, and Velvet were all at the peak of Spirit Building like himself, though they’d been there for longer. He had no doubts they would make the step soon enough. They had already been speaking with Hoyt about his experiences. Unfortunately, they couldn’t just repeat what he did. Hoyt was quite a bit like his grandfather and had just forced his way over the gap. That wasn’t impossible for any of the rest, and even Anton had more or less tried the same to reach Spirit Building, but it wasn’t optimal for every cultivator.
Generally, a cultivator could sense for themself if it would be dangerous to push forward. It wasn’t cowardice to seek an easier path, but wisdom. Not everyone worked the same way, and simply filling up with energy and pushing, even if a cultivator avoided injuring themself, would leave some parts of cultivation almost incomplete. Usually it was related to insufficient insight, if Anton’s information gathering was right. It didn’t always have to be about some sort of combat style, and sometimes it was more about a mental hangup of a cultivator. It was possible to ignore such problems, but they could grow just as much as the cultivator themself.
Anton was aware he wasn’t perfect, but he couldn’t pick out any specific issues about himself. Yet he could only seek out experiences to fill the gaps. Sometimes, those experiences were battles.
“I’m glad Fuzz isn’t coming with us,” Catarina said. “Even if he would be useful. Wolves don’t really do well around… smelly creatures.”
“I’ve never had a problem with a skunk before,” Timothy said. “Normally I wouldn’t go near them, and they’d avoid going near me. But a giant, rabid one…” Timothy shook his head. “Sounds awful.”
“How would something like that come into existence?” Velvet asked. “There wasn’t really information on it.”
Anton had the answer for that easily enough, “Not everything that develops in areas with high amounts of natural energy is nice. Creatures that are already unpleasant like mosquitoes, well, you know what happens with them. Skunks prefer to keep people away, but there’s always the chance that they ate something tainted. Perhaps another creature, or a plant that developed rotten energy.”
“That can happen?” Chikere inquired. “I’ve never heard about it.”
“Well, cultivators don’t bother to go looking for things like that,” Anton explained. “Unless they’re looking for poisons.”
Chikere rolled her eyes. “Poisons are for people who can’t follow through with an attack.”
Anton didn’t use poisons himself, but for different reasons. When he had been a hunter, he wouldn’t want to eat anything poisoned. As a cultivator, the time and effort to learn about and maintain a stock of poisons that would be relevant to his combats was just too much. He also didn’t want to support any of the vendors of such things, since most didn’t really care if poisons were used for nefarious means. Finally, Spirit Arrows weren’t easily able to carry poison. He’d lately begun to keep a stock of arrows with different properties, but since he would use poison irregularly he’d either have to apply it mid-combat or worry about it losing its efficacy.
“There,” Velvet pointed. “Tracks.” At the size of the creature they were looking for, everyone could easily spot the tracks- but whether they would recognize them as the target was a matter of practice. The front and rear paws were different on skunks, which made them an interesting target to track. They were currently moving through a wet pine forest, so the ground was plenty soft for a large creature to leave extremely visible prints in.
Not long after, the wind shifted and they recoiled as an extremely foul smell washed over them. It wasn’t just the smell, either. Anton felt his energy being eaten away by something. It was only a very small amount, like piddling bits of rain washing away at a mountain, but it was also extremely indirect. Not far from that, they spotted a wolf. Or at least something that had probably once been a wolf. There were a few claw marks, but it was mangled from much more than that. It almost looked like parts of it had melted… and the smell was strongest on it.
“Ugh,” Chikere commented. “Why is there a weird goop all around it?”
Anton approached closer, his nose completely sealed by his energy and his defenses keeping away the lingering remnants of something awful. He bent down, looking closely. “It seems to be a mixture of liquified fur, dead leaves, and bark. Plus some mud and blood.” He stood up. “The decay patterns are unnatural, but if I’m not wrong this should have been within the last day. We should be able to catch up to it soon. The sooner the better, since it shouldn’t be able to spray an endless amount.”
Anton really didn’t like the idea of getting directly hit by whatever noxious gas had developed from a normal skunk’s already extremely foul spray. The less it had, the better. They group picked up their pace, while keeping on the alert. They had been doing well not speaking about their actual target in the area.