(Patreon) Elder Cultivator 209

-–Chapter Index–-

Anton didn’t know much about his travelling companions when they began the journey, but he at least knew something about Hein’s origins. He was from Storm Mountain, a reliable enough sect with a decent reputation. The younger cultivators seemed to all be from different groups except for Caeus and Printza. Presumably they had all been out on various missions for their sects before learning about the increased danger on the roads. It would be slower to travel with some lower ranking cultivators, but there was safety in numbers. 

Along the way, Anton learned more about the others. Caeus and Printza were both from the western portion of Droca. The two of them wore heavier armor than most cultivators, but the strength they had would be sufficient to allow them significant mobility as long as they had trained in its use.

Gustav and Stojan were from different parts of Estary. While it would have been more direct for them to travel through Ofrurg, Anton didn’t even bother to ask about why they were taking their current route. Even if the people looking for his head in Ofrurg were mostly gone, Anton didn’t feel safe traveling through the country. And he still probably had some slaving groups upset at his participation in causing them justified trouble. The two young cultivators likely didn’t have the same sort of problems, but Ofrurg had been even less secure in the last few years. 

The last of the group was Nkiru, and she was returning to Ambati, so from their current position it was equally efficient to go either through Ofrurg or the rest of Droca and then through Graotan afterwards.

Hein was just coming along for the job. Anton ended up paying for a split of his fees, because even though Anton himself was similar in cultivation to Hein, who was in late Spirit Building, having him along would still be useful. He could have just left all of the burden of the fee on the younger cultivators, but he was also using them for his own safety. 

Even though the roads were more dangerous than normal, Anton was not particularly worried. The chances of anyone coming after them were probably a tenth or less, especially considering they were moving in numbers. Maybe less than a single percent. Yet even a very rare occurrence still deserved a cautious treatment. Taking no precautions to prevent such a serious risk at even a low probability would very quickly get people in trouble.

—–

The pace of the group slowed almost imperceptibly as Hein tilted his head around. Anton could see his short hair begin to puff up slightly. Their eyes met and Anton gave him a nod.

“You feel it too, then?” Hein continued to scan the horizon. “Something in the air.”

Anton felt it too. Something wasn’t quite right, but yet he couldn’t sense anyone. Not yet, anyway.

“Are you sure?” Caeus asked. “Is it not just the coming storm?” he gestured up to the sky.

“That’s of no concern,” Hein said. “In fact, I’d say it’s a bit too far away. No, there’s something closer.”

Reaching out with his energy, Anton still didn’t sense anything. He felt around like he was trying to find Velvet. It would have been convenient if she were nearby, because it was harder for someone to hide when they couldn’t even tell where someone was coming from, or that they were coming. But the actual important thing was, he couldn’t feel anything that felt like her or something similar.

That was how he knew his senses were being manipulated. Somewhere around twenty meters from the group, the minute fluctuations their energy caused in the air fizzled out to a smooth, uniform nothingness. Yet Anton could still see and hear, even the twittering of a bird. 

He pulled out an arrow, drawing his bow back. The way they were looking around would let whoever was hiding know they had been noticed regardless, and he needed to test something. He looked straight at the bird, a fine specimen. He drew his bow back, carefully taking aim. If he was wrong, the bird would become dinner. Not a terrible result.

His mind flew forward with his arrow, not fully leaving the confines of his own body. As he went further the wrongness of their surroundings felt stronger, but it was only a moment before he reached the bird and pierced its chest. The sound stopped. “Ah,” Anton said. “Just a bird.” He lowered his bow and pulled out another arrow casually. He turned towards another bird. “Who wants dinner?”

Anyone who’d seen Anton fight previously would have immediately caught onto the wrongness of his movements. The biggest glaring change was that he drew physical arrows. The first one was plain and simple, with no special qualities. The second one, however, was specially made. A handful of them cost as much as his first cultivator bow… and that had been at a discount.

He took careful aim towards another bird, focusing his energy. Then he swivelled around and released his arrow behind them. His arrow swerved off course, not following his planned trajectory- but he could discern where it wanted to go. He assisted it in moving that way with all haste.

Then his arrow disappeared, blurring out of existence- but a small spot of red appeared in the air for a moment. “There!” Anton shouted. He wished he could have used more of his energy on that attack, but it would have been obvious he wasn’t just trying to hunt a bird and his opponent would have been more prepared for the blood seeking arrow. Anton hadn’t been sure of his enemy’s exact location, but he had suspected they were in an illusion, and blood seeking arrows weren’t fooled by such things.

As soon as Anton shouted, lightning crackled around Hein’s body as he gripped a metal rod in his hand. The younger cultivators were slower to respond, but they at least drew their weapons and heightened their energy defenses. 

The wind was picking up, but Anton knew he could compensate for its effects later. He fired off several sets of Spirit Arrows, three at a time. None of them would be quite so strong or as accurate as a normal shot, but he covered a wide variety of positions near his target. Unless the hidden figure chose to fling themselves to the side, they would have an arrow in their path if they tried to approach. Since they hadn’t attacked yet, he supposed they might have to approach up close. He was half right about that.

The first arrow to be fired in response from behind them was yanked towards Hein’s rod, as it vaguely became visible upon approach. It struck the metal rod directly, but Hein clearly minimized the amount of energy he used to defend it, letting it take the blow solely based on the material strength of the weapon. He was sent staggering back half a step, but the arrow shattered and fell to the ground.

Anton felt two of his arrows connect with something, not hard enough to break through the energy defenses but enough to let him know the opponent was rapidly approaching, from about forty meters to less than twenty now, just a tiny distance for Spirit Building cultivators.

More arrows came from behind, one curving around Hein’s defense to strike Stojan in the side, while another more powerful shot directly came for him, making him take more than a single step back. 

“I can’t defend everyone!” he called out. “Stay closer to me!”

The young cultivators huddled closer together, Stojan pulling the arrow out of his side. The good news was that it hadn’t pierced terribly deep, as it seemed to still have been slightly affected by Hein’s metal staff.

Anton continued to fire towards his invisible target, getting a better bead on them as they approached closer. Moving quickly wasn’t the optimal way to maintain an illusion, since there were two sets of feedback coming to a cultivator fighting with each other. He fired several more arrows, but he felt they were dodged or occasionally deflected. 

Behind him, Anton felt the fear of the younger cultivators. Yet it was tempered somewhat by the safety they felt. At least there should only be a small number of people maintaining the illusion, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to communicate. Individual illusions for each person couldn’t be maintained easily.

The opponent reached Anton, leaving visibility as his dagger clashed with Anton’s handaxe. Anton knew his opponent had to really be there, or he would already be dead. He did find that it was difficult to land any blows on the man, however. And another dagger appeared with the rest of him. Anton was still confident in defeating his opponent, but he suddenly began to shift around Anton, charging towards the Caeus and the others.

Before Anton could catch him, Hein spun, pushing the group of younger cultivators with his staff and blocking an incoming dagger strike. But Anton saw an arrow incoming from behind the man, and a staff attracting it wouldn’t stop it from going straight into Hein’s back. He threw his axe- it wasn’t designed for that, being meant for melee combat, but it served its purpose. His axe caught the arrow, slicing into it. He dropped the other one back into his belt- throwing it at the back of the dagger-wielding cultivator had more chance to end up hitting the younger cultivators than his enemy. Instead, he drew his bow and began shooting past the group.

Caeus and Printza moved together, standing on either side of Hein. It seemed as if they had no weapons, but in fact their armor was the weapon. Heavy metal gauntlets, with thinner chain on the palms where it was necessary for flexibility. They punched and kicked towards the man with the pair of daggers, providing enough distraction that Hein could deflect his attacks with his staff, catching the metal daggers and yanking them off their intended course. The attacker still managed to dodge most of the incoming attacks. 

Anton was matching the incoming arrows with his own. When they were targeted at others he shot them out of the air, and when they came for him he smacked them out of the air with his bow. Many were much closer to striking him than he would have liked, but when he compared to the best arrows he had seen… he would be embarrassed to be hit. Grand Elder Kseniya could kill him with any of a hundred arrows she fired in a few seconds, but his opponent wasn’t even close.

But he did have a strong power. Anton was only breaking his attacks at the weak points, but if he were to directly clash with the power he was fairly certain he would lose out. That meant the archer was at the peak of Spirit Building or… possibly in Essence Collection.

Just in time, Anton noticed something. “Nkiru! Behind you!”

To her credit, without even thinking about it she spun around, swinging a weapon that was something like a sword combined with an axe, a wide blade on the top with cutting edge all the way down the handle. Her attack barely managed to deflect an incoming stab by a thin sword- and that was only with Gustav’s reaction next to her, stabbing out with a spear to force the attacker to withdraw slightly. Stojan was injured, but he readied his own warhammer, very conservative in size but thus more able to concentrate the force of his blows.

With all the arrows being shot towards them, Anton had gotten a picture of the enemy archer’s position. To their credit, they weren’t just standing still in one spot… but they remained in one general area. Anton began to shoot back towards where they were, estimating where they might go from their previous spot. The fact that they had powerful energy that seeped through the illusion was also helping him to pick a spot. However, his own attacks were easily dealt with. The difference in power was becoming more apparent. He would need more.

Anton breathed deeply. The increase in density of energy at Essence Collection was certainly noticeable, but if it was just for a few shots… he could more than match it. He would just have to make them count.

-–Chapter Index–-