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Something disturbed the brush ahead. Alva readied her bow, drawing and nearly shooting before she saw what it was. However, when it started darting away she slowly released the tension on the string and lowered her bow. It was just a deer. If they needed to eat it would be fine to kill it, but they were intending to hunt aggressive beasts. Even if Fuzz sometimes ate a lot, he didn’t need a whole deer right now.
Alva scratched Fuzz behind the ears, reaching down in front of her specially made saddle to do so. “Good boy Fuzz. We don’t need to hunt that. See if you can find something else.”
Fuzz put his nose to the ground and was sniffling away rather quickly. He moved ahead at a pace the rest of the group could keep up with comfortably as they all scanned their surroundings for dangerous beasts. As they continued forward, Fuzz was the first to react. He growled at a large area of brush ahead, and everyone prepared themselves.
A few moments later a boar of similar size to Fuzz- head around chest height on a man- charged forward. Alva had hesitated slightly after the deer, but she quickly drew and fired her bow, coating the arrow in energy to increase its piercing power. Her arrow flew straight towards the beast’s head, glancing off the skull and sticking in its shoulder a finger deep. If she’d hit the eye it might be dead, but without an arrow through the brain a boar was bound to keep charging.
As the boar charged, Alva’s first instincts were to flinch away- but a proper archer would stay focused on her target. Fuzz had started running around to the side to give Alva a better angle as the boar reached the front lines. Gerd had positioned herself in front, a large two-handed hammer in her hands. With a great cracking sound it rang against the boar’s skull, imparting momentum that sent its charge to her side. Yet the boar still wasn’t down. Pete and Malcolm were on the other side of Gerd so they couldn’t use their primary weapons, but Pete threw a dart into the hindquarters of the boar.
Two more arrows went into its side by the time the boar properly turned around as Fuzz tried to keep pace parallel to it. The boar seemed indecisive about who it should attack, but settled for Malcolm with his shield and shortspear. However, even with that name a shortspear still had decent reach- and Malcolm was able to stab his spear into the creature’s chest before it was close enough to gore him. Its momentum carried them both along together, but the solid blow to its heart laid the boar to rest.
“Good,” Pete commented. “If we can handle something like this, we should be able to handle most of the things in this area safely. Don’t get careless, though. Sometimes beasts wander into different areas where they don’t belong. Any rewards aren’t worth it if any of us get injured.”
“I agree,” Alva said. “I don’t want to see Fuzz or anyone hurt again.” If she was more accurate with her shots, she could help that more. If a beast never got close, it couldn’t harm anyone. Though they also needed the battle experience to grow stronger properly, so she should probably let her allies face some danger. It was difficult to keep both in mind in the right amount. Cultivation was hard, but she never thought it would be easy to be like great-grandpa Anton.
Everyone breathed in and out at a steady pace, feeling their own cultivations and checking for problems. What did they need to grow stronger? Besides just time and energy to temper themselves, of course. Some of the people in the training group were talking, discussing problems they had encountered while others remained available to provide help where they had expertise. Though nobody was significantly more advanced in cultivation, they all had insights to share with each other. Some things that seemed obvious to one person wouldn’t be so to another.
Then the peaceful atmosphere was disrupted. Lev staggered onto the scene, his one ‘good’ arm bound and in a sling in front of his chest. Eyes were drawn to him as he sat down heavily.
“What happened?” Anton asked.
“The Heavenly Lion Sect. I was heading to the trapped corridor to train when I was stopped by two of their cronies. They said something stupid about it being reserved. Of course, they couldn’t just attack me so I didn’t think anything of it and started moving through the corridor. I didn’t expect them to throw things to set off extra traps around me.”
“Hmm,” Anton frowned. “I hadn’t expected the rules to be so easily exploitable.”
“I saw them there earlier, too,” said one of the independent cultivators, “I was too afraid to upset them.”
“I would appreciate it if everyone reports similar matters,” Anton said. “We may not have more than a temporary connection with each other, but I think we can all agree we wouldn’t like to have people interfere with our training.” Anton looked to Lev, “Any other details you can provide?”
Lev nodded, “They seemed fairly careful not to get their attacks too close to me. So they still seemed to be wary of the limitations.”
Frost was creeping over the scene, present from all three of the Frostmirror Sect but surprisingly focused around Diana who prided herself on control. “Those arrogant bastards.”
“We should be wary of such tactics,” Anton said, “But I’m not sure if we should seek further conflict. Lev, what do you think?”
Lev shook his head, “We don’t have the people to have them stand around at all hours of the day ready to cause trouble. I’d like to get revenge somehow though. Can’t just shove them onto the traps, though. Some people have tested the limits for what counts as an attack, and it can be pretty strict. Apparently they ended up with injuries for a few days as a ‘warning’”
“Is there no projection in that area?” Anton asked. “It does seem like a circumvention of Everheart’s rules. He might tacitly allow it, but we should bring it to the attention of the projections anyway.”
“Can’t be bothered,” the projection in charge of a different area said. “The traps take care of themselves following the rules. Deal with it yourself.”
“Very well,” Anton said and looked to Lev. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think letting them go without retaliation is reasonable,” Lev said. “I only imagine they’ll get worse.”
Anton nodded. “I can spare a few hours,” Anton said. “What are the chances they have people in that training room?”
“Pretty high,” Lev said.
“Then let us go.”
“Thanks,” Lev said. “I’d rely on other members of the Grasping Willows, but we aren’t really a match.”
“What about retaliation later?”
Lev shook his head, “They’re causing trouble for us here and now. And there’s an unspoken rule to keep conflicts in places like this restricted to just this area. Of course, that doesn’t happen- but dealing with a later grudge is better than being walked on now.”
“Of course I agree,” Anton said, “I just wanted to make sure you’d thought about it.”
“Should we follow?” Hoyt asked.
“If I don’t make any mistakes, I shouldn’t be able to be harmed,” Anton said. “But if you wish to show solidarity, I would not mind help.”
“I’ll come too,” Catarina said.”
“Might as well make this a semi-official Ninety-Nine Stars stance, right?” Velvet asked.
“We should probably inform the others first,” Anton said, “Even if we make the declaration as our training group, it will affect them. Then again, people are already beginning to cause trouble anyway. Everyone’s getting antsy about the end.”
After finding as many people as they could to spread the word, the group found their way to the trap corridor. “Passage is forbidden,” said two large men, standing menacingly. With that said, neither of them were in Spirit Building so the intimidation factor was minimal.
“I am aware of your declarations,” Anton said. He just stood there looking down the hallway.
“That means leave,” one of them said.
“Go ahead,” Anton gestured. “Make me.”
The two guards turned to each other then harrumphed, as if they were simply choosing to ignore him instead of being unable to do anything.
When another cultivator showed up and was told passage was forbidden, Anton explained what they meant. “The Heavenly Lion Sect has decided to declare war on everyone else and is setting off the traps when anyone else tries to pass,” Anton said. “That’s what they actually mean, but they’re too cowardly to admit it.”
“That’s not-” “We-”
“If you’re not cowards,” Lev said, “We can duel right now. To the death, if you want.” Lev still had his normally useful arm strapped to his side and glared at the guards.
They chose to keep their mouths closed. The difference between Spirit Building and late Body Tempering was enough that they weren’t confident.
The cultivator shook his head and left. Shortly after that, another member of the Heavenly Lion Sect arrived. “Passage is forbidden,” Anton said.
“Not to us it isn’t,” said the two guards.
Anton shrugged, “I guess not then. It seems the Heavenly Lion Sect owns this area now.” He turned around and stepped away.
“That’s right,” said the early Spirit Building member. “You’d better know your place.”
Anton continued walking away until the man started down the actually trapped part of the corridor. He was dealing it much the same way as the others, quickly moving to avoid the traps. Once he was about a third of the way, Anton spun around and fired five arrows in quick succession, passing the man and hitting traps slightly in front of him. Unfortunately only two triggered, but an unexpected blade and a gout of flame in front of the man left him with slight scorch marks and a cut along one arm.
“I changed my mind,” Anton said. “If passage is forbidden, I would prefer for it to be universally enforced.”
The cultivator had stopped retreating slightly to reach a safe area down the corridor. “Do you realize what you are doing?” he said.
“Do you?” Anton asked. “You chose to attack others first.” Before giving him any time to respond, he continued firing arrows at tiles all around the man. While technically going backwards was safe, Anton was able to trigger any trap in front of him. Assuming it passed the random chance involved.
The cultivator from the Heavenly Lion Sect made a mad dash back towards the entrance. Even as quickly as Anton could fire arrows- with some of the others tossing darts and ranged weapons as well- it was only slightly more dangerous than the traps the man could trigger normally. The only difference was they could trigger in front of him instead of at his location. When he arrived he had at least half of his ribs broken and numerous cuts and some poisons. He looked as if he was going to attack, but thought better of it and immediately began binding his wounds. Then he left in a staggering huff.
The two guards just sweated nervously, unable to do anything but also unwilling to leave. Anton smiled at them. “There, nice and fair I’m sure you agree.” Less than a quarter hour later, someone entered the corridor from the far end. After sensing that they were indeed a member of the Heavenly Lion Sect, Anton shouted at them. “Corridor’s closed! You have to stay there forever now!”
“He’s serious!” Yelled one of the guards, “And crazy!”
The cultivator at the end ignored Anton’s words, simply raising his energy at mid Spirit-Building. He began calmly walking towards Anton… who immediately made use of the best techniques of Thousand Arrows. Since he didn’t even have to cause real damage, he was capable of rapidly firing continuously without worrying about running out of energy. The only thing he needed to do was impart proper speed to his Spirit Arrows, and enough force to trigger a pressure plate.
The cultivator from the Heavenly Lion Sect apparently had a trick in mind, as he lunged towards some of Anton’s arrows- but Anton had already anticipated that possibility. He didn’t want to find out if that counted as him attacking, and so he wasn’t going to. He was quite capable of redirected his arrows in flight, or just erasing them from existence if necessary. Explosions and poisons and blades surrounded the man- and Anton was really starting to get a sense of timing for optimal placement of arrows. He could also cover the entire width of the hallway, whereas a person running down it would normally only trigger one. Even if they triggered none themselves on the way back, the danger was five or more times as high.
The cultivator retreated to the end of the corridor before even making it a third of the way. There was a standoff between them for half of an hour, and a half dozen other cultivators came with the intention of entering the training areas. A crowd built up at both ends of the corridor as everyone finished cultivating and wouldn’t be allowed out by Anton.
Sensing many people building up, even just curious onlookers came to watch. Eventually things got to the point where one of the two top cultivators in the training area came. He was in late Spirit Building- close to the peak and breaking through to Essence Collection, in fact. “What the hell is going on here?”
The Heavenly Lion Sect members at the far end of the corridor were the first to shout overlapping complaints. They all summed up to Anton blocking their way. By setting of the traps.
“Is that true?” Anton felt a pressure of a strong aura bearing down on him.
Anton stared unblinkingly at the man. He practiced the cultivation technique of Glorious Flame Palace. There weren’t many people at his level. Anish was his name, if Anton recalled correctly. “I was just helping them enforce their own rules. The Heavenly Lion Sect declared passage forbidden quite vehemently,” he gestured to Lev. “So I was simply making sure it applied to their sect as well.”
The man’s eyes landed on the two ‘guards’ still standing in their positions. “Speak.”
“It wasn’t our idea!” they immediately caved. “Senior Brother Zvonko came up with the idea, and others agreed! We were just told to do it.”
Anish slammed a fist into the wall, fire bursting from around the impact point. It very carefully weaved its way around everyone, but the intent was clear. “Enough! There won’t be any more of this foolishness,” he gestured to the guards, “On either side,” he glared at Anton.
“I wouldn’t have had to do this if they weren’t the instigators,” Anton said. “If anyone continues to try anything like this, I’ll be matching them.”
“I said enough,” Anish stood over Anton.
Anton just met his gaze. “I don’t intend to start anything, but I won’t let people off without retaliation. If you disagree, you can complain to my sect elders when we get out of here. I’m not going to count on Glorious Flame Palace to enforce things.”
“Good.” Anish snorted, “You’d better not start anything.” He put his finger as close to pressing on Anton’s chest as he could without actually doing so.
With all of that, the crowd dispersed- Anton and the others left first, because if anyone planned to monopolize that training area they would have to reach the far end, where they were in the worst position to retreat. Though Anish had declared an end to ‘foolishness’, Anton knew that there would certainly be more conflicts coming.