Until the very moment it sprang up, Anton had no idea they were walking into a formation. After it was activated, its boundaries were quite clear. A barrier in front and behind of them blocking their movement, and the more significant effects of increasing the pressure on them filling the whole area in between. Half of them stumbled at the sudden near-doubling of the weight on them. They could handle steady increases, but a sudden doubling was outside what they were prepared for.
Beyond the barrier- a transparent barrier that simply blocked them from moving forward- stood several figures. They had all seen Tonina pass that way, so her presence was no surprise. They also knew that Zvonko was present on the same island, and of course he had others from the Heavenly Lion Sect with him. But seeing Van Hassel and Slusser there was somewhat unexpected. Anton would have taken careful note of their arrival.
A light appeared in the darkness, and Van Hassel walked up to the barrier on the other side. He looked over the group, his eyes stopping on Devon. “Oh yes. I do vaguely remember that one.” Then his eyes turned to Anton. “You really are an old man. Quite strange. Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused me?”
“Not as much… as I should have…” It was difficult to talk with double the pressure. Van Hassel seemed unfazed where he was, of course. “Should have just killed you… at the tomb.”
“Perhaps you should have. But you won’t get that chance,” he smiled. “My companion here is a formation master, after all. You won’t be getting out of here alive.”
Slusser nodded, though his face wasn’t quite as relaxed as Van Hassel. He was clearly working to maintain the formation. There was sufficient energy for it to run, but keeping it steady was another matter. “Yes, you won’t be leaving. Our business partners were quite upset at what happened.” He looked beyond them, then at Chikere. She was currently slashing at the barrier, making it wobble but it still held firm. “That won’t work, you know. We hadn’t expected someone of your caliber to join up with them, but fortunately you came along with your own enemies. They delayed you long enough.”
Zvonko frowned, clutching his missing hand. “I’d love to defeat you personally for what you did to me, but this will have to do.”
Chikere slashed her sword towards him, causing him to step back even though she couldn’t pass the barrier. “Pfeh. Coward. I’ll cut off your other hand too, once we get out.” She turned to the rest of the group. “Hey why are you all just standing there? We need to break this formation!”
Everyone else looked to Catarina, who had a frown on her face. “Save your strength,” she said. “It won’t work like that.” She stepped forward, barely managing to raise her leg high enough to reach the stair just before the landing the group was watching from. Sweat dripped down her forehead. She was the primary part of their group, guiding how they resisted the pressure. The sudden doubling was even harder on her. “You said you’re… a formation master?”
“That’s right,” Slusser said. “I’ve spent decades perfecting my craft.”
“You ever… see anything by Everheart?”
“Yes. That man threw his bizarre formations around everywhere.”
Catarina slowly turned her head, the simple movement difficult. “Timothy. You remember… me talking about rebound?”
“Of course. I can’t say that I understood it all though.” Timothy kept his back as straight as possible as he stood next to her.
“Then could you please… stand there.” Catarina pointed to a spot only slightly off from where he was. Timothy nodded seriously and shifted the half step. “Grandpa…” Catarina pointed almost at the ceiling, somewhere over Slusser’s right shoulder. “There. As focused and strong as you can.” She held her sword at her side as she reached into her bag.
Anton raised his bow. He began to gather energy, forming an arrow. Even as he built up to what he felt was a fairly impressive amount, Slusser laughed. “You won’t shatter the formation with that little.” Though he wasn’t a master of formations himself, Anton knew that. To shatter a formation required overwhelming power. For a barrier of the sort in front of him, anything that didn’t break through would be a waste. Using up half of his remaining energy that he needed to keep himself from being crushed seemed pretty foolish… but only if he didn’t trust his family.
Everyone else tensed up as his arrow flew forward. Energy swirled around Catarina, gathered from the others. It latched onto the arrow as it struck the barrier- but instead of piercing through or breaking off, the barrier warped and stretched like cloth. The arrow slowed until it crawled to a halt… and then suddenly it rocketed backwards. As it did so the rest of the formation twisted, a portion of it directly in front of Timothy slamming towards him. His raised shield blocked it, but the downwards angle pushed him into the floor hard enough to crack the stairs he stood on. But as the barrier snapped back into position, it tore apart.
Catarina pulled her hand out of her bag, holding a dozen formation flags at the same time, throwing them into the opening. They spun around, twisting and pushing the barrier wide apart.
As the barrier opened, Anton realized why the group on the other side was standing so casually. They had been drawing the pressure away from their area specifically, not just amplifying the power of the tower. That made a significant difference, because at the same time as he suddenly felt half of the pressure lift off him they were hit with the full force of the pressure, and then some- and at a strange angle. Everyone who had been trapped was forced towards the opening, but the pressure that rocketed through shoved those on the other side backwards and up a flight of stairs.
Chikere didn’t have the experience with the group to be certain that whatever Catarina had asked for would work, but she was the fastest among them. As soon as she was through the barrier she charged forward, slashing towards Zvonko. Luckily for him, one of the others at his side reacted to deflect the attack for him so he only lost a finger instead of his whole hand.
Anton moved forward in formation with the others, his first arrow flying towards Slusser who was still a crumpled heap on the stairs. He’d intended to use it to force him into a weaker position, but he found his arrow pierced straight into the man’s elbow. Slusser flailed as he stood unsteadily onto his feet, glaring down at them. “How?!”
Catarina’s eyes were sharp as she looked at him. “If you’re a formation master… then you should know. You set up a formation inside a larger formation and didn’t even consider resonant backlash.”
Timothy and Hoyt charged as the front ranks of their group. Anton could see Timothy stumbling as he moved. There was no way the hit he took hadn’t broken at least an ankle, but Anton had to admire his determination. Then again, it was a life or death situation. If he didn’t push himself beyond reasonable limits, when would he? Though Anton supposed some people simply couldn’t. They were the ones who perished.
Chikere kept one of the members of the Heavenly Lion Sect busy as she continued to target Zvonko, while the other three of them moved to intercept the members of the Order. Even injured, Timothy engaged two of them and Hoyt another one along with Van Hassel, who wielded a large two-handed sword.. Slusser charged forward, wielding a large glaive he swung at Catarina, who dodged agilely. He was in late Spirit Building, but his movements seemed sluggish… from more than just the hit he’d just taken. Devon extended the chains from his scars, pushing the limits of the formation to reach for Tonina. She dodged most of them, but one extended particularly far and wrapped around her ankle, pulling her down the stairs towards them as its spikes dug into her flesh.
Though Hoyt and Timothy were pressed to their limits to fight two at once, their efforts left Anton and Velvet unengaged. Anton began firing arrow after arrow, happy to use up his remaining energy as quickly as he could. As he pulled on the energy of Fleeting Youth, he once again noticed the strange slowness of some people. Zvonko was about what he would expect, but Van Hassel and Slusser were clearly fighting below their capabilities. But as he saw their energy struggle against the pressure, he concluded his observations. An arrow went straight towards Van Hassel’s heart. He stepped back, up the stairs, but Anton diverted it to pierce into his hip. They had just arrived. Though they had to have one of the beads to get passage… it didn’t necessarily have to be something they earned. If someone else gave up theirs- or they stole them- they could enter the lower area without any experience moving and especially fighting under the pressure. Late Spirit Building cultivations might make up for some of that, but it severely disadvantaged them.
Even though she’d already fought a hard battle against two opponents earlier, Chikere maintained an oppressive aura as she continued to attack Zvonko and his defender. It almost seemed as if she was steering away from killing blows to target their hands- until one of the blades floating around her swept from a slash closer to his waist to suddenly target his neck. He swiftly shifted his energy and managed to keep his head from being severed, but blood flowed freely from his neck.
Velvet made her presence known to the two members of the Heavenly Lion Sect by stabbing her ‘twin’ daggers into their spines. One toppled to the ground, while the other managed to avoid the intended effect. He still had a five centimeter deep stab into his lower back, but it wasn’t immediately incapacitating. But as Timothy rushed forward towards him he had to throw himself away, wrenching the wound open even more.
Slusser’s formation was dust in the wind, completely having slipped from his control. However, Catarina continued to throw formation flags around her as he swung at her with his glaive. When a flag tried to move past him he swung his glaive to bat it out of the air- and found his weapon froze in place for a moment. At the same time, Catarina lunged forwards towards him and aimed a stab under his ribcage. He had to leap back, abandoning his glaive to its momentary lack of mobility. Catarina caught it and threw it behind her.
Though he’d been firing a number of arrows, Anton now focused on just one. He caught Van Hassel’s eye. “You don’t often have foes that can fight, do you?” The power of Fleeting Youth and everything but the last few percent of Anton’s internal energy combined into the arrow, streaking towards Van Hassel. The man twisted his sword to block, but Anton’s arrow drilled through it- Van Hassel’s energy was unable to properly support it with the pressure bearing down on him. Perhaps even more than a normal amount, based on the flags Catarina was throwing everywhere. The arrow continued forward into his chest, and out the back. It only managed to go through his lung and not the heart as Anton had hoped, but blood was coming out both sides- and flowing into the lung as well. That would have to do.
“How can you…” Van Hassel coughed. “It’s only been three years…”
“Three and a half.”
Van Hassel furrowed his brow, trying to figure out how a half year made a difference to cultivators. Then he collapsed onto his back.
Devon had Tonina completely wrapped in chains. He wrapped them around her arms, legs, head, neck, and many loops around her torso. He began to squeeze, dragging the spikes along her skin. He snarled as he did so… then he let the chains fade away. She flopped to the ground, barely conscious and only able to prevent herself from being crushed by the pressure.
“I hadn’t thought you would show mercy,” Anton commented.
Devon turned and smiled, “You think this is merciful? You have to learn to think like a stuck-up bitch. Actually, I was thinking we might cause a little trouble. Up for it?”
Devon turned towards Chikere and yelled. “We need him alive!”
She turned around as his other hand fell to the ground. “Um. Just alive, right?”
“Good. Because it’s too late for more than that.”