After a fall from a great height, Tonina Potenza was barely able to move around. One of her ankles was broken, along with one arm- though the arm wasn’t going to be doing much anyway with her wrists bound. She didn’t know how people moved around with broken limbs, cultivators or not. People said that in the most desperate times people could overcome anything, but she just couldn’t. Moving quickly just hurt too much. So she staggered along, trying to use one leg as little as possible. She had to leave. To live. She was too important to die in a stupid battle or be executed.
She just had to get away. She almost made it to the outer wall after having fallen far too close to the middle of the battle. Just a couple more steps. Then she was yanked backwards.
“You won’t be going anywhere, young woman. You still have to face your crimes.”
She tried her best to glare at the old man, but she mostly just winced as she accidentally put her weight on her bad ankle. She didn’t want to see his face ever again. She got her wish, but only because she was suddenly facing the last sight of her life- a giant claw formed out of energy.
Anton was aware that many people present in the battle would want to kill him. That was why he’d done his best to stay away from the center of the battle- because although he was the one with the direct connection to the issues at hand, things went well beyond the squabbles with Zvonko and even the raiding by Van Hassel. To that end, he’d thought himself as safe as he could get in his current position. He was, perhaps, half right.
When he felt something coming up behind him, he didn’t hesitate to throw Tonina between himself and the attack. Some of those participating seemed to have deemed her to be of some actual importance, so he thought it should make them hesitate. Instead, the attack barely slowed as giant claws cut through chains and a sturdy body that had surpassed the initial Body Tempering realm. That gave him just enough time to call upon his strongest defenses which he rarely had to use. Golden Armor wasn’t practical in most cases because it took a significant expenditure of energy, and dodging or deflecting attacks was more effective. But when the attack came so quickly and encompassed everywhere he could consider dodging, he needed it.
He was sent flying backwards through a half-standing portion of wall. That was the good news, because it meant that he hadn’t been chopped into little pieces. There was a gouge across his chest, a little below where he had a much thinner scar, but the gouge didn’t even make it all the way through his ribs. A laughable caveat, considering the amount of damage he sustained.
Something almost yanked the bow out of his hand as he tumbled backwards, somehow coming to rest on his feet. There was no chance of him getting a successful hit on a Life Transformation expert like Enid Galli, but he couldn’t possibly get away either. So he wrapped his bow in energy to achieve the greatest effect he could, trying to amplify the twang of the string and the snap of the limbs. He thought he did pretty well, but the Spirit Arrow that flew forward had worse momentum than most of those he had shot recently. So much for trying new things in the heat of battle. And a giant cat was leaping towards him, with the figure of an old woman buried inside the form.
Anton prayed for a well placed meteor, but none came. But even as he dodged backwards- completely certain he wouldn’t get out of the range of the attack- the attacker stopped. Not of their own volition, but forcefully. He saw a bloody tornado wrapping around not just the arms and legs of the forceful lioness, but also the person herself in the middle.
The bloody tornado howled and screeched. “You killed my target you bitch!” Enid Galli was flung backwards while the tornado pushed off in the opposite direction. An enormous palm wrapped around the midsection of the cat as Grand Elder Vandale stepped forward. Several small stars flew towards the retreating tornado even as it fluttered over Anton’s head, but they seemed to have little effect.
The lioness struggled as the giant hand held tight, swinging towards where a wrist or arm would be but finding no purchase. By the time she managed to target the hand itself, scratching it, she was being spun around- then tossed into the air directly towards an incoming star. The flames washed over her, wiping away the construct of energy and leaving behind only a charred corpse and some remnants of enchanted armor.
Anton watched Vandale’s gaze follow the bloody tornado, but he ultimately turned towards the rest of the battlefield. Without a late Life Transformation expert blocking him, Vandale was able to rain destruction down on the enemies of the Order unimpeded.
He looked down at the wound on his own chest. He’d need to deal with that. And his bow… the string was snapped in two. For a moment he thought he’d broken it when he tried to augment it too much, but then he realized it had been broken before then. Any effects of the string propelling his arrow forward had been purely through the use of energy. In that case, he found the results quite acceptable.
Before experimenting with that more, he needed to stop the blood flowing from his chest and sit down for a while, maybe get someone to knit the muscles on his chest back together. He was no longer able to contribute to the battle anyway- mostly because enemies were being defeated as fast as he could consider targeting them.
Some cultivators risked themselves on big battles, going all out for giant gains. Soan was more of the type to take the easy jobs. Anything that paid enough he could buy himself something nice, some good booze or women or both. Sneaking across a border with everyone distracted? Easy. Everyone who was going to look for him was either somewhere else or chasing after intruders. That left only the easy targets left.
Unfortunately, the first village he came to was empty. Not a single person or animal in the houses. He broke open a barrel of wine, but found it wasn’t ready yet. There wasn’t much worth taking, so he broke a couple things and left. The next village and the third were also empty.
He finally came upon a lone farmstead with actual people. A middle aged man and woman but nobody else. Soan considered just killing them and moving on, but he was more than a handful of kilometers into Graotan now. He could vaguely feel the battle off in the distance, which already meant he was way too close. But he would get paid extra for bringing people back. Someone with a big grudge against Graotan as a whole, apparently. The two wouldn’t be much good as slaves, but he picked them up anyway and started heading back for the border.
Every step took him further from the battle, and he was feeling quite happy with his little expedition by the time he was crossing the border. The Iron Ring wasn’t so happy to take random slaves now because of some whole mess they got into, but they had already rigged up a system to falsify someone’s origin. Of course, they passed the costs onto those doing the actual work. But this time he was getting paid a set fee no matter quality or anything else, so he didn’t care. It was enough to live it up for a few months.
Crossing the border was easy, of course. Wide open land with no other cultivators around… except maybe a few on the same sort of job as him. He made his way into Veron before nightfall. He flashed the guards at the gates a little badge he had to show he was ‘legitimate’ and made his way to the Iron Ring- well, a back alley nearby. He knocked on a shadowed door. “I’m here for the deal.”
The man waiting inside opened the door and poked his head out. “Good. Nobody followed you, of course?”
“Nobody from the Order even got within five kilometers of me. Now can we finish this up? I’m sure whoever wants these guys needs ‘em quick.”
The man didn’t say much, but handed over a coin purse. Soan hefted it, sensing it with his energy. Everything seemed good. He stepped out into the alley and started walking away. Now, what was he going to spend this on? Could be anything. But wherever he went, it had to be somewhere warm. The damn streets were cold today.
Too cold. Like ice. Crawling up his legs and down his fingers. Covering his mouth and eyes. And whispering in his ear.
“You were right, you know,” the voice said. “Nobody from the Order even got close. But that doesn’t mean nobody did. And other people have reasons to prevent illegal slave trading.” The figure of a tall woman- he presumed- stepped in front of Soan, her shape barely visible through the layers of ice. “Now then, you have two options. First, you can comply peacefully. Testify about who hired you and you could possibly even save your life. Or… you can have your extremities frozen off one at a time until you comply.”
Soan didn’t speak a peep. Though he was sure trying. If the crazy ice woman asked him to sing like a bird, he’d damn well do it. He liked his extremities.
“I’ll presume that’s a yes.” His stiff body was lifted into the air. “I’ll just put you with the others for now.”
Devon sat next to Anton on a pile of rubble, looking at a bloody mess on the ground. “Are you sure that’s her?” Devon asked.
“That, or that one there,” Anton gestured nearby. “Maybe both.”
“Hmm. Not as satisfying as I had hoped.”
Anton shrugged, “You knew that already though. You’re not just a kid, after all.”
“Yeah… but I kind of hoped. At least it seems like things went well here.”
Indeed, things had gone well, for a small war. Hundreds of people were dead, with the balance of those deaths leaning away from the Order. But that didn’t mean nobody was dead. Some more experienced disciples and some of the elders had given their lives, and on other battlefields Anton knew many youths would lie dead, no matter how the Order tried to prepare. It was likely that some common civilians were dead as well, though the refugee camp had been sufficiently defended that they were unharmed there.
Anton slowly stood to his feet. “I need to go meet with someone.”
Devon nodded as he walked away. “Take care.”
It only took a few minutes for Anton to find his destination. It was a simple tent that felt empty, but was guarded by several powerful figures. “I’d like to see Grand Elder Vandale, please.”
The guards stood there, expressionless and unanswering while clearly blocking the way- but a voice came from inside. “Just let him in.”
The first time Anton had met Vandale, he felt powerful like the sun- even as he was drained. This time, the pressure of a formation keeping vast amounts of energy inside the area nearly overwhelmed him but Vandale himself felt more like a flickering candle. “Thank you for saving me.”
“I almost didn’t,” Vandale said weakly. “Though nor for lack of trying. A single burst takes a lot out of me… a sustained fight even more so.
Anton looked around the tent. The flow of energy was uneven as various crystals produced it, simply swamping the room. “You should have Catarina come here. She’d have this place filling you up smoothly in an instant.”
“Hah,” Vandale sighed, “That might be so. The formation masters among the sect speak highly of her. But while I can bear to show myself like this to an old soul like yourself, I have to keep up appearances for the youngsters.”
Anton nodded. “Perhaps you should. Is this…” he shook his head, “I hadn’t thought things would end up going to this extent.”
“It was bound to happen anyway. Except if we did nothing, we wouldn’t have been prepared for it. It’s not over quite yet, though.”
“Will they really come back?”
“Who?” Vandale raised a bushy eyebrow, the one above his remaining eye. “The Heavenly Lion Sect? They don’t have so many people to spare that they can throw away more. And outside of their defensive formations, they stand no chance now. Not that they did before, they just presumed… that I wouldn’t be here. And they’ll be wrong about that once more.”
“… you’re going to attack them?” Anton asked, though he was fairly certain about the answer.
“I only have a few battles left in me. Might as well do the world a favor before I go.”
Anton nodded. “I understand.”
“Not going to beg me to save my strength?”
“What for?” Anton asked. “It would only make everyone unhappy. I’ve seen that look before.” In the mirror, mostly.
“There are others left who can defend the Order,” Vandale said. “And I’ll make anyone else with ideas think thrice before they consider an attack. Though the activity here indicated we still have a weakness.”
“The civilians. But they could be stronger.”
“I believe you,” Vandale said. “You don’t have long for your project, though.”
“Really?” Anton asked. “What is it? How long?”
“I’m not sure. No more than a few decades,” Vandale smiled toothily, “A blink of an eye in the cultivation world. But something big has to be coming. Things like this, cultivators like you and the other… they don’t come about in every generation. But when they do, it’s usually before a disaster.” Vandale coughed slightly, “Sometimes that’s the generation itself, but often it’s something else. Of course, it may be unconnected. If there wasn’t a bright young generation to face off against the next wave of threats… maybe things would just end. It happens to small sects all the time. And apparently large ones. The Luminous Ocean Society… disappeared from history.”
“Everheart seems to have had some idea. He left notes there.”
“Yes, of course he knew. Or at least wanted people to think he did- but in this case I’d bet on the former. But he’s dead now.”
“Or ascended,” Anton pointed out.
“If that bastard ascended and I didn’t make it, I’m going to strangle him in the afterlife!” Vandale growled.
“I thought you didn’t even really know him,” Anton said. He also didn’t mention that if Vandale went to the afterlife- whatever sort it was, if it existed- it probably wouldn’t have Everheart there. Especially not if he ascended.
“It’s the principle of the thing,” Vandale said.
Anton nodded. “I have a question. About your Falling Stars technique.”
“Oh, asking about my personal technique now?” Vandale smiled. “Go ahead. Ask.”
“Do you drop the stars from the sky to accelerate them with gravity?”
“It’s not just that. It also produces a nice effect. But yes, I take advantage of gravity. I find that flinging each and every one myself is much less efficient.”
“Hmm.” Anton didn’t have much else to say.
“I can show you how I do it,” Vandale offered. “Later.”
“I’m not sure I’d properly learn it,” Anton said.
“I don’t mind if you just steal the best bits,” Vandale said.
“In that case, I’d like to try. Though I doubt I’ll achieve any success at my current cultivation.”
Vandale shook his head. “Not so much. It’s not even really practical in Essence Collection. But there are some tricks that help. Might as well teach it to somebody. A few have tried to learn in the past… and one refused. Though I suppose he had a good point. We don’t need any more of me.”