Three youths desperately faced off against a cultivator that outmatched them individually. Nkiru, Gustav, and the injured Stojan held their ground against the quick blade of the cultivator attacking them, doing their best to maintain their defense. Eventually they would be worn down, but they could hope that the other battles would finish in their favor and relief would come.
Hein and the younger Caeus and Printza were fighting the cultivator with daggers, who was still maintaining an illusion that made it difficult to keep track of his precise movements. With Hein matching him in power the two younger cultivators were able to slowly push that battle in their favor.
That left the most difficult situation of all. Anton faced off against an opposing archer. Not only could he not actually see his opponent, but he had the feeling that they were in Essence Collection. That only placed them a few steps in cultivation above him, but with the barrier between Spirit Building and Essence Collection it amounted to significantly more power wielded in an instant, and larger reserves.
Anton’s body worked tirelessly. His legs were constantly repositioning him to try to find some measure of cover while still remaining in a position to intercept incoming attacks for the others. His upper body was more important for archery, his fingers and hands pulling the string on his hollowreed bow as it snapped forward with every shot. His arms and especially his back worked to provide the power necessary. Though each only contributed a small amount, he wore gloves, boots, and an undershirt that amplified his movements slightly. As enchanted equipment went, everything else together was not close in value to his bow.
Slowly, one shot at a time, Anton honed in on his opponent. The archer was well within the range of Horizon Shot, so even if they were somewhat concealed his senses kept something of a lock. Enough to counter them. Gradually, Anton moved closer- though he was vigilant of any arrows trying to slip past him. Whenever they did, he did his best to shoot them out of the air with the minimum amount of effort on his part.
He was already falling behind in remaining energy, though the real issue would be once his opponent got fully serious and not a battle of endurance. If they chose to make a few fully powered shots, he couldn’t possibly face them head on. Unless he was prepared with the energy of Fleeting Youth. But that took time. Not much, but it was a step further away than his own internal energy reserves.
The rocky forest in between himself and his opponent was hardly a barrier to either of them, arrows twisting between the trees with little regard for them. But just because they could shoot around them didn’t mean there was no effect at all. As Anton began to enter the area, his opponent would find it harder to target him precisely.
As they continued to fight, his opponent’s illusion began to fade. He wasn’t sure if that was on purpose, to conserve energy, or simply because they were distracted. Regardless, he kept his focus. Spirit Arrows flew one at a time or in small groups, tracking through the air towards a moving target.
Anton considered his other options. While Spirit Arrows were quite effective, removing the need for a physical form to project his energy onto, he still had a small selection of arrows for special occasions. The blood seeking arrow had been one of those, but it would be less useful here, where his opponent would be prepared to counter his attack.
A few barbed arrows, though the usefulness of an arrow that caused more damage when removed was debatable when he could just leave an open hole with a Spirit Arrow anyway.
As for Fleeting Youth, he could manage three good shots. If he tried to stretch out the energy into smaller doses, it wouldn’t keep its main benefit over his regular energy- high density and power. He wasn’t interested in a few dozen extra shots if they had the same impact as the rest.
Shoot. Dodge. Parry an arrow with his bow. More arrows to either side to stop attacks targeted at the younger folk with them. Anton found that odd. While shooting at his allies to throw him off was a perfectly reasonable tactic, the shots seemed too focused on them. If this archer was willing to commit to a serious attack and could injure Hein, the battle would greatly shift in their favor.
Anton planned to finish the battle before that happened. It wasn’t a question of whether he thought he could defeat an Essence Collection cultivator by himself. He had to, so he would. His first of three shots with the power of ascension energy was gathered and released. It took a more direct trajectory to the enemy archer, ignoring several trees directly in the way as it drove a small hole through them.
The hole it made in his opponent was somewhat more disappointing, but Anton at least felt a sense of accomplishment at piercing through his opponent’s energy, even if he only managed a shallow wound. Maybe those barbed arrows would matter after all.
Another shot. The energy of Fleeting Youth formed around Anton’s Spirit Arrow, but it was in fact a normal shot. His opponent was already dodging out of the way when he released the actual shot an instant later with a barbed arrow, taking advantage of their heated movement.
They took a page from Anton’s own book, though with more exaggeration. A great amount of energy gathered on their bow as his own arrow approached, and the enemy archer swung the bow like an axe, battering the condensed energy apart and cutting through some of the surrounding trees. It was excessive, but clearly they could handle an attack on that level. Which left Anton quite concerned. He could hope that his opponent could only manage something like that once, but hoping wasn’t a sound tactic.
Anton began to fire more irregular patterns of arrows, shooting from the front but also having his shots circling around. By varying speeds he matched up the time they would arrive to strike his opponent, trying to find a weakness in their movements. They were no Kseniya, but he was unable to land a critical blow.
Then a response came, stronger than any other before it. A great bundle of energy. Even before it left the bow Anton was on the move, trying to put as many trees between himself and that arrow as he could. He spotted a few good ones, tougher than their average counterparts. They would make fine bows, or anything else. Too bad. They exploded out the back as the arrow pierced through, some of them fully snapping in half. And the arrow kept coming, curving at least as fast as Anton could move.
Even as he ran, Anton fired back. He couldn’t afford to target his opponent, instead hitting the arrow with every shot, hoping to destabilize it more than overpower it. He might have been partly successful, but it continued on without ceasing. Could he counter it with his last portion of Fleeting Youth? Perhaps, but if he did so he would be left with nothing else. And the other battles were not going so well he could afford to rely on them or stall.
At the last instant, Anton stopped his movements. He gathered energy around himself and his axe, hardening it as he held his bow in his left hand. Golden Armor wasn’t meant for protecting an axe, but Anton had more practical experience manipulating his energy around his weapons than around his own body. He wasn’t crazy enough to strike the arrow head on, but he felt the timing. He swung up from below, intending to deflect it up even as he ducked himself down.
It almost felt like slow motion. He was pushing himself to his very limits, and while it was admittedly much slower than any of Grand Elder Kseniya’s arrows it was still the fastest arrow that had actually tried to kill him. But his axe came up, striking just behind the head and driving it up at an angle. It deflected slightly, but he wasn’t sure it was enough. He felt his axe shatter even without striking the shot head on, and pain. But he didn’t seem to be dead.
In fact, the pain was only in his shoulder. Anton couldn’t spend long taking stock of the situation, as a half dozen smaller arrows were already on their way. He grabbed the string on his bow and began to pull back, but found no resistance. And then he realized that the bowshaft was cut in two, about three quarters of the way up. He wondered if that had been the real target all along… though perhaps the shot had been intended to do that and kill him.
It wasn’t too hard to chop a few arrows out of the air with an axe, but there was no way Anton was going to get close enough to use it to kill the enemy archer. Even if he had been fresh and full of energy it would be a foolish idea. Especially given how they sliced through a layer of trees around them without a blade. Too much power there.
What else could he do? Well, there was one option left. He had one more bow. But he could barely shoot it. So he would have to make the one shot count. He basically upended his storage bag to get out the bone bow, not having time to fiddle around with the contents to get something sunk towards the bottom. A moment later he had the bow in hand, though it still had no string.
Anton drew a blood seeking arrow. Though its tracking feature was unnecessary, the very fact that it was enchanted gave it a bit more power and durability. It would be a waste of the price if he had another option, but he didn’t.
The fact that the bow had no string was not as big of a deal as it had once been. He had long been aware he could form a string out of energy, and it even willingly attached energy at either end. It seemed intended for that, but drawing the bow was still at the limit of his strength.
All of the remaining power of Fleeting Youth and as much of his internal energy as he could rally were gathered together for one final shot. The string on the bow had exactly the properties he wanted, and it only had to hold together for the one shot. His muscles stretched to their limits as he pulled back, trying to minimize his energy expenditure on just the draw.
Then the arrow was released, and he was flying forward. His opponent had clearly felt the shot coming, and was more focused on handling his own defenses than shooting at Anton- or anyone else. Though it was only a short moment before the arrow arrived anyway.
Anton saw his opponent’s face for the first time, as he approached. Nothing special, just someone he would have taken for a grump and otherwise ignored on the street. Not that there was a particular look for people who were willing to attack random cultivators without even giving any demands.
The face was confident. He could obviously tell that Anton had expended the last of himself in the shot, and he held his bow with two hands, gripping the bottom of the shaft once more. Some sort of bone, Anton gathered, though he had no time to compare it to his own bow. Then bow and arrow collided. A moment later, he was bathed in blood, and then nothing more.
Anton reached up to his forehead. Good. He wasn’t actually bathed in blood. He had a few wounds he’d picked up, but nothing covering him. Unfortunately, he could see his opponent still standing through the gaps in the trees.
They looked at each other. Anton held up his bow, trying to find more strength he could dredge up. Did he need to use Candle Wax? The loss of lifespan would limit his chance of reaching the later stages of cultivation. He was already close enough to the threshold to train Fleeting Youth adequately.
But those were unnecessary thoughts. He needed to fight and win. Then his eyes finally told his brain what they were seeing. The enemy archer straightened his back, turning his bow… but it was in two neat halves. Spurts of dark red mixed with black energy poured out of the man’s sternum. He seemed to only realize that when he reached for an arrow and saw blood on his hands. Then he fell over, and Anton was able to see the wide hole in his back.
Fantastic. But the rest of the battle was still going on behind him.