Heavy blades, warhammers, and even spears weren’t meant to face off against quick swords. Gustav’s spear had enough reach to barely keep their superior opponent at bay, the three cultivators struggling against a single more powerful opponent.
Only a small amount of effort could be taken on their part to watch the battle happening next to Gustav and the two others, where Hein, Caeus, and Printza were keeping another opponent on the back foot. They couldn’t quite ignore that battle, because it could easily spill over to where they were.
As for the battle between archers, they didn’t have the capacity to keep track of everything happening there. Yet there were some things they couldn’t ignore. As they felt the energy of an Essence Collection cultivator, Nkiru and Stojan trembled along with Gustav. They were dead. It was only a matter of time.
Gustav wasn’t willing to give up, managing a solid blow to the man he was fighting, not quite breaking through his energy defenses but staggering him back for a moment. The others remained fighting as well, but Stojan had been injured by the first arrow and Nkiru had several slashes and puncture wounds as she tried to keep the other two behind her.
The battle between the archers didn’t end as quickly as they thought it would. It wasn’t that the Essence Collection cultivator was conserving energy, but the old man- Anton was quite a bit older than Hein, their hired guard- made an attack that was far beyond what any of them could expect. Was it some sort of life saving treasure? Or maybe a forbidden technique. If any of them had any of those things they would gladly make use of them, but they just had to hold their own.
Another clash went in the favor of the enemy Essence Collection cultivator, and then a following attack made Gustav look over at the battle. The old man’s bow was sundered. That was the end then. Or it seemed that way, until a moment later he upended his storage bag and pulled another bow out of the pile. He couldn’t watch, his eyes once again locked on his target, but he heard it. The shot fired from that bow almost made Gustav deaf. And he wasn’t the only one surprised.
In fact, their opponent was one step more surprised by the Essence Collection cultivator’s defeat. Enough for Nkiru to take advantage of a slight opening, swinging her top-heavy axe-like weapon into his side and actually drawing blood. Obviously it was meant to have gone much deeper than it did, but it still forced the man to draw back. And then he turned to run.
Two arrows whisked past the man’s head, but what finally finished him off was a bolt of lighting from the sky. Hein’s arm was outstretched, the metal rod in his hand pointed like a spear. “I can’t believe how long it took the storm to get here. Felt like an eternity.”
The bolt of lightning didn’t immediately kill the man, but Hein and the other two had already finished up the opponent they’d been fighting- his head was caved in to the point his face wasn’t recognizable. And it was probably not an illusion.
Hein caught up to the fleeing man as the arrows he had to dodge slowed him significantly. He swung his metal staff up from below as the man turned to face him, but he raised his thin sword high to try to parry an incoming arrow. It brushed around his defense and struck him straight in the eye… or at least the energy defenses over his eye. The arrow didn’t even seem to leave a mark. But the staff coming up dislocated the man’s shoulder, broke ribs, and shocked him once more, sending him spasming onto the ground where Hein brought his staff down right onto his head, neck, and then torso repeatedly.
Anton slowly let out his breath, letting the bow formed entirely of energy in his hands fade away. It didn’t require that much power to fire Spirit Arrows that were basically ‘empty’. But to the best of his ability they still felt real, which caused the man to take them seriously. Fortunately Hein capitalized on the situation.
Unless he was greatly mistaken, all of their opponents were now dead. The first thing they had to do was take care of their various wounds. Anton had managed to avoid anything terribly detrimental to his combat ability, but he was losing blood. He strode over to the pile of stuff he’d dumped out and sifted through it for his medical supplies. A few poultices to help with bleeding and bandages.
He also took a few energy recovery pills. Despite what some people believed, they weren’t of much use in combat. They were too slow to provide any benefit, and you had to devote a portion of your energy to breaking them down and integrating their energy into your own.
Everyone gathered together to discuss what had happened. Hein spoke of what he knew first- or rather what he didn’t know. “I couldn’t find any direct markings for any sort of sect,” he said. “They all felt connected somehow, but the two I searched only had a few generic technique manuals on them. Anyone have more?”
Anton shook his head, “I don’t recognize anything about them, but I agree with the assessment that their core cultivation method might have been the same. I also noticed they tried to target the young ones, and I don’t feel it was to take out combat power before killing the two of us. It was like their goal all along.” Anton held up his hands, “Not that I think that it’s any of them in particular. We all know about the recent attacks.”
“That was why we formed a group and hired Hein,” Caeus acknowledged. “I never thought we’d actually be attacked though. You were the only reason we survived. And we had you help pay for Hein’s services…”
Anton shrugged, “Likewise, I wouldn’t have survived without the rest of you. And Hein wouldn’t be traveling if it wasn’t for the job. So I think everything turned out as best as it could. Despite the injuries. I’m taking everything on that archer, though.”
Nobody could argue with that. Even though an Essence Collection cultivator was bound to have significantly more wealth than either of the two others, Anton defeated the man more or less on his own- while keeping his attacks away from the rest of them.
“Stojan,” Anton said, tossing him a small pill, “Take this. An antidote pill.” Anton looked at the others. “It’s only a generic sort with small effects against any poisons, but the rest of you should take one as well. Whatever it was is slow acting, but I have the feeling we’ll regret it later if we ignore it.” Anton actually hadn’t sensed anything in himself until he felt it in others. All of them had some measure of lingering poison. Maybe it had even been in the air, aiding the illusions as they breathed it in.
They did indeed find several poisons in the packs of the enemy cultivators, but they weren’t clearly labeled- and none of them were experts in the area of poison, though they had some basic knowledge about common types for the sake of treating them.
By the time they were back on the road, Stojan was shaking, despite having taken both the antidote and other recovery medicines. Anton just quietly scooped him up. His muscles weren’t that tired, since carrying a person used a different set than required to pull back that stupid bone bow. Even if he was kind of exhausted, it wasn’t any harder than dragging a deer carcass through the snow on a sled. He was just glad the other young folk could walk.
Anton smiled at himself, as he was thinking of them as much younger than those he normally interacted with, even though they were likely only a year or two different. The biggest thing was their cultivation was much lower than his own, so they felt like they should be younger. But instead they were close in age to the others and just somewhat less quick in their cultivation progression.
Even Hein was probably young enough to be Anton’s grandchild, though just barely. He could have easily been his son, though.
Rain poured down on the group as they walked on muddy roads, unwilling to stay near the scene of the battle. They couldn’t imagine anyone else would be there, since a group of two late Sprit Building cultivators and one Essence Collection cultivator weren’t that common, but the attacks were happening all over so those involved had more people at least in theory, even if not all in one place.
Guard captain Aaron sat in his office, going over various pieces of paperwork he still had to deal with. There wasn’t as much exciting combat as people might think for someone in his position, but he was fine with that. Even though he was still young, he was more interested in stable opportunities than glory.
There were almost never attacks on cities anyway. At most he might have to deal with some boneheaded cultivators starting a fight inside or near the city. Cugan was a large enough city that even the most prominent sects would have to think two or three times before they thought about attacking it, and they wouldn’t gain much from it except the ire of everyone in the country around them.
“Captain Aaron,” a guard knocked at his open door. “There’s a group of travellers approaching. Some of them look injured.”
Aaron nodded. Was that good news? At least it wasn’t someone going missing on the road. There had been too many strange attacks lately. Even if it was only a couple near Cugan, even one attack per year they couldn’t resolve was a problem.
After he left his office behind he made his way onto the wall, where Aaron took a good look at the approaching group. If he had to guess, the two older folk were mercenary escorts protecting the younger members of the group. Only a single pair of cultivations matched styles. He recognized them as being from one of the smaller sects in Droca, but he couldn’t recall the name. Metal? Steel? Iron? Iron Fist Sect sounded right. Though the iron part wasn’t their actual fists.
As the group got close to the gates, he called out to them. “Hello there travelers. You look like you’ve had a rough journey.” Cultivators got into scraps all the time. He didn’t have to stop them, but he felt it was his duty to properly investigate. He openly scanned the group with his eyes. “If I’m not mistaken, you didn’t just run into a group of wild beasts.”
A puffy eyed man squinted up at him, but despite the look on his face he had a strong bearing. He also carried a metal staff. Was he a member of Storm Mountain? Either that, or someone aping their style, Aaron supposed. He would have to remember the energy signature if he was. It was important to be able to recognize important factions on sight. The man waved his hand from down below. “Indeed we didn’t. We were attacked by a group of three cultivators, two in late Spirit Building and one in early Essence Collection.” He pulled out a storage bag and tossed it up to Aaron. “We suspect they are related to the other attacks that have been happening as of late.”
It only took a moment to scan the storage bag and find the three bodies in question. Cultivators had some portion of their energy linger almost indefinitely after death, at least if their dantians weren’t shattered and their bodies hadn’t begun to decay. Thus, he could recognize that the man’s words were true. At least, about their cultivation levels. There was some chance that this mismatched group had been the aggressors. Though the old man from the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars made that less likely. They were a strictly righteous sect, though he was less familiar with them than Storm Mountain given the distance.
“I don’t recognize the energy of this group,” Aaron said. They seemed to have the same core cultivation style, but he couldn’t be quite sure. “We’ll have to ask you some questions. Especially if they’re related to the other attacks.” None of the men had bounties Aaron was aware of. Usually bandits of such power had some sort of history.
Hopefully they could shed some light on the situation, since very few people survived the recent attacks, and it wasn’t even sure if they were all related. Many went missing, and others were found dead. In most cases, people only escaped and merely had vague descriptions of the attackers. Having their bodies and a handful of clear testimonies would be something else.