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The battle broke out quickly, with the hidden attackers having presumably been waiting for the group to drop their guards after the defeat of the giant skunk. However, Anton had been fortunate enough to notice one of them hiding towards the end of the battle. His attack had done little but alert his companions to the presence of enemies, but it was sufficient to negate some of the element of surprise.
That was enough for others to react to a flurry of arrows and darts. The location of the cave minimized the angle of attack to a semicircle instead of from every direction, which allowed Timothy to block several attacks aimed for himself and Hoyt. Chikere deflected incoming projectiles with her mass of swords. Catarina managed to dodge the few attacks aimed at her.
The only person injured in the assault was Velvet, who had a dart pierce into her shoulder. The size of the projectile wouldn’t contain much of a wound, but Anton felt the poison on all of the other weapons.
Everyone had a different response, but the strangest one was from their infrequent companion Chikere. “What the hell?” she shouted out into the woods. “Not even a single sword? What’s wrong with you people?”
Somehow she seemed legitimately angry, as if personally affronted… and not as if people just attempted to murder her. Though her physical response followed the latter. Her aura sharpened even further as she charged towards the nearest opponent hiding in the forest, and she began cleaving her way through enemies. Anton recognized that most or probably all of those she was cutting down were illusions, but he wasn’t sure if she cared- or how to convey the information in a timely fashion.
For his own part he was busy dealing with onrushing enemies that he was more certain weren’t illusions. The initial volley of attacks had involved many participants, but it seemed most of the enemy didn’t specialize in ranged combat. From what he saw, none of them were as good as the archer he had defeated, but that didn’t give him confidence. After all, they were just a half-second away from melee range even as he fired shots at them and moved to close with Catarina and Velvet.
Catarina was throwing formation flags around the area as quickly as she could while avoiding incoming attacks. The first person to try to knock one out of position as they approached was met by a swift slash of her sword, forcing them away. Anton was already being hounded by three opponents and just managing to hold them off as he approached. Unfortunately… Velvet had fallen to the ground, her energy weakening. He wished he could do something for her, but he had neither the skills or medicines, nor the opportunity to assist.
Timothy and Hoyt pressed forward after Chikere, joining her assault on the half-dozen enemies on the other side of the battle. Chikere was immediately locked in battle with another Essence Collection cultivator and a late Spirit Building cultivator. The matchup was similar for Hoyt, while Timothy was simply defending against an opponent similarly at peak Spirit Building.
Though they had not all fallen in the initial attack like had been the intent, Anton and the others were still on the back foot. Worryingly, the mid Essence Collection cultivator was not participating in the combat besides firing additional poisoned darts from a blowgun. Though his skill was inexpert, his energy helped make up for that lack.
Catarina had somehow managed to get a tight formation setup, allowing herself and Anton to hold off the cultivators on their side, at least for a few moments. One of them dashed past Anton, and he was unable to stop them because one of the Essence Collection cultivators intercepted him.
Anton’s eyes flashed as he twisted his right hand axe to parry an incoming spear thrust. He knocked it away and followed through with the axe in his left hand, swinging for the chest of his opponent. Instead of dodging, his opponent simply took the hit directly, relying on her superior cultivation and energy. That would have been the right move, if not for the sort of energy Anton’s axe carried with it.
His weapon bounced off directly, not even cutting through her defensive energy, let alone her armor. Yet the woman recoiled anyway, clutching her chest with one hand. Even if he had used the maximum amount of post-ascension energy he could draw upon at once, Anton was unsure if he could have injured a well-prepared Essence Collection cultivator. At the very least, she wouldn’t have just taken the attack head on. But he had learned to disentangle the two types of energy he was technically drawing on.
The most obvious and impressive was indeed the energy from beyond ascension. It was overbearing and forceful… which was why it had so easily made him overlook the other energy. It was energy from beyond death, and not simply another well of energy to draw upon but another kind of energy. A sort of energy even more immaterial than the other types, to the point it almost didn’t seem to exist. But its effects could be very real, when the situation called for it.
Anton had been hoping to slice his opponent’s heart or lungs in two with that attack. Cultivators rarely had much in the way of internal defenses, but through a combination of his opponent’s instincts to defend at the last moment and his own inexperience he only managed to harm some ribs and muscle with what felt like minimal damage to the actual organs.
The woman who ran past him was wielding a warhammer. Practically sized, but with sufficient weight to crush whatever the blunt side impacted. Anton couldn’t look away from his opponent, but a portion of his senses lingered on Velvet as the hammer swung down.
The sudden movement and cursing filled Anton with elation, as he sensed Velvet rise to her feet and the woman stagger back. It wasn’t hard to pick out a dart stabbed into the woman’s wrist, though she’d dodged the follow-up swipe by Velvet’s black dagger.
Velvet’s movements weren’t as quick as they should be, which told Anton her fall hadn’t entirely been a ploy. However, it seemed she’d managed to remove the poison before it caused too much damage, simply making it seem as if she was fully affected. He would chastise her for nearly causing him a heart attack, but they had to do whatever worked to protect themselves here.
There were supposed to be protectors watching, but they were still fending for themselves. Had they somehow been drawn away? Were they betrayed? Anton didn’t like any option he could think of, but it seemed they would have to manage this fight alone. Catarina’s formation supported her, Anton, and Velvet but the other three were on their own. Though they were seemingly doing fine.
In the few moments since the battle had started, the whole copse of trees where the others fought had caught on fire. The thing that appeared to be most on fire was Hoyt, but given his lack of concern it was clear he wasn’t truly on fire. It was more like he was the fire. Everywhere he and his axe moved left behind a trail of fire. Trees ignited nearly instantly from the heat of fire produced by an Essence Collection cultivator. Yet it didn’t burn Timothy or Chikere, only keeping their opponents at bay. Though Chikere didn’t take advantage of Timothy’s protection or the zone Hoyt had created, instead charging forward to attack.
The battlefield constantly shifted as foes appeared and disappeared, but Chikere cut through every place that anyone- illusion or person- had been as long as it came within her reach. She dodged incoming spear thrusts and darts by the narrowest of margins. Arms reached out to grapple her, but she sliced into the joints in the armor while avoiding being touched. Some of the blood that sprayed out was likely even real.
Then her companions disappeared from her senses as she was dropped fully into a world of illusion. There was no pretense made about it, as she was cut off from the feeling of the ground beneath her feet and the trees and even the air. That included the lingering remnants of the stench from the giant skunk.
She continued to hold in her mind the positions of all of the opponents she’d seen, real or not. If she moved in a particular manner, they would move like this. It would only work for a moment, but as she spun her swords around her she felt for feedback of any kind. Swords were the one thing she was confident wouldn’t betray her.
Given her inability to directly sense incoming attacks, Chikere felt she was doing well at the current moment. She only had a few scrapes on her face and neck, and along her ribs. Oh, and someone had severed some muscles in her right arm, rendering it useless. But she still had nine swords at the ready.
She retreated back towards where her friends and allies had been. She felt a comforting heat in the area, and knew Hoyt was still present. And presumably aware of her on some level, since she wasn’t having to resist his energy. Chikere hated retreating, but she recognized when she had to. There was only one more enemy that had popped up behind her that she had to cut down. Her sword slashed out, ready to take off his head. But the sword she held in her left hand stopped before it touched skin, and the others stabbed on all sides around the man in front of her.
She seriously hoped that nobody had killed Timothy and taken his sword, or she would be dead. But she felt a comforting hand on her back before the pair of them were suddenly forced back, a powerful energy scattering off of Timothy’s shield but not completely negated.
From the impacts she was pretty sure they went through two trees along the way, though one might have been a tall boulder. Chikere felt a moment of concern for Timothy, but the way he disentangled himself from her and held his sword in a firm stance told her he was at most minimally injured. Perhaps it had even been his direct intention to disperse the force in several pieces rather than all at once.
The other side of the battle was still holding on. Anton had made use of both types of special energy twice, though only one of his three attacks managed a significant injury. That was enough to keep them in the battle but their opponents were gradually wearing them down with superior numbers and cultivation.
As one of the Essence Collection cultivators shoved Anton with a shield he was thrown off balance, almost moving into another attack. But his companions weren’t idle either, and a moment later Anton smelled the most foul thing he’d ever smelt. Well, he smelled more of it. He couldn’t imagine what the actual targets were going through as Catarina pulled every ounce of the skunk’s spray into a sweeping vortex.
Had that been the purpose of the formation all along, and not the enhancing of their speed? No, she’d simply adjusted it on the fly, making use of the nearly forgotten feature. Even the Essence Collection cultivators looked sick, while one of the Spirit Building enemies was puking his guts out despite the danger. Another one didn’t have the chance, as a moment of hesitation was enough for Velvet to slice his throat and stab him between two ribs.
Anton was off balance so he couldn’t take similar advantage, but he at least managed to get to better positioning.
Timothy stood up, sword held out in front of him. He was absolutely certain that Chikere was susceptible to the enemy’s illusions. Even if she only expended a small amount of energy when her attacks connected with nothing real, it was still wasteful and unfitting for someone of her skill. He’d thought for a moment that he might die when she turned towards him and readied her blades. A moment later he thought they might both die from the mid Essence Collection cultivator barreling forwards and punching with an oversized gauntlet… but he’d managed to block it.
The second one was going to be more difficult though. He freed himself from Chikere and the other body that had gone with them unwittingly, glad she had impaled the opponent he hadn’t quite recognized as being present. He could at least hold on for one more attack to give her a chance.
The world slowed down as he watched the figure barreling towards him. He felt the power and knew he couldn’t match it. His own energy was just weaker. Blocking an attack wasn’t just about raw power, though. It was about redirection. He just had to manage something that was close enough to slow the man.
He breathed deeply, feeling the energies of everyone around him. Chikere and Hoyt were both in Essence Collection. The rest of them hadn’t yet reached it, but he still noted the way his companions were approaching the threshold.
If Timothy were knocked back once more, Chikere would find herself vulnerable. If she fell, Hoyt would be in trouble, and Anton, Velvet… Catarina. He didn’t want any of them to die. What was the right move?
He didn’t really have time to think, but instead let his body move on its own. His shield tilted back, just slightly, his stance low. It was only a small step from taking the attack head on, but something about it felt right. The incoming energy was only a moment away from impacting his own, but at least his opponent was confident enough to meet him head on instead of trying to avoid his shield.
When the attack hit, everything cracked. Timothy’s shield cracked. His arm cracked. Energy blasted deep into his body, shattering ribs and other bones he’d forgotten he had. Some of his organs split, but as the energy pierced deeper more of him cracked. His eardrums went more or less last, as an explosion of energy echoed out from deep inside him and reverberated in all directions.
At least his eyes still worked, and he was just able to make out the man somewhere in the air above him before he found himself buried in the ground.