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Every group was taking stock of their members as they walked towards whatever the next challenge would be. It seemed that quite a few people had not made it through, despite reaching the doors. Yet nobody could say what had been right or wrong about any particular door. A few people had theories, but the single minute had not been sufficient for anyone to focus on anything other than simply arriving at their destination.
The Order was missing exactly two people. Anton, and a late Essence Collection cultivator known as Emma Strand. Despite her cultivation she wasn’t one of the elders, instead leaving the greater responsibilities to others. The Order had a specific limit on the number of elders regardless, and not everyone wanted such a position.
Most large sects had at least one person missing and usually more, which wasn’t a surprise. Random chance would indicate that those with greater numbers would also be more likely to be involved in random failures.
Twisting turning maze-like hallways led to empty rooms in all directions. As Anton traversed through the area, he took careful stock of what he could do. The door he had come through had no portal back through it, simply a white-painted stone wall. There was no instruction on what to do, no guidance… and so far, no other people.
He couldn’t say for sure if he might be alone, because his senses were severely limited. Though he was aware of significant effects from formations around him, his energy senses didn’t extend much beyond his body, and even his hearing was somewhat muffled to more what he would expect from a normal person.
Along with empty space, the area was filled with a moderate amount of traps. A scythe swung vertically across a doorway as he opened a door, and Anton leapt back. When they weren’t active, the traps were very hard to detect. Perhaps he had just gotten too used to relying on energy senses. Was that what this area was about? He couldn’t be sure.
One step into the hallway he sensed a pressure plate being depressed immediately, and he rolled back into the room as spikes stabbed out of the walls. This was still considered moderately trapped by Everheart’s standards. It wasn’t as if every single tile on the floor was individually trapped, after all.
As he turned the corner to a new hallway, Anton saw it extended for several hundred meters. Even with his distance vision impaired by the formations around, he was still at least able to make out figures ahead of him at the two hundred meter mark. Even just around the corner he hadn’t sensed them, but it was impossible to miss them fighting once they were in front of him. Especially with something coming almost straight at him.
Anton dodged to the side. He still felt the energy from the hurled spear brushing against his side as he did so, even though it was not aimed towards him but just down the hall. He actually somewhat admired the straight trajectory only minimally affected by gravity. It was a high level of accuracy over such a distance, though he also supposed that it wouldn’t have particularly changed its likelihood of striking its intended target if it hit the wall or floors a hundred meters back.
Both figures appeared to be in late Essence Collection. Anton would have gone back around the corner and entirely stayed out of the conflict except for one thing- he recognized one of the figures. While he had to admit he barely knew Emma Strand, Anton couldn’t very well just ignore a member of his own sect as she fought.
The hallway had very little in the way of offshoots, so it was just a straight path between him and them. Emma was on his side, wielding a long pike while her opponent seemed to have a limitless supply of spears to throw. If a non-cultivator had the same spears, they would have been much too large to throw. As it was, they were treated more like vastly oversized darts. Stabilizing fins were created with the use of energy, much like the fletching Anton added to Spirit Arrows.
He began to fire arrows one at a time, carefully avoiding his ally. For the most part that involved shooting in the upper corners of the hallway, since she moved back and forth avoiding attacks at a rapid pace. Though Emma had a weapon with great reach, her opponent held her at bay with another spear held in his off hand while he continuously forced her to avoid his throws. It was a strange but oddly effective fighting style, though both combatants were somewhat restrained by the size of the corridor.
Everywhere the spears went they left behind a trail of ice on the nearest surface, one that greatly diminished by the time it reached Anton two hundred meters away. It didn’t seem as if the spears were ever going to change trajectory, but Anton gave them a wide berth just in case the spearman decided to try to impale him.
His own arrows were rapidly fired in response, merely pestering the man with higher cultivation. Anton thought about using some of his ascension energy, but he didn’t know what other battles he might end up in… and he would need a proper opening to actually affect a late Essence Collection opponent. But he could at least pester this particular man and keep him on his toes.
The battle seemed fairly even, with or without his participation. Neither side was seriously injured yet, though Emma had a few scrapes along her sides and arms. She radiated a form of heat that was melting the ice around her, and though there was briefly water it soon became steam. Unlike Hoyt, she didn’t leave behind lingering trails but instead seemed to have focused her energy more internally, or rather more on augmenting her body than on actual energy projection. Her arms moved rapidly, and her pike thrust in and out with blinding speed. Yet it was something another Essence Collection cultivator could keep up with.
Anton’s arrows weren’t as effective as he would like, so he took closer and closer routes to Emma. If she was actually forced in front of his attacks, he could dissipate his shot nearly instantly. Any lingering remnants that hit her would be quite easily negated by even the thin layer of energy she had defending her rear. She had at least twice as much energy as he did, and it also had the increased quality and density from Essence Collection. All Anton could hope for at the moment was to be a tipping point for his ally.
He thought things were going well when she managed a thrust that tore through her opponent’s helmet, scraping against the skull and almost taking off an ear. Though it was supposed to go through his head, he would at least have to deal with the rapid bleeding from a head wound. Or more specifically, devote some of his energy to preventing that.
Very few cultivators actually had more blood than anyone else of the same size, since there were just very strict physical limitations. They were just able to better manage bleeding wounds, returning blood to their body or operating at full capacity with a smaller amount than a normal human. They could even recover blood more quickly, though for most people that wasn’t practical in the space of a combat.
A counter spear thrust by the ice cultivator forced Emma back, as the length of her own weapon actually became a brief disadvantage. She quickly shifted her grip backwards, but by that time her opponent had disengaged and was at a more optimal distance for himself.
There was a sudden shift in the man’s temperament, and then Anton felt something he was much more familiar with than he wished to be. Though the icy feeling remained, it darkened as the light in the hallways dimmed and twisted.
Even as Anton felt his senses being distorted, he knew the effect had to be many times stronger focused on Emma. Yet she was also stronger. Even so, the sudden change in cost her dearly. A spear was thrown towards her which she dodged by a narrow margin. At least, that had obviously been the plan. But the narrow margin of error she had was actually false, and the spear actually pierced into her left thigh. Her energy defenses prevented it from taking the whole leg off, but the muscle was severely injured.
She didn’t remain idle in response, however. She stepped forward even with her injured leg, beginning a quick series of thrusts. Along with that, Anton fired arrows with as much energy as he could muster, trying to match her pace. Since they both practiced the Ninety-Nine Stars, there was a certain flow that allowed them to match up. It wasn’t as strong as when amplified by a proper formation, but his arrows aimed both to create openings or take advantage of openings left by her. A few arrows struck with little effect than to waste a portion of their opponent’s energy, but that might be sufficient. Emma managed to clip the man’s right bicep on his throwing arm, and that weakened his offense.
The moment he appeared like he would turn and run, a simultaneous thrust and arrow from Emma and Anton pierced into his chest. The body of an Essence Collection cultivator wasn’t usually much stronger than someone in Spirit Building, and Anton’s fully powered attack slipped through where Emma pierced his energy defenses, straight into the man’s heart as the spear shattered his sternum.
Emma pulled back a moment later, wary of any last ditch efforts. Fortunately the damage had been sufficient that the man only managed a few half-effort throws which Emma handily dodged- and they weren’t aimed straight down the hallway towards him, so they got nowhere near Anton. Anton still stood outside of the trajectory he thought they would take had they been aimed at him, but as the man fell unconscious from his wounds he felt any illusory effects fade.
With a flick Emma’s pike was cleared of blood, and she turned towards Anton with a smile. “Glad to see you. You’re the first ally I’ve spotted here. Everyone else wanted to attack me on sight… or ran away. Though I suppose that’s only a small sample size.” Her voice carried easily down the hallway as she began to walk towards Anton.
He moved forward as well to be in a more comfortable speaking range. Shouting two hundred meters wasn’t exactly good for conversation, nor was it subtle- though it was possible nobody would hear them given the design of the area. They met about halfway, though Anton moved a bit more since she had her injured thigh. “You’re actually the first two I saw,” Anton admitted. “I hadn’t expected to find a sectmate fighting a member of the Twin Soul Sect.”
Emma nodded. “That would explain why he was so keen to attack, though. I’m sure they’d rather we don’t develop any more Life Transformation cultivators.” With her current cultivation she wasn’t at the brink, but while she was advanced in age she might still be able to make that journey. “Have you seen anything resembling a way out?” Emma asked as she began to apply ointments and bind her leg.
Anton shook his head. “Not even close. I haven’t even seen any other entrances than the door I came in. I imagine if I were to retrace my steps it would be well concealed in the wall. We’ll have to look about carefully, for both secret tunnels or traps.”
“The traps shouldn’t be too much of a problem for me,” Emma said.
“I could see that,” Anton said. So far even he hadn’t been concerned about the danger they posed. Someone an entire stage ahead of him shouldn’t have any trouble at all. He casually inspected her cultivation. He’d been able to feel she was at late Essence Collection as the two cultivators threw their energy around. “I wonder how long it will take me to reach the fiftieth star like yourself,” Anton said. He began to inspect a nearby doorway, since there was really no clear path it seemed as good as any.
“Oh, it shouldn’t be that long,” Emma said. “You’re Anton Krantz, right?”
“Then I’d bet no less than a decade or two, if you live that long.”
Three factors saved Anton’s life, at least for a moment. First was watching her fight and seeing her cultivation up close. The second was the ominous way she said that final line. And the third was the door Anton hurriedly threw between them as her pike thrust towards him. Maybe a bit of Instinct thrown on there helped as well.
Even so, he still felt the pike pierce through his side, below his left ribs. It was a clean stab with barely any energy radiating off of it, so the damage was actually concentrated into that one point instead of tearing up all of his organs. As the pike pulled back for another thrust Anton was already leaping through the doorway, traps be damned.