There was no time for complicated strategy. Anton just ran, turning to fire behind himself as he did so. He had no grand illusions that he could surpass the entirety of a realm to defeat his opponent. The only comfort he had was her injured leg, and that he’d managed to avoid anything immediately fatal during her first attack.
His first shot was comprised entirely of the energy from beyond death, aimed straight at the door she was about to burst through. His arrow reached the door before she did, but instead of impacting it simply went straight through. It was unfortunate that Emma properly registered the danger, but it was late enough that she only half dodged, allowing him to graze her side as his attack slipped past her energy. It wasn’t a large victory, but he would take everything he could get.
Anton spent no time dwelling on why she would attack him. That much was becoming more obvious with the second, as her cultivation shifted. He wondered why she had concluded the fight with the other member of the Twin Soul Sect instead of showing herself. Did she not care about killing another member of her true sect? Was she simply concerned about being exposed or missing the chance to kill Anton? Those thoughts cleared themselves out to be considered later, assuming he survived.
He ran backwards, firing more arrows as he moved. Her leg was injured, but if he didn’t make her movements difficult it wouldn’t slow her down enough. All she had to do was reach him once more, and a more serious attack without having to hide anything could simply kill him.
He hoped he might lure her into a trap with some power behind it, but he couldn’t count on that. He might even run into one himself. As for hoping that he might run into an ally, Anton rejected the thought. It could be just a supreme coincidence that both of the other two people Anton had seen were from the Twin Soul Sect, but Anton wasn’t going to chance it.
Conserving his energy was pointless. He had to perform at his maximum potential just to keep some small manner of distance between himself and Emma, and she didn’t even have to get into a normal melee range with that pike of hers. He shot in quick succession to try to slow her down, but when she powered through his first few attacks instead of straining her leg he quickly fired an arrow with ascension energy. If only he had reached Essence Collection he thought he might have a chance of causing serious damage, but at least she dodged to the side with enough vigor to strain her injured leg. The wide hole looked painful, and being dressed didn’t matter when she moved in a way that reopened it.
She slowed down momentarily, but he wasn’t uninjured himself. Everything he wasn’t using for movement or offense went to minimizing the strain on his wounded stomach. That meant he didn’t have anything for defense, but it was pointless anyway. If she managed to hit him, he couldn’t defend unless she decided to toy with him. Since she didn’t seem trained in ranged attacks, even if she improvised something he thought he could shift his energy to defend. Otherwise, it was a waste.
Anton moved backwards in small leaps, hoping that his random movements would avoid pressure plates on the floor. Perhaps he did, but a gout of poisonous gas went off all the same. He was glad he was already moving and had minimal exposure to it, but he had no idea how he triggered it. Perhaps it simply sensed movement or his energy instead of having a mechanical trigger.
Just as Emma was about in range- which still put them more than five meters apart- a wall of spikes stabbed out at her from the side. Anton was absolutely sure he’d stepped in the same spots as her, but he wasn’t going to question his good fortune. The wall of spikes got him a full second as she dodged back and then shattered them, her momentum stopped.
Anton still didn’t feel comfortable with just turning to run, because her maximum speed should be higher than his own without hindrance, even with her leg. If he could make things a bit worse, though, he’d have a small chance.
Using his extra second, Anton retreated while pulling out another bow. It was more conveniently located than the bottom of his bag now, having needed to use it before. The bone bow was exceptionally hard to pull, but he made use of his ‘normal’ energy to create a string for it and augment his muscles. Then he drew up on the power of Fleeting Youth, both the energy of ascension and beyond death.
Unlike before he had known how to separate them, this was an intentional move to make use of both of them together. They weren’t randomly mixed, but used in parallel. The energy of death and reincarnation formed a coating around the substantial power of post ascension energy. He knew he was still far below the attack of a Life Transformation cultivator, let alone a true ascended cultivator, but he made use of what he had.
The most important part of his attack was the speed. After all, Emma could simply dodge out of the way of such a telegraphed attack if it were the same speed as everything else. He could redirect his arrows, but over the distances at hand it wouldn’t be as significant. He and his arrow flew forward towards her, aiming straight at her middle. If she did nothing he might pierce her heart, if she dodged too slowly he might hit either lung or at least a shoulder or bicep. If she dodged quickly, she might strain her leg more. All options were good for Anton.
Of course she chose the one thing he didn’t think of, and couldn’t do anything about. Instead of dodging, she simply stabbed forward with her pike, her energy already gathered to smash through the spikes and of course Anton. As soon as he saw her moving he tried to curve around, but her energy wasn’t as tightly concentrated as her first attack. She didn’t need to prefer density, but just total power. His arrow scattered even as she built up momentum towards him.
The distance between them closed. Anton wasn’t fully certain how much there was as she was making use of an illusory technique to blur his senses, but he’d faced the Twin Soul Sect enough to at least be cognizant of her presence. She was clearly not specialized in that, but instead in more direct combat. Her pike thrust out for him, going beyond its already large reach with the extension of her energy. He was moving as quickly as he could away, but it simply wasn’t enough.
“Wait a sec,” came a voice from behind him. “What was that?”
Anton found himself unable to move his body- but the inability to move included the attack coming towards him and Emma herself. Anton’s head, at least, swiveled around. The teen Everheart was frowning as he looked at Anton. “Which thing are you asking about?” Anton asked carefully. “The bow? Her response? The energy from me?” He’d seen Everheart do something like this before, and he hoped he might be coming to help. But he didn’t want to be arrogant about it.
“The energy. I want to know.”
Anton narrowed his eyes. “You don’t recognize Fleeting Youth? Are you from before then?” Just the technique name wouldn’t give anything away if this was an illusion or an imposter of some kind.
“So that’s what it feels like, huh?” Everheart said as he leaned against the wall. “I can’t believe someone’s actually using it effectively. Crazy. Well, good luck.”
“Wait!” Anton shouted as quickly as he could. “Can you… help me?”
The turning figure of Everheart looked back over his shoulder. “Oh yeah. You’re about to die, huh? Well, I’m sure by now you know I’m not omnipotent or anything. Tell you what, though. Since this deathtrap isn’t meant for you, and you’re using my technique, I’ll give you a chance. You want to take a left at that hallway, and avoid the right half for ten steps. Don’t make it too obvious. Beyond that…” he walked forward and placed his hand on Anton’s shoulder, yanking him to the opposite side of the hall he was dodging towards. “That should be enough. Bye.”
The wall exploded, and Anton knew he would have been turned to mush had he even been grazed by the attack. But he was suddenly on the other side of the pike. He still had some backwards momentum, and he twisted his body to keep that as he ran at full speed. Swinging her pike into the wall and the surprise at Anton’s sudden change in position held Emma Strand back for just long enough.
The turn was not far, but Anton knew he wouldn’t be fast enough. Not with just his legs and normal energy. It felt like a waste to use ascension energy for anything other than an attack, but he drew upon it to propel himself forward. He would still have enough for one more attack, and he knew he would need it.
He made a tight cut around the corner, angling himself towards the middle of the hallway but not crossing over. He wasn’t sure how tight of a margin there was on the ‘right half’ but he really didn’t want to push it.
Emma was just behind him, and almost in range once more. Anton turned, his side aching with the movement, drawing his bow for one final shot. Emma was thrusting towards him, and nothing had happened. Well, perhaps this was just how he would go. Anton wanted to at least make sure there was an obvious arrow hole on her before he went. If Chikere could sniff out swords so easily, Grand Elder Kseniya would recognize damage from Anton’s Spirit Arrows. At least the traitor should be exposed.
Then the hallway disappeared in front of Anton. At least it felt like that, because the smooth white surfaces were suddenly in front of his eyes, as if he were looking at dead end. Except that wasn’t quite true. There was still a good half meter of space in the middle. That was where his arrow was going, and where Emma was sandwiched between the walls. The impact from the sides stopped her forward momentum, and thus her pike only nearly impaled Anton as his arrow struck her directly in the chest.
If he hadn’t used his utmost power, his attack might have done nothing. As it was, the deathly energy carried the ascension energy partway through her defenses before it felt resistance. That was enough that he punctured through between her ribs and into a lung.
Then Anton was running. Emma wasn’t dead, and still had plenty of energy left. The walls that crashed into her from either side seemed to have gotten the worse end of the exchange, with deep cracks on them that were widening as she pushed back against the walls, destroying whatever mechanisms caused them to collapse to begin with.
At least the battle had been short enough that Anton still had reserves of his normal, Spirit Building level energy to call upon. They helped his legs carry him swiftly away, and he hoped that he could avoid the pursuit of a woman with an injured leg and a hole in her lung.
When Everheart showed up and said the next test would be after a ten minute delay, nobody questioned him as to why. Nobody was able to relax, of course, because at any moment he could say the time was up and that they were going to do something else in a very short time frame with little explanation. Even those who hadn’t been to Everheart’s tombs before were aware of his proclivities for mischief like that.
Catarina looked ahead, seeing an indoor conservatory. There were all sorts of strange plants. If she had been in any other sort of mood, she would have sought out Lev and the Grasping Willows to consult them. Instead, she couldn’t help but think about Anton. Her grandfather was missing, and she wasn’t sure why. If he’d failed the test, he should have been safely taken away… but somehow, her heart wouldn’t let her believe that. She clutched her chest, wishing it was possible to send energy or luck or anything to someone in a location she didn’t know about by sheer virtue of caring about them. But such convenient things weren’t possible.