Anton was looking forward to reaching Essence Collection. It would be a significant step up in power, solidifying his presence in the world. And, if he reached it, that would mean he hadn’t died. He still had so many things to do. His ideas about teaching everyone to cultivate were only just starting to bloom beyond his individual efforts. And if he were going to die, it certainly couldn’t be to someone from the Twin Soul Sect. He wasn’t sure what their agenda was, but anything that involved culling the talented members of other sects was worth opposing on principle.
And it would shame to die in a deathtrap made by Everheart not meant for him. He hoped it was meant to kill people like those from the Twin Soul Sect, but he only had barely substantiated conjecture to go off of there. At least Everheart had been nice enough to lead him to a good trap. Now he was able to just run and Emma couldn’t quite catch up. It seemed that any of her control of illusory techniques had gone out the window as well.
The Order had around two hundred Essence Collection cultivators. Anton knew very few of them, and Emma wasn’t one. Given what he was learning today, he doubted anyone really knew her. She’d clearly managed to behave in a manner that fit in with the Order’s principles, at least wherever it was visible. He had no way to tell if she had truly been well behaved for the decades or more she had been part of the Order or had just been causing trouble outside where she would be watched. Something to look into if he survived.
When he survived. Cultivation was nothing without confidence. If Anton let himself believe all was lost, it truly would be. His attacks and defenses would be less effective for the despair in his heart, and he couldn’t afford that. Believing he would live wouldn’t necessarily make it happen, but it clearly couldn’t if he didn’t try.
Anton had just enough distance between himself and Emma that he was able to focus more on what was in front of him. A distorted area that signaled a trap of some kind, possibly tuned to a certain level of energy. That was something he was learning to pick out as he moved through the area. Pressure plates existed. He was pretty sure there were invisible tripwires made from diamondsilk or something with similar properties. Sensing formations had to be another thing, and the way some things reacted to Emma and not him indicated the easiest possibility was the cultivation gap. Though he had to wonder if some might only target him as well.
He turned through a doorway, trying to subtly step over a tripwire in the path. His energy senses barely stretched to arm’s length with the restrictions around the area, but they still functioned at reduced capacity out to that distance. And his training helped. While he wasn’t trying to lock onto something at the horizon, focusing towards a single point still let him significantly stretch his awareness.
He didn’t have time to scan the whole room he arrived in, instead picking a path seemingly at random. He noticed a few traps along the way, and hoped that any other trajectory through the area would have more. His stride lengthened for a single step to pass over a pressure plate. The first one was easy, but the second time he did it he fell into the secondary trap.
It had been too obvious, so he should have known better. But it was too late, as the obvious trap had better hidden pressure plates on both sides, which he found out when he triggered them.
Fortunately they just shot some sort of poisoned darts from the wall. Avoiding the trajectories of projectiles was well within Anton’s wheelhouse, and he only ended up with one of them scraping against the outer layer of his energy as he moved. A loss he couldn’t really afford, but at least Emma was running into more trouble. And still suffering more blood loss. She’d done an excellent job with her first wounds, but the bruising and maybe even broken bones from the crushing wall traps and the damage to her lung were obviously taking their toll.
A cultivator who had surpassed Body Tempering might be able to jog for a whole day without rest, but a sustained run was quite different from the frantic movements in combat. With blood loss and only one lung working, Anton found himself impressed that Emma was merely huffing and puffing. He just hoped the ragged breathing was actually degenerating as he thought, but that might have been wishful thinking.
His own side ached as he breathed, and while his lungs were still in good shape his diaphragm made his side twitch with every breath. Too much energy was devoted to managing the internal and external bleeding, but he wasn’t able to recover from wounds mid combat, nor did he even have a chance to stop and stabilize the wound.
At the far end of the room was another door. As Anton ran through, he marveled at how smoothly it opened. It was sort of a dumb thought, as it hardly mattered if the door creaked… until he saw what was in front of him. Making a snap judgment, Anton closed the door behind himself, glad that it closed with only the slight woosh of air.
Emma was annoyed. Though only one wound had been caused by Anton himself, the very fact that it had taken her more than a single attack to kill him was a failure on her part. She hadn’t thought he would react to the attack, so piercing through his energy to directly destroy his heart had felt like the right move. She should have just taken advantage of her cultivation advantage and been more excessive, even if it would have left her more vulnerable for the next fight. There shouldn’t be many people able to challenge her, and if she came across a Life Transformation cultivator she could avoid them.
She frowned as she thought about how Anton had dodged the second attack. Some sort of space bending technique? She hadn’t heard about that. She’d been studying up on all of the quickly advancing members of the Order, in case she came upon a chance to remove them. It had been strange that an old man was on the list, but he’d nearly kept pace with the top geniuses he came in with. If he’d reached Essence Collection, he might have even been able to kill her when that stupid trap smashed into her from both sides.
But that didn’t matter, because she was going to kill him. Closing a door wasn’t going to stop her. In fact, she no longer had the patience to open it properly. She could tell it wasn’t made of any particularly special material, and if it was trapped smashing it open with her pike would keep any consequences away from her. This was all Everheart’s fault. It was quite smart, really, tempting everyone with promises of ascension and then just killing them. Emma just wondered how he would be harvesting them. She hadn’t felt anything, but she wasn’t a formation master either.
The door burst open, wooden splinters flying down the hallway. It led almost immediately to a crossing intersection, and Anton could have turned to either of the sides. She charged forward, ready to turn either direction. Perhaps he’d shoot an arrow at her injured leg, though his energy was too weak to damage her unless he could use whatever that forbidden technique was more. Most of the higher ups in the Order knew about it, but for some reason only Anton practiced it. Emma had thought it must not be that good, but it turned out to not be the case. It actually felt like… ascension energy. Not that she had much exposure to that.
Emma was wholly prepared for arrows or even axes coming towards her, possibly empowered to a level that could cause her to actually dodge. She was ready for traps of any sort, and if she ended up pressed between two walls once more she would focus her defenses to the sides and forward.
She was not expecting to have her vision turn red as she was swarmed with blood from one side. Her own blood rebelled briefly, a portion of it pulling away into the swirling cloud, but she redoubled her grip on her body. “What the hell?” she shouted at the passing cultivator. “We’re allies, you know.”
The swirling cloud of blood resolved into the figure of a man with an exceptionally annoying grin plastered on his face. “Allies? With you? I don’t remember being paid for that lately. You must have been thinking of when I hadn’t yet seen an injured cultivator come waltzing into my sight.”
“Cut the crap,” Emma said. “Where’d the archer go?”
“What archer?” the man said, genuinely unsure. “Haven’t seen any. Unless that guy I killed a few minutes ago was an archer. Have you been stalking me?”
“No. An old man in Spirit Building.”
“Pfft,” the man from the Flying Blood Sect laughed. “You got this injured by a Spirit Building cultivator?”
Emma glared at him. He was only early Essence Collection. An easy opponent, normally. “No. It was someone else.”
“I believe you,” the man said, “This much.” He peeked through a small gap between his thumb and forefinger. “Either way, I’d like whatever you have on you.”
Before Emma could react, her thigh and left lung simultaneously started attacking her from the inside. So he hadn’t just drawn her blood out during that earlier pass, but also inserted a bit of himself. She began to tear it out of her while at the same time thrusting forward with her pike. It didn’t matter if she was injured if this man would fight her head on.
Anton held his breath. Only exceptional senses would have been able to hear him even if he let it go, but the risks were simply too high. He was slowly working his way back towards the ground, so there wouldn’t be a thud when he touched. Emma had just charged down the hallway towards the member of the Flying Blood Sect, who had been waiting in ambush looking in an entirely different direction.
Obviously Anton wasn’t so skilled as to sneak by him, so he did the next best thing. The hallway wasn’t particularly wide by the door, so he had held himself across the top of the hallway, arms and legs outstretched wall-to-wall with his full height. The leeway was so little he actually had to extend his fingers and toes to press against both sides, but holding himself like that for a short time wasn’t too difficult.
He was just glad Emma hadn’t looked up. If she had, a simple spin of her pike and he would have been dead. But he could tell her senses hadn’t been trained to any great heights. She was a brawler. There were some like Chikere who honed their senses to deal with ambushes, but the restrictive forces of the formations around them had fortunately limited Emma’s casual perception to less than two meters above her head.
Anton touched the floor, careful to not step on the shattered remains of the door and make any noise. There had been no guarantee that the man from the Flying Blood Sect would actually attack, but given their reputation even a short distraction might have been enough. He’d even drawn Emma down the hallway and kept Anton out of her peripheral vision, so he was quite thankful.
Anton really wished he could get the treasures a late Essence Collection cultivator had on her, but Anton was going to prefer his life over loot. Though he was making his way back towards where he had first found them. If nothing else it was a set of slightly familiar corridors if he encountered someone else. He also wasn’t quite sure if the spear thrower had actually perished. He should have been tipped off even more by the fact that Emma hadn’t looted him immediately.
But maybe that was just pessimism. There was nothing wrong with people being friendly and taking a few moments to talk to an ally before looting a fallen foe.
Anton walked slowly, beginning to properly deal with his wound as he went. He needed a proper doctor, but he had to make do with eating some pills that would start the repair process, stitching the outside holes closed, and continuing to devote a portion of his energy preventing blood from going all the wrong places.
At least it was easy to recover his energy here. Natural energy was quite abundant. More than enough for a Spirit Building cultivator to recover his stores in a reasonable time.
Though if Anton was right, he wouldn’t be a Spirit Building cultivator for long. He wasn’t ready to try the last leap immediately, but another combat with an Essence Collection cultivator- even one that was mostly trying to survive- helped him focus his mind. And there were a few strands of insight from the battle. The Vessel of Insights was active without requiring him to focus on it. He doubted Emma had many insights of consequence during their battle, but he would at least have some of his own to review.