Though Anton had for a few days had no encounters with other cultivators, he was certain they would be around. He wouldn’t mind a whole forest that he could scour for interesting goodies all to himself, but even Everheart wasn’t that generous. The fact that he’d gotten Anton out of his deathtrap was already close to the limit of what Anton believed possible. How Anton ended up inside it was another question. There must have been some criteria, but he hadn’t been given an explanation.
Anton looked at the doe traveling with him. She moved fairly quickly, given her pregnant status, but not nearly as fast as Anton might have gone without her. He wondered once more if it was a foolish idea to try to bring her along. What would she actually provide to the world? Assuming he was right and this deer was of a type that could no longer be found, did it matter?
He could tell she would be more durable than a normal deer, even discounting the energy he felt from her. Nothing amazing, but at least comparable to a mid or late Body Tempering human. Perhaps it was better to go for boots and gloves after all. Even if she gave birth, her child would have to mate with normal deer from below. But it seemed sad to think that this particular species of deer would be gone forever if he did nothing.
There was no way that this habitat stayed beyond the opening of the tomb. Even if this particular one didn’t instantly collapse, it would have to eventually run out of the energy keeping the area functional. If Anton understood correctly, the moon shouldn’t be able to maintain the air they had or any of the life present. It should be without air, or practically so at least.
His step into Essence Collection made him consider his actions. Should he care about this? Was it just thinking about what he could get out of the deer that was why he wanted to save it? He thought not, and he found inside himself real compassion for it. Though he still had to consider practicality. He might not even be able to leave with it.
Before that point, however, he had to get through whatever this trial had. The next of those things were the two people in the distance. His energy senses were able to range further than before, though depending on how much energy a particular person or thing was throwing off he couldn’t sense more than a kilometer or so unless he focused in a particular direction. He’d be better at Horizon Shot now, but still had to get closer to someone to find them. At least for the moment.
The two cultivators ahead would tell him what the trial was, either through words or action. He had no intention to reveal himself to them immediately in case there was something competitive. He didn’t recall any specific prohibitions against fighting in this place, but that could have changed.
Anton snuck closer. The doe followed behind, but at least seemed to understand the intent for stealth. Her footfalls were quiet, though her energy was still able to be sensed by those who were ready. He didn’t really have a way to explain that, but he gave it a try anyway. The doe probably couldn’t understand speech, but she might learn like Fuzz.
The energy of the two cultivators ahead of Anton was getting riled up, as if they were preparing for a fight. They hadn’t sensed him, but were instead facing off with each other. He didn’t recognize either of them, nor even the sects they were from. One was a young woman, and the other woman was somewhat closer to middle age.
As for the reason for the battle, there was a particularly tantalizing fruit tree nearby. Anton couldn’t hear their words, but he sensed all of those details and put together the situation.
Cultivators fighting over resources was nothing new, but it seemed unnecessary in a place as abundant as this. Anton moved closer, trying to gauge whether he should interfere.
The younger woman held a large sword in her two hands. The other wielded a bow, and took her first shot when the younger began to charge towards her. The archer immediately ducked behind a tree, concealing her movements and attacking from the sides and back as she moved around.
The sword wielder seemed unable to track the movements of the archer, but was alert to the attacks themselves. She turned to face each arrow head on, swinging her sword in a sometimes wild fashion. Some portion of the time she actually managed to cut the arrow out of the air, but the rest the attack directly struck her breastplate. It was actually an extremely beneficial maneuver for her, as she was able to avoid the weak points on her armor being targeted. Her energy would be worn down from defending, but that only mattered if she didn’t have more to spare.
From what Anton sensed, the battle could go either way. Though the current way it was going was terrible for the trees. In addition to swinging at the arrows, the woman with the large sword began to chop through the trees that were providing hiding places for the archer. It was an excessive and probably unnecessary use of energy, but as she amped herself up Anton only felt her output increasing. Her energy wouldn’t last forever, but her opponent would have to last along with her.
With fewer trees, the archer found it harder to conceal herself- and the other woman was simply chasing after her with her sword, getting faster as the battle continued. Then the archer made a wise decision.
“I give up, you can have it!” She turned and fled directly away from the berserker with the two handed sword, fleeing towards further trees. A nice swath of trees had been chopped down around the target in question, and upon hearing the somewhat older woman’s surrender the woman stopped chasing her. But she didn’t let her guard down.
After a short time it became clear to Anton that the archer absolutely meant what she said, or at least had no intent to sneak back around soon. He felt her running off at an angle to his right, but she’d go far past him. Not that it would make any difference if she encountered him. She was late Spirit Building like the other woman, but even if Anton had simply matched her in cultivation level, her skills weren’t that impressive. Just adequate, relying on her ability to conceal herself to fight her opponents. Someone with good instinct was a difficult opponent.
Anton continued to walk the same way he had been going, which more or less lined up with the two handed sword wielder and the tree she had fought over. He felt the flaring energy of the woman as she watched for the archer to come back, almost daring her… and then he felt her hit her limit and drop.
That was the problem with her type. They were able to squeeze out large quantities of energy, but sometimes conservation was important. Doubtless her particular technique didn’t just switch on and off so easily, but still. The woman was now on her hands and knees, panting for breath. He felt her drawing in energy to aid her recovery.
“Nice instincts,” Anton said, “But you’re a bit lacking in general perception. That could get you in trouble.” Anton leaned against the tree, which had a fruit with a dark green bumpy skin on it. The woman turned towards Anton and glared. He plucked the best fruit from the tree. “Here, catch.”
It almost hit her in the fact, but at least her reflexes were good enough for her to catch it. “What is this?” she said.
“That’s what you were fighting over,” Anton said.
“…What did you do to it?”
“A reasonable question,” Anton conceded. “Nothing at all.” His bow was raised in an instant, and an arrow nocked and flying past her head before she could even react. “If I wanted to kill you, I’d just do that. No need to poison a perfectly good fruit for it.” He smiled at the woman. “Go ahead, I’m not here to bully people.”
The woman kept an eye on him as she spun the pear shaped fruit around against the stationary edge of her sword, cutting through its thick skin and into the flesh below. Then she peeled away some of the skin and bit into the fruit. Anton could tell from her expression that it was good, and certainly quite full of energy. It should help her recover and perhaps advance her cultivation some.
“Can I have the seed when you’re done?” Anton asked.
“Could I stop you from taking it?” she said.
“No, but I wouldn’t force you,” Anton shrugged. “The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars isn’t in the habit of robbing people.”
“I’ll likely just eat it, then.”
“I wouldn’t,” Anton said. “It seems… unpleasant.” The seed was actually a large pit, perhaps five centimeters across. It was smooth, but that didn’t mean much. “I can tell from here your sword didn’t even scratch it. Attempting to digest that would bring great pain. Anyway, if you intend to use it for something I do not mind, but I would like one to plant.” Anton gestured to the tree, “I could even take one from these lesser fruit. I imagine the tree produced should be much the same.”
“You a gardener?” the woman asked.
“A farmer, among other things,” Anton said.
“How about a hunter?” she asked, looking over Anton’s shoulder towards the doe.
“Sometimes, but this time I thought to try raising another type of animal.”
“Good luck with that,” the gruff woman responded. She threw the pit at him, almost as if she were trying to hit Anton with it- but with just the force of her arm it was an easy catch. “Go ahead and take it. I agree, I’d rather not have that thing going through my guts.”
Anton nodded, “Thank you very much. I’ll be moving on now. Many things to collect, and all that.”
As Anton continued to move through the forest, he continued to find many interesting edible plants. Many of them were familiar but with a touch of energy and likely more potency than normal. He gathered at least one of everything for the sake of seeds, and piled extras of various fruits and vegetables into his storage bag. If he had taken the time to carefully look inside he might have noticed a handful of very small figures chewing on some of the various foods inside, but as he only tossed things onto the pile his senses never slipped into the modified space inside.
Needle-leaf-blades fell all around Chikere as she continued up the tree towards her prize. Avoiding them wasn’t terribly hard, since they fell without intent. They did sometimes tumble in hard to predict manners, but she wasn’t going to lose to swords without wielders.
She almost didn’t notice a pair of blades as being different until they were swiping at her. Those she had to dodge instead of merely deflecting them, sending her stepping along a large branch behind her. As for what attacked her she saw… nothing. Just the tree, normal as could be. Though two particular leaf blades stood at an odd angle on a section that had otherwise become bare.
Then the branch in front of her moved, revealing a pair of eyes to go with the branch and leaf blades. For a moment Chikere was concerned that the whole tree was able to move and attack, but she quickly discerned that the creature in front of her was an independent entity. As blades fell from above she found it had a hard exoskeleton, harder than even the bark of the tree itself given the lack of dodging or avoidance of the falling blades.
Chikere had to dance back and forth on an ever-shrinking branch until she found a good opening for her strange opponent. She was extremely familiar fighting humans with swords, but something that’s front limbs were swords was another matter. And when those swords were also parts of a tree, she thought she was quite reasonable to have been thrown off guard.
But while her opponent was quick and durable, it had already lost the element of surprise. Once she knew it was something that could attack her, all it took was a few quick parries and chopping at its joints to turn it into a pile of dead twigs. Her blades slicing into it clearly told her it wasn’t a plant at all, merely some sort of insect with a carapace that looked like bark.
So she’d have to watch for more of that on the way to her prize at the top. The good news was that its forelimbs were actually in the top one hundred. Still unnecessary, but perhaps they could be enchanted to be turned into something great.