For a regular person, even the average cultivator, consciousness ended with death. For Majken, she was aware it would be different. She was definitely dead. Of that she had no doubt. It was unfortunate, but the attack would go on regardless. Her merits would be diminished, but she knew life would go on. A different life, of course, but still very much hers.
It was a strange thing, to keep her consciousness after death. Strange, but good. She knew the process of reincarnation could take some time, but she might not experience most of it.
It only felt like a few short moments before someone arrived out of the nothingness around her.
“Hello,” the figure said.
“Hello,” Majken replied in kind. “Are you the one in charge of reincarnation?”
“You could say that,” the indistinct figure said. Majken tried to focus her eyes, but it was difficult when she didn’t actually have eyes. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
With words like that, it would be easy for Majken to believe she was someone special- but she was well aware of the things she had done for the Twin Soul Sect. “Is it just you?” she asked. “Can you keep track of everyone?”
“Oh yes. It’s not terribly difficult,” the figure said.
“I don’t know exactly how you keep track of merits,” Majken said. “But I was one of the few who managed to stay as an insider on a large sect. The attack is still ongoing, I believe.”
“Don’t worry,” the figure said. “I know enough to give you exactly what you deserve.”
It was at that point, when Majken heard his tone of voice, she realized she’d made a mistake. Promises of rewards in the next life for fanatical sacrifice in another seemed like a tall tale, but she had been provided adequate proof to convince her of the possibility and actual sincerity of the claims. Even now, she didn’t doubt them- because if she was simply going to be abandoned, then nobody at all would have come to see her.
“…Who are you?” Majken managed to ask shakily. She wasn’t sure how she was trembling without a corporeal form, but it happened.
“Who, me?” The only part of the figure to become distinct was a maniacal grin. “Just a local looking out for his hometown. Or maybe it’s better to say, the guard dog he left behind. Now then, your reward is ready.”
“… What is it?” Majken was afraid to ask, but she was also afraid to not try to delay as long as possible. Would it be some sort of eternal torture?
“Though you won’t have any chance to act on this, I should point out that the difference between thoughts and speech here is purely a matter of perspective. But it’s not eternal torture. That’s far too much work. Instead, you get nothing.”
Nothing didn’t sound all that awful. And perhaps it wasn’t, but Majken would be unable to compare it to anything because she was very quickly nothing herself.
Anton crushed an orb that was always handy. Communicating long distance wasn’t always easy, even for cultivators, but for extremely simple messages it was possible. In this case, the message was that his orb was broken. It was tied to a certain location, and so they would know there was trouble where Anton was. The exact kind of trouble wouldn’t be clear, but Anton didn’t know what it was anyway. Beyond Majken, of course. She was dead on the ground behind him, but the fact that she had been willing to attack him meant she was expecting something from the Twin Soul Sect.
Even as he scanned the horizon for any signs of an attack, Anton found that he was quite pleased with how his technique was developing. Ultimately he thought it would be weaker than Falling Stars, or more accurately less energy efficient, but it fit him better. Its effectiveness wouldn’t always be so good, because in an actual battle people would have more focus on their defenses. It was something he could hardly have considered seriously before he stepped into Essence Collection, but with that step and the increase in his power it was viable.
It took practice to form a cloud of energy that could instantaneously form an attack anywhere within it- and ‘anywhere’ was a stretch- but it had served its purpose. Anton was unsure if it would ever be his primary technique, but he could think of times in the past where it would have been useful.
Grand Elder Vandale might have many kilometers of range with Falling Stars, but Anton could only form bows in the area around him, ten or twenty meters. They were not as good as having a proper bow- the physical structure of a bow added to the power along with his own muscular strength- but he’d gotten it to the point where a bow formed purely from energy could be a real threat instead of merely a distraction or emergency weapon.
The field around Anton was slowly fading away. He hoped it might seem as if he himself were fading away as well. Either way, it was pointless to maintain it at the moment. It was merely there because he knew Majken would try to attack him at some point, and it had worked marvelously for his counterattack.
The Order was just up the mountain. Anton knew it might take time to marshal forces, or even to decide who needed to come, but he waited nervously as he watched the horizon. He thought about what he knew, and about his own position. He was, at least at for this particular shift, the leader of this border squad. A squad which was counting on him to give them commands.
Anton was quite glad that all of them would be able to feel Majken’s cultivation. At least he didn’t have to explain that part. Now, how should he proceed? First, some assurances to the gathering squad. “I know this appears quite alarming. Another traitor in our own midst after the Grand Elders personally vetted everyone. But I’m sure all of you can puzzle out the truth of the matter here. She was being watched very carefully.”
Anton wondered if the other two had figured it out. The Order wouldn’t just leave them helpless, even for a sting operation. Anton sensed something to the west, but at the same time his eyes went up the slope to the very peaks. Of course. Even he could make a shot from that distance- if he was the one atop the mountain, anyway.
“Enemy forces are coming. If the circumstances were different, the task of preventing a group from crossing the border would be our top priority. However, the Order has been alerted. This is not something we can handle with just one squad, capable as I’m sure you all are.” Anton kept his voice calm, and it help that he actually felt that way. A little bit, at least. “We will be withdrawing towards the sect itself, where we shall join up with the other forces.” Anton honestly wondered if their presence was necessary at all, except to make the bait not too obvious.
Thus, Anton and the squad of Spirit Building cultivators began making their way away from the border post. Anton was glad none of the others were personal acquaintances, because it would have made him worry about them being attacked which would ironically have diverted his focus from Majken.
He walked at a measured pace, keeping mental track of the energy signatures behind them. If they broke off from the rest, there might be a problem- but there were an unknown number of enemies gathered together. Unknown, but certainly very large. And growing.
Anton led the others until they arrived at the next layer of guard towers, well inside the Order’s land instead of on the border of Graotan. While a full defensive wall might have been nice, it was simply impractical. The Order certainly had the resources to construct a wall, but what good would it do? It could slow those in Body Tempering and perhaps Spirit Building. Beyond that it would have to be excessively large to not be easily surmountable or destroyed.
The guards towers were practical for sight, and as a place for watchers to have shelter during cold seasons.
There were walls around the inner compounds of the Order, and beyond that there were the formations at the border. They were mainly used to stop beasts from leaving the forest, but they went around the entirety of the Order’s lands. Anton knew they would do more than just what he’d seen- or other formations hidden in the area. The exact details weren’t something he was privy to, but it didn’t matter.
Anton recognized Marcio Armani atop one of the towers. Anton preempted any questions and called out to them. “Enemies on the approach from the west. Too many for our squad to deal with, or perhaps even delay significantly. I’ve sent the alarm ahead, but even so I don’t think we should delay here long.”
“We can’t just abandon our posts,” Marcio responded.
“There’s a reason nobody lives on the western slopes,” Anton countered. “But I’m not saying we should abandon anything. We’ll hold here, together, and make a proper judgment of the incoming enemy forces.”
There was plenty of room in the towers for another squad, though their defensive value was minimal. If it was a matter of equal forces, or even two or three times their numbers, then archers atop the towers attacking while defensive positions were held in the stairways would be valuable. Instead, Anton made sure that there were quick ways to get down, so they could retreat quickly when the time came. The structures were meant for small-scale battles, but Anton knew this wouldn’t be small-scale.
He sensed several Essence Collection cultivators coming. There were likely more he hadn’t sensed, but that wasn’t the end of things. The Spirit Building cultivators were easier to sense as a group, several large masses that might have totaled to hundreds. Either of those things might have been a real battle, though not necessarily one that required Grand Elders to participate.
Anton was more concerned about the Life Transformation expert he sensed, and whether there might be more of them. Those with higher cultivations were generally easier to sense, with the caveat that those who practiced stealth techniques to a higher proficiency would become more unknowable the greater their cultivation.
Anton stood atop a tower, taking aim towards one of many Essence Collection cultivators he sensed. Giving away his presence might be a tactical blunder, but not responding in any way might be even more suspicious. The entire group was advancing at a pace that Spirit Building cultivators could keep up, and unlike in some battles the stronger cultivators hadn’t rushed to the front. A technically correct tactic, letting the weaker forces absorb some of the damage, but not a style the Order preferred. Striking out ahead of the rest of the forces was still a gamble, but at least the stronger cultivators could fight alongside their brethren.
He took a shot as soon as he could see a target with his eyes. Marcio stood next to him and followed his lead. The younger man had once outclassed Anton in cultivation, but his growth wasn’t quite able to keep up. Thus, he was simply in late Spirit Building, which still meant his shots were quite dangerous. Along with Anton’s own attacks, their first few shots actually managed to injure one of the Essence Collection cultivators who had been just behind the front ranks. It wasn’t serious, but it might slow them down.
Anton wished he had more orders. He knew the general plan for situations such as this, but he wanted to give as much time as possible for the others to prepare. He should have also asked just how many people were actually around. He knew that, technically, Grand Elder Kseniya was supposed to be away. Yet he’d certainly seen her. Vandale wasn’t up for traveling to begin with, so there had been no effort to pretend otherwise. But the others? Anton was certain their numbers weren’t quite so diminished.