The storage bag hanging at Anton’s side was being watched carefully by two of his companions behind him in the carriage, though it hardly seemed necessary to him. Each day they checked to make sure the queen was still present- she had to know they were aware of her presence by now- and Catarina’s formations would detect her anyway. Nothing was fully certain, but as much as anything could be, Anton was sure of that.
As Elder Tshering and Catarina watched him, Anton watched the world around them. While it would technically be better to have them watching for enemies as well, the chances that either of them would notice something their two with proper training wouldn’t was fairly low.
The Comvern Peaks were in central Ofrurg, not too far from the end of their journey. The steep mountains rose and fell quickly, leaving few functional paths. Of those, only one could be traveled by carriage. It was the easiest one to travel from any perspective, and the most direct. That wasn’t a coincidence, but rather the path had been carved out by people wanting to travel for trade and cultivators who just wanted a consistent route. It was still easier to go around the mountains to the north or south, but enough people favored the direct route to keep it maintained.
When Anton noticed the first enemy, he wasn’t sure if he’d made a mistake. It was obvious there was someone coming, but that was the catch. If their presence was so obvious, could they really be coming to attack? It only took Anton about a second to make the right decision- of course they could. They were just less skilled at it than many of the opponents he’d been facing previously. But stealth wasn’t the only metric to judge people by.
“Someone’s coming,” Anton warned the others. “A few in front, across the bridge.” The carriages were rapidly approaching the stone bridge- a far cry from rickety wood and rope bridges that often made up remote locations. “Two Essence Collection. But behind us a larger group is approaching. Four Essence Collection, I think, and more than a dozen Spirit Building cultivators. No, more than that for each type behind us.”
Despite the fact that Anton had detected the enemies at a great distance, they had at least kept their energy hidden enough for them not to notice as they passed. Only when they started moving in behind did he actually detect them.
“What should we do?” Catarina asked. She didn’t sound worried, it was just a question about how they would handle things.
“If the rear group is any bigger than I already can detect, it’s a bit risky to fight them. Especially since we might get pinned in from both sides.” Anton focused his eyes in front of them, picking out the handful of figures moving towards them but nothing else. “Our plans work best if we break through, though there are risks to either.” Hearing no immediate objections, Anton made the decision. “Forward it is.”
If the group had the luxury of time, Anton would have opened it up for discussion. However, even as he was warning people about what was happening their time to make a real choice had been ticking away. He flicked the reins, encouraging the horses pulling the carriage to move more quickly. Behind him, Timothy did the same.
In many cases, Anton would have given a warning to his enemies. A chance to back down. And in a way, he kept to that tradition. He just gave the verbal warning after he shot a half-dozen arrows ahead of them. “Get out of the way or face the consequences.” Anton projected his voice so anyone ahead could clearly hear him. It didn’t seem to immediately deter anyone, but it didn’t hurt to try.
If he wanted to, he could have killed any of the cultivators below Essence Collection. Anton wasn’t necessarily a merciful fellow with those who attacked him and those he cared about, but in this particular case he had a reason for them to live at least a little bit longer. Another reason to bring carriages.
Two enemies went down on the far side of the bridge, with others managing to avoid incapacitating energy through luck or skill. The problem with aiming at non-vital parts of opponents meant that it became easier to avoid the attacks for the most part, since the majority of vitals were in the center of the body. Of course, Anton doubted the woman with her arm hanging limply at her side thought she got off unscathed.
The hooves of the horses clattered onto the stone of the bridge. The whole thing was around two hundred meters long, counting the parts at either end that weren’t directly over the gorge. The abutments were about a quarter of the way from each end, with the primary arch only covering one hundred meters on its own. It was still an impressively large distance for it to span, and wouldn’t have been possible to construct without cultivators.
It was wide and sturdy, easily able to support the two carriages and the large wolf running across it, next to each other if necessary. Yet Anton could judge that it might not hold up so well to the Essence Collection cultivator with the large hammer ahead of them. He quickly shifted his target as he gauged the man’s intentions. It would only take them ten seconds or so to cross the bridge as they gained speed, but the enemy cultivators were also very speedy.
Two uninjured late Spirit Building cultivators and the other Essence Collection cultivator were already stepping onto the bridge to block them. They clearly weren’t eager to move far onto the bridge but they only had to keep them in the danger zone.
If the bridge collapsed, Anton wasn’t worried about dying. Neither himself nor the other Essence Collection cultivators were at significant risk, despite the distance they would be falling onto rocky ground. He was more concerned about Fuzz and more importantly Kohar and Alva. Kohar was in the same carriage he was driving so he would have a chance to protect her if they fell, but he’d rather not deal with that scenario.
As he began to take shots at the man who was swinging a hammer that would certainly knock out a section of worked stone, the other Essence Collection cultivator tossed three small packets towards them. Anton stopped to shoot them out of the air, where they exploded into powder that began to scatter on the bridge in front of them- but much of it was also being carried off the bridge by the wind.
“You take care of the hammer guy!” Elder Tshering had already leapt out of the carriage and was running alongside it. “Catarina and I will deal with the others!” He darted ahead, taking a deep breath before he got close to the powder. Anton knew it was a good idea to hold one’s breath when running through what was undoubtedly poison, but Tshering did one better. As the powder still hung in the air, he unleashed the breath from his lungs, augmented by energy to create a powerful gust moving it along with the wind. Only a few specks remained in their way.
The bridge trembled slightly. Anton was already back to shooting the hammer user, but he couldn’t stop him in just one or two shots. He could try though. He called upon the power of Fleeting Youth, condensing a powerful shot. If the hammer user didn’t defend he could at least cause significant injury. His arrow flew out, far beyond the reach of those blocking the bridge, curving to strike the man raining blows on the structure they were using.
Anton had to admire the man’s gumption. As soon as he launched the attack the man readied himself, empowering his hammer as he took a great swing. It was a bold move, trying to strike his arrow out of the air while also striking the bridge. As for efficacy… Anton would say he was half effective at each. His arrow exploded on impact, shards of energy carving gashes into the man’s arms as his hammer struck a decent blow on the bridge.
Alva had climbed to the top of the rear carriage. She couldn’t think about the people coming up behind them too much. They were still hundreds of meters behind, which made them a problem for a minute in the future.
She knew she didn’t have the power to even properly damage either of the Essence Collection cultivators, not directly anyway. But the one on the bridge throwing little packets of poison wasn’t just conjuring them from nothing. Most of them came from around his belt. She had no idea what it would do to him if they exploded around him, but he had to know. That was why he bothered to dodge her shots.
He was still able to toss the packets, and she couldn’t shoot them out of the air like Grandpa Anton- the man was using his energy to protect them until they got close to where he wanted- but if she made each attack a fraction of a second slower, she could buy time for others to get in range. Elder Tshering was almost there along with Catarina, with Fuzz and then Hoyt not all that far behind even though Fuzz started between carriages and Hoyt had been in the rear.
Two packets were lobbed over the first carriage towards the horses pulling the rear. Even before they got close, Timothy was out of his seat and standing on the horse’s backs. As the packets descended, he raised his shield. A standard shield wouldn’t do much to block powder, but Timothy wasn’t the sort that would just block. His shield shoved forwards towards them, energy extending in all directions around it. The shockwave from his movement shoved the poison powder up and over even Alva standing atop the carriage, though she ducked just in case.
As Elder Tshering reached the poison user, Alva was already firing her next arrows. One towards a path his arm might take to throw something, one towards the storage bag at his waist, and one towards the belt on the other side where there were a few adjacent pouches that hadn’t been opened yet. With a swift twist of his body, the man avoided all of her arrows except the one aimed at his arm, which he let dissipate harmlessly against his energy.
Unfortunately for him, Elder Tshering’s sweeping kick was not so easily dodged. The Elder sprang forward, kicking into the man’s side. It was meant to catapult him up and off the side of the bridge, but he at least had the capacity to throw off the angle so he merely was thrown into the wall, nearly toppling the cultivator next to him.
Alva took aim at the late Spirit Building cultivator on the right of the bridge, where Catarina was about to make contact. It was a target she could at least threaten somewhat, and Catarina could take them apart if she made a proper opening.
A chill ran down Alva’s spine as she sensed an incoming attack. She didn’t have time to turn to look, but she knew someone was leaping from the side of the bridge. She had no idea how they got there. Perhaps they had been hiding the whole time, but either way she wasn’t prepared. She felt a blade coming for her, and then she felt warm blood on her face.
Alva slowly let out her breath and fired her shot towards the end of the bridge. That had almost been her blood. However, Velvet had briefly appeared next to her, and the blood instead belonged to the person who tried to ambush Alva.
It was possible Alva herself could have avoided the attack. She was beyond the twentieth star, a powerful cultivator in her own right. But even if she wouldn’t have been able to, it didn’t matter. Allies were meant to cover each other’s weaknesses and empower each other’s strengths. She still wished she was riding Fuzz instead of standing on top of the carriage, since he always helped her respond to incoming attacks, but Fuzz was currently leaping onto the cultivator Catarina was engaged with.