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If Anton and the others had delayed slightly, leaving the hammer user to do as he pleased, the bridge would have been destroyed- or at least practically so- before half a minute was up. As it was, Anton was peppering him with arrows that weren’t enough to bring him down quite as quickly as he wanted. The hammer user was just knocking out stone bricks on the far side of the abutments, so the whole bridge probably wouldn’t collapse, but if there was nowhere for the carriage to go it would either force them to stay or awkwardly continue on with someone carrying Kohar.
It was likely Fuzz could carry her and allow them to move quickly, but Anton didn’t want to lose the carriages even if he ignored the monetary expenditures. As he continued to practice Fleeting Youth, his ability to draw on the two different energies expanded. He could use more at once and likewise make use of more within the same stretch of time. Thus, his most powerful shots with ascension energy could still only be used three, perhaps four times- but if he were to use a similar power to what he had before reaching Essence Collection it would be five or six instead of his previous limit of three.
They weren’t in a situation where he could afford to conserve energy, and the only reason he’d delayed with additional attacks of the same sort was to throw off his opponent. His second shot with the power of Fleeting Youth was aimed to come in at a different angle than the first, to minimize the hammer user’s ability to try to swat it out of the air. It arced up high, turning back towards the ground not because of gravity but because of Anton’s will.
Once more the hammer user braced for the attack, gathering energy and preparing to strike the arrow out of the air. Anton was already gathering energy for a third shot. He felt something happening next to him, but he couldn’t let it interrupt him. He felt a pinching, and a loss of energy, but his attack followed through. His first arrow was met head on, the hammer shattering it in an upwards swing, but that was another moment the hammer user wasn’t attacking the bridge. And his follow up, despite the small loss of energy, still had the power to pierce through the man’s shoulder, as he was unable to fully dodge or gather sufficient defensive energy.
It didn’t kill the man, but it did achieve a reasonable result. In fact, Anton found it preferable for their actual goals- he just didn’t have the luxury of allowing people to live. He felt Kohar behind him, grasping onto something through the opening between the driver and the inside of the carriage. That would be the source of the pinch, he was fairly certain. He felt more things crawling out of his magic bag, and quickly tossed it to the back of the carriage. He could deal with that in a second.
He had less than a full powered shot left with his ascension energy, but he was now facing an injured opponent. His shot through the shoulder had severely damaged some muscles, pierced a bone, and even clipped some veins by the amount of blood flowing. The blood would only matter if the battle dragged on, but the other damage would severely limit the ability to swing a heavy hammer. Likewise, the pain would limit the ability of his opponent to control energy.
One final shot was fired, intentionally directed to force his opponent to turn to get even a half-decent swing. This time, Anton varied the speed of his shot at the last second- slowing it down ever so slightly so the counter-swing missed. His own arrow went straight through the bicep on the opposite arm. But Anton wasn’t done yet. Several normal shots followed up, battering the man’s head with energy that would only partially slip through his defenses.
Anton continued to direct the carriage to the far right side of the bridge that was still unscathed. In the moments it would take the leading carriage to get there the others would have dealt with the rest of the enemies. As the carriages caught up to the almost-stationary cultivators, they hopped on- carrying fallen foes. As they passed, Anton leaned down and kicked the reeling hammer user in the head, then scooped him up unconscious.
Both carriages passed the end of the bridge, and they continued at their top speed down the road. It was likely that some of the following enemies could catch them, but not all of them. If only a handful of Essence Collection cultivators followed, Anton was confident his group could take them out despite having just finished a battle.
Before Anton was sure if the enemy would chase or not, he started shooting back behind them. Most of those for the ambush were barely at the far end of the bridge, two hundred meters away, but he took out a couple of the fastest Spirit Building cultivators before moving on to the Essence Collection cultivator that seemed easiest to hit. That was who Anton kept as his target even as people stopped chasing. Anton wasn’t able to kill him before they got out of sight and though he could take a few more shots they were weakened significantly past the kilometer mark.
He turned both eyes to Kohar, who was holding an ant between her fingers. He looked down at his arm where he’d felt the pinch, but as he suspected it hadn’t been physical. Just some energy ripped away. He folded his arms and looked at the ant queen. “What are we going to do with you, huh?” He glanced at the rear of the carriage, where a handful of wide-headed ants with large jaws were standing atop his magic bag. They looked ready to fight, but somehow they seemed to understand their queen was being held and would be in danger if they moved. At least, that was how Anton interpreted them, but he wasn’t familiar with the thought processes of insect- except that they weren’t thought highly of.
But there were always exceptions.
The carriages rumbled along the road. They could now officially be counted as within the Frostmirror Sect’s territory, though there weren’t any road guards or anything to stop them at this point. There was nothing important around them, just more mountain. The sect itself was not entirely located at the peak of the mountain, despite their proclivity for ice, but instead they also had some facilities next to a lake about halfway down.
The carriages would arrive that day, and while the horses would be fatigued they would be able to rest.
Each of the two carriages was quite spacious, but they were rather cramped now. The front one had most of the same people, but Hoyt was present now- and Alva was riding on top. In the rear carriage, Velvet and Catarina were inside with a tightly-packed group of captives. Catarina’s concentration was focused on the formation of a myriad of small flags placed in too-little space.
All of the attackers were there, kept as alive as possible… but also with their energy suppressed. If they had been revealed as members of the Twin Soul Sect or other fanatics they wouldn’t have thought they would be of much use- anyone willing to die would just die without revealing information. However, most cultivators had some desire to live. Many of them valued themselves above everything else. If they could get even a few of them to reveal some information, it could help their cause- though depending on what they knew it could vary.
“I’ll bet they will say they were hired by someone in a cloak, their face covered by a mask,” Velvet commented to Catarina. “As if they couldn’t detect someone’s cultivation, or the face beneath a mask. No half-competent would work for people they didn’t know.”
“Probably,” Catarina admitted. “We can likely get them to talk though. The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars might not stoop to torture, but after we kill a couple uncooperative people they should be more compliant. But the Frostmirror Sect should be able to get them to speak, if they remain stubborn. They’re less concerned with… morality.”
It was only in extreme circumstances that the Order would even allow people to be tortured for information. It was both cruel and unreliable. However, there were reasons to speak of it. Specifically, the two women knew that some of their captives were awake. It would give them some time to stew. And Catarina really meant the thing about killing some of them, if they refused to cooperate. It would be swift and as painless as death could be, but killing people assigned to attack them was not unreasonable.
Along with the captives were a handful of ants. Though they were still contained, they weren’t in restraints like the others. Aside from the fact that nobody had cuffs sized for an ant, this was Elder Tshering’s attempt to see if they could properly communicate.
He’d made a lot of gestures- especially with energy- all of which were meant to communicate threats to the ant queen. Apparently she’d bitten off a chunk of Anton’s energy, specifically the ascension energy he got from Fleeting Youth. That was a behavior that they didn’t want… except they kind of did. Because if these ants could chew on ascension energy, they would be very useful in the upcoming invasion, or whatever it should be called. The problem was getting them to do what was wanted instead of just acting on instinct.
Catarina had seen the queen ant with her large hindquarters wriggling in Kohar’s grip. For something that had an exoskeleton and no external facial muscles to make expressions with, she thought the creature had looked extremely apologetic. That could have been her Intuition failing her on an unfamiliar entity, but the others had agreed.
So Elder Tshering had made some attempts to communicate, and now they were inside the formation chewing on the cultivator’s energy. It seemed the ants couldn’t interact with it unless it was drawn to the surface- at least, within the limits they were willing to test- but that meant any practical use of energy would leave it exposed to their tiny mandibles. And they were extremely efficient in chowing down on energy once they figured out they had permission or orders.
It was simply a question of whether they could comprehend that they were only allowed to do that sometimes. If they couldn’t, they’d probably have to wipe them out. Catarina wasn’t particularly fond of bugs, but looking closely she actually found them kind of cute. It would be a shame if they had to be wiped out because of their danger, but obviously that sort of thing couldn’t be ignored.
That was exactly why Elder Tshering had begun to study them in the first place, and come along when they decided to stick to Anton. He’d allowed it because he was curious, but also cautious.
Catarina heard rhythmic thumping in the front carriage. She didn’t sense any problems, but she soon realized the source. That was Alva, bouncing up and down with excitement as they got ever closer to the Frostmirror sect, and Annelie. Though Catarina was fond of both of her cute cousinish relatives, she hadn’t grown up with either of them. Thus, she didn’t have the same attachment as they had for each other.
At least, Catarina really hoped Annelie still had that attachment to Alva. She knew Anton had worked with Annelie to modify her cultivation so that she didn’t completely eliminate emotions and attachment, but even keeping things suppressed for a long time could make them fade out, like a pan over a fire.
On the other hand, suppressing certain emotions for a long time could lead to an explosive buildup. Catarina also wouldn’t wish that sort of thing on Annelie, because it would make her life much harder. She knew Annelie had already gone through six years as part of the Frostmirror Sect, but as the Twin Soul Sect proved people could fake being a certain way for many years.
Catarina sighed internally, keeping her actions in check because one of the captives was watching with half-open eyelids. That one had definitely been thinking about that whole being-killed thing, and Catarina might suggest they start with him, or perhaps have him second in line. Though they wouldn’t mind anyone volunteering information out of order either. If they could get some good dirt on whoever handed down the orders to kill them, everyone would be happy to forgive a silly mistake like trying to kill them. The first time, of course. But they’d remember if anyone made that mistake again, and wouldn’t be nearly so merciful.