“So you see,” Anton explained, “Rahayu has likely put concern for his life out of his head entirely. Chikere is… the type who never really thought about that to begin with. If the two of you come along, it is at risk to your own lives.”
“That’s how battles always are,” Hoyt pointed out. “And you’re going, aren’t you?”
“The potential the two of you have…” Anton shook his head, “Look, they’ll need some support from me. I could be the difference between them being overwhelmed or causing some real damage.”
“That doesn’t explain why we shouldn’t also help,” Velvet pointed out.
“You’ve done this before, you know,” Hoyt said. “I don’t know what it is with… people like you… but you should be aware that it doesn’t feel good to have people you care for sacrifice themselves.”
More than the words, logical as they were, Anton was convinced by the emotion behind them, including a very real piece that Anton knew was directed towards his grandfather- Vandale. “Is it so wrong for me to try?” Anton shook his head. “The two of you could live a couple hundred more years, unless you entirely give up cultivating. Maybe even then. That’s… quite a bit more to lose.”
“Years of life don’t mean anything if you don’t share them with people you care about,” Velvet said sternly. “And before you come up with some stupid response for that, you’re one of the very few people I actually care about. The one who made me realize that I could care about people.”
Anton just shook his head. “It’s just… this upcoming invasion worries me. I want to see the world continue and grow, but there are threats both now and later.”
“We’ll just do as all cultivators before us,” Hoyt said. “We fight here to grow stronger for later.”
At that point, Chikere was approaching the group. “Um… I hope you’ve decided if you’re coming. Because he’s not going to wait much longer.”
“Let me just hand over this letter,” Anton said. “We might be able to get reinforcements before the enemies arrive. Hopefully they have to travel further.”
As Swordmaster Rahayu walked along, Anton wouldn’t have known he was carrying someone over his shoulder if he couldn’t see her. The smith Brianne didn’t seem to hinder his stride at all, and it was a rapid one at that. He didn’t even use an arm to hold her in place, simply having slung her over in a way that apparently remained balanced. She’d made some attempts to roll off of him at one point, but Rahayu was not shy about cutting whatever muscles she used. It wasn’t pleasant, but neither was betraying the world for… rewards in a future life?
Anton frowned. He hadn’t had the opportunity before, so he might as well ask. “How do you know the promises to you will be upheld?” Anton asked.
Brianne seemed to be considering not answering, but then she glanced over at Rahayu. Anton wasn’t sure if he cared, but as long as she thought he did that was good enough. And while Twin Soul Sect members didn’t seem afraid of death, they were quite reasonable to not like suffering. “We received contact from those who had gone beyond,” she said finally.
“Did you ever consider that maybe they were just fakes?”
“Impossible,” Brianne said swiftly. “Their cultivation was made clear to us, great and powerful.”
She really did mean it was impossible. While the Twin Soul Sect’s cultivation technique was made to conceal their true cultivation, it was also surprisingly easy to reveal if you knew what to do. They were almost like beacons in the right circumstances. Perhaps they really could use that to be sure. Though members of their sect being strong didn’t necessarily mean that they would all receive the promised rewards. There had to be some practical limit… but perhaps their backers were simply that expansive. Nobody knew how big the world beyond ascension was, or if they did they kept it secret. Even the Twin Soul Sect members didn’t know the details.
Anton asked more questions, but he didn’t learn anything new. It was frustrating, really. Everything seemed to be, at the moment. All that work to reveal her and Rahayu just waltzed up and found her. But that was how the world worked, wasn’t it? Everything was simple if you just had the power. If Anton were stronger he wouldn’t have had issue just going up to each smith and probing their cultivation. Perhaps he should have already requested Life Transformation cultivators from the sect, though they could have also spooked the smith off. That was the excuse anyway, but part of the truth was that Anton had wanted the success himself. An interesting thought he would deal with later.
Foulmarsh was not far away, and despite his exceptional sight Anton smelled it before he saw it. The wind shifted direction and brought a wide variety of unpleasant smells to him. The smells of rot and exotic plants and creatures that weren’t much more tolerable. Yet the smell wasn’t the complete reason for the name. Everything about it was supposed to be unpleasant. The only benefit… was that nobody else was around. Any cultivators approaching would be easily picked out- and presumably cut to ribbons.
Mud squelched on Anton’s boots, pulling at them and threatening to rip them off. It would have, if he had not taken to using energy to bind them to his feet. A minor annoyance, but it was just one of many. The smells and insects were constant as well. Another problem was the temperature. It was swelteringly hot, in an unnatural manner. Compared to the magma chamber it was almost tepid, but it was constant. Well, almost constant. During the day it was muggy, but at night or certain random periods the temperature would flip, suddenly trying to freeze people to death. Everything was a constant drain.
They had set up camp in one of the ‘nicer’ places, where there were a few pockets of solid land a majority of the time. Except when it was raining and the marsh rose, or when the sudden freezes and thaws repositioned the somewhat more durable areas.
With a flick of his wrist, Anton fired an arrow that split through the body of a mosquito. They were worse than the ones in Ambati, presumably because they had been feeding off of more than just an unlucky sect of cultivators. There were snakes and turtles and even a variety of alligators that lived in the area off of which they fed, as well as some mammals. The reptiles seemed like they would be particularly vulnerable to the sudden temperature changes, but apparently they managed.
A snake leapt out of the water towards Anton, but he didn’t have to move a muscle. Chikere was standing on that side, and she sliced it into several pieces before it got close. Most of the larger creatures were relegated to her, and Anton dealt with the flying insects.
Swordmaster Rahayu could have certainly cleared out the area, but he only dealt with things that came after him personally. There had been one alligator the size of a house that must have thought he seemed like a nutritious, energy-filled snack- but it found itself being dined upon instead. Anton was growing tired of it, actually, as the meat was rather tough.
He shot another mosquito about to land on their prisoner. It was possible they didn’t need her alive any longer, but if members of the Twin Soul Sect arrived and determined she wasn’t there, they might be less willing to approach, and to fight. They could hardly cull their numbers if they simply left, and that was their goal.
At least, it was the goal of the Order. Chikere… might just want to fight. The same might be true of Rahayu, but he hadn’t really asked. It seemed a bit late after a week, but he thought he really should. “Swordmaster Rahayu. What are your intentions with this?”
“The same as anyone else in my position,” the old man said. “Ascension.” He tilted his head, “Why do you look so surprised?”
“I knew you said you were close,” Anton said, “But are you sure this is the right way?”
“You’re the one who gave me the idea,” Rahayu pointed out. “Saying they might send people after me. That sounded like exactly what I needed, so here we are.”
“I see,” Anton nodded. He wasn’t going to question what the man thought he knew. There were certain things about cultivation that just worked like that. He was probably right. And if not… he might just die. Or he could survive to do it again.
Chikere was getting impatient. It had been over a week they were remaining in one spot, and Swordmaster Rahayu wouldn’t fight her anymore. Something about her being in top form when the battle came. The others were at least willing to spar with her, but they didn’t take it as seriously. She was beginning to feel a difference from when she first started training with Rahayu, but she felt she couldn’t bring it out without some real combat. And she wouldn’t get close with those three.
She did have a large number of insights to still absorb from her fights with Rahayu, and there was pleasant scenery to look at. Specifically, the sword he carried with him. It was… exceptional. “Can I have your sword after you die?” she asked.
He looked straight at her, his gaze like a casual sword strike. She felt like she could learn something from all of his motions. “I’m not going to die. I’m going to ascend. So you’ll have to follow me there. If you can take it, it will be yours.”
Chikere clicked her tongue. That was going to take so long. She was at twenty years of cultivation, and with the rate things were slowing down it might take her a whole century to achieve ascension. Oh well, at least she would have something to look forward to.
“Ah, they do care about you,” Chikere commented. “In some form or fashion.”
Brianne rolled limply onto her back. “What do you mean?”
Chikere sighed. “I can’t believe you don’t even recognize your own work coming. Though I suppose you’re kind of out of it now, huh? Still, it’s disrespectful to not recognize them even without energy.”
Anton was surveying the horizon in the direction Chikere sensed people coming. They seemed to be attempting stealth to some extent, but the denizens of Foulmarsh seemed to have other plans in mind.
“You only ever use one sword, right?” Chikere directed that to Rahayu. “So I can have that other one… right?”
“Don’t need it,” Rahayu agreed. “I don’t care.”
Chikere was nearly salivating at the approaching weapon. It didn’t matter that it was tainted with the sense of the Twin Soul Sect, she could still appreciate something good. If she never took weapons from her enemies, how would she get anything?
“If you let me go now,” the smith commented, “They might let the rest of you live. That has to be Swordmaster Vianne.”
“That’s right,” Rahayu confirmed. “Didn’t know she was one of yours. I’m glad. I was worried they might not send anyone worth my time.”
“She won’t be foolish enough to come alone.”
“That’s fine,” Rayahu commented. “In fact, that’s even better. Nothing like a fight with a couple Life Transformation punks to get things started. Maybe they’ll try to tire me out first.” He grinned widely, “This should be fun. You all ready?”
“As much as we can be,” Anton commented. “I’m a bit concerned about their numbers. Four Life Transformation experts, one at the peak like yourself… that leaves us with quite a few opponents in Essence Collection. Nobody in Spirit Building though.”
“Of course not,” Rahayu said. “They’d be dead if they showed up, wouldn’t they? Don’t tell me you couldn’t have put them down from where they are now. Speaking of which, shouldn’t you be shooting?”
“The good targets are all hidden in the shadows of the Life Transformation experts. It would be a waste of energy.” Even as he said that, Anton began to gather his energy, drawing back his bow. “Who do you reckon is the weakest of those four?” Anton asked.
“The kid who’s overcompensating with the big sword,” Rahayu suggested.
Anton didn’t bother to point out that ‘the kid’ was probably older than himself. He simply continued to gather energy in a relaxed manner. This would probably be the last time he could freely line up a shot, so he would make the most of it.