“I can’t believe he went off to fight people without us!” Alva yelled at no one in particular.
“He specifically sent us letters telling us about it,” Annelie pointed out. “And it seems that this Swordmaster Rahayu is not the type who is patient. Besides, we might still have time to help him.”
“I know, but… ugh!” Alva waved her arms into the air.
“I don’t know why you’re so upset,” Anish said. “Didn’t you want an excuse to get away from here and get into some action? I thought you were tired of teaching people.”
“But we’re almost done!” she protested. “We can’t just spend all this time and then just abandon it.”
“So what is it?” Annelie asked.
“What if he gets hurt? Or dies…?”
“That is the eventual fate of all cultivators,” Anish said. “But your grandfather is strong.”
“But there’s only four of them! And that Swordmaster or whatever. Without Timothy and Catarina everyone’s at risk…”
Annelie hugged Alva awkwardly, a motion she had not practiced much in her last fifteen years of life. “It will be alright. What’s the real problem?”
“… he brought me with him on this expedition, but he still didn’t bring me into danger. Like I’m still a little kid instead of almost thirty years old.”
There was a long period of silence, then Anish finally came up with something helpful to say. “He went to Erygan simply for an investigation. There was just as much chance of us running into trouble here. Maybe even more. I would think of it as more of a sign that he trusted you to be fine. And you should trust the same thing of him. He’s tough.”
It was unclear whether Anton and the others had overestimated themselves or underestimated the forces the enemy would send after them. After sensing the four Life Transformation cultivators, fleeing might have been their best option. Then again, most of them couldn’t escape from them on their own, and Swordmaster Rahayu wasn’t interested in escaping, nor the type to assist them with such.
One Life Transformation cultivator was dead. So were more than half of the Essence Collection cultivators. Yet the Life Transformation cultivator pressing in on the rest of them barely had a scratch, and though Swordmaster Rahayu was only facing two opponents, they were now uninjured, any wounds they suffered recovered by the mace wielding expert. It didn’t appear that he was overly fatigued yet, either.
“Focus on the weaklings!” Chikere called out. “I’ve got this guy.”
The Essence Collection cultivators were approximately equivalent in power to each of the rest of them, but by comparison they were the weaklings. If Anton, Hoyt, and Velvet focused solely on them it would simply be two or three two one, which was… not great odds. But things were nominally worse for Chikere, who was fighting the Life Transformation cultivator.
There was just one fatal mistake he’d made. Even Anton could tell after watching their brief exchanges. He used a sword, but he wasn’t devoted to it. Perhaps he simply had another focus, or maybe he couldn’t achieve that state… but if nothing else, Anton believed without solid evidence that Chikere would be the one to come out ahead. And if not, she simply had to survive for long enough for them to take out the others.
Hoyt was a whirling tornado of fire, covering his area of the battlefield in a painted sea of sparkling flame. And though the method was entirely different, the force behind it reminded Anton of Vandale. The selective nature was also a matching factor, which was good for Anton because it meant he could run through the flames without killing himself. He was doing quite a bit of that as people tried to chase him down, as well as dodging the gray orbs.
Their body-melting ability was problematic, but injuries were something that could be dealt with. There was something deeper behind these, and Anton didn’t like whatever it signified. It felt like… a connection to death. Not the sort of agreement Anton had, forged through the power of Fleeting Youth. The peaceful thought that he would die some day, and had accepted that. It was instead violent death, and perhaps the sort that caused more than bodily harm. Concrete information about the nature of the soul was rare, but if anything could harm it Anton supposed those orbs might.
Avoiding them was becoming a problem, and shooting them normally didn’t disperse them. But when they decided he wasn’t a worthwhile target and began aiming at Chikere, who was trying to have a solo duel… he had to try something. It felt close enough.
He gathered just a little bit of the energy from beyond death, leading into reincarnation. It wasn’t just the potential energy he could have in future lives, but a different substance. His first shot was not enough to completely disperse the orb he aimed at, and Chikere had to throw herself into an awkward dive to avoid it, nearly getting an arm chopped off for her efforts. Making use of all his techniques to shoot quickly, based on Thousand Arrows, Anton continued his barrage with great intensity, breaking the attacks apart. He was fairly certain each of his own attacks consumed less energy than the enemy, but he had to deal with two opponents who seemed skilled in that area.
And then it was one, because Velvet was still participating in the battle. If Hoyt could hold on for a while longer, they might actually find themselves getting through the battle.
A sudden shift in the battlefield came as Foulmarsh decided that it wanted to be cold. Previously irrelevant small pools of water rapidly became ice trying to entrap the feet of everyone standing in it. Hoyt was at an advantage as he had already been boiling away the water beneath him, and he swung his axe in a vertical cleave, his target disappearing into the ground and leaving behind a large crater.
Rahayu faced off against two opponents, twisting his sword as he sliced towards his most heavily armored opponent. At least, he had been heavily armored, but was now peppered with damaged armor. He could heal his wounds, but the holes in his armor remained. Rahayu’s sword sliced into the man’s arm, severing muscle and bone… but not quite finishing the job. In return, Vianne sliced into his hamstring, forcing him to jump away with one leg, unable to take a proper stance. He grimaced as his opponent healed even that grievous wound in but a few moments, his arm looking nearly as good as new.
“Not good enough,” Rahayu muttered to himself.
“Clearly not,” Vianne said, taunting him. Even with his injuries, she remained at a cautious distance. “You can hold your own against those weaker than yourself, but you can barely scratch me.”
Rahayu didn’t point out that he’d sliced through a number of her ribs earlier. In fact, he didn’t seem to be listening to her words at all. “With an injured leg… will it be enough?” He tilted his head, then nodded. He shifted from a two-handed grip on his sword to a single hand, then shook his head. He swapped to his left hand, and a sudden shower of blood came from his right, where it hung limply. “Maybe this… will be enough.”
Vianne’s eyes flicked over to her companion, and she nodded slightly. He charged forward ahead of her, weapon held defensively. Meanwhile, she moved around behind Rahayu, flanking him. Shadows wrapped around her blade as she heightened her killing intent. They struck at the same time.
Then the world split apart.
“Oh,” said Rahayu. “That’s it. I see now.” He turned to face her, his sword still held up in the position it had finished his upward slash towards her companion. Vianne had swept her sword across Rahayu’s back in a move intended to sever his head from his torso.
Vianne wondered what it was he had seen. Unfortunately she could not ask, as the moment he began to step towards her the world split in two.
At that same moment, a sword cut into Chikere’s neck. It was deep, more than two centimeters. A fatal blow. She turned her eyes towards her opponent and glared. The words didn’t come out right, but Anton had the feeling she was asking what was wrong with him. That seemed strange, as she was the one who had looked away from the fight. The only thing keeping her head on her neck were over a dozen swords blocking at the same time, locking the sword in place.
Without even bothering to pull away, Chikere twisted her sword, breaking the oversized hunk of metal the man wielded into a hundred shards. No… slicing it. Anton was having trouble processing everything at once, but his eyes settled on Rahayu in the last moment anyone would ever see him.
There was a cut in the air just the height of a person. Two of them, in fact, on either side of the man. They happened to be the locations of his two opponents, except only half of them remained on either side where the slices bulged out in the middle. And Rahayu stepped through one to disappear, a surge of power washing over the battlefield.
Chikere’s opponent didn’t react quickly enough to having his weapon suddenly dissected, but that was because it was simply something she couldn’t do. Couldn’t have done before that moment, at least. But she had watched the sword slash that triggered the ascension of Swordmaster Rahayu, and her insights suddenly added up.
Others reacted at different speeds, but the fastest was one of those who flung the deathly orbs. They were sprinting away from the battle before Anton could get a lock on them, and though they would be within range for some time… Hoyt still needed his help- fending off a half dozen opponents at once for sustained periods was at the limit of what he could handle. Even as the remaining handful of Essence Collection cultivators realized that their strongest members had all perished they were raining attacks on Hoyt, covering him in blood. Chikere killed her opponent, but collapsed unconscious where she stood.
Anton continued to pour himself into the battle, finishing off those who stayed to fight first and then shooting after the fleeing enemies. Unfortunately, with a combination of his fatigue and the fact that they could focus on him, several opponents got away with their lives. He would have liked to chase after them, but he chose to prioritize helping keep Chikere’s head on. Blood was pouring out of her neck and she was breathing poorly.
“Do we stitch that?” Velvet said in a panic. “I can use a needle, I think. We have the equipment.”
“Do it,” Anton said as he used his energy to hold Chikere’s blood in, as well as trying to push it back in somehow. He was lucky her energy wasn’t unconsciously fighting him, though perhaps that was simply because she was completely drained, or even overdrafted beyond her limits. Hoyt staggered over, covered in wounds- but he still contributed his energy to help remove blood pooling in her lungs.
When everything was sealed to the best of their abilities and a whole mess of healing medicines was shoved into her or spread on her neck, she staggered forward. Anton caught her, but found himself being pushed back. He looked over his shoulder and shook his head. Rahayu was gone, and he wouldn’t be coming back. Hopefully… ascension would be good for him, whatever it entailed.
Rather than fight against a dying, unconscious woman Anton let Chikere walk and simply followed after her to make sure she wasn’t going to wander into the marsh. When she flopped forward he moved to catch her, but as she landed and a smile widened on her face, he made a realization.
For all that she seemed to have great respect for her short-term master, there was something she always cared about more. Anton wasn’t sure if it was a good idea for her to hug the bare blade of Swordmaster Vianne, but wasn’t going to try to wrestle it away from her either.