The next morning when Anton woke up, he thought for a second everything had all been a dream, and he was back home in Dungannon. His bones ached from the cold, despite the shelter attempting to stave it off. But he was not in his bed or his home, and fifteen years was an awfully long and detailed dream. The final piece was his wounds aching, not just from the fact that he hadn’t properly rested them but a pulsing beat of infection, echoing with the ache in his head. Being sick was awful. He really needed to take a day working on driving out the infection and repairing his body, but they were also not somewhere safe. Even so, he began the process, finding it rather hard to make use of his energy and the infection quite stubborn. He started with cleaning out his blood and the smallest cuts as much as he could.
“How?!” a voice suddenly shouted from the next tent over, breaking his concentration. Chikere had suddenly sat bolt upright, her new sword still clutched in her arms. Anton stood with the intent to explain where they’d traveled, but soon realized her question was about something very different. She didn’t seem to be paying attention to her surroundings at all, simply drawing the sword and swinging it. Her movements came at all angles, across her body, diagonally, vertically down and then back up. She repeated the motions with a sort of mad frenzy. Her body wasn’t exactly in a great condition to do what she was doing, but Anton didn’t know a way to stop her.
The others were all awake now, Velvet having been on watch. The three exchanged glances clearly concerning Chikere’s state, but it only lasted for ten minutes before one final slash where she stopped.
“Phew. I’ve got it.” She looked around. “Oh, hi. Where are we?”
“Still in Foulmarsh,” Anton said. “Trying to make our way out.”
“Okay,” she nodded. “My neck hurts.”
“You really shouldn’t talk,” Hoyt pointed out.
Chikere shrugged, but it seemed that hurt as well. Not that it was surprising, given her close-to-half-decapitated state.
With everyone awake, rations were distributed- with the softest ones given to Chikere since swallowing would be difficult. Her throat was quite swollen, some of the stitches strained. But she didn’t complain beyond her initial remark that it hurt.
Then they were moving again. Chikere was able to walk on her own, and while that might have been ill advised in her state in other circumstances, not carrying her freed up Hoyt. Given the red and swollen state of his wounds, he seemed to be doing fairly well. That was good, because Anton was feeling a bit off.
His eyes blurred when looking at anything far away, and while he would have normally been able to supplement that with his natural energy, he was finding it difficult to rally it for any clear purpose. But he kept walking, step by step. He kept his eyes focused just on what was ahead of him, even as his vision narrowed.
When Anton collapsed, nobody was close enough to catch him. Toppling over wouldn’t be a problem for a cultivator in most circumstances, but Anton was already in a delicate position. Hoyt happened to react first, rushing over to him and reaching out to help him up.
“Gah!” he almost lost his grip as he grabbed onto Anton’s arm. “His body’s hot. Like, sticking a hand into a furnace hot.”
“What do we do?” Chikere asked. “Should we… cut out the infection?” Despite her normal eagerness for anything involving cutting, she didn’t even reach for one of her blades.
“Too late for that, I think,” Hoyt said. “It seems to have spread everywhere.” Hoyt looked in his bag but shook his head. “I never thought to bring anything to help with fevers. Just wound healing and poison expulsion. The latter might help but…”
“It could also make him work,” Velvet commented as she came back from her scouting position. “It’s better not to use any of those.”
Hoyt lifted him up onto his back, wrapping Anton’s arms around himself to keep him steady. “We need to keep moving. Or rather, get back to Erygan as quickly as we can. Unless there’s somewhere closer?”
Velvet shook her head. “Not of any size. And I doubt a normal town or village will have anything that will affect something like this. You’re right, we need to get moving. And fast.”
“I can cut down anything in our way,” Chikere said. “Just point us in the right direction.”
“I can fight too,” Velvet pointed out.
“If it’s convenient, sure. But you need to focus on the route.” Chikere grimaced as she continued to speak. “I can kill things the fastest. How fast can you run with him?” Chikere asked Hoyt.
“Basically full speed but… I’m not sure if it will make him worse.”
“A few bumps shouldn’t make a difference. Let’s go.”
Then they were off. Hoyt wished he had some role other than running… but he was pretty good at that. While the physical capabilities of cultivators at their level were generally similar unless using a particular cultivation technique focused on Body Tempering, Hoyt did have the steady temperament to keep moving, and was less useful for other things. And while Anton’s alarming temperature wouldn’t kill either of the other two, he was also better suited to resist it while focusing on speed instead of defense.
With the increased pace, even with Velvet’s guidance for what route to take, they inevitably stepped into the territory of numerous grumpy beasts. But one thing remained consistent about every encounter- Chikere defeated everything in a single blow. The feat was slightly less impressive considering she’d recently obtained an exceptionally high grade sword, but equipment such as that generally only allowed a greater maximum offensive power. Beyond a certain point a blade reached peak sharpness and mainly focused on durability and keeping the cutting edge. The impressive part was her only using as much energy as needed to cut down the beasts, as they were running into a sort of continuous stream of them and everyone was to various degrees weaker than normal.
Foulmarsh had giant leeches the size of a hand, hardly a problem for Essence Collection cultivators at the top of their game- but much more of a threat to unconscious ones. That meant Hoyt’s job included keeping Anton safe more than just moving him. Patches of swampy water could have deceptive depth, and deep brush could hide many unpleasant creatures as they blended into the scenery.
When the temperature became cold, patches of ice that were normally not a problem became a greater concern. Hoyt wouldn’t hurt himself if he stumbled as ice cracked or even if he somehow slipped and fell, but even though Anton wasn’t exactly delicate he really didn’t want to test how much more he could handle in his current state. At least Anton probably wouldn’t have problems with the cold with the temperature he was outputting.
When night fell, they didn’t stop to rest. While Hoyt felt his own health fluctuating, his body seemed to have better fought off the infection. Or he was fooling himself, but either way he wasn’t going to just stop and take care of himself when Anton would have pushed himself for any of them. Perhaps he had, going until he collapsed with the intent not to inconvenience them. This was probably worse, but the intent made sense at least- and they could have ended up in the same situation regardless.
Hoyt channeled fire around his legs, burning through brush and leeches who thought they might try to jump up on the running thing. They liked warm-blooded creatures, but they found this target a bit too warm. Hoyt’s flames also burned around Anton to protect him when necessary, but the rest of the time he tried to pull heat away from the man to try to have his body at something like a reasonable temperature.
“We have to go around to the south!” Velvet declared. “Something big in the way. The terrain’s not too bad to the south.”
Chikere nodded. She was absolutely willing to slice or stab through anything that got in front of them, but even she wouldn’t pretend she was in optimal condition to fight. The throbbing in her neck reminded her of that with every step. But every time she swung her new sword, remembering Rahayu’s last attack… she found herself almost getting lost in another world. It was almost enjoyable, though she knew it would be much more when they were no longer in a state of crisis.
Night turned to day again as they continued at the maximum speed they could maintain, and the land around them gradually became less wet… and less foul. It would still be some time before they were completely out of the area and into Erygan, but they were close.
Upon arrival in the city, they were actually able to attract a number of doctors simply by shouting. A handful of desperate cultivators was a great way to make some money, after all. Of those that showed up quickly, they chose the one that seemed least likely to rip them off- and most capable, though that was difficult to judge without seeing anyone actually work. Nobody was particularly concerned if they were charged somewhat excessive rates for services given the state of emergency… and the fact that they had come into quite a bit of wealth in the form of the equipment of three Life Transformation cultivators. Granted, the armor went from significantly damaged to cut vertically in two, but they also had some wealth of their own on them. Some cultivators carried everything they owned with them, since they could do so with the help of storage bags. Either way, they had enough.
Doctor Kephalos was an Essence Collection cultivator, and old man with sagging skin but arms that still seemed quite sturdy. He started diagnosing them even as they moved towards his office. “Foulmarsh. Fevers, infected wounds…” He scanned over all of them with his energy. “No leeches. Did he get bit by the mosquitoes? Or the flies?”
“I’m not sure,” Hoyt explained as he tried to keep his breathing regular. “We tried to keep them away.”
Kephalos took out a small yellow ball of medicine, flicking it with his thumb right into Anton’s mouth and down his throat. “That should help with some of this,” he said. “Would be better if he was conscious to circulate it properly.” He looked over the group once more, “Two of you are from the same cultivation style. You could try to help with that.”
“He’s a bit stubborn about accepting energy intrusion, even like this,” Hoyt commented.
“I could probably do it,” Velvet said. “If nothing else, I could sneak my energy in?”
“Up to you,” Kephalos said as he flung open the door to his office, revealing numerous vials of odd liquids and grinding mills full of various powders, along with dried herbs hanging down randomly from the ceiling. “Just be prepared for the backlash if you mess it up.”
“Aren’t all of those poisonous?” Velvet gestured to the herbs hanging around the room.
“They’re not not poisonous,” Kephalos shrugged. “Medicine is all about knowing what to mix and how.” He began grinding something with one hand while mixing various powders together with the other, forming four little packets of different sizes. “One for each of you.” He handed them out to everyone, with Anton’s packet being the largest and poured directly down his throat.
He plied the group with so many different things that they began to wonder if they were all necessary, or if he was secretly setting up some combination of things that would result in them dying in his office so he could have everything on them… but when the temperature coming off of Anton reduced from a furnace to a nice crackling campfire they were somewhat reassured.
The immediate effects of the medicines on the rest of them were mostly nausea and a wave of fatigue- but the latter was at least partly brought about by the fact that they had stopped. They came to realize there weren’t any beds for patients- except the one Anton had been dropped into- or any sorts of chairs. Instead they gradually slumped against the wall in various places, brains swirling from various activities and ingestion of various ‘medicines’.