Waking up was always a good thing, no matter how much you ached at the moment. Upon finding that it was less than when he had passed out, Anton was quite glad. The pain had been on a level he could deal with, but the other effects had obviously made functioning difficult. He hadn’t thought he would pass out though.
The unfamiliar location was made more acceptable by familiar sources of energy around him, and he was quite pleased to see that his companions were alive and well. Better than himself, despite the fact that they had seemed considerably worse. Chikere, for example, felt quite vibrant despite being about one-third decapitated only a few days before. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, looking around with his eyes. Lots of things scattered about the room.
His eyes settled on the only unfamiliar presence in the room about the time the figure spoke. “How are you feeling?” the old man asked.
“Much better, thank you,” Anton inclined his head to what he could only assume was the doctor who helped him- and the rest of them, it seemed. He felt traces of medicinal energy throughout all of them.
“Good. You should be able to stand now. That means you can get up and let me have my bed back.”
Despite the man’s awful bedside manner, Anton had to agree that he was well enough to move about. And looking around, it didn’t actually seem like they were in a proper doctor’s office. Just a room that he happened to bring them to.
The activity woke the others. Chikere was first to say anything, one hand still gripped on the hilt of her new sword. “You were looking pretty bad for a while there,” she commented.
“Same with you, before that,” Anton said. “We didn’t know if you’d make it.”
Kephalos interrupted, “I’d suggest you learn more about stitching if you do. Gonna have an ugly scar there, and it’ll be hell to take those stitches out. But that’s not my problem, unless you want to make it that.”
“It’s fine, I can cut them away when I need to,” Chikere nodded. “Then it’s just a matter of pulling them out.”
“And the ones inside?”
“Just gotta cut them real thin,” she said.
“Might work out,” the man nodded. “Either way, you’ll feel if you’re causing actual damage. Now get going, got paid already.”
Since his continued expertise seemed unneeded, they were happy enough to move out, though they had no specific target in mind for the moment. Their goal in coming to the area had been accomplished. More than that, even.
When they found a quiet place to talk- and made use of their energy to prevent people from easily overhearing- Anton asked about what happened while he was out. The summary wasn’t that surprising, but they came back to the battle before it.
“Hard to think we survived that,” Anton commented. “We shouldn’t have, with the numbers against us. Even with Chikere, our chances against just that swordmaster weren’t great.”
“He wasn’t a swordmaster,” Chikere retorted. “He just happened to be in Life Transformation. But if it was skill with swords, I outclassed him.”
Anton trusted her to be accurate with that judgment. For all that her confidence could seem like arrogance, he had repeated knowledge of her effectiveness. “Fair enough,” he shrugged. “But the rest of us… you two have the talent, but the numbers should have overwhelmed us.”
“Simple calculations of combat break down when it actually gets to it,” Hoyt pointed out. “My grandfather took down more than a handful of Life Transformation cultivators with him, despite the fact that their total energy capacity should have been several times his. Cultivation speed is more than just a growth rate, but often equates to overall power. Even if it seems logical that someone at the same level who has been there longer might win by virtue of experience, that’s not always true. And as a cultivator of similar time yourself, you should recognize that.”
“Or maybe I’ve just been lucky,” Anton shrugged. The further he got in cultivation, the stranger it felt to consider himself special. “But I can’t deny we had something better to fight for. That’s useful for bringing out the limits of our talents. Even if our goals were just to kill each other, they were after some sort of vague future rewards.” Anton frowned, “It’s a shame to think they might be getting some of those still. But it’s not always people who deserve it who get good to happen to them.”
“I do agree they were not as unified as they should have been,” Velvet added. “They seem to have drawn from various different sects in the area, so they had little experience working together. And the four of us were still making use of Catarina’s formation training, to a lesser degree than when she is around.”
“Makes me wonder what we could manage once we’re back together with those two,” Anton smiled slightly. “But beyond that. Swordmaster Rahayu… ascending like that was something amazing to see. I know I mentioned it before, but it’s a rare opportunity to witness.”
“I mentioned it while Chikere was out… but we still don’t know if it requires the death of another peak Life Transformation cultivator,” Velvet said, looking over her shoulder as if anyone could be there listening in. “With the two we know about…”
“It doesn’t,” Chikere said confidently. “Though perhaps it made things easier? Either way, Rahayu simply had to reach the peak of swordsmanship here. The battle was a catalyst, but the death was more of a side effect than something necessary. I can’t say anything with certainty for other types of cultivators though.”
“So what next?” Anton asked. “We did what we came here for. With Rahayu gone, the Twin Soul Sect might want some sort of revenge. We didn’t manage to kill all of them, either.” In his mind, he replayed the image of the last pair of retreating foes. It was part regret, and part training. He knew he didn’t have enough energy to easily take them out, but it should have been possible. A bit of something unexpected to slip past their defenses or take them off guard. The problem was they could focus entirely on him, as the only one able to attack them at such a long distance. The same was useful for dealing with people on the approach, as he had only been able to take out one that was surprised to be attacked as well as a few less substantial hits.
“Thinking about the next fight?” Chikere asked. “Well, I can say they’ll probably be a bit upset about losing this sword. Even though they were the ones who came to attack us and lost it, people just tend to be that way.” She held it in front of her horizontally, staring at the bare blade. “It’s excellent, except the fact that it stinks like that smith lady and their cultivation style. But that will fade out as I use it.”
“If they’re coming after us, you think we should retreat to somewhere safer?” Hoyt asked.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, we could do that,” Chikere nodded. “I honestly could use a break from fighting for a bit. Lots of stuff to digest.”
Hoyt laughed slightly. “Of course you weren’t thinking about that. Rahayu’s the same type as you, it seemed.” Hoyt paused, “It might not just be the Twin Soul Sect that comes after us. Swordmaster Vianne was apparently known, and there could be people connected to her who would come after you. Just for holding that sword, even.”
“They can try,” she said. “But they’ll find their luck runs out. Especially if I’m with you guys. So I’m also happy to go wherever the rest of you go, since trouble will find us anyway.”
“It always seems to,” Anton acknowledged. That was the way of the world though. It just happened that trouble involved many more life-or-death fights now than when he’d been a farmer. “Oh. Kseniya’s on her way. She’ll be in the city in about an hour.”
Velvet looked to the southwest, where she expected the woman to come from. “You sure? I can’t feel her at all.”
“Positive. She’s locked on to our position.”
“Next time you call for reinforcements, you should leave something for them to fight,” Grand Elder Kseniya chastised the group. She wasn’t quite serious, but her following words took on that tone. “Probably best not to run off towards danger ahead of them, either.”
“Rahayu didn’t give us much choice,” Anton pointed out. “He made the declaration and the Twin Soul Sect happened to have people closer. You know how people are.” Anton could have said old Life Transformation cultivators, but people all had their own things. “We thought it was better to not let him go alone. Or with just Chikere at his side.”
“Looks like any more and she wouldn’t have made it,” Kseniya commented, looking at Chikere’s neck. “Where’s Rahayu? Don’t tell me he…”
“Ascended, actually,” Anton offered. “Which was his intention. I could tell you everything I experienced. It might help you.”
“I wish,” she frowned. “I’m not sure… my growth is sufficient to think about it. In terms of years, I’m still closer to the first half of cultivation. It took Vandale almost a century to go from seventy stars to the end. I’ll not be much better than that.”
“So long…?” Anton asked.
“Fifty years would be amazing,” Kseniya noted. “I’m sure you’ve felt the slowing already. Each star more difficult than the last. More potent too, but it won’t be a quick road. None of us here will be ascending before this invasion, at least.”
“I’d prefer to stay and fight anyway,” Anton said. “If I even could ascend.”
“Don’t always believe old people,” Kseniya said, well aware both she and Anton fit into that category in different ways. “Everheart wasn’t perfect. He could be wrong.”
“Not about this,” Anton said. “But it doesn’t matter right now, does it?”
“Not really,” Kseniya acknowledged. “I’m sure any elder would be glad to hear every detail of the ascension.”
“It was amazing,” Chikere said. “It was like… Bwooo! Swish!” she made the noises with her mouth, but the way she flicked her currently sheathed sword was a pretty fair reproduction. Like a painting of a great mountain, but at least accurate. And she could likely do better when serious.
“Well then, we should go meet up with your granddaughters,” Kseniya nodded. “When I sensed you here I went ahead, but I’m sure they’ll have a few words for you. They were worried.”
“I’m sure they didn’t need to worry about me. I’m fine,” Anton said. Kseniya would doubtless see through that, but he didn’t need the girls to know how close he’d come to dying. And how it wasn’t even in battle, but just because he pushed himself low enough to be vulnerable to the effects of Foulmarsh. He could hope that the fleeing members of the Twin Soul Sect had fallen prey to similar infections, but at least one of those that had thrown the unpleasant gray orbs had been on the younger side, and likely more resistant. At least, that was what he thought allowed Hoyt and Chikere to pull through before himself.
He wouldn’t be able to hide injuries and fatigue, but Alva and Annelie wouldn’t believe he got out of the battle unscathed anyway.
Along with his granddaughters, Anton was glad to see that a number of others had come along to assist. He felt bad to have wasted the time of Grand Elder Kseniya, and even worse when he realized that Adelina and Sarka had come along as well. They got along about the same as before, which was just fine from opposite ends of the group and the minimum amount of interaction. But it seemed others from their sects got along just fine, as demonstrated by Anish and his proximity to Alva and Annelie.
Not everyone come just for him and the others. Their work had been more or less completed around Blackstone Harbor, with the local sects having enough of their members learning what they would teach to propagate the various techniques.
It seemed they intended to explore more of the continent, especially with regards to eliminating members of the Twin Soul Sect. Ultimately, the plan was to spend a few years in the area before attempting to return home. For some, it would be like a short trip, while for others it would equate to a much longer portion of their lives. But everyone who had come along was well aware that they weren’t going to easily be able to go back and forth.
The route was planned. To the east, fortunately going south around Foulmarsh. Though Anton had learned that information about the Twin Soul Sect and the coming invasion had spread more in the center and east of Aicenith, it was better to see for themselves. After all, they were willing to put in the effort if nobody else was, or if they reached their limits.