In a darkness brought about not by a great structure blocking out the sun but by a lack of anything and everything, a woman stood in a cage. How long she had been there she did not know. She arrived weakened, unable to break through- and the only natural energy in the area was channeled outside the cage, beyond her reach. Through focus and meditation she had been attempting to generate some of her own, but it was difficult. Something was off about the world around her, besides seeing nothing beyond her cage. She had no food, but didn’t hunger. There was no air to breath, but she felt no need.
But while it was strange, it wasn’t entirely unforeseen. She remembered dying, after all. The question was why she was constrained. She had full assurance that after her death she would be rewarded. Even though her life had ended in failure, it should not have resulted in something like this. Nor did she feel anything familiar about the cage… except something about the way the formations that formed it were arranged.
Perhaps she could puzzle it out. When that time came, she would cut through the formation. While she had ultimately been defeated by Rahayu, Vianne was still a swordmaster herself. Any who held that title would ultimately use similar methods to solve their problems. If she had a bit more energy, she might make the attempt even without full understanding. Waiting too long would be dangerous.
Even as she had those thoughts, a wraithlike figure showed itself in the void. It was a figure formed of skin and bone with little else, gaunt and bedraggled. Scraggly hair hung down over its face, joining with its bears to hang down below its feet into the nothingness.
Vianne gripped her sword tightly. “Come to torment me, have you? I’ll have you know it will do you no good.” The thing’s presence had disturbed the natural energy. She could feel some of it. Not nearly enough to fill her up, but she absorbed what she could regardless.
The ghastly figure cackled. “Torment you? You think I have so much free time?” The figure’s sunken eyes shone from beneath the tangled hair. “I’m far too busy for that lately. Got some very zealous people. Dismantling you and your companions had to be pushed down the line.”
“Come to kill me? That threat won’t work. I am aware I have already died.”
“Not enough. Damned traitor.” The figure stood in front of the cage without moving through the intervening space. “I don’t care about individuals, or groups, or anything except myself really- but the whole world starts to be a scale where I care. Plus the thought that I could have had more stuff if the punks you worked with hadn’t plundered it first really got to me.” His hand moved to a lock that suddenly appeared on her cage. “So no, I’m not going to kill you. You’ll just stop existing.”
Vianne held still where she sat, but it was a ready stance with her hand on her sword. When the cage opened and the figure stepped in, she struck. Her arms moved, her blade swift and weightless. A simple cross-body slash that would incapacitate the man, as he was nearly drained of energy as much as she was. There were only two problems. First was that the space between them bent and distorted, and the second was that she didn’t have her sword. But she knew she had it. Even if this place wasn’t real, it was bound to her in more than just body. “How…?”
“Shouldn’t you know?” the figure tilted its head, the hair tumbling in an unseemly manner over its gaunt frame. “Aren’t you a swordmaster or something? What indeed could cause that?” A disturbingly pale tongue danced out of a barely seen mouth for a moment, perhaps licking hidden lips. “But since I’m in the business of trying to know everything, I’ll hazard a guess myself. Someone liked that sword more than you.”
“What? You’re insane. A bound weapon is not just about liking something. There’s a deep level of attachment a swordmaster has with her sword. An unbreakable bond forged in blood.”
The figure looked at her empty hands, still acting as if they held a weapon. “That ‘bond’ looks pretty broken to me. Maybe someone just likes sharp swords a whole lot.”
“Preposterous,” Vianne said. “Besides, my will is strong. No matter the reason, I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll get a new sword soon.”
With that, she moved. As quickly as she could, but also in a way that would be hard to track. Her remaining stores of energy weren’t enough to do things right, but centuries of experience allowed for astounding feats. But as she began to move into the void, hoping to break free, a hand closed around the back of her neck.
“Didn’t matter anyway,” the ghastly figure said, its mouth near her ear. “But I do like your effort. Sadly for you, without that sword it’s much easier to do this.”
A chilling energy seeped into her, draining what little she had left of herself out piece by piece. Only then did she remember where she’d seen the formations before. They were the basis of much modern understanding of the technique, as much as that irked nearly everyone. She’d never encountered the man herself, but… Everheart was supposed to be dead, wasn’t he?
As she turned to nothing, she couldn’t help but think of that bedraggled body he had. While she doubted either of them had a physical form in this place, it was clear that even if he wasn’t dead, whatever this was was barely alive. A state that was quite envious to her as her soul came apart from the inside out.
Over the course of the last fifteen years, many manuals for cultivation techniques had come into Anton’s hands. Some were incomplete, like the portions of the Ninety-Nine Stars meant to be taught to the general populace. Others were to the full extent they could be, and would be considered complete even if nobody had reached ascension along the path they paved.
Studying them was useful to Anton, not because he was planning to rebuild his foundation with another technique but because not everyone was suited for the same style. He could also pick up the weaknesses of various techniques that way, but that wasn’t his main purpose at the moment.
As the group traveled, Anton continued his favored activity of teaching those who knew nothing about cultivation. In the interest of not causing too many waves, he was preferring to choose local styles. Those wouldn’t stand out as much, but there were issues with teaching them to people. Some groups were quite secretive about their cultivation techniques, and if any of those sects noticed someone with their technique they might seek to harm them. Thus, the best options became techniques that felt local, and the generic blend of different things that Anton was putting together.
The current version of the technique had certain weaknesses that would be of hindrance in battle, but if it was merely random civilians learning cultivation to improve their body and enhance their ability to work their jobs, it would do just fine. Anton wished that he had more time with everyone, but he did what he could in the short time they were in certain cities. Larger cities they remained in for a few days, and Anton consoled himself that they would be returning through the area at some point.
He simply couldn’t do everything, and this wasn’t his homeland by a large stretch, but he couldn’t help but try to improve the lives of the common people. That did involve hunting down some local bandits or other problems, where local cultivation sects were too busy to take care of everything themselves.
Anton faced down a man who appeared neither young nor old. His skin had a reddish hue to it, not one of the natural browns that humans could achieve but something more akin to fresh blood. The man stood in the mantis stance, his arms held in front of himself. But it wasn’t just his arms that formed the true stance, as there was also a superimposed form of a praying mantis, claws extended. The image itself was also red, as expected of someone from the Crimson Insect Society.
Less than half a kilometer stood between the two of them- a considerable distance, but not nearly so appealing when the man was on the border of Life Transformation. This was not an opponent Anton could beat while holding back in any way, and that included making the most of his limited ascension energy.
He could manage two or three shots before the man got to him, if he was lucky. He began to gather his energy, channeling it through his hands into his bow. The rigid wood became flexible as energy flowed through it, the string pulling back at an almost leisurely pace. Just looking at the arrow Anton fired, it seemed unassuming. Like all Spirit Arrows, it was less than a meter long and less than a centimeter at its widest point, discounting the ‘fletching’ it had. There was a resounding booming noise as the arrow flew, signaling its speed as it reached his opponent within a single second.
The man was already charging towards him at that point, and his arms crossed his chest to either side, striking the arrow. The force behind the blows was nothing impressive, but they carried with them a disrupting energy that destabilized the ascension energy that made up the bulk of the attack. The man was staggered for a moment, but pushed forward.
By the time Anton’s second shot was fired, the man was a mere three hundred meters away. The difference in timing was insignificant, as the man almost leisurely sliced with a single mantis claw, disrupting his attack once more. The surrounding foliage received the worst of the unraveling energy, leaves and limbs tearing apart.
As the final gap was being closed, Anton pushed himself to the limits, drawing upon every bit of energy he could get his hands on. His proficiency with his own natural energy and the other types he had under his command was constantly growing, though there were limits to how much he could condense it into a single attack. But splitting it into multiple attacks simply took a few extra portions of concentration. On either side of Anton, two additional bows formed, a small portion ascension energy to allow themselves sufficient punch for their arrows.
His final three shots- one from his physical bow and the extra two from his sides- were let loose when his opponent was no more than ten meters away. Anton looked into the man’s eyes as he implemented his planned defense. Once more his hands- and the mantis claws they were mimicking- sliced across his body. Anton’s attacks were synchronized to force him to block only one of them, but the man managed to reach the leftmost arrow with the same strike, defeating the primary attack and one of the secondaries in a single move. The third arrow struck him in the shoulder, burying deep before shooting out of his back.
Then mantis claws were coming down at Anton, his feet already carrying him away. He dodged one swipe, then a second- countering with arrows of his own, hoping to capitalize on the damage he caused. But ultimately he could not overpower the man.
He held up his hands and dropped his bow, and a mantis scythe stopped just short of his neck. “I know you’re not defenseless like that,” the man said.
“It’s about the principle of the thing,” Anton said. “You beat me, Niall.”
“My shoulder disagrees,” the man said as his projected mantis faded away. “Did you have to be so serious with your attacks?”
“Absolutely,” Anton nodded his head. “If we didn’t take this seriously, would it even be training? Besides, if it was really serious that arrow would have detonated inside your shoulder. Instead it just left a nice, neat hole straight through it. Shouldn’t take long to heal.”
Niall inclined his head, “A fair enough point. I hadn’t thought someone of your cultivation would be the most well versed in ascension energy but… it does seem to be true.”
“I’ve been in an optimal state to practice Fleeting Youth,” Anton pointed out. “At least it’s good for practice.”
“If I wasn’t ready for it, you might just have killed me,” Niall admitted. “I appreciate the training effort, though. Not many people are willing to weaken their own position for the sake of others they hardly know.”
“We’re just being selfishly altruistic,” Anton smiled. “You’ll be far too busy thinking about those invaders to want to fight me in the future.”
The man laughed, “There is that, true. It’s oddly comforting, knowing it’s ultimately for the sake of you and your sects.”
Anton nodded. So far, most encounters with local sects had gone amicably, and word was spreading of their presence. Some sects refused them, either because they had their own ways to train or because they didn’t trust them, but they never pressed for more. If people weren’t willing to learn, they couldn’t make them. In the end, cultivators could be expected to make themselves as strong as possible anyway. Special techniques might make a difference against the coming invaders, but nobody knew if they would be enough. Especially since they hadn’t before.