Ever since he had begun cultivating, Hiram had grown used to feeling the presence of people more powerful than himself around. It wasn’t as if there were suddenly more cultivators, with the possible exception of Anton. He was simply more aware of them. His recent growth had been enough that at least he felt the gap closing with some of the locals who had been cultivating before himself. Most were in Body Tempering, some Spirit Building… and then there was Anton in Essence Collection.
Hiram considered himself lucky to never have been close to Birita. Even if she had apparently grown more unhinged recently, she had always been petty and evil. Dealing with her goons had been bad enough, which led to his wife sparking the conflict with the Gray Stone Sect. They still had their coming, too. It would be a while, but he could feel he would make it. He just had to believe and put in the work. It wouldn’t be easy, but he could devote himself to the task fully.
Over time he’d gotten used to the feelings of different cultivation styles around him, the handful that Anton was teaching to his various students as well as the others. But he suddenly felt one that he’d never felt before. At least… not from anyone else.
Death. That was the feeling of the energy, and what he thought would happen to him as it approached him. He didn’t even get to fully consider running away before the suddenly detected presence was on top of him, looking him in the eyes. And then it was too late.
“You… are not a member of the Whispering Watchers,” the voice was raspy and indistinct, but more or less directed at him. Or perhaps… simply not excluded from his ears. “You’re coming with me.”
Hiram had no ability to respond in any capacity as her energy wrapped around him as if he were simply a bundle of sticks and not a person. He recalled Anton’s warnings. A deep part of him was filled with regret… while another part of him was filled with hope. That was just the way humans functioned, because even though he knew he would die… if he didn’t, he might look forward to being as strong as the woman in front of him.
It was only a very short time later that he found himself bound in heavy chains, inside a room at an inn on the edge of town where he’d once rented a room. The stupid part of him deep inside thought to blame them for that, when it hardly mattered to his current situation and they would be just as helpless as he was. But the rest of his brain was hardly coming up with any solutions to his predicament either. Even if he wasn’t being watched, he had the feeling he couldn’t break out of the chains binding him.
“I’m only going to ask this once,” the woman said. “Where is Anton Krantz?”
Hiram felt death wash over him. It wasn’t just her energy, but something deeper. He felt her true intentions. In a way, that let him set his resolve. Since he was going to die anyway, he wasn’t going to die while being a traitor to someone who he’d chosen to involve himself with. “Anton? Never heard of him.”
Hiram felt his life being torn out of him. It was much the same as natural energy flowing through him, but without any of the care for his own safety… or the promise of anything more to come afterwards. But- right before the final bit left him- the flow stopped.
The woman clicked her tongue. “No, better keep him alive for the moment. He might come look for him that way.”
It didn’t encourage Hiram that she’d changed her mind. By any reasonable measure he wasn’t alive anyway, nor would he be for long. And now he was being used as bait. He could only hope that Anton would understand the situation and let him die, since it would happen anyway.
The first flare of power could have been Anton’s imagination. It was brief and indistinct, as well as incredibly far off. Ten kilometers, at a minimum. But as he focused his attention in that direction, he felt it once again… much more clearly. It was hard to mistake. He’d felt the cultivation technique before, and Hiram had been doing an excellent job practicing it. But the magnitude was many times different. Even if all of Arbington was composed of Body Tempering cultivators, they wouldn’t be able to put a scratch on a Life Transformation cultivator.
Anton carefully extended his senses, doing his best not to allow his target to feel back towards himself. If she did, he knew he couldn’t escape. Soon enough, he’d verified all he needed to know. He couldn’t guarantee that the woman was Elder Naheed, but names didn’t matter in the current circumstance.
She had Hiram. Beyond that, though Anton couldn’t tell his exact state, he was just as sure as Hiram himself that the man would die. The logical choice was just to leave him. And when she killed everyone else he’d come into contact with, and perhaps all of Arbington and the surrounding towns and villages…? It was simply inevitable. Nothing he could do about it.
But Anton wasn’t that kind of man. If he couldn’t protect those he’d chosen to make a part of his life, what was the point? But Anton also had people who cared about him, and for their sakes he couldn’t die pointlessly. So he stood, watching… waiting… thinking.
Where were the nearest people he could call upon as allies? It was unfortunate, but obviously Arbington didn’t have much of anything that could help. Nor anywhere within a day’s travel in most directions- and that was by cultivator standards. Grand Elder Kseniya had warned him of the woman, but simply in general- not that she was actually approaching. She had been watching the sect, related to the suspicions that they were related to the Twin Soul Sect. Proof was inconclusive, and all that was certain was that they had at least a few as members and hadn’t removed them.
If he could somehow get a message to Grand Elder Kseniya… she might arrive within a day. Perhaps two, if she were a bit further. After all, the speed a cultivator traveled in normal circumstances and emergencies were entirely different. Just because as a young man he could run to town without issue didn’t mean he did run into town. He walked, like a normal, sane person. The same was true with cultivators, even if they walked much more quickly.
If he’d simply been directly attacked, Anton would have found the decision making process easier. As it was, he had too many options… and none of them seemed to lead to anything good. He’d never spent so long planning a shot before. Especially not without knowing if he could even take the shot. Physically he was capable, but would it do any good? That was something else entirely.
How long would it be before she moved from Hiram to someone else? He couldn’t be saved anymore, but anyone following him Anton was still able to protect. Taking the shot now should result in the minimal number of deaths.
He found himself at the top of a tree. There were plenty of similar size in the deep woods, where he’d been tending to the third batch of tree thistles. Atop his perch he wouldn’t be fighting against the curvature of the planet quite so much. A nice twenty-meter tall tree tripled the proper distance to the horizon. With his target at ten kilometers, he even had some extra room to breathe on the far end.
His fingers fiddled with his quiver. Getting his hands on a copy of the Deathly Heart Technique had allowed some flaws to be discerned- mostly by the Life Transformation elders traveling with those from the other continent. But Anton noticed one independently, before it was explained more clearly by others. As a technique associated with death, its practitioners were also highly sensitive to killing intent. Killing intent was one of those hard to quantify things, and normally paired with the ability to sense danger in general. But in this particular case, it was truly that specific.
The truer the risk of death, the more they would be able to anticipate an incoming attack. But if an attack was not deadly… their senses might be muted to it. Just slightly, but that might be enough.
Anton’s fingers settled on a black arrow. He only had one, and he only came into possession of it because of favoritism from Kseniya. A black thorned arrow. It came from a very obscure plant that had the slight issue of not growing anywhere with natural energy, and in very specific climates to boot. So far it hadn’t been artificially cultivated, but from Anton’s perspective it felt like a distant relative of the western creeper.
In short, its thorns almost completely ignored energy defenses… and if it hit just the right spot it could disrupt a cultivator’s energy flow until they yanked it out, potentially causing more damage than when it struck them. She’d used one arrow during the execution, greatly hindering one of their opponents.
Anton doubted he could achieve a perfect shot, but with what he hoped was the element of surprise he would certainly try. He wouldn’t aim for the head or neck. Nor would he aim for the heart. The capacity of something that ignored energy to strike the dantian in its metaphysical location below the stomach was not something Anton knew, but if it did it might also be a fatal blow. So he was aiming for a kidney. Something below the ribcage and important, but also one that could be done without. A normal person might go into shock and die from having a kidney destroyed, but a cultivator would be able to handle it somewhat. And hopefully… it would not be sensed the same way.
He hesitated, not because he was unsure about whether he should take the shot… but when he should. Exchanging his own life for Hiram… even he wasn’t so selfless. It was likely too late for him regardless. But Elder Naheed hadn’t gone anywhere in the several long minutes Anton had been watching. If she remained where she was, nobody else would die. Hopefully.
So he was waiting for something to make the choice for him. Then he felt it. Something unexpected but sufficient for him to decide, off to the north. Something that Elder Naheed would absolutely notice soon. His fingers pulled the arrow from his quiver. He raised his bow and nocked it on the string, pulling it back in one smooth motion. No special energy adorned the arrow, and what was there simply existed to propel it straight and true. The power of ascension and that from beyond death could both signal more than he was willing to give away.
His fingers released, the string snapped. Then the arrow was in flight. Normally Anton would have had another two or three at least on their way by the time it arrived, but his first one needed to strike… and the additional attacks might provide some semblance of warning.
Normally Anton would fly with his arrow, but in this case his connection to the arrow was shaky due to its materials. Even so, he felt it was perfectly on target, flying towards Elder Naheed, intending to slip just below her ribs on the right side. Her moving a single pace to the side required only the minutest adjustment in its trajectory.
Then he lost all sense of the arrow, and Elder Naheed’s power flared up like a fire. A cruel fire, ravaging a city not because of carelessness or storm but because someone wanted to see it burn, to watch people die. A foul energy. And hopefully… a slightly diminished one. But it certainly charged towards him with enough speed for him to know his shot was far from fatal.