“That felt like Grandpa!” Alva exclaimed. “Why couldn’t he have waited just a little bit? We were almost there…”
The trio of cultivators picked up their pace, from running at a sustainable speed to sprinting their fastest, the landscape flying by.
“Do you think he noticed us?” Anish asked.
“Uh… probably,” Alva admitted. “He was taking a shot at something further away than we are.”
“In that case, he could be expecting our arrival. We should focus on speed instead of talking,” Annelie pointed out.
The difference in speed a cultivator could produce when talking or not was almost negligible, but sometimes a single step out of a kilometer would make a difference in a battle between cultivators. They were still a handful of kilometers north of Anton, whereas his target had been to the west. Both parties seemed to be coming in at a right angle collision course.
Though none of those present were specialists in long distance sensing, the powerful energy of Anton’s target became clear. They had the same deathly energy as the bodies they had found. At least they didn’t have to warn him about the Whispering Watchers, since he clearly already knew.
Alva’s grumbles about not having Fuzz to make her faster were only internal. Even so, she made a vow not to leave him behind even if it was awkward to take him along.
When the arrow struck the woman in front of Hiram, he almost felt his heart stop. The attack and the reaction were both overwhelming… the old woman’s deathly energy unconsciously lashing out against the danger. Then she was gone, moving directly through the window and the portion of wall that got in her way. Hiram could sense her moving, or at least where she had been from the tremendous energy she radiated… but he couldn’t track her at all. Nor had he noticed Anton’s arrow before it struck. But it had to be his. He’d felt the man when he sparred with them. It was the same… but a thousand times more serious. Anton training with them had been like a soldier training infants.
How frustrating. And here he was, nearly dead and chained up. And at least partially responsible for Anton’s upcoming death. There had been training to conceal his energy, and he knew he should take it seriously… but he just thought it was to blind the locals from knowing how much he was growing. He hadn’t expected one of the Whispering Watchers to arrive.
Hiram struggled against his chains, but he could barely move. Even at his best, he couldn’t have broken the chains. He could only stare out the window and now-open wall, helpless.
Then a face poked itself over the edge. “Hiram?” Idalia asked cautiously. “What’s going on?”
“… Anton’s in trouble,” Hiram kept his explanation as short as possible. Even talking was hard.
“Anton’s in trouble? You’re in trouble,” she pulled herself up. “You look like you’re about to die.”
“I likely am…” he nodded. “Cultivators are… vicious.”
A rattling sound made Hiram realize Idalia was trying to undo his chains.
“Don’t bother. There’s no way… we could break them.”
“You’re really in a bad state, huh?” Idalia shook her head. “Eat this.” She placed something in Hiram’s mouth, but he couldn’t even swallow it properly and she had to shove it down his throat with energy. When she did, he felt a little bit of vitality beginning to flow through him. “That’s a basic vitality pill. Just learned it. Might be some side effects, but…” she shrugged. “Now let’s get you out of here.” She yanked on him, but he didn’t move. “Oh damn. These are heavy.”
She yanked once more and he hit the ground with a loud clanking sound. “Ugh” was all he could manage as the air was knocked out of him.
“Sorry,” she said. “Maybe I could roll you… no, stairs might be too much. And this ledge would definitely be too much.” Idalia shook her head. “You just wait right here. I’ll go get the smith.”
Hiram would have told her not to bother, but he didn’t have the capacity to speak or the belief it would stop her.
She came back later, throwing a man up to the broken opening instead of coming through the door. She soon followed after.
“Yeah…” the dark skinned smith known as Bongani shook his head. “There’s no way I can break whatever the heck these chains are. Even if we were at my forge.”
“Crap. What do we do then?” Idalia asked.
“Well… they’re a tiny bit loose. We can just wiggle him out. Hope he’s flexible.”
Hiram’s flexibility had increased greatly in recent times, but he was currently feeling not very flexible. The chains had been overly tight, but he had wasted away instantly because of the woman’s energy. Just enough for them to start getting him out a little at a time.
It took a lot of effort, shifting chains and even twisting individual links to make the slightest gaps, but there were no manacles clamping onto him. It was more than just wrapping his arms tight to his torso, but with some twisting they finally got one arm out. With that loose, the entire chain had enough slack for them to gradually begin unentangling him.
“I want this chain,” Bongani said. “But I also don’t want whoever owns it to come back and murder me for it.”
“Should just leave me…” Hiram said.
“No way. We almost have you out now,” Idala chastised. And it wasn’t long before he really was out. “Now we have to get you somewhere you can rest.”
“… take me to Anton,” Hiram blurted out.
“What?” Idalia raised an eyebrow.
“Nothing… just a stupid instinct.” Upon reflection, there was no way anything good could come of that.
“Could it help Anton?”
“Don’t think so…” Hiram tried to shake his head, and managed a little wiggle. “Just a dumb thought. For if he won…”
“You think he won’t win?”
“Did you feel her? It’s… hard to imagine anyone who could.”
Bongani hefted Hiramo onto his shoulder. “So where are we going? To a bed… or after that?”
Anton focused his next dozen arrows directly at Elder Naheed’s kidney- or rather the arrow still sticking out of the area. He didn’t think it would do anything except anger her, but that might be good enough. He was also hoping she might strain the area with violent movements, but she wasn’t interested in dodging. Instead she plowed through his shots, which was actually good enough since she wasted energy inefficiently blocking his attacks. A single arrow was filled with reincarnation energy, but instead of its normal effects of partially ignoring defensive energy, his Spirit Arrow exploded. Unfortunately, the explosion wasn’t concentrated in any point enough to cause damage.
It wasn’t going to be long before the woman reached him. His reinforcements wouldn’t arrive for at least half a minute after that. It seemed like a short time, but in a battle with a Life Transformation expert… Anton wasn’t going to count on it.
He leapt out of his tree, taking off at an angle to the northeast. That should lead the groups to intersect earlier, and keep him from being caught quite as soon. As he ran, Anton gathered ascension energy for his first shot of about five. It was aimed the same as everything else, but with a little trick. If Naheed didn’t notice in time, he might actually get something done.
The arrow flew, and with it a portion of Anton’s consciousness. The gap between them was less than half of what it had been, though the arrow wasn’t as swift. Its target was coming towards Anton, however, so the effective velocity was rather significant. Naheed’s defensive energy awkwardly extended around the tail of the black thorned arrow, hindered by its particular properties- but it wasn’t so long that she couldn’t just extend her energy around it without touching it.
When the arrow impacted her defensive energy, it collapsed- from back to front. It didn’t fizzle into nothingness, but condensed into a blunt mass striking her defensive energy… and forcing it inward, smashing into the arrow. It pushed it just a tiny bit deeper, but it got the results Anton wanted. Specifically, she ripped the black thorned arrow out of her wound, causing blood to pour out as the thorny barbs tore into her flesh.
A few more volleys of arrows, and she was basically on top of him. At a few hundred meters behind him, she began gathering her energy into spheres which she lobbed, much like the other members of the Whispering Watchers. Her accuracy was much better, and the stability of her attacks as well. Anton had been able to pop the spheres of the Essence Collection members with a single arrow, but now he was taking two or three. It was quite difficult to outpace Elder Naheed, but he kept it up until she reached him in melee.
Anton was quick, but not quick enough to continuously dodge the grasping hands of a Life Transformation cultivator. Even one slightly injured and irrational. She attacked without a weapon, her fingers serving like claws with deathly energy reaching beyond them. Little sickles, even, attempting to reap his life.
A simple scrape on his cheek tore something out of him with the fleeting contact. A more direct hit or prolonged contact might be the end of him. He didn’t have that much life left to spare. That gave him an idea… but it wasn’t one he was going to choose to make use of.
He had to slow her down for just a moment, and so he formed his energy bows around himself, peppering her with arrows. Some were flashes of light aimed at her eyes, disruptive whether or not they caused any damage. Others aimed for whatever seemed like a weak point at the time. The wrist just below her gathered energy claws. A leg as it stepped forward. And of course… her abdomen, where she was injured and her energy still wasn’t entirely stable.
Then more arrows joined the battle, not from Anton’s hands. He breathed a sigh of relief, even as she lunged forward at him and grabbed his arm. So be it then, he was going to try something stupid.
At the same time as life energy was draining from him, he knew it was still his. And though he hadn’t specifically targeted any portion of it before… he was able to ignite it with Candle Wax. If he failed to target the correct portion he would hopefully at least get the temporary boost from burning his lifespan. Instead… it seemed his instincts were good.
Naheed was grinning wildly as she grasped onto his arm, until her face twitched and she screamed in rage. “You-”
“Me what?” Anton taunted. “Me, the one who isn’t a traitor to the world like your students? Or me… the one who won’t let you absorb my lifeforce?”
Naheed had pulled back, her arm pulsing with black veins. “Pfeh. I’ll just kill that one then,” her arm smacked away Alva’s arrows as she turned. Anton was truly surprised at her actions. It was like she didn’t even notice the other two.
Masses of fire and ice impacted around her at the same time. Instead of negating each other like would have been expected, frost began to form on one of her sides while the other had flickering fire. Both were being held back by her defensive energy, but having to deal with two opposite energies at the same time divided her concentration further.
It didn’t help that Alva and Anton were shooting at her from the other two sides. She only hesitated for a moment, though, and turned to follow through on her promise of attacking Alva. Anish and Annelie were charging from either side, with Anish having circled around to the south. But Anton was having none of it.
His own power wasn’t enough to stand up to a Life Transformation cultivator. But a quarter of one, now that was a different story. To be fair, Alva and Annelie were earlier in Essence Collection than himself, but Anish had a couple more years of training under his belt and was the prime genius of the Glorious Flame Palace. Either way, it was close enough.
It would only take the woman a couple seconds to close the gap between herself and Annelie, whose range was only a few hundred meters. At the very least, she would soon be lobbing orbs of death. Anton gathered as much ascension energy as he could handle… and then a little bit more. It hurt his hands just to hold his bow, but he didn’t care. He simply focused the power around his bow and into the arrow, then let it fly.
His target hadn’t changed one bit, and though Elder Naheed finally made an attempt to dodge to the side… the twin powers of the fire and ice restricted her movements enough that he was basically accurate. Anton’s arrow struck her in the small of her back, an uninjured location… on that side. But it pierced through the defensive energy and skin and muscle to find very little, except some already torn up flesh. It flew out of her front… but the arrow was not yet done. It circled around to strike her chest at the same time as another shot was charged to hit her in the spine. She made the correct choice to focus her energy on protecting her spine, but that left her open to a small hole in her sternum. Sadly it didn’t pierce into her heart, but it had already done more than could reasonably be expected.
Alva was fleeing perpendicular to Naheed’s path, moving vaguely towards Anish. That was sensible, because he would be the most able to protect her in melee- even if it meant getting somewhat within range of the elder.
But getting to her wasn’t so easy. Fire and ice crashed around her, its power multiplying as the two cultivators got into melee range. Instead of wide spreads of heat and cold, there was only a small area of fire and ice around the two cultivators. Both struck out, leaving behind remnants of their elements that clung to Naheed’s energy, trying to seep through it.
She gave up on her chase of Alva, instead swiping her arms to either side, black claws extended. She managed to cleave through some of their defensive energy, but facing two at once she wasn’t quite able to get a solid blow that would drain some of their life. But while her attitude upon first charging at Anton had been enraged, she had been almost casual about his subsequent attacks. Now she knew to take them all seriously… and they would find it harder to achieve subsequent injuries. Her destroyed kidney and the bleeding area around it might slow her down, but that just put it in the realm of their possible victory.