Elder Cultivator 305

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Though it was theoretically possible to concentrate defensive energy on the location of an incoming attack, that method left people vulnerable to attacks which were easily able to change trajectories. Many cultivators preferred to concentrate on a particular point that could be moved. That could be a weapon used to parry or a shield like Timothy had. Doing the same with reinforced armor on the torso was possible, but limited their other mobility options. 

Elder Naheed had large enough stores and a quick enough outflow of energy to be able to coat her whole body in a layer that would protect against the widespread fire and ice being used against her while still having the freedom to make attacks or concentrate energy on her arms to negate specific attacks. There was practically no angle she couldn’t reach… but Anton experimented with different shots to try to find the optimal one.

Targeting her legs was no good- it was too simple for her to pull away at the last moment. Currently she was preventing further damage to her torso with her defensive moves, but even if Anton couldn’t directly impact her he still had a plan. Any attack that caused her to move far enough to strain the muscles in her abdomen was what he preferred. That way she would worsen the injuries around her kidney and the hole that now went all the way through her. Anton wished he could have targeted a more immediately fatal organ, but he was still of the belief his attack would not have been successful in that case. Even just having to contend with bones would have severely hampered the attack.

Elder Naheed spun in a circle, a ring of power spreading out from her. It was formed of the same deathly energy as the orbs she threw. Anish and Annelie were forced to duck down to avoid touching it, and both of them threw themselves further back when it dropped down towards them even as it continued to expand. It forced them back to the twenty meter mark, which was likely close to the maximum size Naheed could sustain. Anton wouldn’t put it past her to be able to expand just a bit further than that in a way that would be used when people got used to her attacks, but he didn’t know for sure.

His arrows targeted the ring for a short duration, but Anton found it was much more stable than the orbs she lobbed. At best he was directly facing off against her energy, which made his attacks basically useless. At least the ring didn’t seem quick enough to be a good defensive measure against the ranged attacks of himself and Alva. For one thing, it retained its shape- which meant it couldn’t block things at different heights or at a further radius. But it did make it hard for Anish and Annelie to get close to Naheed.

That allowed her the freedom to move closer, within the range she was able to accurately lob her deathly orbs. She seemed quite intent on taking out Alva who had circled around her, perhaps because she seemed to be one of the weaker ones present. In addition to forming around her hands, they came out of the ring as it began to spin. Not all of the attacks were aimed at Alva, and even Anton who was the furthest away found himself forced to shoot down as many coming towards himself as he could while dodging the others, trying to avoid them as they burst.

With Naheed’s attacks focused on Alva, the young archer found herself in the hardest position. Anton was trying to aid her with extra shots, but even with his energy bows he simply couldn’t produce enough Spirit Arrows to stop the myriad of attacks. It only took one to reach Alva, forcing her to desperately parry it with her bow. It knocked her backwards, sending her to the ground, her energy in disarray. 

At no point in the battle had Anton been holding back, but desperation pushed him a bit further. Though there was always the lingering thought of using Candle Wax, that might simply knock him out of the battle early. And life, though such was of secondary concern when his allies and family were on the line. Perhaps he should have been willing to sacrifice a few to avoid the trouble. If he had fled towards them, he might have convinced them to leave with him instead of fighting. He had no doubts they were coming to him for a reason, after all. But that would have likely resulted in the deaths of everyone Anton had been training in Arbington and them being chased as they fled, resulting in the same battle eventually. 

Anton had continued to make use of ascension energy as he found openings, and as Alva lay on the ground, her energy fading slightly, he made use of the last of it to draw Naheed’s attention once more- even as he moved closer. He hoped to make a tempting target.

The flame and ice bombarding the Life Transformation cultivator from either side began to wrap around the ring, restricting its motion long enough for the two others to run in towards the woman. That placed them inside the ring, a dangerous location- but it was also clear she wasn’t focused in melee combat. Able to hold her own, certainly, but it wasn’t her specialty. Anton made note that she didn’t launch any orbs from the inner part of the ring towards them, so they were actually safer until it began to contract. 

Flames so bright it hurt Anton’s eyes ignited not only the leaves on the ground but the dirt and rocks several meters deep, at the center of which was Anish. He managed to reach Naheed and grab onto one of her arms, which was already slightly crispy. From the other side Annelie grabbed her other arm, coating it in a block of ice. Anton’s arrows tried to find purchase where they could, but it wasn’t quite enough. He could feel a buildup of energy from Elder Naheed, something that would be just as dangerous as the contracting ring.

Then, without ceremony, a single arrow pierced two knuckles deep into Elder Naheed’s abdomen. Anton didn’t even notice it had been fired, as it hadn’t registered to his brain as important. But that was exactly why Alva had circled around her… towards the mostly intact black thorn arrow. As the arrow cut into her flesh, it punctured close to the metaphysical location of her dantian, the core of where energy was stored. Whether or not it directly damaged that, it did disrupt the buildup of energy. A large portion of it focused on the arrow, not completely immune to the effects of energy. The arrow itself disintegrated, while the rest of the rising energy shot out from Naheed in a much less controlled manner than it might have otherwise.

Thus, less than a third of the total energy ended up impacting the pair grabbing onto her. The power of it forced them back- but that just indicated that their defenses held somewhat, absorbing the momentum. The ring surrounding them shattered before they reached it, but as the wave of energy washed over him Anton knew nobody was walking away uninjured.

Everything seemed to stop for a moment. Alva stood across from Anton, face pale and bloody at the same time. To either side were Anish and Annelie, both still holding onto Naheed’s arms… though Anish’s soon dissolved into a pile of ash. As for the woman herself, blood spurted from her torso wherever had not been cauterized by heat or frozen over. But she wasn’t dead yet- and her immediate movement was towards Anton.

She reached out for him, weakly pulling at his life force. Even without a physical touch, it seemed she was still somewhat effective. And she still had significant power, even after everything she’d been through. Enough to threaten Anton, if she simply tried to kill him with no notion of defense. As she drew closer, arrows pierced her torso but didn’t stop her and the pull grew stronger. Before the two on the sides could reach her, Anton knew she would get to him.

So he gave into the pull… but only a little bit. It seemed she hadn’t learned her lesson from before, as she greedily absorbed the chunk of life force he sent towards her… where it lit her on fire from inside. She exploded, a sphere of gray-black energy expanding outward and leaving behind only a desiccated body. Anton dropped to his knees, nearly devoid of energy and at least a few years lost. A small price to pay… if the woman was actually dead.

It could have been a single instant or an hour. Time stretched on as if nothing would ever happen again… but then Anton heard familiar voices in the distance.

“That was terrifying,” one of them said in something approaching a whisper.

“Get me closer!” called the other.

His eyes drifter over to the figures that were still several hundred meters off. So his ears did still work. There was simply nothing making noise. Even the breaths of his three compatriots were quiet.

“Closer? Fine.”

Anton watched as Idalia ran forward, carrying Hiram in her arms. Soon enough she stepped from healthy forest into the dead zone around where the fight had taken place, a realm of scorched and frozen trees which had been subsequently drained of life. 

“Is this good enough?” Idalia asked.

“Need to touch her, I think…” Hiram gestured towards the fallen body of Elder Naheed.

“Ugh. I don’t feel good about this.”

Anton would have cautioned them against it as well, but as they stepped forward he felt Hiram’s energy working, driving away the deathly energy permeating the area… and even drawing a small bit of it into himself.

Hiram twisted in Idalia’s arms and flopped out of her grip, but he seemed unperturbed at landing next to the corpse. His arm stretched out and touched it. “I’m taking this back… you psychopath.”

Though Anton couldn’t sense it before he began his efforts, a small string of life force made its way into Hiram, who subsequently pushed himself up to his knees, shakily standing to his feet. 

“The rest of you… come closer. I think… I can slightly reduce the aftereffects.”

Anton happily approached. He trusted Hiram to try his best at least… and if he failed, what was a bit more damage to his life force?

As it turned out, it really was just a slight effect. Even though he felt Hiram’s cultivation had leapt forward a step, there was only so much he could improve at once. A single step in Body Tempering was nearly insignificant compared to Life Transformation, but he also had the use of stores of lingering, ownerless energy. Anton felt a bit better after Hiram’s energy gently worked on him. It was little better than pouring water back into a cracked cup, but the effort was at least sincere. 

Anton imagined some of his wrinkles had deepened again, but the others appeared to be healthy enough. Momentarily drained, but they had plenty of life force to spare. They would all need rest, though.

—–

After they returned to town and simply sat for a while, Anton looked at the others. Specifically, the three in Essence Collection. “Just to make sure we’re on the same page. You were coming to see me for a reason, right? Hopefully there’s not some other disaster on the horizon.”

“We were nearby,” Annelie explained. “And we caught signs of her. So no, there’s nothing else… that we know about.”

“Would have been nice if she stayed more intact…” Anton frowned. “Not that it really matters. Those who will believe the connection to the Twin Soul Sect likely did before the attack. The others… well, this attack will make it hard for them to openly support her. Though I imagine they’ll twist it to say that we were responsible even though she snuck her way out here to kill me.” Anton flicked his eyes towards Hiram. “Or… him?”

Hiram shook his head. “She seemed surprised to see me.”

“Good, I think. I hadn’t thought the danger to you would be quite this high.” Anton frowned. “Unfortunately, it seems things aren’t quite over. We’re to have a guest?”

“Who?” Idalia said panicked. “Wait, is it Birita? Is she coming here?”

“Unfortunately,” Anton said. “With backup.” Perhaps he should have killed her before. Now he would find it much more difficult, even with several exhausted companions.

Idalia raced for the door, pulling it open. But instead of fleeing, she pulled a tiny pouch off of her waist, loosening the drawstrings and placing it atop the door which was left just barely ajar. “That’s… all I can do. Sorry.” She shuffled over to the rear of the room. “Should we just… jump out the rear window?”

They were currently seated in the common area of the inn Hiram had been abducted to. It was convenient, on the edge of town… and empty. Nobody was going to come back to where cultivators trashed a place within a couple hours of the event. “I think running won’t do us much good,” Anton remarked. “We’ll have to face them honestly.” Normally, with the three at his side he would have found a single Essence Collection cultivator and a dozen or so Spirit Building followers a trivial group of enemies, but exhausted and half-dead he was less sure. “Unless the rest of you have other ideas?”

They all shook their heads, and Idalia shrugged. “I already did what I could. I suppose it’s too late for us to sneak into other rooms?”

“The walls are sturdy enough,” Anton smiled. “Just go into the kitchen, you’ll be safer from accidents there at least.”

“Right.” Idalia stood up and grabbed Hiram’s arm. “Come on.”

He let her drag him towards the kitchen, but he was strong enough to stand on his own… and he kept eyeing the door.

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