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Outside of the common room, Birita stopped for a moment to plan her actions and scan the threats. Anton was significantly weakened, and though there were a few others with them… Birita felt she could handle them. Alone might be difficult, but she brought her lieutenants with her for a reason.
She grimaced as her stomach turned and took a swig from her jug. She was almost out of the stuff. Then she kicked open the door. A bag of powder fell to the floor, and Birita waved aside the dust. “Well, what do we have here?” She sneezed, doubling over momentarily from the force of the movement. When she straightened, she did her best to gloss over the undignified act. “Just a short time ago you were all high and mighty,” she said referring to Anton, “But here you are. Weak as a kitten. Having to resort to a low quality trap to think you have a chance.” She sniffed, her nose itching. A tiny application of energy brushed it to relieve the urge. “And two cowards hiding in the back. Tell you what… the rest of you can run off as long as you leave those two and the old man behind.”
“Like hell we will!” one of the women drew her bow. “We’d never abandon our grandpa.”
Now that Birita thought of it, she saw the resemblance. Vaguely. “Interesting. A trio of grandchildren come to visit? An opportunity that’s hard to pass up. If the old man begs me for forgiveness, I might spare you.”
“Um… I’m not related to them,” Anish pointed out. “We’re just from allied sects.”
“Fine, whatever. It doesn’t matter. The point is, you’re in my territory now. You have to-” the itching was growing stronger. She couldn’t stop it. “You have to follow my rules.” She focused on breathing through her mouth, but that didn’t help the constant nausea she’d been hit with lately. Or the headaches. A swig of booze helped with that, extremely briefly.
Finally, Anton spoke. “This is who you follow?” Anton looked to those behind her, standing half in and half outside the door, blocking various escape routes. “Interesting that she was not brave enough to come alone.”
“How dare-” Birita was going to say something more, but she sneezed once more. It caused her to stagger backwards, stepping on the pouch of powder and spraying it around the area. Birita managed to keep most of it away from herself, but the others around her began to sneeze. Her eyes focused on the kitchen. “You little worm!”
Two bows fired arrows towards her while the other two began to move forward, but they stopped when a pair burst from the back room. One was a woman that should have been a local herbalist. She was the one who prepared the tree thistle, but Birita was about ready to make an example of her. Especially when she grabbed a handful of powder from a pouch and blew it in her face.
Something about the circumstances made her instinctively draw a breath, which was exactly the wrong move. Her energy should have been able to filter out all of the particles of powder trying to enter her lungs, but everything had been off recently. She realized she hadn’t drawn her weapon, but she wouldn’t need that to kill a couple Body Tempering cultivators. Except it was a pain to get to them, as every step she took forward forced her back two, with arrows threatening to impale her. She was just about to order her subordinates to handle them when the nausea peaked.
She suppressed the urge to vomit, but her concentration was screwed up enough to allow the man in front of her a moment to attack. It was a strange form of energy, but nothing should have stopped her from blocking it completely. She slapped it away with her hand. The fact that it caused her to tingle was… concerning.
“Uh, boss. What should we do about them?”
Birita eyed the man who threw the strange gray orb as well as monitoring the two archers. “Kill them, of course!”
“All of them?” the man asked, somewhat nervously.
At that point, Birita noticed that there were more people present than she had thought. The two archers, and the fire and ice pair threatening to cut her off from her subordinates, but also at least a dozen others approaching. A bunch of early Body Tempering cultivators shouldn’t be a problem but… some of the others didn’t belong.
“Heya boss,” Trix called from the pack, which included Sarto and some others who nominally followed her. “Looks like you’re busy. But some of us were thinking we’d discuss a change in leadership.”
“You’re a bad leader,” Sarto commented. “You make us do bad things.”
“And you keep all the best cultivation stuff and booze for yourself,” Trix pointed out, looking meaningfully at the handful of Spirit Building cultivators supporting her.
The entire time, the two archers weren’t making it easy for Birita to engage in conversation. She was dancing around to avoid their attacks, wary of fighting four Essence Collection cultivators at once- even weakened from battle and wounds- and her backup wasn’t helping. And the half-dead guy with the spooky energy wasn’t helping.
“You know,” the herbalist said. “You really should be careful with what you’re putting into your body.”
“That’s not-” Birita sneezed violently, “Any of your business!”
“It is, actually. You’re the one who forced me to get literal bucketloads of medicine to counteract your failing liver, and then didn’t stop binge drinking. And you didn’t ask about the side effects. How’s the nausea?”
Much worse, with all of the arrow dodging she was having to keep up. If she didn’t know any better she would have thought people were keeping her talking exactly so that-
At exactly that moment, she could no longer control herself. It only took a second of spewing her guts for her to be peppered with arrows from the side, piercing all down her side. How were they still so strong? They just barely survived a fight with a Life Transformation cultivator! Birita was so afraid to even get close to that battle, but when they came back nearly dead she thought… maybe…
Her last thoughts came when she realized her defensive energy had dropped entirely- and the chilling deathly energy reached into her and began to pull her apart.
Hiram stepped forward, deepening his connection with the dying Birita. He was under no illusions that he was the cause of her death… but if she were going to die anyway he might as well make it worth it. While his cultivation couldn’t grow any more at the moment, absorbing strands of her life energy would suffice to not worry about side effects of his cultivation technique for a long time. And though she wasn’t the sole cause of his trouble- the Gray Stone Sect was responsible for more personal grief- he still enjoyed seeing her die. He wasn’t sure if that was his natural inclination of something sparked by the Deathly Heart Technique, but he was glad to feel something vaguely uplifting.
He glared at the group of Spirit Building cultivators that had followed her in, but they were already trying to slip out. The pair of fire-and-ice cultivators in front of them probably had a lot to do with it.
The local villagers stepped back to let them pass. It was a shame to let them go, but they could probably kill a few people on the way out if they were desperate. Even with Anton and the others. They still radiated the power of Essence Collection, but he felt the hollowness behind it. They personally weren’t in much danger, but also were basically tapped out. Besides… this was a local problem, and they should take care of it if they could. Birita was out of their league, but honestly Idalia was surprisingly effective.
He decided to ask her about that. “How did you know that would work?”
She shrugged. “Everyone knows sneezing makes other things difficult. Anton’s information about her health status made me a bit more confident. And some of that stuff magnifies the side effects of that thistle medicine she was vastly overusing.”
“Yeah…” Trix wandered in and joined the conversation. “She’s been a mess lately. Lots of throwing things at people if they even mentioned she seemed a bit sick, which kind of… eased this whole split,” she waved to Sasho and the other former members of Birita’s gang. “Then she was stupid enough to come attack Anton.”
“Pretty decent timing on her part,” Anton admitted as he sat back down. “Except that I’m not alone. And I would never let her hurt my cute granddaughters.”
“These two are your granddaughters?” Trix asked. “Well damn. No wonder they’re so strong. Younger than me too.”
“Where did you get your cultivation technique from?” Anton asked. “A dusty, worm-eaten scroll buried in the ground?”Trix grimaced. He wasn’t actually too far off, though the details weren’t right. “I don’t mean to disparage your efforts,” Anton clarified. “But it feels like it’s incomplete. And not of particularly high quality.”
“It’s… kind of all I could get,” Trix admitted. “And I needed this guy to help me through some of it,” she pat Sasho on the shoulder.
“This one is probably leagues better,” Alva said, pulling something out of Birita’s bag. “At least it’s complete through the end of Spirit Building.”
“… she said she didn’t have anything she could share with us,” Trix frowned.
“She didn’t want people to be a threat to her position,” Annelie guessed. “But if she had focused on empowering her subordinates, she might have created something… more lasting.”
“If that one is no good,” Anton said. “I’ve a small collection I can teach you from.”
“You’d really do that?” Trix asked. “For us? We’re kinda… some of the bad guys.”
“I suppose I should consult Idalia at least, though she seemed to be slightly fond of you.”
“Look,” Idalia shrugged, “Trix helped enforce Birita’s ‘taxes’ and all that, but she kind of made us feel like it wasn’t so bad?” She shook her head, “And Sasho broke half my shop, but he never meant to.”
“I’m sorry,” Sasho said. “I thought… we were doing something good. Most people… wouldn’t complain around me. I suppose… they were scared.”
“Based on the state of your encampment when I was there,” Anton said, “I doubt there’s much left to give back to the villages around here?”
“We spent it all immediately.” Trix shook her head. “Or rather, Birita did. Importing expensive booze from far away mostly. Doubt she even tasted most of it.”
“I think there’s a fairly simple solution here,” Anton said. “I doubt those standing outside will be fully capable of just forgiving you immediately. But if you help them earn back some of their losses and provide some safety… I’m sure they can agree to let bygones be bygones.” Anton’s voice was loud enough for those outside to know he was more or less declaring it. Not that they wanted to fight against a group that was currently stronger than themselves, anyway.
“Does that mean we have to… work?”
“You were doing work for Birita, you know,” Anton pointed out. “Better to do something practical. And you’ll find your cultivations benefit you in various avenues of physical labor.”
“… you’ll really teach us how to fix our cultivation issues?” Trix asked.
“I can teach you personally for a short while, and leave notes for after. I’m afraid I can’t stay here indefinitely, given the circumstances that lead to my companions and I being like this.”
“… I felt the fight,” Trix said. “Just a tiny bit. Like watching hawks fight on the horizon. It was terrifying.”
“You should go check out the battlefield. From a distance, because it honestly might kill you if you stepped on it.”
“… should have stayed a pickpocket,” Trix grumbled. “Cultivation is way too dangerous.”