Elder Cultivator 308

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As it turned out, Million Sword Vault didn’t make it easy to find them. It wasn’t surprising, since they were said to be quite wealthy and had many enemies. But while their exact location was unknown, it had been narrowed down to a particular region of desert. Anton thought it was a small enough area that they would be able to find them from there, but the plan was to catch up to Chikere before she got there and ended up in some sort of deadly conflict. If they were lucky she’d be stuck wandering the desert for a while, but Anton was willing to bet she had a way to sniff out the swords when she got close. 

The desert in question was the Scorching Mirror Desert. Even as they approached from more tolerable terrain nearby, the reason for its name was obvious. It was no surprise that a desert at its location would be hot, but the other aspect was obviously uncommon. Each grain of sand reflected light, scattering it all around and making it nearly impossible to see the ground- or much of anything with light constantly glinting in your eyes.

“This is annoying,” Alva commented after only a short distance on the sands.

“It will probably only get worse,” Anton shook his head. “And the heat of the sun is magnified by it reflecting back on us.” The actual sands themselves were rather cool, but the air was supernaturally hot. As they were traveling quickly they breathed more heavily and consumed water more quickly. They had brought significant quantities with them in storage bags, but they would still need to refill in oases along the way, so they could manage the area around the Million Sword Vault where there weren’t any known sources of water.

Sweating all day wasn’t pleasant, but not sweating would have been worse. At least, they had to disperse the heat away from themselves somehow. Constant use of energy could make them more comfortable, but was a great exertion than just letting their bodies handle it.

Of great help were full body coverings they had, keeping their skin from being scorched by the sun. They were made from expensive silks that were extremely breathable. That was one comfort, at least.

At night, the desert changed. From an oppressive heat and blinding light, it was briefly a tolerable temperature. They also witnessed something wonderful. The reflective sands also reflected starlight and moonlight, creating a much less harsh light as they traveled. Then the temperature dropped, but they stayed warm enough by continuing to move. Keeping up a good jog for twenty-four hours or more wasn’t impossible for Essence Collection cultivators. If they were closer and knew exactly where their goal was they could get there more quickly, but instead they ran through the night and into the next day. 

Then, as the heat reached its highest point… they put up large tents and rested. The tents themselves were made to not absorb the heat, while staying open to the relatively cool ground beneath. That allowed tolerable temperatures for them to rest in.

The pace that they traveled kept most of the desert creatures from causing trouble for them. They were able to sense them ahead of time and go around, and anything that tried to chase after them was inevitably left behind. Except, of course, the strongest and fastest of them. 

“I thought it would have given up by now,” Anton said as he ducked and rolled to the side as a creature known as a twirl-horned antelope charged at him. It was a large specimen, easily ten feet tall before its antlers were involved, corkscrewing things that nearly doubled its height.

“I heard they’re extremely territorial,” Velvet said.

“Shouldn’t we be out of its territory now, though?” Anton asked. The horns angled back towards him, coming to a fine point that could pierce through him several times over. Without as much momentum he had to kick the side of one to get himself fully out of the way.

“It seems they fixate on a target once they discover it,” Velvet shrugged. “Should we kill it?” she held up her daggers.

“I didn’t want to,” Anton shook his head. “But it’s not leaving us much choice. I don’t know if we can outrun it. At least, not without risking ending up exhausted near something else.” Anton drew his bow, “Sorry about this, fellow.”

As he took his shot, Anton supposed that the creature should have either leapt out of the way- though he was prepared to curve his shot- or concentrated its energy to defend its neck where he was shooting. Instead, it lowered its head, placing its horns between it and himself.

A reasonable move, if he wasn’t shooting an arrow. Instead, it was trivial to avoid the curling horns by flying directly between them. Yet without even touching the horns coated in natural energy, his arrow dissipated.

“Well,” Anton said. “That’s troublesome.” Something about the horns created something that disrupted his energy, making the shot impossible. But he wasn’t alone, so Anton continued to make the attacks to keep the creature’s attention.

It seemed that Alva’s attacks from the side and rear were able to cause some damage to the creature, though its hide was tougher than steel. Hoyt charged in with his axe at the ready, but found himself contending with its rear hooves kicking at him. The creature was able to maintain its defenses with its horns on the front and hooves in the back, without unbalancing itself like it seemed it should. It even shifted around, rotating its body while only placing its front hooves on the ground, sometimes only one at a time as it twisted. 

When Hoyt moved in to attack its side, it twitched into a full spin, rear hooves nearly missing him and its horns only barely blocked by his axe, sending him flying back. The trails of fire he left behind near it seemed to not affect the creature with short white fur.

But Hoyt’s attack allowed Anton to sneak a good shot in before it returned to focusing on him. He had also backed away so he was out of easy charging distance. The battle was decided when it lunged towards Hoyt once more and Velvet popped out of the sand, slicing the tendons on one of its front legs. It maintained a valiant effort to defeat them even afterwards- and never chose to turn and run- but it was unable to cause serious harm to any of them.

They took a short break after the battle. Anton sighed, “It’s a shame to just leave it here for scavengers to eat. But those horns won’t easily fit in a storage bag… and we don’t have time to properly skin it.”

“Agreed,” Hoyt said. “If it was someone other than Chikere I might not be worried about a couple minutes here and there, but she may have already gotten herself killed… or seriously injured. Or will soon.”

—–

It was nighttime when they approached the last oasis on their planned journey. “Hmm,” Anton pondered before they got close. “Looks like there might be some trouble.”

“What kind?” Alva asked.

“The worst kind. Other people.”

“… maybe they’ll be friendly?” Alva said hopefully.

“They could be, but for them to be here…” Anton shook his head. “I doubt it. Velvet… I’d suggest hiding yourself as we approach.” She probably would anyway, but communicating his intentions was the easiest way to make sure she would.

“Do we know anything about them?” Hoyt asked.

“We will soon. I should be able to see some sort of symbols, or intentional lack of them,” Anton supposed. “They’re all practicing the same technique. I have some unfounded guesses.”

“Such as?” Hoyt asked.

“The Sand Blade… Tribe,” Anton said cautiously. More people called them the Sand Blade Bandits, but they weren’t necessarily much worse than most cultivators. “They’re one of the groups that had conflicts with Chikere.” As they approached closer and Anton got a clear look at their curved swords, there wasn’t any more doubt about who they were. But he still hoped to avoid conflict- if nothing else because of the time it wasted- so they approached closer instead of immediately attacking.

As they were noticed, the group formed up into loose ranks, with one figure standing out front. “Hello there travelers.” It was not a friendly greeting, but neither was it openly hostile. Yet knowing who they were, Anton found it suspicious.

“Hello,” Anton said. “We’re just passing through.”

“Of course, you may do so,” the man said, “But if you wish to make use of our oasis, we will have to charge you.”

The oasis wasn’t theirs, of course. While oases in common travel routes were all claimed in some legitimate matter, it was obvious that they were simply passing by as well. Even so, if they weren’t unreasonable it might be easier to pay them off. “Is that so?” Anton asked. “How much?” He was also taking a measure of the man. Early Essence Collection, as well as two behind him. But they also had another ten cultivators in mid to late Spirit Building. So they weren’t completely crazy for making such a challenge. 

“Three golden coins per barrel,” the man said.

The price was both excessive and reasonable. Excessive because the local golden coins were rather large, and even the most taxed oases were less than half of one of the coins for the same amount of water. But cheap because… by cultivator prices it was nearly irrelevant. “That is quite reasonable,” Anton said, reaching into his storage bag to pull out some coins. Then he finally picked out what he was looking for. So that was it. He plopped a pouch of coins into Hoyt’s hand. “That should cover it,” he said.

Hoyt took the hint and walked forward with the payment, while Anton didn’t break his stride, moving off to the side of the group towards the water. Hoyt plopped the pouch into the leader’s outstretched hand, and he instantly scanned it with his energy. “Filling up a lot, huh? Well, that’s fine.”

Anton approached the oasis and reached into his storage bag, pulling out the first of a handful of barrels he personally was carrying. Half were still full, but they’d skipped the previous stop. “Excuse me,” Anton gestured towards the leader. “Young man… is this the right size?”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” the man shrugged.

“Are you sure? Come look. It might be too big.”

The man grimaced, but approached. “What? Looks normal to me.”

“Oh, you might be right,” Anton nodded. “Perhaps I was thinking of another…” he bent forward towards the barrel and the man, then grabbed his wrist. The man immediately raised his defensive energy, but that didn’t stop Anton from yanking him forward into the oasis. A dozen swords were drawn simultaneously, but before anything else could happen, even before the man hit the surface of the water, there was an eruption. Water sprayed into the sky… and half of the oasis was gone.

At least, the water was- and in its place was a massive maw, chomping down on the leader of the Sand Blades.

Anton might have thought of some quips about rudeness, but was too busy forming as many bows as he could to bother with one. He fired a round of shots towards the weaker opponents before the oasis chomper finished closing its jaws and splashed back into the waters. Hoyt had known better than to step into the middle of the group, and found himself facing off against the two remaining Essence Collection members. Meanwhile, Anton and Alva bombarded them from both sides.

The fight was short and bloody, but the Sand Blades simply hadn’t expected their ruse to be seen through. Yet the distance they had been standing away from the oasis and the sand on their skin had given away they weren’t willing to approach. That hesitation came against them once more when the battle started.

When Hoyt was looking pressured by two curved blades continuously slicing towards him, brightly sparkling sand swirling about in the air to blind him… Velvet appeared behind one of them, and he was dead a moment later.

Bandits was a reasonable moniker for them. And Anton could see how they would have ended up in a conflict with Chikere regardless.

Then the water exploded once more, and a very angry leader leapt out. Unfortunately, the partially digested man was no match for all of them, especially not after cutting his way out of the oasis chomper.

“Well…” Velvet commented. “Now the oasis is… blood filled.”

“It will settle,” Anton said. “But we should help it along. I’m not particularly fond of trying oasis chomper blood.” He looked down through what appeared to be clear water towards the barely visible form of the creature that was mostly a giant mouth and stomach. Their bodies refracted light in the same way as water did, and their organs and even teeth were nearly clear. Much of their structure was said to be made from similar materials as the mirror sands. It was a good thing Anton tried to learn what he could about potential predators in areas he was going into. He might not have sensed the thing at all and just counted on his eyes.

They filled up as quick as they could and looked out into the desert. “I hope she’s still alive,” Velvet said. “But I was also hoping we’d have caught up to her by now.”

Anton nodded. There was a small chance they’d missed her, but if they’d gotten within ten or fifteen kilometers he should have noticed her. Which meant she was likely still out ahead of them… and closer to the Million Sword Vault, where a bunch of sword fanatics would inevitably end up in conflict with her and kill her. She was good, but they were an entire sect on their home turf.

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