There was absolutely no need for Anton to get a new bow. He had a perfectly serviceable bow suited for someone at Essence Collection, and even the old bone bow that was slightly less of a pain to use now, but inefficient. He didn’t need another bow, especially not one that was basically two or three swords strapped together, depending on whether you counted the razor-sharp string as another one.
He didn’t need another one, but he just had to know if it was any good as a weapon. Since the easiest way to test it out was to take the trial, that was what he did. He was allowed to take some practice shots at the empty desert while they set up. There were several important factors at play.
First, only the center grip of the bow wasn’t sharp. That one was fairly obvious, but it was still important to remember. The string itself was razor thin, which at first made him treat it delicately- but then he realized it simply wasn’t using excess materials. Whatever sort of metal it was made out of was many times stronger than the black steel string of his first cultivator bow. That didn’t mean it needed to be so thin, but perhaps it lost its spring or the draw weight wouldn’t match the rest of the weapon if it was thicker. Or the creator of the bow simply wanted another cutting surface, like the two blades that made up the majority of the bow shaft weren’t enough.
There was no information about the bow’s origin. Million Sword Vault had simply obtained it in some conflict long in the past. Apparently some had tried to use it as a sword, but it didn’t hold its shape well unless it was strung, and that got in the way of more traditional sword techniques.
As for actually firing the bow, Anton ran into a couple of problems that almost caused him to fail the trial before it started. His first arrow managed to pull back the string just a little bit, before it was sliced apart and the string snapped forward. The second he focused too much on durability of the arrow and not his aim. On the third attempt, he actually got an arrow to go where he wanted, but he could tell that the difference in power would be rather fiddly based on exact draw length.
The administrator of Anton’s test was another elder, separate from the one guarding the vaults. Elder Wardah returned to Anton shortly after he was just getting used to firing the bow. “The trial is ready. Any further shots will be counted against it. Come with me.”
She walked ahead of him, the swirling sands making vision pretty much impossible. The windiness of the area around Million Sword Vault seemed to be another reason it could stay hidden, though Anton suspected that a portion of it was simply killing whoever they didn’t want to know. He now knew they were a ‘reasonable’ sect by some definitions, but it had likely been foolish to approach, even in pursuit of a friend.
Elder Wardah brought Anton to a seemingly random point. “Here,” she said, pointing to the ground. “You must seek the target.”
“Is there a time limit?” Anton asked. He got no answer. Well, it probably didn’t matter. He stood in the spot she indicated and spread out his senses. What he was looking for was anything that wasn’t sand. Then he found it, close to five kilometers away as indicated. He knew it was one of the targets, because that wasn’t part of the test, though other unspoken factors could be. He took a deep breath, the coverings over his mouth and face keeping the sand away as he did so. He drew back the string while forming a Spirit Arrow and fired. His consciousness traveled through the mirrored sands until he struck the target, right in the middle of the bullseye. “Done,” Anton said.
“Wait here,” Elder Wardah said. She wandered off towards the target, picking it up, then returned. “Another. This way.”
So they went to another, Anton keeping his senses mostly constrained to where they were in case finding the targets ahead of time was some violation. He didn’t think the Million Sword Vault intended to fail him from something he didn’t know, but they likely had some assumptions about how things should work that he wasn’t familiar with. After the second target, she looked somewhat disappointed. Anton wasn’t sure why, as it had only taken him a short time to find the target and hit the bullseye. Even by Grand Elder Kseniya’s high standards, he didn’t think there was much improvement to be made at his current cultivation level.
Anton found himself beginning to fatigue simply from remaining out in the desert heat. There was a not insignificant distance between each point, and Anton wasn’t sure he could find his way back to the Million Sword Vault after wandering through so much featureless swirling sand. They arrived at the location of the third target- or rather once more five kilometers away from it.
“Target is that way,” Elder Wardah pointed.
Immediately Anton’s senses stretched out the five thousand meters, finding the target. But instead of shooting, he hesitated. She hadn’t pointed out the other ones. He spread his senses, looking further. There was nothing else in that direction, but he searched around to the sides and behind himself. There it was, the same distance in the opposite direction. It wouldn’t be a problem to shoot it but… he had the feeling there was something important.
“Is it one shot per target, or one shot per location?” Anton asked. Once more, Elder Wardah remained silent, letting him draw his own conclusions. Well, he could theoretically take the trial again… or just give up. He didn’t need another bow, and so far it was just appearing to be a rather difficult to shoot oddity, not something exceptional.
Anton decided to go with the assumption that it was one shot per location. If not, he was going to look like he was showing off… which might not be terrible. But he really didn’t want to fail a test that wasn’t even that difficult.
He focused, aligning his flow of energy with the bow, gathering more power to take the shot. While both targets were five kilometers away, this was actually a shot that would push him to his limits- because they were in opposite directions. Not only was the end goal fifteen kilometers away in essence, but it involved a one hundred and eighty degree turn. Either one of those factors was easy enough, but Anton had to take this more seriously to get both, even for still targets.
Immediately after he released the arrow, Anton felt something was different. He was moving forward with the arrow as usual, but instead of slipping through the sands he was slicing a path. Somehow, his attack had widened without doing it consciously. Impacting a few extra grains of sand wouldn’t matter, but over such a distance it was building up. He thought to narrow the attack again, but realized this was a feature of the bow he couldn’t have imagined. How it was truly supposed to work.
When he reached the first target, he sliced it cleanly in half- at a diagonal angle. He was used to arrows being more or less a symmetric point, but now that he was a wide blade he had to think about the rotation. But first he had to loop the arrow back around.
The arrow flew for only a short moment before it was facing towards himself, but in that time it flew another kilometer. Fortunately, the extra distance wasn’t as big of a problem as it could have been. Total travel distance mattered, but so did absolute distance from himself for the ability to keep control of his energy.
Soon enough he was flying past himself, with enough distance to avoid the cutting edge he now had. He reached the other target with enough force to pierce into it, slicing halfway through before his power faded. Puncturing both targets would have been easy, but he had to impart significantly more total force to cut them in half- and the drag from the sands really added up.
Anton breathed out slowly. “Well, that was it.”
Elder Wardah silently went to collect the targets. When she returned she had only a hint of a smile on her face. “You pass. The weapon is yours.”
As they walked back towards the sect, Anton wondered how she knew her way. There had to be some trick, but he didn’t know if he should ask. There was something else he was more curious about though, and it seemed innocent enough. “Do any of your elders practice archery?” Anton asked. “I feel like the trial couldn’t have been designed by an amateur…” He could have easily kept shooting the bow with only the minimal amount of force to hit the target, but the third phase made him impart more energy and thus discover the hidden feature of the weapon.
“Many of our members dabble in weapons other than the sword,” Elder Wardah explained. “One of our Grand Elders designed this particular trial some time ago.”
“Would it be possible for me to meet with them?” Anton asked.
“No,” Elder Wardah said curtly. “She’s dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Anton replied.
“Everyone dies eventually,” Elder Wardah replied. Anton knew that but… that didn’t mean people who survived felt good about it. But he decided not to press the issue any further.
“Look here,” Chikere spun a sword almost uncomfortably close to Anton’s face. “My new second best weapon!”
“I still say it seems kind of rude to call it that,” Hoyt said from nearby.
“Why?” Chikere said. “That’s what it is. It’s very good, but not the best one I have.”
“I do agree with him,” Anton pointed out. “Many of these disciples would be very envious of that sword, and yet you have another.”
“But I have tons of swords,” Chikere pointed out. “And I use all of the best ones. It’s not like it’s going to be collecting rust. And they all had the opportunity to complete that trial before I got here.”
“That won’t stop jealousy,” Anton pointed out. Even though he said that, it seemed the attitude towards Chikere of most of the disciples- and all of the Elders that Anton had seen- was quite positive. Whether it was due to very briefly being Swordmaster Rahayu’s disciple or simply because Chikere was Chikere he wasn’t quite sure, but she fit in with them.
One of the disciples approached. “Aspiring Swordmaster Chikere, I humbly request a spar.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Schedule is full.”
“Oh, I had heard there might be one more position.”
“There was,” Chikere admitted. “But now Anton’s in that spot.”
Having not heard of that, Anton raised an eyebrow. “Am I?”
“Of course. You can’t carry around a sword and not expect me to want to fight you!” Chikere’s eyes twinkled.
So. It seemed they were on opposite sides of the sword-bow divide with regards to Anton’s new weapon. Or perhaps it was simply that it was both, though Anton had no real plans to use it as a melee weapon if he could help it. He would still train for it anyway, because obviously if all battles went to plan he’d instantly kill his opponents with a single arrow.
“I suppose that could be good for both of us,” Anton admitted.
He didn’t think much of his chances of winning such a spar, given that Chikere had a few extra years of training that still kept a gap in cultivation between them. However, it had been quite some time since they’d had a serious match, and he could learn a lot from it. If nothing else, he would get some practice not dying against fifteen or so swords attacking simultaneously. He just needed to make sure neither of them got any injuries that would take months to recover from, because they had a goal to get to.