With the addition of his new bow, Anton’s limit for ones formed of energy was a half dozen. His arrows had no rotation that was important prior to his new acquisition, but now he had to get used to how they might cut, and focus on providing enough power to make actual use of the effect.
Since it widened the area of attack and made it somewhat like a sword, Anton was fairly certain that it would be a suboptimal weapon against Chikere. However, that also filled him with confidence to go all out in that regard. He could experiment without much worry of anyone getting hurt.
If the battle had started at Anton’s maximum range, he might have stood a real chance. However, the battle began at only a few hundred meters, which meant he only had a few volleys of shots before Chikere got close to him.
His arrows flew together but not in anything that could be called an organized pattern. That would simply be easier to defend against, and Anton wanted Chikere to have to work for her success. She had somewhere close to twenty swords under her control at the moment, counting the one she held with her actual hands, but Anton suspected she could have more if necessary. That said, the space around her was quite crowded with blades already.
The many swords were able to cover attacks from all angles as well as multiple simultaneous attacks, but though Anton had a disadvantage in number of weapons he was able to fire multiple volleys to be in the air at the same time- and by changing their velocity mid flight they could all arrive simultaneously. Most of his arrows were parried or sliced apart, but one of them came within a millimeter of impacting Chikere’s shoulder, slicing through her defensive energy. Yet he didn’t think that he was actually that close to inflicting a wound on her. Her style was simply to allow attacks as close to her as she could afford without taking debilitating injuries… so that she could then focus on defeating her opponents.
As he expected, the sword-bow he held in his hands only created wider area attacks that were easier for Chikere to predict and deflect. But on occasion the power forced her to use two, three, or even five swords simultaneously to block his attacks.
Anton didn’t let her close into melee, but he couldn’t exactly stay away from her. He might be able to match her speed if he did nothing else but retreat, but he couldn’t attack then. Instead he did his best to keep Chikere from chopping through his energy bows, her swords widening their spread to reach for them as they shot nearly point-blank at her.
As expected, he was able to use the bow to parry some of her attacks, and despite how difficult it seemed he was still able to continue firing it while he did so. It was well made, even if its purpose was rather odd. But in the end, Anton didn’t have the necessary experience to overcome Chikere’s melee expertise, and he soon found himself with three swords impaled in his chest. Chikere had kindly avoided stabbing into any organs, but didn’t stop before piercing through him so as to make it very clear to all present that she could have.
“You win,” Anton admitted without difficulty. She was still ahead of him in cultivation, and her combat capability was her only focus. “I would like to discuss wielding multiple weapons at some point.” Though their methods were different, he imagined he could learn something from her. He wouldn’t mind carrying around additional physical bows if it would be more effective than energy bows, though there would doubtless be some practical limits there. Bows took up a bit more space than swords, and Chikere was honestly hard to find under the various weapons she had at this point.
Despite what had initially been heard about the Million Sword Vault, they were reasonable folk. Anton and the others were sworn to secrecy about the precise location, but they didn’t actually seem too concerned about whether or not they were found. Though if Anton and the others had come with ill intent, he doubted they would be walking away.
A new sect to train with for a while would be beneficial to them all, but they had limited time. It might not happen immediately, but the conflict with the Whispering Watchers was inevitable. The mission had been to come find Chikere and keep her from getting killed, and while the second had miraculously not been necessary, they had completed what they had to do.
And what’s more, Million Sword Vault was willing to participate in the upcoming battles. It was a strange mix of official and unofficial support. There wasn’t anything so formal as an organized draft where they sent a specified amount of their disciples to help. Instead, they simply made an announcement asking for volunteers… of which there were many.
That was how they ended up with several hundred people following them out of the Scorching Mirror Desert, close to fifty of which were in Essence Collection along with a single Life Transformation Elder. It wasn’t clear how many of them were coming because they were battle maniacs compared to how many were coming to support Chikere- with the intent of sparring with her at a later time. In fact, Anton supposed they might all be interested in both options. But either way, the outpouring of support was more than expected. It wasn’t expected to actually get them to join, as information on them had been vague- but they were quite eager to ‘take out some traitors’.
Anton vaguely recognized the elder who approached him. Not from at the Million Sword Vault, but before that. It seemed Elder Vasu had the same idea, as the relatively youthful man spoke. “You were at Everheart’s Tomb, were you not? The one regarding ascension.”
“That’s right,” Anton inclined his head. “I was there.”
“If I’m not wrong… I saw you in the final chambers. The ones that required passing somewhat arbitrary insights about ascension.”
“I think it was designed for everyone to make the choice that fit themselves,” Anton said.
“To an extent,” Elder Vasu admitted. “But many failed to pass. I took note of you because of your low cultivation… which has improved significantly in the last seven or eight years, has it not?”
“I was able to make the step into mid Essence Collection, yes,” Anton admitted. “Unfortunately, whatever insights I have into ascension are meaningless for myself. Since I can’t.”
“Is that so?” the man asked. “I would judge that we are actually rather similar in age, around a century. The barrier of Life Transformation is great, but for one with your insights I would expect it to be less onerous, regardless of what speed you advance through ranks.”
“Even if I were suddenly to find myself at the peak of Life Transformation, that step is impossible for me. I know that for certain.”
“Is that so?” Vasu asked. “Why?”
Though his words were polite, his manner was also quite straightforward. Not that Anton found that to be a bad thing. “A forbidden technique,” Anton admitted. “Besides, I have too many attachments to the world to just leave it behind for a little bit of power.”
Vasu laughed. “Just a little, huh?” he shook his head. “That may be so. But about the Whispering Watchers, you are sure they are traitors? Their impropriety deserves retribution regardless, but it would be good to know.”
“Absolutely,” Anton said. “You should be able to confirm it yourself. But in case you do not have access to any of the necessary techniques, I can teach them.”
Vasu nodded, “Some of the other elders… did a thorough sweep of the sect after our return. I personally focused more on the anti-ascension techniques. Though they’re rather difficult to practice without a target. ”
“Ah, I may have neglected mentioning something in my haste,” Anton admitted. “That forbidden technique allows me to use ascension energy… to some extent. While I can’t say I’m a worthy opponent, I’m certain you could adjust your power output to determine if it works.”
“I see. I assume it’s related to Everheart. The man was fond of… weighing the present against the future for maximum benefits. Though I can’t say I understand the mechanics of that.”
“That’s basically it,” Anton admitted. “As far as I understand.”
“Too bad,” Vasu admitted. “If you’re well versed in the technique… does that not mean you almost certainly would have ascended?”
Anton shook his head. “No. I’d be dead. And people I care about as well.”
“Perhaps. But there was at least some path.”
“Maybe,” Anton admitted. The projection of Everheart present on the moon had spoken to him personally, indicating he would likely have reached ascension as well. “Do you think… there are other paths?” Anton asked.
“Hmm…” Elder Vasu frowned. “I… hadn’t even considered it. And I find myself somewhat doubtful. Have you found something that indicates otherwise?”
“Not really. Just something Everheart said. His projection, I mean. I’m nowhere near old enough to have met the real man.” Even the one on the moon admitted to not being the real one. After all, he shouldn’t still be around but instead ascended. Or dead, most likely both by his own admission.
“Well, I certainly have no idea,” Vasu admitted. “But I would never call anything impossible.” A pause. “He talked to you?”
“Just his projections. I was fortunate to get some of his techniques early on, and that made further projections amicable towards me. As much as Everheart ever can be, at least.”
“My interactions with his tombs indicated he was a difficult man to be around. But he knew his stuff. About this ascension energy… we’ll have to find a time to practice.”
“Perhaps once out of the desert,” Anton said. “My usage here would be… suboptimal.”
As it turned out nobody was willing to cause trouble for an army with the strength of a moderate sect- or a good portion of a powerful one. The journey took a few turns to avoid directly imposing on any sect’s land so that they would not feel compelled to respond, but they arrived in good time. The approach to Prophis made it clear that more forces had been gathered from many places.
As they approached, Grand Elder Kseniya rode out to meet them. “Welcome back, Anton. I see you were successful in your mission.” She looked over the army of Million Sword Vault cultivators. “I presume you are allies?”
“We are,” Elder Vasu nodded. “I’m Vasu.”
“Kseniya. I am a Grand Elder of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. I assume your position is much the same.”
“Similar,” Vasu admitted. “Though until I attain the level of Swordmaster, I simply retain the title of ‘elder’.”
“It doesn’t matter, as long as you are willing to fight with us. I trust my disciple Anton explained everything?”
“Enough. Whispering Watchers harbor members of the Twin Soul Sect, maybe more than that. And they sent a Life Transformation elder to kill him after he killed some of their disciples in the conflict with Swordmaster Rahayu.” Vasu grinned, “Which is extremely disrespectful. They need to learn to take one on the chin. Though I’ll settle for cutting a few in half.”
“They get along with Chikere very well,” Anton said as a manner of explanation. “They leapt at the opportunity to help.”
“You mean fight,” Vasu laughed. “But joining a friend in battle is good as well. And the indirect disrespect for Rahayu won’t be tolerated. Just because he’s not here to chop them up doesn’t mean everyone will tolerate it!” Vasu harrumphed.
“You speak as if he is dead,” Kseniya frowned.
“Not at all. If he was dead… as long as no foul play would be involved, we would accept it. But he ascended, and they choose to disrespect his legacy. Plus there’s that whole thing about betraying us to invaders? But that hasn’t happened yet so we’ll get ‘em later.”
“No matter the reason,” Kseniya said, “As long as you are willing to fight alongside others we are glad to have you.”
“Alongside, in front of… we’ll fight wherever,” Vasu grinned widely. “We might just carve a trail of blood alongside that one,” he gestured to Chikere. “But I’m sure you’ll find us quite effective whatever we do.”