Until a spear of light came from the heavens, nothing indicated to Diego or his family that the current section of the road was unsafe. A bit uncomfortable to travel with a wagon, but that was how they were bringing their few possessions to the city. The youngest siblings couldn’t walk all day either.
In the city was promise of teachings about cultivation. While they were able to farm just enough to feed themselves, Diego knew his parents were worried about the future. There were all sorts of rumors swirling about, but none spoke of long term stability. Since Diego had managed to learn a bit of cultivation secondhand from working on a nearby farm, they were taking the chance to go to the city.
He’d thought he could protect his family, but he didn’t know about the dangers lurking behind the boulders and trees. The spear of light spooked the old nag that was pulling the wagon, sending the family tumbling about. One of the little ones was teetering on the edge as the wagon suddenly started speeding forward, and Diego picked him up and shoved him towards the front of the wagon. At the same time, a wheel hit a stone, knocking him off of the wagon.
He fell on his side, landing hard on the road. He heard his parents screaming, but he stood up. “Don’t worry! I’ll catch up!”
Calming down a spooked horse wasn’t an easy task, and his father had enough to do just keeping them on the road. If anyone had to run to catch up, he was the best option.
It was unfortunate that there were a dozen bandits standing just off the road. Diego could sense their cultivations now that the first attacks had happened. Warning shots, he surmised- but they didn’t have the intended effect. Not that there would be much for them to steal anyway.
When Diego turned towards them, he was surprised that the group looked confused. They had weapons drawn, but when they began to move towards him more spears of light impacted the ground in front of them. They had to be spears given their size and power, right? They faded a moment after impact, but gouts of dirt sprayed into the air where they landed. A few moments of no movement and one person tried to take a step towards Diego. Another arrow landed right in front of their toe, forcing them to jump back.
He had been planning to stay behind to keep them away from his family- maybe convince them they had nothing. But Diego wasn’t going to disregard whatever good fortune this was. He took a tentative step just to make sure he could move, and when nothing came towards him he ran off down the road towards his family. They might not even know anything happened except something spooking the horse. That might be best for some of them.
It took a while, but Anton finally got in comfortable speaking distance of the bandits. He stepped into clear view and flared his cultivation so they didn’t get any stupid ideas thinking he was out of energy or weak. “Do you know why you’re still alive?” Anton asked.
The group of bandits looked at each other then shook their heads. “No, honored elder.”
“Because we can’t afford to waste lives. Even ones of scum like yourselves.” Anton looked up at the sky. “Soon enough, even those like you will feel it. Before then, you’re going to be learning something.”
“Uh, yes sir. We won’t do it again,” a man that appeared to be the leader spoke up.
“Even if I fully believed that, that’s not what I meant this time.” Anton smiled. “You’re actually going to be learning something. You will come with me, learn some specific combat techniques, and train yourselves. Then you will wait for further orders.”
“Are we being conscripted?” the man asked.
“That’s right. The other option…” Anton shrugged. The implications were clear.
Nobody was willing to risk doing anything. They were just a bunch of Spirit Building cultivators. Way too strong to be preying on poor folk on the road. Anton wasn’t sure if they were from a sect or an unfortunate side effect of teaching everyone to cultivate, but he had been tipped off to their location by a local sect. The group of would-be bandits had not actually manage to do anything but reveal themselves, but it was close. The local sect would have taken care of them had Anton not come by.
He would not take them directly to the Order. Conscripting people wasn’t a pleasant process, but times were dire. Even so, if it was going to be done it would be right. They would receive a proper trial- eyewitness evidence from Anton was all they really had, but those with proper training in insight could make a fair trial by judging what people said. Especially weaker cultivators.
Ironically enough, it would have been easier to just kill them. Instead, they would be taught anti-ascension techniques. When the invasion came, they would fight like anyone else. And like everyone else, many of them would die. Better against the invaders than in petty squabbles. The larger sects understood they couldn’t afford to lose any manpower in the last few years, but some people didn’t quite get it just yet. Conscripts weren’t really different than slaves, but they could always choose to be dead.
Perhaps he was just justifying extreme measures to himself in the times of crisis, but if Anton lived through it he would do his best to make sure the region didn’t return to treating people like property. And if everyone died, then at least they would do so with slightly better odds on their side.
Ten years hadn’t been enough. What could be done? A new bow? Teach a few people? Settle a few disputes so people didn’t kill each other and sentence a few people to a different death than they would have otherwise had. None of that felt good enough. Anton almost wished he had died as a farmer. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t change the reality of the world. Blissful ignorance was still ignorance. Being able to at least attempt to make the world better on a grand scale was something worthwhile.
Anton looked down at the space beneath himself, where there was nothing but air. It could be called flying in a way, but for the most cultivators it really wasn’t. He was simply holding himself up with a pillar of energy. It was a waste of effort in battle, where it could be severed easily and provided little advantage. Even so, it was something Anton had once found joy in. Being up in the air, surrounded by the wind… and closer to the sun. Though he knew the actual difference in his distance to the sun was miniscule, being away from everything else felt better. At the moment he could comfortably go about a hundred meters up, but he was only at a stable equilibrium much lower than that.
He slowly settled to the ground. It was a neat trick. Possibly useful for getting a better vantage, but he didn’t need to see people with his eyes to shoot at them. Arcing his shot up into the air was just as simple from on the ground where he didn’t have to concentrate on holding himself up.
Anton sighed, as he did often in recent times. Nothing was fun anymore. Even Body Tempering cultivators felt the rapidly approaching calamity in the sky. It was becoming ever more clear, and soon enough people would be able to count down the days. What else could be done before then? Anton didn’t know. Perhaps he would be lucky and condense one final star, but Anton doubted it. It was unfortunate, but his current state of mind was not conducive to cultivation. Negative emotions could only support people in the short term. A decade of them just wore cultivators down, though Anton knew there were many more hopeful than himself. Hopefully they would be the ones to survive and lead the next generation to create a better world.
Another much older man watched from a closer vantage point. His eyes were sunken, his visage sallow. The energy that was meant to sustain him ultimately had to come to an end. In fact, if he knew himself, he was already overdue. He wondered what future was being sacrificed. Perhaps something simple like the power of the formations themselves. Or perhaps… him. This projection, and its memories. That would be just fine.
Everheart looked down upon the world. He liked to make people think he was omniscient, but that was not the case. If he had been, he wouldn’t have bothered holding on for the last few months. Nobody more had come to him, entrapped in his web. Now… it didn’t matter. The invasion would be proceeding regardless of who died. Hopefully there was enough uncertainty there to make them careless. The lack of people coming through might have tipped them off, but Everheart felt the distant figures in the sky. Nothing would change at this point, and he did what he thought was best. He only hoped it had been enough.
For a moment, he wondered about his true self. Was he dead? Or perhaps he was simply not coming back. The plan had never been to defend against the invasion himself, but as a projection tasked to a single task for centuries, he had much time to think. His focus might have made him more inclined towards the world, but he still hoped that Everheart would change his mind and return. But he had probably finally angered someone too strong for himself and died.
As the barrier surrounding the world faded away, brought about by some natural phenomenon that even Everheart couldn’t claim to understand, he smiled. He had to believe what he had done would be enough. He faded away with that hope, his duty fulfilled to the best of his abilities.
Every member of the Order stood beneath the cover of the most powerful defensive formation any of them had ever perceived. At least they no longer had to wait or wonder. The sense of cultivators in the sky was clear to them. Ascension cultivators, brimming with power. Yet beneath that were those that were weaker, covered in some sort of protection as they approached.
Anton almost stood in awe. There was a level of power there that was unattainable for him. Yet those individuals were not the largest threat. Their numbers were limited, and they seemed to be distributing themselves to different parts of the world. The numerous cultivators that were the equivalent of Life Transformation were a bigger concern.
Soon, they would arrive.
It was Grand Elder Kseniya elbowing Anton that brought him into a sensible state of mind. “Hey. Want to take bets on which of us can take out more of them before they hit the ground?”
Right. There was no reason to wait for them to arrive. They were almost within range of Horizon Shot. Shooting upwards would slightly limit their range as they fought gravity, but not having to deal with obstructions… it was actually quite interesting. And they would only get one chance to try it. “Seems like the ascension cultivators are protecting them though,” Anton commented. “How about we pick one and see how much these anti-ascension techniques can really do?”
“That’s the spirit!” Kseniya grinned. “Alright… how about… that one!” Kseniya pointed, and nobody but Anton could follow it precisely, but he understood. Fortunately, there weren’t many ascension cultivators coming in the bundle near them. Just a handful, along with more Life Transformation and Essence Collection cultivators than they had. It was fine. What were they going to do, kill him?
That, at least, was something Anton was unafraid of.
Kseniya shot first, but Anton followed up with a light element Spirit Arrow. Anton had been worried that all that training was wasted, but as their attacks hit the large barrier maintained by the powerhouse in the sky trembled. It was nowhere close to breaking from just a couple arrows, but it was clear it reacted poorly to their techniques. If they could destabilize it enough to stop for even a moment, then it would be their first victory- before the invaders got a single foot on their world. There were all sorts of flaws with the world, but it was theirs and nobody was allowed to say otherwise.