Elder Cultivator 350

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Black flames spewed in all directions as the Ascension cultivator broke through the condensed power of the formation, but not before Catarina pierced through her side, stabbing through ribs and into her lung. Her sword did not reach all the way to the woman’s heart, but the black flames were unable to reach towards either Catarina or Timothy. As the barrier portion of the formation attempted to reform around the woman, she kept it away with her power, fleeing from the area. 

Catarina chased after her, holding her focus on the restrictions of the formation suppressing the woman. That prevented her from counterattacking, but as it was no longer a case of ambush it was difficult to hold her in place. The formation hadn’t been designed for that function, and as she lost proximity to the woman the restrictions weakened and the gap began to widen as the woman sped up.

The loss of the formation suppressing their enemies and augmenting their allies should have turned the battle against the Order, but the sudden change in scenery instead sparked a general retreat of the remaining forces. Three Ascension cultivators had been slain while the other two were wounded, but the remaining Life Transformation and Essence Collection cultivators had sufficient power to defeat the Order. Yet they retreated nonetheless. They weren’t allowed to go freely, but as the cultivators began to scatter the Order focused on those who were easiest to catch. Once the rest were beyond the borders of their land, they didn’t have the fortitude to chase them much further… a few lone arrows being the exception.

Allowing them to regroup in the countryside was not what anyone wanted, but the only possibility of chasing after them was utter annihilation. And while some of the invaders seemed to be gathering towards the nearby city of Edelhull… they would find it much more than a typical city.

Not long after the invaders left, there was a great cracking sound, and Catarina sighed in relief. Condensing the power of the formation onto one of the Ascension cultivators hadn’t necessarily been the correct move, but it wasn’t entirely uncalculated either. The majority of the main formation wasn’t going to last anyway, and it was better that it was intentionally withdrawn instead of… annihilated. “I suppose that’s the best I can do,” Catarina commented to no one in particular.

An arm wrapped around her shoulder. It was a comforting gesture, but Timothy also needed it to physically support himself. “To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to survive today. For anyone to.”

“I don’t know why we did,” Catarina said honestly. “They still seemed to be able to overpower us.”

—–

After the battle, casualties were determined. Only a few anomalies were without injuries, ranging from more on the minor side to lingering wounds which might yet kill people. Normally a cultivator who survived a battle would be able to live on with the proper application of precious medicines, but they simply didn’t have enough for everyone, despite their best efforts to prepare. And recovery medicines hadn’t been at the top of their mind, since those were only useful if they survived.

As for the dead… close to a third of the Order had perished, from the very top of their Grand Elders all the way down to their Body Tempering cultivators. The latter were fortunate to have been treated as unimportant for the most part, as they were unable to influence the battle in a significant manner. Grand Elder Matousek was among the dead, but Kseniya survived… though her injuries were dire.

Another third of the members would be unable to fight for some time, either to injuries or complete exhaustion and often overtaxation of their energy. That left a small portion that were able to fight to some extent, but they were needed to help deal with all of the others.

Most of the invaders who didn’t flee had died in the battle, but most of the others were killed. The Order simply didn’t have the ability to watch over or imprison a large number of enemy cultivators. A few were picked out based on perceived importance compared to their actual cultivation strength. They would be interrogated later.

The dead invaders were stripped bare of their belongings and thrown into a massive pile, which was subsequently planned to be burned. They did not deserve the effort or dignity of being buried, even in a mass grave.

On the other hand, the Order had some of their number digging graves for their own dead. Anton was among them, moving almost mechanically. He only had the strength to move his body and little more, but he would rather exhaust himself this way than sit around doing nothing. One by one, his companions approached him. “You don’t have to do this,” Hoyt said. “I know it must remind you of-”

“No,” Anton shook his head. “I need to do this. Precisely because of Dungannon.” He held himself up high. “Because it’s different. Look around us, what do you see?”

“Death and destruction,” Hoyt shook his head. “For no reason at all.”

“That’s true,” Anton agreed. “But what I see is every single person who survived. This time, I fought.” He stabbed his shovel into the ground to punctuate his point, digging up a massive scoopful of dirt. “I’m not alone, dealing with destruction I could do nothing about. Those buildings in ruins there?” Anton gestured. “Pointless garbage. Everyone here was snatched from the jaws of death. Perhaps it could have been more. None of this should have happened but… we’re alive. For now.”

“About that,” Hoyt looked around carefully, then lowered his voice. “Why do you think they retreated? People are wondering…”

“That one’s easy,” Anton retorted. “Think about it for a second. If they had stayed to fight, what would they gain?”

“All of our resources… which was theoretically the entire reason they were here.”

“Would they?” Anton asked. “Disregarding the fact that we consumed most of them to augment the sect, only those who survived would get anything. And they didn’t want to win. They wanted to crush us. They weren’t expecting a real fight. Obviously some of them would die, but this… we made them know that any of them could die. Not just the guy next to them, but them.” Anton’s face turned into a mirthless smile. “And they were afraid. Afraid to die, because this place doesn’t mean anything to them.” He stabbed his shovel into the ground to begin the next grave.

“I see,” Hoyt said. “I didn’t think about that. It’s everything to us, but to them… we’re just another fortuitous opportunity to try to snatch up.” He held out his hand, “I can do some as well.”

Anton shook his head, “You’re welcome to get your own, but I’m doing this until the job’s done. I don’t… hate it so much as the others. I have buried many others throughout the years.” His face melted into an actual smile as he thought of Janina and the time they had together. “Not all deaths have to be bad. I’d prefer to be here, thinking of what these people accomplished.”

—–

Though it would take years to actually put things back together, cultivators were tough. Their dead were buried within a day, those who could still move around split between those taking guard and those working while the rest recovered as much as they could. The abundant natural energy that filled the Order’s lands was absorbed continuously, but it did not dry up. More flowed in from the surroundings, deep and strong and seemingly limitless. It was not, of course, truly without limit- but the changes to the world allowed for such a phenomenon.

The invaders had been allowed to leave, but the Order wasn’t content to just sit back and let them do as they pleased. They still took their duties to the people of Graotan very seriously, but running themselves into the ground wouldn’t help. And the rest of Graotan wasn’t exactly defenseless.

As they had sensed, a portion of the invaders had made their way towards Edelhull and the surrounding countryside… where they had been quickly repelled. The Order was a powerful sect formed from thousands of like-minded cultivators, but Edelhull was a city. Even before the recent decades of explosive growth they had tens of thousands of citizens. The invasion had caused an influx of people from the surrounding countryside, swelling their numbers to over a hundred thousand. And they were basically all cultivators, to some extent or another.

Even if most of them would not be trained to fight as well as a combat focused cultivator, the city still had a startling number of Body Tempering and Spirit Building cultivators. Even Essence Collection cultivators were more numerous there than in the Order- with the caveat that they bunched up towards the early part of the stage, representing the limits of what the average person could achieve over the course of decades. 

It was unfortunately the case that some of the surrounding towns and villages were attacked, but such efforts were halfhearted at best… and the people fought back viciously. News was coming in from afar that there were other groups in Graotan- and across the nearby western and southern borders. But in a way, that was good news as well. Others had survived to bring messages, even if the messages were ill tidings.

But just because they had repelled a single attack didn’t mean the Order was in the clear. No doubt the invaders would regroup and attack them once more… or join up with other forces and ravage Graotan or the rest of the continent. Surviving wasn’t winning… but the enemy wasn’t invincible.

—–

A week later found Anton firing Spirit Arrows beyond sight. They were shot with killing intent, though not the expectation of getting a kill. Nor was he in any rush. The enemy forces already knew where they were, or he would not have given away their position with his attacks. It was possible for him to take a circuitous route in his attacks, but that limited the actual range he could be. Having nearly died to an Ascension cultivator, Anton wanted to stay as far away from them as possible.

“Ah,” Anton said as he lowered his bow. “Look like I’m done for now.”

“I thought the point was to keep harassing them so they can’t recover,” Timothy commented. “I know you’re not firing any faster than you can sustain…”

“They put up a formation,” Catarina commented. “It’s not much, but whether or not he bombards it the duration will be quite similar.”

“Exactly,” Anton said. “Also, you can sense it?”

“Of course, it’s my area of specialty. I’m mostly guessing about the quality. It kind of feels weak, compared to what I think they should be able to put up, but they didn’t have formation masters among them.”

It wasn’t just the normal squad out harassing the invaders. That would be suicidal. Instead, they had about half of the Order’s forces. Those who were uninjured and not assigned to protecting said injured, at least. Their group did happen to make up all of the Life Transformation cultivators, however. Anton wasn’t sure if they had been drawn together by fate or coincidence, or if their talents had fed into each other… but either way, a group that all reached Life Transformation within less than forty years was an exception and had greatly inflated the Order’s numbers. 

The rate of advancement had also been higher outside of their group, but that had only amounted to an average of one Life Transformation expert every few years in the Order. That was significantly higher than the one-per-decade of the previous ‘generation’, but it could have been related to heading towards times of trouble. 

Anton took another shot towards the barrier. It wasn’t meant to do any damage, just be loud and visible so nobody could relax. It still wasn’t entirely clear if the Ascension cultivators could recover energy as it had to be approximated from afar, but if they could it was not a quick process. That seemed to be true to a lesser extent for the other invaders. They were accustomed to a majority of ascension energy, and couldn’t quite function properly in a world full of ‘lower energy’.

So far the Order’s interrogations hadn’t yielded much information. Even if they were willing to go beyond their normal moral limits, the fact that they stuck to the tenants of a righteous sect meant they wouldn’t know how to torture people. And if they did, they knew they would likely get inaccurate information. There were plans to take their prisoners to the Frostmirror sect or equivalently morally ambiguous allies, but the members of the Order weren’t willing able to venture more than a few dozen kilometers through Graotan, with the current presence of invaders. Even now Anton could feel several groups, though most didn’t appear to be so strong as the one that attacked the Order.

Another arrow, a reminder to the invaders and himself that he would not let things happen without fighting back. And neither would the rest of the world.

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