The fastest way for cultivators to get anywhere- aside from teleportation- was often running. It was possible for them to tame or raise powerful beasts, but those took great amounts of time, effort, or both. And in Life Transformation, only the very best would do. Devon didn’t happen to have any such beasts, so he ran. Elder Paula ran along with him, the pair of them keeping up a rapid pace. They took the most direct route they could, hoping to return to where Anton was within a few more hours.
A few beasts took offense at their passing through territory, but the creatures barely had time to react before they were past and gone. There were only a few locations they had to choose a route based on potential threats. Though they were close to the peak of cultivation, certain beasts matched or surpassed that level- either individually or as a group. Even if they could win such a battle they would be slowed more than just the duration of the battle, but also because of the fatigue that would result. If they took too long the potency of the waters of the Azure Springs would fade to nearly unusable levels, and they couldn’t guarantee they would have another chance to retrieve more.
It was thus with specific intention that they routed through the Eshurst Woodland, packed with towering trees but little underbrush to get in their way. They weren’t the largest trees in the world, but they were among the largest as a forest. Each tree stood more than thirty meters high, usually two meters wide or larger at the base. What threats lived in the woods generally took shelter among the canopy, not a problem if they remained mobile.
Fortunately they were expected a potential attack from giant raptors, so they were able to react. The actual foe was not a beast as expected, but cultivators. A group of five… from the Soaring Air Sect no less. They dove towards the pair with spears in hand, tossing javelins with the intent to control their movements- but they avoided the ranged attacks and took shelter behind one of the trees.
“What is the meaning of this?” Elder Paula demanded. She didn’t expect an actual answer, but it gave a moment of hesitation for Devon to pull out a messaging plate. It wasn’t much comfort if they died, but at least it would be known who was involved.
Devon caught Paula’s eye and shook his head. No response indicating his message had been received. So the enemy was prepared somehow… though that was fairly obvious with how the five cultivators spread out around them. “I’ll hold them back,” Devon said. “You go on ahead.”
“Fine,” Paula said.
There wasn’t longer than that to exchange plans- the enemy might have heard Devon regardless of his attempts to conceal the sound. And they were already attacking again. The cultivators of the Soaring Air Sect were some of the rare cultivators that actually took flight in combat, similar to the Boundless Skies Sect that had participated in the invasion. It was usually considered inefficient or a waste of energy, but their coordinated tactics and the mix of melee and ranged abilities made them difficult to fight against. As they charged, some tore through the trees that were meant to block them while others charged past, striking glancing blows while allowing little opportunity for a counterattack.
Paula’s swift attacks weren’t able to overcome their advantage of reach and numbers, so she focused on defending herself. Devon, meanwhile, was waiting for a proper opening as his chains tried to grab those going past.
The enemy paused in formation around the pair, readying themselves for another series of swooping attacks. That was the moment Devon chose, chains shooting out directly towards the trees the figures were sheltering behind. They clearly expected his chains to have to circumvent the trunks or at least slow when piercing through… but the chains didn’t even seem to tangibly interact with the trees. They didn’t even wrap around the cultivators but stabbed directly into their abdomens. “Now!” Devon called out.
Paula nodded, leaping away. Her powerful legs sprang her forward. The two cultivators on either side of her path tried to cut her off, but found themselves unable to move away from Devon, trapped by something that was intangible. It was a technique derived from the Chain Harmony Sect, and though he wasn’t confident in his ability to drain energy from a handful of people at once he could attach to their energy. Technically any of the five could have gotten away, but they would have to leave their energy behind- an act they instinctively rejected. For good reason.
Paula got past the pair, and with them being held back by Devon they had no choice but to turn to face him. The other three realized that as well and aimed their focus to him, simultaneously preparing to attack. Paula continued to leap forward… right into one of the trees. Her legs bent to stop her momentum, then she pushed off backwards- leaping straight towards the closest member of the Soaring Air Sect, jumping down at an angle. Her sudden change in direction caught everyone by surprise, and she spun in the air, heel kicking the man in the ribs and sending him into the nearest tree. Wood and splinters exploded as the man was buried in the base of the tree, and the massive weight of it began to twist and fall on him- though he was likely already dead before it finished.
“I said to go!” Devon said as he yanked on the chains of the remaining four to make them mistime their approaches. Their attacks still pierced his defensive energy, but he was left with only a couple gouges instead of four holes through his chest.
“Your grandfather wouldn’t want you to die for him.”
“I thought I could delay them and then escape!” Devon said.
“Why not just kill them? Each one you can restrain for a second…” Paula said. The battle had quickly shifted to a pair of cultivators menacing either of them from both sides.
She had a point there. While Devon couldn’t manage powerful attacks on his own at the same time as restraining five- now four- opponents of nearly equal strength, she had the explosive power necessary. For that to work optimally, however… he had to get closer.
He ran towards her, an action the Soaring Air Sect didn’t see fit to stop. He had to increase the length of the chains going to two of them, and it meant the four of them could encircle two people together which was actually more effective. It even gave two of them a moment to attempt to remove the chains- which they found was quite uncomfortable. Brute force wouldn’t solve the issue, and figuring out the proper technique would hopefully take more than a few moments.
Then he was next to Elder Paula. “What next?” she asked.
“Well, I-” Devon was glad that the enemy didn’t wait but immediately attacked, because he wasn’t sure he could functionally lie about his plans. The four attacked simultaneously, approaching from different heights and angles to create the maximum difficulty for the defenders. Devon and Paula had to avoid all four since they were so close, but they managed to not get in each other’s way and sustained only minimal wounds.
The four must have known Devon was preparing for a counterattack with the way his power rose in intensity, but as they suddenly stopped two meters on the far side of the pair- all together- it was clear they hadn’t expected how. The chains attached to them had extended through them, attaching them to each other as well as to Devon. They were briefly in a sort of square- then one of them had his head kicked in and they were connected in a lopsided triangle around Devon.
Devon twisted something inside of himself and connected the chains of the final two while extending some length for himself to move around. He still couldn’t go much outside of the encirclement, but the sudden loss of mobility was terrible for the three remaining opponents. Devon barely had any energy to form some more solid chains covered in spikes, but Paula did an excellent job of capitalizing on their opponent’s restrained states.
A few minutes later the two of them were binding their wounds. Devon had a rather uncomfortably large hole in a shoulder and numerous smaller injuries, while Paula’s injuries were slightly better. Both were greatly fatigued, and they’d lost a good ten minutes- and would be somewhat slower for the rest of the trek back- but they weren’t dead. They tossed the bodies into their storage bags. Cultivators from the Exalted Archipelago weren’t entirely forbidden from stepping foot on Aicenith, but they had no business being this far inland. Attempting to kill the two of them was obviously a hundred steps beyond acceptable, and there would be retribution. The question was why they were exactly where they were. Certainly they weren’t just targeting random Life Transformation cultivators?
“They must know about Anton,” Paula said as they continued. “And it’s likely there are many with a grudge.”
“But how? How did they know, or get here?”
“These can fly,” she pointed out. “And without those rather obvious skyships. As for your grandfather… he wasn’t exactly subtle in some things. He’s passed through the Island Tenders and the Rising Waterfall Sect and other places on the way to Marvelous Rabbit Mountain. Plenty of places for some leaks, though that’s not the only possibility.”
Devon nodded. There wasn’t much else they could do at the moment except keep moving, and hope that only a small group came for them… or at least was all that was waiting along their particular route.
When they arrived, Idalia ran outside and snatched the jugs of water from them without ceremony. She dumped half of the contents of each into a large bowl filled with all sorts of crushed and ground things. “The rest?”
They handed over the other ingredients they collected while Idalia mixed with tools, her bare hands, and sometimes her energy. Paula ran off to give notice of the attack on them, but Devon got to stay around. Somehow a large bowlful of materials was thrown directly into a fire and came out as a small round pill. That was immediately shoved down Anton’s throat, but Idalia’s hands never stopped working. “Circulate that,” Idalia said.
Devon was exhausted, but perhaps that was for the best. It would be easier to not use too much energy, and it only took a small amount of effort to try to control the potent energy in the medicine. The movement was smooth at first, the meridians in Anton’s body having previously been cleared out somewhat.
Strangely, he found himself struggling to drag the energy along down certain paths. He didn’t want to force anything, so he relented. The next path resisted him as well, but the following didn’t. Somehow he could only follow a set route, a single loop around the dantian. He suddenly found it difficult to even return to the dantian, and found himself repeating the loop over and over.
Something was happening. He could sense tingles of energy inside his grandfather, more than just those warm embers from before. He continued to add medicine to the loop until the potency was used up. By that point Idalia had shoved some powder into Anton’s mouth, and some of that seemed to absorb into his body, but when Devon tried to circulate the lingering energy in the same path he couldn’t. Eventually he found a different loop, circling around and around. Tingles and warmth became a hearth and then a burning fire, and Devon found himself barely able to complete the next orbit… but eventually the medicinal energy ran out and Devon retreated himself. He just needed a little break.
Then the room suddenly caught on fire. Or at least it felt that way for a moment. A sudden wave of heat and light. Then his grandfather’s eyes opened, though the only thing that he could see behind what remained of the charred lids was burning fire. “… Grandpa?”
“Mmmg.” Anton coughed, then spoke raspily. “Well. Seems I’m not dead after all.” The pupil-less eyes seemed to turn, looking down at his bare shoulder- Anton hadn’t even raised his head. “I maybe overreached a bit.”
“You-” Devon hadn’t let his emotions hit him yet. He’d been in such a rush to see his grandfather- finding him dead but maybe not dead and then he was rushing to help any way he could. Now the tears came, though strangely they evaporated as quickly as they fell, though he only felt a gentle warmth from his grandfather.
Idala rushed into the room, obviously feeling his movement and energy. “You made it! Here!” she poured some liquid down Anton’s throat.
He coughed, but smiled. “Thank you.”
“Thank me later! You’re still on the edge. You need to rest.”
“Do I?” Anton asked. “No. Not yet. I need to take care of a few things first.”
Inside of him, fire flared up, energy seemingly coming from nowhere. Devon couldn’t feel exactly what it was doing, but eventually Anton’s body seemed a little bit less charred on the inside.
Then Anton grinned. “Now I can take a nap.” His eyes closed… and that was the last time he was conscious for a month.