On a small island of little relevance whatsoever, two old men were having a staredown. One’s eyes burned like the fires of the sun, a bow dangling in front of him. The other stood with his back straight like a mountain, appearing unconcerned about the possibility of battle.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Anton asked the other man.
Everheart’s eyes flicked over the man’s bow. He didn’t have an arrow to draw, but perhaps he didn’t need one. Even so, it would take him a moment to draw. They were less than a hundred meters apart, so he could reach it and snatch it away in an instant. The only problem was the man’s cultivation was not as expected, so he couldn’t predict him as precisely. “I’m just a peaceful traveler. I saw no signs that this island was claimed and thought to rest here.”
“You should know that’s not what I meant. I don’t care about something trivial like this island. Who are you, and why have you come to Ceretos?” Anton could tell the man was strong. He was not terribly familiar with the Augmentation stage, but the man had to have reached that point. There was a great power… but something else as well. He wasn’t quite as solid as he made himself out to be.
How aggressive. Everheart wondered if that was out of fear or confidence. The first shot landing at his feet was clearly a warning, but did this man want to fight? Eveheart would gladly take him up on it any other day… or rather some day he was in his best condition. “I live here,” Everheart replied. “Or I did, at least. I thought to come back to visit. As for my name… it’s Everheart.” He tensed his muscles, ready for any reaction. “Perhaps you’ve heard of me.”
“It’s a fairly safe assumption that most people have,” Anton replied. “Word is the same even in the upper realms. But I’m curious as to why you would return here now. You may call me Anton. ” Anton’s eyes focused on the top of the man’s head. “I must admit, I didn’t know how I expected you to look, but I thought it would be… different.”
Everheart felt his gaze. His initial reaction was instinct. “Yeah? Well maybe your hair would fall out too if you had the entire upper realms after you!” That was already too much. Everheart was supposed to be the one who provoked action from people. He was supposed to be in disguise, but the journey and then the whole thing with his turtle had kind of disrupted that. How to spin this… “Why don’t you see how you are when you have to face off against a hundred angry sects by yourself, hmm?”
“It would never happen,” Anton countered. “Because I have friends.” Anton could see he was getting under the man’s skin. In a way, he had the advantage from having met him before, but not the other way around. And much less refined stages of Everheart as well. “I have taken upon myself the task of protecting Ceretos from dangers. That could include you or those after you. So, explain your intentions.”
The distance between the two closed in an instant. Everheart’s hand was on the bow immediately, making the forming arrow of energy pointless. But instead of wrestling it away, he paused. Everheart told himself it had nothing to do with the several dozen additional bows that had appeared around him at every angle, but he did have to give them a slight consideration. Ugh, he hated revealing anything. “I’m not comfortable explaining with weapons drawn.”
“And I’m not comfortable speaking with you hiding your own. So let’s get started with the talking before I have to kill you.”
“Even if you could,” Everheart drew out the word. “Which you can’t. I’d drag you down to hell with me.”
“I might as well go doing something worthwhile.” Anton’s energy sharpened, twisting in strange patterns. “I imagine you’re subject to the same restrictions on ascended individuals as everyone else.”
“You punk! That’s my own technique, you think you can use it against me?”
“You think I can’t?” Anton asked. Normally, he didn’t draw upon energies until he needed them, but he found there was something particularly effective about one sort. He should at least be able to greatly injure Everheart with the Spectral Energy. “I’m quite prepared to die. Whether I go with you or you with me matters not.”
Everheart whistled as he saw a shimmering image behind Anton, a genuine enthusiasm creeping into his voice. “Oh damn, is that Fleeting Youth? How is it? It’s good, right?” He almost wanted to reach out to touch the energy, but he had the feeling his old bones would disintegrate if he did so. “That explains why someone like you is here. You can’t ascend. So what did you do instead?”
“We call it assimilation,” Anton said. The name was minimal information… and the rest was a reminder he was not alone.
“There are more like you?” Everheart said. “Now I have to know.” If he was correct, this Anton should only have recently left Life Transformation. In that case… his fingers tightened around the bow, snapping the shaft. It hadn’t been a bluff that he knew how to deal with anti-ascension techniques… but neither was it entirely truthful. Dozens of arrows streaked through the air towards him at the same time, blocking him from chasing after the retreating archer.
This wouldn’t be good for his internal injuries, but his curiosity was too much. He did slam a totem carved with complex formations down between them as he dodged the beginning of the hail of arrows. It drew in the spectral arrows that he really didn’t want to have to deal with. Then he began to toss formation flags in all directions, while with another hand he twirled a staff around himself to deflect the incoming arrows. They came from pretty much every conceivable direction, but Everheart had fought more than this many archers at once.
Normally they stopped shooting though. Wasn’t this the maximum burst Anton could sustain? He would tire himself out in a mere few minutes. All Everheart had to do was wait. And maybe he would have, if it wasn’t getting hotter. Some arrows were made of fire, others moved unbearably fast. Sealing off the island wouldn’t do much good if the archer didn’t try to run and didn’t need reinforcements. Everheart now recognized what his eyes really looked like. He’d seen stars, and those eyes weren’t just representative of it.
How long had it been since he’d fought just one person? There was a significant difference between teamwork and a single individual probing for weaknesses. It seemed the man had already picked out he was a bit slow at maneuvering this staff towards his spine. Everheart twirled his body to make sure he didn’t leave anything in place.
Unfortunately Everheart didn’t have time to swap weapons, and he had to keep the totem between himself and the archer to catch the spectral energy. Even if they tried to go around, it was more than capable of pulling them in.
Maybe he should pull out the armor of the Dragon Prince, or the Chains of Harmony. The latter was from this world, so they should be effective even if he’d have to mix upper and lower energy. Then he remembered he’d taken the Midnight Mirror from that arrogant Void Scrying Sect. He pulled it out with one hand, pouring his power into it. All of the energy around him winked out and gave him a moment to breathe. He could swap for a spear, and use the mirror as a shield. But it would be hard to capture such an opponent.
Everheart hadn’t noticed when, but Anton had pulled out another few bows. And physical arrows. He recognized the material for one of the arrowheads. Void ant chitin. Wasn’t it a foul to use something he’d left for the good of the planet against him? Sure, it wasn’t directly for the benefit of the people left behind, but anything that helped combat the invasion was good for them! Look at how things were, they had not only avoided being wiped out but were actually quite prosperous, from what he sensed from afar.
The spear stabbed next to Anton’s torso repeatedly, but he twisted and turned and parried with his bow. The island they were nominally fighting on was being pulverized beneath them, sinking back into the sea. Anton knew he couldn’t beat Everheart in a fair fight, but as it went on the man’s injuries were more clear- and while it was not as much as Anton expected, he was certainly restricted in his use of energy for being in the lower realms. If nothing else, he could greatly worsen those injuries.
Just around the time that Anton was at his limits and ready to use Candle Wax, another man appeared. Anton wasn’t sure how he got through the barrier around the island, and the way he resembled Everheart made him cautious… but the man wasn’t on a trajectory towards him.
“Hey.” A hand clasped Everheart’s shoulder. “You’re back.”
Everheart turned. “Oh. Hello.” He saw a face with large enough bags under his eyes to fill a palace. Sallow skin and a crazed look. “Could you hold on a moment? I’m kind of in a fight.” The figure grinned, then sunk it’s hand into his body. “Dammit! Not again! How do they keep figuring this out!?” Before he passed out, Everheart comforted himself. “Oh right, it’s because I’m a genius.”
Then the flood of memories hit him, centuries just from this projection that was tied to the moon. That wouldn’t have been so bad if there weren’t dozens of arrows flying for him. The first one went right through his spleen.
When Everheart awoke, he was surprised. Sure, he always lived, but usually he had a reason for it. At least two thirds of the time he’d made a plan that would ensure it. This time, he’d fully taken himself out. He felt his side. His spleen was still out for the count, and the way it hurt when he moved his arm revealed the holes throughout. But they were precision. Something he could recover from, perhaps. If he could reach his medicine. Which he couldn’t because his bag was quite a distance away and his arms were bound with the Chains of Harmony. He began to wiggle out of them but then felt the eyes on him. “Oh, good morning. Good to see you again.”
“Listen,” Anton said. “We may have gotten off on the wrong foot. While it’s true that the entire galaxy would agree you’re an asshole, and maybe half of it actually wants to kill you, I’m not part of the latter group. Unless I need to. So I would like to talk.”
“I’m going to be honest,” Everheart rolled himself to a sitting position. “I don’t think anyone’s ever meant that in the last few centuries.”
“Well, I mean it. Because there are things I want to know. Like why you came back here. Let’s start with that, and if anyone’s after you. And I’m going to point out I could tell you were injured before our whole scuffle.”
“Nobody should be coming after me, at the moment. As long as nobody noticed… this whole thing.” Everheart shrugged, “I’m honestly here for peaceful reasons.”
“And what about Paradise?” Anton asked.
“What about Paradise?” Everheart asked honestly. “Where is that? The little island we destroyed? I thought we didn’t care about that.”
“Oh! My pet turtle. We just got into a little disagreement. Nothing serious.”
Anton was crouched some distance away, but kept close to eye level. “I’m going to say this now… Paradise isn’t anyone’s anything now.”
“Are you sure?” Everheart asked. “What about that woman and little settlement on his back?”
“They’re just companions,” Anton said.
“… Weird.” Why would they live on something they couldn’t control? It didn’t make any sense. “Anyway, I don’t intend to cause further ruckus here. Honest.”
“I believe you,” Anton said. “Which is probably a mistake, given we know a good deal of your history here. But let me ask something else. Why did you make your Tombs?”
“Because it was fun,” Everheart shrugged. “I love to mess with people.”
“Obviously,” Anton agreed. “But I’m surprised. There wasn’t anything more than that?” It seemed like it would be simply for him to claim some sort of loftier objective, like Anton surmised. At least in part.
“What else would there be?”
“Tempering the next generation,” Anton said.
“Well, sure,” Everheart shrugged, “As much as all adversity. Seems you know something about it.”
“Your Tombs were less lethal than they could have been.”
“Well, yeah,” Everheart said. “All of my actual enemies I tried to trash as thoroughly as possible before I left. Everyone else? Who cares.”
“I was on the moon,” Anton said. “One of your projections and I even had a fairly explicit conversation about the invasion. You were clearly concerned about it. Why?”
“Because this is my home!” Everheart said with more passion than intended. It was his home, and he’d certainly held onto that strongly for a while, but that had faded over the centuries he was away. So why? Oh right. The memories that were currently splitting apart his head. And this Anton was in… several of them. “Huh. We talked a few times already.”
“How do you know that?” Anton asked suspiciously.
“Well, I chose to recover the memories of my projections.”
“Ah,” Anton said. “So that was what that one was. Forcing memories onto you.”
Tch. If he wasn’t so thrown off by all the memories and his injuries he would be much better at deception. “It’s not really like that. I was just expecting it at a different moment.”
“I absolutely believe you,” Anton said in a way that Everheart couldn’t have believed was sincere even if he was four years old. “Now then, we need to talk about how we’re going to keep Ceretos safe.”