As Scarlet Alliance cultivators poured through the outer barrier, those in the inner barrier joined the fight as well. Timothy, Chidi, and Sly all charged out. Margriet hesitated, but understood she wouldn’t be much help in her current state. Meanwhile, Chikere was just watching carefully.
Chidi focused on the flow of energy. Obviously he couldn’t interact with every single cultivator’s intentions at once. Instead, he narrowed his field down to the grand formation around them and a few potential opponents. The constant heat on one moon and the cooler shadowed moon provided a flow of energy that powered the swiftly but not hastily constructed rules carved by his mother. Her level of understanding that brought her to the Augmentation phase was beyond his comprehension, but he understood the formation was working towards his benefit.
Three foes stood in sequence along Chidi’s planned route. The first was a cultivator of deathly energy. He twisted the natural flow of energy, reaching for Chidi. In return, Chidi’s sword flashed out, synchronizing with the formations carved into his body. He was unable to rebound the technique as he intended, but his blade cut apart the flow, dispersing the attack around him. In the same swing, he cut off the man’s head. It would perhaps have taken a longer exchange of moves, except they were within his mother’s domain. A slight increase in his own flow of energy and a sluggishness in his enemies proved to be a vast difference in actual combat effectiveness.
The second foe was already launching her attack. The power of ice, like that loud guy. Abraham, was it? Chidi didn’t know who this Frozen One was, but that figures disciples had chosen the wrong target. More than that, they’d gone far out of their territory in an arrogant manner. Spears of ice tore through the air towards Chidi while he twisted his body, his blade slicing one in two and deflecting another to the side.
His sword sliced towards the woman, only to be reflected by a solid barrier of ice. It wasn’t impossible for Chidi to slice through such a thing, of course, but it took more than raw force. But here, he had access to a better option. Drawing on just a small part of the sun facing moon and the energy that was passing through the formation, Chidi carved several fine lines into the surface of the icy barrier. From those lines, the heat of the formation spread, shattering the ice as his blade stabbed through the second woman’s heart.
A slash came at Chidi from behind, so clumsy he almost didn’t dodge it. No, he almost dodged into it. It didn’t make any sense at all, but that was how it was. He spun around to make better use of his blade, matching edge to edge with the third of his targets. The woman was strange, making use of a wide variety of sword techniques, some familiar and some not.
But more than the variety of her attacks, Chidi wondered at how they were performed. Even without having experienced them before he knew how they should work… and he had the feeling everything was wrong on purpose. And yet, he felt himself struggling. Even more so when techniques he clearly recognized began to be used against him.
It was like fighting grandmaster Chikere… if she was sick. And drunk. With one hand tied behind her back and only a single sword held in the other. But the point wasn’t the presence of the enemy, but the very utilization of the techniques. Rarely was there anything new in the realm of battles, simply different understandings and perfection of techniques. But even so, Chidi was aware these had been gleaned from Chikere, even if imperfectly.
No. Could it be said to be imperfect, if every tilt of the wrist or bending of the elbow was intentional? A sloppy copy would be something else entirely. Chidi continued the fight, almost certain he could win at any time but fascinated by how the attacks managed to flow together. Not smooth like a river, but more like a dozen barrels of wine being haphazardly dumped into a sluice. But flow it did.
What was the point of this? Surely not to win a battle. Seeking perfection in imperfection? That would only work if this woman survived. And she would not. As Chidi’s blade sliced across her throat, he realized he hadn’t been paying attention to her blade. That was what the main dissonance had come from, as the perfection of the blade clashed with the imperfection of the technique. Then the tip of the blade touched the ground as it fell from the woman’s dying hands, and it was no more. Or perhaps the sword never existed to begin with.
Elsewhere on the battlefield, Catarina was currently staring at the Augmentation cultivator Abraham, an icy shell covering him… and surrounding that was a condensed formation barrier.
“You know, there’s no point in putting in so much effort to block my attack if I’m not actually attacking,” Catarina said. “You should have used that energy to break out, you know? Something about… sufficient power can break any barrier formation?”
Rather than fully dissolving his shield, Abraham left most of it intact, merely drawing away the ice on the side opposite of Catarina to leave a hole. His fist punched outwards, icy rime forming on the barrier as it trembled. But he had little space to move his arms, or to form his energy into anything of significance.
Determining that, Abraham condensed much of his remaining energy into the shape of a spear he held in his hand, thrusting forward with great strength. A hole was punctured into the barrier. “You see that, witch? Your barrier is broken!”
“Okay,” Catarina said. “I’ll admit it. It’s broken. So… are you going to climb out or…?” She gestured to the hole no more than the size of a palm.
Abraham glared at it, as if doing so would force the hole to become larger. “I understand now. It was always an illusion to make me waste my energy. When really, I should have been…” He spun around, hurling the spear towards the other side of the barrier, “Attacking you directly!”
The spear tore through the barrier, but having been used for the same purpose once it had little energy left beyond that. The swiftness with which the spear of ice should have pierced Catarina became a leisurely arc through the air that she simply sidestepped.
Catarina blinked as she looked at Abraham. “Is that it?” She took several steps that appeared to be pointless, but were part of calculated movements to redirect the flow of energy. The holes in the barrier sealed. “Just because it didn’t shatter doesn’t mean it wasn’t a real barrier. Why should I bother standing up to your full might? And yes, I did intend for you to waste your effort. But just because it defies your expectations doesn’t make it an illusion.” She walked up to the barrier, pressing her face against it. “Now, what made you think you could come here and survive?”
“The might of the Exalted Quadrant is unstoppable!” Abraham declared.
“Let us put aside the truth or falsity of that statement,” Catarina said. “What made you personally think you could brazenly enter our territory and survive?”
“You wouldn’t dare to slay me. The Exalted Quadrant will retaliate with greater measure.”
“Ah, but you’re mistaken about something. There is no reason to hesitate when you are already going to act as you please. The Exalted Quadrant has shown no regard for even their negotiations with the Trigold Cluster. Why, then, should we expect any different here? If you were allowed to leave, you would simply come back with more. And so…”
“You will kill me. But my death will be known to the Frozen One. And I will be avenged.”
“That’s great information, actually,” Catarina said. “But also, you think I’d put you in a bubble to kill you? Don’t be stupid. We have all sorts of people who would like to know the information you have bouncing around in that noggin of yours. Oh, and before you try to-”
The man stretched out his fist, slamming it into his own chest. Most likely, he would leave a bruise.
“Before you try to kill yourself,” Catarina sighed, “Be aware that I didn’t bait you to use up the majority of your energy for fun. It just made it easier to siphon off the rest. Ultimately I come out behind, but since you come out with nothing…” Catarina shrugged. “I feel like the exchange rate is worth it.”
The battle ended with the vast majority of the Exalted Quadrant cultivators slain. They could not be safely ransomed back to the Exalted Quadrant, nor was it useful to keep most of them around for interrogation. And there was no question about whether or not they might be guilty. This wasn’t their territory, or even vaguely neutral territory. Every single one of them was an invading combatant coming after the life of a member of the Scarlet Alliance. And more than that, the sheer disrespect they had shown by their brazen approach had to be dealt with harshly. Even Anton would have agreed about that. Sometimes, people just had to die.
Introductions- and reintroductions- were made with Sly and Margriet. Then there came the matter of Chikere. Her apprentice was the first to truly understand her condition. It was far more than the physical damage, though that was obvious enough for everyone to pick out.
“You don’t have any swords,” Chidi said as he led her towards a ship that would take them back towards Xankeshan. “I’m sorry. It must be quite unpleasant.”
“It was,” Chikere said. “Each loss hurt more than… these,” Chikere gestured to her wounds which were beginning to turn into scars.
“I don’t have much,” Chidi said. “But if it would help, I have backup swords you could hold onto…?”
“I don’t-” Chikere stopped herself. “That probably won’t make me feel better.”
“Alright,” Chidi nodded. “Suit yourself. Would you like some healing pills?”
Chikere sighed, “I suppose. It’ll at least get rid of the aches.”
After providing what care he could- including some food- Chidi sought out Margriet. He had sensed some reaction to his involvement with Chikere. “What was she going to say?” Chidi asked.
“Why should I know that?” Margriet evaded the question. “You know her better, don’t you?”
“I’m not the one who spent the last… however long it has been… with her,” Chidi replied. “And people don’t react like that for nothing. A slight inhalation. Shifting of the feet. All sorts of small movements.”
“I thought I controlled my glances pretty well.”
“People rely on that aspect of others far too much,” Chidi said. “So what was it?”
“Well, it might have just been her angry at the situation. But she seemed rather despondent and mentioning she didn’t like swords anymore and that she might be better off dying.” Margriet shrugged, “Though she did lead us to where you could help her, so she probably didn’t actually want to die.”
“… She said she didn’t like swords?”
“More or less, yeah,” Margriet replied. “Is that… more important than the dying thing?”
“She’s never more serious about anything than the topic of swords. So if she really meant it… then something is seriously wrong with her.”
“She lost a battle,” Margriet said. “Do you think that could be the cause?”
“It shouldn’t. She does lose… occasionally. Who was it to?”
“The Limitless Edge. There were even a few disciples here…” Margriet said. “You fought one.”
“The Limitless Edge…” Chidi frowned. “An incomprehensible technique. But would that make her… like this?” And how would a random disciple know Chikere’s style like that?
“I’m sure you’d know more than me,” Margriet replied. “Oh, she did say some hopeful things. Perhaps fantastic but… she talked about her arm. The fake one. And some fellow named Uzun? She seemed to think he could help her with the damage.”
“That… might be more effective than other forms of treatment,” Chidi admitted. “Thank you for mentioning it. I’ll call ahead to ask him about it. Our processing facilities shouldn’t be so far behind that we can’t replicate something.”