With a sweep of her hand, Anishka formed a transient wall of ice to shelter Patka from raining icy boulders. Either they were unlucky to encounter ice apes in a group or her lack of familiarity with them led her to assume they would be solitary- and incapable of stealth. Either way, as the stronger party she was responsible for Patka’s survival. Anishka could simply run on her own, but leaving with Patka would be more difficult.
She directed them around spires of ice, weaving between them as silver furred apes leapt between the upper levels, swinging around the peaks without giving the cultivators a chance to retaliate. Only one was injured. At the point where Anishka was considering flinging the Sergeant as a projectile to hopefully chew on the injured one, she knew she really didn’t have many options. Perhaps she could carry Patka? It would limit her own movements, but she could deal with a few glancing blows.
So focused had she been on surviving the frost apes that she hadn’t even noticed cultivators approaching. Not until two lines of fire struck one in the chest, while a large explosion of fire toppled one of the spires a frost ape was leaping towards.
“Looks like you’re in a tight spot,” A woman with fire on her head drew Anishka’s attention. “You wouldn’t mind splitting the bounty, would you?”
“Not at all,” Anishka called back. What was a bounty compared to life? Especially one of such modest value as these. Any allies they could get were a great boon.
The woman who spoke appeared to be a handful of years older than Anishka, but was somewhere around mid Essence Collection. The other two with her were also women, the same flames in place of the hair on their heads. They were both in Spirit Building, but their presence was quite welcome.
“Can you do that trick with the burning spire again?” the leader asked, gesturing towards one of the frost apes taking shelter from her two companions. Meanwhile the woman herself rushed towards the frost ape that had fallen down with them after she destroyed its destination spire mid leap.
Anishka would take whatever fortune she could get, approaching the spire in question as Patka avoided the frost ape they had injured. She kept an eye on that situation, as she wouldn’t let her apprentice and friend get hurt, but she agreed with the suggested course of action. She lit up the spire, flames dancing up its surface, and the ape leapt away. As it arced through the air, the two Spirit Building cultivators simultaneously attacked, once again forming lances of fire. Unable to dodge, the ape sustained injuries. Instead of turning to attack, it continued to flee further.
It couldn’t be guaranteed it wouldn’t return in a moment, but Anishka had to focus on those remaining. The two apprentices kept the final ape on the spire suppressed and unable to lob more attacks, while Anishka approached the first and most injured ape from the rear. It slammed its large fists down on the ground, nearly crushing Patka. At the same moment. Anishka’s two palms struck each of its shoulder blades. Fire on one side, ice on the other, she drew upon the creature’s body heat to maximize both effects. Its left side froze solid, while its right had all the fur charred away.
The frost ape tried to spin to elbow Anishka, but it lost its balance as its left side remained static. It fell with its upper end towards Patka, who stomped her foot onto its skull, crushing it.
The other grounded ape was quickly finished off by the Essence Collection woman, and the last fled. Two dead, and two injured. And everyone had survived on their side, so it was ultimately a success.
“Too bad we didn’t get the last two,” the woman said. “I’m Celina of the Vermillion Inferno. Nice to meet you. These are my apprentices Ilona and Gilda.”
“Anishka. And this is Patka.” She considered introducing the Sergeant, but that seemed like it could go poorly. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“No problem. People should help each other out.” Celina frowned, “Speaking of which, that message was weird. I’d heard about a war coming, but that…” she looked up into the sky. “I feel very unprepared.”
“I wasn’t expecting it either,” Anishka admitted.
Celina nodded, “So, who’s your grandpa?”
“What?” Anishka narrowed her eyes.
“Well, we were here hunting too and noticed your battle. Was that voice your grandpa?”
Anishka knew many things. Lying was not one of them. “I don’t know what that message was.” Technically true. Anishka was looking for a way to extricate herself from the situation, and her eyes came upon Patka who looked much more calm somehow.
“I didn’t actually ask that,” Celina said. “But if you don’t want to talk about it…”
“We must be going,” Anishka inclined her head.
“Are you sure? You haven’t collected your share of the spoils. Though… it does look like you’ll have some trouble getting much back without a storage bag.”
Running away was suspicious, right? What was she even supposed to say here? Anishka took a deep breath… and reminded herself she was an Essence Collection cultivator. She’d at least trained Insight in Spirit Building. Even if it was imperfect, she could sense the intentions of this woman. And her senses told her… sincerity. And some confusion. And curiosity.
“We had an unfortunate run-in with a larger sect, and I was unable to move on with my equipment.”
“That’s awful,” Celina sounded sincere. “Honestly, a lot of the larger sects are terrible. I heard about these other systems- only good things- and now we’re at war? It was already enough trouble to not get snatched up by the larger sects…”
“Is it because of Transferral?” Anishka asked.
“Transferral of what?” Celina looked genuinely confused.
“Uh, well. It’s a… technique? The larger sects have it. At least the Northern Glacier Sect…” Anishka wasn’t actually sure how far it was spread, but considering they had an Integration cultivator and didn’t rule the system, clearly they couldn’t be alone. “It steals people’s cultivation.”
“That’s horrid,” Celina grimaced. “But no, the official reason is to be ‘protected’, which really means drafted into this war that they were trying to keep secret until now. How long have you known about it?”
“… Months,” Anishka turned her eyes away. Or however long she’d been captured.
“You’re strangely well informed,” Celina said. “But you don’t seem to have much support…” she quickly waved her hands, “That wasn’t a threat or anything. In fact, kind of the opposite. We can’t really reach the rest of our sect, so it seems we could both use some support. I was thinking we could join up. Your style is… interesting. Seems powerful, too. Does it have a name?”
“The Fire and Ice Palace,” Anishka said.
“Weird. I feel like I should have heard of it. Unless you’re older than you look?”
“How old do I look?” Anishka asked.
“That’s correct, so…”
“So you should be from a big sect. Or you found a secret scroll somewhere, but that would still take a genius to reach your level.”
“Would it?” Anishka shook her head. “Not if you start cultivating early enough.”
“So it is a big sect. Otherwise you’d get yourself killed, cultivating too young.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Anishka said. “I couldn’t get in contact with them anyway.”
“Then we’re in the same boat.” Celina extended her hand, “How about we join up? With your split of the bounties on these, we could get you…” she looked over Anishka. “Literally any sort of gear.”
Anishka was wearing regular clothes, some of Patka’s. She couldn’t exactly wander around in a damaged and slightly bloody outfit with the insignia of the Northern Glacier Sect. “… I suppose that would be beneficial.” Anishka was missing a lot of things- though fortunately she’d given Patka a copy of her cultivation manual. It wouldn’t go all the way through Life Transformation and Ascension or Assimilation, but it would be sufficient for her to continue her practice until… until she got away from this place. Because she wasn’t going to die.
Far away in the upper realms, Chidi was also determined not to die. However, he currently had more allies and perhaps his greatest source of danger was his own teacher. Though it wasn’t like Chikere was going to actually kill him. Not unless he stopped improving, and even then it wouldn’t be exactly on purpose. She expected him to improve, to learn to deal with her ever more difficult attack patterns. And truthfully, if he didn’t improve? He really might just die. Even if he curled up in a ball, refusing to leave Shutoll, the Harmonious Citadel would eventually come and then he would die.
Not that he’d considered such a thing lately. His confidence was fairly high, both with his sword training and the progress they’d been making with the formation pillars. He was beginning to truly understand how each of them fit in as a piece of the larger whole. They were not all exactly the same, but each was very close.
“What do you think this means?” asked Sithembile, the formation master overseeing the project.
“I think each layer was made by the same people, repeating just one part over and over. Then they were likely fused together by a formation master in charge. Perhaps a grandmaster…” Chidi frowned.
“You don’t think they have the qualifications?”
“Oh no, I didn’t mean to presume,” Chidi shook his head. “I’ve mainly interacted with my mother’s works, which involve techniques taken from Everheart. Even Engineer Uzun has the same formation basis. It’s just different. I can’t say for sure that it’s worse.”
“It is,” Sithembile clarified. “I’m not close to being a grandmaster myself, but at least these particular examples aren’t of the quality expected. That doesn’t mean whoever made them isn’t a grandmaster, but they clearly didn’t have the time or resources if they have the ability. Of course, in the grand scheme of things formations just need to work. And these completed their duty.” The man nodded seriously, “So it would be fine for you to destroy one.”
“What?” Chidi asked.
“Even after displacing these, they’re still managing to support the formation, if to a lesser degree. We’ll need to destroy them eventually. And I can tell you want to.”
“You want to know if you can cut it in half. Your posture says everything.”
“Well, yeah. But it just seems kind of like a waste.”
“I mean, I know these formations are working against us. But we can still study it.”
“There’s more than one way to study something,” Sithembile replied. “You know the engineers of Xankeshan. They take apart constructions to understand them. And… you don’t know what’s inside this.”
“Is it safe?”
Sithembile shrugged, “Some of the teams have destroyed them in the field, since it is quite difficult to return them. It shouldn’t be any different for you. But would the danger really stop you?”
“… It would just change how I did it,” Chidi admitted.
“Good. So, how are you slicing it?”
“Quarters, I think. Can it be this one?”
“They’re all equivalent,” Sithembile said. “So pick whichever you like.”
Chidi nodded, “Then, I’ll do it.”
He drew his sword, clutching it with both hands. Destroying a stationary object, even one somewhat enhanced in durability by internal formations, was about the easiest thing that could be done. Properly cutting something of high hardness was a bit more picky. He didn’t want to just shatter it, as that would be hard on his blade and… just inelegant.
He had studied this particular pillar quite thoroughly, touching every surface. He knew the structure of the stone by heart. So the proper cut would be exactly like…
With just a slight sound of metal on a whetstone, his arms finished their arc. The pillar in front of him split apart vertically, two halves toppling to the sides. Then each of those split in half.
“Tch.” Chidi clicked his tongue.
“Was it not as satisfying as you thought?” Sithembile asked.
“I screwed it up,” Chidi said.
“That looks like quarters to me,” the man said.
“It wasn’t supposed to split apart. That means some of my force pushed it to the sides. But…” Chidi nodded. “I did feel how the flow of energy shifted. This is little more than a jumble of fancy rocks, in this state. I’ll have to seek out more of them to destroy.”
“That would be quite appreciated,” Sithembile said. “I think we’re close enough to thinning the veil over Shutoll, at least. If we can get a message out from here, we can coordinate backup from the Scarlet Alliance. Though it would be even better to unveil multiple cities at the same time.”
“… I think I could manage that,” Chidi said. “If I destroy the right pattern.”
“I’ll talk to the commanders to get your squad free reign to follow that goal, then,” Sithembile replied. “I don’t think we can afford to maintain this stalemate forever.”
Chidi agreed. Especially not with how Chikere was provoking the Harmonious Citadel. Though strangely, that might also be keeping them distracted. A delicate balance, though not so much a mastermind plan as just the method to her stated goal of provoking the sword saint to come to Yaitis.