Things were going well. The Life Transformation elders were activating abilities Chikere knew would fully reveal to them that the man she’d pointed out was a Twin Soul sect member. Once he was exposed, they could just stab him and be done with it. The people here could grow to trust them for removing a traitor and everything would be fine.
But of course she’d forgotten that people were weird. Elders Sarka and Adelina had not used their detection abilities earlier because they were a bit invasive, and she saw from their faces the confirmation, but there was no stabbing. Or firing or icing.
Ah right. Politics. Probably some people up front were friends with who they thought the sword guy was, or were even actually in cahoots with the traitors. But as the pressure of angry glares bore down on Chikere, she stood firm. The sword guy’s look was especially sharp, but if Chikere was afraid of sharp, she would have scared herself to death long ago.
The sword guy spoke up again. “That’s a pretty wild accusation to be throwing around, junior. What evidence do you have?”
“That’s pretty easy. Your sword is made by their guy, and they all have a feeling to them.”
“Hmm…” the noise came from someone in the group up above, but Chikere couldn’t pick them out for some reason. There weren’t that many old dudes up there, but it was still hard to place. “Iiinteresting,” the voice mumbled. But nobody else seemed to acknowledge it.
“This sword?” the man raised an eyebrow. “You say it marks me as some member of a traitorous sect?”
“I guarantee it,” Chikere stared swords back at him. Some people stared daggers, but they just didn’t know how to do a proper look. If she tried a little bit harder, she might make the guy’s eyes bleed.
“Well, good for me then,” the man smiled happily. “I just so happened to have picked this off someone I killed. He was a traitor, hmm?”
“No,” Chikere said. “It’s you. Because that sword was made specifically for your hand… seven weeks ago.”
“Stop making things up,” the man said sternly. “This is no place for games. Which sect is she from?”
“It was eight weeks,” a low but powerful voice said from one of the positions among the visiting cultivators. As it spoke, Chikere felt a sudden sense of danger. Like she was sliced in half… except she wasn’t. And it wasn’t targeted at her. Where had that sword come from? And also the person holding it at his side. He hadn’t been there… had he? An old man casually stood up from a seat, strolling over to the sword guy. Perhaps he had been there. He certainly didn’t look like much. Hadn’t looked like much. But now… Chikere wanted to fight him. Even if it meant dying. The old man held a sword in his hand- not his own, but the blade of the sword guy. “You said this sword is the mark of a traitor? I’ve sensed blades of this master before. Mostly recently. I do agree, they’re quite distinctive.” He casually held the blade against the throat of the man. “So, you found this sword on someone, you said? Interesting.”
Nobody said anything. The group of cultivators below were waiting to see what happened, and everyone else among the council that had been waiting seemed to be too intimidated to speak. So Chikere spoke. “Are you sure it was eight weeks?” she frowned. “I thought it was seven.”
“That would depend on your opinion,” the old man said as he continued to casually hold the blade against the other’s throat. “When is a sword a sword?” When the metal first touches fire, when the blade is quenched for the final time, or when it finishes being sharpened?”
“The last one,” Chikere said. “Or when it falls off the tree.”
The old man cocked his head. “… tree?”
Chikere hefted up one of her swords, still in its sheath. “This one grew on a tree on the moon.”
“Oh. Everheart’s place.” The man clicked his tongue. “I never trusted that guy close enough to throw him. But I heard that it was quite an interesting trip.”
“Umm,” one of the few women on the gathered council spoke up. “Swordmaster Rahayu, I believe you will have opportunities to continue that conversation later. I trust your word that the sword was made when you said, but does that preclude it from being something Elder Lestari got from an enemy cultivator?”
“Oh yes,” the old man nodded. “It was absolutely made specifically for his hands.”
“What a waste,” Chikere commented.
“Right?” the old man grinned toothlessly. “Anyway, you got something to say in your defense? It shouldn’t be that hard to figure out where you got this sword, but the thing is… I already know. So why did you lie about it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man who was probably Elder Lestari said nervously.
“Wow. You’re either an idiot or a terrible liar,” Swordmaster Rahayu said. “Someone clean that up.”
Chikere hadn’t even seen the cut happen, and somehow the man’s head fell to the floor before she noticed. How could that even happen? “Fight me!” she shouted at the man. She had to know. She really wanted to live to be a grandmaster, but not knowing would make her life terrible.
Swordmaster Rahayu’s eyes locked on hers. He didn’t say anything, but as she drew her swords he lazily pulled his out. And then she died. A sword straight through her chest, from the back no less. And it was real. Her sword were barely even halfway stabbing behind her when it came out of her chest, spraying blood.
“Nice,” she heard before her consciousness left her for the last time. “I’m taking this one.”
Watching Grand Elder Kseniya’s expression told Anton many things about what was happening in the meeting with the local council. First surprise and worry, then she relaxed. She even smiled slightly, before twitching. Anton saw her nearly fire an arrow, but she restrained herself.
“What’s going on?” he asked. It was unlikely things were so tense that she couldn’t afford the tiny amount of concentration to talk, and if that was true she’d just ignore him.
“Well,” she said. “The bad news is that there was a member of the Twin Soul Sect among the council. With him dead, it’ll be a bit harder to work with whatever sect he was part of, at least until they’re properly convinced about him. Then again, one of the locals did the deed. So the good news is that, and that he’s dead. And also that Chikere isn’t coming back.”
“Is that… good news?” Anton frowned. He thought Kseniya was fond of Chikere. They shared a certain brashness and devotion to their craft, even if they didn’t use the same sorts of weapons. “What do you mean she’s not coming back?”
“She got stabbed through the chest and carried away.”
“That sounds bad,” Anton pointed out.
“I suppose when you just hear about it, yeah,” Kseniya nodded. “But she was grinning pretty widely. And from what I can tell it’s just an eccentric swordmaster eager to get a new apprentice.”
“… is that how swordmasters pick apprentices?” If Chikere wasn’t his point of reference, Anton would have thought it was crazy. “Well, how’s the rest going?”
“Eh, it’ll work out. And I don’t even have to shoot anyone, probably.”
When she woke up, Chikere didn’t even care that she wasn’t dead. She just couldn’t get over the fact that she hadn’t seen through the movements. She reviewed the moment in her head over and over, and she couldn’t help but think that she’d seen the man casually walk up to her, circle around behind her, and slide his blade into her chest. She touched it… and felt the wound. It went straight through the center of her chest, slipping between her ribs and just avoiding her sternum. And also just over her heart and narrowly slipping past some important veins and arteries without nicking her lung.
She stood up, holding a sword in her hands. She tried to walk, but tripped. Something wasn’t right about it. She tried again, and ran into the wall. It wasn’t just the difference in energy between her and him. There was something else to it. And the movement of his sword. Chikere bit her lip. Too bad she only got to see it once.
“Are you going to sleep all day?” she heard a man shout. “Get out here!”
It was him. Swordmaster Rahayu, apparently. She was outside as soon as her legs would carry her there. “Fight me!”
And that was basically what they did. Though it could hardly be called a fight. It wasn’t that he didn’t take thing seriously. Every movement was sufficient to kill or maim Chikere and just stopped short of it. Or aimed somewhere she wouldn’t die.
Within the next hour, however, she found herself with a dozen more holes in her chest, arms, and legs. She had deep cuts elsewhere, leaking blood all over. And she hadn’t even managed to touch the edge of the old man’s robe.
“Bind up those wounds and sit down for breakfast,” he said. “It’s… only a little bit burnt.”
Chikere really wanted to keep going, but he had a point. She was ravenous, and there was the slight issue that she might bleed to death if she didn’t close up some of the wounds. And she had more than enough battle to digest for a while.
“… where are we?” Chikere asked after eating the first plate of food. All she could see around them was a little hut and a small copse of trees. There wasn’t even forest beyond it. Just nothing.
“Home,” he said. “Pretty good energy up here, apprentice.”
“Apprentice?” she said questioningly. “My name is Chikere.” She looked around. “Do you have an apprentice?”
“Rahayu,” the man said. “And the apprentice is you.”
“Oh,” she nodded. “Okay. Does that mean we get to fight more?”
“In a minute, yeah. First tell me why you’re here.”
“I presume because you brought me here.”
“Not here. Blackstone Harbor. Or Aicenith in general.”
“What’s an Aicenith?”
“Continent,” he said.
“People name those?” Chikere frowned. “I suppose that makes sense. I don’t know the name of ours. But we’re here to warn people about the coming invasion. Everheart warned about it. I know you don’t like him, but-”
“Eh,” he said. “When will it be?”
“A few decades?” she said. “I’m not quite sure.”
“Well, doesn’t have much to do with me, then,” Rahayu shrugged. “Probably. Unless they hurry it up.”
“We’re supposed to convince people to prepare to fight people who had ascended. There are some techniques- not only from Everheart.” Chikere swung her sword, demonstrating one of them. “They disrupt their energy. We’re here to teach people about that and make sure they’re preparing to fight however they want. Also the Twin Soul Sect thing, since they work for them.”
“Alright,” the old man nodded. “But why are you here?”
“… to fight people.”
“Good enough. Let’s get back to it then. Maybe I can improve that technique you showed me,” his sword swept through the air, making her skin tingle. “It’s far too general for my tastes. Gotta have the right edge for a sword.”
“Yeah,” Chikere nodded. “Good idea. I haven’t had time to do that yet.”
“Then let’s get started. I know at least one or two things a young folk like you should learn, but I really don’t like teaching idiots.” Chikere blocked his sword as it stabbed straight for her heart. For real this time, but she actually stopped it. “Good, you have plenty of potential. Some people aren’t ready and make the trip down the mountain the hard way.”
His earlier references had indicated they were high up, but upon looking around more carefully Chikere realized the reason there was only the hut and a small copse. There was nothing else around, even ground. Just sheer cliffs. Was that a skeleton at the bottom? Well, didn’t matter. This guy had a lot of experience, and she needed to fight it out of him.