Two armies approached each other, only separated by a thin but powerful barrier. On one side were the Whispering Watchers and their allies- Infinite Gate Society, the Hungry Rat Cult, and a smattering of smaller sects and certain powerful individuals. On the other side was the alliance of cultivators from another continent, along with a number of local sects including Marvelous Rabbit Mountain from the western coast and the group from Million Sword Vault.
The barrier currently kept those with the longest ranges from attacking into it, but it was assumed that the Whispering Watchers and others would be able to attack out of it, at least to some extent. Barriers that worked perfectly in a single direction were rare, and nearly impossible while mobile. Perhaps certain formation masters might be able to make something workable, but more likely the barrier had flaws that could be broken through.
As the mobile forces outside the barrier were able to move more smoothly, they were in the process of closing the semicircle they had formed. Glares were exchanged across the barrier, some personal grudges and some simply because of the battle that was currently in motion. Farrukh of the Hungry Rat Cult was focused on Kseniya and Vasu. Malachy of the Infinite Gate Society had his eyes on Chikere, likely because she had Vianne’s sword. The tension rose ever higher as the groups approached, just waiting to be broken.
Members of the Whispering Watchers began to gather their energy all at once, preparing for a volley of attacks. Outside, those with ranged abilities were focused on heading off their attacks to protect the majority of melee combatants. But neither were the ones to make the first strike.
Instead, it was Vasu. He stood alongside Chikere, where they were both in the front row of the group of cultivators from the Million Sword Vault. His sword had been drawn since the enemies began their approach, but once the front of the barrier was within a hundred meters he shifted his grip on his blade, taking two wide, diagonal swings. His sword cut an X into the barrier, momentarily tearing open a section that the group began to pour through.
Battle was engaged, and both sides surged forward. The side of the Whispering Watchers focused on intercepting those who came through the barrier while they began their bombardment of deathly energy, while in turn the other forces sought weaknesses in the barrier to break through. Simply bombarding it with attacks was possible, but would take more energy, ultimately wasting effort. If smaller groups could break through and reach the forces maintaining the formation, however, it would be different.
A kilometer behind the front lines were Anton, Kseniya, and others with longer ranges. They could attack from further, but were at a range that was both effective and hard for most to counter. Though they were fighting seriously, the barrier was a problem- for the most part they had to try to catch the orbs of deathly energy as they popped out of the barrier to protect their allies. Kseniya was putting in work, but she also had the capacity to casually chat while doing so.
“Personally I think they would have done better if they stayed behind their permanent formations,” she commented. “Unless they don’t have enough farmland, because I sure wasn’t going to let them bring in supplies.”
“From what I saw, there were some plots being farmed. The land itself seems arable enough,” Anton replied. “But perhaps they simply rose to our provocation, or were swayed by the threat of annihilation.” Talking slightly reduced his effectiveness, but he wasn’t involved in any sort of deep tactical focus. He was just shooting arrows at every orb he could, piercing into them so they would break apart early. Their power wasn’t in their physical form, but the effect they had on people- so they were intended to break apart, just later.
“Honestly though,” Kseniya sighed. “Do they think we’re all spring chickens? I suppose they don’t really know me though,” she frowned.
Anton felt just a tiny motion of her eyes, and he turned to look over his shoulder. “I don’t sense anything yet.”
“No, they’re a bit better than that. But also still quite far.”
“I’ll make an announcement in a minute.”
Anton was pretty sure that meant she would be shooting someone. But it was her prerogative to make the judgment of when and how to do things.
Ahead of them the battle was something like a stalemate. Few except Million Sword Vault had managed to break through the barriers even momentarily, and those inside would eventually be overwhelmed… but the enemy was being cut down as well. If there was a more lasting break in the barrier the archers could target those sustaining the core of the formation. There were several flags being carried, which were good targets- but taking out those holding them in place would also serve a purpose. Among them were many members of the numerous Hungry Rat Cult, staying in reserve. From what Anton had been told, they had another factor missing as well.
It was clear that the front line was becoming impatient, as some of the Life Transformation experts were beginning to make attacks more suited to smashing through the barrier than systematically break it apart. Everyone had to make their own choices of course, but the burning ball of fire around Elder Sarka seemed quite excessive. It was burning the dirt and melting the stone in the area near her. Anton thought maybe she was trying an alternative digging technique to try to get under the barrier until she jumped forward and smashed into it head on. There, she held open a hole with the bubble of fire around her, one that other members of Glorious Flame Palace were quick to rush through, unharmed by Sarka’s fire. Other sects were more hesitant.
“Guess I was late,” Kseniya said. She had already turned around to begin taking shots at the approaching enemies behind them- seemingly independents not associated with sects or who had found an excuse to be away. Undoubtedly Twin Soul Sect members, unless they were just suicidal. Individually, anyway. The full number of them was making Anton rather nervous about the situation.
As for what made her late, even though the enemy was still far enough for everyone to react to, it was Elder Paula of Marvelous Rabbit Mountain. She leapt into the air, almost as if she were flying- positioned directly over the center of the enemy forces. As she fell she picked up speed, and she somehow twisted herself into a forward spin with a leg outstretched. Kseniya’s shots were fired before she hit the barrier and cracked it, landing in the center of the area.
Elder Farrukh of the Hungry Rat Cult looked her straight in the eye, gathering energy. He turned to the man next to him, a late Essence Collection member of the Whispering Watchers. “Now!” he shouted. Then his energy took the form of two pairs of rodent incisors with the image of a great rat around them. Immediately, they sliced through the man next to him, as piles of actual rats burrowed out of the ground and chomped at the heels… of the group that had thought they were allies an instant before.
Elder Paula viewed the move with some suspicion, before deciding she could deal with them later if it was some sort of deception. Instead, she hopped forward, kicking a rather shocked member of Infinite Gate Society. The woman had swapped from using her energy to power the formation to primarily protecting herself in time, but it didn’t stop her from being shunted far from her proper position. Along with the Hungry Rat Cult suddenly no longer participating in its stability, it began to fade and crack rapidly.
Even as that happened, Elder Farrukh locked eyes with Vasu. The two of them just shared a single word. Later. Personal insults leading to grudges could be resolved in the future.
Back across the battlefield, Anton had little freedom to focus on the lives of his friends and family… but the opportunity afforded by the Hungry Rat Cult switching sides was too good to pass up. Perhaps he was burdening Grand Elder Kseniya by trusting her to protect him from the encroaching attackers, but she hadn’t spoken a word of complaint as he surveyed the area.
Alva was safely nearby, as her range was sufficient to affect a large portion of the battlefield along with the rest of the snipers. Even if she didn’t have the same level of training in Horizon Shot as Anton, she could still shoot things within visual range to a high degree of accuracy.
Hoyt was chopping his way through a line of enemies along with some of the allied forces. Velvet was… probably fine wherever she was. Annelie happened to be fighting side-by-side with Anish, the fire and ice clearing swaths of opponents. Most battles were going fine, but he contributed a few shots wherever he thought it would do the most good. He just needed the right openings, and most people weren’t focused on what some guy a couple thousand meters away might be ready to do to them when there was a spear right in their face they had to worry about.
Near the edge of where the barrier had once stood, Elder Malachy- who looked ready to remind anyone who spoke that it wasn’t pronounced like ‘lackey’- had managed to reach Chikere. Not that she was difficult to get to, as she was one of those at the front of the pack.
“You will return Swordmaster Vianne’s blade to us,” he said, stating it both as a fact and a command.
“Don’t be stupid,” Chikere said. “It’s mine. Rahayu said I could have it.”
“That fool isn’t even here,” Malachy held his blade towards Chikere. “Well, I suppose I don’t mind doing this the fun way.”
Against a sword wielder of her own cultivation, Chikere would have been confident. Against a Life Transformation cultivator like Elder Malachy, she was in fact still confident. Others might have told her that was incorrect, and she would have ignored them. And if she was wrong, all that would happen was that she would die- which wasn’t as bad as giving up a sword she didn’t want to.
A bristling flower of swords surrounded her, akin to a thistle. More swords wasn’t necessarily better, but instead it was her preferred style which made it better for her. The clash of blades began, swords slicing and stabbing, clashing with each other as they were parried and dodged. Everyone around them backed off, not willing to get caught in the battle even as they were merely testing each other out.
Then a sword shattered.
“What the hell?” Chikere shouted. “You broke number fifteen! You’ll pay for that.” Her eyes narrowed in anger, as if Elder Malachy had killed one of her closest friends… which perhaps was not far off. Unfortunately, her combat style did not benefit from anger. Several exchanges later, two more of here swords were broken- and three were flung far out of their reach, across the battlefield.
“You’re not worthy of that sword you hold,” Elder Malachy sneered derisively. “Pathetic, like your master.”
That taunt didn’t have its intended effect, but it did cause Chikere to hesitate in confusion. “…Swordmaster Rahayu ascended.”
“A wonderful fiction, but I knew the power Vianne had to hold. But history is written by the victors, I suppose. So I’ll be writing the end to your little story.” His words weren’t just arrogance, as Chikere was finding herself with a myriad of cuts. So far she had kept the remainder of her swords intact, though some were now chipped under the ferocity of the man’s attacks, one sword overcoming many.
Then, with a skillful feint, Malachy caused Chikere to overextend, twisting the blade in her hands and disarming her of Vianne’s sword, which he then caught. He grinned.
“Number one…” Chikere looked at her empty hands.
Malachy let her have a moment to look and despair before he began his next attack, striking with Vianne’s superior sword. He grinned as Chikere stepped forward towards him, swinging her arms as if she still held the sword in her hands. They swung up- to no effect of course.
An arrow forced him half a step closer, but he didn’t care. The blades around weren’t swift enough to catch him. His blade connected with her forehead, bringing with it the sound of severed flesh and bone while the woman uselessly swung her arms down.
But two things were wrong. His left hand no longer felt the hilt of Vianne’s sword. And his right… seemed to have been severed, somehow.
“… how?” he asked no one in particular.
“I saw Rahayu ascend with my own eyes,” Chikere commented. Even if he knew what she actually meant, that would have only answered half of Malachy’s question. Instead he focused on Chikere herself. There was a cut starting on her brow and down to her nose, the source of large quantities of blood dripping alongside her nose and over her now-smiling lips. “It’s okay number one,” she said to a sword that was not supposed to be in her hands, but was anyway. “You’re back with me.”
A detailed response was not on the way. Instead, there were only more swords- and arrows. Malachy had no idea how Vianne’s sword was now back in Chikere’s hands, but he used his remaining hand to pull his own blade out once more. Even with his mistake, he was confident he could defeat Chikere, though the archer that seemed to have locked onto him was making things a pain.
Chikere continued her incomprehensible speech. “Fifteen, seventeen, and twelve are a loss… but the new number three looks pretty decent.”
Somehow, Malachy felt his presence had been disregarded by her entirely. The archer clearly wasn’t taking him for granted. And, though it no longer mattered, there had been another focused on him. But Vasu had already returned his focus to reaping the lives of those foolish enough to get within ten or twenty arms’ lengths of himself.