With such obvious displays of power, everyone nearby began to converge on a single location, or for some of those who were uninvolved retreat from it. Yet even some of those who had not previously had any stake in Rouben’s bounty, they were interested in observing the upcoming conflict.
Those who arrived first would have an advantage. Rouben’s relatively lower cultivation meant that he should be defeated quickly- letting whoever captured him and the stolen tome retrieve the prize. Those who came after would have to determine if they wished to face whatever group took him out. The cost might not outweigh the potential benefits, especially with other opponents on the scene who might just want to take advantage of the chaos.
The objectives of one group had changed. No longer were they disinterested in Rouben himself and only after the rewards. Now there was information they needed from him in specific… though whether that information made them greater foes yet remained to be seen.
Hoyt’s eagerness in creating a path allowed the group to move more quickly towards their quarry- and in return, Rouben seemed to find the scorched jungle acceptable for some desperately needed moments of speed. They drew closer to each other, still beyond sight but the kilometers between shrinking rapidly.
Before they came into closer contact, however, their advance was cut off by another group. They were almost upon them when Fuzz halted himself, howling a warning- which included spitting a bolt of flame at the same time. He was clever enough to not attack people that he didn’t know were enemies, and once everyone’s attention was drawn to the right place they immediately realized who it was.
A figure stepped out from behind a scorched tree, a woman holding a rounded shield. “We can allow you to take our prize. And you,” her eyes locked on Vari, “Shouldn’t you be on our side?”
“Of course, elder sister,” Vari bowed her head and began to walk towards the woman.
Other members of the Harmonious Citadel revealed themselves, a mix of various weapons and cultivation levels. Many had been previously spotted around the Library, and it was not terribly strange that they would have set their sights on the same prize. There were only half of the numbers expected, however. That included the ones that were still hiding, as if their half-unsheathed daggers and killing intent didn’t give their positions away. But perhaps they were simply bait.
Vari dismounted Spikes and walked over with her head down. Everyone else positioned themselves to be ready for battle, not quite ready to commit for the moment.
“You wish to stop us?” Hoyt said, the head of his axe trailing on the ground where it burned away the soil beneath it. “I don’t see how it would benefit you to try… and with just yourselves, I can’t imagine you’ll have much success.”
Counting Fuzz, they had an equivalent of five Integration cultivators on their side, versus simply three on the other side. The woman with the shield had no obvious weapon, but two men wielded an axe and a pair of daggers respectively. There were more than a twenty others in Life Transformation and Essence Collection combined.
“A bold statement,” the woman said. “But even though we most certainly can defeat you, we just have to delay you for a while.”
That was where the rest of them were, then. But they would no doubt have others waiting for them as well.
“Now then,” the woman said. “We are generous enough to offer you the option to leave, at no cost this time. Unless we find out you were mistreating our sister.” She turned her head towards Vari at the mention of her. “You can stop, you know. No need to stand in the very back.”
For a moment Vari continued walking, then she did stop, right next to one of the men in the Integration stage. Her fingers softly curled just under the head of his weapon, and then she kicked forward, her fancy bronze boots gleaming.
The man had the choice between two options- letting go of his axe, or letting the kick land. Even with an advantage in cultivation, the surprise was enough to overcome his potential speed.
He tried to yank his weapon from Vari’s grip as he retreated, but her gloves, her anger, and her training kept her grip firm. As her foot was nearing waist height, the man was already stretched back as far as he could. The men who were present would have agreed his following move was the correct one- he let go of the axe, finishing his backwards movement.
With a single swing, Vari brought the axe down in an arc, then on its path back up it went sailing behind her, flinging as far as she could manage past her current allies. She hoped they had not been seriously trying to negotiate, because she couldn’t hear any of it- and she wouldn’t even pay attention to the lips of any of the Harmonious Citadel just in case.
Her actions were rewarded with two responses- a half-dozen angry individuals alternately swinging axes or stabbing with daggers, and her friends coming to her aid. The former she was happy to deal with by grabbing the wrists of two with daggers- dealing with those at her own cultivation level felt almost easy compared to her minimum level of success against the spear user previously. Those daggers then were redirected towards those with axes, the outstretched arms also getting in the way of the incoming chops. Vari was content that she only received a few moderate injuries with those odds.
Catarina’s opening maneuver was one which was unfamiliar to all of them, which was quite sensible considering the objects she flung from her storage bag were the recently acquired pillars. None of them expected her to use new formation techniques without at least spending some proper time studying them, but as it turned out they were also quite serviceable as projectiles. While three of their intended targets managed to dodge completely out of the way, the fourth got a dislocated shoulder out of it- and the fifth found that even the hastily gathered force of an Integration cultivator was enough to bring him down.
All of the others charged forward, arrows, two kinds of flames, earthen spikes, and an unstoppable force shoving people to the side. By the time the axe-using Integration cultivator thought to snatch one of the axes from his comrades, Vari found herself surrounded by allies, and six of the Harmonious Citadel cultivators were out of the battle.
The dagger using members were the most proficient at stealth, so naturally the man who was the strongest among them went for Alva. An archer in close-quarters combat, even upon a wolf, was an easy target. His dagger was halfway to her when his left side was bitten off- from the tip of the dagger to his shoulder. That was impossible, but that was what he felt nonetheless. An illusion technique was a reasonable defense, but he could see through it.
And maybe if that was what it was, he might have landed his blow on Alva. Even she was surprised when Fuzz’s head suddenly seemed to come out of his rear hip. It was impossible for him to turn almost completely around in an instant, but his fangs reached the area nonetheless while at the same time chomping down on the target in front of him. Alva briefly wondered at what sort of absurd beast techniques Everheart had been keeping in stock.
Hoyt was surprised to find the deadliest attack launched at him came not from the daggers or the heavy axes, but from a shield. He had simply thought the woman had a spear or something tucked away in her storage bag, but with a flick of her arm her shield was flying at him. His first instinct was to grab the edge of it- his better instinct was to dodge. It was a good thing he listened to that one, because even with a sensible amount of defenses around his fingers they would have been cut clean off. Instead, he just got a cut between his neck and shoulder as he flung himself out of the way. It came back around in an instant, but it avoided any foes and returned to the woman’s hand. An odd fighting style that would seem to leave her open, though it could be a ruse of some sort.
That momentary dodge brought enough time for several others to close in on Hoyt, which he kept back with a sweep of his molten axe. Flames lingered between him and them, allowing him some time to prepare an attack. Though he wasn’t sure if they realized. In truth, there could have been another reason for the mass of energy appearing off the battlefield on that side. They wouldn’t even feel a direct connection to him, since the energy was diffuse in all directions.
Hoyt wasn’t sure if it was actually more effective to use Falling Stars, given his lack of real experience, but it felt right. He suddenly wanted to do it, so he did. When it came crashing down at the shield woman, she had to hurriedly withdraw an attack to block with her shield. Sadly Hoyt found he only sent her flying back a hundred meters- the angle wasn’t right to properly drive her into the ground. At least it had decent power, though.
The battle had barely been on for a minute when the axeman struck Timothy’s shield like a gong. That was the second time he lost his weapon in the battle, and the sword in his sternum made it likely to be his last time ever. It was unfortunate that the woman was already retreating- chasing after her would delay them too much- but they would be remembered at some point regardless.
“I think my new helmet worked,” Timothy commented as they were quickly scanning the battlefield.
“You aren’t wearing it,” Catarina said. “And you didn’t get hit on the head. Or did you?”
“I didn’t,” he agreed. “So it worked.”
“Vari, are you alright?” Alva asked. “Your wounds…”
“I’m going to stop you there because I can’t hear,” Vari held up her hand. “I’ll just say that I resisted the compulsion much better this time and just didn’t want to risk it.” Alva walked forward, almost poking her finger into a hole in Vari’s side. “Oh, that? It’s not that deep…” Everyone was already beginning the preliminary treatment of their wounds, but they wouldn’t be able to do much more than bind them and consume recovery medicine before heading on to the next battle.
Falling Stars continued to rain, indicating they shouldn’t be delaying for too long- and that Rouben was still fighting. As they made their way towards him, they could make out a group of small individuals chasing after him- but before that, the other members of the Harmonious Citadel. The latter was locked in combat with another group of cultivators. They were mismatched in cultivation techniques, but clearly familiar with each other’s fighting styles. Their coordination was excellent… and their targets not an accident. Though the Dark Ring avoided wearing obvious insignias, Hoyt knew how to recognize them.
He wanted to assist them… but more than that, he wanted answers from Rouben. As he rushed towards the battle, he once more had the urge to use Falling Stars. Was it to indicate he was friendly? At the very least, Rouben’s response would tell him something. Hoyt’s attack blasted apart the poisonous fog in which the Mistwalkers were hiding. Hoyt didn’t know much about them, but it was easy to recognize them from their techniques… and their height. Something about their technique or environment seemed to stunt their growth, though it didn’t hamper their effectiveness in most cases.
With nobody between them, even from over a kilometer away Hoyt locked eyes with Rouben. In his eyes was much the same thing he felt. Confusion… yet a vague sense of familiarity. But he was unable to confirm any suspicions just yet… and the approaching Twin Soul Sect members would doubtless make conversation difficult.