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Despite some trepidation, Rouben continued on his trajectory towards the new group. Memories nagged at his head, things he should have known but did not. Were they friend or foe, or simply familiar in an inconsequential manner? The one with the molten axe pulled ahead of the rest, and Rouben slowed. He didn’t think he could get away from an Integration cultivator in a direct chase, but he didn’t want to get too close. If they were enemies he was probably already dead, but maintaining caution was how he’d survived so far.
The man’s eyes burrowed into Rouben as he also slowed his approach, but now they were only a dozen meters apart. That could be covered in a single instant by a powerful cultivator, and the man didn’t need to get into melee anyway. “Where did you learn that technique?” he asked, his tone demanding a response.
“Where did you learn it?” Rouben countered. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to speak back to a stronger cultivator, but he couldn’t give a satisfying answer anyway. Because he didn’t truly know. He remembered it, but like everything else there were swaths of memory missing. That was a large part of the reason he’d taken Essentia Lockbox. Staying to study it might have worked, but the Twin Soul Sect had been poking their nose around too much.
Strangely enough, the other man didn’t provide an answer. Instead, he gestured to the south with his axe. “What is your relation with the Twin Soul Sect?”
“We’re definitely not friends, if that’s what you’re asking,” Rouben wanted to make that as clear as possible. He felt something sweeping over him, some sort of sensory technique. He wasn’t sure what it was supposed to do beyond that. “I’m not working for them, either. Look, you’re probably after a book, right?” It had been obvious from the outset that his getaway hadn’t been clean, though he’d hoped it would be. That was the plans, but plans never worked out quite right, did they? “For one of those Library bounties. It doesn’t require bringing me in, does it?” If it did, he was already screwed. He could only imagine what it took to get a group of Integration cultivators involved. “Also, do you have a name? You doubtless already know mine.”
“The price on your head is much less significant,” the man said. “If you tell me where you learned the Falling Stars, I can forgo collecting on that part. You can call me… Hoyt.”
“Look, I’d love to tell you but the truth is… I can’t tell you right now. That’s the whole point of Essentia Lockbox.”
“You don’t remember, huh…” Hoyt frowned. “But it’s from a previous life?”
Rouben shrugged. “That would be my assumption.”
“Maybe we can-” something shoved Hoyt from behind. It wasn’t a surprise in the traditional sense. He was quite aware that the person was there, but not prepared to be pushed. He staggered forward two steps. “Catarina, what-”
The woman that had to be catarina took a formation flag and kicked it into the ground where he had been standing- far deeper than made sense, as the actual flag portion was crumpled up. “You can talk later. We either need to start running or get ready for fighting.”
Observing the area around them, it seemed she was betting on them doing the latter. She must have been going full force while they were having their short conversation, as the landscape was already being rearranged. The others in their group had been conscripted to flatten certain parts, it seemed- and tendrils of Catarina’s energy were writing runes around them.
“Is mangling flags like that appropriate?” Hoyt asked.
“Yes,” Catarina said. “We’re fighting the Twin Soul Sect, after all. They don’t get to leave.”
Rouben swallowed, “Look, I appreciate the gesture but I’d really rather survive this. The Twin Soul Sect is huge. I don’t even recognize which one you all are from,” despite it being familiar somehow, “Which means you’re almost certainly not up to making them enemies. If some of you could just slow them down, I could give you the manual…”
“Then we become the targets,” Hoyt pointed out, “So we’re fighting anyway.”
“I… didn’t mean it like that,” Rouben said, “Really.”
“I believe you,” Hoyt said. “But I want to find out the answer to my question… and it appears that involves keeping you alive for a while longer.”
“Move,” Catarina said as she pointed her sword at Rouben. He subconsciously stepped back, and where he had been standing a hunk of stone was slammed into the ground and then carved up. Harder surfaces such as the remaining trunks of trees had more carvings, but even loose soil had some.
“So uh, this formation seems… ambitious,” Rouben said, taking in its size. “Will you actually be able to finish?”
“It will be functional in a moment,” Catarina said. She turned to Hoyt. “Stall them- inside the perimeter.”
Alva rode up to Rouben atop Fuzz. “How long can you continuously use Falling Stars?”
“For a while,” Rouben said, “If I don’t have to defend myself. I’m not exactly fresh but-”
“Good. You’ll provide long range support. Timothy! Block for this guy.” She dismounted Fuzz, who was curiously sniffing Rouben. Fuzz shook his head, apparently not finding whatever answers he desired.
Having Timothy defend Rouben was not merely for his sake- but also because if anyone was to be backstabbed, Timothy would do the best. Alva was going to take up a position somewhat nearby, because Fuzz’ mobility advantage wouldn’t be as useful in this particular case as staying out of close combat. Hoyt and Vari would need the wolves to back them up, especially with the incoming numbers. It would be a pain to hold off enemies that could come from all directions, but perhaps the formation would help with that. Alva honestly couldn’t say she’d seen most of the components before. This wasn’t one of Catarina’s usual things.
It had been some time since Alva had fought against the Twin Soul Sect. Somewhere around seven decades. “Everyone, keep aware of possible illusions!”
“The formation should minimize the impact of them,” Catarina shouted from another angle, “But keep track of ally positions!”
Then, the battle started. Or rather, the enemy was close enough for Alva to comfortably attack. She picked a weaker target, aiming to kill but with the secondary possibility of one of the stronger cultivators having to rush to defend them. It seemed they were harmonious enough for the latter, as one of the Integration cultivators blocked her arrows from a distance- destroying them so she couldn’t attempt any tricks. Unfortunately she didn’t even force the man to move to a different position. She’d need more power to break through whatever sort of barriers he flung up- whether they technically fit the name or not, they served the same purpose.
In terms of power, Falling Stars was certainly better. This one seemed a bit slow, though. She thought Hoyt was better, then realized it wasn’t Hoyt. Which made her quite impressed with Rouben. He was only at the peak of Essence Collection, but the power behind it was pretty decent. Though it was quite slow to form. She could have filled him full of arrows by now.
The enemy seemed to think the same, but Timothy blocked the first volley of attacks. Others were aimed at the gathering energy, but it was much higher than cultivators generally had to aim. The individual attacks were not enough to shatter the control over the technique, and it continued to gather energy for multiple seconds… an eternity in combat in the upper realms.
When it finally began to fall, picking up speed and leaving behind a trail of flames, Alva continued to be impressed- even when her senses revealed Rouben’s expression. It seemed even he hadn’t expected the results. The Falling Star broke through a hasty defensive technique and slammed into the target- a Life Transformation cultivator who found themselves buried in the ground by the force of the attack, before it detonated. They likely weren’t dead- there was still the difference in cultivation to consider- but being able to control that much energy at once was a decent feat. And Rouben didn’t even look tired. Though that probably had something to do with the formation, since Alva could feel it beginning to draw energy towards the center. And not just from the surroundings either… but also from the cultivators of the Twin Soul Sect.
Hoyt, Vari, and the wolves were now clashing with the front line of the Twin Soul Sect. Unlike many others, the Twin Soul Sect wasn’t limited to a specific style. On Ceretos they infiltrated different sects, but here they moved openly. Though it wasn’t certain that they didn’t also do the same.
Hoyt was able to notice shimmering oddities that spoke of illusions, but they seemed unstable. Either they were exceptionally well crafted to the point they did that on purpose to fool him, or they simply weren’t able to keep up. He had to trust in his senses to some extent. Aiming for large groups of individuals had to be right, since there were more enemies than allies. So far he was fairly certain he had accurate positions of his own allies, and the way they moved and fought was accurate.
In an attempt to funnel enemies inward, Hoyt had begun the battle with wide sweeps of flame to either side. He wasn’t enamored with the idea of letting them be surrounded, but they didn’t exactly have much in the way of terrain to rely on. That was partly his own fault, but to be fair the trees in the area wouldn’t have done much to stop them.
As he fought, Hoyt found those below Integration strangely weak. Obviously they should be weaker than himself, but it was more than that. He barely even felt any augmentation from the formation, so his judgment shouldn’t have been too off. But as he deflected a spear thrust to the side, he got a good look at one of the enemies. His face was strained… though it was far too early in the battle to have built up significant fatigue. Even moving quickly to reach them shouldn’t have been that serious.
One thing Hoyt knew he shouldn’t do during battle was focus on the far end of the battlefield. Though it was the center of the formation, it was not his job to concern himself with Rouben. Timothy was handling that adequately, providing cover from more than just the front. But Hoyt couldn’t help but keep part of his senses trained on Rouben. He’d changed the way he was circulating his energy- though not in the same manner as the Twin Soul Sect. Hoyt had already thoroughly investigated him, just in case. There was nothing suspicious about his actions, either. After his first attack which was a bit too much of an overcommitment, his usage of Falling Stars had spread out to be a wider battlefield approach. It was nothing like Vandale did during the beast hunt, continuously attacking hundreds of separate positions, but targeting several people at once was sufficient. His attacks could even give cultivators a phase above him some pause, which was impressive.
Hoyt clashed with a dark haired woman, the midnight black hair hanging down to almost trail on the ground. Her primary weapons were daggers, but Hoyt saw how her hair waved about on its own. Perhaps like the Grasping Willows, it would be part of her combat style. Either way, the fact that it had not ignited simply from being close to Hoyt was impressive- though plenty of cultivators wasted their energy on vanities such as that.
His wide sweeps kept the woman back, intense flames forming a barrier of sorts that she weaved her way through to make quick attacks. He dodged when he could, generally maneuvering her towards areas of danger. He wasn’t suited for such a foe, though if they had been fighting one-on-one he might have managed. He found himself pressed further back, and the others were experiencing the same pressure. So far they’d kept more than a small handful of enemies from simply passing them by- but that could only last so long. Either they would be properly surrounded soon, or simply ignored while the back line was targeted.
Yet any time Hoyt thought he couldn’t catch someone they seemed to become sluggish. Even if they got past himself and Vari, one of the wolves would catch up to them. Not that he felt fully confident. He’d kept his own wounds minimal, but Vari was in a poor state. Come to think of it, it was possible she hadn’t even heard anything about the illusions. She seemed to have a decent idea of her surroundings, though, as she directed enemies into attacking each other or losing their weapons.
Finally, the lines broke- over a dozen enemy cultivators maneuvered around their little group of four, close to half of the stronger enemies. The group in the center would almost be a match for the front lines except for Catarina still being busy with the formation. He wasn’t feeling the usual steady increase in power, but perhaps she had something more subtle it was doing.