With a group breaking away towards the center, Timothy was becoming less confident in his ability to protect Rouben. There was no deep connection between them, but the implicit promise to keep him safe made Timothy determined to do his best. The ranged attacks from Rouben and Alva had been overcoming the enemy so he’d had a small reprieve from the most dangerous attacks, but now he’d need to stop as many as he could at once.
The enemy was delayed a few moments by destroying formation flags along the way as well as shattering carved stumps and kicking apart loose dirt. Since they were inside the formation, it wasn’t terribly difficult to destroy parts of it. Timothy hoped that the pieces weren’t too important but he honestly didn’t know if those particular parts were important.
“Every part of a formation is essential to the whole,” Catarina said, resting a hand on his shoulder. She looked just as spent as if she’d been engaging in the same frantic combat as the rest of them. “Not to be rude to our guest, but I need you to focus on protecting me now.”
“Of course, I’m always glad to.” He was also still in the way of reaching Rouben and Alva, though it was not a terribly difficult thing to go around. If the enemy could afford to split up, anyway. Timothy wouldn’t, with Fuzz angrily chasing after them, but he wasn’t calling their shots.
“Sorry my contributions have been minimal up to this point,” Catarina said as she crouched down, placing the tips of her fingers on the ground. “Hopefully, it will be worth it.”
As she did so, the atmosphere changed. Timothy was used to the standard sorts of enhancements her formations provided- slight increases to his own abilities while enemies were hampered. A change in the natural flow of energy that benefited their allies. At the moment of the full activation of the formation, Timothy barely felt anything in relation to himself. He did, however, notice one of the enemies rushing forward suddenly stumble- not from any physical barrier, but because their energy did not propel them forward in the way they intended. Timothy was too far to take advantage of that, but Alva snapshotted a couple arrows at the man, injuring his leg.
The biggest threat was a man in the Integration stage, capable of conjuring stone needles out of the air. They weren’t much different in function than Spirit Arrows, though they came in greater numbers- just without the benefit of propulsion a proper bow provided. A full volley bombarded Timothy and the area around him, attempting to squeeze over, under, or around him. He expanded the reach of his shield over a meter to either side, preventing anything from reaching Catarina.
The next ones came through the ground… but Timothy wasn’t going to fail against something so simple. He extended his energy deeper, aware that he couldn’t keep up his pace… but strangely, his opponent was the one who looked to be straining himself. Not only him, but the others rushing forward- much more so than the group still engaged with Hoyt and the others.
When one of the faster Life Transformation cultivators tried to slip past Timothy, his slash was almost a token. He planned to follow up with something more… but the woman’s defenses crumpled. After his sword cut across her chest, her face paled. The trickle of blood couldn’t have caused that in such a short time, but Timothy could feel the undercurrents of energy pulling away at the enemies approaching them.
Alva’s quick attacks took down several more rushing for her, their energy defenses simply not what they should have been. On the other side, Rouben kicked a blast of flame that sent a Life Transformation cultivator staggering back without the benefit of building momentum like the Falling Stars.
The faces that had been so confident in their victory moments before suddenly had looks of horror. Fear- but not necessarily of the power. Timothy found it odd, because any cultivator going into battle should have known that death was a possibility. Yet it seemed as if they only now realized this, despite more than a dozen of their comrades having fallen earlier.
In battle, a match between similarly powered individuals could drag out for minutes or hours, only to be decided in an instant. Sudden weakness allowed Timothy to cut down those immediately in front of him and begin chasing after the man flinging stone needles. Timothy wasn’t afraid of desperate direct attacks- but he was surprised that some of them crumbled apart before they even reached him. The others who had gotten past Hoyt had already fallen, so Timothy felt no concern about leaving his post. Hoyt and the others were just cutting down their opponents as well.
When Timothy’s sword stabbed through the small of the man’s back, he had the feeling the man was trying to get just a few steps further, out of the formation. As if that would save him somehow- even though the energy ripped out of him wouldn’t be coming back.
As the last enemy fell, two things happened simultaneously. Catarina collapsed to the ground as the formation ceased functioning- formation flags and runes bursting apart in various sized explosions of energy. Then Rouben began to break through to Life Transformation. That was quite clear to everyone nearby.
“Alva! Any other enemies approaching?” Timothy said as he swiftly marched back towards his wife.
“It seems clear for the moment,” she said, surveying the area. “And the battle between the Dark Ring and Harmonious Citadel seems to have gone in the favor of the former.”
Timothy gently turned Catarina onto her back, and she looked at him with a faint smile.
“What was that?” he said as gently as possible. “I’m sure you had your reasons but it seemed dangerous…”
“And not as effective as having something decent the whole battle,” Catarina smiled weakly. “I thought it would be a bit faster. And I knew we needed that for…” she gestured to the bodies around them. “So they’d be dead.”
“Of course they’d be dead,” Timothy said. “We wouldn’t leave them… oh.”
“Their souls get to stay here now,” she said, a bit of strength returning to her voice. “I was probably a bit too ambitious with that one, mixing new techniques with ones I hadn’t really practiced.” She looked over towards Rouben, “That feels a bit…”
Timothy nodded. Hoyt was watching intently as well, as whatever fire-type cultivation technique Rouben was making use of was showing traces of the Hundred Stars. Had he picked it up so quickly, or was that vague notion correct? Perhaps they would find out soon. Though they’d need to make their way somewhere safer if they wanted proper discussions.
As she stepped out of the ship, Matija looked quite nervous. She wasn’t a diplomat, and Anton knew that… which was the whole reason he wanted her to be present. Having someone he’d built up some trust with among the delegation from Rutera was also important.
He was waiting at the landing pad himself- simply a large, flat, durable surface. The ship had landed quite gracefully upon it, negating its momentum until it was barely moving the moment it touched. Anton expected that sort of control from cultivators, but conscious being a step further removed from the process seemed as if it would make it difficult.
“Greetings,” said the woman beside Matija, clearly a leading figure. She had darker skin, though not quite so dark as some of those from Ambati. She bowed deeply. “My name is Nirmala, as you no doubt know. Thank you for receiving me.”
“Welcome,” Anton said- but speaking what he had learned of the Ruteran language instead of through the translator. “I am the head of the Order of One Hundred Stars,” Anton bowed what he felt was an appropriate amount, and was glad for learning what he could about Ruteran body language from Matija. Mostly, it was similar to what he was used to. The rest, he could hopefully learn as they went. “We have been waiting for you. We have representatives from various places. Here on Brogora we have representatives of Ambati, Ofrurg, Facraona, Droca, and Estary. I am authorized to speak for Graotan as well as the Order,” And there was a difference between those now, even if it wasn’t a large one. “I am sure this will be much to take in, but we could not deny anyone their proper representatives for such a momentous event. From Aicenith, we have Marvelous Rabbit Mountain, the Million Sword Vault…” Anton continued through the list, making sure he did not leave out anyone. They were trying very hard to pretend they weren’t listening, but he didn’t want to accidentally insult anyone.
“I am impressed that such a large number of diverse groups have this measure of unity,” Nirmala responded. “I will be glad to speak to everyone at the appropriate time.”
“Of course, but first you have come a long way… in a not particularly comfortable vessel. I will show you to the quarters we have arranged and give you a tour to familiarize yourself with the area.” Though welcoming foreign dignitaries to the peak was appropriate, it was clear Nirmala and some of her entourage were uncomfortable. It had been some time since Anton experienced the same in an area of high energy density, but he gradually sheltered them from the pressure. No need to cause a fuss about things. Just because all of their representatives were combat capable didn’t mean the Ruterans needed to do the same.
Matija had the presence of mind to consult beforehand about weapons and guards. Anton wanted them to feel comfortable, so he had emphasized that they could bring them- but should not need them. Cultivators like himself were not uncomfortable around weapons, but for his own sake he had his own weapons stowed. Not that he would need them to fight any of the Ruterans. Even if their weapons displayed remarkable power like their other devices, this was the territory of the Order, and he could safely say he was the strongest person on the planet. He felt no need to mention that to them however.
Some time later, the diplomatic group found themselves in the newly constructed compound set aside for them. One of its features was minimizing the amount of natural energy that suffused the area- though there were options to gather energy in particular rooms. They were carefully calibrated to not hurt anyone if they changed something on accident.
“He is the one who knocked on the outside of your ship?” Nirmala asked Matija. “He seems like a kind old man, rather than a warrior.”
Matija smiled, “He seemed very comfortable with the bow on his back. And it was most certainly the same Anton.”
“The energy readings… I thought they were a mistake, until we scanned him here. I’m not sure what it means, though.”
Matija shrugged, “It means he’s the sort of person who can fly through space under their own power and even approach the sun to the same distance as a science vessel. That seems to be how people work here.”
“Perhaps the old stories are true,” Nirmala frowned. “Cultivators who can control energy directly. It was mentioned… that he taught you how to do the same?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as that,” Matija shook her head. “In an environment with gravity, I can barely lift a pen.” She shook her head, “I haven’t been quite certain how to improve.”
There was a knock on the door. “Honored delegates, should you require refreshments or wish to tour the facilities, know that I am here to assist.”
The message took a moment to be translated for their ears, after which Nirmala pursed her lips slightly. “I am rather nervous to eat anything. I believe they mean us no harm, but it’s hard to be certain it will be nutritionally compatible.”
“Everything I ate was,” Matija reminded her. “But I’ll admit I did scan everything.”
“It would seem rather inappropriate to do so at a meal, don’t you think?”
Matija shrugged, “I’m pretty sure everyone here can do the same thing with their mind. I doubt it would hurt to ask, though.”
They did end up taking a meal- the time of their arrival made it somewhat blur the line between lunch and dinner. They ate privately, which the assistant sent for them offered as one of the first options. Delegates should certainly interact with the locals, but diving in too deep too fast might be uncomfortable.
Following that, they opted to take a tour of the sect- of which, the most interesting location was the Library. Most of the facilities were highly practical, and clearly centered around training cultivation. Aside from the observatory, anyway. Anton had shown that to them, explaining that it was for both hobby and practical purposes. Since it was only afternoon they couldn’t make much use of it to see how good it was- though Matija was quite interested in figuring that out.
When they came to the library, they found it quite intimidating. Their translators worked on written language, but they simply didn’t know where to start. Perhaps it showed on their faces, because Anton gestured to a section. “That is where we keep the basic cultivation manuals. Perhaps Matija might wish to compare your knowledge with what is there, considering your methods are quite different. And what would you be interested in, Diplomat Nirmala?”
“I find myself interested in the history of your world,” she said, thinking it a safe topic.
“Of course,” the old man nodded. “It is unfortunate that due to various circumstances the histories generally fall off past the seven hundred year mark, but I imagine that should last you for some time.”
“Umm…” Matija bit her lip, “Is it alright if we copy what we find here?”
“Of course,” Anton nodded, “Knowledge is meant to be shared. Though I would be cautious with the cultivation techniques. They are generally categorized by difficulty and safety, but some are only good for study and not for practical use. Though if you have any questions, I could answer them.”
Matija nodded, “Thank you.” Cultivation and energy control were of great interest to her, though at some point she wished to probe the depths of their understanding of other methods. Formations, Anton had mentioned. Something like how they controlled the energy in their devices, but clearly quite different. Though she likely wouldn’t learn all that much in a single afternoon, and they would have to move on to their actual diplomatic mission. Or at least Nirmala would. Perhaps she might be able to slip off…