Standing guard while not looking like she was standing guard was a difficult task for Alva, though there wasn’t really much else she could do. Running immediately when someone approached was a good way to get them to react negatively, even if they didn’t previously have any reason to pay attention. Being off by herself was a bit dangerous, but if they didn’t have any warning they might all die.
At least if that Fajra came anywhere near them. It was possible that she wouldn’t recognize them specifically, but the fact that they were part of the Order should be something she noticed. Counting on her to be sloppy with keeping track of enemies was a terrible idea.
Currently, Alva was standing in a field of traps and hoping they weren’t the sort that moved about. So far they seemed static, based on what she could see- but keeping track of them just in case was important.
They were eventually going to have to combat cultivators in the Augmentation stage- and likely even this same Fajra- but this was not the time. A hundred and one stars was still very early in the Integration stage, far short of the… what would it be? Probably one hundred and sixty stars for the next stage. Alva didn’t imagine another twenty-nine was going to be sufficient, so thirty-one beyond that would have to do it. All she needed was a couple hundred years and maybe it would work out.
She kept her senses open, ready to receive even a hint of cultivators approaching and react as appropriate.
Even just a short few years away made Everheart’s Tomb feel quite different for Prospero- though he couldn’t say if that was due to leaving and experiencing more of the world of recovering old memories. He had quite a solid picture of what his life had been like before, but unlocking hundreds of years of memories wasn’t something that could be done in a few. Not if he wanted to keep up with his cultivation, at least.
On the planet commonly known as Ceretos, he had considered himself fairly talented- having the potential to ascend, and simply choosing not to. Then he lost his opportunity, but it had been worth it. Even more so now that he got an opportunity to hear about it. Anton was apparently doing an excellent job of heading the Order- and he’d managed his uncomfortably rapid pace of cultivation. Old men weren’t supposed to reach the peak of cultivation in just a hundred years… though perhaps that was Anton’s only option.
Sitting around waiting for others to do something was generally absent from his memories, and the latest and most prominent ones placed him as one of the strongest in the world. Now here he was, the weakest in their group. Even if he really stretched his own self image, the weaker wolf- Spikes- should still be stronger than him. Reaching Ascension- or the Integration stage, since he was already in the upper realms- was going to take decades. It took Hoyt and the others close to sixty years, and Prospero had taken somewhat longer the first time. Even if he could somehow manage to go twice as fast as the top level he knew, he was in for a long haul of being weaker than those around him.
Though growing up in a place like Everheart’s Tomb hadn’t allowed him to be weak, and he was certain he was stronger than the previous time. It was just that ultimately the gap of an entire cultivation stage left him somewhat lacking.
Catarina hoped she was ready. If she was wrong, she might bring down Everheart’s wrath for nothing. The man could be surprisingly casual about certain things, but messing with one of his big formations seemed like the sort of thing to get her killed, despite him being somewhat positive about her talents previously. Or maybe because of it. He seemed like the sort of guy to snuff out talented enemies as quickly as possible.
If she was wrong about the strength of this formation, she would land them all in deep trouble. But she’d done what she could to attune herself to the older formations Everheart built on top of. This might be the moment where a once-genius cultivator met their end if she wasn’t careful but all she had to do was-
A Spirit Arrow flew around a corner, nearly striking Fuzz in the side. Fuzz slapped it with a paw, batting it to the ground. That was the best non-obvious signal they could come up with. It might seem like fighting somewhere else in the Labyrinth, but launching some sort of attack was perfectly expected and likely to be glossed over. Anything else would be too… signally.
But since Alva had felt the need, that meant Catarina had to work quick. She hadn’t even begun to work, but she’d studied what she needed to. She didn’t even need to change much- the whole point was making use of the formations Everheart already had in place to transport them where she wanted instead of where he intended. There were things hidden all over this place, sub-runes she hadn’t even known about before Everheart teleported her last time they were in the Labyrinth. She hoped he wasn’t paying attention.
It was best that it had not been Hoyt’s particular corridor that was closest to trouble, since his communication methods weren’t as subtle and using their actual devices was spotty and unreliable within the Tomb itself. Plus there was no way of knowing if Everheart was listening somehow.
Hoyt quickly made his way towards the core of their little area. Battle hadn’t broken out yet, but as the twists of the Labyrinth brought him closer he felt an uncomfortable source of power. He recognized it, which was unfortunate. Moving their way, not with great haste… but not slowly either. If they hadn’t already been sensed, they would be soon.
He formed up with Timothy, Vari, and the wolves. Alva had yet to arrive, and Prospero, his grandfather, did better in the rear. Though he was also slightly hindered by the Labyrinth’s structure. He couldn’t just form Falling Stars wherever he pleased- reaching ‘outside’ of the Labyrinth, even vertically, was difficult.
Catarina was there throwing down formation flags and quite wantonly carving into the structure of the Labyrinth itself. He really hoped whatever she was doing wouldn’t take long, but they were only a week into the potential one to thirty days, and she’d only just begun. How long could they hold back a battle? A few minutes? Certainly not much longer than that against worthy opponents. And likely less if Fajra was involved.
The sounds of hurried feet preceded Alva around the corner, moving in something that wasn’t quite a run, but was also deceptively quick, her feet gliding over the ground. Her glances over her shoulder told Hoyt the same thing his senses were picking up- she was being followed.
Fortunately, only two individuals came around the corner. A man and a woman, striding slowly and confidently. They were in the Integration stage, but that meant they were outmatched. If only things would stay that way.
“No need to panic,” the beautiful woman said, striding forward together with the equally enchanting man next to her. “We’d just like to talk. Come closer.”
Oh good. They just wanted to talk. Stepping forward shouldn’t be a problem. That was what Hoyt’s body seemed to be listening to, at least. Deep down there was a tiny core that told him it was a bad idea, even if they outnumbered the enemy. There was also an instinct that made him not trust the way they held their hands casually at their waist and a little behind their back, but they hadn’t really done anything yet. This was fine.
He wasn’t even going alone. His eyes were focused on hers but he could feel his companions walked with him, avoiding the few traps they knew were in the area. Everything was fine.
“Good,” the woman said, drawing out the word. “Just a little bit closer so we can talk. I’m sure you- Ghurk!”
Hoyt didn’t know what she meant by ‘Ghurk’, but he recognized the sound of a bone snapping. Even though it was just the small ones around the nose, it was still a distinctive sound. With that his eyes were free to more properly take in the situation around him instead of focusing on the woman’s eyes. That was why he clenched his legs together after Vari followed up with a kick to the man.
“Nobody.” A fist struck the woman’s jaw, “Is. allowed.” hands grabbed the two individuals, keeping them from retreating. “In. My. Head.” Vari’s jaw was set, her voice adamant in her declaration… and Hoyt could see ten figures flickering behind her. Vague shadows of figures holding weapons. Bows, swords, spears, a little bit of everything between the ten indistinct images. They didn’t do much but stand there… though Hoyt knew they didn’t need to. That ceremony she’d done seemed to be working out for her.
Of course, this meant there was no possibility of avoiding combat. It wasn’t Vari’s fault- that had happened the moment the two individuals tried to control their movements. It was undoubtedly an attack, and Hoyt wouldn’t stand for it. But still, he couldn’t help but think about the others behind this pair. Caution might have been warranted.
Though the daggers the two had been holding behind their back meant Vari hadn’t exactly been hasty with her actions either. Hoyt was only a couple steps back and quickly drew his own weapon while the pair tried to recover from their stunned state. They’d actually done a pretty good job of minimizing the damage Vari did in her initial combo. Otherwise her fist would have gone right through the woman’s head, and the man would have to deal with more than just a broken pelvis and accompanying testicular pain.
Timothy yanked Alva back- she’d been one of the closest to begin with, but fortunately she’d walked slowly and Vari had stepped up her pace a step. Prospero was still a good dozen meters back, though he was now focusing on bombarding the area behind the duo. There wasn’t really much of a target there, but he seemed to be aiming for traps around the corner where there appeared to be more enemies approaching.
For something called the Radiant Beauty Sect, Hoyt found the melee capabilities of the pair more than adequate. Though the control had been disrupted there was still an aura that made him hesitate his attacks… a practical effect, even if it kind of felt like a cheap trick. The two weren’t going to fall quickly enough. The others were already coming around the corner, approaching quickly. Their auras were combining with the others, though Hoyt was more worried about the one behind them.
Their own group was already in a fighting retreat, Vari having had to give up her grip on the two for the sake of keeping her arms. Her barriers were stronger now, but she couldn’t fully block the area between someone she was grabbing onto. She almost hadn’t let go, but that had been a fleeting moment of unnecessary stubbornness she pushed past.
Hoyt felt like he was swinging his axe through molasses, fighting against himself, but with the benefit of understanding he was still at least able to control his own body. Besides Vari, the wolves were actually least affected, seeming as if they’d only gone along with the flow instead of actually being unable to attack.
Spikes’ abilities actually did a decent job of keeping the incoming enemies back. Not only did she reform the ground into unpleasant terrain, she even crossed shards of stone across the width of the Labyrinth corridor. They only held for a few moments, some of their foes risking the damage to slip past them while the others destroyed them, but everything counted.
Hoyt’s axe was coming down on the woman’s head as she was briefly entangled with Vari. Then, he stopped. He couldn’t move, nor could he stop himself from looking up, into a pair of piercing eyes. Damn. Perhaps they should have run. They might have made better use of the Labyrinth, harassing their foes as they pulled away before eventually losing them. They could have come back later for Catarina’s work.
Fajra stared into his eyes. “Aha. It is some of you. Foolish of you to come out of hiding.” Her eyes seemed to pull on him, drawing his consciousness away. Then-
Then she was gone. His axe swung down into nothing. The woman in front of him was gone. No, the entire corridor was gone, except for his companions… and a couple very confused individuals further on. Well. At least they hadn’t had to step into a portal or anything. And Hoyt was pretty sure he wasn’t in an illusion.