Most people would have said that trading an arm for a sword was a bad deal, but Chikere wouldn’t agree with them. Would she have preferred to get it without losing an arm? Absolutely. But there was more to it than just losing an arm and getting a weapon. If she had wanted to simply have her right arm, she could have not fought for the sword. She could have settled down for a few decades, trained herself, and found whoever owned the weapon later. She had no doubt she’d be able to get it.
But now she knew how she matched up against skilled cultivators. The kind who were expected to reach at least late Integration and who might progress to Augmentation. And she was quite confident she wouldn’t end up with a narrow victory next time. She learned a lot by experiencing it with her body.
Catarina came to her after the battle- many people had disguised themselves to be ready. Chikere was simply the best bait… and the one that seemed easiest to draw out. Which she probably was. “Do you need help growing back your arm?”
“Growing back… my arm?” Chikere tilted her head. “I… hadn’t planned to do that.”
“Really? Don’t you need it? Is it not your good arm?”
“My left arm is pretty good too,” Chikere shrugged. “But either way, I think I’ll stay like this for a while.”
“That’s… a terrible idea. If you don’t start now, it will be more difficult to restore it.”
“So? Rahayu sacrificed an arm and a leg for his ascension. Sometimes, you have to give things up for his growth.”
“First, that’s crazy,” Catarina pointed out. “Second, he has all his limbs. They were just injured! If you want to not use your arm you could just grow it back and not use it.”
“Sounds lazy,” Chikere shook her head. “I need to commit to this.”
Catarina sighed. “Fine. I was going to help since you were an important part of this operation, but… if you don’t want it.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“At least we won pretty definitively, which makes it harder for them to cover up. Independents weren’t particularly interested in the Harmonious Citadel to begin with, but such open duplicity will be trouble for them. Especially since they emphasized the tournament was open to everyone so much. Though Vari mentioned their internal control of information is fairly concrete.”
The big victory was not winning a single sword- not for the group as a whole, at least. It was simply having a clear and obvious defeat of the Harmonious Citadel- and what damage they had caused. They couldn’t take over Thaizuno and use it as staging grounds for further operations- in fact, they had to pack up and leave in rather short order- but catching a significant group outside of proper Harmonious Citadel territory was a boon.
As they discussed the benefits to their alliance, they were approached by an older man, one that Chikere now recognized and even remembered the name of. “Grandmaster Smith Sadiq,” Chikere inclined her head, holding up the blade. “This is a good sword.”
“Of course it is. Spent five years on it. Speaking of which, as I can’t trust the Harmonious Citadel to follow through on their agreements anymore, I’m looking for a new place of residence.”
“Yes,” Chikere said.
“I have not yet asked a question or proposed any course of action,” Sadiq pointed out.
“I require further swords of this quality,” Chikere said firmly. “Join us and make them.”
“You think it’s so simple? Even if I had the materials to make something like that- which I don’t- I also need a good forge and inspiration.”
“Where is the forge?” Chikere asked. “We will take it.”
“Hmm,” Sadiq nodded, “Confidence is good. But this one was on Rouhiri.”
Chikere bit her lip and looked down at her left arm, then her legs. “I will not be able to acquire it just yet. But we have some remnants of Everheart’s.”
“Oh, that’s right,” the large old man nodded, leaning on his oversized combination of what was definitely multiple swords beneath one handle, blades overlapping. “You’re the ones who took over Everheart’s Tomb.”
“We did,” Chikere confirmed.
“Did you punch him in the face?”
“Unfortunately we did not have the opportunity,” Catarina inserted herself into the conversation. “Not literally, at least. Though I do believe he was quite upset when he made his way off planet.”
Sadiq grinned. “Heh. Good to hear he had something stolen from him in turn. There’s a good chance the forge there was once mine. That guy was annoyingly adept at removing entire structures that were meant to be stationary…”
“I did hear about that,” Catarina nodded. “Anyway, we have plenty of space for you to get set up… and in a volcano, or not if that’s not actually helpful. We’d be glad to have you.”
“I think I would like that, yes,” the man nodded. “At least I’d know there would be someone worthy of my work and able to appreciate its value,” he turned his head towards Chikere who was grinning from ear to ear. “Don’t expect anything quickly though.”
“I will wait for more swords as long as I need to. And I will help you acquire a worthy forge and materials.”
Back in the lower realms, war had been over for a decade. It wasn’t just nominal peace, either. There was trade- hesitant, certainly, and not large scale- between the systems of the trifold alliance and those in the Sylanis Cluster. It was entirely possible for things to return to conflict at some point in the future, but the groups there were less consolidated.
Anton was now having to consider how he would expand his assimilated stars without any particular indication of what he might want. Leaving too many of his options unbound would slow his growth intolerably. Highest on the list were a few in the neighborhood of Ceretos where people might one day settle, but they were still busy filling out their own system. Even if they rushed things, a decade or two before expanding to other systems was close to the reasonable minimum. The benefits of ‘easy’ access to some resources might also be outweighed by the lack of natural life and the very competition people might want to avoid. With nobody to trade with, would such excursions be profitable? That was something people would have to find out.
Personally, Anton was more interested in seeing if life could be sustained on such planets, but it was more complicated than just chucking down a few trees, bushes, and animals. At least, if it was going to be anything functional over a longer period. Anton had an excellent understanding of how to manage all of that for places like Graotan. He’d studied other countries and beyond for the sake of building up the planet’s natural energy, and could at least do a half decent job. But another planet, starting from nothing… that was in the realm of the theoretical. Rutera had some ideas, of course. So did Weos.
Perhaps it might be appropriate to found a new system with elements from each part of the trifold alliance, though it would have to be physically close to one of them. Such an effort would take decades to even consider starting… but that was something they had now.
Somewhere close to a century hence, the tides of the world would have shifted naturally- though whether the current short cycles was actually natural was unclear- and their worlds would be open for invasion. There was some possibility that it might not be all at once, the timing in different systems off by weeks or months. If they had years… they would actually be able to provide significant support between systems. Either way, they were busy combining their expertise for mutual defense.
When Anton had been a young man, it had been hard to get a village to agree upon dealing with roads or community projects that were going to take five or ten years. Perhaps he himself had even been casual about such things, losing interest as time dragged on. Now, keeping people focused for a century- another century- seemed almost impossible. Except there was a very useful thing Anton could point out. A good portion of people would be alive for that, and if they weren’t going to be they still hoped for it. At the very least Anton could confidently say that the generation being born now would live that long if they put even the slightest devotion into their cultivation. And anyone who made it to Essence Collection could expect to live to at least a hundred and fifty, perhaps two hundred.
That was for humans, of course. As for void ants… the matter was quite unclear. Not all of them grew stronger, and they could die of old age. But some showed no real signs of aging besides an increase in size, like the Great Queen. Overall he could say vaguely approximate to humans, except perhaps tending more towards the extremes. Like the void ants themselves, the youngest of which were barely sapient though able and expected to act on their own unlike human children. Yet they were never really independent, fulfilling their role in an organized structure- again, much like most humans.
The moon. Currently, the largest organized gathering of the Tomb Seeking Cult, as much as they were ever organized. Some of them had taken the effort to dig up Everheart’s tomb there, hoping to find signs. As with most, it was collapsed far beyond what seemed reasonable, formations weighing their current time against the future to sustain structures. The gardens in particular were a true loss, the living creatures there perishing with the tomb itself… though not aging like the actual structure. In short, whatever people had not brought away with them had perished in the physical collapse of the underground caverns that housed their ecosystem. The only thing remaining had been things with minimal requirements for life like bacteria and fungi.
That did not include void ants. “I suppose you’re officially the progenitor of all void ants now,” Anton said solemnly. “Did you know this was going to happen, when you snuck into my bag?”
The Great Queen shook her head. “I don’t think I really understood back then. I was adventurous, and it seemed interesting. Though I did have some sense that this place wouldn’t last,” she signed her words as Anton carried her through some of the dug out area.
“It’s unfortunate,” Anton admitted. “Though I am quite glad we got you instead of a less cooperative individual.”
“Had someone improper led the void ants, we might have only managed a few years of explosive growth before we were determined to be a threat. Humans would have been quite capable of eradicating us, with motivation. As for my sisters, I do not remember them. We were born queens we struck out on our own before truly understanding each other, and after our colonies were established we interacted little. Though I understand we must have remained sensibly conservative.”
“A difficult thing,” Anton admitted. “Humans always want more and more.”
“Even so, you restrain yourselves… or face harsh consequences. You are simply larger.”
“I wonder what was here,” Anton said. “That… they were encouraged to dig this place up.”
“You think Everheart manipulated them?” The sign for Everheart’s name was just a rude gesture, something the man himself found quite amusing to discover. Even if anyone from the Tomb Seeking Cult had been around, however, it was unlikely they would have understood the reference to him.
“I know they have been manipulated. I just don’t know if it was for a purpose.”
“It is rather late to dig all this up, when it could have been done decades earlier by Everheart’s own hand.”
“And that’s the problem. He would have had to do it alone… that’s quite a bit of work. And though I believe he would be capable, it wouldn’t have helped his injuries.” Anton couldn’t quite tell how injured the old man was at current. He didn’t see a way the man could be back at full power- though in truth his actual full power was likely impossible to make use of in the lower realms, regardless of health and reattuning to natural energy. But despite his suspicions… Anton still trusted him enough to believe he was either working for entirely selfish purposes that would not cause enough harm to send anyone after him, or potentially working against future invasions.
Or he might just be messing with the cult. He did enjoy doing that.