Claws and teeth came for his throat. Their sharpness and intent was clear, and he responded in kind. Chidi’s blade snapped forward, slicing through fur- but barely scratching the flesh underneath. He weaved around the teeth and claws, knowing that even the smallest scratch could lose him the battle. The pace of attacks became more frantic, biting and growling as he avoided his somewhat larger opponent.
He felt the oily coating of poison on the claws and teeth. Aconite was able to extend not just sharpness beyond her fangs and claws, but the effects of the poison as well. His blade parried an incoming swipe, at the same time knocking her away. The positioning of Chidi’s blade was supposed to slice into her, but her defensive energy hardened her already durable fur, angling it so the edge slid away.
With some distance between them, the two combatants readied themselves for the next move. Chidi held his blade high, ready to thrust forward should Aconite pounce. She would not underestimate what his blade could do. Though he wouldn’t kill her, he didn’t have perfect control either. She might get a lasting injury if he cut more muscle or bone than he intended, or if the cuts were imperfect.
They stood in position for five seconds. Ten. Then Aconite stepped forward slowly. Chidi shifted his body as he heard the footfalls and the shifting air. Or at least, he tried to. Instead, he remained still. Another step. He pushed his body to move. But his muscles didn’t respond. He tried to force movement, but found that not only were his muscles not responding to him, but tightly locked up. If he used his energy to reposition his body, he could easily snap a muscle or break a bone.
He would have announced his loss, but… muscles and all that. Aconite showed it clear from her perspective when she wrapped her jaws around his face. But sharp teeth didn’t even touch him as she pulled away. “You missed something,” she growled.
Chidi was already circulating his energy to purge the poison. A handy side effect of training with her was that he had an expert in such things. Though he didn’t always go along with her recommendation to leave some for the body’s natural processes. He wouldn’t gain as much immunity purging everything, but his body and energy weren’t devoted to such training so even if he tried the process would be many times slower than Aconite.
“I… don’t sense it,” Chidi managed with vocal chords that barely flexed.
Aconite stepped closer. “Really? Try again.”
Chidi flared his nostrils. That merely worsened his condition. Something inhaled, then. But when had Aconite had time to release a gas? Aconite stepped back, then she shook wildly, her fur fluffing and a bit of matted blood barely clinging. It was both a gesture to make her more comfortable, and a clue. The finest powder was mixed with her natural dander. And fortunately she’d directed it away from him so he would be able to go about his business sooner.
“So you coated your fur before showing up…” Chidi nodded.
“I often do the same when traveling,” Aconite explained.
“I suppose I missed it.”
“It’s not meant to be obvious. And I don’t leave behind a trail unless I intend to, or our squad would die.”
“You have lethal ones?” Chidi asked.
“It is only lethal for the weak. Some of them are weak.”
That was true. Though Captain Tiras and Vice Captain Denitsa were also in Essence Collection, many of the others were stuck at the peak of Spirit Building. Though training together, it was likely many of them would soon make the advancement. Meanwhile, Chidi himself had just recently reached the midpoint of Essence Collection, at least by certain measures.
After cleaning up the battlefield- they didn’t want anyone to randomly get paralyzed- they made their way back into the main part of Shutoll. There, Captain Tiras met them. “Good, you’re back. I was about to go get the two of you.”
“You needed us for something? Are we going on a mission?”
“Not immediately. However, we’ve been reassigned.”
“Why?” Chidi asked as he began to follow.
“A new Major came in.”
“From where?” Chidi asked.
“She’s new,” Tiras emphasized.
What was that supposed to mean? Wait. “You mean like, she actually arrived here?” Chidi gestured vaguely to the sky, though he didn’t turn his head because it would be pointless. “They broke through the blockade?”
“Not quite. She came alone. Like Chikere, in a way.”
“Is she also that strong?”
“Well I… don’t want to speculate too much,” Tiras shook his head.
So they made their way through the city streets, to the military sector. Even as they were meeting up with the rest of the squad and getting in position, Chidi felt someone approaching. There weren’t exactly many Integration cultivators on Yaitis, and Shutoll specifically mainly had Chikere- and only some of the time. Chidi wondered why this imposing figure wasn’t a general, then. She could easily take a higher position.
“Officers, step forward please.”
Technically, that included Chidi now. Tiras and Denitsa actually had a few squads under them, and Chidi was qualified to lead one. Though in general, he only took leadership positions with regards to scouting.
He had the feeling it included him and Aconite, however, so they also stepped forward.
He felt the gaze of the woman and her power as he saluted. Aconite did her own version, given she didn’t have the anatomy. “Hmm. I see. It’s not your cultivation that made you stand out, then.”
Something was weird. It felt like the voice was coming from… lower than expected? Chidi angled his head. Yes, instead of what had felt like a woman taller than himself, he found she was actually barely even chest height. A little bit more after one considered her helmet. She wore full armor, and in one hand she held a glaive. Perhaps that had skewed his perspective, because it was a good three meters in length.
There was something else about her. Without trying to probe too deep, Chidi could tell from her voice that she was older. At least, that was how he’d come to interpret that. There could be some other reason, but he wasn’t going to probe through her armor to check for wrinkly skin.
Her cultivation, however, was clearly displayed. And it was… weak. For an Integration cultivator, of course. Or perhaps instead of weak, Chidi should say… new.
“If seems you have questions.” Was he that obvious? “Go ahead. Chidi, is it?”
“Did you recently ascend?”
“That’s right,” she said. “From Roistea.”
“Congratulations,” Chidi said. He really didn’t know what else to say. “We’re glad to have you in the Scarlet Alliance.”
“And I am glad to be here,” she said. “And to be given a chance to prove my worth. So I asked for the best. I would like to give you a chance to demonstrate. Come with me to the sparring grounds. I will test each of you.”
Some light growls. “Aconite would like to know if she will be allowed to use poisons.”
“Not for this part.”
Aconite began to lick her paws as she moved.
The matches started at the top which meant Tiras was first. He wielded his spear against her glaive, but within a few moves he found an opening to stab her in the chest. Or at least what looked like one. His spear lost all momentum and her glaive came down upon his shoulder- also stopping, but not because of anything Tiras did.
Was it unfair? Perhaps. Major Sibylla was in Integration, after all. Then again, Chidi didn’t feel like she’d used much energy, and even if her armor had taken much of the blow it was Tiras’ fault for not attacking some other way.
Denitsa’s fight also did not last long. Once again, Sibylla let her land a hit. The smaller woman staggered back half a step, but considering that Denitsa’s hammer had struck her directly in the head and nothing snapped, it wasn’t much. Once again, Chidi felt an efficient use of energy to achieve that effect.
Then it was him. He challenged himself to do better. He doubted he could harm her unless she didn’t resist at all, but that was actually freeing. He could try anything. Obviously he wasn’t going to attempt to chop or slice through her armor, but there were always weaker points. Joints, the elbows, beneath the shoulder, the thighs. And the gaps of waist and torso and around the neck. The armor there would be more soft and flexible, and no doubt still high quality. But at least theoretically possible to pierce through.
Chidi’s first move appeared to be an overhead chop, but Sibylla just tilted the bottom half of her planted glaive. A simple flick to the side, and his attack coming from below was deflected into the sturdiest part of her thigh, momentum negated. Chidi pulled back, in the same motion sweeping up towards her armpit. Depending on how she moved it could be a stab or a slash. This time, she had to make a larger motion to parry his blade. When she also slashed down towards him with the tip of the glaive, Chidi ducked away. It was clearly intentionally slowed, but it had almost reached him- at which point he would have taken a clear loss. He actually managed to avoid several more attacks, feeling the sharpness of the bladed polearm. And then… pain. Pain in his ribs. He hadn’t even considered the movement an attack until the haft of the weapon struck his ribs. But of course, that had been the whole point- to get him focused on the ‘larger’ threat, even though that attack could have killed him as well. At least, he thought that was what happened.
Major Sibylla didn’t express any opinions, simply moving onto the next. Aconite without poison didn’t have many options. She couldn’t exactly overpower someone so far ahead in cultivation, so she attempted to gain a hold on the Major’s weapon. But it was twisted out of her mouth- Aconite might have held on a moment longer at the risk of losing a tooth or two, but ultimately she wasn’t well matched.
Those below Essence Collection were obviously not going to do any better. At least most of them managed to get a strike in before their loss. Sibylla seemed to let everyone make the first move, but some hesitated too long.
“More than adequate, for your cultivations,” she judged everyone at once. “However, this is hardly a proper battlefield situation. Nor would you fight me one-on-one, unless you were foolish. I’d like to see you take proper action, but it would have to take place outside the city. I will have to request additional forces so we don’t expose ourselves during a training exercise. Then you can try to hunt me down, and I can see how you properly function.”
Chidi nodded to himself, thinking more about how far he had to go to be able to fight an Integration cultivator. Even one who was newly ascended was untouchable. How was he going to beat Rakiya on Chikere’s timescale? Well, he was a bit more confident in sword versus sword. But even his growing skill and confidence didn’t make him believe he could bridge the gap from Life Transformation. On the other hand, he didn’t want to disappoint… so maybe he’d have to find some way to grow more.
In that way, this new Major might be a great opportunity. Chikere wasn’t always around, and she was too much better than Chidi. He could learn a lot from her, but not how to win against a stronger cultivator. Not with just that, at least. And for the sake of practicality, Chidi had to consider fighting other styles. There was no way he would be lucky enough for all of his future opponents to use swords- and if he was, perhaps some would have the proper obsession with them to overpower him. Even Chikere would likely lose out to a stronger sword cultivator, if one could be found.
Her voice came into his head unbidden. “They’re only stronger until you win.”
That was probably supposed to be motivational, but instead it just made him think that he was gambling his life any time he fought someone stronger. Then again, maybe that was true. And though Chikere seemed to have won all of those ‘gambles’, Chidi shouldn’t assume that would be the case for anyone forever. If two people with perfect records came up against each other, one would be losing it.
One thing that did assuage Chidi’s fears somewhat was that even Chikere’s record wasn’t perfect. She had losses in her past, she’d just survived them. Not that there were many he was aware of.