From practically flying to being dropped into a crowd, Chidi had just enough time to determine the group consisted of Harmonious Citadel cultivators before he landed. At least they had that going for them- they didn’t have a wide variety of cultivation techniques. Determining allies and enemies apart in an instant could be important.
And of course, it was the same for them. He felt their stances shift as he fell, and weapons were drawn before he had his feet. Swords, spears, and bows. Another weakness of the Harmonious Citadel, they quashed their only advantage of diversity with their cliques. But it certainly made things easier to handle.
His first target could have reasonably assumed she would be safe in her given position, an archer in the midst of a squadron of others. But that didn’t count people falling from the sky. His blade flashed out, slicing her bow in two a moment after her arrow touched string. Then a half dozen attacks came at him all at once. There was some sort of advantage to having so many enemies. Or rather, at some point the disadvantages stopped accumulating. Even with archers involved, only so many enemies could effectively attack him at once.
Those with swords and spears didn’t start in optimal positions, so he had a moment to clash with spears and bows before the enemy lines shifted. Swords were disregarded for the moment, as they were the least threatening to him.
Though beyond that few of his choices were conscious. There was no time to consider exactly what he had to do. He simply followed the flow of energy where it led him. He manipulated it so that attacks would cause him the least harm possible- he did not have the proficiency nor the wild confidence to let a spear piece through him and presume he could direct it away from his vital organs, but he did let them graze him to avoid more dangerous attacks.
One at a time his opponents fell, until Chidi stood alone, sword dripping with blood. “You could have warned me you were going to do that,” he said, presuming the swordmaster was present somewhere.
“But then it wouldn’t have been a good test,” she said, approaching from behind a ridge. “How do you feel?”
“Tired,” Chidi said.
“As expected. We’re almost there. From here, we’ll go on foot.”
Knowing the journey was almost over was comforting. Chidi just tried not to think about what it meant to reach the end. He certainly had confidence fighting those vaguely near his level, but surviving against Rakiya… well, it would depend on how serious she was immediately. Though he couldn’t help but think that if she wasn’t serious, he would be disappointed.
By the time they arrived, Chidi’s body felt as recovered as he could reasonably expect. At the very least, his body should be able to fully function, even if he would feel slight twinges of pain from training.
But as for actual thoughts, Chidi barely had any. He found himself in an odd state of peace, going into a battle he knew he couldn’t win. But he didn’t have to win. He trusted in his master to keep control of the situation. So when they began to get closer to a proper city, he didn’t worry.
Or maybe it was mental exhaustion that didn’t allow it to happen. Either way, the smooth stone walls and the sounds of life gradually filled his senses. It was a peaceful day.
“Hey Rakiya! Get out here now or I’ll chop your stupid city in half!” Chikere’s projected voice made the ground trembled.
Chidi idly wondered if that would be vertical or horizontal. Vertical would be troublesome, but only for a couple sections of walls and any buildings or people in an unfortunate position. Perhaps an angle would be worse, with buildings falling over onto others and irregular repairs required.
After her declaration, Chikere had not held back. He could feel the swords around her, prepared for anything. Unsheathed blades just looking for a target. It was nearly the people on the walls, but while their initial instinct had been to assault the intruder, the moment of paralyzing fear when her power was revealed had been enough for them to rethink their options. What could they do against her?
Chidi didn’t detect actual impatience. He was fairly certain this was a tactic to keep the enemy off balance. The same was true of her casually dissecting the front gate. Just a few sweeps and it clattered to the ground in nice pieces. The barrier formations surrounding the city had done their best, of course, but they couldn’t do much about power concentrated into such a focused area. He wondered if she had been studying the defenses. She wasn’t a formation expert, but he imagined she learned how to break through by experimentation and practice.
Chidi felt her coming. From a greater distance this time, and he was prepared to resist an attack. Yet he was still somehow unprepared for Chikere to be attacked first. All his tension was for nothing… though in truth, that was for the best. If he’d tried to react to the incoming attacks, he would have probably hurt himself instead.
So he just watched the clashing of blades. Rakiya held just one in her good arm, and Chikere only responded with the same. Except it was not her good arm, but her replacement. Another taunt, or perhaps a personal challenge to herself. One side was filled with hatred. The other… indifference.
Perhaps that was the secret. Chikere didn’t care if she won. No, she already considered herself the victor, so nothing stopped her from executing her techniques to the fullness of her ability.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” Chikere declared. “Honestly, have you not improved at all in the last five years?”
“Have you?” Rakiya retorted. “You don’t fight anyone of note.”
“You can’t strain me enough to see anything new,” Chikere said. “But I can tell you’ve basically stagnated.” Chidi wasn’t sure if that was true. Her cultivation, at least, had advanced somewhat. One step at least, which he was led to believe could take quite a few years in the Integration stage. “My apprentice will be able to defeat you soon at this rate.”
Ah, there it was. He could feel the battle drifting. Perhaps it would happen soon. She might announce a skirmish between them. He had to remain focused… though he was also concerned about incoming Life Transformation cultivators. Obviously they would not simply leave enemies outside their gates without responding. And it likely wasn’t just them- they would simply be the fastest.
Something sharp attempted to pierce his heart. His body responded automatically, slicing the arrow out of the air. But it was just one of many- the rest directed at Chikere. Though one would almost think she didn’t notice, except for the way her floating blades casually sliced apart the few that would otherwise reach her.
The battle moved, drifting closer to Chidi. When would it be time? Better to get it over with quickly. All he had to do was survive two attacks. And then… they would leave.
Simple. It was what the grandmaster had told him they were here for. And it was true. But… could that really be all? Was she incapable of measuring his ability on her own? Of course not. She had already determined him capable. So merely performing as expected would mean nothing.
And it wasn’t just for her. Perhaps he was pushing too far too quickly. But he wanted to be able to actually affect things. He didn’t want to be afraid of enemies… including Life Transformation cultivators. Who were almost present, now.
Slashing and spinning blades, dancing feet. Chidi was almost certain that both combatants were trying to lead the battle to him. So, it was like that, was it? He took a few hesitant steps away.
Then as the first Life Transformation cultivators leapt into the frey, he swung his blade. The image in his mind was of Chikere cutting apart space. How he imagined she would bisect a city. An attack pushed to his very limits. And all he could do was force Rakiya to casually deflect it. Her sword chopped off his head.
But of course, he was prepared for that counter. For any move she might perform. And he just had to be exactly perfect in his predictions. Despite all of Chikere’s downplaying of Rakiya’s abilities, she was still a swordmaster. Perhaps not worthy of a grandmaster title, but against Chidi she could always perform the attack that was most lethal.
His head remained on his shoulders. His windpipe was split open, but in the grand scheme of things that would not affect anything. He would either live through the battle and patch it up, or he would die. But he couldn’t allow the second option to happen, because he had friends and family to return to. And he would return to them, stronger.
The casual counterattack had taken so little effort from Rakiya that Chidi didn’t want to count it. He stayed close, then maneuvered his blade into a thrust. Unlike before, it came after Life Transformation cultivators were engaging Chikere to hold her back. They would be quickly cut down, but this left Rakiya able to actually focus on him.
His heart was pierced. Rakiya’s attack practically mirrored his own, except she was able to extend her blade more powerfully and with greater celerity. The only thing he could do was slightly deflect her attack upward… so instead of his heart exploding, one rib was punctured completely, and his heart and lung were merely slashed on the outer edge.
Rakiya wasn’t done, but neither was he. He didn’t simply adopt a defensive posture, even though his last attack hadn’t even come close to slashing her. He just wanted to cut her cheek. Or at least touch her defensive energy.
Chidi wasn’t sure what happened after that. His body simply moved. But he must have survived a second attack, because when he came to he remained alive, and Chikere was holding him.
“Uuugh,” he groaned. His wounds had all opened up, and he had at least a few new ones. Was that from one attack or several? It wouldn’t necessarily have been Rakiya. Perhaps Chikere had swapped with him and he fought a Life Transformation cultivator. He looked down at his blade. It was clean. Well, apparently he had lost.
“Hey, you’re awake. Not bad.”
“Thanks,” he said groggily. He had every intention to ask for details, but he passed out once more. And when he awoke, he was back in Shutoll, with Chikere off on another crazy excursion. Presumably.
Anton had something resembling a functional torso again. His skin was still recovering, but he was basically recovered. Or at least, at the point where he could start getting everything back in shape. The process had tempered his muscles somewhat, but being entirely new he still needed time to get used to them. And he couldn’t say they were perfect. But for his purposes, it was good enough. He had no intention of fighting anyone above Life Transformation. Or at all, really, but he could never be too certain of that.
He was planning to return to In’istra. He hoped that their eradication of the Twin Soul Sect was still going smoothly. He would never have left, had Ekict not done what they did. He only hoped that irreparable damage hadn’t been done to the place because he was gone. He had confidence they could handle their own matters, but he wasn’t omniscient. Perhaps the Twin Soul Sect would have prepared a counterassault of their own. With it being a year and a half before he even set out to return, much could have changed. Or perhaps things would be as they had always been. Cultivators were like that.
He did not neglect visiting other systems along the way. His time in Ekict would be minimal, as he didn’t want to feel like a threat. The same would be true of Xicil, except that would be because there was practically nothing for him to do.
Very little was known to him about the system and the people there, except that after several visits he’d finally received an answer to what they were called. And just like every previous time, his arrival sent everyone inside. He could have probably caught up to them. If he bound the local star, it would have been certain. But the insular desert planet was not an enemy, and he did not wish to scare them.
So he approached carefully, taking in the sights of their impressive arrangements of cacti and succulents. They took full advantage of what resources they had, and Anton had the feeling they were doing quite well. Not too friendly to outsiders, but he preferred that to the false friendship of Ekict. Nothing had changed where he left his previous message. So he added an addendum.
“Just checking up on you. Glad to see everything is well. If you don’t want me to come back, just say so.” Perhaps a bit too straightforward, but he couldn’t exactly have a nuanced conversation over the course of carved messages separated by vaguely random numbers of years, as he traveled back and forth.
His next stop… that would be the twin planets of Tenoun’a and Shrenn. He hoped that they would have maintained their new peace and cooperation. He hadn’t been able to properly check in on them last time, given his haste.