Hearing about the incoming fleet, Hoyt and Alva were eager to get back to Xankeshan. However, they were on the far side of the Harmonious Citadel’s territory so there was little chance of them actually arriving in a timely manner. In addition to that, they were with the One Thousand Palm Sect to support them, so they couldn’t just leave even if they didn’t think there would be further attacks from the Harmonious Citadel.
Their assumptions were basically correct. The Harmonious Citadel was far too occupied with their other plans. But before the saints even arrived to begin their attack, word came of intruders approaching from the east. They were passing through various unaffiliated systems, but would soon be reaching territory claimed by the One Thousand Palm Sect.
And it wasn’t just anyone, but a group from the Trigold Cluster. Though they weren’t conquering systems as they went, word is that the fleets were unruly, causing trouble in each system where they stopped. More trouble than usual for cultivators, specifically.
Due to the specific relationship between the Thousand Palm Sect and the Scarlet Alliance, they were under no obligation to assist. However, when Prasad personally came to them to ask for them to accompany him, they weren’t going to refuse. It made sense to bring them along instead of more of the local Integration cultivators, and they weren’t exactly fans of the Trigold Cluster causing a ruckus.
“So what’s the plan?” Alva asked once they were aboard Prasad’s flagship. It was a decent ship, but it didn’t match the specs of the Ascension Class battleship that the Ruteran engineers were constructing on Xankeshan. On the other hand, it was finished instead of still under construction which was a great practical benefit.
“We must first discern their intentions,” Prasad said. “And their strength. We will resist their intrusion with all our might should it be required, but there is a sufficient chance that they are targeting the Harmonious Citadel. In such a case, we will try to smooth out their passage so they can be gone with minimum issues. Better to send them to die against our foes than to take the casualties ourselves for no purpose.”
Hoyt couldn’t argue with that. And while he didn’t like the idea of them mistreating the local populace, getting into an armed conflict with them was sure to result in more unnecessary damage. Optimally, of course, the region would be policed by united local sects that would prevent anyone from acting wantonly in the first place. But the Scarlet Midfields were still recovering their structure. Which was another reason to not tangle with the Trigold Cluster if they didn’t have to- they were one of the powers responsible for the current state of things to begin with.
Prasad’s fleet was a bit sluggish. It was likely his flagship could have gone several times as fast, but a fleet could only go as quickly as the slowest member. They left behind the actual slowest vessels, but it still took two weeks to cut off the approaching fleet around a claimed system. Enough time for word of the actual attack on Xankeshan to reach them. But they still wouldn’t have reached Xankeshan in time even if they’d taken the fastest ships, as they had to skirt around the Harmonious Citadel’s territory, which would be months even with faster ships. It wasn’t just a system or two.
Prasad stood with the four on the deck- Fuzz and Spikes were too large to move through the normal corridors, so it was that or the hold for them.
“Do you sense that?” Prasad asked.
“An Augmentation cultivator,” Alva stated.
“I’m not close enough to tell yet,” Hoyt admitted. “Can you tell what style?”
Prasad nodded, “It should be the Slithering Serpent Society. We will approach with caution.”
For the sake of indicating their intent, Prasad had the flagship pull ahead of the rest of the fleet. The Trigold Cluster seemed to understand, and drew forward as well. There were three more Integration cultivators from the One Thousand Palms Sect, but the Trigold cluster seemed to have a total of ten among their fleet. Though not all were in the late stage like Hoyt and Alva.
The two ships matched velocity just a few kilometers apart, practically touching by the standards of stellar distances. Prasad spoke first. “For what reason do you intrude upon the domain of the One Thousand Palm Sect? I, Prasad, the sect head must demand an answer.” As he did so, his image expanded to cover the flagship, his palms touching in front of the ship as he stood in a meditative pose.
The aura of a great serpent came from the other ship, an old man standing prominently upon the deck of the opposing vessel. “It is not for the people of the midfields to dictate where we may go. However, I will answer your question regardless. I, Nagendra of the Slithering Serpent Sect, come for the sake of an investigation. It seems that the Exalted Quadrant may have broken our accord by establishing their forces in the sector.”
“Would that not be the same for yourselves?”
“What, you mean this?” the man gestured, the tail of the serpent sweeping to indicate the fleet with him. “We are but a scouting expedition. A small force, nor do we have any intent to stay here. Nor quarrel with your sect, at the moment.” Both sides were displaying their power, auras clashing between the two vessels. Yet it was only to be expected.
“If it is as you say, then you will not mind if we escort you through our territory to expedite the process.”
“Not at all,” Nagendra replied. “If it will save us further interruptions like this, we will accept it.”
That eased the tension somewhat, but of course nobody was quite sure if they didn’t simply have a specific target where they would turn upon the One Thousand Palm fleets at a later time. But for the moment, conflict was avoided.
The forces suspected to be from the Exalted Quadrant entered Xankeshan’s system as anticipated, but they did not immediately launch an assault. Instead, they loomed nearby threateningly. Perhaps they didn’t want to test the local fleets, ships which were able to fly in and out of the local barriers. Or perhaps they weren’t willing to admit collusion with the Harmonious Citadel as of yet, though their mere presence was evidence enough.
The Scarlet Alliance was willing to accept the current state of things. Their fleets escorted necessary supply ships in and out of the system, but no attempts were made to stop them. Waiting would be better for the locals, as their supplies could be easily refreshed. More importantly, nearby systems were being drawn upon for reinforcements. It was of some concern that the enemy appeared to be waiting for something, but it was too risky to strike at the fleets away from Xankeshan proper. They would lose most of their defensive advantage away from the planet, and the enemy fleets were insufficient to blockade the system.
Intel from the Harmonious Citadel’s territory didn’t tell much. What managed to get to them didn’t indicate much in the way of fleet movements. But just because the information didn’t come to them didn’t mean nothing was happening. Either way, their forces were ready to intercept any fleets that came through the buffer systems.
The situation continued until sensing formations on the edge of the system picked up several smaller ships. They would hardly have been notable except for the timing… and their passengers.
Two Augmentation cultivators.
The council was never far apart in such a time of crisis, and they met immediately.
As the one managing the formations, Catarina gave the initial assessment. “These two are clearly practitioners of the Glorious Harmony Technique. One has clear connection to light, while the other is more… subdued. We have a few options for the former. First is the saint of light himself. That might be best for us, if we can withstand the assault. Taking him out would nearly secure victory all on its own. Second, it could be the new individual that attacked the One Thousand Palm Sect. However, the distances involved and his injuries make that unlikely. The worst case would be… a third. Unfortunately, the sensors couldn’t provide a confident match as we’ve never had the saint of light properly scanned. As for the other, it could be the morningstar saint- injured, or perhaps miraculously healed if the news is to be trusted. The worst scenario is once again yet another individual. But if the Harmonious Citadel had ten or eleven Augmentation cultivators to begin with… the rest of the war doesn’t make any sense.”
“This would be a good time to strike in other systems,” Timothy said. “Our communications are slightly faster, so even if they are expecting something they might not expect it so soon. If our forces don’t have to deal with Augmentation cultivators, we can gain some ground. Assuming this doesn’t turn into some sort of final stand. And if they have spare Augmentation cultivators still…” Timothy shrugged.
“Agreed,” Zazil said. “Meanwhile, we will have to assume an assault is coming, perhaps immediately.”
“The forces are already on standby,” Catarina said. “Yourself and Tauno would be the most important to mobilize properly.”
Engineer Uzun added, “Our recent tests have allowed us to improve the calibration on our laser. Unfortunately it can cover less than a single hemisphere, so its utility somewhat depends on the enemy approach. It’s also debatable how effective it would be against a light cultivator, and the shield lady seems to have proven some resiliency of her own.”
“Even so,” Tauno said, “If they’re focused on defending against just that, it will serve its purpose. However, I would caution against using it casually. Best they be uncertain of its capabilities until we can use it to strike a deadly blow. If they think we cannot use it again, they will grow incautious.”
“We should be moving,” Zazil said. “Let us hope our defenses can hold.”
As expected, an assault came almost immediately after the two new cultivators met up with the rest of the fleets. And though they did not directly coordinate, the Exalted Quadrant fleet joined the assault shortly after.
Xankeshan’s fleets were an important part of their defenses, as the engineers hadn’t had the time or budget to set up anything like the orbital platforms the lower realms had. Simply weathering attacks was a losing proposition. Maneuvering in and out of the planetary barrier allowed them to strike with some measure of safety.
Meanwhile, the two enemy fleets continued to pretend the other didn’t exist, attacking from opposite sides of the planet. It forced Xankeshan to pick and choose how to defend while providing some measure of the plausible deniability the Harmonious Citadel wished to maintain.
Timothy remained with Catarina as she managed the formations. Most of their functionality worked automatically, but conscious control was still better. Xankeshan had other experts dealing with individual pieces of the formation, such as weapons, but Catarina was responsible for the overall flow of energy.
“The saints aren’t fully committing to the assault,” she commented. It kept Timothy updated while helping her organize her thoughts. “Perhaps they intend to wear us down. Or they might be continuing to seek out weaknesses in the barrier.”
“I don’t think Zazil and Tauno have engaged yet,” Timothy added.
Catarina nodded, “Going out on their own would be suicide. If we can set them upon fatigued enemies that would be one thing, but we can’t afford to get them injured early on.” Information was constantly incoming, and the way Catarina managed both nearly incomprehensible formations and digital outputs reminded Timothy of another thing he loved about her- her focus. “The data coming in doesn’t match the second light cultivator. We don’t have any real amount for Hans Sigismund, however. As for the other… morningstar, but also seemingly different. We’re trying to get visuals on both to confirm identities.”
“Anything I can do?” Timothy asked.
“Not actively. Please stay with me. I will be more effective with you around.”
He nodded. There wasn’t much he could do but wait, but if she needed emotional or physical support, he would be ready.