Progress with Udre wasn’t particularly slow, at least from Devon’s perspective. The people there might have thought the opposite, but Devon was happy to spend more than a few years or even a few decades to be certain that they wouldn’t repeat the troubles of Ekict. It was unfortunate that one bad incident had to forevermore make their alliance suspicious, but perhaps they had been too optimistic to begin with.
Some moderate amount of caution was what was reasonable, and if things progressed a little bit sluggish because of that it was a worthwhile cost.
Devon had full confidence that the system would be able to join their alliance- or at least be a peaceful acquaintance. The more he saw of the people, the more he was certain of that.
It began with their empress. She was young but capable, and unlike many who shared a similar title it wasn’t guaranteed that she would hold such a position. It was merely a title to show respect, and in fact Aerona had been elected by the people. No doubt they hadn’t expected a foreign system to show up out of nowhere when she was chosen, but she handled it well. Her relatively low cultivation wasn’t an impediment so much as it was a sign of promise, given her youth.
The important thing to Devon was not how he came to trust Aerona, but that he was trusted to interact with the people of Udre on a broader scale. It took time, of course, but that was only reasonable. The people of Udre weren’t hiding anything- or they were extremely good at it. But Devon was allowed to observe their cultivation practices, and was pleased to find little divide between the more prominent sects and the more common ones. That is to say, general cultivation knowledge was share enough that all could grow. It made sense, of course. It would have been difficult for them to hold off the upper realms if they only had a few strong groups and a large number of mediocre cultivators.
They weren’t to the same level of communal strength as Aipra, but from what Devon had heard about the place that particular planet was an exception among exceptions. Overall, Udre was more unified than the world Devon remembered from his early life, and they could become worthwhile allies in given time.
From what Devon was hearing of Nidec and Vrelt, however, the process of becoming familiar with each other was much slower in the other systems. Nidec was overall friendly, but too secretive to grow trust. Vrelt seemed to prefer their isolation, and refused attempts at diplomacy. Both were fine as long as they kept to themselves, but eventually the lower realms would have to stand united for the sake of all of their systems. Each piece they were missing would weaken their potential.
Outside of herself, Chikere understood there were things happening. She knew, for instance, that her arm had been taken away rather violently. Fortunately, it was able to be disconnected without causing further harm to her own body. Not that it mattered, because she wasn’t going to use it anyway.
There were people around. Her eyes and ears picked them out as they asked questions. But Chikere had no reason to answer them. They seemed to think that pain would motivate her, but ultimately she found the physical harm a nice distraction from her inner thoughts.
What was she? A swordmaster without a sword. One who lost, not just because she fought a superior opponent but because she overestimated herself. Chikere had considered her own path of the sword perfection, or at least something that was working towards perfection. But could that really be true, when she had been defeated by sword skills she thought were flawed?
“Tell us about Xankeshan, and we can let you go. Or perhaps… we can offer you a position among us instead,” said the woman interrogating Chikere.
Chikere grimaced at her. The woman’s face was too bright. “Why don’t you have a weapon?”
“I do believe bringing one into a cell with a restrained prisoner would be unnecessary, don’t you agree?” The woman turned Chikere’s head towards her too bright eyes. “I have sufficient power here.”
“No,” Chikere said. “That’s not it.”
“You think I’m not enough?” the woman asked, her energy flaring. Chikere wasn’t paying close attention, but she thought one of her ribs might have snapped.
Talking was pointless. The woman had wanted Chikere to talk, but then immediately ruined the moment with her lies. She didn’t have a weapon because she didn’t use one. She didn’t smell of any of them. Just the light.
Looking towards her hand, Chikere realized that she didn’t smell like weapons anymore either. Not her own blades, or those of others. Not even the stink of halberds, axes, or hammers. Just blood and despair.
“Clearly we won’t get anywhere,” the woman said, grabbing Chikere’s jaw and forcing her mouth open. “Next time you’ll be more responsive.” She forced Chikere to swallow some sort of pill. Probably healing, maybe mixed with something else.
She felt it flow through her. They wanted her to stay alive. Why hurt her, then? How indecisive. If they couldn’t learn the answers they sought through combat, what was the point?
What was the point of anything, really? Chikere didn’t know if she could even use a sword again, should someone give one to her. If there was a blade in her hand right now, could she cut her way out?
She shook her head. It wasn’t worth it.
Her last battle played itself over and over again in her head. The sword. A particular blade that was the epitome of perfection. She had lost her battle with that sword and its wielder. Her mistakes… they repeated over and over with the shattering of each blade.
Yet none of those were the largest of her failures. Chikere had suffered loss before, though rarely. However, she came upon complete and utter defeat and failed to properly die. That was supposed to have been the end of her road, if she couldn’t make it.
Maybe she should die here, though she doubted these people would let her. And it was an awful lot of work, anyway. She coughed, spitting up some blood. It smelled of iron. She normally liked that smell, but all it did was remind her of swords. Brightly flickering in the light, whistling in the darkness. Cold, even when they were warmer than the room around them. Their smell and taste. Their weight. Chikere knew all of them for every sword she had. Or had once had.
Ah, that was it. Maybe there had been a reason she hadn’t died. Along with her lacking talent, she also lacked the bravery to die for victory. Or maybe that had been a matter of insufficient ability as well.
The only thing she couldn’t blame were her weapons. Facing against perfection, what were they to do in imperfect hands? If she chose to wield subpar blades and they were destroyed for it, it was not their own fault. They were made as they were with no choice in things.
Chikere’s thoughts circled around and around, but along with the weird churning in her guts and the way her rib snapped painfully back into place she experienced another sensation. One she hadn’t been aware enough of her body to notice until that point. If the interrogating woman had been around to ask questions now, Chikere would have gladly been willing to give up any and all secrets to make it stop.
She stuck out her tongue, but she had no control of her own energy to extend anything. Her arm was useless, chained in place. Her neck was likewise attached to chains around her, preventing her from leaning in any direction. So her nose remained unscratched. Normally it would be simply to just pull her arm up and… it would be over.
Chikere frowned, looking at her arm. It hadn’t moved, but it sure felt like it did. She had no access to upper energy here, so it didn’t make any sense. Perhaps she was just going crazy.
She tried to move her fingers, but nothing happened. Then she moved her other fingers. She could feel it. The cold hard stone they touched as they coiled. She bent her arm to touch her shoulder. There it was, the fake material that replicated skin far beyond the level she cared about. Her arm was only meant to hold a sword.
Or it had been. Now, she wasn’t so certain.
It was strange, that she could feel it now. She looked down at her shoulder. Only some dull metal bits were visible. She felt where her shoulder would fit into that, how it would line up and attach. But it didn’t have to, did it? The technology that went into it didn’t require a physical connection. It was supposed to make use of energy, but only in part. After all, it had been made in the lower realms where lower energy was the prominent version. It mainly relied on… wires and stuff.
Chikere now had a goal. It wasn’t much of one… but she needed to find out where her arm was. And how to get it to her. Because her nose itched, and she couldn’t scratch it. And maybe she would strangle herself as well, since her arm would be around. She would have preferred to stab herself with a sword, but she couldn’t do that anymore.
Her arm wiggled back and forth. She tried to slap it on something, listening for the sound. No, that was no good. It was too far. Probably behind some locked doors, or a million corridors away.
She shuffled it around, making use only of her ability to bend her fingers, wrist, and elbow. At least she could feel which way was down and keep some orientation.
Her arm fell. It wasn’t far, certainly not enough to damage anything. It had likely been a shelf of some equivalent. More stone under it now. She groped around and felt wood.
A door? No, a chest. Perhaps a crate. Her fingers groped around to find an opening. It was a chest, and not locked as she learned when its lid opened up. She reached inside and found some sort of rock. She squeezed it, and it cracked. Nothing exciting. She also found some round metal things. Coins. She squeezed one of them too. Gold, maybe, or one of the other useless soft metals.
She stumbled her arm around the storeroom, until she felt something familiar. The edge of a blade. A sword, she was certain. She flinched away. Not out of fear of being cut… but that she might not cut anything even with a sharpened blade.
There were other weapons on racks, or at least that had been on racks before she knocked them off. Eventually her arm found her way to the door. Her fingers just fit under it, but she couldn’t grasp the door itself. And she felt a barrier on the outside, preventing her from escaping. No, it was probably meant to keep people out. Otherwise it might have stopped her from what she had been doing.
She wandered over to the weapon pile, awkwardly dragging a halberd towards the door. The door was clearly well reinforced, because the halberd broke after a couple swings. The same with a hammer she found. Ultimately, Chikere had to grab a sword. Her fingers curled around the blade as she maneuvered the hilt to strike where she presumed the handle of the door to be.
Then the door slammed into her arm, making her lose orientation. Chikere frowned. Why had that happened? It had been pretty still. But she could just make out a new sharpness in the room. The edge of a weapon. Oh, that was probably a guard. She played dead.
Various weapons and the like moved around. Her arm was picked up… and placed on the shelf. Probably. She imagined the door closing with a click, but she couldn’t actually hear through her arm nor see anything. At best, she had the lack of air currents to tip her off.
Damn. Her nose still itched.