Personally, Chikere hadn’t thought that the Forest of Death sounded all that bad. And it seemed that Margriet and Sly were enough of the same opinion that the quicker route was worthwhile. It was a difficult choice, to risk the dangers of entering a system- but conversely the same reason they wanted to avoid entering systems was the same reason they had to. They did their best to rest up in unpopulated systems, but they were still fatigued from their various length imprisonments. The two of them hadn’t been intentionally weakened, but many years of being unable to access energy was still a problem for them.
A few weeks of rest would do everyone some good, but they didn’t have the luxury of time. Not with people after them, and potentially ahead of them if they didn’t stay ahead of warnings.
Chikere thought the Forest of Death was rather pretty. It was an odd place, to be sure, but nice to look at. The whole system was full of tiny little planets with giant trees nearly the same size as the ground they grew on, roots growing around and through the entire terrain below.
It was unfortunate that there were so many pesky Integration cultivators willing to throw themselves into space after them.
“It seems that the description of this place was somewhat underexaggerated,” Margriet said as her waves pushed them away from yet another group of pursuers. “I had considered that they might have dozens or perhaps hundreds of planets on a single planetary plane, but it must be thousands at least, in every conceivable direction.”
Sly grunted. “They’re like rats scurrying out of their holes,” he said. “The Life Transformation cultivators can’t keep up, but we’re looking at more than a dozen Integration cultivators on our tail. And more in front, no doubt.”
“… Something is wrong with the planets,” Chikere said.
“What do you mean?” Margriet asked.
“They should feel more… alive.” Some of the trees could compete in sheer size- if not actual quantity of energy- with the Grandfather Willow. Though considering they were in the upper realms, the latter might also be the case. But everything felt wrong. “It’s a web of death rather than life.”
“It’s not called the Forest of Death for nothing…” Margriet grimaced. “I just thought we would make it further before we were spotted.”
“Enemies coming up,” Sly said. “Looking to cut us off. I’m going to smash through.”
“But that will leave-”
“Chikere, can you protect the two of you?”
Chikere shrugged. “If I can’t, we both die. And probably you.”
“Might do you good to dredge up the feelings of our escape,” Sly said. “Because just the two of us won’t be enough.”
Well, they were probably dead then. Because Chikere still doubted her ability to fight. However… “Take us that way,” Chikere directed.
Margriet didn’t ask why. She simply began to shift their trajectory as their momentum carried them through the system. Meanwhile, Sly had launched himself headfirst at the group that was blocking their path. He slammed directly into an Integration cultivator… and Chikere felt it before she saw it. The life in the trees was torn away to dull the impact, leaves instantly turning brown. But that couldn’t be all of it, because otherwise the Forest of Death could only function once or twice.
Deathly energy wrapped around the fingers of Sly’s opponent, reaching for him. Sly seemed to have noticed the problem as well, and immediately backed away. No, better than that he charged another nearby planetoid. To tear apart the web. Chikere assumed, at least.
But she had to deal with her own enemies. The first of which held a wooden blade, angled towards her. Wood wasn’t traditionally a good material for swords, as it didn’t tend to take an edge, but at a certain point enchantments and special properties dominated common knowledge.
“Careful,” Margriet said. “That fellow feels stronger than the others.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Chikere said. While she might not be a swordmaster anymore… she still knew how they functioned. Comparing this fellow to the Limitless Edge Sect, his blade was barely ornamental. And his skills… truly flawed, instead of intentionally imperfect.
Chikere placed herself in front of Margriet, who was providing their momentum. The extended projection of the blade extended towards them, covering hundreds of kilometers. She could feel it drawing upon the energy of the trees. And more than that, hungering for her blood. She raised her arm… and caught the edge of the sword. It dug ever so slightly into her flesh, which likely would have opened her up to being drained dry had she any blood in that arm.
She squeezed her fingers, not letting the blade withdraw. Her will forced the projection to remain in place, to keep its synchronization with the actual weapon. Then, she twisted. One of two things would happen. Her opponent would release the blade, or it would break. He resisted with brute force, drawing more life energy from the surroundings. Not just the trees, it seemed, but even from his fellow sect members. His energy strained against Chikere directly… and then she simply let go.
All his effort resisting her rebounded upon his blade, and it tore apart under the force. He should have known better. Chikere looked for the next individual along their route that used another sword. Because she could at least fight those. There were two more… but then they would have to manage something clever for the last layer or two.
Meanwhile, Sly slammed headfirst not into one of the enemy cultivators or one of their trees, but the rocky planetoids they grew out of. It was one of the smallest ones, but it shattered apart, tearing apart the root ball and instantly disrupting the greater flow of energy in the system. Each move he made he had to be aware of the web closing in, intending to drain his life. And it was inevitable that they might get some of it… but if there was nowhere functional for that energy to go, he might consider it a win. He smashed his way in the same general direction as the others, his role at getting past this particular obstacle completed.
Swords were easy. Chikere understood them. But other weapons… she basically only knew how to combat against them with a sword. And she didn’t have one. Some part of her was willing to use blades of blood… anywhere but here. Because battling directly with the most life force infused part of herself might not go over well against this particular sect.
This opponent didn’t even have the decency to attack her with a weapon, instead creating a more tangible barrier stretching over the vastness of space that they were trying to force their way through.
“Perhaps I should deal with this…” Margriet said.
Chikere shook her head. “I can’t get us out of here. So you need to save your energy.”
Her legs sprang forward off of Margriet’s waves, propelling her in front to reach the web of energy first. She thought about her apprentice Chidi, transforming himself into a formation. And his mother and her friend Catarina, who wasn’t far off from doing the same- except lacking in the sword part of things.
If she was being practical, she should have probably stolen one of the swords along her path. But maybe that would be worse than death. Whatever the result, Chikere didn’t think she wanted to test the results in the midst of combat. Maybe that meant she had truly fallen, unwilling to experiment in combat which had been the majority of her life.
No, that wasn’t true. Because right now she was going to try to tear apart an active formation with her bare hands. One of them, specifically. It was a good hand, and she was honestly quite glad that things had turned out the way they did. This arm might be better than the one she had before. She hadn’t believed a fake arm could be anywhere as good as her natural one, but she’d been proven wrong.
A wave of energy washed over her- no, flowed out of her– as soon as she got close to one string of the web. So it appeared that relying on her single non-living arm wasn’t going to be sufficient. Even so, her fingers settled on the area of space where she perceived the flow of energy the most. It twisted, controlled by the local cultivators, trying to catch her off guard. But her grip held tight, what energy she had directing the energy around her, and keeping most of her inside herself.
Everything hurt. Her injuries weren’t fully healed, and it seemed that having lifeforce directly drained wasn’t pleasant. So Chikere became just her arm once more. Mechanical pieces replicating muscles twisted and turned as her energy flowed naturally within and through it. As natural as an extension of herself. As natural as swords had been, not so long before.
A string of energy leapt towards her, but rather than making Chikere’s task more difficult she found it a boon. Her arm snatched out towards the single strand, pulling in such as way as to unravel the larger formation.
It was excruciatingly slow. It would have been so much easier to cut it. Just a single slice and… no web. She shouldn’t have been so terrible that she and swords suddenly hated each other, but that was just how things were.
Ultimately, Chikere wasn’t certain if she could have accomplished the task herself. Probably not. But a certain hardheaded individual crashed by her, disrupting another portion of the energy field. A portion of the web snapped, and Margriet swept the three of them up again.
“… You don’t look so good,” Chikere said to Sly. “You have wrinkles now. And weird black veins.”
He looked down at himself and nodded. “Well, I’ve seen worse.”
“Where?” Chikere asked.
He just gestured at her.
Ah. He was right. Aside from her right arm, nearly pristine aside from some scratches and the like, the rest of her was sallow and gaunt. The color had been drained from her skin, making her appear like a ghost. And the black veins spiderwebbed everywhere. Now that she was aware of it, she even noticed patterns permanently inlaid over her eyes.
“… I need to get this worked on.”
Margriet looked at Chikere and shook her head. “Unless you can find Dubet’s Heart, it’s… unlikely your body will recover from that damage.”
“I already did that,” Chikere smiled. “I got the best apprentice from it.”
“I… do you know of more?” Margriet asked.
“It was just the one,” Chikere said. “But that’s okay. I can still get this fixed, probably.” Now that she wasn’t just her arm, it hurt to breathe. And every time her heart beat, the pressure inside her blood vessels made it feel like she had a pressure headache from head to toe. But they weren’t dead yet, and she was fairly certain she was supposed to desire that outcome.
They had broken away from the edge of the system, more fatigued than when they had entered hoping for a moment of respite. But they were getting closer and closer to the Scarlet Midfields, or at least contested regions. Hopefully they would be able to grab a few moments of respite in one of the less interesting systems along the way.
Meerkat heads rose as a herd of warthogs tromped over the horizon towards the colony. They had only just recently found the courage to return to their more widespread burrows, and then the swarm of locusts had thrown everything off course. They had a temporary boost in food, but were now forced to deal with their regular food sources drying up.
Anton had been making use of their labor to replant things, but they needed more food. And now warthogs were coming, likely lacking their own food sources and hoping to take what they could from the meerkat’s relative prosperity.
The captain of the guard Deep Purr and others including Three Squeaks and Sustained Chittering went to stop them from getting close to the colony. The warthogs could collapse tunnels and cause all sorts of trouble if they got too close.
“Halt!” Deep Purr said. “What are your intentions here?”
The leader of the warthogs, who had just recently been able to properly walk again, lowered his head. “Fear not. We don’t seek war. Instead, we want to ask for aid from you, and the tall one.”
Well now, was that their angle? This was a great opportunity to draw more people into the fold. Though the meerkats would have to be willing to accept the possibility. He could step in and take over the negotiations, of course, but he wanted to see how it went.