After the first several factions rejected the plea for help from Margriet and Sly, they stopped asking. It took precious time they could otherwise be using to flee, after all. Meanwhile, Chikere stayed silent the whole time.
“Isn’t this your sector?” Margriet asked. “Why not ask for assistance?”
Chikere shook her head. “It’s not like we control the whole of the Scarlet Midfields. Just the core.”
“… And you were still willing to stand against the Exalted Quadrant?”
“They started everything,” Chikere shrugged. “Both in the lower realms and here. Being unwilling to stand against them just means certain death, instead of possible death.”
“On that note… did you really enter the Exalted Quadrant alone with the intention to challenge the Limitless Edge Sect?”
“Of course not,” Chikere said.
“Good. Maybe you had some sense in you.”
“I was going to challenge anyone with a good sword,” Chikere clarified. “I didn’t even know about the Limitless Edge Sect.”
“… It’s a miracle that you are alive,” Margriet said. She looked over her shoulder, though of course their pursuers weren’t visible. By the time they could be seen visually, they would already be on top of them, barely tens of kilometers away. Or perhaps a bit more than that, given they would be traveling in larger ships.
Sly folded his arms in front of him as Margriet’s waves carried them along. “I don’t want to die like this,” he said.
“It is unfortunate,” Margriet said. “But this is how things are. Death comes for us all eventually. I was just hoping it would take longer.”
“Death, I don’t mind,” he said. “I just don’t want to die while running away. I’d rather fight.” He turned to Chikere, “What about you?”
She furrowed her brow. “I don’t know, anymore. So since I always used to want to fight, maybe that means I don’t want to now.”
“We need to fix that,” he grumbled. “It would be a shame to see a warrior fall to themselves and not the enemy.”
“I might be able to keep us ahead for one more system,” Margriet commented. “Any opinions on where you want to die?”
“Somewhere with solid ground to stand on,” Sly commented.
Chikere put a finger to her lips. “Near my apprentice. Grandmaster Sadiq could forge him a sword out of me.”
“That’s… morbid,” Margriet commented.
“And practical,” Sly added. “Though it doesn’t really matter if your apprentice isn’t around.”
“He’s that way,” Chikere pointed. “So we should go there.”
“Are you sure?” Margriet commented.
“I know his sword, so he’s definitely there.”
“What I meant was… you aren’t worried about us getting your apprentice killed?”
“Where does that confidence come from?” Margriet asked.
“He’s strong,” Chikere replied. “And he tends to keep allies around him.”
“… Well it’s not like we’ll have long to regret the choice should it turn out poor,” Margriet shook her head.
Despite the urgency of their continued flight, the distance between systems was not trivial. It would take days to reach the next system, during which Margriet had to stay constantly focused if she didn’t want to lose the lead they had. It was more complicated than simply maintaining momentum when one had to deal with super-light speeds involving subspace or similar traversal techniques.
Margriet didn’t know the name of the odd little star system they ended up in. A warm yellow star was host to only a single planet with two moons, and nothing more. But Chikere said there were allies here, and there was nowhere better she could think to go.
Her waves barely allowed them to maintain a gap with their pursuers. She could feel them coming up behind even as they approached the planet. There was a proper Augmentation cultivator among the pursuing forces, though it was likely unnecessary to involve them to defeat their trio. Only Sly was really able to fight, Chikere’s state having worsened after bypassing the Forest of Death. And Margriet was exhausted from transporting them- but she wasn’t willing to leave behind any of her escape compatriots.
She just hoped that Chikere’s confidence was well placed. Margriet had learned to trust her senses- but did not know her well enough to trust her other judgment.
There was a strange feeling as they approached the planet. She couldn’t quite place it until they were about to settle down. The planet was… nothing. No fortified cities. No sects or wild places or… really any signs of life.
Just a bare planet with two moons on opposite sides. One of them happened to be directly in the path of the sun’s light… or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence, as she didn’t feel the expected rotation of the moons. Curious.
“There he is,” Chikere pointed towards the center of the shaded portion of the planet.
“This feels like a trap,” Sly said.
“If it is for us, it is already too late,” Margriet said. “And our enemies would have had to move ahead of us, at which point they could have simply captured us.”
“I think that has to be them,” Timothy said to his son.
Chidi frowned, folding his arms across his chest. “It doesn’t feel like Chikere is with them.”
“Are you sure?” Timothy tilted his head. “Do you think it’s someone faking her aura then?”
“It’s just… not right,” Chidi said. “She doesn’t have any of her swords.”
Timothy frowned. “Perhaps she was disarmed somehow? Maybe captured?”
“I find it hard to believe she would escape without her swords,” Chidi said. “But… underneath the surface, the aura is still correct. And she was seen traveling with a member of the Hardened Crown Sect and the Worthy Shore Society. So I suppose it must be her.”
It took only a few minutes for them to approach close enough, as they came in for a quick landing. At that point, even if Chidi couldn’t verify anything else, he could feel Chikere’s features. And her fancy arm, which was the only part of her that looks to be in tolerable shape.
“You did say she would find us,” Timothy said. “So I think you were right.”
“Hello,” Chikere said.
The large man of the trio looked around. “… Is this it? I was kind of hoping for more than two people.”
“I will admit to being underwhelmed,” the other woman agreed. “But we should introduce ourselves. It seems the two of you recognize Chikere. I am Margriet Gelens. I believe we met briefly, some time ago. Timothy, isn’t it?”
Timothy nodded, “I can’t say I expected to meet again, after you ascended. Or at least not after the trouble on Ceretos.”
“I found the results quite inconvenient, personally,” Margriet said. “And I am somewhat disappointed to see none of my sect came along with you.”
“Or the Hardened Crown!” said the large man. “Didn’t they come with you? I’m Sly, by the way,” he stuck out his sizable appendage to shake with the others.
“The Hardened Crown Sect was… rather stubborn in their refusal to take a side in the war,” Timothy said. “So we are currently unassociated.”
“Hah. Should have expected something stupid like that. I would knock some sense into ‘em, if I could get to them. It’s always better to take a stance.” Sly turned his head up towards the skies. “Well, ready to die with us?”
“Today?” Timothy asked. “I think not. We didn’t come with just us.”
Sly looked around. “I don’t see anyone else…”
“It’s all of the people behind that other moon,” Chikere pointed. “Oh. Was that a secret?”
Timothy laughed, “Not if these people are your allies.”
She nodded. “I wouldn’t have made it off planet without them.”
“… I hope those fleets of yours are quick,” Sly said. The Exalted Quadrant fleets were already approaching the atmosphere.
“Oh, they are,” Timothy said. “We’ll have to hold on here for a few moments, though.”
Within the fleets pursuing them was a mixture of sects from the Exalted Quadrant. There was a significant portion from the Forest of Death, but the largest contingent was from the same group as the Augmentation cultivator. They projected a powerful chill that could be felt from a great distance, and sheets of ice were appearing on the ground around the five individuals.
“You might want to stand behind me,” Timothy said as the enemies were almost upon them.
Margriet gave Sly a little push before he could reject, and Chikere just sat down next to Chidi.
A sturdy man with a long hair and beard, both the color of freshly fallen snow, dropped from the leading ship along with a dozen Integration cultivators. He fell, not with the gentleness of a flake of snow but rather the impact of a great hailstone.
Timothy raised his shield, but the impact came a hundred meters away, the leading cultivators toppling back and those who followed behind landing to surround the group. At the same time, the Scarlet Alliance’s fleets could already be sensed coming around both sides of the second moon.
“Hmph,” grunted the white haired fellow. “Your emergency formation won’t protect you for long. Nor will your fleets stop us from claiming our bounties and returning home. This isn’t your fortified home world where you can turtle like cowards. And even that won’t do you much good in the long run.”
“Big words for someone I don’t know,” Timothy said. “Why don’t you prove it?”
A coat of rime began to spread over the dome shaped barrier protecting the group, and the wide fellow began to batter the barrier with his fists. But that was not all. With each swing, a great ice comet crashed towards the barrier. The barrier trembled under the assault, and then his disciples began to join him. The other cultivators began their own methods of breaking down the barrier as well.
“… Should we really be provoking them?” Margriet asked.
“I’m just making things easier for our reinforcements. It’s more convenient if he isn’t fresh.”
“That only matters if your barrier can survive that long!” The man shouted. “And it will not, for I am Abraham of the Disciples of the Frozen One!”
“Did you hear that, dear?” Timothy said into his communicator.
“… Why are you talking like that?” Catarina’s voice replied.
“What do you mean, honey? Don’t I always talk like this?”
“This man said you’re barrier isn’t good enough to stop him from killing us and leaving.”
“I heard that!” Catarina said. But this time, her voice came not from Timothy’s communicator, but from above and behind the group of Exalted Quadrant cultivators. “Hey, geezer, what do you know about barrier formations?”
“Enough to know that sufficient power can defeat any of them…” Abraham said as he suddenly spun around launching a spear of ice into the air… only to have it shatter halfway to Catarina.
“Have you ever come across a system where the lunar cycles were perfectly synched with the solar year?” Catarina asked.
“No. Is this important somehow?” Abraham cracked his neck, clearly not convinced that he was in any sort of danger.
“Well you see, it comes with some interesting properties. Such as a massive temperature differential.”
“And that mean… what?” Abraham asked.
“Power,” Catarina said. Almost at that point, the wreckage of Exalted Quadrant ships began impacting the area. Only a small portion of their combat power had remained on the ships, but they likely hadn’t expected to fall so quickly to the Scarlet Alliance fleets. “Quite a lot of power, in fact.”
The Forest of Death cultivators were straining against the outer barrier, tendrils of horrid energy trying to reach Catarina and drag the life force out of her. But she didn’t let them get close.
Scarlet Alliance forces began landing. Among them were, in fact, a number of individuals from the Worthy Shore Society, but also others from all aspects of their alliance. The Dark Ring, the Dancing Slayer Sect, and many others from various places in the lower realms.
“You’ll still have to fight us eventually,” Abraham said.
“That’s not true at all,” Catarina said. “I could literally just let you die in there. Or I could…” she squeezed her fingers together, and several cultivators were tossed backwards away from the outer barrier, only to stop about halfway to the former location of the inner barrier as both pinched in on them. Then they were crushed. “I’d like you to at least pretend to respect my status as an Augmentation cultivator, won’t you?”
“I doubt you can do that often,” Abraham said.
“The thing is… I could eventually kill all of you like that. But I have a friend here who I haven’t seen in a while, and a whole army who wants to kill you guys. So…” she stepped through the barrier, gesturing to the rest of them. “We’re just going to kill you the old fashioned way, okay?”