The reach of the Scarlet Alliance was slowly expanding. Or perhaps it was rapid, given that new systems were joining every year. Including the Dark Ring and other associates, their alliance had dozens of planets during the war with the Harmonious Citadel. Now, more than half a century later, they had more than a hundred. Though the restrictions were somewhat relaxed on who could join- it was mainly meant to defend against factions outside of the Scarlet Midfields- having an official banner to rally under would also minimize other conflicts.
Timothy was currently on the planet of Nuvater, which was under the control of the Silver Sea Coalition, a faction that had seemed somewhat larger at the time of his ascension. They had expanded, but only a small amount. Mostly, it was consolidating their power on Nuvater and growing throughout the system. They hadn’t yet expanded beyond that, given their conservative rate of growth.
The system was located within a nebula that extended to several surrounding systems as well. Located where it was, it could be a critical point for information on enemies approaching their core. At least if they were trying to be stealthy, the nebula was one of the best options along the way to help conceal their approach.
Of course, the most important thing for spotting enemies early was just receiving reports- and accurate ones. They had been lucky that their limited associates had noticed the chase of Chikere and been able to warn them ahead, but it was better to expand their capacity.
Bringing more systems together had benefits for both parties. Giant factions like the Exalted Quadrant and the Trigold Cluster were not something any individual could resist, and the combined power of all of the Scarlet Midfields might not even be enough… yet. But they could still grow, and they would have to. The damage caused by the wars was not insignificant, and many of the easiest to snatch resources had been carried off, but there was still enough to raise up powerful cultivators.
And with people ascending from the lower realms gaining strength from overcoming that adversity, they might stand a chance. And if not, at least they would die fighting instead of simply being trampled haphazardly and without thought. Because if they did nothing, it wasn’t a matter of staying out of the sight of the two factions- but when they would act. And that time might be approaching. Perhaps at any moment, but more likely within decades if they were quick… and a few centuries on the slower end. Most likely it would end up happening before the next cycle and thus invasions of the lower realms, but it was hard to say for certain.
Within another particularly less pleasant nebula, Catarina was attempting to make the best of a bad thing. And Vari was tagging along to assist, and complain. “Ugh, it’s just as bad as the last time,” she said.
“Can’t be,” Catarina countered. “The Harmonious Citadel no longer has its claws in you.”
“I mean the place. Not the totality of circumstances. Actually, I think I feel it worse than before. Just thinking about all the people who died in this region… it’s like they’re still watching us.”
“Probably not,” Catarina said. “They should have reincarnated by now. Most likely it’s just lingering will.”
“Is that better?” Vari asked. “Because they’re still dead and everything is awful.”
Catarina nodded slowly. “It is better for us. Because this barely directed lingering will might be used to our advantage.”
Vari frowned. “I don’t know if you like where I’m going.”
“Why not? Let us consider the situation. First, it is the actual will of the dead. Directing it against the people responsible instead of having it wasted would be a boon to them. Alternatively, it is free energy to make use of… which will still honor the dead in how we use it.”
“… I guess,” Vari said. “But wouldn’t it be dangerous to try to direct it?”
Catarina just looked at Vari. “Of course. But not making use of it is a bigger risk. This way, we can cut out a huge swath of potentially traversable area for our enemies. It won’t help against the Trigold Cluster unless they get extremely lost on their way to Xankeshan, but the ability to limit the directions our enemies can bring masses of fleets upon us in any way is… an important factor. We rarely get to have terrain advantages in space combat, so this is one we must make use of.”
“And how long will this formation take to set up?”
Catarina shrugged. “I’ll start with a century. Could go up or down from there.”
“Do estimations ever go down?”
“If I get lucky,” Catarina said.
Prasad didn’t like the idea of fighting against the Trigold Cluster. On the other hand, he also didn’t like the idea of them traipsing through the territory of the One Thousand Palms Sect like they had already done. And he liked even less the idea of becoming anyone’s lackey, not that he thought that such a thing would actually benefit anyone in the Scarlet Midfields. There wasn’t really anything to gain from it. If they wanted something within his territory, they would take it regardless of official status.
In short, his alliance with Xankeshan and the rest of them would continue. That was a necessity, even without the benefits. Just the short amount of time he’d been involved with them had seen them produce an Augmentation cultivator, with others liable to appear in the near future from among the same group. It would have been a major concern for him, if their ambitions didn’t seem to stretch far beyond him. As odd as their ideas about how things should function might be, they had grown surprisingly quickly so far. And that seemed to be unrelated to the steady flow of resources from the lower realms that they were bringing in, specifically those useful for training up pre-Integration cultivators.
Even before the frantic report came, Three Squeaks felt something wrong in the burrow. He was currently stationed at one of the further locations that was still considered part of Shadysands burrow despite lacking any connection- though there were talks about actually developing an underground path. When the frantic calls came for him to wake up, Three Squeaks already had his bow slung over his shoulder. He would have liked to put on his armor, but it didn’t seem like there would be time.
“What is it?” he asked as he tried to feel what was above.
“L-lion!” came the panicked cry.
“Are they digging into the burrow? That will just tire them out…” Three Squeaks said.
“More than one!” the nervous meerkat said. “They’re watching our exits.”
Three Squeaks sighed in resignation. What a disaster. This wasn’t the sort of danger a mid body tempering cultivator like himself could handle alone. Not that he’d known half of those words a year ago when Anton showed up. But Anton made sure to impart upon him the reminder that especially early on, simply having equivalent energy was insufficient to win a battle.
Not that it would surprise anyone, but a meerkat’s physical qualities were rather limited compared to a lion’s. And augmenting that greater power with any natural energy was enough to squash even the sturdiest of them.
If only Three Squeaks had learned to shoot around corners. But firing in a straight line was already difficult enough, complicated energy control was outside of his abilities regardless of his success in cultivation so far.
“They aren’t digging,” Three Squeaks commented. “We may not need to hurry,” he said, calming the scout. “First, we will assess the situation. Have they said anything?” Just from feeling the energy of the lions above, he had the sense that they were more than standard lions that had eaten a few creatures full of natural energy. Their behavior indicated that as well. Normally, meerkats should be far below their view as a source of food. And though there had been a downturn in options after the locust plague, things were beginning to return to normal.
Making his way closer to the surface, Three Squeaks confirmed the situation. Six lions- lionesses, if he were to be specific- were lying in wait around the various entrances. If something came out from any of them, it wouldn’t take them more than a moment to pounce upon them.
Retreating deeper, Three Squeaks tried to consult with the other meerkats. “Alright, what should we do?”
“Whatever you think is best,” one of them said.
“That’s not an idea, though,” he replied.
“You’re smarter, though,” another said. “And stronger.”
“So? I’m also just one person. I can’t think of everything. So… suggestions?”
“Can you kill them?”
“Not by myself. Or with the help of those of us here.” If he could, it wouldn’t really require a discussion, would it?
He did get a decent suggestion soon after. “What if we burrow out behind them?”
“A decent option,” Three Squeaks commented. “But I have the feeling they would sense us if we worked too close to the surface. And we’d have to go quite far. What else?”
“Send for help,” another said. “If the fastest of us can get to another burrow…”
“Unfortunately, lions are bigger and faster. I don’t think I could get away from them myself,” Three Squeaks said. “Not reliably. And I wouldn’t want to sacrifice anyone by forcing a distraction. Let me think… we have food stored up, don’t we? How much?”
It took one of the others a few minutes to get the results. “Enough for a day or two.”
That was better than they might have had before. They had been daily foragers, but now they had learned which food would last longer and tried to keep some of that around at all times. Apparently there were ways to preserve food for a much longer time, but it was not an option just yet. Formations or whatever required specific materials if they were to last, and no single cultivator was powerful enough to make sufficient ‘ice’. A weird, cold thing that turned into water after some time. Anton had brought them some, but none of them cultivated an energy similar to it.
The way he saw it, the burrow only had a couple options. First was to wait for rescue. After a day or two, with none of them visiting the main burrow, they might become curious. If they spotted the lions and weren’t caught, the rest of the guards could come. And with Deep Purr and Sustained Chittering, they should at least be able to drive the lions away. It wasn’t worth it for the cats to try to eat them if they might die. Of course, Three Squeaks could also gamble his life on killing one of them, but it was likely he would be killed regardless, and they might not retreat if one was dead and he was the only threat. They’d just eat him and perhaps their comrade, then wait for the others to have to surface.
The second option was burrowing, but it was somewhat exclusive with the waiting plan. It would require more food to perform such work, and if they were noticed then all that work would be for nothing. Wherever they came out, a lioness could be casually waiting to snatch them up. And creating multiple new burrows wouldn’t be much better. It would multiply the work, and make it more likely that one place would be noticed. And if one was, they would suspect more.
At least, Three Squeaks didn’t want to count on mistakes from the lionesses, like failing to expect more. Which meant he was leaning towards waiting for reinforcements. If only they had a way to contact the main burrow directly. Forceful Snort would teach these big cats a lesson along with the rest of the burrow.
It seemed like Three Squeaks was going to have to make the decision. Waiting seemed best. And if they really did run out of food, they could split up and run. He would fight, of course, but the others might have a chance to escape.
He knew that such a plan was liable to have holes, but he could only hope to recognize what they were before it was too late. He didn’t want to be passive… but he also didn’t want to die a ‘hero’ for nothing.