There had been no leisurely trip from Stredo to Cangui. There was only so much time to be away from the war, even if the break was critical for continued success. Barrett didn’t want to speak for Nilima, but on a personal basis there was only so much he could learn in Cangui. Seeing how his different students had progressed and giving them some of his own guidance was good, but he wasn’t going to make any grand steps forward.
All he wanted to know was that Haven would survive. Nothing lasted forever, but at least it had a chance to grow. He wanted to know he had left a mark on the world. Barrett also had students in Stredo, but the situation there wasn’t necessarily stable long term. The Immortal Berserker Sect and Stredo itself were much more established… but the war with the Ostain Empire was bigger than they had imagined. While the forces they had sent to attack Stredo hadn’t been able to overwhelm them… that was because many more forces were arrayed throughout the breadth of the empire.
However, there were reasons for Stredo to not back down in times of difficulty. Retreating would allow the Ostain Empire to recover, and if they were quite determined they could bring new forces to bear against Stredo… within the next few decades at the latest. It would be seen as a sign of weakness, and while for the moment the other largest enemy of Stredo- Smiynia- was on the back foot, that wouldn’t always remain the case.
Then there was a more practical matter. The Emperor hadn’t been involved in the battles so far. Had he died from his wounds? Barrett found that unlikely. He hadn’t been uninjured, but even Sir Joston who had dealt most of the damage thought he would have been fine. If he wasn’t dead, he was occupied elsewhere. Whether that was with some special training to become even stronger or other enemies on the far edges of the empire, nobody was sure. Either way, it was the chance to press the attack. If nothing else, they had weakened or destroyed many sects supporting the Ostain Empire, including some particularly foul ones. The Grasping Hand was with the core of the Empire, but they would be reached soon enough.
There was time to stay for several months of training with his students- and their students. While his own students had been left to themselves for a long time, he’d left behind as many notes as he could to help them. However, notes weren’t the same as personal guidance. Besides, he knew more now than he did then. He’d only just barely become a grandmaster, but now he was quite more experienced in that area. His experiences would probably only help the most talented few move towards grandmastery in the future, but that was certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Lord Nagarkar hadn’t quite stepped into grandmaster, but he would make it. Hopefully, he would maintain his reasonable attitude when he did so, or at least think fondly of Haven.
Nilima found it interesting how her different students handled their different sorts of energy. One had actually gone down the path of combining gentle and berserk energy. It was a hard road, but quite rewarding if they were to be successful. However, observing the different methods didn’t necessarily give Nilima any valuable insights. Mostly it helped her reflect on the various things she had already tried.
The biggest teacher Nilima had was the world itself. Not in a strange cosmic sense, but the movements and actions of people. Gentle and violent actions could be used to convince people to act a certain way, for a time. However, they would always return to their natural state given time without any input. Of course, that didn’t completely translate to battles. Once someone was dead. The same could be said of a sect, but someone would come in to replace them. Soldiers replaced other soldiers on the battlefield, but they had a unified goal. New groups had their own goals, and they were only similar by coincidence.
What Nilima wanted was to change the flow of the world as a whole. It was clear that couldn’t be done just by destroying parts they didn’t want. The grandmaster of Heavenly Mountain had died, but his followers had been just like him- and even Ivory Peak moved in and was much the same. The only lasting change she’d seen in the world was when something was added. Haven may not have instantly changed the rest of Cangui around it- and most of the problems they had still remained- but it was at least an example of something that lasted longer. The same was true of Stredo. Planting and building and training created changes that lasted, but of course they also took the most work over long periods of time. The war with the Ostain Empire wouldn’t change anything on its own… but that didn’t mean it wasn’t necessary. Removing danger would create room for growth of better things. Maybe everyone thought what they were doing was the best way… but Nilima preferred for the world to be better when she was done rather than just with her having more power. Barrett would certainly agree that there had to be a real right and wrong, and not just what people chose to believe. Maybe it wasn’t completely understandable in every situation, but the ‘righteousness’ some people strived for existed out there somewhere. But at least destroying people who were making everything worse caused temporary gains. That was something.
It happened when Barrett was training in a secluded place outside of Haven. He felt a piercing pain in his chest, straight through him. He had no reason to believe it wasn’t killing intent directed at him, so he dodged out of the way. Perhaps that saved him from the second attack, though it wasn’t clear. What was clear was that the line of pain through his chest was a real wound. It was small, like a thin needle stabbed straight through him… but it was real.
More importantly, it didn’t heal immediately. It couldn’t, because at the moment Barrett barely healed faster than a normal person. He had just undergone a series of destructions- single destructions were a waste of effort. After all, it only took thirty seconds for a full recovery. Unless he wanted to focus on that at all points of every day, they had to be gathered together in bundles of thousands. Three thousand was a good number as the recovery would last about a day. It was a bit more complicated than that, but the point stood that he didn’t heal from wounds at a visible speed. Technically he healed many times faster than a normal person even at the moment, but nothing that helped in combat.
Still, a small hole didn’t matter. It probably wouldn’t even kill a non-cultivator, despite going through the heart. The problem was how it had happened without him noticing anything. There was a flash of magic as the second attack pierced through his ear- perhaps it would have gone through his head if he hadn’t moved immediately.
Something was still wrong. He should have been able to sense magic like that coming. It seemed like it appeared from nowhere. It was powerful… enough to pierce a hole through him. Barrett continued his movements, trying to be as random as possible since he couldn’t predict the attacks. He fortified his body… and condensed magical power punctured a hole through his arm and through his side. A straight line once more, but not from the same direction. Could it be multiple attackers? That seemed likely, but he couldn’t sense a single one… and the delay between attacks was too long. It was only perhaps a second, but that was extremely slow for a grandmaster.
A flash of magic once more. It didn’t approach him, but instead seemed to appear inside of him… or right next to him. A line of magic a meter long, still quite thin but concentrated enough to cause damage to him even as he fortified his body with stamina. It was so fast that he couldn’t even pick out which direction the attack came from… or if it had a front and back at all. Just a flash of magic at the grandmaster level.
There wasn’t anyone nearby to cause that. Unless they were a grandmaster illusionist with an intimate knowledge of how Barrett functioned there was no way to completely fool his senses. At least, he thought so. He was the air around himself for a dozen meters, the ground for at least half of that… and there was nothing but himself and large numbers of insects and even larger numbers of bacteria. No magic passed through the area.
He expanded his senses, trying to feel for a sniper. Perhaps someone very far away, with magic that was concealed until the very moment it struck. But he felt nothing within a kilometer. Beyond that, magic fell off in power so sharply that he would have to be facing an eighth tier grandmaster at least. The magic was sharp, but the power behind it didn’t seem quite that significant. And if they were so powerful, they might as well have gotten close to him so they could instantly crush him, without the power falling off.
Barrett sensed Nilima approaching. She must have felt the flashes of magic, because they were not concealed in the slightest once they hit him. Unrestrained power like that could be felt from very far away. Another attack, down at a strange downward angle piercing through his ribs, a lung, and out through his guts. Individually the attacks might not kill him, but the power behind the attacks was slowly growing. Still needle sized, but thicker. He could stand to have a few small holes punched in him… but not an unlimited amount. And his brain wouldn’t do so well with any holes in it at all. But he still felt no source.