Before they got far into the Sunfields, Deirdre requested that the group briefly stop in a nearby village. The building they stopped next to was little more than a tall tower, and John could have easily mistaken it for a guard post. While it likely served that function as well, Deidre walked into the base and came out a short time later, after which one of the cultivators standing atop the tower proceeded to do something resulting in a series of flashes. Morse Code? Obviously not quite given that the alphabet was completely different, but it could be an equivalent. Whatever it was, it clearly was some sort of message. John looked in the direction they were facing and thought he could barely see another tower and some flashing in return, though it could have simply been the glare of the sun. He would have bet on one regardless.
“What was that?” John asked, mostly to see what Deirdre would say.
“I sent a message to the sect, informing them we were on our way,” Deirdre explained simply.
“I see. How long will it take the message to arrive?”
She shrugged, “It should be there within the day.”
Very useful. The speed would be limited by how quickly information could be transferred, and how many jumps were in between. From horizon to horizon… a day’s travel could be covered in just a few jumps. That depended on the terrain, though, and if there were many messages it could certainly take a lot longer. But even if it took a minute for each message to go from point to point, it should be able to arrive pretty much anywhere within an hour.
“We should get something like that,” John commented. “Though it would be a bit more difficult without light element cultivators…”
Deirdre looked at him with a bit of curiosity, but didn’t ask anything, and John didn’t volunteer any more information.
The Sunfields wasn’t entirely covered with the reflective sunflowers. People needed to eat, after all, and even if the special sunflowers had edible seeds it probably wouldn’t be nutritionally dense enough to feed much of the country. They could import food, but no country wanted to be wholly dependent on others for vital resources. Thus they had various grains growing in fields, tall, strong, and mercifully unreflective. The terrain wasn’t just flat ground, either. There were hills and forests all within the first day’s travel.
As for the roads, the main road they traveled on was quite good. The quality of the stone was less than that back home, but who could blame them? Even if they found good solid rock in abundant quantities, it would never have the natural levels of earth elemental spiritual energy that the Stone Conglomerate had. The free floating spiritual energy also reinforced them naturally even after they were placed, so it was unfair to compare. And the Stone Conglomerate’s communication infrastructure was obviously lacking in turn.
In the middle of the second day, while they were on a long stretch of nothing, there was an explosion off in the distance. “What was that?” John asked. He couldn’t quite sense what might have caused it. It was only light energy on top of light energy in all directions. Aggravating.
“Can we stop?” Deirdre asked. “I need to check.”
“Fine,” John nodded. “Be careful.”
“I’m not going far,” she said. “Just up a tree.” Even as she said that, she hopped out of the carriage and did exactly that.
John had to admit that despite plantlife generally being associated with earth, the local flora were quite healthy and strong. Then again, associating anything with just a single element was probably a mistake, and even the ‘pure’ elements often had traces of other things mixed in. At least the elemental model was useful for thinking about their functionality for cultivation, and simplified ideas were the basis of any early learning in a subject.
Deirdre was back a moment later. “It’s a flare. A signal of trouble. Disciples of the Golden Tomb Guardians. Please, can I go to them?”
“Could we stop you?” John asked.
“My mission is to guard you… and currently that takes priority. But with your permission, I can leave.”
“I see. One moment.” John closed the door of the carriage so he could consult with Aydan and Crystin. The natural structure of the vehicle would help, but he also used his own darkness energy to obfuscate the inside, where he was quickly joined by the other two doing the same. “So, what do you think? A trap?”
“It is clear that she does not particularly like you,” Aydan commented.
Crystin interjected, “Maybe, but I feel her concern for the disciples is genuine.”
“I agree with both of you,” John nodded. “Which makes me think that if it is a trap, it’s not for us. Or even for her, in particular. If the Golden Tomb Guardians wanted to kill us, they could do so when we arrived, or anywhere along the road. Obfuscating the evidence would be simple enough a country away, so I have cause to believe this is a real emergency. In that case, we should help for the sake of our future alliance. Any objections?”
“We’ll need to be cautious,” Aydan said. “Let us approach first.”
“Fine. But I won’t be far behind.” John threw open the door. “How far to the nearest town?”
“An hour,” Deirdre said. “Less if you hurry. You can wait for me there. If I don’t come back by evening… go on without me.”
John hopped out of the carriage with the other two. “Marie. Wait for us in the next town.” He looked to Deidre. “Well? Let’s go.”
“Umm… I shouldn’t be bringing you into danger.”
John started moving in the direction she kept glancing. “If we’re to be allies, it might as well start now.” At least he felt slightly better about her leading them into a trap, with her reluctance. Either that or she was a good actor.
Aydan and Crystin moved to the front, with Deirdre keeping pace. John settled into a position twenty meters or so behind them, making subtle uses of his darkness energy to hopefully make it harder to notice him. The light element everywhere was making it a pain though. Just moving around was uncomfortable, like the world itself was trying to resist him.
It didn’t take long before they could sense the battle happening, though nothing was clear about it. It was like a flickering flashlight in an already overly bright room. Soon enough the trees broke and they found themselves looking inward from the edge of a large clearing. One side was clearly losing the battle, with several fallen members. There were around a dozen Soul Expansion Phase cultivators and twice that many Foundation Phase. The aura of the Golden Tomb Guardians radiated from all of them, and the people seemed to range from younger disciples to some older members who were clearly in charge of organizing their defense.
On the other side were approximately twice as many Soul Expansion Phase cultivators, and though they were merely matching in the Foundation Phase department, more of them were in the later parts of the phase. Deidre only hesitated part of a second before rushing forward to support her fellow disciples. Meanwhile, Aydan and Crystin hung back slightly, waiting for John’s input.
The numbers were perhaps something they might overcome, but it would be difficult. That was if the battlefield was fair, which it was not. Three darkness cultivators were at a disadvantage in the Sunfields.
Thoughts ran through John’s head. He didn’t know who was the instigator in the conflict, but this current battle at least seemed weighed towards one side. Helping potential allies was good, but could they win? Running could be the right choice. If he died, the Tenebach clan would take a huge blow- and that was saying nothing of the effects to his wife and children.
“Whoever you are… if you leave, we can let you go unharmed,” called an older man from the unknown side.
That was immediately countered by the other side. “We can offer you a reward for your assistance!”
John really didn’t care about a reward. It was impossible to collect if he was dead. He thought for a moment, then dropped a throwing dagger into his left hand. Aydan and Crystin got the message, and began to move forward to join the Golden Tomb Guardians.
It was a huge risk to fight. The balance of power was against them. Losing the alliance would be a huge blow, but John could honestly say it wasn’t worth his life. But not fighting felt like just as big of a risk. Just leave and they could go unharmed? Whoever this sect was might say that, but they wouldn’t allow information about this battle to leak out. John and the others might manage to leave, but they would be hunted down later. At least with a high enough probability to make it more risky not to fight with what allies they had. And John didn’t just want to abandon people that were supposed to become his allies. Calculating decisions based on benefits was important, but he still had to be human.
The throwing dagger made its way towards one of the closer enemies… and into the woman’s neck. It was just a late Foundation Phase cultivator, but it was one more person John didn’t have to worry about.
While being a darkness cultivator was a disadvantage in this battlefield, it also gave them some unique opportunities to act against their opponents. Light and darkness shared special positions of being mutually destructive. That meant blocking or deflecting ended up being less effective, as the two energies mutually destroyed each other and caused damage around that point. An aggressive stance was going to be required.
Unlike the Golden Tomb Guardians, the opposing sect used more traditional weapons wreathed in light elemental spiritual energy. They faced off against the strange short staffs of the Golden Tomb Guardians, where they made use of unsupported energy to create bladelike extensions beyond the ends. That made the weapons less effective in a direct clash, but they were also able to avoid them, shifting the energy around an opponent’s block for example.
John threw himself into the edge of the battle behind Aydan and Crystin. A formation of three people was barely better than functioning alone, but with John guiding their actions they could at least have a unified purpose. Each opponent they took down would be one more that wouldn’t be able to kill them.
Aydan’s experience swiftly showed itself. While his cultivation wasn’t much higher than his opponents, the first opponents were young. Truthfully, if it hadn’t been for the Tenebach clan’s empowerment ceremony Aydan could have already been a Consolidated Soul cultivator, and he had the combat experience to back it up. Careful dodging where he avoided any intersection of his and his opponent’s energy allowed him to defend himself while he made a flurry of attacks intended to get anywhere close to a weak point, whereupon he could strike a lethal wound. He did well, but inevitably suffered a few wounds of his own.
John channeled some of his non-darkness energies to help support the other two. Air provided them speed, while earth and water provided defense. Through those efforts they were able to slightly negate the detriments of direct clashes of light and darkness.
As the lone Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator in the battle, John soon found himself a target. It was uncomfortable, but he made everything he could of it, slicing down the weakest opponents while dancing around the stronger ones. Drawing out the battle would not be good for them, since the light element cultivators would be able to recover their energy more easily, but he couldn’t just face them all together either.
Keeping up with the oppressive atmosphere of light was difficult, however. It made them worse and their enemies better. John was almost fighting with his eyes closed, barely able to see, and he knew that Aydan and Crystin were not any better off.
The pressure was relieved from them when a group of the Golden Tomb Guardians spearheaded by Deirdre came to their aid. They had already been fighting alongside each other, but their actions shifted to specifically keeping the light element away from the three. That was much easier for them than John or the others, but a vital piece of support.
The tip of a spear brushed against John’s cheek, the light element from it clashing with his darkness element. Even if he tried to defend solely with earth energy, the traces were still there- and blood began to drip down his face. It could have resulted in a hole in his head so he was quite glad, but John felt a very real threat of death. Just because he was in the Consolidated Soul Phase didn’t mean he was invincible, even against those lower in cultivation.
When the battle ended and John found himself still alive, he was briefly astonished. But the whole alive thing wasn’t necessarily going to last. He was covered in numerous wounds, blood dripping everywhere. As he blacked out, he fervently hoped to wake up again.