Previous Chapter—Table of Contents—Next Chapter
If asked about the Black Scarf Clan and Dark Shadow Cult, the people in the valley would have been completely stumped. Steve of course could have made something more up from looking at them, but names or speculation weren’t important at the moment. The important part was how someone had accidentally set the object of their conflict a little bit on fire.
The good news? The fire stopped about halfway down the slope. The bad news was that it lit up the figures of Steve and Yustina and revealed them to anyone who could take a moment away from the battle down below. The news once again became good, because the very fact that the darkness-emitting vine creeping throughout the area was on fire, and thus prevented their opponents from reaching them directly.
Almost as if they’d planned ahead, a half dozen each of the Black Scarf Clan and Dark Shadow Cult split apart, circling around either side so as not to show openings to each other. Steve and Yustina only had a short time to make a decision.
“I’m going to be honest, I didn’t think this vine would be so… flammable.”
“Obviously,” Yustina agreed. “Or I wouldn’t have… it wouldn’t be like this.”
“What do we do?”
“Try to put it out, maybe?” Yustina shook her head. “It wouldn’t be useful for us if it all burned up.” She stretched out her hand, instinctively calling upon an element she hadn’t practiced since her death and rebirth. Yustina was quite certain she did little more than form a few droplets of water, but a sudden cloud of steam burst up from in front of her, covering her and Steve. Fortunately neither of them would be much hurt by a sudden burst of heat, but it was kind of embarrassing.
The cloud of steam provided a perfect time to run. If they left, it was unlikely anyone would chase after them. Yustina felt Steve grab her hand and pull her along, and they dropped off the steep slope. “Whatever this is,” Steve said, “We can’t just leave it.”
Yustina agreed. Running would, at best, leave them in the same state they’d come in. How would they ever advance that way?
After the first handful of meters the slope curved outward, so there was an initial fall followed by stumbling down loose soil and rock. They were heading directly towards part of the vine that was still on fire, but neither of them were concerned about that. Fighting in a field of flames was an advantage for them. They needed one of those, given the numbers against them. A dozen people in Foundation Phase was a real threat to Yustina who was around that cultivation rank herself. Steve had a higher cultivation, but at some point numbers would overwhelm him.
Steve knew that when fighting multiple opponents, splitting them up and distracting them was important. He usually didn’t get to see such immediate results, but when the opposing parties were already in conflict it worked out quite easily. Half of the group who had just climbed the slope began to face off against each other again, while the rest pushed their way through the thick cloud of steam towards Steve and Yustina down below.
If the group in the bottom of the valley was so inclined, they could enter into a pincer maneuver with the others, but they were quite occupied at the moment. Three darkness cultivators each from the two groups summoned up their spiritual energy as they moved towards Steve and Yustina. As they did so, the fire emanating from the vines around them blackened and began to produce an excess of smoke. As some of them coughed, Steve grinned.
That wasn’t his plan at all, but he began to determine that he was right. The vines weren’t on fire. They were just happily reacting with it.
The figures of the Black Scarf Clan cultivators blurred and faded as the shroud of darkness covered them. That included the one who was still coughing, though his location was quite apparent. The Dark Shadow Cult members flitted unnaturally fast towards the two cultivators waiting for them, some of their steps seeming to skip over areas. Steve knew it was highly unlikely they were actually engaging in some version of teleportation, but it would be difficult to follow their movements regardless.
As they approached, Steve and Yustina called upon the power of flame from inside them. Green and blue flames entwined to form cyan, and the vine responded in kind, eager to go along.
Steve breathed deeply, his lungs filling full of air and heat before he spit it all back out in a wide cone of flame. The fire rolled up the slope, catching most of the attackers unprepared for such an aggressive move.
There was a sudden clash just next to Steve, as a Dark Shadow Cult member thrust forward with a wicked dagger towards Steve’s unprotected side. Most of his energy was focused on the fire breath, so he wasn’t quite prepared to defend. But Yustina was, catching the man’s arm and tugging. He flew behind Steve, green flames crawling all over him.
That left Steve free to twist to his right, kicking into the side of a figure appearing from seemingly nowhere. Steve hadn’t spent an abundance of time training to sense darkness cultivators, but he knew the speed they had been moving and had been able to make up for his inability to perceive them with good battle sense. And it didn’t hurt that his cultivation was higher, allowing him to respond with more speed and power.
Around them the crawling vine flickered with strange multicolored fire, black and green and blue all at once. The substance it produced wasn’t quite smoke, but as Steve got a whiff of it he was quite certain he didn’t want to breathe it in regardless. He turned downhill and scooped up Yustina.
Despite her complaints, he moved faster and wouldn’t have to explain what he wanted. He circled around the valley, moving slightly downward but mostly horizontally to a new section. As he did so, the vines permeating the area flickered with fire behind him. He set Yustina down and turned once more. “I need you to run a circle around the area,” he said.
“What, don’t believe I can fight alongside you?”
“I believe you can make a full lap on your own despite anyone who might get past me or those down below who might chase after you,” Steve said. “But directly fighting a handful of people for that time might be difficult.”
Yustina looked at him and nodded. “Fine. But if you’re trying to get rid of me, know it’s too late.” With that, she took off running, the ever-present vine delighting in the energy she radiated and responding in kind with more fire. However, instead of harming her it coiled around her happily. Any user of the fire element would know that wasn’t a natural reaction, but something that had to be trained. Of all the elements, fire users were the most at danger from their own abilities if they were unskilled.
Despite the prevalence of flames, it was still hard for Steve to make out two of the members of the ‘Black Scarf Clan’. The one who was coughing had gotten over it, but the one he’d personally set on fire was extremely visible at the moment as he rolled about on the ground. The old adage was still somewhat correct even when dealing with spiritual energy, though ‘stop, drop, and roll’ only worked so much. A cultivator had to also use their own energy to drive Steve’s away if they wanted to not be on fire.
The cultivator Yustina had tossed had just managed to put out the fire on himself, which put him behind the other two with him. The last two sets of three were still at the top of the valley, duking it out with each other instead of focusing on two random cultivators. Steve kept half an eye out for the ones at the bottom of the valley, in case they got any ideas besides fighting each other.
Steve had fully expected the ‘Dark Shadow Cult’ members to arrive behind him, and while he was right, he didn’t suddenly have eyes on the back of his head or joints that bent that way. What he did have was an advantage in cultivation, and an abundance of fire. One of the two managed to actually stab him in the shoulder… and the other wasn’t set on fire. Blue flames twisted all around Steve, and along with the other fire in the area made everything extremely unpleasant.
Of course, he’d still put it all ten steps down from the caldera of a volcano. He wasn’t eager to try that one again anytime soon regardless of whether or not he had fancy medicine to regrow his skin again.
Yustina jogged quickly throughout the area. Since they were in the darklands the natural state of the creeping vine seemed to be amplifying darkness, but when the condensed spiritual energy of a cultivator came into play it seemed to happily take on those properties in preference. And where two dense energies overlapped applied both. Thus, Yustina didn’t have to deal with the dark smoke-fire, but the person chasing after her had to deal with that and the simple heat produced.
She wasn’t sure of their exact location, but she didn’t need to know. All she needed was to be sure they weren’t about to stab her or something. Her experience from her previous life was sufficient to make up for her current lack of cultivation in that regard. Though she would normally have felt for the water inside them, in this case she was feeling for anywhere that wasn’t hot. If they got in front of her she might have a problem, but even then they’d still be significantly different from the ambient temperature.
Like that guy. Yustina pretended not to notice him until the last moment, when she dodged to the side. She was actually impressed at the way a dark wall appeared in front of her, a moment later resolving into a wide strip of cloth. The attack itself wasn’t that impressive, despite catching her off guard and wrapping around her, pinning her arms to her side. She was more impressed that Steve had actually pinpointed a relevant feature instead of merely something cosmetic. She’d have to ask if that was an accident or not.
Yustina struggled against her bonds as a dagger stabbed towards her. The traditional weapon of a darkness cultivator, daggers were good for finding gaps in people defenses. Held tight, it seemed like she couldn’t move out of the attack. But of course, when she suddenly stopped pulling and jumped closer she regained her mobility. She still got stabbed in the gut, but the timing wasn’t quite right for the peak of the spiritual energy, so it wasn’t that deep.
Before her opponent could change the way he held the billowing scarf- if he even could- she was jumping towards him. He twisted his body so neither of her legs connected… moving exactly how she wanted. One leg went on either side, wrapping her legs around his torso. And of course, the whole time she continued amping up the flame.
Yustina was impressed by whatever cloth the scarf was made out of. It only ignited slightly before the rest of the cultivator she was mutually entangled with. It was durable, stretch, and fire resistant. But not nearly so fire resistant as Yustina herself.
Yustina twisted her upper body, sending the man spinning. That turned him into the path of the dagger thrust by one of the members of the Dark Shadow Cult. Or whatever they actually went by. Either way, their movements seemed unpredictable at first… but Yustina picked out the contours of shadow that accelerated them. With that, some of the fluid motion she’d learned as a water element cultivator allowed her to take control of the situation, and then she was off running. For some reason, the Black Scarf Clan member didn’t want to keep holding onto her.
She glanced around, finding herself more than halfway around the valley. Though some of those chasing after her had bungled up the effect, a good portion was now on fire… making the general tone of the area hotter. Sure, it had been filled with darkness before- but excessive darkness element made it hard to see or perhaps make use of other senses. Fire technically revealed people, but more than that it caused direct damage that had to be resisted. Just the kind of thing a pair of cultivators trying to go against many more needed to take advantage of.