Quite aware of how dangerous formations could be, Devon was cautious as they proceeded forward. However, unless the Runic Complex had advanced to significantly higher than the rest of Vrelt, or they had Anchoring cultivators hidden in ambush, the danger wasn’t unacceptably high.
Mostly, he had to trust Taalay’s judgment and experience with them. They moved through the tunnel, individual blockades disabled a few at a time- and reactivated behind them. Devon wondered if they were being betrayed, but they continued to open up and allowed the group to reach Ashildr. If they were going to be attacked, leaving them in between various traps would have been optimal.
Fairly quickly, Devon recognized their surroundings. They were on a direct path towards the mysterious thing. Upon entering the room, he learned nothing more than that it was an active formation of some sort. And something that didn’t seem to interact with him.
He looked to the formation expert among them. Evgeni was eagerly studying the runes around them, as well as whatever else was necessary. Devon did his best to pick things out, but it was a bit too complex for his experience with formations. It would be easier for him to determine the purpose from its effects, but he only felt a thin flow of energy.
“So what is it for?” Taalay asked.
“It’s a communications array,” Evgeni eventually decided, looking at Ashildr for confirmation. “Transmitting something to the upper realms, I believe. Though it seems incomplete.”
“Rather than incomplete, it’s part of something larger,” the Runic Complex sect head explained.
“Can you truly be coerced into making something of this complexity?” Taalay asked suspiciously.
“Of course. We didn’t want to die.”
“You could have come to others…” Taalay said. “Once you found out we could have-”
“They were already in control by that point. Influencing who had access to what knowledge. Anchoring… it wasn’t their idea, but they were able to learn about it early on.”
Taalay nodded. He was now aware that many of the early Anchoring cultivators were part of their group. “So what, you chose to give up?”
“No,” Ashildr shook her head.
“And yet, you constructed this so that you might live,” Devon pointed out. “And the only reason you’re showing us is because you think we would kill you.” They still might.
“We had to survive to even have opportunities. If your people will inspect with me, I can enlighten them on how the formation… isn’t exactly to specifications.”
Sabotage, then? A way to subtly fight back… or an excuse for situations like this? Devon would respect the opinion of the locals on how to handle this.
“It should certainly be a bottleneck for their transmissions,” Evgeni said. “Though such complex runes mean that it isn’t simply words being transmitted, correct?”
“That’s right,” Ashhildr said. “I believe the intent is to transmit knowledge of Anchoring, including relevant insights and the like. It is a tedious process that takes more than a few years to fully complete.”
Devon tried to keep his face neutral. He very much hoped that the Trigold Cluster in the upper realms didn’t get their hands on their communication technology, because this was… easy. Not trivial, and perhaps there was another layer of complexity that he didn’t understand, but they regularly transmitted at least the basic version of techniques between realms- with more than just words. “What happens if it’s interrupted?” Devon asked.
“At this point? The information will still be usable, but flawed. The process is very nearly complete, however,” Ashildr clarified. “And to be fully transparent, destroying this node will likely speed up the process and alert them to your understanding of the situation. Though I really don’t know if there’s anything we can do about this anyway. Most of the damage is done.”
“Unless false information was injected into the transmission,” Devon pointed out. “That could taint the whole thing.”
“It would certainly cause a major setback. It might take decades to decipher the true pieces of information. But for that, you would need to capture every single node within a month. And even that might be too slow. Considering the time to modify the information, it’s impossible.”
Taalay raised a bushy eyebrow. “Why tell us at all, then? You’ve merely shown you are complicit.”
“I did what I could,” Ashildr shrugged. “And perhaps… I wanted people to know. Though at this point, there’s nothing we can do to stop them from returning and scouring our planet with the next cycle. I’d like to live those few centuries, but perhaps I would be happier… not.”
They stood in silence for some time. Eventually, Taalay sighed. “You should have just come to me, Ash. We could have figured something out, somehow.”
“And now we’re on a very tight timeline,” Devon sighed.
“An impossible one, you mean,” Taalay said. “We’ll barely be able to secure this area by the end of the month, let alone the whole planet.”
“He’ll be here within the week,” Devon said.
“They who?” Ashildr asked. “Do you have incoming formation masters? Or should I not know?”
“I suppose we should have some with the reinforcements,” Devon admitted. “Are you willing to work with them? Any information you can give us now we can transmit to them, and save a few days.”
“I’m willing to try,” the old woman said. “But I don’t know if it will do any good.”
Taalay took a moment to point something out. “You weren’t referring to them, were you Devon? You said ‘he’.”
Devon let a slight smile onto his face. How could he not, thinking about him? “That’s right. And I have the feeling he’s going to ask you a question you need to be ready to answer. And by you, I mean… the local occupants as a whole.”
“Is it a difficult question?”
“That depends on if you trust him,” Devon said. “For me, I wouldn’t even have to think about it. As for you… it might help to know he doesn’t have to ask.”
The sound of an explosion was followed by the vibrating waves of natural energy as the formation stabilized. It had taken several days to secure the Runic Complex- simply leaving them behind wouldn’t do, as there was a clear trail of destruction along the way. So there they were, watching the barrier be bombarded. Devon could tell it was going to fall sooner rather than later. Even so… “I’m impressed by the durability,” Devon said. “I can see Sovann crying tears of molten gold for how much this is costing her.”
“We wouldn’t be a proper formation sect if we didn’t have the best defenses,” Ashildr commented. “But unfortunately, it’s well short of perfection. It won’t be enough.”
Taalay also had a comment. “You’re rather calm in this situation. Even though your ship is helping out the situation with the Wavecallers… and it’s just us here.”
“So what?” Devon shrugged. “It’s just Sovann out there. And a handful of others.”
“If we’re just looking at Anchoring cultivators…” Taalay said. “I am afraid we’re at a disadvantage. Unless both of you can take two of them…?”
Cai spoke up immediately, “I’m going to deal with her.”
“That leaves five for the three of us,” Taalay said. “I’m not so proud as to pretend I can fight two. Ash?”
“Maybe on a good day,” she said.
“Devon?” Taalay prompted.
“I should be able to tangle with two or three for a while,” Devon said. “I could kill two… if I got to pick my opponents and had no other interference.”
“That still sounds like losing numbers,” Taalay pointed out. “Why do you seem so… unconcerned?”
“Because we get to make our own fates. I’ve been in hopeless situations before. This one is merely lacking in that regard.”
“Reinforcements from your alliance are over a day away. Surely you’re not counting on them…?”
“I prefer to rely on myself, and those immediately around me,” Devon said. “We might die, but I won’t go down easily. What else can I say? If we lose in morale, then we are truly defeated. But if we can convince them that they’re at a disadvantage, it might come true.”
When the barrier broke, Cai immediately rocketed into the skies. As the fastest among them he could easily escape… but the thought never even crossed his mind. When he reached the peak of his arc, he kicked off the air to launch himself back downward, making up for the momentum he lost due to friction and even increasing slightly as he fell. His target was once more that woman’s face. Sovann obviously noticed, and she pulled out some sort of defensive treasure.
Cai could sense the power within it, and he also knew that he was already committed. Backing out now would simply cause him trouble. And thus, he crashed into a shell of spikes at supersonic speeds. But despite the punctures that covered his legs, he thought it would have been worse if he slowed down. It was too bad the shattering had given Sovann time to step back. On the other hand, it did give Cai the opportunity to kick her into the cannon this time, instead of the other way around. Her defenses were strong, but ultimately that just meant she was afraid of death.
Cai knew their tactic was to delay, hoping for something. But this was the only thing he knew how to do. And perhaps it would help to have this woman off the battlefield. He chased after her, intent on kicking her into the next county. And the one after that.
Ashildr’s immediate response to the outer barrier breaking was not to charge forward, but instead retreat. However, it was not a simple act of cowardice. Instead, she was aware that she would be most effective controlling certain battlefield formations. Active input was better than automatic responses. And she could reflow the energy that was no longer being used for that defensive barrier into restrictive formations that would suppress the enemy. If she was lucky, one of the fellows from the Creeping Fire Sect would follow her.
No, even better- Asgeirr was going to bring them together. His imposing battlefield presence reminded her of the old days, and while she knew he was more powerful now the memories in her head had him as the only figure of note on the battlefield. It was good to fight by his side one last time.
Seeing the others making their moves, Devon was left with the three newcomers. They were from one of the sects along the way, the Ebon Skulls. Though of course they hadn’t been using that name publicly.
They were necromancers that played their hand at something like conjurers. However, instead of their ‘summoned’ soldiers simply being energy constructs, they were instead based on something physical. And while they had some perfectly innocent suits of armor and the like, Devon had learned that their most effective methods would involve empowering the bodies of the dead. Whether former enemies or their own sect mates, they didn’t seem to distinguish much.
Devon knew he would have his task cut out for him. There were three women, equally distributed from old to young. He didn’t know if that meant anything, and he couldn’t recall their names. Still, he knew that their connection to their vessels was the critical factor. Unfortunately, his initial attempts to sever the connection to their soldiers were unsuccessful. Specifically, he caught a handful of them in his chains… but it was easier from there to simply crush them to pieces rather than sever the connection. And while those were the weakest soldiers, the connection was stronger for the more powerful individuals. The very top of which were able to display power near the Anchoring stage.
He danced across the battlefield, waves of chains surrounding him and taking advantage of the enemy’s movement. Along with the formations Ashildr was controlling suppressing them, he had the advantage of being just a single person. They were an army, and meant to fight against such- and then perhaps a few commanders. But that meant most of their firepower couldn’t reach Devon all at once, while he could make it difficult to leave his area of influence.
He had some hopes to reach the women controlling them from the back, but unfortunately even flying wouldn’t be sufficient. And they would be able to redirect their energy from controlling the hordes to fighting themselves. More than that, they wouldn’t hold back if they felt threatened. Devon couldn’t win, so it was better to simply hold them off. He had to walk a delicate balance of being vulnerable and weak without seeming as if he could be finished off at any moment. If he was lucky, Cai would return… but unless he killed her, the man would drag an angry Sovann back with him and that wasn’t likely to be a short battle.
Still, Devon had a good feeling about things as he looked for some way to gain an advantage. He wasn’t willing to give up yet, though unfortunately he couldn’t hope for a sudden rise to Enrichment. It would be nice, but he was too far off for that to be viable. Perhaps he could simply wound a few enemies and let them retreat? As long as he gave the impression he could kill one or two of them, that might be a viable tactic.