Looking down at Ceretos, Matija knew she was lucky to have been on the ship that came to this system to check it out. She was still not fully clear on how personal power and leadership positions intertwined in Ceretos, but she supposed it was much like Rutera, except with political power and wealth leading to more of the same. Ceretos’ people also just happened to have huge personal combat capability.
Even before they touched atmosphere, Matija knew that Anton had spotted them. She felt his energy tracking them, which was only natural when they came in over the Order of One Hundred Stars. In a way, Anton was their primary security system. Of course he was waiting when they landed.
Everyone was polite and formal with Anton. There was no way the others hadn’t seen the video of the first attack by Azoth, and his involvement in it. But except for the crew that had been with her, none of them would get the proper experience of the first contact. It still seemed insane, to just find a guy standing outside their ship as they surveyed the sun.
Matija was also polite as she greeted Anton. Not because she was afraid of him- though it was hard to not be a little bit nervous as she grew ever more capable of sensing the energy he held- but because he deserved that respect for being a decent person.
She looked back at the ship, whose fuel stores would be replenished through unfamiliar methods. Not unknown or unexplained, exactly, but not something Rutera could replicate at the moment. Ceretos didn’t exactly have any charging stations nor did they make use of the same sorts of things, but they could directly return power to their fuel rods. Even without technical explanations about how they worked.
Things like that were more or less the goal of missions like this- understanding the difference in thinking patterns between Ceretos and Rutera, and exchanging knowledge. As she’d begun to cultivate Matija came to understand the natural intuition and nearly unexplainable understanding cultivation could provide. Once she got how to do something, she just knew it, even if she couldn’t explain the mechanics behind it besides using her natural energy to, for example, inject power into her datapad. She could even make it run faster and because of that she learned to help with overheating. Though none of that was relevant on large scales.
“So, anything exciting happening on Rutera?” Anton asked.
“There’s the obvious, of course,” Matija sighed. “The war. Official reports are on the way, and I really don’t know much. Except we’re not immediately losing, at least. We’re studying the scrap of some of their ships, but they’re definitely more formation based like your style rather than our sort of technology.”
“We could send someone to assist,” Anton said.
“I think there are formal requests involved for that,” Matija shrugged. “You haven’t heard anything?”
“Formations aren’t my department,” Anton said. “That’s more my granddaughter.”
“I’d like to meet her some day,” Matija said.
“It’s rather impossible at the moment,” Anton shrugged. “She’s in the upper realms.”
“We’ve sent probes towards the upper realms,” Matija said. “No manned vessels because it’s more than a few systems away. Probably won’t learn anything for years. We’ll probably share information on what happens… eventually.”
“The current rate of information exchange is acceptable,” Anton said. “Though not preferable. But even I have some hesitation to share everything.” Anton pulled out some books, “On that note, I read the previously provided books.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that. Couldn’t really have a conversation about it though. What did you think?”
“Hmm… radiation is an interesting topic,” Anton began slowly. “Perhaps it is related to why cultivators inevitably age. We have some understanding of the practical effects of such things. For example, I was aware of different sorts of energy coming from the sun.”
“I’m glad it didn’t cook you alive,” Matija said.
“Perhaps it would, if I were not connected to it. I’m fairly certain that I am… safer than I would otherwise be. Not quite immune, because cultivation can always harm its user if they are careless. As with anything of great power.” Anton scratched his chin, “Your technical terms for the common forms of natural energy are quite extensive.”
“Right,” Matija nodded. “You generally refer to them more as elements… similar to an older understanding we’ve had.”
“You can just say we’re old fogies,” Anton said. “I don’t mind.”
“I meant it, it’s not really the same. Though I really wish you had better terms. Like, I have no idea what fire that doesn’t burn people you don’t want it to is. Are you shielding individuals from your energy?”
“That’s not it,” Anton said. “Look.” Anton held out his hand, forming a ball of flame. “It’s perfectly safe.”
Matija could feel that, and it was weird to be able to. Even so, she was hesitant to reach towards it. It was warm, and when she actually reached inside hot. But not damaging. “It’s weird,” she said.
“My grandson-in-law can demonstrate better,” Anton said.
“Let me guess, in the upper realms?”
“No, Anish is still here. You can visit the Fire and Ice Palace, or whatever they’re calling it lately.”
“I have so many questions,” Matija nodded. “Like, does ice draw heat away from the surroundings? And then where does the heat go?”
“The answer is always going to be yes and no.” Anton held out his hands. He formed two little orbs of ice. “Feel.”
The area around one of them was cold. The other, only cold to the touch. “Wait, I thought the Hundred Stars only controlled Fire and Light?” Matija frowned. “Is this… a secret technique?”
“This,” Anton said. “Is extremely elementary manipulation of elements. My cultivation technique does not have to have an affinity for something to make use of it. Just to do so quickly or efficiently. I understand how to do it, so I can. To some extent.” Anton grinned, “It wouldn’t be much good in a fight though.”
“I don’t fight much,” Matija admitted. “Though uh… General Nicodemo invites me to spar sometimes.”
“Oh?” Anton asked. “Does that bother you.”
“I don’t know. I’m not really any good at fighting. I just had a bit of a head start with cultivation. I feel like he’ll surpass me soon and we’ll probably never talk again. Though I guess having the general’s number is probably useful for advancing my career.”
“Number of… what?” Anton asked.
“Uh, his communicator,” Matija said. “We don’t do much point-to-point communication like you, but instead we have a network where you identify which thing you want to contact.”
“Sounds insecure,” Anton commented.
“There are ways to make it more secure. And there are separate military things.” Matija smiled, “That guy carries a bow with him everywhere now, you know? Even when you’re not around.”
“Sounds like you’re pretty familiar with… that guy.”
“Eh,” Matija shrugged. “It’s hard to be formal when he’s not, well, you. And not present. Like, Sect Head doesn’t sound like an important title to me even though I know you’re one of the most important people on this planet. And could probably take out our entire government on your own.”
Anton pondered. “Your weapons are fairly decent,” he said. “If you were prepared, I’m not sure if I could do that much.”
“The fact that you had to seriously consider that question is what I mean,” Matija said. “You didn’t say it was ridiculous. And I bet you could surprise people, if you wanted to. It’s a lot easier to mobilize yourself compared to… the entire military.”
“That’s true,” Anton said. “A weakness that Rutera currently has, though not an issue if you don’t let unfamiliar individuals near your planet. It is possible that someone from Azoth would try to land undetected, though.”
“The subject already came up,” Matija said. “We already had security scanners to begin with, and you cultivators light up sensors like… barely shielded power cores.” Matija narrowed her eyes as she looked at Anton, “Except you. You’re more like an extremely well shielded power core with a freaking star inside.”
“That is effectively the case,” Anton pointed out.
“I can’t believe you connected to our star.”
“Sorry,” Anton said sincerely.
Matija laughed, “I don’t know if anyone really understands. Most people don’t believe it- the other scientists aren’t good enough cultivators to get beyond the numbers.”
“It’s really only a small piece of a star,” Anton pointed out.
“Could you blow up a planet?” After a couple seconds, Matija answered herself, “And you had to consider it again. So it’s not that small.”
“Do you want the answer?” Anton asked.
“Only the really small ones. Or big asteroids,” Anton said. “And it wouldn’t be all at once. But I could dismantle one with enough time.” Suddenly, his head swiveled around, and his eyes narrowed. “What is he doing here?”
“He who?” Matija frowned. She couldn’t sense anyone in that direction, which really didn’t say much except that they weren’t right outside the building.
“I need to go.” Anton disappeared from before her eyes, leaving behind only a gust of wind that Matija knew could have been a supersonic shockwave if he didn’t cushion the world around him.
It had to be someone really important.
“I thought we agreed that you would stay… isolated,” Anton frowned as he looked at Everheart.
“See anyone else around?” Everheart shrugged. He looked different, but Anton knew that was just a facade. “I’m isolated.”
“Why are you in Graotan?”
“Why not? It’s a nice place.”
“I wasn’t under the impression that you liked nice places.”
“Then you’re uninformed,” Everheart smiled. “I do happen to like nature as much as anyone else. And these fields? I almost thought I was wandering past the hidden stores of a great sect. But people just eat this stuff, don’t they? It’s nice.”
“We’ve developed a system to harmoniously enhance the land as well as the overall quantities of natural energy,” Anton explained. “And I appreciate your approval. But you’re not here for this. Just say it.”
“… I heard you had scholars from Rutera visiting,” Everheart said. “I want to meet them.”
Anton closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His first instinct was to say no. His second instinct was also to say know. Thinking about it rationally, he should probably refuse. “Why?”
“Because they know things! I like to know things. And it could contribute to… planetary defense?”
“Could it?” Anton raised an eyebrow.
“It might!” Everheart shrugged, “Can’t know until I learn it.”
“… I should have killed you when you were unconscious,” Anton said.
Everheart grinned widely, “Too late now!” Then his grin faded. “Oh crap.” Everheart threw himself backwards as something tiny charged towards him. Instead of throwing together a barrier of energy, he pulled a boulder out of his bag and chucked it at the flying figure. That caused it to be slightly delayed at least.
“Please wait!” Anton called out, “We can talk about this.”
The ant turned towards him. Her legs signed, “I thought you said you wanted to kill him?”
“That was… only half true,” Anton explained. He hadn’t realized the Great Queen latched on as he left the Order, but he should have expected it.
“Did you… just talk to a Void Ant?” Everheart said, peeking out from behind a tree some hundred meters different. “That’s crazy!”
“Of course,” Anton said. “They’re quite intelligent once they’ve been alive for a while. You should know that. You left them to help fight the invaders, after all. They’re on the same level as humans, even.”
“That’s the problem!” Everheart waved his arms. “What if they betray you?”
“What if you betray me?” Anton looked at Everheart.
“Well I- uh…” he clicked his tongue. “You got me there. So, is it just the one?”
“This is the Great Queen,” Anton said, holding her aloft on his palm. “We worked together to develop a sign language to ease communication. There are a number of colonies throughout Brogora, and they work in harmony with the locals.” He kept an eye on the Great Queen to see what she was saying. “Yes, it’s him. I see.” Anton nodded. “The Great Queen would like to thank you for saving the Void Ants from extermination. And she adds that if you attempt to blow up her new home she’ll eat her way through your dantian.”
“Wow, straight from compliments to threats,” Everheart grinned. “I think I like her.”
From the way the Great Queen turned away, Anton wasn’t sure the feeling was mutual. But such was life.
“I can allow you to meet with the Ruterans,” Anton said, “But… it must be in disguise.”
“Done,” Everheart said, gesturing to himself.
“I mean with a proper cover and… a little more subtlety.”
“Hey! Most people can’t detect me before I sense them, okay?” Everheart said. “I can conceal my enemy before anyone else notices. Except for psychos like you. How far can you sense things anyway?”
Anton raised both eyebrows, looking down his nose. No way was he going to reveal that information so easily.
“Tsk. Worth a try.”
Killing Everheart was continuously shifting to outweigh the benefits Anton could think of. Yet he still felt deep down that he shouldn’t. Hopefully it wasn’t because of some sort of subtle manipulation.