Since Anton didn’t intend to intrude upon the good graces of Nalini or the rest of the planet, he kept his language learning to longer distance observation. While people might not like being observed, Anton did his best to limit himself to relatively public places and classrooms. His understanding of the spoken language continued to improved slowly over the course of half a year, but what was even more important was how he developed an understanding of their writing.
Once he could read with some accuracy, he sought out anything written down- while doing his best to avoid anything that appeared secret. Without prodding his way through barriers around the larger cities he doubted he would run into much of anything he shouldn’t, but he preferred to avoid sneaking looks at cultivation methods or the like. If he was going to look, he wanted to be able to ask.
After learning to read, however, his progress accelerated greatly. Ten Thousand Scrolls allowed him to read through everything available by doing little more than scanning pages with his energy. Of course, that was because of his familiarity with the technique.
He learned about many things he had been curious about. Names of towns and cities, yes. But more importantly, he learned the name of the planet. Aipra. He also learned that the people of the planet knew what they were doing- though that wasn’t surprising. Underestimating the understanding of people working to survive was easy, but in such a harsh environment it wasn’t possible to get by with just effort and some cultivation. A proper understanding of things was key to creating a functional society.
First there was the apparent lack of ice- or rather water of nearly any kind. Anton picked up about half of what he knew just from observing them, but the oddities of the planet meant they had an unusual atmosphere. Enough for people to breathe, but it didn’t carry a lot of water. There was no rain, and water was quickly absorbed into the ground, not leaving behind oceans or lakes. But they weren’t lacking in water. In fact, it was quite the opposite below the surface.
The ground was freezing, but water still flowed into it instead of just freezing on top. At least, in part. Actual ice in the cities was intentionally removed, but underground it seemed to flow like a liquid despite being well below freezing in most cases. What he read didn’t reveal all the details, but it was a combination of particulates mixed into the water combining with the absurdly low temperatures. Without that, Aipra would have likely perished. Instead, they were able to create wells to draw upon the water for themselves and their crops. Small crops, for the most part. Some root vegetables and weird leafy plants that didn’t look any good but were consumed regardless. Things that could survive without sunlight, though it took infusions of natural energy to make them grow.
That was just a small part of what allowed them to survive. Anton was impressed, and had little he could think to offer them. However, perhaps a cultivator like Nalini would know. Using a combination of written and spoken language, he could doubtless make actual contact, if she was not busy.
Prospero Vandale found him in space on the far side of enemy territory. The Harmonious Citadel’s territory had grown and shrunk somewhat over the course of the war, but they had their core in a series of systems since their debut. Going around them wasn’t impossible, though time consuming. But he had a good reason to make the trip, visiting some allies. Or at least enemies of enemies.
The One Thousand Palm Sect was not on good terms with the Harmonious Citadel, and their leader Prasad was quite open about that. He had been influenced to make a move on the Harmonious Citadel some decades before, but now was time to engage in deeper coordination.
Coming face to face with Prasad himself, Prospero found the man quite intimidating. He was a largely built man, though his muscles were not terribly bulky. But his body alone wouldn’t mean much to an Integration cultivator- or an Augmentation cultivator like he was. It was his energy that made him larger than life, sometimes literally. He seemed to take up the whole room in his rather opulent formal chambers. Prospero determined that it was in part due to his intentions, and in part simply related to his power.
“So they send a youth,” Prasad said. “Interesting. Come. Sit.”
Certainly, Prospero knew his current appearance was young. And even if he counted the several centuries of his previous life, it was likely that Prasad was a good bit older- though he did not appear old or wrinkled.
“Thank you for receiving me here,” Prospero said. “I find myself impressed by the power and wealth of your sect.” Prasad didn’t seem above a bit of flattery, and it was quite true. “As a representative of the Scarlet Alliance, we were hoping to work together more closely with relations to dealing with the Harmonious Citadel.”
“What, am I not doing enough?” Prasad asked. “Ten worlds in as many years conquered does not satisfy you?”
“On the contrary, we are aware of your effectiveness,” Prospero smiled politely. “But surely you wouldn’t wish to limit yourself to such efforts. The saints… well, they are still a powerful force, if less so than they once were. Running into them at the wrong time could be a problem for you- or conversely, if you were able to come upon any of them unexpected, you would have your own advantage. “You are powerful, but not so much that you can defeat five Augmentation cultivators at once. Or more, perhaps.”
“More?” Prasad raised an eyebrow. “Everyone knows of the eight saints. And with three dead…”
“That would be the case, if the Harmonious Citadel were as straightforward and Righteous as they claim. But we both know that is not the case. After all, their saint of light… seems to be a member of the Exalted Quadrant. And no,” Prospero emphasized the word, “Not a former member. But here under their direction.”
“Trouble waiting to happen,” Prasad shook his head. “But if they choose to cause trouble, your people will be more in their line of fire than ours.”
“And the opposite with the Trigold Cluster.”
The man clicked his tongue. “We can’t afford another war between them here.”
“Certainly not,” Prospero agreed. “But first, we must deal with the citadel. Of the remaining members, who would you prefer to go up against?”
“Shield, morningstar, axe, and the saint of light. The last one…?” Prasad frowned. “I don’t recall.”
“Ah yes. The assassin. Not a concern for me. As for the saint of light, I’d rather not have to deal with him. Shield is a pain. Either morningstar or axe would provide a straightforward enough battle.”
“Would you win?” Before the man could take offense, Prospero continued, “Could you take them out of the picture permanently without them being able to flee?”
“That would depend on them. I wouldn’t lose, though.”
“We have plans for all of them,” Prospero said. “The next one that falls… well, it will depend on what backup they are able to reveal afterwards. If you work with us to keep track of their movements, we can attempt to maneuver a favorable battle your way.”
“Very well,” the well-muscled man nodded. “And what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Do you wish to battle?”
“At this time… I doubt either of us would benefit from such a thing,” Prospero shook his head. “I am not under any illusions that I could even force you to expend serious effort.”
“Maybe that Tauno fellow will, then.”
“It could be suggested to him,” Prospero said. “An exchange of pointers could be useful for all involved.” At least until after the Harmonious Citadel was dissolved. Even then, it would likely be decades or centuries before the space between the One Thousand Palms and the Scarlet Alliance was claimed by either side. Assuming the Scarlet Alliance remained together after the defeat of their common enemy.
The Great Queen was capable of flight on a level satisfactory for interpersonal combat, but travel between systems was outside of her abilities. At the very least, she had no desire to attempt it, hoping to find enough energy to sustain her on her route, especially since it wouldn’t be faster than a proper ship.
Such was one that had carried her on her most recent journey. Though it was not solely for her own sake, she was part of the reason for the journey. Of course, there was a desire to explore ingrained into many from Rutera, a desire which Weos and Ceretos shared.
“Well, here we are,” said the woman in charge. The Great Queen tried to remember her name. Matija, it was. Names were part of humans, so it was best to remember them if she could. “I don’t know if I would want to go much further.”
The Great Queen looked out the window- though she cared little about what she could see with her eyes. It was simply the location least insulated from the outside energy, or lack of it. In front of them was a dead zone, lacking in natural energy. But beyond that… well, it was like staring at a banquet scattered over a wide field. The Great Queen was not averse to eating off of the floor, unlike humans.
She signed, indicating her words to the explorer with her. “The upper realms. Full of ascension energy.”
“And deadly, to those who are not ready for it. Ignoring the dangers of the border.”
The Great Queen was quite pleased to communicate directly. Not everyone learned the void ant’s sign language, instead relying on translation devices. It was slower and less personal, though at some point the Great Queen would not have cared about the latter. “We cannot get closer?” she asked.
“We’re still developing ships that run without using natural energy at all. It’s… many times more difficult. Information from Engineer Uzun might allow us to make something that could swap between energies, but it would be difficult to test.”
“Could not Anton help?”
“Eventually, sure,” Matija agreed. “But the upper realms are currently occupied with the war anyway.”
“One war after another. I doubt there will ever be times of true peace.”
“No, but we can hope. Or at least have our current allies at peace.”
“We could aid greatly, in the upper realms,” the Great Queen signed.
“Yes. But you know how people will react.”
“Extermination,” the Great Queen admitted. “I am aware. I believe we were intentionally eradicated from the upper and lower realms. Though I hold out hope for there being hidden colonies.”
“If you were in the upper realms…” Matija shook her head.
“I could slay Augmentation cultivators as easily as Integration or Life Transformation cultivators,” the Great Queen said. “Or if not, I would rapidly reach that level of power. But that day may never come. I do wish to aid our allies there, if we could.”
“Unfortunately, the border is a great divide. Someone like Chikere cutting her way across doesn’t often happen. Except, perhaps, every Ascension cultivator.”
“The mysteries of cultivation are foreign to me,” the Great Queen admitted. “I simply must understand what can slay me, and what cannot. I am quite pleased that Nthanda is a friend and not an enemy.”
“It will be a great risk for whoever makes the first attempt,” Matija said. “That much is certain.”
“I have heard of freezing. Cryogenics?” the Great Queen spelled the words out. “We could send some young ants.”
“And have them die?” Matija shook her head. “It would be a waste.”
“It was merely a thought. In fact, it would do us no good if uneducated spawn were to reach the upper realms. They would need a proper guide, or they may make the mistakes of the ancestors.”
“Which were?” Matija asked.
“Not making friends with cultivators. No matter our advantages, we cannot stand against a world of cultivators. Nor should we. Instead, with some on our side… we are undefeatable.”
Of course, the Great Queen knew better than any that the void ants could indeed perish. She was the oldest of those alive, and had seen the most death before and after her proper awakening to intelligence, and her joining Anton. But she also firmly believed that while an individual was mortal, a well put together alliance could be eternal.