There had been so many new people Anishka was interacting with over the last days that it took her a moment to recall the context of a vaguely familiar face. It was Celina’s face that reminded her.
“I heard a rumor that someone stole a ship and got off planet,” Haroun said. “I’d hoped it was you. I was looking forward to getting paid.”
“How did you get here?” Anishka asked.
“Me? Why, I am an official representative of the…” he looked at a badge pinned to his shirt. “…Orange Poppy Alchemists. Obviously.”
She didn’t know why she had even asked. Obviously he could get face accreditations for himself as easily as for others. “Why are you here?”
“I could ask the same for you,” he replied. “Except I don’t intend to stay here. Strangely, you seem to be content. I’d really rather you get to safety.”
Anishka shook her head. “People are much too busy to search for me right now. Especially since they believe I’m gone. Besides, I already informed those necessary. You will get paid… as long as you don’t renege on your bargain.”
“Please, who do you think I am?” Haroun looked actually offended. “I’m not crazy enough to double cross someone like that,” he looked up. “But I find it difficult to believe I will receive my reward if you get yourself captured. So I thought I would come encourage you.”
“I’m fine,” Anishka stated. “But if you’re worried, you can speed up this process by spreading the word. The stronger sects are just going to make everyone die for their choices, and the Trifold Alliance doesn’t want to have to kill them.”
“I probably could spread the word,” Haroun shrugged. “But I don’t see how that benefits me.”
“You’re the one who’s impatient,” Anishka pointed out. “Besides, couldn’t you… I dunno, charge people to connect them with like-minded individuals?”
Haroun narrowed his eyes. “It sounds like you’re trying to get me to promote your plans for free.”
“Or with someone else paying,” Anishka said. “It’s not my fault if you can’t make it work.”
“… You’ve become far too confident since we last met. It was easier to get paid before,” Haroun said. “I’m not really convinced.”
“I’m sure I could convince the right people to not break apart your criminal empire along with everything else.”
Haroun frowned, “That sounds suspiciously like blackmail.”
“Does it?” Anishka asked. “You’re the one who approached me.”
Haroun rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll consider spreading the word.”
“I appreciate it.”
The Royal Guard were probably more suited for the Sergeant’s current job, not for anything but the size of their mandibles. She wanted to be able to quickly chomp down on this guy’s important blood flow areas if he tried something stupid. But the Royal Guard were also… big. Bulky. At least by comparison. Either way, someone was much more likely to feel them crawling about. The Sergeant, meanwhile, easily ducked between the hairs this man had going all the way up his body.
He passed the first test easily enough, which was not directly going to one of the sect representatives and trying to rat out Anishka. He mostly went around getting money from people, generally without talking. And not by stealing it, either. Not directly, at least. It was handed to him intentionally, or left places. The Sergeant didn’t really understand money or even possessions as an overarching thing, but her experience with humans let her understand some things. While taken surreptitiously, this money wasn’t stolen at this particular stage in its life cycle.
Then Haroun went around trying to get other people to give him money, after talking to a lot of people and picking up written notes. Reading was still a great labor for the Sergeant, as it involved moving over a whole paper or trying to get an angle where she could actually see it. Without being on someone’s forehead where she could be slapped. And her distance vision wasn’t good at resolving such details either, unless the energy happened to be imbued with energy.
From the context of his words, it seemed he was trying to do the thing Anishka asked. At least, that was what the Sergeant determined. He was just bad at stating things clearly so she was only guessing. Maybe some of these were a ‘shakedown’. But it wasn’t her job to stop such things if that was the case. Ultimately, she continued on with the man until he reached the edge of the camp where he met up with several others and continued on his way. It would take far too much time to return to Anishka if she went further, so she left him there.
Things were quickly coming to a head. Targets had been picked out among the various enemy sects on their core world. The Wayfarer was in the best state it could be, given the circumstances. The next important step was to attempt to draw Otakar away, without it being too obvious. Would he really want to take out just the Wayfarer? Perhaps not. But the Wayfarer and Anton might be more appealing, as he seemed to have built up a grudge with the archer. Add into that a moderately sized fleet with the Wayfarer, and it was a group of forces he could potentially destroy on his own.
Which was somewhat of a concern for Anton. Otakar might actually be successful, if things didn’t go as planned. Anton thought he could fly away, keeping enough distance from his opponent, but that couldn’t be judged for certain until it was tested. Sacrificing himself for a sufficient distraction was not a pleasant thought, but sacrificing himself without even drawing the man away far enough would be worse. And Anton didn’t intend to die, but there was no way they could win this war without losing more people from all across their cultivation ranks.
He just hoped that Ekict’s lesser cultivators would stand with them, or at least stay out of their way. No doubt many would be held in place by the familiar fear of the large sects or swayed by their promises of rewards, but some had seemed interested in Anishka and the others’ word. Ultimately, there was no telling how they would act until the time came.
Anton could kill tens, hundreds, or thousands of cultivators below Life Transformation by himself without them even being able to counterattack, but that didn’t mean he would be given that opportunity- or wanted to. There was a core group that had to die, and the rest would best be avoided. But they’d done what they could. All of the grounded ships were now within barriers, so he couldn’t just destroy them from wherever he pleased. Spectral energy might pierce a barrier unknown, but it was particularly weak at destroying objects. He hadn’t stopped harassing or killing enemy cultivators, but there were limits to how much he could do at once. There was still a massive population of cultivators moving, and either they were almost done mobilizing or they would not be ready when the Trifold Alliance attacked.
Anton could hope for the latter without betting on it. If things turned out easier than expected? He would breathe a sigh of relief and return home happy. Or wherever he went directly after.
“You can really crack that barrier alone?” Anton asked general Gabriela.
“The Wayfarer has taken upon itself additional cannons. We have half again as much firepower as we used to… and our lead gunner has some weird insights that might help. We’ll burn through power, of course. But that’s the whole point. Just keep a watch for him.”
Anton nodded. That was his job… as well as picking off any easy targets when barriers were cracked open. The Wayfarer’s range wasn’t as much as his, but without planetary barriers it could still bombard a sect from high in the atmosphere, where even those who could fly would take some time to reach. Except Assimilation cultivators or the like, and if they wanted to fight alone Anton and the Wayfarer would happily scrap with a couple of them. If there were too many, they would just leave.
The first day was mostly uneventful. They caused a lot of mostly cosmetic damage to several different sects, though repairs might be expensive- and Anton hoped the damage to the formations was more permanent. Then they retreated, not directly towards the sun so that they weren’t too obvious about where they were going. Then both would recharge for the next attack.
The second day they got into a proper scuffle and weren’t able to break through the intended barrier- withdrawing towards the safety of waiting allied fleets. Those were there to, ironically, make people forget them. And ready to act when things actually got down to it.
It was on the fifth day when it happened. “He’s coming,” Anton warned. “You’d better turn tail.” The Wayfarer wasn’t slow, but compared to a cultivator its maneuverability was lacking. Given some time, however, it was able to accelerate in the proper direction, and if they were being caught up to they could put on a burst of acceleration to keep ahead. Flying through the void of space, there wasn’t exactly a limit on speed- though gravity wells of planets or achieving any fraction of the speed of light did make that more difficult. Relative acceleration was the most important in a chase.
Anton took some shots in a serious attempt to injure Otakar and slow him down. The man was already flying out of the atmosphere, clearly intent to circle around the planet. Even as he peppered the man with attacks, Anton began his own retreat. Otakar moved to cut both him and the Wayfarer off from a fleet that they could join with, and the plan was fully in motion.
If Otakar had a proper communicator, he might have turned around a few minutes into the chase. That was the weakness of the plan, but in both formations and physical technology Ekict was behind. They had some point-to-point communicators, since the Alliance had wanted to keep in contact with them, but those were mainly bulky since they had to transmit fifty lightyears. Anton’s were much smaller but required a significant power output to reply.
Either he didn’t have anything like that or ignored it, because he didn’t stop his chase. Anton had to work hard with returning projectiles to keep the man away from the Wayfarer, but fortunately the man was interested in herding the two of them together so he made wasted movements. Smaller ships were taken out along his way, unfortunately, but they still contributed to attempting to wear the man down.
Otakar had fallen back a quite significant distance from them, but he continued to increase his acceleration, closing the gap. On the scale between them and the sun, he was practically on their heels. That was never more clear than when the man suddenly cut through space, appearing next to the Wayfarer. His blade came down on its adaptive barrier… and didn’t immediately set the whole thing on fire. The adaptation worked, but it could still be overpowered.
Anton didn’t intend to let that happen, making use of his slowly increasing power to amp up his unending rain of arrows. Some had the power of light, so close as to be unavoidable. The man’s energy defenses withstood those easily enough, but the point was to wear him down. Anton still believed the man’s stamina couldn’t be endless, or he would have participated in more battles.
He only barely managed to duck in time as the man moved through the void to strike him. It wasn’t the same as Chikere’s ability to cut apart space with her blade- but it was effective enough for him to close the distance with Anton. Fortunately, Star Steps allowed Anton to instantly change his trajectory. Though it didn’t seem Otakar was locked into a particular direction either.
Each time he moved, he approached within ten or a hundred meters of Anton, who would then shoot off at a seemingly random angle. Along with Otakar came his aura of fire, as if the man were a great furnace. Any shot Anton made from up close brought with them a burst of flame, not that he had much time to make use of them. And while he was also a fire cultivator, he was only immune to the flames of his own stars. The man was clearly trying to strike his bow, without which Anton’s offensive force would drop sharply. Anton wasn’t certain exactly how sturdy Worldheart was, but he didn’t want to find out the hard way that it could fall to this man’s flames or blade.
A sword sliced down vertically, its trajectory aiming for Anton’s head. However, it both slowed and curved as it did so. Then it suddenly sped up as Anton shot directly backwards. He sustained a powerful magnetic field just a few tens of meters around himself, but it was paying off.
The overall momentum of the battle carried it towards the sun- hence Anton’s directions being not quite random. The Wayfarer was dropping behind, but if they reversed direction for even a moment the two groups would meet once more. It just wasn’t possible for them to target Otakar with him practically teleporting around.
Though they’d made it about halfway and Anton felt his power growing, he still harbored doubts about being able to survive Otakar’s onslaught for long. He was burning through power many times faster than he could recover it, and Otakar still felt fresh. It didn’t matter if Anton could win a marathon if he was sliced in two before they got that far.