Choosing to ignore that Elder Intan had instantly gotten within a few millimeters of death or at least deadly injury, Anton instead focused on the chaos and disruption inside the barrier. It only took a few moments before everything shifted, collapsing around individual enemy ships instead of being one large bubble around them. That meant that fighter pilot Ty and Elder Intan only managed to cause moderate damage in the few moments they had. Several more ships were destroyed in those moments, and with the larger barrier suddenly unavailable… suddenly the orbital defenses and waiting fighters were effective.
It seemed that with the Worldbinding cultivator focusing on them each ship’s barriers were slightly stronger than they should normally be, but it was nothing compared to the near-invulnerability they had just lost.
With the focus shifted away from Anton he had a few moments to reorient himself, picking out critical targets. The strongest of those who had a connection to the aura user, and any ships he felt he could bring down. Anton considered attacking the Worldbinding cultivators directly, but wasn’t confident he could seriously affect them yet. Better to whittle away at their source of power while he had the chance.
Rutera’s fleet reacted quickly, weaving themselves among the enemy ships and making it impossible to simply take out the hindrances within the formation and reestablish the barrier. Anton was impressed at the speed with which the opening was exploited.
The maneuver didn’t come without cost. With the Ruteran ships inside their formation, the full power of the invaders was brought to bear, including the Worldbinding cultivators. That aura was a problem, weakening the moderate strength cultivators on Rutera’s side greatly.
Spectral energy was still the solution, Anton pulling upon as much of it as he could to pierce through the now weakened barriers, targeting any he felt had a connection to the woman. With the larger barrier collapsed he could feel she was a woman now- both Worldbinding cultivators were, though the barrier augmentor was significantly older.
Whenever Anton targeted someone with his spectral arrows, the barrier augmentor focused her efforts on those ships… but there was only so much she could adjust such things on the fly. Anton settled for a half dozen weaker arrows at once, some only appearing as spectral energy because his stores were limited. Some managed to still pierce the barriers, their specific qualities making them difficult to stop, while others were completely negated. Even if they had all been stopped, however, Anton felt his efforts were worthwhile. While the second woman focused on stopping his attacks, the rest of the fleet was facing slightly diminished enemy defenses that they were happy to continue to exploit.
Along with Rutera’s fighters, there was now a hefty mix of Ceretos’ cultivators moving between the ships. Not all of them could completely control their movement in space, but they were able to jump between both enemy and allied ships, using them as platforms. The combat continued to rotate around the planet, not quite matching that of the orbital platforms and thus allowing fresh arsenals to open fire. Anton could only imagine how costly this battle would be for Rutera- ammunition meant to fight cultivators was not cheap- but no costs could compare to what would happen if they allowed themselves to be conquered.
As each ship fell, Anton felt both Worldbinding cultivators weaken. He knew that even without any support at all they would still be worth more than a dozen Life Transformation cultivators each- the stronger one perhaps several times that- but compared to what they had been doing… Anton was little concerned about their individual combat capabilities. Soon enough the enemy fleet had been cut by a quarter… and then they began to pull away from Rutera.
Anton heard communications in his ear, something that hadn’t been necessary for most of the battle as he was the one relaying information. It was a simple bit of Ruteran technology that vibrated sound directly into him instead of those ‘speakers’ they preferred to use. It was a simple order, one he didn’t technically have to follow- but was glad to. “Maintain pursuit. Don’t let them reform.”
Even as those orders went out, Anton knew it would get many pilots killed. Without the support of the orbital defense platforms, they were more vulnerable… and yet it was undoubtedly the right call. If these Worldbinding cultivators got another chance, they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. They could come back, more prepared, with a larger fleet… and perhaps that would be the end of Rutera. Anton didn’t want to disparage the ground defenses, but if fighting broke out in the cities it wouldn’t be pretty no matter who ‘won’.
The power of ascension energy flowed through Anton, into his bow. Either the enemy’s defenses would focus solely on him, or he would punch a hole through one of their ships. Maybe two, if he was lucky. The pull of his bow strained his muscles and energy, fatigue beginning to actually catch up to him over the course of the battle. But he wouldn’t let this opportunity pass.
By the time a third of the enemy fleet was destroyed, Anton thought he could have taken out the weaker Worldbinding cultivator, were she not on the same flagship as the one managing the barriers. The enemies response continued to be panicked, and Anton imagined they expected to be pulling away from these fighters. After all, all of the enemy ships were capable of interstellar travel, which meant superlight speeds in some circumstances. But they couldn’t draw the power they needed.
When the sky had darkened, even Anton had been momentarily surprised. He’d forgotten his grip on the star’s energy, but it had been working from the moment he did it- and it simply took more than a handful of minutes for the effects to reach them. Anton was only controlling a tiny fraction of the star’s power- the miniscule sliver of it that was directly ‘pointed’ at Rutera- but that was sufficient. Which was good, because that was close to the limit of his power.
Perhaps realizing this, the enemy ships were making their way towards the star with a slight offset, hoping to draw from its power as the chase commenced. Over the course of the next half hour, the Ruteran fleet determinedly dogged the invading forces, reducing their numbers to below half. Then the invading fleet began to pull away, as the interstellar ships finally managed to disentangle and begin to accelerate at a rate the fighters couldn’t keep up with. There was also the matter of fuel the local fighters had.
Another order, slightly delayed as distance became a significant factor. “Assist the Ceretos cultivators and pull back. End pursuit. We can’t stop them.”
As much as it bothered Anton, General Nicodemo was right. But he was also wrong at the same time. As the enemy ships began to pull away, none of the local fighters could keep up the pace unless they wanted to doom themselves to never returning home. Even the most brash individuals turned to retreat, Ty Quigley’s extremely expensive fighter bearing numerous holes as he carried Elder Intan away, the latter clutching one of his own severed arms in his teeth as they went.
With the Sylanis Cluster’s ships only getting faster, there wasn’t much hope. Except, while they had chosen the best avenue of retreat for them… it was also the worst mistake they could have made.
Anton’s eyes lit up as fires burned inside him. He was absolutely going to need a long period of recovery after what he’d done today… and how much more energy he was going to use. But as the enemy fleet drew closer to the local star he followed in silence and peace, merely keeping pace with them… until he suddenly cut off a wider arc of the sun’s power for just a few moments. He was ready for the delay, now, and when it hit the fleet, briefly dropping their acceleration and the strange invisibility they had, Anton took his shot.
It was just a single arrow, but it went straight through the sails on one side of the flagship. The barrier from the second Worldbinding cultivator was instantly forced to its maximum as his attack went, but with half of the fleet missing and the woman having been constantly pushing herself… it wasn’t enough. The barrier defended the body of the ship, but with the sails on that side went a quarter of their energy replenishment capabilities and a great amount of their stability.
His second arrow… went through one of the lesser ships. His third came from behind the enemy fleet, from the direction of the star. He’d actually launched that one moments after he cut off the flow of power, minutes ago. They weren’t close enough to the star for him to simply melt the entire fleet with a giant net, but they were inside Sizipra, the innermost planet. Anton felt a significant boost as he began to tear through the ships and people- and the Worldbinding cultivator’s power.
Front-facing weaponry on their ships couldn’t do anything to Anton with his current position, and the myriad of attacks the weaker cultivators launched in his direction hardly mattered as he swept himself back and forth behind them, his momentum keeping his position behind the fleet while he changed his lateral motion on a whim. The barrier augmentor’s attacks were the only thing that could concern him, but she was fatigued and the fleet was only getting smaller. Half of Anton’s efforts countered her attacks, while the rest whittled the fleet lower and lower.
As the enemy fleet became less and less worthy of the name, Anton felt a wave of energy from the enemy- not an attack, but an attempt at communication. “Wait! We surrender.”
In other circumstances, Anton would have thought it entirely impractical to attempt. Containing not one but two Worldbinding cultivators, even away from their optimal bases of power? That wasn’t something they had restraints for. Actually, Anton would bet that Everheart had something that would do it, but he wasn’t exactly willing to wait a week.
But… at this exact moment, he felt confident in managing things on his own. His energy connected to the enemy, transferring his message back to them. “About time.” Then he used another powered arrow to pierce through the core of their flagship, rendering it nearly nonfunctional. He wasn’t much more merciful with the Worldbinding cultivators, gathering part of the star and forcing it into their dantians. “If I lose control, that energy will explode. I’m sure you know what would happen to you.”
Without the barrier, he could even feel the two nod their heads before they carefully responded, their energy barely able to squeeze past the burning fire Anton tossed into them. “We understand.”
Anton then tossed out a massive net- not using the direct power of a star, but rather a more conservatively sized net made of ‘peaceful’ natural energy. The remnants of the fleet were gradually slowed by him so they would not drift past the star, as Anton instead settled them into an orbit. He also caught the other ships and pieces of them as they came into reach, further behind since they had stopped accelerating when destroyed. He’d greatly increased his storage bag’s size after previous incidents, but even now he didn’t have enough space for dozens of ships, so he settled for holding them in place. As for any surviving cultivators, they were thrust into one of the surviving ships that still had air and some protection from the star’s radiation.
Then Anton sent a message to Everheart. “Got two Worldbinding cultivators, could use longer term restraints. Come to Rutera’s star with a solution and you can have first dibs on interrogating them.” That should be sufficient to get him interested, and since they couldn’t have a back-and-forth discussion, he went with what he hoped to be tempting. Everheart knew much about Ascension. He’d surpassed Integration and reached Augmentation, and perhaps wasn’t even too far from Domination himself… but Worldbinding and Assimilation seemed to be limited to the lower realms as options. Or perhaps they were simply unnecessary with the power of Ascension… but Everheart would be tempted to find out regardless.
Author’s note: I almost had Anton say ‘too late’ and kill the Worldbinding cultivators, but with the circumstances making it actually possible accepting surrender made more sense for his character. I think I like this route more, so I’m glad it ended up like this.