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The chances of an Essence Collection cultivator like Anton running into trouble he couldn’t handle while on a journey were extremely small. But thinking like that would get him killed. During times of such turmoil there was always someone looking to take advantage of things. Those with ill intentions towards the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars would be happy to take a chance at the current moment of weakness, especially if they planned to blame a death on someone else.
It was more than just Anton being worried about himself, he also had Alva to take care of. Being willing to sacrifice his own life for her was little good if that sacrifice didn’t actually help. And he’d much prefer to be around for any future dangers. He also had to make sure Kohar stayed safe, and the people who would be looking for her would likely be significantly disproportionate to her own power.
The rest of Anton’s regular group wouldn’t have let him go off alone even if he tried. The only thing that might have stopped them was how it might be seen in Ofrurg, a powerful group of cultivators entering their country. Because while they kept track of any cultivators, Essence Collection cultivators were a serious threat to almost any sect. But Ofrurg could feel whatever the combined thoughts of everyone there ended up. Anton and the others had official business in the area, and they weren’t going to let a bit of discomfort to the locals stop them.
Unlike previous travel, carriages were being used instead of movement by foot. In normal circumstances Anton found that a carriage was both an unnecessary expenditure and slower, but the particular circumstances justified the expense. The significant difference in cultivation between the Kohar and the rest meant they would be limited by her ability to keep up, and in addition to that her ability to fight. The carriages were fortified to the point they should be able to withstand a determined attack from an Essence Collection cultivator, or at least weaken one.
The steelhoof horses pulling the carriage were a special breed that were fast and durable. If a battle happened, they could either pull the carriages or be released to keep themselves safe, to return after the battle calmed down. In the worst case scenario if the horses lost their lives, one of the Essence Collection cultivators could continue to pull a carriage. It wouldn’t be quite as good, but there was no perfect way to handle the situation. Beasts that could compete with Essence Collection cultivators didn’t grow on trees, notwithstanding the stories Chikere told about the blade armed stick/leaf bugs on the sword tree. Even then, they only managed that with numbers.
The only tamed beasts better than the steelhoof horses pulling their carriages would be specially trained by best taming sects, usually raised by individual members as they grew in cultivation. At the very least, even the Order did not keep anything of the sort on hand.
Even Fuzz was merely comparable to the creatures. He might actually surpass them in the future, and if one were to compare his combat strength it could be higher- but the steelhoof horses would be able to escape unharmed if they were free to move. And if Fuzz were particularly unlucky as he chased one, they might counter with a lethal kick.
The creatures were under the care of Elder Tshering and others working with him. Since they were going on official business, requisitioning them for use wasn’t terribly difficult but not free. Simply maintaining the steelhoof horses was a significant expenditure that had to be paid somehow, and those making use of them were the most reasonable targets.
On the way out of Graotan, Elder Tshering had asked them to drop him by an interesting research site. He even invited them inside, though asked them to remain cautious. Anton was very curious as to what sort of creature might be found in the middle of Graotan, where there were no obvious deviations of energy aside from the formations that had been set up, so he and the others stepped inside.
Looking around, Anton was the first to make a comment. “Good farmland, like the neighboring area. It’s not in use anymore?”
Elder Tshering smiled, “As of quite recently, in fact. Once we found the creatures here, we purchased the land.”
“What is here?” Anton asked. “I don’t see… anything.” It was an area a couple kilometers across, and though much of it was still wild land there had been a significant number of fields in place. But it wasn’t so large that he couldn’t see and sense the whole place, but he felt nothing. Just a few regular animals. Frogs, squirrels, birds, and all of the normal life in an area.
“That’s the thing, isn’t it?” Elder Tshering nodded. “It’s why we’ve contained them. Tricky, and at first innocuous. Stay close and follow where I walk as I explain.”
As they began to walk towards the center of the area, Anton continued to scan for anything strange. At first he saw nothing. The only standout feature was a small mound of dirt, but it was just an ant hill. However, his mind returned to somewhere around a year prior. He’d seen some ants that looked just the same in Everheart’s ‘tomb’ on the moon. Granted, he’d also seen ants that looked the same on the road, he just hadn’t registered them. All ants were ants.
Black or dark brown for the most part, moving around in little lines. These were just the same as the others, maybe a bit on the large side but not worryingly so. They had groups of them going all over the area, but nothing was strange about that. Until he spotted a group of them forming themselves into a bridge between two branches, where a ripe apple hung.
Several ants formed the beginning of the bridge, holding onto the branch with their rear legs locked onto it. Then their front legs hooked onto the rear legs of those in front of them, and subsequent ants crawled over all of the rest until they reached the front. Overall they saved a significant distance moving down the tree and back up to reach the single piece of fruit, but most surprising was that instead of crawling down the stem one-by-one a few of them just gnawed at the top of it until it fell to the ground below. Then the ants walked back across the little bridge they made, which retracted. The whole line of them retreated down the branch they had previously been climbing, all the way down to the ground below where there was already a swarm of ants gnawing on the fruit and marching back the line towards their nest.
That was just about the time that Elder Tshering was beginning to explain the strange species of ants they had found. “… and they’re smart, but so far not overly aggressive towards humans or anything large.”
“Hmm, what a conundrum,” Anton commented after thinking for a few moments. “I might have been the one to bring them back. Or any of thousands of others, I suppose. I saw these in Everheart’s place.” The fact that some of his spoils had been consumed heavily implied he had been a potential carrier of them. He just hoped that Everheart hadn’t had something more dangerous anyone had inadvertently brought back.
“Well,” Elder Tshering shrugged, “They’re here now. Anyone could have brought some with them on accident. They’re sneaky. If I told you one was crawling up your leg right now, would you believe me?”
“What?” Anton looked down. “No, I don’t think I would.”
“And right now, you’d probably be right. But that sweep you did with your energy probably wouldn’t catch them.”
“As interesting as that is,” Anton said, “I suppose there’s some greater danger than hard to sense ants? Otherwise these formations would be uncalled for.”
“You’d better believe it,” Elder Tshering said. “Besides being well organized- to the point they’ve even hunted something as large as a squirrel- they’re difficult to sense with energy. Or affect in any way, in fact. I have the feeling that if you were to shoot one with one of your Spirit Arrows, it would walk away.”
“Are you kidding?” Alva said from nearby. “Little ants like this?” Without even waiting for a response, she unslung her bow and shot at one of the trails nearby. A few ants were sent flying, but ultimately they returned to their line in an orderly fashion- some turning about to go seek more food.
“Alva.” Anton crossed his arms and looked at her.
“Uh… what? They’re just ants.”
“Perhaps,” Anton said, “But they’re also said to be exceptionally smart. I would doubt they could think like you or me, but disregarding that you were told to be cautious here.”
“I’m sorry,” she hung her head.
“Proves my point pretty well though,” Elder Tshering said. “They’re durable against more mundane methods as well. Any of us could probably crush one, but it’s harder than it would seem. We’ve been avoiding causing harm to the colony, however. The individual members don’t seem particularly special, but many of them show heightened intelligence. At least many times what one would expect from an ant. But that also makes them more dangerous. Especially the full combination of traits.”
“Smart and able to resist energy…” Anton nodded. “They could probably be a danger to cultivators.”
“Weaker ones, certainly,” Elder Tshering commented. “So far there’s been no evidence that they can damage anyone who has completed Body Tempering. But there are some caveats there. We have reason to believe this is a new nest, and no understanding of how much they might grow stronger with time. And strangely enough, the largest ants with big mandibles, the soldiers… we haven’t been able to provoke them into biting us. Aside from some initial interactions, they’ve completely ignored or avoided us as we studied them.”
“Isn’t that… I find that to be concerning, actually,” Anton said. “The fact that they might be able to communicate to each other something like that.”
“Same thoughts here,” Elder Tshering said, “But I also have the feeling that… maybe they just don’t want to fight? But even if they can communicate, it’s not in a way we particularly understand- besides how they show each other where food is or that they want to build a bridge. Lots of touching, and we believe some pheromones.” His eyes drifted to a particularly large ant poking out of the top of the ant hill. “Oh my, now there’s a sight we don’t see often.”
The great queen sensed something. A familiar presence, even if the duration of their time together had been only very temporary. But there was something beyond it that drew her attention. A special type of exceedingly delicious energy. It almost provoked in her a desire to attack, but it wasn’t quite right. Conflicting thoughts went through the great queen’s head.
The energy didn’t belong, but the person did. The energy was delicious and tantalizing, but it couldn’t be reached. The final thoughts were the most important ones, the part that made her a great queen and not a normal ant. They were thoughts about if she should try to consume that energy.
Logic dictated that she would grow significantly more powerful if she achieved such a feat. However, she had not recognized the feeling before when she was a year younger, almost newly born. Nor would she have been able to obtain it regardless. Since she couldn’t have it, logic also dictated that she should ignore it and try to obtain something within her grasp.
But the best part of being a great queen was that she was able to make choices and come up with plans. She had a particularly clever one. Since it had worked before, she would stow away once again. The colony didn’t need her. She had already given birth to another, but instead of finding some way for her daughter to leave, the great queen decided she would be the one to go. Yes. She and a few choice others would stealthily stow away once more.
Though the humans were looking in her direction, they would not notice her, one among many. And she could sense the same magical room she had hidden in before, attached to the old human with the strange energy.