The vessel Anton could sense in space was much more akin to Anton’s expected idea of vessels. It was a ship much like he was used to, and while there were certainly metal reinforcements it still took the form of a traditional sailing vessel with one exception. There was no upper deck to speak of, the vessel being rotationally symmetric around a round core, with eight sets of sails. It still maintained a clear bow and stern, with most weapons aimed along the former.
From what Anton could tell with his minimal ability to probe inside the vessel, the crew was sheltering inside while they controlled the weapons, some akin to ballistae while others functioned much like the local Ruteran weapons, pure beams of energy. The method they used to achieve that was much more familiar to Anton.
As soon as it had revealed itself, Anton took in as much information as possible. There was a significant energy signature making up the vessel, though comparing it to familiar cultivation levels was difficult. Then it had engaged in combat- shooting down orbital stations and satellites in an extremely aggressive maneuver. If there had truly been no prior contact with Rutera then it was an insane first move.
Several smaller structures were quickly destroyed, though some of the defensive satellites retaliated with their own beams. They were effective at first, striking against the defensive barriers around the incoming ship and depleting some of their energy. Anton didn’t expect them to break through quickly, but he was even more surprised when the weapons suddenly stopped being effective. Instead of digging into the barriers they began to splatter off of them, though Anton felt no change in the weapons’ intensity. The power of the barriers hadn’t increased either, though there was something that changed with them.
As Anton snapped up everyone outside in the gardens, bringing them to the shelter of the main embassy tower which Anton knew was well fortified, the other cultivators began to make their way out. First were Ayotunde and Intan, who eyed each other. Ayotunde wielded a large straight sword, yet Anton knew he could use it with great finesse. Meanwhile Intan of the Million Sword Vault carried two smaller curved blades. The exchange of glances only lasted an instant before they were focused back on the enemy above.
Following behind them were Tola from the Infinite Wisdom Forest as well as Paula from Marvelous Rabbit Mountain. The former threw out formation flags, setting up a small barrier. Paula immediately began to run up the outside of the tower, though the distance was not much different between the ground and top of the tower compared to the ship on the edge of space.
Sudheer of the Silver Rhino Legion was last, brushing past various people trying to stop him, including President Park. “We can’t protect you if you don’t take shelter!”
“We appreciate the concern,” Sudheer responded, “And if we determine it will be beneficial, we will take shelter within the embassy. But where we are from, we expect to fight.” He looked up into the sky, “They will have to come slightly closer for most of us to have an effect though.” At most tiny sparks of light could be seen in the sky against the midday sun, and only to the trained eye.
“We have ships scrambling to intercept,” President Park explained. “They will be present momentarily.” Another message came in for him, and he cursed. Nobody was supposed to hear him mumbling about other incoming ships, but they all did.
Anton had already delayed long enough, occupying himself with getting others to shelter and confirming the response of the Ruterans. He reached into his storage bag as he formed energy bows around him, firing up into the sky. The enemy ship would have been outside of his normal comfortable sensing range, but much of it didn’t even have atmosphere to interfere- a couple hundred extra kilometers through space was actually quite a bit easier. His arrows made probing attacks, striking the main body of the ship as well as the masts, sails, and weapon emplacements. As far as he could tell the barrier protected all equally, which meant he simply had to force his way through single points.
He ramped up the intensity of his energy, forming another half dozen energy bows. His attacks focused on two points, arrows striking simultaneously. That was when he realized he’d made a mistake. Somehow, between the first and second volley, the enemy’s barrier had adapted. Anton expected his clusters to pierce through the barrier to the inner layers of the ship, but he only managed to break through in the cluster with his primary bow, his shot digging into the reinforcing metal plates but going no deeper. Most of his arrows had impacted uselessly on the barrier, causing little more than minor tremors. The speed and effect of that adaptation was disturbingly fast.
Having avoided drawing upon the Ruteran sun until this point, it was only now that Anton determined his connection was incomplete. He had the potential to form the same powerful connection with his own sun, and he was quite certain he could do so without the tremendous consequences of his first attempt, but he only had a smaller channel at the moment. Even as he drew upon it he could feel it widening, but it wasn’t enough. Even so, he continued his bombardment… while reaching further for energy he could never have, drawing upon ascension energy.
No matter how many regular spirit arrows he shot, the enemy barely seemed to notice them- he would certainly deplete himself faster than they could now. But his arrow that carried ascension energy drove forward, aiming for one of the weapons. Upon impacting the barrier it slowed for a moment, the forces fighting against each other, then a small section of the barrier shattered. Anton’s arrow went through the barrier, the ballista behind it and the armored hull, one of the individuals controlling it, and halfway through an inner wall before it petered out. His follow up shot made it through the barrier but only scraped against the next weapon emplacement, damaging but not completely ruining the weapon. It lodged in the hull but didn’t penetrate the full way through. And his third shot, as quickly as he could reach peak power, barely managed to puncture a hole in the barrier. Each hole in the barrier quickly reformed.
That was when the ship retaliated. There was a clear target for it, because while Anton’s arrows hadn’t all taken a straight trajectory his location was fairly obvious. A larger forward weapon that Anton hadn’t targeted because of the heavier plates shielding it gathered energy… and then a beam tore through the atmosphere above him.
Before Anton could respond, Ayotunde leapt into the air. “Let us deal with this. You focus on offense.” The beam arrived in an instant, the moment of charging being the main indication of its arrival. Ayotunde’s blade slashed towards it, slicing the beam in two and deflecting it to either side. The attack was continuous, but his blade swept up and down, extending far beyond its actual length.
The split beams fell on either side of Ayotunde and thus Anton beneath him, but Intan leapt up to intercept them regardless. They would only impact the ground around them, but his blade spun, chopping the energy into smaller pieces that scattered against Tola’s barrier- or the defenses on the tower itself.
Other smaller attacks were fired towards the tower itself, the strongest of which Paula intercepted, leaping into the sky and kicking the projectiles from ballistae into the paths of others or to cut off beams. What got past her was sustained by the barriers on the tower itself.
Anton frowned. The Ruteran weapons didn’t work. His natural energy didn’t work. Ascension energy was barely enough to drain any of the ship’s power, and not enough to cause damage. If his connection to the local sun had been complete perhaps he might have been able to overwhelm this vessel’s defenses, but the speed at which it adapted was concerning. He had been peppering it from different angles just in case, but it seemed the barrier worked in all directions just as well.
He did have one sort of energy that was just perfect for this sort of thing. Anton thought about death and what lay beyond. Reincarnation for some- perhaps for all, given time. Yet something would be lost. Spectral energy formed into an arrow and simply refused to interact with the barrier or armor of the vessel. In the brief moments his first ascension arrow reached inside Anton had sensed some of the layout of the vessel, and did his best to target a few individuals he thought might be more important. The last of them would probably survive, but if the others did they would have to replace their hearts. Either way, they would be more focused on that for the moment.
Attacks continued to rain down on Anton and the tower, but he didn’t concern himself with that. That was what his companions were for, though he could see Paula was eager to attempt to jump the remaining distance if the ship came even close to the edge of the atmosphere. Even if she couldn’t do it in a single leap, there was some level where it was expected she could perform an action similar to flying for a short time.
Then the Ruteran fleet arrived- or perhaps a small portion of it, given the mention of other attackers. Either way, Anton felt them approaching, curving around outside the atmosphere. Their beam weapons struck against the enemy barriers and… actually penetrated through? That was odd, because Anton was almost certain that they were the same type of weapons, and that some of the orbital platforms had more powerful weapons.
Yet a moment later, the enemy vessel was clearly turning. Whether to get a better angle or retreat, Anton didn’t care. He continued to fire, rains of his arrows laying into the ship to no visible effect while he alternated between ascension energy and the spectral energy he was not as familiar with as he would like to be. The latter ran into the same issue as the others, where the first shot was most effective. After that, somehow the barriers blocked it. The power it had was marginal if it could actually be intercepted, but Anton continued to use it nonetheless.
As the Ruteran ships made their attacks, Anton saw they were slowly reducing in effectiveness… but his own shots from his energy bows were beginning to actually penetrate the barrier. It seemed there was some limit to what the enemy could adapt to at once.
Unlike a proper sailing vessel, the approaching ship was quite maneuverable, flipping around and accelerating away quickly. Within a minute it was outpacing the smaller vessels chasing it and then… it disappeared. The opposite of when it first arrived, though a bit shakier in Anton’s opinion.
Yet Anton didn’t feel pleased. The reaction was too quick, as if the enemy had planned to do the same all along. When word came in from the other attack locations of similar results- though usually with less damage- it was confirmed.
Back inside the embassy tower, Aneirin Park was addressing the cultivators. “It is not our intention to draw you into a conflict… though we do appreciate your contributions. We have little information that you don’t, except for one detail. Based on the enemy’s trajectories, they should have come from and returned to Azoth, another promising system nearby. Our science vessel sent there was lost in what we had previously presumed to be an accident. Now…” he shook his head. “We can assume they shot it down. Just to make sure we’re clear- General. Your presentation.”
General Nicodemo stood with his back straight. Displayed behind him were remarkably clear images from the battle. “This is one of the enemy vessels. They varied in size, but their general design was similar. Initial bombardments had some slight effect, but the same weaponry became rapidly less effective, until it seemed to do nothing. You experienced the same did you not, Sect Head Anton?”
“That’s right. My Spirit Arrows formed purely of natural energy were rapidly adapted to. Ascension energy and another sort I have learned to utilize were likewise quickly adapted to. I did not have time to test other elemental options.”
“Your efforts resulted in the most important information we acquired. Other locations saw them adapt to more than a handful of different weapon designs with nearly perfect resistance, but here they didn’t quite manage four, including our most common beam designs. Given that the one above this location was one of the more powerful ships, it is clear that some things are more difficult for them to adapt to. Does anyone have further insights to add?”
Anton did not- except for minor details. Those on the defensive added some of their own thoughts- the enemy’s beams were powerful but not flexible, at least at a long range. They truly had little information about the vessels from Azoth, though small pieces of debris were currently being salvaged that would hopefully yield something usable.
After the official meeting was over- one of the most uncomfortably short ones possible- General Nicodemo waved Anton over as everyone else left the room. “Do you need something?”
“I want to apologize for my earlier words,” General Nicodemo said. “Your weapons are clearly more effective than I anticipated. Please forgive me. In addition, though I know I am not in a position to be making any requests…” he dropped to his knees. “Please take me as a disciple. I don’t have the talent to learn your method of cultivation on my own, but perhaps with the guidance of a master such as yourself…”
“You are forgiven,” Anton said. “And of course I will teach you. Though our limited time here means much of my instruction will have to be remote, or on later visits. But I can at least give you sufficient guidance to last the next decade or so.”
Nicodemo raised his head. “Really? If there’s anything I can do to make up for the insult, I will gladly do so. Even if it’s humiliation you desire.”
“Well…” Anton grinned, “I suppose I could think of one thing.” Anton grabbed something from his storage bag and tossed it in front of him. “You have to learn to use a bow!”