The news on Rutera about the attacks framed it as a victory on the part of Rutera, and while Anton agreed in a certain manner… it also wasn’t quite correct. The attackers from Azoth- if that designation was correct- had sustained minimal losses. No ships destroyed, though Anton had killed some individuals aboard one of the ships and perhaps a commander of some sort. It was a victory- but he had the feeling that the other side was satisfied with their results as well. It must have been a probing attack of some sort. They were prepared with targets, and while nothing major had been destroyed, it was clear that Rutera’s defenses were not entirely sufficient.
Anton was impressed how quickly they scrambled their actual ships, though. They reached nearly arbitrary points around the planet within minutes, and multiple locations at once. Rutera wasn’t weak, but they weren’t prepared for something like this to happen.
The attack came with unfortunate casualties, but there was the possibility that Rutera could learn more from this than the attackers. The biggest issue was the adaptable barriers. Just seeing how they worked certainly would make combating them easier- defense stations were already being retrofitted with wider varieties of weapons- but the attacks from Azoth should know that was a possibility. Which meant they had either shown their hand and would be less of an issue, or there was more to it.
Soldiers on Rutera seemed to be fond of push-ups and other similar exercises. Training with weights and the like was also quite common. Anton deemed all of it to be… fine. It strengthened the body to some extent, and it provided a decent basis to work from. It was certainly better than attempting to begin Body Tempering without a strong physique.
The best part about push-ups in Anton’s opinion was that they were a communal activity. Right now he had a whole field of soldiers in front of him straining their bodies, building up fatigue and sweat. Among them was Nicodemo. Though he was a general, he trained with the others. Having seen some of the other higher ranking military officers, Anton had been unimpressed by their training. Nicodemo had at least kept himself in shape fit for combat duty, though it seemed that Rutera hadn’t been involved in any real conflicts for some time. Now they were recruiting. It seemed an awful lot of effort to have to train thousands of individuals from a sedentary state to fighting fit in only a short time, but Rutera was not a planet of cultivators.
There were other issues as well. Anton had hardly paid attention to it before the battle, but Rutera’s natural energy levels were unimpressive. Lower than the general level of Ceretos when Anton had begun cultivating, even. Anton didn’t have other lower realm worlds to compare to, but it would make cultivation harder. Perhaps that was why they had developed differently.
The energy swirling inside Anton was slowly building towards more comfortable levels, the heat of a star filling Anton’s belly. He was not going to be apologetic for connecting himself to this star, because he might have reason to fight here once more. And in the grand scheme of things, he only caused unexpected fluctuations and not a fundamental change in the star.
At the moment, the majority of the energy he was drawing was being released back into the world for others to use. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it provided sufficient energy for those around him to train more efficiently. Anton wished he’d brought a series of tomes on growing natural energy through everyday activities- both internal to a cultivator and for a world as a whole- but he hadn’t expected to need them. They would have needed translating, of course, but that was a minor issue. Now he had to split his time between diplomacy and teaching. Though in truth, he would happily give up the former and spend all of his time on the latter. It would just be easier with proper materials and not just his memory. His memory was good, keeping key details, but minor things could slip through the cracks. And he could only answer so many questions at once.
“Enough,” Anton declared to the group of soldiers. “Time for a break.” Though he called it that, it was actually still work. There was a time for active fortification of muscles, and a time to let them rest while the body as a whole was slowly tempered. For those who weren’t even in the first star, grasping the basics of meditation was an important practice.
After meditation was sparring. The Ruteran soldiers were reluctant to fight with seriousness and lethality, but they were getting used to it. Besides, they were learning how to not kill each other. To measure the right amount of energy to use offensively and defensively. Anton stopped a dagger that was about to go two centimeters into someone’s shoulder. “Harrison. Careful with your levels.”
Given they barely had any experience, Anton couldn’t blame them for their inexperience. He was considering allowing them to make minor mistakes soon, just a little bit of damaged skin or the like. He wouldn’t always be around to manage them.
Nicodemo’s sparring partner was nervous- both because Nicodemo was higher ranking, and because he was good. That made Nicodemo’s victory easier than it should have been, so when he swapped partners Anton pulled him aside for a moment. “Everyone’s still learning, but it’s clear you’re still better than most of those here. I want you to limit your energy usage to half.”
“Of course. But… I don’t think I will be able to provide a proper defense and still pierce through theirs if that’s the case.”
“You can,” Anton said. “You just have to know where to look. Openings aren’t just in stances and movements, but the flow of energy. And you could probably get by without defenses… but I wouldn’t get used to that.” Anton swiveled. “Harrison! You’re extending the point too much! It won’t hold up!”
“Yes, sir!” Harrison always responded that way… and half of the time fixed the issue. But at least he was trying things. Everyone was still unfamiliar with cultivation, and some said it was pointless when their equipment was far superior, and there was no point learning something like this. Others had actually seen the videos. Anton was quite impressed with the information gathering techniques of this world.
After everything else settled down, Nicodemo was still ready to go. Anton was impressed, not because the man’s stamina was anything special but because he also had to deal with real general stuff. Far too many tactical meetings and the like. Anton thought half of them were pointless, and another half of those that weren’t entirely pointless were suboptimal. But then again, people were still coping with new fears.
Nicodemo went with Anton to a firing range. Anton himself couldn’t make practical use of them, since completely annihilating the targets was bad form and he really needed the ones meant for snipers to even begin to matter, but he found time to practice away from everything else on his own. Nicodemo still used his guns, but at the moment he was practicing with the bow.
He had just managed to develop enough to actually draw the one Anton gave him. It was for beginners, but even though Nicodemo was fit it hadn’t been the right muscles to fire a bow. Anton had to admit, the man’s archery skills were… subpar. But he put in the effort, which was what Anton wanted.
“I’m still not used to it having drop,” Nicodemo said.
“It’s important to remember that everything is affected by gravity,” Anton replied.
“Sure, but… your arrows aren’t even made of physical stuff, right? Shooting them off into space, does it even matter?”
“Absolutely,” Anton said. “If I had ignored the effects of gravity, my shots would have missed even the generously proportioned ship by a good margin. It was hundreds of kilometers away, after all.”
“… I wish I could have seen the impact with my own eyes. The recordings from the ships don’t do it justice.” Nicodemo hadn’t seen the far end, but he had been pressed up against a window watching Anton and the others.
“Maybe someday,” Anton said. “I’ll be needing to return home at some point. Your progress is reasonable, but a year or two won’t get you any further than early Spirit Building, at best.”
“It’s a bit discouraging,” Nicodemo said. “But… I can feel the flow of energy when I use any of our normal technology. I can’t control it yet, but if you say it will help…”
“It will,” Anton said. “I can guarantee it. I know someone who’s further along.”
“Matija, right?” Nicodemo declared. “I read about her in the report. The first to begin cultivating in earnest.”
“Speaking of which,” Anton said, “I still need to meet up with her. She mentioned trouble with advancing to Spirit Building.” Anton looked at Nicodemo, “And yes, that means she’s stronger than you. More than enough to make up for the fact you actually know how to fight. Though maybe not enough different if you use one of those suits.”
“I understand,” Nicodemo nodded. “I know I’m not good at cultivating anyway. As I said, I could barely manage it on my own.”
“Not everyone does their best learning from books,” Anton said. “I think you’ll do fine.”
Entering the Labyrinth was not terribly difficult. It was finding something in particular within it that would be complicated. But at least this time they were probably not paid attention to more than any other. Discussing their plans any further would be risky, but ultimately it was simple. Prospero would do his best to point out the dangers he was aware of, and to guide them to several points of interest which might or might not be what they were looking for. Hopefully, Catarina would be able to determine that upon arrival.
“… sub-runes are everywhere,” Catarina said as she looked at the walls around them. “That’s true throughout most of the Tomb, but it’s more prominent here. Odd.”
“Why?” Timothy asked.
“Because Everheart made all of it,” Catarina said. “Why would it be different here?”
“There are still projections, right? They manage this place. They might have developed this place in a different direction.”
“… the various projections do seem to be divergent in their own ways,” Catarina agreed. “Perhaps that is the case.” Discussing sub-runes in this place was not an issue. This was where she had learned about them- in an official capacity, even. The name wasn’t quite right, but ‘usually hidden smaller components of runes’ didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Sub-runes was good enough. She was beginning to see through some of the complexities of the Labyrinth, but Catarina couldn’t honestly say she understood the whole of what was being done. And things always changed, sometimes by walls physically moving and sometimes different spaces connected together. The most impressive part was not being able to pick out any seams where this happened.
. There were traps in the labyrinth of course, but they were all passable. It was impossible for even Everheart to keep up a huge array of traps over a wide area that could stop Integration cultivators- and a Life Transformation cultivator tagging along. Or if not impossible, prohibitively expensive in materials, energy, or both.
But with a bit of cleverness he could kill those who were unprepared. A scything blade that appeared to have no energy backing it up seemed completely ignorable, but Timothy focused on it over everything else, blocking it with his shield while doing his best to avoid the other incoming blades. He found himself justified when he only received small slashes from the other weapons… and a small scratch on his shield from the unadorned blade.
A scratch that completely ignored the energy he had used to block. Whether the blade was made out of void ant chitin or something else, it clearly had similar effects for negating energy. It was sharp enough and carried enough momentum to puncture most armor, and it wouldn’t feel like much. It could have taken someone’s head clean off if they were careless.
If it was only traps, perhaps they could take their time. Except those locations where every square centimeter of floor was deadly, spotting the signs of a trap ahead of time allowed it to be navigated around safely. The wandering beasts and other cultivators were an incentive to keep moving at a steady pace. Most beasts were not a challenge on their own, but they all contributed to a main feature of the Labyrinth, gradually wearing people down. One trap might do little but bounce off of someone’s defensive energy, but even that would cost them something.
Over the course of a week they made their way deeper into the Labyrinth. It was intentionally disorienting, but there were always signs somewhere to go off of.
“Left here, I think,” Catarina said. “I feel something…”
“Let’s hope we’re close,” Prospero said. “I’d like to avoid running into more trouble.”