Even though they quickly hurried back towards Ceretos, Anton and Everheart were not in time to do anything more than observe a cluster of energy flutter past the planet. Anton could more or less shoot at anything he could detect with his senses, but he didn’t want to break into open hostilities when this group had done nothing but observe… that he was aware of, at least.
Beyond that, he supposed it was important to train his fastest arrows. Every day, they grew closer to the actual speed of light while still retaining the more useful properties of arrows. Rutera had weapons that actually used light, but it was more of a sustained high power beam, quite different from anything he could shoot like an arrow. Drastically changing combat styles seemed like it would take a massive effort, which would be pointless for one specific advantage.
“It seems we’ve missed them,” Anton said, beginning to slow himself. At the rate they were going they would shoot past Ceretos, but they’d had to accelerate to faster than proper speeds for the sake of traveling more quickly.
“I’ll catch you in a moment then,” Everheart said as they passed near the atmosphere of Ceretos. Then he just… stopped. By some measures the number of kilometers he passed through would not be considered an immediate stop or one requiring little distance, but at the speeds Anton was accustomed to moving through space it was a remarkable acceleration. Yet it also didn’t seem like Everheart changed speeds at all.
There was something, like a field of hooks around the man as well as energy shoved ahead of him, but Anton couldn’t quite grasp how any of it worked. One moment he was moving, and the next he was not- at least relative to Ceretos.
Meanwhile, Anton was keeping a constant acceleration to slow himself, passing by Ceretos dragging him slightly towards it but ultimately just deflecting his motion. It took a few minutes before he was moving back towards the planet, at which point it was far from filling up half of his vision like it had for a few brief moments.
Then he felt it. Or rather, he felt that he didn’t feel anything in a rather large area. It was a new sensation, but not entirely unfamiliar. On one level, it felt like void ants. Obviously on an entirely different scale, but it was a reasonable comparison. He felt it reaching towards and then wrapping around Everheart, long, thin tendrils of something.
Before they connected, Anton was already firing his bow. His bow was heavy with more than just the weight of the draw, but also the mass of soulstuff connected to it. The arrow fired from Everheart’s bow tore through space with a surprising energy to them, as uncomfortable in its origin as it was tempting in power. A weapon made from worldheart and soulstring wasn’t something Anton relished possessing, but as far as he could tell there was no active wrongdoing in its use.
The arrows had the potential to be negated before they arrived, just in case Everheart didn’t wish to engage the creature in combat. But as its tendrils reached for him, Anton felt an explosion of energy. Some tendrils were severed, assuring Anton of one feature the thing did not share with void ants. Though he didn’t imagine it was as simple as Everheart made it look.
Everheart shot out of the grasping creature’s reach, but the portions of it that hadn’t been severed continued to grow out of… nowhere. They simply started, with empty space behind them. The aged cultivator flung a myriad of formation flags and totems all around him, providing him a moment to retreat further.
Anton’s arrows then struck, sinking into the nothingness of what Anton supposed was the creature’s flesh. As they burrowed into its vast form, they were eaten away… but before they fully dissolved at least they managed to cause what he presumed was some actual damage. He didn’t know of any vital organs on such a creature- if it even had them- but he continued a constant barrage attempting to tear into the deeper parts of the tendrils. From a distance they seemed small, but in truth the thinner ones were wider than a man was tall.
By the time Anton got close enough to try another type of spirit arrow, other than his fastest light arrows, the creature was gone. At some point, the tendrils pulled back into nothing, fading out of existence… hopefully. At the very least, Everheart seemed to calm down after a good minute of observing the area.
“What was that?” Anton asked as he finally got close.
“A distortion beast,” Everheart declared. “Nasty things, they like to live in the space between space feeding off of the energy around gravity wells. They don’t much care if it inside of someone, either.”
“Where did it come from?” Anton asked. “It hasn’t attacked us before.”
“It should have been drawn out by my technique,” Everheart said. “Distorting space calls to them. But it’s odd… that shouldn’t have been enough.” Everheart was sweeping the scattered formation flags back into his bag, except for some that seemed to have been drained dry not only of the energy within them but also the precious materials they were made of. “Perhaps our visitors dropped it here to test us. Yes, the way they move…” Everheart nodded. “No doubt they are distorting space to move so quickly. I should have thought of it sooner.”
“Is that so easy to do?” Anton asked.
“Easier than teleportation in some ways,” Everheart nodded. “And in certain fashions, quite simple. You don’t think about storage bags much, do you? They do something similar. It’s just more… constrained, and thus achievable with a static enchantment.”
“Was that how you stopped?” Anton asked. “But distorting space shouldn’t have been sufficient.”
“Just a little bit of time manipulation,” Everheart shrugged, “Doesn’t work on much of anything but yourself, and not inside an atmosphere or a strong gravity well. Want to learn it?”
“It seems like it might be handy, as I imagine I will find myself fighting in conditions like this,” Anton gestured at the space around them, “More common.”
“Alright. Star Steps isn’t something a normal Integration cultivator can pull off, but I think you have a good chance.”
“Before that…” Anton said. “We might need to explain to people down below. I’m lighting up with messages.”
“True,” Everheart nodded. “Even I’m receiving some. Some people noticed our little friend, and probably the visitor before him.”
What was Anton supposed to say? That they received visitors from another system and there just happened to be a monster following that? That he and Everheart had fought that monster? ‘Scholar Eulogius’ had a pretty shaky history to begin with, but that would have to do. Even for most of the Hundred Stars, that would have to be the story. Only the Grand Elders would hear otherwise.
But the Order wasn’t what Anton was the most concerned about. Instead, it was the Exalted Archipelago. The Worthy Shore Society had been quite helpful to him in the past, and as open as they were able to be. They could get most of the story, which unfortunately wasn’t that helpful. Everheart’s name would stay out of things, but there had to be at least some people who had felt formations appearing in the sky above them. And unfortunately the people capable of sensing things at that distance were exactly the ones they had to worry about.
The other thing that bothered Anton was that the ship which absolutely contained cultivators had brought the monster. Had that been intentional? If so, it was an act of war. The first time there hadn’t been any issues, but perhaps it simply wasn’t consistent. That could be why they came back. Or maybe after their first scouting trip they decided to test Ceretos. Much like Azoth. Anton had to admit he’d been hoping for some sort of peaceful neighbors, but he honestly hadn’t been expecting it. Cultivators would tend to be cultivators, and if Ceretos had taken a slightly different trajectory they might be doing the same. And in fact, perhaps they wouldn’t be much different. If it came down to a war, Anton honestly couldn’t say that they wouldn’t act quite similarly in attacking the other system. He hoped it would be with a bit of restraint and righteousness, but only so much could be excused in the name of self defense.
Did they just have to wipe them out? Was it alright that completely exterminating a group of individuals was one of the first solutions Anton thought of? Perhaps he’d already gone with wiping out the Soaring Air Sect and Void Blades. The Twin Soul Sect absolutely deserved it, and all of those involved with slaving in Ofrurg. It was a question of where he would draw the line. For the moment, Anton had to suppose that the single ship or ships were not representative of the entire system and planet they came from, but they really needed more information.
“You want to recruit more?” the woman in front of General Nicodemo crossed her arms. “You’ve already doubled the proper draft limits. Do you want to push every man, woman, and child into the war?”
“Of course not, Minister Perko,” Nicodemo said, keeping his face neutral. “But they’re not exactly giving us much choice.”
“What about those thousands of people you already have? If you take anyone else, the economy will be in shambles.”
“We won’t have an economy if Azoth wipes us out!” Nicodemo unintentionally raised his voice.
“Isn’t it your job to prevent that?” the minister of finance said. “Besides, you seem to be holding up adequately as it is.”
“You think that Azoth is going to be happy slowly bleeding through their own forces? If they were going to give up they would have already… they should be preparing to mount a larger offensive.” Nicodemo slowly breathed out through his nose, his eyes passing over some of the other ministers. Nicodemo was as aware as anyone that Rutera hadn’t experienced war in a good couple generations, and even he himself hadn’t been personally involved… but that lack of experience was why he knew there was a problem. “We need to either accelerate militarization and training, or request aid from Ceretos. Before it becomes a problem. Just because none of you are fighting doesn’t mean nobody else is risking their lives while you sit on your asses talking about financial statistics.”
“I don’t see you hopping into a fighter pilot,” Minister Perko said with a smirk. Nicodemo’s eyes locked on her, and she sank into her seat, trembling. She was not one of those who had begun proper cultivation, so she couldn’t understand what was happening, but he could affect her nonetheless. Then he dropped the suppression.
“You’re right. Why don’t we both suit up and go fight some invaders?” Nicodemo’s eyes were set as he suggested that.
“What- I’m the Minister of Finance, that’s not my duty.”
“And I’m a goddamn general,” Nicodemo said. “There’s an entire codex of military law for commanding officers who recklessly endanger themselves or others by performing things outside the proper scope of their position.” And maybe it didn’t matter. He wondered how long it would take to refamiliarize himself with a space fighter. He wasn’t the only general they had, even if he was the highest ranking. Previously that hadn’t meant much besides fancier paperwork, but now that they were in war… and he had some cultivation to back him… the others were quite a bit more deferential.
Wouldn’t stop them from court-martialing him if he did something stupid. Then again, if it was truly stupid, he’d probably just die. It was probably a bit hasty to do anything like that just yet, though. He’d start with some flights in his ‘free time’. Things weren’t bad enough yet that he had to consider sacrificing himself. Just a bunch of young men and women who might have had boundless futures otherwise. He felt the bow on his back, wondering when he could finally reach space. Spirit Arrows were better at resisting gravity and atmospheric effects than some other things, though he was considering trying to modify the technique for proper guns. As if he knew what he was doing, or had time to waste on things like that.