An arrow quivered in its target, eventually finding its stability right in the center. General Nicodemo looked at it… and found it barely adequate. “It seems to be quite difficult to replicate any of the materials you provided,” Nicodemo shook his head. “They require significant amounts of time and natural energy to develop.”
“That’s why Ceretos usually sits around and waits centuries, forgetting about things, as more materials form. Actively making some of these things is impressive. Though,” Anton shook his head. “It’s still hard to justify most arrows.”
“I know you mentioned some plants that provided reasonable arrowheads and the like,” Nicodemo said. “But Rutera isn’t able to sustain many of your plants, outside of greenhouses.”
“Your world’s natural energy isn’t something that can be built up in a handful of years, unfortunately,” Anton admitted.
“What properties do you think would be effective against Azoth?” Nicodemo asked, continuing to shoot from his quiver. It seemed he was getting used to particular sorts of arrows, though he was quite capable of using Spirit Arrows as well. But if he was able to manage sufficient quantities of ammunition, it might be worthwhile. He was closer to Kseniya’s type- except likely even slower and more deliberate.
“A difficult question. Light might actually be good for you.”
“Didn’t we determine that their vessels absorb light?”
“Exactly,” Anton nodded. “Which might do a decent job of tricking your way through their barriers. If they’re unprepared, anyway.”
“Speaking of which, the vessels you destroyed recently… did you not have trouble with them?”
“I’m not certain if they still have any anti-me barrier patterns installed,” Anton shrugged. “Because the ones next to the sun went out in an entirely different manner. And on Sizipra, I didn’t have a chance to shoot them down. They had landed and disembarked. Sneaking a few arrows up a ramp doesn’t exactly tell me if they can still adapt.” Anton too was practicing with his bow, but his arrows simply flew up into the atmosphere, only to unravel themselves at arbitrary targets before they could cause any concern to the sensory satellites above the planet.
“Some of the men want to test our battle suits against your cultivators,” Nicodemo said. “Especially that Elder Intan.”
“What about you?” Anton asked.
“I didn’t want to have to replace them. They’re expensive as hell. Maybe once we work out some flaws and get people better trained but… our ships are just better.”
“About that… I heard you hadn’t made any serious assaults on Azoth yet. Why?”
He shook his head. “Not all of our ships have interstellar capability. We’re working on some options, though.”
“Right,” Anton nodded. “And you need your individual ships and weaponry, just bringing more people doesn’t help.”
“If only we had something like Weos. Contact with them has been properly established, at least.” Nicodemo turned to Anton with a frown. “Did you really win a whole war in their system in a few months?”
“Me? Only in part. Even Ceretos was unnecessary. Weos did what had to be done.”
“That Twin Soul Sect… these invasions, you experienced them?”
“One,” Anton replied. “They seem to come with the cycles related to the tides of the world. I don’t believe the upper realms can intrude outside of those times. As for the Twin Soul Sect… don’t worry about them. Though do practice that technique.”
“I can’t even tell if it works,” Nicodemo grimaced.
“Trust me, you’re doing it right. And you’re quite fortunate here, having no trace of them. If there are any, they’re deeply buried.”
“Fortunate?” Nicodemo nodded. “Perhaps. But do you not consider our world poor in resources?”
“A fine tradeoff, when the alternative is being plundered. I worry…” Anton shook his head. “Developing your world might draw attention. But the tides… there’s another century, at least. If you are not noticed before that time, you will have a great opportunity to flourish.”
“Are the tides of the world… different throughout the lower realms? I can’t feel anything like what you speak of.”
“You have to be stronger. And experiencing it helped vastly. As for different… I believe that our adjacent systems are a close match, but not identical in time. A small handful of years off, perhaps.”
Nicodemo split another arrow already impaled in his target. He knew it was a waste of a good arrow- perhaps two- but it was satisfying. “I wish we could launch a proper counteroffensive. Just waiting is… unpleasant. But wait we must until…”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Anton said. “My clearance level here is sort of… vague.”
“I don’t want to keep things secret from you,” Nicodemo admitted, “But I’d rather save you the troubles of curiosity should you go looking.”
“That almost makes it worse,” Anton said. “But I know there’s not anything around the sun or Sizipra. And no, I’m not trying to press for information here.” Anton waved his hand, “I’m just some old guy who taught you how to use a bow. You don’t really know me yet.”
“I feel like I do,” Nicodemo said. “But…”
“You’d feel better with more developed insight,” Anton grinned. “And that’s alright. Oh, and about your plan… some people from Ceretos jumped on it.”
“Which one?” Nicodemo asked.
“The counteroffensive. Just because you aren’t ready doesn’t mean we aren’t. All the information you’ve gotten from the captured cultivators indicates they’re just after conquest. Yet… it seems incomplete,” Anton shook his head.
“We won’t torture them. And our… other extraction methods are limited.”
“I’m not saying you should,” Anton replied. “It’s quite nice, that Rutera is following such a code.”
“It’s not really about morality, I imagine. Such information is unreliable.”
“Practical,” Anton admitted. “I might be able to learn something from interrogation, though. Deeper motives.”
“You would have to be monitored. You couldn’t do much.”
“I almost found out the location of your secret thing and I wasn’t even trying,” Anton said, intentionally not looking at or sensing Nicodemo. My Insight is pretty good.”
“It’s a ship carrier,” Anton said. “So you only have to have one interstellar drive to bring a large number of people at once.”
“I didn’t think I’d said so much,” Nicodemo sighed.
“Trust me,” Anton said. “If I can get them to throw a few insults at me and brag about some accomplishments, I’m sure I can learn something. Or maybe I waste time, but it won’t be any worse from your side.”
“I trust you. And so long as you wouldn’t object to being recorded, I’m sure others won’t be terribly concerned.”
“Great. Let’s talk about what I’m allowed to say… or offer.”
“You don’t have to die, you know,” Anton said. “Must be boring, staying here for years, unable to cultivate, yet not being killed.” This was not the first person he talked to from Azoth, and he found them rather difficult so far. But he had a good feeling about this one.
“I’ve experienced worse,” said the particular young woman restrained in front of Anton. Young for her cultivation, at least. Likely no more than a hundred, and late Life Transformation. She was one of the most talkative. “So what are you here for, old man?”
“To talk,” Anton said. “Answer nicely and I can get you better meals, a more comfortable cell…”
“I want to be released,” the woman said. “But that’ll never happen.”
“Not if we don’t have some way to contact anyone from Azoth, no.”
“I’m not from Azoth,” she said.
“Whatever you call it, then,” Anton shrugged. “You could tell us that. No, wait,” Anton narrowed his eyes. “That’s not what you meant. You could tell me the name of where you’re from.”
“I want freedom.”
“I could bring you there and chuck you at whichever planet you prefer.”
“What?” she tilted her head, unkempt dark hair dangling in front of her face.
Anton mimed a throwing motion. “I don’t think they’d let me land, so I’d have to toss you. You could survive in space for a few minutes, right?” Anton grinned. “Merve, was it?”
“Can’t believe someone told you my name…” she frowned.
“I can’t believe you’re being so stubborn about basic information. I’m not asking where all your military bases are located. Do you not want to live?”
“I told you what I want.”
“Sure, but you didn’t mean it,” Anton said. “Did something happen to you, here?”
“Literally nothing happens here,” Merve replied. She was truthful about that, as far as she was concerned. At least it seemed nobody had taken it upon themselves to lower the official standards of care. It was so easy for prisoners to be outlets for humanity’s negative qualities, but at least this facility was kept well controlled.
“There are other planets I could toss you at, if you don’t want any of yours. I could even set you down gently, somewhere with air and water.”
“You’ll just kill me after I tell you what you want to know,” Merve insisted.
“That’s not true,” Anton shook his head. “Why do you think that?”
“… That’s just the way of things,” she said. “I can’t kill myself, so maybe I should just let you do it for me.”
“You don’t really want that, either. But I can say, you already told me something I wanted to know. If you are more specific, I can offer you almost anything you could want.”
“I know you can’t,” Merve said. “I’m going to die here.”
“Wanna go outside?” Anton asked. “It’s nice today.”
“I’m sure,” she said, holding up her manacled hands and feet- bound with formations that restricted her energy usage and minimized her mobility so that whatever physical strength she had was pointless.
“I’ll give you an easy one,” Anton said. “A question I already know the answer to. You’re not from Azoth, and you know what we mean by Azoth.”
“That… wasn’t a question,” she replied.
“I made it a statement because I already know the answer. So… answer and I’ll let you go outside.”
“Yeah, fine. You’re right about that stuff you said.”
A key flashed in Anton’s hands and Merve stumbled forward, suddenly standing under her own power. “What the hell?”
“Come on,” Anton said. “We’re walking.”
She stepped out after him, eyes darting around. Cautious of where he was bringing her.
“They do have mobile restraints, you know. I could just drag you along in them if I wanted to force you anywhere.”
“I know,” she said. “They do let us clean ourselves.”
“What’s wrong then?”
“Why aren’t you worried about your safety?”
“Why should I be?” Anton asked.
“Because if I kill you you’ll be dead, even if they kill me after.”
“And why would you try to kill me?” Anton said, continuing to walk along. “You don’t want to die.”
“Yeah, well maybe I’d prefer to do something before I go out.”
Anton stepped into an elevator, and she followed after him. Guards flanking either side kept a close eye on them, but they’d been instructed to allow Anton to do what he needed to. Once the elevator stopped, they stepped out into a lobby. “I’d wait, if I were you,” Anton said to Merve. “Outside is just there.”
She didn’t respond, instead keeping an eye on the surrounding guards, checking their numbers- and strength. The way her energy swept over them was quite obvious, even if she was trying to be subtle.
“Gotta admit, these plants aren’t great,” Anton said as they walked out through two sliding glass doors. “But at least you get to see the sun. Personally, I like it. What about you?”
Merve shuffled after him along the path he chose. “It’s fine.”
“I see. Where do you want to go?” Anton asked.
“Through that checkpoint,” Merve said.
“Okay.” Anton turned and began walking towards it at a faster gait, forcing Merve to take a few quick steps to keep up. “I’m taking this prisoner on a walk,” Anton said at the heavy gates set into walls a dozen meters tall, and half as thick. There were a large number of guards- and though none were in Life Transformation, Ruteran technology meant many were more powerful than they at first seemed.
The gate guards exchanged looks, but the operator did his job. “One moment sir.” He blinked. “You’ve been given clearance to leave with the prisoner.”
Then they were outside the compound’s walls, and it was soon clear they were on an island. “Which way now?” Anton asked of Merve. She was frantically looking about, waiting for something.
“… I don’t know. Is there a park or something?”
“Not particularly. There’s a decent vista over this way, by the cliff.”
Concrete led them part of the way, then packed dirt. Merve took in the compound behind them, and everything along their way.
“Different, isn’t it?”
“Than what?” Merve asked.
“Your home. I admit, it’s quite new.”
“You say that like you’re not from here.”
“You aren’t,” Anton pointed out. She didn’t say much as they made their way towards the promised cliff. Oceans were much the same. Anton appreciated that. “Where next?”
“Home,” Merve said, striking Anton in the neck as she leapt into the water.
Anton let her get a good several kilometers before pulling up next to her, “This is the wrong way,” he said. “There aren’t any interstellar ships available in that direction for more than two hundred kilometers.”
Even though he spoke, Merve didn’t register his presence for a moment. Then she suddenly stopped, looking at him. “What? Is this… a dream?”
“It’s not,” Anton said. “Also, I will have to bring you back if you don’t help more. Let’s start with the number of systems controlled by… whatever power structure you’re a part of. I can offer you freedom.”
“I don’t think they’d allow that,” Anton shook his head. “But my home or yours… though I don’t think you want the latter.”
“You’re persistent,” Merve said. “It doesn’t make much difference anyway. I’m done, right?”
“You don’t have to be,” Anton said. “If you’re particularly helpful, I can offer you ascension.”
Merve sighed. “And here I was, hoping this might be real.”
“Who says it isn’t?”
“You do. Just by being here.”
“Oh, really?” Anton smiled, removing the limitations on his apparent cultivation. “Are you sure about that?” She just stared at him. “You aren’t worried about anyone back home, are you? No, it seems not. So what’s the problem?”
When Anton felt her energy preparing to go haywire, he didn’t hold back. As she tried to kill herself, he wouldn’t let her. His intrusion of energy certainly wasn’t comfortable, but she could survive with a little bit of internal bleeding and damaged meridians. She did cry, though.
“I don’t think I was that terrible.”
“Of course you are! Offering something you know I want, that I can’t have!”
“Man. Your home system must be pretty terrible. Look, even I won’t say I’m doing this just out of the good of my heart. I want information, remember?” Anton said. “But surely someone must follow through on their promises where you’re from.”
“… nobody as strong as you.”
“Then why not make a bet on it? If I ultimately kill you or whatever, might as well get it over with sooner rather than later, right? Or are you hoping that you’ll be rescued? Because-” Anton held up a finger, “One second.” Anton pulled out his bow, shooting a volley of his most powerful arrows into the lead ship of an incoming assault squadron. He was pleased to find that at least with ascension energy he could overwhelm one ship before they adapted… though they did still have at least a small passive improvement in their defense against it.
Merve sighed and let herself begin to sink, but that only lasted for half a second before she was forced back to the surface.
Anton had to interpret her thoughts from her lack of speech. “They wouldn’t even rescue you, huh? Your place is really messed up. Listen, I can chuck you back in that cell if you want and never visit again, or you might as well take the chance.”
He really hoped she’d say yes, because the others were probably worse. Was there some sort of brainwashing, or was it just that they only saw the ones with no hope? Actually, that made sense for a steady stream of attackers. It was just strange that some who were relatively strong weren’t able to obtain better positions.