The Harmonious Citadel forces had slowed their aggressive expansion, though on the side of the Scarlet Alliance only a few larger cities were in contact with Shutoll. The fact that they weren’t being assaulted immediately implied other restrictions on the Citadel’s movements, but with the long range communication options suppressed information had to be disseminated manually. Human or animal messengers were the main source of communication between the neighboring areas.
If Grandmaster Chikere had been the cooperative sort, she could have helped with the delivery tasks. But she wasn’t… and her current activities might be strangely important. She was never entirely clear on what she was doing, but Chidi knew it would be disruptive to the enemy, simply by her nature. And while attempting to draw in the sword saint was also a risk, it made enough sense for her.
The biggest problem was still the lack of off-planet communication. While the enemy would most likely have the same restrictions, they could still communicate off-planet if they sent ships into space. Something the Scarlet Alliance couldn’t do, as their vessels were taken down any time they made an attempt. If they could coordinate with other areas they should be able to obtain air superiority with their superior vessels, but they could not outcompete a fleet that currently outnumbered them so significantly.
The biggest problem was the formation limiting communication, and it had been the focus of Shutoll to find any nodes they could reach. It shouldn’t be possible for the whole formation to have been inside Harmonious Citadel territory. Chidi was well aware of that fact, as well as anyone studying formations even casually. There was a limited domain of influence outside of the physical boundaries of a formation. For something to cover the whole planet, nodes would have to likewise be placed around most of the surface.
Unlike certain forms of formations, the scale of this particular one wouldn’t result in astronomical energy costs. In general, messages were low energy to transmit and receive, so simply disrupting that process was much easier than sustaining a barrier under a barrage of attacks. It wasn’t free of course. At such a scale, it would require some sort of additional energy beyond the ambient or it would risk dropping off. Just a few messages leaving could completely ruin the whole effort.
Likewise, dismantling a few nodes could be a serious victory. They were just a lot harder to find than Chidi could have anticipated. But, because of his particular circumstances, he was one of those most suited to the task.
“… I could really go for another year or two of formations training,” Chidi sighed, commenting to no one in particular. Which basically meant Aconite. He had been following the flow of energy, but had yet to run into any sort of conflux of power along the way. It was as if the formation was everywhere, evenly distributed around the planet. He knew that wasn’t possible, of course. Or at least practical. If the Harmonious Citadel had forces that were able to infiltrate Scarlet Alliance territory and take part in setting up a well calibrated grand formation, they could have done so much more.
“Swords seem more practical,” Aconite countered with a few growls and barks.
“Are they? Because our whole problem here is this formation. Just because it’s not directly killing us doesn’t mean it isn’t the most effective weapon we’ve come up against.”
Captain Tiras was not far behind, along with the vice-captain. They had to maintain a balance between stealth and security, and the ultimate choice had been to continue developing the squad’s ability to remain hidden as a group. No longer did Chidi have to stop and set up a concealment formation if they got close to enemies. Now, as long as there wasn’t some sort of chokepoint, they could continue moving together as a group with their energy concealed. And though that sometimes also involved formations with the help of Chidi’s formation flags it was much less nerve wracking to know that they wouldn’t easily be given away by someone’s mistake.
Obviously there was still that risk with more people, but the squad had shrunk back down to its original size, with some of the original members and some of the stragglers choosing to go on to other duties around Shutoll, while others stayed. Including all of those who had been serious about the scout training with Chidi.
Ida was the only exception, because her injuries had been great enough that even after a year she was not fully recovered. Perhaps not even that close, because given the current circumstances people were pressed to continue their duties in most circumstances, and the physicians still wanted her to refrain from going out to the battlefield. Then again, it might not be for her own sake as much as others, as she could be more of a liability.
She wasn’t sitting idly, of course, as she worked on her cultivation and focused on her wounds she also continued to train with Chidi. They couldn’t get as much practical training in with her remaining in the city, but stealth and perception training in busy places with limited mobility was also valuable. Chidi picked up a few things from those circumstances as well.
“What do you make of this pattern?” Captain Tiras said.
“The flow of energy we’re following. It splits and branches. Here, it’s…” he gestured with the map he was making. “Uh, let me show you.”
He scratched the map into the ground, which made it much easier for Chidi to comprehend. “These are… the Iron Heights?”
“That’s right,” Captain Tiras nodded. “And the Sendaline river is here,” he gestured with his hand over the gouge in the ground.
“It’s a mess,” Chidi said. “I can’t really detect the pattern you’re talking about.”
“Maybe it’s nothing,” the captain shook his head.
Surprisingly, it was Denitsa who had an idea there. “I can certainly make something out. But I think it might be easier for Chidi to comprehend without the terrain features.”
They flattened the dirt, then drew only intersecting and curved lines. It did help significantly, because there were often roads crossing or in parallel to the route Chidi had taken, which also wasn’t the exact flow of energy. He just hadn’t been able to make a map, so he gave general instructions on where the flow was, such as running parallel to them a kilometer to the northeast, or running off into the distance directly northwest.
With only the bare flow of energy visible, there was less clutter. Chidi could feel the pattern- though it wasn’t exactly that. The lines stretched similar distances and generally followed the same angles, but it wasn’t quite right. Of course, they hadn’t been everywhere and failures in description and cartography could have distorted the information.
Revealed was a fairly regular network of energy flow, which wasn’t exactly news to Chidi. It would have to be that way, to cover everything. But what was of more interest were the places between the flow of energy. The regions they covered.
“It’s like a bunch of soap bubbles,” Chidi said. “Edges all mashed up together and blocking off everything behind it.”
“Soap bubbles are clear,” Captain Tiras said.
“Are they?” Chidi frowned. “Weird.” Glass was weird too. Especially glass that couldn’t be seen through, for whatever reason. Something tickled at the back of Chidi’s head. “I almost get something. I took some lessons that had something like this.”
“Some special property of formations, perhaps?” Denitsa said.
“Nope. It was, like, mathematics or something. I think my teacher was one of the Ruterans…”
“Beats me,” Denitsa said. “I only learned arithmetic.”
“It wasn’t even geometry,” Chidi said. “Because I had blocks for that. It was a bunch of strings.” Chidi fell back into his memories, feeling the strings in his hands, hearing her voice. “Oh, it is named after soap bubbles!” Chidi said excitedly. “It’s a kind of graph.”
“Does that help?” Captain Tiras said. “It’s just a way to look at information, which is what we’re doing. I thought it looked special though.”
“It is special. Because, uh…” Chidi reached his hand out, drawing in a bunch of pine needles, then stabbing them vertically into the ground. “These should be something like the centers of each area. And then their sphere of influence pushes out until it intersects with another, creating these lines.” Chidi was becoming more certain by the moment, mentally measuring everything.
“… And that means?” Captain Tiras prompted.
“We’ve been looking at exactly the wrong places, literally as far as possible from where the formation nodes should be.” Chidi nodded confidently, “Where’s the nearest one of these points? I don’t remember which terrain this matches with now.”
“It should be… over by that lake we passed. Or perhaps in it.”
“Then let’s get ready to swim,” Chidi grinned.
If she were anywhere else, Anishka would have just gone up to someone and asked them what Transferral was. Like Nurcan herself, who had to know about it. Unfortunately, that was exactly the thing she shouldn’t do. The information would be secret for a reason. And regardless of the woman being part of the Twin Soul Sect or not, the Northern Glacier Sect obviously didn’t want to share the information.
The question being whether it was limited to the Northern Glacier Sect or not. Transferral of what? Power, presumably. Somehow. And the Twin Soul Sect knew about it while having someone with impossible cultivation.
“Feeling better, Sergeant?”
The void ant nodded- a habit they picked up from humans. It was only a very tiny nod, since she was hardly any larger than a standard black ant, but it was clear to Anishka.
“Good to hear. You still need to eat food, you know? There’s a reason void ants didn’t subsist on just natural energy.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” she signed. “Also I didn’t have much choice.”
“You could have left. People had to have gone in and out, right?”
The Sergeant didn’t respond for a few moments. “… I suppose it would have been less obvious to wait on the inside, since the only passersby would also be me escape plans.” She straightened up, “But also, I had to complete my mission. Failure is not an option.”
“Your mission was to find out about Transferral?”
‘You do know that you don’t have to accomplish a mission all at once, right?”
“Of course. I properly broke things down into steps.”
“Did you make one step ‘solve this entire mystery’?” Silence said volumes. “Can you tell me what you are here for? I might be able to help.”
“Unnecessary. My objectives have been accomplished now.”
“But I thought finding out about Transferral wasn’t your objective?” Anishka tilted her head.
“Correct. But my objective has been resolved nonetheless.”
“Then… can you help me find out more about Transferral?”
A pause. “It will be dangerous. You should avoid the risk. I will do it all.”
Anishka frowned, “Is it less of a risk for you? Because they might not squish an ant, but they might decided to just do that regardless of reasons, if they spot you.”
“Irrelevant. Your life is worth more than mine.”
Anishka’s quick answer clearly confused the ant, whose legs and antennae wobbled wildly, as if searching for an answer to something that was so obvious as to never have been questioned. Finally, there was an answer. “You are a princess.”
“A princess of what?” Anishka raised her eyebrow. “I mean, sure, I get it. My mom’s a sect head. Some people might think I’m more important, but that doesn’t really mean my life is worth more than yours. You’re still a person.”
“I am simply a sergeant among the void ants. One of many.”
“I don’t know if that works. There’s only one of you. You couldn’t just be replaced with another sergeant. Who told you you weren’t important?”
“… Nobody. Everyone just knows that lesser ants aren’t important.”
Anishka made a face. “That’s crazy. All void ants are still people.”
“Incorrect. Many of us are not properly sapient.”
“Well, okay, maybe. But you are. You’re a person, just like me. Except smaller.”
The Sergeant thought for a few moments. “I appreciate the sentiment. That is even more reason I should be the one taking on the primary risks.”
“Aha. So there are other, lesser risks I can take on, right? You can’t do everything yourself. And you should know that. Your colonies are all about cooperation. Why are you even here alone?”
“… The Great Queen declared it.”
“So you just listen to everything this ‘Great Queen’ says?”
“Yeah, I should have seen that coming,” Anishka shrugged. “Well. I guess we’ll have to look into things carefully. I can help you move around, and you can get into places they don’t want you to be.”