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Meetings were boring. Diplomatic meetings especially so, but Nicodemo understood they were important. At least this one was taking place on The Independence, out among the stars. It was more of a tour, really. Or a demonstration of power for the sake of their new allies.
“I’ve heard much about Ruteran technology,” said Ekict’s representative. Aoibhin, if Nicodemo recalled correctly. “A demonstration was mentioned?”
“Of course,” Nicodemo nodded. “We are approaching a sizable asteroid for that very purpose. The metals will be harvested afterwards so this isn’t just a waste of energy.” Though Rutera didn’t have huge problems with energy anymore. Most of their energy production and capture was self-sustaining.
When they arrived in position, Nicodemo took control of the cannons. It only took a pair of shots, one to guide the way and the second penetrating deep into the rock, tearing it apart from the inside. There were many more weapons systems available for The Independence that would not have demonstrations today.
On the bridge of The Independence, Nicodemo was about as strong as he could ever get, with one particular exception. That exception reared its ugly head at the same time as the knowledge that he’d gone soft over the past couple decades.
He didn’t even really notice movement. He just had a spear sticking through him. When he moved to react, his arms were held by two of the others with Aoibhin, energy restricting shackles placed around his wrists. Even so, he managed to throw them off and lurch back from the spear lodged in his guts. With one hand he reached into the breast pocket of his uniform, pulling out the handle of a rifle from its internal storage.
Without his own internal energy, he would only have one burst. He needed to have the greatest effect possible, shoot where he could cause the most damage. He leveled the gun at Aoibhin… and shot the control panel behind her. He didn’t know why this was happening, but he wasn’t going to let these bastards get away with an easy takeover.
Surprisingly, he didn’t find himself dead- though Aoibhin’s next two moves pierced through his shoulders, destroying the structure in his muscle and bones. “You’re… not supposed to be this strong,” Nicodemo said as blood dribbled from his mouth.
“We find it helps to be underestimated,” Aoibhin said without any emotion.
If he knew what was coming next, Nicodemo would have taken every effort to destroy himself to stop them. In a way, he had been too humble. He was the priority target, not the vessel.
Training in the Ruteran military taught Ty to be cautious but not hasty in his actions. He couldn’t afford to be twitchy and injure civilians for nothing.
Then his training with Chikere had taught him to stab first and ask questions never. All of the individuals who approached him were perfectly allowed to be present on the base, and to carry their weapons. There wasn’t even anything strictly wrong with one of them resting her hand on the axe at her belt.
But the instant it happened, Ty cut off her hand. He didn’t even consciously register others reaching for their weapons before slashing a complete circle around him, slicing completely through one of the visitors from Ekict. He did feel the twin swords aiming to slice his head off as well as sever him at the hips.
Twin swords. That was an order of magnitude less than what he’d trained against, and the wielder was also lesser than Chikere. No offense to this woman Ty was going to kill, but she was just missing something.
His body suddenly went horizontal as he fell away, oriented between the two horizontally slashing blades. They changed their trajectory to try to catch him, of course, but only the lower one had a chance. It was deflected down into the enhanced tarmac beneath them.
He fell away, directly towards his ship. He landed on the tip of a wing, one of the sharpest parts of the vessel. The ship’s engines started with an injection of his will, the vehicle rotating in place as circular gravity reoriented it.
The woman who was somehow an Integration cultivator of the Slithering Serpent Society despite not being from the upper realms was upon Ty in an instant. Perhaps she wasn’t as simple as she seemed.
Ty and the ship were one, a great blade slashing forward. This was going to be fun. She would live, of course, because command would want to know why this happened and Ty had no idea. But living didn’t require as many limbs as people thought.
The tea smelled wonderful. Vincent took a deep sip of it. “It’s a pleasure to meet with you,” he said. “I find that one of the greatest joys of life is meeting new people and becoming friends, don’t you agree?”
“That’s right,” said the man across from him, likewise sipping his tea. “I’ve heard much about you, and I would love to learn more about your recruitment techniques. You are not only prolific, but from what I hear the disciples you recruit are exceptional.”
“Oh, that? Let me tell you a secret.” Vincent leaned in. “It’s a little thing I like to call practice. You see, if you meet enough people, you get good at reading them and…” Vincent spit the tea he hadn’t let make it all the way down his throat into the man’s eyes. “I have a lot of practice.” Vincent smiled. “Oh, it seems the poison absorbs through the eyes just as well as the stomach. It’s strong, too,” Vincent nodded to himself, taking the man’s cup of tea. “Enough to incapacitate an Assimilation cultivator. But not deadly. I’m surprised, and a little bit concerned.”
He took a sip of the man’s non-poisoned cup and then prepared the other to splash on the other individuals from Ekict. He wondered if this were some sort of isolated incident… but it wouldn’t take long to learn the general extent of it.
Vasu looked down at his left wrist, or what he used to call that. At the moment, there wasn’t enough of it left to really call that name, though it was still technically attached. The disappointing part was that it wasn’t even a clean cut. He looked down at the red sands below him, normally reflective like a mirror. But at the moment it was filled with an entire squad of buried enemies, so it was a little bit blood-splattered.
Anzela clenched her teeth as she watched a ship fly off with her husband. She’d only barely protected herself with Ruteran weapons. Neither of them were great combatants, but her husband was only a diplomat. They’d both been lucky to barely step into Assimilation, or so she’d thought. But if that hadn’t happened, would they have been targets?
She clutched her side as people rushed to support her. She’d avoided combat most of her life, even if she technically received some training in case of danger during exploration. But now she understood why some were obsessed with combat. She needed to find someone who could make her stronger… so she could get Rikuto back. Or avenge him, if it came to that.
Anishka woke to something tickling the inside of her nose, causing her to sneeze. There was a strange rattling sound as she did so… and she felt strangely cold. She never got cold. Just a little bit of natural energy and she could… she could…
The world came into focus slowly, starting with the cold metal on her wrists and ankles. Around her was an icy prison, though truthfully everything had been icy. But why was she locked up? She vaguely remembered some disciples showing up at her room, an exchange of words followed by something like a battle. Her aching ribs came to her attention reminding her of injuries, though the pain was somewhat numb from the cold.
Among the blue-white ice, she spotted a black dot. Her eyes focused on that. “S- Sergeant?” Anishka half stammered, both because of the cold and because she almost shouted but decided she should perhaps not halfway through.
The black spot remained still for a moment, then there was the sound of tiny cracking ice. It began to crawl closer, then up her leg, her side, then down her shoulder and along her arm to the tip of her thumb.
“My apologies, princess,” the Sergeant signed. “I have failed to properly protect you. My understanding of the situation was insufficient, and I was not there for you in your time of need.”
“It’s- I don’t think you could stop it,” Anishka whispered back. “What’s going on?”
“The situation is not entirely clear, but I learned about Transferral.”
“How is that relevant here?” Anishka hissed.
“Transferral is soul stealing. Or cultivation stealing. Or some combination of those.”
“They’re going to-?” Anisha stopped her reflexive shouting. “They’re going to steal my soul?” she whispered.
“Unclear. Likely not, as your cultivation is insufficient to be worthwhile. But it is clear that Ekict is hiding much, and they are not our friends.”
“Obviously,” Anishka grimaced. “I could understand being locked up for causing trouble even with my status, but not like this. And I didn’t even do anything. I-”
The sound of footsteps echoing off icy walls came down outside of the bars, then the jangling of keys. “Good. You are awake.” Into the cell stepped Arzu, the head of the Northern Glacier Sect. “Do you know why you’re here?”
“No,” Anishka answered plainly. “Why?”
The slap stung her face. She’d been injured plenty of times, in a spar or even a couple times in actual combat. But there was something more viscerally painful and discomforting about this lesser pain that she could not avoid, especially as the momentary warmth lessened the numbing of her nerves.
“Wrong answer. It’s because you are a spy. And you are going to tell us how many others are doing the same. Is it all of your visitors? What do you know?”
“I’m not a spy!” Anishka retorted. Though she kind of had been acting like one. She wasn’t going to admit that though.
“Of course you are. There is no other reason you would have come to Ekict. But we want to know what you were seeking. But you shall have plenty of time to ponder your answers as the cold seeps into your bones.”
Anton received a message. And then another one. And another. He was flooded with a bombardment of information, and upon reviewing them he was filled with anger, confusion, worry, and a return to rage. Somewhere in there was disappointment with himself. He was the one who had found Ekict, who had introduced them as future friends of the Trifold Alliance. This betrayal was his fault.
Second only to them, of course. They were still the ones who actually performed the deeds, after all. Anton prepared to rush off to inflict some sort of apocalypse upon them… but he stopped himself.
He was going to go. But the messages would have already taken several months to reach him at his extremely remote location. And the people here also needed him. People were in peril, but by the time he arrived the immediate troubles would have been resolved. It would likely take him a year to join them. Leaving a few minutes or days earlier wouldn’t change that significantly.
But here, on In’istra, he could make sure he did the most good possible in the time he could spare. At the very least, he owed it to Varghese to let him know that he would be leaving. But before that, Anton flew up out of the atmosphere to get a good look at the stars. His eyes settled on the extremely faint sparkle of theirs. If he’d been in the system, he would have bound and destroyed their sun in that moment. He knew he could do it, though not the consequences to himself.
Though it was a horrible thought, he couldn’t put it out of his mind. But he would have time to think on it as he approached, and the situation developed. Meanwhile, he had matters to settle. And replies to write, telling people he received their messages. He would be on his way… and even if many of them hadn’t asked for his help, and in fact the Trifold Alliance should be able to handle things without him, he couldn’t not go. They were his people.
But he also had people here he had to do right by. Sacrificing one for the other was no good. If he spent a little extra time here, all he had to do was improved his travel techniques to arrive at the other end a little bit faster. Yes, that was the best option.
And then when he got there he was going to destroy a system.