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The void of space was often said to be cold, and by an absolute measure perhaps that was the case. But for a cultivator able to regulate their own heat, the fact that it was not actively draining made it a simple inconvenience. Thus, it did little to cool down Anton’s anger.
What mitigated his fury was time. Time spent in In’istra, uncomfortably tying up loose ends, and then a longer time traveling between systems. Even so, Anton was still seriously considering destroying Ekict’s sun. Not as an overreaction, but as a calculated maneuver to end the war. And there was a war.
Incoming information told him Ekict in fact had dozens of Integration cultivators. Not Assimilation, but actual Integration. Anton’s first thought was that they had been fully consumed by the Trigold Cluster and were simply a trap for people like himself. But he’d felt the resonant truth of Aoibhin’s hatred.
That was where he’d made the mistake. He assumed their traumatic experiences with the upper realms and eventual victory would lead to the same results as the Trigold Cluster. Instead, it had left them broken and bitter. Perhaps they wouldn’t trust anyone else.
As for how they had Integration cultivators, Anton could only speculate. But based on how they captured Assimilation cultivators at great cost, the theories all lead to the same idea. Stolen cultivation, by some method or other. And nobody would have had an inkling if they hadn’t detected the Twin Soul Sect.
He should have returned immediately upon learning that information. He could have… done what? It was only knowing what he knew now that he had any cause of action. Trusting people was not wrong. But perhaps it had been given too easily.
So he would destroy their star. They had far too many Integration cultivators. The fact that they had retreated to their system after the initial assault, their defensive formations around their system… they likely could not compete directly. But that did not mean they couldn’t kill many people during a war. And they couldn’t be allowed to get away with no consequences- there was every reason to believe they would simply repeat their action, but stronger. Depending on if they could steal Assimilation cultivation, which they had to assume was possible or they would have been crazy to attack. And Anton didn’t think they were fully insane. But perhaps they’d been pushed past the point people could withstand.
The way things had happened was Anton’s fault. But he struggled to accept that more than that it was the fault of the Trigold Cluster, and most of all Ekict. Because no matter what happened to them previously, they made the choice for hate when friendship was offered.
After some time, Anishka didn’t even feel cold. Sure, her body was still stiff. Some of it was probably freezing. Would she get frostbite? Her tempered body would prevent that in normal circumstances, but she wasn’t merely left somewhere cold. Active formations drained life and heat from her body. It tried to drain her consciousness too, but she somehow kept a spark of fire inside herself, despite the restrictions on her cultivation.
The bindings weren’t perfect.
And if she were stronger, she could have exploited that instead of merely surviving. Instead, she just lived. Day after day. The sect head came to ask her questions, but Anishka didn’t have answers for her. There wasn’t anyone else to give up. Except… the Sergeant.
Perhaps Anishka might have given her up, if she weren’t the other one who came to visit frequently. It was almost comical to see her carrying a tiny crust of bread, as if it were moving on its own. Yet it was always exactly the amount the Sergeant could move, and she would place it in Anishka’s mouth. She would chew it and swallow. Then over a series of dozens of trips, the Sergeant would carry drops of water to her.
“You can just… let me die,” Anishka said. “They’ll find you.”
“I cannot,” the tiny ant signed, slowly. Stiffly. Frost covered some of her joints. “We will get you out of here.”
“Who is… we?”
“Myself and Patka.”
“… She isn’t strong enough. None of us are,” Anishka stated factually. “You should just go.”
And so she did. Truthfully, Anishka did not know what the Sergeant was doing except when dragging bits of food to her. Her range of vision was quite limited, and the ant was quite tiny. She didn’t even know the ant was coming except when she saw the motion of something much larger than the ant being carried. She couldn’t even feel a tickle in her nose or an itching on her finger anymore.
It was pathetic. Was she even a cultivator? Her first real trials, and she had already given up. But she couldn’t do anything but keep the spark of warmth in her thoughts. Though it did feel like sometimes the restraints slipped up, allowing her to control just a bit of energy. And though it seemed as if there was no warmth to be had in the room around her, if given the chance she could take more away from her surroundings into herself. Just a bit, but she had to try.
Ruteran fleets were quickly organized. The loss of general Nicodemo and The Independence was a huge blow, but though as a pair they functioned at the level of an Assimilation cultivator… it was the first battleship they had built. Technology had grown slightly, and two more had been constructed. Still a great loss, but it was not their only option.
Weos provided many of their own ring-style ships, which joined up with the cultivators and fleets of Ceretos. Ekict was nearly ten times as far from the systems as they were from each other, so they couldn’t be careless in their organization. There would be no supplies, no backup. But there was never a moment that anyone considered not retaliating. If that was the case, they might as well just lay down and die. They would have done that centuries ago, in fact. And though Rutera hadn’t faced attacks from the upper realms, they did fight the Sylanis Cluster.
The presence of which was the biggest factor restraining the Trifold Alliance. While the relations with the Sylanis Cluster had risen to the all time high of reluctant trade partners, there was no guarantee none of them would be interested in revenge. Factoring in the possibility of coordinated attacks by Ekict, each system reserved a portion of their forces for defense, while increasing their monitoring. Any unexpected arrivals could be hostile.
The assault force was prepared to respond to resistance as necessary. Given Ekict’s lies, it was impossible to know for certain what they would be facing, beyond Integration cultivators and the system spanning formation. Their ships weren’t supposed to be of much interest- it should only be the ones purchased from the Trifold Alliance over the duration of their acquaintance that could easily move people between systems. But they would be ready for facing fleets of significant power, just in case. As they waited, plans were drawn up for which planets would be assaulted in which order. They had some internal information, but Ekict hadn’t been terribly forthcoming with details. Perhaps that should have been a sign. Only regret was felt about sending disciples to train with them. Their fates were unknown, but imagination only made it worse.
Anishka should have died. She was quite certain of that. Even Arzu seemed surprised. Obviously the Northern Glacier Sect could have killed her at any time, but it seemed they were waiting for her to die ‘naturally’. If for no other reason than refusing to speak about ‘other spies’. She might have been willing to say anything just to be set free… but she couldn’t let all of the Sergeant’s efforts go to waste.
The tiny ant kept bringing her scraps of food, enough to keep her more or less alive. But that shouldn’t have been enough. The cold should have killed Anishka. It hadn’t, though, and as time passed she was able to slip more and more control past the restraints. Cold now rested inside her, but didn’t freeze her. Instead, it was waiting to be released as a weapon, just like the fire she barely sustained from what little natural energy she was able to absorb from the surroundings.
It took some time for her to realize, but the snippets of food also had natural energy in them. Not as abundant as Ceretos or the Trifold Alliance, but with tangible benefits.
Anishka knew she shouldn’t talk, but she couldn’t help but speak some of her thoughts aloud. Even Arzu no longer came to check on her, so hearing any speech was the only way she could stay a little sane. And the Sergeant hadn’t shown up recently. Anishka didn’t want to think about what that might mean. It had been days, and though the fact that she was going to die of starvation soon bothered Anishka, she was more concerned about her friend. Had Patka been caught as well?
“Where are you, Sergeant…? What happened?”
There was no response, of course. Just silence. An hour passed. Maybe two. Or five. Anishka couldn’t tell, except the light seeping in through the windows indicated it was approaching dusk.
Then there was a pop. And explosion of natural energy, small but distinct. Anishka responded by instinct as an explosion of power nearly tore off her wrist… and her natural energy responded, protecting her.
She looked down, and saw a now-mangled manacle. And upon it, a chunk of some sort of precious stone larger than her held aloft, was the Sergeant. Then the gem cracked, and Anishka could see the Sergeant signing as it crumbled.
“… been here the whole time. Should have said something.”
“… What? It’s been days. Don’t tell me you were… chewing on the manacles for days?”
“Don’t be silly,” the Sergeant responded, slowly. Ice was even more prominently visible on her limbs. Tiny crystals that greatly hindered movements. “I’m not that strong. I’m usually here chewing on the enchantments. Though it does take like an hour to get food for you.”
Anishka couldn’t help but laugh. It hurt, as her throat cracked from dryness and cold. But the relief made her body want to do everything it could. “You were here the whole time? Did you… eat anything yourself?”
“Besides natural energy.”
Anishka’s brain was still barely functional, but eventually she realized. She could manipulate natural energy. Her first act was to remove the frost covering her companion, who began to move about a bit less sluggishly. The Sergeant hadn’t grown at all, but she immediately crawled towards Anishka’s other side, and the other manacle. Without its pair, it was only restricting that arm, instead of her whole internal energy flow. Seeing the chunks of energy the ant ripped out of it, Anishka expected it to be dealt with in a day. But instead she yanked her hand out. It wasn’t even that hard, as she was little better than skin and bones, and she retained some flexibility from Body Tempering.
“We’ve got to go, Sergeant,” Anishka said. “If they see one broken shackle…” She stretched out her finger towards the little ant, and nearly crushed her when her wrist twitched. It seemed she might have damaged something. The Sergeant didn’t hesitate to step onto her finger, despite the sudden movement.
“Patka is trying to get keys,” the ant signed as Anishka brought her up next to her face, so they could communicate as she looked at the restraints on her ankles. The metal was so cold, and the way the numbness was leaving her reminded her of how much they had done.
She couldn’t get her feet out the same way… not and walk. But she had an idea. Cold steel. She was also cold. And so… the steel grew colder, and she grew warmer. Inside her, Anishka felt as if her organs suddenly began to function again as they woke from their near cryotic state. She kicked her ankle against the wall, and the manacle shattered. “You chewed on all of these, didn’t you?”
The Sergeant confirmed that. “I realized I should focus on one. But before that I ate a lot of their energy and nibbled on some of the fancy runes.”
The final binding shattered, though Anishka nearly twisted her ankle in the process. She hadn’t moved in so long. And she had to conserve her energy. Unrestrained, she could draw some from the surroundings- she understood cryo cultivation, after all, and it was half of her style. But her body still needed sustenance to act, something she had been missing for far too long.
Now, how to get out without being caught? She wished she knew where there were guards. She looked at the Sergeant. That, at least, she could ask.