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When the bombardment of the system wide barrier around Ekict commenced, Anton grew in his realization that his assumptions about their power level were faulty. Obviously he was now aware they had power beyond the Life Transformation stage, but even the barrier was stronger than expected. Given what the formation masters said about its design, Anton expected it to crumple quickly but that simply wasn’t the case.
At the current moment, his personal power was more limited- but Anton wasn’t alone, or even close to being a significant portion of their power. They had dozens of Assimilation cultivators bombarding a relatively small area in succession, though the most notable contributor was not any single person. Instead, it was the second Ascension-class ship made by Rutera. The Wayfarer was more powerful than The Independence, but its purpose was not the same. The latter was made for protection from the upper realms, which had extended to any attackers. The Wayfarer was made for exploration, so even with greater power it was also more efficient. Another general- Gabriela- was in charge of The Wayfarer and its associated fleets. Anton judged its combined firepower to match a late stage Assimilation cultivator, though there was still a significant gap below the Augmentation stage.
Unlike The Independence, there was no one like General Nicodemo forming an important core of the ship’s effectiveness. Instead, every crew member was required to contribute their own part. It was quite effective, as Anton could see from the way it made the barrier wobble.
But after a constant hour, the barrier still held. Anton couldn’t say he was actually surprised. He had been warned it might take some time. He had just thought the projections were a bit pessimistic.
“It’s time,” Ingeborg informed Anton.
Anton nodded. Without direct access to a star, he was weaker than he should be as an Assimilation cultivation. However, he did have one method to keep up, at least for a little bit. Fleeting Youth still allowed him to draw upon Ascension energy. While his recovery after the fact still relied on a proper source of energy, the amount he could use in a short burst was not limited by being around a bound star.
He was stealing it after all. Something he felt not the slightest regret for, nor would he have even if it made a measurable distance in the upper realms. He had friends and family there, but that just confirmed what he knew. The upper realms weren’t better. Stronger, perhaps, but that wasn’t even a guarantee. Their different sort of power did come in handy, though.
Anton’s job wasn’t to shatter some core component of the barrier with force. At best, he might equal the attacks of two Integration cultivators for a short time, a minimal increase. Instead, he was there to confuse the barrier. Apparently, it had some semblance of the adaptive power the Sylanis Cluster had first made known to the Trifold Alliance. Now their own ships used the same sort of thing.
One more form of energy shouldn’t be too much of a difference, except for the bias of the barrier. So far, the only thing that Anton knew for certain was true of Ekict was that they hated the upper realms above all else, and that stuck with their barrier design. Each shot Anton took did exactly nothing, but he saw greater effects all around the areas his arrows burst as his allies took advantage of the focus on Ascension energy.
It was quite a significant effort just to puncture the first hole, but that led to a cascade of effects as cultivators slipped through to damage the physical pieces of the formation, free floating in space. Cultivators from Ekict had not come to defend, either believing their barrier invulnerable or focusing their efforts elsewhere. Anton found the latter option concerning.
But the formation masters got to work, and with punctures in the barrier Anton began to bind the star. It was a little slow. Reluctant. Perhaps the connection and distance were poor. Or perhaps it was his own bias, or that of Ekict against him. Permission wasn’t necessary… but perhaps it made things easier. Though it hadn’t been an issue with the Sylanis Cluster, so Anton couldn’t say anything for sure.
Three hours after they commenced the attack, they’d torn a planet-sized hole in the barrier, one that wouldn’t be able to reform. Anton had bound the star, and the formation masters had performed their temporary alteration. Now was the time to try it.
Anishka did her best to judge whether frost apes or lightning eels were a greater threat. The prices for each were fairly similar, and so was the technical power level… but that didn’t tell the whole story. Fighting underwater, or in any specific creature’s territory, gave them an advantage. In theory, as ice cultivators Anishka and Patka were both well suited to combat the frost apes. However, the Sergeant was vulnerable to them hurling large hunks of ice- the main danger would not be energy based. Would the eels be any better?
She had to pick one. They needed money. It was her responsibility to guide them well. She had to put her head to it, thinking of what else lived near them that would contribute to the danger. The territory… as much as she was aware. Because Ekict hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with any information. She’d even had to pry details out of the people offering the hunting rewards. Why?
Perhaps they were concerned she would sell to someone else. After all, both had to be worth more than what was being paid, otherwise nobody would bother with a commission unless they were in desperate need for something particular.
It would have to be the frost apes. Perhaps the Sergeant wouldn’t be able to contribute as much for the sake of safety, but their competitors were seals that would gladly take advantage of their distraction. Thus, even if they stumbled into a group that was too large they could mitigate the danger. Yes, that was good enough.
“We’re hunting frost apes,” Anishka said confidently to Patka.
“Of course, mistress Anishka.”
“Come on, I’m not even that strong. I’m not a sect head or anything. At best, I’d be your senior sister.” It was already weird to think of being called that by someone older than her, but Patka insisted on honorifics when possible.
“Very well, senior sister Anishka. Though you must recognize that at your age, being an Essence Collection cultivator is meaningful.”
It wasn’t enough though. They had to contend with Life Transformation and stronger. But that was just another reason to stay unnoticed.
The journey to where the frost apes lived was a couple days where they did their best to interact as little as possible with anyone on the road without looking timid. What appeared to be two people might seem like easy targets, and while cultivators didn’t always rob and steal from each other, Anishka didn’t feel charitable about most of Ekict at the moment. But obviously they weren’t all bad, because Patka existed.
The icy spires that were the home of the frost apes weren’t something that could form simply by physical forces. They were formed partially by natural energy seeping out of the ground, which was then encouraged by the frost apes to improve their ability to move around. They were known for jumping between the various spires, remaining protected from anything on the ground. Anishka and Patka kept their heads up, watching for enemies. The Sergeant was relegated to a sheltered position where she would not be crushed.
“You remember our plans?” Anishka reminded Patka.
“Yes, senior sister. We’re to conjure flames on the surface of the spires.”
“Close… but not quite right. You must separate the heat, and take advantage of the resulting reactions to light any available fuel.” It was a strange thing how the components of water were both highly flammable in their own way, though combined into a molecule they were completely the opposite.
The first sign of a frost ape was a man sized sphere of ice crashing into the ground right next to Anishka. It would have hit her had she not reacted in time, thrown from a great distance yet only giving her a fraction of a second to recognize its approach. The frost ape who threw it had been basically undetectable before that.
The pair rushed towards the spire, combining their energies to perform as Anishka planned. She technically did most of the heavy lifting, but fire quickly climbed to the frost ape. It leapt away from the pillar, but the flame were already fading anyway. It would take quite a bit more to sustain such a reaction. However, Anishka saw that they’d been at least partially successful, some flames lingering on the ape itself for a few moments, leaving a few black scorch marks on otherwise silvery fur. Not that it was a significant amount of damage just yet, but it was simply proof.
It quickly became clear that rushing to the base of a spire was infeasible, as the frost ape would leap away before they could repeat their attack. They also had to dodge hunks of ice along the way- though each of those weakened the spires, so the ammunition wasn’t unlimited.
Instead, they had to attempt the same thing at range, or predict where the creature would flee and have one of them waiting. The ape was smart enough to recognize their danger, but didn’t seem to be able to track every possible move. With some flames flung upward and some growing their way up, they were making some progress.
Then the ape leapt, not at another spire, but down at them. More dangerous for it… but also for them. Anishka was glad she was the initial target as she avoided the large fists. “Alright, fire on the back and ice on the front!” Anishka declared. As she said that, she began to amplify the frost on the front of the creature, using her techniques to draw the heat to the creature’s back. Patka tossed her own flames, as that was an easier maneuver.
Just about the time the creature seemed defeated, Anishka found herself tossed to the side. She’d been too focused on the single target, she hadn’t noticed more frost apes approaching. Her energy defenses had absorbed the worst of the shards of ice scattering off the launched attack, but she couldn’t afford to let that happen again. Patka was fortunately targeted second, and thus ready to dodge the next attack. However, the addition of two more frost apes turned the situation a bit hairy.
And then a fourth and fifth turned things into a crisis. Anishka was already thinking about how they might retreat, when something extremely odd happened to distract both apes and humans.
“People of Ekict.” A massive transmission of sound from the sky. Not quite a booming voice, but clearly audible everywhere. “We come not as invaders, but in our own defense. Know that your most powerful cultivators chose to reject our friendship in the most horrid way, by betrayal.”
Anishka felt waves of energy washing over her, which fortunately continued to keep the frost ape’s attention for the moment. “… Grandpa?” He didn’t respond of course. He wasn’t there but… much further. Somehow.
“An unprovoked attack on our friends and companions left us with no choice but to retaliate, as every diplomat was also involved in the treachery. They all returned here to take shelter. But know this, everyone involved will be slain. However… those who were not involved still have the chance to make a better choice. Stay out of our way, and we will not harm you. But be aware, just as we will take vengeance for our elders, so too will we do the same for our youth who came for mutually beneficial exchanges and have been taken away from us.”
Anishka barely stayed on her feet. They were here to rescue her. Well, not her specifically. And they weren’t here yet. But… there was some chance. If she could be noticed… but only by the right people.
Then, unfortunately, the power faded away… no longer distracting the apes. Attacks immediately began again, both up close assaults and huge ice boulders any time she stepped away towards a ‘safer’ position. Anishka looked towards Patka. They were going to have to flee, somehow. But she couldn’t quite figure out how.