Elder Cultivator 658

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Lightning split in all directions from the unfortunate vessel chosen as the first target by the spearmaster. This was one of the few individuals known from Ekict- Aoibhin. Gabriela could only watch from The Wayfarer and curse the luck of the fighter pilot who had been chosen as the first targets. “All vessels, adaptive shields update on the way.”

Over the course of time Rutera had integrated and even made improvements to the Sylanis Cluster’s adaptive defenses. Information could be shared among a fleet, which was especially important for dealing with powerful individuals. Any of the smaller sized vessels could be taken out in one hit by a Worldbinding cultivator. No, it wasn’t Worldbinding or Assimilation but Integration, right? She remembered the feeling from the invasion several decades earlier, though she was a lower ranking general at the time. 

There were various theories from both before and after the attacks, but several people had picked out clear signs of those who had achieved Integration, as crazy as it might seem. They did not belong in this world. And yet, here was one without a speck of ascension energy in her. 

Projectiles impacted the shields of The Wayfarer, and one of The Independence’s main cannons fired a sustained laser. “Shield status?” Gabriela asked. She technically had the information available on her own console, but she couldn’t quite believe the readings.

“Remaining power ninety-eight percent,” said the responsible crewmember. “Recharge functioning as normal. Adaptation close to maximum, given Ni- readings of the former operator.”

She nodded. They hadn’t been expecting The Independence, but knowing it was stolen meant they put the data as priority in their database. As intended, it minimized the amount of damage they would take, with the ship automatically switching from default defenses upon successful scan. Or perhaps it had been a manual switch by one of the operators- she would ask later. Leaving too much to automation could result in flaws of predictability. 

Aoibhin completely ignored The Wayfarer, focusing on attacking the fighters and mid sized ships of the fleet. Her spear deflected off the shields of one of the fighters, returning to her hand as she landed on it. She stabbed directly- once, twice, three times. Only then did the shields collapse to overwhelming power. Once again, unfortunate for that individual pilot- but remarkable results. A single fighter delaying an Integration cultivator for more than a few seconds, allowing the others to fire upon Aoibhin. They had to be somewhat careful with their shots to not take out their ally, but the arcs of lightning around her faded momentarily as she flew through the void towards her next target, focusing on avoidance. It was a shame she would adapt her attacks and the next few individuals would have little chance.

It was unfortunate that The Wayfarer could not easily target an individual- it was possible, but for this particular individual they would have to use the fast swiveling weapons. The rest were focused on The Independence, which they could at least hit. Though its adaptive shields would also minimize the damage.

Gabriela blinked at what she saw. The shields had most certainly been in place, but several of their attacks punctured through to strike the hull of The Independence. Had several of the gunners broken through to new levels of insight? All at once? No, that wasn’t it. Or at least, it couldn’t be the main reason. The Independence adapted to the next waves of attacks, even though The Wayfarer’s information was in its database. It was unfortunate that they’d even had to consider fighting against their own ships, but they prioritized the defensive option should it take place. 

The… The Independence looked pathetic. Half of its guns weren’t firing- what was the crew doing? They couldn’t rely just on the main control, even if it was using a power that felt exactly like Nicodemo. It was strong but strength wasn’t enough. 

Aoibhin indeed changed through several styles, from lightning to pure spear technique, puncturing hulls. But after swapping through a few options, the fighters were all adapted. Instead of switching styles even more, she just battered through their defenses.

None of it made sense… but it was very advantageous for Rutera. “Gunner leader. Is the prototype ready to be tested?”

“Affirmative,” came the response from Neven. “We have enough data. Do you want us to fire?”

“On the spearmaster,” Gabriela confirmed.

“Taking the shot,” Neven replied.

It was odd, having so little to do. Gabriela was supposed to be directing the fleets against similar groups of enemies and complex tactics, but here there were just two powerful individuals. Or what was effectively the same. They didn’t even have any support ships. “Scanners, check for flanking vessels.” This couldn’t be it.

“Negative, general,” came the response.

At the same moment, a single laser opened fire. It was not quite on the level of power of the main cannons, but it targeted Aoibhin… and immediately caused her to flee. Good instinct. Even as she retreated, the swiveling laser tracked her, cutting through her defenses until she ducked behind The Independence. 

“Damage confirmed,” came Neven’s report. 

Good. It had worked in testing, but they couldn’t ask someone to actually stand in front of a ship cannon and let it shoot them. Except perhaps Nthanda, but she was the least useful target to test on. The woman had a body as tough as a ship’s hull, which was exactly the opposite of what they wanted their new weapon to face. Just as their defenses were adaptive, this laser was meant to pierce through defenses as well… including that of individual cultivators of sufficient might. And it worked, well enough at least. Obviously it would have been better to instantly kill Aoibhin, but if they could take out high ranking enemies that easily the war would be over today.

“The enemy appears to be retreating, general. Should we pursue?”

“Are there other enemy forces?”

“Ships detected rounding the planet.”

“We’ll leave them for now. We need to look over the information we’ve gained.” It would be no good to pursue the enemy into a trap. It was a shame about the lost pilots, but frankly a handful of lives in a battle with two Ascension class opponents was barely a scratch.

—–

Upon returning to the city, Anishka and the others were instantly inundated with recruitment calls for joining the war. It was unsurprising how rapidly the situation had changed, given the appearance of a planet wide voice talking about the war. Though people already knew about it, the fact that something like that could happen was huge. Was Grandpa Anton just above the planet? Anishka didn’t feel him… but he would probably have to be directly above her. And the barrier wasn’t helping either. She couldn’t feel tens or hundreds of kilometers away through atmosphere. 

“This doesn’t look good,” Celina said, looking around at the recruiters.

“It could be worse, right?” Anishka said. “It doesn’t seem like a mandatory draft…”

“Hrmn,” Celina grunted. “I wouldn’t be so sure,” she muttered. “Come on, let’s get these apes out of our bag.”

They arrived where the collection bounty had been posted, and got paid. Then the very same individual gave them a pitch. “The Northern Glacier Sect is offering ten percent more than other sects, and a portion of the spoils of war!” The woman leaned towards them, placing papers on the desk in front of her. “Just sign here!”

“Well, uh,” Anishka began elegantly.

“We’re planning to peruse all of our options first,” Celina said. “Do you know if the Enkindled Sun Sect has recruiters here?”

The woman snorted, “Sure. But you know they’ll snatch up all the good fire element resources, right? You’d do better with the Northern Glacier Sect.” The woman looked at Anishka. “Wait, are you an ice cultivator? You feel… different.”

“Oh, no, definitely fire,” Anishka said. “We’ll take that into account. And uh, if we decide to join up with the Northern Glacier Sect we’ll definitely do it through you, okay?” With that, they fled outside. “She’s definitely getting a commission, right?”

“Or exemption from drafting,” Celina said. “I don’t think we’ll make it far without getting some sort of protection,” she gestured to passing cultivators who had badges indicating they’d joined up with one sect or another.

“I’m… really not comfortable with the Northern Glacier Sect,” Anishka bit her lip. “Perhaps something mid-sized?”

Celina protected them in a barrier to make their conversation secret. “Obviously we’re not actually going to join someone. We’d just get killed. And it would be worse for you, I think. With your grandpa up there.”

Anishka’s voice caught in her throat.

“Relax, I could have turned you in back there if I wanted to. But I like you too much already. Can’t believe I took cultivation pointers from someone younger than me, though.”

“Age isn’t as important as experience,” Anishka said.

“Oh yeah, and how much experience do you have?” Celina raised an eyebrow.

“Ten years? I don’t think I’d count before I reached the first rank.”

“… Aren’t you basically twenty?”

“Twenty-one. Almost twenty-two now, I suppose.” 

“That’s… about as much experience as I have,” Celina admitted. “Anyway, we’re off topic. We can’t go with anyone, so we’ll have to find another method.”

“What is it?”

“Well, I didn’t really want to talk to this guy but… I know someone who can probably get us some badges.”

“Will that actually help?” Anishka asked. “Because that sect will just snatch us up anyway.”

“I’d bet he can find some lacking local representation, if you know what I mean,” Celina said. “It’s that or run,” she said, looking back at the three Spirit Building cultivators with them. “I’m not thinking we’d get far. And our position would be much less favorable.”

“Then, I guess we have to find this guy.”

“Be prepared to pay him everything we just got,” Celina said. “And to promise him more.”

“Why promise more?”

“How much is your bounty?” Celina asked.

“I don’t kn- I don’t have a bounty,” she lied poorly.

“Listen. It’s important that you trust me,” Celina said. “How much?”

“I don’t know,” Anishka admitted. “A lot?”

“Can you approximate?”

“Well… just what I had on me was enough to pay a Life Transformation cultivator,” Anishka admitted. “Counting my equipment.” She wished she’d looked for it on the way out- but would she have lived? Was it even nearby, after months? Probably better to forget it. “So the bounty is probably more than that, if they even care.”

“Trust me. They care. If nothing else, for their pride.” Celina nodded, “Alright, so. This is a big risk. This guy’s not… fully trustworthy. Not until we’ve agreed to a deal. He could be a danger, and he’s in Life Transformation himself, not counting his associates. But if we can entice him with more-”

“Ouch!” Anishka clasped her hand, then looked down. “What- ack! Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry, are you alright?”

“… are you okay?”

“Yes, um, I’m fine. Uh, the Sergeant wants to contribute to the conversation.”

“Who?”

“I was… planning to tell you,” Anishka said, then held up her finger. “This is the Sergeant.”

“… A drop of blood?”

“No, the ant!” Anishka said. “Specifically, a void ant.”

“Is that different?” Celina asked, “I don’t sense anything special about him. Or uh, anything at all.” She frowned. “Oh.”

“That’s not the end of things,” Anishka said. “Also, did you have to draw blood? Okay, yeah, I wasn’t paying attention but- fine, I get it. It’s not that big of a deal.” Anishka looked back up and cleared her throat. “Uh, anyway. She’s not very big, but she’s way stronger than she looks.”

“I know how ants work,” Celina said. “And I don’t know if I need part of a leaf carried around, no offense.”

“She almost killed an Essence Collection cultivator once. And her combat effectiveness isn’t any different against Life Transformation cultivators.”

“… What the hell is that ant?” Celina asked. “And where can I get one?”

“I think you have to be a p- person of importance to the void ants,” Anishka said. That was close, she almost called herself a princess. How embarrassing. “But you can always just be friends with one?”

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