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Among the fleets of the Trifold Alliance were a small number of ships that had absolutely nothing to make them stand out. They weren’t the largest or smallest, fastest or most sturdy. They didn’t have the most troop carrying capacity, nor were they particularly full of supplies. The only thing that made them special was that they technically carried the most soldiers. By count, but certainly not by mass. Altogether, they weighed in as much as a handful of individual humans.
These were the soldiers sent from the various colonies of the void ants. Anton was currently coordinating with two of them, led by members of the Royal Guard. It was a shame the Great Queen was not present, but she was currently stationed defensively.
“So we’re agreed then. Regardless of whether they show actual, tangible hostages… you’ll be infiltrating the planet when they open the barrier. Or… making your own way through, should they renege on their deal.”
“Of course, sir,” said one of the Royal Guard. Individuals like this were equivalent to the average queen in strength, but more… expendable. That wasn’t Anton’s choice, but the internal decisions of the void ants. Though it was true a colony would find itself in dire straits should a queen be lost, with them in contact over the surface of a planet and between systems a few losses wouldn’t be so dire as it seemed. They could be replaced by other colonies, or the Great Queen herself- though it seemed she didn’t have many children herself lately. “We will position ourselves to the last known locations of visiting individuals. And of course, with any who turn themselves over.”
Anton nodded. He couldn’t stop Annelie from attempting to save her daughter, but he could provide protection from the basically inevitable betrayal. Why should he expect them to go through with this deal cleanly when they started this war with backstabbing? Though there was some chance they might, in the cases where they actually had hostages. Anton wasn’t certain about most of them. He just knew that Rikuto was never coming back, and Anishka was in a state unknown to even the woman known as Nurcan.
“If something goes wrong, you know who to target.”
“Only the strongest,” the second Royal Guard declared. “We strike where we are most effective.”
That was the terrifying feature of the void ants. Nearly ignoring energy defenses, with the strongest of them being large enough to cause serious wounds to cultivators in an instant. It would only take a single strike with a weapon or even a hand to crush them- with the possible exception of the Great Queen- but they could take out the Life Transformation or even Integration cultivators with similar speed at which they could kill a normal human. Which was quite fast, when they wanted to.
The most private part of a cultivator was their cultivation. It was true, of course, that people would generally know a human’s style from their sect or clan. But that was just the surface level. The deeper details of cultivation were different, from look to feel to taste. Normally, the Great Queen was polite about tasting random people, allowing them to have their privacy. These times were not normal. Another invasion had come upon them, and she had missed it.
She would not allow risk to her people- ants or humans- by continuing to be careless. Thus, everyone would be tasted and carefully logged. The basic intention was to determine if someone fit in the Trifold Alliance. There were some issues with that, specifically the abductions that had taken place. However, it was a place to start. Among other things, there were those that simply did not belong. Anyone from the upper realms, regardless of affiliation with Ekict or not, was already sentenced to death. Though the humans would have a chance to interrogate them first, if practical.
Obviously this didn’t count sects that were former members of the Exalted Archipelago. They had been thoroughly checked. Any who remained were part of Ceretos.
Some were obvious without tasting. The Great Queen could pick out One Hundred Stars cultivators from kilometers away. But just in case, they would be tested. Tranquil Cloud Palace. Infinite Wisdom Forest. Clans from Ambati, sects from other continents. Ceretos was where the Great Queen focused her own efforts, but her people were instructed to do the same wherever they lived.
The Great Queen had not yet found anyone who did not fit. But she wasn’t going to assume she was wrong. There were more people to check, always. And perhaps they could find some discrepancy in numbers, should they find nothing else. A colony always had to know its members.
Speaking of which, the Great Queen wondered how the Sergeant was doing. Dead, perhaps. If so, hopefully it had been a sacrifice that helped Anishka. But the most preferable was alive. The Sergeant was small… but intelligent. Miniscule, but determined. Unable to grow, perhaps, except in mental faculties. As part of a colony, unimportant. But given a chance to thrive elsewhere…? The Great Queen did not know. Many hopeful subjects perished. People failed to live up to their full potential. That was the way of things. She hoped. And if she was quite lucky, she would hear back from her.
“Ouch! Agh, why does it hurt so much?” Anishka wagged her finger. “It’s like a papercut!”
“A what now?” Celina asked.
“… Can you feel the pain of paper when you cut it?”
“No, not cutting paper. Getting cut by paper.”
“How does that even happen?”
“Well, it usually takes pressure holding a sheet of paper rigid,” Anishka explained, “And then it slides along like a thin blade.”
“Okay, but…” Celina narrowed her eyes, “Are you dealing with weaponized paper that can harm you? Basic body tempering or your energy defenses should stop that.”
“Well, sure, but it happens a lot before then.”
“How much did you work with paper before you were cultivating?” Celina asked. “I barely touch the stuff.”
“Well…” Anishka thought back. “A lot.” Books both casual and intellectual- though none particularly advanced at that time. Attempts to write, or learn to write. Or just notes in piles.
“Okay, so, how is that like being bitten by your friend?” Celina gestured to the Sergeant.
“I don’t know, that’s why I asked,” Anishka sighed. “Maybe because it’s a small injury?”
The Sergeant performed the antennae version of a shrug. “Usually the greatest damage comes from the larger ants.”
“What is she saying?” Celina asked.
“Oh, right. Translating.” She kind of assumed everyone would speak void ant, which just wasn’t true. Even back home, despite it being fairly easy to learn and the primary form of communication of the most important non-human group. But people tended to just forget void ants because they were small and unobtrusive. Even Patka didn’t speak void ant- fortunately she had encountered the Sergeant and knew the connection to Anishka. With one side understanding the conversation, they’d muddled through it.
“Try it again,” Celina said.
“Ugh, do I have to?”
“Learning how your friend functions would be quite helpful,” Celina reminded.
“You know, you can call her the Sergeant,” Anishka said. “She can also be your friend.”
“I’m surprised you’re friends if you don’t know her name.”
“That is her name. Uh, effectively,” Anishka said. “Their society is… different.”
“It works for them, somehow. Pheromone based signals, I think?” she looked down at the Sergeant.
“Using any of them as a name would be too long, whether it’s the things something smells like or proper chemicals. Besides, it’s not important. If a Lieutenant were here I wouldn’t matter.”
“Wow that’s… harsh,” Anishka said. “Uh, I guess we should get back to the thing where you bite me.”
It hurt again, obviously. But the damage was shallow, and would heal quickly. Until then, it would just be annoying.
“Okay, so. I think I saw it.” Celina nodded. “I think her mandibles pinched the natural energy and enhanced the cut. So more than just ignoring your defenses, her reach was enhanced slightly.”
“Great,” Anishka said. “If you have any future questions about the topic, you can be the one bitten.”
“I think we’ve learned enough,” Celina turned her eyes away. “We also have to go meet him now.”
“I will be ready to commence biting on important blood flow locations,” the Sergeant said. Anishka translated the first bit only.
Having little experience with the matter, Anishka thought meeting a probable criminal and definite shady person would have involved a lot more back alleys instead of… walking into a public tavern and asking for a man named Haroun.
But that was what they did, and then they were sitting down at a table with him. Hovering nearby were several people that tried to pretend they weren’t watching, and in turn Anishka pretended she didn’t notice them.
“Well hello again Celina. Last time we met, I believe you were the one who said she hoped to never see me again, even though I thought I was quite helpful.”
“I stand by my statement,” Celina said. “Because I’d really rather not have to be here. But then I misplaced my badge.”
“How unfortunate,” Haroun nodded. “And your friend, she is with the same sect?”
“Along with three others,” Celina said.
“Fire… and ice? I have many lost things, but perhaps nothing that fits that specifically.”
“You know we’re just working with them. Besides, they’re a more obscure group not from this place,” Celina emphasized.
“Oh, of course.” Haroun nodded. “Then, I most likely have to check some lesser used warehouses for lost goods. How much can you pay?” Celina handed over a bag representing about half of what they had earned on their recent excursion. “For five? Matching sets are difficult to come by. Triple it.”
Celina didn’t hesitate, which now meant she was actually in a worse financial position than when she’d first met Anishka. Though she had her own reasons to do this, she was still paying for some of Anishka’s part. Haroun left the bags where they were on the table.
“Great. But I assume you came here knowing that I am a man of business. I know many things. I know, for example, who your friend is.”
“Then you should know helping me can be quite lucrative,” Anishka said. “I can net you half again my bounty at a later date… and you won’t have to lose any employees.” She couldn’t directly threaten his life without giving away the Sergeant’s existence, and he was a Life Transformation cultivator so he could match the two of them on his own. Having Patka, Ilona and Gilda with them wouldn’t make any significant difference.
“Of course. And you are going to come back here and pay me, in the middle of a war?”
“The war won’t be long,” Anishka said. “And you can’t be certain that you’ll get paid the original offer.”
“Of course I can.”
“Not if they’re unable to pay. Or perhaps they’ll want to delay things given the volatility of the current market. You can’t be certain.” Anishka had practiced all of this with Celina, and she hoped it wasn’t too obvious. The confidence in victory, however, was her own true feeling.
“You really think so?” Haroun raised an eyebrow. “I know you have your fancy Assimilation cultivators or whatever but-”
“I know about Transferral. And yes, I know how things will go.”
Haroun’s eyes widened. He had been shielding their conversation from being overheard the whole time, but he looked around the room while trying to not look like it. “What do you know about Transferral?”
“I know that it has been used to take the cultivation of Integration cultivators from the upper realms,” Anishka said. “And that…” she narrowed her eyes.
“And that what?” Haroun asked, leaning forward. That actually helped her, by accident.
“Uh, and also that… it’s a dead end where you can’t grow in cultivation afterwards.”
“What?” Haroun clenched his fist. “Why?”
“I’m not just going to give away all my secrets,” Anishka said, “But does it really matter? Nobody is going to offer you the secrets to accomplish it.”
Haroun clicked his tongue. “Maybe for you. You know how much your bounty is? You don’t, do you. But since you can offer one and a half, and there’s nobody here to counteroffer, I’ll have to do it myself. Triple, since I know you can offer it.”
“Double and I’ll get someone to personally coach you on Assimilation.” That was absolutely an increase in value, but Anishka wanted him to be motivated to go through with it. At a certain point, more cultivation resources lost their shine. Knowledge he couldn’t get anywhere else? He couldn’t pass that up.
Haroun folded his hands in front of his face, pondering. “Deal.”
“You made the right choice,” Anishka smiled.
Later, Haroun would feel uneasy and ponder for some secret meaning behind that while he looked at a weird rash that had cropped up on his neck. Then he would think about what Assimilation might be and if he could even attain it. Then again, Transferral was also a dream he couldn’t achieve.