Given that it was the most important component of their food, void ants were quite sensitive to natural energy, and the lack of it. At a base level, they needed to consume food that contained natural energy. Then, upon reaching a certain point, they could eat free natural energy. It was more of a matter of understanding than physical limitations stopping them. Void ants didn’t all have a developed intelligence.
The Sergeant understood that she still needed physical food to go along with her natural energy, but those critical nutrients had to come separately now that they weren’t staying with big sects. She was, however, drawn towards the tents of some important seeming fellows heading a military camp. Anishka and the rest were staying out of the main parts, and they would take their leave in the morning.
Until that time, the Sergeant planned to take a few imperceptible nibbles of something of substance. She really didn’t care for physical food, but she’d seen what happened when she didn’t have any. And rest, in combination. Her functionality dropped significantly, and Anishka didn’t like that. Nobody would.
Rather than risking someone inspecting a piece of fruit and finding it scarred, the Sergeant instead looked for crumbs. Very few humans, no matter how neat they were, completely avoided leaving small bits of food on the ground. And while the Sergeant understood how inelegant and low class it was, there was little health risk. She munched up some bits and pieces, before she sensed something.
The first thing she sensed was nothing, and then a trail presumably left by that same nothing. Which was to say, she had stumbled upon other void ants. So, there were some here. She quickly rushed to find them. Backup would be appreciated.
The pheromone trails indicated food, danger, and gathering. They were recent, and they brought her closer to the first ant she’d sensed briefly. “Sergeant here. Bring me to your leader.”
The ant complied, and soon enough the Sergeant found herself in a little temporary nest, underground deep enough that nobody treading atop would crush it- or notice the little tunnels. Not that there were many, since there was no queen in attendance. There was just a place for food, a communal rest area, and a small gathering place. It seemed the leader wasn’t present, but she arrived in a timely fashion.
The individual was a large specimen, wide in build and in jaw. She towered over the Sergeant. “Sergeant. This one is a Lieutenant. Your arrival was unexpected.”
“So was your presence. This one has been given a mission, but was not aware of others.” They communicated via sign and pheromones, as appropriate. “Are you, perhaps, part of the assaulting forces.”
“Affirmative. You are not?”
“I was sent ahead on a mission. To gather information and accomplish other objectives.”
“Very good. Report.”
Was this fine? Yes. The void ants were not compromised. There were no locals, and had there been they would not have spoken the sign. Nothing about the mission indicated secrecy needed to be kept among the void ants. “This one discovered information about the sects of Ekict. Some is now moot. This one presumes knowledge of their treachery?”
“Betrayal and war were brought upon our systems,” the lieutenant confirmed. “We come as part of the retaliation.”
“Hidden knowledge was also uncovered. That of Transferral, a method through which cultivation is taken.”
“This technique had been postulated. What confirmation do you have?”
“Hidden scrolls, glyphs I read myself. I was unable to retrieve the documents, given their bulk.” She gave the rest of the details she knew.
“Very good. This information is among the Northern Glacier Sect? Come with us to retrieve it.”
“I cannot. I am continuing a mission to protect a human princess- upon order of the Great Queen.”
“You will join us,” the lieutenant ordered. “More recent orders take precedence. This operation is more critical than a single human.”
“I will not. I must complete my orders to the end.”
“You will.” The lieutenant stepped forward menacingly, her jaws menacingly reaching towards the Sergeant’s head. “Or are you a traitor?”
“Your judgment is incorrect,” the Sergeant protested.
“I am the highest authority present. I understand the Great Queen’s will more than yourself.”
“The princess is the offspring of the favored one.”
“You will come with us. As ordered. Leave the human.”
“I will not.”
“Then you must be executed.”
As the lieutenant stated her intentions, her jaws began to close towards the Sergeant. Had the situation been different, she would have accepted it. But her interpretation meant she had to continue to live to follow the orders of the Great Queen.
She ducked, collapsing her legs. Here, her diminutive size compared to the Lieutenant came as an advantage. Jaws snapped over her instead of around her head. Then time for discussion was over.
The Sergeant dove beneath her superior, shoving her head up beneath the midsection. The intention was to flip the larger individual over, but the Sergeant hardly had any leverage. She could barely reach high enough, and the force of her movement was unable to detach more than a pair of legs from the ground. Her mandibles were too small to find purchase on the body.
The larger individual skittered back, attempting to make use of larger limbs. However, the Sergeant found the motions to be almost slow. Her own smaller limbs allowed her to stay fully underneath the lieutenant, which was quite useful as the larger individual backed into the handful of watching individuals intent on assisting with the execution. One made it through the legs to the Sergeant beneath, but as they lunged for each other and their mandibles intertwined, there was a distinct crack. The Sergeant felt no pain, but had lost her grip. One of the other ant’s mandibles fell to the floor. The Sergeant shoved them out of the way- and into the right middle leg of the lieutenant.
That still left five for balance, though several were raised for motion, and the Sergeant took advantage of a moment of hesitation. She spread her jaws wide, grabbing the joint between the first and second sections. Her jaws clamped, and she dragged inward, pulling the right rear leg under the thorax.
The larger ant crumpled, dropping on the Sergeant’s back. But the lieutenant was only several times as long, less than thirty times the total weight of the Sergeant. Certainly, the sudden force was uncomfortable but she kept her legs about her- and her grip on the leg.
With that grip, she twisted. She had seen many human fights, and understood how easy it was to manipulate people’s motions. The Lieutenant was on her back, with the Sergeant atop. Her jaws at the throat.
Aggression. Forced submission. This was what her pheromones told the other. Other ants… were now afraid to approach. The larger lieutenant continued to struggle until small mandibles cracked chitin at the most narrow point between head and thorax. Movement ceased, and the scent of submission came to the Sergeant.
She climbed down, circling around to be in sight of the lieutenant who did not even try to right herself. “You will not prevent me from completing the Great Queen’s orders.”
“I- you cannot-”
“I clearly can. If the Great Queen takes umbrage with my interpretation, she is welcome to pass judgment on completion of my mission.” The Sergeant then walked off, keeping alert. Quiet but clear steps followed her. She turned to see a dozen individuals, all at least her size- some larger. “Do not think I will go easy on you.”
“Do as you please, Senior Lieutenant,” one of them said- the others responding similarly. “We offer our assistance for your mission.”
“I am not a Lieutenant. I am a Sergeant.”
“We will acquiesce with your intention to remain incognito… Sergeant,” the lead among them said.
“Then, come along.”
“Where have you been?” Anishka asked. “Oh, you brought friends.”
“These are my new subordinates,” the Sergeant explained.
“How did you find them? Wait… have people landed?”
“Only void ants, to my knowledge. But we are infiltrating to provide assistance.”
“Great. I… suppose I have to watch for more of you now,” Anishka said. “I don’t want to squish anyone. How can they help?”
“They can relay the journey in broad terms they took to arrive. And the location of the first entrance,” the Sergeant looked to the skies.
“It’s… towards the battlefields, isn’t it?”
“Can they report back?”
The Sergeant indicated their complete lack of communication devices. How unfortunate. Anishka knew that Rutera had tried to make pure technological communications devices for the void ants, but the scale was simply too small for anyone but the Great Queen and a few of similar substantial size.
So the void ants were helpful, but not able to provide an actual solution for their woes. Anishka nodded. How could they join up with allies without being attacked by one or both sides? Was that even the best method, now? If an assault began in earnest, acquiring a ship might let them escape atmosphere. After the barrier was broken, at least. However… they would have markings from Ekict.
“What are you pondering?” asked the Sergeant.
“Well, it’s still a problem of communication. We don’t have any devices to let us, and…” she explained her reasoning.
“So a ship from the Trifold Alliance would still be identified as a foe, most likely,” the Sergeant added.
“Probably. They’ll keep special track of such things during times such as this. Not like we could be so lucky as to get some. They only purchased a very small number from us. They’re all with the big sects, I think.”
“What about the stolen ones?”
“What stolen ones?” Anishka asked. “Had they been stealing vessels from us?”
“The ones from the beginning of hostilities. And the ones used in the hostage negotiations.”
“Hostage negotiations?” Anishka asked. “How do you know all this?”
“My new companions, of course.”
“Oh, right.” Anishka inclined her head to them. “Sorry, I’m only used to having one of you.”
“Worry not, princess,” one of them signed. “We do not mind.”
Princess? Who gave them that idea about her? Oh. Right. She sighed. “So. They’ve stolen some. Those might still be in communication. I don’t know if they have the technological expertise to make that not the case, though our side could have sabotaged them…” she nodded slowly. “Tell me about this hostage thing as well.”
Annelie was cold. Externally, of course. That was what this icy prison was for. But internally as well. She looked at the woman who indicated she was the head of the Northern Glacier Sect. “Arzu. Did you do this to my daughter as well?”
The woman grimaced. “Don’t use that tone with me. Remember you are the prisoner here. And we haven’t quite shipped off your daughter yet… I’m sure you wouldn’t want any harm to come to her?”
“How does it feel, to be called the sect head but only be the second most important person? Or are you lower than that?” The frozen metal around her wrists chafed, but a little chill wouldn’t harm her.
“I- that doesn’t matter. Besides, I’ll soon be advancing my cultivation by a significant margin.”
“You mean stealing mine?” Annelie asked. “I’d like to see you try.”
“You think I can’t?” the woman stepped forward. “Just wait. It’s already being prepared.”
“Preparations. Good to know.” Annelie nodded, “Hey, can you get a little closer? I have something to tell you.”
Arzu complied. “Oh, a secret? I’ll hear it.”
Annelie spit directly in her eyes. “Even if you had my cultivation you’d be nothing.”
“You-” Arzu swung her arm at Annelie, a slap containing enough power to shatter the skull of someone without cultivation. But her wrist was caught.
“You should really learn to control your emotions,” Annelie said, one of the shackles clinking to the ground. “Though I’m pleased to know I could have gotten myself killed if it had been necessary.”
“I brought friends,” Annelie said simply. The weight of a hundred ants was nothing for a human. And with void ants being very careful to not even brush up against a hair to trigger a sensation, they had already approached every vital location she had. “Don’t worry, ladies. I have her.”
“You think you can… can…” Arzu shivered.
“What’s wrong? Frozen dantian? Don’t worry, it won’t last long.” Annelie spun her around, grabbing the key from her. She stepped out towards the hallway. “I wouldn’t, if I were you. Neither of you are important enough to keep alive.”
Two guards hesitated as they tilted their halberds towards her. That gave her enough time to go across the hall into the opposite cell, where she chained up the sect head. The shackles in hers were missing some key bits, chewed up by a small legion of void ants.
“I’m going to have a lot of questions for you,” Annelie said. “But later. First, I’ll let you get used to your new home.” She locked the door with the woman’s own key, then turned to the guards. “You two work for me now. The guards exchanged glances. “I know your faces. And I am very upset about my daughter.” An additional layer of ice froze over everything from the last remnants of moisture in the air. “So feel free to cause trouble, if you want.”
With an Integration cultivator here, Annelie wasn’t confident in facing a sect alone. Even with a large number of little friends immune to natural energy attacks, she would hesitate. But… she imagined that things were going to get quite busy in the coming days. If Nurcan was present, her friends’ highest priority would be to take her out. And if she was not, Annelie could make use of this place. Most important was finding where her daughter ended up, and perhaps the jail’s records might say something. There would be the slight issue of the guards on the way out, but they might listen to reason. Or force. Because Annelie was perfectly fine with either right now.