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“Why are you crying, princess? Are you injured?”
“Huh?” Anishka reached up to her face, finding it wet with tears. “I- dead? Are you sure?”
“Bisected. Next time we will split faster.”
“It’s my fault,” Anishka said. “It’s my fault someone died.”
She could no longer see the Sergeant. Everything was too blurry. “Are you alright?” Patka asked.
“One of them died,” Anishka said.
“… I don’t, uh. That’s not great but… they’re ants, right?”
“They’re people!” Anishka retorted. “Just… really small and without hands or natural energy. Someone died and it’s my fault!”
Somehow the others managed to drag her away- thought not before performing practical matters such as divesting the enemy leader of his storage bag and equipment.
Anishka didn’t feel any better, but she walked in the direction she was pointed. Meanwhile, Celina’s attempts to console her didn’t help at all. “That was amazing. They actually defeated a Life Transformation cultivator. We’d be dead without them. I might have to work harder to make them my friends.”
“Dead… gone forever.” Anishka jerked away from the hand holding her. “Wait, what about her body? A burial?”
“I- we need to keep moving,” Celina said. “They might come again. Or with others. We need to stay ahead of them.”
It took a very firm pinch on her finger, enough to draw blood, to make Anishka pay attention to the Sergeant. “Do not be sad, princess.”
“Why shouldn’t I be sad? One of you died! Are you not sad?”
“Should I be sad?”
“Yes! One of you died?”
“Just a corporal.”
“It doesn’t matter because they were lower rank than you?” Anishka yelled.
“No. I also don’t matter. No individual matters below the queens.”
“Of course you matter! You’re people! You can talk and think and feel… right?”
“It is regrettable that one of us perished,” the Sergeant explained. “We do not wish for it, and will do better.”
“That’s not an answer!”
“Dear,” Celina grabbed her shoulder firmly. “Please stop yelling at your friend. Especially since I’m concerned that might physically harm her.”
“… you can think for yourself, right…?” Anishka asked.
“That makes us more effective,” the Sergeant agreed. “But our purpose is for the colony, and above that all colonies.”
“But what about yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you want… something? Like… a goal? Marriage? A promotion?”
“We don’t get married,” the Sergeant responded. “And I am a Sergeant.”
“What about… I don’t know. Something you want to do.”
“I want to complete my mission.”
“Not that!” Anishka stopped herself from yelling again. “For yourself.”
“… I heard that ascension energy is very tasty. I would like to try it.”
“You know what? Sure. You can want to eat something tasty.” Anishka nodded. “What about… the corporal?”
“I assume you do not mean for us to eat her.”
“No, uh. Did she want anything?”
“I do not know.”
“Did she have a name?”
“… That sucks,” Anishka said. “You need to get names.”
“I don’t want a name.”
“You- fine.” Anishka gave in. “You don’t have to get a name. Just know you could.”
“I can be identified when needed,” the Sergeant explained. “What else is there to a name?”
“It… lets people know who you are. Lets you know who you are.”
“How does a name do that?”
“By making you special. But also by connecting you to people.” Anishka shook her head. “I was named after my father. He uh… he died in the last invasion.”
“I’m sorry,” Celina said. “I… was not around during the last invasion here, as it was centuries prior.”
“I never met him,” Anishka shook her head sadly. “My mother was pregnant with me during the war.”
“None of us know our father,” the Sergeant said. “We only have a male to mate with the queen to start a colony.”
“That’s… I technically knew that,” Anishka admitted. “Isn’t that sad? Not meeting half of your parents.” The way the Sergeant tilted her head made Anishka hang her head. “You… you’ve met your mother, right?”
“I have not. I performed my duties and was fortunate to be approached by the Great Queen for this task.”
“… maybe it’s fine. You can be different.”
“We are different,” the Sergeant agreed. “… Should I want to have met her?”
Anishka shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”
Fire. Endless flames made up a star, producing light and heat for a system. Inside Anton those flames burned, not just with the warmth that produced life, but with the heat of anger. Whether this was simply a reflection of his own state or a form of influence upon him he was unsure. Either way, it was something he needed to deal with. Now that he was aware of it, he could manage his own actions better.
He wondered what might have happened if Ekict didn’t have a barrier covering their whole system, if he had been able to bond with their star immediately. Would he have bypassed seeking council and simply caused the end of things by destroying their star? He didn’t think he actually would have, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Not because of the innocents- both those from the Trifold Alliance and those that were still presumed to exist somewhere natively in the system. They didn’t have enough actually communication to prove the latter, though.
Further days passed, since the exchange. Anton had been unable to keep track of everything, every location people and objects were taken to. However, he did follow Annelie’s progress. He couldn’t do much more than vaguely sense what happened through the barrier, and finding someone he didn’t already know the location of would be nearly impossible. He could only extend thin tendrils, instead of covering a huge radius. She survived, mobile within the prison section of the Northern Glacier Sect. The void ants had been instrumental to that, and the same was true elsewhere. It seemed as though they had struck a serious blow, but it still wasn’t clear how many Integration cultivators the enemy possessed.
That was why they had not yet begun a proper assault of the main planet. With The Independence and Aoibhin, they weren’t yet willing to commit to an attack. Just that much wouldn’t be an issue, but who knew how many others were waiting?
In all, it had only been somewhat more than a week since they’d broken through the outer barrier. They could not afford to delay forever, but neither were they yet pressed for time. They could manage several more months before they would have to concern themselves with supplies, and that discounted the possibility of taking from the locals.
They’d had some victories on the outer planets, but that was of only moderate importance. Taking control of less populated areas would minimize the ways the enemy could send forces to attack them, but they still had a much greater population. They were gathering for battle, but that was being carefully monitored. In truth, it was easier to deal with gathered enemies- either with force, or by avoidance. Because nothing restricted them to attacking a particular location.
Aside from meditating to clear his mental state, Anton’s official duties involved scouting the center of the system. Near the sun and innermost planets where he was strongest. He was not in danger there, even alone. He and the sun had come to an understanding. He would not destroy it or wipe out its people, and it would continue to provide power as usual- with a portion to him. Anton didn’t truly believe that it was alive or conscious in any way. No matter how much natural energy it possessed, it still didn’t have the spark of life. But for his own part and the connection… his thoughts about using it in that way had certainly hindered the process of binding to it.
Atop a hill, Anishka looked down upon the nearby military base. She had no spyglass, but was able to enhance her vision with natural energy. Both would have been best, but she had to work with what she now had. Including a fancy sword. She wasn’t sure if this was the right type of weapon for her, or if she even wanted to use weapons despite their clear combat utility, but this one was more appealing than many. She swished it about, imagining swirls of heat and cold on either side. The blade drew a line where heat would only flow one way. But of course, the blade itself had nothing to do with it, it was just a convenient thing to latch onto as she pondered a potential technique.
But she had to focus on the mission. The military base had ships, clearly visible. Most importantly, they had a ship from Weos. The ring ships were probably third on her list out of three for what she wanted to see, but it should still fulfill their purposes. The question was, did they all go in? Did she go in? What about the void ants?
Just the void ants seemed good, until she realized there was a verbal communicator. Unless they were exceedingly lucky and this particular ship had one of the rare void ant compatible computer systems, they would need a human present. And she was the only one who would understand things, so she had to be there.
But what then? Her immediate thought was to take the ship and fly away, but she couldn’t just leave people behind. Which meant they would all have to be there, but the plan was flawed to begin with. It had been her goal for a while, but stealing a ship was probably not that easy- and the enemy would likely be happy to shoot them down
“What’s the plan? Celina asked.
“We need to get to that ring ship,” Anishka declared. “But I’d like the void ants to scout it first.” She looked down to the Sergeant to make sure she was paying attention for a response.
“We can do it,” the Sergeant agreed. “It will only take four to six hours.”
“… That long? Why? It’s just right there…”
“Estimated distance of six kilometers,” the Sergeant said. “Travel time will be between one and two hours each way. Unless we travel in a combat formation which would be much more noticeable.”
“Yeah, sorry, I forgot you were… not as fast as a human.”
“Shall we begin now?”
“Might as well,” Anishka said. “Should we wait here? No, perhaps down the back of the hill.”
“We will find you upon our return,” the Sergeant said as she and the others were settled onto the ground, disappearing against the background of the dirt.
Hours. What was she to do until then? Perhaps distract herself with training. Same with the others.
Anishka worked with Patka on transferring heat from one place to another. The woman knew the basics, but there were always improvements to be made. Here, they used rocks carefully placed to avoid starting a fire. It wouldn’t do for them to produce smoke and thus reveal themselves.
“You have many insights into the workings of things,” Celina said. “Is there a way for us to produce more heat by manipulating its position?”
“You could draw from things around you,” Anishka said. “And focus it towards one place. However, you would lose the effects of chilling an individual at the same time. And most importantly, you have to remember to not draw from your own heat.” She’d made that mistake once. She was lucky someone had been nearby to unfreeze her, and that she hadn’t burst anything important in the process. “Most likely it is better to focus on refining your flames efficiency in other ways, but if any of you are particularly attuned to ambient heat, it might be useful.”
Anishka spoke with as much authority as she could muster, trying to recall her teachers and the technique manuals she no longer had in her possession. She didn’t want to lead anyone astray.
After a while, she got to thinking. That was often a mistake, because not all of the thoughts were positive. “… Why are you still traveling with me?” Anishka asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not strong enough to ensure you’re any safer, especially with the people looking for me. You gave of your own finances for me. Are you just betting on the chance we survive for me to pay you back? I will, of course.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s just a bit of money. That’s nothing compared to being part of something… more. I’m just someone with a bit of talent for cultivation, but I could never hope to be important. But you are, and I was just hoping… to somehow be written into history. Even just a little.”
“I didn’t even do anything to be ‘important’,” Annelie muttered.
Celina shrugged, “Neither did most of the strongest here. Their parents were part of a big sect, and they just so happened to have the right amount of talent to work their way up. Or they were exceedingly lucky. But realistically, most of those who truly matter will have multiple generations of the strong before them. Like you.”
“Yeah…” Anishka said. “Though I want to say that, technically, I’m kinda a second generation cultivator? On my mother’s side, at least.”
“But there’s her, and your grandpa…?”
“They started cultivating at… basically the same time,” Anishka explained. “Grandpa was like… a century old when he started. Before that he was just farming.”
“I see. He made use of some great cultivation crops to start his career, then?”
“No,” Anishka shook her head. “Just like… really normal stuff. Possibly even more normal than those fields we passed. He’s amazing. My mother, too. There was some… bad stuff that happened to our family. But they all pushed through. And now there’s me, and even though I had so many advantages I can barely do anything useful.”
Celina shrugged, “Wait until you’re a hundred, then. You don’t have to start out amazing. Though this would be a convenient time…”
Overall, Celina was attempting to encourage Anishka and it worked to some extent. But her worries weren’t just going to disappear all at once, especially with the very real dangers still lurking around.