With special techniques placing Eyvor in a trance, the woman who had stolen Nicodemo’s cultivation was primed to answer questions. Subjecting someone to temporary loss of control was better than subjecting them to prolonged physical and mental anguish, but its use was still tightly constrained. It was also quite energy intensive, especially when used on someone of significant cultivation. Even drained of their internal energy, they would have a greater mental fortitude than most.
The information the woman had was not all helpful. Troop movements were simple to get, but also mostly known. The reason for gathering people in one area was related to previous experience with invasions from the upper realms, where cultivators had to descend according to certain physical rules as they were ejected from the tides of the world. They had also expected their formations to hold over the majority of the planet. Fortunately for them, their world had no exposure to Everheart. Unfortunately for them, that also meant they were much less developed in that field. Cultivators usually advanced slowly, so rapid changes over just a few centuries were strange to them, especially as they were cut off from the upper realms entirely.
They were able to confirm some suspicions or vague details about Transferral, but when they asked for flaws they got little information. Either there weren’t any, or Eyvor was unaware of them- the latter being more likely. Though she did admit there was an adjustment period to make full use of a new cultivation style, from an individual cultivator’s perspective they were always stronger than they had just been. Nobody would bother using Transferral for only a small improvement in cultivation, but always at least a step into the next phase. The limit there being it was exponentially more dangerous to use more than once- with only a minor risk the first time.
Following that, the next line of questioning was about their forces, specifically cultivators in Life Transformation and their numbers of those beyond that stage. The former was measured in thousands, which was both surprising and not surprising. The total population of Ekict was significantly less than the Trifold Alliance, but they were proportionately ahead in that regard. As for Transferral cultivators, the numbers were somewhere around a hundred, approximately matching those sent from the Trifold Alliance.
That was where Eyvor added some commentary of her own, unbidden. “If you find yourselves unconvinced at our power, you must consider Warden Otakar. He underwent Transferral to the Augmentation stage.”
“Tell us about him,” asked one of the interrogators. “Cultivation style and fighting techniques.”
Eyvor returned to her unenthusiastic monotone. “Originating with the Forge of the Unassailable Flint in the Trigold Cluster. He uses weapons, fire, and swift movement.”
“Give us more details.”
“He uses a glaive and has no hair.”
“Tell us more about his cultivation.”
“It is significantly stronger than anything else I have ever felt.”
Repeated questions determined that rather than fighting against the compulsion, she simply didn’t know much more. Except that after his Transferral, he had been instrumental in taking out the remnants of the enemy forces of that invasion, defeating groups of Integration cultivators even while unfamiliar with his power. She seemed to know nothing about how they captured the original owner of that power.
Some cultivators lived in extreme regions, carefully making use of formations to constrain the world around them into a suitable training ground for themselves and their disciples. And some of them lived in a buried magma cavern because they could.
At least, Aoibhin found no other reason for Otakar to live in a buried cavern. He didn’t absorb fire energy or anything. It wasn’t even the right style. So she had to slowly wriggle her way through viscous magma into pockets of superheated gasses to eventually find her way to the man. There he sat, his body indicating a state of meditation. He was covered from head to toe in armor taken from his source, without even the standard slits for eyes. But he knew she was here, knew she had been coming long before she arrived.
So she waited. And waited some more. At some point in time she might have ignored protocol to speak first, when she was of greater or even similar status to the man. But ultimately he had been chosen for this position, despite Aoibhin’s attempts to be the one chosen instead. If she had been chosen, she wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing.
“You are impatient.”
“This is not a time that calls for patience,” Aoibhin responded as he finally spoke.
“Is it not?” his movements came only with the sound of smoothly sliding metal. “Because hasty action has brought us to this point.”
“You supported the decision. So support it,” she said stubbornly. There was protocol, and then there was her long time familiarity.
“With the information presented to me, I was indeed convinced that a preemptive attack would save us from the corruption of outsiders and even improve our own strength for the future,” Otakar agreed. “But it seems that our spies failed to gather critical information.”
His eyes were still hidden, but she felt his gaze judging her nonetheless. “Our initial attack came in at the anticipated level of success, bolstering our power significantly.”
“Indeed? Then why was there such a poor showing with that big metal ship? It was as if nobody knew how to use it.”
“And what about our sun?”
“What about our sun?” Aoibhin answered.
“Come now. Surely you must feel it. Feel him. Even down here, I heard his speech.”
“That… I’m not sure how that happened. He wasn’t supposed to be able to arrive here. According to our information, he was nine times further than these systems.”
“He was the one who found us, was he not?”
“So one could easily assume he was quite comfortable with interstellar travel, alone and unaided. That was obvious from his first arrival. How many people knew his name?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a simple question. How many people in his home system know his name?”
“Well, it should be… many of them.”
“I don’t know, uh-”
“Is it all of them? Some tens of billions?”
“They might. But so what?”
“Sounds to me like he should have been taken more seriously. And some of the others as well.”
“We overcame the most famous general in Rutera!”
“And not a single individual acting on his own from the same place.” The pressure in the room increased suddenly as the man snorted. “But enough of that. What of these ants?”
“Well, we… didn’t particularly notice them. And nobody thought much of them.”
“They were just… ants.”
“Clearly not. Surely the local cultivators should have been quite wary of creatures that could eat away their energy while remaining unharmed.”
“Not… not really,” Aoibhin said.
“What do you mean?”
“I really meant that nobody thought much of them. There were little tunnels for them to not get stepped on, and otherwise they didn’t really show up anywhere. They seemed like pets. Nobody said a tiny ant could kill a Life Transformation cultivator, at best they said they were ‘energy resistant’!”
“A deeply hidden secret, then. But it was clear the investigations were not as complete as indicated. As one of those leading the efforts, it was your responsibility. Now the consequences fall on your shoulders.”
“I understand. But we still need you to fight.”
“I will,” Otakar promised. “But the timing will be my own. See if you can figure out what happened to our sun before then, would you?”
Previously, Anishka had been doing her best to completely avoid going towards the gathering army. So her current position right in the middle of it seemed rather counterintuitive. But she wasn’t alone, nor was she relying entirely upon her own abilities. She hadn’t had much time, but she learned useful things about infiltration. They were so simple she could have thought of them on her own… or at least it seemed so.
Like minor changes being sufficient to seem like a completely different person. Dyeing her hair a different color would come with problems- anyone particularly observant could see the new roots growing in, defeating the entire purpose. So she just… cut her hair shorter and wore it in a different style. That seemed counterintuitive to concealing her face, but that was handled with some simple facial art. It was visibly obvious, but not its purpose. Using something to conceal her skin tone could be suspicious, but this simply changed her style without necessarily making it seem like she was hiding something. At least, that was what she had been told.
Her purpose in coming here was because while she was afraid of the gathered people… they were also the ones who were the most innocent in this whole endeavor. No doubt some of them would want to harm her, to turn her in for the bounty if they found out. But the vast majority of them wouldn’t be so different from Patka and the women of the Vermillion Inferno.
Entering the camp was simple. They had been dropped off out of sight to make their way on foot. Then they simply entered the crowds and presented tokens- the same fakes as before. Even if they were inspected by someone familiar with the Vermillion Inferno, they could simply say they were not in the area when the draft was required- which was true. Thus them being under a different banner was not terribly strange, since the Vermillion Inferno was not large enough to stand on their own.
Smuggling in the void ants had been an area of concern, but the significantly larger Royal Guard had found their way in alone, with the others hidden with Anishka. The people here still weren’t particularly proficient at finding void ants, it seemed. Then again, they hadn’t met with much trouble until after Anishka arrived and reports started coming in of attacks at many different locations. Reports which were quickly quashed.
That was Anishka’s opening to talk to people. She knew a few locations that were targets where reports hadn’t been widely proliferated, and as long as she chose her words carefully she could sow doubt. Like ‘I heard the Enkindled Sun Sect was attacked at three separate outposts’ and ‘Is it possible we weren’t ready for this conflict?’. But more than that, she tried to sympathize with people, especially from smaller groups.
“It’s unfortunate that you’re here,” Anishka said to one small group. “Your homes could have been attacked and you wouldn’t have been there to defend them.”
She was speaking to an older fellow from Insect Island, who nodded in response. “Indeed. I feel we could have done better in our own regions.”
“Lucky none of the small sects got attacked, right?” Anishka said. “Think that might have been part of the plan?”
“I don’t believe our sect was considered at all,” the man said truthfully. Anishka watched beetles marching across his face. Pretty big ones, though maybe that was because she was comparing to ants.
“I was actually thinking about the, uh, other systems.”
“Wouldn’t it be more efficient to take out the smaller isolated sects?” he asked. Then he frowned, “Or do you think the information about those attacks was concealed?”
That was a conclusion Anishka hadn’t even intended the man to arrive at. “I mean, both are interesting to think about.”
“You’re an odd one, young lady.”
“Because you watch with interest instead of revulsion.”
“I don’t know why I should hate bugs,” Anishka said. “It’s not like they’re going to hurt me.” Plus, she was good friends with one and acquainted with a number of others.
“They could,” the man pointed out.
“So could a sword. Or a fire,” Anishka said, flames dancing over her fingers. That was the other half of her disguise, pretending to be a pure fire cultivator. Her and Patka. It was much more common than a split style like they actually practiced, and fit well with the Vermillion Inferno.
“Fair enough,” he said.
“So…” Anishka continued, “If you didn’t have to fight, would you?”
“I’m not particularly fond of invaders,” the man replied.
“Isn’t this a bit different, though? I mean, Ekict attacked first.” Should have said ‘we’. Oh well, correcting it would be worse.
“Didn’t they send hundreds of spies?”
“I think you heard wrong. Those were disciples exchanging pointers and advice, who were then arrested as spies. So they might have been, but I don’t know if I trust all of the big sects…” Being somewhat conservative with her words helped Anishka there. Not naming particular ones, this man could substitute his least favorite. And including ‘all’ meant if he was positively inclined towards a few he could still agree. She also had to be careful to only speak things she did believe, so she did not fall victim to the insight of others. That meant avoiding Life Transformation cultivators and the other stronger Essence Collection individuals, but she was also least interested in catering to them.
“Hmmn. I heard some others got caught up in that too.”
“Really? I’d like to hear about that,” Anishka said. And she meant it, not just because it could be used as future fodder.
When she had finished her rounds for the day, she returned to her tent and collapsed. People were exhausting, and constantly being on her toes while not looking like it drained her. She knew this was dangerous, but she came back anyway. She only partially understood why. Sometimes, people just did things. A lot of the time, actually, even if they would come up with a reason after.