Dead. Nurcan was dead. And worse, Annelie had been right. They had been impatient. Foolish. She didn’t trust that these other systems would have actually shared information about Assimilation, but at least they should have waited longer. They clearly hadn’t gathered enough information before they struck, since calling upon Otakar wasn’t supposed to have been necessary.
But regrets were for the living. And now Nurcan was dead. Soon, her consciousness would fade and… she would stop having regrets. Regrets about not being stronger. Regrets about being too slow and too fast all at once.
Any moment now, and her thoughts would cease entirely. Wouldn’t they?
No. That might not be true. Certainly, that was the case for the vast majority of individuals, but she was a special case. Or rather, the Twin Soul Sect was. Her soul was eternally marked with their filth. The power it had provided her was desirable, but she’d tried to not consider the other implications.
It wasn’t so bad, to reincarnate with memories. But she didn’t know if she could still expect to be around Ekict, or even in the right time frame. So she had regret.
Was she moving? She had the vague feeling she was moving, even if her sense of time was all out of whack and her understanding of space was basically nonexistent. Yes, she was definitely moving. It was almost like falling, something pulling her towards it.
Wait, was that? Of course it was. She was going to the upper realms. But to live again, even if she despised them, perhaps it would be worth it. And she could hide her feelings as long as necessary.
Then she was yanked to a halt. She thought she would find herself in a body. Presumably that of a newborn, but detailed information on the Twin Soul Sect was hard to find even with access to those from the upper realms.
But she was not in a body. She was still a soul, but unable to move. “These markings…” said a voice. “I don’t recognize them.”
“They’re old,” said another voice. “I remember the system though. Ekict, I think they called themselves. Gave us quite a bit of trouble. Didn’t think we had any more there.” A vague sense of something walking into her vision- but without eyes or a source of proper energy, she couldn’t really see. “Hello there, good to see you. Time to report in.”
“Ah, yes. Of course.” What should she say? She felt a sort of tugging.
“What are you doing? Report!”
She would make up something believable. Starting with… “The system of Ekict-”
“Not like that! What are they even teaching- no, wait. You’re Integration. Don’t tell me you forgot the technique?” A pause. “Oh, this is interesting. Look at this.”
“What am I seeing, grandmaster?”
“This soul isn’t one of ours. But it has our cultivation. Fascinating. You have much to tell us.”
“Of course I-”
“None of that now. We don’t need you to talk. We have better ways of extracting information. And since you’re not really one of us, we don’t have to apologize for how much it will hurt. Come then. Tell us everything.”
In her last moments of consciousness, Nurcan had thought death was the worst thing that could happen to her. But now, she realized how much worse things could be.
At some point, it became impossible for Anishka to continue stirring up discontent among the ‘lesser’ cultivators without getting aboard a ship. So now she was trapped on a galleon… or some sort of large sailing vessel. There were easily a couple hundred of them packed into the thing, but more than just being a transport ship it was brimming with weapons. Enchanted ballistae and energy cannons were certainly relatively primitive compared to what she was used to, but at some point it became less about efficiency and more about the absolute quantity of power something could put out at any point. In that, at least, they were reasonably matched.
There weren’t a lot of private places to meet on such a ship. Normal quarters were jam packed, so unless she wanted to be overheard by ten sets of bunks she couldn’t do much there. That left only places such as the cargo hold, which were off limits most of the time. Hardly optimal circumstances to stir up passionate resistance, unless she could guarantee everyone within sensory range would be on board with her intent. A good majority of people were, but that wasn’t enough.
It would be so much easier if she could just hide out with Patka, Celina, and the rest. But then nothing would get done. So Anishka found whatever excuses she could, helping around the kitchens and anything else that would get her officially sent around the ship. If she were truly alone, she didn’t know if she would have been able to remain calm among so many unknown people who were technically enemies. But she always had the Sergeant and most of the other void ants with her. The Royal Guard were the exception, not because they didn’t want to be but because they were too bulky. The Sergeant could hide in Anishka’s sleeve with the rest of the squad and not disturb a single wrinkle- but the Royal Guard were significantly larger. They could be detected visually or by the void they left behind, and around hundreds of cultivators who were at least casually sensing each other at all times, it was too risky. So they had found their own nooks and crannies to hide in.
Right now she was on her way into the hold to pull out another bundle of vegetables. The easiest way to lose an army was to fail to feed them, even when gearing up for missions like they currently were. They were patrolling, and based on how they had suddenly changed directions it was likely they were heading towards something. An attack from the Trifold Alliance, most likely. Anishka hoped she could do something before they arrived.
“Hey,” a large gruff man blocked Anishka’s path as she came to the last intersection before the stairs down, “A weak woman like yourself should be careful about where she goes.”
Instantly, Anishka’s energy flared. “I’m not as weak as you think.” Sure, she was only early Essence Collection. The little time she’d had hadn’t let her grow much stronger.
“Grug, come on,” the large and generally rotund man was shoved halfway to the side as a tall and slim individual came into view, “We talked about this. You’re supposed to say, ‘Hello fellow cultivator. The world is quite dangerous for those of us below the top, is it not?”
“Didn’t I say that?” the larger man looked at the dark skinned figure. “I thought I said that, Ufoma.”
“You got it barely half right,” Ufoma replied, turning towards Anishka. “Sorry about that. The whole ambushing thing and the wording. But it’s hard to catch people alone. I’m sure you know how the powerful sects have been making all of the decisions on their own, forcing us lesser sects around?”
“I do,” Anishka said, not quite relaxing- though she was encouraged by the restrained energy of the two individuals. If they wanted to attack, she would be ready first. “What of it?”
“They take command only by the right of the strong… but do they really have that? Are they strong, compared to the enemies they have brought upon us?”
“The spear guy here isn’t that strong,” Grug said. “We can smash him together.”
“Grug. You didn’t let me finish the second half of the explanation.”
“It’s easier just to say it.”
“Right,” Ufoma sighed, “What Grug is saying is that the representative of the Gates of the Earth here can easily be replaced, should a determined group of individuals work together.”
Huh. Was this a completely independent mutiny, or had her own call to action spread to the point that people were preaching it to her? It didn’t really matter, she supposed- as long as everyone worked together, instead of against each other. “I think I understand what you are saying,” Anishka said. “But I also know that we must remain subtle.”
“Subtle about what?” came another voice. Anishka shivered as a formerly unsensed individual stepped out from the stairway. “Is there something you would hide from me?”
This was a disaster. Anishka held her position, but Grug and Ufoma couldn’t help but leap back down their crossing corridor. This was the ‘spear guy’ in question. Haimo of the Gates of the Earth, a peak Life Transformation cultivator in charge of their vessel.
“We were just proposing an arrangement where we look out for each other on the battlefield,” Ufoma lied smoothly. “I know we’re supposed to stick to our own squads, but can you blame me for trying?”
Anishka kept her face blank and icy. She wanted to support the lie, but she couldn’t think quickly enough to manage it. Her thoughts were shattered a moment later regardless.
“I thought we were talking about killing this spear guy and taking control of our lives?” Grug said. “You told me that’s what we were doing.”
Well. This was it. They were dead. Unless they somehow acted fast enough to take Haimo out instantly, the three of them stood no chance. It only took an instant for Haimo to begin rousing his energy- and though Anishka was a step ahead, her spear of ice simply shattered on his chest. His defensive energy was already in place, and even if it was a more casual amount it was enough to stand up against her.
She felt it, lightning coursing in and around him. It didn’t matter his weapon was not present- he could take out the three of them easily. Or if he was in terribly poor form, he’d have to wait for reinforcements. Everyone on the ship would notice the combat.
“Foolish,” Haimo said. “You think you can-” his face suddenly contorted, and his legs collapsed from under him, dropping him to one knee. But that didn’t stop him from radiating lighting in all directions- in fact, it seemed fully intentional that he blasted everything within three meters of him.
Anishka and the other two leapt away, to various levels of success. There wasn’t a lot of room to move here, and Grug took up most of the hall. She felt him collapse to the ground. She and Ufoma managed to get further, but there was an immediate issue. The lightning around Haimo created sparks that had already caught the area on fire as it coursed through the wood- despite the precautions taken to prevent such a thing on cultivator ships. He might kill them even without targeting them- but when he got over his sudden shock he could probably take each of them out one at a time.
But Anishka wasn’t willing to just give up, especially not when she sensed the tiny mandibles of the Sergeant were at play here. She didn’t see anything on the man’s neck, but that wasn’t the only vital point of the body. Perhaps a tendon in his leg? No, too big. Then again, everything was big for the ants.
Just the heat emanating from the area was enough to give Anishka pause. But this man wasn’t a fire cultivator- so her instincts were to take control of those flames. She targeted his head and upper body, concentrating the heat towards him and away from the rest of the ship, creating a barrier of cold.
Ufoma shouted something she couldn’t quite understand, or perhaps something that wasn’t really a word. Instead, the sound was akin to a hammer striking down upon Haimo, just beginning to get a handle on the other two attacks currently in progress. Anishka felt the man’s defensive energy split between upper and lower body, while also sensing a trickle of blood squeezing out of the man’s armor around his inner thigh. Hopefully the work of void ants.
It would have been nice if a Life Transformation cultivator was so easy to kill, but he brought himself fully to his feet and gathered himself properly. “How annoying. Now that I think of it, I have seen your face, haven’t I…?” the man frowned at Anishka. She had changed her hairstyle and used simple non-energy techniques to disguise herself- precisely because energy techniques would be more obvious. But obviously she wasn’t perfect either. “They just need to be able to recognize you for the reward.” Lightning crackled and spun around his arm, which he immediately stabbed towards her torso. The lightning itself was a spear, but wide enough that it filled the whole hallway. Anishka couldn’t dodge it.
She certainly didn’t expected the fallen Grug to leap up and shove his way around the corner directly into the attack, but he did- and the two of them were flung backwards. Her energy had mostly protected her from the first moments of the attack, and the force of the blow turning into momentum backwards was actually for the best. She did slam into a wall eventually, but she had some time to minimize her momentum.
Grug, meanwhile, simply flopped about without intention. No, perhaps he couldn’t do anything. He lay face down on the ground. “Grug-”
He raised a hand, then pushed himself up. “Don’t worry. I’m a tree cultivator.” His friend Ufoma would have had something to say about that- both about it being unhelpful and doubtful information- but in pitched combat he was quite occupied.
It had only been a handful of seconds, but the whole ship was alert, converging on their location. Haimo was knocked to the side as he attempted to repeat his attack, Ufoma pushing him down the side corridor with another sonic attack. Then Ufoma danced through the remaining flames towards them. “Grug, help!”
Anishka wondered how she ever saw the man as threatening. He was more like a ball than a person, almost rolling forward down the hallway. Actually, he hadn’t been that round before, had he? What happened?
She wasn’t quite sure. Ufoma leapt over Grug as Haimo came back around the corner, standing unsteadily with his legs spread apart, slamming one fist into his inner thighs. Anishka was completely certain that the Sergeant was there… and she couldn’t stand to drag things on. There was only so much she could do at a distance, but she pulled heat from one side to the other, trying to freeze the area around his right knee while burning his chest, or something like that.
But even in his condition he was still a Life Transformation cultivator, countering with another bolt of lighting as he charged down the hallway. No, instead of launching it as an attack, he became the attack. The man himself became lightning, striking Grug directly and tearing into his belly. Except… instead of piercing through the man, he seemed to slow. And then he went directly upward, half of his body sticking through the fortified deck. The crash was deafening, but the sudden cessation of energy from the man and following silence said even more.