The warthogs stood in position behind their leader, whose name was simply a Forceful Snort. Deep Purr stood with the other meerkats surrounding him, taking up as much space as they could. “What is your business here?” the meerkat captain asked.
“We want food. You have made food. The Tall One must have food as well.”
“And you simply expect us to give it to you?”
Forceful Snort made his namesake sound. “No. We will help. We can do work.”
“Even if we needed you for anything…” Deep Purr said. “Last time you showed up here, it was joined with an assault from the eagles.”
“Payment for work. They promised food for our aid. We promise more fighting for the same. Will fend off munchy gazelles or toothy jackals.”
As Deep Purr seemed about to reject them, Three Squeaks put a paw on his side. “We should give them a chance. See what they can do.”
“Perhaps,” said the captain of the guard. “But we can fight for ourselves, now. We are stronger. Can they provide anything else, besides rooting in the dirt?”
At those words another figure came onto the scene. With a slow waddle. One step at a time. “Rooting… in… the… dirt… is… good,” Meep said as he came up on them. “Can… aid… farm. Share… found… food.”
“We can’t spare anything,” Deep Purr said. “But if you can find more food, or get aid from the One of Energy, I will not stop you. But the two of you will be responsible for the deal,” Deep Purr said to Three Squeaks and Meep.
Anton made sure he was visible on the hill, and the group began to march towards him. Anton let them explain. He was glad he didn’t have to suggest too much himself.
“Yes, the warthogs will be better at turning more soil than you. But they cannot plant or weed as well. It is a good partnership.” It would take too long for food to grow, of course. They only had a few days worth of locusts for the meerkats, and the warthogs didn’t have a large amount fat built up to provide them more time. But Anton could help direct them towards places with more food. Buried root vegetables might be eaten by the other animals in the area… or they might root in the ground, unnoticed. Either way, with the warthogs the meerkats would feel more secure ranging wider, and they could intentionally help replant after the locust’s devastation on their own.
And if the warthogs proved reliable, Anton could begin teaching them proper cultivation as well. It would be yet another arrangement of organs and meridians, but he had the feeling that would be the case for every single group he came across on Akrys. Even different sorts of birds could have wildly different features in important ways, and many creatures were more diverse than that group.
Crossing the border into the Scarlet Midfields, the group of escapees was able to snatch some amount of proper rest. But they wouldn’t be staying anywhere for long.
“I imagine that there are bounties on our heads already,” Sly said. “Ships are probably already on their way to come after us.”
“Agreed,” Margriet nodded her head. “But we should be able to avoid them, since they won’t necessarily be able to follow our trail now that we’re out of their territory.”
“If we had our ships we could outrun them,” Chikere said. “… But I don’t have my communicator.”
“How far is it until we can contact your alliance?” Margriet asked.
“Pretty far,” Chikere said. “Though you could ask someone how big the Scarlet Alliance is if you care.”
“Best to not, for now,” Margriet shook her head. “We’ll aim for the edges of former Harmonious Citadel Territory. That should bring us somewhere familiar to you, at least.”
“Yeah,” Chikere said. “Thanks for carrying me along, by the way. We didn’t really even know each other.”
Margriet smiled, “You did free us. Even if it was merely with the intent to use us as distractions.”
“Was that why…?” Chikere asked. She hadn’t really thought about it.
“Plus,” the large Sly said, “You’re our best ticket to a sizable group that doesn’t want to kill us. And might save us from further retribution.”
“You could have stayed in the cells,” Chikere said.
Sly shook his head, “Better dead than imprisoned there forever. I was hoping for an opportunity, even if I didn’t truly expect it.”
“It was too easy to leave,” Chikere said.
“You call that easy?” Sly asked.
“At full power I wouldn’t be able to cut through Xankeshan’s formation barrier.”
“Certainly, but that’s your capitol planet,” Margriet said. “This was just a backwater.”
“… A jail should be more secure, right?” Chikere asked.
“It worked for centuries,” Sly said.
“That’s because everyone here is too slow,” Chikere complained. “Instead of trying to get things done properly.”
They didn’t have any money, but they were able to hunt some wild beasts for actual food. Chikere brought skewers of roasted meat to her mouth with her one good limb. The others didn’t do much of anything right now, and she didn’t really have a way to recover on her own. But she had one good arm, so why couldn’t she have more?
Margriet breathed a sigh of relief. “This is so much better than relying on absorbed energy. I wish I could sleep longer, though.”
“I can at least watch for incoming enemies,” Chikere said. Her senses were just as good, still well trained to pick up threats.
Ultimately, Chikere did have to shake the other two awake. “Hey. Bad news,” she said. “Either there are a lot of people following us or they have some way to track us.”
They had gone further than just the border, which gave them several dozen options for which planets they could have ended up on.
“Dammit,” Margriet said. “How far are they?”
“There’s a moderately fancy sword about an hour away,” Chikere said. “At the edge of the system.”
Sly picked himself up off the ground. “What’s the criteria for moderately fancy?”
“Sharpness. Materials. Bloodthirst. This one lacks perfection.”
“Not the Limitless Edge,” Chikere said.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Sly said. “We were never properly introduced. Not that there would have been a reason. She’s a proper Augmentation cultivator, after all.”
“She’s very strong,” Chikere agreed.
Margriet carried them off, trying to keep ahead of the enemy’s senses- and changing direction as they traveled between systems. After a few weeks of travel they were fairly certain they had lost their pursuers… only to pick up another group. Each time they lost one, more closed in for the pursuit.
“… I don’t think we can make it,” Margriet said. “We won’t even make it a third of the way there before I can’t bring us any further. And I don’t think we’ve passed any ships that would carry us along faster.”
“I did tell a few people to tell Catarina what was going on,” Chikere said.
“Were any of them members of your alliance?”
“I don’t think so,” Chikere said. “But eventually someone will hear and pass the message on.”
Sly snorted. “I admire your confidence. But I am concerned about your lack of concern for our imminent deaths. It’s not just that, is it?”
Chikere shrugged. “As you said, it might be better to be dead.”
“Certainly,” the man agreed. “But would you not rather snatch the opportunity before you?”
“As long as I can reach it with my right arm,” Chikere said. “The other isn’t any good for snatching now.”
“You should also be more concerned about that,” Sly said. “It’s quite difficult to recover from intentionally crippling wounds.”
“Uzun can help.”
“Who is this Uzun?” Margriet asked. “A great healer?”
“He makes guns and robots,” Chikere said. “But he talks with the same people who made my arm,” Chikere held it up.
“About that,” Margriet asked. “… What is it?”
“A bunch of fancy metal and fake stuff,” Chikere said. “And electricity.”
“That doesn’t really explain much,” Margriet admitted. “What sort of formations conceal its power?”
“None,” Chikere said. “It basically doesn’t use any. Because it was made in the lower realms for me for use here. I was going to re-ascend but that was too hard so I just chopped through space.” Chikere frowned. “Do you think that was why I lost?”
Sly tilted his head. “I don’t know I tracked all of that.”
“I thought about re-ascending and I didn’t, maybe that was why I wasn’t good enough.”
“Sometimes you just lose,” he said.
“I know,” Chikere agreed. “But it’s not supposed to be like that. An unsurpassable distance beyond conceivable limits.”
“Even if you did reach your limit,” Margriet said, “Would that be so bad? It’s not like life ends at that point.”
“… Doesn’t it?” Chikere asked.
“You can make use of what power you have. For your friends. And your alliance.”
Chikere nodded. “That would have been pretty good. When I had power.”
“What are you going to do if this Uzun can heal you?” Sly asked.
“Figure out if I can still use a sword or not. Maybe die. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
“The latter would be a rather poor way to pay back someone who healed you,” Sly pointed out.
“… Not that one, then,” Chikere shrugged. “But I don’t know. Because I don’t know anything anymore.”
A tree toppled over. Not a particularly large one, just a handful of meters tall and less than twenty centimeters thick. Warthogs and meerkats didn’t have much use for building materials at this current time, but this particular tree was dug up by the warthogs for a project of Meep’s. It would be a host to some fungus, in a little grove he was putting together. Most of it had been ruined, but the trees were regrowing their leaves already after the locust swarm. Enough would survive.
Anton did his best to only provide advice, as well as directing the groups to some alternate sources of food. If necessary he would bring some food from afar- there were many places the locusts hadn’t passed by, if one went far enough. It wasn’t some worldwide phenomenon, after all. Just an ordinary swarm of insects. As for why he didn’t just provide what they needed… It wouldn’t mean as much if they didn’t work for it.
But Anton made sure that everyone had enough to survive, at least. A season or two and the area would recover. This was simply a bad year, even without his help both groups would likely survive, though with some losses.
He might have slightly supplemented some of the food they found by encouraging its growth before they reached it. After all, he didn’t want there to be too much disparity between the burrow and his own disciples. He didn’t want people trying to join his training because they needed to eat, but rather because they wanted to take those steps to thrive. There was an important difference in motivation and the effort it produced.
Ultimately, Anton would influence every individual he could along his path of growth. Enrichment was his path, and it didn’t just apply to himself or distant stars in the sky. A star was just one part of a system’s growth.
Speaking of the star, however, the red supergiant’s properties were becoming more clear to Anton. It certainly felt a bit special, but then again Anton hadn’t actually encountered others of the same size and type. He had the feeling it wasn’t solely responsible for the rise of sapience in this place, but he couldn’t yet find any other cause. Maybe they would never know, and ultimately that didn’t matter. What mattered was how things were now, and the people that existed upon the planet. Even if they were quite different in form than the people Anton typically thought of.
Anton was still going to have to continue his survey of the border planets, but he would wait a season or two for things to settle down. He wanted to see if he could build lasting bonds between the local species, or if the current teamwork would be ephemeral and solely based on the necessary temporary rewards. That was the way of many relationships among humans, which is why it took work to get a functioning community, and more work for every layer above that. But ultimately, Anton knew that planetwide communities could exist. And that they could expand through a system and beyond, while still working together for the prosperity of all. And while some people came out ahead compared to others, it was a far cry from the standard power disparity seen among cultivators.