Instead of immediately returning to Xankeshan, the Scarlet Alliance fleets were tasked with seeking out any additional Exalted Quadrant pursuers in the area. The other groups had no better excuse to be intruding on their territory, and they wanted to prevent them from causing any more trouble on their way out, once they realized their hunt was for naught. The Alliance’s fleets were better specialized for actual space combat instead of simply carrying personnel, so they were able to manage the task with an acceptable amount of losses.
With the more urgent issues out of the way, it was time to deal with Chikere and the two who came along with her. Margriet was happy to join up with the Scarlet Alliance- and they couldn’t reject another individual with the potential to reach Augmentation. Besides, they were allied with the Worthy Shore Society from Ceretos. The only reason she hadn’t been part of that to begin with was her time was too early. There hadn’t really been an opportunity on her part to split from the Exalted Quadrant. The events on the lower realm had led directly to her arrest.
Sly was the same with the Hardened Crown Sect, except having been from an earlier time. He had no involvement, but he was quite motivated to fight against the people who had kept him imprisoned for a century. Even if there wasn’t any more permanent damage than a loss of time, that was only out of the barest respect for the larger sect. And a century wasn’t that easy to make up for.
“So I just yell at this thing?” Sly said, pointing towards a device Catarina had set up.
“You don’t have to yell,” she explained. “But it will record the scene.”
“Yeah I know about capture orbs,” Sly said. “How are you going to get it to the lower realms, though?”
“We’ll only be sending the information, not the device,” Catarina said.
“Hmm. Whatever. Is it ready?”
She pressed a button and nodded. “You can begin whenever. And we will cut out any parts you deem unnecessary.”
“Hey! You idiots!” Sly puffed out his chest as he glared at the camera. “You all got me imprisoned and you didn’t even fight! You’re lucky I don’t bash your skull in! I’m talking to you, Naamah,” he tapped his forehead. “You were such a promising young disciple. I can’t believe your decision would be indecision. You should have caused some kind of ruckus and committed to it! Anyway, thanks to this Scarlet Alliance here, I’m free and alive. And if you all ascend and apologize I won’t have to come beat you up next cycle. Also I heard you won’t let these people attune their ascension catching stuff to you. That’s pretty stupid because if you ascend into the Exalted Quadrant and they find out where you’re from, they’ll chop off your nicely fortified skulls, no matter how much you temper your spine. Get it?” Sly huffed. “Anyway you should probably get back on good terms with those guys in the lower realms. Or don’t but if you come crying to me after you die I’m just going to say I told you so.” He looked at Catarina. “Can it hold all that?”
“It will take longer to transmit,” she said. “But we can also cut out anything you don’t like.” She had it play back the message.
“I mean, everything after you last spoke was fine,” he said. “But now that you played it I have to say it all again!”
“That’s not how this works,” Catarina said. “It can play it back as many times as we want. And we can cut out anything we feel like,” Catarina said, trimming the start of the recording to Sly’s ‘Hey!’.
“So they’ll get this in a decade or two, right?”
Catarina just looked at him. “Less than half a year. And only because we’ll have to send a ship to their system instead of sending it directly.”
“… This stuff doesn’t make any sense!” Sly said.
“It uses the same principles as all interstellar travel. As it turns out, it is much easier to send weightless information between systems than a heavy ship. It just requires something properly tuned to receive a message. And for the fastest results, strict pairing.”
“I’m going to pretend I understand what you said,” Sly nodded. “So we land on your new homeworld, you send the message, and I get a response in… a year?”
“Or a confirmation of receipt, if they don’t want to send a response,” Catarina said. “And we can relay it from here. It will save us a couple weeks.”
“I have to learn about this technology stuff. Like Chikere’s weird arm.”
“That was the peak of Ruteran engineering… when it was made,” Catarina said. “I suppose they should be better at that now.”
“Great. They can fix your friend right up, then.”
“Maybe. Though I don’t know if they can fix her head.”
“Pretty sure there’s no damage to her skull,” Sly said.
Catarina just shook her head.
Aconite was waiting for Chidi upon his return. “I can’t believe I missed a war!”
“Was it a war?” Chidi frowned. “More like the opening skirmishes of one.”
The wolf tilted her head back and forth. “So they might send more? We’ll have to watch out for that. No more going on family hunting trips, I guess.”
“My mother was talking about better advance warning systems. We were basically lucky to hear about Chikere, and the information about the fleets was also too slow to reach us. Our influence is slowly expanding westward but… well, there’s a lot of space, as it turns out.”
“So your master is back? Is she a big fancy Augmentation cultivator now?”
Chidi shook his head sadly. “Things didn’t quite turn out that way. She suffered a major loss which turned into a greater setback. She was captured and methodically wounded. Fortunately she got out before the work was done… though nobody really explained how. She said something about… itching? And her arm being free to move about. I didn’t really understand the whole thing.”
“Okay,” Aconite said. “So she isn’t quite Augmentation yet. But she’ll heal… and then she’ll do it, right?”
“I’m not sure about either,” Chidi admitted. “I’ve never seen her like this… which is to say not utterly confident in herself and her swords. And she… doesn’t even want to touch swords, right now.”
Aconite sniffed. “That sounds bad.”
“It’s pretty bad,” Chidi agreed. “But we’ll see what can be done. It might just take time. We have some of that, at least.”
The information about the particular events in the upper realms would still take some time to reach Anton, not that he could affect the results in any way regardless. He was still in the beginnings of his plans for Akrys, and the surveys of the other border planets were continuing as normal. The mystery of what happened to the technological planet of Xugryke was still being unraveled, but at the moment it seemed like one of the few disasters not propagated by outside forces. Anton didn’t know whether that was good or bad, though.
The warthogs were just beginning to reap the rewards of helping to sow fields. Anton was continually adapting methods for the physiology of the locals, both from the side of cultivation and simple farming. Rows were the easiest way to plant a large number of crops, but the width between them depended not only on the plants but the farmers. Little guys like the meerkats who could get into small places changed some things. They also didn’t mind chewing on half the weeds that would pop up- but they understood that the benefits of planting intentionally were to get higher quality food in an area.
“What do you think, Three Squeaks?” Anton asked his primary disciple on the planet. “How is the progress of your fellows in cultivation?”
“They learn well,” Three Squeaks said. “Everyone is reaching the first star soon. The whole burrow is strong. And the guards are not lacking in growth.”
Three Squeaks silence left Anton knowing he had more to say. “But?” Anton prompted.
“I don’t want to say it but… I don’t think the One Hundred Stars is suited for the majority of my people.”
Anton nodded slowly. “I agree, actually. Seeing how well you took to it, I thought it might be suited. But it seems to be you and a few others, in particular.”
“We like the sun, though,” Three Squeaks frowned.
“But there’s still something lacking,” Anton said. “And I think I have an idea of what it is. You are not solitary creatures. The few of you who act on your own are more anomalies than an example of exceptional individuals. Not that you aren’t talented but…”
“But there is also Meep,” Three Squeaks agreed. “He’s… odd.”
“I think he would prefer to say that he has found many things that your burrow shouldn’t grow inside of it. He is willing to test… even unlikely prospects.”
“At least he’s the one eating the deadly stabbing thornroot,” Three Squeaks sighed. “But he really should have accepted that we named it for a reason. And ultimately, I’m glad he survives every time.”
“There are a few things that are growing fairly well,” Anton said. “And it is kept safe from anything on the surface.”
“Like swarms of locusts,” Three Squeaks agreed. “But I think you had something to say about my people’s cultivation?”
“Yes,” Anton nodded. “I had an idea based on another people I have seen. You are not in such a desperate situation as them, but just because you don’t require a method to survive doesn’t mean you won’t be suited. And perhaps it might be even better, in some ways.” Anton went on to describe certain methods of communal cultivation. “Ultimately, this benefits some individuals at the top more than others. In your burrow’s case, it would likely be Deep Purr and the other guards. Potentially you, though perhaps a bit less if you continue with your independent practice of the One Hundred Stars. But the origin of this technique, Aipra, is able to function with practitioners of multiple styles.”
“You will be teaching that,” Three Squeaks said, not really asking.
“That’s right,” Anton agreed. “It may take some time to see results, but if your people find it a reasonable option I would like to attempt it. I wish I could spend years testing each option, but I think I am able to predict your current trajectory will be less than optimal.”
“But stronger than we were before,” Three Squeaks pointed out.
“Indeed. Your hard work is proving that true.”
“And your aid. Many of us would be bird food without you.”
Anton grinned. “You understand that working together is good. So we don’t have to say any one of us is responsible. I can’t make people great cultivators if they don’t try.”
“… What benefit does this provide you?” Three Squeaks asked eventually.
“I’ve already said it before, but you might comprehend better now. I’ll start with this. I enjoy this process, so I gain personal benefit just from seeing the results. Eventually, we may talk about me binding your star. It is an interesting one, and that would also benefit me personally. And finally, if you become strong… you can help us stand against our foes in the upper realms.”
“They are enemies you can’t fight alone?” Three Squeaks asked.
“I don’t see how we can help, then,” Three Squeaks admitted. “You’re stronger than everyone here, right?”
“I am certainly stronger than your burrow.”
Three Squeaks shook his head. “Not just that. But I mean everyone. You said this world is much bigger than what I have seen. But you have seen all of it, haven’t you? I think you are stronger than all of it all at once.”
“Well…” Anton pondered. “If you don’t count the Great Queen.”
“She’s scary,” Three Squeaks said.
“I would tell you not to be afraid of things you don’t understand,” Anton said. “But it’s a perfectly rational response. You might try talking to her, though.”
“My writing isn’t good. And my sign is bad,” Three Squeaks said. “It would be easier to go speak to the eagles.”
“Do you want to?” Anton asked. “Speak to either her or the eagles, I mean.”
Three Squeaks put his head in his paws. “I don’t understand either. But maybe I can understand the eagles. Even if they’re scary. As a group, I mean.” Three Squeaks puffed out his chest, “I am not afraid of just one.”
“You might not have to be enemies,” Anton said. “And if you aren’t, think of the weaker members of the burrow who won’t have to be afraid anymore.”
“… I will try it,” Three Squeaks said. “Soon. But not today.”
“You don’t have to rush,” Anton assured him. “But don’t be too slow either, okay?”