An entire year had passed upon Vrelt, and Devon had found him quite satisfied with the Supreme Silver Sect’s security. Not a single assassination attempt had made it past them in that time. Not that there were terribly many- though he supposed that more than zero was quite a lot by comparison. Either way, neither he nor the other Assimilation guards had needed to protect their delegation.
They hadn’t let down their guard just because of how things had been going. Or at least, not intentionally. But here he was, someone having snuck into Aerona’s chambers and he wouldn’t even have known… if he didn’t happen to be there.
It was a surge of energy that tipped him off. He awoke and reacted with Instinct, prioritizing the most important task of protecting Aerona. His arm lashed out, blocking the incoming pair of daggers… but despite his unconscious allotment of defensive energy, it was insufficient to completely protect himself. They pierced into his forearm, going to far as to reach all the way through, but without any energy to reach the target beyond as the second layer of defensive energy stopped them.
Devon’s counter was automatic, a large spiked chain lashing across the room while a dozen smaller ones coiled around the daggers. The assassin’s instincts were correct, giving up his daggers before the chains could coil around his hands. As he ducked under the lashing chain, the assassin drew two more blades. While his backup weapons were likely lower quality, the larger factor would be the assassin’s skill… and the poison on the blades.
Devon inelegantly vaulted over Aerona, shoving her across the bed to tumble off the far side even as she was barely gaining consciousness. He blocked several small flying blades, not thrown by the assassin’s hands but purely controlled by his energy. At the same time, chains lashed around his own left arm, cutting off the flow of blood and energy so the poison wouldn’t spread. He might lose the arm, but that was a relatively small cost.
The assassin’s blades weaved across Devon’s chest, and he regretted not sleeping in his typical enchanted clothing. He fought desperately to keep the enemy’s blades away from his own body, forming a shell of chains one by one to drive his opponent back while still blocking for Aerona.
Startled awake and with a significantly lower cultivation, Aerona still managed to react appropriately. And the appropriate action was not to jump into battle, but to duck beneath the bed- enchanted, as the Supreme Silver Sect was quite generous with its guests. She did manage to contribute something to the battle, however. “You can get him! I believe in you!”
Besides words of support- which certainly had their own effect- Aerona’s energy provided a small bolstering effect to Devon. As she was only in Essence Collection, the effect was small- but Devon wasn’t going to reject any sliver of help.
As Devon’s power ramped up, he filled the room with a maze of chains that was completely undodgeable for normal individuals. However, his opponent was one of the exclusive ‘Anchoring’ cultivators on Vrelt. Sadly Devon hadn’t gotten into a deeper conversation with Taalay on the subject, so he didn’t know any particular strengths or weaknesses. Either way, his opponent moved rapidly and almost seemed intangible at times. The various pieces of furniture around the room were less lucky.
Devon grimaced. He didn’t really need his arm to fight, but keeping whatever poison was in his arm away from the rest of his body took effort and meant he was fighting at less than full capacity. The assassin was making it quite difficult for him to keep all of the attacks away from Aerona. But Devon didn’t have to fight alone forever. The door was kicked into pieces as Cai from Marvelous Rabbit arrived. The assassin immediately looked less certain. Atalanta was not far off either.
Then there was Taalay. Even if he wasn’t physically present, the appearance of a simple projection brought a great weight with it, despite him having to pick a less physically imposing form to fit within the room- though he did push the limits of the high ceilings.
Cai’s bare foot kicked towards the assassin, who was forced to block to prevent his head from being crushed. However, his right wrist snapped under the force of the attack. Taalay’s projection charged in as well, an oppressive aura crushing the assassin.
Devon could see the assassin realizing his task had failed- and that he could not escape. He also picked out the moment of decisiveness… but he wouldn’t let it happen. With two other opponents, the assassin couldn’t dodge Devon’s chains. Once his shoulder was caught, he couldn’t avoid a dozen others that weren’t shy about stabbing into his body to hold him still… and to suppress the energy he was gathering to attempt suicide.
Taalay and Cai caught on as well, and ultimately they managed to stop the assassin before he destroyed all of his organs. Regardless of whether or not they could keep him alive from there, having a recognizable corpse would at least let them trace the attempt back to someone.
Once they bound him with a half dozen energy restricting manacles, Devon focused on the task of saving as much of his arm as he could. Taalay immediately ran off with the daggers, to see if their healers could identify the poison or poisons. Cai was rifling through the assassin’s storage bags looking for potential antidotes. “Who is this guy anyway…?” the other man muttered.
“Elam of the Slithering Serpent Sect,” Devon said through gritted teeth. Even with his arm going numb, he could feel the pain… and there was definitely an energy influencing component in the poison. He wondered if he should just chop off the arm entirely.
The assassin looked quite surprised, and in truth Devon had no way to know it was him. Well, he could recognize the Slithering Serpent Sect, but Elam himself had hidden from the World Encompassing Chains. Devon had only heard the name on the lips of others… but he knew who they were and could try to connect this to them.
Devon could feel Atalanta gathering the other parts of the diplomatic team further away, and Taalay returning with some of their healers.
Some of the healers immediately set about forcing life into Elam, while the others got to work on Devon. Their immediate expressions weren’t hopeful, and they didn’t improve as moments passed.
“I think… we may have to amputate the arm…” One of them said.
“You may have to?” Devon asked. “Or does it need it, and that’s just politeness? Because we can’t afford any unnecessary timidity here.”
The man sighed. “It’s better to remove it as soon as possible. We can’t save it. Maybe not even if we were here immediately.”
Devon nodded. The chains near his bicep tightened down to a single point, slicing through his arm with no apparent resistance. Even with the arm severed, Devon didn’t stop his suppression of the forces within it. “I think it might burst apart if I let it go. I’d rather not learn if there’s some sort of cascading effect. Where’s the nearest room you don’t care about?”
Ultimately, Devon found it easier to suppress the forces within the arm when he didn’t also have to prevent anything from worming it way inside of himself. They had the luxury of picking out a room that could be easily sealed for him to toss the arm into. As Devon’s energy unraveled from around it, he knew that the sight inside the room would be horrific. It would have to be cleaned up carefully, just in case.
The healers inspected him to make sure nothing had made it past his seals, but ultimately neither they nor Devon could find anything untoward.
“You’re decisive,” Taalay said- now having arrived in person. “Good.”
“A cultivator has to be,” Devon shrugged. He didn’t mention that while the loss of an arm was detrimental… he also knew that replacements were possible. Even for cultivators of his level. That didn’t make it trivial, of course, but Chikere had her arm replaced several decades prior at a level that had been viable for an Integration cultivator.
Devon shared what he knew about the man with Taalay- which wasn’t much more than his designation. How they would respond from here was another question. It wasn’t possible for them to immediately retaliate with their forces… but they could use the opportunity to sway some who might have been neutral. Devon just hoped that Taalay had been practicing those techniques he’d been given, and would understand that part of the situation better.
After everything settled down slightly, Aerona came to find Devon. Even though her entire job was to speak to others, she found herself lacking words. “I… thank you.”
“I wouldn’t let anything happen to you,” Devon said. “Either as a guard or… whatever connection we have personally.”
Aerona nodded. “I… I wish I were stronger. Maybe I could have-”
Devon shook his head. “No point in that. We only have whatever strength we have achieved at any current moment. Could I be stronger? More alert? Perhaps. But lives are irreplaceable, and I don’t regret anything here.”
“What can I do? I have heard that replacements are… possible. I might be able to help with resources? This is an injury in the line of duty for the alliance so… I must be able to convince someone…”
“I’m not worried about that,” Devon said. “I am in the privileged position to both nor particularly need my arms, but also be able to replace them with a prosthetic of sufficient quality to stand up to my cultivation. What I really need from you now is to focus on things here on Vrelt. And yes, I know that’s much more difficult.”
“Focus on things here…” she muttered. “Right. But what…?”
“That’s to be decided. Do we call for war? It was an inevitability, after all. But I don’t know if the locals are ready. You need to make certain that they will stand up to the Trigold Cluster and… accept our forces. Because we can’t let things here remain as they are, even without the personal injuries.”
Aerona managed to calm herself down, or at least put on a reasonable fake expression. “Right. I will discuss the preparations with the others. But I do believe Taalay will wish to speak with you on some of the matters. I think there’s less we must hide at the moment.”
Devon nodded. “At least from him directly. Though we also need to determine how the assassin made his way through security. It is possible he was just that good… but many such breaches are flaws in personnel.”
As soon as Anton got the message, he and Ty were preparing to leave. Anton could have simply flown off, and Ty didn’t need to do much more than get in his ship. But they wanted to leave Akrys as prepared as possible. That wasn’t difficult, since they were already supposed to be independent. But knowing that they wouldn’t have any support for a while could be important. And a few hours wouldn’t make that much difference over a timeline of months, which is what it would take after the travel time of the message and their longer physical trip.
Three Squeaks just bowed his head at the news. “We appreciate all the help of you and your allies up until this point. I hope you will return to visit.”
“Of course,” Anton said. “I will return when time allows.” Though he wasn’t sure how long that would be. It was possible they would remain on standby near Vrelt for a long period of time, potentially years or decades. Or they could immediately dive into battle when they arrived. “Oh, I almost forgot,” Anton pulled out a book- particularly large compared to Three Squeak’s size. It was scribed in the recently developed writing that Akrys was using. “Guidance to the point of Ascension… or Assimilation. Take good care of it.”
It was a modified version of the Path to One Hundred Stars, with broader guidance for different cultivation methods and to account for the differences from humans. It wasn’t perfect. Teaching in person would always be better than a manual… but it was what he had available.
Three Squeaks took it reverently. “I’ll protect it with my life!”
“That’s fine but… if it’s between letting it be destroyed or dying, it’s just paper. It’s only really trouble if someone foul finds out about it and steals the knowledge within,” Anton said. “I want you to do your best to minimize possible harms. So secrecy is the best first defense. Its destruction means nothing to me personally, so don’t worry about that.”
“I understand,” Three Squeaks said. “After all, the knowledge comes from you. You won’t lose it just because we do.”
“Exactly,” Anton agreed.
There was one particularly important individual he had to meet with. And her response was…
“I’m staying here,” the Great Queen said. “Though perhaps I will officially ‘leave’ and instead go into hiding. I can watch what happens… and see how my daughters develop. I don’t want that knowledge to fall into the wrong hands. This coalition that has developed can be trusted with the knowledge overall… but who is to say if things will change, or it will be stolen. And going to Vrelt… well, I doubt void ants would be comforting to the locals. And we won’t be going to war with the planet, just… an unfortunate majority of the factions.”
“I can’t argue with any of that,” Anton admitted. “The void ants would be valuable support… but I understand the reasoning for keeping them out of things as well.” It did mean he had to seriously consider certain other options he’d rather not deal with, however. But holding back in a war with dozens of Assimilation cultivators on their own turf would only get good people killed.