“She’s not there,” Anton said plainly.
“I know,” Annelie nodded. “All the more reason for me to go, right? Free passage through the barrier. And it’s not like I’ll be going alone.”
“This could go south quickly,” Anton stated.
“So it becomes a battle. I’m sure you can deal with that.”
“I’m just concerned about the ones that are there,” Anton shook his head. “We will have many volatile and angry cultivators should something go wrong. At least we aren’t over a city.”
“Isn’t that strange?” Annelie asked. “You’d think they’d be more secure there. Or at one of their sects.”
“There might not be any meaning to it,” Anton said. “But the thought is certainly worth bringing up.”
The exchange began some hours later with Nurcan and a number of others beyond Life Transformation arriving. They couldn’t match the Trifold Alliance cultivators present, though there were strict requirements about who could be present. Technically, Anton wasn’t. He was on their moon. That meant his attacks would be on an actual delay… but they were within his range. He could keep his senses trained on the small area that was opening up well enough, though even just that was draining. Not more than he would recover near a bound star, though.
Surprisingly, it actually went rather well at first. That was when they were exchanging resources for hostages. The hostages in question were of lesser value, so they didn’t have others exchanged for them.
Once it came to the point of senior cultivators exchanging themselves for disciples, Ekict began to push. Not everyone was present, they claimed. That was certainly correct. Some would be released later. That was, at least in significant part, a lie. Enough people knew that, but they wanted to believe. It was a nice thought, saving their friends, family, or favored disciples. Promising talents. Anton was still tempted to stop them, though. He considered forcefully preventing them despite all the political implications of trying to tell people what they were and weren’t allowed to do. He’d already advised people that it was danger for likely no benefit. Some took the logical route, but others followed their hearts.
Anton’s heart would not calm down, but everything went off without a hitch. Nobody even noticed the extra little visitors coming in with the ransom payments. And some of those going didn’t know they were bringing along friends. Generally, those who Anton thought would be unable to conceal the knowledge.
Would some void ants be enough? Anton wasn’t certain, but that was the option they had. Annelie was taken away- with no Anishka to replace her, obviously. That was one thing Anton was certain of. The other was that Anzela Ranik was unable to get her wish. Her husband would have been able to keep his friends secret. Anzela would be surprised, depending on how they chose to reveal themselves.
Somehow, no combat began. That wasn’t to say there weren’t many on both sides itching for it. Anton could feel the anticipation, the anger. From both sides, even. But everything went off without issue. The Order of One Hundred Stars even got back one of their disciples on exchange.
Anton went to greet her, landing on the ship she was taken to. She spotted him and spoke first. “Sect Head Anton, thank you for the rescue,” she bowed deeply. “This disciple is not deserving of the significant cost paid.” The woman had the appearance of middle age, and was in late Essence Collection. Not a genius, but still valuable. More than simple human life, which Anton valued quite highly.
“For the Order’s disciples, there are few prices we wouldn’t pay,” he assured her. “I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“Antje, sect head Anton. This disciple is insignificant, so it is quite a forgettable name.”
“Oh right, right,” Anton nodded. “Antje. I just had to be certain.” His hand grabbed her neck, burning away all of the natural energy around her as flames channeled through Anton. “You see, I didn’t recognize you. Which is odd, because I know the name and face of every single one of our disciples. Even the newest recruits. You are not Antje, despite sharing superficial features.”
Anton pulled out something with his other hand. “Hold on, let me… did the interface change again? Ah, there it is.” He held up the portable computer with Antje’s face on it out of his pocket. “This is a picture. You know what a picture is, right?”
“Not all portraits are exact. Please, sect head.”
“Not-Antje. I was over two hundred years old before I came in contact with anything deserving of the title advanced technology. But even I know how pictures work. Look at this and tell me that is your face.”
“It is my face!” she clasped at Anton’s forearm, every shred of energy she produced burning away as it left her body. Her deception might have pulled through if not directly challenged, but there was too much hesitation. Even the smallest fraction of a second was unnatural.
“It is a very similar face, I will admit,” Anton said. “Did they do surgery? You forgot something though. Her eyes.” Anton zoomed in the image. “Seriously, picking the same eye color and assuming that was good enough? Look at these patterns on the iris! Completely different!” A powerful cultivation would always have a good memory, and Anton’s had only improved with the Ten Thousand Scrolls, both memorizing textual and visual information. “So whoever you are, you’re under arrest. And you’re going to tell us how you did that,” Anton gestured vaguely towards her dantian, which was still producing an energy that felt like that of the Order of One Hundred Stars. If Anton had met her in person, he would have known it was exactly like Antje.
At the final mention, her eyes widened even more. Without even saying anything, her energy flared, trying to build to a crescendo. Instead, it sputtered out, the mere twinkling of a star instead of a supernova or self detonation.
“It’s important enough to kill yourself, huh?” Anton nodded. “Valuable information. Now then, let’s properly restrain you.” They had plentiful energy binding shackles for every rank up to Life Transformation cultivators, and even some for Assimilation cultivators. Since they hadn’t exactly taken copious amounts of captives yet, there were many free Life Transformation examples. Enough to have an excessively secure capture of this woman. “Talk with us and we might help you rescue your family or whoever they have threatened. Or we can promise to not destroy your soul, if that’s the level necessary. We can send you off to your next life basically unharmed.”
Looking at her, Anton couldn’t tell if his threats went too far or not far enough. She just seemed overwhelmed. But he couldn’t exactly be nice to someone who did whatever she did to the actual Antje.
Anton clicked his tongue. They were going to have to check every hostage now, weren’t they? What a pain. A quick sweep confirmed no Twin Soul Sect, for what that was worth. Though Ekict probably wouldn’t be so stupid, knowing they could detect it. They’d made some reckless and overconfident decisions, but they weren’t actually stupid.
The badges let their group of five walk around safely, though not entirely unrestricted. There were some groups who still claimed authority over them. But Celina was doing a good job of driving them away.
“Look, I told you, we’re on a special mission. And no, you wouldn’t have heard about it. That’s why we were sent all the way here.”
The woman who stood opposite Celina was a statue. Not a perfect representation of the feminine form- whatever that was- but physically firm and with a cold exterior. And her skin had the texture of actual stone, if polished. Other than that, she did look almost statuesque except for her veins, which were both prominent and a deep royal purple instead of a sensible blue. Anishka was curious what sort of thing could cause that transformation, but she doubted she’d get a straightforward or even technically correct answer, even if the woman was inclined to share.
“Doesn’t matter. Orders are orders, and you’ll be the one explaining yourself to the Royal Marble Sect’s elders if you’re not ready to move out with everyone else. This is just a friendly warning.”
The sad part was that the woman basically believed that. Friendly. As if yelling at people to form up and start marching was friendly.
But she did bring to light an important point. Everyone was being drafted, and they weren’t just going to hang around in a city. They were supposed to fight. Which meant that while there was nobody to tell them that they had to be somewhere specific, not going with the general flow of the armies would be suspicious. But there was no way Annelie was going to actually fight in the war against her own people. Though… if she could get to the frontlines, perhaps she could slip away and join up? As long as she didn’t get caught on the way out.
Or perhaps the way in. She couldn’t imagine people sneaking around would be welcome in any army camps. Though there was also a question of anyone actually landing. The only information was that some of ‘the strong ones’ had gone out into the wilderness with something, and had been returning today.
No, it was better to avoid the frontlines. She would protect herself, and Patka. And Celina, Ilona and Gilda as well. They were decent people. Reasonable.
But of course, anyone who was drafted would also be similarly innocent. Only the people from the big sects- or maybe just the leadership- were truly complicit with everything. But then again, she didn’t know the rest of them. Was it her responsibility to help them?
Then she thought of her grandpa and sighed. He was always going around doing that. Whereas all she had done was cost a ton of money in travel and other expenses so she could study whatever she felt like anywhere in three systems. Without contributing anything.
Yet. She would have done something worthwhile eventually. Probably. Now, she just wanted to survive, and help those she knew. She really couldn’t manage more than that, but if it was possible she’d protect other draftees. Other than that, it was just her group. The Sergeant too, of course- but the ant was probably not on anyone’s draft list despite being a very valuable individual.
They followed the flow of people outside the city for the sake of blending in, though they avoided getting too close to any other groups. Heading vaguely southward was what was normal, so simply doing that was enough. As they went, Anishka saw the beginnings of fields.
“… Are they alright?” Anishka asked.
“What do you mean?” Celina inquired.
“The people. The fields.”
“… look fine to me.”
Anishka walked up to some sort of grain. “I know the temperature here is not ideal, but this… it’s devoid of natural energy. The whole area is.”
“So?” Patka asked. “This is normal.”
“But I- I’m certain we shared the basics of farming with you,” Anishka complained. “I thought you were just taking some time to get used to it, but not a single farmer out there has begun cultivating their own energy. And everything is drawn towards the city’s barrier, leaving the fields starved.”
“So?” Celina asked. “This food isn’t going to cultivators. It would be a waste for it to absorb natural energy.”
“That’s not-” Anishka pinched the bridge of her nose. “That’s not true. We’ve known for over a century that- Look, the growth factor of the system depends on the input. If you drain it like this, it’s basically deteriorating, or at best remaining static!”
“Nobody cares,” Celina said. “The sects will grow stronger, and make use of this… growth factor.”
“Nu-uh,” Anishka shook her head. “Because the other factor is area. Double, triple, even tenfold growth in a tiny portion of the world is nothing compared to a one percent or ten percent yield worldwide. It’s like nobody even read the formulas!”
A man cleared his throat. “Excuse me, madam cultivator. These fields, uh, are owned by the city. So please be careful not to harm them.”
Anishka looked at him, seeing one of the field workers. “What do you know about the formulas?” she asked.
“Ugh. Take me to your manager.”
“I’m… I’m the field manager. If you want to talk to the city overseer…” he swallowed and looked away.
“Look, it’s simple. Just-” Anishka reached down for her storage bag- where there was nothing. Of course. She sighed. “If you find the opportunity, ask the overseer if the farming methods from the Trifold Alliance have arrived.”
“Aren’t we at war with them?” he asked. “Like, they’re invading or something. Which is why you disciples are flowing along the road,” he gestured.
“That’s not- that’s not important right now,” Anishka said. “Look, it’s… stolen techniques, right? Just use it. Or don’t. Whatever.” She shook her head. It wasn’t her responsibility to get something like this started right now and it was better not to make a scene along the road. But for some reason, as the sun glared down on her she couldn’t help but think of her grandpa, and how he felt about farming. Though he wasn’t as big of a fan of the charts and statistical growth factors as she was. And his results always seemed to surpass the optimal methods somehow- though that was just being an Assimilation cultivator. Probably.