The battle atop the peak was the first to resolve itself, but the rest quickly followed. With none left who could withstand Kseniya’s attacks and no fear for her own safety she rained down arrows on the battles below. Several of the other top members of the Order were too injured to reach the battle in a timely fashion, but it was only a few moments later before the remaining Life Transformation experts reached the melee.
The personal power of a single cultivator wouldn’t always stand up to the power of overwhelming numbers, but with the battles close to even or even slightly in the Order’s favor they quickly tipped the scales. It was too late for the members of the Twin Soul Sect to run, but very few of them even made the attempt. They were already fighting with the intent to sacrifice their lives, but that willingness from the beginning meant they hardly increased in danger.
Grand Elder Matousek looked over the numbers gathered after the battle. They had ultimately come out ahead, thanks to the hidden forces they kept. But the losses to the Order weren’t insignificant. Over a hundred late Body Tempering cultivators were dead, with similar numbers over the whole of Spirit Building. Several dozen Essence Collection cultivators as well. And the worst, at least in the aspect of security, was the loss of Vandale and two others. They barely had the numbers to have the Grand Elders solely composed of Life Transformation experts.
Over the course of less than a decade, they’d gone from twenty to thirteen. Numbers were down overall. Matousek knew that items of conflict had such results, but that didn’t make it better. The only comforting fact was that there was a growing crop of new disciples… and some very promising prospects.
Beyond that, the conflict had driven many of the late Essence Collection cultivators who survived closer to the brink. The Order might come out stronger, if they could pull through, but the momentary losses were troublesome.
Counting cultivators before they advanced to the next stage was an ill advised practice, but Matousek was willing to bet at least half of one particular group would make it. It was unclear if Anton, the old man who had surprised everyone with his speed, would be able to keep going- but the rest of the group, including Vandale’s grandson- were nearly guaranteed to reach Life Transformation. Unless they were killed first, which was why Matousek wouldn’t count on more than half of them.
Matousek wasn’t such a fool as to believe that the Twin Soul Sect was fully wiped out, but they would be cautious about making any future moves, especially against the Order. Now they just had to watch out for anyone who thought that the Order looked like a nice target. The borders with Ofrurg were already fortified, but withdrawing from there wouldn’t be reasonable just yet. And enemies existed everywhere, even if they weren’t always so overt in their actions.
Elder Tshering wasn’t going to complain about being called out to a random field in Graotan to deal with some ants. He was well aware of the trouble insects could cause, having dealt with them many times himself. He was just confused as to what he was supposed to be worried about.
He only saw ants. Completely, positively normal ants.
He picked one up between his fingers, looking over at the local farmer who winced as he did so. “What’s special about these?”
Before the farmer could answer, Tshering felt the ant bite into his finger. It didn’t draw blood, but the very fact that it managed to pinch his skin was astounding. He was in Essence Collection, which meant he’d completed as much Body Tempering as most cultivators ever would. A little ant wasn’t going to pierce through his skin, but that shouldn’t have even been an option.
Tshering watched as the ant let go and chomped on another bit of his finger, completely ignoring his energy. “Well,” he said. “I hadn’t expected something like this.”
The farmer looked relieved as Tshering held onto the ant. “I was going to warn you to be careful, sir.” He nervously stood nearby with a shovel. “They’re vicious little biters, and with hard bodies too. First noticed them crawling into my house when I tried to squish one with my finger.” He held up a swollen finger, twice as thick as the others and covered in tiny pricks that were presumably bite marks. “Had to scrape ‘em off with a knife, and even then they looked unfazed. I think I’ve only managed to kill a handful. But that’s not the only strange part. ‘Sides the way they swarmed my finger, they’re far too organized.”
Tshering looked at the ant mound in front of him, then around the area. “Are they a problem?”
“Well, they crawled into my house…” the farmer leaned on his shovel.
“Did they eat through your food stores?”
“Well, no. That’s the strange thing. They swarmed a plate I left out overnight, but I haven’t seen any poking around in my cabinets or anything. Cellar’s fine too. But I’m worried… come take a look over here.” The farmer led Tshering to a place not very far away on his property, where a small stream passed through. Ants marched across the shallow stream, walking along a long branch crossing over it. The farmer gestured, “Look, see?”
“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see,” Tshering answered honestly. “Ants do such things all the time.”
“They might cross a fallen log or a random branch, but look at it. That’s pine. None of these are pines. I saw that branch shuffling around one day, and then the next I saw it there over the stream.” The farmer pointed with his shovel, apparently unwilling to get any closer. “Look, they even chewed off the extra side branches.”
“There are still a few,” Tshering noted, “Maybe they just broke off.” Though he said that, he was at that very moment confirming with his own eyes the cuts that could have been made by many tiny mouths. “But I do see some connection there. Was there more?”
“You want more?” the farmer asked. “I saw them take down a squirrel. They all clumped together until it passed over then latched on at the same time. Didn’t take more than a minute before it was dead, and they were taking bits of it back to their lair.”
Tshering washed over the ants with his senses, but didn’t pick out anything special. That was concerning, because he already knew they were. In fact, more than just not feeling special his energy senses felt a bit numb when interacting with them. “What do you want me to do?” Tshering asked.
“Wipe ‘em out,” the farmer said. He held up his swollen finger, “They’re dangerous little beasts, not something normal folk like us can handle. We need you cultivators to take care of them. You believe me, right?”
“I do,” Tshering said. The problem was that so far, the ants hadn’t done anything truly problematic. They snuck into a house to eat food lying out. That was normal. Finding ways across a river was normal as well. While it had to be admitted that they were much sturdier and stronger than the ants Tshering knew, he wasn’t sure if they deserved to be destroyed. He knew he could do it- though strangely enough it would have been easier if they were larger. The question was whether or not he should. “You own this farm long?”
“Twenty years,” the man said with pride.
“Got any neighbors?”
“A few,” the farmer said. “There’s some empty land on one side. Nice stuff, but a bit too expensive. And I already have all I can manage.”
“Would it be trouble for you to move?”
“Well, aside from my fields- which I suppose I could shift between seasons- I have my barn and my house just how I like them. Not really interested in giving this place up. Why?”
“What if we moved those?” Tshering asked. “We can keep them exactly as they are and put them down somewhere else, undamaged. We’ll buy you that land and provide the assistance you need to get set up.”
“Why?” the farmer narrowed his eye. “What’s the point of that? For you, I mean.”
“Well, I gathered you’d not want to stay here while we studied these ants. But I’d rather study them than destroy them.”
“Really?” the farmer shook his head. “I don’t know about that. Seems like they’re liable to spread if you’re not careful.”
“I understand,” Elder Tshering said. “We have ways to deal with that.”
“Well… if you can really follow through on your promises, I suppose I wouldn’t mind it too much. As long as you keep careful watch on these things. So far nothing’s gone wrong, but I don’t want to wake up to a missing cow. Or not wake up at all.”
“Don’t worry,” Elder Tshering assured the man. “I will treat this with all the sincerity it deserves.”
A great queen was not supposed to have to do anything herself, except the expected duties of laying eggs to produce the next generation. Indeed, it was a risk for the queen to even attempt another role, given her critical function in the functioning of the colony. Yet no matter how much intelligence the great queen imparted upon her subjects, their brains couldn’t match her own. It was not a matter of arrogance, but simply fact. Those who could match her would become great queens in their own right, and there was no need for such at the moment. It would simply add unnecessary competition.
With all of that said, the great queen found herself forced to go inspect a concerning change in the landscape. The rest of the colony had the sense of great danger, and such a situation had to be verified. Thus, the queen took the long trek to her borders half a day’s travel away. There she found that, indeed, there was danger. But it was not what the other ants sensed that was the problem.
The great queen had sensed barriers formed of energy many times after her birth. The information that had been passed down from the previous great queens indicated they had been set up by the last human in her species’ memory. They were not impossible to bypass- but there had been no merit to it. Outside of those barriers had been only death, even for a species as hardy as the ants. There was no sustenance of any kind beyond those barriers. Food, water, not even air had been available.
Though the great queen had not studied them herself, she knew that such barriers came in different types. She sensed danger, but not as the others might have expected. The first barrier, in fact, should not harm them in the slightest. While others might die under the crushing weight of energy, their kind would not. Except in the rarest of circumstances, the energy that other species made us of was, at most, a source of food for them. But a more clever trap had been set beyond. It seemed that some of those humans that were capable of using energy had indeed been studying them. They knew of ways to kill them.
The question was why they had not done so. But the answer was actually fairly simple. There was no reason to. Even the great ants, despite their prowess, were so small as to not be worthwhile as sustenance for a human. That was the primary reason anything would be killed. The secondary matter, that of self defense, was also unnecessary. At least, the great queen hoped that they had not done anything to provoke a warlike response from the humans.
They were intelligent enough to know the food stores of humans apart from the crumbs they left behind. While there had indeed been an altercation with a human, the drones involved had done no lasting harm. But perhaps that had been enough. With no humans in living memory, perhaps the information about them was incorrect. Maybe they had killed the human. Perhaps instead it was a queen of some sort, though records indicated that only those with energy usually held such positions.
But they were not yet dead, and those of the powerful energy came to observe them regularly. So perhaps the situation was still salvageable. While the great queen was certain that they could kill most of the humans currently watching them, doing so would assuredly lead to their demise. For though humans were few in number, they were strong. Even one of those nearby was so strong as to be nearly undefeatable, with skin that could not be pierced by the jaws of a worker.
Indeed, one of the soldiers might do better, and there were other methods… but the colony was not strong enough to get into a war. Nor should it ever be necessary. Humans were, by most accounts, a good thing. Wherever they were would always have abundant food scraps for industrious ants to consume. While they seemed to find ants an annoyance, they were often allowed to remain as long as things didn’t go too far.
So there shouldn’t be any reason for humans to come for them. But then again, anything of intelligence developed curiosity. The great queen herself was full of it, and though she knew she should not she occasionally peeked her head out to watch the humans even as they studied her colony. But if she found they intended harm, she would have to find a way through the barriers so the colony could survive. It was too early to create a new queen, but perhaps she should begin the process.