Silence. That was one advantage that the void of space provided for those who wished to move about unknown. Being able to easily approach from any direction was useful, but not necessary. The drawbacks far outweighed the advantages in Velvet’s opinion. Silence she could manage on her own. Without gravity being a major factor, cultivators with any sense did not expect anyone to approach in a certain manner, and thus there was no chance to surprise them when something changed.
For the personal techniques of Velvet, making herself blend seamlessly into the surroundings was rather impossible when there were no surroundings. Even something like the void ants stood out, because a space of no energy when the only thing to sense was energy was the clearest change that could happen. In short, Velvet had only the background levels of upper energy to blend in with, and any activity on her part would disturb that fabric and potentially reveal her.
From afar, not many could pick her out regardless of those limitations. She hadn’t devoted a century to stealth techniques for nothing- but there were always those who could counter any specific ability you had. Some honed their senses merely because they were part of them, while others focused on a specific purpose. The wide variety in exactly how much could be sensed in particular scenarios- where there weren’t powerful cultivators advertising themselves for hundreds of kilometers or more- that caused uncertainty.
But Velvet knew one thing for sure. Others had perished around the rings of the gas giant below, the cover they provided insufficient even at great distances. Some had survived, speaking of the arrows that followed them wherever they went… which was exactly why Velvet was present now. And she was hiding because there was a reasonable chance it was a different archer than who she was seeking. Kseniya was supposed to have stayed in communication with the others, but for some reason or other after she ascended there was very little word from her. At the current moment it was only presumed she was alive, and in the general region they last knew her to be.
Velvet was not alone- but the others were quite some distance back. Tens of kilometers or more, though it would only take a short time to cover if combat started. Allies from the Dark Ring, interested in determining the allegiances of this particular individual as much as she was. If it turned out they were a danger, Velvet would have backup… if she survived long enough.
Dropping up and down and around the components of the ring was a million times better than being in completely empty space, but the small particles were hardly helpful, and even ten meter rocks only blocked the view of Velvet for an instant, and not from all angles. Larger pieces could cover her for a while, but they might also be more closely watched.
Velvet made her way around the rings, hoping that whoever the quarry turned out to be was not an expert at concealment. In some aspects searching through the rings of this planet would be a larger task than combing the entire surface of Ceretos for someone, with the one caveat that there was almost nowhere to hide. Technically someone could burrow into one of the larger floating pieces, but the signs of change would be obvious in a world untouched by human hands. In addition to that, there were no pesky things like plants or animals to distract her.
Not so far at least. Even if there were inhabitants of such a place, they would be few and far between. Then again, anything that survived in the rings of a planet like this would be a troublesome foe- either a powerful hunter, or a deadly ambush predator. So Velvet carefully crept her way through the area, just in case something tried to get the drop on her.
When the time came, she was prepared. The first arrow pierced straight through her chest, or at least that was what she hoped the archer felt. She sustained a dummy of energy for a few moments, letting it become a pincushion before it disintegrated. The arrows themselves seemed to indicate one step in the favor of it being Kseniya. They weren’t exactly like she remembered, but they were formed of pure energy. The difference between upper and lower energy made it difficult to discern more with Velvet’s lack of deep training in archery.
The first volley had come from so far off that Velvet hadn’t sensed the attacker. As she pushed her sensory energy along the path the arrows had traveled, she found nothing. What that meant was unclear. Her target was too far, expertly hidden, or… the path was fake. It could be any of those, or more.
It seemed her decoy had been good enough to give her a moment of safety. Perhaps she’d managed to blend in with her surroundings again… or perhaps she was being watched. She didn’t feel any signs of energy, but it could be a passive approach.
The next arrows came from behind her, exactly the opposite direction along the ring. They weren’t hidden, but she was only barely able to prepare her response with their speed. One she shattered, the others she dodged in the same manner. Unfortunately, her decoy did no good the second time. The arrows pierced through it, then twisted to follow her. She had to attack them to disrupt their energy. Another point towards it being Kseniya. At this point, Velvet was almost willing to reveal herself. Even if Kseniya wanted to move on from the Order after ascending for some reason, they would have no reason to be enemies.
The next attacks came simultaneously from the inner and outer parts of the ring, instead of around the curve. Obviously the arrows were flying an indirect path towards her, but from where? She couldn’t sense the origin within any reasonable distance. Even an unreasonable distance, but then again she understood that Anton’s range had become rather unfathomable outside of a planet’s atmosphere. Planetary rings weren’t completely devoid of friction, but it was close.
One of the next volley found its way into her shoulder, and the next her hip. Her defenses were enough to keep them from being critical wounds, but she really hoped her allies were en route to assist. Or she could find the archer. Where? She scanned everywhere, but nothing should be able to hide the sort of power output she suspected.
Then she looked up- or down- away from the flat plane of the rings. No way. Just floating out in the open like that? Velvet hefted a dagger- one she didn’t care if she retrieved- and threw it straight towards the tiny speck of energy she felt in the distance. It would be trivial to dodge, but she attempted to conceal it. However, as the distance grew her technique began to fade. Before it completely broke, the dagger itself was shot out of the sky… but Velvet felt the others moving in. Their aggressive energy indicated they intended to fight, which was correct… if it weren’t Kseniya.
Velvet pushed herself off- either she was quite wrong, or she had to save whichever side was going to lose that fight. And while one individual would almost always lose to a handful of similar cultivation, the archer had enough range to maybe take them out before they got even close. There wasn’t even a flash of light from the attacks, as if that too was being curved along whatever trajectory they wanted. Clever. Once Velvet was moving, she did her best to allow her passive motion to carry her closer… just in case she needed to be hidden still.
“Again?” Anton asked.
“This will be the third time then. We can learn much of their intentions.” And so, they stepped away from the planet for a moment, waiting. Hours passed. “They seem to not have passed by the sun this time,” Anton commented.
“We will have to remain vigilant, then,” Everheart said. Currently, he was floating in a web of formation components. Flags, pillars, little stone plates, and various power sources. There was some natural energy in free floating space, but not as much as around planets, especially one developed like Ceretos.
They waited. And waited. After a full day, Anton looked to Everheart. “Are you certain?”
He nodded. “Something crossed the threshold in the same manner. And it should not have crossed back… but I must admit, it’s imperfect.”
“Considering the vast distance it covers, I’m surprised it works at all.”
“It relies on the concept of territory,” Everheart said by way of explanation. “The arbitrary limits of the system become something real… and of course hundreds of tiny relays sensing for any sort of fluctuation.”
They waited. Then… “I feel something,” Anton said. “Near the sun. But it hasn’t gone past yet. Are they waiting?” After a few moments, he answered his own question. “No. They’re just… slower.”
The two continued to wait, with Anton keeping others on the planet below appraised of nothing but the fact that they remained. Then the ship came within their senses- in a manner they could actually make out its form. A sphere- no, a disk with the wider side flat to them, a larger structure in the middle. No more than its form could be sensed at first, but it carried a weighty energy as it slowly approached. Both cultivators were ready to make a move at any moment.
The tip of the fighter plunged down, or at least away from its previous trajectory. Even so, the sensors read hits along both wings. If Nicodemo didn’t know any better, he’d say that they were wrong. But he had sensed it, the tiny specks of energy raining down upon his vessel. Though the cockpit was safe for the moment, the engines were running below capacity, and he lost his ability to accelerate.
Unlike a purely atmospheric fighter, there weren’t engines only pointed forward, but due to design and budget limitations they still had to deal with a front and rear, directions of simplest motion determined by the biggest engines and how they set up the cockpit. Nicodemo looked around, trying to see if he could salvage the situation. The sensors said he still had one gun on the left wing. He wasn’t going to make it back anyway, so he might as well take someone out with him.
He flipped the ship, overshooting his position and having to more slowly pull back because of the missing thrusters. He lined up his shot, his energy senses stretching to their limit and beyond, locking onto the target in front of him. He drew himself back like an arrow, ready to fire from the ship’s cannon. Then… he was cut in half down the middle.
The ship’s autopilot took over, reorienting the vessel and routing it back to the station. Nicodemo sighed. This nonlethal piloting system certainly felt more realistic than pure simulations, but it still had some bugs to work out. It didn’t change the fact that he’d lost to Quigley, in fact it might have even happened sooner if the vessels had a perfect read on the man’s energy, but he could see why pilots were still hesitant to use it for training.
“What was that?” Nicodemo asked of his sparring partner. “… Hello? Quigley?”
A burst of static. “Sorry, what? I stepped out for a second.”
“How the hell did you step out for a second? There’s barely room to turn an ankle in these cockpits.”
“Oh, I just popped out the top for a second. What was your question?”
“… I asked what the attack was that finished me off. I didn’t notice it coming. And did you just say you stepped out of the cockpit?”
“Yes sir, General Nicodemo. I did say that. You’ve been so encouraging of experimenting with new methods I thought I’d try it. So I did. I pulled out my sword, and cut the fighter in two with aura. Could have been real, though.”
“… Listen, I’m fine with you experimenting. But don’t think I’m going to recommend anyone else try the same. And how’d you fit a sword into the cockpit with you?”
“Storage bag,” Ty Quigley responded over the radio.
“Don’t know why I asked,” General Nicodemo muttered to himself. What he wouldn’t give to be that guy instead of in his own position. Especially since he was now going to have to explain to people that it made sense for a dude to open his cockpit at supersonic speed. … He’d better not have lost the top. They weren’t meant to do that, and military vehicles were expensive.