The problem remaining before Anzela was disincentivizing the distortion beast from attacking her. That meant wounding it enough for it to retreat. It was unclear if they could be killed, or if they ever had. At best, pieces of them had remained in normal space after being severed. Some of the damage they had taken should have killed anything sensible, but they were precisely not sensible.
The disciples of whatever sect had planned to sacrifice her were currently fleeing, their attacks on her forgotten as the distortion beast was not limited to attacking one person or place at a time. Perhaps it wasn’t even a single creature, or it might have multiple brains that acted independently. Other body parts didn’t work like anyone thought, with muscles and bones and even blood all being… abnormal.
“Alright ladies,” Anzela held a gauntlet of void ants out in front of her, hooked together by their legs to create some sort of structure. “Be ready to bite whatever comes out.” Most likely, it would be teeth. But there were always other things, and beyond the teeth would be a swallowing throat. If only she could attack from behind, but the rear direction of the broken space a distortion beast simply would not be there. At best, she could attack a joint or something sticking out by dodging past.
She focused most of her efforts on sensing where the thing was- and the shifts in space that indicated it breaking through. She was lucky that this one was relatively small, because she was at the bottom of the pack of Assimilation cultivators. Perhaps that was the reason it was able or willing to come into a planet’s atmosphere, as they normally seemed to lurk around but not in gravity wells. Or at least closer to the edges.
She turned, swinging her arm and hoping she didn’t crush any of the void ants on her target. She stopped short the first time, the void ants folding away from her arm to stretch the last centimeter to the flesh like protrusion housing teeth. She was lucky this was one with round mouths instead of spherical, which would appear from all directions simultaneously. Parts of it were more wormlike, and the void ants bit at not the flesh but the energy of the thing. But being closer would still be better. She could be more precise than a centimeter.
Anzela avoided a series of spikes and one kick by a foolish disciple who only drew attention to himself by the action. Perhaps he had been confused, but more likely he had been seeking favor. If he defeated the haggard Anzela, he might be rewarded. But for that, he would have to be stronger, and not in the belly of a distortion beast.
Her hand smacked against leathery flesh. Too close. Had she crushed them…? But the void ants were tougher than they looked. Many of them were three quarters of a centimeter in length, and their exoskeletons were much more durable than anticipated. Still something she could easily crush, but it would take more intention. There were a few that were stunned and barely dangling from the others, but the void ants adapted quickly, some attacking the offending bits of enemy while the rest coordinated their movements and retrieved hanging allies.
After getting covered in blood- her own, and whatever passed for blood in a distortion beast- Anzela eventually found that things had become still and quiet. She vaguely sensed the distortion beast lurking, but further away. It wouldn’t be drawn in so easily for some time. She planned to be out of here before that, if she could manage it with her broken ribs, wonky leg, and numerous lacerations.
She looked down at the man who had taken her husband’s cultivation, sensing tiny remnants of his energy. She instructed the void ants to consume every last bit, while making sure the man was truly dead in every conceivable way. At least, those that didn’t involve any cutting- but he was smashed fairly flat by the end.
She noticed that the area around the formation circle was not quite empty. Besides extra materials and energy storage, there were papers. And there were more in the man’s storage bag, along with other things. The pills were unfamiliar, and while she could guess based on their aura she didn’t want to risk that. She’d have to recover her wounds the old fashioned way. But at least she had room to grab anything she needed on the way out. Though the void ants volunteered to run ahead and check for enemies, which she was glad for.
Being the one in charge of anything at all was crazy to Anishka. Sure, she’d been able to tell people to do things throughout her life, but she wasn’t in charge. Those had been people paid to deal with travel and personal needs and registering her with schools and everything else. Even near the end, people would have listened to her in the Northern Glacier Sect. But she wasn’t leading anyone.
But now she had to tell people what to do. She had spoken to Celina about the matter. As someone who was older and marginally higher in cultivation, shouldn’t she have taken charge? Ultimately, she had said the reasons were simple. “Aside from roaming about earning money and dodging the draft, I don’t have any goal for us. Survival is nice, but with this war I can’t guarantee that. But you have ideas.”
So she did. And if the Sergeant had hands, perhaps all Anishka would have to do was give the order and it would be done. Instead, she had to think and plan and decide what was good and what was not. Celina helped, obviously. She would say if something was stupid or dangerous- and if she had something important to say, she would.
“The Vermillion Inferno isn’t the only group impacted by this war that was started without our consent,” she said. “But I can’t do anything about the war.”
“I can’t either. At best… my mother and grandfather can,” Anishka shook her head.
“Which is exactly what we need you for. If you have access to important people, isn’t it your duty to use that access to help the most people possible? At the very least, I’m sure you want to get back to them.”
She did. And now, that was their goal. Which meant finding one of the ransomed ships, with a working communicator. At least, that was the goal. For that, they would need to scurry away from the growing crowds of cultivators so they could get to where the void ants had last seen something like that.
It was a good thing that cultivators wandering off into the wilderness wasn’t odd, because Anishka was anything but a stealth specialist. The same with the other four, three fire cultivators and her apprentice who had only gathered leftover scraps to sell.
So it wasn’t unbelievable when they found themselves being followed by others, but it was concerning. “Is that… one of them is Life Transformation…?” Anishka conferred with Celina.
“Unfortunately, that seems to be the case,” the woman confirmed.
“You can… you can run.” Anishka said. “They’ll just kill me and leave you alone.”
“Let’s say I believed that…” Celina said. “I know we aren’t longstanding comrades, but I’d like to think myself a better person than whoever would just abandon you here. But I also am uncertain you’d be so lucky as to die, or that I am not also a target.”
“But I’m the one with the… the bounty.”
“The larger bounty,” Celina emphasized. “I’m not saying we’ll stay and fight. That’s stupid. But perhaps we can get away together?”
They sped up their pace, but it was pointless. Their pursuers were getting steadily closer, and there were a few more Essence Collection cultivators along with them.
“Damn,” Celina muttered. “Why did it have to be Life Transformation?”
“Because, uh…” Anishka shook her head. “I don’t know. Unlucky, maybe.”
“I guess we used up the rest of our luck to get this far.”
Anishka felt a tingling on the back of her hand and looked down, finding a full squad. “I… uh… I forgot that we aren’t outnumbered.”
“Does that matter?” Celina asked. “The Life Transformation cultivator could kill all five of us.”
“Sixteen,” Anishka said.
“Look, uh… not to insult your friends but… taking down a Life Transformation cultivator is totally different from an Essence Collection cultivator.”
“She says it is basically the same,” Anishka translated.
“Are you kidding? Several times as much power in a single person. It’s wildly different.”
“It’s just natural energy, though.”
“Yeah but, how much can they bite through?”
“… All of it?” Anishka tilted her head. “Uh, their Great Queen killed a Worldbinding cultivator alone.” Anishka looked down at the Sergeant, “Of course I can compare you to the Great Queen. I know you’re smaller and less self mobile, but it’s still reasonable! Yes, I know your teeth are smaller. I mean if you’re worried I won’t make you fight.” The indignant response at that came just about the time the enemies caught up to them, so the discussion really couldn’t continue.
“Done running?” said a man carrying a long thin blade on his back. “Good. That will make this easier. Surrender yourselves, and we won’t hurt you much.”
Those words were hardly reassuring, and while Anishka didn’t know what would happen to Celina, she could only imagine her fate was torture or worse… being a hostage to bring harm to those she cared about. Anishka looked down at her palm. The Sergeant signed ‘ready’, while holding onto the others in a tiny little ball.
If she had time to confirm a plan with the others, she might have come up with something less stupid. Instead, she just said. “Here, catch.”
As it turned out, ants were not particularly aerodynamic. They really worked at it though, and the velocity at which she’d flung them didn’t dwindle as quickly as she’d worried, despite their diminutive mass. Unfortunately, the lobbed tangle of void ants wasn’t swift… and the swordsman reacted quickly.
Anishka watched in horror as his sword was drawn from his back and sliced downward in a single motion. Her energy senses couldn’t follow any of the void ants movements- which was precisely their whole thing- but she vaguely saw the ball turn into a string shape that was severed in two.
“I don’t know what the hell that was,” the leader said, taking stock of himself. “But it seems you’re not planning to come peacefully. Men?”
Anishka charged towards one of the pairs, partly to avoid the swordsman. He seemed to be not particularly enthusiastic, stepping forward slowly. He knew he would win. Anishka reached out towards the two with him, but stopped as they swung their own blades. However, her energy was ready. Both weapons were coated in a greater density of energy for the attack… but for the sake of efficiency, that was all focused on the cutting edge. Which meant they were just as vulnerable on the rear as anywhere else.
Heat flowed from one to the other, and while pushing through someone’s natural energy wasn’t flawless for Anishka, whether she succeeded at a single trick wouldn’t determine if the battle was won. What would determine it was…
“Dammit, what-?” The leading man reached for his throat, grabbing and dragging. His fingers came away bloody. But this time, it wasn’t just a little. The Sergeant was tiny, a few millimeters in length, but a few of the others were larger. Between that and there being an additional ten, Anishka thought they would work much faster. She was right, but it wasn’t ten times as much.
As for how the void ants didn’t get crushed, their teamwork came into play there. Slight twitches of their lookouts could cause a whole half dozen of them to swing away, and since cultivators unfamiliar with them wouldn’t be able to find them except visually they weren’t even targeted. Except by the damage they had caused. And then made worse, both by widening the cuts and tearing away chunks of natural energy meant to staunch the flow.
Anishka no longer had the luxury of fighting, with the lead swordsman charging towards her. But he couldn’t maintain a proper grip on his sword and bat at his neck at the same time. He chose offense, presuming that Anishka used some special technique. And that assumption was logical for his current experience, but the wound in his jugular veins continued to grow rapidly. By the time he changed his mind, scratching at his neck with both hands, there was nothing he could grab on the outside of his neck.
Seeing their leader seemingly go crazy and the surprising resistance that Celina and the other three were providing on the other side, the two chasing after Anishka with their boss hesitated. Each motion their boss made simply made him lose blood faster, and his natural energy was going wild, to the point he worsened the injury himself to no detriment of the void ants. Then he fell onto his knees before fully passing out, blood still draining from his body.
The Essence Collection cultivators turned and fled, and nobody was going to risk chasing after them and causing them to rally together. Instead, Anishka ran over to the man, grabbed his sword, and stabbed him through the heart. Better safe than find out he was faking somehow.
“Sergeant? Where are you?” she didn’t see any of them. Had they been crushed? She wanted to run her hands all over his neck, but they could be anywhere beneath the streaming blood.
Then, one by one, they appeared. Ten blood soaked void ants.
She sighed in relief. “You made it. Wait-” she recognized them by their sizes, more or less. The Sergeant was definitely there, something about her poise even when a completely different color giving her away. But… “Is one of you missing?”
It took a few moments for the Sergeant to confer with the others and then respond due to the substance coating her, but she managed to push through. “Yes. One corporal perished in the initial attack.”
“Why are you crying, princess?”