Though the figures were small, Anishka sensed the sudden change in atmosphere when the Sergeant declared she wouldn’t be going with the Royal Guard. The individual in charge of that group raised her head. “Who decided that you can simply extend your task to avoid consequences? You will be coming with us.”
“Please,” Anishka said. “I don’t want to cause-”
Her protests were useless, as the void ants were only paying attention to each other. “I decided,” the Sergeant signed.
Further words were not exchanged. At least, not in a way humans could comprehend. It was there, atop a meeting table, that the battle took place. Of the several Royal Guard present, only one approached. An individual nearly a centimeter and a half in length, making her five times the size of the Sergeant- in a single dimension. Overall, the size factor varied by more than a hundred.
The movement was quick, barely able to be tracked by Anishka. Nor would other Essence Collection cultivators have done any better. Indeed, even some of the other humans could barely follow, as their energy senses could not lock onto the void ants.
Jaws snapped closed, gouging out a small section of the table. Had the attack landed on its intended target, it could be presumed the battle would have been finished. But it had not. The much smaller Sergeant had vaulted forward at the last moment to arrive under the larger combatant. Now, she darted towards a leg, grabbing onto it where it met the table, near its thinnest point.
Unlike with the Lieutenant, the Royal Guard was neither pulled off balance, nor were there any cracks made in her chitin. Indeed, she yanked her leg away, dragging the Sergeant with her leg and making her more available for further attack. However, the head of the Royal Guard could only twist so far. The mandibles could not reach the Sergeant to crush her. So the whole body instead was pressed downward, weight and muscular force slamming into the Sergeant.
The sound of the impact was basically unheard by the observing humans- all uncertain what to do. Anton was holding onto Anishka. Others thought to interfere, but weren’t keen on losing a finger or more. The other Royal Guard simply continued to watch.
The Sergeant had lost her grip on the leg, and could only barely stagger to her feet. The Royal Guard turned, intent to snatch her between her mandibles. Once properly restrained, the situation would be resolved.
Yet somehow, despite most of her limbs not obeying her, the Sergeant avoided the attack in the most unexpected way. Her own mandibles bit into the wood of the table- enchanted to prevent incidental damage, but with its enchantments ignored sufficiently vulnerable for such a maneuver. Instead of dragging herself forward, the Sergeant levered herself completely over her front, moving in a way most ants wouldn’t even think to try. Nor was it a traditional void ant maneuver, either.
The Sergeant rolled several rotations, though it only placed her a few steps outside of the Royal Guard’s reach. An easily closable distance, were it not for the surprise the maneuver had caused. Then the Sergeant did something else odd. She gnawed at the surface of the table as her legs scurried.
The battle then turned into a chase. The Royal Guard was much larger and faster, but at the last moment the Sergeant always pulled some maneuver to shift her momentum. Unlike a properly massive creature, the Royal Guard would never overshoot a target by any significant amount, tarsal hooks sticking to the surface of the table. However, snapping her head back and forth to try to grab the small individual was proving quite difficult.
The battle made its way to the edge of the table. The closest individual almost hadn’t realized until a bit of her energy was chomped away. There was still a good distance to her actual finger, but she withdrew her arms. Nobody was quite sure how to interfere.
Anishka looked up at her grandfather, still holding her arm, then down towards the table once more. Right in front of her were the nine who had joined the Sergeant. The other Royal Guard retained their position on the other side, tracking the battle. “Just let me-”
“Do you want to make the incident worse and risk your life?”
“Is still going to be captured. It’s not the best result, but I can speak to the Great Queen and help your friend.” There was no way the Great Queen wouldn’t listen. And if she truly didn’t, it would probably be necessary to keep void ant society functioning properly. This was quite an unfortunate situation to be in, however. Anton hadn’t seen actual fights between void ants in quite a long time.
The Sergeant continued to skitter about. Her legs seemed to be steady once more, but it wasn’t clear what her motives were. She simply went around damaging the table, and occasionally approaching the surrounding humans. Was it on purpose, or coincidence?
Anishka returned Anton’s own grip, leaning close to him to whisper. “She needs energy. For something. Ascension energy would-”
“Are you telling me to exacerbate something that could become a very real incident because of an ant?”
“She’s not just an ant! She’s my friend!”
Anton didn’t have a good response for that. He wished he wasn’t weak to young family members, but then again… how could he not be? Hopefully he didn’t burn away too much of his good will with the Great Queen over this. Though he’d never really called in any favors, so it should be fine.
He rested his hand on the table, drawing from a place beyond himself, and a self beyond who he would ever be. Ascension energy was pulled from the upper realms, and a version of himself he could never make the choice to become.
The response wasn’t immediate. In fact, the Sergeant led the Royal Guard almost all the way around the table in the longest direction, to the point Anton wondered if he’d been noticed. Except all of the void ants were looking at him now- disregarding those in combat.
Along the way, the Sergeant actually was daring enough to attempt further attacks on the massively larger Royal Guard, nibbling at each leg in turn and even once leaping into the air to bite at an antenna. Her unpredictable movements caused the Royal Guard to tumble over at the last moment, flinging her a precious few centimeters away… towards Anton. Anton saw the antennae of the Sergeant trying to say something, but without the addition of the forelegs which were busy propelling her forward with the rest it was at best half comprehensible.
Tiny mandibles grabbed onto ascension energy and yanked. It was like taking a pinch of cotton candy- a confection of pure sugar whose only redeemable quality was how it turned into a fluffy mesh of sorts. One would presume that mandibles less than a millimeter in length would only carve out a small bit of energy, but instead the entirety of what Anton had gathered around his hand was ripped away, and ingested into a very tiny ant. Completely gone as if it had never existed.
The Sergeant collapsed on the spot, legs splayed out. How unfortunate. Should he have resisted the pull? Void ants were certainly highly resistant to all forms of energy, but there were limits. For a simple Sergeant to eat ascension energy, it was surprising her body remained intact.
The Royal Guard stomped over, cautiously approaching the fallen form. Her mandibles closed together with intention, where they would not quite touch together so as to hold onto smaller brethren. But the instant it seemed everything was over, the Sergeant rolled over, away from the mandibles. As the Royal Guard redirected her head, flailing legs kicked against the mandibles, latching onto the outside for a moment so the Sergeant was merely tossed away.
Then, tiny legs moving with great rapidity such that her speed almost matched that of her larger opponent, the Sergeant charged towards the larger individual’s side. Her mandibles once more caught around a slender leg, but this time she was not pulled about at the whims of the larger ant.
It was a strange sight to see, because if Anton did not pay careful attention he might have thought the larger Royal Guard was flopping about entirely on her own. However, it was quickly clear that things were going beyond expected when the sounds came. His ears were good enough to pick up the previous small skittering sounds, but now there were sounds of thunking against the table in a truly impossible manner violating all principles of mass and energy.
The Sergeant maintained her grip on one leg, actually flipping the Royal Guard back and forth until something broke- and it was not her own mandibles, but the leg in question. The sight would have been gruesome had it involved humans, but instead Anton only found it mildly disturbing to see half a leg torn away.
The Royal Guard was clearly no longer interested in caution as she chomped splinters out of the table, swinging her mandibles as blunt weapons when the Sergeant circled around. But the smaller ant continued to dodge every attack until she was forced towards the edge of the table. A fall would not harm an ant, but there seemed to be some unspoken matter of pride that they would contain their duel to this location. Large mandibles came down, only for the Sergeant to flip back her head and deflect the momentum above her.
When she sprinted beneath the larger individual, the previous attempt to crush her was repeated. But instead of success in that area, the Royal Guard only got a crack in the bottom of her carapace.
A few more wild moments of wrestling, and the Royal Guard was flung a whole meter across the table, tumbling over and over. She stood shakily on her remaining legs as the Sergeant moved to close the distance.
“I yield,” the larger ant bowed her head to the table, losing her balance as her front legs participated in the signs. “What… what rank are you?”
“I am a Sergeant.”
“That is impossible.”
“It seems not.”
“… You must still see the Great Queen after completion of your mission.”
And with that, the matter appeared to be settled. Until Anton saw two of the other Royal Guard begin to approach the Sergeant. But, somehow she neither backed down nor took an aggressive stance, merely turning about to return to her squad, the other two following at a measured pace.
“The situation is resolved, princess. I will escort you in the continuation of your duties.”
“I- uh. Thank you, Sergeant.”
One matter that had not yet been fully addressed were Celina and the others. Anton had already vetted them, but that didn’t mean they could wander about the ship as they pleased. So they were quite relieved when Anishka returned with Anton.
“I think you made a good choice, ultimately,” Anton said to Anishka. “A difficult one, with some awkward unanticipated consequences, but a good one. We do not want to devastate Ekict. Finding examples of individuals who represent the people as a whole is a great start,” Anton nodded. “And more encouraging is the fact that you weren’t even looking. Ekict isn’t so broken that its people are beyond redemption. Though there are certainly problems with the strongest among them, and Transferral.”
“I think it’s just the major sects,” Anishka explained. “Would you agree, Celina?”
“In what way? They certainly control everything, keep secrets and hold onto their power. I certainly don’t support them drafting people into a war we can’t win,” she looked down at her token.
“What is that?” Anton asked.
“A representation of a conveniently distant sect so we could move about unencumbered.”
“Interesting. I wonder if we could copy those.”
“I would not know, as I don’t deal in enchantments,” Celina admitted. “But most likely.” She held it out for him to take.
“Where did you get this, if it was from a distant sect?”
“Ah,” Anishka said. “There’s, uh. A deal I made… that is still in effect.” Anishka spoke about Haround, and her promises. “I know it’s a lot of resources, but… I had to make the promise. And offering your guidance without your approval was inappropriate, but it seemed like the most usable method.”
“I understand,” Anton said. “A high price, but in a way it is also a moment of opportunity. This Haroun should know many others… showing that we will follow through on a deal even though we could not be bound to it should be beneficial. Though I’m not taking the time to give him guidance during the war. He wouldn’t benefit from rushed advice anyway.”
So now they had several things to do. Retrieval of those who had chosen to be exchanged, and connecting with the common people. If they could somehow dismantle the planetary barrier, they would be able to bring their full force to bear- hopefully against a weakened enemy. But there would still be many strong individuals and sects they had to deal with somehow, and there was no knowing exactly how many Integration cultivators had been sown among Ekict’s populace.