Humans were bundles of desires and logic with the two often conflicting. A cultivator chose an aspect they desired in Essence Collection, driving themselves forward. Yet that was never a complete picture of a person. Nobody had a single desire that controlled everything. If they did, they would hardly be human anymore.
The logical approach to the invasion would have not involved announcing their presence- regardless of whether the enemy knew about them already. It would be pretty much impossible to not notice an attack on their barrier. Even if they hadn’t responded directly, that just meant they had other priorities. The next most logical thing was to conquer their planets one at a time, using all of their forces to maximum effectiveness. The Trifold Alliance’s forces weren’t so overwhelmingly large that they would get in each other’s ways, numbering simply in the hundreds of ships. Dozens of Assimilation cultivators, hundreds of Life Transformation, and twice again as many Essence Collection cultivators. Nobody weaker, because their contributions would be meaningless, and the ships didn’t have endless room.
But the Trifold Alliance didn’t conquer one planet at a time, instead spreading throughout the system. Why? The answer was quite simple. They wanted to win. They wanted the greatest number of their members to survive. But more than all of that, they wanted to say they did everything possible to save the disciples that had been part of the cultivation exchange.
With no messages from them, they could be presumed dead. Anton believed the same about Anishka. He’d lost family before, many times. Children, grandchildren, and more. He was resigned to the results, and capable of processing it emotionally. But there had also been a few months when he was going to blow up Ekict’s sun, and he was still absolutely going to kill people.
Thus it was that among others, Anton and Annelie headed for the main planet in the system. The fleets ignored smaller outlying planets- perhaps a tactical mistake, but they wouldn’t know for certain until later. Hopefully, Anton’s message dissuaded some levels of involvement.
The relatively short hours from the outer edge of the system to the planet they sought felt like an eternity. But then they arrived, ready for combat. Immediately they… ran into another barrier around the planet.
Of course there was one. It would be crazy not to have one, because even if it could be overcome it would slow them down, and tire them out. And by ‘them’, Anton of course was considering the Assimilation cultivators with lower mobility. Not everyone was as strong here as they could be- though those like Lev who were the most bound to a location were remaining on the defensive, as cautions against potential counterattacks or the Sylanis Cluster.
But Anton was close enough to the sun to consider himself at optimal strength. There were more powerful Assimilation cultivators- if not many- but at this distance from one of his bound stars he was confident in surviving any encounter. Not that he actually thought any Assimilation cultivator would try to kill him, but someone of equivalent status like Sylanis’ Worldbinding wasn’t off the table. Further away, and Anton would be somewhat weaker. And if he fought near the innermost planets Anton would be able to dominate any matchup. In extreme proximity to the sun… he wouldn’t guarantee defeating an Augmentation cultivator. But he wouldn’t assume his loss, either.
For the sake of formation master Naid Conaire, Anton tested various points of the planet with his shots for the reaction. Ultimately it was clear that the barrier was nearly homogenous about the whole planet. It would have to be, or it would be easy to rip apart.
The bombardment had only just begun- less than half an hour mostly testing it out- when several individuals flew to a place they could be picked out easily. What was more, one woman even projected her voice beyond the barrier. “An amusing speech. But if you truly care so much for your disciples, I would reconsider your course of action.”
Anton held up his hand, and the bombardment respectfully stopped a few moments later. So, they were actually going to negotiate? He reached out for the barrier. It didn’t seem any weaker, but he attempted to speak anyway, projecting his voice to the edge in hopes he could be heard. “Is that so? They are unharmed, then?” Instead of waiting for an answer, Anton continued. “I assume you have the authority to negotiate for their release. What might we address you as?”
“I am Nurcan, of the Northern Glacier Sect,” the woman declared. “I know who all of you are, of course.” The fact that he did not know her concerned Anton. He knew of the sect head Arzu, but this woman hadn’t come up. “I do indeed have the authority. I can declare to you that if you attempt any more aggressive actions, we will begin killing your disciples one by one.”
Fire flared inside Anton. Anger. Power. Passion. But with the flames came light. “What will it cost us?”
“It’s quite simple. You can make an exchange of resources. Ships. Or people willing to give up their own freedom.” The woman grinned. “Before you ask, Anishka will cost you the entire treasury of the Fire and Ice Palace. Or just yourself, sect head Annelie.”
The instant Annelie began to move, Anton stopped her. “Don’t. I know you didn’t bring the full treasury with you, so you could only…”
She just glared back at him. “Are you telling me you wouldn’t do it yourself?”
Anton had them surrounded in a barrier of energy, so that their words could not be heard- or their lips read. “My dear granddaughter, I would absolutely make such a sacrifice if there was no other way. And if I believed it would mean anything.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am paying much closer attention to details, this time,” Anton said. “They don’t have her.”
“Seems you don’t want her?” an annoyed voice projected beyond the formation barrier. “Tell you what. I’m a busy woman. Take a couple days and talk among yourselves. If you want to know what it will cost you, we’ll have people waiting here. Then we can make the exchanges all at once when everyone’s decided, alright?”
Anzela Ranik approached first. “What about my husband?”
“Ah yes. The charming Rikuto,” Nurcan nodded, “He’s of great value, but we could return him to you for the full blueprints to all of Weos’ battleships. Or yourself, I suppose.”
Fire flared inside Anton. That was even less possible than the exchange for Anishka. He was certain of that, somehow. It didn’t bode well for Rikuto, but what did her uncertainty about Anishka mean? He was using every scrap of Insight he had, but he couldn’t learn more without pressing for details. And that might make it too obvious.
But after everyone made their requests, he could inform them privately that Ekict wouldn’t or couldn’t be following through on the exchanges. Perhaps it was a ploy for time, or they had some form of illusion to pretend the exchange happened. That, Anton couldn’t know. But if they did have some hostages still, the assault would have to be on hold.
Not every part of the Trifold Alliance or indeed all of Ekict had word of the negotiations. Circling around a gas giant, The Wayfarer was scooping up relatively minute amounts of various gasses. Along with ambient natural energy, these would be converted to replenish the expended energy stores from piercing through the outer formation. General Gabriela would then be directing it as most optimal for Rutera and the Alliance’s goals. They were aligned on the highest level, but they obviously cared about different individuals in the system.
Unlike Nicodemo, Gabriela was not an Assimilation cultivator. She could not make the ship function above and beyond its combined technology and energy formations, nor was she even the best gunner for the main cannon. She was there for her actual job, leading the fleet. She was still amazed at hearing how Nicodemo had done so while also augmenting The Independence. His position as the most prominent of Rutera’s generals had been unshakable- but Gabriela didn’t resent it. It wasn’t as if he didn’t advocate for other options for advancement among the military.
He’d seemed an invincible figure. And then he was just… gone.
Killing a war hero wasn’t a good start for Ekict’s assault. Neither was stealing their most well known battleship. Rutera wasn’t wholly devoted to their military, but they did understand how necessary it was, and were generally in support of it. Now, they were angry.
“General Gabriela,” said one of the sensor operators. “I’m sensing… well, it’s…”
“Say it,” she said.
“The Independence, general.”
“Prepare to engage. If we don’t receive a transmission indicating recapture, we’ll assault immediately.”
As it came around the edge of the planet, sensors picked up another source of power as well. Visuals indicated it was a woman standing on the front of the battleship. It was almost comical, but Gabriela knew not to underestimate someone holding a spear- even if it seemed crazy. They’d have to assume that individual was in Assimilation. Or… something. One on one The Wayfarer likely destroyed The Independence, but they’d need the rest of the fleet to deal with this. Especially since The Independence wasn’t alone.
Anishka was alive. And so was Patka. The Sergeant was healthy as well, but not visible. Instead, three more individuals were present. The Vermillion Inferno had quickly endeared themselves to Anishka. For one thing, without the factor of The Sergeant she was pretty sure they could have just killed them and taken everything. Not that they really had anything. They could have also let them die to the frost apes. Instead, they were splitting the bounties on the two that had been killed.
But they had problems Anishka couldn’t just ignore. The only problem was figuring out a way to say it politely, as she watched them meditate, flames licking around them. “Have you, uh, considered… sealing the flames around you to amplify the effects?”
That’s right. Their cultivation was inefficient. All that wasted heat which she didn’t think was being intentionally vented. That she absolutely could not stand. But she also wasn’t some sort of grand cultivator who knew everything, so perhaps it made perfect sense with their style.
The leader of the trio, a mid Essence Collection cultivator only a handful of years older than Anishka, looked at her carefully. “What do you mean?” Celina asked.
“Well, a more familiar style for myself is like this,” Anishka began to demonstrate. Flames arose around her, but while they appeared to wander freely they were actually constrained tightly by her will. This was how she could choose who was burned, or at least one factor.
“Interesting. Would you mind going into more detail?” Celina prodded.
Anishka absolutely did not mind. She went over the basics. Then somewhere along the way she got into talking about convection currents, then temperature as a concept, and that led her to her thoughts on the ice-flame dichotomy. “… so basically fire and heat are only related and not the same thing..” She cleared her throat. “But, uh, maybe that doesn’t actually matter.”
She was almost sweating despite the chill temperature as she looked at three- three and a half, counting Patka- dazed faces. Celina closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then nodded. “Thank you for sharing your insights. I am sure we will benefit greatly.”
“You will? I mean, uh, that’s good. Though I can’t guarantee everything is perfect.”
Celina smiled, “If you could, I doubt you’d still be in Essence Collection. As it is, I believe it will be a smooth journey for you.”
Smooth. Everything up until her capture had been smooth. She’d been lucky to get out. Even now, she still felt too close to the influence of the Northern Glacier Sect. Though there was no reason to believe the Enkindled Sun Sect was any better, so traveling much to the south was also a risk. And Anishka didn’t even know what she could really accomplish. Stealing a ship was ambitious, and she was suddenly very aware of the planetary formation above. What if that stopped her from getting out? She would just have made herself a target.
Not to mention the whole war starting, and what that might mean for people like Patka and the Vermillion Inferno. They could easily be caught in the crossfire. What could she do to help?
She didn’t know. All she knew was she couldn’t solve every problem, so perhaps she should simply consider those present. Including the Sergeant. Would revealing her to the trio be a danger, or a boon? She’d have to ask about that when she got the chance. But for the moment, their next stop was the city to get paid, and they could think about what to do with said money after that.