The attack was an unpleasant reminder for the people of Ekict that nowhere was safe. The Trifold Alliance could land wherever they wanted, and retreat just as swiftly. That was true even at the Northern Glacier Sect where Annelie took a detour to scour the libraries.
Anton provided cover for her and those landing, his arrows proving deadly to every cultivators they came in contact with- including those in Life Transformation. Alone, none could stand against him. Together, they could at least defend- though Anton was perfectly happy to constrain their movements.
Less than half an hour after the attack began Annelie had hopped aboard a ship and returned to space with Anton.
“I need you to promise to never worry me like that again,” Anton said. “Trading your life away. Without the void ants, who knows what would have happened to you?”
“I believe we will all know soon enough,” she gestured to several books she brought along. Though those in particular might not contain what they were after. “And while I will admit to a bit of recklessness, I believe I would make the same choice again. But… if you want a promise, I can do that. As long as you make the same in return.”
Anton sighed, “I am stronger than you, you know? You don’t need to be worried.”
“You are powerful, certainly,” she admitted. “But are you invincible? I think not. Out there among the stars on your own, who is to say what might happen to you? It could have even happened here, if Ekict had not gone for the longer term maneuver.”
“I’m confident I could have escaped,” Anton replied. As long as he wasn’t inside a planetary barrier at the time.
“I know there was more to that. Just remember that us younger folk are still allowed to have concern for you.”
“So, what’s in these books?” Anton said, flipping through them. Though it looked casual, he was actually reading them thoroughly. Ten Thousand Scrolls had been a great boon.
Annelie had learned the technique as well- though secondhand, as Everheart was precious with his original. It had taken her longer to gain proficiency, but she was able to manage at least a similar speed to Anton. “These? I don’t know. But something must speak of their technique.”
“Transferral,” Anton said. “We learned the name. Speaking of which, you’ll be quite glad to hear about who brought that news.”
“Anishka?” Anton could see a weight lift off of the mother. “Where is she waiting?”
Anton shook his head, “She was fine. Better than that, perhaps. But for some reason she took after certain members of this family. Like you and your cousin.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s your fault in all cases,” Annelie said. “So, what of Anishka?”
“Let me tell you what I know,” Anton said. “And I think you will not be surprised to find where she ended up.”
The summary of the story was rather simple. She’d been held prisoner for a time, escaping only with the help of a void ant and an apprentice. Along the way, she made friends with other locals, ultimately escaping on a recaptured ship. In truth, Anton had little details beyond those- but he understood her choices.
“So she’s down there among them by herself?”
“Hardly,” Anton said. “She has four human companions and three Royal Guard equivalent void ants, plus nine others. She took a liking to the lesser cultivators, and wishes to rally them against the great sects.”
“And you let her go.”
“Better than wondering when she would sneak off,” Anton said.
Annelie took a deep breath. “Fine. Send me off to catch up with her.”
“Would that be for the best?” Anton asked. “She appears as simply a young cultivator. I think you would stand out more. And even if you went unnoticed, would any accomplishments truly be hers?”
“I do not find your logic fully convincing,” Annelie said. “But I understand the danger I would bring to her. If it is too late to go with her, how best can I help?”
“That will depend on what other information we gain here. But ultimately, I think we will be looking to fight directly with any Integration or Assimilation cultivators. It seems this place has a glut of Life Transformation cultivators to go along with them, however.”
“Quite understandable, given the situation,” Annelie said. “Ascension would be unpalatable, and there would be no targets for this… Transferral. Ah, here’s one,” she said, holding up one of the books they were going through. “A vague overview, and strangely pockmarked.”
“That would be the jaws of a tiny ant, I do believe,” Anton smiled. “Your daughter helped uncover some of this information even before the war began- though too late to relay it to us or protect herself.” Anton read through the pages, “It is nice to have a somewhat more thorough explanation, though this still has no details. Then again… I think it would ultimately be better if there were none.”
“We won’t search for it?”
“Oh no,” Anton shook his head, “We absolutely must. And find them as well. And then… the technique must be destroyed. Given the information we have about it already, it’s simply unacceptable. All but the most liberal would be inclined to forbid its practice, or even detailed knowledge.”
“So not Everheart, then.”
“He’d love to get his hands on it and pick it apart,” Anton agreed. “Find the flaws and either fix them or write it off, I couldn’t say which. But his hands would not be the worst it might end up in. In fact, even our enemies in the lower realms is not the worst place. I am most concerned about the very people it was intended to be used against.” Anton shook his head, “And if Ekict had stopped with them instead of turning it against us, we could have ignored it. Though it would have likely been a mistake.”
Not every situation went as well as Annelie or even Anzela. In many cases, there was nobody to retrieve and lives were lost simply confirming that fact and attempting to extract. Usually the deaths included the void ants, or at least they were not easily found. While they were able to kill cultivators of any power, the same was true in reverse. Even a human without cultivation could crush them with ease, and fighting against them in smaller numbers when aware of their presence was fairly simple. Ekict didn’t necessarily know the details, but they could have stumbled into it as they fought.
Putting together all they learned, as well as vaguer details found in stolen texts or gleaned by the temporary prisoners, they calculated the weaknesses of Transferral. First was that it required a proper subject. That much was obvious- without cultivation, there was nothing to take. It appeared to be unfortunately reliable should someone be apprehended, but the victim had to be fully subdued to avoid things going terribly wrong. The process itself was still vaguely understood, besides involving formations and a significant expenditure of energy and materials. The other weakness came after Transferral. While an individual was always capable of using the cultivation and energy that was stolen, it did not come with all of the knowledge and experience.
The details about the latter were pieced together. It was clear that some portion of insights had to be transferred, or the cultivator would be nearly useless. The adaptation period could be mitigated by starting with someone of sufficient cultivation- generally Life Transformation- and a similar enough cultivation style. In that regard, there were basically unlimited people who could undergo Transferral. That meant they couldn’t afford to let any more Assimilation cultivators be captured- though the Trifold Alliance had been cautious of that since the beginning of the war.
Except for the incident where they had handed themselves over as hostages… with far too little resistance. Anzela had explained the wide scale manipulation taking place, and that the individual responsible was dead. Or at least, one of them. Nobody could be certain they didn’t have more, so they would be careful to watch their actions. Once aware of such a possibility, they should be much better at combating it. Without the void ants, it would have been a total disaster.
Speaking of void ants, Anton was glad that they remained cooperative. The incident with the Sergeant and Royal Guard could have easily led to disaster, but instead it had simply caused a redistribution of certain individuals. When Anton asked about it, he got a simple response. It was not a matter the Royal Guard could settle. Not because of lack of martial prowess- a pair of them certainly could have overwhelmed the Sergeant- but because the situation was unexpected. At the level of the Royal Guard, they had as much intelligence as any human, but their willingness to make decisions about unexpected circumstances was thin.
That didn’t count any sort of combat scenario- they considered themselves prepared for all of that, and would kill any enemies in the matter they deemed most efficient. But when they could not determine if someone was friend or foe, such as the Sergeant, they had chosen to remain detached. The Royal Guard who went along with her were categorized in the same group- unknowns that would not be considered enemies unless they came into conflict. The queens would resolve the situation at a later time.
Nurcan bit her lip. She would have resisted the urge had anyone been around to see it, as someone of her status could not have any bad habits or even uncontrolled tics. They had underestimated the enemy again. Their understanding of tactics was focused on how the invaders from the upper realms functioned. That included mistakes that should have been rectified before anything even began regarding their endurance. These opponents were also native to the lower realms, so they were not restricted in their energy usage.
But that had only been a minor point compared to the way they moved. While they did indeed take resources and knowledge, that wasn’t their primary goal. They simply rescued their own, individuals who were often in better states than they should have been.
The biggest problem was the ants. How had they… not known about these? The obvious answer was that they were ants. And going through the detailed reports, Nurcan saw some mentions of their existence. That included Aoibhin, but even she hadn’t thought much of them. A serious mistake, made worse by compounding with others.
There was a knock on her door, but Nurcan already knew who was coming. “Come in,” she said. It wasn’t an order, but simple protocol. The woman who entered was of course the very Aoibhin in question. “You said there was information to disseminate?”
“The Independence was taken from our hands,” she said, leaning on her spear. She wouldn’t even sit to be on the same level. But Nurcan couldn’t afford to complain.
“We are aware of that,” Nurcan said. “Though it never lived up to the expectations we had for it.”
“The old man. The archer. I followed from a great distance, and his power was worrying.”
“Anton? That naive fool?”
“I’m more inclined to believe he had a basis for unassailable confidence rather than him being a fool. I couldn’t approach for fear of getting caught, but even from a great distance I felt his power multiply severalfold. He could be an Augmentation cultivator or the equivalent.”
“Then he would be… a valuable Transferral target,” Nurcan said.
“There’s a reason we kept our heads down,” Aoibhin shook her head. “Naturally, Augmentation cultivators would have boosted our power to enormous degrees, but we didn’t taunt them to bring more. The Trifold Alliance did, and simply slew them.”
“Individuals out of their realm,” Nurcan shook her head. “Weaker than they should have been, if still dangerous. But we… well, he is fully adapted.”
“We need to tell him to stop sitting on his ass.”
“By all means,” Nurcan gestured, “You can be the messenger.”
Aoibhin shook her head. “I suppose I must. It’s a shame, really. I should have been the one to receive that power.” Aoibhin paused, “Not that I would think to take it now. We need all of the power we can have here. And unity.”
“Most don’t survive a second Transferral anyway,” Nurcan said. “If you could speak to him… express some urgency given the derailing of our plans.”
“It will be done.”