In the council chambers upon Xankeshan, Velvet gave the report for spies and other informants in the Harmonious Citadel’s territory. “The reaction has been… strong, as expected. Two saints dead practically at once has been difficult for them to cover up. But putting aside their internal situation for the moment, it seems the remaining saints might be taking this war seriously. They won’t be moving independently, and seem to be preparing for a proper war.”
“Xankeshan can withstand a direct attack,” Catarina declared.
“I’m sure it can,” Tauno agreed. Now that he had been revealed, he would be staying upon Xankeshan for the most part. “But outlying planets controlled by our alliance can still be attacked. We can give them up, but the Harmonious Citadel is not above scouring planets for petty revenge. A mass harvesting of resources and slaughter of the people would lose us more than resources, but also support of our allies. And we don’t have enough Augmentation cultivators to match them.”
The Harmonious Citadel previously had eight known Augmentation cultivators, though there was potential they had kept another secret. Now they would be down to six or seven, with the alliance having only three they could count on. Moves were being made to sway two of the extremely sparse Augmentation cultivators not tied to either side. They were hoping the recent deaths of saints would factor into their decisions, but even if they got both they still wouldn’t be able to match them straight up.
Vari shook her head, “We also can’t count on Everheart to contribute any further. He’s just as likely to cause trouble for us, though I don’t think he has any motivation to assassinate our Augmentation cultivators.”
Timothy added his own thoughts, “He still maintains a grudge with them, does he not? If we can provide an opening, I imagine he would snatch that opportunity to do something that would harm them.”
“That would be best,” Zazil of the Dark Ring agreed. “But perhaps we should return to the internal situation of the Harmonious Citadel. They might be focused on a united goal now, but their stability should be at a low point. If we could get a single one to act against the others in a bid for power,” she shrugged. “Or pierce through their propaganda to cause other internal strife.”
Prospero nodded. He had advised the council from his experience even before reaching Integration, and with his advancement there was no excuse for anyone to keep him from an official position. Some people did not like the number of individuals from Ceretos involved, but they did provide Xankeshan as a staging ground. “We could also encourage more recently conquered planets to rebel against them. They could suppress any such rebellions with the saints, but that would occupy two or three of them, leaving the rest more easily manageable.”
“Just as the saints cannot afford to hold back,” Tauno added, “We cannot fail to take advantage of this opportunity. Waiting has been on our side, with the rate of our development, but now allowing them to fully stabilize would be disadvantageous. I can imagine it wouldn’t take more than a few decades, far too little for us to grow to match them in power. Even with certain optimal projections,” he looked over the individuals from the lower realms.
“At least everyone will have something to do…” Zazil said. “Simply hiding and training is not what cultivators are meant to do.”
“Agreed,” Tauno said. “It was a terribly unpleasant time.”
Shikoba looked down upon Bavore. The gas giant had undergone much turmoil in the purging of the Twin Soul Sect. The war with the Sylanis Cluster had not been good to the system either. However, both were necessary steps in reaching their current form. Shikoba had been a Life Transformation cultivator for both, participating in the fighting. For the latter, he felt more than a bit inadequate compared to the Assimilation cultivators that had developed. Now here he was, an old man with no insights into how he would even make such a step.
If the knowledge had been kept secret from him, that would have been one thing. However, Ceretos had been generous with their knowledge as much as with what had been acquired from the Sylanis Cluster. He knew he required a connection to something, but nothing felt right. Perhaps he simply had no talent. This could be the end of the line.
Or, maybe, Assimilation was not for him. Bavore had been his home for his entire life. He was born in a city floating inside the storm of the great gas giant, swirling colors and monumental storms filling the skies of his childhood imagination.
He found he loved the planet, and those like it in other systems. He wanted to see more… but he could not. The Sylanis Cluster was not exactly open for tourism, and he had no qualifications to explore. Even if he did, he felt he would be lonely.
So now, here Shikoba was, looking off the edge of a floating city. He could not see the depths below, but that only made it more enticing. He wanted to take a look, but he also didn’t want it to be his last.
But there was another option, wasn’t there? It was even the norm, both before the knowledge of Assimilation and still afterwards. Was it easier, or simply more fitting for most? That, Shikoba didn’t know. But Ascension was still an option.
He could fail though. But he didn’t let that thought stop him from stepping over the edge. He knew that even if he’d achieved Assimilation, binding himself to Bavore, what he really wanted wasn’t Bavore itself but the kind of thing it represented. A planet technically accessible in its entirety, should one be able to survive it. Perhaps the same was true of terrestrial planets, if one were inclined to burrow- but Shikoba loved to fly.
His control of gravity allowed his descent to proceed at a measured pace. He was pulled slowly deeper, where pressure increased and all sorts of interesting phenomena occurred around him. He would occasionally pass solid isles, natural unlike the mostly artificial cities flowing through the planet.
He knew he couldn’t withstand the greatest depths. His strength simply couldn’t keep up. So he brought him ever closer to his limits, reaching for the world beyond. Ascension. His instincts told him this had some chance to work. Or he might perish like many others who made the same attempt in their own ways.
Shikoba found himself growing closer to his goal as he descended… but it wasn’t fast enough. He would run out of energy and be crushed by the pressure first. So, going against his cautious instincts, he reversed his efforts. Instead of limiting the effect of gravity on himself, he increased it, shooting accelerating more rapidly into the depths of the gas giant.
Pressure was not his only problem. At the speeds he was going, the swirling gasses resisted him, strengthening the effective pressure beneath him. Shikoba grit his teeth as he continued to fall, his energy running low. But he reached out for something, a greater energy he felt beyond.
Before he could touch that energy, his legs broke, a momentary lapse of control that would lead to a catastrophic collapse if he could not salvage the situation. But instead of dealing with that, he instead focused all his efforts on reaching out. And then suddenly the pressure and resistance was gone. He was moving through nothing. Subspace, perhaps, but a unique form of it that was only easily accessible to those ascending. He felt himself being drawn ‘upwards’, happily following the flow. This was a time of peace and serenity, during which he felt his body and soul filled with ascension energy- upper energy. Many new worlds, more interconnected than the lower realms. He could hardly wait.
Thinking back to her first attempts at controlling natural energy, Anishka wondered why she cared at all. It certainly wasn’t about a desire to grow stronger. At that age, she hadn’t even understood the concept. She simply did it because she could.
The lava itself was something she was particularly fond of. It was part of her home, and much different from anything else. She didn’t really want to control it, to harness its power. Even now, that wasn’t her intent.
She shielded herself from the heat. Then she stretched out her hand, curling her fingers about the molten rock, pulling it upward and watching it drip through her fingers. Then she backed off.
Anishka could only do that in short bursts, but it was so satisfying. Nothing else moved quite like that. A goopy yet almost solid thing. The fact that it was hot… she could take or leave it. Who cared?
Then there was ice. Famous for being slippery, yet in some situations it was oddly… sticky? There had been a time when Anishka got her tongue stuck on the frozen walls of the sect, the ice freezing the moisture on her tongue. She could at least disentangle herself from that problem now.
If that was where her fascinations ended, she would have still been a perfect child of the Fire and Ice Palace. But that wasn’t the limit.
Aniskha moved away from the lava flow, until she found untainted land which seemed to have nothing of note. At least, that was what people claimed. A bit of ash coating the surface- powdery, yet oddly full of life. Plants were poking through it, and she dropped onto her belly to look at them. A poky little weed. A stalk of grass. Both quite different from each other. How did plants even work? Anishka didn’t know, even after it was technically explained to her.
But beneath that was the dirt. To some people, that was the most boring thing in existence. Literally nothing at all. But to Anishka, they couldn’t be more wrong. Dirt was something. Everything, maybe. The remains of dead plants and animals, or ground down rocks. Lots of ash, of course, but also little bugs and even littler bugs she couldn’t see yet. She learned about microbes from Ruteran books, which were much more detailed on the subject than most books from Ceretos.
Anishka blew a little puff of air, stirring dirt and ash. That was another thing. Air. Wind. Her lungs. She could keep getting distracted with everything, but Anishka knew she needed to cultivate. Not because her mother was the head of a powerful sect, or because her great-and-more-greats grandfather was really important. But because she couldn’t possibly live long enough otherwise.
What did Anishka need to live longer for? To learn. What did she want to learn? Everything. Actually everything. Maybe not as much about machines and technology and fancy cultivation stuff that didn’t extend her lifespan, though she could see such things interesting her at some point. But also about plants and animals and things that weren’t those and everything that wasn’t alive. The closer she looked, the more questions she had. There was always a closer view she could look at things.
And once she knew everything down to its smallest bits, she would look bigger. Planets and solar systems and galaxies and probably just one universe but there were so many of all of those other things that it hardly mattered. She would need to live actually forever to study even a small part of them. Anishka had some moon dirt which was totally different from the dirt outside the sect or the dirt from Sect Head Lev’s tree or the dirt from Nthanda’s country, and that didn’t even count the other continent or the Archipelago or anything that wasn’t dirt.
This was going to take a while. So Anishka prepared herself by circulating the power of fire and ice inside of her, two opposing elements that might just be the same thing if you looked at them at the right angle. And maybe that was true of the whole world. Or maybe not, but Anishka planned to find out. Eventually. Sometime after she was allowed to travel on her own.