Taking in the overall picture of Vrelt, Devon didn’t find it difficult to understand why things were in their current state. Influence from the occupying Trigold Cluster would obviously reject outsiders. It was difficult to tell if that would be the opinion of the natural inhabitants, though there were likely some. And they would have good reason, just like Ekict.
Something had to be done… but the question was what it should be, and when. Launching a simple invasion of the plant, Devon was certain the alliance could kill the vast majority of the Trigold Cluster’s occupying forces… but if some went into hiding, what could they do about that? Occupying the planet themselves in an invasion wasn’t a way to get into the good graces of its proper inhabitants. Likewise, while Devon believed their forces could overcome the locals, it wasn’t necessarily so easy.
If his proportions for the Trigold Cluster disciples was correct and all of the rest joined them, then Vrelt could handle itself easily. They should have twice as many people not directly connected to the Trigold Cluster. But of course, some of their ranks were infiltrated by people they trusted, and they might believe that there were sufficient benefits to allowing the occupying forces to remain even if they knew. They would be wrong- the Trigold Cluster would absolutely be stripping them bare at some point- but it was something people could believe.
And while the alliance could certainly overpower the planet, the presence of post-Life Transformation cultivators was somewhat of a worry. There were more mobile cultivators than just Devon- either retaining their full capacity or a significant portion of it wherever they went- but with some of the promising candidates choosing to Ascend, there were definitely limits to what they could bring to bear. Rutera’s Ascension-class ships and their various fleets would be sufficient to ensure victory- but at how much cost? Not just to their own alliance, but to the planet itself.
These things Devon wasn’t qualified to answer by himself. So he continued to gather whatever information he could, knowing that anything could ultimately be used later whether tactically or politically.
Speed. Anton was the fastest he’d ever been, yet he felt like it was not enough. He needed to bind to stars on the route between Ceretos and Akrys. However, he only had two free stars at the moment… and considering what had happened with Poriza he really wanted to pick up exceptional stars. Obviously, he couldn’t just go around randomly fusing stars in systems, but there were various reasonable options. Empty nebulas left over by dead stars wouldn’t result in hurting anything if he formed them back into a single mass, and he could find and perhaps find some manner to Enrich more exceptional specimens.
Akrys’ star was an interesting one, but he didn’t want to disrupt the system more than his influence already was. Their sun was at least partially related to the preponderance of sapience there, and he had no guarantee he wouldn’t disrupt that accidentally. Even with his current status, he knew he was still subject to mistakes.
The news came to Anton about Vrelt, and he didn’t find himself particularly surprised. He hadn’t suspected it in particular, but it wasn’t that unlikely either. Devon’s feelings about the system actually made it seem more likely that there was something like that going on. Intuition about a large-scale wrongness could guide cultivators of any cultivation level.
Anton could have attempted to spy on the planet instead- and most likely he would have done so with less risk several years prior. But he’d already had a focus… and while he hadn’t known that Devon would develop his remarkable technique it still hadn’t felt like something that he had to get involved with. No matter how much he meddled with the affairs of the lower realms, Anton couldn’t be responsible for everything. He was quite glad to see that justified by the actions of many different people.
With all that said, when it came time for war- there was no if about it, as a festering wound like the Trigold Cluster could not be left alone- he would certainly be participating. He should probably reserve a bound star for that… though he had to consider whether he would be willing to give it up later. Ekict had been a special exception where giving up a star hadn’t been fully intentional, and he’d kept his bound stars in the Sylanis Cluster. But if things weren’t done well, there could be some resentment in Vrelt afterwards, both due to the overall handling of the situation and a star being bound. Even if it didn’t directly harm people, they might not like it.
For allies, Anton’s bound stars were a beacon of safety- for enemies, it was more like a guillotine constantly hanging over their head. Maybe there was a good reason the Sylanis cluster had been well behaved over the last centuries… though some of it was the new generation that didn’t have their heads stuffed full of the same ideas they’d once had.
Though he’d already seen it in action, and Chikere had said it straight out, Chidi found it a little bit difficult to believe she was trying to perform every sword move possible and find out the best ones among all of them. But then again, it was such an absurd idea it fit her perfectly. She’d already moved on from simple straight swords to incorporating curved blades and swords of all different sizes, the techniques of each being vastly different. Points or the lack thereof and number of edges were also significant factors. Double edged swords could pivot from a swing into a backswing without flipping around, though they also gave up features in the process.
Chidi himself worked merely with a single blade- but that wasn’t the limit of his fighting style. He wielded only a single blade, but he also manipulated the energy around him to act as a formation along with the markings inside of himself. He could produce limitless results… Though practically, his options were usually more limited. But even if he just threw off his enemy’s flow or blocked an attack with a sudden barrier, he had reliable options available.
Fighting against Chikere was all at once the same and different from before. She still wielded a great number of blades, the only limitation was that they were no longer based off of a physical form. Individually, there was some strength lost for the lack of a solid core. Part of that was made up for with Chikere using her blood instead, and the rest was the flexibility it allowed.
If Chidi tried to deflect her blades, or slice them apart, she could simply allow that. She might lose a portion of blood, but reforming what remained into a weapon was much simpler than replacing a whole weapon. And they could transform during battle, making it nearly impossible to tell what attacks would come from where.
Chidi sighed, as he found that Chikere was swiftly overcoming her limitations. He didn’t count himself as better than her at any point during her despondency, but he was able to beat her during her early resurgence. Now, he could barely match her. He was quite certain that it would be proper to call her a grand swordmaster again soon. He himself was a bit far from that status still… but there was also a couple hundred years between them so it didn’t really bother him. Losing to her would actually feel more normal.
The countless blades stopped. Well, it was technically never much higher than a hundred at once just yet- but just as their sizes and shapes shifted, so did their quantity as Chikere fought.
“We’re done now,” she declared.
“Alright,” Chidi nodded. He wasn’t going to force her to spar with him when she didn’t want to. Even if every moment was of great value to him, she had to choose what to do with her own time.
“I’m going,” Chikere said.
“… You’re going to have to be a bit more specific than that,” Chidi said as she walked in an unexpected direction.
Chikere nodded. “I am going to find the one known as Vari. She is going to help me with the next step of my training.”
“You want to learn to fight against an unarmed specialist?” Chidi asked.
Chikere narrowed her eyes at her former disciple. “She doesn’t use swords.”
“I do know that, yes,” Chidi chuckled. “That’s what unarmed means.”
The reviving swordmaster shook her head. “But I’m unarmed right now, aren’t I?”
“Only by certain technical definitions. So what is Vari going to help you with?”
“She will fend off that Everheart guy while I look for Rahayu.”
“… I didn’t sign up for this!” Vari said as Chikere dragged her away by her collar. By the time she properly began to complain, the swordmaster had cut their way out of the atmosphere and they would leave the system soon enough.
“You are the only one that can tame Everheart, so you must.”
“I really don’t have to,” Vari frowned.
“You don’t want to…?” Chikere tilted her head. “Then fight me and subdue me. I will no longer bother you.”
Vari considered whether that was possible for her. It might be, at the current moment. Chikere was still weak from everything that happened to her, though her recovery was more of a mental barrier than an actual lack of upper energy or anything like that. Vari sighed, “I guess I should go anyway. There are things we need to convey to Everheart and he’s particularly bad about acknowledging receipt of messages.”
“Is that something that is supposed to be done?” Chikere asked. “But how did I know people got my answer? They would have to respond and then-”
“You’re fine. Everyone knows you don’t pay attention to anything sent your way. That guy will respond to messages with something unrelated that makes it seem like he didn’t read it at all, and it’s hard to pick out whether he is screwing with you.”
Chikere nodded. “… He collects techniques, right?”
“That’s one way to say that, yeah.”
“Inform him that he should be prepared to demonstrate every sword technique to me when we arrive.”
“You really want to warn him we’re going to show up?” Vari raised an eyebrow. “He might kill you, you know.”
“That is why you are coming along. He won’t kill you.”
“He might,” Vari shrugged. “Pretty sure people have known him for longer only to be suddenly backstabbed and forever curse his name.”
“But he’s your… uncle?” Chikere tilted her head.
“First of all, I don’t know if that would stop him. And that never technically happened because he didn’t actually marry my aunt. And he could be lying about everything because the only confirmation I have was from a spear that wanted to kill him. Also, him not killing me doesn’t stop it from happening to you.”
“It will if you stop it.”
Vari sighed. “Sure. Whatever.” It was rather fascinating to watch a dozen or so blades cut apart space in front of them, with everything around them distorting as Chikere made short hops through or maybe past subspace. It wasn’t necessarily faster than other forms of movement, but it was certainly different.
After an hour of not speaking, Chikere picked up the conversation like it had never stopped. “I am supposed to value my body and life, but I have considered the risks against the rewards for this course of action and found them acceptable. Everheart didn’t kill me the last time we fought either, so it will be fine.”
“When did you last fight him?”
“Spirit Building,” Chikere said plainly. “One of his tombs on Ceretos.”
“That’s uh… way different than in person,” Vari pointed out. “He’s changed a lot since then, and most people wouldn’t say for the better.”
Chikere wasn’t even looking where they were going as she sliced apart space- though realistically, it was clear there wasn’t going to be anything for a very long distance and at least a few days. “I will be the first to admit I don’t understand people. But that is why his deceptions are less effective on me. Underneath the shell of a grumpy murdering thief is a kindhearted backstabbing trickster.”
“Is that better…?”
“Only for some people. But he seems to like people from Ceretos and you, so it should be fine.”