Light streamed into a palace solely constructed of translucent crystal. In theory it was a beautiful sight. In practice, few were able to see it and those who regularly basked in the light grew numb to it. It was a place of luxury, yet one where each luxury attained was deemed insufficient.
Inside such a place was a wrinkled old man, complete with a perpetual furrowed brow and the merest hint of a smile that never reached his eyes. He looked down upon a young woman kneeling at the foot of the dais. “You were told that such matters were to disturb me no longer. Yet you come here again.”
“Forgive me, Exalted One Zaur. But this is not merely about the matter related to… him. The Scarlet Midfields have a new Augmentation cultivator.”
“So? What does it matter? They are nothing.”
“Of course, Exalted One,” the woman kept her head down. “But there is a connection to another matter that concerns yourself and the other Exalted Ones. There is a connection between the revived planet of Xankeshan and a world in the lower realms. One that rejected the proper dominion of the Exalted Quadrant. A previously insignificant planet by the name of Ceretos.”
The man’s brow furrowed another layer more. “I forget nothing. I know of the place you speak. But it is a matter that will be dealt with in time. Don’t tell me you are unable to manage such a thing on your own?”
“There is one more connection. A long trail filled with uncertainty and darkness. I dare not even speak of it directly. It involves him. The pillager of the vaults of Erazun. The tormentor of the south. Grandmaster of formations. And until recently… entombed upon Xankeshan.”
“And what of him? You imply his origins are this nothing in the lower realms?”
“That is the conclusion I have arrived at. Yet that is perhaps not the entire truth.”
“His knowledge was too great for one of them,” the woman said. “It would take far more than a few miracles for him to achieve what he did from such a starting point. So perhaps there is some connection to those who had been dwelling there.”
“Dangerous words…” the old man called Zaur said. “Is there any proof?”
“Not that would be sufficient to guarantee a result. Not yet, at least.”
“Then perhaps we should make sure it stays that way.”
The light of the palace dispelled all shadows, except of course those that were most important. The shadows inside of the hearts of those who dwelled within the Citadel of Exalted Light.
The first thing blocking her way were overlapping layers of criss-crossing webs of energy. In short, simply stepping foot in the system took a lot more work than it had previously. Vari had to fight her way past that towards a planet, though of course actually finding a planet and not stumbling into an illusion took several tries. She was used to such difficulties, however, and eventually managed to find Everheart.
“Hey you big idiot! Why aren’t you responding to the communications device you specifically gave me?” Vari yelled at her sort-of-uncle, in the guise of a well-groomed young man sipping tea and drawing calligraphy in a pagoda in the middle of a lake. Probably surrounded by traps, if she knew anything.
The figure looked up at her. “My apologies. Your request for diplomacy and/or declaration of war cannot be responded to at this time. Please return later or go die.”
“I know you’re able to respond in a normal way!” Vari said, dashing forward and kicking her way through one of the pillars supporting the pagoda- rather than concerning herself about what might happen if she passed in between them. She grabbed the projection by the hem of his robe, holding him up. “Now tell me where he is and how to contact him.”
The projection smiled nervously. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. You’ll just have to wait.”
“Why? Just tell him I’m here!”
“Because he’s gone?” Vari raised an eyebrow. “He’s supposed to return to check on you bungling clones every once in a while, isn’t he?”
The projection looked away. “He has done so frequently ever since the incidents. Then we are all reincorporated into him with little divergence from his original personality.”
“Then what’s wrong with you?” Vari asked. “That almost sounds like an actual answer.”
The projection just looked at her and shrugged. She punched it in the face, causing it to explode into a shower of energy that would no doubt be recaptured by the local formations.
Vari grumbled. “What is he up to? There’s no way he’s dead. And if he’s in trouble he’d better get himself out of it soon.” Vari shouted at the surrounding pagoda. “You hear me?! I have official business to talk about!”
Everheart was indeed not dead. In fact, he couldn’t remember ever being dead. There had been some close calls that might have counted as dying for a little bit along the way, but he certainly didn’t remember it. And then there were a lot of attempts.
It had been decades since anyone had given it a good go, though, and Everheart was running out of both resources and deathtraps to set up in his system. So he was off for a little excursion away from home. Without his communicators or anything that could potentially be used to track him, of course. He didn’t want to risk someone selling him out. Those goody-two-shoes from Ceretos might think they were incorruptible, but that was just because they hadn’t seen how high the bounties on him got outside of the Scarlet Midfields. Especially if one was able to collect the overlapping ones related to some temporary identities.
The Trigold Cluster had an interesting arrangement to keep secrecy in their golden empire, or whatever they called it. The outer handful of systems were tightly controlled and watched. But beyond that… well, it was still dominated by local authorities, but nobody was looking as hard. It was like they didn’t even expect anyone to just jump fifty or a hundred lightyears past their outer shell.
That was a serious weakness, because Everheart knew that it wasn’t just him that could do it. Those kids from that lower realms planet were making some good ships which should be able to do the same, if not now then soon enough. And not just lone ships like his, which was almost excusable to let by. Almost, because while he was doing his best to conceal himself he was still a late Augmentation cultivator.
That was another reason he had to travel out here. He needed to keep collecting energy, and that wasn’t as easily accomplished if people simply forgot about him. So here he was, planning a few things here and there. The important part was making the events seem to happen out of order, so nobody could predict where he was heading. It would be a shame if he ended up entering a system only to find fleets waiting for him. He only had so many lifesaving treasures stored up, and they were just so expensive. Nothing was worth more than his own life, obviously. But they were a close second, since they could save it and he preferred not to waste them.
There was something about the Limitless Edge Sect that drew Chikere to them. Aside from the swords, of course. That had merely been the first thing. When she’d requested to spar with their members they had attempted to kill her. That was merely standard, of course, so she didn’t hold a grudge. She simply killed all of those who wanted to do the same to her. A few at a time, at the loss of several of her own weapons.
It should have been fine, because each and every blade the Limitless Edge Sect held was fantastic. She knew they could easily replace anything from number four on. She hadn’t had a good opportunity outside of battle to inspect them, but they might rise even higher. And she would have been elated to get her hands on those blades, if only it were possible.
But as the members of the Limitless Edge Sect fell, so did their blades. When they died, the weapons disappeared. If they were disarmed, the blades would return to their hands. It was almost as if they weren’t real.
Yet every time her blade clashed with them, Chikere knew that they were real. The bite of metal into metal, their sharpness. Whether she fought one or a dozen, she could feel that same perfection of metal. Each blade indistinguishable from the last. She wanted them.
But that wasn’t all. Because as she fought the members of the sect and slew them, she found them lacking. Lacking in skill, training, techniques. And yet… for some reason, she couldn’t help but get the feeling that it was all intentional. As if they were meant to fight and die.
She had a strange suspicion as she looked at the bisected body in front of her. A young man that must have begun cultivating in his prime like so many others. Most of the disciples were the same, though that was not unusual. Chikere poked at his viscera with her sword, and found it to defy her expectations. This was, indeed, a real corpse. All of the others had been of flesh and bone that cut just as she had expected, though she hadn’t been fully willing to trust her memories. But unlike the blade she desired, this body remained. All that was left was the fading energy of the sect, instantly recognizable by both its sharpness and unity.
There was something about the disciples that bothered her. The second time she had encountered them, the battle had begun as soon as they crossed eyes. That could have been a coincidence, as her fighting spirit had been raised immediately. But the third and fourth times, there was no opportunity for them to have heard about her conflict with them. Yet somehow they knew. Could they smell the blood of their companions on her? Did they leave behind a stain of their cultivation method?
Chikere didn’t know, and she couldn’t know. All she was truly aware of was that the closer she got to their main planet, the stronger the caliber of disciples became. Should she follow the path to its end, she might find those who were her equal, or perhaps those who surpassed her. Not just in cultivation or energy, but true ability. It was mere speculation, of course. Even if they had Augmentation cultivators among their leadership, she had the potential to defeat them. And not every cultivator after the last was stronger. There were ups and downs among their skill. The only thing that truly remained consistent was their blade.
That was what bothered her. She wanted it. Was it a projection of their cultivation? Not something based on an individual cultivator, but something greater? Perhaps that part of their technique was simply perfect. Flawless and easily understandable, such that anyone could produce such a blade effortlessly?
Chikere shook her head. It made no sense. And none of them carried manuals of their cultivation method on them. Individual techniques, yes. Styles not their own. Treasures and wealth they had gathered, along with armor and other equipment. But all of that was meaningless compared to the weapon she had to be able to get her hands on.
And along with that, the thought of stronger opponents. She had encountered them with the intent to spar, but she couldn’t simply back down from the confrontation now that the killing had begun. No, if she did then she had the feeling she would stunt her growth. There was no guarantee she would survive continuing along this path, of course, but she had to try.
Though Chikere noticed that she wasn’t the only one seeking out their disciples. Other individuals, most likely natives of the Exalted Quadrant, likewise had conflict with the Limitless Edge Sect. So she occasionally got in scraps with them. And while their weapons were inferior, at least she was able to take them.