Most of those at the gates had died at Chikere’s hands, which made Rakiya’s job easier. A few strays had to be cleaned up to keep the narrative safe, of course. Losing Life Transformation cultivators was unfortunate, but they were ultimately replaceable. Except, not at the current moment.
The saints weren’t exactly sending an abundance of disciples to Yaitis. They shouldn’t have to. It wasn’t so important that anyone should defend it so vigorously, but Rakiya had found the process of conquering more difficult than expected. It should have been done years before, but after the initial wave of victories the remaining land was held onto tightly by the foolish others.
She had driven away Chikere. That much of the story was basically true, though it concerned her how that bandit had somehow strengthened after their confrontation. She ended up with Grandmaster Smith Sadiq’s tournament prize and his services for their group. The two had been equally matched, but now… Chikere had a strange arm. Perhaps that was it. Rakiya had found no method to properly replace her arm. That had to be it.
Rakiya furrowed her brow, which brought to mind a sharp pain. She looked in the mirror and saw the nick in her eyebrow. A thin slice, but it refused to properly heal. It was trivial. Nothing more than an annoyance. Except for how she had gotten it. But if pressed, she would say it was Chikere coming out on top of her. That was better than the alternative.
When Varghese had dismissed the disciples, Anton revealed himself. “Sect head Anton!” the young man bowed his head. “It is good to see you again.”
“And you as well,” Anton said.
“You feel… different.”
“Weaker, you mean?”
“No, I…” Varghese frowned. “Just different.”
“Strange, since I have regressed one star,” Anton said.
“Is that possible?” Varghese asked.
“I am quite content that the consequences were merely this,” Anton shook his head. “But I don’t intend to discuss the details right now.”
“Very well,” Varghese nodded. “We have made great strides in the last year. But…”
“Is Essence Collection not sufficient for you, now?”
“I have barely dipped my toes into it,” he said. “And the Twin Soul Sect still has many powerful members, and influence among other sects.”
Anton nodded, “It will likely take some time. Tell me, do you want me to remove them myself?”
“Something about the way you said that… makes me believe you think it a poor idea. But every moment they remain, they continue to cause harm.”
Anton sighed. It was not an unreasonable position to take. And he really didn’t like arguing on the side of innocent deaths. “Let us say they all died suddenly. What about the sects they influence?”
“Well, one would hope that they… reformed their ways. Or perished along with them,” Varghese said.
“So they are completely annihilated,” Anton continued. “What, then, happens to In’istra?”
“Our sects have time to heal and grow,” Varghese said. “Taking advantage of the One Hundred Stars techniques, we might pull ahead and establish ourselves.”
“Assuming you succeeded, then what? Would you be content to be the top of myriad squabbling sects? Would that be the best for everyone?”
“Well…” Varghese shrugged. “If we are the strongest and continue to follow the tenets you have set forth, surely it would be better than things are now.”
“I agree,” Anton said. “But that does not mean it would be the best scenario. Preferably, the whole of In’istra joins together to eradicate them. No half measures. And then, from that adversity comes growth.”
“And the following generations? Will we grow soft and weak, without conflict?”
Anton shook his head, “You’re not too far wrong, but you are much oversimplified. Holding onto a worldwide peace is a large project, but not impossible. Do not think that conflict will disappear should one problem be resolved miraculously. The beasts of your world still have great power. How many generations would it be before you are truly in control of your world once more? Beyond that point… well, I would suggest that you not seek out conflict. It will find you easily enough. Attempting to do right will be enough struggle, and while I cannot guarantee you will not fail… I believe you have the ability.”
“I suppose I understand,” Varghese said, hanging his head.
“Don’t despair,” Anton placed a hand on his shoulder. “I did not say I would do nothing. I intend to remain for some time, helping you and others grow. But I have no ability to force an entire planet to work together if its people don’t wish to. Finding the right seeds to grow takes more time.”
“Am I one of the right seeds?”
“Of course. You’re turning into a proper sapling.”
“Is that all?” Varghese asked.
“You should see the trees I’m thinking of,” Anton grinned. “The saplings are not lacking.”
Reading information that you were planning to steal was precisely the sort of thing that got people caught, standing around in some vault instead of already being out a door. So Velvet only had a vague idea of what she was carrying, having scanned it. Something about when the eighth arm of the Harmonious Citadel was born, the saint of light specifically.
Any true parts of their history could be used against them, given how much they refused to admit their mortality. Destroying their web of propaganda would cause further dissent on their own worlds, tipping the war against them. And of course, the individuals no longer oppressed like them would benefit as well.
There was so much she could do as long as she got out before the saint of light returned, or any of his prominent disciples. The formations guarding the tower were quite complex, using similar principles to some technology Engineer Uzun had introduced her to. She hadn’t been exposed to Ruteran technology before her ascension, so she’d only heard about it in vague terms.
Both that experience and training Chidi in stealth had been valuable for her current situation. The tower used light to sense intruders, but instead of visible beams they were invisible. For Chidi, there would have been no difference. Velvet had trained more senses than just her sight for a long time, but she’d focused on other areas for several years when she was reminded how much she and others relied on sight.
Her normal methods would not have helped her to pass through fields of invisible light. She had several methods to be ‘invisible’, some of which involved hiding herself more metaphysically to energy detection, and some that were more visible. But even if she were to wrap the light around herself to create a perfect image of nothing, without some sort of forewarning she would have broken the beams. Unless she had been lucky enough to accidentally include the invisible beams in her control of light.
The One Hundred Stars was an excellent cultivation method for dealing with light. For most, a star was the most prominent source of light. That was true even of cultivators, and artificial sources were made to match particular suns. That was enough for Velvet to feel these particular traps that might have triggered even if she had been able to fool normal formations.
Fortunately, once she was out of the more secure vaults human traffic was heavier- and thus formation measures were lighter. They couldn’t have security that reacted to everyone passing by, and what they could have wasn’t enough. Velvet had a stolen token and sufficient ability to fool anything that tried to feel for her cultivation method. So now she only had to walk out of the building past unsuspecting disciples.
Then she would find somewhere safe… and read through her spoils.
At first, Velvet wondered why the information was secret. It seemed that unlike the others, the saint of light was indeed the first saint in his position. As far as she could tell, the individual known as Hans Sigismund had always been the saint of light. Or at least the person who would obtain that position.
But there were odd discrepancies. Nothing terribly obvious. Some of the records mentioned him discovering a new branch of the Glorious Harmony Technique. A great genius. And indeed, Velvet had no reason to doubt that. But it was odd that no other practitioners had taken that path… and it seemed so divergent from others.
Especially considering how strict they were. For instance, Vari used no weapons so she was deemed unfit, despite her obvious ability. Surely she had the merit to say she’d developed an unarmed branch of the technique. Except, of course, she’d been predetermined to not matter. Perhaps it was the split between the Holy and Glorious techniques, the subservient and dominant versions.
But a weaponless version fit more closely with the weapon forms than light. It was a true oddity. Yet it had been accepted. Then again, the man was quite exceptional. So maybe the practicality had overwhelmed their stubbornness. A whole new branch, and a powerful individual that became their leader. Simply pretending things had always been that way from that point on was a difficult task, but over however many centuries it had been accepted. Either disciples were so deep into the system to accept it as necessary, or they would have died of age several times over. She just wished she could figure out exactly how long it had been.
Perhaps now was a good time to leave. Others might do better at interpreting this information, find something she missed. Or maybe that was all there was to it. It would still be an embarrassing secret to admit, another crack in their facade.
Sometimes, Chidi would pick up two swords. Or if he was feeling particularly ambitious, he would gather a large number of them and have them dance around him. But regardless of which choice he made, he never felt that he would be any more effective than simply wielding one blade.
His training with the swordmaster had instilled in him a desire for fine blades- but unlike her, he was uninterested in having a collection. Or a set. A second sword for him was like her two hundredth sword. A backup, able to be given away freely and without regret.
The problem wasn’t keeping track of the blades or moving them. Those were both well within his capabilities. His awareness allowed him to multitask freely. Yet every time, something felt off. Chikere seemed to understand this, and never pressed him to use more weapons. She’d never indicated he was lacking anything, either. Nor was she the type to keep techniques secret.
No, it just didn’t fit him. He didn’t quite understand it, but it just felt off. Too many weapons broke the flow. The flow of what, he wasn’t entirely certain. His use of energy didn’t actually fall apart. With practice, he could be nearly as competent as he was now with either style. But that was the problem. Both the nearly part, and the as he was now part.
Because he felt like he should be more. Which was ambitious and possibly arrogant, considering he’d survived a strike or two from an Integration cultivator. But he wasn’t just overestimating himself or trying to push too far. He really felt like there was something more that would help him significantly improve, if he could just figure it out. The flow, as it were.
Without Chikere around to question, he could only speak to his more regular friends and allies. He thought he might have to ask Major Sibylla for advice, even though she didn’t use the sword. However, his first efforts were met with something like success.
“The flow?” Aconite asked. “Like, the flow of energy?”
“Yes,” Chidi nodded. “There’s something there.”
“You’re the one who talks about it all the time,” Aconite barked in response.
“I literally just brought it up for the first time,” Chidi said.
“Not true. You always talk about it.”
“When?” Chidi asked. Did he have amnesia, somehow? How would he know?
“Any time you’re fiddling around with things,” Aconite replied. “You say ‘ah yes, the flow here and here will make this happen. And then? Barrier. Or whatever you’re doing with formations.”
Well, that was true. Though it had been some time since he actually got to mess around with formations. Aside from dismantling the specimens creating the communications blocking barriers, he hadn’t interacted with any in years. He didn’t exactly have access to the plentiful resources he had back at home. But maybe he should look into that, to see if it sparked something.