For the sake of making responsible choices, the group cored by the Hundred Stars tried to do research before taking up a bounty. Even following around someone was enough to get into a conflict, so ensuring the request was reasonable became an important matter. They didn’t always have much to go on, though. This particular one was just too good to pass up, with sufficient points to get the entire group to the fourth and final level of the Library, where they could finally begin their real goal. And the danger was minimal as well.
No, minimal was perhaps an overstatement. Nonexistent should be more correct. A single cultivator at the Essence Collection stage shouldn’t be a threat to any of them unless they simply forgot to put up any sort of defenses. Perhaps Vari and Spikes who were only a stage ahead or the equivalent could be injured, if they were likewise solo.
But the target might not be the problem. Even if people tried to hide it, word naturally spread of an inflated bounty on this fellow named Rouben. That meant competition. But only if others arrived almost simultaneously- it couldn’t take more than a minute on the outside to subdue someone like this. On the short end, it would be a mere instant- and that was many times more likely.
The information beyond his name and cultivation level were sufficient to decide it was worth pursuing. He’d stolen a technique called the Essentia Lockbox, the fancy name meaning nothing on its own… but finding it had origins with the Twin Soul Sect and had perhaps been lost to time gave them additional motivation. They couldn’t be sure if it was already too late to prevent the Twin Soul Sect from hearing about it, if Rouben wasn’t already working for them, but they couldn’t afford for it to be easily available. It had apparently been locked away in one of the more secure layers, so returning it there would at least limit access. Destroying it… might be preferable, though they couldn’t be sure if Everheart would find out and produce consequences for them.
Rouben had gone toward the Gardens. Alva’s brief cut through the area had given her some idea of what to expect, and with Fuzz navigating the area would be much easier. They just needed to pick up the right trail, which might involve a bit of guesswork. They had a physical image, but it didn’t include useful things like scent. Simply the fact that the man passed through the area around the Library was too vague, with hundreds of scents at minimum every day. Fuzz and Spikes sniffed around anyway, but there was no guarantee anything would come of it later. Perhaps they might recognize someone who had been at the library, though whether or not that would help was a different matter.
As they began their trek in the direction of the Garden, which was basically just an area of wilderness that covered a good segment of the planet they were on, Fuzz took note of some scents. These he had context for… and not just from recently.
“Twin Soul Sect…” Alva shook her head. Were they around because they were looking for this, or was it a coincidence? Either way, the chance that they were heading in the same direction purely by accident was ignorable. Which meant they had to pass them.
A group’s speed was limited by the slowest member, and that was usually related to cultivation level. Vari was simply not able to keep up the same level of exertion as everyone else. Spikes was at a similar cultivation strength, but was more trained for running. The ability to recover stamina quickly that helped out humans at lower levels of cultivation was overcome by the fact that a beast’s body would continue growing more powerful automatically. Body tempering excelled in consistent performance, but generally gave up slightly on the upper end of power since the user would have less energy to focus on key moments.
There was a simple solution to speed up the group. Vari just rode Fuzz with Alva. Spikes was familiar enough with them that Vari might have been able to ride her, but Fuzz was used to moving with a rider. One more made little difference to him. That technically made Spikes the slowest, but she was able to more or less keep pace with the Integration cultivators.
Knowing they shouldn’t be more than a day behind their quarry, they expected to catch up well before he reached the Gardens- but only if they chose the right path. It wasn’t as if there was only one path between two points on a planet. There were some annoying terrain features like rivers and what was either a salt lake or an ocean depending on who you asked. There were also mountains, of course, but the biggest factor is that Everheart didn’t tolerate people climbing over the structures he made. Even if they were laden with deathtraps, it was generally safer to go through than over.
For the moment, they followed what seemed to be the biggest pack from the Twin Soul Sect, assuming they would at least have a decent understanding of where they were going. Or maybe they were suicidal, because they chose to go through the Smithy.
“It’s not that bad,” Hoyt said.
“I don’t think you get to comment, fire cultivator,” Timothy said.
“You could still do it,” Hoyt grinned. “And Fuzz is fine as well.”
“Same answer,” Timothy grumbled.
The Smithy was located inside of a volcano. Not on top of, but inside. The main tunnels took a winding path right next to magma chambers in the mountain, with occasional bridges over pools of the same. And if that was all there was, then even the fact that was hotter than lava got in a lower realm wouldn’t have been a terrible setback. There were of course fire creatures looking for something to eat. And something else, in a way worse than all the rest.
The sound of a hammer striking an anvil was normally rather pleasant. Perhaps a bit loud and disruptive, but most people appreciated the industry it upheld at the very least. That was when other factors were normal, and the hammering didn’t send out shockwaves of sound that threatened to collapse tunnels while also bowling people over or trying to send them tumbling into molten rock. The fact that the rock was dense enough most people wouldn’t sink much hardly meant anything when it clung to everything like glue.
The volcano trembled. The sound was simultaneous with the shockwave pushing through the hallway they were in, though Timothy took a position in front to block it. The first time he’d made the mistake of attempting to completely negate the shockwave, and had been blasted backwards on a trajectory that would have collided with half of the others had they not dodged. This time, he kept his focus smaller, not just deflecting some of the sound wave with his shield but also scattering it by forming rough surfaces with his energy instead of a flat plane. The ground cracked beneath his feet as he was sent sliding back several paces, but his efforts reduced the amount of trouble the others had to put up with. The wolves were particularly grateful, since their ears were more sensitive.
“I’m sensing two paths ahead,” Alva said. Her senses could stretch further than the others. “The group we’re following forged straight ahead, while the other tunnel curves around to the left. There’s some sort of treasure in the other path.”
“Sounds like a trap,” Hoyt said.
“But is going for the treasure the trap,” Vari commented. “Or not being greedy that’s the trap?”
A question that needed to be asked, since with Everheart it could be either. It wasn’t entirely random. Treasure usually had more danger near it, but an overabundance of caution in that regard sometimes led people astray into somewhere even more dangerous, for no gain.
“We have to keep up with that group, right?” Catarina asked. “Do we have a choice?”
“We do,” Alva said. “We’re not far behind them now. If we follow directly after them, we’ll run into them. If the other path leads us out the far side- and there are many that do- we can pass them up and perhaps get a sign of their quarry.”
“And people don’t just seek equipment for no reason,” Hoyt pointed out. “If it makes us stronger, passing it up could be a waste. This is said to be one of the best places for weapons and armor in the entire Tomb, as one would expect from the Smithy. If you can survive the traps.”
There was no question there would be traps of some sort- in either direction, but most likely both. Before that, they’d have to pass through an open chamber and deal with the threats therein.
Over the next several months, Anton kept in communication with the group from Rutera. There was nothing of great worth said, but it was a reminder that at some point they would have a more intentional meeting. Before that happened, Anton wanted the support of as many people as possible. That included the Glorious Frostflame Mirror. Or whatever name they were trying right now. Which part of fire or ice went first in naming was a constant matter of contention, but as much as they internally fought about small things like that, the sect that was the combination of the Glorious Flame Palace and the Frostmirror sect was unified on the important matters.
That was good for Anton, because it meant more grandchildren in one place. And while some of the members of the sects still remembered their individual rivalries, the leadership was firmly united, with a minimal amount of quibbling even for a married couple.
Anish and Annelie had chosen to remain upon Ceretos instead of ascending, though they did not yet have a plan for Assimilation or another route of reaching a higher level of power. Perhaps they wouldn’t. The peak of Life Transformation was still a respectable strength in the world- Anton just wasn’t sure if it would be enough. He wasn’t going to push anyone too hard, however. Sometimes an outsider was a better judge of someone’s limits than the person themself, but most who had great achievements as cultivators reached a proper understanding of their own limits.
“We will support you in this endeavor,” Anish nodded. “If we could ally with another system, our position would be more secure.”
“It is only a matter of them having sufficient strength,” Annelie commented. Her face remained emotionless, but that was merely for times such as this- serious discussion. She would keep her calm during such situations no matter what happened, but starting with her generation the Frostmirror Sect did not fully cut off their emotions. When the time was appropriate, she could smile and laugh as much as anyone else. Perhaps slightly less, but that was due to her individual personality. “You said they didn’t understand the same form of cultivation we use?”
“That is true,” Anton nodded, “But I sensed they had sufficient power regardless. Even if they only have several ships of that sort- and I was led to believe there were more than a few- they should be as powerful as any of the great sects. I can’t say for certain since we did not fight, but the ship might have even been able to give me trouble.”
“From anyone else, that might not be a complement,” Anish shook his head, “But from you, it means much. I would expect you to be able to wipe out a handful of Life Transformation cultivators in an instant.”
“In general,” Anton agreed. “Their defenses seemed quite exceptional. Able to withstand the heat of the sun. I imagine even you would burn up with that intensity. Of course, resisting a consistent environmental hazard is easier than withstanding a concentrated attack. I might have riddled them with holes and left them to suffocate.”
“I doubt it,” Annelie shook her head. “That would be quite unlike you.”
“I meant in general,” Anton shrugged, “In terms of simple combat strategy, that would be efficient. And I would have been able to capture them as they passed out, so I could actually do that.”
“If they managed some sort of deception and return as enemies, I have no doubt you’ll be quite effective,” Annelie nodded. “Though in such a case I would have expected them to come for Ceretos regardless. Were they not curious about the planets here?”
“It’s just that they were focused on the sun first,” Anton explained. “It seems that particular group wasn’t meant to make contact with people, should they find any. Though now they might have to.”
“Yes,” Anish nodded. “I doubt they would want to risk an entirely new group when those you are familiar with would be more palatable. With your power, your opinion matters.”
“It is quite nice to be respected for that,” Anton nodded. “I almost wish it could be like the old days, where I was respected solely for my wisdom.”
“Grandpa,” Annelie commented. “You went hunting in the dead of winter at a hundred years old so that we would not be hungry. You’ve always been respected for the things you would do. You were a comforting power, even then. We just didn’t know about how much stronger the world of cultivation was.”
There wasn’t much to say to that. He supposed that in a world where those he cared about had food and shelter, pure strength was towards the top of the list to maintain that way of life. He was just glad he wasn’t going to be the only one, since he couldn’t be around forever.