The group took a somewhat more circuitous route back to the Library, even though they were fairly certain nobody was following them still. There was only so much any group would do for a specific level of reward- and while the equipment they had looted would certainly make them seem more valuable targets, the fact that they had defeated enemies of significant power would balance that out. Notoriety such as that could be either beneficial or detrimental depending on the circumstances.
“We’re here to turn in a bounty,” Hoyt said at the entrance, pulling out the technique manual for Essentia Lockbox.
“Ah yes, that one,” the Everheart present nodded. “It wasn’t supposed to be stolen. Where’s the perpetrator?”
“The bounty didn’t mention anything about needing them,” Hoyt said cautiously.
“Ah, whatever. It’s fine,” Everheart waved him off and grabbed the manual. “You’re going away where you’ll be safe now…”
“About that,” Hoyt said. “It seems it was rather easily stolen. Some individuals were quite interested in getting their hands on it…”
“Yes yes, I know all that,” Everheart nodded. “It will be more secure than previously. It should have already been placed with the forbidden manuals.”
“… but there are forbidden techniques literally everywhere in the Library,” Hoyt said. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to continue to engage Everheart in conversation, but he couldn’t help it.
“Forbidden depends on who you’re asking,” Everheart grinned. “You should know that by now, I imagine. This one fits my standards. It’s simply that with so many techniques, some get misplaced.”
Everheart didn’t feel like the sort to make mistakes… but, perhaps he was right. With a library of this magnitude, it only made sense that there would be some slip ups occasionally.
“Now then, how are you dividing the points?”
“Equally,” Hoyt said. “That should still be enough for us to go to the fourth level, correct?”
Everheart sighed, “Yes, I suppose it is.” After they walked past, he muttered to himself, “Not enough people taking everything for themselves these days. How sad.”
With the passage of time, more cultivators at the peak of Life Transformation had decisions to make. Anton wasn’t aware of many of them, though he did know there was a surprisingly steady flow of people attempting and presumably succeeding with Ascension. Within the Order there were two in particular that needed to finalize their choices- Devon and Velvet. Both came to Anton for advice.
Devon was the first. “I enjoy my life here on Ceretos, but I haven’t comprehended any method to advance further in cultivation. I believe I could succeed if I Ascended, but I’m not sure if I wish to.”
Anton nodded, “Then you must ask what is more important- your cultivation, or your home.” Their cultivation paths were different, and so far Anton’s advice had borne no fruit for Devon in terms of alternatives to Ascension.
“My home here…” Devon said, “But I also want it to be safe. Acquiring more strength so that I can hopefully return to fight in the next invasion…”
“Understandable,” Anton agreed. “But remember, I would think no less of you if you had chosen to forgo cultivation entirely. If you’re going to do it, do it for people you care about… excluding myself. While I can’t say that we will be perfectly fine without you, having you here still using natural energy and able to make use of anti-ascension techniques will still be a viable strategy. We can’t be sure if returning ascenders will function at full capacity here anyway.”
“That’s true,” Devon nodded. “I will have to think on this for a while.”
The conversation with Velvet went much the same way, with different specifics. “I want to be as useful as possible,” she declared.
“If only I could predict the future,” Anton said, “Then I would guide you to the best option. But as I am… I can only say that most with talent should take the opportunity to ascend. There are those in the upper realms who could use your help, and we could use any information you could acquire. Though of course seeking some of it would be quite dangerous and I would recommend a slow pace. We still have well over a century before an invasion is possible.”
“I’m also worried about here,” Velvet said. “The Exalted Archipelago likely still has many secrets.”
“Perhaps,” Anton agreed. “But their most problematic elements have been dealt with, and I believe we can deal with them if something comes down to it. And if the Trigold Cluster and Exalted Quadrant choose to work together, then perhaps we simply get wiped out. It is hard to know how much they might bring to bear.”
“I might be able to learn something here.” Velvet frowned, “On the other hand, straightforward cultivation progress has been more effective for me. And I am a known factor here. Infiltration would be difficult.”
“Indeed. Unfortunately, we can never make choices with all of the information. Going with your gut isn’t terribly good advice when one is not a cultivator as it seems more or less random, but as a cultivator it is slightly more likely to result in something positive. So using that method wouldn’t be the worst.”
Ultimately, neither had decided just yet, but Anton could tell what directions they were leaning in. He could push them towards making whatever decision he wanted, but in truth all were valid and whatever they chose without him pushing them beyond simple advice would be slightly better.
The tomes on the fourth level were full of powerful techniques, and Catarina found it valuable to study them when she got the chance… but her actual goal was something greater. At least, if things played out as she thought they might. The area reserved for the fourth level was somewhat smaller- though Catarina had the feeling it could easily be expanded.
The smaller size made it properly explorable, and she wandered the shelves for only a few weeks- making sure to browse anything that stood out to her as she moved- before she finally found what she was looking for. Something that matched the node in the great hall, connected to the strange formation plate they’d found on Ceretos. Something that was not integrated into Everheart’s formations but instead built on top of, covering it up.
Catarina knew her actions were being observed on some level, but studying the formations in the area was an excellent cover. Especially when she found herself engrossed in that task instead of looking for the specific node of whatever was buried.
Eventually, she found it… and unlike the one in the Great Hall it didn’t seem like she would need to destroy anything to gain access to it. At least, not to make a connection of some sort. It was both beneath the library and between shelves- either the node or the Library, likely both, were messing with the space around it such that it could fit in between. She took her time just to be cautious, but she finally made the connection. The formation plate seemed to grant her access, which meant there could be some problems if she lost it, but at that point she would likely be dead anyway.
And if not, she might be able to find some method to replicate it. Part of her studies went towards that, and part went towards understanding what this covered formation actually did. It wasn’t entirely clear, but what she did know was that it was powerful, and as conjectured connected to the points in the Great Hall and the Labyrinth- or at least it seemed like the final point was in the Labyrinth. Perhaps nearby, if she was lucky. But being in the most death trapped area seemed like the most likely option.
Even if she thought she could do something with just a connection to one node, Catarina would have waited. The one in the Great Hall would likely involve some destruction, which could land her in a whole lot of trouble. She had to be certain she was ready to go for that one, so studying this that she had better access to and then finding the third was the plan. So she would spend some time with this one… then go off world again for a while while that notoriety died down slightly.
Having not run into trouble with the Exalted Quadrant during the bounty hunt- during which the others from the Order of One Hundred Stars had run into some reincarnated elder- Vari was fairly confident that sparring with Kiran would be safe. They’d already turned in the bounty, after all, and the man from the Hardened Crown Sect was friendly and had previously helped her practice. His guidance had certainly helped her stay alive during the bounty incident.
Safe, of course, was a relative term. A dislocated arm or a few broken bones were only natural when facing a superior opponent, and Vari didn’t want him to hold back too much. There was something interesting about being a cultivator where the ground was often soft enough to give way before the cultivator. That was the norm in Life Transformation, even with standard stone. The training grounds was just dirt, so when she felt like she impacted a solid steel floor Vari knew something was different.
She just lay there for a few moments, trying to figure out what had happened. Kiran had already backed up- likely meaning it as a learning point. If he continued to brawl with her afterwards, she wouldn’t remember as well.
Certainly, impacting the ground at a faster velocity would make it give way in a different fashion, but there wasn’t much of a dent beneath her. That meant there had to be more to it. Thinking about how Kiran’s energy flowed, she recalled a slight hint of it going into the ground. That would do it, perhaps. Hardening the ground was certainly a valid option, though it involved splitting focus and would require some familiarity with the material. Or would it?
Certainly, if she wanted to work with the material that would be a requirement, but she could make a barrier there… or anywhere, really. Though forming one beyond someone could be rather difficult, and then there was the question of anchoring it. Still, it was a good idea. She stood up ready to try it… and was partially successful.
She was fairly certain that Kiran let her slam him into a barrier once, but he certainly didn’t bother to feign any actual injuries. The Hardened Crown Sect had tough bodies, and even if that wasn’t the case his cultivation was still higher. He could have absorbed the impact purely with his energy, unless he was careless about how he defended. Still, it seemed to be more of a matter of power and practice most of all.
Combat training was all well and good, but advancing to the next stage of cultivation would be the biggest leap for her. She had plenty of inspiration, but she had to do it right. She wouldn’t get a second chance, after all. Thus, she had to allocate time for training towards that goal as well.
On the way out of the sparring grounds she was stopped by an unfortunately familiar figure. “Hello there little sister.” The face that was in front of her was the woman who wielded only a shield.
Vari’s first instincts was to destroy her eardrums- her second instinct was much more rational and told her that she had just barely started to recover them. Besides, she had to face this eventually. “I am not your little sister. I’m no longer part of the Harmonious Citadel.”
“But you are. We have not allowed you to leave. I was quite disappointed in your results the other day. Tell me, do you have time for a little spar?”
Vari’s body responded for her. “Of course… not.” Last second willpower overcame the command. She’d been practicing that, though obviously without practical experience she couldn’t know for sure it would work. The result was adequate. “I won’t be drawn into something like that.”
“Something like what?” the woman raised an eyebrow.
“Some sort of match where you can ‘accidentally’ kill or maim me. And the rules here don’t allow battling without mutual consent.” Vari wondered if influencing her mind did not count as an attack. Or maybe Everheart wasn’t monitoring the area. Perhaps that was true, if pigs could fly and up was down.
“Nonsense, I was just planning to teach you a friendly lesson. But about those allies of yours… I will be needing your assistance to bring them down. You’ll do that for me, won’t you.”
“Yes, of course elder sister.” It wasn’t just the response that bothered Vari. It was that she knew it was true. This time, the force of the woman’s personality bearing down on her was irresistible. “But before that… I need to say something.”
“And what is that? I’m curious.”
“Your hair is stupid.”
Perhaps it wasn’t smart to provoke someone who had control over her in that way, but it made sense at the time. “Hold still,” the woman commanded. Vari had no option but to comply. A flash of movement and power, and the sharp edge of the shield was looking her in the eye. Vari could feel her own hair falling to the ground, not evenly severed but in chunks. The woman smirked.
Vari really hoped this was one of the times the rules meant something, but as seconds dragged on she began to get the feeling that it somehow didn’t count as an attack. Perhaps she should have pushed through and leaned forward just enough to get cut. And if not, she could at least figure out a way to circumvent orders and kill herself before she did anything to hurt her friends.