An exhaustive search revealed that their destination was impossible to reach- by traditional means at least. Distorted space led to unpredictable methods of reaching an area, in the Labyrinth. They were able to loop around a section and sense nothing conforming to an entrance anywhere within the area. Perhaps there was some secret method to get in… but at that point it could be anywhere within the Labyrinth. It could take years of searching if they were lucky and the entrance didn’t change locations. And if it existed at all.
The primitive option was to just climb up the walls into the area, but it was well known that attempting to circumvent the Labyrinth in such a way resulted in intense retaliation. A wider area of power focused on such individuals, either forcing them back down if they were lucky or annihilating them if they were not. It was important to remember that the area was within Everheart’s control, and he simply chose not to directly kill everyone.
“What do we do?” Hoyt asked. Unfortunately, having an in-depth discussion was risky. They couldn’t be certain if they were being watched.
For matters such as this, they turned to Catarina. They were among a mess of formations looking for a specific one, and she would best be able to guide them on what was dangerous. She considered her words for a while, before eventually nodding. “I need you all to defend me for a while,” she said.
“How long?” Timothy asked.
“Between one day and a month,” Catarina replied.
That was a large difference, but it obviously was caused by significant uncertainty. The fact that the lower end was a day meant the project was quite complex. There was also the unusual circumstance that Catarina didn’t directly start carving into things or throwing flags around. The Tomb allowed some such modifications, though nothing permanent. It was uncertain if she didn’t want to begin too early, or actually didn’t know how to start. She moved around slowly, taking mental notes and nothing else.
Fuzz was a scout. That was because he was fast and had a good nose. Alva was also a scout, but she was with the others. Fuzz wasn’t supposed to engage if he found anything, though he made his own judgments. For example, there were more of those stupid energy-eating worms around. Stray individuals that he chose to eat first. They were tasteless and painful to eat, but if he formed fire inside of himself he could mitigate the latter somewhat. He didn’t have all that much experience defending inside his own body, which made him wonder why not. It seemed perfectly logical. Lots of important things were there. Though, usually they had to get through the outside. Problem solved.
Others who passed through the labyrinth where Fuzz moved included unknown cultivators. Some of their cultivations were spicy, some sweet, and some sour. Then there were the rotten ones, like the Harmonious Citadel. They were like a perfectly normal looking carcass on the outside filled with rot grubs that didn’t even taste good. Well, the bad ones anyway. Vari was nice, and there were others like her who simply had bad thoughts put in their head. Fuzz was guessing on some of that, of course, because he couldn’t actually smell thoughts.
More of the scents were familiar- the most benign being those they had previously passed in the Labyrinth. Not everyone wanted to attack other cultivators all the time, though Fuzz presumed that some of it was because they didn’t want to die. And that was what happened to anyone who attacked his pack. They were very strong, after all. Not the strongest- not yet- but they would be.
Some cultivators of the Exalted whatever had been through the area within the last few days. Some of the decent kind, and some of the worse kind. Soaring Air and Void Blades were not friends of the pack. Guessing their intent from scent alone was difficult, but they either hadn’t picked up on signs of the pack or weren’t looking for it.
Then there was one scent that was not only familiar through similarity, but someone he’d actually smelled before, with his own nose. He went back and forth over the trail a dozen times, but it was difficult to not arrive at the same conclusion. There weren’t many people who were that strong. Fuzz hadn’t met more than one, though he thought maybe he’d scented some in passing on the Tomb.
This cultivator was in the… that other stage. The next one. The one after those in the pack. Which was big and bad, because this was the lady that had been attacking their home. Fa… something. Fatty? Fajra? One of those was a name, and one was an important part of a good flavor profile. Maybe Fajra. Of the… Shiny Attractive Group. Or something. Personally Fuzz didn’t see the appeal, though she had definitely been shiny, far away in the city.
A few more sniffs. Scent confirmed. Other members of her sect and… more factions of the invaders. Fresh. He had to get closer, but not too close. They might think he was some beast they were allowed to kill… or possibly recognize him, though he didn’t think he’d stood out that much in the war. He could try to report back, but they were close enough that they might become a problem if he didn’t head it off. And they were kind of in the way of his direct route.
Fuzz knew that cultivators did weird things by extending their senses outside of them, trying to replicate things like vision and touch. This place made that sort of thing bad, but scent and hearing were still good. He trotted after the trail, ears twitching. He could almost hear voices.
“… really think we’ll find anything now? He died a century and a half ago. And this place has been around longer than that.”
“The first time we killed him he showed up again a decade later,” a voice that seemed like it was trying too hard to be enchanting replied. “His effects on the previous harvesting effort were far too broad. It is better we make sure that he cannot have any further interference for the next cycle. There are too few lower worlds of sufficient quality to lose access to one.”
“I just don’t see why we’re here now.”
“Because our allies lost some promising disciples in this Tomb, to a group from the lower realms. It’s far too coincidental. They must be working with…”
“He’s dead though, isn’t he? It’s been so long even Everheart-”
The sound was overly loud even from where Fuzz was, far back from the group. Some sort of impact, followed by another and the sound of cracking stones, echoing back and forth. Neither the floor nor the walls were easily breakable, which made it quite surprising. “Just because we are here does not give you leave to speak his name.”
There was a groaning sound- it seemed the figure was still able to get up. “Just because he called you… because he insulted you one time? He taunted literally everyone, taking something so… obviously untrue so seriously won’t be good for your complexion.” The entire Labyrinth trembled briefly, and Fuzz was primed to run- but that very act might draw the attention of this angry lady. Fortunately, the feeling subsided in a few moments. “I’ll refrain from even tangenting on the topic, then. Where to next?”
“I assumed this infernal place might be where he hid something of import, but our recent wanderings had me believe that perhaps that is incorrect. We’ll do another sweep of the area before moving onto something more… prominent and ostentatious.”
With that, they were far enough for Fuzz to slip towards the pack. It seemed this dangerous lady was going to be in the area for a while, and it was best to be aware of that.
“We appreciate the concern for the situation,” General Nicodemo said, “But for the moment we need to handle this situation ourselves.” Nicodemo was rarely formal with Anton nowadays- certainly not in the same way- but this was not a personal interaction between them. “Your contributions during the initial battle- and those of the others- were quite useful. But for the stability of Rutera we need to achieve a proper victory ourselves. I’m sure you understand.”
Anton nodded. “Morale is certainly important. And there are the aforementioned logistical issues with more of us. Though hopefully your technological delegations will help with that. Moving among the stars on our own power would be an excellent step in our advancement.” Anton imagined some very interesting materials could be found on the other planets in the system… though of course it would be missing the more interesting possibilities that required life. Unless there was something buried underground or in the gas giants. “Still, we would appreciate being kept abreast of the information regarding Azoth, in case they turn their sights on us. We’re not much further, after all.”
Nicodemo nodded, “We have military scouts in the area now. The first vessel was merely scientists interested in exploration, as we hadn’t expected to run into anyone so… aggressive.”
“They do seem quite confident,” Anton said. “Surprisingly so. Usually cultivators are more cautious with unknown entities.”
“It is likely they had scouted us some time previously,” Nicodemo said. “Our ship might have been seen as a provocation of some sort, or it could have been coincidental timing.”
Anton’s eyes vaguely flicked towards Azoth. It seemed that he couldn’t form another connection until he reached the hundred-and-second star, but that would only take a handful of years, maybe a decade. It was unclear whether that would be short or far too long. Cultivators could move like molasses in the winter and then suddenly take on great bursts of speed. Then again, if they sought trouble with Ceretos or Rutera asked for them to join the fight- and retaliatory attacks were required- it would likely be a longer process. If it came to that, Anton wouldn’t be as gentle with their star. He didn’t think he could actually cause any damage, but he wasn’t going to give it any concern.
Maybe this would be a good thing. Ceretos had almost been at peace for too long. The unity against the invaders and then the parts of the Exalted Archipelago would be a strong memory for most, but in another few decades those feelings could fade. It was better to have an outlet for aggression, until they could solidify a longer-lasting unity.
Perhaps those from Azoth felt the same, but they seemed to be a fairly clear aggressor. Or everyone on Rutera was much better at hiding things than he thought. But given what he’d sensed, he was fairly certain they simply couldn’t evade his insight. Plenty of the politician he’d interacted with had told lies or made insincere statements. None of them negated the overall potential for a beneficial relationship between the two systems, but there were some individuals he wouldn’t trust with anything important.
The warning from Fuzz put everyone on edge, except for Catarina who was so focused on what she was doing it was unclear if she even got the message. An Augmentation cultivator. Fajra, of the Radiant Beauty Sect. Except for Vari- and Prospero- they had all seen her previously. In fact, Prospero was being caught up on quite a few details from Ceretos that he had missed. He wasn’t even around for the actual invasion, having gone out in a blaze of glory when they drew in a large army from the Twin Soul Sect. He wasn’t even familiar with Aicenith.
But some of those discussions had already taken place, and others would wait. They would almost certainly feel an Assimilation cultivator approaching- especially one of Fajra’s sort- but they couldn’t really shift their location. Catarina was only roaming within a small area, focused on her plan- if they had to break away and leave, it would disrupt her work, since the Labyrinth could undergo significant changes while they were not around. And fighting an Assimilation cultivator… was not something they wanted to attempt. In the confines of the lower realms Fajra had been someone they could combat to some degree with an army at their backs, but even with five people in Integration there was still a huge gap. More than the gulf between Life Transformation and Integration, they imagined. Obviously they hadn’t felt the difference themselves yet, since Augmentation cultivators were rare even in the upper realms, and they hadn’t gotten into trouble that deep. Yet. Then again, they were still new.