All of the various stories and legends about Everheart painted him in a terrible light, as if he were the worst person to ever exist. While Anton wasn’t entirely prepared to rule that out, he understood that many of those stories were, if not exaggerated, at least skewed from the perspective of those involved. It was quite certain that he had caused great amounts of damage to many groups, but the thing was… maybe they kind of deserved it.
Not that Anton was going to support Everheart’s actions as a whole. The thing was, from what Anton had seen the man did have a few redeeming qualities, and even he deserved a chance to live. The largest moment of temptation to end him and his troubles had already passed, after he woke up.
Perhaps Anton would end up another one of those fooled by the man and would inevitably end up cursing his name, but he felt they had a connection, if only through legacy. And more importantly, he had something he wanted from Everheart. He was still a powerful cultivator, even injured, and for what Anton really wanted he would have time to recover.
“Before we move on to other topics,” Anton asked. “How did you get here? The tides of the world should not allow it.”
Everheart shook his head. “That’s because you have a limited perspective on the issue. You dealt with those invaders just recently, right? You think they all traveled through the void of space unaided? Of course not. They came on ships.”
“I didn’t sense any,” Anton said. “And we could feel them from far distant.”
“That’s because they couldn’t function in the system,” Everheart pointed out. “Or even properly throughout most of the lower realms. They run on upper energy, so they kind of shut down here. Same with cultivators.”
“You seem to be fine,” Anton pointed out.
Everheart shrugged, “I’m native to the lower realms. That changes things. I can supplement my energy with natural energy without having to learn it for the first time. It’s hard, for people spending a century or three functioning only on upper energy to adjust. Why do you think the Exalted Quadrant has people here? If they just cared about the resources they could harvest them every few centuries and be done with it.”
Anton frowned, “Are you saying that the cultivators here are being raised to function in invasions of other lower realm worlds?”
“Eh, maybe. More like being mobilized wherever they need them. And I’m of the opinion that proper ascension makes you a more well rounded cultivator.”
“My companions in the upper realms indicated something similar, though they had no way to confirm it.”
“You have contact with the upper realms? How?” Suddenly Everheart’s face twitched, “Oh those punks! I can’t believe that stupid projections let them poke around so much. Though I have to admit that formation girl… Catarina. She’s a smart one.” Everheart pursed his lips, “Which is exactly why I shouldn’t have taught her anything.”
“A little late for that,” Anton said. “Pretty sure you’ve taught half of the formation knowledge everyone on Ceretos has, if indirectly. Which I supposed makes many places much less secure suddenly.”
Everheart waved his hand, “Oh relax. You think I’m going to rob petty goods from this world?” He grinned, “Only if someone specifically pisses me off. I don’t need the crap you have here. Speaking of which… you seem pretty upset about that bow.”
Anton hadn’t said anything of the sort, but he had to admit it was hard not to look at the bow. “A friend helped me make it.”
“Yeah?” Everheart’s face softened slightly. “They dead?” Blunt, but slightly sympathetic.
“Then get over it!” Everheart pulled out a bow and tossed it to Anton. “Here, a good one. If we’re going to be working together you need to be effective.”
Anton held the bow in his hand. It was of a relatively simple design, though with tracery glowing a dull orange. Anton imagined they were practical enchantments, but it certainly counteracted the simple shape. The bow also felt warm in his hands… or rather, it was akin to the fires of a forge and Anton was simply highly tolerant to such things. “What is it?” he asked.
“That’s made from a worldheart, strung with soulstrands of a dying world.”
Anton tossed it back. “I would rather not wield a weapon that sounds so unethical.”
“Why not?” Everheart said. “I didn’t make it, and you didn’t make it. But someone did, and it would be a shame for someone to destroy a world and never see that used.”
“… were there people on that world?”
“Oh yeah,” Everheart said, “Loads. You don’t get soulstrands from breaking apart a big hunk of rock.”
“You seem to know a lot about this bow,” Anton challenged.
“I told you, I didn’t make it. I have some morals, you know. I decided it would be most appropriate that the guy who made it never got to use it. So I snatched it.” A slight smile drifted onto Everheart’s face. “Got a wife too.”
“Would destroying it free the souls?”
“There’s no consciousness in there, if that’s what you’re asking. Either that, or there’s nothing that can be done about it. It’s either a combined mush of soulstrands, or individual floating specks. Anything that can feed into the cycle of reincarnation has done so.”
“I’m not sure I accept your explanation. It could be cursed, meant to destroy me.”
“Good instincts,” Everheart said. “Trust no one.”
“I trust many people,” Anton said. “Just not you.”
“Really?” Everheart said. “Huh. I’m surprised.”
“Why? You’re pretty well known for being untrustworthy.”
“Oh, definitely,” he nodded. “I meant the other thing. You look like you should have become fed up with the world by now.”
“Sorry to tell you, but I have many loyal companions who I trust with anything.”
“Sure,” Everheart said, “Until you have a treasure they want, and they stab you in the back for it.”
“Why would they have to do that?” Anton said. “I could just give it to them.”
“… you’re crazy,” Everheart shook his head.
Anton did not trust Everheart, but he had to keep reminding himself of that because when he felt like it the man could be quite charming. Sure, it was rare… but Anton could see how many people would be fooled.
Telling people that Everheart had returned to Ceretos was going to be difficult. At least everyone who personally remembered him was already dead- or ascended. Hopefully any clans or sects with ancient grudges could be convinced to act rationally… if they had to be told. Because Anton certainly wasn’t going to spread the word far and wide.
If it reached the Exalted Archipelago, Anton didn’t see a good fate for the world. But without Everheart, he was dubious about surviving the next invasion. The Trigold Cluster could probably send thousands of Life Transformation or Ascension cultivators if they wanted to, and a lower realm successfully repelling them seemed like the perfect excuse to react that way. Them hearing of Everheart might also provoke that reaction, but even in that case having him around seemed like it would be a good thing. If he could trust him to stay and fight.
And if he didn’t, at least they could get him to help enlighten the population. The man was a genius in many fields, a master of techniques and styles and formations. Or whatever the proper title for him would be related to formations. Grandmaster. Grandgrandmaster. Super-ultra-grandmaster. Everheart would probably like that last one. The man had an ego.
… Anton was going to keep his name as secret as possible. He was also going to ask Everheart about allies in the upper realms, because he had to have some. He was famous for acting alone, but there was no way that was fully true. At the very least, he had to have some leverage over people to control them. Anton would be cautious about asking for anything like that, but if he had to to keep Ceretos around, he might stir up some trouble.
On the world that no longer had more than memories of Everheart, much was being learned. The Library no longer had the vast majority of Everheart’s collection- though it seemed some things had been left behind. It was uncertain if that was by intention or accident. Connected to the formation node deep within, however, was another library. The revealed section was relatively small in scope, and almost certainly unaccessed by Everheart. There were a few techniques and the like, but half of the volumes were history, especially related to the planet itself.
It had a name- maybe one that some people still remembered, but most would only know it as Everheart’s Tomb. Before that, it had been known as Xankeshan. Some portion called themselves the Xankeshan Guardians- it was unclear if that was just a subset of the world spanning sect, but they styled themselves to be a righteous sect. They had a long history… but it had ended with involving themselves in a war between the Trigold Cluster and the Exalted Quadrant. There was enough detail to presume this had something to do with the Bloodsoaked Nebula’s name, but with a minimum of five centuries having passed, the time the members of the Order had been in the upper realms wasn’t enough to delve into that part of history. And Vari didn’t believe in the veracity of anything the Harmonious Citadel had told her.
After the formations had been activated, the main dangers remaining were in the Gardens, though even there all of their group was attuned to be able to draw upon the power of the area. At the moment, their main interest was stabilizing the place and making sure it wasn’t going to suddenly stop working.
Catarina had started with repairing some of the attacking formations, and while there was still much work to go she was more confident in fighting off someone like Fajra if she returned- and potentially more. The rest of them were sent off to various locations to report the condition back to her.
With everyone forced off of the planet, there were ten thousand different rumors- and the Radiant Beauty Sect made no effort to contribute their somewhat more authoritative view on what happened. At least, from what information came through the Dark Ring.
Their group was still allied with the Dark Ring in various ways. Hoyt was at least an accessory member, and Matousek was more strongly tied to them. They wanted to keep that connection, but they weren’t willing to let anyone onto Xankeshan for the moment. If it was able to sustain its position, having a defensive location such as that was perhaps the foothold they needed in the upper realms. They would still need more people, of course. Even if every single cultivator from Ceretos that ascended joined them- which they didn’t necessarily want- they would only be a small faction. But with a safe place to go back to, even one that was in a well-known location, they had many more options. The Dark Ring had provided some safety, but they operated in the shadows. The Harmonious Citadel would be quite interested in taking them down if they could find them consistently.
That was assuming Xankeshan was secure… and didn’t draw more trouble than it was worth. Its deeper formations had been defunct since well before Everheart set up, and he must have noticed them, building directly atop the nodes. Yet even he hadn’t been able to control them without the formation plate… found on Ceretos. How and why it ended up there wasn’t known, and the records hadn’t provided any indication of that so far.
With all of that they had plenty to keep them occupied, but there were also complaints from Anton. Apparently, the whole incident had sent Everheart running back to Ceretos. Nobody was surprised he wasn’t dead, nor that he had been secretly recovering somewhere on the planet. But if things had gone slightly differently, perhaps Everheart would be in control and they would be dead. Yet if they had refused to make big moves, they could spend centuries to just make a small step in establishing themselves, and while they might have one century, more than that wouldn’t give them an opportunity to affect the next invasion of Ceretos.