Swirling gasses and ice became the world as even Anton’s exceptional sending ability was diminished by the world around him. Even so, discerning up from down was still simple, and he kept track of the most important part, the individual he carried with him. Nthanda’s bare arms and legs were battered by chunks of ice without even the token protection of natural energy, but she remained determined to ignore it.
Lower and lower they sank, into an ocean colder and denser than any upon Ceretos. Such intensity was difficult for Anton to comprehend outside the context of intense natural energy… but without life or heat there was only a dull background layer of sensation. The energy might be present, but it was merely entrapped by the planet around them rather than a true part of its might.
The pressure continued to grow exponentially, until the point that Nthanda found herself uncomfortable. Anton had an inner fire that kept him warm and his defenses sustained, but little more than that. After a short time they returned to the surface to converse.
“I don’t think I could get out of there alone,” Nthanda admitted. “It’s a strange, soupy mass.” She shook her head, “Yet, I feel like I didn’t go deep enough.”
“We can make more attempts,” Anton said. “I just wanted to be certain it was helpful.”
“I think… I would need to go deeper. That was too… reasonable.”
“I can withstand more,” Anton said. “But if we separate I doubt my ability to find you.”
“You could,” Nthanda said confidently. “I’m sure of it. But I’d rather not have to deal with that. Is this… helpful training for you?”
“It’s a new experience, at least. It’s likely not the best method for me personally, but it’s not a waste of time either.”
Nthanda nodded. “Good. Though… I really wish I was able to manage this independently.”
“Perhaps you can figure something out. I wouldn’t want to hinder you by being too helpful.”
“What a strange path I’ve chosen to walk down. I made everything more difficult… training, finding equipment…”
“On the path of cultivation, you can only follow your heart,” Anton said. “Besides, if you trained the normal path of energy, you would not find yourself this strong today.”
“I suppose not,” Nthanda admitted. “It’s still difficult.”
“I know you don’t want to say it directly,” Anton said. “But you need a new bow. I’ll keep an eye out for something.” The strange bone bow he gave her fit her well, but for a peak Life Transformation it was merely usable. Perhaps Everheart might have something. On the other hand, Rutera worked with combining material properties. If it were convenient to visit them, perhaps they could help. But there was a whole war going on still.
The return of Anzela and Rikuto from Weos was met with less fanfare and more somberness. They had returned with the same ship, and they were at least not directly a part of the Twin Soul Sect. Once they stepped out of their vessel they were just a collection of cultivators like any other, no threat to Assimilation cultivators or Everheart.
They didn’t say anything at first, clearly reluctant to do what they were planning next. Finally, Rikuto spoke. “We need your help.”
“With what?” Anton asked.
“Exterminating the Twin Soul Sect,” Anzela replied.
“That would be… quite a large undertaking,” Anton said. “Are they somehow a majority of your cultivators? We cannot risk anything if the rest of Weos will join with them.”
“It’s not…” Anzela exchanged a look with her husband. “The situation is not quite so dire. However, we have spent much time investigating the depth of the Twin Soul Sect’s infiltration, and they are widespread. Swiftly exterminating them would be impossible. We have taught your methods to some of those we are able to trust. To get anything done we would have to make a wide scale announcement, which could easily devolve into chaos. If we are unable to build up momentum for our side, we might be wiped out without anyone fully discerning the truth.”
“So what do you want? Bodyguards? Soldiers?” Anton asked.
“While a battalion of Life Transformation cultivators is an appealing thought,” Rikuto began, “That would ultimately cause more trouble. If you could be present around the initial dissemination of the sensing techniques, perhaps…”
“How long from when people start learning the techniques and when they actually believe you?” Anton asked. “Because if you take too long, the Twin Soul Sect might just manage to go into hiding. Your people are spread throughout the planets, are they not?”
“That’s correct,” Rikuto confirmed. “We’re planning to announce on all of them. Our connections will allow us to place temporary holds on travel, preventing anyone from fleeing the system without being obvious. Unfortunately, we don’t have any specific lists of misdeeds we can attribute to any of these individuals. It might be difficult to convince everyone.”
“We do happen to have plenty of copies of the technique itself, along with its associated promises of life beyond death for service. Those who have the greatest cultivation experience will be able to discern that both are genuine, I should hope.”
“That…” Anzela nodded, “That would be very helpful. And though we are somewhat hesitant, we would ask for some of your strongest individuals supporting us during the first steps.”
“I understand,” Anton said. “You believe us here, but you don’t fully trust us as cultivators. And perhaps you shouldn’t. I can only say, one area we will always agree upon is removing those parasites from existence.” ‘Scholar Eulogius’ nodded emphatically in agreement.
“You are not unwilling, then,” Rikuto smiled mirthlessly. “What would you require in exchange?”
Of course, they could not offer help freely. Even for eradicating the Twin Soul Sect, they would be taking upon risk for themselves and potentially looking weak if they asked for nothing. They would only lose out.
“I cannot speak for everyone,” Anton replied first, “But I can offer the aid of the Order of One Hundred Stars… in exchange for some of the power of your star.” That clearly made them uncomfortable, and it made Anton similarly uncomfortable to ask. But he wouldn’t be able to even participate without doing it, and going around snatching power from people’s stars wasn’t something he wanted to do without at least permission. Maybe if he determined it was harmless at some point- it was only a miniscule effect, but perhaps over longer time periods it would be dangerous. He couldn’t quite be sure, but he couldn’t learn without advancing his cultivation.
“We will… need to discuss specifics.”
“I want one of your ships,” Everheart said.
“That’s…” Rikuto frowned. “For just you?”
Anton’s eyes settled on Everheart. He definitely hated the Twin Soul Sect as much as anyone else on Ceretos, perhaps more than most. And having him along would mean not having to worry about him staying behind. “He’ll be worth it,” Anton said. Even recovering from injuries and restricted by the lower realms, Everheart was a force to be reckoned with.
Further arrangements would be made with the Exalted Archipelago for more traditional forms of payment. Because even though they had been in a pact with the Trigold Cluster for some time, the Exalted Quadrant was also frequent enemies. And with no specific arrangements with regards to the Weos system, they could obtain resources not easily available on Ceretos.
Other groups from Ceretos would pledge their aid for whatever fees they desired- payment and the promise of loot from the Twin Soul Sect. The offers varied in amount, and since the number of individuals going to Weos would be limited for various reasons Anton helped compare the prices to the strength of various groups. If they could bring whoever they wanted Anton would have suggested bringing everyone who would go, but not only did they not have that many ships… their arrival would be suddenly noticed and easily taken as an invasion by the uninformed.
At some point Anton and the others spoke of the possibility of the whole situation being a trap- even after Anzela dealt with her former crewmember- but ultimately they could find no deception in the group. If there was some deeper deception nobody knew it… and if it came down to it, they would likely have had to go to war with Weos anyway. Or perhaps Anton could determine if he was able to damage a star. That wasn’t something he was eager to test, especially since there had to be many innocents in Weos even if those in control wanted a war… but it was an idea that still passed through his head.
Normally, going on a trip for a month didn’t involve traveling that whole time, not with the options available to top tier cultivators in the lower realms. It wasn’t just teleportation, but rather Anton could fly himself to the other side of Ceretos if he wanted to. He still wasn’t as good as he would like to be with maneuvering for combat while flying, in or out of atmosphere, but he was focusing on it more seriously… and reading a plethora of techniques from the Soaring Air Sect as well as others. The more techniques he perused, the easier he felt it was to understand them at a glance. No wonder Everheart was so good at it.
In the case of this journey, one month of travel was actually optimal estimations for how long it would take them to reach Weos. It seemed that at least exploration ships like what Anzela came on were faster… but Ceretos was still on their first actual generation of even attempting interstellar travel.
It was an expensive endeavor that would use up a great amount of energy… especially if they didn’t want the trip to take ten or twenty years. Everheart had helped provide more options, but it still took time for proper ships to be built. They couldn’t just be thrown together haphazardly unless people wanted to risk getting stuck between systems. Few would survive that. Anton might, but he wasn’t looking forward to finding out.
What he was looking forward to was connecting to a new star. His cultivation had reached the point where it was once more possible, but he hadn’t wanted to rush into anything. His other potential option had been Azoth- so he hoped that before Ceretos was drawn into that conflict he could advance his cultivation once more. It took several years for each star now… but challenging himself might let him reach one hundred and three stars soon enough.
Connecting to the sun itself had been a serious investment, as it had also been Anton’s breakthrough to Assimilation. Now it was simply forming the stars within himself that was difficult, and making the connection was almost… easy. Though Anton had to admit he was only interacting with stars that were very close in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps some would be more difficult as they grew larger or more distant. And he was okay with that, because his home would always be Ceretos. Touring nearby was certainly something he wanted to do, though.
If only they were heading to Weos in better circumstances. Still, if all went well Weos would be a much safer neighbor… and their previous conflicts with Azoth might then bring them closer to Rutera. If all went well, each neighbor could be friendly with each other. Or at least neutral. Though that would require Rutera to push through their war, which was not going entirely smoothly. It wasn’t public knowledge, but being in contact with several individuals from there- including Nicodemo- let Anton obtain such information. Perhaps Rutera would be more open to aid if all went well with Weos.
First, Anton had to connect to their star. Visually, it wasn’t terribly different. Colors changed between stars, and the sizes weren’t quite the same… but when Anton actually went to connect to it he felt it was… heavier. Not quite in the same way as he expected a larger or denser star to be heavier but instead… well, he barely understood spatial techniques despite his recent years of study. But it was something like that, an unusual property of the star that caused it to influence space more than it ought to. Perhaps that was what inspired them to make ships that did something similar… in effect, if not in method.