Sitting next to a peaceful brook on what was likely the second most trapped planet in the universe, Luksa frowned. Over the past few decades she had to come to terms with the fact that the sect she’d devoted her entire life to was gone, and that at the end she had given up their plans with barely an afterthought to save herself. And now, her concern wasn’t for any of the disciples but for how her own cultivation had stagnated without devotion.
And the craziest part was that she’d joined Everheart. For multiple reasons. First was that he should have been dead. Second was that they were absolutely enemies. Third was that he was an asshole. And fourth was that he famously only worked alone.
Though the figure across the river ran counter to that as well. There was sort of a pattern to Everheart’s projections, key among which was not displaying his age. Meanwhile, Rahayu didn’t seem to care about wrinkles and gray hair one whit. Or literally anything but swinging his sword about. How did he think he was going to achieve Augmentation, without devotion?
Seeming to sense her gaze, the man turned towards her. To avoid the continuation of an awkward moment, she came up with something to say. “Have you learned much from Everheart?”
“No,” Rahayu said. “His sword skills are average at best.”
Somehow Luksa felt that Rahayu’s metrics were skewed there. Because she’d seen the man use every sort of weapon with great ability. And she still thought he was hiding power from her. “So you don’t think I could learn anything from him?”
“You might,” Rahayu shrugged. “You are not me. Our paths are different, so I could not say.”
“Maybe I should ask him.” Luksa frowned, “Though somehow I feel like he’s already overheard this conversation.”
“It took you long enough,” Everheart said when she finally found him. “I told you that you would grow strong under my lead.”
“I thought you meant equipment and cultivation pills and the like…” Luksa said. “I heard you were unfathomably rich.”
“It takes a lot to set up a system-wide grand formation,” Everheart said. “So I’m a bit light on funds right now. But I do plan to do a little bit of scavenging soon.”
“How can you become wealthy through scavenging?” Luksa frowned.
“It’s simple. You wouldn’t believe how much stuff the Trigold Cluster and the Exalted Quadrant just leave lying about.”
“… is this stuff in vaults?”
“I’d hardly called them vaults with how they’re secured. It’s like keeping a sack of coins under your pillow and hoping it isn’t found.”
“I’ll take your word for it. So…?” Luksa drew the word out.
“If I find a new morningstar, you’ll be the first to know,” Everheart said.
“About the learning something…?”
“Oh yes,” Everheart nodded. “It’s about time. You should be free from the shackles of devotion by now.”
“If you mean feeling like I’m standing upon the sandy bottom of a dry ocean instead of overflowing with power, then yes. I’m free.”
“Great, then you can properly begin cultivating malice. Or spite, or fear.”
“Are those all different…?” Luksa asked.
Everheart shrugged. “It’s the same general idea. Cause people to have the strongest possible feelings about you. Negatives ones are easier to manage. The Harmonious Citadel honestly wasn’t far from cultivating that, you just didn’t know how to properly absorb it.”
“I see. So what am I supposed to do?”
“It’s simple,” Everheart said. “Spend a few decades or however long it takes meditating on certain principles, then go make a public appearance. Or maybe you don’t have to spend that long, as long as you achieve a basic proficiency first. Otherwise it will all be wasted, and probably even fade away. I think you have an advantage here, though.”
“Why?” Luksa asked.
“It’s simple. Millions of people adored you, feeling like they had a personal connection with you. Meanwhile I’m just the boogeyman, far too impersonal for most to bother with. You can cultivate the spite of the masses with a snap of your fingers, based on the connection you have.”
“… As long as it works,” Luksa said.
“See, this is why I let you live. You’re practical. It’s much better than being self-righteous like the rest of your former compatriots.” Everheart got a far off look in his eyes. “And much less terrifying than those who are simply… righteous. It’s impossible to predict what they’ll do or why.”
Back on In’istra, Anton was listening to Varghese’s personal report. “Everything is growing so rapidly. For the moment everything is peaceful but… I have the feeling that the pressure will build up sooner or later.”
“Then perhaps you should work on developing the ability to spread out first. Modest space flight is not so difficult to achieve.”
“I’m hesitant to see that as the solution,” Varghese admitted. “I know we can never have perfect factions, but our unity will only go so far. To wait five more centuries for another event to bring us together… that’s a bit much. Though perhaps I exaggerated our growth as well. We might have another century before the planet’s truly full.”
“If you want to reorganize people, it’s better to start now rather than later. Rutera did quite well for themselves with a smaller proportion of military.”
“We need strong cultivators on our ships, if nothing else. We may have fended off the uprising of the sea beasts, but no doubt things like that will repeat in cycles.”
Anton nodded slowly. “Such is the way of the world. Cycles of life and death, and ultimately violence seems inescapable.”
“Or perhaps we convince ourselves that it is the only way,” Varghese commented.
“A philosophical position we must consider,” Anton admitted. “For the moment, the more power I get the less I am comfortable using in battle. At least, I must consider if it could have been avoided. Or if it could end… vaguely amicably.” Anton’s eyes flashed, “But as soon as anyone from the Trigold Cluster crosses the border, they’re dead.”
Varghese nodded. He had experienced their invasion, though he was too young to remember much but the aftermath. “How much power is required to have peace?”
“Perhaps all of it,” Anton said. “And I think that personally, I will not be able to bind some hundreds of billions of stars myself. So I will always require others.”
“That would certainly be… an impressive feat,” Varghese commented.
“Personally I’d be astounded to reach one hundred and ninety-seven.”
“… Three more primes?” Varghese asked.
“I think that might be the equivalent of Domination. Though I’d have to reach the next stage to be certain. Perhaps this upcoming stage will only be the halfway point.”
“If it is…” Varghese pondered, “Then you will likely become terribly strong. I haven’t met any other Assimilation cultivators but… you said you faced off against Augmentation cultivators.”
“They were weaker here,” Anton said. “But you’re right. I’m still close to a significant stage regardless of how it is categorized.”
“And we don’t even know if Domination cultivators exist,” Varghese pointed out.
“I would provide one correction there. We don’t know who or how many Domination cultivators there are. They certainly exist. Though I imagine their schedules are quite busy dealing with the great region’s affairs. Even if they could have better administrators in place.”
“You know, I appreciate your advice in that regard. It’s much easier to just have people I can trust in place managing things they’re good at.”
“Exactly,” Anton said. “And all you have to do is check up on them occasionally. For their own good, among other things.”
“I’m glad people seem to trust me. It’s much easier to resolve things when people come to us with hostage threats to begin with instead of trying to secretly comply with demands…” Varghese shook his head.
“It never works out well for anyone,” Anton agreed.
As soon as Chidi walked into the room, he was hit with the feeling that he wasn’t supposed to be there. Chills went down his spine, and through his body as the partial formation within him reacted. It wouldn’t do anything unless his mother had set up something to specifically entrap him, but it was still uncomfortable.
He had to wonder why the room was open to him. This seemed like the sort of place that should have been sealed off to everyone. But since he was here, he couldn’t help but slowly pick out the various formation markings. If he could see, he might be able to take it in on a larger scale. As it was, he had to go by the flow of energy, or the ways that it didn’t flow.
While the discomfort didn’t fade, Chidi ultimately got the feeling that this wasn’t so much one grand formation as a testing ground. A combination of esoteric methods leading towards some sort of goal, and that goal wasn’t too difficult to discern. Even if he didn’t know how any of it would help, Augmentation had clearly been on his parents minds more and more in the past decades.
Just like Integration was something close to the forefront of his own mind. Based on the common sense of the world he expected to advance before them, but the particular confidence of them and the other cultivators born in the lower realms kept him guessing. It was crazy to think of going from Integration to Augmentation in just two centuries, but he supposed it was just as reasonable as going from no cultivation at all to Integration in just one. It was just that the upper realms had a severe lack of Augmentation cultivators. Even outside of the Scarlet Midfields, the big groups prized every Augmentation individual.
Chidi held his fingers above a formation that seemed to have no purpose at all. He spent a good half hour studying it only to ultimately come to the conclusion that that was the whole point. It wasn’t a bewildering formation in terms of taking control of his mind in any way, but simply by its existence that looked like it should do something, but didn’t.
He could learn so much from this room, but he didn’t want to move about carelessly. His mother wasn’t a reckless woman, but just because she seemed to have allowed him into the room didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. Instead, it was a sign she thought he could handle the danger if it arose.
“Ah, there you are,” came a familiar voice from the doorway. “I suppose we were both looking for each other at the same time.”
Chidi nodded. Now that he was able to take care of himself, his mother had stopped following him around with her energy. Nor did she use the method of tracking his surroundings that had fooled him for so long. Though a cultivator on her level could expand her senses to a great distance, usually they didn’t fill every nook and cranny of the area around them. And there was a lot of space on Xankeshan to look for each other. The Garden wasn’t exactly close to the capital city or Catarina’s labs. And Engineer Uzun’s area was a good distance away as well.
“Your grandfather would have found you, you know,” Catarina said.
“So I’ve heard. He’s still in the lower realms, though, so I only have stories to go off of.”
“Maybe you can meet him,” Catarina said. “You know, with the next change in the Tides.”
“I… that’s a bit far away to make plans,” Chidi admitted. “I also thought that the plan was to have people in the upper realms disrupting the various operations.”
Catarina shrugged, “Hopefully by that point we’ll have some extra people. Enough to spare a few for personal tasks. But of course, you don’t have to go meet him if you don’t want to.”
“I don’t really know,” Chidi said honestly. “I’ve heard so many amazing things, I can’t help but think I’ll be disappointed somehow when he doesn’t live up to them.”
“You’d think that,” Catarina admitted. “But I haven’t run into that yet. Listen to this,” she held up a device she was going to read from. “Fusion of two brown dwarfs into a single red dwarf, and how that impacts stellar formation as a whole.”
“An interesting study title…” Chidi began.
“He cause that to happen,” Catarina said. “I haven’t even fused any planets yet, and he made a star!”
“… Were you planning to fuse planets?”
“I want to know what happens!” Catarina held up her arms. “Is that so wrong?”
“Maybe?” Chidi tilted his head. “So what kind of formation fuses things like that, anyway?”
“In theory? Have a bunch of working ideas I’ve been consulting with him on. In practice, he just… yanked them together. Over the course of a few weeks, mind you. But no formations involved.”
Chidi understood how difficult that would be. He didn’t think he could ever do that. But he wondered if he could split one star into two someday…? He’d have to have some reason for it, though. Though Grandmaster Chikere would probably say that the idea was reason enough on its own. Which was exactly why he shouldn’t mention it to her.