As it turned out, even cultivators didn’t go to war zones for no reason. Velvet knew that, and also that cultivators could always come up with a reason, but while wealth, fame, and power were all valid reasons for some, the actual excuse she needed was a connection. As a lone individual, she would stand out in a place with relatively fewer individuals. It also happened to be where security would be the highest, as they were watching for enemy spies. And she just so happened to be one of those, despite having no connection to the ‘western barbarians’.
It took several years for her to properly build up an identity that would be sufficient, especially since she also wanted to avoid the Limitless Edge without seeming like she was doing so. As it turned out, fanatic sword cultivators were quite fond of war zones. There wasn’t a lack of opportunities for violence within the Exalted Quadrant, but the violence was certainly restrained throughout most of the region.
Velvet took time to review her reasons for going to the border before she actually committed. She wanted more information, and detailed information wasn’t available where she was. Not without spending too long interacting with a single sect, building up reputation with them. She could easily reveal too much about herself over a long time, and a single mistake could ruin everything. As an Integration cultivator, while she wasn’t exactly a rarity, their total numbers were probably in the thousands. Perhaps tens of thousands, given the at many hundreds of highly populated systems in the Exalted Quadrant- though that information wasn’t easily available. The important part was that someone who actually had access to all of that could memorize every single individual. And even if being unknown wasn’t an instant red flag, it would be another way to slip up if she interacted with the wrong people.
Perhaps she was being paranoid. The Exalted Quadrant overall acted as one entity, but it had many factions within who were likely unwilling to share all of their information. But that was another reason they would want to learn all they could about others of note.
Could she learn about the ‘western barbarians’ on the battlefield? Surely there would be some information available. But she might learn more among them. Of course, trying to infiltrate their side came with another layer of dangers, and would bring her even further from the Scarlet Alliance. Though they were already too far away to help her.
Gaining a position as a scout without revealing the whole of her abilities had been difficult but at least it would give her a good reason to sneak about… and nobody would necessarily think that she might be spying on both sides during her excursions. Because ultimately, while these western barbarians were important, it was only for how they might cause trouble for the Exalted Quadrant. Velvet hoped they were a big source of trouble, because the Scarlet Alliance needed that as much as possible.
Devon wasn’t certain whether he should be excited or disappointed that it only took a few years for others to begin confirming his discoveries concerning Vrelt. Specifically it was through the use of technology, essentially giant telescopes pointed at the planet from the edge of their system. Except instead of looking for visual information along any spectrum, they were only interested in natural energy and specifically the auras of cultivators.
Apparently, the devices could detect connections to the upper realms. Specifically, how certain cultivation methods tied to the formations that would draw in ascending cultivators. Each sect had their own specifics and the process was inexact, but it seemed to track to a connection within a few hundred lightyears. Which was sufficient enough to confirm that everything pointed to the Trigold Cluster.
Devon was happy to have spurred such developments forward- they might have already been in the works, but to confirm his words they had been pushed to the forefront of the production chain. As for whether that meant people believed him or didn’t, Devon was uncertain. At least it meant they took his word seriously. And while they seemed to make it seem easy, he was a cultivator developing a technique on his own and they were a team of many people working together.
Ultimately, it wasn’t as if they were trying to replace him. And honestly, if they did… Devon might find that acceptable. As long as their various methods of oversight in place kept people working towards the same purposes, he didn’t terribly mind if he became insignificant. It might even open up some opportunities.
But for now, plans were being made to deal with them. They couldn’t leave a festering wound near their territory. The only issue was trying something that would result in the least unnecessary casualties. Some people were for an all-out assault, gathering as many people from their alliance as possible and crushing their cultivators- but most likely that would end up with conflict with the locals not part of the Trigold Cluster sects. And since they had Assimilation equivalent cultivators, that meant risk for the alliance forces and a significant loss for the local development any time one of those died. At a certain point, they might as well just destroy the planet and be done with it.
But of course, that option was never actually entertained. There were wise voices from Ceretos, Weos, Rutera, and even Ekict and the current Sylanis Cluster. Other relatively smaller members of the alliance such as Udre and Gnadus also had good leadership. The Lower Realms alliance was based on cooperation and growth. While there were many stumbling blocks along their way, they tried their best to maintain peace with those they could. Which meant not the Trigold Cluster, since they had made their tactics quite clear. And the Exalted Quadrant was relatively disfavored as well.
The point was, many of the people had dealt with the infiltration of the Trigold Cluster, and thus wanted to give Vrelt’s natives their own chance. Vrelt had so far refused diplomacy, and the infiltration of the Trigold Cluster was deep so they couldn’t just point out a minority of bad eggs and tell Vrelt to deal with themselves.
So the decision had been made that there would be diplomacy, even if they had to be a bit heavy handed about it. Devon’s interest in the system and his mobility made him a good candidate… though not for a diplomat. Instead, he would be a guard for whoever it was being sent over. Preferably someone who could honestly say they hadn’t been spying on the planet themselves.
There were any number of ways things could go wrong, of course. There was a risk to Devon and any other members of the diplomatic group, since powerful influences on Vrelt didn’t want them around. But they were going to make it clear they had more power to back things up. That would hopefully at least keep Devon from getting killed, because he personally didn’t think sacrificing his own life as an excuse to attack the planet would be worth it.
But now the plan was under way, the envoy scheduled to arrive in only a few months along with a show of force. In the meantime, Devon continued to try to find useful information. His first goal was to apprise himself of the strongest cultivators, but he knew that those weren’t always the most influential. Sometimes there were some with ambition who hid behind others, or simply lacked sufficient talent to stand on top. They could be more dangerous than others, in the right circumstances. Hopefully, whoever was sent would be able to deal with such things. Devon would prefer to stick to just keeping someone alive, as that was easier than wading through the mire of politics.
“I still can’t believe you dragged me to the Everheart system,” Vari complained to Chikere.
Chikere shrugged, “Didn’t you advance to Augmentation? I don’t think you should be upset about that.”
“Did you know I was going to?” Vari asked.
Chikere tilted her head. “I don’t think so?”
“You should know if you know things!”
“Hmmn. I knew you were the right person to bring. Besides, you could have stopped me.”
“I could have let you go alone,” Vari countered. “Which would probably lead to you dying. And while I don’t have as much history with you as Catarina and the rest, I still want you to live. And I couldn’t just explain letting you run off to them.”
One of the very people in question approached them on their return to Xankeshan. Catarina looked at Chikere and frowned. “It seems we will have to reconsider certain aspects of our grand formation, if you were able to cut your way out so easily. It’s not tuned to specifically block you, but still. It should have sufficed. And I would have liked some warning you were going.”
“It’s her fault,” Vari said. “She dragged us along without giving me time to prepare.”
“Obviously,” Catarina agreed.
“You had a few minutes,” Chikere countered.
“I couldn’t exactly do much with you dragging me around,” Vari reminded her. “But whatever. We made it back.”
“And not without some benefits, it seems,” Catarina said. “Both of you reached Augmentation? This might be the biggest single day in the history of the Scarlet Alliance.”
“Yeah but Chikere didn’t even let us stick around to complete all of our business with my un- with that guy.”
Chikere’s eyes widened. “I forgot to see all of his techniques! We need to go back right now!”
“Absolutely not,” Vari said. “I can’t stand to see that guy more than once a decade. Also I’d prefer to meet him outside somewhere as a matter of proper caution.”
“I suppose in a decade or two Rahayu will have gained more value as a sparring partner,” Chikere agreed.
There was a long silence. Then Catarina spoke up, “It’s good to see you back to your old self.”
“I don’t think I will ever be that specific person again,” Chikere confessed. “But I am closer than I was before.” Chikere nodded and smiled to herself, “Oh, I need to go kill the Limitless Edge,” Chikere said as if she’d forgotten something on her shopping list.
“Absolutely not. We need you here around the Scarlet Alliance not potentially causing a war before we can handle it.”
“Last time I came back with allies.”
“And the beginning of a war,” Catarina reminded her. “I’m expecting further action every day. We did kill an Augmentation cultivator, after all. They don’t have an unlimited supply of those.”
“I suppose I still have not reached the halfway point of testing the infinite variety of possible sword slashes,” Chikere said. “And while testing them in combat is more valuable, some time in contemplation would not be misplaced.”
“… Good,” Catarina said. Then she turned to Vari. “Next time, please do beat her into submission to keep her here. Or just contact the rest of us.”
“Will do,” Vari said.
Chikere was already checked out of the conversation, pulling up images on her communicator. “Ooh! Half Oink killed a lion!”
“… Okay?” Catarina tilted her head.
“Agom will be jealous. There aren’t any lions to kill here, are there?”
“There might be some in the ‘Garden’, but please remember to follow the rules of conservation.”
“Hmm. Maybe I’ll just take Agom on a training journey with me. It’s okay as long as we stay within the borders of the Scarlet Alliance, right?”
“You can’t go unsupervised,” Catarina declared.
“Very well. I’ll take Chidi, then.”
“I would say you have to convince him to go… but I imagine he’ll say yes. But at least there will be someone responsible with you,” Catarina said. “You have to promise to actually listen to him, though.”
Chikere nodded. “I will. I do like being alive, and he’s good at making choices that keep people that way.”
That was about the best Catarina could expect to get. And it while she would worry about her son, it wasn’t because he was weak or vulnerable. Apparently that was something that all parents dealt with. And grandparents too, according to Anton. And various levels of great-grandparent. So all Catarina could do was acknowledge her feelings and make certain there wasn’t some actual reason to worry. If there was, she would deal with it.