Along the path of cultivation, Devon had learned not to ignore his feelings. Even insignificant seeming thoughts could lead down a significant path… though a large part of the process was examining those thoughts and determining the actual merit behind them. So when he had the thought that something was wrong, Devon really didn’t know what to think.
Obviously things weren’t right. He was on a planet where the Trigold Cluster controlled a majority of the resources, and they were at war. Aerona had nearly been assassinated and he lost his arm in the process. But with all of that, the feeling still remained.
Something about Taalay? No, that shouldn’t be it. If he was going to turn on them, there would have been plenty of opportunities earlier. The man seemed somewhat ambitious, but there shouldn’t be much else to be expected from one of the more powerful sects on the planet.
When his thoughts drifted, the answer eventually became rather clear. Or at least he found himself a step closer to the actual answer. It was the formations that remained that concerned him. Devon wasn’t an expert on formations, but he had enough experience to feel that there was more going on than simply sustaining barriers.
Bringing up the subject to Taalay, he only got about half of a sentence out. “I’ve noticed something about the-”
“The formations in enemy territory.”
Devon nodded. “Yes, that’s right.”
“Same here. They attempted to hide it with the shift from our destruction, and the peeling back of the barriers. But there’s more going on. A wide scale change of some sort. Can you pick out its source?”
“Unfortunately not,” Devon shook his head. “Not yet at least. There are too many places concealed from my technique, and it might not be any of those. There could be another formation that projects a false feel, and I wouldn’t know without having been present myself.”
Taalay nodded, his dangling beard shifting with him. “We should work on narrowing them down. Starting with the locations of the mirror crystals. That information isn’t exactly secret, since we know which sects and clans have them. Otherwise we couldn’t properly communicate with each other. Beyond that, I have a friend who might be able to gather more information.”
“With so much cut off behind the barrier?” Devon asked. “I suppose it might be possible to slip through, but it’s a risky time to slip spies into the most important areas.”
“Which is exactly why it is so important. Besides, it’s not as much of a risk as you might think. He doesn’t have to enter a forbidden area, just hear about it. And as for actually getting there… you underestimate how far people are willing to go for certain luxuries, even during a war.”
“I think I can manage that,” Heath nodded. “Obviously there are some places I can’t go, but few people actually know about me. We’re officially neutral as far as this war goes, so I can’t really make any moves without tearing apart my sect’s position.”
“I understand,” Taalay said. “Just go where you can.”
“There are at least a few people who should know nothing, and a couple more who would be willing to risk my presence. Where should I start?”
“Formations,” Taalay declared.
“Ah, that significantly narrows down the list,” Heath confirmed. “Might take a few days to start getting information, however.”
“Just do what you can manage safely,” Taalay cautioned. “There’s also a possibility word about you will be spread, in times like these.”
“I am aware,” Heath said as he fiddled around in his bag. “Cinnamon bun?”
“You know I can’t refuse,” Taalay said. The topping would simply coat his mustache, but sacrifices had to be made.
Once more, Devon ended a use of the World Encompassing Chains with little additional information. “I feel like I’m sitting around doing nothing,” Devon said to Aerona.
“Well, don’t,” she replied. “You’re doing something others can’t. And if it was so easy to dig up the whole world’s deepest, darkest secrets… besides the Trigold Cluster connection… then we would have already won this war. Hopefully.”
“Even so,” Devon said. “You’re doing more than me. I see you constantly in communication, going through information and helping distribute it through the central system.” In this case, they were using one of their ships as a communication beacon, otherwise they could mostly connect directly between individual communicators.
“And where does that information come from?” Aerona said. “Much of it is from you. Like the confirmation about the captured communicators. We were able to cut them off from the system just in case anyone figures out how to use them.”
The devices were made to be easily functional for people who had a grasp of technology, but even without that it wasn’t hard for cultivators to intuit the basic properties. The important part was that they couldn’t be easily reverse engineered or used to intercept messages that weren’t meant for them without a deeper understanding. Hundreds of years of technological development assured that, and even if a genius cultivator with special techniques were to study them it would still take several years alone to make progress. In short, they could be certain their communications remained secure for a while, even if they were incorrect about the time factor.
“It was just confirmation, though,” Devon said. “Previous communications indicated they were already under attack, and they were already presumed lost.”
“Every step of the process matters,” Aerona shook her head. “But if you’re not satisfied, perhaps you should seek out combat.”
“You don’t want me to,” Devon pointed out.
“Of course I don’t! I don’t want you to get hurt, and you’re doing valuable work. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. But I won’t try to stop you if you decide to pursue something that feel more impactful.”
“But you think it wouldn’t be.”
“That’s right,” she agreed. “And I’m going to say something that I might have been unclear on. I understand you’re still probably one of the most powerful combatants on this planet, but that doesn’t mean you’re invincible. And it’s quite possible for you to be outnumbered.”
“I understand,” Devon said. “I’m just… impatient. I feel like there’s something we have to do. Waiting for reinforcements… might be too slow.”
“Then I would suggest working towards that in whatever way you think is best.”
“If I knew what was best, it would be easy,” Devon grinned. “But since I don’t know, I’ll just stick to your opinion and stick with what I’m doing for the moment.”
There had been nothing at the Seven Pillars except a bunch of snobs. Heath almost wished he’d put something lingering into their meals, but he knew such things could still be traced back to him if he was careless. And he had an important mission right now.
That meant the Runic Complex was next, which was awkward considering his history with them. But it had been a while and there was a good chance nobody would even remember the prank so-
“Well if it isn’t Heath. That’s what you’re calling yourself now, correct?”
There went that plan. He looked up to see the figure on the wall. “Oh, have we met… sir?”
“Don’t remember me? Well, I remember you. And if you truly don’t remember, I’m Stigr.”
“The name does seem vaguely familiar,” Heath admitted.
“Hmph. What are you doing here?” the man asked.
“Just plying my trade,” he said, patting the large pot on his back. “I’m a purveyor of luxury foods, did you know?”
“I’d certainly hope you don’t intend to engage in your trade here,” Stigr said. “We don’t need anyone poisoned right now… even if it’s technically ‘minor’ like last time.”
Heath shrugged. “I wouldn’t dream of causing trouble. I’m a changed man. Matured, and all that.”
“Sure you are. So what’s someone like you doing all the way out here?”
“Like I said before, I just sell food. I can cook up anything you like,” he said, intentionally wafting some smells up towards the wall. They were specially guided to penetrate even defensive barriers.
“People like you don’t just sell food,” Stigr said. “You might have forgotten, but we are formation specialists here. And we take special note when Anchoring cultivators approach our sect. In times like this, we can’t let unknown quantities inside.” Before Heath could protest, Stigr clarified. “And people that we know who are like you.”
“Come on,” Heath said. “Is whatever you’re working on really so important?”
“I didn’t say we were working on anything.”
Oh, he did. Just not in so many words. Otherwise they wouldn’t worry about interruptions in this place, separated from all possible routes of attack. “Right, thought I heard something,” Heath shrugged. “But business isn’t so good these days so… you sure you don’t want to let me in.”
“Whatever you’re trying won’t work,” Stigr said. “We’re fortified against mental manipulation here as well.”
Heath shrugged. “I’m not trying anything except to get inside.” He began to pull out pots and pans, setting up a small cooking station. “You don’t mind if I wait here to talk to someone else, right?”
“It won’t do any good,” Stigr said. “They’ll all be warned about you.”
Maybe they would be, but since they knew he was in Anchoring it wasn’t exactly easy to chase him off either. And while their formations were no doubt tuned to keep out all sorts of poisons and the like, they couldn’t keep out air itself without compromising their air quality inside. That included some things that were natural to humans, things which could influence them in various ways.
Like really good smells. Heath couldn’t help but taste things as he cooked, and Stigr was in a prime position to smell what he was making. Plus the other guards hidden about, and anyone who came to check up on him.
Though ultimately, he didn’t need to make it inside. He’d already decided the Runic Complex was involved somehow- in more ways than just helping construct the world encompassing formations like every formation sect.
He wasn’t here to determine that, but instead whether or not they had been aware of the Trigold Cluster. Their location made it rather difficult for them to openly defy them, so it was difficult to know the truth… until he sat down to eat a meal with them. And regardless of whether or not it contained mind influencing components, he would learn some answers.
Information returned to the Supreme Silver Sect in small segments. Devon didn’t know much about the spy, except that he was an Anchoring cultivator associated with another sect. But Taalay trusted him, so that would have to do. Unfortunately, the circumstances did mean he had to report back through hidden channels instead of just using a proper communicator. Being associated with them in any way would be problematic, as would losing another device. Partially because they only had so many, and because the more there were, the more destructive tests the enemy could employ to try to figure out how they worked.
The Seven Pillars were officially associated with the Trigold Cluster, but the report was that they didn’t have anything of note in their sect. Devon hadn’t found anything either, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Focusing on a single place wasn’t simple with the World Encompassing Chains. He was also doing his best not to overdo it and get caught, as developing a counter technique might not be terribly difficult. If nothing else, knowing they were being directly spied on would influence the enemy and take away some of Devon’s advantages.
Word came that the Runic Complex had something. And they were nervous about it- not about it being discovered, and in fact perhaps the opposite. They were worried it might not be discovered. If that made sense at all, Devon didn’t know why- but he had to trust the judgment of a master spy. Or perhaps assassin, though those tended to have a significant amount of overlap.
What exactly they were hiding hadn’t been determined, and all he could figure out was that there was something concealed. But it seemed to resonate with feelings he had felt before. Was this the source of his worries… or simply one component of it? It would be a shame to charge into enemy territory to destroy or capture it only to find out it didn’t matter- and they would instead reveal their hand if they acted too hastily.