Concentric rings of carved runes fit a surprisingly compact space around Vari. Though her understanding of formations would inevitably be improved from so much exposure to Catarina’s work, it wasn’t on such a quick time scale that Vari thought she would ever actually approach the same level of skill. But she didn’t need to. Everyone had different specialties, so knowing how formations worked was only important in a general sense- recognizing them and not carelessly entering unfamiliar arrangements.
Thinking about how much it cost to put together this particular formation, with inlaid materials individually worth more than everything she had approximately a decade prior made Vari’s head spin, but she’d received a split of everything they’d won in battle… which was quite a lot, considering that more than a handful of Integration cultivators from rich sects had been taken out by their group. Even if she got a slightly smaller share, Vari still felt that she was receiving too much… though she couldn’t be quite sure how much of that was the Holy Harmony Technique speaking, telling her to be a good subordinate. In truth, Vari didn’t mind following others, but having it be compulsory was quite unpleasant.
Which was why the majority of her acquired wealth had been poured into this formation, and the various vessels containing concentrated upper energy. She had remained at the peak of Life Transformation for more than a few years, and was finally taking a chance at advancement. No, she was going to succeed. Or perhaps her method was flawed and she would die or have horrible side effects. Either way, she wasn’t being half hearted about her efforts.
If she simply wanted to advance through the normal processes of the Holy Harmony Technique- or even the Glorious Harmony Technique- Vari was rather certain she could accomplish that… but it wouldn’t achieve the results she wanted. All that delving into the deeper secrets of the Harmonious Citadel’s cultivation styles would be pointless.
To some extent, all cultivation ran on belief. It might be confidence or mental fortitude or simple understanding of insights, but what one believed greatly changed what they could do. It didn’t make the impossible possible, but it could make the barely-possible more achievable. The Harmonious Citadel took this a step further, focusing on it and relying on the power of devotion for the growth of some of their best disciples- and for their saints. Which in turn meant it came with related flaws.
The Saints promised to protect the members of the Harmonious Citadel. Whether they meant it or not, or even actually said anything of the sort, they spread that belief. That made it true enough, and believed enough in the relevant ways. It wasn’t just a rumor spread about them, but a belief fostered by them.
Interpreting the phrase “The Saints protect the members of the Harmonious Citadel” could result in many possible interpretations. None of them had to be right, and Vari was betting that she didn’t have to personally believe the one she was going to rely on. Enough people did, which was all that mattered. They chose to tie themselves into the Harmonious Citadel… and those like her who didn’t actually have a choice shouldn’t be harmed by her actions.
There would only be one chance. Activating the formation was simple, requiring her only to shift a small cylinder into the center, dropping it in so the patterns matched. There was no active control of the formation that would be happening, instead it only gathered an augmented energy, as well as hopefully increasing Vari’s connection to the metaphysical components of the Harmonious Citadel. She could only trust that some amount of that worked.
Power swirled around and through her. The Saints swore to protect her. Protection was not just against physical things, but mental compulsion and of course tracking. Vari didn’t care to consider whether it would protect against such things from those outside of the Harmonious Citadel- she simply wanted to be away from their influence.
The Saints sword to protect her, and to use their power for those of the Harmonious Citadel. Vari was part of the Harmonious Citadel, as far as they were concerned. She had it on good authority that she had not been allowed to leave. Any possessive instinct they possessed towards her and other members should reinforce that.
The Saints were powerful. They would provide for the people. Vari felt something new within her senses as her cultivation approached the brink. New, yet familiar. After it had been brought up, she had a vague sense of when devotion flowed from her, so it was like recognizing an old friend she had never seen.
Some of it was from her, and it continued to flow towards its intended recipients- just not the saints. Where the rest came from had a clear direction, a long trail that flowed towards and into Vari. She was going to retrieve all of her devotion from the saints and the elite disciples… and whatever else she could get, since they owed it to her.
Vari felt her presence swell, and quickly realized even the small fraction of power she was bringing to herself was far too much for her to handle. Even as she began to break through to the Integration stage, the change was insufficient. But if that was how things were going to be… she did not mind redirecting some of it. Directly focusing it on someone else, but letting it flow through her to be transformed seemed to work. Devotion was converted- a portion for herself, and a portion for her friends and saviors. For those who deserved actual respect, real devotion. And maybe just a bit for a certain individual who took over a planet and didn’t deserve any of it except grudging respect for his power.
Conscious intent rapidly left Vari, and she turned only into a swirl of thoughts and feelings. The devotion that flowed through her carried traces of thoughts and memories- nothing concrete, nor would she remember any of it afterwards in any specifics. But a myriad of prayers for protection from the saints filled Vari… and she knew deep down that many of them had not been answered in any way. The devotion was taken, exchanged for nothing but neglect.
When the torrent of energy settled down inside Vari, she found there was still a small but continuous flow towards her. Perhaps it was so little that the saints would not immediately notice… or maybe they would come to kill her personally. She wasn’t quite certain she could manage a proper resistance even with her advancement, but she relished the thought of such a conflict at a later point. She just hoped her companions weren’t endangered by her before the time came.
Anton put away his communication plate. He was relieved to find that the sudden torrent of devotion was, if not entirely intentional, at least calculated. Apparently only a small part had ultimately made its way to him. He had not met this Vari, but she was certainly doing interesting things with her cultivation. Perhaps that was what was necessary to gain a foothold in the upper realms.
Timing didn’t always work out quite how he wanted. Velvet was planning her own ascension, but he would not be around to witness it. Anton had sensed disappointment and acceptance- he wasn’t just going to be wandering off for no reason.
Instead, he had been formally invited to visit Rutera. Whether the current number of years of contact made that fast or slow Anton couldn’t be fully certain. He was not the only one- six individuals would be going, two from each continent for the moment. There were plans for more, but there were limitations on how many additional individuals could fit on a ship. Anton imagined it wasn’t exactly cheap to send people between systems, either. Their end was not yet ready to make the attempt, but a Ruteran ship would retrieve them.
Along with Anton, Ayotunde would be representing Ambati and Elder Tola representing Estary to the north. This was of course incomplete, but such were the limitations. Representing Aicenith there was Elder Paula of the Marvelous Rabbit Mountain, as well as Elder Intan of the Million Sword Vault. Elder Vasu was more prominent, but intended to remain with the sect… indefinitely, perhaps. Finally, there was Elder Sudheer from the Silver Rhino Legion which rose to prominence in northern Aicenith after the fall of the Whispering Watchers. Anton wasn’t terribly familiar with them, but they were among the reasonable sects. Though truthfully, Anton found that the majority of people upon Ceretos were trending in a direction where problems were solved with less violence. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but there was continual progress.
The ship to carry the diplomats was differently arranged and slightly more luxurious than the science ship, but still mainly utilitarian. A dozen crew members were there to make sure it ran smoothly, as well as a few assigned to making the travel comfortable. However, at the level of the cultivators on board even if they had to stand in one place for several weeks they would not be too uncomfortable.
With less natural energy as they left the system they couldn’t distract themselves with cultivation in the same way but interacting with the crew and each other still made time pass swiftly. Personally, Anton felt watching the distorted view of the stars was another interesting way to pass the time. There was a slight blue tinting in some of the stars as they had accelerated, but that was overwhelmed by the change that happened when they shifted into subspace. Anton hadn’t received a full explanation, but the purpose was that distances were shorter within subspace, thus reducing the time required to travel. Though it was achieved through alternate means, Anton thought it felt slightly like what happened to people who ascended- though he couldn’t confirm the details having only observed people ascending, while only feeling this particular phenomenon from the inside. Subspace distorted views of the stars, making some seem larger or smaller or changing colors. He wasn’t sure what caused all of them, but it was quite interesting. The distortions changed even if the relative positions of stars seemed to remain basically static around them- with the exception of Ceretos’ star and Rutera’s star.
If Matija was around he would have asked more questions, but he didn’t want to bug the obviously uncomfortable individuals on this ship too much. It was reasonable to be nervous around those of great power, but Anton tried to make them as comfortable as possible… which mostly involved leaving them alone.
When they dropped out of subspace, Rutera’s star was still quite some distance away. Yet, it was also suddenly more tangible, at least to Anton. He did his very best to not draw from it in the slightest, though it left him feeling rather weak. The trip didn’t appear to have been detrimental to his health, however. If he chose to draw upon Rutera’s star, he imagined he would feel quite similar to home.
The small chance of him dying along the way had been calculated for. He was still more comfortable traveling in the ship than flinging himself through the void of space alone- and he’d never felt truly detached from the stars, though within subspace the connection to either felt dull.
At the moment they were outside the system, and soon enough Anton discovered why they came out where they did. They passed by several gorgeous planets on the way to Ruterea. Planets with people on them, verified not just by their guides but by Anton’s own senses. They seemed to live in controlled environments, which was sensible. The Ruterans didn’t seem to have any individuals who could function without normal bodily needs.
Then they came into sight of Rutera itself. From the specific arc they had traveled, Anton imagined they had intentionally come to the night side, revealing a glowing spiderweb of light. Bright cities, not unlike the arrangements of cultivator populations upon Ceretos but with more actual light instead of concentrated natural energy. Though Anton could tell that Rutera had its own reasonable quantities of natural energy to draw upon, simply being used in a different manner.
As they approached closer, he was treated to the sight of tall buildings teeming with people as they made their way to their destination. Though the population of Ceretos had been climbing significantly in the last half century, it was possible there were more people in this city than any of their individual countries. Millions… perhaps tens of millions, though they covered quite a wide expanse to achieve those numbers.