There were a few small islands scattered about to the west of Brogora. Each of these had watch stations, expected to be in constant communication with the mainland. A small swoop of them extended further on the northern end, but overall the coverage from just the islands was insufficient to provide sufficient detail on incoming enemies. Ships had to patrol in between the islands as well as further out to sea, a constant workload that was seen by many as pointless. But it was a decent exercise in practicing naval maneuvers even if there had not yet been conflict with the Exalted Archipelago.
Some believed the news was unreliable, while others had been worried about the possibility ever since hearing about the pact. Personally, Anton believed that with a significant imbalance of power, cultivators would be eager to steal others’ resources. That had been the case before he began cultivating, and for much of the more than six decades thereafter. Only when there was a mutual threat was the majority willing to work together, though some lasting alliances had been formed recently.
Yet even if Anton found himself with friends from both continents and in many powerful sects, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t come into conflict with any of the other sects Anton knew less well, or each other if there was something they both desired. The recent upswing had caused the growth of resources available to slightly outpace the use by cultivators, but it was unlikely that would last for long.
Even if he believed the Exalted Archipelago would attack, at the moment there was nothing within the significant range of his senses. He was searching for ships, of course, which allowed him to simply sweep the surface of the water. At long distances he could only search a narrow band at a time, and would be unable to sense everything.
He took some extra caution with extending his senses somewhat under the water. He didn’t have any reason to believe that the Exalted Archipelago had ships that could sail underwater, but if they were concealed by some sort of formation they might not hide the ripples from underwater. It required him to sweep about twice the area, but that was something he could sustain.
With a cycle of strenuous monotony, the crew could have easily been overcome by a lack of caution. Since it made no difference if they kept their eyes out or not, they might as well just laze about. Even attacks by sea beasts were rare, and those were not particularly subtle about their approach.
But Anton would not allow whatever crew he was with to become idle. There was a time for rest and relaxation, and everyone was entitled to their breaks… but during free time not reserved for rest and times where they were on duty, Anton wouldn’t allow them to go too far off course.
He was aided in his goals by those who knew him, and specifically one of those who had specifically requested to be on the same ship as him. Nthanda had been his student in the first training tournament, and as a citizen of Ambati she had a larger personal stake in watching for approaching ships. Simply by matters of geography Ambati would likely be the first target of the Exalted Archipelago, as it controlled the closest shores. There were also chances that Estary and Droca would be involved as they were not too far along, but it was unlikely for ships to aim for the rear of the continent by Facraona first. That was much further, and would make it easy for the attackers to be isolated and cut off from supply lines. While individual cultivators could carry more of their own supplies compared to other armies, there were still limits.
“Don’t simply focus on what your eyes can see,” Anton said. “Ultimately, you are limited by the horizon if you do so.”
“Understood,” Nthanda replied. He could feel her extending her energy outward, trying to stretch it into a thin point. The effort was there, but as a practitioner of Western Steel Body her energy was more limited than others.
Anton knew she would never be able to sense as far as he could, but even if she was only able to extend her range just beyond the horizon it was a significant increase. She had the strength to attack at that distance, though worrying about environmental factors such as wind became a problem. Anton had gifted her the bone bow, requiring great strength to draw and contributing significant momentum to her shots- but reorienting them at a distance took energy. Everything did, really. There were simply limitations on what could be done by those who focused on body tempering that were difficult to overcome, though in other circumstances they would outmatch their opponents because of their choices.
A body temperer could maintain a consistent barrage of attacks without wearing themselves out for quite a while, and the defensive strength of their skin, muscles, and bones meant that attacks beneath a certain threshold were unable to damage them. There were certain people that simply wouldn’t be able to defeat them, regardless of luck. Unless they let someone stab them in the eye, but even then if the gap in cultivation was enough attacks would be ineffective.
There was a significant distance between how far one could see on the horizon depending on whether they were on deck or atop the crow’s nest. The former was close to five kilometers, while the latter was nearly double. Yet even if enemies could be spotted with the eyes, being able to focus energy on them helped keep track of their finer movements and potential reactions.
Anton had Nthanda shoot at nothing in particular, occasionally creating targets out of his energy. Forming anything of significance had to take place close to himself- within some hundreds of meters, if he were forming energy bows. A vague target some kilometers out was within his capabilities, though he would only be able to create them in one direction at a time. His aura wasn’t so extensive that he could freely cover such a large area. His first impression of Vandale had been attacks that covered a wide swath of area, but even those attacks had originated within a somewhat reasonable distance from the man himself. Somewhat further than what Anton could do now, though his maximum attack range was much larger than his wide-scale capabilities.
Nthanda wasn’t the only one Anton set about teaching. Anyone with a few spare moments got the same treatment, though they wouldn’t necessarily recognize him. His efforts ranged from subtle comments about how they might improve to direct instruction, depending on whether they asked and what he thought would be effective.
At some point, things resulted in archery contests. Letting off some steam was necessary for cultivators, and a bit of violence directed off in the distance was unlikely to harm the ship, unlike sparring. Not everyone was trained as an archer, in fact most weren’t- but they were able to learn. Anton had spare bows for just such purposes, as similar as possible to each other for the sake of fairness.
The ships had other methods of long ranged attack available. Nobody was going to discount how effective siege weaponry could be when augmented by a few cultivators working together. The weapon of choice was the ballista, able to fire projectiles on the scale of spears, in singles or groups depending on the size and room available on a ship. Trebuchets were bulkier and less accurate against moving targets, as well as requiring ammo that was quite large- so they were rare.
Apparently there were other options in development. There was something that involved compressing energy into an explosion to drive forward dense projectiles, but there were various problems involving the volatility that hadn’t been worked out yet. It was equally likely that it would blow up the ship firing it as the target, and to make them more stable required denser metal with more weight, which was still a problem on ships even with storage bags available.
Though the natural energy out on the sea fluctuated in strength, the fact that the ships were constantly moving meant that people could cultivate without restraint, despite all being packed into a small area. Even Anton could take as much energy as he wanted, though he usually found himself reaching further away to leave the more easily gathered energy for others.
He went through several patrols during which most of the additional soldiers were switched out, and sometimes the crew would be on break for a rotation and he would travel with a different ship. Nthanda remained with him to learn what she could given the opportunity, since they had only occasionally found time they were both available after the initial training tournament.
Nearly a year after the warning, no signs of attack had come. Many were fatigued from constant patrols and waiting with nothing happening. Even Anton was beginning to wonder if maybe there was nothing. Being a border guard wasn’t exactly his ambition.
Then he spotted someone. It was not strange that Anton would be the first, given the wide range of his senses. “Something to the northwest,” Anton told the captain. “Can we turn closer?”
Captain Othman was a man in his middle years, and a cautious fellow. “How close are we talking?”
“They’re currently at the very edge of my senses. I would feel more comfortable confirming details if we got within eighty kilometers.”
“Hah. You’d think you were talking about a mountain to spot it from so far. We can go somewhat closer, for certain. You think…?”
“I can’t say yet,” Anton shrugged, “But it feels like a ship. I don’t know of any patrols we should be crossing paths with here yet, but it could be from Brogora.”
Anton kept silent about the actual details he had, which involved more than a handful of Life Transformation cultivators present. It was difficult to distinguish them at such a distance, but when they got closer he was able to confirm some things.
There was some sort of formation on the ship blurring his senses, but not hiding anything. Specific details were lost, but the general amount of power was still clear. And having traveled across both continents, Anton could firmly say that the practitioners aboard that ship were not something he recognized. There was also the matter of the ship being pulled along by something in the water.
Anton reported the details as he learned them, both to Captain Othman and through his communication plate to the shore. The latter had to forego some immediate details for the sake of brevity, and so he could get a response.
-Avoid engagement, keep them in view
That was pretty much what Anton had expected, given the previous discussions. While they fully anticipated a war, provoking one was not what anyone wanted. Especially not Ambati, who would take the brunt of the initial assaults.
Captain Othman turned to sail parallel to the ship. “They making distance,” Anton said. “Still sailing on the same trajectory, but they’ll pull away if we keep this speed.”
“It’s expected they outspeed us,” Captain Othman nodded. “But we can narrow that difference. Rowers, to positions! Steady pace.”
They were nearly a day of travel from the mainland at their normal pace- somewhere around ten nautical kilometers per hour. At their increased pace they were twice that, and barely keeping up. Yet it was enough for them to be somewhat close when the ship arrived at Tiarhogo Landing, one of the largest ports on the western portion of Ambati.
Most of the ship was well out of the range of affecting any potential combat, though Anton was within his maximum range. But while the port had a clear tension hanging over it when they arrived, no conflict had erupted.
Before they were able to talk to anyone, Anton took note of what had been pulling the ship. A giant turtle. Though compared to Paradise it was nothing, it was still ten meters from head to tail. Anton saw anchor points drilled into its shell where he presumed the chains on the front of the ship would attach.
Once in port, Anton learned that the ship was from the Ponderous Turtle Clan. They came with a ‘small compliment’ of ten Life Transformation cultivators, purporting to carry demands of the Exalted Archipelago. The initial encounter was over, as they clearly had no intent to negotiate. They simply stated demands, meant for the entire continent. From what Anton saw, the demands seemed to be between ten and twenty percent of basically everything- ores, herbs, food, special materials of all sorts…
He imagined the demands would not be well received. It would be one thing if the Exalted Archipelago offered anything in return. A promise of protection from future invaders might be acceptable even with such steep demands, but so far it appeared there were no concessions. He was unsure if they were expecting to get immediate capitulation… or if they wanted a war. It was difficult to say.