Elder Cultivator 160

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The way the far-off islands were visible to both eyes and energy senses made it clear something about the Secret Realm enhanced their presence. A clear feeling came from each of the areas, an indication of their threat- and their purpose. Many people surmised the same thing together, and there were murmurs about the good fortune that they had stumbled across a training facility of an ancient sect. Though it wasn’t clear what the exact benefits might be, it was likely to be less strongly defended than some sort of armory or storage facility. 

As people began to wonder how they might traverse their way to the islands, a fleet of shimmering boats became visible one at a time, settling on the shore. The various formation masters checked them over for tricks, but found them to be safe. At most they might fade back into nothing, dumping their riders into the water. While that would be embarrassing, it wouldn’t be a significant hindering factor compared to the seas themselves. While they appeared clear and calm, just assuming they were safe was unreasonable.

After it was determined that the boats were safe enough, people began to scramble towards them. Those who were first to treasures had a claim for them, after all. Anton ignored the press of people. He wasn’t going to be in the first wave of cultivators anyway, and if they ran out of boats… so be it. He had more important things to do.

He set his sights on those at the rear, specifically the Frostmirror sect. Though he was watched by some of the elders with a cautious eye, none stopped his approach. “Good to see you again, Diana, Annelie.” He found them together like he had imagined, greeting them politely.

Diana inclined her head. “Senior Anton. We meet again.” Her face was icy and cold, but there was something about her voice and demeanor that made her feel just a bit warmer. He could see in the depths of her eyes that she was not entirely without emotion.

Annelie also inclined her head. “Great-Grandpa Anton.” Her eyes flicked around in various directions, finally settling back on Anton. Her face didn’t smile at all, but he was certain that she did in the depths of her eyes. 

“Whoa! Slow down boy!” Alva’s voice came from further behind them. “Sorry, pardon me!” Fuzz kicked up a bucketful of sand with each moment as he ran joyfully towards Anton, before skidding to a halt and half-burying him. Anton simply hopped up and let the sand fill back in before he landed. “Uhm. Hi there. I’m Alva.” Alva did her best to bow politely to Diana from the back of Fuzz. “I’m Annelie’s cousin!” Alva smiled unabashedly, “Annelie! I haven’t seen you in forever! I’m so glad you’re alright!”

“Alva. I too am glad you are doing well. I heard that our great grandfather was able to safely retrieve you.” Annelie bowed deeply but formally.

When Anton anticipated that Alva was going to jump off of Fuzz towards her, he put a hand on her shoulder. She looked down at him and he saw her lip trembling. Anton put on his most loving smile. “Remember what we talked about?”

Alva took a deep breath, then nodded. “Okay. I understand.” She turned back to Annelie. “It’s very, very good to see you again.”

Anton could see and feel people around judging the interactions, and Annelie in particular. She might be a favored disciple, but that also came with higher standards. He almost laughed aloud when Fuzz sniffed her face and then licked it- the whole thing from chin to forehead, almost as wide as her ears. Annelie kept remarkably stoic during that. Her frosty energy gracefully removed the wolf saliva from her face and she calmly pat him on the head. “Hello there big fellow. It is good to meet you.” Fuzz wagged his tail, along with the rest of his rear.

By that point, it was clear that the boats were unlimited in number- and people were quickly moving to board them. Alva and Annelie only had a few more moments before they had to break apart. Alva grit her teeth as she pulled herself away. Anton would have liked for them to have a proper reunion, but it simply didn’t work out. For the moment, she would have to trust his word that Annelie was quite happy to see her. Once Alva stepped into Spirit Building she could discern those emotions herself- provided Annelie let her. Even Anton couldn’t see any emotion in her after she turned away again. He only briefly caught Marsen’s eye, and Marsen gave a confident nod as they did so, with a bit of a hidden smile. At least the altered training methods seemed to be doing their job. Emotions were still available when they were wanted. Anton still didn’t fully agree with that method, but it was the best he could arrange for.

It wasn’t long before Alva and Anton split up. Though he would have liked to watch over her, the difference between mid Spirit Building and peak Body Tempering was significant enough that they weren’t really an appropriate group. Going with her would limit his own opportunities while probably hindering her growth- he would simply have to entrust her safety to herself, Fuzz, and the other members of the Order. Of course, if there were any specific threats he became aware of, he would gladly take steps to help with them. But groups generally were finding their way towards appropriate locations for their cultivation level, and anyone who varied significantly would stand out in a bad way.

Anton watched as people boarded the shimmering, ephemeral boats. Some of them disappeared from sight as they set out on the currents of the ocean- a sign that distance wasn’t quite what it appeared. He could spot some of them further out, already kilometers from shore even as they left a moment before and didn’t seem to traverse the space in between. Among the people he spotted were Van Hassel and Slusser, along with a few others in the same boat. But this wasn’t an appropriate time to deal with them.

Most groups settled to be a handful of people- too many and their individual fortunes wouldn’t be considered, too few and they could be taken advantage of. Anton and the others were part of a stable group and had no current intentions to change in size.

Catarina waited at the head of one of the small vessels, with Hoyt, Timothy, Devon, and Velvet behind her. Anton was the last aboard, and then just the slightest nudge from Catarina’s energy got them started. “It’s all part of one thing,” she explained. “The tides connect to everywhere, but not necessarily in a straightforward manner. We thought we would aim for…” Catarina pointed, “That island. It seems like it might encompass all of Spirit Building. There are others with more narrow focuses, but it seemed reasonable to us.”

“I agree,” Anton said. “Lead the way.”

Looking into the sea below, Anton couldn’t see how the currents moved- but even slight changes in their trajectory significantly changed their path. It wasn’t a simple as pointing their boat in a direction and going with it. Even if they tried to push across the currents he doubted they would end up at their target, as the fact that the islands were visible around them seemed to merely be some sort of illusion. 

His eyes caught sight of something in the depths below. “It doesn’t seem this trip will be entirely safe. Be ready for trouble.”

A fin trawled along the surface in front of them. He’d studied various beasts at the Order, but even without that he knew he didn’t want to provoke anything first. If it would leave them alone, then both sides were better off. But if anything actually showed aggression… he would respond in kind.

As they began to near more beasts, Anton came to the understanding that they, too, were part of the training. Otherwise there was little chance that so many magical beasts would be mingling in the area without there being any far stronger or weaker than the others. Predators, too, and not just things trying to live their lives.

The first creature to attack was a shark. It performed a surprising leap out of the water, crooked rows of teeth clearly visible as it sailed through the air. Anton got a shot straight into the back of its throat, though Hoyt’s response was more thorough- his axe nearly sliced it in half longways.

As the creature spilled its guts into the water, Anton felt the shift in the local attitude. Various sea creatures rushed towards the boat. The first two struggled over the corpse of the shark dumped into the water, but the others seemed to hope that those on the boat were easy prey. Untempered aggression wasn’t a good survival tool, but it did make for good training.

Very few creatures vaulted out of the water to attack those on the boat, but instead most chose to attack in other ways. Timothy and Velvet hacked through the limbs of a squid that reached its tendrils up for them. When some sturdy fishlike creatures began to ram the boat from below, those in the boat had to change tactics. The boat was some sort of energy construct and seemingly quite sturdy, but it was clear that it was weakening.

Anton leaned over the side, firing down into the water. He found that his experience in that area was immediately lacking. Though he knew that firing a bow into a lake was ineffective, he’d hoped for slightly more with Spirit Arrows. Indeed, his attacks weren’t entirely useless. He managed to poke a small hole in one of the creatures, but it wasn’t significant enough to deter it. He shot again, focusing on pushing through the water. Each shot was a bit better, but much less than half as effective as attacking anything on land. And that was if he was only shooting a few meters down. Beyond that range, his arrows basically did nothing.

Catarina was guiding the boat and didn’t take much direct action in the combat, but she provided it with protective energy, and did her best to redirect it away from attacks while still keeping it properly aligned to go the right direction. She was prepared to stab anything that came up on board, but those were very few.

Hoyt swung his axe down into the water, slicing great wakes into it. Though his attacks were also hampered, if he could reach anything below they were still able to be slain. And when his attacks dropped the water anything poking out could be attacked by the others. 

Timothy was hanging over the edge, only one leg in the boat. He stabbed his sword into anything that dared get too close, and if it tried to gnaw on his dangling leg he would let it try- then yank it up out of the water.

Velvet mostly took advantage of others’ openings, while mumbling about not carrying the right sort of backup weapons. Anton silently agreed that they weren’t properly ready for fighting in alternate situations, even if extending the energy on other weapons could make them similar length to proper spears.

Fortunately, not all of the frenzied creatures were interested in attacking the boat or those on it- they were also quite happy to attack each other or feast on the dead beasts. That meant that it was important to toss any bodies overboard, but chucking them a bit away from the boat gave them a bit of leeway. It was the continual nature of the battle that made it most dangerous, and Anton was beginning to worry he might not be able to keep it up, since he had to increase his power with each shot.

But the creatures seemed to thin out given time, and soon enough everyone could see why. The waters began to grow more shallow as they approached the island. Anton frowned as he looked at it. “Did we somehow get around to the back side? This looks a bit different.”

“I think you’re right,” Catarina agreed. “I’m pretty sure most people won’t end up in the same spot.”

The group was looking up at a nearly sheer cliff towards what seemed to be a small forest above. There were no convenient beaches in sight in either direction, and when they tried to direct the boat around…

“It’s really fussy,” Catarina said as it wobbled strangely. “I think this is the place we get to be, or we leave.”

“Alright then,” Hoyt said. “I guess we climb. I’ll go up first.” Something thudded against the bottom of the boat. “Then again, we can all go up at the same time. No problem with that.”

Anton grinned. This place was challenging him with things he had little experience, though reasonably should have. It’s just that it wasn’t something that came up much while just living your life, though he was quite familiar with scrabbling up onto a roof when it needed fixing. A cliff was a bit different, though. He stretched his upper body a bit and prepared himself.

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