No trouble befell the members of the Order as they travelled through Estary. Travelling in a larger group and more quickly than before was certainly a factor in that, as well as their movement along the main roads. For the most part Anton found it similar to Graotan- a pleasant country well taken care of. Most places were well patrolled, and the biggest difference was simply the variety of cultivators. Most of the cultivators in Graotan were members of the Order, not because of any particular restrictions but because it was a powerful sect with relatively easy entry requirements, as far as cultivation sects went. It didn’t require any particular elemental affinity or harsh tests. The biggest reason the Order wasn’t flooded with cultivators was the restraints on their actions. Many people just wanted to be strong and do whatever they pleased with that power, but the Order did their best to filter out those who didn’t fit with their ideals early.
Estary kept a similar country but with more diverse cultivation styles, with the strongest sects forming an alliance protecting the whole country. While they were on good terms with the Order, they wouldn’t necessarily help each other with disputes. It did seem that the Order was able to request some help from them during the execution incident- the countries together secured the border against cultivators flooding in, unlike the eastern border of Graotan which had been intentionally left somewhat lax.
Actually, the trip through Estary wasn’t entirely without incident. There was one time where Anton sensed a group of wild beasts attacking a cultivator off the road nearby. It may have been the other way around, but the cultivator was clearly losing the battle. Anton took up his new bow, flexing the hollowreed structure as he formed a Spirit Arrow. Surprisingly enough the beasts seemed to be a combination of some sort of bird and canines on the ground, clearly working together. The birds harassed the cultivator while the other animals circled around and prevented them from running.
The flying creatures seemed to be the biggest problem, so Anton locked on to them one at a time, letting arrows fly. His shots arced over the nearby trees then snaked around the final few as they dropped in to pierce wings and torsos of the birds. By the time Anton was getting ready to attack the creatures on the ground, the cultivator had already rallied and taken out half of them. He still launched one final arrow that barely arrived before an attack coming from behind.
Beyond that, there was little of note until they reached the northern shore of Estary. The Shervista Ocean spread out before Anton just like in the Secret Realm, with the same smell of salt. The only difference was that it properly fell away at the horizon instead of having the strange distorted space inside the Secret Realm. Anton saw people out fishing on the ocean, not so different from the lakes he had visited before. He supposed there was little difference, except the ocean was salty and vast while lakes were mostly more moderately sized.
Members of the Order were packed into a ship with other cultivators heading to the Golden Isles. The boat hardly fit the few hundred people, and there was little chance to cultivate with so many different people in a small space- even as they were constantly moving into areas with more natural energy. The amount of natural energy covering the Shervista Ocean wasn’t low, but it was not so generally high as to satisfy the needs of many cultivators at once.
With little better to do, Anton went up on deck. He saw someone up on the ropes around the ship and called up to them. “Hello! What are you doing up there?”
The man looked down at him and grunted. “Tightening the rigging.”
Anton could tell his question hadn’t gotten quite the response he wanted. “Need any help up there?”
“Not responsible if you fall overboard,” the man said.
Since that wasn’t a ‘no’, Anton climbed up to take a closer look. The man seemed a bit perturbed, but Anton stayed out of his way and only occasionally asked questions. He was able to keep track of most of what was going on around him with his energy, so he pretty quickly got a good idea of how the ship worked.
“While you’re up there,” a sailor called down from below. “Tighten up that line just a smidge.”
A ship like they were on had hundreds of lines going all about in various directions, all with their own names. It was fairly easy to pick out the patterns, and while Anton doubted he demonstrated equal skill to an experienced sailor he at least didn’t screw anything up. As days passed and he was actually of some help, the sailors became more friendly with him.
“Lotta strong cultivators like you come along here,” one of the men chatted. “Not a one able to sail a ship themselves. Those that can have their own ships, big monsters made of strange materials. See them in port occasionally. None act like yourself. What are you learning for? Fancy a position on one of them ships?”
“Just thought I should know how it was done,” Anton said. “Good to know things. Speaking of which, how’s that cultivation practice I mentioned?” Many of the sailors had at least a small bit of experience in Body Tempering, though not all of them.
“Well you know,” the man shrugged. “Natural energy’s a bit sparse with all these people…”
“Not so much up here,” Anton said. Those who could drain the energy to the top of the riggings were generally more powerful cultivators- and they wouldn’t get enough to even bother with even if they reached that far, especially not with some of the others. Most people had given up on cultivating at all for the duration of the journey, as a couple weeks could be made up for in better circumstances. “Best if you do it at the same time you’re working your muscles.”
“You say that,” said another sailor, “But how do we know you’re not just trying to torture us?” The man was clearly joking, for the most part. “Right exhausting it is. Like having fought a whole storm meself.”
“You should notice some improvements by the end of the week,” Anton said. “I have to say, there’s a lot of high level cultivation that’s thrown about where it doesn’t belong, while people are still early in Body Tempering. It’s easy to get hung up on it. Follow my advice and the path will be a bit smoother, though it’s still uphill no matter what. Gotta put in the work.”
Sailors were no strangers to work, but extra work was something they’d rather avoid. But they all understood what greater cultivations could do for them. Anton doubted that most of them would reach the peak of Body Tempering with just his little bit of advice, but he couldn’t just leave people alone. Sailors weren’t growing anything, so he wasn’t certain if they would have a reciprocating sort of growth with the environment, but they could still stand to be a bit stronger. That would help them if any cultivators wanted to cause trouble. Even if sailors were a rougher type than most, they still deserved to protect themselves.
The Golden Isles lived up to their name by the way they sparkled in the sun, no actual gold was involved but some beautiful yellow cliffs reflected light back and forth between parallel isles. In the strictest sense of the term, they might be considered to be one large island since they were closely connected under the water, but the various promontories stuck out of the water on their own and the name stuck nonetheless.
From that point the Order split up from the others on the same ship, renting a small fleet of smaller vessels. Their target wasn’t quite part of the Golden Isles, and it was quite a long swim even for Spirit Building cultivators. When they arrived on the island with the ruins, Anton was somewhat surprised anyone even knew where they were. It seemed just like a normal island at first, topped with soil and stone. Only because he was specifically looking could he make out how some of the rocks might have once been worked stone, now smoothed by the tides.
A few cultivators were walking around the island, but the Order already knew where to look for what they wanted. On the west side the island sloped down gradually into the water… and it was possible to follow the trail of ruined buildings down into the ocean.
Anton took a deep breath and walked into the ocean behind some of the elders. He sunk to the bottom if he didn’t do anything to stop it- he remembered floating on water before, but he supposed his body was somewhat denser now. He wasn’t as much heavier as he might have thought necessary for the increase in strength from Body Tempering, but then again he wasn’t an expert in that area. He was an archer. And he was… underwater. Not really the optimal place to make use of his skills, but he wasn’t entirely incapable either. Everyone had received some basic instruction for fighting underwater before coming to this place, but actual combat was always different. Archery was somewhat more difficult as the water continuously slowed down the arrows, but with his energy continuing to propel them forward they would still be able to reach significant distances with some amount of power left. It would just be less.
As they continued underwater, Anton kept track of his own breath. He could still go further before he had to reach for the surface. The sand beneath his feet continued to be littered with stones, but they were starting to actually be connected to each other and not just individual pieces. He thought he even saw a wall, though as they got further from the sun it was harder to tell. Then they ran into a barrier.
Anton hadn’t sensed it beforehand, but apparently the elders weren’t surprised. They gathered together several formation masters, including Loida Rana, as well as others studying formations. That included Catarina, of course. It was an uncomfortable minute while they worked. Some disciples swam the hundred meters to the surface to get a breath of air. Anton felt his lungs beginning to ache but he still had more in him before he had to consider moving for air. It was a bit harder to hold his breath with the pressure- all of that water weighing down on him was significant- but the training in the tower had prepared him for this. The tower couldn’t have been just for that, however- or they could have just used any of the water around. Surely making a formation that allowed people to breathe would have been easier to sustain. Even just occasional pockets of air… no, there had to be something more to it.
Though Catarina wasn’t part of their little formation at the moment, Anton and the others were able to slightly lessen the burden of the water on each other. At the current depth they could handle things alone, but they found water was quite different from the tower. It pressed in on all sides, not just crushing from above.
Just as Anton was getting ready to push off and use his energy to make himself buoyant, a bright light appeared in front of him. The elders waved people forward with their hands and gesturing energy, and everyone began walking. He couldn’t really make out what was ahead because of how bright it suddenly was, and by the time his eyes adjusted he’d already stepped into open air. More than that, he was dry.
He found himself in a sunny, dry room with tall ceilings held up by pillars- or at least, in theory. Half of the pillars had collapsed as well as some of the ceiling, revealing the ocean above- but it didn’t pour into the room they were in. There was little of note where they were, but he could see- and now feel, once past the barrier- other buildings ahead of him. From what he could tell, most of them also had air inside them. At least, it seemed that way- though the water distorted things.
Instead of being dark like the seafloor had been heading towards when they arrived, he found it to be quite sunny. Luminous, even. He couldn’t determine the exact source of the light, but it seemed external to the building he was in from the shadows. It flowed in through the far doorway and broken ceilings and walls. What a strange place. But then again, who was stranger than cultivators?