The ocean journey continued to pass with only minor incidents that the fleet was able to handle without suffering irreparable damage. Islands were few and far between, with none having the same abundance as the Paradise of Thirteen Hills. Some were inhabited by vicious beasts, but those were relatively easy to deal with.
Over the course of a week, islands became more frequent, and with signs of people. Then Kseniya spotted someone. Someone, and not something. It didn’t take long for her words to spread throughout the fleet.
Plans for the first contact had already been made. Though the size of their fleet had been planned for the dangers of exploring new spaces, it would be quite easy to think it was an invading army. Thus, most of the fleet would be staying at a safe distance.
Though their expertise was required for the expedition, the sailors were not particularly invested in the goal. Neither the Commodore nor any of the captains would be involved in official negotiations except as became necessary.
One of the smaller vessels was selected to approach the island where cultivators had been sensed, carrying Elder Adelina of the Frostmirror sect and Elder Tola of Infinite Wisdom Forest. The pair of Life Transformation cultivators were a show of strength, but also of how reasonable they were. There was no intent to start conflict. Other people with a history of properly restraining themselves were picked to go as well- since anyone being provoked into a fight for whatever reason would reflect poorly on their group. Anton was among them, as well as Hoyt, though Anton didn’t expect to be directly involved in any conversation.
With one vessel moving forward, the rest of the fleet remained distant- though that didn’t mean they couldn’t help. Among other things, Grand Elder Kseniya was well within her firing range if anything went wrong. Not that they would be advertising that fact to everyone they approached.
Unsurprisingly their arrival was met with an armed contingent of cultivators. They had intentionally been obvious in their approach. The hundred plus gathered cultivators wouldn’t be able to actually do much if it came down to a fight, though. They had not a single Life Transformation cultivator among them. At the front was a woman in late Essence Collection who still retained much of her youth.
Her voice was imperious, though Anton detected a hint of nervousness. It was justified, of course. “Halt! Redfin Reef is the territory of the Rising Waterfall Sect. We have not received word of the passage of a group such as yourselves. What is your business here?”
The words were clear enough, though it was the biggest change in regional accent Anton had heard. Some places still had local languages, but cultivators spread throughout the world and formed a common language that permeated everything. The roots of that still held even here.
“Is Redfin Reef isolated from the rest of the continent?” Elder Adelina’s words didn’t exactly inspire comfort, but her point quickly became clear. “We come from the continent far to the west, with the intent of meeting with as many people as possible.”
“From the west, you say?” The woman looked disbelieving at first. “Perhaps that is true. I do not recognize the sects any of you are from. We should properly introduce ourselves. I am Elder Darejani of the Rising Waterfall Sect.”
“Elder Adelina of the Frostmirror Sect. We have with us members of many sects, and represent a combination of interests. Among others we have members of Glorious Flame Palace,” she gestured to Anish, who was one of the most restrained of that particular group, “Infinite Wisdom Forest,” Elder Tola bowed, “The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars,” Anton felt eyes on him and Hoyt, “And many others.”
The woman from the Rising Waterfall Sect took a moment to absorb the names and likely tie them to energy signatures in her mind to recognize in the future. “And what is your intent?”
“We come with a warning… one it is possible your continent has been apprised of, but of great importance to all of us.” Elder Adelina paused dramatically, “Have you heard that several decades hence, an invasion of ascended individuals shall be descending upon the world to scour it for resources?”
Elder Tola looked quite surprised, which easily answered that question. Anton didn’t blame her, nor did he blame how she didn’t immediately accept the words. “Is that so. Then you are here to do what, unite us all under your banner to fight against them?” That was a polite way of talking about conquering people.
“That would be quite impractical,” Elder Adelina explained, “It is quite an arduous journey here, and we hardly have the spare resources to attempt to manage another land. No, we just want to make sure you’re ready to fight. Because frankly, we don’t know if anyone will be. Even ourselves.”
“… Perhaps we should talk somewhere more comfortable.” It was unlikely that Elder Tola would be immediately convinced. Cultivators had ways of reading the truthfulness of others, but there were ways that it could be unreliable. Even if people didn’t intentionally train to overcome such detections, they could be honestly mistaken about information they believed to be true. Anton was quite certain it would take some talking to convince them, but at least they would be willing to listen.
Their group came and went from Redfin Reef without any physical confrontations, which included the normal sparring that might occur when different sects met. While such activities might build up bonds of friendship, they could also lead to negative outcomes if anything went wrong. It could be anything from a malicious act to simply having different understandings of how far it was appropriate to go in a spar. It was better for the group to be more established in the area first.
They stayed on Redfin Reef for a week, not because of any necessity but simply so that the Rising Waterfall Sect could send notice ahead to the mainland. No doubt they would be met with stronger cultivators when they arrived, but that would simply mean they could get in contact with all of the right people. The strongest cultivators still appeared to be in charge, and it was unlikely that would be untrue anywhere, at least not to a significant degree.
While there wasn’t much time to offer proper training of any sort, they did leave behind copies of anti-ascension techniques. That was to prove their intent, and one of their main purposes. If they were forced to leave and only those techniques remained behind, it might be enough. Though personally Anton had other goals. But everyone on Redfin Reef was already a cultivators, so he couldn’t exactly start his great plans. Getting permission first would be best, anyway. He didn’t want people to think he was trying to start a really slow uprising.
The port city was approximately the same size as the one they had left from in Facraona. The one they’d left from had been quite impressive, easily one of the largest cities Anton had seen, but it barely compared to Blackstone Harbor. The namesake rock made up the majority of the streets and buildings, and the whole city seemed to be carved from the dark stone. Doors and awnings were colored to contrast with what would have been an otherwise stark and dreary harbor, and the people themselves walked around in brightly colored garb.
An entire large dock was nicely set aside for the fleet, and they were escorted to it as they approached the harbor. Many other ships were present, but their group drew many stares. Even those who weren’t cultivators could tell there was something different about them.
As they had been expected, a group was ready to meet with them shortly after they weighed anchor and settled down. Word had been sent back to Redfin Reef which relayed how the local sects would be willing to meet, and Anton found them quite reasonable. Even if they asked them not to bring any archers along.
Sure, many others could kill at range- but those who carried around a bow made it obvious. It was better to not make people nervous. But on the other hand, as it was a meeting of cultivators, they wouldn’t be asking anyone to go in unarmed. That was simply asking for too much trust, and would easily sway the tides of battle in certain cultivators’ favor- and they had no way to predict which ones.
The rules were reasonable, but it ended up with an odd mix of people going. Oh, elders from various factions made sense. The fact that both Adelina and Sarka were on the way was a bit concerning, but Anton was fairly certain it would be fine. But the fact that Chikere was going along… well, it seemed that their arbitrary standards were just that. And while it was simply discouraged, for archers to be in the group of those who went to the meeting, Anton was fine with letting some of the young folk take on the diplomatic tasks. He was still free to wander the city and he was sure he could find something interesting to occupy his time.
It was difficult to not immediately draw any of her swords when they stepped into the audience chamber. Strong cultivators were one thing. The impression the Life Transformation cultivators were giving off was enough to make Chikere twitchy, but she could handle that. She knew it was all bluster. But to find an actual enemy present, that was another matter entirely. She could have been halfway to him in a moment, ready to cut off his head. And probably dead that same moment, though not by that guy. After all, he had a sword. Chikere could lose to anyone else, but if she were going to lose a fair sword fight she might as well just kill herself. Though given the general nature of such things, she wouldn’t have the chance.
Instead of drawing her swords, she took a deep breath and simply imagined slicing the wide man to ribbons. It wasn’t just an idle fantasy either. She could see how he was uncomfortable sitting, and from that she extrapolated how he might stand, what stance he might take. She took note of the calluses on his hands and the particular muscles he’d developed. That wouldn’t tell her the whole picture, but he wasn’t exactly demonstrating how his energy would flow in combat. This was a peaceful talk, after all. At least, that was the idea of it.
And there sure was a lot of it. Talking. So many words going back and forth, saying so little… and yet so much. The pleasantries by the group present in front of them were the right words, but they were clearly intimidated. That was why they insisted on being raised up higher than her own group. That was also why there were formations in place to protect them, but that wasn’t her problem. Unless she ended up fighting the sword guy.
But she wasn’t going to start that fight. She was putting on her best face, as a representative of independent cultivators. She was fully on board with the whole plan to make sure everyone was ready to fight the invaders. Who did they think they were, planning to just force their way into the world and take all their swords? And maybe other crap too, Chikere presumed. But when they came for her swords they would find themselves facing the first through thirteenth best swords she’d ever laid her hands on, excluding the one sword that a respectable master had let her swing once. She was thinking about how to get that one while only half-listening to the conversation going on around her, until something caught her attention.
“While your words relay an honorable goal, in theory, you have provided us no proof of anything.” Chikere’s eyes focused on the sword guy. Why was he allowed to talk? “Personally, I find your motives suspicious.”
“Of course you’d say that. You’re a member of the Twin Soul Sect. That’s literally your entire purpose here.”
Chikere had every intention to play her part and let things happen as they were supposed to. She really did. But sometimes, her body acted on its own and she really couldn’t stop it. Not that she would, since it had saved her life hundreds of times before. But usually it was her arms and legs and only rarely her mouth. Even in those cases, it was usually just biting down on a sword swinging at her face. This time, her vocal chords had been involved.
“What did you say, junior?” the man said in the third most condescending tone she’d ever heard. But he wasn’t quite as old as some of those she’d met before, so he probably just didn’t have the practice.
“I said you’re a member of the Twin Soul Sect. You know, the guys who are going around pretending to be part of other sects and sabotaging us so the invasion can work. So of course you’d say you were suspicious of our motives.” Chikere felt the stares of more than a handful of Life Transformation cultivators boring into her, including the icy and hot glares of Adelina and Sarka. “What? Can you guys still not recognize swords? I thought maybe you were just playing dumb.”