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Walking out on the wharfs which were basically just open walkways while trying to stay concealed would be a pointless endeavor, so Velvet was surveying Erygan proper. She would get to the point she actually had to reveal herself and talk to people, but she wanted to get a good measure of what the city was like first.
More cultivators than expected occupied the city. Cultivators tended to gather together in allied sects or other organizations instead of in cities, though of course there were many places that they frequented more often on their travels. Neutral ground where they could trade with each other was quite important, but usually that resulted in a few big trading houses in particular cities or organized companies that facilitated the exchange of goods between different cultivators.
Velvet couldn’t detect a large number of anyone from a specific sect or style throughout the city, nor did they seem to particularly congregate in one space, unless one counted out on the wharfs where the smiths were. But smiths alone didn’t make a complete population. People had to buy from them, and many of the more transitory sorts certainly did that. But there were also larger numbers of cultivators who seemed to have permanent residence within the city.
She eavesdropped on many of their conversations. Most weren’t of use to her, without a specific reason to spy on individuals and learn about them. She picked out many bits and pieces that told her more, however.
“Heading out to the lake again?”
“Just need a few more insights.”
“Good luck with that. I prefer to stay away myself.”
The idea that the lake was special wasn’t a startling revelation, with all those stone wharfs carefully constructed for the smiths and the amount of natural energy flowing out of it. But it didn’t just seem to be a place to cultivate in general, but where specific places were sought out. And those places came with dangers.
Another small group was planning an expedition of some sort. She overheard some snippets that helped put together a larger picture.
“… think we’re ready?”
“Should be fine… eels…”
“… more worried… deep waters.”
It would make no sense for Spirit Building cultivators to be afraid of water at any depth- and if they were the things living in that water should be the problem. They made it sound like a harsh desert or volcano or something inherently dangerous.
Everything made more sense when she got back together with the other two, though it was frustrating to learn she had found little unique information. Hoyt shared what he knew about the lake, and how the smiths used it for their forging. “Something about the quenching process absorbs the various properties into the materials, or perhaps it is simply the best time for that,” Hoyt explained. “I didn’t really notice many others who seemed as if they were simply planning to cultivate, but perhaps they were in different spots. It’s a large lake.”
“I suspect so,” Anton nodded. “They’d be looking for something particular. It seems the smiths set up near some local properties they like to use in their equipment. Tell us more about what you found, though. You said there was a skeleton?”
“I have the feeling it was some sort of ancient elder of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars, or perhaps some predecessor? I didn’t really get a long chance to make that discernment. I can only assume the various other areas are similar, with someone dead from long ago. Perhaps even the previous invasion, if Grandmaster Smith Bomir is correct.”
“It’s good to know that others do know about the coming invasion,” Anton said. “We just happened to stumble upon the west coast which was least informed. Though word doesn’t seem to have spread as much as I would like. Perhaps the Twin Soul Sect and others like them have been interfering.” They were talking somewhere where nobody should overhear, but Anton made certain to conceal their speech, preventing it from traveling far. There was theoretically a smith at least sympathetic to the Twin Soul Sect nearby, likely very powerful. If they were in Essence Collection they might not be a big issue personally, but it was also likely they had allies.
“I’ve got a few leads,” Hoyt said. “Bomir mentioned a few people who were getting wide varieties of customers with very specific sorts of attributes. That’s not inherently problematic, but if the weapon doesn’t match their obvious cultivation style, it could have some implications. I didn’t check any of them out myself, as I’m sort of… obvious.”
“I’m a bit wary for myself,” Anton replied. “Even if our enemies don’t have a counter for our searching techniques, which they might, there’s always a possibility of them detecting it. We might not even notice if they do, which they could turn into an excuse to attack us… or they could simply flee the area. We’re the outsiders here, so we have to be cautious.”
“They should be too, though,” Velvet said. “Not necessarily all of them, but if this smith came over from our continent… they might only have a few months or years on us. That might be enough for them to be favored over us, but that’s only if we’re involved at all. If someone else just happens to find out about them… well, cultivators don’t like traitors. I assume the other sects here were zealously wiping them out after that whole thing with Everheart, since he forced some techniques into people’s heads. Mostly for fighting people who had ascended, but some people learned detection techniques, right?”
“Most of ours came from the Luminous Ocean Society,” Anton replied. “But there could have been some. And there’s nothing stopping them from developing their own methods. The weakness of the Twin Soul Sect is that their method has to remain fairly static. Their core cultivation is set, and they can only conceal it through various means. Our best bet would be empowering the locals to deal with their own problems, though we can’t know if that will scare off the Twin Soul Sect when they start making progress. I’d like for someone like Swordmaster Rahayu to help us, but people of that power are… not always reliable. He indicated wanting to fight them, but that could be ten or twenty years from now. Or just waiting until the ascenders attack without trying to stop anything.”
“Let’s do what we can, then,” Hoyt said. “Perhaps scoping out these smiths at their forges might be a bit obvious, but they have to come and go from the city, or at least off the wharfs. Not all have the same sort of constant devotion that leaves them on the lake at all hours of the day. Personally, I’d like to try diving into some of the other parts of the lake, to see what sort of weird properties it has. I’ll be least suspicious if I’m actually doing something. But I’ll also keep an eye out for the people we’re looking for. And if I find a few trustworthy people, I can send them to Anton. I assume you’ll be glad to teach them any of the techniques they need?”
“Of course. Teaching is one of the greatest joys in life,” Anton grinned. “Especially when it otherwise suits my own goals.”
The list of notable smiths who had moved into the area ‘recently’ by cultivator standards was actually quite large. When adding in suspicious factors, it still left a handful which by random chance turned out to be a majority of women. Relevant bodily differences between male and female were greatly overshadowed by cultivation after the completion of Body Tempering, and negligible by Essence Collection- the effects of age were a larger factor by a wide margin.
The man, Aser, was the youngest of the bunch, cultivating as a member of the Blue Forest Mystery. The members of that group and the effects of their style weren’t the mystery, but instead the mystery was related to the insights they were discovering along the path. In short, it was an incomplete technique- though very few could be said to be truly complete, with someone having reached the end of it and ascension. Some people just didn’t like to admit it, or did so obliquely.
Next was Reshma of the Insect Shore Swarm. She was not quite so young, though from a sect that was reviled for the bugs they controlled and how they let them devour their enemies. Many cultivators preferred the idea their body would be at least somewhat preserved after their death, even if all of their equipment was stolen. Nobody wanted to be food.
Liljana was the oldest by far. That experience could make her a dangerous enemy, though her power was also waning because of it. She practiced a strange style called the Chain Fish that none had ever heard of, and it could have easily been a cover.
A bit less ancient than Liljana was a smith known as Brianne. She practiced the Hidden Flame style, which certainly made her quite suited for her job as she required less coal than others- and while coal was cheap, the sorts that high level cultivator smiths needed to achieve the temperatures they worked at was anything but. And having her own flames made the work consistent.
A woman named Putri was the final one of the bunch. She was a member of the Ochre Rock Society, who were some of her greatest customers and also suppliers of the various materials she needed.
A worrying issue was that all of them were in Life Transformation. That made them strong in their own right and also meant they would have more powerful allies. While many of the stronger members of the Twin Soul Sect had been taken in by Everheart’s promise of information about ascension where they were subsequently entrapped, the unknown reach of the sect meant they could have many more members at that level of power. It was even possible that two or more of the suspect smiths were part of the Twin Soul Sect. Or none of them, potentially. That would be a fine result, but the members of the Order really wanted to root someone out. Each worked through their various methods, hoping they could find something, even if they couldn’t necessarily act directly on that information.
The offer to instruct people in useful techniques for free was the sort of thing met with great suspicion among cultivators. That had been true around Blackstone Harbor, and it was true in Erygan. But after a month, Anton had a nice few handfuls of students. One of them was a young archer, who he was helping grow in that area along with the actual purpose of the offer which was to teach people Anti-ascension techniques. He wanted to teach them to reveal members of the Twin Soul Sect as well, but that was something that might get him killed if advertised publicly. He would prefer to have more allies in the area or a specific lead into one of the local sects before he attempted any of that.
Young Agus was a strange fellow, and a member of the Tomb Seeking Cult. They weren’t a band of psychopathic murderers or suicidal people like their name might suggest… but that didn’t mean they were entirely sane. In fact, they probably weren’t… because they were dedicated to tracking down everything Everheart left behind and studying it with zealous intensity. That wasn’t the sort of thing that Anton considered healthy and normal, even though he used a few of Everheart’s techniques himself.
“Master,” Agus bowed his head to Anton. “Is it true what they said, that Everheart lived on the moon?”
“I don’t know about lived there,” Anton said. “But he certainly set up some impressive facilities there. Did you not go yourself?”
Agus shook his head, “I was too weak at the time. I am not even in Essence Collection yet,” he pointed out.
Anton wouldn’t say that someone at the peak of Spirit Building was weak, but it was relevant that the young man had been cultivating for a similar length of time to himself. A couple years different maybe, but that was starting to become less relevant. He wasn’t untalented, but his access to useful resources was… limited. The Tomb Seeking Cult wasn’t exactly the most nurturing to their young disciples.
“It was quite impressive,” Anton admitted. “Though I would also consider it quite wasteful.”
“How so?” Agus asked.
“Like usual, it all fell apart at the end. Possibly even the giant forest he’d managed to cultivate beneath the surface.”
“The trials of the end are to weed out those with the talent and will to survive,” Agus said matter-of-factly.
Anton didn’t have the heart to tell him it was probably some sort of prank or bitter revenge against long dead foes. At least the Tomb Seeking Cult had one thing going for them. After they learned that Everheart had set up traps for the Twin Soul Sect… well, they’d apparently grown quite zealous in their search. To the point of sort of neglecting some of their younger members, when they really should be teaching them the same things as Anton. Agus was learning from him sort of as a test, to see if he really knew what he claimed. They’d be quite surprised what Anton really knew about Everheart, though he wasn’t sure if he wanted to reveal all of it at any point. Or if he even actually knew what he knew.