Elder Cultivator 285

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One problem with picking out a single person from among the handful of suspicious smiths was lack of information. It didn’t take a cultivator long to adjust their accent to fit with the changes of being on another continent. It might be possible that there would be a slip-up, but Velvet wasn’t so familiar with the exact differences that she thought she’d notice it.

Another issue was that she didn’t recognize any of the people involved. Not that she expected to have seen them, but she had memorized as many Life Transformation cultivators as possible. The publicly known figures had been a few hundred all told, and the Order even had information on those less public. These weren’t any of them. Perhaps they’d concealed themselves well, or changed their looks. That didn’t necessarily mean one would be in disguise, since there were permanent methods that could change a person if they were willing to commit to it. It was much harder to discern a permanent physical change compared to an illusion.

Watching people come and go wasn’t so easy as sitting in one spot and watching the people step on and off the wharfs. Remaining in one spot for a long time was extremely suspicious, and those who came by with relative frequency would notice her. It was hard enough to not have Life Transformation cultivators notice she was looking at them. Concealing her intent was required, because fully hiding her presence was just asking for trouble when someone saw through. But if she was just another person whose eyes locked onto a Life Transformation cultivator it hardly mattered.

The important thing was her own mental state. If she treated them all as enemies, they would be more likely to feel it. But looking at the situation objectively, the majority of them- possibly even all of them- were not her enemies. If she kept that in mind and tempered her intent, it should keep her concealed. At least, she had no indication she’d been noticed so far.

As for where she was watching from, the simple answer was she became one of those coming and going, and merely varied the time of day she made the trip. As for where she went… the Niverlam Depths had a lot to offer. Most cultivators would take a little boat, whether or not they were of a high enough cultivation to walk on the surface of the water. Among other things, boats provided a small layer of insulation between the cultivators and the strange properties of the lake. That could matter if one area was the sort to pull a cultivator down into it.

Any Essence Collection cultivator has sufficient control and capacity of energy to walk on the surface of a lake. It simply required spreading out energy until the water carried the cultivator’s weight. It was often a wasteful method when that was basically what boats did but statically instead of with constant effort- though depending on the factors a cultivator might maintain such a method indefinitely.

It was probably faster than paddling a little dinghy, but also considered rather arrogant. Not exactly the best for keeping a low profile. The slower pace also allowed Velvet more time to watch the people she passed, taking a similar route that brought her past most of the suspicious characters. 

She wasn’t ready to try probing any of them yet. That was the sort of thing that got quick results, but that result might be a quick death for her. And it might not even reveal what happened to the others. Velvet didn’t intend to die, and dying in vain would be even worse. It didn’t matter if she was probably in range of Anton’s arrows anywhere in the city if she got her head lopped off before she could respond to an attack.

But thoughts like that led her to immerse herself in the most lauded pastime of cultivators- training. The best way to look like she was supposed to be around was to actually do what was expected. That involved going out on the lake and searching for somewhere to train.

At frequent intervals other little boats could be seen, as well as more permanent anchored docks. These were less durable than the stone wharfs but also less likely to be set on fire. And most weren’t intended to be permanent.

Even when particular sects set up a platform in the water, they usually weren’t a permanent fixture. Only large local sects contained permanent domain over any part of the lake, and while they might have taken the ‘best’ locations, Velvet found that highly subjective. After all, Hoyt had found a spot perfect for members of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. Sure, that area was now kind of obsolete- either forging his new weapon or destroying the skeleton had drained a significant portion of the energy that had been there- but there were things to study besides just a cultivation style.

Velvet’s favorite she’d stumbled upon by accident, while shuffling along the bottom towards a vertical chasm that felt rather daggerlike. It was astounding how long the area had remained as it was, but there was a sort of overall resonance between what seemed to be a myriad of bodies. They hadn’t actually reached the bottom of any others to observe more corpses, but they could imagine. 

On the way there, her toe had dipped into the sand. Nothing odd about that, but the weight had felt off. Being sensitive to tiny changes was important for a scout, and so she danced around the area for a bit… before finally determining what looked like a patch of sand was actually just another hole concealing itself.

Even when she dropped inside, she couldn’t tell it was there. Her senses were constantly telling her there was earth all around her, sand and rock making up the lakebed. But she was physically able to move deeper, and she did.

The sensation was nauseating over any significant period of time, and Velvet had to carefully maintain how quickly she descended. After a period between ten minutes and half an hour, she would usually return to the surface to stabilize herself and her thoughts. 

The strange thing was, she felt nothing. But that was exactly what she was supposed to feel. Just being what should be somewhere was one of the ultimate forms of stealth. She had practiced similar techniques, but there was always more to learn. She also got to practice with it, as the creatures dwelling in the walls were quite adept in that area as well. 

Velvet didn’t relish the feeling of being bitten out of nowhere, teeth sinking into you when you were surrounded by lifeless rock and sand. Even worse was when that feeling was delayed and she was unable to counterattack the creatures. She knew there were things other than eels that lived in the other depths, but she usually counterattacked with the presumption that they were long and ‘skinny’, relative to other things. The eels were most common, from what she’d seen.

As for what they ate… there were certainly abundant fish in the lakes, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the eels. Then again, cultivators also weren’t plentiful enough to be the food source. If Velvet had to guess, it would be… the energy. The creatures had simply become part of the lake, living animals that hardly operated like natural beasts. Though she could be wrong, because they looked normal on the inside. At least to the extent of her knowledge. Maybe she would ask Anton.

But first she would dive once more. Velvet had at first focused on feeling like sand and rock, but that hadn’t been sufficient to conceal her from the senses of the beasts. Among other things, the constant movement required her to shift the feeling she displayed continuously, a taxing mental effort that wasn’t always successful. Just trying to feel ‘natural’ wasn’t sufficient either, but she was getting the knack now. She was part of the lake as she descended- no, simply a part of the world. It just so happened that the lake was around her. 

Attacks by beasts didn’t stop. She was learning to sense them, as their own energy signatures were more practiced than hers but still imperfect. Her dagger clanked off of the shell of something hard, but a twist of her body brought her dagger into where she estimated joints would be. The more she did that, the more correct she was. 

After a short time, Velvet swam to the surface, sitting in her boat. She breathed deeply. It was possible to sustain her breath with energy for a long time, perhaps indefinitely, but it wasn’t the same as actually breathing. And the repetitive motion helped clear her head. If she stayed down too long, she might actually believe she was part of the lake, or rather simply a natural part of the world. The effects on herself were the most disconcerting. She wondered if the cultivator who had presumably died in that spot had done so by way of violence or simply had forgotten they were alive. That was a scary thought. She absolutely wanted to avoid that, as it seemed a very real possibility. But it was an effective technique.

Velvet was practiced enough in that and various other types of stealth that she naturally blended into the world. That helped her when Aser rowed out to a nearby spot on the lake. She wasn’t hiding from him, but simply training. So whether or not he had noticed her, he hadn’t really noticed her. But she certainly noticed him, when his energy briefly flared up and then sort of twisted in upon itself. It almost completely disappeared as he descended into one of the depths. It wasn’t the same as the Twin Soul Sect’s cultivation concealing abilities, but it felt sort of similar. Perhaps it was just an intermediate step, allowing him to access his true abilities while not revealing where he was from.

She managed to convince herself to dive again, though her focus wasn’t on anything she was doing. She exited the lake with a dozen bite marks and a small, finger length worm with its mouth firmly attached to her ribs. She blew it up with a puff of energy and carefully inspected the area for remains of the weird parasite. It seemed to have secreted a numbing agent but that was no excuse for having not noticed it.

And Aser was gone. But that gave Velvet a chance to slip over to the area he had been in and inspect the depth he’d descended into. Just sticking a finger in didn’t tell her much. A swirling mix of energy that didn’t coalesce into one particular idea.

A quick dive told her that it was much more open than where she had been. Not physically wider or anything, usually no more than a few meters across, but just obvious. It displayed a kind of energy, and it was that. A small shark had dozens of different teeth, some coated in fire, some in ice, some a slimy poison… but each of them was a distinct entity. And none of them were allowed to bite Velvet. 

It was a useful area. Though she couldn’t immediately pick it up, given some time she felt she would be able to develop a method to convert her energy into different forms. The others already did that, but they all picked something related to the Ninety-Nine Stars. A core bit of cultivation that changed things. Hoyt used fire, and Anton practiced with that and light a bit. Velvet could probably work with either, but the swirling vortex promised things outside of her normal scope.

Just perfect for pretending to be from another cultivation style. And if she could become proficient, quite practical for taking advantage of the weaknesses of certain cultivators. The only problem was that it would be difficult to train if Aser were to come back. Even if he didn’t have a real claim to the area, he was a Life Transformation cultivator and she was not. He also might not be pleased to find she was aware of what he was training. 

How troubling. She decided to back away for the moment. He could come back at any time, though she imagined he would have stayed for longer if he was to return the same day. Either way, she should consult with the others how they wanted to proceed. Alone she could spin in circles forever until she made a mistake that got her killed, but the others would be able to guide her. Or at least make her feel better about whatever she decided on her own.

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