Elder Cultivator 287

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There had been an offhanded request by Swordmaster Rahayu that Anton hadn’t really followed through with. From anyone else it would have been a joke at best. He’d casually agreed, but hadn’t really followed through as there wasn’t any sort of pressure or timeframe behind it. He’d mostly forgotten about it until it became convenient. Now, he wanted to provoke some sort of reaction.

Information was important to people in all walks of life, from what crops were desirable to where rare materials could be purchased for cheap to the strengths and weaknesses of individual cultivators, and the conflicts between different sects. People were always willing to listen to the latter.

“Have you been to Blackstone Harbor recently?” Anton said as he sat next to someone at a bar. “Apparently they had some trouble with a group called the Twin Soul Sect.”

The young man shook his head. “Haven’t heard of them. What happened?”

“Well, it seems some elder was not who he seemed. Swordmaster Rahayu found out, and…” Anton drew a line across his throat with his thumb. “That was it. I heard he’s got it out for that Twin Soul Sect.” 

Normal people didn’t want to provoke mysterious, powerful groups into attacking them. Even the Order had been hesitant to allow it, and they were much more than a single individual. But as far as Anton knew the request had been genuine. Swordmaster Rahayu wanted to fight, and he would doubtless find someone. If it could be an enemy of the whole world, it would be better for everyone. Except them, but they chose their path.

“Oh. I’ve heard of him. He’s a powerful Life Transformation cultivator, right?” the young man nodded. “I don’t want to get anywhere near that fight.”

“Same here,” Anton agreed truthfully. He still had things he wanted to do while he was alive. If nothing else he should be able to last until the invasion and die there.

There was some more frivolous conversation and exchange of rumors, but that was Anton’s main contribution. Things with Aser had kind of come to a standstill. The multi elemental stuff he was cultivating was perfectly normal for a member of the Blue Forest Mystery and a smith who made a wide variety of weapons. 

Nobody had a fortunate encounter that suddenly revealed anything about the other four under suspicion, and as Anton got a better picture about the limitations of Life Transformation cultivator’s senses, he realized how dangerous it could be. For example, within the Ninety-Nine Stars cultivation technique, forty-two of the theoretical one hundred stars were part of Life Transformation. Even if people were only a short way into it, each step represented a marked improvement that only amplified the division between stages. Anton himself was only at the forty-fifth star, and someone in early Life Transformation would be around the sixtieth.

In general, sensing ability increased with overall cultivation. Anton wasn’t willing to bet that he or Velvet were close to two and a half times better than the talents who could make it to the final known realm of cultivation, regardless of their individual specialties. So stirring up the nest by making the Twin Soul Sect nervous- or eager- was their best bet.

If a lone Life Transformation cultivator wanted to cause trouble, it was quite possible for them to wipe him out. They might have to make some sacrifices- Vandale took more than a handful down with him- but a lone cultivator was an easier target. In theory, at least. In practice, Swordmaster Rahayu was… specialized. Combat was a huge part of most cultivator’s abilities, but most also had other pursuits. Except people like Rahayu, which made them more dangerous. Anton didn’t plan to remind the Twin Soul Sect of that part, though.

—–

A couple weeks was enough for rumors to take hold, if they had enough truth to them. Anton actually had more information about what had happened in Blackstone Harbor, but that information was already known. He focused on the part where Rahayu declared his intent to fight the Twin Soul Sect. It hadn’t happened in public, but it was the sort of juicy thing people wanted to hear. And it was true, which helped. Nobody who knew about the man could say that it didn’t sound like him.

They were now just waiting for fruit of their efforts- either their casual scouting, trying to pick up individual members of the Twin Soul Sect- or some information that led them to determine for certain who was involved.

Reshma had become more active, though it was possible it was simply because of the season and the local insect populations. Liljana was spending more time out in the lake away from her smithy. Brianne had been turning away customers as she worked on a particular batch of weapons. And Putri had disappeared- though it was uncertain if she had left town or where she had gone.

Then danger arrived. It cut through town like a hot knife through butter. Except it was a sword, and a known one at that. Anton was fairly certain that nothing was physically severed, but he felt the passage of Swordmaster Rahayu through Erygan, lasting only a few moments before he was out on the lake. Trailing behind it he felt a more familiar presence heading right for him. He went out to meet Chikere, only to find an extremely haggard woman. The various sheaths complaining her myriad of swords were dangling randomly around her, and some were dragging along the ground. She looked as if she hadn’t slept properly for days or weeks… which was quite possible.

“There… you are…” Chikere staggered over towards Anton. “The Swordmaster… says he needs you to use that technique.”

“Which technique?” Anton asked.

“The… discerny one. That reveals people.”

“Ah.” Anton didn’t particularly mind using it, of course. “Where does he need me?”

“Out at the lake. With that smith lady,” Chikere said. “Just go towards him.”

“Right. I will. You should rest.”

“… no. I need to see him fight her.” Chikere started a pathetic jog towards the lake, barely the speed a non-cultivator could maintain.

Knowing he couldn’t reasonably stop her, Anton swept her up, sitting her on one shoulder. It was the least awkward place he could think to put her, and had the fewest swords batting against him as he moved. 

He quickly moved to the straightest avenue that led to the lake and the various wharfs there. It didn’t provide a view of the entire area, but he could barely make something out. A few moments later and Anton wasn’t the only one running towards the battle- numerous cultivators were interested in seeing what was happening. Most of them stopped at the shore of the lake, however. Getting too close to a fight between powerful cultivators could be dangerous.

Anton didn’t have that luxury, but as long as nothing was targeting him he should be fine a little closer. Then he felt a Life Transformation cultivator barreling towards him. He was prepared to dodge off the wharf into the lake, since any strange effects that he might be drawn into would be better than being smashed to pieces. Chikere didn’t seem as if she could handle too much battering, either. But before he could move he recognized the figure.

It was Putri, of the Ochre Rock Society. Their technique made them quite durable, as most earth sorts did. Perhaps that was why she was still intact as she flew towards Anton, back first. He was still going to dodge out of the way when he realized the battle was still happening. Putri wasn’t really involved, and had simply been ejected from the area. Rapidly.

Anton gently tossed Chikere over to the side, spreading out his energy in the widest pattern he could maintain. Instead of creating bows he focused more on the string aspect, forming a large net. It wouldn’t be as durable as something he’d practiced for a long time, but nobody was intentionally trying to break it. When the woman impacted him, he tried to remind himself of that.

The strings of energy snapped taut, stretching to their limits in the same instant. Chunks of the wharf were torn asunder as the impact threw Anton backwards, but the tendrils of his reach out to the side pushed against the water and slowed down the pair. Anton managed to take a look at Putri as he set her on her feet, and found she had a slash across her chest. Not terribly deep, though.

For a moment he wondered if he’d made the wrong choice, aided someone Rahayu was after… but an explosion of fire came from the buildings ahead- and Putri breathed a sigh of relief. Though he hadn’t sensed the woman from up close before, her aura was much weakened, and she felt deflated. Even so, she turned to Anton.

“You… ah, one of the ones snooping around.”

Having his paranoia justified wasn’t particularly comforting at the moment, but he didn’t feel any ill intent from her. And her energy was not terribly concerning in magnitude at the moment. Though Anton would certainly prefer to have Hoyt and Velvet as backup if it came down to it. He felt Chikere nearby as well, slowly swimming to the shore- but she merely pulled herself up onto the wharf to watch the fight.

It was suddenly much easier to see as a wall exploded off of a building, fire spraying everywhere. Then three more buildings in the way slid apart as something cut them at an angle. Anton was still a few hundred meters away, but he almost dodged out of the way of the blade in front of him. It didn’t get that close though.

“Is he with you?” Putri prompted Anton.

“I don’t know if he’s with anyone,” Anton said. “What about you? What’s your relation to that battle?”

“Your snooping inspired my own,” she commented. “I saw you teaching those anti-ascension techniques and was reminded of the elders to the east speaking of the Twin Soul Sect helping the invaders. Maybe from overhearing rumors about Rahayu and them which seem to be true. If Brianne is one of them, anyway. There could have been other reasons she took exception to my investigations.”

Anton was listening to her, but most of his focus was on the battle ahead. His eyes focused, picking out every detail he could. The smith Brianne swung a great hammer which caused a burst of flame to sprout from the wharf below Rahayu. Instead of dodging or rallying his defensive energy or anything sensible, the man parried it with the tip of his blade. A three meter wide pillar of fire was obviously a bit larger than the tip of a sword, but the way it angled to the side of him Anton determined that the fire didn’t care.

Brianne took a deep breath, calling upon her inner flame before breathing a cone that went out at least twenty meters. But it didn’t touch Swordmaster Rahayu, as his blade swished upwards and cut it in half. It wasn’t clearly visible from Anton’s angle, but he could sense that the cone of fire split in half and went off to either side of him, with no lingering usage of Rahayu’s energy to create a wall or something equivalent to block it. But unless it was a very well practiced battle, Brianne wasn’t faking her attempts to kill him.

But the gap between them was just too much- she was in early Life Transformation and Rahayu was at the peak. A moment later he stabbed forward with her sword, stabbing through her as a pillar of flame burned around her. And then the fire went out.

Anton wondered why he was there, until Rahayu turned to look directly at him, then gestured to the woman- who was still alive. Anton felt she even still had stores of energy… but she seemed unable to make use of it. 

Even so, he approached cautiously.

“There you are. Why’d you stop all the way back there?”

“It was a sensible distance,” Anton said. “Quite safe.”

“And I suppose you could have attacked if you felt like it,” Rahayu shrugged. “Not my style, but understandable. Anyway, do that thing that reveals her. Chikere said you should know it.”

Anton jogged towards them. Closer to a run, but he avoided hurrying. He didn’t have to listen to Rahayu, though he did want to be in his good graces. He just also didn’t want to end up burned alive.

Brianne glared at Anton, but didn’t say or do anything. Perhaps that was due to the sword casually pointed in her direction. Anton realized he probably should have checked Putri while he was next to her, but he saw her staying where she was. If she suddenly disappeared… he could make some assumptions.

Anton gathered up his energy. Normally a sensing technique didn’t take much, but he knew Brianne would show some resistance. Or at least, she should have been able to. When he reached into her all he felt was a sputtering fire. A fake one, covering up an unfortunately familiar duplicitous cultivation style. Anton pushed, and her cover up faded away, allowing everyone to feel her true cultivation. Not that many people were close.

“I see,” Rahayu said. “It really is quite different. But your swords gave you away. You put too much of that into them.” She glared at him. “Now then, someone like you has to be important to the Twin Soul Sect.”

She glared more. “What? You want me to beg for my life? Swear revenge? Well, maybe I will. It will come when you least expect it.”

“I doubt that,” he said. “Since I’m always ready. And they’ll be quite happy to meet me in Foulmarsh. They won’t even have to reveal themselves as they try to save you.”

“What?” the woman looked at him confused for a moment, then his sword twitched. Somehow, that led to her slumping to the ground.

“What was that?” Anton asked.

“A threat,” Rahayu replied.

“Those cause Life Transformation cultivators to pass out?”

“Oh, I simply severed her consciousness,” Rahayu nodded. “Just like I cut off her connection to energy earlier. It’s not difficult against someone weak like her.”

Anton didn’t like the sound of that, partly because he was yet another step weaker than her. But perhaps there was some innate quality. He… would ask later. “You really plan to go to Foulmarsh?” Anton knew that was to the east of the Niverlam Depths, and full of all sorts of unpleasantness. Its name wasn’t just for show, after all.

“Yes, that’s where we’re going,” he nodded.

“When you say ‘we’,” Anton asked. “You mean the two of you?”

“Of course. And you and your companions, plus Chikere. Unless you don’t want to fight the Twin Soul Sect.”

Anton knew he could refuse… but he also knew that a lone cultivator without any backup at all would be much less effective. Even if Rahayu could take on himself, Hoyt, and Velvet together… they could help keep him from being swarmed. “I’ll ask the others.”

“That’s fine, Chikere looks like she could use a break anyway.”

Anton looked back at the haggard woman, hair stuck to her face with sweat as she sat in a meditative position. He wasn’t sure if he would call swinging her sword from sitting a ‘break’, but she was the one who would be responsible for the consequences of that.

As he passed by smith Putri, Anton carefully scanned her. There was no reaction, and he excused his momentary stop by speaking. “It seems Rahayu plans to capture Brianne to use for ransom from the Twin Soul Sect.” Some people likely overheard what he actually said, but it was a reasonable extension of what he’d said. But Rahayu really just wanted to be attacked.

The question was, should he be there? How much damage could he cause to them compared to the good he might do by being alive? And the others as well. If he went, it increased the chance that they would go. Chikere… was probably going to go regardless. She wasn’t part of the Order, but she was still a friend, if a bit of an odd one.

Anton was going to officially discourage following after a potentially suicidal swordmaster. Hoyt and Velvet were worth too much, and had too much potential to just waste.

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