In front of Chidi stood a nearly perfect replica of himself, expertly carved from a boulder he had found on the side of a mountain during a recent mission. The reason he chose it was because it survived the collateral damage of the battle, standing tall and strong among a field of rubble. Now, here it stood, representing himself in a stance, his sword ready. It was only missing… something.
A sudden bark of laughter drew his attention to Aconite. “Sorry. I just… thought that maybe you were making fun of me when you first made a replica of me. But that’s… literally nothing! Is that even human? The only thing I can recognize is your sword. Actually, how long did you spend on that? It even almost has a metallic reflection off the blade…”
“The sword was quick,” Chidi said. “I spent much longer on the details of the face.”
“The face…” Aconite said.
“And the hair.”
“There’s hair of that? I thought you just cut gouges into the skull! Seriously, I thought you could feel the fine details of things, how is it… like this?”
“I don’t really get what you mean,” Chidi said. “Obviously it will feel a bit different because it’s stone. But this is nearly perfect.” It was only missing something. But what? Ah, that was it. He raised his blade level with his head, then stabbed forward and twisted. Once. Twice. Shards of stone scattered, and then it was finished. “Now it’s perfect.”
“Okay,” Aconite said with defeat in her voice. “If you say so. At least I know you’ll do a good job with the formation markings. Speaking of which, what are you thinking on that front?”
“… I haven’t considered it yet,” Chidi admitted.
“So something similar to me? Speed and fine energy control?”
“I don’t think so,” Chidi frowned. “I thought it would come to me when I got to this point, but… clearly that was optimistic.” Oh well. He would simply have to continue working at it. Though he wasn’t certain how long he had until Chikere came back and dragged him off to his death, so he should probably make certain he was ready before then. If he wasn’t even in Life Transformation, his battle would be hopeless.
Patrolling the seas around Aspin was the duty of every sect and clan that dwelled upon it. There were many possible threats. Sea beasts were first among them, and though they rarely threatened the land they had to be dealt with so as to not disrupt ship traffic. Travel and trade were important to In’istra as a whole, especially now that the flow through the Reef of Serenity had cleared up. Before that, messages took a while to get through the central hub. Some could go around the planet in other directions, but the best routes all crossed over each other there, with plentiful locations to resupply along the way.
The second threat, though rare, was still possible. Enemy sects or alliances thinking to take over Aspin’s prosperous location. Though it was unlikely for any significant threat to reach them without advance warning, those who patrolled the waters could be the last line of defense, providing time for the mainland to ready themselves.
The third threat was much the same as the second, but more insidious. That was members of the Twin Soul Sect or other members of the upper realms infiltrating as spies. There were fewer these days, but they couldn’t rest until all of them were eliminated.
Varghese took his duties very seriously. His first memories were all about the aftermath of the invasion and the ruined cities of Aspin. Now, decades after Anton had first revealed himself to Varghese and begun the process of rooting them out, they were actually nearly rid of them. And Aspin was prospering, replacing rubble with new buildings- though the population would take several more generations to recover.
The Order had their own ships. It was difficult to believe, coming from his nearly hopeless prospects using the first cultivation method he got his hands on. Now he was an Essence Collection cultivator taken seriously by everyone in his home nation. There were still Life Transformation cultivators above him in power, but he would take his place among them relatively soon, at least as cultivators measured things.
He kept his senses tuned for anything. He was aware that Sect Head Anton could sense enemies from… well, he never did say how far. But he could find Varghese anywhere on Aspin, which wasn’t a small area.
Varghese couldn’t do that, but he could search for powerful sources of natural energy. That could find either beasts or cultivators. But for the latter, he actually had another method. He could feel fluctuations in magnetic fields. That would get him most ships, because even if they were primarily made of wood there were always plentiful metal bits. Weapons both for the ships and cultivators, as well as armor and things as simple as storage containers. All of those would leave behind signs nobody considered.
Currently, the Seahawk was patrolling the seas in between ports. Official ports could handle themselves, what Aspin was worried about were those who were not heading for one. Many trips they encountered no one, but it seemed that this one would have some. Best to be polite about it though.
Varghese directed their ship to come up beside the approaching vessel, cautiously. They flew the flag of Aspin, both as a warning for those who were up to something, as well as to placate those who were just going about their business. Anyone who ran would be suspect, but to avoid confusion he would announce himself properly as they got close. There was a good chance anyone familiar with the area could recognize the aura of the One Hundred Stars. It was pretty distinctive, if he did say so himself.
“Crew of the Cato. Please be advised that you are subject to inspection.”
“Of course, sir. Feel free to approach.”
The captain had already won himself some points with the politeness, but Varghese was aware of what could be hidden beneath the surface. He kept on his guard, as he would until they were finished with this ship.
Varghese pulled the Seahawk next to the Cato, matching their speed and trajectory. “I am Varghese of the One Hundred Stars, inspecting under the authority of Aspin’s ports.”
He showed a formal badge and openly displayed his cultivation. The captain of the other ship had a familiar swarthy complexion, though Varghese didn’t recognize the man nor his particular cultivation method. “Captain Anik,” the man said. “A pleasure.”
Was there such a thing as too polite? Already, Varghese’s opinion of the man was wavering. Then again, he already approached with suspicion. But he would not act on anything unfounded. Should it come to battle, however, he felt the Seahawk had the upper hand. Though the patrol vessel was smaller, it was more maneuverable- and on board with Varghese were two early Essence Collection cultivators. Not enough to cow a large sect, but sufficient to threaten a merchant such as this man appeared to be.
The first thing Varghese did was sweep his senses over the ship to catching anything obvious. It felt initially clear. “Permission to come aboard.” Technically, the captain was obligated to give it. But politeness was best held on both sides, and he didn’t want to startle anyone. Varghese waved the two ‘elders’ to stand behind him, indicating they would be part of that. They were elders, though one of them was hardly older than Varghese, and the other was barely his father’s age. There were of course older cultivators around, but those willing to change to a fully new cultivation method were rarer the stronger they began. And loyalty was best fostered from those early in their cultivation.
Captain Anik gestured, opening a hole in the simple defensive formations of the ship- so that they would not have to force their way through. “Come aboard, then.”
Varghese and the other two jumped over, where they began to scan the crew more in depth. There were a few bounties they were on the lookout for, but mostly upper realms invaders.
“What port are you sailing to?”
“Lanilan, of course.”
That would be the most logical place to go, on their current trajectory. “Seems you’re a bit off course,” Varghese said conversationally. “But I’m sure you can correct once you spot land. Anything you’d like to declare?”
“Only standard goods,” the man lied. Varghese wasn’t sure how much he lied, but he was quite certain.
“Let’s take a quick trip through the hold.”
“Of course, sir.”
He seemed quite willing. He must have good hiding places. Varghese confidently walked below with him, but he didn’t sense much in the way of hidden compartments. Not in the vessel itself. Instead, there were goods stacked on top of each other oddly. Yet Varghese didn’t sense anything illegal. Drugs were of concern to him in particular. Those could ravage poor populations… or even groups of promising cultivators.
Ultimately, Varghese decided that the man was technically clean. But he also likely wasn’t planning to dock at a normal port. Likely intending to avoid taxes. It was still smuggling, of course, but Varghese didn’t feel beholden to the port tax collectors. Their pockets were fat enough already.
In a perfect world, Varghese knew he would still call out the captain. However, his predictions for the consequences were both problematic. First was being offered a bribe, which he would have to refuse- which would then lead to the next most likely scenario. Battle, and the cost of any human life would be too much. Varghese returned to the deck. “Thank you, captain Anik. You’re clear. Do be safe.”
Once back on the Seahawk, Varghese took aside the ‘elders’ to explain to them. They most likely noticed the same things as he did, and he just wanted them to be on the same page. Ultimately, they agreed that the discretion was reasonable, if not desirable. And if they disagreed, they would have told him clearly. That was why he picked them. Anton had made it clear that surrounding himself with yes-men would be the best way to get a single generation sect. And maybe a short generation to boot.
They continued on with their patrol, hoping both to find something… or nothing. It was better to not have trouble, but letting it slip by rather than dealing with it was worse. The next day, they came upon another vessel.
Things went much the same way, except the captain was an older woman this time. They approached peaceably and checked everything out. Everything passed except… one person. That was basically what Varghese told the captain. “What about her?” he indicated an older woman among the crew.
“Picked her up a few voyages ago. Strong, dedicated. Why? Is there some… trouble?”
“I need to talk to her,” Varghese said. He approached carefully, making sure he had backup with him. “Excuse me…”
“Yes, sir?” the sailor said.
“Can I see your hand for a moment?” That seemed to catch her off guard. But of course, there was nothing special about her hand, so she didn’t hesitate too much.
The technique Varghese used hadn’t had many real opportunities to practice, but he’d been tutored by Anton himself. When the woman realized what was happening, it was already too late. But she reacted quickly, drawing her blade and swinging it for Varghese’s neck, only to find that it slowed drastically as it approached, allowing him to catch it. “Men, arrest her.”
Three against one, it wasn’t difficult. And the captain and crew didn’t seem interested in interceding. “Didn’t know anything about that,” the captain said.
Half true. Maybe more. Most likely, she knew this woman was hiding something. Then again, how often was that true of sailors? Cultivators were prone to travel, but spending your life doing so was a good way to avoid certain trouble that might otherwise catch up.
“You’d best be careful in the future,” Varghese said honestly. “I’m sure you’ve heard what they can do.”
Most likely, the woman avoided leaving the ship at port, letting her go unnoticed. Or perhaps they had laxer standards where the ship normally docked. Either way, this would be the woman’s last journey. Aspin had dozens of people who could verify her status in the Twin Soul Sect, which was enough by itself for a death sentence. One more dealt with. Varghese wondered how many more remained.