(Patreon) Elder Cultivator 386

-–Chapter Index–-

By some definitions, the demands laid down by the representatives of the Exalted Archipelago were reasonable. They were given one year to comply with the demands, which was sufficient time to organize whatever needed to happen. The amounts of wealth demanded were rather extravagant, with between ten and twenty percent of any particular resource listed, the exact amounts depending on unknown factors. 

Further inspection revealed that those numbers were intended to be levied on yearly income, while a smaller portion of current wealth was targeted. Thus, the demands were reasonable as far as them being technically achievable.

“I’m going to burn them to ashes,” Sarka said, her palms doing a fair representation as she melted a protective layer of ice from the table in front of her. 

The intertwined Glorious Flame Palace and Frostmirror Sect had a conveniently central location for people to meet for discussions such as this. The way the sects balanced each other out also made others more comfortable than staying in the territory of either as individuals would have.

“As much as it would be appropriate,” Adelina countered, “We must discuss the feasibility of the matter. We must also consider the benefits to Brogora.”

“What benefits?” Sarka snorted.

“Nobody dying,” Matousek pointed out. “I’m sure everyone here can surmise how much will be lost if we go to war with the Exalted Archipelago. It is bound to be far more damaging than this.”

“So what?” Sarka crossed her arms and glared. “We just roll over while they leech us dry?”

“If it would result in the best potential outcome, yes,” Adelina said. Before anyone could object, she continued. “If that were the case. But we cannot trust that would be the case. This… document outlines a strictly one-sided agreement, with no promise from the Exalted Archipelago about further actions. It is not a negotiation, but a declaration. It spends quite a long time on the specifics of what they desire, but without even a mention of the consequences if we do not, except the obvious threats.”

“So what, you think it’s a bluff?” Sarka asked.

“Absolutely not. We are aware of their power. We have just recently returned to stability here, and would be hard pressed to fight against them. I’m not sure we could survive defying this… but we absolutely can’t accept it either. So much is missing. We have no guarantee they would not immediately follow up with greater demands that we would be less able to handle. And there is one very important thing. Nowhere in this does it mention Aicenith.” Adelina looked around the room. “I will admit that I missed that detail. I had a scholar of the law, one Kohar, help me look over things. She was not able to be present here, but there were more concerns.”

“Do you think they made a deal?” Adrastea asked.

“We can’t be sure,” Adelina said. “But if they did, it was kept tightly under wraps.”

Elder Tola of the Infinite Wisdom Forest added her own thoughts. “I would imagine this is intended to drive us apart. The two continents, or even simply Brogora. If some of us choose to capitulate and others do not, everyone’s positions will be weakened. This is not a situation where following the majority will provide the best possible results. We must be unanimous in our decision making.”

“Sixty years ago, that would have been an impossibility,” Matousek commented. “Now that may be accomplished. Though there are certain factors to consider. What of the void ants?” Matousek turned to the ‘Great Queen’, the de facto leader of the uncomfortably named beings they’d found themselves allied with. While the various nests were technically independent, they would all listen to her. And at least a portion of the void ants were intelligent in a way that could not be ignored.

The great queen spoke in the sign language she had created. The words were just as a human would speak, though as the language was meant for communication with them it was expected. Anton translated.

“We have no collections of material goods such as humans do. Likewise, it is possible for us to go unnoticed, if we so wished to. We need not engage in conflicts… but we may choose to support you, in exchange for further expansion rights.”

Everyone took time to think about that. The void ants were an uncomfortable anomaly for cultivators. The ability to resist energy made them dangerous to cultivators, in numbers if not as individuals. Though a few of them such as the great queen herself were dangerous on their own. Likewise, the alien nature of insects made humans uncomfortable. Yet so far, they had been peaceful and even helpful neighbors. Nobody could say they took up too much space or too many resources. Even if they had the potential, they didn’t scour an area of resources but instead took careful steps to maintain things for the long term. They were exactly the sort of thing people would want around, if they were humans.

But some couldn’t help but wonder if that intelligence was hiding something more sinister beneath. The void ants clearly understood that at the moment, even if they wanted to attack people they would not survive it. So far they had been well behaved, but what if they chose not to be? The great queen herself could be genuine in her actions, but what if some of her descendents went rogue? Having more nests made things unpredictable, and at least some portion of people couldn’t help but be hesitant. Yet it was entirely natural to want to expand and grow.

“I think they would be a great help,” Anton finally spoke through the silence. “What concerns us most about the Exalted Archipelago? Their significant quantity of Life Transformation cultivators. Even after our recent growth we aren’t a match for them… but we also aren’t hopelessly outmatched if our estimations are correct. The void ants are nearly as effective against the strongest cultivators as they are against beginners, which in a way makes them more effective. I quite like having them on our side, though of course, you know my past.”

Not everyone would know that he was the one the great queen came with, but they would be aware that he ultimately ended up being one of the first to interact with them- and on friendly terms. It was simply that the same traits that made them valuable made them a threat, making it difficult for people to balance their understanding of the void ants.

“I think that it would be wise to accept your assistance,” Adelina commented, “If we ultimately go to war. I do not think this is just a bluff, so if we reject this ‘offer’ I have no doubt that will happen. But before we can decide, there are too many unknowns. We must act quickly, as there is some possibility we will need to go along with this agreement for a time… or at least appear to. We cannot delay overly long.”

“They key point seems to be Aicenith, then,” Matousek followed up. “If they have received a similar demand, made some sort of agreement, or have been entirely left out… all of those will influence what we might do. If they would help us stand against the Exalted Archipelago, our bargaining power improves. It’s not quite the same as the invaders but…”

“It’s also not exactly different,” Sarka said. “The Exalted Archipelago still has some connection to this ‘upper realm’ where the invaders came from. Just because they are a different faction doesn’t make them any better, especially when they lifted not a finger in our defense. And if they come against us simply because there is no longer an agreement not to, does it make them any different?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Adelina replied. “We have to live with them. Surviving a war is feasible, eliminating them is not. Even with the involvement of Aicenith…” she shook her head. “And while their core is less unified than the front they portray, they would likely stand together against a counterattack. Under those conditions, it is difficult to do more than fight them to a standstill where we both ultimately lose.”

“Then let’s go. These questions should be easily answered.”

“Unless they are working together with Aicenith on some level,” Adelina pointed out.

“There are some I would trust to convey that information,” Anton commented.

“And how will you safely get in touch with them?” Adelina asked. “Message plates could be compromised, and while recent news seems to indicate their borders are still open, would you teleport into their midst to find yourself weak and surrounded?”

“If I could go directly to those I trust, it would not be an issue. But intercontinental teleportation is more limited than that.” Anton shrugged, “But I trust I can understand the communication patterns of some. I’m sure all of you know of Swordmaster Chikere?”

“Formerly from Brogora, now a part of the Million Sword Vault,” Adelina said.

“I have a communication plate in case I need to contact her. You can all watch as I send her a message and receive a response. We can judge the situation without being particularly suspicious.”

“Fair enough. Go ahead.”

Anton placed his palm on the communication plate. It was simply a way to trigger as many of the letters as possible, indicating he wished to begin communication. There was no response for several awkward moments. There were any number of reasons that could be, but in the current circumstances it was concerning. “She might be asleep. It should be the middle of the night there…”

He lifted his hand as he felt a response. The letters flashed by, strokes of a finger lighting in a sympathetic glow in rapid succession. “-forgot how to use this. Hi Anton!”

Knowing his name was not terribly difficult, if the communication plate was marked. The enthusiasm would be harder to know unless they’d pried information from her, but Anton knew just what to say to get a read on her. “Tell me about Number One.”

That isn’t suspicious?” Sarka asked. “Asking about a code name?”

There was a short pause. “Number One is the best, obviously!” Another pause. “Okay now I’m down to five opponents so I don’t need to use my arms.”

What followed was an unnecessary amount of detail about a sword, and how it felt to wield it. Anton prompted a few times to get her to reveal other details, but he honestly didn’t know most of the answers. What he did know was Chikere’s enthusiasm for swords, and how she would respond.

“It would appear she is uncompromised,” Anton said.

“She could be held hostage…” Adelina said, “But they would have had to be waiting and very well prepared.”

“Also she’s the sort of person who would die before betraying an ally. Or cut apart all of her enemies before that.” Anton took a careful look at his plate holding it up, “Catarina, how does the sympathetic link for this work?”

“What part of it?” Catarina asked.

“For example,” Anton gestured. “These grooves that were not there before. Would that be because something happened to the other plate?”

“Ack. I told her to be gentle!” Catarina looked at it. “Hmm, I don’t see any pattern. It just kind of looks like she cut it.”

“With her finger?” Tola asked.

“There’s a good chance she was writing with a sword,” Anton admitted. “I wouldn’t expect her to cut something on accident, though.”

“Actually, that might be my fault,” Catarina said. “It might have misinterpreted her sword aura. Maybe hers isn’t cut at all.”

“I suppose we can ask,” Anton said. “But I’m as confident as I can be that it is her, writing unrestrained. So we can ask.”

The end result was the most underwhelming. As far as she was aware, no communication had been made from the Exalted Archipelago. And while that was not fully comforting, she was also able to go speak to others from the Million Sword Vault who might be better informed. 

That meant they were in an awkward middle zone. Unless individual sects had been secretly offered something on Aicenith, there had been no moves made against them. That meant they shouldn’t be enemies, but they might not be allies. 

Following that came the most difficult part. Weighing lives against resources, and against the potential futures either could bring. Sarka wasn’t a fan of that, but she did at least understand that at a certain point if the loss of resources grew excessive then lives could be lost for various reasons. Not that there would be a clear answer about anything so uncertain as the future. They could only try to predict what might happen. Nobody wanted to give up an arbitrary amount of resources for the rest of time, bolstering what were clearly enemies and weakening them. Yet resisting might prove more damaging, and failing to stand united would guarantee it. 

Even among those present not everyone was immediately on board with making a decision. But at least nobody declared they should give up, either. For the moment, they had to begin organizing… but whether resources would be pooled for the sake of aiding their own combatants or ultimately ceded to the Exalted Archipelago nobody was quite sure yet.

-–Chapter Index–-