At the forefront of the exploration group were John and Matayal. After all, their stealth abilities were greatest of the group, with John being able to conceal the two of them as one. Renato had the ability to be subtle, but light cultivators in water stuck out like a sore thumb.
They had been fortunate so far to not run into too many enemies. Perhaps it was simply that the Ascending Soul Phase cultivators were drawing most of the attention, or that the numbers had been worn down over the preceding days of battle. Either way, nobody was going to complain. Especially when they were coming across new obstructions. In this case, it was a bunch of hair-thin filaments reaching across the tunnel.
“What do you think?” John asked.
“It’s not directly dangerous, I don’t think,” Matayal replied. “I don’t think it could be augmented to sufficient strength to be deadly. Most likely it is some sort of sensory feature.”
“So cutting through it… would likely produce a large reaction,” John said.
“Perhaps worse than it finding us,” Matayal agreed. “Shall we attempt to pass through?”
He agreed. Finding it unlikely they could hide from tactile senses- and knowing that at least half of those following them would be unable- they simply continued onward, their spiritual energy ready for any sort of attack. Instead of what they might have expected, the filaments simply brushed out of their way with no reaction.
“Is it dead?” John asked. “It certainly doesn’t feel like it…”
“Perhaps the response is more subtle,” Matayal conjectured.
A few moments later they had their answer, as the filaments rapidly recoiled from Renato. A pulse of spiritual energy flowed through the leviathan around them. “Seems it doesn’t like me,” Renato stated.
“Or crowds,” John suggested. Not that they had much way to discern either.
Soon enough the result of their intrusion came to their attention, tubes opening up and flooding the tunnel with toxins. Of course, nobody was quite sure what they would do- only that they didn’t want to find out. The Brandle clan cultivators sprang into action, catching the water flowing out of the walls and containing it along the outside. They kept it against the walls until it was past their group, where the natural flow continued to bring it away.
The effect would have been swiftly fatal to any beasts with low intelligence, but with dozens of water element cultivators they were able to divert the flow around them, minimizing the impact. It seemed almost too easy- but perhaps it was meant to come with the assault of the various creatures at the same time. Instead, they met more of the creatures further ahead, where they had nothing to support them and were easily taken apart by the team of Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators without needing to involve the majority of their army.
They came across the same setup once more, but approached it differently. Avoiding battle if they could at all help it would be optimal, saving their energy for something more important. John and Matayal passed through… then doubled back. There were no obvious effects from that, nor of waiting. Even when they moved back through there was nothing. But as soon as anyone else passed through, the leviathan reacted.
Prepared for the response, John and Matayal were among the first to catch the flow as the walls opened, forcing the dark liquid away. This time it was closer to coinciding with the assault of the protectors, but the rest of the cultivators dealt with them as the water cultivators handled the toxins.
“I think it recognized you,” John said.
“Because of my attunement?” Matayal frowned. “I didn’t get a feeling of conscious acceptance.”
“Perhaps,” John said. “But it has to have some way to accept these defenders.”
“What about you?” Matayal asked.
John looked down to their intertwined hands. “For something of this size, we’re not exactly distinct beings. We are fairly constantly sharing energy flow, after all.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Matayal shook her head. “Because it means there isn’t a way to get everyone through safely.”
“We can go a little further ahead, I think,” John said. “At least we can pick the location of our battles.”
Before they could test that theory, they came to a dead end. “Same as what we ran into,” Renato said. “I don’t think it’s entirely solid though. And we don’t have Sitora distracting us.”
John and Matayal poked and prodded the wall, to little effect. Neither was there a response for Renato or Deirdre. That led them to increasing their boldness, which ultimately led to Renato pressing his club into the middle of it. It resisted, but somehow poked through. When he pulled his club back, they found there was a hole- not torn into the wall, but rather a natural part of the tunnel that quickly sealed itself.
Simply knowing it was there was sufficient to interact with it, and soon enough they reached through again, pulling it open. Ultimately it pulled apart into two thinner sheets of stony flesh.
“A valve,” John said.
Before anyone could ask, a pulse of water came through the tunnel. Everyone was well prepared for the frequent events, moving together with their groups and pressing against the walls, controlling the pressure to flow over them instead of carry them away. It lasted only a few moments, during which the ‘wall’ was wide open.
“These are definitely some equivalent of blood vessels. Or veins or arteries,” John shrugged. “I don’t feel anything smaller, but the scale is already throwing me off.”
Pulling open the valve allowed everyone to go through while Renato held it open. It was actually not terribly difficult, once they realized it could be done. Everyone’s senses stayed alert for hidden passages behind the ‘walls’. There were many, though often times they were parallel tunnels. Their group continued to explore, heading towards new areas that seemed most likely to have something of note.
Suraj found himself quite nervous. He was only a small part of the armies marching against the Molten Sea, but he wondered if the Phoenix Forest could really stand against the Molten Sea. Then again, he knew they weren’t invincible. The Tenebach clan head had fought against them… and it was his allies that would be moving in on the Molten Sea from the other side.
When they actually found enemies, it was rather underwhelming. It wasn’t even a battle- they were smart enough to surrender once they realized what was going on. After all, the Molten Sea only had a small presence in any particular point of Astrein. The one exception would likely be Lunson, but even then Suraj was uncertain. Certainly, he alone had been in danger but they likely only had a handful of Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators there.
Combined with the news that they were already being driven out of the Sunfields, the main matter of concern were their forces in the Shimmering Islands. An Ascending Soul Phase cultivator… but he didn’t have to fight that, did he? And if he fought someone closer to his level, it would only be a reasonable repayment to the Tenebach head, and barely sufficient payback to the Molten Sea. They thought they could treat small sects however they pleased, and they were right. But only up to a point.
The flowing pulses of power inside the leviathan became more powerful, and potentially more frequent. Along with that, the presence of the leviathan was growing in power. It was fairly clear they were coming up on something. And while that something seemed to dwarf the power of everything else, they could still feel something else in the mix. Fire and water that mixed together to form Gesine.
“So she arrived ahead of us,” John sighed. “Do you feel any traces of Sitora?”
“Not currently,” Matayal admitted. “Though if she were on the far side of that, I imagine I would miss her.”
“Let’s hope she’s not far,” John said. “Hold on.” He stopped before intersecting tunnels, holding Matayal with him. Not long later, a swarm of defenders swam past. Both the smaller and larger jellies, the poisoners, the impalers, and several more rare varieties. They didn’t seem to notice the two, though it wasn’t clear if that was due to John’s darkness concealing them or the focus being elsewhere. Or possibly they were noticed and deemed to belong. The two of them had always fought with the rest, so the possibility that they were treated as allies by all parts of the leviathan was untested.
“I think we are on the last leg,” Matayal said. “We should gather everyone else and move in together. And if possible, establish a foothold in a chamber so we don’t get trapped in a tunnel with enemies on both sides.”
John nodded, and they went to retrieve the rest of their army. Though the actual numbers weren’t momentous, they had a good portion of the Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators from their alliance’s sects and clans. Those outside the inner circle were mainly still on the surface, but hopefully they would find the right timing to deal with the Molten Sea. They needed to hit hard and fast, though perhaps the surface would not recognize that these were the final moments. It would be more difficult to deal with Gesine if she returned to the surface and the waiting ships, especially with many onlookers that didn’t seem to have picked sides.
Though the majority of those who were less invested had already left, when the Kelp Spire Forest nearly collapsed. There was no point in dying for nothing, and if they were only interested in opportunistic moments then they would prefer to leave and be alive for future ones.
“Let us go over our plans,” John said. “Matayal and I will be most effective against Gesine. The Brandle clan will likewise do well against the Molten Sea, at least matching them in element.”
Renato nodded, “And with the Order being Earth cultivators, we have a weakness against the Molten Sea’s fire. So we are to focus on the leviathan’s defenses.”
Deirdre was next, “We’ll join wherever it makes sense. Mostly away from the Tenebach clan.” For all that they were allies, light and darkness still didn’t mix. Though there would be some opportunities to launch attacks at the same enemies and hope that some annihilation happened, most of their cultivators were not trained to make optimal use of that.
Of course, their group wasn’t just waiting around talking- they were making their way towards their opponents as they spoke. As they did, John couldn’t help but grip Matayal’s hand more tightly.
“I thought I’d experienced overwhelming power before. Ciaritzal and Cuah’arn… they seem so insignificant,” John sighed.
“And Faramund seems to have barely poked his head into the Ascending Soul Phase,” Matayal admitted. “I thought we were somewhat close to that power, but the last two ranks are difficult to surmount. And not only that, but those two women aren’t in the early phase.”
“Still not as overwhelming as the leviathan,” John said. Even though it lacked malice, it seemed ready to crush him at any moment. And they were only moving closer to that danger. “Why are we the ones doing this again?”
“Do you see anyone else doing it?” Matayal shook her head. “This will affect not just the Shimmering Islands but the whole region. But you already know that. It is for the region… and for our alliance. The ‘club’. Our children. And ultimately, for each other.”
“That’s oddly… romantic and positive.”
“What can I say?” Matayal shrugged. “When I feel powerful water element, it does not fill me with despair. Just a cautious respect and determination.”
John nodded. “Should we wait a little bit and hope Sitora shows up first? I’d rather they took the brunt of the assaults.”
“I don’t think we can wait,” Matayal said. “But we can at least approach more stealthily.”
John nodded. He could direct the concealment of most of their group with darkness, the exception being the Golden Tomb Guardians. That was why they had been separate to begin with. But Deirdre was already gathering her people together and channeling their energy into something less obvious. Not concealed in quite the same way, but hopefully still enough for distracted cultivators.