It was clear to Velvet that the vent wasn’t made for people to move through it. She could be considered fairly skinny but in parts it wasn’t even as wide as her shoulders as it bent and turned. Velvet hoped that people appreciated what she was doing- bones weren’t meant to bend or move the way she had to. Doing it quietly was even harder… though as she reached the end of the vent she realized people probably couldn’t hear her anyway.
That was because it ended under a meter of sand, kept out by the still-functioning wards. Velvet reached up tentatively, but her hand wasn’t stopped by the barrier. She was quite capable of digging through sand, but doing so without making it obvious to anyone nearby was harder. Sensing things with energy worked in all directions, but even the best cultivators she knew of couldn’t pay full attention to every spot at once. If she kept the changes small enough- and most importantly kept her energy concealed- she could stay concealed.
Velvet pulled her head up into the sand, arms lifting her on the edge of the stone vent. She continued to rise slowly- somehow it was more worrisome to not be breathing while covered in sand than while just underwater, even though in both cases she had to keep her mouth and nose sealed.
If people had been looking at just the right place they might have seen a small rise in the sand, but sand shifted all the time as the water and living creatures swirled it about. She stepped up onto the sand, using her stealth techniques to avoid disturbing the sand and water around her as much as possible, and even the concentrations of natural energy. She wasn’t far from the building above where the rest were. She slowly made her way over towards the building. If she hadn’t been expecting people, she likely would have stumbled right into them. They were so well concealed it took her a full minute to pick out a single person in what otherwise appeared to be an empty room. It might have been faster if she could have used her energy to actively search, but that would have alerted all of them. Even though her friends below would surely back her up, Velvet didn’t like the idea of having to deal with all dozen or so enemies at once.
The hiding cultivators looked just like the water around them- which meant basically invisible. The only thing that allowed her to notice them was that with the shifting currents the way light refracted changed slightly, occasionally revealing them by distorted patterns of light beneath them. Even their footprints in the sand were nearly invisible, a hundred times less obvious than those from the Order. Velvet could nearly match them, but she hadn’t been trying when they first entered the area.
There wasn’t much she could do but slip away, back towards the vent. She couldn’t sense it with the passive traces of her energy, but she remembered where it was. She slowly wiggled her legs into the sand and when she hit air she was able to confirm she was right. She continued downward until she dropped into stale air, but it was enough to take a relieved breath. Then she shimmied her way down the vent and out.
“I was able to spot them,” she reported, “But they’re nearly invisible, shifted to look and feel like water. I’m not sure if they can keep that up in battle, but I don’t have a way to point them all out. If a few stay hidden they could attack at critical points… it would be quite dangerous.”
“Should we call for help?” Anton asked. “It would be good if we could rely on ourselves, but trying to do so unnecessarily isn’t a useful form of bravery.”
“We could,” Catarina admitted, “But you said they’re shifted to be like water?” Catarina asked, “What are the chances they can also become invisible out of the water?”
“Not terribly high,” Velvet said. “They seem to be water type cultivators, likely from somewhere vaguely local. Unless it’s an entire sect devoted to stealth…” Velvet shook her head, “Then they should be revealed.”
“We haven’t conclusively determined hostility,” Anton noted. “I would prefer not to give up any advantages, but they must already know we noticed them. Otherwise we wouldn’t stay down here for so long. Plus, they have to have noticed us obscuring our sound.” They wouldn’t just be openly discussing their plans without some effort to make sure they weren’t being overheard.
“Right,” Catarina nodded. “Actually,” she pulled out a formation flag with a finger on her lips. “I have a plan. We should call out to them to make sure if they’re hostile or not.” Catarina quickly wrote on a piece of paper. ‘If Velvet places this on the roof I can create a temporary expansion of the water-repelling formation, exposing them’
Anton nodded. “I suppose that’s the only choice. Everyone else?”
They all agreed. Velvet once more began to climb out of the area, concealing herself as she went. Anyone else coming out would surely be placed in an awkward position if they were noticed along the way. Otherwise the best solution would be for them to just leave. No unnecessary fighting risking their lives- or unnecessary killing. Catarina began shifting around some of the formation flags to support the upcoming changes.
After determining Velvet should be close enough that a distraction would be useful, Hoyt took a position at the bottom of the stairs with the others. “We know you’re there! Come on out or we will presume you’re hostile.” He used his energy to project his voice into the water. Doubtless it would be somewhat distorted so he repeated his proclamation with slightly different wording. If they really weren’t hostile it would be best if they didn’t fight. Even if they were, they might get scared away which would be good enough for the moment.
Catarina kept her eyes focused on the stairs, then she nodded. “Now.”
Everyone began to move up the stairs- even Anton, because from his position he could only fire on a narrow angle at the top. Hoyt and Timothy were at the front, and just as they were about to stick their heads into the water… Catarina’s energy flared and it suddenly receded. At the same time, Timothy and Hoyt stepped out of the trapdoor, standing back-to-back. Anton knew they were outnumbered, so he gathered the energy of Fleeting Youth to begin the battle with some momentum. As the water pulled back, figures stood out in clear contrast to the air.
The people that were revealed had clearly modified their bodies- gills could be seen on their necks, though there were a number of sects that did the same when primarily situated around the ocean. For anyone else, the expenditure of effort and danger of permanently altering the body weren’t worth it.
It didn’t matter who they were- they way they were poised for an ambush and the fact that they hadn’t even tried some sort of negotiation allowed Anton to take the first shot without guilt- though perhaps his attack was more simultaneous to some of theirs. His arrow was just faster than the nets they threw and their lunging spear thrusts. The room around the secret entrance wasn’t large, and an arrow could travel a handful of meters in no time at all- especially boosted by the most powerful energy Anton could handle. His target was halfway through throwing a spear when the arrow pierced through his torso at an angle- piercing through a lung and her heart and possibly clipping her other lung. The spear continued from her hand, but without controlled energy augmenting it the power it had was limited.
Timothy raised his shield on one side, expanding his energy to cover that entire side. He moved his shield to redirect a spear while a net impacted with no effect- it wasn’t able to wrap around and entangle him. On the other side, Hoyt swung his axe to parry a spear while at the same time leaving behind a trail of fire. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the two nets that entangled him in an overlapping fashion, and he kept his energy more tightly knit around his body.
Though it didn’t look very elegant, Hoyt dodged further incoming spears and darts by flinging himself into the trapdoor and down the stairs. That left Timothy briefly open from the back and he was likewise forced to retreat temporarily while blocking and parrying stabbing spears. Anton’s next arrow went straight into the shoulder of someone trying to get behind Timothy, almost removing the arm. He only had another couple of shots with the full power of Fleeting Youth, but this wasn’t a battle where conserving their energy would help.
A few moments later the battle had fully shifted to Timothy at the top of the stairs facing the attacks of nearly a dozen opponents at once, with Hoyt still disentangling himself. One person’s energy couldn’t resist so many, but Timothy wasn’t exactly alone- Catarina and the others gave him some of their energy as well as him having some augmentation from the formation. That meant instead of being fully impaled he only ended up with a half-dozen stabs and gashes at the weak points in his armor.
Another arrow pierced through the air, past the wall that was Timothy, and into the eye of one of the men attacking them. Breaking through energy and armor together was difficult, but if he was simply accurate enough armor was less important. And not everyone could keep an eye on him at the same time. Since he felt safe, he was able to attack unrestrainedly.
Catarina helped free Hoyt, and the two of them rushed forward to relieve the pressure on Timothy. Hoyt swung his axe in a wide arc, forcing people to dodge back or simply knocking them away if they didn’t move. Flames lingered, limiting their movement options. Catarina took advantage of their position to attack the legs of those above them.
Another woman in the group had excellent instincts and managed to avoid one of Velvet’s stabbing daggers as she came up behind, protecting her neck from being fully impaled. But she still received a dagger a good fifteen centimeters into her guts, stabbing up under the joints in her armor.
With a handful of grievous injuries or deaths in just a matter of moments- and lacking the element of surprise- the enemy group began to retreat. Anton took a single shot at one of them at they retreated, hitting the back of the thigh. He hadn’t chosen mercy nor was he restraining himself from additional attacks- he simply didn’t have an angle to shoot at the others before they fled in all directions and disappeared into the water. Though they weren’t entirely hidden either. Anton saw blood trails heading in several directions.
“Quiet Shore Palace,” Velvet stated as she inspected one of the fallen enemies. “They’re local. Not a great reputation, though also not much worse than what’s common of cultivators. They ambush and steal if they think they can reasonably get away with it. Especially cultivators who are unfamiliar with water-based combat.”
“Unfortunately this expansion in the formation won’t last long,” Catarina said, “And we shouldn’t give them the time to regroup anyway. Let’s continue closer towards the center, being around more people will at least make them consider if they won’t be caught in the middle. There might be more enemies, but there will also be more allies- or potential allies.”
“Agreed,” Timothy said as he was applying poultices and bandages to his wounds.
Hoyt helped Velvet with the bodies. “Kind of morbid, but they chose to fight us. We can’t just let them come back for what was on their companions.”
That was the world of cultivators. Killing and looting was highly profitable for the victors. Some conflicts ended before death- many cultivators would be willing to accept a surrender if it meant they could get the contents of someone’s storage bag and not have to deal with someone desperately fighting for their life. That was where ambush situations came in- if the ambush had worked, several of them might have died or been seriously injured instantly, and the rest couldn’t have overcome so many opponents.
As they moved out into the water they hurried between buildings that had air, minimizing their exposure to more attacks of the same nature. Then up ahead Anton sensed something. “We should hurry,” he said. “There’s conflict brewing… and if I’m not wrong it involves Masozi. I’m not terribly thrilled about protecting his life, but if he has useful information…”
Going from battle to battle was tiring, but sometimes there just weren’t convenient opportunities to rest. Anton knew that it was important to push through those times and draw out everything you could.