Darkness swirled within Aydan’s dantian. Thin whisps where there had once been a swirling storm of power. Drawing in from outside himself, Aydan was able to slowly replenish his stores. It was not an issue of available spiritual energy that slowed him, but rather the strain on his meridians. Recovering would only take a day or two of rest to let his body balance out, perhaps a week at the longest. But if he had the luxury to do so, he wouldn’t be in this state to begin with.
Ursel and Tirto slept back-to-back, the former clutching her deteriorating club to her. Tirto didn’t hold his weapon as he slept, the sharpness making that undesirable regardless. The two of them had been asleep for several hours now… and though they needed more rest, Aydan couldn’t give it to them.
Aydan’s eye twitched, on the edge of passing out himself and yet in a way overstimulated. Each change in the flow of darkness could be another threat. He’d dealt with several shadows in the last hours already, creatures of pure darkness. The short battles hadn’t even woken the siblings, the darkness element inherently hiding itself. Just a little longer, and they would be moving again, searching for their goal. Or at least, Aydan’s current goal.
With the information possessed by John and Matayal’s group, they were in no particular hurry to go anywhere. So far, their efforts had been fruitful, securing water and air element treasures for the Brandle and Mulyani clans. They had recently entered the area of darkness, where John was hoping to find something of sufficient power to take the burden of the blessing ceremony. With Ciaritzal now being whole, and his personal affinity to guide the process, it was unlikely the older generation would face such a significant drop in cultivation- but avoiding those results altogether was optimal.
The trouble came down to finding something of worth. Not all power was usable in the same manner. Ciaritzal might be able to consume a preserved corpse of a great beast, but that might not be the best option for spreading energy about.
Their group had picked out a particularly dense energy to reach their current area, but John was not so certain it would be useful. “Careful,” he said. “The spores of these mushrooms give off a great power.”
They had seen some mushrooms in the earth chambers, but these were quite different. Though their form started out fairly typical, a stem leading to a rounded cap, that was where they seemed to break conventions. Some were as tall as a man- not unheard of- but others grew even taller, where the space allowed. Instead of merely growing out of the rock floor, these mushrooms also grew out of other mushrooms, both branching off the stalks and caps. It made them appear somewhat treelike, though their stems were thick all along their length with little tapering- and the caps at the ends were much denser than leafy foliage.
John picked up a rock and tossed it into one of the bundles of fungus. Surprisingly enough, the mushrooms themselves did not react. He couldn’t be certain they had no mobility, but as the stone struck the bundle with enough force to make it tremble, a cloud of spores fell. Those spores settled on the ground- and on the lower parts of the mushroom-tree. Before his eyes, he saw new growths appearing. The largest growths pulled in both the surrounding spores and the spiritual energy of the mushrooms they were branching off of, leaving the latter with a hollow feeling. The whole process happened over a few seconds.
Matayal shook her head. “Seems dangerous to approach.”
John nodded. “One more attempt.” He pulled out one of his throwing daggers, sharp and well-made. Coating it with earth energy to provide the greatest possible impact, he threw it. The dagger sunk into a different mushroom-tree, shaking it. The blade sunk deep, though the fact that it did not entirely pierce the fungal mass meant it was fairly durable. However, there was no reaction. The spores simply fell, and did their thing- growing more quickly out of the blob itself compared to on the ground. There, the mushrooms only grew to finger sized. The ones around the base fused with the general mass. “They don’t seem to actually react… but they’re certainly dangerous.”
Wandering into whatever area felt safest was hardly a complex plan, but Aydan could only do so much. He had to make judgments as they came. It seemed odd that one of those would be following a mass of spiritual energy, or perhaps a large number of individual sources, but he had reasoning for that. It was unlikely for anything to immediately double back upon its path, especially if they stayed far enough behind it to avoid notice. Regardless of whatever that mass was, it should clear most trouble along the path it took.
In his current state, any logic had to be good enough, and it had served them well enough so far. They’d come across a few corpses of beasts- which was somewhat odd. The corpses were mostly whole, still full of spiritual energy. Numerous tiny wounds littered them at all points, indicating to Aydan that they were dealing with a swarm rather than something similar to the oozes. It was odd they hadn’t consumed their kills, but Aydan didn’t want to question it too much.
He just kept his focus ahead, while also paying attention to where Ursel and Tirto moved. They had to remain safe, best accomplished by him staying ahead. Just not so far he couldn’t protect them if something came from behind.
Ahead, he spotted an oddity. “Careful,” he cautioned the siblings. Not that they weren’t on guard at all times. He moved closer cautiously. “Looks like some sort of web.”
A sheet web, to be precise, flapping loosely against the left side of the tunnel. There were shreds of it elsewhere, but some part had held on- and had ensnared some hundreds or thousands of beetles, each with a body about the size of a fingernail. Not particularly tiny or large by the scale of normal insects. Some of the mass was shaking loose, but most of those that remained were starting to weaken in their struggles as a large number of spiders- smaller individually than the beetles- climbed over them, sinking teeth between their defensive plates and causing them to still. The spiders then began to wrap up the beetles.
Such a thing could be ignored, were it anywhere else. Insects were the lowest of all life- but the spark of spiritual energy within each and every arachnid and beetle meant that as a whole, they could be a threat.
“Oh cool,” Ursel said. “Bugs!”
“Best leave them alone,” Aydan said. If they didn’t disturb them there should be no trouble, and from what he saw they could at most be an annoyance. The only concern was that the swarm he was following had many times more beetles in it.
Aydan continued on with caution- but fatigue was dulling his senses. There was no way to know for certain if he would have noticed the razor-sharp threads at head level in his optimal state. The only thing that was certain was stumbling into a web face-first, a dozen threads lacerating his skin. Unprotected by spiritual energy he would have been wounded far worse.
He immediately jerked back, stretching some of the web with him. His sword sliced through the webs where they had not broken, freeing himself just as something dropped on him. A spider, legs extending out to match the size of his palm. Fangs sunk into his forehead, but he tore the arachnid away, crushing it against the wall. Unlike the others, it seemed to have made its web alone.
“… Are you alright?” Tirto asked.
“I’m fine,” Aydan lied. He couldn’t afford further wounds… and he felt a sharp pain spreading around his head. Attempts to force out the poison proved difficult. It clung to his blood… so he forced out both, a few dozen milliliters worth of blood he couldn’t afford to lose- but couldn’t keep.
He did his best to subtly retrieve and swallow a pill, forcing the medicinal energy through his body. He would pay for that later, but he had to make it to later to care.
Keeping his sword in front of him he was able to avoid further trouble from webs, the razorweb spiders unable to reach him if he became aware of them. The siblings followed behind, safe in his shadow.
Senses stretched and strained, determining that up ahead the swarm had slowed- Aydan didn’t want to approach, but he was concerned about staying in place as well. He maintained caution, until the point at which he felt something familiar. After that, he didn’t exactly rush, but he strode forward with determination. One step in front of the other, while he still could.
The first part of what he found ahead couldn’t truly be called a battle. A swarm of beetles crawling over something that didn’t fight back was hardly a battle. Based on what he saw further ahead, they were mushrooms, sprouting like a tree- he simply couldn’t see any part of the closest ones. Further on, less of the swarm had reached- and some of it was scattered due to the people present.
Familiar wind and water elements, and more importantly a pleasant darkness wrapped up with a trio of other elements. Either Aydan was so delusional as to be dead already, or they’d found Fortkran and Matayal. Salvation for Ursel and Tirto, at last.
“Mother!” Tirto called, maintaining some level of caution and not rushing towards her as he clearly desired.
Ursel simply clutched her club, looking for a place she could make a difference. She hung back behind Aydan, which he was grateful for.
The swarm had carved a path between the mushroom trees, the latter of which the other cultivators were clearly avoiding- and thus Aydan would do so as well. Skirting by part of the swarm that had just started devouring a mass of fungus, Aydan kept a cloak of darkness around himself and the siblings, simply to make them less attractive of a target.
Ice froze part of the swarm into a single odd statue as Matayal strode confidently forward, paired with Fortkran and followed by a number of others. Winds pushed away both beetles and some sort of terrible spores that grew out of everything they touched- including some of the beetles.
Nearby beetles seemed interested in what human tasted like compared to fungus, but Aydan and the two with him swept them away, Aydan’s energy straining to its limits. They moved forward, and soon there was only one clump between them and the others. Fire burned through the area, followed by a wave of water sweeping everything to the side.
Aydan didn’t stop the siblings from rushing forward into their parents arms. Not that he could have if he wanted to. He smiled, relief flowing through him. His body relaxed, sword falling out of his hands. He knew that just a meter or two away there were thousands of beetles that might try to devour him, but he didn’t care. He’d at least accomplished this. His failures, his overconfidence… at least this had come to pass. Two of the siblings safe. What would transpire for the Tenebach clan without their young mistress, he could not be certain.
Perhaps, somehow, she yet lived. That was all Aydan could hope for, that his carelessness wouldn’t break the line of succession. His eyes caught Fortkran, his nephew. There was much to tell, and he gladly would… if it was possible.
As adrenaline left him followed by his spiritual energy no longer supporting his tired body, he collapsed to hands and knees, briefly catching himself before total darkness overcame his mind. He was glad that the siblings were not looking.