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Dismantling parts of the buildings had never been the plan- it was just the only way Catarina was able to study the full extent of the formations on the buildings. As she pulled out a part of the formation- still keeping the water repelling features intact- Catarina shook her head. “It feels kind of weird to be taking apart a place where people lived, even if it was a long time ago.”
“Sects rise and fall,” Hoyt said. “Many of them get plundered and dismantled less respectfully than this. Kind of like that group over there.”
“Agh!” Catarina looked at the next building over, aghast. “We have to stop them!”
Before anyone could say anything she had already lept out into the ocean. Anton and the other followed after her, as she was looking surprisingly serious. Catarina reached the group of cultivators and started gesturing at them with her sword. Anton couldn’t make out her words with all the water between them, but a moment later the group of cultivators responded with something and drew their own weapons.
Anton quickly began to fire arrows. While shooting from the water into open air meant his attacks were slow and more easily dodged, he didn’t have to hit to be useful. The first handful of shots drove people away from Catarina, letting only one man charge forward. As his spear stabbed towards her she parried it to the side, then struck his jaw with her palm. Based on the way she ‘gently’ nudged him along the floor out of the way, Anton determined that she was interested in taking them down nonlethally. A difficult task against equals, but the handful of cultivators were only in early Spirit Building. There was some leeway in fighting them.
When Hoyt entered the room, he created a wall of fire wherever he moved. Nobody was willing to go through it, so he easily split the group in half. Two were left to deal with Timothy and Catarina, though they were clearly outmatched. Anton had to support Hoyt as the other few tried to take him out, shooting arrows into arms and legs where they shouldn’t cause permanent damage. Velvet appeared behind one of them with a dagger reaching around to the front of his neck, and the man dropped his weapon.
A few minutes later they were all disarmed and knocked to the floor, and Anton finally moved forward out of the water. “What’s that?” Catarina pointed to the floor with her sword as she looked at the group. Where she pointed was a blood-red yet metallic inlay.
“Enchanted rubysteel,” said one of the men, kneeling. “It’s quite valuable.”
“No!” Catarina emphasized her words with her sword. “Well, it is, but more importantly that’s one of the prime runes of the formation. It controls all of the energy moving throughout. If you just yank it out it will explode and destroy everything!” Catarina stomped angrily about the area. “And you didn’t even finish clearing the building first! See here under the rubble is the head of a spear you missed entirely.” She threw the spearhead at the group, where it trembled in the ground between them. “You’d do better to go around picking that stuff up than messing with formations.”
“We’re… umm…” the man looked around at the others with him. “We’re sorry?”
“Good,” Catarina nodded. “Also, make sure to leave some intact water wards in each area. Unless you want to swim to the surface every time you need a breath?” The group didn’t seem happy about being chastised by a woman younger than them- but she was also higher in cultivation along with her allies, so there wasn’t much they could do. And she was right. “If you see anyone else making dumb decisions you should straighten them out too. Getting yourselves killed means you don’t get any profit at all.”
With that, she turned to leave. The group of cultivators looked quite relieved at that. One of them looked at the rubysteel runes in the floor and sighed, but didn’t make any moves to try to pull it out.
Having studied enough of the formations in the area, Catarina led the group generally deeper into the Luminous Ocean Society’s territory- and also deeper into the sea. The pressure increased gradually, but not to a level they couldn’t handle. Of more concern was how many of the buildings were missing large portions of them, clearly from damaging attacks and not the ravages of time. Anton even saw burn scars on the stones that made up much of the buildings, half-covered by some of the strange ‘corals’. Some places had lumps of stone below indicating portions had melted. While he knew cultivators could melt stone in extreme circumstances, having it be so frequently visible was concerting.
As they were walking along the bottom of the sea he sensed something. The slope of the sand was gradual and fairly consistent, but the harder ground underneath was actually filled with very deep craters. Only his energy senses could discern that at all, because meters of sand had piled up atop the area. Anton knew someone like Elder Kseniya or Grand Elder Vandale could cause craters like that, but even the two of them working together wouldn’t have been able to affect such large swathes of area. He had no way to prove it, but the damage also seemed somewhat incidental- the attacks would be intended for cultivators, after all, not random patches of ground. But the fact that a massive battle had happened wasn’t actually news.
“This one goes underground,” Anton commented. Most of the buildings had foundations that were set into the sand and reached down towards bedrock, of course, but few of them actually had more structure beneath. At least not that Anton had noticed.
The top level of the building was flooded. Anton saw barnacle-encrusted weapons scattered against a wall among various things growing inside. When he picked one up, the structure of the weapon crumbled away, bits and pieces breaking off. No matter how well enchanted some weapons had been, they hadn’t been able to withstand centuries.
The group looked around the area, trying to find a way down to what should be lower levels. It was taking some time, and Anton was about to leave to go get a breath of air when he saw one portion of floor was covered in sand and various bits of plantlife- but with the corner of a rug peeking out. Surprisingly, the rug didn’t fall apart as he grabbed it. With a flip the sand slowly drifted through the seawater off of the rug- and underneath he saw a perfectly intact handle. He didn’t sense any energy, but he waved Catarina over just in case. When she gave him a sign that everything was good, he pulled up the trapdoor. It didn’t give for a moment, then something snapped and it opened.
Inside were some stairs- and Anton could see the visible signs of a formation keeping out water. He stepped inside with Catarina, signalling to the others with his energy. “I’m surprised this formation is fully intact with how things are above.”
“It’s not, actually,” Catarina explained. “It seems like it still had a minor concealment component. There should have been more to it before.” Once the others joined them, she gestured downward. “The formation isn’t exactly steady, so I’ll be going first.”
It didn’t take them long to step out into a large room with something like a furnace in the middle. Considering the presence of anvils and molds around the room, it appeared to be a forge of some sort. There were tools, still radiating hints of enchantment, scattered randomly about the room. The room had hardly any dust covering the surfaces, though the air was a bit thick and not the best for breathing.
“I would have expected a forge to have access to air,” Hoyt commented. “Beyond that maintained by a formation. Perhaps over there?” He walked over to a wall, where there was a closed vent. “I’d bet this is it. I’d also be reasonably willing to bet that this place would flood if I opened it. Not that I see a way for fresh air to get in even if I thought it worked.”
“Why would a forge be secret?” Catarina asked.
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” he asked. “There’s nothing here but a handful of ingots.”
“More like two handfuls,” Anton said. He gestured to some small bars that didn’t look like anything special. “Those and-” he turned around. He didn’t see any ingots, but he sensed them. “These…?” Anton walked over to a small wooden table that had escaped decay. As he moved, he was able to make out some slight forms. Tilting his head back and forth, he realized there were indeed some ingots that were nearly invisible. He reached out and picked one up. It was cold to the touch, about a hand long and half as wide. A significantly sized ingot, but what properties it had was unclear.
“These are stuck, I think,” Timothy commented as he tried to pick up ingots from the other table. “Let me just…” he got two hands on one at the top of the pile and yanked. There was a scraping sound as it slid off the table and then hit the ground with a cracking thud. Timothy just looked at it and then slowly stepped back. “… Almost lost a toe.” He bent down and used two hands to lift the ingot, straining as he did so. “This is… really heavy.” He brought it to his waist and slipped it into his enchanted bag. “Whew. I think a few of those might push this to capacity.”
Everyone but Anton hurried over to the table to try to pick up an ingot as well. None of the rest had an easier time than Timothy. In fact, Hoyt was the only one who managed to pick one up without using energy to augment his strength. Both he and Timothy had cultivated muscle at the second star, so they had recently completed the Spirit Building version of the same. Catarina and Velvet had done their tempering later, so were a bit lower in muscle power at the current moment.
“There’s one left,” Catarina noted.
Anton walked over. Seeing no reason to embarrass himself, Anton gathered his energy as he reached out for the normal-looking ingot. He hefted the ingot and gently placed it into his bag, where its weight was no longer a concern. “We can also split the others. Then we should be-” he looked towards the stairs at the same time as Velvet.
“Someone’s coming,” she confirmed. “We should prepare ourselves.”
Anton hurried over to the other ingots. He had no idea what they were, but they were bound to be valuable. If nothing else for their near-total transparency. He tossed some to the others. He wondered why they hadn’t been taken. Clearly this room should have had much more, but it had been sealed when they arrived. He took a stance in the corner of the room, looking at the stairs. Though the cultivation of those he sensed was below his own, there were at least a dozen of them. Or so he’d thought, but now he only sensed a handful. “They seem to be concealing themselves,” Anton said. “That doesn’t bode well for our chances of talking.” Even as he tried to keep a lock on them, the few presences he sensed were moving around the area above, and then faded away into the water until he couldn’t sense any of them. Yet simply observing when they hid gave him some idea. “They seem to be water-focused cultivators, perhaps.”
“That means we might not just be able to wait for them to run out of air,” Hoyt said. “Though they have to get tired eventually, right?”
“Maybe,” Velvet said, “But if they’re good we won’t know if they’re gone. If they get fatigued at the same rate as us we can afford to wait, but if they can stand around for a day… we might be in trouble. Or if they can bring more allies.” She looked towards the vents Hoyt had spotted. “I might be able to get close enough to spot them, if I sneak around. I don’t know if we the rest of you could climb through this… subtly. Wouldn’t want them to catch us in it.”
“I don’t know if I have any better ideas,” Timothy said. “But if that starts flooding this place we basically have to step out and fight.”
Catarina was already patrolling around the room, at first trying to scratch the floors and walls with her sword but when that didn’t work placing formation flags and plates around the area. “We should at least be ready if they attack. And I might be able to extend this to up above, though I’d have to do it as we fight.”
Anton looked at the stairs. “I might be able to shoot where one was, but if they’re moving… I can’t say. There’s also some small chance they aren’t actually hostile, but I wouldn’t bet on that.”
Hoyt punched the air, his fist leaving flaming trails. “If they come down here I can pull out my axe, but I’m ready regardless. Velvet, if you can get us information- great. But don’t risk yourself. If they’re really water cultivators they might move faster than you expect.”
With that, the group prepared themselves for a fight. If they could put up a good enough showing, any enemy might retreat regardless of whether they could win. Anton planned to do just that. Once he had a target… he was poised to quickly take them out.