Elder Cultivator 648

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Redirecting the squad towards the lake took about a day. As the Scarlet Alliance squad had been following the flow of energy, they were at the furthest point they could be, assuming there was a center to be had. It was more than fifty kilometers to their goal, something they could walk much faster if they were on the road… and not concerned about wild beasts. Or, when they got close, enemy cultivators.

They ran into neither before they reached the lake, and for the sake of safety took the time to search around the shores to make sure there were no tracks. Chidi only found beast prints, and Aconite confirmed there was no scent of humans before them.

“How is it?” Captain Tiras asked.

“I don’t feel anything,” Chidi admitted. “The effect on the flow of energy might not be sufficient here. I was expecting to feel something as we got closer… maybe this idea was wrong.”

“It was partially my idea,” Captain Tiras reminded Chidi. “For better or for worse. Our job is to check out the possibilities, so even if we don’t find anything, striking it off the list will be useful. Now then, about this lake. Could be dangerous beasts, so we’re going in groups of six or more. We need trained senses in each, so we’re going to have to split you and Aconite.”

Chidi couldn’t argue with that, both because it made sense and because they had a lot of lake to cover. But if there was trouble, the lake was moderately sized enough that they could get to each other. Assuming they could move quickly, of course.

It was amusing to watch Aconite paddling around for a while, before she figured out how to go down. With full control over her natural energy she could manage better than most wolf form beasts, but Aconite’s biggest hangup was her bags. They were waterproof and otherwise sealed, durable enough to not tear open in combat. But while the design could compensate for accidents, when they were actually opened for retrieval there wasn’t much that could be done to stop the ingress of water. Thus, Aconite would not be able to use most of her poisons. Not without flooding the entire lake with toxins, only some of which would lose their potency in water.

As he dove into the water, Chidi found he wasn’t a huge fan of it either. He could feel the way it restricted his movements, and performing a proper slash would be much more difficult. Denitsa who was coming along with him would be even worse off with her hammer. It also needed a swing to build up momentum, and unlike Chidi she couldn’t hope to make contact and then perform a draw cut. The momentum was the main thing.

Chidi knew that stronger cultivators could refresh their breath underwater… or even somewhere completely without air. His parents could even fight in space, if they had to. In early Essence Collection, he just had to rely on his tempered body and conserving his air. 

His first dive down near the shores wasn’t of much interest, and he knew the target was most likely deeper, if it was even there at all. It would be better hidden. And though it would also be less effective, if it truly covered the range he thought it might then a little water wouldn’t be that much different after tens of kilometers.

Going deeper, besides water getting everywhere and being annoying. It got in his nose and ears, the former reminding him that this water was not pure but lived in and the latter making him know that later he’d have to thoroughly dry out. He couldn’t just completely cover up his head in a bubble of energy, since that would limit his hearing. Smell wasn’t going to be used, and he had no eyes to worry about the mounting pressure.

The pressure certainly made its presence known on his eardrums, and he had to soften its effects. His body was most sensitive to the change in pressure there, but as he went deeper with the others he felt it more and more across his body. 

It was almost comforting, in the way only a cold and forceful pressure could be. Maybe not something everyone would appreciate, but he hadn’t gone terribly deep in water before since it had been unnecessary.

Chidi clutched his sheathed blade, ready to draw it as necessary. It would require some maintenance when the day was over as well, but the enchanted blade wasn’t going to easily lose durability.

The next time they surfaced, the vice-captain Denitsa commented, “It’s getting darker.”

“Oh. I heard that would happen.”

“I mention it so you can pay attention for us drifting. If we get too far, make sure to grab our attention with a tendril of energy.”

The squad was trying not to disturb the local wildlife, not knowing how dangerous it might be. So far they hadn’t sensed beasts with concerning cultivations, but their senses didn’t stretch as far underwater.

As they dove, Chidi had to admit an area of weakness in his scouting abilities. He was less familiar with underwater creatures, and what sort of tracks they might leave. He could detect energy from their interactions, but the trails of particles didn’t tell him as much as he knew they could, if he had the proper knowledge. The Harmonious Citadel didn’t make their home under the water, but there were sects that did, and some planets where people hardly had any choice. He would have to learn more about that, when he got the chance.

Ripples in the water were the biggest thing he was learning to sense. It was the same as his other touch based senses, but it traveled further. So even as sound and apparently light were muted, he found some of his senses had grown. The greater pressure somewhat distorted his sense of touch, but he could still feel people moving around, along with other things. Like very large fish.

Chidi almost prepared himself to attack, but he thought better of it. His tendrils of energy nudged the others after him on a slightly different route, avoiding at least the direct radius of the incoming fish. A few meters across, potentially able to swallow a person whole- though its natural energy only bordered on the strength of Essence Collection. No doubt he and those with him could kill it, if they had to. But the risks were greater due to their unfamiliarity with the water, and frankly there was no point. 

It wasn’t quite clear where its territory ended, but either it hadn’t sensed them or Chidi had led them far enough. They continued deeper, presuming that whatever they were looking for would be on the bottom and not floating in the middle of the lake. Though Chidi couldn’t guarantee the latter wouldn’t end up being the case. He knew it was possible, but it would restrict materials or make it much more obvious.

And the whole point of these theoretical formation nodes was to be subtle. They were either very good at it, or this was a wild goose chase. But even when they took a break for the night and the squad got to smell the wonderful scent of a wolf wet from a dirty lake, Chidi found himself confident about the next day. 


Instead of facing off against a large fish, Chidi found the first attacker was a whole school of little biting snappers. He didn’t know their actual name, only that they traveled swiftly and soon overcame their little partial squad. Denitsa had an awful time of it, taking a few pathetic swings before stowing her hammer and just reaching out to grab the forearm sized toothy predators. 

Chidi and Denitsa were relatively safe, as they were both in Essence Collection, but the rest of their group was in Spirit Building still. They couldn’t afford to let the creatures gnaw on them, though they could kill them if they stopped to chew. The fish seemed to realize that, and darted in for quick bites, then moved away into the school.

It was hard to pick out any individual, though Chidi wasn’t blinded like the others. Thus, he had to be more effective. There were tons of them, could he really swing his sword and not cut any?

The answer was yes. Though not because his trajectory was wrong, but because he was too slow. His blade took to long to reach them, the fish darting away from the incoming ripples. Chidi didn’t like that. It was pathetic. He couldn’t help but think back to the best sword slashes he’d ever seen. Not his parents, though he’d thought they were astounding at the time. Not Rakiya attempting to kill him, but obviously Grandmaster Chikere. Not just any move, either, but the one she used to cut open space. Chidi wasn’t sure if that was quite right, but it was a move that released a lot more power than it looked like it could… and where her arms didn’t even seem to move along the length of their path, only being on either end. 

Chidi’s first attempt to replicate it almost made him drop his sword, and the second was pathetic. The third didn’t even manage to capture a small percentage of the attack’s glory, but it was by far the most effective. The water split apart before his blade, almost as if it was afraid to be cut. It barely even dragged on his arms.

Blood filled the water- from a few fish, nearly matching the amount of human blood. Instead of waiting for the fish to flee or become more aggressive, Chidi repeated the motion a dozen times in different directions, at different angles. He was not concerned about accidentally cutting a companion- with their movements slowed by the water, he was even more capable of that level of precision. He cut the head off a fish chomping down on one of his squadmate’s arms, the teeth little threat without the power of jaws or the little natural energy the creatures had.

The school took a few moments to recognize the danger, and Chidi was ready for it to charge him. But instead, the began snapping up their dead members and retreating. Good enough.

After a quick return to the surface, where Chidi helped with a few stitches and wet bandages, they went back down. And finally found something.

It was basically exactly what Chidi expected. At least in the broad strokes. Chidi would have assumed there was a wide platform of stone engraved with complex patterns. Instead, he got the same thing but it was a tall pillar only a couple meters across, driven into the sands below.

Chidi swam around it about a dozen times, feeling only the slightest fluctuations of natural energy from ten meters away, but inside that zone he rapidly felt it. He didn’t approach, wary of defensive formations, but after a few loops he risked getting a little closer. 

He could feel the surface, which meant no direct barrier… and let him pick out the effects of the formation. Much of it was lost on him, his training and experience simply insufficient to learn the complexities. But he knew enough to be certain this was part of what they were looking for. And he was confident enough that it was not dangerous to touch it.

It was much less dangerous than a lot of the formations he’d touched when he was a quarter of his current age. So his confidence wasn’t for nothing. He was taught to recognize that sort of danger, and he hadn’t been wrong enough to get himself killed yet. Though some of that was his mother watching over him.

Feeling the intricacies with his fingers, Chidi determined it was the work of more than one set of hands. Each ring seemed to be carved by distinct individuals, and he could feel thin seams between them. Perhaps they were carved separately, then assembled together? He thought that would make them worse, but clearly these were doing their job. Though Chidi couldn’t say for certain. If his mother were here, she might have found them before they were even active.

But while Chidi knew he couldn’t match her, and he probably couldn’t match the people working on these, the restrictions they had meant it was still imperfect. Though they had done their job well enough for them to activate unnoticed and remain in place for about a year now.

After returning to the surface for air, Denitsa sent one of the squadmates back to the shore- the surface of the lake was known to be safe, and his job was to spot others surfacing and call out to them. They wanted something less obvious than a flare.

“So, you found it,” she said to Chidi. “Can we just smash it?”

“I think so,” Chidi said. “I don’t detect danger. But it would be better to retrieve it for study. Too bad we can’t, though.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“It’s too big and heavy.”

“Pfft, how much could a hunk of rock like that even weigh?”

“… Like a hundred and fifty thousand kilograms?” Chidi estimated. A couple meters across, and several times that in height. Even if it was a lighter stone, it would be massive.”

“They carried got it here,” Denitsa said, “So we can carry it away. Maybe we can toss it in a storage bag? Nah, too big.”

“Mine can barely fit it, but we’d have to actually lift it,” Chidi said. “I don’t see that happening.”

Denitsa raised an eyebrow, “I sometimes forget you’re a rich kid. How much did your storage bag cost?”

Chidi shrugged, “My mom made it.”

“… Yeah, I don’t know if that lowers or raises my price estimation. Well, whatever. Time to get started.”

What she meant by getting started was diving down and… shoving the pillar of stone. It did nothing, of course. Partly because it was driven into the sandy bottom of the lake, partly because there was only so much force one woman could generate. But instead of giving up, it made her even more determined. She had a trench dug out around the bottom as she swam at it with great vigor, slamming it with her body repeatedly to try to topple it. For some reason.

There were no results that day, and they returned to camp. That was where Chidi found Aconite, her fur matted in blood. He rushed over to her, calling out in worry. “Are you alright?! What happened?”

“Giant eels,” Captain Tiras explained. “Some of that blood isn’t hers.”

Aconite nudged Chidi in the belly, a small growl letting him know she was ‘fine’. But also not terribly up for talking at the moment. 

“Guess not everyone could avoid all the nests,” Chidi sighed. Then he frowned. “Did you… even try?”

Aconite looked away from the stakes over the fire with meat frying on it. Well, she was allowed to make her own bad choices. He could still chastise her as a friend though.

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