Tunnels alternated between wide and narrow, some with grasping tendrils and some larger chambers that seemed like they must have held some of the strange creatures, before they were defeated and then absorbed into the leviathan.
Following after Sitora’s group had that benefit, but also some drawbacks. Being unable to choose their own route, Renato and Deirdre had to follow a set path, or at least that was the intention. They tried not to be too close, and that meant sometimes they misread the exact route. In this case, they were stopped not because they were unaware of how Sitora had moved, but because she was still too close.
“What is she waiting for?” Renato asked.
“I don’t know,” Deidre admitted. “She isn’t fighting. Do you think she’s noticed us?”
“I would be surprised if we had gone completely undetected,” Renato admitted. “But I don’t think so. I believe she is interested in something. Perhaps she has found something related to her goal?”
Deirdre looked at the wriggling walls around them, “What do they even want? A way deeper into this mess?”
“Seems likely,” Renato said. He also paid careful attention to their surroundings, in case something would approach them. For earth cultivators like him, these new and strange cultivators made things more difficult.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait too long for the group to move along. In less than ten minutes, they were able to move past the most narrow corridors with the grasping tendrils, back into the more familiar stony walls. They soon approached the area where Sitora had stopped, and found themselves doing so as well.
The corridor they were following came to an abrupt end, though it was clear that Sitora’s group had gone beyond it. Renato placed his hand on the wall. “I can feel something behind it.” He pushed carefully. “It might be flexible, but it would take quite a bit of power to force it open.”
The generally round tunnel came to what wasn’t exactly a flat cap. It had a small divot in the middle, pointing away from them. “How thick is it? Should we break it apart?”
“I don’t know,” Renato admitted. “It’s a curious feature.”
“Curious indeed,” came another voice. Their heads turned, as neither of them recognized the voice speaking through the water. Nor was it somewhere that it should have been possible for anyone to be. Out of the wall stretched a figure seemingly made of stone, and radiating a recognizable power. In the same moment they looked at the figure, Deirdre found herself shoved forward, letting the stone figure’s fingers wrap around her neck. “I tire of being followed.”
Despite making the opening move, it did not seem as if Sitora actually wished to kill them. Or perhaps the stone-skinned woman simply didn’t feel the need to rush. However, Renato held back his own attacks as Deirdre let her weapon dangle at her side. “What are you looking for?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sitora countered, holding the woman at arm’s length.
“It does to those of us from the region.”
“You are not from the Shimmering Islands. The Sunfields are nearly as far from here as the Sky Islands.”
“And yet, we’re part of the same people,” Deirdre said. She focused her energy around her neck, but tried not to concentrate it so much as to leave the rest of her body open. “But you rush in from afar and claim what you would please.”
“I have the power,” Sitora replied. “So it is my right as a cultivator.”
Renato was mentally inching closer. Everyone else watched as well, prepared to spring into action. Deirdre considered a risky maneuver. Feeling the power in front of her, it was quite overwhelming. She was in a compromising position as well. But Sitora was also missing something. They’d felt her pass on ahead. This was not her. An Ascending Soul Phase cultivator was powerful, but against their group would she be enough?
It was unclear, because this form was much weaker. So Deirdre was confident about fighting it. That wasn’t the risky maneuver she was considering, however. Speech wasn’t as clear as she would like underwater, but she did her best to enunciate clearly. The hand gripping her throat was kept away by her defensive energy, so at least that wasn’t a problem. “Why now? You have been here for some time… Alva.”
There was a flash of anger, the grip tightening… then returning to something similar to the pressure from before. “How did thou learn to speak?”
She wasn’t asking in general, of course. Because Deirdre was speaking English. “English is my native language.”
“Tell me straight. How did thou learn I speak the same?” The precise way Alva spoke certainly came with a peculiar accent, but it was far more recognizable than the written language Deirdre had seen.
“We intercepted a few secret missives,” Deirdre admitted.
“Thou speak too freely to be false. And my own men do not speak as thee.” Alva shook her head. “It matters not. Enemies we remain.”
“How did Gesine find out?”
Alva took a moment. Perhaps hesitating, or perhaps parsing Deirdre’s speech. No doubt it sounded just as oddly formed to her. “She knows not truly. Merely the name. Tell me, how did thou come to be here?”
Deirdre shrugged, “I died, and then I was here. Is it so strange? There are many records of reincarnation and transmigrators.” The latter words were in the current world’s language. It was uncertain if Alva would have context for them in English.
“Of the former there are too many,” Alva replied. “The latter has only us that I know.”
“Glad to make your acquaintance. Can you let me go?”
“I am not here to converse,” she said. “Promise not to follow, and free shall thou be.”
“We could aid you against Gesine,” Deidre prodded the waters. It was already comforting that this woman hadn’t gone directly for the kill. And there was a strange confidence to be had when one had already died.
“The greatest aid would be naught at all. But I find interest nonetheless. Speak to me above.”
With that, the rocky form of Alva or Sitora crumbled away, dust settling into a sodden clump along the bottom of the tunnel.
Deidre looked over at Renato. She had to explain, though there hadn’t really been much to the conversation. Though they did learn something valuable in that Sitora could clearly make powerful clones. Deirdre just hoped she herself didn’t seem like a threat or an interesting target now.
Bright blue hair dangled in front of a face in a dark room. It was good that it was blue, because that was the color of water. And that was where she was. Which, admittedly, might not have been her smartest move. And it also wasn’t her choice that her hair was blue.
Slowly, Verusha crept out from behind some crates. It had been a lot of work to sneak onto a ship without her parents noticing. Emilia was supposed to do it with her, but she chickened out. Obviously.
She wasn’t planning to fight in the war. She was just here to watch. But so far mostly it was boring. All of the actual stuff was happening below the water. Or most of it, anyway. She crept out onto the deck. This was the best time, as there was some sort of battle going on. Verusha had been able to sense fire and water mixing for a while now. As she came out, she knew that other Milanovic cultivators were attacking from up on the ship, targeting something below. Fish. Sea creatures in general, really. And weird blobs, apparently.
“Yeah, boil the stupid fish!” she shouted, before realizing she wasn’t supposed to be giving away her position. She ducked around behind a mast, focusing on her inner fire. It was dim, but it shouldn’t feel out of place. Except that she was probably the weakest Milanovic present by a good margin.
Nobody seemed to have noticed her just yet. She crept over to the edge of the ship. Then she looked over towards the stone spires. Cool. They just stabbed out of the ocean and had giant plants curling around them. Some of the leaves were as big as a rug. It wouldn’t burn well, but that was a plus in her book. It seemed like the best place to stand.
The battle had died down. No more monsters. She dangled herself over the edge, dropping as silently as she could into the water and then flailing about for a second to get herself to the surface.
She’d learned how to swim on previous trips to the Shimmering Islands, but there was one difference. She’d done that in shallow water. Like, maybe two meters deep on the far end. Instead of… she tried really hard not to think about how deep the water was under her.
Verusha began to swim towards the stone spire. It had her target, namely Emilia’s fiancee. She had to assess whether he remained worthy. Sure, his cultivation was really high for his age, but that didn’t matter if he didn’t do anything with it.
Swimming wasn’t hard. People floated on their own so all she had to do was push herself forward against the waves. Which was harder than it seemed. Her spiritual energy also wasn’t going to help a lot there. Fire was overcome by water. She’d just waste it all.
Was she getting closer to the spire? She had to be. It was just hard to get a good look at things with the bobbing waves. No, she was definitely closer. It was gonna be kind of a long swim though. She’d slightly underestimated the distance.
Everything was fine though. She kept breathing as she’d been taught, moving her arms and legs as instructed. It was kinda difficult with everything soggy though. Was that why they had special clothes for swimming? Oh well, this wouldn’t be a problem for long. Once she reached Foundation Phase, she could better augment herself even in the water. She would be way stronger. She even had a good totem for it, she was just too weak.
Ah, finally. She was almost there. All she had to do was sneak up on the triplets and that one other guy. Which was… actually a lot harder than it sounded like, now that she thought about it. Those stone spires weren’t really good for concealing anything.
Then she felt it. From above, its energy a mixture of water and air.
She attempted to yell something. Maybe “Help!” or something more eloquent, but what she actually got out was some screaming and coughing.
Some sort of bird dove down towards her, and she couldn’t think of anything to do but set everything around her on fire. Obviously it didn’t do much for the water, but she made a nice defensive layer above her. It lasted long enough to drive the bird away, but she lost control of it as she madly began to scrabble towards the spire. It was still so far.
Then it came back. She released her energy again, but the bird was more determined. She felt its focused energy. It was going to impale her and then bite of her head and-
Around her, the water exploded into steam. Verusha definitely wanted to do that, but she didn’t think she did it. And she definitely didn’t shape it into a directed geyser that blasted away the bird that was several times her size. Nor did she create the wave that pushed her forwards and up, to where her arm was grabbed and she was pulled onto dry land. Or wet land. Or a wet plant, at least. But it was somewhere to put her feet.
Standing above her was Tirto. “H-hey,” she said lamely. “I mean, uh. Hey! You could have killed me with that!”
“What are you doing here Verusha?” Tirto asked.
To that, she had no good answer. She thought about throwing fire at him, but that would have looked bad in front of… the other three. Who were also watching her dripping pathetically. Maybe she could at least dry her hair?
Strange, it was red now. Or maybe pink, for some reason.