As it turned out, most people ultimately cared less about who they talked to than the results they achieved. Kaimana was conveniently placed to be one of the few viable rest points between the Blustering Peaks and the majority of the Shimmering Islands, at least by direct route. Those who passed by frequently were interested in signing long term contracts for better deals, and Asih was quite capable of negotiating acceptable rates in that regard. A few individuals really did wish to meet Kusuma, but whether or not she would provide them guidance ultimately was up to her. She could be quite fickle, refusing to interact with people she didn’t find interesting.
Enough people passed by that it would be impossible for one person to keep on top of every detail, and Asih didn’t even attempt it. Reviewing things at the end of the week was good enough. The Mulyani clan wasn’t in a position where they could levy more than basic taxes on those passing through, so the financial numbers were much less than the clan members brought in from various excursions, but every revenue stream was significant.
Most of the time, things looked good. If there had been a significant problem during the week someone would have come to her. Things remained more or less the same, but reviewing events was a good practice. This week, everything lined up as well. There was only one thing that nagged in the back of her mind. She stepped out to see her assistant.
“Is there a problem?” he asked.
“Four days ago,” Asih said. “Remnants of the Kartal clan came through, is that correct?”
“If it is in the summary, it is accurate,” he nodded. “Why? Should we have informed you? It is my understanding the conflicts with them were resolved, and the score settled in our favor.”
“That’s true,” Asih nodded. “Those conflicts were settled years ago.” Something bothered her though, so she found herself on the way to see Matriarch Kusuma.
The explanation was short and simple. There really wasn’t much to say, just a hunch. Yet Kusuma’s response was even more concerning. “Prepare me a ship.”
Somehow, John felt that Aydan and Crystin along with the triplet’s normal guards seemed insufficient. There was no logical basis for that, considering that there was also a significant portion of the Brandle clan present. It wasn’t even cultivator intuition, warning him of something he couldn’t sense. Instead, it was something deeper and harder to ignore- parental worrying. Not the helpful kind that actually solved problems, but the kind that wouldn’t let him ignore things that were perfectly safe. On a practical level, the triplets were stronger than most adults, and even when considering cultivator clans and sects in the region they were not weak.
It was the same sort of worry he felt whenever they were at the Brandle clan without him- completely unjustified, because there was no way Matayal would let harm come to them and she was one of the strongest people he knew. He knew that this was simply a thing humans had to deal with, and did his best to temper it. Otherwise, he might smother the children with worry.
He wasn’t even going far- but it was significant enough of a distance that it was at least vaguely reasonable. A couple kilometers on the surface was much different than the same distance straight down.
That was where he and Matayal were going of course, along with Livna and Yonit because having backup was always preferable. He had appreciated the intimacy of his first time in the deep sea with Matayal, but he would have been happier to not have to worry about constant danger.
Descending was simple. They were more than a full phase stronger, and anything that picked a fight with them on the way down simply didn’t have good judgment. There were a few creatures that might have been unlucky to come across them with unclear intents- perhaps they would have moved on, but they found themselves impaled upon spears upon entering within a certain threshold.
Within an hour, they were beyond the deepest John had gone- though it felt much less oppressive than the previous time. Matayal’s unconcerned demeanor helped as well. They passed by their little cave- no doubt intentionally- but there wasn’t much to say about it. The memories were good ones, after they had survived to reminisce.
They’d first been drawn into the depth by the great inhalation of the sea god. Now, they were approaching it with intent. The magnitude of the creature made its power seem less- the vastness of its energy stretched out over the whole terrain. As the group descended into the ravine once more- though John had barely gone beyond the lip- abundant life once again began to show itself.
John already knew that pieces of the terrain were in fact molded over the body of the slumbering sea god itself, but it was strange to actually sense it himself. With John’s proficiency in the earth element he was able to pierce through the layers of stone atop it more easily for a clearer picture, though it was still just the same myriad of fins and strange layout previously described to him. He had no idea what such a thing might look like if it were actually moving around.
Matayal brought them to a cave with a strange flow of water. “I believe this is one of the creature’s nostrils,” she said. “Or something like one.”
It had been previously noted by those involved that a sea creature should not breathe in the same way as they did, but even so John could feel the currents slowly go in and out. Then again, a creature of such magnitude that remained stationary could not manage much with traditional gills. Investigating more thoroughly would involve going inside which nobody was willing to attempt for various reasons- greatest of which was possibly disturbing the creature and having it choose to actively attack them if it was upset.
While he couldn’t say he gained any deep understanding of the creature, John could feel how it had influenced Matayal’s cultivation. He’d picked up some things about the water element from her, but viewing the source directly was completely different. It also reminded him that the Consolidated Soul Phase was not the limit of cultivation. Nor was the Ascending Soul Phase. Not even close, though to be fair the only Ascending Soul Phase cultivator he’d seen was brand new.
Ursel found some of their battles quite annoying. Tirto was good with a spear, and Melanthina was annoyingly proficient. Hammers and clubs were rather terrible underwater, and using attacks meant for different sorts of weapons with a spear was annoyingly difficult. She’d worked with their mother trying to learn more about controlling the water element, but while she was able to adapt some earth elemental techniques to function better underwater, they were still difficult in the open sea. She preferred fighting close to the stone spires, where she could have a wall to her back and some proper terrain to work with.
Even better was fighting atop the spires, on the large twisting kelp that grew up them. Of course, the creatures they were up against were different. Fighting fish on land would have been trivial, but there were hunting birds that were vigorous defenders of their nests… and occasionally thought humans looked like a decent meal.
Ursel’s stone club swung in front of her, missing an incoming bird by a tiny margin- but she had expected it to slow. Her club struck the side wall and bounced back out, a jut of stone rebounding it faster. The bird had a wingspan twice as wide as a man was tall, but its bones were hardly better than chalk. Its defensive air energy did nothing to deflect the heavy stone club, either. Ursel nodded, letting the club rest on the plant beneath her for the moment. She was still not large enough to carry it without expending spiritual energy, so to conserve herself she took the weight off.
“I’m glad you feel more effective here,” Tirto said. “But the options for battle are more limited. I’d prefer to remain in the water. Maybe we should split up?”
Melanthina looked over at Aydan. “I don’t think our uncle would approve.” He was technically a great-uncle or something like that, but the distinction wasn’t important within the clan. Not as much as cultivation. “I think looking for new opponents would be best. It would involve swimming between stone spires, but we could taunt some creatures out of the water. I know there are crabs and leaping fish, at least.”
“I suppose so,” he agreed. “Though fighting in difficult locations might be better for us. As long as it’s on purpose, we can learn from it.”
“I don’t think I can learn anything in the open water,” Ursel crossed her arms. “Except that I have to swim somewhere else. It’s hard enough just staying afloat.” If Ursel didn’t have the benefits of using spiritual energy, there was literally no way she could swim with the heavy stone club. It dragged her down, just as many as her defensive abilities. At least most of those worked, except the ones to steady her position. With nothing to hold onto, she was pushed around in the water like… well, a heavy boulder really. She still had that going for her.
“Let’s try once,” Melanthina said. “I think I sense something three spires that way. I’ll keep anything from sensing us too early, so Ursel can get her footing before the battle starts.”
The others agreed, mostly because there wasn’t much other choice. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to split up here, at least not while their parents were not around. And while they had issues with each other once in a while, they had learned that the greatest reprimands came if they let that affect them on the battlefield. They had been taken away from training exercises early when they caused trouble, and that meant missing opportunities to improve their cultivation.
The three moved through the water together, Tirto taking the front in the water while Ursel held up the rear. Melanthina floated between the two, shrouding their presence from anything in the water. There weren’t always creatures waiting to bite at their toes, but the important part was diverting the attention of anything waiting by their target. Of the three of them, Ursel was least likely to be injured for being out of position- some technique she’d trained meant the others couldn’t stab through her skin without the aid of spiritual energy- but Melanthina could already tell she was in a bad mood. Making sure the other two felt effective was most important right now.
Instead of crabs or anything of the sort, there were large barnacles at their destination. That would work well enough. Melanthina knew it would be easy to hide from creatures that barely had brains. There were also snails in the area, likewise of limited intelligence. Their size was somewhat concerning, but that was just how things in areas of high spiritual energy were.
Ursel found her footing on a twining kelp, but before Melanthina could climb up behind her she slammed her stone club into the side of the spire, dislodging the barnacles and making them flail about wildly, long tendrils trying to grab for anything. Tirto was ready to fight them, but Melanthina had been planning to get onto land as well. And she still would, but now she had to reach out an arm of energy to grab higher up behind Ursel instead of climbing up next to her. She would have sighed at her sister’s haste if not for being underwater.
Tirto made short work of some of the underwater creatures, but that was where the odd snails came into play. They were generally quite slow, but able to put on sudden bursts of movement by spraying jets of water from various places. Finding the barnacles vulnerable they shot off after them- but they also weren’t averse to trying to reach for unarmored bits of meat as well.
Ursel scooped at them, her heavy club slicing through the water quite effectively despite the strong resistance and slamming one of them back into the pillar, crushing it between stone. Even so, she had to retreat herself as some jetted towards her, even leaping out of the water. Melanthina found herself having to choose between assisting Tirto and her sister, and even if she hadn’t the position wasn’t good for her… but that was what they were learning for, right? Ultimately, she decided on her more vulnerable brother, who despite his ability to slip around in all directions in the water seemed to be overwhelmed at the current moment.