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The thing that tipped Melanthina off was not something she saw or sensed, but something she didn’t see. It was just the same as Ciaritzal, a form of nothingness that couldn’t be seen even with the eyes of a darkness element cultivator. But she couldn’t see beyond it either, and that was what she noticed.
The moment the edge of Nik’s light touched it, it reacted with a whiplike tendril of darkness sweeping across the chamber. Power swirled around Melanthina’s hands as she placed herself in the path, grabbing a midsection and then the end as it tried to twist around her. Without a physical component such a thing should have been able to bend and grow at will, but she disrupted the flow of energy with her own.
With his light just shining on the main body of the thing, a lump dangling from the ceiling that did not actually light up, Nik acted quickly. He pointed his staff, light gathering in an instant and firing outward as a beam. That same beam split into a wide beam of colors and focused in on a single point on the target, the Combining Luster Sect’s techniques at play to increase power through a high degree of control. Light and darkness met, annihilating each other as they were liable to do.
The core of the creature exploded, and its attacking tendril withered into nothing but raw darkness energy. The remaining bits and pieces of the creature told the story of a large plantlike bulb.
It was a short battle, a single exchange of attacks- but many battles were decided in such a manner, especially with ambush predators involved. Even if the ultimate victory came a dozen moves later, the opening moves of battle could decide the flow.
“Thanks for blocking that,” Nik said.
“Uh, yeah. Of course,” Melanthina said. “You’re offensively good against the things here, so it’s most efficient to keep you safe and let you attack as you please. Even if you have some defensive training against darkness.” She should have probably stopped talking halfway through, as bringing up why he needed to train against darkness element attackers led to some awkward situations. Fortunately, he wasn’t the type to bring it up… that frequently. Given the circumstances.
“Is any of this useful?” he gestured to the bits of plantlike matter.
“I think so,” Melanthina said. “I can certainly gather it to see what we can do with it.” She started stuffing things into her storage bag. “Too bad there’s no light element for you…”
“Yeah…” Nik sighed, “There was supposed to be a path skirting along the edge of the fire chambers that led more or less directly to the light chambers. Maybe it worked, but I got separated from the sect and ended up being unable to go back. Tumbled through some burning tunnels that I couldn’t see myself climbing out of.”
“… I was wondering how you ended up down here,” Melanthina sighed. “It was earth glider tunnels for me. One was too strong for me, Ursel and Tirto to take on and I didn’t see the fall… then I was spinning and tumbling and at the bottom of a strange web of tunnels.” Melanthina shook her head. “I hadn’t heard of any connections directly from earth or fire to darkness.”
“Maybe nobody survived to talk about it,” Nik said. Then he cleared his throat. “So, uh, I guess we have to be the ones to spread that knowledge.”
“Yeah,” Melanthina nodded, subconsciously reaching out to grab his sleeve but stopping herself before she made contact.. That would have been unpleasant for both of them, and she could deflect the natural darkness element away from him without actual contact.
The next travel period, Nik and Melanthina were still continuing along. They were being slowly worn down… but it was slowly. With Melanthina reducing the strain on Nik and some regular cooked food they were able to maintain a basic equilibrium, though the need to take shifts on watch meant they got by with the minimum of sleep required, hoping to get out of the area sooner. If they came to a bunch of burning tunnels they might just try to push through them. Melanthina also hoped they might get back to the same web she’d first lost herself in, where they could hopefully do a better job of finding the way out. Chances were that they were getting further away from either or both, but they couldn’t expect an exit to come to them.
“Something feels weird,” Nik commented.
“Hmm…” Melanthina pondered, “Down the rightmost tunnel? Should we avoid it or check it out?”
“It feels a little bit like light element,” Nik said, “And while I know that wouldn’t be much fun for you, if it is light element chambers it should be closer to the surface. Or at least explored territory.”
“That… doesn’t sound very fun,” Melanthina admitted. “But we should check it out.”
“If it is,” Nik said. “I can return the favor. Keeping the light element away from you.”
“Thanks,” she nodded in response.
Silence took over. There wasn’t much to talk about. Ah yes, here are more dark tunnels. And beasts. And dark tunnels. And spirits. Though they didn’t run into anything trying to kill and eat them as they continued onward.
After they got closer, Nik had another comment. “I guess I was mistaken… sort of. There’s certainly more light element, but I was a bit… optimistic?” He shook his head. “Should have expected something like this.”
Ahead, as far as they could feel, swirling light and darkness interacted in their typical violent fashion. That led to what could be considered to be wider tunnels and more open caverns, if one did not take into account shattered stalactites or simply bits of roof falling and caving in areas.
“So,” Nik said. “The fact that this is still happening, and the whole place isn’t just bare like the annihilation strip, means that this has to be new. Or at least… cyclical?”
Melanthina frowned, then nodded. “Certain tunnels get flooded with one element or the other until they react. But if there are proper stalactites here then it doesn’t shift that quickly.”
“It’s possible they grow quickly due to special factors. With this much spiritual energy interacting, it might only take… days or weeks?” Nik shrugged.
“Not like it matters either way. We can’t just afford to wait and hope it changes to our favor. So then… what do we do? It’s clearly not safe to go through here.”
Nik sighed, “We should turn back. Find somewhere else. It’s crazy to mix light and darkness.”
“Yeah,” Melanthina agreed. Neither turned and began heading away. “But isn’t this our best hope of a real change?”
“It does seem like it,” Nik admitted. “And if we get through… I’ll be happier, but that doesn’t really change our overall status. It would just hopefully bring us closer to a route out.”
“I guess we have to go through, then,” Melanthina said. Once more, neither made a move, forward or backwards.
“If we’re going to go through, we need to coordinate as much as possible. If we can prevent the confluence of elements, the danger will be minimized.”
“I think we’ve been working together… pretty well,” Melanthina said.
“I don’t disagree. But we’d do best to minimize our necessary controlled area and optimize control.”
“So… we’d have to stand close together? That’s fine,” Melanthina lied. “It’s not like I’ve never had contact with a bo- a man before.” That was technically not a lie. Family counted, right?
“Even that will be kind of risky,” Nik admitted. “We’re opposing elements so coordinating the bridge between us is important.”
“I can handle that,” Melanthina said. “I’ve been practicing light and darkness interactions. For defensive purposes.”
“Same thing here,” Nik admitted. “Which is good, because I think someone one-sidedly handling things would be… problematic.”
“Great, so we just… grab on. Then step into a miniature annihilation field and hope we can find our way through.” Why couldn’t she have just died in the fall? That would have been so much easier.
Ursel quietly grit her teeth. Her physical injuries were nowhere near as bad as the others. She was fine. There was definitely no clenching in her guts like her body was trying to kill her. It also definitely had nothing to do with a certain time of month because that was still probably a week away. What day was it again?
So maybe she wasn’t quite sure it was not that. She could check if her spiritual energy would allow her to do anything without stabbing her directly in the stomach. Ursel wouldn’t let something stupid like that stop her from being effective in combat, but outside of combat without adrenaline she began to be somewhat concerned.
It was probably fine though. What could it even be? It’s not like her dantian would suddenly explode for no reason. If that was going to happen, it would have already. Almost for sure. She wasn’t even absorbing spiritual energy right now.
“Ursel,” she startled as Tirto put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Stupid empathetic brother. “Yeah, I’m fine,” Ursel said.
Tirto just looked into her eyes. “Seriously if there’s a problem you need to say something. We’re already off balance here.”
“I-” Ursel had already caused enough trouble. She couldn’t afford to add more. But Tirto was right that not talking about it might be worse. “My dantian is… not doing great.”
Aydan spoke from ahead. “In what manner?”
“Uh… it aches. There’s a lot of pressure.”
“… What tier is your newest totem?” Aydan had a general sense of it, of course, but there was some potential ambiguity.
“I think it’s… siiixth?” Ursel said unsurely.
“You think it’s a sixth tier totem?” Aydan asked sternly.
“I know I dove past the fifth tier because I couldn’t find anything to… solve my problem.”
“Then we shall assume it is sixth tier, which is already an extraordinary achievement,” Aydan nodded. “You did not properly adjust to that layer.”
“Well… no,” Ursel admitted.
“Your dantian is likely struggling to accommodate such a rapid shift. If you are fortunate… the pain is simply that of forced growth.”
Aydan shook his head, “Then there is nothing we can do about it now. Perhaps gently circulating your energy will help.” Aydan’s eyes shifted and he picked their next branch, “This way.”
Since they couldn’t be completely certain there wouldn’t be some sort of attack, Nik placed himself on Melanthina’s left side. That was where she kept her free hand. He was also right-handed, but he could hold his staff in his left hand with little trouble. There would be a minimal loss in effectiveness if he pointed his focusing crystal slightly off target compared to Melanthina having to use her dagger in her off hand. Though moving in combat would be difficult for either of them like they were.
“So we just…” Melanthing spoke to give herself something to distract her rather than needing to actually vocalize their plan again, “… create one flow of spiritual energy around us. We want to repel darkness away from your side and draw it to mine around the back, while having any light element do the same around the front.”
Nik’s hand had callouses. That wasn’t particularly strange for cultivators, though Melanthina kept her skin in optimal shape with the usage of some of the clan’s resources. It wasn’t just for vanity, but rather expected of her as the future clan leader. But it was also nice, nobody wanted to have rough skin. Except of course Tirto’s skin was smooth and Ursel’s honestly felt more like sandpaper. So it wasn’t a universal desire.
It was strangely comfortable, except for the part where Melanthina could completely ruin her hand if she let a mote of darkness out through her palm, or if Nik did the same with a speck of light. Since they were coordinating their control the area of contact was devoid of protective spiritual energy, which would have just clashed anyway.
They stepped forward in sync. Most of the spiritual energy in the area was already annihilated, but the flow was continuously shifting because of the contact between pockets of light and darkness. Melanthina flinched as a wave of light flowed towards her, trying to push it away. Even with her practice that still caused a moderate explosion and scoured her defensive energy. She slowly built it back up, keenly aware she couldn’t do that more than once or twice more.
“Uh, sorry,” Melanthina said. Nik hadn’t been damaged by the explosion, but she had clamped down hard on his fingers. “I was supposed to trust you to handle that.”
“I understand. It’s hard to go against instinct and training. Don’t worry.”
Melanthina chose to accept his words as they were instead of concerning himself with whether he thought she was stupid. He probably did, but they could leave that for later if they both survived. When they both survived. They just had to get through… at least a kilometer of chaotic chambers and tunnels.