Against creatures with soft bodies, Renato found that smashing them against a nearby wall was actually remarkably effective. There was always a limit to how much something could deform. It was still better to impale them upon spikes of stone- and with relatively narrow tunnels, the terrain was never a problem there. Deirdre and the light cultivators were also able to make use of their normal attacks, either their ranged options or their melee tactics with staff-glaives. The motion of their weapons was restricted by the waters, but not so much as to stop them from being effective.
Deidre gathered her energy, producing a flash of light just as the body of one of the creatures launched a bone spear. Unfortunately, they were hardly sensitive to light and the momentary flood of a single element didn’t negate their other senses. She had to strike the weapon out of the water, concerned about those behind her being unprepared to dodge. It hardly mattered that the creatures were useless after a small number of attacks considering how effective they were for the first few. Anyone below the Consolidated Soul Phase would have great difficulty stopping them.
Their group also encountered one of the tunnel filling amorphous jellies, but under Renato’s leadership the earth cultivators quickly reacted. He was the first to launch an attack- not swinging his club and risking being engulfed, but instead simply stomping on a tunnel edge and creating a spike of stone. But the spike didn’t simply grow straight, instead curving around like a hook. An intelligent creature could have easily avoided such a thing even as it pressed through a narrow area… but the blob simply continued forward. The one hook broke off, but not before puncturing the creature. With it moving slowly, it wasn’t difficult for the earth cultivators to coordinate waves of hooks all the way around, causing the creature to tear itself apart from the edges. It didn’t die from that, but it was significantly less effective at engulfing anyone with its outsides in tatters, allowing the group to more selectively bring it down.
As for the tunnel shapers, while they were certainly more efficient at the process than proper earth cultivators, they were not the only ones who could reshape the terrain. The trail left by their groups would be rather obvious, but neither the Order of the Amber Heart nor the Golden Tomb Guardians were ever going to be effective at stealth. They simply intended to remain far enough from the Sky Island cultivators that it was too much bother to deal with them.
“The tunnels are narrowing,” Matayal observed. “Attacks also seem to have slowed down. Hopefully that means we’re approaching an exit.”
“Or at least that they’ve run out of defenses,” John said. “A constant flood like this can’t be possible forever. We’re not the only ones exploring the leviathan either, so it can’t just draw from everywhere else.”
“True,” Matayal agreed. “But I would bet on there being more verticality and layers in the equation than we’ve encountered.”
John just nodded seriously. “This thing… it covers more of the Shimmering Islands than we initially thought, doesn’t it?”
“It should be contained to a relatively small area… if we’re talking on the scale of occupied islands. Likely no larger than Pualani, counting the outer petals. It’s just more difficult to get around.”
“That’s still a radius of more than a handful of kilometers,” John pointed out. “And even Pualani has a lot of ‘empty’ sea between its various petals and between the outer ring and the core island.”
“Oh, I understand that it’s preposterous,” Matayal said. “But at most it would remove the Kelp Spire Forest from the map, instead of say… the bottom third of the Shimmering Islands.”
“Did you really consider that as a possibility?” John shook his head. “Have you ever heard about anything that size?”
“I have, actually. Upon researching the leviathan, I learned about other massive monsters. Though the information on this one was limited, and the others were said to have been slain in times long gone. The stories were perhaps exaggerated- but I think by not as much as one might hope.”
The feeling of Gesine ahead, as well as the others with her, soon turned upwards. They were out of the leviathan. Their own group soon followed, and they found their way to the surface to take much a much needed rest. Their losses were minimal, but beyond actual deaths they had many injuries. And they still didn’t know what was being looked for, or if they could actually properly change how the situation would play out. But they also couldn’t just ignore it, if they wanted to have control over their own future. Whatever was of value here should belong to someone from the region, not people poking their noses in from several countries away.
Renato and Deirdre returned soon afterwards. In many ways they appeared to have performed better, despite not having water cultivators. Then again, everything they were fighting was water element so nobody had any particular advantages to begin with. The air cultivators of the Mulyani clan would- but they were still working on establishing their next generation’s leadership. Asih and Harta were both working their way through the early Consolidated Soul Phase. At the current moment, they and the clan were providing security for the fleets of the alliance along with those from the Milanovic clan.
They discussed the various things that had been effective and lacking with their groups to plan for the next day, but mostly they had to rest so they could move out whenever the Ascending Soul Phase cultivators did.
The headquarters of the Golden Tomb Guardians were under siege. Forces were unequally matched, with the Righteous Flame League bringing a majority of their cultivators- and conversely the Golden Tomb Guardians had more than half of their forces away to help with the leviathan situation.
Once the attack had begun, it was clear that even with the advantage of a defensive position the Golden Tomb Guardians were unable to sufficiently defend. Among other things, they could not properly cover the whole border they controlled, or they would have too few cultivators defending any one place.
The enemy began to break through the walls- sometimes literally, sometimes setting up ways to climb over that the Golden Tomb Guardians couldn’t combat. Ladders and ropes were easily destructible, but only if they could fight through the gathered forces to reach them. With each foothold the Righteous Flame League gained, the situation worsened.
“Retreat!” Monika ordered. “We will take shelter in the core complex!” Covering a smaller area would be best with their numbers… but they couldn’t just give up the walls without a fight. The core complex included the technique library and vaults, in short where most of the sect’s wealth was kept. There would be some in individual disciples and elders’ quarters, and throughout the rest of the sect, but the most important features weren’t something that could be carried away. Like the Tomb itself.
“We’re really not assigning any defenses to the tomb?” Zacharie asked.
“No.” Monika said. “We will wait, and watch. The traps will cause them a significant headache.”
“They are light cultivators,” Zacharie pointed out.
“Only partially, and they aren’t patient.”
“But what about when they get to… her?” Zacharie asked. “We can’t just-”
“Trust me,” Monika said. “I have considered the options, and this is the best one. I have already gained her approval.”
Zacharie sighed. “Very well, but I don’t feel comfortable just hiding.”
At that point, the last of the cultivators were pulling away from the walls- and the Righteous Flame League let them with little harassment, happily securing their new positions.
“Don’t worry,” Monika said as they escorted the last group. “We’re not done just yet.”
“Pathetic,” Asgeirr commented as he saw the Golden Tomb Guardians flee, not even bothering to defend the most grand, central structure of their sect. “What do you think, Stenn?” he asked his lieutenant.
“Victory is assured,” the man said. “And by securing their core treasures, you will be able to secure your position as the next Sect Head. Likewise, we will return to good standing with the Molten Sea.”
“I can’t believe their people were pathetic enough to be of so little use in taking out the Tenebach head. It seems they only have a few exceptional cultivators, and a large quantity of mediocre Consolidated Soul Phase.”
Stenn nodded in agreement, “I would be careful where you spoke such words, sir.”
“Obviously. I know that we’re but a speck compared to the Molten Sea… at least currently. But with the growth we will achieve after these successes, I think we can push to a higher point. Depending on what we find here… I might even reach the Ascending Soul Phase myself within a handful of years. Then what of that old hag from the Molten Sea?” Asgeirr shook his head.
The Righteous Flame League moved in, opening the gates but still securing them with their own cultivators, ready to close them against reinforcements- though there shouldn’t be any of that for another day or so- or to stop people from escaping.
Asgeirr directed them past the quarters. Looting could happen later. They had to secure the most important locations first. He carefully inspected the doors on the central building. The Tomb. It wasn’t fully clear to Asgeirr what sort of treasure lay inside, but it was clearly responsible for bringing these light cultivators to their current station over the last centuries. But it wouldn’t be theirs any longer after today. Depending on how things went, they would then deal with the sheltered cultivators, as the treasury would be valuable to the Righteous Flame League. As they associated with darkness cultivators, the Golden Tomb Guardians didn’t have any rights to keep anything.
“These doors appear quite solid,” Asgeirr said to Stenn. “But I don’t sense anything… too troublesome. We should be able to break them open with some effort.”
“Of course,” Stenn said. “However, perhaps I could try something first. The locking mechanisms don’t appear particularly complicated.” He held up his hand, a swirl of light and flame forming into individual fingers.
“Go ahead,” Asgeirr agreed.
Nothing attempted to kill Stenn as he approached and began to touch the door. He wrestled with the lock for a good minute, but eventually he managed to trigger the right mechanisms, both through applying light element and physically moving what he needed. Then he pulled, swinging open the massive doors. “Little good this did them, if they are unable to defend it.”
“Indeed,” Asgeirr said, looking towards where the Golden Tomb Guardians had retreated. “I suspect some kind of treachery. We will leave soldiers here to watch for their movements, along with those securing the walls.”
Inside of the cathedral-like structure, they could see many different intersecting corridors. The whole area was suffused with boundless light element, but it was clear there was more. “I do believe there are traps everywhere,” Stenn said.
“We’ll pick them out,” Asgeirr said. “But finding a route to our goal… will take too long. We’ll need to split up.” Ultimately, they devoted a significant portion of their forces to exploring the tomb. The sooner they could find what treasures it held, the sooner they could leave.
Asgeirr headed his own group… but any time he was unsure of an area, he would have one of the disciples explore in detail. It was unfortunate for them when they were careless enough to set off a trap- whether spikes stabbing out of the floor or lances of light element, most weren’t able to survive. But they knew the risks.
The light element was omnipresent, and though he himself was a light element cultivator Asgeirr found it somewhat… oppressive. He had to get his hand on the source of power.
Ultimately, the groups made their way through one step at a time. Unlike John, they weren’t informed of the locations of traps or the route to the central chamber, but they had enough people to work things out.
Asgeirr’s group arrived first, but as he finally came to the central chamber he felt the other groups nearing as well. In the center was a most impressive beast. His eyes could barely rest on it, light emanating from its feathers and permeating the rest of the tomb. He could make out a general avian shape with a longer neck, splayed out on a large stone slab as if it were merely resting.
No wonder the Golden Tomb Guardians had been doing well. The corpse of such a fantastic creature was not just a treasure, but countless treasures. He couldn’t help but grin to himself. “I see. Every feather of this creature, every gram of flesh and bone… they’re all high tier treasures. We can gain much.” He stepped forward. “For it to radiate such power even long after its death, it could only be hidden from the world by this place.” He moved cautiously around the beast, looking for additional traps. He didn’t find any, but that wasn’t strange. The power of the beast would interfere with any sort of enchantment, and the area would need to be clear to harvest from the creature.
Asgeirr stopped down, picking up a fallen feather. Its power was enough for a Spiritual Collection Phase cultivator to advance a rank or two even with no ambient energy. Or for a more practical matter, it would let them break through to the next Phase with relative ease, drawing them to light aligned spiritual totems.
“Strange,” Asgeirr said as he reached out for the creature’s corpse. “I don’t see where they might have harvested. Its plumage appears nearly complete.” His hand brushed against the feathers, pulling on one and finding it didn’t easily come free.
He didn’t see an eye glaring at him, but he did hear the chastisement. “Idiot.”
As a mid Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator, he wasn’t easy to kill. His defenses were powerful, his reaction speed finely tuned, he was able to react. That was why he was merely knocked flying, only a third of the features piercing through his defenses as a great wing batted him into the wall of the large central chamber. And that was a good result, as all of those along with him besides his lieutenant Stenn were completely sliced to ribbons by the feathers, the majority of which then returned to the semi-tangible avian.
Asgeirr was momentarily stunned, but then he grinned. “It’s alive. Hah.” That was a hundred times more valuable than he’d already thought, even though it must have been greatly weakened to keep it contained. “Righteous Flame League, we’re capturing this beast!” His voice echoed throughout the chamber and beyond, pushing others to hurry towards him.
His excitement was slightly abated as the general oppression of the area focus directly on him. Light itself was supposed to be weightless, but he felt as if he were covered with a million iron bars. “I am not an ‘it’,” said the creature. That was about the time Asgeirr realized that in addition to not being a tomb, this was also not a cage. No, it was more akin to… a palace or temple. A very much not dead and completely unrestrained spirit beast was looking right at him, with a power well established in the Ascending Soul Phase. And the only thing Asgeirr could manage was flaring his energy to the maximum so he could run away, hoping that his memory would let him avoid some of the traps.
Just to go gather reinforcements, of course. They would still capture this thing, but he would need more of their armies. No matter the losses, it would be worth it. It had to be.