Four figures stood together upon stone wrapped with massive seaweed. They maintained a position on one of the outermost spires, since ships could not safely enter the area. It might not have been strictly necessary to maintain such a position given the important maneuvering was happening below, but it gave them something to do.
“I have the feeling we’re not going to see any battle,” Ursel said.
“So?” Melanthina asked. “I’d rather not do anything than run into the kind of trouble we had in the Prismatic Chambers.”
“We’re a lot stronger now…” Ursel began. “But it’s best we don’t get split up.”
“I’m also not a huge fan of almost dying,” added Nik, the most recent members of their little group. He wasn’t with them at all times, since they needed their own privacy… but he wanted to continue developing bonds. “We’re well over our head, at least considering what’s happening down there.”
“I know right?” Ursel sighed, “We go and reach the Soul Expansion Phase and now even Consolidated Soul Phase isn’t good enough. So we get to stand around on guard duty.”
“If we didn’t come, the two of you would be sneaking off to cause trouble,” Tirto commented.
Ursel grinned at him, “Speaking of trouble, where’s your fiancee?”
“At home, I presume,” Tirto said. “Emilia wasn’t born with cultivation like us, so it’s already impressive that she’s reached the Foundation Phase at her age. It’s not strange that she’d be kept away from the battlefield.” Tirto crossed his arms, “And she’s not trouble. She’s very sweet and kind.”
“Mhm,” Ursel said.
“What? I thought you liked Verusha. Is there something about her that I should know?”
“Oh, yeah. Verusha is nice,” Ursel said. “I was just agreeing with you.”
“It really didn’t sound like it.”
Ursel waved him off, “Come on, don’t read anything into it.”
“That’s right,” Melanthina supported her sister. “She wasn’t implying anything bad about anyone.”
“Then…?” Tirto frowned. Getting no response from his sisters, he turned to Nik.
Nik shook his head. “Don’t look at me. I know less than you do.”
Tirto sighed, “If she’s secretly a psychopath you’re obligated to tell me as my sisters.”
“Just go with your instincts,” Melanthina said unhelpfully, as his instincts were telling him his sisters were messing with him on purpose. Perhaps he should talk to their mother.
A heavy club shoved an amorphous blob against the wall, wrapping up its tendrils along with it. The crushing pressure would have ultimately done very little if there had not been another cultivator ready and waiting. A stone spike emerged from the edge of the tunnel impaling the jelly as it impacted the wall.
“It seems like there’s just as many as before,” Deirdre complained from next to Renato. “I know we’ve moved into a different area, but it’s almost like we didn’t slaughter continuous waves of them on our last excursion.”
“Not quite as many, I think,” Renato said. “Though that remains to be seen at the end of the day. I do wonder where they could be coming from. These tunnel complexes are quite extensive, but I’m not certain how every group manages to face so much pressure.”
“To be fair,” Deirdre said. “I think only the main two groups and us following them are actually delving deep into this thing. Others are mostly poking around the edges. But it’s still… a lot.” She shook her head. “Come on, we should keep moving.”
They now had Tenebach and Brandle clan cultivators with them, which helped with their attempts at stealth and general quality of life. Though using darkness to hide light was a difficult task, they mostly just wanted to prevent Sitora or the other Sky Islanders from spotting them far off. Or at least lessen their sense of being followed.
The Order of the Amber Heart had more than half of their members ‘walking’ through the tunnels rather than swimming. Maintaining a connection to the surrounding stone allowed them to make attacks from more useful angles, and as many of them used blunt weapons that were rather weak underwater it gave them more options.
The Golden Tomb Guardians were generally able to slice apart the various blobby creatures, and the main components of their weapons being made of light allowed them to maneuver fairly effectively underwater. But even the strongest of them had to devote more of their efforts to replenishing their air, and the Brandle cultivators were able to help improve their stamina in that regard. Both air and water cultivators were better at such a process, even if all sufficiently powerful cultivators could technically refresh their own breath.
It still wasn’t clear what Sitora was looking for- or if it was the same thing as Gesine was looking for. The two old women seemed to be in conflict, but that might have been more due to historical conflicts than the current situation. But allowing either of them to simply take something of value away from the region would be unacceptable. They weren’t so untouchable that they should be allowed to do whatever they want at a cost to the locals. Though with that said, the two of them being at the Ascending Soul Phase was a problem. The cooperation of the longer and shorter term alliances would help, but it wasn’t clear if it was enough.
A spear quickly stabbed into a blobby form, then that same form turned rigid as it was frozen. Tirto withdrew his spear, preparing to stab again, but strong arms wrapped around the frozen section and squeezed, cracking it apart.
“Haha, you’ll never pull ahead that way!” Ursel said.
“It’s not a competition,” Tirto said.
“Says you! But I-” something crashed into Ursel, sending her flying. But Ursel was the most durable of any of them. With her new armor, she mostly just got embarrassed about being tossed around rather than injured by most attacks- unless something knocked her head too hard. “Why do they always go for me?” Ursel complained. “You were right there? Melanthina is at least hiding from them!”
Tirto shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Nik was standing over on shore, firing beams of light at the stray and often half-dead creatures that were floating to the surface of the Kelp Spire Forest. His attacks bent upon striking the surface of the water, but his attacks still hit their mark. After all, the Combining Luster Sect was all about bending beams of light- he could easily account for even things like rolling waves. Though he did cheat a little bit by forcing certain angles of refraction where it was convenient.
Melanthina remained on the same spire with him, taking care of anything that got too close. Except when, occasionally, they would combine their powers together. For that, they weaved their elements together, creating a quick bolt of energy rather than a sustained beam. Releasing their control would cause an explosion, but Nik was developing the skills to make it more effective than the random annihilation of light and darkness. It was quite effective, but if they were careless their attacks would fail before they reached the enemy. It was good practice, especially if they wanted to remain around each other.
The entire job of boats was to keep water out of them, so Verusha was quite annoyed at how damp the lower hold of the ship was. She didn’t actually find any leaks or the like, but she constantly felt soaked. Why did she think this was a good idea, coming to a place that was literally just water? She thought it would be kind of fun like the beaches on Pualani, but it wasn’t at all.
And she didn’t even have anywhere comfortable to sleep, because there was the slight problem that she wasn’t supposed to be here. If her parents caught her… she’d probably be locked up and shipped away. Maybe she should let that happen. This whole thing was way bigger than she had anticipated, more like a war than a battle. And their were really weird fish floating to the surface. Or bits of them. Lots and lots of pieces of fish. It was kind of making the whole area smell awful. It was even permeating the hold of the ship.
Despite the things being weird and gross, Verusha kind of wanted to see them with her own eyes. Which meant leaving the hold. And honestly, she barely cared if she got caught now. It was boring and uncomfortable. Why had she even wanted to come?
After a few days, it became clear that the general quantity of things roaming the inner tunnels was decreasing, if not as quickly as seemed sensible. Even counting the ones that found their way out and drifted up to the surface, it was clear that the numbers were decreasing. That led to improved exploration speeds, though the full extent of the deeper tunnels was unclear.
The sped up exploration allowed them to get deeper and into stranger places. John had gotten used to a particular pattern of tunnels, even if it wasn’t actually regular there were still expected shapes and vague distances he could expect to find more branches. But both that and tunnel width were becoming irregular, as well as the repeated waves of pressure trying to push people out.
“It feels like a larger tunnel up ahead,” John commented.
“Yes,” Matayal agreed. “Though there was a greater struggle than normal.”
“I would say that it means it will be safer for us but…” John shook his head. “Sometimes they manage to leave behind dangers.” Either half-dead creatures or just built up toxins could prove to be trouble, and sometimes trailing behind the other group simply meant that John and Matayal’s group simply ran into clusters of the weird local sea life chasing after Gesine’s squad.
As they continued forward, the tunnel sort of got wider. But in another way, it was also narrower, as weird fleshy protrusions were sticking out everywhere, vaguely akin to the tendrils of the jellies. “This is actually part of the leviathan itself…” Matayal frowned, carefully prodding one with her spear. The tendril recoiled. “Strange that it’s so similar.”
“Is it?” John asked. “These creatures seem to be symbiotic with the leviathan. Perhaps it would simply kill them if they didn’t fit in. So it would make sense for them to be vaguely similar.”
“I still don’t like it,” Matayal said, shoving another tendril out of her way. They stretched almost to the middle of the area.
John brushed aside another one, but instead of recoiling it grabbed onto his sword, rapidly winding its way up its length while pulling him closer to the wall. John cursed as it wrapped around his wrist- he hadn’t wanted to lose his sword, but he disliked being caught even more. He gathered a burst of air energy to shock it before it could pull him into additional tendrils. Fortunately that electricity caused it to lose its grip, and he pulled back to the middle of the tunnel.
“Seems they’re quite proactive,” Matayal said. “We’ll have to be careful not to fight here. I doubt they’ll try to eat the other things.”
The earth cultivators with them had already pulled away from the walls, as it had become less stonelike. Their group swam quietly through the center of the tunnel, coming out into the previously perceived larger chamber. Shooting off of it in dozens of directions were rapidly narrowing tunnels with their own grasping tendrils.
“Well,” John said. “Looks like I was somewhat wrong.”
There were many corpses of the weird jellies and other blobs, and the tendrils were pulling them into the walls. It was a mix of fascinating and horrifying to watch in real time, because as the ‘walls’ folded in on themselves it sealed up, leaving no traces of it ever pulling something in except a slight thinning of the surrounding density of the tendrils.
Fortunately it seemed that the particular area they were in had lower traffic, so they pushed onward after Gesine so they could hopefully run into their next fight somewhere less unpleasant. John couldn’t help but wonder how many people were sealed behind those walls, and he made sure to pay careful attention that none of them got grabbed.