Nobody would just forget about two Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators, at least not without some help. But that was where John’s most subtle darkness trickery came in. Along with hiding Matayal and himself, he distorted the minds of those around them. Could he just erase the memory of everyone in the Molten Sea? Of course not. Even blanking out their memory for the duration of a short battle would be impossible. But he could dull their sense of concern. He wasn’t able to be specific, but ultimately he was aiming for something like the idea that just because any individual couldn’t sense them anymore didn’t mean some of the others couldn’t. But even that would be impossible to maintain for so many powerful cultivators, and John knew he couldn’t completely hide their approach from Gesine.
Next to him, Matayal propelled the two through the water, angling around the battles between the Molten Sea, their alliance’s members, and the internal defenses of the leviathan. Their movement unhindered for a short time, they were almost upon Gesine when another pulse of energy from the Leviathan rang out from its core. John entrusted their protection to Matayal, letting his energy flow along with hers. Instead of deflecting it around them, Matayal did something that let it pass through them. Though John still felt the tremors, he was not thrown back or bombarded by sudden pressure. Matayal’s familiarity with the leviathan had clearly paid off. The rest of their army had to provide their own protection, but the members of the Molten Sea were affected at the same time so the consequences were shared.
Then they were merely a few meters from Gesine, and John hoped Matayal’s plan was good. Because while the old woman seemed intent on battering the leviathan with blades of lava, that was doing a good job of boiling the water around her. John focused on insulating the two of them from the heat, while also keeping them vaguely hidden. He didn’t want Gesine’s army to suddenly turn around on them. He was uncertain if the woman herself had noticed them, but if she had she didn’t seem to care.
“You have a small bit of fire, right?” Matayal confirmed with John. “I need you to feed it to me at an even pace. Fire aids the transition of water between forms.”
Was she planning to freeze Gesine? A bold plan, but if it worked they might buy enough time for Sitora to arrive. He had vaguely begun to feel her as they approached, and now she was likely no more than a minute away. But a minute could be a very long time in a pitched battle.
John trusted Matayal, and if she had launched a direct attack or attempted to otherwise restrain Gesine, he would have been happy to support her. However, he was glad that her initial efforts were focused elsewhere. She reached out with her energy, towards the core of power Gesine was smashing her way towards. The pulsing of power was becoming more prominent as layers of rocky flesh cracked apart. John was surprised there was no blood, but perhaps he was correct about them being in the heart. In such a case, its blood was already all around them appearing as seawater.
The limited fire element John kept within him was channeled into Matayal at a constant rate. The loose energy from Gesine was more than enough for John to capture and refine with Spiritual Energy Absorption. It ultimately took more energy than he gained, but supporting Matayal was more important at the moment. His energy flowed through her, and hers through him. Ultimately it then flowed into the heart of the leviathan… then back to Matayal.
Another pulse of power… but this time, it was more directed. Focused. The energy itself wasn’t any different, but focused as it was it blasted Gesine back dozens of meters. Unfortunately there was no wall to crash her into, and the water slowed her momentum rapidly. Fiery eyes settled on the two of them, but Matayal simply pulled them up against the leviathan, the central part of its heart.
“Get me deeper access!” Matayal insisted.
John didn’t hesitate, using his earth element to carefully pry apart the hardened flesh. Underneath the battering of Gesine’s attacks, it quickly began to resemble familiar flesh and muscle, but he peeled away what stone he could- curving it around to create a shield in front of them. That was necessary, because Gesine wasn’t just going to ignore them. A spear of boiling water stabbed towards them, shattering the stone. But Matayal reached out, negating the force and dispersing the heat with a pulse of energy.
Energy that no longer felt like her at all. Or rather, energy that had completed a transformation she’d begun in recent excursions. Because of her own curiosity and that of Tirto, she had gradually attuned her energy to that of the Leviathan. She could only go so far when remaining among the outer layers, but there had been small changes as they’d explored, developing her further. Here, she had pushed herself the last steps.
Her cultivation advanced to the 36th rank, the last step in the Consolidated Soul Phase. If this had been a year or two later, with her already at the peak of the Consolidated Soul Phase, she might have broken through to the Ascending Soul Phase. As it was, she could only rely on the power of the leviathan to protect them from Gesine’s assault.
Flames surrounded the Ascending Soul Phase cultivator, defying the water’s ability to quench her heat. John could only do his best to provide what water element he had to Matayal for her use. He did his very best to defend with earth, repeatedly blocking them with the local stone. That was never going to last, of course. Fire overcame earth- and in vast enough quantities, it overpowered water. John could feel the water around them nearly boiling, constantly eating away at his and Matayal’s defensive energy. They would exhaust themselves before Gesine tired herself, even with Matayal making use of the leviathan’s energy as much as she could.
But he wasn’t going to just give up. He didn’t want to know what would happen to the Shimmering Islands if Gesine destroyed the leviathan- and being physically present would no doubt be worse for him personally. But more importantly, he couldn’t stand to let her abuse her power within the region. Nobody required their alliance to take on the burden, but they were the ones willing to act.
John squeezed Matayal’s hand with his right. His sword was sheathed at his side, useless in their current situation. He felt his wife straining to control the energy of the leviathan, providing her all the support he could. At the same time, he wrapped air in darkness, sending it out to the side. He had a good reason to avoid a direct attack on Gesine. It would simply waste his efforts.
Lightning crackled nearly invisibly. Even if Gesine noticed it, it wasn’t anywhere near close enough to strike her, placed between herself and the rest of her combatants. Then the lightning released- but only partially at John’s own bidding.
A flash lit up the deep caverns of the leviathan’s heart, a bolt of lightning striking directly through Gesine even though John hadn’t directed his energy there… directly. And the bolt was far beyond anything he could produce. Indeed, the vast majority of it was Sitora’s energy- seeking out his own lightning between the two points.
Gesine cursed loudly even as John was still recovering his vision- he had expected the flash, but he was still a darkness cultivator easily susceptible to such things. “Warriors of the Molten Sea, to me!”
They obeyed, disregarding the attacks of the alliance and the leviathan’s defenses. Some charged directly towards Sitora and her own followers, but others came for John and Matayal.
Another pulse, intentionally directed by Matayal. Dozens of Molten Sea cultivators went tumbling, pushed back into their enemies.
Gesine and Sitora clashed. They seemed equally matched at first. Sitora continued her assault with lightning, but Gesine was ready to direct it around her. She was injured, a clear burn scar from the lightning on her stomach… but her combat ability hadn’t faltered at all. If she continued to fight so recklessly, John wasn’t sure how she would live through the battle even if they won.
Then he realized. Perhaps she didn’t mean to. Whether she believed she would reincarnate once more or simply thought her grudge was worth dying for, he wasn’t certain. Or perhaps she had made the choice upon Sitora’s arrival. Either way, she countered lightning with bolts of fire unquenched by the sea. Though both were Ascending Soul Phase cultivators, John couldn’t properly judge how closely matched they were. They should have been close in strength, and yet Gesine was managing to suppress Sitora even after the sneak attack. And the other Molten Sea cultivators continued to hold their own, at least for the moment.
There was no way they would last long, but perhaps that didn’t matter. John and Matayal couldn’t leave their defensive position, and Matayal couldn’t keep the assaults away forever. John himself was at less than a third of his spiritual energy remaining, and Matayal…
He looked at her face, painfully serene. He felt her energy, circulating within him and within her… but only that small part. The rest had been replaced by the energy of the leviathan. An energy she was wielding with ever more precision. Perhaps she really could settle things. She just had to last until Gesine was defeated by Sitora. And yet… he knew something wasn’t right.
“Even the slightest opening may cause catastrophe,” she gestured to the slightest glimmer behind them. “I will not allow my son to live in a Shimmering Islands ravaged by a disaster I could stop.”
Gesine was somehow managing to keep an eye on the two of them and even launch attacks occasionally. John could see it now. The flames weren’t just her spiritual energy, they were more than that. They were flickers of life, of rage and fury that had surpassed the rational. Whether it was Gesine’s original intention or not, this was how things would be.
A vortex of water around Gesine pushed gathered Sitora and many others, then flung them away. The flames that were Gesine rushed towards John and Matayal, and Matayal stretched out her hand. One last pulse of the leviathan’s energy, except instead of rushing water, Matayal forced the nearly boiling water to disperse its heat. John felt it absorbed into the flesh of the leviathan while at the same time it great spiritual energy suppressed the temperature around Gesine even further.
A humanoid figure of flames floated within a sphere of ice. John felt a chill, as the boiling waters became nearly arctic. He looked towards Matayal, who smiled and wrapped her arms around him. In the salty depths, tears were invisible- but he knew Matayal’s tears as well as he could feel his own being whisked away by the flow. “I’m sorry my love. You will have to take care of the triplets on your own.”
“… Why?” John couldn’t form words beyond that. It was a foolish question, because he already knew the answer. It was to protect him. The triplets. Her homeland, and their clans- still embroiled in fighting.
Thoughts flashed through his mind of things he could have done differently. From moments before, he might have dragged her away from the leviathan’s core to protect them. Before the war, when he came into conflict with the Molten Sea for the sake of a simple cultivator selling wares. Before that, when they had first shown their heads in the region and he had been too intimidated to stand against them.
And long before that. Before he was even Fortkran Tenebach, but instead the other him had that name. His negligence in properly cultivating, and even John’s own pragmatic choices since then. One could only cultivate so quickly, but shouldn’t he have pushed himself towards the Ascending Soul Phase with all of his might, knowing this conflict was on the horizon? He could only curse himself for being too weak. Too slow to act. For that, the region had suffered… and only now had the damage truly reached him, the high and mighty clan head.
He looked into Matayal’s eyes. He reached out with his energy, feeling burst meridians she had been directing him away from during her short channeling of the leviathan. Her dantian was damaged- no, more than that her totems were cracked and broken. The waters inside of her were falling into an open void, a rift in the seas and islands she cultivated.
She rested her head on his shoulder. “I was looking forward to spending all year with you, after our obligations were settled.”
John didn’t lie and say they still could. “We should have spent more of our time together. Everything is better with you around.”
She clutched him tightly. “Take care… of them.”
As her consciousness faded, John was already doing everything he could. He pulled out the best medicines they had on them for soothing damage cultivation and healing the body. But even as his energy guided the pills down her throat and began to dissolve them inside her, he knew it was pointless.
Then the leviathan pulsed with a powerful energy, disturbing John from his despair.