In the southwestern section of the Shimmering Islands, rampant volcanic activity had long before shot spires of stone out of the sea, creating a massive field of unpredictably sized and shaped pillars. Over time a particular kind of kelp had taken to the spires, growing up along them and even out of them into the open air, curling around the spires of stone and draping between them. Life flourished in the area, with great fisher birds living atop the spires as limitless schools of fish lived among the kelp below. Like all places there were times when it flourished more strongly, and a season of great bounty had come.
The area was rife with spiritual beasts whose bodies were valuable treasures. During such times the local kelps contained copious quantities of spirit air and spirit water. But of course with all of the possible benefits came danger- both in the form of natural dangers and that of other humans looking to collect the same things.
John himself had little reason to risk himself in the area, despite the alluring desire of spirit air. After all, many of those who were gathering intended to sell what they had, and with a flood entering the market he could buy all that was necessary for a single person for a reasonable price. Reasonable with the resources of a large clan, anyway.
But not everything John did had to be most directly beneficial to himself. The Brandle clan needed more than just what they could buy, and that also extended to spirit water for Matayal’s use. Beyond that, there were possibilities of fortuitous encounters that might provide great benefits for the right people.
Going along wasn’t exactly selfless since it was for the benefit of allies, and Matayal’s strength almost directly affected John’s own strength, but he could have chosen not to go. Justifying not going with his new wife into a danger zone when he had nothing more important was difficult, of course. Would she likely survive and do well without him? Absolutely. But if there was any significant risk to her he knew he should be there to provide backup when she needed it. Including another Soul Expansion Phase cultivator was also not an insignificant addition to the Brandle Clan’s forces.
The path to the Kelp Spire Forest first took them to a nearby island, and from there boats carried them somewhat close to the area. The boats weren’t willing to move into the area with the violent currents and dangerous beasts, but John wouldn’t be much of a cultivator if he was afraid of a little water. Proper caution about the things in the water was appropriate, but the real dangers were deeper.
He and Matayal hopped off of the boat onto the water along with two Brandle clan bodyguards who had been waiting for them. They also had Aydan and Crystin from the Tenebach clan. The stronger they became, the more they also could become targets for others- and the harder it was to travel incognito regardless of the number of guards with them. Livna and Yonit were at the twentieth and nineteenth rank respectively, resulting in their group of six all being in early Soul Expansion Phase. Enough protection to keep them safe, but also not so much as to hinder their growth.
If things really took a sour turn, there were other Brandle clan members in the area, as well as members of the Mulyani clan. Kusuma was at least informal allies with the Brandle clan at the moment, and had entered into serious talks about something more.
When John had heard about kelp- even giant kelp- his thoughts went to Earth. “I had expected something rather… smaller.” He stood next to Matayal who was keeping them afloat on the surface of the water. It was actually a rather similar technique to what he had first tried in Dolomite harbor, but directly using the water to support them instead of a bubble of energy. There was little difference for a water element cultivator, of course. In front of them were spires of stone up to a dozen meters across and sticking hundreds of meters out of the water- though some were much smaller in either dimension. “Reminds me of Jack and the Beanstalk.”
The body of the kelp was rarely smaller than a meter across, with some being larger. The dripping leaves were large enough to support a person and the bulbs that were used to keep the kelp afloat ranged between the size of his head and torso, instead of being about the size of a thumb. Right now most of what he could see obviously didn’t need the bulbs to float since it was above water, but they should serve some purpose regardless.
John’s eyes scanned left and right, trying to see the full extent of the area, but it seemed to continue forever. Considering how much space it took up on a map, he knew that wasn’t quite true- but it was a significant region.
“Where should we go?” John asked. “You’re the one who knows what you’re looking for best.”
“First we will be going… down.” With that, Matayal dropped them into the sea. There was a sudden sensation of falling, though it only lasted a moment. Like an elevator, actually. The ‘solid’ water they were standing on had just lowered itself, and Matayal brought a bubble of air down with them. Even water cultivators had to breathe, after all. Though maybe less. John could feel the air in the bubble around them straining to reach the surface and extended a small portion of his own air energy to ease the strain on Matayal. Behind them Livna took Crystin down with her, and Yonit provided a bubble for Aydan. “You will need to get used to attacking through the water.”
The area extended even further underwater- John was able to see some rock spires below them that hadn’t reached the surface, and kelp stretched vertically all around them. There were endless swarms of fish, from the smallest ones the size of his finger to what he thought was an entire group of sharks approximating a school of fish. Deep below them he could see some massive figures, but the distance and distortion from the water made them hard to make out in specific detail. It was dark as well, but he could see a very significant distance through darkness of all sorts. In this situation, he wasn’t sure he liked the ability.
Matayal and John moved forward, nearly gliding through the water in their bubble. John knew that at some point he would be fully immersed in the water around them but for the moment he would enjoy the freedom they had that was almost like flying. They approached one of the giant kelp fronds, seeing where leaves had been nibbled by various fish. “The blades here are valuable nutrients for the sea life. Though many of them eat it only indirectly through consuming others.” Matayal gestured with her spear towards a section of the plant, “Someone cut off an air bladder here, perhaps hoping it contained spirit air. Perhaps it did, though it is unlikely we will find much of anything near the outer ring.” She looked around before bringing them to an adjacent area, “This one is older, and more likely to contain things of interest. The medicinal properties of the leafy blades aren’t much, but we will gather a few.” She stabbed her spear towards one, piercing the water as if it provided no resistance at all. Then she rolled it up and placed it into her magic bag. “You try.”
John slashed out at one. He felt how his sword slowed in the water, quite similar to striking the defensive energy of a water element cultivator but more pervasive. However, he still had the power to cut the area where he aimed, slicing through the thick plant. His cut wasn’t quite as neat, but he felt it was good enough.
“Now do it again without my assistance.” As she said that, Matayal released her control over the water around them. Though John was asserting some control over the air around them, it all escaped his grasp as the water came crashing down on him from all sides. John recalled diving to the bottom of pools and even slightly deeper into the ocean before, and the pressure was actually strongest on his ears. It was much the same now, but he was over a dozen meters deep and it was merely uncomfortable without even requiring him to expend spiritual energy to resist the pressure. The body of a cultivator grew stronger along with their mastery of spiritual energy, though the amount varied by particular cultivation style.
John surrounded himself with a typical layer of defensive spiritual energy, in this case a thin bubble of air. He slashed out once more, feeling how his attack slowed. The kelp did nothing to avoid its attack- as expected of a plant- and he once more sliced through it. However, as he saw fish darting about he doubted he could strike most of them with the same movement. He had some amount of training fighting in the water at the Brandle clan, but standing in a pool of water was quite different from being deep in the sea. On that note, the air element energy hadn’t quite freed up his attacks the way he wanted it to. He was still pushing water out of the way too much. Just because air overcame water in the cycle of elements didn’t mean he could completely ignore it- and in the case of air it was most effective at causing damage to creatures it hit. He took another swing, making sure to focus on letting the water slip past him more than directly fighting against it.
John didn’t concern himself with chopping up the plant for little reason. Even if he didn’t collect the blades, there were already fish nibbling on the kelp. It was so abundant that a little damage didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to cause ecological devastation with a few swings of his sword. Considering that other cultivators regularly came to this place over the years, he doubted he could. Though it was still best to not cause too much pointless destruction.
“Down here,” Matayal said, her voice easily carrying through the water. Though she’d crashed the water down on him, she kept a small amount of air for herself. The smaller amount was easier on her, and John could provide his own air. John responded in a way he thought was unintelligible, but she answered him regardless. “We’re going to be hunting the silverscale fish,” she gestured towards a school of fish that had to contain hundreds of them. “We just need a few for meals, and as bait. Try to target an individual one. It will get you used to the peculiarities of underwater combat.”
The other two water cultivators were directing Aydan and Crystin in much the same way, though the two darkness cultivators were forced to return to the surface regularly and refresh a small bubble of air they held around their head. A cultivator could hold their breath for some time, but activities such as fighting lowered that time significantly. It was better to be safe.
John didn’t have to head to the surface. While his third totem wasn’t as good at creating lightning or wind as specialized totems, creating breathable air was actually well within its wheelhouse. Though instead of ‘creating’ it was more like ‘recycling’, as he purified the air in his lungs. Never had John felt less like a normal human than breathing underwater without any sort of mechanical aid.
Silverscale fish were indeed a good target. They weren’t aggressive, instead using the schooling tactic to seem as if they were a threat when really they weren’t. Human eyes were able to quickly discern that they weren’t one massive creature, but picking out individuals was still difficult with them constantly moving about. John began to try some attacks, slashing and stabbing with his sword. His movements through the water were quickly improving, but keeping track of the fish was the biggest problem. It took five swings before he even hit one, and ten before he hit the one he was aiming for. He bisected that one in an unpleasant fashion before skewering another that was in a much more usable form when he was finished. He continued his practice until Aydan and Crystin were somewhat low on energy and needed a rest on the surface.
Everyone moved over to one of the spires of rock, stepping onto a slippery kelp that was acting more like a vine as it held onto the rock. Matayal held up one of the fish. “This is how they’re used as bait.” She tossed it in between the pillars, and a moment later a fisher bird was diving down from above. The bird had a meter long neck and a wingspan almost as wide as a human, and as it dove into the water Matayal threw her spear, stabbing into it. With a wave of her hand the water pushed both spear and bird towards her, and she plucked them out of the water. “Now we have the second part of our lunch.”