People revealed their true selves in desperate circumstances. John wracked his brains for a way to safely make it back to the surface through the masses of undersea monsters with the limited resources they had. He picked out a few routes that looked the least populated. If they could avoid too much battle their wavering energy could get them to the surface. While he was doing that, Matayal got them lunch. It was a five meter long eel, and she cooked it by shoving it up against one of the thermal vents.
If John had to rate the meal, he would have given it a three out of ten at most. It was rubbery and wet and not evenly cooked as they tore chunks off of it. But if he had to rate how useful the meal was, he couldn’t give it anything less than a full ten out of ten. Digesting a little bit of food helped them to begin replenishing some of their depleted stamina, letting them slightly restore their spiritual energy even as they resisted the pressure of the deep ocean. As long as they avoided battle, they could even recover fully. With a few caveats.
First, they still had injuries from the whirlpool pulling them into the depths, creatures crashing into them and biting or slicing at them as they went. Those injuries would take longer to recover- or a significant expenditure of spiritual energy they couldn’t afford to aid their recovery. Second, they would eventually have to sleep. John could maintain their air supply without too much effort, but it wasn’t something he could do in his sleep. Whether or not that was something cultivators could eventually accomplish, he wasn’t there yet. And deep meditation like for cultivation wasn’t as restful as they would need.
So they were stuck in an awkward position where they needed to spend time to recover their body and energy, and where they also couldn’t afford to waste any time. “Now that I look again,” John said, “We’re further down than I thought. I can’t even see the surface through the murk. Too far for a sprint to the surface unless we completely avoid attacks.”
“I agree,” Matayal said. “But that makes things rather difficult. It doesn’t seem that we can afford to sit here and think.”
“That’s right. We need to either start heading for the surface right away or…”
“Or what?” Matayal asked.
“Head deeper. Try to look for caves where we could rest. I could possibly create a pocket of air for us to breathe, but then we’d be in the cold. And if I expend that energy and it ends up being useless…” John shrugged.
“So we flee to the surface, hoping to survive… or push ourselves deeper into adversity and hope we come out the other side. It seems like a simple choice.”
“Is it?” John asked. He was somewhat encouraged that her face was neutral, not despairing… but it seemed pretty hopeless. If they were in the same position unscathed he’d judge their chances of reaching the surface to be high, but with unknown numbers of creatures above waiting to take advantage of anything that showed weakness, he was less certain. “What’s the choice, then?”
“As cultivators, we must take advantage of the opportunities presented to us. The water element energy is so dense here as to be oppressive, yet it is but one of many possible benefits to our current situation.”
“Pff.” John couldn’t help but laugh and grin slightly, “So being trapped in the depths of the ocean is a good thing?”
Matayal smiled back, “If we make it that way.”
“Aydan and the others are going to hate us,” John commented. “Unless you have something else, the first order of business should be a cave! Either finding one… or creating one. Not sure I have the energy for the second.”
“Then let’s begin searching.” She brushed against him as she swam past, spontaneously picking a direction. In John’s view it was just as good as any other, with the ground sloping away from the thermal vent.
Wary of the creatures above, they kept themselves as concealed as possible as they swam along close to the ocean floor. Darkness and water and just a little bit of earth to make them feel like the sandy floor. Most of the sea floor was pretty barren, even of plantlife. Without even a single ray of the sun reaching the depths, it was hard for even the enormous kelp that filled the sea above to begin growing. There were still a few that anchored themselves beneath the sands nearby, but most of them seemed to attach to the stone spires higher up, with some different kinds of sea grass growing around thermal vents along with tube worms and other odd creatures.
Since the two of them hadn’t approached any food sources for creatures and were keeping themselves concealed, they moved along without trouble… until the ocean floor itself rose up to attack them. At least it seemed like it. It was only Matayal’s quick reaction and ability to propel them through the water in any direction that pulled them out of the snapping jaws of the creature below. As its mouth snapped closed and sand no longer covered the creature, John could make out a giant fish, three meters thick. More of a whale in size, but he knew those were a different classification of animal. There was a deep depression in the sand, where the jaws had lain outstretched another four meters on either side like a venus fly trap. Except it was a fish, of course.
Though the creature’s teeth didn’t snap closed around John’s waist or his feet, one ankle did get slashed by a jagged tooth as he was yanked upwards. Fortunately, unlike on land where the damage would significantly hinder his mobility a damaged ankle was something that could be dealt with later. It still hurt as he moved his leg, but he was able to maneuver. The first thing he did, of course, was turn to face the toothy maw in front of him with his sword, his face towards the ground. He attacked one side of the jaw while Matayal stabbed the ‘top’ as it tried to open. Their attacks slid off of the slick-yet-solid skin.
As the jaw opened once more the creature pushed higher out of the sand, lunging towards them. The two split apart to either side of it, Matayal aiming for the ‘top’ where it had some eyes to target. John attacked the bottom of its jaw with his sword, pouring lightning into his attack- but when he saw the results he realized how foolish he was. The lightning dispersed through the water and the creature’s scales, but didn’t penetrate it. It was his fault for not expecting any earth element spirit beasts in the ocean. Not everything would be aligned with water, even if it was the norm. And this one was solid like rock.
As Matayal stabbed at its eyes, the creature began to retreat back into the sand, wiggling its tail. That stirred up sand around them, limiting their visibility- but the way it reacted also told them something. It wasn’t really capable of fighting. It was durable and quite deadly in an ambush situation, but beyond that it didn’t have the maneuverability required to fight. It was basically just a big mouth.
John and Matayal stabbed at it several more times as it retreated, but to cause any real damage to it they would have to commit more energy than they were willing to. There would be no certain benefit for defeating it, and there would be significant risk if they weakened themselves to kill it. They both backed away from it as it lowered itself into the sand, opening its jaw wide- nearly ten meters across as it flattened out and a good third of its total length.
The two of them swam away together, slightly changing their concealment tactic. “I suppose earth swimming overhead is suspicious,” John commented. “We need better camouflage. From above we’ll appear like the earth, from below like the water.”
Now that they realized there could be more predators waiting in ambush in the sand, they were more cautious with how they moved- but they still found it reasonable to stay low. John kept his senses more tuned for changes in the fluctuation of earth energy, and was glad most spirit beasts weren’t as discerning with their energy senses as human cultivators. He was able to make out some things hiding in the sand before they got close, allowing them to avoid them.
Keeping his senses tuned on the ground was useful for another reason. He began to sense some underwater caves, though only by the emptiness they created. So far they hadn’t found the entrance to any of them- and while they might break through the top of them, it was really best to keep those intact if John planned to create a pocket of air.
Soon enough they came to a cliff, dropping sharply to down below. The vast openness was intimidating. “Best we keep close to the edge,” Matayal said. “If there is a sea god… it is most likely down below.”
Neither of them could see anything of the sort in the depths, but even John’s enhanced vision in the dark could only pierce so far into the murky sea. It was a bit discomforting to not see the bottom, but what else he saw was comforting. Caves in the side of the cliff, with obvious sea life. He wasn’t sure what made it so that corals, anemones and the like could live away from a thermal vent so deep, but he could clearly sense them.
Matayal and John carefully approached the first cave, seeing it was wide open with a slope that was no good for trying to trap air. The second was too small to fit in, and the third had a large number of teeth dangling around it. Eventually, a bit deeper than they were comfortable with but still within sight of the top of the dropoff, they found a suitable cave. Large enough to fit them, and though it was filled with creatures most of them were small and not dangerous. Most of them.
“We can’t go on forever,” John said. “Is this the one?”
“It’ll have to do,” Matayal confirmed.
The two of them approached, making an intimidating pressure with their energy. Among the strange, lumpy fish in the area- and the small darting fish that weren’t of any threat- there were larger ones full of teeth. Something like barracuda, though John couldn’t guarantee any sort of relation even if they weren’t in a different world. Still, they had weird faces, long bodies, and lots of teeth.
Instead of backing away, the dozen or so barracudas clumped together into a sort of toothy, fishy bundle. John and Matayal swam into the cave, which was large enough for them to move to either side of the bundle. The fish didn’t seem willing to be chased away, so Matayal began with the first attack, her spear thrusting through one of them.
A bundle of fish darted out towards the two cultivators, darting quickly as they wriggled their bodies, teeth gnashing. John focused on defense, layering his earth energy beneath a layer of shocking electricity. As their teeth bit into the hard and unpleasant energy defenses he had, the fish recoiled, allowing him to sweep his sword into one. Matayal was taking a more elegant approach, slipping through the water with ease and impaling one barracuda at a time.
A sudden presence made itself known as a source of energy flared. However, it attacked neither John nor Matayal, but one of the barracuda. The claw of a large crab sliced one directly in half, and it was skittering towards another of them. Or perhaps instead of being large… it was more of a normal sized crab by the current world’s sensibilities. The largest end of what could appear on Earth, but the claw itself wasn’t any bigger than John’s forearm and hand.
John and Matayal continued to fight the barracuda while being wary of the crab displaying its abilities as a spirit beast. However, soon enough the barracuda were taken care of- the lumpy fish in the area having dragged away bits of them back into little pockets in the cave.
The crab seemed entirely uninterested in John and Matayal, instead tearing into the floating fish near it and bringing pieces to its mouth. John and Matayal explored the cave a bit, though it didn’t go terribly deep. There was a nice dome at the top where they could potentially make a pocket of air, though it wouldn’t be comfortable. And the water was… warm. At least, it wasn’t freezing like everything else. The back wall specifically was almost hot, perhaps close to a thermal vent moving through the ground. Not a good place to build a permanent home, but they just wanted something temporary.
The two of them began to cultivate, John filtering as much air out of the water as he could. It was rather depressing to see tiny bubbles filling the area, but he reminded himself how much pressure the air was under. It would be much smaller than he expected. Still, making each lungful of air was exhausting. Cultivators might breathe more efficiently, but it still wasn’t much. He pulled out the only remaining bulb filled with spirit air, breaking it and adding it to the rest. That would have to suffice for the moment.
“You need to rest,” Matayal said. She pulled herself up against him, “I’ll keep us steady while you sleep for a bit. We have enough air for an hour or two, I think.”
That would have to do. John could recover some stamina and energy while asleep, and then hopefully he would have enough to sustain them for longer. He had to. If it didn’t work… well, it was already impressive enough that they weren’t dead. He wasn’t going to bet on getting a third life, though.