No light except that of bioluminescent creatures, generally doing so as a trap, reached the depths where John and Matayal found themselves. Everything they did, from simply trying to perceive the world around them to moving and of course fighting consumed precious energy reserves. With little ability to rest, they were only barely able to maintain their state of survival. The cave they stayed in had only a small pocket of air to make use of while asleep, but after having driven out the aggressive creatures it was safe enough for a couple hours at a time.
Currently, they were trying to be as efficient with resources as possible. Food wasn’t an issue- there were plenty of things to eat, even discounting poisonous creatures and things that had so little actual flesh that they weren’t worth the effort. In fact, there was a limit on how much they could practically eat, so they tried to make sure it was the most nutritious sources possible. Sometimes that meant eating things with rather unpleasant taste, and the various forms of sea life couldn’t always be taken to a thermal vent and cooked. Either way, there was no avoiding ingesting salt water.
Some of their energy went to separating out the salt so they didn’t, ironically, dehydrate in the ocean. They also had to refresh their air supplies and keep up some level of defenses so they weren’t crushed by the pressure of the deep sea. There was no lack of spiritual energy in the depths, especially water elemental energy for Matayal, but there was a limit to how much a cultivator could absorb without resting, and preferably a period of proper sleep.
The thing most scarce was air elemental spiritual energy for John to make use of. Inside his dantian he naturally produced some, and he could convert other types, but it wasn’t as efficient as just absorbing some. It wasn’t entirely lacking, but they had to seek it out, either in the form of spiritual air sometimes condensed in the air bladders of kelp or through other sources. One of those was spirit beasts who made use of the element, though obviously most sea creatures were most aligned with water. There was one type, however, that had quite powerful air energy. Electric eels. John vaguely recalled information that electric eels weren’t eels, but there wasn’t a better name for long tubular water dwelling creatures.
The electric eels in a cultivator world were more dangerous than those on Earth, though taking into account the difference between cultivators and normal humans, the relative danger was not too far off. On Earth humans should just avoid the creatures entirely, since being shocked could stop their heart. With the benefits of air elemental spiritual energy, the electric eels around them could make much more powerful shocks- but both John and Matayal had some ability to resist them. Matayal still had the weaknesses of a water element cultivator, but she at least had a totem and some training to help protect her. John had air and earth element totems, so he was able to help her resist the shocks.
Optimally, however, the eels wouldn’t even notice them coming. Much like the eels on earth, when these felt threatened they almost indiscriminately made use of all of their stored up charge to shock everything around them. Though they wouldn’t be completely drained dry, less than a tenth of their usefulness would be left.
Darkness and water intertwined to mimic the depths themselves, hiding John and Matayal from the senses of the creatures. The pair approached a four meter long creature from above, slipping down on either side of it. Their weapons slowly pressed forward into the creature between them, sliding in suddenly as they made contact. In response, a current of electricity flowed over the two of them- but it was simply the small amount of chemical electricity it contained, and not the spiritual energy. With its brain destroyed, it was unable to release its spiritual energy.
If John had to pick a least favorite thing to eat, it was the electric eels. Cooking them broke down the air energy they stored, wasting at least half of the effect. So he ate them uncooked when they were gross and slimy with an irony taste like blood. There was also a tingling sensation on his tongue as he ate them, like a constant electric buzz. It was somewhat unpleasant, but as he grew used to it it became simply normal.
Eating so much raw or undercooked fish probably wasn’t good for the two cultivators, but their immune systems were strong, and they could usually tell when there were harmful bacteria in whatever they were eating. So far it had been several days, and neither of them had gotten more than a stomach ache. That was good, because if either of them got truly sick they would likely both die.
As they were swimming back to their cave to take a break, Matayal looked down into the trench below them. John noticed her gaze and asked, “See anything?”
She shook her head, “It’s not something I see. But the concentrations of water energy below are increasing. I can’t tell if it’s a bad sign or not.”
“Something related to the sea god?” John asked.
“Or whatever is down there,” Matayal nodded in confirmation.
Above them, something was approaching. It wasn’t even trying to conceal itself. John and Matayal picked up their pace as they sensed the creature. It was simply massive, as if a building were approaching them. It was a whale, a hundred meters in length. They’d seen similar creatures before- or perhaps it was the same one. Either way, they did their best to avoid it. Perhaps it might not intend to eat them, but if they ended up in front of its mouth perhaps it would do so anyway, either to test if they were edible or simply by not noticing them. The only thing they knew was that they weren’t its direct target.
The massive whale preferred to feed on other equally massive sea creatures, especially some of the giant squid in the area. John and Matayal had only gotten close to the smaller ones, while the larger ones were comparable in size to the whale. Length wasn’t a good measure there, but rather a body ten meters across and tentacles that stretched far beyond. They were capable of wrapping their arms around the giant whales to fight back- but they were the prey in all cases they had sensed from afar. Even this time, the massive beast quickly found a giant squid. Both creatures were easily sensed by their tremendous size and the energy they didn’t try to conceal. Soon after they could sense the squid was injured and being pulled towards the surface.
They made it back to their cave to have their meal, Matayal just eating some random creatures from nearby while John had the electric eel.
“We might try to ride one of those to the surface,” John suggested, “If we can get a bit stronger. Even if the whale itself ignores us, we might have to contend with other things on the way up.”
“I agree,” Matayal said. “It might be our best bet. And I really don’t want to be here with the building energy in the lower trench.”
They hadn’t explored much of the trench below them. Their cave was less than a dozen meters below the top of the ledge where the ocean floor suddenly dropped to an even deeper level than where they already were. Just to be safe they’d explored all of the adjacent ones, concerned about possible predators that might seek them out. They had to clear out a few, but their own cave was the best and safest they had found. Part of that was because of the crab in their cave. They had seen the way it snapped one of the barracuda in half with its claw. But it seemed content to share the cave with them, especially when scraps of their meals floated down to it, or were tossed aside after they finished. The crab always got the biggest chunks, but the other small fish nibbled on the floating remains as well. Along with some anemones and corals, they had a nice little ecosystem in their cave, though it required outside sustenance to feed it.
After he finished eating, with his stomach digesting the electric eel, John circulated his energy to absorb some of the energy in the meat, both inside him and in the parts he hadn’t consumed. The air energy was quite tingly, already being attuned to electricity, and he had to absorb it slowly. If he tried to do it quickly, he might cause a miniature lightning strike inside himself, and while he could absorb actual lightning, when doing so in a storm he diluted the power before allowing it inside himself. He was still in the early parts of the Soul Expansion Phase, after all, and his air totem was thus only beginning its growth. It was also not the most directly suited for dealing with electricity even as an air totem.
When he had absorbed what he could safely, he continued to channel the energy but transformed it into another aspect of air, specifically breathable gasses. Some of that involved pulling those very gasses out of the water around him. All of them floated up, slightly increasing the size of their little pocket of air. He also had to filter the air already in there, because the oxygen wasn’t replenishing itself. Once he was finished, he felt the heaviness of his eyes. Matayal came up to him, and once more held him in place so he could rest.
After his nap, since it couldn’t be called a proper sleep, John felt somewhat more invigorated. He spent his time slowly filtering the air around them, holding Matayal in his arms to keep her head in their air pocket. It was easiest to hold her there and allow her to breathe naturally instead of directly filtering the air in her lungs. It was her turn to sleep. One of them had to be awake at all times, since if they went to sleep and the air ran out… they would simply not wake up. John watched Matayal’s sleeping face. It looked so peaceful and content. Not at all concerned about whether they would live another day or not. Though at their current point, John would certainly bet on making it at least another day. They were well fed and had recovered a decent amount of energy. Their wounds were healing faster than they were accruing new ones. Their air pocket was increasing in size to the point John thought he might get something resembling a full night’s rest soon.
The biggest concern was the increasing swell of water energy in the depths. Even John could feel it now, as subtle as it was against the background of other water energy. The buildup wasn’t in just one specific point, but having seen the whales John wasn’t entirely beyond believing there wasn’t some sort of sea god, a creature that stretched a kilometer or more in any direction. And if it wasn’t that, then it was some sort of large non-creature phenomenon that he didn’t want to be involved with. How long would it be before it built up to the point where it burst? It was only a question of when, not if. Nothing could gather energy forever. Or if it could… then it was a priceless treasure. Though considering the scale involved, not one that could be taken away. But neither John nor Matayal were going to go look, on the assumption that it would have teeth.
Matayal’s eyes fluttered open. “You can sleep longer, you know,” John said. “It’s only been an hour and a half, approximately.” Keeping track of time with little sensory input, and no sun or timekeeping device was more a matter of instinct- but cultivators tended to have pretty good internal clocks.
She shook her head, still-wet hair hanging down her face. “It is sufficient. We should go looking for more resources to make use of.”
John wasn’t sure if he entirely believed her about it being enough rest, but he could believe she was too distracted by worries to sleep more. He wasn’t going to try to force his wife to sleep longer here, even if she looked like she needed it. He would just make sure she was fit to act. He initiated an exchange of energy, synchronizing them as they dual cultivated. They couldn’t afford to have either of them with lesser energy reserves than the other, and if they could actually increase in cultivation rank, their prospects of survival would increase significantly. Other activities would have to wait for when they had stamina to spare.