Extreme pressure and abundant resources were useful tools for improving cultivation. John learned that in the danger zone in the Crystal Caverns, though cultivators knew it in general. The problem was that when the difficulty raised to the level of life-threatening even if there was a high chance of advancing rapidly, there was an equally high chance of perishing. You either grew stronger, or you died. John and Matayal had every intention to do the former, but so did everyone else who faced trouble.
“This would be a great time to stumble upon some natural treasures or break through to a new phase,” John commented. “Think there’s anything good down here?”
“If there is,” Matayal commented. “I would expect it to be in the belly of a beast.” That was where most things were, it seemed. But at least they had a bit of extra energy to spend joking around.
They were now comfortable roaming a bit further from their cave, checking out various nooks and crannies along the edge of the trench, above and below the lip. So far they hadn’t encountered the other side of the trench, though they weren’t willing to swim far through open water without anything to navigate by. Otherwise, they might not make it back to their shelter.
As closely as they could reckon days without seeing the sky, it seemed like the buildup in the depths below them would reach its peak in a day or two. That didn’t leave long for other activities, preparing themselves to escape or to protect themselves from the upcoming event.
Diving deeper was more dangerous, but also the most potentially rewarding. They stuck to the edge of the cliff, poking their heads or weapons into caves along the way. Some of them went deep into the structure, small winding tunnels that were dangerous to navigate, even if nothing in there tried to eat them. Though their supply of air wasn’t measured in a specific time frame, being stuck for a few hours would be sufficient to greatly weaken them. Inside the caves they found an abundance of spirit water, either contained within a creature or in little dense globes that looked like glass spheres, barely visible except for the different way they distorted vision. The effect was more obvious when there was actual light, but that was only the case when some sort of predatory creature was watching over the spirit water as a trap.
“I sense something,” Matayal said. “More spirit water, maybe, but dense water energy. Not alive, though.”
“An important qualifier,” John admitted, “Or it would be quite foolish of us to go towards it.”
Even if the source itself wasn’t a danger, they were cautious as they swam further down. The looming presence at the bottom of the trench hardly felt closer, but that provided them little comfort. Neither of them sensed any other creatures around, but they kept themselves hidden as they approached.
Soon enough John could see the beginnings of a large shelf sticking out of the cliff, a layer of sand covering it. Any number of things could be hiding in sand, and as they got closer he sunk his earth elemental spiritual energy into the ground to search for anything sneaking about. But unlike most of the sea around them, there were no signs of life. As they approached the source of the water element energy, they saw a fist sized white rock.
John picked it up on the tip of his sword, making sure there was no strange response when it was touched. Then he tossed it to Matayal. She encircled it with her energy, trying to draw out the water element, but John could tell there was no progress after a minute. “It’s tightly entangled,” she said. “There’s still much more, but it seems unusable.” She held the rock between her hands, attempting to break it. With the amount of energy she used John would have expected even an expensive set of armor to be torn in half, but the rock remained solid.
At the same time, he was digging for more of the rocks. He could only handle so much water element at once, but having backups for Matayal or something to sell if they survived would be nice. Even if they couldn’t make use of them, it had to be possible for someone. John found a few more oddly shaped white rocks as he was digging towards the larger sources of energy, but he began to get a feeling of form. When he found a couple oblong ones the size of his forearm and then some the size of his torso, it became clear they were bones. And based on what he sensed deeper, these were the small bones of something.
A short time later he unearthed the beginning of a rib, fully as wide as he was along its whole length. Based on the shape he was sensing through the ground, it should have been a whale like the one they had seen eating giant squid, except perished and picked clean long before. “Hmm. I’ll need your help with this,” John said.
“I don’t have room for that in my storage bag, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“Not at the moment,” John shook his head. “But I should be able to extract the spiritual energy from the smaller bones. But it will be much more water element than I can handle.”
As far as John was able to discern, the ‘smaller’ bones that went from fist sized to torso sized were parts of the creature’s flipper, quite similar in composition to bones in the hand. John started by placing one of the smaller ones into the urn. He wasn’t sure he could fit the torso sized bones into the urn at all, given its size, and the ribs were far beyond its capacity even if they weren’t still attached to the spine.
Unlike the bone dust from inside the danger zone in the Crystal Caverns, the bone didn’t immediately dissolve into energy. It was a slower process- or rather, it produced energy just as quickly and the single bone simply contained much more. Water flowed into him, flooding his dantian. He could handle a reasonable amount of water element, but he had no water totem to properly control it. That was where Matayal’s assistance was important. Together they guided the energy from him into her as quickly as they could. But John found the process wasn’t rapid enough as energy flowed from the urn into him, out of his dantian through his meridians. He had to circulate it into Matayal’s meridians and into her dantian as well, going twice the distance a normal cultivator would have to. He could slow the flow of energy, but some of it would disperse and be wasted.
The two of them strengthened their connection as they continued to cultivate on the jutting shelf of rock, away from any swimming creatures. Water empowered air, air empowered earth. Earth and water together with darkness formed a small cycle of allied elements, growing as they could. Likewise, the stormy seas inside of Matayal continued to expand. John felt his cultivation reaching the limit of the twentieth rank, and it overflowed and pushed forward into the twenty-first. Matayal had already achieved that rank before him and was pushing towards the twenty-second.
As their rank increased their capacity and control of energy expanded as well, but the single bone still produced more than they could handle. Quite naturally the two joined themselves closer together, minimizing the distance between them. The physical distance hardly changed, a few centimeters at most, but instead of the energy flowing through their meridians from one of them to another, their internal worlds began to overlap. It was hard to say how long the moment lasted, a lone island with a great tree of darkness in an ever expanding sea. It could have been an instant or several hours, but the deepened connection between them didn’t last forever. As the last remnants of the bone faded, so did the way the two of them overlapped.
Matayal’s mouth hung open, and John doubted his face was any more put together. Then she smiled. “We should try to do that again. Somewhere… safer.”
John nodded. His lungs were straining as he’d somewhat neglected refreshing his own air supply during the process. It was easy for cultivators to forget their bodily needs when cultivating, even important ones. Absorbing the energy hadn’t been so easy that he could dilute his control and achieve the same results.
The two of them gathered the bones they could into their storage bags, those of the flippers and the tail bones, as well as a few from the spine that were disconnected. Then they were out of room, and even the individual pieces remaining wouldn’t have fit in their bags on the best of days. John had never thought that he’d need more storage space than a room, but he supposed he’d underestimated how big the world could go.
The two of them returned to their cave. First they took care of their bodily needs such as feeding themselves and filtering the cave to have as much breathable air as possible. Then John placed the next bone into the urn. He carefully felt the urn with his senses, concerned that it might be damaged by so much power flowing through it, but it seemed unperturbed and even invigorated as they began the process again. Then he was fully focused on the process of dual cultivation, energy flowing into him which also meant it was flowing into Matayal.
It was impossible to make perfect use of the energy with no waste. The excess energy was bound to attract creatures around them, but even as they considered that the various creatures in their cave circled around them. Not aggressively, but defensively. The crab stood at the mouth of the cave, absorbing excess water element into itself as the two humans cultivated.
One by one bones were absorbed with increasing rapidity. Being concerned about the waste seemed foolish now that they realized how much they had. The two human cultivators once more filled to the brim, breaking through to the twenty-second and twenty-third ranks. Yet the power of the condensed water element was almost limitless, and a greater portion of it was used up by Matayal. Her cultivation grew more rapidly, reaching the peak of the twenty-third rank and finally spilling over into the twenty-fourth.
Despite the fact that improvements to cultivation were invigorating, so much improvement- and so rapidly- was also equally tiring. After quickly replenishing their air, the two of them set off to find something to eat. The various fishes and anemones and one large crab that dwelled in their cave watched them leave, all parties full of life.
Soon enough some fish from outside the cave were roasted in the heat of a thermal vent nearby. John would have gladly fought a life or death battle for a real, dry fire- but there were none to be had. So it was wet, oddly cooked fish once again- and some chunks of a squid that had thought they seemed edible.
The sense of foreboding from deep below was ever closer. It seemed as if it could erupt at any time. The two of them retreated to their cave, taking what moments they could to rest, alternating short naps… until they knew there was no more time.
“This is it, then,” John commented. “Do we try to weather it in here, or face it out there?”
“We have to hope that it will be a reverse of what happened before. If we can get pushed to the surface, while the trip will be a danger on the way it might be our best chance.” Matayal looked above them, “With my increased cultivation, I can tell there are more dangers between us and the surface than we’d previously judged. And the rest we get down here… just isn’t sufficient.”
John nodded. Cultivators were more durable than normal humans, but despite all their efforts they hadn’t had proper rest in nearly a week. Even increasing their cultivation didn’t really help with that, since sleep was still a necessity at the moment. Perhaps they might eventually move beyond that, but not within the Soul Expansion Phase.
“There he is,” Matayal said. “Our friend.” She gestured, pointing to the large whale. “Just in time. You remember the plan.”
“We hadn’t quite decided whether we would attempt to ride above him, or come up from below.”
Matayal nodded seriously. “Be crushed against him, or have him crushed against us? Risk being pulled further into the depths unprotected, or risk the creatures from above trying to eat us as we are propelled to the surface? Personally, I prefer standing atop the whale’s back.”
“That seems best to me as well,” John said. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t mind a couple tag-alongs.”