SHIFTING TIDES

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CHAPTER 2: JOURNEY INTO THE DEEP

The Northern ocean was cold, far colder than most mortals could stand, even in this magical world. Yet despite the frigid temperature, its salty waters stubbornly refused to freeze. They were laced with something—a trace of gold qi that kept its molecules from forming an orderly structure. No ice could form, so no icebergs or ice sheets ever graced these Northern waters.

Cha Ming shivered as he plunged directly into the vast ocean, escaping the howling winds and open skies. The cold intensified as he dove, but as a late-marrow-refining cultivator, the pain it caused him was tolerable, almost pleasant. And as they descended, Huxian and his friends changed.

The small fox’s fur became oily and coated with thick demonic energy; his swimming changed from a slow wade to an effortless rush. Likewise, Silverwing’s feathers receded, making his wings more like flippers. Lei Jiang’s weight adjusted his buoyancy, and small extensions of demonic qi extended from his short legs. Gua was the only one who didn’t change; his amphibious nature made him more or less immune to the trials they’d face in the depths of the ocean.

How are you four holding up? Lan Xuan asked. The man had donned a necklace that enveloped him in a powerful blue membrane. He wielded a trident, a suitable weapon given the oceanic environment. The dreamer had vanished upon awakening, leaving a fearsome warrior in his place.

Did you study the diagrams as I instructed? Cha Ming asked the four.

We did, but we didn’t have the knowledge to understand it, Zi Long said. What was it for?

Cha Ming was disappointed but not surprised. They’d progressed far on their own path, putting the runic arts he’d taught them to the wayside. He held two fingers to the front and summoned a swirl of ink from the Clear Sky World. It separated into mostly blue runes and complementary red, gold, brown, and green runes. Once the last of the runes had formed, they shot out toward the four and imprinted themselves on their skins. A membrane spread out from the runes, completely encapsulating their bodies.

The suits can be banished at will, Cha Ming sent. They’ll decrease your friction underwater, fight pressure and cold, and enable you to control buoyancy. While you don’t need to worry about breathing, it will also supply you with air if you so wish. They nodded in thanks, but their embarrassment was clear. This was fine by him, since shame was a great motivator.

The ocean grew darker, and a few miles away from the rocky shore, the slightly tapered seabed plunged down into the black unknown. Their vision almost instantly lost its effectiveness, making it necessary to rely on their souls to probe their surroundings. The transition was a bit jarring, but soon they were introduced to a whole new world.

Mostly blue and purple reefs littered the sandy landscape while smaller demonic fish swam merrily between corals. Crystal starfish laid on the seabed while amorphous but living agglomerations of salt and metal floated around, absorbing whatever stray particles they could. There were few predatory demons here, and Cha Ming wondered if it had anything to do with their proximity to the shore. Perhaps the residents of Beihai hunted them? It was one of many questions that would invade his tranquil mind as they descended.

Time stretched on as they worked their way through the ocean, sometimes barely above the bottom. At other times they could see only vast, endless waters in every direction. Sound traveled far here, but aside from the soft swishing of their movements, they were surrounded by a deathly, suffocating quiet.

Concurrently, the pressure mounted. As they dove deeper, Cha Ming’s body felt a steady push against his skin, which was quickly remedied by the blue runes he’d painted on himself. They were a mile down now, and his eyes barely functioned. The only “sight” he could rely on were faint emanations of demonic qi that stood out thanks to his violet irises, as well as his morphed eyes from the Seventy-Two Transformations Technique that allowed him to pick up remote traces of light. He also had his transcendent soul. All three incomplete pictures were superimposed, leaving him with only a faint vision of a purple void.

At the two-mile mark, they finally saw movement in what resembled an underwater graveyard more and more. It was a school of demonic tuna, and the group was happy to swim through the large number of peaceful demonic fish. They swam with them for a while until they suddenly scattered. Giant squid zipped into the school and caught one of the students, dragging it into a dark fissure on the ocean floor. Cha Ming didn’t know what he expected, but he found himself inexplicably disappointed when the other tuna continued on, as though the disappearance of one of their thousands of members meant little. It was a testament to the cold and merciless nature of the ocean that, in a strange way, resembled the darkness of a magma-filled volcano.

That thought bred others, and soon he thought of his days on Jade Moon Planet. The days in the quiet waters became more like an ethereal dream of what once was and what could have been. A gentle smile, a calming embrace. Grief unlike anything he’d ever felt. And hope. Hope to see her again. The reason for his mission here. These thoughts were more potent in these dark surroundings, the perfect incubator for dreams and nightmares.

Some of them were of the mind, and others were real. As someone with a transcendent soul, he knew what was lurking in the deep. Demonic creatures measuring hundreds of feet long roamed the darkness below them, probing at them as they passed. Some looked like monstrous abominations with hooked maws filled with nothing but teeth. Others had massive eyes that, despite the absence of light, could still see. It was as though they’d morphed, and instead of taking in light, they drank in darkness.

Yet as interested as those things were, they all shied away. When Cha Ming asked, Lan Xuan was only too happy to elaborate.

Sea God Command, he said, pointing to an amulet around his neck. Won’t go anywhere near it.

Cha Ming relaxed a little when he heard this. Though he was confident in his strength, he had no desire to tussle with those fanged and tentacled creatures that, as far as he was concerned, belonged in the seven hells.

They swam some more, and the darkness deepened. They swam and swam, and then, when light seemed like nothing more than a distant memory, they saw a beacon in the distance.

At first, Cha Ming didn’t know if it was real or just a figment of his imagination, a hallucination created by his starved mind. Then the others noticed it too. It grew clearer with every hour, and before long, a tower appeared where the light had been. It stood tall beside a large bone that resembled the skull of a deceased god. It bathed the now-visible sea floor in a soft blue light.

Whatever the light touched came to life. Where there used to be rocky outcroppings and sandy floors, they now saw various forms of algae that survived despite the lack of oxygen. Multicolored schools of fish appeared, dancing joyfully beneath the enchanting blue glow. Human swimmers soon appeared, and flora and fauna of all kinds.

The tower grew clearer as they swam, and soon a large circle appeared on it. No, it wasn’t a circle—it was a clock. The tower was actually a giant clock tower that overlooked the entire seabed, and just below it was an assortment of bubbles. There was one large bubble stretching out wider than the tower was tall, while many other small bubbles floated around it. All the bubbles were connected by clear bridges, and each one hosted its own source of light.

The bubbles were cities, and Haijing was the largest of them. Its delicate porcelain spires and soft blue lights were a wonderful sight to behold in the alien deep-sea world. The small bubbles appeared to be villages, farms, and other facilities that supported the capital of the Sea God Empire. Patrols mounted on dolphins, manta rays, and strange crustaceans roamed around, fighting stray demons that came too close to Haijing’s exterior.

It’s beautiful, Cha Ming thought as he floated there, paralyzed by the city’s beauty.

Lan Xuan chuckled and swam up beside him. “Most people react the same way the first time they see it. It’s unlike anything on the surface, and to be honest, it’s this scene that keeps me doing what I do.”

Cha Ming looked around and noticed that many humans were swimming around, whether it be guards or other cultivators swimming below the ocean. To his surprise, their qi reserves were almost nonexistent, and their soul cultivation even more so. Further, many of these people had a blueish or pale tinge to their skin, while many sported gills or runes on the sides of their throats. A few even had white hair. Everyone was either toned or muscular, without exception.

Seeing Cha Ming’s inquiring gaze, Lan Xuan explained. “Most cultivators in the Ling Nan Plane ascend through qi cultivation, or demons through demonic cultivation. But the citizens of Haijing City are different. They aren’t normal humans like the rest of us. All of them are descendants of the Sea God. A trace of divinity runs through their veins, and as a result, body cultivation comes naturally to them. They’re especially well-adapted to pressure. The constant stimulation from their environment is very helpful to their advancement.”

God’s blood. Now that’s interesting, Cha Ming thought. He’d never heard of gods until now and had previously thought they were only myths from his old world, a fable conjured by hopeful men and women to push through difficult times. Which was fine, given the virtues they represented. But to hear that they were real flesh and blood creatures and that their blood had very real impacts on their descendants, that was something new to him. He resolved to find out more about it.

Haijing loomed closer as they swam toward it. The journey was much farther than they’d imagined due to an optical illusion stemming from the water. Or perhaps it was the hope in their hearts that made it seem nearer than it really was. The very sight of the city made the fear and despair that had built up in Cha Ming’s heart vanish and bloom into a tiny speck of light. It was his desire for immortality. It burned fiercely, and with it came all hope he had of seeing Yu Wen again.

The feeling grew stronger, and because of it, he almost missed a dreadful pressure coming from a chasm near the city. It was a wide fissure that people and fish both avoided. Try as he might, Cha Ming couldn’t fathom the bottom. But he could see the cliffs that traveled down, and what he saw made him wary. In the caves that peppered the rocky walls were demons that glowed both violet and ochre. Fiendish demons.

Huxian growled as they passed over. Cha Ming wondered why they stayed there, but he soon noticed a light-blue barrier covering the fissure. Was it to protect the fiendish demons or keep them inside? Perhaps both.

Finally, they passed the fissure, and Haijing reappeared in all its unblemished splendor. What had seemed like densely populated oceans now seemed like empty waters in comparison to the sight that greeted them. Tens of millions of cultivators swam around, playing, talking, and working. Convoys of merchants traveled to and from various bubbles, and so too did guardsmen in golden armor riding demonic mounts.

Meanwhile, billions of fish swam all around them. Despite the various fishermen that caught them and dragged them back to the city, they still hovered around in the strong glow of Haijing’s blue light. It was as though they obtained nourishment from the light, and the small reduction in their massive numbers was the price they paid for it.

Everyone, I’m pleased to present the main attraction: Haijing City, Lan Xue said, holding his hands out to a massive golden gate.

It glowed with blue runes and contained three doors. The largest door, the central one, was closed. A large string of cultivators lined up at the door to its right, where guardsmen inspected them prior to entry. A much smaller line of cultivators swam straight through a door on the other side. They all had white hair, the mark of a Haijing noble.

As commoners, they could only wait, but compared to their long swim to the city, the wait was pleasant. A few hours later, they finally swam through the golden gates—only to flop onto the stone streets face-first.

Thank goodness, Cha Ming thought as he picked himself up. He’d wondered long and hard about how he’d do alchemy underwater. That worry behind him, he headed farther into the city.

 



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