It was quite tempting, really, to set the whole countryside on fire. Though it likely wouldn’t burn up the energy devouring grasses, it would reveal them by the very fact that they remained. Tempting, but also excessive, unnecessary, and immoral. Hoyt knew that setting a fire in the countryside couldn’t be controlled exactly. Maybe animals that were just trying to live their lives, no threat to humans, would die. Ecosystems would be wiped out, and human villages could easily be caught up in the aftermath. He had no doubt that some sects would have done it anyway, but either the other two clans didn’t have the inclination, the ability, or they didn’t want to risk damaging their prize.
A powerful plant might resist scorching fires unharmed, or it might burn up like loose tinder. With only speculation, the risks had to be taken as they came instead of attempting to ‘solve’ them with a single act. But damn were the native plants annoying. It wasn’t just the grass, but western creeper as well. It was bad enough when it was grown on trellises and designed to be harvested from- when it crawled along the ground in patches hundreds of meters wide, crossing the area was just foolish.
If their scouts weren’t so good, they would be having real problems. Though occasionally even Hoyt could spot some things on his own. Namely, after someone from one of the other clans had stumbled into a patch and now had a dead body in there. Most of those were from the Mwangi clan, including some of the swarms of mercenaries they’d hired. The Mwangi clan went for quantity over quality, and the same was true of the mercenaries they’d hired. People wearing their colors were all over the place, and when they died the bodies were just left behind.
Their group, at least, did a better job taking care of their weaker members. Every Body Tempering cultivator was matched with a Spirit Building ally, and simply through virtue of the ability of the Spirit Building cultivators’ offensive power the Body Tempering cultivators were safer. It wasn’t necessary to have anyone risk themselves to protect others- fighting together and taking advantage of openings people created was good enough.
Hoyt spotted the scouts returning. Anton was the one to relay what they saw. “A large field of melons is ahead. They radiate energy, an attractive prospect. However, they match the description of a dangerous plant.”
“Serpentmelons?” Ayotunde asked.
“As far as we could tell, yes. It should still be worthwhile to retrieve them, but we saw cultivators from the Olayinka clan nearby. Doubtless they will be aiming for them as well.”
Ayotunde nodded, “Serpentmelons are worth enough to harvest and compete over. Though the energy contained in them is a bait, it’s still very real. A delectable treat and a valuable cultivation resource. Alas, one that does not grow well in captivity. It requires… many animal carcasses. Some of significant energy.”
“For those who forgot,” Anton began to relay the information, “Serpentmelon plants have extremely poisonous spines. Those spines can either directly pierce you as you brush against them or be launched. In addition, the tendrils they extend containing those can whip about when disturbed. It would be best to deal with them from a distance. Sadly, they are both durable and do not tire quickly. More importantly, the more they are disturbed the more they reabsorb the energy from the melons to replenish themselves.”
As the explanation finished, the group was already making their way to the serpentmelon patch. Once there, they spotted the Olayinka clan on the far side, as predicted. Neither of them could have truly been said to have arrived first.
“Stand down,” called a late Spirit Building man, accompanied by another. “The Olayinka clan has claim to this patch.”
Elder Tshering stepped forward, “So does the Temitope clan. See the mark my men left?”
“Do you wish to fight?”
Elder Tshering smiled as their auras pressed against each other, “Do you?”
Neither side was willing to back down. Though the group working with the Temitope clan was likely slightly stronger, a conflict here could damage the plants and would still be costly to whichever side won.
“Since you will not back down,” Elder Tshering stated, “And we have our own claim… why do we not just get what we can? We send forward our lesser members to have them collect as they will. No interference from the other side.” That was both a suggestion and a threat. If Elder Tshering acted, even just at the first star of Essence Collection, he could easily kill their weaker members. Likewise, the two late Spirit Building cultivators could match him or be a danger to others.
“Very well.” With a gesture, they waved the others forward.
Like that, everything began. Hoyt moved around to the left side of the patch. The edged were generally the best, instead of the center. Though it seemed counterintuitive, it was quite simple. The plants would kill beasts they attracted, and they simply wouldn’t make it to the center. Only occasional birds would be caught by the center of the patch, so the melons there were thin as the scraggly tendrils of plant had to consume them to continue.
Of course, the best melons weren’t actually on the outside. There were at least several layers of plant protecting the first melons, and the row behind that was supposed to be the best. It matched what Hoyt’s senses told him.
Though it was better to not damage the plants, he didn’t have the luxury of time to pick through one step at a time, avoiding causing the slightest disturbance. Instead, he did the next best thing. He picked a single vine and chopped through it. After making his axe scalding hot, of course. Instant cauterization and maximized cutting power would be his most useful allies. If he simply projected energy he could attack deeper parts of the plant and sever the tendrils near where they attached, but he had not trained in that. Quite purposefully.
Hoyt hacked through a tendril. He didn’t have to use quite that much force, but he couldn’t hold back much either. If it took two swings, he could be in danger. A disconnected tendril would only flop about and curl in on itself, while the remaining portions whipped with great force. Somehow they didn’t set off the rest of the plant- except a small local area. The flying needles Hoyt simple burned up before they touched his body- even if a needle pierced through his defenses, the poison should have been broken down by the heat.
Everheart was right. He knew it. Attacking up close had its limits, and energy projection was something that would significantly improve him. But while he was right, Hoyt damn well wasn’t going to listen to him. He could throw little fireballs at things right now if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to. That was what other people wanted, not him. He was Hoyt, not Prospero Vandale.
He chopped down, severing a melon from the plant. He wasn’t quite sure what they looked like when fully ripe, but they wouldn’t be coming back this way. With his foot he caught the melon and tossed it back towards those watching at the edge. Anton caught it, gently placing it in a pile they were starting.
Hoyt continued to make a narrow line through the plants, his straightforward methods disturbing them less than it might seem at first. As long as he could step over a particular vine and have an area of confidence around himself to dodge, he would leave the plant alone on his way to the next melon. As he cauterized the wounds, there was nowhere to pull energy to, except the remaining triggered parts of the plant. A single flop or twist was not enough to particularly drain a melon, and he didn’t have the niceties of time anyway. He could see others near him, allies forming a matching line as they circled the center.
He caught sights of a squirming figure, wiggling her way along the ground. Between her feet she was dragging a melon almost the same size as her, scooting it under the winding tendrils. Hoyt hadn’t even considered that option, because he was far too big to pull it off. The melon itself somehow didn’t set off the plants, however, so Alva was able to worm her way along. If she brushed against the plants wrong she could be in danger, but he couldn’t stop her just because she was young. Others the same strength as her were participating, and she was doing quite well, taking advantage of her small size.
As he continued along the leftmost edge, Hoyt neared the middle. He saw a particularly fine specimen, a melon the size of his torso. He could see a cultivator from the other side eyeing it as well. Hoyt took a deep breath, focusing on his surroundings. He had reached the seventeenth star, and he focused on Spiritual Connection. There was a flow of energy through the plants- though it was really more of one large plant. Regardless, he felt how things flowed. Insight was of little use, as there was no body language to read in a plant. The flow of energy wasn’t really hidden either. Serpentmelon hadn’t developed to prevent human cultivators, but instead entrap wild beasts. Sometimes those beasts were powerful, but they couldn’t usually pick up on the subtleties of energy flow.
Hoyt kicked one of the tendrils, and it snapped up- whipping towards the other cultivator. He had no ability to accurately control it, so his opponent was able to dodge with the space around him. But Hoyt didn’t need to kill him or even injure him. Just slow him down. He was already halfway to his destination when a rock was tossed into the area near him, springing a number of tendrils to wrap around him and sending tiny needles as thin as hairs flying everywhere. The fires he kept wrapped tightly around himself burned them, but it consumed some of his energy.
Hoyt strategically triggered a few more pieces of the plant and then just chucked clods of dirt around his opponent. He chopped through nearby areas as necessary to make room, and soon he was only a handful of meters from the melon, his opponent the same. They exchanged glances, and his opponent began darting forward.
Instead of doing the same, Hoyt just jumped. He couldn’t guarantee exactly where he would land, except that he would certainly step on some of the plant- and he wouldn’t be far from the melon. As he landed, he wrapped himself around the melon, his energy coating it with fire directed outwards. A feature of energy that was a manipulation of the natural order, since fire didn’t really have a direction normally.
As the plant triggered around him Hoyt used the best of his training in Instinct and Spiritual Connection to avoid most of the damage. Then he leaped, carrying the heavy melon back with him. By the time he reached the edge, most of the melons were already retrieves. Some in the very center still remained, but they were mainly small and shriveled.
“That’s enough,” Elder Tshering declared. “We must treat our injuries and be on our way.” Based on the size of their piles, they had come out basically even, though personally Hoyt thought their melons seemed more vibrant. That could have been bias, though.
They stuffed their pile of melons into the storage bags they had available and moved away. Even as they walked, they chopped some of the melons into pieces. While it wasn’t perfect, eating the melon and circulating the energy the right way helped dissolve the poison some people had injected into them. Either way, the melon was bulky and they didn’t quite have room to carry all of it in the bags they had available. Everyone got a share of the succulent and juicy melons, and a quick boost in their energy. There were limits to how much cultivation resources were reasonable to consume, but serpentmelon was a stable one. Not excessively powerful, but Hoyt could feel the effects it had. He was quite satisfied.
The rest would be shared with the other groups when they met up. That would be… in the morning, because that was when the signals came. Someone had found the beast overlord and whatever it was protecting. The group hastily made their way forward, watching for dangers that might stand in their way.