The conclusion of the meal left everyone satisfied, though not particularly more aware of the actual situation they were called upon to deal with. That was to be explained to them the next morning. To that end, they were called to a surprisingly large gathering. In addition to Matriarch Afi who was in early Essence Collection, there were over a dozen warriors in Spirit Building and several dozen more at various levels of Body Tempering. While it might seem that the Temitope clan’s forces paled in comparison to the Order, it had to be remembered that they were simply a clan managing a single city. As one of thousands of clans in Ambati, their numbers still made them significant, perhaps in the top hundred clans.
The particular events they were dealing with currently were precisely the sort of chance to improve their position. More relevantly, they couldn’t afford to let either of the other two clans in the area seize the opportunity unopposed. Either the Olayinka or the Mwangi clan significantly growing in power would overturn the balance of the region. While it was extremely unlikely that any of the three clans would grow strong enough to overpower the others together, it was a matter of practicalities. If they could completely dominate one while still retaining enough uninjured fighting forces to compete with the other, they would practically control the region. The other clans might unite together against them, but someone would be taking losses- and they would both want it to be the other clan. It would be difficult to have a truly unified front.
Matriarch Afi stood in front of the gathering of clan members and mercenaries. “All of you are aware of the general situation we face. Natural energy fluctuation in the area and unusual beast activities leading to the likelihood of a beast overlord. Whether or not this creature exists, there is no doubt that something unusual is happening. Perhaps there is a font of natural energy, some natural treasure, or anything else. Even just the body of a beast overlord has value.” She went on to explain about the tactical situation in the area. It wasn’t directly placed in between the three competing clans, but it was within a day’s travel of all of them at the pace expected of mid Body Tempering. Less than fifty kilometers from the furthest, the Olayinka clan. “Elder Kwasi, if you would.”
Elder Kwasi, a late Spirit Building cultivator just beginning to grey, approached the front of the group. “While many of you are familiar with the common dangers of the region, some are not- and recent shifts have brought less usual creatures into the area. Our scouts and spies have been able to narrow down the region of activity we will ultimately be searching. Primary observations include large herbivores in the area. Those with experience will know that does not make these creatures less dangerous. Both the elephant and hippopotamus can crush a cultivator with their weight, even at the standard size. Larger specimens or magical beasts are extremely dangerous.
“Standard predators also exist in the area in the form of great cats, lions and cheetah primarily. We’ve also seen the rooting of oversized boar or similar. There are few signs of large birds- no significant presence of razorwings or man-eating raptors. If there is a beast overlord, it could be from any of the former species or something unknown.” Elder Kwasi paused to let people digest information, and to shift topics. “There are also plant based dangers in the area. Ignoring the plants with poisons that must be digested, there are patches of western creeper and energy-eating grass.” Elder Kwasi held up dried versions of each for example. “Look for these patterns. The grass especially blends in with other grasses, though it will register to your energy if it has recently consumed anything.”
After Elder Kwasi finished going over the known dangers, he stepped back to the rest of the group and Matriarch Afi took over once more. “We have received word that the other clans are mobilizing- doubtless they will be watching our movements as well. Some of you will remain here to supplement Tailoga’s defenses. The rest will be split into three main groups. One with myself, one with Elder Kwasi, and the third group under the control of Elder Tshering of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. I have arranged for several limited use communication talismans, though of course standard ways of getting attention will still be available in emergencies. Of course, any obvious displays of energy will alert the others as well.” She looked over everyone present, “Our current position is already quite enviable. If nothing changed the situation, maintaining our status would have been best. However, we cannot afford to fall behind. That could be losing out on this opportunity… or losing our members. Do remember to keep yourselves safe. It would be better for us to retreat early with no benefits than to recklessly fight for the prize and lose out on it… or perhaps even obtain it with astounding losses. To that end, we will minimize our antagonizing of the other clans and whatever mercenaries they have hired. This need not be a battle to the death- driving them off will suit us just fine. Likewise, if they are grouped together in numbers we cannot defeat, retreat is in order. If we could manage to have the Mwangi and Olayinka fight each other unto exhaustion without involving ourselves, that would be best. But they know that as well- so we shall pick our battles carefully.” She smiled appreciatively, “I believe in the power of the Temitope clan and our allies. Let us prepare to move out!”
A half dozen members of the Temitope clan in the Body Tempering stage were assigned to fight with the Order. This helped make up for their otherwise lacking numbers. While having high cultivations was also extremely important, sometimes simply having more hands or eyes was necessary. In turn, Catarina and Timothy and ‘granny’ were remaining with those who would defend the clan. Catarina would be especially useful with her ability to optimize the use of defensive formations. While she was able to create them in a mobile fashion through the use of flags and stones, formations were always most suited for stationary use. Keeping the clan grounds secure was also important, as those with weak cultivations and resources still remained. It would do little good if the Temitope clan otherwise returned victorious if the rest of their clan members were wiped out and their homes destroyed.
More likely was that an attack would be threatened and the Temitope forced to withdraw their forces to deal with such a problem, but leaving proper defenses behind would prevent that to begin with. Forces with a defensive position should be more efficient, so ultimately it would allow the best use of their forces without worrying about needing to retreat to defend, unless either of the other clans gave up a significant portion of their forces and thus the prize to make the attempt.
Though Ayotunde wasn’t particularly trained as a scout, his familiarity with the local area made him as useful in that regard as Anton, Velvet, or Elder Tshering who were more traditionally specialized in the area. After most of a day of travel, they started exploring the area to try to find whatever it was that they were looking for. If someone already knew exactly where they wanted to look, it was likely that it would have been seized weeks before, despite the potential danger. If one of the clans had concrete information, they could have mobilized their forces and returned before the others could reasonably react.
As it was, it could take several days for the combined forces of the three clans to comb the whole area. Even if the density of trees was small, the horizon couldn’t necessarily be seen from afar. The grass grew as tall as men or horses in some areas, with hills and gullies varying the terrain and creating many possible hiding places.
Though there were a few incidents with the local wildlife, Velvet was the first to spot members of the other clans. She came back to the group and announced what she found, “I saw a group of others ahead. From the markings, they should be members of the Mwangi clan. Mostly Body Tempering and early Spirit Building, but there are many of them.”
“That is their way,” Ayotunde confirmed, “Though they have a number of powerful members, lately they have recruited many weaker cultivators to bolster them. Continue, please.”
“They seemed to be in combat with a large snake. As big around as my torso is wide, at least a dozen meters long. I saw it was coiled around a large tree,” Velvet pointed. “The canopy should be just visible from here, you see? The fruits on it radiated strong energy.”
“Then we must move closer, observe the situation,” Elder Tshering confirmed. “I don’t sense a battle that I would think should involve a beast overlord, but perhaps they have not truly begun fighting.”
The group followed back along Velvet’s path- with the possible danger from the plants, it was better to take a slightly more circuitous route rather than potentially stumble into trouble. In fact, Anton thought he recognized some of the energy draining grass to their side as they moved- though the only way to be sure was to test it. A pointless endeavor that could only waste resources at the moment.
Anton moved ahead a few others to take a look at the battle. He could see the warriors fighting with spears and swords against a snake just as large as Velvet described. A magical beast, to be sure, with an aura that matched a proper Spirit Building cultivator to go with its powerful body. Likewise, he sensed the power from the fruit. But…
Elder Tshering shook his head. “If that is the beast overlord zealously guarding its prize, there is nothing for the Temitope clan to be concerned about.”
“I recognize the tree,” Ayotunde said. “Perhaps not that specific one, but the type. It grows useful fruit, but each is no more powerful than a well crafted medicine grown from farmable herbs. Yet those trees are picky about where they grow, and do not replant. It would be a massive endeavor for something of that size, and it would almost certainly die. They should only gain an acceptable amount of resources.”
“Agreed,” Elder Tshering said. “This should not be the cause of the powerful fluctuations in the area. We should move on. No point getting into conflict here, when we can instead move on unhindered.”
They returned to the rest of the group just in time to see Hoyt swinging his axe, coated in flames, chopping through some of the surrounding grass. Though it would have expected for the brown grass to immediately light on fire, it was simply charred at the points it was cut.
Hoyt swung his axe in a continual pattern, keeping it moving as the grass coiled and writhed in front of him. Soon enough a figure was revealed- one of the members of the Temitope clan. With another few slashes he was extricated from the grass and moved to safety.
“Thank you,” he said. “I stepped away to relieve myself… I did not recognize the grass for what it was.”
Anton could see his problem- only a portion of the grass had the marks that would be expected. The rest was merely the standard grass of the region, entirely mundane. It indicated they needed slightly more caution, but the grass itself was mostly dangerous to loners. It wrapped around a target to restrain them and drain their energy- if an ally was nearby, they were quite capable of extricating their companion. The restrained man would likely be fatigued, but he could recover given time. Alone, however, he would likely have been drained until he was but a husk. There were signs of dead animals in the area. In fact, Anton would bet that corpses were used as bait to kill scavengers. Rather intelligent, for something with no mind at all. But it wouldn’t have been able to survive if it was not effective.
The group moved onward, relying on the scouts to recognize other dangers before they stumbled into them. Sometimes, it was simply beasts who were various levels of obvious. Twice they spooked something that was hidden, causing them in turn to be startled- but they had not yet encountered anything of serious danger. That likely wouldn’t last. Especially not when they saw a burst of energy akin to a signal flare ahead of them. That wasn’t the agreed upon sign of the Temitope clan, but they needed to check it out anyway- while staying cautious of a possible trap.