Elder Cultivator 161

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For a cultivator who had completed Body Tempering, nearly any sort of climb was simple. When a finger or two could lift their whole weight, only very small irregularities were needed on the surface. As long as it could hold their weight, cultivators could climb up nearly everything. The cliff above the boat Anton and the others had reached was more than just a little bit pitted and scarred, with consistent room to place a hand or foot.

In a few places, the cliff was a bit too crumbly to climb safely- the climbers could hold, but the cliff could not. That was the major obstacle until they were about twenty meters above the water and their boat below. The climb actually became quite a bit easier as cracks in the rocky surface left gaps more than a finger wide all along their route. 

Anton brushed against a root sticking out of one of the gaps as he pulled himself higher, but hadn’t expected it to coil around his arm. Up until that point it had shown no signs of activity, seeming to be a normal if solid root. Even as it wrapped around him, squeezing against his defensive energy, he sensed nothing abnormal about it. But as he attempted to yank his arm away it refused to yield against him. Before it could crush his arm he held an axe with his other hand- nothing holding him onto the cliff but the root itself. He chopped away, once again admiring the sharpness of the blades from Everheart’s Tomb. Though they had no special characteristics besides that and sturdiness, what else did a weapon need? Given the unfortunate angle he was only able to chop halfway through the root with his first swing, but the second disentangled him. 

He quickly swung his leg out, kicking into the side of the cliff and pushing his energy inside to pull him back towards it instead of letting himself fall away. Though he didn’t spot any beasts in the water, he would rather not discover their presence the hard way. 

“Careful of the roots!” The verbal warning was largely unnecessary since the others were all able to sense what happened, but it was the polite thing to do. Anton continued to climb with one hand, the other holding his small handaxe. As long as he always had one limb holding him up, he didn’t really run into any issues. His climbing arm was developing a bruise around where it had been nearly crushed, but he could still function well enough.

The group diverted to avoid the roots sticking out of the cracks, all of which still seemed perfectly normal. Anton chopped into a few that were in the way, and the parts that weren’t chopped off pulled back into the rocky cliff. The climbers remained wary of any roots that might slide out of the cracks, but they were able to track them out of sight. 

Timothy cried out at the discovery of something else. A snake suddenly appeared, barely thicker than his finger but with fangs just as long as it was thick. He had the one that had jumped out grabbed just below its mouth, prying it away from his other arm. Until it had moved it felt just like part of the rock- and in fact it still almost did, except for the part where rock didn’t twist or wriggle. Timothy tried to yank it out and throw it into the sea, but it held firm, its body coiled inside a crack. It slipped out of his grip as its head and neck squashed small for a moment. It retreated, leaving behind a snake shaped depression inside the crack. 

The fact that it had fit so perfectly into the spot indicated it had carved it out itself. Since they could presume other snakes would have done the same, they slowed down, trying to avoid the cracks altogether. Where they couldn’t, they used their senses at a small scale, trying to notice minute gaps below the snakes- or where they bulged above the rock, their scale varying only slightly in texture from the rock itself. 

Devon used his grasping chains to pull himself to the top first, and as he did he took note of the overly large pine trees with red needles. Even before he finished solidifying his footing, something flew through the air towards him. He dodged it, of course. “Careful! There’s something in the trees!”

To open up the options for where he dodged, Devon moved away from the cliff edge. He avoided two more small projectiles, about the size of his thumb. Both of those sailed into the sea. He couldn’t quite make out what was in the trees and lobbing the attacks, but one came from almost directly above him. He was agile enough to dodge to the side, but didn’t expect it to explode when it struck the ground. 

Normally he would pick out threats based on if they had natural energy, but the island they were on was suffused with so much that it blended everything together. The explosion of fire washed over him, not catching anything on fire but flash-burning some of the undergrowth- and singeing his left side. Nothing he couldn’t handle, but he would have preferred not to have to use so much energy defending himself.

Devon was cautious about where he moved, since the plants themselves might be a danger even if not lobbed at him by something in the trees. He couldn’t make out whatever it was, only noticing the projectiles as they launched. When one was thrown from afar and he managed to make it out with his eyes, he was a little bit disbelieving. It looked quite a bit like a red acorn. In fact, there were quite a few growing on the large pines around the area. 

By that point the others were beginning to reach the top of the cliff. A few attacks came their way, but the majority continued to be launched towards Devon, who was closer to the assailants.

“Mind if I cause some trouble?” Anton asked everyone in general. Before receiving an actual response, he began to fire some arrows. With no specific target, he set about attempting to remove the enemy’s means of attack. As far as he could tell they plucked the acorns off of the tree before hurling them… so if he could remove some of them, that would limit their options. He fired many arrows in quick succession. Using the techniques from Thousand Arrows, he could fire continuously and even several at once, as long as he didn’t need to redirect his attacks or have significant force behind them. 

In an instant several dozen acorns were shot- and they readily exploded. Interestingly enough, they didn’t set off the others around them, and the pines remained unburnt. The only effect he had was to destroy the individual acorns and shake away some of the needles. However, the increased visibility allowed him to spot the culprits. Little fire-red squirrels. Even their tails flowed like flickering fire in the glimpses he caught of them.

Anton shot at them but they were quick as lightning, avoiding his arrows and disappearing deeper into the trees. In response, he continued his assault on the explosive acorns- hundreds of them at a time. The others all assisted in their own way, but they didn’t have so many expendable projectiles. Tossing one of the pine needles wasn’t enough to trigger the acorns without a bit of energy, but the others made use of them in handfuls.

Soon enough they had about a ten meter square area cleared. Surprisingly enough, there was only a small fire started in some of the brush below which burned out quickly. The trees themselves seemed unperturbed by the flames, except for a few cracked branches caused by the concussive portion of the explosions. 

No more attacks came.

“Have we driven them off?” Hoyt asked.

“I don’t think so,” Catarina said. “It seems more like they simply can’t reach us.”

“Agreed,” Anton said. “Ten meters plus their height in the trees seems to be about the limit.” He squinted, focusing his eyes into the trees. “Those little things hide quite well. Don’t see anything else. Either it’s equally camouflaged, or this is the territory of those fiery squirrels.”

“Ugh,” Hoyt groaned, “Why couldn’t it have been something else? At least if it was the trees themselves it wouldn’t sound so bad.”

“No matter,” Catarina said. “We should continue onward. With Velvet’s assistance I should be able to create a mobile formation that will hide us from them. If I’m incorrect… we’ll face a couple barrages and retreat to here. They don’t seem willing to come closer, so we can count on this as somewhat of a safe area.” Catarina looked ahead, “If we have to clear our way forward, it will be quite an effort. There are hundreds of the explosive acorns in each section this size.”

“I could also try to hunt them down,” Anton said. “They’re getting a bit careless over there, watching us. They stop moving. If we split up so they couldn’t all keep eyes on each of us, we might make something of it. Though if we can get somewhere else, perhaps it doesn’t matter. What do you think?”

“I’d prefer to hunt them,” Velvet said.

“We can just pass by,” Timothy said.

“I have to agree there,” Hoyt agreed. “Others should be coming here. If we can sneak through quickly while leaving them to harass anyone else, we can make the most gains.”

“Fair enough,” Anton agreed. “As for what those gains are… any idea how we might harvest these? Normal acorns don’t explode.”

Hoyt shook his head, “I think we should hold off on these. I’m sure they have some value, but I wouldn’t like my storage bag and all its contents to go up in flames.”

“Onward, then,” Anton looked to Velvet, Devon, and Catarina.

“Okay,” Catarina stepped forward, handing formation flags to people. “It won’t be as stable as placing them, but we’ve worked together on this kind of thing before. I’m going to blend our energy in with the rest of this place. Velvet’s the expert on that, though, so I’ll have her guide me where I mess up.”

The group took a quarter of an hour until Catarina was sufficiently satisfied in their setup’s stability, the five of them standing roughly in a pentagon with Velvet at the front. They started to move forward, but ran into no trouble- even as Anton noticed they walked right under a squirrel or two, oblivious to their presence. He considered attacking them, but they might also explode and then they wouldn’t have deterrents for others or interesting and potentially valuable specimens.

As they moved along, there were signs of underbrush burning away before, though only rarely. It seemed likely that anything that couldn’t survive regular gouts of fire without catching alight would have already long been driven out of the ecosystem. It wasn’t too long before the woods thinned and then practically ceased, leading to fields filled with palm-sized yellow flowers. However, more interesting were the large stocks that stuck out next to them with great puffy heads. 

“What sort of danger do you all reckon is in there?” Anton asked. 

“Maybe nothing,” Timothy said unconvincingly.

“It has to be the flowers, right?” Velvet said.

Hoyt and Catarina kept their speculation to themselves.

“Well then,” Anton said. “We can certainly find out. But we only need to make it as far as there,” he pointed. Further along the edge between the thinning forest they stood next to and the flowery field was a complex of buildings. “We could try to slip back into the fiery forest to get there, but I believe I see some of these plants amongst those buildings. Might be good to check these out while we’re here, or in case we need to flee this way.”

“Quite reasonable,” Catarina agreed. “Since we are currently unhurried, we should make some proper investigations before touching anything.”

Anton nodded, looking through the fields for anything odd, or anything else that might shed light on the actual dangers. It was hard to sense fine details at a distance, even with well trained energy, but he started from the roots up trying to pick out what might happen. In the end, he came up with a theory. Now they just had to test it.

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