In his hands Anton held his bow, angled down but ready to be raised and drawn quickly should he need it. The forest full of fiery pines was just behind them, and head was the field of dandelions. The flowers themselves were almost the size of a sunflower, and the puffy seeds structures were the size of someone’s head. A gentle breeze blew through the area as he looked, sending waves through the field. One seed pod floated towards the group, and Anton reached out with a strand of energy to catch it as it floated above.
From the actual seed to the stalk it was quite as he expected, but the small structures of the white puffy section were quite different than he anticipated. Instead of the structure of a feather it was closer to a myriad of tiny needles. Touching it with bare skin would certainly have dire consequences.
The only other thing he saw in the field were butterflies. They were quite large, with wings extending to about the size of his hand, fingers outstretched. Perhaps twenty centimeters wide. Large, but not concerningly so. Yet they were clearly part of the structure, and thus a potential danger.
“Let me try something,” Anton said. “I think it should be possible to pass by without disturbing them.” He gestured in front of them- and behind. “It wasn’t quite clear to me back there, but this is not just a wild island. This is a garden. Each plant in its own place, not arranged like the wilds. Catarina, can you confirm anything about that? Something with the formations?”
Catarina looked around. “I’m not sure. But the flow of energy certainly indicates a separation. I thought it was caused by the different areas, but it might be driving it. Though it seems… weak?”
“Hundreds of years without any maintenance would do that,” Anton remarked. “The squirrels seemed like an aggressive sort, but I think this area should be fine as long as we don’t startle anything. That also means inadvertently being spotted while sneaking… so I’m going to straightforwardly approach the area.”
Just as he said, Anton moved closer to the field and then into it. He had to summon all the flexibility he had, and the gracefulness of Swan Steps as he ducked and dodged around the various puffballs. He chose a path as far from the butterflies as he reasonably could, not quite on the edge of the field and occasionally venturing deeper where it seemed appropriate. He couldn’t say it was a relaxing stroll, but avoiding obstacles that weren’t actively out to get him was a nice change of pace. Soon enough, he found himself by the complex of buildings they’d spotted- in a cracked cobblestone street.
Anton called back to the rest of the group. “Seems reasonable enough. Follow along carefully. Don’t move too quickly.”
He had to point out some hidden dangers to the others, but they all made it over to him without anything attempting to take their lives. From the far angle, it was possible to see where the plants might have once been organized into rows.
Moving around the buildings was much easier. They were mostly intact, but it was clear the formations keeping them that way were fading. Over time damage had built up where the buildings should otherwise be immaculate. As for what was inside… the first was a dormitory. A symbol that belonged to the sect, a circle over a series of lines, was prominently placed in many locations. It didn’t seem that the few dozen beds had been in use. There were no signs of people, just places where they could be.
The rest of the complex concurred with Anton’s idea that it was a garden- or a farm of some sort. They found beds of herbs, as overgrown as the other plants but at least not appearing so immediately dangerous. They found drying racks- only a few herbs had been in place when the area was last visited, or perhaps the others had faded to dust like the first one Anton gingerly touched. Several were still good- tough roots that were shriveled but still felt somewhat potent.
In other places they found various tools for alchemical processes, in various states of stability. Some had weathered the test of time, and some were falling apart. They also found a small library- though it was a nearly full room of alchemical books, likewise in various states. Finally they came to a pill furnace- a big three-legged cauldron used for heating and mixing herbs to form pills. This one was as tall a person and clearly enchanted. Upon looking inside, there was only dust- and strangely, a written note.
“To those looking for the Seventeen Flowers Pill, the Nine Colors Liquid, and the Harmonious Sun Herb. I consumed them all. Better luck next time- E”
Though the message clearly indicated an ending, it continued.
“P.S. I would suggest looking around to figure out what happened here. People don’t just abandon places like this for no reason. Must have had something important to do. Also, I left a copy of the recipe for the four elements pill and made sure to leave behind one living rock root, firepine, spiny dandelion, and of course the mangrove lotus. Also I changed the formations so you would end up at the hardest entrance- E” A poorly drawn face that seemed to be winking followed. That was the actual end of the note.
“So,” Anton said. “Someone got in here before us. Before all of us. Someone named E. What are the chances it’s not Everheart?”
Everyone frowned, thinking. “It might not be him,” Velvet said. “He was pretty fond of using his whole name. But then again, maybe he wasn’t confident in his own ability just yet.”
“To sneak into this place when it took many powerful sects to open,” Catarina shook her head, “That’s something special. But also, Everheart has great knowledge of formations. And almost everything. It wouldn’t be too strange… even for him to repair the entrance.”
Devon crossed his arms and nodded, “But it could be someone else with an E. It’s unclear how long ago this was. But the capricious nature of this note…”
“Yeah,” Anton nodded, “It’s hard to believe there’d be another one like him.” He looked down at the note. “None of us are pill masters, but finding this recipe and collecting the materials seems like it would be beneficial. Let’s look around, especially in the library.
Everyone did their best to judge which books were more important, though if this were the only location they got to, and they indeed found the notes for the Four Element Pill. It even had information on how to collect the materials properly. It was around that point when they first sensed other people- or rather they first sensed explosions in the firepine forest, and then people.
Anton looked at the others. “We should probably get going. The pill furnace…?”
“If it was Everheart who left it,” Catarina pointed out, “It’s probably not that valuable. I don’t know if it can be put in a storage bag, either.”
Instead of waiting for the other cultivators to show up, they grabbed the most valuable books- and Everheart’s notes, of course. Then they quickly moved to gather two of the ingredients. The firepine acorns and the spiny dandelion seeds were immediately present for them to collect. Hoyt moved to collect the former with Velvet and Timothy watching, while Devon and Catarina came with Anton as he moved for the seeds.
It seemed that the various ingredients didn’t store for long, and more importantly they couldn’t be stored together. Thus, each person of the six could only have one of each in their storage bags. The other two were keeping things they didn’t want around loose and potentially volatile materials. Just because they had instructions didn’t mean they would perfectly pull them off.
Anton reached out his arm, holding a finger aloft. He tried to follow the method described to be enticing to the local butterflies. He was unsure if it would work, but as soon as he got it right several immediately approached. One of them alighted on his outstretched finger, while the others fluttered past. He carefully moved his hand to the puff ball. He was now more aware than ever that it could explode in all directions if improperly touched. The butterfly gladly fluttered up to it, however, and as it flapped its wings they began to fly off one at a time, a small gust of energy pulling them away. Anton snatched them up, grabbing the safe portion on the stalks and avoiding the top. He had a few boxes for storing things separately, which he quickly filled. He didn’t want to keep spiny puff balls loose in his bag, so he had to stop after several heads and probably over a hundred seeds.
Hoyt carefully climbed up a treed, coating his hand with fire as he reached out for an acorn. He managed to properly grab the first one, but the second detonated near his palm, singeing him through his energy. He managed to finish gathering just as the other cultivators were approaching, having figured out a way to move past the squirrels firebombing them- which just involved running as they defended themselves.
Instead of possibly running into conflict, Anton and the others moved away. The new group was close to them in cultivation, though not from any sect they recognized immediately just from their senses. While the others might fight over materials in front of them, it was unlikely they would be followed for speculative gains. After all, it was possible for people on either side to get seriously injured or die.
They did seem content to leave Anton and the rest alone, or perhaps they took longer picking their way through the dandelions. Regardless, Anton and the others found that not the entire island was covered in deadly plants. Just most of it. Some of their journey was quite smooth, and some involved moving through firepines or spiny dandelions or both. They gradually sloped downhill, until they came to swampy lowlands at the edge of the island.
Beautiful flowers that could only have been the mangrove lotus floated on the shore, anchored into the sand. Though these were in fact the safest of the various plants, they still had to be careful of the sand crabs that lived underneath. They were quite protective of the plants and their roots.
“I’ll gather these,” Catarina said. “Devon, if you could make your way around to that cliff there?”
He nodded, “I see the rock roots. I should be able to coax them out.”
Less than a quarter hour later they were done with their gathering. It was possible they might come across some more valuable things that needed proper storage, but for the moment four of them were as full as they could be with the different ingredients. As for how they would get off the island… when they stood at the shores with the intention to travel, a boat once more appeared for them. They weren’t fully real, after all, simply constructs of energy.
Catarina plucked one extra flower, affixing it to the side of the boat. “This should help keep away some of the water beasts,” she declared. “As for our next target, I see a larger island over there. Seems reasonably close to our level, still.”
Anton and the others took a look. Anton nodded, “We won’t be the first ones there, but it seems to be somewhat larger. If my eyes aren’t fooling me more than I think, of course. This place has strange things with distance. Anyone recognize the symbol?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“That’s the strange thing,” Hoyt said. “I know quite a bit about some ancient sects, but this one was old enough for me to not recall it. Now, it’s entirely possible I missed it- but it could truly be so old that the Order doesn’t have records of them. Yet disappearing and leaving a place like this…”
Anton nodded. “Some of what Everheart says is garbage, but we should certainly carefully consider what happened here. Perhaps we can find more.”
Catarina pushed the boat with a bit of energy, merely directing it to move and letting it do most of the work. Hopefully the warding flower would be of some use so they could be in peak condition when they arrived.