Elder Cultivator 300

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“Alright so,” Trix looked at the tree thistle. “Do we just yank it out?”

“No!” Idalia unintentionally yelled. “What is wrong with you? Didn’t you read the page?” she waved it towards Trix.

“Sure I did. It just said to uproot it whole.”

“Stop!” Idalia called out to Sasho who had his arms wrapped around the plant. “You’ll just tear it in half if you do that. And put holes in your arms, if you grab it tight.”

Sasho looked down at his arms- which already had some wasp stings. “Ouch.”

Idalia sighed. “Okay, look, the roots should go pretty much straight down. Apparently we need to keep this thing encased in dirt, so we have to dig… maybe a meter on each side? That’s so much dirt though, it’ll more than fill that wheelbarrow.”

“It’s all we have,” Trix said helpfully.

“Why did Birita send you?” Idalia shook her head.

“Believe it or not, I’m one of the careful ones. And Sasho…”

“I’m here to lift it,” he flexed. “I’m strong.”

“I know,” Idalia sighed. “And I’m here because…”

“You knew enough to have proper caution. Birita must have known that. Or… wanted someone to blame for screwing it up.”

“Same could be said for you two,” Idalia grumbled. “Why do you work for her anyway?”

“Umm…” Trix looked over at Sasho, who looked back.

“Because Trix does,” Sasho nodded.

“It’s complicated,” Trix frowned.

“Yeah well, your complicated is making things awful for the rest of us.” Idalia had gotten her confidence back after the battle. That wasn’t her forte, but chastising unruly customers and working with herbs was. These two were kind of both… even if they were also much stronger than her. But she’d dealt with people who could physically overpower her before, it just so happened that both she and her foes were stronger at the current moment. She jabbed her trowel into the ground, drawing out a line. “We’ll dig down from here, as deep as arm’s length. That’ll have to be good enough.” 

Going straight from a battle to physical labor was difficult. Idalia thought that maybe she was becoming too reliant on natural energy, but even her body was stronger- and she was just trying to do more than a normal person would. This was the sort of project that should really take a long afternoon with proper shovels, whereas they were using their hands and her trowel and Sasho’s axe as improvised digging implements. It was foolish of her to assume they had something when she had seen what they were carrying. And they really didn’t want to be here for long, because there could be more wasps. Or equally dangerous beasts.

As Sasho’s axe chopped through the dirt, Idalia sincerely hoped the sound of roots being cut were nearby trees and not their quarry. Or that the author of the scant page she had was incorrect about the required intact nature of the… herb-tree. It was frustrating enough that all of the effects seemed to have been intentionally removed. What was Birita going to get out of this? It seemed fairly potent to Idalia, but would it be enough to empower Birita? If so… should she make sure that didn’t happen?

Some people seemed to find the idea of sacrificing themselves simple. Either they had nothing to live for, or they thought that thing would do just fine without them. Personally, Idalia had a lot of life ahead of her still left to live, and wasn’t planning to die out in the woods. But she’d been getting a better idea of how to use her natural energy to sense the effects of herbs without anyone ingesting them.

She carefully avoided the spiky leaves, navigating her hand to a place with the least spikes so she could hold her palm against it. Then she circulated her energy out and through the plant.

“I hope you’re not doing something stupid,” Trix commented.

“Just checking its potency. You do want it to work, right?”

“Yeah,” Trix nodded. “We’d get in trouble if it didn’t.”

Idalia just nodded, keeping her focus on the plant. Aside from being full of natural energy and freakishly huge… it felt just like milk thistle. Just more of it. Maybe it was the same, or maybe she simply couldn’t pick out what made it different.

Approximately an hour later- though a quite exhausting one- Idalia and the others stood around the plant, having dug up beneath it as far as they could. “Okay,” Idalia guided, “The two of us will hold the dirt in place and help lift, but Sasho has to do the majority of the pulling. But we want to yank out the deep roots, not tear them apart- so try to maintain a steady strength.” Perhaps it was pointless to hope that Sasho could do things precisely, but she still had the hope. “On the count of three… one… two…”

They all lifted at slightly different times. At first nothing happened. The main roots were buried too deep. Then Sasho roared, tugging with all of his might. Idalia and Trix barely managed to hold the dirt around the roots… but there was a snapping sound as roots tore off down below- and the upper half of the plant flopped over.

Sasho plopped the plant into the large wheelbarrow, his face dotted with prickles from the spines on the plant, caused even with his natural energy and tempered body. “There. Done.”

“Aaaagh!” Idalia looked at the thing, with snapped roots and milky white goop leaking where the top broke apart. She hopped up into the wheelbarrow. “Okay. Umm. I’ll hold this together. Just… get us back to town!” She grimaced. In the worst case… they could just find another, right? It wasn’t as if Birita needed something so big on short notice. “She doesn’t need this today, right?”

“… by sundown,” Trix commented.

Idalia looked at the afternoon sun. “…Whyyyyyy?”

Nobody had an answer for her, of course, but Sasho started pushing. Every bump threatened to knock over the tree thistle or impale Idalia on its spikes, or simply snap off the top. Idalia was doing her very best to hold it together and keep all of it inside itself, while Trix tried to somewhat clear the way, chopping high branches that might cause them trouble.

It was miraculous that they made it back to town with some time left, but they weren’t quite done. Idalia still needed to process the plant. It wasn’t terribly difficult as herbalism tasks went, except for the size of the thing. “We’ll go in the back,” Idalia commented. “My workstation is right in there.”

She’d assumed that Sasho knew that meant to stop outside the door, but when she crashed through- sending the teetering upper half toppling on herself and Sasho- she knew she should have been specific. But at least they were inside.

“Oookay. We have to work quick. Sasho, I need you to grind up the seeds with this mortar and pestle!”

He looked at the less than palm sized bowl in his hands. “Too small,” he commented.

“Ugh… just… squash them in your hand? But drop the dust in uh… this bowl.” She picked out one of the largest vessels she had. Though she would need more. “Trix! Go buy me some big jars! We need to store all this crap.”

“On it!” Trix ran out, following orders easily.

Everyone wanted to succeed, at least.

From the flower to the milky sap from the stem to the roots to the seeds, pretty much every part except the thorny leaves were being used in the recipe. There were a few stabilizing agents that Idalia was fortunate to have plenty of as she began throwing things into pots, mixing with a frenzy. 

Though she didn’t notice it at the time, as she was exhausted, she actually worked above and beyond her capabilities. Cultivators under pressure could draw upon more natural energy than normal… as well as those working on something they found a connection to. It was both for Idalia, though she mostly felt panic until later.

When Trix came back with a dozen large pots balanced all over her, Idalia started her on some of the simple mixing. “Sasho! This needs to be crushed smaller! Really grind it to a fine powder!”

As Idalia was working, she looked at some of the herbs she’d brought from the forest, and what she already had in her shop. It would be trivial to add a little bit of something special. Birita probably wouldn’t notice until it was too late, and the two with her wouldn’t understand it didn’t belong. It might not be enough to kill Birita, but chances were her wrath would be taken out on the two of them. Maybe things would find their way back to Idalia, but for the mere opportunity to take down the woman…

But despite the fact that Sasho and Trix were working for her, they weren’t really like the others. Sure, Trix was snarky about things and absolutely collected the ‘taxes’ for Birita, but whenever it happened to Idalia she didn’t feel so bad about it when it was her. And Sasho was big and clumsy, but probably didn’t really get that he was doing something wrong. Even if she could guarantee she wouldn’t receive a backlash, the fact that they probably would stopped her. And she had no guarantee that only Birita would be ingesting this concoction. 

Actually, it seemed insane to think one woman would need all of this. Maybe she was planning to sell it, but if so she really should have taken her time with this. 

Idalia shoved aside all thoughts of poisoning Birita- directly or indirectly. Until later, at least, if she could guarantee some actual damage and that only Birita would be harmed. Or at least only her and her worst cronies.

—–

When Sasho and Trix hurried off- just as the sun was beginning to set- Idalia collapsed in a pile. Specifically, into the dirt. There was far too much of it in her workshop, as well as various dirtied and broken things. Her door was useless too. But… she’d survived the ordeal. Hopefully. Unless too much potency had been lost and Birita decided to kill her anyway.

“Need some help?” a voice asked.

She turned her head, realizing there had been footprints approaching. “Oh… Hiram.” She closed her eyes for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I need to clean up.” It took a few moments for something to come back to her. “In the forest… was that you? Taking out that wasp.”

“It was,” he nodded. “I happened to be approaching your shop at the same time as these two. I followed after you at a significant distance. They radiated quite a bit of power, so my own ability to hide myself wasn’t that important. I decided in that battle the risk was acceptable, with everyone seeming quite distracted.”

“Thanks, I needed it.”

“I would have liked to do more,” he said as he began sweeping around her, pushing things out the back door. “I also would have liked to take out those two.”

“We shouldn’t,” Idalia said quickly.

“I know. It would just draw the wrath of stronger people. But those two didn’t feel too far out of our reach.”

“Yeah but… it’s not just that. Those two… are fine people.”

“They smashed up your shop and almost got you killed,” Hiram pointed out.

“Yeah, but it wasn’t really their fault. They’re good people at heart, I think. Just… forced into working for Birita somehow. I think it would be better to get them on our side.”

“Hmm…” Hiram contemplated for a while as he continued to sweep. “I hadn’t considered that. So far, my encounters with Birita’s group have only solidified their status as thus, and the Gray Rock Sect remains cowardly bullies.”

“Maybe not all of them, though,” Idalia pointed out. “Some people might just be biding their time, like us. Even those working for Birita… they have to be getting something from it. If they can grow stronger, maybe they can do something.”

“… I almost wish you’d taken up Anton’s offer,” Hiram said. “Then we could be done with it. But perhaps instead of just taking the ‘easy’ way, we should work towards something… more sustainable.”

“I agree,” Idalia said. “I wouldn’t ask you to try to hold your temper around the Gray Rock Sect, but I or some of the others could look into them more closely. And maybe we can ask Trix about others. Sasho… probably doesn’t need to hear any of this though. He seems like the kind that would be bad at keeping secrets.”

“Absolutely,” Hiram agreed. “And when Anton returns, we might ask for some help spying on people. I am under the impression that he can sense things from… a significant distance.”

Several kilometers away, Anton half-grinned to himself. It seemed things were going fine without his constant watch. But the issues still might outlast his stay in the area.

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