The silvery hair and ground-length beard of Taalay, along with the rest of him, finally came to rest at the end of their journey in a small village at the base of a mountain. Or at least, on the surface it appeared to be a small village. The members of this particular sect weren’t interested in public recognition, for good reason. They went by the name of Delicate Spice Mountain, though Taalay didn’t know if there was some other internal name they held.
“I’m looking for Heath,” Taalay said at the entrance, and he was directed to a particular hut not much different from the others.
Inside, a youngish man was sitting down for lunch with a bowl of soup. The unassuming fellow smiled as Taalay entered. “Welcome. What do you need?” He used a strand of energy to grab another bowl and spoon off of a nearby shelf. “Hungry?”
“Perhaps after we finish our business. I have a task for you.”
Heath nodded as he spooned some soup into his mouth. “Sure thing. But if they all die in your sect it will look suspicious, you know?”
“That’s not what I need,” Taalay shook his head.
“Well I’m not touching the Precious Palm Sect,” Heath said. “They’ve got deep enough pockets to track me down.”
“I don’t need your expertise in that area at the moment,” Taalay shook his head, producing a scroll. “I need your opinion on a technique I have found.”
“I need to know if it does what it advertises.”
“Practice it and find out,” the young man said, leaving the scroll where Taalay set it.
“You don’t appear to have died or damaged your cultivation. So I’m going to say it worked out fine.”
Taalay shrugged. “It did something,” he said. “But I need to know if the results are erroneous. And I need an opinion on the subtlety of the technique.”
“Planning to take over our business…?”
“Hardly,” Taalay said. “I can’t even cook.”
Heath reached out for the scroll and carefully unfurled it. “… You’re sure this is the right one?”
“And you… found it… where?” Heath looked up at the older man.
“In a pile with other techniques.”
“And it works? Who did you find?”
“That would bias the results,” Taalay said. “Can you see any reason it wouldn’t work?”
“Well, it’s going to find something,” Heath shrugged. “I can’t see how this would entrap you or anything. But the results might not be what it says.”
“They’re supposed to be gone…” Taalay frowned.
Heath raised an eyebrow. “So it worked?”
Taalay shrugged. “You’ll get back to me, won’t you?”
“Sure, I’ll send you a letter. Now have your soup or give it here.”
Taalay took a spoonful of the soup. “I can see why people look for you.”
“You could learn to do this, you know?”
“And how long would it take?” Taalay raised an eyebrow.
“No more than one… or two centuries,” Heath said. “If you devote yourself to it.”
“I think I’m fine with my current path, thank you very much,” Taalay said.
Taalay wasn’t certain if a few months to receive the reply letter was short or long. Either way, it said very little and a great amount at the same time.
‘Spent some time with the Radiant Peak. Their guests were simply glowing as a result of my cooking. Do you have any additional ingredients to suggest?’
That confirmed very little for him, given the vagueness. But it did show that Heath was taking things seriously.
Over time, Three Squeaks’ confidence in himself continued to grow. He figured he could fight pretty much everything… and then he was reminded of how wrong he was. He wished it was because he lost a battle. Instead, there was something much worse. It was a battle he didn’t even know how to fight. He couldn’t lose if he couldn’t even touch his opponent.
Sickness swept through the coalition as a result of bad water. Three Squeaks thought that maybe there was someone causing it, and had gone on a journey to the source. Along the way he found… nothing. Ultimately, that meant one of their rivers was nearly useless.
He returned in dejection. The hippos who were also looking for a solution found nothing. Soon, it would be time to water their fields- but they couldn’t use the bad water, could they?
The solution came from an unexpected source.
“Small… small… small… bugs.” Three Squeaks turned his head as the other individual looking at the river with despair happened to speak. Only one meerkat spoke like that, of course. It was Meep.
“What about small bugs?” Three Squeaks asked.
“Nothing,” Meep said.
“Oh,” Three Squeaks sighed. “I thought you had a solution for the bad water.”
Meep nodded slowly. “Bad… water… is… small… small… small… bugs.”
“So the bad water is because of small bugs?” Three Squeaks frowned. He looked in the water, and the only bugs he saw were ones that belonged there.
“No. Small… small… small.”
“Very small bugs?” Three Squeaks asked.
“Smaller… than… very… small… bugs,” Meep explained.
“… I still don’t see them,” Three Squeaks said.
“Get… glass…” Meep started hobbling away from the river.
“I’ll get it,” Three Squeaks said. “What kind of glass?”
“Glass… cup. Scoop… water.”
“Alright. I’ll get one.” Maybe Clang had something? He was one of the few that worked with fire, though obviously he tended to make things out of metal. Indeed, Clang did have something like a glass cup, and he let Three Squeaks have it. The meerkat scurried back. “Alright, I have it. So I just scoop up some water…?” Three Squeaks did so. “… I still don’t see any bugs.”
Meep plodded over. “Less… glass.”
“It needs to be smaller…?”
“Less… dark,” Meep explained.
“Yes. Clear… glass.”
“That’s difficult to get…” Three Squeaks said.
“Have… at… home.”
“Oh.” That makes sense. After all, Meep was asking for it. So now Three Squeaks had to go run to Meep’s home and back. Which… was still faster than Meep doing it once, even with the extra trip. Just to make sure, Three Squeaks had him explain in detail.
The clear glass made it easier to see the water without getting his shadow on the liquid, but it didn’t really make much difference. He couldn’t see anything.
“Did I scoop the wrong place?”
“Small…er,” Meep said, pointing at the clear water.
“So when you say very small bugs, you mean like this?” Three Squeaks held his paws less than one pad apart.
“Small,” Meep said.
“That’s just small? So like this?” Three Squeaks put his paws about half the distance apart.
“That’s not any different? So like… this?” Three Squeaks put his paws almost touching.
“Any closer and they’ll just touch,” Three Squeaks said. “There’s nothing smaller than that. Even ants are bigger than this! Regular ants, I mean.”
Meep lifted the glass and moved around until he was standing in the way of the sun. He held it up above Three Squeaks. “Focus… eyes.”
Three Squeaks sighed. Sometimes, Meep was weird. But he was usually… smart. So he should get the benefit of the doubt. Three Squeaks focused his eyes, protecting them as he did so. After all, looking directly at the sun was… not great for people. Though that didn’t necessarily stop One Hundred Stars disciples, either.
Clear glass. Clear water. Clear… bugs. “Whoa! They’re so… tiny!” He took things seriously and acted like he was trying to spot something at the edge of the horizon, and he could see them now, darting about. Then he stepped away. “Wait, I still see some!” He pawed in front of his own face. “Wait, there are bugs in my eyes! I’m sick! What do I do? Burn them?”
“Eye… bugs… fine.” Meep said. “Water… bugs… bad.”
“You knew about the eye bugs and you didn’t say anything?” Three Squeaks complained. “Why not?”
“Don’t… say… when… things… are… fine. Ground… bugs… fine. Tree… bugs… fine. Skin… bugs… mostly… fine. Eye… bugs… fine. Most… things… okay. Some… times… bad… mush… rooms.”
“Okay. So… we agree the water bugs are bad. Do I burn them?”
“Can… burn… all… water?”
Three Squeaks looked at the river flowing past. “Uh… that might be a little bit difficult.”
“Try… ask… bugs?”
Meep wanted him to ask bugs about killing bugs…? Actually, that made sense. Because he knew the ants at least ate everything. He just had to go find them and ask. “What if we try to figure out something ourselves?” Three Squeaks said.
“Big… ant… won’t… eat… body.”
“That’s actually way less reassuring than telling me the Great Queen won’t eat me,” Three Squeaks pointed out.
“Meep… not… lie.”
Three Squeaks grumbled. “Fine. The void ants know lots of things, so maybe they know how to get rid of the water bugs…”
The void ants had barely established a colony of their own, but it was out of the way so as to avoid accidents. Some people ate ants, after all, and void ants were difficult to differentiate for some. Except with energy senses, they were clearly… wrong. Three Squeaks approached the colony, but wasn’t quite sure what to do from there. Fortunately, a stick bug showed up on a nearby bush. Or rather, they were probably already there. They didn’t ‘speak’ well, but Three Squeaks was pretty decent at the insect sign language.
“What do you want?”
“I need to ask the Great Queen about tiny water bugs. They’re making us sick.”
“She’s not here. Only Crossed Antennae.”
“That’s fine.” Hopefully. “Anyone who is willing to help. So do I just… yell?”
“Flash energy. One will come.”
Three Squeaks did suppose they were quite sensitive to energy, so he did his best to make it obvious for a moment. Some captain or something came crawling towards him- Three Squeaks did see a small trail of others, but the captain was much bigger. Three Squeaks explained his request, and the captain eventually returned with the princess, Crossed Antennae.
The ant signed at him, though she was somewhat smaller than the captain so it was difficult to pick out precisely without focusing some energy on his sight. “You had a question for the Great Queen? I can relay it, the next time she is here,” Crossed Antennae replied.
“I was hoping you would know about… tiny water bugs?”
“… Because we are bugs?”
“Because the void ants know a lot of things!” Three Squeaks hastily corrected. “They’re making people sick and we can’t use one of our rivers. They’re… extremely tiny. Look, they’re clear things in this container I brought.” It was quite a trip to get there without spilling the thing, though fortunately his natural energy made it possible.
The princess approached the glass. Then she circled around so Three Squeaks could easily see her again to sign. “I can pick out what you mean. They have small bits of natural energy within them. But I don’t know what they are.”
Three Squeaks jerked back as he felt something snip at some of his energy. It was another void ant. “Tastes familiar. Are you a disciple of Anton?”
“Um… yes. But please don’t eat my energy without permission.”
“It’s fine. I’m a princess so I can do what I want.” Clearly, Crossed Antennae disagreed. There was some attempt at signs, but Three Squeaks didn’t pick out much before it devolved into a wrestling match… in which the second princess came out on top. “Told you,” she said. “I’m Fearsome Mandibles.”
“Well, nice to meet you,” Three Squeaks said. “I suppose I’ll go now.”
“Before you go,” she caught his attention. “Don’t you want to know what those things are?” She made a sign Three Squeaks hadn’t seen before.
“No profanity!” Crossed Antennae said as she picked herself up.
“Profanity is meant to be used otherwise it wouldn’t exist!” Fearsome mandibles flailed her limbs, then turned her head up towards Three Squeaks. “Anyway, they’re called-” presumably the sign for whatever they were. Three Squeaks later learned it was ‘bacteria’.
“So… how do we kill them?”
“Boil the water,” Fearsome Mandibles said.
“… They’re in a whole river,” Three Squeaks replied.
“That does make it harder. But just boil whatever you want to use. Or do a fancy thing to kill them.” There were a few words he missed but they didn’t seem to be of substance. More profanity?
“What do you mean?”
“A technique. We can’t control natural energy, but you can. Make something up to squash them specifically.”
“That’s… surprisingly very helpful,” Three Squeaks admitted.
Half of Fearsome Mandibles’ reply was a repetition of previous profanity. “Yeah, I know I’m smart.”
“… Where did you learn that?” Crossed Antennae asked.
“I saw some and was curious. So I asked mom about them.”
“She’s the Great Queen. You should be respectful.”
“She’s our mom,” Fearsome Mandibles said. “If she wants me to say fancy words she’s going to have to force me.”
“Uh…” Three Squeaks interrupted. “Thank you for your help. I’ll be going now…”
He supposed Clang had a lot of fire to help with boiling. And there were other fire cultivators. They did have large tubs brought away from the river anyway, for use in the populated areas. They could boil it all. And maybe he could figure out a technique that would be more efficient. Something that caught these tiny bugs.