The first hours of trekking into the Viridia Wildlands were pleasant. John was not the only one who attempted the same thing as the Emerging Bamboo Sect, using earth energy to control the surrounding plants. The results were… mixed. Some tried to push against the plants directly with their energy, not understanding the mechanics behind what was done. The result was often the opposite of what they expected, the bushes and vines stretching out onto the road to seek the threads of energy. John was able to use that same attraction to curl some of the underbrush further from the road, but he didn’t manage anything on a wide scale. The whole process was interesting, but not quite what he actually was most interested in learning from the Sect- though it was likely a step along the path.
After the first few hours, the Viridia Wildlands showed some of their true colors. The air was already hot and muggy, but then it began to rain. Water soaked into his clothes and mud formed underfoot, causing his boots to begin to sink. Dealing with either of those was simple enough on their own. A little bit of water element kept John dry and adding a bit of earth along with the water element kept the ground under his feet solid, but the instant he stepped forward it became muddy once more. That was all tolerable, not the worst conditions he had trekked through. At least they had a road.
Then the rain stopped, the sun came out, and insects began to swarm. There had been some activity from them before the rain, but after it ceased there was a burst of activity. A cloud of insects washed over the group- at first concerning, but the locals showed no particular caution. The cloud of insects was thick and impossible to see through, and it was not just one kind. There were smaller mosquitoes attempting to bite and larger ones that had some sort of stinger. Yet every cultivator had constant defenses of energy, and soon the swarm passed.
“Eew,” Ursel said as she looked at her hands and hair. It seemed she had taken it upon herself to squash some of the bugs crawling all over her, and now she was suffering more than they did. Then she threw herself onto the ground, rolling her head into the mud and rubbing it all over her hands. She stood up, shaking herself and a small wave of earth energy sloughed most of the mud and thus the accompanying bug bits off of her. When she saw John looking at her she blushed and turned away.
John smiled to himself. That was an interesting way to deal with the problem. It did leave Ursel somewhat soaked, though that wasn’t particularly different from how she’d been a few moments before. She would dry just fine, and it wasn’t as if she would catch a cold. It might be uncomfortable as it dried, but it wasn’t any sort of actual issue.
As they walked along, the ground greedily drank up the water. The depth of the mud shrank rapidly, quickly drying. Within a short time the ground merely looked damp. Then the cycle began again, frequent bursts of rain and activity from swarming insects and surrounding plants. John had the desire to wipe out a cloud of insects, but he also knew it wouldn’t do much actual good, so he simply kept them away from himself.
The group kept a decent pace, suitable for cultivators in the Foundation Phase. Of those, Ursel was not the slowest. It was a training expedition after all, so many of the juniors of the Order of the Amber Heart were present. Ursel was the youngest, of course, since most people couldn’t even begin to train at her age. For the triplets, however, the opposite was true- they couldn’t afford to not train their spiritual energy, since they had it. It was dangerous to remain incapable of proper use. They were all beyond basic control now, but continuing their training was only natural.
Walking along the roads, John could certainly see how those without sufficient cultivation couldn’t live normally in the area. The frequent nuisances would be much more troublesome for anyone else. But it still wasn’t living up to its reputation. That would have to wait, it seemed. Though not for long.
Suddenly, Chandra stopped, holding her arms out. “We will have to take a small detour,” she explained.
John looked ahead, the shape of the road still clear even with plants clearly creeping across it. The biggest factor was the lack of actual trees, leaving a strip of sunlight to forge their way. He couldn’t see anything that would make them stop, but John trusted their guide.
“Why are we stopped?” Ursel asked, looking up at her father.
“Why don’t we try to figure it out?” John said. “What do you sense ahead?”
“Just more plants and bugs and stuff,” Ursel said. “The same thing as everywhere else.”
“Or… something trying to appear the same as everything else,” John said. He hadn’t quite found anything yet, but he was trying different elements to sense for something. There were webs stretched across the road, large sheets completely filled with struggling insects and swarming spiders. Yet this was not the first time they had encountered such things. The insect life was so plentiful that the spiders shared the sheet webs without concern for competition… not at the moment, at least. Perhaps that would change within the next hours or days, like the rest of the jungle.
Chandra began to lead them off the road, chopping blades finding their place when stubborn vines refused to move out of the way. John still hadn’t discovered what they were avoiding as they began to curve around back towards the road.
“Is it that?” Ursel pointed. “The spiders.”
“I don’t think that…” John stopped himself, “Which ones?” He tried to follow where her energy senses might be roaming, but found nothing. Following the line of her hand, however, she wasn’t pointing between the trees but at an angle down towards the forest floor.
There, John could see spiders resting on the ground. Large ones… by the standards of Earth, at least. They were hand sized, appearing somewhat like tarantulas, visibly hairy and wide. Worryingly, he couldn’t sense them at all, though now that he’d seen them he could make out dozens, some standing among the leaves and some barely poking out of little holes in the ground.
If he concentrated, he could sense the nests in an abstract sense, little voids without earth, but casual observation made them slip his mind. After all, there was nothing in them. Except there was. “How did you find them?” John asked.
“I just looked,” Ursel shrugged. “By the holes.”
So she took note of those. Was it because she was careful, or were her senses better than his? Well, that wasn’t quite right. John was more powerful and could certainly feel things at a larger distance. But… she was more specialized. John had four different elements and totems, with all having grown to the fourth tier. Ursel, however… she had two fourth tier earth totems. Similar to the other triplets, her extreme affinity for one element had allowed her relatively short excursions into the sea of spiritual totems to be fruitful in finding certain totems. There was a reasonable chance they might even pick up fifth tier totems for the Soul Expansion Phase.
But John didn’t have those specialties, and if anything he leaned towards darkness. Using that to sense underground wasn’t particularly effective, so missing the particular spiders wasn’t strange. Except… as he thought about it, he idly stretched out to them with darkness and managed to pick out something. Air also registered a slight difference between them and the ground, but water couldn’t really pick them out.
So that was what it was. John couldn’t say he immediately understood how it worked, but they had adapted to feel ‘normal’ against the main energy senses in the area. The Viridia Wildlands was strongly attuned to the earth element, but it was also a rainforest and thus had a subtext of water element. John should have noticed something sooner. Sure, they were being guided by locals and it had worked out… but that was no excuse for being sloppy.
Soon enough they found their way around the spiders, which must have sensed their group. Either they remained in their position because they preferred to remain hidden or found themselves slow, or they simply weren’t aggressive. Though traipsing over their territory was likely another matter, thus their change in route.
“Look, a frog!” Even as Ursel crouched down, John was moving behind her. He yanked on her collar, lifting her up and letting her dangle in the area. “Hey! What was that for?”
John’s eyes drifted to the brightly colored frog, orange with blue spots. It likely had a different pattern than ones from his world, but the same general idea should apply. “That frog is almost definitely poisonous,” John explained. Upon sensing it, he felt the same. Unlike the hairy spiders from before, this creature easily advertised its presence.
“I know that!” Ursel complained. “I wasn’t going to touch it!” John turned her towards him and looked deep into her eyes, and she looked back. Eventually, she turned away. “I wasn’t going to touch it much.”
“Don’t touch it at all until you know what will happen,” John said, letting his daughter down. She hadn’t actually resisted him, or it would have been a lot tougher to yank her away even with the gap in cultivation.
Ursel crouched down by the frog, just staring at it for a few moments. “It’s so cool.” Then a mouth surrounded the orange and blue spotted creature, replacing its bright colors with dull greens and browns.
John’s hand was already on his sword. He’d failed to sense a threat once, and he wasn’t planning to let that happen again. So far the beasts had little in the way of cultivation, but that wasn’t the only way they could be dangerous. He’d sensed the snake coming, but it was angled away from Ursel. If it had lunged for her, he would have chopped it in half lengthwise.
“It ate the frog!” Ursel yelled, unslinging her heavy club from her back. But before she could step forward and smash the large snake into a pulp, John put a hand on her shoulder.
“For what?” Ursel asked, gathering her energy and subconsciously causing a small tremor in the ground. “For it to eat another cute frog?”
The snake, a couple meters long and about as thick as a man’s forearm, was already slithering away slowly. Very slowly. Then, it stopped. If it had curled up on a rock or on a branch it might be to digest its latest meal, though it was only a small morsel, but the way its muscles spasmed a moment later said otherwise. Then, it stopped twitching entirely, its mouth hanging open.
A few moments later, a small orange leg poked out of the snake’s throat, then the rest of it slowly squeezed out. Then it began slowly hopping away, looking rather fatigued but otherwise fine as it snapped up a passing insect with its tongue.
“You were going to crush its head, weren’t you?” John asked.
“… everything needs a head to live,” Ursel said. Her eyes trailed onto the floor. “I didn’t think about… squishing the frog.”
John tousseled her hair, and then the two of them hustled to catch up to the rest of the group who had mostly passed them by. Ursel might be a Foundation Phase cultivator, but she was still a kid. And to be fair, it was a cool frog.
The repeated patterns continued for the rest of the day, but come evening they approached something different. A large swath of jungle was cleared, with stones laid out in a large ring surrounding a city. This would be their first stop on the way to the Emerging Bamboo Sect, Great Ring City. The walls of the city were carved from the trunk of a single massive tree, with roots of unimaginable size having been severed around the outside. John wondered just how large such a tree would have been… and what could have become of it that only the outer edge of its trunk remained.