Chapter Thirty-five: Reap the Whirlwind
The crowd watched with strained hearts. Many were unsure how to feel about the events that were transpiring. Just minutes ago, Sweetrot’s victory was inevitable. There seemed to be no way for him to lose. As an undying, his opponent could do nothing but flail in vain. Now…
They watched the maroon cloaked tellurian trip up. A thick offshoot of the creeping taxer slammed into him, knocking him off his feet. That was enough to allow it and its fellows to start snaking around his limbs, seeking to bind him. Sweetrot’s qi surged madly, his body expanding rapidly until he was so large most of the vines that bound him were simply torn apart. Freed, he slipped away, readying his stolen weapon for another assault.
Unfortunately, that momentary outburst cost him greatly. Sweetrot was visibly tired. His skin was sweaty and clammy, and his panting was loud enough for the audience to clearly make out. Nearly all the qi used in the [Oak’s Growth] technique was sapped by those accursed vines. It was maddening! He could not attack; not while Amerrak stood nestled in the main vine. Neither could he run forever; not with all these vines flailing about like tentacles.
Already, his reserves were running low, and there was nothing he could do. Sweetrot cursed his lack of ranged attacks. He had always been a frontline fighter, brawling it out without care or fear of injury, but that was precisely why his enemy did this was it not? He glared at the smug alchemist only to receive a projectile to the face in turn. He did not hesitate. Turning his hands into claws, he ripped the flesh from his cheek and tossed it away before the taxer’s seed could sprout and cause him trouble.
That was the fourth time, Sweetrot had gotten hit in that last five minutes. He could not afford to keep tearing off pieces of himself. Amerrak may have failed to implant those seeds in his false strike, but he was currently doing pretty well with regards to their use. In his hands, he held a modified launcher which he used to significant effect. Launching the essence sapping seeds at speeds above seventy metres per second. They were like arrows. Each had the power to drain his qi upon contact, growing roots to ingrain themselves in his flesh. Even removed, he still needed to use up some qi to seal and heal the wounds that remained.
Meanwhile monocled bastard responsible for Sweetrot’s trouble was free to act however he wished. With the protection of the main vine and the seed launcher at his disposal, he could stand at ease and wear his opponent down in time. However, that was not enough. Seeds of other varieties continued to appear in his hand where they were swiftly catalysed by his qi. Sweetrot watched the current seed germinate under the stimulus of the alchemist’s qi becoming a seedling in the time it took him to draw breath.
Amerrak made a squat, planting the fast-growing plant into the stone of the stage to join its fellows. He kept up the flow, baptising the plant till it was knee high. It thrived, producing an array of thorns that would discourage even the toughest tongued herbivore. Sweetrot glanced down the defensive line his opponent had created. There had to be at least forty of them packed in that zone already, and the alchemist was still growing more advancing closer as he did so. Sweetrot could already see where this would lead.
The amount of ‘free’ stage available was steadily decreasing. Soon there would be nowhere left for the dark-skinned tellurian to run. His chances of outlasting the alchemist were looking slim. His only hope was that the other would run out of qi first.
As if to spite him, a cauldron appeared in front of Amerrak. The alchemist actually stood there and begun manufacturing recovery pills. Sweetrot could barely believe his eyes. He dashed in the bastard’s direction and nearly found himself entangled in a web of vines. The other youth was like a six-armed god. The kind with a different item in each hand. Just how many things could he do? At this point, the alchemist was practically suffocating him, leaving him with no room to fight back.
Desperate, he looked to the referee for help. The conflicted senior looked away, not meeting his eyes. The rules said they could not bring in consumables or ask for outside help. Pills, talismans and the like were expressly forbidden. Combatants could only rely on themselves and their skills.
Nevertheless, by creating his pills on the stage, Amerrak was technically in the clear. It was his skill. Plus, he did not bring it in from outside. It was the same with the creeping taxer. As the subject of a blood contract, it shared the same status as a familiar or daemonic companion. It was no longer an external aide but an extension of the contractor’s powers. There was nothing the referee could do.
The floor of Sweetrot’s gut fell away. He was going to lose!
Mystical plants were not daemons. Plant daemons did exist in Verre and although mystical themselves, they were classified separately from their other brethren. The classifications were simple, plants without mystical properties were mundane. Plants that possessed sapience were daemons. Any others were tossed under the mystical category. That did not mean that there was no overlap. Many mystical plants started off mundane, and several daemonic varieties were born from the further evolution of a mystical plant in much the same way ordinary beasts became daemons.
However, as far as cultivators were concerned, mystical plants were simply resources. They were no different from other essence imbued materials. The plants Amerrak planted on the stage, the ones he used for alchemy and even the ones woven into his clothes were mystical. All of them were practically ordinary in the eyes of cultivators. Their ranks and prices might vary, but they were resources. All of them except the creeping taxer. It was one of the few plants that could become a daemon.
In the stands, someone searched for information on the strange plant Amerrak had helping him. He held an open tome aloft, fingering the animated illustration on the right page. The plant depicted moved in lifelike ways, twisting and turning its vines about as it looked for prey. On the left page of the book was information about it. All the nearby spectators crowded around him, momentarily looking away from the stage.
The Creeping Taxer was a rare and mobile plant that scoured the woods looking for prey. Trapping them in its vines it drained them of their blood and essence, doing so until it gained enough power and spirit to transform into a kind of plant daemon called a ravenous bush. The vine that protected Amerrak was cutting from a taxer that was at least three hundred years old. A taxer that old was highly unlikely to have originated in the wild, and if it had, it would be much too old and powerful for a first tier to subdue it.
Price was another factor. Sweetrot was not kidding when he said the seeds were four times as expensive as the mature plant. Counting the number fired since the start of the fight had many shifting uncomfortably. Amerrak had to have spent a fortune on that stage. The kind of wealth that would bankrupt a minor noble estate. Genius or no genius, there was no way an orphaned scholarship student like him could afford it.
Nevertheless, the strategy worked Amerrak’s arsenal was wholly customised to fight Sweetrot. He came to win, and he was leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of his goal. Fortune smiled on him when Sweetrot tripped up again. It was enough to clinch victory. His vines swept him up like fish in a net and this time they did not let go.
Sweetrot struggled weakly, but at this point, he was merely going through the motions. Everyone could see the battle was over. His essence signature was so weak even his wounds had stopped healing. “It might sound patronising, but I sort of admire you, Sweetrot!” the monocled alchemist confessed.
The dark-skinned tellurian growled and squirmed his restraints with renewed passion. That only made the taxer clutch tighter draining him until he could barely keep his eyes open.
“I do!” Amerrak reaffirmed. “You are a genuine genius. Very vain and reckless but talented and dedicated. You’ve probably been wondering how I knew, right? Your thoughts were likely, ‘How did he set this all this up?'”
He had the vines pull his opponent closer until the squirming youth was only a metre away. Smiling in his face, he uttered the answer he knew everyone was dying to hear. “I have you to thank for that actually. I mean, look at this stage.”
With a wave of his hand, he drew Sweetrot’s attention to the bloodstained stage.
“Really look at it, Sweetrot!” he demanded. “Look at all the blood and flesh you’ve left strewn about. It’s so messy, I shudder to think what the inside of your room is like.”
Sweetrot could not bring himself to reply to the jab in kind. His mind was too busy connecting the dots in Amerrak’s words.
“You’ve been messing with my blood!” he yelled, spitting the accusation like it was bile.
He had reason to be offended. That was a taboo for any cultivator. It was how blood feuds were started, and blood legacies were stolen. In fact, blood theft was illegal, according to the school’s rules. Too much could go wrong and too much harm, done right. Amerrak knew this. He also knew that he had already been found out. However, when he became Lady Bloodworth’s apprentice, it would no longer even matter. Still, it was best he came clean about what the scope of his experiments had been while he had the chance.
“Can you blame me?” the alchemist asked his tied up audience. “You leave it everywhere! Plus, I was intrigued. Obviously, I’m not really the fighting type. I was only drawn to you out of curiosity for how your ‘healing’ worked at first. But that proved challenging enough to hold my interest for quite a while.”
“Honestly, the process was so simple. I wonder why more people did not try it. The thirty minutes failsafe that destroys your ‘spent parts’ is laughable. Though, having fought you now, I can see that it is more of an allowance so you can reattach your bits in time and avoid having to grow everything from scratch. Still, do you know the number of things that can be done to you in that time? A master of sympathetic magic could turn you inside out in ten. The only hindrance your failsafe posed to my research was the need to keep procuring fresh samples. Luckily, you continued to provide.
“When I realised the key lay in your essence and not your blood, I thought I ran into a dead end. There was no way I could figure it out if it were a technique. But then came a flash of insight. A preterm aspect! The answer floored me, but I could not believe it. I took a look at your blood again”, Amerrak admitted.
Sweetrot’s blood chilled. Amerrak nodded in understanding.
“I hope that’s enough to convince you. I truly admire what you’re capable of Sweetrot. Heaven knows I could not possibly have gone to the extent that you’ve gone. I cannot even imagine the sort of motivation that would compel you to indulge in that kind of self-abuse”, he said with a tone of pity. “I freely admit that I saw a kindred spirit in you. A poor but gifted youth with no one to rely on, fighting so hard to prove himself.”
“The only difference between you and me is that while you wallowed in self-pity and struck out on your own, I saw exactly what I lacked. I made friends. Found people I could rely on”, staring at his girlfriend cheering him from the crowd, his gaze softened. “People I could love!”
“That’s what made the difference here today, Sweetrot. The most important fact of life you failed to see. No one can carry the sky alone. The lion rules by the support of his pride.
“Immediately, I knew I had you beat. All I had to do was give you a stage. Genius craves recognition, after all. So eager for gratification, you played your part perfectly.”
“I guess this long speech is to prove you’re a genius too?” Sweetrot spat. “So you sold yourself for some seeds, big deal. Praise yourself all you want. Any whore could have done that!”
Insulted, Amerrak sneered. “Yell and scream all you want, Sweetrot! I guess it was too much to hope that you’d learn something for once. Accept your defeat with dignity!”
“Defeat! From you?” yelled the dark-skinned tellurian. “NEVER!”
He struggled weakly in his bindings. The look on his face, coupled with his torn and bloody maroon robes made him even more pitiable. At this point, it was painful to watch.
Seeing that the drama was over with, the referee moved to call the match. “WINNER…”
A bloody haze rose from Sweetrot as he threw sense out the ring and burned his blood essence. The momentary burst of power was enough to pull partially free from his bindings and bridge the metre wide gap between him and his opponent. The spectators watched in stunned horror as the undying tellurian bit into his opponent’s neck and tore the other youth’s throat out with his teeth.
Amerrak could not even scream. Only the soft gurgling of blood came forth. He grabbed at his throat in an attempt to stem the blood flow. This just opened him up to more attacks from Sweetrot. Immersed in his blood rage, the dark-skinned tellurian spat out the piece of flesh between his teeth and slammed his right fist into his enemy’s face yelling.
“Turnabout is fair play, you dumbfuck!”
Amerrak was sent skidding across the stage floor. Tearing himself free from the now limp taxer, Sweetrot followed. Such was the power gained from the blood burning that when the plant grabbed at him instinctively, he simply tore it apart in a show of strength and a shower of pulp. However, this power came at a cost. Sweetrot was burning his life source for power. Already his hair was looking stringy. All the flesh was gone from his bones, and his skin was growing aged and leathery. The taxer was partly to blame for this.
Burning blood essence was considered a suicidal move. It damaged a person’s roots, reduced longevity and truncated cultivation. The effects were irreversible. Even with the most advanced treatment, you would be lucky to preserve your talent. As if knowing his victory was a pyrrhic one, Sweetrot went for broke. With a wild scream, the blood haze increased. All the flesh vanished from his bones, leaving him so emaciated he looked like a skeleton. His skin became aged and leathery.
He vanished, seemingly teleporting to Amerrak’s side. Raising his foot, he stomped on his opponent’s head, squishing it like a grape. The ground shook as it struck by an earthquake. The force of the stomp destroyed the entire stage, sending pieces of it flying everywhere. You would think he had stepped on a ceramic bowl.
Walking out of the centre of the dust storm, Sweetrot left a few words for his departed foe. ‘You were right! I do have a reason that would compel my life if need be. Or rather, I have a vengeance I must pursue. Unfortunately, it is not something I can ever give up. I either succeed or die.’
‘Maybe I have become too rough as a result. If so, you were a good file. You’ve shown me that I have not done nearly enough for my revenge. I regret that it’s come to this, but I am already resolved to kill anyone who dares comes between me and my success. Become another sacrifice on the pyre of my vengeance!’