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Preparing for a short expedition in the Beast Forest didn’t take long. Every supply they could need was readily available, and everyone Anton intended to bring with him had an open schedule. They would just be training- going on a mission that was close by was also a good opportunity. Timothy and Hoyt had few skills relevant to the mission besides combat capabilities, but they were reliable and familiar. Catarina could provide formations which would be relevant as they camped overnight. Anton himself would be doing the bulk of the tracking and scouting work. After discussing with the others, Anton also invited along Velvet. Timothy had previous experience in a team with her, and while he didn’t have a positive opinion of her as a person, she had reasonable enough teamwork skills. Catarina had long forgotten any grudge she might have had with her.
Few people developed wide skillsets at a young age. Cultivators learned to fight because there was little point in having so much power if they couldn’t wield it. Other valuable skills related to knowing about opponents they might face, so they could have countermeasures in place. Beyond that, they might develop practical skills like pillmaking, smithing, or the use of formations. Those usually relied on preparing ahead of time, but everything came together in the end. For what cultivators did, most things came back to combat- or avoiding it.
Though Velvet didn’t have as much experience as Anton did moving quietly through the forest, she had practiced stealth and had reasonable awareness of her surroundings. Her ability to find tracks was decent enough, she merely lacked training in recognizing how to make sense of them. Anton crouched down to show her some things. “We have wolf prints going this way. More recently, a boar crossed that trail that way, in a hurry too.” He mentioned the way the undergrowth was damaged and the dirt torn up more than normal, showing her why he could say what he did with confidence.
She seemed comfortable enough in the wilderness, but Anton noticed she relied more on her cultivation to manage than her experience. She might not know the signs of dangerous creatures in the area, but if they showed themselves she was capable of reacting. “Does it matter if we know about them ahead of time?”
“With these? Probably not, if we don’t intend to hunt them. But if we came across signs of a creature of normal size but abnormal power- such as some magical beasts- it could be important to know to avoid their territory.” Anton glanced over at the elder traveling with them. Tshering was at the very peak of Spirit Building. From his age and the feel of him, his cultivation seemed to have plateaued there. “Nothing seems unusual so far. Whatever sent a boar of this size fleeing so quickly must be quite strong, but it shouldn’t be abnormal for this area. It seems to have been left well behind, as there are no parallel tracks.”
Catarina was keeping an eye out for anything such as formations. She was better suited for sensing them, and while it was doubtful that anything would have been set up on the Order’s territory some could occur naturally. They were usually of little concern, but if one was empowering or controlling the wildlife directly or indirectly it needed to be dealt with.
Anything within a day of the edge of the forest, counting the speeds those with tempered bodies could travel, was basically ‘normal’ forest. There were occasional oddities and magical beasts, and common humans would do well to avoid the area. Even so, it was relatively tame. If she hadn’t seen the transition, Velvet wouldn’t have noticed the difference in her current area. She wasn’t fully aware of all the differences, but they occurred everywhere. Large clusters of colorful mushrooms. Strange colored bark on trees. The sound of the leaves crunching beneath her feet fading. Skittish yet unfamiliar wildlife all too eager to climb up trees and dip down into burrows.
She’d been the one to spot the signs first, by virtue of the angle she was standing at. Anton had prompted her to check out the area- cautiously. There was a cut in the bark of a tree. Not a gouge nor the slashing and tearing of claws, but a cut. A single line, about chest high. Velvet approached carefully.
She had no technique to enhance her vision, but simply approaching closer was good enough. She just wanted to be cautious about what she was stepping on in the thick undergrowth. She still didn’t understand why her footfalls were more quiet outside of her advancing in technique, because everything looked the same. Was the ground softer, somehow? It didn’t feel like it. When she was an arm’s length away from the tree, she had no further understanding than when she spotted it.
Anton’s voice almost startled her, “If you could describe what you are thinking, please.” She turned, and he smiled, “So that we can measure your conclusions.”
Velvet nodded, and turned back. “It’s just… a cut. A knuckle deep, thin. No traces of energy which means… either it faded or was done without. It should be a blade.” Velvet frowned, “Why would anyone swing at that angle? At what?” she looked around, “I don’t see other signs of fighting.” That was it. Just an oddity and various tracks.
What would Anton do? She didn’t think she’d ever truly be a scout, but she had the stealth ability. If she was to act independently being able to bring back usable information was important. She reached out her hand, after determining she wouldn’t learn more from the way things were. She tried to peel back the bark, to see if something was hidden inside the cut. Instead she found herself unable to do so. Well. That was strange. “Strong bark. It doesn’t just break off. But that cut…” she shook her head. She pinched with her fingers and gave a solid yank. Bark snapped off. She had the strength, she just hadn’t expected it to require it. “Very strong. The cut was with something sharp and strong. Normal blades would have failed at this.”
Was there another cultivator? It wouldn’t be entirely strange, though nobody should have been through the area in the last few days. She looked down. The ground was firm enough she wasn’t leaving behind defined prints, and she didn’t see other human prints. There were a few signs of creatures in the underbrush- but one stood out differently. It almost looked like an arrow, the sort that would be drawn to direct people. A triangular shape with a middle line. Something with three toes, then. A bird? It was strangely sectioned and the talon marks, if that was what they were, remained barely visible. “Some sort of large bird? Traveling that way,” Velvet pointed.
Her feet shifted. Leaves crunched, but just a little. She picked one up. Bent it. It was dry, and it snapped- but not without some effort. Durable, like the bark of the tree. So the twigs and leaves crunched less because they held their form against her weight- though not everything had that property. She needed to spot the differences somehow. The trees were absorbing natural energy but not storing it, so they all felt the same as the environment around them.
“What made you think it was the bird?” Anton asked, approaching.
“Well it-” Velvet looked around. It was just the only strange thing. “It’s going the right direction, and it would move something like this,” Velvet held out her arms like wings hanging at her side. They were a bit below the mark. “Something like this, but taller.” Now that she said it, it was a pretty shaky description.
“That makes sense,” Anton acknowledged. Velvet smiled as she still faced away from him. “But the damage is from a blade, not a beak or talons. How would a bird cause it?” Her face fell. She hadn’t thought about that. It was just that the two things stood out and odd, and she connected them. “How would a bird cause it?”
The repeated question prodded Velvet. It was a real question, not just a polite way to tell her she was wrong. Could a bird have caused it? “I’m not sure if it could have.” She thought about where she’d placed her hands. Birds didn’t have hands there. They had wings. Those certainly weren’t sharp. They were soft and swooshy. “It could be something else.” Then again, the bark wasn’t supposed to be so hard. That made it even less likely that a bird could have done it. “Unless it has sharp feathers?” She turned to look at Anton.
His face had a pleasant smile. Encouraging, but frustratingly not telling her if she was right or wrong. Then he shrugged. “It could. There are some. Not listed anywhere around here, but it’s not uncommon to have a few things out of place. Since we don’t know,” Anton drew out the word, “We might as well follow the bird. It’s the strangest thing we’ve noticed in the area.”
Velvet nodded, though she kept her smile off her face. It was nice to know that even he didn’t know everything all the time. It gave her confidence, like the elder watching over them who wasn’t the wilderness sort at all. He had an overwhelming sense of strength, even restrained as it was. Strong, but not in the comforting way that Anton was- like a good solid roof over your head. She needed to keep learning so he wanted to keep her around.