The tracks of the large bird weren’t hard to follow. Anton let Velvet take the lead so she could get practice, but with the way it left impressions it wasn’t difficult. Based on the properties of the leaves and the earth beneath, Anton got the picture it was a very heavy bird. That meant either it was truly gigantic in proportion to its talons, or perhaps it was a flightless bird. Those were rare, but Anton had heard of them. Though he had to admit until he saw a feather, he thought instead they might be mistaken about the origin of the creature based on its print.
As they moved, it started to become clear that the creature was indeed responsible for the cut in the tree. At least the cuts followed its same route, occasional slices appearing in plants along the way. Then they found a feather.
It didn’t look like much, except the way it was embedded in a rock. It appeared to have sliced cleanly into it as it passed, but it stopped halfway. It took a moment of twisting and wrenching to pull the feather out of the rock, and as he did so Anton saw it slice a little bit deeper to the side. He very carefully trailed his finger along the feather. It looked soft and fluffy, but he felt it trying to cut into him through his defensive layer of energy. It was of little comfort that a free floating feather only barely didn’t cut him, but that was how things were. He trailed his finger in the other direction and found that it didn’t cut at all from tail to back in the direction of the shaft, only when he followed the direction of the barbs.
“You were certainly right about it being a bird,” Anton commended Velvet. “If I’m right, this is a ‘grounded razorwing’, or some relative.” He’d been spending time looking into bestiaries of creatures in the surrounding countries. There were far more animals and types of magical beasts than he’d thought. He knew other places had different creatures, but he hadn’t realized how much variance there could be among the ‘normal’ creatures. Any of the razorwings were not considered normal beasts, since their feathers cut like blades even without the use of energy. “Whatever type it is, it’s far from home. A good target for investigating oddities.”
It being a land bird explained some of the oddities- like why the trail was so consistent. Birds would walk along the ground for a short way in some circumstances, but most preferred to alight in trees or fly. Even a very large bird could find a perch in the natural energy enhanced trees in the area, but since this sort of bird didn’t fly it cleanly solved that mystery.
The group walked quickly- if they were trying to catch up to the creature, they needed to move faster than it would. Even if it had just been heading back to its lair, they didn’t want to spend more days out in the forest than they needed to. Tshering was patient, but he probably had other things to be doing than watching over relatively new cultivators. Anton could tell he was keeping notice of beasts that might approach, but he hadn’t yet needed to give a warning of any sort.
Part of that was that Anton was keeping on top of sensing threats for himself. It took Anton a moment to judge an upcoming problem because everything felt so off. However, his eyes and senses weren’t lying to him. “Trouble up ahead. Looks like… ants.” Ants shouldn’t be a problem for cultivators- no matter how many of them there were, they couldn’t even damage someone with tempered skin or the thinnest layer of defensive energy. Not normal ants. “They have abdomens as big as a fist.”
Velvet squinted her eyes, clearly trying to make them out. “I can see the mound,” she finally said. “It’s still quite far… but almost directly in our path.”
Anton nodded, “That’s the problem. Plus, they’re an aggressive sort. I see skeletons of large animals around the area, and what might have been a deer being dragged towards the mound.” Creature that could hunt deer using numbers weren’t necessarily a problem- wolves could do it. Anton looked over at Fuzz. He was sniffing the area with interest. “Should we try to travel around them?”
This new forest was great. Fuzz smelled so many new scents, and not once had a plant tried to kill him. He thought it had twice, but the first time had just been a root he didn’t notice which didn’t react at all when he clawed it. The second time had been a squirrel who thought he couldn’t climb trees. It was half right. Fuzz might not be able to climb a tree, but he was able to jump high enough to chomp through the branch the creature had been standing on, chittering tauntingly. After that Catarina had asked him what he ate with a strange look on her face, but he didn’t have any other squirrels to share. How selfish of him.
The fourth one appeared to be a friend now. She had been hiding nearby for a while, watching them, but now she was spending time with the rest like a proper member of the pack. This Velvet was a strange one, sometimes disappearing from scent and even energy. When it turned out she was a hunter like Anton, he thought it made sense.
When Anton said there were ants ahead of them, Fuzz was confused. Ants were little black creatures, and these were big and brown. A proper mouthful instead of just a crunchy texture on the tongue that sometimes resulted in stinging. Maybe he’d only seen baby ants? That made sense, but he wondered why the pack leaders would leave their young all on their own.
But there were more important things for Fuzz, like dealing with these big ones now. They had a den right along the trail of the sharp bird they were following, and they seemed to not appreciate the intrusion upon their territory. While Fuzz’ pack avoided their den, it wasn’t good enough. They didn’t go a day out of their way to avoid the ants’ territory, so they were attacked. Stupid ants.
Fuzz had fought alongside the pack leaders several times. Usually he found that Anton’s arrows were greatly terrifying, but though he killed one or even several of the creatures with each shot, there were so many of them it hardly slowed them. He had to prepare himself to fight up close.
Everyone was told to stay together, which made sense. Being swarmed wasn’t a fun idea. Catarina was doing that funny thing where she moved things around and dug up the ground. Fuzz had tried to help before but apparently he had done it wrong, even though he’d dug much deeper. Humans were strange, but the pack leaders were strong so he just did his best to understand.
Then the ants were upon them. Fuzz was right, they were a mouthful. Very crunchy, but their insides didn’t taste very good. He didn’t have much time to savor them either, as they were also trying to eat him.
Fuzz hadn’t been old enough to go hunting with the wolf pack, so he didn’t learn all of the tactics they had. Instead, he learned from the humans. The way they fought was strange, but after he learned to control his energy just a little bit he found how good it was. He supposed their weapons made up for the lack of claws, but Fuzz much preferred attacking with his own body.
He stamped down on the creatures, crushing them at their thin point. He chomped into them, swept them with his paws and flicked at them with his tail. His tail wasn’t much good for fighting, but with energy protecting it Fuzz was able to make some use of it. Maybe he wouldn’t do that forever, but humans liked trying new things to grow strong, so Fuzz would too.
Timothy seemed to find trouble with the ants, because his ‘shield’ wasn’t suited to resisting them. His sword still chopped through them with a satisfying slicing sound, but apparently he was unable to perform his defensive position in the party.
Hoyt had some trouble as well, but Fuzz noticed he was on fire. That kept the ants away, but hopefully he could handle it himself. Fuzz was too far to help fix him.
It sure seemed hard for the humans to fight something so low to the ground. Fuzz had a much better time, because he only barely had to crouch to reach the height of the ants and bat at them. But nothing was perfect. Though they did their best to keep from being encircled and having ants all throughout between them, they couldn’t stop them.
That was when Fuzz started getting bitten. He couldn’t fully attack and defend with his energy all at the same time. Humans were so versatile and powerful. Fuzz envied their ability to fight like that. However, because there were so many ants Fuzz knew he had to kill them as quickly as he could- so he left his defenses weaker. Their sharp jaws bit into his hide, drawing a little bit of blood. That wasn’t so bad, but then he was lit on fire. Fuzz couldn’t see it, but he knew he was burning. He rolled around over the creatures as he fought, trying to put the fire out, but when he got bit on the nose he figured it out.
His nose wasn’t on fire. No, it was much worse. Fire that couldn’t be seen or put out. Fuzz howled, redoubling his efforts to slay the creatures before they could injure him. He felt the empowerment of Catarinas ‘formation’ thing flowing into him, giving him a boost to strength and speed against the vile ants. Yet their numbers were endless. He found himself being overwhelmed. His vision started to cloud with the bodies of ants alive and dead and the constant burning pain.
Then he saw the new one. Velvet. Her arms flashed, carrying swords much smaller than the others Fuzz had seen. But they didn’t need to be longer, for they did what fang and claw did just as well- rending the creatures asunder. With one sweep she slew a half-dozen, then she would take a step. Ants would leap towards her but lose track of her. Even Fuzz almost couldn’t see her as her energy hid her among them.
Several more swings from Velvet and dozens of dead ants piled up along with the ones already around Fuzz. Then Catarina came, spinning low to the ground with wide sweeping arcs of her sword. Though her height wasn’t suited to the maneuver, it was still effective. Fuzz could see why one would want weapons. They extended beyond the body to provide much greater reach and area. Energy could do that too, though it was hard to do it much. Fuzz resolved to obtain a similar ability, and howled to push away the pain.
What even was a little burning? It dug into his body, but it was nothing like the plant that had tried to live inside him. It was just a little bit of burning on his legs and tail and nose, a bit of blood. He pushed through the pain and continued fighting the creatures until there weren’t any more around him. Then he tried eating another one. Its head was too poky, but the rest of it was okay. Not worth hunting though.