Scouting in all directions around the group would have been impossible if they traveled at the speed of well trained cultivators. Velvet wasn’t any faster than the others, so handling the scouting duties by herself was a difficult task. First she moved in front of the group, along the road. Traveling along the road made them more predictable, but it also made them faster. More importantly, they had many people that would be troubled by rough terrain.
The distance Velvet went in front of the group was about twice what she expected them to cover in a single loop around. Trying to get more distance would leave her vulnerable if she was noticed, and any less had a good chance of leaving them without advance warning and ruin the whole point of her scouting.
Then she would curve around the group, sensing for anyone approaching from the side, the back, other side, and then back to the front to get ahead of the group again. Nobody else had the same training in stealth she had, which left Velvet to complete the task on her own.
So far, she supposed she’d been successful, if finding absolutely nothing since the last big city counted. There was nothing wrong with that, as long as nobody was actually around and trying to kill them. It was strange, though. There should have been wild beasts at the very minimum. She saw a few animals, but nothing aggressive. No magical beasts. She should have encountered at least some of them, even if they avoided the large group moving through their territory. That was a problem.
Looking at the road they were following, it was impossible to say who had been traveling on it. Not from a lack of signs, but rather an abundance. Many tracks, old and new, all mingling together. But no people. Even if traffic between Ofrurg and Graotan was limited along the path they were taking, it was expected that some cultivators would pass them in either direction. Yet there was nothing. Suspicious.
The border was rapidly approaching. It was only a couple weeks from Khonard by the direct route at the rate they were traveling, and now they were a handful of days from it. It was a smaller border crossing than the one they used to enter Ofrurg, since the route had difficult terrain and little trade.
Front, side, back, side. Nothing. Just rocks and dirt and trees.
The terrain steepened, the road worsened. Most of those traveling with the group had healthy bodies and they continued slowly. Velvet moved quickly along the road. Next to the road. The road itself had nowhere to hide, and her stealth techniques weren’t sufficient to make her actually invisible.
The road continued through a deep gorge, carved long ago by a river that had found another path. Velvet nearly entered the gorge to scout ahead, but thought better of it. Would people be waiting for them along the bottom? Perhaps. But being up above on either side was more advantageous. Even if most cultivators didn’t specialize in archery, the advantage of the high ground could allow them to attack without retaliation.
The terrain rose so quickly that Velvet had to climb to reach the top of the left slope. She did so, slowly and carefully. She had little experience climbing, but any peak Body Tempering cultivator could hold themselves up by even a few fingers. The slope wasn’t even truly vertical at any point, so she pulled herself up arm over arm and foot over foot with only bad holds. She slipped once, when a hold couldn’t carry her weight- but she latched onto the slope with her energy.
Velvet stopped. She didn’t sense anyone up above, but if they were paying attention they might have noticed her. She continued to hang in her position for several minutes before she decided she’d been subtle enough. That didn’t stop her from shifting a dozen yards to the side before continuing her ascent and finally peeking over the top of the gorge.
The people at the top were well concealed. At least, if expecting people to walk along the road. They would be fully invisible from down below, using their energy senses to pick up the group as a whole. Yet from the side and the back she merely saw people crouched and prone. Without actively using her energy to feel them she could only approximate their cultivations. Spirit Building were the best. Several of them. Then at least a dozen in Body Tempering, mid to late. If she were to suppose that the other side had a similar complement, it was quite a dangerous group.
With her new vantage point she could see that her route to the top wasn’t the best. The face she had climbed up was in fact probably the hardest route. That would explain why this particular location was chosen for an ambush. Velvet felt the rest of the company approaching. She had to return to warn them- and if she had sensed her companions, they had likely already been noticed by the group.
She silently made her way back down the slope, running back towards her companions at the quickest speed she could maintain her concealment, glancing over her shoulder towards the gorge as she went.
The shifty one popped up on the other side of the company without Ayotunde noticing her approach. “Ambush ahead! At the gorge,” she declared. “They’ve probably already sensed us.”
“Hmm. I see the area,” Anton confirmed. “Not the best place for us to fight. But if we go around, they can just follow us into rough terrain and catch up on their terms. We should try to turn things against them.” He looked to Ayotunde. The dark skinned man nodded. He might have been simply hired as a mercenary, but he was also the most experienced with this sort of thing.
The company had stopped when the shifty girl appeared. Ayotunde drew from his experience and gave a warning. “We should keep moving, if they know we’re here. At a bit of a slower pace so we can strategize. Any recognizable markings?”
The girl shook her head. “Not that I saw. Standard assortments of gear, pretty much.”
“Ways up to them?”
“Yes, but not easy. The faces closest to us are the worst spots. I didn’t have time to check the right side, though.”
Ayotunde nodded, “Good enough. I might suggest we find our way up as most of the group approaches. Even those of us worse at stealth can manage if they are distracted. If you have a route on the left side, take the granny here with you,” he nodded his head.
“I have a name, you know. Lera.”
Ayotunde ignored that. “Shrimp and I will go to the right side at a slower pace. I would suggest no more people peel off until the battle starts. The main group should remain back, where people can be defended properly. I trust you can still be effective at a hundred and fifty meters, plus the rise?”
“That I can,” Anton acknowledged. “I agree with the plan.”
“We’ll prepare a formation,” Catarina said. “It won’t be much good if we have to set it up in an instant, but we can deflect weaker attacks.”
“Good,” Ayotunde nodded. He knew many of these were solid combatants. The shifty girl he wasn’t certain about, but the granny would make up for anything. “Oh yes. Ropes. A good spike can anchor them into anything, though only one or two might climb at a time. At that height… it should take a Spirit Building cultivator a good ten seconds, but that’s much better than the alternative.”
Ayotunde reached into his pack, throwing the granny a coil of said rope and spike. “I have more for our side. Never know when you will need rope. Just kick it into a good rock, and protect it.” Ayotunde looked up. “We’re close. Let’s hope they can’t see us. Time to split.”
“My name’s Ross,” said the shrimp as he followed after.
“Yes, no doubt it is.” He pulled his energy inward, keeping it tight against him. Running with just his body wasn’t a problem. In fact, he would be better than most without energy since he practiced Western Steel Body. He knew the members of the Ninety-Nine Stars did not cultivate their bodies to any significant degree in early Spirit Building, and he found that a weakness. Though the technique was stronger in other ways.
The shrimp followed behind, circular razor disks in hand. He was more of a mid range combatant than a short range type, but not competent at long range like a proper archer. He was good, though. Enough that Ayotunde did remember his name, even if he didn’t choose to use it.
It was no longer possible to feel the shifty girl or the grandma, though the former had been concealed immediately once she was out of sight. A useful skill, even if it was not one Ayotunde ever planned to develop beyond a basic level.
He found a slightly climbable part of the slope. He thought for a moment. Yes, it had been long enough. The main group was approaching their position. Climbable for him, but the shrimp…
His hand closed on the rock in front of him, grabbing a chunk of it. He alternated hands, tearing into the rock a half meter apart on either side, leaving behind proper handholds as he climbed. That should be good enough. Arm went over arm repeatedly over the next minute. He was concerned he might have been too noisy when he reached the top, but the main company had properly distracted people. His choice of climbing location still left him fifty meters from his targets, and one of them would notice him soon.
Then the shrimp reached the top, and flung out his razor disks. That was the opening salvo of the battle, and the lives of two body temperers were lost as their spines were cut. The next two targets as the disks wheeled through the air managed to block- though one nearly sacrificed an arm to do so.
The spike was driven into a nearby rock through a rope. A moment later Ayotunde’s hands were holding his sword, a two handed beast that required a special sheath to carry properly. Fifty meters was covered in merely a few moments, just long enough for the surprised enemies to reach their feet. He’d wanted to take out one of the Spirit Building opponents, but he wasn’t quite fast enough.
A spear stabbed out at him, but Ayotunde’s sword was nearly as long. He nimbly wielded it, parrying the blow before striking back at his opponent, cutting his shoulder from underneath. Next to him was a woman with a bow ready to fire on those below- the unexpected flanking attack had rattled her enough that she didn’t think to switch to her sidearm. Ayotunde didn’t even bother trying to avoid her aim as he just sliced through the bow and her arm at the same time. Not an archer, then. She’d have been ready for that.
Ayotunde pulled back to where the shrimp’s blades danced through the air, almost daring anyone to approach. With over a dozen enemies still standing, he needed to use proper tactics. That included stalling for reinforcements from below. He was hoping for the axe guy. More power was always nice.
By the time Velvet crested the rise after the granny- Lera- half of the ‘ambushers’ were coughing and sputtering. She’d intended to sneak forward and stab one before she was noticed, but she wasn’t going anywhere near whatever that cloud was. She used Lera as cover to approach closer, crouching low to the ground and wishing there were more sources of cover than just a few rises in the terrain and the occasional boulder or scrawny tree.
Two body temperers attacked Lera together, but she simply stepped back and let their attacks pass through where she was. Meanwhile, both of them got a needle impaled into them. One in a shoulder, and one in the cheek. Nothing lethal normally, except… they had to be poisoned. Some of those who had been coughing didn’t get up, while others recovered.
Arrows flew towards Velvet- no, she hadn’t been noticed, she merely placed herself in their trajectory on accident. Several more launched down below, but they were matched by more shots from just Anton himself. One Body Temperer went down, and even a Spirit Building cultivator got an arrow of pure energy in his side as he presumed that there would be no relevant counterattack and had only minimal defenses.
At some point Lera had managed to set up the rope, and Velvet could sense Hoyt was already halfway up. That was good, because Lera was getting swarmed.
A dagger sliced along the side of the neck of a large Spirit Building cultivator. Velvet cursed. There went her best chance at taking someone out instantly and she only managed a thin cut. Sure, she had to pierce his energy defenses and armor but she thought she had it. She dodged back away from a wild swing of an axe. She needed to be careful, or she might find herself dying instantly.
She was feeling more confident when Hoyt arrived to help take off the pressure and she managed to dodge around several people and make them lose track of her. The battle on the other side of the gorge was also going well.
Then she felt another group of cultivators charging along the floor of the ridge towards their main company. It wouldn’t take them long to arrive, and now there were only a few defenders left below. Damn. She hadn’t even thought there would be a third group.