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As the hunting group approached their quarry, they found several more bodies. At least for the sake of their stomachs, it was fortunate that the creatures they found were just mostly devoured carcasses. At least they hadn’t melted away, and it was more natural.
Not that skunks naturally ate anything large like the boar in front of them. But then again, they usually weren’t sufficiently larger than most forest creatures.
Just being bigger or more dangerous wasn’t the concern that prompted the mission Anton and the others were on. The creature was also more aggressive, and most concerningly it had attacked and killed some humans. Even cultivators, though the last group also escaped. They were the ones who actually brought in the information about it being a skunk, something that could be guessed from its tracks but not the other signs.
“Now remember,” Anton reminded everyone. “We have to keep some distance between each other. Not too far though, and we have to keep our eyes out.”
If any of them had merely overheard a story of what they were searching for without the proof of a paying mission, they would have completely discounted it. A creature normally more of an annoyance than a danger chasing away a group that even had Spirit Building cultivators, even those in the early part of the stage, was quite unbelievable. Their group was a little bit excessive given what they already knew, but sometimes a mission had to be chosen for being the best match, not necessarily a good one.
It wasn’t long before Anton finally spotted it. Since it was within eyesight, it was also well within the range of his attacks. “There it is,” he said. “I’d like to get closer. Its aura is strong enough that if I attack now and it chooses to run, we’ll have some trouble catching up to it.”
Ultimately, he was confident in shooting it down if he put in his best effort… but he couldn’t afford to expend so much of himself just for the skunk. Since the true mission was to be bait, they couldn’t know when they might be attacked. Perhaps nothing would happen this mission, but that didn’t mean he should allow himself to be exhausted. But looking like he was exhausted would be fine.
Chikere was the only one who was not part of the normal group. Unlike in the the training tower in the secret realm, Devon was not with them. He was still somewhat lower in cultivation, and given what they knew about the attackers having him around would just be dangerous. As a clear weak link he would be a target, and more importantly he might come with more opponents. From the patterns that had been seen so far, the attackers tried to outclass each individual of note, though they hadn’t been seen to have excessive numbers ever.
Anton still had not fired a single shot by the time the group came close enough for it to properly be noticed by it. They’d spread out to encircle it, though they were cautious of how they approached. By the time it acknowledged them, it had no easy way to run. But it didn’t seem interested regardless.
The creature was taller than any of them- and skunks were not tall, but long. Seeing a handful of humans, it was justified in having some confidence as it moved to attack the closest target. In this case, that was Chikere.
Against humans, she was used to winning a battle quickly. By finding the right opening, she could easily split someone open with a focused attack. She narrowly dodged a swipe with its front claws, moving in close and slicing upwards towards its neck with her sword. Normally such an attack would be sufficient, but even though she properly judged how much energy she needed to cut through its defensive energy, her sword only left a thin trail of blood along its neck. Its fur was much tougher than she had anticipated.
The creature was not just going to sit there and take attacks. It swiped with its claws, leaving large furrows in the ground and gouging out portions of trees. The rest of the group moved in for the attack, but it fended them off mainly by an aggressive offense. Even though its teeth were not large compared to its body, they were sharp- and it was large enough that its bites were mostly aimed for their heads.
A variety of attacks rained down on the creature, damaging it but not defeating it. In return, it finally landed an attack of its own, swiping down towards Catarina. Instead of attempting to claw through her, however, it hooked behind her leg and tripped her with uncanny intelligence for a beast. In the moment she was down, it turned away from her, using its tail to push away everyone around like a great club. Then it sprayed a noxious green-yellow cloud of gas and liquid towards her.
Catarina was already regaining her feet and pushing away, but it covered such a large area she wouldn’t have been able to avoid it completely. Even so, it went far to either side of her as Timothy placed himself in front of her, his shield and energy deflecting the vile substance it sprayed. Even though it hadn’t touched him directly, Timothy’s face began to turn green. “Careful! That stuff even sticks to energy!”
There were a few things with strange properties of the sort. Normally a cultivator could simply retract their energy if something was on it, but when something actually attached doing so would only pull the attack into them. The other option that usually worked was to detach a portion of energy, but the cost of that depended on how deeply an attack had penetrated.
Even from where he was over a dozen meters away, Anton could smell the fresh spray. It wasn’t so immediately sickening as it was on Timothy and Catarina behind him, but he didn’t want to get anywhere close. He did have a new bow- he wasn’t ready to attempt combat without an actual physical object to project his energy onto- but it was slightly less powerful than his previous one. Not much, and it was made up for by being thicker with more durability, but he had to focus his attacks more to penetrate the skunk’s hide.
While the creature turned to focus on Catarina and Timothy, the others took advantage of its limited ability to fight them all at once, even with claws, teeth, and a swinging tail. Its spray was finite in usability, so they mostly had to worry about the physical threats that they were more prepared to resist. Hoyt, Velvet, and Chikere cut into its sides after they recovered from the sweeping attack with its tail. They were starting to manage deeper wounds. Hoyt’s flames charred wherever his axe sliced through, widening the damage.
Before they could manage any lethal blows, however, the creature turned tail and ran with one final spray behind it.
“Don’t chase it!” Anton called after Hoyt and Chikere, who were beginning to do just that.
“It’s weak,” Chikere complained. “We could just kill it now.”
“Maybe,” Anton said. “But I’d rather deal with it when it’s even weaker. Those wounds aren’t insignificant even for something of its size. And it will be easy to track it down.”
Velvet backed him up, “We can just follow the trail of its blood at a moderate pace. If we do that while it runs, it will be more tired at the other end than us.”
“And it will give us a chance to… clean up a bit,” Anton looked over at Timothy and Catarina, who were currently puking out their guts nearby. The wind shifted and brought the fresh fumes towards them, though it didn’t cling so much except when directly making contact.
Making their way widely around the lingering presence of the noxious spray, they began to follow after the skunk. The pair who had been directly targeted began to look better, and the acidic effects hadn’t injured anyone, though even Anton felt it tear away at some of his energy as he went past. It was good for them to have a few minutes to recover as they caught back up.
“Ugh,” Anton said as they nearly caught up to it. “It escaped into its den.” There was a huge hole dug into a hillside. It seemed like it might be cosy to something the size of the skunk, but it would be spacious for them.
Timothy sniffed the air, then looked down at himself. “Are you sure? It doesn’t smell any worse than… us.”
“Skunks don’t smell bad,” Anton explained. “They don’t spray their den. It’s just as bad of a smell to them as to us. Or at least close.”
“What’s the problem then?” Timothy asked. It wasn’t a naive complaint, but a legitimate question.
“Cornered beasts can get even more vicious. If it has a family in there…” Anton shook his head. “Well, let’s just hope it doesn’t. There was only a report of a single creature, though the activities of several could have been conflated.” Anton looked into the burrow, then nodded. “Actually, we should just stay out here. I can sense it.”
Everyone listened to his advice, gathering around while he created a Spirit Arrow, firing it into the den. There were a few twists and turns, making it an unusually long burrow, but the total length was less than a hundred meters. With how wide it was, the turning radius wasn’t too bad as he zipped and twisted. Anton aimed for a weak point he’d spotted during the battle. Beasts who could use energy generally didn’t do more than create a layer of defenses over their whole body or occasionally focus on their offensive parts- claws and teeth- but they often had weak points where they subconsciously focused less energy.
Usually that meant the spot wasn’t a vital they wanted to protect, but that would do for Anton’s purposes. He shot another arrow and then another into the same point, piercing through and digging deeper into the same point on the creature’s side as it twisted around in its den, enraged. While some organs weren’t immediately fatal, any wound that went deep enough was dangerous and Anton was focusing on just the single point. By the time he’d fired the fourth shot, the creature was charging out of the den with a strange hissing growl noise far removed from normal skunk noises.
When it reached the opening of the den, the creature suddenly stopped- spraying dirt and rocks into the faces of those in front of it. Instead of spinning around like Anton anticipated, it lifted itself up and bent backwards, aiming towards them in an entirely unexpected way. Everyone was prepared enough to scatter, but the spray was wide enough that most people got at least a little bit on them, which had a lingering smell along with the corrosive effect.
The exception to those who dodged was Chikere, who sliced apart the spray as a means of defense. It wasn’t perfect, but in the same motion she carved into the relatively soft belly of the creature. Her return stroke widened the same wound before any energy defenses could be summoned to protect the creature.
Anton was further back and only had to dodge a small amount before firing a final two arrows. One went through Chikere’s slash into the creature’s inside and pierced its heart, and the other went wide into the woods to his left.
That was the point at which a dozen figures revealed themselves on all sides of the group, auras at late Spirit Building and Early Essence Collection flaring up in equal measure. It seemed their plan to be bait might have even been too effective, since there was one mid Essence Collection aura as well. Outnumbered and surpassed in cultivation, Anton really hoped that they were being watched over as promised.