Communication with a human was extremely simple. The rise of cultivators led to a single language being predominant. Just sharing a language wasn’t enough, but Anton had taken his training seriously. Insight, Voice, Emotion, and Earthly Connection all on some level involved communication with others so misunderstandings would be rare.
Animals were another thing entirely, but Anton found that natural energy went a long way towards expressing his thoughts and desires. If one were trying to be duplicitous in some regard, a cultivator’s energy might still reveal their true intentions. Even when very tightly controlled, it was a part of a person on a deep level that could reveal their inner self. Anton supposed that was even more true after passing the threshold for Essence Collection.
When he approached the pregnant doe with friendly intentions, he had thought she would simply skitter off. The acorns had let her closer, but animals weren’t so easily dealt with. Yet he managed to get the doe to follow a trail of food and eat from his hand. He had thought she would be especially cautious considering her current state, but he was wrong.
He kept himself friendly as he tried to talk to her, knowing she probably wouldn’t understand. Even if Fuzz certainly seemed to know when he was being spoken to and the orders he was receiving, that was developed over a longer time. Just because an animal possessed natural energy and some intelligence didn’t mean it would instantly understand speech. And Anton doubted there had been anyone around who could speak in a very long time.
But the deer came along with him. Not at a quick pace, but Anton found that just as well. It gave him time to find tidbits for the creature to eat as well as gathering samples of the various plants around him. He even found more types useful for improving his cultivation with the density of energy they contained. The forest was nothing if not abundant with life.
Sure, some of that life wanted to kill him- but it was easily deterred. His eyes locked on a small pack of wolves circling around. They had interesting coloration, orange-red fur with patches of brown along with their golden eyes. But they clearly wanted to eat either himself or the doe. He didn’t even have to fire a shot, summoning his energy and simply glowering at the creatures.
Perhaps it was pointless to spare the lives of creatures that wouldn’t live more than a few days, but it was also pointless to fight them. Even if the creatures were some component of whatever test was taking place around him, Anton found it unnecessary to kill them when he wasn’t going to make use of them and they wouldn’t be hurting anyone.
As they continued onward, Anton realized something. While deer didn’t always travel in packs, it was strange for a pregnant female to be alone. Perhaps something had happened to leave her solitary, which led to her taking protection from wherever she could get it. Namely, a strange human.
Having spent most of his interactions with deer hunting them, Anton was surprised how much his companion moved around at night. She slept lightly and didn’t seem comfortable staying in one place. Anton was glad he didn’t require much sleep, because he was quite sensitive to such movement in a dangerous place. Nothing actually approached them, but the pair ended up watching out for each other regardless.
Early in her life, Chikere had found that sometimes people made fun of her intelligence. She had come to terms with the fact that her strict focus could make her seem stupid to some people. After she began cultivating and was more dangerous, she mostly didn’t interact with people at all.
But she wasn’t stupid. She knew that swords didn’t just naturally grow in forests. But she sure as anything was going to go where her senses led her, even if her senses also said that it was a sword tree.
Along the way she encountered a number of creatures that took exception to her passage. She gave them all the chance in the world to not die. All they had to do was stay outside of the reach of her swords. Otherwise, they would find themselves in several pieces. That included plants that also seemed to think she might be tasty. Instead, she ate them. And most of them weren’t even poisonous. As for the one that was, she simply ground the poison into nothing inside of her. It didn’t prevent a stomachache, but at least she didn’t have to deal with whatever the real effects would be. If it had been a terribly strong poison, she would have just sensed it before she ate it.
She continued towards the sword tree. Or whatever it was that felt like one. She had no inklings that another direction would be more interesting, so the choice was easy.
Previously, Chikere had come across plants that were said to have swordlike leaves. Razor sharp blades and all that were a common theme among plants. After all, nothing big could eat you if it cut itself to ribbons trying. Small things still would, of course, unless they were particularly stupid.
She’d never seen anything quite so accurate to describe her current situation, though. If the leaves of the tree in front of her weren’t swords, she didn’t know what swords were. They even had something like a hilt. The tree stretched into the sky, right up to the ceiling that was trying really hard to look like something else. Some hundred or more meters at least.
A leaf fell towards her, completely unaware that it was supposed to flutter in the breeze. Instead, it was like a conscious attack. Parrying such a simple thrust was easy, even with the speed from the acceleration of gravity. One single attack was nothing.
As Chikere touched the base of the tree, feeling its rough bark, a strange vibration went through it. The leaf-swords were tightly packed, much like the needles on a coniferous tree. As the vibration rose up the tree, it shuddered and dropped more dangerous projectiles. Chikere always had a sword in hand when walking through dangerous territory, but she had to quickly draw another half-dozen swords to parry the myriad of needle-swords falling on her. Some were wide bladed and some were simple points, but all came down at her in a way that couldn’t truly be dodged. Any movements would result in moving into more falling needles.
The first spray of death came and went quickly. Then it was over with no further fuss, Chikere standing amid a field of blades. She picked one up, swinging it. For something formed randomly, they were quite good. Easily in the top one thousand, though if she counted them then they would fill the entire category below a certain point and push everything else out. They were fine, but not impressive.
Unlike the one at the very top point of the tree. Her eyes were drawn to it, the way the branch formed a hilt and crossguard while a blade that narrowed to a fine point rested atop it, so sharp it almost hurt to look at. So apparently swords did grow on trees. But Chikere still knew people wouldn’t believe it.
She licked her lips. Now she just had to get to it. It was obvious that any movement on the tree itself would send a shower of blades towards her. Despite everything that had already fallen towards her, she couldn’t even discern any blank sections of the tree, so dense it was with blades. Well, at least they provided an easy way to get up. Fallen leaf blades stabbed into the trunk of the tree next to her, forming a spiral stairway. She would have to continue forming it as she went, but she would have plenty of things to help her as another shower of blades began to fall.
Catarina crouched down, glaring at a patch of mossy ground growing on hard ground. Everyone could discern the energy coming from the area, and they knew better than to underestimate strange plants. But Catarina seemed especially focused.
There was only one thing that could catch her attention so fully. Formations. The problem with this formation was that it was covered in moss. She’d thought to pry it up and remove it, but something stopped her. Was it dangerous? Certainly the energy the moss contained was significant, but it should be easy to scrape up. And she didn’t really need to do that, because the moss was growing exactly over the patterns in the stone below. Everywhere she could sense it, the moss grew.
She remained at the edge of the area, despite the formation being inactive. She had no idea what might cause it to activate, and that was what was bugging her. In fact, if her senses weren’t lying to her she wasn’t sure the material involved could withstand channeling the power of the formation. She didn’t instantly understand what it did, but it wasn’t a trivial plaything. It stretched for a hundred meters in a large circle, and had many intricate parts.
The formation wasn’t active. Yet… it wasn’t not active. She felt the flow of energy around the area, with simple dead stone beneath it. Was it possible for air to form the necessary components for a formation? Catarina stowed that thought, because while interesting it was likely fruitless. But it did lead her to the proper answer.
“This moss is a formation,” Catarina said.
“I could tell it covered one made of stone,” Hoyt said, “Nature doesn’t tend to create many large circles. What does this stone formation do?”
“Nothing,” Catarina said.
“Is it really a formation then?” Hoyt asked.
“It can’t not be,” Catarina said. “But… I meant precisely what I said. The moss is a formation. Not concealing it or covering it. The moss itself is responsible for the formation.”
“Well,” Hoyt said. “That’s intriguing. What does it do?’
“Sparks curiosity,” Catarina said matter-of-factly. “And attempts to lull people into reaching the wrong conclusions about its existence. But it could do… anything?” She tilted her head, “The problem would be growing it.” Catarina stood up, pulling out her sword. “I have to have it.”
Anton didn’t really know how he would practically bring the doe away with him when he left. It might just be a pointless endeavor, and she would remain behind in the forest after this particular trial was over. Yet he had to try. He was quite certain she came from a lineage that had long ago disappeared. The wolves had been too hostile to work with, but he found other interesting things.
The current subject of his attention was almost missed by Anton. It wasn’t that it was hidden from his sight, but instead by their very nature he almost ignored them. Ants. They weren’t unnaturally sized ants possessed with great natural energy. They were just normal sized- or maybe slightly large- dark colored ants. But what was interesting about them wasn’t how they looked, but what they were doing. Specifically, crossing a stream.
For Anton and the deer, it was a couple of steps. For the ants, it was over a hundred times their body length, potentially including antennae. At first it didn’t look like much. Just a trail of ants moving to the edge of the stream. He presumed ants had to drink somehow, so it made plenty of sense. But they weren’t returning with tiny beads of water, but instead slowly gathering. Several of them stepped out onto the water. Surface tension kept them afloat, and locking limbs with ants behind them kept them attached to the shore.
Then another ant climbed over them until it was at the front, locking itself on as more and more crawled over them. The width of the chain increased slightly as they went along, from a single ant wide to two or three in places. The route across the stream was hardly efficient- the flow carried them at an angle close to the shore. But the motion of the ants continually swayed the ropelike structure out into the middle of the stream, until it was long enough to touch the other side.
Ants began to walk along at an angle, the long trail marching to the other side of the stream where Anton spotted a dead bird. A mighty feast for a colony of ants, he supposed. He was so engrossed with watching their progress that he didn’t notice something sneak into his bag.