Complex plans were for the pack leaders. Fuzz didn’t get any of that. They tried to explain, and ultimately settled on something he understood. He was to follow someone from a certain distance behind, as sneakily as possible.
Fuzz understood stealth. That was what the dagger lady Velvet did. He wasn’t as good as her, because he was big and probably not suited for it to begin with, but he understood the basics. Breathe quiet, walk quiet, smell quiet, and stay out of sight.
The man he was following did three of those things, but as most humans he forgot the part about the smell. And a noisy smell it was, foreign stones tinged with blood and all the normal smells of a human.
Fuzz stopped. Distance was difficult with smell, but he could assess the way the thickness of the smell changed. He was still up ahead, but not as far as he should be. If Fuzz was smelling it right, he was on a long straight road that would make it easy to see Fuzz if the man just turned around. So he had to wait.
Then he moved, passing by a butcher’s shop and carts full of food alongside the road. When he was a pup they might have distracted him, but Fuzz was focused and full of purpose now. He was also smart enough to recognize that he would just have those tasty foods later. The pack leaders were good about making sure he got extra tasty food when he did good, though he was always fed well regardless.
The scents of hundreds of people lingered in the packed streets. Seeing him coming, most people moved aside. Those who didn’t could be stepped over if they were short enough, or nudged to the side. Some people were quite surprised when he did so, but the cultivators of Sarton were familiar with Fuzz. They would not panic to see him in the streets without anyone around.
Fuzz sniffed. It was strange, actually. He didn’t smell anyone recent but the man he was following and Alva. Usually someone else would be with him. Perhaps they were somewhere else, or better at hiding. Velvet probably didn’t need to hide from scent, since humans were bad at detecting it, but she had been practicing. Fuzz sniffed. Did he need to improve himself? Was he not good enough?
He picked his way through the city, occasionally stopping or increasing his speed as he felt appropriate. The changing wind made things difficult sometimes, as when it was blowing towards him he could detect more, and when it blew away he couldn’t be certain if his target had stopped too close. He focused a small amount of his energy to his nose to enhance it. Too much and he wouldn’t be stealthy, but he wanted to make sure he didn’t miss anything.
They were getting near the edge of the city. The number of people was decreasing, as well as the distance between Alva and the man following her. Fuzz began to approach a bit closer. No mission of stealth was prioritized over a member of the pack.
The wind shifted, and he caught a new scent. It smelled like… fire. Not smoke, but fire. The difference was, one produced the other. Fire smelled like natural energy, when it smelled like anything. Or rather, it only smelled like anything when it was natural energy. He smelled fire up ahead, a familiar scent. Though he couldn’t place any individuals.
Were they allies? They had not been in the city previously. They had been friendly in the past, but he did not know for certain if they were now. He increased his pace. Now that they were outside the city, the sneaky man could at any moment attack Alva. Fuzz needed to be able to catch him before he got to her. Other pack members or allies should be around, but Fuzz wasn’t sure.
He closed the difference enough to be in visual range. The trees parted just enough to catch sight of his quarry. The man was also speeding up, and Fuzz more than matched his pace. The scent of fire was off to the side, perhaps not intending to participate in the upcoming battle. All Fuzz knew was they were luring the enemy out of his territory to somewhere he would have no allies, and this should be good enough.
Alva tried not to display her nervousness. Her allies would probably protect her, but she still had to watch out for herself to some extent. If she was careless for a few seconds she could just be killed. That was the danger of traveling in a group with Essence Collection cultivators, who tended to make enemies on their own level. Though the numbers of those enemies would inevitably fall off, there were still some. Especially now that they were making big moves instead of trying to avoid disturbing the overall balance too much.
She stopped in a long, empty stretch of land. There was an archery target set up about a hundred meters away. She didn’t need an actual target, but they were still useful for measuring accuracy at a glance, compared to any hunk of wood. She pulled her bow off her back and began to fire arrows at it. Actual arrows, not just Spirit Arrows. There were two reasons for that. First, she had a handful of enchanted arrows that would have more or less the same weight as these physical arrows. She needed to make sure she was used to the difference between them and the Spirit Arrows, which had no inherent weight. Energy produced the same effects of having weight, but it wasn’t the same.
The second reason was that she walked to the target to retrieve them. She had been ready to turn to fire on the man following her if he made a move, but he’d kept back. Alva trained with her grandfather who was an excellent scout, but she wasn’t quite as good as him at sensing things. This particular man she only noticed because she knew he was there. That, and because there were very few rocks in this area. He managed to feel like a small one, but his presence didn’t quite perfectly blend into the terrain. Enough so that she couldn’t take a shot at him, though.
She plucked out the arrows one at a time, placing them in the boring half of her quiver. Then she spun on her heel. She could narrow down the man’s location to a ten meter wide strip of land. She should be able to get visual confirmation of him if she looked there. She was already forming an arrow, preparing to shoot. Allies should be ready, and even if they were not for some reason she couldn’t just let the man have the initiative.
Her arrow flew forward, a projectile formed entirely of energy. It was thin, only increasing in size where the limit of her energy density required, and to allow for proper aerodynamics. It flew towards her target, almost entirely hidden behind a tree. Just the corner of a sleeve stuck out, but she was certain it was attached to a person. Unlike her grandfather, she didn’t throw herself into the arrow. It seemed she would need more than just a handful of years of experience with archery, even if her cultivation abilities were not as far behind. But she still had good control over its initial trajectory and could adjust to some extent.
The arrow went straight through the tree, poking a hole no wider than her pinky finger. Her target dodged at the last instant, such that she only managed to scrape along the edge of his defensive energy. She hadn’t expected it to kill him, but she was hoping he’d take another tenth of a second to react. Or even a twentieth.
Dust flew into the air as the man suddenly pushed off of the ground, rocketing towards her. Alva began to back away, running backwards as she took more shots. The man just punched her arrows out of the air, while countering with thrown stones of his own that Alva had to avoid. But a moment later he had to spin around to deal with an approaching threat.
Fuzz leapt onto the man, who was knocked onto his back. No, he intentionally allowed himself to lay back, as his leg kicked up into Fuzz’ midsection, sending him flying. That momentum carried the wolf towards Alva, however. He landed in a run as if that had always been his intention, though Alva had seen the serious way his mouth had been prepared to clamp down on the man he leapt upon.
Alva changed tactics, running toward Fuzz and leaping onto his back. Now she didn’t have to worry about moving about, as Fuzz would handle that. The stone cultivator was already back on his feet, looking not at all injured. He looked Alva dead in the eye… and then turned to run.
Rhys was experienced enough in his line of work to know he’d been a goddamn idiot. There he was thinking he hadn’t been underestimating his opponents. Taking them seriously. Keeping out of sight. He hadn’t snatched up the first chance he got, or even the second, thinking they could be bait. Why had he come alone? Sure, nobody else had the proper stealth skills to keep up, but the Thick Marble Gang could have arranged some method to back him up.
That said, Rhys knew he could take the girl and the wolf together. The problem was that the wolf showing up was either terribly unlucky, or part of some bigger ambush. And he sure as hell wasn’t going to stay around for it.
Arrows rained down on him from behind, slowing his retreat as he had to dodge some of them. He didn’t want to waste energy by taking direct hits, not if someone else could be coming. Then gouts of fire rained down on him from all sides, expanding into a field of flames in mere moments.
Ah. They were actually already around. Of course it couldn’t have just been luck. The question was, how could he survive?
Rhys plowed ahead through the fire. Any direction he went would take just as long to get out, so he might as well get away from one threat. There were a handful of fire cultivator around he could sense spread out around him. He saw the youngest and lowest cultivation was directly ahead and in early Essence Collection, not far from himself. So he broke away to his right. No way was he going to fight some genius. Besides the fact that it would allow everyone to collapse on him, he wasn’t going to bet he could even take out the guy.
His skin blistered as the heat built up around him, the branches of the trees around him and all the leaves having been instantly incinerated. He could see the trunks starting to fall apart into charred piles, like he would be if he didn’t break through. He held his fist up high, feinting a punch while instead he kicked a ball of dirt into the face of the man he was trying to push past. It almost worked, except the dirt combusted before reaching the man, who moved to block his sudden sidestep.
How was he going to survive? Well, Rhys knew one thing about these people. “I surrender,” he stopped holding up his hands. They’d taken prisoners before, even gotten some of them to testify. Now that things had come to this, he had to take advantage of that fact.
Then he felt a smoldering where his heart had been a moment before. It hardly even hurt, his chest burned so fast. He even managed to look down to see that his senses weren’t lying to him before the fire expanded and covered him.
“Was that necessary?” Anish folded his arms across his chest.
Elder Sarka raised an eyebrow at him. “What, you wanted to wait? It was going to happen anyway. Getting this guy to testify or whatever wouldn’t do much of anything. And that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to take some people out.” She gestured to the smoldering corpse. “And here’s what we needed, evidence.”
“It would have worked better if he was alive.”
“Would it? Then we’d have to do a bunch of talking and stuff,” Elder Sarta cracked her knuckles. “But since we’re just going to melt that marble gang into a puddle, it doesn’t really matter. We saw him with our own eyes. Nobody else matters. Or do you think there’s an innocent reason for this guy to follow a young woman out into the woods?”
“I wasn’t saying that, I just thought it would look better for Glorious Flame Palace if we had someone alive for a bit.” Anish shook his head. “But whatever. Let’s go melt a rock gang. Though I have to point out, Elder Sarka, that we don’t want to completely obliterate their buildings.”
“Yeah yeah, documents and crap. Don’t worry,” Elder Sarka waved her hand, spewing fire at a tree but somehow not catching it on fire. “I can handle it. That’s why we brought more than just you five. Some overwhelming force to make up for having to control ourselves.” Elder Sarka looked over at Alva and Fuzz. “You two alright?”
“We’re fine,” Alva said. “Is he alone?”
“Should be,” Elder Sarka said. “But we’ll escort you back to the city before we go pay these pebble guys a visit. Don’t want your family getting mad at me.”
“I can take care of myself,” Alva said. “But I’ll admit I’m not completely sure about opponents of this level. Let’s go.”