Mosts of the beasts that came close to the group simply observed and then left. They were curious as to what the new creatures were, but they had no intent to fight. Not without reason, anyway.
Of course, ‘reasons’ were somewhat arbitrary, especially when considering the mind of a beast. Simply being present in a creature’s territory might be enough for them to attack. While many animals looked at the risk factors involved, not all of them considered danger a significant factor in restraining themselves, if they could sense the power of those involved.
Over the course of a few days there were repeated attacks by various sorts of animals. There were packs of relatively smaller ones, which included one particularly aggressive bird, a species called ‘rippers’ if Anton recalled correctly. They swooped down together to attack those standing at the outer edges of the group, and would have been quite difficult for beasts to deal with. Even some cultivators might have had trouble, if they had neglected their ranged abilities. The Grasping Willows had significant reach and the ability to independently control multiple extra ‘limbs’ which helped against the pack tactics… and of course there was Anton.
The ability to fly was a huge advantage in the animal kingdom because it allowed a creature to get into a completely unassailable position. Birds were still prey for ambush hunters and the like, but generally they were safe in the air. A proper bow completely negated that advantage, and even transferred it into Anton’s hands, where he could attack them from outside of their reach.
There were dozens of the birds, with large bodies placing them about half the height of a human with relatively compact wingspans. They likely couldn’t fly without the aid of energy to support them, but wider wings would have been detrimental if they were flying among the trees. Especially trees so aggressive as the grasping willows.
With the long talons and eager energy, Anton knew the disciples would be getting plenty of experience without him holding back to let them fight. It was better for him to fight seriously so that nobody was injured. The first attacks by the birds were aggressive, swooping down and focusing on a small number of individuals. A pair of them even tried to snatch someone and carry them away, but their efforts were thwarted.
Anton was creating bows and firing at a handful of different opponents at once. Because of that, his respect for Grand Elder Vandale grew significantly. The first act of the man still stuck in his mind. At a great distance he had used Falling Stars to nearly simultaneously target hundreds of individual creatures. From a vast distance, as well. While it was true that they were unable to predict the attacks and were thus unable to avoid them, it was still impressive. Anton could focus every bow he had on a single target with relative ease, but firing each at a separate target was difficult.
Relatively, anyway. He was a cultivator in mid Essence Collection, and though he certainly had his limits… focusing on a few different targets while keeping the whole battlefield in mind was still viable. He couldn’t singlehandedly defend the weaker disciples, but he rapidly put a dent in the enemies’ numbers.
Even as the birds began to fall, as they were realizing that the new source of prey was fighting back much more strongly than they thought it would, he sensed something else. He didn’t have much warning because his senses didn’t extend as far in that particular direction, but he was certain he was the first.
“Burrowing creatures, watch out!”
He could have said ‘worms’ instead of ‘burrowing creatures’ but the method was the most important. They were under the ground, the closest of them ten meters away and rapidly closing that distance. It was only a couple seconds later when a slick, gray worm poked its head out of the ground.
The creature had no eyes, not uncommon for such a creature, but what it lacked there it made up for with additional ‘heads’. The top portion of each worm was split into a half dozen smaller strands, though they were still as thick as a man’s arm, and with rings of teeth that seemed to encompass their whole diameter. The disciple who had been the first target had managed to dodge out of the way in time, but he seemed to find it difficult to pick a target from among the writhing tubes. By the time he chose to try to wrap them together to decrease their independent reach, more were springing out of the ground.
A few of the rippers were still attacking as this happened, unfortunately distracting some of the other Grasping Willows. However, their reduced numbers allowed the strongest among them to focus on the new threats. Anton was already firing as many arrows as he could at the worms that were popping up out of the ground. Unfortunately until they breached the surface they were well defended, and they were also able to immediately reverse course, popping back into the soil where they couldn’t be easily targeted.
With their focus on grappling techniques, once they got past the initial surprise at the strange multi-worms, the other cultivators were able to grab some of them. They often worked together, pulling different tendrils of the worms in either direction while a third struck at the momentarily still main body. Those who didn’t have convenient allies often found their hair or robes, whatever they were using to entangle some of the parts, were soon chomped through by the free heads. Anton’s Spirit Arrows found purchase in some of those restrained creatures, and some disciples had energy strong enough to keep their grip intact despite the biting teeth.
The one who had the largest impact ended up being Lev. Shortly after the battle started, he bent down to the ground and started proliferating his energy. Anton thought he was just trying to predict the movements of the worms, but he was actually up to something much more impressive. His energy found its way into the dirt… and then into the roots of the grandfather willow.
The soil that had been a barrier to defend the worms was suddenly not as safe as it had been. While even the weakest cultivators among them could chop twenty or thirty centimeters into the ground, the worms were able to instantly retreat several meters as their long bodies tightened and yanked them downward. Once underground they were quite mobile, almost swimming through the soil… but they had the weakness that every burrower had. They could change direction but the tunnel they made was where their entire body went.
So when thin roots began wrapping around their midsections, there was little they could do to avoid it. Anton found it somewhat disturbing that even when Lev began slicing them in half with ever increasing pressure from the thin roots, both halves continued to move independently. Even so, they were also clearly disadvantaged.
Blood began to soak the ground, and without their full length the multi-worms couldn’t withdraw with the same sort of speed they had shown at the beginning of the battle. They began to be torn apart- figuratively and literally- by the rest of the combatants.
A few minutes later, Anton was firing a few last arrows into the most stable tunnels, chasing after a few fleeing worms. Perhaps they were a part of the local ecosystem, but they would have to deal with their numbers being thinned as much as he could. Anton didn’t hate worms, and in fact he knew that some of them were quite good for the soil… but he also wouldn’t accept them trying to kill humans.
There were a number of injuries among the disciples, and even Anton had almost been injured by one that sprang up underneath him while he was focused on a few other targets. Its teeth had chomped onto his foot and leg, but he hadn’t dropped his defensive energy and resisted the damage. But it was closer than he would have liked. He needed to expand his ability to focus on multiple areas at once, so he would be able to make the most of his offense and watch around himself in detail at the same time. He didn’t regret prioritizing the others in this particular case, and would have even been fine with some injuries, but he knew he wanted to surpass this particular limit on simultaneous action.
The trip to the grandfather willow ended up with significant insights on the part of many different people. The various strands the Vessel of Insights picked up were almost enough to let Anton cultivate the technique without further instruction, though to actually do so he would have had to give up the Ninety-Nine Stars. It wasn’t ever really considered, but Anton appreciated the insights into the inner workings of plants.
Of those present, Lev benefited the most. He was the most prominent disciple, and soon likely the highest cultivation member of the Grasping Willows, so it wasn’t strange. His aptitude had seemed somewhat average before his near death at the hands of the parasitic moss, but afterwards his progress had accelerated. The insights he gained from the experience that left him with a ruined arm were greatly beneficial, and he came away with a great determination to improve himself. Now, almost a decade later, he was more than just Elder Varela’s favorite disciple. He was becoming a pillar of the Grasping Willows. And to think, they might have arrived too late to save him. Or Fuzz. Sometimes, seemingly simple decisions led to large changes in the future. Anton just hoped he was making good ones.
A doe waited in the woods in front of Anton, knowing he would come. His decision to bring her with him had been spontaneous, mostly out of pity and a bit out of curiosity. He knew that no normal creatures would have thrived in the ecosystem Everheart had set up, but he hadn’t really thought much of it. The pregnant doe had merely been something he desired to protect, so he’d done so.
It had been a year after the doe gave birth that Anton learned exactly what special traits the species had. The assumed traits were simple. They were more physically robust than the average deer, at least the ones he’d dealt with before he was a cultivator. Both young bucks were more than capable of defending themselves from the creatures in the forest, even before their horns grew in.
Once they did grow in, they were like blades that sliced through their foes like butter. Some of that was the effect of their energy and not their physical makeup, but either way they were quite capable of taking care of themselves. So was their mother, once she was not heavily pregnant in just the wrong circumstances.
The next year a question Anton had was easily answered, as the doe became pregnant once more. They were indeed capable of breeding with the local varieties of deer, and though he couldn’t yet be sure, he thought they ended up similar in strength. The advantages of the special ones were strongly dominant, at least, though Anton only had the pair of bucks and then another trio of does born from the original mother. He would be keeping watch over the next years as the children aged into maturity and had their own offspring.
But some slightly strong deer wouldn’t have been much to talk about. Even if they were quite tasty, something Anton wouldn’t even consider testing until their population was much larger, there had to be more to them to be worth Everheart bringing them along. They could have just been there to fill a missing ecological niche, but Anton quickly learned that was not the case.
Because there was no way that they accidentally were disruptive to ascension energy. Unlike the ants they didn’t seem particularly resistant to it or energy in general, but something about their aura made it difficult to use around them. Anton imagined that if he wanted to use it defensively their horns might pierce through it, but he didn’t have clear enough communication with them to try. He certainly didn’t want to teach them to attack humans arbitrarily.
As for how much the deer would matter… Anton doubted it would be much. A bit of disruption might be nice, but the ants were such outliers from the norm that he found himself unimpressed by the deer. At least, in a relative sense. Something bigger than a human being a potential asset was quite reasonable. Ants that were smaller than some technically normal species being almost completely immune to the effects of energy were a much bigger deal. It was a good thing they could be considered friendly, though Anton hoped they wouldn’t be too friendly to any invaders.