Forming a makeshift torch and lighting it up wasn’t difficult. It was doubtful if it would be able to burn away any of the strange moss, especially while fresh, but at least it would provide light. While any of the three cultivators could find their way around in the dark well enough by sensing the walls, they couldn’t actually see in the dark. Hidden dangers might still lurk unsensed. Especially of concern was more of the strange moss, despite the energy it gave off.
The good news was that the cave did not stretch back very far beyond the initial bend. The bad news was the rest of it was covered in the strange moss, and more than just the walls of the cave there were a few figures. One human and several small wolves- perhaps almost normal sized, but their proportions indicated they were pups. Details were harder to make out under the cover of the moss, but they still felt… alive. More than the other wolves had been, at least.
Catarina grimaced. “I don’t know if we can save them… but we need to destroy this moss no matter what. Growing on and into things like this…”
“I have no disagreements,” Hoyt said, “But practically, it’s difficult. There are already so many spores outside, we’d have to burn down the whole forest basically.”
“Hmm,” Anton intoned while he thought. “Is that correct, though? Look here. The moss only starts where the sunlight would never hit. It might not survive sunlight without… inhabiting an animal.”
“It’s not windy,” Catarina said. “The spores won’t have gone far, in either case. I can… destroy it.”
“Should I go get the others?” Hoyt said. “Or at least tell them what’s happening?”
Catarina nodded. “Pete can help. But first, we should check each other. It… sticks to energy.” After looking over each other and their equipment, they found no remaining traces of spores. Even so, they took ten minutes to let Catarina set up a first, smaller formation. They could see what it did to patches of the moss on the corpses of one wolf, shriveling it away into a grey powder in a single minute. Any spores they had on them while they stood in the area would have suffered the same fate. “Targeted destruction of immobile foes is… simple.” It actually wasn’t faster than attempting to burn each bit, though there were less side effects and they could be certain they encompassed the whole area.
“I’ll be off to get the others, then,” Hoyt said. “I’ll stick to the same path.”
“I’ll come with you part of the way,” Anton said. “To watch for some older spores. Catarina, I presume you can handle yourself here?”
She nodded. “I’ll start on the cave. Maybe… we can save something.”
It wasn’t possible for the group to go everywhere the wolves had been and might have spread the spores, but as far as they could tell any that brushed off onto the ground were inactive. If the origin of the moss was the cave they had found, then they could eradicate it. If not… they couldn’t be responsible for a whole forest in a country they weren’t even allies with. They still planned to leave a report in the next cities they passed through, warning people of the dangerous moss.
Carving runes into the wall of the cave was difficult work, even with energy. They had to be precise enough to affect the flow of energy, and the more important part was that they had to affect beyond themselves. Catarina certainly wasn’t willing to touch the moss to rearrange or carve anything beyond the start of the moss, and Pete was much more vulnerable than her. They had to inch along piece by piece, the formation destroying patches of the moss as they went along.
Hoyt and Anton contributed much of the energy the formation needed to do so. It was possible that the amount of destruction was unnecessary, but nobody wanted to leave the job half done. If they did, it would merely grow back… and they didn’t like thinking about it.
In the end, it took several hours to uncover the figures at the back. Several of the pups died immediately- the moss had grown too deeply inside of them for them to survive its removal. In a way, they were already dead before that. One pup still had a heartbeat afterwards, and the cultivator- a young man- also remained alive as the moss growing on, in, and around him decayed under the power of the formation. He started to bleed profusely, but that was something cultivators were more set up to handle. Coagulants were something they might need after a battle, and though they weren’t dealing with neat cuts some poultices at least stopped the bleeding. That said, there were also several day-old wounds from the wolves.
If the young man was able to regain consciousness, he should be able to kickstart the recovery process of his own body. From Anton’s assessment he would have nasty scars- and one arm might be crippled. The moss had grown deep enough into it that it was not quite everything it should be without it. Even so, it was better than death- and much better than becoming a half-alive thing seemingly under control of the moss.
Anton noticed Catarina spent more time helping the living pup than the cultivator, but he couldn’t blame her. Despite its size, it was a rather cute animal. He hadn’t had need for herding dogs on the farm, since they focused more on crops than livestocks, but he could appreciate a good animal. He also knew when they were probably beyond help. However, that was taking into account his mundane knowledge.
The pup’s breathing was ragged and weak, its body torn and wrecked… but Catarina began shaving its fur. Anton wouldn’t believe anything from her was random patterns. As always, it was a formation. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know.” Catarina said, “Something.” She bit her lip. For not knowing, her movements were quite confident. Anton let her concentrate. He didn’t feel any flow of energy from the formation even when she finished… until she injected her own energy into it. Then he felt it. Catarina’s energy flowed through the formation in a certain pattern. Though the shape of the wolf pup was quite different from that of a human, it would be rather dense of Anton to not recognize the circulation of energy through meridians. It was just that some of them were outside the pup, and it wasn’t using the creature’s own energy. Not that it likely had any. Even if it had the lineage of a magical beast, it was too young to have had much growth in that regard.
It was honestly unclear if the circulation of energy was doing anything for the pup. Perhaps its ragged breathing calmed slightly. Maybe its lungs were just giving out. Even so, Catarina continued the process. Anton wasn’t going to stop her. Compassion was an admirable trait, and if it died regardless, then there was nothing to be done. He wasn’t going to disparage an attempt to help.
The group stayed for the night in the cave- more towards the entrance than in the back with the dead-grey piles that had once been a terrible moss. Anton arranged to take watch for the first half of the night, with Hoyt taking the latter. One night a couple hours short on sleep wouldn’t be a problem, and they’d had sufficient time to recover their energy after the battles and supporting the formation to feel comfortable.
In the morning Anton awoke to the stirring feeling of unfamiliar energy. It was slow and methodical, not sudden… but it still startled him awake. Hoyt nodded to him, then inclined his head towards the cultivator they had rescued. He appeared to have survived the night, and was slowly cultivating. It was unclear if he had regained consciousness or not. Anton was aware he circulated a small amount of energy automatically, perhaps a bit more now that he was in Spirit Building.
On the other side Catarina was curled up next to the wolf pup. The creature had ragged and bloody patches as well as carved out bits of fur. It looked like a real mess… but it still lived. The formation Catarina had made still trickled just the slightest bit of her energy in a circuit throughout the beast.
Anton signalled to Hoyt to watch things while he went off to hunt. A few rabbits or small birds would do. He also surveyed the surrounding area carefully, seeing no other signs of the moss. Just the regular kind. It was quite visually different, and normal moss grew quite contentedly on trees instead of into animals.
When he returned, he found the cultivator and the others were fully awake. The young man inclined his head. He tried to clasp his hands together, but winced as his bad arm signalled to him its inability. “I was told that you were the one who spotted signs of my struggle from the road. Thank you for coming to my rescue. I am Lev. I have no family name, but I am a disciple of the Grasping Willows. We are located a few days from here. I came on a mission to verify the sightings of strange beasts and… well.” He shrugged- which clearly also hurt. “I think I found them. I have little to give you as a reward, but I should at least be able to give you the pay for my mission. I will request more from the sect, but I cannot guarantee anything.”
Anton looked at Catarina and Hoyt. They seemed pleased enough with him. Not that he planned to deny the man common courtesy regardless. “If it is not too far as you say, we would be glad to escort you there. We were heading to the northeast…”
“How fortunate indeed,” Lev said. “The Grasping Willows are along the road in that direction, though off a side road some ways.”
“I’m not sure if it’s fortune with only really two ways along the road,” Anton said, “But it was fortunate that we found you less than two days after the attack. It could have easily been just a bit longer.”
“And then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So I am quite grateful for your eyes, and your willingness to help someone you hadn’t even seen,” Lev inclined his head once more.
Anton was also quite pleased with how things had turned out. At least the young man seemed decent enough, though of course how could he act differently when surrounded by those he didn’t know? Then again, Anton had encountered the truly arrogant type. Having good relations with a disciple of a local sect should be of benefit to them- and if he was truly a decent person, even better.