The group stood well downhill of the tortoises, observing them. “What do you think they’re all doing up on the ridge?” Hoyt asked.
“Sunning themselves, it looks like,” Anton answered. “Doubt they’ll take kindly to being interrupted though. If they attacked a contingent of soldiers they’ll certainly plan to attack us.”
“Maybe not,” Hoyt said, “Maybe if we move a few at a time. I think one of us should approach them to see their reaction.” He looked around, “Me, probably. I imagine you’ll be more effective at range,” he inclined his head to Anton, “And Catarina is the only one who can conceal the group. If we can draw them away or shoo them off it should be good enough.”
“I’ll start setting up,” Catarina declared. A stationary concealment formation was quite powerful, but if she was going to make it mobile it would be much less effective. Keeping the main group of people unnoticed before disturbing them would be much more likely to draw the tortoises towards Anton or Hoyt- or if they ran away, then it would just be a small bit of wasted time and effort.
Anton and Hoyt stood over to the side, discussing their plan. “I’d prefer to just wait until they moved,” Anton said, “But if they’re sunning themselves, that could take half a day. And there’s no guarantee they won’t just hole up for the night. There doesn’t seem to be much vegetation here for them to eat, but they might not have to eat every day. Tortoises have a slow metabolism and some magical beasts sustain themselves half off of energy, I believe.”
Hoyt nodded, “So how do you want to approach this?”
“If I knew them to be a hostile species, I’d just as soon start shooting. The Black March might have been because of these creatures, or other inhabitants a century or two ago. It’s also best to try not to startle them.” Anton kept sweeping his eyes over the creatures, hoping to see a break in their line or any sort of overall movement. Some of them shuffled around, but they mostly remained still, flat on their bellies. “If you approach close at a slow pace, they might just shuffle away. If you can do that, we can just squeeze open a path and walk through. That would be the best way.” Anton frowned, “The ground look odd to you?”
Hoyt just shook his head, “Not really.”
“Hmm. There are a few gouges around. There, there, and there,” Anton pointed them out. “Can’t figure out what they’d be caused by, though.”
“Hopefully we don’t have to find out.” Hoyt looked towards Catarina, barely able to see her even though he knew she was there. She was fuzzy and indistinct, and his instincts told him to just ignore the area. “Looks like we’re ready. I’ll head to the right, I suppose?”
Anton nodded. “I’ll take the left. If they’re aggressive, I’ll try to draw some of them towards me, open up the middle there.”
Hoyt started picking his way uphill. The terrain was rough and uneven with lots of little potholes. He’d have to watch out for that if it came down to a fight. There wasn’t anything in the way of normal terrain that could stop someone at the peak of Body Tempering, but it could be an inconvenience. He wasn’t in a hurry anyway, so he picked his way carefully up to a somewhat smoother spot. That would allow him to move around with less worry if he was attacked.
It didn’t take long before the tortoises noticed him. He wasn’t exactly trying to hide. Spooking them might work, but he was hoping they’d just move away in annoyance. However, as he got around a dozen meters away several of the closest turtles stood and turned towards him, groaning in a deep, rumbly voice. That was a pretty clear threat. He held his position for a minute, but they neither moved towards him nor retreated. That wasn’t good enough. Hoyt took several more steps forward and finally got a reaction.
The closest tortoise bellowed, a horrible noise that he could feel carried some natural energy behind it. It wasn’t enough to overpower Hoyt’s defenses, but it would likely be enough to momentarily stun anyone that didn’t have energy defenses ready. The tortoise leaned back slightly then pulled all its limbs forward at once, throwing itself forward. As it did so, it pulled its legs and head into its shell.
Now Hoyt suddenly had a tortoise whose shell was almost as high as he was tall sliding down the hill towards him. That explained the strange marks, at least. It was fast, too. Hoyt barely managed to leap over it, running along its shell for a moment. He had barely touched ground when another several tortoises launched themselves at him in quick succession.
When it was quite clear the creatures were aggressive and fully on alert, Anton took action. An expanding area of tortoises was focusing on Hoyt, and it was best if he didn’t have to deal with attacks from too many angles. He started firing arrows towards the tortoises. They were extremely quick to close their eyes or snap their heads back into their shells. He did manage to wound a few before they really got what was going on, but it wasn’t long before Anton had to deal with tortoises barreling down towards him. However, he was much further than Hoyt. He learned several things. The most troublesome was that they continued to pick up speed as they skied down the hill, tumbling rocks along with them. They also coordinated themselves very well. Anton had been hoping he might get some to crash into each other, but they only attacked in sequence. That meant he technically only had to dodge one at a time. Most important, however, was that once they committed to sliding towards him they continued almost exactly straight along their trajectory with very little deviation. Their legs and head were all bundled up so there wasn’t anything they could do to change it, except perhaps use a bit of their energy. Anton felt something that made them not go exactly straight, but he just had to focus on the closest few. Predicting their movements was laughably easy even without insight, but he was still constantly having to change directions. If he made a mistake, he didn’t want to know what a ton of turtle smashing into him would do to his body.
The tortoises that slid down the hill eventually stopped as things leveled out. By that point they were much too far to worry about, and as far as Anton could tell they weren’t even coming back up the hill. It made sense. They didn’t seem to be fast except with the aid of gravity.
Catarina gestured to the group with her. The tortoises shouldn’t be able to sense them easily, but formations weren’t perfect against everything. There was a gap in the tortoises, however, directly between Hoyt and Anton. It was large enough for them to slip through if they stayed close- and they had to do so for the sake of the formation regardless. Catarina was at the front, flicking out little bits of energy to change the terrain in front of them. She pick the path that would best support the formation they had which was unfortunately not the easiest climb. Hopefully all of the miners could support the weaker members among them.
Some of the tortoises, while not aiming for their group, started getting far too close. It was a good thing they’d started moving when they did, because the angles involved meant that the tortoises further to the sides would be more towards where they stood, at least from Hoyt’s side. Anton was far enough back that most of the tortoises would have gone behind them even if they didn’t move.
Catarina kept a steady pace, keeping track of Pete on the rear-left of the triangular formation they were holding. He was doing just fine, but Oskar’s portion on the other side was unstable. He at least avoided making erratic movements, but he also wasn’t doing anything to direct the flow of energy properly. That was still good enough for someone without training. He was responsible enough to know to keep his arms held in front of him carrying the rocks she directed even if he didn’t understand the specifics. Everyone else was more chaotically arranged, filling out the rest of the equilateral triangle. Fuzz stayed right on her heels.
So far, things had been going pretty well. That was until someone broke away from the formation. Lara. She was allowed to walk unrestrained because of the difficult terrain, and she dashed off down the hill just as they were nearing the top of the ridge. There were several tortoises that had held back from flinging themselves downhill and several others that had just meandered their way up to the crest where they could actually slide down. Upon seeing a woman suddenly appear out of nothing, they had another, closer target than the two cultivators to either side.
Naturally they began to attack. Lara had run more or less directly downhill of the formation, which placed the trajectories of some of the tortoises directly through the group. “Everyone get closer together! Strongest cultivations on the outside!” She hoped the tortoises wouldn’t really hear her words, but she couldn’t silently guide people in the current situation.
If Catarina had just a minute or two she could have set up a passable defensive formation. As it was, the concealment formation had to suffice. It was good enough to keep the tortoises unaware of their presence until they were about to impact. The first one was almost directly at the point of the formation, herself. She could easily dodge it, but then all of those behind her would die. Instead, she gathered as much of her energy as she could onto her legs, taking a firm stance as she kicked the side of what was effectively a sliding boulder. She didn’t hold back a tiny bit, but even with her body at the peak of Body Tempering and the energy that went along with it, the power she could harness in an instant was barely enough to deflect it. Sharp pieces of rock sprayed into the group as the tortoise slid past, wounding several of those on the outer layer. A few had passable energy defenses and held their ground, but they couldn’t fully protect those in the middle either. That was the problem with traveling around with close to thirty people.
Somehow the formation held together from the first tortoise and another few that came extremely close to impacting the formation towards the rear. There were only a few more of the giant tortoises, but one was angled about a third of the way inward on the right side. It wasn’t possible for everyone to get out of the way, especially those moving uphill. Then the formation shattered as Oskar grabbed the two people closest to him, flinging them away from the corner. Though Catarina’s eyes weren’t on the scene, she could feel his energy suddenly spike as he dashed forward. His arm wide, he managed to sweep up four others in the way of the tortoise’s descent and shove them out of the way, along with himself. Catarina could probably carry four people, but she was at the peak of Body Tempering and not just somewhere around the first star. However, the instant after that Oskar’s energy flattened. She would have turned to see him but there was one last tortoise straight ahead. With the formation scattered they were quite visible now. Before it even started moving, she gathered all of her energy and charged forward to meet it.
Her quick thinking probably saved a dozen lives, because though it moved straight towards her it didn’t have as much time to build up momentum. Catarina once again kicked with her heel to throw the creature off course, this time being flung tumbling off to the side. But she diverted the creature enough that the left side batted it away with their weapons as they dodged out of the way.
Catarina looked downhill. At least there was some justice. Lara had been the target of most of the tortoises, and they were quite accurate. Catarina grimaced as several tortoises stood around a decidedly non-rigid body. Catarina didn’t watch, but she was certain she saw one of them open its mouth to take a bite of the mess, before she turned away.