Once everyone had gathered, there were over a hundred students of various schools. It wasn’t an extremely large number, but when it was taken into consideration they were near or at the second tier and mostly below twenty years of age, they could be seen as an exceptional group.
Everyone had slightly different personal goals for the training exercise. Some of them were participating just for combat experience, others to train their group tactics. However, everyone was part of a group of around four to six. They were to spend a month exploring the forest and defeating monsters. They might gather their skins or other parts if they were valuable, though there were limits to what could be carried. At the end of a month, everyone was to return to the entrance of the forest… hopefully with a good amount of fighting experience under their belt.
The various masters would patrol the forest, looking for any particularly dangerous monsters and eliminating them. They were not there to help the students in combat, though if they were nearby they would likely step in to prevent them from dying. Everyone had various methods of calling for help if they found themselves in an unwinnable situation, and the masters would come help… but the students would have failed the training exercise. Of course, their lives were more important than defeating monsters on their own. It was still expected that most groups would be able to handle anything the forest had to offer, as long as they were cautious, but accidents could happen.
Barrett found himself in a group with several of the members of the Southern Tiger School, including Brody who he had sparred with many times. All of them had fought in the war, but experience fighting things other than humans would also be beneficial to their training. Everyone wore armor, though those from the Southern Tiger School had somewhat lighter armor. They still had breastplates, but their arms were protected only by vambraces, and their legs were similarly outfitted with greaves and not full cover. Everyone, including Barrett, was equipped with an axe of some sort.
Brody laughed, his deep voice rumbling. “I almost didn’t recognize you in that armor, Barrett. I couldn’t see your face.”
Barrett raised an eyebrow, which was even less useful than normal inside a helmet. “You haven’t seen my face at all.”
“That’s true! I’d recognize that posture and body size though. I can’t believe how much bigger you’ve grown these past few years.”
Barrett laughed, “Look at yourself! You kept growing too.”
Brody was nearly two meters tall, with broad shoulders- and everything else too. His biceps were as big around as a normal person’s thigh… and he was barely twenty years old.
Barrett, meanwhile, was a good bit smaller. He was fairly tall- almost 180 centimeters- but his muscles weren’t as bulky and large. Compared to when Barrett and Brody had first met, however, Barrett had grown from being barely a teenager into a proper young man. He would still be considered tall and muscled, it just didn’t seem that way in comparison.
Their group didn’t have any particular direction as they travelled, except deeper into the forest. Though the trees blocked out direct sight of the sun, there was still enough light to see by, and they could keep track of its position by the direction of the darkest shadows. They were heading northeast, pretty much directly away from the entrance of the forest.
The giant trees actually made for a large amount of open area. The trees wouldn’t grow closer than a few meters apart from each other- about the width of the average trunk- and usually were further apart than that. Everyone marveled at how big the trees were, with some roots sticking up out of the ground being basically the size of a normal tree, as well as most of the “sticks” that had fallen being about the same size as logs. Even the leaves were huge, some of them being half a meter to a meter across.
Beneath the trees, there was other life. There weren’t very many pieces of undergrowth, though what there was seemed to be oversized in similar proportions to the trees. Several times the group came across ivy patches that they decided to avoid completely, walking for as much as half a mile before finding a way around. They knew that some ivy was poisonous, and none of them were trained well enough to discern which was that type. In theory it shouldn’t be deadly if they touched the wrong kind, but it would bring a very unpleasant, lingering rash.
The trees also had moss and fungus growing on them and the fallen branches. The moss was as much as half a meter thick in some places, and some of the mushrooms were almost large enough to be trees in their own right.
Barrett could hear the sounds of birds chirping, but when he looked to see if he could find them, he saw nothing. They seemed to all be high in the trees, up in the branches above. The fact that he couldn’t find them made him think they didn’t share in the gigantism of the trees… or at least not to the same extent.
The first day of travel was uneventful, and it seemed like they were taking a hike through a peaceful forest, if one that was quite oversized. However, they still had people sleep in shifts to keep a watch through the night. They hadn’t actually expected anything particularly dangerous near the edge of the forest, but nighttime was likely to be more dangerous.
During the second day they found the first signs of danger. Barrett wasn’t trained in tracking techniques, but even he could spot a giant pile of feces and paw prints that were as big as a child. Each pad left an imprint bigger than a soup bowl, and the largest part was the size of a washbasin. Barrett couldn’t say when the monster had been through the area, but it did indicate they had come deep enough to find monsters of that size. Everyone became more cautious as they moved through the forest, waiting for something to appear.