One might expect that a ten foot long black panther delaying more than a moment in attacking could be reasoned with. At least, since we were able to speak to it.
“So,” Ice Guy said. “The giant panther is going to eat us if we don’t leave her territory…?”
A couple exchanged growls which involved Ceira taking a step back and shaking her head told us the answer. “She, uh, doesn’t seem to understand conditionals. I can talk with her and she’s still just a big cat.” Ceira swallowed, “I know I probably shouldn’t show fear but I really can’t… not.”
“I don’t really want to kill a wild animal…” Ice Guy began.
“Why not?” Izzy interrupted. “She’s a manhunter, we have to deal with-”
Ceira was still trying to talk, but apparently the giant cat was done. It was fortunate we’d spotted it before the assault, because it sprang forward the intervening handful of meters without any apparent effort. Its first choice of prey seemed to be Izzy, the smallest of us discounting Midnight. Perhaps that was the rationale, or perhaps it was random choice.
With a blur or motion, Izzy tumbled to the side. We were lucky she was the fastest of us because each of the panther’s limbs were basically Izzy sized, and it could probably bite her in half if it got a chance. In an instant she had blades out, the rest of us making our moves at the same time.
My mind had been on Firebolt, and since it was my cheapest offensive spell I was able to cast it the most quickly. Technically, Shocking Grasp would be cheaper and faster by a tiny margin- but I didn’t want to try to touch that thing. Just because the black panther could only bite off half of my torso at once instead of all of it didn’t mean I would feel more secure up close.
The bolt of fire sufficient to cause serious damage to a human struck the creature right in the side. The fur instantly caught alight, reinforcing the impression that this was just an overly large animal and not a magical creature. The flames burned bright and strong for a few moments, but ultimately fizzled out leaving a scorched area.
I could do that seven more times. Or cast Stoneskin and do it three more. But as great as Stoneskin’s value was, it wouldn’t prevent my neck from snapping. Another factor I hadn’t considered before was my limited supply. I tended to carry around a couple handfuls of the baggies with me, keeping a usable amount. I had ten on me, and no more. My mental process was solved by Midnight casting Haste on the two of us. Yes, entirely avoiding attacks was better here.
Ice Guy first armored himself- forming a rigid series of barriers that still moved with his intentions. I imagined he didn’t do that while we were discussing so as to not alarm the panther. As the panther turned to sweep towards Izzy with its giant paws, he chucked a sphere of ice at its hindquarters, freezing its upper thighs and tail into position. It still seemed able to move, but its situation would only worsen as he continued his assaults..
Izzy darted back, wisely choosing to not engage in melee despite that being what she had weapons for. Yet she didn’t get particularly far either, staying just out of the panther’s reach while somehow navigating the dense brush around her instead of getting caught on it.
As she did so, I felt mana flow through Ceira. The undergrowth and tree roots began to move about, wrapping around the legs of the panther… and I felt my own legs caught. “Wait no! Not them! Grab the panther!” she yelled at her own magical ability. That did nothing, of course.
Well, at least everyone was equally restrained. Then the panther tore apart the roots and brush grabbing onto it with a great roar.
As the creature shifted focus towards our larger group, I knew I had to do more at once. I couldn’t even cast a single Chain Lightning, and it wasn’t as good against a single target anyway. Sonic Lance was the thing for this, and I gathered my mana from my churning insides. It was only a few times the cost of Firebolt for significantly more damage at their current upgrades, but the effect was markedly more impactful. The great cat staggered back, giving us a moment to try to free ourselves.
But Ceira took care of that. It was her own fault to begin with, but while I might blame her for using poorly understood magic in the middle of combat, I wouldn’t blame her for trying. The entangling plants pulled away, but it seemed to take great effort for her.
Ice Guy continued his assault with a whip of ice, coiling around the large cat’s front limbs and then detaching from him, forming a sort of shackles. They cracked apart under the beast’s mighty strength, but still hindered its movements for another moment as it snapped at me. Even with Haste, I very much appreciated the hindrance as its jaws got much too close.
Midnight had just about as much mana as I did right now, since we hadn’t recovered to full, and he performed his own Sonic Lance from a low angle, striking the creature in its chest and briefly lifting it off the ground.
From behind, Izzy was cutting at one of its rear legs with her twin blades, darting in and out. When the cat crashed back to the ground, she rolled out of the way- and that leg collapsed, leaving it crouched at an awkward angle.
A shard of ice stabbed into its throat and more into its upper chest. Even then, the panther didn’t fall right away and pulled itself forward to swipe at us. It took most of the rest of my mana on another Sonic Lance before Ice Guy finally finished it off by a spike through its eye into its brain.
Everyone was breathing heavily after the battle, but our constant bombardment had kept it in check enough that nobody had injuries. A proper hit by the creature might have been enough to seriously wound any of us.
At least, I thought we were all fine based on my initial look. Izzy poked her head out from behind the creature before trotting over to us. Ice Guy was still coated in his armor. Midnight had stayed safe, and I didn’t feel any external pain.
I did hear sobbing though, and looked at Ceira. “Are you alright? Where are you hurt?”
“I- I-” She collapsed onto her knees among the dense underbrush. “I’ve never… killed an animal before.” She swallowed, “She was so… so angry…”
Oh right. She still had magical animal speech active. Personally, I had never felt bad about people shouting profanities at me as they tried to murder me, but then again I also hadn’t killed… many people. I couldn’t guarantee it was nobody, especially in some of the incidents with Doctor Doomsday’s minions. Had I killed someone? A human, an orc? Certainly, Chain Lightning might do that, even with an AEGIS. I also just shot some of the humans with their disintegration rays.
And none of this was helping. I looked over at Ice Guy in desperation. He was certainly better at people than I was. But he just shook his head and gestured. Izzy was hugging Ceira, and Midnight was rubbing his head on her leg.
Ultimately that seemed to fix things- or at least make her stop crying. Then Izzy began to speak awkwardly.
“So. Uh, how should I say this?” she looked between all of us. “We need shelter. And uh, food. And maybe blankets? Depending on if it gets cold at night. Igloos sound good, I guess, but we might be able to find something else for tonight. We still need water though.”
I looked at Ice Guy. “Hey. Is that water ice, or power ice?” The important distinction was that power ice didn’t really exist. A lot of powers got around thermodynamic laws and the creation of matter by being only temporary. Otherwise, they would require massive draws on their users despite supernatural forces. Given how much Ice Guy was able to sling around… “It’s power ice, right?”
“Unfortunately,” he nodded.
“Can you… induce condensation? Like, make a metal thing cold?”
“It hasn’t been necessary for me to try,” he admitted. “But whenever we find our camp location, I’ll do my best.”
“… I have tuna,” Midnight said.
“Good job buddy,” I said honestly. “Though we should mostly preserve that for dire emergencies.”
I saw Izzy whispering to Ceira, but with things suddenly quiet I overheard some of it. “… need to go?”
“N-no. I should… I should help.”
With that, Ceira stood up, dwarfing Izzy. She wasn’t that tall- taller than Sophia, but probably eight inches shorter than myself. Or nine? Was I still growing? Hadn’t checked in a bit.
Anyway, she semi-confidently walked over towards Ice Guy and I. “So… uh, we need to… b-butcher the body. I don’t know if we can fully c-cure the hides here, but we can maybe get something?” she looked down at Izzy.
“And fill up on meat,” Izzy said. “How much room do you have in storage?” she looked at me.
“Maybe half of it? Fifteen pounds or so.”
“Damn. That’s not much,” Izzy admitted. “But if smoke and dry it, we’ll do a bit better there. Did I hear something about condensing water?”
“Possibly,” Ice Guy said.
“We’ll try that, and if it doesn’t work I’m sure I can find water. This panther had to drink something. For now, I need your muscles Turlough. Just cut where I tell you.” She handed over her blade, which was basically a long knife in my hand. The handle was a little awkwardly small, but fortunately it was sharp so my imperfect grip was made up for. By the end of things, I was covered in blood and things that were much worse. “So…” Izzy said. “We’re going to need to find water for sure now. We can’t go around with you like that. Our noses aside, we don’t want to attract more trouble.”
“… Wouldn’t it keep away some creatures?” Ceira asked. “I’m not saying he should stay like that but-”
“Anything it would drive away we can defeat ourselves,” Izzy said. “And anything it would draw in, we really don’t want to notice us.”
Ceira still looked pretty pale as we made a sort of dragging sled out of some branches and half cleaned fur, but she stayed determined to assist even if she definitely ran off behind a tree to throw up a few times. The reason? “We killed it so… we need to m-make sure it doesn’t go to waste. That would be d-doubly terrible.”
Well, that was fair. I wasn’t in the business of killing things for fun either. I did it for experience. What happened to the bodies of the portal creatures that was the business of the cities clean up crews. Were they just throwing things into a dump somewhere, or did they use the wyvern parts? I felt like I heard something about collectors or something to recoup city losses.
The location we were set up to stay the night was the panther’s own den. Somehow, when we got there and looked around Ceira breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“Did you think there would be another one?” I asked.
“I thought… there would be a pair of cubs. I was going to name one of them Jet and one of them Ebony, and then I was going to have to raise them. The whole time, I would be stricken with guilt about killing their mother, conflicted about whether or not to tell them. And I could because I can talk to animals…” she shook her head sadly.
“But they don’t exist,” I said. “So that’s… good?”
“Yes,” Ceira nodded. “I will miss Jet the most though.”
“Jet is my mother’s name,” Midnight interjected. “Also, Ebony is my brother.”
I frowned. “I thought you said your family weren’t all named after the color black?”
“Uh…” he turned away. “N-no, I don’t think I said anything like that.”
“You said it would be weird and confusing.”
“It is!” he exclaimed. “I mean, uh… I was definitely named this because I was born at Midnight, alright?”
“… I’m going to ask your mom,” I said. I had been the first to use Sending to contact her, when Midnight didn’t have the mana. It should… probably still work from here. But first I had to use mana for other things. Like blood and viscera all over myself and the fur. Fortunately, Clean seemed to understand quite well what I wanted to get rid of. And using mana in small amounts didn’t hurt much at all.