Truthful Transmigration 111

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Along with John himself, the group from the Tenebach clan also consisted of his grandfather Luctus, his uncle Aydan, and cousin Crystin. There were four others he was vaguely related to, three men and another woman. Their presence represented a significant portion of the Tenebach clan’s forces, though if they had been willing to bring along Foundation Phase cultivators they would have had many more cultivators who were not occupied with other duties.

In this case, the minimal numbers were for the sake of keeping a low profile. While a group such as theirs likely wouldn’t go completely unnoticed, bringing along a dozen additional people would enhance their visibility. It was also a matter of concealing themselves on and around the battlefield. Those who were paying careful attention might catch word of them being present nearby and could likely guess their purpose, but out in the field if they didn’t sense them they might assume they weren’t present.

As for who else they expected to be present, it was simple. Bashkim of the Diamond Trading Company had hired one of his usual groups to go after the same creature. That was the main reason they were present, to disrupt the man’s business and potentially bring him down, due to his connection with the Society of Midnight. They still planned to be profitable, of course. Thus the reason for contracting with Artsiom, a rival of Bashkim.

Much of their plan hinged on the speed of information and their ability to get to the Chalk Hills in a timely manner. That was why they had chosen this particular hunt, even though the numbers they had with them weren’t quite as high as they might have liked. Their chances of success were deemed high enough, and it seemed they might have arrived before the other hunting group.

The group was quiet as they walked out into the hills, towards the last spotted location of the darkness element beast. Few specifics were known about it, except the general level of power sensed by those who passed by it- and survived. It was shrouded in darkness but not terribly large as far as the descriptions went. It could be less than half the size of the great lizard they had taken down in the Southeastern Stone Forest, though physical mass was not the best way to measure the power of a beast.

John thought back to that battle. He had been in the early Foundation Phase for it, and had only been able to participate in the battle due to how insignificant the creature had deemed him- and the others. Crystin had been there for that battle, as well as Magtel- though he was not present on this particular excursion. 

As they reached the area, signs of what they were looking for became readily apparent. John was not a particularly skilled tracker, but when attempting to follow something large and with great stores of spiritual energy it wasn’t terribly difficult. Even in the rocky terrain a wide path was visible, a trail at least three meters wide where it seemed as if something had been dragged across the surface. The remains of darkness element energy also stood out against the background of primarily earth element. Whatever the creature was, it obviously wasn’t trying to hide its tracks. Even if darkness element could be used for concealing, it wasn’t used in regards to its trail.

That said, not as much could be determined from the trail as they might have hoped. The direction was fairly easy to discern from the way brush was crushed in a particular direction or certain things were uprooted and strewn about, but the makeup of the creature was vague.

There were no signs of claws or feet of any kind, even in the softer sections of ground. It was as if someone had dragged large cloth over the area- or a bundle of leafy branches. Despite what media on Earth sometimes indicated, that wouldn’t hide tracks. Though it obviously obscured details, the smooth lines made it plainly visible for anyone to follow.

They were able to follow at full speed, but it was unclear how long it would take them to catch the creature. The information about the latest location spotted was a few days old when they arrived in the Chalk Hills, but it seemed to be staying in the general area since they’d first received wind of it.

The group followed the tracks for the remainder of the day but didn’t catch sight of the creature itself. They were all capable of traveling at night, but even cultivators had to sleep eventually. They set up a small camp but did their best to minimize signs of their presence, in case others following along the same path might notice. 

After a proper rest- with people standing guard in pairs for the sake of caution- they began their journey once more. During the day they once again didn’t see the creature or sense it, but the trail continued. Along the way they saw various creatures that lived in the hills, mostly darting for cover when they noticed humans.

“It’s a bit odd that we haven’t seen anything it ate,” Aydan pointed out. “Everything has to eat, and that leaves something behind eventually.”

“Perhaps it might drag its prey into those caves it stops in,” Luctus suggested. “We did not thoroughly investigate those given the continuing nature of the tracks.”

“It could just eat things whole,” John commented. “Though it should eventually leave something behind. Everything has to expel waste. I think.” Truth be told, some creatures in this world were exceptionally weird, but the general rules still applied. Some beasts only functioned because they had spiritual energy to enhance some of their weaker functions, but life still followed the same sorts of rules. 

Later that day, they finally found something. A few feathers. A scrap of bone. A splatter of red. It wasn’t possible to tell if they came from the creature, but they were right on the trail it left behind.

As it was getting dark, they came upon another cave, basically just a hole in the ground. The trail led right to it, but there was just one problem.

“It doesn’t leave,” John pointed out the obvious. “And it doesn’t seem as if there’s a way for it to get into it.”

The mouth of the cave was a couple meters in diameter at most, much smaller than the creature. At least, as far as they could tell. The group stood in a circle around the hole, looking down into the darkness that didn’t hinder their sight. There was enough space for a human to pass comfortably, but not a large beast. 

“So,” John continued. “Either it disappeared at the mouth of this cave, suddenly began to conceal its tracks right next to it, or it somehow fit inside. If it went in, it either found another way out… or it’s still in there.”

“I think… the latter,” Crystin pointed out a group of birds nearby. They didn’t look particularly interesting at first, until one of them extended their neck out from the feathers surrounding it, revealing a long, disturbingly bare patch of skin. “Scavengers. They likely follow after the creature and feed on whatever it leaves behind. Perhaps that is where the pieces go.”

That was a sufficient explanation for the rest of the group. However, it still posed another question. “Why can’t we feel it?” one of the guards with them asked. “It shouldn’t be far.”

“It’s likely more focused on concealing itself rather than signs of its passage,” Luctus explained. “And we don’t know how deep it might be in this cave. I don’t think I’m inclined to find out, either. We’re not here to fight it. Not yet, anyway. With our numbers, we might be able to defeat it, but fighting in close quarters would not be to our advantage.” There were also plans in place to have both the beast and the other hunters they knew were coming wear themselves out before swooping in. While it might not be entirely honorable to ambush another group of cultivators just doing a job, darkness element cultivators weren’t known for honor. Even if the Tenebach clan often worked more openly, they would be most effective with the element of surprise.

They found a place nearby to camp, not too close but somewhere they should be able to keep track of the beast. Along the way they passed closer to the scavengers, somewhat reminiscent of turkey vultures from Earth. John had thought them to be about the same size, but he realized they had been further away. They were quite a bit bigger, and had a little bit of darkness element inside them. It made sense, given the creature they were following after.

As the hunting group began to eat cold rations- lighting a fire would potentially alert people and creatures to their presence- something happened. John was staring over at the scavenger birds sitting in their sparse trees, nestled among nearly empty branches. Then one of them disappeared. He almost thought he was wrong, when it happened with another. The third managed to squawk out a cry of alarm as it was grabbed, and the remaining members of the group fluttered into the sky- though one was too slow and was yanked into a patch of darkness. 

It made sense, of course. A creature of darkness would blend in much better in the night, as during the day a ball absent of light stood out just as much as a torch in the night. Even if it concealed its features, it wouldn’t be optimal. 

John quietly gestured to the others. Now that he knew where the thing was, he could make out its shape. Sort of. Even with the benefit of the enhanced darkvision from the family’s guardian beast, he could barely see anything. It still just looked like a ball of darkness with undefined edges. He thought he could make out some shapes, but they were all vague. A large paw? Some sort of tail? A beak, maybe? However, his mind could make no sense of how the various things were placed, and he never got a good look at anything.

The most disturbing part was looking directly at it and not sensing the darkness element. John always knew it was possible to conceal active use of darkness from others, but he’d never experienced it himself, not to the same degree. It wasn’t a small scale, either.

The creature began to move, and everyone exchanged glances. It was easy enough to track during the day, but there were also advantages to moving at night- for both the creature and themselves. Wordlessly they decided to follow after it, though they would no doubt be fatigued in the morning.

It wasn’t terribly difficult to follow. Once it was beyond the radius of the creature’s active control, the lingering elements of darkness shortly became able to be sensed. The smear it left along the ground was also still present, and everyone could see it in the dark. The size of the creature also let them track it by the very absence of being able to see past its ball of influence, though it seemed to stay low to the ground to minimize its area. As low to the ground as something as large as it could be, anyway. It was still as easy to follow as a group of humans all pressed together. It wasn’t fast, either. But perhaps it simply didn’t need to be.

The meandering route it took went up and down slopes at the same speed, ignoring minor obstacles by pushing through and over them. The changes in direction seemed to simply be for the sake of catching prey, as it sought out food in the darkness. As for what it ate… it seemed to be anything. The giant vultures, of course. Some deer, normally quite sensitive to predators but severely outmatched. Wolves. Various birds and their nests. Anything it got close to, it seemed. It even crossed a stream and swept up a handful of fish. When it came to burrowing creatures, it reached something into them and pulled out its prizes, where it disappeared into its form, presumably being consumed by a large mouth.

When it was almost dawn, the creature began to move more quickly, though not so quickly that it couldn’t be followed. It somehow found another cave, and after the ball of darkness concealing it lingered at the entrance to the cave for a moment, it faded away and there was nothing. Nothing, except a cave mouth no more than a meter in any direction, far too small for the beast to have gone into. 

While nobody expected the creature to come out during the day, watches were set up for their rest. Nobody wanted to be caught by surprise, especially by… whatever it was they had found themselves hunting.

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