Now that they had found the creature and observed its behavior, the time for decisions came. Should they fight the dark mass, or continue to wait?
“We’re a bit light on the estimated forces to defeat this creature. Based on what we’ve seen, it has attributes sufficient to be a threat.” John knew that his grandfather Luctus could have taken the lead in the discussion but was intentionally leaving it to him. “If we defeat it quickly, we could avoid a conflict with the hunters. They should be arriving soon, unless they run into trouble.”
The other hunters were the point of the argument that could be most troublesome, in different ways. Human opponents ranged from simple to defeat to the most dangerous. The Tenebach clan didn’t even have direct conflict with the group, but instead were tertiary to the actual enemies. Yet letting them get weakened by battling the creature and snatching victory from their hands would weaken the position of Bashkim, and thus the Society of Midnight’s influence in the Stone Conglomerate through him.
The thought of using innocent humans as bait was unpleasant, but then again nobody in this world was innocent. Not even John or anyone he knew. Oh, sure he thought he was better than a lot of other cultivators, but he’d gotten a lot more used to killing than he ever would have imagined when he was on Earth. Knowing death might not be such a final end for everyone didn’t exactly make him feel better about it.
“We should go with the plan,” Aydan commented, bringing John out of his thoughts. “Our current forces should be able to defeat it, but to do so without casualties would require some luck. On the other hand, if luck was against us…”
It didn’t need to be said that sometimes people just didn’t come back. Cultivators died every day, and while John had been fortunate not to be one of them yet, there had been some times where it had been more possible. Even just a couple months ago he’d been wounded, and his lung was still scarred. It hadn’t been all that far from killing him, if the blade had just gone a little deeper. Part of that was how he handled the situation, and a bit was luck. It just couldn’t always be on his side. At least, he shouldn’t assume it would be.
“We’ll need to avoid the notice of the creature and of course the approaching hunters,” John reiterated. “We can trail a bit further over the next day or two, but if we get too far we won’t be able to join the battle. We’ll have to do everything right.” Looking around, John realized people were waiting. For him, as he would make the actual decision. Something he learned was that you just had to make a choice, and couldn’t undo it later. Granted, most of his executive decisions had involved new menu items and supplies, but mistakes with either could lose customers. “So here’s the plan…”
Every darkness cultivator had some amount of stealth skills, but it had been important that those joining this expedition were more than mere capable in every area. They hardly needed John’s guidance, but the way they were going to make use of their skills had to mesh together.
Instead of splitting everyone apart and leaving them to their own devices, John decided it would be better to work as a group. Stealth was normally an activity that didn’t work better in groups, but the method was important in this case. Since much of cultivator’s stealth abilities relied on spiritual energy, it was possible to work together to conceal a whole group better than any individual could hide on their own.
John was in control of that, though he felt the subtle guidance of the more experienced Aydan and Luctus helping him. The way darkness wrapped around them had to be subtle. If it was too strong, it would be impossible to see them but also extremely easy to detect something was happening where they were. The important part was blending in, which was easy enough in the night. That was what the very creature they were hunting made use of, after all.
The energy of everyone flowed together as they worked in formation. It was less about the physical arrangement of everyone and more about that transfer of spiritual energy. John guided it into one cohesive form, and also used his own talents to allow them to blend in more firmly, using earth elemental spiritual energy to make them feel like more of the rocky terrain. Anything looking directly at them might notice the absence of light in an area, but most things would not be able to make use of that information. The mass of darkness they were hunting with a strange and unknown configuration of limbs was the biggest concern, since it might be able to pierce through their darkness deception. Thus they maintained a reasonable distance in addition to trying to blend with the earth as much as possible.
Another night of watching the creature snatch up anything on its path was just as disturbing as before. It seemed particularly fond of the giant vultures, making detours from its set path when it spotted them. Perhaps they were why it had come to the area, following them as it migrated. The most disturbing thing wasn’t just a tendril wrapping around something and pulling it towards where there was presumably a mouth, but instead later seeing other sorts of limbs reach out to do the same. Some of the sturdier creatures were impaled by claws or gored by tusks or antlers sticking out of seemingly random places on the creature.
John wasn’t sure if the creature simply had no front or if the pieces of it moved about, because he had no idea what sort of things were adjacent to each other. It certainly wasn’t a neat organization of limbs like most living beings.
The creature once again hid in a cave during the day. It seemed to have a good sense of how to find them, though to be fair the Stone Conglomerate was chock full of the things.
The Tenebach clan group had to rely on more mundane stealth measures during the day. They would mostly be sleeping, after all, and darkness was just too obvious. That involved simply not being where people would look, which in this case was beyond where the creature with extremely obvious tracks had ventured. A reasonable distance away so it would be difficult to sense them, but not so far they weren’t prepared to lock on to it when it came out. It wasn’t the easiest thing to track by sight when it was on the move, and if they lost it they could fall half a day behind if they had to track it during the day.
Patience paid off, as John found himself gently woken up around noon. None of them needed to sleep through the whole day, but except those on each shift everyone took the chances where they could. It took a few moments to shake off the grogginess of being awoken, but he was fully functional within a couple of minutes. He could have been fighting sooner, but things weren’t quite to that point.
“I took notice of them as they were approaching,” Luctus pointed out a group of a dozen earth element cultivators in early and mid Soul Expansion Phase standing around the mouth of a cave. This one was somewhat larger than the others, seeming to be a comfortable size for humans to walk through. “They should be who we’ve been waiting for.”
John nodded. The only question was what decision that group would make. Would they wait around to study it, or attack it immediately? They should only know that it was a creature of the darkness element. It would be dangerous at night, but during the day it should be weaker. John didn’t think it would be good to fight it in the close confines of a cave, though, and it was similarly dark inside of one. It wasn’t quite the same effect as night, but still beneficial to a darkness cultivator.
It seemed the group didn’t care to wait, as they soon entered the cave- preparing glowing light orbs that they hung from their belts. Much more practical than torches, which took a hand and had other problems in enclosed spaces.
“We’ll follow after them in a few moments,” John said to the other seven. “They shouldn’t be quick to turn around, but we need to make sure they don’t guard the entrance of the cave. Or deal with them, if they do.”
After making sure that nobody was immediately watching for them, they made their way towards the cave. Once they were inside they could blend in with the darkness and earth around them. As John led the control of the concealment, he found it rather difficult to work with everyone’s energy. Were they resisting? No, in fact it should have been the normal difficulty in controlling other’s energy. He had simply spent so much time dual cultivating with Matayal that they were intimately comfortable with each other’s energy. Working with anyone else just felt awkward and ineffective.
Inside the cave, it soon split up into branching pathways. Tracking the creature was nearly impossible where the floor was solid stone, but where there was dirt it still left a wide, dragging trail. The other hunters were easier to follow, though. They were hardly taking any efforts to conceal themselves, and the lingering earth energy they left behind stood out from the natural energy of the area.
Their group walked through the darkness, relying on their blessing to provide them vision, before they eventually spotted light. John stopped, and the others did the same behind him. There were no sounds of fighting yet, so they moved forward quietly, trying to keep pace with the group ahead of them. Part of their darkness energy went to dampening the sounds they produced, an effect made possible by its concealing nature and having little or nothing to do with acoustic properties of the darkness element.
Perhaps they need not have bothered, as the thudding steps of the earth element cultivators and the clanking of their metal armor overpowered whatever noise they might have made- but it was best to never underestimate an enemy’s perception. They performed at their best, maintaining a solid distance until combat began.
The attack was a surprise to everyone, most of all the earth element cultivator up ahead. Nobody expects a large wing to sweep into them and knock them into someone else. They had their defenses prepared, of course, so the damage was minimal- but before they could even think of attacking the figure had disappeared.
John and the others were around a bend, so they only heard the advent of combat secondhand. They maintained their position until the combat drifted further, where they felt comfortable moving to a different angle.
The tunnel opened up into something akin to a larger cavern. An ancient one, perhaps, as the stalactites and stalagmites met, forming pillars throughout the area and dividing it into sections. For the most part they were simply barriers, but some of the areas they formed were too small to move through comfortably. Certainly nobody would have expected a monster that took up a three meter area to suddenly slip through a crack too narrow for a human to squeeze through sideways. But it did, slipping around the area with ease.
Every time John got a peek through its veil of darkness, he wished he hadn’t. It was a disturbing jumble of parts that didn’t look like they had even belonged to the same creature. And maybe they didn’t, as the wing it had struck out with first looked just like the giant vultures it had been consuming. A large wolf paw slashed at one of the group, who quickly turned to try to land a blow.
His axe swung through the area with the creature, to great success. He even managed to chop off a hoof, which limply fell to the ground. Why it was halfway up the creature’s side instead of walking on the ground was another question that there probably wasn’t a good answer to.
For the moment the group of hunters seemed to be holding their own, but injuries were building up on them faster than the creature, who was quite happy in the darkness. Their lights provided little help, at most piercing through the outermost layer of its concealment, and usually just casting confusing shadows as they spun about trying to predict where the creature would go. Soon… soon would be the best time to join in the fight. They just had to wait.