Insight was wonderfully useful at letting Anton dodge the spiked roller, though he imagined he would have been completely fine without the ability. All of the attacks were extremely straightforward, which made perfect sense when rolling up into a ball and spinning were the plan. Not really a lot of aiming that can happen after the momentum starts.
Conversely, knowing exactly what the creature intended to do didn’t help him all that much in attacking it. Each segment of armor spun by too quickly for even Anton’s eyes to properly take in. Springing himself off to the side when it rolled by and taking a shoot was much more useful, and if it got far enough away he could curve arrows around to the side. He could do that at any distance, but not fast enough to cut off its trajectory unless he had time to set up. The spiked rollers didn’t have completely impenetrable defenses even discounting that all armor could be broken through with enough force. On the side, they almost matched up to a perfect circle, but there was a small ring in the middle that wasn’t quite full of the interlocking plates. That was his target, and Anton found he was getting better at hitting it.
On the other side of things, the spiked roller was throwing itself at him faster and faster. It clearly took quite a bit of energy, but Anton had found himself just a bit too slow to move out of the way several times. He ended up with a cut along his ribcage and one on his arm which lowered his ability to shoot his bow.
Thus, Anton was quite glad when he sensed Catarina and Hoyt had completed their battles with the smaller creatures. Anton was fairly confident that he would win eventually, as he was being more conservative with his energy, but as the battle dragged on he was more likely to make a critical mistake while the spiked roller had little to fear from random chance.
It did, however, have quite a bit to fear from additional participants in the battle. Against just Anton it could turn around either by stopping with its armored back to him shuffling around and then rolling up into a ball once more or by simply taking a wide arc while rolling.
Anton was able to tell Hoyt where it would likely slow or stop, which forced the creature to use more energy avoiding him. However, its awareness of the world around it changing as it rolled was minimal. Several times Hoyt managed to cut it off and chop into it, sometimes denting its armor or slicing into the spikes. Dented armor weakened its perfect defenses as plates stopped overlapping, leaving more room for everyone to attack.
Catarina’s contributions were mainly to be an extra body either as a target of attack or an obstacle at the end of its roll. The spiked roller was ranging too far too quickly for her to set up a formation of any practical value, but her skills with her sword were quite sufficient to contribute to the accumulation of wounds on the creature.
“Hoyt!” Anton pointed, firing a small dart of energy that had no real effect but to stop at a precise position. “Catarina!” He pointed to another position. While it would have been nice to explain what he wanted in more detail, he didn’t exactly have time to say for them to go fifty meters to his northwest and thirty-five to his east with every pass of the creature.
It was still focused on Anton primarily, his source of energy being the largest still. Anton wished he had the confidence to use Golden Armor and completely stop the creature, but he honestly didn’t find the technique to be very useful. He’d much rather avoid direct hits, and this creature was specialized for it. So instead he focused on the movements of the creature and how One Step Ahead and his experience told him to react.
Anton poured perhaps a sixth of his remaining energy into a single Spirit Arrow aimed at the spinning creature. He released at the point he was most confident in hitting a damaged armor plate, though his arrow snapped an instant after contact and he couldn’t be sure how deep it had gotten.
Then he dodged early. It was quite a simple plan. Either dodging early allowed him to leisurely move out of the way, or the thing would turn to face him. Both were beneficial in their own way. In this instance, it had enough space to redirect itself and chose to try to catch Anton still. He dodged at the last moment, taking another portion of his energy- but Hoyt was straight behind him.
The spiked roller turned away from Hoyt, recognizing the direct danger he posed- but it wasn’t able to completely avoid him as he moved to intercept. Another cut in its side and it was speeding back in the other direction. Most of the terrain was completely torn up now, trees toppled and bushes uprooted by the force of the creature and its ripping spikes. Anton continued to shoot at the creature as its side was exposed to him briefly, but it continued to move farther away from him. He had predicted it would retreat soon, unwilling to fight to the death merely for the sake of doing so.
Predicting his opponent several moves in advance so that Catarina was in its direct line was… outside of his abilities. But she was only twenty or thirty meters off of the path instead of fifty or a hundred like she could have been. It was a bit slower now, with its body being beaten and battered, and she sliced towards its belly, cutting into its side. That was enough that it lost the tightness of muscle that held it in shape, and it unfurled on its back ten meters past her. It managed to flip over onto its front before she arrived, but its back wasn’t a perfect defense anymore. Her sword drove straight into it as it tried to waddle away, its energy providing little in the way of defense. Anton’s final Spirit Arrows were probably unnecessary, but either way it finally perished.
“Let’s take a rest before checking out their lair,” Anton said. “If there are any more I doubt they will be much good at indoor combat, at least in comparison, but there are occasionally different creatures sharing dens.”
Neither of the other two objected, of course. The spiked rollers were extremely durable and took quite an expenditure of energy to kill, and more because they had to defend themselves while doing so. It wasn’t possible to recover their full energy capacity in twenty minutes or so, but the natural energy in the area was decently abundant and they felt quite refreshed soon enough.
Following the rest of the trail, once they found outside all of the torn up terrain, was easy enough. They hadn’t been far at all from a little cave in the hill. It was large enough to stand in with a slight crouch, and the walls were mostly dirt with very little stone.
“We should really invest in some torches or lanterns or something,” Hoyt said as Anton used a small ball of energy to create light. “Though whatever it was would have to last a couple months of travel. Still, this isn’t exactly efficient.”
Anton nodded, “Agreed. I believe some of the miners kept lanterns, but I didn’t think to bring one.”
It turned out to not matter very much. The little cave didn’t go that deep, maybe fifty or a hundred meters. It was mostly straight inside as well, and at the back of the cave… was a little open cavern. The entrance wasn’t exactly clean, it was likely one of the creatures had accidentally scraped through the wall with one of its spikes. It was hard to tell exactly because they had clearly traversed in and out many times.
Inside there were scattered piles of… junk. Though it wasn’t all junk. There was the sparkle of gemstones in various states. Some were quite large and intact, while others were small and most were shattered. There were scattered bits of armor, still radiating remnants of energy. No metal, but instead straps and cloth armor along with boots. There were wrappings for the hilts of swords, wooden shafts of weapons, random slats of wood that had to have once been part of chests, and much more.
“A cultivator cache,” Hoyt said. “Or… what’s left of it.”
Anton nodded, “That would explain how they got so large, then.”
Catarina was already digging through the piles, trying to find things that weren’t broken. Even the pieces that had no metal on them to eat had clearly been stomped on by the creatures. Some things were pressed deep into the dirt and others had snapped under the pressure, so it took a bit of unearthing to get some things. “Oh, is this a bow?” She yanked something half buried in the dirt. “It looks like it, right?”
Anton caught the object as she tossed it to him. “Looks like. It doesn’t have a string, though.” Anton tested its give, “But maybe it’s not.” He pulled a little harder, not wanting to break it, but it remained firm. “Maybe it stiffened with age, because it certainly fits the look. Unless it’s just a strangely curved staff weapon.” Anton swished it through the air, but that didn’t feel right either. “It feels like some sort of dense bone, it would have to be from something massive.”
Beyond the ‘bow’ they found little of practical use. There were some things that they thought could be sold as materials, but only a black stone bracelet and a cloak made of some sort of sparkling scales appeared usable. As for what they did, it wasn’t clear. None of them were appraisers or enchanted goods, and though it was tangentially related to formations Catarina had no experience in the area yet. They could try testing with their energy, but it seemed wiser to get them properly appraised somewhere.
After gathering everything that seemed to be of value, they headed back outside the cave. “We should probably also take the bodies of the metal eaters,” Anton said. “If they consumed enchanted equipment, there should be quite a bit of value in them.”
Hoyt sighed, “They’ll be damn heavy though. Guess we should get started. Catarina, can you go ahead and let the caravan know? We don’t want them to get worried. Then come back and help us.” Though Catarina hadn’t done a prime tempering of her muscles, she was still at the completion of Body Tempering. While she would be somewhat weaker than the other two, it was probably no more than twenty percent. Quite a difference in a straight battle of strength, but she would still be stronger than any two of the others with the caravan, even if the miners who had begun cultivating reached the second star and tempered their muscles for the first prime tempering. Each star didn’t only temper one thing, it just focused on one, and the tenth star was a prime full body tempering that smoothed out most of the unevenness in Body Tempering choices between members of the Order. Even with Catarina’s help it would take at least two trips, because the biggest creature weighed at least a literal ton. Hopefully the wagons could support it.