A large pack of wolves stood behind the caravan. There were a few cultivators fending them off, but several of those had split off to fight bandits. That left fewer people at the rear, and among those was Pete and the other villagers. They were technically cultivators, though probably shouldn’t call themselves that without even having finished the first star. They might not have had the same strength, but they did have weapons. They stood together side by side. “James. Steven. Watch the flanks. If any get too close, just swing at them. Don’t let them spook the horses.” This wasn’t their job, but sitting around being helpless wasn’t something Pete wanted to encounter ever again. The wolves were a bit tall, but they weren’t too bulky. And they clearly didn’t want to get in an actual fight. With a few people standing firm together, any time one approached a quick swipe at it with a sword drove it away.
It wasn’t enough to kill the wolves, but they had to hold out. Relying on others to ultimately save them was a bit frustrating, but that was part of why they were cultivating. They would grow stronger, so they could do what they wanted to do, instead of what circumstances forced upon them. For that, they had to survive the moment.
Three of the wolves sprang forward at one of the cultivators. Pete wasn’t that good at judging cultivation levels, especially not in the heat of battle. He should be… mid body tempering somewhere? It didn’t matter. The man held the wolves at bay with a spear, but they were spreading around him as he backed towards the rear wagon and more were moving in. Pete gestured the other two to one side, then came at the left wolf from its own flank.
His sword flicked out, barely scraping along the creature’s fur. An overestimation of his own reach. He was intending to kill the beast, but instead focused it on him. There were a few moments of standoff after it turned, Pete holding his sword ready in front, trying to figure out how to attack. Then the wolf leaped at his throat.
More by virtue of having the proper stance drilled into him than any movement of his own, Pete’s sword drove into the creature’s chest. It didn’t immediately stop the wolf, however. Teeth and claws scraped at Pete’s face and chest. There would probably be more scars to go with the one on his cheek… but only if he survived. Pete thrashed and struggled, trying to pull his sword out for another attack… but after some time rolling around on the ground he realized he was just stuck under the body of the wolf. It was heavy, even when emaciated like it was… but he had decent enough strength. Once he was more methodical, he pushed it off of him and was able to stand. Not a glorious battle… but the wolves were beginning to retreat. As for the rest of the battle…
Splinters flew at Anton’s eyes as an arrow struck a tree directly to his side. The arrow remained there as a reminder of how close he was to dying. But… while he hadn’t expected a violent end, Anton had already come to terms with his death. There were new things he had to do before it happened, but he wasn’t afraid of it. Besides, this death wouldn’t be random and unexpected. He could do something about this with his own hands. Fighting arrows was much better than fighting age.
The two archers were moving further and further afield, away from the rest of the battle. Anton had driven them away half on purpose and half by it merely being the best cover for himself. Dipping around boulders and into gulleys made it hard to hit him. His own arrows seldom found their mark, but seldom wasn’t never. It was merely an issue that his opponent had a higher cultivation. With the range involved, Anton couldn’t keep quite the level of power he needed to pierce through their energy defenses. He had no interest in testing the converse.
His opponent seemed to be getting frustrated. That was what Anton read from his face. Why couldn’t he hit Anton? It was quite simple. Anton already knew where he was going to shoot. With about… two thirds accuracy. The remaining third he had to dodge once he picked out the actual trajectory, instead of just anticipating the attack. Anton’s opponent likewise predicted his shots, but Anton had an advantage there. Changing the trajectory of Spirit Arrows was easier than that of physical arrows… and his arrows were faster. He didn’t have the luxury of time to study his opponent’s bow, but from what he saw and the sounds it made it wasn’t quite as good as Anton’s. A little bit less snappy.
Even though he was the only one who had landed any hits, that didn’t mean he was winning. His opponent might run out of arrows before him, or they might not. Anton could shoot a hundred or two hundred Spirit Arrows consecutively in training, but in the heat of combat where much of his energy went to movement it wasn’t the same. More importantly, he felt the flow state he’d fallen into gradually fading. His awareness of the rest of the world was returning… though really it was just the sharpness of his opponent that was fading and by contrast he was more aware of the rest by comparison.
Anton’s eyes scanned the surroundings, falling onto Catarina far off in the distance. She was fighting against several others. Hoyt was nearby, bleeding from a cut on his forehead. Pete and the others were at the rear of the caravan, fending off the wolves with some of the cultivators.
He was aware that he might lose, but as he made the firm choice not to everything fell into place. Anton formed a Spirit Arrow, pulling his hand back next to his ear. He saw the bandit doing much the same. It was a question of who would choose to dodge which way, and how much that would throw off their aim. But as his last moment of clarity diminished, Anton released the Spirit Arrow. He moved forward with it, at great speed. His body remained where it was, but his vision locked on the other arrow. They seemed as if they might collide head on, but they merely brushed past each other. Though they didn’t directly touch, the energy around them each diverted the other arrow slightly. Anton was now over halfway to his target. Three quarters. He could see the man’s eyes with clarity, the way the bow was oscillating as it returned to its resting state. He looked straight into the man’s eyes, and that was where he flew… where his arrow flew.
He came back to his body’s normal senses as blood trickled down the side of his neck. Though he hadn’t been fully in his body, he was stepping out of the way of the arrow to the best of his ability… and it had been just enough. But he’d once again been one with his arrow. It was something he wished he could do at will, but never really got the hang of. He placed his hand on his neck, where the cut was. He had no worries about being shot. He knew his arrow struck true, even though his opponent’s energy hadn’t fully faded yet.
Seeing that their plans hadn’t gone quite as they wished, the bandits were already fleeing. Fewer than a quarter of their numbers were dead, but while they might possibly win if they remained, no individual valued their life so little that they wanted to stay. Anton resolved to give them a reminder to not consider it again. It wasn’t honorable to shoot fleeing foes, but neither was it honorable to be a bandit. Three arrows flew out in quick succession before the bandits were too far for him to reach, though he had no intent to chase them down on his own after that point.
Anton realized he’d slightly underestimated the bandit’s casualties. One the side of the road he was on, his count had been accurate. Ayotunde’s side had much higher casualties. Though he was quite able to take down that many opponents by himself, Anton could clearly see why a further dozen cultivator guards had been necessary. Two mid body tempering guards were dead, and several others were injured. There were a small number of casualties among the merchants as well, and Caravan Master Wilbur was speaking to Ayotunde in hushed tones. The sort of level tempered ears could pick up easily enough with just a tiny bit of extra energy.
“… after us?” the caravan master said worriedly.
Ayotunde shook his head. “They were merely interested in whoever ran into this hazard first. They could have been hoping that I would be injured by the valley chomper. Unless they failed to notice me somehow.”
Wilbur sighed, “You were right, as always. What bad luck.”
“Someone would run into this. Now, the journey should be safer for the next several trips, until some new group decides to try their luck.”
Wilbur shook his head. “Didn’t have to be us, though.” With that, he was off to deal with other issues.
Ayotunde waved as he saw Anton approaching. “There you are! Good work. No doubt I would have spotted that valley chomper, but only once closer. The eyes of an archer are truly something else.”
Anton smiled, letting his eyes flicker with energy, “It’s all about the technique. If I can’t see as far as I want to shoot, I’ll become worthless.”
Ayotunde snorted, “It’s quite a distance. I heard you engaged someone at the peak of Body Tempering?”
“I believe so,” Anton said. “It’s hard to say for certain now.” Anton looked around. “What will we do with the bodies?”
“We bury our own. Deep enough to discourage scavengers. The rest… do not deserve a proper burial. If we did not have to watch out for the caravan, I would like to track down their lair…”
It took a moment for Anton to consider. He could indeed track them on his own, maybe even kill a few… but there were enough bandits remaining that they would either leave the caravan undefended or risk too much with a smaller group. If only he was in Spirit Building. That way, he could attack from a further distance and retreat safely, even if he couldn’t directly engage so many. “What about the valley chomper?”
“You up for some more archery?” Ayotunde asked. “It’s strong enough to pierce through most armor, but its mobility is… negligible. I can perhaps trick it out of its trap once more, and if you can shoot it the instant it surfaces… we might kill it. If not, it will flee underground. I would prefer not to pass the problem on to the next group to pass, if we have the option.”
“There are spare bows,” Anton said. “We might as well apply those too.”
A few minutes later, any of the guards who were in good shape had a bow in hand. All of them would have probably fired a bow at some point, but few of them could be considered archers. If Anton were to judge, Hoyt and Catarina had the best form. That might have just been his bias, though.
“Alright,” Ayotunde hefted another large rock. “Prepare to draw. You want your arrow to arrive the instant after the rock.”
The rock sailed through the air. A handful of arrows were in the air after it… but they veered off course and even passed it. Anton had gathered an exceptionally strong Spirit Arrow, and he was aware of how precise the timing had to be with the one previous view of the valley chomper. Before the rock landed his arrow was released. Then there was a loud crunch, pincers visible in the air, crushing the rock to pieces. Another handful of arrows struck the general area a second later after the creature retracted into its sandy pit. But… blood splattered on the dirt behind it.
“It should be dead,” Anton said. “If it cares at all for its organs.”
“I heard its carapace crack,” Ayotunde said. “Nice shot.”
“If I have all the time in the world, as an archer… I would be ashamed to fail such a shot. I haven’t been shooting arrows for a century for nothing.”
After waiting for a minute, Ayotunde walked forward. Then he shoved his arms into the loose ground that had previously appeared so precise and smooth. He yanked them back out with a large bodied creature that seemed to be half mandibles. He turned the creature towards the group and looked through it at them. It was only a small hole, less than the diameter of a pinky finger, but the edges were nearly smooth.
“Good!” He said. “Now we just need to pack the road firm again.” He clapped his hands, “And we can feast on valley chomper! I assure you, none of you have ever had anything like it before.”