Even as a cultivator Anton had generally dealt with ‘normal’ animals. There were some magical beasts involved, but they had typical forms he would expect. There were occasional exceptions like the river beasts that had moved upstream from Helmfirth Rill, and the sand trap monster but even the tortoises had been mostly normal despite their strange method of attack. On the trip from Yedo to Southpoint they were expecting something specifically strange. Or at least the Brantley siblings had told them to prepare for the possibility of finding them. Dangerous or otherwise troublesome creatures were killed when they could be to keep them away from roads or human civilization, but the creatures would be attracted towards their particular loads because they ate metal.
They had various names; metal eaters, spiked rollers, and armored rats were the most common. They didn’t seem to be related to rats at all, though their head shapes vaguely matched. Either way, Anton could pick out a tall tale from a serious warning, and the Brantley siblings were quite sincere about the features of the creatures. They were made of overlapping armored plates with spikes coming out at irregular points. When curled into a ball they had basically no weak points and they had claws and teeth that could tear through metal. For stronger pieces their saliva had the effect of almost instantaneously rusting it into a softer form.
They would attack anything in the way of their desired meals and were quite capable of defending themselves, but once they had a belly full of scrapped metal they would generally choose to leave instead of continuing a fight. They were hard enough to kill and any metal would be ruined once they got their claws on it anyway, so at that point they had to be let go. Thus, the important part was preventing them from getting to the goods to begin with.
It wasn’t much different from defending the people and mounts, but being informed on their potential tactics was useful. The caravan’s defenders split into even shifts as usual, but everyone kept their weapons on hand. Metal armor was generally kept in the middle of the camp with the wagons since it would only provide more tempting targets.
For the first several nights everything was quiet. Catarina set up simple formations that would conceal their camp, and while a few wild animals poked around the area Anton didn’t really see much of anything significant. Magical Beasts generally learned to stay away from humans, and those who were too interested in human’s goods or otherwise aggressive generally got killed fairly quickly.
He saw one snuffling around the edges of the camp. It truly was covered in armor, and if he didn’t know better Anton would have thought the armor was made by a smith instead of being grown. He only saw the one, but it was as big as Fuzz and with stronger energy. It also took up all of the area it covered, with small limbs on its armored body. Anton didn’t think there was any reason to let it continue snooping around, as it had clearly noticed them somehow. Before it could step over the threshold into their camp, he fired his bow towards its slightly less armored face. The creature sensed his attack and ducked its head. Anton was pleased to see that his Spirit Arrow penetrated through its defensive energy and into the plates, causing the creature to bleed. It seemed to find the danger too high and immediately turned around, at the same time curling up into a ball. Its energy twisted and it began to roll, the spikes of metal sending dirt flying as it moved at a quick roll away from the camp.
He wasn’t sure if it would try to come back, but it was quickly out of optimal range and he didn’t fancy his chances of hitting a good shot on rotating armored plates. There was a reason people generally didn’t chase them down. Anton was glad it had chosen to retreat, because he could see it causing real damage if it had moved through the camp. Almost everyone woke up when Anton attacked, but he quickly reassured them that it had been driven off.
The next night there were several different metal eaters who found them, and there were some during the following day as they travelled on the road. The first ones on the road weren’t a problem, but the third one immediately attacked from uphill. “To the left!” Anton called out. He began firing arrows at a steady pace, since he needed as much power as he could reasonably use for each shot. The spinning metal plates did a good job of deflecting his attacks, though he certainly scarred the creature. Hoyt and Catarina sprang into action, moving to the side of the caravan it was rolling towards.
Hoyt was in front, his energy reaching its peak as the magical beast approached. The creature clearly aimed to run him over, but he stepped to the side, swinging his axe at it. They collided with a violent clash of energy and metal, but Hoyt was at the completion of Body Tempering and very close to truly stepping into Spirit Building. It was to the metal eater’s credit that it didn’t get chopped clean in half but merely lost its momentum and had damaged armor plates.
With the creature much slowed, Catarina stabbed her sword into one of the already-damaged plates, pinning the creature to the ground. The creature stopped, twitching for a few moments, before it stopped moving. Two of the guards who had been with the caravan on a more regular basis breathed a sigh of relief. They were weaker in cultivation, and it would have been quite troublesome for them to deal with the creature. At the very least there would have been damage to the wagons. Fuzz stood next to them, loyally defending the cart as was his duty. Anton hoped he had intended to dodge the metal eater’s charge, but that wasn’t necessarily guaranteed.
“Strange,” Ebba said as she looked at the creature. “They should be smaller than this. Because of their particular diet, they generally don’t grow very large. They do eat other things, but they won’t outgrow their armor so they need large quantities of metal or many years to grow so large.”
Mervyn nodded, “Yes, ones such as these should have been noticed before. They should be knee-height, I believe. Still quite troublesome, but…”
“Maybe they found a vein of ore,” Ebba said. “That could be quite troublesome. How many of them are there, at this size?”
“… Only three or four, I think.” Anton pointed at a spot on the creature’s head. “This is the first one I shot, two nights ago. It’s just begun healing.”
“That’s somewhat reassuring,” Ebba acknowledged, “But they’re a danger. They seem quite able to track us. I’m unsure how far their territory will range.”
“I think we’ve been moving into their territory. That’s why they showed up in greater numbers. Though still relatively few,” Anton admitted. “It might be best for us to try to track them to their lair, wherever that might be.”
Mervyn thought for a few moments, “If it would not leave the caravan vulnerable, that would be for the best. We don’t want to leave others to deal with this mess after they grow bigger.”
“I can scout around the area to make sure none are watching,” Anton said to assuage his concerns, “And if their lair is close, I should meet any coming from their lair.”
They did a few widening loops around the caravan to make sure there weren’t any in hiding. Their tracks were easy to see- deep impressions of their claws because of how heavy they were. Close by, Anton only saw one set of tracks. Catarina and Hoyt followed along behind him at a quick pace, with Fuzz barely keeping up. His nose could be useful, or they would have left him with the safety of the caravan. He might be growing in strength, but he was a bit short for what they were facing. Anton noticed more tracks shortly after Fuzz howled in warning.
The tracks continued increasing in density and gave them a more precise direction to go in. They moved up a hill in a consistent direction, but before they could find any sort of lair they were spotted by the spiked rollers. There were three of them, but one of them was half again larger than the other two. They hadn’t seen that one before, and its armor and spikes had golden hues and hints of rainbows as well.
Anton was quick to fire arrows, hoping to catch them opened up. He had no luck with that, but at least his first arrow struck before the largest one began rolling, causing a minor injury just behind its neck.
Each of the creatures was very fast once it built up speed, but they didn’t have to defend a wagon or other people. Thus, it was much simpler for them to dodge out of the way. Hoyt didn’t risk a single swing to try to bring down the one on the left, instead swinging higher and chopping off some of the spikes that gave it danger and speed alike.
On the right, Catarina pulled away another of the ‘smaller’ ones as she slashed at its sides with her sword, striking for any gaps in its armor.
The largest one had metal spikes on its sides as well, so Anton had to give it a wider berth. It seemed the creatures weren’t used to fighting mobile targets, so as long as he focused on dodging he was able to protect himself. He got occasional shots at its side when it turned around- he tried to sneak his arrows into the less armored parts within, to various success. It would be quite difficult to defeat alone, but if he kept himself safe while he delayed it, he was certain they could avoid risk once they gained a numerical advantage.
Until then, Anton had to avoid instinctively using cover. When it barrelled through a tree almost as wide as him with barely a drop in momentum, Anton decided that just attempting to circle it was the best option. Swan Steps allowed him to avoid its blatantly obvious charges, and he could take a few pot shots when it turned. It seemed quite a bit more durable than the others, and Anton wondered what exactly it had been eating. It couldn’t just be regular ores, that he was certain of.