The forest expedition continued after wiping out the giant hive of fire ants. Even just doing that could count as a successful mission, but the razorwing hadn’t suddenly stopped being out of place. The trail was picked up past the territory, with more slicing marks and occasional feathers being some of the signs. The ground was slightly harder, so the footprints were becoming fainter.
The group encountered several aggressive beasts, but nothing turned into more than a minor scuffle. From the perspective of the group, at least. The beasts who attacked them would probably have different opinions- but they’d already made a final and fatal choice.
The next day, Anton noticed something interesting. It was not of immediate concern, so he waited for Velvet to comment on it. It took some escalating of the signs, but she eventually figured it out. Then again, she couldn’t see as far as Anton could so perhaps she picked it up quickly once the information was actually able to reach her eyes. “There are more feathers.” That was true, but it wasn’t the important part. “And footprints. I think that means… it lives near here?”
Anton nodded. “That seems likely.”
“There are a lot though,” Velvet frowned. “Maybe there’s more than just the one.”
“I can’t guarantee it,” Anton said, “But if not it is very busy.”
The trees began to thin out, with more short and squat bushes. The area was still laden with energy, but some change in terrain led to different sorts of plants flourishing. Grass grew above head height, blocking vision, but it also made it easier to track their quarry. They simply followed where the grass was trampled- and sometimes just cut off, depending on the angle of their wings. It was merely a matter of what beast had trampled which grass that they had to contend with.
With his sight blocked, Anton occasionally hopped into the air to get a look at the surroundings. He felt rather silly for it, but he would feel more silly if he missed something important for not putting in the effort. A hop didn’t leave much time for processing what he saw, but his brain was much quicker at taking in information than before he had become a cultivator. It was crazy to think he’d lived without any of the benefits cultivation provided his whole life. Even just the beginning made so much difference. He still intended to spread cultivation it to as many people as he could, even if they only were able to manage the beginning.
Along with Anton, Velvet also hopped up into the air. That made Anton grin, because it wasn’t so much a special technique as a necessity. She could probably just stand on someone’s shoulders, but he was a bit old to ask that. Instead, he eventually found a decent tree to climb. It was thin, and seemed like it would snap under his weight- but he could tell it had been strengthened just like all of the others and easily held his weight. Velvet climbed up after him, standing on another branch that barely bent under her weight, despite it being only two fingers thick. “Do you see them?” Anton asked.
Velvet nodded. “They have long necks. And they’re so reflective…”
“That’s just what I expected. I haven’t seen any razorwings in person, but the bestiaries described them well. Their wings aren’t metal, but they cut like it… and shine like it. Quite a bit different from the spiked rollers we fought.”
“… You fought those things?”
“Yes. Some big ones, too. We can talk about it later. What do you think of those?” he gestured generally.
“Umm… they’re all stopped.” Velvet squinted her eyes, concentrating energy in a beginning version of the Hawk Eyes vision technique Anton was teaching her. “They’re all on… eggs?”
Anton nodded, “Quite right. They’re nesting. Many of them. Normally they would be quite territorial, even with each other, but something has changed that.”
“Do we have to kill them all?” Velvet asked.
“I don’t know if that’s necessary. The ants were aggressively multiplying and dangerous. Razorwings aren’t likely to move on humans, but… they also aren’t known to be a part of this area.” Anton scratched his chin, “We’ll have to report on them, at least. I wouldn’t want to try to take all of them out either way. Though reducing their numbers somewhat is basically inevitable.”
“What do you mean?” Velvet asked.
“I doubt they’re just coming to say hello,” Anton gestured to several disturbances in the grass. The razorwings tended to trample the grass in front of them, but off to the sides their feathers cut into the grass leaving a fairly obvious trail. “As magical beasts, I do believe a grounded razorwing should be able to keep pace with the slowest of us, so fleeing isn’t exactly an option.” Anton turned, “You all heard, right?” Everyone else nodded, including Elder Tshering. “Good, then the five of us should get ready to fight, though I’d like to try to leave if we can. There are only a few, and if those eggs are any indication they won’t miss a few of their numbers.”
After moving his arms around to test the space, Anton hopped down from the scraggly tree. It would just get in his way, though the vantage point he provided would have been useful for archery otherwise.
Catarina was looking around, clearly wondering how she might make a proper formation in the area. Initial setup might be easy with the grass, but that also meant it would be easy to destroy on accident. She seemed to give up as the group started to retreat away from the approaching razorwings.
“Doesn’t seem like they’re going to leave us alone,” Hoyt commented. “They’re gaining on us, and I can feel their energy bubbling in anticipation.”
Anton shrugged, “It was worth a try. At least this way they’ll be further from reinforcements.” Anton stopped and turned back towards the approaching razorwings, mostly hidden by the grass. “Everyone ready?” Everyone nodded- and Fuzz gave a growl of acknowledgement.
The process of drawing a bow could be quick or slow. There was rarely any reason to spend any more time than required to aim, because that left strain on the wielder’s muscles, but Anton needed to gather more energy than normal. It still didn’t take longer than the amount of time for a draw he’d had as a non-cultivator, but was significantly slower than his possible fastest speed.
His arrow flew straight and true, and he rode the air with it. The arrow pierced through the grass. It was tough in addition to being extraordinarily long but it barely slowed the flight of the arrow. Anton was there with it, guiding it, when it struck the razorwing. He had been aiming for its chest. He’d expected it to dodge if it noticed him, but it didn’t. But he also didn’t hit its chest. Instead, a wing came forward and parried his arrow, slicing through the grass around its motion. That was the problem with magical beasts. None seemed to have human intelligence, but they could also be quite a bit smarter than normal animals. These even had complex control of their energy, gathering it on their already bladelike feathers.
The battle erupted into motion with that arrow. The grounded razorwings burst through the grass towards the group, reaching them before Anton could shoot more than one or two more arrows. If he’d been ready for a deflection on his first shot he might have been able to score a hit instead, but now that they were aware of his own abilities they were too cautious. He’d have to find openings later.
“Probably a bad idea to use fire,” Hoyt commented to himself as he readied his large axe. He held it in two hands, stepping forward and chopping at one of the approaching razorwings. It moved its wing and energy to intercept his attack. Hoyt had a bit more mass than the creature, a bird of nearly the same height as a human, and was able to push it to the side. It pecked towards him with its beak as it passed, but it was too far to deal any meaningful damage.
The others were all engaged as well. Timothy took it upon himself to engage two of the creatures, preventing them from running past him. The birds slashed with their wings, but only pecked when they were certain their necks would be safe from a counter. Timothy wasn’t able to damage either of them in any meaningful fashion, but his shield protected him while he learned their movements.
Catarina and Anton both danced around one of their own. Anton found that they preferred to rush past, swiping with a wing, which suited him just fine as he fought with a bow and could use the extra space. Catarina slashed with her sword, trying to hit openings while keeping herself safe.
From low to the ground, Fuzz nipped at the heels of whichever bird he found at the moment. He kept himself concealed in the grass as he looked to find ones distracted by others. He was actually able to ambush one of them and bite its leg, but as he pulled to try to throw it to the ground it resisted by virtue of a stronger energy. Fuzz had to pull away as its beak came down towards his head.
As for Velvet… she was gone. Even Anton lost track of her in the tall grass until she stabbed into the back of the neck of one of the razorwings with a long dagger. Anton felt her energy a moment before the attack, but the razorwing didn’t- or at least felt it too late. The total amount of energy in Velvet’s attack wasn’t anything amazing, but she condensed her energy into a sharp point and stabbed where her opponent was weak. That was usually the goal with in battle, but it was hard to pull off.
Archery worked similarly, but the advantage it had in range became a disadvantage when it gave your opponent time to react. But Anton hadn’t been training just to lose to a bunch of birds- no matter how sharp and swift their wings were. He felt a trail of blood on his shoulder and knew he’d let it get a little too close, but the razorwing that made the attack had continued on, as usual. Anton had an arrow ready and aimed at its back as it moved.
The creature couldn’t bend its wing back to reach him, but it had the proper senses to dodge. Right into the real attack Anton had prepared. Firing two arrows actually at the same time was something new he was testing. It wasn’t very good for the most part and would probably not work well against a human in its current form, but he at least tricked a bird. His arrow pierced into a section of the bird’s back that had a lower concentration of energy. It wasn’t enough to bring it down immediately, but Anton could see the blood pouring over its feathers. Now if only he could find where to sneak in shots from the front, he wouldn’t have to let any of them attack him even once.