The problem with being the head of the largest—and only—official clan on the first floor of the Tower was that you became quite recognizable. The one time he had gone out, Arthur noticed quite a few people pointing him out to others. He knew it would only get worse. And he wasn’t the only newly famous; the faces of Yao Jing and the girls who formed his regular group were even more well known.
So the next time he left the building, he did so in the dead of the night, head covered under a songkok—which was more common in this Tower than you’d think—and a pair of glasses on his face. Wearing someone else’s clothes, he also left with a group so that picking him out was harder.
After his group dispersed, his only company—if you could call it company—was Uswah in the shadows. Attempting to follow her movements was difficult, as she drifted between darkened spot to darkened spot, and Arthur gave up on trying to mimic her movements while he was in the beginner village. It was too well lit for his poor stealth skills.
It was only when they entered the no man’s land and the tents around, many of which were already darkened as individuals slept, that he attempted to hide. He moved between tents, casting looks to ensure he was not being followed.
To his surprise, his attempts at stealth paid off, as he managed to make it all the way to the treeline and his objective before Uswah popped up.
“Wrong way.” A finger raised and pointed in the correct direction. Arthur let out a long huff, following along. He was not carrying his spear, what with it being a little too prominent. He just hoped that the team would have it when they showed up.
Eventually, after a couple more pointed directions, he found the tiny clearing where they were to meet. Flopping down, Arthur rested with his back against a tree, eyeing the dark. Out here, at night, it almost felt like the Yin chi was so much closer to him, even compared to the clan headquarters.
“How are you doing?” Arthur said, turning his head to where he believed Uswah to be. She had disappeared into the shadows the moment they had arrived, so he was forced to guess. Thankfully, Enhanced Eyesight and her not actively manipulating the shadows right now meant that he was mostly certain he was right.
“Bagus.” Her voice drifted down, a little more to the right than he had expected.
Arthur took the compliment silently, then asked, “How are you really doing?”
The shadows shifted a little, and Arthur guessed she must have shrugged. He waited, wanting to make his point with silence. Sadly, the silence game was a losing one with Uswah, who was more than happy to let it linger on.
Eventually, he broke. “Really. How are you doing?”
“I am missing a hand. I’ve been relegated to administrative tasks and the occasional scouting mission. Most of the other groups won’t take me, even if I’m stronger than them,” Uswah said, her voice dispassionate as always. “It is not ideal. But I make do. I save up.”
“For what?” Arthur asked, then shook his head after a moment. He could guess. The fact that she did not bother to answer him was clear that she knew that too. “I’ll fix it, if I can.”
“Not yours to fix.” A slight pause. “Thanks anyway.”
“So. We got nothing to do for a bit . . .” He trailed off.
Uswah met his leading statement with more silence.
“Want to talk cultivating?” Arthur ended up asking, almost helplessly.
Again, silence greeted his words. Almost to the point where he thought she would not answer and he got ready to begin cultivating himself. Then, she spoke up.
Smiling a little at the minor win—both for getting her to share her knowledge of the cultivation method and for getting her to come out of her shell more—he leaned forwards. “So, I noticed something while cultivating…”
It was the early hours of the morning when the rest of the group finally made their way over. It was later than what Arthur had expected, but when he questioned them about the delay, the reformed group explained that their watchers had been a little more persistent than normal. After retrieving his spear, he had the group travelling fast and away.
They would be gone for two days total, with the goal of harvesting as many beast cores as they could. A longer trip would have been more desirable, but the pressures of running the clan kept them from that option. As it stood, Mel was worried that even the two days might be too long.
Moving swiftly, the group headed into the deeper parts of the forest surrounding the village, Yao Jing at first struggling to figure out how to fit in with the well-oiled group. Eventually, he gave up and just jogged alongside Arthur.
It did not take the group long to find their first prey: a kuching hitam, who jumped from a tree at Jan holding the back of the line. She swerved easily, catching the monster by the scruff of the neck and throwing it into a nearby, thorn-ridden tree with spine-breaking force. The monster fell limply in pain and was quickly dispatched, its core retrieved before the group moved on.
There was no pausing or hesitation, the intent for the next few hours to find herds of babi ngepet. After all, the monstrous and ill-tempered creatures would be the best source of cores, though Uswah who was leading the team was not averse to straying the route to deal with the occasional monster as they searched.
It took them nearly half a day before they came across their first herd, having travelled a good distance. Far enough away that most teams from the village would not venture this far out, leaving these surroundings much less picked over.
The herd of babi was moving as a group, but they heard the humans before the humans spotted them. A hissed warning from Uswah came only moments before the sound of crashing undergrowth.
Arthur and Mel moved together, creating a shortened line anchored on Mel’s end by a tree of pointed spears. Lowering them to the ground, the shaft planted in place, the pair braced for the monsters coming directly at them. At the same time, Jan scrambled up a tree, pulling her parang out to strike from above when the monsters were forced to slow. Uswah was, as always, nowhere to be seen.
It was only Yao Jing who dithered until Arthur shouted a command. “My left and behind. When they stop, swing out.”
Then, there was no more time. The herd arrived, eight creatures in total, breaking apart tiny trees and pulling vines down. The first creature to see the problem swerved far right, around Mel and the tree. The others kept coming, with the second and third monsters impaled on the spears. The pair of cultivators were pushed backward even as the spears bent, but Body-enhanced strength and good positioning kept them standing. Monsters at the back of the herd had slowed down, as magical tentacles tripped the middle of the pack, leaving time for both Jan and Yao Jing to jump in the fray.
Finding his spear stuck in the corpse of a babi ngepet, Arthur chose to drop the entire thing and yank out the enchanted kris. Swinging around the fighting group, he joined Uswah’s darting in and out, laying in quick attacks that damaged the monsters and began the slow leaching of energy from the massive creatures. The fight was hard, but not unusual. With the addition of the muscle-bound Yao Jing whose chi-enhanced punches stunned monsters, the group eventually put the bigger monsters down.
Grinning, Arthur could not help but look at the dwindling herd, thinking how far he had come. Not so long ago, he would have had to pull out every single trick in the book. This time around, other than infusing Focused Strike into the initial charge to drop the first monster, he had not required his cultivation exercises at all.
All the better really. After all, he needed his energy for ascending.
On that sober thought, he gestured for the team to get to work extracting the cores. There was a lot more hunting to do before they got back.