Their plan had always been to get back to the village late at night. It made sense, since doing so allowed them to get the most out of their hunting—including finding and dealing with some of the more nocturnal monsters—and miss the crush of those who might want to meet and speak with Arthur. Not to mention the potential for violence as well.
On the other hand, Arthur had to admit, moving through the dark always felt like he was creeping back home. A rather stark difference from the proud entry he had envisioned before he ever entered the Tower. Not once had he strode into the village, a conquering hero, lauded by others.
Instead, here he was, moving through the dark, in between tent ropes and around the occasional fireplace, hoping not to wake anyone or run into any real issues. Even if it was a strategic choice, it still made him feel more of a villain than a hero.
One day, perhaps, he might be able to enter with his head held high. Perhaps in a few weeks, now that he had a ready access to cores. But until then, he would grit his teeth and accept the fact that he was going to do this.
Which made it all the more disappointing when a group of five moved to block their way, men holding weapons by their side, wide grins on their faces. Three of them directly ahead, two on either side coming around the tents that lay in the way.
A quick glance behind showed that Jan was facing off against another two.
“What do you want?” Mel asked, being at the front of the group. Yao Jing by Arthur’s side was hesitating, debating between going for the man on the left or adding his weight to the front. Arthur on the other hand was forming a Refined Energy Dart on his brow, having made his own choice.
“Him.” One of the men spoke, pointing his parang straight at Arthur.
There was a flicker of light. Instinct reared up and Arthur jerked himself back. A fraction of a moment too slow, such that the energy beam that tore out of the parang burned the right side of his face and body and set him screaming. He managed to dodge most of it, but he was burnt and bloody.
His own Refined Energy Dart dispersed on his brow, causing his own head to pound further. Not that the pain from the backlash was anything compared to the loss of vision and the pain from burnt flesh.
As he fought to control his reactions, he sensed a blurring form charging at him. He thrust with his spear, felt the weapon blocked and found himself stumbling back, half-blinded and working on instinct. Blood spurted, the smell of cooked meat filling his nostrils along with the sudden presence of congealed coconut oil as his attacker ducked in close, sliding a small dagger into his stomach.
Like a needle, it darted in and out, once, twice, then again. On the third time, Arthur gripped the knife hand, holding it still even as he pulled the kris out of his own sheath. Then he cut, slicing against inner thigh, arm, plunging down into thigh again and then ripping sideways. Twisting and cutting, even as the knife in his own stomach twisted and turned.
Coughing in pain, he felt it rip out, but this time he managed to shove his hand into an elbow. Keeping the attacker away, even as he sliced with his own weapon, and the enchanted blade took energy from his opponent. As the curse took effect, his opponent weakened enough that Arthur was able to keep the man’s arm away and break free to stab the weapon into his neck and end it.
A dozen seconds, maybe less. It had all happened so fast, but that was the way of fights. Sometimes, an element of surprise was all that was needed to incur death instead of mere injury. Holding the kris up, one eye blinded, his face seared and burnt, he found the fight still going on.
One of the fighters in the front was down, a knife in the back of his neck sufficient reason. Mel was tangling with the leader, his parang against her spear. Mel pushed the leader back and away from Arthur before he could be attacked again. The third and last man in front was fighting Uswah, overbearing the single-armed lady with his greater weight. Using his fist, he struck at her as he held her close with the other hand.
Seeing who he needed to help most, Arthur rushed forward, trusting that the remainder of the team were holding. Adrenaline coursed through him, making the pain fade away. He knew his body was healing, fixing the issues, stemming the blood loss. A glance at Jan and Yao Jing showed that at least they were fine, for now. Hopefully, that would stay the same even as he slipped the kris into a kidney from behind.
The man arched his back, but the last-minute shift of his body was insufficient to stop Arthur from injuring him. The moment his kidney was pierced, his opponent shuddered, the pain overtaking his conscious control. Not to be outdone, Uswah caught his arm with her own and headbutted him across the face as he collapsed.
“Don’t kill him!” Arthur cried. Uswah checked her attack and Arthur turned and dashed away, leaving her to deal with the woozy opponent. As a cultivator, he likely wouldn’t die immediately, though there was no guarantee of that either. They might be stronger than people outside the Tower but they weren’t impervious.
Yao Jing seemed to have had the same idea, having putting his own man in an armlock. His struggling opponent managed to wrench himself all the way around, dislocating his shoulder with a sickening crack as he cut at Yao Jing’s foot. Yao Jing shifted his feet a little, dodging the majority of the attack but still releasing the arm so that he could continue beating his enemy.
Arthur now turned to see Jan. Only to find, to his amusement, that a couple of passersby had appeared to aid her. Her own opponents were dead, while one still alive was clutching his stomach and moaning at having been gutted.
“Save him. I want answers!” But the man had stilled, the pool of blood and effluvia spreading beneath him. Jan, having sheathed her own weapons, bent to check on the others before standing up and shaking her head.
In other places, in the real world, with adrenaline and trauma teams and defibrillators, they might have tried to save him. In the Tower, unless they climbed much higher, perhaps to a new Tower even, there was no point. Dead was dead and no makeshift level of technology would help bring a man back.
“Shit dipped in a zit.” Arthur spun about, remembering at last there was one more fight. Only to see Mel extracting her spear from the side of a man who had collapsed onto a tent, the occupants within cursing up a storm. Arthur winced as the burnt flesh of his face broke open again, weeping blood and white water, but he ignored that and whoever managed to clamber out of the damaged tent. That one probably had justifiable grievances against them.
“Search them. Strip them of anything valuable. Then we go,” he commanded the group, pointing at Yao Jing’s newly recaptured attacker whose arms had been yanked into a painful hold behind his back, strips of leather twisting to lock him in place. “Bring the prisoners.”
He looked back at Uswah who nodded, having finished winding a makeshift bandage around the man’s back wound. Then Arthur found himself eyeing the pair of passersby who had helped Jan. A man and woman, both bearing remarkably similar features. “Pick him up, will you? We’ll talk, after,” he told them.
The pair shared a knowing look before they moved to grab Yao Jing’s prisoner.
And with that, they were gone. Arthur shoved a bandage onto his stomach, kept one eye squinted shut and focused on moving forward, even through the pain.
By the time the poor occupant of the bloody, thrashed tent managed to squeeze his way out of the collapsed structure, there was little else to see but a series of bodies, including the one still bleeding onto his tent.
Arthur swore he could hear him cry out from behind.