This was a Malaysian Tower, so these birds weren’t large predators like hunting falcons or whirling giers. They also weren’t, thankfully, crows—though there were plenty of those in Malaysia—ready to commit grievous, even fatal assault. No, these were sparrows that swooped down on him, in numbers that darkened the sky.
Once again, Arthur wished for protection, for some weapon to wield against a horde. But he had nothing. Nothing but a bag that he hiked up over his head as he bent low and ran, spear held away from his legs.
He aimed for the next slope, knowing that if he reached it, he would meet the jenglot in battle. Somehow he would beat it, even as battered and bruised, limping and lethargic, as he was. Because that was the trial. For whoever had designed this trial, had made it such that few were meant to survive—even though it was merely a trial for the first floor of a beginner Tower. The survivors were the lucky, the prepared, the stubborn.
Well, Arthur would take two out of three and hope that was enough, because if he had known it was this hard; he would never have chosen to ascend till he was more ready. Not until he hit the first threshold at least, and damn was that far away.
The whoosh of swooping bodies, the low, almost pleasant cries of tiny swallows enveloped him. Then the impact began, little bodies slamming into the backpack, bouncing off it with beaks and talons ripping into the fabric before they were took to the sky once more.
Or at least, the ones that managed to time their landing right. Because those that hit too early, or that missed their descent or came in too hard or struck some of their own friends on the way down, did not get up. Sparrow bodies were not meant for divebombing attacks. Even reinforced by arcane wizardry of the Tower, their tiny fragile bodies were never meant to prey upon others.
So, many died, crushing themselves or being crushed by their brethren. Dozens fell, squashed against the backpack. Others struck his arms and lower back, or were accidentally kicked aside as he bulled forward. Like a pelting, moving rain, the bodies crashed down in a never-ending deluge of flesh and blood, their angry chirps encompassing Arthur in a feathery, flickering nightmare.
Trained as he might be, Arthur knew he would someday wake up screaming from this moment. The rats might had mobbed him, clambered on him, tore at him, sent him into convulsions of disgust. But crawling through sewers and cleaning up the damnable port after tides and thunderous storms shook the coast had prepared him in ways for such an occurrence.
This, this never-ending shrieking feathered deluge was entirely new. He had liked birds, sparrows in particular. Thought them cute and beautiful, stared at their occasional foray and smiled at their survival even as damnable crows overflowed the streets.
Now, they sought to kill him, throwing themselves at him in suicidal divebombs that so few survived, all because of . . .
Something. A Tower test that they probably never even understood, creatures formed from mass and magic and energy, that parodied real life but were obviously not. Because what kind of flock would do this, would suffocate him with their attacks and screams, to pull slivers of pecked flesh?
“Birds on the wire, are really dire.” Pushing up and shoving sideways, Arthur made the little corpse pile on his bag bounce off, the pile growing ever higher with each moment. He kept running even when he felt a damn bird plunge deep into his calf, almost causing him to cramp.
Of course, he called it running. But between the assault and damage, he was now doing more of a hard limp than a run. Mind running through his options, he searched for ways out of this. The flock above him was still so dense there was no way he’d ever hit the next rise in time. The rats would eventually come, and then the war of the tinies would begin.
But he had no desire to be around to watch that, even if it might aid him.
On the other hand, he had no traits, no skills that could help. He could form a Refined Energy Dart, but the attack could only kill a single bird. Maybe two if he got really lucky. When the numbers were in hundreds, he was basically helpless.
A shield might have been nice, but his backpack would have to do, even if the pans and tent gear left him bruised from bouncing against it again and again. But he would take what he had. As much as this frenzied attack was a nightmare, he was also still alive. If the birds had just swooped at him from a different angle, instead of arcing down and bouncing off his raised backpack, he would be done.
Not that he was going to tell the damn creatures that. If he did wonder at the lack of strategy, he would keep that thought to himself till he was done. Perhaps it was, really, just a trial after all. Not meant to kill everyone, but to push the right people on.
Limping on, arms and body aching as they grew more tired each moment, Arthur kept moving. Blood pooling into his right foot, such that every dragging step was a squish, he kept going. His chest burning with each breath, burning with torso and stomach wounds from monkey bites. He was hunched over, his head swimming, vision fading in and out at the edges.
But Arthur still found himself digging deep, into that well of willpower. Not anger, for he was not a raging fool like Jan. No. He had better reasons to go on. He had family that might be disassociated from him on a day-to-day basis, who did not understand his own drives. But whom he loved. He had a mei mei that looked up to him and a mother who did her best, even when most days she found facing the greyness of existence difficult.
He had people he cared for, that he would not abandon entirely. That he would, eventually, go back to. That he intended to give more to.
His sifu who grew older with each day, with each loss of his students to the Tower. Who needed a victory just as much, if not more, than him. Who bled for every single soul that left to find their fortune against his advice, and yet he never stopped training them. No matter the pain their losses caused him.
Let others rage and scream, claw and beg for scraps for their own greed. Arthur just needed to survive, to clear the Tower and go back for his family, for those who needed him. In that deep bedrock of certainty, he kept placing foot in front of foot.
Till, finally, he set it upon the slope and the birds slowed their attacks.
For another had come down to face him. Barring his way.
And the final test was here.