Registration for the group—a full team of eight now—was a simple enough matter, though they had to wait nearly half an hour in the early morning queue. Then, of course, was the process of exiting town for the nearest hunting grounds. By common agreement, the plan for the first day was to test themselves against a few orang minyak and other second-floor monsters. If they were able to handle them, they’d take on their first orang minyak village soon after.
The first thing they had to do once they actually entered the forest was sort out their line of movement.
“Uswah in front, we’re all agreed on that, right?” Arthur said, exasperated by the argument they’d all just had. He glared at everyone until he got a series of nods. “Then Rick second because he’s got the guns. We good with that?” In fact, he’d wanted to be second but had been shouted down.
“So long as he promises not to shoot me,” Uswah said grumpily.
“Rule two and four,” Rick said. “Relax.”
“Not helping,” Uswah replied.
“Stop. Shut up,” Arthur snapped at Uswah and then Rick, respectively. “Otherwise, we’re going to be here the rest of the day.” The two glared at him, but eventually nodded. Casey, standing by the side, nodded in approval too. “Now, who’s next?”
“Me,” Mel said, raising the halberd she was holding. “Need someone who can stop the rush.”
“Then me,” Jan added. “Got my parangs and spear.”
“That puts me next, right?” Arthur said, scratching his nose. “And Yao Jing after. That means: Casey, you’re behind him.”
“No.” For the first time, her bodyguard spoke up. “She is behind you.”
“I don’t need to be babied,” Casey snapped, glaring at her guard. But after a moment, she inclined her head to the older man, acknowledging his concern. “However, I’m not against being safe either. I’ll be behind you, Arthur.”
Yao Jing looked unhappy but nodded. That left him in the rear. It was the second most important position, due to the need to watch for creatures that had a tendency to sneak up on them. Or stalkers.
“Finally!” Arthur muttered, turning to tell Uswah it was time to go. Only to realise that she had already disappeared, swaying branches nearby the only indication of her departure. As he searched for her, a little whistle caught his attention, drawing his gaze to where she was standing and waving him on.
Grumpily, Arthur waited for the group to move out, then took his place in line. It didn’t take long for Arthur to realise they had another problem and call the team to a halt over a pair of smoking corpses: two kuching.
“If you’re going to be shooting those things all the time, we need earplugs,” Arthur said, rubbing at his ears. A chorus of agreements rang out.
“Sorry,” Rick said. “I have a few spares . . .”
“More importantly, all that noise is going to make sneaking up on anything impossible,” Casey said.
“Ya lah! So loud even a hantu get scared,” Jan muttered. She looked spooked herself.
“Well, I can’t do anything about that,” Rick said defensively. “They’re guns.”
“Jangan guna, lah,” Uswah said, drifting back from where she had gone scouting.
“What did she say?” Rick asked.
“Maybe you shouldn’t use them, not yet,” Arthur translated. He added, “And maybe you shouldn’t be in the front.”
“I can take his place. Put him with you,” Mel offered. “All the rich kids and precious cargo in the center.”
“Hey!” both Rick and Arthur protested at the same time while Casey kept her mouth shut, looking impatient. A minute more of discussion and the group finally started off again, only to come to a stop as Rick’s new restrictions on using his guns were put to a test.
The herd of babi that rushed them from behind came at an angle, forcing both Yao Jing and Casey’s bodyguard to act first. Yao Jing took to the challenge in his usual manner, throwing himself forward to grab hold of a boar, hitting it at a slight angle so that he could put his hands under its belly. A twist and heave had him tossing it aside, even as Casey’s bodyguard took a more sensible method of planting his spear while standing next to a tree and bracing. Unlike their lower-floor cousins though, these boars chose to stream around the bodyguard to attack the rest of the team. Maybe they weren’t as stupid, after all.
Alerted by the shouts of the rearguard, Arthur formed a Refined Energy Dart in one hand, leveling the attack to fire at the first pig to skirt around Yao Jing and the bodyguard as it attempted to shift direction to continue its charge. The bolt of energy tore through the side of the creature, releasing a spurt of blood. Unfortunately the attack was insufficient to stop the pig, forcing Arthur to pour energy into his Heavenly King’s Mischief technique to increase his strength as he thrust his spear at the monster.
At the same time, Casey’s sword left her sheath. The sword draw was followed by a flash as she sent a slash of energy, catching another babi on the opposite flank. This attack bowled the monster over as one of its legs was parted entirely, creating a giant pileup as more of the herd crashed into it.
Rick stood between Casey and Arthur, guns drawn but fingers off the trigger. He kept darting glances back and forth, unable to do anything without attracting further attention. Arthur managed to spear one of the monsters, his feet sliding backwards and only stopping as Rick’s greater bulk was added to the spear.
More pigs were arriving on his side of the group. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur noticed that a pig that had tried to sideswipe him with its head was on its way to crash into Rick. He tumbled, his spear ripping out of a dying target, at which point the battle became pure chaos.
Pigs squealed, Tower climbers shouted, and the meaty thunk of weapons on flesh and tusks piercing bodies filled the air. The smell of feces and musky, unwashed pigs. The tinge of sweat and exertion.
The team fought for their lives.