“That was a mess,” Arthur complained, leaning against a tree as he finished winding the bandage around his leg. The tusk that had hit him had torn his pants, piercing halfway through his leg before it was yanked out. Keeping a tight pressure on the wound helped slow the bleeding down, though it was not perfect. If not for the fact that his sped-up healing technique would patch him together soon enough, he would have packed it with gauze. As it stood, he’d just have to suck up the pain for now.
“Bad luck, to draw two dozen down,” Uswah said. Of them all, the shadow user was the least injured, having taken to the trees and then wielded her techniques to trip up monsters while everyone else was fighting below.
“What bad luck? More like stupid guns. Too noisy!” Jan screeched. A moment later, she let out another loud shout as Yao Jing popped her shoulder back into place. The brawler offered her a sympathetic smile, letting her hit his arm before she wiped away the tears that had gathered around her eyes.
“I didn’t fire them this time!” Rick protested. He too was winding a bandage, though it was a compression bandage around his ankle where he had twisted it after being battered and thrown around by the monsters.
Fascinating that, considering he’d been tossed about and gored, he seemed to be lacking any other major wounds. Arthur could have sworn he’d noticed a glow around the man, subtle but persistent during the fight; but he was not willing to bet on it.
“You did not,” Casey said, surprising Arthur at her coming to Rick’s defence. “But you weren’t very useful otherwise. You have a knife, use that!”
Ah, there it was.
“Oh, and your bodyguard bundling you away so you didn’t fight was useful,” Rick snapped.
Casey and her bodyguard had almost ended up fighting, getting in each other’s way.
“Let me handle my own people.” She lifted her chin as she said that, while the bodyguard glared, shoulders hunching a little in anticipation of an argument.
“He’s right,” Arthur said softly. “You’re either going to be fighting with us, or you’re not. We can’t have you and your bodyguard not contributing. We might make it through the next few levels that way, but it’ll bite us sooner or later.” He stared at the older man flatly, trying to make him understand. “You got to let her fight. She’s got the training.”
“It’s not that easy,” the bodyguard rumbled. “I’m the only one left!”
“No.” Arthur shook his head. “There’s all of us. We’ll help protect her, but you got to work with us, man.” Arthur waited until he got a nod, then asked, “What’s your name, anyway? We can't be calling you ‘the bodyguard’ all the time.”
The man looked a little uncomfortable but he offered, “Call me Lam.”
Arthur acknowledged him before returning to the subject of teamwork. “Going back to the fight . . . So that was painful. I know some of us have worked together before and others haven’t, but we’re going to have to learn to fight as a team if we want to survive. The monsters here are stronger, faster, and yes, smarter. What we did before isn’t working, so . . . adapt.”
He waited for the reluctant chorus of agreements before he continued, “Alright, in that case, let’s talk about what we did wrong. And what we can do to fix it.” He then added, waving at the corpses, “And let’s get those cores out while we talk. Each of us suggests one thing, and one thing only, to improve. Then we do it again, till we figure it out.”
Rick and Casey both looked doubtful, but his team acknowledged his words, spreading out to begin digging into bodies. He knew they understood his reasoning at the least. With as many fights as he expected them all to face, spending time going over every single mistake would just drag on too long.
Better to focus on one problem at a time, make that better, and then move on. Especially since they had a lot of ground still to cover. Flexing his leg a little, Arthur winced. That is, even if they didn’t all get injured further.
Two thirds of the day on, a couple of hours before sunset, Arthur waved the team to a halt in the clearing Uswah had located for them at his request. The slope of land was against a small cliff, one that could have been leapt off if needed but that would impede entrance by non-goat creatures. And monkeys. Which, frankly, were becoming the most hated group as far as Arthur was concerned.
The golden monkeys that swung through the trees wielded a series of hit-and-run tactics against the team on the regular, pelting the group with rocks, coconuts, and dung in equal measure. Since the majority of the team had no ranged attacks, it left them vulnerable especially since their slings, throwing knives, javelins, and Refined Energy Darts were easily dodged or lost. Or just were not sufficiently intimidating to keep the creatures from returning after they’d lost a few members.
It was in the last hour that Arthur had finally given in and allowed Rick to unleash himself. The bark of his weapons had taken a half dozen of the monkeys before they had managed to escape. Since then, no sight of the group was to be found, the creatures having left for easier prey, Arthur hoped.
Of course, all that noise had brought more monsters to them, including another herd of babi and a kuching that had lurked to attack them in the middle of their fight. Luckily, Uswah had counter-ambushed the cat, stabbing it through the side as it pounced on Mel and leaving it hanging from strings of shadow.
Sadly, the monsters were not the only creatures that had been drawn by the explosive noise. A small team of cultivators had arrived not long after their last fight and a tense standoff had ensued. It was only their own greater numbers and Rick quite pointedly tapping on his holstered guns that had seen the other cultivators back off.
After that, Arthur had the group on a forced march, barely pausing even when they ran into a couple more monsters and looted their bodies. He had pushed them hard, and now the exhausted and annoyed team flopped down in a clearing, resting gratefully while Uswah and Jan took up their flanks to watch for anyone who might have followed them.
“What do you think?” Mel said as she wandered over to sit next to Arthur.
He could not help but sigh as he rolled over to look at her, propping his head on his arm. “Couldn’t let me have at least five minutes to catch my breath?”
“It’s been ten.”
“I mean metaphorically, not literally.”
An arched eyebrow was all that she had to offer him in answer.
“I’m conflicted. Those guns attract a lot of attention. But we really do need ranged weaponry.” Arthur shook his head. “I don’t think any of us are up to learning how to shoot bows, or to carry them, or anything else. Surprised more of you didn’t study the exploding slingshot stone technique.”
“Specialization,” Mel said, opening her hands sideways. “And you’re the one who chose us.”
Arthur could not help but grunt. He knew Jan and Mel and, yes, Yao Jing weren’t really geared for long-range fighting. He just hadn’t realised they were that bad at it. His allies who had fallen on the first floor were the ones who had studied the few ranged techniques the Thorned Lotuses had, leaving their present party a little bereft.
Which was, of course, why Rick had been a blessing in a way. Except for how noisy his weapons were . . .
“I don’t know,” Arthur said, eventually. “He’s a glass-half-filled case, eh?”
Mel nodded a little. “Maybe wait till we see the orang minyak?”
“About what I’m thinking.”
“And her?” A slight nod to where Casey lounged, her guard having already strung a tarp to shade her from the sun and potential rain.
“She’s staying, of course.”
“But what do you think?”
“She’s competent, alone. Not very good at integrating with the rest of us, but she can learn.” Of course, not very good was a little bit of a lie. Casey was, in fact, horrendous at working with the team. In the end, Arthur had to leave the two to fight alone in a small satellite formation next to the other six of them, so that they’d stopped running into, swinging their weapons at, and clipping people by accident.
The fact that Casey didn’t even notice the difference spoke to how oblivious the heiress was to her own actions. For all her training— and she was very well trained, probably the most deadly fighter on an individual basis even—she had no sense of the rest of the team, instead charging forward or retreating as she felt fit. Leaving poor Lam to rush after her, doing his best to patch gaps in her defence.
“Think we can keep her alive?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?” Arthur said tiredly.
And the gods help them if they failed, because having Prime Group after them would be . . . interesting.