It made a lot of sense, at least at first, to Arthur. Especially a few hours ago, before he had to trek through the darkness in search of those assholes. Traveling through the night was the worst, because all the markers that he was used to looking out for faded in the darkness and a whole new host of monsters awoke.
“Quieter!” Uswah hissed for the umpteenth time that hour. She turned around and glared at Arthur.
“I’m trying! I can’t see anything,” Arthur groused. Even with his Enhanced Eyesight trait, between the current lack of moonlight, the heavy foliage above, and his unfamiliarity with the area, he was short on his usual grace and stealthiness. Unlike Uswah who seemed to wrap herself in shadows and managed to just be as quiet, if not more, than during the day. It was really, really annoying.
“Then you shouldn’t have come,” Uswah said, exasperated. They were both speaking softly, though not to the point of whispering. They knew better than to whisper for whispering sent words further than just speaking softly. A weird trick of harmonics, that. But the fact they were even talking was probably a break in good sense. “They’re close. Now, please. Softly.”
Arthur grunted in agreement. Together, the pair slowly drifted forward, heading for the clearing that glowed with flickering light. Finding it had taken them about an hour, Uswah’s initial estimate of where their followers had gone to ground incorrect. Whether they had worried about being found out or had just located a better campground, the pair had only found the group upon spotting their fire, after Arthur had climbed a taller-than-normal tree on a rise.
Now, the fire had dimmed significantly, only flickering light from faded coals. The pair crouched low as they snuck forward, Uswah taking the lead and scanning the surroundings for watchers. Yet, neither party saw the actual guard until they were within a few feet.
Arthur’s heart thudded in his chest, so loud that he could have sworn the other person heard him. Palms wet, breath coming all too slowly, he continued to stare as he waited for some sign that the other man had noticed. In doing so, he had more time than ever to watch him.
Pudgy, slumped over with a stained, dark shirt and black jeans. A rather robust beard on dark skin. Northern Indian, or perhaps Bangladeshi. Probably that, actually, considering the sheer volume of illegal immigrants who had arrived in Malaysia, looking for work. Most had worked in the construction industry until the jobs disappeared and then found themselves without any way back.
Uswah froze as well, a little ahead but nearly as far away from the other as Arthur himself. She’d gone left when Arthur had gone right around a bushy obstruction. For long minutes, the pair stared at the figure that just lay there in shadows, unmoving.
Muscles began to cramp as Arthur stayed frozen and crouched, trying not to blink. Trying not to breathe. Every second stretched on, and on. Sweat began to drip down his nose, an itch near the side of his torso begged him to scratch at it.
And then, the head shifted. A snort, a huff, and then a low, startling noise arose from the guard. One that sent a rush of adrenaline through Arthur as he straightened, hand falling to the hilt of his knife.
But the guard was asleep. Asleep!
Caught between relief and readiness to attack, Arthur stared at the inert body before he stalked away. One of his footsteps came down on a branch, cracking it open, and Arthur froze. He turned, only to see that the sleeping watcher hadn’t even shifted.
Uswah was by his side by the time he turned back, glaring at Arthur. For a second, he struggled with his own feelings before Arthur inclined his head and dropped down again into a crouch. Silent chastisement finished, she led the way once more, the pair crouched at the edge of the clearing moments later.
Silently, the pair counted the number of figures. Nine that they could see. Including the guard, that would be ten. They waited for another long, interminable period where not a single figure stirred, the entire group either deep in cultivation—three figures, eyes closed—or asleep.
And then, Uswah gestured for them to back off. It took them a while to move away from both the guard and the rest of the group, before the woman was willing to speak again.
“Definitely following us, I’d say,” Arthur said. He could not think of a reason for such a group to be coming out this way, not so close to where they were. It was not as though they were taking the most direct route to the orang minyak village.
Frowning, Arthur didn’t not answer immediately. Could he justify acting against them, on just a base suspicion? If he could, how far was he willing to go? On the other hand, could he refuse to act, knowing that they might attempt to attack his team later?
At which point did self-defence become offense? Did such concepts and morality even exist in the Tower, where survival of the fittest was the prevailing wisdom? Then again, was not the idea of the Benevolent Durians the antithesis of such self-interest? And if he attacked now, would he be betraying his clan’s ideals?
Yet . . .
“If we let them attack, I’m putting our people at risk,” Arthur said softly.
“But we can’t just kill them,” Arthur said, firmly.
“Leaving them alone, though . . . that doesn’t sit well with me.”
“You’re being very helpful.”
“Not my place.”
Arthur grunted and nodded. She was not wrong. He had chosen to come here because he was the one in charge, after all. At the end of the day, he was here because he wanted, no, needed to be the one to make this call.
So he best make it.