The first punch hurt. A lot. Not as much as the second one, even as he managed to block the third with his spear. That got grabbed and yanked away by Samseng One. Leaving an opening for his friends to charge Arthur.
He’d managed to send a knife-edge strike into that man’s neck, leaving him clutching his throat and trying to breathe around the bruised trachea. Too bad he hadn’t crushed it, but he was still a little weak. Also, the entire trachea and neck region was kind of squishy so actually collapsing the thing was harder than it looked, especially when your opponent was flinching in response.
That was Arthur’s only real success. Getting dog-piled while exhausted and hurting meant that he managed to land a few more blows that caught at thug bodies, but eventually they wrapped his arms up and kicked him hard enough in the balls that he stopped trying to kick people.
Then, Samseng One made his way back. Throwing punch after punch into his body. Not the face, since working the body left him exhausted and wracked in pain. Each meaty thud elicited a groan of pain and a cough of blood, each cracked rib threatened to puncture a lung. Only the improved body he had developed in the Tower stopped him from receiving a fatal wound immediately, but that was just a matter of time.
Another punch, this one to the face, had his head snapping to the side. Before the next one could snap his head back, a hand had reached out and grabbed Samseng’s arm. Samseng looked really surprised, especially since the woman holding his arm was a foot and a half shorter than him, clad in a traditional Chinese flowery blouse and had grey hair with the requisite deep creases on her face to demarcate her age.
“Amah! What are you doing?” Samseng said, pulling at his arm as he tried to free it. “This is none of your business!”
“Yes, yes. You can beat him up later. I just want a word with him first,” the old woman said with a smile, eyes glittering. “Now, if I let you go, you wouldn’t hit your Amah, will you?”
“You’re not my grandmother!” Samseng growled. However, the looks even his own people shot him at his belligerence toward the older woman was enough to make Samseng retract his anger and bow a little. Or maybe it had something to do with the dozen other women surrounding the group of five. “But I don’t hit elders.” He paused, eyes narrowing dangerously. “Unless they hit me first.”
“I only hit my children when they were properly bad.” Releasing Samseng’s arm, the older woman then carefully lifted up Arthur’s bruised face. “So, young one. Can you speak?”
“Speak, sneak, beak.” Arthur replied. He frowned, then shook his head. “Meek. I can be meek.”
“I do not require any of that. Just information, if you have it. I hear you came in from the east. Deep east.” A single eyebrow rose. “Is that true?”
“Uhhh . . .”
“Answer the Amah, you fool! You think delaying is going to change your fate?” Samseng growled, sticking his head closer, only for the Amah to tut at him and push him back with two fingers.
Once he had given her and Arthur space, she looked at the wounded man and raised an eyebrow in further enquiry. “Well?”
“Which way’s east?” Arthur said after a moment.
“Oh my gods, you’re dumber than you look. I should have expected that, what with you daring to challenge us!” Samseng muttered.
Even the Amah was a little perturbed before she pointed in the exact opposite direction, right through the village. Or, as Arthur slowly realized, the direction of the woods he had returned from.
“Yes, I think so. Yes.” He nodded. Then, worry flashed through his mind, remembering the corpses he stole from. “They were all dead when I found them!”
“All?” Suddenly, the way she had looked and spoke to him grew sharp, the older woman leaning in and fixing him with a steely gaze. “Who is all?”
“A corpse. Had a sword . . .” He gestured downwards or tried to, then remembered he had left the broken weapon behind. “Uhh, had it . . .”
“Were they women? Three of them? Where did you find them?” Amah said urgently.
“No! Single corpse, killed and eaten. They were mostly bone . . . Deep inside. I can show you where?” Clutching at straws, which made Samseng growl in anger, and the pair of thugs holding him up by his arms to shook him.
“Only one?” Amah relaxed, shaking her head. “Never mind, then.” She turned away, dismissing Arthur to his fate.
Arthur sagged in the hands holding him, his exhausted body aching as he realized his brief moment of hope was disappearing. In the meantime, both Samseng and Amah—and really, would it hurt people to introduce themselves by their actual names?—were exchanging polite words, as though beating up and nearly killing a person was an everyday occurrence.
Maybe it was, in the Tower.
Head hanging, something nagged at him. Something she said. His brain was woozy, repeated blows to it along with the cultivation backlash leaving him struggling to remember what it was. Something about women.
Women. Idiot women, who’d taken his kills, who had not let him steal from the body. “Stupid people. . . Didn’t introduce themselves. What a stupid name too, Daiyu . . .”
“Wait. What did you say?” Amah turned around, her eyes fixed on him.
“It’s a stupid name. Daiyu.” Clarity, all too late, as he remembered. “It’s who you’re looking for, right? Mel, Daiyu. Rani.”
“How do you know them? What do you know, boy?” Hands gripped his chin, raising his head again. They tightened on his face as the old woman leaned in, her hot breath laced with stale tobacco smoke breathed into his face. “Where did you see them? When?”
“Why should I tell you?” Arthur said, gasping a little as her fingers tightened. “I’m just going to die anyway.”
“I can make it more painful,” she threatened.
“And? They went north. South. East. West. They danced in the river and killed members of the Suey Ying tong. They took them prisoners. Tortured them. Ate their flesh—Urk!” His voice cut off as fingers tightened.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?” Her voice had dropped low and dangerous now.
“Telling the truth. Telling lies. I’m going to keep doing that, till you don’t know whether the sky’s blue or green.” Arthur glared back. “Or you can help me out. And I’ll lead you to where I last saw them. Let you pick up the trail.”
“You little shit. I should cane you till you bleed.”
“Sure.” Arthur coughed, spitting blood to the side so as not to hit the woman. He sucked at the cut on his lips, and then grinned weakly. “But that won’t help you. I’ll spout bullshit till you’re not sure if I’m lying or telling the truth, no matter how much you’re hurting me. I’m real good at talking shit.”
Hissing, the Amah stepped back. Samseng, having watched the entire interaction, shifted a little so that he could look at Amah more closely.
“You aren’t thinking of taking him away from us, are you? If you want knowledge, we can extract it. We got people. No one talks shit when their balls are chopped off,” Samseng said.
“Why is it the balls with you people? Are you all just lusting after them? I mean, sure, Malaysia’s still a little backward, but really—URK!” Arthur stopped speaking as another punch took him in the stomach, leaving him heaving and gasping.
“I’m sure you could,” Amah was saying. “He might think he’s smart, but directions . . . well, you saw him. He’s probably too dumb to have kept a map—”
“I resemble that remark,” Arthur wheezed.
“—and we need to find our people.”
“I can’t let you do that,” Samseng said, stepping back and letting his hand drop to the parang he had sheathed.
“Now, don’t do something you’ll regret boy,” Amah said, her head rising. She fixed him with a stern glare, even as the men holding Arthur let him go, letting him fall to the ground. Like the rest, they got ready to fight over his poor, tortured body.
It’d be amusing. If he wasn’t hurting so much.