Being dropped onto his back without warning was painful, but thankfully, he had been exhausted enough that all it meant was that he bounced off the ground rather bonelessly. Looking up at the glaring woman who had carried him the rest of the way, he grinned his thanks a little.
“Idiot.” Jan shook her head. “If someone attacks us, then how?”
“I’ll hide behind all of you big strong women, of course,” Arthur replied. He wasn’t going to tell her that he wasn’t as exhausted as he acted. He still kept a good portion of energy stored away, just in case he needed to trigger Heavenly Sage’s Mischief again.
Rolling her eyes, Jan tromped off, leaving Arthur to pull himself up. He winced and shrugged his backpack off, rubbing at the portion of his back where he had managed to land on the pots and other hard objects.
Gods, what he would do for a storage ring.
Dismissing the thought a moment later, he sat there and breathed slowly, circulating energy through his body to help drive some of the exhaustion from him while also refilling the stores of his energy. He was two thirds through his fifth cycle when a foot made its presence known in the side of his ribs.
Falling over on his side, groaning in pain at being interrupted, he was just grateful it was not during a very critical part of his cultivation. Sitting upwards, he found himself growling.
“What kind of jerk interrupts someone in the middle of cultivation?” Arthur snapped. “You could have—” He trailed off when he realised it was Uswah who had kicked him.
“I checked. Now, go set up your own tent. We’re not your slaves.” She kicked his bag and left.
“I didn’t think she had a temper at all,” Arthur said, rubbing at his side through tight breathing.
“She doesn’t. I do,” Sharmila said. “Next time, I won’t ask her to interrupt you. I’ll do it myself.”
Arthur stared at her for a second, then grinned and hopped to his feet. Or he tried, before his left leg seized and he fell over.
“Just . . . one second.”
Muffled laughter from most of the women around. Except for Jan, of course. She didn’t bother even to muffle her hoots of laughter.
It took him a good five minutes of circulating his energy and stretching before he managed to get his leg working again, at which point he began the process of putting his tent up. Luckily, these were modern tents, which meant putting them up was a matter of minutes rather than hours of cursing and wondering which demented god had decided to invent tents.
Without the need to cook dinner, the group fell silent soon after, each member of the team cycling energy to cultivate in turn. Once Arthur managed to top himself off too, he turned his focus—finally—to the other battle technique he had purchased.
Training in Heavenly Sage’s Mischief during the day had been more than enough for him. Already, he could tell his muscles were sore and were going to complain about it later, so a period of resting the body was optimal. Anyway, he really did want to learn Refined Energy Dart.
Reading over the technique’s scroll once more to make sure he had the full understanding and recollection of the process in mind, Arthur began the laborious process of feeling for his aura and then pinching a portion of it off.
Pinching his aura was sort of like squeezing a water balloon with your eyes shut and a hand that had been clad in oven mitts. Practice made the oven mitts less strange to wear, thinning the material and giving him more control. Practice also meant he could actually find and grip the damn water balloon three times out of ten.
The good news was that this part of the Refined Energy Dart combat technique did not require him to use any actual refined energy. Considering he first had to refine any energy he cultivated, wasting refined energy on practising this was going to be annoying.
On the other hand, in theory, using refined energy meant that it would do even more damage. Of course, that was a supposition since he had no idea how much damage it would do till he actually used it.
When he got tired of grabbing and failing, Arthur opened his eyes. Turning his head from side-to-side, he briefly looked about, finding the silence peaceful. He breathed deeply and took in the forest and the cries of animals late in the evening. Cicadas and other insects, swooping bats and floating heads, trailing intestines, all in the forest.
He breathed in and out. Then, his eyes widened and he grabbed his spear, screaming, “Penanggal! Penanggal attack!”
A floating head moved, yanking its teeth out of a woman’s neck—she was one of the forward scouts. Intestine-like entrails connected to the head had wrapped around the scout, who began to thrash and yelp with pain. Another head—which had feminine features and long black hair—floated towards Arthur, screaming. Or it tried to, having no lungs to expel air. Merely vibrating the air in its throat, it could only make a strangled sound.
The women were fast to act, but Arthur was already awake and the first to spot the monsters. Uswah, who happened to be on watch, attacked the floating head that had bitten the scout. An arc of black light flashed, catching the monster on its face, tearing and revealing white skin beneath.
At the same time, Arthur leapt and stabbed his spear at the nearest penanggal. He pushed energy through his body and into his spear. Focused Strike empowered his attack to punch through the head that was darting towards him.
Impaled through its nose, the monster did not stop moving. It merely floated down the spear, eyes gleaming and intestines whipping at Arthur. He winced as he was struck and reflexively threw the entire spear away, taking the creature and its whipping tentacles with it.
Breathing through the pain, he watched the penanggal fly and bounce off the ground. Intestines splayed and curled, before they pushed and slid the bleeding head off Arthur’s spear.
Another muted, twisted scream and the monster was now lunging back at Arthur. A pair of throwing knives caught it midway, tearing stripes of skin and an intestine edge off.
Nearby, the first monster screamed as Uswah tore into it with her black Yin chi knives while Sharmila strode up, her heavy maul swinging hard the moment intestines were ripped free from the scout who was first attacked.
Impact shattered the penanggal’s skull before it flew, entrail-less, into the distance to crash into a tree, splattering like a rotten egg. Dropping down beside the scout, Sharmila tore at a few stray tentacles and freed the woman to breathe.
Pulling his attention back to his assailant, Arthur was not surprised that the second penanggal, that vampiric ghost, was being dealt with. The rest of the team tore and struck at it till it finally died.
Exhaling in relief, Arthur opened his mouth to make a quip. Only to catch Sharmila closing the eyelids of the scout.
Neither the night nor the forest was as peaceful as he had thought.