Morning came early that day, bringing with it a somber group. Arthur no longer teased the team or made them carry his body while he practiced his techniques. He understood that such actions would see him receive even shorter shrift, but also . . . it was just wrong.
Mischief and humour were all right and good, and in fact necessary in the greater view of the world, but there was a time and place for tomfoolery. Today was not one of those. Today was time for somber thought and grief, long laid within. He felt it too, though much less than the women did. He had even helped to lay the scout’s body to rest, his spade digging into soft earth in the early morning light.
A part of him questioned the point of burial, what with the tendency for bodies—human or monster—
to break apart within days. Yet, he chose not to speak his thoughts out loud.
They took off soon after, moving through the woods at a slower clip, more watchful than ever. The scouts pulled in a little tighter, their concerns over the higher level of monsters growing. Arthur kept one ear out for them, but for the rest of the time, he practiced.
The danger they were in pushed him to jiayou a little, to try harder. He needed to improve and expand his range of options. He could not increase all his attributes—he did not have the requisite number of points—but he definitely could at least study his Refined Energy Dart.
All day long, with minor pauses, he grabbed and twisted energy, again and again. He did not push the energy through his body, knowing better than to try that with the low reserves that he had. He also knew he needed to preserve a certain amount of it to actually use the skill later.
Lunch was a small number of berries, more something for them to chew upon and a drink of water than anything substantial. While there was no need for it, the act itself helped calm them down, settle nerves. Ritual, a connection that reminded themselves of who and what they had been.
Five minutes and then they started moving again, travelling through the forest. Once again, Arthur began his practice, only to be interrupted moments later.
“What are you doing?” Uswah, head cocked to the side. She watched the hand that he had been flexing as he imagined the motion of pinching his aura to cast the Refined Energy Dart from it.
“Practicing,” Arthur replied. “Aura practice.”
“Oh. I hated those,” Uswah said. “But you’re not doing it for your cultivation.”
“How’d you know?”
“Too concentrated.” She pointed at his hand.
“I might be trying to focus on one part, you know.”
“Maybe.” She shrugged. “I don’t think so, though. It looks different.”
He sighed. And after a second, shrugged.
“Fine, you caught me out. I’m practicing a new technique. Needs my aura to make it work, so I’m practicing how to do that.”
“Good to learn other forms,” she said after a second. She visibly hesitated then shut her mouth a moment later.
“Wh—” He never finished, as a cry from ahead made the pair look up. Gripping his spear tight with both hands, Arthur pointed it in the direction of the cry.
Ahead of them, a scout was backpedalling fast. Her hands were moving, half-drawing and loosing as fast as she could. But a single arrow—no, even a dozen arrows—would not be enough to stop what was coming. Not all of them, which was the frightening part.
“Semut merah!” she screamed as scores of ant-like monsters scrabbled into view one after the other. Actual red ants outside the Tower were each about the size of the first knuckle of a pinky, but these were nearly the size of a palm.
She was nearly back with the rest of the team when the first monster got hold of her as she failed to nock and fire fast enough. It clamped its mouth down on her foot, making her stumble. Then the next one climbed on top of the first ant. Then the one after, biting into the leg, the ankle, the foot.
She fell, screaming. They crawled over her, swarming, biting, tearing, crushing. She kept screaming, even as attacks from the rest of the team fell on the ants. Waves of black yin energy that cut into monster limbs. Arrows that punched through carapace and locked them down. Even little touches of flame that licked against a few.
Yet, for all that, they were just first-level Tower climbers. None of them had the power to destroy a swarm with the wave of a hand. They had no way to peel the ants off, not without harming her. Try as they might—and they tried mightily, some even risking their own hides to close in with a stab or jab—they failed.
Writhing body, covered in a carpet of red carapaced bodies. A scream that slowly increased in volume, on and on, then muffled by stabbing bodies and tearing pincers before it ended, cut short by a tearing strike. There were still screams, though, from the other women as they attempted to save her, even as her thrashing slowed then ended.
Arthur was in their midst too, stabbing and thrusting, using his spear to pin ant after ant. He growled as he noticed some crawling up the shaft, some heading for his feet. He fell back, eyes widening as he saw Sharmila wading in towards the body and swinging a parang.
“We have to retreat!” Uswah, cool-headed, at least enough to sense the danger. “She’s dead. You got to let her go.”
“No!” Sharmila cried.
Arthur swept low with his spear to send the monsters bouncing away. Then, he struck at Sharmila’s feet too, driving some of the ants back, attempting to keep her safe. Each monster bounced easily away with each strike; individually their light bodies no match for the enhanced strength of the Tower climbers.
It didn’t matter. There were too many.
“Shar!” Jan cried out, jumping in and pulling her back by the scruff of her breastplate. She pulled, harder than ever, making her friend stumble and retreat. “She’s dead. And so are we if we don’t go!”
Another swipe, another stab. Arthur retreated with the rest of the team, cursing out loud. “Where are they coming from?”
“Nest. We must have stumbled in too close,” Uswah said, still calm as she cut with her blades of Yin chi. “They’re very rare. Good killing, so long as you don’t get too close.”
“We’re too bloody close!” Arthur snapped. “We got to run.”
The group was shaken and backing away. Still fighting, but on the defense. Afraid. No one wanted to die, not that way.
“Chutiya!” Sharmila cursed and shook Jan off. Then, waving her free hand and still stumbling from the bites around her feet, she shouted, “Back! Keep moving. We got to back off. Find water.”
Together, the group ran, half-stumbling. Leaving one of their own behind, because they had no choice. Leaving the torn, damaged body, along with a piece of themselves. Because that was the way it went in the Tower.