“Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Sharmila cursed, pounding a fist over and over into her leg as though the pain was but a penitence. “I should have told her to be more careful. I should have been in front . . .”
“It’s not your fault,” Jan was repeating, over and over again. For obvious reasons, Sharmila was ignoring her entirely.
The team had reconvened a distance away, having managed to retreat across a swift-flowing stream. Water would not have stopped the colony of semut if they had chosen to pursue, at least not for long, but the ants seemed to consider it a done cause, staying on the other side of the stream even as Arthur and the women ran for it.
Thankfully, the ants were not very good at pursuit, more and more of them wandering off in random directions the further the team retreated. It meant that beyond the initial difficult breakoff, they had not been in any real danger of being swarmed.
Now, they sat and rested, attempting to catch their breath and still their pounding hearts. Sharmila strode back and forth, angrily cursing herself out and lapsing into Hindi at times. Arthur’s own knowledge of Hindi was rather anemic, even in the cursing department. So he mostly let what she said wash over him, as he cleaned his spear and checked on the edge, making a face as he noted a nick.
“I never saw any of those things, the last time I was out,” Arthur muttered ever so softly to Uswah. He did not want to set off Sharmila again, but this was information he felt he needed.
“Semut ni . . . They're not common at all,” Uswah replied after expelling a long breath. “Kita malang je.”
With a nod, Arthur agreed they had simply been unlucky. Idly, he noted her switching to Malay. Perhaps even she was shaken. Even with the cool effect of Yin on their minds. He was surprised he was not more scared himself. His breathing was only short because of the run, not because of the hideous image of a woman being torn apart by ants, screaming and screaming and screaming and thrashing . . .
Or maybe he was.
“So, we’re just unlucky to meet the semut merah?” Arthur mouthed the words, as though testing them out. As though saying it made the horror any less . . . horrible. And finding that it did, a little.
It was something Asians in particular seemed to be more accepting of than the Westerners. Their “first-world problems” meme even made fun of it. They were more resigned to the fact that the world sucked. Fate and the gods really were out to get you, and sometimes shit happens.
Of course, the generation before was even more bitter and twisted. His own generation had grown up with the Towers as a potential saviour, while his elders had grown up with rising inflation, capital flight, the great depression redux forced by autonomous machinery, and climate crisis control and damage, and . . .
Yeah, maybe they had a reason to be bitter.
“So, now what?” Arthur muttered, watching as Shar kept stalking around, cursing. So many deaths, so many losses. Even people who decided to leave. They were now down to six members of the team.
“We go round the nest.”
Well, of course. Sensing Uswah was done with the conversation, he shut up too and focused on cleaning and buffing the nick out of his spear. If things were going to get tougher, he had better keep his gear in good condition.
The group swung wide of the nest, spending nearly an entire day hiking parallel to the location before crossing back to their initial path. They took only a minor deviation, following a Tower compass that only worked in the Tower and charted the direction they needed to go in.
As though the presence of the semut merah had marked the start of a much more dangerous section of the first floor, the group found themselves beset more often by monsters. Even Arthur stopped trying to practice his exercises during the day, as an extra eye out for threats was necessary.
Everything from babi ngepet and kuching hitam to mutated snakes and more appeared, all intent on ending their lives. As dangerous as these monsters were, the annoying increase of poisonous, thorned, and spore-ridden plants forced the group to move cautiously, slowing down the team even further.
Exhausted more regularly and earlier in the day, they started taking longer breaks and stopping for the night earlier. Regular cultivation sessions were built into those stops to allow the team to replenish the energy they lost battling monsters or taking a longer route to avoid confrontation.
Yet, for all their slowdown, the team continued to make their way to their destination. Eventually, after nearly a week and a half, during which time Arthur managed to learn and put into practice his new Refined Energy Dart technique—though only when holding still—the group reached the location where he had last seen Mel, Daiyu, and Rani.
It had been luck more than careful scouting that had them stumble upon Arthur’s old trail. They found a lean-to built hastily into the ground, where Arthur had rested. The trail led them back to where he had conducted his desperate battle with Budo. Stopping in the clearing, Arthur watched as the group spread out, searching for traces of the three women.
Of course, months after the initial meeting, traces of their passage had been entirely wiped out. Leaving the team to stand around, looking a little frustrated and very lost.
“Now what?” Jan was saying to Sharmila. “We lost Kate and Wang Ming. We can’t track Mel. Nobody got a tracking technique.”
Shar, voice low, cast glances at the rest of the disgruntled team. “No,” she muttered. “We thought two would be enough. Two of us could have gotten here faster. Maybe found some trace of them.” Cursing, she looked around. “I don’t know. If we go on . . .”
“It’s dangerous lah, Shar.”
“It’s a chance for us all, though,” Sharmila said tightly.
“And him, leh?” Jan flicked a glance at Arthur.
Studiously ignoring the conversation, legs crossed and eyes half-closed as though he was cultivating, Arthur made himself continue to breathe properly. He was not likely to be fooling Uswah, but she hadn’t said anything so . . .
Who was he kidding? They probably weren’t that dumb to think he was cultivating while they discussed what to do with him. Since one of those options might be “chop his head off and let the Tower deal with his body”.
Still, if he managed to fool even one of them, it might be worth it. In the meantime, he had a Refined Energy Dart half-formed above his clasped hand, ready to throw as a surprise.
Don’t trust and definitely verify.
“Kill or trust.” Uswah murmured, her voice fading in from a short distance away. “Either way, choose.”
Sharmila fell silent, and even with his eyes half-closed and unfocused, he could feel the weight of all their gazes fall on him. Holding the Refined Energy Dart close, he waited to hear his fate from those he had traveled and fought beside for weeks.
Sometimes, secrets were worth killing for after all.