The attack came from behind, without warning but for the snarls of two jenglot. Daiyu, who had been relegated to watching the back was caught by surprise, thrown backward by the claw thrust at her chest and caught on the remnants of her armour. The claw plunged deep into her body, and she was swung aside like a rag doll.
The other jenglot lunged at Arthur, who spun out of the way at the last moment. He brought up his spear to keep the monster at bay. At the same time, he formed and pinched off energy in his aura, sending it shooting out.
Not from his hands, which were both holding the spear, but from his forehead, the spot where the third eye would have been in common parlance. The Refined Energy Dart caught the second monster as it stepped into the hallway, tearing a hole through its chest.
This modification of the Refined Energy Dart was something Arthur had been practising for the last few days, ever since the boost in his control of energy had made it possible. Rather than forming it around his hand, Arthur chose to make use of the concentration point above his third eye, giving him a much easier method of firing his only ranged attack.
Best of all, the attack caught most monsters by surprise.
Taking advantage of the monster staggering backward, Arthur stepped forward and thrust with his spear. He aimed up, shoving the spear directly into the softer, fleshy portion of its throat. Focused Strike allowed his attack to slip through the monster’s innate toughness, skewering the monster in its mouth and then brain.
Unfortunately, monsters had a bad tendency to last a little even after a fatal blow. The creature thrashed for a moment, throwing Arthur side to side as he held onto the spear. The spearhead twisted in its flesh before popping out with a loud squelch.
The sudden release caused Arthur to stumble and slam into a wall. But the jenglot reared up in anger only to suddenly collapse as all the energy driving it ran out.
“Youch, that was an ouch,” Arthur complained. Searching for the first jenglot, then he froze as he caught sight of what his distraction—necessary as it was—had cost them.
For the monster was standing over the still form of Daiyu, claws buried in her chest as it scooped and tore her innards out. Thankfully, from the way she no longer moved, she had at least expired before the creature got to this.
“Ham ka chan!” Swearing in Cantonese, Arthur lunged forward, triggering Heavenly Sage’s Mischief. He regretted not using it now, even though he had wanted to save his energy for later. But rage took over reason, and he crossed the distance faster than ever, his cry alerting the monster. But it had barely raised its head before Arthur’s spear pierced its throat.
Paddling forwards, he carried them off Daiyu’s body, a foot slamming down on a weightless arm as he kept pushing until he had the creature pinned against the wall. He ducked low, feeling a claw rake across his side, tearing up his lower back and hip, before he shook his spear and pushed it higher.
The spear-tip twisted in at last, puncturing clean through, as the monster’s health drained away. With a heavy twist of his body, Arthur tossed the monster aside and looked around, searching for someone, something, else to kill.
And finding nothing but a group of horrified women staring at him and their fallen comrade.
It was strange, Arthur thought. Even though he understood, intellectually, that loss and death were part of life in the Tower, this was the first time it had weighed on his spirit. He had traveled alone during his first months in the Tower, and then with the Thorned Lotuses, but none of the deaths so far had really touched him.
He wasn’t exactly a stranger to death. The world out there, for those without a family inheritance and living on the meager amounts of a universal basic income, was harsh. Accidents still occurred, triads and tongs with their demands for blood money sometimes took collecting a little too far, and humanity had not learnt how to get rid of the worse kinds of illnesses. He’d burned incense for a school friend run over by an automated lorry gone awry, held the hand of a great-aunt as she passed from complications after a heart surgery, visited the graves of his grandparents.
But to see a friend, a companion, an ally torn apart—that was the strangest thing of all.
He wasn’t in denial; he had seen it happen. Even if he had wanted to deny it, perhaps it was just his culpability in her death. Yet, no one else claimed it was his fault. Not even Jan, who blamed him for the sun rising and setting whenever she felt like it.
Instead, they stood around the body, wrapping it up, speaking quietly in a corner, holding hands or looking into the distance. Stewing in the loss, motivation to continue suddenly lost. A room was found, the body placed within and then the door closed; except to those who wished to say last words to their friend.
In the meantime, Arthur found himself a room of his own, where he could play over the last few moments, wondering if he could have, should have acted faster. If he had been a little more wary, if he had killed his own opponent faster, could he have stopped it? Left her injured but alive?
What if she had survived, injured and in need of healing? Crippled in the Tower, alone. Would she have thanked him?
Another strange thought, that. Their bodies in the Tower were not normal. For all the battles they took part in, few enough limbs and extremities were lost. Perhaps the battles were too vicious, the healing properties of their altered bodies too great.
It required specific cultivation techniques and pills to restore limbs. But it was possible and, given enough time and enough energy, an individual could return to climbing the Tower. If they dared.
For whilst the body might be healed, the mind was still scarred.
How many would dare walk through darkness again, having felt their innards torn from their stomachs, limbs ripped from bodies and snacked upon by vicious monsters? And in this Tower, they were lucky. Tower monsters in certain Western European countries were known to indulge in even darker desires.
Pulling his mind away from those thoughts, Arthur prodded his feelings a little further. Morbid musings aside, he found himself grieving in a more general sense. Not specifically for who had been lost, but for the idea of the woman.
After all, Daiyu had been . . . hostile to begin with. Then, her presence in the group had been quiet, her presence minimized by her injuries and general reticence. She had spoken with Mel and Rani more than with others, and even then, had done little of that.
The hectic push up the tower, the constant wear of battle, and the tension had seen little enough time to speak and build bonds of camaraderie. So Arthur found himself with few enough memories of what, who, she was. No shared meals for they no longer ate. Just brief moments of terror as they fought and then long hours of silent cultivation.
Perhaps that, most of all, was what stripped them of their humanity. Food, time, and companionship outside of the desperate air of battle.
And yet . . . Arthur found himself wiping away the silent tears that collected in his eyes. Perhaps, humanity and grief itself were not so easy to discard. No matter what the builders of the Towers thought to do.