“Remember, the job is to kill the jenglot safely. We fall back if there are more than four of them, let the traps and the doorways keep their numbers down. If there’s another Elite, you let me deal with it,” Mel said, repeating herself once again.
It was a mark of her nervousness, Arthur thought, that she was telling them what they already knew. The fact that she kept glancing back, around, and at the door—all while licking her lips—were indications that she was not as confident as she seemed. It made him wonder how bad that night attack had been that drove the initial team in. That the original group had not progressed much by the time they had arrived.
Or even gone outside.
Was that it?
Before he could ask – before he could even consider if he should ask – Shar and Jan pushed open one of the double doors. Mel stepped out with Rani by her side, the pair crouching low and watching the treeline and the surroundings for an ambush.
As always, Arthur and Uswah brought up the rear, once Shar and Jan had cleared the doorway. A dozen steps away from the tower entrance, Mel and Rani waited.
And wait they did, for long moments that dragged into an eternity.
Eventually, the group straightened up, no longer in a crouch. You could only stay tense for so long and not lose your edge. Besides, no matter how much Arthur scanned the surrounding forests, he could not spot a single jenglot. Not to say he did not see any monsters, having spotted the passing of a kuching hitam in the shadows of a tree to their right.
“They all gone, ah?” Jan said.
“Nah . . .” Arthur began to reply, then stopped when he realised who he was answering. Not that she seemed to care that he had said something.
“You see them?” Uswah, by his side, asked curiously.
“No. Nothing.” Stretching a little, he gestured at the trees. “But we didn’t the last time, right? Maybe they only come at night.”
“Maybe. We were all sleeping when they showed up,” Uswah said.
“Then let’s collect what we can, while we can.” Mel said, then suited action to words as she led the way to the abandoned camp.
Unfortunately, multiple weeks of being left unattended saw everything from the tents to the backpacks within them rather worn down. It seemed that some of the jenglot, in a fit of pique, had taken their claws to any tent left standing, leaving large rents in both tents and backpacks.
For all that, the group did their best to scavenge what goods they could, finding and pulling on new clothing, and retrieving the undamaged plastic bags where they could. It left them with more resources than before, especially the basic gear that they had been missing, including pouches, water filters, plates, and cooking utensils. Even if they did not need to eat, the act of doing so was comforting.
By the time the group had collected their goods, the sun was beginning to set. By unspoken agreement, they returned to the tower to deposit their goods before exiting. The group took a semi-circle position near the entrance, though after a moment, Arthur could not help but comment.
“This is silly. We don’t know when exactly they’re going to arrive.” When the others looked at him, he straightened and pointed to the ground. “I’m going to start a fire at the least. Think anyone can grab some firewood? There’s still enough light that if we expect them to come at night, we should be fine.”
Again, silence greeted his words before Mel nodded.
“He’s right. Let’s set up a camp or something. At least get comfortable. If they see us ready to fight, maybe they won’t come at all.”
Now that was a sobering thought, Arthur considered. After all, a group of monsters that could reason out when a team was safe enough to fight was dangerous. Even more so than the sheer strength that the jenglot had shown.
Then again, these monsters seemed stuck in the way they interacted, never moving between tower floors. So perhaps they weren’t that smart.
Really, figuring out why and how this tower worked was annoying.
Two small fires, set on either side of the tower entrance, flickered as the last of the artificial sun glowed outside—Was it artificial? It had to be. On one side sat Mel, Rani, and Arthur. On the other side, the trio from his original group. As much as Arthur wanted to query Uswah about his cultivation further, he needed time to practise again before further discussion would make sense. Add the fact that Uswah was at best an apathetic teacher, and he preferred to extract those nuggets of information with as much gap in time as he could afford to.
One aspect that was not particularly concerning was getting cultivation wrong. Not that you couldn’t do it wrong and reduce the amount of energy you drew in, or hurt yourself if you drew Yang chi in if you were a Yin-bodied individual—like he found out—but concerns about cultivation deviation that were so popular in stories were overblown.
There were very, very few actual cases of cultivation deviation, and in most cases, it was when an individual had sought to take a shortcut that was prohibited. In all such cases, the individuals involved had later reported a sense that they were going down the wrong route—a very wrong route—well beforehand and had to struggle to push through.
Some studies had even attempted to verify such experiences outside the Tower, and the results were somewhat mixed. Still, it was generally accepted that part of the bad feelings—the sense of taking a wrong path—seemed to stem from the Tower itself. This often led to further experiments on correct, or more efficient, cultivation methods within the Tower.
All of which was a long way of saying why Arthur had chosen to hang out with Mel and Rani rather than the initial group. Actually, it was mostly to dodge Jan’s dislike. And, he had to admit, a lingering sense of guilt over Daiyu’s death.
“You probably would be better off joining them on that side,” Mel said, touching the spear she wielded. “We can hold them off on this side ourselves.”
“Maybe,” Arthur said. “But I figure it’s safer here, than there.”
“Eh? Why?” Rani said curiously.
“Stronger, remember?” Arthur said. Then, because his brain said so, he half-sung, “Stronger, together. We cannot be torn apart!”
When everyone glared at him, he shrunk in a little.
“What? No one remembers that song?”
He sighed and watched as they returned to Rani’s question.
“So, you not being passive aggressive at Jan?” Rani said.
“No, lah,” Arthur said dismissively. He even flapped a hand in indication.
“Hm . . .” Rani was unconvinced.
Mel snorted. “I’m still surprised you ended up here. Or that you managed by yourself so long. Last time we saw you, you were barely hanging on.”
“Doing better now, no?” Arthur said, smirking.
She held out a hand and waggled it. “You managed to acquire an uncommon constitution, one that’s more suited to women than men. And somehow managed to find the one group that can help you with it, at least without asking for an arm and a leg. Or an oath of fealty. On the other hand, you’re in the middle of a forest, and you’ve angered at least one major guild.”
Arthur hunched in a little as she spoke, before sighing at last. “It’s not by choice.” He considered what he said, then added: “Mostly.”
“If you said otherwise, I’d smack you.” Mel said, lifting her left hand to indicate the action before shrugging. “It is what it is. You seem to have survived and picked up a few new techniques. Maybe you’ll survive long enough to pass through the first floor too.”
Arthur snorted, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah . . . but truth be told, I was planning to spend more time on this floor before I push ahead. Get stronger before the next floor and all that, you know?”
“Mmm, that’s a common tactic. But it’s a waste of time,” Mel said. “You aren’t getting younger staying down here. And a single core from the second floor is twice as good as the ones here.” She shook her head. “Get stronger, certainly. But don’t waste all your time, because those on the second floor will always be stronger than you.”
“Not the people I’m worried about, as much as the monsters,” Arthur pointed out.
“Then you’re a fool. Considering the enemies you’ve made, what makes you think that the monsters are your biggest threat?”
That made Arthur fall silent, as he realised the mistake he had made. It was not that he had gone out of his way on purpose to annoy the Suey Ying tong. It just happened. But if they sent word ahead to the second floor, well . . .
“Crap,” he said aloud.
Rather than answer him, Mel held a hand up. She turned her head to the side, as though listening to something the others could not hear. Alerted to potential trouble, Arthur squinted into the darkness, the three moons above shedding enough light that the clearing itself was well illuminated, if not the area beneath the trees.
Even so, he thought he saw glimmering eyes and movement.
Reaching over, he gripped his spear and came out of his cross-legged position into a half crouch. As though his movements were the signal, howls erupted from around them as figures, shadows at first, made an appearance at the edge of the treeline.
Jenglot. And a lot of them.