Stepping between the monsters on each side, Arthur could not help but twitch as the jenglot glared at him. Their lips were peeled back, long fangs upon the snub-nose visages. They huffed out diseased, stinking air. Claws hung from dangling hands, swinging with each moment even as Arthur felt the timer of his own cultivation technique tick down.
Slow and tentatively as he might move, the others in the group had rushed ahead. Shar was facing off against the Elite now, parang held before her as she now approached a little more carefully. Not that it helped, for when the creature chose to move, it closed the distance between the pair of them in a blur.
The meaty, solid thunk—like an axe-head hitting hardwood—resounded through the air as Shar managed to block the lunge of its claws with her parang. Even so, the woman slid back as the long, single-edged blade backed by the flat of her palm did little to dissipate the large monster’s momentum.
On her backfoot, her body began to glow a darker colour, strands of energy forming around her body to give her strength and speed. Not a moment too late for dodging a follow-up claw swing.
The pair danced backwards, Shar entirely on the defensive as the Elite controlled the pace of the battle, its pair of claws almost overwhelming the woman. In the meantime, Mel had skidded to a halt beside the injured Uswah, pulling a bandage out from her storage pouch to create a temporary torniquet around her crippled arm, murmuring words of reassurance.
Uswah was not answering, awake but with eyes staring out into the darkness unseeing.
Behind, Jan and Rani were moving carefully, facing away from one another as they stared at the jenglot. Still, none of them attacked, not even when the girls and Arthur managed to exit the ring. Instead, they turned as one and stared at the humans with wide lolling grins as they waited for a command.
Backing away from the ring of monsters quickly, Arthur eyed the Elite that had finally overwhelmed Shar in the brief time it had taken for them to reach them. It now stalked the woman as she tried desperately to scramble away.
“No, not this way! Please . . .” Shar was half-crying as she tried to get to her feet, her initial anger and impetus torn away.
The others were watching, staring at the monsters that now stood between them and salvation, scared to act and trigger the inevitable onslaught. Unable to watch the murder of their friend.
All but Arthur, who found his mind, cloaked in Yin chi, playing through options. He was scared, he was in fact terrified, but there was still a part of him calmly assessing the options. And that part realised that it mattered little if they angered the Elite now or later; it would be the same in the end.
As the monster turned sideways, he unleashed the Energy Dart he had been holding in abeyance all this time. He was not surprised when the Elite managed to sway aside, dodging what should have been a surprise attack with swiftness as though it had anticipated Arthur.
What it was not ready for was Arthur rushing forward and jumping high, spear in hand. Burning with Heavenly Sage’s Mischief, he crossed the distance faster than he could ever have before, moving at a speed that would have put an ex-Tower Olympian to shame.
The spear caught the monster with an upraised arm, tearing through flesh of its upper body and then anchoring itself to the creature’s chest. That portion of the attack, driven by Focused Strike, only managed to enter a few inches deep before the jenglot’s innate toughness and coarse fur saved it. The spear, as it exited arm and body left a long, bloody wound even as Arthur landed in a crouch.
A small part of Arthur was surprised that the command was in English. Another, bigger surprise, that it was uttered by the Elite jenglot.
But his Yin-calmed mind took advantage of the moment to thrust the spear again, scoring another injury on the monster’s lower torso before he had to back away.
Initial success or not, Arthur had known he was not the monster’s match. It was too strong, too fast, for him to tackle by himself. Even with the Heavenly Sage’s Mischief, he could barely keep up with the striking claws. Minor wounds appeared across his arms in short order and even a torn flap of skin from his scalp.
Always, he backed off, even as he glimpsed his friends struggling as the other monsters fought on the Elite’s command. The three girls, Mel included, stood over the still-unmoving Uswah, doing their best to keep the jenglot away. Yet, wounds accumulated and energy was expended.
Even the occasional victories, like when Mel triggered an attack that made her spear blur, tearing into and killing a jenglot in a half-dozen flickering strikes, were temporary. Other monsters merely closed the gap. Energy stores would soon deplete, and the end was coming.
For him, if nothing else.
Another block, high. His spear bending, being forced down by the pressure of mighty claws. The other clawed hand pulled back, ready to punch forward; it felt as if Arthur could only watch as death came. A Refined Energy Dart was forming on his third eye but all too slow.
Pinching and gripping the Dart tight, he could only bear it as the Elite punched a hand at his torso. Only by turning at the last second, Arthur escaped a fatal wound. Painful as it was, the claws only tore into one side of his body.
Then, as the creature recovered balance, he finished the Energy Dart and unleashed it right into the monster’s face. It blasted half the face off, exposing an orbital lobe and bursting an eyeball. The monster screamed and thrashed as it fell away.
And yet it still lived.
Retreating, finding that one foot had suddenly failed him, blood filling his shoe, Arthur could not help but wonder again if this was the end. A fool’s choice, to come out here.
Then again, climbing the Tower itself had always been foolish.