Arthur stepped back, twisted his hips and heaved, throwing the spear directly at his opponent. The forest troll took the spear right in its chest, even as Mel chopped at a limb reaching for her and Jan ducked low beneath Arthur’s flying spear to chop at hairy, warty legs with her parang.
The creature staggered back, green blood blossoming around its chest wound where the spear pierced it. Arthur took off running and leapt high to grab at the spear shaft. He levered the staff upwards with his trajectory, forcing the massive creature to crash to the ground as damaged limb and greater weight took its toll.
The smell of moss and spilled green blood filled the air. The aroma had a salty, musky tinge, more reminiscent of breaking mushrooms away from the earth than bleeding a living creature. Not iron in its blood but something else.
Arthur was not, of course, staying still long enough to figure out exactly what. Instead, foot planted on the body, he twisted his body sideways as he yanked the spear out, only to find it caught between hardened bone. He lost a precious few seconds, long enough for a swinging hand to nearly catch him unawares.
Nearly, because shadow tendrils rose up on one side, gripping the troll’s limb and pulling it back to the ground while Mel’s swinging halberd took the other arm off, finally. In the meantime, Jan scurried around to the creature’s head and started swinging a parang. It rose and fell in rhythmic thocks, like a gruesome drummer.
“Ah-hah!” Arthur cried in triumph, managing to yank the spear free.
He backed away then, choosing not to attack the creature’s torso. Like the mushrooms it smelled of, it had no internal organs that were necessary for its survival. No heart, no liver, no kidney. The only way to truly kill these things was to behead or delimb the creature entirely, or burn it.
And since Jan had the beheading part well in hand, he surveyed their surroundings. The other forest trolls were being dealt with, the mushroom-scented monsters each taking a group of three at least to manage. Luckily, Casey and Lam with the help of Yao Jing were more than competent at managing their creature. They were herding it back for Yao Jing to release concussive fist strikes into its body. The empowered concussive blows shook up the creature’s internals—whatever they really were—pulping them such that it moved like it was punch drunk more often than not.
Noting that no one was in any danger, Arthur ambled over to Rick, nodding to the man as he stood guard, crossbow in hand. The mounted crossbow bolt was a broadhead, its tip nearly the size of Arthur’s palm.
“How are you liking your new toy?” Arthur asked.
“It’s not a Benelli Super Black Eagle, but it’ll do,” Rick replied. “It’s a lot quieter and most things aren’t going to get up again after I shoot them with this.”
“Isn’t there another term? ‘Loose’ rather than ‘shoot’?” Arthur said.
“How would I know?” Rick asked. “I’m not an archer.” He hefted the crossbow. “I’m using this because it’s the best option otherwise.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe you people didn’t have something more modern.”
Once more, Arthur eyed the contraption Rick was carrying. He had to admit the man was right. Instead of a modern steel-and-plastic body, this thing was all metal and wood and more closely resembled something he’d see in a medieval movie.
Then again . . .
“They’re illegal mostly. Or at least, I think they’re illegal.” Arthur shrugged, not really caring. “I’m surprised Kong Hua was willing to sell us one.”
“He’s still trying to get in good graces with you,” Rick said. “After you managed to keep Nicholas from getting skewered by the Tower guard, I think he’s trying to mend fences.”
“Don’t remind me,” Arthur said with a roll of his eyes.
The lovesick boy had actually attempted to climb through an open window of the Durians’ clan hall to meet his lady love. Of course, what Arthur hadn’t told Kong Hua was that Harley had left the window open for the boy on purpose, thinking it would be a rather romantic final act by him to showcase his love and devotion. Mel had managed to extract that crying confession while Arthur was handling the Tower guard and then patching the injured young man together.
There was a reason Arthur was enjoying their current trip through the woods, even with the forest trolls, babi ngepet, kuching hitam, massive spiders, and the rest. massive spiders, and the rest. So were the rest of his team. They didn't fancy Nicholas and Harley's antics, which smacked of too much Bollywood and anime
“You know, I have gotten better,” Rick said, leadingly.
“We need someone to be on watch when we’re in a fight,” Arthur replied.
“Isn’t that Uswah’s job?”
“She doesn’t have the stopping power your toy has.”
“Still . . .” Rick began to say.
Arthur cocked his head as he studied the other man, frowning. “Are you seriously trying to suggest you get in close and dirty with that knife? You don’t have anything to prove any more, you know.”
“I know.” Rick shifted on his feet before he added, “I just like fighting, you know?”
Arthur hesitated before he nodded. “Fine. Next time we run into something, you can switch with Uswah.”
“Good. I prefer watching.”
Arthur managed to stifle his yelp as Uswah made her presence known right by his elbow. Rick swung his crossbow towards her before he caught himself halfway, glaring at the tanned, tudung-clad woman. Her face wrinkled a little as she laughed silently at their reactions.
It didn’t, of course, help her creepiness factor that she had managed to acquire a further understanding and expansion of her shadow techniques. Now, wherever she stood, it seemed like she was partly shaded, even under the bright sunlight of day. During periods of twilight or the evening, she had a tendency to fade into the background.
And as always, there was her missing limb. Still missing, but a new, flickering darkness sat in its place. Shifting with the sunlight, fading away as Arthur paid attention to it, and then reappearing as he looked aside. Uswah refused to speak about what was happening there, only saying that it was a work in progress.
All kinds of reassuring really.
“How much further?” Arthur said, refusing to let her see how much she’d rattled him. “Until we get to eat some burgers?”
“We just ate,” Casey said as she joined them.
“I could eat more,” Yao Jing said.
“Look, it was a bad rhyme.” Arthur sighed. “I ended with ‘further’. And then the only other word I could think of was . . . not great.”
“So you went with ‘burger’?” Casey said.
“Better than being insensitive.”
“Now I’m curious what you were thinking of.”
“Stay curious.” Arthur nodded firmly and a little patronizingly before looking at Uswah. “Seriously. How much further?”
“Another day. This infestation of trolls is slowing us down,” she replied.
“They’ll hibernate in a few days,” Mel replied. “They cycle through every six weeks. We’re just unlucky.”
“We could wait?” Jan said.
“No,” Casey replied firmly. “We push ahead. It’s not that bad. And at least there are fewer patrols.”
Arthur had to admit she was right. The forest trolls had a tendency to attack everything, even other monsters on the floor, so the orang minyak “scouts” had pulled back as they seemed to be aware of the trolls’ pattern of behavior. Still, reading about how the forest trolls presence affected the cultivator city and dealing with them in-person were two different things.
“Let’s go then.” Arthur waved the team on. “If we’re not stopping, then we’ve got ground to cover. A lot of it.”
The group started off, with Casey falling in step with Arthur as usual. It took them half a dozen steps before she said, “So, really. What were you rhyming it with?”