“I hate this,” Arthur cursed, swinging the parang he had been loaned. He was using the damn tool for its intended purpose: chopping his way through the undergrowth. The deeper they pushed into the forest, the more overgrown it grew, with trees towering above and secondary growth having overtaken the lower altitudes. Shrubs, vines, thorny bushes, and low-hanging ferns composed the undergrowth in a dizzying and ecologically improbable array.
“There can’t be enough light for all this to be growing,” Arthur said, slicing upwards and then using his other gloved hand to rip a vine away before taking another step.
“No, not enough light,” Jan said. “But the Tower, no follow normal rules lah.”
Grumbling for another half dozen steps, Arthur snarled all of a sudden. He lunged forward, parang catching a kuching hitam as it leapt at him. The parang, never really meant for stabbing, was still empowered by the full-speed extension of his body along. Thanks to that and the creature’s own momentum, the blade punched right through it.
A quick twist, a shake of the blade, and the body crashed to the ground a short distance away. The cat struggled briefly before a spear pierced its throat. A few quick cuts and a plunging hand, then he was tossed the beast core.
“Thanks!” Arthur put the core away in his pouch, grateful that at least he was getting something now.
Another few steps before he could not help but ask, “Are you sure we’re going in the right direction?”
“Definitely,” Sharmila answered immediately.
He managed another half-dozen steps, his shoulder and muscles aching from the constant motions of slicing the undergrowth, before Shar added, “I’m pretty sure. At least in the right general direction.”
“Ohhhh no. You did not just say that,” Arthur said, spinning around. “What the hell are you talking about? What general direction? Are we just randomly hunting through the jungle? Because that’s how you get eaten, you know.”
“It’s not like that,” Sharmila said defensively. “We have a map, a series of coordinates we built up. We’re moving in the right direction to the coordinates but the, umm . . .” She scratched the back of her neck, looking sheepish. “The compass leading to it, that’s with Mel’s group.”
“Can we even find it without the compass?” Arthur’s eyes narrowed.
Silence was his answer. Though whether it was a silence of negation or just of unknowing, he was not certain. He wasn’t even certain they knew.
“Don’t you think it might be better for us to try to find their trail in that case?”
“We will, once we get closer.” Sharmila’s tone had grown colder, as though she intended to cut off this conversation.
Instead Arthur continued, though he did at least choose to continue to open a way. “And how long is that?”
“That one, we won’t tell you lah,” Jan snapped. “We let you come with us, but we not tell you all.”
Arthur sighed. Well, at least he had gotten something from the paranoid women. It didn’t matter in the end; he would learn what he needed to learn. Meanwhile, he could do nothing but play muscle for them and work on rebuilding his own strength.
Later that night, Arthur cycled between pulling energy from the beast cores he had collected that day and practicing his Refined Energy Dart. With his new Mind point, he was able to refine the energy much faster, both from the monster cores and his own energy core. In addition, the Dart skill was progressing well, now that he had the energy to waste. It was halfway through his ostensible watch that he felt the technique click, his formation speed and extraction of energy happening faster than ever.
“About damn time,” he whispered to himself, staring at the pockmarked bark of the tree he had been using as target practice. A fully refined and formed energy dart could tear through even the iron-like skin of the tree before him, drilling a half-inch hole into the hardwood beneath.
Against a fleshy opponent, he would expect it to pierce skin and damage organs. At least, so long as they had reasonably low stats in Body and hadn’t chosen a physical hardening aspect. Which, sadly, would probably take the Dart’s effectiveness from great to just mediocre.
There was also another problem.
Flexing his hand, he grimaced at the aura around his body. He stared, though he could not truly see it. Not yet, though he expected more practice with his eyes and with the techniques would allow him to build up such strength. Even so, what he sensed was ragged, torn, as he had ripped his own aura apart constantly.
“Figure maybe a half-dozen uses before it starts becoming dangerous to use,” Arthur said, again mostly to himself. He sighed after a second but nodded. Good enough, especially since it still took him time to refine energy.
Speaking of that… A mental command pulled his status screen into being.
“Not bad.” He could not help but be proud of the changes compared to when he started. Months ago? Half a year? More? He had loss track of time while out in the wilderness, especially while cultivating.
Was that, perhaps, why so many people outside were left waiting? Not because people had died, but because so many climbers just forgot? They got caught in a cycle of cultivating, refining, and improving that they never realised how long they had been here?
Sobering thought. If he cared about what was going on outside. But he had few enough ties, thankfully, so it had little import for him.
No, more important was the increased speed in refinement and cultivation. His next goal was to get another point in refined energy and then sink it into either Mind or Spirit to boost the attribute and gain an aspect. He’d have to consider which attribute, but either choice would be a boon to either study or cultivation progress.
For now, he had the remainder of a single core left. Even if these cores were beginning to give 0.15 points of refined energy per core, it wouldn’t be enough for what he needed. Which meant he’d crash once he sucked it dry. After all, he still needed actual sleep.
Huh. Maybe he should get that talent next time.