Four days of travel. Crossing streams, treading moss-covered rocks, climbing hills. Arthur took his turn at the front and at the back of the group. He fought, killed, and dealt with the creatures. As they delved deeper, more and more powerful monsters arrived. Some of them, like the babi ngepet, grew in size, strength, and numbers. Swarming the team, forcing them to fight defensively and sometimes run.
Injuries accumulated, even as concerns grew over where they were going. On the fifth day, the group changed direction, traversing at an angle to their initial line of movement to cut across a wider ground.
Another full day of walking and no sign of any trail, they cut backwards. Traversing the same direction, finding nothing, and then travelling another day. They pushed upward, climbing the series of hills that had appeared, dipping deep into the valleys in between.
Tension grew among the group, tempers fraying with each step as doubts simmered about reaching their goal. Of them all, Arthur was the least concerned, having the least invested.
Rather than engage in arguments, he took on more duties, being willing to take on the worst watches at night. He stayed up late and slept less, finding the time in between to train and cultivate, pulling energy from the cores he acquired when he could.
On the sixth day, towards the end of the afternoon as they searched for a place to camp for the night, eyes warily searched for the monstrously large kuching hitam that had been tracking them from high above, refusing to engage. It was then that they finally, finally, found the trail.
Sharmila, in the front, cried out loud. She waved up and down, calling them to the faded deer trail. There were few indications the trail had been used, but her grin still wide and bright.
“I told you we’d find it!” Sharmila said.
“How do you know it’s theirs?” Jan said. “Maybe just an animal trail.” Sniffing a little, she walked forward and then poked at some scat on the ground. “See?”
“Of course it’s an animal trail!” Sharmila said. “They must have found it and followed it.” She shook her head firmly. “Don’t you get it? This leads in the right direction and it’s the only one we’ve found. It has to be the way they came.”
“Also, footprint,” Uswah said. She was further up the trail now. “See?”
The entire group rushed over, excited to see, and realised that she was right. A single shoeprint—
or half of one, for it had driven deep into the mud between two roots, imprinting itself as the walker pushed forward after balancing on the root. Deep enough that even after weeks, it still stood.
“I told you!” Sharmila crowed.
“Yeah, yeah,” Jan muttered. “So now what?”
“What do you mean? We follow it, of course!” Sharmila said, waving down the trail. “We can’t be that far from the goal. A day. Maybe two.”
“Exactly,” Jan said. “"And still no news from Mel, after so many weeks. Something is wrong lah, Shar . . .”
The Indian woman fell silent, a look of concern flashing through her eyes as the seriousness of the matter overrode her initial excitement. After a few minutes, she sighed and nodded. “You’re right. I don’t want to lose the trail though. We go forward, carefully, and look for a place to rest. Then we prep.”
Nods from all around, as the group took position on the trail. They managed half a dozen steps before the kuching hitam, forgotten in their initial excitement, attacked. It dropped, claws tearing into one of the women on the fringe, its mouth clamping down on her neck. The partner standing beside her managed to swing a glancing blow at the monster, the attack bouncing off the muscular creature who was the size of the woman herself.
Then the dark black cat, muscular in a way that was unnatural, leaped with strength empowered by the Tower and its supernatural nature. As it leaped back toward the tree branches, the woman was dragged along by the neck. She had not stopped striking at it, but she grew ever weak as the powerful feline hauled her up. Only the supernatural strength of a cultivator kept her struggling, but there was a snap and her neck broke at last. In the midst of arrows and darts, or in Arthur’s case, a Refined Energy Dart, the fast-moving kuching managed to escape with its prey and minimal damage, hiding in the foliage above.
Leaving them one less person on the trail to the clan seal.
Arthur had rolled over in his bedroll, eyes half-closed as he tried to sleep after his watch. Usually, he would have fallen asleep immediately. And besides, with the loss of another member, their watch hours had increased. However, the excitement from the day kept his mind spinning, and he found sleep elusive. The ground felt harder and colder than ever, every hoot and rustle of leaves, every creaking branch and chirp and buzz resounding in his ears.
Twenty or so minutes of lying down, conversations low and hushed came to him. Not the conversation of those concerned about waking their friends, but the hush and whisper of conspiracy.
“They all asleep, ah?” Sharmila whispered, glancing around.
“Ya. The fool was the last one on watch. You know? The moment he finished his turn, he's already sleeping. Hah! He keeps saying he will take the long watch. Thinks he can cozy up to us, is it?” Jan said, harsh and derisive. “As if.”
“Don’t. He’s trying. I told you, it’s not useful.”
“I don’t trust him.”
“I know. But we might need him. You know it’s going to be even riskier now. If Mel’s dead . . .”
Jan sighed. “Shouldn’t have trusted her so much. She’s not that good.”
“You just wanted to be on the first team.”
“If I was, no problem already.” A rustle of clothing, and then she paced away, her voice rising. “But you all thought better. So, whatever lah. Still, this fool?”
“We use him. Don’t drive him away, okay? If he runs, no guarantee we can find him. And the location, it’s got to be dangerous. So we need him,” Sharmila said.
Silence then. Arthur realised he was gritting his teeth and forcibly made himself relax his jaw and neck. He had thought that Sharmila at least had chosen to accept him. But it seemed all she wanted was him as bait, as the fool who set off traps.
Well, so be it then. If they were not going to play straight with him, then he saw no reason to play straight with them.
If he even bothered to stick around.
Resolved, he forced himself to relax, cycle, breathing until his muscles unclenched and the bubbling anger faded, leaving him with but a core within. Waiting to burst outwards and splatter everyone, like an infected cyst.