When Arthur finally managed to haul himself off Choi’s body and put his mind together, he had the unenviable task of frisking the body for supplies and goods, extracting the beast cores he had used as a distraction from the now-cooling body and then, finally, find the kris that was dangerously glinting in the dark.
The fact that his arm throbbed where the kris had cut into it, alternating with cold chill and flushing warmth, worried him. It felt similar to something he had experienced before, and since he finally had some time and mental wherewithal, Arthur pulled up the notification he had suppressed until now.
- Minor increase in fatigue
- Yang-based cultivation skills cost doubled
- Trivial on-going damage effects
Arthur blinked, rubbing at his arm where it felt both so cold and warm. Intuition told him that if he had the time to actually cultivate, he could drive and subsume this chi within himself. As it stood, the poison was having only a minor effect on him, and the on-going damage was negligible due to the insufficient amount of poison that had found its way into his blood.
When he made his way over to the kris and picked it up, Arthur could not help but turn the weapon around. Try as he might, he could not bring up any details on the kris, lacking the cultivation skill to analyze the weapon properly.
Sheathing the kris—after cleaning it off on his pant leg—in his newly acquired sheath, Arthur made his laboured way down. He forewent the torch, not having a way to relight it. Also, illumination from the windows was sufficient to let him see.
The journey down the stairs was agonizing. He limped in squishy footwear, having reacquired his wet boots, the bruise from his earlier attacks making itself known all too well. Each breath was laboured, the cracked ribs shooting pain through his body each moment.
Every other flight, Arthur had to put a hand against the wall, using it to support his exhausted body before he made his way further down. Eventually, though, he managed to find himself at the bottom of the staircase and able to survey the destruction that he had left behind.
To his surprise, Arthur found Jan pointing a parang at him. She blinked wearily, looking Arthur over before snorting.
“Still alive? Of course.”
“It’s nice to see you too, my beautiful loo,” Arthur sing-sung, walking over to her warily. Still, she had lowered the parang, so he was somewhat less wary. His gaze drifted over the bodies she had pulled over, laying them out in the row. “How bad is it?”
“Bad. Bu huai.” Jan closed her eyes, bending beside the nearest body and letting her parang fall to the ground. She touched Shar’s dark skin, tracing a finger along the cleaned face. “Good woman. The best. Always taking care of me.”
After a pause: “What am I supposed to do? Without her?”
That’s when she broke out crying. Followed by big heaving sobs that wracked her body. For a long moment, Arthur just watched before he carefully moved over, to put a pair of arms around the woman. Holding her, offering comfort.
Eventually, she pushed away. Much less roughly than he had expected. For a few moments, he stood awkwardly, unsure of what to do, before a rasping cough beneath his feet brought his attention back to the other bodies. He realized that Uswah was waking and scrambled over to her side, only to cast around for water.
“Here.” Jan shoved a flask at him, which he gratefully took and fed to the woman, then helped Uswah sit up. At first, the water dribbled down parched lips, but she eventually managed to drink and clear her throat, enough to speak at least.
“What happened?” Uswah asked.
“We won, I guess.” Arthur said.
“You guess?” Uswah muttered.
Jan could only mumble, “Shar died. And Rani.”
Uswah flinched at that, while Arthur’s own eyes grew wide. He had seen Shar’s fatal blow but not what happened to Rani.
“How?” Arthur asked tentatively.
“Overused energy,” Jan said. “I think. Ya . . . I think she overdid it.”
Arthur winced. That could happen all too easily. Certain cultivation exercises allowed one the chance to “burn lifeblood” as the old stories called it. But in reality, it just sacrificed one’s own health for strength. Some cultivation techniques even taught people how to do that in a safer manner, making it almost a hallmark of their style.
It was something the desperate or the needy did, and it was supposedly said anyone who was desperate enough could learn. Obviously, Rani had been desperate enough.
“I’m sorry. For your losses,” he said.
Jan lowered her head, biting her lip as a new wave of sobs rippled through her. To his surprise, it was Uswah who grabbed his hand and growled into his face when she hauled him closer.
“You better make it worth all this.”
Arthur was at a loss for words, knowing it was not his fault this had all happened. Yet, he could understand how they could lay the blame and the expectations of a brighter future on him—when he had benefitted the most and lost the least from this mess.
Knowing all that, and understanding how precarious his own position continued to be, he could not help but nod in affirmation.
Then, and only then, did Uswah release her grip on his arm as she slumped back onto the ground, her eyes drifting shut. Exhaustion took her consciousness, even as she finished extracting the silent promise.
And silent or not, under duress or not, Arthur could not help but feel obliged to fulfill it.
A better world . . .
He could get behind that. Even if the world itself might not be exactly the one they envisioned.