Having replaced some of his lost energy, Arthur was now in the process of pulling refined energy from one of the many cores of the kuching hitam. The power of the beast core thrummed through his body, flooding it before diving straight into his wounds after being processed by his meridians to hasten the healing process.
The first few minutes had been painful, especially as some of the cloth and dirt that he had missed was ejected from open wounds, pushed out by the supernatural healing. Burgeoning infections faded as flesh stitched itself together.
Unfortunately, he was only half done, the entirety of one beast core consumed and another well on its way when the survivors began to stir. The first to stumble out of the other tent was not, to Arthur’s surprise, Jan but Mel.
The woman moved with haste, looking around carefully while gripping the short sword by her side and gripping a spear with the other hand, ready to block. Seeing no danger, and spotting Arthur cultivating quietly, she stared at the only other tent with dread.
Jerking into sudden motion, she pulled the flap open and stuck her head inside before retreating with as much haste. “No,” she moaned and stumbled away, casting her eyes around for others. When her gaze landed on Arthur again, who was putting aside the core, she said harshly: “The others. They’re just . . . out washing, right? Right?”
Mutely, Arthur shook his head.
“No! They can’t . . . they can’t—” Mel’s voice broke, hiccupping a little as sobs threatened to break out. She shuddered, fighting the grief that threatened to overwhelm her, the tears that leaked from her eyes as she sank down beside the fire.
Automatically, she held a hand towards the flame, seeking warmth. Fresh blood seeped from newly reopened wounds, though she may not have noticed in her grief. When she could control her voice a little more, she whispered, “How?”
“You and Shar fell to the kris.” He gestured down to the sheathed blade. “It’s enchanted. Very powerful. He killed her while I was finishing off my own opponent. Rani . . . overdid it. Burned all her energy out and, I guess, died when the Tower needed more from her.”
“So that’s it. They’re all dead. My sisters.” Mel shuddered. “I failed them. Failed the quest.” Anger flared in her eyes, focused on Arthur. “And gave the prize to you. Untuk apa, hah?”
“Your Bahasa’s coming out, eh?” Arthur said, idly.
Mel continued to glare at him, though exhaustion soon robbed even her anger of its intensity. She curled up further, pulling her knees to her chest, wincing with each motion. In a smaller, younger voice, one that belied the hardened features and spoke of her true age in her twenties, she asked, “What now?”
“Now?” Arthur hesitated, caught in surprise at being thrown into a position of leading for once. It wasn’t his way, not by choice. He liked doing things alone, but it was obvious that she was not in the mood or the mind to lead. “Now, you get up and take a bath. Wash your wounds, take some of the healing pills we found. We rest for the day until the talismans burn out, and then we start heading back.”
“That’s it? That easy? Just . . . go on?”
“What other choice is there?” Arthur said wearily. He closed his eyes, the faded memory of his parents flickering to mind for a moment. How strange memory was, that what he remembered was not scenes of them but photos. They were a blur to his mind after so many years, after so much time and heartache. A blur of impressions, of a warm hand holding his own, a smile that he remembered from the way it made him feel rather than the way it actually looked.
Sense impressions, rather than the clear-cut images of blood spilled or the wide open eyes of Choi as his life leaked out, pain and rage, and finally, emptiness . . .
He shuddered, shaking his head and pushed the thoughts aside, meeting Mel’s own knowing gaze when he looked up.
“We go on. Because otherwise, the choice is to fail. And I’m tired of failing,” Arthur said.
“Can I . . . can I just sit here for a bit?” Mel said softly as she stared into the fire.
He briefly considered joking, that she was welcome to do so since she was downwind, but discarded the words. There was a time for his humour and this was not it.
Instead, he picked up the beast core again, knowing he had more work to do. He had a feeling that, soon enough, he’d be having the same conversation with the other women.
Evening fell, shedding dim moonlight on the quartet of cultivators seated in a semi-circle by the dying light of the smoky fire. Arthur cracked his eyes open, dropping the last of the beast cores he had been using to the ground, watching as it crumbled into dust. The others were in varying stages of their cultivation cycle, though he could sense that most of them were nearly done.
He traced the energy connections within himself before flashing his own status open. A half dozen energy points and another 0.4 points of refined energy ensured that he at least had the basic amount of energy required for another few days of travel. Most of his wounds had scabbed over, the majority even closing up such that they were unlikely to tear open unless he did something vigorous. Like fighting.
Pushing aside that thought, he turned to the seal on his palm, bringing it up to his face. He traced the outlines of the burnt skin, then he pulled up information on the seal once more.
- Be able to establish a Tower-Approved Building in the Safe Zone
- Appoint 1 Officer per Tower level to administer Clan Building
Arthur grimaced, poking at the information inside his head a little more. He kept trying to call up additional information on the Aspects or the Sigil, but the seal stubbornly refused to divulge anything further, much to his frustration.
He really did need to know what the difference was between Aspects and Sigils. He knew they gave different kinds of bonuses, depending on what he chose, but he just did not understand what they each really meant.
Letting out a long sigh, he pulled his fingers away from his palm where he had been prodding the brand. He looked up only to meet Mel’s quiet and firm gaze.
“Time to talk, ya?” she said.
“Long past time.”