Days later, the group was making their way through the undergrowth of the deep wilds. They moved slowly, having been forced by injuries and their lack of provisions to take extra care. Considering the potential dangers they faced, the group had elected to go slow and carefully rather than rushing back, even if the rest of the Thorned Lotuses might be growing concerned by this point.
“They won’t send a second party out,” Mel muttered, limping alongside Arthur as she answered his question. “We don’t have enough fighters to risk losing more.” Grief flickered across all their faces, before she pushed ahead. “As it stands, they’ll be hard pressed keeping things stable.”
“Which is why you need more men,” Arthur said, returning to an old argument.
“Hah! Because men are better?” Jan said, calling from behind the pair.
“No. Because men are stupider.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Mel said, laughing a little. “But maybe you can explain your thinking?”
“Men are dumb. They’ll want to protect you. They also mostly go for fighting classes. You can use them as guards, as gatherers for monster cores. You know, all the things that are dirty, disgusting, and dangerous,” Arthur said.
“Alliteration,” Uswah said. “Where, exactly, did you study?”
“Government school. And under my master,” Arthur replied. “He was old school. Thought we all had to be ‘traditional Chinese gentlemen’.”
“What does that even mean?” Mel said.
“Music, scholarship, strategy, martial arts, and painting,” Uswah said.
“Technically, martial arts isn’t part of the count,” Arthur said, raising a finger to correct her. Uswah turned fully around and raised a single eyebrow, so he explained. “Well, it’s true. Traditionally, a Chinese scholar-gentleman only needed to know the four arts. It’s bad Hong Kong movies that added martial arts to it.”
“Take that back,” Mel said.
“What?” Arthur looked perplexed.
“There’s nothing wrong with 90s Hong Kong movies. Jet Li and Stephen Chow are gods,” Mel insisted.
“Wah, you really like the oldies, ah?” Jan said, looking perplexed by the entire conversation. “Ei, did you even watch anything new? Ben Wu is sooo much hotter.”
“He’s also, like, fifteen,” Mel said.
“Nineteen!” Jan retorted.
“I prefer Junada Ali myself,” Uswah said. “More manly.”
Arthur chose to keep quiet, not seeing a point in getting involved in that discussion. Not as though he spent a lot of time looking at male celebrities. Other than to grouse and bitch about unattainable physiques for your average male.
Though, considering what he had seen in the river the last time he had looked . . . maybe he shouldn’t complain so much. It seemed there was an alternative route to celebrities' sacrificial diets and hours of exercise. One could simply be a cultivator and achieve the same results.
Maybe he’d write a self-help tell-all when he got back . . .
"Your sifu got teach you Chinese?" Jan asked, interrupting his thoughts.
"English," Arthur said. "Queen's English, as he called it. You learn fast, then you have to do fifty push-ups per infraction. And he doesn’t take fractions.”
“Fifty push-ups!” Mel said, surprised.
“Mm-hm. We were allowed to substitute for squats, but we could only do one kind of exercise. So if you failed to do all fifty push-ups, you had to restart at one with the squats.” Arthur shuddered. “Old school, you know?”
“Abuse,” Jan said.
Arthur could only shrug in reply. She was not wrong, but on the other hand, it had been effective. And when you got down to it, it also meant that a large number of those he trained survived their first Tower entry. Not that his sifu had any desire for them to actually enter the Towers. It was one of the things he generally discouraged, even if he expected most of his students to ignore him.
And this entire conversation reminded Arthur of the one thing he hadn’t done.
“Oh, I’m in so much trouble,” Arthur murmured to himself. “Got to come up with an excuse on the double.”
“What?” Mel asked.
“I forgot to look up my martial brothers and sisters.” Scratching the side of his jaw, he shrugged. “Probably doesn’t matter. “I was the last of my batch to come in. And I was a few months behind, so they've probably cleared this floor by now.”
“Would we know them?” Mel said.
“Probably not. They’re not really flashy,” Arthur said. “They’d mostly keep their heads down. Well, except Ah Hui. He has orange hair. Or had, not sure how it’d do without his usual treatments.”
“Wait. Orange hair, done up like an anime character?” Mel said, cocking her head to the side. “Uses a pair of tongfa as weapons?”
“Well, he’s definitely not here. He blew through the first level in two months, nearly a half year ago,” Mel said. “Made quite a few cores in the semi-annual tournament. He was runner up. Then hid in his room until he ranked up enough to pass to the next Tower level.”
“Ya, ya, I remember! People hate him. If he didn’t leave this floor, sure kena pukul sampai mati already,” Jan said, emphasizing her point by grinding one fist into another hand. “Your sifu train troublemakers, ah?”
“No way. I mean, I bet you never noticed my elder sister. She’s the latest who came through, three months ago.” Arthur shook his head and corrected himself. “Three months before I came in.”
“Her name?” Mel asked.
“Claudia Wu. Long black hair, nice eyebrows, umm . . . about five-four?” Arthur waved his hand around the proper height. “Fights bare-handed mostly, except when she gets serious. Then she uses long knives.”
“Pretty?” Mel ventured further.
Arthur shook his head and then froze, wondering what would happen if his frank assessment got back to his elder sister. Would she smack him around? Or just laugh it off, because she knew she was no actress? Then again, knowing yourself and having someone frankly assess you were entirely different things.
After all, humanity survived off its dreams and delusions. Without them, most humans could not function.
Not well, at least.
Thankfully the girls did not seem to notice. They passed looks around, but none of them recalled his sister. Which was for the best.
After all, his sifu would really be annoyed if they all managed to get a reputation for being difficult.
“Maybe we should just get your master to come in and teach our girls, eh?” Mel said, returning the conversation to the point. “Then we don’t need more men.”
“Too long. Anyway, my clan, my rules.” Arthur raised his chin. “You can put together a good criterion for rejecting the idiots, but we’re still taking in men.” His lips thinned. “It’s hard enough out there, without creating more divisions.”
“And the safety of our people?” Uswah said, softly.
“Will be paramount. But we will figure out a way for everyone to be cared for. Even if we have to weigh more heavily female. To start with, at least,” Arthur said.
That got some reluctant nods of agreement, which made him smile. It was going to be a long walk back, but at least he could work on convincing this group of his way of thinking before they reached the beginner village.
Though, he knew, the real fight was going to be when they finally made it back. For the final boss, Amah, awaited.