“Completely unfair,” Mel muttered, as the group walked back to the Clan building. She had her spear by her side, idly spinning it with each step as she burnt off nervous energy. “She’s barely been in the Tower for a month before she ascends.”
“About three weeks or so lah,” Jan corrected.
“Exactly!” Mel snapped. “Rich kids, with their infinite resources and cultivation techniques and… aargh!”
“Now, now,” Arthur said, only to duck his head a little when Mel glared at him. “If she hands us a proper cultivation technique, our people can start jumping up too.”
Beside the group, Yao Jing was walking along with his fingers held out in front of him. His lips were moving but no words were coming out, as he counted them off. Eventually, his face brightened and then, just as quickly fell.
“Apa-lah?” Jan asked.
“How lah? If she just cultivates, it should be at least four months. And that if she use beast stones only ah,” Yao Jing said.
“That’s using the cultivation methods we have,” Arthur paused, then smiled a little tightly. “Or well, most of us have. It’s different with the starred cultivation series.”
“That’s right lah,” Jan said. “One star, it’s twice as good. Two star, three times.”
“Four,” Arthur idly corrected.
“What?” Jan said.
“It’s four times now,” Mel chimed in. “They changed the ratings again.”
“Why change?” Jan growled.
“Because we keep getting better, of course,” Arthur said, his tone taking on a lecturing note. “Did you know that the Seven Rules of Heavenly Breath method that we all use was once considered a one star method? Before that, the basic cultivation system was significantly worse.
“Then, it became so widespread because of AnonPi releasing it onto the web again and again that it became the base method. And once that happened, it became cultivation level zero. So they shifted the star rating around. And now, a one star is twice, two is four, three is eight and four is twelve. Supposedly a five star method is twenty times as powerful, but there’s no official confirmation that there is one out there.”
“There is,” Mel said firmly.
“Why so certain ah?” Jan said.
“Because they wouldn’t create a five star rating if the cultivation board had not known of one,” Mel said. “Eventually, we’ll see those methods. I know it.”
“Why?” Yong Jiang said. “Not as though we have learnt much since the start. The big groups keep hiding that information…”
“But the open source cultivation forums are getting better,” Arthur pointed out. “They’ve actually improved the Seven Rules of Heavenly Breathing by eighteen percent in the last decade. Of course, it doesn’t work for everyone exactly but… it’ll get there. Especially as they’re getting better at keeping stolen cultivation methods up and clean.”
“Up and clean?” Jan said.
“Uploaded and clean of manipulation. That’s the reason the project has a bad name, for they thrashed the game.” Arthur made a face. “People like the Chin’s or some of the other major players keep altering the information out there, or releasing ‘great secrets’. At first they were just blatantly wrong, but-”
“Then they got smart,” Mel said, anger in her voice. “They started sneaking in long-term defects. So that you wouldn’t harm yourself immediately, but would do so in small increments. Eventually though…” She trailed off with a shake of her head.
“It took a long time, especially since you can’t know if something’s bad till people come out of here,” Arthur gestured around. “And the people who were letting others know were being discredited. Eventually, though, there were enough voices it couldn’t be denied.”
“So, why don’t you use their improved methods?” Yao Jing said. “You know a lot, right?”
“I read it over, yes.” Arthur shook his head. “But I can’t take the chance that their improvements work. I can afford to go slow.” He laughed, a little softly. “Or I could, I thought.”
Practical as always, Jan could not help but ask. “They kena give us a bad technique ah?”
“Siapa?” Yao Jing said.
“The Chin’s lah.”
Arthur snorted. “They could try, but it’s easy enough to check.”
“If so easy…”
“Inside the Tower,” Mel said. “It’s easy to check a starred cultivation form when you’re inside a Tower.” She pointed down the way to where the Administrative building stood. “We just need to take the sealed document to the Tower and have them create a Tower copy from the document. It’s expensive, but it’ll make learning from that copy easier – and they’ll certify the grade when it’s done too.”
“Ohhhh… that way pun boleh, ah?” Jan said. “How come, I not know?”
“Have you ever needed to certify a cultivation method? Or even seen one?” Arthur said.
Silence greeted his words as they finally reached the Clan building. Arthur walked right in, searching around till his gaze landed on one of the human guards. He barked orders to the girl, sending her scurrying off to find Amah Si. He would have also asked for Uswah, but she arrived moments later, drifting in from the doorway behind them.
“Did you hear?” he asked.
“A little. I’d want to hear it fully, later.” She said.
“Do you think we can trust her?” Arthur could not help but ask. Of them all, the dispassionate Malay woman probably had a different read of things, being a distance away and all that.
“No additional guards. No backup except one large group that stayed far enough away that it was likely just in case,” Uswah answered instead. “Two scouts, but none of them as good as me.”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“She’s trusting. Too trusting. Naïve.” Uswah paused. “Willis is not. Trust her. Doubt him.”
“Thank you,” he replied.
“You going to?” she said, simply.
“I think so. If we can come to a deal,” Arthur looked around the building, overcrowded as it was with people. Even now, in the middle of the day, the noise from the population that were still present in the building was overwhelming.
They needed more space, more resources, more fighters. More of everything, really and while time would fix some of it eventually, time was what they had the least of. He could not fix the majority of those matters, but he could improve the Clan itself, if he passed through the Tower.
So he’d do that. As long as they could get a decent deal.
“Then, you cultivate.” Uswah pointed to the stairs, making Arthur frown.
“She’s not wrong,” Mel chimed in. “You’re going to need to gather as much strength as you can, especially if she intends to ascend in a few days. You’re well behind.”
“A few hours won’t matter that much…” Arthur said. “And we’d be protected by them on ascending. Cultivating on the next floor with cores from there…”
“More effective for sure, but you’d be significantly weaker,” Mel said. “So. Cultivate. The safer the better.” She paused, looking at Jan and Yao Jing and pointed at the both of them in turn. “You two too. I’ll find others to take your places.”
“And you? What will you do?” Arthur asked.
“I have to talk to Amah Si. And work out what we want,” Mel said. “You cultivate. We’ll handle the negotiations. Unless you want to?” She arched a single eyebrow, making Arthur laugh. No, he really did not.
“Fine, fine.” He grumbled softly. “As though I can’t even manage my own life.”
The fact that they were all chuckling as he trundled up the stairs did little to placate him.