Casey Chin was dressed to ascend. Not only was she dressed in combat fatigues, with a set of green-grey scale mail layered over the top of the camo clothing, she also had a sword by her side, a long dagger on the other hip and even a series of throwing knives strapped under her left arm in a holster. She also had a helmet, reminiscent of medieval ones rather than a modern helmet with a nose guard and leather chin straps. Even at a glance, it was clear to see that her weapons, her equipment were of the higher end, along with the simple pouch by her side. No backpack like the rest of them though.
Her guards carried backpacks, though they too were armed and armoured in high quality weaponry too. One carried a spear with a boar guard on it, the other had a sword and shield as their weapons. Both wore chainmail on top of brigandine, though considering the temperature, it was no surprise to see the pair sweating a little in the heat and humidity.
As the group neared, Arthur noticed their gaze sweep over his people. The bodyguards barely rested on each of them, stopping only at Uswah’s injury before moving on. There was a dismissive look int the men’s gaze, but they chose not to speak.
Unlike Casey Chin, of the alliterative name. “Arthur. You managed to make it!”
“Didn’t think this was meant to be a choice,” Arthur replied. “Or else I might have slept in a little more.”
She pouted a little at his joke, then looked over his people. Her lips pursed for a moment, before she continued. “You know we’re only providing enough stones for you and two others, right?”
“Yes. We’ll split it as we need to,” Arthur said. “We won’t slow you down, as agreed.”
“So long as you keep your portion to yourself, I don’t care.” She said, firmly. “I won’t let your paranoia about me and my people keep me from achieving my goal.”
“Are these the only people you’re bringing?” Arthur swept his gaze over the pair of impassive blocks of muscle.
“Of course. It’s expensive, doing a speedrun!” Cecilia said.
Arthur could only grin a little guiltily. She was paying for six now, instead of three as she probably had planned. Though, she might not even have tried for a speedrun if he hadn’t been present.
“My cultivation technique?” Arthur held his hand out.
“On the second floor.”
“That’s not what we agreed on!” Mel said fiercely.
“No. But seeing him here with you all, I’m inclined to hold on to it till he passes the trials and we meet on the second floor.” She glared at Mel and then Arthur. “Do you know how expensive it was, to buy a three star cultivation technique for a Yin body?”
“No.” Arthur replied. “At the same time, it’s not as though your family has much use for a Yin body technique, no?”
“Not immediately. But we might in the future,” Casey said. “If you pass, I can always hand it to you then. If not, I will return the scroll to my family for later use.”
“If I die. Not much confidence in me, is there,” Arthur said wryly.
She smiled grimly. “Did you think you could hide your weakness till we crossed over? You are lucky I am willing to still continue with our agreement. My uncle was all for cancelling it when we learnt how new you were to the Tower.”
Now, Arthur was frowning. How did…
“Your friend, Attendant Lai was very talkative, when the right inducements were made.” To illustrate what she meant, she rubbed finger and thumb together in the universal signal for money.
“Ah.” Arthur quickly reassessed his position and the Clan’s, before he shrugged. “Well, I guess we’re just going to have to work on trust for now, then.”
“As always,” Casey replied. She looked over the team once more, eyes drifting to stop on Yao Jing briefly before moving on. “If you’re ready?”
At his assent, the group started walking again, the newly oversized team headed for the teleportation pads. Among the crowd of bettors and under the constant reappearance of mortals, there was one pad that was located a short distance from the incoming pads where only a few bored individuals stood around, watching.
Arthur frowned as he saw them and the way they perked up as the group approached. More than one nudged a sleeping comrade, though there was one particularly pudgy watcher whose head had lolled all the way back, a dirty cotton handkerchief over his face that no one moved to wake. In fact, there was a wide space around the man and his broken down, fold-out chair.
“Who are they?” he could not help but mutter.
“Watchers,” Mel replied.
He could not help but roll his eyes a little. “I know that. But who are they watching for?”
“Everyone and anyone who will pay them,” Casey said. “They also contract messages and goods upwards, for smaller groups or those who need something urgent.” She nodded to the group who were just watching them, a few of the watchers even nodding back to her. “Though you can forget about any of that. We’ve already picked up what there is.” A tight smile. “And I wouldn’t recommend taking anything that they might offer. You wouldn’t want to be put in the position of not having what was sent up.”
“I wouldn’t steal,” Arthur said, a little affronted at the accusation.
“Not the point. There’s nothing to say they can’t accuse you of taking what isn’t there,” Casey pointed out.
Arthur winced, remembering how that scam worked. Send a sucker up with say, nine cores. When they arrive, the next floor recipient demands ten. Then you either have to cough up the tenth, missing, core or face a fight. Considering you’d normally be out-numbered at that point, most people paid. In the worst case, individuals had become serfs, unpaid labour for the groups above till they paid off the stones they ‘owed’. Luckily, since the main method to acquire goods required individuals to head out into the wilderness, the sheer number of escapees and the number of watchers required made slavery mostly impractical except for the most obtuse and sadomasochistic groups.
On the other hand, the minor shakedowns were semi-common. After all, it was a more socially acceptable form of thuggery which was over fast, much like the Suey Ying tong taking goods from newcomers as they arrived.
That was another reason why Arthur had been hesitant about playing runner on entering the Tower. Without any government regulation or central authority keeping an eye on such agreements, it became a matter of honour and reputation. But to trap a Clan head like himself… well, even a well reputed organization might be willing to besmirch their honour.
Especially if it also trapped the Chin family.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” Arthur sighed, dismissing thoughts of making a few extra stones. Or make even some Tower points. Of all things, that was perhaps what he needed the most.
Nothing to it though. Because while he had been talking and thinking, they’d arrived at the platform. The two bodyguards had separated, staring at the group and Casey, obviously waiting. When no one made to move, Casey sighed.
“Well? Go on. It’s not as if I’m going to just walk up without you going first.” She rolled her eyes.
Arthur bit back comments about ladies and priority, knowing she was right. She was relying on him, and if he chickened out at the last moment, she was out of luck. Better to make sure he went, this time.
Another breath. Another look over his team, seeing them nod back at him. And then he took a step forward and up, planting one and then both feet on the platform.
Before the Tower grabbed him and took him away to his Trials.