Releasing his feet, Arthur dropped to the ground, staring at the crystals that littered the area. He grabbed his staff as he looked around carefully. Amidst the corpses that were dissolving into crystals were also the shattered remnants of his impromptu stakes, a half-dozen falling to the forest floor as the bodies they had stabbed disappeared.
He had not managed to kill all the babi ngepet. He wished he had, for the crystals that they had left behind would have been of great value to him. But the monsters had chosen to leave after a half-dozen died. Then, when he baited another two into rushing him and getting killed by acting like he would come down, they had finally left.
Of course, he was not willing to accept they were all gone. But failing to find signs of their presence, Arthur quickly picked up the remaining crystals and chose to retreat to his cave. It was time to go back with his spoils.
He had pushed his luck enough for the day, after all.
Another kuching hitam assaulted him on his way back. The monster even managed to drop down on him, tearing into an upraised arm and leaving long scratches. He had to throw himself into a tree, using his greater weight and ferocity to pummel the monster till it fell down and he crushed its head.
Woozy, bleeding, and exhausted, Arthur managed to make his way back to his cave before collapsing, barely having the energy to cover the entrance to hide his presence.
The next morning, he washed and rebandaged his wounds before taking a seat beside his cold fireplace ring, tucking feet underneath him as he extracted a crystal from the babi ngepet. The monsters had been strong, and Arthur could sense the greater strength in these cores.
Enough, perhaps, to push him to the next grade.
Eyes half-closed, he began to cultivate, drawing forth the energy from the Tower crystal. He would not risk his life like that again if he could help it. Time was not the concern, but safety. He had played the fool enough; now it was time to train.
The first time he finished the core, his lips peeled back into a grin. It was as he had guessed: cores from babi ngepet were stronger than other monsters’. Not by much, but even a minor increase in strength meant that using their cores was more beneficial than the average monster he had encountered.
Now he really regretted letting the rest of the herd leave, leaving him with only eight such cores. Still, between his earlier hunting and what he could process, he would not leave this cave till he breached the next level.
Checking the brush that he had pulled before his tiny cultivation cave, Arthur nodded at the simple safeguards that included a string and bell. He had nothing better, not yet; but one day he would have proper safeguards.
Proper ways to care for himself.
Till then . . . he would just substitute hard work for wealth.
Days later, Arthur opened his eyes. He had not enough cores to last his entire cultivation period and had been forced to cycle between cultivation and refinement regularly. Between the depletion of energy that living in the Tower entailed and the lack of proper light in his cave, he had lost track of time. Even worse had been the wearing away at his mind as the boredom of the repetitive cycle had taxed his willpower.
If not for a reminder of his near-death experience, he would have given up long ago. Only the goal of achieving the next tier had kept him forging ahead, till today.
Almost immediately upon achieving a full point of refined energy, he had dedicated it to his Body. Floating before him, sensed deep within, was a greater question. Now that he had achieved the next tier, what trait should he pick?
Attribute traits were what made cultivators different from one another. They were as different as the fish in the sea and numerous as the grains of rice in a cooking pot. There was only one rule: the more general a trait it was, the less powerful it was. A trait like Hardened Form might make an individual more robust in general, but it would not stack up against someone who chose Iron Skin for physical impenetrability. Yet, if they were to receive a palm strike or other blunt damage, they would suffer much less.
Generalisation or specialisation. Some mixed and matched, specialising in traits from one attribute while having more general traits in other attributes. Others even mixed within an attribute. In the end, it was up to the individual and the degree that they expected to grow. For specialisation, in the short-term was less powerful overall.
Arthur had spent months poring over well-known traits, debating with himself about what to take. Among Body attribute traits, specialists favored Lightning Reflexes, Catlike Agility, and Iron Bones. But more general traits like Improved Stamina and Robust Health had their own adherents.
Turning over his own experiences, Arthur deliberated what to choose.
Right now, his greatest threats were the babi ngepet that had a tendency to attack in groups. He had no chance of killing them unless he was lucky enough to repeat his trap. Dangerous, very dangerous, for more than once he had nearly slipped to his demise.
Then there were the kuching hitam. He hadn’t noticed the one which had attacked him on the way back, not until it dropped. If he hadn’t gotten an arm up in time and sacrificed the limb, he would have had his throat torn out.
After that, killing it had been easier. It was nowhere near as tough as the babi, what with being a cat. But it didn’t matter if it left him gagging on a torn throat, now did it?
So, what to do? Faster reflexes would let him get out of the way of attacks, maybe let him shift his spear a touch quicker to strike better. More speed would help him run away. But greater strength or an overall boost to his constitution might allow him to face the babi individually without being torn up.
Strength would help him to kill. Strength would end threats with a single strike. But strength required a proper weapon, or else his poor staff would shatter.
No. Not strength. Speed, perhaps, or reflexes.
Yet, he could not help but remember what had happened with the monsters he had hunted, with the cultivators who had found him.
Perhaps his decision was not optimal; it would not make him stronger immediately. Yet, instinct drove him to choose it, knowing he would not have the option of adding further traits till much later. For now, it would suit him.
Making his decision, he transmitted his choice to the system and felt the energy rush through his body, into his head, and he choked back a scream. Pain, blinding pain, drove him into blessed unconsciousness.
Climbing the Ranks is a serial LitRPG cultivation novel by Tao Wong that will publish exclusively on Starlit Publishing. While the whole novel will be free to read, you'll be able to purchase a membership to receive chapters weeks in advance of the public launch. To get updates on how to subscribe in mid-January, please join our newsletter or follow us on social media.