Stepping outside of the Tower office building, Arthur almost expected to find Raahim waiting for him. Or perhaps a half dozen thugs, ready and willing to beat them into the ground for whatever goods they might have purchased or credit tokens they had gathered. Finding nothing of the sort was both a relief and a disappointment for Arthur—guess his life wasn’t as trope-ridden as he thought.
Perhaps he would soon find a young master who needed to be smacked down. After all, wasn’t that the most common trope in stories about cultivators? In the West, of course, it was trust-fund kids and corporate toadies, but in the East it was the sons of clan heads and the like.
Instead, his life in the Tower seemed to revolve around thugs and the underworld. Which, really, was a somewhat Malaysian thing. At least at his level. He was sure he’d have to deal with money-grubbing politicians that needed bribing at some point and . . . well, more underworld figures. Corruption was, after all, rife in the political and business scenes.
Perhaps, in the end, what he was experiencing was the Malaysian equivalent of the young master story. At least his young mistress interaction had worked in his favour so far. If she hadn’t gotten herself killed trying to do a speedrun.
Travel through the brighter portions of town was much faster. For one thing, the major thoroughfares were not just better lit but also wider and generally built in straight lines. Guided by the tug in his mind towards where his clan building was, and by a general sense of direction, Arthur trudged through town, eyes flicking back and forth.
The second floor was an interesting mish-mash of people. There were a few food stalls around but nowhere near as many as on the first floor. No real surprise there, since the higher up you went, the more logistical support you needed to keep a stall running. On top of that, the Tower climbers’ lack of need for actual food made eating more a luxury and a habit than a necessity, though that last part could be argued against vigorously by most Malaysians, being raised in a foodie culture.
Still, in replacement of these stalls were shops of other kinds. Small speciality shops, especially, opened onto the streets. They were busy at night as climbers prepped for another hard day. While the few large stores sold more mundane but still useful equipment—like camping items—the speciality stores focused on armour and weapons. Occasionally, Arthur noted the presence of books and scrolls, documents that he assumed were about cultivation techniques, and these were often less trafficked.
Mostly, everyone checked out the weapons—almost all melee, though a few bows and crossbows were present. Slingshots and javelins, too, plus what Arthur assumed was an atlatl. In a busy jungle, it was difficult to get a good sightline, never mind the necessary training to use these weapons. There was, after all, a reason why guns had taken over in the history of weapons.
The big three storey building for the TG Inc. dominated the skyline, occasionally glimpsed through gaps in the surroundings as he moved through the town.
The second-floor residents were just as worthy of notice in Arthur’s view, many of them sporting cuts and scars that spoke of a hard ascent. Many were on the more athletic side, ranging from broad and beefy to thin and gangly. Yet most moved with a degree of grace that was missing among many of the first-floor residents. Most of all, it was the look in their eyes—a hardness in the majority—that made the biggest difference.
No real surprise. While the final trial to get through the first floor varied, many of those trials required violence. Defeating a boss monster and facing a physical trial like Arthur had been forced to do, or even hunting down a specific monster type was common. Sometimes the trials were simpler, but since “simple” could never be assumed, only the confident were likely to make a try of the second floor.
Or the desperate.
“There’s an edge to the people out here, isn’t there?” Arthur muttered to Rick who was strolling along without a care in the world. It seemed the gunslinger was well known, for more than a few offered a friendly nod to Rick. However, Arthur was not oblivious to the glares that also got shot at Rick—and at himself and his group in turn.
“Second floor. I hear it gets worse. As you climb, you begin to realise the extent of your strength and will,” Rick said. “I hear that on the seventh floor, there’s a full city of people who have given up.”
“Yeah, the so-called Tempat Rehat that has become a little more than a rest stop,” Arthur said. “The place where dreams come to die.”
“They’re smart, really.” At Arthur’s look, Rick shrugged. “The Tower creators, I mean. Creating a place of rest, so that those without the will would stop and give up. If it was just death and destruction, all kinds of trials again and again, then even the weak would push on. Now, though, the temptation to stop is too much...”
“You don’t consider yourself one of the weak, I suppose?” Arthur said.
“No.” Rick lifted his chin a little, the square jaw and dark skin jutting out, before he flashed Arthur a grin. “Not at all. I’m a real climber. I’m going to climb them all and find out the truth.”
Arthur looked Rick over. When he didn’t see what he expected, he opened his mouth to enquire, only for Rick to pre-empt him, saying, “You can’t join the Climbers Association till you’ve cleared at least one Tower. And even then, only as an associate member.”
“They don’t have a branch here in KL, right?” Arthur said, trying to recall.
“No. The Malaysian government didn’t want them there,” Rick said. “So there’s no government funding for them like in other, more civilized, countries.”
Jan hissed a little at those last few words, and even Arthur found himself narrowing his eyes. That arrogant attitude of a Westerner was grating, especially when it was lobbed into the middle of a conversation without any preamble.
Then again, if Rick was from the US, it made perfect sense.
“Ham ka chan,” Jan cursed. “They only want to register all the powerful climbers, lah. Keep track of people.”
“They’re a premier organization. Their information and auction house is the way to advance if you’re not in a guild. Or even if you are,” Rick said defensively.
“Clans,” Jan said. “We don’t call them guilds here. If your Association so good, why join us?”
“Every advantage should be taken,” Rick said. “And a new clan, in this Tower, starting from floor one? My parents would kill me if I didn’t try to invest in you immediately.”
“Invest,” Arthur said, his voice flat. “Do you think I’m selling shares or something?”
“Not right now. But when you’re out . . .” Rick opened his hand. “You never know the kind of support you’ll need. For now, we can just talk about me joining and the payment I’ll make for being part of your guild.”
“Clan,” Jan insisted.
“Sure, sure.” Rick waved her insistence away blithely.
“You’ve mentioned investing and family, twice. Who, exactly, are you?” Arthur said, cocking his head to the side. He noticed that his group had drawn together a little, now that they were turning off the heavily lit main throughfares to get to the clan building.
“My father is no one special, but my mother is Jordan MacKenzie.” When no one reacted, he shrugged. “That’s why I didn’t mention it. Unless you follow venture investing, my family—the MacKenzie Trust, really—would not be something you’d recognize.”
Arthur gritted his teeth, reminding himself not to strike this idiot. Even the way he said the last couple of sentences was off-putting. But he knew better than to say anything. After all, the young man had mentioned two rather important things: trust and venture funds. If he wasn’t just lying—and the guns made it unlikely—he had some pull. Potentially quite a lot.
The question, of course, was whether Arthur even wanted to be tied to these Americans and their venture funds. He’d watched and heard enough horror stories of people being knocked out of their own companies or forced to work against their own interest in guilds. So he wasn’t giving Rick an automatic yes. Even if these venture funds were the most profligate with their spending.
Problems and opportunities, all around.