Chapter 189

Chapter 189

“We have a problem,” Uswah said two nights later as the group sat around their campfire.

Ei! I already moved my bed away, what,” Yao Jing complained. “Come on, the beans aren’t that bad . . .”

“No, they really are,” Arthur said. “But I don’t think that’s what Uswah was talking about.”

“I was not,” Uswah said, frowning. “And what is this about beans?”

Bodoh ate canned beans,” Jan said, then waved a hand in front of her nose to explain Yao Jing’s issue.

“Problem?” Mel queried before they got distracted again.

“We’re being followed,” Uswah said.

“Kuching?” Arthur asked, though he doubted it. She would not have bothered raising the issue with the whole group. They’d been stalked by the solitary black cats often enough, but those were more an annoyance than a danger. But if they ever chose to attack in groups like the babi, then he’d start worrying. In fact, now that he thought of it, Arthur couldn’t help but worry about that.

“No. People,” Uswah said. “From town. At first I thought it was just people moving along, but . . . yeah. Definitely following us.”

“Shit,” Arthur said.

“Damn it!” Casey swore, crossing her arms.

“They going to rob us?” Rick asked, frowning. He touched his guns, looking uncomfortable. Arthur did not blame him. It was one thing to kill monsters, another to kill a human. For one thing, the monsters didn’t have children or parents. They also didn’t look at you as they died, their hopes and dreams fading, hand clutching at yours and leaving bloody prints, betrayal deep in their eyes, taking with them a portion of your life as they departed.

Uswah shrugged. “Maybe scavengers.”

“Scavengers?” Arthur said.

“That’s what we call people who pick over bodies after a battle. They might be trouble,” Mel said, but there was amusement in her eyes.

Arthur narrowed his gaze as he stared at Mel, recalling their very first meeting. Mel and her friends had demanded he justify his presence in the woods on the first floor. Even as those memories and others returned, he saw Mel’s humour fade. Recollection of the near past clouded with memory of even nearer pain. It had only been a few months, really, since the death of her closest friends. She had suffered a near-total loss of her team. Shar, who had been both brave and human in the end. Rani, who’d sacrificed herself. So many others.

Though she seemed to have managed well enough, as well as one could, some scars did not fade easily.

“You never know what trouble, indeed,” Arthur said softly as he kept his gaze locked with Mel’s. Trying his best to share the pain she experienced. He knew not her friends, what they had done or shared before his arrival. But he did know Mel and he did know loss, and sometimes, all you could do was offer to be there.

“Yes, it really was,” Mel said quietly.

“What—oof!” Yao Jing began to comment, but he let out a pained expulsion of air as Jan put her elbow into his side. He looked over at his lover. Hurt but seeing the seriousness of her expression, he shut his mouth.

Neither Mel nor Arthur missed the interplay, and Mel smiled a little, the darkness fading slightly. It was not gone, could not go so easily, but for the moment it had lifted. Memories of loss and pain could fade, if handled gently—with care—by others who could or would share some of that burden.

“So. Scavengers,” Mel said clearly into the silence. “What do we do about them?”

Rick looked between the two, then over at Casey who was frowning darkly. He caught Arthur’s gaze, but Arthur refused to acknowledge the byplay. Definitely not the time.

“Can we lose them?” Arthur asked. “If we move fast enough, is there a chance to hide from them?”

Uswah frowned, looking over the group. She pondered the question deeply before she eventually shrugged. “I would need to see them to know.”

“That’s . . .” Arthur hesitated before he sighed. “That’s reasonable.” Then, biting his lip, he added, “How far away are they? How many?”

“Ten.” She hesitated a little. “Or at least ten. I might have missed a few.”

“When did you spot them?” Rick asked.

“Around lunch and a little after. When I had Jan scout in my place,” she explained.

“Let’s not do that again,” Lam said. “She led us right into a mudslide.”

“It was the most efficient way!” Jan protested.

“Filled with leeches.”

“Ei, come on lah. You so tough, you worried about a few leeches?” she scoffed.

“I do when I’m wearing loose underwear,” muttered Lam, whose remark startled a few of them into looking at him.

“Ah!” Yao Jing shouted, grabbing everyone’s attention. “Did I ever tell you about the leech lake?”

“No,” Rick said, eyes narrowing. “I’m not sure I want to know.”

“Same,” Cassie said firmly.

Wei, it’s really funny.”

Arthur shook his head, cutting off the subject. Considering Uswah’s report, their surroundings, and the hour of the evening, he sighed, realizing what they had to do. He did not like it, but he knew they had to do it.

“Arthur?” Mel said softly, catching his attention.

“You all stay here,” Arthur said. “Get ready to come and help, but otherwise, try to rest.”

“Help how?” she said, carefully.

“Help Uswah and myself, when we go on a little walk to see the sights.”

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Climbing the Ranks is a LitRPG cultivation novel by Tao Wong that publishes serially on Starlit Publishing. While the whole novel will be free to read, you can purchase a membership to receive chapters weeks in advance of the public release.

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