There was no rushing or pushing to enter the dungeon’s main entrance. The Tower was no longer a mystery, and everyone understood that they would be tested the moment they entered. The winnowing stage was entirely solo, before you were allowed into the Tower proper. Of course, when the first Tower arrived, this testing stage had taken a large number of lives since no one had expected to be thrown into a life-or-death fight immediately.
Nowadays, the test was well known. An empty room—blue, white, or sometimes brown, depending on the Tower—with no obstacles or other environmental factors to aid or hinder the testee. Everyone faced the same monster here, the only variation being the type that was dependent upon the individual Tower itself. Arthur knew that in some places, they faced goblins, or red caps or kobolds. However, for those that chose to enter via the Malaysian Tower, they got to fight the babi ngepet; as if the tower had decide to offer a nod to local legends.
Standing in a plain white room, its temperature a chill 20 degrees Celsius or so—way too cold for even an air-conditioned shopping mall in Malaysia—Arthur could not help but be impatient. This test was the first of many, but without passing it he could not move on.
A chime like a cellphone alert roused Arthur’s attention and made him focus. Somehow, while he was thinking, the ground ahead had given rise to a bank of mist. The mist wrapped itself around a slow-forming figure.
Arthur waited, knowing it was useless to attack the mist until it had finished its job. Besides, he had often heard of people receiving lower marks because they had tried to cheese their way through the test. Sungai bodoh, nak buat itu.
Better to wait, then launch an attack and score higher.
When the mist finally parted, it brought with it the sight of the demon boar he would have to face. The babi ngepet easily weighed three hundred pounds. with overly large tusks and an evil look in its glowing red eyes. Like all boars everywhere, it had a terrible temperament and, upon sighting Arthur, began its charge.
That was the thing they didn’t tell you if you lived in a big city, supping on the tender siu yuk of their domesticated cousins. Boars were nasty.
Most wild animals—even the harimau, the king of the jungle—would avoid humans. They had no reason to hunt humans, and so never attacked. But the Babi? They’d attack just because they could. And this was a demonic version.
The loud squeals, compounding off hooves charging forwards rose up around the room, filling Arthur’s world. He found his heart beating faster, his hands growing sweaty as adrenaline coursed through him. No matter how much training he had, no matter how real they had tried to make it, they could not duplicate the reality of facing something that truly wanted you dead. Legs turned to the left, arms bent forward, staff held in both hands before him. Even as the boar closed in, with each harsh breath.
At the last moment, Arthur jumped aside. A little too late. He swung his staff at the same time, hoping to strike the monster away from him. His timing was off, just a little, enough for it to gore a trailing foot, leaving his ankle bloodied. He stumbled as he landed, the monster staggering aside and turning in a wide circle as it shook its dazed head.
Arthur had landed the hit, but it wasn’t enough. Once more, the babi ngepet shook his head and charged. This time there was less space between them, less time to gain momentum. Rather than jump, Arthur merely stepped aside as he swung his staff, blow crashing into a front leg and sending the ball off course. A part of him regretted not having a spear, the perfect weapon for dealing with the tough hide and monstrous muscles of this creature. He dismissed the thought and focused.
Three more times, the demon charged him. Three more times, Arthur struck first, making full use of his weapon’s long reach. His confidence grew with each attack, even as he felt his sneaker grow ever more bloodied and his leg radiate with pain.
He could do this, he was certain. Until the babi ngepet changed the rules.
It shook itself and rather than approaching him, it began to transform. Black smoke swirled up around its body, and Arthur knew he was seeing the second stage of the test. He took a couple of quick steps forward, knowing that he was allowed to strike now. This was the time to finish it.
Except, on his second step, pain shot up his ankle and it gave way. He collapsed, barely stopping his knees from slamming fully into the unforgiving floor by propping himself on his staff. While Arthur got over the flash of pain, the Babi completed its transformation.
Standing in front of Arthur was now a five-foot-four man in dark robes. He wielded a pair of knives, one in each hand. One knife was chipped and bloodied, just like the boar’s tusk had been. The man threw himself forward, blades weaving before him. Still on his knees, Arthur weaved his own defense with his staff.
The furious battle between the pair sent the clack of staff meeting blade echoing throughout the room. Arthur’s greater range with his staff was compromised by his lack of mobility, while his opponent’s second blade constantly threatened to cut his arm. Eventually the man fell back, cradling his injured elbow while Arthur had blood dripping from his lead right thigh where a blade had scored against him.
Taking a brief moment to relax, Arthur pushed himself to his feet, glaring at his opponent. Notwithstanding the injuries, he had the advantage. He limped forward slowly, even as his opponent attempted to pick up a dropped dagger. A jab with his staff caught the man on his collarbone, sending him staggering away. Another spinning attack was blocked by the remaining dagger. Arthur shifted his grip, swinging the bottom of his staff up as he pulled the top edge back, sliding the staff in between the man’s legs. Only a quick motion by his opponent allowed his crown jewels to stay untouched. But a blow to the inner thigh was crippling in of itself.
Slow, careful steps. Carefully placed blows, and the occasional feint, drove his opponent back, back, back. At last, the man had nowhere to go and Arthur's staff crushed his skull.
Only then, through the haze of pain and concentration that had overtaken him, did Arthur really note his actions, spot the unseeing eyes that met his own troubled gaze.
The Malaysian Tower was considered one of the most difficult to pass due to its unusual, nonhuman start and the fact that one had to kill a human at the end. Or something that looked human. Too many testees realized in the end that they could not do it. The act of killing another human was anathema to many.
Arthur, still bleeding, wondered what it meant about him, that he felt very little beyond relief. No regret, no pain or sorrow.
No joy. Not yet.
Golden lines appeared before him, within his mind’s eye.
Initial tower test completed.
Results are being graded.
Tests have been graded.
Now the joy came along with the shifting of his senses.
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.