Chapter 254

Chapter 254

Arthur slipped as he appeared on the teleportation platform, the slickness of the stone causing him to slide forwards. Only a last-moment shift of his weight and the grounding of his spear as he fell kept him on his feet. Raucous chuckles and a few groans met Arthur's ears at his performance, a reminder of another teleportation platform mere months ago.

"What the hell, lah?" Arthur cursed, stabilising himself just before a shift of the air behind him and a yelp had him automatically jumping away. More groans, as he turned around to spot another climber tumble right out.

A moment later, he recalled the note, that minor comment in a forum thread about this floor. Something about needing to keep throughflow, and then others telling the poster to shut up and not spoil the surprise. As he cleared the way, he watched Yao Jing fall to the ground, going into a roll that was only mildly fouled by his backpack. He still ended up on his feet, though at an angle from where he had meant to be.

"Damn. Didn't think there was that much traffic," Arthur muttered, keeping an eye on the surroundings and the teleportation platform. He offered his hand to his friend as he took in the benches that had been hastily built for the watchers, though none of them made a move to bother the newcomers. 

Unlike the first floor where peace was enforced by the Tower itself, here, the lack of battle was entirely manmade. There had been periods when newcomers were attacked, to a point where few individuals even tried to cross the fifth floor. At that point, the government had stepped in, placing their own people to watch over this floor.

Most Towers had places like this—chokepoints where climbers were forced into direct conflict. Most Towers ended up finding a similar solution. After all, if no one ever managed to make it out of a Tower, then eventually the number of desperate climbers would fall to zero. 

Much better for business all around if the flow of ascenders continued. Of course, that always made Arthur wonder why the Towers even bothered, but like so many other Tower-related mysteries, there were no answers. Just rife speculation.

"No fair lah boss, how come you arrive first?" Yao Jing said, standing up and brushing himself off. He looked at the group watching them, his hands dropping low into guard. "Shit..."

"Relax. They're just watching. And betting." A nod to where a bookie was moving around, collecting payment and making it. He gestured with his spear towards the exit where two men lounged. "Remember? Polis Bangunan Ghaib."

Yao Jing blinked slowly and then eventually answered, rather unconvincingly, "Ya lah. Of course I remember."

Arthur rolled his eyes, settled his bags a little better and waved his friend on. "Come on. We might as well get going before we end up getting caught."

Almost as soon as he finished speaking, he noticed the change in attention in the watchers. Looking backwards, he saw Uswah skim down the oiled platform, flipping it over once her toes touched the edge so that she didn't land in the uncertain sand. Her backpack, unlike most of theirs, was much slimmer and compact, meant to carry the most minimal of items to suit her role as scout. 

"Or, we could wait to see if anyone else arrives?" Arthur muttered, rather incredulously. After all, they had all entered the fourth-floor trials at the same time but the amount of time each of them took should have varied to some degree. "Welcome, Uswah."

She offered him a nod in greeting and strolled over to them, the empty sleeve pinned up tight along her arm. She glanced around, taking in the crowd and self-consciously adjusting her tudung as she did so, making sure the head covering was well placed.

"Gambling? Really? So haram. The polis should just stop it..."  Nose wrinkled, Uswah at least made sure to keep her voice low. After all, as much as her religion denounced it, complaining about gambling was not likely to make her any friends. Not in this place.

A flicker of light and a shift in the portal allowed Arthur to watch as someone else was deposited. This one came stumbling out, back facing the wrong way. He slipped as his foot touched the oiled platform. Sliding backwards, he tumbled over and hit his head, lying stunned and smoking all across his body even as raucous laughter broke out.

"That's not one of ours," Arthur muttered, crouching a little to stare at the other man. 

"Oi! Jangan sentuh!" From behind, the policemen shouted at Arthur as he bent to examine the newcomer. 

As Arthur straightened automatically, he caught a whiff of a familiar brimstone and sulfur smell and could not help but wrinkle his nose. Add in the smoking skin and clothing and the way the man wheezed, and he could guess what the poor fellow had to do to survive most recently. 

“He’s poisoned,” Arthur said, though he made sure to step back as a policeman advanced on the trio. "Not by me, obviously."

The short Malay man in his police uniform that strode over snorted, the truncheon in his hand smacking into his palm as he walked over. A little on the hefty side, he moved with the swaggering confidence of one who knew he had authority on his side and wasn't afraid to wield it.

"Jangan dekat dia. Cepat pergi!" He waved his truncheon at the exit to punctuate his words, warning the group away and telling them to leave.

Arthur frowned as he watched the policeman grab the man by the scruff of his neck and yank him out of the platform none too gently. Yao Jing, more careful about matters, grabbed Arthur's arm and led him to the exit, muttering softly under his breath, "Don't, lah. It's not worth it, boss."

Exhaling hard, Arthur nodded. He understood, it wasn't his problem. And as much as he might want to help the man, if he had survived so far, chances were he'd be okay. It was quite possible the policeman might even have some antidotes on them, what with the government's avowed goal of having more climbers on this floor.

Of course, the poor guy probably would get charged an arm and a leg. And that also assumed that supply runs had arrived on time for the antidotes or that they hadn't been purloined for other nefarious purposes. Or just to line the guards’ pockets.

If you weren't cynical about the government, you hadn't lived in Malaysia long enough.

"Eh..." Arthur frowned as they came to a stop, the remaining policeman standing in their way. He wasn't exactly blocking the exit, but he'd moved so that it was clear he expected them to stop, which Uswah—in the lead—had. 

"You people came through pretty good, eh? Which group? Suey Tong? Prime Group? TG?" the Indian man asked, dark skin glistening with sweat under the green-grey uniform he wore. 

"Bukan," Uswah answered in negation, then glanced back at Arthur. He gave her a small shake of his head, and she smiled. "We're just going to the admin center now."

"Ooooh, going to try to sell those horns, eh? Good luck always good. Better to share it, right?" The avaricious gleam in the man's eyes almost made Arthur roll his own eyes, but he managed to stop it.

It still smarted when Uswah dipped into her pocket and pulled out three beast stones and dropped them in the man's hand. Arthur frowned down at the monster cores in the man’s hand, obviously unhappy, but when none of them made to offer the policeman more he reluctantly stepped aside. Annoyed as he might be at the size of the bribe, it wasn't enough to make a big deal of it. Or if he intended to do so, Arthur figured he'd change his mind soon enough.

More importantly... 

"The watchers are leaving," Arthur muttered, jerking his head to the exits that emerged from the back of the stands that had been built up. Those spilled out direct into the surroundings, rather than forcing them to join the exit. He noticed a few of the watchers were eyeing the trio as they looked around, searching for wayposts. 

One particularly enterprising young lady swaggered over, a rolled-up piece of paper in her hand. She waved it as she closed on them, smiling a little as she spoke. "Map?"

"This place isn't that big, is it?" Arthur said, even as Yao Jing started reaching for his own pouch. 

"No, but there are places you want might want to avoid," the young lady said. "And my map includes places of interest and the surroundings, including the latest monsters along the platforms."

"I read the wiki," Arthur said, even as Yao Jing continued to scramble in his pouch before finally pulling forth a small stone from the second floor. 

That made the girl open her mouth to protest, then, glancing at Arthur, she shrugged. "Whatever. Your friend wants it." She offered the map, which Yao Jing grabbed and unrolled quickly to verify it was actually a map before he dropped the stone in her hand. That she didn't make a break for it or protest was a sign at least that she was not anxious about what might appear. Once she had the stone, though, she turned to leave.

"Hey, why is everyone leaving? Aren't appearances... well, random?" Arthur said.

She looked back at him, her gaze almost pitying as though she was surprised he was even talking to her. Yao Jing cleared his throat, waving the map he had rolled back. One last glance at the big bodybuilder and she answered. "No point betting on the normal returnees, you know. Everyone remembers, so the regulars aren’t as interesting. As for newcomers, you all only ever appear at dawn and dusk now."

"When did that happen?" Arthur said, but this time around, she didn't turn around or answer.

"That's why you pay, boss," Yao Jing said, looking satisfied with himself as he reopened the map to peer within.

Arthur shook his head, glancing at the map and using it to calibrate himself with his own memories of the place. After confirming their heading, he started walking.

Seems like even in the eternal Tower, things changed.

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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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