Arthur blinked, his world lurching as he was teleported. He fought the disorientation and stomach churning that teleportation caused, the churning in his stomach as he went through the equivalent of riding a rollercoaster during a hurricane in the middle of the ocean. His stomach lurched and twisted, and Arthur fought not to throw up. When his eyes finally cleared and he was able to focus on anything but his stomach, he noticed a group of individuals staring at him.
Cheers and congratulations exploded from the spectating crowd, though one voice also shouted, “Damn it, throw up already!”
Arthur finally managed to settle his stomach, enough that he dared to take a step forward on the raised teleportation platform. The entire thing was made of stone and no larger than a couple of feet across and a few inches off the ground, just enough to demarcate the differences.
Stepping onto sandy ground, Arthur could not help but note that there were dozens of teleportation platforms in sight and even more hidden by the buildings that they ringed. The buildings in the center had always been present, though there was a marked difference between the carefully crafted Tower made buildings of stone and brick and the ramshackle wooden housing created by the tower climbers.
The first Tower-crafted buildings were where the few guides and Tower-enabled residences were, while the ramshackle buildings hosted the majority of cultivators. The first level of the Tower—of all Towers in the world—was the only floor that had a safe zone. As such, it was also the place where tower climbers would return to when they grew all too tired of, well, climbing.
Of course, there were other safe zones throughout the Tower for taller buildings, but all those were manmade. There were residences created by tired Tower climbers, even whole cities—places to stop and acquire new equipment, cultivation manuals, and skills. Places to cultivate, too, but all such places were only as safe as the individuals who ran them.
Only on the first floor did the Tower itself enforce safety, not only by providing individuals with a second chance at life if they were injured, but also by the ubiquitous Tower guards. Faceless sentinels in robes, that floated or flew overhead, watching all those who lived within.
“Platform eleven. Platform eleven. Taking bets now . . .”
Arthur turned to the speaker, a scrawny kid with a floppy hairstyle who stalked among the crowd, pointing in the direction of the aforementioned platform. That one, Arthur idly noted, was glowing a little. Less than ten seconds since the platform started glowing, it stopped and another cultivator appeared, looking the worse for wear.
The woman lurched forwards a little, bending over. Her foot nearly brushed the outside of the platform before she caught herself from tumbling off, eliciting a series of gasps from the watchers. Then, still bent over, she threw up, red curry and brown sludge with a mixture of white noodles spreading across the black platform and brown dirt.
“Aiyah! Perempuan, selalu tak guna.”
“I knew I’d make it all back. Pay up, pay up. Cepat, cepat lah!”
“Damn it . . .”
Curses from all around, even as a robed figure of a guardian swept towards the woman. A wave of its hand and the vomit disappeared, even as she staggered away—just a girl, Arthur realised, probably just old enough for college if she had not chosen to enter like him.
Which reminded him.
He started walking forwards, staff held over his shoulder, gaze sweeping over everyone as he watched for potential pickpockets. They were always a danger, though none of the current residents chose to step closer than fifteen feet near the teleportation platforms. The guardians’ presence probably kept them away, ensuring newcomers had a safe entry during their most vulnerable state.
More teleportation platforms had fired, depositing their testees. A few of the ones that came before had exited the safe zone and been met by others. Sect members, members of merchant houses, and runners. The testees handed over their packs and, in a few cases, amulets or rings of dimensional storage, and in turn were greeted happily by their waiting members.
Arthur had considered, briefly, being a runner. He had discarded the option due to the risk. Not to himself—if he did not make it through the test, he would be dead and uncaring about what any annoyed merchant house or triad group could do—but for his family. The only kind of assurance, beyond money that Arthur did not have, that these groups accepted was family. If you failed to bring the goods through, they would take it out on your family. And that, Arthur would not risk. No matter how sure he was.
Still, he did feel a twinge of regret at playing it safe. Those who took the risk now had a head start, paid in contribution points or skills or spirit stones or good old money. Tower money, of course, was different from real-world money.
All he had was a single chit . . .
So deep in thought, he almost did not notice the trio that appeared before him, standing in his way. Arthur frowned, stopping just a little short, then automatically stepping back to clear space. He noticed the smirks among the loutish trio, all of them wearing baggy sweatpants and singlets. Samseng, thugs, of the worse kind—the kind that refused to shower regularly.
And worse, looking at them, Arthur could guess exactly what they wanted.
“Eh, friend, got a second, eh?”
“No,” Arthur said, stepping to the side.
The trio automatically moved, repositioning themselves.
“We weren’t asking,” the leader said again, his smile widening but still lacking any real warmth.
Arthur sighed and set himself, knowing he was not going to get away that easy.
It looked like his first shakedown had started.