“Boss!” Arthur called out, waving at the fox who stood upright by the side, watching over the small crowd moving through his store. The fox glared at Arthur, but the young man was unperturbed, treading his way closer.
“I know what I want,” Arthur supplied helpfully. “If you get it for me, I’ll be out immediately.”
This time around, the fox’s face had a flash of surprise before it was smoothed out, just like the fur along its face. It bowed a little to Arthur, making its way behind glass counters that lined the edge of the shop interior to meet him.
More than a few of the other customers stared at Arthur. He quickly flicked his gaze over the group, assessing and categorising them into three categories. First were the rich, smart, and connected. They were, one and all, well dressed and well armed. A few even had bodyguards. Those would go far, if luck held. No waste of their newcomer credits, not for them. They’d all have secret lists, information of the specialised items that their backers had provided that, combined with other items, were sufficient to give them a head start. They would retire soon enough, cook together whatever special pill they had been told to make, and then spend the next few days or weeks training to increase their cultivation base. When they emerged, they’d be stronger and faster than anyone else, offered a lead that no one at Arthur’s stage could hope to beat.
Those fellas had looked him over and dismissed him, having slotted him in the second category: The smart, the ones who had researched and done their best to learn what they could. They had no secret techniques or manuals, no greater knowledge but knew enough than to rely on fickle luck or desperate fate. They knew exactly what they wanted, and if they all received the same damn thing, well . . .
“A Beginner Special then?” the fox said, brown eyes dancing with amusement as he looked at the bloody scrap of paper that Arthur handed him.
The third group—the foolish, the unwary, the hesitant—were the largest. They might have done some research; they might even have a plan. But now, here in the newcomer shop, they had no confidence anymore. Not in their research, not in their decisions.
The array of weapons, each with their own unique name, the multifarious names of alchemical pills, the cultivation manuals and exercises that tempted them all. So much stuff, that even lists created by others to aid those who came after did not cover them all.
More importantly, in the here and now, life and death had grown all too real. Rather than trust their own research, they leaned one way or another, listened to what people had to say or bought, all desperately hoping to validate their own decisions or reinforce the current meta.
It took the fox only a short moment to return, holding up items from the Beginner’s Special. So named because it was the recommended purchase for those who entered, a simple and effective series of items for those without an in.
“Low quality, white jade knives for gathering and skinning,” the fox said, dropping the sheathed weapons onto the table, wrapped in leather to keep his glass counters unscarred. A smaller bundle dropped beside it. “Bags and string, for storage.”
Arthur opened the knife bag, unwinding the leather string to pull the two knives out. The skinning knife had a tiny hook at the front, the blade thin and all too sharp. The gathering knife looked like a mini-scythe, meant to catch behind a flower or herb to cut with a pull, leaving the roots behind so that they could grow again.
“Good quality,” Arthur said. He wrapped the pair up and pulled the bundle across the counter. He made sure to smile when he spoke, not wanting the shopkeeper to mistake the compliment for what it was.
Not that it seemed to matter to the fox. “Focused Strike, chi exercise.”
The scroll that followed the pronouncement was wrapped in a red thread. Attached was a leather label: the words were at first in English, then Chinese, and then Malay—the characters shifting as Arthur stared, magic changing the words to languages he understood.
Arthur knew better than to open the scroll now. Doing so would be the kind of insult that would follow him through all the Tower’s shops, leading to much lower offers and the occasional lower-quality item. No, you could check the mundane items, but cultivation resources were all sacrosanct.
“And lastly, bag of storage for the first floor,” the fox said, dropping the small pouch beside the scroll. “Good only for this floor, two cubic feet.”
“Thank you,” Arthur replied, grabbing the bag and sweeping everything within. Once he was done, he cocked his head to the side. “And the special?”
“The manager’s special?” The fox smirked. “Are you sure you wish to gamble upon it?”
Arthur nodded firmly. “I have two credits left. I might as well.”
“Very well,” the fox reached behind him before dropping a rock in front of Arthur. “One manager’s special.”
The loud sniggers that raced across the room had him flushing a little, but mostly Arthur was staring at the plain, river-worn smooth stone before him. It wasn’t even particularly large, half the size of his palm and rather flat. Maybe good for skipping . . .
“A rock?” Arthur said incredulously.
“Yes. As you know, the manager’s special is always a gamble.” The fox grinned. “We do not take returns.”
“A rock . . .” Arthur sighed, picked up the rock and then shrugging, dropped it into the storage pouch. He slipped the pouch into his jacket before bidding the fox goodbye, doing his best to ignore the chuckles. After all, Arthur reminded himself, he was not the first nor would he be the last to get taken by the manager’s special.
Anyway, he had his hands on a cultivation technique at last! Even if it was the lowest grade and most common technique ever, it was a cultivation technique. One he sorely needed, if he was to survive.
Staff in hand, he hurried towards the newcomer inn, intent on getting a room and starting his lessons. It was time to get started on his first real lessons as a cultivator.