Tall forest trees, sticky sap on their trunks with sharp pine needles. That’s what those were, right? Pine? Arthur heaved and panted, trying to dodge deeper within, missing the dense underbrush of Malaysia now. At least the temperature around here was a lot cooler, meaning that energy would not be sapped from overheating, from sweating.
Luck had him stumble at the right time, a foot catching on a hidden root. He caught himself easily, but a projected blast of energy clipped his shoulder where it would have struck him dead-on. Instinctively, he clutched his staff close as he spun around and fell, barely managing to get his feet away from the gripping roots—holy shit, were they actually moving!—before he crashed to the ground.
“Oh, you idiot! Bodoh! I had him!” The Malay cultivator snarled at the other man, shaking one glowing fist. “If you hadn’t tripped him, he’d be down.”
“He’s on the ground, isn’t he?” the Chinese man snarled back. With his parang, he cut off roots that had been moving under his command.
Eyeing the pair still arguing with one another a good 20 feet away, Arthur slowly pushed himself to his feet. It was when he was most of the way up that they turned their attention back to him, giving him a flat gaze as he attempted to sneak off.
“We’re going to beat you and take you for everything you’ve got, boy!” the Malay said.
“Chop off a hand maybe . . .” the other man said, swinging the parang around with a grin.
“What?!” The Malay turned to his companion. “I didn’t sign up for that. Teach him a lesson, sure.”
“He cracked my brother’s ribs! He’s going to pay.” The parang wielder stalked toward Arthur.
Seeing his chance, Arthur rushed forward, staff coming down to his hip. He threw the staff out, sliding it along one hand and guiding by the other into a straight thrust that would smack the Chinese man in the face . . .
Only for the man to casually duck, then slap the entire staff high into the air with his own blade. Cursing, Arthur attempted to control the flailing staff, even as the other man strode forward quickly.
Not quickly enough to stop his mouth from working, though. “I knew you were going to try that, boy. Cowards like you, you’ll take every chance to attack those from behind.”
“Ah Chu, you can’t . . .” the Malay man protested, not moving to aid either party. Clearly dithering between the level of punishment and old loyalty.
Not that Arthur cared, not with what was happening. Instead, his focus was on the parang being swung at his head. Instinct had him give up on one end of his staff, letting it flop even as he stepped sideways, watching as the staff fell to the ground as he brought his own end up at an angle.
Deflection. Not a good one, since the edge of the parang bit into the wood of his staff, but not far. Heat-treated, hard as sin, the staff would take quite a few strikes before it broke. It still made Arthur wince internally.
No time to retreat. He threw the punch, not at the other man’s face or chest, but at the retreating arm. Much closer range, much easier to deal with. It plunged in, energy boosting the attack to glance off the quickly retreating hand. The tip of the parang coming down caught on his own arm, cutting into him, but the shock of his punch made the other’s hand spasm.
Remove the weapon, then fight. You never wanted to fight someone holding something sharp, not if you could help it.
Unfortunately, before Arthur could back off further, his opponent lashed out. A spinning kick to his side caught him in the ribs, a pulse of energy similar to what he had used. A variation of Focused Strike that was stronger than his own, or perhaps the same skill but better executed. He felt two ribs break, his breath driven out of him as he flew backwards.
He hit the ground, rolling over and over, somehow managing to keep hold of his staff all through the fight. The impact of body against rough tree bark sent another lance of pain into a torso already burning with agony.
Chest constricted, unable to breathe, Arthur looked up to see his opponent charging, refusing to give him a moment to recover. As he stood, Arthur slipped his second hand ahead of his lead one that was still gripping his staff, levering the entire weapon upwards. It flicked a bunch of dirt and leaves into the sky, causing the other man to halt.
Arthur rotated his hands, sending the edges of the weapon spinning in a circle as it neared the bare-handed Chinese man. Before Arthur could strike, branches from the tree he was backed against reached outwards, gripping his body and yanking him backwards. His chest flared with pain, as he was lashed tight against the tree trunk.
The other man slowed a little, just enough to time his punch. The blow cracked across Arthur’s face, slamming the back of his skull into the trunk. Little stars danced across his eyes. Then another blow, coming from the other side, catching his cheek.
A rain of blows across his face and, worse, his chest where ribs—bruised or broken—drove Arthur to distraction. Curses rained down on him as the other man lashed out, until Arthur lay slumped, blood and snot dripping from his nose, held up by the roots.
“I told you, you’d pay,” growled the other man. “Now, you got anything to say? If you beg, maybe I won’t chop off anything more than a hand.”
Arthur blinked, letting out a low moan. A hand grabbed his hair, pulling bruised and swollen eyes to look up into the Chinese man’s face.
“Well? You got something to say for yourself?”
Blinking a little, Arthur had to focus. He nodded a little, forestalling the slap that he could see coming and worked his jaw. He considered spitting at the man, but then chose to swallow the blood and saliva, to clear his throat.
“I . . . I do.” Arthur’s croak was barely a whisper.
“What’d you say?” The man leaned forward but kept a good grip on Arthur’s hair. No headbutts here.
Good thing that wasn’t what he was planning, Arthur thought as he finished channelling the energy in his body to his shins. It was a desperate move, trying to use a Focused Strike when he had not trained it on another limb. Desperate and risky, but pain and fear had driven him to take the chance.
One that sent his leg striking upwards, between his opponent’s legs. Eggs were crushed against body and shin, shattering the man’s hopes for the future. Even as he slumped over, pelvis cracked, the roots holding Arthur loosened.
His opponent lay on the ground, face white, a growing red stain around his crotch spreading across his jeans. Arthur blinked, only to find his last opponent staring at the two of them. Try as he might, Arthur could not find the energy to raise his hands or guard himself.
Eyes swimming, he wondered what his fate would be now.
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.