By the time Arthur managed to make it to the outskirts of town, it was nearly the evening of the next day. He was moving a little slow, having only caught a few hours of sleep the night before, concentrated as he was on both filling his dantian with energy from the monster cores and being watchful about any attackers. As it was, when he finally left, he had to deal with a replay of the kuching hitam that had stalked him all the way to his burrow and waited for him to leave.
This time around, though, he managed to catch the cat on his spear as it leapt at him, stabbing the monster clear through the body and then shedding its weight aside. He dropped a knee on the body while prying the spear out, which allowed him to finish the monster off before it could escape again.
Even so, he managed to pick up another long scratch from a flailing backfoot on his chest, which had to be bandaged. And then, it had taken him nearly half a day to make his way into town, having to dodge three different cultivators on the way in. Some, he thought, were just like him: newcomers to the floor. Arthur figured that at least one was—the one carrying a large backpack like he did.
The other two cultivators looked to be predators, armed with minimal gear and carefully scanning the surroundings. One had even set themselves up in a hunting blind, watching for trouble from high above with his recurve bow, while the other was prowling the forest like Arthur’s first stalker.
Spotting all three had been a simple enough thing, though getting past the hidden hunter had only been a matter of chance. Someone in the east had set off a flare and firecracker combo, alerting everyone to their position. A call for help perhaps, or a signal that they had arrived. In either case, while the hunter had moved to the other side of the hunting blind to watch, Arthur had scrambled across the forest floor and hidden again.
Now, here he was, near the outskirts of town, lurking in the underbrush and trying to spot additional trouble. Theoretically, the area right around town was mostly safe. The ground was cleared of foliage regularly by the dominant power in charge, and the safety of those arriving guaranteed. Last he heard, the second floor was being run by TG Inc., a former rubber manufacturing conglomerate that had some rather dodgy ties to groups like the Double Sixes and the Ghee Hin triads. Or at least, their subsidiary gangs. Still, TG Inc.’s façade was said to be all charm and welcoming smiles, even if they ran a rather large company store.
In fact, peering into town, Arthur was quite certain he could tell which was theirs. The three-storey building was made entirely of cross-cut wood timbers and loomed over everything else, even the two-storey Tower-built stone buildings in the center of the clearing.
Still, for all the reassurances that entering town was supposed to have, Arthur continued to hesitate. He did so long enough to watch another individual, weighed down with a backpack, break out from the forest.
The fellow made it a dozen feet towards town, before a pair of men emerged from either side. They weren’t running; in fact, Arthur would call it sauntering the way they made their way over. The poor Tower climber, caught between the two, glanced at them and the town entrance before picking up speed a little. But even if the pair weren’t running, their higher Body attributes meant that they covered the ground faster. Thirty or so feet away from the buildings, one of the men laid a hand on the newcomer.
Arthur watched as the newcomer threw a punch that was easily deflected. The second thug came along, but to his surprise, rather than lay a beatdown on the newcomer, what ensued was a rather lengthy and aggressive discussion. He couldn’t hear what was said, but there certainly was a lot of arm-waving, stamping of feet, and other aggressive movements.
More importantly, he also noted two bystanders: a pair of cultivators dressed in button-down shirts and slacks had appeared, carrying truncheons and taking up post near the entrance to town. They watched the shakedown—it had to be a shakedown—with some quiet amusement and made no move to interfere.
“So the question is: are they bribed or are they just lousy hires?” Arthur muttered to himself. “Or is this how things go here?”
Corruption was always a good guess when it came to how people did things in Malaysia, but he was not entirely certain that was the case here. It could be that they were just letting the conversation continue because the other cultivator had taken a swing to begin with. Or maybe, they actually did know one another and the new Tower climber was trying to shirk some duty. That backpack was definitely larger than normal.
Before Arthur could draw any more conclusions, another couple of figures broke from the foliage. The first was another stranger, though a memorable one. She looked to be in her late teens but was tiny, barely five feet tall, and must have poured a significant amount of energy into her Body attribute since she carried a backpack that was quadruple her size with little problem.
Walking by her side, chatting amiably with the young woman, was a familiar if surprising figure. Which, when he thought about it, was just about right. Because that’s what Arthur’s luck was like, running into the one “friendly” face he’s rather not meet first.