Days passed, with Arthur snatching quick moments of rest late in the evening, cultivating the various cores he acquired during the day. He headed for the looming mountains he noticed in the distance, picking his way parallel to the river he had found. It would lead him to the mountains where the greater density of energy would increase his cultivation speed, provide fresh water—useful for keeping his body hydrated, which while not entirely necessary, thanks to the Tower, still felt refreshing—and ensured he had ample hunting opportunities.
If there was one negative to moving close to the river, it was the lack of locations to rest. His best options were under fallen logs and small overhangs where he managed to build a temporary abode. It was on his third night after exiting his latest cultivation spree that Arthur stumbled, literally, as he put a foot through rotting branches, onto another construction like his own.
After extracting himself with curse words in three languages and some difficulty, Arthur spent a little time reviewing the construction of the tiny house. There were numerous little tricks in the construction of the small lean-to that he drew upon: the use of stripped-down vines as a binding material to keep branches together; adding multiple branches of cut leaves to help shelter the interior.
He was particularly happy he had not walked into the lean-to from the side for there was a hastily constructed and now-rotting set of wooden spikes. He had nearly impaled himself on them when he extracted himself earlier. Interestingly, there was yellow-grey sap on the spikes, a colouration that was unusual to the vegetation around.
“Poison? Bodoh. What kind of idiot leaves things like this lying around?” Arthur pushed the stakes away, breaking them, and shoving the ends into the dirt. He had, briefly, considered carrying the spikes with him. But not knowing how old the poison was, if it was still effective, and how to carry it safely had him dismiss that idea.
Even more interesting was the gleam of glass on the ground. Rummaging a bit and extracting it from the earth, Arthur turned the pill bottle over in his hand. A peek into the opening showed that it was empty, a discarded remnant.
“Now I really wish I’d joined the Boy Scouts,” Arthur sighed. No way of telling how long ago this had been. A week? A few months? Someone with wilderness knowledge would know, maybe. His own understanding was limited to knowing how to survive and travel through various outdoor environments.
And how much of Nature’s rules were different in a Tower, he had no clue either.
“Still . . .” Arthur rubbed his chin. Maybe he could follow along. Other than the foot-sized hole in this residence, it was not too shabby. It would save him a few hours, to make use of the lean-to. And since it was on this side of the river, there might be other makeshift shelters further up. If he watched for it, followed the same deer path that the cultivator had been using, perhaps he might stumble upon another lean-to.
Preferably not literally.
His staff whirled, striking once, and then again at the kuching hitam. It pushed the monster back but did not break bones or throw it aside. This particular beast was nearly twice the size of the previous kuching he had fought, its claws shaving edges off his staff whenever the two came into contact.
“Here kitty, kitty, kitty.” Another spin, the top of his staff dipping to crash into the earth. The cat had managed to skip aside, just enough to dodge before it pounced. Unfortunately for it, Arthur had been waiting for that and threw a Focused Strike snap-kick right into the cat’s body, sending it flying. He had only received a few light scratches on his arm.
Bones cracked as he kicked the monster again and it spun through the air, managing to get its feet underneath it just before landing. Then it met a full-speed thrust that caught it on the top of its head, staff cracking it open and leaving the monster reeling. Another full-speed strike broke it at last, leaving the body to disperse into light.
“I might have gone too far,” Arthur said to himself, tearing the sleeve off his shirt. He wrapped a stained bandage around his arm, sealing the wound, and sighed. Rather than throw bandages away, he had been washing them after his wounds had healed, but even that cost-saving measure was coming to an end.
Scooping up the crystal, he turned it over, marvelling at the pulse of energy he could feel. Much stronger than before. Not quite double, but he was certain it would be at least half as strong as the crystals found from monsters close to the beginner village.
“Forward or back?” Tapping his foot, Arthur breathed. The monsters out here were a bit of a challenge. The last babi ngepet he had met, alone by itself, had nearly destroyed the tree it Arthur had led it to charge. Only Focused Strikes had worked to kill it. The battle had left Arthur panting, exhausted and sweaty.
On the other hand, each crystal was worth so much more.
Just as intriguingly, he had found more signs of the mystery cultivator over the past two weeks as they travelled deeper in, towards the mountains. Stories of finding hidden cultivation caves and secret manuals had driven Arthur along, but now the danger of continuing was growing.
For a long pause, he debated one way or the other. Then glancing up at the sky, he nodded to himself. It was afternoon now, and he was closer to where the cultivator had likely built his abode for this evening if he went forward rather than back.
He would rest there, and perhaps even stay long enough to finish refining the monster cores he held. After which, he would return to a less dangerous area.
Arthur returned to the deer trail he had been on, keeping a wary eye out for additional problems.
“Good luck or bad?” Arthur could not help but wonder out loud as he bent over the remains of the corpse. He had caught a glimpse of metal as he crept forward along the deer trail, only to be confronted by the torn remnants of the cultivator. Bones had been stripped clean by scavengers, portions of it pulled away or gnawed upon. Only the belt buckle and the ripped backpack lay testament to his death.
“Don’t mind me . . . you don’t need these, right?” he muttered to the corpse as he pulled at the broken backpack to poke within. Most of the clothing and other sundry goods had been scattered or tarnished, though he did take the eating utensils, knife, and compass.
To Arthur’s greatest surprise, there was also a manual lying in there, untouched by the dirt. Magic must have kept it pristine, though the fact that he could open and read it meant it was not a manual purchased at the Tower store.
“Good thing, I guess?” Arthur mused. “Then again, untested cultivation exercises can also be pretty, well, lousy . . . But beggers can’t be choosers.”
He slipped the manual into his backpack before taking a longer walk around. Food, drink, all those were spoiled or tossed aside. Clothing was of no use to Arthur, though the first-aid pack had bandages and other items he could scavenge. However, one rather important thing was missing . . .
“Celaka!” Cursing, Arthur spotted not what he was looking for but something he had hoped to find since he saw the corpse and the first pill bottle. But the creatures that had killed the cultivator had also torn open the bag, shattered the pill bottles within and consumed their contents.
Not willing to give up, he bent down and started digging in the dirt, brushing away glass shards. After all, pigs or cats or tigers, it didn’t matter—they had no fingers for delicate work.
Fingers pushed aside earth and leaves, eyes squinting at the soil. It was, to his surprise, not the area around the shattered glass that gave him what he needed but underneath a tree root a short distance away. Something glinted, revealed as he swept the ground before him, a little bit of dirt knocked aside.
Craning his neck, Arthur squinted and there it was: the outline of a pill bottle, one so small that it could only contain only a single pill. He extracted it gently. The noise of a single pill rolling within made him grin.
However, he did not open the bottle. Cognizant of potential trouble and seeing nothing else in the vicinity, Arthur made a circle of the surrounding area. He finally found what he had been looking for, a short distance from the body.
Sword and sheath, the weapon half-drawn. Soil, moisture, and rain had marred the half-drawn steel and a quick cleaning was not going to fix the problem. Still, Arthur chose to take it. He attached the sheath’s sling to his backpack.
A free weapon was free.
He chose to leave then. Whatever had killed the other cultivator, he definitely did not want to meet it.
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.