Moonlight. Travel through the night was dangerous, and not because of the lack of illumination. The Tower’s first floor had not one but three moons, each providing sufficient illumination. At times, when all three were high above it was as bright again as twilight. Even when the moons were moving across the horizon, it was still brightly lit enough that night-time travel was viable.
No, the issue was nocturnal monsters. Normally, Arthur would have avoided travel during this period, but he felt the need to leave the corpse behind. Whatever had killed it was more than powerful enough to end him.
Better to run.
Step after step, he pushed onward at the end of day. Things were moving out there, and more than once, he had to stop and keep his head down while waiting for whatever was out prowling in the darkness to go by him. The occasional scream of dying prey and the hacking cough of a cat or another monster had him tensing before the silence would deepen and he would move on.
Even for all the care that he took, he was unable to avoid encounters. The first was a frog-humanoid monster that came crawling out of the thus-far safe river. It caught him by surprise, forcing Arthur to strike downwards with his staff and crush head and limbs when it bit into his ankle. He found himself limping after killing the thing, the poison that been embedded in its jaws forcing him to move carefully as his leg had numbed.
The speed of his retreat slowed even further with his new limp, forcing Arthur to debate the wisdom of continuing to travel. Eventually, he chose to keep going, figuring that moving slower—forced or not—would help mitigate the increased danger.
Perhaps it was because he was moving more quietly, or because he was used to hunting babi ngepet, but he spotted their presence further up the river, sleeping in a small clearing in a circle of mud and shit. That stopped him from stumbling directly into the herd.
Crouching low, favouring his injured leg, Arthur bit his lip. The monsters were sleeping, unaware of his presence. A full herd of monsters were there for him to take advantage of, if he dared. Of course, he risked waking them if he made a mistake. On the other hand, there were over 20 monsters there—a surplus of cores.
Looking down at his staff and then at the sword he had found, Arthur sighed. He was not the most conversant with the sword but he had been trained to use one. And a sword was better than a staff, at least for slaying something that was sleeping.
Arthur lay his bag and staff down, then slowly limped forward, doing the best he could to ensure that his foot did not drag too much. It was tense work, lifting one foot after the other as he moved closer. The first was a big male pig, snoring heavily.
Forcing himself to breathe slowly, Arthur raised his sword and positioned the weapon about a foot and a half above its foreleg and then shifted the weapon again, down the torso a couple of inches. He did not know the animal’s anatomy that well, but he assumed that was likely where the heart was.
His hands trembled a little, eyes darting over sleeping forms all around him. None seemed to be awake, none seemed to notice the quiet killer among them. Then, pushing with everything that he had downwards, Arthur slid the blade into the monster’s body, puncturing heart and lung with one swift motion. The monster thrashed a little, but with his full weight bearing down on it, the creature did not move too much.
Slowly pulling his weapon out, Arthur moved over to the next body, limping with each step. The next was a small baby monster. For a second, Arthur wondered what the point was of having baby monsters in the Tower, but in the end, he knew there was no point asking such questions. All that mattered to him was that the monsters yielded crystals—the baby ones had smaller ones, perhaps, but still crystals.
Sword raised, then plunged down. The pig barely even twitched as he killed it.
Then he moved to the next monster. And the one after. Breathing slowly, adrenaline coursing through his body with each second, Arthur found that the numbness in his leg was fading. The poison was running its course, though so was his nerves.
Each twitch, each muffled snort, it made him wince.
Arthur forced himself to continue, moving from body to body. He was nearly done, working in a circle towards the center where a massive boar that led the group slept. Rather than approach it directly, Arthur had been moving from monster to monster on the fringes since they were more spread out.
Perhaps it was the smell of blood that littered the surroundings, perhaps just the turning of the breeze that alerted the giant boar. Even as Arthur plunged his blade into a sow, the creature kicking and snorting lightly, the herd’s leader twitched awake. An eye opened, and then the head turned as it snuffled.
Tiny evil black eyes met Arthur’s own brown ones. His eyes widening, Arthur jerked the blade out from the sow as the boar clambered to its feet, mud sucking at its body with an audible slurp. The smell of shit and blood, mud and river water washed over Arthur in sudden proximity as adrenaline, faded from the long minutes of killing, rushed back into him.
Reacting first, Arthur hurled himself into a two-handed lunge, thrusting his sword forward. Targeting the area between the monster’s eyes, he threw the full strength of his cultivator body behind the attack even as he triggered Focused Strike.
Surprised and still waking up, the boar managed to turn its head away, long tusks tearing at Arthur’s arms. The blade did not stop though, tearing brown skin and glancing off hardened bone in the skull to slip into an eye. His blade penetrated deep, bursting and bouncing off the insides of the eye socket as the monster continued its turn and Arthur himself was thrown aside.
Arms throbbing, he staggered backwards as blood ran down the torn muscles along one arm. His hand spasmed a bit around the grip, forcing him to clutch tighter with his other hand.
No time to wait though, for the babi ngepet was turning back. Already too deep into the fight and with more of the herd waking up, Arthur threw himself back into the fight, swinging the blade around to cut and chop at his opponent.
A couple of good strikes which did nothing but bounce off thick hide and hair, a barely dodged goring, and then Arthur was forced to flip away as the other monsters charged. Retreating hurriedly, he twisted at the last moment to stab down at another boar, an adolescent only half the size of its monstrous leader. A chop took off its front leg, leaving it crippled as Arthur kept backing off into the treeline.
Fight from the trees, that was all he could do. Either that or retreat. But greed had him eyeing the monster cores left behind and imagining the one in the lead boar. He would not give up this attempt, injured or not. Not without a try.
Weaving between the trees, monsters were charging from all directions. Arthur was forced to put the full extent of his boosted attributes to use. He was stronger, faster, more flexible than he had ever been—as good as an Olympic athlete outside the Tower. He could do this.
Or so he told himself, even as he barely managed to dodge attacks. He was left limping and bloody as monsters bowled him over or tore into his back. An unlucky blow, unseen from a wily monster towards the end of his battle, threw him out of the woods and back into the small clearing, forcing him roll and clutch at his injured back.
Their leader arrived, pawing at the ground. Half-blind, it had let the others of its herd chase Arthur around the forest, waiting until he had been cornered before it made its move. Now, with the cultivator only just beginning to recover, it charged.
Still on his hands and knees, Arthur looked up to see the monster rushing him. Time seemed to slow down, even as his gaze sharpened and focused upon the monstrous boar’s open mouth that kept moving up and down as it charged. There was a small gap, a tiny space between big lips, heavy tusks, and savage teeth that arrested his attention.
Instinct driven by the unusual focus overtook Arthur and he stepped to the side, into the monster’s blind spot. It turned its head, legs shifting as it changed direction a little, but Arthur was not planning on running too far.
No, he was going to follow the flow of monster’s movement.
Back hand powering the thrust, lead hand guiding it, he followed his gaze, timing it just right to slip through the tiny gap. Past tusks, lips, and teeth into the soft palate of its throat. Skin within the creature’s mouth gave no resistance, and his sword went all the way in.
Then the monster hit him, and Arthur was flying, sword still embedded in mouth.
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.