Chapter 221

Chapter 221

It was a short while later, when the rest of the team had slumped over to cultivate or just grab a few moments of peace – and sleep, in the loudly snoring Yao Jing’s case – that Mel made her way to sit beside Arthur. She offered no commentary, watching as he scanned the water obsessively and worked on wringing out his damp sock, the pair of boots propped up beside him slowly dripping dry.

“Well?” Arthur snapped after a moment.

“Why do you think the hantu air didn’t follow us, after we dove into the water?” she said.

Expecting another question, Arthur answered without thinking. “I don’t know.”

“But you’ve been thinking about it, right?” she said.

“I…” He hadn’t, of course. He’d been mulling over the confrontation with rick, thinking about what they had both said. Wondering if the other man would return, if he would try for his pistol in the water. Wondering if he’d been too harsh.

Or just harsh enough.

“You should be thinking,” she said. Nodding to the spearhead that he had cleaned off and had resting against him, she continued. “Your job isn’t that.”

“I have to be strong.”

“You have to be smart,” she said. “Yao Jing saved us out there.” He grunted in reply. “It should have been you.’

“How was I supposed to know they wouldn’t attack us in the water!” Arthur protested.

“I don’t know. But you should have.”

“That’s not fair.”

She arched an eyebrow. When he still looked stubborn, she added. “Didn’t you just tell someone else off about their own background, about holding too tight to it? It’s not fair. But it is what you have.”

He winced, bending his head. Unspoken between the two of them, the knowledge that he held what she had wanted, what she had sought. What she had sacrificed friends for. Sharmila, Rani, Daiyu. Friends who had followed her, only for her to lose out on the final prize at the end.

“Why don’t you hate me?” Arthur said, softly. “The Clan…”

“It’s too late for that,” Mel said, a twisted smile on her lips. “Killing you won’t change it. Beating you won’t make you a better Clan head.” She tilted her head to the side, regarding him. “Well… maybe.”

He snorted at the attempt of levity, but it was strained. This was not a topic that either could find funny. Not for long at least.

“There’s a small part of me glad I am not you, ah.” Mel shook her head. “It’s not like I was trained to be a businesswoman either, like your friend.” She tilted her hand sideways. “My mother makes kuih. My father cooks goreng pisang.

“Oh, which one?” Arthur said, curiously.


“Wait, the one in the corner? Across the durian stall?” When he nodded, he laughed a little. “I used to have a regular pickup there. For a customer.”

“Small world.”

“I guess.” He paused, humming in thought. “Your father, eh?” When she nodded, he frowned. “Saw your sister too then.” Unsaid was the other side of that comment. That she had never been there.

“I didn’t want it.” She waved a hand around. “I couldn’t, wouldn’t, slave over hot oil or steaming pans. I wanted something more. They let me… even if they hated it. Let me train with my tsifu, let me study how to make it through.”

“Like me.”

She nodded.

“But then I came in and it wasn’t anything I dreamed of. Amah Si needed me. So I helped her.” She made a face, as she added. “Maybe longer than I should have. But we had a chance at something…something… more.”

“And I took it.”

Now, she smiled a little. “We still have a chance.”

“If I don’t mess it up.”

“Yes. Start thinking.” She nodded to the water that had grown peaceful, lapping gently at the roots, the drifting pieces of their rafts floating aside. “And start doing it fast. Before we really do lose anyone else.” Quieter now, she added. “Don’t fail, not like me. The regrets…” She wiped at her tears then and Arthur reached over to give her a side hug. She stiffened at the contact at first, but eventually she just leaned into him, their conversation over for now.




Long minutes later, Arthur spoke up, softly.

“I can think of three reasons for why the hantu air didn’t chase us in the water.” He paused, and when Mel made an agreeable sound, he continued. “The first is the most obvious. It’s just what the Tower programmed them to do.” He frowned before adding. “Not that their actual programs, they’re too… alive for that. But they also sometimes have weird rules. And maybe, whatever it was in the way they made, makes coming here or going into the water safe.”

“How do you tell?”

Arthur could only shrug to her question. Someone smarter than him might be able to figure it out, but he certainly hadn’t come into the Tower to get a PhD on monster dynamics.

“Second option. They can’t sense something that’s all the way wet, or is mostly wet. Or they are trying to make us wet.” He grunted. “That’d explain why the rafts took so long to attract them, and why, when we were in the water they stopped caring.” Then he added, slower. “It doesn’t explain why when I attacked one in the water it didn’t divert to me though. But maybe they just don’t react to attacks, to pain, like we do.” He shrugged. “They are just possessing the bodies, right?”

A nod greeted his assertion before he sighed. “The third one is, well, sort of the same. But subtly different, maybe. They’re spirits of the water, right? Maybe what they want, or need, is the living to become part of the water, to join with it. So when we went into the water and swam through it, we basically did what they wanted. If that’s the case, they’re not necessarily hostile at all. And that means we’d be safe to get our gear.”

Mel nodded along quietly to his words as he spoke, eventually pushing away to stare back at Arthur. “But why won’t they come here?” She gestured to them and the tree they sat upon. “Why aren’t we being attacked?”

Arthur let out a long huff. “In case one, stupid Tower rules. In scenario two, they don’t know we’re here yet. And for scenario three…” He trailed off, then shrugged. “No idea. Maybe the tree itself has a spirit which pushes them away?”

“You don’t sound very confident about that.”

“That’s because I’m not.”

She nodded. “Now what?”

“A few things. We need to test whether we can get into the water.” He grimaced, then gestured outwards. “If we can get Rick to help us, if we work out that they don’t really care about us at all, he can get his gun again. And us, our stuff. Also, rather importantly, a way back.”

“That’s one.”

“The other is getting ready for finding the Heart of the city.” He looked around, grimacing. “Maybe Rick’s spotted something, but so far, all I’ve got is big tree.”

“So, two groups? Or three.”

“Two for now.” He tapped the tree, continuing. “I need to be on this one. Can you…?”

“Placate Rick and apologise for you?” At his slight nod, she snorted. “Yes. And no. In order.”

“Fine, I’ll apologise myself.”

“Good boy.”

Eyes narrowing, he shooed her off so he could cultivate. What was it with the women in his Clan giving him sass?
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Climbing the Ranks is a LitRPG cultivation novel by Tao Wong that publishes serially on Starlit Publishing. While the whole novel will be free to read, you can purchase a membership to receive chapters weeks in advance of the public release.

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