Chapter 255

Chapter 255

The fifth-floor village was, like so many of the other beginner villagers in the Tower, a mixture of Tower-built buildings and slipshod structures thrown together. Due to the lack of urban planning, the pathways between buildings and across the entire village had grown somewhat haphazardly, with a couple of pre-built Tower pathways becoming narrow alleys where lazy ascenders had thrown their own structures up against the walls of the Tower buildings.

Unlike lower floors where such structures might be torn down by a Tower guard, there was not one in sight here. Here, more than anywhere else, the anarchic nature of the insides of the Tower held true. If not for the presence of the government police and the various Tower-enabled powers, it likely would have been even more chaotic.

It reminded Arthur of bad pirate movies, of places like Tortuga and other cities that came together and were held in place by the barest modicums of civilisation and pressing needs. It made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, even as he crossed the grounds, eyes drifting over the ramshackle buildings and the occassional two-story in search of trouble.

Not much wood on this floor, so most of the buildings were thrown together with planks, canvas, plastic tarps, and mud. What wood there was had a familiar look of the trees from the floors below, though that in itself was rare enough. Over the years, enterprising climbers had made their way up, bringing new material from the outside world—or in some cases, just purchasing said material from the Tower itself.

As the trio made their way through the village, the hum of conversation and the presence and stink of humanity living in close quarters filled the surroundings. Arthur walked carefully, though the fact that ascenders did not need to eat ensured that refuse was kept to the minimum. It didn't, however, stop things like discarded and broken material from accumulating. Stubbing one's toe on a shattered bottle or broken chair was just as painful, even with a Tower body. Never mind the occasional plastic bag.

"Troublesome..." Arthur muttered, forcing his shoulders and neck muscles to relax once again. The narrow alleyways they were forced to traverse and the surprising crowds they had to push through were bordered by both solid makeshift walls or the occasional gap in a darkened tarp. It kept his gaze on the swivel, while the feeling of being watched had him clutching his spear tighter.

"Crowded," Uswah said. "Lots of people stopped here."

"Yeah, that's..." Unusual. In a sense. Arthur knew that the fifth floor was a common place for people to consolidate their gains and take their time finishing up the goals of the floor before testing themselves against the sixth. Thus, it was normally busy, but this felt even more crowded than they had expected.

"Change in layout?" Uswah offered.

"Maybe." Arthur looked upward, trying to spot something but the closed-in alleyway and the open skies only now lightening right above him gave barely any information. Annoying. "How much further, you think?"

"Soon..." Uswah muttered, slowing as they came to a split in the road. She glanced sideways, wagging her hand by her side as she tried to remember how many times they'd turned or drifted. Arthur lowered his spear, pointing to the right and she followed his directions. Arthur had to point his spear tip away from an annoyed passerby, and he flushed a little guiltily.

Maybe he should be a little more careful.

"You good back there?" Arthur called out, glancing back to see Yao Jing somehow having found a piece of jerky to chew on. He raised an eyebrow and Yao Jing offered the dark brown matter. On closer inspection, Arthur realised it wasn't jerky so much as... "A root?"

"Yes. Tasty," Yao Jing said. "A little spicy, you know."

Shrugging, Arthur took the piece offered and bit into it. His mouth flooded with saliva almost immediately even as a tingling numbness crept through his mouth. Offering the remainder of the root back, Arthur winced. Spicy. Hah! It felt more like it was poisonous, though it did leave a nice buzz in his mouth.

"Here," Uswah said, drawing his attention back to the front.

The administrative building was clearly a Tower construct, what with its smooth walls and actual windows with glass. The presence of a Tower guard—the first that they had seen—just on the inside of the open doors was also clearly an indicator of its official nature. And, whether through coincidence or the oneriness of individuals not wanting to be constantly squeezed, the administrative building even had a small square of free space in front of it.

Of course, that square was also filled with people, which made going through it a chore.

"So...." Arthur said. "In?"

"Of course," Yao Jing said, proudly. He stepped past Arthur, nodding to him as he said, "I’ll make a path." Throwing his shoulders back, he plowed into the crowd, not at all being shy to make use of his elbows to make his way through. More than a few glared at the newcomer, but Yao Jing ignored the curses that he received as he shoved his way through, calling out constantly, "Coming through. Move. Hang ah!"

Following behind, Uswah slipped between the crowd in his wake with much less trouble. She did, however, occasionally utilise her shadows to tug people away, causing them to stumble and look around with surprise. Arthur had to hide a smile, only recognising what she was doing because he knew of her techniques.

As for him, he just stayed behind, happy to wade through and scanning the crowd. He was in particular looking out for gang tattoos, groups clustered into familiar signs of the underworld. He picked out the Ghee Hin pretty fast, facing off a short distance from the Double Sixes. Then, smaller gangs that he wasn't too familiar with all scattered around. Over there, in nicer clothing was the TG Inc. group, the men and women chatting together as they waited about and, in the corner, the Bumikasih clustered around a policeman in his uniform—the closest thing they had to someone who would help them out, what with being indentured to work their way up and out.

For all his looking, Arthur found himself assaulted by a hand on his shoulder before he spotted who it was. He almost punched the grabber, stilling his motions, though he did shrug the hand off. 

"Is she with you?" Lam said, the bodyguard's eyes filled with worry. Behind him, he was followed by what looked like other members of the Chin family, pushing the crowd aside by sheer presence.

"No, sorry." Arthur said. "Surprised you weren't waiting and watching..."

Lam opened his mouth to comment, then glanced around and shook his head. An eyebrow rose in surprise, but Arthur chose not to comment. He did, however, add. "Hey, since you're here... can you—?"

"He cannot." Voice cold and cutting, another man stepped forward, pushing Lam away rudely. Surprisingly the older man did not protest, just slipping aside as the man in his mid-twenties stepped in. Even at a glance, Arthur could tell he was a member of the Chin family, the man having inherited the nose, chin, and thin lips. "Nor should my cousin have made such a suggestion."

"Sorry," Arthur said, inclining his head a little. "I'm a little lost here. I'm Arthur Chua. You?"

"Damian Chin. The manager of the fifth floor," Damian said, coldly. "And Lam has told me about your deal."

"Right," Arthur hesitated, glancing around as he noted the slight drop in volume all around as people tried to listen in. He shook his head after a moment, continuing: "Well, look. I have a deal, but obviously, you need to talk to Casey. So why don't we ignore that for now, and I'll go do my thing and when Casey arrives, you guys can chat, eh?"

Damian blinked, looking surprised at Arthur's quick and reasonable pivot. Before he could protest further, Arthur grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "Great. Thanks. I really need a shower anyway. And then a nap. Maybe we'll do lunch after? Tea?" Arthur gave a nod, as though Damian had agreed, and added a quick squeeze on Damian’s shoulder before he stepped away. "See you for tea then!"

With that, he hurried away, head down and utterly ignoring the hesitant “Wait!” that resounded behind him. Arthur might not have wanted to get involved in politics, but he knew when a scene was about to start. And drawing on his old delivery service experience meant that being nice and talking fast and then getting the hell out of there before he got blamed was the way to go. Whatever problem Damian had, it wasn't with him.

Not really.

Even if his attitude was going to complicate things for Arthur and the Benevolent Durians on this floor.

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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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