Days later, Arthur finally cracked his eyes open. His side still hurt, but at least he was able to function. The only reason he chose to stop the process of cultivating more energy was a desire to find his missing equipment. Already, it had rained once during the time he had been here, and he desperately hoped that he could at least locate his equipment before it was scattered by wild animals, found by other cultivators, or just destroyed.
“Could have left me with the crystals Budo stole from me . . .” Arthur grumbled as he hauled himself over the lip of the cliff. What had been a tenuous and dangerous climb was so much simpler now that he wasn’t bleeding to death.
Rolling over the edge, he forced himself to breathe slowly, waiting for the ache in his side to subside. Lying on the fresh grass, he could not help but feel the scratchiness of his clothing, the crustiness from all the bleeding he had done, and smell the rancid odour of multiple days of not washing.
They said that once you rose up in the ranks, you stopped sweating and smelling as much. You became closer to a perfect being. He was kind of looking forward to that. Of course, he would have to survive the process first, which was currently a problem. How many times had he nearly died since he arrived at the Tower? Four? Five times?
The fact that he had lost track was a problem.
“Going to get killed,
For the thrill,
By a real monster,
But if I don’t,
Then I won’t,
And I’ll become the monster!”
Muttering to himself, Arthur tested out the rhymes. Well, it was kind of juvenile and basic; and he was trying to become an immortal cultivator and ascend the ranks in the Towers, not be a poet. Also, he was pretty sure using “monster” twice was just cheating.
“What rhymes with monster? Bonster? Lonster? Foster? Mobster?” Arthur continued to mutter as he wandered through the wood, doing his best to backtrack. He was cutting at an angle, watching for problems as he searched for the trail he and Budo had created while running. “A mobster monster. That’d be . . . weird. I wonder if they’d like cannoli? What is cannoli, anyway? What does it taste like and is it good?”
Talking to himself. A bad habit, but it helped distract from the pain. And he was making sure to keep his voice low, since the only one who needed to hear him was himself. It just helped stave off the loneliness he’d begun to feel.
Meditating and cultivating, healing himself—all that was great and good, and he had the discipline to do that. But when he wasn’t actively trying to improve himself, that was when the waves of solitude would crash, driving him to this.
He knew being by himself for so long was not a good idea. Arthur had not progressed to the point where he could sit and cultivate uninterrupted for years at a time. The human brain wasn’t built for years of solitude, which was why so many fools who tried to circumvent the world alone got into trouble. Or, you know, prisoners in isolation.
Supposedly it became less of a problem, something about differences in brain waves and chemicals between higher-rank Tower people and those who were not. But he was still starting out; he needed to talk to someone, anyone.
“Good thing I’ll be heading back to the starter village soon,” Arthur said to himself. He desperately needed to do so, but he couldn’t just return without his pack and all the things he had acquired. Even the basic herbs he had collected would help. After all, he had his herb-gathering quest to finish.
“I wonder what their quest was?” he muttered. It was obvious the girls had one too, but . . . well. He was so not going to get involved in that. Some enterprising protagonist in a book might consider themselves better able to handle the dangers of following a group of angry woman who’d threatened to kill him before, but Arthur knew better.
He had taken enough risks. It was time to go home.
Once he found his bag.
Hours later, Arthur sighed as he stared at his weapons, the parang, sword and staff, dropped by the wayside. The sword at least seemed alright, though the hilt looked even worse for wear after lying around even more in the open weather. The staff had a slight dusting of mold growing on one side, where the storm had come and deposited water on it, but a good sanding would fix that. It still wasn’t great, but it would do.
His backpack contents were, unfortunately, worse off. A babi ngepet or a herd of them had likely come by and, smelling the collected herbs, torn it all open. The clothes, camp utensils, and tent, things to make life out here easier, were all scattered around. Everything he had collected and meant to bring back were gone, consumed by the damn monsters.
“Damn it . . .” Arthur ran a hand through his hair, realizing it had grown way too long. He would need to take a knife to it later, so that it wouldn’t bother him.
Staring at his scattered belongings, he let out a long-suffering sigh and got to work. First things first, he searched through his belongings before coming up with that most important item for long trips: a sewing set. Came with every beginner kit, with multiple thread sizes including some large enough to take care of fixing tears in bags or tents.
Extracting the rest of the items from his bag, Arthur set to work after verifying that the small clearing he was in was empty. No point in moving away, especially since he had no way to carry anything. He was not a master at darning, having learnt just about enough to fix buttons, holes in pockets, and the occasional ripped sleeve.
Not as though he had much money to spare. When not working as an odd-job man or making deliveries, he trained all hours of the day to prep himself for the Tower. Even if the world had turned and twisted with the advent of the Towers, there were still people who had money or influence and needed their daily desires met by others. Whether it was delivering a cup of boba or the char kway teow from SS2—though the char kway teow in Shah Alam was better, as anyone in their right mind knew.
Finished with the repairs, he tested the new patch on with a couple of good tugs. It looked to be holding, so Arthur took his time cleaning off the remains of his gear and putting it away. Eventually he came to the bags and broken container boxes that were supposed to keep the materials and ended up sighing.
No way to store the herbs and keep them fresh now.
“Can’t go back empty handed either,” Arthur muttered.
Didn’t leave much choice then.
Hefting the contents of his backpack and slinging it over his shoulder, he grabbed his staff and began the long walk back to the village. He would have to see what kind of monsters he could find along the way. If he could harvest a half-dozen cores, he would not be entirely penniless.
And at least he had a place to stay, once he got back.
Plan of action in place, Arthur started limping back, keeping an eye out for monsters.