Three men, all of them in singlets and sweatpants. The leader had a slight sweat stain on his singlet, and the men reeked ever so slightly of stale sweat. The temperature of the first level of the Tower was similar to Kuala Lumpur’s if slightly less humid. All that meant was that you sweated less visibly, with the heat causing hair to curl and bodies to overheat.
“I’m sorry, but I should go. I have a place to be,” Arthur said, his lips smiling but his eyes cold. He kept the grip on his staff loose, his eyes unfocused on the leader’s nose. No need to meet eyes to make it a challenge, but he was not willing to look away either.
“Oh, a newbie has a place to go, eh?” The leader smirked. That was the second time, so Arthur decided to call him Smirkee in his head.
“Why don’t you tell me where that is, hmmm? Or you lying, ah?” Smirkee said.
“No, I don’t think so,” Arthur replied. Then, seeing that Samseng One—the thug with the bigger arms and knife in his belt—was trying to flank him, he turned his head slightly to catch Samseng One’s eyes. “Don’t.”
“Wah, so brave!” Smirkee said, but he did note how Samseng One had stopped short, surprised that his sneaking had been caught. “Do you know who we are?”
“A man who likes to quote bad movies?” Arthur said. Around them, the crowd had noticed the problem. And, like gamblers the world over, had chosen to bet on the outcome.
“Never mind.” Arthur shook his head, deciding not to try to enlighten the other. “Do you not know who I am?”
“No,” Smirkee said, freezing a little. The way Arthur had said it, how confident he seemed to be, forced him to eye Arthur again. Arthur could swear he could see the thug calculus going on behind Smirkee’s eyes. Non-bladed weapon, so he had no connections to get a better one. No enchanted gear, no armour, a single bag. No ties to a sect, then, or a merchant house. At least, none that were choosing to make their involvement known. And Arthur’s own aura was nothing special. Perhaps a little stronger, but nothing special.
“Great, then let’s keep it that way.” Even as Smirkee re-assessed him, Arthur was moving. He stepped to the side, moving not towards Samseng One but to Samseng Two, the younger boy with the scrawny arms who was obviously the least proactive of the group.
He was nearly past the boy when Smirkee chose to speak. “Oi! Who said you could go?”
Arthur took off, running for all he was worth. Bag slung over his shoulder, staff kept tilted a little and held close to him, he ran. Headed straight for the village center itself and the newcomers’ hall, knowing that once he was within sight of it, the thugs would not dare do anything untoward.
Even now, with so many Tower guards around, they dared not actually hit him. They could intimidate, threaten, and promise retribution outside the town. But physically manhandling him would cross the line.
More worrisome was if one of them was a pickpocket. The single chit that Arthur carried had all his funds, real world cash traded on the outside for Tower credits. All backed by the chit. However, until he managed to register the chit, it was unregistered funds. Available for anyone to use.
Arthur ran, tough hiking boots pounding the dirt, grabbing at the loose earth as he threw himself forward. Behind him, beyond the initial shout of surprise, the trio ran silently. The Tower guards were not exactly stupid but they were not, it seemed, entirely sapient. They had routines and, so long as someone did not break their rules, they would ignore all other actions.
Which meant that the quartet running across open ground, dodging around ill-leaning walls and headed for the beginners’ village, were left to their own devices. An eye to the left, a glance to the right, a stack of sticks. Arthur dipped the end of his staff one way, catching the top of the pile. They tipped over, clattering behind him.
Curses, muffled, along with the crashing of a body to the ground. Rather than look behind, Arthur bent his head further and pushed on. His breathing grew harsh, his movements slowing down a little as he struggled forward.
Not because he was exhausted already, but because fear and anxiety stole his breath away. He broke clear of the latest trash-strewn passage, the edge of the Tower village appearing in his vision. A surge of energy ran through him and he sped up, never noticing the thrown rock that caught him in his upper back.
Already running as fast as he could, Arthur’s balance was disrupted. He stumbled, falling to the ground, his feet nearly entangling with his own staff before he managed to roll to his feet, back hurting from where his backpack and its contents had dug into muscles and ribs.
As he stumbled to his feet, the trio caught up. Samseng Two threw himself at Arthur in a desperate tackle, only to catch the end of the staff in his chest. He fell backwards, a muffled urk resounding as Arthur drove his full body weight onto the braced wooden staff.
“I’ll kill you!” Smirkee shouted, slowing down a short distance from Arthur and drawing a knife.
Arthur ignored the fallen body beside him, the painful wheeze of his opponent as he pushed himself to his feet. A light squeak of fear from the doorway behind him helped the cultivator reorient himself, even as he grimaced at the feel of mud on his body. Considering the ground was dry almost everywhere else, he did not want to consider why the ground was wet here, near the corner of a ramshackle building.
Even if the scent was a little telling.
“I guess we’re doing this, eh?” Arthur said, beginning to spin his staff as he eyed the remaining two thugs.
And he had been so close too.
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.