Chapter 56

Chapter 56

Two more floors, the same thing. The only change was how long it took for them to cross the floors, as the layout changed from one large hall to a long hallway with multiple rooms. The rooms themselves were empty, devoid of anything but a small slit in the wall that served as a window. No desk, no chairs, no bed frame. Devoid of furniture, just cold and empty cells.

Arthur could not help but say it. “This is creepy, right?”

“Yes. Two dozen cells so far, if the count is the same,” Uswah said, turning her head from side to side as she scanned the hallway. “These aren’t places to live in. Not really even holding cells, since there’s no way to lock the doors.”

Arthur blinked, tilting his head to the side as he stared at the doors. She was right. No place to put a bar, no lock or even a hinge to shut the doors tight. In other words, the doors closed only by virtue of the way they were hung.

“So what are they for?” Arthur said eventually as they finished sweeping the floor.

“Offices?” Sharmila offered. “Except, they’ve not been moved into. Yet.”

“Maybe no one came. Ever,” Jan offered.

Uswah smiled tightly. “An empty tower, inside a tower that climbs, found only recently after decades of exploration.” She shook her head. “None of this makes sense.”

“And the Towers make sense in general?” Arthur said with a snort. “After all these decades, we don’t know why they appeared, what they’re meant for, or who put them here. All those smart-smart people studied the Towers and what did they learn, ha?”

“Nothing,” Sharmila said.

“Exactly. Nothing.” Arthur shook his head.

“So if you think it’s a big mystery that we’ll never understand, why ask any questions at all?” Uswah said.

“Because fools like to talk, lah. You know that,” Jan said.

“Funny.” Arthur shook his head. “It’s bloody creepy, that’s all. If we can’t understand why these buildings were created, can we even guess what we’ll run into?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sharmila said. “We meet whatever it is, we kill it. And we get what we came for.”

Arthur’s lips thinned at her words. He still had not agreed to that, but since going up was their only other option other than going out, he didn’t object. Not just yet.

“You know, in older video games, these kind of cells were just spawning points,” Uswah said, and they all turned to look at her. “Places where monsters just appeared. They weren’t really meant for anything else, so game developers never put much effort into them.”

“Don’t they have scripts to fix that problem these days?” Arthur said. “I remember reading about pre-built scripts being a problem in modern game design. Because everyone uses the same things, there’s no creativity.”

“Aaargh. That old complaint.” Uswah rolled her eyes. “Next, you’ll complain that dating games have no real story, that girls should stay out of FPS, and that you’re tired of seeing non-Westerners as bad guys.”

“That . . .”

For the first time, the Yin-bodied woman seemed heated. She stalked up to Arthur and glared at him. “Go ahead. Say it.”

“I just meant to say: how old are the games you’re playing?”

“I like the classics. What can I say?” Uswah sniffed. “Anyway, I can run emulators on one screen while waiting for a raid to start. Takes up almost nothing on the clock.”

Sharmila cut in before things got any more heated: “Arthur, you said those game developers didn’t put much effort in the cells or whatever. But these empty rooms seem like . . . no effort.” Uswah shrugged. “The game theory of the Towers is a better one than most.”

“Ya-lah, but it’s so stupid.” Jan shook her head in disbelief. "Some aliens made a game and then forgot about it?"

“Or are using us to test it,” Arthur interjected.

“Better than the dystopian theory that we’re all in a giant tv show,” Shar pointed out.

“Like, seriously, why do we think aliens would even care to watch other aliens do stupid things? Humans might. But maybe aliens prefer, I don’t know, watching paint dry. These theories are all so . . . human-centric,” Uswah said, wrinkling her nose.

“But the Tower is human centric. The cultivation methods we’re finding, that’s for our use,” Shar said.

“Eh, jangan-lah. They don’t need to know you’re a futurist,” Jan said, waving her hand around rapidly.

“You just told them,” Sharmila said.

Arthur smirked but as Sharmila glared at him, he opened his hands wide. “It’s fine, it’s fine. It isn’t any stupider than the ‘we’re all dead and this is God’s test’ version.”

“Allah would not test us in this manner,” Uswah said firmly. “Perhaps—”

That was when the roar reverberated through the tower. The group moved apart, giving each other more space as their eyes darted around. Most of them watched the way they had come, since the sound seemed to be coming from within the tower. Even so, Uswah had her back almost fully turned to the door, watching the opposite direction just in case.

“That sounds like a very big, very angry jenglot,” Arthur muttered, eyes narrowed.

“And inside the tower,” Sharmila said and started moving back towards the stairway. When no one else moved, she spun around and glared at the rest of the team. “Move!”

The trio glanced at one another and in that time, she had already made it halfway down the hallway. The urgency of her movement broke them free from stunned inaction and they hurried after her, catching up as they hit the staircase.

For a second, Sharmila hesitated, casting a glance downstairs and then upward.

Her indecision was broken by another pained and angry howl, coming from high above them. She started running up the stairs, hitting two or three steps at a time. Arthur growled but followed behind Jan who was calling for her friend to slow down, to explain.

Sharmila chose not to, but Arthur was himself still unwilling to jump right past new doors. He slowed down, so the gap between him and the two women widened.

“Go,” Uswah said from behind, her voice trembling a little with excitement. “It’s Mel. It must be. They’re alive. And they need our help.”

“Maybe. But we’re no use if we get ambushed now, are we?” Arthur said, casting a glance back down the stairs. No sign of monsters, nothing coming out of the doors they were passing. “Got to survive, ‘cause there’s no revive.”

“No monsters have appeared. I don’t think they can. If it’s a respawn center, maybe they can’t respawn while we’re here?”

Arthur opened his mouth to answer her but, as he hit another step, snapped his mouth shut. She could be right. Or it might just be a giant elaborate trap. They had no idea and that was, he had to admit, driving him a little crazy.

All that second-guessing, trying to work the safest way out. Trying to survive at least the first floor of this Tower. Because how embarrassing would that be, to fall here?

Then, they were another seven floors up, and the door there was open. Sharmila and Jan had already burst into the room by the time he arrived, panting from the sprint. Hopefully they hadn’t entirely exhausted themselves before the fight.

Because from the looks of it, they were going to need some reserves.

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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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