Chapter 84

Chapter 84

The village had grown. Not the beginner village that the Tower had created, but the tent village outside that had been added on by cultivators. Permanent structures of wood and clay, and more temporary abodes of cloth and leather. The growth was subtle, but the clearing in the forest had widened. Sap was still fresh on some tree stumps, and newly trod land around the linen tents still bore grass.

The group had stopped near the clearing line, Uswah having scouted a spot that had been untouched for a few days. They hid under the shadows of the trees, watching the comings and goings in the tent village, searching for clues. Individuals lounged about, some mending holes in socks and pants, sharpening spear heads or parang edges. Others cooked food or walked between the tents, headed out to hunt or came back limping and wounded.

To Arthur, any clues were pretty obscure. He had no idea what to look for, though they had skirted around the village to the north until they were opposite the newbie teleportation squares. They were not where the Suey Ying tong was encamped, nor where the White Lotuses had taken residence. Safer that way, though he wondered if it was too easy a choice.

“Doesn’t look like there are watchers,” Mel said finally.

“It’s been months. The tong is many things, but disciplined is not one of them,” Uswah said.

“But they don’t forgive,” Jan said.

“And Ah Choi was his brother, you said? Someone important,” Arthur said softly. “Hate can go a long way.”

“For a person.” Mel waved a hand at the tent village before them. “For a tong? That’s another story.”

“So much for loyalty,” Arthur said. All that for nothing, or at least, nothing to his eyes. “Now what?” 

To his surprise, the group turned to stare at him. He blinked, putting a hand to his chest, before he shook his head hard. That was the point, really. He was the Clan Head, the patriarch, the crest holder. He was leader of the yet-to-be-named Clan and, at some point, he would have to make the decisions.

And it looked like that point was here.

“We go in,” Arthur said decisively. “Straight, no hiding. We’re just another team coming back. We don’t talk to anyone we don’t have to, we don’t stop for any reason. We keep moving until we get into the beginner village and the administrative sector.”

“And what happens if we do get stopped?” Mel said.

“We run like a nun,” Arthur said curtly.

“What do you have against nuns?” Uswah asked curiously.

“Nothing. They just rhyme.”

“If we can’t run, leh?” Jan said.

“Then you buy me time. Alright, we go . . . in this order.” He gritted his teeth, pointing to Jan, then Uswah, and then Mel.

“Me first, ah? You don’t like me?” Jan said.

“I’m pretty sure you don’t like me either,” Arthur said, lips twisted in a wry smile. Jan just grinned. “Uswah in the lead, then. Me in the rear. Any questions?”

The group shook their heads and Arthur stood up. Uswah, without a word, led the way forward, the group trailing after her. They had their weapons slung or in their hands in the case of the spear wielders, but they looked from side to side as they meandered through the tents.

At first they garnered only cursory glances, idle curiosity. Perhaps a little more than that, what with their group looking the worse for wear compared to many of the other returnees. Their clothing was ragged, patched together with pieces of other clothing. Their weapons and other equipment looked worn down and ragged too. Dirt and an ever-persistent smell of mildew and human stench wafted from their group, a presence that Arthur only noticed when he saw others edging away.

Most of the teams that left to hunt for beast cores never ventured far. A few hours out, just distant enough to find monsters and still be able to make it back in a day. The more adventurous might stay out for a night or two, enough to build up a good hoard of cores before returning.

Only a small group of deep venturers would stay longer than that in the forest. Delving into the wilds, in search of hidden nodes, powerful monsters, and regular battles. Hunting for secrets, cultivation caves, or spirit herbs to fulfill quests.

The regular work of the ambitious and the adventurous. A world that, Arthur mused, he had missed out entirely with his own uncommon journey. He could say, without fear, that he had seen deeper into the forest and fought more than most first-level dwellers.

And yet, he had almost no knowledge of the culture of the world he had stepped into. Except for any knowledge gleaned from forum posts and autobiographies. Which was a thing.

“To the left.” Uswah’s voice cut through his musings and spiralling doubts, forcing Arthur to glance over. Four men, angling towards them. Probably not Suey Ying since all four men were Malay. Still a gang of some form, though Arthur could not guess if they were part of a greater organization. When in doubt. . . 

“How much of a problem?” he asked.

“They might be part of the Double Sixes,” Mel said.

“I go talk, lah,” Jan said. She hurried past to meet the incoming quartet, holding her hands sideways to show she had no weapons. And also, Arthur noted, blocking their way. Politely, of course, what with being outnumbered.

Uswah, meanwhile, had sped up, forcing Arthur to hurry to keep up. Their hurried movements would force the Double Sixes to cut backwards a little from where they had come if they wanted to intervene.

On the other hand, the Double Sixes had stopped in their tracks, thanks to Jan. She was flashing some beast cores at them in one hand, speaking rapidly in Manglish.

Bribery. Always a useful tool in Malaysia.

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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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