“I don’t like him Kat,” Arnold grumbled for something like the fifth time as she leaned against the starting village’s well.
“I know Arnold,” she sighed as the warm stone bit into her lower back. “You haven’t exactly been hiding it, but think about our situation. You’ve only been here a couple days longer than me, and both of us are going to need help if we want to climb to another level.”
“Still,” Arnold flexed his hand. “He treats us like we’re some sort of experiment rather than friends. Plus, I don’t trust him. Even though he claims to know more about the tower than I do, how are we supposed to know he’s telling the truth?”
“If we don’t need them,” Kat scanned the village once again. A handful of entities milled about the town’s sole shop but there was no sign of Dorrik. “Then tell me how you got your class and what your plan is to optimize it.”
Arnold shifted uncomfortably next to her, drawing an internal sigh from Kat. This stubbornness was the part she liked the least about him. Once he made up his mind about something, he began to take attempts to change it as almost a personal attack.
“I saw another party fighting a big bird thing,” Arnold crossed his arms in front of his torso, pulling them tight to his chest. “One guy was shooting these crackling bolts of purple energy at it while another thing kept shooting a crossbow at it. They had two guys with long spears standing in front of them, keeping it at a distance.”
“I snuck closer to get a better look at the fight,” Arnold looked away from her, shame bringing a slight flush to his cheeks. “I knew that I wasn’t really a match for anyone involved, but I still wanted to at least learn how you’re supposed to fight with these stupid antiques.”
Arnold angrily pulled on the hilt of his sword, half drawing it before he let it fall back into its scabbard, causing it to clatter against his thigh.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Kat smiled at him, her voice soothing as she tried to placate Arnold. “We’re alone in a strange place and the world operates under strange rules. It’s why I want us to talk to Dorrik. Knowledge is key to our survival right now.”
“Well,” Arnold continued. “The bird thing with an antler landed and charged the hunting party. The two with spears managed to get it pretty bad, but their weapons broke off in it. As soon as their spears were broken, the person casting spells did something.”
“There was a big flash of light that made my brain go fuzzy,” Arnold shrugged, “and then all four of them were running away. The antlered bird thing chased them for a bit, but I could tell it was bleeding pretty badly from the two spear heads stuck in it. Eventually it slowed down to nurse its wounds and I took advantage of its injury to kill it. I’m not proud-”
“A peryton!” Kat jumped slightly as Dorrik walked around the well. “A good choice for a beginner looking to earn a class or skill. They’re dangerous in the air, but if you can convince them to land they’re much more manageable.”
“I didn’t see you falling from the sky,” Kat frowned at the lizardcreature’s glistening scales. “You scared the hell out of me there.”
“Of course you didn’t spot me,” Dorrik hooked a clawed thumb at the bell just behind them. “I bound my spawn point to the village alert bell. It’s just a matter of putting your claw on the bell and willing it so. You only fall from the top of the tower into the nearest starting village if your spawn point isn’t selected”
Kat’s forehead furrowed as she looked at Arnold. He only shrugged. As far as she could tell, he’d fallen into the village at the start of each night as well.
Without further comment both of them approached the bell. With a mental ‘click’ Kat locked in her location, and turned back to the ever cheerful lizard.
“So,” she began, making her way back to the well in a couple quick steps, “what exactly are perytons and why are they a good choice?”
“They’re elite monsters,” Dorrik responded happily. “Which means that they drop skill, class, and dreamscape stones. Other monsters, like the okkle that you finished off yesterday, are only really good for dropping marks and honing a skill you earned from an elite kill.”
“I thought we earned our skill from our classes?” Arnold asked, his usual aggrieved grumble overcome by his curiosity. “As soon as I absorbed my class stone I was given a prompt to learn any martial skill. Between that and a bump to my stamina and hit points, that was it for my benefits at level one.”
“Your society really doesn’t teach the basics of how the Tower of Somnus works, does it?” Dorrik shook their head unhappily.
“Where to begin,” they mused, claws clicking against the hard scales of their crossed forearms. “Technically any player can learn any skill, even those unsuited for them. Classes provide a slight bonus per level to various attributes as well as bonuses unique to ascending a certain level.”
“For example,” Dorrik placed a claw on their chest. “I am a Psi Initiate, a type of caster that uses my stamina to fuel supernatural attacks. Given the prevalence of stamina use in physical attacks, after passing the wood tier, Psi users often evolve their classes into those that use both Psi and melee abilities. Each level I ascend, I will gain three points of Stamina, and at the first level I was given the choice of several skills associated with various fields of psi abilities.”
“Upon ascending to levels two and three,” Dorrik continued, “players with a wood tier class will gain an attribute point. I will receive points in Spirit. At level four, players can gain an attribute point in anything, and at level five they gain a skill related to the core of their class.”
“It’s the same for thug,” Dorrik motioned at Arnold. “He was given the choice of a martial skill at level one, and his next levels he will gain a point in strength and then fortitude. Until his class evolves, Arnold will gain two points of stamina and one of health per level.”
“If Arnold were to come across a skill stone with a psi skill in it,” Dorrik shrugged, “He’d be able to use the ability just like he was a psi initiate. Of course, that would be a stroke of luck on his part. Most skill stones are associated with crafts or martial skills used by individuals fighting the elite monster that dropped the stone.”
“What do you mean by wood tier?” Kat asked while Arnold looked thoughtful, rather than his usual glowering self. “I think I understand the general structure of the classes and the levels, but no one told us anything about tiers.”
“It’s a reference to the difficulty level of a foe or dungeon,” Dorrik replied patiently. “Nothing on the first eight or nine levels of the tower will be stronger than wood tier, but wood tier levels and skills will cap at ten. At that point, you will need an iron tier stone to evolve them. That means either paying an absurd sum in marks for a higher leveled player to make the trek down to sell them to you, or challenging a more difficult foe.”
“And if we don’t,” Kat’s expression soured, “we’re stuck. Trapped by our cowardice and unable to gain more power.”
“Not entirely,” Dorrik smiled back at her, a predatory look full of teeth and malice. “A player can challenge a number of dungeons per floor of the tower equal to their level plus two. Of course, once they ascend they cannot go back and challenge dungeons on a lower floor.”
“But the dungeon awards are random,” Kat frowned. “You could risk your life and gain an ability that has absolutely no practical application like the ability to smell emotions or read any language.”
“While true,” Dorrik’s crest fluttered slightly in the nonexistent wind, “it is much more likely that conquering a wood tier dungeon would yield a minor ability or some stat points. If the player increases the difficulty of the dungeons they challenge, the power and practical applicability of the rewards increase as well. By the time players reach the higher levels, it isn’t uncommon for a majority of their points to come from dungeon awards.”
“So what I’m getting from this,” Arnold butted in, “is that we can get a whole bunch of powerful stuff from killing these deer birds, right?”
Dorrik nodded slowly, opening their muzzle to respond only for Arnold to speak over them.
“Then what are we waiting for?” He asked. “Kat needs a class and from the sounds of it, more skills are always better.”
“While true,” Dorrik frowned, “it seems that both of you are woefully unprepared, the tower holds many dangers and as things stand it would be incredibly easy for you to dive into an encounter beyond your ability-”
“I know my abilities,” Arnold snorted. “The night is wasting and it’s time to hunt.”
They walked out of the starting village in silence, Dorrik occasionally glancing at Arnold. After almost fifteen minutes of walking, Arnold angrily stomping in the lead, Dorrik sighed.
“Mr. Arnold,” they spoke up, their fraying patience evident in the agitated flicker of their crest. “Two things. First, while we are walking in the general direction of the peryton nesting grounds, you will need to adjust your course almost twenty five degrees to the left or we will miss it entirely. Second, what is your plan when we encounter one of the beasts? As far as I can tell, neither you nor Miss Kat have ranged weapons.”
“I, well,” Arnold struggled. Kat bit her tongue to prevent herself from saying anything. It wouldn’t help, only riling the boy up further.
“I’ll think of something,” he huffed. “Even if they fly, they’ll have to swoop down to attack us. We just have to clip its wings when it comes after us and we’ll be right as rain.”
“A valid plan,” Dorrik nodded slowly, drawing a sigh of relief from Arnold before he continued. “But then, why did you not go to the village shop and use some of your marks to buy a specialty weapon such as a net or bolos to limit its maneuverability?”
Kat groaned internally. The four-armed lizard was completely right, Arnold was acting rashly and putting all three of them in danger. Still, you didn’t just tell him that. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he didn’t respond well to criticism.
“Look,” he whirled on the alien. “You’re the one tagging along here. I’m the party leader and I don’t have to justify each and every one of my plans to you.”
“The Tower of Somnus might be a game,” Dorrik frowned at Arnold, “but it isn’t just for fun. If you don’t take it seriously, you will die, a thoroughly unpleasant process. Even for the wealthiest of clans, acquiring a new dreamspace avatar isn’t something to be done lightly.”
“This is everything!” Arnold shouted back at Dorrik, the big alien kept trying to catch Kat’s eyes, but she studiously avoided its gaze. This argument was one fight she wanted nothing to do with. “As soon as things started to go right, you showed up out of nowhere and tried to take it from me! You don’t understand what I’ve given up to be here, the sacrifices-”
A croaking squawk drew Kat’s vision upwards. With a muffled curse, she tackled Arnold to the ground a half second before the razor sharp antlers of the swooping winged buck missed him.
Dorrik on the other hand already had both of their swords out, one dripping blood from the tip where they had scored the side of the swooping monster.
Their usually calm expression was gone, fire in their eyes as they held each sword away from their body in a vertical two handed grip. Their crest flared in challenge as they tracked the beast flying away.
“Come Mr. Arnold!” Dorrik shouted, violent glee in their voice. “It is coming around for another pass. Draw your blade and strike it from the air like you promised. Show me your everything!”
Kat rolled to the side and let Arnold stand, trying to ignore how warm he’d felt beneath her as the comforting weight of her knife slipped into her hand.
Arnold stood unsteadily, drawing his longsword. Maybe he’d practiced the motion, but the blade left its scabbard smoothly as he bent his knees slightly and took a batter’s stance.
The peryton swooped toward him, a screeching mass of feathers and discolored fur, dropping from the sky almost as fast as Kat’s eye could follow.
Just as it approached, Arnold swung his sword. Kat didn’t know much about swordplay, but the form looked good. A simple double-handed swing with all the force Arnold could muster behind it.
It didn’t matter.
The monster ducked its head, catching the weapon on its horns, the force of its charge wrenching it from Arnold’s grip and sending it flying into some nearby bushes.
Arnold himself crumpled to the ground with a pained scream with the enraged monster atop him.
Kat bolted in, her dagger cutting a foreleg that it was raising to stomp on her friend. Meanwhile, one of Dorrik’s swords struck a glancing blow from its side.
It stopped its attack with a scream and launched itself into the air, wings beating furiously as it sought to gain altitude and escape its assailants. Kat flipped her knife, gripping it by the blade as she prepared to throw it at the retreating monster.
Then she stopped, thinking better of her actions. Maybe when she had a bandoleer of throwing knives she could afford to waste one on throwing it at a retreating monster. As satisfying as the sinking a knife into the peryton’s back would be, she still needed the blade to defend herself.
“Not so fast,” Dorrik stepped past Arnold’s twisting and writhing form. Wind appeared from nothing, swirling around the big lizard person as their eyes burst into purple flame.
“Arrest Momentum,” Dorrik’s words carried a weight to them. Kat wasn’t sure how or why, but instinctively she knew that they were significant. A statement of something fundamentally true.
The air around the peryton flashed the same purple as Dorrik’s eyes, and suddenly it was plummeting through the air, it’s wings flailing as it squawked in distress.
“Go!” Dorrik gasped, staggering and falling to a knee as the flames in their eyes guttered out. “It will realize that it can still fly shortly. You need to finish it before it realizes that I’m spent.”
Kat dismissed the questions running through her mind and sprinted toward the falling monster. It had only made it twenty or thirty feet in the air before Dorrik had used his ability. The fall disoriented rather than crippled it.
She dodged one of its flailing legs, stepping close to the downed creature and sliding her dagger along its femoral artery. The thick matted fur and feathers held for a second before the blade slipped through, drawing a gout of rich red blood.
It screamed, swinging a head full of razor sharp antlers at her faster than Kat could dodge. Grunting, she brought her dagger up in a reverse grip, left hand on the pommel as she aimed the blade at the peryton’s rapidly approaching eye.
The peryton pulled up its head at the last moment and her knife stabbed through its cheek and deep into the monster’s tongue before the side of its head hit her like a sandbag dropped from a second story window.
She flew back, barely keeping her grip on the bloodslick hilt of the knife. Kat immediately tried to roll to her feet only to find that her aching right arm would barely support her weight. Red indicators blinked insistently in the corner of her vision. A problem for when she actually had the time to deal with it.
Grimly, she switched the knife to her left hand. She’d trained in using her off hand, but she was far from ambidextrous.
Luckily, the peryton was almost as battered as her. Blood flowed from the vicious gash to its face while every beat of its heart brought another spurt from the severed artery in its leg. It staggered to its feet, clearly favoring the right side of its body after the slash Dorrik had landed on its left.
It lowered its head, trying to keep the crown of razor antlers between its tired body and her. Kat simply circled it, knife at ready in case it made another attack.
She could barely breathe. The agony radiating from her right shoulder was bad enough, but with every step she took, Kat did her best to imitate her usual casual grace. If it knew how badly it had injured her, the peryton wouldn’t hesitate to finish her off right here.
Her eyes flicked to the steadily growing pool of blood around the monster’s hooves and claws. She didn’t know if monsters in Tower of Somnus clotted as quickly as people on Earth did, but the combination of wounds they’d inflicted on it looked nearly fatal to her. Unless it had some sort of regeneration ability on par with SynthBlood™, all she’d need to do was keep it at bay long enough for blood loss to steal its strength.
Already, its eyes were growing hooded and its knees wobbled. Only a little bit more.
Then it stumbled, exhaustion and slippery footing sealing its fate.
Kat was upon it in a second, stabbing her knife crudely into the side of its neck and ripping the blade back out before she jumped away from the struggling monster.
Half heartedly it swung its head at her again, but Kat was already out of its reach. She pursed her lips, noting that although her strike tore up a fair amount of the monster’s flesh, she’d missed most of the important bits. She really needed to work on left handed technique.
This time when she circled it, the peryton couldn’t keep up with her, its shuffling steps slow and leaden. Kat slipped into its blind spot, a half step and a painful duck of her shoulders and she was out of the monster’s sight as it tried to turn toward her.
Kat pounced again, no longer aiming for anything as elegant as an organ or artery. Instead, she drew her knife across its hamstring before withdrawing.
It took one more step before falling entirely, letting out a pained grunt as its heavy body hit the ground.
She paced toward it, stopping briefly to avoid a half hearted swipe of a leg before she rammed her knife into its stomach. Once.
Kat was out of its reach before a snap of its distressingly large teeth could catch her.
Her dagger stabbed into the hind leg she’d cut previously, finishing the damage to the thick muscle. Then she stabbed the knife into its inner thigh. Twice.
It tried to roll toward her, but Kat anticipated its movement, stepping closer and slamming the dagger into the crippled animal’s neck just above the collarbone. A third time.
She stepped back, her weapon still stuck in the creature as Dorrik approached, still breathing heavily. Detached, Kat realized that she was streaming sweat and gasping for air as well.
The fight had lasted for maybe two minutes, most of that time spent with the monster and her eyeing each other as they kept moving with brief and violent bursts of energy.
She frowned. Maybe Kat needed to raise her stamina. Back on Earth she could move like this for almost a half hour straight without getting winded.
For almost a minute, Dorrik and her watched the creature’s breaths become shallower until eventually it collapsed completely, unable to fight the cold creep of blood loss.
Dorrik approached the creature, placing their clawed hand against its neck for a couple of seconds before retrieving her knife and a translucent rock. They handed both to Kat, a tired smile on their face.
“Congratulations are in order Miss Kat,” maybe one in three perytons drops loot, but you’ve managed to get lucky on your first try. “Perhaps your skills with that knife impressed the tower because it dropped a skill stone. Knife tier one. A perfect fit for you.”
She hefted the stone, to the light. It was clear, like glass or a crystal, other than the barely visible image of a dagger hiding at the very center of the fist sized rock.
“Two questions,” she didn’t take her eyes from the crystal. “First, what in the hell was that you used to knock the peryton out of the sky, and second. How do I absorb this thing?”
“That was the ability ‘arrest momentum,’” Dorrik chuckled. “It allows me to completely halt an opponent’s motion for a second with a cost in stamina proportional to the relative momentum of the parties involved. Unfortunately, the peryton was big and moving very fast. I’d prefer to avoid using the ability in such a way again. It’s much better to use it against humanoid sized monsters to halt their parries long enough for me to land a killing blow.”
“As for the stone,” they shrugged. “It is a bit different for everyone, but I’ve found that just strongly wishing to absorb it while holding it usually does the trick.”
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night