Kat looked worriedly at the entrance to the dungeon before glancing back to Arnold. The portal into the dungeon was a soap film of multicolored light over a viscous grey oval. The entire apparatus was set in a large granite from covered in glyphs and designs from some culture wholly alien to her. Honestly, no matter how closely she looked at them, Kat couldn’t quite tell if they were meant to be decorative or writing of some sort.
“Come on Kat,” Arnold said impatiently, “I paid that guy ten marks to give us directions here. All we have to do is put a drop of blood onto the portal so that it’s synced to us and then step through. After that, it’s just killing a couple of monsters and we’ll get our first dungeon award.”
“I really don’t know about this Arnold,” she bit her lower lip. “Most dungeons are supposed to be done with three or six people. It doesn’t get any easier if we only use two.”
“We aren’t waiting for your boyfriend Dorrik,” Arnold huffed, cutting his thumb on the edge of his long sword and pressing the bloody digit against the shimmering film of the portal.
“We could recruit someone else,” Kat begged. “At a minimum we could fight low level monsters a bit longer. I’ve only just gotten my knife skill up to level 2. If you give us a couple more days, I should be able to finish off the second level of gravity I. I’m not sure if that will give me a spell, but we should at least try it out.”
“I don’t think you understand,” Arnold sighed, turning back to her with his arms crossed. “I only have so much time to make it to the second level. Eventually my Dad is going to notice that I haven’t paid the tuition and he’s going to want to know where the money is. I’m going to need to have something to show for it.”
God he’d been pushy lately. Even getting a week to train against low level monsters had been like pulling teeth. Every night when they logged in, Arnold was always pestering her to do a dungeon delve with her. Finally, he’d just told her that he’d found a nest of weakened elite monsters and led her here. Apparently, he thought that it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
“I understand that if we both die in that dungeon because we aren’t prepared,” Kat bit back, eyes spitting fire at Arnold, “that you won’t have anything to show. You won’t even be a low level player with potential. We’ll both just end up as has beens.”
“You’re being hysterical Kat,” her brow scrunched as he dismissed her concerns. “It’s like you’re just a big ball of worries every time we have to take a minor risk. I’ve seen how you use your new class and it’s really impressive. Plus, you’re almost ready to level up your gravity skill. There are plenty of monsters in the dungeon, you can just polish it off in there.”
“Arnold,” Kat began, a warning tone in her voice.
“No,” he cut her off. “Just let me finish. Even before you had a class we managed to take down those two perytons and they have a suggested party size of six. A three person dungeon should almost be twice as easy as those fights.”
“You aren’t listening to me Arnold,” she could feel her head shaking as she tried to inject patience into her words. “We both almost died fighting those perytons. I’m not sure we’re for a dungeon yet. It just seems too soon to me.”
“Fine,” Arnold conceded, stomping over to the housing for the dungeon portal and flopping himself onto the ground. “We can do things your way and take things slow. I’m not sure how one or two points in our skills are going to change the outcome much. We already have better gear and know how to use our abilities. We’ll have to bite the bullet at some point Kat.”
She bit her lower lip, looking down at the cured leather armor she was wearing over her bodysuit. It had cost her almost fifty marks, but it was silent, easy to move in, and could turn away most glancing blows. Across her chest were six sheathes, custom designed for the six small throwing knives she carried with her everywhere. They’d cost another ten marks, but gaining a ranged option made that money well spent.
Arnold had upgraded his armor as well. His form chain shirt had been replaced after the disastrous battle with the alpha peryton, and the new model had an extra layer of the interwoven links as well as thin plates of metal for his chest and shoulders. Perhaps more importantly, he’d invested in a buckler and bought a skill stone for shield use. Apparently, shield I was a fairly common skill, and it had only cost one hundred and fifty marks, leaving him just about broke.
She sighed. He’d spent ten marks on the dungeon’s location. That meant that he probably didn’t even have enough left over to buy himself lunch.
“What kind of dungeon did you say this was again?” She asked, not really sure why she was still entertaining the idea of delving with him.
“Water and Ice,” he replied instantly, a hopeful smile on his face. “Both of us have fur lined clothes so it won’t be that bad.”
Indecision warred through Kat’s thoughts. On one hand, she was upset that Arnold had tricked her and dragged her out here for a risky dungeon run that she wasn’t prepared for. On the other, he was right. They’d have to rip the bandaid off eventually, and the two of them had persevered over noticeably worse odds in the past.
“Fine,” Kat sighed, the word almost dragged from her, “but this is the last time you make a decision without talking to me. We’re partners. If you pull this a second time, I’m just going to say no even if it’s a good idea.”
“Great,” Arnold sprang up to his feet, his moping already forgotten. “Once you give the portal some of your blood, both of us will be able to head in.”
Shaking her head, Kat sliced open her thumb and pressed it to the film of light covering the dungeon. The blood disappeared and a tingle ran up her arm. Suddenly she began to hear quiet whispers, just at the edge of her hearing, emanating from the portal. Gooseflesh popped up on her arms as Kat shuddered.
“That’s not creepy at all,” she muttered at the dungeon entrance, taking a step back.
“Gonna have to agree,” Arnold chuckled, drawing his sword and moving in front of her so he could lead the way into the dungeon. “Not a big fan.”
Arnold stepped into the portal, disappearing into a flash of rainbow light. A moment later, Kat felt a tugging sensation deep in her core and the world evaporated into flashes of color and energy around her.
Kat was standing in a square room made of stone brick, iron boxes containing flickering candles lined the walls providing a steady but slightly dim level of light. In front of her, Arnold opened a plain wooden door, by pushing down on a metal lever before shoving his shoulder into it.
With a groan, the door opened into a narrow hallway, intricate white fingers of frost decorating the stone of the walls. Arnold stepped into the passage without hesitation, drawing a wince from Kat.
“Aren’t you going to let me check that for traps?” She asked, the condensation from her breath fogging the cold air. “From everything I’ve seen, there’s a lot more than just monsters down here.”
Arnold stomped on the floor, triggering a reverberating echo and little else. He half turned and flashed Kat a grin.
“I think we’re good,” he quipped. “Plus, we’re only on the first level, none of the traps here are going to be that bad. Things only start to get nasty around level three from what I’ve heard.”
Kat simply shook her head, drawing her dagger. There was no way that the dungeon would be easy. From everything she’d seen, The Tower of Somnus didn’t just ‘give away’ free power. It made players take risks and earn everything they received. If Arnold was going to be foolish, she’d let him do it from the front where his mistakes would only harm him.
The hallway ended in two doors, one to the right and the other to the left. Before Kat could say anything, Arnold simply opened the door to the right and stepped through.
Her breath caught, waiting for a trap to finish him, but the only sound that drafted back down the hallway was Arnold’s swearing and the sound of tinkling and melodic laughter.
Frowning, Kat sprinted down the passageway and rounded the corner only to find Arnold surrounded by three fist sized globes of ice. She blinked, as Arnold took a swing with his sword at one of them, belatedly realizing that the globes were glowing blue and had wings of feathery snow almost as long as her arm.
Arnold’s slash whistled past the globe as it dove, drawing flashes of light from their opponents as the melodic laughter repeated itself.
The two that didn’t need to dodge Arnold’s haphazard blows brightened and rained a flurry of tiny icicles on him. Most simply pelted his chainmail or shattered on the metal plates of his armor, but at least two drew lines of blood on his forehead and cheek.
Kat stepped past Arnold, using his body to shield her from the magical attack as she focused on the ice ball that had just evaded his sword. Mentally something clicked and three points of mana disappeared, replaced by a sudden pull, dragging the ice thing toward the dungeon floor.
It wobbled, trying to flap its wings to escape the hold of Gravity’s Grasp, but Kat was already in range, driving her knife into the spot where the creature’s icey body met the wing in the moment it was held still by her spell.
The wing disappeared entirely, a puff of snow and mana rather than a part of the monster’s body, dispelled by the force of Kat’s strike. It corkscrewed into the ground, the delicate balance of its flight thrown off by losing half of its lift.
Kat pounced after it, jamming her dagger into the crack created by the first stab the instant the sphere hit the ground. She could feel her weight increase noticeably the moment she entered the radius of her own spell, but rather than let it confuse her, Kat let the pull of gravity aid her downward thrust, adding extra force to her blow.
The ball split in half, her knife drawing sparks from the stone floor as the creature split, faint blue light fading from its corpse.
“Goddamnit Kat!” Arnold yelled behind her, “They’re moving too fast! Every time I attack one, it dodges and the other one shoots me! Help me out here.”
She let the gravity field fade, unable at her skill level to sustain two fields at once. Whirling around she concentrated on another ice ball, feeling the click and drain of mana as the spell slid into place once more.
Her target dipped, unable to account for the sudden extra load on its almost insubstantial wings made of snow. A second later, her knife was shearing along the side of the sphere, a slightly misplaced attack clicking off of the ice of its body and destroying another wing.
It sprayed her with ice needles as it fell to the floor, forcing Kat to hold up an arm to cover her face. Her armor held, the tough leather taking a beating from the storm of ice shards.
Then she fell upon it, using the rough stone floor as a brace in order to drive her knife deep into the tough ice of her opponent. It cracked, allowing the blue energy to escape as it stopped moving with finality.
A green icon appeared in the corner of her vision as she turned to find Arnold winning his battle. Now that he wasn’t out-numbered, he would simply take a swing at his opponent, preventing it from attacking him, only to follow up with a bash from the small metal shield strapped to his left arm.
Spiderwebs lined the crystalline sphere, and the blue light of the monster leaked out of it haphazardly. Even as Kat prepared to enter the fight herself, a final thrust of Arnold’s shield crushed the outer layer of the monster.
It fell lifelessly to the ground, the light that animated it completely extinguished.
Panting and sweating despite the cold, blood smeared down the right side of his face, Arnold flashed a giant grin and gave Kat a thumbs up.
“And that’s why this is a three person dungeon Arnold,” she sighed as she opened the notification. “If we had the proper number of players, we wouldn’t be outnumbered and forced to scramble in our first encounter.”
“We did just fine,” Arnold laughed. “Just think of all the extra marks we’ll get from not having to share the spoils with a third wheel.”
Kat rolled her eyes as she checked the notification:
You have reached Level 2 in the skill Gravity I, please select a first tier spell.
As much as Gravity Spike called to her, Kat knew better. As she adapted gravity magic to her fighting style, she’d come to appreciate the way that a sudden spike in a target’s weight could disorient it. Even a moment’s hesitation could be all she needed to slip inside a monster’s suddenly broken guard and deal debilitating injuries.
Her only real option was Levitation. It was functionally the opposite of Gravity’s Grasp, and alternating between the two abilities had a lot of potential. Of course, a Levitation assisted flip or throw that ended with a sudden application of Gravity’s Grasp to slam the target to the ground had potential as well.
Vowing that her next spell would be the tantalizing gravity spike, Kat pushed her finger through her spell of choice on the notification, absorbing the ability onto her character sheet in a matter of moments.
“Only six marks each,” Arnold jolted Kat out of her reflection. At some point he’d wiped the blood from his face. “Ugh. We’d better get more in the next fight.”
That was what he was concerned about? He’d been completely overwhelmed by the monsters in the dungeon’s first chamber. Kat was mostly working off of rumors, but it was only logical that the fights would only get harder from here.
“Are you ready for the next room?” Arnold asked, oblivious to her concerned train of thought. “It’s a little brisk in here.”
Kat checked her mana, fifteen of twenty. She’d managed to regain a point during the wait. Not ideal, but it should be enough for another encounter before she’d need to rest.
“Sure,” she replied with a nod.
Arnold wiped his hands on his pants, trying to remove the grimy layer of blood and sweat before drawing his sword again and walking toward the exit to the room. She opened her mouth to warn him about the possibility of traps, but gave up halfway through. He wouldn’t listen anyway.
Kat followed him into the hallway. Another edifice of simple stone and self contained lighting in the walls. She was halfway to the next pair of doors at the end of the passage when Kat noticed the thin slit at about waist level in the wall.
“Arnold watch!” Her shout was cut off by a portentous ‘click’ as Arnold stepped on a concealed pressure plate.
Even as a hissing sound filled the hallway, Kat grabbed Arnold by the scruff of the neck, silently thanking the tower for the slight strength advantage it gave her avatar.
A plane of ice, honed to a razor edge, flew from the slit in the wall toward Arnold’s torso. Between her alerting him, and Kat’s quick reflexes in partially pulling him out of the way, Arnold was able to get his buckler up in time, deflecting most of the blow from the sheet of ice.
Arnold groaned, his sword on the ground as he clutched his left arm. Kat frowned at the deep crease in the shield’s metal. With only a little more force, the trap would have literally ripped Arnold’s buckler in half and likely critically wounded him.
A quiet thump behind Kat drew her attention. A perfect replica of Arnold, carved from glimmering ice stood maybe ten paces behind her down the hallway. Even as she watched, a panel of the dungeon ceiling slid back into place, hiding whatever location had generated the simulacrum.
Swearing to herself, Kat reached out with her mind and used Levitation on the ice sculpture. It was too heavy for her to lift it entirely, but the moment it tried to move toward her, it careened into the air, slamming into the tunnel’s wall as it failed to account for its dramatically lighter mass.
Kat reached it in a second, knife flashing as it chipped away the sculpture’s wrist and neck. On a living foe, each of the attacks would have severed a tendon or opened an artery. On the ice golem, it chipped and cracked the creature nothing more.
She managed to slip past it, putting the doorway to the room where they had fought the ice orbs to her back as she ducked under an off balance swing. Now, Arnold could attack it from behind with his heavier weapon while she distra-
“Goddamnit Arnold!” She shouted, backpedaling away from a shield bash as the ice monster advanced on her. “You can sulk about your hurt arm later. I need your help with a monster, now.”
“What?” He asked blearily, looking up at Kat in confusion as she hastily twisted her body to the side to dodge an off balance sword thrust.
“NOW!” She screamed back, her dagger leaving another thin crack in the overextended ice arm holding the golem’s sword.
The sculpture pulled back, planting its feet as it tried to adjust to its new weight. Kat took that as an opportunity to embed a throwing knife in the glasslike creature’s eye, again leaving a web of cracks but otherwise not appreciably harming it.
It lunged toward her once more, sword leading the way. Swearing under her breath, Kat cancelled her spell.
Suddenly, gravity reasserted its hold over the ice monster, and its feet hit the floor of the dungeon before it was ready, stumbling and landing face first at Kat’s feet. Her knife landed twice on its head, improving upon the web of cracks started by her throwing knife, before she had to back away from the sculpture as it used a sweep of its sword to buy enough room to reestablish itself.
A second throwing knife skipped off the side of its head as the monster stood up to its full height, drawing a disapproving click of Kat’s tongue. She’d always been better with a single knife up close, never having had the need to develop her throwing skills. Like many things, it was a problem that she would need to rectify.
It took a step toward Kat before Arnold’s sword exploded from its stomach.
“Get some!” Arnold shouted, celebrating his kill even as the sculpture began to turn toward him, sword gleaming wickedly. “Didn’t see that coming did you!”
Mentally cursing her companion’s inattentiveness, Kat closed with the creature as it turned its back on her. Her left hand met the pommel of the dagger right before she slammed it into the side of the sculpture’s head.
Finally, the repetitive damage did its trick. The golem’s head shattered into chunks of ice only for its body to stiffen and collapse to the dungeon floor, Arnold’s sword still embedded ineffectually in it.
“Fuck,” the word was torn from Kat’s throat with a sigh.
“We aren’t ready for this Arnold,” her statement was simple, matter of fact. “We got lucky both with that trap and with me noticing the monster. If we keep pushing, I don’t think it’ll end well for us. We need to abort the dungeon run.”
“We can’t,” Kat stiffened at Arnold’s flippant reply as she was searching the hallway for her missing throwing knife. “There’s an item you can buy from a vendor for twenty marks that lets you escape a dungeon after you start it, but I didn’t have the money to spare on something like that.”
“And you couldn’t tell me this because?” Kat bit the question out through gritted teeth, slotting the throwing knife into her bandoleer.
“Don’t you remember?” Arnold asked sarcastically. “You wouldn’t actually come to a dungeon without me tricking you. How could I ask you to bring a magical item that can only be used in a dungeon. Plus, it’s not like we need it. Didn’t you see the way I killed that fucking ice guy?”
“You killed…” Kat could feel a headache coming on.
“Yeah,” Arnold nodded, satisfiction written all over his face. “I rammed my sword through his stomach. We make a good team. You line ‘em up and keep them distracted and I finish them off.”
“We are having a talk after this,” Kat replied through gritted teeth. “I am going to set ground rules and you are going to follow them, or we are done adventuring together. You just aren’t taking this seriously. Both of us could easily die in here and lose everything due to your overconfidence.”
“God,” Arnold snorted. “Is it that time of the month or something? I hate it when you act all hysterical like this.”
Kat blinked. Her vision narrowed to a tunnel.
She closed her eyes. Deep breaths, in through the mouth and out through her nose as Kat tried to center herself. She could rant for hours, screaming at the idiot until she was blue in the face, but he wouldn’t even understand.
“Let’s just get this fucking over with,” her words weren’t friendly, but they were the most cheer that Kat could muster.
“Sure,” Arnold replied. More than anything, Kat wanted to wipe his trademarked grin off Arnold’s face. “You’ll calm down in a day or two and we can talk things out then. Calm and rational, without emotions.”
Silently, she pondered planting her knife in between his shoulders as he opened the right door and the two of them walked into a much bigger room.
They stepped out of the hallway onto the surface of a giant lake. Ice covered everything, making their steps slick and treacherous. Near the center of the room stood the altar that marked the center of the dungeon. Around it stood three ice sculptures. One wielding a shield and longsword, the other carrying a dagger, and the final sculpture holding a pair of short swords.
Kat sighed. Even if it wouldn’t be an easy fight, at least they were near the end of the dungeon. Finally she’d be able to go back to the village and-
“Goddamnit,” She muttered, sprinting to catch up to Arnold as he unleashed a war cry and charged across the ice.
Suddenly, she heard a cracking sound under her feet. Almost without thinking, Kat activated levitation, feeling the spell snap into place as her body lightened.
Her toes were barely even touching the surface of the ice when it gave way, spilling Arnold, and to a lesser extent, her, into a yawning pit.
A meaty thunk echoed up from beneath her as she floated gently down on the still dungeon air. Arnold had only fallen maybe twenty five feet, but his landing hadn’t been glamorous.
Massive spikes of ice lined the bottom of the pit, and Kat couldn’t take her gaze from a trio, stained red, that sprouted from Arnold’s chest and legs.
“Fuck,” the sight ripped the word from her. Arnold was dead, there was no question about it. No matter what his hit points were, no player could survive having three leg sized chunks of ice shoved through their torso.
Kat gently kicked off of one of the spikes beneath her, landing in between a pair of the dangerous spears. Skeletons of all matter of alien creatures littered the bottom of the pit.
Her gaze tightened as she noticed that the multitude of femurs and rib bones all shared one similarity. Teeth marks.
Something shuffled deep in the maze of ice, and a warbling howl filled the room.