“You have to think of it as a third arm Miss Kat,” Dorrik called out to her as Kaleek easily sidestepped her water tentacle. “You need to be able to move it just as naturally as your biological arms, turn it into an extension of yourself.”
She ducked under a swing from the wooden pole that Kaleek was using to simulate his two handed sword. It moved fast enough, that Kat had to use her enhanced agility to avoid the attack.
The tentacle grabbed at Kaleek’s ankle only for the giant otter to dance nimbly out of its grasp with a chitter and a twitch of his whiskers. A moment later his club slammed into the ground right next to her, another last second dodge leading to a narrow miss.
With a squint, the focus of her pseuodpod changed, snaking up to wrap around Kaleek’s weapon. He pulled it back for another strike, and Kat’s legs exploded under her, pulling against her sparring partner’s sword to give her an extra measure of momentum
Kaleek’s instinctive effort to bring his sword up to a guard position failed almost before it began, jerked enough to the side that Kat could flash through the opening and slam into the oily fur of the otter’s chest, her wooden sparring dagger at his throat.
“Very good!” Dorrik clapped both pairs of their arms together. “A narrow win for Kat, but given the disadvantageous circumstances I would classify this as a grand success”
“Narrow?” Kat asked, confusion in her voice as she shifted the grip on her knife at Kaleek’s throat.
“You’ve killed me human,” Kaleek chuckled slightly underneath her, “but I would have taken your hamstring with me. If you had a healer nearby, you would make it, but I doubt you could have made it back to a village on your own.”
A sharp pain in her right thigh alerted Kat to the presence of Kaleek’s claws, digging just through her armor and into the skin beneath. She rolled off of him and to her feet, turning to extend a hand. Kaleek grunted as she helped him up.
“You were right Dorrik,” Kaleek nodded approvingly. “So long as Kat doesn’t crumple under pressure, she’ll be an important addition to our team. Already, her combat skills are head and shoulders above most of the other dabblers on this level. Once she can smoothly integrate her spellcasting into her knife fighting she’ll absolutely be a force to be reckoned with.”
“Thanks,” Kat grinned back at him. Originally the desoph had rubbed her the wrong way. Ever since he’d seen her battered form stumble out of the dungeon he’d been dismissive of both her and her abilities.
Then she’d seen him fight. Clearly, melee combat hadn’t been a hobby or a part time job for him. Even with a heavy weapon, Kaleek moved almost as fast as her, and with reflexes and instincts that clearly outclassed her.
“I keep forgetting that your people have claws,” Kat chuckled ruefully. “Hell, even if I remembered, I’m not sure I could have pulled that out without putting myself in a position where you could have shredded me in retaliation.”
Kaleek flicked his whiskers once more, a narrow grin on his furry face.
“Most species in the tower have some sort of natural weapon,” Kaleek soothed his ruffled fur with his spare hand. “Honestly, I find it surprising that your species managed to ride to dominance on your planet. Any way I look at it, you’re small, defenseless, and… pink.”
“Come now Kaleek,” Dorrik slapped him on the back gently. “You know it’s impolite to just ask someone why they’re pink.”
“We’re pack hunters Kaleek,” Kat laughed slightly over her shoulder as she walked over to their piles of gear. “We fought using weapons, numbers, and superior tactics. A mammoth or a buffalo might be bigger than a human, but neither of them will fare well if you herd them off of a cliff.”
“Buffalo?” Dorrik pounced on the unfamiliar word, crest rippling and a predatory gleam in their eyes. “Mammoth? I haven’t heard of either of these things. Tell me more. Are they prey animals? Predators that your species has overcome?”
Kaleek laughed, tail and whiskers twitching as he slouched laconically against his wooden sword. Dorrik, spun past him, hurrying toward Kat, peppering her with questions.
“This is your fault you know,” Kaleek shook his head, a hint of teeth visible as he smiled beneath his flickering whiskers. “Dorrik might be an accomplished warrior, but deep down they wanted to be a scholar. Any hint of some new piece of information will set them off like this. Given that you’re a member of a reclusive and probationary race, I’d be careful in the future. Pretty much everything you let slip about your people will trigger a reaction like this.”
“Hush you,” Dorrik responded, not even looking back at the giant otter as they clapped both of their upper hands on Kat’s shoulders. “Now tell me, what do you know about these ‘buffalo’ and ‘mammoth.’ Make sure not to leave anything out.”
“I just know that they were big,” Kat shrugged, “and now they’re extinct. We still have access to their DNA and sometimes we use sections of their genome to improve our current herd stock. Mammoth’s in particular have some interesting genetic sequences that allow them to survive colder environments, making them incredibly popular for gene mods.”
“DNA?” Dorrik’s eyes burned. “Who or what is DNA?”
“Deoxyribonucleic acid,” Kat blinked, taken slightly aback by the giant lizard’s overwhelming enthusiasm. “It’s what creatures on Earth use to encode genetic information to pass from generation to-”
“By the elders,” Kaleek rolled his eyes. “Enough! If you get Dorrik started they will keep going for hours. All of us will wake up without accomplishing anything.”
“I may have gotten a bit overenthusiastic a time or two,” Dorrik scratched the back of their head sheepishly. “The study of new races waits for no entity, but I will admit that we have other priorities at the moment.”
“Agreed,” Kaleek nodded affably at Kat. “That trick where you grabbed my sword with the pseudopod? That was really good. Most players have a blind spot where their weapons are concerned. No one really thinks about someone grabbing a sword by the blade and holding it in place.”
“Players?” Kat cocked her head. “I thought the purpose of this place was to improve yourself while learning to work with other races. Why would anyone end up fighting other players?”
For a second, the two aliens locked eyes and an awkward silence filled the clearing where they’d been sparring. Unspoken words flashed through the empty air between the two of them before finally Dorrik sighed.
“While the Galactic Consensus doesn’t fight openly,” Dorrik struggled for a second, clearly searching for a diplomatic turn of phrase. “We do use alternative methods of dispute resolution. There are still disputes between the various political factions in the consensus. Some are over colonies or trade, but others are over loftier ideals such as the goals of the consensus, which races will be allowed in, and the rate of our expansion.”
“Break it down for me,” Kat’s face scrunched slightly as she tried to parse Dorrik’s explanation. “What do you mean by ‘alternative methods of dispute resolution.’ Is that like arbitration or do you work things out over sports betting or something?
“Sports betting is actually pretty close,” Kaleek chuckled. “Every faction has representatives in the tower. We just sort things out here. Some of the higher leveled players lose their avatars and have to start over, but beyond that there are no deaths or collateral damage. Simple and straightforward.”
“Obviously,” Dorrik glared at Kaleek, their crest fluttering angrily at the interruption. “The Consensus doesn’t undertake such barbarity lightly. Clearly the purpose of the dreamscape is for us to learn to cooperate and learn more about each other. Unfortunately, learning to fight other sapients is a necessary part of becoming a player.”
“Lightly?” Kaleek snorted, “Kat you should ask Dorrik about their participation in the Lokkellian dispute over the Rigellian trade corridor. The lokkel might talk more than the desoph like, but when it comes time to fight, they’re deadly serious. There’s a reason my people have thrown our lot in with them. It’s hard to find a relatively sane faction with a better record in ‘resolving disputes’ at sword point.’
“Kaleek Tikorrok,” Dorrik snapped, their usual joviality slipping to reveal a hint of iron underneath. “Humans are a probationary race. Miss Kat doesn’t need to know about the friendly rivalries and petty disputes of the Consensus for now. She can make her decisions on that subject later, without any pressure from us.”
“Friendly rivalries?” Kaleek rolled his eyes. “I’ve personally seen you rip a stallesp warrior in half with your mind as you drove a blade into its companion’s chest. You died holding a checkpoint against an unending tide of enemies, your scales stained with their blood as you bought time for our allied forces to overwhelm the stallesp cohort.”
“I am quite passionate about the question of irgonol uplift,” Dorrik replied uncomfortably. “The stallesp insistence that the irgonol be placed under their economic hegemony in exchange for technology transfers runs counter to the very principles of the Galactic Consensus. We are meant to be a meeting of free and enlightened races. Not a collective of imperialists enslaving others for our own economic benefit.”
“Wait,” Kat held up a hand, trying to slow the conversation enough that she could catch up. “You’ve already died Dorrik?”
“And I died next to him,” Kaleek puffed his chest proudly. “It was a valiant fight. When we finally fell, Dorrik and I were knee deep in their dead and the twelfth floor ran with rivers of their blood. I’m not eager to die a second time, but Dorrik is a good being to have at your shoulder when the time comes.”
“Yes,” Dorrik sighed, shooting a quick glare at the unrepentant otter. “The battle plan called for a small number of players to hold a valley while the rest of our army struck from the rear. It was a worthy cause, but all of us who stood shoulder to shoulder at Basmere Pass perished in combat, holding just long enough for the battle to be decided.”
“I cannot say that I enjoyed dying or being cast down to the first level of the tower with a fresh avatar,” the large lizard shrugged, their crest rippling, “but at the same time, I do not regret my actions. Kaleek and I stood strong for our beliefs, and a neophyte race is free in part due to our sacrifice.”
“So the two of you were high level at one point?” Kat asked. “Is that why you’re so skilled despite being stuck on level one with me?”
“I wouldn’t say high level,” Kaleek wrinkled his whiskers at her, “but I made it to fourteen and I believe that Dorrik was sixteen. As for our instincts, in large part you’re right. Both of our races train their young for inevitable time in the tower. That provided us with a solid foundation for our classes to build on. That said, even if I’ve lost the levels, dungeon awards, and skills that went with my previous climb, death does nothing to dull your instincts and combat experience.”
“Thank God,” Kat laughed nervously. “I was afraid for a second there that both of your races were as formidable as the two of you. I’ll have to be honest, it was giving me a bit of an inferiority complex.”
“Dorrik’s a prodigy even among the Lokkel,” Kaleek snorted, “I wouldn’t suggest comparing yourself to them unless you want-”
“Enough!” Dorrik cut Kaleek off. “I wish to learn from Miss Kat and befriend her, not awe her with meaningless stories from my homeworld that have grown exaggerated in their retelling. In the dreamscape, I am simply another psi initiate. Nothing more and nothing less.”
“I’ll fill you in later,” Kaleek whispered, tossing a wink Kat’s way. Dorrik either missed the action, or more likely, they chose to ignore it.
“Kaleek,” they continued, “I believe Miss Kat has learned enough of her new skill to use it in combat. Do you agree that she is ready for team combat maneuvers?”
“Sure,” the otter nodded amiably. “We could spar a couple more times and I’m sure she’d benefit from it, but at this point I think that low level combat against monsters would serve the same purpose. Of course, combat experience would let us all grind our skills while we learn how to integrate Kat’s fighting style into our dynamic.”
“Okkles?” Dorrik asked Kaleek, drawing another approving nod from the desoph.
“Actually,” Kat interjected, a tingle of nervous energy tickling its way down her spine. “I was wondering if we could fight perytons instead. Arnold needs a new subscription, and-”
“Absolutely not,” Kaleek shook his head firmly, to his side Dorrik fluttered their crest in agreement. “I’m sure we could bring down one or two perytons, but given our current dynamics it’s hardly a safe battle. Maybe once our skills have leveled up a couple of times and we’re more used to everyone else in our hunting group, then we’ll be able to hunt the flying deer safely, but I do not want to engage in unnecessary risks.”
“I’m sorry Miss Kat,” Dorrik trilled mournfully. “I am sure the passing of your friend is dreadful for you, but I am only in favor of taking risks if there is an appropriate reward. Now that we all have our classes and core skills, I don’t see the purpose in us picking a fight that we could possibly lose for minimal gain.”
“Plus,” Dorrik continued hesitantly. “Dungeons are scaled upon hunting parties of either three or six players. If we invited Arnold into our group, we would likely need to find two more players, and if I must be honest, he would not be an asset. Finding a pair of players that could make up for his disorganization and lack of preparation would be difficult.
“I don’t want him in the team,” Kat shook her head, a hint of remembered anger flaring in her chest. “He’s more of a liability than you even know. Still, I owe him. I might not want to have anything to do with Arnold, but I pay my debts. A favor is a favor, regardless of how unhappy I am with the recipient.”
“A commendable sentiment,” Dorrik nodded agreeably. “It still doesn’t change the fact that our team isn’t ready. When we are, I’m sure that Kaleek would be willing to help.”
“The honor of one member of a hunting party is the honor of us all,” Kaleek concurred. “I respect your duty even if I don’t know this ‘Arnold.’ When the time comes to increase the difficulty of our hunt, I would be happy to fight perytons with you.”
“I guess Arnold will just have to wait,” Kat replied with a sigh. She understood their position perfectly, but patience and understanding were hardly Arnold’s strong point.
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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