The next eight days fell into an easy rhythm. Work her thankless job during the day. Tutor Michelle for a couple of hours until Mom came home and fell asleep on the couch with the smart glass on, and then went to bed early to play The Tower of Somnus.
Her family didn’t question Kat when she claimed to be tired after a long day of work, and to be honest there was some truth to that. Even though her work wasn’t physically demanding, the constant attention to detail exhausted her. A slight variation in heat, light or sucrose could easily ruin an entire batch of samples, and the corporation wasn’t shy about billing an employee for lost research.
It hadn’t happened to her yet, but she’d heard the rumors and seen the haunted look in Michael’s eyes. One failure to convert between celsius and fahrenheit and over twenty thousand dollars worth of experiments were cooked beyond salvaging.
The constant fear of failure gave the boring lab work the edge it needed to keep Kat sharp, but it certainly didn’t help her nerves. Luckily, time spent in the tower doubled as some of the most refreshing sleep she’d ever had. No tossing, no turning, no sudden starts to use the bathroom. Just eight to ten hours of uninterrupted rest to help her recover for another day at the lab.
Her time in the dreamscape was fairly straightforward. Once Dorrik and Kaleek realized how low her skill levels were, they began to select their opponents more carefully. Rather than challenging entire warrens of okkles, they sought out individuals and let Kat fight them on her own, utilizing her magic as much as possible in order to grind out as much skill growth as possible.
At first the fights were fairly difficult. Dorrik and Kaleek watched on to make sure that Kat wouldn’t get hurt, but the rest of her fight was one on one in order to make sure that she gained the maximum amount of skill experience from the encounter. She’d complained to Dorrik that the okkles, low to the ground and covered in armor that repelled her knife, were a terrible match for her, but Kaleek had just laughed at her.
Apparently the okkles were meant to be difficult, and the longer it took for her to beat them, the more skill experience she would gain from her futile attempts to harm them.
As time progressed, via a combination of her increasing skills, and learning the okkles’ habits, the fights began to grow easier. Kaleek no longer watched her like a hawk, and struggles that had been taking five to ten minutes as she danced around her foes, drawing blood with cut after cut until the creature was too exhausted to defend itself from a final blow.
Before long, while Kat fought an okkle with Kaleek looking on, Dorrik would wander about the nearby prairie, finding and luring more okkles to her, sometimes more quickly than her mana could regenerate. When that happened, she worked on perfecting her knife skills.
Before long Kat knew more about the okkles than she thought was even possible. From the angle she needed to bring her knife up to slide it between their fur and shell to the way they telegraphed their dangerous leaps, it almost got to the point where Kat knew exactly what the predators were going to do a full second before they even moved.
Finally, just as her dagger deep into the eye of an okkle that she’d crippled,her status chimed, indicating yet another skill level. Pulling up her status log, Kat reviewed her gains, satisfaction building in the pit of her stomach.
You have reached Level 3 in the skill Water I, you have received the following reward:
Slight decrease to the mana cost of water spells.
You have reached Level 4 in the skill Water I, you have received the following reward:
Slight increase to the effectiveness of water spells.
You have reached Level 3 in the skill Gravity I, you have received the following reward:
Slight decrease to the mana cost of gravity spells.
You have reached Level 4 in the skill Gravity I, you have received the following reward:
Slight increase to the effectiveness of gravity spells.
You have reached Level 5 in the skill Knife I, you have received the following reward:
+3.3% speed and damage with knives (total +16.5%).
Usually, Kat didn’t bother to look all that closely at the notifications from the tower, but given the intense training regimen she’d undergone with the assistance of her teammates, there was something satisfying about seeing all of her recent awards lined up like that. Finally she opened her most recent notification and a smile blossomed on her face.
You have reached Level 6 in the skill Knife I, please choose a combat ability:
“Level six in Knife,” She announced triumphantly. “I did it Kaleek!”
“Finally,” Kaleek responded cheerfully, wandering over to slap her on the back. “As much as I enjoyed watching you struggle against a bunch of low level monsters, I was starting to get a bit stir crazy there.”
“Thank you,” Kat smiled at him. “Really. Before I started working with Dorrik and you, I didn’t even know how far behind I was. Your patience with me while I caught up is more than I could ever ask for, especially as a stranger.”
“We’re hardly strangers,” Kaleek twitched his whiskers bashfully. “It may not be the same in your culture, but at least amongst the desoph, joining a hunting party is one step from being a member of a pack.”
“One doesn’t just swim the deeps with a stranger,” Kaleek shook his head, the fur ruffling in the wind. “Hunting is dangerous and joining a hunting party is a position of trust. I’ve seen enough from you, both as a player and a person to trust you.”
“Surprising really,” Kaleek’s serious expression dissolved into a playful grin. “Given everything I’ve heard about your race and how we met, I really expected the worst.”
“What have you heard about humans?” Kat asked, almost forgetting the open dialogue box in her curiosity.
“Your race doesn’t have a reputation for playing nice with others,” Kaleek grimaced. “There have been at least a couple cases of human players murdering and robbing players of other races. I’ve also heard rumors about humans trying to monopolize dungeons or strong arm merchants into selling under cost.”
Kat winced. Given the entitled nature of the corporate elite that made it into The Tower of Somnus, it wasn’t all that surprising that they would come off a bit antisocial. After all, despite Earth ostensibly being at peace, the megacorporations still used mercenaries and independent contractors to kidnap, sabotage, or just plain murder their opposition. Then, the very next day the same CEO that ordered an operation would attend a corporate summit with their target, a smile on their face, and a champagne glass in their hand.
“Things are fairly spread out here on the first level,” Kaleek continued, “ and the players aren’t exactly in contact with the rest of their races, but once we start ascending you’ll be running into players that have had contact with your kind. Don’t be surprised if they’ve had some… negative first impressions of humans. I don’t want to be an asshole and rub it in, but your people have more than earned their reputation.”
“I can certainly understand that,” shook her head ruefully. “Most of the people who make it into the tower aren’t known for playing well with others.”
“Wait,” she squinted at a four armed form sprinting cresting and sprinting down the hill next to them, cackling madly. “Is that Dorrik, what in the hell are they-”
Behind them, a line of almost a dozen okkles chased after the charging lizard. Even from a distance, Kat could make out the manic grin on their face.
“Fuck,” she finished, the word falling flat.
“Thank the elders,” Kaleek laughed, hefted his sword, beaming wildly. “All of this talking was driving me crazy. Finally a chance to kill something.”
“There’s almost twelve of them,” Kat glanced at him incredulously. “When we were attacking warrens, the team struggled with anything over eight. This entire encounter is the sort of meaningless risk that Dorrik and you taught me to avoid.”
“That was then and this is now,” Kaleek swung his sword experimentally before setting his feet. “Don’t think of the okkles as a risk Kat. Think of them as an opportunity. This is your chance to exorcise all of that insecurity, to prove what Dorrik and I already know. That you’re an asset to the team.”
“What?” Kat began to round on him before catching herself. As much as she wanted to deal with Kaleek’s flippancy, she couldn’t afford to let herself get distracted right before a fight. “After all of that talk about taking things slow and careful unless there was an adequate reward on the line?”
“None of us would seek out a fight like this,” Kaleek shot back, eyeing up Dorrik’s whooping and approaching form, “but now that it’s here, there’s no need to shy from it. If the fight is a foregone conclusion, you might as well enjoy it.”
“Both of you are giant hypocrites,” Kat shook her head, a smile of her own beginning to replace her incredulous and severe expression. “You know that right?”
“Valiant hypocrites with glistening scales and silky soft fur,” Kaleek laughed, pulling his sword up into a guard position. “Now, I’d prefer not to fight all of them at once. Split them up Kat. Less talk, more magic.”
She rolled her eyes, concentrating on one wing of the advancing okkles for a fraction of a second until she felt the telltale click in her mind. Four of them stumbled, pulled to the ground by the sudden and dramatic increase in their weight, with one more affected but barely able to maintain its balance.
The stricken okkles struggled, their shells digging into the grassy prairie soil. The still standing okkle shuddered as it stepped forward, it’s muscles straining against Kat’s spell.
When Dorrik had told her about the increase in efficiency, they hadn’t been joking. Gravity’s Grasp was now only two mana, and both its area of effect and the total increase in weight the spell inflicted were almost doubled. The creatures would still be able to move under the influence of the spell, but with any luck it would slow and hamper them long enough for the hunting party to finish off the rest of their warren.
Unfortunately, despite her increase in skill levels, Kat still couldn’t maintain two spells at once. Dorrik assured her that the ability was coming, but having never run an elementalist build, their knowledge was limited to the basics of the class.
That meant that she’d have to help Dorrik and Kaleek fight the remaining six with only her knife. She smiled as its comforting weight slipped into her hand. Maybe it was Kaleek rubbing off on her, but strangely, that was a comforting thought.
Her hand, knife and all pushed through the glyph for Penetrate, finally dismissing her skill level notification. As appealing as the rest of the abilities sounded, she didn’t need much help to disable or bleed an opponent. Precision and a study of anatomy could do that on their own.
What she needed was a way to deal with armor. She could take advantage of joints and weak spots, but that was a way to mitigate her knife’s weakness rather than an actual solution. Penetrate burned stamina that she didn’t really have to spare, but it was a small price to pay if it let her actually punch through the heavy armor and thick hides that almost everything in the tower seemed to sport.
“Arrest Momentum,” Dorrik’s shout froze an okkle in its tracks, a purple nimbus hanging around its unmoving body. The giant lizard spun smoothly, drawing both of their swords and bringing them down on the immoble creature, severing its head cleanly as the blades bit swiftly into the tough fur of its neck.
A dagger from Kat hit an okkle in the leg, forcing it to stumble slightly. Kat frowned imperceptibly as she sprinted forward, trying to take advantage of the disruption. The knife was supposed to have hit a joint where it would have partially disabled the creature. Once again, she needed to work on her accuracy.
It swiped at her, claws swinging through empty space as it gingerly put its weight on its injured leg. Almost without thinking, Kat leaned back, receding like water from the blow before she pounced, activating Penetrate as she brought the dagger down on the armored top of the okkle’s skull.
The knife briefly shimmered yellow, a brief heat mirage of distortion before heat ran down Kat’s arm. Then the blow landed, passing through the dense bone of the monster’s head plate like it was soft wood. Shock flashed across her face as the dagger only stopped as the crossguard slammed into the creature’s head.
She stopped for a second, breathing heavily from the simple exchange but flabbergasted at how easily the creature had died.
A whisper of motion to her left was all the notice Kat needed to dodge the leap of another okkle. She whirled to the side, feeling the puff of wind on her face and hair that marked the creature’s passage.
Out of the corner of her eye, Kaleek managed to wedge his sword under an okkle, flipping it over entirely even as his foot flashed out in a kick that slammed into another’s shell, knocking it back a step.
Dorrik circled another monster, swords held low and at the ready, both parties waiting for the other to drop their guard if only for a moment. Then, a grin flashed across Dorrik’s face and their lower left arm pointing at the okkle.
“Ego shard,” purple energy crackled around their outstretched arm before jolting into their crouching opponent.
It mewled pitifully, a trickle of blood dribbling from its catlike ears and its eyes unfocused. Then Dorrik lunged closer, their body low to the ground as they brought both of their swords up from underneath, stabbing up through the creature’s chest, the tips of both blades barely punching up through its shell.
Taking her cue from the exuberant lizard, Kat released her hold on the Gravity’s Grasp. If the okkles hadn’t struggled free from its embrace yet, they would soon. Just as the okkle that had leapt at her prepared itself for another attack, Kat grabbed it with her focus and mana flowed out of her in a torrent.
Dehydrate half mummified the creature. Kat wasn’t entirely sure that the damage dealt by the spell warranted its massive mana cost, but she couldn’t help but admit that the spell’s effect was impressive.
It croaked unhappily, the coiled power of its feline legs robbed from it along with the moisture in its blood and muscles. The jump that would ordinarily send it rocketing straight at Kat aborted halfway through, the okkle landing with a disoriented wobble just in front of her.
Kat reversed the tables, pouncing on her prey and driving her knife deep into its neck before ripping it upward. Blood barely even flowed from its sunken veins as she brought her blade back down, shredding muscle as the edge of her knife skipped off the monster’s spine.
It snapped at her halfheartedly, barely able to make Kat out through its dizziness and pain. She didn’t even have to move, using the okkle’s momentum against it to drag her knife through the other side of its neck.
This time, the creature dropped. Not quite dead, but that was more a matter of time for the reeling and crippled monster. Whether it died in one minute or ten was hardly of concern to Kat as she disengaged and looked for her next quarry. It was more than out of the fight.
A moment of concentration summoned Pseudopod, and the tendril of water snaked out, lashing itself around the rear ankle of an okkle that was creeping through the tall grass as it tried to sneak up on Dorrik. They fired another crackling bolt of purple light into a distant okkle, stunning it and keeping it at bay even as Kat jerked on the snare of water, pulling the confused turtle monster off balance and onto its side.
The okkle kicked free of the Pseudopod, it’s feline leg breaking through the lasso of water after a moment’s hesitation.
It was more than enough, Kat’s foot snapped up, hooking under the creature’s shell and flipping it onto its back entirely. She could see the panic in its eyes as she darted in, avoiding its flailing claws and opening up a huge wound in its right flank.
It screeched in pain and fury, trying to rock onto its side, its legs unable to find purchase on the prairie as it lay on its back, but the entire time Kat’s Pseudopod held tight, an extension of her thoughts as it reasserted its grasp and prevented the okkle from righting itself.
She danced closer, her knife flashing twice more as she severed tendons and opened arteries. Finally, its front paws flopped uselessly, blood gushing from them.
Kat released her hold on its hind leg with her Pseudopod and looked up. The remaining okkles were dead or dying, the grass of the hill around them stomped flat and stained with blood by the frenetic encounter.
She wiped her knife on the leather armor of her thigh before reseathing it, her eyes flicking from one dead monstrosity to another as she tried to steady her breathing.
“There we go Miss Kat,” a clawed hand slapped her on the back as Dorrik walked past her. “That was a proper battle. I still do not understand your concerns about your role on the team, but Kaleek assures me that it is important for you to stand on your own, and here we are. You certainly held your own today.”
“I think it’s a human thing,” Kat flushed, slightly embarrassed by the rush of pride at Dorrik’s words. “In my arcology, if you can’t contribute you’re left behind. The system will chew you up and spit you out in order to make room for someone else who can add value to the corporation.”
“How quaint,” Dorrik nodded, their crest flattening contemplatively. “I’m sure that my race had similar concerns before nanotechnology was developed, but the idea of discarding an individual simply for the sake of efficiency seems… wasteful to say the least.”
“It’s not just individuals,” Kat sighed. “On Earth, when we work as a unit, my failures can drag down my friends and family. Both you and Kaleek have been so nice to me. The last thing I want is to be some sort of parasite, slowing your progress and forcing you to suffer for my sake.”
“Now that,” Dorrik smiled, their mouth pulled back in a warm but toothy grin, “is a sentiment that I can truly understand.”
Support "Tower of Somnus"
- United States
- Founding Member of the Zard Skwad
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