The cool comforting stone of the starting village alarm bell under her hand welcomed Kat back to The Tower of Somnus. It had only been a day, but it felt like a lifetime had passed since she’d last slept.
She stepped away from the various edifices that marked the town square and made her way to the side to wait for Kaleek and Dorrik. Aliens walked by, either solitarily or in trios as they went about their business, the only entities actually staying put the creatures manning the two player owned shops that lined the town square.
The buildings of the village housed automatons, matte black robots of all shapes and designs that served as the tower’s NPCs. They operated their own stores that bought and sold monster pelts, rare plants and minerals at predetermined and fairly unfavorable rates as well as maintaining the village’s walls and basic functions.
Player owned stores tended to outperform the marketplaces operated by the tower in price and the quality of their collections. Where NPC stores’ stock were limited by the floor of the tower where they were located, player shops were unofficial and sold anything that the operators could get their hands on.
Most player stores were affiliated with guilds, meaning that there was always a potential to find drops from another floor, shipped down to the beginning levels at exorbitant prices. Kat had already seen a handful of iron-tier class and skill stones carefully guarded and with price tags in the thousands of marks.
Unfortunately, the player owned stores didn’t have much breadth. Everything sold at the shops was collected and guarded by players, and once an object sold out, it was gone until it could be replaced, unlike the tower operated vendors that had an unlimited supply of all goods approved for the level that they were on.
Kat meandered over to one of the shops, ignoring the owner that resembled nothing more than a giant pillar of basalt spouting a trio of fleshy tentacles from its top. Gasoot was an amiable sort, content to rest and observe unless you asked them a question.
Despite their sedentary nature, Kat knew better than to cross the rocky player. She’d seen a careless gorilla creature bump into a counter, spilling a tub with medicinal herbs to the tower’s floor only for Gasoot to move blindingly fast.
One minute the pillar was resting, motionless except their tentacles, meaty fronds swaying in the nonexistent breeze. The next they were on the other side of the counter, their graspers moving with whipcrack quickness to pluck the container from the air.
Then they just stood there, refusing to return to their station behind the counter until the gorilla left. Just, looming menacingly, its tentacles snapping back and forth quickly enough that Kat could feel the wind coming off of them almost fifteen feet away. Finally, the other players from the gorilla’s hunting group had dragged their friend away and Gasoot turned to move behind the counter with glacial speed, every movement accompanied by the sound of boulders being ground into gravel.
Kaleek assured her that Gasoot was at least level five, and that they hadn’t exactly wasted their opportunities to raid each floor’s dungeons. They weren’t actually a high level player, but for someone like Kat, it hardly mattered. Given her attributes and skills, it was like there was an insurmountable wall erected between the two of them, negating any attack or scheme she could conceive of.
Gasoot was strong, but they weren’t the limit. Hell, from what Dorrik had let slip, no one on Earth was even near the limit. Her entire race’s most powerful players barely even counting as ‘mid-leveled’ in the galactic community at large, held back by their constant backstabbing and maneuvering.
The beauty of The Tower of Somnus was that no one had a limit. So long as you found a team of equally driven individuals, no one could hold you back. If you were strong enough to conquer a dungeon or defeat a level guardian, you did so, gaining a little bit more power in the process.
Politics, bravado and posturing were all just distractions. Red herrings designed to pull Kat away from her real purpose in the tower. To gain enough personal strength that mid level thugs like Stazz couldn’t break her ribs with a single kick. To grow enough that the executives would have to treat her and her family with respect, as assets and allies rather than just tools that could be discarded when broken.
Kat shook her head. There were enough distractions and dreams in there to occupy her for a lifetime if she let them. Reaching out, she grabbed a dozen individually wrapped pouches, sealed with wax and made from paper.
“Twelve units of sage leaf,” Kat informed Gasoot, extending her hand toward the mountainous shopkeep. She knew they saw everything that took place in his shop, but it was only polite to inform the creature.
“Twenty four marks,” they replied, voice like a boulder clattering down a cliff face as they extended a tentacle towards Kat’s wrist.
She smiled, managing to avoid a show of panic or revulsion as the fleshy appendage wrapped around her hand. A moment later a box appeared before he, indicating the terms of the deal. With a brief nod, the marks disappeared from her status.
“Thank you for your business Kat-human,” Gasoot intoned, withdrawing their tentacle.
She nodded amiably back at the massive player, not entirely trusting her voice as she tried not to think about the noticeable dampness encircling her hand. Gasoot meant well, and there was no sense reacting to the poor creature with disgust or horror for factors outside of their control. Still, they were more than a little unsettling and Kat was happy to pack away the sage leaf and turn her back on the small shop.
“There you are Kat,” Kaleek’s voice filled her with relief as she spotted Dorrik and him approaching from the town square. “Getting a little last minute shopping in?”
“Yeah,” Kat grimaced slightly, “I got roughed up fairly bad in my waking life. Seemed to be as good a sign as any that I should refill my stocks of sage leaf.”
“Are you alright Miss Kat?” Dorrik asked, concern in their voice. “Were you in some sort of accident outside of the tower?”
“It wasn’t that much of an accident,” Kat responded helplessly. “I was transporting some hot information and someone jumped me. They weren’t a player, but they were chromed up pretty well. I managed to knock them out and escape before the authorities arrived, but they broke a couple of bones. I’m not terribly excited to wake up tomorrow, that’s for sure.”
“The damage done to you was intentional?” Dorrik cocked their head, crest flaring in distress.
Kat simply nodded.
“And not as the result of physical training or sparring?” Kaleek frowned slightly, whiskers flicking thoughtfully. “This was not some sort of controlled encounter in a proving ground or a test of honor?”
“He was twice my size and armed,” Kat chuckled humorlessly, “I don’t think there was a whole lot of honor involved in that equation.”
“What did your government have to say about this?” Kaleek huffed unhappily. “Surely your attacker's dishonor will lead to grave repercussions.”
“My attacker usually works for the government,” Kat smiled bleakly. “He’s off the books so I don’t think I can get arrested for fighting him, but if anyone is going to get in trouble for yesterday, it’s going to be me.”
Kaleek stared at Kat for a handful of seconds, his whiskers rustling periodically like he was waiting for her to admit to a joke or correct her previous statement.
“That is manifestly unfair,” Kaleek crossed his arms. “You should petition for expatriation as soon as possible. You might be distressingly hairless, but I am sure I could get you a spot in a desoph warband.”
“Her race is under embargo Kaleek,” Dorrik shook their head. “Largely for this reason. Their governments are corrupt beyond belief. Honestly, the biggest question in the xenologist community isn’t when humanity will lift the embargo, it’s how they managed to survive as long as they have without a bloody revolt or a nuclear war given how much their megacorporations oppress the average person, personally I have some theories-”
“What do you mean hairless Kaleek?” Kat spoke over Dorrik, hoping to avoid another lecture. “Are you taking a crack at my appearance or something?”
“You are a dear friend Kat,” Kaleek responded solemnly, “but I don’t want to lie to you. You are as hairless as a newborn and it’s disgusting. Now, I’m sure you’re passable by your own race’s standards, but to a desoph, you appear misshapen and diseased.”
“Passable?” Kat sputtered.
“I must agree with Kaleek,” Dorrik interjected sadly. “You should not take it as a personal affront Miss Kat. I’m sure you’ll be able to grow and function despite it, but your lack of scales and crest are very off putting. My sexual organs are not yet fully developed, but even now they shrivel at your grotesque appearance.”
“What in God’s name-” She stopped noticing the barely concealed grin on Dorrik’s face. Kaleek elbowed them, cutting off a snicker from the shuddering lizard.
“The two of you are just messing with me?” Kat looked back and forth between them, Dorrik nodding cheerfully while Kaleek grinned.
“That is correct Miss Kat,” Dorrik responded enthusiastically. “It is my understanding from some of the literary and cultural resources that we’ve retrieved from humans that this is how you ‘bond as a team.”
“I just thought it was funny,” Kaleek shrugged, a smirk on his furry face.
“Great,” Kat rolled her eyes, “our team is built. What’s on the menu for tonight. Arnold won’t shut up about needing a subscription, and honestly I’m beginning to worry that he’s unhinged enough to do something drastic.”
Dorrik and Kaleek shared a meaningful look. After a moment of silence, Dorrik shrugged and turned back to Kat.
“Are you sure that Mister Arnold is of the proper moral character to enter The Tower of Somnus?” The large lizard tried to ask the question tactfully. “It wasn’t my place to put myself in your personal affairs, but I must say that I did not appreciate how he spoke over and for you when I knew him.”
“No,” she sighed. “He doesn’t. Unfortunately, Arnold is rich, knows enough to get me in trouble with the authorities, and as much as I don’t want to admit it, I do owe him. I suspect he wouldn’t do the same for me, but as much as I don’t ever want to talk to him again, it would be wrong for me to just abandon him.”
“If I understand correctly,” Kaleek nodded slowly, a slightly sour expression fluffing the fur of his face. “This is a matter of honor. You owe something to a warrior that you don’t like and you wish to discharge your duty and move on with your life.”
Kat nodded. Honestly, it made more sense when Kaleek put it like that. The memory of Arnold abandoning her to sit with Anna at the final assembly flashed through her head. There was no question that Arnold wouldn’t do the same in her shoes. He’d come to her full of apologies and plausible excuses, begging her forgiveness and explaining how he couldn’t possibly help her.
That might be how Arnold would handle the situation, but she was better than him. Kat wasn’t an idealist. Life on Earth was far too hard for that sort of foolishness, but on the streets of the Shell she’d learned something. A ronin or a samurai was only worth as much as their crew and their word.
Xander and the ChromeDogs were respected because they picked their jobs carefully and finished them. Promises were kept, and grievances were repaid swiftly and with great force. Corporations and independent forces knew who they were and what they represented. They might have the pride of the most vicious cur in the junkyard, but they had their pride, and a client could count on that.
That was who she wanted to be. Kat wanted power, a crew, and respect in that order. As much as it galled her, getting that damn subscription to Arnold was an important part of that equation.
“Yes,” Kat sighed finally. “He did an important favor for me, and I need to pay him back. As soon as the subscription is transferred, I’ll have a clean ledger and be done with him.”
“I understand,” Kaleek nodded thoughtfully. “As a member of your hunting party, I would be happy to help you resolve this matter of honor. I would suggest waiting one more day however.”
Kat cocked her head to the side, raising an eyebrow as if asking a silent question.
“Although we could probably safely fight the perytons,” Dorrik supplied helpfully, “we’ve located a plant based dungeon, the Bog of Chernok. It’s one of the better known dungeons around this starting village, but I’ve already paid the marks to reserve a time slot.”
“There will be plenty of time tomorrow to hunt for a subscription,” Kaleek agreed, “and that hunt will be made easier once we all earn another dungeon award.”
“I suppose,” Kat agreed, face brightening. A dungeon with a skilled and competent team seemed a lot more fun than tangling with the troublesome flying monsters, likely for minimal reward.
“Plus,” Kaleek grinned. “If we earn enough marks you can just come back here and buy a subscription from Gasoot, they usually have one or two in stock.”
“You do realize that ‘enough marks’ to buy a subscription means the low five figures,” Kat rolled her eyes, “right? I checked. Those things aren’t cheap.”
“Okkles respawn,” Kaleek winked at her mischievously. “So long as you have enough patience, you don’t even need to fight perytons.”
“Tomorrow is fine,” Kat rolled her eyes as she checked her armor. “A dungeon sounds much more productive anyway.”
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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