The three of them dissolved into a rainbow of light and motion, leaving the portal to the dungeon behind. A second later, Kat was standing in ankle deep water, the rich smell of decaying plants filling her nose and bringing a hint of bile to her throat.
She wiped a sheen of sweat from her forehead as she squinted against the dungeon’s dim light. Of course it would be as hot as the blacktop of the Shell under the summer sun. Why wouldn’t the Bog of Chernok be anything but a humid and smelly nightmare.
“Gross,” Kaleek sighed, as he looked down at the soupy water around his ankles. “Thank the elders that our bodies reconstitute when we log in. There’s no way I’d be able to get this mess out of my fur otherwise.”
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Dorrik responded cheerfully. “It reminds me of home. Lokkels might spend most of our adult lives on Lokka’s steppes, but all breeding and hatchling rearing takes place in bogs like this. The heat and moisture is good for their shells.”
“I’m sure it helps that you can wash your scales down with a hose,” Kaleek replied with dissatisfaction, rubbing at a spot of something sticky on his fur. “One blast of high pressure water and all the muck is gone.”
“Correct,” Dorrik nodded smugly. “I still don’t understand why your ancestors chose fur as an evolutionary advantage. Desoph are semi aquatic, you spend enough time in water that you’re bound to run into brackish water eventually. It’s only logical for you to have skin that’s quick and easy to clean.”
“Chose?” Kat frowned slightly, looking to Kaleek as she asked the question.
“Don’t get them started,” Kaleek sighed. “The lokkel have been around for a very long time and they have different views on evolution, specifically they question why other races don’t engage in guided self evolution. Frankly, it's a bit patronizing. Like the rest of us actually have a spare millenia to remove our vestigial organs.”
“Think of the efficiency though!” Dorrik’s eyes gleamed. “I know that the desoph are a lost cause, but I’ve seen how humanity tinkers with wire and steel to try and improve themselves. Mechanical enhancements are a bit crude compared to forging a body from the ground up, but at least you’re on the right track.”
“But how do you avoid negative interactions?” Kat asked, doing her best to ignore their surroundings. “Cybernetics have their downsides, but other than neural overload and rejection, they’re fairly simple and clean to integrate. You don’t have to worry about how they’ll interact with a host’s circulatory or endocrine systems. I mean, some of our labs will do biological augmentation, mostly synthetic muscle grafts, but the recipients tend to develop weakened immune systems and cardiac problems within a couple months of the surgery.”
“Ah!” Dorrik’s face lit up completely. “I forgot that you are a scientist by trade Miss Kat! The first step is a complete mapping of your species genome. Many races make the mistake of not paying attention to the ‘evolutionary junk’ hiding in their reproductive code. After that, it is simply a matter of making sure that you have a functioning computer model of your race’s internal functioning. Lokkel research centers use holographic displays that let us manipulate a body in real time complete with-”
“I’ll leave you nerds to it then,” Kaleek rolled his eyes before slinging his massive sword over his shoulder, careful to avoid the bog’s muck. “As much as I am enjoying the impromptu xenobiology lesson, I have monsters to kill.”
Kat smothered a laugh. Kaleek had a point. They’d spent the entire walk out to the dungeon making small talk, and now as soon as they were in danger, Dorrik and her were about to blab about biological theory. It could wait.
“I’m only an apprentice,” Kat smiled back at Dorrik, “but we can talk about this on the way back. For now, we should get our game faces on.”
Kaleek led the way, sloshing his way through the shallow water and past walls that looked more than anything like they were grown from a lattice of trees. Vaguely, Kat wondered if the damp wooden tunnel they were traveling down was flammable, but omnipresent moisture aside, it didn’t seem like the sort of question she should seek an answer to.
“Hold up,” Kaleek’s voice filtered back to Kat. “I have eyes on spore balls right before the passage opens up into a full sized room. No idea what they do, but I don’t like the look of them. They’re too close to the entryway for us to get past without triggering them.”
“Spore balls?” Kat asked, frowning slightly.
“A common plant based dungeon trap,” Dorrik responded, squinting over Kaleek’s shoulder into the gloom. “Fungal spheres that explode into spores when a player enters their proximity. There have been recorded cases of the spores being poisonous, paralytic, sleep inducing, and-”
A deep rattling moan filled the dungeon. Kat jumped slightly, gripping her knife tightly.
“Mind controling or reanimating of victims,” Dorrik finished grimly.
“Stallesp husks,” Kaleek called back, a hint of urgency in his voice. “Six of them with some sort of fungal growths around their noses and ears. All of them are moving slowly towards the tunnel entrance. Do we use the tunnel walls to restrict their movements and fight them here or do we trigger the spore balls and try to push past them into the open. Choose quickly.”
“To your left,” Dorrik grunted, leaning past Kaleek and extended one of his upper claws toward a shambling silhouette. “Ego shard.”
A bolt of purple energy slammed into the creature and drew no reaction. No wail of pain or stumbling, not even a slowing of its awkward gait. The purple light just flickered across the being’s body, illuminating its hunched neckless form and leathery black hide as well as the pair of long, heavily muscled arms that ended in oversized claws, clearly meant for digging through densely packed soil.
“Completely mindless,” Dorrik spat the words out with dissatisfaction. “Nothing for psi to work on. I’m just a sword wielder in this fight Kaleek, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t respond properly to any of Miss Kat’s attempts to cripple them. The hallway will provide some cover but it will limit our mobility, it’s your call.”
Kat could almost see Kaleek’s nose twitching as he considered the situation, the stallesp... things drawing nearer.
“Elders!” Kaleek exclaimed in frustration. “Dorrik, there’s enough room for one and a half beings up here, I will stand to the right. I’ll need you to kill anything that tries to sneak into my blindspot.”
Dorrik responded with the rasp of his sword as he stepped into the indicated gap, both blades in a double-handed grip as they prepared themselves for the oncoming monsters.
“Kat,” he continued, voice clipped as he shifted his sword. “Husks are dead. Their muscles and nervous systems largely replaced with plant fiber. Dehydrate might do some damage, but your knife isn’t going to be that useful."
“Only complete disruption means anything,” Kaleek lectured quickly. “We’re going to need big heavy weapons to rip and tear through their bodies, and that means I take point. I need you to use Gravity’s Grasp to slow them down and keep the husks from overwhelming me.”
Kat focused on the mouth of the hallway, feeling the mental click as mana began to flow into the spell, dropping a blanket of excess weight over the area.
The first stallesp husk to lurch into the field collapsed, off balance and top heavy, the excess gravity tipping its upper half into the water and pinning it there. Kaleek ignored the spray of muck that dappled his fur, instead bringing his two handed sword down with a swing that crunched deep into the monster’s upper torso, practically bisecting it
Kat pulled a throwing knife from her bandoleer, prepared to do what little she could. It was hardly needed. Over the course of a minute she needed to refresh Gravity’s Grasp once, but other than that the battle was over before it could begin.
The spores might make the husks tougher and harder to kill, but it robbed them of their reasoning. One after another, they let themselves be drawn into range of Kat’s spell, slowing their already lethargic movements enough that Kaleek could easily hammer them to the ground with his massive sword.
Most of the time, his first blow wasn’t enough to finish the husk off, leaving the creature floundering in the water as it tried to bring its massive claws to bear on Kaleek’s dancing feet. The second almost always finished the matter before another husk could stumble near.
Only once did it take a third stroke of Kaleek’s sword to end a stallesp’s struggles. The otter-like warrior didn’t even hesitate, trusting Dorrik to step up into his blind spot. An underhand thrust punched their first blade through the monster’s chest. It didn’t even try to block as the second took its head from its shoulders.
Dorrik hopped backward, avoiding the downed creatures' claws as they spasmodically reached for them. With a shudder, it stopped moving and Kat turned her gaze to the remaining pair of husks, but her help was entirely unneeded.
The fight ended with little fanfare. Kaleek kicked a husk backward into the heavy gravity of her spell, and then took its head and upper shoulder with a heavy downward blow.
The rasping shuffle of the husks died suddenly, the only sound Kaleek’s heavy panting as he planted his sword into the water of the floor and leaned against it. Kat inspected the various torn and mauled bodies before sheepishly returning her throwing knife to its bandoleer, unused.
The three of them backed up by ten to twenty paces, keeping an eye on ripped and dismembered corpses of the stallesp while Kaleek recovered. After a couple of seconds, Dorrik evidently decided that the husks were dead enough and that their temporary pause was the perfect opportunity to launch into a lecture.
“The stallesp are one of the more aggressive races in the Galactic Consensus,” they began without prompting. Kaleek rolled his eyes, too winded to make a fight of things. “They’re primarily subterranean burrowers, prone to laying massive clutches of eggs to replace those they lose in cave ins due to Stall’s frequent earthquakes.”
“The lokkel opposed their introduction into the Consensus,” they shook their head. “Even though the stallesp are peaceful, their lust for new colonies is out of control. They don’t break any of the rules, but they bend every norm they can and push our societies’ wherever they can get away with it. They might not invade a new member but they will certainly offer disadvantageous contracts.
“If that doesn’t work,” Dorrik continued grimly, “they will cull the new member’s players in the tower before manufacturing an affront and fighting them in a formal dreamscape conflict. It smacks of imperialism, but the stallesp have grown enough in size that most races are afraid to address their antisocial behavior.”
“As awful a fate as succumbing to neural spores and becoming a husk is,” Dorrik’s crest flared wide, their voice tight with displeasure. “I couldn’t wish it on a more deserving bunch of blackguards.”
Kat paused, digesting Dorrik’s words. Frankly, the stallesp made more sense to her than the rest of the races in the Galactic Consensus. There was just something refreshingly nostalgic about one-sided deals, transparent political maneuvering, and backstabbing.
Of course, Kat wanted more for her race. Humanity had so much potential, all squandered on pointless bickering and infighting. What she’d learned of the Consensus while in The Tower of Somnus, felt impossibly optimistic, like a pleasant dream. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
“So how do we avoid turning into that,” Kat nodded thoughtfully at the pile of mostly dismembered corpses.
“Very carefully,” Kaleek jibed, earning an eye roll from Dorrik.
“Unlike our friends,” Dorrik jerked their head at the bodies, “I came prepared. While expensive, there are alchemical compounds that can prevent the more serious spores from taking root.”
They handed an ampoule to Kat and Kaleek. A small glass canister filled with a thick silverish liquid. It reminded her vaguely and worryingly of mercury.
“I still wouldn’t test its efficacy too much,” Dorrik chuckled. “While effective, I’m sure that it could be overwhelmed by enough spores, and the last thing I want to deal with is a member of my hunting party turning into a shambling monstrosity that hungers for living flesh.”
“Wait,” Kat frowned slightly, “those things-”
“Would pin you down and eat you alive,” Kaleek grinned. “I’ve seen it happen once or twice. Fairly grisly actually. They aren’t that dangerous in an enclosed space like this, but the fact that they basically can ignore pain is a problem.”
“If you can’t bring them down fast enough,” he bent down, splashing some of the murky water from the dungeon floor onto his sword before wiping it on the wood of the wall, “they’ll overwhelm you. I’ve seen a husk impaled on a spear pull itself down the haft and kill the terrified player holding it.”
“It’s why finding a spot to fight them was a tough call,” Kaleek, slung his sword over his shoulder. “They move slow enough that a larger room would let us keep our distance. On the other hand, it’s hard to get flanked in a passageway.”
Kat nodded, eyeing up the bodies. She hadn’t tried out Dehydrate, but given the amount of abuse the husks could take, it was hard to disagree with Kaleek’s snap assessment. There was a good chance that she would have won a protracted fight with them, but it would have left her wounded and exhausted. Her knives were just a poor fit for anything that wouldn’t bleed when she stuck it.
“Now if you would be so kind Miss Kat,” Dorrik shuffled the side so that she could pass. “I would appreciate it if you could use your throwing daggers to puncture the spore balls. Once they release their payload, we will just need to wait for a couple of minutes for the air to circulate and bring the spore counts down to a more reasonable level.”
Two flicks of her hand later, the room in front of them was hazy with spores. The three of them quietly drank the concoction Dorrik handed them. It tasted like peppermint and bile. Not anything Kat would want to repeat, but it could certainly be worse.
Finally, Dorrik gave the signal, and the three of them filed into the next room, weapons at ready despite the fact that it had already been cleared.
Kat winced as she exited the hallway, the floor dropping out beneath her as the water began lapping at her knees. She looked around the room as the three of them sloshed slowly toward the exit. Great trees were dimly visible in each corner of the room, barrels of living wood, filled with dubious liquids bubbled just above the surface of the water.
Just as Kaleek was beginning to prod the door out of the room with his sword, Kat noticed some movement out of the corner of her eye. Whirling, she barely brought her dagger up in time to cut the grasping tentacle that had been reaching for her throat.
Even as her eyes widened in shock, the brownish green frond plopped to the water, a series of wicked finger length thorns visible on its leaflike head before it slipped below the surface.
“The room is NOT clear!” Kat managed to shout before the trees in each corner erupted into another flurry of vines. Her warning saved the rest of the team, she didn't have time to watch her actions closely, but each of them reacted with practiced ease as they fell into a loose defensive formation.
This time she could see them clearly, tentacles of plant matter, each as big around as her wrist, all originating from one of the room's four corners. They didn’t move as quickly as an arrow or a bird, but each tree spawned a half dozen of the tendrils, and they wove toward the hunting party much faster than a person could run on flat ground, let alone in restricting water of the dungeon.
The tentacles split so that they could attack the three of them from every direction. Kat tried to step away from the rest of her group, cursing internally at how slowly she moved in the knee high water.
Her knife flashed in the dim light, cutting the head off of two of the vines. A swift duck at the last second managed to avoid another one. Two more skittered off of her armor, unable to find purchase on the hardened leather.
The final tentacle caught her under the water, curling around the back of Kat’s knee and digging its barbs into her armor’s joint. Almost immediately, the wound began to feel numb as some sort of venom pumped into her.
“Arrest momentum,” Dorrik shouted from next to her, summoning a purple field that the vines passed through unimpeded.
“Damn, not sapient” they muttered, managing to bisect three of the vines only for another three to dig into their scales. Almost immediately, their left arms went limp, the leafy tentacles connected to them pulsing unnaturally.
Frantically, Kat used her knife to saw through the vine attached to the back of her leg. Her lower profile, face just above the foul water saved her from another pair of diving attacks as the tendrils tried to keep up with her.
She tried to hop backwards in order to buy herself some room only for her wounded knee to give out under her, spilling Kat onto her rear, suddenly chest deep in the fetid water.
Glancing around for help, she saw Kaleek’s limp body being dragged toward one of the barrels filled with an unknown hissing and burbling substance. Her eyes widened as she finally saw the root connecting the cistern of liquid to the trees that spawned the barbed vines.
Almost without thinking she focused her attention on the tree pulling Kaleek in. Mana flowed from her and Dehydrate took hold. Immediately, the vines slacked, still barely maintaining their grip on the weakly struggling otter, but halting his movement toward his bubbling fate.
Kat fended off another questing vine, her left hand darting out to grab it just behind its barbed head while the dagger in her right removed the offending appendage. More mana poured into Dehydrate and the tree attacking Kaleek wilted visibly, its vines now entirely unmoving as they floated in the water.
“Whatever you’re doing Miss Kat!” Dorrik shouted, half of their body limp as the plants’ venom pumped into them. “It’s working. If you can disable the Cauldron Trees, the potions I fed you should be able to fight off the toxin.”
Almost on cue, the yellow icon in the lower left of her vision faded as feeling returned to Kat’s leg. She stood up uncertainly, displeased with leaving the partial cover of the water, but very aware that she’d already been attacked by a submerged vine once.
A squint from her and more mana left Kat’s system, weakening the hold of the plants on Dorrik just enough that they could hack through the trio of tendrils disabling their left side. One more spell and the tree stopped entirely.
Kat winced as a flashing blue icon appeared in the lower left of her vision. Two of eighteen, not enough mana for another Dehydrate. Removing half of them from the fight would have to be enough.
Another pair of vines reached out, twisting through the air as they sought Kat’s flesh. A moment of focus and mana turned the blue icon black as she emptied her mana pool, but it was worth it when her Pseudopod curled around one of the two tendrils.
Kat slashed open the other vine as the rope of water from her left hand wrapped around the other vine, tying it into a knot just long enough for her to finish it off.
She could feel her breath starting to come shorter, the heat and poor air quality of the dungeon beginning to slow her down, but a quick survey revealed a room bereft of threats. The trees still crouched menacingly, the pots of liquid in front of them burbling away, but those could be left for-
Kaleek pulled himself from the water with a scream, two handed sword cracking open one of the ‘barrels.’ A follow up blow bit deep into a tree, its surprisingly soft bark and pulp spraying everywhere under the fury of the attack.
Kat opened her mouth in concern, but one of Dorrik’s clawed hands on her shoulder silenced her.
“Let him,” the big lizard shook their head, a strangely grim expression on their face. “Kaleek will need to vent a bit of his anger. Almost getting devoured alive by a Cauldron Tree is enough to scare the piss out of anyone, but desophs tend to take fear personally. Like it's a personal insult to make them fear their own death.”
Kat nodded slowly. It made a kind of sense. She certainly didn’t feel positively toward the trees, and the brief feeling of helplessness and terror when her leg gave out under her wasn’t one that she’d want to repeat.
“We have a bigger problem,” Dorrik frowned. “Cauldron trees are ambush predators, and powerful ones at that. I’m surprised to see them in a wood tier dungeon on the first level at all, but four of them is overkill.”
“And we could have gotten stuck fighting them while the husks tore at us and we struggled to resist the spores,” Kat added.
“That’s actually…” Dorrik stopped for a second, her words interrupting the flow of their thoughts. “That only makes the situation worse.” They finished with a sigh.
“The fight we just experienced is well beyond the difficulty one would expect from a boss,” Dorrik sighed, their mouth an unhappy line. “We thought the dungeon was calibrated for a three person run because the three of us entered together, but there were six stallesp husks. It’s possible that the dungeon never registered them as leaving and that it still believes that there are six players attempting this delve.”
“For someone so keen on explaining everything,” Kat rolled her eyes at Dorrik. “You sure seem reluctant to tell me what that actually means. Out with it. What does a six player delve do to us.”
“It doubles our benefits,” Kaleek interjected, splashing his way over to them as he panted, the Cauldron Trees mangled cordwood behind him. “Six awards and three people. They’ll still only be wood tier, but each of us should get two awards.”
“And?” Kat asked the still uncomfortable Dorrik, prompting the big lizard to spit out the words that were clearly just at the tip of their tongue.
“It more than doubles our difficulty,” Dorrik sighed. “A three person hunting party is hard to balance properly between healers, scouts, casters, and frontline fighters. With a six person talon, it is much easier to optimize the members’ roles and abilities. The tower is aware of this and takes it into account when deciding the number and lethality of the monsters and traps in the dungeon.”
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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