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A note from CoCop

Word Count: 63652

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The three of them sat around the dungeon entrance, enjoying the afternoon ‘sun’ as it beat down on them. Dorrik, Kaleek, and Kat were laying on a hill, rolling grassland stretching as far as they could see in every direction. Intellectually, Kat knew that their starting village was to the west, but every time she looked for it, she couldn’t find even the slightest of smudges on the horizon.

“One point in Strength and an Enhance Body I skill stone,” Dorrik smiled slightly, stretching their body so that the tower’s fading light could reach every inch of their dark scales. “A good haul for a dungeon on the first level. Still, I’d prefer to avoid repeating such an event. I am not a fan of biting and clawing for my life this early in our climb.”

“At least you got something useful,” Kaleek complained, wrinkling his whiskers at the smells that still clung to him. “I got covered in bog slime and almost died multiple times and in the end I got three hit points, three points of stamina and an Appraise I skill stone.”

“Can’t those tell the approximate danger level or value of objects?” Kat asked, propping her head up on an arm as she turned to look at the filth covered otter. “That seems fairly valuable to me. It’ll help us avoid getting in over our heads a second time.”

“Of course,” Dorrik grunted pleasantly, closing their eyes as they soaked in the light. “Now we just need to acquire a Craft I skill stone for Kaleek and he will be qualified for a shopkeeper or merchant class.”

“Dorrik,” Kaleek didn’t even look over at the lizard, his eyes still closed, “I love you like a sibling, but I swear to the elders I will kill you if you try and trick me into a merchant class.”

“But you would look so dapper in an artisan’s smock,” Dorrik replied.

Kaleek snorted. A moment later they were all chuckling. Just three friends enjoying the light on their bodies and the grassy hillside beneath their backs.

Finally they lapsed into silence, the sore muscles and injuries from the dungeon nothing but a memory.

“We’re hunting perytons next,” Kat asked, breaking the silence “right?”

“You made an agreement to look for a subscription stone,” Dorrik agreed, “and we are a team. Teams look out for each other.”

“Thank you,” Kat responded, emotion filling her voice.

Really, that was the difference between Arnold and her new team. She might not get her way with every request, but unlike Arnold, they actually listened. They’d either give her a reason or set a time table to work her goals in. Rather than tagging along, she was an actual partner. A peer.

“Plus,” Dorrik continued, “It will give me a chance to work on my new skill before we move on to our last dungeon. Right now it doesn’t do much, but I’d like to be able to pump an attribute if we get stuck fighting something that can ignore psi abilities.”

“About that,” Kat frowned up at the diffuse light above them. “I understand that we can only conquer three dungeons on the first level, but why wouldn’t we stay here perfecting our skills before we climb to the next level?”

“Theoretically?” Dorrik answered, their eyes still closed as they let the light seep into them. “Nothing. Practically, it doesn’t make much sense. On the second level, cities will start to appear, and we’ll be able to make almost as many marks selling the remains of creatures to player and tower run stores as we’d gain from killing the monsters themselves. More importantly we’ll be able to buy and sell higher end items such as skill stones, enhanced weapons, and potions”

“That doesn’t even take into account the increase in skill growth,” Kaleek sat up, frowning at his film covered fur before he began buckling on his dented armor. “Monsters on the second floor level up skills faster, and the elites drop better rewards. Basically, the first floor is slow and hard, designed to weed casual players out. From the second on is where The Tower of Somnus really begins.”

“I would say that the major marketplaces of the third floor are where things start to get interesting,” Dorrik reluctantly heaved themselves to their feet, gingerly keeping their weight off of their hurt ankle. “But Kaleek speaks the truth. The second level slightly increases the difficulty of all opponents, increasing our rate of development. Even if we solely wanted to fight weak opponents to maximize our skills, the second level would be a better location for that.

“Plus,” Kaleek interjected helpfully. “There are bars. As much as I like hanging out with you guys on a picturesque hill after a battle, what I really need is to pound back some liquor and look for a woman.”

“No offense Kat,” he responded to her immediate frown, whiskers twitching in embarrassment, “but you’ll need to be a lot furrier before I’m interested. The pink and hairless look you’re sporting is pretty extreme fetish territory for a desoph.”

“What-” Kat sputtered as she was rolling over onto her chest to push herself up.

“Seriously Kat,” Kaleek adopted a gravely serious tone, betrayed only by the twinkle in his eyes. “If anyone from my race propositions you, stay away from them. Only the grossest of deviants would even consent to be seen in public with someone that looks like you.”

“I’m sure she appreciates the warning,” Dorrik chuckled, “but for now it’s about time for all of us to wake up. I’ll see you all tomorrow. Joyful awakenings.”

“Right back at you,” Kaleek grinned at them. “Joyful awakenings.”

Dorrik closed their eyes, dissolving into a rainbow of light. Seconds later, all that remained of the lizard and their equipment was a few motes of iridescent energy.

“See you tomorrow Kat,” Kaleek nodded at her. “Stay away from street fights. In a couple levels you’ll be able to handle the backwards rubes that swagger around putting on airs. Until then, keep a low profile. You’re in good claws with Dorrik and I.”

“Tomorrow Kaleek,” She agreed, drawing a wink from the otter before he too disappeared.

Finally, she lay alone on the hillside. Whatever forces controlled the light of the tower began to shift its hue towards the oranges and reds of sunset. As dangerous as the night had been, it was positively cathartic.

Struggling side by side with friends, no need to conceal herself. It was nice.

Kat didn’t need to hide who she was. Hell, she wasn’t fully honest with anyone on Earth. Even if her mom knew some of what Kat did, she never heard the full story. Xander and Arnold were the probably the two that knew the most about her, but even with them, she concealed what she could.

Who knew. Kaleek and Dorrik might want something from her eventually, but at least right now, they appeared to be straightforward. A pair of skilled warriors looking for a third. She hesitated to call them friends, after all they’d only known each other for a short time, but outside of her immediate family, the seemed like the only people who weren’t transparently trying to use her for their own ends.

She sighed, standing up to stretch the kinks out of her back and neck. It really was nice.

Kat called up her status

Name

Katherine Debs

Class

Elementalist Initiate

Max Level

1

410 Marks

HP

18

Dodge

Insignificant

MP

26

Damage Mitigation

Insignificant

STA

19

Strength

3

Agility

4

Fortitude

3

Endurance

3

Mind

3

Reaction

3

Charisma

3

Spirit

3

Spells Known

Gravity’s Grasp

Levitation

Pseudopod

Dehydrate

Skills Known

Knife I - 6, 24%

Gravity I - 4, 39%

Water I - 5, 2%

Penetrate

Perks

Nightvision

 

Her gains weren’t huge, but 33% more mana was nothing to turn up her nose at. Soon, they’d get the subscription stone Arnold needed and she’d be able to focus on dungeons and leveling up.

A grin flickered across Kat’s face. Once she gained a couple of levels and conquered a half dozens, then she’d like to see Stazz try and keep up with her.

She closed her eyes, letting her connection to The Tower of Somnus evaporate. With a rush of movement Kat felt the soft embrace of her bed appear around her.

Her eyes opened to the small bedroom she shared with Michelle. It was little more than a grey and black, company provided box, lit up by the occasional Chrome Cowboys poster on Michelle’s side of the room.

Kat grabbed one of the metal bars on the side of her bed, pulling herself up with a gasp as the pain in her ribs hammered into her.

She blinked back the tears that clouded her vision, limping gingerly to the family’s shared bathroom. Slinking inside, she was thankful that her Mother was already up and puttering around the kitchen.

The two containers cracked open, the sound of their plastic tops popping off loud in the otherwise sterile silence of the bathroom. Kat poured herself a glass of water before downing one of each pill.

Lifting up her shirt, Kat winced both in pain and at her ribs. Where her side wasn’t black, it was green, an absolute mess of tender bruised skin.

She leaned against the wall, groaning slightly. Every breath hurt , and any attempts to rotate her body at all brought another sharp spike of pain. Doctor Ramirez had been right. It was stiffer today. She just hoped that the pills would be enough to get her through another mindless day of processing samples in the lab.

“Kat!” Her Mother called from the kitchen. “I hear you puttering around in there. I’ve made some extra toast and instant sausage, come on out and be social for a couple of minutes.”

She bit her lip, trying to think up an excuse to not leave the bathroom. Penelope would know in a second that Kat was hurt, and her mom would be able to put two and together. The last thing she wanted was another lecture about how dangerous her job was. At least until the drugs kicked in.

“They’re getting cold Kat!” Penelope shouted at her again, voice slightly more insistent.

“Shit,” Kat muttered to herself, letting her shirt drop back down. Excuses wouldn’t work this time. She’d just have to own up to what happened.

“Just a second Mom, I’m sending an e-mail to Arnold!” She shouted back, tapping her smartpanel to activate it. A couple seconds later, a whooshing sound indicated that her e-mail was away.

There. It was better to let Arnold know that her hunting party was out looking for a subscription right away. Maybe that would buy her a couple of days before he wandered by the apartment looking like some sort of half starved cur to try and sink his claws into her sympathy and nostalgia.

Kat turned on the water once more to simulate washing her hands before she opened the door to the bathroom and limped her way toward the kitchenette, trying her hardest to appear fine.

“Good,” Penelope didn’t look up from a pan over the stove as she reheated a handful of sausage links. Kat winced, thinking of how much of their weekly spending limit those small chunks of meat represented. “That boy has been hanging around the building like a ghost for the last couple of days. I don’t care if the two of you broke up, but I don’t want him bothering Michelle.”

“I’ve already talked to him about-” Kat began only for her mother to almost drop the pan of sausages when she turned and saw Kat favoring her right side.

“KATHERINE DEBS!” Kat winced as her mother shouted at close range. “What happened! Was it that Arnold boy? Did he hit you? I don’t care if his Father is in management, we can’t let this stand!

“Pfff,” Kat sputtered only to wince as her ribs punished her. “Arnold? I’d break both of his hands if he tried. That boy wouldn’t last a minute against anyone that actually knew what they were doing.”

“Then what happened?” Penelope demanded, ripping up the side of Kat’s shirt and drawing another gasp from her as the action forced Kat to twist her body slightly.

“I had a run go wrong Mom,” Kat replied through gritted teeth, trying to ignore the tears gathering in her eyes from the pain of keeping her arm up so that her mother could inspect the wound.

“I’m so sorry Kat,” her mother stepped back, shaking her head as Kat’s shirt fell back into place. “I didn’t realize that I was hurting you. Still, you need to tell me what happened. That isn’t a minor injury, and I doubt you’ve managed to accrue any sick days yet.”

“No sick days,” Kat agreed, trying to regulate her breathing. “It’s fine though. A street doc gave me some pills to bring down the swelling and dull the pain. He said I just need to take it easy for a couple of weeks.”

“A street doc,” Penelope was wringing her hands together. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to a proper clinic, I know that you don’t want to have anything more added to your ledger, but-”

“It’s fine Mom,” Kat forced a smile onto her face. “Doctor Ramirez works for some powerful people in the Shell. He might not be accredited by a company school, but in all likelihood he’s set more broken bones and stitched up more bullet wounds than anyone in the arcology.”

“I suppose,” her mother wavered uncertainly, indecision warring across her face. Kat braced herself for the inevitable explosion

“Katherine Debs,” her mom wasn’t shouting, but somehow that made it even worse. “I know the law says you’re a grown woman, but I’m still your Mother. I worry about you. The company isn’t the kindest to us, but at least it doesn’t beat the snot out of you for no reason.”

“I won the fight Mom,” Kat rolled her eyes. “Someone sent an entire contractor team after me. I took one down and got out. It was bad luck, but I played it smart.”

“Katherine,” Penelope begged her. “You have a career now. A real job with the company. Just quit. It’s not worth the stress or the risk. Every day I come home from work and you aren’t here, I almost cry myself to sleep worrying that you aren’t coming back.”

“Mom,” Kat took her by the shoulders, locking eyes with the teary older woman. “At our level, no job with the company is safe. I’m just as likely to die in a lab accident as I am to get hurt in a run. Hell, even if I quit running, that doesn’t mean it will quit me. Labs and data farms are the two most likely targets for hard espionage. That means outside contractors.”

“Please Kat,” the tears pouring down her mother’s face seemed to choke her, preventing her from articulating herself. “I worry so much.”

“I love the job Mom,” the words were true. She hadn’t realized it until this moment, but somehow speaking them out loud brought her whole world into focus. “I’m so helpless every day. The company takes everything from us, forces us to work obscene hours doing dangerous and dehumanizing work, it just wears at me.”

“No Kat,” Penelope shook her head, auburn hair flipping to either side as she tried to deny her daughter’s words.

“I feel alive on a run Mom,” Kat pulled her mother closer, ignoring the pain to wrap her up in a hug. For the first time she really noticed that her Mother was an inch shorter than her. “It’s dangerous, but I actually get to rely upon myself. It’s my own speed, clarity, and poise that let me walk the tightrope between success and disaster.”

“I fought a man and got hurt,” her Mother was shaking in her arms, “but did Dad get to fight the equipment that pulled him in? If open machinery grabs you by the arm, will you get to fight it? At least I was given a fair chance to win my fight.”

She released her mother and stepped back, the pain from her ribs a steady drumbeat in her side. Penelope was disheveled, hair askew and her makeup smudged from her tears. She could barely meet Kat’s eyes.

“Mom,” Kat continued, brushing the hair out of her mother’s eyes. “I’m worried every day too. That you won’t come home from one of your shifts. That we’ll get a call from the company and a bill for your funeral, just like Dad.”

“I love the job, it pays well, and I’m good at it,” Kat could feel a note of begging creeping into her voice. “Please, just let me have this.”

“I worry Kat,” her Mother whispered the words. “I know I can’t change your mind so I won’t try, but I want you to know that I worry Kat.”

“I know,” Kat brushed her hand against her mother’s cheek, wiping away some of the dampness. “It’s a cold world out there, and there’s a lot to worry about.”

A buzz interrupted their conversation as both of their smart panels alerted them that they had only twenty minutes to get to work. Time to leave.

Frantically, Kat grabbed some toast and shoved a pair of sausage links in her mouth on her way out the door, not wanting to get fined for arriving late.

Strange, despite his near constant harassment about the subscription, Arnold hadn’t messaged her back.

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About the author

CoCop

  • 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

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