Kat tried not to think of the barrels in her living room as Kaleek, Dorrik and her trekked through the rolling hills outside their starting village. The smell got everywhere. Her hair, clothes and skin. All of it smelled like a rendering plant as the two sealed containers quietly broke their contents down.
The good news was that she no longer had any problems with remembering not to eat while taking her pills. With every breath she could practically taste the heavy smell of processing meat. Even in The Tower of Somnus, Kat would find herself catching a whiff of the stench when she wasn’t paying attention. Psychosomatic or not, it was one hell of a distraction.
“Stop,” Kaleek whispered the word, raising a paw to bring Dorrik and her to a halt. He crouched, motioning for them to join him. “There’s a peryton flying our way. Unless it changes course, it’s going to fly just South of us.”
“We don’t need to do this anymore,” Kat whispered back, crouching down in the grass next to him. “Whatever debts I owed Arnold are void.”
“This isn’t about Arnold,” Kat struggled to keep a straight face as Dorrik attempted to crouch next to her, their large dark back jutting far above the grass as they spoke earnestly to her. “I need a chance to work on my new skill. Plus, an additional skill for one of us couldn’t hurt.”
“You never did mention what canceled your debt of honor Kat,” Kaleek’s eyes tracked a speck on the horizon. “It isn’t my place to question your decisions, but I believe I know who you are as a warrior, and this doesn’t seem to be the sort of decision you’d make lightly.”
“I think he betrayed me,” Kat sighed. “I let him know that we were going to start hunting his subscription, and he just responded with a cryptic message telling me that I shouldn’t bother because things were ‘too late.’ Then, a pair of goons broke into my house with weapons, ostensibly to kidnap my younger sister. He hasn’t responded to texts since.”
“I can’t be sure that he was involved,” she continued grimly, “but it sure would be a coincidence. He’s one of the few people that knew I was a runner, and I get ambushed twice. Then, when I don’t move fast enough someone breaks into my house. It might make sense if I were rich and famous, but I’m a nobody.”
“In the entirety of my life,” Kat chuckled, a dry smile on her face, “I don’t think I’ve earned one fifth of the money spent in the last two weeks to hunt me down and harm me.”
“And what was this young man to you?” Kaleek asked incredulously. “The way you talk about him, you were close friends once.”
“It might have been more than that,” Kat muttered bitterly. “I was attracted to him and Arnold was attracted to me. In retrospect, I was looking past a lot of flaws because he was cute and paying attention to me, but at the time I really wanted him to make a move.”
“So he was a potential mate?” Dorrok asked, their brow scrunching in confusion. “If so, why did Arnold always act so dismissively toward you? I struggled to hold my tongue around him after I watched you shoulder both his and your own share of the fighting only for him to try and speak on your behalf. That is the behaviour of an odious superior, not a partner or a mate.”
“I was making excuses for him,” Kat blushed. “Look, he was a blind spot. If I saw someone acting like that toward my sister or mother, I’d flash a knife and scare them off in a second. It’s just hard to see when it's happening to you.”
“There’s so much I wanted Arnold to be,” Kat ran a hand through her hair. “There’s so much he could have been. I guess I just wanted him to be that best version of himself so badly that I didn’t even notice when he didn’t put in any effort to get there. I’d only look at the good and ignore or explain away everything else.”
They lapsed into silence as the peryton flew closer, the rustle of the tall grass the only sound interrupting the tense pause.
“And then he sent someone to kidnap or kill your family,” Kaleek spoke the words slowly, like they tasted funny coming out of his mouth. “This was the man that you owed an honor debt to? I think I can see why your planet was blockaded if this Arnold is a representative example of your ruling and managerial classes.”
“I’d like to think of him as a learning experience,” Kat blushed. “I made some mistakes, and now I have the bruises and a pair of melting bodies in my apartment to show for it.”
“Melting-” Dorrik began, a frown growing on their face.
“Later Dorrik,” Kaleek put a paw on the big lizard’s shoulder. “The peryton is getting close, but it won’t come close enough. I don’t know if it will attack us if all of us reveal ourselves, so I will break from cover to draw its attention-”
“No,” Kat shook her head. “No offense Kaleek but you’re covered in armor, built for a head on collision. We need someone that can outrun it and dodge at the last second long enough so that the other two can ground it. That’s me.”
“Are you sure Kat?” Kaleek asked, his armor creaking slightly as he turned back to look at her. “I don’t want to volunteer you for such a dangerous role. If Dorrik or I die here it will be unpleasant but our clans will be able to send us back. I don’t get that impression from you.”
“I appreciate the concern,” Kat stood abruptly, stretching her legs to return feeling to them after the long period of crouching, “but I’m a big girl. I’ve never been one to hide behind others, and now that I can stand on my own two feet, I certainly don’t plan on letting the hunting party down.”
Dorrik nodded at her, understanding in their eyes, and that was all the acknowledgement Kat needed. She took off like a bolt, zig zagging through the grass in the general direction of the peryton.
The grass flew past her as a smile blossomed on Kat’s face. As dangerous as The Tower of Somnus was, it was far simpler. Kat didn’t have to worry too much about who knew her secrets or what clique was scheming against her. It was just players, monsters, and the constant struggle to get stronger.
Above Kat, the peryton changed course slightly to track her. She looped around, changing her course slightly so that she would remain near the rest of the party. After all, she was supposed to be bait to bring the monster to them. It would hardly help if she lured the monster away only to be attacked by herself far from the support of her team.
The peryton gave a keening cry before it swooped toward her, the rush of the air over its wings almost jet engine loud. She spun around and concentrated on the monster, activating Gravity’s Grasp. The mana flowed out of her, and the flying stag lost control of its grace dive, instead plummeting toward the ground just behind her.
It slammed down hard enough that Kat had to brace herself against the tremors. The monster looked up blearily, its eyes clouded by the force of the impact only for one of her throwing knives to stab deep into the side of its snout.
Not the eye she was aiming for, but enough to draw blood. It growled, and pulled itself to its feet, struggling against the excess weight of Gravity’ Grasp.
“Arrest Momentum!” Dorrik’s voice preceded a sudden field of purple energy that wrapped itself around the peryton, stopping it before it could leap at Kat.
A second later, her two companions were on it, Kaleek’s first slash ruining the creature’s birdlike hind leg as it sank in, bone deep. Dorrik followed shortly behind, both of their swords hitting almost as hard as Kaleek’s oversized blade, cutting through the peryton’s thick hide and opening its ribs up to the morning air.
Kat lunged in, taking advantage of the monster’s surprise to slide her knife up under its leg, slashing its brachial artery before she danced away, safe from the confused beast’s halfhearted counter attack.
Dorrik swung both of their swords in tandem, a barely visible purple glow emanating from their bulging muscles as they used their new skill. The peryton howled in rage and agony as the blades clipped a wing, cutting through bone and flesh to sever it entirely.
It staggered to the side, its body unbalanced by the sudden loss of its wing, only to meet a sword blow from Kaleek that shattered its shoulder, dropping it helplessly to the ground. A few minutes later, it died.
Kat frowned slightly as Kaleek searched the corpse. The fight had almost been too easy. Her upgraded skills overpowered the monster, and the rest of the hunting team had taken it by surprise.
Pride swelled in her chest as she realized that the very creature that had left her battered and bruised when she first came to The Tower of Somnus was only a bit harder to take down than an okkle. She’d grown, and there was something intoxicating about it.
On Earth she was limited by her stature, both physical and social. Kat was slim, adept at quick strikes and slipping away, but hardly suited for a proper fight. Eventually, with enough money, she might be able to purchase enough cyberware to redress some of those weaknesses, but there was always an upper limit.
This is why players had so much social cache on Earth. Even if she could only use a fraction of her power when she returned home, it was enough for her to tip the balance. She’d already defeated a street samurai of some renown, and she hadn’t even reached level two.
She tried to keep her imagination under control, but Kat couldn’t help but wonder where she’d be in a couple months time. Once they truly started to climb the tower and her dungeons began to add up. Even one point of agility increased her coordination in the waking world, she couldn’t wait to see what would happen when she had ten, or twenty.
“Just marks,” Kaleek spat on the ground as he returned from the downed peryton. “Even its bones and organs aren’t really worth the hassle of hauling them back to the starting village.”
“You know the drop rates,” Dorrik chuckled. “One in three for a stone of some sort, and even though the tower makes an effort to tailor them to our abilities, sometimes the results are fairly random. Don’t be surprised if we get that Craft I stone so that we can earn you that iron tier Merchant class after all.”
Kaleek scowled at Dorrik while the big lizard grinned cheerfully back at him.
“How much did you earn toward your new skill Dorrik?” Kat asked, interrupting their playful glowering. “Do you think you’re going to be able to level it soon?”
The lizard’s eyes grew clouded and distant as they accessed their status sheet. A moment later they smiled.
“Sixteen percent,” Dorrik beamed. “Not too shabby. Even more importantly, it looks like I gain a small amount of progress by keeping the skill active when I’m in danger. It’s not enough to grossly change the equation, but so long as we spend our time productively I should be able to reach at least level three. At that point I’ll feel comfortable with both its efficiency and its power.”
“That means?” Kat trailed off hopefully.
“That either tomorrow or the next day we’ll be ready to take on our final dungeon,” Kaleek answered, a slight smile on his face. “Then it’s just a matter of making our preparations and challenging one of the floor bosses and we can leave this place behind.”
“Finally,” Dorrik agreed, “we’ll actually be able to interact with more than a couple other players at a time. As much as I enjoyed our adventures in the desolate wilderness of the training stage, it’ll be a blessing to actually be in contact with our alliance.”
“I’m looking forward to the bars,” Kaleek slapped Dorrik on their shoulder, a grin on his face. “I’m all for training and pushing myself every rest period, but there has to be some relaxation. It’s just that there’s absolutely nothing to do here.”
“Training area?” Kat asked, bewildered. “Do you mean the first floor is some kind of tutorial? Almost a third of humans never make it past this level.”
“No floor is truly easy Miss Kat,” Dorrik shook their head. “Anyone who tries to scale the tower without proper preparation and planning is likely to get kicked out in short order. The first level is about establishing yourself. The smart player will gain enough skills and levels in those skills to clear the maximum number of dungeons and defeat the floor guardian.”
“But not everyone,” Kaleek interjected, shaking his head.
“No,” Dorrik agreed. “Not everyone. As you’ve learned, dungeons are dangerous and even well prepared hunting teams have found their end in them. It is not unknown for individuals to only conquer a handful per level, and instead focus on defeating the floor guardian as soon as possible.”
“It’s true that the rewards for ascending a level are better tailored to each class,” Dorrik shrugged, “but given that you cannot enter the dungeon on a floor you have defeated the guardian of, these players tend to have worse skills and stats than those of us who approach leveling in a more meticulous and measured manner.”
“What Dorrik’s saying is don’t let someone’s level fool you,” Kaleek grinned. “Both of us had a fair bit of fun in our last run through the tower taking down the idiots who beat floor guardians ahead of schedule, but with the help of teammates. Sure, they might have an extra skill or perk, but a handful of dungeons is more than enough to make up the difference.”
“That just seems stupid though,” Kat frowned. “Anyone can see the benefit in clearing as many dungeons as possible on each level.”
“I agree, Miss Kat,” Dorrik shot her a toothy smile as Kaleek nodded off to the side. “Your attitude and pragmatism is part of what prompted me to invite you to our hunting party, but the situation isn’t as simple for all players. Dungeons are dangerous, and with each level a player ascends, they have so much more to lose from an untimely death and a return to level one.”
“Dorrik isn’t even bringing up the complication of higher tier dungeons,” Kaleek interjected. “As soon as we’re able to, our team is going to start challenging iron tier dungeons. They’re much more challenging than the wood tier dungeons available around here, but the rewards are significantly better, including iron tier skill stones. Unless you get one of those for an existing skill, it will be capped at level twelve.”
“Exactly,” Dorrik nodded. “As a player grows, their power is directly correlated with their willingness to challenge themselves and take risks. A good number of players aren’t interested in joining The Tower of Somnus for sheer combat strength. Socialization and crafting or merchant classes aren’t terribly uncommon for a reason.”
“And the idiots that just climb levels with outside help so they can brag about them,” Kaleek chimed in.
“And them,” Dorrik chuckled.
“Well I’ve had enough of a breather,” Kat smiled, her forehead still furrowed in thought. “I have to say that I’m on board with pushing ourselves as much as possible. If we’re going to spend our nights fighting monsters, we might as well become the best monster fighters we physically can be.”
“That’s the spirit Kat,” Kaleek grinned widely, slapping her on the back. “Now we’ve got a day chock full of fighting murderous flying deerbirds ahead of us. Don’t lose that enthusiasm.”
She simply rolled her eyes and the three of them set out to hunt the perytons. None of the seven they fought were all that much of a challenge. Between Kat and Dorrik’s magic and psi abilities, they were able to knock all of the monsters from the sky and stun them long enough for Kaleek to land a devastating first strike. Of course, with Dorrik’s new ability to pump their strength, the big lizard wasn’t far behind Kaleek in dishing out massive physical damage.
Any time one of the perytons tried to escape, Dorrik and Kat would pepper the monster with ego shard and Dehydrate until the creature would drop from the sky, exhausted and writhing in pain.
Finally, as their night was ending and the three of them were preparing to wake up, Kat reviewed their gains.
One skill stone for Parry I which was learned by Kaleek. Although Dorrik could benefit from the skill as well, hopefully the big lizard wouldn’t occupy a spot on the front lines as often as the team’s thug.
Their second skill stone was for a skill called Cat Step. As soon as Kaleek found it, he happily thrust it into Kat’s hands. Jokes about her nickname aside, the skill would let her move quickly and silently both in and out of combat. Given her knife’s short reach, a skill that would let her close the distance was a godsend, and Kat accepted the stone without complaint.
Perhaps most importantly, Kat smiled slightly as she opened the dialogue box that had been flashing in the corner of her vision since the second to last peryton.
You have reached Level 5 in the skill Gravity I, you have received the following reward:
You may now double cast spells known with Gravity I. Double cast spells may be maintained or used simultaneously with another double cast spell.
Finally, she was ready to challenge her last dungeon on the first floor.
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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