Kat walked up the staircase. Ahead of her Kaleek’s furry tail swished slightly as he forged onward up the ivory cylinder. Dorrik followed the two of them, occasionally commenting on the nature of the tower or the makeup of the walls.
After about ten minutes, Kat’s legs sore from the constant climbing, they finished their ascension and stepped out into a bustling medieval town. Behind them, a stone building that closely resembled a medieval church rose up above the numerous whitewashed two story wooden buildings that lined the town square.
“Made it,” Kat whispered, a smile on her face.
“That you did,” Kaleek replied, grinning as well. “Come on, let’s get your summon point set to the town alter. You wouldn’t want to wake up just inside the tower and have to make that pointless climb again.”
He walked past her to the church. It had a huge set of wooden double doors set into an archway of stone with a smaller, player sized door offset slightly to the right. Kaleek approached the more normal sized entrance and opened it, stepping inside and holding it for Kat.
She followed him in. The interior held a two story hall extending almost the entire length of the building. Studding its walls were various kiosks manned by players and tower agents alike, may bearing advertisements both for what the stand was selling as well as what it would purchase. At the far end there was a great wooden pillar with a number of metal plaques in it standing next to an altar that looked very similar to the sort that appeared in the dungeons.
Kaleek led the way, ignoring the light crowd of players, most going armed and still wearing armor as they browsed the various shops, on his way to the altar. In trailing after him, Kat couldn’t help but feel self conscious. Where the giant otter only got a handful of looks, sometimes from other desophs, no one paid close attention to him.
Kat on the other hand, was the recipient of more than one lingering gaze. Some of the aliens looked at her with curiosity, surprised to see a human unaccompanied by others of her kind. Others tightened their grip on their respective weapons, outright hostility in their eyes as they watched Kat’s every movement.
One alien, a tall feathered avien with what looked like a cobbled together crossbow strapped to their shoulder even took a step forward, prepared to say something.
Then Dorrik stepped into the building behind Kat. The hushed comments and rustle of movement stopped as all the eyes on Kat immediately shifted to the black-scaled lokkel. A moment later the entire building erupted into whispers, but Dorrik simply ignored them, lengthening their stride to catch up with Kat and Kaleek.
“It appears we are in Whiteshell,” Dorrik supplied helpfully, as if that were supposed to mean something to Kat. “A region with a mid-sized population and plentiful nearby dungeons as well as an ocean biome. I will be able to research more when we wake up. This might not be the best location to start in on the second floor, but it is far from the worst.”
“Any megafauna in the Ocean?” Kaleek perked up as he touched his hand to the crystal embedded in the altar. A second later he shimmered in a rainbow of pale light. “I’m sick of hunting okkles. They’re just dangerous enough that you have to pay attention, but dumb enough that the fights aren’t any fun.”
“I believe there are,” Dorrik continued while Kat touched the altar, feeling a rush of warm energy rush up her arm, “but I’d ask that you refrain from stripping yourself down and hunting them with a knife until I can get a full report on this area.”
“Why did everyone react to Dorrik like that anyway?” Kat asked, moving to the side to allow Dorrik access to the altar. “I thought that one guy was ready to tell me off before they caught sight of them.”
Kaleek chuckled. “Dorrik’s kind of a big deal,” his voice carried a note of wry humor as he ignored the big lizard’s visible discomfort. “I mean, my clan has a reputation, but his is well known, even among lokkels, and you know how most of the younger races are around lokkels.”
“I don’t actually,” Kat crossed her arms in front of her, “and you know that. Now quit messing around with your mysterious elder routine and spill. What should I know about lokkels?”
“That some of the Galactic Consensus hold us in high regard,” Dorrik shot a stern look at Kaleek, but the otter just grinned innocently.”
“Kat,” Dorrik turned to her, a slightly apologetic look on their scaly muzzle. “My people lead a faction in the Galactic Consensus. Officially there shouldn’t be factions, but over the last four hundred or so years there has been a disagreement as to how the Consensus should operate. The lokkel are seen as the champions of the conservative races, those that don’t want the Consensus to expand too quickly.”
“They’re the ones behind the policy that kept humanity out,” Kaleek interjected helpfully, earning himself another baleful gaze from Dorrik.
“Yes,” Dorrik sighed. “I hope you can forgive my people, but we think it is best that new members be vetted. For a period we loosened membership requirements, and that is how the other faction was born.”
“The Stallesp?” Kat asked, her brow crinkling slightly.
“The Stallesp,” Dorrik confirmed. “Almost as soon as they joined the Galactic Consensus they began to push for a more aggressive expansion policy. One of their main goals is to begin the widespread uplift of ‘client races’ through genetic and social modification by member races.”
“It is imperialism,” Dorrik grimaced, Kaleek nodding quietly beside them. “Of the two ‘client races’ that the Stallesp have uplifted, both are entirely dependent upon their ‘benefactors.’ They are little more than slaves, leasing mineral and agricultural rights to the Stallesp while serving them in indentured bondage, all based on a contract that one of their barely sapient ancestors signed two hundred years ago.”
“That’s actually pretty awful,” Kat bit her lower lip. “Like, that’s incredibly terrible. I thought that the Galactic Consensus was supposed to be a lot more altruistic than that.”
“Oh don’t worry,” Kaleek replied, baring his teeth. “The Lokkel haven’t exactly been quiet about it. In fact, Dorrik’s clan has publicly stated that ‘allowing the Stallesp into the Consensus was a mistake.’ That was about the time that all pretense of civility dropped. After that the Stallesp and their allies have tried to make things difficult for any Lokkel they could spot in The Tower of Somnus. Player on player violence is at an all time high. It just makes things exciting as far as I’m concerned.”
“I don’t wish to hide these things from you Miss Kat,” Dorrik inclined their head. “It also isn’t my goal to try and make a decision on your behalf. If you wish to leave our hunting party to seek out another team without such troubles, I certainly understand and there will be no hard feelings between us.”
“Of course not,” Kat shook her head. Her feelings for her teammates aside, she’d seen the looks thrown her way. There was no ‘new’ hunting party for her. If she left now, Kat would be a solo player, and that didn’t sound like a winning prospect. “Just tell me how your race ended up leading one of the factions. You glossed over that.”
“That was intentional,” Dorrik grumbled as they turned and began walking out of the hall. “I wish our partnership to be genuine, not predicated on superstition or perceived benefit. It doesn’t really matter to our situation today.”
Kaleek winked at Kat mischievously, raising a paw to stop her and holding his position next to the altar for almost ten seconds. As soon as Dorrik was out of earshot, the big otter leaned over surreptitiously.
“The Lokkel have been around a lot longer than the other races in the Consensus,” he whispered quickly. “Some say they were the first race in the Consensus. Any lokkel you’ll ask, including Dorrik will say that the first members were the elders, the gardners, but all of the old artwork of the elders looks a lot like the lokkel. Anyone that perceives visible light can see that, but the lokkel refuse to discuss it. It’s kind of an open secret around these parts.”
Before Kat could reply, Kaleek hurried ahead, pausing only to glance over his shoulder at her.
“Come on Kat,” the otter smirked at her, “we need to catch up with grumpy before they storm too far off. There’s plenty of night left and we have plans to make.”
Kat frowned, as she hurried after Kaleek and Dorrik. Their revelations didn’t change terribly much. In fact she almost considered them a breath of fresh air. Even with the periodic fights between players, the Galactic Consensus had just seemed too wholesome for her. Now that she had more context, the concept of a united front covering back room squabbling almost comforted her. That was a concept she could actually understand.
Dorrik was waiting just outside the door, a good portion of their usual exuberance worn off by the earlier conversation. Kaleek stood nearby chatting quietly with the largely unresponsive four armed lizard.
“Hey,” Kat called out as soon as she exited the player sized entrance into the building. “I have a favor to ask.”
Kaleek stopped talking and Dorrik looked at her unhappily.
“I have a big mission coming up tomorrow,” Kat shrugged helplessly, “and I really need to gain at least a level or two in my Light I skill before then. I’m going to be sneaking around and it sounds like Shadow would help out a lot. Plus, I got Heal I from Gasoot, I’d like to get working on that one as well.”
“I was wondering if we could hunt some more okkles?” She asked hopefully. “I really could use the skill progress.”
“That’s all?” Dorrik cocked their head, some confusion in their voice. “No probing follow up questions or lecture about how I’ve been concealing things from you?”
Kat shrugged, a half smile on her face. “You’ll tell me eventually Dorrik,” she responded. “You don’t have it in you to keep a secret forever. For now, you don’t seem comfortable so I figured I’d drop it. I’m sure you’ll let me know more once you aren’t feeling cornered.”
“That is… sensible Miss Kat,” Dorrik replied appreciatively. “As for now, unfortunately there are no okkles on the second floor. They’re considered a relatively low value prey beast, and from the second floor on almost every monster we’ll encounter has some sort of value in either their hide, talons, or organs. Reselling their parts for marks is a large part of the purpose of the adventurer hall.”
Dorrik flicked their head toward the large church-like building they’d just exited.
“We could hunt ekk crabs,” Kaleek suggested. “There’s a lot of them and they aren’t terribly hard to kill. The average one might even be easier than an okkle. Most players don’t bother with them too much because the only thing of value on them is the brine in their shells can be used as a base to make healing potions, but it’s hard to lug back to the hall. There just isn’t much profit beyond the marks from killing the beasties themselves.”
“That could work,” Dorrik agreed. “As much as this sounds like an excuse to get us to the beach, ekk crabs could work. We would just have to watch out for an ekk ancient. I don’t think we’re ready for a second floor elite monster just yet.”
“Practically,” Kat raised a hand, stopping the conversation. “Pretend I’m a brand new player from a race with no exposure to The Tower of Somnus. What does this all mean?”
“If you see a small crab,” Kaleek slapped her on the back as he began leading the way out of town, “stab it. If you see a crab three times your size that can shoot jets of pressurized water strong enough to fell a tree. Run like hell. They aren’t fast.”
Exiting town gave Kat some idea as to its scope. It wasn’t nearly as big as the Shell, but it took a good five minutes of walking past simple but well constructed wood buildings before they reached a stone wall about twice her height that marked the town limits.
Along the way, she saw a couple of humans. Unlike the rest of the players in Whiteshell, they kept to themselves in their own areas of town. As far as Kat could tell, she was the only human in a mixed team. Yet another unwelcome factor drawing attention to her.
As for the ekk crabs, despite Dorrik’s warning they didn’t pose much of a challenge. With Kat’s enhanced reactions, it was a simple matter to Dazzle a crab and slip her knife into the joints of their exoskeletons.
They didn’t even bother to collect the brine from the creatures, instead focusing on honing their collective skills. Even if there weren’t any interesting awards earned during the fights up and down the beaches outside of Whiteshell, they loosened the three of them up.
Before long, Kaleek was cracking jokes again and Dorrik’s easy smile had returned to their face. Even Kat got into the spirit of things, noting, much to Dorrik’s delight, that a one tenth model of Kaleek would make a wonderful stuffed animal for young children back on Earth.
Finally, after killing almost twenty of the crabs, the notification she’d been waiting for popped up into Kat’s vision.
You have reached Level 2 in the skill Light I, please select a first tier spell.
“I’m done,” she shouted to her companions, selecting Shadow while the two of them finished off ekk crabs of their own. “Thanks for keeping me company.”
Glancing around at the pile of bleached ivory shells that littered the beach, her face twisted into a self-deprecating smile.
“More importantly,” Kat continued, “thank you for keeping me from being mobbed. One on one the crabs aren’t a problem, but God are there a lot of them.”
“It was no problem Miss Kat,” Dorrik replied, switching from body enhancement to ego shard and finishing off the crab he was fighting with a crackle of purple energy.
Kaleek’s arms glowed red for a second as the giant otter burned stamina. His sword came down, much faster than before and cracked the ekk crab’s shell like a walnut. He stepped back and admired his handiwork before turning to Kat and Dorrik.
“It was relaxing,” Kaleek agreed cheerfully. “A good way to work up a head of steam. Now let’s get back to town and hit a tavern. You two workaholics can call it networking or something to justify it to yourselves.”
“I don’t know-” Kat began, looking at her knife and the pile of crab corpses around them.
“A break would do you some good Kat,” Kaleek winked at her impishly. “Come on, first round’s on me.”
“That’s as good of an offer as you’re going to get,” Dorrik said, nodding soberly before they turned to walk away from the beach. “Kaleek is usually the one taking advantage of someone’s generosity, not the other way around.”
“While true,” Kaleek grinned, following Dorrik back toward town, “I resent that statement. It’s a decidedly negative take on my status as a congenial mooch.”
Kat smiled in spite of herself. She had the spell she needed. More training could wait until later. Quickly she caught up with the two of them and they fell into small talk, remarking on the scenery with occasional monologues from Dorrik as they explained some detail of The Tower of Somnus.
Finally, just as they were approaching the gates of Whiteshell, Kat stopped, squinting at a trio of humans, walking slowly and laden with trophies.
“-and the pillar next to the altar in the adventurer’s hall serves as a notice board,” Dorrik prattled on as she tried to focus. “Each of the metal plates set into it serves as a quest, either from a guild or the tower itself, you just have to touch it and-”
“Dorrik,” Kat cut them off, a hand on the lizard’s upper forearm. “Is that-”
“Mister Arnold!” Dorrik exclaimed in surprise. “He must have gotten a new subscription. Still, it is strange that he made it to level two this quickly. He almost certainly had outside help.”
The three of them stopped and waited for the humans to draw closer. Somehow, despite literally being in the dreamscape of the tower, Arnold looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. His eyes were dull and he spent most of his time staring at his feet, a backpack full of monster parts strapped to his back.
Kat’s mouth tightened as she saw the people walking with him. One was a man, well muscled and in his early twenties wearing chainmail with a battleaxe and small shield in each hand. He had close cropped dirty blonde hair and the wary eyes of a mercenary or corporate security officer that had actually seen some combat.
Next to him, was Anna Donnst, pretty as ever, and wearing an intricately stitched robe.
“Fuck,” Kat whispered the word empathetically as the pieces came together. She hadn’t spent much time with the prissy girl in school, but that still wasn’t an excuse for not making the connection.
“What is it?” Kaleek asked worriedly, a hint of surprise in his voice at Kat's sudden emotional display.
“Katherine Debs,” Anna called out to her in a singsong voice. “It’s good to see you one last time. I would say that I’m surprised that you survived this long, but-
Anna looked disdainfully at Dorrik and Kaleek, “you always were good at spreading your legs in order to trick people into helping you.”
“What?” Kat replied, too surprised to be offended. “I honestly don’t even think Dorrik and Kaleek’s genitalia would be compatible with humans.”
“It’s true,” Dorrik nodded. “My race uses an ovipositor and external insemination to reproduce and desoph genitalia is as confusing as it is concerning.”
“That didn’t stop you from tricking my poor Arnie out of his college fund,” Anna sneered. “Honestly? I should thank you. Mother had been putting pressure on Arnie’s family for months to have him engaged to me. It was always one excuse after another until he finally lost his tuition money with nothing to show for it.”
“At that point,” Arnold shifted uncomfortably as Anna simply ignored him, caught up in her diatribe. “It was simply a matter of wiring some credits to Arnold’s father. Tuition and a little extra and he was all mine. Beyond your reach forever.”
“I think there’s some sort of misunderstanding here,” Kat frowned, trying to reign in her temper. “I never touched Arnold, and I don’t particularly want to.”
“Congratulations on your engagement?” Kat ventured, lost as to how she should proceed, but unwilling to start a fight before she was convinced that she would win.
“My engagement?” Anna laughed. “Tell her Arnie.”
“I am engaged to Anna,” Arnold spoke without a hint of emotion, his eyes on his shoes. “She isn’t engaged to me. Father had me sign a consort contract. I will take the Donnst name, but I won’t be Anna’s husband. Any children she bears won’t have a father’s name on the birth certificate, Anna will be the only parent.”
Kat suppressed the flare of pity she felt for Arnold. He’d earned his way to where he was through his own reckless actions.
“Why would I constrain myself to just one man?” Anna cackled, pinching Arnold’s bicep. “Mother had six consorts. I don’t see why I can’t have ten. Arnie will just have to learn to share.”
“Anna,” Arnold whined.
“AND,” Anna whirled around, eyes flashing. “To only speak when spoken too. Don’t think that I’ve forgotten about the way you took my valedictorian slot right before you tried to run off with this little harlot.”
“I never understood Anna,” Kat shook her head. “I never went out of my way to antagonize you. Why me? Of all the girls at school, why did you hate me?”
“Enough reasons,” Anna smirked. “You acted like you thought you were better than me. Just because you got good grades and Arnold liked you, you acted like you could ignore me. That was reason enough.”
“Then,” she shrugged. “Your boss started asking about things he shouldn’t. It was only a matter of suggesting that his precious runner might still have some of the information, and you got added to the list. One more loose end to be cleaned up.”
“So it was you,” Kat’s hand clenched around her knife, drawing another acid glare from Anna. “The attacks on me and trying to have my sister kidnapped were you trying to have me killed over some silly schoolgirl tiff?”
“Oh,” Anna flashed a predatory grin. “Your sister was all Arnie. He so desperately wanted to be back in The Tower of Somnus that he told us all about her, including her school schedule. It really was touching how you and Arnie would go to walk her home from school together. Absolutely heartwarming.”
“Kat,” Arnold begged, desolate. “I had to. You have to understand, Anna wouldn’t have let me be a player again if I didn’t. I wouldn’t be anybody.”
“Burn in hell you-,” Kat’s hand flashed into her bandoleer, pulling out a throwing dagger.
Almost at the same time Kaleek’s paw grabbed her wrist, preventing Kat from throwing the weapon, and the warrior accompanying Anna and Arnold jumped in front of Anna, shield raised and ready to protect her.
“Safe area,” Kaleek shook his head, motioning to the tower provided guards standing watch over the entrance to Whitehall. “We’d be expelled from the town permanently. There will be a time and it will be soon. Trust me.”
“It would have been worth it,” Kat fumed, hand still held fast in Kaleek’s furry paw.
“I would say that I’ll see you soon,” Anna laughed, waving at her from behind the axe wielder, “but I honestly don’t expect you to live for another two weeks. Enjoy them.”
She walked into the village, her guard watching the three of them closely as Arnold followed, staring at his feet once more.
Almost twenty seconds after they were gone, Kaleek finally released Kat’s wrist. She let her hand fall to her side.
“A charming woman,” Kaleek grimaced. “She seems a good match for your friend.”
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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