Kat stepped away from the altar into the adventurer’s hall. Gasoot waved a tentacle at her from their stall, not interrupting their conversation with Kaleek.
She wandered over to their table, ignored by the multitude of furred, scaled, and feathered aliens as they went about their everyday business of haggling and trading. Just before she arrived at Gasoot’s shop, Kaleek half turned and shot her a smile.
“Kat!” His voice cut above the constant din of the hall. “We missed you yesterday. Did something come up? You know it’s not healthy for you to go long stretches without sleep.”
“I had a mission back home,” Kat screwed her face into a frown. “I needed to retrieve some things from a business rival, and that meant moving at night. Things got a bit out of hand so I didn’t get a chance to sleep as quickly as I’d like.”
Kaleek stopped browsing and turned to look at her. Players rumbled by in the background, talking and laughing while his whiskers quivered silently.
“Are you all right?” He finally asked. “I know that things are a bit barbaric on your homeworld and that you probably don’t want to talk about it, but Dorrik and I worry about you.”
“I’m fine,” Kat laughed lightly. “I mean, I learned that I would like to learn a skill to make myself bulletproof. Being fast and capable in hand to hand combat will only get you so far, but I managed to avoid getting shot this time.”
“That’s gold tier unfortunately,” Kaleek shrugged, his fur rippling. “Now we can probably get you bullet resistance at silver tier, but even that will be a fair amount of work. Still, what’s the fun of climbing the tower without a goal to challenge you?”
Kat stopped, frowning slightly. Human players tended to conceal their abilities given the wide range of powers granted by The Tower of Somnus. Still, she was pretty sure she would have heard if one of the higher level humans was capable of deflecting bullets.
“Why haven’t I-” Kat began only for Dorrik’s voice to interrupt her from behind.
“Because while the civilized races are not impeding humanity’s climb up the Tower,” the big lizard smiled grimly, “your people have no such compunctions. They spend more time fighting each other to prevent rivals from conquering dungeons or raising their levels than they do actually trying to ascend the tower. I would be surprised if any human has made it much past level eighteen.”
“How are you feeling today Miss Kat?” Dorrik cocked their head. “Kaleek and I grew worried when you didn’t show up on time yesterday.”
“Well enough,” Kat replied, tuning out Gasoot as the great rock creature began trying to sell a potion to something that resembled a two headed velociraptor. “I had a job go wrong for work and it took me a little while to find a place to sleep.”
“Did it involve Arnold and that other human that was tormenting you when we last spoke?” Dorrik frowned, the scales of their forehead tightening as they locked eyes with Kat.
“He’s not Mister Arnold anymore?” She raised an eyebrow.
“He sure didn’t act like a ‘mister anything’ when I saw him,” Kaleek chimed in. “Pitiable and whiny like a whelp before their first molt and yearling fur, maybe. I honestly don’t know how you ended up owing anything that pathetic a debt of honor.”
“Believe me,” Kat chuckled. “I’ve wondered that more than once myself.”
“You avoided my question Miss Kat,” Dorrik inclined their head slightly, once again fixing her with their gaze. “Are Arnold and the new human responsible for your troubles in the waking world?”
“More or less,” Kat sighed. “Anna’s mom is in the middle of a clandestine conflict with my boss and Anna used her connections to rope me into it. As far as I can tell the last two three teams that have been sent to deal with me all have Anna’s fingerprints on them. Last night I was trying to gather information on their operations and things spiraled out of control.
Dorrik glanced at Kaleek, their mouth drawn into a thin line. They nodded at the otter. Kat looked back and forth between them, lost as to the import of their unspoken communication.
“How about we go hunting then?” Kaleek grinned with a ferocity that took her aback slightly. “We, uh. Found a place with fairly easy elite monsters that drop rare skills. I’m sure we can earn some marks and find ourselves something useful.”
Kat squinted at him, Kaleek’s fur was standing on end. She looked back at Dorrik, only to find them staring fixedly at the ceiling of the adventurer hall.
“What kind of elite monsters are they Dorrik?” She asked, crossing her arms in front of her. “I’m sure you can fill us in on their name, appearance, history and weaknesses.”
“I err,” Dorrik shifted, crest pulsing frantically. “They are called Dokkamalt and they resemble large boxes. As for weaknesses they uhm-
Their tongue darted out, wetting thin reptilian lips as Dorrik frantically looked around the room before stopping on Kaleek.
“Large blades,” Dorrik nodded rapidly. “They have tough skin but once you break through it their flesh is soft and spongy. We should uh, have Kaleek lead the way during the battle.”
Kat stood there, foot tapping as she looked back and forth between the two of them, doing her best to keep a serious expression on her face. Both of them, despite being accomplished warriors with utterly alien features, looked like nothing more than Michelle when she snuck sweets before dinner.
“None of that was true,” Kat replied evenly. “Does anyone mind telling me what’s going on right now?”
Even Gasoot folded their tentacles, rotating their large rocky body so that the beady eyes lining their top solely faced the two headed raptor.
“Dorrik,” Kat continued. “You’re significantly worse at lying than Kaleek. Why did you lie to me just now?”
The big lizard stared past her at Kaleek, emitting a keening whine of distress as their crest fluttered wildly.
“Kat,” Kaleek intervened. “Dorrik and I put together a surprise for you yesterday. It’s something that we think you’ll enjoy, but we need to be in a certain spot at a certain time. Moreover, you need to be kitted out for battle. Dorrik is just trying to keep their mouth shut because I said you’d enjoy the surprise.”
“If you’re going to be mad at anyone,” Kaleek, twitched his whiskers, ears flat against his furry head, “be mad at me.”
“Fine,” Kat rolled her eyes. “Let’s go find this secret surprise of yours.”
Dorrik turned, eagerly leading the way past a party of aliens bartering over the value of some sort of monster spleen on their way out of the adventurer’s hall. Once they stepped out into the light, Kaleek quickly checked a map before guiding them out of town.
After about ten minutes on the road in relative silence, all three of them keeping watch for any sort of danger or monsters in the scrubland around Whiteshell, Kat broke the silence.
“Both of you know that you’re absolutely awful at lying right?” Kat asked, eyeing a bush that had been moving suspiciously. “I mean, that wasn’t just ‘bad,’ that was a spectacularly unbelievable attempt.”
“Lokkel try to make a point out of telling the truth,” Dorrik replied defensively. “It is not my fault that Kaleek put me on the spot. Maybe if he had informed me of the plan I could have come up with a better idea than describing a traditional meat dish.”
“Wait,” Kat turned back to Dorrik. “What the hell?”
“I panicked,” Dorrik’s crest wavered in embarrassment. “Dokkamalt is a traditional method of cutting, seasoning and cooking meat so that it will have a seared crust while remaining spongy and juicy on the inside. Lokkel eat it at most high holidays.”
Kat stopped walking entirely, just staring at the giant lizard while Kaleek doubled over laughing. Dorrik refused to look at either of them, keeping their eyes on their surroundings as they soldiered on.
“Remind me to play poker with the two of you sometime,” Kat chuckled, catching up to Dorrik. “If that’s what you think passes for a bluff, I’m going to make a killing.”
“What is poker?” Dorrik asked, happy to change the subject.
“A game,” Kat smiled at him. “Equal parts luck, strategy and trickery. The actual game is about assessing the probability of drawing cards in order to maximize the value of your hand, but it is played against another person. A significant portion of playing is convincing the other party that you have a better or worse hand than you do.”
“You literally play games based around lying to each other?” Kaleek burst out laughing once again. “No wonder your race got embargoed.”
“That sounds like you’re too cowardly to play against me,” Kat stuck her tongue out at him.
“No,” Kaleek bowed deeply, his ears twitching with amusement, “I just respect that I am in the presence of a master. I would never seek to enter into a game of misdirection or knavery with a human, let alone a professional spy.”
“I believe that is it,” Dorrik interrupted their back and forth, pointing with his upper right claw at a stone semicircle rising out of the ground.
Kat squinted at the structure. It looked like a dungeon entrance, except it didn’t have the telltale rainbow soap film she’d come to associate with the portals.
“Why isn’t it shining? Kat asked as they approached the rocky hoop.
“This is what a portal is supposed to look like when occupied,” Dorrik replied, walking up to the portal and leaning their back against it. “It is designed to only let one party in at a time. Theoretically, this is the state that the portal should have been in when we were surprised by the stallesp husks.”
“So,” Kat frowned. “Someone is in there? Didn’t we come out here to raid the dungeon?”
“Nope,” Kaleek grinned. “The present is the party that is in there.”
“Wait,” Kat stopped, turning to the beaming otter. “Do you mean-”
“I told you there would be a time,” Kaleek winked, “and I told you that it would be soon. Soon just happens to be now.”
“She has wronged you,” Dorrik intoned, nodding their head slightly. “It is only right that you formally challenge her. I have seen you fight Miss Kat. Your opponent is a Wizard Initiate. She will have more spells than you, and they will cost her less mana, but each spell will take longer to cast. So long as you act fast, I am sure you will defeat her.”
“I can do that,” Kat spoke firmly. Images of the various needless attacks on her and her family flashing through her mind, strengthening her resolve.
“Just don’t have too much fun,” Kaleek winked.
Before she could reply, the semicircle of stone glowed briefly before a gem at the top fired a cylindrical beam of rainbow light into the ground in front of it. A second later the light coalesced taking on the form of a bedraggled and bleeding Arnold.
He looked at the three of them, particularly Kaleek and Dorrik’s toothy smiles and sighed deeply.
“Fuck,” he spat the word out, walking a couple steps from the portal. “It’s you guys.”
“Nice to see you too Arnold,” Kat crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I don’t suppose you have an actual reason why I shouldn’t stab you hard enough to wake you up right here and now?”
“Because I gave you that subscription free and clear?” He asked hopefully.
“Free and clear?” Kat snorted, shaking her head in disgust. “That thing came with a cobweb’s worth of threads attached to it.”
Before Arnold could reply another beam of light resolved itself into Anna. Unlike Arnold, she was pristine. Not a hair was out of place and her robes still looked freshly laundered.
“Oh,” she said, scrunching her nose as she looked over their party.
Right behind her, the warrior appeared from a final flash of light, dents in his armor and heaving for breath. He immediately began swearing as he dropped into a defensive stance. Arnold and Anna huddled close to him, sparks of energy coming off of Anna’s hands.
“Miss Anna,” Dorrik spoke up. “It has come to our attention that you have tried to harm our teammate, Miss Kat outside of the dreamscape. As such, with both of our teams as witnesses, Miss Kat does challenge you to a formal one on one duel.”
Kat drew her knife and took a couple steps forward as Kaleek and Dorrik took up positions on either side of her. Anna just snorted.
“You do realize that my mother is just going to kill you and your family for this in the real world right?” The girl crossed her arms, staring Kat down.
“She’s zero for three so far,” Kat rolled her eyes. “Am I expected to believe that she’d just let me live my life unmolested if I got out of her way? She took her shot at me and she missed. I’m planning on returning the favor, just with a little more accuracy.”
“You thought that was my mom?” Anna snorted. “She trusts me with everything. The helicopter, the disposal plant, your little band of outlaws? I’m handling it all for her.”
“If you try to touch a hair on my head,” the girl sneered, “that is when she’ll break you and your perfect little family down for organs.”
“Are we going to fight or not?” Kat asked. “Seriously girl, listen to yourself. You sound like Danny Rodriguez from Chrome Cowboys or something. What’s with the villain speech? Even if you kill me, I just wake up knowing everything you say to me right here.”
“Because it’s not going to matter,” Anna tossed her hair imperiously. “I used mom’s slush fund to buy military vehicles for a mercenary gang. In three days your friends will be crushed and you will be dead in the real world. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, and no one will believe you if you try and talk about it.
Kat opened her mouth to make a retort about Steel and Blood, catching herself. Anna might be an idiot, but she was making Kat’s blood boil. Talking about Xander’s plans would be an unforced error of immense proportions.
“See?” Anna continued contemptuously, “this is why I do it. The look of despair on your face right before I kill you is worth any minor risk of someone believing you.”
“Despair?” Kat cocked her head, “wait. You honestly think you’re going to win this fight?”
“Of course,” Anna smirked, “don’t think that you’re the only one that can strike a deal with aliens. Not all of them are so hung up on their antiquated ideals. Some of them know how to speak the language of commerce.”
Kat pressed her eyes together, trying to silence her heart as it beat in her ears. Faces flashed in front of her. Michelle, her mother, Whippoorwill, Elise, and Smits. Anna was going to kill them all. Either from some sort of petty and misguided fit of pique, or to cover up Christopher Haupt’s assassination. It wouldn’t matter to any of them once they died.
The girl standing in front of her had upended everything. From her life in the arcology to the small corner of stability she’d managed to establish in the Shell, everything was at risk. Even Xander, the closest thing to a father figure that she had, would die if Anna had her way.
Despite all of that, she was so… dumb. Xander would have gathered information and attacked her at her weakest. Nina would have broken her in half without a word, but instead, due to Anna’s wealth and connections, here she stood grandstanding.
“Just shut up and fight,” Kat’s eyes popped open and she threw a throwing dagger at Anna. The older shield bearing warrior jumped into the way, glowing red slightly as he exerted some skill. Anna jumped with a chirp of surprise, her eyes widening as the blade deflected off the shield he thrust in front of her with a metallic twang.
Kat didn’t care, her combat knife was already out and she was quickly covering the ground between them.
“Arnie, Manford,” Anna stepped back, raising her hands above her head as sparks of energy began to dance in her palms. “Delay her so I can cast arcane guard.”
Shaking slightly, Arnold pulled a mace from his belt and stepped next to the other warrior while Anna began reciting a string of eldritch phrases, her hands contorting to form strange symbols and a glassy look in her eyes.
“Ego Shard,” Dorrik fired a bolt of purple energy into the shield bearing warrior. “Watch out Kat! arcane guard is an iron tier spell, if she can cast that-”
She tuned them out, casting Levitation on herself and leaping over the glassy eyed swordsman. As she was coming down, mana swelled inside her and she followed up with Dehydration.
A shimmering field of light glowed around Anna, and Kat could almost see her spell evaporate into thin air. The other woman sneered at her and spat out a word of power.
Balls of light swelled in each of Anna’s hands, growing to the size of an apple before Kat could hit the ground. She extended an arm toward Kat, the orb glowing menacingly, and on instinct alone, Kat cut her Levitation spell.
She hit the ground in a roll, a beam of energy flashing through the spot where she’d been hanging in the air just a moment before, the ball of light fading from Anna’s outstretched hand.
Kat regained her feet just in time to hear Kaleek and Dorrik crashing into the rest of Anna’s party behind her. She whipped another throwing dagger only for the curtain of light surrounding Anna to flash for a second.
Anna took a step back, the impact of the blade staggering her even if her spell kept the edge from biting.
Cat Step blurred her feet as Kat tried to zig zag to the side, but it wasn’t enough. Anna hurled a bolt of light that struck Kat in the side with enough force to spin her around entirely.
Almost immediately, a flashing red indicator appeared in the bottom left of her vision as a wave of pain washed over Kat’s body. A second later, the acrid smell of burning meat filled her nose as whatever Anna had shot her with seared straight through her armor and into her flesh beneath.
Anna’s face broke into a feral smile, all teeth and malice, as she recited another word of power, resummoning the balls of energy to her hands.
Frantically, Kat poured mana into Dazzle, launching a riot of bright strobing lights into that smile even as she slammed her eyes shut.
Anna shrieked, a beam of crackling energy going wide and shredding a nearby bush even as Kat poured stamina into Cat Step to close the distance between them. With each step the wound in her side burned, blurring Kat’s vision, but that was a problem for later.
Quickly, she tried to cast Levitate on Anna. The other woman was too busy blinking and rubbing at her face in an attempt to dispel the aftereffects of Dazzle to notice the spell until it was too late.
Unfortunately, Kat’s efforts were only rewarded by another flash of light from the arcane guard as her spell dissipated once again.
Fuck. Kat’s thoughts raced as she summoned a Pseudopod. Anna wasn’t particularly adept at fighting, but her defensive spell apparently made her immune to edged weapons as well as magical attacks.
Unfortunately, that made her immune to pretty much anything Kat could throw at her.
Right before Kat could slam into Anna, the other girl raised her hand, struggling to track Kat with the flickering ball of light glued to her palm even as she tried to squint away the effects of Dazzle.
Kat’s Pseudopod curled around the other girl's wrist, mercifully failing to trigger arcane guard as it yanked her hand aside at the last second. A wave of heat singed all the hair from Kat’s left side as the beam went wide, blasting a furrow of dirt and sod up into the air.
Her side screamed as Kat’s shoulder slammed into Anna’s chest, knocking the wind out of her with a solid whuff. Biting her lip to focus through the pain, Kat’s leg swept past Anna’s and then hooked back, taking the other girl behind the knees and toppling her to the ground.
She landed on top of Anna, blinding pain narrowing her vision, but a victorious smile on her face as once again arcane guard didn’t activate.
Edged weapons and direct effect spells only then. Kat could work with that.
A second later, Kat had Anna pinned to the ground as the other girl tried to buck and shake her off. Kat wasn’t a grappler, most of her training was getting the other person to the ground and then either finishing them with her knife or running away, but Anna was even more lost.
More importantly, Kat grinned savagely through the pain. She had an extra limb.
Anna’s eyes went wide as the Pseudopod curled around her neck. She tried to recite another spell, but there was no air left for words.
She thrashed under Kat, partially dislodging her and earning a Water Jet at close range for her trouble. Once again, despite the slight glimmer showing that it was active, arcane guard didn’t trigger.
The water slammed Anna’s head into the ground with the force of a baseball bat, forcing its way into her nose and gaping mouth. The other woman’s eyes rolled back up into her head as the back of her skull bounced off the ground only to be forced back into it by the unrelenting force of the spell.
A second later, the magic cut out and Anna spasmed weakly, failing to push Kat off one last time before she lapsed into unconsciousness. Kat didn’t let up, keeping the pressure up on the knocked out woman’s slender neck.
Behind her, she could hear the other battle finishing up, Dorrik and Kaleek joking together as they finished off the last vestiges of resistance. She could feel the sticky wetness running down her side from her injury.
Even if the original blast might have cauterized the wound, Kat’s sudden movements to dodge and bring Anna down had reopened them, earning her even more pain and angry flashes from the damage notification in the corner of her vision.
Finally, the glimmer of arcane guard and Anna’s weak instinctive struggles cut out at the same time. Kat wobbled slightly from the pain as she put her index and ring finger against the other woman’s wrist, her Pseudopod still gripping her neck.
Kat grunted, taking one of the throwing daggers from her bandoleer and planting it deep into Anna’s unmoving chest.
Then she stood up, swaying from blood loss and pain. Dimly she heard Dorrik and Kaleek calling out to her as she activated Cure Wounds I.
The pain immediately alleviated as her wound stopped actively bleeding under the warm light of the spell. It cut out after six seconds from lack of mana, the short duration a testament to how close she’d come to running out of magic completely.
Kat let out a sigh of relief, holding her left side to the injured side as she looked for where she’d dropped her combat knife.
“Miss Kat,” Dorrik called out grimly as they walked over to Anna’s still corpse. “I am sorry for getting you involved in this. If I had known that she had an iron tier defensive skill-”
“This isn’t on you,” Kat croaked out. “I wanted to kill her too. Plus, you were right. Once I got close enough she wasn’t all that great in a fight. It was just a matter of being inventive.”
“Inventive?” Kaleek snorted as he toed Anna’s body. “She had a spell that made her invulnerable to everything but bludgeoning attacks so you drowned her before choking her out. If that’s what your race finds inventive, I think I’m going to reiterate my approval for the blockade.”
“No Miss Kat,” Dorrik continued. “It isn’t ok. Iron tier skills only begin to drop on the sixth floor. The fact that Anna had one means that she’s had dealings with a merchant. Those sorts of dealings are strictly prohibited for a probationary race like yours. You are meant to learn and interact with others on your own, integrating into collective society at your own pace.”
“Someone,” they sighed, “is breaking the eighteen thousand year old rules that form the foundation of both The Tower of Somnus and the entire Galactic Consensus.”
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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