Kat’s throwing knife whirred through the dungeon air, burying itself up to its hilt in a fuzzy, torso-sized creature clinging to the wall. It fell to the ground, the force of the strike ripping its body from the sandstone that made up the boundaries of the room, the barbs attached to the bottom of its limbs tearing chunks from the soft stone.
It hit the ground, hissing angrily as it scuttled in a circle to face Kat. Mana pulsed through her body as she focused on the creature.
More than anything it looked like a nightmare-sized tarantula with ten legs. There were differences of course. Rather than a pair of fangs, the facarl, as Dorrik had dubbed it, had a proboscis that dripped acid pitting the dungeon floor. Two of its six eyes, equidistantly arranged around its oval torso, blinked at her angrily. Perhaps most importantly-
She swore, dancing backward as the facarl angrily rubbed its oversized forelimbs together, generating a cloud of black dust as its fur shredded itself into a cloud of toxic and borderline microscopic blades.
Dehydrate struck the monster, leeching the last moisture from its bleeding body. Its legs curled under itself as it crumpled and fell to the rocky floor. Kat didn’t move any closer, keeping her eyes warily on the barely visible mist hanging over the creature’s body.
She’d made the mistake of approaching a facarl corpse too quickly and breathing in the microfilaments exactly once. Twenty minutes of coughing up her lung lining, hands glowing as she expended almost all of her mana on Cure Wounds I while struggling with a poison-induced fever had taught her the error of her ways.
Apparently, the creatures used the microfur of their legs to blind and disable prey before injecting them with the acid they needed to turn their innards into a slurry that could be consumed with their proboscis. It had only been a matter of luck that Kat’s eyes were closed when she stepped into the cloud of fur mist. As useful as Cure Wounds I was, Kat didn’t think it packed enough punch to prevent full-on blinding.
Nearby, Kaleek cut one of the facarls in half. He looked ridiculous in the goggles that Dorrik had bought for him, but between his natural desoph ability to hold his breath for up to a half hour at a time and the glass eye coverings, he was the scuttling monsters’ natural enemy.
Kaleek simply ignored another puff of the toxic dust as the final facarl dropped from the ceiling behind him.
“Kaleek!” Dorrik shouted, their hands opening and closing, filled with nervous energy. Unfortunately, the big lizard’s psi abilities only worked on sapient creatures. That meant that they could boost their own abilities, but none of their ranged attacks would even scratch the facarls.
The otter whirled, his greatsword cutting the creature in half as it fell. With a quiet thud, the bisected portions of its body landed on the sandstone floor on either side of Kaleek. He grinned, turning toward Kat and Dorrik as he took a step toward them.
“No,” Dorrik crossed their arms as they shook their head. “You’re positively covered in facarl dust. Stay where you are while Kat washes you down.”
“Isn’t there a more dignified way of doing this?” Kaleek whined even as he stepped away from the bodies and braced himself against a dungeon wall. “I mean, I get the point of it, but it’s both humiliating and cold. At least teach Kat how to warm the water up first.”
“Unfortunately we do not have a spare Fire skill stone for Kat,” Dorrik shook their head slowly, “so the water will not be warm anytime soon. As for whether we could find a more dignified way of washing you down?”
“Probably,” Dorrik’s muzzle broke into a grin, “but the humor of this method outweighs your discomfort.”
“Wait,” Kaleek’s eyes widened under his goggles, “that’s some-”
Kat finished casting Water Jet, the spell slamming Kaleek into the wall as it unloaded a small swimming pool’s worth of water on the otter. The magic didn’t do any damage, having been designed to knock targets off balance and to the ground, but it did buffet and almost trip the sputtering desoph.
A second or two later he whirled on the two of them, glaring, his fur drenched. Kaleek reached up, whipping off his goggles and stuffing them into a belt pouch.
“All clean now,” Kat said cheerfully. “Unless the microfibers made it into your inner coat, you should be washed down well enough to join civilized company.”
“Don’t worry, Kat,” he grumbled, shaking his entire body in an effort to dry himself off. “Your water magic has leveled up enough that the spell made it all the way to my inner coat. Even if some of that damnable fur managed to work its way deep, you managed to wash it out. Thanks. I guess.”
“You should look at yourself,” Dorrik barely choked the words out in between peels of laughter. “You look like a soaked dune rat. I never thought I’d see a desoph look so despondent from nothing more than water.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kaleek fought to keep a smile off of his face as he brushed the remaining water off of his oily, waterproof fur. “Keep laughing. Next time we have to wade into some water, you’re coming with me. You’ll see how funny it is to be soaked when you’re flailing around neck deep in water.”
“Come now, Kaleek,” Dorrik struggled to bring themselves under control. “I only suggest the optimal ways to overcome opponents. My clan’s records indicated that this dungeon could be conquered fairly easily if the party had a fighter without exposed mucus membranes. Of course I thought of you: it was only logical for us to let the individual that doesn’t need to breathe take point.”
“Speaking of your clan,” Kaleek grinned. “What did Sikka want to talk about, Kat? She pulled you aside for quite a while before the welcoming ceremony.”
“You shouldn’t feel obligated to respond to that,” Dorrik shifted slightly. “Sikka is just a friendly lokkel. I’m sure her conversations with you were very ordinary and nothing that either Kaleek or myself need to know about.”
“She mostly wanted to talk about you, Dorrik,” Kat smiled, wiping the grime off of one of her knives as the big lizard stiffened. “Something about how you had a lonely childhood without too many friends and how glad she was that you’d finally found another playmate.”
“Oooh!” Kaleek splashed over, leaving wet pawprints in the white sandstone floor of the dungeon. “They-”
“Sorry,” he gritted his teeth. “She. I first met her before she moved on from rearer to female,” he muttered apologetically.
“Anyway,” the grin was back on the sopping otter’s face. “That was more or less the speech I got. We talked for a little bit about who I was and my family, and once Sikka was satisfied, the rest of the meeting was talking about her poor little Dorrik and how he didn’t have any lokkel friends because they pushed themselves too hard.”
“Did she show you the paintings of Dorrik as a whelp?” Kat’s eyes lit up mischievously. “Their tail was so stubby and cute as they were scuttling down the sand dunes!”
“My favorite was the painting of Dorrik at their clutch’s first induction into the dreamscape,” Kaleek replied. “They were maybe as high as my shoulder, and so eager. Whoever the artist was, they really captured the expression in Dorrik’s eyes as their father granted them their first subscription.”
Dorrik simply groaned, burying their face in their upper pair of arms. Kat’s smile only grew wider. Dorrik was a friend, but Sikka was right. They spent too much time focusing on training and research. Every once in a while, they needed a gentle needle poke to take some of the wind out of their sails.
“Why didn’t you tell us how good of an artist you were, Dorrik?” Kat asked. “Sikka showed me some of the abstract paintings you made from your first tower climb. I really like the way you used color to really pull the viewer into the scene.”
Dorrik turned their gaze on Kaleek and Kat and she burst out laughing. Their expression said everything, a combination of mournful, pleading, and utterly bedraggled.
“Fine,” she slid the now clean throwing knife into her bandoleer. “That’s enough for now, but I really do want to learn more about you. Kaleek can’t shut up about his siblings, blitzball scores, bars, and meals, but everything with you is a mystery. Maybe it’s a human thing, but I want to learn a bit more about that mystery.”
“That’s fair enough,” Dorrik nodded slowly, their expression brightening. “As much as I find your race interesting in a fairly horrifying sort of way-”
“It is kinda like seeing a reactor fire,” Kaleek interjected agreeably, “you know you should look away but you just can’t.”
She cocked her head at the otter, shooting him a slightly confused look. Obviously human society wasn’t great, but there were plenty of good people in it. Her family, Whippoorwill, Xander, Xander’s wife Nina. All of them were doing the best they could with a bad situation. None of them had the spare wealth and power to be saints, but there was a certain honor born in the gutter.
Some of the people Kat grew up with were feral, nothing more than animals just looking for a chance to betray her, but for enough of them, their name was all they had. Their lives were still a constant struggle for their next meal, a constant race to try and claw their way up the next rung of the societal ladder, but they at least recognized that the world was already miserable enough without tearing each other down for no reason.
Kat opened her mouth to defend her people, but Dorrik just continued speaking.
“I am more interested in you, Kat,” the big lizard nodded at her. “You are a survivor. Where solitude and pride have driven me to try and perfect my craft, you exist in a constant state of crisis, growing to stay one step ahead of a never ending stream of disasters that dog your footsteps.”
“That,” she frowned slightly, unsure how exactly to respond. “I’m not sure that’s wrong, Dorrik, but it still feels a bit strange to boil my entire life down to me sprinting from one disaster to another.”
“But that is what you do, Kat,” Dorrik inclined their head slightly, crest fluttering. “I understand that you are making efforts to free yourself from the chains of your masters, but for right now, what I’m interested in is what makes you tick. What makes you struggle against forces outside of your control even as you perfect yourself?”
“Wouldn’t anyone?” Kat shrugged uncomfortably. “I didn’t exactly have many choices, but given the options of slavery or struggle, who wouldn’t struggle?”
“That’s a good question,” Kaleek shrugged, “one that I’ve been trying to understand for years. As long as you don’t call it slavery, all too many entities are willing to let their rights be eroded away piece by piece.”
“Kaleek has the right of it,” Dorrik nodded. “You could have had an uncomfortable but stable existence, but even before you had entered The Tower of Somnus, you had been struggling against the status quo. You've risked your life and freedom to better your situation in some small way, and that has given you the skills you've needed to thrive here.”
“I suppose,” Kat shrugged uncomfortably. “Still, it’s starting to work. I start college tomorrow, and that’s the first step toward actually having people listen to me.”
“College?” Kaleek asked. “That’s what your race does for higher education right? I still don’t understand why your leaders wouldn’t make that free. Even from a purely utilitarian perspective, having a trained workforce means having a productive workforce.”
“They pushed us hard enough during our mandatory schooling to make sure we can work in the farms, factories and laboratories,” Kat responded, slightly bitterly. “College is more about other things. Managing workforces, negotiating with other departments, attending networking parties, and etiquette. As far as I can tell, everything from here on out is how to navigate the complex social minefields that come with working in management. Useful things to be sure, but hardly something that needs a full four years of schooling.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Dorrik frowned. “If you’re going to sacrifice four years of your life going to this advanced school, that is logical to me, but to learn nothing over that time…”
“The school is a stand in,” Kat shrugged. “Many of the advanced jobs won’t even look at you unless you’ve attended college, and they make college into something impossible for the average worker to attend. Ostensibly, the process is fair and meritocratic, but the end result is that the same people that were in power continue to stay in power in the future.”
“But,” Dorrik’s crest fluttered in distress, “what about people like you? Those who manage to succeed despite the odds. Wouldn’t your race be throwing away your potential by only looking to a narrow pool of applicants for their positions of power?”
“Yes,” Kat sighed, “but that’s beside the point. Most humans I know have a narrow circle of people that matter. Beyond their family and friends, no one else really seems real. You can recognize that they’re people, but when trouble rears its head they just seem abstract and different. It’s hard to care about a stranger’s trouble when you can’t feed your kids or your best friend doesn’t have access to the healthcare they’d need to cure a basic but life-threatening illness.”
“The rich are like that too,” she crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Their problems might be bigger than mine, but they’re struggling for their lives as well. Hell, half of my other job is to help them tear each other apart. Really, I don’t think anyone has the time to care about the species as a whole. It’s all just about surviving another day.”
“Well,” Kaleek nodded cheerfully, “that was bleak as hell, but I’m dry and ready for the next fight. What do we have on deck?”
“The dungeon boss shouldn’t be a challenge with the right party makeup,” Dorrik replied affably. “It’s a parasitic organism known as a blood pearl, about as big around as my torso and immobile, all it can really do is fire bolts of psi energy and try to control the minds of anyone near it. Generally, it takes over the mind of the party member with the lowest charisma and turns them against their companions.”
“Fuck,” Kaleek grumbled, kicking a chunk of sandstone that had had been loosened from the ground by a facarl’s dripping acid.
“That means Kat and I will go in while you hang back,” Dorrik nodded to her. “Kat can trade ranged attacks with it, distracting it while I walk close enough to stab it. The good news is that blood pearls don’t have that many hit points. They’re just a nasty surprise for unprepared parties.”
“So,” Kat responded, checking the knives attached to her armor, “just run around the outside of the chamber peppering it with attacks while I try to avoid getting hit? I think I can handle that.”
“Very good,” Dorrik opened the door into the dungeon’s final chamber, motioning for her to go first. “Kaleek, if you could hang back outside of the monster’s range, I would appreciate it.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kaleek twitched his whiskers at them dejectedly. “I’ll stick it out back here with all of the facarl corpses. That sounds super fun.”
Kat stepped into the room. The entire space was at a slight upward angle, maybe twenty degrees, with a pedestal at the center well above her. On that pedestal, a large lump of reddish pink flesh grew around the dungeon altar.
Almost immediately, a purple nimbus appeared around it before it spat out a bolt of energy. Kat threw herself to the side, feeling all of the hair on her body stand straight on end as it crackled and fizzled into the wall where she had just been standing.
She activated Cat Step, stamina draining from her as she sprinted around the outside of the room. Her first thrown dagger missed the creature entirely, but even as the mana welled inside of her for a Gravity Spike, the second dug into its side.
A strange energy tried to claw at her. For a fraction of a second, Kat just felt an ill-defined pressure around her skull before her emotions began to run haywire. At first she was angry, then she was just as sad as she’d been at her father’s funeral. Above everything, a sickly sweet scent began to fill the room.
She shook her head, concentrating on the face of her mother and sister even as she forced the Gravity Spike into being. One side of the pearl erupted, spraying gore as the forces under her control twisted it, pulling and shoving the entity at the same time.
Distantly, she heard a voice screaming something indecipherable and the pressure began to subside. Another bolt of purple energy crashed into the stone in front of her, forcing Kat to skid to a stop.
Then, as it built energy for another attack, Dorrik’s swords cut through its pulsing flesh, one after another, hacking deep grooves in the immobile monster. It deflated, orange ichor pouring from the wound as the psychic assault abruptly cut off.
“That,” Kat frowned, looking around the chamber at the skeletons from previous avatars that had failed, “was underwhelming.”
“That,” Dorrik brushed some of the creature’s dead flesh away from the altar, “is the power of a scouting report. Any player with three charisma would have been taken over almost immediately. For most parties, they would be spending too much time fighting each other to actually make any progress toward the boss. Same with the facarls. While you can fight them and Kaleek excels against them, I am almost useless. It is simply a matter of having and using the right tool for each job.”
“Kaleek,” Dorrik shouted, “we’re done here but be ready for tomorrow. Sikka let me know that there is a superb dungeon with semi-aquatic elements.”
“At least I won’t have to deal with this hot and dry air that much longer,” the otter grumbled, sauntering into the room as Dorrik disappeared in a rainbow cocoon of light. He nodded at Kat. “Go on, you fought the thing, you’re next.”
She approached the altar, trying to avoid as much of the pearl’s gore as possible before placing her hand on it
You have completed the Wood Tier Level Three Dungeon, Skittering Ruins.
Three of Three party members surviving. Good Job!
She sighed as the cocoon of light surrounded her. Tomorrow was move-in to the college, and as harrowing as meeting the scions of wealth and privilege that would be her classmates for the first time would be, her mother would be worse. She would want to know how big her room was, what classes she was taking and worst of all, whether there were any cute boys.
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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