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A note from CoCop

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“Kat!” Sikka shouted, elbowing past Dorrik as they walked in alongside Kaleek. “Have you been keeping Dorrik out of trouble? I heard they got into a tussle with the moles out on the dunes.”

“Sikka,” Dorrik turned to the older lokkel, crest flaring in frustration, “I’m right here.

“Never mind them,” Sikka waved Dorrik aside with her upper limbs while the lower pair grasped the crook of Kat’s arm. “Dorrik is just being grumpy because the enclave is on lockdown while we try to figure out what’s going on.”

“Lockdown?” Kat cocked her head, looking at the bustling crowds of four-armed lizard people buzzing about the white stone enclave. “Things still look pretty lively around here to me.”

“The stallesp won’t do anything in the city.” Sikka led her through the winding hallways of the compound, weaving Kat through the crowds of lokkel with ease born of experience. “The Clan has a couple scouts coming down from the upper levels to figure out what the stallesp are up to. Once they give us the heads up, the adventuring types will leave the compound to do whatever it is you danger junkies like to do with your time. Then things will finally be quiet enough that the rest of us can actually finish some of our crafting orders.

“I don’t understand why we’re waiting on the scouts?” Kat shrugged. “Aren’t most of the people here warriors? Why don’t you just send out the teams on hand to figure out what’s happening?”

Sikka chuckled, taking a seat on the garden bench. Kat joined her, shifting slightly to find a comfortable position on the stone seat while the fake sun beat down on her.

“While your courage is laudable,” Sikka leaned back, closing her eyes as she basked in the light and heat. “There’s no promise that the stallesp won’t have sent their own ringers. The last thing we need is our hunting parties getting ambushed by moles with evolved classes. None of you would even stand a chance.”

Kat shuddered, thinking back to her fight with Anna Donnst where the girl had used an iron tier skill. Anna didn’t have the stats to make the most of the evolved ability, and it was only one field of magic, but even then it was enough to push Kat to her limit. The idea of fighting an enemy that had evolved all of their skills to iron didn’t exactly appeal to her.

“What do we do then?” Kat shrugged. “Are there any jobs to do around town or am I just cooling my heels until the scouts can give the all clear?”

“There probably are some jobs,” Sikka chuckled, her eyes still closed, “but don’t worry about it too much. The three of you have been working too hard. You can get back to fighting eldritch horrors in dungeons in a couple of days. Until then, everyone should just relax. Have some food. Catch up with friends. Upgrade your gear. None of this is worth anything if you crack from stress and get killed in some wood tier dungeon in the middle of nowhere.”

“I guess.” Kat blew out a sigh, glancing at the relaxing lizard out of the corner of her eyes. “I just don’t like sitting still. Back on Earth, living is like swimming. If you stop treading water, you end up under the surface.”

“There’s a reason your planet was blockaded, dear,” Sikka chuckled, shifting slightly so that a new set of scales would be exposed to the Tower’s fake sun. “A proper society encourages and nourishes its citizens. There’s no need to coddle layabouts, but any number of sociological studies have shown that constant anxiety over economic and social status is counterproductive.”

“Plus,” Sikka opened her eyes, stretching both pairs of arms with an audible pop. “Lokkel don’t swim. The idea of voluntarily diving into that much collected water is enough to turn my scales inside out.”

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Kat turned to face Sikka, “what do you do in water dungeons or on levels of the dreamscape that are mostly water? I can understand not enjoying swimming, but it seems like a glaring weakness given the difficulty of The Tower of Somnus.”

“I pay for help,” Sikka grinned at her. “Not everyone enters the dreamscape solely to throw themselves into mortal danger. Maybe that’s how things are with your race, but among the lokkel, it’s common wisdom that a clan should have three to four support players for each adventurer. After all, you’re only going to be able to clear low level dungeons without advanced gear. Fairly soon, even with a talon as seasoned as yours, you’re going to start struggling without upgrading.”

“That makes sense,” Kat nodded slowly, “wait, what in the hell is a talon?”

Sikka tilted her head to the side, staring semi-blankly at Kat before chuckling.

“I forgot that you were new to the dreamscape.” Sikka held up a hand, displaying three of her clawed fingers. “Combat groups recognized by the tower come in two sizes. Talons are three players.

“Claws,” Sikka continued, opening her hand so that all six of its fingers were visible, “are six individuals. The whole hand. Generally talons are used for resource gathering, more groups means more ground covered after all, while claws aim for dungeons and floor guardians. Only a couple crazy groups like yours seek to ascend the tower as a talon. The free attribute points from beating floor guardians as a talon add up, but it generally isn’t worth the people we lose over time.”

“Well,” Kat nodded as Sikka’s explanation sank in, “if leveling up with a three person team is so dangerous, what exactly should we be looking for in equipment and how do we go about getting it?

“Unlike the rest of you,” she chuckled bleakly, “I don’t get another shot at this if I die out here. I don’t really have any friends on Earth that would give me a new subscription.”

Briefly her mind flashed back to Jasper. He wasn’t exactly a friend, and the subscription would come with enough strings attached to weave a net, but she wasn’t completely without options.

“Oh,” Sikka smiled, “never mind that. I could hardly let Dorrik, Kaleek and you run around with this drab gear. I’ll talk to some of the other crafters and we’ll outfit you at cost. That still means that the three of you will need to supply the materials, but we should be able to provide you with lists for what you will need and where the monsters in question have their lairs.”

“Do any of the monsters in question live close enough that we can sneak out and start gathering components despite the lockdown?” Kat asked hopefully.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Sikka laughed. “Someone will track you down to take measurements and let you know about pricing.

“Now run along,” Sikka made a shooing motion with both of her upper hands. “I’m sure Dorrik is like you, vibrating with frustration at being locked down, and Kaleek? Well, he’s probably in a bar somewhere, harassing a musician into singing an off-color drinking song.”

Kat thanked Sikka for her time before wandering off into the lokkel enclave. The whitewashed hallways were bustling with the large, dark lizard people, many of whom threw her curious looks. Every once in a while, a different species of alien would walk by with a lokkel chaperone before noticing Kat and whispering to their companions. None of them approached her or acted impolite, but it was clear she was out of place.

About ten minutes later, with some directions from a helpful lokkel after she accidentally barged into what appeared to be their art studio, Kat found her way to Dorrik. They were sparring with their clutchmate, Basash, the two of them a whirling and clanging storm as they tore into each other.

The fight went on for almost a minute, both of the lokkel matching each other stroke for stroke, each blow turned aside by a parry or an expert risposte. Then the riot of noise and movement stopped as Basash staggered backward with a grunt, a long cut on their forearm.

“Of course, Dorrik,” the injured lokkel’s chuckle ended in a wince as they cradled their arm. “I spent months training and I have four dungeons on you, but I still can’t even get a single slash in.”

“Kat, would you mind?” Dorrik nodded at her and indicated Basash’s wound. She approached Bashash, the lizard nodding in thanks as she began casting Cure Wounds I.

“You are getting better, Basash,” Dorrik tried to cheer their sibling up as they sheathed the two swords. “Your defensive form is a bit strong if overly orthodox. It left you overly rigid and I only had to slow my last couple of strikes to disrupt your rhythm and slip through.”

“You tell me, Katherine,” Basash turned to Kat, flinching as her hands touched their injury, wrapped in the golden light of the spell. “Has Dorrik ever been anything but orthodox? I swear, from the egg, every problem was solved by research, extensive planning, and then sticking to that plan.”

“That does sound like Dorrik,” Kat chuckled, eyes on the injury as Basash’s scales knitted together under the spell’s influence. “It’s a good thing, too. On our own, Kaleek and I would probably rush headlong into a fight we weren’t suited for and get killed by something that we could have just breezed by with a little bit of preparation.”

“I enjoy planning,” Dorrik crossed their arms huffily, “but I’m not going to let it become a weakness. One of the first rules of combat is to improvise if you think your opponent has foreseen your next step. Basash had clearly trained to counter my preferred sword style. The answer was obviously to alter my sword style.”

“And that’s why we win fights,” Kat agreed, stepping away from Basash as the lokkel flexed their newly healed arm. “Kaleek and I have the right instincts, but Dorrik always takes it a step beyond us.”

“Thank you, Kat,” Dorrik nodded at her, a brief smile on their muzzle.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” Basash chuckled. “It’s just a bit frustrating to be the second fastest lokkel in Clan Ahn to hit level four only for Dorrik to still outperform me. I won’t disagree that they’re a better swordsperson than me, but honestly, Dorrik, would it kill you to let me get a slash in just once?”

“You’ve made it to level four?” Kat asked, stepping back to give the lokkel some personal space.

“Yes,” Basash preened, their crest fluttering slightly. “Having to fight the floor guardian to get back was a hassle. You don’t even get any drops.”

They shuddered, “But the fourth floor was awful. I know that there are some planets that are mostly ocean, but that isn’t a proper place for lokkel. I’d rather spend some time down here on guard duty, earning enough marks to buy upgraded equipment from the crafters that spend their time on the third floor.”

“About that,” Kat turned to Dorrik. “Sikka mentioned that she would get you, Kaleek and I outfitted with gear so long as we provided the materials. She said that they’d have some people down to take our measurements shortly.”

“Good luck gathering the materials,” Basash shook their head, “I’m a level ahead of the sand wastes and I’m not all that enthused by the prospect of trying to solo some of the more valuable creatures out there. Even without the stallesp threat, it's a lot easier to let dedicated hunting parties handle missions like that.”

“That’s us, I suppose,” Dorrik nodded. “A dedicated hunting party. I will have to thank Sikka. Upgrading our armor and weapons would be a great boon. Some of the enchantments available to the more skilled crafters in the enclave are truly amazing. It will depend upon what materials we can bring back, but this could easily serve as a force multiplier for the three of us.”

“The only problem,” Kat smiled mischievously, “is that Sikka said that the enclave will be on lockdown for the next couple of days. That means we’re stuck training and cooling our heels, while Kaleek gets himself into trouble.”

“It is unfortunate,” Dorrik agreed, “but training is always helpful. It might not help the skills granted to us by the dreamscape, but those abilities are only useful when combined with actual combat experience. A couple weeks of sparring would serve all of us well.”

“Or,” Kat clapped a hand on their shoulder, “once we get the lists, we start making plans. I want to be ready to start hitting the lairs of the monsters we need as soon as the scouts give us the all clear.”

“That…” Dorrik paused thoughtfully, “that is certainly something we could do. Still, it would be a waste for us to not take advantage of our access to a proper gymnasium. Your bladework is already quite good Kat, but with a couple nights of intense training I’m sure we could polish it into something truly spectacular.”

Dorrik beamed at her, drawing a pained smile from Kat. They were a relentless and talented drillmaster. She was sure that the lokkel would push her to her limits, and she was equally sure that they would help her train her Cure Wounds I skill almost as much as her knife play.

“Oh, I apologize,” Dorrik turned to Basash, “we were just sparring. Obviously I can continue training with you, Basash, I don’t want you to-”

“No worries,” the other lokkel chuckled as they exited the room to a groan from Kat, “I just wanted a single match to see how my abilities stacked up. Apparently I still have some distance to go, but to be fair, I probably should have already known that.”

“Good luck, Katherine.” Basash disappeared out the door with a wink tossed over their shoulder.

“Fine, Dorrik.” Kat sighed and drew her long knife from its sheath before settling into a fighting stance, knees bent slightly with the weight on the balls of her feet. “We can train, but you have to promise that as soon as the lockdown drops, we’ll be out there gathering material for our gear the next day.”

“Of course, Kat,” they smiled, all sharp teeth as their crest fluttered, “I, too, am excited to upgrade my swords. I have no reason to delay the process.”

“Now,” the huge lizard swooped forward, their right blade forcing her to bend to the side while her knife barely deflected the left, almost knocking Kat to the ground. “Your stance is all about explosive bursts of energy, lunging and stabbing a distracted or unsuspecting foe.”

Kat rolled with the force of Dorrik’s attack, tucking her shoulder and planting it into the ground as she tried to position herself in the lokkel’s blind spot.

A taloned foot, careful not to slash her with its wicked claws, slammed into her ribs, throwing Kat into the air and knocking the wind out of her.

She stood up with a wince to see Dorrik standing in the same spot, a grin still on their face as they held both of their blades in a loose guard, not even breathing heavily.

“As you can see, Miss Kat,” they flicked a blade toward themselves, motioning for her to attack again, “your abilities are fine tuned, but only against a foe that you outclass or have caught by surprise. For now, your magic is enough to create the openings you need to thrive, but that won’t always be the case.”

Kat frowned, rushing toward Dorrik, ducking under one sword slash and bringing her knife up in a double-handed thrust toward their scaled stomach only to abort the attack and throw herself to the right.

A fraction of a second later, Dorrik’s elbow passed through the air where her head would have been if she hadn’t moved.

“Good, Miss Kat,” Dorrik let her scramble to safety. “Now we need to work on a more sustainable fighting style for you. Something that takes advantage of your agility to let you fight toe to toe with an enemy with a more traditional weapon.”

“Lower your stance slightly,” the lokkel motioned downward with their sword, “it will give me less of a target, and a lower center of gravity will help both your ability to dodge and those throws you are so fond of.”

She followed Dorrik’s directions, stalking forward with her knees bent, knife in a low guard. As soon as she got within range of her opponent, first one sword and then another whipped through the air toward her, one horizontal across her chest while Dorrik’s upper pair of arms brought the other down in an overhand blow aimed at her collarbone.

Kat hopped backward, letting both slashes whistle past her before stepping into the gap in Dorrik’s defenses created by the attacks.

Pain exploded in the back of her head, and the entire room wobbled as the pummel of one of Dorrik’s swords slammed into her. She dropped to her hands and knees as the world spun.

“Better,” Dorrik continued, stepping back to give her some space, “but still too aggressive. The goal is for you to develop a style that can keep you in a fight long enough to take advantage of your opponent’s mistakes. The first step to achieving that end is to ensure that you can recognize a genuine error as opposed to a feint.”

“I don’t know if anyone but you can recover from a slash that fast Dorrik,” Kat’s eyes were locked on the floor as she tried to steady her vision. “That would have been a perfect counter on my part except for the fact that you apparently have superhuman reflexes.”

“Correct,” Dorrik agreed cheerfully. “Unfortunately, in The Tower of Somnus superhuman abilities are more the norm than an exception. You can no longer judge your opponent based upon your common understanding of how fast a body can move or how agile a person’s joints should be.”

She stood up, walking backward to open up some more distance between the two of them before turning around and glaring at the lokkel.

“To fight a player you must first be able to judge your opponent’s abilities,” they continued. “At our level, someone who has achieved level thirty or forty will move faster than either of us can see. Your current style counts on your reflexes being as fast or faster than your opponent. It may work at lower levels, but the three of us won’t be stopping here. Against more powerful players, your instincts will only hinder you, make you an easy target for feints and traps.”

Kat grunted rubbing the bruising on her rib with her free hand while she kept her eyes on Dorrik. They seemed to be having altogether too much fun with the moment.

“The next week or so is going to be absolutely miserable, isn’t it?” She asked rhetorically.

“But of course, Miss Kat,” Dorrik grinned back at her. “It is only through repetition and suffering that we can truly learn from our mistakes. I respect you far too much to skimp out on either.”

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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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