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Kat opened her eyes to the dungeon’s clinging mist. Nothing about their surroundings had changed since last night. The initial spawning room, safe until they passed its threshold, was still featureless and packed with dense fog that limited her visibility, even when she tried to switch to nightvision to account for the lack of light. Whatever the substance was made of, The Tower of Somnus wasn’t going to let her sidestep the hazard it posed that easily.

Dorrik and Kaleek were sitting back to back, eyes closed. Then Dorrik spoke.

“B10 to D12, my Lancer has taken your fortress and your Hive Queen is now under threat.”

Kaleek grunted, shifting slightly as a grimace rippled across his fur. Kat coughed, clearing her throat to draw the attention of her teammates.

“Kat’s here!” The otter sprang to his feet, sour expression clearing from his face. “Time for us to clear the dungeon.”

Dorrik stood up in a more dignified manner, rocking forward and then almost unfolding until they towered over the rest of the party, crest fluttering in amusement as they contemplated the excitable desoph.

“What was that anyway?” Kat asked, eyes on Dorrik but inclining her head toward Kaleek as their companion scrambled over to where his sword had been leaning against the dungeon’s wall.

“Raknok chess” her companion replied smugly. “A fine way to pass time and keep your mind sharp simultaneously. Kaleek was about to lose his third match when your presence saved him.

“Who even cares about that nerd stuff,” Kaleek retorted, walking back over to the two of them with his massive sword balanced on his shoulder, “we have dungeon to raid.”

“Kaleek,” Dorrik shook their head, crest fluttering once more, “you are literally a physicist. I’ve read your thesis on using gravity magic to compress cargo on freighters and it was an inspired work. Preliminary studies have shown that your work has spurred a flurry of innovation that could decrease bulk transportation costs between one and two percent.”

“Well,” the otter looked away, his fur fluffing out in the desoph equivalent of a blush, “that’s in the real world. Here in the dreamscape I like to hit things hard with a sword. The bigger the sword, the better. It’s cathartic after wracking my brain going over extrapolated math all day.”

“I can relate,” Kat cracked a smile at the distressed desoph. “My day job was a lab assistant training to be scientist for a while there. Nothing glamorous, mostly just monitoring cell cultures to see how they reacted to modifications to their code so that shareholders could eke out an extra percent or two of profit from crops that we made disease or cold resistant.”

“After a day of that,” she shrugged, “I wanted to get into the tower to stab things too. Your reaction seems pretty natural to me.

“I have moved to a jungle moon populated almost entirely by huge predators in order to properly test myself,” Dorrik replied, drawing bemused glances from both Kaleek and Kat. “For me, the dreamscape is an opportunity to spend time with my family and catch up on the latest political events. It is a welcome respite from the constant life or death struggles that characterize my everyday life.”

“Oookay,” Kaleek chuckled, shaking his head. “Maybe that’s why you beat me every time we spar. I spend my days developing civilian applications for the gravity drive while you throw yourself into daily fights to the death.”

“Speaking of which,” Kat turned to Kaleek, a twinkle of curiosity in her eyes. “Tell me more about gravity drives? Are they releted to the ‘extrapolated math’ you were talking about earlier? That sounds fascinating to me.”

“Sorry, Miss Kat,” Dorrik patted her gently on the shoulder. “Kaleek and I may be able to convince people to trade with you in the tower, but we can’t get around the embargo on your planet. Any visits or technological transfers would result in extreme punishments, and unfortunately, talking about the gravity drive could very easily be interpreted as an attempt by us to transfer a technology that your race isn’t ready for to humanity.”

“Actually,” Kat paused, recalling her raid on the Dean’s office, “would it break the embargo for a member of the Consensus to park a ship in orbit or to help certain factions in a probationary race?”

Dorrik froze, turning to her, their face displaying equal parts uncertainty and concern.

“Not explicitly,” their clawed fingers drummed against the top of another scaled arm, “but that sounds like someone is skirting the rules. Technically, laws of embargo ban direct contact with a restricted race, but in practice that means that the Consensus simply avoids that race’s planet. As for the helping a faction? There are vague rules, yet to be tested in court, that prohibit interfering with the natural development of a race that hasn’t fully joined the Consensus.”

“In short,” Kat nodded slowly, “something is probably up, but I’ll need more information before we can act on it. The story of my life.”

“What is happening, Miss Kat?” Dorrik asked, concern in their voice. “Is there something Kaleek and I can do to help?”

“I overheard someone powerful talking about political matters on Earth,” Kat replied. “He mentioned ‘their friends in orbit’ providing aid in the tower. Given that we’re trapped in a dungeon due to stallesp marauders, I think we can infer what he was talking about even if we don’t know the full details.”

She didn’t mention the raid on the Schaumburg Arcology. Xander had only heard fragmented accounts- that Millennium samurai had gone through the upper levels of the building with the delicacy of a bowling ball smashing into a plate glass window.

It didn’t sound like her family was impacted by whatever political game had led to the attack, but Kat wouldn’t know until she got a chance to call them tomorrow morning. Until then, she was too far from Schaumburg to actually change anything. All Kat could do was clamp down on her anxiety and hope for the best.

“I will let my Clan know,” Dorrik nodded soberly. “Obviously, we cannot directly intervene, but if the stallesp are going to push the rules to their breaking point, there is no reason we can’t counter them in kind.”

“Thank you,” Kat still felt some worry over her family fluttering in her chest as she smiled at her companions. “I would appreciate any assistance you could provide humanity. Things aren’t exactly great on Earth at the moment.”

“First things first.” Kaleek took a step toward the door that sealed them in the relative safety of the spawning area. “We’re going to have to beat this dungeon. I don’t suppose we have any information on what to expect?”

Dorrik shrugged, drawing both of their swords and walking toward the desoph as they spoke.

“Not much that we couldn’t infer from the name. There will primarily be water-based and partially aquatic foes, some of whom have access to minor poisons.” Dorrik paused for a second before continuing wryly. “Of course, I could always wait a week for a ship to pull into orbit with a full analysis of the dungeon. I’m sure at some point a lokkel team has explored it.”

“Decreased visibility, venom, and getting wet it is,” Kaleek paused just in front of the door. “Sounds like a blast to me. Is everyone else in?”

Kat nodded as Dorrik’s crest rippled in amusement. Seeing their responses, the big otter grinned and pushed the door open.

Immediately, more mist poured into the room, as thick as soup and almost as opaque. Kat could almost taste the heavy earth scent of decaying plant matter as the grey fog flowed past her, cutting her visibility down to maybe two arm’s lengths.

A deep, resonant moan filled the hallway, sending a shiver down Kat’s spine. The mist billowed around her, curling and seemingly reaching toward her with tendrils of vapor that trailed across her skin, raising gooseflesh on the exposed skin of her arms.

“That can’t be good,” she muttered, knife at ready as she squinted into the thick fog, trying to make out the shape of her unknown opponent.

Wind buffeted her, startling Kat into jumping backward. Something passed through the space she’d been standing in, completely invisible except for the trail it left in the swirling mist.

Dorrik grunted in pain, the whistle of their swords passing through empty air coming a moment later, prompting Kat to scurry to the side and put her back against one of the dungeon’s walls. With visibility as low as it was, there wasn’t really any way to know where the rest of her team was fighting. A distracted ally’s sword would leave her just as dead as a monster’s claws.

“Smoke Wraiths,” Dorrik shouted, their voice clipped with pain. “Use Dazzle Miss Kat, they’re susceptible to light magic!”

She began channeling the magic, only to grunt as pain spiked into her side. She swung her dagger downward, meeting resistance as it passed through… something.

The pain turned ice cold, a needle of frost jammed in between her ribs that threatened to take Kat’s breath away and muddle the flow of mana that was coalescing into a spell. She staggered to the side, swinging her knife once more to ward off her assailant.

In the moment of the creature’s attack on her, Kat’s attention had wavered. The mana she’d been gathering to form Dazzle had fractured, releasing strands of the warm energy throughout her body.

Biting down on her lip, she focused herself entirely on finishing the spell. More mana swirled up from her depths, connecting with the frayed streams she’d already summoned.

She twirled to the side, barely avoiding a disturbance in the mist as an otherwise unseen attack thumped into the wall of the dungeon. Her forehead furrowed as the muscles in her face and neck tensed from concentration. More glowing bridges of mana appeared in her mind as the shards of the spell came together like a puzzle.

Once more she ducked as another pair of ripples slashed through the fog. Whatever this wraith was that Kat was fighting, it was fast; barely a second had passed since it had first struck her and this was already its third attack.

Then Kat screwed her eyes shut as Dazzle erupted in a brilliant strobe of light. A moment later, blinking against the glare from her spell, she could barely make out a trio of amorphous shadowy forms attacking her companions.

Her enemies were mere blobs, barely visible as darker patches in the omnipresent mist, their silhouettes were little more than undulating spheres with spikes and threads swirling about them. The wraith in front of her swayed wildly, slashing out with a collection of limbs that it freely detached from its main body.

Only one even came near Kat, the other five tendrils flailing about this mist aimlessly. Ducking under the blow, a smile blossomed on Kat’s face despite the frigid wound in her side.

It couldn’t see her. The monster was attacking blind.

Her knife came up, stabbing deep into the spasming wraith. Her blade and wrists sank into the creature, passing through a damp outer membrane and into a frigid substance with the consistency of soup.

Then, the dagger hit something hard. Almost without thinking, Kat activated Penetrate, feeling her stamina drain as the warmth of the ability flowed into her hand, counteracting the chill of the wraith.

The resistance disappeared, and her knife sank up to its hilt. The creature shuddered, dissipating into the mist and only leaving behind a fist-sized chunk of ice impaled on her weapon.

Kat looked up, prepared to help her companions, but the fog had returned to its previous opaque state, the effects of Dazzle fading in the seconds after she cast it. She could still hear them, grunting as they struggled against the wraiths, but Kat was unable to see how much, if any, progress they’d made with their opponents.

For a moment, she contemplated healing the wound in her side. The icy cold was fading with the death of its creator, and the raw ache of the injury was beginning to wear at her, but at the same time, her companions were fighting blind. Kaleek and Dorrik were skilled, but even they had no way of fighting a monster that they couldn’t see.

Well, Kat shrugged internally as she summoned the mana for another casting of Dazzle, a throwing knife in her hand, Dorrik probably could. If she could see the trails in the mist made by the attacking wraiths, the giant lizard could probably pinpoint the monster’s cores and tell what they’d had for supper the day before.

“Eyes closed!” She shouted, following her own advice as she fired off another brilliant strobe of light.

A moment later, a pair of knives were in flight passing through the sloppy body of the wraith assaulting Kaleek. The otter staggered backwards, using the reprieve from her spell to gasp for breath. She couldn’t see any wounds on his silhouette, even the reflected light from Dazzle wasn’t quite enough to penetrate the fog in its entirety, but from the way the desoph warrior moved, it was clear that he had been hit several times.

A third throwing dagger left Kat’s hand as she took in Dorrik’s opponent in the fading light. It was much smaller than she remembered, flailing miserably as even blinded Dorrik fought evenly with it. As she watched, the lokkel’s blades shaved off another chunk of its body, diminishing it further.

She was already gathering mana for another casting of Dazzle as her final dagger struck something deep inside Kaleek’s opponent. It howled mournfully as it dissolved, leaving the desoph to recover against the wall.

The final casting of Dazzle was all it took for Dorrik to finish off their foe. Their blades formed an ‘x’ as they passed through its body, one of them clipping the ice core of the wraith.

Suddenly, Kat became aware of her own ragged breathing as well as the wound on her side. Blood soaked her armor and her status proclaimed that she’d lost five hit points from the attack.

Now that the monsters were dead, the visibility in the room increased.

She let the alien words to Cure Wounds I fall from her lips as she made her way over to Kaleek, briefly healing herself long enough to stop the bleeding and the immediate threat before treating her teammate.

“Thanks,” Kaleek said, relief filling his voice. “I would have been the laughingstock of my pod if I was done in by smoke wraiths on the third level.”

“They are simply a bad matchup,” Dorrik interjected, their scales infuriatingly unblemished as they approached. “Miss Kat has the agility to fight them, but her weapons are too short to fight them safely. I have long enough weapons to kill the wraiths, but they are too fast. Without the help of Miss Kat’s magic to identify their main bodies and disrupt their attacks, I probably could have finished my opponent off, but it likely would have taken a half hour.”

“As for you,” Dorrik took in Kaleek’s injuries, a slightly sour look on their face. “You are better suited for a larger foe where your heavy sword can do some serious damage. Against wraiths, even if you were a couple levels higher, you’d struggle to even fend off their attacks.”

Kaleek stood up stretching the kinks out of his battered body. He frowned, trying to brush out some of the blood staining his fur.

“This is going to mat,” He grumbled, his efforts doing little more than smearing his blood around. “Seriously, as soon as the blood starts clotting my fur is going to be an absolute mess.”

“If I weren’t trying to conserve mana,” Kat responded helpfully, drawing a scowl from the otter, “I could spray you down with Water Jet. That would get rid of the blood in fairly short order.”

“Well get on conserving,” Kaleek glared at her. “The sooner we can clear out the rest of the dungeon the quicker I can get back to town and have a shower.”

Rolling her eyes, Kat folded her legs under herself and sat down, her eyes half closed as she began to wait for her mana to return. She’d need to heal herself before they continued, and if she’d learned any lesson from the first encounter, it was that having enough spare mana to let her spam spells was vitally important.

Twenty minutes later she stood up, nodding to her companions. With a sigh, Kaleek stopped scratching and his clumpy fur and walked to the end of the second room, the fog almost swallowing him up before Dorrik and Kat began to follow.

The otter pushed open another door. Thankfully, this time they weren’t drowned by the thickening mist as they walked down a short hallway and into another room. Still, Kat had a hard time making out the walls of the room. She assumed that they were the same nondescript stone as the rest of the structure, but-

Something hissed, prompting Kat to whirl around and stand back to back with Dorrik, her knife in hand as she scanned the room. She stepped slightly to the side, allowing Kaleek to step into their formation as the three of them formed a triangle of glinting steel while they squinted into the swirling darkness of the dungeon.

The sticky ‘pop pop pop’ of suction cups pulling themselves off the dungeon stone echoed throughout the room. Kat tensed as Kaleek shifted next to her, but he was only bringing his greatsword up into a guard position.

The noises stopped. For a moment, the entire room held its breath.

“Do you think it’s-” Kaleek began only for Kat to cut him off.

“Don’t you DARE finish that sentence,” she hissed angrily, “the second you say it’s safe, something horrifying jumps out of the shadows and we get attacked by surprise.”

“That’s silly,” Dorrik scoffed. “Maybe in your human entertainment things happen in such a fashion, but-”

They all ducked as an earsplitting screech filled the room, followed a moment later a spray of cool liquid that coated all three of them. Before Kat could react, a long, spongy pink tongue darted out from the mist before splatting wetly against the flat of Kaleek’s sword.

Then, the liquid coating her hair and face began to burn. It started as an itch, but quickly, the sensation morphed into an inferno of agony. She almost didn’t notice Kaleek’s sword being ripped from his hands and pulled into the mist.

Something wet and soft wrapped around Kat’s ankle, yanking her from her feet. Her back hit the ground, knocking the wind out of her and sending her knife clattering off into the mist.

The fleshy appendage gripped tight around her leg, jerking her away from the rest of her party. Her foot erupted into the same itching, and burning pain of her shoulders and scalp as Kat was dragged across the dungeon floor, her back thumping and scraping against the hard stone.

She slapped her hand onto her chest, patting around for one of her spare throwing knives by feel even as she began gathering her mana for a Gravity Spike. As soon as her hand closed over the knife she drew it and turned all of her focus toward fighting off the pain in her face and ankle and the disorientation from being pulled across the ground.

Then it was in front of her, an eight-legged lizard, slightly bigger than a large dog. Its scales were a mottled blue and gray that seamlessly blended with the mist and stone of the dungeon. Even as she watched, the colors rippled slightly, its coloration adapting to its surroundings as it unstuck its sucker-covered foot from the ground and took a step toward her.

Kat ignored the red icon blinking in the corner of her vision as she released her Gravity Spike square in the center of the monster’s body. The creature’s torso blurred and contorted as the forces of gravity tried to rip it apart.

It released her ankle, tongue going slack as it bleated in pain. Quickly, Kat rolled over, gritting her teeth against the omnipresent burn, and activated Penetrate. The smaller throwing dagger slammed through the monster’s tongue and lodged itself in the dungeon floor.

The monster tried unsuccessfully to jerk backward, blue-green blood flowing from its open mouth.

Kat rolled to her knees, lunging once again with another throwing dagger in her hand. It attempted to jerk its head to the side, frantic fear in its eyes, but the knife in its tongue held fast long enough for Kat to find her quarry.

Once again, Penetrate empowered her knife, but this time it punched through the creature’s skull, lodging up to its hilt in the struggling monster’s brain. It shuddered once and went still, the combination of her spell and the two daggers enough to finish the ambush predator off.

Kat stood up, careful not to put too much weight on her still burning ankle. One of the monsters lay bisected at Dorrik’s feet while another tried to pull itself away from them, missing three of its eight legs. As for Kaleek, even weaponless, the desoph had managed to clambor onto one of the monsters’ backs. As she watched, he gripped either side of its head, corded muscles straining and twisting.

With a pop, the creature went limp and Kaleek rolled tiredly off of it and onto his feet. Kat frowned slightly at his upper torso, most of the fur was missing, replaced by his greyish skin which was covered in a web of scars, likely from the same acid that had been sprayed on her.

Kat drew her third throwing knife, prepared to help Dorrik only for the monster to fire its tongue at them. The lokkel’s four arms blurred, and a moment later the severed tongue fell to the dungeon floor, oozing blood.

Before the creature could retreat, Dorrik lunged forward, one blade opening either side of the monster’s neck. It croaked, oxygen whistling out of its severed windpipes, and tried to open the distance between itself and Dorrik once more.

This time, the lokkel let it, watching like a hawk as the creature rapidly bled out on the dungeon floor. Little more than twenty seconds after they had cut its throat, Dorrik nodded in satisfaction and sheathed their swords as the light left its eyes.

“You look like crap,” Kaleek smiled at her, almost all of the thick and lustrous fur burned off of his face by the surprise attack.

“You too,” Kat chuckled, “but on the plus side, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about your fur getting matted anymore. You need to have fur to worry about that.”

“Very funny,” Kaleek rolled his eyes. “Anyway, what in the name of the elders were those, Dorrik? I know we’re flying blind here, but I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Kat began casting Cure Wounds I, by the look of things she was about to run her mana dry healing Kaleek and herself.

“How should I know?” Dorrik asked with a shrug, his uncharacteristic ignorance startling Kat badly enough that she lost the flow of her spell. “All I know is that one of them was on the ceiling above us. It spit something at the two of you and then tried to drop on me.”

“Wait,” Kat sputtered, “we just encountered a monster that you don’t know anything about? You? The walking encyclopedia of dungeon lore?”

“What?” Dorrik replied, glancing with surprise at a nodding Kaleek. “Is it really that surprising that I wouldn’t know a creature that we’re fighting? I’m knowledgeable, but far from all-knowing.”

“Honestly,” Kaleek scratched at his raw and damaged skin, “yeah. Up until now, you’ve basically known how to win every fight before we wandered into it. This is kinda new.”

“Get used to it,” Dorrik shrugged again. “As we climb, we’re going to find ourselves fighting more and more esoteric monsters. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but throw yourself into a fight and hope that your skillset is well rounded enough to handle whatever blows the monster strikes back with.”

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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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