“So your faction is in the middle of a power struggle?” Sikka asked, adjusting the new bandoleer strapped across Kat’s chest. “Be a dear and tighten the buckles on your armor, the enchantments won’t work unless all of the interior stitching is in contact with your skin.”
“That part’s hardly new,” Kat responded, reaching across her body to feed more of her leather straps through the meta buckles. “It’s hard to go a week on Earth without some group extorting, maneuvering against, or betraying another. The real issue is that we think that the stallesp are involved with one of the factions. It isn’t absolute, but it sure looks like they’re providing support outside of the Tower.”
“Wait.” Kat frowned. “What do you mean the interior stitching needs to be touching my skin?”
“Enchanted clothing and armor use magical reagents woven into their fabric,” Dork chimed in helpfully from the other side of the room where they were taking experimental swings with a new pair of swords. “Unless the enchantment is going to be powered by mana batteries, it will need to connect to the person wearing it. Given that mana batteries need to be recharged by an artificer at great cost, most enchanters build leads into their works so that they can directly absorb power from their wielder’s skin.”
“Unsurprisingly, Dorrik is right,” Sikka rolled her eyes. “When your armor was commissioned, the artisan evenly distributed connections into the stomach and back of the outfit so that it could draw mana from you without any serious discomfort.”
Kat stopped moving, her hands still holding on to the various straps and buckles of the ivory inlaid leather armor.
“But I wear clothing under my armor?” She asked hesitantly, the hint of a blush rising up on her face, “wouldn’t that interfere with the connections?”
“Of course,” Sikka cocked her head to the side, crest flaring in amusement. “Why do you wear underclothing? It can’t be a matter of comfort. We pad the interior of all low tier armor with the inner fur from a stone ram in order to imbue it with some electrical resistance. I’ve tested your cushioning myself Kat, and it should be plenty soft, even on that fragile pink skin of yours.
“Wait.” The lizard’s head resumed its normal position. “This isn’t about you getting cold is it? Hasn’t your race invented some form of temperature control? Really, even if you haven’t the third level of the dreamscape is on the warmer end of things. Much more comfortable than the rest of the dreamscape. The place can get a bit drafty.”
“Well yes, but-” Kat began, struggling to answer the barrage of questions. The big lizard had a point. Fashion and social norms on Earth meant nothing in The Tower of Somnus. The only thing holding her back were her own hangups.
“Sikka,” Dorrik sighed with exasperation, sheathing their own swords. “Kat’s race has nudity taboos. It’s fascinating actually. There’s an entire culture based around modesty, but at the same time revealing enough of your body to attract a mate. Our xenologists are still trying to figure out exactly how the belief came about from a deep study into human informational and entertainment programming.”
“Of course,” they frowned, a single claw tapping their scaled chin, “it might be a simple matter of embarrassment. Most of the humans in entertainment programming are taller than Miss Kat, and their proportions-”
“That’s enough of this conversation,” Kat cut in. “I’d rather this not turn into a surprise makeover reality program.”
“Reality programming?” Dorrik asked hopefully. “I’ve seen some references to it in the cultural studies of your people, but the xenologists couldn’t make heads and tails of it. As far as they could tell it was just like normal entertainment programs except noticeably cheaper and more chaotic.”
“Don’t try to make sense of it.” Kat snorted. “It’ll rot your brain.”
She took a breath in, closing her eyes for a moment to center herself. Even in the brief moment of darkness she could almost feel Sikka’s amusement, Kaleek goofing off in the corner, and Dorrik leaning in close, unable to abandon a nugget of information that eluded him.
“Look,” she rolled her eyes at Dorrik. Just as she predicted, they were crowding toward her with excitement in their eyes. “We’re getting distracted here. If I need skin contact with my armor, I’m a big girl and I can handle it. I was just wondering if I could have a private room to change in? I know it’s a stupid hangup, but I’d still prefer to avoid going nude if I can help it.”
“Please!” Kaleek shouted from the corner of the room where he was adjusting the fit on a new pair of bracers made out of a dark metal while a lokkel artisan watched on. “The last thing we need around here is more of Kat’s disgusting pink skin. Anything that involves covering it up is a plus as far as I’m concerned.”
“Quiet or I’ll have you shaved!” Sikka thundered back, drawing a startled flinch from the usually saucy otter. She turned to Kat with a sweet smile on her muzzle. “By all means dear. Our private fitting rooms are normally used for warriors outside of the clan that don’t want to reveal all of their secrets, but I don’t see why we can’t let you use one.”
Fifteen minutes later, Kat was back in the main sales room for the Ahn Enclave jumping up and down on the balls of her feet experimentally as she tried to get the feel for the new equipment. Even her new long knife felt different. Theoretically it had the same dimensions and balance as the one Kat was used to, but it just felt wrong.
The rest of her equipment had the same slight sense of wrongness. It was slightly heavier than her old set, but given the increases to her strength attribute, the extra weight shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Deep down, Kat knew that it was sentimentality. From her first week in the Tower she’d used the same starting gear with an occasional consumable potion or ointment thrown in. She could feel the almost electric thrill from the dormant magic in her new knife and armor. It was clearly superior, but at the same time it didn’t feel like it was hers.
Of course, that was completely foolish. The three of them had spent weeks killing monsters to gather the materials needed for the equipment. Even then, she’d had to pay almost half of her marks for the various ingredients that couldn’t be sourced on the third floor of the Tower.
At least that had led to a pleasant reunion with Gasoot. The merchant had followed them to the third floor, taking advantage of their connection to Dorrik and the lokkel in the area to establish themselves in the massive desert.
Still, Kat couldn’t quite shake her unease over the new equipment. Neither Sikka nor Dorrik had talked about it, but Gasoot was impressed when she brought the armor up. Apparently, Clan Ahn’s custom armor and weapons fetch a premium in the Tower. Ordinarily, a player trying to purchase a set would be expected to furnish both the ingredients and at least five thousand marks to compensate the skilled lokkel artisans for their time and expertise.
In short, it was a massive gift, and that didn’t make her comfortable. She trusted Dorrik and liked Sikka, but the sums of money involved were insane. Maybe it was the hunted street rat in her, but outside of family, no one would spend that on a friend. As powerful as the enchanted armor and knife were, they felt like shackles restricting her and binding her to Dorrik’s family.
Even Xander, the man that had all but become her father after the accident left the actual position open, would only loan her money without interest. Of course, on the streets, an interest-free loan with no set end date was an act of incredible generosity.
The entire situation left her feeling lost and anxious. On Earth, Kat had the context to know what she was getting into. Any deal had certain unspoken provisions and norms that all of the players simply knew about. Samurai didn’t take jobs personally. Even if captured, you didn’t turn on an employer. No lunch was truly free.
In the Tower? She’d stepped into a community entirely outside of her understanding. True, everyone talked about how enlightened they were and the importance of being trustworthy, but just below the surface, the stallesp sounded like they would be at home in any megacorp boardroom back on Earth.
“Snap out of it, Kat,” Kaleek clapped her on the shoulder. She felt the weight of his blow and a tingle as the enchantments in her ivory and enamel inlaid leather armor redirected its force, but little else. “Dorrik was just saying that they found the perfect dungeon for us to try out all the new equipment.”
“Oh?” She shifted the bandoleer across her chest slightly, repositioning it into a slightly more comfortable spot. “Did they say what the dungeon’s theme would be?
“Sarvash,” Dorrik responded, walking up to the two of them. “Originally nomads from the ice deserts of Sarv. They’re pack hunters covered in chitinous armor. Four legs around a central core that has two arms. They traditionally use bronze weapons and overwhelming numbers to bring down prey. Since entering the Tower, they’ve managed to acquire some healers and elementalists focusing on earth and air magic. Luckily, they haven’t gotten the hang of any other spellcasting classes.”
“I’m not sure we should just be diving right into combat,” Kat replied with a frown. “I understand what the new gear does in principle, but I’d prefer to experiment under controlled conditions a bit longer before I actually use it in the field. I’d hate to have an enchantment give out on me at the last second or for me to miss a throw with a knife because the new ones have a slightly different balance.”
“I mean,” She shifted uncomfortably, acutely aware that both of her teammates were looking right at her. “It’s one thing to know that my armor uses my mana to decrease damage dealt to me as well as air resistance. I can intellectually understand that the sheaths in my bandoleer automatically coat anything put in them with a paralytic poison, but that doesn’t mean I know how to integrate all of that into a fight.”
Kat sighed, closing her eyes for a second to compose herself. “Ok,” she continued. “My combat knife for example. It’s enchanted to be sharper than normal and to leave a minor curse behind in any wounds in order to fight magical healing and coagulation. If I stop and stare an enemy down, I can figure out how to use those abilities effectively, but no one in their right mind will hold still long enough for me to think everything through.”
“Just stab them,” Kaleek suggested with a shrug. “Once we get past level twelve and have to upgrade our gear again, then we’ll start using more unique abilities. At that point we will need to find someplace secluded to figure out attack patterns. Until then? Pretty much everything you’re equipped with is just an enhanced version of itself. Your armor is better at protecting you and your knife slashes things better. Just fight how you normally do and you’ll figure out the little details as you go.”
“But how much damage can my armor take?” She asked, frustration in her voice. “How much force do I need to put behind a knife strike now that it’s sharper? There’s a careful balance to these things and I could overextend myself if I put too much force into a blow.
“It’ll be fine, Kat.” Kaleek tossed a wink her way. “Now that we have actual armor, we won’t die from an unlucky blow. Even if there are some growing pains, we’ll be alright.”
Dorrik nodded gravely, their crest fluttering in slightly.
“Ordinarily,” they shrugged, “I’d agree with Miss Kat. Unfortunately, her reports about the power struggle on her homeworld has me worried. If the stallesp are willing to risk breaking the embargo for a probationary race, even if only by proxy, Miss Kat will need all of the help she can get.”
Kat opened her mouth to respond and stopped. Her mind flashed over the events of the last month or so.
“Crap.” She sighed, running her fingers through her hair. “You’re right. For someone that should be spending her time in school, I’ve been sneaking and fighting for my life a whole lot more than I should be. A couple more dungeon awards would probably help.”
She winced, the image of the two mechanics from St. Louis seared into her memory. Kat was growing stronger in order to survive, but she needed to make sure that the process didn’t change her. Fighting people that wanted to hurt her and hers was all well and good, but at the same time, Kat didn’t want to end up as what she hated. Powerful, but callous to the impact of her actions.
“Then let’s get going,” Kaleek grinned, walking toward the courtyard’s exit. “Once you hit level six you’ll get the opportunity to evolve one of your skills to the next tier. You might not be able to take over your world or anything like that, but with an iron tier elemental skill you should be able to keep yourself safe.”
“So level six is the goal,” Kat nodded slowly, digesting the otter’s words as she followed him and Dorrik out of the compound. “That seems surprisingly achievable.”
“The goal has always been level 144,” Dorrik handed her a pair of waterskins from their pack before passing a trio of the containers to Kaleek. “Every step along the way is another chance to grow stronger. Level six grants access to iron tier skills, but classes evolve at level twelve. Then at level eighteen, you can begin earning silver tier skills with another class evolution at level twenty-four. The process follows the same pattern until master-tiered skills become available at level sixty-eight followed by your terminal class becoming available at seventy-two.”
“Wow,” Kat stopped, blinking against the faux sun of the Tower for a moment when she stepped out of the compound before lowering her veil over her face. “I don’t think any humans have even made it to level twenty. What happens after level seventy-two though? Do you just collect dungeon awards until the end of time?”
“None of the warriors at that level talk about it much,” Dorrik responded, frustrated. “Some have given hints, but most scholarship considers them to be disinformation, intended to throw off their rivals. Given that each avatar over level seventy-two is more or less a strategic asset for the faction they’re aligned with, I cannot discount that possibility.”
“Either that,” Kaleek grinned at her, “or the scientists were too scared to ask details of an entity that could rip a moon apart with magic.”
“Eidrass only did that once and it was to prove a point,” Dorrik snapped. “It ended the Gliese trade dispute before it had any real chance to get started.”
“Plus,” Dorrik muttered defensively, “the moon was smaller and in a decaying orbit anyway. It was either magic or use a battlecruiser to tow it into a nearby star.”
They walked outside the city walls in silence, the bleached white cobblestones giving way to burning and shifting sand as Kat ruminated over her companions’ exchange.
“So,” Kat ignored Dorrik testily crossing their lower arms as she spoke up. “A moon? Like, a big ball of rock in orbit.”
“Yep,” Kaleek’s reply was smug. “Eidrass Ahn. Dorrik doesn’t like to brag about it, he’s their grandfather. He’s one of the two dozen lokkel rankers, a huge name in Consensus politics, and a large part of why the other races treat the lokkel with respect.”
“You’re right,” Dorrik grumbled, “I’d prefer to not talk about Eidrass. Everyone either compares me to him or acts like he dotes on me and that’s why I’ve achieved so much. The fact of the matter is, I’ve never met the man. Once he made it past level seventy-two he received many breeding offers from established triads. He may be my grandfather, but almost a quarter of Clan Ahn young can say the same.”
“Fine,” Kat’s smile was hidden behind her veil, but she was sure the other two could hear it. “We’ll stop teasing you about it.”
“Speak for yourself,” Kaleek grumbled, only for Kat to soak him with a spray from Water Jet, almost tipping the heavily armored desoph face first into the sand.
“What in the name of the elders was that!” He sputtered, glaring at Kat in indignation. She only grinned in reply and kept walking.
About a half an hour later, the three of them had lapsed into wary silence as they kept watch for desert predators. Under her veil, sweat was streaming down Kat’s face as they crested another dune only for Dorrik to raise a hand, halting their party.
As soon as Kat’s perception wasn’t focused on the sound of her feet shuffling against the sand, she heard it as well. The clash of metal combined with distant shouting that could only mean a battle.
The three of them shared a glance. Kaleek and Kat nodded at the unspoken question, and a moment later they were skidding down the dune, running toward the echoing noises of combat.
Two dunes later, Kat’s breath was coming in short gasps and sweat was pouring down her face, but their quarry was in sight. A human man and woman stood back to back in the valley between the great mounds of sand, struggling against six opponents. Namely, a trio of humans and a trio of stallesp.
Before she could say anything, a blast of fire from one of the stallesp caught the male defender in the leg, dropping him to the sand with a scream.
“Ego Shard!” Dorrik’s shout was a starting pistol, sending Kat scrambling down the sandy embankment as the pink bolt of energy hit one of the three humans.
The man froze, stunned as the Psi energy clouded his mind long enough for one of Kat’s thrown daggers to catch him on the stomach. Her fears about the new weapons’ balance proved unfounded as the blade sank in up to its hilt, pumping paralytic venom into him. A moment later, she finished casting Dehydrate and unleashed the spell.
He collapsed, the trio of sudden attacks overwhelming his avatar.
A soldier standing next to him shouted something, causing one of the stallesp to point at Dorrik. The lokkel was glowing with crackling purple energy as they ran into the fray, their already bulging muscles enhanced further by the Psi skill.
The five remaining assailants began to run away, one of the stallesp stopping long enough to summon a wall of flames to stop direct pursuit. Kat didn’t even bother. She might have the speed to catch up to the attackers, but without Dorrik and Kaleek’s support, she suspected that chasing them down wouldn’t be the best idea that she’d had.
Instead she ran over to the injured man, casting Cure Wounds I in between her ragged breaths. Already, his blood was beginning to stain the sand, and if she didn’t hurry, Kat ran the risk of shock setting in.
Crouching down next to him, she pressed her golden glowing hands to the wound, drawing a hiss of pain from her patient. His body stiffened, only to relax as the healing energy flowed into him.
“Oh thank God,” the woman standing next to her babbled, her excited words a bit hard to make out through a thick English accent. “Is he going to be all right?”
“Probably,” Kat grunted back. “My skill is pretty low level, but I’ve managed to stop the bleeding status effect, so the Tower should let him wake himself up.”
“Good,” the woman ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t think I could pay Rick Moreno back for this without Dave’s help.”
“Rick?” Dorrik asked, frowning as they took in the disturbed sand of the battle sight.
“The fucker said he found a dungeon that he wanted to tackle with six people.” The survivor spat on the ground. “I figured that since we were both with VodCom that there was no way he’d try anything funny, but as soon as we got out here, three of those mole things jumped out of the side of a sand dune and everyone attacked us.”
Kat looked up from the injured man, her mana was beginning to run low but he was breathing easily. “VodCom?” She asked. “Out of Britannia? If you both worked for the same company, why would he ambush you?”
“Yeah,” the woman nodded, “Britannia. As for why he did it? I don’t know. Maybe for our marks? Maybe because his boss and mine are in the middle of a turf war.”
“Whatever it was,” she muttered grimly, “I’m killing the wanker as soon as he respawns tomorrow. I don’t rightly care if it gets me kicked out of the city.”
The woman paused for a second, closing her eyes shaking like a leaf as she tried to process her anger and betrayal.
“Don’t mind me,” she continued with a weak smile. “I’m grateful that you saved Blake. I’ll remember it if the three of you are ever in a spot of trouble, but for now, I think the two of us should make ourselves scarce and wake up. I don’t mean to insult my saviors and all, but I’m about out of trust at the moment and the three of you look like you could turn our team into diced meat on our best days.”
She stepped past Kat, slipping the mostly healed man’s arm over her shoulder. Nodded gratefully to her before leaning on his companion. Together, the two of them limped away, occasionally casting furtive looks at the three of them.
Silence reigned in the sandy valley. Dorrik glanced back and forth between Kat and Kaleek, a worried expression on their face.
“As soon as Miss Kat’s mana has returned,” they began, their voice downcast, “we should hurry to our next dungeon. It looks like our fears about the stallesp remaining active and involved in human politics have been realized. We will need to let the rest of the clan know first thing tomorrow.”
Kat could only nod unhappily.
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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