You have completed the Wood Tier Level Three Dungeon, Ice Sands.
Three of Three party members surviving. Good Job!
Kat dismissed the award. The dungeon hadn’t been easy, but with Dorrik’s guidance, they’d moved through it cautiously and safely. The insect-like enemies were smarter than the usual foes provided by the Tower, laying ambushes and protecting spellcasters, but ultimately their primitive weapons weren’t a match for the well crafted lokkel equipment.
Even if she had been using her original equipment, Kat’s armor would have turned away many of the strikes from the bronze scimitars favored by the Sarvash. So long as the three of them avoided the traps set by the Sarvash, she could have danced circles around the angry, skittering monsters. Given their opponents limited ranged options, Kat could pepper the insectoid warriors with spells that slowed and hindered while Dorrik eliminated their spellcasters and Kaleek finished their weakened foes off.
With their new equipment, it was barely even a challenge. Her knife almost cut straight through the Sarvash blades, and the one time she was surprised and shot by a hidden archer, it only shaved off one hit point and two points of mana. The blow barely even staggered her, and she simply returned the favor by planting a poisoned throwing dagger into the surprised warrior’s throat before it could react.
The encounter reinforced her concerns about owing Clan Ahn. The cost and difficulty of gathering the components for the armor were one thing, but actually seeing it in action just drove the point home: whether Clan Ahn was too polite to bring it up or not, she owed them, and she owed them a lot. A feeling she was less than comfortable with.
“Did you see me take down that tribal patriarch?” Kaleek was grinning ear to ear despite the beating light and heat of the Tower’s pseudo-sun. “He tried to tag me with his venom spikes, but I just dodged one and cut the other off. Then Kat blasted him to keep him off balance and I cut off enough of his legs that the stupid thing couldn't stand anymore.”
“Now that,” he slapped her on the shoulder cheerfully, “was a good fight. A little bit of challenge, but mostly a chance for us to hone our craft in a proper combat setting. See Kat? The new equipment worked perfectly. Nothing to worry about.”
“It was a bit more fun than expected,” Kat shook off her worry to smile back at the exuberant otter.
“Be prepared for another dungeon tomorrow.” Dorrik walked up to the two of them, one of their upper claws shielding their eyes against the fake light. “I’ve spent some time researching our available options, and I think I have pinpointed our final candidate. One more dungeon, and so long as we’re careful, we should be on the fourth floor in a couple of days.”
“Good.” Kaleek stretched, his sleek fur rustling in the desert wind. “I’m sick of this dry heat. The sooner we can get to someplace with proper oceans and other desoph, the happier I’ll be.”
“What does the final dungeon look like?” Kat asked, rolling her eyes at Kaleek. “I thought we were running low on dungeons that our team was optimized for?”
“We are far from optimized for it,” Dorrik replied ruefully. “It is an acidic swamp full of blood-sucking quasi-amphibians that lurk in the water. The good news is that there is almost never a wait to gain admittance, and with the use of proper consumables such as oils of acid resistance and powders of clotting, the actual dungeon will be fairly easy. The bad news is that raids on it are invariably disgusting and miserable.”
“Sounds like fun,” Kaleek chuckled. “As long as it will get us to the fourth floor quickly, I’ll manage.”
Dorrik inclined their head toward Kat, as if asking a question.
“I’m in,” she flashed him a quick smile. “As awful as this sounds, I just wanted to thank both of you for accelerating our climb like this. I know that Dorrik especially wanted to spend a couple more weeks on the third floor, and that without you I’d be stuck here for months if not years trying to figure out my own way up.”
She shifted, trying to find the words to explain herself. It wasn’t often that Kat was at a loss, but on the other hand, it wasn’t often that she opened up to people. Emotional vulnerability on Earth was just one more weakness to be exploited, but here in the Tower amongst her friends-
“We understand,” Dorrik reached out and gripped her forearm, a pleasant smile on their muzzle. “You have helped Kaleek and I a great deal. It would only be right to return the favor, and even if it weren’t, you are a friend, Miss Kat. That alone is enough reason to help.”
“Even if you are pink and weird.” Kaleek nodded, mischievous grin still on his face. “I’m always happy to lend a hand.”
“Thanks.”” Kat’s chest felt tight, as she struggled to process the moment. “I mean it.”
“We do too.” Dorrik gave her arm a squeeze. “Now it’s probably time for us to wake up so we can reconvene tomorrow. After all, I have a date with a feral canopy skulker before I can return to the dreamscape.”
“Lucky you,” Kaleek winked. “I only have a date with two females. Nothing so fun as a life and death swordfight, but by the elders you should see the way their fur glistens in the sun.”
He leaned close to Kat, eyes gleaming conspiratorially before he whispered, “they’re sisters.”
“It must be different among the desoph,” Kat smiled back weakly, “but that would be pretty dang weird on Earth. Anything involving siblings is taboo, kind of like humanity’s issues with nudity.”
“Oh no,” Dorrik shook their head, “it’s still plenty strange among the desoph.”
They began to fade, a smile still on their muzzle as Dorrik willed themselves out of the dreamscape and into wakefulness.
“They’re just jealous because they haven’t reached sexual maturity yet,” Kaleek winked at her. “Don’t worry, if we get you some emergency hair growth formula to cover all of that pink stuff I’m sure I could find you a pair of strapping desoph brothers. Just say the word.”
Kat stared at the otter blankly as he faded as well. Finally alone, she shook her head, chuckling quietly to herself. She cast one last lingering glance around the empty desert before closing her eyes and willing herself awake.
The sound of some bustle in the hallway roused Kat from her comfortable bed. She pushed down the genuine goose feather comforter before standing up. Although technically her dorm room was a single room or ‘efficiency,’ that room was easily bigger than the entire living room and kitchenette of the two bedroom apartment she lived in with her mother.
She ignored the sound of a woman’s voice shouting in the hallway as one of her classmates began arguing with someone, instead making her way to the small bathroom attached to her room. The water from her faucet drowned out the raised voices as Kat washed her face before brushing her teeth and hair.
After dressing herself in a nondescript GroCorp button-down shirt and pair of slacks, Kat stepped out into the hallway. Iris, the daughter of a senior executive, was red in the face, her long brunette hair streaming behind her as she screamed at her maid. Each angry word was punctuated by her shaking a blue ribbon clutched in her perfectly manicured hand just beneath the terrified servant’s nose.
“I asked for a CERULEAN bow, Jane!” Kat hurried past her irate classmate. “This is COBALT! Cerulean brings out my eyes, but Cobalt mutes them. DO YOU WANT ME TO BE MUTED, JANE?!”
Kat winced, silencing the snarky voice deep inside her that wanted to blurt out ‘yes please.’ Luckily, she managed to work her way to the end of the hallway without any further trouble where she found Emma waiting, probably for her.
“Kat!” The other woman bounced down the hallway, grasping both of Kat’s hands in her own.
She flinched. Everything inside of her demanded that she pull her hands back, to clear enough space between her and the person approaching her so that Kat could draw her knife or cast a spell.
Intellectually, she knew that her knife was tucked safely under her pillow, and that Emma was the furthest thing from a threat to her physical safety, but at the same time, her hands shook as she forcibly suppressed her reflexes.
Kat licked her lips nervously before smiling weakly at the other girl. She wouldn’t let St. Louis happen again. She couldn’t lose herself to the constant violence that was beginning to consume her life. There were other ways to deal with things than a bared blade.
“Are you ready for your presentation on human resources?” Emma didn’t seem to notice her hesitance, but then again, the bubbly girl never did.
“I think so,” Kat barely managed to face calm as her voice cracked. “Some of the performance metrics still confuse me, but I think I’ve managed to figure out most of the standard methods of task flow optimization.”
“That’s great,” Emma gushed, releasing Kat’s hands and walking toward the elevator with her. “I’m sure you’ll do great, Kat. You were already so smart, but then you go and study all the time.”
“That’s because I don’t have any friends,” she quirked a half smile at Emma. “Other than you, nobody really bothers to spend any time with me.”
“But that’s not true,” Emma cocked her head, giggling, “Jasper Haupt is friends with you too. Pretty much every time you go home for the weekend he shows up in the girls wing asking about you. He looks like a kicked puppy when I tell him you aren’t around.”
She leaned closer to Kat, a twinkle in her eye and a hand on her upper arm. Kat’s skin crawled, uncomfortable with the other girl’s proximity.
“I think he likes you,” Emma whispered, “he’s awfully cute.”
“Maybe,” Kat’s memory immediately flashed back to Davis’ watchful glare every time that they met, “but I’ve recently had a fairly bad experience with boys. I think it might be best that I remain single for a while in order to center myself emotionally.”
“You go girl,” Emma nodded firmly. “I did the same thing for two weeks after I caught my last boyfriend hooking up with that snake Brianna Ray. There’s something empowering about-”
“Wait,” her eyes widened, “is this bad experience you’re talking about Arnold Jacques?”
Kat grimaced at hearing his name, nodding slowly. The boy had been a petty self-centered asshole, but at the end of the day he hadn’t deserved what had happened to him. She still felt occasional pangs of guilt over her role in the asshole’s demise, but those usually faded when she remembered that he’d sent thugs after Michelle.
“OhmyGod,” Emma squealed. “Your last boyfriend killed your current boyfriend’s parents? This is like the second arc of Chrome Cowboys where Jenny-”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Kat responded firmly, “and I’ve never had one. It was just bad luck with the men in my life that’s making me cautious now. Nothing more.”
“What’s this about a boyfriend?” Jasper’s smooth voice interrupted from behind them, drawing a wince from Kat. “I didn’t know you were dating anyone?”
Emma squealed again. Kat swore she could almost make out the wisps of steam escaping the other girl as she emulated a tea kettle.
“I’m not,” she turned back to look at Jasper, a slightly forced smile on her face. Behind him, Davis was his usual self. Glowering at her as he watched her every move.
“I was wondering what you’re doing after your test in Management Methods and Practice?” Everything about him was casual. Like there couldn’t be anything more natural than what he was doing at any given moment, as if the world needed to adapt to him, rather than the other way around.
“Nothing too much,” Kat answered slowly. “I don’t have any afternoon classes so I was going to get started on my advanced biology coursework, but I don’t suppose that’s something that needs to happen today.”
“Great!” Jasper clapped his hands together before taking a step back. “It’s decided. The Worker’s Liberation Vanguard is meeting today and I’d love to introduce you to them. I’ll have someone pick you up after the exam.”
Kat did her best to ignore Emma as the girl practically vibrated with excitement next to her. Almost worse than the idea of spending an afternoon with a room full of wealthy strangers convinced that they were ‘helping her’ was the prospect of answering Emma’s barrage of questions afterward.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with you trying to drag a guess out of me on the-” She began, locking eyes with Jasper.
“No,” he returned her gaze with a confident smile. “You said that you weren’t comfortable, and that’s good enough for me. I’m sure that given enough time, you’ll change your mind, but for now there are no ulterior motives. I just want to introduce you to a group of like-minded people.”
“Fine,” Kat replied, partially against her will, “I’ll meet up with you after the exam, but for now I need to get going. Management Methods and Practices is the course that I’m the least confident in, and showing up late and harried to my first major test is hardly how I want to establish myself.”
“Of course.” Jasper gave her a dazzling smile of perfect, almost certainly augmented, straight white teeth. “You’ll knock it out of the park Kat. I believe in you.”
She smiled back weakly as Jasper and Davis walked away. As soon as they were out of sight, both of Emma’s hands gripped hers.
“Seeeeeee,” the other girl drew the word out knowingly. “I think he liiiiikes you.”
“That’ll be tough for him then,” Kat rolled her eyes as she began walking toward her Management classroom. “Come on, we’re both going to be late if you keep mooning over my nonexistent love life.”
The exam itself went fairly quickly. Kat was absolutely sure of her multiple choice answers, but some of the essay questions left a fair amount up for interpretation. All of it covered material she was confident in, but she knew better than to count on a specific grade when subjective standards were going to be applied to her answer.
Emma was still working on her answers, clearly struggling, when Kat stepped out of the classroom. Pairs and trios of her fellow students milled about outside, anxiously discussing their answers with each other or panicking over questions that they had missed.
A man with straight blonde hair in his mid-twenties, wearing a conservative suit, and a pleasant smile approached her.
“Katherine Debs?” He asked, inclining his head slightly.
“Yes?” She responded, stepping out of the classroom’s doorway to let a hurriedly whispering man and woman pass.
“Mister Haupt sent me to fetch you for the Worker’s Vanguard meeting,” he leaned to the side to let a woman, tears streaming down her face to sprint out of the classroom toward the nearby bathroom. Without remarking on the disturbance, he continued speaking smoothly. “The meeting place is offsite and in a restricted area. You won’t be able to reach it with an automated taxi, so Mister Haupt thought it best that I drive you there.”
“By all means lead the way Mister?” She waved him onward with her right hand, quirking an eyebrow at the last second as she inquired about his name.
“Andrew is fine, Miss Debs,” he replied without missing a beat. “Now if you’ll follow me, the car is waiting.”
Several more attempts to talk with Andrew on the way down to the ground floor of the college were courteously rebuffed. By the time they got into the sleek car, Kat was pretty sure that the polite young man knew nothing and had no opinions on any subject. Likely, a useful skill when dealing with the opinionated scions of wealth that made up most of the college.
The drive itself was surprisingly sedate. Chiwaukee traffic was, as per usual, about as calm as lit fireworks in a running dryer. Andrew just handled it with a deftness and grace that Kat found surprising. Honestly, by the fifth time he smoothly merged the car into an opening in traffic that was only a hair's breadth bigger than the vehicle itself, Kat was beginning to suspect that he was a player. His agility and reactions were just inhuman.
About twenty minutes later, they were pulling through a gate in front of a mansion on the outskirts of the megalopolis. A pair of guards, armed with assault rifles with grenade launchers mounted beneath the barrels, waved them through after Andrew flashed his lanyard.
He parked the car smoothly, and before Kat could open the door on her own, Andrew was there, ushering her out with a smile.
She frowned at the building. It towered above her, at least four stories supported by massive stone pillars encased in ivy. It had none of the placards or logos that would mark it as a GroCorp property.
“Is this,” she began hesitantly, “a private residence?”
“The Leander Estate,” Andrew replied. “Now if you would follow me, Miss Debs, I’ll guide you to the door where one of the Leander servants can take over and lead you to wherever the Worker’s Vanguard is meeting.”
“But isn’t the Worker’s Vanguard a club associated with the college?” she asked, confused. “When you said that we would be meeting off campus, I thought they might be meeting someplace secretive to avoid monitoring, but this doesn’t even make sense. A mansion this size surely has operatives and informants crawling through it. There’s no way that whatever is happening in there is actually being concealed from corporate intelligence.”
“Davis said you were a smart one,” Andrew broke character for a brief second, flashing her a rogueish grin before his previous expression of placid neutrality returned, “but I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about Miss Debs.”
He stepped away from the vehicle, and with a sigh, she followed him to the mansion’s massive doors.
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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