“I wasn’t followed here,” Kat responded, slowly. “I had my driver drop me off one street up and two streets down, and I made sure that he left before I started moving. The only way the Haupt’s would know where I am is if they tracked me via satellite, and even then I made sure to cut through a couple of stores to try and lose any sort of overhead observation.”
“Fine,” Xander muttered, “you’re probably clean.”
He paced back and forth, a nervous, almost manic energy animating his quick, jerky movements as he wore a hole in the safe house’s cheap carpet. Off to the side, Whippoorwill was perched on top of a pile of duffle bags filled with their gear, eyes flickering as she played some game on an entertainment channel.
“I know you’re not comfortable with wet work, Kat.” Xander stopped walking, reaching his hand into the breast pocket of his dress shirt only to frown. “Damn, I quit smoking years ago, but it still gets me sometimes.”
“What’s wet work?” Whippoorwill asked, still leaning back on the pile of equipment, eyes unfocused as she fiddled with her smartpanel.
“An infiltration job where the goal is a human asset,” Kat replied carefully, gaze never leaving Xander. “Sometimes it’s assasination, sometimes it’s a kidnapping, sometimes it’s torture, but it’s almost always messy.”
Whippoorwill sat up straight, blinking away whatever she was doing on the small computer as a look of concern blossomed on her face.
“We just need information,” Xander sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Belle doesn’t think that Williamson will trust it to a computer, and I’m inclined to agree. We’re going to extract and interrogate someone important. Pull out their secrets the old-fashioned way.”
“You know,” he smiled weakly, “along with their fingernails.”
“Gross,” Kat frowned at him. “At least tell me that we aren’t going after someone I know and like. A job is a job, but there are some lines I’m not willing to cross.”
“It’s Tom Franklin,” Xander’s hand reached for his breast pocket again, only to stop halfway there. He patted his chest nervously.
“The Dean?” Kat asked incredulously. “But we just hit him. I think Whippoorwill covered my tracks, but if we do something drastic they’ll be looking over his security with a fine toothed comb. This is exactly the sort of shit that gets infiltrators caught.”
“It is in fact the sort of amateur mistake I drill you on avoiding,” he replied, sighing.
“Then why in the chrome-plated hell would you be telling me to do it?” Kat threw her hands up in the air, frustration and stress straining her voice.
“Because we don’t have another choice, Kat,” Xander was quiet, all of the anxiety and his usual bluster drained out of him. “Things are getting really bad in Schaumburg. Like, people disappearing even when they aren’t out past curfew bad. No one can go to work, so no one is making money, and Millennium is sweeping the entire arcology floor by floor. They’re looking for someone and something, and they aren’t afraid of stepping on toes to get it. Belle and a couple of the senior executives have called for a shareholder meeting and Williamson has called in every favor imaginable to get it delayed for a couple of months.”
“The shareholder meeting is our only hope,” he grimaced. “Schaumburg isn’t turning a profit and they’re already starting to run low on food. God damn do I need a smoke.”
“If Ike Holdings isn’t turning a profit,” Kat frowned, worry for her Mom and Sister flashing through her, “even a shareholder is going to catch hell for basically destroying a profitable subsidiary. I don’t get it. As soon as the shareholder meeting happens, Williamson is going to get slagged. She might be able to delay it, but there’s no way she can put off the meeting forever.”
“The two problems with what you are saying is that it’s completely true, and Elaine Williamson knows it better than you or I,” Xander’s hand reached for his breast pocket once more, shaking slightly. “God damn, I need a cigarette.”
“What’s her endgame then?” Whippoorwill chirped up. “If her visible moves look like suicide, that means that there’s something else going on.”
“And that,” Xander pointed at Whippoorwill, “is why Belle wants Franklin and I want a cigarette. Something’s going on, and we don’t know what the hell it is.”
“I’ll admit,” he continued grimly, “the situation has me spooked. Hell, I think even Belle’s scared. There are certain things that an executive just doesn’t do to another executive, and the last couple of weeks have seen almost every unspoken rule in the book get broken.”
“It’s that bad?” Kat asked.
“Look,” Xander leaned back, running both of his hands through his hair. “You’re the only one that can pull this off, and I wouldn’t be asking you if I didn’t think it was necessary. Belle can burn for all I care, I’m just worried about your family and the crew in the Shell.”
“When are we doing it?” She responded, resigned. Xander was almost a father to her. Admittedly a parent with a fairly mercenary attitude toward money and repaying debts, but he was family nonetheless. If this were business, he’d be talking money. This was Steel and Blood all over again. It was survival.
“Are we changing the plan from last time, or are we just going to try and repeat the previous run?” Kat continued, crossing her arms.
Xander stepped forward, swiping one of his arms through the empty boxes of fried rice and delivered food, clearing the room’s single ratty coffee table. He reached up, spinning his smartpanel around and pointing the projector at the now clear surface.
“Tomorrow night,” he began, tapping his smartpanel to activate its high performance mode. A second later, a blue-and-white mock up of the college flickered into being on the chipped and stained table. “We’re mostly following the plan from last time, but there will be some modifications, especially on your egress.”
Xander’s voice washed over her, and all of Kat’s anxieties and concerns from the pointless meeting earlier in the day evaporated. As much as she tried to fit in at school and live a normal life, deep down, this is who she was.
The woman that leaned over a battered coffee table as Xander projected a floor plan of the college– complete with the patrol routes observed in their previous run– was the real Kat. Her eyes were practically aglow as Whippoorwill leaned closer, pointing out an alternative route from the third to the fourth floor, one that would avoid all guard contact.
During the day, she had the time to fret and worry about what she was becoming, how the magic coursing through her from the Tower was changing her, but here and now? It was just so easy to slip back into her days in the Shell. All of her focus locked in on the plan and how to tweak it to take advantage of her strengths.
In moments of self reflection, Kat might kick and scream. She might insist that violence wasn’t the only way to solve problems, but in moments like this she had to admit to herself: after all of the false smiles while dealing with Jasper’s idiotic friends and simpering like an obedient puppy before Belle Donnst, there was something satisfying about taking the straightforward approach. Hit fast, hard, and silent.
They broke up the meeting without fanfare. The plan firmly lodged in Kat’s mind as she accepted a duffle bag with her gear in it. She walked a couple of blocks from the safe house, glares driving back locals covered in chrome inlaid with neon lights. Finally, once she was far enough away, Kat physically hailed a cab and paid cash, not wanting to leave an electronic record of her location.
Once she reached the dorms Kat walked through the security screening, her equipment registering as little more than new clothes and cosmetics, and went straight to bed.
After the events of the day, she found herself in The Tower of Somnus almost the moment she closed her eyes.
“There she is,” Kaleek clapped Kat on the back before she could even register the bustle of the marketplace around the city’s spawn point.
“Dorrik was worried that you’d leave us hanging, that you’d forgotten the plan for the day,” he winked at her before giving an over exaggerated shake of his head toward the massive lizard.
“He literally spent the last thirty minutes pacing back and forth,” Dorrik shook their head, bemused. “I’m half surprised Kaleek didn’t wear a rut in the cobblestones while we waited for you. I’m not sure I share all of his enthusiasm, but it’s a much bigger day for him than me.”
“What was the plan for today?” Kat asked innocently, struggling to keep a smile from creeping onto her face.
“OH FOR THE LOVE OF THE ANCIENTS SHE DID FORGET!” Kaleek threw his hands up in the air, shouting into the cathedral’s rafters and drawing the attention of a dozen or so of the aliens surrounding them.
Kat’s face broke for a second, half of a snicker slipping out of her mouth before she was able to resume her look of overly earnest confusion.
“Calm down,” Dorrik fluttered their crest in amusement. “She’s just trying to torment you.”
Kaleek wheeled around, peering closely at Kat as he shoved his furry face in close, whiskers twitching. She just blinked at him without flinching as the otter invaded her personal space, feigning innocence.
“Sorry.” Kat giggled as Kaleek opened and closed his mouth wordlessly. “The waking part of today was awful and I just couldn’t stop myself.”
“Come on, Dorrik!” The otter wheeled around toward their companion. They were starting to draw a bit of a crowd. “How come she gets to make fun of me! She’s the newbie, I’m supposed to be the one hazing her.”
Dorrik glanced around before letting out a long suffering sigh.
“The two of you children are making a scene.” Dorrik shook their head. “Come on, Kaleek and I already grabbed all of the equipment. We should probably leave before every information broker in town knows exactly where we’re going.”
“Fair enough.” Kat made a face. “I’ve had enough unwelcome truths for one day. Engaging in some extreme violence to release stress sounds pretty nice right now.”
“Well said, Kat.”” Kaleek brightened immediately. “No sense dallying around here any longer. There are monsters and frustrations that need slaying!”
Dorrik simply chuffed in amusement and led the way out of the stone adventurer’s hall and out into the desert where they would be challenging the floor guardian. As they walked over the shifting dunes, Kat went over what she knew about the monster they would be fighting.
The Sand Lurker was a fairly straightforward if formidable foe. Functionally, it was an eight-legged antlion, an armored ambush predator that would wait just outside the door to the fourth floor stairwell. It didn’t have any real ranged attacks other than its ability to burrow.
If anyone tried to hang back and pepper it with spells, the monster would simply dive beneath the sand and wait for its enemies to either leave or draw closer. Given that a party couldn’t really avoid the monster if they wanted to use the stairwell it guarded, lying in wait was an annoyingly effective strategy. Even if you knew exactly where it was, you still had to fight it.
Of the three guardians within a day's travel, Dorrik believed that the Sand Lurker would be the easiest target. Although it was heavily armored, her gravity magic and water magic would largely ignore its chitin, and if things didn’t go well, it probably wouldn’t pursue them. Considering their other options were a heat mirage that drained mana and hit points from its victims magically and a twelve-legged monstrosity with heat magic that skated like a hockey player across the glass dunes created by its spells, Kat was inclined to agree.
Finally, the three of them found themselves standing atop the dune nearest the bleached white stone pillar of the stairwell. No monsters were in sight, but a keen observer would notice that a ridge of sand ringed the tower, forming a basin with a slightly deeper depression right in front of the doorway itself.
From the distance, Kat could barely make out the white specks of bone in the sand ringing the stairwell, the last remnants of explorers less wary or prepared than their group.
“Are you ready?” Dorrik asked, eyes closed as they soaked in the fake sun of the tower. “We don’t need to try and beat the guardian with only three people. If you want, we could always go back for another team.”
“Nice try,” Kaleek flashed an easy grin at the two of them, his armor gleaming and clinking as he began to descend the mound of sand, “I know you just want to avoid the fourth floor. No such luck old friend.”
Kat cocked her head quizzically at Dorrik but the lizard just shook their head.
“Stick to the plan then.” Dorrik stepped off the crest of the dune, skidding down after Kaleek. “The two of us keep it distracted while Miss Kat serves as the armor cracker. If you see a weak spot, go for it, but otherwise, we’re mostly there to keep it off balance.”
Kaleek sped up, stopping just outside the edge of the depression that marked the edge of the Sand Lurker’s burrow. Kat began her own descent as Kaleek drew his sword and planted it point first in the sand. A moment later, he unclipped a sack from his belt and pulled out a large shank of bloody meat. With a smooth motion he threw the steak into the center of the sandy pit before immediately drawing his sword.
The moment the steak hit the sand, the depression exploded. A pair of ochre mandibles, each slightly bigger than Kat’s forearm burst out of the ground, slashing through the meat in a spray of blood.
Kaleek darted forward, his two-handed sword glowing red as he swung it with deceptive speed, bouncing it off of the Lurker’s chitinous shell.
Sand flew everywhere as the guardian launched itself from the ground with a shriek. It snapped wildly at Kaleek only for the otter to dance back nimbly, his entire body glowing red as he burned stamina.
The Sand Lurker was over three times longer than she was tall, each of its body’s five segments covered in thick, orange armored plates. Kat focused on the dead center of the huge monster and began casting Gravity Spike.
Just as it was about to close its snapping jaws on the otter, Dorrik’s two swords, both flickering purple, struck together on one the Lurker’s legs, carving a ‘v’ and meeting almost a handspan deep within the creature’s heavy armor. An anemic trickle of black blood welled up from the cut as a triangular chunk of armor with a small amount of the Lurker’s flesh fell to the sand with a thud.
It whirled around, eager to try its luck with the new foe that had actually managed to punch through its shell, only for Kaleek to step forward into its blindspot, swinging his two handed sword overhead in a crushing downward swipe.
The Sand Lurker stumbled as the blow slammed into the side of its head, crumpling armor and mashing the flesh beneath.
Kat’s spell went off and gravity went haywire in the monster’s third body segment. Competing forces pushed and pulled against each other, turning the guardian’s massive bulk and heavy armor into a liability.
It squirmed, thrashing against the internal pain but unable to defend itself as its body tore itself apart from the inside out.
She smirked, already preparing a second iteration of the spell. Kaleek and Dorrik took advantage of her attack, darting in under the creature’s manic flailing to chip away at its armor, looking for an exploitable weakness.
Just as Kat was about to finish her Gravity Spike, the Lurker reared back, and bellowed, an angry dissonant rumble that caused the hair on the back of her neck to stand on end. It vomited a gout of sand, steaming with stomach acid.
She released her spell just as the Lurker veiled itself in the damp and biting sand, causing her to lose sight of the monster and her companions completely. It shrieked once more, hopefully indicating that her ability had hit, but Kat was left biting her lip and unable to assess the spell’s damage.
The sand swirled at the center of the basin, hissing and spitting out billows of yellow gray smoke where the potent acid encountered sand. Kat couldn’t see anything
Mouth set in a grim line, she drew her dagger, the new weapon still a bit unfamiliar in her hand, but its weight comforting enough as she activated Cat Step and blurred across the basin toward the vortex of acid-soaked grit.
Kaleek flew past her, his fur sizzling and a huge green blemish covering most of the front of his formerly pristine armor. For a second, she pondered healing him, but the otter was back on his feet before she could slow down.
Instead, she dove into the tempest. Immediately, a red indicator began flashing in the lower left of her vision as the sand choked wind burned and wore at her exposed skin. She squinted against the pain and pulled out two potions, one less than she could safely drink at her current level, and downed them one after another.
Immediately, a pleasant warmth filled her body as they did their work, steadily restoring her damaged hit points and depleted mana.
Feeling slightly more confident, Kat waded forward through the biting sand, squinting her eyes for some hint of the floor guardian’s bulk.
A leg the size of a light pole slammed into the ground in front of her as the monster shifted its weight. Distantly, Kat heard the dull thwack of Dorrik’s swords taking another chunk out of their foe.
She froze, dagger in hand, and began casting Gravity Spike for a third time at the hazy outline of the Lurker’s shifting thorax. The leg moved to her left, and she followed, using Cat Step to remain undetected through the obscuring sand. Then it stumbled toward her, and Kat had to use every point of her enhanced reactions and agility to avoid getting trampled as she backpedaled.
Finally, it planted the leg, its entire body rumbling ominously as it did… something. Kat finished her spell, acutely aware of the red icon in the corner of her vision as the monster’s stinging aura of acid and sand damaged her faster than the potion could recover.
Gravity Spike tore into the Lurker, competing planes of force shattering armor and pulping the flesh beneath. It shuddered, and the thrumming noise it was making reached a crescendo, ending in a deep bass tone that rattled the very air in her lungs.
Before Kat could properly start investing mana in another spell, the ground opened up under her. One minute, she was weaving back and forth on the sand in a delicate dance to keep its leg close enough to her for an attack, but not so close as to risk impalement on the sharp spear of chitin. The next, she was almost knee deep in the sand as it abruptly began sucking her in rather than supporting her weight.
She switched her spell, opting for Levitation instead of Gravity Spike. The much simpler ability activated in a fraction of a second, stopping her descent long enough for Kat to cast Pseudopod.
The tentacle of water reached out from her chest, grabbing onto the Lurker’s leg and almost throwing her into the air as she pulled herself toward the floor guardian’s limb.
A second later, she was scrambling up the leg, a flash of purple and a scream of frustration from Kaleek her only indication as to the rest of her team’s progress.
Her Pseudopod reached out, grabbing onto a shard of the Lurker’s armor where Gravity Spike had savaged it, and yanking her toward it.
As soon as Kat felt the surprisingly warm and rough surface of the chitin under her hands, she began slamming downward with her dagger. With each blow she could feel a sliver of her mana flowing into the knife. In exchange, each slash removed ribbons of armor and flesh.
The monster bucked, trying to remove her from its back, but Kat’s Pseudopod was already curled around its thorax. Instead she just grunted, slamming her dagger into it once more.
She was rewarded with a geyser of steaming black blood as her blade stripped the last vestiges of armor from the Lurker. It shuddered under her as Kat leaned forward, practically crawling into the hole she’d carved in its chitin.
Inside its body, a fleshy purple organ, the size of a watermelon, pulsed slowly, expanding and contracting about one time per second. With a mental shrug, Kat stabbed her knife into it, sinking the blade up to its hilt.
The Lurker shuddered, listing to the right for half of a second before Kat felt herself in freefall.
She kicked off of the floor guardian, letting Levitation carry her far from its bulk as the monster slammed sideways into the ground, its veil of acid soaked sand fading away as it twitched.
Near the front of the monster, Dorrik stood heaving, both of their blades covered in black ichor and blood leaking from any number of cracks between their scales. The front of the Lurker on the other hand was covered in cuts where Dorrik had done a number on it.
Most of the slashes weren’t all that deep, barely making it through the floor guardian’s armor, but there were dozens of them, and at least a couple were serious. A blow had taken one of the creature’s four eyes, and another had opened up a major artery at the base of its head.
Kaleek on the other hand?
“What in the name of every patriarch, matriarch, elder and ancient was that!?” He screamed from where he was trapped, buried chest deep in the sand. “Can someone explain to me how we went from ‘it doesn’t have any special abilities’ to ‘it's a full blown earth elementalist’ while they DIG ME OUT OF THE BLASTED SAND.”
“What happened is that we learned an important lesson about putting too much weight on intelligence reports,” Dorrik nodded solemnly as they wiped off and sheathed their swords. “The Tower changes, and overreliance on what has happened in previous fights can be more harmful than going into a battle completely blind.”
The lizard glanced at Kaleek struggling to free his arms from the sand. Their crest fluttered.
“We also learned an important lesson about paying attention to our surroundings,” Dorrik nodded in Kaleek’s direction. “With the proper presence of mind and reflexes, your current situation-”
She burst out laughing. Kat was covered head to toe in the monster’s thick black blood, and she still hadn’t recovered from the damaging aura, but she felt more alive than she had in days back on Earth. There was just something about coming down from an adrenaline high after killing an overpowered monster with her friends that erased all of the fretting and anxiety from home.
There wasn’t any need to worry about political complications, about saying 'yes' to the wrong person or no to the right one. There wasn’t any looming threat, pushing her and her family into a corner. It was just her, her friends, a knife, magic, and something to kill.
The Lurker shuddered, and its breathing stopped.
You have defeated the Sand Lurker and ascended to the fourth floor!
For achieving this feat with three or fewer players, a bonus attribute point has been awarded. Assign it wisely!
For ascending a level as an Elementalist Initiate, you gain the following benefits:
Keep climbing! Your answers and the Gardeners await you at the top!
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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