The catamaran cut across the waves, sending a spray of saltwater into the air as it hit each rolling crest of water. Dorrik sat dead center in the ship, their black scales showing a hint of green as they clutched their legs to their chest with all four of their arms.
Kaleek, grinning like a pup, worked the vessel’s sails to keep them on course. He banked suddenly, steering the ship directly into a wave to stop it from knocking the Marka off course. Kat staggered slightly, grabbing onto a hand hold to avoid being thrown about as Dorrik gagged behind her.
“Ocean’s a little choppy!” Kaleek shouted gleefully at the two of them, “but I haven’t seen any signs of a living reef and the dreamscape has seen fit to bless us with a sunny day, so I would say everything is looking up.”
“Looking up?” Dorrik choked out, wobbling slightly as they struggled to dig the claws of their feet into the stiff wooden reeds that made up the boat’s floor. “I swear you’re aiming for each and every wave just to spite me. Once we sort this business out with Miss Kat we’re staying at the next lokkel enclave for at least a month.”
“Of course I’m aiming for the waves,” Kaleek replied, pushing the wooden beam the sail was mounted on so the flapping cloth would catch the wind and adjust the ship’s heading slightly. “They’re between waist- and shoulder-high Dorrik, I’m not going to let one catch us amidship and flip us. I mean, I’d probably be fine but the two of you would almost certainly drown before a megalodon managed to show up and eat you.”
“Can you at least stop looking so happy while you’re doing it,” the lizard ground out miserably. “Even if all this water is necessary, that doesn’t mean you have to be so damn chipper about it. It’s unnatural.”
“Oh go sun yourself on a rock.” Kaleek cackled joyously. “There’s just something about the water roiling under your feet and the wind in your fur that speaks to you.”
Dorrik stiffened. There was a definite note of green to their scales as they scrambled to the edge of the boat, dry heaving the contents of their empty stomach into the ocean below.
“Look at the wind whipping through Kat’s hair,” Kaleek continued, studiously ignoring the suffering lokkel. “She’s having fun, Dorrik. That’s the problem with you. You need to learn to loosen your scales and live a little.”
Kat glanced back at the two of them guiltily from where she’d been standing near the prow of the catamaran, both of her hands steadying herself on the guardrail.
“I was looking for the volcanic island the dungeon’s on,” she replied guiltily, grimacing at Dorrik’s misery. “Everything looks the same out here. I wanted to make sure that we didn’t miss it and torment Dorrik any longer than necessary.”
The lokkel glanced at her, a look of gratitude in their eyes before the boat crested another wave and slammed down hard enough to make Kat stumble. Dorrik lunged back to the railing, slumping over the edge and convulsing once again.
“Don’t worry your fuzzy head,” Kaleek grunted as he put his shoulder into the sail, steering them into another swell. “I might enjoy giving our scaly friend a hard time, but I know what I’m doing and I’m not going to prolong this any more than necessary. Given the speed of the wind and the angle of the ‘sun’ we should be about ten minutes from the island.”
“Can Dorrik make it ten minutes?” Kat asked with concern. The waves were getting choppier and the lokkel was really beginning to struggle.
“I am a-” Dorrik wobbled, clutching the railing hard enough that their knuckles turned white. “A proud lokkel warrior. I can survive an unnatural collection of water. Even if I may curse its very existence.”
Kat glanced at Kaleek and the otter just shrugged. She turned back to the prow of the ship, shading her eyes with a free hand while she squinted against the glare. In the distance, Kat could barely make out a dull mound of rock jutting out of the sparkling waves.
As she watched, the shape grew large, Kaleek skillfully guiding their ship through the choppy water toward it. Finally, when they drew near, the otter barked at Kat to draw her attention.
“Kat.” He jerked his head toward the rope coiled around a pole near the ship’s prow. “It looks like the island doesn’t have anything like a dock for us to land on. You’re going to need to jump onto the island and pull the ship up onto the shore once I find a beach. Otherwise the waves are going to either wash the Marka away or batter it against the rocks.”
She looked down at the catamaran doubtfully. It wasn’t exactly a yacht, but it was more than big enough for the three of them. She’d leveled up her strength once, but Kat was hardly a bodybuilder.
“At least hold it still long enough for me to get off the ship,” Kaleek begged, circling the Marka around the small island as he looked for a beach. “Dorrik will be useless for at least another ten minutes. This needs to be you, Kat.”
“I can try and use Levitation,” she conceded grudgingly. “I’m not sure it will do anything, but at least I can give it a shot.”
They rounded a crag jutting out from the island as Kat unwound the rope. In front of them, a small beach of grey sand had been carved by the waves out of the jagged volcanic rock of the island. Without speaking, Kaleek curved their ship toward the relatively flat expanse, and Kat began gathering mana.
Just before the twin keels of their ship bit into the sand, she jumped out, casting Levitation on the Marka as she fell into the waist deep water.
It was cold. Positively icy after the warm but windy trip from their starting point.
Kat grit her teeth, throwing the rope over her shoulder and digging her shoes into the sand as she struggled to pull the catamaran up onto the shore. Even with its weight magically decreased and partially buoyed by the ocean, Kat didn’t make much progress.
The saltwater from the frothing waves stung her eyes and face, but each grunting strain only brought the ship another handful of feet up onto the shore only for the ocean to pull hungrily at the vessel as the water receded.
She wasn’t even sure she was making progress, advancing one step only to lose it the next second, when Kaleek splashed into the water next to her. He grinned at her, whiskers twitching cheerfully, before he grabbed onto the wet rope and looped it around his forearm.
They pulled together, straining against the bucking and swaying vessel. One step after another, keels grinding against the sand as they left the water, they dragged the Marka out from the ocean’s grasp.
“Good enough,” Kaleek grunted before collapsing exhausted on the grey sand.
Kat joined him a second later, chest heaving. The sand was coarse, each grain much bigger than expected. From the moment she sat down, Kat could feel it working its way into the cracks of her armor. She suppressed the urge to immerse herself in the roiling white topped waves. Right now she was covered in rope burns and abrasions. Saltwater wouldn’t fix anything.
“There has to be a better way to do that,” she gasped back, fighting for breath as she gingerly laid down on the uncomfortable sand. “That was absolutely awful.”
“There is,” Kaleek replied, laying down next to her so his head almost touched hers as the two of them looked at the sky. “It involved hiring that old grakkon, Jaffy and having them do the dragging for us. Even better, if we had rented a boat they would’ve just dropped us off. Once we completed the dungeon we could just wait until we woke up and respawn in town the next night.”
“That sounds nice.” Kat reached up, wiping the water from her face.
“Oh! look who decided to join us,” Kaleek called out.
Kat glanced up. The desoph had propped himself up on his arms and was smiling at Dorrik as they staggered unsteadily onto the beach.
“The next enclave, two months minimum,” Dorrik ground out, their voice haggard.
“Sure thing.” Kaleek sprang to his feet as nimbly as possible when wearing bulky metal armor. “In the meantime, maybe we should look into getting some draughts to prevent sea sickness the next time we go to town. I was pretty miserable on the third floor, but you’re barely functional right now.”
“We don’t have marks for draughts.” Dorrik stumbled only for Kaleek to catch them. “We spent all of them on that blasted ship.”
“I don’t think they’re that expensive, Dorrik,” Kat grunted out as she stood up, trying to massage the burn out of her aching arms. “We should earn a fair amount in this dungeon. If it’s about money, I’ll buy you a couple if you want. You looked absolutely awful on the trip out here.”
Dorrik opened their jaws to respond. Instinctively, Kat knew that they were about to turn her down, but then they stumbled again, barely held upright by Kaleek. Their body shuddered as they clutched onto the desoph, claws scraping across his glittering armor.
“Thank you, Miss Kat.” Dorrik shot her a grateful look as they slumped onto Kaleek’s shoulder. “I suppose I must accept. It wouldn’t be appropriate to compromise my combat effectiveness for no reason other than stubborn pride.”
“The dungeon portal is at the top of the hill.” Kaleek patted Dorrik’s back gently. “We should get climbing. Luckily it’s a bit of a hike. It’ll give ol’ Dorrik here a couple of minutes to adapt back to solid land.”
“I honestly don’t understand how my race makes it past this floor.” Dorrik shook their head ruefully. “I’m feeling a bit better, but even the thought of stepping back onto a boat has my stomachs churning right now. Without help from the two of you, I’d be absolutely defenseless. If by some miracle I avoided falling into the water and drowning, the first monster that came along would simply eat me as I batted ineffectually at it.”
“Isn’t that the point of the Tower though?” Kaleek chuckled. “It spits environments and scenarios at us that would be difficult for any one race to deal with. My theory is that the ancients designed the dreamscape to try and force the races of the Consensus to intermix and work together. After all, it’s just a fact that The Tower of Somnus is that much easier to climb with a collection of different species.”
“That may have been part of the Gardeners’ point,” Dorrik began, “but in Clan Ahn we are taught that the real-”
They stopped, eyes wide. Kat followed Dorrik’s gaze and gasped quietly despite herself.
Half buried under the rocks of the island was the charred keel of a ship. Almost twice the length of their own, the boat originally would have resembled a galleon, a great square rigged sailing vessel.
Now? It was a skeleton, the massive beams of timber that made up its framework heavily burned, but the rest of the vessel long eroded and partially concealed by a rock slide.
Dorrik brushed off Kaleek’s hand, staggering briefly as they trotted over to the wreck. Their body glowed purple as they enhanced their strength and began tossing rocks aside.
For a minute, waves and the clatter of stone on stone was the only sound on the island as Kat and Kaleek watched Dorrik dig in silence. Then the big lizard suddenly froze.
Dorrik stepped backward, emitting a low and mournful crooning noise, their crest depressed flat against their scaly head. Kat leaned to the side, trying to see what the big lizard was upset about, but only able to make out a clawed hand covered in iridescent silver scales that stuck out from a pile of rocks.
“Clan Trassk,” Kaleek spoke, his voice bleak. “One of Clan Ahn’s closest allies and trading partners. They’re a major player in lokkel politics as well as the Consensus as a whole.”
“The claw?” Kat asked hesitantly.
“Likely the whole ship.” Kaleek’s voice was quiet, not wanting to interrupt Dorrik as the lokkel threw their head back, the croon transforming into a slow, whistling dirge. “Maybe Dorrik was onto something when they were talking about this floor being a trap for their race.”
“I will kill them.” Dorrik whipped around, fire in their eyes. “Each and every mole that crawls out of their subterranean warrens. The dreamscape is meant to allow challenges. It’s an outlet to prevent conflict from spilling over into the waking world, but there is a method and a logic to them. No challenge or grievance has been declared, yet the stallesp choose to wage an unofficial war. Not only that, they target the lower levels.”
Kat shifted uncomfortably. She wasn’t exactly sure how most humans would feel having the fourth floor classified as a ‘lower level.’ Barely ten percent of their players had even made it this far.
“The stallesp hunt whelps.” The giant lizard practically thrummed with purple energy. “They do not seek to follow the rules of conflict. This attack had nothing to do with resolving a dispute. It is a naked attempt to cripple Clan Trassk’s next generation, nothing more or less.”
“Then,” Dorrik bellowed, the energy pouring off of them forcing Kat to take a step backward. “There are the disquieting rumors from Earth. They plan to break the Galactic Consensus’ most sacred rule and interfere with a race that is not ready. They are a blight. A poison festering in the gut of the Galactic Consensus, eating it from the inside out.”
“Allowing the stallesp into the Consensus was a mistake.” Dorrik’s claw flashed purple as they crushed a rock that they’d been holding. “One I will personally rectify.”
“I don’t understand.” Kat frowned as she surveyed the destroyed ship. Now that she was looking closer she could make out a number of other silver limbs and tails sticking out from the wreckage. “We’ve personally seen three stallesp attacks. What makes this one different?”
“We’re warriors.” Dorrik slammed a clawed fist into their chest. “We are prepared to fight monsters or survive traps at a moment’s notice. Attacking us is dishonorable, the action of a simpering coward, but not entirely unexpected.”
“The Clan Trassk are merchants and poets.” The lokkel’s crest futtered sadly, still mostly flat on Dorrik’s head. “There might have been two or three weapons on this entire ship to ward off the attacks of monsters. One appropriately leveled warrior could have torn through them like a brick through tissue paper. This wasn’t combat, it was a massacre.”
“Easy now,” Kaleek said soothingly as he walked up to Dorrik, patting the big lokkel on their upper right forearm. “We’re with you, but we’ve got a dungeon to fight. Plus, I’m not sure how much longer I want to just stand out here in the open. If there are stallesp raiders about, it’s best that we keep moving.”
“I don’t want to keep moving,” Dorrik growled dangerously, their claws bunched into fists. “I want their raiders to try me. I will happily feed their remains to the awful aquatic predators that haunt this infernal place.”
Kat blinked. This wasn't the Dorrik she was used to. She’d seem the lokkel annoyed before, but their demeanor right now was something else. Rather than their usual aloof and inquisitive nature, she was staring at blind trembling rage.
“Come on now big fella.” Kaleek’s quiet words were almost inaudible over the surf. “This isn’t Bashmere Pass. Going wild now won’t bring your clutchmates back. You said it yourself when we got back into the Tower together. The only way to pay the stallesp back is to get stronger. As cathartic as going on a killing spree would be, you need dungeons and levels, not revenge. At least not yet.”
Her heart froze. Dorrik’s siblings. They were in a passenger liner when an unsurveyed asteroid ‘happened’ to end up in the hyperlane their ship was traveling on. Bystanders on a ship, just minding their business until the stallesp arrived.
“There’s a dungeon right at the top of the hill, we can blow off steam there.” Kaleek began leading Dorrik away. “We’ve got years and years left to live. Give it time. The stallesp will get what they deserve. Just stick to the plan.”
Dorrik closed their eyes, crest flaring wildly. They shuddered. A brief moment where their entire body shook, and then, eyes still closed, they nodded solemnly.
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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