You have completed the Wood Tier Level Four Dungeon, Lost Forest.
Three of Three party members surviving. Good Job!
Kat dismissed the notification, walking away from the dungeon portal as she waited for Dorrik to exit. Kaleek and her were in a small cave, hidden behind a picturesque waterfall on a small tropical island.
The otter was grinning, his paws filled the fist sized gemstones they’d pried from the chests of the vinecats that served as the primary antagonist. Each of the crystals glowed faintly with a prism’s worth of different lights.
They’d learned the hard way that each of the stones represented a different magical ability that the grey, panther-like predators could use. Even with their new armor, Kat had been forced to heal Dorrik after a vinecat turned the ground beneath the lokkel’s feet into mud, sinking them almost waist deep in slop and turning the usually agile warrior into a sitting duck.
After the headache caused by the crafty magical cats, the boss, a huge bird that reminded Kat of an owl, wasn’t much of a challenge. Gravity’s Grasp, and Arrest Momentum combined perfectly to bring the feathered monster to the ground where Kaleek soundly and cheerily beat the absolute crap out of it.
By the time the boss stopped moving, Kat almost felt bad for it. Matted blood and feathers covered the forest floor of the dungeon, and one of the monster’s wings had been hacked off entirely.
Still, a win was a win and Dorrik’s intelligence network had paid off once again. Clan Ahn’s information on fourth floor dungeons was nowhere near as complete as their compendium on the third floor, but it still gave them locations and some hints.
The lizardperson shimmered into existence, a corona of rainbow light flashing into being and depositing their grey scaled form on the stones next to the portal. They paused for a second, likely reviewing their award before nodding and swiping to the side with a claw, dismissing the pop up.
“Look at this stuff, Dorrik,” Kaleek remarked, throwing a gleaming white gem to Dorrik. “It’s not quite enough to make up for us buyin the Marka but I’m pretty sure that gem is used to power Ether Bolt. That’s an iron tier wizard spell.”
Dorrik snatched it out of the air, walking to the edge of the cave and slipping past the waterfall before holding the crystal up to the Tower’s fake sun. They inspected the stone for almost a full minute before throwing it back to Kaleek.
“Indeed.” They nodded. “That gem would allow an enchanter to imbue a weapon with some of the characteristics of Ether Bolt, namely the ability to ignore any non-magical armor.”
“That sounds dangerous.” Kat perked up, a frown on her face. “If it can pierce defenses like that, the spell has to have some drawbacks, right?’
“Not really,” Kaleek replied with a greedy chuckle. “Even at higher levels it only does as much damage as an arrow, so it’s not like the spell is completely overpowered, but really, that’s the difference between iron and wood abilities. It’ll only get more pronounced when we have access to silver tier dungeons.”
“He’s right,” Dorrik grunted, jumping from one rock to another before landing on the mostly dry bank of the river created by the crashing waterfall. “Even the most powerful wood tier abilities in the hands of the most powerful avatars barely compare to iron tier attacks. The Tower rewards us for pushing ourselves, and one of the biggest rewards is the possibility to earn an Iron tier skillstone at sixth level if we take a truly great risk.”
Kat followed the lokkel, skipping lightly from stone to stone while Kaleek simply barreled through the curtain of water, his hands still heavily laden with vinecat cores.
“That’s why we’re leveling up this fast.” Kaleek waded through the chest deep water as he made his way to the riverbank. “It might be a better idea for us to slow down and practice our abilities more as we progress, but at the end of the day, if you’re going to be fighting in real life, we need to iron you up as soon as possible.”
“A sound plan,” Dorrik agreed. “If you’re going to fight in the real world, I won’t feel truly comfortable until you have access to silver tier defensive skills. Iron will have to do in the meantime.”
“Uh.” Kat glanced at both of them as Kaleek struggled to pull himself ashore with his arms full. “Both of you do realize that I’ve been fighting and killing on a pretty regular basis for the last couple of weeks. Things are getting really rough back on Earth.”
Dorrik leaned down, gripping Kaleek by the scruff of his neck and the small of his back and picking the otter up. The desoph scrambled away from the incline of the shore cheerfully as soon as the big lizard set them down.
Crest fluttering gently, Dorrik turned back to Kat frowning. “That may be true, Miss Kat, but I don’t have to like it. I understand that your planet is a barbaric place filled with strife and blood, but the sooner you make it past the lower levels so that you can stand on your own, the happier I will be.”
“That reminds me.” Kat led the way through the small jungle of too tall quasi-trees with suspiciously smooth bark. “I haven’t returned to school over the last couple of days. Xander is afraid that someone will be able to put two and two together and figure out that I was involved in the Beloit raid. He doesn’t think it’s safe for anyone involved to show their faces in Chiwaukee.”
“A wise precaution,” Dorrik agreed. “For a fractured land full of minor warring polities, your Earth appears to be distressingly close to an authoritarian police state.”
Kat just smiled. Dorrik wasn’t wrong. Things might not be awful for every person all of the time. After all, there wasn’t much profit to be made in monitoring when each office worker went out for coffee or took a crap. That said, when things began to threaten the bottom line, infighting, corruption and inefficiency tended to disappear overnight.
Executives and managers were given free rein to fight their own hidden wars and turf battles so long as they understood that the company came first. A destructive raid on a major company asset that damaged or destroyed corporate research was sure to spark an immediate and violent reaction.
Unless Kat and her friends could retrieve the recording and convince GroCorp’s shareholders that their actions were necessary, she would be forced to live her life on the run. Likely a very short life. Hiding in a hidden room behind a casino/brothel might work for the time being, but it was only a matter of time before the company managed to identify Whippoorwill and follow her back to the base when the pink-haired girl went on one of her supply runs.
“As wise as it may be,” Kat replied, pushing aside a slightly too green leaf that hung down from one of the almost trees. “It leaves us unable to plan and coordinate. None of the parties involved in the initial raid can move freely, and we can only communicate in short coded bursts via public message channels if we want to avoid arrest and capture.”
Dorrik nodded thoughtfully as Kaleek ran to where the Marka’s twin hulls were pushed up on the sandy beach, untying the three ropes connecting the ship to nearby trees.
“That’s why Xander suggested meeting in the Snarled Net,” Kat continued, grabbing onto one of the ropes as Kaleek threw it to her. “Apparently it’s a bar over in the Humbrass Atoll. Once I told him what floor I was on, he managed to convince the other team leaders to descend so that we can meet.”
“Oi! ” Kaleek shouted, putting his shoulder into one of the Marka’s hulls and motioning for Dorrik to do the same. “Use Levitation so Dorrik and I can push us out while you steady her!”
Kat cast the spell, wrapping the rope around her arm to prevent a riptide from dragging the ship out to sea once her companions pushed it into the water. Kaleek had been quite clear about how much of a hassle swimming down an unmanned ship was. Apparently the otter had some experience in the field.
Sand crunched under the keels. Slowly at first, the Marka moved into the water, slipping away from the shore until it began bobbing on the roiling waves.
Dorrik and Kaleek ran out into the water until they were chest deep, grabbing onto the rope netting on either side of the ship and climbing aboard. Kat took a deep breath, quietly casting Levitation on herself before running toward their vessel.
Just before the waterline she jumped, activating Leaping to send herself flying through the air. For a brief moment, she was weightless, a grin on her face and her hair whipping wildly at the back of her neck.
Then she hit the side of the ship, the enchantments in her armor trading some of her mana reserve to convert a blow that otherwise would have left her sore and complaining for days into little more than an annoyance.
Two of Dorrik’s hands reached down, grasping Kat under her armpits and pulling her aboard. She nodded gratefully to the big lizard before unwrapping the rope from around her arm and stowing it next to the chest where Kaleek had stored the vinecat gems.
Already, the desoph was pushing a large wooden pole into the sand, moving the Marka away from the shore. Kat hadn’t quite been able to figure out what it was made of, it looked like some sort of light and pliable bamboo substitute, but it did the trick. With a grunt and the help of Levitation, they were on the open water once more.
Almost immediately, Dorrik turned green, staggering over to the storage chest and withdrawing a draught from the box. They downed it in one swift motion before shuffling to the center of the boat and plopping themself down with their back to the mast.
“The Humbrass Atoll isn’t that far from our home base,” Kaleek said thoughtfully, shifting the Marka’s sail to the side to guide the ship back in roughly the same direction they’d come from. He’d have to zig zag the ship a little to get them back to dock, but Kaleek had assured them it wouldn’t be a problem.
“It’s probably only a six to seven hours away via ship.” The otter shimmied past Dorrik, trying not to disturb their suffering friend while they waited for the motion sickness draught to kick in. “When is the meeting scheduled? We should probably head out to Humbrass at least a day before we’re supposed to meet your friends.”
“I think allies is a better word.” Kat shuddered slightly at the mental image of Belle Donnst gossiping with her over lunch. “But we should have another four days before the meeting. Apparently some of them have to come pretty far inside the Tower.”
“That gives us time for three dungeons,” Dorrik mused, their crest flat with discomfort. “Not enough to finish the fourth floor, but so long as things go well, we can make good progress toward reaching the sixth level before anything too serious happens.”
“About that.” Kat sighed, eyes tracking a trio of triangular fins as they cut through the waves. They were either normal sharks or porpoises, far too small to be a ship-wrecking megalodon. “We ran into some strange things in Beloit. I’m not sure how much time we actually have.”
“Of course you have to make it sound all portentous like that,” Kaleek chuckled, paw still on the wooden bar that controlled their sail. “If we weren’t in the Tower I swear by the ancients that there would have been a stroke of lightning to punctuate that statement. If you have a concern, just let us know. No need to build tension like that.”
“Fine,” she chuckled, rolling her eyes at the desoph as Kaleek stuck his tongue out at her. “We found prisoners strapped to the wall with glowing white rings around their heads. In the next room, there were infants in some sort of luminescent green liquid that appeared. They had name plates that corresponded to the prisoners.”
“More importantly,” Kat continued. “When I touched the glass cylinders that the infants were in, it felt like I was touching enchanted equipment. I don’t think that any humans can make something like that. At least, not for the next twenty years.”
Dorrik’s crest fluttered in agitation, their clawed hands gripping the wooden planks on either side of them as the ship hit a particularly large wave.
“That sounds like an illegal doppelganger operation,” they said slowly, a frown on their scaled face. “The green liquid filled cylinders are probably flash clone pods. They’re only legal to use when spying on another Consensus race or infiltrating a potential member to make sure that the reported information is accurate.”
“As for the metal circles?” Dorrik shook their head grimly. “Those are personality upload matrices. Highly illegal. They’re used to upload the memory and characteristics of the unconscious target into a clone. The problem is that they have a tendency to burn out the neural pathways of anyone they’re used on.”
“Even without anything else,” Kaleek chimed in, “that’s probably enough to burn some of the goodwill that the stallesp have accrued. They’re rich and influential enough that a lot of species give them the benefit of the doubt, but doppelgangers are more than just frowned upon.”
“Well, I managed to grab one of the personality upload things,” Kat replied. “Hopefully that will help smooth things out.”
“It should.” Dorrik nodded, their crest fluttering. “Clan Ahn has dispatched a rapid reaction force. I will make sure that they know about the doppelganger issue so that they can collect the matrix from you and lodge a formal complaint against the stallesp for their interference.”
“Good.” Kat slumped down, pressing her back against the Marka’s mast. “I just can’t shake the feeling that we’re missing something. The stallesp have to know that they’ll get caught at some point. It just doesn’t seem right for us to assume that their nefarious plot hinges on them being dumb and assuming that another race wouldn’t find out about them.”
“Maybe it just is that easy?” Kaleek asked, twitching his whiskers in the ocean breeze. “Sometimes people just fuck up. To paraphrase an old desoph proverb, ‘don’t interrupt your opponent when they’re making a mistake.”
“I suppose.” Kat sighed. “I can’t help but wonder why they hinged all of their contracts for mineral extraction on Mr. Jackson hitting level twenty-four. It feels like such an illogical and arbitrary number.”
Dorrik froze. Their eyes widening and crest stiffening in agitation.
“Miss Kat,” they hissed. “This is important. Mr. Jackson is a human, correct? What level is he?”
“He doesn’t publicize it,” Kat replied with a frown, “but he’s at least level eighteen. Speculation has him anywhere between eighteen and twenty-one.”
“Well, piss.” Kaleek spat out the words. “Maybe things are urgent.”
“Why?” Kat asked. “What’s happening?”
“Twenty-four isn’t an arbitrary number,” Kaleek replied his fur covered brow furrowed and his eyes stormy. “That’s the threshold where-”
“Kaleek,” Dorrik cut him off. “As a probationary race, humans are forbidden from knowing about that. It’s in the rules.”
“Piss on the rules,” Kaleek grumbled. “The stallesp clearly don’t have a problem breaking them, so why should we?”
Kat looked back and forth between her friends. This was probably the first time she’d seen them genuinely argue since arriving in the Tower. It seemed like both wanted to help her, Kaleek by bringing her in on some secret, and Dorrik by protecting her from forbidden knowledge.
“Once a human hits level twenty-four, they become a racial representative.” Kaleek spoke quickly, like an auctioneer trying to slip one last word in under a deadline.
Warning! As a probationary race on level 4 this information is prohibited. Your translation software has temporarily been disabled. Please contact an administrator if you wish to appeal this decision or if you believe it has been made in error.
Kaleek’s words devolved into an unintelligible stream of grunts and snarls just as the popup appeared, leaving Kat with nothing better to do than stare at him blankly.
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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