“I hope you’re excited for the Humbrass Atoll,” Kaleek said with a grin, plopping down on the bow of the Marka next to Kat and letting his paws hang over the edge. “It isn’t the biggest hub on the fourth floor, but it’s fairly popular. A good chunk of my pod spent time there so I was able to get us some good recommendations for seafood places. Apparently the Deep Delver has the freshest saltwater prawns you’ll find anywhere in the Tower.”
“Is that just a euphemism for you trying to feed me still living shellfish?” Kat asked, staring out at the rippling waves of the floor-spanning ocean. It was a gorgeous day, the faux sun high in the sky and not a cloud in sight. Kaleek had tied the mast in place, and other than periodically checking to make sure they were on course, there wasn’t much for the cheerful otter to do.
“Well, they are really good,” he responded unapologetically. “Do you think it will work on Dorrik? It would be a shame to find a traditional desoph live prawn restaurant only for everyone to just enjoy it. The screams of surprise are half the fun.”
“I’m not sure how much time we’re going to have for relaxing.” She leaned back, focusing on the sensation of the wind blowing through her hair. “I guess you could grab a drink or something at the Snarled Net while I handle the meeting, but I’m pretty sure that most of my time will be consumed by dealing with whatever the stallesp are trying to pull on Earth. My plan is to get my relaxation in on the trip there. I doubt I’ll have the time once we actually arrive.”
“I’ll say.” Kaleek glanced wistfully at the water. “I really could go for a swim right now. If we keep this rate up for too much longer, my fur is going to lose its luster from stress. Two dungeons in two nights is a bit much. Most people spend at least six to twelve days between dungeon challenges to raise marks and prepare.”
Two dungeons in two days. It hadn’t been that bad, netting her a point of Mind and Agility at the expense of some minor consumable items and getting sprayed with caustic stomach acid by monsters that looked like shoulder-high dinosaurs.
Despite Kat’s misgivings, the gear provided by Dorrik’s clan had done the trick. They would need to replace it eventually, but for now, so long as they fought carefully, battles were no longer balanced on the knife edge of failure where a single mistake could spell an avatar’s death.
She turned back to Kaleek, brushing the hair out of her face as the wind whipped it back and forth. “Speak for yourself. I’ve been stuck underground in a six-room complex with four other people this entire time. The first day wasn’t awful, but the lack of wireless access almost drove me crazy.”
“Now?” Kat shuddered. “Limited water and lack of ventilation are what’s going to get me. I never realized how bad improper hygiene could smell.”
“That’s why I would suggest living on a planet covered mostly in water,” Kaleek responded, whiskers twitching with amusement as he tried to maintain a serious tone. “It’s hard for things to smell bad if everyone has to bathe in order to catch fish for supper.”
“Speaking of which...” Kat pressed her hands into the worn and sunbleached hull of the Marka to scoot back from the bow and stand up. “It’s about time someone checked on Dorrik. We’ve been on the water for almost three hours, and even with the draughts, I don’t think they’re holding up all that well.”
Kaleek just chuckled, flopping backward on the deck of the deck of the ship with his feet still hanging off the edge. Kat shook her head, letting her friend enjoy the breeze as she walked back toward where Dorrik sat, huddled next to the mast, legs clutched to their chest.
Just as she reached them, Kat stopped, putting a hand up to shield her eyes from the glare.
“Hey Kaleek,” she called out over her shoulder, squinting into the distance. “There’s nothing on the fourth floor that would make a cloud hang low in the sky over the water, is there?”
The desoph leapt to his feet, walking past Kat toward the square stern of the catamaran with a frown on his face. He stood there for a couple of seconds, staring at the faint shape on the horizon before turning back.
“That’s a galleon,” Kallek said carefully, making his way over to the wooden pole that held their triangular sail and untying it. “A much larger vessel with a single keel and a deeper draft. Given the prevalence of shallower waters around the islands on this floor, they aren’t in vogue for adventuring crews. You really only see them as merchants. Or warships.”
“Which is it?” Kat asked, chewing her lip as she stared at the innocent tuft of white, barely visible over the glittering waves.
“A good question,” Kaleek replied, angling the sail to change the Marka’s heading. “One whose answer I would like to avoid if at all possible. Warships often carry twenty-four or more avatars, and it isn’t uncommon for a couple of them to be from higher floors. I like our odds against enemies from the fourth floor or lower, but even a single iron tier skill would be enough to dramatically change the odds.”
“You’re afraid of stallesp marauders,” Kat stated evenly, eyes still locked on the now menacing speck.
“Primarily,” the desoph agreed. “Although most war parties aren’t keen on witnesses, especially when there aren’t any declared and sanctioned conflicts. In short, we should try and keep our distance.”
The Marka shifted course, angling itself against the wind as they began moving away from the galleon. Kat stood at the stern of the ship, occasionally glancing back at Kaleek steering the catamaran or Dorrik’s miserable form.
After several minutes she turned to Kaleek. “Just out of curiosity, what do we do if they try to pursue us? The Marka is almost certainly lighter than the galleon so we should be able to outrun the right?”
“Not necessarily,” Kaleek grunted back, muscles bulging as he held tight to the pole that controlled their sails. “A ship like that will have a lot more canvas than us to catch the wind. Even if it's a bit heavier, it should be able to make about the same time as us.”
“Of course,” the otter remarked thoughtfully. “That’s only if they don’t have an air elementalist, a wizard or some sort of inventor class on board. Any one of those and they could easily juice a little bit more speed out of the ship with magic.”
“Huh.” Kat nodded. “That would explain why it’s getting closer then.”
Kaleek looked over his shoulder, whiskers twitching. “Fuck.” His furry face looked like he’d bitten into week old fish. “I was afraid of that.”
He leaned forward and to the side, tapping Dorrik on the shoulder with his tail. The lokkel raised his head blearily.
“You got a fight in you buddy?” He asked gently. “Looks like the stallesp are on our tails, and I’m not sure we’re getting through this without a scrap.”
Dorrik staggered to their feet, their greyish black scales looking a bit green. They stumbled a step as the Marka skipped over a wave before catching themselves.
“The question,” they said shakily, swaying unsteadily, “isn’t whether I have a fight in me. The question is whether the stallesp are ready for what I’m going to do to-”
The catamaran crested a particularly large swell before smacking back down on the ocean. Dorrik fell to their hands and knees, all four of their arms wobbling as they fought to keep themselves from going snout first into the sun bleached wood of the deck.
“Yeaaaaah,” Kaleek sighed, wrenching on the sail to change their heading drastically. “That’s what I thought. Time for plan B, ‘do something stupid.”
“I feel like that’s the sort of statement that should worry me,” Kat replied worriedly. She couldn’t yet see the figures on the galleon’s deck, but there was no question that it was visibly gaining on them.
“A lot of things should worry you right now.” Kaleek shot her a cocky grin. “First and foremost is the marauders chasing us. After that is the fate of your troubled planet. Finally, we reach my plan. Don’t get all worked up about it though. I’m guessing we have at least a seventy-five percent chance of surviving this.”
“Is there a plan available that doesn’t have a one-in-four chance of dying?” Kat asked hopefully. There was no doubt about it, the galleon was pursuing them.
“Not unless you think that ship wants to catch up with us to borrow a jar of fish paste,” the desoph answered with a shrug. “Even with Dorrik at one hundred percent, I don’t like our odds against that many enemies. Right now? We’re firmly in ‘long shot’ territory.”
Kat chewed her lip, eyeing up the ship. The only sound was Dorrik’s moans competing with the creak of the Marka’s wooden hull as they splashed over the increasingly choppy waves. Behind them, she could just start to make out the ant-like figures of the avatars on the opposing ship.
God, there were a lot of them.
“Do you mind telling me what this secret plan of yours is?” Kat ripped her eyes away from their pursuer to turn and face Kaleek. “I think the speed with which they’re catching up with us is making me more amenable to long shots.”
“There’s more than just marauders that stop ships from coming home after an expedition.” Kaleek nodded grimly, inclining his head toward a flock of white birds, circling an empty patch of ocean in the distance.
Kat stared blankly at it for almost five seconds, trying to make heads or tails of her companion’s words. As far as she could tell, it was nothing more than a blank patch of water with birds overhead. Maybe the waves weren’t quite as pronounced there, but that could hardly be the cause of Kaleek’s dramatic behavior. Finally, she shrugged.
“Are we going to try and get them lost or something?” She asked uncertainly. “You’re going to have to be specific here. The only nearby body of water near me on Earth is GroCorp Presents: Lake Michigan, and I haven’t gotten a chance to visit it yet. I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh by the grace of the ancients,” Kaleek snorted. “Do what you can to stop the galleon from sinking us, just make sure to save at least a quarter of your mana, I’m going to need it.”
“Stop it from-” Kat flinched as a watermelon sized ball of something crashed into the water to her right. A second later, there was a bright flash of light and water cascaded upward, drenching the Marka.
A wave picked the catamaran up and tossed it to the side. For a moment, Kat was entirely weightless as the Marka’s twin hulls were entirely exposed.
Then they smashed back into the ocean, aged deck planks groaning in protest as more water splashed everywhere. Kat was barely able to maintain her footing, her enhanced reactions and agility serving her well while Kaleek hung on to the sail for dear life.
Dorrik wasn’t so lucky, slamming into the bottom of the ship and rolling until they hit the railing, a rickety wooden fence the only barrier between the lokkel and the frothing ocean waves.
Promptly and without preamble, they shoved their muzzle over the edge of the ship and threw up into the ocean below.
“Spell casings,” Kaleek grunted, shifting the sail to get them back on course. “That means they have a wizard and an artificer on board. Let’s hope that was a lucky shot because if they’re that accurate all the time, the three of us are going to have to learn how to swim in a hurry.”
Almost a minute later, another grey ball arced through the air, launched by some sort of contraption on the galleon’s bow. This one didn’t hit the water, instead exploding into three crackling bolts of lightning well short of the Marka.
Kat blinked her eyes, trying to clear the white and blue after images as Kaleek steered their ship toward the circling birds.
“There we go,” the desoph grinned madly back at her. “That first shot was just beginner’s luck. As long as they don’t get absurdly fortunate, we should be able to make it in time.”
“I hate to ruin the mood,” Kat replied nervously, eyeing up the galleon, its sails full and straining as some sort of spellcaster aided its pursuit, “but we aren’t making it anywhere in time. I can see the stallesp from here and that thing is only getting closer.”
Another grey sphere struck the water, detonating beneath the surface and sending a fountain of brine everywhere. The three of them stopped talking long enough to grab onto hand holds as the wave from the attack picked them up and pushed the Marka forward.
“Good,” Kaleek cackled. “We want them close anyway.”
“We want what now?” Kat whipped around. Kaleek was standing tall as he held onto the sail, making constant minute adjustments to keep the Marka on a steady heading as the wind tousled his wet fur. “I’m pretty sure whatever that magical cannon is, it gets more accurate when it gets closer, not the other way around.”
“Just get ready to cast Levitation, Kat.” He didn’t look back, instead focusing on the water and the birds circling overhead. “It’ll reduce our drag and give us a speed boost. Where we’re going, we’ll need both.”
Another spell casing exploded in the air off their stern, peppering the water with dozens of razor sharp daggers of ice. Kat shook her head and frowned at the galleon.
A dozen or so of the mole-like stallesp stood on its deck, most armed with what looked like long bows as they waited for the range to close enough for their weapons to be useful despite the wind. At the prow of the ship, two figures in robes stood next to a device that looked like two ballistas welded together, one horizontal and the other vertical.
Even as he watched on, one of the figures picked up a dark circle and slid it into a housing where the two massive crossbows intersected. Then the other put a hand on the side of the contraption.
It launched another grey sphere that detonated in the air off their starboard, stabbing the waves with four eye-searing bolts of lightning, close enough that the hair on Kat’s forearms stood on end.
“They’re awfully close, Kaleek!” She shouted, not even bothering to look at the desoph. “If you have a plan, now is the time. I’m not sure we’re going to have the opportunity in a minute or so.”
“Now, Kat!” He screamed back over the wind. At some point it had picked up into an almost gale force torrent of gusting air. “Cast Levitation on the Marka!”
She didn’t ask any questions, placing her palm on the ship’s deck and infusing the gravity magic into it.
The effect was immediate. The Marka bobbed up higher on the waves and darted forward, a spell casing detonating under the water in their wake.
“Oh fuck!” Kaleek’s giddy madness morphed into genuine terror. “I can’t believe they fucking did it! Cast it again. Now, Kat!”
She frowned, infusing more mana into the ship. It practically leapt from the water, skating up a massive swell of water that hadn’t been there a moment before and sending her skittering across the deck.
Her hands hit the deck on either side of her, fingers questing for a handhold and only finding splinters. At the last second, she caught hold of one of the posts that anchored the safety railing.
Then the Marka was in the air hanging for an eternal second under the power of her spells. One of the white birds swooped by, a four-winged gull of some sort. Its eyes fixed themselves on her, vivid golden rings surrounding massive black pupils. It screeched at her, entirely unafraid, and then they began to descend.
They fell almost gently, more of an uncontrolled glide really. Casting the same spell twice multiplied its mana cost, but at the same time, Kat couldn’t argue with the results.
She looked back at the galleon, and a gasp tore itself from her throat. The giant swell of water was gone, replaced by two massive pillars of pink coral that affixed themselves to the sides of the enemy ship.
Spells flashed and flickered as the stallesp tried to fight off the attacker, but Kat could see that it wasn’t working. The attacks were removing chips of the rocky substance, but the glittering coral towers were grinding through the ship’s hull like drill bits.
Then, the water opened up in front of the galleon, a swirling vortex of water leading down into the massive pink maw of something. The whirlpool pulled at the galleon, forcing the vessel’s nose downward as the masses of coral dragged it toward its fate.
The Marta hit the water, barely breaking the surface as it jolted away. Just beneath the waves, barely three feet from the bottom of their ship, jagged toothlike spears of coral stared back at her menacingly.
Kaleek began laughing maniacally. Behind them, Kat heard the snap of the galleon’s massive timbers being torn apart.
“What in the name of all that is holy is that!” She shouted at Kaleek, pulling herself up on the railing.
“That is plan B!” He shouted back exuberantly. “Me doing something stupid!”
“Usually your stupidity doesn’t take the form of some sort of nightmare monstrosity, Kaleek.” She worked her way along the guardrail toward him, making sure to keep one hand on the rickety wood at any given point of time.
“The idiots didn’t even know to avoid carrion gulls.” Kaleek flashed her a mad smle. “Even if they didn’t bother to check the charts for this area for hazards, they should have known to avoid still water and carrion gulls. That’s the first lesson every pup gets when they reach the fourth floor.”
“You’re not being terribly illuminating here, Kaleek.” Kat shook her head at him, glancing into the water once more to take in the almost endless pink blades just beneath the surface.
“That is why heavy vessels with deep drafts are out of favor,” He replied, eyes twinkling. “As soon as your keel strikes the coral it triggers an attack, and then almost nothing on the floor can escape, let alone defeat it.”
“Say hello to Leviathan, Kat,” Kaleek continued cheerfully. “She isn’t the biggest living reef on the fourth floor, but I wouldn’t want to piss her off.”
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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