The noises in the darkness kept getting louder. It was obvious that whatever was hiding in the inky gloom, there were a lot of them. “Well, now we know why there was a lock on the trapdoor,” said Bart.

“Shut up, Bart. Actually, do you have anything that will help with the light situation?”


“Why aren’t we running away?” asked Abigail.

“If we try to go up the ladder, whatever is down here will probably get us,” Vale replied in a deadpan voice. Abbey shivered and held her pepperbox revolver in one hand, her other hand on the barrels.

Vale had his rapier out. Rapiers weren’t always the most practical weapon for adventurers, but one thing they were good at was penetrating. Spears were better for killing monsters in SOO, but rapiers could be effective too. Luckily, the Rapier of Twilight was an especially sturdy, well-made weapon.

“Okay, got it,” announced Bart. It looked like he had added one more reagent to his glowing vial. “How far do you want the light?”

“Don’t throw it as far as you can, but get some distance on it.”

“Okay!” acknowledged Bart. He reared back and threw the vial. It flew down the tunnel, eventually breaking, creating a flash of light that quickly dimmed and flickered. The creatures in the tunnel hissed and Vale got his first look at them.

They were rats. Giant rats.

“Oh,” said Abigail, “it’s just giant rats.”

“Oh shit…” muttered Bartholomew. “We are so screwed.”

“But they’re just giant rats!” Abigail shook her head. “These things are, like, starter monsters in every role-playing game ever.”

“I don’t think you understand,” whispered Vale. “There’s a reason none of these things are in the newbie areas.”

“Yeah, I don’t get it. Why are you guys so freaked out?”

“This isn’t just any game,” said Bart. “SOO has a lot of realism. And in reality, what kind of standard, common monster in older games would actually be utterly terrifying in real life? What animal, for its size, has immense strength, aggression, climbing ability, reproduction rate, ability to eat anything, and huge, sharp teeth? What would really suck if it were the size of a mastiff?”

“Rats,” said Abbey in growing horror.

“Yeah,” growled Vale. “So how about we fucking shoot them or something?”

Abbey opened up with her pepperbox about the same time Bart threw a vial that shattered on impact, frosting the entire tunnel ahead. Vale nodded in approval as the rats slowed down, some of them jumping back. “Good job,” he said. “Don’t use fire.”

“Why not?” asked Bart while fishing out another vial from inside his coat.

“Because I’m not sure just how realistic this game is. In the real world, a large enough fire could steal all the oxygen and kill us.”

“Good point,” mumbled Bart.

It seemed to take a second for the rats to regroup, but once they did, they ran right through the ice and surged towards the player party. The giant vermin were incredibly fast.

Abbey fired all her pepperbox’s barrels. When the revolver was spent, she held up her large flintlock. The lead rat jumped forward and Abbey screamed as she fired. The flintlock created a thunderous roar and a huge cloud of smoke, blowing part of the rat’s head off. The next rat got a green vial in the face, courtesy of Bartholomew. The vial bubbled after it broke and the rat ran away, screeching so shrilly it hurt Vale’s ears.

Bart had his sword cane out at this point. He held the blade in one hand and the rest of the cane in the other. “Are they too close now to use vials and such?” asked Vale.

“Yeah, but I just took a potion that makes me stronger and faster. I figure I can go for their spine and their eyes. Me and you just have to hold them off for Abbey.”

“I agree,” said Vale. He concentrated and put a couple points of mana into his [Ancient Body Magic] spells, <Arm Speed>, <Leg Speed>, <Superior Aim>, and <Enhanced Reflexes>. Even with only a couple points of mana each, his casting difficulty grew, and he could feel the spells assaulting his Willpower stats.

Vale grumbled to himself. He couldn’t deny anymore that he needed more Willpower. It would also be nice if their group had a player to stand on the front lines and take punishment or keep enemies at bay; basically, a tank.

Still, he smiled as he cast his next spell. Rapiers usually weren’t great for cutting; they were a thrusting weapon, after all. However, he’d recently created a new spell. He used his [Elemental Magic: Air] skill to cast <Wind Blade>. He sunk a full eight points of mana into it.

He glanced at his stats. He’d used 16 points of mana, so he was at:

Mana: 74/90

Keeping an eye on his mana was second nature at this point, especially during a fight. Players in SOO only regenerated about ten percent of their mana pool per hour.

His blade began howling like a hurricane. Air ripped and tore along the length of the rapier so fast, it felt like he was holding a chainsaw. Vale grinned, and the expression wasn’t pretty.

He and Bart ran forward, trying to hold the rats at bay while Abbey began methodically picking them off with her giant howdah pistol. Vale was moving much faster than normal, so fast that the rats could barely touch him. His spelled rapier was able to cut the creatures like a giant cleaver, delivering staggering blows and making the giant vermin screech in pain.

He made the mistake once during the fight of stabbing an enemy through the mouth. The huge rodent was so strong it almost ripped the rapier right out of his hand. Only Vale’s active wind spell kept him from being disarmed. The effect on the blade tore the rat apart from the inside so the blade didn’t get stuck.

“Yeah, not doing that again,” he muttered. Then, gasping for breath, he beat back another rat as it lunged at him. His cut cleaved its nose and part of its jaw off.

The battle seemed to go on forever. Vale was actually nearing the end of his spells’ durations when the remaining rats finally broke, running away in terror. There were over a dozen dead vermin on the ground, and Vale had a feeling his group had mortally wounded at least twice that number. It’d been a long fight. If not for the natural chokepoint of the tunnel, they would have been easily overwhelmed and killed.

In fact, if they hadn’t paused so long to study the bones on the floor, they probably would have started down the tunnel sooner and been surrounded.

Vale panted, trying to get his breath back. “Well, that went well,” he wheezed.

“I need to spend more time making ammo,” moaned Abbey. “You know, I’ve almost used as many bullets while grouping with you guys as I have in the last year of playing this game combined?”

“I believe it,” said Bart. He was gulping a potion that made him regain his energy and stamina. In a couple moments, he looked fresh again.

Bastard, thought Vale. It figured that Bart couldn’t share refresher potions. It was also a pain that his friend wouldn’t be able to make mana potions for like ten more levels. “Let’s see what’s down this tunnel.”

The group moved forward after Abbey was finished reloading her pistols. The whole group wanted to be ready in case the fight wasn’t actually finished. As they walked through the tunnel, Vale saw the large holes near the floor where the rats had all come out of. Luckily, nothing else was jumping out at them.

The tunnel curved around to the left and the group followed until they came to a huge, iron-bound door. Vale tried the handle. “It’s locked. Abbey, some help?”

“I think I’d better keep guarding our rear,” said Abigail, shaking her head.

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Okay, Bart, you’re up.”

Bartholomew looked strangely happy as he stepped forward, unwrapping his lock picks. After a couple minutes, the lock clicked and Vale opened the door, revealing an old office.

“Why the hell would someone need to keep an office underground like this?”

“That’s why,” said Bart, pointing towards an old altar, similar in appearance to the one above. “I’m guessing this was where that old kook used to sacrifice people, but then the rats got too dangerous, so he moved his operation upwards.”

Vale shrugged. He didn’t care. He held a hand out and said, “Wait! If you see any boxes or anything you can open that might have loot, don’t mess with it.”

“Why not?” asked Abbey.

Vale paused for a moment, thinking. Finally he said, “Do you guys still have some time left today for private play? Like, can you turn your streaming feeds off?”

“Yeah,” said Bart slowly.

“Okay, please do that. It will only take a minute.” When both Bart and Abbey nodded at him, Vale verified their feeds were off and said, “I have a really high Luck stat. I think it makes good drops much more likely.”

“I kind of figured,” said Bart.

“How high are we talking here?” Abbey looked skeptical. “I thought that stat was only for critical hits and stuff.”

“I’m running sixteen Luck right now.”

“Holy shit!” hissed Abbey. “I only have four! Does the Luck really make a difference?”

Vale nodded. “Yeah, it does. I have one permanent stat item that gives a +3. I’ve been learning that this number is high. Plus, whenever I group, drops get even better. I hadn’t really figured this out until recently when I found the Monarch Stone.”

“Wow, that actually kind of makes sense.” Abigail looked thoughtful.

“Anyway, let’s turn our streams back on and check this place out.” The other two nodded and spread out. Within a few minutes, Vale had found a journal, and the group identified two places in the room that could be hiding treasure. One was a drawer. The other was an old trunk. Both were still closed.

Vale flipped through the journal. “It looks like we’re almost done with this quest. The bad news is, we definitely have a boss battle next.”

“Seriously?” asked Bart.

“Yeah, and it’s a nasty mofo. We will definitely need a new group member to help us with SAN checks. The weird thing is, reading this, it kind of looks like taking the legendary weapon will trigger the boss fight. Then we will need to actually beat the boss to keep what we took.”

“That’s strange. I haven’t seen that sort of thing yet in the last year. What exactly does it say?” asked Abigail.

“Basically, it looks like we’re stealing something from a shrine to Hygon, a child of the Abyssal Ones’ gods. He will not be pleased when we do so.”

“Yeah, that definitely sounds weird. Okay, fine, we can look at the particulars later. Can you open these loot spots, Vale? I’m dying of curiosity here.”

“Fine, fine, I’m going.” Vale moved over to the chest and saw the lock had a key in it, which he turned. He opened the lid and whistled. The chest was full of gizmos and parts. It had some reagents, too. He grabbed a couple reagents that were good for Occultists. However, the real prize was hanging inside the chest itself.

“We got a permanent bonus item, guys!”

“Let me see, let me see!” squealed Abbey. Vale continued to <Inspect> the item:

Watch of the Mad Canadian
+1Intelligence +1 Agility +1 Willpower (permanent, bind on equip)
-Also tells time

It looked like a nice, antique watch, and otherwise didn’t really look special in any way. Abbey stared at it and bit her lip.

“What do you think we should do with it?” asked Bart.

The item would probably be good for any of them, but Vale thought back to Abigail’s stats. She really had been a big help, too. “Abbey, go ahead and grab it.”

“Are you serious?” she asked.

“Yeah, hurry up before I change my mind,” sighed Vale.

Abigail giggled and snatched up the watch. She wasted no time in putting it on, and then she and Bart cleared out all the remaining items in the trunk.

Vale headed over to the drawer and opened it up. Inside were two items. One was a long glass tube of green liquid. The other was an item of power. Vale used <Inspect>:

Ring of the Unknown Saint
+2 Willpower (permanent, bind on equip)
Made of bone, confers a <Mystic> aura

“I have another couple things over here, too, an item of power and some tube I can’t identify.”

The other two gathered around and Bart crowed, “Yes!” He snatched the glass tube. “I’ve been looking for one of these! Nobody minds?” Vale and Abbey shook their heads. Bart smiled and pulled his sword cane free enough to dump the contents of the vial inside the body of the cane, then rammed the blade home again.

Vale had no idea what his friend was doing, but he mentally shrugged. He was eying the ring. “All of us use Willpower,” he said.

“True, but I don’t like that ‘mystic’ thing. That might not work for me or Bart, or might cause problems. I think you should take it. What do you think, Bart?” Abigail called over her shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” said Bart. He was busy smiling at his sword cane.

Vale shrugged and put on the ring. He got a few new status windows but none looked very important so he closed them. He was feeling nervous for some reason. “Let’s get out of here, guys.”

The other two nodded and they began retracing their steps. Vale was watching for more rats or anything else that could jump out at them. He kept looking into the small tunnels near the floor and behind them. He whipped his head around when he heard Abigail gasp.

Standing in front of them, blocking the way to the ladder out of the tunnel, stood Brutus. He didn’t look happy. Vale groaned and thought, I knew this had been too easy.


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