Vale made a frustrated grown before asking, “See anything?”



While Vale talked to Abbey, Brutus and Minerva were not even pretending to pay attention. The two of them were sparring slowly, more for practice than an actual duel. Everyone else was letting them have half of the ship to themselves for their training.

Across the deck from Vale, Abbey sat against her railing and fiddled with an eye piece. The gadget had a thin tube that led over the side of the airship and was attached to something like a telescope. She was watching the ground below.

Constantine drummed his fingers on the rails. He said, “This is unfortunate, but the gravy train really did have to end.” This was an old conversation, one they’d had many times over the last few days.

It’d been over a week since their mission at the front lines when the team had cleared out an entire group of First Things all by themselves.

“I wish it hadn’t ended so fast,” grumbled Bart. “That was the fastest I’ve ever leveled, ever.”

“All of us,” said Vale. With a mental command, he called up his stat sheet and glanced at it.

Name: Vale dePardon

Class: Occultist

Subclass: Explorer

Hero Class: *At level 20*

Legendary Class: Air Adept

Level: 18

Experience: 2854354

XP to next level: 345656

Stamina: 88/88

HP: 88/88

Mana: 141/141

Stats: (Total/Original/Level Ups/Bonuses)

Strength: 6/2/2/2

Agility: 11/3/5/3

Stamina: 6/4/2/0

Intelligence: 11/7/1/3

Willpower: 9/6/1/2

Luck: 18/8/6/4

Class Skills: Fencing, Ancient Body Magic, Paranoia, Ancient Occult Lore, Map Reading/Cartography, Elemental Magic: Air, Spirit of Adventure, Mystic Alignment

Permanent Bonus Source: Mystic Clover (Luck +3), World Tree Tithe

(Int -5), World Tree Boon (Int +8, Agi +3), Ring of the Unknown Saint (Will +2) Auras and Status: Mystic. A mysterious status that confers additional magical mastery. Not compatible with tech skills.

When he’d leveled up to 17, he’d put the stat point in Intelligence, ensuring he’d get more mana per level. He’d done this because so many battles now were being fought using magic alone. He needed more gas in the tank. Now his mana capacity was truly becoming respectable.

His latest stat point he’d put into Luck. It was almost a compulsion, now. During quiet moments, he wondered if he was doing the right thing with his Luck stat strategy, but these doubts were nothing new. He’d been asking himself that question for a year.

Ultimately, the reason he’d chosen to put yet another point in luck, and the reason why he didn’t regret it, was remembering all the fortunate quests and items he’d bumped into. His team was a powerhouse now in part because of the hidden quest he’d found. They would have never even learned of Lord Hygon’s existence without it.

And Vale could really use another fancy quest. Unfortunately, these sorts of things couldn’t be forced, though. All he could do was wait for good fortune to find him…and raise his Luck stat some more.

After hitting level 18, he’d gotten the ability to choose another class skill, but he still hadn’t made up his mind about that. He’d almost chosen a few different skills to help out with this time on the Mitochondria.

Attacking ranged for long periods of time was quickly being proven a weakness of his build, but at the same time, he wasn’t really getting hit much, either. His Dexterity was high enough that he had passive bonuses to avoid damage at long ranges, and his Luck stat might have helped, too. So he wasn’t in huge amounts of danger during most flying shootouts, but he wanted to hit back. And being hard to hit didn’t mean he was invulnerable. After all, he’d died on his first trip on the Mitochondria.

Not for the first time, he’d been tempted to take [Basic Technology] to shoot guns better in-game. Vale really didn’t want to be a gunslinger, though. That wasn’t his style of play.

He’d even considered taking [Soul of the Dark], which would give extra darkness damage to all of his attacks, and make him more resistant to SAN damage, but would also lower his stats and slowly drain his health in sunlight. He decided it wasn’t worth it.

Ultimately, Vale decided to hold off on taking a skill at all. New skill lists that would open up once he got his hero class were not visible now. He was hoping that saving up two skills might give him an advantage in two more levels. Unfortunately, his team–the unfortunately named Alligators–had seen an end to the gold rush of XP they’d been enjoying a week earlier. Otherwise Vale would have already hit level 20 by now.

Their very first battle had been a complete success. The enemy casualties had been so bad, they’d withdrawn away from Psysmuth. They hadn’t left, though. Just given up ground.

The enemy had learned fast. Now all the flying Beasties–the Allies’ new name for all the attacking, inhuman players–had multiple openings and escape routes out of their underground forward bases. Big battles were a death trap now for airships and flying Beastiest if they went too high up. Both sides had invested a lot of resources in weapons to clear the skies.

As a result, the Mitochondria had been steering clear of the front lines. Instead, they scoured the countryside, trying to find enemy resupply convoys on small groups to ambush. They hadn’t had much luck for almost a full day.

And Abbey was itching for everyone to try out her new guns.

Three crank-handle gatling guns stood on the deck of the Mitochondria, one to both side, and one at the rear. In theory, the guns would allow other members of the team without solid distance damage to help Abbey shoot down flying Beasties. Building the things had cost Abigail a fortune, and the ammo was expensive enough that she wouldn’t let them waste it.

Vale scratched his chin as he imagined what it’d be like to get his hero class. Just hitting his subclass had given him a huge boost in power. Now that he was only two levels away, the game had listed the Hero Classes he could choose: Scholar, Treasure Hunter, Magic Researcher, and Ruins Seeker.

The first two choices, Scholar and Treasure Hunter, were standard choices for his Occultist class and Explorer subclass. Most players would only get two Hero Class choices, two for each subclas. Vale had another two more because of his Legendary Class.

All of the choices sounded super cool, but the game didn’t really tell him what the differences were. Just based on the names, he reasoned the extra two choices were variations of the first two but with more supernatural flair.

Vale was jerked out of his thoughts by a repeated question. He hadn’t heard the words, just the upward intonation. Sure enough, when he glanced up, Bart, Abbey, and Constantine were looking at him. “Earth to Vale, you there?” asked Abbey.

“Yeah, what’s up.”

“I will tell you again, for the third time, that I just saw a group traveling below. They aren’t using the roads, but I caught movement in the trees. I couldn’t get a clear look at who or even what they were. Do you want to check it out?”

Not like anything else is going on, thought Vale. “Yeah,” he said. “If it’s nothing, we can kill some wildlife for a little bit of XP, maybe do some quick gathering for herbs and mats, and take a little break before searching again.”

“Sounds good,” said Bart.

“You need to tell them?” asked Constantine. He hooked a thumb at the fighting siblings.

“Nah. They don’t really care as long as we get XP and have decent stream content. But if you want to interrupt them…”

Abbey shook her head.

“You hear all that, George?” Vale directed the question at a speaker for their pilot.

“Sure did! Heading down. Abbey, just please guide us to wherever you saw what you saw.”

“No problem.”

Vale fingered the hilt of his sword. He absently rubbed a thumb on the guard and wondered why he was feeling so strange today.


“What the hell? The footprints just vanish.” Abbey stood with her hands on her hips. She’d just holstered the legendary howdah pistol.

“Someone wuz definitely here,” agreed Minerva. The beautiful warrior stalked around. She found where each set of prints disappeared and glared at them as if to intimidate them into spilling their secrets. “Some prints iz boots, but some iz clawed feet. Beasties.”

Vale nodded. He crossed his arms and carefully scanned the surrounding forest. Part of him wanted to just leave since they hadn’t found any easy XP. All the forest monsters were already dead, too. Whoever had just come through here had cleaned them out. But as he stood there next to vanishing footprints, he thought of how the Beasties had been somehow getting mystery resupplies at the front lines.

Crafting bullets and all sorts of other war consumables took a lot of materials. There had to be a huge supply train, but nobody had found it yet. Some of the Allies even believed there was an underground tunnel somewhere.

Vale glanced over at Minerva again. She really was a beautiful woman. The fact she really looked like that in real life was shocking. She was so gorgeous, Vale didn’t even feel nervous or flirty around her, either in game or out of it.

His eyes suddenly widened as a crazy possibility crossed his mind. “Everyone, chill out for a minute. I’m going to look at something.”

To one side, where he’d been silently on guard, Brutus shrugged. Constantine did the same.

Vale sat on his butt and leaned against a tree before calling up a mental map with the [Map Reading/Cartography] skill. He’d gotten the idea when he’d remembered how he’d met Minerva. She’d been hiding in the Great Maze.

What if the Beasties were somehow using the Great Maze?

He frowned as he looked at his data, and compared it to the partial Great Maze maps he’d bought or found before. Nothing was adding up. The nearest entrance to the Great Maze should be a half mile away.

What if it’s different for Beasties, though? He wondered. While in the Great Maze, nobody had ever seen a Beastie player before. Maybe they had their own Great Maze, or at least their own access points. Maybe.

He briefly wondered why more Beastie players didn’t post online guides or talk about their game experiences. Maybe the non-human races just attracted fewer loudmouth players. Just to be thorough, Vale did a quick search in the message boards but couldn’t find anything about a Beastie version of the Great Maze. He didn’t find anything.

“Does anyone have any Beastie parts in their storage?”

“Gross,” said Abbey.

“No judgement. Anyone?” asked Vale.

Bart slowly raised a hand. “I have an Abyssal One finger, I think.” He shrugged at Abbey. “Alchemy stuff.”

“Alright, that might work.” Vale quickly made a circle of salt on the ground. “Go ahead and toss it in the circle. I need to do some spellwork before getting an answer to a question I haven’t even really completely framed yet.”

“Are you going to do ritual magic?” asked Constantine. “That’s expensive. Like, expensive mats. You sure about this?”

“Hell fucking no,” laughed Vale. “But I mean, Abbey built our gattling guns. That wasn’t cheap. Besides, if this works, you all will chip in on my mats, right?”

“We will what?” asked Minerva. She cocked an eyebrow.

“I said if it works. If.” Vale waved dismissively at all of them. “Alright, let me work. I’m gonna try something nobody has ever done.”

“What?” asked Bart.

“I’m going to figure out if the Beasties have their own entrances to the Great Maze. Or something like it.”

Bart groaned. “I hope not. The Great Maze? That place sucks.”

“I’ve never actually been to the Great Maze with this character,” said Constantine. “It’s the kind of place you really can’t go to without a group or at least a plan and some money. Instanced, end game content will probably be in the Great Maze.”

Bart and Constantine began a conversation about the SOO endgame speculations in the forums. Vale tuned them out and began scribing mystical patterns with glowing powder on the ground, all radiating out from the dismembered finger on the forest floor.

A note from BlaiseCorvin

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