Vale wiped his forehead and studied his handiwork with a critical eye. He’d never enabled his sweat filter in the game, but the gesture felt appropriate. All the sigils and whorls he’d put together reminded him of the spell he’d created…what felt a lifetime ago that led to the World Tree. Of course, that spell working had mostly spelled out, “Travel.” This one was more about, “Searching.”
Things had changed a lot. Back then he’d made the World Tree spell, it’d taken him months to get all the components together for the spell. Now he could just casually pull them out of his storage.
“Alright, everyone stand back!” He glanced around and none of his team were even anywhere close. “Oh.” Constantine and Brutus were playing a card game. Abbey was playing some sort of shooting game with the Herterz brothers–she was on the ground, they were on the ship. Bartholomew was brewing potions.
Vale started as he looked directly behind him and saw Minerva. She had her hands on her hips as she studied him and the spell working on the forest floor. “It iz done?”
“Ah, yes.” Vale cleared his throat, held out a hand, and activated the spell.
All the powder on the ground flashed like colored gunsmoke. Ethereal energies swirled around the woods, stirring the leaves on the ground. Vale had made this spell using a few different techniques he’d picked up over the last year through study and from his skills.
When the spell resolved, Vale frowned. “What iz wrong?” asked Minerva. “Did you solve ze mystery?”
“Sort of,” said Vale absently. He pointed in three different directions for her benefit. Nobody but him could see the results of his spell. To him, plain as day, were three glowing doorways that all had a line of text hovering over them. They read:
Path to the Chaos Maze.
“There are three possible directions the actual portal could be, all near the end of the vanished footprints. Human doorways to the Great Maze are usually an actual door, or at least on something solid…like a wall. But in this case...”
“Three of them? So which is it?”
“That’s the problem,” said Vale. The other members of the group were ambling over to hear the discussion after seeing the flash of light. Vale read the system message he’d just gotten.
Congratulations on completing your discernment spell!
Future attempts to cast this spell will require 50% less materials.
Would you like to name your spell?
Vale chose, YES.
What would you like to name your spell?
He pondered for a second before deciding on, Maze Search. Once he’d chosen the name, the spell was added to known spells under his [Map Reading/ Cartography] skill. This raised his eyebrows–it was a first for him.
But most of his attention was still on the doorways he’d created. After focusing on them, he read,
Possible gateway to Chaos Maze. One of three.
One choice for the caster.
If the wrong door is chosen, all doors will vanish.
Warning! Chaos Maze is dangerous for Human Players!
Vale muttered under his breath. Even with a 50% decrease in material requirements, he’d need to go back to a city first before trying to cast the spell again. It might not work another time, either. Ritual magic like this was always risky in the game.
His entire team watched him as he thought about the problem, wondering what he should do. At one point he was tempted to explain the situation, but he knew most of the Gators wouldn’t understand, and the rest would just tell him to flip a coin.
He blinked. That’s it! “Anyone have a die?”
Bart blinked. “Die? Are we in danger?”
“No, yes, I don’t know. Fuck. I need a die. You know, like dice?”
“Oh, I have some. Game stuff,” said Abbey. “One second.”
“Why don’t you just use your persocom and run a random program, or even a dedicated dice program?” asked Bart.
Vale just waved his friend’s question away and waited patiently. He was still keeping his high Luck Stat on a need to know basis. Luckily, nobody asked any more questions. Eventually Abbey handed him a 6-sided die. Vale said out loud, “Alright. If I roll a one or a two, I will take door number one. If I roll a three or a four, I will take door number two. If I roll a five or a six, I will take door number three.” He paused for dramatic effect.
In real life, luck was just probability. But in the game world, maybe his high luck stat could actually help.
“Dude, you are really weird sometimes,” said Steve.
“Takes one to know one, fuckface.”
Steve chuckled as Vale dropped the die to the ground. It landed on three.
“Door number two it is!” He walked across his spent magical working and touched the ethereal door. The moment he did, he got a new system notification:
Portal to the Chaos Maze has been successfully opened! As a human, this access point will remain for one week.
Congratulations for being the second human player to access the Chaos Maze.
Proceed at your own risk.
Vale’s eyes widened. “Dude.”
“What?” asked Bart.
“Can you guys see the portal now?” Vale pointed to the gently spiraling mystic tear in reality.
Everyone shook their heads except for Constantine. “I can see something, like a big fuzzy circle. It feels…bad. Like the feeling the game gives you before going into a high level zone. But…dirty, too.”
“Well that doesn’t sound fucking ominous,” said Abbey.
Vale coughed. “Oh yeah, I just leveled up, too.”.
“What!?” Bart’s jaw dropped.
Brutus shook his head. “He must maintain his level advantage. Otherwise he will need to admit that I am the better player.”
“No, we all already know that,” said Abbey in an offhand tone of voice. “Don’t get me wrong, Vale. You’re one of the best. It’s just, well, Brutus is Brutus. And now Minerva has a legendary class, too. The two of them are like the children of the gods or something.”
“Vale beat me in a duel,” said Minerva.
“Yeah, but could he beat you now?”
“No. Probably not. But still, he haz still beat me in a duel. Who elze has?” Minerve raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “Would you like to try, Artificer?”
Vale really appreciated the assist. He wasn’t sure why Minerva had come to his defense, but he was not going to complain. The rest are traitors, he thought. To change the subject and stop wasting time, he said, “We can all go into the portal now. It should be dangerous but we should probably make this snappy. We only have a week until the exit disappears and I need to go through all this bullshit to find any new portal like this. The system says only one other person has opened a portal to this weird place before.”
“Weird place? It is not the Great Maze?” asked Brutus.
“No. It’s something called the Chaos maze. Based on context I think it’s the Great Maze for beasties”
Abbey made a face. “Chaos Maze? Now that really sounds fucking ominous.”
“Sound like a lot of XP to me,” said Constantine. He had a savage grin, and Vale was reminded that their newest member was a dedicated min-maxer and power gamer. He had been pulling his own weight without a problem despite being lower level, and he likely getting close to actually catching up in level now.
With that thought in mind, Vale dropped his new stat point in Agility. If they were going to be heading into danger on foot, he wanted more speed. That done, he complained out loud, “Do we really need to call ourselves the Alligators?”
Bart looked him in the eyes with a blank expression. “I think we do. Yes.”
Vale gave him a flat look, but his friend just turned and walked toward where Vale had pointed the second portal to be. He was a little off, though. “It’s this way,” said Vale, and walked forward. He turned and shouted, “Hey, Herterz bros, you got our backs while we explore this thing?”
Rivera Herterz waved a hand from the deck of the ship. “No problem. We’ll just shit here and cap any critters that spawn or move into the area. The big guns are a little overkill but should debuff them enough for us to kill even high level mobs.”
“Good. So it won’t be a waste of time for you guys?”
George gave a big, sloppy salute. “No way. Free XP. Go do your thing. If you take too long, we might be higher level than you by the time you come out, though.”
Vale grinned. He stood before the portal, and took a quick once-over of his inventory. Then he said, “Constantine, Minerva, we might have some serious SAN attacks after going through this thing. Be ready.”
“Already on it, Boss,” said Constantine.
Boss…? Vale mouthed the word and shrugged. He paused and said, “Everyone keep it quiet when we’re through here, like we did before the rat dungeon a few weeks ago. We’re going into the unknown and I really don’t want to die. If I’m dead again, I might not get such a badass XP buff this time around.”
Brutus grunted. “The XP buff again.”
“You’re bragging,” said Bart.
“Yes, he is,” agreed Brutus.
“Well pardon me to hell for, you know, dying, and making the most of it.” Vale frowned.
“Yeah, that sucked, but now you’re bragging.” Bart had that same non-expression on his face again.
That was when Vale realized they were just messing with him. “Whatever. Fuck you guys. Don’t be jelly that I just hit level 19.” Vale made the most infuriating grin he knew how.
Bart’s poker face finally cracked and he laughed. Vale rolled his eyes and stepped through the fuzzy magical anomaly. Before the portal made his vision go dark, he turned and saw the rest of his team following him.