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For the first time since he started playing S.O.O., Vale was jealous of players with crossbows and guns.  As more of a scholar character, a great deal of Vale’s XP had come from solving riddles, discovering mysteries, and sneaking through ruins.  Whenever he actually needed to fight monsters or other adversaries, he’d joined a group.  That had actually been how he ended up on the expedition that made an enemy of Brutus.

As Vale dodged yet another zombie lunging at him, he really wished he had a way to keep the damn things off of him.  If any of them clawed him, much less got a bite in, the potions he had to use in order to cure the nasty diseases they carried were very expensive.

Meanwhile, Bartholomew casually tossed alchemical vials around from the inside of his coat.  His aim was good, and whatever strange concoctions he used made the living dead run away or melt into puddles.  Abigail was able to take down zombies with contemptuous ease.  Her aim was fantastic, and she was very fast at reloading her strange, bulky pistol.  She called it a “pepperbox revolver” and she said she was making another one too.

Vale was not a warrior.  He didn’t wear armor.  He was ill suited to be holding hordes of zombies at bay with his rapier, and yet here he was doing exactly that.  He grumbled under his breath and knocked a groping set of undead hands away with the flat of his blade.

A rapier was a fantastic weapon in duels and against things that bled.  However, using a rapier to fight creatures that were already dead was difficult.  Vale pretty much had to go through an eye or the roof of a rotting mouth to reach a zombie’s brain, and he had to be far too close for comfort for either attack.

He was also getting hit by attacks to his sanity too.  In S.O.O., the game attacked characters directly with a sanity attack, or SAN while players fought monsters.  The more otherworldly or horrifying the monster was, the more debilitating and more often the SAN attacks could be.  Players were able to resist SAN with high Willpower or other related skills.  SAN attacks usually manifested as physical damage.

Vale had a low Willpower stat.  At a 6, he was only one point higher than the generic starting value of 5.  At level 1, the 6 was pretty decent.  At level 12, it wasn’t very good.  Of course, up until now, Vale hadn’t really needed Willpower.  His [Ancient Body Magic] used a Willpower check, but he hadn’t used the magic that often.  Most of his fighting had been in duels where he’d surprised his opponent with quick kills.  However, now that he was fighting monster, he kept watching his health go down from repeated SAN attacks.

And zombies weren’t even that bad!  There were monsters in the game that would make him pass out and die by just looking at them!

Vale dodged yet another set of nasty, groping hands and realized his little group needed to find a party member who could help with SAN attacks.  Most groups usually included a Priest class or an Occultist [Ritualist], but Vale wasn’t sure what the best approach would be.

His musings were cut short when Bart downed a health potion and asked, “Why are we here again?  This sucks.”  Abbey nodded but didn’t say anything else.  She was busy reloading her pepperbox.  She had another couple pistols ready to fire if she needed them, though.

Vale sighed.  “Do we really need to have this conversation right now?  Again?”

Bart did something with vials, mixing two potions together into a single tube before throwing it.  There was a bright flash and half a dozen zombies turned into nasty puddles.  “Yes, we do. Killing so many of these things is expensive.  Between potions, reagents, vials, mixing tools, and all the crap Abbey needs for her guns… The person getting off cheapest is you and this is your quest.”

That’s right, Abigail said that since we’re “friends” now, we should call her Abbey, Vale thought.  He considered what Bart had just said and nodded slowly. He had to admit that his friend had a point.  He said, “That’s true, but I’m streaming right now.  You guys are going to get paid for all this play time.”

“Not for another month or something.  There’s a delay in pay,” said Bart.  “I also don’t want to buy stuff in-game with real money, even if I’m making a lot.”

Abigail nodded, not looking up from her reloading.  “Plus, the stream itself doesn’t even air for another few days.  There’s a week between raw footage and the editing process.”

Vale already knew that.  It was part of the agreement he’d signed with Vermillion.  As long as he was streaming, Vermillion was pretty much his boss.  The contract the rep had laid out for him and explained was fairly standard for the industry.  Even if streaming channels could edit faster, they wouldn’t.  If streams were broadcast without a delay, it would be too easy for chuckleheads like the Lords of Finality to ruin broadcasts.

Bart frowned.  “Seriously, what are we even doing here?  If we were going to come here and stay put, fighting zombies for the next month, we should have brought another person with guns.  We’ve been here for over two days, man.  I’m getting sick of these ruins.”

Vale rolled his eyes and said, “I told you guys when we got here.  I got a tipoff about a cool weapon based on NPC hearsay.  I already did the first couple legs of the quest myself.  One was rumor quest and one was basically a fetch quest.  The next portion is here.  I’m not sure what we’re looking for or what we’re supposed to do.  We’ve almost cleared the whole place, though.”

Abigail must have been done reloading.  Her powder and other tools disappeared, probably into her internal inventory.  She looked as she usually did with her guns attached to her belts and corset.  She asked, “So we pretty much just need to finish clearing this place, right?”

Vale nodded and answered, “Exactly.  Once all the zeds are gone, we can search for whatever I’m supposed to find.”

Abigail bit her lip and seemed to be thinking about something.  Finally she nodded to herself and said, “Yeah, I just want to get this over with.  It’s worth the cost.”

She took off her pack and fished around, eventually bringing out a small, chrome pistol.  It was one of the newer style percussion cap weapons like her pepperbox revolvers.

“I just got done making this,” she said.  “I can reload a lot faster, but the ammo is more expensive to make and takes time to put together.”  She pointed at Vale.  “You owe me three gold to help cover ammo costs after this.  This little thing is a pain in the ass to aim too so keep them off me.”

“Yeah that’s fine, whatever.”  Vale thought of all the money he still had left from selling Brutus’ gear and tried not to smile.  He was still loaded.

Abigail grumbled and walked forward, the little silver pistol in hand.  She cocked the hammer, took careful aim, and the closest shambler went down with a clean headshot.  Then Abigail did something to make the barrel flip open.  She inserted what looked like a little paper packet, and closed the pistol up again.  Then she put a cap on the little nub to the side of the pistol, cocked the hammer, and fired again.

Vale didn’t know much about firearms, but he was impressed by how fast Abigail was firing the little gun.  She was actually mowing the zombies down much faster than the entire group had been proceeding before.

“How many of those bullets do you have, Abbey?” asked Vale.

“I made about two hundred of these paper cartridges but I really didn’t want to use them all up.  You owe me for this.  Don’t forget.”

Vale nodded and began following Abigail as she methodically put down the undead.  Every bark of her weapon resulted in another non-ambulatory corpse.  Despite her earlier warning to keep them off of her, none of the zombies even got close again.

Vale was relieved.  The group seemed to almost be done clearing out the ruins and since none of the zombies were getting close, he wasn’t getting hit with SAN damage anymore.

Suddenly, he was struck with a realization.  He frowned as he advanced slowly behind Abigail and thought about his elemental magic.  He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten about it over the last two days of grinding zombies.  Apparently, it was so new he kept forgetting he had it.  He really hadn’t gotten much chance to experiment with it either.

While Abigail was reloading again, fitting another paper tube in her pistol, Vale held up a hand and said, “Hey wait, let me try something.”

Abigail nodded absently. “Knock yourself out.”

Vale stepped forward and concentrated on his magic.  Magic systems and skills in S.O.O supported player creativity.  In fact, at lower levels, Vale had used his [Ancient Body Magic] to create his <Superior Aim> spell.  It was actually cross between <Arm Speed> and <Enhanced Reflexes>.  After trying to create a new ability, the game had translated Vale’s wish into a new spell.

He went through his list of spells and grunted.  He settled on <Gust> and <Crushing Wind>, a spell to hold someone to the ground with air pressure.  He envisioned what he wanted in his mind, clearly imagining the effect of putting pressure on two sizes of a <Gust> spell.

Suddenly, he got a system message!  It read:

You have created a new spell.  Would you like to name your spell?

Vale chose, YES.

What would you like to name your spell?

He grinned and thought, Wind Slash.  The spell was instantly added to Vale’s spell list.  Vale breathed deeply and concentrated.  Casting a spell for the first time was always hard.

A large group of zombies was slowly but surely closing on him.  He absently counted over a dozen of the nasty things shuffling towards him, blocking the hallway.  He could feel Bartholomew and Abigail’s concern behind him, but he ignored them.

He drew his rapier, the guard’s graceful curves protected his hand, the glittering blade extended straight up before his eyes.

His Rapier of Twilight had been hard won.  He’d gone to hell and back to get the thing.  It didn’t have any magical properties, but it was still a very high quality weapon.  Vale drew his sword- to his shoulder and cut forward, triggering <Wind Slash>.  He wasn’t sure how much mana to use or if the spell would even work, so he put ten points of mana into the attack.

He aimed about head height.

Wind screamed around Vale, lifting his hair up and scattering dust all around him.  He could visibly see the flat blade of wind rocketing towards his targets.  The zombies didn’t have a chance.

The powerful magic wave tore the top half of each zombie apart, destroying the entire group in an instant and blowing the remains down the hall away from Vale.

Behind him, the torches sputtered, casting the destruction in a flickering, surreal light.  Almost all the attack’s power was in a thin line that hit the stone wall as it shot down the wall.  The spell ripped large, jagged rent in the side of the hallway for the remaining range of the spell.

Absolute silence rang for several heartbeats.  Vale wet his lips and sucked air in through his teeth before turning around.  Bartholomew was leaning against a wall, shaking his head.  Abigail had her hands on her hips.  “Seriously?” she asked.  “You could have done this the whole fucking time and we’ve still been taking them out one by one?  Also, what in the hell was that?”

Bart started to chuckle.  He said, “I think that was his wind magic.  You know, it wasn’t like this stream was going to unpopular to begin with, but after something like that…”  He pointed down the hallway and chucked some more.  The he abruptly sobered and looked directly at Vale.  “Buddy, I think you’re about to hit the news again.  Like, in a big way.”

Vale sheathed his rapier and covered his eyes for a moment.  Bart was right.  He’d known when he signed the contract to stream that he wouldn’t be able to hide his power anymore.  Of course, that wasn’t as big of a deal after ABI’s video went public.  The cat was out of the bag.  However, whenever he created new attacks, he knew the entire world was going to see it within a week.

He realized that all the attention he was going to get was going to be a major pain in the ass and he had no idea how people would react.  However, griefers like the Lorders of Finality were gonna grief.  He would need to start practicing in secret.  His contract gave him an hour a day in-game to turn off his stream.  Unless he wanted to die, and dying meant his stream would be down for a week, he would need to start training during his private hour every day.

What a pain in the ass.

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