The Heroic Villain ch3

Character name: Lucas

Level: -67 Hit Points: 140

Arcane Energy: 200 Stamina: 100

Holy: Class Locked.

Current Class: Mage.

Stats:

Arcanum [Increases Arcane Energy by 10 per point.] :10

Holy [No effect/ Class Locked.]: 0

Athletics [Increases Stamina by 10 per point]: 0

Fortitude [Increases health by 1% per point.]: 0

Charisma: 30

Luck: 0

Unspent: 0

Current Elemental Attunement:

None.

Combat Proficiencies:

None.

 

“So, you’re saying it should be around here?” Lucas asked as the trio crept through an abandoned-looking farm behind Kegan’s manor. The farm had an odd gold-and-white, wheat-like grain product growing chest-high, and there were no trodden or used paths for the team to walk down. Instead, they just had to wander around, trying to find something.

“Yeah, and I think I just spotted the stupid thing we’re supposed to be looking for,” Nick said, pointing to a small one-bedroom house in the middle of the field that was, somehow, perfectly maintained despite the vegetation having overrun everything else.

“You sure it’s the right place? I thought we were supposed to look for a cozy home. Someone would have to dump a ton of money into that dump before it even came close to looking cozy,” Bonnie said from behind. “There’s no decoration on, the roof looks like it’s plain wood, the thatch has all fallen off, the door is as boring as the wheat fields, and I’m pretty sure there isn’t even a rocking chair out front. Whoever had this house needs to get a job.”

“You’re asking me if it’s the right place?” Nick grumbled. “It’s your info that led us here, so if it’s wrong, whose fault do you think it is? Stop saying stupid things and get moving.”

“Careful, little boy. You don’t pay me enough to talk like that,” Bonnie warned. “Mouth off too much before flipping me a coin, and I’ll be brushing your bits off my tail.”

“Well, I don’t think we need to wonder who succeeded or not. This definitely seems like the right place,” Lucas commented as he sped ahead of the two and approached the house. “If there is a back way into Kegan’s manor where we don’t have to go through all the guards in front, it’s gotta be here.”

“What makes you say that?” Nick asked as he caught up to Lucas and looked at the house.

“Easy,” Lucas replied. He pointed to the wall where a small piece of paper was tacked on to the door. “Whatever player came here first tacked on a note.”

“Free of charge?” Bonnie asked incredulously. She lifted it away from its tack without removing it completely. “And helpful. It’s even got a warning about what we’re going to encounter. You don’t run into this generosity in the later zones, not without getting it from a guildy.”

“Psh. Could just as easily be a troll or a trap as a helpful hint,” Nick warned as he looked at the note. “Not that it’d matter. What is this even supposed to say? What the heck does ‘Follow the silk road to victory, but don’t burn down the house’ mean?”

“Could be talking about the loot we need to focus on,” Bonnie suggested. “Maybe the silk items in here have a high price. That’d be awesome. I could buy me a fancier dagger if we find something good!”

“Yeah, something like that . . .” Lucas muttered, trying to imagine what silk road one would find underground. Oh well. He pushed open the door to the house to find an empty room with a single exit located at the bottom of a three-person-wide staircase. “No use pondering over it. Let’s just get moving.”

After descending the stairs and opening the door, they were greeted by a dark and damp dirt tunnel that reminded him of something more common in a cave behind a waterfall or out in the wilderness rather than a tunnel dug out underneath a home.

“Anyone have a torch?” Lucas asked. He couldn’t see anything through the darkness that enveloped them at the bottom of the stairs.

“I do,” Bonnie said, pulling one out. “I’ve always got to stay prepared to meet my clients’ needs, so consider it a complimentary service.”

Lucas laughed. “Service and a smile,”

“Don’t need one here,” Nick said as he began channeling Firebolt. Red energy ran through the staff and created a small globe of light that lit up the surrounding five meters. Right before he finished the spell and sent the burning orb tumbling down the hallway, he canceled it and began channeling it again. “Mages are the best,” he said, sticking his tongue out at Bonnie immediately after.

Lucas noted Nick’s trick but didn’t bother doing it as well. Between Bonnie’s torch and Nick’s constant recasting of Firebolt, there was enough light that they could see everything around them.

What had looked like only a simple dirt tunnel earlier was only made creepier by the addition of lighting. Patches of soil along the ground and areas of the wall were glistening with a sticky-looking substance, and there were strange droplets water suspended mid-air.

“This place gives me the creeps,” Bonnie said. “I hate places like this.”

“I’m not going to argue with the fox,” Nick said, rechanneling Firebolt yet again. “This whole place is garbage. What the heck did the user mean by silk road?”

Lucas paused, and the other two stopping and turning around to see what the hold up was. “ I think I know why there are so many droplets hanging in the air,” he said. “I think we’re on the silk road.”

“What? What do you mean? Stop messing with me,” Nick said.

“Yeah,” Bonnie agreed, crouching down to look at what Lucas was talking about. “None of this stuff is precious silk, and I don’t see any worms on their way to mamma to make me some moolah.”

“That’s because silk-worms aren’t the only creature that makes silk,” Lucas said, standing up and pulling out his staff. “Nick . . . Nick, you might . . .”

“What? Stop speaking in riddles and just say what it is already. Freaking heck, man, why don’t–”

“TURN AROUND!” Lucas shouted “TURN AROUND AND CAST. NOW!”

Nick did exactly as he was told, finally spinning on his heel and throwing the Firebolt he was channeling down the tunnel. “At what? He demanded, panicked. What am I casting at?”

“At our feet . . . and then everywhere!” Lucas insisted. Rather than bothering with Firebolt himself, he began channeling Zap instead. Nick’s second spell zoomed through the air and into the ground a few feet away, engulfing what appeared to be nothing in a ball of flame.

“Why am I doing this?” Nick asked quizzically as he fired off another Firebolt.

Before Lucas had time to answer, however,  experience points started appearing. There were a dozen death messages that read out one-to-three experience, no loot, and listed the enemy as ‘Small Baby Spider.’

“Nope! Nope nope nope!” Bonnie shouted when she spied the prompts. She began swinging her torch at the ground in wide arcs, ostensibly to keep the tiny arachnids away from her. “I don’t care what you’re paying me. No! Spiders are a no!”

“Ha? Giving up so easily? Some mercenary you are!” Nick snapped snidely.  He cast one Firebolt after another down the tunnel, each one shooting farther than the last and garnering the group experience. “I guess you’re not going to be collecting your paycheck.”

“Hey!” Bonnie exclaimed. “I am not just some random merc!” With that, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a bottle of booze. “I will have you know I am Bonnie, the Queen of Hired Guns!” She heaved the bottle of liquor at the ground where Nick’s latest Firebolt was headed. Scorching heat exploded everywhere when the two connected, scorching the area around the shattered container. “Suck on this, spiders! I’m going to burn you all!” she shouted, pulling out another bottle. “Even if I have to spend the quest’s entire bounty to do so!”

Lucas had finished his third Zap and sent yet another bolt of lightning crackling down the hall and silently rejoiced when it didn’t connect with anything.

“Stupid rogue, that’s not a flame,” Nick snickered. “This is a flame!” He threw out another bolt, but despite his melodramatics, it was still the same size as the previous one.

“Will you just shut up already?!” Bonnie cried, tossing the second bottle and scattering the flame farther forward.

Since Lucas’s first Zap hadn’t caught anything large, he was holding his mana back for a moment as he considered what to do next.

“Is that all?” Nick asked after his next Firebolt failed to garner a single death message or point of experience.

“Maybe . . . I can’t see anything more than black dots,” Bonnie said. “How did you even notice them, boss?” she asked.

“I didn’t see them at all,” Lucas explained. “I just remembered the warning and saw the strings on the ground. There aren’t many tiny creatures in the game, but I figured they still might be too small to see. I think what we saw was small droplets of water clinging to them.” I hate tiny mobs . . . Those stupid things are too small to hit and yet too damaging to ignore.

“Well, good job,” Nick said, channeling another Firebolt into the ground. “Free experience is all they are.”

“But didn’t the warning mention to not use fire?” Bonnie said. “I mean, whoever wrote it ain’t gonna tell me what not to burn–damn denizens of nightmares those little things are–but it did mention not to use fire.”

“No, it said don’t burn the whole house down. That was probably just a joke,” Nick said.

“That’s a lot of smoke though,” Lucas said, pointing to the gray and white clouds billowing up from the creeping flames where Bonnie had thrown the bottles of liquor. The growing plumes of smoke were even crawling across the ceiling. “I mean a lot.”

“Do we need to split? Ya think it’s going to leak into the mansion and alert the guards, ruining your plan?” NIck asked.

“Not just yet,” Lucas answered, but he started backing up even as he said it. He wanted to make sure that he’d have time to evacuate before anyone noticed him if someone did come down the hall, but he didn’t think that it was likely anyone would investigate.

“I don’t hear any footsteps. I think you’re good, boss, but if it makes you feel any better, I can go forward some, check it out, stab some stuff to be sure . . . I mean, after the smoke dies down, of course,” Bonnie suggested.

“Yeah, even with Bon’s torch, it’s getting cramped in here,” Nick commented. “I’m starting to struggling to breathe too. Should we bail?”

“Just duck some, and here . . .” Lucas took out a spare shirt, ripped off three strips of cloth, and then tossed it to Nick and Bonnie. “Just in case. It won’t help much, but it should slow down any damage we start taking.”

“‘Kay,” Nick said as he grabbed the cloth and wrapped it around his mouth as a makeshift mask. “But I don’t get it. Alcohol doesn’t make smoke like this. I’ve burned plenty of stuff back home. Molotov cocktails blow up with big flames, but they never produce smoke like this.”

Bonnie nodded. “Yeah, he’s onto something: This ain’t exactly right.”

“No, it isn’t, but . . . I don’t think it’s the alcohol that’s causing the smoke. You see that?” Lucas asked. “Look at that.” He pointed to the center of the flames, where the first bottle of liquor had burst open and waited for them to catch on. It was only slightly noticeable at first, but the longer the flames burned, the more obvious it became: The dirt floor was slowly sinking. “It’s burning away the ground.”

“How the heck does dirt burn?” Nick asked, his voice muffled by the torn cloth.

“No, we only assumed that it was dirt.” Lucas grabbed Nick with his left hand and yanked the Mage back. “We’re walking on a hardened web made to look like dirt.”

Lucas himself couldn’t believe it at first, but there was no way to deny it. One layer of web after the other was revealed as it was burned away, making it look like an abandoned hornet’s nest had been set ablaze. The edges of the hallway pulled back and crumbled, and then the middle followed suit. Finally, after a few more minutes, the floor where Bonnie had thrown her booze collapsed with a loud sucking sound, revealing a giant hole.

“What the hell made that?” Nick asked.

“Oh, no. Nope nope. Nope nope nope!” Bonnie began backing away, clearly panicked. “Let’s ditch this right now, boss. Stop staring at it and come on. There ain’t shame in running. I’ll give you a discount. I’ll call off the price for this whole mission. Let’s just get the hell out of here!”

“Ha!” Nick grinned, cackling to himself. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid, are you? Let’s go down there and kill everything. Let’s burn them to the ground! Screw that note, I say we make sure we burn the whole damn house down!”

Lucas wasn’t a hundred percent sure why he even signed up with Xun Guan when she had laid out the plan for him to be a villain. He had done it so hesitantly, like he had been pushed into it. It was just like the days when Yu Hua would drag him from one dumb outdoor activity like hiking or fishing to the next, telling him he had to learn to enjoy the small stuff, to lay back, relax, have a picnic, and stop focusing on his work.

But that wasn’t me, Lucas realized, staring at the hole in front of him. I wasn’t always the type to just lay back and do nothing. He had been the active one, the driven one. If there was a problem, I had to solve it. He jumped around Bonnie and Nick and then dove toward the newly-formed opening.

“PAYCHECK!!” Bonnie yelled from behind Lucas. “Paycheck! Don’t leave me!”

“Now, that’s what I’m talking about!” Nick shouted as he chased after Lucas.

Lucas jumped through the ring of fire, taking 5 damage from the flame and another 20 from the short fall, and landed in the center of a cavernous room. The walls and ground were solid rock and granite, but there were dozens of large, arm-sized silk strings strung to and fro, holding up the bodies of what looked like Imperium soldiers. The ground was covered by a thin layer of water, making the entire place look like one giant puddle with dry patches of rock peeking through that Lucas was certain would cut into his feet if he wasn’t careful.

“Ouch!” Nick cried, landing beside him. “Where in a box of burnt popcorn are we?”

And what do I do now? Lucas wondered, ignoring his cursing sidekick. Without Bonnie’s torch or Nick’s Firebolt, the only lighting available to see by was the little filtered down from the flames above as they continued to burn away the spider web. He could use the Firebolt trick to generate a bit of light again, but it likely wouldn’t be enough in such a large space.

“What’s that?!” Nick shouted suddenly, twisting around and firing one of his spells at a wall where a noise came from.

The magic didn’t strike anything, but the flash of light was enough to finally illuminate a small part of the cavern, and Lucas knew at once exactly where they were: a hatchery. The eggs were about twice the size of a basketball and stacked in clusters, each grouping covered in a layer of webbing and mucus.

“I’ve never seen so many eggs!” Nick shouted again, this time with much more panic in his voice. He twisted about from side to side, shooting spells as fast as he could at batches of eggs.

Images of what those egg sacs might release flashed through his mind, and then even Lucas joined in on Nick’s spellcasting frenzy. Scorching flames erupted from their staffs in every direction.

Then the ceiling above cracked open, and a falling object struck Nick on the head.

“Freaking dry crunchy brownies, one of them is above us!” Nick shouted, directing the spell he had been channeling toward the roof of the cavern.

Bonnie’s cry stopped him. “Wait! Just stay safe, money bags! I’m almost down!” she shouted down as she dropped the end of a rope down through the new hole. “Don’t go anywhere! Don’t you dare die on me, mister deep pockets!”

“Don’t stop!” Lucas warned. “Those eggs might hatch at any time!” He turned and thumped the momentarily-befuddled Nick on the back with his staff and urged him back to his task of turning the room into an inferno once again. Lucas knew that it was incredibly unlikely that any monster would pop out of its egg at the exact moment a random adventurer happened to show up, but this was a game, and there was a good chance that developers might have had a sick sense of humor.

“I’m starting to see why no one does the Sir Kegan subjugation quests,” Nick grumbled.

“It’s not for lack of trying,” a deep silky voice echoed through the chamber. The voice was slightly off key and hissed more than spoken over a loud crackling noise like someone had taken two large styrofoam objects and rubbed them together.

“Stridulation,” Nick said quickly. “It’s a big one by the sound of it, too.”

“Stridulation?” Lucas asked, looking around to try and see where the voice had originated as he fired off a few more spells at the last remaining eggs and

“It’s that sound insects and arachnids make when they rub their mandibles or body parts together,” he explained. “From how loud that is, and how much it sounds like a saw . . . whatever we’re about to face is huge.”

“It’s rude to call a woman big,” the voice added. The sound filled the room and bounced around the chamber this time, making it impossible for Lucas to figure out its origin.

Where in the hell are you?

“Even if we are big, no one wants you to point out what we already know . . .” The grating speech was punctuated by a loud, clicking laugh.

The cords! Lucas realized that the giant, arm-thick, silk-like strands hanging throughout the room were vibrating as the creature spoke, making it seem as if her voice was coming from all directions at once and leaving the three of them turning about endlessly as they tried to find her.

Lucas wasn’t sure how conductive they might be, but he wanted to test out a small theory. Instead of shooting off another Firebolt, he swapped his skills up and fired a Zap of electricity at the closest cord. There was a small puff of smoke the moment the lightning struck the strand, frying the silken cable and leaving two severed ends to fall away limply.

“Come, now . . . don’t be like that,” the spider said. “I just wanted to say hello.”

Nick followed Lucas’s example and zapped another one of the cords.

The monstrous arachnid giggled, and the water behind them exploded as its owner made her entrance. “Well, if I can’t say hello from afar, perhaps I should say it up close.”

Lucas grimaced as water rained down around them, and he turned around in time to watch the stone split open, and a pair of legs appear through the opening. The beam-like appendages turned upward and then jabbed down into the ground as she began hoisting her massive body through the opening, one set of legs at a time. She wasn’t joking about her weight, Lucas thought. When she was finally upright, the spider’s back scraped against the roof of the cave above. Lucas groaned when he finally got a good look at the creature. It had two pairs of sharp mandibles, a smaller set situated inside a larger set, and its abdomen was so fat that it had to be dragged along by its spindly legs, and all eight of its glowing red eyes were the size of soccer balls, standing out against its hairy, solid-black carapace.

“Ugh . . . Why is this my first job?” Bonnie grumbled. “Boss, that thing is . . . Ugh! Why couldn’t we have just killed people? I hate spiders!”

“Sorry,” Lucas laughed, charging up Zap again. Nick began blasting out Firebolts while Lucas finished charging up his lightning, and the flame-blasting Mage was already on his third spell by the time Lucas aimed his first shot. Lucas had high hopes as he watched the lightning tear through the air and strike the monster, but those dreams were dashed just like the bolt of electricity when it fizzled out against the monster’s face.

“That tickled,” she mocked, clacking her creepy mandibles together. “I wonder if it’ll tickle when I eat you too . . .” Her front legs lowered and slowly began dragging the massive body toward them.

“That thing ain’t getting hurt at all,” Bonnie complained. “God, no! Nope nope. Don’t make my first death a freaking spider. Ugh! You don’t pay me enough for this, boss. We need to get out of here.”

“What’d you secure the rope with?” Lucas asked.

“Nothing that’ll hold all three of us,” she answered.

“Well, there’s no way around it either,” Lucas pointed out. The spider wasn’t large enough to fill the entire cavern, but each of its legs would likely have a ten-foot reach and be able to pierce them if they tried to run around the giant arachnid.

“Backward?” Nick suggested. Without waiting for an answer, he had already turned around and sprinted away, shooting a few spells off to give light as he ran while awkwardly holding his staff in front of him.

“Don’t run,” the monster cooed. “It’s been so long since I’ve had any real flesh to taste. The bugs down here may have the crunch, but they lack the flavor. Just . . . be kind to me and get in my mouth!” the slow-moving behemoth of a spider said as it dragged itself closer and closer to the party.

“Yup. Run!” Lucas shouted. He grabbed ahold of Bonnie’s hand and pulled her away after him, stopping her from distractedly rummaging through her bag.

“But, boss! Hold on!” she exclaimed, but her protestation was to no avail. Lucas dragged her toward the far end of the cavern. He didn’t have any particular attachment to the woman, but he had no doubt that watching someone be eaten alive–by a giant spider, no less–would kill his appetite for days. “I need to get a big range weapon out,” she pleaded. “I know I got a bow in here somewhere!”

“Why? That thing was clearly immune to our fire and lightning. What do you think a bow will do?” Nick shouted back, having heard her cries.

“It’s the type of damage that’s the problem,” Bonnie explained. “This isn’t some Level 30 dungeon. It’s still doable. It’s just the type of attack that matters. Lightning deals some heat damage, and fire is all heat damage, and the note told us not to try burning it. We just need to switch the damage type. Come on, boss, give me a minute to find my bow. I swear, I’m prepared for even this too.”

Lucas and Nick exchanged a glance with each other at that thought. “Earth spike,” they said in unison. It was the only spell they had that didn’t do elemental damage since, even though Earth was an element, the damage dealt by those type spells was often simply flagged as physical.

“I’ll shoot at the left side, you shoot at the right,” Lucas instructed. He turned around to see the giant black abdomen being dragged toward them, and crackling sounds filled the chamber as its body scraped against the rocks jutting up from the pool.

“My right or its?” Nick asked.

“Guys, wait a dang freaking moment. I’ve almost got a bow. I swear I have one in here.”

“How much do you have in there that you’re having trouble finding one medium-sized weapon?” Nick asked incredulously.

“A good mercenary is always prepared,” Bonnie answered back proudly. “Although, I do admit that I need a utility belt or something. This thing is such a pain to go through.”

“Hit your right, not its,” Lucas said loudly, directing their focus back to the monster bearing down on them. “And whatever you’re doing, do it quick.”

“Got it!” Nick acknowledged. He hesitated a second longer, as if waiting for Lucas to make the first move, and then charged back toward the demonic-looking creepy-crawly they had left behind them.

The spider hissed gleefully when it saw the two headed for her. “Ah . . . good! I do so hate it when my food runs. It’s really hard to catch up these days,” she complained. “Just be so kind as to come on a little closer.”

Not only did he have to channel his energy through the staff, but Lucas also had to focus on where the spike would erupt from the ground, making it incredibly hard to aim while on the move. Some of the higher-level players might be able to do it on the fly after so much practice, but he was still fairly new to the whole experience despite how much time he had spent in the virtual world.

Nick’s spell went off first since he had clearly put more points into Arcane than Lucas, and the stone lance sprang up from the ground and stabbed upward into the left side of the monster’s abdomen. Lucas’s spell went off almost immediately after, piercing into its opposite side. Unlike Firebolt and Zap, the earth spikes seemed to actually work, digging into its skin with their two- to three-inch diameter, ripping small holes its massive carapace.

Lucas celebrated silently when he saw the holes leaking blood. He was already concentrating on casting another spell. Just then, an arrow whizzed past his head as the two fired off a second round almost in unison, all three attacks wounding the spider again.

“Why must . . . my food . . . be so annoying?” the spider hissed angrily, turning slightly so that it was facing Nick.

“God, your belly is about as fat as the paycheck you’re going to give me,” Bonnie shouted triumphantly as she shot another arrow at the beast, causing the spider to turn its attention to her instead.

“You really shouldn’t be so mean about my weight,” the spider warned. As the words left the creature’s mouth, so did a giant glob of steel-like webbing that it spewed directly at Bonnie.

The woman nimbly dodged to the side, but her tail was slower than she was, and the blob of webbing wrapped itself around her tail. She immediately produced a knife and began sawing away at the entrapping substance, trying to cut herself free, but the spider seized the opportunity presented. She spat out wad after wad, coating Bonnie’s torso and legs in the sticky substance.

Nick and Lucas continued throwing earth spears at the monster, but the small wounds they managed to inflict weren’t significant enough to stop the spider.

“Making fun of me, bullying me . . . For that . . . you’re first,” the spider hissed loudly.

The cracking and clicking sounds grew louder, and it took Lucas a moment to realize that it was because the massive arachnid was using its two inner mandibles to pull the strands of webbing that now bound Bonnie up from head to toe back toward it, reeling in the fox girl little by little.

“No no no!” Bonnie screamed as her body was dragged across the ground. “This is not the fantasy game I signed up for! Please help me! Please help me!”

Lucas and Nick were already doing everything they could to try and kill the beast as quickly as possible, but unless he came up with something fast, there wasn’t anything he could do to speed up the process. Desperate, he turned his attention back to the new problem. He channeled a Zap and fired it off at the cocoon of webs that held her bound in the hopes that it would fizzle away like the silk cords had before, but the shock of energy simply disappeared without doing any damage.

“Please, boss,” Bonnie begged. “I don’t care about the money now. Just kill me before that thing eats me. I don’t want to die to that thing. I don’t wanna be eaten alive. Just merc the merc and let me respawn. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Next mission, half pri—” Her voice was cut off by a web that had sprayed itself across her face, sealing her mouth and her eyes.

“It’s so tiresome when your meal makes last requests, isn’t it?” the spider grumbled, shooting out two more wads of silk at Bonnie’s face for good measure.

Lucas ground his teeth together and groaned in frustration. If that thing is airtight, then we have two time limits to work with. Without any other plan in mind, he shifted his focus back to attacking the giant creature. He had no doubt, at all, that he would be freaking out in Bonnie’s position, unable to see, hear, or even move as a monster pulled you across the ground to your almost-certain doom.

“I can’t say I’m used to eating things that talk,” he responded, trying to aim his Earth Spike toward the spider’s face but missing for the second time in a row. Should I stick with its main body? No, that’ll take too long . . . Why can’t magic auto-aim itself, like in the old MMOs from when I was a kid?

“Lucas,” Nick said, “I don’t think this is working. I think we’re going to lose the girl.”

“Try hitting its mouth,” Lucas urged, hoping Nick was a better aim than he was. “Maybe we can stop her from dragging that half-off merc you brought me.”

“Got it,” Nick said, channeling his spell.

The two earthen spears finished casting at the same time and overlapped in a rare occurrence, striking the spider right through the face. Their combined force was just strong enough to crack through the creature’s mandibles, but not quite hard enough to pierce through its brain and kill it. Instead, the attack left the spider grumbling, hissing, and scraping the broken mandibles against the shaft of earth.
As it tried to move farther forward though, its body was blocked by the spike. It strained, and Nick and Lucas watched, stunned, as it took almost five seconds to finally break the combined spike and pull itself forward another inch.

“Another one! There!” Lucas exclaimed, pointing at a spot directly in front of the spider demon.

Nick and Lucas channeled again, and once more they managed to stack their spells on top of each other, creating a large four- to five-inch-thick spike.

“Again! There!” Lucas directed, pointing to another spot beside the first spike.

“Food . . . shouldn’t . . . be . . . so . . . stubborn!” the spider protested. She was having trouble speaking as blood leaked from the wound where Lucas’s and Nick’s earth spikes had first injured it.

“One more, right there!” Lucas ordered, pointing to another spot and watching as the three earth spikes together formed a miniature fence. “Okay, that should buy us some time. Get a knife.”

Bonnie was no longer being dragged along since the beast’s mandibles had been shattered, but the woman was still left to struggle against her restraints. She wiggled around and bounced up and down like a stranded worm trying to move.

Lucas was quick to fetch his knife out of his backpack. He had just used it earlier when he had played the rogue during the intro quest, so it was still at the top of the bag, and he was able to start cutting away at Bonnie’s bindings, freeing her mouth so she could breathe.

“Oh thank God! Get me out of this thing!” Bonnie pleaded as soon as the web was cut, but after Lucas had managed to stop the immediate threat of death, he turned back to the spider.

“Nick, help me finish the cage,” Lucas said as he watched the big beast fail to pull itself through the three earth spikes. Even though they had blocked it, Lucas could tell just by looking that it would be free soon enough: Each time it pulled forward with its legs, little pieces of dirt started to shake free from the raised earth. “There next,” he said, indicating where the next spike needed to be placed.

One spike after the other, they managed to finally create a little cage around the large spider until it was entirely trapped, unable to crawl free. “Now, we just need to kill it,” Lucas said.

“More earth spikes?” Nick asked. “Even if enough of them together seem to be trapping it, I don’t know how long it’d take to actually kill the thing . . .

“Yeah, because when we raise them, they don’t go all the way through the torso . . it’s more like they dig in a little and then stop,” Lucas noted. “We need something more substantial.”

“Or you need to free me!” Bonnie cried from below. “I’ll shoot it with arrows! Or check my bag. I bet I have something in it.”

“No, that won’t work.” Lucas shook his head. “We’re in a game. There has to be some element we can take advantage of to win . . .” Lucas thought. “They wouldn’t make a boss that was impossible at this level. That’d be dumb.”

As the spider struggled in futility, lashing out at its prison cage with all eight of its limbs, Lucas realized the big problem: He and his companions lacked force. They needed enough weight behind their attacks to actually kill it, but the biggest weight in the room was sitting right in front of them.

“Nick, focus your spike right under the center of its abdomen,” Lucas said. “It’s not moving, so hopefully this will work.”

“Huh?” Nick asked, but even while questioning Lucas he followed instructions, creating a small earthen spike right under the middle of the beast. Lucas, crouching a little so he could see better, noted where it rose and cast his own right on the same spot.

“Keep casting. Stack one on top of each other,” Lucas said, and one by one the spikes began to strike out of the ground and into the beast until the resulting pillar began to slowly lift the spider, with the spikes driving farther and farther into its belly.

“No . . . if, if I’m going to die, will one of you please hop in my mouth so that I can have a last meal?” the spider said as she was impaled deeper and deeper by the rising pillar.

“I did not know magic could stack like that,” Nick said as the two of them worked together to finish killing the corpulent arachnid. Where one spell had failed, multiple casts over and over again on the same spot had worked. The spider’s own body weight and the durability of the earthen spikes worked in combination to skewer the creature and split its abdomen in two, a giant pool of green arachnid blood spraying everywhere from where it had been penetrated.

“There, I think . . . I think we did it,” Lucas gasped, letting out a sigh of relief as he looked over at Bonnie’s still-webbed and bound body lying on the ground next to them.

You have killed Lady Eden, Mother of Spiders. You have been awarded the item Web of Deceit.

“Yup, we definitely did it,” Lucas said again out loud. It was more for himself than anyone else, as if he were trying to reassure himself of the fact that the creature was actually dead, and he felt a wave of satisfaction wash over him as he took in the aftermath of his first real boss fight. He took a step toward Bonnie, and yet another stone spear shot up from the ground, striking the giant arachnid through the head one last time.

“What are you doing?” he asked warily.

“I’m making sure it’s dead,” Nick explained. “I don’t want it to start standing up and attacking me the second I turn around.”

“That’s what the death message is for,” Lucas chuckled. “Come on, man. You did get one, right?”

“Yeah, but what if that was just the reward for killing the first stage? What if the thing spawns giant flaming spider fangs and legs and lunges toward us? It could happen. Sometimes boss monsters play dead and give rewards and then wipe the whole party when they turn their backs to leave.”

“Well”–Lucas looked over at the spider’s butchered corpse–“If you say so, I guess. Keep up the good work?”

“Plan to,” Nick responded.

While his buddy was busy committing cautionary overkill, Lucas went over to the fox girl, took a dagger from his kit, and drew it across the web. It didn’t cut that deeply at first, barely slicing an inch or two into the thick, heavy, gooey binding that wrapped Bonnie up, but after several more passes and a lot of pulling and tugging, he finally freed her mouth.

“Noo! You shoulda just killed me,” she whined, clearly distressed and shaking in her small cocoon. “This is so gross! I’m going to be having nightmares for days. So creepy. So gross. So awful!”

“Well, you know, it’s just a game,” Lucas said, trying to reassure her as he cut away the remaining webbing off of her and sat her up. “It’s not that bad.”

“You know what? Next time we fight a giant spider, you can jump in front of the crazy doom web and tell me if it feels like just a game or not. How ‘bout that, boss? Sound like fun? ‘Cause it sure as hell feels real,” Bonnie grumbled.

“You could have just turned off the pain sensors . . .” Lucas tried to reason with her and then stopped himself. “Never mind. Next time, I’ll do my best to save you quicker.”

“You better! I’m not going through that again,” she said, her voice still shaking.

“You’re too expensive to let die until I get my money’s worth,” Lucas joked, poking at her instance that everything had a price.

“Speaking of . . .” Nick began, stepping away from the butchered arachnid. “You’re not going to, you know . . . be expecting any of our loot from these monsters, are you? ‘Cause that wasn’t part of the deal if you are.”

“Find something good then, I take it?” Lucas asked. He didn’t know how Nick could tell what he got since he himself hadn’t pulled the new item out of his backpack, but the name alone, Web of Deceit, sounded great.

“I don’t know, but if it’s called Spinner’s Fang, it’s gotta be good, right?” Nick asked, reaching around to check his bag. A moment later, he produced a large dagger with a six-inch blade protruding from the handle and a silk-wrapped grip that was shaped like one of the spider’s fangs. The silk wrapping on the handle went through a tiny hole at the bottom of the jet black fang and then hung out the bottom of the dagger.

“Is that . . .” Lucas pointed to the hanging cord of silk. “Is that capable of growing? Can you manipulate it?”

“Umm . . .” Nick gripped the dagger, and Lucas saw a light glow from his arm as he channeled magic into it. Sure enough, the silk extended out toward the ground between him and Bonnie.

“Don’t you even think about it! I will murder you in your sleep,” Bonnie threatened, glaring at Nick.

“Hey, I didn’t do anything, so don’t give me that garbage. I just was testing it out,” Nick said defensively. But Lucas noticed the smile plastered across his face as he backed up a step. “Anyway, what’d you get?”

“Gold,” she pouted. “Ugh. I want a knife. What about you, boss?”

Lucas dug into his bag and pulled out the Web of Deceit, a magical cloak that apparently didn’t have a set color. Instead, like a chameleon, it was constantly shifting to appear like a blurrier version of what was behind it.”

“What the heck?!” Bonnie protested, looking back and forth between Nick and Lucas’ loot. “That’s broken! That’s stupid broken. How come I didn’t get anything cool? Boss, let me have that cloak and dagger. You two are mages, so you don’t need them. Let me use them!”

“Well, if you really want them . . . we can always re-do the dungeon for you later,” Lucas offered, watching as Bonnie’s face paled at the prospect.

“I could use another dagger to match this one,” Nick agreed. “And it’s not like the monster was particularly hard after we figured out the trick. Should be easy to repeat. Kinda surprised that more people haven’t done this dungeon with these drops.”

“Yeah, I am as well,” Lucas said, throwing the cloak on and pulling its hood up. “How do I look?”

“Like someone pixelated the spot you were standing . . .” Nick said. He and Bonnie both gave him an oddly disgusted look.

“That just doesn’t look right,” Bonnie commented, shaking her head. “It’s creepy. It’s like someone loaded an image, but one spot was still rendering when the Internet gave way.

“Whatever,” Lucas sighed. Even if it wasn’t perfect camouflage and he’d still be noticed up close, this cloak meant that his relaxing naps outside would be that much less likely to be disturbed. Heck, even Xun Guan, or whatever her real-life name is, might not be able to steal my cheese and wine while I’m in this cloak. Web of Deceit indeed. “We’ve wasted enough time here. Let’s get going.”

“Umm, boss, how do we get out?” Bonnie asked. “I made sure to tie a rope to the top before I came down, but we’ve got a little problem . . . it kinda got lost during the fight. I think one of Nick’s fireballs burned it.”

“No worries,” Lucas said, pointing to the prison of earth spikes that had trapped the giant spider. “We can just use those on the wall–make a ladder of sorts up.”

Nick nodded, looking at what Lucas was indicating. “We can, can’t we? But . . . you sure you don’t want to explore further in, see the rest of what this spider cave has to offer?”

Lucas gave the cavern one more glance over but still couldn’t see an exit. The only direction they could go would be to enter the giant tunnel the fat boss had made with its body before appearing. Unfortunately, when he walked over and checked the hole, it was clear that the boss had just been waiting there the entire time. There were dozens of webs connecting to the hole, but it rather shallow, indicating that the fat spider must have been lazily lying just under the surface.

Seeing that there was nothing to explore, the group used a ladder crafted from their spells to climb back up and once then once more maneuvered down the corridor. There were no more interruptions as they journeyed through the caves, and they were able to navigate all the way into the manor’s main building without running into so much as a single additional spider. If they had just used cold instead of fire attacks to kill the little spiders, they wouldn’t have even had to face off against the giant arachnid.

At the end of the tunnel, there was a trap door leading up. Bonnie went first, grumbling about how ‘she needed to prove she wasn’t dead weight, or else her mercenary reputation would take a hit’ as she climbed up the metal ladder into the room above.

Poking her head back out, she gave Lucas and Nick the ‘all clear’ before disappearing into the room. Lucas went next, and when he finished climbing the ladder and had crawled into the room, he realized that the pathway had led straight to Sir Kegan’s study. There was a wooden desk covered with papers, books, ink bottles and a quill; shelf after shelf of books, covering every wall except one; and several chairs in the middle of the room that looked as if they had been arranged for a meeting of sorts.

“Woah! I wonder how much that thing is worth?” Bonnie questioned, admiration clear in her voice.

Lucas followed her gaze and discovered a giant oil painting with an ornate gilded frame. A beautiful young woman was held awkwardly being embraced from behind by a much taller, average-looking man. Her forehead was covered by the top of the man’s beard, but he was looking down at her as if she were the only person in the world. He couldn’t take his eyes off the portrait. “Who are they?”

“Oh, that’s Kegan and some girl,” Bonnie answered as she walked closer. “I remember seeing a picture of him when I was looking up info on the place, but he’s much younger here.”
“We might not get much for the painting, but the craftsmanship on that frame is probably worth a fortune,” Nick replied in answer to Bonnie’s former inquiry about its value. “I can’t think of many people that would want a weird painting of two people they don’t know.”

“Does Kegan have a wife?” Lucas asked, noticing a small gold band circling the woman’s left ring finger as she held the arms wrapping around her. “I thought . . . I thought he was single . . .” Lucas trailed off, his eyes fixated on the two people’s happiness which had been perfectly captured by the paintbrush.

“Well, the info I dug up said he’s the only one that lives here . . .” Bonnie replied.

“Same from my source,” Nick said. “Maybe it’s an old fling? Or possibly his parents?”

“Nah. The only way that’d work is if his dad was his identical twin,” Bonnie countered with a shrug. “But it’s a game. They may have gotten lazy when generating the models.”

“Lazy? That’s not possible.” Lucas knew the answer this time. He might not have known much about the fighting and the game mechanics, but after seeing Xun Guan’s face, he had looked up exactly how the NPC faces were generated. They were made by the developers, each one custom created using a DNA simulator that had been taken from either the game’s original creators or generated from a random string of code. If two NPCs in a game had a kid, the game would generate a random potential DNA sequence from the pairing and use that to predict the kid’s face and features. This method essentially prevented any two NPCs from having identical features or looking like copy-pasted versions of each other like the characters in many of the earlier MMOs.

“Well, whatever,” Bonnie said, going up to the painting and pulling out a knife. “I’ll just jack this frame and make myself some money.”

“No!” Lucas roared. He surged forward and grabbed the arm that she had raised to accost the artwork before he even realized what he was doing. Then, catching himself, he backpedaled verbally without actually moving. “I mean, we can’t disturb the area until we accomplish our goal. We’ll be back here again, so don’t be in a rush,” he said, making up a lame reason he hoped was believable enough to both excuse his outburst and prevent her from taking down the painting.

Bonnie looked taken aback after his initial outburst but nodded anyway along with shooting him an apprehensive glance. “Gotta make it look like no one was here or else the plan won’t work, is it? Okay. I got it. I’ll be careful, boss.”

“Sorry,” Lucas said, realizing that he had scared her. “Anyway, we need to look around here for an accounting book. Find something that looks like it has a bunch of notes on cash flows for the region.”

Lucas had no luck in finding the accounting book, but he did find a strange journal from Kegan. He knew he probably should have left it where it was, but he felt compelled to take it from the shelf for some strange reason. A quick glance over his shoulder told him that neither Nick nor Bonnie was paying attention, so he figured there wasn’t any harm.

“I found it!” Nick declared, startling Lucas in the middle of his attempt to stealthily pocket Kegan’s journal. He pulled a book from one of the shelves and tossed it toward Lucas.

“Great,” Lucas said as he caught the book with his left hand, hiding the journal behind his back with his right. “Now, uhh . . . look for some wax for seals and the royal stamp. I don’t know if Kegan’s dumb enough to leave them lying around, but if we can find those, we’ll be set.”

“Oh, sure. I saw those earlier.” Nick moved to a shelf adjacent to the one he was in front of and then lifted away a false segment, revealing a hidden compartment. “I thought the accounting book would be hidden here as well, but this old goon had them in completely different places.”

How in the heck did he discover a fake board on a bookshelf? I would never have noticed that, Lucas thought as he finished hiding Kegan’s journal and took the accounting book over to the table.

“That’s all we need then,” Lucas said, opening the book. There were no modern slice-of-life conveniences from the real world, leaving most players to create magical devices in place of electronic ones, but one feature that the game did allow was a camera. Players were allowed to take ‘screen grabs’ and photos that could be posted to game’s forums or on the social media accounts. It was an easy way for players to share their experiences and capture memories, and it was a fast and easy promotion for the company.

Taking advantage of the tools given to him, Lucas used that same tech to quickly snap pictures of each of the book’s forty-nine pages. When he was finished, he rifled through the pages on the desk until he found an incomplete contract. Grabbing the nearby quill and dipping it into the inkwell, the scribbled in a few bogus numbers and statistics. When he was finished, he took the purloined seal, dabbed it in some wax, and made his handiwork official. He repeated the process ten separate times, setting each page aside after taking note of the modified numbers, dates, and the minutes he listed on a separate sheet of paper.

“What are you doing?” Bonnie asked as she watched Lucas work.

“I’m making fake contracts,” Lucas replied. “Kegan’s signature is pretty easy to copy, and these will be indistinguishable from real ones. The noble’s wax seal is like this age’s version of a notary, so if the signature and the seal both are authentic-looking enough, no one will believe either is fake.”

“So, you’re going to put him out of business? I don’t get it,” Bonnie replied. She walked across the room and hovered over Lucas’s shoulder uncomfortably, studying Lucas’s every movement. “And why bother? Do you really think even with his seal he’d honor a contract he knows is fake?”

“You’re right,” Lucas agreed. “He wouldn’t honor these at all. Even with his seal, he’d probably be able to argue in court that he never received goods or services for the amounts claimed, and we’d never win. But that’s not the point. I’m not making contracts that have him buying things from us, I’m saying he sold things to us in these contracts and that he already received the money.”

“What? Why would you do that?” Bonnie pressed. “I don’t get it. What’s the point of saying he sold stuff to us?””

“He’s making them to legitimize a fake ledger,” Nick answered for him. “If you’re going to be a merc, you should know how this stuff works. You might be asked to do this for another client one day.”

“Yup, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I plan to make several dozen contracts that show Kegan got a ton of money from other sources. In the Imperium, if he received money, he should pay taxes on it. It’s no different than real life. Even if it’s not true that he received funds, all we have to do is prove that he didn’t pay dues on the money he earned to make his original books look like they were cooked and the fake book we’re going to make look real. So, if I take these fake contracts along with the fake accounting book I’m going to make to Dray Von Maidbanger, Kegan will be in hot water, and we’ll have freed that annoying Dwarf’s friend in the process,” Lucas explained.

“And then . . . then we can kill Kegan and take this stuff to sell?” Bonnie asked.

Lucas nodded, leaving the other half of the question unanswered. “Then we can kill Kegan.”

“Sounds good to me, boss. I’ll be looking forward to killing my first noble.” She stepped away so that she was no longer leaning over his shoulder as he worked, pulled out a dagger and began spinning it around on the palm of her hand. She looked incredibly cool when she did it at first, like she was a real professional, but then she messed up. The knife flying out of her hand and clattered against the floor.

Nick laughed, and Lucas had to stop himself from joining in as he watched her quickly bend over to pick it up, covering her cleavage with one hand so that she didn’t flash them. She straightened up, she gave them a ‘nothing to see here’ look.

“Well, we have what we need. Put these back where you found them, and let’s get out of here before anyone notices we were ever here at all.” Lucas passed the real accounting book and seal back to Nick so that he could stash them where he found them. He knew that he should have put the journal back too if he wanted to make sure that Kegan didn’t notice their presence, but some nagging feeling in the back of his mind encouraged him to keep it.

What are you doing keeping the journal? Lucas took one last long glance at the painting of Kegan and his wife then opened up the trap door and began his descent back down into the cavern below.

“So, not to be optimistic and claim the bounty early,” Bonnie began, giving Lucas a big wide-eyed and expectant look, “but I think the first quest was successful, wouldn’t you say?”

Lucas didn’t want to jinx it since he had actually messed up horribly by taking Kegan’s journal, but he couldn’t outright ignore her question either. “Yeah, it should be.”

“Then . . .” Bonnie’s grin grew bigger. “You think it’s okay to pay us those five gold coins yet? I mean, you got to go make that whole accounting book and whatnot, and that’s gonna take time right? So, paying me now would be okay, right?”

“Five gold coins, is it?” Lucas asked, looking over at Nick. He hadn’t expected the greedy kid who swallowed his own pride for money to not cheat the people he had hired. The fact that Nick didn’t act as the middleman and skim even a single coin was shocking.

“Yeah, boss,” Bonnie asserted. “That’s what Nick told me, five gold coins. And don’t even try to cheat me a copper.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Lucas pulled out six gold coins, tossed Bonnie five of them, and then threw one to a confused Nick, who likely didn’t expect to get anything more for this particular quest since Lucas had already paid him. “Now, if you two wanna go level, have at it. Just make sure not to kill any Imperium. I’m going to need a bit of time to finish creating the replica accounting book, so go have fun,” he added as they climbed out of the tunnel.

“Will do, boss,” Bonnie said, running ahead of Nick and Lucas toward the village.

Nick darted after her, leaving Lucas alone to meander back toward the tavern. He pulled out Kegan’s journal during the walk and began scratching the itch on his brain that had been nagging him since he first found it.

The first few pages were less journal entries and more Kegan’s thoughts and ideas. They detailed small activities he was planning to do with the territory, little things like a festival for all the farmers on his land, a weekly feast at the local tavern to keep morale up, or small ways he planned to improve the agricultural utility of the people. The entries discussed the people he planned to work with, the type of holidays he wanted to put together, and his hopes for the settlement near his manor. Having seen the actual town and having heard the way the people in it talked about Kegan, it was hard to imagine that he was the same man who wrote the journal, but the handwriting matched easily.

A quarter of the way through the journal, however, Lucas came across a dozen or more pages that were completely different. Whereas every other was filled from top to bottom, front to back with words, ideas, and tiny, little drawings that were either maps or inventions Kegan was working on and were crisp and neat without so much as a bend or fold on them, this one was wrinkled a little, almost as if it had been left out in the rain before drying, and clearly depicted the same woman whom he had seen in the painting. Each page was another drawing of her, and each drawing left Lucas feeling a little more hollow and empty inside.

I did this too, Lucas thought, staring down at the drawings. He had always cursed himself for not having more pictures of Yu Hua, and he had been unable to stop himself from drawing them himself for weeks to fill the void in him that yearned to remember her image.

The images eventually came to an end, however, and the words resume. There weren’t many as before, and most contained only a single paragraph.

‘Freed or broken, there can be no in-between. We hold their chains, all of them, and so long as they have the strength to do so, they will pull at their chains. They will yank and tug at the collar we have fitted them with until either they, or their collar, break. Even if they were freed, I don’t doubt in my heart for one minute that they wouldn’t try to attack us with the broken chains. I should have known this. I should have curtailed your mercy, as every history book had taught me. This was my fault. My heart was weak to your plight, and you to theirs. I’m sorry Isabel. I tried to appease them, to be good. For your sake, I wanted our lands to be a paradise for all people of all kinds to make you happy. But I couldn’t keep them happy. As soon as our poverty demanded I tighten the slack on their chains again, they– I’m sorry.’

Lucas felt his throat lock up as he stared at the page, reading the lines over and over again. A rebellion, he concluded as he went over the paragraph. His wife died in a rebellion. Those ideas, those pages . . . they weren’t hopes and dreams. He had done them. They were record and memories. He had done them all, and when he ran out of money and couldn’t keep doing them, they rebelled. Lucas sighed, unable to control his own heart as he imagined what Kegan must have gone through. It had been hard reading that. Out of all of the villains of the Imperium on noob island, this particular noble’s earlier days had been that of a saint in comparison. The woman who had pushed him to do the right thing, to throw away the Imperium’s bigotry, was dead because of it.

The next three or four pages were blank, and then he reached one more page with text. It was only a single sentence this time that read:‘I will break them all.’ Each letter left such a deep imprint that it might have been dug out with a fingernail before ink ever touched the paper. There were more writings on the pages after, and Lucas wanted to keep reading, but he had already reached the tavern and knew he had to get to work.

Lucas had the whole place to himself due to the fact it was the middle of the afternoon, between lunch and dinner, and there weren’t any customers in the tavern, so he posted up at the same table he had eaten at earlier after giving Hemann a nod.  He reached into his bag, took out a bottle of ink, a quill, and a blank book that he had bought during his first days in the game world when he had thought that he might want to draw in the game too.

“Will you be wanting something to drink as well?” Hermann asked, coming over while Lucas was still setting up his workspace.

Lucas was about to ask for a glass of wine when he stopped himself. “Actually, I had a question, Hermann.”

“What’s that, mister?” Hermann responded.

“Who is Isabel?” Lucas asked, watching Hermann’s face drain of color as the words left his mouth.

Hermann gulped. “Mister Lucas . . . I believe that is not an appropriate question to ask.”

“Hmm . . . Is that so?” Lucas scratched his chin, thinking about the reaction. Hermann had instantly gone from a healthy color to that of a ghost, but the young waitress who was constantly in his shadow hadn’t reacted at all. Is Isabel a point of shame for them too? Or was it before her time? His eyes darted between the two incredibly-different expressions. “Then, do you know if Sir Kegan has a wife? Or perhaps an heir?”

“I’ll bring you a glass of wine and some cheese, Mister Lucas,” Hermann said, giving a weak smile before quickly turning away and departing.

There is definitely more to the story than what’s recorded in this journal. Lucas wanted to investigate further, his curiosity burning like an itch he couldn’t properly scratch once again, but he resisted. He still had work to do if he was ever going to be a proper villain.