Soulstone: The Skeleton King – Chapter 1
“How the fuck are we supposed to stop the Skeleton King?” Two’ Manchu said, voice cracking as he tore his eyes from the fading visage of the skeleton head Gereng had summoned and turned to Crash. “Please, please tell me you know.”
Crash said something, but I didn’t hear him because I was too busy taking a step backward. Then I took another one. Then I spun on my heel and walked away. This was too much, too big. I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to stop an army of undead hellbent on razing the town, and if I was being totally honest, I wasn’t sure why we would bother. We were in the newbie area of the game and had yet to step into the outside game world. Why would we waste time and risk our lives on a battle like this? It didn’t make any sense, even if I ignored the fact that I was scared out of my gourd.
I swallowed hard, trying to quell the thumping of my heart in my chest, but with every step I took away from my friends and the crazy old mage, I grew more and more anxious. I didn’t remember anything about this Skeleton King, nor why he was going to assault the town. I didn’t know how to stop him, and if I was being really honest with myself, I was really scared.
I mean, what if I stayed here to help stop the Skeleton King’s siege of the town and died? For the Non Player Characters in the Town of Silver Gables? That was crazy. For one they weren’t even real, and for two it wouldn’t matter because they were all ones and zeros. Even my pet bunny rabbit George, while funny and awesome, was no more real than a Tamagotchi, albeit a very realistically rendered Tamagotchi.
No. For me and my friends, this was real. Okay, so they were mostly jerks, and they hadn’t really been my friends before we’d been stuck here together, a fact that didn’t help make their status as friends less questionable, I didn’t want them to die. Mostly though? Mostly, I didn’t want to die.
I’d barely done anything in my stupid, pointless life. This Skeleton King seemed like he could not only wipe out the town, but kill all of us as well. If that happened, because of the way my mind was hooked to this particular version of virtual reality, it’d turn my brain into raspberry jam.
I couldn’t risk it. Not even to help my friends. Sure, Two’ Manchu had been nice enough, but Dark Heart? She was the fucking reason I was trapped in this world trying to find the soul stones. Sure by finding the soul stones I’d stop the AI virus the Maelstrom and save the internet or whatever, but let’s be real here. If given the choice, I wouldn’t be here trying to do that because at the end of the day, there were probably a billion other people better suited to be here than me. No, I just wanted to go home, but unfortunately, I couldn’t go home because of that whole brain in a box thing. The only way I’d get to go back to my life was by finding the soul stones and using them to win the game.
That was the problem. I had no idea if stopping the Skeleton King would help us find the soul stones. Sure, he might reward us with some good gear and what not, but a soul stone in the newbie area? That seemed unlikely at best. Besides, any gear we got here would likely be quickly rendered useless by leveling in the outside world. Not only did this entire quest seem like it would delay our finding of the soul stones, it seemed dangerous. At best.
No. The more likely scenario was that we’d die. And even if I was supposed to be expendable and here to do that, I didn’t feel expendable. I didn’t want to die and I wasn’t Jason fucking Stathem.
I was just Aaron Hope, college senior. I had a whole life back home, and I couldn’t, just couldn’t risk dying. There was no way I was facing the Skeleton King. It was time to leave this newbie area and head into the main game world where I could begin my search for the soul stones. Even if I failed, it was safer. Staying here was not an option, at least, not with an army of undead coming to ravage this place’s ass off.
“Looking for a drink?” asked a husky, feminine voice from my left, and the sound of it broke me from my reverie.
I was still in town, sure, but I’d wandered off a considerable ways from my friends. I sighed. It was just like when I’d talked on the phone back home. I always mindlessly walked around while I chatted, so sometimes I’d wind up clear across the dorms without realizing it by the time I’d finished a call, which was annoying to say the least when I needed to point something out that was on my computer and I had wandered half a floor away.
“What?” I asked glancing toward the speaker only to find myself looking at Jessica Rabbit. Okay, not her exactly, but all the vavavoom was definitely there, and it’d somehow been crammed into a chainmail bikini no proper adventurer would ever wear.
She stood next to a swinging door that reminded me of an old western saloon, and even from my place on the sidewalk, it sounded pretty boisterous inside. Too boisterous. Like the kind of place where I’d walk in and immediately get shot by a gunslinger with a bad attitude.
“Not really,” I said, shaking my head as I glanced anxiously at my HUD, looking for the time. The blacksmith wouldn’t be finished repairing my scythe for a while yet. Part of me wanted to leave now and forget the weapon, but I had time enough to wait for it. The weapon would be done well before the siege began.
It sort of pissed me off because normally, I’d log out, go to bed, and wake up to find it freshly crafted. Even if I didn’t have a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over my head, this whole waiting in real time was going to be balls fast.
“You sure? You seem like you have a lot on your mind, adventurer.” She smiled at me, and it was like someone turned on the sun. My heart began to race in my chest, and my pants suddenly felt two sizes too tight. I tried to remind myself that this was a game, but truth be told, no girl had ever looked at me like this NPC was.
“Sorry, I need to go find somewhere to crash for the night. I’m checking out of this town first thing in the morning.” I waved at her. The last thing I wanted to do was go drink in a virtual bar when I didn’t even know if I could get drunk. Nor did I want little miss too-good-to-be-true to roll my unconscious ass and take all my hard earned money. Nope, I needed all the Rhuvians, the cash used here in Ruul, I could get, and I definitely didn’t have any to spare on frivolous things.
“You could stay with me.” She smiled again as she turned and pointed toward the sign above the door with one long pink fingernail. “Actually, you kind of have to stay with me. We’re the only inn in the Town of Silver Gables.” She gave me a satisfied smile that made me want to kiss her. I didn’t, but man, was it tough.
“I don’t have that kind of coin,” I replied, turning to go. Only as I did, I saw my party members coming toward me. It didn’t seem like they’d actually seen me yet, but they were definitely on the lookout. I knew, just knew, that if they found me, they’d want me to help them try to stop the Skeleton King. I could still remember how I’d seen the wheels had turned inside Dark Heart’s brain when the skeleton’s dialog had finished.
Her eyes had lit up in a way that told me she thought we had to complete the quest and defeat the Skeleton King. I had no idea why we had to do it, but I was willing to bet she thought there might be a soul stone at the end of the tunnel. I, on the other hand, didn’t think so for two reasons.
Firstly, the Skeleton King’s siege seemed like exactly the kind of side quest that would pop up and take a bunch of time, which while fun, would mean that at the end of the day, you’d look and see you’d progressed the main storyline by one percent and spent fifteen hours doing side quests. In a game like this where I absolutely had to complete the main quest of finding the soul stones to return home, side quests were a non-starter.
Secondly, no developer in their right mind would put a soul stone at the end of a chain quest in a newbie area. This wasn’t like in Ready Player One, where anyone could visit the home world at any time. No, if this was anything like Titan Gate, once you went through the portal to leave the newbie area, so you could venture out into the wider world and not be confined to the starting hunting zones, you couldn’t return. That meant there’d be no way to come back and collect a soul stone if one was actually hidden here, which meant anyone who left would be screwed because even if they found all the other stones, they’d never be able to get this one. I mean, maybe that was the case, and this game was just really poorly designed, but it seemed unlikely.
So, you know what? Fuck that. I was done with this place. Everything was way too hard to fuck around with a side quest like that at our level. No. It was time to get out into the main world, level my character like crazy while finding better gear so I wouldn’t be gibbed while trying to find the soul stones in the world outside the Town of Silver Gables and its surrounding areas.
Only, I was fairly sure my friends would try to talk me into it, and since I’d die if Dark Heart died, I needed them not to talk me into it. No, I needed them to follow me into the world at large, and for that to happen, I needed them not to find me until that sank into their skulls because right now, they were still celebrating our victory over the cobalt demon. A victory that had nearly cost Two’ Manchu his life.
“Hey,” I said, turning back toward Jessica Rabbit in chainmail. “I think I will have a drink.” I nodded toward my friends as I approached the door and pushed it open. A wave of sound and chaos hit my eardrums like a tornado as I shoved some Rhuvians into her hand. “Just tell them I went a different way, eh?”
“Not a problem,” she said, smiling at me with her full pouty lips and pocketing the coins as I went inside. “We have a simple rule in the Macabre Skull. If you want to get lost, we’ll let you.”
“Thanks.” I nodded at her and stepped inside. The place was a lot bigger inside than I’d have thought it’d be from the outside. It was also both a lot dingier and a lot nicer than I’d expected. Everything inside was polished oak, from the bar stools and tables to the floor. The heads of everything from unicorns to orcs was mounted along the top perimeter of the room.
There were over a dozen adventurers sitting around playing cards inside, but none of them struck me as my kind of adventurers because all their garb was really similar. I sort of hated the cut and paste nature of NPCs in games. Granted, this was a newbie area, and I was sure no one wanted to spend time on NPCs here because of their limited interaction time, but still.
A grin spread across my lips. When I was done getting the soul stones, I’d have a word with the malevolent AI virus who ran this game. I’d ask, no demand, he make each NPC a lot more unique. After all, he was a sentient bit of code, it wasn’t like time mattered to him.
“What’ll you have?” the big burly bartender said as I approached. He was scarred from head to toe and was missing one eye so he just looked at me with a blank socket. “Cause if you aren’t here to drink, you need to leave.” He shot a glance past me toward the doors as though hoping more people would come in.
“Um…” I said, taking a seat in front of him. “I was hoping for a room for the night. Maybe some food?” I asked, glancing at my satiety bar in my HUD, the interface that wrapped around my vision displaying all my pertinent data like health and such like I was in one of those science fiction games.
Right now, it showed my satiety bar had dropped to twenty-four percent. I knew that in Titan Gate, a whole bunch of negative things occurred when that bar reached zero, so topping it before I slept would be good. Then I could wake up well rested and get a move on. The increased regeneration rate that came from sleeping would definitely help once I was out in the real world.
“We have chicken stew,” the bartender grunted, pointing to a large back cauldron hanging over a fire in the corner. “But you can’t have any unless you buy a drink.” He pushed a menu listing prices toward me. A beer, soup, and a room would come to less than five hundred Rhuvians, and since I had around ten thousand Rhuvians, I figured I could spare it. That said, of the total cost, the beer was three hundred Rhuvians by itself and accounted for sixty percent of the bill. No wonder he’d insisted on it.
“Fine, give me a drink, the stew, and a room, okay?” I smiled at him as I held my hand out across the counter, offering it to him. He nodded and took my hand, and as he did, my wallet diminished by the exact amount of the goods on the menu.
“Coming right up,” he said, turning away from me and swiping a glass mug off the counter before putting it under a tap on a stained wooden barrel. Frothy amber liquid filled the mug, and as the head rose past the top and froze as it dripped down the sides, he shut the tap and put it down on the wooden bar in front of me.
I took it from the bar as he watched me closely with his one good eye and took a sip. And holy fuck was that shit strong. As I swallowed a gulp that sort of tasted like honey and hops, I stared at it in shock. I was going to be drunk by the end of this thing. And you know what?
I’d had a long day. Maybe getting drunk was exactly what I needed.