Fatedancer Preview

The following except is from my new book Fatedancer, the first in a LitRPG-lite tetralogy. It’s taken from chapter 3, and while there is a little out-of-context conversation, it shows a good mix of action and character personalities. Read on, and I hope you enjoy!

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“So, what’s the deal with you two, anyway?”

“Hmm?” Luf looked up from studying his map. Arael was peeking around a corner. She glanced back at him, eyes shining in the torchlight.

After taking a bus across town, they had entered the sewers behind the bank as Juliat instructed and set to wandering the tunnels. Now their world had shrunk to little more than a wavering circle of torchlight, revealing walls covered in dripping slime and the thin path that was all that kept them from tumbling into the waterway.

“You and Butch. It seems like you have been at each other’s throats since I started working with you. Did you two know each other before the guild?”

“Yeah, when we were both still in school.”

“Were you like this back then, too?”

Luf shook his head and put away the map. “The opposite, actually. He and I were best friends, before…”

Before mom died, he finished to himself. Before Rin and I had to sell everything to pay off her debts. Before we had to move out of our home and go live in a tiny apartment in Waydowns. All that, and I also got the joy of discovering all those people I thought were my friends were actually anything but.

He didn’t say any of this to Arael, of course. His family’s destitution had cost him everyone he had known in life. There was no way he was going to risk Arael’s friendship by telling her just how far he had fallen.

Instead, he pointed down the tunnel. “Take the next right. According to the map there’s supposed to be a nest just a little past that.”

They had been wandering the sewers for nearly an hour now. The guild’s recon teams had marked where all the spawn points down here were located, but monsters rarely stayed near them for long. Unless they spawned in a dungeon, and the sewers were certainly no dungeon.

His first time down here, Luf had thought he would die from the stench alone. Now after nearly a year he barely noticed it. Arael still kept a cloth tied across her nose and mouth, but Luf figured give it another month before she started treating this place like a second home.

A stinking, rat-infested home.

“There they are,” Arael said, pointing. Luf glanced past her to where several beady eyes were staring at them from just outside the circle of torchlight. He knelt down and jammed the torch between two stones to anchor it. Arael drew her weapons.

“Same strategy as usual?” she asked.

“Why not? It’s worked so far.”

The first of the sewer rats trundled into the ring of torchlight. Unlike naturally occurring rats, these monsters were about the size of a small dog and had fur that grew in matted patches along their spine, with the rest of their skin covered in a light armored plating.

Also, barbed tails. Couldn’t forget about those.

No sooner had the rat entered the light than Arael started shooting. Her first two bullets just bounced off the monster’s armored plating, but the third found its mark. The rat gave a loud squeal and collapsed.

More rats started creeping into the circle. Luf drew his sword. “Here they come!”

With a hiss, the sewer rats charged. Arael fired off a few more shots, then set to stabbing the rats with her blades. Most monsters were immune to firearms entirely, so Luf had never really understood why she even carried the weapons, but for some reason Arael seemed to love them. She spun and danced among the rats, piercing spines and skulls with ease as she passed.

Meanwhile, Luf waved his sword about like he was chopping wood, or at least what he imagined chopping wood was like. The guild had given him some basic sword lessons when he started, but they had never really taken, so he mostly swung it as hard as he could and hoped that the monster died.

<Sewer Rat, one AP.>

<Sewer Rat, zero AP.>

Another rat got too close, nipping at Luf with its massive teeth. He backpedaled, almost falling into the spillway, then swung his blade as the rat lunged at him. The blade caught the monster right above the jaw, slicing clean through.

<Sewer Rat, zero AP.>

“Have you thought about trying to talk to him, maybe? Work out your problems?” Arael asked as she darted past, two rats close on her heels. The question caught Luf off guard, and he almost got impaled on a barbed spike when he glanced away.

“Talk with who?”

“To Butch.”

<Sewer Rat, one AP.>

“Are you still going on about that? Trust me, Butch isn’t interested in talking. Unless the subject involves slinging insults at me.”

“Still, you don’t always have to give as good as you get. Maybe if you stopped antagonizing him further he would leave you alone?”

<Sewer Rat, zero AP.>

“Does it matter?” Luf asked. “We just trade a few insults around the guild hall. He’s an ass, and he will never stop being an ass, so why should I be the one to back down?”

“Because.” Arael fired a bullet down a sewer rat’s throat as it lunged to bite her. The rat’s sides bulged outward, and it fell to the ground with a shudder. “At the guild hall Butch has to play nice. I’m just worried what might happen if he and his team ever run across us elsewhere in the city.”

“You call his attitude today nice?”

“You know what I mean. He’s a level twenty-something Hellion, and you’re only a level two Fighter. We don’t even have subclasses yet.”

Luf grunted in response, then slammed his sword into another rat, cutting through its spine. The rat hissed and squealed as it died.

<Sewer Rat, zero AP.>

I’m getting fewer and fewer Ascension Points from fighting rats these days, Luf noted. Maybe I can use that to convince Juliat to give us some better missions. Of course, she’ll probably point out that I’m still getting experience from constantly putting my life on the line.

“I don’t know why you’re worried,” he said, taking a quick drink from his canteen while awaiting the next wave of rats. “When the Peace begins, Butch and I will both be back to level one. I can’t wait to see how smug he tries to act then while carrying around that stupid axe.”

It still irked him that Butch had managed to level up so fast. He had joined the guild after Luf, so how had he done it? Life was totally unfair sometimes.

Arael finished off a pair of rats that had tried to flank her, their shrill cries echoing down the sewers as they died. More rats skittered about at the edge of the torchlight but refused to come closer. She stepped next to Luf and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“That’s why I keep asking you about training. The Peace is the only time you can gain levels without killing monsters. You don’t want to find yourself in the same position we’re in now once it’s over, do you? Back here to killing rats just because all the good spawn points have already been claimed by more powerful adventurers.”

His partner paused as a score of additional rats entered the light. These must have spawned a few days ago, as they were noticeably bigger than the first swarm. That was half the reason the guild sent them down to kill such low-level monsters; if you didn’t clear them out quickly, you’d have automobile sized rodents clambering out onto city streets within a month.

“Let’s talk about training later.” Luf released his canteen and gripped his sword with both hands. Arael nodded, then started firing into the swarm’s midst. The rats charged.

A rat skittered towards Luf, its tail held at the ready. He jumped to one side as it lunged, then swung his sword around, slicing the top half of the monster’s tail clean off. It hissed angrily at him, then slumped to the ground as his sword cleaved through its neck.

<Sewer Rat, one AP.>

Another rat was already climbing over its fallen companion, using it as a stepstool to snap at Luf’s face. He stumbled backwards and almost fell on his ass. The rat launched off the corpse at him.

Luf tried to stab the monster, but even his short sword was too unwieldy to pierce something that close. Instead he swung it down repeatedly, trying to hack through the rat’s armor with the side of the blade.

The sewer rat snapped at Luf’s face again, almost taking off his nose. He managed to get an arm up, and the teeth instead sank deep into the sleeve of his gambeson. The rat held on and gave a frantic shake of its head, like a dog playing with a favorite toy.

“Luf! Stop swinging that sword around!” Arael’s voice penetrated through the rat’s garbled squeaks. Luf quickly dropped his arm to his side.

There was a wash of heat, and the rat let out an inhuman shriek of pain. Its fur burst into flames, and Luf pushed the monster off him before it set his gambeson on fire too. He climbed to his feet and watched as the rat writhed in pain, its burning fur making the most Maker-awful stench he had ever had the misfortune to smell—the sewer odor was actually a relief in comparison.

He glanced over at Arael, who still had two fingers pressed against the sphere in her arm. She gave him a quick smile. “That was its one use for the day. Don’t expect me to save your ass like that again.”

“Hopefully you won’t need to.” Luf turned as a particularly nasty-looking rat started in his direction. This one was much larger than the others, with fur that had a slightly reddish tint.

Holding up his hand, he activated his display crystal, then used his monster identification skill.

Monster Description: Enraged Sewer Rat

Level: 3

Attribute: None

Threat level: Medium

Notes: Mini-boss. This monster gains stat bonuses over that of a normal Sewer Rat. Engage with multiple party members when possible.

“Uh, Arael?” he said, backing up. He stopped when he reached the outer edge of the torchlight.

“Deal with it! I’ve got problems of my own, you know!” Arael tapped her arm again and pointed one of her dagger pistols. This time when she fired, several lines of flame traced their way out of the gun. The rat before her squealed in pain before collapsing, only for another member of the swarm to take its place.

Luf turned back in time to see a massive spike flying at his face. He twisted, and felt the wind as it passed by, one of the edges catching the tip of his nose and ripping it open. He sucked in his breath at the pain.

The enraged sewer rat pulled its tail back, then swung it again. Not able to dodge this time, Luf threw his arm up, and winced as the barb cut through his gambeson and penetrated the flesh beneath. It stuck fast.

Bringing his short sword around, he hacked at the rat’s tail, hoping to shear it off like the last one. The enraged monster apparently had extra defensive capabilities, and his sword bounced off without effect. Luf cursed.

With a hiss, the rat pulled the barb loose, then swung it again. Luf knocked it aside with his blade, but the monster had apparently been expecting that. The tail wrapped around his sword and flung it away.

“Shit!” He dove after the blade, then cried out as the enraged rat landed on top of him. It began tearing at the back of the gambeson with its claws, trying to get at the flesh beneath. Its teeth snapped dangerously close to his neck.

Luf crawled forward, his sword just out of reach. One of the rat’s claws made its way through the tough fabric, and he cried out in pain as they dug in beneath his ribs. His sword was still too far away.

The torch, however, was more than close enough.

Snatching it up, he jammed the flaming end into the sewer rat’s side. The torch sputtered, leaving him momentarily in pitch blackness.

Fortunately, the attack had the desired effect. With a shriek of pain, the rat leapt away.

Luf scrambled to his feet, the ache in his back making his movements stiff. His sword lay just a meter or two away, but between him and it waited the enraged sewer rat. It hissed, some of its fur still smoking.

I need that sword! The torch in Luf’s hands sputtered again. If it went out, both he and Arael were dead. The rats would swarm them, and Juliat would have to send a team down to collect their bones. His sister would never recover.

Gritting his teeth, Luf waved the torch in the rat’s face. It let out a hiss, but also took a step back. Encouraged, Luf followed, waving the torch before him.

With each swing the torch sputtered and died a little more, and Luf drew closer to his weapon. It was a war of attrition now between the torch and the rat. He didn’t know which one would give first.

The enraged rat took another step back, and the hilt of Luf’s short sword appeared from underneath. With a last wave of the torch, he cast it aside and dove for his weapon.

Luf landed hard, the filthy stones of the sewer walkway digging into his elbows and knees. His hands closed around the sword’s hilt, and he looked up to see the enraged rat towering over him, its jaws wide to deliver the killing blow. It lunged.

Squeezing his eyes shut, Luf brought his short sword up, holding the blade before his face. He waited to feel the rat’s teeth tearing into him.

When nothing happened, he opened his eyes.

Staring back sightlessly at him was the enraged rat. His sword had pierced through the roof of the monster’s mouth and straight into its brain. As Luf pulled the weapon free, the rat’s limp form slumped to the ground.

<Enraged Sewer Rat, three AP.>

I did it! Luf cheered and held his sword aloft like a conquering hero. That was hands-down the most difficult fight of his entire career. Part of him felt like he should have been scared with how close to death they had come, but another part of him reveled in the moment. He couldn’t recall having ever felt so alive.

“Glad to see you’re alright.” Arael stooped down to pick up the sputtering torch, then came over next to him. There was a hole in the shoulder of her gambeson, and Luf could see blood underneath, but overall they both appeared to have escaped relatively unhurt.

“Thanks! Did you see that? The rat was all ‘Gar!’ but I was all ‘schwing!’, and then—”

Luf froze. A notification had just popped onto his display crystal. He glanced down at it.

Level up! Congratulations, you are now level 3.

XP to next level: 2,000

Total AP score: 114

“Not bad,” Arael said, leaning over to read the display. “Keep this up and you might even get a subclass before the cycle ends.”

“I doubt that. It’s taken me almost a year to get this far. What about you? Was that a new ability I saw you use back there?”

“Oh, that. I bought a sphere for it a couple of nights ago, it’s a prerequisite for the Sapper subclass. What about you? How come you didn’t use your ability on that monster back there?”

“Um.” Luf glanced down at his arm, where a single sphere glittered among the five slots. “Honestly, I forget I even have it sometimes. It’s such a useless ability. I still don’t know why my father left it to me.”

“It doesn’t seem that useless to me. Being able to change your luck at will sounds like an awesome ability to have.”

“Sure, but it only works once a day. So that might save me from one rat bite, but there’ll just be fifty more right after that. It’s not worth taking the time in the middle of combat to worry about.”

“It won’t always be like that, you know. Once you have a subclass, you’ll be able to use it a lot more.”

“Oh, joy, then I can stop five rat bites,” Luf said. “I’d still much rather have an ability that’s actually useful in combat, like yours are.”

Arael shrugged. “If you say so. Now c’mon, let’s pick up the loot and get out of here. Big as that swarm was, there shouldn’t be any more in the area.”

Most of the rat corpses had disappeared by then, leaving behind a collection of tiny black stones. Luf didn’t know what they were, and by now he was too embarrassed to ask anyone, even Arael. Not that it mattered. They were required to give all loot found during appointed missions back to the guild. If he ever needed to know what the stones were, someone would tell him.

“Here, there were a bunch of red ones over by where I killed that enraged rat,” he said, handing his pile to Arael. She slipped them inside of a bag and strung it around her waist.

“Great. Time to head back, you think?”

Luf nodded. “Maybe grab some lunch first, if we can.”

“Sounds good! My treat, of course.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Luf sputtered. Arael held up a hand to forestall further protests.

“No, I don’t have to, but I want to. Is that fair?”

“Sure, I mean, if you insist.”

“Great! It’s a date!” Arael turned and set off marching down the sewer tunnel. Luf stood another moment in the growing shadows, dumbfounded.

A date? Did she really mean that, or is she just… he shook his head, then set off jogging after her.

“Wait, don’t leave me here in the dark!” “Better hurry then. Somebody mentioned lunch, and now my stomach is in charge. Where were you thinking to go? There’s an adorable cafe over on Belmont Street I’ve been wanting to try. Or maybe we should wander back near the guild hall, there’s this new restaurant around the corner…”