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Willow still couldn’t believe what she just saw in Opal’s video. Did a player really just disappear from the game?

“Do we know who it is?” Her voice didn’t even sound like her own anymore.

“No.” Opal’s voice was tense. “No idea. Looking back through the video, their name is gone even if you rewind. I know it was there before, I think anyway. But now it’s gone. It’s not in the video, or my memory.”

Willow nodded. “Let’s go.” It was getting really crowded in the area in front of the minotaurs’ dungeon and it wasn’t like other people had any more idea about what happened than she did. It was only triggering her anxiety to see so many people so closely together.

“Where are we going to go? Do you have any idea what just happened?” Opal stared at her, like she had the answers.

“Someone disappeared.” Willow tried to come up with more than that, but her hands were shaking and she felt a little sick. “Someone just got wiped from the game, or something.”

“I don’t know if I want to be in DoE right now.” Opal wasn’t wrong, it didn’t feel safe here anymore.

“Let’s go to my VRHome room.” VRHome was an app that was part of the standard software of the BASE platform. That had to be safer than a 3rd party game, right?

“Okay.” Opal nodded, and then disappeared from the game.

Willow took one last look at the people huddling around the place where someone just disappeared. Everyone looked confused and scared. Nobody had any idea what they’d just seen, nobody. And that scared her even more.

What had just happened?

***

“Blitzing,” Sage said, their eyes serious. “It looks like blitzing.”

“What’s blitzing?” Willow had never heard the term before, and she did tend to hang out in places that she shouldn’t...

“Blitzing is just a hoax. An urban legend.” Juniper shook her head.

They’d all come to Willow’s VRHome, all of them, apart from Violet. Violet still hadn’t replied to any messages she’d sent her.

“Hush.” Opal glared at Juniper. “I want to hear this. Urban legend or not, a player just disappearing and their avatar being reduced to code... that’s not normal.”

“Blitzing is when someone scrambles all your data, all of it, from your saved memories, to your games, to your personal ID. So you basically lose your account.” Sage looked really serious. “It even scrambles your personal ID into something that can’t be used to access the BASE platform anymore, even your BASE device stops working.”

“What?” That wasn’t possible. Without their personal IDs, they couldn’t do anything. Everything was connected to their personal ID.

It was like a fingerprint, or like... an old-school IP address for computers. Their personal ID was connected to their bank account, to their BASE platform, to their... their everything. It was how everyone was identified within the BASE platform, their personal ID code, that way they weren’t stuck with just one name and could choose their own name in games and such if they wanted to. They weren’t just stuck with the name their parents gave them at birth, they could choose any name that they wanted. But their personal ID... Yeah... That was a lot more important, that was the one thing that kept all of their information gathered in one place. If someone could literally break someone’s personal ID...

Willow didn’t want to think about the implications of that.

Sage shrugged. “It’s just what I heard. I don’t know for sure. It’s just what’s been going around the net.” They looked really serious now. “I’ve never heard of someone actually being logged on and playing when it happened though... Usually, the stories are about how someone is hacked while they’re asleep...”

“Both are bad.” Willow shuddered. “How can someone... Why would...?” She didn’t get it.

“I don’t know.” Sage looked over to her, reaching out. “I really have no idea.”

Willow stepped into Sage’s embrace, their touch calming her down a little. “What else do you know?” She had to figure this out.

“Nothing.” Sage looked so disappointed that she believed them. “I wish I knew more.”

Willow nodded. “What are we going to do?”

“Make sure you’re safe. Don’t go places you don’t trust. Don’t download things you don’t know are going to be totally safe. Just... you know, smart stuff.” Sage shrugged.

“And DoE?” Juniper looked up to them.

“I don’t know.”

Opal nodded, his eyes dark. “Is logging into DoE safe?”

“It should be. But like Juniper said... this is supposed to be an urban legend, not reality.” Sage shrugged. “If this is blitzing, it’s done on your BASE platform account, not on your DoE account. So it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing. They could always get to you.”

“Thanks for the pep talk.” Juniper rolled her eyes. “I’m just gonna... I’m gonna go offline for a while. Maybe I’ll feel safer.” She had her arms wrapped around herself.

“Juniper.” Sage looked at her. “Can you... Can we all stay in a text chat? That way we’re sure nobody gets scrambled.”

Juniper nodded, and the next moment Willow got a chat invite. She accepted it and saw just the four of them online. While an invite had been sent out to Violet, it didn’t automatically show her as connected to the BASE platform. Strange.

Juniper nodded. “I’m going. See you all later. I just need to… not be here.” And she disappeared.

“I’m out too.” Opal disappeared from where he was sitting.

Now it was just Willow and Sage left.

“Sage...” She didn’t know if she should ask them, but maybe sharing her worry would make it ease a little.

“Yeah?” Sage swayed side to side a little, soothing Willow.

“Have you heard from Violet yet?” She swallowed hard.

“No. She got an invite to HF, didn’t she?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s probably too busy playing.” Sage’s voice sounded mostly calming, but there was an edge to it too, and Willow knew that they were worried too.

“Probably.” Willow nodded. It would have just been easier if she’d been sure. If someone had a real answer for her.

What was going on? First people saying their friends disappeared while playing Helheim Fallen, and now someone in DoE being ‘blitzed’?

What was going on?

***

Willow knew that she shouldn’t be doing this. She knew that she really shouldn’t be snooping around the Helheim Fallen forums like this. But she just had to see if there was a connection between everything going on and the Helheim Fallen forums were her only real source of information.

She didn’t really want to ask Sage where they got their information about blitzing, Sage was a little bit more... advanced, when it came to computer stuff than she was.

Willow pulled up the thread she’d seen about the missing friend this morning. Checking the profile of the original poster, but it looked perfectly normal. It didn’t look like there was anything interesting on it and they didn’t seem like a troll or someone who was out for attention. Which made their plea for help seem at least more real.

Then she scrolled through the replies, trying to find the one from the empty profile she’d seen. But it wasn’t there anymore. The reply was gone. Though the responses to it were still intact, they were now responding to some stupid senseless comment that definitely wasn’t the one she’d seen before.

Did she remember it wrong? Or was there something more going on?

She scrolled down, trying to find more replies from others who had missing friends, but there weren’t any of them. She closed the topic and then went back to the main forums, trying to find older posts like this, people looking for their friends.

She knew there had been more of them. She’d seen them pop up before and was sure that she’d seen some with replies from others who were in the same situation. But even though she found the older threads, there were no replies from people whose friends had also gone missing. Right now, it just looked like a handful of random people ranting about their friends no longer liking them. It was strange, uncanny.

But the video Opal showed her was still clear in her mind. No matter if people were calling the thread starters losers and crazy, she knew that something was going on, something serious. And maybe it wasn’t connected to just Helheim Fallen, but there was definitely something going wrong.

Willow pulled up a new screen, putting ‘Helheim Fallen blitzing’ into the search bar, and it immediately gave her some results. But, like the posts on the forums, nothing really came of it, just some people complaining about people not being online and others mocking them. This was no use.

She pulled up the guild chat screen, but Violet’s name was still showing as not having accepted the invitation, and all the messages she’d sent Violet were also unread.

It wasn’t strange for Violet to disappear when she found a new game, that was pretty normal for her, but with everything going on, she just needed to know that Violet was safe. She just wanted to know, no matter how needy it made her sound. They were friends and she was worried. Violet could at least just accept the guild chat invite, no matter how busy she was playing.

A new chat tab opened, but Willow hadn’t gotten an invite for it. And even though she remembered Sage’s warning about staying safe, she was also curious, too curious.

You are in a chat with Rotnem

Rotnem: You’ve seen it, haven’t you?
Willow: Who are you?
Rotnem: You’ve seen the person in DoE, right?
Willow: I need to know who you are.

The person stayed quiet for a while and Willow almost closed the screen again.

Rotnem: Who I am is not important. It’s not about me.
Rotnem: You already know me, we’ve talked before. You were learning to code the old way.

‘The old way’, it rang a bell for her, especially the way this person was talking. But it was a fuzzy memory, from years ago. She’d been interested in learning old school coding, mostly because she was bored and didn’t know what else to do with her time. She’d learned it from a paper book, one she found in her parents’ attic. She’d loved it. But with the BASE platform being universal and computers being totally out of fashion, it hadn’t been easy to find a way to really code. Not the way they used to do it back in the day, anyway.

Willow: Why are you talking to me?
Rotnem: You’ve seen it, right?

What was it with that question? What had she seen? She’d read too much today, and she didn’t really know what the ‘it’ was that Rotnem referred to right now, though she could guess.

Willow: Why do you want to know?
Rotnem: I need your help. I need your skills, I can’t do this on my own.
Willow: Why me?
Rotnem: Because you can see through things. You can see things that nobody else sees.

Cryptic again... Great.

Willow: How do I know I can trust you?
Rotnem: You don’t. Just like I don’t know if I can trust you.

She had to stay safe. She couldn’t just listen to some random stranger, no matter how interesting they sounded. No matter how much they seemed to know, it wasn’t exactly a secret that she’d dabbled in some old school coding back in the day. It was on her list of ‘skills’ on her profile. They could have just gotten the information from there.

Willow: I can’t do this.
Rotnem: I’m sorry. I get it.
Rotnem: I would really like your help, but I get that you can’t just trust me.
Rotnem: You need to keep yourself safe. That’s good.

Willow frowned at the screen, not sure exactly what to reply now.

Rotnem: If you want to talk to me, if you change your mind. Find me in the first game you played in BASE, look for Ilana.
Rotnem left the chat

What the…? What just happened? Was that someone who had real information for her, or were they just trying to get her to trust them with some stupid questions?

And how could her old coding skills be of any use to anyone? She’d not coded in years, at least not for anything more useful than making some quick calculators for market prices and selling points for items in DoE, but that didn’t really count.

And how did this person know where to find her? How did they know she’d seen anything at all? How were they able to get into her chat without an invite?

Was her system compromised?

Was her system already bugged? Was that how they knew?

Was that how they got to other people too? Trying to get them to trust them and then steal and break their accounts?

Was this how they worked?

Willow quickly closed all the programs she had opened. Even though she couldn’t disconnect from the BASE platform, she could at least try to close as many open apps as possible, at least close as many programs that could be sending someone information on her that she didn’t want to share.

Then she grabbed her jacket and left the apartment, left the building. She stood in the gardens again, like this morning, only, right now, it was dark, night had already fallen and the air felt suffocating, not cleansing.

Like her brain, suffocating, scared.

What was going on?

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