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Willow shook her head, sitting down on the couch and staring up at Soleil. The look in Soleil’s eyes… She wasn’t here for fun either, and it was much too early for her to come pick her up to go see Violet. Soleil already knew something bad was going on.

Soleil slowly stepped inside, closing the door behind her, and then sat down next to Willow, not saying anything yet. After a while, her fingers moved in the air, and a notification showed up in Willow’s view.

Rotnem: We need to move quickly, we can’t wait too long.

Willow: Move quickly?

Rotnem: If we want Sage’s account data, we need to get to their account before it backs up and we lose the access forever.

Of course, the data from Sage’s account would get fully corrupted if they didn’t get to it soon enough. And if that happened, they wouldn’t be able to track Sage down, find out where they lived and maybe even help her. Plus, Sage also had information for them that could maybe help them out…

Willow nodded, standing up, going back to her bedroom, Soleil following her.

“I’m so sorry.” Soleil looked at her, her eyes sad. “I’m really sorry.”

Willow just nodded at her, not sure what she could do about it right now, not sure how to answer. She hadn’t just lost one friend, she’d lost two by now and she didn’t know if or when she’d lose more. Willow put the VR headset on and immediately logged onto DoE. She was standing in the living room of the guild house, and it was eerily quiet around her.

Then a message appeared in the guild chat.

Opal: We’re out back.

Willow made her way to the back of the guild house, going outside, and she didn’t need any more clues about what was going on as there was a distinctive glitching blob right at the back of the house’s garden.

Sage!

Willow: Are you sure it’s them?

It could technically be anyone, it didn’t have to be Sage.

Opal landed at her side, probably having jumped from the roof, where he tended to hang out.

Opal: I saw it happen.

Opal: We were talking and they just disappeared.

Oh, no!

Willow: How long ago?

Opal: Just a few minutes.

Okay, so the system shouldn’t be backed up yet. Shouldn’t being the important word here.

She went into the BASE chat she ran with Soleil, glad that in DoE she had access to it, unlike in HF.

Willow: Can you track the ID? I’m here.

Rotnem: I’ll send a mod your way, I already notified someone to stand by and they will be there soon.

Willow: Okay.

And if they could get to Sage’s ID, then what could they do? They could probably find Sage, but more than just finding out some data about them would get complicated, right?

Willow walked over to the blob that now represented Sage. In HF she could see the broken code, but she didn’t have that type of access here in DoE, sadly enough.

An elven woman walked into the garden, looking at them and then at the blob. “You’re with Rotnem?”

Willow nodded. “Yeah. We… This is our friend. Please, help.” Even conversations confused her now.

“I’ll see what I can do.” The woman walked over to where Willow was standing and pulled out a tool and seemed to ‘scan’ the blob.

Willow couldn’t see what was going on on the screen of the tool, but she didn’t like the way the woman was frowning.

“And?” Opal came closer too, moving carefully.

The woman looked at them. “We’re right on time. I can get the ID, I will send it to Rotnem immediately. I’m so sorry about this.”

Opal shrugged. But Willow’s chest hurt too much to think or even want to consider what had happened, what Sage had found that someone blitzed them like this. Violet had said that sometimes people would blitz others just to get back at them for something, but the fact that Sage had said something about having information for Willow, it didn’t seem likely that Sage’s blitzing didn’t have anything to do with the blitzing of people connected to HF.

The woman looked at her. “It will be okay. I’m getting Rotnem the data and then we can find out where they lived and get them help. It will be okay.”

Willow shook her head. “It will never be okay.” Then she walked out of the garden into the fields behind the house, trying to gather her mind.

Rotnem: Where are you going? Aren’t you coming back?

Willow: And then what?

Rotnem: We can find Sage.

Willow: There isn’t anything I can do right now.

Willow: All my friends are disappearing.

“Willow?” Opal’s voice came from behind her.

She turned around, finding her friend looking at her with worry in his eyes.

“How can we help? What can we do?” He almost whispered the words as he stepped closer.

“I don’t know,” she whispered back, finally voicing her fears. “I have no idea.”

She’d thought that if they found another blitzed account that she would know what to do next. But it wasn’t just another person, Sage was blitzed. Sage, who she’d known for years. Sage, one of her closest friends. Slowly, everyone she loved was taken away from her and she didn’t know what to do anymore, paralysed by fear.

She just didn’t know anymore, everything too overwhelming, too much pulling on her when she had no idea what she could even do anymore.

First, Violet. Now, Sage. Who else was she going to lose before this was all over?

***

When Willow came back to the real world, Soleil was still sitting there, waiting for her to come back.

“Hey.” Soleil’s voice was low, weary.

“Hey.” Willow nodded, sitting up and putting her headset aside. “I’m sorry.”

Soleil shook her head. “Don’t be. I can’t imagine the things going through you, how hard this is.”

“Any news?”

Soleil nodded as she stood up. “We were able to track their BASE ID to their personal ID and someone I know is going over to their place right now.”

“Can we go too?” She wanted to see Sage, she wanted to hold them, make sure that they were really okay.

Soleil shook her head. “It’s too far. It would take four hours by plane just to get there. I’m sorry.”

Willow nodded. She wasn’t always so lucky as she’d been with Violet, apparently. “And now?”

“I’ll get a notification about Sage soon. For now, all we can do is to try and figure out what to do from this side. How we can connect HF to the disappearances.”

“Yeah.” She sighed. Like that was so easy. It felt like everything she was trying to wade through when it came to HF got more complicated every time she looked at it.

Soleil touched the top of her head for a moment. “I think I’ve got an idea.”

“What idea?” Her head was just going around in circles, not really getting anywhere.

“Your friend in HF. Dawn, right?”

Willow nodded. “What about him?”

“Can you get him to help you out?”

“How? I don’t know anything that he can even help me with.”

“Get him to help you level up and then maybe he’ll be able to help when you actually go face whatever it is that you need to face when we do find out what to do.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a plan.” Willow raised her eyebrows at Soleil. It was basically the plan they’d been running since the start…

“It’s better than sitting around not knowing what to do. If you trust him enough, you could even tell him a little about what’s going on.”

“I already did…” She sighed. “I’ve told him a few things about what is or may be going on, but then you were at the door and I couldn’t tell him more.”

“Okay…” Soleil kneeled in front of her. “Then, go back. Having at least one other player at your side in that game is going to be useful. It may even just let you get distracted from what’s going on here.”

“And what when you find something? When you hear about Sage?” She didn’t know if that was a good idea.

“I’ll let you know. And I’ll also come back here later so we can get Violet her computer together. But for now… I think it’s better if we stay on plan, which means, you need to level up more.” Soleil looked serious.

“Yeah…” Willow let out a low growl. “I guess.”

“You can do it. It’s just for a few hours. We should know more later tonight.” Soleil tried to smile a little. “I’m going to go, see if I can get some of my own stuff done. I’ll let you know more as soon as I have it.”

“Okay.” Willow put her headset on again. “I guess I’ll see you later.”

There was still this tension in her stomach over Sage and over not knowing how to go forward. But Soleil’s plan made sense, she was going to have to level up as much as she could, if only to make sure she had more power when she had to face whatever was going on.

She logged onto HF and as she materialised in the world, she was still at the edge of the frozen lake, though Dawn wasn’t anywhere in sight…

***

Willow wandered through the city, going from NPC to NPC, running a couple of quests, handing them in, grabbing new ones. She didn’t really feel like fighting anything and the quests were here anyway.

[Dawn logged on]

Dawn: Hey.

Meadow: Hey.

What was she going to say now? What could she say after what she told him earlier?

Dawn: What happened? You suddenly logged off.

How could she tell him? How much did she trust him?

Meadow: A friend was in trouble. I had to take care of a couple of things.

Dawn: Are they okay?

Meadow: Hopefully. I don’t know yet.

And now she didn’t know what else to explain him, what to tell him. She handed in the final quest in her log with an NPC and then looked around. What could she do next?

Dawn: Do you want to kill some mobs?

Meadow: Sure, where?

Dawn: Meet me at the gates, we’ll go there together.

Willow started walking, pushing through the city. The crowds were totally gone now, everything back to normal, like nothing had happened this morning. Like Willow’s life hadn’t just changed even more, just in a handful of minutes.

When she reached the gates, she barely recognised Dawn, he was wearing thick armour and held a huge sword.

He smiled when he saw her.

Dawn: I thought that trying out a secondary class would be a good idea for you right about now.

Meadow: A new class?

Dawn: Yeah, you can choose a secondary class by now. What would you like?

Willow looked Dawn over, at how strong he looked like this, at how fierce he almost looked.

Meadow: Something warrior-like?

Dawn nodded.

Dawn: I can get you that.

He opened a trading window with her and filled it with a huge sword and some gear for her level.

She accepted the trade and the items appeared in her inventory.

Then she equipped the sword and the gear, her whole body getting heavier instantly. If she couldn’t get her frustrations out some other way, she could at least get it out this way, by using her body.

Meadow: How did you know?

Dawn shrugged.

Dawn: You looked like you could use a way to get rid of frustrations, right?

She nodded.

Dawn: Follow me.

They walked down the path, back to the starter zone, but they didn’t cross the bridge, instead walking up to the wolves there.

Dawn: Go ahead, attack them.

Willow grabbed her sword with two hands, lifting it before she made a couple of swings. She wasn’t used to playing warrior classes, but it couldn’t be that bad, right?

Then she took a couple of steps towards the nearest wolf, who automatically targeted her.

She let out a loud yell and swung the sword, landing it on the wolf’s head.

If she couldn’t let her frustration out some other way, she could at least try it this way.

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