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Willow looked over her group of friends. Everyone had been able to get into the game, they were finally complete again. They were finally all together in the same game.

Violet had chosen an elven hunter, beautiful and deadly, like Juniper, and Sage was a human mage, which surprised Willow a little, Sage tended to choose unique races when playing, but now chose the most plain race there was, although, their fylgja was a huge bear, which was interesting. But, all in all, they turned out to be a colourful bunch of players. Everyone had finished the starter quests around the encampment and they were about to go out into the world to kill some wolves.

Violet: Anything we have to watch out for?

Meadow: Make sure you don't get sneaked up on from behind? But that's kind of useless right now…

Violet grinned her way and Willow grinned back. Yeah, well, as a solo player, that was kind of a worry.

Sage: That Wolf?

They pointed at one of the wolves that was standing a while off. Everyone else went into their attack stance as Sage's bear and Opal ran at the wolf, almost as if they were trying to outrun each other.

[Bear hit the Dire Wolf for 10 damage]

[Opal hit the Dire Wolf for 12 damage]

Then the range attacks also hit it as the wolf focused on Sage's bear.

[Juniper hit the Dire Wolf for 14 damage]

[Sage hit the Dire Wolf for 13 damage]

[Violet hit the Dire Wolf for 14 damage]

[Opal hit the Dire Wolf for 12 damage]

[+ 2 XP]

And then it fell down, curling up with a low moan. Next to her Willow saw Juniper's face fall, as she watched the movements. If Juniper thought that was bad…

Meadow: Butcher it, Opal, you need the meat for the quests.

Opal: How?

Dawn: Grab your butchering knife, and make a cut down the belly of the wolf. Put some pressure behind it.

Opal knelt down on the belly side of the wolf and Willow winced, knowing what was about to happen. He took the knife, running it over the belly of the wolf, like he would do in DoE, but nothing happened, and he looked up at them, frowning.

Meadow: Harder.

Opal raised an eyebrow, but then really put some strength behind it, the knife disappearing into the stomach of the wolf as he cut it open. The guts and blood flowed over his hand as he did so and his eyes grew as he finished the slice, a mixture of curiosity and apprehension on his face.

Next to her, Juniper retched and she could even see Sage turn away from what was going on, looking a little less certain about the ‘hyper-realistic’ gameplay that HF had been boasting now.

Dawn: You'll need a strong stomach for some parts of the game.

Juniper: Are you kidding me?

Opal: Gruesome!

Opal: What?!

Opal: This is wicked.

At least someone was enjoying themselves apparently.

When Willow glanced Violet's way, Violet looked at it with calculated interest, and then Violet eyed her. Willow could almost see the numbers run through her head.

Violet: I suspect that not many people take on butchering?

Dawn: Not many, no.

Violet: So it sells well on the marketplace?

Dawn: You're obviously friends with Meadow…

Willow didn’t need to hear his voice to know that Dawn didn’t fully mean that as a compliment. Violet looked at her, smirking. Of course they were.

Then Dawn let out a sigh.

Dawn: Yes, meat and leather sells pretty well. Few people have the stomach for this day in, day out.

Opal: Cool! I think I'm starting to like this game.

Juniper shuddered.

Juniper: Not me. Tell me there is something cool about this game…

Meadow: There is, don't worry.

Opal: Next wolf!

Maybe he was a little too interested in it…

Well, at least the quests would be quicker to complete now they were playing as a team instead of on their own. Things like killing a certain amount of wolves would be much faster, but the gathering quests could still take a while. There was always a payoff in these things.

Meadow: Next wolf.

She felt at home again, surrounded by her friends.

She felt like everything was right again, even though everything was wrong, so wrong.

***

Willow threw one of her elemental bolts at a goshawk as it came flying for them.

[You hit the Goshawk for 126 damage]

[+ 3 XP]

And it crumbled at her feet into a pile of feathers and odd angles. It wasn't much use for her to really join it, the XP she got was only minimal, but that didn't matter. She just had to do something, she didn't just want to stand around not doing anything. That was boring, and she wasn't here for boring stuff.

Getting through the starter quests did indeed go a lot faster than when she was on her own. There weren't as many new players around them anymore, as they'd progressed through the content a little faster than most, so they got a little more freedom as to how many creatures they could fight at a time, fewer of them were now being killed by other players.

Willow stopped as they reached the area where she'd found the corpses of the maimed NPCs before.

Meadow: I want to show you guys something…

She started walking to the area, slowly getting there as the corpses came into view. They were exactly the same as last time. Thrown about the place like they were dolls someone had gotten tired of playing with, rotting and decomposed dolls…

Meadow: This is actually for a quest you'll either get soon or have already picked up.

She couldn't exactly remember the order but they should be needing this for a quest soon-ish. She watched as the others looked over the corpses, the recognition of the different playable races and classes setting in. Juniper definitely didn’t look very happy…

Meadow: But what I really want to show you is a little further along.

She walked along the edge of the tree line and at her side, Iris began to growl again, as she had done before. Then they turned a corner and stood in front of the cave again. Just looking at it gave her a strange feeling in her stomach, a mixture of excitement and dread. Sage's bear began to growl too, its detection range a little more limited, probably because it wasn't a creature with a ranged attack, instead it only had melee attacks.

Violet: What's in there?

Meadow: Something… odd.

Meadow: Keep your eyes open.

She started to walk into the cave, first her eyes going to where the blitzed player had been, hoping that it was gone by now. But as they approached the location, she saw the black blob again. The blitzed player was still here, days after she'd first found found them.

Dawn: What the?!

Dawn: Is this…

Violet: Yes, the remnants of a blitzed account.

It hadn’t been cleaned up yet, which meant that they were probably not even aware it was here.

Willow saw Violet come closer, her hand slowly sliding into Willow's. And then a new message showed up, but not in the chat, in a private message instead.

Violet: I'm so sorry this all happened. I can't believe you've been fighting in this world all on your own, just to find out what was going on.

Meadow: Thanks. It's been… Soleil has been trying to help as much as she could, but this is…

Voilet: Yeah…

Violet: I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have been at your side, helping you out. It’s unfair that you had nobody around.

Violet squeezed Willow’s hand a moment before she let her go.

Yeah, out of everything, one thing she'd really missed was having Violet here with her. Willow wasn't much of a fighter, but Violet was enough of a fighter for the both of them.

Sage: Where does the cave go?

Willow looked on.

Willow: I can show you, but you may want a strong-ish stomach for that.

Dawn: Really? This actually goes somewhere?

Dawn: I just thought that it was a cool thing to explore. It gets really dark at some point and I assumed that there would be a wall by then, so I stopped.

Dawn: But there really is more there?

Willow: Yep.

As she started walking again, Violet slid her hand into hers and walked next to her, Sage close by on her other side, and the rest behind them. She wasn't sure if it was safer or more dangerous to go in there as a group, but they would find out soon enough.

The cave darkened until it was pitch black, before it became illuminated with a yellow glow and the torches showed up on the walls beside them soon after. The sounds of the trolls became louder as they walked down, even with Willow’s lowered settings. It took them a couple of minutes before they reached the end of the cave, the sounds now loud and strong.

Willow pointed up.

Meadow: If you climb up there you can look in. You may want to keep your pet back tough.

She didn't need to look into the troll’s cave again, the memories of the first time she'd seen them still clear enough in her mind, but the others all climbed up to the window.

Dawn: Wow.

Opal: Scary! Big!

Well, yes. Definitely that. The trolls were impressively big, that was for sure.

A private message showed up.

Sage: Come up here, I need to show you something.

Willow looked up at Sage, who was frowning, looking really worried now. That was no good… She climbed up to the window, right next to Sage, Sage put their arm around her shoulder and then pointed to something at the back wall.

Sage: That symbol is an early version of the HF logo.

What? She looked at it again, but it didn't look familiar to her in the slightest.

Meadow: Are you sure?

Willow eyed the trolls. Their status bars still showed them as way too high level for her to beat, and maybe they would always show that, no matter what level she got.

That was a worrying thought.

Sage moved a little, holding up a screen in front of them. Willow recognised it as the same screen she got from the mod’s potato. She grabbed her own potato and then held up the X-ray vision to the cave. The trolls looked just like regular monsters, nothing strange there, and the code for them didn't reveal much. They had a lot of HP and they were weak to some gaming elements, but that was about it. What was much more interesting was the way her screen showed there to be much more coding and things going on around the symbol than just the image on the wall that they could normally see.

Meadow: What do you think it is?

Sage: I have no idea, but it looks interesting.

Willow tried to scan the code with her eyes, and then moved the screen lower, to the empty space underneath the symbol. There was a door hidden below it. A door to somewhere else, a part of the game that was closed off from the outside, she couldn't see anything beyond just the front right now.

Meadow: You said something about a special area in the game where they could run code and things?

She felt Sage nod.

Meadow: I see a hidden area, guarded by trolls that will probably scare off anyone coming close.

Like it had scared her off the first time around. Willow looked at her friends.

Meadow: Dawn, can you see the level on the trolls?

He was a couple of levels higher than she was, so it was worth a try. But Dawn shook his head.

Dawn: Nothing. Just generic too high level symbol.

Willow looked at the trolls through her screen again, finding the actual level of them. The trolls were level 99. The highest level anyone in the game could currently be was just 50. To this was in place for a specific reason, to make sure nobody passed them. That scared her but also gave her some courage, that meant that they definitely had to check out what was going on behind that door.

Meadow: Okay, let's get back out.

Because just being here, while the trolls were eating NPC parts for their meal and just walking and sitting around, it didn't make her feel much safer. She had the feeling that if they got too close, they would still pull aggro on them. And they were nothing against the trolls as they were now.

Everyone carefully made their way out of the cave as quickly as possible. Then they rushed past the butchered NPCs. They only dared to breathe again after they'd left all of that behind.

Willow was the first one to burst out laughing, all the tension draining from her body. They must have looked ridiculous, sneaking around like that, trying to be as fast as possible without being heard or for some other way to trigger the trolls or whatever else could be in that cave.

But they had learned something new.

Sage had been right. There was a hidden area in this game, an area they couldn't just reach because it was guarded by mobs that should not be able to exist, at least, their levels were well beyond the range that should be possible right now.

Was that an abandoned area that they'd developed and then just forgotten about, or was there more to it? Was it an area that wasn't supposed to be found? And who would need something like that? Who would use it?

Why would they leave something like that available in the game? And was there a different reason for the blitzed account in front of the cave than just being caught up in the blitzing because of having a criminal record?

The place had creeped her out before, but now… It left her with even more questions, and not a good feeling about what they had to do to answer them.

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