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4 months later

Willow leaned back on the grass in the warm evening sun, her legs over edge of the cliff, Violet at her side, and behind her the rest of her friends were milling about.

They’d finally gotten enough money together to buy a guild house in Helheim Fallen Online. They were only a small guild, so it hadn’t been that easy to get the funds. But with three people who had little problem butchering and harvesting items from creatures, it had gone faster than they originally expected it to go. Especially with some of the new obligations they’d had…

The other thing they’d found out about HF, like a lot of things in this game, even cooking had required some actual skill to make food. Sure, the low level potions and cooking recipes were simple, but as they’d reached higher levels, they actually needed some actual cooking skill to complete the food.

Helheim Fallen Online had boasted about ‘realistic’ and ‘hyper realistic’ elements to their game. And sure, there were quite a few of them, but the choices of what elements they’d made ‘realistic’ and what elements they’d just taken from the most basic RPG and MMORPG games were a little… odd.

Not that she minded this one much, Willow could cook, but she never thought that her cooking skills would actually be useful inside a videogame. Another win for ‘odd ways her life connected together’.

“Violet! Willow!” Sage dropped down on their knees behind them, wrapping an arm around their shoulders. “I know that you guys like looking out over the lake and all, but we could really use your help with the house.” They laughed and Willow looked back at them.

“So, what are you doing here then?” She raised an eyebrow at them before she got up. “Fine.”

Then she looked around, finding Dawn on the roof, looking out over them and she waved at him.

Meadow: Hey!

She hadn’t seen him come online.

Dawn: Hey! Great view!

Meadow: I know, right?

Rotnem: It would be greater if some people would help with setting up the garden sets…

Violet: Fiiiine.

Then a small dragon came rushing over, jumping on Violet and pushing her off the cliff into the water below. The dragon jumped after her.

Willow laughed as she looked at them.

With a recent update, Helheim had added autonomous pets to the game, and they’d been able to get the personality coding from Mira over into HF, as a dragon this time. Which was cool. AI personalities could be so complex, and they’d felt really bad for leaving Mira behind in DoE, so they instead moved her over to this game. With their friends and all their other things here, it didn’t seem like a good idea to leave Mira behind in the other game. It seemed unfair.

Opal: Your dragon ate the meat again.

Opal: Seriously! Do something about it!

Juniper: I don’t think you can blame her, that meat did look really good.

Opal: It was!

Willow laughed. They’d all gotten so used to playing together, Dawn and Soleil had easily fit into the rest of the group. And even though there had been times where the game had seriously grossed them out, even Juniper seemed to have gotten over her ickyness of things. Although, that could also have something to do with the way she’d fought Daryl off… She seemed to have overcome her objection to blood and gore back then.

Daryl on the other hand, and some of the other people high up in the chain of Helheim Fallen Online, hadn’t gotten off so easily.

Not only did it come to light that they had code in their game which could blitz accounts and a discriminatory sequence which would trigger it to choose who to use it on. But slowly, it had ballooned into even more. It turned out that most of that code had come not from Daryl himself, but from the engine that they built the game in. It had been a ‘super powerful’ and ‘brand new’ engine and people were really excited about using it. But after the problems with HF came to light, the whole company which had created the engine had disappeared.

When the police and BASE had tried to find out what really had happened, anyone connected to the company was gone. No trace of them, at least, not that they’d found.

It was scary to think that there were people out there who really meant for the code to be used this way, to harm people over the most innocent of things. But when the code in the engine had been found out, the company didn’t want anything to do with it anymore and they fled.

It made Willow feel like she’d always have to be cautious when trying new games now, because there would be no way to know if the same code may be in other games too.

Of course, this meant that Soleil had been making long days at BASE, trying to figure out what they could do make BASE safer and how the code could have been implemented in the first place. Previous blitzing had been done in ways that you needed to find someone’s personal ID the old-school way, but this bug or connection was able to get to it even though it shouldn’t have been. Which was really worrying.

But Soleil hadn’t been the only one hard at work since HF came out four months ago and it became known not just what Daryl had been planning with it, but also who were the ones who figured it out and fixed it. Willow and Sage had been offered jobs at BASE in the new department that did a more thorough search of the code of new programs and games that were going to be launching on the platform. Violet had gotten herself a brand new job in setting up a better way to deal with blitzed accounts and blitzing prevention and ways to support people who had been blitzed, and she’d roped Dawn into helping her out. There had been systems in place, but none of those systems accounted for the extra struggles people who were living below the poverty line or who were disabled had to deal with when trying to get their accounts back, or back up. And Opal and Juniper had both been on the forefront of creating and vetting new content for HF, Opal because he loved the game so much and Juniper because even though she’d overcome most of her squick, she still wasn’t the ‘perfect’ HF player and that made her a good resource for the game, apparently.

They’d been trying to keep their names out of the news and out of the media as much as possible, especially their in-game names, as they really wanted to be playing HF like the other players and not be flocked by other players as soon as they even appeared online. Which hadn’t been easy, and Opal had apparently used his charm on someone at HF as they’d been taken off the ‘online’ roster for the other players and their names showed as someone entirely different to anyone who wasn’t on their friends list. Just to protect them, really.

Fame was fun, but not when it wouldn’t allow them to just play and experience this game.

They’d all been really busy with life for the last months and were now finally able to get a good evening of gaming in together. They’d been exploring the game in small groups as much as they could, running some dungeons, exploring and finding new hidden skills, all the fun things. But it had been a long time since they’d all been able to play together like this.

So, tonight was the perfect night for it.

Willow walked into the guild house. In many ways it was different from what they had in DoE. For one, the style of the house and the game were totally different, Greek vs Norse mythology mattered a lot. But there were also things in which they were the same. Like the way the living room had been laid out, with a couple of big couches, and a huge fire where Willow loved to sit at with Iris and Mira.

She could see herself become comfortable in this game too, just like she’d been in DoE. She could see this become her second home, much better than the place she actually lived, of course, but also the place that she shared with the people she loved the most.

There were a few things that they still had to change or work on in the house, it was very much a work in progress. But it started to feel like home again. It started to feel like the place where she would always look forward to being. With her friends, with the people she shared her life with.

Soleil wrapped her arm around Willow’s shoulder.

Rotnem: What are you thinking?

Meadow: We did it.

Meadow: We changed lives.

She heard Soleil laugh.

Rotnem: That, you’ve certainly done.

Rotnem: Many lives.

The future of Helheim Fallen Online wasn’t certain yet. They’d kept the game online even though the accusations against people in charge of it had been severe. There were new people running it now, and they were under constant scrutiny from the government and BASE and tens of other organisations, all making sure that everything kept running smoothly. But it still wasn’t certain if the game would stay running, just because there was so much controversy around it.

Sure, the advertisements had been right. This definitely was the game of the decade, but it wasn’t clear if that was because of the game itself or all the controversy around it.

For now, Willow and her friends kept playing it, it was their place, their online home. But that could always change, digital life and the cycle of games went very fast these days.

In the last couple of weeks there had been rumours about a new type of gaming. A blend of virtual and augmented reality that was so sleek, it hadn’t been seen before, it drove the BASE implant technique to new heights and it promised a seamless experience in VR and AR gaming together.

Willow had seen a few short videos of it, and it definitely looked sleek, but she wasn’t so sure about the way it would work, at least not for games. But the thing she’d been most interested in from it was that it boasted the ability to regulate senses like in VR but in the real world, that had been a feature she’d been curious about.

Violet barged through the door, laughing as she played with Mira, they were both dry again after their splash in the lake, the ‘wet’ debuff didn’t stay on very long. Then Violet looked at Willow and Soleil, grinning.

Violet: What are you standing there for?

Violet: Opal wants us to get some new meat since Mira here ate most of it, and he insists that it’s no real summer barbecue without roasting some meat.

Violet reached out to Willow, who took her hand.

Meadow: I’ll come help.

She then took Soleil’s hand, who didn’t fight back either.

As soon as they left the house, Violet started sprinting to the nearest patch of forest, Willow and Soleil close behind.

This is what Willow loved about games the most. Playing together with people who understood her. Playing together with her friends.

And she’d rather forget that all of this had almost been gone. All of this was nearly taken from them by some strings of code.

They’d nearly been gone, their lives ruined.

But they weren’t. They’d stopped that from happening.

But to do that, they’d all changed, sometimes in invisible ways, because of all the bad things they’d gone through.

But some of those changes had been good too, the connections between her friends had gotten stronger, and that made that Willow didn’t think about all the bad, just the good.

She’d gotten her best friend back, she’d made new friends, and while life would never be the same again, she couldn’t exactly grieve it, because for the first time ever, things seemed to start to look up for her.

She wasn’t just ‘Willow, the autistic girl’, she was now ‘Willow, the unlikely hero, still autistic and still a girl, but with a better future’.

+100 real life levels on the cool scale

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EEngberts

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