Sullen faces filled the board room. There was a lot of unspoken tension in the air and it could have been cut with a knife. At the centre of it all was Quentin Bell, beaming as though it was the greatest day of his life. The assembled young men and women however looked like they wanted to leave as soon as possible. At the head of the table, watching everyone intently and trying to suppress her own happiness was Helena. All of the Paragons were in attendance, except for Scarr who was running late. They had been invited to Helena's official retirement party, but they couldn't for the life of them figure out why it was a reason to celebrate or why on earth she begged them to come in person. Idle chatter between the former professional gamers sparked up every now and again, mostly about how things were in retirement or complaining about the current state of Abidden. Many sideward glances were aimed at Quentin who merely pretended like he couldn't see them. Any idiot would have been able to see that the room was reaching a boiling point, and any idiot could have predicted what would happen next.
"What bullshit is this?"
Greaves spat as he slammed his hand down on the table. His blue eyes darted around the room, looking at each former teammate. They nodded in agreement with him. They were also confused as hell as to why they were there.
"Helena, why the hell are you so happy? Quentin, why the fuck are you walking around so much. Why are we here?"
The former General of Light growled as he clenched his fists in frustration. He didn't like being out of the loop.
"Can I please tell them?"
Helena asked Quentin in a pained voice.
"Scarr isn't here yet, so it's up to you."
"TELL US WHAT?"
Greaves roared as he got to his feet.
An awkward silence enveloped the room for the briefest moment before Varya burst out laughing. Khance also chuckled and eventually everyone in the room started to laugh at Greaves' outburst.
"Quentin is inviting us back to Abidden."
Helena answered bluntly.
Greaves fell silent and sat back in his seat. Worry covered his face and Helena knew him well enough to know that he was scared that this was some sort of trick.
It was the Paragon's former Divine Healer, Khance that gave the first answer.
"You literally sent my character to hell. Narrative used to be super important to Abidden, how the fuck do you intend on bringing us back from permadeath?"
Still laughing at Greaves' outburst, Varya, the God Blade answered next.
"Yeah, pretty sure I'm in hell with Khance. Is this some publicity thing? I'm kinda busy working with my Dad these days... so I'm going to pass."
Khance looked back at Varya and continued.
"Actually, I'm going to pass too. I don't really feel like being a Healer again."
Greaves found his voice again, but kept it civil this time.
"Now that I think about it, you already gave away my class and abilities to Ethan. There's no room for me in Abidden anymore."
Helena's smile faltered as she saw the hurt expression on Greaves' face.
A few more voices muttered about their various fates and demise in the game and the tone of the room felt like it was at rock bottom.
"Whoa, who died?"
Scarr announced as he slid into the room, a cup of tea in one hand and patchy cloak in the other. Following behind him was Dario who looked incredibly aggravated.
"Found this one in the lobby chatting to the staff."
Dario grunted as he nodded towards Scarr who merely shrugged.
"Is it a crime that I still have fans?"
Multiple faces around the room cracked into smiles at Don Orso's entrance into the room. 'The Monk' was the only Paragon that repeatedly failed the ascendancy quest, and by some miracle was one of the most popular players in the game.
Greaves wasn't smiling. His eyes were locked onto Dario, confusion was written all over his face.
Quentin didn't miss a beat and decided to announce the return of his Chief Technical Officer.
"Everyone, this is Dario Hargreaves. You may know him as Dario, Mr. H, or probably as..."
Greaves finished awkwardly in disbelief.
Quentin cleared his throat and called out.
"Locke, please start the presentation for our next expansion!"
As Dario and Quentin took their seats beside Helena, the entire room plunged into darkness. Locke had created a simulation of what the expansion would look like, to give the players an idea of what Abidden was trying to achieve. A movie played with theatrical music, featuring Helena as she led the raid into the depths of the Paragon's Tomb.
"Actually, while we're here! Does nobody else think calling it the Paragon's Tomb is a bit divisive? Like, we're not dead that long, and Helena's still alive."
Don asked loudly, his voice cutting through the silence.
"Shut up, Scarr."
"What does divisive mean?"
Varya whispered to Khance.
"Kinda like insensitive, or insulting."
Varya nodded and gave Khance a silent thumbs-up gesture.
"Greaves, you didn't tell them to shut up."
Don complained as he took another sip of his tea.
"Sounds like double-standards to me..."
"I will break that cup over your head!"
Greaves growled at his former teammate.
Dario instinctively reprimanded his son, but the damage was done.
"Yeah Freddy... calm down!"
Don laughed. He knew that Greaves was twitching in rage which only made it funnier to antagonise him.
The movie continued to play, it now showed the current Heroes traversing through the raid quickly.
A booing chant rose out from some of the Paragons, followed by some lighthearted laughter.
As the battle progressed in the video, a peculiar thing happened. A God entered the battlefield, but it wasn't one of the Gods from the Pantheon.
Khance started before going silent.
"Yes, it's the Prime Evil. It's still unnamed as of right now, we're working on it. This is just a preview of sorts."
Dario gestured lazily at the image of darkness that surrounded the raid on screen.
"Didn't myself and Varya sacrifice ourselves to seal the Prime Evil in the Underworld?"
Khance asked testily.
"Kinda looks like we died for nothing."
Varya added as she crossed her arms.
Quentin raised his hands in what he hoped was a placating gesture.
"Trust me, just wait. This will make sense soon."
The scene continued and showed the Prime Evil knocking back all of the Heroes. Only Helena stood against it in defiance.
"10k creds say they cancel each other out and Helena gets perma-death."
"I'll take that bet."
Khance answered as he tapped his wrist to initiate the trade.
The scene zoomed in to show the Prime Evil taking on a humanoid appearance. All of the players in the room watched silently as the Prime Evil spoke to Helena.
"What would it take to bring you to my side?"
Helena's character, the Celestial Archer threw her bow to one side and answered.
"Give me my friends back."
"So be it!"
The lights came back on and revealed a number of incredibly confused faces.
"So wait... we'd be coming back?"
Greaves began quietly.
"As the bad guys?"
Varya jumped up excitedly, smacking Khance on the shoulder with a massive grin on her face.
"YES, YES, YES!"
Khance rubbed his arm in mock pain and muttered dejectedly.
"I still refuse to be a healer."
Quentin picked that exact moment to interject.
"You would all be using completely new characters, with never before seen classes and abilities. We're adding a whole host of new content into Abidden, which is why Dario has come back on board to help steer this expansion in the right direction."
Don's open palm slammed down on the table, completely knocking over his teacup.
Everyone looked to the end of the table, surprised at the sudden outburst. Scarr paid them no mind as he held two fingers up.
"My conditions are that I am able to be a Beastman Ninja, and that I be given a month!"
Scarr lowered each finger whilst staring intently at Quentin.
"Why would you need a month? Oh, and you owe me 10k."
Khance asked in genuine amusement.
Scarr merely laughed as his response. It was deep and foreboding, which carried on a little too long.
When it seemed like he wasn't going to answer Khance's question, he finished his laugh with a single word.
Satisfed with that, Don leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.
"I genuinely forgot how dramatic you were,Don."
The CEO laughed as he nodded his head.
"Sure, you can be a Beastman Ninja. We need to get things up and running from our side, so it'll be a bit more time than a month to get things in order."
Don's outburst had served to lighten the mood, and there were a few smiles on the assembled group. Some of the players looked to be lost in thought at the prospect of returning as an entirely new character in the game.
"Any other crazy requests?"
Dario muttered as he looked squarely at his son.
Greaves remained still. His eyes were locked onto the table in front of him. His voice was uncharacteristically low.
"Why now? What's different? We were expendable before... and we're probably expendable again."
Quentin stood up and leaned against the wall, looking at all of the people in the room. He hadn't expected them to be won over by a simple AI presentation. Helena had warned him before the presentation that he'd need to do a lot more to convince the players to come back to the game. Dario had suggested that they hold individual meetings with each player, but Locke surprisingly suggested a large meeting. The logic was that Quentin could tell them all the truth and see how they reacted. So he decided to do just that.
"When I first made Abidden, I wanted it to be a fun environment to test the limits of our imagination. When Dario teamed up with me, he brought life into our world. Our NPC's, Environments, Cities, Quests... it all had immense depth. It was incredibly exciting, and we could have listed it as a game that anyone could play. I'll admit, I was arrogant at the time and I only wanted the best. I wanted to test the limits of the world we created. I wanted to find the greatest players from the top eSports league and give them the golden ticket to play Abidden. Exclusivity was going to be our key differentiator!"
All eyes locked onto the CEO as he started to pace around the room. It was rare for him to make speeches. He typically sent mails or video snippets that announced new gameplay or updates. Speeches were definitely not his style.
"Exclusivity ended up being our downfall. Running costs mounted, we had absolutely nothing to generate revenue and the vultures started to hover all around us. The Paragons, all of you, saved the company. Your gameplay, how you interacted with the world... it became an overnight sensation and viewers started to appreciate professional eSports players. Our game pushed the limits of VR Rigs too, which is pretty cool. That was our first partnership and we probably gave them a little too much equity if I'm honest."
Quentin's expression soured, but he caught sight of Dario who gestured at him to stop talking about that piece.
"Ah, yes, sorry. Frederick, you asked why now?"
The CEO snapped back to the original question and pointed at Greaves to indicate that he remembered what he wanted to say.
"I was advised that the board wanted to cut Helena for the roster. I realised that I had sat idly by, while everyone around me made decisions about my game. I failed each and every one of you in this room, through my own inaction and my own cowardice. I wanted to take my company back, and they told me I don't have any control over the Heroes of Abidden."
Quentin smiled as he picked up Don's discarded cup, and placed it upright.
"So we decided to create a whole new area of the game that the board has no control over. Villains."
Greaves grimaced as he looked at the faces around him.
"But what's going to be different?"
Quentin nodded his head.
"You're completely right, which is why I've decided to sell off some of my own equity in the company and give it to each of you."
Collective intakes of breath echoed around the room. Before anyone could say anything, Dario piped in.
"That also means that you won't be locked into any stupid sponsors like last time, and you will have full autonomy on how you play your characters."
It seemed like everyone exhaled at the same time, each looking around the room in complete disbelief at the situation.
"So... what do we all think?"
Quentin asked eagerly to the room.
Before anyone could give him an answer, a number of beeps and vibrations throughout the room.
Each Paragon looked at their wrist in confusion, but Khance was fastest.
"Helena, he's online!"
Helena stared at Khance for the briefest of moments before immediately activating her WristPad.
Dario and Quentin looked at each other in bewilderment.
"Frederick, what's happening?"
Dario asked his son.
Greaves started to answer, but his voice cracked slightly. Dario knew immediately that his son was fighting back his emotions at that very moment. He also realised exactly what was happening.
"Is it Travesty?"
The former Light General simply nodded his head as he stared at his wrist. His emotions were in complete turmoil.
Quentin asked, but instead of Dario it was Greaves who answered.
"Travesty was our teammate."
"He IS our teammate."
Helena corrected Greaves, her voice was strained and her eyes were locked onto the menu screen in front of her.
"He hasn't been online in over ten years. He's..."
Greaves tried to continue.
"He's the reason we're the Paragons."
Khance finished the sentence, his own voice cracking. Varya moved closer to him and placed her arm across his shoulders. Her expression unreadable.
The former Healer put his hands on his face as he tried to process what was happening.
"Could someone please explain what's happening?"
Quentin asked in exasperation.
Don made no move to open his mouth. He simply sat at the table feeling helpless.
"We won the finals to become the Paragons and the first entrants into Abidden. To get to those finals, we needed to beat another seeded team in the District, in the semi-finals."
Greaves started to explain, the power was slowly returning to his voice.
Dario rubbed his shoulder and Greaves gripped his father's hand gratefully.
"Except, in the semi-finals... we had a team-wipe. All of us died except Travesty."
Quentin blinked in surprise. He had never heard this from any of them before.
"Did he solo it?"
Helena looked up at Quentin with a somber expression.
"Yes... and it took him over forty hours to do it. The other team were able to log out and take breaks, rotate their players... but Travesty couldn't because we screwed up."
Dario shook his head as he looked down at his son.
"Forty hours? That amount of time could only result in brain damage, trauma or at the very least... hospitalisation."
Quentin looked at Dario in confusion.
"This all happened in the semi-finals of that competition and we didn't hear about it?"
Without waiting for an answer from the engineer, Quentin tilted his head upward and addressed Locke.
"Locke, can you explain why I've never heard about this?"
Elisabeth Volte, CEO of Volte Aerospace was the official sponsor for the Scumlords. She retained all media rights and pulled all footage of the fight. There was public outrage at the time, but it passed after the Paragons won the entire competition. Various sources have attempted to leak the footage of the PvP Battle, but Volte Aerospace has been highly effective in keeping it quiet. The Scumlords have since been disbanded and Volte Aerospace is no longer associated with them. Elisabeth Volte has made only one statement regarding the Scumlord defeat...
"That's enough. Thank you, Locke."
Quentin answered as he looked back at the Paragons with another question on his face.
"Did he disable the safety features in his rig? Being able to bypass something like that is no joke. It should have ejected him after eight to ten hours of play."
Helena slammed her hand on the table.
"None of that matters right now. He's online! Can we please just focus on that!"
Her tone was cutting, and Quentin saw a completely different side to Helena in that moment.
The CEO raised his hands in what he hoped was a placating gesture.
"I'm sorry, Helena. Myself and Dario are just hearing all of this for the first time and we're trying to understand it."
Helena gritted her teeth as she answered.
"We stupidly just waited for him to come back online. After a couple of days, we checked the hospitals... all we knew was his gamertag and that he was C-Class."
The former General of Light growled defensively before cupping his face in his hands.
Dario rubbed his son's shoulder and tried to ressure him.
"Hey! Come on, If his profile is online it means that he's alive! Helena, request his legal name and location!"
Helena nodded her head and everyone in the room sat still in an eerie silence.
Even Don remained respectfully quiet, concern written all over his face as he gripped his cloak in his hands.
A few moments later, a singular vibration caused everyone to look at their wrists in reflex.
Helena's voice tumbled out in a torrent of emotion and disbelief.
"He accepted the request!"
A collective cheer burst out of the group which shook both Quentin and Dario.
Quentin asked aloud.
Found him. His licence has been blacklisted, it's being verified by DV8 Cafe... and looks like they're exploiting it to allow him to play a match.
Helena took a steady breath before her eyes shot up.
"Locke, can you search all public databases for any record of James Sylvester."
James Sylvester. E-Class. Unemployed. Place of residence is listed as: 'Building 516'.
"But he's a C-Class, are you sure?"
Helena frowned as she looked around the room, almost as if she wanted the reassurance.
Yes. There is only one James Sylvester on record. He was unable to contest his drop in societal rank due to being committed to a private clinic.
Helena hesitated when she heard that he was committed.
"Locke... you heard us talking about Trave-, I mean... James! What are the chances that he's going to be the same person we remember?"
At those words, Greaves put his hands over his ears and lowered his head to the table as if it would shield him from the answer.
Before the AI could respond to the question, Quentin raised his voice.
"Locke, don't answer that question. Send a transport around to the front of the building."
Quentin looked at worried Paragons with a resolute expression on his face.
"Lets go. We're going to that Cafe!"