The ride to Nodol was proving to be fairly relaxing. Travel times in SOO could be fairly long, but the game made up for it by giving players so many things to do while traveling.
Most crafting professions could work in stagecoaches, and players could take control of their coach to ride around the countryside, too. Sometimes fun quests or rare loot could be found by just randomly exploring. However, most players chose to take advantage of the downtime to prepare potions, or weapons, or read books like Vale was.
The grimoire Vale was reading was very high level. He actually hadn’t even been sure he’d get anything useful from it, but the portions he could decipher about “elemental” with the more familiar body magic sigils had piqued his interest.
The huge leather-bound volume was open in his lap. Runes on the thick vellum glowed a sickly green. So far, he hadn’t gotten any enlightenment, only a splitting headache.
He took a break to check his character sheet. He decided he needed to pay better attention to individual system messages. Defeating the six ruffians in Gabenz had given him a nice boost in XP. In fact, it’d given him a rather unbelievable increase from one fight.
He’d gone up by exactly 10,000 XP! It was an insane increase, and the fact it was an even number was bizarre too. Vale frowned but then shrugged and smiled. One of his system messages informed him that he’d gotten extra XP for combat “flourishes.” It seemed he got bonuses for being flashy and taking on such long odds. Vale nodded. The bonuses explained how Brutus stayed so powerful despite just dueling all the time.
Now his character sheet read:
Name: Vale dePardon
Hero Class: *At level 20*
Legendary Class: Air Adept
XP to next level: 59458
Vale was about to try reading his grimoire again when the entire coach lurched to the side. A deafening explosion exerted physical pressure on his ears and body. The vehicle righted itself, and Vale became aware of the sounds of pursuit. Judging by the clopping of all the horse hooves, there had to be more than one other stagecoach out there. Vale’s NPC driver started yelling and cursing.
Vale blinked in surprise, but his hard-won instincts after playing SOO for a year kicked in. He stuffed the grimoire into his inventory, an internal storage for a limited number of non-weapon items, and stuck his head out the window.
He almost got nailed by a flaming crossbow bolt that sped past into the night before exploding somewhat beyond his coach.
“Shit!” he hollered.
He ducked his head back into the stagecoach and thought furiously about what to do. In his brief glance outside, he’d seen at least three other stagecoaches chasing him. The fact his vehicle wasn’t already splinters was proof they wanted him alive.
Shit! Shit! Shit!
Suddenly, one door of his stagecoach opened and an Asian girl crawled in. She closed the door, dusted herself off, and said, “You look like you could use some help.”
She sat down and opened a powder mirror to check her appearance before nodding in satisfaction. She crossed her legs and looked at Vale expectantly.
Vale’s mouth hung open. Where the hell had this girl come from?
She was wearing green and her hair was dyed blonde. Her dark eyes had subtle eye shadow and some artistic eye liner lines. She wore an underbust corset, bloomer shorts, and leather boots to her knees. Vale caught the glint of a pistol attached to her corset.
She wore leather bracers with girly ruffles at both ends, and strange contraptions attached. She had gizmos attached to her boots, too. She wore a top hat with goggles attached.
Oh no, a steampunk girl, thought Vale.
“Are you going to respond, or just stare at me?” the girl asked, arching an eyebrow.
Another explosion rocked the stagecoach and Vale cursed. “What the hell? How the hell did you get in here?”
The girl gave him a blank look and asked, “Is that really important right now? There are people attacking you. I doubt they care much about me, Vale. I’m nobody.”
“Wait, how do you know my name?”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Seriously? You’ve been all over the news for like three days straight. Everyone knows who you are. I’m Abigail. It would have been polite to ask my name.”
An explosive crossbow bolt detonated on the ground outside, throwing dirt and rocks through the open windows. “Why are you here, though?” asked Vale. “Why do you want to help?”
“I was bored and I don’t have a group.” Abigail shrugged. “You seemed interesting. Now are you going to get your happy ass forward to steer this thing, or are you going to keep looking like a fish out of water? I really thought you’d be cooler than this.”
Vale was already on the outside of the stagecoach and halfway to the driver’s seat when he paused for a second. What the hell am I doing? This girl was dangerous. He was weak against her; she’d just ordered him around and…he’d done what she said. Plus, she was one of those weirdo steampunk players. Nobody understood those people.
After Vale was in the driver’s seat, the stagecoach automatically gave him control. The NPC who’d been driving before sat still, existing in a dormant state. Vale spurred the horses faster and turned off on a smaller road than the one they’d been travelling. Right as the stagecoach turned, another explosive bolt whizzed by, blowing up against a tree trunk.
Damn. What the hell? Vale looked back and confirmed that three other stagecoaches were chasing him. They all had dark-dressed people in white masks hanging out the windows. All of them held weapons. A small man with a huge crossbow, presumably the one shooting exploding bolts, was on top of the first coach.
Some of the masked attackers hanging out the windows had pistols. They occasionally fired, probably trying to hit Vale’s coach’s wheels, but the bullets whizzed out into the night, hitting nothing of importance. As usual, people with guns in-game were not hitting shit.
Out the corner of his eye, he saw Abigail lean out the window of his stagecoach. She was holding a large pistol. Ugh, another person with guns, thought Vale. Why do people keep using them? They suck for—
Abigail fired, and the man with the crossbow lost part of his head. The bullet had neatly punched through the bridge of his nose. The man slowly slumped forward and fell off the stagecoach with his crossbow before the rest of his comrades knew what had happened. Abigail turned the barrels on her pistol, cocked a hammer back, took careful aim, and fired again. Another white-masked man died.
Vale swallowed and turned back to driving for a moment. He’d let Abigail handle their pursuers. He still didn’t trust her, and the way she had shown up was suspicious as hell. However, she was doing a lot better killing at range than he could, especially while he was driving.
After all the players driving were down, the other attackers had learned to keep their heads down. This allowed Abigail to start targeting the NPC drivers. She produced a large, single-shot pistol to kill the first driver. If anything, she seemed even more accurate and devastating with the larger weapon.
Eventually, she’d killed all the drivers, and none of the players could take control of the vehicles again. They tried to fire back, but none of the bullets even hit the stagecoach, much less Abigail. Vale was deeply impressed. Abigail was single-handedly locking down three groups of thugs with nothing but a few pistols.
With no direction, the other stagecoaches veered off the road and the horses randomly carried them away. Vale spurred his own coach on, trying to lose all his attackers before they could pick up the chase again.
He succeeded, or at least by the time he drew near Nodol, there was no sign of any further pursuit. Vale parked his coach properly; he did not want to be forced to eat a fine from the in-game transportation company. He grabbed Abigail by the arm and pulled her along towards a handy alley. He kept a wary eye on where her hands and pistols were, but otherwise didn’t say anything.
Abigail tittered and said, “Oh, this is much more how I expected you to be. All manly and take charge, Mr. Killing-Handfuls-of-People-in-Alleys. Oh, that’s an alley, right? Do you have more people to kill?”
Vale rolled his eyes. The girl was trying to tease him, and not doing a particularly good job of it. He supposed she had a point, though. If someone didn’t know anything about him other than seeing his beast mode video or hearing that he’d killed Brutus one on one, they’d probably have a bunch of strange preconceptions.
Once Vale had Abigail in the alley with him, he got his second good look at her. She was average height, average weight, and she was actually pretty cute, especially while smiling—even if her smile was currently mocking. He idly wondered how close Abigail’s avatar was to her player. She could be an old man in real life.
He checked her physicaldex, the score the game displayed on request for avatar similarity to their player. She was a 9/10, the same as Vale. That meant she was very close to her real-life appearance, with only minor changes.
Vale’s 9/10 was because he changed a few minor facial features and adjusted a couple tiny measurements, but he was still basically him. The changes altered just enough to prevent someone from discovering who he was with a facial scan.
The system wasn’t perfect; the numbers could seem arbitrary. However, the physicaldex definitely helped a lot, especially with players who wanted to have in-game sex. Yggdrasil Entertainment had decided that an element of consent for in-game sex was to allow each party to know how close each avatar was to their player.
A player choosing to play as a different gender would automatically get no higher than a 5/10 on the ‘dex unless their character identified as transgender and their player did too. The system was actually fairly complex, and would not have been possible without persocomp interface.
“Okay, spill,” snarled Vale. Now that his feet were on solid ground, he was much more confident in his abilities. Abigail seemed to sense how the balance of power had shifted, too, because her expression sobered.
Abigail answered, “I was telling the truth earlier. I was bored and I wanted a change. You seemed interesting. I liked your video.”
Abigail grinned but Vale wasn’t having it. “That makes no sense. How did you find me and just happen to pop in the door of a moving stagecoach?”
Abigail looked at Vale like he was stupid. “I could recognize that your video took place in Gabenz. Then all I had to do was stay in-game in town and watch for a guy with a really pretty rapier who was also trying to hide his appearance. You completely suck at staying undetected, you know that?”
“Okay, then how did you just magically appear in my stagecoach?”
“I hitched a ride on the back of it.” Abigail shrugged. “I wanted to see where you were going before I asked if I could join you. I started moving around to the side when I saw your admirers pulling up from behind. I’m just glad the asshole shooting explosive bolts didn’t hit me—but he still had to be the first to die. He could have gotten my clothes dirty, and some of this stuff took forever to make.”
Vale pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay, fine. But not to be conceited here, I’m one of the most powerful players in the game right now. I don’t even have a real group yet. If I formed one, what in the world could you offer for me to let you join?”
“Well, you were right that you sound like a conceited ass—”
“I didn’t say ass.”
“I’m adlibbing, let me finish,” said Abigail. “Anyway, first of all, I think I just demonstrated I’m pretty good at ranged fighting. Second, I am level ten.”
She had Vale’s attention. “Oh? What is your class and subclass?”
Abigail looked smug. “I chose Technician for my class. My new subclass is Artificer. That’s how I was able to craft these babies.” She gestured at her exotic-looking pistols. “I don’t have quite the destructive ability of a Powdermancer subclass, but I have a lot wider range of stuff I can make.”
Goddamn steampunk people, thought Vale. He eyed Abigail critically. He still didn’t trust her, but she had helped him out of a sticky situation. She’d also made him realize how dumb he’d been. He needed a way to disguise himself, and maybe the strange girl could help.
Vale made a choice. He said, “Okay, you can tag along for today, but you’re on probation. I am not making you a permanent member of my group yet.”
“Ooooh, this is going to be so much fun!” Abigail smiled and clapped her hands. “Let’s add each other as friends right now so we can private message and stuff. You have your account settings set to private.”
Vale already regretted his decision.