Brutus stood in the entryway to the tunnel in front of the ladder, a massive two-handed sword in his hands. He was wearing full armor and had a trench coat over it. His gaze was unwavering and fixed on Vale. He had on a helmet; an old, full-faced medieval-style one.
Vale’s entire group had stopped and were all standing very still. Bartholomew said from the side of his mouth, “I thought you had radar or [Paranoia] skill or something.”
“I do. Nothing went off.”
“Yes, I know about your [Paranoia] skill now, Vale dePardon,” said Brutus. “It wasn’t triggered because I mean you no harm. I probably should cut you down on general principle, for multiple reasons, really. However, I am here just to talk.”
“Then why do you have a big-assed sword out?” asked Abigail. “That is not exactly friendly.”
Brutus smiled. “I’m making an effort right now not to get angry. See, last time I found Vale to talk, I wasn’t even in a threatening posture. That cowardly Occultist bastard didn’t even wait to hear what I had to say. He ran forward while using magic and stuck his sword through my head.”
Bart turned to look at Vale. “Wait, I thought you guys fought.”
Brutus snorted. “Hardly.”
“You killed Brutus in cold blood?” asked Abbey.
“I thought you were defending yourself.” Bart crossed his arms.
“Look, my [Paranoia] skill was going off like crazy! It was him or me!” Vale scowled.
“I learned about the [Paranoia] skill while I was dead for a week. I’m betting you have it specifically targeting me,” said Brutus.
“Is that true?” asked Abigail.
“Well, yes, but the skill was still telling me I was in danger!”
“That’s because specifically adding a player to your target list makes the skill more sensitive. I was extremely irritated at the time, but I still just wanted to talk when I caught up with you. I mean, who wouldn’t be angry? You had been running from me every time I tried to talk to you, and you stole that map months ago when we were grouped up.”
“What?” asked Bart, his voice flat.
“Vale joined me, my sister, and a couple other players on a group quest. The chain was long and hard. We needed an Occultist, and Vale is one of the best English-speaking players at translating in-game glyphs. When we got to the end of the quest chain, he stole a map. The thing was, nobody else could read it, so we probably would have given it to him anyway. For a while after that, I looked around for him, but I eventually gave up. I’ll admit if I’d caught him, I would have killed him.”
Abigail turned to Vale and gasped. “You were a ninja looter!”
Bart nodded sagely. “Ninja looter. I always knew he had it in him.”
Vale clenched his teeth and growled, “If you gave up, then why were you still chasing me?”
“Because now my sister is missing. I haven’t seen her in real life for a couple months, and I haven’t been able to find her in-game, either. I wanted your help just finding her. There is a clue I need an Occultist to help with. Most players with your class just sit around cities all day. They don’t really go out in the field. Plus, you’ve met my sister and worked with her before, too.”
“But now what changed?” Vale quirked an eyebrow.
“Now you’re a streamer. My sister has had her private messages and mail turned off. She’s made herself hard to find, and I think she’s in trouble. I have an idea of what she’s trying to do. I’ll tell you after we find her.”
“Okay, this isn’t adding up,” grumbled Abigail.
“Yeah, what exactly are you proposing?” asked Vale. “Why me?”
Brutus dropped the tip of his sword and leaned on the crossguard. “My proposal is you help me find my sister. You invite me into your group, then you invite her after we find her. This will make us famous streamers. Then—”
“Famous streamers? But you already are famous!” exclaimed Vale. “You could just start your own stream!”
“Yes, I am well known, but it’s not the same kind of fame. I’m infamous, not loved. And my sister is not known at all. I want her to be famous, for protection. I’m also assuming you’re protected somewhere by your contract company? If that is the case, I want my sister to move to your location with you. I want us both to be on your team.”
“You know I’m streaming right now. This is being recorded.”
“Yes, I know,” replied Brutus. “That’s why I speaking so generally. I will tell you more if and when we can talk in person.”
“Okay, how do we know you’re on the level?” Vale was skeptical. There is no way this guy is for real, he thought.
“Yeah,” chuckled Bartholomew. “Plus, you’re at a disadvantage. It’s three on one and—”
Suddenly, Brutus moved. He was so fast, Vale could barely track his movement. He covered the entire distance before anyone else could react and had his big sword to Bart’s throat. “You were saying?” Brutus growled.
Everyone stood still for a moment, and Abbey squeaked, “Vale, how did you beat this guy again?”
“He didn’t,” said Brutus. “I was caught off guard, same as every other time I’ve been killed. Want to hear a secret? Everyone thinks I have a second set of gear. I don’t. I just don’t get caught off guard when I come back. I’m usually very angry, too.”
Vale narrowed his eyes. He didn’t like Brutus, and he didn’t like the fact this asshole had a sword to his best friend’s throat. He gripped his rapier tighter.
“Don’t move, Vale dePardon,” laughed Brutus. “I will admit you have some skill, and you showed balls the last time we met. Now we both have legendary classes, too. I’m sure if we fought again, it would be wonderful footage for your stream, but that is truly not what I’m here for.” He paused in consideration.
“I really should kill you out of hand for selling all my gear, though.”
Vale thought about it a moment. “Drop your sword right now, or we’re going to throw down whether you like it or not.”
Brutus shrugged, slowly removing his sword from Bart’s neck. He casually put the huge blade on his shoulder and looked expectantly at Vale.
“What do I—no, what does the group get out of this deal?” asked Vale.
“Simple. I am one of the best fighters in the entire game. Globally. I have a legendary class, and I’m technically the leader of all the new Berserker subclass. This gives me an in-game stipend and some bonuses. Lastly, my sister has abilities to shield a group from SAN attacks, and I think you could probably use it. She’s also as good of a fighter as I am.”
Vale opened his mouth to speak, but closed it. “You’re not seriously thinking about this, are you?” asked Abigail. Vale waved at her and looked down, deep in thought.
His first reaction was to immediately reject Brutus’s proposal. However, he mentally took a step back and tried to stop thinking of SOO like just a game. The reality was, streaming was his job now.
Brutus really was very well known. A lot of people knew he and Vale had been at odds for months and even fought. Furthermore, the group really did need a tank and someone to help with SAN checks. The fact was, Vale wasn’t even sure where to start looking. The level of player he needed for their group wasn’t exactly common. There was the element of trust, too. So far he’d actually been incredibly lucky in finding quality group members.
Everyone would want to be in Vale’s group now with so much money at stake, but most of the best players already had groups and streams.
Brutus had a legendary class now, too. That would probably interest a lot of people into watching Vale’s stream.
Vale’s stream ratings depended on his group being interesting and doing interesting things. Allowing Brutus, and eventually his sister, to join might not be such a bad idea. Plus, Vale did vaguely remember Brutus’s sister. If he was remembering her correctly, her character had been really pretty. Eye candy wouldn’t hurt their stream at all.
Thinking about Brutus’s motivation just made the decision more obvious. There was the obvious matter of all the money involved. Plus, it sounded like Brutus wanted protection of some sort. Vale had recently learned firsthand how dangerous the world of gaming entertainment could be. Now he knew that streamers were well protected by their company out of necessity.
Last but not least, the maximum group size was five players. Brutus would make four, and if they found his sister and she joined, that would make five. They’d have a full group, and everyone would have a contract. There were a lot of “ifs” in that plan, but the more Vale thought about it, the more he liked it.
Vale nodded slowly. “Okay, I think I accept.”
“Are you sure about this?” asked Bart.
“Yeah, I think so.” Vale sent Brutus a party request and Brutus accepted. “Okay, it’s done.” Now he’d just have to see if he had chosen wisely. “So now you need to get a contract, eh?”
Brutus glanced around, his eyes tracking something only he could see. “I just checked my email,” he said. “I have an appointment with a Vermillion Entertainment representative soon. Thank you.”
“Yeah, whatever. So you really lost all your gear when I sold it?”
“Yes,” Brutus growled. He pulled his trench coat back and they could all see his basic gear.
Abigail shook her head. “So you murdered him and then sold all his gear, Vale? Shameful.”
“I can’t believe this guy is my best friend,” sighed Bart.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Vale pulled eight hundred gold from his inventory and traded it to Brutus. “Here, this is most of what I got for selling your gear. That should help.”
“I’m sure that’s all you got from selling my gear,” grunted Brutus sarcastically. “I appreciate the gesture, but I still have about twenty thousand gold. I just haven’t had the time or the opportunity to get decent gear again.”
“Twenty thousand?” exclaimed Abigail. “That’s a fortune!”
“I quest a lot,” Brutus said, shrugging.
“So…can I have that eight hundred back, then?” asked Vale.
“No, I’m going to keep this as an apology for stabbing me in the eye, blyat ninja looter.” Brutus smiled evilly.
Vale glared at Brutus. Well, he kind of has a point, I guess, but eight hundred gold is eight hundred gold!
“Whatever,” said Abbey, briefly throwing her head back in irritation. “You guys can measure your dicks later. I want to get out of this tunnel.”
“Hear, hear!” agreed Bart.
Vale grumbled, “Fine.” He frowned at Brutus. “You first then, money thief.”
Brutus grinned and growled, “Takes one to know one.” He saluted before starting up the ladder.
After the whole group had reached the top, Bartholomew and Abigail both made noises of surprise. Vale got another prompt too, but he absentmindedly closed it. The portion of the quest they were on must have been completed. His assumption was confirmed when Abigail said, “I just leveled up!”
“Me too!” said Bart.
“Congratulations, guys. So what level are you, Brutus?” asked Vale. He tried not to snarl. Every time he saw Brutus, he wanted to stab the big man again. Calling Vale a ninja looter…He obviously wasn’t a ninja looter! He just hadn’t been sure that Brutus’s group was going to do the right thing. He had no regrets, dammit!
Brutus smiled. He seemed to understand the effect he was having on Vale. “I’m level thirteen,” he said. “I got a big bump when I got my legendary class.”
“Oh yeah, your legendary class. Do you want to tell us about that?” asked Bart.
Brutus looked Bart directly in the eyes. “No, I do not.” Bart shrugged and went back to looking at his character screens.
“Hey Brutus, are you going to tell us how you found us?” asked Abigail.
Vale shook his head and decided it would be a good time for him to check his character sheet. His eyes widened. He had leveled up too. He quickly made the changes he could and looked at his character sheet again.
Name: Vale dePardon
Hero Class: *At level 20*
Legendary Class: Air Adept
XP to next level: 144408
Stats: (Total/Original/Level Ups/Bonuses)
Class Skills: Fencing, Ancient Body Magic, Paranoia, Ancient Occult Lore, Map Reading/Cartography, Elemental Magic: Air
Permanent Bonus Source: Mystic Clover (Luck +3), World Tree Tithe
(Int -5), World Tree Boon (Int +8, Agi +3), Ring of the Unknown Saint (Will +2)
Auras and Status: Mystic. A mysterious status that confers additional magical mastery. Not compatible with tech skills.
It looked like Abigail had been right about the mystic aura. It probably would have completely screwed up her build. He’d have to check the SOO forums later to see if anyone even knew what it was. The downside of being on the cutting edge on the game is that he was discovering things nobody else knew about.
Vale had dropped his point in Stamina. He was starting to fight longer battles and he was getting really tired. The level of danger was going up, too. He was beginning to feel very vulnerable. It was a tradeoff, though. He kind of felt stupid now for not grouping more often or doing more long quest chains in the past.
The entire group was levelling insanely fast. Plus, they’d found an absurd amount of loot in a relatively short amount of time. Most average SOO players didn’t even have a permanent status item, or maybe they found one or two that would give a +1 bonus. Vale’s group was growing in power at a very impressive rate.
The realization made Vale think about the World Tree. Mr. Vermillion really had made a good point about Vale allowing his group to visit the World Tree too.
Vale suddenly thought of something and turned to Brutus. “There is no way in hell I’m ever taking you to the World Tree.”
“That’s somewhat funny, since I suspect you got there in the first place with the map you stole, but this is fine.” Brutus flicked an imaginary piece of dirt off his bracer. “I have legendary class already, so I wouldn’t be able to get a World Tree class. In fact, I’d probably just be killed on the way there. However, I would like you to consider my sister, if we find her.”
“So Brutus, what is your sister’s name?” Asked Abigail. “How old is she? Does she hate Vale too?”
As the group plus Brutus left the warehouse, Vale pinched between his eyes and sighed. On one hand, he was a lot less worried now about random players attacking his group. Most people were scared shitless of Brutus, for good reason.
On the other hand, now Brutus was his problem. How the hell did this happen?