It had been two weeks since Brutus joined the group. Trent was out of the game since the rest of his group wanted a break until after dinner. He was sitting in the guarded Vermillion streaming compound and sulking. He tried to pretend he wasn’t in a bad mood, but he was lousy at ignoring facts. The reality was, he had a lot of thinking to do and he wasn’t getting anything done because of his emotional state.
But he couldn’t help it. The “Rainbow Ranch” was dull and lonely. Abigail had arrived in person over a week ago. Trent had learned that her real name was Michelle Wong and she’d been living in Florida. She really did more or less look like her avatar, so there really wasn’t an awkward phase after everyone met. As soon as she arrived, she was true to her word and began teaching Trent and Steve how to shoot guns at the nearby range.
That had been fun for a while. However, Trent eventually lost interest while Steve and Michelle kept practicing every day. As Abigail, Michelle needed to build her skill, and Steve was thinking about carrying a pistol as Bartholomew. He said he wasn’t sure whether he’d actually take an in-game skill for it, though. He still had another level to decide.
When Trent had first moved to the streaming compound, Mr. Vermillion had said there was already another streaming group living there. He hadn’t been lying, but the reality was that they had their own living quarters and pretty much kept to themselves. Trent had barely seen them at all.
In the last week, he’d discovered that Brutus lived in the Ukraine, but the big man was refusing to move to the Rainbow Ranch until his sister was found. This all meant that these days, unless Trent was playing SOO, he was spending all of his time alone in the real world.
Usually, Trent didn’t mind being solo. But doing things by himself and not even seeing other people were two very different things. For the last few days, it felt like he had barely spoken with his own voice. He never even saw whoever it was that delivered the groceries. They always showed up while his group was playing SOO.
Trent knew he really shouldn’t have been feeling so crabby. The group had more or less figured out what to do about the legendary item quest. They finally had a lead on Brutus’s sister. Trent was basically becoming independently wealthy. The popularity of his stream and how much he was making every week was still totally surreal.
But dammit…he was seriously bored! He couldn’t wait for Steve and Michelle to hurry up and get done with whatever they were doing. If Michelle could stop showing off and Steve could stop flirting with her, the whole group could just play the game more!
Trent frowned as he sat on a couch in the common area and shoved potato chips into his mouth. He really should have been working on group tactics or thinking about clues, but he just couldn’t focus.
He heard one of the doors open behind him, towards the front of the building, and ignored it. He figured it would be Stacy, Richard, or one of the other guards on their hourly walkthrough. Richard still walked with some stiffness from being shot, but the man was up and functional. Trent was secretly impressed.
“Trent, is that you?” Trent turned around in surprise. Florinia was standing just inside the doorway looking a little unsure of herself. She had a rolling suitcase and was dressed more casually than the last time he’d seen her at the Vermillion Entertainment building in California.
She was wearing glasses with small, dark frames. Her hair was arranged on top of her head with a pair of yellow chopsticks that matched the color of her shirt. She wore a mini skirt with dark leggings and some sort of heeled boots. Trent didn’t know what they were, but he’d bet they were expensive.
Her dangly yellow earrings also matched the overall color theme she had going. Her tan skin made the effect more striking.
Trent’s brain froze for a moment. He’d thought Florinia looked cute before, but…damn. “Uh, yeah. Florinia, right? What are you doing here, did you take a strange turn? This is the wrong state.”
The dark-haired girl smiled, some of her anxiety visibly draining. “Ha ha, yeah right! I’m here as your group’s liaison with Vermillion. I was tapped because I’ve actually met some of you and I’m not a complete noob at SOO.”
“I hope you didn’t get a demotion just because you met us.”
“Oh, no no no!” She held her hands out. “No, this is actually a promotion. I applied for it. I’m barely out of school, and I was able to get this gig in less than a year of working like a real adult. I was basically just an admin before. Now I’m an Asset Coordinator.”
“Yes,” she said, looking a little embarrassed. “Corporate isn’t really happy that none of your group answers emails in a timely manner. The guards have also let it slip that you guys are just eating junk food all the time, no real food. Considering all the ratings you’re getting with your stream, the company decided that having someone act as a go-between for your group and corporate was a smart idea.”
“Why weren’t we told?”
“You were. When’s the last time you checked your email?”
Vale nodded. She had a point. “So your job is, what, cooking and being eye candy?”
Florinia shook her head and pointed at him. “Stop! Don’t tease me! But yes, I am going to be cooking now, at least twice a day.”
“Yes…you’re going to be eye candy?”
“So you’re going to be living here now too?” Trent asked.
“Yeah. I’ve just got this for right now.” She pointed at her suitcase. “The rest of my stuff should come in the next few days.” She started moving towards the hallway leading to the dorms.
“Well, it was nice seeing you, Florinia.”
“Call me Nia, all my friends do.”
“Oh, we’re friends now?” Vale waggled his eyebrows at her. “Any chance for more?”
She rolled her eyes at him as she walked by. “You’re truly terrible. I’ll see you later tonight when everyone else is here.”
Trent chuckled as she walked away. Her hips swayed just like he remembered. He watched her turn down the hallway and tried to decide if she’d been flirting back with him. She’d never said she was in a relationship; that was a good sign. Trent decided she hadn’t shut him down, either.
He put his hands behind his head and looked at the ceiling while he thought about the new development.
Maybe things were getting better.
Three hours later, Trent was ready to Dive. He’d had his first hot meal in weeks and he was very pleased with himself. Florinia, or Nia, was definitely, officially flirting back with him. Trent had been laying it on pretty thick, but he knew he wasn’t very smooth. He was also awful at catching hints from girls. He’d learned that his best strategy was to just be so obvious that a subtle response was impossible for whatever girl he was interested in.
While they ate, he was also amused that Michelle and Steve kept rolling their eyes when they thought he wasn’t looking. Trent had been putting up with those two acting syrupy sweet and flirting with each other for so long now, he gave zero fucks.
In fact, if those two weren’t boning by now, he didn’t know what was wrong with them. He didn’t want to ask Steve, though, just in case they were. Then Trent would have to pretend he cared.
He shrugged. There was work to do. All the interpersonal shit could wait. He initiated his Dive and the world turned into a circus of colors and sounds. Then everything shattered.
When the world rebuilt itself, Trent was in SOO as Vale. The previous night, his entire group had logged off in an inn so they’d have some minor XP buffs after Diving.
As soon as he left his room in the inn, he saw Abigail and Bartholomew too. Bart was resting his hands on his sword cane. His dark clothing hadn’t changed much. Vale knew he was keeping a couple small pistols on his belt under his coat now, though.
Abigail also still looked the same as she usually did except for some new ankle boots and a few more gadgets attached to her corset and bracers. Her pistols had better holsters and retention systems now, too.
They didn’t have long to wait for Brutus. Vale had sent him a private message via persocomp before Diving. He wasn’t sure what Brutus did when he wasn’t playing SOO, but he was usually available to meet up at any time. The longer they worked together, the more Vale had to grudgingly admit that the big man had been a good addition to the group.
After they were all gathered, Abigail asked Vale, “So what is the rush? Why did you want us all to meet so quickly? I would have thought you’d want to hang out in the common area longer so the secretary could make eyes at you more.”
“Secretary?” asked Brutus.
Abbey turned to Brutus. “Don’t worry about it, Tall Dark and Murderous,” she said. “Our fearless leader here just went and got himself a groupie.”
“You know, bitchiness doesn’t look good on you, Abbey,” said Vale. Abigail narrowed her eyes and was about to respond when Vale held up a hand. “Actually, I do have news. Important news.”
“What secretary?” asked Brutus.
Vale ignored the big warrior. He grinned and said, “I think I figured out where Minerva went. I know where Brutus’s sister is.”
Brutus nodded and folded his arms. “I want to hear about this.”
Vale began explaining how he’d put together all the clues they’d gotten in-game over the past couple weeks. Something Nia had said that day was actually his breakthrough. She’d called herself a liaison, a go-between. A conduit. He’d been able to figure out the puzzle.
“You see,” Vale said, “we’ve been getting good clues. We were close, but we were looking in the wrong direction. Minerva isn’t hiding somewhere. She’s not captured or dead. She went into the Great Maze and never came out. She’s stuck, I’m sure of it. Maybe stuck on purpose.”
“The Great Maze? Oh hell no. We’re not going in there, right?” asked Abigail.
“You bet we are,” said Vale, grinning. “I’ve been kind of wanting to see it anyway”.
“But people get so lost in there, sometimes they just reroll if they’re low level enough.” Bart looked thoughtful.
“Yeah, don’t people get stuck in there for a long, long time?” asked Abigail.
“Sure, but we aren’t average players,” said Vale, trying to sound confident. “We need to find Brutus’s sister. The quicker we find her, the quicker we can get back to what we were doing before and end the legendary weapon quest. The quicker we end the legendary weapon quest, the sooner I can bring everyone to the World Tree.”
“Wait, what? The World Tree? This is new,” Abigail sputtered.
“Yeah, I’ve decided to let everyone in the group get World Tree magic whenever we’re done with the legendary weapon quest.”
“So you’re going to take Mr. Vermillion’s advice?” asked Bart.
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Wait…” said Abigail, her voice subdued. “Isn’t any one of those legendary classes worth millions of dollars or something?”
“Yes, but if Vale gives them to us, our whole group becomes more interesting and we make more money. He can view it as an investment,” said Bart.
“That makes sense. Huh. I was not expecting this,” muttered Abigail.
Brutus was growing agitated. He obviously didn’t care about the World Tree. “My sister, where is she?” growled Brutus.
Trent smirked. “Follow me and I’ll show you.