Vale led the way to Ravenwood, a small town about twenty minutes from Nodol. His entire group was riding in a stagecoach to their destination. During their downtime, Abigail crafted bullets, Bartholomew mixed potions, and Vale skimmed the spellbook he’d bought with money from selling Brutus’s gear. Brutus just sat with his arms crossed.
Without looking up from her work, Abigail said, “Alright, Vale, spill. Why are we going to Ravenwood?”
Vale sighed and closed up his grimoire before putting it back into his inventory. “Okay, so the last two weeks, we’ve all been looking for clues. In-game, we’ve gone together to a few places where Brutus’ sister, Minerva, was seen in the last few months, right?”
“Yeah, we all know that. So why Ravenwood? I haven’t seen anything pointing us there at all.”
“Exactly,” said Vale. The steampunk girl scowled at him and gestured for him to continue.
Vale got the point. He said, “We’ve been around this whole area. We talked to a number of people who had actually spoken to Minerva. The way she had been acting for the last two months jives with Brutus’s suspicion that she was in some sort of trouble.”
“I don’t understand. There was no pattern to where she was visiting.” Abigail frowned.
“Ah, that’s just because you didn’t have the right frame of reference.” Vale smiled. “Remember the clues we found? Minerva was searching for some specific entrance to the Great Maze, right? It sounded like she was looking for an in-game skill or ability.”
“Uh huh, legendary. Go on,” said Abigail. Vale saw he had Brutus’s full attention too.
“So she was looking for a specific entrance. I’m guessing she found some information for something she wanted in-game. She is also usually a solo player, like I used to be. Lastly, she acted like she was in trouble, like someone was looking for her. She has all her communication channels both in and out of the game silenced for over a month.”
“Okay, you’re losing me now,” said Bart.
Vale gestured to Brutus. “Well, our big, grumpy frien—companion isn’t exactly being forthcoming with details, so we have to operate on a lot of unknowns here. One of my assumptions is that whoever Minerva is hiding from in the real world is also looking for her in SOO.
“Based on some of what we’ve learned so far, like what the NPCs told us Minerva was asking and how methodical she was being, we’ve figured she’s incredibly intelligent. Brutus has confirmed this.”
The big man nodded.
Vale continued, “I realized today that someone as smart as Minerva wouldn’t be openly gathering information if she thought she was being followed… unless it was for a reason. She’d be trying to throw people off her trail. That was my breakthrough. See, we know that the Great Maze would be a good place to hide for a while if you wanted to disappear. We also know Minerva was looking for something specific, apparently a legendary skill.”
“Legendary skill? Like, yours?” asked Bart.
“Yes, kind of like the one I got with my legendary class but if I recall correctly, legendary skills by themselves are not as powerful as when they come with a class. They don’t confer any stats either. “Legendary” in this game usually means unique. Legendary skills are like, powerful, unique skills.”
Bartholomew nodded. “Got it.”
“Anyway, Minerva was smart enough to work on several things simultaneously. Plus, our grouchy warrior here,” Vale said, pointing at Brutus, “obviously respects his sister.”
“She is better than all of us,” Brutus said.
Vale looked sideways at the big man for a moment before speaking again. “Anyway, I started thinking about how she’s been asking about ancient soldiers, legendary skills, and also how she was obviously looking for a specific entrance to the Great Maze. Then I began thinking of how she had been hopping from city to city, leaving an obvious trail.
“The answer for why she was doing all of this was simple. She already had a map.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Abigail.
Vale grinned. “She cheated. She got her hands on some kind of map and was hitting random entrances to the Great Maze, making herself visible, leaving a trail. She appeared lost on purpose to throw off pursuit. Think about it. She would visit the local entrance to the Great Maze before going to an information broker or merchant to ask about it.”
“But isn’t the Great Maze huge?” Bart asked. “Like, it’s basically the same size as the game world, right? Like a huge labyrinth that functions as this game’s dungeon system? Wouldn’t she have to be looking around and asking questions if she was going to find anything?”
“Not if she had a map,” said Vale.
“That seems like a stretch.” Abigail folded her arms and looked skeptical. “Like a huge leap in logic.”
Vale grinned. “Normally you’d be right…but you’re forgetting something.”
“I have the [Map Reading/Cartography] skill!” Vale pointed at himself. “I can generate maps based on points of data, and I can map regular locations to the Great Maze. I was able to see a pattern with where Minerva was going.”
“But that still doesn’t make sense. If you knew what points she was hitting, that still doesn’t tell you where she was actually going to end up,” said Bart, his tone thoughtful.
“Yes, that’s true, and that’s where I was stuck before. However, remember how she was visiting a church or cathedral at each place she stopped? I was reminded of all the steps we all had to take in our group’s chain quest. I began to wonder if she was on a quest too. It seemed likely, since she’s looking for a legendary skill, and ‘legendary’ anything doesn’t come easy in this game.
“So a couple hours ago, I mapped all the points Minerva had visited both in the overworld and the corresponding locations in the Great Maze. The points made a circle on my mental map of the Great Maze. It just so happens that the entrance to the Great Maze in Ravenwood is right in the center of that circle.” Vale drew a circle on a handy piece of paper and marked an X in the center of it.
“That is actually…pretty clever,” Abigail said, nodding.
“Now, there’s still a chance she was just accidentally covering locations to the Great Maze that coincidentally made a circle. There’s a chance, but I don’t think so,” said Vale.
Abbey rested her cheek on her hand. “So you think she went to this location to get her legendary skill, then she’s just been hanging out in there ever since?”
Vale nodded and replied, “Yes. If she is trying to power level and stay hidden as a skilled player—and we know from Brutus that she is—that would be a good way to do it. She will be off anyone’s metaphorical radar, very difficult to find while training.”
Bart was slowly nodding, and Vale noticed Brutus was too. He grinned and said, “I would have been lost without the [Map Reading/Cartography] skill. You remember how few players are level ten or higher to begin with? Then, of them, how many are Occultists, and how many will choose the Explorer subclass? Minerva made a very smart choice in how to hide. I’m not sure where she got the information to begin with, though. Probably an NPC.”
“So what now?” asked Abigail.
Vale put his hands behind his head and leaned back. “Now we get to Ravenwood and find the entrance to the Great Maze.”
“This place is a dump,” complained Bart. Vale had to silently agree.
Ravenwood had been underwhelming. Half the businesses were empty, and the local NPCs were beaten down, fearful. The entrance to the Great Maze was in a large barn. The space within the doorway shimmered, but the frame itself was made of rotting wood with weeds up and down the sides.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” asked Abigail.
“I’m fairly sure, the clues—”
Suddenly, Brutus stepped forward and rubbed his thumb over a mark on the nearby wall. “She was here,” he said. “There are marks all over these walls, but she made this one for me in case I came by.”
The mark looked like random scratches to Vale. He asked, “Are you sure?”
Brutus just stared at him with no expression.
“Okay, I guess this is it!” said Vale. “Let’s go.” He walked into the open doorway and assumed the rest of the group followed. As soon as he hit the shimmer, the world fractured just like when he Dove into SOO or any other VR app.
When his vision came back, Vale was standing in a jungle clearing. He was near an old, crashed airplane covered by vines. The lush vegetation, organic smells, and jungle sounds were relaxing at first. Then Vale remembered that jungle biomes in SOO could be incredibly dangerous.
The rest of his group appeared over the next few seconds. He idly watched as they did so and tried to get his bearings.
The Great Maze was strange, kind of an instanced world within a world. To be a realistic game, SOO had to have real change, with the overworld being affected by player choices. For instance, if a player burned down a house in the overworld, the house would stay destroyed.
The Great Maze, on the other hand, was prone to reset. This was how Yggdrasil Entertainment had found a balance between a dynamic, changing world and a way for all players to enjoy some of the same content. If monsters never respawned anywhere, only a tiny portion of players would even be able to level.
“So, where do we go now?” asked Abigail.
“This way.” Brutus pointed and began walking.
“How do you even know that?” asked Vale.
“Tracker. I put one on my sister months ago.”
“Oh, that makes sense.” Vale nodded before his eyes flew open and he sputtered, “Is that how you’ve been finding me too?”
“Yes,” Brutus said. He barely smiled.
“Tell me where it is!”
“No.” Brutus smiled wider.
Vale knew there was no point in arguing further. He grumbled to himself and tried to ignore Bartholomew’s quiet chuckling.
Vale frowned, his mood growing worse as he realized their group was getting hopelessly disoriented. The only person who didn’t seem lost was Brutus, who took turns without hesitation. To Vale, the entire jungle began to look the same after a while.
He was fairly sure there was no way in hell he could backtrack to the gate.
After some time passed, the jungle sounds began to feel ominous. It grew darker the deeper the group went, and Vale started noticing some shady, dangerous-looking plants lining the trail. He swallowed.
Eventually, Brutus led them to a small camp that Vale recognized as a temporary player base. It was the sort of thing players brought with them into the Great Maze to store drops, craft, and leave their character to sleep while logged off.
Minerva was standing next to the tent with her hands on her hips. She wore a steel breastplate and bracers over a maroon, crushed velvet top. Her pants and gloves were supple black leather. Her ornate weapon belt held a variety of weapons. On one hip, she wore a curved military saber. On the other hip, Vale could see a couple blunderbuss flintlock pistols.
Minerva was beautiful, like a polished blade. She had been part of the expedition with Brutus, the one where Vale had definitely not ninja looted any treasure. He remembered her being pretty, but his memory had apparently been lacking. Studying her again in person, he had to admit she was drop-dead gorgeous.
Minerva had dark blonde hair past her shoulders, piercing green eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips. Her lithe, athletic body still boasted rather impressive curves.
Vale though she looked about his age, maybe a little older. He hadn’t cared so he’d never checked her physicaldex in the past. He idly checked her ‘dex as he studied her. Holy shit, 10/10? That’s actually what she looks like? Vale was shocked.
“Brutus, why did you come? Who are zese people?” Minerva had a thick accent. Vale thought it was sexy.
He glanced over at Brutus and saw something he would have never expected to see. Brutus, the stoic, calm, ice-blooded killer, was actually blushing and stammering!
The big man even looked scared! What the hell is going on? Vale immediately recalibrated his assessment of Minerva. Her beauty was irrelevant now. Anyone who could reduce Brutus to a stuttering mess was someone to take seriously.
Not for the first time, Vale wished he could remember more details from the expedition he’d taken part in with the Ukrainian siblings.