The next few minutes became a nightmare of dodging tentacles, killing Hygon Spawn, destroying the occasional NPC or player that managed to climb up onto the train, and dodging into the nearby boxcar to avoid being shot.
Vale was forced to use another max power <Wind Slash> to break up a new group of ranged Abyssal Ones players, this time almost exclusively containing LoF. He would have taken great joy in blowing them apart if he hadn’t been so stressed out, barely staying alive.
Abigail had run out of enough mana to use exploding rounds, but she was still pumping lead into Lord Hygon as fast as she could. The train was starting to travel past Innsmouth. Vale was busy staying alive, but he noticed Hygon Spawn running around and killing the thousands of panicked Abyssal Ones players. It was mass chaos.
Vale had been saving his mana. Out of his max mana pool of 100, he was down to 80 due to his two full power <Wind Slash> spells. Hygon was looking pretty beat up, but Vale wasn’t sure how much longer his group could last, either. His own stamina was getting dangerously low. Vale gritted his teeth and made a decision.
He ran out into the open screaming, “Keep them off me!” He squared his feet, but before he could do anything else, a large Hygon Spawn jumped up onto the flatbed train car. Vale tensed to fight, snarling. However, the creature hadn’t taken two steps before Brutus seemed to appear out of midair, hitting it with a flying shoulder tackle and forcing it off the train.
“If we kick them off, they become Innsmouth’s problem, not ours,” the big man chuckled evilly.
Vale grinned and got back to business. He focused, not an easy feat with so much going on, and began casting full strength <Wind Slash> spells one after another. Each wave of power slammed into Hygon, opening massive wounds in the terrifying giant. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven waves of power lanced out, hitting Hygon so hard, the enormous being was physically forced backwards.
Vale only had ten mana left. He sighed. He wasn’t sure his efforts would be enough. He noticed Lord Hygon’s disgusting penis tentacle reach out and grab a Lords of Finality player. It ripped the fish man’s head off and ate it. Vale thought it was funny, chuckling darkly. Then he got an idea.
He prepared one last <Wind Slash> with nine mana, leaving one mana in reserve to hopefully keep from passing out from -Casting Shock-. He tried to ignore what was going on around him, trusting his group to keep him alive. Suddenly, the boss monster took another step and Vale saw his chance.
He snarled and cast <Wind Slash>, his legendary rapier glittering at the end of his extended arm. Vale breathlessly watched his attack scythe through the rain. He was soaked to the skin and the growing storm’s cold wind cut right to his bones, but he ignored it all. All that mattered was the wave of destructive magic.
The <Wind Slash> passed between the giant’s legs and hit its target. It was a beautiful attack; Lord Hygon’s disgusting, toothy member was severed and fell to the ground. The huge monster screeched in agony, his body bleeding heavily from a dozen places.
A message popped up:
You have suffered -Casting Shock-. You can choose to die now,
or wait an hour before regaining consciousness.
Would you like to die, or wait?
Vale chose WAIT.
Suddenly he was in a dark room with a comfortable recliner. Vale had set this room up ages ago in case he ever passed out in the game. A number of effects could cause a player to pass out without actually dying, which started a blackout timer. Of course, he might still die in-game, but there was nothing he could do at this point.
While he was waiting, he decided not to log out. Instead, he accessed his email through his persocomp and began killing time. He was idly cleaning out his message box when he stumbled across an email that chilled his blood.
It was dated that day, sent just a few hours ago. Vale opened it and saw a picture of his family, his real-world family. An old-fashioned physical newspaper was in the frame with the date visible. The photo had been taken that day.
Someone was watching Vale—no, Trent’s family. The “from” box was blank. The threat was obvious.
The only message read,
Vale, stay in the game after your friends have left. Do not ignore this message.
He felt cold, like someone had just walked over his grave. They wouldn’t really hurt his family, would they? He didn’t even know who “they” were. Then he remembered someone shooting at him in public a few weeks before. There were people playing for keeps when there were large amounts of money involved.
Not for the first time, he felt way out of his depth. His mind raced but felt blank at the same time. He didn’t know what to do.
Suddenly another prompt appeared.
An hour has passed and you can regain consciousness.
Would you like to wake up?
Vale chose YES.
He came back into the game on a bed. He suffered a second of disorientation before Minerva’s face filled his vision. She was grinning from ear to ear. “He’s awake!” she yelled.
Vale shook his head and sat up. He closed all his alerts and windows. He didn’t have the patience nor the heart to deal with anything game-related at the moment. It could all wait.
Bartholomew burst in the room. “We did it! Vale, we did it! Hygon is dead and most of us got away! Brutus straight up carried you to the stagecoach and made it back to this inn! Dude, we won!”
Vale forced a smile. “That’s awesome!” he said.
Obviously expecting more cheer, Bartholomew gave him a suspicious look but shrugged and left the room.
Vale could hear the others celebrating outside his room. He hoped they thought he was just going through his inventory or checking his character sheet or something.
He didn’t know what to do, at least not at first. As the minutes passed, Vale turned his mind to the problem at hand and realized how negligent he’d truly been. He should have seen this coming. He’d been an idiot. He gritted his teeth and set his resolve. He knew what he had to do.
He had to give whoever was threatening him whatever they wanted. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he refused to get his mom and his little sister killed over a game. Even his stepdad didn’t deserve to be snuffed by some anonymous hired killer.
Eventually, his group members wound down from celebrating and came to visit Vale again. The next few minutes felt like a dream. Vale didn’t really feel there. His mind was elsewhere.
He did learn that Abigail hadn’t made it. She was the only member of their group to die, but Minerva had managed to pick up the corpse and bring it to the inn. That meant in a week when Abbey resurrected, or rezzed, she wouldn’t lose any of her gear or XP.
The quest had been a smashing success. Vale knew the rest of his group members expected him to act excited, and he wasn’t behaving as anticipated. In fact, he seemed to be bringing them down.
It turned out he didn’t even need to suggest they all log out; they came to that decision on their own. First Brutus, then Minerva, and finally Bartholomew all left, leaving Vale alone.
He slowly got up and walked outside. It didn’t take long before a nondescript man approached him. Vale looked at the man’s physicaldex, which read 5/10. Figures.
The man stopped next to Vale and leaned against the wall of the inn. He said, “Did you get our message?”
“How do I know you are who you say you are?”
“If you don’t comply, they will not be around anymore within ten minutes.”
Vale felt like he weighed a million pounds, even his eyeball felt heavy. His heart dropped into his stomach.
“What do you want?” he whispered.
“Give me the Monarch Stone, the Secret of the Old Ones,” the man instructed. He held out a hand.
Vale had never been so angry, scared, or ashamed in his life. It felt like his entire life had been leading up to this moment, this act of ultimate powerlessness. He was watching evil rear its ugly head and leer at him without any repercussion at all.
Vale almost asked about the World Tree but held his tongue. He numbly reached into his inventory and produced the dark, pulsing crystal. “You’ll leave them alone?”
The man looked at him levelly before saying, “If you feel that anything bad could happen soon, this thing will not happen if you hand over the crystal.” Vale realized the man was avoiding saying anything that could incriminate him. It was clever, and exactly the kind of professional behavior that made up Vale’s mind for sure.
He handed the crystal over and the man smiled. “Nice doing business with you,” he said before casually walking away. Vale watched him numbly until he was out of sight. He had no idea how they’d found him, but for all he knew, he’d been stalked for weeks.
He shook himself and felt a seed of something growing in his heart; something hot, something angry. How dare these motherfuckers threaten his mama!
The seed grew, erupting into a blazing inferno of rage and hate. Vale went back up to his room in the inn and sat down to think some more. He could go back to the real world, but with the slight time dilation, he actually had more time in SOO to get his head straight.
He thought about all his options and several courses of action until he settled on what he had to do.
He logged out of SOO.
Colors and strange sounds assaulted him. He felt like he could see sounds and taste color. The experience muted his growing fury.
Trent was back in his body, and the full force of his rage returned and then some. How dare they threaten Mama! He gnashed his teeth in anger and took action.
Trent worked via his persocomp as he left his room and headed towards the little armory by the nearby shooting range. When he’d been shooting there before, he’d realized how few rules and regulations were in place at the Rainbow Ranch. At the time, he’d been surprised, but now he was glad.
He picked up a 9mm pistol and two boxes of ammo to bring back to his room. He also sent an email to his parents and told them to take his little sister and get out of town…immediately. He sent them the reservation he’d made her at a nice hotel two cities over, paid. Included with his message was an FYI that he’d put a large sum of money in his mother’s bank account.
He had remembered he was rich-ish now.
Trent had a quick back-and-forth with a bodyguard company before signing a contract and sending a down payment to protect his family. He instructed someone to immediately go to his parents’ house and accompany them to the hotel.
By this time, he was back in his room. He quickly loaded two magazines for his pistol and put it somewhere safe he could grab quickly. He’d never been into guns, but now he was going to get good with this pistol. He swore it to himself.
Last, Trent sent an email to all his SOO group members. The next day, they were all logging in together and he was taking everyone to the World Tree. Michelle would just have to wait another week until Abigail resurrected, then he’d take her too.
He had been dragging his feet, procrastinating about the World Tree. He hadn’t been sure what to do, who he could trust. However, he’d just had his face rubbed in how stupid his issues really had been. He had to protect his family, and the best way to do that was to make as much money and be as powerful as he could—in SOO and out of it.
Nobody threatened his family and got away with it. For the first time in his life, Trent was honestly, truly enraged.
He wanted to hurt someone. Someone had to pay. If he could, he’d kill them.
Trent sat on his bed in a daze, alternating between dismay and anger. He skimmed through entertainment channels on his persocomp. He ignored stories about himself, ignored rumors about what had just happened outside Innsmouth, and he ignored a new price set on his head by the Lords of Finality.
None of it mattered.
After a few hours, he found what he was looking for. Breaking news. Someone had used the Secret of the Old Ones, the Monarch Stone, to unlock the First Things race.
The player wasn’t well known, but the name had popped up in the system menu. Miguel Veneno, either the person pulling the strings, or someone being pulled. But it was a lead.
Miguel Veneno. There were a few questions on the message boards about how this player had gotten the Monarch Stone from Vale dePardon, but they were quickly drowned by the rest of the community’s excitement. The assumption seemed to be that Miguel had bought it.
Now Trent knew the name of his enemy. He wasn’t sure how yet, but he was going to make the sonofabitch pay.
Nobody could threaten Trent’s mama and get away with it. Nobody.
Trent began planning who in his group would get what element from the World Tree. He was going to make his group the strongest, most badass force in the game by far. He was going to make tons of money. And he was going to make those fuckers pay for threatening his family!