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Trent knocked on Steve’s door. “I’m gonna get something to eat. Wanna come?”

“I dunno. Are you going to stab me with something IRL like you just did in-game?”

Vale sighed. “It’s not my fault you’re so shitty at PVP.”

Steve defended himself. “I play support!” The door opened and Trent’s big, indignant, linebacker-looking friend ran a hand through his hair. “Tell you what, asshole. Next time in a dungeon, I’ll do the damage and you can CC, okay?”

“You know I might be able to do that with wind magic…”

Steve shook his head and closed the door behind him. “You’re lucky I put up with you.”

“I know,” said Trent without a trace of sarcasm. The last few weeks really had demonstrated who had his back. Steve knew his parents, and the big guy might have been even more angry than Trent after finding out they’d been threatened.

Player apartments were all clumped together in the same side of the building, on the opposite end of the kitchen. Their dorms weren’t bad at all, but now that Trent knew how much he was making and how much Vermillion in general made, he wondered if they could spring for some better decor. Sometimes it still felt like he was living in the dorms at his old college.

He and Steve visited the shared kitchen area, grabbed some pre-made sandwiches and went outside to the new outdoor patio tables. Vermillion had been sprucing the place up a bit since the three streaming teams in this location basically couldn’t leave anymore.

Security had tightened up--not just because of what happened to Trent. A streamer in another company had been murdered two weeks ago. Stream-related crime was climbing as fast as streamer paychecks.

Trent sat and tore into his sandwich. He’d grabbed an entire grocery bag full of bottled water that he set to the side after taking one out.

“Still dehydrated after you Surface?”

Trent chewed for a few seconds and managed to say, “Always.”

Steve frowned in an odd way. Trent knew this meant his friend had probably gotten a message on his persocom. Sure enough, he said, “Michelle just texted me. She saw I logged out of SOO and asked where I was. Mind if she joins us?”

Trent was tempted to sigh, but he just waved a hand in acceptance. His friend grinned in thanks and concentrated for a second, sending back a reply. It wasn’t that Trent disliked Michelle Wong, AKA Abbey, AKA Abigail van Cog. He found her in-game persona a little frustrating, but in real life she was quiet and had a very dry wit that Trent could appreciate.

Ultimately, he’d realized recently that he just didn’t like change very much, especially in his close friends group..and the epiphany hadn’t been a pleasant one. Steve and Michelle were obviously happy together and Trent even respected Michelle, so he’d decided to get over himself.

There were way worse problems to deal with anyway. And having some help wouldn’t hurt. People were disappearing. Streamers all over the world were scared. Most had gone into streaming to get rich and famous, but crime and streamer-targeted violence had never been this bad before. It felt like some other notable streamers might even currently be trying to gracefully retire, to fade into obscurity. Unfortunately for them, they made way too much money for their companies and were still on contract.

And the security necessary to retire would be very, very expensive, too.

If it wasn’t for Vermillion taking care of his family, protecting them, Trent wasn’t sure what he’d do. But he actually loved gaming, and as long as he could still be making good money while his family was safe, he was content to stay in the compound. The “Rainbow Ranch.”

His living situation wasn’t the problem, it was the lack of information or current plan that had been chafing on him. With a slight shake of his head, he turned his attention to Steve’s girlfriend.

In-game, Abbey had a 9/10 physicaldex, same as Vale. So Michelle looked almost the same as her character. One of the only changes was that she’d made her nose in game a little taller. In fact, almost everyone in their little group looked so similar to their characters in-game that there hadn’t really been all that much awkwardness upon meeting, at least not as much as Trent would have suspected.

He’s sort of seen her naked before, at least in game. Nobody talked about that anymore.

Michelle was average height, average weight, and her hair was so black it practically shined. She squeezed Steve’s shoulder and sat down. A piece of pizza in a ziploc bag turned out to be her only snack. She raised an eyebrow at Trent and turned to Steve again. “I take it you guys got the message.”

“Yeah. Just in time, too.”

Michelle chewed thoughtfully. “I’m not as tightly wound as Mr. Sunshine over there,” she said, gesturing at Trent, “but nobody recently threatened to murder my parents, either. And nobody stole a fortune from me with and in-game item. But I will admit I would like to get the hell out of Vermilliontown.”

Steve and Trent both nodded. The in-game city they’d been staying in for almost a week was very safe. It was also an XP dead end. None of them had been advancing in their classes, just practicing and waiting on Vermillion. Their team was supposedly going to be receiving a ship, a crew, and one last team member.

And according to the message they’d gotten, they’d be meeting their last team member today in about two hours. Tomorrow they’ll be let loose to participate in the PVP free-for-all that Secret of the Old Ones had become.

The three of them chatted for a while about the mysterious new person who would be joining their team, and what they’d been hearing about the player-versus-player skirmishes happening in-game that they had not been able to take part in yet.

While they talked, the doors to the main building opened and two people stepped out into the garden. All conversation ceased.

Trent’s eyes narrowed. On top of everything else that had happened recently, the way Brutus and Minerva’s players had arrived in the middle of the night only to completely vanish had been...annoying. They hadn’t left their room since it seemed. He couldn’t exactly figure out why he was irritated, though. They didn’t owe him anything, and they were still practicing in-game. But neither of them had divulged any information that wasn’t game-related.

And now here they were.

The two of them were striking. In SOO, Minerva had a p-dex of 10, so of course her player looked exactly like her character. Her real name was Katya. She had dark blonde hair, high cheekbones, and green eyes that practically glowed. If she were walking through a mall, Trent would just assume she was a model. She had the kind of body that wasn’t usually naturally possible without a great deal of work.

She moved like a tiger. Her self confidence and flashing gaze reminded him of how she fought in Secret of the Old Ones with her saber--all grace and aggressiveness.

Her brother made Trent tense up. He’d been fighting with the man’s in-game character, Brutus, for what felt like his entire time playing Secret of the Old Ones. The man’s name was Pavlo, and he looked almost exactly like his character. He was a hulking man with an air of menace just standing there. If his sister was a sharp dagger, Pavlo was like a big, European hammer.

Trent decided to draw first blood. “So you finally decided to leave your rooms, huh?”

Pavlo gave him a withering look. “Perhaps you should open your mouth once you actually have real problems.”

“Hey dickhead.” Trent frowned and felt his heart race. Pavlo was six inches taller, outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, and he had to have real fighting skills or he wouldn’t be so dangerous in-game as Brutus. But Trent wasn’t going to let it go. “Someone threatened my parents less than a month ago.”

“I know. You told me. But it was only a threat--nothing happened. If our family find us, we will die for sure. No SOO item will save us.”

“Brother!” Katya gave her brother a murderous look. “Your mouth iz flapping!”

“Sorry,” Pavlo muttered.

“So what is going on with you two?” asked Michelle. “I don’t mean to pry, but with some of the hints you dropped while we were grouped up, I have been...curious.” Beside her, Steve nodded.

Pavlo raised an eyebrow and looked at his sister. “I don’t care but if you don’t want to tell them, I won’t.”

After a brief pause, Katya shrugged. “Might az well. We will be living here now.”

“In this dump,” finished Pavlo.

“It’s not that bad!” protested Michelle. “The Rainbow Ranch will grow on you.”

“Rainbow Ranch?” asked Pavlo.

“It’s what they call this place,” explained Trent.

Pavlo flowned, and for a second, Trent actually dropped his hand down to brush his rapier, which he immediately realized wasn’t there. He hoped nobody had seen him make the nervous gesture. Whether the man was Brutus in SOO, or Pavlo in the real world, he was always startling and dangerous.

“What’s the deal with you two, then?” asked Trent. “Organized crime?”

Pavlo shared a look with Katya and slowly said, “Something like that.”

“You are a criminal?” asked Michelle. She’d pulled a roll of Starburst from somewhere and popped a colorful candy in her mouth.

“No uz. Our parents,” answered Katya.

Just when Trent was leaning forward, ready to hear the juicy details, everyone’s communicators went off. When he heard the chime of a high priority message through his persocom, his team all stopped talking and their eyes grew unfocused.

Trent quickly read the message, but Steve beat him to a reaction. His friend said, “I thought they said an hour or two.”

“Maybe they knew we were all talking together anyway?” ventured Steve.

“Whatever,” said Trent. “Let’s go see what they want. The quicker we get the fuck out of Vermilliontown and actaully start levelling again, the better. All the stuff I’ve been seeing online about the skirmishes and PVP battles we’ve been missing out on is bullshit.”

For once, everyone nodded in agreement and the group headed towards the meeting hall, the detached building on the compound for administration activities.

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