Vale led his little group through the forest. The brine smell in the air was getting stronger. Before long, the trees thinned and they saw the distant ocean. The scrubby grey shore line was just as Vale remembered it.
“How did you know where we were?” asked a woman in the group. She carried a pair of daggers like she knew how to use them.
“It’s the moss,” said Vale. “This is the only area in the Euro continent with Dagger Moss. It’s used in low level magical reagents.
“He’s right,” said a man in the back. “I didn’t even notice before. But what do you mean, ‘low level?’ I was still using this stuff like one or two levels ago.”
Vale made a non-committal noise and reminded himself that most players were still not even level 10 yet. Now that he thought about it, it was even less of a mystery why the new alien-race players had been demolishing human players so quickly.
The group walked in silence for a while. Everyone’s nerves were tight. The sounds of a ringing anvil and other audible signs of civilization were cropping up, but if Vale was right, it wouldn’t be human.
At the edge of some trees, the group peered through and saw a farm at the very outskirts of a strange looking town. Sure enough, they only saw one biped wandering around and it wasn’t human. This was an Abyssal One settlement.
“Okay, everyone knows the plan right? Don’t get caught, don’t do anything to set off any alarms. We’ll meet up at the rendezvous area ASAP.”
One of the group, the woman with a mullet chuckled. “This is kind of funny. Every other time I’ve been a bandit, we’ve just run around looking for someone to kill, but this just might work. It’ll be one hell of a story if we all knock the quest out before dying!”
Vale quirked a smile as the others nodded. He wondered who the mullet woman was in-game with her normal character. Maybe like him, she was a streamer. He wouldn’t know unless this operation popped up on someone else’s stream in the future. By long tradition, nobody had shared their character names or much of any particulars.
The game was usually pretty good about not putting mortal enemies together in the bandit quests or mini games, but it was still possible. And in situations where the players had to work together, finding out that the player that just killed you was in arm’s reach was usually not helpful for group cohesion.
Vale had to admit to himself that nicer, less aggressive players would never choose to do bandit duty, either. If Bart died, he’d be hanging out in the gambling hall.
The bandits all eyed each other for a few more seconds before coming to an unspoken agreement at once. There wasn’t anything else to talk about, so they all went their separate ways.
Vale decided to go the long way around and stuck to the woods. Crawling around in mud wasn’t on his to-do list as a bandit. One other bandit was going the same direction as him but kept their distance.
Everyone in their group had a very simple task. They had to find batteries. Once that was done, they had to meet up again, all while staying undetected. Vale wasn’t too worried about the first part of the plan, though. Player towns like this one were not exactly high security until something actually happened. In fact, unless they were in the wilderness or on a quest, most players in town were liable to have their interfaces open, be talking to an NPC, or they could be researching something.
The tricky part of this step of the plan was finding batteries in the first place. Vale wasn’t sure if the Abyssal Ones even had many batteries. They definitely used rifles and other black powder firearms, but he wasn’t sure about the level of their other technology. Most of his interactions with them had been violent.
It turned out he had nothing to worry about. The other inhuman races might have tentacles or fly or other weirdness, but the Abyssal Ones’ towns seemed pretty close to human looking other than weird growths, creepy shrines, and blacked out buildings that might have human women held as prisoners.
The press and various websites had had a field day after finding out about that. Lovecraft fans had been stoked that the game adhered so closely to the lore from the old books. No matter how heated the arguments go about it on the ‘net, the developers, Ygdrassil, had never publicly responded.
Influencers had opined that if people were angry about the Abyssal Ones, they could roll a human character to kill them. The controversy had actually made the game grow even further.
Vale blinked and came back to the present. It felt like ever since he’d had his Monarch Stone stolen, he’d begun spacing out more. Luckily, he’d already found a battery. Near a shack by the edge of the forest was a crafting station a player had put in place. Nothing there was valuable so they didn’t even have it locked up. Luckily, they had it rigged up to work at night, too. The battery was barely large enough for his purposes, powering some sort of lantern. He nabbed it and moved to the predetermined shack.
When he arrived, another bandit was already there, crouching down, hiding. The rest of them trickled in over the next half hour. Nobody spoke. After they were all gathered, two of them kept watch at the door and through gaps in the walls. The Abyssal Ones mostly stayed inside their decrepit buildings with the odd player here and there wandering around. The players weren’t paying attention. And luckily, SOO was the sort of game that didn’t show a big, floating red name above enemies’ heads unless you already knew they were there or were looking for them.
After another half hour, Vale motioned everyone to stab a hole in their battery. This part was tricky because it was time-dependent. “You ready?” hissed Vale.
“Yeah,” whispered a thin, shifty-looking bandit. He’d volunteered to set the inn on fire.
Their shack hideout had been chosen because of how close it was to the inn.
The thin pyromaniac slipped out the rickety door and Vale watched as best he could through a crack in the shed. It looked like the man had found an oily rag somewhere. Sure enough, he set a small fire to the side of the inn and hurried back.
It was hard to see into the inn, especially through the cracks in the shed. The distant glass was leaded, foggy, and dirty. But as the smoke grew, soon enough, movement could be seen. Vale’s plan partially hinged on the fact that whenever a building in a settlement or town caught fire, if there wasn’t a fire department, players would get an impromptu quest. These quests were generally to form a water line and put the fire out. Only after the fire was out would the system give quests to track down the fire starter if it’d been caused by arson.
The group of bandits were tense, silent as the minutes ticked by. By the time they could actually smell the smoke, flames were licking up the side of the inn. Vale breathed a sigh of relief as a hideous Abyssal Ones jogged to form a line between the fire and the nearest well.
Vale signaled and everyone in their group used a weapon to puncture their crude batteries. Then they all poured everything they could from inside into a bucket that Vale had ready for this purpose.
He mentally started a five minute timer through his user interface even though he didn’t think it’d be an issue.
Then Vale snuck out of the shed, heading right, going the long way around. The fire was spreading on the inn and Abyssal Ones who weren’t fighting the fire gawked. Nobody saw Vale. He quickly sprinted across the street, down a briney, trash-strewn alleyway, and crouched behind a rotten crate, watching the line of Abyssal Ones as they passed up buckets full of water, and passed back empty ones.
He did a double take at one point. A mouse that scurred across the alley had looked like it had a tentacle growing out of its back.
Vale had to choose the right moment to act but he only had a few minutes. While he watched, he examined the town itself more than he’d had time to before. Mold occupied every . nook and cranny. Darkness seemed to settle over the town like a shroud, with dark clouds hanging overhead and seemingly not moving. The Abyssal Ones looked much like he’d always remembered–a mashup of man and fish. An occasional variant existed that showed aspects of some other aquatic life–most of them were likely players.
The buildings were mostly squat, old-looking, and unkempt.
Cale felt the time was right a minute later and jumped forward. He swung his bucket in a flat arc, dusting at least Six Abyssal Ones with the mixture, but maybe more. Then he lunged forward with his rapier, neatly skewering one of the creatures through the neck. Bandits had very low level martial abilities, just enough not to impede players from using their weapons.
With a loud DING! He suddenly saw and had access to three skills. [Line Slash,] [Bleed,] and [Sprint.]
He was familiar with all three skills so he didn’t waste any time. [Line Slash] could be used in a circle around the fighter, or in a literal line. Vale did the latter and also activated [Bleed,] at the same time, applying a damage over time debuff. The attack hit over half a dozen grouped up Abyssal ones. Both skills were powerful, and both had a long cooldown. After he made his move, before the enemy could react, he grabbed a garbage can lid from the refuse pile behind him and threw it at the ground.
All the bandits hiding in the nearby shack across the street flew out with a blood thirsty scream. The racket Vale made had been a signal, and also had been meant to help the bandits find where he was faster. As the Abyssal Ones were off-balance, the bandits fell upon them.
It was glorious.
Normally, a bandit quest for kills was very difficult to accomplish because the game only counted kills a player had actually participated in. This could be a problem, even if an effort were made to let more bandits get damage on each foe. For one, fights were often difficult and unpredictable. Also, it was hard to get every member of a group to apply damage. Even if that happened, sometimes the game would only give credit to the person who delivered the killing blow.
Statuses were much harder to apply, but also a much more consistent way for multiple players to get credit for a kill. Also, bandit quests made skills random. Status-applying skills were rare.
However, in SOO, there was usually a time limit of five minutes after which something that was picked up belonged to the bearer. So effectively, every member of the group had stolen a battery, made it “theirs,” then poured some acid in the bucket. It hadn’t been 5 minutes so Vale didn’t “own” the caustic soup yet. As a result, every Abyssal One he’d dusted had gotten an “Acid,” status that the game recognized every member of the group for giving.
If the group had acted the way players normally played bandits, a few members of their group might have finished the quest before being killed, but most wouldn't. This time was different. Vale heard the ding of the quest being completed in no time, and he knew the others would have heard it, too.
“Run away!” he shouted. “If you can log out and survive, you’ll get an XP bonus!”
Cooperation time was over. Just like that, it was every man for himself. The Abyssal Ones might have been caught completely by surprise during the attack, but now they’d figured out they were under attack. Vale had three of them chasing after him.
The last skill he got that he hadn’t activated quite yet was his trump card.
He ran his ass off and had almost made it to the woods before there was a muffled whumf behind him. The next thing he knew, a net with weighted corners was enveloping him. He tried to use [Sprint], the skill he’d been saving for an emergency, but the net blocked his activation.
Shit shit shit!
The Abyssal Ones got closer, raising their weapons. In desperation, without actually thinking it’d work, he snarled and used his go-to <Wind Blade > spell. He wasn’t sure who was more surprised when the magic coalesced, blowing his enemies off their feet. The net he’d been tangled in was just…gone. Magical pressure had shredded it or blasted it away.
Vale didn’t waste time, he turned and ran. As soon as he hit the woodline he hid in a big fern and logged out. He was shaking.
What the hell just happened?
This time when he wound up in the SOO lobby he logged out and sent a message to Bart to meet him when he could.
Now back in his own skin, Vale went to the kitchen, grabbed some chips, and sat down to think. It would be easy to explain away what had just happened as a glitch, but something about it had jogged a memory he’d been either too busy or too tired to really dust off and examine over the last few weeks.
He was thinking about the time he’d somehow used magic from SOO outside the game…in one of his VR classes. Part of him had convinced himself that he’d imagined the entire thing, but now he wasn’t sure.
He needed to talk to Steve about it.