Shaggy’s return to the bar went largely unnoticed. Several Lackeys and new people were all crowded in the square in front of the bar. But they were all helping get the frame of the new bar up. Shaggy even saw that Blobby was back and Frank was standing over a table and looking over some blueprints with several other people. Ren was still hovering near Frank. But when he saw Shaggy, the big rhino-man flashed a large smile and called to someone.
“Hey, Vlad! Guess who’s back?”
The vampire player appeared from inside the framework of the bar. He grinned at Shaggy before grimacing.
“Damn it, man. It’s good you're back, but I had credits on you going to Deathville.”
Shaggy snorted and sat at a nearby table. He saw C’eereni near Vlad, but the Lackey dashed back into the bar. Shaggy poured himself some water from a nearby jug and smiled back at his friends. Trying to look smug.
“Well, it was a near thing. A running fight with the Phreaks, a building dropped on me, captured by the Raks, escaped again. It was all very harrowing.”
Several Lackeys turned to stare at him as he spoke and Shaggy realized they had a few more new faces. Even the recruits he had taken to the drug heist were back. More of them escaped than he had figured. Vlad made his way over, and Ren found someone to watch Frank. They both joined them at the table as C’eereni came rushing out of the bar with Shaggy’s armor and the laser gun. The alien had an almost reverent look as he handed the leather chest piece over.
“How did we do, C?” Shaggy asked as he put his armor back on.
C’eereni looked confused for a second before he responded. “Oh, we got out with the stuff, boss. Once you got their attention, it was easy for us to sneak away. Then when we got to Arena Square, there was a huge shoot-out, so we snuck around and made it back here with no problem. Stuffs inside.”
Shaggy raised an eyebrow. “Unguarded?”
“Oh no, boss! Petra has the bags in her office and we got a few of the new guys on the door. Although they don’t know what they are guarding.” C’eereni explained.
Shaggy nodded and threw the Lackey some credits he had stolen and the laser gun. C’eereni stared in awe at the weapon until Shaggy nodded. C’eereni accepted them happily and walked off. Vlad and Ren watched the exchange as they poured themselves some water. Shaggy shrugged at them and looked around. The building was actually shaping up pretty quickly. With the extra help, they could be finished in a matter of days.
Ren gulped down his drink and wiped his lips. “Still off playing Spymaster with Ephemara. But first, how about you tell us about your little misadventure?”
Shaggy sighed and went into detail about the drug house robbery and his merry escape through Under-Town. When he mentioned the building falling on him, Vlad got an annoyed look on his face.
“Your Regeneration is such bullshit. If that had happened to either of us, we would’ve been crushed.”
Shaggy raised his hands. “Hey, that’s what happens when you put all your Evo Points into a Regen. Also, the building may have collapsed, but not a lot of it landed on me. I think I was lucky the second floor was already half-collapsed, anyway. So when it fell, I was only trapped, not crushed.”
Ren nodded along with his story and said to Vlad. “Besides, man, do you know how freaky it is to be buried under something? Even virtually, it’s freaking terrifying. In Wondrous, that fantasy game, I was once caught in a freezing trap in a dungeon. Had to use the out-of-game chat function on my pod to call my friends. Even so, I was down there for a while.”
“Nah, it wasn’t that bad. Went through my menus, got some reading done.” Shaggy said, nonchalantly.
Vlad waved at him to continue his story. So Shaggy went on to explain his capture by the Raks and his discussion with Scholer. He tried to keep it as vague as possible, but something must have shown on his face. Because both Ren and Vlad stared at him. Shaggy coughed uncomfortably.
Ren shook his head. “Dude, we need to get you into a poker game. We would clean up. Your poker face sucks.”
Shaggy grimaced as Vlad nodded in agreement. “Oh yeah, dude. You look like a kid who thinks he got one over on his parents.”
“Gee thanks.” Shaggy muttered as he rubbed his head. “Let’s just say I learned some interesting things. We could use those things to hurt the Raks… or we could use them to have a Rak Captain as an Ally.”
Ren blew out a surprised breath while Vlad looked thoughtful. “So long-term versus short-term gain. How bad would it hurt the Raks?”
“Probably not much.” Shaggy wobbled his head noncommittally. “They would lose a Captain, but with Saul waiting in the wings. They would probably recover a faster and then Tillani’s position would be stronger.”
“So how do we get Scholer on our side, then?” Ren asked.
“We have to go topside and find someone for her. Trouble is, I bolted out of there before she could tell me who I would be looking for and where to find them. But I might have a way to find out. It’s just gonna take Ephemara and maybe the boy.”
“Well, seeing how well your last plan went, how about you run it by us and we’ll tell you if it’s a good idea.” Vlad said.
Shaggy chuckled. “Oh, it’s a horrible idea. I just don’t know how else to get the information we need.”
Ren shifted in his wooden seat. “Are you going to tell us?”
Shaggy was about to when a loud childish voice spoke up from the north side of the Square.
“Whoa! This is cool!”
The three of them and several others all turned their heads to look at the unfamiliar voice. A young man in a leather jacket was staring wide-eyed at everyone and moving through the crowd. Every now and again, he would wave happily at the staring Lackeys. Shaggy and the others shared a look before they all stood as one.
The movement caught the boy’s eye, and he waved at the three of them. “Hey! How are you guys doing? I’m Dave.”
Shaggy couldn’t help but grin back. “Uh hi Dave. Can we help you?”
“Oh yeah. But first, are you guys, y’know, like, Bad Guys?” Dave asked, still smiling.
Shaggy glanced at Ren and then Vlad as they stopped right in front of Dave. Shaggy shrugged. “Yeah, we’re criminals. Are you a player?”
Dave nodded happily. “Uh, yeah. But wait, I have something for this.”
Dave took a few steps back and raised his left arm. He kept his right arm tucked into his side as he made a wide circle with his left hand.
“I am the Hero who walks in the shadows. I am the voice who responds to all people’s suffering. I am…”
Dave continued as Shaggy felt his eyebrows climb up his forehead. Shaggy looked at Vlad and Ren, who were both staring at the young man. Vlad looked delighted, as Ren had a bemused look on his face. Shaggy shook his head and went to go sit down.
“Sounds like one of yours, Vlad.”
The vampire happily jumped forward, intent on skewering the poor boy with his sharp nails. But the young Hero player easily dodged backwards and caught Vlad’s hand. Shaggy scoffed, impressed by the new RPer. Vlad’s speed was no joke.
“Umm, can I ask you to let me finish?” Dave asked apologetically.
Vlad stared, dumbfounded for a second, before he coughed and nodded. “Uh, sure kid. Do your thing.”
“Cool. Thanks. Uh, where was I?”
Ren joined Shaggy at a nearby table and shouted. “Shielding the light from darkness!”
Dave waved happily. “Oh, cool thanks. I am the being who shall shield the light from everlasting darkness! I am the hope to all peoples young and old. I… AM... Koan!”
As Dave finished his speech, he tucked his left arm into his side and widened his stance. He flexed all his muscles, and plates of blue metallic armor seemed to pop up from his skin and clothes, covering his face and body. Shaggy was impressed and checked the boy’s scent trail, noticing that he was a Mutant. Ren leaned over as the final blue plates covered the boy’s legs.
“Do you think we should help?”
Shaggy waved him off. “Meh. Vlad’s got it. A better question is, what’s a Hero doing down here?”
Ren shrugged as Vlad started with his whole vampire shtick.
“Are you quite finished, Champion of Light?”
Dave’s helmeted head glanced up at Vlad and nodded. His voice sounding like it was coming from an old-fashioned speaker.
“Huh… Oh yeah, dude. We’re good. Let’s do this.”
Vlad darted forward again, using all his speed, but Dave dropped into a combat stance and looked ready to stop the vampire again. Vlad stabbed his hand forward, but Dave blocked with a knife hand and responded with a jab that was too quick for Shaggy to see. But Vlad clearly saw it though, as he jumped back and flitted forward and behind Dave.
Shaggy looked around as the two fought. The Lackeys and press ganged construction workers were forming a ring around the fight. Shaggy noticed Ren was also glancing around, and he smiled.
“Should we start taking bets?”
Ren shook his head. “It looks bad if leadership starts that kind of stuff. Best to let them come to it themselves. Besides, we are supposed to be rooting for Vlad.”
Shaggy gave a noncommittal shrug as Dave’s voice rose in surprise. “Unhand me, you foul demon of the night!”
Shaggy turned back to the fight to see that Vlad had grabbed the young man by the back plates of his armor. Vlad had the transformed Dave held over his head and looked ready to throw him. However, for the first time since Shaggy had known the vampire, he looked a little winded from the fight.
“This is what happens to heroes that step into the domain of Darkness!” Vlad shouted as he tossed Dave bodily.
The armored man flew over the heads of several Lackeys and collided with a shack. Shaggy was belatedly happy that it wasn’t him for once. But Dave quickly stood again, pieces of sheet metal flying as he forced his way out of the rubble. The Lackeys cleared a path as Vlad stalked forward and continued the fight.
Shaggy sighed as the fight raged on. But it became apparent that while Dave had great stats and some skills. He didn’t have the Skill level to match Vlad. Vlad was a veteran player, and he had some decent Skills in fighting with his nails. Soon Dave’s armor fell off in pieces and Shaggy could see the boy’s clothes underneath.
Dave flailed widely as Vlad picked him up again and slammed him to the ground. A piece of Dave’s armor went sailing over toward Shaggy and fell into the dirt at his feet. Before he could pick it up, though, it melted into the dirt and disappeared. Ren raised an eyebrow at Shaggy, but he just shrugged again. The game wasn’t going to just let them farm armor off another player. That would just be cruel.
“I submit, you foul creature of the night! You have bested me. Finish it and claim my head as your prize.” Dave was saying as he knelt in front of Vlad.
One of his arms looked broken and the armored mask he had was broken on the right side. Vlad placed a hand around Dave’s neck and lifted him, ready to end it. But Shaggy quickly stood and shouted.
“How about first you ask him how he got down here and why?”
“Also, if he has any friends.” Ren added, looking around.
Vlad gave a slight nod before he went back to their pantomime. “Listen here, you creature of the daylight. How did you find my minions, and who else is with you?”
Dave dropped his flowery speech as he said. “Oh dude, I spawned in this alleyway, right? And this message tells me I am going to have some sort of Tutorial Event. But when I am getting myself ready, I fall through a false wall in the alley and go tumbling down this chute, right? Next thing I know, I’m in an underground city.”
“Whoa. Hold up! Did you go through this whole fight with the starter Skills and abilities?!” Vlad yelled. Clearly annoyed.
Shaggy broke out into laughter as Dave looked confused. “Uh, yeah. I mean, I know that some real-life skills transfer over and I’m a Martial Art’s instructor in real life. So I just figured this was normal. I mean, I’m faster and stronger overall than in real life. This game is wicked, dude.”
Vlad dropped the player and glared at the chuckling Shaggy. “This damn game has a huge power discrepancy problem.”
Shaggy shook his head, still giggling. “Hey not all powers are created equal and real-life skills can give you a boost. Besides, you literally gain points from drinking people. The rest of us mutants have to use our powers repeatedly to gain points.”
“But how do they deal with the power imbalance?” Vlad complained.
“They don’t. Not everything is fair, but we can get armor and equipment that can make up for some of it. But some people are just going to be more powerful.” Ren explained.
Shaggy nodded as Dave stood back up, armor receding back into his skin and clothes. “And just like in real life, you have to out think them, not out-punch them.”
Vlad huffed as Dave brushed himself off. “You guys aren’t my tutorial, are you?”
“No. The game doesn’t use other players as tutorials. I will bet you missed your tutorial when you dropped down here.” Vlad explained.
Shaggy and Ren nodded in agreement and Dave got a frightened look on his face. “What?! Dude, I can’t miss a tutorial! I’ve never played a full-immersion VR game! All this menu crap in my face makes no sense to me!”
Shaggy fell off his chair, laughing as Vlad’s face went red. Shaggy could hear the laughter in Ren’s voice as he asked. “You’re a noob?”
Dave winced at the term, but nodded slowly. “Yeah. I finally saved enough for a VR Pod and took some time off work. I figured with my martial arts skills, a superhero game would be fun.”
Shaggy continued to laugh as he saw Vlad’s eye twitch. Ren waved a hand at the vampire. “Oh, leave it alone, Vlad. You still dominated the fight, even if he is almost as fast as you.”
Vlad huffed again as Dave looked at them, confused. Shaggy was too busy trying to catch his breath to say anything, and Ren was placating Vlad. The young man glanced around, confused for a few seconds, before he asked.
“Uh, can I get a hand? Please.”
Ren stopped placating Vlad and glanced at Dave. Turning again to look at Vlad and Shaggy, he asked.
“We taking in another one?”
“We... Haha... can at least get him set up and send him on his way.” Shaggy chuckled, wiping a tear from his eye.
Vlad gathered himself and nodded in agreement. Turning to Dave, he said. “We’ll get you set up and explain some of the systems to you. But you really should log out and go over the manual.”
Dave grimaced again. “Awww, I hate reading.”
“Well, you can learn to enjoy reading or learn to enjoy not knowing things.” Ren said with almost practiced ease. It was clearly not the first time he had said that particular phrase.
Shaggy and Vlad waved the Lackeys back to work as Ren lead Dave back to a table. Apparently, the mutant player had chosen a Bio-Armor mutation. The game had even allowed him to customize the look of it. Something that took Dave a long time, apparently. Dave explained his limited experience with immersive VR and Shaggy and the others talked him through a few things.
One of the first things they did was have him submit a support request about his missed Tutorial. The Support Team answered back fairly quickly about getting a reset done, and Dave looked conflicted. After Shaggy explained that the tutorial was more for getting him used to how this game ran, Dave declined the reset. He said that with them here to guide him, he could figure out the rest.
Shaggy sighed. “Man, no offense, but we really can’t be dragging around a Hero. I mean, we’re all playing as criminals. The hero’s up top have this whole bureaucracy thing, you gotta sign up with the organization up there and be assigned a handler. It’s a whole thing.”
“But we can get you topside. In fact, if you can show us where you came down, that would be great.” Ren said.
“Sure, dudes, no problem. But if being a Hero is a problem, I can go evil. I don’t really care either way. I just thought this was a Superhero game, you know?” Dave explained, sipping at a mug of beer.
“That’s up to you. We’re not going to tell you to do one thing or another. What about your friends? Any of them playing?” Vlad asked.
Dave nodded. “Oh yeah, but there all back in California. I just moved to Texas to open a dojo down here and with the game’s location based spawning…”
“You spawned in Austin and your friends are in Cali. Well, you could take a flight out there or I think this game has teleporters.”
Dave shrugged. “It’s whatever. We were going to wait to meet up, anyway. Besides, it might be fun to be the villain for my friend group. I just need to get a handle on all this Evolution Point stuff and these notifications. I mean, what does Hand-To-Hand Combat Beginner Level 4 mean?”
Shaggy chuckled and shook his head. “It means your real-world skills are giving you a boost to your game skills, apparently.”
“Is that why they kept popping up during the fight? Damn, things are annoying.”
“Agreed. But they can let you know when a Skill has leveled. Or you can turn them off and just check your menus from time to time. You’ll still get important ones, but for the most part they’ll go away.”
Shaggy and his friends continued to explain Skills and the different menu options as the Lackeys and builders around them continued building the bar. Shaggy grinned, thinking about their growing little empire and wondered if they would get anymore players wandering into their territory. He was more than ready to find out.