Bitter 512

“Come on, Dad,” said Britta. “You can still get stronger. If you find the magic shop and get a special doodah, I’m sure you’ll be able to be an evil dictator, too.”

“Not in the mood.” He gave her a pouty look. “I lost a whole level when I died.”

Britta tried to stop herself grinning. “Maybe next time you should try to be more careful around strange women who live in wells. You’ve seen The Ring, you should have known what to expect.” It was one of the most famous Japanese horror movies, and one Dad had made her and Marisa into watching when they were kids. Britta hadn’t been able to watch TV for a week. At least her prank on him wasn’t during his formative years.

“I was careful,” he said, “and it’s called Ringu, not The Ring. And there won’t be a next time. You didn’t see what was down there…” He shuddered and then returned his attention to the computer screen.

“Was it painful?” she asked him. She has assumed it would be a quick death.

“Very. I was stuck down there for hours while she told me her life story and how her husband left her. She lost the ranch and moved into the well with her cat. It was like listening to your Aunt Jo go on about her divorce when she’s had a few too many.” He shuddered again.

“So, you got to question her then? Did she tell you how to find the magic shop?”

“No, it was more of a one-sided conversation. That part true, was it, about the shop?”

“Everything I told you was true, Dad,” said Britta. “I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“Right, well, we’ll see. I don’t have time now. I’ve got to do this, and then I have to answer my fans.”

Britta slowly walked around to his side of the desk. He was on a forum, bashing away at the keyboard.

“Fans? Fans of what?”

“My videos. You don’t get to ten million views and not attract some recognition for your work. They love me and support me, unlike some.” He gave her a sideways glance that accused her of failing to do either. “Questions have been pouring in from all parts of the world seeking my guidance and expertise. Thousands of them.”

“And you’re answering them all?” Britta found it unexpected that Dad would take time out of his busy schedule (of mostly moping) to be that nice.

“Not all of them, just the subscribers. They’re even better than fans, they provide me with an income. I’ve got over two hundred thousand of them so far, most of them don’t even play the game — they respect my craft. Might end up making more money than you at this rate.” He seemed very pleased with himself. “You might think you got your old dad pretty good with your little prank, but the laughs on you, daughter of mine. People loved seeing me get dragged to my horrible end. Feel free to stitch me up again, anytime.”

It sounded like he was issuing a challenge. She would have to see what she could do.

“So, these people who beat the raid, who are they?

“No idea,” said Dad, typing as he spoke. “I logged back in after dying,” he said bitterly, “and it was all anyone was talking about. Their names are on the leaderboard, like ours were when we beat banshees — not that anyone remembers that anymore — and I didn’t recognise any of them. No one seems to know who they are or where they came from. Ten of them, geared with weapons and armour of a quality no one’s seen before, according to people who were there. They came in, seemed to know exactly what to do, and were super-organised.”

“A mystery team of experts?”

“Something like that,” said Dad, bristling. That was the sort of team he would want to be in.

“They just had better gear, probably,” said Britta. “Maybe they got lucky drops in some other part of the game.”

N-28 had mentioned that there were other regions controlled by other AI. It seemed possible players might have had an easier time levelling up over there, and then decided to try their luck here. It was pure speculation, of course. Britta didn’t even know if it was possible to transfer between regions.

“Maybe,” said Dad. “There’s more, though. When they beat the raid boss, it didn’t end the raid, it revealed a new, harder level. New boss, new mobs, new mechanics.”

Britta recalled N-28 having a Phase 2 to the raid, but that had been what killed off the players last time. This was apparently a whole new raid after beating the necromancer kobold. What she’d seen was just the warm-up.

“Did they beat the new level, too?” she asked, peering over Dad’s shoulder. He was scrolling through pages of articles too fast to be able to read anything.

Dad’s eyes scanned from left to right and up and down, able to pick out the salient details somehow. “They didn’t even try. They beat the first boss and then immediately left. Some of the people in the raid with them gave the new level a try and the new level has a new death penalty. If you die, you go back down to Level 0.”

That sounded harsh. If you lost all your levels everytime you died in the new raid, no one would want to even try taking it on. Not unless they were really confident of beating it.

“Which suggests they must have known,” said Dad. “They knew there was no point taking on the new boss, so they left.”

He was talking about the mysterious experts. Not only had they beaten the first boss, they somehow knew about the death penalty and avoided it. “How could they know if this was the first time this new mechanic’s appeared?” said Britta. “Maybe they just had something else they needed to do. A quest or something.”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Dad. “Too convenient. They came to kill the first boss and they knew it wasn’t worth attempting to take on the second one, not yet.” Dad’s eyes were shining as his mind turned this information over, looking at it from all angles. He slowly began rising from his chair. “My guess would be they beat another raid already, maybe a slightly easier one — no, no, it wouldn’t be easier. Maybe they found a cheese strat to beat it, yes, that sounds more likely, got good gear, and then faced their second boss. Would only take one death to realise what the penalty was. Once they knew how severe a cost they were facing, they probably left immediately, that’s what I’d do. Instead of trying to take on Level 2 and risk losing everything, the smart play would be to take your better gear and higher levels, and go look for some more Level 1 raids. Skim off all that cream for yourself, leave nothing for anyone else.” Dad was standing behind his desk now, his whole demeanour one of intense scrutiny, staring into the air like he was in the game looking at his status screen. “They’d be like gods, stronger than everyone. There’d be no way for anyone else to face the Level 2 bosses without the Level 1 power-ups, and they’d be able to beat everyone to them. They’d be unstoppable.”

He sounded full of admiration, which didn’t really surprise Britta. It was exactly the kind of strategy he would employ.

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