[Roots] They are the Twilight Brigade: outcasts of The World, gathered to try the devil's errand with the strength of numbers, and to find the Key that overturns all.
~written by Tylec Asroc~
Years ago, the city of Mac Anu had been a sparkling desert oasis - a floating, Venician city of harbors and bridges built over rippling canals of life-giving water. Gentle gondolas floated leisurely through the river-streets and decorative banners strung across inns and cafes proclaimed every day a festival.
And then fire had broken loose, and the city was swept out of existence - consumed by the void as quickly as sand at the tide.
The CC-Corporation rebuilt the water Capital. Restoring it, was a situation never quite accomplished. The Son of the Goddess was now an orphaned child.
New Mac Anu withered. A city once brimming with rivers was now bisected by a single, trickling stream that gurgled out into a brown desert sea like sludge from a sewer ravine. A harsh sunlight burned away all cloud cover and baked the city brown and dry. Prized no more for its cool springs, the capital turned to industry. What remained of the original, elegant brickwork town was now overshadowed by industrial smokestacks and towers of steam pipes, bunched high and crooked like a sagging mountain of metal.
With the water, the people left as well. Twenty million adventurers, tradesmen and soldiers of fortune had once brought plunder, prosperity, and excitement to the hub city. Seeing the 'improved' capital, almost half of those prospectors and citizens had shook their heads with disgust and left the mismatched metal town for good, renewing no player accounts and bidding a final log off from The World.
/Twenty million/, Haseo reminded himself, peeping around an alley corner into the teeming market district where buyers and traders flooded the open-air kiosks. /Imagine how much worse you'd have it if that many players were still on-line/. Slightly reassured, the diminutive multi-weapon puffed up his chest and plunged into the roaring crowd.
Fresh meat dunked into a tank of piranhas would have lasted longer; the reaction was instantaneous: faces turned and eyes darted at the prospective buyer, and traders rushed over each other to swarm his face with goods and offers.
"Hey, hey new guy, I got armor nice and cheap here!"
"Oi, little man - I need an extra member for a party, c'mon!"
"Hi, hi! Wanna trade with me? Pleeeze?"
In a far and concealed corner, his heart was palpitating at the rush of items and attention shoved in his face. Up close, Haseo gritted his teeth and shoved the crowds back. "Bug off," he hissed, elbowing his way through the parasites with the toughest sneer he could muster.
One bold little jerkwad was more determined than the rest, and grabbed him by the wrist, pulling his arm for attention like a call bell. Haseo spun. "What!?"
His assailant whimpered and hid behind open palms. The player used a child-type character model that met Haseo at the waist, with floppy, oversized armor that made a trembling rattle as he spoke. "Uh, I uh -"
That distant corner of Haseo was, for once, surging with a dark pleasure now that he was the intimidating one. He was level 20, dammit, and it was about time he garnered a little respect! "Well," Haseo growled, hands planted on hips.
"Ah, ah - " the kid's armor would fall off if it shook any faster. "I'm, I'm new here - do you know where the, the Chaos Gate is, Mister?"
/People/, Haseo sneered. /Always so needy/. If they didn't have a problem for you to solve, they were out to make problems for you. "Down that street," he grunted, jerking his thumb towards a long, dead-end alley.
The little boy's face lit up in smiling excitement. "Oh, awesome! Thanks Mister!" With a wobbly spin he dashed down the wrong direction, armor bouncing like a collection of saucepans. Haseo rewarded himself with a smirk. "Dumb n00b."
A hand clamped over Haseo's shoulder and shoved him forward, sprawling on the brick ground. Haseo spun off his stomach, and gulped at the towering, gorilla man.
"So how do you like bein' jerked around, you little smartass?" Haseo's jaw dropped. Before he could scuttle away, the man-mountain grabbed his collar and heaved him into the air, putting them eye-to-whimpering-eye. "Look atcha - only level twenty and you think you're the big man, pushin' around newcomers."
"It's, it's just a game," Haseo blurted, earning himself a tighter choke-hold and closer thrust towards the gorilla man's growling face.
"Next time I catch you in a field, n00b, your ass is mine." Warning imparted, he dropped his catch and stalked after the misguided newcomer. Haseo found himself in the dirt, not alone, but crowded by people gathered to inspect the little showdown. In a last-ditch effort to save his fleeting pride, Haseo yelled out,
"You think yer so high 'n mighty - but try pickin' on someone your own size, jerkwad!"
"I am," the gorilla man laughed back. "I'm level fourteen!"
Now only Haseo remained, panting so uncharacteristically quickly for a rude badass, surrounded by onlookers, each one a tall and daunting monolith. Scrabbled back on his butt, Haseo was the smallest of the lot. Murmurs danced over the crowd like an electrical current. Murmurs bubbled into smirks; smirks crowded out for giggles, and the pressure rose until the whole swarm collapsed into laughter! Everywhere he looked, people laughing at him, pointing hands at him and hooting at the stupid little Multi-weapon who'd been put in his place.
Holding back the sobs in his breath, Haseo grit his teeth and ran.
There was a statement made by the physical avatar a PC chose in The World.
The perfectly curved women who sashayed around in veils and low-cut skirts declared an inner beauty, a confidence and a power dormant in the real world but free here to explode and dazzle the virtual realm. Otherwise mild-mannered men boasted untold power and strength with broad, powerful arms and bare chests straining with muscles. Those who longed to be extraordinary chose the mutant animal classes: mighty centaurs, cool jaguar men and muscular lions with wild manes.
Head low, shoulders hunched, body constantly slumped and defeated, the character named Haseo was an anomaly in a world of runway models and bulked-up strongmen. All his avatar said, with its scrawny build, wispy albino hair and discoloured red eyes, was that he wanted to be left alone.
He'd run as far as the town square, where an underground well pumped a feeble quota of water into a decorative fountain; slumping over the rim and staring at his wasted reflection. /Should've spent more time browsing the character editor/, he thought, flicking his hated reflection into ripples. His black leather outfit had to be fastened tight with straps and buckles lest it fall off his muscleless limbs, and the only weaponry he could carry were puny little daggers. Yesterday a player had addressed him as "miss" again - probably something to do with the tight pants, and the shirt that showed off his bare midriff.
Haseo raised a fist and smashed his mirror image hard, hoping it would never restore. Again, his thoughts turned to quitting and starting fresh - scrap this measly PC and come back as someone big and strong. Then he could show all those jerkwads how it felt to be the little guy, shoved and tossed around . . .
But then, restarting meant that no one would recognize him, not even -
"Good afternoon, Haseo."
The voice made him jerk out of his funk and launch onto to his feet. "Shino!" he exclaimed, and then Haseo jumped again as the young, pink-haired woman wrapped her arms around his shoulders and drew him into a hug.
He freaked. "Whoa, Shino - !" Haseo broke the hold and pushed her away. "What the Hell! What're you doing?"
"Hmm? It's in the instruction manual, Haseo - to give someone a hug, you target them and press - "
"I don't care about that!" Haseo spazzed. "I mean - " He wanted to rant something about personal space and polite social distancing, but his mind was still looping over events The World transmitted from a first-person view: a girl, a pretty girl, had just given him his first hug.
"What was that for!?" He mentally kicked himself, yelling that out as if he'd been punched.
"Oh. Sorry, Haseo. I thought that was a polite way to greet a good friend." Her hair might have been a frivolous pink, but Shino was always so darn patient and collected. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I won't do it again if it upsets you."
"No!" he blurted. "I mean uh - " Oh face the facts, buddy! "I mean, it's just dumb thing to do. We're playing a computer game; it's not like we were really touching or anything."
Her smile perked. "Well, if that's the case, you shouldn't have anything to blush over, Haseo."
Blushing? He checked himself in the fountain water; game avatars couldn't blush could they??? "How did you know I was - " He stopped himself in the nick of time. "Well, I'm not." Shino had that knowing twinkle in her eye anyhow. Just great.
The young woman named Shino had one clear message to deliver through her avatar: she was not a part of the crowd.
With the administrative sanctioning of player-killing, The World had evolved into a game obsessed with combat and the amassment of personal strength. Shino's character wore no armor and carried no bladed weapons - a short, spritely dress and stockings were all she took over her soft skin, and the black fairy wings tucked into the small of her back. When the game's most popular pastime was PKing, Shino had chosen to play as a Harvest - a white magic user specializing in healing and protective spells; a class that by design was meant to tend and befriend other characters.
"Anyway, I'm here like you asked," Haseo grumbled, trying to stress his inconvenience. "So what're we doing?" The flash-mail had given only meeting time and location - befittingly cryptic for the leaders of the mysterious Twilight Brigade.
Shino only smiled and folded her arms behind her back. "Well, right now, we're waiting for Ovan." The guildmaster! That got a groan out of Haseo, who slouched over till he was wallowing on the cobblestone ground. "Can't we just go already?"
"He could be a while. If you'd like, we could go for a walk. Maybe you'd like to go through the market district?" Haseo grunted and turned away. Shino lost her smile. "Oh. I see. You've already been through the market district."
She knelt at his side but Haseo kept moping, and kept their eyes from meeting. God, she just has to rub it in, doesn't she? It was like he had a big target painted on his forehead - 'Hey, I'm a loser - don't forget to remind me!'
Something pale brushed the edge of his vision. Haseo startled - Shino, her arms over his shoulders and her cheek in his hair, hushing his struggles away. "Oh, poor Haseo. I know it's hard, but hang in there. It's not all that bad, this world."
That far and concealed corner of Haseo was scrambling with activity - rifling through his drawers for the manual, mashing buttons and menus - trying to figure out how you took screenshots or short movies. He didn't want this to end, it couldn't!
"Haseo, were you listening to me?"
Huh? Great, I spaced out. And now Shino put a frown on her face and lifted his chin to keep their eyes together. "I was saying that if you want other players to respect you, you should stop slouching all the time." She smiled and ruffled his hair. "It's like you're painting yourself with a target."
There were prettier, chestier PCs to admire, but Haseo's eyes reserved themselves to only one. She was always there to console and cheer him up, even when he didn't want it. And she stuck with him no matter how moody he grew, like they were bound by string. Supportive, nurturing - there was something motherly about her he found so desirable.
A tiny earthquake rippled his vision. "Ah," Shino smiled, rising to her feet. "Ovan's arrived."
Like the tremble of thunder before a bolt of lightning, one always heard Ovan before he arrived, and his walk suggested the approach of two. The first footstep was the dignified clop of a boot; the next blasted the ground with the tremor of plate armor and the rattling of chains. The quiet, scholarly stride and the crash of heavy metal. Younger players invariably turned their heads at the approach; higher level adventurers with experience on their side turned their weary faces away and did their best to ignore what was coming. A good majority simply bolted for a new area or tried to hide.
Ovan's shadow finally entered the courtyard, and every conversation, every walk stopped and skipped a tiny beat, registering the infamous guildmaster now scanning the crowds. Ovan's height was the first item that one registered - he was tall, and bent his head to pass through archways. He looked down on a crowd like a schoolmaster before children.
Like Shino, his clothing presented a puzzling variable into a land of plate-metal warriors and leather-hided brutes - a scholarly blue vest; spectacles; a posh scarf thrown around his neck. Ovan's dress conveyed intelligence, and intellect - but also a mind frazzled with genius eccentricity: blue hair was ruffled from days without sleep, while glasses tinted orange flickered on and off with reflective glare like faulty neon billboards. One could imagine Ovan the staggering survivor of an explosion, or an electric surge.
With so many cracks of disorder splintering through his avatar, the message every character took from Ovan was that this tall, imposing scholar was one poke away from exploding into a gun-totting maniac.
Ovan's spectacles scanned the crowds, fixing his target with the glare of twin suns, and his face broke into grin. Every player flinched; those who could, cast defense boosters and barrier spells. This was it, this was the Rapture!
"Haseo," Ovan's words were a baritone shiver up every player's spine. They could relax though - all he wanted was the wimpy Multi-weapon chick. Tensed bodies laxed, business moved on, and everyone could ignore Ovan step-crashing through the courtyard for the pair at the fountain.
Haseo scooted off his bottom and nodded his greetings, determined to play himself as unfazed as possible, although it creeped him out every time Ovan spoke his name with such thrill, like he was the most important person in the world. Shino moved to clear room at the fountain - she did not greet Ovan with a hug, but then neither would she tickle a sleeping grizzly bear. They nodded greetings.
"Forgive me," Ovan began. "Have I kept you waiting?"
Shino waved off the apology with a smile. "Yes, but just a little bit." Not for the first time, Haseo sensed a kind of coded message in their words. Their eyes held for a moment, looking each other over and smiling like dear friends. Haseo squirmed uncomfortably.
Taking a wide step from the fountain, Shino offered her spot to Ovan. "Thank you," he nodded, and propped his left arm on the stone rim, sending one last armor crash through the courtyard.
That, Haseo reflected, was the last impression one retained about Ovan - his left arm, immobilized and sealed inside an enormous iron cask.
Crazed theorists whispered all over the messageboards: it was an illegal giga-cannon and Ovan's hand inside wrapped around the detonation trigger. It was a customized, polygonal shield whose segments would fan out like wings to provide an unbreachable barrier. It was a modded mace, and the end hanging at his ankle held a pneumatic piston that would punch out for a long-range kill. All the conversations pulsed with the same beat: hacked, hacked, hacked!
Haseo stole another glance at the iron cylinder - propped on the fountain and supporting Ovan's weight for a change - wrapped in chains, sealed with a huge padlock, and roped by leather harness to Ovan's shoulder. To him, it called up creepy visions of a portable torture device, a spike-filled iron maiden shackled over the arm, its tip filling with slow drip of blood.
Suffice to say, he was eager to change topics. "So what's the deal - this it? Where's the other guild members?"
"Three is all we'll need for today's activities," Ovan explained. He paused, and behind their lenses, his eyes scanned Haseo up and down. "You're eager to leave. Trouble?"
Haseo had a big, fat 'nope' ready but Shino beat him to it. "Some players were picking on him in the market district." Gee, thanks mom!
"No surprise," Ovan nodded. "The way you slouch all the time it's like your -"
"- Painting yourself with a target! I get it, okay! Can we go already?"
Ovan frowned, but let the interruption pass. "Lead the way, Haseo." His free right arm gestured for the Multi-weapon to head up the line, and Haseo brushed by, swinging his arms and making a show of how tall he could walk!
"Oh my, what an assertive-looking Multi-weapon," Shino swooned. "I certainly wouldn't want to bother that player!"
She was just poking fun, but the crowds were actually drawing back as Haseo cut his path - although that was likely due to his company than any act of his own. Crazy one-armed Ovan and his half-crashing strides, and winged Shino, so frighteningly foreign - a fairy princess gliding through a rusted, mechanical city. Who wouldn't steer away from such otherworldly characters of such ill repute?
In The World, there were players who logged in for the sole purpose of collecting unusual or uncommon items. 'Rare Hunters', was the lingo, and Haseo had dug around, discovering it was a polite term for 'Nutjob'.
There was one girl posting on the messagebaords who collected only pink coloured items. Then there was the magic user out to collect every type of sword in The World, even though his class couldn't use bladed weapons. The list spiraled on in progressive insanity. Ovan and Shino were mature, well-spoken individuals, but they were also the two most legendary Rare Hunters in history - and therefore, the two biggest wackjobs in The World.
They were searching for the Key of the Twilight . . .
The Key. The Holy Grail. The Philosopher's Stone: A legendary, one-of-a-kind item that would put the game on God-mode. Edit your stats at will, use any item or spell regardless of character class; even modify the physical construct - rumors abounded that the Key of the Twilight would give you ultimate power!
Of course, Ovan couldn't say what the Key looked like; in fact, no one could prove the Key actually existed. Because no one had ever obtained, used, or even seen the thing. But their Twilight Brigade was ready to change all that - a guild of like-minded players with that same insane faith in a digital myth, gathered to try the Devil's Errand with the strength of numbers.
Haseo was their newest recruit. Of course, he didn't believe any of this Ultimate Item crap - not a wink of it. Joining the guild was personal.
Ovan, Shino. Each in turn had rescued him from being beaten, mugged and bumped off by PKs. And they offered him a place in their guild. A home.
They were the first people who didn't treat him like crap - who weren't sucking up to him for items, or trying to wheedle information out of him. Ovan and Shino . he genuinely believed they just wanted to be with him. And he would never, ever admit that he also wanted to be with them.
"So what're we doing today anyway - new tip to check out? Or is this another training session?" Ovan was okay and all, but get him talking about the Key and he started gushing all this spiritual and metaphysical philosophy - 'The key defies the set rules of the game, so can it really exist? And if so, is it really defying the rules, or fulfilling them?' - like finding a video game item was akin to finding God. "Got some more zen wisdom I'm supposed to learn?"
"Only what you repeat to us over and over, Haseo: that this is a game. So, logically, we should enjoy it, correct?"
"You mean - "
"There won't be any guild politics or prophecies for today, Haseo. We are going on a dungeon run."
Dark and concealed Haseo was pumping his fist and screaming 'yes, yes!' like a little fangirl. In The World, he merely shrugged. "Your call."
The march across town had taken them to a sheltered vestibule with cathedral windows. Inside rested the city's Chaos Gate, a mass of bubbling energy contained within a frame of spinning, golden rings. A teleportation portal.
Ovan gave the landing coordinates. "Delta server. The Keywords are Lost, Ark, Raiders."
Horizontal, Vertical, Dimensional. Haseo pinged the entry-words and readied his daggers, grinning as his data dissolved into a sphere of pure energy, and blasted off to an adventure!