(A LitRPG Vignette Underdog Story)

Daryl ran through the forest as fast as he could, which was not too fast, considering he was only a level 3 and he was just a Mage with all his bonus skill points allocated to the intelligence attribute. Behind him, two chaotic warriors charged after him, one with a two-handed sword, the other with a flaming arrow loaded into an enchanted bow. How did Daryl know the bow was enchanted? He was fool enough to ask.

At first, he thought he was having a friendly conversation with two fellow players in the World of Galgalax. He was new to the game, and his parents only just let him play this summer after two solid years of begging. He’d kept his grades up, which wasn’t easy to do as a freshman in a new school, in a new town placed in advanced science and math courses in the only STEM magnet school in the county. His very first VR game was his reward, and Daryl was thrilled.

The two players standing just outside the jungle spawning circle were ready to answer his questions. He thought they just happened by and were eager to help a new player.

“Yeah,” the human warrior said, “It’s a level 8 bow, and I’m a level 9 character.”

“Cool!” Daryl said. He hadn’t modified his voice changer yet, so his character pretty much sounded the way he did; high-pitched and nasally.

“Yes,” the level 9 said, “It sure is ‘cool.’ Wanna see?”

“Sure!” Daryl said, and an arrow sprouted from his right shoulder before he could finish the word.

Daryl knew enough to run, because he did that a lot in real life when the jocks and wasters came after him. When two more arrows hit him in the back before he made two paces, he realized the bow was enchanted with some kind of speed enhancement.

“Run faster!” the second player called after Daryl. “We get more points if you’re harder to kill!”

But Daryl couldn’t run faster. His vision had turned red because he was almost dead. He sighed and turned around to face his fate.

“Not cool guys,” Daryl said. “I’m noob.”

The two caught up to him quickly and took the time to mock him by repeating “Not cool” in a voice that was not too different than his own. He hated his own voice, so he knew what he sounded like.

“Get it over with,” Daryl said.

“What a noob,” the level 9 said, carefully raising his bow for a final shot.

The air itself seemed to tear apart with a sound that shook Daryl’s virtual bones. A wall of blue flame crossed the jungle path and knocked the two players back. The loosed arrow flew by and nicked Daryl’s right temple just as a hulking form burst from the woods beside him and barrelled into the warrior with the bow.

Thwak! A green Ogre brought a comically large bone club down atop the archer’s head. His partner turned, two handed sword ready, but another wall of flame ripped from nowhere, this time, with less force, but enough to knock the warrior back. The ogre turned the bone club on the second fighter while his partner struggled to his feet.

Daryl watched in shocked silence as two other figures emerged from the woods, one from the trees, the other from the brush. A female elf launched herself from a high branch with a piercing screech, landing on the shoulders of the archer. She stabbed him repeatedly in the chest before he threw her down. She landed in a shoulder roll onto her feet facing the enemy to pounce again with lightning daggers tracing sparks through the air.

The second newcomer was a dwarf armed with two small, hooked war hammers. He hit the archer at least half a dozen times in the legs while the ogre tangled with the second warrior. Clearly outmatched, the ogre fought on heedless of the danger.

“Ah, a little help here,” the ogre said, almost casually. To his utter amazement, Daryl stood staring while three more low-level players burst from the forest.

“Noob squad!” shouted the archer. He and his friend took off in the opposite direction under a hail of rocks, darts and arrows.

The elf female tossed Daryl a health potion. “Drink that,” she said.” He dropped it. The elf palmed her forehead as the ogre ambled over and picked up the potion.

“Gotta work on the reflexes,” he said with a smile, handing Daryl the potion. “The harness can only use what you have in RL.”

Daryl took the potion without making eye contact. It was looking like the game world was very much like high school. If that were true, he wanted very little part of it. This might be his last game. Maybe he could sell his game rig and use it to buy a robot kit instead.

When he looked back up, the elf female stood in front of him, blue skin sparkling. She tossed her long, red hair to the side and put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Stick with the noob squad. We’ll teach you.”

“Noob squad?” Daryl asked.

“Yeah,” said the dwarf as he returned his war hammers to his belt. “We’re a new thing on this server.”

A human hunter sidled up to the dwarf, said, “We don’t play much, but when we do, we get hunted by douchebags like that for XP. So we decided to band together and look for assholes like that. We made it a custom quest.”

“Custom quest?” Daryl asked.

“The system is dynamic,” the ogre explained. “It assigns quests based on character behavior. We reverse-engineered the algorithm through trial and error. Now we get quest notices to show up in areas where noob stalkers hang out.”

“The game gives you rewards for killing other characters?”

“Not exactly,” the ogre replied. “It’s kind of a low-level hack. We figured out the triggers and made it so we get XP for ‘helping the newcomer.’ I don’t think the noob stalkers have figured it out yet. The game is always trying to balance itself out. It will throw things at you that you need, then make you work to get it.

“Yeah,” Daryl said, excited to understand. “I did notice that I tended to get things just before I’d need them.”

“Smart kid,” the Ogre said, leaning on his bone club.

Daryl checked his profile. The game required players to verify their ages, and Daryl was wary that the ogre was forty-eight years old. He was warned about the creepers, and Daryl was suspicious until the Ogre pointed to the dwarf.

“That there’s my son,” the Ogre said.

“You play with your dad?” Daryl said, unable to hide his shock.

“Yeah,” the Dwarf said. His name was MightyMo. “He’s in the Army and stationed overseas.”

“This is how we spend time together,” the Ogre replied.

“Cool,” Daryl said. “Very cool.”

“Yeah, the game is great,” said the blue-skinned elf named LadyBlade. Daryl checked her profile and found she was his age.

“How can I join the noob squad?” Daryl asked.

The human hunter approached while the others remained silent. His name was Bowmanclature. “You have to prove yourself worthy,” he said. “First, you have to take part in a rescue. After that, our leader will decide if you have what it takes.”

“Funny name. I like wordplay,” Daryl said. “But what does it take?”

“Thanks,” Bowmanclature said. “Wordplay is a big thing in this group. And you’ll just have to come on an adventure with us and find out.”

“I got one!” said one of the squad. His name was Muddobber and he was a troll and a thief, by the looks of his leather armor. “The quest shows a marker just north of the spawn circle.”

“Probably the same guys,” LadyBlade said.

“Let’s go!” hollered MightyMo, and ten players stormed down the path towards the marker with Muddobber in the lead. Daryl heard more footsteps gathering behind them.

Their little pack parted to let pass a level five warrior with four flaming arrows sticking from his back. Muddobber planted his feet and let loose two arrows of his own, hitting the noob staker warrior in the center of his chest.

A couple of the noob squad members chased after the victim. When they finally convinced him to stop running, and that they were friends, they healed him up with a spell and a potion, and asked him to turn around and fight.

“Hell yeah,” the new player said.

Daryl grinned as he joined in with the other three. He brought his lightning spell to the ready and headed into battle.

The two bullies didn’t run this time, they stayed and fought. They’d already taken half the players out of the fight, but none of the noob squad was dead. Daryl understood immediately. They used a mob style attack, going after the higher-level players until they were dangerously low on hitpoints, then they backed off. When they did, healthy players moved in to take their place while the others healed.

To the bullies, it looked like they were winning, but while their health went down, the squad always had a supply of fighters at full health.

“Oh shit!” the enemy archer shouted. “I’m almost dead!” That turned out to be a prophecy. Daryl jumped in and hit him with a steady stream of lighting, ignoring the warrior’s sword that slashed across his right ribs.

A surge of healing energy hit him from behind, and Daryl pulled out a dagger and used it to finish off the archer. “I did it!” Daryl crowed, raising both arms over his head, just as a gauntleted fist slammed into his face, sending him tumbling head over heels.

He lay on his back while the sounds of battle raged around him. Blinking up at the sky trying to dispel the stars that danced across his vision in broad daylight, he wondered if he was about to die. Someone dragged him into the woods and two mages hit him with healing spells until he was well enough to stand up.

When he walked back to the battle scene, both noob stalkers lay dead on the ground. MightyMo and LadyBlade divvied up the loot.

“Who could use a level eight sword?” LadyBlade called out. “How about you, human?” she said, turning to Daryl.

“I can’t use it. I’m only a level three,” Daryl replied. “When nobody spoke up for the sword, he turned back to the small crowd that gathered around the vanquished. He hadn’t realized it, but there were about twenty questers present. “Who can use a level eight sword?” he called out. Nobody said a word. “What?” Daryl asked growing nervous. “Did I do something wrong?”

A large female warrior, clad in black onyx plate armor strode out of the woods. Daryl activated his lightning spells and turned immediately to the new arrival. “Another one!” He shouted.

The knight held up her hands and gave a booming laugh to the treetops. “Easy, there. I am a friend.”

“That’s what the last guy said,” Daryl growled.

“Dude,” MightyMo said. “That’s The Griffin.”

“The who?” Daryl asked, still holding up his sparkling hands.

“She’s our leader,” MightyMo replied.

“Oh,” Daryl said, deactivating his spell. “Sorry.”

“Not at all,” Griffin said. “The Noob Squad honors me with the title of leader. It is a great responsibility.

“By refusing the offer of a powerful weapon in consideration of others, by joining with the good fight and by standing up for the defenseless as one of the defenseless, I hereby invite you to the Noob Squad. Do you accept this invitation?”

“Hell yes,” Daryl said.

All the characters broke into song and dance, and Daryl joined in. They shook the forest canopy with their righteous celebration.

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