Patch 17 (realm of arkon.., p.12
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       Patch 17 (Realm of Arkon, Book 1), p.12

           G. Akella
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  Chapter 4

  In my past life I liked taking road trips, especially around America. Don't get me wrong, I still loved my homeland, but after the hell that was Moscow traffic, San Francisco felt like automotive paradise. In the very first days here I'd experienced a profound shock. It was as if someone had waved a magic wand, removing all the intersections, traffic lights and potholes, allowing millions of vehicles to move at a high speed, taking their drivers wherever they needed to go and without getting in anyone else's way.

  And so I often took advantage of my weekends, tossing my road bag into the trunk, picking up this dame or that, and hitting the open road toward a destination I hadn't yet been to, spending nights in roadside motels. Traveling was always fun, but the sweetest road was always the one leading me home. When you've got a home to go back to, I thought gloomily, looking out on the boundless forest-steppe connecting one horizon line to another. My mood somber, I fished a flask out of my inventory, took a sip and grimaced. I shifted on the poor excuse for a bench I was sitting on and continued examining my surroundings. The local swill tasted kind of like tequila, only it wasn't clear what it was made from since I'd yet to see any cacti around.

  The injection of alcohol did its job, and my mood began to even out. The so-called caravan had been trudging along through the lands of the dominion's central province for three days now. We had reached its border five hours after departing from Lamorna, and the mighty yaks continued drawing the half-empty wagons at a pace of roughly forty miles per day. If this were happening in the real world, I doubted we would have traversed even a third of that distance.

  Everything was different here. The animals didn't get tired, the wagons didn't break down, and the road was practically flat. I was also happy to see the zone levels decreasing as we kept moving. According my calculations, by the time we reached Nittal I should be in a zone more suitable for my development.

  Caravan routes in Arkon had been introduced to help players explore new territories. Independently, a player could travel only from his starting city to the starting city of a friendly race; furthermore, a player could create a portal only to a location he'd been to before. Therefore, to travel quickly between locations a player had to either be able to create portals to a location he'd personally visited, or be grouped with someone who met these requirements.

  The game also had a tremendous amount of quests from various NPCs that forced you to explore these new locations to complete said quests.

  The remaining modes of transportation were either your own two feet or a mount, which was a luxury few could afford.

  And so caravans were introduced that connected the capital cities of every race to capital cities of territorial factions, moving along routes according to a set schedule. The player needed only to pay for passage and be logged in for five hours a day—that was how long the journey took.

  Lirrak's caravan had three open wagons, with tents that were pulled over them only in the event of rain. Guarding all this goodness were ten armed demons on horseback, their average level around 210. There were also two coachmen per wagon, which turned into ranged fighters in the event of danger.

  Also traveling with the caravan was a mage by the name Dar Ylsan—a wiry demon with fine symmetrical features in a blue robe. His long, pitch-black hair was styled in a pony tail; his horns, matching the hair in color, bore silvery glyphs. Oh, and he also had a tail! Roughly three feet long and dark gray in color, ending in a bone wart shaped like an irregular triangle.

  "Never seen a tifling before, light one?" he asked me during a rest stop, noticing my incredulous look.

  "No, Dar Ylsan, I'm new here," I said, getting ready to tell the fable of my appearance in Alcmehn.

  "No need for titles, we're all equal here. Just Ylsan is fine.

  As our ensuing conversation showed, the mage was of noble extraction, or a "tifling." The title "Dar" was roughly the same as a knight in the Middle Ages—the lowest title of nobility, either hereditary or awarded by the powers that be for certain achievements. As I gathered, Ylsan wasn't his family's firstborn, which meant inheritance wasn't in the cards. For this reason, he'd decided to pursue a military career. And caravans in Arkon were considered military detachments, a type of mobile troop.

  A tail on a demon designated nobility. Like a third hand, it turned into a powerful weapon when activated in combat mode. To be frank, I still wasn't sure how exactly one acquired a tail when ordained into this higher social class, but I decided not to lose sleep over it—the game's administration moved in mysterious ways. Ylsan was second in command in the caravan after Lirrak as a level 225 healing specialist.

  This morning all passengers except me disembarked near a small town where, as I'd gathered, a local fair was starting. No one else boarded, so I was left without any traveling companions. I gazed upon the scenery, languishing with boredom.

  Immersed in my own thoughts, I cast another glance at the coachmen, engaged in their own conversation, and suddenly realized that I had absolutely no plan. Sure, it was great that I had Kort's letter to his old mate, but the latter was probably too out of the loop at this point to advise anything useful. I needed a plan of action: what to do, and in what order?

  Above all else, I had to find my sister and Max—the two closest people I had who were currently with the dark elves somewhere. I had no doubt that Max was already in the game—for as long as I'd known him, he was never the type to throw words to the wind. But I was in Demon Grounds while they were in Karn, and dark elves were hostile to me. I just hoped that Alyona and Max were relatively safe.

  It was stupid of us to not have arranged some sort of communication. We could have sent messages to one another through a third party, someone like my aunt. But I'd been in too much of a shock when speaking with Max and didn't think of it; for his part, Max was probably a nervous wreck, anxious about migrating into the game. I could only imagine what he felt after seeing what had happened to my sister. Knowing Max, he probably didn't sleep all night, agonizing over the decision, and when it was finally made, his thoughts were focused solely on the execution. I sighed heavily. I must've dialed my aunt a dozen times, but her number never answered. Knowing her religiosity, she could have turned it off for fear of someone calling her "from the other side," God forbid. Well, I would keep trying to reach her. I bet that Max had already realized our shared mistake, and was also trying to get in touch with her.

  I gazed pensively at a herd of antelope-like creatures grazing some twenty yards off the road, and took another sip from my flask. Enough of that, I reprimanded myself, booze doesn't help the thinking process.

  Meanwhile, the road had wound in the direction of a narrow passage between two small hills that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. On Lirrak's order, two horsemen separated from the caravan to scout ahead. I couldn't imagine what might threaten a dozen and a half level 200+ humanoids in a level 120ish zone, but what business was it of mine? They could all go scouting for all I cared!

  Now, where was I? Oh yes, the first step to finding my people was getting out of here; secondly, I had to raise my reputation with the dark elves. By the time I found a way out, humans would probably already map a route to Ellorian, and I could simply use a portal to get there. Wait, why did I automatically assume that I would end up in human territory? Not that it mattered now anyway—finding a way came first, everything else after.

  Then there was Cheney. That scumbag was going to pay for all the pain, fear and indignities I'd suffered. Someone once said that hatred and desire for vengeance were bad qualities, and he who planned revenge should dig two graves instead of one, but this wasn't true in my case. These feelings sustained me through all the hardships. I was going to find that son of a bitch and destroy him, whatever it took. And yes, I was aware how ridiculous these thoughts were in my current situation. But I had lots of time at my disposal, and a great desire driving me. What did I know? Somewhere in Arkon there was a zone that was somehow isolated from RP-17. I had desig
ned the zone myself, and I had an approximate idea where it could be, give or take five hundred miles or so. But I knew nothing of the methods used to isolate it, nor of what awaited me there.

  Let's assume that Cheney and his crew set themselves up to no less than level 300. They also had at their disposal a huge citadel and I could only guess how many guards. I knew the weak points of the stronghold, having drawn it myself; after all, the citadel was designed to be more decorative than anything. Yes, there was a chance it might have been beefed up in light of the latest changes, but there were still holes that simply couldn't be patched. In short, I needed to find a way to get to Karn, locate this zone, and gather enough allies to help me resolve this problem. It all sounded surreal from here, but even an epic journey across a thousand leagues begins with the first step. And I had already taken the first step by surviving, which meant I was strong enough to see it through to the end.

  Lastly, there was the archmage's quest, which might also be my ticket off Demon Grounds and into human lands. I doubted that a hundred Foxes and mages would want to remain here forever. The problem was, I didn't know where to look for the castle the vault of which held all those people in a state of magical anabiosis. All I knew was that it was somewhere nearby, and that two hundred and eighty years had passed since those events.

  There must be some records or chronicles—some kind of evidence with clues. The simplest way was probably to show up before the overlord and ask. I even cracked a smile at the thought, to which Rioh—the younger of the two coachmen—responded with a suspicious glance in my direction. I didn't blame him—it was three days now with the peculiar taciturn fellow who had been hitting the flask pretty heavily, and had now suddenly started smiling.

  No, I wasn't brave enough to go to Ahriman just yet. Instead, I would arrive in Nittal, go see Kort's friend and ask him about the events of two hundred eighty years ago. Even if he didn't know, perhaps he could point me to a library or some other repository of wisdom in Nittal. All the while I would seek out every opportunity to level my own handsome self.

  Speaking of! I opened the Options menu and threw my two available talent points into Ice Blade, maxing it out. The stat points went into constitution. Now, where was I? Right, time to stock up on all the quests available to me and grind, grind, grind like a Korean farmer. Because my level 70 was looking rather feeble for my grandiose plans of reprisal against the game's heavy hitters. I was yet to get my hands on the world map, but for some reason I thought that Demon Grounds stretched beneath Arkon's mainland.

  I was also carrying two letters to Nittal, one of which was addressed to Janam, the overlord's second wife. Maybe I could try my questions with her? Doubtful she'd be willing to converse with a common courier. But anyway. First, I needed to rescue Altus' people, and I'd take it from there.

  As was usual after making a firm decision, I suddenly felt a lot better.

  In the meantime, the caravan had passed through the narrow passage and was back rolling through wide-open space. The scenery, however, changed drastically, which sometimes happened when crossing the border between two zones. The forest-steppe became a rocky semi-desert—a mostly even flatland dotted with rocks of all shapes and sizes. About a hundred yards off the road loomed five massive shapes of stone—local idols, perhaps? There were traces of a giant bonfire, with piles of large animal bones scattered all around. A bit further off I spotted a huge feline stretched out on a boulder, basking in the sun—at level 110, it didn't pose any threat to us. Nor did it care much for us, what with bountiful choices of solitary and small clusters of camel-like creatures wandering all around. I couldn't see from here what they were chewing, only that they were chewing for sure, the way they were lowering their heads to the ground. A few miles off the road was a ravine with a fairly large river flowing along the bottom, its shores lush with vegetation that made the waterway look like a giant green snake.

  "So, like I said, they're going to move us closer to the capital, just you watch," declared the robust black-haired fellow in the coachbox. Fixing his leather strap, he gave a sigh so heavy that the ends of his long mustache swung like a pendulum. "Ask Peotius if you don't believe me."

  "Come on, pop, what's with you?" the other coachman sitting on the bench across from me—a scrawny kid with small horns and joints protruding from under his skin—replied and scratched his head. "They don't give a hoot about us to move us anywhere. And that Peotius of yours is too obsessed with his scrolls and rituals to see what's in front of his nose. Watch, they'll send over some legionnaires to clean up the mess as soon as they're done with the northern provinces."

  "You feeling OK, son? Did you suffer a sunstroke?" the older demon smiled indulgently.

  "What's so funny?" Rioh took offense. "That's what Vren told me—and he apprentices for Master Anrad. He's got a friend in the Second Legion. The information comes from his friend: first the north, then everything else."

  "Mind your manners, arguing with your father!" the senior frowned; if I remembered correctly, his name was Harn. "Young people nowadays! How would a simple legionnaire know anything about anything? Do you think the legate reports his plans to your friend? At least the punishers sent their people to keep the monsters in check."

  "Right, the same punishers that cleaned up around the village but don't dare venture outside in such small numbers. Sure, they're defending the village, made an outpost and are even paying silver for tails, but what's the use? Where are we supposed to graze cattle? There's not even a single mage for miles. Take you, Krian, as an example," the boy had noticed that I was listening in on their exchange and turned to me. "Would you be willing to do a good deed? For a fee, of course."

  "What are we talking about?" I entered the conversation.

  "Back home in Urcahnta, we've got undead crawling out of the Ghorazm Ruins, wreaking all kinds of havoc," Rioh rattled off. "For years things were quiet and peaceful, but suddenly it's like all hell broke loose. They're preying on all things living: cattle, people… The villagers are afraid to take a step outside the palisade. Crops and pastures are deserted—nobody dares to work them. Seems like only the road to Nittal is still free. How are we supposed to last the winter? There are no supplies, no firewood…"

  "Hold on!" I put both of my hands up, desperate to stem the torrent of words. "Start from the beginning. What is Urcahnta and where is it located?"

  "Hush, you windbag," Harn lashed the wagon's side with his whip. "How many times did I teach you to think before you talk, and speak plainly," he let out a heavy sigh. "The esteemed mage hasn't been to Nittal once—he said so back when he first got on. How is he supposed to know about our hole of a town? Don't mind him, he's still young and clueless. He'll wise up once I marry him off."

  "Marriage, uh huh," Rioh muttered under his nose, leaning back. "Can't wait. Can't you see my excitement?"

  "I'm going to have to do some serious convincing!" Harn snapped at his son's grumbling. "No way Master Kern will accept a marriage proposal with your lousy reputation. And what's wrong with Karissa as a wife? Better her than flushing money down the toilet and staring at succubi all day."

  "At least all their lady parts are where they should be," the boy scoffed and turned away grumpily.

  "And? Will you marry a succubus, too? You want your wife hiking up her skirt for the whole damned village? Idiot!" the father pressed on. "Listen, no one's saying you can't occasionally… you know," he twirled his whip in the air. "But don't even think of living with one!"

  "Gentlemen," I interrupted this universal opposition between fathers and sons. "Please, tell me about your village."

  "Apologies, master mage, it's just that I wish him well. He's my son, after all," Harn looked at the sulking Rioh. "Are you married yourself?"

  "No," I said and, realizing that the conversation may now shift toward youth nowadays being irresponsible, quickly corrected myself, "but I am betrothed. She's waiting for me to finish my schooling. It's strict where I come from—no marriage until you
get an education."

  "You see! Krian is a responsible person, he understands you've got to have a family," the demon held me up as an example. "Anyway, we'll continue this conversation when we get home. Now, where was I…" he looked back at me. "Our village is close to Nittal, four miles or so from the northern gates. But that's over farmland—if you take the road, it's closer to twelve. As soon as you cross the bridge, there it is. And we've got ancient ruins a few miles to the northwest. Our village mage—Peotius, a highly educated man—says that the Ghorazm Ruins still remember the Exodus War. But nothing ever really happened there; my friends and I used to hang out nearby all the time, and they were just your regular ruins.

  "And then, three months ago something happened, and all kinds of undead started pouring out. Most look like pigs, only with real scary mugs. Our mage Peotius says it must be one of the cursed ones' handiwork. We rushed right to the city to complain. But they've got other things to worry about, what with two northern provinces revolting. The city did send ten punishers who went and cleansed the area in the vicinity of the village from the darkspawn, but they're not willing to even try with the ruins. Useless with so few of them, they say," Harn gave another sigh.

  The rocky road was now behind us, as the caravan pulled into the ravine. The river emanated a pleasant freshness. The road wounded alongside a sloping rocky ravine wall which, dotted with twisting saplings, blocked us from the setting sun.

  "It's not just pigs," Rioh crinkled his brow, letting go off his grievance. "My buddies and I made it almost all the way to the ruins. It's teeming with the living dead. There was a graveyard not too far away—something must have disturbed their rest."

  "Who did you go with? Sart and his good-for-nothing pal?" Harn blew up. "Didn't I tell you to stay away from them? How many times have they gotten you in trouble? Well? I've lost count already!"

  "The punishers are paying half a silver for every pig's tail. And they're no trouble—sometimes one good shot is all you need," his son waved dismissively. "We're not idiots, you know. We keep to the outside, away from the real danger."

  "I'll deal with you yet," Harn shook a fist at the son, then looked at me. "Well, master mage, would you be willing to help our village? Down in the city they're promising a mighty big reward to whoever eradicates the undead scourge."

  I shrugged. Going by the real world's logic, the two of them—level 200+ hunters—should be able to exterminate all the undead with little effort, seeing as their village was probably in a sub level 80 zone. But the game's laws superseded real world logic. The developers must have designed the quest in a way that the local NPCs were unable to complete it themselves.

  "I will try," I nodded. "Let me find my bearings in the city first, then I'll come visit you in Urcahnta."

  You've accessed the quest: Trouble in Urcahnta I.

  Quest type: normal, chain.

  Find Gilim the Elder in Urcahnta and listen to his request.

  Reward: experience.

  Harn and his son gave a collective sigh of relief.

  "For an experienced mage, it'll be a walk in the park." The older demon fished a voluminous bottle from his bag and offered it to me. "Have a taste of our cider. Made it myself—the apple harvest came out real good this year."

  I nodded politely, accepted the bottle and took a few swigs of the apple wine, which tasted more like juice, then gave it back.

  "By the way, you mentioned something about succubi?" I raised a question that interested me. "Are there many of them in Nittal?" Sooner or later I was going to have to broach the question of male-female relations in this world, so why not do a little research first?

  Harn guffawed in response.

  "Don't you know? What we call succubi are the women who have only a dollop of the blood of true demons of delusion and seduction. The real ones down in the Netherworld," Harn stuck his right thumb downward, "aren't many at all. A pure-blooded succubus can only be spawned by a Netherworld's Elder Demon, and only if said demon or demoness had decided to make a child with a true demon of seduction. Down there, succubi are female, and incubi are male." Harn adjusted his belt and continued. "So, yeah, in our lands we don't really get any incubi being born, but only the females. And the way it happens is usually this: on a very rare occasion that a male half-breed finds himself in the area, he usually covers several villages in a short time. And the local broads can't resist him," he shook his head bitterly. "That's how we get girls that are a quarter or an eighth succubus. They say real succubi sometimes come up to the surface from the Netherworld as well, but I think it's just rumors. I never saw one myself, and thank Hart for that."

  "Yeah…" Rioh echoed dreamily, seemingly evoking a pleasant memory. "The girls aren't bad at all. Sure, they put out, that is they're promiscuous, but as far as everything else…" he let out another rapt sigh.

  "What do you know?" Harn frowned. "That's their blood talking. To us they seem promiscuous—and even then far from all of them—but they need it like oxygen. So says Peotius, and he knows what he's talking about. And Hart forbid a man ever meets a pure-blooded one. That's certain death for our kind, albeit a pleasant one," he coughed into his fist. "Not even tiflings could resist, let alone us common folk!"

  "Master Ylsan seems concerned about something," Rioh pointed at the wagon in front of us, which carried the caravan mage who didn't seem to want to bother with horseback. There appeared to be something moving in there. "I've got a bad feeling about this," the younger demon looked alarmingly at his father.

  Suddenly the sky grew dark, and everything around us changed. Just a moment ago we were driving in the shade of the ravine wall, enjoying the fresh river breeze, but now both the river and the ravine were gone. To our left sprawled an endless steppe with tall grass that swayed gently, massaged by the wind, all the way to the ice-capped mountains on the horizon line. Some five hundred feet to the right loomed an ancient woods, vast and glum. Eternal dusk reigned beneath the crowns of its mighty trees, their trunks concealed by impenetrable fog. The setting sun above had been replaced by a massive lunar crescent, its sharp edges skewering the night sky.

  "What the hell…" I couldn't help blurting out as I looked around incredulously until my eyes fell on Harn's darkened face.

  "Put on your armor and helms! Get in defensive formation!" the commander's shout wrested everyone from their stupor. "Keep moving ahead. There's a large structure by the roadside. We'll stop there."

  "No one's going to believe me," Rioh mumbled in astonishment. "That's the misty rift, blast it! I didn't believe it existed. Pop, isn't this the crossroads where the Ancients' treasure was buried? They say there are untold riches…"

  "Did you hear Master Lirrak? Forget treasure and focus on your helm and armor instead!" Harn barked at him. "If you want to survive this, that is."

  "On the double!" one of the legionnaires that had been riding behind us hopped into our wagon. "We've got a little over two miles to go," he added, tying his horse to the side. Two of his comrades were now riding on either side of the wagon, covering both flanks.

  The zone's level, in the meantime, had jumped all the way to 180. God, I was such a cretin! Why didn't I rebind somewhere along the way? If I died here, in addition to the usual penalty like losing my level, I would respawn back at the graveyard outside of Lamorna. Lending me hope was the fact that the caravaners were all well above level 180.

  "Where are we?" I turned to the legionnaire as he was settling in.

  "Nobody knows," he was peering grimly in the direction of the woods. "The old-timers say these things happen sometimes. You ride and ride, and suddenly the environment changes. Your options are either to wait it out or keep moving forward. Those who have passed through the rift tell all kinds of stories. For some, the journey was uneventful. Others barely escaped with their lives. It's all about your luck," he shrugged. "And another thing—no rift is never the same, each is one of a kind."

  "The stories about treasure are true as well," interjected the legi
onnaire riding on our left. "One hundred years ago, the rebel Prince Vallan acquired his Khaveng in such a rift. It's a sword, a poisonous one," he clarified in response to my quizzical gaze, then stroked his horse's withers and continued. "If not for that sword, he wouldn't have remained a prince. Nor would he have conquered his neighbors' lands."

  "Jaw off the floor," Harn snarled at his son who was hanging on the legionnaires' every word.

  "Nobody knows how many people perished in these rifts."

  "Careful here," Lirrak rode up to us. At six and a half feet tall and clad in plate, I would have mistaken the demon for an orc if I didn't know where I was, even with the closed visor hiding the ferocity of his features and the small fangs sticking out from his lower lip. He was the only one riding a lizard—the same kind as from Altus' memories. The chainmail covering the reptile's body was the same that covered the horses of regular legionnaires, except of course for the cut.

  The beast of a mount looked in my direction with unlinking eyes, drool dripping from its maw, filled with rows of yellowed four-inch teeth. It made for an impressive sight.

  "We're moving toward that structure," the demon indicated the destination looming ahead. "Assuming it's safe, we'll hole up and wait for this blasted thing to pass. Rumor says it shouldn't be more than a day, and we've got enough supplies to last… Get ready for battle!" he roared suddenly, and began transforming literally before our eyes, his already massive body blowing up to almost twice the size, with the metal armor growing in parallel with its owner. His knees and elbows sprouted brown eight-inch spikes; his eyes flared bright yellow behind the slits of his visor.

  I followed his eyes. Alas, there was no way to avoid the welcoming committee.

  Emerging from the woods and advancing toward us with short quick leaps were around thirty humanoid creatures with wolf's faces. Worgen, I recalled the name from the bestiary. Their lean, wiry bodies were covered in leather armor; their yellow eyes shone menacingly in the dusk. The half-wolves were moving on all fours and in total silence. In the front was the pack leader—a huge-ass level 240 wolf with blood-red slits for eyes that glowed in the darkness. Rather an eerie sight, let me tell you.

  In my time I'd read many fantasy books—why else would I develop the hobby of drawing fantastic landscapes? The fantasy authors tend to gripe that when their protagonist encounters yet another monster in their invented parallel universe, the readers, having grown up with graphic horror movies, are too desensitized to be impressed. But from where I was standing, I would readily switch places with any of those authors. Or with all of them at once—let them be brave all they want. It's one thing to lounge in a cozy armchair, staring at a screen while munching on popcorn; it's quite another to be sitting in a wooden trough while a pack of yellow-eyed freaks headed by an eight-foot-tall wolf was leading a totally silent assault against your caravan. Thankfully, the game hadn't yet introduced the concept of relieving bodily needs, because I honestly wouldn't trust myself at that moment.

  My brain was telling me that our squad was fully equipped to deal with two and half dozen half-wolves. Ten legionnaires, a commander, a mage, six coachmen-turned-hunters, and myself. On second thought, I shouldn't even be counted for want of any use to this group. Still, eighteen level 200+ NPCs, and Lirrak whose level was only ten below the pack leader's. But my brain was my brain, whereas my eyes were screaming bloody murder at the sight of the cute doggie bearing down on us.

  But as the saying goes, courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to overcome it. This took me several seconds. It's not that I was a particularly brave individual; rather, I really didn't give a damn. Losing twenty percent of my levels and taking a trip back to the graveyard at Lamorna wasn't the worst thing that could happen. In fact, I'd personally been through worse just in the past several days. Of course, it would suck to lose time and my gear. It was unlikely that I'd find this place again, so retrieving it could be a problem.

  Anyway, like another wise man once said, when your back is against the wall, strike while it's hot! Wait… no, that wasn't right. Do what you can, and let the cards fall where they may. Yep, that was it. And in my case, the best thing I could do was not get in the way—back in Lamorna the karriga had clearly demonstrated my lacking defensive capabilities, and I didn't want a repeat of the same. What I could do was assist on the target that was already being attacked. There was no way I could steal aggro from level 200+ NPCs.

  The combat mechanics of RPG games, which featured groups and raids completing dungeons and various quests, hardly changed in the past thirty-forty years.

  Every raid comprised three roles:

  Tanks—players whose role it was to keep the attention of bosses or mobs, drawing more aggro than the other players and thus protecting the rest of the group or raid from sustaining damage.

  Healers—characters who restored and maintained the health of the group or raid during combat.

  And finally, dps (damage per second)—characters whose main function was to deal damage to enemy players, NPCs(mobs) and bosses.

  Any NPC, whether a boss or a regular mob, attacked whichever player was at the top of their aggro list, i.e. the one they found most annoying. Tanks were well equipped to draw the mob's hatred with special attacks, though other actions, like dealing damage or healing allies, drew aggro as well. Every NPC or boss was programmed with a particular pattern of behavior in battle, usually broken down by phases, and guided by several AIs that operated within their own sets of rules. Lamorna's karriga, for instance, had basically just wanted to split, and had attacked me automatically as the weakest link, completely ignoring the mage that was unleashing a lightning bolt at its side. There were also more cunning NPCs. But at the end of the day, any battle essentially came down to the tank being able to keep the boss' attention with special tricks while the dps wreaked havoc and the healers kept the raid alive.

  If for whatever reason the tank lost aggro, allowing the boss to break loose and start beating on the squishy healers and dps, in most cases the result was a wipe, that is the entire raid dying.

  As the players respawned at a nearby graveyard, the arguing and finger-pointing commenced: the tank cursing the dps that had stolen aggro from him, the dps blaming the hapless tank, and the healers slamming both the tank and the dps for good measure. Eventually everyone would rebuff and start the process all over again.

  With my laughably low level, however, it was virtually impossible to steal aggro from the legionnaires or the coachmen, as their damage output was incomparable to mine.

  "Everybody, dismount and get in the middle! I've got the leader, so heals on me, Ylsan!" Spurring his lizard, Lirrak slipped past our yaks as they drew right next to the wagon in front, obeying Harn's shouts and whip. The demon hopped off, ripped the shield off his back and bared his sword. The remaining nine legionnaires were pulling up on all sides, assuming combat form on the go.

  Bow-strings snapped, unleashing feathery death at the attackers. Two worgen dropped to the ground, and then the entire pack howled. It was a revolting, plangent howl that seemed to penetrate every cell of my brain; I also noticed the grimace on Rioh's face as he kept firing arrows at the worgen. Harn swore loudly, followed by the clanging of iron and the swooshing of steel slicing through the air as the legionnaires, having assumed a kind of wedge formation and put forward their shields, bore the brunt of the pack's attack. The roars, battle cries and squeals of wounded beasts all blended into a terrible medley. The coachmen—still in their regular form—had managed to release no more than four-five arrows at the half-wolves before the attackers had closed in, and were now firing at them at point-blank range.

  Four worgen broke through the ranks and to our wagon. One collapsed on the ground with a sob and two arrows in his nape; the remaining three tried to hop onto the wagon; and one of the three succeeded. Unsheathing their swords, Harn and Rioh engaged the beast before it even landed. Alas, hunters were terrible at close range, and the worgen's health bar was about two th
irds full. With a howl, the monster landed a mighty blow that threw Harn off the wagon and into the paws of its kin. And at that point, I joined the battle at last.

  My Tongue of Flame struck the worgen with fiery and icy flourishes, knocking a little over fifteen hundred HP out of his fifty thousand. Not bad! I wrinkled my nose at the stench coming from him, while continuing to land blows that ripped his leather armor to shreds. I heard Harn shouting down below, fighting two enemies at once, his health bar already dipping into yellow. Rioh wasn't faring much better. Finally, I lucked out when my icy blade procced a freeze, turning the worgen into an ice statue, from his ears to the tip of his tail, for five whole seconds.

  Hopping off the wagon, Rioh rushed to his father's aid. Pulling out his bow quick as lightning, he fired point-blank at the Harn's opponents, while I finally managed to finish off the would-be snowman. The killing blow broke the armor, tore through the brown fur and split open the ribcage. And yes, it was as graphic and unpleasant a sight as it sounds.

  I drew away from the puddle of blood spreading along the wagon's bottom and looked around. In front of the caravan, the red-eyed pack leader was frantically attacking Lirrak, who was blocking the attacks with his shield while goading the beast. Several legionnaires and the commander's reptilian mount were attacking him from the sides. Still standing in his own wagon, Ylsan threw up his hands periodically, a greenish glow emanating from them, while the rest were finishing off the few surviving worgen. A horse was convulsing in agony before our wagon, its throat ripped open. A little to the side, Rioh was working over his father sitting on the ground, bandaging his wounds.

  My blood pumped with adrenaline, demanding the "show to go on." I teleported to the pack leader and began helping the legionnaires hack away at the howling beast. Eight million HP—goddamn! And that was just the remaining third of his health bar! My feet nearly slipped on some glaucous scraps; the scents of dog's flesh and blood were overwhelming. A few times when I didn't jump back in time the wolf knocked me to the ground with his torso, and once I was nearly trampled by Lirrak's own lizard.

  I was out of control. Having lost my grip on reality, I kept hacking away, getting up and hacking some more. When my energy inevitably ran out, I gulped down a green potion and resumed my rotation: Tongue of Flame, Ice Blade…

  When the monster's health bar reached ten percent, he threw up his head and howled. It was the kind of howl that made all his previous wailing seem like nursery rhymes as compared to death metal.

  "Everybody, get back!" I heard the caravan's commander's shout from afar. "Archers, finish him off."

  I jumped twenty yards to the side, and just in time, too, as huge black spikes stuck out of the monster's sides, and he started spinning in place like an urchin out of some nightmare. The hunters continued pelting the boss from a safe distance, each arrow plunging into the target with a sickening crunch, while Ylsan kept topping off Lirrak's health as he continued tanking. As for me and the other legionnaires, we simply stood by and watched. Lirrak's lizard, having taken too long to move away, was also nearby, panting and licking its side, ripped open by the spikes. Its health bar had dropped to half, but the mount would be as good as new soon enough. Finally, sprouting arrows like a porcupine, the beast collapsed on the ground, wheezing in agony.

  Obviously, I didn't get any experience for the kill since I hadn't been invited to any raid. And in order to get the experience in this scenario, I would need to deal the most damage to the boss. Alas! My first real battle didn't bring me any experience or loot. But truthfully, I wasn't upset at all. In fact, I was happy to have gone through it. What did concern me slightly was the fact that I had seemed to have lost my head there for a while, succumbing to adrenaline rage. I had never experienced anything like that before.

  A sudden wave of weariness came over me. Why does everything hurt?! I grimaced and sat on the ground. I glanced at my HP bar—it was over two thirds full. When did I manage to get hit? Swearing through my teeth, I reached for a healing potion, but Ylsan preempted me. A cool wave of freshness washed over me, lifting the pain and the fatigue. I got back up to my feet, grabbing onto the offered hand.

  "Sure you're a mage, Krian?" the healer regarded me musingly, shaking his head. "You don't look like a light one either. The way you blocked the pain… Though I did read that we're not the only ones who can do that."

  Blocked? Uh huh. It was my 33% to toughness, but it wasn't like I could explain it to an NPC. But it did illustrate that losing one third of your life for an extended period of time was entirely bearable. In fact, I didn't even really notice it while in combat. What was the limit, I wondered? And what would happen when that limit was reached? Would I convulse in a pain shock or simply pass out? I wasn't looking forward to it—I never was a masochist and I didn't feel like experimenting now.

  "What do you mean by 'blocking the pain?'" I asked the mage. I had to say something—he was clearly expecting an answer.

  "Just like a hartoga that got its paw broken. The creature isolates the paw from the rest of its nervous system while it heals. You weren't in our party, and I didn't see that you needed heals. But you fought through the pain and made it. Well done."

  I didn't know what a hartoga was, but I got the gist of what he was saying. Could that be the reason why I had fought with such abandon, and not my toughness? Nah, doubtful.

  I looked around. The legionnaires were chatting quietly while looting. The hunters were deftly skinning the red-eyed wolf. Those who had never witnessed such a spectacle would never understand why it nearly turned me inside out. An animal carcass being worked by men with knives and elbows deep in blood! Like proper residents of the Medieval Times: caught, killed, and skinned. We weren't expected to eat the wolf meat, were we? At least worgen couldn't be skinned, otherwise I would surely lose my dinner. And there was another weird thing: relieving oneself wasn't allowed, but puking—sure, knock yourself out. I thanked the mage and started toward my wagon, away from the hunters and their wretched smells. I slipped on somebody's entrails, and nearly retched for the umpteenth time. I pulled out my flask and took a hearty swig. Phew, much better…

  Upon making it to the wagon, I shoved the dead half-wolf out and retook my former spot, trying to avoid the blood on the floor that had nearly dried. Thankfully, there weren't any mirrors around—I could only imagine what I looked like. No matter, the clothes and the armor would self-clean in eight hours.

  That particular feature I'd learned from experience, after accidentally spilling wine on my shirt sleeve on the first day of our journey. By morning the stain was gone, and the shirt was as good as new. This must have been somehow connected to the vanishing of discarded items. At some point, this principle had been introduced to keep the littering in the game in check.

  The coachmen came back ten minutes later, engaged in a lively discussion. If their task had to be done in the real world, it probably would have taken them half the day. But they made for quite a sight just the same.

  "Where else am I going to earn twenty gold for half an hour's work?" Rioh bent over the worgen carcass I had thrown out of the wagon. "Another silver!" he tossed the coin and caught it.

  "You're still young," Harn wiped his hands—still stained with the pack leader's blood—on his pants and looked around for his whip. "It was a miracle they didn't rip us apart. Who needs gold when your guts are spilling out of you?" Having finally found his whip, he shouted at the yaks to move back, giving some room to the anterior wagon.

  "Why do you need this one's hide?" I pointed at the skinned carcass.

  "It will sell for about fifty coins—either to some merchant or to Master Rius, one of the court's mages. Whether they turn it into a scarecrow or whatever, I don't know, and it's none of our business really. But they will pay for it."

  Obeying Lirrak's command, Harn guided the wagon to the middle of the road.

  The caravan's commander pulled up to us on his two-legged croc and handed me some gold.

  "Twenty on
e coins," he said to me, "your share of the loot. Thanks for your help."

  I nodded and accepted the money. I couldn't well refuse the first gold I'd actually earned, now could I?!

  "What is that structure we're heading to?"

  "An inn, by the looks of it. The kind that's often placed along roads. We'll know for sure when we get closer," he said and set his lizard toward the head wagon.

  We were joined by one of the legionnaires—the one whose horse ended up being torn to pieces.

  "Sir, how much do you get paid per service contract?" Rioh asked him without preamble.

  "My name is Zaran," he smacked the boy on the shoulder. "One silver per day when on the road, and twenty five copper in between assignments. All in all, almost two gold per month. Plus your fair share of the loot. How much did you and your father make today? Thought so!" he smiled.

  "Moving out!" Lirrak shouted, and the wagons began picking up speed, moaning and groaning their way toward the solitary structure ahead.

  "What are you thinking, son?" Harn asked sternly, without turning around.

  "Come on, pop, how much did we make all of last year? Especially with all the undead crawling around the village lately?"

  "And when some beast separates your head from your body, how will all that gold help you?"

  "I've been with Lirrak for fifteen years, and we've never come across anything like today," the legionnaire stepped in for the boy. "Our squad hasn't lost a man in all those years. The guy you're replacing has moved out west to his family. He now works as Prince Shiren's steward."

  "Let him explain that to his mother," Harn waved dismissively at his son and turned around.

  It took us an hour to roll up to the structure, fenced off by a ten-foot-tall palisade. The scouts returned to report that the inn was empty, and the caravan began to slowly pull into the gate, the doors of which were lying on the ground nearby. I hopped off the cart while the soldiers and coachmen unsaddled the horses and yaks, hanging bags of grain to their muzzles. Behind the palisade was a spacious stables, two wells and a smithy some fifty feet away from the main buildings, evidently for fire safety considerations. A moat ran along the perimeter, filled with stagnant water and overgrown with reddish-brown seaweed. Standing on the inside of the wall were several wooden dais for archers. The main building was growing decrepit, its size roughly that of Kort's inn.

  "Where did all this come from?" I asked the mage as he examined carefully one of the gate's doors.

  "Ask me something easier," he shrugged. "It's my first time in a rift."

  "What's this?" Lirrak walked up to us, having dismounted his lizard.

  "Not clear. The doors are intact, but someone was clearly trying to break in," the mage motioned at the deep furrows in the wood. "And it wasn't our friend either," he added, evidently alluding to the slain pack leader, "but someone larger. I can't tell when it happened, there's a strange magical veil here," he cocked his head and looked at me. I shrugged, sensing no magic whatsoever. Isolated threads of power here and there, but no more. "The gate wasn't broken, but restoring it is going to be tough. See, the doors are all crooked, and the bindings have been removed," he finished.

  "We're not going to bother with that. We've got enough people to hold out, if need be," the commander dismissed the idea. "We'll sleep in the main hall; I doubt there's going to be any more trouble."

  The front door screeched, and I followed Ylsan inside. My throat began to tickle almost instantly from the raised billows of dust. The mage swore softly and uttered something, and the dust clouds were instantly blown out the window by a gust of wind. It was now possible to breathe.

  I looked around the place. It was completely deserted, with rickety and seemingly worthless furnishings. Several tables overturned, the staircase to the second floor crumbling, the bar of light brown wood stained with something black. Hanging lopsidedly off a single nail on the wall was a rural painting.

  True to the scouts' report, the place was empty of anyone living. And of anyone dead, thankfully. The legionnaires that had gotten here before us were hastily dragging the tables and staircase debris to the corners of the hall. One of the coachmen was starting up the fireplace with all the scattered fragments.

  "Zaran, Ghejt, check upstairs. Ylsan, cover them, just in case," Lirrak was the last to come inside. "You," he stuck a finger at the coachmen, "board up the windows."

  "There's a basement here," a soldier appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, gesturing behind him.

  "Let's check it out," the commander nodded.

  I still couldn't shake the foul taste of dust in my mouth. Feeling completely useless, I skirted Zaran as he aimed to hook a rope to the ceiling, and moved deeper into the dining hall. Everything seemed to be fine, except for the strange almond-like smell that stirred a feeling of unease.

  Oddly enough, nobody was rushing to sleep. The soldiers were spreading their beddings on the floor without any fuss. Back from the cellar with a small keg of something, Lirrak assigned night shifts and announced dinner. Ylsan appeared upstairs and, avoiding the hassle of climbing down the rope, simply teleported and reported that the second floor was all clear.

  "What's in the cellar?" he asked the commander.

  "Empty. A few split-open kegs and a pile of rotten vegetables. This," the demon patted on the keg he was carrying, "is all that's left."

  "Got it. I'll set up some signal traps outside," he declared. "Leave some of that goodness for me."

  "Better hurry, then," Lirrak grinned. "Or you might miss the party."

  "Can I come along?" I asked the mage.

  He looked at the commander, and only after the other nodded did he shrug his answer.

  "Suit yourself."

  The weather had turned rotten, with the crescent now hiding behind the clouds and a sharp gusty wind blowing from the direction of the woods. The dark blotch of trees massaged by the wind, visible through the gap in the gate, resembled some ancient monster. Shivering, I followed after the mage who, rounding the building along a perimeter, paused for a little while outside of every boarded-up window and whispered something, his hands moving ever so slightly, making irregular circles that flashed green on the ground and faded. That was all I saw, but it was clear that we were now under some kind of protection.

  Coming back inside, I dined with everyone and then took up a spot by the wall farthest from the windows, just in case something ended up crawling through there after all. The legionnaires would handle it just fine whereas I might just get one-shot. This way I'd still have a chance. Without a bedding of my own, I wrapped myself up in Kort's cloak and tried to fall asleep.

  In the books I'd read, many protagonists that ended up in some magic or parallel world would invariably exert a maniacal tenacity to try and get back home. You would think that they all had a wife and kids waiting by the door, but no! More often than not, the protagonist was a loser in his former life—and still, having become a great mage, king or dark lord, sitting up on his throne, surrounded by faithful brothers-in-arms and beautiful wives, he languished for his distant home. Inexplicably homesick, he embarked on new quests, challenged even tougher enemies, and all to find that sacred key that unlocked the door back home. The authors clearly lacked the imagination to give their heroes a more suitable role. At the end of such a book, the protagonist should naturally realize that this was his new home, and never leave it. Only I never bothered finishing such hogwash.

  I asked myself if I wanted to go back, and didn't hesitate for a second with the answer—no. I had goals here to achieve, and the throne and the wives could wait—I wasn't pressed for time in the slightest. I needed to get out of Demon Grounds first, then worry about the rest. And with those thoughts, I succumbed to sleep.

  I woke up from a nagging pain in my left foot. Before even fully opening my eyes, I already remembered where I was: at an inn in some misty rift, with the caravan. The firelight and several magic lanterns illuminated the shapes of my sleeping companions. But what wa
s up with the pain in my leg? Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed movement, and froze perfectly still. I could swear that I wasn't sleeping, and that this was all happening for real. I saw a young woman floating five feet up in the air, her arms splayed wide and palms turned upward. Barefoot, in streaming clothes, with long hair and a comely face, she was looking up at the ceiling. A soft greenish glow coated her figure.

  Still peering up at the floating woman, I noticed the two sentries behind her—sitting by the door in unnatural poses, watching the strange woman in a glassy-eyed stupor. Their weapons lying at their feet, their mouths were twisted into rapt, imbecilic smiles. I glanced at my feet and froze again, this time with dread. Having pierced a hole in my metallic greave with its proboscis, a nasty-looking thing was gnawing on my leg—four to five feet tall and squirmy, like a May bug larva. My HP bar had already been cut by a third. Another specimen was several yards to my side, stirring soundlessly next to a sleeping Rioh.

  Blood rushed to my head.

  "Alarm!" I bawled, jumping up to my feet. I bared my sword and dealt two blows to the worm's body—Ice Blade followed by Tongue of Flame—simultaneously registering that the bloodsucker was level 81.

  Though I started out from an awkward position, my sword ended up breaking the beast's whitish, pimply skin. Greenish ooze burst from the wound, and the mob's health bar dropped by a quarter. The worm jerked its stinger out of my foot, and slammed its black head into my chest, returning me to a supine position. But I was back on my feet the next instant, choking with rage and revulsion, and still screaming "Alarm!" at the top of my lungs. A hailstorm of blows rained down on the monster, alternating between Ice Blade and Tongue of Flame. The eighth strike proved to be the last—upon death the mob deflated like a popped balloon, leaving behind only its now-gray skin and a puddle of fetid goo.

  You've accessed the quest: Rescuing Companions.

  Quest type: unique.

  Destroy the skhiarta and her larvae before they devour Lirrak's caravan of demons.

  Reward: experience, Band of Dancing Grass.

  Attention! If all the demons stay alive, you will receive a bonus reward.

  I popped a healing potion, buffed myself with Shield of the Elements, and took a look around. Six more worms were sucking on my sleeping companions. The woman floating in the air had turned her head unnaturally and was peering at me with inhuman eyes. Level 240 and two million hit points! Nearly as much as the leader of the pack that had attacked us.

  Despite all my shouting, not a single demon rose to his feet. They were all alive, for now, but immersed in some kind of a weird dream. So why did I wake up? Must be my mental magic resistance, the thought flashed through my head as I was unleashing a Tongue of Flame at the worm siphoning life out of Rioh. The monster's health dropped to half. Ice Blade, another Tongue of Flame, dodge the head butt, another blade… Another one down!

  After nearly slipping on the ooze spreading across the floor, I pounced on the next one. Tongue of Flame, Ice Blade—freeze procced. Four consecutive strikes at the frozen carcass and the worm croaked before it could even remove the stinger from the sleeping Ylsan. I kicked the mage's body in an attempt to wake him, but to no avail—the tifling wasn't moving, as if totally paralyzed. Another teleport and a Tongue of Flame at the fourth mob.

  Suddenly everything changed. As I was beating up on the fourth, the remaining three broke away from their feasts and crawled rapidly in my direction. Finishing off my opponent hastily, I had no time to turn around before a powerful blow to my side knocked me several yards back. Tripping over one of the sleeping bodies, I fell to the floor, my HP bar decreasing by a third. I jumped back to my feet and ran to the right lest I get surrounded. What to do? I wasn't going to survive against three…

  Idiot! I had a shield! I ripped it off my back and charged the nearest foe. The sword sliced through the gruesome mug's black chitin with a squelch—a crit! The slime sprayed my cheek, burning the skin with. The squealing beast responded with its standard attack, which I blocked with a shield. After executing another blow, I jumped aside to avoid another worm getting at me from the left. Tripping on another sleeping body, I managed to maintain my balance and Jumped toward the windows and piled-up tables and benches. The figure floating above the floor didn't look like a woman anymore, as if it had been stripped of its human aspect. Instead, a seven-foot-tall brown caterpillar now hung in the air, flapping a set of translucent, dragonfly-like wings and staring at me with huge facet eyes. Its very appearance evoked foulness, as if crawling upon my consciousness with its slimy underbelly. At least the beast was just hanging there; if it were to join the battle, I wouldn't last a second. That was probably the script: the mother paralyzed the prey while its brood fed. At least I hoped that was the case.

  I struck at the same larva, then hurled a bench at the other two, both with full health, as they crawled toward me. Their hit points dipped just barely as I Jumped back to my primary target. Two more blows and only two opponents remained.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 71.

  You have 1 stat point to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 3 stat points to allocate.

  I kited them for a while, waiting for my HP to recover. Then, selecting one of the remaining worms, I attacked with Ice Blade. The worms struck back almost simultaneously. I blocked both attacks and landed two of my own. My energy running low, I had to pop another green bottle to restore it. I dodged an attack, blocked the next with my shield, then quickly countered with a one-two combo, deliberately targeting the same worm. The beast needed just a few more hits, but my own health bar had also dipped below half—I was feeling this very acutely, even in battle. My temples throbbed, my whole body ached from the pain that was washing over me.

  I Jumped back toward the piles of furniture. Gulping down my last medium healing potion, I threw the tables on the ground behind me and bolted to the far end of the hall. I still had one potion of greater healing in reserve, but it was too early to use it. I didn't count the other one in my bag—there was no time to rummage in there.

  After biding time for the cooldown to refresh, I Jumped again and finished off another larva. At last, it was one against one. Back to the standard rotation: two attacks, block, two more attacks, freeze procced—and four more swings with my blade to dispose of the last beast.

  And there I was—covered from head to toe in green slime—standing opposite the skhiarta. Was it leaving now or what? No, the caterpillar just kept hanging there, boring me with its eyes. I had barely over half my health left, but there was no point in wasting a potion of greater healing. Sure, it was painful, but the sensation of pain was somehow distant. Swearing through clenched teeth, I opened my inventory and drank the last of my medium healing potions. It was the moment of truth. If the nightmarish insect attacked with anything other than mental magic, I was done for. Suddenly I felt my blood starting to boil with rage. What the hell was this winged abomination? What cesspit had it crawled out of and how dared it infringe on my life?! I charged the monster and executed a few attacks… The blade left two marks on the chitin armor, but the boss didn't react in any way. So, only mental magic. Excellent, I might just live another day.

  I kept hacking away at the caterpillar frozen in the air, alternating my special skills as usual. Whenever my energy ran out, I switched to regular attacks; when the vigor bar refilled, I switched back to special skills. Using Shaartakh's Venom seemed pointless—I wasn't going to deal two million damage to this dragonfly creature in the span of ten minutes. So I kept beating it like a mannequin. After a little over eight hours, the skhiarta crackled and crumbled to the floor. With a heavy sigh, I lowered myself next to its remains.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 72.

  You have 2 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1%
resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 6 stat points to allocate.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 73.

  You have 3 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 9 stat points to allocate.

  Even after a grueling ordeal like that, I didn't feel particularly fatigued. The small deficit in HP—less than ten percent—was restored rather quickly. With the fight being over, I was back to naturally regenerating health based on my spirit attribute, and this was only possible out of combat. And though my rate of regeneration was fairly low at less than one percent per tick, I was in no position to complain.

  And now for the loot. I reached out and touched the insect's remains. There was the clang of gold, as three hundred fifty one coins passed into my ownership. Four level 200+ items, twenty vials of skhiarta blood and six eye fragments—all of them rare. Another letdown. The gold was a nice haul, but the items did nothing for me. I got out my flask and took three sips. Each larva also had a pair of eye fragments and five vials of blood. I couldn't begin to fathom what all those ghastly things could be used for, but wiki would have all the info. Later.

  How long would the caravaners keep up the slumberous act, I wondered? Maybe I should pour water over them? I rubbed my cheek contemplatively—it was still burning from the larva blood that had gotten through the open visor. There were two wells outside, but I didn't feel like trekking there on my own. Something might still be out there, and I could inadvertently set off Ylsan's traps. There had to be water around here somewhere.

  But then, finally, there was movement from Lirrak. The commander propped himself up on his elbow with a grimace and looked around. Upon seeing the scene, he jumped to his feet but barely held his balance, reeling. He looked at me with murky eyes, then at the skhiarta's remains, and wheezed:

  "Is that what I think it is?"

  "I don't know what you think, but if it's a flying caterpillar with a ravenous brood, then yes," I nodded at him.

  Your reputation has increased. The caravan commander Captain Lirrak relates to you with respect.

  "Thank you, mage," Lirrak nodded as he looked around the hall. "No casualties," he proclaimed. "How did you manage to resist its charms?"

  "I had good buffs up, so when one of the worms started feeding on me, I woke up. Do you know how to wake the others?"

  "I know how to wake Ylsan, and he'll figure out the rest," the demon walked over to the lifeless tifling, leaned over him and poured something down his throat.

  Nothing happened at first, but then the tailed demon's body jerked. His eyes opened and he sat up abruptly, convulsing as he puked. Lirrak had prudently moved away in time, and was now observing his assistant's torment with a kind of eerie contentment. Well, he is a demon, I chuckled mentally.

  "What the Hart is happening to me…" the tifling squeezed out of himself.

  "All good now," Lirrak grunted, having fully recovered his senses. "But we were nearly devoured by a skhiarta's brood. Get yourself together, the boys need waking."

  "A moment," a vial with a bluish fluid appeared in Ylsan's hand. He upended the whole thing into his mouth, grimaced and rubbed his eyes for some reason, then finally looked around the hall.

  Your reputation has increased. Mage Raey Dar Ylsan relates to you with respect.

  "Shit… Is this your doing, light one?" he looked at me intently. "Who buffed you like that?! And how did you even survive? Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that you did… But it's kind of hard to believe!"

  "Don't pester him. Look, he's pale as a ghost," Lirrak chortled, his friendly smile—framed with protruding fangs—resembling a wolf's scowl. A fellow of considerable bravery out for a stroll late in the day wouldn't hesitate to cross the street at the sight of such fangs. Everyone else was guaranteed a visit to a psychiatrist—in the best case scenario. "Here, a gift of gratitude from me and my people," he put a ring of silvery metal into my hand.

  "And this one's from me personally," the mage smiled. The ring was joined by a gold trinket shaped like a silvery crescent.

  You've completed the quest: Rescuing Companions.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 74.

  You received: Band of Dancing Grass.

  You received: Earring of the School of Restoration.

  You have 4 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 12 stat points to allocate.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 75.

  You have 5 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 15 stat points to allocate.

  Band of Dancing Grass.

  Accessory; ring.

  Durability: 470/470.

  Rare item.

  Minimum level to equip: 70.

  +60 to agility.

  +40 to constitution.

  +1% to critical hit chance with a physical attack.

  Weight: .01 lbs.

  Earring of the School of Restoration.

  Accessory; earring.

  Durability: 450/450.

  Rare item.

  Minimum level to equip: 70.

  +50 to spirit.

  +50 to intellect.

  +1% to health regeneration.

  Weight: .005 lbs.

  There, my first truly earned levels. My leveling speed was just incredible! Say what you will, but spending some time in high-level zones certainly had its uses.

  All of a sudden there was a flash, and everything in reality changed. The inn's walls disappeared, there was a lapping of water, and we found ourselves mired in a swampy lowland, at the edge of the same ravine, forty or so yards off the road. The bog squelched nastily underfoot, ankle-high in the place where the demons were sleeping; the wheels of wagons parked twenty yards away were mostly submerged.

  There was a string of cussing all around, as the shift in reality quickly brought everyone to their senses. I couldn't hold back a chuckle watching a legionnaire—and one of the two night sentries—shaking water out of his helm while spitting whatever filth had gotten into his mouth. The animals were reacting far more tolerably to the change of environment: yaks and horses simply lowered their heads to the water, and only the land-loving croc was kicking up a fuss, spraying mud and water all around as it rushed to its owner and butted him in the side. Lirrak patted the creature's muzzle and gave him some kind of treat. How was he not terrified, I wondered. I wouldn't have the stomach for the risk—give a beast like that a tasty morsel, and it could easily bite off your entire arm!

  There were squeals of awed delight from the direction of the road, as a dozen legionnaires riding by outright roared with laughter looking at us. And who could blame them? Here we were—a bunch of grimy, bewildered caravaners trying to find our bearings, our wagons nearly floating on the water. All signs pointed to a wild party the night before. Lirrak shouted something mild at them, provoking yet another fit of raucous laughter.

  It took about an hour to push the wagons out of the mud. We then grabbed a quick bite to eat before the caravan got back on the road. Driving our wagon was a pensive and uncharacteristically taciturn Rioh. Harn was sleeping in the corner, letting out the occasional loud exhale and bristling his mustache in a rather amusing way. Ylsan, who had decided to ride with us, was sitting across from me, reading some book. His forehead was always creasing, and he would occasionally mouth phrases soundlessly—a veritable first-grader who had picked up a primer for the first time.

  I decided to wait until I got to my private room to allocate stat and talent points. The scenery didn't particularly interest me
, so I immersed myself fully into reading the wiki.

  A skhiarta was a creature from the Gray Frontier whose larvae first drained their victims' life force, and then devoured the corpse. The larva's proboscis could penetrate even the thickest armor without damaging it, assuming the armor didn't have special protection. Hmm, it had seemed to me that the worm had pierced right through my boot. I examined my bootleg—no, not a scratch. A portion of the life force siphoned from the victim was transferred to the mother, and each larva had to devour at least fifty victims in order to develop into a full-fledged skhiarta. I seethed at the thought that we were merely a light snack for those fiends. The monster's blood was an ingredient for blacksmiths, leatherworkers and tailors to boost the durability of their crafts. The eyes could be used by alchemists.

  I didn't find out anything new about misty rifts. Not a word about what they were, where they came from or when they appeared. In fact, information on Demon Grounds on the whole was extremely scarce—a few pages' worth at the most. Chronicles on the other planes were inaccessible to me, save for the bestiary in which I looked up the monster that had nearly dined on us. Almost everything else was useless nonsense, with the exception of the talent tree and talent calculators. From the side it looked like I was lounging on a bench, reading a book in a black binding. A small icon toward the bottom of the page caught my eye. I focused on the sign underneath the icon: Add to Chronicles. Interesting. I tapped it, and a standard entry field popped up: time, location, subject and so on. Below that was a message that I might receive some experience for the added information. I took out a quill affixed to the back of the book and got to writing. It wasn't like I had anything better to do. I described the misty rift, then moved on to the bestiary, adding all the information on the karriga and the skhiarta. The letters and words were coming out in crisp and beautiful calligraphy without any blots, as though I were typing on a computer.

  This was how I spent the next several hours—fueled by a trailblazer's zeal, eager to pass essential information on to the posterity. Upon saving my oeuvre for the final time and closing wiki, I noticed that my experience bar had increased only slightly. Apparently, the art of writing wasn't very much appreciated in this world, but at least I'd managed to kill some time. What else was there to do? Ah, there we go. I removed the action bar for want of necessity: I wasn't playing behind the computer anymore, so I didn't need to mash those buttons.

  Take a boxer in a ring, imagine he's got access to an action bar with eight buttons. He's not going to be thinking, "OK, next I need to throw a right uppercut, that's this button, pressing…" His movements are almost automatic, and the same was true in this case. The skills you put out on the action bar became second nature. It was no guarantee that you would execute them perfectly and in a timely fashion every time, but activating them happened automatically, without scrambling as to which buttons to push.

  Now I could see my HP, energy and mana out of the corner of my eye.

  I also needed to figure out my next moves. The first stop was obviously Gerid, Kort's old mate, who apparently had his own inn. It made sense to stay there while I got my bearings. From there, to the traders' guild and the lord's second wife, whatever her name was. Finally, I needed to find out the location of the secret door behind which the knights and mages awaited their awakening from slumber. Of course, finding the actual door was on me, but I wanted to narrow down the search area to no more than a few square miles… Ugh, my idiocy never ceased to amaze. There was a fount of knowledge sitting right across!

  The landscape around us had already changed, as the road had led the caravan to a large lake, which we were presently rounding along a steep bank. I could smell the moisture and slightly rotting weeds coming from our left. The picturesque view of the lake was complemented by a castle of gray stone looming from the opposite shore, and several fishing villages.

  "Listen, Ylsan, I'm looking for some information. Can you help?"

  "Sure thing," the mage put away his book, threw back his hair with a fluid motion of the head, and looked at me. "What do you want to know?"

  "Well, you see," I began. "Three hundred years ago, in a castle around here somewhere, give or take a thousand miles, one of the lords was opening portals to our lands. His minions drove humans here by the thousands, cutting them down like cattle as part of some ritual." I paused for a moment, wondering how to weave Ahriman into the story. "Long story short, the king of Erantia—that's the human realm—sent an army here that destroyed the lord and all those who took part in the ritual. Then Ahriman turned up and attacked the humans. I don't know how it all ended, but I'd like to locate where it happened." And, preempting any further questions from Ylsan, I added, "Someone close to me was part of that battle." Let him think it was some grand ancestor of mine.

  For a while the mage kept a pensive silence.

  "Is this somehow connected to why you're here, Krian? Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to be nosy," he shook his head, "but simply trying to understand. After all, traveling between our respective realms is far from simple—only gods and those close to them are capable of such a feat. And you don't strike me as either. Ancestral memory is sacred and all, but…" The demon's face was awash with doubt.

  I sighed and looked at him, noting to myself that I was no longer surprised by the horns, the vertical eyelids or the reddish skin.

  "This isn't about ancestral memory. I fell asleep near that temple," I stuck my finger upward, "and woke up here," I repeated the legend. "Then I had a vision…" I complimented myself mentally on the fib—was I really a monk at heart? "The events I told you about, they were shown to me in that vision. I realized then that it was somehow connected to my ancestor, and that therein lies the key to my returning home."

  It wasn't that I liked lying, but I'd worked enough in sales to make it look natural. And in this magical realm, filled with gods, demons and a netherworld, it was rather a useful skill.

  "It sure is a strange story. I'd like to help, but history is not my forte," he said sheepishly. "I took a history course once, but at the time I had a thing with Itala and, well…" completely abashed now, the mage fell quiet.

  "Sure, I'd cut history for a girl," I echoed my support. "But maybe you know someone who can help?"

  The wagon jumped on a pothole, and I nearly bit my tongue.

  "Warn us next time, will you?" Ylsan griped to Rioh, rubbing a bruised hip.

  "The sun is in my eye, I can't see for Hart," the coachman mumbled apologetically.

  Only Harn kept sleeping peacefully, without moving an inch—so clean was the demon's conscience.

  "My father would definitely know, but he's, um," Ylsan drew an ambiguous gesture in the air, "one of a kind. He rarely crawls out of his lab. Even his food is brought there most of the time. Occasionally my mother loses patience and drags him out, but it doesn't last long. He leads a normal life for one week at the most, then holes up in the lab again. He's an alchemist. With his lifestyle, it's a marvel he's had time to have a single kid, let alone three—I've also got a brother and a sister," the tifling laughed cheerily. "We're arriving tomorrow, you should stop by the day after. I should be able to drag him out, but the only one who can bother him in his lab is mother. For the rest of us there are all sorts of booby traps to keep us out. They're mostly harmless, but one time my brother and I mustered up the courage to sneak inside to see what he was up to. And, well…" Ylsan grabbed the end of his tail, as if demonstrating it. "My tail turned green. Some kind of stupid hex, my father didn't even remember how to remove it. I had to hide my disgrace under a cloak for a month before it went away on its own."

  "Think maybe this will catch his interest?" after laughing at his cautionary tale, I fished out a vial with the skhiarta's eye from my bag.

  "Oh!" the tifling's eyes grew round. "Do you have more? I'd buy a few myself… if you're selling, that is. I've got to brew a complex potion to get my degree, and this is one of the ingredients," his tail grazed the side of his neck—an unu
sual variation on a customary gesture.

  "It's yours," I smiled.

  The mage didn't bother with false modesty, taking the vials, then holding them up against the light. With a contented grunt, he put them away in his bag.

  Your reputation has increased. Mage Raey Dar Ylsan considers you a friend.

  "Why didn't you put on the earring? It will dull the pain if you're wounded."

  "I forgot, give me a sec."

  I went into my bag, opened the character menu and tried putting the earring into the proper slot. For some reason it wouldn't equip, although I appeared to meet all the requirements. I glanced at Ylsan and saw him rolling with laughter. Reacting to his glee, Rioh turned and spread his mouth into a grin.

  "Take off your helmet, man. You're not a soldier like Lirrak," the tifling said through the laughter. "I'm sure he doesn't take his off even when he's with a woman, but we mages are a refined breed."

  That was the problem! In the game a helm didn't hinder eyesight, so I'd completely forgotten about it. I'd even slept with it back at the inn. And when I was trying to equip the earring into the slot, my hands were making the motions of actually putting it on in real life—a comical sight if ever there was one. Laughing along, I took off my helm and put it away into the inventory, then tried equipping the earring again.

  "Give it here," the tifling reached for the item, "you need to make a hole there." He took the accessory and deftly slid it through my left ear lobe. I felt a slight prick. What the hell? Removing my helm AND punching a hole in my ear? Both those things were new. And strange. At least I could still equip armor the old fashioned way—otherwise I'd need to travel with a full-time squire.

  "So, what about those ingredients? Will your father be interested?"

  "You bet. Come by tomorrow around dinnertime. We live in the upper city. Have you got a map? Give it, I'll mark the location."

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