Patch 17 (realm of arkon.., p.13
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       Patch 17 (Realm of Arkon, Book 1), p.13

           G. Akella
 
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  Chapter 5

  That same evening I felt that we were getting close to the capital. Castles and villages became more frequent, alternating with plowed fields and cultivated gardens. And the road itself was becoming much more crowded. I marveled at the extravagance of design—Medieval with a dash of magic. As the dusk gathered, we rode past a huge guard fortress and stopped near a large inn. We didn't go inside, but dined and slept right in our wagons. Ylsan explained that the inn likely didn't have space for nineteen people; besides, paying one gold per man for only six hours of sleep fifteen miles away from Nittal would be beyond foolish.

  Come morning, we had a quick breakfast and set out, aiming to make it to the city by lunch. Initially the road stretched uphill, toward a mountain upon which loomed another guard fortress—a squarish gray structure with twenty-foot-tall walls and towers on all the corners. Same as the other fortress, this one stood right on the road, blocking the way. As we were passing through the stronghold, I gazed respectfully at the thick walls and the countless vertical gates. Having undertaken the burden of being my guide, Ylsan explained that the fortress quartered roughly two hundred legionnaires, all of whom were replaced every two weeks, and that there were six such fortresses in all—two on each road leading into the city. When I retorted with the reasonable question, "Why bother with these defenses when the enemy host can attack the city via a portal?", he gave me an incredulous look, then remembered who I was and clarified that all the inner space between Nittal and the aforementioned guard fortresses was more or less protected from this type of invasion. Except perhaps for the overlord's army, which was quite capable of executing such a maneuver, but no sane demon would even entertain the thought of squabbling with him. As for the rest… Sure, technically the enemy might build a portal here, but the operation would require such tremendous reserves of power that the attacking army's mages would quickly turn into useless puppets for the battle following their emergence from the portal.

  The only thing I understood from that explanation was that any army advancing on Nittal would have to resort to the old-fashioned, sword-swinging and ladder-climbing means of capturing the fortresses.

  We pulled out of the gates and rounded a small hill, whereupon I froze in complete awe.

  The hilltop offered a spectacular view of Nittal, which sprawled a few miles below. Fields and gardens seemed to occupy every inch from here to the city. Shielded by massive white walls and mighty towers, Nittal abutted a giant river to the east. A grand citadel stood in the center of the city, built with white stone and girdled by tall walls—the last line of defense. Several more large structures struck the eye: a racetrack ringed with marble columns, and the Temple of All Gods that Ylsan had told me about in our travels, stood on either side of the citadel. The dominion's capital city had a radical layout, with the main square, shaped like an equilateral triangle, branching outward with myriad avenues.

  "Impressive, isn't it?" the tifling grinned.

  "No words," I said with total honesty, lauding mentally the design team that had toiled on Demon Grounds.

  "Our house is there," the mage pointed in the direction of the temple. "Tomorrow, dinner. Don't forget."

  "I'll be there. By the way, do you know a hotel called The Learned Troll?"

  The mage thought for a moment.

  "The Learned Troll? Wait, do you mean The Candle? That's near the trade district. Head toward the the harbor once past the gates. When you get there, ask any guard and he'll show you."

  "I will escort you there, master," said Rioh, having been relieved from his shift.

  "Mighty kind of you to volunteer!" Harn chortled from the coachbox, tugging at his mustache. "And I think I know why!"

  "Shame on you! Master Krian saved all our lives—how could I not help in return?" the young demon scowled.

  "Help all you want, just leave the money with me. Keep only a few gold, otherwise you won't come home for a week again. And your mother will nag me to death." Harn turned to me and clarified, "There's an establishment nearby called The White Lily. They provide a rather, um, specific type of service. I can see Master Ylsan knows all about it," Harn nodded at the tifling who was smiling sheepishly. "And no wonder, a young demon like him. Anyway, that's why my son is so eager to help."

  "Come on, pop, I'll be back in a jiffy, I swear," Rioh tried changing the slippery subject.

  "Best be sure that your 'jiffy' means tomorrow night at the latest. Or I will marry you off, just you watch. Now hand over the dough."

  They're pretty strict with their young, I thought to myself, watching the frowning coachman hand over his gold to his father.

  In the meantime, the caravan had reached the square city gates. There wasn't any commotion or traffic, and we entered the city without a problem. The guards on the outside—four level 200 legionnaires—followed us with indifferent eyes. Once inside, the wagons rode into a kind of settling basin to the right of the entrance. Lirrak dismounted and said something to the captain of the guard that walked over. Two legionnaires walked past the wagons—customs inspection. Well, inspection might be too strong a word—all that happened was that one of them kicked the wheel rim of the second wagon and suggested that the coachman replace it.

  "Go over to that desk," Ylsan said to me, "and register. It won't take long. I'll see you tomorrow," he offered me his hand.

  I shook it, then bid my goodbyes to Harn who reminded me about my promise to visit them in Urcahnta, nodded at Rioh who promised to wait for me at the exit, and went over to the registration desk, nodding my farewells to the legionnaires and the coachmen with whom I'd spent the past four days.

  "Krian," Lirrak intercepted me on the way. "Look for me if you need anything. Go to the city guard barracks and ask for the caravanners' section. Once there, every dog knows my name. I'll be in the city for two whole weeks, then I'm back on the road. Take care now, light one," the captain smiled at me with his signature orc smile and gave my hand a hard squeeze farewell.

  The passport control office was right outside, in the shade of the customs building. A young hook-nosed demon was behind the wide desk. A mage judging by his mantle—blue with embroidered silver pattern—he sprawled in his chair, chewing lazily on something. Standing at his side was a tall and scrawny level 300 tifling with slightly diverging horns, giving me a sour look with arms crossed in front of his chest. He looked to be about forty, with a long melancholic face, dark hair combed back, and slightly pointed ears. The names of both were hidden from me—strange, I thought that only players with VIP accounts could activate that setting. Next to the tifling was the captain of the guard that Lirrak was speaking to not five minutes ago, reporting in hushed tones.

  "I was told to register here," I said.

  The nose moved closer to the desk, threw open the thick registration log and picked up a quill.

  "Name?" he asked in a rasping voice.

  "Krian."

  "Purpose of visit?"

  "Pleasure," I blurted out customarily. Seeing the other's bemused look, I clarified, "I'm traveling."

  The mage pushed a peculiar construction my way. It resembled an azure hemisphere, convex side up, attached to a black stone stand.

  "Put your hand on it and answer my questions."

  Was that the local lie detector or something?

  I didn't really have anything to hide, so I did what was asked of me without worry. My palm felt warm and a slight pricking.

  "Have you been to the Zorn or Alcatta provinces?" the demon began his questioning.

  "No."

  "Are you in any way associated with Prince Vallan or any of his vassals?"

  "No."

  "Are you plotting against the rulers of Ashtar Dominion, either directly or indirectly?"

  "No," I shrugged.

  "You may remove your hand. Where will you be staying? And for how long?"

  "I will probably stay at The Learned Troll. As for how long, I do not know yet."

  The demon scribbled another not
e in his log, then closed it and shot a questioning glance at the tifling. Still boring me with his vertical eyelids, the latter looked contemplative for a moment, then asked in an insinuating tone:

  "Was there a breakthrough of light forces somewhere in our domain? Where did you come from, mage?"

  "I think that your subordinate just reported to you all the particulars," I gestured at the captain of the guard. I never liked his type, but I wasn't about to pick a fight with him. That would be idiotic.

  The tifling shook his head, put his arms behind his back, cocked his head slightly forward and spoke:

  "A human mage named Krian somehow appears near Lamorna, a village in Jarus Province, slays the Great Netherworld Demon Shaartakh…" I watched both the clerk's and the captain's eyes blow up to the size of golf balls. "Then, while traveling with a caravan toward Nittal, gets caught in a misty rift," the tifling took the arms from behind his back and crossed them over his chest once more. "At night the caravanners are attacked by a skhiarta—the first such reported incident in at least fifty years. Our mage here doesn't succumb to the monster's charms, but destroys it along with its brood. Did I miss something?"

  "No, that about covers it," I said. "But tell me," I held a pause, looking at him expectantly.

  "Annat. Dar Annat, if you insist. I'm not big on ranks," the demon introduced himself.

  I nodded and continued:

  "Tell me, venerable Dar Annat, slaying Shaartakh and the skhiarta—are either of those things a crime?"

  "No, of course not. Both are commendable by the dominion, only…" the tifling looked at his subordinates. "Leave us," he commanded. "And you can take a seat, if you wish," he motioned at the now-free chair.

  "It's all right, I'm not tired," I remained standing. There was only one chair, and sitting on it would mean putting myself in a position of weakness from the get-go, since I'd have to be looking up. No thanks.

  "A moment," the tifling spread his arms wide and made a subtle motion with his right wrist. My ears clogged up for a second, to which he nodded in satisfaction and explained. "Shroud of Silence—to keep curious ears away. So, where were we? Oh yes," Annat gave me another intent look. "You are an enigma, and therefore potentially dangerous. And one of the objectives of the organization that I have the honor of belonging to is precisely this—eliminating any possibility of trouble arising on the dominion's territory."

  His heavy gaze had a hypnotic quality to it. As if at any moment a forked tongue would slither out of his mouth, and I, entranced, would readily allow myself to be swallowed whole. Barely fighting back the delusion, I asked:

  "Secret police?"

  "Not quite, but you're not far off," Annat brushed a nonexistent speck off the sleeve of his gray tunic. "The magistrate I have the honor of belonging to is responsible for internal security in the dominion."

  "And how is it I've come to be of interest to such a powerful security service?"

  "I just want you to answer a few questions," he motioned at the hemisphere on the desk.

  "And if I refuse? Will you arrest me, or worse?"

  "Arrest you? Heavens, no. Why would we? You've done us an invaluable service." There wasn't a hint of sarcasm in his eyes. "You will simply go your merry way," he shrugged. "Having said that, you're obviously a shrewd individual—you realize the benefit of cooperating with an organization such as ours. Especially since you've already confirmed that you're not connected to the rebels and aren't plotting against the state."

  "Fair enough," I nodded my consent. "Ask your questions."

  "How did you end up here?"

  "I came from another world. I do not know the mechanism of my appearing here," I said, and my answer was God's honest truth. Indeed, I hadn't the slightest clue how the game capsule really worked.

  The hemisphere grew warmer under my palm, but retained its color.

  "Who sent you here?"

  "The order was given by one of the creators of this world. I am tasked with completing a certain quest that is in no way connected to the security of Ashtar Dominion, nor of this entire plane." As far as I remembered, Cheney was there from the start of the game's creation. And what was it he'd said to me? To be a beta tester? A perfectly proper quest in my book. "But I don't want to expound on the topic."

  "Interesting. But the Eye of Truth never lies. Let it be so, then. Besides, who are we to question the designs of higher beings?" As I'd suspected, the tifling took my story to mean that I had been sent here by some god. This was a good thing, as gods were a real force in Arkon that few would want to mess with. And who knew how a god might react to a mortal being overly inquisitive about their plans?

  The tifling's inscrutable face gave nothing away. Still, I could guess his thoughts with a ninety nine percent certainty. It was either The hell with him! or Best let sleeping dogs lie. If only the horned bastard knew that I'd been itching to tear the aforementioned "god" that had sent me here to a thousand little pieces.

  "Last question, and you may take your hand off the artifact. Just for my own personal curiosity. How did you manage to slay one of the elder demons?"

  "I don't deserve much credit there. I was helped by a mage's phantom whose bones were being guarded by the ancient beast."

  "You mean, the demon croaked because you had to bury the mage's remains?"

  "One of the great mages of antiquity," I corrected him. "Besides, it's unbecoming to deprive anyone of a proper burial, don't you think?"

  Annat shook his head, deep in his own thoughts.

  "I hope that you'll abstain from visiting local cemeteries and burial sites. See, you might not find another elder demon to serve as your lightning rod should you come upon some more scattered bones." The tifling's face didn't show whether or not he was joking. The Hart with him! There were no further questions—the security agent seemingly didn't care about that mage's identity or how the two of us took down Shaartakh.

  "Take this," Annat handed me a round piece of leather, ostensibly the local registration certificate. "And another thing… The moment something starts happening to you, please find me right away."

  "Why do you think something should happen to me?" I asked warily.

  "You're no fool, Krian," the tifling gave me a sidelong look. "Do you know of any other members of a light race visiting the dominion? Or do you think that you can stroll around the streets of Nittal after slaying an ancient monster and not draw attention to yourself?"

  "So what can happen to me?" I knew the question was foolish the moment it was uttered.

  "How should I know? We'll know when it happens. You can find me in the citadel. Ask anyone how to get to the Gray House. That's all, you may go now," he nodded his farewell.

  After a polite goodbye, I set out in search of Rioh.

  Upon leaving the basin, I touched the big boulder and confirmed my new binding point. It would have been better to bind somewhere outside the city—there were several such gray boulders on the approach—but I'd been too lazy. Besides, I now had clothes courtesy of Treis, so in the event of death I wouldn't need to flash my undergarments for all to see. This was another element of the game: your personal clothes were equipped into special slots and shown by default after death. Imagine a group of players several miles away from their binding point. What should they do if they wipe—run through the woods buck-naked? Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were plenty such exhibitionists in the game, but city guards had little tolerance for full frontal nudity.

  I didn't need to go far to find Rioh. He was chatting with the coachman of a long string of wagons that had been stopped by the city guards at the entrance. Going by the smell, the wagons were filled to the brim with fish.

  "There you are, master mage!" he bawled at me from a distance. "I was just telling my friend here how you terminated that skhiarta!"

  Dozens of heads turned at once—coachmen of anterior wagons, soldiers lingering nearby—and regarded me with quite a bit of interest.

  "Come, Rioh," I waved dismissively, "we h
aven't much time." The last thing I wanted was to draw extra attention to my person.

  We crossed the square—an empty space before the city gates, dotted with storeroom-like structures—and headed toward the harbor along one of the four streets that led there. The street sloped downward noticeably, framed on either side by tall enclosures—some stone, mostly wooden—and gray walls of buildings. This was the city's industrial zone.

  "What do you think, Krian?" Rioh spoke after we crossed an intersection. "Should I become a caravan guard?"

  I sighed—the young demon was incapable of being silent for long.

  "Don't ever transfer the responsibility of making decisions to others. Especially when those decisions will determine your fate."

  I didn't expect him to understand the full brevity of my words, but he seemed to get the gist of it. I empathized with his dilemma—it's not easy to give up the old and familiar. In my time, despite great prospects and possibilities, I doubted whether I should cross the ocean at all. If it weren't for Alyona—I smiled at the thought of my sister—I might have remained your run-of-the-mill manager at a run-of-the-mill company. Then again, who was I kidding? I didn't doubt my decision for a second back then—I simply let my sister think she was persuading me.

  "Well, I've already decided," the young demon said musingly. "But I'm still kind of scared."

  "If you've already decided, just do it."

  As we drew farther from the gates, the shops and the storerooms began giving way to residential houses. There was no apparent architectural design or style: some houses had windows that opened up on the street, others were clustered inside fenced-off courtyards. In this part of the city, most structures were two stories high with white or light gray walls. The clanging of metal and the screeching of gears were overtaken by the noise of the private sector: kids shouting and squealing, hammers thumping, horses whinnying. As we passed a drinking well right off the road, we saw a bunch of local women in motley garments engaged in a boisterous discussion with wild gesticulations. With a wave at the others, one of them detached from the crowd and sauntered our way, hips swaying gracefully. A comely dark-haired young woman in her mid-twenties, she sized me up with a sardonic sparkle, winked and kept going, her swaying even more pronounced, leaving Rioh and I no choice but to part and let her through.

  "What a woman!" the coachman whispered in awe, following the demoness with his eyes. "She liked you, Krian," he added with a hint of envy.

  "I'm happy for her. Are we there yet?"

  "Almost. See that crowd? They're exiting the market. We just have go around it," the demon gestured to show how exactly we ought to round the space—evidently, at some point we'd need to take flight. "From there it's another hundred yards to The White Lily. Oh, um," realizing he'd said too much, Rioh corrected himself, "I meant another hundred and fifty yards to your Candle."

  "Isn't there a way to deal with these pubertal issues in your village?" I grunted.

  "What are you asking, master mage?" Rioh gave me a reverential stare.

  "Is there nobody to hook up with in your village?" I rephrased my question.

  "Oh, of course! Don't you worry about that! When you come visit us in Urcahnta, you could have any single girl you want! Even some married ones would—"

  "No!" I stopped right in the middle of the road, cutting short the coachman's monologue with a heavy sigh. "I'm talking about you! What do you need this Lily for? There you've got to pay for it."

  "Ohhh, that…" the demon deflated. "You see, in Lily you need to pay, but in Urcahnta you need to marry. I'd rather pay. Here in the city the girls are easygoing, but back home they'll bite your head off. You can't swing a cat without hitting a relative, even if a distant one… You're lucky—you can come, do your business and leave," he accentuated the word "business" in a way that made me think he wasn't talking about fighting back the undead at all.

  "Fine, let's just go," I sighed.

  If there was one thing I liked about cities in Arkon, it was their cleanliness. I could only imagine the stench that must have afflicted a large Medieval city. To be sure, there were plenty of smells here too, but most were of the pleasant variety. As we drew closer to the market, we began seeing more shops and storefronts, typically with the standard game signs.

  The air was therefore filled with the aromas of freshly baked bread, roast meat, leather and some kind of trimmings. Though these smells were surely present in any real Medieval city, they were no doubt overpowered by the pungency of manure or swill poured out into ditches. There were ditches here as well, but they mainly served the role of gutters. The horses and yaks hitched to myriad carts and wagons didn't defecate on the street.

  I knew we were coming up on the market from the din of the crowd that came from there. We skirted it and slipped into a narrow alleyway—I had nothing to do at the market, not now anyway. I was definitely going to check out the wares later, maybe even pick up some quests.

  In another hundred yards or so we made a right into a fairly wide gap between two houses, which took us to a parallel street. The young demon seemed to know his way around this part of town—and why wouldn't he!

  I knew why the locals called the hotel "Candle" the moment I spotted the structure, namely the extension built over the third story—cylindrical in form and painted white, like some kind of phallic symbol threatening the heavens. The building looked utterly ridiculous, but who was I to judge the intricacies of the local marketing?!

  "We are here, Master Krian!" Rioh decided to play Captain Obvious.

  "I see that," I nodded and patted him on the shoulder. "Thanks for walking with me—I would've gotten lost without you."

  "No, thank you, Krian," he said somberly, then shook my offered hand.

  "Good luck to you, future caravanner. Enjoy yourself with the ladies of The Forest Violet."

  "The White Lily," he corrected me. "The Forest Violet is further downtown and very pricey. Although the girls are real lookers too, like…" he stammered, searching for the right comparison. "Like the one who winked at you! Do you want me to show you the way?"

  Viol"I'll find my own way if need be," I stopped him before he could start listing all the brothers in Nittal, their menus and rates.

  "Master mage! May I ask one last question?"

  "Shoot."

  "Do you promise to visit us?" he looked at me with hope. "It's gotten real bad at home. My mother is afraid of letting my little sis outside. It used to be really great in the village—folks were laughing, enjoying life. But it's nothing like it used to be."

  "I promise, Rioh!" When he mentioned his sister, I felt an aching inside me. How is Alyona doing? I sighed. Hanging in there, I hope.

  "Thank you," the young demon flashed a big smile. "I'm going to head out now, all right?"

  "Go already!" I hurried him. "Your conquests await."

  I watched his figure shuffle away clumsily for a bit, then shrugged my shoulders and walked into the open gate of the hotel.

  The hotel was almost the carbon copy of Kort's inn. In fact, all establishments of this type had more or less the same layout. The large dining hall, which took up the entire first floor, was submerged in twilight despite the hour of day. The few magical lanterns around the room did a poor job of diffusing the darkness with their dim light. The best-lit areas were over by the windows where the hotel's patrons were sitting. The crowd was small but probably right for the time of day: several singles dined alone at separate tables, while a larger group in funky clothes were evidently celebrating, judging by the half-empty bottle of moonshine crowning their table.

  Right of the front door stood a brawny demon—the bouncer by the looks of him—flirting with a giggling barmaid as she wiped the tables clean. The bouncer barely favored me with a glance, and the waitress didn't do even that.

  The bar was knocked together with wood that seemed to have grown dark with time. Four kegs were stacked right on top, each one forty to fifty liters. Behind the bar was a glass stand with doze
ns of different bottles, to the right of which a boar's muzzle scowled at the guests from the wall.

  I looked around for the owner or bartender; finding neither, I coughed pointedly to draw attention to myself.

  To my surprise, it worked. The door leading to the inner chambers flung open, and a demon emerged. Roughly fifty years of age, he wore a mouse-colored shirt unbuttoned to his chest, a leather vest with a black trim along the edges, and skinny black pants tucked into boots. The size of his sword—sheathed at the waist—instilled respect.

  My jaw dropped when I saw what the demon was holding in his right hand. Mother of God! It was better than any epic loot! In the meantime, the demon assumed his place behind the door; bringing a smoking pipe to his lips, he took a deep drag, exhaled the smoke, arched his right brow and asked in an even, rasping voice:

  "You all right, light one?"

  So cool and collected, as if he entertained patrons from Karn by the dozens. Could've at least feigned surprise for appearances' sake. Then again, Kort hadn't seemed to care about me not being local at our first encounter. I swallowed a lump, sucking in the aroma of tobacco, and said:

  "I'm looking for Gerid. I have a letter for him from Kort in Lamorna."

  "You're looking at him, boy," the proprietor replied just as calmly. The look in his dark brown eyes somehow closely resembled that of Annat the security agent. I handed him the scroll.

  "Beer? Moonshine?" the demon accepted the scroll, but was in no apparent hurry to open it.

  "Where did you get that?" I nodded at the pipe.

  "So that's what you're staring at," the demon chuckled for the first time. "Been too long since your last smoke, has it? I've got a spare one for sale—one gold and it's yours. I'll even throw in a few pouches of tobacco."

  Fast forward five minutes, I was sucking in tobacco smoke with abandon while sipping on dark beer at one of the tables. Things were beginning to look up. Now if only there was also an amenable young lady to… I glanced at the barmaid scurrying past with a tray, and sighed as I took another sip. No, not now. First I needed to speak with Gerid and figure out my next steps.

  If memory served me right, the next melee combat upgrades started at level 110, which amounted to 10 talent points if counting to 200. Plus Jump and Step through Darkness at 100, 150 and 200—another six. Then there were the portals—10 talent points were needed just to learn the first level of the skill. This made sense: if you want to move quickly, you've got to sacrifice something. The first level was the portal that teleported only the caster; the second level, achieved at level 150, could teleport a group of five once per day; finally, at level 200 you received a normal portal that could teleport any number of people. With the caveat that the aforementioned "any number" had all of five minutes to run through the portal before it faded. Whoever didn't make it had to wait till the next day. Basic math showed that at level 200 I would have as many as 84 talent points left for allocation. Funny, players typically bemoaned their lack of points, but I had more free points than dirt. Ugh, it looked like I had little choice but to become a full-fledged mage after all.

  Your reputation has increased. Gerid, the owner of The Learned Troll hotel, relates to you with respect.

  Ten or so minutes later the proprietor came up to my table, apparently having read the letter.

  "Come with me, light one. I sense a long conversation between us." He was replaced at the bar by a young guy who was glancing my way with curiosity.

  Gerid led me into a spacious room and motioned at an armchair beside a black coffee table with ornate legs. The entire room was carpeted, which made me wonder if I needed to remove my shoes at the entrance. A writing desk by the window; three dressers, two of them filled with books; several paintings on the walls. Are all the game's innkeepers such odd characters? I thought to myself.

  In the meantime, the proprietor took a seat in an armchair across from me, produced two silver glasses and filled them with a dark, viscous liquid. Motioning at one of the glasses with a nod, he kept silent for a while, then looked at me and spoke succinctly:

  "Thank you, Krian. For Treis," and he upended the contents of the glass into his mouth.

  I followed suit. The beverage was around 50% proof, and the taste reminded me of Martell. I let myself savor the warmth spreading through my body.

  "Let's talk business? In the letter Kort requests that I help you, but doesn't specify what exactly is required of me."

  "It's hard to explain," I shrugged. "I'm looking for a specific place. Certain things happened there nearly three centuries ago."

  I relayed to the demon what I'd told Ylsan the previous day, and also mentioned the inspection at the gates. Upon hearing the name of the agent interviewing me, Gerid chuckled.

  "Dar Annat is one of Prince Ritter's finest. And the prince heads one of the dominion's most prominent magistrates."

  "Gerid, who are punishers?"

  "In Erantia you have the imperial guard. This is our rough equivalent. One major difference is that your servicemen consider is scandalous to serve on the police force, whereas here it's considered an honor. Kort and I served in the same legion, but we often crossed paths with Ritter's Gray Tunics."

  The demon poured us another round, and we drank.

  "Lakians may be real sons of bitches, but their brandy is incomparable," he declared. "Now, about your quest… I would try looking in the old archives. The only problem is, they're located in the ruined section of the citadel's west wing. About a century ago there was a big explosion at the research center, resulting in a terrible fire. A shady story, that one. Some say the mages had mixed up some volatile spells. There were no survivors to explain what really happened—all of them perished that night. Following the incident, the next research center was moved outside the city for safety considerations."

  "So nobody knows what happened?"

  "Nobody cares to know," Gerid chuckled. "When the work crews cleaned up the rubble, all manner of vermin started pouring from it. Nothing too serious, but too much of a bother just the same. The dominion was at war at the time, there wasn't any money budgeted for restoration, so that section was simply sealed off." The demon fell back in his chair, produced a tobacco pouch and proceeded to stuff it. "The section is adjacent to the prison complex," he continued. "And the guards often report hearing all kinds of sounds coming from that direction. Not that I believe them—when you booze as much as they do, you start hearing things even in an outhouse, never mind a prison."

  "You mentioned vermin—what are we talking about?" It sounded like I would need to go there myself, and I wanted to be prepared.

  "Small stuff," the demon waved dismissively. "Mice, rats, toads, sickly pups and the like. The eggheads had a whole menagerie in there. That section wasn't sealed off right away, and the mages scoured every inch of the space after the war. Some labs hadn't been impacted at all. All the valuable stuff was salvaged, but the archives? Nobody cared for them but old Prant. I also heard that the place was filled with powerful death magic emanations. Could be the reason why a whole section of a palace wing never was restored."

  "How do I find this place?" I asked.

  "I'll mark the location of the entrance on your map. As to how to get inside or for the blueprints of the premises, only Master Prant can help you. That's the senior archivist. He's a decent old man, but certainly eccentric, obsessed with his documents. He might be able to tell you what you need to know without needing to try the archives."

  We drank another round.

  "Gerid, what's happening in the dominion? I hear there's a rebellion?"

  "All we get is scraps of rumors. Two months ago Prince Vallan captured Alcatta, a neighboring province. Members of Prince Rojen's family, whom he'd managed to send to Nittal by portal, said that several satraps had gone over to the invader, and someone had killed the Alcattaean legate right before the battle. Stripped of its leader, the legion was routed. The prince himself is probably dead, since he was sending his family through the po
rtal just as Vallan and his people infiltrated his castle. Clearly, we're dealing with treachery and collusion." The demon emptied the rest of the bottle into the glasses. "That is all the public knowledge we've got. There are also rumors that Vallan now leads two legions, and that he will soon march them on Nittal."

  "But why? The central province is stronger than any three other provinces combined. Or am I missing something?"

  "Stronger, yes, and our lord is no chump either—Vallan is no match for him. However, currently there are only two legions in the province out of four: the first and the third. The second and the fourth have gone off to the Lakia border, as war can break out there any day." Gerid nodded at the glass. "Go on, last one."

  We emptied our glasses.

  "Anyway," he continued. "The upshot is that out of eight provinces in the dominion, three—that's Kialla, Skart and Lorta—are involved in the Lakia conflict, while Zorn and Alcatta are rebelling. It isn't clear yet which side those princes will take in this conflict. They say those provinces are teeming with Vallan's agents. Even here in Nittal there's plenty of them—the Gray Tunics have been catching instigators on a daily basis…"

  "Haven't the princes sworn an oath?"

  "And? Did you forget what blood flows in our veins?"

  "Isn't there some kind of oath that would compel even a demon to be true?"

  The former punisher was silent for a good ten seconds, as if picking his words.

  "Each one of us has inherited a portion of true Netherworld demon blood—a tiny particle of primordial chaos. Those who had inherited more of it have been able to accumulate great strength and subjugate the rest. There is what's called a Trueblood Oath that would never be broken by a demon with a sufficient amount of it, but I don't know the exact number," Gerid shook his head. "Only that it exists. Much time has passed since the materialization of our plane, so much so that some demoness whose ancestor had migrated here from the Netherworld might have more true blood than any prince. Even putting that aside, there is a flip side to this oath: those to whom it is sworn cannot harm their new liege. Now imagine two provinces at war, and the lord wants to put an end to the butchery. How does he do it if he can't harm the warring factions? You see how these oaths can be tricky. Don't forget where you are, Krian."

  "How do you know all this?"

  "You think that, as a former soldier, I must be a total dunce?" the demon smirked and nodded over at the shelves overflowing with books. "I got a pretty good education. And the books are rich with knowledge. After all, the manifestation of our plane hadn't deprived any of our ancestors of their memory—they simply became something else. As for running inns and hotels—this is still work," he said while looking around the room, almost guiltily. "Once a punisher, always a punisher."

  Well, that made sense—a lord ought to have agents everywhere. One of the Medieval kings back on Earth had been of the same opinion, though I couldn't remember his name. The result had been that nearly all of the country's inns were run by former soldiers.

  "So everybody's waiting to see which side the remaining three provinces will take?"

  "Not quite. Everybody's wondering if these three provinces might throw their support behind the rebel—same words, different meaning. Because even if two out of the three decide on that route, there may be a significant power shift in the dominion. Having said that, I don't really see it happening."

  We hung out for a little longer, then I got up and headed to my room. It was getting dark and I didn't feel like heading out anywhere, so I decided to deal with my talent points. I lit up a cigarette and opened the menu on the monitor.

  I would calculate from level 200 as before. My task was to figure out which way to develop further.

  I had five unallocated talent points and fifteen stat points. I raised my health by fifteen, and that was the end of that.

  And now—talents. 30 points to level 200 would go into portals, six into Jump and Step through Darkness, and 10 into melee attacks. That would make 46; adding up the points yet to be allocated, I counted 130. The remaining number? 84! I had to think logically, as much as I could with my dilettante abilities.

  It seemed to me that I should be able to take a warrior or hunter of similar level. Not a hardcore gamer by any means—I wouldn't stand a chance against one of those with my glaring lack of experience. But against others like me, I had a definite advantage. My physical damage output exceeded that of a warrior with a two-handed weapon by almost 50%, and that was with the same armor class. For hunters and ranged dps I was a nightmare; for mages, however…

  Mages were trickier, since I'd thrown all my points into strength and physical attacks. I would need to keep them close, since any mage could tear me apart from a distance. Even if all my presently available points went into spells…

  But I wasn't going to change course. My mobility was the same, but crowd control was essentially non-existent. I had my answer.

  I scanned the options available for mages, specifically water mages (or frost as they were often called). Why frost? The best combination of damage output and control was possible only with the cold specialization.

  In Arkon, no one could become the jack of all trades. A warrior couldn't be a top-notch damage dealer and a tank simultaneously; a necromancer couldn't be a master of curses while fielding a undead army. Similarly, elemental mages couldn't truly master two different elements—at least that's how it was before the patch. It was possible, for instance, to be proficient in earth magic and a decent air mage. Thus, a secondary element was developed with the aim of securing certain key abilities; or to have a reserve range of weapons as an alternative when encountering someone immune to your primary specialization.

  There were also talents common to all trees, such as portal creation, as well as overlaps between the trees, such as Lava Lake which required earth and fire, but those were few and far between.

  The water specialization sacrificed damage output in favor of crowd control, which made it arguably the best in a player versus player situation. So, let us see what we could do with this build.

  I had two trees interweaving before my eyes: water and ice. As I'd already mentioned, the ice specialization was the more popular of the two, by far. Despite the fact that at level 150 a Water Disc dealt 10% more damage than Ice Spear, most folks still chose the path of ice due to the fact that the same spear could be boosted by secondary talents that would also slow the target by 40% on impact with a 5% chance of freezing them for five seconds. In fact, ice magic conferred the same slowing benefit to all offensive spells, from spear to boulder, whereas water didn't.

  So, what did we have for crowd control spells? I scanned my available talents and found five: Morph, Silence, Bound by Frost, Ice Chains and Ice Shackles.

  Transform. Available to all specializations, two second cast time. Transforms a living opponent into a similarly sized animal for one minute. Usable against only one target at a time. The caster does not need to be in combat. The transformed foe cannot attack or cast spells. Range of spell—40 yards. Any damage taken breaks the effect.

  As I understood it, the point of this spell was to neutralize for a while one opponent out of any given group. Any way you slice it, it's better to face off against two mobs instead of three. A good skill to have, and cheap at only 10 points: five for the connecting talents and five more for Morph itself.

  The talent tree was designed in a way that you couldn't simply throw a point into any talent and learn it. Most were only available after investing at least one point into each of the talents leading up to the one you really wanted. And there was no way of circumventing the rules. Gamers were a crafty folk by default, and this was especially true of us Russians. Koreans were the opposite—law-abiding and remarkably assiduous. God forbid anybody take offense—Russia had plenty of hard workers as well. But here's the thing about the science of statistics—it's uncompromising.

  You didn't need to be a rocket scientist to realize the easiest path was to ask your fri
ends to powerlevel you to level 100, at which time you would throw your first point into Ice Spear or Water Disc (in the case of a mage) and become super duper powerful while retaining a whole heap of available points. For that very reason the best talents were typically reserved for the last slots of various connecting branches. In the case of Morph there were only five, which wasn't too many. But I digress.

  Silence. Like Morph, available to all specializations. Instant cast. Prevents the target from casting any spells for a period of ten seconds. Range—100 yards. Cooldown—one minute. Damage sustained does not break the effect.

  As with Morph, ten talent points were required to learn: five for the connecting talents and five for the actual skill. Most importantly, the spell could be used in combat. Awesome! This factor made the talent a must-have.

  Bound by Frost. Silence that also pins the opponent for up to six seconds at the spell's highest level. The affected target cannot move or cast spells. Any damage taken breaks the effect.

  Thirty connecting talents and five into the skill itself. Maximum mastery available at level 120. I could see the utility here: catch a mage, charge him and hack away with Ice Blade or Tongue of Flame. Of course, the very first strike would break the effect, and any mage with a decent pain tolerance could simply Jump away and start playing hard-to-get. Plus, a one minute cooldown.

  Ice Chains. Essentially Bound by Frost minus the silence.

  Simply pinned the opponent in place. No, that wouldn't do.

  Ice Shackles. One of frost mages' most potent weapons. Instant cast. At the skill's maximum level, all enemies within a 12-yard radius of the caster freeze to the ground for ten seconds if their cold resistance is less than 75%.

  Moreover, all pinned opponents suffered damage equal to the caster's primary stat. Cooldown—30 seconds. Damage taken may break the effect, but the likelihood is unknown.

  Cool story! Pin everybody in place and focus fire till they're all dead. Not a sound strategy against hunters and other mages, but potentially deadly against warriors, rogues and other melee fighters. And if something goes wrong, bind them, Jump away and sprint your way to safety.

  An excellent spell, but painfully expensive with the first tier only available at level 50. The second tier opened up at level 75 and required ten connecting points to get there. In all, the spell required 45 talent points to max out at level 150. Of course, all connecting talents strengthened the ability, increasing the effective radius, damage and so on. The chain of secondary skills also branched out toward Ice Spear—a definite plus if building a frost mage. For me, however, the value of this spell was questionable—it worked best against melee fighters, and those I feared least of all. What I needed was a similar ability but with a longer range.

  I got up from the desk and started pacing around the room—I found it was easier to think that way. Silence and Morph were obvious, but I questioned the utility of the other spells in the water school of magic. Clearly, theorycraft wasn't my forte. Besides, I'd never played a mage before. Truth be told, I hadn't really played a warrior either.

  But wait, why was I so fixated on water? I should be considering other schools as well. I sat back down and peered into the monitor.

  Earth Shackles. Instant cast. Select an area up to ten yards at the spell's highest tier. All enemies caught within the area of effect will be bound by the power of earth. Maximum range—forty yards. Cooldown—same as Ice Shackles.

  Compared to Ice Shakles, the drawbacks were a smaller radius (by two yards) and no damage dealt to opponents on impact, while the advantages were the ability to select any area within a 40-yard radius and damage taken not breaking the effect. The fifth tier required pouring 45 talent points into the spell, just as with Ice Shackles. But I liked this spell quite a bit more.

  Earth Shackles also branched off to Stone Disc—the earth equivalent of the water school's Water Disc—which would consume another 15 talent points through level 200. There didn't appear to be any other viable alternatives to work towards. My damage output with spells would still be inferior to that of pure mages, but at least it was something.

  I stuffed my pipe, fell back in my chair and lit it. I could turn on ventilation in my private room's settings, removing all foreign smells with the press of a button. That is why I wasn't concerned about sleeping in a smoke-filled space. The sun had long set—it was time to turn in.

  Am I an earth mage? I chuckled. Let's sum up: there would be 130 talent points till level 200, five of which I already had.

  Tier three portals—30 points.

  Tier four Jump—3 points.

  Tier four Step through Darkness—3 points.

  Melee attack upgrades—10 points.

  Morph—10 points.

  Silence—10 points.

  Earth Shackles—45 points.

  Tier five Stone Disc—15 points.

  Reserve—4 points.

  So, Earth Shackles I, Silence V and Morph V through level 90. Then I'd save ten talent points and learn Portal I at level 100. It was settled. I opened the character menu and threw four connecting points toward Silence and one into Shackles.

  You've learned the spell: Earth Shackles I.

  Instant cast.

  Duration: 10 seconds.

  Mana cost: 300 points.

  Cooldown: 30 seconds.

  You create an area of powerful terrestrial magnetism two yards in diameter within 40 yards of yourself. All creatures caught in or entering the area are shackled by the element of earth for the duration of the spell.

  I added the spell to the action bar and turned on the monitor. Now that the decision was made and the talent points spent, only future would tell what would come of it.

  What a load off my back! I rose from the desk and flexed my neck and shoulders, stiff from all the sitting. It was deep into the night, with nothing else to do but hit the proverbial hay. I quickly removed my armor, took a shower, ventilated the room and climbed into bed.

  Struggling to fall asleep, I decided to make a plan for tomorrow. First, I would take a stroll to the citadel and deliver the letter to the lord's wife. Then a visit to the archivist, who was somewhere in that same area. By dinnertime I was supposed to be at Ylsan's with the skhiarta eye fragments and blood. I'd kept them in my bag, having unloaded into storage only the equipment it had dropped. Oh! I should also stock up on potions and inquire about weapons and armor. There were plenty of stores in the city, and there should be time to shop in between my errands.

  I woke up surprisingly early. Gerid appeared to be still asleep. Or running errands of his own. The same young demon from yesterday was manning the bar, a large earring sparkling as it swung from his left ear. I breakfasted hastily, refusing a mug of beer, smoked my pipe, and headed out into the street.

 
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