Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mirror World, Book #3: read online

The Way of the Outcast

by Alexey Osadchuk
Mirror World

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The message glowed an acid red. I felt as if I was about to press the proverbial nuclear button.
Well, it might not come to that but still. Some people I know would have given a lot for access to some of Mirror World players' accounts.
This was another considerable drawback of Daily Grind accounts. The Bronze plan allowed you to access your char from your computer without having to climb into the immersion capsule. Even though the only feature available in this mode was the player's Dashboard, the mere fact was enough to make you rub your hands with glee.

Now I could at least check my email or copy my screenshots to a memory stick. My girls had been pestering me to show them Boris and Prankster but I'd never managed to get around to it.
What a shame I didn't have computer access to the auction. You had to have at least a Silver account to have those kinds of perks. Never mind. I'd have to work with what I had.
Vicky had stayed true to her word. We'd gotten the loan. Much to our joy, the money had already been wired to the respective German and Japanese bank accounts. Christina's growing new heart had been paid in full.
When I saw the money transfer confirmation, I felt as if someone had pulled out my backbone.
Sveta, my wife, was crying. It had been ages since I'd seen her like this. She'd always been the strong one. But that day emotions got the better of us.
What a shame I couldn't have been with them. Damn this occupational therapy! After twenty-eight days of lying motionless in the capsule, my body was pretty much useless.
My eyesight was even worse. For the first two days I thought I'd gone blind. Strangely enough, it didn't scare me. I had somehow distanced myself from the fact. The main thing was, we'd done it. The rest was paperwork. In any case, by the evening of the third day I had already been able to enjoy sunset views from the comfort of my wheelchair. Even the fact that my new glasses were much more powerful didn't bother me. It was well worth it.
I knew it wasn't over yet. I'd say, it was only the beginning.
The total of the loan was awesome. The bankers had been well and truly generous with us. They'd offered me exactly what I'd asked for: a quarter of a million.
Most of it went on Christina's hospital bills. Having gotten that out of the way, I immediately paid what I owed to Shantarsky's bank and closed my account. I didn't give a damn about my long-term credit history there. I didn't even want to think about that person.
Next item on my spending list was my Bronze account. That had cost me fifty grand. Plus another five for saving all of my character's stats. My professions, my gear, my levels and Rep points, my race and my pets — all was present and correct.
What a shame I couldn't change my name though. This was one option Mirror World didn't have. If you were born Olgerd into that world, Olgerd you would stay.
If you fancied changing race, this wasn't a problem provided the money was right. There was virtually no attribute you couldn't change if you didn't mind the price tag. None but a player's name, that is. Having said that, the game offered countless short-term anonymity options — again, if you were prepared to pay.
Actually, the five grand I'd paid for saving my stats included their discount. Regular players had to pay more. Vicky had been especially generous that day. According to her, I'd been lucky to have come when I had. Half a year previously, the interest rate wouldn't have been so, ahem, interesting.
Talking about the interest rate, we'd agreed on 11%. Agreed was actually an exaggeration. She simply told me that this was the best they could do. She admitted they were trying to accommodate me as it was.
The amount was mind-boggling. I managed to make them agree to my paying it back within ten years. Thirty-five hundred a month. Dmitry had been right: Mirror World was the only place where I could earn this kind of money.
I signed the contract without hesitation. All in all, I'd have to pay back over four hundred thousand. I didn't care. I'd reached my main goal. Christina would live!
And the loan... well, I'd have to look into it. I already had a few ideas.
Oh, and one other thing. The insurance.
Before I signed the contract, I'd had to ensure my life and my health. Now if anything happened to me, the bank would still get its money back. Still, a stone-faced Vicky made it clear they were not at all interested in this scenario. Which was why my next login was to be performed from their state-of-the-art module center under the supervision of several medical professionals.
That made sense. First I needed to do what I had to do. I could always die afterwards. Something told me that they would be perfectly comfortable with this scenario. At first I'd thought it was my paranoia playing up, but no: both Dmitry and Sveta told me more or less the same thing.
So as of now, I was going to take care of myself. I had to make full use of their occupational therapy facilities. I shouldn't even think of any more extended-immersion gigs. I really had to start visiting their gym and swimming pool. Dmitry had promised Sveta to keep an eye on me in order to make sure I did it. He'd looked as if he'd meant it, too.

Login successful!

Excellent. Admittedly, the game developers took their clients' data protection very seriously. I couldn't just open my Dashboard: I needed an ID authenticator, or 'an IDA' as Dmitry called it. It was a small gizmo that looked a bit like a smartphone with a computer connection.
Once you entered your password, the gadget would ask you to press your thumb to its sensory panel to take a fingerprint reading. That done, you had to sit straight without blinking as the camera scanned your irises.
Next, the box would ask you to pronounce certain words. According to Dmitry, this was to check your voice tone and also to see if it betrayed any fear or anxiety. You might be entering your Dashboard at gunpoint, you never know. If the system smelled a rat, it would forward the data to security operators at the main server. Putting it plainly, this was one hell of a useful little machine.
Right. I was logged in. I did a quick check of my stuff just to see if everything was there. It was okay.
My inbox kept winking its little light at me as if saying, Come on, master, check me already!
Heh. No points for guessing what's inside. Lady Mel's representatives had already contacted Dmitry, asking him very nicely why I hadn't showed up at work. They were obliged to be nice to us because my contract specified that I got paid on extracted value. Basically a freelancer. I sort of rented her mines and declared the resources I'd farmed for remuneration. I didn't have a set wage. I didn't owe anything to anyone and kept my own schedule. This had been the first condition I'd discussed with Weigner. What if I had to drop everything and rush to my sick daughter's side? So this was one of the contract's main clauses, as far as I was concerned. And had I not known anything of my bosses' agendas, I might had even felt touched by their consideration.
Once Dmitry had offered his explanations, they'd stopped bothering him. For a Mirror World player, occupational therapy is sacred, especially following a month-long immersion job. Actually, the girl who'd called him had tried inconspicuously to find out which center I'd been taken to. To which Dmitry, brusque as usual, reminded the girl that as a company worker he had no right to disclose sensitive information. And if anything like that happened again, he'd be forced to report the incident to the security team.
When Dmitry had told me all that, I'd been surprised by the fact that the secretary — or whoever that girl was — had seemed to have really chickened out. She began offering excuses saying they were worried about their best worker and wanted to know if he needed any help. Yeah, right. Messing with the Glasshouse's bosses wasn't a healthy idea.
I found the thought both scary and reassuring. I felt like a tiny remora fish accompanying a Great White: so far, the shark didn't seem to be interested in the little fishie but still could snap at me at any moment. The pros of the situation: other smaller sharks seemed reluctant to approach. Cons: my shark, even if it chose to ignore my culinary qualities, could with a single shake of its tail dive to the deep where I couldn't follow her, leaving me to be ripped apart by smaller predators.
I opened my mail.
There. Just as I'd thought.
Three letters from Weigner and another one from my new so-called friend, Tanor. Uncle Vanya too had dropped me a line.
Quite a backlog in only forty-eight hours.
Heh. I'd better start with Uncle Vanya, then.

What the hell happened to you? We wanted to meet, no? You're never available. We're a bit worried.
Let me know when you're back online.
Your share of the Darkies loot is safe with me.

Right. This was pretty much clear. The guys must have smelled a rat. I needed to decide how to answer their questions. Never mind. This was nothing serious. Once I was back in game, I might write to him and tell him I'd been in therapy. If I did it now, they'd put two and two together and see right through my account-changing game.
Now Weigner.
The tone of his three letters grew exponentially in various stages of hysterics. The man was panicking. He must have had his bosses on his back. Well, this demanded a similar "therapy letter" from me just to calm him down. I'd have to write it later. Not now. I might mention the phone call to Dmitry too, just to reassure Weigner. I had no idea what his role in the Steel Shirts clan was but he was okay.
And last but by no means least, Tanor's message,

My dear Olgerd,
Judging by your sudden and prolonged disappearance, I'd venture a guess that your immersion period has run out. To the best of our knowledge, you'd stayed in game for almost a month trying to raise the necessary Reputation points with Mellenville. It would be logical to surmise that you're currently in occupational therapy.
I don't for one second doubt that the bank has refused your loan application. Just as I told you, basically.
What a shame. All this time wasted. Don't you think?
Never mind. You need to get some rest now. Take your time. Get your strength up. We're looking forward to seeing you back.
If, by some chance, you log in earlier than expected, I just want to let you know you don't need to worry about the money. The sum you need is already here, awaiting you.
We could meat IRL if you wish to discuss all the details. I'm pretty sure you need the money now. Just let us know where to find you and we'll be there.
Do you remember me telling you about our clan's state-of-the-art module center? We could transfer you there anytime — today if you so wish.
I've just been told that our clan's treasury has a complete brand new Master gear set waiting for you! They say it's the best you can get. Don't you think it's cool?
Hope I've managed to cheer you up a bit,
Looking forward to greeting you back,


He cheered me up, yeah right. You could say that.
So their clan had started with the proverbial carrot. They're doing their best not to pressurize me into anything. They have the money ready; they'd even found some nice gear for me. So they thought the bank hadn't given me the money? Actually, it was good. The small shark was readying to attack the little fish, not yet seeing the huge fanged monster it was skirting.
Let them think they had me in their pocket. In the meantime, we'd play for time. Dmitry could easily pull the wool over their eyes for another week, telling them I was still in therapy and wasn't allowed to go online. By the time they decided to turn to the proverbial stick, I had to be ready.
I had a week to master the Combat class. The stronger I was, the higher my chances of survival in No-Man's Lands.
The good news was, my new immersion would be nothing like the first time when metaphorically speaking I'd taken a leap into the dark, blindfolded. Now I'd seen it all. I'd tried and tested myself in the game. I'd witnessed what combat classes could do. I now had a lot of advantages compared to first-time newbs.
If I wanted to succeed, I had to do some quality research on combat classes. I couldn't study all of it, of course: the Net was absolutely bursting with information, some of it helpful, most of it useless. I decided to limit myself to the most popular resources.
Take the Mirror World Wiki, for instance. It had virtually everything you needed to know about the game. Naturally, no one was going to share any truly yummy bits of intel but even so, according to Rrhorgus' son Max, it was "chock full of cool stuff".
"You could say that," I mumbled, staring at all the charts and diagrams on the computer screen. "I don't know where to start."
Funny I'd never visited it before. Having said that, these sites were so numerous these days that you could make neither head nor tail of it all.
"I'll get used to it," I said, just to cheer myself up.
Even if I managed to work out the very basics, that in itself would be a considerable result.
What a shame I couldn't access my class stats! You had to be in full immersion to do that. According to Dmitry, it was a security measure.
Which left me with a problem. The Wiki had nothing on Ennans: nada, zilch, zero. In other words, the only person who was qualified to add entries about Ennans was yours truly.
So I had to switch to my "cousins": the dwarves and gnomes.
Now... where were they?
A click of the mouse summoned a fearsome-looking bearded dwarf. In his powerful suit of armor, he looked twice as big as he really was, which in turn made his head seem disproportionally small.
And how about gnomes? Same, really. If anything, they appeared even more menacing.
Now let's check the classes available to me.
I wanted the standard package. Close combat, magic attacks, distance weapons, this sort of thing.
Close combat was more or less clear. I wasn’t going to be much good at it, period. I couldn't even imagine myself brandishing a dwarven battle axe or a gnome's hammer. Besides, what was the point in having heavy weapons if I had my Boris? Despite his zero level, he already had a whole cartload of Stamina points. And once his experience began to grow... and once I bought him a purpose-built set of gear... what would happen then? Oh no, forget close combat.
This wasn't the problem. Problem was, I'd be constantly on my own — and far behind enemy lines, too, surrounded by the most dangerous wildlife that existed in the game. I had to decide how best to capitalize on everything I already had. Which was quite a lot, actually.
Had I been a member in an established and — which was equally important — strong group, I wouldn't have had to ponder over this dilemma. But as it was, I had to start thinking about creating my own team which, although small, had to be promising.
Judging by the bits of description I'd managed to piece together from all sorts of sources, all mounts were basically fighters: strong, fit and extremely tenacious. In gamers' lingo, they were tanks. In other words, having Boris in my group, I could forget close combat: I just didn't fit in the picture myself — neither as a heavily-armed warrior nor as a light ambidextrous one.
In all honesty, my first urge was to concentrate on magic classes. That way, Boris could make mincemeat out of our enemies while I could heal and support him. But in thinking so, I'd completely overlooked our last but by no means least team member: Prankster. Providing magic support for the group was apparently his job — as part of his pet class. At least that's what all Mirror World experts said. The phrase used by the Wiki, "a healer and a buffer rolled into one", seemed to describe Prankster's potential perfectly well once I'd managed to translate it into normal human parlance. To put it short, the higher my level, the more useful would my little menagerie be.
I had a tank. I also had a buffer/healer. Now I had to decide how I could fit into it.
Oh, well. Let's have a look.
I clicked through to a picture of a gnome in light armor. He clenched a monstrous crossbow fitted with optical sights and a complex set of gear wheels. A bagful of bolts and screws dangled from his belt.
I immediately thought about the Caltean attack in the Citadel and the gnome fighting the "hedgehog". He'd been the last man standing, perfectly alive when all other players including the top-level wizard had already kicked the bucket. He'd even managed to bid a hasty retreat when the shit had hit the fan.
I liked this crossbowman. He was light and agile. A distance weapon: exactly what our little group needed in order to be full of surprises. That's settled, then.
I needed to check out this class with other races, too, to find out all its pros and cons: what weapons they could use, etc.
The gnome was more or less clear. Now the dwarf.
A stocky black-bearded guy, clenching an arbalest. Same as a crossbow: different name, slightly bulkier and heavier.
Humans and Alves were archers; Dwandes excelled at dart throwing. Large races didn't seem to have this class at all.
Having spent a good half-hour studying the facts, I'd finally come to the following conclusion: if one wanted to use distance weapons, he couldn't do better than choosing the Alven race.
Undoubtedly, forest dwellers had their drawbacks. Their gear was flimsy to say the least. If an Alven archer was forced to engage in a hand-to-hand, he wouldn't last long. Even a dart-throwing Dwand could make quick work of him.
Still, their gear's shortcomings were more than compensated by excellent Range, Precision and Rate of Fire bonuses. No other race had anything like them.
A gnome crossbowman's gear was virtually the same as that of a Human swordsman but the former had serious problems in regards to his Range and Rate of Fire. Still, if a gnome's bolt hit the target it could deal just as much damage as a proverbial cannonball.
Humans really didn't impress in any of these respects. Their domain was magic and witchcraft. If I'd understood it well, Humans were the best wizards in Mirror World.
The further I read, the fewer illusions I had about the information's seemingly chaotic nature. Everything had in fact turned out very logical and organized.
There was a certain balance between classes and anti-classes. This in itself made the gameplay much more interesting and, let's be honest, more intelligent. Once you'd chosen Mirror World, you had to be ready for a learning curve. Now I had some idea of the sheer amount of guidebooks and manuals a potential player had to peruse before even entering his new virtual home. You couldn't expect to conquer this world by sheer enthusiasm. An arrogant newb wouldn't last five minutes against more advanced and prepared ones.
Normally, at this point I would be racked by doubt. How sure was I that I had to get into it all? Was I even up to it? Playing was one thing but this wasn’t my case. I was about to become the epicenter of a future war the likes of which Mirror World hadn't yet seen.
In any other situation I'd have already had my brains in a twist with worry. But right now I felt something totally different. I wouldn't say I wasn't afraid. Still, this wasn't fear fear. I felt a little anxious but that was normal, I suppose.
Also, this strange mix of emotions betrayed some sort of fighting spirit. How strange. I'd never have thought I'd experience something like this.
An insistent incoming call distracted me from my research. The phone's panel lit up with the word, Brother.
I pressed Accept. "Hi there."
"Hi," Dmitry's voice was typically brusque and serious. "How are you?"
"Fine today. I'm busy now studying your leads."
"Wrap it up, man. End of boot camp. Time to go to the front line."
"Great. You coming?"
"No. I might burn your cover."
"You think they'd stoop so low as to spy on somebody in the real world?" I asked, doubtful.
"They might," Dmitry said with confidence. "We'd better play it safe and bide our time. As soon as they find out you're off the hook, all hell will break loose. So this week you'll have to work hard, I'm afraid. Make sure you don't overexert yourself. Knowing your tendency to self-destruct..."
"I'll be careful, I promise."
"Good," he heaved a sigh. "Now, location. Have you decided on anything?"
"I have. The Nameless Isles."
"Good choice. There're at least twenty of them there. Easy to get lost. Their mobs are low-level, too. A newb location. You'll level up to 30 easy."
"Sure. And what's even better, there're no Steel Shirts there."
"The fact that they use their own lands to level up their recruits says nothing," Dmitry warned. "Keep your eyes peeled. Good luck!"
"Thanks, man."
"You've done good," he added. "The Nameless Isles are a good choice. Over and out," he hung up.
I nodded to myself. Indeed, the Nameless Isles were a godsend.
When I'd first tried to come up with a plan, I'd asked myself: where was I supposed to begin? No-Man's Lands didn't sound too promising. I couldn't expect to level up my current char properly there. Hoping for a streak of good luck wasn't an option.
All Lands of Light had been carved up between clans who were bound to notice my presence pretty soon. I'd even had a crazy idea to fly over to the Dark side at night and level up there. But that was risky.
My grand plans had ground to a halt.
That's when I'd turned to Dmitry for advice. He explained that when the game had still been in its infancy, the developers had come up with special locations they used to help combat classes grow and evolve. Those nurseries were some sort of training ground for inexperienced players, complete with low-level mobs and simple quests issued by NPCs.
That was all good and well, with one drawback, or so players said. The developers had apparently decided to add a fly to the ointment simply to make sure life wasn't all fun and games for newcomers. Nothing critical: just slight fluctuations in weather conditions. At North Ridge, for instance, there were occasional ground frosts and snowfalls. The Snake Desert had hot spells. And the Nameless Isles were known for their rains. Well, rains — more like sunshowers.
But newbs in their starting clothes hadn't appreciated weather fluctuations. They'd absolutely flooded Support with protests and complaints saying that the game developers were applying pressure to players, forcing them to buy expensive runes, elemental protection or even cloaks. The developers had turned a deaf ear to their pleas — for which I was now eternally grateful.
Over time, the flood of complaints had subsided. Newb locations stood abandoned.
How had it happened?
Easy. After the end of the clan wars, all Lands of Light had been divided between the strongest clans. New castles had been erected in locations with neutral climates, promptly surrounded by new towns and villages. Now why would you suffer in silence, freezing to near death or getting soaked when there were more comfortable locations available?
Dmitry had forwarded me the classified login data. Apparently, the old newb locations had only 2% of all game logins. The remaining 98% players chose to log in to clan-controlled territories.
That was perfect.
According to Dmitry, I had the choice of three types of locations: cold, hot or rainy. And as much as I hated the latter, I'd had to choose it in the end.
Having no Anti-Heat protection, I'd immediately rejected the Snake Desert. For a while I'd been quite serious about the North Ridge: I'd already had rain up to here. Besides, I'd already had my Anti-Frost protection, anyway — I'd installed it before my first trip to No-Man's Lands.
But that was before I'd seen the map.
The North Ridge was a long narrow hill range stretching all along the border, smooth-sloped and gently-rounded. The Nameless Isles, however, were a smattering of islets big and small in the southern part of the Great Ocean. It offered much better protection from any prying eyes.
I'd also found out that the North Ridge was exactly where the remaining 2% of players chose to log in. Apparently, I wasn't the only person averse to humidity. Then again, how was I to know?
Never mind. Enough research. Time to go downstairs. My module awaited me.
I rode the elevator alone, studying my gaunt aspect in the mirror. I'd seen corpses with better complexions. Having said that, compared to my first day offline I was as fit as a fiddle. I could even walk unassisted now. I had no need for crutches anymore.
The elevator dinged softly, announcing its arrival at the first floor.
The corridor was flooded with light.
It was busy here. So many operators! Their lab coats were everywhere. You could tell this was a VIP center.
Having said that, if the game developers weren't entitled to it, who was?
Would they kick me out of here once I'd completed my mission? Or would they allow me to stay? Too early to even think about it.
This center was exactly why I'd had to move town. Dmitry had simply ordered me to do it. After I'd told him about the bank's offer and the fake Pierrot, my brother had grown even more focused. Without him, I wouldn't have gotten very far at all.
I turned around. A girl stood behind me. About twenty-five, lab coat, pale-blue doctor's hat. The name tag on her chest said Irene.
I nodded. "That's me. Hi."
"Hi. You ready?"
"Let's go, then."
My new "coffin" wasn't too far. We reached the end of the corridor, then entered a hall.
There were other capsules there, all closed. They looked like nothing I'd used in the past. Even though I was no technical expert, I could see these were the latest top-of-the-range models.
"There it is," she pointed at the only open capsule.
The familiar purple goo welcomed me, enveloping my body. "Mind if I ask?"
"Absolutely," she said without taking her eyes from the screen.
"Is it my imagination or has something changed? I feel as if I've been dropped into jelly. Just please don't use science speak."
She smiled. "This is the latest model. To put it plainly, in earlier versions we had to use a gel bed which vibrated-"
"-to prevent bedsores," I helpfully offered.
She nodded. "Exactly. But now we have this special type of gel which envelops your whole body, sending electric impulses through it. Which is a very healthy idea. And as a bonus, it adds new sensations to your virtual experience."
"Oh. I'm curious."
I'd have dearly loved to ask her a few more questions but she beat me to it,
"That's it, Oleg. Let's initiate the immersion procedure."
Her delicate fingers ran over the screen, tapping the invisible keyboard. The lid began to lower.
"Good luck," Irene smiled. "Enjoy your immersion!"
"Thanks," I whispered back.
A few moments later, the already-familiar void embraced me.
Silence. Darkness.
I glimpsed a flicker of light approaching faster and faster, accelerating toward me.
Before I could even blink, the light took me in.
Still no sounds. I looked around me. Where was I?
A round room, about five paces wide. A stone floor. Torches burning on the walls. No windows.
I raised my head. Powerful wooden beams supported a gloomy vaulted ceiling. This could be one of the Citadel's towers, only without their characteristic arrowslits.

Greetings, Olgerd! Welcome back to Mirror World!
In order to fully experience the beauty of our world, complete the registration of your Bronze account!
Register now: Accept/Decline


Congratulations! Your registration is now complete!
Would you like to choose a new class?

My heart missed a beat. Even though I'd already made up my mind, I had a nasty feeling I'd forgotten something important.

Generating your character's settings and characteristics should take less than a minute. Please wait.

Of course. This was a new race. Did that make me some sort of pioneer? Never mind. I could wait. The halo around my head won't fall.
Jesus. Their minute was taking quite a while.

Sorry about the delay! Your character's settings have been reset.
Would you like to continue: Yes/No

About time! I heaved a sigh and pressed Yes, ready to face an exhaustive list of various combat classes.
Wait a sec. What the hell was this? Was it some kind of mistake?
A holographic image of my Ennan char clad in a simple starting kit appeared at the room's center. But it wasn't his clothes that had thrown me. I had all my gear safe in my bag. It was the class list. It consisted of only one entry:

Army Mechanic

My hands shook as I went through the settings. It couldn't be. What, only one class?
I looked at my Ennan. He stood there legs akimbo, hands on his hips, grinning from ear to ear. Who the hell did he think he was?
Wait a sec... what on earth was this? I took another look at my first weapon dangling from his belt.
Shit. I look up at the powers that be and heaved a fatalistic sigh. "A slingshot? You have to be joking, right? You want me to conquer No-Man's Lands with a freakin' slingshot?"

Chapter Two

Calm down, Olgerd.
Take a deep breath. No need to panic.
Inhale. Exhale.
Like that... good.
Now let's have a look.
A mechanic, so what? So I hadn't gotten an archer or a crossbowman. What was my problem? That they didn't have suitable classes?
Big deal. Take Narchs, for instance: they had four arms, of all things. I dreaded to think how they managed, but apparently they did. Quite successfully too, judging by the Plateau battle. Very efficiently, if I may say so.
Oh, and here was a parchment scroll containing my Lore Info. It was ancient and yellowed.

It happened in early fall, just as I traveled the foothills of the Steely Mountains. I was visiting my friend Rold from the Tinkh people. His folk were nothing really special. Just some Ennans living in a village. They kept themselves to themselves. Never took part in any feuds or clan wars. They worshipped the Lord of the Underworld.
Contrary to what people usually think, their clan lived by trade, not by mining or smithing. It might actually have been one of the reasons for their isolation.
So one night as he sat by the fire warming his aching joints and smoking his best old pipe, Rold told me about some tragic recent events.
As it turned out, one of the oldest clans in the whole of the Steely Mountains had recently ceased to exist. The Tinkhs didn't know much about what had happened there. Some said that the Der Swyor miners had come across a rich vein. Others said that the clan leader had behaved disrespectfully at the last Elders Council. But my friend Rold, he thought that it was all about Master Grilby who must have uncovered the ancient secret of raising people from the dead.

Here the text paused. The whole of the next paragraph was blurred as if whoever had written it had spilled some liquid onto the parchment. Whether he'd done so accidentally or for a reason, I couldn't say. I moved on to the next paragraph.

...the clan's warriors put up a valiant resistance. But what could they do against the Alliance's army? There were fifty attackers to each defender. Many a hero found his death that tragic day. You need to give the Der Swyors justice: they fought as one man. According to Rold, a handful of common workmen barricaded themselves in the Tower of the Winds and successfully held the enemy back for a while. His story left a lasting impression on me.

That was the end of this so-called Lore Info. Actually, no. There was a signature below,

The Chronicles of Arvein. Page 25.

The game developers weren't exactly generous with information. Or was it just me?
What a weird class description. If you thought logically, my mechanic just might be the descendant of those brave defenders of the Tower of the Winds.
Oh, well. I suppose it's better than nothing at all. There was only one thing I'd love to know. Had those tower defenders used slingshots against the enemy too?
Talking about slingshots. I remembered a YouTube video in which a burly guy fired a slingshot at cows' skulls, using steel bolts. I still remembered the loud snapping sounds and the popping of exploding bones.
Besides, somehow I didn't think it was going to disrupt the gameplay. Most likely, I was about to fit into the combat classes nicely, slingshot and all. Judging by the char's grinning mug, I was in for quite a ride.
Never mind. One problem at a time. What's with my characteristics?
On top of the existing Speed, Strength and Stamina, now I also had Health, Protection and Intellect. Next to the blue Energy bar I discovered a red one for Life, green for Experience and yellow for Knowledge.
Thanks to what I'd gleaned from the forums, I already knew that the Life bar corresponded to Health. It was the same mechanism as the correlation between Stamina and Energy. As your Health grew so did your Life bar.
I really needed to look into it properly. I had plenty of Energy; but judging by my Life reading, I could die from the first sneeze!
The bar was calibrated into forty units. Each Health point gave me 20 points Life.
Now, Strength.
Before, it only used to affect Energy regeneration speed. Now it was going to do the same for Life as well. The damage dealt, too, directly depended on its numbers. Which was definitely good news.
Protection was more or less clear. Knowledge, however, was a bit of a dark horse for me. Could it be some analog of mages' Wisdom? I really couldn't tell. I might need to try it out first.
The next hurdle was the absence of the so-called bonus points. The game developers must have decided — and rightly so — that those I'd received at registration were enough.
So the whole thing was a bit off balance, really. I had to enter a warrior's path with zero Protection and minimum Life. The weakest of the Nameless Isles mobs would be able to blow me over with a feather.
I also had some advantages, though.
First, my gear's stats were quite high for level 1. And second but not least, my little menagerie.
Also, according to forum messages, I was entitled to five bonus points to distribute as I saw fit with every fifth level gained. If I lived long enough to see that, that is.
Very well. My characteristics were more or less clear. Let's check my inventory.
Five icons were highlighted in my bag: two of Clothes, two Miscellaneous and one Weapon icon.
I started with the clothes. What did our generous admins have for me?
No surprises there. A leather vest and a pair of canvas pants, a standard newbie kit.
The vest added 1 pt. to both Health and Speed while the pants did the same for Strength and Stamina.
All this was a pittance, of course, compared to my Reflection kit even if you forgot the fact that it was hung with runes like a Christmas tree.
Any newb was bound to find their starting kit very useful, of course. Anyone but unfortunately not me, although I could admittedly use the extra point to Health.
Still, the game's rules dictated that if I wanted to wear this leather excuse for a garment, I'd have to remove some of my outerwear, breaking the set. Which would lead to the loss of both the precious Strength and Stamina points and my impressive Speed bonus. Putting it simply, one puny extra point to Health wasn't worth all the trouble.
Seeing as my new clothes were non-transferable, I might need to delete them from my inventory later simply not to clutter my bag. Having said that, there was no rush. I could always get rid of a potentially useless item.
That was me done clothes-wise. Now, weapons. Oh! How interesting. Apparently, my slingshot had a very cute name:

Name: a Minor Pocket Slingshot
Category: Simple
Weapon type: Main (non-transferable)
Level: 0+
Restriction: only Ennan race
Range: +0.5
Rate of fire: +0.5
Precision: +0.5
Damage: +1.0 ... +1.6
Durability: 25

Well, let's just hope I might procure something more impressive at a later date. I'd even agree to a Major Pocket Slingshot.
Now, Miscellaneous.
If the truth were known, forums said nothing about it. Normally, new arrivals received their bonus points, a set of tattered clothes and a basic weapon. No Miscellaneous items had ever been mentioned.
Then again, who knows? Did I really think that forum members shared all their gaming secrets? Highly unlikely.
Now. Item one, a small leather case.

Name: a Standard Tool Kit
Pcs: 4

Nice name, simple and informative. Wish I could say the same about its contents.

Sharpthorn, 1
Wambler, 1
Measurometer, 1
Fix Box, 1

Their logic was understandable. Being a mechanic, I had to use some sort of tools. Only I didn't have the slightest idea how I was supposed to defeat even the lowest-level monster by brandishing a measurometer or, God forbid, a wambler? The best I could do was probably load my slingshot with the sharpthorn, then immobilize the enemy by giving him a whack with the Fix Box, just to be on the safe side.
Relax, Olgerd, I said to myself. It could have been worse. Of course I was upset, seeing as I'd looked forward to choosing a standard combat class. On the other hand, I had to give my Ennan credit. So far, he'd never let me down.
The last item in my inventory aroused mixed feelings: a reluctant optimism tinted with perplexity.

Name: A Pocket Book of Blueprints and Bind Lines

The book was quite fat, its dirty brown cover worn and spotted with burn marks and engine oil. The spine was hanging on a thread. A fine net of cracks and little holes riddled the cover. I got the impression that either the book's previous owner hadn't valued it at all or he'd used it in a less than sterile environment.
I opened the book, about to start reading, but found nothing inside apart from some dimmed pages and a welcome message,

Greetings, Olgerd!
We're sorry. You can't read the book yet. Your Knowledge level is too low. Please try again later.

Yeah, right. Please try again when you get smarter, is that it?
In any case, I discovered a few empty pages at the end of the book. The tool case, too, had a lot of empty slots. I suppose that was their way of telling me that if I wanted to fill them up, I'd have to do it myself.
Never mind. I was done studying my freebies.

Greetings, Olgerd!
Would you like to complete account activation?

I cast one last look over my inventory and clicked Yes.
The magic torches dimmed. The holographic Ennan floated toward me, still grinning.
The darkness consumed me.
When I opened my eyes, I stood on the sea shore. Or should I say, on the Great Ocean shore.

Congratulations! Activation complete!
Welcome to the Nameless Isles!
Would you like to download and install our free app: Fact Sheet of the Nameless Isles?

The stench of brine and rotting algae assaulted my nose. The roaring of the surf and the sound of rain pattering on the sand mixed with the rustle of palm leaves and the hum of the empty bamboo stems in the wind.
Black thunderclouds hung low in the sky. The wind blew hard. The swell was rough. The downpour was every bit as bad as it had been back in Drammen.
Was it the admins playing with me? Or was this kind of weather normal here? In which case I could understand why no one was in a hurry to use this location.
I felt heavy, pressure pinning me down. I'd already forgotten how it felt to walk around naked. Mirror World never let you off the hook.
I needed to rectify the situation pretty quickly. I hurried to get dressed.

You've received +1660 pt. To Energy!
Current Energy levels: 1700.

Much better. Even the rain didn't feel so wet anymore. The clouds overhead seemed lighter somehow. The ocean, too, wasn't as murderous as it had originally looked. Things were looking up.
Time to take my bearings.
The long strip of sandy beach was about forty of fifty paces wide. It arced like a sleeping snake between the ocean and the green wall of the jungle. Nice big beach. I liked it.
The sand was technically white but you couldn't tell its color straight away because it was mixed with tiny fragments of sea shells, dried algae, petty bits of driftwood and all sorts of flotsam and jetsam.
This definitely wasn't meant to be a tourist destination. Having said that, there's no accounting for taste. Personally, I wouldn't enjoy lying on the littered sand staring at the raging ocean.
The forest's edge didn't look too inviting, either. The location was probably prone to tornadoes, judging by all the uprooted palm trees.
Excuse me? Anyone hear me? Was this a newb location or what? I found it hard to believe this place was meant for beginners. It was spooky.

Success! The Fact Sheet of the Nameless Isles has been installed and is ready for use!

Very well. What did we have here?
The app was good. It contained the location's detailed map and its bestiary. Judging by which, the local wildlife was quite diverse.
The map also listed all the natural resources and the settlements of the local NPCs.
Now I could believe that this used to be a starting location once. I'd never received such detailed instructions during my first registration. Then again, Grinders didn't need this kind of info, did they? All they had to worry about was finding an employer and getting to work.
Now, however, my situation was quite different. The sooner I managed to adapt the easier I might find it in the future.
So let's start with the map.
Once synchronized, my satnav dutifully reported my bearings. According to it, I was in the northern part of this rather large location: on its smallest and furthermost island.
The nearest NPC village was on the biggest isle to the east. It looked more like a continent on my map.
I told my satnav to lay a course to the village. After a brief pause, it offered what it believed to be the shortest route.
Oh. To get there, I'd have to cross two more islands. It would have been much easier to just summon Boris. Still, I didn't want to attract any unwanted attention. Even though the sight of my gear didn't add to my inconspicuousness, still a Grinder dwarf who'd managed to scrape together enough small change to buy a Bronze account was a more common sight than a Grinder dwarf soaring in the sky astride a black Gryphon-like creature.
Never mind. A walk might do me good. I could have a good look around in the process, seeing as I was stuck here for a week at least.
Off we go, then, to face any unwelcome adventures!
I didn't have to go very far before I stumbled across an enormous fish carcass. It must have been at least twenty feet long. The smell... you can't even imagine.
Its stomach had been ripped open, rotting flesh and guts spilled everywhere. Had it not been for the rain, I would have smelled it much earlier.
I stood there staring at the gory scene. It looked believable indeed, as if I was on a God-forsaken desert island amid the ocean.
Distracted by studying the fish's fin, I failed to notice the footprints at once. They were triangular, about a foot and a half long and half as wide.
Well, well, well. If that wasn't... I was no expert, of course, but even I could tell a bird's prints when I saw them.
Mechanically I raised my head. If this place was inhabited by birdies of this shoe size, I should really keep closer to the trees.
Then again, that might not be the best option either. You never know what the jungle might have in store for a curious traveler. I'd had this nasty sensation of being watched the whole time I'd been on the beach. Every time I turned to face the forest, the feeling disappeared only to resume later.
So much for their newb location. It made me shudder. Even Spider's Grotto felt safe and comfy in comparison.
I was about to turn round and continue on my way when I finally realized something simple but paramountly important. My weapon! I hadn't even thought about checking it!
I just couldn't believe it. Hey, mobs and predators, come quick! Enjoy the juicy flesh of a reckless nerd, a worthy specimen of modern society!
My hands reached for the Minor Pocket Slingshot, still stuck under my belt. I didn't even know how to use it!
Actually, who hadn't used one at a tender age? I wasn't an exception. We didn't call it a slingshot then: we actually called it a catapult. It had been a long time ago though... in real life, too.
I had no idea about slingshot ballistics in the virtual world. But this wasn't a question I should be asking myself. Why oh why hadn't I even thought of testing my only weapon first and foremost? Olgerd, Olgerd. You're a dork to end all dorks. Think that someone like you was about to venture into No-Man's Lands!
Right, time to rectify my blunder.
I closed my left hand around the slingshot handle, made of dark wood and fitted out with what looked like an ordinary elastic. The pouch in the back was made of a piece of leather. That was basically it.
The only little thing lacking was finding some ammo. Seeing as my inventory listed nothing of the kind, I might need to forage around for something suitable. Not forage even. There was plenty of ammo lying literally underfoot.
That small pebble over there might do nicely.

You've received an item!
Name: A Beach Pebble

The moment I placed the pebble into the pouch, the system told me something very interesting,

The Minor Pocket Slingshot is loaded!
Missile: a Beach Pebble
Fit for Purpose: Yes
Range: +0.6
Rate of Fire: +0.4
Precision: +0.4
Damage: +1.0 ... +1.1

Aha! The little pebble had increased Range but negatively affected both Rate of Fire and Precision. As well as Damage.
Very well. What if I pick up a smaller one?
I lay a new pebble into the pouch.

The Minor Pocket Slingshot is loaded!
Missile: a Beach Pebble
Fit for Purpose: Yes
Range: +0.8
Rate of Fire: +0.6
Precision: +0.6
Damage: +0.8 ... +1.0

How interesting. The new pebble had improved all stats apart from Damage. It had dropped quite considerably. Which was exactly what I didn't need.
What if I took a bigger stone? Like that gray rock over there...

The Minor Pocket Slingshot is loaded!
Missile: a Beach Pebble
Fit for Purpose: Yes
Range: +0.3
Rate of Fire: +0.3
Precision: +0.3
Damage: +1.8 ... +2.2

Well, that made it pretty clear. A heavier "missile" improved Damage but lowered all other stats. All I had to do now was put it to the test. Meaning, I needed an enemy.
A powerful roar came from the rainforest, making every hair on my virtual body stand bolt upright. Did they say we should be careful of what we wish for?

Chapter Three

The roaring resumed, closer this time, accompanied by what sounded like the cracking of branches and whole tree trunks being swept from the creature's path.
I could already see palm tops sway in the thick of the woods. This was something very big, very loud and very angry. And it was heading for me.
I cast an unenthusiastic look at my slingshot. "I've had enough. To hell with secrecy!"
...Boris appeared just as the mysterious monster barged out of the undergrowth, crushing the bamboo trunks and palm trees unlucky enough to happen in its path.
I bent down, scooped a handful of pebbles and sprang onto Boris' back. In one powerful wingbeat I was out of the newb killer's reach.
I could see the feathers bristle on the scruff of Boris' neck.
"Some newb location, eh?" I slapped his powerful neck. "Sorry I had to drag you into this, kiddo."
He didn't hear me, too busy watching the huge beast which was now furiously spinning in place on the beach.
"I know the feeling," I whispered to Boris while I was studying the creature.
He was quite a sight, I had to admit. At least twenty foot tall, he had a massive body, a rectangular head, large paws, a fat hairless hide, a long crocodile tail and a pair of long curved fangs.
He didn't look as if the game designers had invested much thought into him. They must have taken a croc, a wild boar, an elephant and a rhino, then clicked through the randomizer. The result was a mutant from hell.
And how were you supposed to fight such specimens? With a slingshot, too.
Actually, why was he so angry, spinning and jumping on the spot? A couple of times he even dropped to his side. The place where I'd stood only a few seconds ago now resembled a ploughed field. Interestingly, he didn't seem to notice me at all. I wasn't even in his aggro zone. What was the matter?
"Kiddo, mind going down a few feet?"
Boris cast me a sideways look, as if to say, 'You aren't serious, are you?' Still, he promptly obeyed.
Once we'd descended a bit closer, everything had become clear. The beast couldn't care less about me. He was under attack himself.
His assailants looked weird like everything else in this so-called newb location. They had skinny monkey-like bodies covered in hairless skin of a dirty gray hue. They had long front legs and short hind ones. Not the nicest of guys. Not to even mention their heads.
I'd once happened to visit a client on business. He had this large fish tank in his office in which he had piranhas swimming around. The guy had a very nasty habit of making his visitors watch the fishies' meal times. Admittedly I'm not a lover of such scenes but that day I couldn't very easily have said no.
Now too, as I watched the bald "monkeys" throw themselves at the beast, I had a vague déjà vu feeling. Same fish heads packed with needle-sharp teeth. Same sharp, twitching motions.
I'd love to know what had affected this particular game designer's creativity. "Boris, mind going down a bit more? They can't see us, anyway."
He obeyed, allowing me to survey the scene in greater detail. As I studied the local uglies, the system helpfully informed me about their nature.
The game developers hadn't invested much imagination into the giant beast's name, either. He was simply a Stomper. The fish-headed monkeys were Swamp Monks.
According to their respective descriptions, the Stomper was the location's biggest mob in the area and Swamp Monks were the deadliest. They were fast and very smart; besides, they always hunted in packs.
Their levels made me wonder, for the umpteenth time, if I was indeed in the right place. The Swamp Monks were all level 20. Stomper was 30. This way I might just as well have gone to No-Man's Lands. There was something wrong here. Something very wrong.
As I thus indulged in navel-gazing, the fish-headed midgets were gradually overpowering the roaring giant.
I counted at least ten of them. They were swift and dexterous. There seemed to be a system in their attack. They'd done it before, that's for sure. Five of them clung to the Stomper's back, trying to bite through his thick hide and the powerful muscles protecting his spine. The other five bustled around the mob's feet, shrieking and snapping their sharp teeth.
Even a nerd like myself with zero hunting skills could see they were trying to distract him.
The beast was clearly tired but still trying to sink his long fangs into his attackers. He was too slow though. In his situation, he should either move little and try to preserve his energy or duck back into the woods where the monkeys would find it harder to move. Still, the game developers must have cut a corner in his Intellect department.
Gradually his roaring changed, sounding more like a whimper. The Monks chirped with glee: one of them must have finally gotten to the creature.
No idea why I did what I did next. It could be the giant's helplessness — or it could have been the Monks' nasty cheering that must have reminded me of something from my past. It didn't matter. I attacked them.
The moment I lay the first pebble into the slingshot, I received the first unpleasant surprise. A new message materialized, its letters acid red,

Warning! The Air Attack restriction has been activated!
-20% to Damage dealt to ground targets.
Keep leveling and gaining experience, and one day it will change!

What was that, for crissakes? What did they think they were doing? They'd clipped our wings in mid-flight!
First they'd given me this ridiculous weapon, then sent me to this so-called newb location, and now this? What kind of sick joke was that?
Calm down, I said to myself. No good falling apart. Let's think logically. The slingshot might explain itself later. It might actually prove to be a worthy weapon every bit as good as some exquisite Elven Bow... or at least I hoped so.
As for this place, I might have to look into it once I logged out. They couldn't expect a newb to start playing against mobs twenty times his or her own level!
This restriction, however — setting all emotions aside and thinking logically — actually made more sense than anything mentioned above. As a zero level, I was bound to be subject to restrictions.
To sum it all up, if the gameplay's logic was anything to go by, I was in for lots of discoveries and unpleasant surprises.
As I was thus collecting my thoughts from the information overload, the Stomper was already on his last legs. Digital legs, but still. Naturally he was going to respawn in due time but that was yet to happen — provided I failed to step in. This wasn't the right moment to ponder about the future. I had to act fast. Stupid as it may sound, if I didn't help him now, I might repent my indecision at my leisure.
"Boris, mind circling them for a bit? Slowly. I need to take good aim."
I grabbed the slingshot's pouch with my thumb and index finger.
The sling pulled taut.
My hand froze alongside my right eye.
I took aim.
I'd long decided on my first target: an especially brazen Monk who'd sunk his teeth into the giant's neck, showering him with blood from a severed artery.
Before letting go of the pouch, I smiled at a sudden thought. Funny, really. The slingshot was actually the only weapon I knew how to use. I'd had a whole childhood of experience.
The smooth little rock escaped my hand with an unexpected force, sending a brief vibration from my weapon hand to my left shoulder. Wow. This was something I'd never seen happen as a child!
In one powerful pop, just like in that YouTube video, the little scumbag flew off the Stomper's neck.
The system message was another surprise.

You've attacked a level 20 Swamp Monk.
Damage dealt: 40
Keep on fighting!

How freakin' much? Forty points? Didn't its stats say one point of something? Not that it made too much difference to the nasty midget, not with his levels. Still, for my zero level forty points damage was way beyond my dreams. What could have caused it?
Wait a sec.
I knew it! I wasn't just any zero level, was I? My gear stats, that's what must have done it. This was the 116 Strength points of my Reflection kit in action. And that's with their 20% restriction, too.
Naturally, had I been standing down there on the beach, the Monks would have made quick work of me. But I'd rather swap the considerable extra damage for the safety of Boris' back.
Actually, judging by the stats' description, my mount was supposed to receive part of my XP without detracting from it. Ditto for Prankster. So it wouldn't be a bad idea to summon him too. He could sit on Boris' neck and learn the ropes.
Prankster materialized on my shoulder and immediately leaped onto his big buddy's head, paying no heed to me. Why should he? The unfolding show below was much more fascinating.
My attack hadn't gone unnoticed. The Monks knew we were there. The one I'd shot down was angrier than the rest: a couple of times he'd even tried to jump in the air to get at us.
He could jump, I tell you. If he were intelligent enough to climb onto the Stomper's head and repeat his attempt from there, he might just have made it. I told Boris to climb a bit higher.
The Stomper's column-like hind legs gave way from under him. The Monks shrieked their triumph. For a split second they'd forgotten all about me, the whole pack assaulting the monster.
Big mistake.
My second pebble hit the most forward one right between the eyes just as he was about to sink his teeth into the Stomper's throat.

You've attacked a level 20 Swamp Monk.
Damage dealt: 35
Keep on fighting!

Screaming his indignation, the Monk tumbled to the ground. Immediately — much to my surprised relief — the Stomper joined in the action. With one swing of his giant head, the wounded Monk lay broken on the sand.
That was it.
One down.
The following message admittedly pleased me,

You've killed a level 20 Swamp Monk!
You've received Experience!
Congratulations! You've received Achievement: David and Goliath
Reward: +2% to Physical Damage dealt by you
+1% to your chance of receiving Knowledge in combat.

This was another thing that differed from my old Grinder account: I could receive Achievements now. Forums spoke at length about this important phenomenon. If you disregarded all the emotions and boiled it down to the facts, they made Achievements one of Mirror World's sacred mysteries. No one could tell how many types of them there were nor offer any kind of chart or classification. The Achievements system seemed to be a fickle and unpredictable beast. Or, as the local old-timers put it, highly randomized.
Both mine and my beasts' green XP bars continued to fill up. This was a good sign. I seemed to be doing everything right.
The funny thing was, I hadn't received any XP for my first shot. Simply attacking a monster wasn't enough, apparently. You then had to win the fight. Losers didn't receive XP. So if the Stomper managed to finish off my first target, that would be excellent.
The loss of a pack member must have reminded the other Monks that their victim was still going strong. I made a mental note to steer clear of the giant in the future. You wouldn't want to fool around with a creature that could swat a 1000 pt. Life mob like a fly.
The Stomper put the Monks' hesitation to good use. He scrambled to his feet and staggered toward the forest.
"Good decision, buddy. These shitheads won't be able to get to you so easily in there."
Judging by the Monks' squeaking, they didn't like this latest development at all. They sprang onto the Stomper, redoubling their efforts.
"Thanks for turning your backs to me," I said, loosing off another pebble, the biggest I had. Like an infuriated bee, it sank into the back of my first target's head just as he was climbing the retreating Stomper's leg.
The pebble had stripped the little bastard of 50 pt. Life.
Sensing my support, the Stomper swung round. His left foot made a sound like a sink plunger as it stamped the wounded Monk deep into the sand.
Two down!
My XP bar was already half-full. Excellent. That's the way to do it.
The wounded Stomper seemed to have gotten second wind. He was really on a roll. Two more Monks went down. Who'd have thought he had so much left in him still!
Despite having lost nearly half their pack within the last few minutes, the Monks persisted albeit not as enthusiastically anymore. Six isn't the same as ten, after all. Also, I got the impression that the Monk I'd assaulted first had been their pack leader. Without him, their new attack was pretty disjointed. They paid for it straight away, losing the fifth pack member to the Stomper's powerful jaws as he attempted to get to the giant's throat.
I singled out the most active one. He seemed to be trying to organize his teammates. I had to give the midgets their due: having lost half their force, they were still on the offensive.
With a loud release of the sling and a resounding clap, another rock escaped my Minor Slingshot, followed by an angry squeak as it found its target.

You've attacked a level 20 Swamp Monk.
Damage dealt: 20
Keep on fighting!

Not very generous, was it? Apparently, the lower Damage must have had something to do with the shorter range and the smaller slug. Still, for the Stomper it had been plenty. Left for a brief moment without their new leader's guidance, the four remaining Monks lost two more fighters to his powerful blows.
That was that. You could say we were four against their three. We were in the majority!
Before I could celebrate the fact, my unexpected ally lost his footing: either due to the loss of blood or simple carelessness. It didn't matter anymore. I watched as he slowly collapsed to the ground to the Monks' cheerful squealing.
Waving their front legs with glee, they charged at him.
No idea what had come over me. I was probably angry I'd failed to help him. Or just mad at him for having screwed up so stupidly just when victory was within our reach. I really don't know.
I loosed off all the remaining pebbles in one long burst. I didn't even need to take aim: they were all within an arm's reach of each other.
Of course my pebbles were like mosquito bites to them. Still, they served their purpose. Once again the Stomper managed to surprise me. In one desperate thrust he rose on his hind legs, then dropped onto the approaching enemies.
That was the end of it. He'd just swatted them like as many flies.

Congratulations! You've received a new level!
Current level: 1
Reward: +10 to Knowledge.
Current Knowledge: 10/40
Congratulations! You've received Achievement: One Soldier Can Make a Battle.
+1% to Physical Damage dealt by you;
+1% to your chances of knocking your opponent unconscious in battle.

I looked at my pets. "You okay, guys? First blood to us."
The system obligingly dished out their respective XP. We were growing! I just loved it.
I stroked Prankster's little head. "You know what, guys? I think I start to like this place."
Boris turned a few circles over the motionless Stomper, then began to descend. I told him to land next to my first slain Monk.
Close by, they looked even uglier than from a distance. Add to that the unbearable stench of rotten fish. Bah. It must have been my brain playing up.
As I looked at the Monk, I had a growing suspicion that the game designers weren't a 100% mentally stable. The creature was a half-finished sketch of a fish mutant apparently arrested in its development just as it had entered Mirror World.
Suppressing a bout of nausea, I stopped and crouched next to it. Right, what did we have here? My first reward... or loot in game speak.

Items received:
An Eye of a Swamp Monk, 1
A Tooth of a Swamp Monk, 3
A Clot of Slime from a Swamp Monk, 1

I was surprised how clean the actual process was. I didn't have to grope inside this ugly monkeyfish's guts. The system did it all for me. The moment I agreed to pick up the items, they miraculously appeared in my bag while the Monk's body began to vanish into thin air. Good news. No idea how I'd have managed without this function.
Having studied the remaining six bodies, I'd acquired more teeth, slime and other obnoxious substances including a few vials of Venom of Swamp Monk. I just hoped that some of this was worth something.
"Right. Seven checked, three more to go."
Had Dmitry not reminded me that all slain enemies had to be checked for loot, I would never have thought about it. It took some getting used to. Which I probably would. It looked as if I might be doing this quite often.
I warily approached the Stomper lying motionless on the sand. You never know what he might do.
I stopped a few paces away. Now I could see clearly that my intervention had been pointless from the start. The giant had been doomed the moment he'd been attacked. The edges of the numerous bites covering his body were turning black even as I watched. This must have been the Swamp Monk venom taking its toll.
The poor giant was shuddering, his wide barrel-shaped belly rising and dropping as he struggled to gasp his last breaths. It was a miracle he'd lasted as long as he had.
His red Life bar hovered at 80. Apparently, some inner force just wouldn't let him die peacefully.
I raised my head to the sky. "You over there! Quit torturing him, will ya?"
No one seemed to have heard me. And if they had, they were probably sitting there laughing their heads off.
"It's all right, man," I whispered, digging my hand into the sand. "It'll all be over in a minute. Oh... this one looks good enough."
The large pebble was much heavier than those I'd used earlier. It looked ugly and out of place in the pouch of my slingshot. I didn't care. This was irrelevant. I just hoped the system would recognize it as a suitable projectile.

The Minor Pocket Slingshot is loaded!
Missile: a Beach Pebble
Fit for Purpose: Yes
Range: +0.1
Rate of Fire: +0.1
Precision: +0.1
Damage: +3.6 ... +4.8

Good enough. At this close range, neither Precision nor Rate of Fire really mattered.
I pulled the sling taut.
The Stomper lay on the sand with his eyes closed, his body convulsing faster.
Time to do it.
The sling made its popping sound.
The system showered me with an avalanche of messages, congratulating me on my new levels, Rewards and Achievements.
I didn't bother to read through them. I just wasn't in the mood. "You're free now, buddy."
Mechanically I accepted whatever loot I was due.
I might have spent some time moping about. Still, Mirror World isn't the right place for this sort of nonsense.
Boris behind me emitted a threatening hiss. I swung round.
The last thing I noticed before the lights went out was a pair of murky fish eyes.

Chapter Four

The lights came back on rather quickly. I must have been unconscious for a few seconds at the most. Still, this had been enough to realize I'd just died my first virtual death.
What did I feel? Nothing, really. I hadn't even had the time to get properly scared.
Where was I now? The gloomy beach was nowhere to be seen. Judging by the walls of rock towering around me and the stalactites hanging from the ceiling, I must have been inside a small cave.
A crystal altar rose at its center. A bright blue flame burned bright inside it, illuminating the insides of the cave.
I tried to move but couldn't. A system message appeared before my eyes,

You're dead.
Use the Altar's Force to resurrect: Yes/No.

Unhesitantly I accepted the offer.

Congratulations! You've resurrected!
Good luck to you, O Reincarnated One!
You've received Achievement: New Life!
Reward: +1% to Protection from Physical Damage!

Excellent. I could move again.
The altar's blue light expired, submerging me into darkness. Not the scary pitch dark of the logging in, just the regular gloom of an underground cave. My Ennan eyesight adapted to it in no time.
I cast a studying look around. A narrow passage gaped in a far wall. This was probably my exit route.
Very well, then. I was finished in here.
I dove into the crevice. Below it lay a narrow rock passage.
"So much for the light at the end of the tunnel," I chuckled as I stepped into it. After few more steps, I finally faced freedom.
No matter how much I'd have loved to step out into the soft sunlight to the birds' gentle singing, I ended up under the same incessant rain pouring from the heavy skies.
I was in the jungle. Everywhere I looked, there were palm trees, bamboo and giant ferns wound with creepers. A moss-grown cliff rose behind me.
A faint trail ran from the cave entrance into the forest.
I shrugged. "Oh well. I'll be off, then."
Still, before I went anywhere I had to work out what had actually happened back at the beach. Not that it was going to take a lot of time. Adventures could wait.
I perched on a large boulder by the cliff and cast a look around. Everything seemed nice and quiet.
Let's do it.
I opened the logs and scrolled down until I came to my killing Stomper.
Got it.

You've attacked a level 30 Stomper!
You've dealt a critical hit!
Damage dealt: 83
You've killed a level 30 Stomper!
You've received Experience!
You've received a new level!
Current level: 2
Reward: +15 to Knowledge
Current Knowledge: 25/40
Congratulations! You've received Achievement: A Hill and an Ant.
Reward: +1% to Energy Regeneration
+1% to your chance of receiving Knowledge

My XP bar was 98% full. Which meant that if I won my next fight I might even make level 3. I'd only taken a few shots and I was already level 2! Having said that...
Yes! It worked! My little beasties had made a new level too! Boris was almost level 2 already. Prankster lagged behind somewhat but he boasted a new ability. Let's have a look.

Congratulations! Your pet has received a new level! It's become stronger, sturdier and much more dangerous for your enemies!
Main characteristics:
Name: Prankster
Race: Black Grison
Type: Relic
Level: 1
Satiety: 90/90
Life: 3/20
Stamina: 0
Health: 0
Damage: 1,9 ... 2,6.
Abilities: Healing Wave I
The pet will use its ability to cast a spell allowing its master to restore 5% Life. Cooldown: 2 min.
Experience received: 10% of the owner’s combat experience without detracting from it.
Nourishment: The owner can feed his pet at any given time by sharing some of his Energy with it.
Warning! A pet’s level can’t exceed that of its owner!
Available points: 5

Apart from his new ability — which was good news in and by itself — Prankster had only received a few new stats. His Satiety levels had grown. He now had a Life bar and a Stamina stat. Plus he had been granted five points which I was going to distribute for him shortly.
Now, his abilities. Finally I could see Prankster's entire ability chart. Admittedly all of its icons were still inactive but at least I knew that his next ability branch would open at level 15. Which was better than knowing nothing at all, I suppose.
The first advantage of a relic pet was having six abilities. Regular pets could only have four.
Next. Prankster could fight already at level 1: I wouldn't have to level him up to 30 in order to open Damage.
The next advantage applied to both Prankster and Boris. It concerned what Mirror World players called a "death penalty". If my mount or pet died in battle the way it had just happened to them only a few minutes ago, I could only summon them after a three-hour penalty period. That was a bit of a hassle but admittedly better than the six hours imposed on regular pet owners.
I closed Prankster's window and moved on to Boris. Unlike Prankster, he'd already received his first ability; the next one would open at level 20.
His system messages couldn't have pleased me more,

Congratulations! Your pet has received a new level! It's become stronger, sturdier and much more dangerous for your enemies!
Main characteristics:
Name: Boris
Type: Hugger the Night Hunter
Class: Relic
Level: 1
Satiety: 1000/1000
Stamina: 10
Health: 0
Life: 3/200
Damage: 5,6 ... 6,8.
Abilities: Flight. Riding a Hugger increases your speed 30%. It also allows you to carry two additional heavy items.
Experience received: 20% of the owner’s combat experience without detracting from it.
Nourishment: The owner can feed his pet at any given time by sharing some of his Energy with it.
Warning! A pet’s level can’t exceed that of its owner!
Available points: 5

I wasn't going to distribute his available points quite yet, either. Once I logged out, I'd have to spend some quality time online looking into it, then make an informed decision. There was no hurry, especially considering I couldn't summon my little menagerie for another three hours, anyway.
I found this fact quite disturbing. I was too used to having a plan B (read: being able to soar up into the sky) whenever the going got tough. And it looked like now I had to rely solely on myself. Oh. Plus the Minor Pocket Slingshot.
Never mind. No good winding myself up. I needed to distract myself with something.
Actually, I still hadn't checked my loot.
"Let's have a look," I mumbled, opening my inventory.
Aha. How interesting. The Swamp Monks had predictably left me some teeth, slime and venom. But Stomper, on top of two fangs, had also bestowed a proper item on me.
What was it, then?

Name: A Bone Bracelet of a Swamp Monk Warrior
Effect: +25 to Speed
Restrictions: none
Level: 20

This was the first real item I'd won in battle. And judging by its name, it stood to reason Stomper had at some point managed to alienate the Monks by swallowing one of their warriors.
The absence of restrictions was good news, as opposed to the item's level 20. I'd so have loved to put it on straight away. No such luck.
"Hi, you all right?"
I jumped at the sound of a stranger's voice. Blinking the messages out of my eyes, I raised my head. A red-skinned Narch towered not two paces away from me. Nickname: Dreadlock. Level: 0. Judging by his full set of herbalist gear, he too used to be a Grinder.
The hilts of two swords peeped from behind his back: both rather simple, by the looks of them. I'd seen enough swords both in Mellenville and the Citadel to know a thing or two about them.
There was something else about him I hadn't noticed at first. Another pair of hilts peeked from behind his belt. But of course. He had four arms, didn't he? So naturally he needed four weapons. Admittedly they added a touch of danger to his otherwise harmless appearance.
I immediately thought about the Plateau battle. There, red-skinned Narch assassins looked suitably bloodthirsty: their eyes glowing with malice, froth dripping from their fangs, a curved saber in each of their four hands... Scary.
Dreadlock looked like a fine specimen of his race. Tall with broad shoulders, not an ounce of fat anywhere. This was the kind of guy who only waited for a command to slice you into shreds.
"I'm fine, thank you," I cracked a friendly smile.
He nodded. "I see. I wasn't really sure. Things happen. One's first death is never easy."
"Ah. How very thoughtful of you."
Then it dawned on me. "Did you say first death?"
He shrugged. "Yeah."
I frowned. Paranoia crept up, entwining my heart and growing new shoots generously nurtured with suspicion. "How do you know this was my first death?"
He grinned. "I don't. Or rather I didn't. Just an educated guess. Only newcomers resurrect at this altar, you see. Then again, you might just have happened to walk past. Or you might have had an appointment here. And what's more, now that I know your level, I'd have rather supposed the latter. The fact that you confirmed my initial suggestion is remarkable in itself. How did you manage to do two levels in your first fight?"
"By accident," I admitted, making a mental note to watch what I was saying.
He only chuckled.
"Can I ask you a question?" I hurried to add.
"Sure," he chuckled again, baring some very sharp fangs. "I suggest we talk as we walk. You are going to the village, aren't you?"
I sprang from my rock and theatrically brushed the non-existent dust from my pants. "I'd love to keep you company!"
"Excellent. Off we go, then."
When we left the cliff behind, Dreadlock finally asked, "What did you mean when you said you made two levels by accident? Mind telling me how it happened? Oh, sorry, you were going to ask me something, weren't you?"
I nodded, trying to fall into step with his giant stride. "I was. Actually, our questions have a lot in common."
"Shoot, then. It's even better this way."
"What did you mean by saying it was my first death? What has that got to do with the altar?"
"I see," he nodded. "When all else fails, read the freakin' manual."
"Meaning I don't think you've ever got down to reading the location guides, have you? I can imagine your shock when you discovered the high-level mobs."
"You don't mean it's normal!"
"Normal? More like lunacy on the part of the game developers. All forums are still arguing about the legality of all this. What killed you?"
"A level-20 Swamp Monk."
He nodded. "I see. It means you'd entered the location via the beach. Me, I was first smoked in the jungle. Didn't know what hit me. That's why I was so surprised when you said you did two levels before you died."
"Pure chance," I said. "I heard some noise and kept a safe distance. It was good timing. Some sick cross between a hippo and an elephant ran out onto the beach chased by some Swamp Monks. I was so scared I started shooting at them. Luckily for me, the monster then stomped to death a few of them. Unfortunately, I celebrated too soon."
"I see," he said pensively, casting a brief glance at the slingshot behind my belt.
I knew of course my story was too clumsy but I hadn't had time to think of anything better.
"Actually," he said, "had you kept your starting gear on, you might have received more XP."
"Excuse me?"
"The thing is, apart from recognizing a player's level, the system can also read his or her stats. By this token, our respective gear kits make us look more like level 17 or even 18."
"Oh. I read nothing about that, either."
He shrugged. "It's all right. I'll send you some useful links later."
"Thanks a lot. Why did they do it?"
"You mean the high-level mobs smoking newbs or the XP restrictions?"
"Both, actually," I offered, utterly embarrassed.
He nodded his understanding. "As for the former, there's an old interview with one of the company's analytic department experts. You can still find it online, I think. Well, according to him, a newb's first death is highly important. In their first years in the Glasshouse, the developers aimed to scare players out of their minds for a start. Just as a trial measure. Like, if this doesn't scare you, go ahead but be warned! Now of course their philosophy is entirely different. Mirror World is too much part of human society now. The game owners don't care much anymore. Thousands of new registrations every day, what do you think? Most new players choose to start in calmer locations, anyway. So they left the old nurseries for adrenaline junkies like ourselves."
"How nice."
"As for your other question," he went on, "the company was apparently flooded with complaints from new players over their decision to allow Grinders to keep their character's stats and gear when upgrading. For a fee, of course. The company was too greedy. The outcry it caused among new players, you can't even imagine! Like, it's not fair, we start the game from scratch and they... blah blah blah. I bet the damage you dealt came as a pleasant surprise to you."
I only nodded.
"You see. So no wonder newbs in their starting kits weren't happy. The developers were forced to meet them halfway by introducing changes to Mirror World's entire combat system. A lot of the players regretted being so vocal, I tell you! Too late. So basically, now the system calculates the entirety of a player's stats and dishes out XP accordingly. Luckily, it doesn't apply to achievements."
"How interesting," I said, ducking to avoid yet another tree branch blocking my way.
"Actually," Dreadlock said, ramming through the thickets like a tank, "don't be too surprised if no one takes you on a raid. Lower levels won't want you because your presence in the group will strip them of their share of loot and XP. Higher levels won't invite you because you can't really help them much. Crafting gear kits have considerably lower stats than combat ones. So if you're planning on using your own gear, at least for the time being, be prepared to become a lone wolf, heh!"
"Great tip. Thanks. All of your advice has been very helpful. And I was considering dumping my starting gear!"
"You can always do that. Waste not, want not."
I grinned. "My point entirely. In this game, every scrap of cloth or piece of paper might prove useful. And my bag has only so many slots in it."
"Exactly," he chuckled. "It gets cluttered in seconds if you're not careful."
As we forced our way through the mesh of intertwining vines, branches and leaves, the system bestowed another message upon me,

Welcome, O newcomer! A long and dangerous road lies before you. Watch out! Your every step may-

Yeah, right. I closed the lengthy message without even reading it, agreeing to the unavoidable offers of free app downloads.
Judging by Dreadlock's focused stare, he'd just done the same. We exchanged knowing stares like Glasshouse old-timers and simultaneously winked to each other.
I quite enjoyed the feeling of not being a total newb anymore. Doubtless I still had a lot to learn; but let's face it, I'd seen much worse locations than this one.
The trail turned another bend. Now I could make out a small bay in the distance and the outlines of little lopsided huts.
Dreadlock stopped, closed his eyes and drew in a huge breath. His already barrel-like chest expanded to twice its original size. He blew the air out, opened his eyes and bared his sharp fangs in a bloodthirsty grin,
"Here we are! Can you feel adventures coming?"
I decided against telling him what exactly I felt at that particular moment. No good ruining his mood. Smiling modestly, I just nodded my agreement.
As we approached Azure Village, I began to realize that whoever had named this little settlement must either have been overly optimistic or a real joker.
A stockade snaked slapdashedly around the village, grinning its crooked rotten teeth like some giant monster. A matching gate stood wide open, listing to one side. A watchtower surprised me more by its sheer existence than by its atrociously bad quality.
There were no guards in sight though — neither by the gate nor on the watchtower.
We stepped through the gate.

We welcome you, O traveler, to Azure Village, the old outpost of the Fort!

As far as I remembered, the Fort was situated at the center of the main island. Apparently, there were several outposts in total — five, according to some forum posts, but only one of them was considered safe. And the Fort itself was the location's main instance.
The local NPCs were in fact all that was left of the former garrison, still attempting to defend this last plot of land that once used to belong to Mellenville. Judging by the dilapidated huts and the overall desolation, very soon the jungle would consume this miserable excuse for an outpost too.
Dreadlock stopped and turned to me, offering his hand. "Here we are, Sir Olgerd. Nice meeting you."
I shook his strong hand. "Likewise, Sir Dreadlock! Thanks for keeping me company. And for the tips."
"That's nothing. Can I add you to my friends list?"
I nodded. "Absolutely."
We exchanged friend invites and more handshakes.
"One more tip," he said. "There's a pole at the center of the village. I suggest you make it your resurrection point and try not to venture too far from it at first as you hunt."
"Why not?"
He chuckled. "It may sound strange but the first death is also the easiest. You probably didn't notice that you'd kept all your stuff even though the gameplay demanded you were left stark naked."
I scratched the back of my head. "True. I still have all my clothes."
"You do," he nodded. "No more freebies, I'm afraid. Now you'll have to do a corpse run double quick the moment you resurrect before some smartass helps himself to your stuff."
"Got it," I nodded. "Will do."
"Good," he grinned. "Right, I think I'm gonna give Sarge a miss for the moment. I've got friends waiting for me in another location. Good luck!"
He slapped my shoulder with one of his four hands and headed toward the sea. I decided to follow his advice and set off in search for the pole he'd mentioned. No good delaying something important like this.

When I turned the corner of one of the huts, a gut feeling forced me to look back. I peered through a sloppy row of bamboo stakes which apparently served as the main building material here. My new friend was staring after me, oblivious of the fact that I could see him. Which was good. Because I really didn't like what I read in his stare.

Chapter Five

"It had all started when they'd found gold on that wretched island," old Sergeant Crux said, baring the yellow stumps of his teeth.
He looked more like a street bum than a valorous Mellenville warrior. He was disheveled with a scraggly beard, his eyes red with either lack of sleep or constant alcohol abuse. He wore a tatty old army tunic.
I'd been forced to sit and listen to his soliloquy because this guy apparently was the location's key NPC.
"So you know how it goes," this excuse for a sergeant sniffed and spat on the ground. "The moment there's gold found somewhere, the place starts crawling with opportunists. Mellenville officials promptly sent in a prospecting expedition. But less than a year later, it became clear it wasn't worth the diggers' wages. The vein proved to be very poor, but at first it had indeed showed promise. They'd even managed to build the fort and the outposts. The expedition wasted some more time looking for more resources on other islands until finally they threw in the towel and announced they were leaving for the continent."
He rasped out a cough and went on, "They left our garrison on the main island in order to protect this miserable location. Gradually they forgot all about us. Just one of those things. What with epidemics, pirate raids and wild beasts' attacks, our ranks kept shrinking. The forest continued to reclaim the island. So it went on until finally something happened that no one could have expected. Later our wizard managed to work out what it was all about, but by then it was too late. The process had already gained momentum, you see."
He heaved a sigh. "If I told you these islands' entire history, I'd be at it all day. To put it short, our idiot architect had ignored the warning signs we'd discovered in the island's hinterland and laid the fort's foundations right on top of an ancient pagan shrine. He never asked himself why his workers were dying like flies. Who cares about prisoners, anyway? Because that's who built the fort: prisoners. Murderers, rapists and pillagers. Their bodies were simply thrown into deep holes nearby. So finally the fort was built. The architect got his share of praise. He packed up his stuff, very pleased with himself, and went back to his posh house in the center of Mellenville," the Sarge kept frowning and clenching his fists as he told me about it.
"Finally the day came which was the start of our undoing. Ask our guys if you don't believe me. That day, one of our recon groups returned to the fort. You'd think it's normal, wouldn't you? Problem was, they'd been missing for over a month."
I decided to add my two cents to the conversation, "That's a good reason to celebrate, isn't it?"
He cast a sideways look at me, his eye bloodshot. "So we thought too. Being lost in the jungle for a month is no joke! But when we opened the gate... you could forget celebrating!"
"Why?" I had a feeling I knew the answer already.
He shook his head. "They weren't our guys, were they? It was them all right but only their decomposed bodies... raised by some evil ancient magic. It was all because of Zeddekey, may he burn in hell! Our wizards had told him not to disturb the old shrine. He hadn't listened, had he? He did everything his own way, the bastard!"
As he continued to shower curses on the hapless architect, I racked my brains trying to remember where I'd heard the name before. Zeddekey... Zeddekey...
But of course! Zeddekey's Catacombs which riddled the ground under the Citadel, the local instance that Tronus had recommended me to visit.
Funny this Zeddekey had left his mark here as well. The only difference was, he was a legend back on the continent while here everybody seemed to curse his name.
The walking dead here, the bloodthirsty ghosts of dead builders there... this Zeddekey definitely had a bone to pick with the forces of the afterlife.
As I thus reminisced, the Sarge had already moved on to cursing the architect's ancestry, each and every one of them, until finally tuberculosis got the better of him, sending him into a choked bout of coughing.
Gasping, he spat on the floor. His spittle was veined with blood. "My days are numbered, I'm afraid," he croaked.
"No way," I said with an encouraging smile. "You're gonna outlive us all."
He shook his head. "Leave it. What was I about? Oh yes. Our zombie scouts. My brother-in-law was among them. It's not that I liked him that much, not at all. Still, he didn't deserve it. No idea how I'm going to face my wife now."
He scratched the back of his head, deep in thought. "We smoked the zombies double quick. Not the first time, thank God. A lot of our guys had been over the Black Stream, and those lands are absolutely packed with all kinds of evil. The wizard helped a lot too. We bid our slain brothers farewell, then burned them all on a ceremonial pyre, as tradition dictates. We were about to go back to the barracks when a night watch kid came running and screaming, "Zombies! Zombies!" We talked some sense into him and hurried to the walls. They were everywhere! Eyes burning, teeth clattering, reaching their fetid hands out to get you..."
He paused. "Quite a few of them had been our soldiers. We could tell by their gear. Dead fortress builders, too. There were others — they looked like human beings only they weren't. They must have been the bodies of all those who'd ever died on this island. The wizard said it was some very old magic. He wasn't up to it. He also said — I still remember it — that one day the fort would fall. Said it was better to leave now than waste soldiers' lives."
He stopped and stole a glance around. "Me and my corporals, we tended to agree with him. Time was an issue. As soon as the zombies cut us off from the outposts, we'd be left without food or water. But our Captain had other ideas. He started yelling at the wizard, calling him a traitor and threatening he'd have him chained to the wall, the idiot. Not that the wizard paid any heed to him. But the look he gave us... It still burns a hole in me. It's as if he was looking at corpses. Me and my men, we got real scared. And the Captain just wouldn't leave it alone, would he? He was trying to set us up against the wizard. Too young, too stupid. Too different from the rest of us. You tell me: who are sergeants? That's right, they're yesterday's soldiers. And this, excuse my French, snotnose, had only just let go of his mommy's apron strings. A so-called knight! They receive rank according to their nobility status..."
He fell silent, staring ahead of him. "The rest of that night was relatively trouble-free, if you don't mind zombies perambulating in front of the fort walls. But closer to the morning we realized that the wizard had left and taken part of the garrison along. The night watch were the only ones left. I don't blame them. Not really. I might have done the same. Strategically he'd done the right thing, taking the bulk of the garrison out of the encirclement. It wasn't his fault it didn't quite go as he'd planned. By the evening, they were already back. Dead."
I obediently listened as he told me the rest of the story: the surviving garrison's miraculous escape and their subsequent struggle for survival at the last remaining outpost. I'd read it already at some forum or other, anyway.
As he spoke, my thoughts kept returning to another very important problem. How could I level up in the shortest time possible? Because time was an issue. I had too many obligations to fulfill — and quickly, too. Dreadlock had unwittingly given me an idea. I had to spend some quality time online looking into it. It might just work.
The Sarge was already finishing his tale. I screwed my face into an expression of mourning for his fallen comrades. The game's AI must have analyzed it and considered it appropriate, because the Sarge finally decided to dish out my first quest.
"Listen, Olgerd," he turned to me. "I can tell that you have your heart in the right place. You can see what's going on here. Every pair of hands is precious."
I looked meaningfully around me. He was actually right. Sure this wasn't the most popular of locations — what between the constant rain, zombies, Swamp Monks and other uglies — but still. According to Dmitry, players still came here, but I couldn't see anyone. Apart from Dreadlock and his mysterious friends, that is. The village looked abandoned. Could everyone be out doing quests, bound to return closer to the evening? Then again, who was I to complain? A deserted location was exactly what I needed.
"If you need help, Sarge, try me."
He gave me a toothless grin. "Jolly good, jolly good!" he rubbed his hands. "You've seen our wall, haven't you?"
I nodded.
"What I'd like you to do," he went on, "is to beat some stakes into the ground by the East gate. Think you could do that?"

New quest alert: East Gate fortifications!
Go into the forest and cut 20 stakes, then hammer them into the ground by the East Gate.
Reward: varies
Accept: Yes/No

On the surface this looked simple enough. Still, completing this quest would require my meeting all of the village's NPCs.
Firstly, I would need an axe made by the local blacksmith;
Secondly, I might have to see their store keeper and ask him for a spade;
And thirdly, I'd have to seek out the archer in the watchtower for directions as to exactly where to place the stakes. In return, every one of these chars would exact a service from me. So basically, I was in for quite a busy day.
I accepted the quest, bade my goodbyes to the Sarge and headed to the local smithy. According to the story book, Abel the blacksmith was about to return to the continent. By this token every newb in need of his help was immediately recruited as a porter, lugging cratefuls of tools, coal and steel parts — everything that the foresightful blacksmith could still salvage from the island — to the ship. Only then would Abel gift an axe to the lucky player — which, being a quest item, was basically worthless as it would disappear from your bag the moment you completed the quest.
I noticed him from afar. Little wonder: he was a good seven foot tall with a shoulder span to match and hands the size of sledge hammers. His head was as large as a beer keg trimmed with a black beard. He stood there knitting his eyebrows in thought.
"Good morning," I said.
"Hi," he mumbled, apparently not in the mood for talking.
"I need to speak to you," I insisted. "The Sarge told me to cut a few stakes-"
"What's keeping you?" he interrupted me. "Go and do it."
I shrugged. "I don't have an axe, do I? So I saw you and I thought you might have one for me."
"I might," he boomed. "But what's in it for me?"
"I haven't come to you empty-handed. Do you need help, by any chance?"
"Help?" he finally turned to me and gave me a long studying look. He must have been happy with what he saw because he grunted his approval. "I can see you're the working type. A digger?"
I smiled back. "You could say that."
He nodded. "Good. I do have a job for you. We're awaiting a ship from Mellenville to come and get us out of this wretched place. So I decided I'd better get ready. But I've got so much stuff! You can see for yourself. If you help me move everything to the shore, I'll make it worth your while."

New quest alert: Help the Blacksmith!
Help Abel to carry his possessions to the shore.
Reward: an axe
Accept: Yes/No

I accepted the quest and offered him my hand. "Deal!"

* * *

The quest didn't take me long: my gear's high Strength stats had taken care of that. I'd moved the entire contents of Abel's smithy to the shore in forty minutes flat. Had I been wearing a starting kit, it might have been a challenge.
It paid off: the system rewarded me with +10 to my Relationship with Abel and added a bonus on top.
"Great job!" he gave me an almighty slap on the back which very nearly knocked the living daylights out of me. "You're fast, aren't you?"
"I am," I suppressed a wince. "If there's something else you need..."
"Agreed," he nodded, pleased. "Now my part of the deal."

Quest alert: Help the Blacksmith. Quest completed!
Reward: An Axe
Type: Quest item
Bonus reward: an Iron Necklace of a Shaman Swamp Monk

Their bonus wasn't much to write home about. Utterly useless, to be precise. Still, the sheer fact of receiving it felt good.
I thanked the blacksmith, walked a dozen paces away from his hut and perched myself on the edge of a half-rotten log.
Now. Let's have a look at my gifts.
The Shaman Monk's necklace may not have looked like much of a gift but still that wasn't a reason to ignore its properties.
A necklace was an overstatement, really. Nine bits of iron were strung together on the knotted dry stalk of some plant. Despite its primitive shape, this item definitely pointed at Swamp Monks evolving and developing intelligence. At least some of them were.
This excuse for a necklace offered its bearer +1 to Speed. Not that it was so important considering the item's whopping 1 pt. Durability.
As I fingered through the necklace, I noticed that one of the knots was about to come undone. Mechanically I decided to tighten it without even thinking of any potential consequences.
The strange-looking system message came as a surprise,

Warning! You're trying to alter an item's nature without possessing the necessary skills, recipes or blueprints!
Probability of ruining the item: 99%.

How interesting.
I could already see I was looking at another sleepless night at the computer screen just researching it all. Every day I was learning something new.
Very well. And what if I did try to "alter the item's nature"? If it got ruined, so what! I could live with that. It was worth the experiment. Especially considering the necklace was about to give up the ghost, anyway.
I gingerly pulled at the stalk's ends, slowly tightening the knot. Just a tiny little bit more...
As if!

Warning! You've destroyed an item: the Iron Necklace of a Shaman Swamp Monk!
You've received:
An Iron Bead, 4.
A length of reed string, 1.
Reward: +2 to Knowledge
Current Knowledge: 27/40

Well, well, well. Curiouser and curiouser.

Congratulations! You've received Achievement: Mr. Bungler.
Reward: +1% to your chance of receiving Knowledge.

I rolled the necklace beads around in my hand. Was I supposed to laugh or cry? Whoever called this clumsy misshapen bit of iron a bead must have had either too much sense of humor or too little imagination.
It was about an inch wide. Quite heavy, too. Where was the logic in that? A nine-bead necklace must weigh quite a bit — and still it was supposed to improve Speed, of all things.
Never mind. I shouldn't add to my mine of useless information. Neither the beads nor the reed string had any stats. But seeing as both had been mentioned, they might come in handy to someone. I might check the auction once I logged out.
Casting another glance over my unexpected riches I was about to shove them in my bag when I had an idea.
And what if...
My fingers closed around my slingshot's handle. Breathless, I chose the biggest bead and lay it into the pouch.

The Minor Pocket Slingshot is loaded!
Missile: an Iron Bead
Fit for Purpose: Yes
Range: +2.3
Rate of Fire: +2.5
Precision: +2.3
Damage: +6.7 ... +7.9

I felt my lips stretch in an involuntary grin. "Excellent!"
I quickly checked the remaining beads. Their stats were more or less similar. Pebbles were not a patch on them. Very good.
My experiment had proven very useful. Now I had four good slugs in case of an emergency.
And what if I tinkered with the bracelet too? Then again, what could it bring me — a scrap of leather or a fragment of bone at the most. Besides, it was brand new. I might actually be able to sell it once I was back on the continent. It might not fetch a lot but a few gold was still a few gold. Especially considering I knew nothing about its potential market value yet.
That was it, then. No experiments this time. I needed to read up on it first.
I weighed the beads in my hand. "Shame there're so few of you. You could have made my life so much easier."
Eh... I froze in place just as I was about to get up. "Actually, it might work. Did I assemble it for nothing?"
Consumed by this new idea, I stole a harried look around. No one. What I was about to do definitely wasn't meant for prying eyes.
I moved behind a dilapidated hut, just in case. With any luck, no one would disturb me there.
I reached into my bag and produced the Replicator which had lain idle there all this time. It looked just like a school microscope minus all the buttons, gear wheels, lenses and other paraphernalia.
I'd already tried to use this wonder gizmo a couple of times but failed at each turn. Judging by its name, it was meant to copy or recreate — but what? No idea. You can't imagine the kinds of things I'd offered it: rocks, food, pieces of clothing... No way. Wonder if it might work now?
I laid the "microscope" in my lap. To begin with, I offered it several pebbles I'd picked up on my way to the village. Predictably, no response.
I returned the pebbles to my bag and moved to step 2, choosing the largest and roundest bead of all. Having said that... no. I'd better use the smallest one. If anything happened to it, at least I wouldn't regret it so much.
Right! Let's take a look.
Good job Sveta my wife couldn't see me now.
The moment I laid the little clump of iron onto the "microscope's" tray, the system generously offered a new message,

Warning! The object you have created is still unfinished!
Only fully finished objects can be replicated!

I grinned as I read the message out loud. This was just some sort of crazy Christmas!
Immediately I shut up and shrunk my head into my shoulders, looking warily around. The place seemed deserted. Right, Sir Olgerd, time to stop this nonsense and get your act together.
I just couldn't believe it! After all the trial and error I'd finally got a result!
I offered the remaining beads to the Replicator one after another, with the same result. The system recognized them all as objects built by me but as yet unfinished. How interesting. Having said that, I had indeed ruined the necklace. But if you looked at the matter from a different angle, both the beads and the piece of string had come about as a result of my manipulations with the necklace.
I brought the piece of string to the Replicator, just to double-check myself, and received the same message.
What did that imply? Firstly, now I could finally understand why the Replicator hadn't reacted to other objects in the past. And secondly, by destroying the necklace I'd apparently created something else, albeit "unfinished".
And what if... I rummaged through my bag for the murky Fragment of Blue Ice and offered it to the machine.

Warning! The object you have created is still unfinished!
Only fully finished objects can be replicated!

So it had recognized the Unworked Charm of Arakh, too! Why hadn't I tested it before? I simply hadn't had the time. First I'd met Tanor, then I'd had to talk to Max and his father Rrhorgus...
All I had to do now was decide how I could use this.
Voices sounded behind the hut's wall, distracting me from all the thoughts and theories galloping through my head. I hurried to shove everything back into my bag and shrank deeper into the bamboo wall.
There were two speakers. As I listened, I realized they were talking about me.
"Oh, do shut up," one of them growled. Judging by the sound, the speaker must have been very big. "He must be around here somewhere."
"And what if he isn't?" the other voice squeaked. "What did the Chief say? We're supposed to keep an eye on him at all times!"
"Chief my ass!" the other one boomed. "Who does he think he is?"
"Cool it, will ya?" the second one squeaked. "I don't give a shit about your drama queen antics. If you think you're so tough you can challenge him, be my guest. Just leave me out of it."
"All right, all right," the other one hurried to agree. "Quit blabbing."
"I'm not blabbing," the second one insisted. "You are. We have an agreement. We rob the noobs and get the fuck outta here. Just look at that toon! He walked right into our hands. Did you see his gear? How much do you think his full Digger kit will fetch at auction? You don't know, do you? Not that you know a lot. The Chief knew what he was saying: invite him to join our group and level him up to 10, and then.... But you've lost him, haven't you?"
"How can you lose him?" the first one boomed. "He went to the smith to get himself an axe. Typical noob. If he's not there it means he's off to get a spade."
"All right," his partner squeaked. "Let's check the warehouse, then."
"Okay. It's better we take a shortcut through the woods. We'll get there quicker."
My heart was pounding fast and hard. Here you are, Sir Olgerd. Out of the frying pan into the fire. How typical.
I had no doubts they'd been talking about me. Who else might they have seen around here wearing "Digger's gear"? I should have actually taken a quick look at them. But never mind. Their voices were clue enough.
Talk about bad timing. Naturally, as long as I stayed in the village, no one was going to hurt me. Still, I wasn't looking forward to watching my back the whole time.

Change of plan, then. Time to leave the village and head into the depths of the island.

Chapter Six

I'd spent the last ten minutes lurking in the bushes watching the warehouse. I'd decided to catch a glimpse of the robbers. You should always know who you're dealing with.
The warehouse was the only structure in the whole village that you could actually call a "building". In sharp contrast with all the village huts, it had a tiled roof and stone walls lined with tiny barred windows.
I noticed my pursuers hovering a dozen paces from the entrance. Now why wasn't I surprised?
A Rhoggh and a Forest Dwand.
Both levels 20+: monstrous for this newb location. They should be on the continent playing with all the big boys but they were still stuck here — and I even knew why.
Interestingly, both had green tags. Whoever their Chief was, he paid good attention to detail.
So let's presume these two worked as a newb trap: cool guys in expensive gear who apparently knew the islands like the palms of their hands. They would think nothing of rushing a newb to level 10. Which was when players lost their immunity, becoming easy prey for PKs.
I doubted those two were PKs though. More than likely, both would be offline at the time of the actual killings. There must have been others, more suitable for the task.
Naturally, the owners of humble starting gear kits had nothing to worry about. But players like myself should start taking their safety seriously. My gear would go for at least a grand at any auction. Which was a lot of money.
The worst thing about it was, it was all strictly within the rules. If later I filed a complaint, the muggers would be put on the wanted list. That wouldn't make their names any redder than they already were. Even if they happened to run into the NPC police, it might not happen any time soon. After that, I'd be eligible for compensation, sure, but retrieving my stuff might already be a problem — and as for being reimbursed, the police fees might make a nice hole in any reimbursement payments. They wouldn't catch the felons for nothing. So basically, it was damned if you do and damned if you don't.
There were other reimbursement scenarios, though.
One of the most effective ones was through the hiring of an extorter from the better Fury-endowed players. A mercenary like that could teach the muggers a good lesson and retrieve some of your stuff in the process. Problem was, an extorter's fee was twenty percent of the articles stolen.
I didn't mind paying at all. The very fact that the extorter would bring justice to my enemies and get a lot of my money back was good news. That wasn't the problem.
The problem was, a professional-level extorter wouldn't take on a petty case (like mine undoubtedly was). Their job involved huge risks with the expenses to match. Besides, all extorters were already on every PK's black lists. Many enemies meant many problems: if they chose to take the risk, they had to make it worth their while.
For a moment, I even considered the crazy idea of allowing them to rush me to level 10. I promptly dismissed it though. Firstly, I was quite capable of making level 10 myself. This wasn't brain surgery.
Secondly, my little menagerie had to grow too. And to do that, they had to participate in combat. This was something that all forums were unanimous about. And as I wasn't really going to tell anyone about my beasties, joining groups wouldn't be a clever thing to do.
And thirdly and lastly, I just didn't want to get involved.
Right, enough admiring my noble thieves. I had to be on my way. I still had my Plan B to consider. Time was an issue: I had to think on my feet.
I was about to beat an inconspicuous retreat when the warehouse door opened, letting out a new player.
Judging by the funny hat and a staff in his hand, he must have been a wizard. Level 2. Interestingly, he was also an ex-Grinder. Profession: Fisherman. Even from where I stood, I could see the distinctive embroidered ribbons covering his clothes. He must have spared no expense on boosting his gear.
The greedy mugs of my new "friends" were about to explode with glee. No wonder: a new prey was literally walking into their hands. The Dwand stepped forward and said something to the newcomer. Shame I couldn't hear a word, but judging by the wizzy's sincere smile, he'd swallowed their story hook, line and sinker.
What followed next was a carbon copy of what should have befallen me. They began their spiel. The Rhoggh stuck out his chest as in, I'm one tough guy, as the Dwand kept talking, trying to pull the wool over the wizzy's ears. The wizard enthusiastically nodding his agreement. He probably thought how lucky he'd been to have met two top players in these backwaters. He was probably already counting his future levels.
Very nice, Olgerd. It was all well and good for me to sneer at him from the safety of the bushes. Had I not been lucky enough to overhear their earlier conversation, I too might have been celebrating their offer of "friendship".
I really should warn him, but not straight away. He might not even need my advice. An ex-Grinder, he was no spring chicken himself. It wasn't for nothing he'd chosen this location. Still, I should speak to him at the first opportunity, even if for my own peace of mind.
Time to log out, then. Much as I'd have loved to stay here a bit longer, I had to reconsider my initial plan. Besides, I had another hour and a half until Boris and Prankster's reappearance. Just enough time to do a bit of research.
I pressed Exit.
A flash blinded my eyes. I was back in the real world.

A SMILING MODULE CONTROLLER offered me my glasses. "Welcome back, Oleg! Feeling okay?"
"Actually..." I sat up on the edge of the capsule and glanced at his name tag, "Sergei, I'm fine, thanks. Surprisingly so."
"Excellent," he helped me to my feet. "It didn't take you long today. They warned me about your love of extended immersion sessions."
Yeah, right! I just love to hate them.
I chose not to answer. Instead, I said meaningfully, "Something has come up. I had to log out."
"I see," he said, peering at the computer screen. "Would you like someone to accompany you to your room?"
I hurried to wave his suggestion away. "No need to. I can make it on my own. You can keep the capsule running, by the way. I'll need it tonight."
"That's fine. The capsule is at your disposal 24/7," he assured me. "Going on an early-morning fishing trip?"
I sniggered. "Something like that."
My temporary abode was quiet and peaceful. I closed the door and hurried to the desk to boot up the computer. Then I headed to the bathroom for a nice long contrast shower.
After a quarter of an hour, I returned to my room fresh as a daisy. Now I could work.
I slumped into the chair and opened the email. What had we got here...
Another letter from Weigner. He must already be regretting ever signing me up. The Steel Shirts' leaders were good at applying pressure on their representatives. He needed to know when I was going to log in.
Uncle Vanya's message was typically brief,

WTF are you?

Rrhorgus wrote to let me know that all was quiet on the Western front. Apparently, no one was following him anymore. Tanor was probably thinking he had me in his pocket. Which was good news, I suppose.
Oh. My freshly-made friend had already sent me a message too. Let's have a look.

Hi Olgerd,

Sorry I completely forgot I'd promised you some useful links about the location. Here they are,

See ya,


Oh well. I might have a look at them later. I had more pressing issues just now.
I didn't even notice the three hours of research fly past. Had it not been for my stiff neck and strained eyes, I might have stayed glued to the screen until the morning.
Grunting like an old man, I slumped back in the chair. My stomach promptly reminded me it was high time we had something to eat.
"All right, all right... I'm finished."
I'd promised both Sveta and Dmitry to take good care of myself: eating well, getting enough sleep and all that.
The local diner was one floor below. Still, on Dmitry's suggestion I had my meals delivered to my room. It was apparently common practice here. All you had to do was download the galley's app, tick the dishes you liked and place the order. Easy.
I opened it. What did they have for today?
A salad, a fish course and a bottle of water: excellent. Enough to quench your hunger but not too heavy on the stomach.
They brought my food in on a compartmentalized tray like those used in European clinics. Plastic cutlery, a damp napkin, everything vacuum sealed: space-saving, convenient and most importantly, cost-effective. It actually tasted good.
As I ate, I reread an old message in a forum discussion about what they called "item altering".

You can safely alter an item provided you're not a Grinder. Please note that the item has to be already hacked. You can't use a brand new one to do so.
Who would need that, might you ask?
Well, I do.
Let me explain. Let's presume I managed to lay my hands on a nice juicy thingy like an uber shield or a Jedi sword.
Imagine the thrill.
So I use this sword to chop down my enemies left, right and center. Time goes by and I start to realize it's losing its durability. And I already installed some real expensive runes on my favorite hole-puncher and had a wizzy cast a spell or two on it.
Shame, isn't it? It's all right if you've already outgrown the item and can sell it off at auction for a nice profit. But what if it's about to give up the ghost? Or even non-transferable? Are you still with me?
What's the point, might you ask. You can't get back the money you paid for it, anyway.
You're dead right there. But.
Let me counter your question with a question (for those who're yet to crawl out of their little holes). Which is a better choice: to mindlessly discard the item or fleece it for whatever it's worth even if it's only raw materials?
And while you're trying to come up with an answer, here's more food for thought. I personally saw a clanmate hack his shield and retrieve a few runes...

His report was followed by a flood of questions — mainly about the identity of his clanmate and the number of runes he'd salvaged. Quite a few commenters doubted the feasibility of his idea until luckier owners of altered items added their own evidence to the discussion.
How interesting. Apparently, game developers had thus tried to take the sting out of any potential loss of items, adding a consolation bonus of sorts. Which was good news.
I was about to reread the forum threads I'd already perused when my timer went off. That was it, then. Back into the capsule I go.

MIRROR WORLD MET ME with an evening twilight doused in a light shower. That was all right. Could have been much worse.
The warehouse yard was empty. The muggers had definitely chosen the wizzy. What a shame. I should really warn him at the first opportunity.
I decided against approaching the warehouse. Call me paranoid if you want. What if there was somebody lurking in the bushes waiting for me to come back? Oh no, sir, thank you very much. I might return in a couple of days or so.
But now my path lay in the opposite direction. I had to visit the third island.
Judging by the meager info I'd pieced together from different online sources, this patch of firm ground was arguably the least popular location of all the Nameless Isles. Which was exactly what I wanted.
The further away from the village I got, the warier I grew, casting cautious glances around me. I didn't need any problems here.
Finally I walked out into a small forest glade and listened hard. Silence. Nothing suspicious anywhere. It seemed all right. I could summon Boris now.
He materialized at my right side and immediately began swinging his eagle's head this way and that, searching out a potential enemy.
"It's all right, kiddo," I gave him a loving slap on the back of his neck. "There's no one here. We're going to boost you up a bit now."
I hurried to open his stats menu. I had five available points. Unhesitatingly I invested them into his Health. "Your Stamina is fine but you could use a bit of extra resiliency."
His Life bar grew fifty points. "I feel much better already," I told him. "Now, your friend!"
Prankster appeared instantly as was his habit. While he was prancing around the bushes, I distributed his bonus points. In stark contrast to Boris, his own Stamina glowed a big zero.
"You can continue feeding on my Energy until you level up a bit," I said. "So your Energy regeneration rate isn't that important. Your Health is, though."
That was me done pet-wise. Prankster now had 70 pt. Health compared to Boris' 250. Time to get going.
The sky was starless, the moon hiding behind the rain clouds. Perfect flying conditions.
In three powerful wingbeats, Boris took us high above the forest. Two more, and we were safely tucked away amid the black clouds. Ten minutes later, guided by my satnav, we were already landing on the rocky beach of the third island.
As soon as we touched down a few feet away from the waterline, I bent over to pick up some good pebbles for my slingshot. This was another reason I'd chosen the third island — there was plenty of ammo lying around.
I poured a handful of small round rocks into my belt pouch. They only took up one slot. I scrambled back to my feet and looked around, studying the beach. "Excellent. Just what the doctor ordered."
The whole island was the size of a football pitch covered in sparse undergrowth. No cliffs or tall trees: the visibility was excellent any which way you turned. Besides, it was a good ten-minutes' swim from the nearest island. Hopefully, no one was going to disturb us here.
The only thing I knew about this particular location was that it made up a minor part of the main quest chain, obliging you to visit the island and explore it. One of a gazillion pointless little quests dished out by the Glasshouse's NPCs. I just hoped that everything worked out as I planned.
Personally, I couldn't care less about those quests. My plans had suffered a dramatic overhaul. My initial idea of leveling up by buddying up with NPCs had already outlived its sell-by date, courtesy of the local PKs.
So now I was going to do what Mirror World old-timers called mob farming: smoking monsters till the cows came home, earning loot and XP in the process.
The island's inhabitants couldn't really pass for monsters but they didn't look like cute little bunnies either. The location's bestiary classified Short-Tailed Carapaceons (which was the local beasties' moniker) as passive aggressive. In other words, they wouldn't attack you first but wouldn't suffer any BS from you, either.
They looked like regular crabs the size of an RV tire. Those higher in levels were bigger but they were as yet out of my league. Level 5 looked good for a start.
"One little crab by the sea so blue,
Along came another crab, and that made two," I sang.
Both Boris and Prankster gave me a funny look, their eyes pleading with me: so these are the adventures you promised us? Smoking stinking crabs?
"Absolutely, guys. What did you expect?"
Naturally, they didn't mean any of it. This was only my overwrought psyche playing tricks on me. The Reflex Bank building hung over my head like a proverbial sword of Damocles suspended on a horse hair. Which was about to snap.
Very soon I'd have to make my first payment. Christie's new heart had only started growing. And I had no idea if her little body would reject it or not. On top of which, I'd managed to attract the attention of the most powerful clan in Mirror World. Enough to drive you mad. Which might have already happened had it not been for Sveta's constant support.
As if sensing my state of mind, Prankster vaulted onto my shoulder in three long leaps and poked my cheek with his moist nose.
"It's all right, kiddo," I said. "I'm fine. Right! Time is money, whoever said that. Are you ready? Of course you are. Let's begin!"
We found the first crab a mere couple of feet from our landing site. I took it for a boulder covered in algae and all sorts of flotsam. Had it not been for the system message, I might have walked right past.
The crab sat there motionless, his large pincers stretched outward.
I froze a few feet away from it and told Boris to get ready. I forbade Prankster to get involved. Much better that he simply pranced around nearby, giving me an occasional heal in case the crab did get to my fragile cartoon body.
Wait! How could I have forgotten! I was a noob, really.
I hurried to reopen the system message and scrolled through, looking for the advice to make the third island my new resurrection point. I swiped Confirm. Now if I did manage to get myself killed, I'd resurrect right here on the island and not at the center of the wretched village I'd so promptly vacated.
"Phew! Let's get started!"
The crab snapped its pincers shut as if sensing trouble. Like, come and get me if you can.
I took another step and loaded my slingshot, casting a sideways glance at Boris. His powerful shoulder muscles pumped up.
In the meantime, Prankster leaped onto the largest boulder he could find and froze on top of it like a meerkat.
Actually, this was our first fight together. I didn't count our little air raid on the Swamp Monks. That had been different.
"On my first shot!"
I drew back the sling with an already-practiced hand.
With a powerful pop, my first pebble rocketed off.

You've attacked a level 5 Short-Tailed Carapaceon!
You've dealt a critical hit!
Damage dealt: 150
You've killed a level 5 Short-Tailed Carapaceon!

I lowered the slingshot and watched, puzzled, as the still-uncomprehending crab disappeared into thin air. "Wait a sec. Is that it?"
I checked the logs. That's right. I'd killed him.
How about XP?
Oh. The green XP bar hadn't budged one bit. He'd left nothing behind, either. Zero loot.
So forum gurus had been right after all. Based on my gear, the system determined my level as 15 to 18. The crab was level 5. The only loot I could hope for was some quest item — provided I accepted the quest it came with. Quite logical, really, but it had been worth the try.
"Right guys, I think it's time for me to change into something more humble."
Regrettably I shoved my Reflection kit into my bag. I only kept the boots, the hat and the gloves. No one would make me run over the rocks barefoot. The starting pants and shirt glowed a miserable 1. Oh well. I probably looked like a card loser walking back home in the morning.
My stats plummeted. I sensed the long-forgotten pressure on my shoulders. One quickly gets used to the good things in life.
Now the system should recognize me as level 5 or 6. In theory, such a forced drop might suffice.
Let's see if it worked, then.
I caught sight of the back of another crab about fifteen feet away.
Boris was chomping at the bit, impatient to join in the combat. He was all shivery. Or was it his Mirror Soul reflecting my state of mind?
"Okay," I nodded. "You attack him first. Just be careful."
He darted off as if he'd been expecting this command all his life. In two long leaps and a wingbeat, he soared a good thirty feet into the sky and swooped down like a black shadow, dropping on top of the unsuspecting crab.
I blinked away the flood of system messages that followed and drew the sling. It had grown considerably tighter.
The pebble hit the mob at the exact moment when Boris sank his beak into his back.

You've killed a level 5 Short-Tailed Carapaceon!

My XP bar jumped considerably. Interestingly, I got all the damage dealt by Boris and was rewarded with plenty of XP. My pets got their share: both had grown quite a bit. Which was very good news.
I also received some loot: an Eye and a Pincer of an Short-Tailed Carapaceon.
"Congratulations, guys! Great start!" I said to my beasties.
The dawn was already breaking when the system finally bestowed level 5 on me, awarding me with 5 bonus points.
Admittedly, after the first fifteen fights I'd felt pretty much at home with this combat thing. And during the thirtieth, I'd ignored the promise I'd made to myself earlier and removed all of my Digger gear. This sacrifice had resulted in a considerable XP increase. Initially it had made me feel vulnerable but I'd soon forgotten all about it in the heat of the fight.
Not that there was any serious danger to me, really. Boris was doing all the work. As the group's tank, he took all the opposition's hits upon himself. If the truth were known, he dealt the most damage, too. I couldn't do much fighting, not in those tattered pants and shirt so I mainly finished them off.
An hour later I had grown so comfortable I even allowed Prankster to participate. Surprisingly, his seemingly harmless bites considerably sped up the farming process.
And as for the loot... I had enough to start a crab stick factory.
Eyes, pincers, shells and even flesh — I might actually follow some forum members' advice and auction it all. These were useful resources, especially for cooks, alchemists and sorcerers. And not only them: there were tons of professions in Mirror World.
Besides, much to my joy, I'd managed to earn myself a steel ring and a bronze bracelet. The former gave +2 to Health and the latter, +1 to Protection. Neither had any restrictions to race or level, allowing me to appropriate both. My appearance of an inebriated card player began to morph into a shaggy Gypsy look: all I needed was an earring and a gold chain.
Now I was sitting on a rock taking a break from my martial exploits while considering how best to distribute the available 5 points. It might not sound like much, but if you think about it, you could do a lot with them. Only what would be the best way to invest them? Life and Defense were my weakest links, that's for sure. But then there was also Intellect...
Actually, it was a good job I remembered.
The yellow Knowledge bar was full to the brim: 40/40. That was interesting. What was I supposed to do with it now?
The XP bar was pretty much clear: 100% equaled a new level. The Energy to Life ratio wasn't brain surgery, either. But this Knowledge thing remained a dark horse.
I had a funny feeling that a rise in Intellect caused the Knowledge bar to grow. Which meant that it too depended on my participation in combat just like XP did.
What did that ensue?
Nothing really. I could make neither head nor tail of it. Having said that... Hadn't a certain system message mentioned Knowledge?
Yes! I knew it!
I pulled A Pocket Book of Blueprints and Bind Lines out of my bag. Hadn't the system given me the cold shoulder when I'd tried to open it?
I got my answer!
The book's front page wasn't dimmed anymore. There was a drawing at its center which looked suspiciously like a blueprint of something or other. Or rather, a draft, drawn with either a lump of charcoal or a very blunt black pencil. Unfinished as it was, I could still make out the outline of a large hammer inside some sort of dome.
As I took a closer look I realized the drawing could have been better. Even I with my zero experience in arts could see that.
A short caption under the drawing confirmed my suspicions. I smiled. I was actually right.

Name: A Blueprint of A Safety Bind Line I
Access requirements:
Knowledge, 40 pt.
Level, 5
Would you like to study the blueprint?

I clicked Accept.

Congratulations! You've studied a Blueprint: Safety Bind Line I

Having bestowed yet another Achievement upon me, the system then emptied my Knowledge bar entirely. Aha. I seemed to detect a pattern here.
Also, a small footnote appeared at the bottom of the sheet.

Name: Safety Bind Line I.
Description: Invented by Master Brolgerd during the First Underground War. Adds +10 to Durability when installed on weapons or ammunition.
In order to install the Bind Line, you will need:
A Sharpthorn
A Wambler
Warning! Building a Bind Line will deprive you of 50 pt. Energy!
Warning! The item's level cannot exceed that of the master installing the Bind Line!
Would you like to install the Bind Line: Yes/No

I glanced at the clock. That was okay. I still had time till logout.
I cast a look around and made myself comfortable on my rock. Let's try it.
Weapons and ammunition, they said? Very well. Let's start with the pebbles, then. This large speckled one would do nicely.
I clicked Yes.
I really hadn't expected what happened next. It was as if an invisible puppeteer had taken over me. The sensation was very similar to being controlled by the bot back in the mines.
I didn't try to resist. I was curious.
My left hand dug into my bag. My fingers closed over a square object. It felt like leather. I had a funny feeling I knew what it was.
That's right. The Standard Tool Kit complete with its mysterious contents.
Without letting go of the pebble, my right hand joined in the process. It reached inside the kit for the wambler, then transferred the pebble into my left hand.
The fingers of my right hand deftly secured the pebble in the tool as if in a vice. It felt as if I'd been doing it my entire life. Now the pebble was unmoving but could still turn on its axis like a mini globe.
Next. My left hand pulled the sharpthorn out of its pouch and inserted it into a small hole in the wambler's frame.
My hands froze momentarily while the system inquired if I indeed had 50 pt. Energy to spare. I confirmed. That was nothing for me now. I had more Energy than I could ever hope to spend.
A soft blue light enveloped the weird contraption my hands had just made. The pebble began to revolve. The sharpthorn sprang into motion simultaneously, like a curve plotter, covering the pebble's surface with a fancy weave of flourishes. Aha. So that's what it was then, this Bind Line. Those Ennans had some very weird engineers.
In a brief flash of energy, the pebble completed one last rotation and stopped. My hands came back to life, replacing the tools in their respective compartments.
All done. The pebble lay in the palm of my hand, covered in a rather simple decorative pattern.
Its shape had changed, too. Apparently, the installation had somehow made it more rounded. Then again, it could be an optical illusion. The pattern simply made the pebble appear more regular.

Congratulations! You've received Achievement: The Stronger The Better.
Reward: +5 to Knowledge.
Current Knowledge: 5/40

And what about the item's stats?

Name: a Beach Pebble
Durability: 10
Warning! Every successful hit will now decrease the item's Durability 1 pt.

I reread the message and scratched my head. If I understood it correctly, I could now shoot this normally single-use rock ten times?
I hurried to my feet and cast a look around. No points for guessing if I could check it out straight away. Say, on that crab over there sidewinding itself toward the water edge.
My new projectile lay snugly in the sling pouch. It didn't look as if the slingshot itself had improved much. The elastic stretched with an unusual ease. Which was no wonder really, not after my birthday suit hunting session.
I took aim and let go of the pouch. The sling popped as it released.
Got him! Dead as a dodo.
I hurried over to the water's edge, jittery with impatience. The moment of truth.
It looked as if it had worked. The crab's body lay motionless.
Yess! My new slug was still there! Its Durability was 1 pt. less, just as the system had promised. Excellent. And most importantly, it solved so many problems.
With a sigh, I slumped back onto the rock. "It looks like I might stay here for another hour," I mumbled as I reached into my pocket for the first bead.

Chapter Seven

Congratulations! You've received a new level!
Current level: 12
Reward: +1 to Knowledge
Current Knowledge: 51/60

"That's it," I told my two furry sidekicks. "We're done here."
It was true. We'd spent three days on Crab Island as I'd christened it. As far as I was concerned, I could have stayed here forever.
Why not? Mobs were good. The location was decent — and most importantly, quiet. Loot wasn't up to much, true. But that was only a question of time.
I shouldn’t complain, anyway. I had enough rings and bracelets to open a jewelry store. Crab meat was nothing to sniff at, either. I had my doubts it would fetch me much at auction but as they say, a penny saved is a penny gained.
What a shame they didn't have better mobs. Level 10 wasn't good enough for me anymore. I'd even thought I might need to go somewhere else to make level 12, so slowly had the XP bar moved in the end. The amount of loot had dropped, too, despite the fact that I'd stripped down to my pants.
Admittedly, I'd come to like this farming thing, especially when combat tactics had already been choreographed to perfection. It felt almost as quiet and peaceful as working down the mine.
Other players might have found it too boring but it suited me just fine. You did your quota and logged out. Back to real life, to your real-life family.
Last night when I'd made level 10, I'd finally decided to distribute the available points between Health and Protection. I'd also invested 1 pt. into Intellect and left one free for a rainy day.
I'm gonna tell you why. Once my Knowledge bar had filled up to 40, I reopened the Pocket Book of Blueprints, expecting to see something new. As if! Its pages remained dimmed.
I brought Knowledge up to 50, but it didn't help, either. As if being bloody-minded, the system had kept denying me access to new blueprints.
Today I'd added another point to Intellect and was now waiting for the Knowledge bar to reach 60. I just might receive something new and useful for all the trouble.
Never mind. Time to go back to the village. I had to see the Sarge. Our last meeting and my last quest: arguably the most complex and important in this entire location.
Sensing the change in my mood, Boris was already hovering by my side. Last night both he and Prankster had made level 10, to my unbridled joy. My little menagerie was growing strong!
"That's it, kiddo," I said, giving him a hearty slap on the back. "Time to say goodbye to Crab Island. Prankie!"
The little black Grison was already here. He leapt onto Boris' neck and stared at me impatiently, as in, What are you waiting for, buddy?
I grinned. "All present and correct! Off we go, then!"

* * *

We landed in the same forest clearing.
It seemed to be deserted. Good. I quickly deactivated the summoning charms. "Time you get some rest, guys. I'll go for a walk."
The village met me with an already-familiar shabby desolation. I hadn't met a single player on my way to the Sarge's shack. Would the game developers discontinue this location? Because if it went like this, in another year's time they wouldn't even have any NPCs left here: they'd all defect to somewhere else.
But if you looked at the problem from a different angle, the developers had spent a lot of money here. Why would they want it to go to waste? Especially as there'd always be some players like myself who'd have their own reasons for avoiding the limelight.
Finally I'd come to the Sarge's shack complete with the brave warrior himself. He noticed me from afar and cringed as if I'd pissed in his soup. Just look at him spitting everywhere!
"There you are, finally! Fucking Santa's helper!"
We really weren't in the mood, were we? Then again, I could understand him. Had I had to stay in this wretched hole for even an extra month, I'd have been hating every living soul.
"Greetings, Sarge!" I gave him my best good-natured smile.
"You can shove them. What do you want?"
No, he'd definitely gotten up on the wrong side of the bed today. Forum posts had warned against this if you put your first quest off for too long. With every passing day, your relationship with the local authorities could suffer. You had to complete the quest to improve it.
"I've come to ask for my quest," I said bluntly.
He smirked and shook his head. "You're a funny bunny, aren't you? I already asked you to help. But no, you had more important things to do."
I shrugged. "Sorry. But you need to understand too. I'm a warrior and you're sending me to cut down some stakes as if I'm some kind of peasant. And not only that. Every toolmaker wants a piece of me. It's as if I'm doing it for myself. There're four of you here but you have more red tape than Mellenville Treasury."
I added this last bit about the toolmakers and red tape as an afterthought. If forum posts were to be believed, posing as an offended warrior was often enough to open a parallel quest. I even knew which one...
He cast me a long look, then chuckled, surrendering to my logic.

Quest alert: East Gate fortifications. Quest failed!

I heaved a sigh of relief. It had worked.
Not that that was a reason to celebrate. I'd just deactivated a major quest chain. Still, I couldn't do much about it. I wouldn't have been able to complete it anyway, not with all the local PKs hovering around. I wasn't in a hurry to part with my hard-earned gear.
"Well, Sarge, do you think you have something else for me to do? Something worthy of a warrior?"
He glared at me, then dissolved in a malicious grin. Judging by the curve of his toothless mouth, I was in for nothing good. He was fed up with me. Really fed up. Just like the forums had said he would be.
"The valiant knight is in the mood for heroic deeds?"
I nodded. "Why not?"
This seemed to have really pissed him off. "Very well. Here's something you can do. Kill the lich that's hiding in the Fort. That's a nice heroic deed for you."
He guffawed, almost hysterical, his furious glare drilling a hole in me.
I accepted the quest and turned to leave. I certainly had no desire to say goodbye.
"Get out of my sight!" he growled to my back. "You'd better stay away until you're done!"

Your relationship with Sergeant Crux has plummeted!
From now on, you have no right of entry to the village. The local NPCs don't want to know you anymore.

Oh. This looked like a far cry from my original plan.
Which had been so nice and simple: to perform a quest chain issued by the Sarge and other NPCs, earning XP and Reputation in the process. Then the Sarge would have issued me one last quest: to mop up the Fort which was the location's only instance. Every villager would have given me a bonus item to use while their leader would have wished me luck in my endeavor — the wish which was in fact a Life-restoring buff.
Now I could forget all of that. All thanks to some greedy PKs.
If the truth were known, I'd have long abandoned my old plans and sweet-talking the local NPCs. I'd have found myself an island as far from here as possible and done my farming bit there, leveling up slowly but surely. Unfortunately, there was a problem. In order to leave the Isles, I had to complete the instance — and the Sarge was the one who issued this quest. One of the rewards for smoking the lich was a single-use portal scroll allowing you to port to any location on the continent, with the exception of its capital city.
And the lich in question was none other than the wizard from the Sarge's scary tale. The one who'd lured part of the garrison out only to return as a walking dead — or rather, a lich.
Some people had really sick imaginations. Liches, zombies... It made me feel hopelessly dated.
While I'd been reading up on two ways of getting the quest, I'd also researched the various ways of completing the instance. Compared to Spider Grotto it was nothing special. This was a newb location, after all.
The instance's main (and most unpleasant) feature was that the mobs' levels, including the lich himself, could change depending on the player's own. This was the developers' way of evening up the odds.
The instance consisted of four rooms: the gym, the kitchen, the dorm and the main hall now inhabited by the Fort's new owner. In order to simplify the task for the newbs, the lich was made vulnerable to physical damage. In other words, in order to release his soul, you only had to destroy his body. Easier said than done.
Predictably, all the rooms and corridors were packed with all sorts of undead critters. There were some pleasant surprises there, too, like treasure stashes.
As for the strategy and tactics... they weren't as straightforward. Ideally, you would do it in a group of five. But seeing as I was alone, I'd have to go there on my own. Never mind. I had a few surprises for the undead army.
I walked out of the village without looking back. I wasn't ever going to return. I didn't feel too sorry about my failure to complete the "proper" quest chain. The more time I spent in the game, the better I was beginning to realize that not all was going hunky-dory in Mirror World. Not for me, anyway.

* * *

The Fort was situated on the central island, the largest of them all. I'd done a bit of research on it even though I'd never actually seen any images. Which I should have done.
As Boris approached the island, I expected to see some semblance of a village: a rotting stockade, listing watchtowers, that sort of thing.
Nothing of the kind.
When the gray rain clouds parted, revealing the looming outline of stone towers and narrow arrowslits, I nearly jumped. For a moment I thought that my satnav had taken me back to the Citadel. The resemblance was striking.
Actually, it was logical. Both fortresses had been built by one and the same architect. I'd forgotten all about it.
I stroked Boris' neck. "Don't land yet," I whispered in his ear. "Make a few more circles over the fortress first. We need to take a good look at it."
And the place was an eyeful, I tell you. Four giant bastions encircled by tall stone walls and a deep moat.
Everywhere you looked, you saw signs of desolation. Oh. This wasn't the Citadel with its host of players performing cleaning and maintenance jobs as part of their social quests.
"Now, kiddo, let's land somewhere nice and quiet. Next to those trees over there, okay?"
Boris spread his wings wide and glided down. Slingshot at the ready, I turned my head like an owl, ready to tell Boris to climb back up at any moment.
We landed without a problem. Big sigh of relief. We were no more than thirty paces away from the drawbridge.
I gave myself five minutes to take in the surroundings. Silence. Not a living soul in sight. I found it rather symbolical.
The rain grew stronger. Black clouds blotted out the sky. Large raindrops pelted the wooden parapet covers which had once been used to protect the Fort's still-living defenders.
This was a dead fortress.
A dead place.
I'd better walk to the gate alone. I deactivated the summoning charms. Before disappearing, both my pets cast me disappointed looks.
They were worse than children, really.
The road toward the Fort was paved with large rough cobblestones. Either Zeddekey had been stingy with building materials or the road had been built after him. Patches of grass peeked through the stones. The track was dirty and abandoned.
What a strange feeling. As I walked toward the Fort, I got the impression that the walls themselves were moving toward me, trying to devour a humble traveler. The gloomy creation of the famous architect was both amazing and scary in its boundless strength. I could only imagine what soldiers must have felt, about to storm these impervious walls. Had they been scared? Disheartened? Had they realized they couldn't possibly defeat it? A little bit of all three, I suppose. That was another thing that made Zeddekey so good. The Fort's sheer sight was enough to discourage any advancing army.
I froze, admiring the ancient master's work. How many places like this one would I visit in Mirror World? And this was only a newb location!
Here is was, Zeddekey's magic, in all its glory.
Cheer up, Olgerd, old man. Not the first time.
"Awesome, eh?"
A calm voice behind my back was tinged with emotion. I swung round.
Instinctively my left hand closed around the slingshot while my right one pulled the pouch taut. Was it a new knee-jerk reflex that I'd begun to develop? Was the bespectacled nerd finally changing? Or was it a side effect of my 72-hour non-stop farming session?
Very possible.
"Sorry, man. I didn't mean to frighten you."
A player stood on the road just a few paces away from me.

Name: Vitar
Level 11
Race: Human

He raised his hands in the air in a conciliatory gesture. His arms shook with the cold rain. He only had starting pants on.
His blue eyes betrayed a mixture of compassion and curiosity. I bet. A slingshot wasn't something they saw here often. Still, he kept his hands raised, apparently knowing that there was no such thing in Mirror World as a harmless weapon.
I gave him a quick once-over, then switched my attention to the area around him.
He must have understood because he hurried to add, "It's all right, don't worry. I'm here on my own. There's no danger. And as for me..."
He spread his arms wide and turned about, splashing his bare feet through the mud, to show me he had no weapons on him. "You see, Sir Olgerd? I'm not your enemy. I hate violence, anyway."
"You'll have to excuse me too," I said, putting the slingshot away. "This place is spooky. You need to understand..."
"Absolutely," he said, lowering his shaking hands. "It was my fault. I should have made my presence known before addressing you."
He walked over to me and offered his hand. "Vitar."
"Olgerd," I answered his handshake. Our eyes met.
Wait! This was... oh no. I was too late, wasn't I? The wizzy! They'd ripped him off, after all. Bastards!
He must have read something in my stare because he shrank back. "Everything all right?" he asked warily.
"Yeah, sure," I hurried to reassure him. "Did I frighten you too? Makes two of us, I suppose!"
He smiled cautiously. "You had this face..."
"Probably. For a moment, I thought I'd met you before. Only..." I made a show of looking him over.
"Of course! Only I was dressed then, is that what you mean?"
"Dressed as a fisherman."
"Exactly! And," he raised a meaningful finger, "I was wearing that stupid wizard's hat!"
I chuckled. "You said it. Who am I to argue?"
He burst into a cheerful loud laughter. It looked like I'd finally met someone normal. We might make a good team, you never know.
He must have misunderstood my stare as he hurried to explain, "Yes, yes, I'm dead broke. This is what happens when you become too full of yourself."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well," he said, even more humiliated, "I'm talking about my gear."
"I understand that," I hurried to add. "But you also said something about being too full of yourself."
"That's right," he nodded. "And might I add, I was also stupid and impatient. How can I tell you... Today I finally made level 10. And once I distributed all the new stat points, I really felt like I was some kind of Superman. The old location wasn't good enough for me anymore. So I came here and started smoking stronger mobs in my eternal wisdom. I even made another level but... I didn't even have time to celebrate the fact."
"Your quarry struck back," I concluded.
He sighed and scratched his rain-soaked head. I struggled not to laugh.
What a relief. I'd really thought that those village PKs had fleeced him. I'd even suffered a guilt trip for not having warned him when I could.
"I'll t-t-tell you m-m-more," he said, his teeth chattering, "I've b-b-been eaten th-three t-t-times... by the same m-m-monster..."
"What do you mean, by the same monster?"
"Th-thing was, the f-f-first time I di-died I was within the mob's aggro z-z-zone... and every time I re-resurrected, I tried to get to the chest with my stuff... But un-fortunately, he always g-g-gets to it first..."
"I see."
I made a mental note. This was a good lesson. At least I had Boris and Prankster who could distract any monster. Now Vitar, he hadn't been so lucky. It was pretty stupid of him to have ventured into the wilderness all on his own. At least he seemed to realize that now.
"D-d-dear Olgerd," the guy sounded embarrassed. "I wonder if you might have a bit of time for me? The monster I'm talking about, he was only level 12. We can do him easily between the two of us. You're a Godsend. I will reimburse you in full, I assure you. My stuff is very expensive. I'd hate to lose it. It cost me really a lot... I took out a loan to get it..."
I fingered my beard, thinking. All these extra adventures were the last thing I needed. On the other hand, how could I leave him without help? Okay, he'd been a bit greedy and paid for it — but he'd learned from his mistakes. I couldn't just turn round and leave him to his misery, could I?
I made up my mind. "What kind of mob is it?"
"It's an Armor-Faced Copperhead!" Vitar exclaimed, relieved. "Level 12! Between the two of us, we won't even feel it! He's nothing against us two!"
He cheered up, apparently reading my determination, very nearly pulling me into the forest by the sleeve.
"Wait a bit," I chilled him down. "I haven't agreed to it yet."
He kept grinning, knowing I wasn't going to let him down.
I ran a quick check of the bestiary. That's right. An Armor-Faced Copperhead, level 12. A fifteen-foot snake. Its abilities included a Venomous Bite: a nasty debuff aiming to gradually reduce the player's Life. I could actually try and smoke it. If push came to shove, I could always summon Boris.
I nodded. "All right. I'm gonna help you. Only let's make it quick. I've got lots of things to do. Where is it?"
Vitar very nearly jumped with joy. "Excellent! I'll owe you! It's over there..." he darted into the forest, showing me the way.
Darted was an overstatement, what with his starting clothes and all. Still, he moved much faster than I ever would in that kind of "gear". Apparently, being a Fisherman, he'd been leveling up Speed.
"Follow me!" he shouted, parting the undergrowth with his hands. "Follow me! It's right over there!"
What's with all the shouting? Didn't he realize he'd attract all the snakes in the area? He must have gone slightly off his trolley with joy.
His bare back zigzagged in front of me. I had no problem keeping up with him but he barged on so recklessly that I began to lag behind. Soon he disappeared amid the greenery.
Following the sound of his voice, I leapt across a dirty puddle of water, ducked a bramble's greedy branches and promptly avoided the sharp bone-like limbs of a rain-drenched tree that resembled a fish skeleton.
Finally I reached a gap in the undergrowth where he'd disappeared only moments ago. I ducked in.
"I'm here!" he hollered at the top of his voice.
What was wrong with him? No, my first impression of him might have been totally wrong. I'd help him now quickly, then I'd be on my way. He was way too loud.
The first thing I noticed when I ran out into the clearing was the sheer number of chests lying in the grass. I saw at least five of them.
Vitar's behavior was strange, too. He stood at the other end of the clearing with his back to me — still hollering, telling all the forest that he was here.
And where was his mob?
I was about to ask when my body rose into the air, as if I was a fly stuck in some invisible jelly.
The system message descended on me like a ton of bricks:

Warning! Player Spitfire has cast a spell on you: Air Web!
Effect: You're immobilized
Duration: 15 sec

My attempt to open the inventory failed miserably. The summoning charms were also unavailable. How on earth had I managed to get into this shit?!
In the meantime, two more figures materialized at the center of the clearing.
Their name tags were red. Class: Robbers. Both were Alves. Both levels 20+. Nicknames: Sting and Gray.
My desperate attempt to struggle free proved pointless. That was it, then. As that guy in the Bible had said, "What I feared has come upon me".
I wanted to warn the wizzy and tell him to run when Gray's angry shout made me choke on my words.
"Vitar, you idiot! Shut the fuck up!"
Vitar swung round and dropped to his knees, whining, "Guys, please! You promised! You said you'd give me everything back! I did bring him to you, didn't I? Please!"
"Shut your filthy mouth," a third voice barked from behind my back. "What a pain in the ass."
"Spitfire, I want you to refresh the spell," the same voice ordered. "I don't feel like chasing him around the woods."
"It's all right, Boss," an invisible female voice replied from my right. "It's all under control. We still have a few seconds."
"Refresh it, I said! I need a word with him."

Warning! Player Spitfire has cast a spell on you: Air Web!
Effect: You're immobilized
Duration: 15 sec

Shit! Just when I was readying myself to make a dart for the undergrowth.
Heavy squelching footsteps approached me from my right. The huge fanged head of a Rhoggh loomed up before me. His deeply set bestial eyes studied me as if I was his property. His wide jaws stretched in a grin, exposing two rows of sharp teeth.
Oh wow. Level 32! For a moment I'd forgotten my desperate situation. How long had he spent in this location? What kind of mobs had he used to level up?
His nickname — Gloom — glowed a fiery red.
"Just look at this nice juicy dude!" he barked.
"What do you want?" I asked. How very smart of me. I'm a master of the stupid question.
"What do I want?" he asked with theatrical surprise. "Same as everybody else, I suppose. To love and be loved!"
Sting and Gray guffawed.
"Now listen, Digger," the gang's leader said. "When you come round and get some loot together, come and see me. Off you go."
The last thing I felt before the lights went out was a huge bone hammer landing on top of my head.

Chapter Eight

"I'm an idiot! I should have known!" I circled my little room under Dmitry's watchful stare following me from the computer screen. "Who did I think I was — Mr. Smartass? My prided paranoia was having a day off! Why didn't it set my alarm bells ringing? I followed that wizzy through the forest without a single thought! Was I deaf and blind or something? He wasn't just yelling — he was calling his masters!"
"This is funny," my brother added calmly, offering his two cents. "They weren't expecting you, were they? They couldn't have been so smart as to calculate the exact time of your landing."
"Calculate, yeah right," I grumbled, slumping back into the chair. "No one could do that."
He nodded. "Exactly. They just chose a nice secluded clearing, sent their agents out in every direction and sat there waiting new..."
"New idiots?" I finished his phrase for him. "Like myself, is that it? Just think that I spent all that time hiding and watching my own back, and what for? They've fleeced me like the proverbial lamb! Just because I felt responsible — for whom? Someone I didn't even know! He didn't give a shit about me and my problems! He couldn't care less about how I felt!"
New thoughts arrived one after the other, tearing my brain apart.
Dmitry maintained a tactful silence, allowing me to get it off my chest.
"The loss of all the expensive gear is only half the problem," I jumped back to my feet and resumed my pacing of the room. "I can't really blame Vitar or the robbers, either. The way they make their living in the game reflects their human nature, that's it. May God judge them. It doesn't mean I'm trying to justify their actions — they're scumbags, as simple as that. But that's not the point. I'm angry with myself! How stupid. I should have smelled a rat. Now I've lost all that time."
Dmitry still didn't say anything. He opened a new pack of cigarettes and clicked a lighter. He didn't even look at me. Actually, I got the impression he wasn't even listening to me.
Strangely enough, his behavior had curbed my bout of hysterics. My anger began to subside, replaced by a peculiar peaceful feeling which I later recognized as apathy.
I slumped into the chair and closed my eyes.
His voice came after a pause. "Better now?"
I opened my eyes. "I think so."
"Good," he let out a puff of blue smoke. "Keep your hair on. You're not the first one and you're definitely not the last. Everyone goes through this, especially at lower levels. Some people die several times a day, losing everything they have. So what? You get up, wipe away the snot and keep going."
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," I repeated the Glasshouse's unofficial motto.
"Exactly. You're mad now but later you'll agree with me."
He stubbed out the cigarette. "It may sound trite but Mirror World adverts don't lie when they promise 'boundless opportunities to everyone'," he said with a sarcastic smile. "The game rules form a new behavioral model. Who are you in the real world? A skinny bespectacled nerd. Every bully can kick your butt without even noticing it. Any attempts to stand up for yourself — and you will try, I know you — might have negative consequences for your own body. The scope of your injuries will only depend on your opponent's weight class."
"What are you driving at?"
"I'll tell you now. Had your own level been closer to 25, to say nothing of your two pets, this PK encounter might have had a totally different outcome. And one more thing..."
He sat up and laid both his hands onto the table, which made him resemble Dad even more. "Your main mistake was, you were considering yourself small fry in this boundless virtual ocean. You were constantly on high alert for predators' attacks, forgetting that you too can grow a set of teeth. Your idea of 'quiet inconspicuous farming' was doomed from the start. You're being pulled into a powerful whirlpool of events; being passive just won't cut it. It's survival of the fittest out there. The sooner you realize it and, most importantly, the sooner you accept it, the faster you'll adapt to this new environment."
He leaned closer to the screen. "Listen, brother. You need to understand. You're not a Grinder anymore. You're a warrior. So behave like one."
"Warrior, yeah right."
"Cut out the sarcasm, will you? You know very well that I'm right."
He was. I had nothing to say to that.
Dmitry must have understood me. He cut his preaching short and moved on to the business at hand, "Have they taken everything everything? What have you got left?"
"Only my bag. And the Monks loot. I have the beads and some pebbles. That's all, I think."
"They took the obligatory 1% of the money in my purse. I only had thirty gold there so it's peanuts. The rest of the money is in the bank. All the quest items and no-drops are with me. The slingshot, too."
"Lost a lot of XP?"
"Not really."
He nodded. "Normal. You and this Gloom guy have a big level gap."
"How did he do it, by the way?" I asked.
"By smoking Stompers, probably," Dmitry replied. "Or whatever. Lots of weird monsters out there. The location's bestiary is long out of date. The developers need to test new mobs somewhere so they keep adding occasional surprises for the newbs. But I don't think there's anything above level 30 there. The developers can't overrun the location's restrictions. How are your stats, actually?"
I shook my head. "Shitty. Threes and fours mainly."
"Call it a C-student, not bad," he grinned. "Never mind. It'll all come back. You have your pets, that's the main thing. Have you decided what to do next?"
I rubbed my forehead. Then rearranged my glasses. "Nothing's changed, really. I need to do the instance. Luckily, there's no deadline. No one's gonna be in the way there. It might take longer, that's all."
"Good decision. You'll level up a bit and get some practice. You need to get the hang of your pets in combat too. Zombies are not the same as crabs. They won't stand in one place snapping their claws."
"I know," I mumbled. "Some newb location this is!"
He smirked. "You don't know the half of it yet."
I grinned back. The day's pressure seemed to have gradually subsided, all thanks to his natural positivity.
"One more thing," I said. "Please not a word of this to Sveta."
He nodded. "That goes without saying."
"And... I might need to stay virtual for a couple of days."
"If you say so."
I thought he might object. But he must have realized that time was an issue.
I smiled. "See you, then."
"Good luck."

* * *

Two hours and a long conversation with Sveta later, I walked downstairs to my capsule.
Sergei the module controller seemed happy to see me. "Good evening, Oleg!"
"We received a message from you an hour ago saying you're in for an extended immersion."
"That's right."
"For how long?"
"Depends. At least a couple of days. Maybe three."
"I see," he nodded. "Then I have to ask you to come here first," he pointed at a white chair. "We'll fit you out with a catheter. Doctor's orders. He's prescribed you some vitamins and minerals in case of extended immersions."
Five minutes later, I was already lying in the capsule watching the lid of my "coffin" lowering slowly.
Darkness enveloped me.


The first thing I saw when they switched the lights back on was the gray rocky beach of Crab Island. This was the game's resurrection point choice for me.
It was probably for the better. Good job I hadn't had the time to switch my resurrection point to the Fort. This place was nice and quiet — and it abounded with ammo. Which was an important thing indeed.
Rain pelted my bare back and shoulders. I still could sense some pressure weighing me down but way less than on my first day here. Level 12 began to show.
I did a quick check of my inventory, with a cooler head this time.
All I had left in my bag were the steel beads, a handful of pebbles and a few vials containing Monk slime and venom. The system's consolation gift. I gave a nervous shrug. All my hard-earned stuff and gear was gone — probably already shared between Gloom's gangsters.
I slumped to the ground. Immediately, the cold stone began to siphon whatever leftover warmth I still had in my body.
With the loss of my clothes, this had become a totally different ball game. Plus I couldn't buy anything from the warehouse keeper: the alternative quest branch had taken care of that. I wasn't welcome in the village anymore.
I could ask Dreadlock to sell me something but I had a funny feeling he had more important problems. When I'd hung suspended in the air, I'd managed to get a glimpse of the name tags on the other chests. Dreadlock's was there too. The robbers must have smoked his group minutes before my illustrious arrival. I should send him word anyway, but not now.
Trying to find a vendor among other players was a chancy and not particularly clever option.
One solution was to enter the instance and get some clothes there.
Now, my stats.
Protection, Speed and Health had 4 pt. each. Stamina and Strength, 3 each. Intellect: 2 pt. Not much, really. Almost the same as I'd had at the start of my first immersion. Once again I'd turned into a clumsy blob of flesh.
I used Health to bring Life up to 120. Energy was what really worried me. I only had 100 pt. left. I might need to "unplug" Prankster and switch him to autonomy mode, raising his Stamina. Luckily, he had 5 available points after having made level 10.
So I did. My little Grison was a free spirit now! Funny really: his Energy bar had 30 pt. more than that of his master. Me, I didn't even have my starting clothes: the rain had ruined them when I'd been busy doing level 8.
Seeing as my Stamina left much to be desired, I might have to wait before applying new Bind Lines onto pebbles. Every step of it took half of whatever meager Energy reserves I now had. Never mind. Single-use pebbles would do nicely for a start. Those by the water's edge were actually the best, almost uniform and just the right size.
That's sorted, then. I walked toward the ocean gingerly, trying not to cut my bare feet on the rocks. It was remarkably quiet, the rustle of the rain the only sound I could hear.
A vicious-looking Ennan stared back at me from the water's rippling surface. What a sight. My beard stood on end, my hair so scraggly that a sea bird could make a nest in it.
My reflection curved its lips in a smirk. How funny. When I'd looked at it right now, this was exactly what I'd expected to see. Not the respectable citizen Oleg Ivanenko whom I'd seen in the mirror countless times before, but Olgerd the Ennan.

Chapter Nine

"Well, guys? Second time lucky?" I murmured, peering at where the drawbridge was supposed to be.
Boris shook like a dog by way of an answer, showering me with cold drizzle. All I could do was grin and bear it. It was so incredibly cold! My brain was seriously playing up. How could I convince my little gray cells that a bare-chested man pelted by the freezing rain and staggering under the tree-bending wind in the middle of the pitch-black night is actually warm and comfortable?
The night was indeed dark. Even with my famed Ennan eyesight I couldn't see jack shit. Which was actually a good thing.
"Never mind. No good standing here chattering our teeth, is it? Let's do it!"
Boris couldn't agree more. The apprehension of combat made him tense up. He'd grown considerably: his Health was up 5 pt. and Satiety, 500. Besides, every new level gave him +2 to Damage. So basically, he was our main hope now.
I gingerly rearranged my backpack and climbed into the saddle. "Off we go, kiddo. Just be gentle."
Softly like a cat he slid out of the undergrowth and darted for the drawbridge in long rapid leaps.
My slingshot was ready. I'd spent the last two hours collecting new pebbles on the beach.
The dark outline of the fortress loomed out of the darkness, its rusted portcullis grinning at me.
Whoever designed this stone monster was a genius. It really got to you.
As we were crossing the bridge, a new system message popped up,

Warning! This location can be too dangerous for players of your level! Solo players are advised to abstain from visiting the Fort.

I ignored it. As we approached the portcullis, another message appeared,

We strongly suggest you make the Fort your new resurrection point. Accept: Yes/No
Once you enter the instance, no other player can do the same unless he or she is a member of your group.

I clicked Yes.
There was no deadline for storming the fortress. I had all the time in the world. Also, the Fort defenders' levels were supposed to adjust to that of the player. Forums kept warning against some very nasty abilities the Lich received on reaching level 30. The loot was worth it, of course, but all the combat expenses might not be worth it.
I reread the Welcome message, simply to work up the nerve by reminding myself that this was still a game. The place was just too believable and spooky.
Never mind. Off we go!
I ducked under the half-lowered portcullis and stepped in. Then I stopped, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dark.
I stood in a long stone corridor. Narrow arrowslits lined the walls high overhead. I just hoped that a company of archers wasn't the Lich's first surprise.
I knew very little about fortifications — if the truth were known, I knew nothing at all. Still, a long-forgotten word had escaped the recesses of my teenage memories. Was it berbekin? Or barbican? Something like that.
The floor by the walls was littered with heaped-up rags.
I took a better look.
Nothing special. Just some useless stage props. I shouldn't expect anything of interest to happen straight away.
I kept going.
It was probably time to let Prankster out. It was more fun with the three of us.
He appeared in his signature lightning-bolt style. Was it my imagination or had my little four-legged friend grown a little? Then again, what's so surprising? He was level 10 already, after all.
Prankster didn't seem to like it here, either. His little nose was twitching, sniffing the air. He kept close to Boris without venturing too far on his own.
Finally the corridor ended, blocked with what looked like some steel bars ripped to pieces. The splintered halves of the fat door were shattered.
According to the Sarge, the wizard had been instrumental to the successful storming of the fortress. Which meant that he was responsible for all this mess. And in order to get back from the Isles, I was supposed to defeat him! Judging by the havoc he'd wreaked, I had my work cut out for me.
We cautiously threaded our way amid chunks of stone, door boards black with age and rusty fragments of the bars. Finally the corridor ended.
What did we have here? A small inner yard surrounded by tall walls. It felt a bit like sitting in a well.
Which meant that if any potential attackers successfully completed the corridor, their troubles weren't yet over. They entered this "stone well" where they were showered with arrows, rocks and other unpleasant surprises.
Having said that, hadn't our ancestors stormed fortresses just like this one with only a sword and shield? I could only envy their fearless spirit.
Boris growled, distracting me. I swung round. Aha. The first inhabitant of this giant graveyard.
A huge pile of rags lying by the opposite wall shifted.
My two group members took up their positions. Boris stepped forward; Prankster moved to my right, ready to heal me whenever necessary. I strung my sling taut and stepped back.
In the meantime, this unknown and admittedly slow enemy had finally scrambled out of his hole. His hiding place was comprised of all kinds of junk: rotting leaves and smelly straw, pieces of tattered clothing and bones picked clean.
Finally he stood up to his full height.
Oh well. What a creature. Had I mentioned archers? Well, he was one, as large as life and twice as ugly.
The system, however, had its own name for him,

Name: a Walking Skeleton
Level: 12

Very well. As an archer, he wasn't really dangerous. Unless of course he could shoot his stringless bow one-handed.
Bits of tattered clothing still clung to his ribs and legs. An empty quiver dangled behind his back. The remaining piece of bowstring was caught on the bones of his right hand, the bow itself dragging along the ground behind him.
His eye sockets glowed with darkness. It reached deep into your heart, trying to break you, subjugate and enslave you.
The skeleton had already covered half the distance toward me.
"Boris, attack!"
In one smooth motion (practiced to perfection on the crabs), Boris soared several feet into the air, then dove onto the enemy. He nailed the undead to the ground and tore his skull apart in a few strokes of his powerful beak.

We thank you, Sir Olgerd, for releasing the soul trapped in this poor body by ancient witchcraft!

That was it. I hadn't even had a chance to use my slingshot.
I gave Boris a slap on his back (he looked terribly pleased with himself) and bent over the pile of bones that the monster had left behind.
Not much.
Six arrowheads: four armor-piercing, two more for hunting. In my bag you go.
A copper ring with +3 to Speed. Hopelessly oxidized, with only 5 Durability left. Will do.
I slid the ring on my finger. Good enough. My Speed had promptly risen. 7 points, not bad!
That was the extent of it. Having said that, this was only the beginning.
My first opponent had died too quickly. It's true that the memory of his dead stare still gave me goosebumps but I'd admittedly expected something bigger. Even crabs had lasted longer. This skeleton must have been the developers' way of saying hello.
We crossed the inner yard without further ado. Finally we entered the corridor leading to the gym. It was considerably lighter here. Which I suppose was good news.
Long-expired torches lined the walls. Cobwebs everywhere. The floor was littered with human bones and the omnipresent heaps of rotting leaves.
Nothing useful here.
The corridor took a slight curve. There I noticed a familiar heap of rags and other junk.
Another skeleton. No: two of them. They began moving in our direction, both just as slow as the first one.
"Boris — attack!"
He went for them head-on, scattering them like a bunch of bowling pins. By the time they had scrambled back to their feet and turned to face their attacker, I'd shot them calmly in the back. Boris had dealt them so much damage that I ran no risk of pulling aggro to myself. Which was exactly what we needed. Neither skeleton survived his second attack.
I checked whatever meager loot they had to offer.
Judging by the slowly disappearing scraps of military fatigues, these too used to be archers. They must have been the first to confront the undead attackers — only to add to the Lich's zombie army.

You've received:
A Rusty Dagger, 1
A Copper Ring, 1
Arrowheads, 2

Aha. My first close-combat weapon. The dagger's hilt was made of a rough piece of wood. Honestly, it looked like a kitchen knife — but it lay nicely in the hand. Its blunt leaf-shaped blade was encrusted with brown rust. Judging by all the notches and the porousness of the metal, its quality left much to be desired. Its Durability was a meager 7 points. Damage, however, was quite decent: 12 pt. In any case, now I had something to defend myself with if needs be.
The second copper ring added another 3 pt. to my Speed.
Loot was loot. Even if it would cost nothing at auction, at the moment every extra point to my stats was more than welcome.
We moved on.
The corridor seemed to go on forever. Another thirty feet, and more familiar outlines appeared from around the bend.
Two skeletons. No, not two... dammit! Four of the wretched things!
They walked toward me, swaying and shuffling their feet. Also archers. The last one held an intact bow in his left hand. This guy was our priority.
"Boris, we need to be careful. These guys are quite alert. And there's a whole lot of them."
We were going to repeat the already-tested scheme, adjusting it to suit the opponents' numbers. Boris would deal the first hit and move ahead in order to make the enemy turn their backs to us.
I cast a quick glance at my two pets.
Just look at those predators! Their eyes glowed with excitement, their fur bristling, their tails swishing impatiently.
Boris leapt forward, knocking down two of the undead and sending a third one flying against the wall in one powerful sweep of his paw. The remaining archer slowly raised his bow. Luckily, it was just another stage prop — I could see neither arrows nor a quiver on him.
With a dull pop a pebble hit his right eye socket, razing half his skull.

You've dealt a critical hit!

I didn't expect what happened next. All right, so I was an idiot. I'd pulled aggro to myself, hadn't I?
I'd managed to strip him of some Health but that was way not enough. Boris in front was doing his best to distract the rest of the group. If I told him to come back, he'd bring them all to me.
Unexpectedly the archer began to walk faster. Not too fast, but he was definitely speedier than his buddies.
I promptly retreated. "You stay out of it," I told Prankster. "Only heal me if my Life drops to 70%."
70% was precarious enough. I didn't have much Life as it was.
My virtual heart was thumping, rapidly losing Energy.
What a stupid, unforgivable blunder!
Disregarding the pebbles, I reached for the first bead and lay it into the sling. Time to give it my all.
The sling popped. Another crit! Still not enough. The dead archer kept coming on to me. Darkness glowed in his only remaining eye, burning a hole in me. No good me lying to you: I was scared.
Mechanically I stepped back again, all the while realizing that the more I retreated the less damage I'd deal. But I just couldn't overcome my fear. Damn those game developers!
I took aim and released the sling. With the sound of crunching bone, the bead sank into his left shoulder, sending his bow-wielding arm flying through the air. Despite the loss, he kept coming. Was it my imagination or was his black glare glowing with ever more spite?
Somewhere in the dark in front of me, I could hear the snapping of bones and Boris' growling. It looked like he was busy right now.
Prankster hissed and hugged the ground.
"Don't even think of it," I told him, pulling the sling again. If I retreated any further, this battle would take ages.
I had to get a grip. These were only bits of program code. Believable artwork, nothing more. Nothing to fear. No need to retreat.
The distance between us kept shrinking. As if realizing I wasn't trying to run anymore, the archer walked ever faster.
Eight paces left.
I released the sling.
I hit him on the collarbone. Another crit sent his Life into the red.
The hit was so powerful it swung him around, giving me time to fire again.

You've killed a level-12 Walking Skeleton!

My legs were shaking. My pulse was racing. I'd made it! With my miserable Life reading, the skeleton could have smoked me with one blow, sending me back to my resurrection point.
I'd have loved to have taken a short breather but I couldn't. I had to help Boris.
I ran around the bend and stopped. What a relief. Two of the skeletons were already vanishing into nothing while the third one was lying with his belly on the floor, struggling, while Boris sat astride him, methodically taking his victim apart bone by bone.
Soon he was trotting toward me, looking terribly pleased with himself.
"What took you so long?" I joked, then slid down the wall. "Enough. Time to take a break."

Chapter Ten

Dmitry had been right. Fighting even the weakest of skeletons was a huge learning curve compared to smoking Crab Island mobs. I'd learned more about combat tactics within an hour that I had in forty-eight hours of farming crab meat.
If I'd thought that I'd provided for any eventuality, I'd have been sadly mistaken. The gameplay gave me a good shaking as if I were a guilty puppy. I'd shot too soon, pulled aggro to myself and very nearly kicked the bucket as a result. My plan had been good; problem was, the big strategist who'd authored it had made a complete ass of himself. It was a good job those skeletons were weak and awkward: had my first opponents been faster or higher in levels, I'd have been unlikely to escape with my life.
Never mind. Lesson learned. Shame about the beads' precious Durability, though. Wasting them so stupidly!
Now, the loot.
My skeleton had left, apart from the memories of our unforgettable encounter, only a bundle of bowstrings. Boris' opponents proved to be more generous.

You've received:
An Old Bracer, 1
A Copper Bracelet, 1
Arrowheads, 5
A Ragged Hood of an Archer, 1

No idea how other players might have reacted to this kind of loot, but in my situation it felt like Christmas.
Excited as a child, I picked the items up one by one, looking them over. I might have looked like a tramp who'd been rummaging through the local garbage dump, but this was my very own little victory.
This was what I liked about Mirror World. Everything here had a reason. In the real world, a rag was a rag; here, this tattered "Hood of an Archer" gave me +2 to Health. The bracer, this moldy piece of leather protecting my forearm from the chafing of the bowstring, added +5 to Protection while the oxidized strip of copper they had the audacity to call a "bracelet" boasted +2 to Stamina. Things were definitely looking up.
My possessions were growing while also improving my stats. This was a far cry from my Reflection kit but after all, this was only the beginning.
I put my new items on and sprang to my feet. The extra 40 Energy inspired me to battle on. My pets' eyes were laughing. I looked a sight, I had to agree.
Off we go, then! Big deeds await us!
Yet another bend finally took us out to the exit. I could see more staggering silhouettes in the light of the doorway. The last Rubicon. Beyond it lay the gym.
"Stay cool, guys," I whispered. "We're in no hurry."
The place was taken up by piled-up barrels, crates and pieces of crude furniture the Fort's defenders must have used to barricade themselves with. Judging by all the heaps of bones, skulls and rotting scraps of military gear, this "Rubicon" had cost the invaders dearly.
So much stuff! Unfortunately, these too were stage props. Nothing I could use.
I ducked in and began moving in short sprints from one pile to the next toward the doorway. My pets followed noiselessly.
I stopped next to a towering pile of boards which must have once been a farm wagon. It provided a perfect shelter from the undead ambling aimlessly in front of it.
Only two of them. Barely a mouthful for my Boris. Still, the doorway opened into the gym. The sounds of the melee were almost sure to attract more zombies.
Which meant we had to repeat our Diadem Serpent tactics.
I waited until the two zombies parted ways, then signaled to Prankster. He darted toward the nearest skeleton, sank his teeth into his bony leg, then dashed back to us.
Just as I expected, the other skeleton continued sashaying toward the opposite wall without aggroing us. The moment he approached our makeshift barricade, Boris left him no chance.

You've received:
A Torn Boot, 1
A Rusty Hammer, 1

He must have been a builder or something. The system identified the hammer as a statless tool with 12 Durability. The Boot, however, offered +2 to Stamina, thus adding another 40 to my Energy stocks.
I tossed the hammer into my bag anyway. Waste not, want not. After a short deliberation, I also pulled the boot onto my left foot. I must have looked a sight but strangely I wasn't uncomfortable. Both Boris and Prankster curiously studied my big toe peeking out of the hole.
I shrugged. "So what? At least it can breathe," then turned to Prankster, "You'd better go get us the other one."
He sniffed, as if laughing, and disappeared over the barricade. The next moment he was already back, sitting on top of the tallest pile of junk as if saying, "Here's your delivery!"
This second victory garnered us a statless Lash and a Rope Belt with +3 to Stamina. That made 10!
Judging by the items, we must have released the soul of the wagon owner.
I put on the belt — which proved to be a length of ordinary rope — and headed for the gym doorway.
A weird noise was coming from behind it. I took a few more steps and peeked cautiously in.
My heart pounded, throbbing hard in my temples. This couldn't be. At least a hundred! This was a whole army!
The forums had warned, of course, that zombies were "numerous", but this! It looked like I'd be stuck here for a while.
Right, Olgerd, quit playing the drama queen. You'd better start thinking about how to get out of this mess.
I peeked out again, more daringly this time. There seemed to be no zombies next to the doorway which allowed me to take stock of the situation in my own time.
So, what did we have? A gym, about the size of three basketball pitches. The ceiling was high but not high enough for Boris to be able to fly freely.
I shouldn't forget that he could also scale walls: our last trump card in case the going got really tough.
The exit from the gym was located in the opposite wall: a huge door with a padlock. If forums were to be believed, it was guarded by a Ghoul — the first instance boss on our way. The name said it all. By killing him, a player received, on top of the usual loot, also the key to the padlock.
How interesting. All forum members agreed that he was the worst mob in the whole Fort, all thanks to some very tricky ability he seemed to have.
The ability's name was rather unpretentious: Sacrifice.
This is how it worked. Once activated, whenever the Ghoul was in danger, all the nearby skeletons and zombies hurried to his aid. As soon as the Ghoul's Life dropped to 50%, some of the zombies sacrificed themselves, healing him back to 100%. And seeing as there were over a hundred of them here, I had no illusions about the battle's outcome.
I quickly disregarded the idea of scaling the walls on Boris' back in order to promptly get to the exit and smoke him. This Ghoul just had too much Life. And I couldn't just get to the door: I needed the key to open it.
Which brought me back to Plan A: mop up the whole room by pulling zombies in ones and twos, and only then tackle the Ghoul himself.
I had my work cut out for me, didn't I?
The gym was divided into four sectors. I was in the first one, the nearest to the doorway. It resembled a riding ring — which it probably once had been.
Two more sectors ran parallel to each other, crowded with what looked like gym equipment and practice dummies.
Finally, the fourth sector was the smallest and the most dangerous one: a small corridor opposite, leading to the door and the Ghoul who guarded it.
Judging by all this, I had to admit that this creation of Zeddekey didn't at all look like an insignificant fortification on a God-forsaken island. Some of the richest land owners in Mirror World would have paid a lot of money for the right to own a stronghold like this. I had the impression that the game management had their own far-reaching plans for this location.
Let's start with the riding ring, then.
I surmised that the major part of the Ghoul's army was located there. They were the most numerous but luckily also the weakest. It consisted mainly of walking skeletons who must have once been the Fort's defenders.
"Your turn, Prankie," I whispered, stepping back toward the barricade.
Keeping in the shadows, Prankster darted toward the nearest group of two zombies who stood slightly aside from the rest. Judging by the broom and spade they were holding, they must once have been the local janitors. Had I not known I was inside a zombie fortress, I might have thought they were having a smoke break, talking unhurriedly. All that was missing was whiffs of cigarette smoke and the bored shuffling of feet.
Then they aggroed Prankie, shattering my mental image. Instead of friendly janitors, two decomposed corpses staggered toward me, contorting their gnarly bodies.
As soon as they approached the barricade, Boris attacked them. Soon I was already picking up the scarce loot. Both the broom and the spade were statless tools with very low Durability. The sheer numbers of undead workers must have been the developers' gift to new players planning to level up certain professions. I wouldn't be surprised if I came across a fellow Digger soon.
But a broom and spade? Even a hoarder like myself didn't need them. Then again, I had enough spare slots in my bag. In they go. The sweeper's canvas pants and the digger's dirty boot were a welcome gift, however: together they brought my Stamina up another 6 pt.

"Prankie, now bring us those three guys over there. We have a lot of work to do..."

The book is released!


  1. Excellent. really looking forward to this book

    1. Thanks! We're waiting for it too!

    2. Thanks for the extra chapters. now i'm really looking forward to getting the book on the 19th

  2. Can we have a few mor chapters please?

  3. When is this book going to audible?