Monday, December 12, 2016

Neuro - new LitRPG/Fantasy series by A. Livadny

Neuro, Book 1: The Crystal Sphere
by Andrei Livadny

Release - March 10, 2017
Preorder here -

quick nav:

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

Cyberspace feeds on human emotion.
(From the first Neuro's diary)

Chapter One

A THUNDERSTORM raged over the metropolis.
The thin strip of electrostatic car wipers was struggling under the torrents of rain pelting the windshield.
My ancient Rover held the road well. The squat outlines of deserted neighborhoods whizzed past. The disabled autopilot flashed an anxious red light on the dashboard.
I loved it. The road softly flew past. It was already dark. Flashes of lightning illuminated the urbanscape. Earlier that day, the city had been melting in its own heat, making the expected evening weather change all the more welcome.
Gradually, the tension began to release me. The stuffy office, the bullying boss, even the realization of the fact that my own life was flashing uselessly past didn't feel as oppressive any longer. Another couple of miles, and everything would be different.
I touched the communicator to activate it and sent a voice message,
"Hi Christa, I'll be online in about twenty minutes. Don't be late. We have an instance to do, remember?"
A bolt of lightning raked at the unfinished power substation building, digging into its latticework pylons and exploding in cascades of sparks. It looked both beautiful and spooky.

Network connection temporarily unavailable

Only a year ago, this used to be the asshole of the world. Now the whole area was already consumed by the advancing metropolis. The little town I'd grown up in was already in line for demolition, deep foundation pits gaping along both sides of the road.
I'd been offered several relocation choices. I hadn't decided on any of them yet. I was playing for time. Tonight I might know. Once we completed the quest, I'd have a serious conversation with Christa. We'd been together for almost six months. We'd been a party, I mean, doing a complex non-linear plot line which was impossible to complete solo. We had twenty-four hours to do one final dungeon.
And then what? Would we just disband? Was it the time to go our own ways?
As I pondered over all of this, I hadn't even noticed the last mile flying past. A dilapidated nine-story building filled my headlights, its façade darkened with time. They weren't going to tear it down quite yet. Normally, big developers have little patience for stubborn tenants like myself — and they'd been on my case for a good ten days already. All because of Christa and the quest which had a strict deadline. Moving house really didn't fit into my immediate plans.
Well, look for yourself. I had a nine-till-five job in the office. I couldn't very easily quit, either, considering I'd just taken out a loan to upgrade some equipment I used. Plus my bank refused to accept Middle Earth in-game currency! They'd told me, in as many words, that this legendary virtual world was rapidly becoming defunct, losing users by the minute. So they'd offered me an ultimatum: either I joined Crystal Sphere — the Infosystems Corporation's latest baby — or I'd have to use my real-world wage as security.
I parked up by my front door. They'd already disconnected the elevator. Never mind. I could use some exercise.
The steel door of my apartment creaked, as old as everything else was here. My parents' furniture and choice of design didn't look like much, that's for sure. Still, these modest quarters housed some of the latest cutting-edge gaming equipment.
A U-shaped console occupied the room's center.
"Activation," I said, heading for the kitchen.
The fridge was empty but I wasn't that interested in food at the moment. I grabbed an energy drink and used it to wash down an upper.
Tomorrow I might have a proper meal. Why not? I could invite Christa to a café. A restaurant I couldn't afford, but still we needed to meet up, have a chat and celebrate. She lived somewhere nearby: we'd mentioned our respective providers once, discovering we used the same company which meant we were almost neighbors.
I didn't give a damn about unwritten real-life meeting etiquette. Both Christa and I were responsible adults. It was probably true what they said these days about the latest technologies steering humanity toward extinction. Meaning, all relationships were rapidly becoming virtual. I disagreed entirely. My own parents had met online, and that was a fact.
A familiar beep awoke me from my musings. The system had booted up. I finished off my drink, stripped down and changed into an elastic suit studded with emulators — a real beauty.
Welcome to my world where a run-of-the-mill office rat was about to transform into a level-124 warrior!
Three interlinked curved monitor screens with a built-in holographic 3D function glowed invitingly at the center of the room.
I slumped into the seat and connected my suit's optic cables to the console.
Reality faded into the background of my mind.

* * *

Middle Earth. Login

At first, the virtual world appeared on the screens as a 2D picture. Then it expanded, acquiring depth, and enveloped me, surrounding me with high-density holograms.
For a few more seconds I still could make out the outlines of my apartment; then they too disappeared. Tactile emulators kicked in. My hand got caught on a bramble. A thorn pierced my skin. The quiet rustle of the apartment's environment generator was drowned out by the whisper of leaves. Earthly forest smells wafted in my face. A beetle buzzed past, the sound quickly dying away in the thick shadows.
The immersion levels were unbelievable. This was as far as the latest gaming technologies could possibly take you. Science just couldn't improve on this no matter how hard they tried.
I was alone. Christa was late. This wasn't like her at all.
I looked around me, taking in the small forest glade. The entrance to the dungeon was still sealed with shimmering magic symbols. A scared rabbit scampered past. The ferns next to a mossy cliff swayed.
A mob?
Well, what do you think?

A Werewolf, level 105, the system informed me.

My peripheral eyesight blurred, framed with a smudged crimson line as combat mode kicked in. The Fury points counter quivered, gaining momentum. Fury points could only be generated in combat in order to perform various combos. They could also be used by certain unique creative abilities only available in combat mode.
The werewolf howled and leaped out of the shadows into the moonlight. This was a strong and sinewy veteran. His gray hair bristled. His eyes glowed; his jaws emitted a long low growl.
He wasn't much for me level-wise. He didn't offer much XP but could do a nasty job on my armor. He had this ability called Fire Claw.
But still... better that than nothing at all. I took cover behind my battered full-length shield which received the first hits. It worked! My Fury bar soared to half way up. The shield's Durability plummeted, but the mob's Energy had its limits too. He leaped back, his flanks heaving. Now was the time to counterattack.
I let go of the shield. As it thumped onto the rocks, I whipped out my two single-handed swords, stripping the werewolf of half his Life, and rolled back to the safety of the mossy cliff, picking up the shield on my way — it could still take another couple of hits.
I parried again, building up my Fury count. I could use every point of it later tonight. We were looking at a long, hard session.
With a ripping sound, the mob broke through my defenses. His fiery claws dug deep into the rock, stripping the moss away and leaving deep scores in the stone. I recoiled just in time, diving aside, then moved swiftly behind him.
By then, his Life bar was barely glowing: I'd had a Bleed debuff cast over both my swords. After another whack from me, the werewolf convulsed on the ground, wheezing.
Now I had to act double quick. I had a dozen seconds at the most.
I always kept a special sharp-edged crystal in a quick access slot. Ripping off the glove, I laid it in my hand, then activated my unique ability, available only to players of my class starting at level 100.
My Fury bar plummeted as the energy I'd accumulated during the fight was now being channeled into the transparent crystal. Bright red lights flickered, casting their glow over my face. The tips of my fingers prickled.

You've received an item: Crystal of Fury

Phew. I'd done it. All that practice had finally brought some results. The ability had a two-hour cooldown.
The precious stone I'd just created could be used in two different ways. I could either install it into my weapon slot or use it in combat when the going got really tough to retrieve its energy, maxing out my Fury count.
Weapons with dedicated slots were in fact quite rare. You needed an experienced bladesmith to make one. If you tried to build it yourself, the result could be what you least expected — useless or even harmful — courtesy of Lady Luck.
With this one, I had five Crystals of Fury — and still I had a gut feeling I might need each and every one of them tonight. The quest chain that Christa and I had been completing over the last six months was obliged to culminate in the mother of all battles. Whom with, I didn't yet know. Those who'd done this dungeon before us had been remarkably secretive about it.
In the meantime, the werewolf stopped convulsing. The combat mode switched off automatically. I cast a look around, searching for any more mobs, and decided to check the monster for any loot. One never knew, he might drop something worth my while.
A familiar popping sound filled the air.
"Hi, Christa. You're late," I picked up the werewolf's heart — a rare ingredient used in alchemy — and turned round only to see a new system message,

Christa, a level 128 Sorceress, has left your group!
You no longer belong to any players association.

I froze in dumb surprise, watching as interference distorted her face. Her name tag modified, then disappeared.
I was facing a strange woman. This new avatar had nothing to do with Christa even though lots of little details of her clothing and gear were screaming her name. Like the runic bracelet on her wrist. This was a relic item you could neither lose, sell, nor give away. These kinds of items never parted from the player. She'd gotten it off the last dungeon boss we'd smoked. I could still remember her eyes shining with pleasure as she'd read its stats.
I pulled myself together. "What's going on?"
"Just finalizing a few things," she replied coldly.
"Christa, this is the final instance! If you've decided to go solo or join a clan, be my guest, I'm not staying in your way! But we need to close this quest!"
"I'm not Christa. I'm not interested in her commitments," she quipped, apparently about to log out.
"Wait! Can't you explain?"
The sorceress turned round and looked me over. With a sigh, she acquiesced. "I've just bought this account."
"Why?" I asked mechanically. That wasn't what I was thinking about. Christa had been successfully leveling up for the last two years, point by grueling point. Why would she want to sell her account? I knew how precious she was about her online identity. Oh no: I could smell a rat from where I stood.
"You're not a newsy person, are you?" she asked indifferently. "There's an action about to be launched in Crystal Sphere. The game developers have made it possible to transfer other fantasy game accounts there. Unfortunately, they cut your levels down but you do get to keep all your gear, skills and abilities. As you level up, they become available to you again. Clear enough?"
She must have misunderstood my hesitation as she added, "Look it up. I'm off now. Too many things to do."
With another popping sound, she disappeared.

* * *

For a while, I sat by the cliff looking up into the starry sky as I tried to digest what had just happened.
So the final dungeon wasn't meant to be. Six months of gaming down the drain. Apart from the levels gained, that is.
Christa! Why, or why would you do such a thing? You should have told me! Why would you sell your own account, of all things?
I just couldn't wrap my head around it. Only last night we'd been busy making plans for the future. Whatever could have happened in the last twelve hours?
I had no idea what to do. Anger and desperation were marring my judgment.
Couldn't she have waited another twenty-four hours? We'd invested so much time, effort and money into doing this particular plot line! We'd had high hopes about this final dungeon — and what for? No, no, no. I shouldn't be thinking like that. Something must have happened to her. Christa couldn't have done this to me.
Then again, why not? What did I really know about her?
Still, why would she sell out?
The most logical answer would be: she needed money really badly. A lot of it, too.
I stood up and looked around me. Pointlessly I touched the slab of rock barring the entrance to the dungeon and ran my fingers over the familiar sequence of magic symbols that opened it.

You can't enter a dungeon on your own, the system reported.

* * *


The residual pine scent from the environment generator still lingered in my room. The holographic screens had already switched off. A single search result filled the monitors,

Crystal Sphere opens doors to all fantasy game characters!
We've created a unique boundless game world which has a place for everyone.
Are you reluctant to part with your old online identity? We're prepared to accommodate you! Our abilities allow us to support any race or class as well as any relevant development branches. Hurry! The Crystal Sphere knows no clans or clan wars. You just might become the first legend of this brave new world!
Warning: account transfers will entail a 5:1 drop in levels. But not to worry: all your skills will be safe, waiting to be unblocked as you level up your character.

Now it was starting to make sense. That's why my bank had refused me a loan secured by Middle Earth currency: they must have gotten wind about the upcoming merge. It looked like this Crystal Sphere might assimilate all pre-existing game projects. At the same time, in this clanless new world of unclaimed resources and territories, nobody needed a steady flow of high-level players: therefore the level nip.
The offer was almost too hard to resist. You couldn't argue with that. Lots of folks out there would love to join a new world while preserving their old avatars. Others, however, wouldn't have minded changing their char without having to level a new one up from scratch. For that reason, the prices on leveled-up accounts must have soared.
This explained a lot. Still, I had this anxious itch. Over these last six months, I thought I'd known Christa well. I'd believed we had more in common than just team play. Now she was gone. She could be in trouble and still I couldn't help! How was I supposed to find her in a city where every neighborhood had a population of over a million?
Wait a sec... there was one other option. And I just might try it while the scent was still fresh!
In my time, I too had sold a few chars that I'd leveled in other worlds. So I knew exactly the right person to turn to. The middleman in every such deal was obliged to record the vendor's IP address. I could still find her!
Afraid of losing heart, I quickly scrolled through my nanocomp contact list until I found the right one and texted him.
After five minutes, I received a reply,

I might help. 1000 credits, by bank transfer.

For me, that was a lot of money. I still had to move house.
Of course! How could I have forgotten! Once I moved, I'd lose all trace of Christa. Then I'd never find out whatever had happened to her.

Agreed. Give me the bank account number.

* * *

What made me do it, might you ask? There's no clear-cut answer to that. It's just that I sensed this void in my heart that was filled with anxiety, for want of a better feeling. That's exactly what happens when you don't know what to do — you just don't seem to be able to think of any positive scenarios, brooding over all sorts of horror stories instead.
It was already two in the morning when I stopped by the doors of a capsule apartment located on Floor 207 of a supertower. That's exactly the kind of automated dwelling I'd be looking at myself very soon.
No idea what I'd been thinking of. I'd bought a pizza on my way and pulled my Dad's old baseball cap over my eyes, deciding to pretend I was a delivery guy who'd got the wrong door. This was the best thing I could come up with. You could call me a small-town guy, I suppose.
Only when I touched the front door sensor, did I remember that all supertower deliveries were done by pneumatic capsules.
"Who's there?" a quiet voice asked, quivering. Had she been crying?!
"Pizza delivery," I managed. "Did you order?"
"No, I didn't," the intercom sobbed. "Go away."
"I've got your address in the book."
"Okay, then," the door slid soundlessly aside.
I stepped into a small room typical of those new transformable dwellings of today.
My heart clenched. She sat in a deep soft chair at a console identical to mine. Her tear-streaked face was pale and drawn. The bank of monitors still showed the familiar clearing next to the dungeon entrance, complete with the dead werewolf.
"Just leave it there on the table-" she halted. "Alex? Why are you here? I've done everything to avoid this! Aren't you mad at me?"
"Why did you sell your account?" I demanded.
"I didn't want us to meet in real life," she wiped her tears. "I could see it coming. I didn't want to explain. So now, please, forgive me and just go! Can't you see you're hurting me?"
"What the hell's going on?"
"I've got ANM," tears poured down her cheeks. "So please just leave me. Do you want me to call the police?"
"I don't think so," I laid the wretched pizza onto the table and stepped toward her. "We need to talk. You really think I'm gonna leave you?"

* * *

I left the police station about half past three in the morning.
I stopped on the sidewalk, my breathing deep and uneven.
The ANM. The virus which had infested every city five years ago. None had been able to explain the nature of its genetic mutation. There was no proven cure.
How long a sufferer would live depended on lots of things. Many had managed to get back to their feet and even lead a normal life. Christa's body, however, had proven not as strong. She was fading away — and she knew it, too. For her, virtual reality had become her last refuge, the only way to escape the horror of her life.
I walked to the car. Why hadn't she told me anything? That way I wouldn't have insisted on meeting her in real life. We could have switched to the Crystal Sphere together.
Too late. Christa had second-guessed my intentions and done everything to antagonize me, unwilling to hurt either of us. She must have thought I'd be angry enough with her to simply forget her once and for all after this dungeon incident. She probably thought I'd be so mad I'd never want to see her again.
I got in the car. I wasn't in the best of moods. The storm had long ended. The traffic was non-existent at this early hour.
I had to go home and give it a good think. I didn't give a shit about my having been cautioned by the police. I wasn’t going to leave Christa alone — even though I had very little idea how I could possibly help her. We might not even be able to play like we used to before. She wouldn't be able to. She'd know that I knew.
I put my foot down, trying to release the pressure. The gray ribbon of the tarmac whooshed beneath the wheels. The disabled auto pilot kept flashing its little red light.
Finally, the intersection. I took the first right turn into a spiraling slipway, then straight on again, this time heading for my own home.
Tufts of mist drifted over the highway. The terrain to its both sides was free from its usual concrete shell, the earth of the freshly-dug foundation pits oozing moisture.
I would come up with something. I knew I would.
The piercing warning of the proximity gage made me jump. A giant construction robot was slowly emerging onto the highway. Mechanically I wrenched on the steering wheel. The Rover's bumper exploded in a cascade of plastic fragments as it rammed a flimsy construction site barrier.
The gray misty dawn span before my eyes as earth and sky swapped places. My chest and stomach went cold. Finally, the airbags kicked in. A crushing blow and the screeching of the car's crumpling bodywork... then darkness.

* * *

They were taking me somewhere on a gurney.
Through the pain and haze of the heavy medication I could hear voices; I even managed to understand what they were saying.
"He's one lucky motherfucker."
"Sure. Did you see the height of that pit? It's a miracle he survived at all."
"I saw his car. It was on the news. A ball of steel. It took the rescue team an hour to cut him free."
I couldn't feel my body — neither my legs nor my arms. I must be in a really bad way. The pain in my chest kept coming back despite all the medication they kept pumping into me.
A blinding light assaulted my eyes. The air smelled of antiseptics.
"Right, let's move him. On the count of three. One... two..."
Darkness came back.
This time it didn't hurt, as if they'd separated my mind from my body.
Voices resonated in the background. A man and a woman. I couldn't help trying to work out what they were saying.
"You think you could bring him round for a short while?"
"Why?" the woman's voice rang with contempt.
"I'd like to speak to him."
"You can't. It's too dangerous. He's too weak after the surgery. And he needs to survive a lot more of them."
"Who's paying for his treatment?"
"What do you mean, who? The insurance."
"They have a certain limit, don't they?"
"They do," she admitted reluctantly. "They pay for the intensive care and minimal aftercare. His bank has already contacted us. It's complicated."
"You call this humane? You drag this guy back from the dead, pump him full of drugs and patch him up — all this just to throw him back out onto the street?"
"Well, I'm sorry! In case you didn't notice, we're still fighting for his life. The rest, at the moment, is academic."
"It's not. We all know what's gonna happen. He'll leave your charitable institution a cripple, only to spend a few more years in his own personal hell!"
"What are you implying? Speak up! I agreed to see you but I'm afraid both my time and my patience are limited."
"I'd like you to bring him round. I need him to be able to make conscious decisions."
"Absolutely not. In any case, what do you care? You're just some corporation making computer games!"
"That's exactly what I need to talk about. Not with you — with him."

* * *

Life had lost its meaning.
Darkness kept swallowing me, time after time. I'd resurface only to taste pain and return, submerging deep into my black stupor. So it lasted until the blinding light came on again.
"Good. There are reflexes. The medication is working. He's coming round."
"How much time do I have?"
"Ten minutes. Possibly, more. It depends."
"Thanks. Could you please leave us alone for a bit?"
"No, but-"
"Please. I insist. Don't make me pull any more strings."
"I hope not. That's the only thing you seem to know how to do!"
The door slammed.
I heard the sound of steel chair legs being dragged across the tiled floor. Someone set it by my bed, then slumped into it.
Whoever he was, his aftershave left a lot to be desired. Gradually, his outline loomed through the blur surrounding me. I could only make out a lab coat draped over the man's casual clothes.

* * *

"Nice to meet you, Alex. I'm Sergei Borisov. I'm here representing Infosystems Corporation. As your doctor has told me, we don't have much time. I suggest we move directly to business. Do you remember what happened to you? The accident?"
"Why?" I croaked. "Is it so bad?"
"Not at all!" he said cheerfully. For some reason, his faked optimism made my pain subside. I prepared to hear him out. I could use a ray of hope.
"We could pick up your medical bills."
"What's the catch? Spit it out."
"If you wish. Would you like to know the real state of your affairs?" he avoided the direct answer, apparently wanting to pump up the gloom first. "You have multiple spinal damage, not to mention all the other fractures and injuries you suffered."
I began drifting away again. A machine at the head of the intensive care capsule beeped an anxious warning.
I waited, but no medical staff came running. Apparently, the man's string-pulling techniques were strong enough to make sure no one disrupted our conversation.
The machine beeped again. My head began to clear, a new bumper dose of medication preventing me from fainting.
"Alex, you shouldn't worry so much about it. It's in your own interests to stay lucid until this conversation is over."
"What's the catch?" I repeated, barely moving my lips.
"We possess a whole bunch of unique new technologies. We might use them to help you."
"Sorry... I don't see what games have got to do with healthcare... even cutting-edge ones..."
Ignoring my skepticism, he reached into his breast pocket, producing a tiny microchip sealed in plastic.
"What... is it?"
"This is the future of gaming. The neuroimplant. It's comprised of artificial neuronets. Once you're plugged into it, you won't need all those holographic screens, scent generators, tactile sensors... This tiny little thing processes all game events, uploading the result directly into the player's brain. Can't you see? This device provides full immersion into cyberspace. It would allow us to live there just as we do here, experiencing the whole range of sensations — even those unknown to human beings!"
Holy shit. And I used to consider my home system the latest technological breakthrough!
"They're yet to be tested on human beings," he added.
"Sorry... this is revolutionary.... the mind boggles... but I can't see what it's got to do with-"
He must have come prepared. My question didn't throw him.
"When offered the opportunity of full immersion into cyberspace, a lot of people might want to stay there," he explained matter-of-factly. "Which brings us to the question: what about life support? No, I don't need you to reply to that one. Just listen to me. The neuroimplant is only a fraction of the entire body of our new technologies. You can't advance the gaming industry by only employing one particular branch of human knowledge. Our work calls for all sorts of cross-disciplinary projects. As an example, we also work with military space forces who supply us with life support systems.
I already knew what he was driving at. Still, I couldn't help asking, "Why me? Millions of gamers will be lining up by your offices as soon as they get wind of this device," my gaze alighted on the microchip.
"They're not right for us, I'm afraid."
"Why not?"
"The risks are too great. As I've already told you, the neuroimplant processes every in-game experience whether it's a whiff of a breeze or a mortal wound. The device is yet to be standardized, and to do that, we need feedback from subjects. Apart from all sorts of risky scenarios, games are full of intricate details which at the moment are a complete mystery to us. Do you have any idea what a wizard feels when controlling the elements?"
"Neither do we. Will he experience a tickle in his belly or will he drop dead on the spot? You can see I'm not holding anything back from you. We can't enroll regular game users in our tests. Not even if they volunteer. A volunteer's death or his suffering serious mental damage are bound to become public knowledge. You, however, are perfect volunteer material. Sorry about being so blunt."
"Why perfect? Is it because I'm about to die without next of kin?"
"So what do I have to do?"
"Just play."
"Playing is brainwork. What about the rest of me?"
"I can't go into details quite yet but let me assure you we'll provide you with the best treatment available. It's actually based on the technologies developed for deep space travel."
"Another experiment?"
He nodded. "Our researchers estimate your body's full recovery period at two years. I'll have to warn you though that some of your organs and even body parts might need to be replaced with biocybernetic prosthetics."
"So what's gonna happen if I survive all that?"
"You'll be able to enjoy life again."
"What, as a cyborg?"
"You shouldn't worry about that. Only a very limited number of people will know about your modifications. There're lots of people around who have a heart implant or a hearing aid — but no one calls them cyborgs! Also, all the surgery will be performed in the so-called background mode. You won't feel a thing, simply because your neuroimplant will be streaming totally different experiences into your brain. Please, don't say no. In your situation this is a very suitable and generous proposition."
"I understand that. I have a request though."
He raised an eyebrow and leaned slightly forward, apparently surprised by my brazenness. "Speak up."
"How many vacancies do you have?"
He paused. "Twenty."
"I know a person that might suit your requirements," I said, then clued him in on Christa's situation.
"You understand, don't you," he said, "that these kinds of decisions are outside my remit. The main selection criterion is the candidate's willingness to volunteer. He or she should understand the risks involved and accept any potential consequences."
"I know. She has nothing to lose."
"We're talking about your life now."
"I'd like you to talk to her," I repeated doggedly. "You'll find her address in my nanocomp."
"Don't be so childish!"
"I'm not. Try her. She's a perfect candidate."
No good deed goes unpunished. I didn't yet know how true — albeit cruel — this adage was. But I was about to learn very quickly.
"Are you sure? Aren’t you afraid of losing your opportunity?" he glanced at the door as if knowing there was someone patiently hovering behind it, waiting for us to finish this conversation. He leaned over me and mouthed under his breath, "The mere mention of the neuroimplant might put the life of an innocent person in danger. What if she refuses to cooperate? You understand, don't you?"
I weakly shrugged. The medication was wearing off. My lips felt cold. The pain was flooding back. In my situation, it was way too easy to start clutching at straws. Vulnerable is gullible. The whole thing just had to be much more serious and dangerous than the rosy picture he'd just presented me with. It had to be — otherwise the Corporation wouldn't have sent its agents out to scour through every Casualty unit in the city.
Did I even have a choice, anyway?
"Where's the dotted line?"
He promptly shoved a tablet into my hands.
As I plunged back into the quagmire of agony, I pressed my finger to the biometric scanner window, confirming my decision.

Chapter Two

The Crystal Sphere. Login

THE DWARF'S pick struck hard, procuring a cascade of ice fragments that sparked in the torch's light. His breath misted, his beard and mustache already covered with frost.
This was all I managed to take in as I came round.
His pick came down with another powerful swing. Ice crumbled all around me, cascading to the cave's floor and releasing me.
"Finally," the miner grumbled. "Let's have a look. What have we got here?"
A message appeared right in front of my eyes, startling me.

Neuroimplant: activated
Mind expander (Synaps, basic model): installed
Activation successful
Mnemonic interface downloaded
Alternative start point: set up.
You've received a new ability: Two Worlds. From now on, you'll be able to experience the same range of sensations in cyberspace as in the real world. Courtesy of the neuroimplant, all your skills and reflexes will be identical regardless of the time and place of their initial acquisition.
For your information: all interface types are currently set to 'cyberspace' by default.

The dwarf recoiled, replacing the pick with a battle hammer that surged with pulses of lightning.
"Who is it, Togien?" a voice came from the dark. Judging by the echo, the cave wasn't very big.
"It's all right. It's only a specter. I'll sort him out."
Focusing on me, the dwarf began to incant some kind of spell, his voice grim and low. I couldn't make out the words apart from the final phrase,
"Whoever you are, begone to where you belong!"
Another system message appeared in my mental view, overlapping the cave's interior,

Welcome to the Crystal Sphere!
Please choose your race.

The cave around me became a freeze frame. I watched the tame bolt of lightning entwine the hilt of the dwarf's sword. He was short and stocky, clad in a pair of leather pants and a jacket with sown-on protective links of some dull metal. A pointed helmet was perched on his head.
The dwarf's eyes glared at me from under his bushy eyebrows. His frosted salt-and-pepper beard was plaited and could use a good dose of dye. The metal inlays of his gear too could have done with a polish. His jacket was patched, his helmet dented. He was more than likely a grave robber.
Well, well, well. Did that mean that until I created my character, he could only see me as a ghost? How interesting. Was my arrival in the Crystal Sphere part of some global event? I didn't think so. Most likely, the dwarf couldn't overcome his craving for gold and had decided to check out the cave.
His torch was wedged into a small crevice in the wall. Its flame was static now, fancy swirls of smoke hanging in the air. The torch illuminated a small area covered in large globules of transparent ice entrapping various objects. The picture was reminiscent of some shipwreck flotsam brought into a cave by a turbulent ocean and instantly frozen.
I was curious, of course, but this wasn't the right moment to enjoy the views. I had more important things to take care of.
This neuroimplant of theirs was actually quite good! It seemed to be able to recognize my thoughts and react accordingly. The moment I'd thought about creating a character, several translucent images appeared in my view, apparently symbolizing the available races.
Excellent. Mechanically I focused on one of them. Immediately the picture zoomed in and took center stage, acquiring detail.
The mnemonic interface was a pleasure to look at. It was simple and functional. Even though its icons overlapped the general picture around me, they didn't hinder your perception. I quickly discovered, by some basic trial and error, that you could activate icons by swiping them with your eyes. The system was constantly following my gaze, promptly determining if I was focusing on something or other.
A long line of holograms loomed out of the dark. It wasn't for nothing the Crystal Sphere claimed superiority over all other game worlds. Having to choose from hundreds of races many of which were only represented by small fringe groups imported from other game settings wouldn't be at all easy. You could spend weeks just studying their respective properties.
Still, I'd already made my choice. Considering this implant of theirs, I was going to stay human, simply for safety reasons. I still couldn't forget my conversation with the Corporation rep. None of the exotic races could suit me for the simple reason that I had no idea how the neuroimplant would behave in an unhuman body, generating some totally alien perceptions.
I gulped. The dwarf may have been frozen in time — but I wasn't. I was freezing, literally. This was a definite drawback. How could a specter experience physical discomfort?
I had to hurry. I didn't like this icy cave. I had to go out into the warm sunlight.
I was full of projects and hopes. During our last meeting, Mr. Borisov dryly thanked me for recommending Christa to them. She'd agreed to participate. I was going to find her. We had a lot to discuss.
Something had changed around me almost imperceptibly. I noticed a chunk of ice below to my left. It looked as if the dwarf had initially tried to hack it off with his pick but had failed. Now the deep cracks piercing the ice had lit up by a tiny flame glimmering within.
I took a better look. The flame was emitted by a fiery aura enveloping a doubled-up figure inside.
The creature stirred. The light grew slightly brighter, blurring the ice from the inside as it began to melt. The cavity within kept growing, filling with swirling steam.
This player who was about to escape his icy prison — was he also one of us? Did he have a neuroimplant too?
Never mind. Time would tell. Enough stalling! Time for me to get out of here!
So, let's have a look at their choice of human races.

Racial bonus: Determination
You receive two bonus points to add to any characteristic of your choice at your convenience, plus another skill point every five levels.

Not bad at all.
I pressed Confirm.
A new choice of character classes followed.
Normally, every class supported two skill development branches: the main one, available to everyone, and an additional one which could only be opened at level 50.
Considering my choice of race, I could pick from among a Warrior, a Wizard, a Hunter, a Light or Dark Knight, a Monk, a Sorcerer, a Rogue — the list went on and on thanks to their account transfer option.
Wait a sec. What was that now? In the midst of all the predictable and expected classes I suddenly noticed a name that struck a familiar note, reminding me of recent events,

A Neuro

I swiped my eyes across the name, activating it.

The Founder Gods, creators of all living beings, used to possess a unique wealth of knowledge, endowing our ancestors with a whole number of long-forgotten abilities.
In bygone days, the Founders visited a great number of the worlds which have since disappeared without a trace. Still, we are reminded of the consequences of their genetic intervention as various nations give occasional birth to a Neuro: a creature whose true potential is still dormant.
Could you be one of them?
Class bonus: a unique development branch not tied in with the character's specialization, available at level 5.
Would you be up to the challenge?
Accept: Yes/No

It looked like I could forget my habitual choice, a Warrior. The temptation was too great. I also had a gut feeling that this class had appeared on the list for a reason. I was pretty sure that normal players didn't have this option.
In a swipe of my eyes, I accepted.

Please wait. Character generation in progress.
Merging... Scanning...
Character generation complete.
Name: Alexatis
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Class: Neuro
Please confirm or go back to edit your avatar.

He looked the split image of myself: skinny, pale and unshaven. Not the best version of me.
I edited his build here and there, added a darker hue to his skin and got rid of the stubble. Much better now.
I quite liked the nickname. It sounded unpretentious and similar enough to my own name.
I lingered. It felt like diving from a great height. The moment I pressed the button, my new virtual life would begin.
In the meantime, the melting block of ice had thawed through in the middle, forming a hole that sent a net of cracks in all directions.
Enveloped in steam, surrounded by a weak but already clear fire aura, the creature inside turned out to be... a demon!
Its spidery fingers clutched at the fragile ice, crumbling it, until they found a holdfast. The demon emitted a weak groan as it began to pull itself out of its ice prison. Long rear-facing spines ran the whole length of its forearms. They grew through the demon's grayish olive skin which was covered in asymmetrical black swirls.
Its muscles tensed. The creature eased itself out, peeping its head and shoulders out of the hole in the ice.
The recognition petrified me.
Her short ash-blond hair, her fiery gaze, the thin line of her pursed lips — these were features I knew, familiar and yet strangely different. Repulsive.
Glinting with darkness, a supple suit of armor clung to her body, protecting her chest, stomach and hips.
Unlike me, Christa hadn't wasted her time.
I hurried to confirm my character choice. Once again time began to fly by. I jumped to my feet, shivering with cold in my canvas shirt and pants, still in disbelief of her horrible choice, hoping it was a mistake.
"Get out of my way!"
Her fiery aura became more pronounced, outlining a burning name tag,

Christa. Level 1. Demon

I knew why her name hadn't changed. She'd told me she'd had it legally registered.
"Christa, it's me!"
"As if I can't see," her glare faded, acquiring an almost human expression, then burned again, oozing an uncontrollable, impetuous fury. "Out my way!" she hissed, snake-like.
"Hey noobs! You've got a cheek!" the dwarf's amazed voice broke the heavy silence. "How did you get here?"
He never received an answer.
"Alex, step aside."
"No, I won't," I could be stubborn too. "What were you thinking about, creating this abomina-"
She responded with a lightning attack. The spines on her arms ripped through my shoulder, grazing my throat. My chest seized with agonizing pain. I dropped to my knees. She leaped at the dwarf, her tail lashing him across the face. For a brief moment her body clung to the low ice-covered ceiling, then she darted into the tunnel that oozed a cold draft.
My Life bar faded. My neuroimplant was pumping my brain with sensations of harrowing agony like nothing I'd ever experienced before.
"Don't overact," the dwarf cringed. A crimson scar ran across his cheek. "Gwain, where the hell are you!" he bellowed.
The sounds of scampering footsteps came from the tunnel. "Togien, did you see that?" Another dwarf arrived — a Monk, judging by his gear. "What kind of fire monster was that?"
"A demon," Togien replied, than added, "Give the noob a heal, pronto!"
A healing aura enveloped me. I breathed again. My Life bar quivered and began to grow.
The pain subsided. Still, I'd already learned my first lesson in the world of Crystal Sphere. Its authenticity levels were really off the scale.
"Better now?" the dwarf hid a good-natured smile within his mustache, apparently misunderstanding my stare. "Don't worry. I don't hurt babies. I'm not a grave robber. I'm just a bit down on my luck gear-wise," he stroked his beard mechanically.
"Thanks," I sat up, looking around me.
"How did you get here, anyway... Alexatis? This is miles away from the nearest nursery."
"Must have been a glitch. I've no idea how it happened."
"Have you tried to log out and log back in again?"
I maintained a moody silence. I didn't want to lie to him — and I couldn't tell him the truth.
"Never mind. It's gonna be all right," he said. "You can stay with us if you want. We won't be here long. We just want to check this cave out. I'd like you to meet Gwain. He's my nephew. A real-life nephew, I mean."
This Togien turned out to be a nice guy, after all.
"Thanks for the heal, Gwain," I said.
He beamed. "That's not a problem."
I got the impression that Togien was quite strict with his nephew and didn't mete praise out gladly.
"We level up Archeology, you know," Gwain added. "It may be a secondary profession and all that, but still-" he cut himself short, meeting his uncle's disapproving glare.
"Too much information! Grab your pick and go back to work! Alexatis, you'd better stand aside — better still, wait in the tunnel before one of those ice fragments does you some serious damage! Just meditate or read some guides, or whatever."
I complied. I did have a few things to ponder over.
Togien and Gwain began hacking at the ice, digging for artifacts. Admittedly, they were good at what they did.
I focused on a transparent ice bauble encasing one of the objects, its outlines showing vaguely through the frosty surface.

A Large Block of Ice
Durability: 70/70

The two dwarves must have specialized in Mining. Their picks effortlessly crumbled the fragile crystals. They were giving it their all. I really should keep a safe distance: at level 1, I only had 50 pt. Life. The first large fragment of ice flying my way would be the end of me.
I had no idea where their resurrection point was. I'd been lucky enough to have come across two such friendly individuals. Togien was level 18 and his nephew, 12. Which meant they also hadn't been in the Crystal Sphere long.
The tunnel was damp, water streaking down its walls. The depths of this underground maze exuded subterranean heat.
The tunnel floor was overgrown with soft pale moss. I slumped down onto it, watching the fancy play of light from a torch wedged in a crack by the cave entrance.
My first impressions were sharp and contradictory.
Before, I could never understand why the choice of race was considered a "social act". I'd even gotten into a heated argument with some smartass on the Middle Earth forum about it. My point had been, the reason I'd chosen a Warrior was because I wanted that particular set of abilities, and nothing else!
I might have been wrong, I agree. Everything we hide deep inside our hearts under a fine veneer of social conventions is released into the virtual world. You can't really play a holier-than-thou Paladin if you have a tendency for much lowlier behavior. That's how it happens that by changing chars and adding various alt characters — who might suddenly become our main ones — we look for our online identity. Sooner or later, we all find it.
Did that mean I'd known nothing about Christa? Back in the Middle Earth, she'd still been trying to control herself — while here she'd finally lost it, complying with the voice of pain devouring her from inside.
I could change nothing, anyway. Our choices had been made. It was unlikely we'd ever cross paths again. Unless it was in battle.

* * *

I opened my interface, about to distribute the available points, when the earth shuddered, showering me with crumbling rock from the tunnel's ceiling.
A chain of powerful shocks ran through the tunnel, dying in the distance.
The two dwarves ran out of the cave and froze, listening to the far-off rumble of rockfalls. Judging by their alarmed expressions, nothing like this had ever happened here before.
"It has to be the City Guild and its wizards," Togien grumbled. "Let's go back in, Gwain. It seems to be all right now."
They returned to their work. I proceeded with my character research.

Alexatis. Level 1. Neuro.
Life, 50/50
Physical Energy, 37/50
Mental Energy, 50/50
Physical Defense, 2.5 (homespun clothes, 0)
Physical Attack, 2,5 (weapons not equipped)
Mental Defense, 0.5% (abilities not activated)
Mental Attack, 0 (spells not studied)
Mental Energy Regeneration, 2,5 pt./sec (Spirit divided by 2)
Strength, 5
Intellect, 5
Agility, 5
Stamina, 5
Spirit, 5
Main Professions, Not opened
Achievements, None

You have 7 main characteristic points available.

At first, everything seemed simple enough.
Strength was responsible for the amount of damage dealt by Physical Attack, as well as for the weight the char was capable of carrying and the numbers of absorbed incoming damage when parrying.
Intellect was responsible for the amount of Mental Energy as well as the damage dealt by spells. It also affected the char's Learning Skills and the amount of XP (experience) received.
Agility was responsible for the char's reaction times which affected all of his actions in some way or another.
Stamina determined the amount of Health points that decided the quantity of the char's Life.
Spirit decided the char's resistance to magic attacks, increasing his or her chances of blocking a spell or continuing to cast one while being attacked.
Still, in practice it wasn't that clear-cut and easy. A char's main characteristics were all interrelated. Their interactions could be calculated using special formulas. To give you a rather exaggerated example, every weapon had such characteristics as Weight and Damage. A strong character would have no problem lifting a heavy mace and using it to deal a hit that would strip his or her opponent of (say) 10 HP. But a character who is strong and agile would be able to strike twice in the same amount of time dealing double damage — because the high Agility numbers would increase his Attack Speed.
You see my point? My ability branch was still closed. I hadn't been given any tips regarding which particular stats could be vital for a Neuro's successful development. I had a funny feeling it was Intellect — but this was only my conjecture. Which was why I came to the decision to wait until I reached level 5 before distributing any available stat and skill points.
"Alexatis? Mind coming here for a moment?" Togien's bellowing voice disrupted my train of thoughts.
I closed the interface and walked into the cave.
Oh wow. They'd done a good job there, hadn't they? Possibly, with a little help from the earthquake. Tiny ice fragments crunched underfoot, sparkling in the torch light. Not a single block of ice was left — they'd ripped them all apart nice and neat!
"How much weight can you carry?" Togien asked me.
"Sixty pounds."
"That's nothing," he sounded upset. "How big is your inventory?"
I shrugged. "Twenty slots. A standard one."
"I have a proposition for you. What if we give you an extra bag for a hundred slots? We've got too much stuff, you see. We could go all together to Agrion — that's a city on the River Warbler. It's not far from here. We'll give you 1% of the price of what's in the bag. What do you think?"
A newb would have to be a total idiot to refuse this kind of offer. Besides, it didn't look as if the hike to the nearest safe locations was going to be easy, either. The local mobs were definitely more advanced in levels than humble me.
"I'm in."
"Let's load up, then. No, wait," Togien gave my starting clothes a critical look. With a sigh he reached into his stashes, producing a suit of well-worn leather armor. "This is yours. Take a look around and get yourself a weapon," he probably meant the trash items they'd found but which didn't merit the inclusion on their Valuables list.
"Thanks," I hurried to change into my new clothes: a set comprising a leather jacket, pants, gloves and boots with 40% Durability still on them. It fit me well. Judging by their stats, the items didn't have any bonuses but they did raise my Protection to 12 pt. Excellent for starting out!
"Suits you," with another good-humored smile, Togien made some mental calculations. "Thanks don't fill a purse though. We'll subtract the kit's price from your share. Actually, the clothes weigh 12 pounds extra. But it's all right. Gwain will cast a few buffs on you. He needs the practice. Good for both of you."
As the two dwarves continued to sift through their finds, arguing over their potential value and sorting them into several piles, I decided to check out the trash. Lots of curious objects were lying around in the slush — mainly weapons and armor made of some alloy unknown to me. Despite being untouched by rust, their metal had grown dull and brittle.
I reached out for what looked like a decent helmet. It crumbled to dust at my touch. It must have suffered some magic attack.
Trash indeed.
Finally, I had my eye on a sword. Four empty stone slots gaped on its hilt. Its handguard was rather unusual for a sword, formed by several thin masterfully forged strips of metal that completely protected your fingers and the back of your hand. The grip was good. It might take some getting used to but I could already see the design's strongest point: striking it out of your hand wasn't going to be easy. The four empty slots must have been there for a reason. The double-edged blade wasn't too broad. If you took a good look at the fine layer of patina covering it, you could see faint symbols of some mysterious language underneath.

Item received: a Mysterious Sword
Damage: 5
Weight: 2,450
Durability: 15/500
Requires level 1 and 5 pt. Strength.
Class restrictions: none

"I can see you've made your choice?" Gwain glanced at the sword's stats. "Not enough damage. The durability is a bit low too."
"It doesn't weigh much," I argued.
"You're right there," he pointed at a heap of small objects — mainly precious stones and all sorts of weird-looking artifacts. I wouldn't know what to do with them. "Load up. I'm gonna cast two buffs on you: one for Stamina, the other for Strength. Ten minutes both."
"How did you find this cave?" I asked, distributing the items between the slots of the capacious bag they'd given me.
"A quest," Gwain replied brusquely. He raised his hands to cast the spell, apparently unwilling to go into detail. Pale blobs of light escaped the tips of his fingers. For a brief moment they enveloped me, filling me with strength.
"How much mana does it take?" I asked.
"One-third of a full charge. That's all right. I also have elixirs. By the time we get to the city I'll raise you a couple of levels. You'll see."
Who was I to argue?
I decided against equipping my new sword. I put it into my inventory and assigned a quick-access icon to it. Easier that way. I could still whip it out in no time but this way it was safe from prying eyes. Once we got to the city, I'd have to look it up. I'd love to know what kind of trophy I'd gotten. I might even restore its durability which in turn would improve damage. Besides, all those question marks admittedly intrigued me.
"Ready?" Togien gave me a critical look but seemed pleased with the result. "Off we go, then!" he led the way into the tunnel, lighting his path with the torch. "Alexatis, try to keep up. If we come across any mobs, keep your head down. I'll do the tanking. Gwain will heal us."

* * *

Keeping up with them proved not that easy!
Ten minutes later I was already stumbling and falling behind. My physical energy reading was dwindling fast. The extra 25 lbs. of weight were taking their toll. The neuroimplant was adding its two cents, too.
Let me tell you: it had changed the entire gameplay radically. Before, my char could be exhausted and still I hadn't felt a thing. Now my legs shook and started to give under me.
"Gwain!" I called.
"I see," he grumbled. "You're a mana gobbler, you. Wait, I need to sift through the spells."
Being a mule was hard work. Still, I had to grin and bear. It was well worth it.
As we walked, I pondered over my situation.
My character's class was bound to attract attention and raise unwanted questions. Still, at the moment that was the least of my worries. I could always explain it away by having had to import my account from a different game world. However, no one should suspect anything about the mind-shattering authenticity levels I was experiencing. Otherwise I'd be a very easy target. Christa had already taught me this lesson.
So I might need to practice self-control. If the tiniest of wounds made me linger in battle, others were bound to notice it.
Finally Gwain found the spell he'd been looking for. This buff, on top of raising both strength and stamina, would also halve my physical energy losses.
"It took you some time," I walked faster, feeling the energy flow into me.
"My spell book's too thick," he replied, apparently proud of the fact.
"What, at level 12?"
"We're both from Middle Earth, aren't we? We had our accounts transferred from there. We lost our levels but kept all the rest. You have any idea how many scrolls I'd studied there? And this," he grinned, "this girl... do you know her?"
"You gotta cool it, man. You never know with them. Today she's a princess, tomorrow a demon. Just like in real life," he joked in a clumsy attempt to cheer me up.
Togien didn't join our conversation. Still, he kept his ears pricked.
"What prompted you to level Archeology? Aren't there any mines around here?" I asked simple-heartedly.
"There are, but they're either poor or you need to mop them up first," Gwain replied. "Local mobs have six hours' respawn time. If you do it with two people, there isn't enough time left to mine anything."
"I'm sure they'll fix it soon," Togien said confidently. "They'll be mopping mines up regularly. Then we can talk about resource farming on an industrial scale. First with small groups, but sooner or later big clans will muscle in. Familiar scheme."
"Don't you have clans already?"
"Small ones. They still keep close to cities and starting locations. The Crystal Sphere has incredible territories but its players still need to level up first. Level 45 was the biggest I've seen. And within a week's hike from Agrion you can already come across level-50 mobs. It's a young world, what do you want?"
His words took my breath away. I'd always dreamed of discovering virgin locations. I was so fed up with following in other guys' tracks, doing guidebook quests that had been completed a thousand times before me. I wanted to be a pioneer!

* * *

The long winding tunnel kept forking and branching off. It was riddled with deep crevices: some of them oozing water, others breathing subterranean heat, yet others sweeping you with chilly drafts, freezing you to the bone.
No idea how one could find his way here without a detailed map. Still, Togien strode along without hesitation, taking confident turns every time the tunnel forked.
The two dwarves definitely enjoyed the underground trip. I, however, felt utterly out of my depth.
As if reading my mind, Gwain who walked behind me decided to cheer me up, "It's all right, man. Soon we'll come to the city sewage-" he cut himself short as he stumbled into me, nearly knocking me off my feet.
"Alexatis, what's wrong with you?" he exclaimed. "Keep going!"
I didn't reply. I had a very bad feeling. A whiff of icy cold touched my heart. My breathing seized.
I couldn't keep it to myself. "Togien, wait!"
He turned round. "What is it?"
"You can't go further!"
"Why not?"
"I have a bad feeling about it. Don't laugh! It's true!"
"What's that, an ability you have or something?" Togien asked, hiding a smile. "Or are you pulling my leg? You can't have any abilities, can you? Not at level 1! We still have some walking to do before we can stop for a break," he added sternly.
A shadow darted behind his back. Two swords slashed through his knee ligaments in a treacherous combo. With a yelp, he dropped his battle hammer and slumped to the floor.

Three rogues materialized out of the shadows. Players, levels 16 to 20.
Wheezing, Togien tried to get back to his feet but couldn't. I could clearly see a debuff icon in his tag: both swords were poisoned.
"Finish him off, Mouk! Otherwise we can't collect the loot."
"No, wait. I want to bleed him first. I need some blood for my Alchemy," one of the rogues produced a vial and bent down, filling it with Togien's blood. The other two moved toward me. The tunnel was too narrow, so for the moment they couldn't get to Gwain yet.
Why hadn't he run off while he'd still had the chance? Rogues were good at ambushing you or assaulting you from the back, but there was no way they could catch up with a dwarf in an underground maze.
"So?" one of the players came closer, playing with his swords. His name tag was recognizably bright red. "Whatcha you gonna do, newb? Will you give us your bag or would you rather we send you to your respawn point?"
The red name tag with a skull icon on it meant he was a PK: a Player Killer. Any city guard's duty was to smoke him on the spot.
"You aren't gonna kill me," I continued to block his way in the hope that Gwain — judging by the bustling sounds behind my back — would finally see his chance and flee.
"Why not?"
"Can't you see my level? This is noob hunting. Go ahead, then. Your PK counter won't like it. This time you won't get off lightly. This won't be a community-work sentence, man."
"Quit being smart," he snapped. Still, he seemed to realize the consequences. At the moment, he was already denied access to the city for the ungrounded murders of other players. But if he as much as touched me, the punishment would be much more severe, stripping him of most of his stats.
"In that case, get out of my way! Hey dwarf, quit hiding behind the newb! We're gonna get you, anyway!"
"Alexatis, step aside please," Gwain said behind my back, his voice quiet but intense. Was it my imagination or had I heard an empty mana vial clatter to the ground? What was he up to? He couldn't possibly take on three rogues way above his level.
Suddenly Gwain shoved me against the wall. He'd stuck the torch into a crevice in the rock. The hood of his gray cloak covered his head. He'd put his weapons out of sight.
"Give us your bag, monk," said the one called Heilig (I automatically added his name to my KOS list) as he resumed playing with his swords. 'The newb is right. My PK counter doesn't need exercise. This way I can stash away the loot, give myself up to the guards, work a couple days in the stables and start it over with a clean slate."
"You're absolutely right," Gwain mumbled, looking perfectly harmless in his baggy cassock. "Here you are, Sir, take it," he pulled out a fat bag out of his inventory. "Just please don't hurt my uncle. I'm gonna give you his bag, too."
On hearing that, the rogues obediently let him go past the gang's leader. Once he found himself between the three hoods, he bent his back in a deep bow, spreading his arms wide. "Peace be with you..."
A dazzling shimmer enveloped his hands. A blinding light came out of his eyes. A warm healing wave washed over me (because I was neutral to Gwain).
Not so for the PKs! The aura of a blanket debuff turned all three to stone. The one busy collecting blood thumped to the ground, collapsing to one side. The other two stayed on their feet, paralyzed.
Gwain slumped down the wall. Blood soaked his clothes.
"Shitheads!" Togien's roar echoed through the tunnel. He was healed completely. Grabbing his hammer, he took a swing — which was stopped by Gwain's weak outcry,
"You can't finish them off! You know that, don't you?"
Gasping, Togien tried to overcome his fury. "You're right.' He turned to me, "Alexatis, help me, quick!"
"What do you want me to do?"
"Check his bag! Look for a vial with some purple liquid!"
"This one?"
"Yes! Give it here! I'll unclench his teeth and you pour it down his throat! Like this! Good!"
Gwain groaned, stirring weakly. His Life bar began to grow.
Having made sure that he was okay, I motioned Togien to step aside so that the paralyzed rogues couldn't overhear us.
"Was that a Humble Bow?" I asked.
The dwarf frowned, looking at me unkindly from under his bushy eyebrows. I could understand him. It looked like this account transfer had just played a bad joke with the Crystal Sphere admins.
"How do you know about the Bow?"
"I played in Middle Earth. From what I heard, you couldn't get this ability for love nor money. You have to complete a quest chain issued by the Higher Priests without killing a single mob. That's how they teach Meekness to any potential candidate. Am I right?"
"You should keep your mouth shut about that," Togien said anxiously. "It took Gwain a year to complete it. That's why he lagged behind me level-wise. If anyone hears about his imported ability..."
"You shouldn't worry about me. You'd better worry about these PKs here. They will talk, trust me. You should have given them the bags, really. It was stupid of Gwain to expose himself like that."
"Wait a sec," Togien crouched by the wall, laid his hammer on his lap and logged out. Nothing seemed to have changed. His hands still clutched the weapon's handle. His gaze, however, had become empty and lifeless.
Gwain had already come round. Still, he didn't seem too eager to talk, apparently realizing he'd screwed up.
Now is a good moment to say a few things about that magic ability of his.
When activated, the Humble Bow sucks the life out of the monk who cast it, leaving only 1% — just like the Bleed debuff does — and heals all neutral and friendly characters while paralyzing all enemies within 150 feet for 10 hours with a Stone Curse. Cooldown: 10 days.
Nothing special, you might say? What is so unusual about being able to heal your friends and simultaneously paralyze your enemies once in ten days? Still, the Humble Bow has one truly unique factor. It affects all players regardless of their levels.
Now imagine two clans fighting for a new territory, fortress or resource. The battle reaches a critical point; you give it your all, throwing all available forces into the strife; your wizards are out of mana, your warriors barely standing on their feet, and the enemy's high level players are hacking their way through your ranks, about to storm your casters' positions.
At this moment, a humble monk stands in the attackers' way and bends his back in a deep bow. "Peace be with you..."
A blinding light blankets the battlefield.
The monk drops dead. And all around him, your exhausted clanmates arise to their feet and pick up their arms while your enemies freeze like a sea of statues. And nothing can change that!
In all honesty, I didn't envy Gwain at the moment. His unique ability had evaded the Crystal Sphere admins during his account transfer, putting him in constant danger. In this young world troubled by its first turf wars, he wouldn't be able to preserve his neutrality and enjoy undisturbed gameplay. The moment the word got out, everyone would start applying pressure to him, desperate to get a fighter like him into their ranks.
But whoever he joined, others weren't going to stop. They might try to bribe him or simply make his virtual life unbearable. Gwain would lose his freedom, turning into the closely guarded property of a group of influential top-level clan members. If his goal was to make money playing, he would sure do that. Still, I had a funny feeling he was in it for the thrill, just like myself. Gwain craved adventure, not a hedonistic excuse for an existence in some classified citadel vault.
Togien stirred, coming round, and let out a deep breath. "I found it. All three are paying players. They couldn't have played in Middle Earth. They're about seventeen in real life."
"How did you find that out?"
"I paid. There's this online dealer, Arbido."
The recent memory smarted. "I know him. I once ordered some relic gauntlets from him. I needed a full set of armor to complete an instance and I had no time to get them myself."
"Arbido's quite correct. His intel is solid."
"You think these guys don't know about the Humble Bow? They won't be able to put two and two together?"
"I hope not. Middle Earth is closing soon, anyway. They're about to archive all the guides and forums. Just please not a word to anyone. Otherwise others won't leave Gwain alone."
"Sure. I understand that."
"I hope you do. We can be grateful, you know."

Togien has invited you to join his group!

Shit. That was the last thing I needed.
"Hey, Alexatis, what's up? What's there to think about?" he sounded sincerely amazed. "I sent you an invitation, man! We could rush you up to level 5 or even more, how about it? Or are you too conscientious to accept? All right, let us take you to the city, it's a safe zone with newb locations, social quests and whatnot. Do you seriously fancy genociding frogs in the city pond? Or catching rats in the barn? I don't think so."
He didn't understand anything, did he? His sincere surprise was about to give way to quite understandable suspicion. Problem was, genociding frogs in some slimy pond was the exact thing I needed. It was all because of this neuroimplant I had. I'd no idea what kind of surprises the "hundred percent authenticity" might have in store for me. Small creatures would suit me perfectly well at the moment, allowing me to gingerly feel out my pain threshold and other intricacies of a new combat strategy I still had to work out. And if I joined the group, the dwarves might easily smoke a dozen mobs, rushing me through the first five or six levels (because I'll be receiving my share of XP as a group member). This was gameplay. And once I finally made it to the hypothetical pond, I might be faced not with a harmless frog but with some giant sharp-toothed predator toad.
Still, if I ignored the invitation, Togien might take offence. He might even become suspicious. Normally, no one refuses this kind of offer.
I couldn't help it. It looked like I'd have to play hard. I joined the group and added both dwarves to my friend list.
Togien visibly relaxed. He'd probably already had all sorts of ideas about me.
"Thanks," I said calmly. "What do we do with these guys?"
"Just leave them here. We can't finish them off. If we do, Gwain might lose the ability."
"What, you want them to walk away?"
"Oh no, they won't! They'll get their just desserts, trust me! Come on, let's go now. The city isn't very far."

* * *

The first hour of my new life had elapsed.
The tunnel continued downhill, its interior getting more and more interesting with every turn. Its offshoots were now blocked with massive chunks of stone covered in complex script. I didn't recognize the language. These must have been dungeon entrances.
After our encounter with the rogues, Gwain had clammed up. He hadn't said a word yet.
"One thing I don't understand," Togien said, leading the way, "is how the hell those idiots got here?"
He seemed to be angry with himself, blaming himself for failing to notice the ambush in time.
It was getting considerably warmer. A hot, dry air wafted into my face. The cracks in the tunnel's uneven floor — apparently formed during the recent earthquake — glowed crimson. From time to time, we came across wide fissures which we had to leap across. I looked down one of them and discovered another level below, streaked with slowly flowing lava and studded with the ruins of underground cities. The sight of shadows flitting amid them made your blood freeze.
I shouldn't have worried about Christa. This place was perfect for a demon. Me, I still had some walking to do before I reached safe starting locations.
Mechanically I made screenshots of the dungeons below. This kind of info might come in handy one day.
The exorbitant realism of the experience was beginning to grate on my nerves. It was also causing me considerable discomfort. I'd never had to worry about the size of my gear before — but now that had all changed. The tunnel was so hot I was dripping with sweat. The leather armor was chafing against my body. I should have kept the shirt on. And the bag felt like it weighed a ton.
"Gwain?" Togien said. "What's up, man? Are you asleep or something?"
"Why, is it time already?" the monk said with a start.
"Ten seconds left."
"Sorry, guys. I was away with the fairies," he cast another spell on me, restoring my energy.
"I think the rogues had followed us all the way from the city," Togien mumbled. "They'd been stealthing along, listening in. They knew we'd be back with plenty of loot."
I broke into a cold sweat. The sensation of being watched returned, as if the walls themselves kept an eye on my progress. The feeling washed over me, then disappeared, leaving an itch between my shoulder blades. I must have left the danger behind me.
I celebrated too early. Something touched my face — something light as a feather, gentle and inviting.
With every step I took, this tender, caressing feeling grew stronger. Considering the setting, I had reasons to believe it was fake. What would a friendly creature be doing in subterranean dungeons?
The darkness oozed whispers.
I couldn't make out the words yet. The dwarves didn't seem to notice it. Togien's stocky figure was hovering next to a cave mouth up ahead, illuminated by the flashes of lightning from his charmed hammer.
Should I trust my suddenly acute intuition? And how was I supposed to react to this? Unlike the freezing cold that had assaulted me just before we'd met the rogues, this gentle touch felt good.
"Come here," the darkness whispered. "Come to us..."
"Togien, don't move!"
This time he obeyed instantly and froze, peering into the darkness. "What now?" he asked without turning to me.
"Can you hear whispers?"
"No. All I can hear is the crackling of the rock. And the earth rumbling below," he added.
"Stay where you are!" My gaming experience kicked in. I might be level 1 but I couldn't make newb mistakes.
A taut wave of energy emerged from the cave, filling me with strength.

The Call of the Depths is summoning you

Togien hadn't sensed that, either. Gwain, however, exclaimed in surprise,
"Alex, someone's just cast a buff on you! You've got +10 to Strength for 60 seconds!"
"I shouldn't be so sure. There's something wrong here," I said, reading the system messages. "This is called the Call of the Depths! Heard anything about it?"
Gwain startled. "Shit! It's either a dark caster or an obelisk! Togien, stay away from that cave! We need to check it first!"
"If you say so," Togien shifted his combat stance: now he was holding a shield as well as the hammer. "I need more aggro!"
Gwain raised his hand and drew a golden symbol in the air.
Their plan was simple. The spell increased the level of danger generated by Togien until one of the little monsters sensed it.
I was right. A mob popped out of the cave.

An Imp. Level 3. Mine Digger

The creature was short and ugly, with a large head, pointy ears and a scrawny body covered with wrinkly red skin. He clutched a pick in one hand and a deformed bucket filled with pieces of ore in the other.
On seeing us, the imp froze bug-eyed and open-mouthed, about to scream an alarm.
No chance. Togien reacted promptly, his battle hammer squashing the little bastard into the ground.
Gwain drew another symbol in the air. I watched the unfolding scene without proffering any unwanted advice.
A fine veil enveloped Togien's body. Thus protected, he took a peek into the cave. Immediately he shrank back, forwarding us the resulting screenshots.
The cave's deep mouth was dimly lit by an unsteady, uneven light. A dark obelisk towered atop a small pedestal formed by runs of solidified lava. It was this that was emitting the gentle whispers, soft touches and the Strength-enhancing buffs.
All around it, emaciated figures stooped in small mining shafts: the creatures of many races who had succumbed to the obelisk's charms, becoming forever bound to this place and doomed to mine ore for the powers of Darkness.
Imps scurried among them. I peered at their tags. Those closer to the entrance were workers. Further on, lurking behind the rocks and waves of solidified lava, were imp warriors.
But that wasn't the worst of it. If you peered through the crimson gloom, you could make out the larger outlines of some much more dangerous spawn of the dark.
"Where did they all come from?" Togien sounded puzzled. "We took this very road not two hours ago! There was nobody here!"
"The earthquake?" I suggested.
"Could be. The imps must have crawled out through the cracks in the ground. Even the Dark side needs resources."
"But the obelisk? Surely they don't lug it around with them?" I asked.
"They don't. Ever heard about form and substance? What you see now is the form," Gwain began to explain. "But it's the substance that matters. Inside the obelisk lives a spirit which controls the prisoners. As soon as this place is depleted, the imps will use a special spell to set him free while the prisoners move to another cave. There they'll trap the spirit in another slab of rock to create a new obelisk."
Gwain's eyes glistened with an almost insane glow. What was it with him?
"Can some of them be players?" I asked.
Gwain shrugged. Apparently, he wasn't that interested in the prisoners' fate. It was something else.
"Some may be," he finally replied. "Normally, you can't keep a player prisoner for longer than twenty-four hours. It's against the rules. No one likes wasting time obeying orders. They try to mine as much ore as they can in order to exhaust themselves and then go on to their resurrection point."
"How about their gear?"
"It stays here."
"Do you mind if I ask you why Togien and you don't seem to be affected by the obelisk?"
"Our levels are higher than the spirit's. He can only control those weaker than himself. But over time, his powers will grow."
Togien too looked strangely agitated. He exchanged meaningful glances with his nephew, then turned to me. "Alexatis, I'm gonna ask you to keep quiet about this cave. You shouldn't show your map to anyone. Agreed? We might throw in a few more gold for you for the trouble."
"Why, what's up?"
I could see Togien didn't really want to tell me. Still, he must have failed to come up with a believable excuse because he said,
"Thing is, you know... sooner or later the imps will leave and take the spirit with them. But the rock he's trapped in now, it will stay where it is."
"Is it worth something?"
"It's Smoky Rock. Transformed matter. Obelisk fragments can be sold for a hundred gold apiece, depending on their size. Only a master miner can farm them. But you still need to know which rock the spirit used to inhabit. Because once he's out, the rock will look like any other, you understand?"
"Yeah. I won't tell anyone. I promise."
He seemed to be greatly relieved to hear that.
"You'd better tell me," I went on, "this transformed matter, what's it good for?"
"Alchemists need the dust and the chippings," Gwain replied eagerly. "Smaller fragments can be used to decorate weapons and armor with. Large ones are used to make stat-enhancing runes. There's also crystal armor, very rare. To make it, you need to be a Grand Master — and not in Blacksmithing as you'd think but in Jewelry."
I made a mental note to look into it. "Does that mean we can't go further?"
He shook his head. "Unfortunately not. Gwain and I might have battled through on our own. But not with you, we can't. You need to understand. The weakest imp will smoke you before you know it."
His bad mood was in fact perfectly understandable. The most valuable albeit lightweight part of their loot was in my bag.
"What other options are there?" I asked. "Any Plan B? Any teleports stashed nearby?"
To my disappointment, Togien shook his head. "Teleports! We're less than an hour's walk from the city. Nobody knows about this tunnel, believe it or not. Gwain and I happened to discover a piece of an old map. We couldn't read it so we took it to a local antique dealer. Imagine when instead of buying it he produced the missing part of the map from a box — and on it was the part where the tunnel was marked. Next thing we knew, he issued us a quest to get to the old tomb and bring him any ten items made of cargonite — which is a very rare alloy. The secret of its manufacture is long lost."
So that's what was in their overstuffed inventories!
"Who could have known we'd have an earthquake? Imps are nasty little bastards. The moment there's a crevice in the ground, they pour right out there and then!"
"And how did the rogues get here?" I said, unwittingly touching a sore spot.
"They must have stealthed up to us," Togien gave his nephew the evil eye. "This is what happens when you discuss your plans in a tavern and lay the map on the table for everyone to see!"
"If you hadn't skimped on the room, I wouldn't have had to do so!" Gwain snapped back.
"Enough! Stop aggroing each other!" I shouted.
Both turned to me. "Who do you think you are?"
Shit. I kept forgetting about my level 1. Not a healthy idea arguing with higher-level guys. Still, it was a question of survival. The dwarves had no idea I'd be literally risking my life battling through hordes of imps. How would the neuroimplant react? Would I survive the pain of my injuries? I'd been planning to find that out slowly and gingerly — definitely not by combatting a host of mobs whose levels were five times my own!
Still, I didn't lower my gaze under their glares. "Now. We have two options. Option one is to go back. The frozen torrents of ice in the cave where we first met are there for a reason. It means the water was coming from somewhere. We need to have a good look. There might be some crevice there that might take us up to the surface."
"Waste of time," Togien rejected my suggestion straight off. "By the time we go there and come back, the rogues will recover."
"In that case, option number two. We need to lure the mobs into the tunnel. I want you to rush me a couple of levels, then we might be able to fight our way through."
Judging by Togien's silent sniffing, he liked it.
They had no idea that for me this meant mortal combat — literally.

* * *

"Group of five!" gasping, Togien ran out of the cave and swung round, holding a shield in front of himself.
The imps scurried out along the cave's wall and ceiling. Clever bastards! Three level 5 workers and a couple of warriors. So many! That was one hell of a pull. I had a funny feeling there might be more coming.
One of them lobbed his tin bucket into Gwain's face. The monk ducked just in time. Others attacked Togien. The tunnel was too narrow for all of them to get a good foothold. The warriors began slashing at Togien's shield with their heavy scimitars. They were slightly taller than imp workers: about four foot or so. They fought with abandon — why wouldn't they, considering they received a constant flow of buffs from the obelisk.
The three workers hung overhead like bats, clutching onto the tunnel walls and low ceiling, and kept hacking at Togien's helmet with their picks. Still, they did little damage to his armor's durability considering the level gap.
Togien stayed put, receiving virtually no damage and waiting for his opponents to run out of steam, but the obelisk kept recharging them time after time. We should have retreated further down the tunnel.
Strange things were happening to me. I could still hear the tempting whispers and feel the touch of energy, continuing to receive the buffs to Strength. Still, the call didn't seem to affect my mind. Actually, yes, it did. For a brief moment I experienced a strong desire to pick up the deformed tin bucket and hurry into the cave as if mining ore was my sole purpose in life. The urge disappeared as fast as it had come, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
Realizing his mistake, Togien changed tactics and slammed his attackers with his shield, knocking them out. They recoiled, shaking their heads, finally allowing him to launch an offensive. His axe whooshed through the air, stripping two of the workers of their lives. He then finished off the two warriors with a few slashing blows.
"Go easy on mana," he said, addressing Gwain. "I'm okay for the moment."

You've received a new level!

A golden shimmer enveloped me.
"Quit stallin'," Gwain gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder. "Let's retreat a little bit. That way the obelisk can't buff the mobs."
So far, so good. I'd gotten a new level. A couple more, and I'd be able to smoke imp workers. That way I'd be less of a liability.
'Any loot?" I cast a meaningful stare at the fallen mobs.
"Sorry Alex, our inventories are packed," Togien said, choosing a place for any new combat.
"I'll just take a look," I said, picking up a scimitar.

Damage, 5
Weight, 5.5
Durability, 7/10
Requires level 3, 10 Strength, 5 Agility

This was classical trash: a low damage weapon, heavy and cumbersome. What about this one?

A Spiked Round Shield
Defense, 4
Weight, 4.5
Durability, 5/10
Requires level 3
+5% to your chances to deal damage while parrying.

I had to take it, no doubt about it. You didn't need a shield to parry — it was a default stat every weapon had. Still, in my situation it was useful. Considering the local authenticity levels, it would be stupid to rely on my leather armor alone. Pain was pain.
"Alexatis! Where the heck are you?"
"I need your help. Can you feel the obelisk's call?"
"Think you can define its range?"
I complied. We had to walk back a good fifty feet, all the way round the bend, before fatigue overcame me. My Strength had dropped to its old reading.
"It takes us too long!" Gwain kept casting anxious glances behind us.
My sentiment entirely. As we'd walked back, we'd come across quite a few crevices formed by the unexpected earthquake. I had a sneaky suspicion that imps hadn't been the only creatures of the Dark who'd escaped them.

* * *

"Next group!" Togien sprang out of a bend in the tunnel and swung round, covering himself with his shield.
This time he'd only brought two imp workers. He made quick work of them, then assumed a combat stance. "Get ready!"
Demons! Two of them! Both level 18!
From what I'd heard, imps were nasty greedy creatures standing on the lowest rung of Infernal evolution.
I should have known they were too primitive to control the spirit imprisoned within the obelisk. They weren't the bosses here!
"Behind you!"
I swung round to Gwain's voice. He was right. The ethereal shadow of a lich draped in flowing tatters of clothing peeled off the wall.
Immediately it materialized, its tattered rags a cloak thrown over a rusty suit of armor. The eyeslits of his helmet oozed gloom.

Ancient Lich. Level 3

He didn't attack me. Instead, he raised a bony arm, mouthing a spell. I could hear his blood-curdling whisper, his fingers enveloped in a faint aura.
I had to disrupt the spell!

Mysterious Sword: equipped

This was my mnemonic interface's knee-jerk reaction which gave me a chance to deal a sudden crit.
The sword weighed my hand down. In a lightning motion, I chopped the lich's hand off and shrank back, trying in vain to escape his response attack.
His scream assaulted my eardrums. An invisible force punched my chest, throwing me hard against the rock wall. My vision darkened. My throat seized up.
Gwain came to my rescue. I knew that monks were expert hand-to-hand fighters but I was yet to see one in action. Even now I wasn't able to see it clearly as the tunnel swam before my eyes.
The aura of his blessing removed the Lich's curses from me. The next thing I heard was the clatter of bones and the clanking of rusty steel as the lich collapsed in a heap under Gwain's devastating assault.
"You freakin' nuts?" Gwain snapped at me, hurrying to return to his position. "You can't do this on your own! Always call us when you need us!"
Very nice. Thanks a bunch, Mr. Borisov. Your idea of an alternative start sucks, if you want to know. Talk about sink or swim. Why did they need to do it?
The demons were pressing upon Togien. He assumed a defensive stance, struggling to fight back against two opponents at once. Parrying with his sword, he was looking for the right moment to counterattack. Gwain kept healing him but still our little group definitely missed a warrior who could deal the damage while Togien was pulling the aggro to himself.
I couldn't help them with that, not yet. Not against level 18 mobs. My hits were little less than mosquito bites for them.
Once I came round a little, I hurried toward the slain lich. Something glinted weakly in the heap of bones and crumbling armor, like a precious stone. It turned out to be the knob of a staff hidden under the lich's tattered cloak.
I grabbed it and checked its stats,

Lethal Wound Staff
Crushing Damage, 5
Dark Magic Damage, 5. Effect: Bleeding, 5 sec
Durability, 9/10
Charges left, 12
Requires: level 2, Intellect 10
Restrictions: Only the undead

Pretty useless for me, wasn't it? I was about to throw it back when my fingers clenched in a spasm. What was that now? I had nothing to do with Dark powers!
My hands were shaking. I tried to fling the staff away from me but I couldn't. My body began to prickle. It felt as if I was the attracting center of some dark, viscous energies flowing toward me from every direction.
One of the demons pushed himself away from Togien's shield, finalizing an attack. The creature clung to the ceiling, growling and emitting an unbearable stench. Then he lunged at me.
Instinctively I raised my hands, trying to block him. I failed to stay on my feet. Still, the demon wasn't interested in me. He grabbed the staff and pulled it out of my hand. His jaws closed around it until it snapped.
A silent crimson flash enveloped the demon. I scampered into the opposite corner, unable to get to my feet or take my eyes away from the scene.
Brown goo gushed from under the demon's armor. He whimpered and collapsed to one side.
My dwarven friends didn't waste time. A cleansing aura flashed in the dark, consuming it, as Gwain used yet another one of his abilities. Togien performed a clever combo, stripping the other demon of 30% Life, then attacked him again before he could recover from it. Another scream echoed from the rocky walls, then it was quiet.
I struggled to my feet, disgustedly rubbing my clothes clean from the droplets of nasty goo that had showered everything around.
Experience in our group was distributed equally. The two mobs killed by Togien (who'd also finished off the demon that had snapped the staff with his jaws) had brought me up to level 4. I ignored the system messages for the time being. I had more important things to do.
"You fucking nuts?" Gwain yelled at me, bug-eyed. "You should know better! What possessed you to pick up the staff?"
"Why not?"
"What's your resistance to magic?"
"Point five percent."
"So? Use your head! It's charged with Dark energy! If you held it for a bit longer, you'd be a fucking zombie by now!"
I didn't reply. I may be an experienced player but I hadn't been allowed the time to look into this new game world. Besides, Gwain wasn't exactly right. This wasn't how it had happened. Firstly, for some unknown reason I'd managed to aggro the demon. Secondly, it didn't look as if it could transform me. The obelisk, too, had been buffing me with Dark energy, but it had failed to control me. Which meant I must have had some resistance to magic — but for some reason, I couldn't see it in my settings.
"Stop it," Togien said sharply. "We'd better think how we're going to get out of here. It looks like we're stuck, doesn't it? If there're demons in the cave, it now makes it an instance. And I don't think we're strong enough to tackle it."
"An instance!" Gwain fumed. "Since when? Two hours ago there was nothing here! We walked through, then the rogues stole after us!"
"An upgrade, maybe?" I offered.
"Possible. It doesn't help us, anyway," Togien grumbled. I told you we should have bought a teleport scroll, didn't I?"
The two were about to have a go at each other again. I had to do something.
"You two are dwarves, aren't you?" I said. "You're second to none when it comes to mining and metalwork. Don't you have some cunning ability that might help us get out?"
Togien stared at me. "You're right!" he slapped his forehead. "Well done! That's smart! The Rescue scroll! I should have thought of it!"
"The Rescue scroll? Never heard of it."
"That's because you've never worked in the mines," Gwain replied. "Miners get buried alive in rockfalls an awful lot. No one wants to hack through the rock for weeks just to get out."
"Will it work? I don't have Mining open yet."
"Doesn't matter. The scroll works for the entire group. The only problem is, we're not buried alive yet."
Togien chuckled. He laid his weapon down and reached for his pick. Then he pointed at a small crevice that branched several feet away from the main tunnel, ending in a dead end.
"Try to get in as far as you can," he said, beaming, apparently pleased as Punch with the solution.
Gwain and I squeezed our way deep into the narrow opening.
Togien took aim, then began hacking at the tunnel wall, puffing and panting. Small rocks showered down. A large crack ran across the wall; then part of the tunnel ceiling collapsed, breaking into large chunks of stone.
"Togien!" Gwain looked seriously worried.
"I'm all right. Light the torch, will you?"
A shaky uneven light illuminated the small space around us. The entrance to the crevice had been blocked solid.
Togien broke the seal on the scroll, opened it and recited a short spell.
The ground rumbled and shook. An invisible force lifted me and jerked me upward.

* * *

The sky was aglow with a fiery sunset.
Peaceful countryside lay all around us. A patrol of three level-100 guards walked unhurriedly along the mud road.
After the stuffy darkness of the tunnel, I felt dizzy. We were sitting by the roadside, gasping. Ignoring us, the patrol sashayed past us toward where the far-off city walls and towers peeped above the horizon.
My Strength buff was still working but I was completely exhausted. It must have had something to do with the fact that this was the neuroimplant's first activation. I might not last very long now before I collapsed with fatigue.
"That's it. Let's move it," the hardy Togien was ready to get going.
"Sorry guys," I said. "I'm afraid I need to log out, now."
"Oh do you? And who's gonna carry your bag to town?"
I scrambled to my feet in the hope I might feel better. As if! If anything, I felt worse. "Sorry. I really need to go. Can't you do anything at all about it?"
"And what are you gonna do with your char, leave him here by the roadside?"
"Is there an inn in this village?"
"As a matter of fact, there is," Togien grumbled. "Ah, fuck it. We'll hire a horse and load it up. We'll give you an advance of five gold. The rest we'll transfer to your account after we close the quest and sell the loot."
"Fine. Thanks. You should deduct the horse hire from my cut."
"We will, don't worry!" Togien swung round and strode toward the village which was only a few hundred feet away. Gwain and I plodded along.
"You shouldn't have touched that staff, man," Gwain misunderstood the reason for my sorry state. "The powers of the Dark never sleep."
I could barely hear him. I'd passed my first trial. I'd earned myself four levels and had lots of new experiences. I'd found new friends and made new enemies.
The only thing I wanted now was get to the inn, rent a room and collapse onto the bed.

Chapter Three

The Chrystal Sphere
The village of Hinterwood in the vicinity of Agrion City

A COOL BREEZE rich with the scent of freshly-cut grass burst into the half-open window of my room, awakening me.
A system message flashed before my closed eyes,

You're well-rested.
Effect: Vigor. +2% to XP received. -2% to both Mental and Physical Energy consumption. Duration: 6 hrs.

Indeed, I felt great. Nothing like last night.
I threw the covers back and climbed out of bed. Having washed my face, I walked over to the window. The world outside was still consumed by the early morning twilight. The inn stood at the crossroads outside the city walls surrounded by fields, gardens, meadows and copses of trees.
I was feeling so good. No idea how my mortal body was doing back IRL, but I could safely say I still needed sleep here. Before, I could rarely afford enough rest and struggled to find a few uninterrupted hours of sleep every day. This world made it so much easier. I didn't have to wake up at insane hours to rush to work, oh no. This new life was calling my name. I could finally breathe. New plans, the one grander than the next, were crowding my head.
I was well and truly free. I could go wherever I wanted. I could roam the boundless lands of the Crystal Sphere in order to battle monsters and complete quests. Alternatively, I could settle in a small town, learn a profitable profession and live a happy life.
I'll be honest with you: I'd never even dreamed of anything like it. The neuroimplant made it possible for me to simply swap one world for the other, effacing their boundaries.
That morning, I really believed that all my trials and tribulations were finally over.
My heart beat an uneven rhythm within my chest. My breathing hastened. As I stood there by the window watching the dawn break and sensing the adrenaline pumping through my body, I felt like a prisoner being released from the damp and cramped prison cell of his former life.
Calm down, Alexatis. It's all right to breathe — but not to gasp and choke!
You might find it hard to understand my emotional state. I have nothing to compare it with. For me, cyberspace used to be a temporary refuge where I could escape to for a few hours a day, if that. And now it was my rightful habitat, its incredible authenticity levels harboring a promise of a fulfilling and happy life.
Emotions were getting the better of me. Admittedly, I didn't feel like restraining them.
Someone knocked on the door: a soft, insistent knock.
"Who is it?"
"Alex? May I come in, please?"
I recognized the voice straight away. I didn't have time to say anything, though. The latch on the door turned against my will. The door creaked.
"How's it going? Feeling all right?" a wizard, his ancient back doubled up under the weight of his advanced years, stepped in, leaning heavily on his staff. Suddenly he stood up straight, shaking off the disguise. Mr. Borisov.
"Decided to check on you," he sat down on a stool. "I won't bother you often, don't worry. I just need to clear up a few things. You don't mind a bit of advice, do you?"
I didn't reply.
"As far as Christa is concerned... you shouldn't go around looking for her. You'll only make it harder on yourself," he mechanically crossed his legs.
"Why did you have to make her a demon?"
"Alexis, please. Use your head. Don't try to shift the blame. We're all born innocent angels. But what we grow into is a different question entirely. It depends on lots of factors. Christa made an informed decision. I don't think she'll be happy if you try to meddle and question it."
"But what if she made the wrong choice? What if she overreacted?"
"Time will tell," he said, then hurried to change the subject. "Do you realize now how important sleep is?"
"Yes," I replied calmly. I had neither the desire nor an excuse to antagonize him.
"Sleep is paramount. You need to make sure you don't get carried away playing. You should never deplete your resources. Your brain needs some down time. You might find it difficult at first because you can't log out here. Other players might begin to wonder about your 24/7 virtual presence. You need to keep that in mind."
"There're inns everywhere," I pointed out.
"Still, I suggest you get yourself a tent. It won't cost much. It won't take much place in your inventory, either. But at least it has some Protection stats and a buff to Good Rest. Lots of people use them when they can't leave their char in a safe zone. That would eliminate a lot of questions about your constant presence."
"Thanks. I'll look into it."
"You're not very happy to see me, are you? Why?"
"Nothing personal, Sir. I'm just a bit overwhelmed with it all. Too many things to take in. The authenticity is mind-blowing."
"Right," he said, returning to his wizard's disguise. Groaning, he scrambled back to his feet. "I'm not going to pester you too often, anyway. Enjoy. You've got some leveling to do. Just don't forget to take some proper rest and stay away from demons."
Stepping outside, he turned to me again. "Oh, and talking about leveling. Don't drag it out, okay? Pay special attention to the Neuro's development branch. It doesn't have an ability calculator yet so you need to use your own head. Bad times are coming. A lot will depend on your success. It's not about the Corporation's profits; it's not even about my own career as you might have imagined."
He handed me a scroll. "Only break the seal in the direst emergency when something goes very badly wrong and it doesn't belong in the gameplay. And one last thing. Try not to think about me. Your neurograms are being monitored."
With this he disappeared, leaving behind an aura of evasive suggestiveness and a yellowed scroll.
What had he been trying to imply? What could have gone "very badly wrong"? Why couldn't he just say?

* * *

This unexpected visit had puzzled me but not enough to dampen my good mood.
I walked downstairs to the inn's common room and headed for the bar. "I'd like to have breakfast and pay for another night."
"Three silver," the innkeeper said disinterestedly, wiping the dishes.
That was all right. He was only an NPC, his Relationship settings neutral by default. You had to complete a quest for him to earn as little as a smile.
I paid and took a table in the far corner. As I attacked my breakfast of oatmeal porridge — which tasted very good — I started thinking about what I should do next. Should I leave in order to seek adventures? Or should I learn a profession, maybe?
The first option sounded more interesting. I might buy myself a tent and check out the area, at least until I made level 10.
Having finished my breakfast, I walked back to the landlord. Earlier I'd noticed that the local shopkeeper's house was dark and shut up for the night, without a single light in its windows.
"Master Nicholas, why is the shop closed?"
"But that's because of this wretched wyvern, isn't it? She mauled Dimian — he's my son-in-law — just as he was coming back from town with new stock. So he's lying inside dying now. Our new healer, this bastard we took in, turned out to be a total quack! He couldn't heal Dimian so he just ran off like a thief in the night. I did tell our guys not to take him in, didn't I? They should have kicked him out straight away!"
This sounded like the makings of a quest. Low-level location NPCs are normally quite predictable. You should treat them politely and with respect, or they might jack up their prices or simply close their shop to you.
"What a shame," I said. "I'm very sorry. How come the patrols let the wyvern through?"
"They can't be everywhere, can they? Wyverns are a rare sight in this part of the world. Last time we saw one was a year ago. They don't nest here, you see. They prefer to live high in the mountains. Dimian was unlucky, that's all."
"And what about the wizards? Did you try them?"
"They're all away, just to please! What about you, my good man? You think you could help?"
"I'm not a healer," I said.
"You don't need to be," he leaned closer to me and whispered, "I have an old recipe. It's a potion, so strong it can bring anyone back to life. But it requires some very rare herbs. And fish bile. Me, I can't leave the inn. I could send the kids to get it, I suppose, only it's not safe. Last night the sky over the city was aglow with fires. And before that, we felt the earth shake. Apparently, demons have escaped from their underground dungeons. And early this morning, we saw wolves prowling right by the village gate. Huge ones. So do you think you could do it?"
This was a predicament. Of course I had to help — but on the other hand, neither Fishing nor Herbalism were on my priority list. You had to choose your secondary professions wisely and think about your future — something I as yet didn't know much of.
Unexpectedly, my implanted mind expander helped me out. Reacting to my thoughts with lightning speed, it conducted its own search and delivered the result, displaying it as a prompt in my mental view. Apparently, the Crystal Sphere had no restrictions regarding the number of secondary professions you could have. You could get the initial skill for free from most NPCs. Leveling it up, however, was entirely a question of your own application.

New Quest alert: First Aid
Quest type: Normal
Collect the ingredients necessary to make a healing potion.
Reward: Your Reputation with the inhabitants of Hinterwood will improve considerably. If you complete the quest before dark, the Innkeeper will share the potion recipe with you.

"I'd be happy to help," I said. "Only I've never farmed herbs before. I don't have any fishing experience, either."
"That's not a problem," the innkeeper dove into the back room and returned with a fishing rod, an old bucket, a backpack and an old knife. "Take this piece of bread, too. You should roll small balls of bread between your fingers, put them onto the hook, throw the hook in the water and wait. As soon as the float begins to jump, you should strike very quickly. Put some water in the bucket and place all the fishies you catch in there because I need them alive. Herbs are even easier. You take this knife and cut them about an inch above the root. Then you wrap them in a moist cloth so that they stay fresh and put them in your bag. Easy. Try to do it before sunset, okay? I've marked both the pond and the meadow on your map."

Congratulations! You've learned a new profession: Fishing.
Current level, 1
Congratulations! You've learned a new profession: Herbalism
Current level, 1

* * *

When I came to the pond, I discovered a girl wizard siting there, looking quite upset.
Oblivious to everything around her, she was perched on a hillock, sobbing and wiping her tears, casting occasional glances at a large toad which towered on a huge lily leaf about fifteen feet from the bank.
The sun was shining. A gentle breeze stroked my face. I was rested and well-fed. To me, the whole world answered my mood. Adventures were calling my name.
"Hi," I sent the fishing rod into the grass under a hazelnut tree and walked over to the pond, intending to fill my quest bucket.
"Hi," she replied with a sigh. "Do you see that toad over there? You'd better watch out. It can eat you alive."
"It's not saber-toothed, by any chance?" I asked cheerfully, submerging the bucket under the water.
"You kidding me?"
"Not at all. Why, you have problems with it?"
"You could say that. I lost my staff because of it. The wretched thing killed me twice!"
I checked out their local mob,

A Large Toad. Level, 7

Then I turned round to read the girl's name tag,

Enea. Level 7. Battle Wizard.

She must have read the amazement in my face because she admitted, "I just can't defeat it. It gets frogs to help it. They bite like hell," she heaved a sigh. "You try it! Go knee deep in the water and you'll see!"
Oh. This was a problem. I could get her staff back, of course. I could see it floating behind the lily leaf, its bejeweled knob glistening. The toad could use a lesson, too. But this wasn't the right thing to do. The girl needed real help, not having her kittens saved from the trees for her.
"Which spells do you use?" I asked.
'I use Ice Arrow. It doesn't work though. It removes 19 pt. Life, and the wretched thing has Regeneration of +20 HP."
"How did you manage to lose your staff?"
"I was out of mana. So I decided to hit the toad on the head."
"I see. Can you cast spells without it?"
"Sure. It takes longer though and uses more mana."
"It's all right. I like your ring."
She tensed up. "You're not getting it!"
"I don't need it, do I? Any stats on it?"
"Sure," Enea stood up tall. "+3 to Loveliness!"
I tried not to crack up. "How long have you been in the game?"
"A week."
Oh. Where do I even start? "All right. What debuffs do you have?"
Judging by her expression, she hadn't understood me. Hadn't she read the New Player's Guide? Not to even mention class guides.
"All right," I said. She merited help, or at least a word of advice. I used to be a newbie too. "A debuff produces a negative effect. A buff, positive. Can you remember that?"
"Then you should remember one other thing. If you want to level up, just memorizing a spell isn't enough. You can't just receive an ability: you need to know how it works. Can you see my level?"
"It's 4."
"And the toad is level 7. But let me tell you: if I really try, I might be able to kill it."
She took my word for it. "And what about me?" her voice rang with faint hope.
"Especially you! Now let's just think how we can do it. Give me the names of the spells you have."
"Ice Arrow."
"Ice. It's a blanket spell but it takes too much mana. I also tried Weakness, but it doesn't affect the toad," she heaved another sigh. "I have another ring, only it's ugly and rusty so I don't wear it. Also, some old woman gave me a scroll for a quest I'd completed. Still, I don't think it'll work. The toad summons frogs, you see. They jump out of the pond and bite me."
"Mind if I take a look at that other ring?"
The ring was awesome. +5 to Intellect! The scroll turned out to be great too — Magic Shackles, perfect for this toad quest. It reduced any enemy's Life by 50% of the mental energy they spent.
"I'd like you to put it on and watch your mana bar," I handed the plain ring back to her.
She obeyed. "My mana's growing!" she exclaimed in surprise.
"That's because your mana is directly related to your Intellect levels."
"Thanks. I'll remember that."
"Take a look at the toad. Can you see its mana bar which looks just like yours?"
"Your enemy spends energy too whenever they attack you or have to defend themselves. Whether this energy is physical or mental, depends on the mob. You should remember that. Try to use different combinations of the available spells and take every opportunity to improve your stats with buffs, jewelry and stat items. Is that clear?"
"Sort of."
Without betraying my impatience, I made her read the help pages for all the available spells. "How do you want to kill the toad?" I asked her gravely.
She gave it some thought. "I can cast Magic Shackles on it, can't I? Then I'll hit it with Ice Arrow. Then, when it begins to regenerate, it'll keep getting more damage from the debuff, right?"
"Exactly. But it can still summon the frogs."
"That's right," she lost heart again. "What can I do with them? Alexatis? Am I missing something again?"
"The sequence of spells is very important. First you need to cast Ice," I patiently explained. "I know, I know. It'll cost you all your mana but it's worth it. The spell keeps dealing damage time after time, slowing the frogs and preventing them from climbing ashore. Then you can use the scroll to cast Magic Shackles over the toad. In the meantime, your mental energy will restore somewhat. When some of the mobs do climb out, you need to cast Weakness over them, then finish them off with Ice Arrows. It would be good if you found a moment to cast Endurance on yourself: that way you'll have +20 to resistance to physical damage."
"I got it! I got it!" she stroked the rusty ring with respect. She'd definitely changed her opinion of it. "I'll try it now. Could you please stay and wait?"
"Okay," I perched myself on a hillock.
Enea took the upcoming combat in all seriousness. She spent some quality time choosing her position, estimating the distances. Her Ice was quite weak and only worked at a range of about six feet. Was she going to use it randomly?
Oh no, she wasn't. She was doing everything right. She came right up to the water edge. It wasn't easy for her without the staff, so she had to cast a complex spell which demanded quite a bit of time and concentration.
The toad basked in the sun. Suddenly it began to shriek as the lily leaf under it quickly covered with ice. The water around it solidified, glass-like. The toad failed to summon the frogs properly: some of them materialized within the layer of ice, others closer to the surface. All of them got some damage; a few popped their clogs on the spot.
Enea whipped out the scroll and broke the seal. Two new icons appeared in the toad's tag. One of them depicted a symbolic book of spells bound with chains, but the other... it looked like a regular healing spell but was nothing of the kind!
The Magic Shackles produced the desired effect. The toad screamed like a banshee. Together with Regeneration, it now also received incoming damage, only restoring 10 pt. Health.
In the meantime, the ice covering the lily leaf kept devouring the toad's HP, dealing occasional damage.
A new unsuccessful attempt at Regeneration followed. A furious roar echoed over the location. Someone might have thought these were two buffaloes fighting.
Two groups of low-level players ran out of the undergrowth, attracted by the commotion. They seemed to be leveling up by killing all sorts of insects.
I could hear their surprised voices. Someone was already posting to the chat, sharing their impressions and streaming a video of the scene.
In my opinion, this was nothing extraordinary, but local players seemed to be an impressionable lot. The ring with +3 to Loveliness must have played its role in it, too.
A portal popped open, disgorging a crowd of new onlookers. Apparently, some city wizard had put two and two together and decided to cash in on human curiosity.
At that moment, Ice finished working. With a loud cracking noise, the toad plopped into the water amid swirls of mist, baring its yellowed fangs and creating a powerful swell in its wake.
Enea was high on adrenaline. In the heat of combat, the excess of her life energy began transforming into mana. This must have been some class ability she had. Oblivious of her growing audience, the girl shrank away from the water's edge, drawing fiery runes in the air. Gusts of wind tore at her short tunic as she mouthed something. The toad received a nice whack from Ice Arrow. A half-dead frog who'd had the imprudence to get too close to the girl collapsed awkwardly on its side, its little legs convulsing: a promptly cast Weakness had worked like a dream!
Two more Ice Arrows exploded in a cascade of frozen slush, finishing off more frogs before they could get out of the water. The toad prepared to jump. It only had 10% Life left but that was enough to kill Enea. Well enough.
The onlookers quietened down. Even I began getting nervous. Still, my student hadn't failed her mentor. In a flash of runes and a clap of thunder, her mana dropped to zero but she did it, trapping the toad deep within a large cube of ice.
A golden shimmer enveloped Enea. She'd received a new level.
"Cool!" "Well done!" "Awesome!" the happy audience cheered.
Enea turned to the sound. Seeing the crowd surrounding her, she looked sincerely lost.
A huge crystal screen jingled open overhead, materializing high in the azure skies. A banner ran across it,

Video of the Day: Staffless Spell Casting!

The scene of the brief combat we'd just witnessed began unfolding on the screen.
The portal wizard was busy gulping mana by the vial. The simmering veil of the teleport parted, disgorging a group of bards. One of them — a dark-skinned bearded fiddler — was especially picturesque. His white smile seemed to have inspired the crowd, the sounds of a popular song leading everyone into the groove. Within seconds, the pond banks were rocking with an impromptu party.
The video in the sky was already over, replaced by the Screenshot of the Day. It depicted Enea enveloped in the golden shimmer next to the pond' boss: the giant toad trapped within the ice cube.
I was really happy for her. She'd done everything right and deserved her fifteen minutes of fame. But my own fishing trip... it looked like I'd have to delay it somewhat.

You've received an Achievement: Mentor of the Day!
Dear Alexatis, the Crystal Sphere administration is thankful to you for your efforts in promoting the game's principles. We're happy to inform you that we've just credited your account with the sum of 10 (ten) gold as a token of our gratitude.

That was really handy. I could use some startup capital.
"Alexatis, you're awesome! Thank you so much! Thank you!" Enea forced her way out of the crowd and fell upon my neck, screaming with excitement.
I froze. I could feel her heart beat through the fine fabric. The scent of her hair went to my head. Her hot breath burned my cheek.
Neuroimplant, what do you think you're doing to me?
Bringing myself back in check before I could do anything stupid (don't forget that Enea's authenticity settings were vastly inferior to mine) proved not that easy.
"I can't believe I was crying here only an hour ago, not knowing what to do," she laughed happily, oblivious to my state. "Will you stay here for a while?"
"I don't think so. Too much to do. I have a quest I have to complete till sunset."
"What a shame," she saddened. "Wait! Could we level up together? It's going to be awesome, what do you think? Please!"
I smiled. "You should check your email first. And the PM box. I'm sure you've already got lots of invitations."
"You think?" she momentarily zoned out, checking her inbox. "You're right! It'll take me a whole day just to read through them all!"
"So you see? Enjoy."
"You're going then, are you? Our party is too cool for you? Can't you just stay here and have some fun?"
"Sorry, I really do have too much to do. Would you like me to put you on my friend list?"
"Your friend list? Absolutely!"

* * *

Having bidden my goodbyes to her, I retrieved my bucket and fishing rod, walked to a safe distance from the impromptu party and crouched under a shady shrub, wiping sudden perspiration from my forehead.
The neuroimplant's feedback levels could use some fine-tuning, that's for sure. I'd nearly gone nuts with the hormone overload.
Now was a perfect time to smoke a couple of mobs.
I opened the map. Most of the area was still covered in the "fog of war", meaning I was yet to explore it. My route from Hinterwood to the pond was the only detailed part of it. The meadow overgrown with the herbs I needed was marked with a question mark and located in the woods nearby.
I switched to global mode. Now I could see a large plain veined with the fine lines of major roads, the outlines of two lakes and a large mountain range about a week's hike away. Besides Agrion, six more cities were scattered all over the continent. Beyond the mountains lay the sea dotted with islands and archipelagoes.
This was only a fraction of the Crystal Sphere. The map was shaped as an old parchment scroll, frayed and yellowed. The fine lines of roads and rivers disappeared within the creases and folds of time.
That much was clear. Those were the areas no one had yet been to.
Good. Enough sitting about. I determined the right direction and set up markers.
I walked unhurriedly, looking around me. It felt like I was on another planet. Never before had cyberspace triggered such an emotionally powerful reaction in me.
The neuroimplant made every twig feel real. I took in lungfuls of air, listening to the birds singing in the shrubs. The tall grass entangled my legs, hindering my movements.
This was a totally different gameplay. I'd have already been to the meadow and back, having smoked every mob in my way, and now I was tired, of all things! My crude and uncomfortable leather armor kept chafing against my body.
In the meantime, the sun had climbed high into the sky. It was getting quite hot. I was thirsty but I had no water on me. From now on, I'd have to be more provident about many things. The first days were bound to be the hardest; after that, I might get the hang of it.
Tree branches crackled, disrupting my thoughts and scaring up a small flock of birds. A rabbit sprang out of the undergrowth and froze, pricking up his ears. A bowstring sang; a clumsily loosed arrow thudded into the ground.
I heard the clanking of metal. Two players ran out of the undergrowth: a hunter and a warrior, both level 10.
"Did you see where he went?" a stifled voice came from behind the warrior's lowered visor. Jesus Christ almighty! The guy was wearing a full suit of steel armor, in this heat! If the game developers wanted to mass-produce their neuroimplant thingies, they had a lot to reconsider.
I pointed in the right direction.
"See ya!" clanking his armor, the warrior hurried after their runaway quarry. The hunter picked up his arrow on the run and followed suit.

* * *

It took me about an hour to get to the spot I'd marked on the map. I lay low in the undergrowth, studying the area.
Nut trees thrived in the shade of towering pines. It was relatively cool here. The air smelled of rotting old leaves.
The brightly sunlit clearing promised no surprises. I could easily discern the herbs I needed: covered in tiny white and yellow blossoms, they were quite conspicuous.
At the center of the opening lay the ruins of some ancient fortification overgrown with dog rose bushes. The air was filled with the chirping of a grasshopper and the rasping of wasps. High above, large dragonflies hovered in the sky.
I kept my eye on the mobs. The level 3 wasps looked like the most dangerous of the lot. Still, there weren't that many of them. I focused on the grasshopper: level 1. A dragonfly: level 2.
Very well, then! Let's do it!
The grasshopper aggroed me first, lunging at me unexpectedly from a considerable distance. He was the size of a large dog.
I'd already noticed back in the tunnels that my grip on my weapons was correct. That was exactly what a system message had warned me about,

The neuroimplant makes your skills and reactions identical in both worlds regardless of where you acquired them.

Now was the time to check it. The two years' worth of my experience as a warrior should have left their mark.
I dodged the grasshopper's first attack, then hacked at its chitin jaws with all my might. I wanted to somersault over it to perform the coup de grace, but my attempt failed miserably. Luckily, I hadn't broken my neck but I had hit my head against a tree stump nice and hard. I should have known that all my "warrior reactions" had been produced by the prompt manipulation of the game console buttons. Real combat acrobatics lay way beyond my past life's experience.
The mob took its chance and jumped onto my back, sinking its mandibles into my leather jacket.
It was a good job I was alone. I probably looked a sight. Still, I had no time to ponder over it. I finally shook the creature off my back and jumped to my feet, brandishing my sword. I was soaked in cold sweat. My hits were rare, none of them critical. It took me several minutes to finally smoke the thing. First I poked its eye out, then I happened to chop off a leg, until finally I buried my sword in its belly, my hands shaking. By the time I finished it off, I was all covered in green slime.
Having thus won by a hair's breadth, I staggered back to the nut grove and collapsed to the ground, trying to suppress a bout of nausea.
It took me some time to pull myself together. No idea what I was going to do next. My throat rasped with thirst and the heat. I didn't have much time left to complete the quest. And I still had to get the fish!
How on earth were the neuroimplant developers going to attract billions of users with their contraption? Who would want to experience real pain in game, suffering heat, thirst and exhaustion, hungry and uncomfortable in clumsy clothes and unmanageable armor?
And what about skills? Was I supposed to spend the next few months in training before I could come back here and smoke a couple of dragonflies?
This was crazy. No one was going to agree to this, let alone pay money for it.
Or could the problem be in my being the first? Was I their guinea pig allowing them to fine-tune their range of potential experiences?

* * *

Stubbornness got the better of me. I wasn't going to leave here empty-handed, period.
I gingerly approached the edge of the opening. I'd learned the grasshopper's lesson well. I was only going to use simple movements. Attack, dodge, recoil. I had to accept the fact that I wasn't some wonder warrior.
I kept a close eye on the mobs. I had about fifty feet to cover to get to the ruins overgrown with dog rose. Halfway to it, I would have to cross the aggro zone of three wasps busy buzzing around some purple-leaf plant unknown to me covered in pink blossoms.
Halfway to the wasps, I could make out some decayed remains lying in the grass: a small bundle of faded clothing gleaming with metal inlays.
How weird. If this was some hapless player, why hadn't he done his corpse run?
I'd have to look into it later.
I peered at the mobs. The longer I focused on them, the more details my mind expander received. Strange. I didn't even know what this device looked like. Was it a separate implant or just part of the neuroimplant itself?

A Wasp. Level 3.
Life, 30/30
Physical attack damage, 10
Additional damage: Venom, 5. Effect: Weakness. Duration: 5 sec. The target affected by the Wasp's neurotoxins can't deal critical damage and slows down, using 25% more Energy for every performed movement. The attacks' effect is cumulative.

Their size was quite intimidating. Their wingspan alone was a good couple of feet.
I might have to aggro them one by one. I just hoped they weren't a pack. The only way to find that out was in action. I had to risk it.
One of the wasps fluttered closer to the edge of the opening. Good.
I sprang out of my hiding place. The wasp saw me and went for me, buzzing. The others stayed put — excellent!
I ran back to safety.
Covering myself with the shield, I stopped at the opening's edge. The wasp had a peculiar way of attacking: it accelerated into some kind of insect cannonball. Now I knew: it was going to first knock me off my feet, then sting me.
Admittedly, I felt anxious. My body froze. It had been a while since I sensed something like this.
I dodged aside, my face barely avoiding an impact with the wasp's tough wings. Just as I'd expected, the wasp found itself in the thick of the undergrowth where it had little space to bank into a sharp turn.
I hacked at its wing, damaging it, and promptly sprang back.
The wasp spun in place, its smooth sharp stinger shaking in synch with the creature's muscle contractions.
Finally it ran out of steam and landed spread-eagled on the ground. I ran up close and took a swing with my sword, chopping through the fine link that connected the wasp's head to its thorax.

You've dealt a critical hit!

I crouched, catching my breath. Not enough to make level 5 yet. Never mind. I was pretty sure I'd make it today — and then I'd be able to finally check out the Neuro's mysterious development branch.
The wasp dropped a Stinger, a Venom Gland and a Small Chitin Plate.
I studied my loot. Chitin was good for armor making. The stinger could make a nice arrowhead. And the venom gland... it deserved looking into.

Venom Gland. Contains a dose of neurotoxin, dealing additional recurring damage. Effects: Weakness, Paralysis. The amount of damage and the duration of the effects depend upon the target's resistance. Does not affect undead species, elementals or golems.

Oh wow. If I put some venom on an arrowhead or my sword blade, potential opponents wouldn't be happy! Still, it wasn't without its drawbacks. Firstly, a wasp didn't have much toxin: a couple of drops at most. Secondly, I had to apply it to my weapons beforehand as I wouldn't be able to do so in the heat of battle.
I placed the precious loot into my inventory.
Time was pressing. It was already early afternoon and I hadn't even farmed the herbs yet.

* * *

I spent the next hour fighting the wasps. I managed to lure them one by one to my hiding place by the nut trees and smoke them all. They'd only managed to deal me two bites with their mandibles. Most importantly, I'd escaped their toxic stings.
My jacket sleeve had been sliced to shreds, my left arm a bit tender. But most unfortunately, the Mysterious Sword's durability had dropped to critical levels. It might not survive another fight.
I only had the dragonfly left to kill. It was rushing overhead so fast I could barely keep an eye on it.

A Large Green Dragonfly. Level, 2.

No matter how hard I tried to keep the crazy beast in my focus, I hadn't received any additional intel.
Could I be lucky, for a change? NPCs could be non-aggressive, like rabbits or deer who didn't aggro you at all until you actually attacked them.
Having said that... what was wrong with me? This wasn't the era of oral tradition, thank God! I opened the wiki and searched for it.
I'd been right. In the Crystal Sphere, dragonflies were non-aggressive. They were in fact a valuable resource: their wings were used in Alchemy to make levitation potions. Only two dragonfly species were listed as aggressive but those lived deep in the dungeons of the undead and were quite conspicuous, looking like scaled-down copies of bone dragons.
So basically, the place was clear of mobs. I could go through.
Impatient as I was to get to the ruins, collect the herbs and hurry back through the forest to the pond (where with any luck the party was already over), I couldn't just walk past those remains. They begged to be checked out.
Judging by the cloth armor, the dead player must have been a wizard. Then again... I made a mental calculation. Even at the lowest levels, an ice arrow or a fireball can strip one's enemy of 10 HP. It just didn't sum up. No caster in his sane mind would start a hand-to-hand with mobs. Why would he if he could smoke them from a safe distance?
My cheek began to twitch. It was only my second day in the game and already the pressure had begun to show. No wonder, with their authenticity levels.
I had no choice. I pulled out the Mysterious Sword and squeezed the contents of the three venom glands onto the blade. I smeared it around with a twig, making sure the venom covered the blade evenly. Had it been a mistake reducing Enea's suggestion of help to a joke? Now of all times I could use a battle wizard to cover my back.
Never mind. Let's do it! Having completed my preparations, I stepped over the last wasp's body and headed for the suspicious heap of rain-damaged, sun-bleached rags.

* * *

The sun was blazing, nice and hot. The dragonfly zigzagged overhead. I was bursting with energy.
A heat haze hovered over the ruins. I could see a collapsed doorway and beyond it, some charred ceiling beams and a lone ladder leaned against a wall.
When I reached the center of the opening, I came across a round area covered in withered old grass. This must have been where the wizard had met his fate. Not a single new blade of grass grew there. I'd love to know why.
I crouched and pulled at the end of the threadbare rags. Jesus Christ almighty! The once-expensive robes slid aside, revealing yellowed bones underneath.
Aha. This must have been the clue to a new plot line! When players die, they leave no skeletons behind.
No prompts available. I studied the items without touching anything else. First, a belt with a silver buckle and several quick access slots. Inside them were ten tightly closed vials: three containing Life elixir, three more of mana and four completely unknown to me, their seal wax marked with symbols I couldn't identify.
Now, the staff. It was made of a whole tree root complete with part of the trunk. A simple carved pattern ran along it. The knob of the staff was formed by intertwined roots serving as a setting for a faceted crystal. Much to my disappointment, the stone proved to be cracked.

The Staff of Illusion
Two-handed weapon
Crushing damage, 30
Charges left, 0/20
Durability, 10/250
Requires: Level 7, Intellect, 10

Oh. I was wrong. This hadn't been a wizard but a sorcerer.
I was surprised by the low requirements. Normally, illusion casting only opened at level 50. I could still remember how Christa had been leveling up, desperate to acquire this particular kind of magic.
A good, capacious leather bag with a long strap lay amid the rags, the kind one normally wears over one's shoulder. Its silver buckles had turned black. These remains must have been lying here for years.
You shouldn't touch it. You might regret it, my inner voice of Caution advised, always ready to support her sister Intuition.
It's true that we only tend to listen to the voice of reason after the fact. No player would walk past unclaimed goodies. If I couldn't use them, I could always sell them. Besides, I was just plain curious.
As soon as I reached out for the bag, the bushes on one side stirred. A triangular green head poked out of the foliage.
My interface flashed red, indicating the mob's high danger levels.

A Praying Mantis. Level 5

The creature's enormous faceted eyes had no pupils. I just couldn't tell what it was looking at. Had it already noticed me?
A rustling sound behind my back made me swing round.

A Praying Mantis. Level 5.

And a third one! This one was prancing in a combat stance with its front legs waving, prepared to attack. I could clearly see the spikes which mantises pierce their prey with once they've struck; they then hold it down with their spiky legs while devouring it. I'd actually witnessed it myself once. Not nice.
I grabbed the bag and the belt and darted for the ruins.
Apparently, the mobs hadn't expected that. I doubted they'd been posted there to guard the wizard's remains. Most likely, they simply found this glade a good place to hunt newbs.
I barged through the dog rose bushes and found myself inside a square structure built with massive blocks of stone blackened by an old fire.
The charred stumps of ceiling beams hung threateningly overhead. The structure had no windows, only arrowslits. The ladder I'd noticed earlier led upstairs. No idea who might have brought it here. Still, it looked solid enough.
Insect wings chattered behind me. One of the mantises sat on the broken wall of the second floor raising clouds of dust, its shadow blotting out the fine sunrays seeking out the gaps between the beams. The creature's triangular head poked through the opening, its antennae twitching. It had noticed me but the opening was too narrow for it to get at me.
Which actually wasn't a problem from a mantis' point of view. Its front claws sank deep into the beam like two serrated sickles, showering me with bits of rotten wood.
Another mantis tried to get to me through a narrow arrowslit. The third one awaited in the doorway. It stood sideways, protecting its head, so all I could see was a sturdy top wing streaked with a veined pattern.
The mobs' actions were well-choreographed. Definitely a pack. And each of them was a whole level above me!
The two realities merged, dissolving into each other. My blood was boiling with adrenaline. My self-preservation instincts had kicked in which wasn't normal for phantom virtual worlds. I was shaking, my nerves like taut strings. My foggy head was ringing.
If I did it now, I could survive in the future as well. But if I broke down, allowing the throat-seizing fear of physical pain to take over me... then I was finished.
My shivering didn't subside. Once again the mantis' leg probed through the arrowslit. My sword reeked with venom. Covering myself with the shield, I crept closer and hacked at its leg as hard as I could. I barely stayed on my feet as the sword went through the chitinous limb with unexpected ease.
The mob squealed. My sword blade glowed with a fiery flourish in a language I didn't know.
A long screeching sound came from above. The mantis on the roof had managed to claw its way through the rotten beams, one of which gave way with a crack. The creature fell right through, knocking the ladder down and crushing a couple of empty crates, sending up clouds of dust.
I barely had time to swing round and parry the blow. The mob's front legs ended in sharp claw-like spikes which it now used to break up my shield with ease, snapping it in two. My left arm went numb. I shrank back to the wall.
The mantis assumed its signature combat stance rocking in place, its front legs raised high in the air. It was about to launch another strike.
My left arm hung listlessly, the fragments of my broken shield still attached to its strap. My Fury counter went off the scale, literally, as a crimson haze clouded my vision.
All my sensations were more than real. My body, smarting from the impact, began to tingle as if I were hooked up to a battery. This felt very similar to what I'd already experienced back in the underground tunnels.
The thought dwindled to nothing like water spilt onto desert sand. The mob approached me sideways, offering its hard top wing to my attack, its triangular head focused on me. It wasn't in a hurry, scurrying confidently toward me on its four hind legs while keeping the two front ones high in the air, ready to lunge at me.
The creature's only weak spot was its segmented belly. I could see it pulsing. The chitin plates protecting it had small gaps between them — just wide enough for my sword to penetrate.
The tingling stopped. Now I could clearly sense energy coursing through myself. Its source seemed to be located underground: could there be a cellar underneath these ruins?
The symbols covering my sword blade kept glowing weakly. Another mystery.
The mob attacked me first. I'd been waiting for it, watching its every slightest motion in tense apprehension, and still I failed to react in time. The mantis sliced through my armor in an almost imperceptible motion, ripping across it from my left shoulder to the stomach. My body exploded in agony, splashing my face with hot sticky blood.
As I collapsed, I twice managed to bury my sword in its belly.

* * *

The stone floor was cold against my cheek. Something heavy pressed onto me from above.
My body throbbed with pain. I couldn't feel my left arm at all. System messages flashed across my blurred vision but I was unable to focus enough to read them. I could just about concentrate on one thought alone. Groaning, I reached for my belt and pulled out a vial with shaking fingers. I bit through the sealing wax. The content of the vial was tart on my lips.
I gulped it down greedily, choking.
It worked instantly. My vision cleared. My whole body convulsed in a releasing wave of lightheadedness bordering on euphoria. I was alive.
I groped for my sword. The weight pressing down on me turned out to be the dead mantis which hadn't survived two blows to its belly.
There were two more still waiting nearby though. I lay unmoving, listening intently. I could hear a scraping sound very close. This time I wasn't going to wait. I had to act fast, directly and unexpectedly.
My left arm was all right now. Things weren't as bad, after all. The elixirs had worked — and that meant that a whole plethora of little tricks and features peculiar only to cyberspace were going to help me survive.
A triangular head loomed over the mantis' body, its mandibles dripping claret. I played dead, praying I didn't retch with the stench.
The mob must have been sensing blood. Or it could be the scent of the elixir that had attracted it. Not that it mattered, really. I grabbed the sword hilt with both my hands. Now...
Unhesitantly, I buried the poisoned blade between the creature's half-opened jaws. Before it could even squeal, the mantis shuddered and went limp. I'd one-shotted it!
I still had the third one to tackle. I'd heard nothing from it yet: true, the creature had received a helping of neurotoxin from me earlier in the fight.
I scrambled to my feet and cast a look around.
I was feeling okay. The experience had been ghastly, of course. My leather jacket was only good for rags now. The room was covered in my blood. The sight of it made me sick but I tried to suppress the nausea. I might get used to it over time.
Cautiously I approached the doorway and took a peek outside. The third mantis was stirring weakly a few feet away from the entrance. How strange. I'd only grazed him with my sword very lightly.
My mind expander kicked in, responding to my emotion of surprise with a message,

Wasps use their neurotoxin reserves to hunt much bigger insects, paralyzing and devouring them. Using a wasp neurotoxin against other insects gives a +200 bonus to both damage and effect duration.

Aha. That explained why the mantis was in such a bad way. I'd emptied all three venom glands onto my sword blade, and their effects were cumulative, weren't they?
I made a mental note to find out if wasp venom was available in alchemy shops and if it was, how much it cost there. If push came to shove, I could always farm some more. Having some in store for emergencies wouldn't hurt.
As I was thus musing, the last mantis died a quiet death.
A golden shimmer enveloped me, bathing me in warmth.

You've received a new level!
The Neuro development branch has been unblocked!
You have new ability and main characteristic points available!

* * *

Now the clearing was well and truly mob-free. The sun had already begun to set. I didn't bother to meditate: I had too much to do still. I would have to study the new development branch on my return to the inn. You shouldn't take these kinds of steps in a hurry. I couldn't afford to make wrong leveling decisions: unlike other players, I couldn't start anew. Each skill point had to be distributed wisely and only after careful examination of every skill's respective pros and cons.
I found the herbs I needed and cut them with the small and unassuming quest knife I'd been given. Then I walked back to the ruins to search the mantises' bodies.

You've received an item: a Large Chitin Plate. Can be used in making light and comfortable but extremely strong armor.
You've received an item: a Mantis' Spike. Can be used in making traps and arrowheads.

Not bad at all. I ended up having six Large Chitin Plates and three Small ones in addition to twelve Mantis' Spikes.
I had my doubts about their claims of "light and comfortable" armor, though. Either I'd have to look for an armorer who would make a bespoke set for me — which was an admittedly weird demand for cyberspace — or I might even have to make it myself, for which purpose I'd have to level Blacksmithing first (because strangely enough, the Crystal Sphere developers had listed chitin with blacksmithing resources). This was a bit of an overlook on their part, but then again, listing it under Leather Working wouldn't be too appropriate, either.
Right. I was done here. Time to go back to the pond to do a bit of fishing. I still had a quest to close before sunset. I was definitely going to come back here: I was too intrigued by the mysterious symbols covering my sword blade. Also, the sensation of energy coursing through my body had been impressive. There definitely was a dungeon or at least a cellar below these old ruins.
As I was about to leave, I remembered. The staff! I'd taken the sorcerer's belt and his bag, but left his staff behind.
I returned and picked it up, expecting the old bones to disappear with a quest-announcing message. Still, it didn't happen.
Never mind. I might look into it later. The dead sorcerer's notes might shed some light on his death. His bag felt as if it was full of books and scrolls. In any case, I'd had enough surprises for one day. I needed to get somewhere safe first, then I might open it.
It just shows you how fast a 100% authenticity of experience can change a gamer's mentality. I hadn't even noticed it happen. Before, I'd have rummaged through the bag's contents on the spot. Now, however, I was playing it safe — which was the right thing to do even though the temptation was great. I needed some magic abilities really badly. I doubted I could survive such intensity of gameplay as a pure warrior.
Lost in thought, I got back to the pond rather quickly. It had been a long day.
I gave a wink to my old friend the toad sitting back on its lily leaf. I filled the tin bucket with pond water, laid out my fishing gear, rolled a bread ball in my fingers and attached it to the hook, then cast the line into the pond.
The sunset was already glowing crimson. I was sitting on a hillock watching the float quiver as the fish began to bite. Good. Strangely enough, I felt perfectly happy and content.

* * *

Nicholas the innkeeper waited impatiently on the porch. "Have you got it?"
"Sure," I handed him the herbs and the bucketful of fish.
He beamed. "You kept your word! Well done!"
He hurried to give me an already-prepared backpack. It felt heavy. "I'm off to heal Dimian! Your room's been cleaned. Your dinner's already there," he darted off, disappearing down the street.

Quest alert: First Aid! Quest completed!
Your Reputation with the inhabitants of Hinterwood has improved!
Current Reputation status: Friendly.
You've received an item: an Old Scroll.
You've received an item: a Chunk of Dried Meat
You've received an item: a Piece of Bread
You've received an item: a Water Flask.
You've received an item: a Whet Stone

To tell you the truth, I could barely stand on my feet. The day had been too eventful — hectic even. I was falling asleep. I wasn't even that hungry anymore.
Ignoring the food supplies in my bag, I went back to the inn and headed directly upstairs into my room. The dinner was already there. I wolfed it down, peeled my clothes off and climbed into bed, hoping to spend another hour tying up all the most pressing loose ends.
I finally had to check out the Neuro's development branch.
I couldn't keep my eyes open though. The interface windows quivered, floating in my mental view.
I couldn't help it. I was past exhaustion. I just hoped that with time, my body would adapt to the new levels of exertion.
I was asleep before I even knew it.

* * *

About midnight, I was awoken by the dogs' insistent barking outside.
I rolled over in bed and opened my eyes, listening intently to the sounds behind the open window, but it was already quiet.
Could I have dreamt it? Did that mean that I was under the neuroimplant's control at night as well as during daytime?
I drifted off without bothering to get up to close the window.
The wary silence seemed to be pregnant with quiet sounds. The roof joists creaked. A breeze rippled the plain curtains, bringing a whiff of sulfur.
A lithe shadow wrapped in a weak crimson glow slid through the half-open window.
I stared at it breathless, unable to move.
She was so repulsively beautiful. The fiery aura did nothing to conceal her naked body; the glow clung to her chest, coursing down her hips, lending her dark olive skin the texture of cracked lava.
What a terrible, torturous dream.
The crimson glow faded. She walked over to me and perched on the bed's edge, then ran her fingers over my chest.
"Christa, don't. Please."
"You've been dreaming about me, haven't you?"
I didn't reply. This may be a nightmare but I still didn’t want to discuss her horrendous choice of character.
"Alex, does it really matter to you? Is it the color of my skin? Or maybe," she leaned over to me, "this?"
Her long lithe tail wrapped around my throat several times and slightly constricted, as if strangling me. She was so close I couldn't breathe. The stench of sulfur was gone. Her lips burned my chest.
"We're both free now," she whispered. "You and I, we both have neuroimplants installed. The rest doesn't matter," her hot breath sent an unbearable sweet shiver down my skin.
Some dream!
"Could it be why I agreed to all this?" she whispered. "Because I couldn't stop thinking about you, either?"
My fingers played with her hair. She groaned and pressed her body to mine, shuddering.

* * *

I was screaming, choking on the stench of my own burned flesh.
Someone broke the door down. They were dousing the room with bucketfuls of water, pouring it over the smoldering floor, the burning curtains and the smoking bed.
"We need some elixirs! Fetch them, quick! He's burned all over!"
By now I wasn't screaming anymore. My throat was making croaking noises. The touch of water on my body felt intolerable. Instinctively I tried to sit up but my skin kept bursting, peeling off. I could barely see.
"Quick!" it must have been Nicholas the innkeeper.
"There's been a demon in his room!"
"We should leave him to die! That'll teach him!"
My scorched lips found the vial. The aroma of healing herbs somewhat cleared both my mind and vision. The first thing I saw was bare footprints, scorched black, on the wooden floor.
"Give me another elixir!"
My wounds stank. The room was full of smoke. Still, the pain had already subsided.
I was right: it was Nicholas. A group of armed peasants crowded behind him, one of them a boy barely ten years old, clenching a wooden stake.
After the third elixir, my wounds began to heal before my very eyes. Soon I was able to scramble to my feet, vacating the wet, burned bed.
"So?" the innkeeper's glare promised me nothing good.
"I thought I had a dream."
"Tell us the truth! Who was here? Whose footprints are these?"
"I'm telling you the truth. I had a bad dream. A nightmare. That's all I know."
"He's possessed by a demon! Impale him! Bury him in the woods and drive a wooden stake through his heart!"
"Shut up!" Nicholas yelled. "This is my inn! I'm the one who decides here! Out now!"
He began driving the villagers out of the room. I used the pause to locate my clothes in the mess created by my rescuers and hurried to put my leather armor on.
"We saw it with our very eyes!" shouts came from the corridor. "The demon stealing up the roof! It climbed into his window!"

Warning! Your Reputation with the inhabitants of Hinterwood has plummeted!
Current Reputation status: Animosity.

Nicholas came back soon, dark as a thundercloud, avoiding my gaze.
"You should go," he finally said.
By then I'd packed all my stuff. I wasn't welcome here anymore which was perfectly understandable. I just couldn't believe it. So it wasn't a dream, after all.
I clenched my teeth, unwilling to make the situation any worse than it already was — especially because I realized that I owed my life to Nicholas' intervention. "I'm very sorry. How much do I owe you?"
"Just go," he waved my question away. "And steer clear of here. Next time they will impale you."
I nodded my understanding. I walked downstairs, crossed the common room under the villagers' heavy glares, walked out the door and headed for the village gate. You should never underestimate the dangers of Animosity.
I had no idea where I was supposed to go now. Agrion? Too dangerous. Not even because of my plummeted rep or the rumors — but what if this night's visit wasn't the last one? The sheer thought of it made my blood curdle.
So what now? Should I go and live in the forest?
I was approaching the village gate when I heard a voice behind me.
"Hey, wait!"
A stranger hurried after me — a townsman, judging by his clothes.
"What now?" I swung round, ready to face anything. "What do you want?"
"Take this," he shoved me a bulky bundle, then hurried to add, "It's a tent. You've been looking for one, right?"
He beamed. "That's me! You've saved my life, man. Take this as a token of my gratitude!"
"Thanks but-"
"Just take it! I don't give a damn about what they say in the village. I may keep a shop here for an occasional sale, but I'm a townie myself."
"So you're not worried about the demon, then?"
He grinned. "You're not a demon, are you? I was attacked by a wyvern too. Wasn't my fault, was it?"
"Thanks," I put the tent into my inventory.
"Life is more than just stuff. You should stay away from the local villages though. Rumors spread fast. You'd be surprised what you might learn about yourself. So go directly to the city. Have you got money?"
"Yeah, I have some."
"Then you should be all right, shouldn't you?" he gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder, than added conspiratorially, "This demon chick is quite a looker. I saw her when she was climbing that roof. I couldn't have resisted her myself, may the Gods of Light have mercy on my soul."
With this he walked off, leaving me all alone.
I turned round and headed for the woods, followed by the plaintive wailing of the petrified village dogs.

Chapter Four

The Crystal Sphere
In the vicinity of Agrion City

THE SOUND of horse hooves echoed through the night.
A road patrol rode toward me. The front rider reined in his steed. He had a lighted torch in one hand and a naked sword in the other.
"Are you from Hinterwood? What the hell happened there?"
"A fire," I said, staring at the crackling flames. "They've put it out already."
I was surprisingly calm. You'd think the sight of fire should have freaked me out, reminding me of Christa or even resulting in a full-blown phobia.
Nothing of the kind. It was as if I'd indeed had a bad dream, nothing more. How weird.
The guards headed for the village while I left the road and took a shortcut through the fields.
By the time I reached the nut grove by the ruins, dawn was already breaking. I found a small clearing, read the brief manual and began setting up the tent.
I'd chosen this place for several reasons. Firstly, I needed some space. I had to have a good think. Secondly, the sheer thought of sleeping in bed, however "comfortable", made me doubt the safety of the local inns, taverns, hotels and such.
Thirdly, I still had unfinished business to attend to. I had to study the ruins. Even though the energy boost I'd experienced there hadn't helped me to defeat the mantis, it still intrigued me.
This unusually calm, collected reasoning wasn't at all typical of me. I shrugged. The neuroimplant must have had some kind of stress blocking mechanism installed. This could be the only explanation of my sudden nerve.
The moon dominated the sky. Darkness lurked in the shadows. The forest was living its mysterious night life, filled with creeping and rustling, its tentative silence broken by animal screams. I couldn't yet tell them apart.
I drove the last tent peg into the ground.
Immediately a ten-foot safe zone formed around the tent, glowing a faint green. No mob would be able to trespass it while I was inside resting or meditating. At least that's what the tent manual said.
Players could enter provided they were part of my group. Otherwise, I'd have to send them an invitation to come in. This was how the Crystal Sphere worked. There were restrictions, too: the tent owner couldn't stay inside for longer than twenty-four hours.

You've set up a tent.
The tent has been activated.
Would you like to make it your respawn point?

Absolutely. I shifted my eyes, swiping Confirm.
I climbed inside the tent and took a look around. It was rather small and Spartan: a sleeping bag on the floor, a chest, and a little folding table next to the headrest with a small lamp perched on it. Everything a hiker might need. Nicholas' supplies would help me last a few days without venturing into towns or villages.
I had to spend some quality time farming mobs. I also needed to study the ruins. Then we'd see. I had no idea that by agreeing to have this wretched neuroimplant installed, the good old virtual world would turn into a deadly obstacle course.
The memory of Christa wriggled its way into my thoughts, stinging hard. I could feel emotions seething under the veneer of my composure, as if something wasn't letting them through. A wave of phantom pain surged over my body, turning the already-healed burns crimson.
What if Christa visited me again?
I gasped. My forehead erupted in sweat. I shouldn't be so angry with the neuroimplant developers: having a stress blocking mechanism was vital here. Still, in order to survive, I had to learn to handle any overbearing negative emotions, or at least tolerate them. Also, I shouldn't forget that this was still a game. I was supposed to follow its rules by leveling up, completing quests and acquiring new skills and abilities.
I felt a bit better now. Enough soul searching. Time to do something.
I reached into my inventory for the Mysterious Sword and the whet stone that Nicholas had given me. This offered yet more proof of the fact that cyberspace phenomena worked in their usual way: the moment I touched the sword blade with the whet stone, the weapon's Durability grew 30%.
Although the blade was now free of oxidization, the mysterious runes covering it hadn't become any clearer. They weren't glowing anymore. All I could see was scratch marks covering the metal.
What a shame. I'd have loved to take pictures of them and run a quick image search. Next time I should be prepared whenever the mysterious symbols sprang to life again.
Right. That was my only weapon sorted. It didn’t look as if I could raise its Durability beyond 30% with the tools at hand. I couldn't mend the torn jacket, either. I'd have to accept the fact that I looked like a tramp.
Now, the most important.
I gulped some water from the flask and made myself comfortable, then opened my character's development branches.
My interface looked totally different now. The Neuro branch seemed to have taken priority. All the standard combat and magic abilities (which I had initially planned to level up) had turned gray.
In any case, the final choice lay with me.

Neuro Development branch:
Secret Knowledge
Power of Reason
Observational Skills
Spell Interception
Intense Training
Acquisition of Blows and Combos
Unity of Origin
Pain Threshold
Unity of Schools
Reflex Optimization
Enhanced Perception

Secret Knowledge:
Eons ago, the Ancient Gods (sometimes also called the Founder Gods) tampered with our ancestors' evolution, endowing them with a number of abilities which are now almost completely extinct. Only occasionally do they resurface in certain individuals known as Neuros.
You're one of them. Both your body and mind harbor a potential yet unlocked.
+1 to Strength
+1 to Intellect
+1 to XP per each invested Ability pt.

Observational Skills:
You're highly perceptive. Whether reading ancient manuscripts or watching other people, you pay attention to every detail, immediately grasping the technique of a combat blow or a spell incantation. You can then enter the knowledge you thus receive into special books or dedicated parchment scrolls for further study.
Warning! The level of the blow or spell you intend to study cannot exceed that of your character.
Each Ability point invested gives +2% to your chances of studying the blow or the spell (regardless of whether the object of your study is an NPC or another player).

Spell Interception
The fact that all spells are recited in the Founders' language combined with your ability to lip read allows you to learn any spell.
Warning! In order to successfully intercept a spell, the caster (observation target) should be located within your direct line of vision. At level 1, your lip-reading range is set at 30 feet.
Each Ability point invested adds 2 ft. to your lip-reading range.
Spell Interception does not preclude other possible ways of spell studying.

Acquisition of Blows and Combos:
You effortlessly memorize new movements while watching combat practice or live combat. Later, this allows you to make a drawing of the blow or even combo technique from memory, recreating both attack and defense maneuvers.
Requires Observational Skills and Intense Training.
Each Ability point invested adds +2% to your chances of studying a blow or a combo.

Unity of Origin:
According to legend, all living beings in the Universe used to have a single ancestor. Some might snicker saying that an orc and a human being can't possibly share ancestry. Still, every legend harbors a grain of truth.
Each Ability point invested adds +2% to your chances of intercepting a spell or learning a new blow typical of other races, regardless of their affiliation (Light vs. Dark).

Unity of Schools:
Some time ago, you chanced upon an ancient book. As you struggled through it, trying to make sense of the faded writings on its crumbling pages, you were surprised to discover the writer's heretic ideas. According to the book's author, all types of magic and sorcery, including elemental and mind control, are firmly rooted in the long-forgotten school of Chaos.
Later, as you watched the effects produced by various schools of magic, your conclusions confirmed the ancient author's ideas. The powers of Chaos had been the foundation of all modern schools and practices.
Each Ability point invested adds +2% to the Range, Strength and Duration of every spell you study, as well as removes all bans and penalties for combining various kinds of magic and sorcery.

Reflex Optimization:
As you watch wildlife species (whose survival depends on their highest levels of ergonomics), you can learn and adopt their energy preservation skills. Your movements become more precise and calculated.
Each Ability point invested gives -2% to your mental and physical energy expenditures in combat.

The activation of this particular characteristic allows you to receive a small but continuous boost to your main stats, depending on the type of your daily activities. These changes will be visible as special boost bars situated opposite their respective characteristics in your character panel. For instance, if you read a lot you might notice the increase of your Intellect boost bar. Once the bar is full, you will receive +1 pt. to its respective characteristic.
The above boost does not cancel traditional characteristic leveling. Neither does it affect your items' bonuses.

Intense Training:
Each spell or blow you study requires constant perfecting. In order to improve your attack and defense skills, you need to practice a lot, creating your own combinations and turning new moves into reflexes.
Ability bonus: your damage, defense, mob control and aura range will improve. This only applies to the physical and magic skills you use on a regular basis, without affecting those you've learned but failed to apply.
Each Ability point invested adds +5% to attack strength.

Pain Threshold:
You learn to control pain. You might have already discovered, by extreme trial and error, that you don't experience pain as long as your Health is above 80%. As your HP dwindle, you start experiencing an increasing pain.
Each Ability point invested raises your pain threshold 3%. The maximum pain threshold allowed is 50% HP.

Everything in our world is interconnected. You can use various sources of energy, including elements, ancient artifacts and places of power marked by megalithic monuments. As you study them and listen intently to the world around you, you begin to tune in into various energy currents, allowing you to locate their sources and use them to restore your powers and even life.
Starting at level 20, you'll be able to trap and store any excess physical or mental energy within energy crystals.
+5% to your physical and mental energy regeneration speed.

Power of Reason:
A Neuro's intellect affects everything he or she does.
Every 30 pt. Intellect add +3% to both attack and defense and +5% to the XP received for successfully using the blows or spells you've learned from other characters. All such blows or spells will add +3% to your chances of dealing critical damage or, when used in defense, to your chances of reusing the blow or spell with decreased cooldown times and -50% of required energy expenditure.
+10% to your mental energy regeneration speed.

You're constantly busy studying everything around you, analyzing the nature of all events and perfecting your abilities and skills. Your goal is to get to the bottom of everything trying to work out how things work instead of mindlessly using them, be it a spell, a blow or a professional skill.
Each Ability point invested gives -3% to cooldown times and energy expenditure required for all types of physical and mental attack, defense and impact.
+2% to profession leveling speed for all farming and manufacturing professions.

You have a natural 25% resistance to all kinds of magic and mind control. You can successfully resist mental attacks, preserving clarity of mind.
Each Ability point invested adds +2% to your chances of repelling a negative effect or boosting a positive one, be it a spell or your opponent's ability. +2% to your chances of successfully casting a spell when attacked. +3% to mental energy regeneration speed.
On reaching level 5, this ability will allow you to consciously control your mental energy distribution between several recipients — for instance, a magic artifact or an item of gear.

Enhanced Perception:
You learn with remarkable ease. Your outlook isn't limited by racial or class prejudices. You're free from all phobias and superstitions.
As a result, you see and notice a lot compared to others. Your night vision and reduced visibility navigation skills are considerably superior to theirs. At level 20, you will receive a new primary skill, Twilight Vision, which you can consequently level up and improve.
Enhanced Perception allows you to detect danger before others can. It also adds +20% to your chances of seeing a stealthed-up enemy stalking you. Each Ability point invested adds +1 to your Field of Vision Range.

* * *

That got me thinking.
I realized, of course, what kind of decision the game developers were trying to edge me toward. They wanted to use me to study the human mind's reactions to all types of magic as well as its tolerable pain threshold in order to fine-tune feedback.
Still, it was too early to make any decisions about the viability of this particular branch.
Let's presume, for the sake of argument, that I'd chosen it. I ticked the Follow the Path of the Neuro box. All the little boxes in my character panel blinked and disappeared, replaced by new ones.
I now had only one development branch left. The two default ones were gone, replaced by two books:

The Book of Spells
The Book of Combat Arts

Was there anything inside them?
You couldn't tell, could you? In order to find out, you had to accept the new branch first.
I didn't have to be a fatalist to realize that my agreement was purely a formality.

Follow the Path of the Neuro: Yes/No?

A golden shimmer enveloped me.

You've received a new level!
You have new ability and main characteristic points available!
The Book of Spells has been activated!
The Book of Combat Arts has been activated!

Now the difficult bit.
I began to distribute available stat points, activating each ability at Level 1. That should suffice for the time being.
This was what I had:

Alexatis. Level 6. Neuro
Life, 70/70
Physical Energy, 80/80 (Strength + Secret Knowledge)
Mental Energy, 110/110 (Intellect + Secret Knowledge)
Physical Defense, 15,5 (Leather Armor 12 pt + Agility bonus 3.5)
Physical Attack, 9 (Mysterious Sword, 5 pt. + Strength divided by 2 = 4 pt.)
Mental Defense, 29% (Self-Control + Spirit)
Mental Attack, 0 (requires spell study)
Mental Energy Regeneration, 4,13 pt./sec (Spirit divided by 2 + 0,63 bonus from Synergy, Power of Reason and Self-Control.)
Strength, 7 (+ 1 Secret Knowledge bonus)
Intellect, 10 (+1 Secret Knowledge bonus)
Agility, 7
Stamina, 7
Spirit, 7
Main Professions, Require activation
Achievements, Mentor of the Day (+1 to Fame)

Much to my disappointment, both Books were empty, their pages filled with gray inactive slots. So I was supposed to learn everything from scratch, then. Which meant I had to set out in search of adventure. Alternatively, I could go to Agrion, buy some spell scrolls and visit the local warrior guild in order to watch their training sessions.
I cast a glance over my possessions. There actually was another way to test my freshly-acquired abilities. For the last twenty-four hours, I'd been too busy to check out the contents of the dead sorcerer's bag.
It was heavy. I set it on the floor and sat cross-legged on my sleeping bag, then began undoing all the leather straps and silver buckles.
Contrary to my suspicions, the bag had no traps installed. I focused on the tag,

A sturdy leather bag. Capacity: 50 slots. Made by a Master craftsman. Using it adds +15 lb. to the weight you can carry.

Useful. My inventory had only 20 slots. What did it have inside?
Three books, some writing tools, a couple of plain-looking rocks, a rusty piece of steel, a small scroll case packed with rolled-up parchments, a piece of dry bread, a chunk of moldy cheese and a half-empty water flask.
The first tome turned out to be an Alchemy manual. I set it aside for the time being. Elixirs were always welcome; every player should have a good stock of them at all times — but personally, I never liked farming herbs or making my own potions. I might give the book a read at some other time.
The second book, bound lovingly in leather, looked quite mysterious.

Illusion Casting. A Sorcerer's Textbook.

My fingerprints tingled when I picked it up. I opened it, breathless, and leafed through it, skimming the pages,

Illusions can't deal damage in combat. Their only purpose is to distract the sorcerer's enemy, allowing you to avoid an attack or strike back when least expected. The easiest way to confuse an unexpected attacker is by recreating a copy of them which works for the majority of aggressive creatures. Still, it might not be enough to fool a player of some experience, be they a wizard or a warrior. In that case, it is advisable to create something dangerous-looking (e.g., a dragon), casting an Aura of Fear on the illusion for a better effect.

Admittedly, illusions were always useful in combat. Still, practicing them could take a lot of time and effort. I leafed through the pages featuring various creatures complete with the calculations of the required level and mana expenditure. The figures were a bit disheartening. If only I could restore the sorcerer's staff!
The third book looked the most used of the three. However, much to my surprise, its frayed yellowed pages turned out to be empty. No trace of ink anywhere!
What was going on? Judging by the recognizable magic symbols on its cover, this too was a Book of Spells. You couldn't confuse them with anything else.
I tried every possible way of activating it, with zero results. The book wasn't protected at all. The records must have disappeared long before I'd gotten hold of it. The pages were covered in damp spots but they bore no trace of blurred ink, as if all the spells had been deleted by some powerful magic. Could this have been the reason for the sorcerer's death?
As I pondered, I opened the scroll case and pulled out the parchments. They were rolled together. None of them was sealed which meant they weren't single-use.
I began sifting through the yellowed sheets. Bingo. I found a Weak Healing Aura and a Minor Shield of Mana.
Excellent. Both spells suited my configuration.
I moved both to the spell tab of my interface. The parchments crumbled to dust, replaced by two icons on the first page of my own Book of Spells. When I clicked them, a prompt appeared; I could also copy them to my quick access panel by dragging them.

You've studied the Weak Healing Aura!
Effect: immediately restores 25 HP.
Requires: level 5, Intellect 10, and 40 pt. Mental Energy.

You've studied a Minor Shield of Mana!
Effect: surrounds the caster or a friendly target with a magic barrier, absorbing 15% incoming damage.
Duration: 5 sec.
Requirements: level 5, Intellect 10, and 40 pt. of Mental Energy.

Feeling much better, I checked the remaining scrolls. Unfortunately, many of them were ruined, some letters blurred by humidity. I only managed to acquire two more spells:

Phantom Warrior. Creates the illusion of an orc warrior.
Duration: 10 sec.
Requirements: level 20, Intellect 25, and 180 pt. of Mental Energy.

The Aura of Fear
Creates a surge of terror either around the illusion of your choice or around the caster.
Range: 10 ft.
Duration: 10 sec
Effect: all creatures of the same level as you or lower feel petrified. They freeze, unable to attack. Creatures whose level is superior to yours lose concentration and slow down.
+30% to your chances of disrupting your enemy's spell
Requirements: Level 30, Intellect 40, and 100 pt. of Mental Energy. Does not affect undead species, elementals or golems.

This Aura seemed like good stuff. What a shame I couldn't use it for a while. I'd have to level up quite a bit and build up on Mental Energy before I could do that.
Which got me thinking. The Neuro development branch was indeed unique. As long as I leveled hard, mainly to raise my Pain Threshold, I'd be able to live a life of adventure without risking dropping dead from the shock of pain every time I received a serious injury or suffered a virtual death.
I also considered teaming up with other players. Still, this was probably a bit premature. Let me explain: as long as I was under the negative influence of the neuroimplant, experiencing pain and fatigue, I was bound to attract unwanted attention and risk being deleted from the group. No one would tolerate a constantly exhausted, staggering player who wasn't forthcoming with reasons for his erratic behavior.
Intense Training, they said? Under near-combat conditions? Very well.
My mobile respawn point which I'd moved to the tent had already been activated.
That was sorted, then. I had to continue farming mobs in the clearing next to the ruins until I made level 10 at least. After that, I would study the ruins and try to find the entrance to the dungeons below. This was to be my first trial by fire.
I checked the contents of the belt's quick access slots. I'd already used one of the healing potions during my mantis fight. I had nine left. Four of them were still a mystery to me.
I made snapshots of their magic seals and ran a quick image search. Aha. These were 100% Elemental Resistance potions, one per element. If I didn't use them, I could always sell them.
After some consideration, I kept the two little rocks and the rusty piece of steel. The sorcerer must have had them on him for a reason.

* * *

It was close to midday when I was finally done and could climb out of the tent.
I could see no one. The nut grove was shady and cool. I cast the Minor Shield of Mana on myself and counted till ten.
When its faint haze had disappeared, I glanced at the mental energy indicator. Of the 40 pt. I'd just spent, only 20.65 had restored. I had to level up Intellect ASAP. I remembered Enea's plain ring. Wish I had something like that now!
I tried to cast a combination of two spells. It took me six seconds. Way too much. Even the slowest of mobs would make mincemeat of me in the meantime.
I tried again but lost concentration between the two spells.
After only a minute's worth of practice, I was already out of mana. I slumped to the ground to meditate, waiting for it to restore.
Welcome to the newb's lifestyle of constant training, followed by the mind-numbing task of farming meager loot. But once things began to work out, you felt really proud of yourself.
About an hour later I realized that I could actually do much more than the Neuro development branch claimed. At one point, I'd managed to cast a series of spells in 4 seconds flat. The spells were actually curt and monosyllabic: I just had to concentrate and stay calm.
Finally, my mana was back up. Now I could test myself in combat. I walked over to the edge of the clearing and looked around.
What a surprise. Instead of the grasshopper, I saw a level 7 locust. The wasps had gone up in levels too, assisted by a fearsome-looking hornet. Oh. I dreaded to even think what my mantises were like.
The locust was already coming at me. I dodged just in time, casting the Shield of Mana, then managed to block its first attack. Not so much luck with its second one though. It didn't hurt yet: I'd only lost 5 hit points.
Fueled by adrenaline, I launched a response attack, dealing the locust three successive slashing blows to the head. Its wounds gushed greenish goo.
Slowly I retreated toward the nut grove. The monster scurried after me, the tall grass hindering its progress. Why didn't it attempt to fly?
With this unexpected advantage, I tried to outflank it but stopped just in time, seeing the long curved blade attached to its posterior — like a saber of sorts.
This clearing wasn't as easy as it had seemed. It definitely wasn't meant for solo farming. I realized this too late, though. The hornet had seen me. It buzzed past, low above the ground, hitting me with its wake.
Ignoring the still-alive locust, I ran to the side and watched the hornet whose sheer size and stripy brown and yellow coloring made it conspicuous within the undergrowth. Humming, it banked into a turn in order to attack me.
I could use some debuffs now, really.
That's the end of me, the thought flashed through my mind. I can't run: I might lose my footing in the tall grass and end up exposing my back.
Once again my sword blade was aglow with the runes syphoning my mental energy.
Enea's face flashed in my mind's eye, her lips moving.
My inbox dinged. Bad timing.
My lips mouthed a desperate spell. The hornet slowed down in flight, bending its lower body and exposing its stinger, about to impale me, armor and all. My left hand completed the final movement of the spell on its own accord.
An Ice Arrow darted from my fingers, piercing the hornet's wing. The monster spun in place, then dropped to the ground.
Still uncomprehending, I went for it, investing all my remaining strength into the blow. My sword sliced through the hornet's body with the same ease as it had with the mantis, dealing a terrible wound and stripping the creature of 37 hit points. The mysterious symbols covering my sword blade flared up momentarily. Its damage must have increased tenfold.
Then it was all over. I was still shaking, my mental energy dangerously close to zero. Still, the hornet was dead. The wasps were keeping a safe distance and the locust was forcing its way through the grass, leaving a wide trail in its wake.

You've learned a new spell: Ice Arrow!

Enea! Of course! I'd seen her cast the spell, hadn't I? At the time, I hadn't yet known about my Interception ability — but it had worked anyway!
I finished off the locust and returned to the safety of the grove.
I collapsed onto a hillock, gasping. I was alive. I'd made it.
I needed to check the logs and find out whatever had happened to my sword. Could I control the process or was it supposed to just happen sporadically?
Not now. It could wait. I had more important things to do.
I looked through my archive for the video file I needed and opened it in slow motion.

Video of the Day: Staffless Spell Casting!

I focused on Enea's lips moving.

You've learned a new spell: Weakness!

You've learned a new spell: Ice!
Warning! Your Mental Energy levels are too low to cast the spell!
Would you like to move the spells into your Book of Spells?

* * *

Once I'd recovered my breath and calmed down a bit, I opened the message I'd received during combat.
Oh wow.

Your account has been credited with 28 (twenty-eight) gold. Sender: Togien. Thank you for using Crystal Bank.

The dwarf had been true to his word. Should I study Archeology too, maybe? Why not? My 1% of bag contents turned out to be quite a lot.
I sent him a brief thank-you message.
Now the combat logs.
I skimmed their contents which documented a player's every action and its consequences without distracting him or her.
It said nothing about the Mysterious Sword syphoning my energy. I only discovered a few brief mentions,

Your weapon's damage has grown 28 pt.
You've attacked the Hornet! Physical Damage, 5. Mental Energy damage, 28.

That was it. Why had the mental damage grown so dramatically? What could have caused it?
Admittedly, quite a few things had happened in the few brief moments when I'd thought I was about to die my first virtual death.
Firstly, I'd managed to subconsciously think of Enea and copy her Ice Arrow spell without even knowing what I was doing. It was a matter of survival, that's all.
Secondly, I'd lost all my mana. Having said that, Ice Arrow had only taken 10 pt. Prior to that, I'd cast the Minor Healing Aura and the Shield of Mana, that's another 80 pt. down. So I'd had 28 pt. left in total, counting the regeneration — and that was exactly what the hornet had received!
Did that mean that the Mysterious Sword had worked as a conductor of mental energy?
No, that couldn't be. Most likely, it had simply received part of my own stores. That could explain the message about the sword's increased damage.
I should have to look into it. I was pretty sure I could control the process. It was probably the sword itself that had caused it. If only I could find out more about it!

You've received a new quest: The Secret Alloy.
Quest type: Rare
Find Jurg, a master blacksmith who lives in the foothills of the Azure Mountains. Show him your sword and try to find out more about it.
Reward: varies.

The Azure Mountains? That was a bit of a hike. A lengthy journey like that required thorough preparation.
I opened the map and tried to work out a potential route. I'd have to cross some unexplored lands and locations on my way. I remembered what Togien had said about high-level mobs less than a week's trek from here.
It looked like I'd still have to go to Agrion first: to get some new gear and find out more about the local portal network connecting the big cities. That might considerably simplify the task.
My mana had already restored. Time for me to go back to the clearing to collect the loot and turn my attention to the wasps. I needed to test my freshly-acquired spells.
I lingered a little longer, studying the list of available online services and checking jewelry prices at auction. Everything was quite costly. I spent two gold on a ring with +3 to Intellect. I could get one in town for a fraction of the price but first I needed to get there, while the auction offered instant free delivery.
I also liked a pretty signet ring giving +1 to all main characteristics. Three gold. A bit pricey, but... I read its description. Restriction: only Combat Wizard. Shame. Never mind.
My inbox dinged. My Intellect-boosting ring had arrived. I hurried to put it on.
Excellent. Now I had enough mental energy to cast Ice. I opened the interface and distributed the two remaining ability points, investing both into Self-Control. That gave me another 6% to my mana regeneration speed.
Now I was done. Time to do some farming!
The Ice Arrow — which had just saved me from a torturous virtual death — was already sitting in quick access. Thank you, Enea.
Wait up... Alexatis, you're an idiot.
I returned to the auction and scooped the pretty signet ring up without a second thought, then contacted the delivery service.

Please enter the receiver's name.

Enea, Combat Wizard, I laboriously copied her ID from my friend list.

Please enter the sender's name.

I left the box empty. I just hoped she would accept an anonymous gift. I didn't want to explain anything to her.

Please add a message to the receiver.

I typed a smilie: just a regular one, no winks or grins or anything. Just a smile.
Then I clicked Send.

* * *

The slain locust had dropped four large chitin plates and a chitin bow — without any arrows but still a pleasant surprise. I was pretty sure I could make arrows myself somehow. Which meant I could hunt now without having to sweat inside my awkward armor chasing after some potential quarry. This could considerably improve my autonomy.
The hornet, however, was a bit of a disappointment. It was a truly dangerous creature and equally useless loot-wise. It dropped a Set of Mandibles (whatever I was supposed to do with them) and a Fragment of a Wing.
Keeping a watchful eye on the wasps, I moved my acquisitions to my inventory. Now that I had an attack spell in my little box of tricks, aggroing mobs became considerably easier. I needed wasp venom in order to successfully defeat the mantises which must have also increased in levels. I just hoped they hadn't turned into something truly horrendous and invincible.
I patiently awaited one of the wasps to leave the others' company, then hit it with an Ice Arrow.
Immediately it aggroed me. Still, its flight was unstable and erroneous, diving into the tall grass, then shooting back up again. I knew that the Crystal Sphere damage system made allowances for its monsters' anatomy. I must have damaged its wing. No need to wait any longer: I had to finish it off.
Here I made my first tactical mistake. Impatient to kill the wounded wasp, I unwittingly crossed the aggro zone of the two others, attracting their attention.
I hurried to cast Weakness over both but it didn't work. In the wasps' tags, small identical shield-shaped icons flashed momentarily, then expired. Both were resistant to the spell. I'd wasted mana for nothing.
This complicated the combat somewhat as two wasps came for me simultaneously from different directions.
I dodged to one side. My sword's blade traced a blurred arc in the air. My right leg exploded with pain. Mechanically I cast a healing aura over myself. One of the mobs disappeared in the grass, critted. The other had stung me and shot back up, banking into a new attack.
I wanted to meet it head-on with an Ice Arrow but the venom debuff had slowed down my reaction times. I was forced to disrupt the spell and stagger back to the safety of the nut grove.
My leg was numb and unresponsive. I was slightly nauseous. Talk about authenticity! I grew weaker with every moment as the neurotoxin spread fast through my body. My HP bar shrank in leaps and bounds as I kept receiving more damage from the venom.
Although the wasp couldn't see me now, it hovered nearby, buzzing its indignation. I was still within its aggro zone. The two wounded ones joined in too.
Suddenly the branches cracked under the wasps' combined weight. My hiding place hadn't been a good one after all.

You've survived your first neurotoxin poisoning!
+2% to Resistance to Neurotoxins
+1% to your chances of ignoring the toxin
-2% to any damage dealt by insects

How cool was that? I hurried to cast another healing aura on myself. Much better! I still had a funny taste in my dry mouth; for the rest, I felt fine.

* * *

I decided not to take any more risks and finished off the wasps right in the grove. I absolutely needed proper combat acrobatics skills for any open-ground fighting. They were an absolute must.
I crouched on the ground gasping, trying to restore. I gulped some water from the flask and waited until my mana was back to normal. Then I rose and collected my loot: the stingers, the chitin plates and the venom glands.
I decided not to leave the clearing until I made at least one level. I had to reconsider my tactics. Apparently, Weakness didn't work on insects — but now I had some of their own neurotoxin.
I smeared some over my sword blade. Time to move it. I was going to stick to the same modus operandi, hiding inside the ruins to prevent the mantises from surrounding me and attacking me all at once.
Where are you, guys?
The runes covering my sword blade came to life with a flash. The symbol closest to the guard was the brightest. The rest barely glowed, and those next to the tip remained dark.
My mental energy indicator quivered as the sword kept syphoning mana which luckily promptly restored.
Suddenly two purple shrubs near to me stirred. The dog rose bushes by the entrance to the ruins swayed simultaneously.

A Venomous Black Praying Mantis. Level, 8
A Venomous Black Praying Mantis. Level, 9
A Venomous Black Praying Mantis. Level, 8

The mobs had cut me off from the old structure and were surrounding me.
They looked unusual. Their purple-black armor was formed by an overlapping pattern of chitin scales. I couldn't see any vulnerable spots in it at all. Also, I was pretty sure they were immune to neurotoxins. They had plenty of it themselves.
The wisest thing now would be to dart for the tent. This little clearing turned out to be way out of my league today. Still, common sense too seemed to have taken a back seat. Losing dangerous amounts of mana, I cast Ice and made a dash for the ruins.
The dog rose leaves turned a wintry silver. The black mantis stopped dead in its tracks in the grip of ice. Swirly patterns of frost ran along its body, its feet frozen solid to the ground.
I invested all my strength into one blow. My sword blade flashed bright, then expired as the runes transformed its accumulated energy into more mental damage.
A crit!
The mantis' triangular head rolled bouncing into the grass while its frozen body remained standing.
I dove into the ruins, panting, my breath misting. The familiar tingling sensation was back. Which meant I couldn't stop halfway. There definitely was a dungeon entrance underneath here somewhere. My mana indicator was growing rapidly, pointing to a source of mental energy below.
I cast another Ice.
I was high on adrenaline, the sensation of mortal danger flooding me and carrying me away.
Everything inside was frozen solid. The heaps of rotting straw, the shattered wooden crates, the mud floor and the old leaves: the contents of the small room had become brittle. I hurried to find the entrance to the dungeon while the cast still held. I had very little time. Another mantis rustled its wings outside, landing onto the second floor of the dilapidated structure.
The floor cracked and sank underfoot. The rotten floorboards gave under my weight. I collapsed into a dark, stale void.

* * *

I landed awkwardly, my feet hitting the floor so hard that I lost my balance and collapsed in a heap.
A spot of light glowed high overhead. It had been a good fifteen foot drop. Judging by the echoing sounds, the dungeon was large. A few paces away from me, I could make out a stone altar which emitted a low rumbling hum, bathing me in a warm wave of growing strength.
An aura made of the tiniest surges of energy coursed the altar's surface, highlighting what looked like the outline of a human hand. It was as if the altar was inviting me to lay my own hand onto it and partake of its power.
My mana indicator was already full. A powerful energy source like this one made you feel invincible.
The mantis' head showed in the hole above. Come on then, buddy, get down here!
It didn't seem to react to my presence. How weird. I attacked it with an Ice Arrow just to wake it up, but missed, causing a shower of ice dust to come tumbling down.
I stepped back into the dark. Now the mantis couldn't see me, blinded by the weak glow of the altar. Let's have a look. What did we have here?
I focused.

An ancient Altar of Chaos
One of the few remaining places of power left after the departure of the Founder Gods. Altars can interact with sorcerers, wizards, mages, druids, shamans and neuros by sharing some of their energy with them.
In order to interact with the Altar, lay your hand on it.
Effect: varies
The ancient power of Chaos can bestow various gifts on its followers, such as raising their levels, granting new abilities or adding new spells to their books.
You can only touch the altar once. Any repeat attempt will be rejected with the following punishment by randomly lowering your characteristics. Still, you can always set off in search of another ancient place of power once you've used this one.
Would you stand up to the challenge?

Don't touch it! It's mine! barely audible, the voice rustled through the room.
I startled and swung round.
No one.
Was I hearing things?
I looked up. The mantis was still there, staring down the hole and clawing at a broken floorboard which shed flakes of rotten wood.
I stepped a few paces away, waiting in vain for my eyesight to adjust to the viscous darkness. What a shame I wasn't yet entitled to Twilight Vision.
I reached out and felt the wall: it was built with large slabs of stone. I then crouched and touched the floor, finding a gap between two large stone tiles. So this wasn't a natural cave, then, but part of the whole structure. Which meant I just might find a source of light in here.
Slowly I walked along the wall until my hand chanced on a cast-iron torch support. The torch was still in it. Excellent. I just hoped it was in working order.
Still, what was I supposed to light it with? I had no tinderbox on me. All my spells were ice-related.
Wait a sec... That sorcerer outside, he'd definitely been looking for this place. He must have come prepared. What about those plain-looking rocks in his bag? How had he gotten here, anyway? Somehow I doubted he'd intended to access the dungeon via the ruins of the watchtower. I must have been the first person smart enough to fall through the rotten floor from a fifteen-foot height. The dungeon must have had a normal entrance here somewhere.
I produced the two rocks from my inventory and struck them against each other as hard as I could. The impact produced a shower of sparks. Yes! After a few more unsuccessful attempts, I finally managed to light up the torch.
I looked around me at the room illuminated by the uneven flame.
It was huge. My every cautious step echoed from the walls. Flashes of unknown energy flickered at a distance. The stone floor was filthy. Rats squeaked, scurrying through the litter.
I walked along the wall, hoping to come across the exit. No such luck. A few crude columns supported the ceiling. There was less litter here, and it seemed heaped up in places. Could they be human remains?
Steel glistened in the torch's weak light. I was right.
The dungeon seemed to go on forever. I stumbled amid the columns for a while. This seemed to be the final resting place of many an adventure seeker. Their bodies had long turned to dust, their armor and weapons heaps of rusted scrap.
I hurried to return while I could still see the altar's soft glow.

* * *

As soon as I approached the ancient place of power, the same system message popped up again, inviting me to "accept the challenge".
I ignored it, glancing non-committally over it.
There was something fishy about this "altar". The system's promises sounded too good to be true. There had to be a catch. The sheer number of dead bodies set my alarm bells ringing. I immediately thought about the sorcerer's empty book of spells. Could he have lost them all here, then become easy prey for the mantises on his way out?
I re-read the altar's characteristics.
Chaos was the key word, its unpredictable power equally capable of destruction as it was of creation.
Logically thinking, the altar's effects had to be unpredictable too. It could add a new spell to your book but it could also delete it. It could fill you with life — or kill you. Grant you a new level or strip you of your characteristics on the spot.
A faint noise distracted me from my musings. A steel door clanged in the dark, its locks creaking. Footsteps resounded through the dungeon. A faint light appeared at a distance and began to grow, approaching.
I put out the torch and froze.
There were two of them. One walked with a heavy gait, the other scurried along. A warrior and a wizard?
Both seemed quite at home down here. You could tell they'd been here a lot. They didn't even look at the altar, ignoring its defiant glow.
They'd come close enough for me to make out their voices and even recognize some of their gear.
"Max, I just don't get it. What are the techs thinking of? What's with all the wyverns? They're not supposed to be here!"
"See if I care," the warrior grumbled. "Main thing is, we've killed it. You don't mind getting paid for it, do you?"
"No, but did you see how much Life it had?" the wizard pressed on.
"Sure. Almost 10K. Quite a lot. Why, did you expect to see bunny rabbits down here? I thought you'd have gotten used to it by now. Every job is a challenge."
"You don't need to tell me. That's not what I'm talking about. This isn't part of the testing grounds, is it?"
The warrior stopped. "Why?" The torch in his hand cast enough light on both of them now.
"There must be a breach here somewhere. I could swear this mob has escaped from the testing grounds. Last week we tested a few just like that one for the new continent, remember?"
Breathless, I listened in, studying the strangers. For some reason, I couldn't see their stats. Their name tags were empty, revealing none of their respective levels, races or classes — nothing.
Suddenly the shape of their gear began to distort, transforming. Before I knew it, both were wearing identical gray uniforms. The only difference between them were their shoulder and chest insignia patches.
The distance (they were at least fifteen or twenty feet away from me) and the torch's quivering light prevented me from reading the fine print on the patches. Still, somehow I managed it. It must have been my new Spell Interception ability. This couldn't have been too different from lip reading, after all.

Infosystems Corporation
Defective Mobs Squad

"I shouldn't be too vocal about your breach theory, Mike. Not for the time being."
"Why not? Aren't you going to report the incident?"
"Not yet. Think for yourself: the wyvern was first sighted just next to Lock 14. I have a tech friend there. I wanna talk to him first. It might have been his error in which case it's up to him to clear up this mess. Otherwise it might look as if I'm pointing a finger at him. Not nice, you know."
The wizard shrugged. "Well, it's up to you. What's going on, anyway? The other day we had an earthquake followed by a demon attack on Agrion. But when I checked the event list, it said nothing about it! The boss is very jittery just lately. What's with shutting half the grounds down? A new experiment, they say. The chief technologist is missing: Jurgen Borne, if you know who I mean. Max? Hello? I'm talking to you! Did you know him?"
The warrior nodded. "He was a good guy," he sighed. "His wife is beyond herself with grief."
The wizard frowned. "How do you know?"
"They're friends with my parents."
"In that case maybe you can tell me what's going on?"
"They seem to be testing some new equipment. Some sort of neuroimplant, or so I heard. But please keep your mouth shut," he hurried to add. "The first test subject was a convicted criminal, from what I heard. He lasted less than twenty-four hours."
"Did he go nuts?"
"Oh no, it was worse than that. His identity seems to have disintegrated. Or maybe the neuroimplant just erased it, I don't know. My father said, Jurgen had been against it and even wanted to blow the whistle on the experiments. And then he went missing. So I shouldn't walk around shouting about it if I were you. The top brass have their hands full as it is. I'll report the wyvern myself when the moment is right."
"If you say so," the wizard acquiesced. "I don't need any problems."
Both headed for one of the walls which appeared to be of solid masonry — but the moment the warrior touched it, its surface became fluid, parting to reveal a massive steel door fitted with an electronic lock and a scanner. The door opened, letting the two Defective Mob fighters into an airlock chamber.

* * *

I waited some more, than lit the torch and walked over to the wall.
It was cold and rough to the touch. No sign of the steel door beyond.
I hadn't dreamed it all up, surely? Then again, this was a perfect place to conceal a secret passage connecting this particular location to the corporation's testing grounds.
Oh no, I wasn't touching this Altar of Chaos, not after what I'd just heard. It definitely was here for a reason.
I just couldn't believe it. Then again, why should I? As Dimian had said, it's amazing how rumors propagate. What did I care about the problems at the corporation's testing grounds, anyway?
They were none of my business, period. Did I really have a predecessor who'd gone nuts testing the neuroimplant? I had no idea. Nor did I wish to know. I was fine and that was all that mattered. I had more important things to do than listen to local campfire stories. I had two mantises waiting for me upstairs. And I still had to find the exit from the dungeon.
I gave the altar a wide berth. Someone might say I should have taken the risk but I'd rather do my own leveling, thank you very much. Now the human remains... I actually needed to check them all out. They might drop something useful.
My gaze chanced upon my PM box which I'd moved to the utmost periphery of my interface. Its little envelope-shaped icon was flashing.
Oh wow. Five unread messages? No wonder, considering I'd disabled the audio notification. But who was so insistent in trying to get through to me?
I opened my inbox.
Enea! She must have worked me out, after all. Or was she simply in the mood for a chat?

Hi Alex. I knew you were cool. Still, you could have added a message.
Hi Alex. Are you all right?
It's actually bad form to ignore a lady who's on your friend list. If you're busy just let me know. I don't mind.
What's up? Where are you? If you need help from a battle wizard, give me your coordinates.

1.10 pm
I can't get through to you. I'm a bit worried. If it's for nothing, I'll survive. Still I believe you need help. I'm coming,

What a predicament!
I glanced at the clock. It was 1.40 pm. Too late to dissuade her. By now, she must have already located my bearings: there was an option allowing you to do it for those on your friend list. I had to find the exit from this wretched dungeon and sort out the mantises before she found me.
The torch cast a small circle of light around me. All I could see on the location map was the altar and a fine line depicting the wall I was now tracing.
I wrote Enea a quick message just in case, warning her about the mantises lurking in the ruins, but it failed to send. The wretched altar! The Corporation had thought of everything. They must have blocked all communications from within the dungeon to make sure a stray player didn't share his accidental discovery with friends.
I came across another disintegrated body. What's with all the stage props? Did the game designers really need so many corpses here? Normally, when a player "dies", he leaves a small bundle of his possessions behind, that's all. Nothing of the kind here. The dungeon's floor was littered with decayed remains, their armor rusted, their clothes long rotten. Could this dungeon be the start of a new plot line, by any chance?
If the truth were known, I couldn't wait to get out of here. There was something not quite right about this place. It wasn't even about the two corporate workers — all they'd done was remind me of the real world outside. The Crystal Sphere settings had already grown on me, to the point where I'd begun to forget the existence of real world problems.
Steel glistened underfoot in the torch's glow. I bent down and picked up a strong-looking round shield with a long spike at its center, trimmed with some metal. It didn't look rusty, its leather straps still quite sturdy. I slid my arm through them.

You've received an item: Sturdy Shield.
Weight, 6.6 lb.
Durability, 70/150
Requires: Level 7, Strength, 5
+5% to your chances of knocking your enemy senseless.

I rummaged through what looked like the remains of an orc warrior and discovered a battle axe with some decent stats. Unfortunately, my level was too low to use it. I threw it into my inventory anyway. I might try and sell it.
I kept walking, checking with the map. Nothing new. The dungeon was enormous.
Gradually the darkness began to subside, replaced by a crimson glow reflected by the claustrophobically low ceiling. Soon I came across a wide ragged crevice hampering my progress.
Not this now!
I walked warily to the edge.
It felt as if I was looking out of a landing airplane's window. Below lay another underground level, covered in still waves of solidified lava. A fiery river of magma flowed through them. I could make out some ruins covering the lava banks and what looked like mining fields. Countless demonic creatures scurried around them. Judging by the remaining fragments of its architecture, this must once have been a Dwarven city.
The air reeked of sulfur.
Once again the recent earthquake had come to bite me in the backside. Why hadn't anyone fixed the breaches between locations yet? What had caused it to begin with, anyway? According to what the corporate worker had just said, it had come as a complete surprise to them too. Could it have been a hacking attack?
The fissure was too wide for me to jump across. I had to go looking for a narrower gap.
The bowels of the crevice breathed an intolerable heat. I drank one of the vials from the sorcerer's bag, just to be on the safe side. Thus protected, I walked along the chasm's edge.
Soon the crimson gloom parted, revealing an unfinished bridge arching over the precipice.
I froze, watching a gang of imps drag a multi-ton slab of stone toward the bridge. Their groans echoed from the walls in synch with their efforts. Pulley blocks screeched; leather-wound hoist lines vibrated, growing taut.
At a distance I noticed a bunch of fire scorpions, all levels 16+. The bridge was guarded by several level-10 liches. Further on, I could just make out the outlines of some flying monsters thrashing in the air, their leathery wings rustling.
I couldn't go any further. It looked like I might have to go back to the altar and look for a way up. Shame about the wasted vial.
I needed to search the dead bodies, too. They might drop a levitation scroll or an elixir. If push came to shove, I could make a rope. It was definitely better than trying to fight my way through a bunch of high-level mobs.

Communications were still blocked. I tried to send Enea another message but failed. Once I was out of here, I might need to find a road patrol and report what I'd just seen. That might actually improve my Reputation with Agrion city. They needed to make sure none of these subterranean mobs attacked this low-level nursery, saving newbs from the wrath of the creatures of Inferno.

Release - March 10, 2017


  1. An interesting concept. Transfer existing characters with their abilities or start afresh. A new VR world that will accept these as well. this could be a very interesting book. I wonder if we will be getting anymore to read that what is already there?

    1. We'll definitily post more. For now only a quarter of the book is translated and it would take awhile to edit it properly.

  2. This is looking good. Only a few more days before publication. It'll be nice to read the full book.

    1. Your comments really matters to us, thanks, Dave.