Friday, April 7, 2017

The Neuro, Book 2 - read online

The Neuro, Book II
The Curse of Rion Castle
by Andrei Livadny

Release - July 6

Chapter One

A WARM STARRY night swept over the Toxic Moors.
Mere minutes had elapsed since Christa and Enea had faced each other in combat.
Reams of system messages flashed through my mental view,

Congratulations! You've activated the castle's stationary teleport!
Congratulations! You've activated the castle's safe respawn zone!
Congratulations! You've claimed ownership of Rion Castle!

You've received a new level!

New quest alert: Purge
Quest type: unique
Before dawn breaks, you need to purge the donjon of the spawn of the dark.
Reward: By succeeding, you'll remove the ancient curse cast on the castle by enemy wizards. The castle control interface will be unblocked.

Wisps of mist floated in the moonlight. The ancient citadel dominated the island, its three defense levels masterfully cut into the towering cliffs. Rion Castle had suffered a lot during the century-old siege. Its walls were breached, its gate towers lying in heaps of collapsed stonework.
Time had completed what the enemy had begun. Autumnal storms had buried the inner yards in rotten leaves and broken tree branches which had eventually formed a fertile layer of top soil, offering root hold to thick woody vines which rambled up the castle walls, shrouding them in a green veil of oblivion.
I stood in the yard, facing the donjon. From now on, this was our clan seat. The heart of Rion Castle was cut in three precipitous peaks fashioned into towers. Their walls were lined with small fortified platforms built at several levels. Arrow-slit defense galleries and the tall vaulting windows of inner halls adorned the towering structures.
At a distance, strange calls echoed over the moors. Moonlight seeped over the ancient walls.
Rusty door hinges creaked. Zander, the mercenaries' commander, walked over to me and looked up, following my gaze.
"Alexatis, we're wasting our time," he said. "Don't you think we should be getting on with the purge? We only have seven hours left till sunrise. What are you waiting for?"
"I can't find anything about this ancient curse," I admitted as I watched a ghost's translucent outline appear from a breach in the wall, heading for a window above. "It's not in the Wiki. Forums don't mention it, either."
Shadows flashed past in the moonlight — probably a group of gargoyles moving from one defense platform to the next.
"Level thirty," Zander commented before the wall-nesting beasts could disappear from sight.
A weak light oozed through a row of arrowslits overhead. A few windows above them welled with a dull crimson glow.
"If this is in the quest you and Enea received, then you should be able to do it," Zander said confidently. "The night won't be boring, that's for sure."
He grinned in anticipation of combat. "Listen. You've got both the castle's stationary portal and its respawn point activated. I might bring in a few more men if you wish. Ten, maybe? What would you say to that?"
As I pondered over the state of my bank account, the others joined us. All but Platinus, that is. Our alchemist had stayed inside the donjon, rummaging through the mostly broken artifacts which littered the floor of the main hall. The majority of them were utterly useless — but still he'd managed to locate a quite decent wizard's staff which he'd immediately gifted to Enea to replace the one she'd broken during her fight with Christa.
Iskandar and Rodrigo, our two wizards, kept squinting curiously at the ancient item.
"Mind if we take a look?" they finally asked her.
"Sure," Enea replied matter-of-factly. She was still pale and tense from the recent combat. "I can't see its stats for some reason. Only question marks."
"How strange," Rodrigo agreed. "Look at the stone, it's gone completely dull."
"May I?" Iskandar took the staff from him but equally failed to bring it back to life. The weak spark which had initially glowed within the precious stone had already expired.
Iskandar shrugged. "How are you supposed to activate it? You sure our levels are high enough to use it?"
Togien shifted from one foot to the other, impatient. "Alexatis, what are we waiting for?"
"I'm trying to work out how to remove the curse."
"Don't overcomplicate things, man. The quest says we've got to purge the castle. And that's what we're gonna do! We'll mop the place up room by room. How difficult is that? We'll be done by the morning!"
Enea walked over to me.
The miniscule Alpha, her new Black Mantis pet, crawled out of her tresses and jumped over to her shoulder, then scurried down her arm until it reached her fingers. From there, he climbed onto the staff and scampered all the way to the top where he froze, studying the dead stone.
Funny critter. He sat there for some time, meditating, then scampered back down the staff.
"Alpha, you're hurting me!" Enea cried out. The little mantis had apparently pricked her fingertip.
Why would he do that? Why would a pet deal damage to its owner?
Blood from the wound trickled onto the staff which turned transparent, revealing what looked like a web of mummified blood vessels within. The bright drops of Enea's blood filtered inside and were immediately absorbed, filling and feeding the staff's shriveled capillaries.
A light flashed within the stone. Slowly at first, it began to pulsate faster and faster as if Enea's blood had breathed life back into it.

The Heart of a Hydra
Item type: A magic staff
Class: Relic
-50% to the Mental Energy expenditure required to cast a spell.
+10% to Physical Defense
+10% to mental defense
+10% to close-combat Damage
Effect: Aura of a Predator. Slows down or repels all non-Elemental enemies.
Restriction: only a rightful defender of Rion Castle

"You're one lucky girl," Rodrigo said in amazement, studying the item's stats. "But why Elemental? Isn't the Founders' magic based on Chaos?"
"You're the expert," Iskandar grinned sarcastically. "Enea, don't listen, he's just jealous. There's nothing we know for certain about the Founders or their magic, only rumors. No one has ever managed to study any of the ruins they left behind. In this respect, you and Alexatis have been really lucky."
"He's right," Rodrigo nodded. "Can you even imagine all the secrets these walls might harbor? Or the power of a clan smart enough to uncover them? Even I — I did hear about the ancient blood magic, of course, but I had no idea some of its artifacts had actually survived..."
"Right," Zander interrupted their discussion. 'Alexatis, what did you decide? Should I call in some reinforcements? Or do you think we can manage?"
Mechanically I glanced at my interface clock.


He had a point. It was midnight and we hadn't even started.
"Okay," I said. "We can use a few more men."

* * *

DARKNESS FELL when least expected.
One moment the Moon illuminated the donjon; the heavy sounds of the hydras' footsteps wading through the quagmire traveled far in the crystalline air. Then all the arrowslits and windows spewed out a viscous black fog which enveloped everything around us, wiping out the stars and damping all the sounds.
I stretched out my hand but couldn't see my own fingers.
"What's going on?" Platinus' angry voice came from inside. "Who turned off the lights?"
The earth shuddered underfoot.
"Get away from me!" a weak flash of light came from inside the donjon as Platinus, scared out of his mind, hurled one of his vials at some attacking force. I heard an angry growl but couldn't see any details in the darkness that flooded the air.


This was midnight by the Crystal Sphere's in-game time!
"Follow my voice!" Zander bellowed, failing to get to the teleport. "We need to stay close!"
The darkness shifted, its intangible depths stirring. A heavy wingbeat hit me with a sudden gust of wind. Something huge rushed past overhead. I heard a thumping sound and a weak cry, followed by the screeching of claws tearing through armor.

Togien. Warrior
Current status: Awaiting respawn.

Wheezing noises were followed by the rattling of swords. A yellowed shard of bone flew through the air, landing at my feet. The flash of a spell tore through the darkness.

Platinus. Sorcerer
Current status: Awaiting respawn.

The ancient curse cast over Rion Castle is active from midnight till dawn. It increases all respawn times tenfold and casts a Degeneration debuff on all respawned creatures, both players and NPCs, detracting 5 pt. from all stats for the duration of 5 hrs. with the exception of the Cohort of the Fallen.

* * *

"THEY'RE everywhere!" Iskandar shouted.
The viscous darkness stood between us. Even my Twilight Vision ability proved useless against it. The only way to find one's bearings was by focusing on the sounds — which too were spine-chilling. Masonry crumbling. Paving stones shifting with a screech.
A pair of bony hands grabbed at my shins. I sliced through the shriveled flesh, wrestling free of their grasp.
"Enea!" I shouted, leaping aside.
For a brief moment, a Cleansing Aura cast by Zander illuminated the entire area. The darkness shrank back, revealing a hair-raising view. About a dozen high-level warriors in rusty armor had surrounded the mercs. Pierced by a spear, Virgil's avatar was slowly vanishing. Tylor had sunk to one knee, his shield split, his sword broken, his life bar rapidly fading. His tag was absolutely crowded with debuff icons.
The earth shuddered again.
A cloud of ash rose into the air. Its particles were rapidly fusing, forming yet another tall outline.

A Fallen Legionnaire. Level 27

A rush of horror ran over me. I hurried to cast a spell before the enemy could complete his reincarnation. A roaring column of fire scorched through the darkness, scattering the ashes in the air.
I swung round. Behind me, Enea, Rodrigo and Iskandar were also surrounded. Still, the pulsating stone which topped the Staff of a Hydra prevented their enemies from getting too close. The staff's Aura of a Predator slowed the attackers' movements, saving the wizards from an imminent hand-to-hand.

Virgil. Warrior
Current status: Awaiting respawn

Tylor. Warrior
Current status: Awaiting respawn

The light expired.
Before the darkness could close over us, I grabbed a spear from the ground and hurled it at the nearest legionnaire in a desperate attempt to come to Zander's aid.
He was still going strong. The blade of his longsword tirelessly drew new combos in the air. Still, the thickening gloom had already begun to consume the dying glitter of the moonsilver weapon.

Rodrigo. Combat Wizard
Current status: Awaiting respawn

Iskandar. Combat Wizard
Current status: Awaiting respawn

Zander's icon in the group's interface flashed red.
"Enea!" I shouted, trying to locate her in the pitch darkness. To no avail.
"Alex, I'm here! Help!"
A wall of fire rose to the sky, repelling the enemies' dark outlines.
I darted toward her. One of the legionnaires had already raised his spear, about to bury it in Enea's chest. Sensing my approach, he began to turn to face me. Too late. My sword sliced through his crumbling armor, extracting a hoarse scream from him.

Zander. Paladin
Current status: Awaiting respawn

This was a complete and utter wipeout.
The heaps of wind-driven fallen leaves began to smolder. Enea and I stood back to back. The undead legionnaires — there were five of them left — surrounded us. Our chances were minimal. My heart raced. I struggled to breathe.
The stench of death floated over the ground. To me, all this was perfectly real. The neuroimplant kept flooding my brain with the graphic images of our enemies' armor glinting in the dying flames, their visors oozing gloom. The dirt underfoot was mixed with fallen leaves and the shreds of burned flesh.
A bead of sweat dripped from my forehead, snaking down my cheek. I could feel Enea shiver. The legionnaires lingered, wary of the Aura of a Predator.
Fragments of thoughts flashed through my mind. I'd almost made the next level. I could take the risk. I had to attack them first.
"Keep healing me!" I shouted to Enea.
With my left hand I grabbed a spear lying in the smoldering grass and buried it in the nearest enemy's shield. The zombie swung round with the impact; the heavy spear shaft dipped, tracing a semicircle over the ground until it tripped up the feet of the legionnaire next to him. Trying to keep his balance, he opened up, allowing me to stab him with my sword. He recoiled and dropped his weapon, howling and clutching instinctively at his wound as if to stop the gushing of blood.
I swung round again. My sword's blade glinted through the gloom. Another enemy started making croaking noises.
I moved fast, giving it my all. The Aura of a Predator turned out to be one hell of a powerful debuff. The Staff of a Hydra slowed the enemies down, constricting their movements — but still the level gap worked in their favor. Two of them managed to get to me. Pain flooded my mind. I lost my footing before I could complete a new attack. Blood trickled down my leg. A hefty blow from a rusty battle hammer had made my shoulder numb.
I somehow managed to block a new blow and stepped back, limping. Enea kept healing me non-stop but the flashes of the Minor Heal took too long to restore my health properly.
Still, I'd already smoked one of them. Four to go. The mercs had done a good job on them. Legionnaires didn't have Regeneration. Their life bars glowed crimson. All I had to do was finish them off. I could do that!
The tallest and strongest of them hurled his shield aside and lunged onto me. His oxidized sword whooshed through the air. I ducked just in time, slashing at his leg, then rolled over the ground toward the next one, stabbing him in the chest from below. His heavy body collapsed on top of me, pinning me to the ground, then crumbled to ashes.
A fireball roared past my shoulder. Another zombie went up in flames, torch-like, before he could finalize his attack. Still running, he took a few more steps and dissolved into a cloud of soot which slowly drifted to the ground.
Two left. This wasn't so bad, after all. Enea promptly ported out of another zombie's reach. A crossbow twanged in the dark. A heavy bolt pierced my armor and stuck deep in my ribs.
My life promptly plummeted, stopping at 10%. Blood gushed from the wound. My breathing seized. My vision swam. I couldn't expect an immediate heal as Enea's mental energy bar was dangerously close to zero while my sword kept siphoning my mana, feeding it to the glowing runes which allowed me to deal additional damage.
I struggled to remain standing. The Mortal Wound debuff I'd received with the crit prevented me from moving freely.
"Alex, the vial!" Enea cried out in desperation.
Impossible. My legs were weak, my fingers didn't obey me; the quick access slots in my interface blurred, then faded. My mind began to shut down.
I must have zoned out for a few seconds. A green flash exploded before my eyes. The pain released me. My every muscle filled with strength. My life and mental energy indicators soared, filling to the brim.

You've received a new level!

Still unbelieving that I'd somehow avoided going to my respawn point, I sprang to my feet and cast a look around.
Enea was nowhere to be seen. Two of the surviving legionnaires stood with their backs to me, peering into the thick darkness.
One of them threw his hand in the air, pointing. "There!"
Still reeling from the shock, I unhesitantly lunged at them before they could disappear into the dark. I critted one (because a surprise attack almost always ends in a crit), then dodged the other one's blow by ducking under his battle hammer's path, slashed at his legs, then shrank aside and froze in place.

You've received a new level!

The darkness around me began to fall apart, disintegrating into separate wisps and revealing the dull pulsating glow of the gem topping the Staff of the Hydra.
She turned round. With a weak cry, she rushed toward me and threw herself on my neck, pressing her body against mine, oblivious of everything around us. Her heart fluttered in her chest.
"Alex... you're alive..."
This wasn't like a game at all. The situation was too intense and poignant, too fragile, too real-life.
"It's all right. Don't get so worked up," I stroked her hair. "You've saved me from respawning."
She sniffled. "No, I haven't. I just didn't know what to do. My hands shook so badly I spilled half the vial. I tried to heal you but it didn't work. Then those two bastards went for you. I ported without even looking. That orc just sat there stringing his crossbow. He stank like you can't imagine. His armor was all rusty. I was so jumpy I just hit him with Lightning."
"That's it! That's how I got the little bit of XP I needed!"[i]
"Really?" she ran her hand over my stubbly cheek. Embarrassed, she stepped back to pick up her staff from the ground. "So what are we going to do?"
Good question. I looked around. We'd done the first floor — or at least the outside of it. The darkness had shrunk upwards, swirling.
The little Black Mantis climbed out onto Enea's shoulder and cast a watchful eye around. Having noticed no danger, he began rearranging a disheveled lock of her hair. Cute beastie. He might grow up into a fearsome and devoted pet.
"Zander was right about one thing," I said. "A quest is always doable. If the curse can't be removed, they'd have simply rejected our castle application."
"But there're only two of us left," Enea said anxiously. "The others won't be back till sunrise — and their debuffs will still be active!"
The trolls' heart-rending screams came from the tower's upper floors. It looked like the legionnaires killed everything in their path indiscriminately.
"I haven't found out anything about the curse," I said. "But now we have another lead to follow. Try to find what you can about the Cohort of the Fallen."
"Okay. Do you want us to stay here?"
"No. We're going upstairs. I want to see if the donjon is split into several locations."
"What's that gonna do for us?"
"If every floor is a separate location, then we just might be able to purge them all. Do you remember what I said to you about the game mechanics?"
A smile touched her lips. She must have remembered the pond, the toad and her first little triumph. "I see. Does that mean that Zander's level triggered the mobs' attack? Did you say they were adaptive?"
She was gradually learning to use the lingo. "Exactly. If these locations are adaptive, it means that the mobs too should be doable," I said, trying to cheer her up.
The recent fight with Christa had had a strange effect on her. Enea had grown quiet and unsmiling. Her impulsiveness was gone; a sudden fatigue had replaced her original excitement with the gameplay. She just wasn't used to it yet. Spending twenty-four hours sitting at the console surrounded by lifelike holograms could cause a serious mental overload in a newb.

* * *

"COME ON now," I drew Enea into the Resurrection Hall. According to the map, that was the name of the main hall of the donjon's first level.
It was dark. The lamps lining the walls had expired. Little purple lights floated over the teleport platform. I'd never managed to get to the control unit plastered with runes. Still, we didn't have the time. I'd have to leave all such experiments till morning.
The Heart of a Hydra cast its light onto the ancient walls. A narrow tunnel-like staircase snaked through the stonework, rising to the donjon's next level. The remnants of several portcullises, dilapidated and rusty, had blocked it once, preventing an attacking enemy from breaking through to the top floors.
Enea was busy looking it up online. Even though we'd received our first prompt, we still had to find out whether there was any mention of the Cohort in public access.
The thick layer of dust mixed with ashes felt springy underfoot. The darkness swirled high overhead. We'd have to enter it soon. In the meantime, I used Twilight Vision which highlighted the outlines of all objects which had been lying here since the times of the epic battle.
I picked up a good sturdy shield. The sword kept siphoning my mental energy. I didn't mind, really. It would be stupid to pass up the opportunity to deal some additional damage to the enemy. The narrow staircase, too, offered a decent chance of repelling any surprise attacks, as least long enough for Enea to cast her spells.
"Got it!" she exclaimed.
I was so glad to hear the excitement back in her voice. "Tell me. In a nutshell."
"I'd better read it. Here:

In days far gone, when the powers of Light and Dark had united against the followers of the Founder Gods, Rion Castle had become the last stronghold of the ancient religion, offering refuge to its remaining worshippers. Many a desperate year did the siege last. Many a time did the attackers attempt to storm the castle — all to no avail."

I interrupted her, "We know all this already, don't we? What we need to find out is who the Fallen Legionnaires are."
She continued reading,

"The Cohort of the Chosen used to unite the strongest warriors, sorcerers and wizards amongst the Disciples. They didn't know defeat. Their arrival used to decide the outcome of the most desperate of battles. In the meantime, the dissent amongst the besiegers grew: you can't expect Light and Dark to coexist in peace. Soon it became pretty clear that the coalition was living its last days. Seeing that, the leader of the demons suggested launching one final offensive. Upon his orders, tunnels were dug through to the castle's underground dungeons. And as the battle reached its climax, hundreds of dark wizards sacrificed themselves to cast one last spell, shattering the cliffs in a desperate combined effort. The Cohort of the Chosen was sent to stop the assault..."

Enea stopped to catch her breath. I peered into the gloom. Up the slightly winding staircase, I could just see a door on a small landing.
"You all right?" I asked Enea without turning.
"Just out of breath," she said, gasping. The stone on top of her staff seemed to pulsate faster in synch with her rapid heartbeat. "I've installed a new VR system last night. I'm not quite used to it yet."
"So what about the Cohort? Did they manage to repel the demons' attack?"
"I don't think so. Here's what it says,

"Then the Higher Demons summoned a powerful control curse from the bowels of the earth. Only a few of the legionnaires managed to resist the spell while all others fell victim to dark magic and attacked their own from behind. The spell-bound warriors slaughtered the wizards before they could cast cleansing auras on them. And by doing so, they broke the solemn oath they had sworn to the Founders and became the Cohort of the Fallen."

"And the curse, what's that all about?"
"Every night the legionnaires return to relive that fateful night. Over and over again they betray their friends and storm the castle, killing everything in their path."
"Does that mean they're still formally under the demons' control?"
"Apparently not. Although the Cohort of the Fallen is listed under the Powers of the Dark, the legionnaires don't follow their orders. They simply pay for what they have wrought."
"You mean, they know what they're doing?"
"I think so, but they don't seem to be able to change anything," she offered.
I walked up the stairs and pushed the door. It creaked open, revealing a small room behind. It must have been an armory. The floor was littered with arrows and an occasional rusty sword. Halberds leaned against the wall. A few empty oil vats stood in the corner.
"Any ideas how we could lift the curse?" I asked her.
"Not yet," she admitted. "Can't think of anything at the moment. We might receive more prompts, you never know. In any case, I don't think we can just 'mop the place up room by room,' as Togien suggested. There're just too many of them."
"True," I said, exiting the room which held nothing of interest. The staircase led upward. Very soon we'd have to re-enter the darkness.

* * *

WE CONTINUED up the stairs. Soon the sticky darkness closed around us again, filled with mind-chilling whispers and whimpering.
The staff's light struggled to dispel the viscous gloom. It didn't cast long shadows any more, exuding a weak light around us.
"It's so cold here..."
I too was frozen to the bone. I didn't see where I was going anymore. The pressure on my mind kept growing.
"Alex," Enea said softly, "what is it between you and Christa?"
"Sorry, can we discuss it some other time? I'll tell you everything, I promise," I climbed up another stair and froze, listening in. I didn't hear anything suspicious.
"No, let's do it now," impatient jealous notes rang in her voice. "Why does this bitch always have to stand in our way?"
I turned to her in disbelief. What was wrong with her?
The staff's unsteady light sharpened her features. I didn't recognize the look in her eyes. I couldn't figure it out.
The Heart of a Hydra pulsated faster.
The staff's sharp end scratched the floor as she flung it up, pointing it at my chest.
She changed her grip on it, grasping the staff with both hands. So tense, so beautiful. So desirable.
What the hell had happened? The world seemed to have turned inside out. My most secret, most impossible dreams had suddenly resurfaced, escaping my self-control.
"Do you love her?"
Our locked gazes filled with pain. Our emotions tensed up, sharpening to the point of insanity. One rash word, and there'd be no way back.
The runes on my sword glowed defiantly. Enea waited for me to answer. Still, the truth would kill her.
Once again our stares met. My forehead felt cold with sweat. My fingers closed around the hilt of my sword. My emotions were in overdrive, choking reason, drowning it in the depths of resurfacing desires.
"Alex, talk to me! I dropped everything and followed you like an idiot!"
In real life, moments like these are bound to end in either a desperate show of passion — or in a breakup. We both were like live wires devoid of reason.
Her lips shook. The daggers in her cold prickly glare pierced my heart but failed to dishearten my agonizing desire to possess what I couldn't have.
The darkness kept creeping up on us, enveloping us, disgorging faint shadowy outlines...
Enea saw them too. "Let's put an end to this!" she exhaled bitterly.
We struck out in synch.
Her staff's sharp tip missed my temple by a hair. My sword flashed through the gloom, piercing the clot of darkness just over her shoulder.
Clinging to each other, we watched the two shadowy silhouettes gain shape and detail, materializing. Two sorcerers clad in rotten tattered robes slumped to the ground behind our backs.
I could feel her heart flutter against mine.
My ears rang with the adrenaline rush.
The curse of Rion Castle had brushed our minds just to show us how deep and treacherous the emotional void could be. Its edge is all too easy to overstep; its abyss a long and hopeless drop.
"No," her hand touched my lips. "Don't say anything."

* * *

"STEP BACK," I croaked, sensing the cold's freezing approach.
We descended a dozen steps to the safety of the wall's curve and stopped by the armory's open door, just outside of the swirling darkness.
Enea was gasping, averting her embarrassed gaze.
I was seriously worried about her. Very. "Why would the castle's curse affect you so badly?"
She must have sensed the anxiety in my voice but not the reason for it. "Shouldn't it?"
I vividly imagined her in her VR room, surrounded by holograms. A player perceives the visuals and audio effects, plus an occasional input from the environment generator, allowing Enea to sense smells, temperature changes or the touch of a breeze. The tactile sensors allowed her to "feel" the objects around her. The shock membranes imitated the damage taken.
All of the above combined could build a rather believable immersive experience — but that was the extent of it! There was only one device which could affect a player's mind, triggering an uncontrollable surge of emotions.
The neuroimplant.
"What made you freak out like that?" I demanded.
"Alex, please! I don't know, do I? Just a momentary lapse. I couldn't think straight. I'm sorry, okay? To tell you the truth, I'm a bit tired. This new VR system is too powerful. I think that's what must have caused it."
"What, that new cutting-edge equipment? Could you describe it to me?"
What she said made me completely change my view of our technology levels. "Just a new-generation VR capsule. It's filled with special sensory gel. It comes with a feedback feature and resistance emulators. The immersion effect is just out of this world."
"That wouldn't explain how the curse could affect your brain! I'd like you to touch your right temple. Can you feel anything there?"
"Alex, please. Get a grip. What's wrong with you?"
I didn't reply, waiting for her to do it.
"Okay, okay," Enea touched her right temple. Or rather, her avatar repeated the movement she made in real life.
"And? Can you feel anything? Tell me!"
"I can feel something, yeah. A chip? So what?" she shrugged. "The sensory gel is absolutely stuffed with them."
"You need to log out — now!"
"Excuse me?" she stared closely in my eye. "Is this how you normally break up with someone? Couldn't think of anything better?"
A wave of heat rushed over me.
She didn't know! They'd used her! Without her consent! She too was part of the experiment!
"Alex? I'm waiting. Either you tell me what it's all about or I will leave this time," she sounded angry and upset.
"Let's go somewhere safe," I grabbed her hand and dragged her inside the armory, then closed the door shut behind us.
She perched on top of an upright barrel and gave me a frowned look.
I forced the massive bolt bar shut and took a seat next to her. "Has anyone told you about neuroimplants?" I asked, struggling not to betray my emotional state.
"First time I hear about them."
"It's just a small gadget which processes all gaming events, then feeds them into the host's brain, allowing the player to experience virtual reality first hand."
"Bullshit. Impossible. The equipment I ordered is the latest thing. I consulted the experts. I wanted the best I could have. No one even mentioned something like that to me."
"Okay. Now I want you to do a quick online search. Have a look at the accident reports for March 18 this year."
She zoned out momentarily, then turned pale. "But that's you, isn't it? Alex? It says here you died in a road accident!"
"Not exactly. I survived. But I had to make a deal with the Infosystems. I didn't want to be reduced to a vegetable."
Breathless and visibly shaken, she hung on my every word.
"They suggested I take the risk and become a neuroimplant test subject. That allowed me to move to the Crystal Sphere."
"And your body?" she mouthed.
"It's still there, in the life support chamber. Attended by their medical staff."
Word by reluctant word, I was forced to tell her everything. About Christa's sudden decision to sell her Crystal Sphere account. About me locating her in the real world. And the rest of it...
"Jesus, Alex. I can't believe it."
"Whatever. Every word of it is true. I fear for your life, don't you understand? I have nothing to lose! I know the risks! But that duel with Christa could have killed you just with the shock of the pain! You need to log out! Please! You need to break contact with the implant! Call your father and tell him what you know now. I'm sure he'll find a way to protect you. This isn't a joke! You can die, as simple as that!"
"Why would they implant me with this thing?"
"No idea! They might have already finished fine-tuning it and are now busy pushing the test boundaries on the sly. Any feedback from unsuspecting users is priceless for the device developers."
Her pupils dilated, once again glinting with madness.
Her reaction was strange. She closed her eyes, stood up and began tapping the air with her fingers as if entering a code.
The battle chat window showed me what she was seeing: the surge of a nasty-looking gelatinous goo and Enea's familiar body lying in it. The dull emergency light of the VR capsule was harsh on the eye. The other Enea kept pressing her hand to the chip stuck to her right temple to make sure it didn't drop and get lost in the gel.
She shook off her padded helmet which hung swaying on its thin cable. The picture I received through its projection visor blurred momentarily, surged with interference, then restored. I heard the hiss of the capsule's pneumatic lid as it rose sideways, opening.
She climbed out. Still, contrary to my expectations, she kept feeding me data!
Dozens of antigravity modules hovered around her, moving freely around the room. As far as I could remember, one such "Santa's helper" was more complex and pricey than a sports flybot.
They hurried to clean the girl up from the remaining bits of gel. Enea wrapped herself in a fluffy bathrobe and sank into a soft easy chair. And then-
Her avatar next to me opened her eyes.
What a shocking experiment. The battle chat window closed.
The dull light cast by the Staff of a Hydra danced on the tiny scales of Enea's unique armor, illuminating her face. The tiny Alpha climbed out of her hair and froze momentarily on her shoulder. With a sharp swing of his leg, he buried his venomous stinger in a tiny spider and swallowed him whole.
She didn't seem to have noticed. Looking me in the eye, she asked, "Can you feel everything? Everything everything?"
"I can."
Our eyes lit up with a rush of insane desire.
"Me too... It's not like it used to be. It's deeper... more intense," her lips timidly touched my cheek. "Alex, I'm not going anywhere," her whisper scorched my mind. "Don't even think about it..."
I buried my fingers in her hair. Our lips were touching softly. I was losing my mind.
"I'm not going," she whispered stubbornly between kisses.
"They'll find you, don't you understand?"
"I don't care. Whatever. I want to be with you..."
We couldn't draw ourselves away from each other. Tears ran down her cheeks. Her eyes glistened. Our nerves began to burn up.

* * *

CONGRATULATIONS! The darkness has retreated, unable to resist the new force which has just entered the Crystal Sphere!

You've successfully cleansed the second level of the donjon!
You've received a new level!
You've received Achievement: The Light of Passion
+1 to all stats whenever the person you love is with you.

We both startled.
"The developers must be spying on us," I said.
"Or it might be just the game engine reacting to the changes. It's adaptive, remember?" she clung to me, looking over the dusty, messy room. "This is crazy. It feels like a dream... but I don't want to wake up. What a shame I didn't know. I could have talked to Christa."
"She hates us."
"That's what you say. I'm pretty sure she's just a normal girl. She was probably so tired of all the pain... she must have been so lonely. She just happened to join the wrong crowd... and now she's freefalling."
"How do you know?"
"I'm a real-world girl too. You think I had it all delivered on a silver platter? I never knew my mother. My dad was too busy moving and shaking to take care of me. He shipped me off to a boarding school. The girls there were so spoiled you can't imagine. Such a bunch of sourpusses. Sorry, I don't even want to talk about it. Did you see the clock? We only have five hours left! I want my castle clean and filled with light! Come on now," she sprang up and pulled me by the hand. "We need to look for more prompts!"
"All right, all right. You can stay till morning. Don't argue. I know how these neuroimplants work. Once we complete the quest, you're going to log out and have a nice long sleep. That's an order."
"All right," she agreed. "As you say."
Very well. I had something else to do in the morning. It was about time Mr. Borisov and I had a talk. Seeing as he'd given me the summoning scroll, anyway...

* * *

OUTSIDE, the night was just starting to get a little lighter. I still couldn't see the Moon nor the stars.
The tiered ruins of ancient bastions rose around us. The pitch blackness that used to envelop the castle now spiraled, swirling, high overhead.
I focused on the nearest of the platforms lining the donjon walls, about fifty feet above. It was formed by the cliff's natural ledge framed by stumps of collapsed masonry. This part of the donjon must have endured some devastating fire during the siege. We might still be able to locate the trebuchet positions on some of the little islands on the moors: they were the only weapons capable of hurling massive boulders to distances of five hundred feet and more.
Dark outlines appeared on the platform from a breach in the wall. Gradually their tags came into focus,

Fallen Warrior. Level 22
Fallen Sorcerer. Level 30
Fallen Guard. Level 25

The latter seemed the most dangerous of the three.
"What do we do?" Enea whispered.
"It looks like the legionnaires have spread all over the donjon. Do you think you could port us up to that platform?"
"Sure. The staff has enhanced my abilities really a lot."
"In that case, I want you to hit the guard with Lightning and port us straight away. Once that done, you should just stick to healing. Understand?"
She nodded.
"Are you ready?"
Lightning seared the air, critting the guard and shrinking his life bar in half.
I heard the recognizable popping sound of a teleport. Enea ported us both to the platform and buried the sharp end of her staff in the sorcerer's throat.
Its stone flashed, pulsating vigorously. The sorcerer's black blood hissed, darkening the staff, as the Heart of a Hydra erupted with crimson charges of energy. The sorcerer's tattered robes caught fire, dealing him additional damage.
I slashed through the warrior's armor, simultaneously casting Subzero with my left hand. The spell escaped my fingers with a flash, freezing the attacking guard solid before he could complete his assault.
My sword drew a well-practiced combo in the air. Wheezing, the warrior collapsed to one side. The guard's head tumbled away, leaving a bloody trail on the rock.
"Alpha, don't! You can't eat that!" Enea exclaimed. Her cheeks glowed from the fight, her eyes bright, her hair in disarray.
The Black Mantis — who'd grown quite a lot already — turned his triangular head in surprise but didn't dare disobey, shaking his spiky leg free of the tiny bit of dead flesh he'd managed to catch in flight.
The entrance to the tower was not far away. Still, having made sure that no more surprise attackers lurked around, I looked up at the next defense platform overhead. It was about thirty feet away, the wall around it virtually undamaged. No idea what awaited us there. Still, fighting our way through the donjon's inner halls swarming with the fallen defenders was out of the question. We wouldn't last long against them.
Enea's mana levels had already restored. She nodded to me, signaling she was ready to port us again.
"Wait," I clenched the sword's hilt, channeling my mental energy to the symbols lining the sword's blood groove. The runes along the top half of the blade began to glow.
My own mana took much longer to restore. I waited till the bar filled about 50%. "Off we go!"
Another popping sound. Darkness momentarily enveloped us, followed by a shaky torch light. A dull growl came from behind a helmet's lowered visor. A steel blade whooshed through the air.
I ducked. A poleaxe sank into the rocky wall just above my head, striking off a cascade of sparks.
A burly orc clad in cargonite armor towered in front of me. His level was considerably higher than mine. Not good. The poleaxe looked like a toy in his enormous fists. His practiced movements betrayed an experienced warrior.
Darkness trailed after him over the rock debris, marking him as another victim of the ancient curse.
"Port yourself over there!" I pointed my sword at a fragment of destroyed stone bridge which must have connected two of the bastions. Supported by crumbling pillars, its middle vault still rose over the chasm way out of the enemy's reach.
In a short risky teleport Enea jumped onto it. She could now cast distance spells from the relative safety of the bridge.
I was alone against five of the Fallen. My chances of survival were negligible.
I chose a blood Elf whose level was the same as mine. Before attacking him, I sent a brief message to the battle chat,

Enea — the orc!

Got it!

A bolt of lightning seared through the darkness, illuminating all around. In a cascade of sparks from his molten armor, the orc went sprawling to the ground. A large hole gaped in his breastplate, his clothes still smoldering. His angry roar shattered the silence.
Enea had invested all of her mental energy into this spell, the most powerful in her arsenal. It would take her several seconds to restore.
The agile Elf kept dodging my attacks with ease. His upper lip — apparently ripped during the battle for the castle and unable to heal since — rose in a disdainful sneer. Two more were stealing up on me from the side. My mana was taking too long to restore. I opened a quick access slot, equipping the shield.
The trailing darkness concealed the objects' true shapes. I could hear screams and the clanging of steel coming from the donjon as Rion Castle replayed the ancient tragedy as it had done every night ever since. If I failed to lift the curse, this castle would never become our home.
A smashed window frame went flying through the air, followed by a shower of broken stained glass. A gravely wounded knight tumbled out of the window and clattered to the ground in a heap. Immediately he jumped back to his feet and shouted, staggering and leaning onto his sword,
The Elf — who was on the brink of finishing me off — cut his attack short and lunged to one side, turning to the newcomer. "Helmud! Finally! Time to settle the score!"
Without hesitation, I hurried to the wounded knight's help as he began to retreat from the Elf's energetic attack. "Hold on!"
The exhausted knight struggled under pressure.
The orc was also coming for me now. The wound in his chest oozed darkness. I'd been wrong thinking that these locations weren't adaptive. The higher we climbed, the stronger the quest NPCs became.
Enea managed to cast Endurance on me, and not a moment too soon. A whack from the orc's poleaxe shattered my shield; I staggered but remained standing.
My life bar shrank about 10%. I didn't feel the pain yet. My blood was boiling with adrenaline. The neuroimplant kept adjusting the combat configuration non-stop. Throwing caution to the wind, I lunged at the orc, catching him in mid-swing as he opened up, raising his poleaxe for the final coup the grace.
My sword sliced through the metal, cutting deep into the putrid flesh.
The orc staggered and dropped to one knee. With a furious unintelligible growl, he attempted to scramble to his feet, losing strength. His hands refused to obey him; his tag sported a Mortal Wound debuff.
One down. I didn't have to worry about that one anymore. He was about to die a natural death.
I swung round. The knight was cornered with his back to the wall. His longsword had been broken. A shower of blows struck cascades of sparks from his armor.
A bolt of lightning pierced the attacking legionnaire. His body arced. I ducked under his halberd's trajectory in a desperate combo.
Black blood hissed on the rocks. A golden shimmer enveloped me. System messages flashed through my mental view, reporting a new level. The Elf swept the knight off his feet and buried his stiletto in a gap between his armor plates, extorting a wheezing scream from his victim.
A teleport popped open behind the Elf's back. He jumped to his feet and swung round.
The mortally wounded knight had helped us a lot. By putting up such a skillful and desperate fight he'd virtually nullified our enemies' hits.
Enea took a calculated risk and ported right into the thick of the melee. Her Aura of a Predator worked like a dream, slowing the attackers down and preventing them from promptly reacting to my attacks.
Soon the Elf collapsed to his side. Finally, an Ice Spear pinned the last of the cursed warriors to the wall.
I hurried toward the knight and proffered my hand to help him up. "Hold on! We'll heal you right now!"
He clenched my hand in his vice-like grip. His richly decorated armor was in tatters. All the engravings and filigree inserts covering it had grown dull; all the complex embossed patterns were buckled and deformed.
Enea cast a Minor Heal over him. The spell produced a spectacular show of flashes and surges of light, but that was about all.
"Won't work," the knight's muffled voice came from behind the visor. "The curse affects everyone."
"But you're not one of the Fallen, are you?"
"I'm Helmud — the knight who didn't submit to the demons' magic. Only my strength isn't worth much, I'm afraid. They," he pointed his broken sword at the bloodied bodies, "at least they don't remember what they did. But we remember everything. Every night we're trying to change the castle's fate. But we lose every time."
"Do you know how to remove the curse?"
"You can't," he slumped onto the collapsed remains of a battlement. "The curse is cast over the very souls of the Fallen."
"There must be something we can do!" I protested.
Helmud's life was rapidly dwindling, his muffled voice weaker with every passing moment. "Darkness has consumed their souls... The stone... its light.... can melt the darkness... the blood of a demon..."
In one last effort he unclenched his fist, offering me an oblong object made of some dull metal. A spasm ran through his body. He collapsed to one side and went quiet.
"What stone is he talking about?" Enea asked softly.
"No idea. You'd think there'd be a quest update, no?"
"What's that thing he gave you?"
I showed it to her: a cargonite locket on a chain.
Enea sighed. "How weird. I can't see its stats, only question marks. Same thing as with my staff," she gave the knight a long sad look. "I have a feeling we're missing something. We don’t read deep enough into their prompts."
"Very well. Let's have a think. He made it clear enough that the Fallen hadn't possessed the power of spirit necessary to resist the demons' will. But prior to that, the legionnaires had confronted the Darks hundreds of times. What could have happened on that particular night?"
"I think we need to go back to the Resurrection Hall," Enea said. "That's where we received the quest, wasn't it? Do you remember those carvings on the walls? Could they be the answer?"
"Whatever," I agreed. "It's pretty clear we can't fight our way through here, anyway. We've only been confronted with the weakest of the Fallen — and we barely escaped with our lives."

* * *

THE MOMENT we entered the Resurrection Hall, the wall lamps went on again, their uneven light struggling with the darkness.
The walls here were indeed lined with images carved into the stone. Last time I hadn't had the chance to even notice them: everything had happened too quickly.
Enea took me by the hand. Our fingers interlinked. I may be thirty and counting in real life but now I felt like a young boy.
We walked along the walls, peering closely at the ancient carvings. Many of them had been eroded by time, some to the point where you couldn't even guess what they were supposed to depict.
"Look!" Enea's voice rang with excitement.
A scene in front of us must have portrayed some sort of ritual. It showed a long line of creatures of every imaginable race. A transparent rock towered at the picture's center. A warrior was kneeling on one knee in front of it.
"Now what would that mean?"
I peered at the runes. "This word here means oath," I pointed at the symbols I knew from my spell-casting practice. It was part of the Mortal Allegiance spell engraved on my sword.
"And this is supposed to be blood," Enea pointed at a tiny ruby mounted onto the engraving.
"The word next to it means rock," I added. "Which means... the oathing stone?"
"Exactly!" Enea hurried to check the spells she'd studied. "I think I can read these symbols. They mean blood."
"So if we tried to put it all together, it'll be... a warrior swearing an oath of allegiance and sealing it with his own blood?"
"Wait. I'll do a quick search."
"Try the 'oathing stone' combination."
She nodded. "I got it! It's in some gamer guy's blog: The Crystal Sphere Roadmap. How interesting. He seems to mention certain plot lines which never made it to the game's release. The post is two years old."
"Can you read it to me, please? I don't have the access. I can only use the in-game network."
"Right. Listen up:

Hi there,

The Crystal Sphere developers seem to be so confident about their pet project that they've just begun creating some long-term plot lines. Although I can't reveal my sources, there're rumors that the game's development might eventually bring us to the myth of the Founder Gods who supposedly used to control the whole of the Universe. A special update would then introduce a number of very interesting artifacts, including items made of cargonite: a special extra strong alloy whose secret is now lost.
Among new locations included in the planned update are some interesting ruins of quest castles which once used to belong to the Order of Disciples. According to my source, seizing the castles won't be easy because it involves completing complex quest chains which require the knowledge of the so-called "oathing stones"...

"Is that it?"
"Yeah. Most of the blog seems to have been deleted. There're only a few fragmented posts left."
"Okay. It sounds like the update he's talking about has already been installed. Does the Wiki mention the oathing stone?"
"It does, but very little. Here, look," she forwarded me the link.

The Oathing Stone is a mythical and yet undiscovered blood-magic artifact supposedly built by the Founder Gods.

I did another search.

The Blood Magic is a lost teaching which creates a constant bond between an item and its owner. The Blood Magic lost its significance after the departure of the Founder Gods. Its artifacts are extremely rare and the consequences of using them can be unpredictable.

This looked like another dead end. I clenched the plain cargonite locket in my hand. The item was indeed dark with age.
The sunrise was almost upon us and we were as far from solving this mystery as ever.
The lamps lining the hall seemed to be dying. Some of them had already expired; others still oozed a dull weak glow. This place, too, was about to submit to the darkness.
"I have an idea," I clenched the locket in my hand. "Can you see this symbol?"
"It's the same one as the one on my staff," Enea replied. "Wish we knew what it meant."
"I wonder if it marks the item's owner as one of the castle's defenders. I think I'm gonna try and activate it."
"Not blood again! Aren't you afraid you might sign up for something you won't be able to fulfil? You have any idea what kind of forces we might end up serving?"
"I trust our little Alpha and his intuition. A pet can't hurt his owner — and still he stung you."
"All right, all right. Try it. I still can't see how it can help us."
"We'll soon find out. I told you I had an idea."
I used my sword to cut the tip of my index finger. A generous gush of blood darkened the ancient item, filling the indentations on its surface.
I waited.
The runes on my sword's blade flashed all at once, all of them. A wave of freezing cold swept over me, followed by a surge of heat. The central rune on top of the locket radiated a golden light, illuminating my face.

You've received an item: the Charm of the Sovereign (part of a set)
Restrictions: only the rightful owner of Rion Castle.
Effect: +10 to mana regeneration rate
+10% to attack strength
+10% to Stamina
The Shield of Reason (an ancient spell-like feature): +50% to the wearer's resistance to all mind-altering magic within Rion Castle limits.

The Charm's Aura:
The castle owner and all of his clan members receive +50% to resistance to mental attacks;
Each of the clan's allies in arms receives +5% to both physical and mental defense within a range of 60 ft. + 3 ft. per character's level.

He who has collected The Charm of the Sovereign, the Replication Ring and the Rune of Knowledge will receive the Ancient Legacy ability (+10% to Intellect, +10% to Learning Skills and +10% to Spirit).

"You all right?" Enea's voice betrayed concern.
"Yeah. Got some cool stat bonuses. And you? Did you manage to get some rest? We need to get moving. We have very little time left before sunrise."
"Where do you want us to go?"
"You'll see. It's a long story."

* * *

WE WALKED outside. The early morning air was considerably colder. The pitch-black fog had thickened; patches of frost glistened on the ground.
I turned toward the gate. "Get ready."
The moment we crossed the invisible line dividing the locations, the air grew warm. The dark fog dissolved, revealing the moon and stars.
"Alex, watch out! The Disciples!"
"I can see them," I raised my hand with the Charm in the air.
The ghosts lingered, undecided. They stopped their advance and began circling us, daring neither retreat nor approach.
Then the air filled with transparent clots of ectoplasm coming toward them from all directions. Holy cow! Some ability that was! Apparently, the three Disciple leaders could absorb the other ghosts' ethereal bodies, bringing their own levels up by imbibing the stats of all those undead wizards and sorcerers.
"Alex, we need to go now!"
"No. Wait."
"They're getting stronger!"
"They're not aggroing us for some reason, are they? Watch how they look at the charm!"
"You think they will help us?" Enea asked doubtfully.
"We'll soon find out."
Indeed, the creatures had completed their transformation. One of them floated closer, materializing as an old man with a long gray beard.
"Who are you?" he asked in a muffled voice.
"Can't you see?" I replied boldly.
"Neither the Charm of the Sovereign nor the Staff of a Hydra make you the castle's rightful owners. You're looters! You've had the audacity to disturb our brothers' ashes!"
"Very well. Try and kill me, then. Think you can do it?"
He did try — but an invisible force disrupted his spell, stopping him mid-word. The old man stammered and lowered his head, hunching, as if the burden was too much to bear.
"Let me go!" he croaked. "What do you want?"
"We've come to free this castle from the powers of the Dark. Sunrise is near but we're not strong enough to fight our way to the Oathing Stone!" I ad-libbed to check our theory.
"The castle's rightful owner would have used its teleport system in order to get there," once again his voice betrayed doubt and suspicion.
"It doesn't work, does it?"
"Oh," the old man paused, thinking. "We can't cross the gate. I wonder if someone removed the magic crystals?"
"You must have a few spares, surely!"
"They're all empty. Discharged. They're no good to you."
"Can't you charge them?"
"What, and channel our own strength into them?"
"Don't you want to finally rest in peace?"
He chuckled. "There's no peace in disembodiment."
"It's still better than being stuck in some old ruins."
He frowned, thinking. Finally he nodded. "We can give you the teleport crystals. We'll charge them for you. But if you fail... you'll regret it!" he threw a handful of crystals on the ground in front of him.
The ghosts' ethereal bodies disintegrated into transparent streams of energy which reached for the crystals, charging them up.
I bent down and picked up one of them.

You've received an item: a Minor Teleport Crystal
Charge: 100/100 (rechargeable)
You've received a new level!
Quest update alert: Purge
New task available: Activate the internal teleport system of Rion Castle
New task available: Find out which of the teleports leads to the Hall of Oaths

* * *

ONCE AGAIN did the Resurrection Hall lay in the dark dotted with the unsteady little flames lining its walls. The black fog seeped through the cracks in the crumbling stone, the bright glow of the resurrection point the only source of light in the room.
"Over there," I drew Enea in the direction of the stationary portal next to an ancient obelisk covered in runic symbols. We hurried toward it.
"How did you know the ghosts would help us?" she asked.
"I didn't. Not at first, anyway. But when they began syphoning other ghosts' energy, then I knew it."
"What do you mean, you knew it?"
"This is how games work. The reason why quest NPCs tend to have inordinately high levels is to make sure players can't smoke them just for fun."
"Didn't we kill some of them when we tried to get here?"
"We killed them in battle — which means they could still respawn soon afterwards. That's different. Secondly, we didn't have any quest items then. The moment we got them, the ghosts' levels grew accordingly. Which is actually a good idea on the part of the developers."
Panting, we finally reached the obelisk. I focused on the runes covering it while Enea caught her breath.
"I keep forgetting where I am," she admitted. "This feels like the only real world."
"You're taking it well," I said as I located a group of shallow slots in the rock whose shape seemed to fit the crystals. "When high-density holograms first appeared, that was something else, I tell you. In those days, that was state-of-the-art authenticity. Can you imagine I jumped out of my seat a few times trying to escape a monster? Cables flew everywhere!"
"You fleeing the battlefield? No way!"
"Fleeing from my own console, rather. Those were the days. Could you pass me the crystals, please?"
"There. Need help?"
"It's all right. You'd better check the portals' interface."
"How do I open it?"
"Just focus on the obelisk."
"Okay... oh yes, it works," her gaze glazed over. She fell silent, mouthing something.
I slid the remaining crystal into a slot, then joined her.
Oh wow. The interface was a jungle of buttons and drop-down menus, all in the Founders' language. Translation? — You could forget it.
"I'm lost," Enea said.
"It's all right. We'll sort it out in a moment. I want you to look for the symbols you know in the words 'stone' and 'oath'. Think you can find those combinations? I'll do the right half of the interface, you do the left."
After a few minutes of focused search through a multitude of inscriptions, we finally had the first result.
"Alex, I think I've got it. This word means 'an oath'. But the symbols that precede it, I've no idea what they stand for."
Oh yes. It looked like my old language quest had acquired an unexpected urgency. "Let's have a look. Where is it? Can you highlight it?"
One of the buttons glowed green.
She seemed to be right. This looked like the only possible combination. Although I didn't recognize the first word in it, it was repeated on many other teleport control buttons. Could it mean "Hall"? Possibly.
"Are you ready?"
Enea nodded. Color drained from her face.

Congratulations! You've activated the internal teleport system of Rion Castle!
Chosen destination: Hall of Oaths.
Quest updated: Purge

* * *

WE PORTED to a balcony overhanging a huge oblong room. All of its walls were lined with high vaulted windows. Did that mean we'd reached the very top of the donjon?
The dawn was already upon us. We had very little time.
Statues of ancient heroes crowded the hall: full-size sculptures clad in tattered clothes and armor darkened with time. A freezing wind gushed in through the paneless window frames, tearing at the statues' clothing and jingling their weapons.
The doors leading to the hall had once been rammed open: the gaping entrance bristled with splintered wood.
Traces of a desperate fight were everywhere. The floor was littered with bloodied, disfigured bodies. Judging by their position, the Cohort of the Fallen had put up a fierce defense against those warriors and wizards who'd proved immune to the Dark magic.
The furious battle which re-enacted itself every night since. Still, for today it had already been over.
A few dark figures still ambled about the room. I focused on their tags. All of them were levels 200+.
"Here," Enea whispered, hiding behind the balcony's parapet. A wide staircase led down to the center of the hall where a desecrated oathing stone towered: a large transparent crystal which exuded a weak humming noise and harbored an opalescent clot of darkness.
Just above it, an emaciated demon floated in the bubble of Levitation aura. He was old and barely alive, his shriveled body covered in scars from a great many slashed wounds. Some of them were quite fresh and still oozing black blood, shedding an occasional droplet onto the Oathing Stone. The artifact absorbed it greedily, poisoning the souls and thoughts of all whose who once had shared their own blood with it as part of the sacred oath.
That was it! This was the curse of Rion Castle!
"The demon in on his last legs," Enea whispered. "We can kill him."
"Wait," I watched the legionnaires ambling about the room. They would make quick work of us.
"Alex, but sunrise is near! I don't care if they kill us! At least we'll remove the curse!"
"Not necessarily. Can't you see that the demon's dying? They'll probably replace him with someone else in a moment. Wonder who that someone might be?"
She stared at me. "Christa? No way!"
"Why not? That could be the reason why she wasn't allowed to finish fighting you. She wasn't the one controlling the undead, that little was clear."
"But Christa is a player! They can't keep her here against her will!"
"But what if she volunteered? How do we know what kinds of quests demons receive? Maybe she thinks the reward is worth it?"
"But that's ridiculous. Alex? No one in their sane mind would agree to being tortured like this! Would you allow them to-"
We heard a commotion on the staircase. The five surviving legionnaires gathered together not far from the exit. They hadn't yet noticed us.
A warlock walked through the broken doorway. I knew him — I'd seen him the previous evening. He was followed by an armor-rattling group of liches dragging in a chained and struggling Christa. Enea had been right. Christa might have initially agreed to the task but once she'd realized what exactly was demanded of her, she must have had a change of heart.
The warlock wore a triumphant smirk. No wonder. He was level 70. He knew there was no one around who could challenge him or disrupt his plans.
The remaining undead followed in her wake. There weren't so many of them left! The legionnaires must have long lost their minds, killing anything that moved. The warlock's robes were in tatters, his retinue decimated.
Christa's eyes were filled with fear and incomprehension. "Let me go! I'm not doing it! I don't want to!"
"You've accepted the quest," the warlock said without even turning. "You agreed to its conditions. No one can change the destined path. Rion Castle will forever remain ours. Step aside!" he snapped at the five legionnaires.
Perfect timing. Only a few minutes left till sunrise.
"We're too late," Enea whispered.
"Not at all. Port us to the stone — now!"

* * *

THE POPPING SOUND of the teleport was akin to a clap of thunder.
The giant crystal didn't even budge when I collapsed on top of it. Still, the impact was enough to hurl the emaciated body of the demon through the air, his last drop of blood missing the stone and landing on the floor like a tiny bubbling smudge of ink.
"You? You survived?" the warlock threw his hand in the air, about to cast a spell. Enea sank the sharp end of her staff into the demon's bony chest.
His scream echoed from the walls. The warlock recoiled.
I hurried to drop to one knee. Blood magic! It was the only way to cleanse the stone and lift the curse.
My sword pierced the transparent crystal with ease and froze, reverberating. I closed my hands hard around the blade. Blood flowed down the defiantly glowing runes, streaking onto the stone, and was immediately absorbed by it, wiping away the darkness and rekindling light.
Howling, the sorcerer stepped back, recognizing his defeat. His magic bond with the crystal had been severed. The stone glowed brighter, its light illuminating every corner of the ancient hall, growing stronger and fiercer — and purer — with every passing moment.
The sorcerer wielded his staff in the air, pointing at me and Enea. "Kill them!"

Quest Alert: Purge. Quest completed!
You've lifted the curse from Rion Castle!

You've received a new level!

You've received a new ability: Blood Ties. From now on, your future is bound to that of Rion Castle. No matter where you are, once in every seven days you'll be allowed to instantly transport to the Castle.

You've received Achievement: Centurion. From now on, you'll be able to instantly summon any of the Cohort's legionnaires for the duration of 30 sec+3 sec. per level.
Cost: 100% of your complete Mental Energy capacity.

You've received a new ability: Legacy. From now on, you can control the ancient blood magic which exists in synergy with nature. The Founders' artifacts will reveal their secret properties to you alone.
Any acquired spells will be available 3 levels earlier than required.
-5% to Mental Energy required to cast a spell.

The Rion Castle interface has been unblocked.

Your Reputation with the Forces of the Dark has deteriorated.
Current Reputation status: Animosity

The system messages flashed past my mental view. We had only a few minutes left till sunrise.
The five legionnaires still stood between us and the hordes of the undead. These top-level warriors had already awoken from their thousand-year stupor, shaking off the haze of the ancient spell.
They charged at the undead at once, their merciless blows decimating the spawn of the dark.
By the time the first sunrays illuminated the hall, it was all over. Silence fell.
The five legionnaires crumbled to ashes.
A crystal screen appeared in the brightening skies,

A new force has arrived in our world!
Today Rion Castle has become the seat of the Black Mantises clan!
All our previous achievements pale into insignificance in the face of this feat which has brought back to life one of the Founders' strongholds!

A new system message superimposed it in my mental view,

You've received Achievement: Exorcist.
+500 to Popularity
+2 to Intellect
+2 to Spirit

New spell available: Exorcism. Deals 20 pt. damage with magic of Light to all creatures summoned by your enemy. Those of them whose levels don't exceed your own will be immediately removed and cannot be summoned for the next 60 min. Range: 100 ft.
All ghosts and spirits are instantly disembodied.
Cost: -10% of your complete Mental Energy capacity
-10% of your complete Physical Energy capacity
-10% of your hp.
The above stats revert to normal after 30 min.

Warning! If the attacker spirits' levels exceed your own by more than 5 levels, the probability of their disembodiment will drop to 80%, with a random chance of increasing the cost of casting Exorcism.

Warning! A frequent or incompetent use of ancient magic can kill the unskilled caster!

Enea let go of my hand and began walking amid the dead bodies, searching for Christa. She was still breathing. Her leathery wings spread listlessly on the floor. Her chest was heaving, her gaze dull with pain.
Enea crouched next to her, whispering something.
Christa struggled to focus, then gave a barely noticeable shake of her head.
Refusing to give up, Enea tried to cast a heal on her. That only made matters worse: the spell's golden aura brought blood bubbling to Christa's lips.
"Charity is a weakness..." she mouthed, forcing her head up. "You should remember that..."
Enea's eyes welled with tears. "That's the way I am."
"Don't feel sorry... for me..." a smile touched Christa's mangled lips. "This is a respawn... not death..."
Her body shuddered, convulsing, then went limp.

Chapter Two

The Crystal Sphere
Rion Castle. The donjon's outer walls

THE MORNING turned out sunny, quiet and remarkably warm.
Enea and I walked out onto the balcony.
"Gosh, it's beautiful," she gasped.
A soft wind tousled her hair. Alpha the Mantis crept out onto her shoulder, looking curiously around.
The clouds seemed to be only an arm's reach away. A green expanse of woodland lay below, dotted with occasional gaps of glistening water and threaded with meandering streams.
I touched the wall. It felt cold and rough, the stonework cracked in places. The faded murals once adorning the masonry crumbled under my fingers.
Never mind. We'd restore Rion to its original glory.
I looked around me and congratulated myself on my initial choice. If the truth were known, the screenshots of the castle hadn't looked like much: just some old ruins lost amid the moors.
An impulse buy? You could say that. Still, I didn't regret one penny of it.
Packed with monsters, the surrounding quagmire offered excellent natural protection from any curious intruders. It might take our clan quite some time to find our feet.
I had zero experience in management, whatever that was supposed to mean here. Enea was the only person I could trust. The prospects of becoming a paper-pusher supervising the rebuilding of this behemoth didn't interest me in the slightest. My heart craved adventure.
"I'll be off, then?" Enea broke the drawn-out silence.
The pressure of the previous nerve-racking night released me. I didn't feel like talking. "Go get some sleep," I looked her in the eye. "And please speak to your father."
A smile touched her lips. "Leave that to me. I'm a big girl. How about you?"
"I might grab some sleep too. By then, the others will respawn."
We lingered, unwilling to say goodbye.
Enea took my hand. "I'll be back, I promise. Even if the implant doesn't work next time... I'll find a way to come back. Don't worry about me, okay?"
This conversation was quickly becoming awkward. So I just kissed her. "Go now. I'm not going anywhere."
Her avatar vanished.
Immediately I reached into my inventory for the scroll Mr. Borisov had given me. I tried to break the seal. As if! I pressed harder: to no avail.

Warning! You cannot use the scroll. Activation requirements are not met.

Oh really? Was it their way of letting me know the situation was still within the realms of gameplay?
"Leave it. You can't break the seal."
I swung round. Mr. Borisov stood behind me in a dark archway.
"Why did you call me? It's night in real life, by the way. I'm not some petty demon to run your errands for you. I hope I'm making that clear."
He leaned over the parapet, taking in the scenery. "Beautiful."
My blood boiled. I was too worried about Enea to control my impulses. I took a swing and gave him a hearty thump.
My fist went through his avatar, punching the merlon behind him so hard that I grazed the skin on my knuckles.

You've been injured!

"Oh, do me a favor," Mr. Borisov gave me a squinted look. "It's not my fault that you're feeling grumpy. Go and smoke a few mobs, that might make you feel better."
"Why did you have to get Enea involved in your testing?"
He didn't even flinch, just pursed his lips and shook his head. "No one's done anything to her."
"She's got an implant!"
"Impossible. Wait a moment. I need to check something," he zoned out temporarily.
Soon he resurfaced.
"Any results?" I asked formally, forcing myself to stay calm.
"There's been a planned expansion of the experiments. About a thousand devices have been built," he admitted grudgingly.
I pinned him down with my glare.
"Well, I'm sorry!" he snapped. "I may be a senior manager but I'm not God Almighty! Other departments don't report to me. Enea just happened to be among the target buyer group," he said, fiddling with the wedding ring on his finger. "Just an unfortunate coincidence. She shouldn't have been so darn pigheaded shopping for cutting edge technologies."
"I don't believe in coincidences."
"Neither do I. So I'll look into it. Just promise you won't do anything stupid, okay? I can tell you one thing: the implants are our future. They've already been fine-tuned. Stop glaring at me like that! Look at it from a different perspective. Enea seems to like you. Aren't you the lucky ones?"
"Of course. You're both young and living in a beautiful brave new world..."
"So you think it's normal forcing Enea to experience a full range of emotions?!"
"Alex, please. The implant can't force anyone to feel anything. All it does, it processes in-game events. You can't digitize love, I assure you! In actual fact, you should be worrying about a whole different set of problems."
"Which are?"
"Are you really so stupid?" he finally lost his patience. "Can't you see what you've gotten yourself into?"
Seeing my incomprehension, he began to explicate,
"In your desire to raise some Spectral Dust, you bought this ancient castle packed solid with Founders' artifacts. You've also removed the curse which has been keeping looters at bay. How long do you expect to keep it under wraps? Rumors spread fast. It won't be long until some opportunist or other wants to check if they can mug you for a couple of artifacts. The Moors are no place for lone players so they'll start making groups. And even a group can't make it here which means you should be expecting a well-trained raid. Say, fifty players, how about that?"
Oh. Never thought about it.
This Mr. Borisov seemed to be an expert in manipulation. He continued pressing on all the right points, pretending to change the subject,
"Think about it. All you have now is a bunch of ruins, no one to defend them, a handful of quests to complete and a bank loan. How are you going to juggle all that? Have you ever been a leader of a large group? You have any idea how to make an economically viable and battle-worthy clan?"
I shrugged. "Nothing money can't do."
"You're such a noob sometimes!" he snapped. "Okay, money is war's blood, I agree. So let's say you have a couple of million to spare. You think that's enough for all this?" he swept his hand over the magnificent ruins. "That might allow you to fix a few breaches in the walls and post some NPC guards, maybe. You sure you can hang on to what you've just claimed? You realize that tomorrow someone might come and try to do the same?"
I didn't say anything. He had a point. His harsh tone didn't offend me anymore.
"You'd better start thinking about how you can attract more players here," he continued. "But don't forget: what they need is adventure, a strong leader, a possibility to level up and a safe citadel. Do you see what I'm driving at? First of all, you'll need some suitable farming locations," he began unbending his fingers. "After that, you'll have to start looking for some dungeons and instances where your future clan members can practice raid tactics and farm unique items. The castle has to be rebuilt ASAP. It has to be populated, but not by NPCs alone. I'd say the optimal ratio of NPCs to players should be 50/50. I should hire some NPC vendors who could buy up any excess loot. Next," he'd run out of fingers and switched to his other hand, "the clan's raid groups should be constantly busy reconnoitering and mapping out the area, looking for any resource deposits and promising locations. The moors must be absolutely packed with unique ingredients, provided you know where to look for them. Such locations should be used regularly to ensure your crafters, herbalists and such can level up too."
He stopped abruptly, gazing at the misty horizon. "Rion is a truly unique place. You should be using this fact to your own advantage. You need to think of various ways of attracting more players. Once that's done, you might find you don't need major cash injections. Oh, and one more thing: this place is bound to become the center of all sorts of developments. You should be ready for surprises. The Crystal Sphere is a very young world full of potential. Here, lots of things are happening for the first time. Did you notice the sheer number of the unique achievements you've received?"
I nodded.
"So there you have it. At the moment, anyone can become a legend or fade into obscurity. Grab your chance. Claim your moment," he gave me an encouraging slap on the shoulder.
"What's gonna happen to Enea, then?"
"I'm sorry but I can't 'erase and rewind'. I just don't know. It's up to her now. She might need to make some difficult decisions. Just please don't be such a killjoy. Just concentrate on the gameplay. This is what's vital at the moment. Leave the rest to me, okay? If Enea indeed reconsiders, we'll find a way to help her without her even knowing. I can promise you that. Agreed?"
"Okay, but what about her father?"
My question remained unanswered. Mr. Borisov's avatar had already vanished into thin air.
Oh great. He'd fed me a lot of promises, given me a pep talk and disappeared without actually telling me anything.

* * *

MY SLEEP was gone.
I had a long list of things to do, and every item on it was a priority. Still, I had to begin by unblocking the castle control interface.
The castle's holographic model unfolded in my mental view.

Rion Castle
Clan affiliation: the Black Mantises
Owner: Alexatis. Level 27. Neuro
Current status:
Defense, 2,137,964 pt.
Damage to the walls, 62%
Magic defense, 14,357 pt. Key elements missing from major runic chains. Source of power: not found
Attack potential: 137 pt (1 warrior)
Auras: not found
Passive shields: not found
The Element of Air: runic chain broken. Remaining runes: 12 out of 130
The Element of Water: runic chain broken. Remaining runes: 54 out of 130
The Element of Fire: runic chain broken. Remaining runes: 32 out of 130
The Element of Earth: runic chain broken. Remaining runes: 130 out of 130
The Element of Chaos: runic chain unfinished. The creation of the runic chain has been interrupted.

How weird. If the earth chain had all of its runes intact, why wasn't it working?
I focused on the message. A prompt popped up,

Requires an active source of power.

A glowing sphere formed around the castle's 3D model.

The castle's source of power (a Founders' artifact) couldn't be moved outside the indicated area.
The restoration of the existing runic chains is impossible. Power required: 10,000 pt. mana per minute.
Warning: the backup power source (the main accumulating crystal) is discharged. Currently only one defense function is being supported: the deflection of all incoming teleports. The remaining power is sufficient for 24 more days.

New quest alert: The Renaissance of Rion!
Find or recreate a source of magic power. The last known location of the old source of power is marked on your map.
Restore the runic chains in order to gain access to the Elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air. Each element brings +250,000 pt. to the castle's passive shield and +100,000 to its attack potential.
Rebuild the castle's magic tower in order to gain access to spell scrolls and to be able to hire NPC wizards.
Rebuild the barracks in order to be able to hire NPC guards (warriors, level 50+).
Restore the training grounds in order to be able to hire NPC archers (levels 50+).
Restore the market and supply depots in order to gain access to trading activities.
Restore the surrounding villages in order to supply the castle with food stocks which in turn will attract new settlers.
Restore the inn, the tavern and the main square in order to attract travelers to the castle.

I opened the map. Now I could see twenty-four portals. I already knew that the castle's source of magic power could move through them randomly during an attack which prevented it from being seized or disabled by the enemy.
What I really didn't like was that the place marked as the source's last known location was situated high above the ground. If the enemy had indeed managed to disable the portals, the source of power could have simply tumbled down like a sack of potatoes from a great height and was now lying around somewhere in the brambles — or had even been swallowed up by the quagmire.
I didn't even look at the impressive lists of the materials and work force required to restore all the buildings and the outer walls. I simply didn't have the money.
At the moment, I focused on the map of the dungeons. There were three underground caves located right under the castle. Judging by the prompts, they must have been the ancient mines. At the moment, they sported nothing but question marks.
They were our priority. I only had five days left to raise two cartfuls of Spectral Dust!

* * *

AN ICON lit up on my interface.
It was Zander back from his respawn point! I didn't expect him so early. Our respawn times must have reverted back to their original values.
Oh well. No peace for the wicked. I might have to grab some sleep some other time. I ported back to the Resurrection Hall.
Zander swung round to my teleport's pale flash. "Alexatis!" he looked worried and relieved at the same time.
"I'm okay," I shook his hand. "The curse is lifted!"
"Did you do it on your own?"
"Enea helped me. Still, there's plenty of work for everyone. Where're all the others?"
"They're on their way. A seven-hour respawn! What are they thinking about! Plus the debuff! It's a good job it didn't work. Sorry about the wipe, man."
"It won't affect your group's reputation," I hurried to add, cutting short any unwanted questions. "The quest was for me and Enea alone. You were meant to be killed, anyway."
"You sure?"
"A hundred percent. You can't do anything with brute force here, trust me. So let's do it this way: we'll go down now, check the dungeons and see what mobs they have there. If we're up to it, we'll purge the dungeons and close the contract. Agreed? We'll count this morning as twenty-four hours. Enea and I promised an exclusive to the media," I swept my arm around the room, conjuring up the holographic footage of the castle walls engulfed in Infernal flames and hundreds of ancient warriors rising up from the quagmire. It looked impressive.
I could see that Zander appreciated my effort. The well-chosen camera angle allowed you to see the mercenaries taking the brunt of the battle.
"In addition to all this, I'll also give them the footage of our hydra encounter," I said. "The rest I'll keep under wraps for the time being."
"They'll start grilling me about the details."
"You've signed the non-disclosure agreement, haven't you?"
"I have indeed," Zander agreed, obviously relieved. He chuckled, looking at the hologram. "You have a good eye for images. I don't think many people will want to lay claim to the castle after seeing this. And it will definitely improve our Reputation."
In the meantime, the other mercenaries had started to turn up, followed by Platinus and Togien. They showered me with questions.
"Is the interface working?" Platinus demanded. "Where's my lab? I'll need a smart NPC assistant, don't forget!"
"Can we have a look at the castle?" Rodrigo asked.
"This place is absolutely packed with scrap cargonite," Tylor said, choosing a couple of artifacts. "How much do you want for this?"
"Right, guys," I said. "No guided tours, I'm afraid. Nothing personal. At the moment, the castle and everything in it is classified information. We can do some trading in the evening when you receive your bonuses. Now we have work to do. We need to go down to the dungeons. Everyone. You too," I looked severely at Platinus.
"All right, all right," Togien boomed. "Show us where to go. What kind of dungeons are they?"
"There're some old mines located right under the main tower," I said. "We can't port there. We'll have to walk. The entrance is here in this hall. I need to warn you that we can't trust the old maps. The demons broke into the donjon from beneath by splitting the cliff's base. I need to know what it's like there now. Fancy doing that?"
"Why not?" Zander seemed to like the idea. "Let's go and take a look!"
The others cheered up too. Purging an ancient dungeon meant treasure, unique items and plenty of XP. No wonder: it had stood abandoned for over a thousand years!

* * *

THE RUSTY HOIST screeched. Heavy chains drew taut, lifting the rectangular slab of stone. It rose reluctantly, revealing a row of stairs leading down into the gloom. The gaping hole breathed cold and damp.
Our descent took forever. We checked every landing we happened upon. Most of them had three doors which must have once opened into ration depots. Over the past centuries, foodstuffs had crumbled to dust together with the bags that contained them; even the wooden crates had rotted away. The only mobs we met here were a few rats, skinny and weak.
"I thought this place would be packed with gold!" Togien grumbled.
I felt the familiar tingling sensation in my fingertips. There was a source of power somewhere below. I just hoped it wasn't another Altar of Chaos.
I immediately remembered my encounter with the Corporation workers. Altars of Chaos were in fact their tools meant to ward off players, preventing them from discovering the Corporation's secret passageways that connected the game with the real world.
Zander stopped and raised his hand. "Wait! This seems to be an entrance to a hall!"
Water glistened in the torch light. Was this the level of the bog? Already?
Disappointment washed over me. So much for our farming Spectral Dust! If the underground levels were indeed flooded, our little trading scheme with the Azure Mountain dwarves had just gone belly up.
"This is a water reservoir!" Zander announced, taking a few more steps down. "It must be their emergency supply. Look at these levers on the walls! They were probably used to pump the ground water up."
Virgil who was walking just behind him pointed at the mineral salt deposits lining the walls. "I don't think the pumps work anymore. The water level must have risen several times which means the floodgates are constantly open."
I lifted the torch higher, studying the steps. Their edges had apparently been worn by the passage of water. Virgil was right: this place was regularly flooded but equally rapidly drained. It looked like the flood waters gushed down the steps and disappeared in the fissure made by the demons.
We resumed our descent. The spiral staircase continued to bore into the castle's rocky foundations like a drill. Soon the surface of the walls began to change. They were covered in cracks and even occasional crevices that breathed cold and seeped water.
In the last twenty-four hours, I'd really had enough of the doom and gloom. I'd have loved nothing better that have a stroll in the sun. Still, there was nothing I could do about it at the moment.
"The mines I don't mind," Togien continued to grumble. "But you'd think they'd have some hoisting cages, wouldn't you? How were they supposed to transport the ore?"
"They used teleports," I said. "They don't work at the moment. The accumulating crystal is probably flat."
"Watch where you're going," Zander said. "Some steps are crumbling. Iskandar, I want you to bring up the rearguard. If someone trips up, you can cast Levitation on them."
Soon we reached another hall which looked more like a manmade cave, judging by the rough finish of its ceiling. The large stone floor tiles were listing, some of them tilted on their sides like ice ridges in the wake of deep fissures covering the floor.
Here I could finally see the gaping holes of the mining shafts topped with the rickety remains of hoisting cages. I recognized a rectangular block of stone amid the heaps of debris: a teleport platform, judging by the distinctive runic pattern.
"Great stuff," Togien said approvingly, following my gaze. "You think you can activate it?"
I could understand him. None of us felt like taking another hike all the way up.
"Not yet," I said. "I need some teleport stones. I've run out of mine."
Meanwhile, Zander approached one of the crevices and looked down. He cussed under his breath.
"What can you see there?" I asked.
"Nothing. It's all covered in Mist of War."
"There's no such ability in the Crystal Sphere," Iskandar said with confidence. "Nor spell. You sure that's what it is? Not some kind of smoke or fumes?"
"I wish," Zander stepped away from the fissure's edge which had begun to crumble under his weight. "Look for yourselves if you don't believe me."
Indeed, a gray haze swirled beneath, concealing a treacherous drop. I could hear a far-off echoing sound ringing with metal, like a multitude of picks attacking rock.
"Togien, go check the cages."
He obeyed. The others waited patiently, casting curious glances at me and Zander. Platinus alone decided it was a good moment to show some initiative. He opened his robes and began studying the dozens of little pockets that covered the lining. Finally he fished out a vial containing some acid green liquid and offered it to me,
"Try to throw it down the crevice. It might help."
Remembering our woeful hydra encounter, I asked him, "Can you tell me how it works? You sure I won't lose levels for using this?"
He took offense. What was he like!
"Just read the label," he grumbled.

Last Chance Potion. Cleans the air of all traces of acids, poisons, dust, smoke and toxins. Indispensable for mine fires.

Okay. We might just as well try it. Climbing down through the thick haze didn't sound like a good idea.
"Zander, make sure I don't fall."
With his help I leaned down the crevice as far as I could, dropped the vial and started counting.
Soon I heard the far-off sound of shattered glass. Immediately the gray haze began to disperse.
A large underground cavity lay below. Now I understood why the castle's interface had failed to offer accurate information. This must have once been a complex maze of caves connected by snaking tunnels. Now it didn't look anything like it, all thanks to the hordes of imps scurrying around!
For centuries they'd been mining ore and other resources here non-stop until they'd created a large underground hollow. All the caves and tunnels, including those dug during the storming of Rion — they had all disappeared, devoured by this enormous new location.
There were hundreds of imps working here. Luckily, their groups were small. I could also see plenty of prisoners. Dark obelisks, however, were few and far between — not enough to affect all the slaves quite a few of whom were chained; they looked exhausted and emaciated. Mining ore in the absence of strength or agility buffs is no joke!
A few groups were busy working at the center of the giant cave, away from its rocky walls. To my surprise, I noticed a few Dark conjurers among them.
I forwarded the video to the group network, activated my Observational Skills ability and sent a chat message to Zander, Hold me tight!
As I focused, lots of new details came into view. I studied the imps' tags, then those of their prisoners. The former were mainly workers levels 20 to 30. Very few warriors, which meant that Infernal creatures felt safe here. They'd been farming this location since time immemorial and weren't going to leave it any time soon.
The Imps may be greedy, shameless and mean creatures but they know their job, that's for sure. They're good at mining. As they worked, they left certain places untouched, creating crude stone columns which supported the ceiling.
This was a rather boring old cave of a quite unambitious design.
The prisoners were mainly humans. I didn't notice any orcs: only a few dwarves and even a kobold.
And who the hell was that?
A warlock?
Curiouser and curiouser. Level 50, not bad. He pranced around the cave as if the whole place belonged to him. What was he doing down there? He even had a retinue: a dozen liches and two dark casters, their levels slightly lower than his.
I just couldn't work them out. I could still sense the tingling in my fingertips. The source of magic power kept reminding me of its presence even though I couldn't locate it quite yet.
The warlock stopped and picked up a fragment of the broken vial. He cast a suspicious glance around but didn't look too alarmed: the broken pieces of the Last Chance Potion looked quite in keeping with the cave's grim insides.
He waited for an imp to scurry past, then grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, lifting the poor creature into the air. The imp squirmed under the warlock's freezing stare as the man asked him something but failed to receive a satisfactory reply. Irritated, the warlock flung the imp aside. The creature hit his head on a column, losing a few hp, then scrambled back to his feet and scurried away.
A nearby group of prisoners showed some interest in the incident. Two of them — an Elf and a Kobold shackled together — stopped hacking at the rock and focused their hateful glares on the Dark casters. The others — five emaciated peasants and three dwarves — slowed down, casting sideways glances at the scene.
Aha, finally! A burly orc clad in tattered leather armor appeared out of the cave's gloomy depths pushing a wheelbarrow. He must have dumped his load and was about to resume work.
His dull stare spoke volumes: the guy must have been here long enough to have lost all hope of ever getting out.
In the meantime, the warlock froze, leaning on his staff.
Was he casting a spell?
I stared at him intently, memorizing the way he mouthed the words. It's not often you get the chance to watch your enemy in action.
Wisps of dust began rising into the air, whirling together.
Got it! My Spell Interception ability hadn't failed me!

You've learned a new spell: The Veil.
Creates an obstructive haze concealing a selected area from prying eyes. The size of the area: 50x50x50 ft +2 ft. per caster's level.
Cost: 50% Mental Energy
Requires level 37

Dust billowed up, obscuring the view.
"Alexatis, get out of there," Zander and Tylor pulled me out of the crevice.
"What do we do now?" Zander asked.
"We might try to climb down and see if we can purge the cave," I said, giving Platinus an approving slap on the shoulder.
He beamed. The vials in his robes clinked softly.
"You think you might have some more of those?" I asked him.
"Absolutely. But-"
"But what? Come on, spit it out."
"The ingredients are rare. And expensive. It's not called the Last Chance for nothing."
"That's not your problem. Remember what I promised? We'll get you a lab as soon as possible. Just wait."
I turned to Togien. "What do you think?"
"The cages are falling apart," he replied. "The machinery is all broken. But the shaft itself looks good. I've checked it. We can try and climb down here. The imps don't seem to use it."
"Good. I still don't understand why the conjurer raised dust again. Any ideas?"
"Simple," Rodrigo replied. "At least half the prisoners are free from the obelisks' control. The dust prevents them from banding together."
"For what purpose?" Iskandar said. "I don't think there's much chance of rioting down there. Each team of workers has a caster to heal the weak and cast control spells over the discontented. The dust only makes working harder."
"I know why he does it," I said.
All stares turned on me, quizzical. I gave them a brief run-down of the Cohort of the Fallen story. "Did you notice that the whole area around the old mine remains untouched? That's why the warlock had cast the Veil over it: to prevent any legionnaires from ambling around the dungeon aggroing the imps."
Iskandar didn't look convinced. "They must be hiding something here. I have a strange feeling about this place. I could bet all you want there's some crazy level-70 monster lurking at its center."
"You mean we're not strong enough to do it?" Zander asked.
"We could try," Iskandar replied. "Listen, Alexatis, fancy calling up an event? That could bring in more players from the city. The demons wouldn't like it!"
"Absolutely not," I said. "This dungeon is part of Rion Castle. We don't want strangers wandering around. No, I think we should try and do it ourselves. You get one-third of the loot but I get the pick of the artifacts. Zander?"
He nodded. "Sounds good to me. Can I have a word?"

* * *

"WHAT'S UP?" I asked him.
"Who's gonna be the raid leader?"
"Well, who do you think? You, of course. I don't have the experience."
He cheered up. "Excellent. Togien, Platinus, come over here!"
The two approached.
"I need to know your abilities and available spells," he demanded. "What scrolls and elixirs do you have?"
As the raid leader, Zander was obliged to know everything each player could or couldn't do.
Togien didn't play hard to get. He owned an impressive supply of health elixirs. He specialized in tanking.
Zander checked his stats. "Good," he nodded. "You'll stay in one line with me. Platinus?"
The brief discourse that followed showed that Platinus was pretty useless as a sorcerer. His health was weak, his mana negligible, its regeneration rate slow. He didn't know any spells, either. His elixir stocks, however, boasted about fifty various potions.
"You will stay with Rodrigo and Iskandar," Zander gave him an encouraging wink. "Use your vials sparingly. No good wasting them on imps. But once we get to the dungeon boss, you can use some medium ones against him."
"Why medium?"
"Because if you happen to deal him more damage than Togien or myself, you'll pull aggro to yourself. Which will cause a wipe."
Platinus stared at him, uncomprehending.
Zander chuckled. "You don't know what a wipe is, do you? Look. The amount of aggro decides whom a monster will attack. If he considers you the most dangerous enemy, he'll ignore Togien and myself and go directly for you. Which in turn will cause a wipe, meaning we'll all be killed on the spot. Understood?"
Platinus gave a vigorous nod. Zander's instructions made him fidget nervously in anticipation of what was to come.
"Thanks, everyone," Zander said, dismissing them. Once we were alone again, he turned to me. "Alexatis, I'm not asking you any questions. Both you and your class are too special. If you don't want to tell me, I'll understand. You can just stay in the rear with Iskandar and Rodrigo."
Oh. I was the clan leader now, wasn't I? Even my abilities were classified information. That felt weird.
"Do you remember what happened to the hydras?" I asked him.
He grinned. "Mortal Allegiance! How could I ever forget!"
"At the moment it's the best I can do. But in order for it to work, I'll need constant heals and mana."
"Got it. If the going gets really tough, use it. We'll try to clear you a path to the boss, whatever he is."
"If push comes to shove, I have something to use, too."
"What's that?"
"I can summon a Fallen legionnaire for ninety seconds."
"What level?"
"Depends. But I might try and summon one particular character I have in mind. Also, if the boss starts summoning the Darks, I can cast Exorcism."
Zander raised a surprised eyebrow, "Why didn't you use it when we tried to storm the castle?"
"I couldn't. I only got it last night."
"I see. So let's do it this way. You stay in the rear with the wizards, right up until the final push. You'll be our strategic reserve. If the warriors need your help, I'll let you know. No stupid solo pranks. Deal?"
"Let's go get buffed, then. Pointless dragging it out. This is how we'll do it: we'll keep to the center of the cave, as far from the dark obelisks as possible. The warlock is our priority target. We might even get a glimpse of the boss if we're lucky."
"You think it's a good idea?"
"If we move from one obelisk to the next, we'll get exhausted real fast. Some of my auras have as much as a ten minute cooldown. The warlock, however, can move randomly around the dungeon. Not a healthy scenario. So I suggest we smoke him first and then start purging the cave systematically. Oh, and one other thing. Do not use fire spells on the imps. It's either ice or mental damage."
"Why don't you have a proper healer in your group?"
"Couldn't find one," he replied. "Pointless hiring just any old quack. So we have to make do with scrolls, elixirs and my Paladin abilities."

* * *

THE TINGLING SENSATION in my fingertips was still there. A very nagging feeling. The invisible source of power had to be here somewhere.
Zander was calm. He knew what he'd gotten himself into. The dungeon was millennia old. No one had ever completed it before us. The imps here had to be nice and fat with plenty of treasures to drop. Our loot might exceed our wildest expectations. This I could tell by the ecstatic look in Rodrigo and Iskandar's eyes which glinted with anticipation.
Togien was restless and on edge. Armed with his battle axe and shield, he kept casting militant glances around him. Platinus was unusually quiet. He kept close to me, clutching yet another vial with a picture of some improbable monster on the label. Probably a generic image.
"What's that?" I asked him softly, trying not to disturb the wizards who were busy casting raid buffs.

You've received a mass blessing:
+50% to resistance to fire
+25% to Physical Defense
+25% to your Health quota
Duration: 30 min

You've received a mass blessing:
+20% to armor durability
+20% to close combat damage
+10% to all spell damage
+5% to your chances of dealing a critical hit
Duration: 30 min

"Cast Levitation!" Zander commanded, heading toward the gaping mouth of the ancient mine shaft.
"So what's that vial you've got in your hand?" I repeated.
Platinus turned pale. "Power of a Monster 2.0. If I drink it, my stats will go sky high for sixty seconds."
"Put it away. Didn't you hear what Zander's just said?"
"Why not? It's only sixty seconds! I might win the battle for you, you never know!"
"Right. Open the Wiki and look up 'aggro', now. How can you be so stupid? You can only use it if all of us get killed, understand? Better still, give it to me. Just to be on the safe side. Literally."
Reluctantly Platinus handed me the vial, then flung his robes open and reached for another one. This one had a large sign of the Red Cross on the label.
Levitation enveloped us, lifting us in the air, then placing us gently on the ground below.
The dust cloud concealed the ruins of the ancient mine, restricting visibility and gnawing at our life bars.
Zander cringed. "The demons are playing it safe. They've got a long-term DoT cast over the area. The legionnaires must have attacked them every night."
"Yeah," Virgil agreed. "Once they find out the curse has been removed, they might get cheeky. They might start pushing the envelope to see if they can conquer the upper levels."
My point entirely. We'd have to purge this place once and for all, otherwise we might have constant problems with them. Normally, dungeon mobs respawn regularly — or if they don't, a new set is generated for each group that enters the instance. But the fact that my quest was unique made Rion Castle an exception from the rule. Which meant that the imps might not respawn at all.
The dust cloud dissipated abruptly: a sure sign that it had been created by magic.
We inched forward until we reached the nearest tunnel which was swarming with imps busy hacking at the rock. There we met our first surprise. A junior conjurer: a filthy, ugly, hunched-up creature was sitting on a rock in the middle of a pool of bubbling slime, breathing in its toxic effluvia and murmuring something. Next to him stood a totem made of bones, topped with a tiny skull of some local rodent. Three blobs of darkness circled it incessantly, leaving a smoky trail in their wake.
I want my castle clean and filled with light, the warm memory of Enea's words touched my mind.
I could sense the growing pressure on my brain. My resistance to magic was quite good. The mercs had nothing to fear, either. But Togien and Platinus were in trouble. Both froze in place, their faces betraying fear and disgust.
"Zander?" I asked.
"I can feel it," he replied immediately. "The totem is trying to control us. I saw it happen before but never as powerful as this one. It requires one hell of a power source."
The conjurer fidgeted in place, casting suspicious glances around.
"Smoke the motherfucker," Togien's voice broke under the totem's mental pressure.
"One moment," Zander replied calmly. "Let the conjurer show us what he can do first. We can always use the logs for later reference."
"And what if the warlock arrives?" Platinus asked in a tense voice.
"Even better," Zander replied. "That would be a good pull."
We were still lurking within the dust veil. I could see Zander's logic. He was trying to work out whether the totems and junior conjurers made some sort of network. The mental pressure in itself was a useful albeit depressing tool responsible for the dungeon's somber atmosphere; still, we shouldn't forget that a magic network like this could also serve as a primitive alarm system, warning the others of any potential intruders.
Platinus' legs gave way under him. He crouched on the ground, whining and clutching his head. Togien's neck bulged with pulsating veins as he whispered dwarven protective spells — apparently, with little success.
Zander wasn't in a hurry to cast his auras. He peered expectantly into the darkness.
Piles of rotting bones nearby emitted an unbearable stench. The cave which had looked so mysterious from above was in fact gruesome.
One of the piles of bones shifted.
I tensed up. Zander raised a commanding hand, gesturing to us to stay put.
This annoyed me. What was he waiting for?
Platinus promptly shut up. He sat on the ground swaying, staring nonsensically into space.
And there was the warlock coming!
The pile of bones shifted again. No, not bones. Dogs. Patches of matted hair clung to their skeletal frames. I couldn't look at their mangy heads.

Hell Hound. A Replicated Object. Level 30

Their tags made the blood freeze in my veins. But that wasn't all. The demons had a much worse surprise in store for any potential intruders.
The warlock stopped, mouthing something. I strained my eyes.
He uttered a few words in the ancient language. The blobs of darkness that were circling the totem now darted toward the dogs' lair. They enveloped it in an ashen haze which streaked down the creatures' bare ribs, penetrating their bodies and forming the outline of an enormous mythical creature.

Infernal Monster. A Replicated Object. Level 20.

You've learned a new spell: Object Replication
Class: unique, uncategorized. Part of the Founders' lost school of magic.
Mental Energy cost: varies, depending on the complexity of the replicated item/creature
Class restrictions: none
Level 30
Intellect, 14
Willpower, 14

None of us had ever seen anything like it! I dreaded to even think how much mana it must have cost him to build an Infernal monster like that?
Zander's self-restraint had yielded fruit: they hadn't noticed us yet. The dust cloud kept gnawing at our hp but it was worth it simply to uncover the enemy's secret abilities. Iskandar was already busy analyzing the logs.
What happened next far exceeded the limits of our gaming experience. The monster, cobbled together with bits of flesh and bone, looked as if it was about to crumble apart. Its life bar barely glowed. Its movements were erratic — the thing may have looked scary but at the moment, it posed no threat to us whatsoever.
The warlock gulped down a mana vial. The totem began emitting more wisps of dark energy which headed for the man.
The warlock dropped to the ground, writhing in a pool of bubbling slime. He seemed to be having a fit. The imps abandoned their picks and tried to scamper to safety, apparently horror-stricken, but stopped dead in their tracks under the hounds' fiery glares.
The warlock resumed the spell.
I activated Spell Interception. Luckily, my Twilight Vision and Observational Skills allowed me to lip-read.
The imps nearest to the warlock exploded in a cascade of blood and gore, dissolving into clouds of crimson mist. An invisible force channeled them toward the monster, pumping him full of energy.
The creature's life bar quivered and began to grow.

You've learned a new spell: Dark Regeneration
Class: unique, uncategorized. Part of the Founders' lost school of magic.
Mental Energy cost: varies, depending on the number of disembodied creatures and the amount of hp channeled toward the recipient
Class restrictions: none
Level 30
Intellect, 13
Willpower, 13

"The legionnaires must have really put the fear of God into him," Zander said through his teeth. "Alexatis, if we survive this instance, I owe you."
"The spells can't be identified," Iskandar reported, suppressing his excitement. "This is the Founders' magic! The monster's damage can't be estimated! The hounds are under absolute negation with zero chance of a resist."
This was our analyst's verdict. Now Zander as the raid leader had to act upon it.
"Rodrigo, I want you to cast Negation. Iskandar, Alexatis, focus on the warlock. Togien, you need to aggro this creature. Try to last at least a minute if you can. Virgil, Tylor, you need to kill it. The warlock is mine. Don't bother with the imps. Let's do it!"
Zander lunged forward, leaving the safety of the dust cloud.
He must have decided to play it big from the start, attacking the warlock with the magic of Light.
The man wasn't easily scared. He raised his staff, building a wall of darkness between us. A Negation promptly cast by Rodrigo ripped the darkness to pieces.
Whining, the hounds tried to scamper away. Zander cast a 30-sec Silence over the warlock's retinue of liches. Unable to cast spells, they engaged in a hand-to-hand, much to the pleasure of Zander's moonsilver sword.
Obeying Zander's orders, Togien lunged onto the Infernal Monster. He gave it a well-calculated whack with his axe, pulling aggro to himself, then promptly recoiled, covering himself with his shield.
The monster reared up, showering Togien with blows.
The warlock tried to port out. As if! The Absolute Negation disrupted his spell while Zander's sword nullified his passive shields, forcing him into combat.
I pierced the warlock with two Ice Spears while Iskandar cast a generous dose of Subzero over every enemy.
Frozen to the knees, the warlock whimpered and reached for the totem, clenching it with both hands.
A dull rumbling sound echoed throughout the cave.
The nearest imps — about fifty in total, including a dozen level-30 warriors — dropped whatever they were doing and assaulted Zander all at once.
The warlock was taking Zander's blows remarkably well. His life bar kept soaring. Suddenly his cloth robes disappeared, replaced by a suit of armor. Some ability that was! Talk about class switching! Even his name tag had transformed. Now Zander was fighting a Dark Knight!
Zander kept charging, performing combo after skillful combo — but now the two opponents were more or less equal.
Grunting under pressure, Togien kept pulling the monster's aggro to himself as Tylor and Virgil assaulted the creature from both sides, killing it with expert speed.
Things seemed to be working out in our favor... the problem was, the hounds were now coming back! Also, the imps were just too numerous.
I invested all of my mana into a hail of Ice Arrows, smoking the most brazen of them. Rodrigo cast the iridescent swirling spiral of Mortal Cold over the shapeshifting warlock, slowing him down and allowing Zander to crit him. Still, at least ten of the warrior imps were already upon him, about to attack him from behind.
I was an idiot! I hurried to gulp a vial of mana as I sifted through my spells. You couldn't blame me, really: all my life I used to be a Warrior. What was my level now? 27, exactly.
I could now cast illusions, couldn't I?
Blessed be the sorcerer whose bag I'd found on my memorable first day in the Crystal Sphere!
I activated Legacy — which made all acquired spells available 3 levels earlier than required — and hurried to cast the 5-sec spell.
I tried to visualize a hydra as believably as I could in all its blood-curdling detail, complete with the clouds of acid mist escaping its many jaws. I also cast the Aura of Fear over it for good measure.
The screaming of the imps all but ruptured my eardrums.
The hydra I'd conjured up turned out to be twice its natural size. The sudden arrival of this bog monster had put things into perspective. Apparently, the imps were the cowards from hell — literally!
The workers scattered in all directions. The warriors stopped dead in their tracks. One of them dropped his weapon; a few more turned gray with shame and fear when their loincloths suddenly became moist.
The hydra emitted a guttural hiss. Its twelve horror-spewing jaws were enough to impress even the hell hounds: the beasts stopped in their tracks and began backing off, growling.
To sum it up, the effect from my first illusion reinforced with the Aura of Fear had surpassed my wildest expectations.
Struggling out of their stupor, the imps began inching sideways toward the hydra, ignoring Zander entirely.
Virgil and Tylor emitted a triumphant yell as the Infernal Monster collapsed under their blows, crumbling to a heap of lifeless bones.
Staggering, an exhausted Togien stepped back as I continued to heal him non-stop.
Iskandar and Rodrigo kept the shapeshifting warlock under control. The desperate man fought to the last. He used his class-switching ability again, returning to his original form, then tried to escape using a teleport scroll. Zander caught him just in time, then performed a shattering coup de grace. With a heartrending scream, the warlock dissolved into a swirling cloud of ashes.
Zander swung round and nearly jumped out of his skin at the sight of the hydra. It didn't take him long to see through my little trick though; he posted a grinning emoticon in the battle chat and got busy smoking imps.
Virgil and Tylor — who by then were done with the hounds — also joined the melee.
Iskandar and Rodrigo were busy restoring mana. I'd healed Togien completely. Finally I had a moment to take a look around.
Immediately I noticed Platinus crouching sneakily next to the pool of bubbling slime — which by now had completely defrosted — and trying to fill some vials with the filthy liquid.
Right, and what about the conjurer? Had he given us the slip? Apparently not. I could see a heap of old rags marking the place where he'd been smoked.
The only thing left was the totem grinning its weathered yellow fangs.

* * *

THE FIGHT was over. Zander cast a watchful look around, then sat down to meditate, restoring his health.
I was about to walk over to him when Tylor stopped me. "Wait a bit. He's busy performing a ritual. He's speeding up the cooldown times of the abilities he's just used."
Iskandar and Rodrigo were inspecting the totem discussing how best to neutralize it. I could tell by the slight quivering of the air around its tip that the artifact was still very much active.
We had no enemies left within a direct line of vision. Still, I was sure that further down the dungeon they had more surprises in store for us.
"Did you see that shapeshifter?" Togien asked. "What was that, some kind of multiclass?"
"He's only an NPC."
"Sure. Smart motherfucker. A real beast for his level. I wouldn't want to meet him in a one-on-one, that's for sure. These game developers have sick imaginations, whoever they are. I'd love to know what else they have in store for us here."
"Nothing wrong with that, is there?"
My inbox flashed with an incoming message. Sender: Enea. Status: Offline
She hadn't even bothered to log in. She knew I didn't have Internet access to reply, anyway.

I couldn't sleep all night. First hot, then cold... I need to be with you. I know you're frowning now. Don't worry. I remember what I promised you. I need to see my father and take some security measures. But once I'm back... just you wait.

A shy emoticon clutching a heart was smiling at me.
"Alexatis?" Zander's hand lay on my shoulder. "What's this pensive look on your face?"
"Nothing," I closed the message. "It's personal."
"This is a quest dungeon, isn't it?"
"No. I didn't receive any quests if that's what you mean. I do have one related to the castle but I've no idea how to go about it yet. Haven't found any prompts, either."
"Mind telling me what it's about?"
"Why should I?" I really didn't feel like letting him in on the quest. Its conditions stated clearly that in order to regain its ancient glory, the castle needed the mysterious "source of magic power" allowing me to unblock most of the castle's unique functions.
"A warlock who can turn into a Dark Knight and who can materialize Infernal monsters... you can say what you want but this can't be just some game designer's whim," Zander replied. "He is a very complex character. He uses uncategorized magic. I understand your predicament but still, if there's anything at all you can tell me that might help us complete this dungeon, do it now."
"Okay. Read this," I send him a copy of the system message regarding the unknown "source of power" and added, pre-empting his question, "Don't ask me where it is. I just don't know."
"It has to be here somewhere," Zander said with confidence. "You sure you don't have any other quests involving this place?"
I shook my head.
"Good," he said. "It's okay. We can do it. Think you could spare some quest loot?"
"Unfortunately not. The quest bonuses unlock the castle's abilities, that's all. I'm not getting anything, only the XP."
"Hey, come over here!" Platinus called.
What a cheek! While our two wizards had been busy casting a tethering web of spells over the totem, this self-proclaimed alchemist had finished farming whatever ingredients he'd been farming and had sneaked up on the warlock's body, fully intending to check it for any loot. Luckily, he'd stopped just in time: there were several no-drop items in the lot.
We walked over to him.
"I only had a look! I didn't take anything! I just can't close the loot distribution window."
"Of course you can't. You'll make a fine master looter one day," Zander chuckled. "If there is such a thing as a master looter. Calm down now. I want you to read the items' stats to me. You're the only person who has access to them at the moment. Whatever you do, don't put them on!"
Platinus broke into a nervous sweat. "There's a bracelet, a ring and two runic tablets."
"I want you to focus on each of the items."
"Yes, of course," Platinus licked his dry lips. "Listen. The Replication Ring. A Founders' artifact. Binds on pickup. -30% to the Mental Energy required to build items or living creatures using the Object Replication spell."
"Object Replication?" Iskandar asked in surprise. "Never heard of it!"
"It's probably some Founders' magic," Rodrigo suggested. "The logs don't say what spells the warlock used. There're no names, only question marks. They're listed as 'uncategorized'."
"I'm taking the ring."
"Alex, why would you need it, of all people?"
"We'll see. Next item?"
"Bracelet of a Metamorph. A Founders' artifact. Effect 1: +5 to Agility. Effect 2: Allows the wearer to switch to a different character class with no decrease in levels. Duration: 10 minutes. The new class stats are assigned at random. Allows the characters with close links to the powers of nature to draw 10% of the mental energy of all surrounding creatures. Range: 100 ft."
"Yeah right. One of those useless wonderwaffles," Zander said, turning to the two wizards. "What do you think?"
Iskandar chuckled. "To do what, turn into a warrior? Might be useful... occasionally. But if that means lagging an extra set of gear around — I don't think so. Not worth it. Besides, what would I do with it? I don't have the necessary skills. Okay, so this thing might turn me into a warrior for ten minutes — then what? I don't know any blows. Or combos. Nah, I think I'd rather stick to my own class."
Rodrigo nodded. "Likewise. Trying to adapt to it is too much trouble."
"Still, that warlock fought well against me," Zander pointed out.
"Nobody argues with that. Still, you made quick work of him. The bracelet didn't really help him, did it?"
Zander grinned. "Yeah, right. Had there been two of them, they'd have made quick work of me. So what did you decide? Who takes the bracelet? Togien, fancy turning into a wizard in your spare time?"
The dwarf cringed and shook his head.
"I'll take it. Platinus, what's next?"
"A runic tablet. A Founders' artifact. +5% to a random characteristic."
"Shit. Is it a no-drop again?"
"No, it's not."
"Good," Zander cheered up. "That means we can pass it around and experiment. Or even auction it off if necessary. Alexatis?"
"Sounds good," I agreed. "The other tablet will remain in the clan's treasury."
"Deal," Zander seemed pleased. No wonder: we'd only just entered the dungeon and already we had four unique items.
"There're also seven hundred gold coins, some rare alchemic ingredients and two scrolls... with hidden stats."
"Give the scrolls to me," I said. "You can keep the ingredients. Zander will have all the gold and other precious metals in his safekeeping. Once the raid is over, we'll sit down and share it out properly."
No one objected.
Although I wasn't yet going to use the two spells I'd learned from the warlock — Dark Regeneration and Object Replication, — the ring which added 30% Mental Energy to cast the latter was a great acquisition for the future.
The Bracelet of a Metamorph was still an unknown entity. Still, it was a perfect match for my class.
"Now, everyone," Zander commanded. "We need to check the area. There must be some treasure stashes here. Don't go too far! Whatever you do, keep within the view of the others. Have you insulated the totem?"
"We have," Rodrigo replied. "I'd love to take it back with us to study it. Still, it's too powerful, the bastard. It keeps syphoning magic from somewhere."
"We'll sort it out on our way back," Zander decided. "You have five minutes to collect the loot. Alexatis and I will back you up."
The others wandered off in search of any treasure chests and stashes.

[i] As Enea and Alexatis are in a group, the XP they receive is divided evenly between them.

Release - July 6


  1. Very nice indeed. Am looking forward to further chapters/spoilers being published. Roll on July!

    1. Thanks, Dave! In fact I'll be happy to present you this book for all the feedback you provide when it's on.

    2. Greatly appreciated Simon, I have become a big fan of the Russian LitRPG writers. I think that because they have played various online games and enjoy them, they fully understand how to bring across the story to the reader. I'm looking forward to seeing what else will be published this year.

  2. 2 more days until the book is launched. Really liked that second chapter. Some very interesting drops. Looking forward to the next chapter.

    1. I'm going to need your email, Dave. Tomorrow I'll send u the book first thing. Just e-mail it to me -