Monday, June 12, 2017

Dark Paladin, Book 2 by Vasily Mahanenko

The Quest
by Vasily Mahanenko

The book is going to be released June 29, 2017

“MAY EVERYONE PRESENT bear witness that I swear to follow, to the best of my knowledge and ability, the following oath:
Consider the one who taught me the laws of my class to be my mentor, share my wealth with him and help him in his endeavors; consider all Paladins my brothers, and whenever possible come to their aid without prior arrangement and without reward; convey lessons and teachings verbally to the young Paladins who are bound by the obligations and oath by the laws of the class, but to no one else.
Strive for the benefit of my class to the extent of my strength, knowledge and ability, refraining from inflicting any harm and injustice to my class. I shall, honestly and forever, transfer the excess of my personal resources, in the amount of ten percent, for the needs of the class. Whatever dwelling I enter, I shall enter as a guest, for I shall know no other home than the Citadel of my class.
Whenever I see or hear that with respect to my class which should not be disclosed, I shall keep silent and treat that thing as a secret. May I who follow the oath steadfastly receive good fortune in the Game and glory with all Paladins for eternity; and the one who violates it or whose oath is false may suffer the opposite. So be it!”

White light washed over me from head to toe, indicating that the Game accepted my oath. From now on I was a full-fledged Earth Paladin, the only survivor out of five recruits sent to the Academy, the only one whom Archibald had been able to pull out of the mages’ hands.
The catorian was standing nearby, looking too pleased for someone who had just been chewed out, first by the blue-skinned Viceroy, and then by a weird bearded Judge. Due to recent events a scandal had broken out in the Game, and Paladins had spared no effort to inflate it. It was not like hunting recruits was not allowed, but killing noobs before official presentation was sort of bad sport. In our case it had been plain genocide. Everyone was indignant and demanded that the Viceroy and the Supreme Judge make a resounding statement and adequate response. As soon as Archibald pulled me out, the case initiation suggestion had popped up and I immediately accepted it. My soul craved blood and revenge. But those plans were not to be. The odd-looking Judge, who looked like an overgrown gnome, had taken this right away from me simply by showing up.
The case you initiated and investigation thereof have been transferred to Supreme Judge Koni
No reward, no punishment, no satisfaction from righteous revenge. It felt somewhat frustrating. The high-born elven upstarts deserved a good spanking. Would someone, please, fetch me a belt!
The ceremony of being made a Paladin of Earth, however, had turned into a one-man show. Oh, it’s my first night, oh I am so nervous! Glancing at the spectators, I noted how few my brothers in class were. There were only about forty players in the hall; most of them were elves. I would bet a hundred to one that I would not hear from them today anything like “Long live new Paladin Yaropolk!” Not as though I really wanted to. One glance at Nartalim’s father Garlion really filled me with certainty of how “glad” they were to see me here. The elf kept staring at me, and I understood really well the way he felt.
You became a full-fledged player
8 artifact properties are available for redistribution
Check your choices carefully
The defense and attack amulets bought in the Academy worked fine, improving the properties “Defense” and “Weapon” by 5 points, so there was not much sense in putting lots of available points into them. One point for each would be enough, just so that the properties would not disappear, making the amulets purely decorative. The situation with the “Spiritual integrity” was somewhat more complex. Given that for the next three years no one could take me under control it was not necessary. In the short run I could drop it and then start using it again in a couple of years. So, the only two left for further development and upgrading were “Context Search” and “Neuronal network”. Knowing full well what an advantage the “Neuronal network” would confer, since at level 15 it was capable of automatically analyzing the video it recorded in 24х7 mode, I invested 4 out of my 6 points available into it. The remaining two went into “Context Search”, thus making available to me not only comparisons of the surroundings by the Book of Knowledge, but also navigation and an alphabetical index.
“Welcome to the family, brother Yaropolk!” As soon as I confirmed redistribution of artifact properties, the gray-haired head of class for Paladins on Earth nodded approvingly to me, completing the ceremony. Gerhard van Brast’s bright blue eyes shone with such incomparable wisdom and understanding that I could not but respect him. You rarely meet a person whom you can’t help trusting as soon as you meet his eyes. Gerhard van Brast was one of those. He looked sort of like Sean Connery in “Highlander”. He was as regal and steadfast. Nodding again, to the Paladins this time, Gerhard, followed by two guards, left the room. His departure broke the dead silence that had hung over the entire ceremony. To the right of me I heard a snuffling voice loudly speculating on Gerhard’s sudden public appearance. Now, that was interesting! During the last three years the Head of class had never appeared at any public events. Already rumors and tales were circulating among our people, each stranger than the next. But Gerhard’s appearance today stopped all the wagging tongues. He was alive, strong and, importantly, of sound mind. I doubted that it was my humble self that had caused the head of the class to appear here.
“Come with me, brother we need to anchor you to the Citadel.” Sharda was dragging me out of the hall and I couldn’t hear what else that snuffling guy was saying. “After that you have an appointment with the Judge he wants to hear your version of the events. Also, brother Garlion wants to talk to you about the death of his son Nartalim. Then you are expected in the Sanctuary for assignment. There you will also receive your first quest and access to the Dungeon.”
There were many more “thens” and “afterwards”. As Sharda clarified, no matter where I am assigned, the Citadel will pay for rent and transportation and provide a stipend for the first three months. I will receive access to the Citadel library after living in the main world for at least six months. If I had not had such a high level – eleven – I would have had to first spend some time at the special training range for newbies, upgrading and leveling up to an acceptable point. In that case I would have been in debt to the Citadel, because the class training ranges were not free even for class members. One granis or one year of working for the benefit of the class was the price of not being very successful in the Academy.
“Anchor point,” Sharda said curtly, pointing inside the large hall and letting me come in first. In the center, without any apparent support, a sphere was hanging. It was about two or three meters in diameter, and pulsing with blinding blue light, creating quite an unreal picture. It felt like a fairy tale. It seemed like the sky itself had descended, washing the hall with its innocent pure light, shying away from the dark corners. Menacing shadows lurked there, waving threateningly in the same rhythm as the pulses, trying to reach the center and vanquish the small blue sun.
“WHO?” A resonating voice reverberated through the hall. The surface of the sphere visibly rippled, and my body responded with acute pain. I trembled, trying to endure it silently: it would not do to betray my weakness. The voice fell silent and the pain subsided.
“Brother Yaropolk!” Sharda introduced me, bowing his head slightly to the ball as a way of greeting. Rightly considering that it wouldn’t do me any harm, I copied his gesture. “Newly graduated from the Academy.”
“THE SOURCE WELCOMES THE NEW PALADIN!” I tried to brace for the new wave of resonating pain. But it didn’t work. First I bent down, and then fell on my knees. I didn’t fall on the floor only because I had thrust out my hands. It took the Source forever to finish its greeting! Finally the voice faded and I was able to catch my breath. The gnome was standing next to me as if nothing had happened. I wanted to ask why the voice affected me in that way, when the agonizing pain pierced me once again:
Anchoring to the Paladins’ Citadel is complete
“Charades again!” Sharda said with displeasure, as he wrote something down in a small book that was floating in the air. “From all that was foretold, brother Yaropolk, all I understood was that you might become one of the Panel of the Judges of the Game. Become one of the Arbiters. The rest you’ll have to figure out for yourself.”
“What was that?” As the darkness in front of my eyes faded, I rose to my feet and hastened to peek into the book over the gnome’s shoulder. The book fluttered a page with a calligraphy drawing on it in front of me, shut itself loudly and disappeared into a portal.
“The first prophesy,” Sharda answered laconically, as if that statement was supposed to make it all clear to me. My silence was his answer: “Did you not know about it? Oh yes, you weren’t there at the first class of training before the Academy! So, we will repeat that lesson. Before anchoring to the class citadel, each new player receives a personal prophesy. Some are told clearly what they need to do, some are given an elaborate hint that changes are needed and indications regarding the path of development. You, brother Yaropolk, were told what you could become or what you might be able to accomplish in your life. Only your prophesy has more that is not clear than is clear. Oh well: that’s your luck… What does it mean, “discover his true pair”? Are you going to become a part-time matchmaker? He-he-he!” Sharda laughed at his own guess, but immediately turned serious again, “I hate charades.”
The bluish tinge of the “sun” floating in the middle of the room faded and gradually turned to white. The anchoring was over. There was a dull click, and the door opened with a protesting squeak, as if no one had oiled the hinges for a millennium or two.
“I see that all the mandatory procedures are over. Yaropolk, may I congratulate you? You are a free player now.” The Supreme Judge appeared in the doorframe.
I shrugged my shoulders, considering the answer was obvious. The Judge addressed the gnome:
“I’ll see Yaropolk to the departure area. May I?”
Even I figured out from Sharda’s grimace how “glad” he was at the Judge’s proposition, but in some situations there is simply no choice:
“It will be my pleasure to palm off to you a novice who has not completed training,” the gnome responded, trying to look indifferent, and then took off to mind his own affairs.
“Yaropolk.” The Judge gestured, inviting me to walk with him down the hall. As soon as I approached Koni, the Game informed me of the status “witness”, beginning the procedure of examination and the impossibility for a third party to interfere with this process. The broad-shouldered Judge grinned, seeing my displeased face, and slowly started along the long hallway. There was nothing I could do other than follow him. At the last moment I looked back and met the eyes of the gnome, who peeked out the door. It seemed someone was way too curious.
“I would like to reassure you from the start – there is no threat in this for you,” the Judge had a low and pleasant timber of voice, enveloping one’s mind and making one feel relaxed. “I know practically all the circumstances of the case; I just need to clarify some details. But first of all, as one Judge to another, I can offer you some advice: never deliver a verdict on a case with which you are familiar less than ninety percent. Even if you deliver a correct verdict, it is not good practice; it will have an adverse effect later when the Panel of Judges of the Game makes the decision regarding your membership. I hope professional advancement is part of your long-term plans?”
“I don’t know yet.” I responded honestly, trying to overcome the euphoria that was washing over me from talking to the Supreme Judge. I had never felt reverence or obsequious urges towards the high and mighties until now, so I doubted that I had developed a bout of idol-worshipping all of a sudden. My experience of dealing with Dolgunata only fueled my doubts. To counteract this, there was still a thought buzzing in my head that it was forbidden to exert mental control over novices during the first three years after they graduated from the Academy. Understanding how dangerous it would be to start an open confrontation with the Supreme Judge, I squashed my indignation.  I would do better to use my accumulated ardor for self-control.
“Tell me, what happened at the mages’?” Koni stopped right in the middle of the hallway and nailed me with his stare. He was shorter than I, yet had perfected the skill of “looking down” at people. I started answering, choosing my words carefully:
“We were kidnapped immediately after our return from the Academy, and then those kidnapped were sacrificed, one after another. Then Archibald appeared and pulled me out of that hell. Monstrichello had the worst luck of all… What did they do to him?”
“They destroyed him without the possibility of respawn. The soul of the being, immune to magic, was supposed to activate the artifact, but for some reason it did not happen. What do you know about it?”
“About the activation? I don’t know anything,” I was surprised at that question, and from Koni’s pursed lips figured out the Game told him I was telling the truth. I really knew nothing, either about the activation, or about the mysterious artifact… Had anyone even mentioned anything about Madonna’s Diary? “I was sitting in the cage and thinking how great it was that I had reached level 11 in the Academy. That’s the reason I survived and am standing here now.”
“Which of the high-born mages ordered the beginning of the sacrifice?”
“Emm…” I even opened the Book of Knowledge to review that episode. “They did not mention names. It was some elf. Ask Devir – he would certainly know. Or Levard. I think he does know what actually happened there.”
“I already spoke with the beings you mention. I am interested in your opinion.”
“What opinion could I have? Devir commented on everything he did. Two Paladins were killed to get two mage slots. Monstrichello was killed to activate the artifact and then to receive a slot for another mage. By the way, what artifact are we talking about here? Levard interrupted Devir and demanded that the sacrifice be started immediately, as if he were in a hurry to get somewhere.”
“How did Zangar die?” Koni changed the topic abruptly, ignoring my question.
“I killed him.” I was not going to deny the obvious, but noted to myself how quickly the Judge showed who was who here. He did not last long with all that flirting like “as one Judge to another”, “professional advancement”, and all that. So be it, colleague, and I will respond in kind. “The Chancellor ordered us to have a duel, and I won.”
“How did you manage to beat a being that was much stronger, wiser and more experienced than you?” The Supreme Judge would not relent, but by now I was ready to fight back:
“Does this have anything to do with the mages and the case you took away from me?” I raised an eyebrow quizzically. Inside I was bursting with desire to tell it all, about the duel, the initiation and Monstrichello’s soul. But I had to resist. I had already guessed that by repeating my manipulation of Madonna’s Diary after Zangar’s teacher I had somehow managed to activate my artifact, while the necromancer got nothing. Perhaps it had happened because I was closer to the sacrifice. What I could not understand was Koni’s interest in this matter. I seemed a little paranoid, but after the Academy I was planning to check even myself from time to time. Nothing and no one could be trusted in the Game.
“No, that’s a personal request from the Viceroy – to find out what happened to the student of his closest advisor. After all, an experienced fighter was killed."
“I killed Zangar in honest battle. The Chancellor can confirm that.” I was not going to back down.
“Did you kill Marinar as well?” Koni demonstrated that he was rather well informed about what had happened in the Academy.
“Yes. They wanted to kill me.”
“How?” The broad-shouldered Judge was puzzled. “Two against one. One was an excellent fighter, the other a pretty good mage. I would like to see the video of that battle. You are an explorer and have the Book of Knowledge for an artifact, right?”
“True, but, unfortunately, I can’t help with this.” I decided to pull a trick of my own. “I cannot download the video the artifact is not leveled up enough for that. As soon as the “Context Search” levels up, we can get back to this. Unless you provide to me an express course now so that it could upgrade,” I suggested, knowing very well what the answer would be. Koni grimaced in displeasure, and my bout of euphoria passed. I had no more desire to tell him everything I knew. At that moment the Game informed me that “witness examination was complete”, and I felt very silly. How could I have not guessed that it was not Koni pressing me, but the Game itself. Being an official witness turned out to be unpleasant. I must have looked really dumb talking back to the Supreme one, when I was a Judge myself.
“Find Judge Redel in the Sanctuary,” Koni said curtly a couple of moments after the examination was over, not even looking in my direction. “He is the Head of the Judges’ Panel. As for the video: it was just a request, nothing more. If you can’t download it, I’ll ask the Chancellor.”
Without saying goodbye, the Judge rapidly walked back down the hallway, leaving me alone in the middle of it. The moment he disappeared behind a corner, Archibald appeared out of nowhere.
“Go straight second door on the right.” He looked me over, and shook his head in displeasure. “You held well, but made one mistake. Declare the information on the battle with Zangar to be confidential. You have the right to refuse to disclose information if it directly affects your safety. Go to the Sanctuary. Dolgunata is already waiting for you there. Do the Dungeons with her, both yours and hers. It will be useful for both of you. Take this it will help you feel you are a player in your own right.
Archibald handed me a small glimmering rectangular card. The moment I took it, it disappeared with a blinding flash. Archibald commented on the system message that appeared before me:
“This is the mentor’s permission to obtain a game communication device. Without it they won’t sell you one in the Sanctuary. My number and Dolgunata’s will be automatically programmed into it. Get in touch with her and arrange to meet.”
“When did she receive hers?” I was suddenly struck by a horrifying thought. “Before the Academy, or after it?”
“Before,” Archibald took a long time answering. His permanent smile left his cat face while he was silent. “What does that give you?”
“She got in touch with you immediately after we were attacked,” I started speaking bluntly. “Surely you are able to teleport to a place if you know the coordinates. But you did not appear when the mages took us. It’s unlikely that Levard held you back he was too busy to deal with you. Then all of a sudden you appeared right the middle of the cage without having any idea as to where it would be. There was no marker from Dolgunata on me Devir stated that right away. So that means you were with us from the start under invisibility, just as you were just now.”
“That’s a funny conclusion, but let’s suppose it’s true. So then what?”
“Then?” I frowned. “You allowed the mages to kill the Paladins who had just came out of the Academy. Logir, Sartal and Monstrichello were killed right in front of you, and you did not make the slightest attempt to save them. But as soon as Levard started cursing about…”

Case initiated: Improper Behavior of the Paladin (Slots available for: 9 more cases)
Description: You consider that player Archibald behaved in a manner unworthy of the name of Paladin by allowing the mages to kill your brothers in class
Task: Investigate this case and deliver a verdict
Case investigation: Not applicable; the case was initiated by the Judge himself
Period of limitation of action: None

I stopped, seeing the system message. I had a strong urge to send the catorian to respawn forever right away, but talking to the Supreme Judge had been useful to me; I decided to postpone further investigation till a more suitable occasion. I will use this ace in my sleeve later. No matter how good Archibald’s intentions were, it is still unworthy of a Paladin to watch in cold blood as his brothers are being sacrificed. A cold shiver ran through me with my subsequent understanding: Archibald had actually been in that cage! He could see full well my manipulations with Madonna’s Diary, and as soon as I activated it, he revealed his presence to everyone! He knows about restart!”
“Right, I decided that there was no point in hiding any longer. I got what I wanted,” the catorian completed my thought. “Do you seriously consider that I should have sacrificed my interest for the sake of some half-baked not-quite- Paladins? They were already condemned as unworthy. Whether it was me or someone else, it didn't matter: I believe you get the point. Let’s consider that you observed natural selection in action. As for Levard and his cursing – we’ll talk about that later. I repeat you answered Koni’s questions well. Levard climbed too high using his artifact, and those who fly high fall long and hard. On his own or with some help. Right? The Viceroy does not forgive failures. I hope it’s clear to you at what level the interested parties sit. Now you will go to the Sanctuary. Dolgunata will keep an eye over you. Do disappear for a couple of months so that even if they don’t forget about you, they will at least stop mentioning you at every turn. You do understand how important this is for our COMMON effort? You got it right: I see very well in the dark; also I know a lot, and can surmise the rest. For example, who and where SHE could be. I’ll be waiting for you after you are done with the Dungeons. Now go straight down the hall, second door to the right; I will sort things out with Garlion myself. Go!”
Archibald vanished as suddenly as he had appeared. His monologue provided plenty of food for thought, but first I needed to figure out what to do right away. Should I listen to the cat and go with the flow? Or listen to the cat and do the opposite? I liked the second option better, for I really hated following the demands of this flea-ridden beast. Catorian knew about restart a lot more than I did, but was in no hurry to share the information. Therefore, he was planning to use me while keeping me in the dark, forcing me to do whatever he needed for his own ends. I saw no difference between him and Koni. The latter at least told me openly that he was doing the Viceroy’s bidding. I liked more and more the scenario where I ignored the catorian’s direction: if he suggested that I go ahead, I needed to go back and catch Sharda. The way I saw it the gnome had owed me training ever since our first encounter before the Academy, so it should be possible to make him answer at least a couple of questions.
I found the Paladin I needed in the anchoring hall. He was sitting in the lotus pose in front of the darkened “sun”, and presumably was contemplating things lofty and eternal. At least the expression on his face suggested precisely that. I felt awkward to distract the teacher, yet I cleared my throat a couple of times to attract his attention. The gnome startled and roused himself. The moment he opened his eyes I realized: the valiant Paladin was simply sleeping soundly.
Sharda blinked calmly a few times, then nodded:
“Have a seat, brother, we have just a few minutes before they notice you went missing and start looking for you. I need to tell you something.”
I had the impression that no matter what I did, this Paladin would react as if he had known it in advance. Copying Sharda’s pose, I settled next to him and became all ears.
“Archibald has reported to the Head of class that you have activated Madonna’s Diary. The rules of the Game forced him to do that. Gerhard will hold the information back from the Viceroy to the extent possible to avoid unnecessary hullabaloo. Restart of the entire Game is looming close. You will be hunted. There are a lot more those who want to get the activated notes than we initially thought.”
“We?” I could not help asking.
“It was foretold that I would find the Keymaster when the Immune one appeared,” ubiquitous Archibald stepped out of the shadows, not surprised in the least by my disobedience. “The mages were the first to find Monstrichello; they followed him for a couple of years until they made sure that he was precisely the one they needed. Then Devir started the hunt. The plan was to make the Immune one a mage; that way it would have been easier to kill him later. Devir decided that the quickest way to do it would be to impress the stupid ape with special effects. Actually, it could have worked if he had not become carried away. So, now we have what we have. Devir went to respawn and the Immune one decided to become a Paladin. It would be a shame not to use that situation to find the Keymaster. I sent just three Paladins in during this enrollment: Sartal, Nartalim and you. You were just an accident, a random pawn. Sartal and Nartalim both failed, but the pawn turned out capable of the knight’s move. So we had to change all our plans quickly and bring new variables into the equation. You were so lucky and quick, that with Zangar’s help you were able to grab the needed object. After the Immune one’s death some scapegoats were needed, because the Game is very particular about its creations. Four extra mages were not too high a price, particularly since we were promised compensation for them. We would not be able to avoid killing them anyway: Paladins cannot betray their brothers-in-arms.
“Why are you telling me this now? What has changed in the last fifteen minutes? I could already be in the Sanctuary.”
“Because you are closely watched by our wonderful Judge,” Sharda grimaced. “You are wearing more bugs than a gypsy wears baubles. That’s not even counting three headhunters who are following you. This is the only place in the Citadel protected from eavesdropping and unwanted ears. But you had to come here on your own accord and not because you were ordered. If you had gone to the Sanctuary, we would wait for the next Keymaster. We were not going to put our necks on the line without a good reason. After a year, ten, a hundred or a thousand, sooner or later Archibald would find him. Prophesies always come true. By the way, Archie, where are my granises? I told you he’d run to me rather than the Sanctuary, just to spite you.”
“We’ll settle it, you old trickster!" grinned the catorian.
It was so disgusting – feeling like a puppet in the paws of those two puppeteers.
“I was already running a risk, letting everyone know that I have some information,” Archibald continued to enlighten me. “They already got in touch with me and demanded that I immediately present myself for interrogation. Now to the most important part: information on where to find Merlin’s Diary and who could be Madonna is kept in the library in the restricted section. You need to get in there. Neither Sharda nor I will be able to help you with this. The guards will not let us in. Garlion, the Librarian, has access. And you killed his only son, just by sheer luck. So far it’s the only way we know. Your task, as you might have already figure out, is to convince the elf to help you. Don’t count on Sharda and me that would be pointless. If we try to hustle too much, it will attract attention and bring up questions about you. Now all Garlion can think about is revenge, so it’s better not to approach him directly. Find some method to pressure him. Of his own volition he will not help you, and it’s not only because of his son. If he’s caught disclosing information from the restricted section, he’ll be stripped of his Librarian title and exiled from the Citadel in disgrace. So you have something to think about. Right? Just don’t take too much time thinking. Gerhard will tell the Viceroy about you in six months — that’s the time the Head of class has to prepare his report. So during this time you’ll have to find Madonna and Merlin’s Diary.
“Who was the third player?” Information was flowing like a river, unsettling me, but I was still able to ask the most important question. Without the answer to that it made no sense trying anything else.
“Pardon?” The catorian’s face looked puzzled. “Two players restarted the…”
“Three. Madonna’s Diary states it directly, but there is no mention of a name in it. The third player survived, that’s why the world came out defective. Two players cannot accomplish full restart – it takes three.”
“Sharda?” Archibald stared at the short Paladin.
“I will find out,” the gnome grumbled, moving his lips as if recalling a text he had memorized. “If I could take a look at the notes…”
“No!” Archibald cut him off. “You will be forced to inform Gerhard about what you saw. Yaropolk has little time as it is, and there is no need to reduce it further. Find the information regarding the third player!”
“Here you are!!” The door to the hall opened with a deafening squeak as one of the Paladins appeared in the doorframe. “Brother Yari, everyone’s been looking for you! New Paladins need to be sent to the Sanctuary right away. This is a directive from Gerhard van Brast! Brother Sharda, don’t delay him – I don’t want to suffer just because you are slowpokes.”
“He’s all yours, brother Langirs,” the gnome nodded, and resumed his meditation. Archibald was long gone – the head hunter had disappeared again.
Langirs was practically dragging me, trying to make it in time. The corridor and a few rooms flashed by so fast that I never had a chance to take a good look at them. All that I had time to do was to cast a quick glance around, letting my camera record the video and place it in the Book of Knowledge. I would review it in detail later. The Paladin dragged me into a small room with a flaming portal and pointed at it without too much ceremony or words of farewell. He shuffled his feet impatiently, hoping to be able to quickly report to his superiors that his task was accomplished. Funny in the Academy I had thought that once one became a player, one ought to be regal, full of dignity and look at everyone with the eyes of a being who had attained true wisdom. Because, in essence, you would have gained immortality. But in fact, as it turned out, nothing changed. Some did not wish to stay at the bottom of the food chain, and desperately climbed back over the heads of their colleagues, meanwhile brown-nosing to the higher-ups or doing something nasty to them from envy; some simply used others to advance… The world cannot change or become different if we stay the same. Wherever we come, we bring our vices with us and then reap the results of our deeds.
“Come on!” Langirs sort of twitched towards me to push me into the portal. At the last moment he checked himself, but it was obvious that his impatience and desire to deserve some praise from his superiors was growing.. It seemed so funny to me that I dared play on my guard’s vanity to extract some information from him.
“I so appreciate you helping me find the portal.” I started working on implementing my ploy. “Next time I see Gerhard van Brast I will make sure to mention you to him as a conscientious and responsible Paladin.”
“You… you know the Head?!” Langirs exclaimed in surprise, stuttering, as he was overcome by feelings. I could not lie the Paladin could request confirmation from the Game so my response was elaborate:
“Just a few hours ago I had a meeting with him, so yes, I can certainly say that we know each other. Is that so unusual?”
“N-no, it’s just not so many brothers-in-arms know the Head of class personally.” Langirs was stuttering from excitement, but still kept pushing me. I needed to build on my success before he decided that a bird in the hand in the form of immediate praise for sending me into the Sanctuary quickly was better than some hypothetical advantage from establishing an acquaintance with me. “Are you serious about mentioning me?”
“Sure, that’s not hard for me,” I grinned to myself as I heard confirmation of what I was thinking. NPCs, players… manipulation psychology works the same with all of them. So, let’s use the rule of “you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours”... “But I have a question: what will I get in return? Because Gerhard will surely ask why I am telling him about you. I need to know how to respond to him.”
I deliberately called the head of the Paladins of Earth by first name, causing Langirs to suffer yet another culture shock. Because for him Gerhard van Brast was the Head and there was no other way. I was looking at the Paladin, and did not share his feelings in the least. It felt like Gerhard was everything to him. Father, god, brother and devil only knows what else. Maybe I have just not been in the Citadel long enough, and with time I’ll become the same. By the way! I wonder if there are devils in the Game?
“In our world they had been exterminated a long time ago; mostly, they live with the demons in their locations,” Langirs responded. Apparently recent events had taken their toll on me: I was talking aloud without noticing it. I had to quickly review the record of the last minute, and only then sigh with relief: the only thing I had actually said to Langirs concerned the devils. I would have to pay more attention. “As for the question – yes, we can be of use to each other. I have access to the Armory and I can help with enhancement. But only after you talk to the Head.”
“Enhancement… what is it…?” I frowned. “Additional plates for armor?”
“No, no not at all,” a patronizing smile flickered across the Paladin’s face, and he hastened to demonstrate his knowledge: “Each class has just five sets of armor: the standard (the one you were issued before departure to the Academy), the Zharkee set that you are wearing now, Klifand, Daro and, finally, the Imperial set. It’s possible to buy the first three, while the other two sets, Daro and Imperial, are only granted for special merit. So the majority can access only three types of sets.”
“In the Academy the teacher spoke about twenty types of armor, and the best of those was Charleston armor. There was no mention of any Imperial set,” I said with surprise.
“It’s a popular misconception.” The Paladin was practically glowing with self-importance. “You are confusing the kinds and types of armor. There are only five types, as I mentioned. But each type can be enhanced, leveling it up to Charleston armor. As you understand, this is true only for knights; other classes have their own kinds of armor. But in any case, the players must make sure to enhance their existing protection. Not all the classes have armor, but all want to live. You catch my drift?”
I mumbled something negative, amazed at the paucity of the class armor. In all the games I knew, armor was one of the key components for a successful fight against high level monsters. In reality I was in for a nasty surprise. Five types with twenty kinds each seemed like too few for the infinite Game, even to my inexperienced view.
“Intaglios!” Langirs said the unfamiliar word with great reverence and stood still, apparently expecting an excited reaction. But all he got was my stare without a spark of understanding. The Paladin was forced to launch into more explanations, making the best of what he was offering:
“The most popular method of improving armor is using enhancers: intaglios otherwise called gems. These are gemstones with various properties. For example, they enhance defense, attack, or whatever else. Just a couple of well-selected gems and your chances to face a respawn pleasantly drop. I am sure that you have encountered them previously, before you became a player. Most symbols of power used by the NPC have them. You think crowns are purely decorative? Not so! They provide strong protection and suppression of will! An NPC with such a crown suppresses the will of people and drives them like a herd. Just gems, nothing complicated. Or charisma… But that is quite rare.”
“Are you offering me some gems?” I asked immediately after the Paladin fell silent.
“No, no, I am just an ordinary Paladin of modest means, whereas gems don’t come cheap at all.” The Paladin pulled back. “I can help with installing them on the armor. It’s not easy to install the gems just so it requires skill. If we strike an agreement and you put a word in for me, I’ll take you to the armor shop to the master of installation. But the gems themselves you will have to buy at an auction. Or find somewhere.”
I felt as if I had been deceived, or at least disappointed. In my mind I already had a couple of gems settling in my pocket. So much effort just for some piddling middleman.
“Thank you for information. I will think about it,” I said briefly, and noticed how Langirs pursed his lips. The Paladin had obviously expected a different answer. Well, it would be fair if we parted mutually disappointed. Since we could not be of use to each other, I did not waste time, and bravely stepped into the portal. A bout of dizziness was followed by the system message:

You have arrived at the Sanctuary of Game world: Earth
Quest available: Registration. Access the Registrar to receive the Dungeon token and initial tasks for class and specialty
Have a nice game!

The space around me solidified; right in front of me two creatures materialized, covering my entire field of view with their fat bodies; their sex was indeterminable, but they were baring their teeth in friendly grins. From the noise around I surmised that we were in some city, but I was unable to see any details. Directing all my attention to the greeters, I was trying to figure out their sex. Short hair, loose checkered unisex coats and army boots could confuse anyone, but seeing the makeup on their faces I decided to give this world a chance, and decided to consider them female. Of course, even in my time of being an NPC I had met men who quite confidently discussed recent trends in makeup. However, I hoped that here all normal guys would sock you one in the kisser for trying to use anything other than a shaving kit on their face. There was a time once when I contemplated why normal guys would decorate their faces. But then I looked at the girls drawing surrealistic eyebrows and pumping silicone into their duckface lips, and figured it out. The guys decided to save the world using their own beauty, before the victims of female logic do it in completely. Or they could be… different. What can I say? Tolerance is everything to us these days!
“Guten Tag! Möchten Sie Grossmünster besuchen?” the creature on the right asked, and I was glad as I realized two things. First, I was not wrong about the sex. Second, she was speaking German. That was the end of my rejoicing, since all the German I had was barely enough to identify the language.
As I was thinking what to do, other faces appeared among us. A small well-groomed man pushed himself in between the ladies somehow; he was wearing an elaborate green Renaissance period jacket.
“Ja, ja,” the man was pushing with his elbows with great diligence, fighting for more space. From the effort his little face turned bright red, making an excellent contrast with his snow-white lace shirt-frill. Not in the least embarrassed by his ludicrous appearance, the man clicked his fingers right under my nose, puzzling me even further. Was there anyone at all here who was not completely bonkers?
“Sorry, mademoiselles, but this specimen of tourist fauna is mine. Sorry to disappoint you!”
“We have a quota!” The madam on the right barked. “We need to bring three more tourists to the church! Else Herr Schulz will be angry! He needs to visit Grossmunster!”
“He’ll certainly visit it and have a chance to look at everything there in detail. Herr Schulz will be pleased with you,” the shorty kept going, while I enjoyed the dialogue, now understanding why he had clicked his fingers. It’s a pity the rest of my problems could not be resolved this way. “We’ll be on our way then. All the best to you!”
The weirdo bowed and scraped for those broads so much it seemed they were just one step away from royalty. In turn, they transformed right in front of us: their cheeks blushed, their eyes started shining, and their coquettish smiles turned them into some cozy and homely gals into whose laps children would settle to listen to a fairy tale. They smiled, dropped their eyes and retreated, stepping slowly like respectable matrons, minding their own business, removing their coats as they walked – apparently to demonstrate to the short guy that they were not devoid of some beauty: it turned out that both were wearing boho dresses. What I didn’t understand though, is why those women always look the same? Well, at least I was not wrong about their sex.
“Oh, those cute NPCs.” My liberator looked after the retreating women, then turned back to me. “One never knows what riddles the Game hides when it brings us close to these creatures. Allow me to introduce myself: Count Lefer de la Gant, a nobleman by birth, a bard and, if you would allow it, your guide and companion during your first visit to the Sanctuary, Paladin Yaropolk.”
With a smooth move of a professional dancer Lefer stepped to the side, and, with a funny old-fashioned gesture, invited me to follow him. Seeing my confusion, the count added:
“Please forgive my forgetfulness. I should have explained everything to you from the start. We are now within the Sanctuary, otherwise called Zurich; it’s one of the most splendid cities of this game world. You can consider this city an oasis in the desert of darkness and strife. Here you will not be threatened: neither by other players, nor by NPCs, who periodically try to inflict damage on each other that is incompatible with normal life. Nor is there a threat of cataclysms, floods or other natural disasters. The Game itself monitors compliance with the rules. You can safely rely on my talent as a guide. It would be unforgivable to leave Zurich without taking a look at all of its landmarks. Believe me, there are plenty of them here. I can confidently tell you that you are lucky to have me as a guide. I know this city like no one else. And we… is something bothering you?”
Lefer seemed to have stepped out of a fascinating historical adventure novel. With his manners, speech and gallantry he could have been the main hero and lover or a breakneck adventurist. All he lacked to complete the image was a wide brimmed hat and the inevitable peacock feather. I could easily assume that right now Lefer was in fact wearing one, but had simply rendered it invisible. However, whatever he looked like – it was not that which bothered me. There are plenty of those who like cosplay, after all.
“I apologize for my inadvertent discourteousness; however, I have to admit that I have some insurmountable doubts with respect to our joint promenade in this wonderful place,” I said suddenly, without expecting this kind of thing from myself. Damn apparently this is contagious. But Lefer was impressed. I guess reading all those Dumas novels as kid had not been for nothing. His moustache twitched a couple of times, and then he spoke in a normal tone, without extra flourishness:
“Let’s proceed to specifics. It will save us time. What are you unhappy about?”
“I will be glad to. I have a couple of questions for you. I am not going anywhere till I receive the answers. Why is the Sanctuary in Zurich? Should it not be in some hidden place, surrounded by force fields and high fences so that ordinary NPCs cannot access it? Something like Shambala or Eldorado? But Zurich? Then, I don’t quite understand your role as a companion. Please clarify: who assigned you this role? And if so, why there were first two ladies who greeted me, and not you? Why should I believe you that it’s safe here? And in particular, why should I go anywhere with you?”
“The monks of Shambala would not be particularly happy if members of other classes were to appear at the doorstep of their Citadel,” Lefer smiled, not fazed in the least by my speech. “Neither would the vampires of Eldorado. By the top-level decision of Heads of classes several hundred years ago Zurich was chosen as the Sanctuary, being the only city which is equidistant from all of the Citadels on Earth. The Game confirmed that, and now we have this incredible opportunity to enjoy peace and quiet in Zurich. I hope my answer to the first question is satisfactory to you?”
“More than satisfactory,” I nodded.
“As for companionship, there is only one thing to tell you: it's a community work assignment, and I enjoy it no more than you do.” Lefer was speaking in a calm and serious tone of voice. “Periodically every player receives a task like that; it just needs to be completed, regardless of anything, and then forgotten. Normally the meeting occurs in the central square, but you were delayed, and the arrival point coordinates shifted. Just about anyone could have met you there. Everything I said about the safety I can confirm with an oath. May the Game bear witness that I am speaking the truth.”
For just an instance white fire flashed around the bard, relieving the enormous tension I had felt in my soul. I really was wondering why this green embroidered coat was following me. If this is his task, he may as well perform it well.
“What did you mention about a tour?”
Zurich turned out to be a rather interesting city. One could not say that its beauty compared to Rome, Paris or London, yet it had its own charm. I was particularly impressed with the people – nobody was in a hurry to get anywhere. In my previous life I happened to live in a huge megalopolis, where time was quite valuable. Everyone was in a rush: to work, from work, to eat, to sleep, to die. In Zurich it was different. All the NPCs, local residents and tourists alike, wandered around the city slowly, in a strange melancholy, like someone in love after a successful date. Tired from walking for a long time we decided to have some coffee in a cozy little café. Watching it being made slowly, I realized that only those who know they have an eternity in store for them could be cooking that way. At some point the informational tables appearing above the NPCs heads were flickering in front of me so much, particularly when groups of tourists passed by, that I opened the settings and turned them off. My chest contracted: the world seemed practically the same as it had been before the Game. If I were to think that the players dashing back and forth were simply historical re-enactors or cosplayers, it would be as if nothing had happened to me. As if I were simply traveling and did not have an eternity before me.
“Let me consider my mission completed.” Five hours after we met, Lefer sighed with relief, and with the familiar old-fashioned gesture pointed at the doors of the three-storey Town Hall. "I dare hope that your tour around Zurich will not fade from your memory for a long time, and during interminable winter evenings, as you enjoy a glass of wine in front of the fireplace, you would recall yours truly, wistfully and gratefully. I wish you a nice Game, monsieur Yaropolk; Count Lefer de la Gant is always at your service."
Nodding farewell to the count I waited till he turned a corner and opened the doors of the Town Hall.
“Purpose of your visit?!”
Two NPC guards blocked the way.
“Registration,” I said, expecting to be let in right away.
“What registration? This is the City Council!” The first guard was not going to give up easily.
“I need to visit office number twenty-three.” I started with a new approach.
“Introduce yourself. I need to see if you are on the list.” The second guard brought out his tablet.
“Paladin Yaropolk!” Fatigue was taking its toll, after all; it had been a very busy morning. I was becoming irritated. That was not at all the kind of welcome I had expected.
“Right, there you are.” The guard noted something in the tablet. “You were scheduled for twelve thirty; it’s two forty-two now. You can sign up for tomorrow… wait, no we are all booked. The soonest appointment available in office twenty-three is the day after tomorrow, at five thirty. Shall I book it for you?”
“No! I need it today! Now!” My temper boiled over.
“Calm down, or else we’ll have to call the police. You are late. Other visitors are being seen now. Are you signing up for the day after tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I barked, not even trying to calm down. I wondered: did Lefer know that the registration was time-specific? Most likely he had yet he still dragged me on that tour. The door opened, and a hunter dressed in leather armor appeared. Glancing at me briefly, he approached the guard, introduced himself and easily received a pass for that very office number twenty-three. I cursed silently, turned around and took my anger out on the door. What was I supposed to do in Zurich for two days?
“What an encounter! What a pleasure seeing you again! I take it you had some issue with the registration?” Grinning Lefer was waiting for me at the entrance to the Town Hall. Now I will very likely find out what was all this elaborate setup for. Surely not just for the fun of it. “I could offer my humble services and help to speed up the process. As it happens, the Registrar, Claude, owes me a favor. For a modest fee of half a granis it will be my pleasure to help you complete your registration now, rather than in a couple of days.”
“How nice of you,” I grinned. “Are you sharing with Claude? Will I have to pay him separately, or will half a granis cover all the expenses?”
“It’s a pleasure when your vis-à-vis understands you so well. Another half a granis will be Claude’s compensation, as he’ll have to stay at work late. If you don’t have this sum, we could make an agreement.”
“Guarantees.” I cut off the eloquent bard. He was quite a sweet talker. A plan was gradually taking shape in my mind.
“Is my word not enough?” Lefer’s indignation was quite sincere. "Have we not become friends during the time that we have known each other? Why would I deceive a friend? Well, it was unfortunate that I forgot about the time of the appointment. But this kind of slip could happen to anyone. I am willing to extend a helping hand. Lefer never abandons his friends! Just half a granis and I will solve the problem!”
“A granis,” I clarified. “You seem to be continuously forgetting Claude’s share.”
“Really, it is so fortunate that your memory is so powerful,” Lefer regained his cheerful mood. “You are right it will be a granis altogether. I understand; to a beginner player this amount may be excessive, so we could make an agreement to complete the Dungeon. Take us along! This will be enough to cover all our obligations under the agreement.”
Now I understood the true purpose of the affair. In effect, those conmen were not running any risk. Attacking players in the Sanctuary was prohibited, so there was no danger of physical damage. Then, not all newbies knew that it was possible to initiate a case for extortion, besides which, they would be unlikely to want to spend their time dealing with it; Lefer must not really hope for granises, because normally a new player would be a poor player. So here’s the conclusion: either a player would just quietly wait it out and register a couple of days later, or take this whole bunch along to the Dungeon. The part that was not clear was why were they were all so eager to go through the Dungeons with the newbies.
“I want to talk to Claude first.” I decided to pretend that I was ready to agree, but still had some doubts. The Game had not yet offered to open a case, but I was certain that it would do so at any moment now. These conmen were quite unlucky to try and snag a Judge. “If he confirms that he is ready to help me register today rather than wait for two days, then we’ll talk about agreements.”
“That’s reasonable. Would you perhaps like to have a seat?” Lefer pointed at the nearest bench. An enamored NPC couple suddenly jumped up, yielding their seats to me. I looked at the bard with a different eye: he was obviously using a will suppressor.
Five minutes later Lefer returned from the Town Hall and happily informed me that all the formalities had been settled and Claude had kindly agreed to see me even though he had been working with another visitor at the time. Of course he would, when the prey was practically begging to be skinned.
This time the guards paid zero attention to me and Lefer, and I freely ascended to the second floor, into the realm of bureaucracy. Clerks were running to and fro everywhere, pitiful in their attempts to look important by looking grim and wearing dark blue business suits. It’s funny, but the lower a clerk’s position is on the career totem pole, the more effort he puts into pretending he is exceedingly busy, checking his watch every minute or continuously pressing buttons on his smart phone. And you will never guess that he is checking his watch not because he is hurrying along with his important clerk business, but because it’s time to set his slaves to work in yet another computer game, or he is already expected at an online casino; and he is fiddling with his phone because you are distracting him, and he is having a hard time aiming his angry bird at the target. While if you see grey people, listlessly leafing through never-ending piles of paper, you may count on that being someone who will definitely help you. Because he is wearing grey not because that’s the color he prefers, but because he long since lost his taste for life, having to work hard to cover for all those nincompoops. But those true slaves of the office are few and far between.
“This is outrageous!” The hunter I had seen previously was yelling when Lefer and I opened the door to office twenty-three. He was hanging over the desk and screaming at the gnome, who was impassively looking at the player over his glasses. “I will complain!”
“It’s up to you, random assignment is not subject to control.” The gnome shut his notebook and turned to us. “Lefer, is everything all right?”
“You could say so,” the bard nodded, pushing me into the office and shutting the door. “Yaropolk wanted to talk about the details in person before entering into the agreement.”
“Just a moment; I’ll just finish with this,” the gnome said, and returned his attention to the previous visitor. He rose slightly from his chair and leaned towards the hunter, who had been taken aback by us barging in. “Please leave my office! Your registration is complete! Continue on to the assigner! Office number thirty-one!”
I smiled bitterly: bureaucracy! Bureaucracy everywhere! One registers, the second assigns, certainly the third does the paperwork and the fourth signs and approves! No it should be the fifth who approves! I seem to confer too much responsibility on the fourth one.
“I did not…,” the hunter started, but was cut off immediately:
“Shall I call security?!” The gnome was getting really worked up. Another moment and he’d start spitting fire! “Get out of my office!”
The hapless visitor, as he was leaving, took his irritation out on the door, just as I had a few minutes earlier. Immediately making a friendly face, the gnome, smiling as if nothing happened, offered me the armchair:
“What is it that you want to discuss?”
“Is it possible for me to choose the location where I am registered?”
“Well…,” the gnome hesitated but his furtive eyes and quick exchange of glances with Lefer told me that it was possible, even though not included in the original price.
“Lefer will get his share,” I promised, and the registrar smiled with obvious relief and leaned back in his chair. He didn’t want to share with his accomplice. “But I need guarantees. Just your word is not enough. I don’t know you.”
“Neither do we know you,” the gnome immediately quipped.
“That’s right. My conditions are as follows: you register me today to California, assign me to two of the most interesting Dungeons, send me to a Judge, provide me a communication device, since I have my mentor’s permission already, and give me extra complex class quests, the quests to explore something interesting… and for this each of you will receive…” I fell silent, and looked at Claude questioningly.
“You take us along to both Dungeons,” the registrar named his price.
“And for this you will receive one Dungeon and a granis each,” I responded in kind, outlining my conditions. “And you will receive them now, without any extraneous loan agreements or other delays. One granis to each. Here and now. Agreed?”
“One and a half,” Lefer came to the pensive registrar’s aid. “A granis and a half each, but after we complete the Dungeon. You don’t have to do it now, we’ll wait.”
“One and a half,” I agreed easily, noting the unexpected comment. “Or do you prefer three hundred kilos of gold each?”
“No! We want it in granises!” the gnome said worriedly. “We don’t need gold. Only granises! And only after the completion of the Dungeon!”
I was starting to like the Game more and more. A Judge calmly bargaining about the amount of the bribe – that’s the way it was; that’s what I was used to.
“Agreed. So then I look forward to receiving the agreement from you stating all that we have just specified. May I wait here?”

Case initiated: Zurich Conmen (Slots available for: 8 more cases)
Description: You believe the actions of the bard Lefer de la Gant to be unlawful; there is clear evidence of criminal conspiracy between him and registrar of players <hidden> Claude de Leur.
Task: Investigate this case and deliver a verdict
Case investigation: Not applicable; the case was initiated by the Judge himself
Period of limitation of action: None

The information on initiating the case appeared at the moment when the agreement was handed to me. Actually, I had expected the case would appear much earlier, but apparently my subconscious waited for us to proceed from discussion to action. As they say, you can’t put the words into a case. A quick glance at the agreement confirmed that I received guaranteed assistance in selecting registration location in case of voluntary contribution to provide aid to the poor and starving Lefer and Claude amounting to three granises, to be paid following our joint completion of the Dungeon. The document was already signed by the other party, and I rubbed my hands in anticipation. It’s time to show these jerks who is the hand of justice here!
“For abuse of official capacity and extortion, I sentence Lefer de la Gant to stripping of his 'guide' status, to prohibition from occupying such a position in the future, and impose on him a fine, to be paid to the Game, in the amount of ten granises; Claude de Leur shall be stripped of his position of registrar and prohibited from occupying any administrative position within the Game in the future; I also impose on him a fine to be paid to the Game in the amount of ten granises. The verdict is final and not subject to appeal!”

Verdict is confirmed
Verdict is deemed optimal
The case “Zurich Conmen” has been closed. Sentence has been executed by the Game
Award for correct verdict: basic Energy level increased by 100

Oh, this scene was worth all the trouble and nerve-wracking. I enjoyed the moment of triumph without even trying to conceal my broad smile. The gnome kept gulping air, trying to say something, unsuccessfully. Lefer was outwardly calm at hearing my verdict; in any case, only his twitching right moustache betrayed his state outwardly. But I could not care less about their feelings. In addition to my satisfaction from the righteous revenge, I felt internal satisfaction with myself at a professionally investigated case. At least so it seemed to me.
A portal suddenly opened in the room, and a sleepy leprechaun wearing flower-patterned pajamas fell out of it. Blinking to clear his vision, he was looking around, trying to assess the lay of the land. Seeing the pantomime “two in a state of shock”, he hemmed, looked at me, hemmed again, then sat down at the desk and pushed the intercom button. A secretary ran in at once.
“Two cups of coffee, please.” The leprechaun’s voice was high and light. “I need to wake up.”
The new owner of the office turned out to be active and down-to-business. Presenting me with one cup of coffee, he asked me to wait while he dealt with urgent matters: procedure for being confirmed at the new position, preparing an inquiry for a list of all the players registered by the previous occupant, clarification of the rules and specifics of registration. Finally, having donned a classic dark blue suit that concealed information on class, the leprechaun proceeded to deal with me.
“I don’t even know where to start. Thank you, first of all... I applied for an administrative position several decades ago and it has only been granted now. Even though it’s in such a second-rate game world. Earth… What a weird name… So, let’s start. I know your preferences, but I cannot help you: registration and assignment are performed by the Game. It is the only one who knows where you can best use your skills and abilities. You are assigned to Moscow. You have been allocated a studio apartment at the address… 16 Nth Street, Apartment 48. You are assigned to complete level 2 Dungeon ‘Alveona’. The keys to the apartment and access keys for the Dungeon will be issued to you by the assigner. Then, in the Sanctuary you should see Judge Redel to receive initial Judge quests, Paladin Grizdan to receive initial class quests and archivist Taleem at the Sanctuary library to receive initial explorer’s quests. That’s about it. Oh, no, not quite – you should also visit office thirty-one. More coffee?”

I LEFT THE TOWN HALL building a couple of hours later! It took me two hours to complete all the procedures before the Game informed me that I was officially registered in the game world “Earth”. Those clerks had run me ragged, and I craved just one thing: a soft and warm bed. The Book of Knowledge got its bearings instantly and a green arrow appeared I front of me, pointing to the nearest hotel.
Zurich met me with cold evening air. Six o’clock!
“Young man wants to enjoy himself?”
It was not immediately obvious to me that this hoarse smoker’s voice was addressing me. Pulling my tired eyes away from the blinking pointer, I concentrated on a bedraggled plump woman way over forty. I grimaced involuntarily: checkered tights, short leather skirt, red blouse with only one button closed and bright makeup clearly indicated this NPC’s occupation.
I stopped, taken aback. The woman interpreted my stopping as being interested; she hastily exhaled a stream of cigarette smoke and continued with her lively invitation:
“Girls and boys of all colors and ages will fulfill your every whim!”
This bedraggled peddler of sex stared at me unblinkingly, like a fish. It made me sick to my stomach. It was not as though I really hated people of her profession, but I was always overcome with disgust when I encountered such characters. I did not bother them, they did not bother me, and everyone was happy with that. But now, looking at this forward pimp, I wished like never before to make sure that this filth would never exist anywhere again.

Case initiated: Moral Degradation (Slots available for: 8 more cases)
Description: You consider it is not acceptable to engage in prostitution and provide sex services in the Sanctuary
Task: Investigate this case and deliver a verdict
Puzzled, I read the message at least three times. What did that mean? The Judge was supposed to judge players and minions. The Game took care of NPCs on its own. So what was I supposed to do now? I thought for a minute, decided that at that point I had no choice anyway, and stifling my disgust, started the investigation. The best place to start would be to interrogate her:
“In the name of justice I demand that you speak the truth and nothing but the truth! You are being detained as a suspect in the case “Moral degradation”. For the duration of your testimony you are released from all physical, moral and emotional bonds. Anything you say can be used against you when producing the verdict.”
The NPC’s eyes glazed.
“I acknowledge your right to administer justice,” the woman drawled in an emotionless voice, and stilled, waiting for the next question.
“Name?” I gingerly started with the simplest part. NPC tourists passing by pretended that we did not exist and only a few players stopped nearby, intrigued by the show. Who cares! First I needed to deal with the pimp.
“Samantha Durs. Also known as Firefly.”
I hemmed: the young woman looked so old and bedraggled, even though her life had been so short.
“How long have you been working as a prostitute?”
“Since I was fourteen. For the past two years I’ve been working as a pimp.”
“Why did you become a prostitute?”
“I was thrown out of my home. First my stepfather raped me. I told my mother, but she didn’t care about me, all she cared about was downing another glass. She screamed like crazy that it was my own fault, that I seduced her dear hubby so that I could have him all to myself. Then they threw me out into the street like a dog. Then Rick found me there, had fun with me and then gave me to his friends; then he took me to the brothel to work for him. They always like young girls there.”
“Why did you not go to the police?”
“Never had a chance. First Rick locked me up, beat me up and had me gang-raped to make me more agreeable. When I gave up, he sent me out to work the street. I was sixteen, and that was all the life I knew. Who would need me here? I had no education, no money, no connections. There was no reason for me to go to the police, so I stayed with the ‘Lush Garden’. Now I am fine here.”
“So you would not want to leave the streets?”
“Not really. I am fine with what I do. I don’t get gang-raped or beat up any more, now I can arrange that for the young new ones. I like to whack the new kids. I like smoking grass with Rick and I sniff coke. I like feeling important. In a different life I wouldn’t have any of this.”
I grimaced in disgust and practically forced myself to say:
“I don’t have any more questions for you. In the name of justice I release you from the obligation to speak the truth and nothing but the truth.” Samantha’s eyes cleared. But there was no erstwhile indifference in them. Her eyes, faded from long use of drugs, were full of fear. The NPC was so afraid of me that her knees were shaking; she seemed completely unconcerned by a trickle of wetness that started down her stockings.
“Samantha Durs! I pronounce you guilty of engaging in prostitution and violence towards minors, and sentence you to death! This verdict is final and not subject to appeal!”
Initially I had planned to fine the woman, or sentence her to community work, or devise whatever other punishment, but Samantha’s statements had sealed her fate. There was no place for her in the world into which I came!
“I beg you, don’t!” Samantha barely had enough strength to crumble down to her knees. She had no doubts of my right to sentence her to death; she just vainly hoped to receive mercy by begging. “Don’t! I beg you, take this, that’s all I have!” “The woman quickly took something off her neck and pushed it into my hands. “Just don’t…”

Verdict not confirmed, case investigation incomplete
Case “Moral Degradation” is relegated to the nearest Judge. Remaining verdict error limit: 99

The world exploded in blinding white shards. The left side of my body became both numb and fiery hot, making me scream with torturing pain. My legs went out from under me; I crashed down on the pavement and rolled around trying to beat down the flames. The pain was so extreme that I lost all self-awareness.
“So in addition to everything else you are a Dark one?” It felt like I was burning for an interminable time before it all ended, leaving behind just a phantom of the pain. Breathing heavily, I realized that I was next to Samantha, who was frozen in place like a stone statue. We were both lying on the ground. “Get up enough of soiling the title of Judge.”
Shaking off the residue of pain I stood up sharply. A leprechaun was standing next to me, looking at my dirty armor in disgust. In his hands he was twirling a small object; the Book of Knowledge identified it as Samantha’s cross on a chain. In her pleadings the woman had pulled it off and shoved it into my hand as a bribe.
“It’s amazing how many true believers there are among prostitutes.” The leprechaun followed my gaze and relaxed his fingers; the cross and chain fell to the ground. “A common cross pendant turned into a source of Light and nearly sent for respawn a Dark one playing a Judge. Congratulations! You failed this case most spectacularly.”
“Would you perhaps at least introduce yourself?” I did not like the tone of the leprechaun as he started this dialogue. Of course, kudos to him for taking the cross away and all. I am filled with gratitude and such, yet my pride would not allow me to forgive someone openly mocking me even so.
“Of course I will what else?” The leprechaun pulled out a vial from virtual space and sprayed the air around him, grimacing in displeasure all the while. The fragrance of lilacs floated on the air. “Judge Redel at your service. I hope you will take care to clean your armor? Well, do it later, as now we need to deal with poor Samantha. Aren’t you a hero: just barely showed up in the city and already found yourself a prostitute and sentenced her to death. What did she do deny you service?”
Without waiting for me to respond, Redel approached the immobilized Samantha, donned rubber gloves, pulled out a small pair of pincers and lifted the woman’s left eyelid. She did not even twitch.
“Well, well, well. A procurer, thirteen years in the profession, lately business has not been too good, not making enough money to get a dose… Where’s the interrogation record?”
A shining scroll appeared out of the air. The leprechaun perused it quickly and stared at me in amazement:
“And that’s all you found out from the suspect?!”
Redel was obviously used to asking rhetorical questions. Without waiting for me to answer again, he started his own examination:
“Tell us, madam, how many minors do you have in your care and where are they now?”
“Thirty two.” The prostitute regained just enough mobility to be able to answer. “They are locked in the brothel’s basement. I need to feed them at least once a day, or else they’ll croak.”

“Who else knows about them other than you?”
“Only Rick does, but if they were to croak he’d just find new ones. He was never worried by the bodies.”
“And the keys to the basement are…?”
“In my pocket. I don’t trust anyone, so I carry them with me at all times. If something happens to me, at least I’ll not die alone.”
“Where do we find Rick?”
“He spends his evenings in the ‘Lush Garden’ with his gang.”
“Now that’s really it,” the leprechaun said, pleased; then looked at Samantha, pulled out a small vial, put a drop from it on the woman and commanded: “Die!”
Her eyes opened wide as she tried to scream but failed: her vocal cords did not work anymore. I grimaced from the sight: the NPC started imploding as if dissolving from inside.
“Since you are new, I’ll give you a couple of free lessons.” The leprechaun was not very original, and started with his advice, paying no attention to what was going on. He bent down to the remains and pulled a bunch of keys from the dead NPC’s pocket. “Lesson number one: for a Judge all cases are equal. There cannot be a case that you like or don’t like. Emotions have no place in this. All the cases need to be investigated most thoroughly. Any error will result in a fine. The Game doesn’t care about the kids locked in a basement so what if they die? but the Judge must do his job thoroughly. Forget the distributed judiciary system. From now on you are a Judge in the Game! You are the investigator, the prosecutor, the attorney, the Judge and, well, an executioner if need be. We have a singular right to judge. Lesson number two: if new facts appear in the course of investigation, you need to initiate an additional case and investigate it as well. You found out about Rick. Why did you decide to pretend that this did not concern you? That’s why the Game punished you, and not because you decided to sentence the prostitute to death. Even if you were to kill her without any trial at all, no one would say a word to you. Within the Sanctuary players are completely safe, and the police turn a blind eye to things like that. If need be, the Game will simply generate new residents. Oh, and lesson three: cut that out – all those high-flown statements – “in the name of justice”, “the sentence is final” and such. It is enough if you say them in your mind – no reason to entertain the public like a clown. Those phrases belong in the courthouse, not in a dark alleyway. And last: if you decide the person should die – kill them yourself, don’t wait for headhunters.”
A street cleaner slowly approached us and began putting Samantha’s remains away into a trash bag. The NPC’s face showed no emotion, as if he were dealing with a pile of leaves.
“Here’s a good remedy I am happy to recommend.” Redel showed me the vial he had used on the prostitute. “Alrian oil. Dissolves bones and tendons and pumps the body full of adrenalin, so that the victim does not lose consciousness and its heart only stops half an hour later. Even now Samantha is alive and feeling all the aspects of her unenviable situation. Criminals should be punished, but no one said the punishment should be painless. She tortured the minors, so now she may suffer herself. In this world Dark ones need to generate emotions themselves to replenish their Energy. In this respect, just in every other, actually, Judges’ hands are not tied.”
“What do you mean by ‘in every other’?” I caught the phrase, but the answer came to me unbidden: “So it means that in the Game there are no regulations and laws that we may follow? Only the internal feeling of being right? But this is complete anarchy!”
“You only figured that out now? The Game doesn’t care about any laws players invent for themselves to fit their needs; all it cares about is self-preservation. Judges have the right to judge in whichever way they please. Why do you think I am sitting here in the Sanctuary? It’s not just me – the entire Panel of Judges of Earth would not dare take a step out of Zurich!”
“Because a Judge is target number one for any player,” I grumbled heavily, feeling just how unenviable my situation was. “Since we have the right to judge in line with our current perception of the world, we become extremely undesirable figures. Because today we may think one way, tomorrow another, the next day something else, and every time we sincerely believe in what we are thinking. No one knows what to expect from us, what will wander into our heads… But then what does the Emperor confirm? What for? Or is it all fake?”
“The Emperor checks whether a Judge sincerely believes his verdict is just, whether he sincerely believes that the punishment is commensurate to the crime, as well as whether the Judge took into account all the circumstances when delivering the verdict, as it was in this case. If Samantha had not mentioned Rick, your investigation would have been deemed successful. So… I took the keys, tomorrow morning I will generate a quest – send some young players to release the kids. As for you – it is preferable for you not to show up in my office tomorrow. As you understand, the life of Judges is not easy in our world, so without a high-level protector it is not a good idea to advertise what you do. Level up some, find someone who will stand up for you; then you will be able to present yourself to the world as a Judge. Registrars will keep silent; nobody else on Earth knows who you are.”
“Some players saw me questioning Samantha.”
“You’ll have to deal with them yourself. If you want, find them and make arrangements. Or forget about it if that’s what you prefer. That’s for you to decide. But I do need to assign some kind of case to you. Let it be the one about the stolen pendant. There is a similar quest we’ll use it to cover up the investigation. Go to the bank tomorrow morning; I will leave an envelope for you under a new name with a description of the case and the quest. What is your name now?”
“Evgeniy Frolov,” I responded. The new name to be used with NPCs had been assigned to me in the Town Hall together with the “legend” for life on Earth. From now on I was a fitness instructor at one of the gyms in Moscow. There was no reason to even bother to remember my new name; while talking to NPCs “Evgeniy Frolov” would transform into “Paladin Yaropolk” and vice versa. In this sense the Game took great care to preserve the NPCs minds: to them my game name would have sounded silly and strange.
“Fine. What else? Oh, of course! I forgot to tell you one of the most important things: stop judging NPCs! The teachers were supposed to have told you: anything NPCs do is predicated by the algorithms of the Game and a Judge does not need to bother with them at all.  Even if they were to all exterminate each other, we care only about the players and minions. But still, if you decide to level up using NPCs, do it skillfully and professionally. Remember why you initiated a case against the prostitute: because you decided that she was a criminal. You evaluated her in accordance with your moral system. As a starting point that’s fine. For small cases that are judged correctly the Game will enable you to increase Energy, but that only works in the beginning. And don’t forget the limit of 10 concurrent cases. The more you disapprove, the more you suffer. For example: is that young man not committing a wrongdoing?”
Redel pointed out a young guy jaywalking. The NPC had supposed that in the falling darkness no one would notice his transgression, but my view differed: a message on initiation of a new case flashed in front of me immediately. Redel hemmed: he had expected my reaction.
“That’s exactly the situation against which I am trying to warn you – you should not let your internal self control you. Jaywalking, being noisy at night, flashy clothing, aggressive behavior – you should dispense with internal evaluations. Every time you disapprove of an NPC, the Game perceives this as a signal to open a case. It’s more complicated with players. I’ll tell you about that later, after we finish the case with the pendant. Let’s see how good you are at learning lessons. Perhaps Koni was too hasty when he sent you to me.”
Seven hours later I was sitting on a bench in a Zurich courtyard and contemplating. I really wanted to find a nice bed and get some sleep, but life was conspiring against me. Redel was right: the problem with an internal assessment of whether others’ actions were right or wrong was real and something needed to be done about it. I punished the jaywalker with a couple of days of community service and received a unit of Energy. The verdict was deemed correct. Then there was an arrogant woman who pushed me because I was standing in her way. Again community service and a unit of Energy for me. A young girl with a dog who crapped on the sidewalk. Same thing. A loudly laughing couple, a group of slightly tipsy friends. A punk, striding peacefully somewhere. A policeman smoking on duty… The moment I thought that an NPC was doing something wrong, the Game instantly initiated a case which needed to be immediately investigated.
Another problem appeared that I had not thought of previously: correct verdicts increased my Energy level by twelve units, yet the bar was not even close to being full. As the interface informed me, the game world “Earth” had practically no available Energy! It would take a week to reach full level with the crumbs that were available from the surroundings! In the Academy I was used to relying on shields that were active all the time, and now I felt unprotected and vulnerable. Something needed to be done about that. It was impossible to continue on elixirs alone, I needed regeneration. I hoped Gromana would explain how Dark ones survive in the Light worlds. I did not feel like continuously torturing NPCs, extracting emotions from them as it had happened with Samantha.
“Would you like some coffee?” A sweet voice jerked me out of my slumber. I had fallen asleep unawares. “It’s cool; you’ve been sitting here all night and must be chilled.”
A huge woolly sweater was standing next to me; above it was a lovely face framed in blond hair. Smiling, the blue-eyed charmer extended me a cup from which the exhilarating fragrance of freshly made coffee was floating.
“Warm yourself! It’s fresh here in the mornings.”
“I do love coffee.” I beamed, took the cup and tensed. The girl was perfect. Her appearance was so close to my ideal of beauty that there was no doubt: our meeting was no accident. Particularly since the girl was an NPC and spoke Russian to me.
“How long have you been in Zurich, and where are you from?”The girl’s voice was so sweetly delicate it made her even more attractive.
“From Moscow.” The red flags in my mind were flapping madly. “Thanks for the coffee, but I have to go. It has been a pleasure to meet you.” I slowly retreated from the girl.
“Helen!” The girl extended her hand, not in the least embarrassed. “We have not introduced ourselves yet. And what is your name?”
“Good bye!” I ignored her hand, put the cup on the nearest bench and quickly left the courtyard. I heard a disappointed sigh behind me, and it took me an effort to not look back. The girl was really good, but I valued my own hide more.
Avoiding crowded locations since I did not want to incur more cases, I went to see the archivist Taleem. Before meeting Dolgunata or Gromana I needed to research something in the Sanctuary Library.
“How can I help the new player?” Taleem was a short and plump warlock. He continuously adjusted his glasses that kept sliding to the tip of his nose, and periodically cast a menacing glance around the reading room looking for potential disrupters of the order. There were no players among the visitors; just a few random NPCs were leafing through the books and surreptitiously photographing the richly decorated hall. Tourists: what do you do…
“I would like to receive a quest…” I gave the information letter to the librarian. “I decided to become an explorer, like you.”
“Explorer, hm,” Taleem looked at the papers briefly and ordered the closest NPC: “Keep an eye over the room. I need to step out.”
The warlock calmly took off for the internal rooms of the library, inviting me to follow him.
“Are you interested in something in particular? Or would you prefer to have the Game select a quest for you?” Taleem asked laconically. That is an enviable level of skillful handling of information: clear and to the point. If you need to issue a quest, why waste two hours following the social norms talking about weather and politics? Come, receive, leave. Perfect time management.
“I have no specific predilections,” I responded cheerfully. “I would prefer something simple to begin with. I would like to understand the principle of exploration quests. The second quest may be more complex.”
“Second? The librarian was surprised. This is a library, not an almshouse. If you need a second quest, you’ll have to pay.”
We entered a small room filled with books. Taleem dug into the pile and extracted a dusty tome.
“Here! That’s your quest. Find out what it is and for what purpose it exists in this world.”
All I was able to notice before I carelessly took the object in my hands was that the tome was ancient, and that it was made of human skin. As I took the book, I once again felt the whole range of feelings I had experienced yesterday as I encountered a source of Light.
“Are you Dark then?” the warlock asked in disappointment, releasing me from the hellish flames. He dropped the book back onto the pile “That’s a shame; I would like to have found out about this thing. So, then, take this map, it needs to be completed. You are being sent to Moscow; that’s good this map is from Russia. So, this will be your quest.”
I took the scroll, unrolled it carefully and stared at the so-called “map”. Some child, on a piece of paper bearing food stains, had scribbled carefully “Home” “Treasure” “Road” and connected them with a dashed line. There were squiggles, presumably indicating trees, and a “scary” skull in the right corner. I stared at the librarian skeptically and waved away the message concerning the quest.
“The author’s coordinates are on the back of the scroll,” Taleem said as if nothing had happened. “Your task is to find out everything about the “Treasure”. You will receive three additional Book levels as a reward.”
“But those are just scribbles!” I was unable to contain myself.
“That’s right. And you will turn them into a serious document. The minds of NPC children are not capable of original creation; the Game uses them to send us riddles. The more careful you are about the details, the more reliable and precise the research result will be. So your disdain for these ‘scribbles’ is inappropriate. For your information, America was discovered that way as well. This completes the mandatory part. Anything else?”
“Also, I have some questions,” I started habitually.
“And I have some answers.” Taleem smiled in a predatory manner. “One twentieth of a granis apiece.”
“Accepted,” I sighed. What do you do – “those who own information, own our granises”, so it made no sense to bargain. “I have two questions. First: what books will help me level up my artifact? Second: what do players receive for successfully completing a Dungeon?”
Taleem grimaced in displeasure, pursed his lips and replied:
“The answer to the first one: those you have not read yet. Answer to the second one: players receive a reward. You owe me one tenth of a granis.
I lifted my eyebrow questioningly.
“That’s not fair! It’s not an answer!”
“The answer corresponds to the question!” The warlock raised his voice. “Some explorer, aren’t you! Is that how you treat information?! Your questions are supposed to bring precise and concise answers that would bring you one step closer to your goal. Just one step! Any leap in knowledge can rob you of significant detail.”
I sniffed in disappointment but had to admit the comment was fair.
“The money’s gone,” I took into consideration all that was said and decided to approach it from a different angle: trying to elicit pity. “That’s why I am here – no one taught me the basics; I had to study everything myself. As for exploration, all I have..,” I stumbled remembering the present from the Chancellor of the Academy. I didn’t want to reveal all my secret trumps. It was possible that the Explorers’ Book was not unique in the least and it was possible to buy one at every street corner, but before exposing it I should study it myself.
“So what is it that you have as an explorer?” Taleem asked with interest.
“My interest to explore and desire to develop my artifact,” I reported quickly. “Dear Taleem, I would be glad to pay you a quarter of a granis, if you share the information. You did understand what I was trying to ask, right?”
“Half,” the warlock started haggling. “In addition I’ll teach you how to ask questions properly.”
“One third,” I decided to dig in my heels. “I am smart; over time I would figure it out myself, so your assistance is not really unique. And it’s way too expensive for a poor explorer.
“Two fifths,” the librarian resisted. “Or hit the road and try to find another keeper of knowledge. I am sure in Zurich there are tons of those who want to help you for free.”
“Two fifths and you’ll provide me the books to develop my artifact.” I gnashed my teeth inwardly and decided to give some. I needed information like air, and there was no other place I knew to obtain it. When I tried to access the Temple of Knowledge at night the request was denied. I still had enough granises but they were evaporating at an alarming rate.
“Agreed. The answer to the first question: yes, an explorer can develop his artifact through books. But only through those that describe the game world. You can’t take a book, say, on physics and level up. Our library has one hundred and seventeen of the books you need. I will provide seven of them for you to explore. There are twenty more that I can make available for an additional granis. Thirty two books you will be unable to use since they are sources of Light; the rest you could only access by permission of their owners. I can tell you their names, but none of them are on Earth any more. As for the second question: the player, or players, depending on the situation, receive the final prize; sometimes it’s granises. But it’s not always a treasure chest. It could be gems, or an artifact enhancer, or some other unique object. The power of the Dungeon monsters and value of the reward object are directly related to the number of the party, up to ten – that’s the limit for the group. I suppose I don’t need to mention the importance of the final prize for the player and how heated things become after the last boss is downed? It’s simpler to pay a fine for breaching the agreement and go for respawn rather than let someone take a gem that’s a ten times enhancer.”
“Lovely,” I drawled. I had guessed, of course, that the erstwhile registrar had a reason for wanting to join me in my Dungeon. Dolgunata was not resisting the idea of a joint raid too much either, but of course no one told me anything about the final prize. In her Dungeon Dolgunata would take the final loot by right; in mine she would force me to give it up using her charisma – I did not need a witch to figure that out. Speaking of witches.  I should not forget about Gromana!
Taleem gave me some time to think about the situation, then suggested:
“Have you already promised a joint Dungeon raid to someone?”
I nodded sadly.
“I can provide advice, but it will cost you. How to prevent someone else from taking your reward. It will cost you a granis and some information.”
“This looks like a scam,” I snorted. “You must understand that a cat in the bag for two hundred kilograms of gold is a luxury a beginning player simply can’t afford.”
“I do understand. So, you can pay me the granis after you complete the Dungeon. As for information – that’s simple as well. Your doll. As an explorer I am interested to know what your ideal woman is like.”
“Doll?” I tensed. “My ideal woman?”
“You don’t know yet?” Taleem was upset. “That’s odd. Normally players meet their Doll on the first day.”
“What doll?” I insisted.
“After you complete the Academy, the Game gives each player a gift,” Taleem started explaining. “During registration it pulls out of your head the ideal image of your ‘other half’, and then emulates it. The point of the Doll’s existence is to adore its master and fulfill his desires. It’s impossible to give it to someone else, but it’s possible to refuse it… Even though those cases are few and far between. Teachers normally don’t mention Dolls, making it a surprise to their trainees. I was interested about what is your ideal in that respect. There was one elf explorer here before you – he got a male black orc for a Doll. It was funny how he was trying to explain his extremely non-traditional sexual predilections to his parents – that was too much even for the tolerant elves.” The librarian tilted his head back and laughed heartily. “The Game never misses the mark with Dolls.”
“It’s more or less standard for me,” I mumbled, a little shocked, and Helen’s image appeared in my head. I felt sympathy towards the elf. It’s really wrong to expose one’s most secret desires to be mocked by everyone. “It was a woman, a human… No horns or tails or anything like that. I really didn’t know about Dolls.”
Taleem did not look upset by my confession. On the contrary, he seemed pleased; then he continued on a more serious note:
“One of the seven books is actually about , their rights and relations with players. Do make sure to read it before you fall for yours head over heels. It’s important to understand that Dolls are a vehicle created by the Game to satisfy the main needs of the body, nothing else. You can do whatever you want with it.”
I nodded in gratitude. The librarian then resumed his entrepreneurial approach:
“Have you decided – are you going to buy my advice on completing the Dungeon?”
“What advice? Bring the number of players up to ten, make agreements with everyone and the loot is yours?” I asked sarcastically. “And esteemed Taleem, just by chance, happens to know some reliable players, with whom he has no sharing agreements whatsoever, but who would never cheat and who would definitely comply with all the provisions of the agreements?”
“We can consider that you have saved a granis, and I have received information regarding your Doll,” the warlock shrugged. “Anything else?”
“You gave up so quickly and don’t even seem upset,” the warlock’s complacency kept bothering me. “If the loot in the Dungeon is so attractive, it’s surprising you are not trying to convince me of the reliability of your players.”
“My offer for paid advice is still standing,” Taleem was practically shining with self-content.
“No, thank you. If I was wrong about possibility number one, there is still possibility number two: no one may get it. You mentioned that the more numerous the group, the stronger the bosses will be, and the harder it will be to kill them. Maybe even impossible.” And then it hit me. Registrar, Lefer and myself. Dolgunata, her brother and myself again. Three in each case. There are no coincidences in the Game. “The best number is three players! Right?”
Taleem sighed, went to a book shelf and retrieved seven brochures from it, about thirty or forty pages each.
“As promised,” Taleem said dryly and handed them to me. “Go ahead and study those. Once you are done, return them. I will look forward to seeing you with the updated map.”
The warlock strode proudly back into the hall, leaving me alone with the books. My hands were itching with impatience, but experience suggested that haste makes waste. Who knows this guy? There could be many a source of Light in the office; one wrong book and I would not be able to get away with just a granis for sure. Settling in the armchair, I decided to start with the book on Dolls.
It took me an entirety of ten minutes to finish this work. Now I knew everything about Dolls. The Game gave each player a present: a Doll, the living embodiment of his ideal, which only wanted one thing: to love and serve its master, and pleasure him in every way. The players were supposed to perceive Dolls as objects in a beautiful package, no more. These creatures had no rights. The present could be smart, stubborn, sarcastic, depending on the player’s wishes. All Dolls bore the mark of the owner that identified them among normal NPCs. Once the player became bored with the Doll, the Game removed it, as it was no longer needed. Until rather recently it had been possible to turn Dolls into players; however, even after becoming a player, those creatures were not free from their inherent desire to belong to their owner.  The Game considered that was not humane, and thus the conversion was prohibited. Players who would still dare such a thing would be destroyed together with the Doll. In addition, the Dolls were mortal: if one were to be killed it would respawn as a different NPC. There were even certain rules of etiquette with respect to them. For example, appearing with your Doll in society was bad form. A pet was supposed to bring joy to its master only at home. Well, at least there was no need to return to that little courtyard to pick up Helen. We would run into each other again and again until I either accepted or rejected her. In case of the latter the Doll would be destroyed.
An hour later I was going to the archivist with a clear understanding: now I would voluntarily become one granis poorer. I needed all the information that I could get on the Game that I could obtain from the local library in order to develop my artifact. The brochures raised the level of the Book of Knowledge by two units, thus bringing the “Neuronal network” attribute to an incredible level 6. Figuring that Taleem had another twenty books in store, I considered the effects of upgrading the artifact by another six levels. The probability was close to 100 percent, and losing such a chance for development so early in the game would be stupid. Those were the thoughts I had as I went to part with my very own granis.
From the standpoint of game mechanics the books provided by Taleem for the additional fee did not contain anything particularly important. History of class wars, game worlds, the rules of conduct for hunters in Lubot Forest and other “highly relevant” information. I swallowed book after book, breaking only for food and restroom breaks. As an experiment, I read several normal textbooks on quantum physics, about which I knew nothing at all. Taleem had not lied: the experience bar for the Book of Knowledge did not increase one bit; neither did my knowledge about quantum physics. Finally, my labor was rewarded: the Book of Knowledge received the six levels I had hoped for.
I left the Library puzzled by new considerations. Neither Archibald nor Dolgunata had contacted me yet. We were supposed to have set out for the Dungeon yesterday, but my “allies” kept mum and apparently were not worried about my precious self. The conclusion was obvious: the markers had done their job very well and the headhunters stayed very well informed of my location. Something needed to be done about that. But first the bank: Redel was supposed to have left me an envelope.
“How can I help you?” The bank, just like similar establishments in most games, was run by goblins. Green men with huge ears wearing stuffy jackets dashed to and fro, seemingly in a chaotic way. But once you took literally a minute, the Book of Knowledge identified the main directions of movement, which did not cross; a few moments later it informed me that the whole pattern was anything but chaos. The goblins seemed like ants capable of fulfilling multiple tasks without the constant control of their superiors, which I, actually, did not even see.
“There should be an envelope left for me.” I turned around and met the eye of one of the workers, who separated from the stream to find out the reason for my visit.
“Is this your first visit to the bank?” The goblin requested verification, and once I confirmed it, broke into a merry speech: “Let me tell you about the promotions our bank is running and work, on your behalf, on the financial aspects of the Game. My license ‘D’ enables me to complete transactions of up to seven granises…”
“Envelope.” I cut off the chatty clerk harshly. I was not in the mood for being too polite. “For Yaropolk. A Paladin.”
“Please wait.” The goblin’s perked ears flopped again and he merged back into the fast moving stream of the bank clerks. Seeing an information desk nearby I decided not to waste time and studied the areas of the bank’s activities.
Banks in the Game played one of the key roles with respect to interaction between NPCs and players: they converted granises to gold or bank notes and vice versa. There were no differences between a Game bank and an ordinary one in all other respects.
Having received the coveted envelope, I did not open it. Who knew – the case could have a time limit for completing it, and I had things to do now. First I wanted to test a theory I had, so I made sure that all the regulations and charter documents for the bank were brought to me. I spent twelve hours of game time, and certainly the goblins now had more grey hair; but I received an excellent confirmation: my artifact developed in the process of reading any papers that had to do with the Game. And even though the bank provided only one level of “Neuronal network”, it was enough to highlight half of Zurich in green. I strolled down the streets and noted with delight how many things were hidden from ordinary players. I was surprised to discover that the Sanctuary had three levels: sewers, ground and roof. Out of curiosity I looked into a manhole and noted the active life of players who did not tolerate daylight.
In this leisurely and interesting manner I reached the Paladins’ residence. A grey three-storied building was sitting inconspicuously on the bank of the Limmat, and only the sign “Temple of Truth” helped me figure out that the defenders of truth resided there. In a dim empty hall a portly elderly Paladin sat; he tiredly lifted his head as I approached.
“Paladin Yaropolk, reporting to obtain a quest,” I grinned, pleased with my fruitful walk; the old man sighed heavily. “I need Grizdan!”
“Took you quite a while to get here,” the gatekeeper said with displeasure, and pulled his notebook out of the desk. The old guy was blind in one eye, which was rather strange: normally during respawn the Game would completely restore the body. Either he had not respawned for a while or his was an abnormal case. I immediately felt a hope that it was the latter and I made a mental not to myself to try and ask if an opportunity presented itself You never know – what if it proves useful knowledge. “There are not many quests now, all we have… My lord!”
The registrar of Paladins – it was he – jumped up and bowed reverently. It looked somewhat clumsy, as it turned out that the old guy was missing not only an eye but his right leg as well. I turned around and saw a procession exiting a portal. The hall quickly filled with all sorts of Paladins. The shine of their armor dispelled the gloom in the hall, and it became so bright it hurt my eyes. It was the first time that I had seen members of my class in full battle outfits, so I was awed by their beauty. A golden Paladin was striding at the head of the procession. He was moving so fast it was possible to feel the air parting around him, and his aura of power was so thick it was almost palpable. Even though he was not just standing out from the crowd because of the armor, the latter fit very well with the image of a “tough boss”: terrifying spikes; elaborate decorations and engraving. The Book of Knowledge hesitated for a moment, then clearly identified the armor as the Imperial set. Some players were wearing Klifand and Daro sets as well, but the artifact was unable to identify on its own which one was which, so it marked each armor set with two notes as a possibility.
“Grizdan, take this one,” the golden Paladin said briefly, and another three fighters stepped out of the portal. Two huge Paladins were carrying a tied-up squirming monster similar to an octopus, that had a head at the end of each tentacle.
“Hydra,” Grizdan said with awe, and pressed several buttons on his tablet. I stared at the legendary monster. The Earth legends described Hercules killing another one like that, only a larger one. Either the legends lied or the Paladins had managed to catch a younger relative of the well-known monster. But in any case they were seriously cool.
Several rods extended from the wall, and a force field activated around them.. The Paladins who were holding the monster exhaled noisily. “Good catch, My lord!”
“Brothers Dungard and Rivier have been affected by chimera’s breath. Put that in the report. Oh, a new one? — The high-born Paladin deigned to notice me. The force field lifted the hydra in the air and took it away somewhere near the ceiling.
“We’ve been waiting for him for three days, and he showed up only now,” Grizdan nodded. “Archibald’s protégé.”
“Hunter as well?” The “golden” looked me over head to toe with disdain.
“Explorer.” I felt awkward. The helmet was completely closed, preventing me from seeing the race of the Paladin, but from his manner of speech I decided he was an elf. His arrogant tone reminded me of Nartalim.
“Did you issue him a quest?” the Paladin asked Grizdan.
“No, My lord. Yaropolk arrived here just a moment prior to your triumphant return.”
Turning around, as if he had just forgotten about our existence, the head of the troop ordered:
“Send him to retrieve the pendant. This quest will teach him manners.”
He started to the furthest door, without doubting for a second that his order would be fulfilled immediately. The troop followed.
“Weeeelll, lad…,” Grizdan drawled and extended a sheet of paper to me as the group was moving further away. “I see you don’t consider the rules to be written for you? Here: that’s the description of your quest. Sign here and  here.”
“What do you mean, ‘weeeell’?” I was not even making a move to accept the document that was extended to me. “What rules did I break, and who was this?”
“Where do they even find twits like you?” Grizdan sighed. “You’ve had the rare honor of personally hearing Milord Iven, the Head of the Battle Wing of the Paladins of Earth, the right hand of Gerhard van Brast,” Grizdan’s vice filled with reverence as he listed the titles of the high-born Paladin. Apparently Iven was really a worthy Paladin, as there was no obsequiousness or flattery in Grizdan’s voice. The gatekeeper really did respect and honor the Head of the Battle Wing.
“So what was I supposed to do?” I asked, losing all my joy. I would really hate to have the encounter with Iven prove to be a bad strike of fate. 
“What do you mean? Do I need to remind you of class rule number five?” Grizdan was indignant.
“I don’t even know number one, let alone number five!”
“Liar! They would not have let you out of the Citadel without teaching you the rules of the class,” Grizdan started, but faltered, seeing the expression on my face. “That’s impossible! Archibald would have never framed you like this!”
“May I be blown to smithereens on this spot if anyone provided the Paladins’ rules to me in the Citadel,” I barked angrily, considering this to be another strike against the catorian. The Game accepted this improvised oath and showered me with white light.
“Oh, what is this world coming to?” Grizdan was taken aback.”That’s so against the order.”
“Please enlighten me, an explorer unfamiliar even with the basic rules of behavior: what was the reason why Archibald did not train you?” I heard Iven’s voice behind me.  The “golden” one reappeared in the hall as quickly as he had departed previously. “Figaro Here, Figaro There”, no less.
“I think the mages were the reason. Archibald was busy with the investigation initiated by the Viceroy. I even had to be seen off by the Judge from the Citadel.” I felt disgusted having to justify Archibald, but it made no sense to lie in order to make the catorian look bad. When the time comes, I will pay back to him for everything, including the gaps in my training and my family.
“Grizdan: issue the young Paladin a book on the rules of the class. It’s not right to loose an untrained one on the world,” Iven fell silent, looking at me intently. It gave me the impression that he was taking all my qualitative measurements and deciding whether I was worthy of the name of Paladin. With a capital P. Whether I was clean in mind and body. I wiped my palms on my sides quietly, just in case.
“There is a book mentioned in Archibald’s report,” Iven stretched out his hand. “I want to take a look at it.”
My breath caught at this demand. My thoughts rushed to my head. The pause was lengthening, and the chief fighter was starting to show traces of displeasure. I could not stall any longer, and decided to take the risk. The gift of the Chancellor of the Academy plopped into the golden one’s hand. The Paladin turned it around in his hands.
“The book has not yet been activated. Why?”
I really loathed this interrogation, and so confined myself to brief explanations:
“No time. First there were the mages, then the trial, then I was quickly transported to the Sanctuary. I had no chance to work with the book nor with my pet.”
“The pet is of no interest to me.” Iven returned the book and ordered the nearest Paladin: “Ask Yaropolk about his training with Archibald and completion of the Academy. I will see your report tomorrow. Grizdan, did you issue the quest?”
“Yes, I just have to give him the paperwork.”
“Take that.” As soon as the document was in my hand the Game reminded me of itself:

Quest received: “Stolen Pendant”. Travel to the estate of Lady Lecleur and find out from her the circumstances under which the “Pendant of Joy” was stolen

“A week should be enough for you to finish the quest. After that I’ll be waiting for you here. Go!”
“Yaropolk, tell me how you became a player.” The player that Iven had selected decided not to drag things out, and started his questioning immediately. I frowned, not expecting such an outcome to that conversation, but regained my normal disposition quickly. Despite his high station, I did not like Iven as a player: it does not look good to so openly and brazenly crush everyone around. So then, following the principle “every action has a reaction”, I rolled my eyes up poetically and started off on a tangent:
“It all started in the high and far-off times when I was still an NPC. It was a drizzly Tuesday. We were thundering down a country road, clinging to the side of our hard mean steel machine, swallowing the dust and looking forward to just one thing: seeing our beloved ones. Surely you must know: every soldier must have his beloved, the one in whose name he would do fair deeds and who will soften his coarse manner. Even Cervantes wrote in his Don Quixote: cherchez la femme! How’s your French? You want me to translate that?”
The player who was questioning me first honestly tried to absorb this river of nonsense that I was pouring onto him; he tried to find traces of reason in these floodwaters, but as his converging eyes indicated that he was not going to hold up for very long. I chuckled inwardly: no one had promised him a rose garden.
“Listen, from where did you drag up that hydra? And what are you going to do with it in the Sanctuary?” As soon as I heard “enough!” I attacked the Paladin with my own questions. I had been wrong about Viltar. His patience was enviable. For two hours he stoically listened to my ravings; at the end he put in snide comments instead of questions. In other words, we found common ground. And I needed to take advantage of that.
“The hydra is from Altair,” Viltar still could not believe that his torture was over. He checked his notes again, stuck them into the inventory and added: “Just cannon fodder for the Games.”
“Ah, the Games,” I pretended that I was well informed about the event. “Will Milord Iven take part?”
“Of course!” Viltar perked up once we started talking about his boss. “Next year he’ll surely get the gold! He caught this hydra himself we didn’t even help him! In the arena he’ll kill it with his bare hands! Since the berserkers won’t be there, he’ll have no competition.”
“What about them?”
“They were banned from participating. They gobble up shrooms with vodka before the tournaments turn into total animals. That’s not good sportsmanship. Of course, they don’t all do it, but it’s too much bother to sort them out. So the whole class was punished outright. It’s kind of a weird story; I don’t really know what happened there.”
The Games… Gold medal… 2016 … The Book of Knowledge tentatively, as if not quite certain of its conclusion, presented a suggestion: 2016 Olympic Games.
“Yeah, it would be cool to see the Games. How much is the portal to Brazil?” I asked, based on this guess, and was right:
“One tenth of a granis. Plus accommodation. If you want to go, make your reservations now. The prices will skyrocket later.”
“Thank you! Really, it hadn't occurred to me… And what happened to brothers Dungard and Rivier? Is chimera’s breath something dangerous?”
“Oh, it’s nothing much,” Viltar grimaced. “A chimera binds the player to his world for a period of time; it’s impossible to take him out of there either by teleport or respawn. There’s no Paladins’ base on Altair, so the brothers will have a tough time. Milord Iven said that we could just forget about them for a month, and then we’d go pull them out. It’s a pity, Dungard was a cool guy.”
“Why ‘was’ If you are going to bring them back?”
“Milord does not forgive mistakes. They were affected by the breath; that means next time they could let you down in something more serious. Battle knights are only allowed one mistake. The second one will not be pardoned.”
“You have a tough setup, but that’s the only way to train true fighters.” I was playing to butter Viltar up, but it produced no visible reaction. “And where…”
“I have to go,” the Paladin cut me off. “I need to prepare the report. Good luck in the Game!”
That was it for questions. Viltar went outside, and the Paladins’ headquarters was once again empty. Grizdan was dozing with his head on his hands. The elderly Paladin couldn’t care less about breaching his work discipline. Apparently the job of gatekeeper was so attractive that the only one who had agreed to do it was this one-legged one-eyed old fellow. I settled on a bench and decided to follow Iven’s advice and work on the Chancellor’s present.

Explorers’ Book is not activated. Do you want to perform primary anchoring?

Once I opened the cover, the system showered me with messages. I looked through them and cursed elaborately at the librarian and all his relatives. There was no other way to express it: as it turned out, over the last two days I had lost at least eight levels of the artifact. All because the blasted librarian had never bothered to tell me about his “favorite” source of knowledge.
The Explorers’ Book proved to be a treasure. The first thing it did was request an anchor to the character; that made it an inherent part of my artifact and increased all the available properties by 10% of the basic level. While that had no effect on “Weapon” “Defense” and “Context Search”, the “Neuronal Network” jumped to 16. Simple math told me that each 10 levels of the properties would bring me an additional unit. What I learnt next, and one of the things that caused me to react so much, made me delve deeply into the character settings. Explorers were given a great bonus: a doubling of artifact experience points. To achieve it, once a month you could select a “preferred” method for obtaining information: books, scrolls, music, exploring the surrounding world… there were lots of options. All I could do was sigh, deploring my lost opportunities, and scold myself for tardiness: no one had kept me from studying the book in the Citadel.
“What are you doing lazing around here?! This is not a hotel!” Grizdan’s irritable voice yanked me out from my dreamland. Tired and pleased with my work with the book I had fallen asleep sitting in the armchair.
“Good morning to you, too!” I stretched with gusto. The armor had worked like a soft bed, so I was spared feeling battered. On the contrary, I was bubbling with desire to commit great deeds and feats.
“Milord gave you a week, one night has already passed, and you are not a step closer to completing your assignment.” The gatekeeper was not at all as enthusiastic about the new day as I was. “Get out at once!”
I did not feel like arguing, so I left the headquarters quickly. I had had a very interesting thought at night, and I spent a couple of hours to find the teacher I needed.
“Greetings, apprentice Yaropolk.” A short guy with a moustache welcomed me. I thought at first that I was seeing a gnome, but the snake-like face could not really belong to an inhabitant of the kingdom under the mountain. I stared at the player to the point of being rude. The master, not abashed in the least, inquired: “So how long are you planning to stare at me without saying a word? Normally I don’t charge granises for looking, but I could make an exception for you.”
“Please forgive me I have never seen people of your race. I hope that’s not too forward a question, but who are you?” As I had found out, honesty tends to overwhelm your opponent in ninety nine percent of cases. This master was no exception from the rule:
“I am a kobold.” He was flattered by my interest. “Our race is not numerous but it is tightly knit. What can I do for you?”
“Is it possible to write incantations down on scrolls only, or on any object?”
“Depends on the object.” The master was thinking. “Most important things are the area – it should be large enough for the spell and… well, have the surface affinity for writing on it. As you understand, it would take something special to write, for example, on a water surface. Even though some are skillful enough for that. Tell me in more detail though.”
I described my idea to the teacher. He only laughed:
“Those who come from technogenic worlds are so predictable! Every one of you arrives at this idea sooner or later, but you forget about the specifics of the Game. The laws of physics on Earth and, for example, on Saldan, which is my home world, are completely different. What burns here is used as a coolant there. There are tons of similar examples. The method you came up with would be fine on Earth only; in any other world it won’t work. That has been tested thousands of times.”
“Even in Dungeons?” I asked in dismay.
“Well, that depends.” The master fell to thinking. “If the Dungeon is in this world, it should work. If it’s in a different one, it won’t. Which one are you thinking about?”
“Alveona. Level 2.”
“Wait a minute, I’ll take a look now.” The kobold reached into the desk and pulled out a huge reference book. My hands literally started itching from my desire to borrow this treasure from him for a couple of hours. Given that I had chosen books as my “preferred” way of leveling up, this would have given me something like ten levels.
“Actually, you know, the first and second levels of Alveona are located on Earth. Classic Dungeon for new players, nothing special. One monster and a huge crowd of its companions. Your method might work.”
“The one problem I have is time,” I sighed. “I just completed the Academy; there during training we were placed into extratemporal pockets. Is there something like that in the Game?”
“It’s very good that you mentioned the Academy,” the kobold replied seriously, even seeming to perk up somewhat. “Because your question is so naïve and stupid that a player just could not have asked such a thing. I had even thought you were an 'echo’, and wanted to call the guards. Think about it: You became an apprentice. To reach this level you had to produce over seven thousand scrolls. In order to become a master you will have to create over a hundred billion scrolls. If there were no pockets, how would the players have an eternity?”
“With each word you utter I have more questions than answers,” I said slowly. “What’s an ‘echo’? Who are the guards? How does one gain access to a pocket like this?”
“Man, slow down!” The kobold cut me off. “as for an extratemporal pocket: I can provide one. This service costs three granises. As for the rest, figure it out for yourself, I don’t have time.”
Three granises were such a huge amount for me that I did not try to bring it down to a reasonable level. I was sure I could find plenty of other masters in Zurich who would charge much less for a private eternity. My eyes fixed on the reference book again:
“What is the book you have? And could I read it?”
“Do you want to borrow my wife for an hour as well?! He wants The Book oh really! Go... say hello to Shevran! I can sense a trap a mile away! Really, who would have thought! To distract me with a stupid idea in order to get close to the book! Well, that will never happen! I need to work get out of my shop!”
Puzzled, I went outside and the door shut behind me with a resounding crash. The kobold even shut the bolt, demonstrating his desire never to see me again. All that remained to me was to move on to the auction, to buy the stuff I needed.
The Game auction was comfortably located in the building of the Swiss Exchange, and its attitude towards visitors was most commendable. The core idea of the auction was simple: nothing at all was supposed to interfere with the client’s concentration. All the transactions were completed using a terminal with a clear and intuitive interface. Several times I received offers of food, drink or rest, but I resisted the tempting offers steadfastly. It’s not as though I didn't trust the local hosts, but… oh well. No I did not trust anyone.
The first thing I did was find information on completing Dungeons generally, and the second level of Alveona in particular. Minus a granis, plus an artifact level and understanding that there is nothing seriously scary in the Dungeon for newbies.
The next thing I bought were weapons. A couple of AKs with unlimited ammunition would be a hefty argument in disputes with minions and the main boss of my Dungeon. However, while a machine gun is excellent for killing monsters, for energy armor I needed a net launcher. Had I not been an active gamer in the past I would not have even guessed about such a thing existing. Buying licensed weapons was expensive, but I had no time to look for dealers selling things like that under the table. So the weapons took two granises; they came with a warning that it was not desirable to use my purchases against NPCs.
I was able only to drool looking at gems, enhancing elixirs and scrolls with the spells prepared by advanced players: the prices started at ten granises. Instead I extended my inventory to the maximum extent (as it turned out it did have a limit, after all), and filled it halfway with the Energy elixirs. My stash for a rainy day. The attack and defense amulets that I had received in the Academy were all but worthless; I nearly threw them away after replacing them with +20 each. In the end I put them up for auction for one hundredth of a granis, since they would not yield more. The only worthwhile item from the Academy was the Energy amulet: +500 was rare at the auction and cost 4 granises or more.
Having solved my issues with respect to weaponry and outfit, I got stuck on the tab “Services”. Because I needed to find nine volunteers willing to join me in a hellhole called “10-th level Dungeon” who would not try to take the final loot. I did not even bother to think of Dolgunata and her brother; those two would not even come close to my Alveona.
I decided.

“YARI, YOU OUGHT to lower the fines.” Miltay tried once again to appeal to my conscience, but all he got was a negative gesture and an invitation to sign the agreement. Or move on and find business somewhere else:  there were plenty of mercenaries at the auction.
“You think that’ll stop us if we are really hard up?” The warrior surrendered. The Game provided information about entering into an official agreement with the team of mercenaries named “Zeltan” for rendering services with respect to completing my Dungeon. Minus three more granises.
“I wouldn’t really care at that point,” I honestly replied. “At twenty granises from each body I’d be able to buy myself such a bauble that all the loot in Alveona would look like child’s play by comparison. So if you get an irresistible urge to stiff me, go right ahead.”
“Reach the boss first, then put on airs,” snorted the mercenary. “Completing level ten is not like downing a six-pack.”
“That’s what I have you for, along with all your weaponry.”
“Are we setting out for Earth?” Miltay perked up as soon the upcoming work came up.
“That’s right that’s the ticket. One boss, tons of small crap. Here’s the overall layout for the Dungeon,” I extended the document I had prepared. Miltay started reading, whistling contentedly from time to time. Of course. I had not spent two hundred kilos of gold on this book. At this point I was a theoretical guru for completing Dungeons. By the way, I put the book back into the auction right away: I would like to recoup my money and check how the Game functions work. It was still not clear to me: if one had to come here to retrieve the objects they bought, what happened to the money? Will my account be credited immediately or will it be stuck somewhere in virtual space waiting for me to come back?  That was an interesting question; immediately a plan for getting rich appeared in my head.
“Let’s take a look at what we’ve got here. We provide a force field dome. Support and backup is also on us. We’ll provide the Energy. How are you planning to remove their shields? While they’re up, you can’t even scare these guys with ammo. They have good protection against magic as well as physical damage.”
“Sticky net with spells. Here, I have explained its principle of operation here to the extent I could.” I handed yet another document to Miltay.
“The shield will come back up in seven to eight seconds,” the mercenary was thinking. “There are ten of us, so we’ll have time to fire about twenty shots each, no more. Look, most of the monsters have chitin armor; bullets may not pierce it. We’ll soften it up with magic, but it takes time. How many nets do you have?”
“There’ll be enough nets; how do you enhance the bullets?”
“We don’t. How could one enhance them?”
“There are ways.” I sensed an opportunity to reduce the cost of hiring these mercenaries. “Shall we talk about it?”
Miltay did know about the possibility to put a spell on each bullet, but had no idea how to actually implement it. Too many things would have to come together at the right time: a ton of Energy for charging, an infinite amount of patience to engrave each bullet, an available draftsman willing to spend several years on monotonous and tedious work, and most importantly, one needed to prevent the spell from deformation once the bullet hit its target. Given that opponents were clad in tough chitin that sometimes resisted even bullets with an iridium core. There was another condition, and Miltay remembered that: 5 seconds had to pass between the shot and spell activation; that was enough time for a monster to kill us flat out. However, the force dome and decelerators were supposed to help against that.
“Check this out.” I pulled out three shells and handed them to the mercenary. “If it doesn’t work, the agreement is void, and I’ll pay the fine.”
Miltay looked at my creation with interest. It had taken me almost two years, as far as I could tell personal time, to experiment and continuously test the results. My first bullets with the Templar’s Blow engraved on them would not detonate: the engraving deformed on impact. I created models again and again, trying to figure out one problem after another, and plodded back to the auction for more knowledge. I was happy with the result; even in case of deformation the bullets enabled me to activate the spell engraved on them. Funny that one of the teachers in the Academy had mentioned that it wasn't profitable to sell knowledge in the main world that people rarely buy it. Ha! All I do is shell out one granis after another trying to become smarter. The only conclusion that could be drawn from that is that for a teacher a hundred granises is mere change. Gromana had made a generous gesture and presented me with a handful of Game money, obviously without much hope of return on this investment.
“Hm…,” Miltay reacted meaningfully to the explosion that destroyed the nearest tree. “Did you make it yourself?”
“So I did.” Let’s drop the price by half a granis, and I’ll make a thousand of those little jewels for each of you.” I was quick on my feet, catching Miltay’s drift.
“That’s expensive,” he cringed. “This way we’ll be going in for nothing.”
“Tell that to someone else. I know very well what experience you get in the Dungeons,” I pointed out. “So shall we make an agreement?”
The book on the Dungeons helped me understand one important nuance of the Game: why the players were so concerned about their levels. One could think that the lower the level, the less experience it would take to increase it. However, the Game had decided that would be too trivial. There were two types of levels: current and global. The current one controlled the number of available respawns, access to abilities and enhancements, opened doors to different places, etc, etc, but there was one most important thing it did not do: it did not advance you to the next stage of development. That’s where the global level came into play. The amount of experience needed to advance to the next level was calculated using a simple formula: the global level multiplied by 1000. So it took 2000 experience to attain level 2, 10,000 to attain level ten and so on. The problem was that the global level never dropped: if the player was sent to respawn, his current level diminished while the amount of experience needed to attain the next level stayed the same. So it was problematic for players to live with a low level count: the risk of being killed was too high. That’s what the Dungeons were for! Dying there did not have any repercussions for the players; all you got there was experience. Access to Dungeons cost players a pretty penny; it was compensated by just one granis one received from the Game for entering a Dungeon; so various mercenaries grabbed every opportunity that would bring them in there. By the way: each participant received a reward for taking part in the Dungeon raid:  a granis or more. However, the “more” part started with level ten Dungeons, so I was still a long way away from that.
“Smart one, aren’t you,” the mercenary sighed. “Look. You provide a thousand enhanced shells to each plus three granises for the raid. We provide help in completing it and half a granis for ammo. If we fail – there’s no claim against the group unless we, like, do some kind of an epic fail on purpose there. Loot fifty-fifty. Is that right?”
“So then... We have little time, so we are setting out today. Bring the ammo and I’ll decorate it.”
The gears of the machine called “Dungeon preparation” were set in motion at full speed. Miltay was dealing with materials, food, enhancements and other important things, in accordance with the contract. Meanwhile I was sitting in my eternity to which I had bought access for a month and worked on the shells. When I was there last I had polished my routine to the point when I could do it on autopilot. So now my hands and my head could be engaged in two different things. I preferred to occupy my head with thinking. I was turning over and over in my head everything I had found out about restart. Now was a great time to pick the wheat from the chaff and figure out for myself who was who.
So, let’s start from the very beginning. It was foretold to Archibald that he would find the Keymaster once the Immune one appeared. Suppose that’s true. So then neither I nor any other potential Keymasters of whom Archibald spoke received no help? We were given no potions, no enhancements, no information. Nothing! At the same time Dolgunata, mages, and even the necromancer were equipped for the Academy as if they were heading to war. Everyone except Keymasters, who were so vitally important to the Paladins. Strange.
The other thing that was unclear was something Sharda had said in passing: that if I had gone into the Sanctuary without talking to him, it would have been no big deal. They would have just waited for a new Keymaster. Why would it be preferable for them to wait another thousand years than to arrange a private meeting within the Sanctuary? There were plenty of opportunities. Take the auction, for example! Protection there must have been as good as at the anchoring point in the Citadel. Instead, the Paladins calmly let the Keymaster with his activated Madonna’s Diary go into the wide blue yonder, not bothered in the least that he could give that Diary to someone else, for example. All of the above would have some logic and meaning in one case only: I was not the Keymaster, and Sharda and Archibald were simply using me to protect the real one. Now all I had to do was to fit the activated Diary into this theory. At this point there was not enough information about it to draw any conclusions. It could turn out that it had no value whatsoever.
The only question that remained was: who was the real Keymaster? No matter how you put it, Dolgunata was an excellent candidate. Covered by invisibility, the druid could have very well sat in our cage together with Archibald and activated the book nearest to her just by being there. Maybe that’s why it was my Diary that activated rather than the Councilor’s, and being closer to Monstrichello had had nothing to do with it. Actually, that sounds like a plausible solution. The trained Keymaster is sent to the Academy, the mages and Zangar shift their attention to me while Dolgunata completes her training and no one harasses her. As Archibald mentioned, no one counts collateral damage in those cases. But still: why was I allowed to keep Madonna’s Diary? Maybe they thought I was Merlin!
That would be quite a nasty outcome. I really hoped that I was not he. Otherwise, during the real restart, Paladins would expect that I would voluntarily, like a lamb, lay myself on the altar together with Madonna and whoever was the third one. Who still remained to be found. While I was so far from that idea that I wouldn’t venture to take a crap in the same field with that suicidal gang. I snorted in dismay and redoubled my engraving efforts: I had plenty of work for the next year. At this stage it was impossible to receive any answers to the questions that bothered me anyway.
“What kind of a gypsy band is that? You should have brought a bear and balalaika with you too, to entertain the boss!” Dolgunata was waiting for us at the door of the building where the Dungeon portals were. I decided to ignore her as long as my patience would allow. Instantly figuring out who the head of the mercenaries was, the druid addressed him first, then turned to me again: “You are free to go. We’ll deal with this from now on. Yari, I hope you brought elixirs, food and enhancements? Come on, time is short we are already late by waiting for you. My brother will catch up with us.”
Dolgunata had no doubt that her words would be taken as instructions, so she turned around and calmly proceeded towards the building. Miltay raised his bushy eyebrows, puzzled.
“Never mind her,” I reassured the mercenary. “This girl is in her stage mode. Let’s humor her.”
“I am waiting!” The druid screamed from the door. “Come on!”
“Her stage mode is kind of lame,” Miltay drawled. “This pest has marked everyone in the group now!”
“Once we get inside the Dungeon, would you take them off me? By the way, I ran into a few more besides. Could you take them off too?”
“Why not help a good man? I’ll take the hunters’ ones off for free – I don’t like their ilk. So what about this chick?”
“I ran into her in the Academy,” I said under my breath, unwilling to go into this in any detail.
“I can tell… the markers on you are quite something,” Miltay laughed. “Look here – six different ones. I guess all from random encounters, eh? Oh, and how did you manage to cross Archibald so badly?”
“Does this affect our contract in any way?” Miltay was teasing me mildly, but I felt uncomfortable.
“Nah, everything stands. Your affairs are yours alone. It does not concern us at all. It’s good to be a mercenary: the Game itself protects us from vengeance and from harassment. Oh, and aren’t you a truly lucky one! You even managed to run into Devir.”
“So I did.” All I could do was sigh. “There was never time to remove all these disco lights. I don’t like being so conspicuous myself.”
“Yari, I don’t get it – what are we waiting for? Say your goodbyes already! The shorter the parting, the fewer tears.” Dolgunata appeared next to us.
“Nata, I changed my mind.” I decided to cut to the chase “I’ll complete the Dungeon on my own.”
“Even so.” The druid was taken aback for a moment, but regained her composure immediately. “Will you make it on your own? I won’t offer twice. You owe me a fine for breaching the agreement.”
Miltay looked at me with interest, and the druid immediately started fueling the fire.
“Yes, he is a right out bastard,” she sighed theatrically. “First he begs me to help him do the Dungeon, signs the contract and all, and then: ‘Sorry dear, it was all a big mistake!’ So keep your eyes peeled, warrior.”
“She’s actually rather cool.” Miltay looked at the girl. “Lively and with a sharp tongue. Baby, come join us. You want to be the tenth? I’ll find a spot for you. Miltay won’t hurt you.
“I am not that easy to hurt. Right, Yari?” Receiving no answer from me, the druid added, “It’s up to you. See you later,” casting a disdainful parting look, Dolgunata disappeared into the building again.
“She is damn good,” the mercenary watched as she retreated. “Is she your ex?”
“No, it just never happened.
“So it goes. Shall we now? Time is wasting and we are still alive. We need to work on this.”
The guard at the door checked my access, clicked his tongue considering the composition of the group, then pushed a few keys on his laptop, and a portal appeared in front of us. An empty room, guard, desk, chair and a portal. Minimalism at its best. The good thing was that there were no magical rituals or shamanic dances; the process was fully automated.
“Tomcat!” Miltay called, and a completely inconspicuous player stepped forward. “Tomcat” was so totally unremarkable that it was hard to keep one’s eyes on him. In case one managed to do that, it would still be quite problematic to remember and describe him later. Without saying a word, he sank into the portal, and Miltay’s phone beeped immediately.
“It’s all clear!” He read the message and pointed out to me two fighters with machine guns. “Yari, here, hang next to Beast and Burst. Rast, forward!”
A shooter hung with odd-looking coils went into the portal next, practically immediately followed by Beast and Burst. Remembering the instruction to keep close, I stepped in after them, and was engulfed in cool fog. It dissipated a moment later, and I found myself under a powerful force dome. Rast’s coils were generating a visible flow of energy that covered the area around the group with a three-meter umbrella.
Alveona was a classic Dungeon comprised of five levels. Glum dark brown walls of unhewn stone, hanging stalactites, an echo of dripping water, semidarkness dispelled by the greenish glow of the moss making players look like horrifying green zombies – the atmosphere of the desolate caves inhabited by all sorts of monsters was done to perfection. The monsters, as well as the final second level boss, were ordinary crabs; the only difference from their normal earth counterparts was their dimensions. The smallest arthropod was about half a meter in size.
“Tomcat! Bring the first one!” Miltay commanded, as soon as he had taken all the marker bugs off me and the group completed its preparations for battle. The scout covered with chainmail pressed something on his outfit and seemed to just disappear into thin air. The Book tried to visualize the player’s movement from slight traces of floating dust, but soon gave up: the fighter moved fast, and left barely any trace. I heard dull bolt clicks: the team was preparing for battle. Not wanting to lag behind, I took out my weapons and attached the detonator to my forearm. Even if I were to die, the others would still be able to push the “red button” to destroy the crabs’ protection.
The group stilled, waiting for the enemy. The oppressive silence was broken by a raspy screech and a quickly approaching staccato, as if someone were hitting the stones with a small hammer with lots of enthusiasm, but without any pattern.
“Wasn’t able to get one catch three! Their spit’s toxic!” Tomcat appeared about three meters away from the dome; it took him one leap to get under the protection. A bubbling black splotch covered the chainmail on his thigh, spreading with each second. “Hang on!” one of the players commanded, and aimed his flame thrower at Tomcat. Flames leaped; we smelt burning flesh the scout arched in horrible pain, but made no sound except a short moan of pain. This fiery cleansing lasted but a moment. With one gulp Tomcat downed half of the elves' potion, then poured the other half on the leg, and finally sighed deeply with relief. There was no splotch and no other visible signs of the burn. I really did not want to think what was going on underneath the scout’s chainmail: I knew how the “elven ointment” worked. It did not heal wounds like the life elixirs in all games or fairy tales. The potion dulled the pain and maximized the body’s own ability to regenerate by providing the necessary microelements. So at the moment the scout’s leg must look really horrendous.
The warrior with the coils switched something and the dome’s color changed from white to greenish. That was when the “hammers” crescendoed, and the first group of monsters rolled out from around the nearest boulder. Three young crabs: level 5, enhancement 10. They were immediately caught in the traps that had been prepared.
“Straight ammo! Fire!” Miltay ordered. Three fighters brought up their weapons and the “hammers” were silenced by a sound similar to stones sinking into the water. All three machine guns had silencers. I pursed my lips, looked at my AK, and put it back on the shelf until better days: during my preparation for the Dungeon it had not occurred to me that the echo of the shots would attract all the monsters in the level.
The shooting had completely no effect. As I had seen with Devir, the bullets ricocheted in different directions, deflected by the force field appearing in front of the crabs. Tired of struggling with the space slower, the nearest monster spat heartily, wishing to get rid of the intruders at once. The force dome started pulsing: a black splotch was rolling down it slowly.
“That eats up Energy pretty fast! Rast reacted immediately, looking at the data on his PDA screen. “Avoid spits!”
“Yari! Net!” Miltay’s next order was addressed to me. Bringing up the net launcher and assessing the distance, I took a shot and immediately activated the detonator. Months of training really did help: two crabs were caught. Their claws started moving immediately, but the monsters were too slow. Five short seconds later Alveona was perceptibly shaken. I integrated into each net two hundred scrolls with the Templar’s Blow, so the outcome of the explosion was expected: the force field around the crabs did evaporate. So did the crabs themselves: their pieces were rolling down our dome in black bits. The Dungeon inhabitants tried to get rid of the intruders even after death.
“Don’t do that!” Rast hissed, madly typing something on his pilot. The coils reacted, changing connections in a complex pattern, and the field around us compacted by a meter, forcing us to crowd tighter. “The field will not withstand another explosion if it doesn’t come back fully before it!”
“Let’s finish off this critter,” Miltay’s reaction was instantaneous. The explosion affected not only us, but the third crab as well; it was madly rotating in place, clawing at its own bubbling chitin. The remnants of its kin entirely covered it with black mucus; it went through its force field like butter and ate away at its body. Several bullets shot at the crab met no resistance, ending its agony and providing bits of experience for us.
“Replenish it now,” Miltay patted Rast on the shoulder approvingly, and went to take a look at the remains of the crabs. Tomcat was nowhere in sight. The scout had taken off to look at the consequences of the explosion and check if it had alerted the other monsters. “Yari, do you need any of this?”
The list of our first batch of loot appeared before me. We had decided that we would share everything right away. I scrolled down the list and did not see anything worthwhile: black mucus, chitin and white crab meat. My Book of Knowledge showed the approximate value of those ingredients: all of that could yield no more than one thousandth of a granis. Visiting the auction was not a waste of time: having leafed through various offers for several hours had provided the artifact with quite a bit of knowledge on game objects and their value.
“Nothing from that.” I came out from the dome and approached a claw that had been severed. “Did you check out the first two as well?”
“Sure I did,” Miltay smiled for the first time as he cast a proud glance at our restored dome. “You know, don’t give up. Ten times enhancement is not easy to find; there’s definitely nothing like that at the auction. They’ll sell like hotcakes even for a tenth of a granis.”
“You are too kind and spendthrift for a mercenary,” I pointed out, picking up a piece of twisted chitin. I turned it around and threw it away: the Game perceived it as “useless trash” with zero value and time to disappearance of “10 minutes”. I looked around – there was a fair amount of similar “useless trash” strewn around on the stones.
“So then I can afford it,” Miltay shrugged offering me some black mucus carefully collected in a vial. Look, there are plenty of crabs here, it’s clear how to destroy them; even if they all die from the explosions, Tomcat will pick it all up. Loot is a good thing, but one’s got to support reputation as well. You didn’t pick us out just so, right?”
I nodded in agreement. Before selecting a team I had to go through a veritable mountain of very similar information. I shuddered to imagine how much time this would have taken me if it had not been for my Book of Knowledge that singled out the main points in reviews and complaints for mercenaries. Miltay’s group suited me like no other, but I did not remember any mention of their “generosity”.
We cleaned the small fish out of the first cave within an hour. Chose the place for an explosion, which was enclosed with large boulders, and spread the slower in it – it looked like brown goo pumped from a portable tank – then brought the crabs in threes into this improvised trap. Tomcat had learnt his lesson, so he avoided the spit thoroughly. Burst, who took away the net launcher from me, acted as the spearhead. I did not even bother to protest. The guys had signed up for that, so let them work for their reward.
“Miltay, stop! There’s something here. The wall,” I said with interest, staring at one of the walls of the cave we had just cleaned. I was used by now to a green highlight appearing around objects, but here the highlight was red.
“Gere,” Miltay was not wasting time on questions, and sent his tracker forward. I looked at my almost colleague. It would be silly to suppose that a group of mercenaries would not have a fighter specializing in finding treasures, and I was interested to see his method of work. A device with a little screen that appeared in the fighter’s hands puzzled the Book of Knowledge – it was not familiar with this device. Using it as radar, Gere slowly approached the wall – like a sapper on a minefield – looked around, carefully felt the wall itself and the floor next to it, then turned to us and shook his head to indicate there was nothing.
I did not argue and approached it myself. Making sure that there was no threat coming from the wall, I went toward the point that was apparently only visible to me. The glow intensified with every step, and once I came close its color changed to blue. I pressed the stone lightly. It moved aside and a familiar object fell into my hand: a steel hexagon. Attribute stone.
Silence fell over the Dungeon, and the rustle of the crabs’ claws could be heard in the adjacent cave. I looked at Miltay. His eyes had narrowed; he was intently staring at the hexagon. The group as one man trained their weapons on me. If the head of the mercenaries were to say a word, or even if a stone were to fall somewhere, they would shoot me full of holes. Finally Miltay tore his eyes away from the stone:
“Put it away, out of harm’s way.” He was speaking slowly, as if with difficulty. “Or, look, it might happen that the Dungeon will end right here.”
I nodded slowly and exhaled, releasing the tension. Despite relative immortality it was unpleasant to stare at the silencers of eight machine guns ready to spit out death at any moment. The Book of Knowledge did not provide any additional information on the hexagon: there was no object like that at the auction. Either they sell immediately upon appearing regardless of the price, or players never offer them for sale – just use the stones themselves. I turned the loot around in my hands, decided that even ten granises would not bring me luck, I activated my find.
Luck increased by 1
Luck of your group has been increased (Level 2 Luck). Effect duration: 72 hours
The mercenary coughed, attracting my attention and, having made sure that he had all of it, said in a businesslike way:
“Going through the Dungeon with level 2 Luck is good. No arguing that. Only, look, you did not even ask how we should divide the stone, and used it yourself. That’s not so good, Yari. Or you think there’s another hexagon hanging out here?”
“I remember our contract.” I saw no point in denying it. “And I think that we’ll really benefit from doubling our luck. And you – can you guarantee that using that luck we won’t find something ten times better than the stone? This way we have at least increased our chances to complete the Dungeon. Besides, if it hadn’t been for me, no one from your team would have found it.”
Miltay said nothing, and neither did his group. There was nothing they could object to that.
“After all, if we receive nothing, I’ll find a way to return half the price of the stone. The Game is my witness!”
Light washed over me: the Game accepted my obligation. Miltay hemmed – he had not expected such a turn of things:
“Look here, and I’d thought you weren’t so stupid as to hang a debt of ten granises on your neck. That’s settled then. Since you will pay it back – no issues on our part. I won’t even ask how a novice player got activated Luck and why is it that he sees what our tracker can’t see. I don’t really need no extra info like that. The Dungeon’ll be done and that’s the last we’ll see of each other.”
Having settled the problems, the fighters were looking for a good place to set the next trap, and I continued exploring green highlights in the cave, trying at the same time to find common ground with Gere. I had no luck in either. There were no more caches, and Gere would not even speak to me: either he was mute, or mad at his slip, or I wasn’t good enough for him.
“Holy mother,” Miltay suddenly barked in irritation, and followed with a command:” “Circle up! We’ve got visitors!”
At first I wasn’t sure what to do, as I didn’t know my position, but Beast and Burst, who were watching over me, helped me figure it out. I was shoved behind the mercenaries’ back to be out of the way. Only then did I notice that Tomcat’s frame was not in the group: the scout had disappeared from the Dungeon. That could only mean one thing: for him this trip to Alveona was over. The mercenaries bristled with weapons, but the threat had come from an unexpected quarter: Behind us, just a step away from the force dome, the floor bulged and immediately exploded like a volcano. Stone shrapnel was pelting the dome. The shields held, but then a monster started climbing out from the crater it had created: an oversized crab as big as a large truck.
“Rast, turn it up all the way!” Despite our unexpected guest the mercenaries exhibited no signs of loss or panic. As soon as the monster from down under climbed out of its crater, it was covered with a dozen activated nets, its legs were stuck in the brown space slower and a bright blinding sun was hanging next to each eye. Rast cursed, pressed several buttons and suddenly the cave faded: the force dome became completely solid.
“Turn on personal protection!” Miltay kept commanding. “Let’s see how good the nets are.”
“Three. Two,” Burst had launched the nets, and now his lips were moving with the countdown to detonation. Everything happened so fast that there was not even time for me to get properly scared. Wrapping myself in the “Energy armor” and having replenished my Energy to the max, I listened to the fighter: “One.” Boom!
The force dome was crushed, and a huge piece of stone hit me right on the head. The shield held, but nothing protected me from inertia. Darkness fell over me in an instant.
“Yari? Hear me?” Miltay’s very funny voice penetrated through the blessed darkness. Through the din of a plane engine – how did that thing get in the Dungeon? – it sounded dull, as if from a metal drum, but I could still hear it rather clearly. The mercenary must be using an ability of some sort: it’s unrealistic for a common person to be heard over a plane’s noise.
“He’s moving now,” Rast was talking from the same tin drum as the head of the group. “Elves’ ointment doesn’t help against shell shock. He has to come to on his own.”
My thoughts moved around my skull as listlessly as the parents of a teething baby. Shell-shocked? Me? A bright thought suggested that it may be so dark because my eyes were closed. So I tried to correct that problem immediately. A flicker of light showed up somewhere far away, but I immediately bent over in a crippling spasm. It felt like I was being turned inside out for real.
“Like hell we needed that kind of luck,” Rast said, irritated, and once again cursed elaborately. “At least this one’s… alive. Drink!”
Someone forced my mouth open, and a warm and astoundingly delicious fluid poured down my throat. I choked, gulped, coughed, but kept swallowing: I did not want to miss a single drop of the wonderful nectar. Ambrosia, no less!
My ability to see clearly returned instantly, as if someone had flipped a switch. I was sitting among the stones in a huge crater. All was left of my left leg was a good memory and my flattened armor. It was not clear what had happened to the right one: it was under a pile of stones. I tried to move my toes – seemed as though they were still there. I had no other visible injuries, and finally I noticed the other participants in our raid. There were not that many left: Miltay, Rast and Burst. While the first two looked intact, the net wielder looked much worse than I did: he was missing both arms and legs. However, the mercenary was far from despondent. The elves’ ointment had removed the pain and now he was lounging on the stones grinning happily: since he was alive he could still do something. As to what specifically the lead would think of that, that’s his job.
“So, look, what did your luck bring us?” Miltay settled down next to me. “One third of the group is alive, one fighter is only good for acting as a living bomb. The net launcher went down the same road as Burst’s arms. There’s no access to the next cave: the stones have collapsed. The good news are experience, loot and the passage that monster dug through.”
I must have not fully recovered from the shell shock, as it took me a while to realize that now I was a 14th level player. Now I understood why Burst looked so pleased: his level had increased as well. Then I looked at the loot list and frowned: it was not clear why Miltay considered it a benefit. Same stuff: meat, chitin, and now instead of black mucus there were two crab eyes. The Book of Knowledge kept silent: it had not encountered such a thing at the auction.
“I could take the other eye to offset your debt for the attribute stone,” Miltay’s words completely dispelled the haze.  I looked at the two bloody balls with different eyes.
“What are they for?” My voice was still hoarse.
“They’re enhancers,” he clarified. “The lenses in the eyes are enhancement gems. Frightfully expensive, they are, just like that stone of yours. That creature wasn’t weak, so the gem would be good too. Just about ten granises, if you don’t look to trade precisely. But if you do, we’d have to look.”
“May I ask you something?” Finally the moment came when I could obtain an answer to something that had been bothering me for a while. “You seem to be operating on the basis of numbering dozens of granises per item, yet you agreed to go with me for a ridiculously low price. Three granises is nonsense for a high-level team of mercenaries! I can’t figure out what’s at the core of the cost of things in the Game. For the sale of a granis people commit crimes, and here we are, calmly sharing the loot, and no one has any issues with that. Where’s the catch?”
“Look here,” Miltay drawled in surprise. “When did you come out of the Academy? With this enrollment? Yet you nailed the problem right on. Rast, tell the kid the way things are while I’ll check where that hole leads.”
“There’s not much to tell here,” the mercenary started reluctantly. “The more granises a player has on hand, the more trouble he encounters. If you are rich, you have to pay for personal security. Or die. Traders don’t count they have their own setup but in quests for killing ordinary rich guys; during local events their residences become the number one target; they shine in space like beacons in the night. No way to hide. That’s the main source of income for head hunters, for which they are so universally disliked. Blasted cleaners. The Game tolerates it if you have up to three granises in your hands, but once you go a little above – it starts quietly reminding you that it’s time to spend some. Players like you are tasty morsels. If you had not been sitting in the Sanctuary, you would have died a couple of times by now for sure. You shine like you have over twenty granises on you.”
“Oh, now it has all become clear as mud,” I replied testily. “What’s a ‘local event’? Where do I ‘shine’?”
“You shine where you ought to!” Rast said curtly and turned around to look at the hole in the stone just in case. Miltay was not there and Burst only scowled sarcastically. After a pause the mercenary continued quietly: “Trader’s license. It enables one to see the client’s wealth. What, you think Miltay continued the raid out of the kindness of his heart when you ate the stone? He could see that you’d be able to pay him.”
“The license is also what shows the hunters’ marks as well?” I guessed. I recalled the hearty welcome I received from the trader in the Academy. I had thought he treated everyone like that, and actually the swindler just could see how much I was able to pay.
“That’s why there’s so much barter in the Game,” Rast avoided the question. “You help me, I help you, and granises don’t even enter into it. Dungeons are good for us because half of the loot is always ours. Loot, not granises. It states so clearly in the contract. Even though there is a granis as well, the one the Game provides. So that’s how it works, more or less.”
The mercenary fell silent while I digested new information. So that meant that Gromana, by handing me ten granises in the Academy, must have marked me so that it would be easy to find me later! She had a trader’s license! Blasted witch!
“You didn’t say anything about local events,” I reminded the distracted fighter.
“He wasn’t supposed to anyway,” Miltay appeared quietly and cut the whole conversation short. “What did you decide about the eye? Are you going to give it to me?”
“No.” The theory as Rast told it was plausible, but it was useful to study it on my own first. It was possible that was just a sweet tale presented in hope that I would be gullible enough to give them all the granises right away so that I would not “shine”. “After the Dungeon we’d see each other in the Sanctuary, so there we could discuss who owes what to whom.”
“You don’t trust me?” The mercenary grinned.
“You think I should?” I asked in surprise and, mocking Miltay, continued. “Look here, you play for a profit with minimum effort. Rating, reviews – it’s all nonsense when we are talking about hundred of kilograms of gold. If it were really so bad as you are saying, players would get rid of granises at the first opportunity. But no – everyone is trying to get them. Right?”
“Right, wrong, quit acting like a parrot,” grumbled Miltay. “Did you pay for the Dungeon or for free lessons? I don’t recall being hired as your nanny. You could have thanked for us for shedding some light into your stupid head. Anyway, I’ll just add one thing: one granis will always be attracted to another. Later you’ll find out for yourself how things work. Here, look, the passage stops after the second cave. That critter was sitting under the ground and waiting for us. I take it Tomcat flushed it out, so it rushed forward. So then, look here, it’s simpler to shoot ourselves right here. Or shall we go fight some more? Think, commander.”
“What’s to think about?” I was not sure what the catch was. “Let’s go on.”
“Good, fine. So, how are you going to get out from under that pile? I don’t have no lifting jack with me.”
The stone that pressed down on me would not budge no matter how much I jerked my leg. Both mercenaries tried to roll it aside, but failed. I was really pinned in place.
“Look here, that’s what I’m talking about – what do we do? We can’t pull you out; if we leave you here, we breach the contract. Want to go on – I’ll have to cut your leg off. But I’ll just have to cut if off as it is I have no painkillers. Afterwards we’ll put the ointment on it.”
“So cut!” I said angrily a minute later. There was no way we could move the stone – it would not budge no matter what we did. Even a lever made of pieces of chitin cracked, failing to move my trap even an iota.
I didn’t have to ask Miltay twice. He pulled out a huge machete and aimed at my thing with competence. Looking at his face I felt queasy. Hell, who did I make a deal with?!
“So, look here, no offense – you asked for it yourself. I hope your armor is simple enough. Yari, has it been a long time since you got some booty?”
“What? What boo…” I did not get the question, then screamed “AAAAA!” and, thanks to my still dim consciousness, blacked out again. The armor was quite strong, and, despite all his ardor, Miltay wasn’t able to cut my leg completely with one blow. He cut about half way through. I did not remember what happened next.
“Want it for a souvenir?” I regained consciousness, covered in cold sweat. Even though there was no pain, its phantom still loomed close, making me shudder in horror. Grinning Miltay threw the remnants of my leg extracted from under the stone at me. “You pull Burst, Rast and I go first. Forward!”
Crawling along I did not lag too far behind the mercenaries. I had to work with my hands and teeth, grabbing onto everything that happened along. In addition, I managed to pull Burst along on sort of a rope sled, using my stumps, and listened to the quiet conversation of the two walking ahead.
“Here!” The lead of the mercenaries turned around, lay on his back, extracted a jackhammer from his inventory and started working on the ceiling of the passage. Rast helped by removing the dust and crushed stone using an industrial vacuum cleaner. Once the hole was big enough that he could stand, Miltay rose and took out a radar.
“Here they are, our dears! The whole cave troop gathered near the breach. Yari, pull Burst over here!”
As soon as the ear-shattering noise from the jackhammer and vacuum cleaner stopped, we could clearly hear the staccato of hundreds of “hammers” right above our heads. The crabs could easily hear us and were impatiently awaiting our visit. Deciding that the mercenaries knew what they were doing, I did not ask them any questions. Even our invalid smiled, knowing full well where we were dragging him. After several testy jokes he uncomplainingly took the wires that were extended to him in his teeth and then Rast performed, basically, a miracle. A huge warhead appeared from the personal inventory of our player responsible for the force dome! Those guys were just maniacs!
“Look here, that’s a mini beauty,” Miltay said lovingly. “Almost a kiloton. Come on, dear, don’t let us down.”
The warhead was placed vertically and Rast started tying Burst to it. After finishing that, he attached to the bomb the wires extending from the cripple’s mouth. Cold shivers ran down my spine and my instincts nearly forced me to rush back into the first cave: Burst had become a living detonator. While he clenched his teeth together, we would stay alive, but as soon as he opened his mouth, the mini-beauty would evaporate everything within twenty meters.
“Don’t you worry, we are afraid ourselves,” Miltay grinned, seeing my reaction. He extracted a large bag from his inventory and pulled out of it a huge mess of plastic explosive and detonators. “Catch that! Attach those to the ceiling. We need to close this hole.”
I was starting to like this. The mercenaries had found out that getting to the crabs directly was impossible, and decided to do it in a different way: simply obliterate them. Well, that way would not provide any loot, but we’d pass through the second cave and be able to see the Dungeon boss. One should not discount the experience, either: I expected there would be enough for at least a couple of levels. Turning over onto my back with a grunt, I followed orders, starting to turn the passage into a hanging minefield.
“…you’ll get a second, no more.” As I finished with the charges and returned to the group, I heard the end of Rast’s instruction. “If you blow it up yourself, you get the experience, if you croak from the explosions, you get nothing. And, if you open your stupid mouth too early – I’ll personally stuff your balls into it. Got that?”
“Mmm,” Burst responded, settling more comfortably in his ropes.
“Excellent. Retreat!”
Using wounded fighters as living detonators was one of Miltay’s favorite tactics. A nuclear charge would detonate practically in ninety percent of all Dungeons; it was getting the signal to it that was the problem. Differences in the physical processes in different worlds, blockage by debris or interference from some jamming force fields… every time something non-standard happened that required immediate action from an actual live player. Miltay did not like risks, so practically all of his fighters had been through this act of ritual suicide. Twenty meters of stone debris that was supposed to form once we activated the explosives we placed in the passage were supposed to reduce the shock wave to a tolerable level. The rest would be absorbed by the force dome. Due to the hole we had made in the ceiling, the main impact would be directed upwards, turning crabs into crab spread on the walls and, if we were lucky, it would also damage the final boss pretty well. The mercenaries ignored minor side effects such as radiation sickness: elves’ ointment would help us survive the first few moments after the explosion even if we were to be falling into pieces on our feet; then, after respawn, we would come back to normal anyway.
We retreated to the point where we entered the Dungeon: the cave that was furthest from the epicenter.
“ I hate y’all,” having activating the protection dome, with his hand over the detonator, glum Rast exploded with emotions that seemed to boil up out of nowhere. “You freaks!”
“Granis, Rast. Blasted basic granis!” Miltay cheered him up, and this conversation was over my head again. “Plus the experience. If it all works like it’s supposed to, we’ll show up in Lertance with a new level. You know what that will give us.”
“Fuck you.,” Miltay calmly ignored his subordinate's insults. "You won’t be the one spitting blood, you bitch… I hate you!”
That was followed with a flood of curses so foul and elaborate that I thought even the long-dead Sintsov would have died again of envy this time. It seemed even conjunctions were cursewords. That was pure talent. I gave Miltay a questioning look, hoping for an explanation.
“Rast is a shang by race.” The mercenary didn’t bother to put on airs. — “They look just like people, but their insides are different. From radiation they croak right off, even at low doses. Elves’ ointment will keep him alive, but after the explosion that shang will cough all his guts out. The longest he ever lasted was two hours; but we don’t really need more now. So he’ll stuff it and go next.”
“To hell with all of this!” The flow of cursing stopped and at that moment the mercenary, highlighted with the green color of new knowledge, pushed the detonator button. The Dungeon shook with a series of powerful explosions; no matter how much I prepared myself, the ground shifted and vanished from under my body and I rolled on the ground once Burst activated the bomb. The Dungeon did not just shake – it stood on its head.
The shock wave failed to tear our protection as we crouched under the impenetrable dome. While I was trying to get into a more or less vertical position, Miltay was already pouring the healing potion down Rast’s throat. Information on receiving experience and new levels flashed before me: the explosion propelled me up to level 24, adding ten levels. Rast swallowed the elixir and was now coughing horrendously, spraying the stones with blood and shreds of flesh. A minute later the mercenary was on his feet though. His head was concealed with an elaborate helmet: Rast did not want us to see his face, so he made it opaque.
“Look here what we’ve done here,” Miltay drawled as soon as the force dome was down. Personal protection immediately beeped in alarm and my Energy bar started edging down. The temperature in the Dungeon was such as to make normal organic life impossible. I was waste deep in melted stone, so, in order to not burn up I had to take an elixir right away, bringing up my Energy level. The class armor, even though it was damaged, still functioned well enough to ensure a comfortable temperature and sufficient air circulation. I was glad that I had been able to replace the standard set with this improved armor.
Pulling me out of the magma trap, Miltay put me across his shoulders, nodded to Rast, and we trundled forward, knee-deep in lava. The shock wave obliterated all the rubble, clearing the path for us. I poured the next elixir down my throat and sighed heavily. At this rate all my stocks would last an hour at most.
“Rast,” Miltay called, and the dead silence of the Dungeon was shattered with AK shots. Several ricochets followed by explosions of my “Templar’s Blows” and the players leveled up with a little more experience.
“Those blasted monsters are hard to kill though!” It seemed Miltay never lost his optimism. Throwing me over the other shoulder he bent down to pick something up from the ground, and I saw the other cave with crab apocalypse. There was a lake of molten stone in the middle of the huge cave. Lava poured into it from all the side passages, filling up the explosion epicenter. At the edge here and there crab remains were melted into the walls: even the incredible temperatures and shock wave were unable to fully obliterate the monsters with tenfold enhancement. Miltay seemed to be particularly glad to see that some crabs still moved. Without claws or eyes, with only half a body remaining, they still were striving to survive, and Rast hastened to finish off the monster closest to us.
“Look here!” The head of the mercenaries drawled his favorite saying as he gladly threw the loot into the inventory: the already familiar chitin, black mucus and meat. “There’s a real virgin land here! Rast, you go left, I go right. Yari, just lie here for a while. You have enough elixirs? So, just stay here and drink them. Come on, quick, we don’t have much time!”
I wanted to believe that Miltay dumped me into the hot lava with at least some care and concern; otherwise I really would have to file a claim against him. The experience scale started climbing pleasantly: the mercenaries worked fast, leaving no chance for the surviving crabs.
“It’s your turn.” Twenty-two Energy elixirs later Miltay yanked me out of lava that was not even thinking of cooling and put me over his shoulders again. “Just be quick. See any secret cashes?”
I heard Rast choking in another fir of coughing on the right; he was already unsteady on his feet, but hung on with the last of his strength.
“Nothing,” I quickly checked out the walls, but there were no familiar red highlights. “Even if there had been something, it must have all burnt to hell,”
“Look here the data on the loot; let’s keep moving.” An information message quacked, showing me the list of loot. I whistled with pleasure: there were seven crab eyes among the other stuff. Seven enhancement gems with tenfold level! Who was that person laughing at my double luck?!
“Rast, can you walk?”
The mercenary barely nodded and, holding on to the wall, moved towards the passage to the third cave; his gait was unsteady. According to the Dungeon map, we were in for the meeting with the final boss of the level.
If there had been any traps between the caves, the shock wave and heat swept them out mercilessly from our path. The walk towards the final crab was just like a pleasure stroll. Miltay, who was completely unharmed, had to carry the legless me; Rast, who was coughing up blood and dragging his feet, was trying to keep up with us. However, as soon as we entered the third cave, all traces of joy vanished. In the middle of disfigured and melted hall there was a stone pedestal, occupied by slightly singed Dungeon boss. What joy can there be when a ten-foot monster is staring at you – the one who had just easily survived a nuclear explosion? Miltay sighed heavily and cursed. I already knew that he did not have a second bomb. The current license of “Zeltan” team allowed them to carry only one “argument of last resort”.
We came closer and the customary green highlight around the gigantic crab dissipated. The wall behind the monster glowed blue, and I gladly informed my companions of that right away. Apparently, the pedestal and the crab had protected it from the shock wave.
“There’s not much to rejoice about: look here, how this bastard regenerates.” Miltay nodded at the crab’s chitin, on which the cracks were growing smaller. “What could we do?”
“Since we can’t kill it, you need to distract it till I get to the cache,” I shared my bright idea and encountered a contemptuous stare.
“Would a second be enough for you, speedster? That’s how much this freak would take with Rast and myself. Never mind that it’s big – this critter is faster than both you and me, even if you still had your crunchers. Look here, just the front paws are…”
Miltay was describing the abilities of the boss’ physiology, making me more and more depressed: the situation looked really bleak. Regeneration, extreme speed, powerful protective shield that enabled it to survive the explosion – everything was stacked against us. Rast leaned his back against the wall, stuck his hands into virtual space and a couple of moments later a big metal backpack clanged onto the floor. Lifting his head Rast wheezed something unintelligible, but Miltay understood him and perked up.
“Look here, he can barely breathe but his head’s still cool! That could work! Yari, the situation is shit, but we are clever!”
The mercenary meaningfully nodded at the backpack
“And serendipitous. This is a Garlad Tactical Backpack,” Miltay started clarifying the idea. “Today you have already walked and crawled, so now you get to fly. Don’t you worry, the speed this thing gets is really good you should be able to slip by the monster. Well, in case you don’t we are going to lengthen you a bit. If it grabs you, it would just get something that was gotten before already.”
With those words Miltay took out two machine guns and attached them where my legs had been, tying all this contraption together with the cloaks extracted from his own and Rast’s inventory. I was looking on, silent, as all of this was sinking in. Meanwhile Miltay continued:
“Look here, once you pass the boss, Rast and I start shooting at it with whatever we’ve got left to distract it from you. The crab gets excited and comes over here. This is just a moment or two, no more, even with the protection we’ve got. And after that it depends on your luck. You’ll have three or four seconds. I’ll point you in the right direction – your task is not to croak as you hit the wall. Just grab the cache right away. Got that?”
“So I don’t need to control it?” Silent Rast was already attaching the backpack to my armor.
“That skill takes many years to learn,” Miltay admitted. “Look here: frankly speaking, I don’t think it’ll work. We’ve tried this twice. Failed both times. But with your luck… the Game can play any trick. There’s nothing else we can try anyway. Look here, this is the switch: once you hit the wall, push ‘off’. It’s simple look here. Got that?”
“I got it, I got it already!” I reassured him.
I was gently lifted and then I floated in midair. I did not know the principle of operation of the backpack, but I did not notice any flame jets, air jets, or any other kind of jets. It felt like the thing worked using magnetic fields. I would need to find one like that at the auction for myself and learn how to use it.
“Three is the number I shall count.” Miltay adjusted the direction of my future flight, holding me lightly by the head, and then performed another miracle: a Kord appeared from his personal inventory. A heavy machine gun – its characteristics made it more like a small cannon rather than simply a machine gun.
“Of course,” he grinned, seeing my admiring look. “We still have something to surprise the monsters. Rast: ready? Yari: activate your shields, push on the switch and drink the elves’ shit. Like, right away. Better stick it into your mouth. Here, I’ll help you. Look here, don’t swallow it yet. So come on, dear! One! Two! Go!”
My stomach seemed to lodge in my throat, trying to leave my body completely: the flying backpack was set to maximum initial speed available. I did not even have time to feel anything: Miltay had placed my hand right over the “off” button, and inertia was what helped me: the backpack turned off a moment after the launch. But that split second was enough for the boss to flicker by somewhere off to the right and then the massive wall gladly slammed my long-suffering body. An astounding crash on it crushed everything that was still left of my body. The class armor held, so I did not just splat into the wall; however, it did not help against inertia. Had it not been for Miltay’s advice, I would have been thrown out of the Dungeon that very moment: the stone under me turned red instantly. However, the healing and painkilling potion flowed straight down my throat from the broken vial despite my jaw being totally shattered. The pain faded so I was able to avoid pain shock even though I felt like I did not have a single whole bone left in my body. For some reason I could not see out of my right eye, but the left one was fixed on the bright blue point on the wall. Miltay’s calculations had been correct, and my goal was literally just about under my hand. The problem was that my hand refused to move.
Phphpht! Phphpht! Phphpht!
The Kord’s shots and ricochets filled the cave. Cheering myself on by screams I turned my shoulder and dropped my numb hand onto the cache. My loot fell into my palm: the hexagon so coveted by all players. Twisting, I fell onto the ground, managing to do two important things at once: stick the stone into personal inventory and turn towards the center of the hall. The boss was just finishing with Miltay, tearing him in half with its claws. Rast was already gone from the Dungeon.
Knowing that our adventure was over, I pulled all the ammunition I had prepared from the personal inventory. The shells that fell into the magma started melting but were immediately covered with a new bunch and thus did not fully burn up. They were followed by scrolls rolled up into tight packs: my personal bombs. I had made so many of those that I had even attained the status of junior craftsman’s apprentice in draftsmanship. That meant 400,000 successfully created items! Now I was looking at a huge pile of scrolls that caught fire immediately – it was amazing how they had even fit in the inventory. I did not see any point in keeping them: no one would need such low level work at the auction. My attack capability was too low. It was funny: I had been preparing for the Dungeon for so long and lost all my materials in such a stupid way. I decided to go out with a bang, and activated the detonator. In five seconds the Dungeon would see another nuclear explosion, this time a local one. The “Templar’s Blow” impact area was a mere five meters.
The crab appeared suddenly. From the right.
With a precise move it grabbed me by my body and the imitation legs. I noticed only now that the machine guns had been cut in half: apparently, during my flight the crab actually had managed to reach me. Had my limbs still been intact, I would have crushed into the wall screaming and basically unconscious. I was lucky, there was no arguing about that.
There was a crash and I was thrown upwards like on a roller coaster: the crab tore me in half. One claw clutched my body, the other – the machine guns. The claw that was holding me started closing as if to crush me, when the Dungeon perceptibly shook. The claw opened, and I fell, bruising all my insides on the stones yet again. Only after I automatically downed a blue elixir and a red one, which granted me a few extra minutes of life, I saw that this time it was not the stones that assaulted me. The unwelcome impact came from the internal surface of the boss’ chitin. I was lying inside a ten-foot crab; one half of it was simply missing. There was no claw, no legs and no eye. The meat had fallen into the lava and hissed and smoked in the most disgusting way; however, the armor filters prevented me from smelling roasted crab. Everything jolted again, so I had to grab onto some sharp edge which started growing slowly even as I was holding it. The boss was regenerating. I did not know if crabs were not prone to screaming or I just happened across a mute one, but at least the boss twisted in agony without making a sound.
The chitin grew another few inches and it became hard to hold onto the crab. The Book of Knowledge immediately produced a projection, indicating that the boss would return to its original state in two and a half minutes. Angry at my inability to do anything, I pulled out a piece of still-soft chitin and threw it at the boss’ insides. Die, blasted freak!
The crab could not care less; it kept moving in circles and actively regenerating. Tracing the flight of the chitin with my eyes I basically despaired of getting out of this whole thing alive, when I noticed that something inside the boss was pulsing oddly. The artifact pinpointed the phenomenon and highlighted it in green: yes, something was beating inside the boss. The AK I had put away at the very beginning of the Dungeon raid jumped into my hands and I put the entire clip into the crab’s insides. I was shaking so badly that there was no way I could aim precisely. And I only had one clip – all the rest I had thrown into the lava a few moments ago. The crab jerked sharply yet again and I hit my head on the chitin. The last thing I saw before I fainted was a system message:

You have completed Dungeon “Alveona”

Chapter Four. The Meeting

MY HEAD RANG as if a hundred drummers were giving a concert there. I opened my eyes reluctantly and tried to look around. Compete darkness was slightly diluted by the glowing semi-transparent energy dome that encompassed me on all sides, protecting from the hellish inferno of the sizzling Dungeon. The dome was small; there were just a few inches of free space, beyond which I saw the white and red insides of the crab. The boss was dead, but its body kept regenerating; it sealed me completely within its insides. I tried to sit up, but hit my head on something and fell back.
Drip! Pshhhh!
The force shell protected me from pressure and temperature extremes; however, as it turned out, it did not help against dripping ichor. Another drop fell precisely on my neck and rolled down disgustingly. My neck started itching badly, and I turned my head every which way to ease my suffering. Bending my head forward to the extent my “coffin” would allow I noticed the way my armor looked. The armor that once used to shine even covered in mud now seemed to be covered with stains and an elaborate lacing of scratches. Another drop fell through my dome and splashed muddy red on my armor, covering the last clean bits. Worried for my expensive armor, I opened the properties screen and rejoiced at what I saw. My protection had acquired additional attributes.
From now on my class armor blocked 10% of damage from lightning, and overall physical protection had increased by 5%. The “scratches” that had scared me were actually a spell “Level 3 Energy Shield” which did not require Energy usage and automatically activated in case of a sudden blow. Now it would be hard to take me by surprise or knock me out unexpectedly. Those advantages were worth the deteriorated appearance of the armor.

Would you like to collect your winnings?

Once I closed the properties screen, the Game offered me the chance to collect my “hard-earned gains” I acquired in the Dungeon. A virtual window appeared again; this time the interface was a rolling drum with the possible options of final loot. I got used to the rotation speed and read the words on the sections: “Gem”, “Artifact Enhancer”, “Attribute Stone”, “Engraving Pattern”. “Gem” again, and the other options rolled through. All in all there were about fifty sections. There were only two that did not repeat on the drum; they were located opposite each other: “Game Set Enhancement” and “Double Game Set Enhancement”. Oh yes, I wanted that. I wanted that very much.
Where is my double Luck? Hoping that there is fortune and luck in the Game that would help me, I closed my eyes: this way I would not see it if my luck were to float away right from under my nose. Then it would be easier to accept whatever super prize I received and not torment myself with the thoughts of what could have been.

Your prize is determined. Would you like to collect it?

YEEESSSSS! Lady Luck, if you were a person, I would have kissed you heartily! There was a reason I was so excited: the arrow of the virtual drum stopped right in the middle of “Double Game Set Enhancement”. Come here, my Precious!

Daro Set cannot be received automatically; request for Viceroy generated
Received: 10 granises
Grandeur +10
Do you wish to leave Dungeon “Alveona”?

That seemed unfortunate. Now I would have to wait till the Viceroy deemed it acceptable to give me the set. Well, fine, at least that was clear. But where did the ten granises come from?! Miltay’s words echoed through my head. This amount of granises would make me even more attractive to head hunters. My imagination readily painted a couple of scenes with evil seekers of easy money who would send me for respawn time after time until they killed me for good. I swallowed and asked for help.
“I need information on the current reward!” I screamed into the darkness. “I cannot accept it. This way I will just become prey sought by everyone! I must understand what threats I will be facing, or else I demand an equivalent exchange to the amount of the prize!”
Another information message appeared almost immediately:

Request is granted. Access to Temple of Knowledge is provided

“Welcome to the Temple of Knowledge, young Paladin.” The keeper of knowledge spread his arms in a welcoming gesture. “Your request was deemed justified and your teachers will be subjected to well-deserved punishment for their negligence in training you. In this scroll you will find the information you have requested.”
The old man fell silent, letting me stretch my shoulders and legs with a great deal of pleasure. It was great to feel my lower limbs again! I had been transported to the Temple of Knowledge in a completely healthy state.

Granis: official monetary unit of the Game used for settlements among players. Granises received directly from the Game are considered basic; they increase player’s “Basic granis” scale.
Grandeur: dynamic parameter; determines player’s achievements/punishments. Cannot be negative. Each Grandeur unit equals 10 virtual levels (cannot exceed 20 times player’s current level); removes constraints on visiting Game worlds, using abilities, spell activation and other actions linked to player’s level.
Daro set: second strongest set in the Game. Cannot be purchased. Issued by Viceroy for Game achievements. Set properties depend on player’s class.
If the difference between all granises available to player and parameter “Basic granis” is from 3-10, player acquires a temporary attribute “Failure”.
If the difference between all granises available to player and parameter “Basic granis” exceeds 10, “Terror” is initiated. A player with attribute “Terror” acquires specific aura enabling traders to significantly overstate prices of their goods; it also aides headhunters to locate and kill the victim.
Exchange rate: 1 granis = 100 Game gold coins = 200 kilograms gold.
Your current level of “Grandeur”: 10.
Difference between granises available and parameter “Basic granis”: +14. 2 quests are initiated for your permanent respawn. Quests accepted by: 1447 headhunters.

“Did all the mercenaries receive ten granises each?” I asked once I finished reading. The old man frowned in concern, and I started pushing bluntly: “You can’t tell me that it is not relevant to my inquiry! I received ten granises and I need to know if I have to give them away or no. It will determine the difference between available and basic granises, so it directly relates to my inquiry.”
“Well, you are right,” the keeper agreed reluctantly and scratched his beard. “I need to provide a clarification. Ten-fold enhancement of the Dungeon affected only the reward of the owner. Instead of the guaranteed one basic granis he received ten. Everyone else received one.”
“Three granises that will be paid to Miltay for helping in completing the Dungeon: what type are they?”
“Once received, they have nothing to do with the Game. Your mercenaries are quite young; they’ve only been working for twenty years. That’s why they accept all orders: they need to accumulate the initial capital of basic granises; doing so in the Dungeons is simplest for novices. The group was lucky with you. Because of the Luck they received Grandeur having completed a 10-fold Dungeon. This will enable them to register for hire in a different world.”
“Judges.” I hastened to start on the next topic of interest to me before the old guy would decide that he had had enough questions for the day. “It does not say anything here about Judges and granises that they receive. What should I be concerned about?”
“Judges don’t receive granises, they receive a virtual reward for headhunters. That activates neither ‘Indignation’, nor ‘Terror’. The hunter, or whatever being executes the sentence, will receive granises from the Judge, not from the Game. The ‘Basic granis’ level in this case will not increase.” Apparently, the keeper was tired of my curiosity. “Enough, you have already received all the information you needed.”
So that would have to do. The space around me shifted, returning me to the innards of the giant crab. Finally I understood the universal interest in the Dungeons and reasons why barter was so popular. Everyone wants granises, but large amounts of them are dangerous.
I poked listlessly at the crab’s insides, hoping to reach the organ that had pulsed in the middle, but realized it was futile. I was not able to advance a single inch. Deciding that I’d had enough Luck for one day, I hastened to agree to the Game’s suggestion to finish the Dungeon and return my legs. Miltay cheerfully greeted me in the Sanctuary.
There were no problems with sharing the loot. While I was away, the mercenary prepared the final list, separated my share, added a bit on top and presented all that to me in a red bag with a blue bow. I really wanted to make a joke about it, but decided against it, to Miltay’s extreme disappointment. Apparently, that was the team’s thing, with a well-prepared response. On my part I presented to them the attribute stone I had collected, and my parting with “Zeltan” team was quite friendly, as we were pleased with each other. I was assured that in case I needed them they would be happy to assist, this time with the two nukes their new license allowed.
“Hello! What an unexpected meeting!” A familiar female voice called to me as I was leaving the building with the Dungeon portals. I stopped and looked at Helen. I had expected an encounter with the Doll, but not so fast. The Game’s creation was waving its hand at me with a friendly air from the other side of the street. In a couple moments Helen was standing next to me, and I let myself drown in her baby-blue eyes.
“I wanted to take a stroll around the city and got lost can you imagine?” Passers-by were looking warmly at us. The NPCs felt that my Doll and I were ideally suited to each other, and were glad to see a really beautiful couple. “It’s just that no one speaks Russian here, and my German… is quite limited. At least the navigator in my phone works really well. Listen, would it be too forward of me to bring you to a café? I would be so glad to hear someone speak my language! What do you say to that?”
The girl extended her hand to me and I surrendered, accepting her invitation with a smile. To me Helen was first of all a pretty girl with a sweet smile and charming dimples on her cheeks, and only then a Doll. After all, I had not had sex for a very long time!
“Paladin Yaropolk, come with us. The Viceroy is ready to meet you.” We made barely ten paces when a crowd of players appeared out of nowhere and encircled us. A druid elf stepped forward and made a gesture, inviting me to step into a portal that opened right beside us, but I disagreed with that approach. I noticed that some of those in the escort had a tattoo covering their entire shoulder: hissing snakes entwined around a shining stone. The Book of Knowledge told me that it was the emblem of the Viceroy, and I recalled looking at it during the speech his highness had made before we were all sent off to the Academy.
“Guys, but who are you, actually? And why am I supposed to follow your orders?”
Helen shied away, frightened, then hid behind my back and pressed herself against me, seeking protection. Maybe I did not want to follow the unexpected escort stupidly as a sheep on a rope; maybe I was just trying to show off in front of the girl. They say that you can tell what the master is like by his servants or followers; following that logic the Viceroy was quite something. I had expected that an invitation would be handed to me festively, that it would highlight my grandeur and my unique achievements. Or something like that. But definitely not an armed escort. Now what, would they pull out shackles to prevent me from biting his blue-skinned highness accidentally?
“Paladin Yaropolk, we are wasting time! You don’t have enough brainpower to make a guess?”
“Well, let’s be clear: you are wasting time exclusively due to your stupidity.” I underscored the “you” part. “And I have enough brainpower not to jump into portals with everyone who sports the Viceroy’s tattoo.”
“You, dog meat, you don’t get it – you are supposed to be delivered to the ceremony in one piece, but afterwards there’s nothing that prevents us from making you pay for the insults,” the druid exploded indignantly. He did contain himself, but his flaring nostrils indicated that he was ready to burst. Apparently, in his worldview I was already supposed to be rushing for the portal so fast that I would overtake my own shadow.
“Is this a threat?” Fatigue was taking its toll, and I was becoming angry as well.
“It’s a warning!” barked the elven-descended arrogant upstart in response. “If you don’t voluntarily get in gear and run towards this portal, I’ll just toss you in there like a sack. And even the Sanctuary will not stop me! Like I’m supposed to bow and scrape in front of every random half-wit!”
I did not respond to the lout. It became crystal clear to me that those guys were from the caste of “tough guys that no one wants to mess with”, imagining that they were an important part of the universe machinery, and it would be pointless to try arguing with them.
“Vorta, get the net ready,” the druid signaled to the player standing behind me, and actually turned away, considering the incident over. We’ll just haul him like a pig.”
I was nearly gnashing my teeth in anger. Servants who confused themselves with masters would have to answer for that “pig”.

Case initiated: Insulting a Player (Slots available for: 8 more cases)
Description: You consider that Viceroy’s servants, namely <list of players>, insulted you.
You wish to defend your honor and dignity.
Task: Investigate this case and deliver a verdict.
Case investigation: Not applicable; the case was initiated by the Judge himself
Period of limitation of action: None

“For demonstrating disrespect and insulting a player I sentence the Viceroy’s servants listed in the case ‘Insulting a Player’ to pay a fine to the Game in the amount of ten granises. This sentence is final and not subject to appeal!”
Following Redel’s advice, I stated the sentence silently to myself. The Game recorded the verdict and I calmly awaited its confirmation by the Emperor. I sincerely believed that my decision was just, and so decided to hit them at what they valued most: granises and Grandeur. A few moments seemed to drag forever, but finally the message I needed appeared, and I exhaled with relief. It was not the way of the Game to allow insults to go unpunished:

Verdict is confirmed
Verdict is deemed harsh
Case “Insulting a Player” is closed. Sentence has been executed by the Game
Award for correct verdict: basic Energy level increased by 100

Immediately in the top of my field of vision a scale with an arrow appeared, like what I had already seen in the Academy. Now it indicated that I was 10 percent closer to the next level from the initial one. I studied this phenomenon in dead silence. The Viceroy’s servants did not say a word as they let the events sink in. Of course; just now I had dropped their “Grandeur” level by ten points at once.
“Shall we attempt a dialogue, or shall I continue?” I asked the druid in a deliberately nonchalant way.
“We didn’t…,” the druid lost all his arrogance like a tree loses its leaves in the fall; his inability to speak coherently only underscored that. I was kind enough to help:
“You are trying to apologize?” The elf hesitated, but then nodded. “And are inviting me to follow you to the Viceroy?” The elf nodded again.
I looked at Helen, thinking what to do about her. She was still clinging to me, frightened.
“I need to run off again.” She was so defenseless and attractive that I could not resist and stroked the girl’s head. Helen’s cheeks turned pink, and in response to my simple caress she clung to me tighter, but this time not in fear. The Doll felt that the danger had passed, and that it could now perform its intended function. Which was bringing me pleasure.
“You can take her along. There is a place in the garden where players may leave their things for safekeeping.” The druid’s voice changed again. No, there was no respect in it; neither was there fear. I could not identify the change, so decided to be extra cautious:
“Fine; you will bring the Game to witness that the portal leads to the Viceroy and not to any other place. You will also confirm that no issues will arise if I arrive at the court with my Doll. Once we receive the confirmation we can go.”
“I agree.” The druid regained his composure, and white light washed all over him as soon as he uttered the oath. “Please follow me the ceremony is about to start.”
Helen did not ask anything; she just followed me unquestioningly, even though she halted at the portal. I wanted to cheer her up and reassure her that there was nothing to fear, but from her admiring look I realized that I had been wrong. She smiled as a child as she looked at her hand in the bright glow coming from the portal. Then she shut her eyes tightly and stepped into the unknown first, pulling me after herself. A moment later we arrived at our destination. I suppose at that moment I did not look any better than my Doll. We were both like children in a magic dreamland. Huge green trees, elaborate plant sculptures and immaculate lawns were next to urbanistic structures of silver metal and glass. A shimmering waterfall rushed down from the top of the nearest building and created a rainbow amazing in shape and richness of color. Funny animals dashed everywhere, chasing each other playfully through teleports; giant flower beds were covered in fantastic blooms. My elation gradually diminished and then I was able to calmly observe the ideal state of my surroundings. Helen kept twirling around, periodically exclaiming to show her excitement and admiration; she was squeezing my hand harder and harder. Even though it was amazing – how could such a small hand be so strong?
“Welcome to the residence of the Viceroy of Biological Life-Forms Sector,” a semi-transparent hologram of the local master of ceremonies, similar to a ball lightning, appeared in front of me. He was obviously not a biological life-form. “I will accompany you there. We must hurry the award ceremony is about to start any minute now. Please leave your property here. Don’t worry; it will be taken care of.”
I’ll be back soon,” I promised Helen, and after several jumps through portals I found myself in front of a crystal gazebo in a green garden. Another miracle of the local landscape.
“Paladin Yaropolk!” the master of ceremonies announced, and the eyes of those present converged on me. There were ten beings: two elves, an orc, a catorian, a smallish black dragon who immediately fully captured my attention; I was unable to determine the race of another three right away they were covered by water domes. The last one was human. Even though I had not noticed too many human features in Dolgunata during our acquaintance. Finished with looking at the rest of the guests I looked at the dragon again.
“You did complete the Dungeon, after all,” Dolgunata smiled, handing to me a glass of clear liquid and finally distracting me from the dragon. The latter, apparently, could not care less about the attention: all the while that I was staring at him he did not even bother to open his eyes. I sipped from the glass and was barely able to restrain myself from gulping the whole thing down at once. I had never tried such delicious wine – and it was not just the matter of its taste – even though the taste was impeccable as well. My body filled with strength, my mind cleared and my ability to perceive the world around me improved by an order of magnitude. Green glows appeared here and there, and disappeared at once. My video recorder was working non-stop. “Congratulations! I did not expect such prowess of you.”
“You, though, have way too much,” I smiled broadly in response; now I began to figure out what was going on. The ceremony was for players who had been deemed worthy of the enhanced set. Since the druid was here that meant she had also received +2 enhancement for her armor. That could mean only one thing: 10-fold Dungeon enhancement and greatly elevated Luck. I could not call her a successful explorer, so…:  “Did Archibald present you with the attribute stones?”
“You are far too smart for a player who did not know a week ago that the Game even existed.” Dolgunata was being her nasty self. “Did you get a brain as loot?”
“His Highness the Viceroy of Biological Life-Forms Sector!” The master of ceremonies’ booming voice resounded in the gazebo interrupting our  word parrying with the druid. We were told to stand in a semi-circle, and one of the four Masters of the Game strolled in leisurely. The other players kneeled, and so did I.
“Greetings, brothers and sisters!” The Viceroy spread his arms in a welcoming gesture, and a light breeze wafted through the gazebo. “Those who have gathered here today are the select few who have proven by their play that they are worthy of receiving a reward from our hands. Daro sets and even an Imperial one will from now on speak to your enemies of your strength and of our magnanimity! Our congratulations to you! Now receive our reward! Xenobiologist Xarkan!”
One of the water beings floated over to the Viceroy; solemn music filled the gazebo.
“Five hundred and twenty three years in the Game; level two hundred and seventy; seventy two years as the Head of Class for xenobiologists of the game world Artey.” The Viceroy listed the water guy’s regalia. “We consider that there is no being in the Game more worthy to receive an Imperial set! Wear it honorably!”
The armor glared bright gold in the Viceroy’s hands and disappeared into the dome of water concealing the strange being. He bubbled something from the water to express his gratitude, and hastily returned to his place. The blue-skinned ruler continued with the ceremony.
“Shaman Mahan!” Wow! It turned out that the Shaman was the dragon; he smoothly moved towards the Viceroy. His name definitely sounded familiar to me! The thoughts twirled in my head, I could not catch it… for a while I lost awareness of my surroundings. Was that not the Mahan about whom I had read a whole saga? I was sure it had been about him. There was something there about dragons, shamanism and beautiful women who could be good as well as evil. But those were just books… Or not? Hm. Could it be that not all sci-fi was just a figment of the imagination of writers, graphomaniacs, and let’s be frank schizophrenics? Or maybe there is no fiction at all, and what there is represents documentary descriptions of some game worlds? The universe is infinite, so it could have truly odd things in it!
Thinking about the degree of realism of the worlds depicted in the sci-fi I had read in my previous life, and the probability that I would run into my favorite characters within the Game, I missed the award proceedings for practically all the players. I was only yanked back by the sound of my own name:
“Paladin Yaropolk!”
I came towards the Viceroy like the players before me.
“Has been in the Game but for a short time level thirty five; yet you have enough arrogance for about a dozen of those servants of ours that cannot serve us any more because of your doings.” The Viceroy looked me up and down and extracted a silver set of armor out of his virtual reality. “We doubt that your young age and your character deserve such a high reward. However, the rules are the same for everybody. Time will tell if we were right. Try to be worthy, and wear the Daro set with honor!”

Achievement attained: “Daro Set: “Grandeur increased by 5 units

Pleased that Viceroy was not going to punish me for curtailing his servants, I enjoyed my fresh achievement. It was nice to know that they existed in the Game. Even though I did think it was strange that it was not granted for completing a 10-fold Dungeon, yet receiving a set of armor from the hands of a Viceroy improved “Grandeur” quite a bit.. I would have to look into this matter in detail.
Dolgunata was the last to receive her highly pleasurable set of armor; after that the Viceroy quickly concluded the ceremony and strolled regally out of the gazebo. Seeing that other players were stripping naked quite unabashed and putting on the new sets just presented to them, I turned towards to Dolgunata, who hesitated, and took my old armor off with a smile. I did not feel shy: one would have to be bonkers not to use this safe location to change one’s armor. Dolgunata snorted demonstratively, and a moment later was regaling us all with a set of lace underwear one would not call modest under any circumstances. Unfortunately, there was not much time to enjoy the view: she dressed much faster than I did.
Sighing with frustration, I put on the last element of the armor. As soon as it clicked in place a whole sheet of system messages appeared before me. At least I had had no time to make the helmet transparent, and those around me did not see my mouth open wide as I was reading the properties of my new outfit. I swallowed with joy. It was completely incredible to receive, after barely a week of playing, 30% percent of blocking of impacts at any level and a permanent energy shield that blocked hits at 100 times the basic Energy. Who said the Game had no tanks? Yeah, right! From now on I was a tank! Besides everything else, the set enabled me to dive to 3000 meters without having to bother about the pressure; it could offset an ambient temperature of 1200 degrees – I could easily sit on top of a lava lake without spending any Energy; it had a built-in generator of water, amino acids and oxygen, so I did not have to bother with such trifles as food and drink. The Daro set was truly a one-player Game fortress.
We decided not to overstay our welcome at the Viceroy’s place; everyone left the gazebo using the same stationary teleports, accompanied by ball lightning beings. I came back to the beautiful garden where my Doll was waiting.
“Yaropolk!” Helen rushed towards me without concealing her joy. “Look, just take a look at this little creature!” A strange furry animal appeared in the girl’s hands. It was slowly chewing on a purple berry which had smudged Helen’s face, “It’s like a fairy tale here! Everything is so wonderful and magical!”
I approached Helen with a smile and cleaned her cheek with my finger. I had already forgotten ever seeing anything so full of sincere joy.
“I once had a sweet little doll, dears.” Dolgunata’s voice sounded behind my back, slowly reciting a nursery rhyme. I was so bloody tired of her. I turned around slowly to see that Dolgunata was staring steadily at Helen, screwing up one eye. “But I lost my poor little doll, dears, as I played on the heath one day.”
“What are you doing? I asked, frowning.
“Studying your Doll,” Dolgunata responded contemptuously. “Or did the brain you receive go completely to your other head that you cannot see obvious things?”
“Have you looked enough? Your portal is waiting,” I nodded in the direction of the glimmering spot behind the girl’s back. “If you are so interested in dolls, find yourself one in the Sanctuary and stare at it till your eyes leak out.”
“Yari, are you really an idiot, or are you just pretending? Have you seen men and women in the streets strolling alongside sex toys?! Do you not understand that people hide their Dolls in the same way they hide the fact that they visit brothels?”
“She is not a toy to hide her so!”
“Oh really?! But she has no choice! She is like a prostitute that has already received her payment; so she cannot do anything else other than strike a proper pose and tell you how handsome and smart you are because she has to work for her money! This sweet little doll has no choice!”
“Yaropolk, is everything all right?” The Doll asked with concern; she did not understand the point of my argument with Dolgunata. The Game protected the Doll’s mind most thoroughly.
“Don’t you worry, sweetie!” Dolgunata answered for me. “Everything is just fine!”
“Why don’t you go visit your own 'toy' – maybe that will mellow you,” I growled. “It’s good for a woman’s health.”
“I don’t need surrogates,” the druid snorted. Now it was my turn to laugh out loud:
“Judging by your character, the Game didn’t have the wherewithal to satisfy your requirements. What, did your doll come out defective?”
Dolgunata fell silent for a few moments, and I decided I would not hear a response from her.
“Those who have the real ideal thing don’t need artificial substitutes,” the girl finally said without a trace of irony as she kept staring at Helen. Then she shifted her gaze at me, grinned and continued: “Fine; I am not going to distract you. Don’t forget to dress your property up, and make sure you start with the underwear. I can recommend ‘Victoria’s miracle’. I noticed your appreciation.”
The druid batted her eyelashes theatrically and disappeared into the portal.
“Who was this?” Helen’s voice was trembling. She did not enjoy the scene, but she worried about me first of all. “Are you sure you won’t get in trouble?”
“I am sure. Forget about it; none of this matters.” I sighed and grabbed the girl into a hug. Was she a thing? Probably. But she was my thing, and I was not going to allow her to be harassed. “Here! We cannot take local animals with us, but instead I have this little wonder. Now he’s yours. You’ll take care of him and boast his achievements to me. All clear?”
“Rrgra?” My pet tumbled out from his virtual shelter and sat on the ground. The half-meter tall furry wonder scratched behind its ear in a funny manner; this delighted Helen to no end. She wriggled out of my arms immediately and settled next to the pet.
“Rgra, rgra,” I answered, just in case, and nodded at the motionless Doll. From now on you will obey her. Her orders are my orders. Get that?”
The young Neanderthal scratched his butt as if indicating what he thought of my orders.
“You don’t need to order him,” Helen’s voice softened – mothers talk to their children that way. “You need to ask him: right, little one? Come, I’ll rock you in my arms.”
“Gra! Gra!” the furry beast murmured, and quickly climbed into Helen’s arms. He shuffled his bum, settling more comfortably, and embraced her neck with his long arms. After that, looking into her eyes the creature said affectionately, to the extent his throat allowed: “Mm-ma-ma-a-a!”
I watched this cute bonding scene in amazement, realizing that I would have totally failed to find a way to establish contact with the pet. There was no question about that!
“Yaropolk, what’s his name?”
“Rragr; he is a delvian. He was given to me as a present, but I was never told what to do with him. I think you’ll find a way. He definitely likes you better than he does me.”
“Thank you, Yaropolk!” Helen exclaimed happily, and in a fit of gratitude reached to kiss me.
“Paladin Yaropolk,” a ball lightning interrupted us, and the kiss had to be postponed. “This type of physical contact with Dolls is supposed to be private. His Highness will be insulted by such behavior in his castle, particularly given the recent incident.”
“You mean the punishment?” I guessed.
“Yes. Two of the players you punished lost the ability to serve His Highness. Their level makes it impossible to be on this planet without escort. Please leave the Viceroy’s residence.”
Granting that the Viceroy had reasons to be displeased, I decided to continue the evening over the promised cup of coffee. I grabbed Helen by the hand and jumped into the portal; however, my hopes were to be dashed again. As soon as we ordered some coffee, Gromana plopped down at our table without too much ceremony.
“Showed up, didn’t you?!” The witch asked from the start, took Helen’s coffee away and downed it in one gulp. I raised an eyebrow, puzzled.
“Actually, you are the one who showed up! Even more so – crashed in when no one was expecting you!” Despite the sarcasm I demonstrated, I was actually glad to see Gromana. I needed a source of information, and I also needed to meet that mysterious being.”
“Like hell I need your jokes! Why did you take so long?” Gromana was as straightforward as a rock falling on your head.
“I was busy. But your timing was good. I was about to try and find you anyway.” I was not lying in the least. Well, not much, anyway. I had been planning to visit Gromana immediately after several pleasant hours with Helen.
“I hope this is not the reason why you were so busy.” The witch nodded dismissively in the direction of my Doll.
“Yaropolk, should I leave?” Helen started worrying again.
“Shut up.” The witch grimaced in displeasure and waved her hand, sending the Doll into a trance.
“Another one. What did she do to you? You know, sometimes I think that you simply use your ‘curse of truth’ as an excuse for your natural rudeness and tactlessness,” I grinned. “No, you missed your guess; here’s the reason.”
With those words I thrusted my chest forward, showing off my new armor. Why not? I had a good reason to boast. Let the weak ones be modest.
“I had already noticed. My congratulations!” The witch bowed mockingly, and I responded in kind by flinging up my hands:
“Oh, thank you very much! It’s so nice when people appreciate your abilities as they should!”
“Yeah, right: boast your abilities to me go on! For what kind of feat did the Viceroy present you with the armor? Maybe you don’t even need to see Bernard anymore? Eh, Paladin?” Gromana was staring at me suspiciously.
“You should not be the one complaining, witch. I was not the one who graced a poor Paladin with ten granises so that you and a thousand hunters could see his every move. Right, Gromana?”
“You found out already.” The witch grew quiet for a moment, but then flared up again. “Had you come to me in time, that would not have been a problem. Anyway, Yari! Forget about that! What was the reward for?”
I snorted disdainfully indicating that the witch was not getting an answer.
“Whatever. It’s time to go, Bernard is waiting. He’ll be the one to appreciate your abilities as they deserve to be appreciated for sure.” The witch rose from the table, indicating that the conversation was over. She cast a glance at Helen and added:
“Leave the doll here, she’ll find you later. You understand: that’s not a place for things like that.”
I let the last statement go, knowing this was not a good place or time to argue.
The witch turned away and activated a local green portal with her hand. I was already familiar with the distinctions: green ones were local, enabling you to jump a couple of kilometers, the blue ones were global – they extended further, sometimes to different worlds; as for the red ones: I knew nothing about them yet.
“Gromana, you don’t think that I’ll go anywhere without an oath, right?” I asked the witch calmly. “I have no idea where this portal leads. Come on, my caring dear, call the Game to witness that you are not plotting anything evil against me and that if I chose to do so I would be able to return to the Sanctuary unhindered after talking to Bernard.
“That’s reasonable.” The witch hesitated, yet complied with my condition. I waited till the white light washed over her, then left the tip and ordered Helen, who was still sitting like a statue, to go home. I cast another glance at the Doll, with whom I was frustratingly unable to advance, and followed Gromana.
The local portal was set to the maximum distance possible outside of the Sanctuary. The moment I appeared in the normal world, all hell broke loose around me. Someone quickly pushed me down under the force dome, yet six lightning bolts still hit on the armor. The Daro set worked without a glitch: it absorbed all of them.
“All clear!” During the moment while I was rising to my feet it was all over. The dome was gone and I found myself surrounded by armed fighters, carefully scanning the surroundings with their eyes and in every other way available. A necromancer, a rogue, a couple of warriors; hunters and some from classes unknown to me this motley crew seemed to have just about everybody. Like the Viceroy’s servants, they were wearing an emblem on their right shoulders: three thick spirals originating from the same point at an angle of 120 degrees to each other. The Book of Knowledge told me the name for this symbol: triskelion.
“I have removed the markers. Let’s go, we’re getting visitors real soon!”
Carefully to the extent that was possible at all in this melee, they took me by my arms and brought me to the next portal. Then another. And another. After each leg of the journey the escort team scanned the area, waited for about ten seconds, then made the next leap.
“We made it just in time!” One of the fighters turned his helmet transparent, and it turned out to be Gromana. Her armor class easily transformed from a silk dress into a full chainmail outfit. “We barely grabbed you from the hands of Volt and his cutthroats. Just a little longer and you would have been sitting in the Citadel until your own people would sell you out. Yari give me back the ten granises. We need to take the 'terror' off you.”
I did not want to part with such a huge amount of money, and the witch noticed it:
“You will receive a huge amount of knowledge that you would not be able to buy with those ten granises. Yari, enough of this silliness! We have just a couple of minutes before they find you, and then we’ll have to start that race all over again!”
Common sense overcame greed and I became ten granises poorer, to Gromana’s relief:
“Shal, open the portal home. He doesn’t stand out any more.”
“Home” turned out to be a huge private residence; some castles would pale in comparison. The architecture inspired awe, and clearly indicated the social distance between the owner of this miracle and a commoner such as myself. Hiding under the mask of indifference so as not to look like a country bumpkin allowed for the first time into a "big house”, my eyes glided over the aerial fish dancing intricately in the air; I calmly glanced at the unbelievable beauty of an incredible living hedge that moved freely within its area… Oh Great Game, it really WAS alive! Say, one day you will be tired from the rat race of life and decide to take a break in the peace and quiet of nature… and you would sit and look at the hedge… and the hedge would look back at you… with the millions of its curious eyes on every leaf. Or, say, you have a private tryst with a lady… Brrrr! To hell with that!
“Ladies and gentlemen, please follow me.” The torture, with its miracles borne of someone’s sick imagination, was finally over, and a butler came towards us. “The master is ready to meet with you.”
Agreed, a common butler would not be good enough for a place like that; however, a vampire with a dark cloud over his head instead of a parasol was just the ticket! A dream of millions of NPC girls in my old world: handsome, tall, dark-haired, white-skinned and with fangs. As far as I cared, the most important thing was that he was polite.
“Earth has had many interesting Game plots,” Gromana said, noticing my interest in the vampire. "For example, in 2007 there was a local quest held here; vampires won the contest. As winners, they chose a curious reward. Garbital, the head of the vampires, decided to make the race more popular. To make them more prestigious, so to speak. Books, films and thorough brain-washing created a whole generation of brainless morons whose only desire was to become vampires. A generation of blighted idiots. On the other hand, what else could you expect of NPCs?”
“That’s funny,” I smirked, recalling the vampire sagas that were a fad at some point. “Wait, but as far as I remember that vampire hysteria lasted only a couple of years. Then it was replaced by dystopia – all those ‘chosen against the system’ etc, etc. Before that Tolkien fans were all the rage.”
“It’s possible. Different events are initiated throughout the Game just about every month, so it’s hard to follow everything. So there is no surprise that they are forgotten as soon as someone else wins the next quest. Someone has to be ahead.” Gromana shrugged.
“Over here, please.” It was not the custom in Bernard’s residence to use teleports, so we ended up walking up to the huge massive building. Having made sure that we followed him, the vampire added: “If you don’t mind, I could clarify. You are right our race did not start this popularization of ideas. This method of altering popular perceptions is widely used. Those whom you called Tolkien fans were aiming to extol elves and gnomes, while showing people and orcs as weak and dim. We had to share the fame with shape-shifters, who were our allies in the quest you mentioned. Dystopia, as you call it, became popular after the victory of the gyrdannes. The thing is that there were mass revolts at the time in their clan against the ruling elite; so that’s the origin of all those slogans: ‘Down with Social Inequality!’ ‘Power to the People’ ‘Destroy the System! But they are fading into oblivion now as well: preparation is underway for a new local event planned for next year. We are going to see an invasion.”
“Oh! Now it’s clear that my presence here is not accidental!” Gromana stopped, struck by the news. “Soluna must have known what was coming, so that’s why she selected Earth! Who are going to be in it?”
“The choice will be held on January first. The options are already known though: either nernians or vances”.
“Space aliens or zombies.” Gromana was contemplating. “Whatever that’s even more interesting.
The vampire nodded and stopped in front of the entrance to a gazebo, which was our destination. I grinned to myself – I wonder when I will reach a point at which I am seen at least in the entrance hall of the house? Or maybe they hold all meetings in gazebos here to prevent their silver cutlery from disappearing?
The owner of the residence was standing in the gazebo with his back to us, enjoying the view of the garden in bloom. Hearing our steps, he turned around, and we had a chance to look at him. Human. He looked about fifty, but it could be that the grey beard made him look older. His loose clothes hid his class, but not his good physical shape. Smooth movements, the grasping stare of brown eyes. Bernard gave the impression of a respectable and distinguished man.
“Welcome, Yaropolk!” Bernard said. He had a pleasant low voice that resonated throughout the gazebo. “A pleasure to meet you. Have a seat. We have some things to talk about.”
The vampire extracted three soft armchairs and a small table out of the air. A moment later servants were fussing around us setting the table. The host sat down first, nodding to Gromana and myself at the other chairs:
“As host, I would like to introduce myself first. Coordinator for sector 446, nobleman by birth, Bernard Kalran at your service.
“It sounds very impressive!” I responded, but my curiosity egged me on, and I decided not to hold it back. “But I would be even more impressed and would very much appreciate it if you could tell me what those sectors are and what their coordinators do. Is this a title that indicates how cool its owner is, or is it the same as calling a janitor a ‘cleaning manager’? Believe me, I don’t want to offend you; it’s just that I have certain gaps in my knowledge. I really like Gromana’s curse in this respect. Why hide behind fancy words things that can be asked directly?”
“Well, your frankness is quite engaging, and your age accounts for a lot.” Bernard smiled in a fatherly way. “Besides, if one were to choose between hypocrisy and harsh truth, I’d choose the latter. The Game space is divided into sectors; the coordinator is in charge of developing his sector, and of relations with neighboring ones. To make it easier for you, it’s like President of the Earth and another three game worlds. Is this impressive enough for you?”
“Impressive does not even begin to cover it,” I answered honestly, noting that this time I was way over my head.
“You don’t seem to be too pleased,” Bernard said pursing his lips; apparently that was not the reaction he expected.
“Well, you know, when a fresh graduate of the Academy is invited by a sector coordinator to talk, it makes you think about what’s in store for you. ‘Beware of masters, they will cause you trouble any day’.” Once again I was not trying to cover myself with pleasantries.
“Well, your concern is understandable.” The velvet and care faded from Bernard’s voice, and he instantly turned from a kind uncle into someone accustomed to giving orders. “Everything will depend on you. You give me the Diary and tell me everything you know about restart. Lying or hiding something would not make sense, I would feel that. Afterwards, if I have no questions, Gromana will see you to the Sanctuary, and I will make sure that everyone forgets about you. Otherwise you have to understand that your life will be very short once you return. At this stage only my interest in you has protected you from headhunters and prevented them from sending you into respawn cycle till final death. Someone else would find the Diary later. So, do you agree?”
I did not have any real choice; just like any other creature, I wanted to live. If not long, then at least happily. It was beyond my power to stop restart anyway:
“I agree.”
“Smart boy. Diary,” Bernard stretched out his hand.
The ubiquitous butler appeared next to me, and extended his hand to take the Diary. Perhaps handing anything over directly was prohibited, so I did not bother to argue or protest. Realizing that I would never see the Diary again, I held onto it for a moment. Maybe it was for the better: this was the price of my safety, so I was prepared to pay it.
A fraction of a second later, the butler placed the Diary in his master’s hand. Before Bernard was even able to close his fingers around it, his eyes rolled and his body arched. I grabbed the arms of the chair tighter, not sure what was going on. Straightening up sharply, the coordinator for sector 446 was staring at me, his hair ruffled, his eyes turning as red as an albino’s. I felt uneasy.
“YOOOOUUUU!!! I GOOOOOOT IIIIT!! I WAAAAITED FOR SOOOOOO LOOOONG!!!!” Bernard’s voice had also changed so that it became practically unrecognizable. He hissed and spat. I pushed myself deeper back into the armchair.
“I CAME BACK TO GO AWAY, AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN!!!!! DEATH!!! DEATH IS SALVATION!!!” the host kept raving. Gromana jumped as if something had bitten her and began quickly rummaging through her bag, saying quietly:
“Wait, wait, wait…”
Bernard turned around and stretched a hand to her in a jerky movement:
“FREAK! YOU WILL DIE!!! NOW!!!” He was screaming at Gromana now.
Finally the witch grabbed some small object out of her bag and threw it precisely at Bernard:
“We will all die some day, but not now, not today. Bernard, come back!”
The white thing turned out to be a small animal that climbed up the man’s body and sank its teeth into his neck. A shudder ran through the coordinator’s body, and he slumped like a broken doll. His arms dropped listlessly and the Diary fell out of his hands onto the floor with a loud thump. A moment passed in tense waiting, and finally Bernard drew air heavily and opened his eyes. I did not know what that little white thing did, but it returned the Bernard I had already met to the gazebo. In his right mind and sane. He stared at Gromana angrily, making her cringe, and I perked up my ears, hoping to figure out what all that was about.
“What took you so long?”
Gromana was embarrassed; she dropped her head. Meanwhile the white animal returned to the witch and disappeared into her bag:
“Forgive me, Bernard; it was my fault. You have had no fits for so long that I had relaxed. Now I will always be on guard.”
The man did not respond; his eyes traveled to the book lying nearby:
“Yaropolk, pick up the Diary!”
I was surprised, and decided that now was a good time to say something:
“Why me? I thought our agreement was different.”
“The deal is off. I changed my mind.” Our host said with finality, without batting an eye. “You will leave the premises as my underling, or you won’t leave at all. This is not a threat; I am just stating the facts.”
I stared at Gromana inquisitively; she just shrugged her shoulders, as if to say that her word carried no weight here and her oath to me had nothing to do with it. My internal voice still refused to call my situation desperate. There were reasons for that. Redel had clearly indicated that Judges without protectors in the Game are under clear and present threat of death. While previously I had considered approaching Gerhard or Iven, everything else paled before my option with the sector coordinator. With a protector like him I would be able to breathe easy. I never signed up to be a hero. But! Before promising anything I needed to consult a specialist.
“I need all information on vassalage in the Game. Obligations and duties of both parties. First and foremost: the possibility of revoking the vassal oath. I will have to make a choice that will change my fate.”
An instant later a system message on admission to the Temple of Knowledge appeared in front of me.
“Congratulations, young Judge.” The keeper of knowledge greeted me as if I were family. “Your Luck keeps working for you. Bernard Kalran is a powerful and fair protector.”
Now I felt like the main character in “The Truman Show”.
“I wish I knew what I was getting into,” I hemmed. “And that’s my question to you.”
“The answer to it is in this scroll. Study it.”
As I supposed, vassalage did not bring anything irrevocable. First of all the liege lord, suzerain or, as Bernard preferred to call himself, "protector", is obligated to arm, feed, keep and pay his vassals, who served him as company or as bodyguards. Actually, there was no threat of the latter happening to me. Bodyguards in the Game were a special cohort of NPCs or players, and I definitely had nothing to do with it. The unpleasant part was that I would be in Bernard’s full service. In addition to the normal requirements like “do not kill” and “do not betray” I would be obligated, at my suzerain’s whim, to serve him at table, follow him everywhere, and in case there was some skirmish I would be the first to go to respawn or die, protecting my boss with my life. The relations between us would be sealed with a voluntary oath; it would assign me to my protector’s “house”; there would also be an emblem on my armor letting everyone know who was backing me. In case I decided to leave Bernard, I would need to hand him, in person, a thirty-day written “notice”. It obviously implied that my main task during those remaining days would be survival, but that did not concern me now. The good part was that I was not obligated to open my pockets to him, nor tell him all my secrets. A vassal retained a certain degree of personal freedom, which was definitely an advantage.
I finished the scroll and was thinking, since the old guy was in no hurry to throw me out. From the standpoint of survival, no matter how you looked at it, Bernard was the best option I could possibly find on Earth. Now I needed to understand what was the meaning of the scene I had witnessed in the gazebo, and how to extract some additional benefit from it; also, I had to figure out the situation with the actual Diary.
“I agree, but I would like to receive answers to my questions. Also, I will need you to provide me with an opportunity to level up my artifact, preferably using books.” I tried to at least say it with calm dignity, as if something actually depended on me.
“You will certainly receive answers to some of your questions. I will help with the leveling up, fine. Now let’s get to business; repeat after me: ‘I swear to serve…’,” Bernard responded calmly.
The oath of loyalty to the suzerain was completely identical to the text I had seen in the Temple of Knowledge, so there were no problems in that for me. Bernard stated his part of the oath, and lightning flickered between us. The butler appeared next to me and completed the ceremony: my suzerain’s emblem appeared on my left shoulder. The triskelion.
“What do you know about restart? Just make it brief.” Bernard leaned back in the armchair, breathing heavily. Even though simple, the ceremony had taken practically all his strength. And mine as well. My Energy dropped all the way down to one. “And do me a favor, pick up this book already.”
I did not protest, and the Diary was in my hand again. While I was doing that, Bernard drank some wine leisurely, and immediately looked noticeably better. Before answering, I also took a sip from the glass presented by the servants, and my Energy started creeping up.
“I know that there have been several of them. It takes three participants, not two as some mistakenly believe. All of them are people. Two men and one woman,” Saying all this aloud drove home the thought that I did not know that much, after all. “Well, actually, that was the brief version. May I ask my questions now?”
The man nodded:
“But don’t expect me to answer all of them. Go on: surprise me, young Paladin.”
“Why did you return the Diary to me? Why do you need the Game to restart? Why do so few know about the third participant in the restart? Why me?”
“The first and last questions are essentially the same. Levard made a mistake by leaving you in the cage. You repeated his actions and activated your copy of the Diary; by doing so you became the Guide. Not the Keymaster, as Archibald thinks. Is there something you know?” the suzerain noticed my smile.
“I know who could be the Keymaster. I don’t know the rest of the terminology. Does that mean I am not Merlin? What does it mean: the Guide and the Keymaster?”
“Believe me, you are not Merlin,” Bernard’s eyes warmed up a lot; apparently he had expected some heavy duty conversation and pressure. It was nice to know that I had ruined his plans. “As for the Keymaster… If you know that, I definitely do as well. It’s Dolgunata, Archibald’s student. They have been training her for this role for the last thirty years, naively supposing that I knew nothing about it.”
“I feel like a first grader talking to the professor about quantum physics theory,” I honestly confessed.”That makes my question even more important. Why me?”
“Because of this,” Bernard pointed at Madonna’s Diary. “By initiating the restart you became the Guide. It’s a being who is supposed to take all three to the restart point. This role cannot be taken away from you any more, unless you are completely wiped out. In that case the activated Diary would disappear and the restart would stop. That’s why you are so valuable to me now, and so inconvenient for my enemies. Accepting you as my vassal makes it easier for me to ensure your safety. I am not going to lock you up in a cell or keep you tied up here. The Game is open to you.”
“So I am not going to die?” I asked with joy; however, Bernard’s reaction told me that I had said something stupid.
“The second question: the third player. Gromana, leave us.” The witch immediately rose, made a polite bow and left the gazebo, accompanied by the vampire. “The flaw of my protégé is too great to allow her hear too much. Unfortunately, I have not figured out how to remove the curse; Soluna is a strong witch. The reason no one knows about the third player lies in his own self. He carefully and thoroughly removes any mention of himself from all the sources. I found out about his existence only thirty years ago, even though I had been working on the issue of restart for over four centuries. I still know little. It is a man human Madonna’s lover. His name and class are unknown. One thing I know for sure: he and Madonna always find each other. It’s an axiom.”
“Why?” I could not restrain myself, but Bernard ignored my question.
“The third question was why I need restart. Now, that’s more complicated. You have just witnessed a rather unpleasant scene, right? My other self. My personal curse. My echo. Every time a player reaches a hundredfold level of “Grandeur”, the Game gets a glitch. It creates the player’s echo, his complete copy both externally and internally, only with a defect: the echo knows nothing about the Game. It’s not an NPC, nor is it a player; rather, it resembles a Doll in some way: it’s an unusual something that craves to find its progenitor. But while Dolls are created for love, an echo is created for death. It has the same strength as the creature for whom it was generated. Oh, and there is an important point: the number of echoes is determined by the level of “Grandeur”. At one hundred there is one, at two hundred there would be two… I had four. Three were destroyed at once the laws of the Game are ruthless to them. The fourth, however, was quicker and got to me. You have seen what came of it. I was able to survive because I dared a full merge. So this body houses two beings, which are continuously fighting. Myself and my echo. Occasionally it comes to the surface, scaring everyone around. Until today I thought I had things under control. But, apparently the energy of the activated Diary affected my mental control. You have seen the result. That’s why I want a restart: it will help me get rid of this curse. Nothing else can undo a merge.”
“Why did Gromana throw that animal at you?” I decided to clarify that point for myself as well, while my host was being so cooperative.
“It’s a manushka. They are very fast and have a particular venom. Gromana told me about those animals and suggested I could use one. Their bite puts the echo into a coma, thus enabling me to restore my mental shields. Before that I used other methods which were less effective. With the use of a manushka the fits became rarer and rarer, and I had allowed myself to relax.”
Bernard fell silent for a moment, recalling the unpleasant events again. Then he continued:
“I know where to find Merlin. Archibald knows where to find Madonna. You need to convince the catorian to share information; you can tell him about everything you have seen here, except my other “self”. No one should learn that I have swallowed an echo. Malturion will see you to the library; however, you should know: already tomorrow you must set out on your class quest. You should not quarrel with Iven; I have certain plans for that Paladin.”
Bernard demonstrated how formidably well-informed he was about all my affairs.
“I answered all of your questions, Yaropolk.”
“Not quite,” I resisted, remembering that Madonna and the third restart participant always find each other.
“Right. And I will leave you this question to explore on your own. You are an explorer? Right? Your Doll will help you in that.” With those words Bernard broke into laughter. And I was stunned. What did my Doll have to do with it? “My advice is: don’t reject her. There is nothing bad about sensuality.”
Thoughts were flashing through my head at lightning speed. Really… That would be just incredible. I was staring at the man with my mouth open, contrary to all good manners. He smiled playfully, and praised me:
“Good boy. We’ll find a way to work together. “He rose from the table, indicating that the meeting was over. “Complete your quests and talk to Iven. This is your task for next week. Then we’ll see.”
“Please follow me.” The butler appeared nearby. “Gromana mentioned that you cannot use Light books; that somewhat limits the list of what’s available, so we can begin with…”
The butler was explaining the logistics, but I was distracted. I could not get over a fascinating thought to which Bernard had led me.
Madonna or the third participant of the restart was a Doll who had become a player.

The book is going to be released June 29, 2017

No comments :

Post a Comment