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?”

The book is going to be released June 29, 2017

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