Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Way of the Shaman, book 6: Shaman's Revenge

Way of the Shaman, book 6:
Shaman's Revenge

by V. Mahanenko

The book is going to be released August 20, 2017

Chapter One. Emergence

“Climb on out!” ordered a man’s voice so hoarse it sounded like its owner had been suffering from a long-term cold—and treating it with ice cream. “Or are you just going to lie there forever?”
Even though my cocoon’s lid had slid aside a while ago, I couldn’t summon the strength to get up and return to the real world. Fluorescent lights buzzed before my eyes—a standard fixture of every office, or in this case the facility where ex-prisoners were released from their confinement capsules—and still I went on staring, as if into infinity. My head was such a jumble that I concentrated on the only thing I knew to be true and then held onto it like a lifesaver to keep from drowning—I was free! I, Daniel Mahan, who had incurred the wrath of my entire city, had regained my freedom! I had managed to trade eight years of imprisonment for a mere eleven months of gameplay.
And yet, this realization did not make me happy.
The only thing rattling in my head was the terrible phrase that Anastaria had thrown into my face: “You’re useless now.” I tried to clear my mind yet again, but the last thirty minutes of my stay in Barliona kept surging to the forefront of my consciousness.

“Hey—are you, uh, alive in there?” A note of worry sounded in the voice and a bearded face materialized above me. A bandana covered his right eye as well as the scar that began on his forehead and zigzagged like a lightning bolt down to his lower jaw. “You seem to be okay. So why don’t you get up? All the other prisoners come flying out like bullets and start kissing the blessed floor of reality, but you’re still in there. Did something happen to you?”
“Analysis of patient’s functions complete,” a robotic voice announced several seconds later. “Patient’s organism is functioning normally with no defects detected. Physical state is 88% of nominal.”
“Look here, I don’t have time to deal with whatever your problem is. I have another dozen releases to attend to today, so shake a leg and get a move on. You were released ahead of schedule, so someone will come for you in about half an hour. You’ll have to wait in the reception room in the meantime…Hey! Can you hear me or not?! Make a sound or something!”
“I can hear you, I can hear you,” I muttered, clearing my mind as best I could. I didn’t feel like going off on this fellow—his life seemed tough enough as it was, so I waited until the restraining bar moved aside, sat up and sighed deeply. Immediately, my head began to spin and stars danced before my eyes, but I forced myself to stay sitting—I was done with being weak. It was time to grow up.
“The shower is ahead and to the left,” the man added, moving away from the cocoon. “You’ll find clothes there for you too. Anyway, I’m not a nanny. You can figure out what’s what on your own. Oh and by the way—congratulations! Obtaining a release before your sentence is up is like gaining a new level in-game. Even two, I’d say…”
With these words, the technician turned around and went off on his business, so I had nothing left to do but slide my legs over to the floor and take my first step in the direction of the door he had indicated. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the strength for a second one…
I can’t explain what happened, but as soon as I took the second step, my legs gave way, a terrible aching swept across my body, my muscles contorted and a hundred little fireworks went off in my head, giving rise to interesting and strange thoughts: ‘Achievement earned: You have left your capsule. That’s worth two levels!’ Great! Now where is my wave of pleasure?
During the eleven months I had spent inside the game I became so accustomed to experiencing a wave of pleasure from reaching some new milestone in my level or skills that I basically stopped noticing it when it happened. It was only in extremely important cases like when my Jewelcrafting skill would grow by several points that I’d still collapse to my knees in sweet exhilaration, subconsciously preparing my hands for the creation of my next masterpiece. For a prisoner like me, the dose of pleasure meant a lot.
Now, I fell to the floor with a dull groan. I could barely feel my own body—my craving to ‘feel’ that next level eclipsed everything around me.
“You feeling ill?” the technician’s mocking voice pierced the fog around me. “It’s okay. Just wait a little. You should feel better in a bit. Happens to everyone…”
My muscles contorted themselves so painfully that all I could do was groan and whimper—my craving of the ‘dose’ was insane. All of a sudden, I understood very clearly that the old technician was the reason for why I was feeling so ill! It was he who was withholding my dose—it was he who’d pulled me out of the capsule—it was he who…
“Oh! You’ve really got it bad, eh?” said a surprised voice when I began to growl and crawl in the technician’s direction—so that I could gnaw his leg off for him. “Well, all right. You can have another hit. It won’t kill you. Enjoy it while you can.”
A sharp pain flashed near my shoulder and was followed by a warm and stunningly pleasant wave of pleasure that washed over my body. My muscles relaxed, my bones stopped dancing, my consciousness once more began to perceive the world and I flipped over onto my back completely ignoring the fact that I was lying naked on a frigid floor. My gaze encountered the white ceiling with the aforementioned fluorescent lights which were now full of unicorns wandering here and there picking bouquets of flowers. It’s odd—I don’t remember Ishni having arms. These unicorns looked more like centaurs with horns in their foreheads…
“I thought you only spent a year in there. How’d you manage to get so hooked?” The technician’s one-eyed face blotted out the centaur who had just begun to sing a ditty in the background.
“Reality perception level at 35%. Patient is currently at Dependence Level Black. Recommended rehabilitation period: two months, fifteen days,” the medical AI summarized my condition, while I fantasized about letting it have it with a Spirit…
“Level Black?” the technician’s one eye spread out to cover his entire eye, confronting me with a horrifying Cyclops. Try and believe an NPC after that! Didn’t they tell me that all the Cyclopes had been exterminated? Here’s one right before me. “You know buddy, I’m even kind of curious about what happened to you.”
The Cyclops stepped aside allowing me to rejoin my happy centaur. He was busy gathering flowers and singing songs—when suddenly he looked up fearfully, tucked in his tail and dropped down to the floor. The Master had come to swim the skies—a black Dragon.
Flourishing his enormous wings in the air around him, the Dragon enthralled and captivated me with his power and beauty. His entire body was filled with strength. He was the true master of this world and no one and nothing could depose him from his throne. Not even the Sirens.
The Sirens…
I am Daniel Mahan, an ex-prisoner.
The Dragon flapped his wings one more time and vanished, returning the ceiling to its blank white state.
“Reality perception level at 85%. The patient has reached Dependence Level Yellow. Recommended rehabilitation period: fifteen days,” the AI reacted immediately.
“Ahem,” coughed the technician. “What exactly is going on anyway? Black, yellow. Listen, the doctors will show up in ten minutes. Let them deal with you. The shower is straight ahead. There are clothes there too. I have enough problems of my own…”
I sat up abruptly, experiencing no discomfort whatsoever—neither nausea, nor weakness, nor the desire for another ‘dose.’ At the moment, my entire consciousness was seized with a single feeling—hate. I never imagined that I could feel this terrible feeling, but at this very moment it was like a massive piston that was pushing my pleasure-deprived organism forward. The hate that consumed me was so immense that if Stacey had appeared before me right then, I wouldn’t even think twice and…Although, no—I had no desire to go back to the mines. I had to act more thoughtfully. I had to…I had to seek revenge. The important thing was to think of how. This is what I would occupy myself with once I completed my rehabilitation.
“Reality perception level at 100%. The patient has entered Dependence Level Green. Recommended rehabilitation period: three days…”
“That’s impossible!” exclaimed the doctor, once she had examined my medical charts. Gingerly holding the tablet with her thin fingers and long nails, which were decorated with a fairly intricate ornament, the doctor kept looking up at me with surprise as if I shouldn’t even exist. Her white tunic didn’t do much to conceal the shapely build of a longtime patron of either capsules or fitness centers—and with that said, I’d put my wager on the former. Fitness centers aren’t very fashionable anymore. “Daniel, how do you feel?”
“As far as I’m concerned, the AI’s diagnosis is all right by me,” I shrugged my shoulders, unwilling to engage in any unnecessary polemics. I didn’t feel like explaining the reasons for how I’d managed to ‘return’ to reality—that was between me, the Phoenix clan and no one else. As I showered and dressed, I made up my mind about one ironclad thing—I would have my revenge. It didn’t matter when that would be—I could figure that out as I went—but it was clear that I simply could not let the actions of Phoenix and my so-called friends go unpunished. Otherwise I might as well stop thinking of myself as human.
“It says it here, but…” the doctor stuttered looking up at me with her blue eyes. “It’s impossible to emerge from Level Black on your own! That’s never happened before! In all my twelve years in the practice!”
“There’s always a first time for everything,” I noted philosophically and changed the subject: “Tell me, doctor, will my hair start growing again? Or am I going to stay bald for the rest of my life?”
“You can simply call me Lucia,” the girl sighed, evidently realizing that she wouldn’t find out anything from me at the moment. “Your hair will grow back, don’t worry. The capsule contained a special solution that blocked its growth, so…Daniel, I’d like to run one more, small test before we head over to the rehabilitation clinic. I need your permission to read your brain signals in your waking state. Are you opposed to this?”
“Not at all. I don’t have anything to hide,” I replied graciously. If at the beginning of our conversation I had unwillingly associated Lucia with Stacey, and kept looking for some catch, then now it seemed to me that I had known this doctor for a long time and so I didn’t want to disappoint her by refusing. Anyway, she’s a doctor—who says no to a doctor? Only people who are very ill…
It was explained to me that we would drive the two hundred kilometers between the facility that contained the prisoners and the rehab center in only an hour. According to the doctor, there are seven colored levels of pleasure dependence—from the highest which was black to the lowest, which was green. Furthermore, the lower the level, the further away is the corresponding rehab center. The doctor kept trying to involve me in a conversation about the meaning of life and my future place in this world, so I stared out at the trees rushing past us and turned my attention to my plan for revenge.
And so!
The first thing that I’d have to do would be get my Shaman back. Even if they had to drag him out of the prison servers and transfer him to the public ones. I hardly felt like starting the game again from square one when I had such a monster at my disposal.
The second thing was that as soon as I entered the game, I’d go to Anhurs and demand an audience with the Emperor or the High Priestess—whoever was in charge of marriages. I’d demand a divorce from Anastaria and the return of my personal property—everything that Anastaria had stolen from my bag. I’d need to make sure to see a Barliona lawyer about this matter—are items that were removed from an open bag considered loot or not? If not, I’d hold Anastaria legally responsible, and if yes…I’d rather not think about that…It would be really upsetting to lose my Chess Set.
Third—I’d need to deal with the clan. It wasn’t of any use to me anymore, since I wouldn’t be able to manage it. The responsibility of leading a gaming organization, even one that had only ten members, placed a burden on me that I simply did not want. When I’d return to the game, I would say farewell to everyone who was left and officially shut down the clan…Though, no, I’d remain in it on my own. It wouldn’t do to lose the projections.
Fourth—my two major assets: Altameda and the Giant squidolphin. These two would surely become immense drains on my finances and would only pull me down to the bottom. Considering that Leite—who had practiced and profited with my budget—was no longer in the clan, it would remain up to me to solve the question of money. Otherwise, I’d have to do something I really didn’t want to do—sell Altameda to another clan. I couldn’t see any other way out.
By the way, how much money do I have left? As I was confirming my exit from the game, the number of 140 million flashed before my eyes. Eighteen months ago, I’d never even fantasize about such a sum, but now…I’d spent a hundred to obtain my release. Some other part of the remainder would go to paying my players’ salaries until I kicked them out. So in any case, I should have about thirty remaining. But I won’t rely on it. Thirty million…Maybe I should withdraw them, buy myself an excellent house and live peacefully without ever giving Barliona another thought? I could study something, find a job and live comfortably without any Anastarias, Ehkillers, or Phoenixes. What’s wrong with just sending them all to hell?
Well for one, the fact that old Greed Toad and Hoarding Hamster won’t leave me alone until the end of my days. Even if I could handle each one individually, I’m powerless when it’s two against one. I want what’s mine and I want to punish those who took it away from me. It’d be nice to exterminate the Phoenix clan while I was at it. And this gives rise to two further questions:
The first is how can a game clan be destroyed at all?
The second is how I can protect myself from the wrath of Anastaria and Hellfire in real life? Somehow I don’t imagine they’ll welcome my attempts to hurt their clan and, if they don’t reach an agreement with me in the game (and it’ll be mighty difficult to reach any agreement with me in-game), then they might try to find me in real life.
Should I file a complaint with the law enforcement agencies? I wonder what I’d say in it: “I’m about to kill the leading players of Malabar and am therefore afraid for my life?” At a 75% probability, they’d send me to a mental clinic for tilting at windmills. So that wasn’t an option. I need to consider everything as carefully as I can. And therefore, I better return to my initial question: What’s the best way to hurt a gaming clan?
Send them all to respawn? Hmm…That’s a pretty severe punishment considering the level discrepancy between us. Well—what—was I going to hire mercenaries to hunt and kill the leaders of Phoenix over and over again? You couldn’t think of a bigger load of nonsense. So that option was out of the question but could come into play under the right circumstances.
The only soft spot that could hurt the clan, it seems to me, were their finances. I had to do something to the finances of Phoenix, to hamper their funds and then…Although, how could I do this anyway? Gold is considered inalienable property, so hacking into the Phoenix accounts was a shortcut back to the mines. And to steal their Legendary items, I’d need to find people to do it. The only way I could hurt their clan was to eradicate it—it’s not like I could besiege their castles…
“What happened, Daniel?” the doctor asked with a note of worry when I hopped up in place and almost hit my head against the car’s ceiling. She brought an analyzer up to my eyes which confirmed that my level of reality perception was still at 100% and that I was still at Dependence Level Green.
“It’s nothing. Just some thoughts,” I assured her, turning back to the window. I don’t need to siege any castles. I have Altameda!
At the moment, I was aware of the fact that the full extent of Anastaria’s property was confined to a single vessel on the seas that cost ten million gold. Considering the ease with which she parted with such a vast amount of money, it’d be stupid to activate the squidolphin and have to pay taxes—the payoff wouldn’t justify the expense. Until the players in the south of the continent earned a positive reputation with the pirates, until they begin to receive ships of their own, an enormous amount of time would pass and it’s not certain that any members of Phoenix would even be among them. So a seaborne revenge was unrealistic, but…I have Altameda!
The special thing about my castle is that it can move from location to location. This procedure was free once every three months and cost about ten million otherwise. If I manage to assemble a mob of players that will quash any resistance after Altameda teleports on top of the Phoenix castle, and then send in the loot hunters who will pick the enemy castle apart piece by piece as we did to Glarnis…As I understand it, Phoenix has about seven castles, the strongest of which was Level 29, and the weakest Level 18. It takes a pretty substantial investment to level up a castle that high, so if I manage to reduce all of them to level one…Well, that’s a more promising revenge than hunting down those bastards one by one.
Now my desire to get my Shaman back became even greater, since Anastaria had carelessly given me her entire map, which had the Phoenix possessions marked on it. My Shaman had access to the exact coordinates of every castle and therefore had a realistic path to revenge. The next step was finding the people who would work with me.
As well as the issue with my castle…
According to the Emperor’s requirement, the owner had to spend three months in his castle. I was dutifully doing just this for an entire month, until I left the game, so now I had another legal question for the game lawyer—can I legally lose the castle due to lapsing in my residency requirement, considering that the rehab period is also required? Logically speaking, Altameda should remain mine in either case, but I will need to make sure. I can’t afford any mistakes when it comes to this issue.
Further—I need to deprive Phoenix of their quests. Without scenarios, there’s no loot, while the members’ salaries still have to be paid. It’s unfortunate that I can’t accomplish this on my own—the Corporation always needs some leading clan that it can lean on. This means I’ll have to work with Etamzilat and Undigit. I’m sure that improving the financial position of their clan is one of the priorities anyway.
What else can I do within the game? It’s impossible to destroy a character permanently or harm him for that matter…Hang on! The Cursed Artificer! There’s a chance that the Cursed Chess Set is the brainchild of the Corporation and I was forced to create it without a chance to repeat the feat, but it’s worth trying. If I manage to bind an avatar to some item with certain very specific requirements, that’ll be another nail in Phoenix’s coffin.
And as a consequence of this last point, I must meet with Kreel and find out where and how he dug up Rogzar’s Crystal. If I recall correctly, this item’s description went something like this: “…-75% to movement speed; -50% to all stats; -90% to regeneration of Hit Points, Mana and Energy; -90% to Experience gained. May not be sold, dropped, stolen or destroyed…” Well, this beauty is simply begging to find its way into the personal inventories of Anastaria, Barsina, Leite and various other members of the flaming chicken clan. I need to exploit any avenues available to me.
“We’re here,” the doctor’s voice jerked me from my pleasant musings of revenge, returning me to reality. The main bullet points were in place. What remained was to verify, develop and eliminate the ones that were impossible as well as to brainstorm additional ones. After all, revenge, is a dish best served cold.
It would be a stretch to call the facility that I was delivered to a rehabilitation center. I had imagined a monumental edifice barricaded behind barbed wire—after all its purpose was to contain prisoners, so the windows would have to be barred in order to keep the patients from jumping out, and yet the reality turned out to be very different. A mossy forest, neat and tidy, a manicured lawn, small cottages, people in white cloaks sitting and lounging around the grass, the pleasant chirp of birds—I was looking at a picture of some kind of idyll. All that was missing were robots that would flit from patient to patient delivering food and taking care of any bodily needs, so that no one had to bother about anything. When I came closer, I saw that several people were playing tennis on the tennis courts located behind the buildings. Others were swimming in a pool and some others were working in small workshops, doing carpentry and ceramics. In one of the far off houses I saw a blacksmith, ferociously hammering a piece of iron, and yet I could hear no sounds coming from him—a force field surrounding the building kept the clamor from leaking into the forest. A similar field surrounded the athletic areas, ensuring that the people relaxing on the grass could do so in perfect tranquility.
“This is where you will stay for the next five days,” Lucia said with a smile. “Please follow me. We need to register your arrival, implant a monitoring device and determine where you will be sleeping. We will also explain to you the assortment of prophylactic treatments that the analytic programs have prescribed to you—but I won’t burden you with tedious information. Please, relax, recuperate and do your utmost to become a productive member of society…”
By the end of my second day in the rehab center, I was howling from boredom. I couldn’t think of even a few hours over the past year during which I wasn’t doing something—with the exception of the time I’d spent sleeping. There was always some kind of activity going on—a Dungeon, leveling-up my Jewelcrafting skill, or some quests I had to do. And therefore my time in Barliona had rushed past me as if the world was on fast forward. Here on the other hand…
I was lazing on the grass, sleeping, undergoing various procedures, lazing on the grass again, sleeping again, again the grass…Several times I tried to occupy myself by playing a sport, but tennis and soccer were never my favorite, so these activities didn’t bring me any pleasure either. I took another nap and lazed around the grass some more, underwent some more procedures and went back to the lawn…The mere thought that I’d have to continue to do this for another three days caused my face to contort. I needed some kind of activity…
“It’s occupied!” barked the blacksmith without turning to look at me. “There’s only one forge here and I’m not about to leave it. If you have a problem, take it up with the orderlies!”
“I don’t need the forge,” I replied, frowning from the heat. After talking with the doctor and explaining my problem, I received some useful advice: to try and create something in this world as I used to do back in Barliona. So the next morning I went to the forge, since all the materials I needed were there…and encountered this grouchy blacksmith intent on defending his habitat.
“Then scram! Bunch of weirdos wandering around here…”
Digging around the shelves for a Jeweler’s toolkit—which turned out to be a faithful double of the one that I’d had to work with back in Barliona, if you didn’t take into account its weight—I darted out of the smithy into the fresh forest air: The force field contained not only the noise but the heat as well. It seemed that the smith was an avid masochist who’d decided to take out all the years he’d spent in Barliona on a hunk of iron. I doubt someone who’d spent less than a year in the mines would settle on this form of rehabilitation.
Sitting down beneath the first elm I came across, I opened my Jeweler’s toolkit and felt a sharp pang of nostalgia—despite the fact that I’d crafted literally a couple days ago when I created the last of the Chess Pieces, it had really been a long time since I’d worked with the tools. I can’t even remember when now…
My hands, which had until then never actually held the mandrel, smelting pot and other tools of the trade, picked up the spindle of copper wire and in several deft and well-rehearsed movements wrapped the first ring without even having to resort to the mandrel. Regarding the fruit of my labor dumbly, I shook my head and placed the ring aside—the outcome was some kind of cheap trinket, without even a single special characteristic. I’d probably be best off working in Design Mode…
The familiar darkness enveloped me on all sides, and the wire in my hands appeared before me. And so! Ordinary rings aren’t much fun, so I’ll try to braid the wire, encrusting it with this stone: The image of a transparent gem which came included in the toolkit appeared beside the ring. If the ring won’t have any characteristics after this, then I don’t even know—I’ll have to go see the head Master to ask him what I’m doing wrong. But first, let’s make a pretty braid. Or had I learned all those skills for nothing?
“Patient has entered Dependence Level Black!” As soon as I finished my ring and saw that the result pleased me, strange sounds began to reach me through the darkness, constantly repeating again and again: “Patient has entered Dependence Level Black! Patient has entered Dependence Level Black!”
The noise was so irritating that I opened my eyes and blinked as per usual from the light emanating from my hands—I had managed to craft another masterpiece and now there’d be a litany of notifications announcing that I had leveled up. A few steps in front of me stood a brave little company of characters: The dwarf I’d met earlier, who’d kicked me out of his smithy; two trolls who were trying to hit me with their darts; an enormous orc pensively scratching his head; and a smallish gnome occupied with pushing buttons on his arm. An ordinary assortment of bystanders, who had gathered no doubt to examine my new masterpiece.
Shargak larange!” said the gnome, addressing me, I think. Shaking my head to indicate that I didn’t understand his language, I was about to explain in Malabarian, Kartossian and some other languages of Barliona that I had picked up along the way that I didn’t understand him—when, suddenly, I saw her among the trees—the Siren. The two-meter-tall beast wasn’t even trying to hide and was pointing her trident right at me, smirking and reveling in her impunity—the onlookers weren’t any trouble for her, only a true Dragon was capable of defeating Anastaria.
Eh…What Anastaria?
Another wave of emotion swept over my body raising goose-bumps as it went—the very same Anastaria who…
“Patient has entered Dependence Level Green!” buzzed the analyzer and silence descended upon the forest. I was so filled with my hate for the Sirens and that one particular Siren, that I couldn’t calm the trembling of my hands and dropped the ring I had made to the ground. I was shaking through and through. My head was filled with a roar, and yet I was slowly beginning to perceive reality the way it was again. Without any gnomes, orcs or Sirens….Grrr! It wouldn’t be enough to kill that slithering hag.
“If you can hear me, nod your head,” said the short man I had taken for the gnome.
“I’m not a bobble head to nod at your command,” I retorted, trying to come to my senses. “Have I been this way for a long time?”
“About five minutes,” the smith said. “Your analyzer began to squeak so loud that we had to throw a dome over you to keep the doctors from showing up.”
Only now did I notice that we were inside a force field dome that blocked all sound.
“Thank you,” I managed, understanding that if the doctors had seen me this way, I’d have to stay here far longer than five days. They’d send me to the clinic and run tests on me for the next two months.
“If you want to get out of here, don’t do anything for the rest of the time you’re here. Just sleep,” the smith added. “We don’t squeal on our own kind. Everyone suffers an attack every once in a while, but if the doctors see you, they’ll send you to the Level Yellow center. Trust me—it’s worse there. See you around!” The force field vanished and the gang of onlookers went off on their business as if nothing had happened. Big deal—someone entered Dependence Level Black and stopped perceiving this plane of reality. An everyday occurrence around these parts, I guess.
Picking up the ring I’d made and not bothering to examine the quality of my work, I stuck it in my pocket and began thinking. I’m starting to like all this less and less—twice now I had crossed the limit at which I perceived this reality and I still had no idea why this was happening. If it weren’t for those last thirty minutes of Barliona which had lodged this hate deep inside of me, I’m not sure that I’d be able to return to a normal condition without lengthy treatment. The only explanation I could think of was that Barliona had become my mind’s preferred reality and I was trying to force this world into its mold.
By the way, this gives rise to an inconvenient question—what would happen to me if it weren’t for my hate of Anastaria? Let’s imagine that I bought my release on my own, selling my castle, the Chess Set and the Eye of the Dark Widow—would the time I’d spent in the game allow me to return to reality, or would I turn into some kind of vegetable that desired only the pleasure of living in its own virtual vegetable patch? I don’t think I much like the answer to this question—no, I’d revel in my ability to fly as a Dragon and never even think about any stupid Sirens. Another wave of intense hatred swept across my body, squeezing my chest like a steel vice. Why look at that! So does this mean that I also have to be grateful to that beast for giving me the chance to remain human? As if!
I spent the remaining four days of my rehabilitation playing the perfect patient—no sudden movements, words, changes in emotion or conflicts with those around me. I was all daisies, roses, butterflies and all that other claptrap that let the doctors know that I was adapting perfectly well to my new reality. I didn’t suffer any further attacks of fantasy, but I also did not allow the fiery hatred I felt for Anastaria to die out, constantly recalling my last thirty minutes in Barliona. My revenge fantasies also took a back seat, since I understood that the only thing I could think of at the moment was childish nonsense. Even the plan of using my castle to attack those of Phoenix was a nonstarter—who could guarantee for instance that Altameda would remain at Level 24? No one. I doubt the devs would simply hand an ordinary player the means to single-handedly ruin the game’s leading clans. More than likely, Altameda would be destroyed as it crushed its first Phoenix castle. After all, there’d be a player guiding it—not an angel. Sure, Urusai was permitted to attack Glarnis in this manner. But I doubt I’d be allowed to replicate that feat.
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked at my release. According to the analyzer, the rehabilitation period of the person named Daniel Mahan had ended and he could be safely released into the wild. The official wild.
“Very well, thank you,” I assured the doctor. Lucia had hovered around me all those four days, trying to detect any signs of aggression or a fit or whatever else would allow her to hold me for some indeterminate period of time, but I kept my cool. The girl couldn’t figure out how I managed to leave Dependence Level Black so quickly, evidently assuming that there had been some mistake—either by the analyzer when it diagnosed me or by the staff as they decided to release me. I really hoped it was the former.
“I have a present for you,” I told her, trying to change the subject. “As a memento to remember one of your patients by.”
Digging in my pocket, I retrieved the wire ring I had made the first day and placed it before the woman. Over the past five days, I had had enough time to look over my work and so now I understood the indescribable surprise on the doctor’s face—before her lay a whimsically wire-wrapped ring, encrusted with several simple sequins within its braided lattice. If you’d ask me to make another one, I’d look at you as if you’d lost your mind. You can’t create a ring like this with your hands. To do so you need fairly elaborate equipment, which the Jeweler’s toolkit did not contain. And yet the fact stood—in a state of full in-game immersion, my mind had guided my hands to do something inexplicable and created this masterpiece. Had I done this in Barliona—I’d earn a point or two in crafting for sure…
“Please sign here, here and here, Daniel,” said the orderly who had brought me from the residence hall. He returned my belongings and handed me the keys to my apartment. “Very good,” he added as soon as my squiggles appeared on the document. “I hope we won’t have to see each other in real life again. Prison isn’t very good for anyone really.”

Having watched the car with the Corporation logo vanish down the street, I sighed deeply and looked around. Basically nothing had changed over the last year—a cozy green garden with a playground full of children playing, mothers with baby carriages discussing the latest episode of their favorite shows as they strolled among the trees, elderly women with unkind faces seeking to uncover an enemy of the people in each unfamiliar passerby—my home had remained the way I remembered it. All that was missing was Sergei who lived up on the fifth floor. At this time of day he was sure to be passed out somewhere under some bush or else staggering to one in a lazy zigzag. Prolonged unemployment and repeated summons by the Imitators had ground down this once-good person, and now he survived on benefits. Or rather, instead of living, he drank and slept so that he could do the same the next day. The authorities kept a very close eye on people in his condition and at the first sign of aggression immediately shipped them off to the Barliona mines, yet Sergei managed to pursue his chosen lifestyle in the most harmless of ways.
“Good day, Daniel,” said a young man sitting on a bench in front of my building. “My name is Alexander. Do you have a few minutes to spare?”
I shot a puzzled look at the man, who must have been barely twenty and who was wearing a straight-laced business suit despite the warm weather. One didn’t have to be observant or cautious by nature to notice the smallish badge on his jacket which told me that this was a member of the Corporation.
“I do,” I shrugged. There wasn’t any point in hiding and if someone wanted to speak with me, then why not indulge them? “Can we speak here, or should we go up to my apartment?”
“Preferably up in your apartment. It’s a bit hot out here,” said Alexander, loosening his tie and demonstrating that Corporation employees are people too and not the robots they seem.
My apartment welcomed us with silence and a layer of dust that covered basically every surface in it. Before departing to the mines, I had turned off the air filtration system, assuming that I wouldn’t be in the game for that long—and therefore my apartment had become a fairly depressing sight. I can’t say that there was too much dust, but there was enough of it that you would leave your fingerprints on any item you touched.
“Have a seat.” I dug up a bed sheet from the dresser and threw it over the sofa, thereby covering the dust at least a little and turned on the air filtration system. As soon as Alexander leaves, I’ll need to look up a cleaning service, since I won’t be able to manage this mess on my own. “Would you like some mineral water?”
“I won’t refuse.” The smile that appeared on the man’s face was so shy that it seemed as if it couldn’t understand how it had found itself among such masculine features.
“In that case, hang on just a minute. I’ll put in the order…”
As I assumed, Alexander didn’t refuse my offer of food either, so I was pleased with my decision to order dinner for two right off the bat. Like two true diplomats, we were putting off the main conversation until the end of lunch, and instead discussed the heat outside, cars and Barliona.
“Thank you for lunch. In my line of work I frequently don’t have the time to eat,” said Alexander, becoming utterly human and abandoning the last pretenses of being some kind of machine. “Tell me, Daniel, what are you plans for the next several years?”
“That’s quite a period of time you’re asking me about,” I smiled. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing tomorrow and you want to know about my plans for the next few years.”
“I’ll put it differently—are you planning on keeping your character, the one you’ve been playing with in Barliona for the past year?”
“I appreciate you ducking the words ‘prison’ and ‘mines,’” I quipped sarcastically, but seeing the man’s embarrassed reaction, felt a pang of shame—it wasn’t this guy’s fault that I ended up ‘there.’ “Sorry, it just slipped out. I thought that these kinds of questions would be asked during the rehabilitation process, not at my doorstep.”
“You are correct, but in your case there’s been a little snag—a fault in the equipment, which for whatever reason transmitted erroneous data to the surveillance system. In fact, this mistake is quite astonishing in your case. According to our system, you entered Dependence Level Black and then bounced back to Dependence Level Green. The Level Black flag remained in the system, since it is a permanent indicator, so you should have been released no sooner than in three months. It was our systems becoming desynchronized that brought you here and no one got around to discussing the issue of your avatar and the funds at his disposal. And that is precisely why I’m here.”
“I see. In that case, I have an answer for you—I would like the Corporation to return the character I was using in Barliona during my sentence back to me. With the same class, name, achievements and reputation. Is this possible?”
“Of course. That’s a standard procedure in which we transfer the account over to the public servers,” Alexander sighed with relief and produced a tablet. “You only need to sign here and here, and the process will be under way.”
“Wonderful!” Placing my signature a second time that day, I returned the tablet to its owner. “In that case, thank you for your visit.”
“Tell me, are you the Shaman Mahan?”
“What do you mean, ‘the’?”
“The one that was the subject of two movies and who was one of the most famous players of Barliona?” Alexander explained, flushed with embarrassment and added: “The one who disbanded his clan…”
“What?!” I couldn’t contain my surprise. “What do you mean, disbanded his clan?”
“Well…you…I mean…Everyone knows that the Legends of Barliona have ceased to exist…It’s been a week now… You deleted all the players from the clan, leaving only you and Plinto who is currently being hunted by Phoenix…”
“May I inquire where you’re getting your information from?” I asked, not quite understanding what was going on. Where was this guy getting these wild ideas? How could I disband that which I had built with such love?
“On Anastaria’s site,” Alexander grew even more bashful, “there’s an interview in which she says that…But what am I saying—let’s just look at it together. You have a computer, don’t you?”

“Hello, Anastaria,” said the host of some show. Judging by the names and clan logos hovering over everyone’s heads, this footage was filmed in Barliona. “I’d like to address a question that’s on the minds of most players right now—why did you return to Phoenix? Everyone knew that the Legends of Barliona were one of the affiliates of Phoenix, but no one imagined such a massive exodus. Could you tell us what happened?”
“There was a conflict between Mahan and I, and as a consequence the clan ceased to exist. We sold off the clan’s strategic resources. Mahan used the majority of the clan treasury for his personal ends and blocked access to the clan castle. You’re correct to refer to the Legends as an affiliate of Phoenix, and this was why I offered all the players who were dissatisfied with Mahan’s policies the opportunity to switch to Phoenix. As for Mahan, he disappeared. I would guess he transferred the clan funds to reality and is using them as he sees fit. I could be wrong about this. In any case, he, the money, the resources and the castle are all gone. Effectively, the clan has been disbanded. I don’t really want to speak about this topic for now—it’s a bit painful for me. I haven’t been betrayed this deeply in a long time…”
“An unexpected announcement! Okay—let’s put the topic of the Legends aside. Tell me, why didn’t you take part in this year’s beauty pageant?”
“I felt like I should give the other girls a chance…”

Anastaria began to explain her love of humanity and her desire to help the less fortunate, but I stopped listening. What an asshole! Technically she didn’t utter a single lie, but the manner in which she said it all..! Judging by its number of views, more than thirty million people had watched this video over the last five days, which meant that the popular opinion of why the Legends had fallen apart was by now set in stone. No matter what I said—no matter what witnesses I dredged up or videos I showed—the player base would be on the side of Anastaria and Phoenix. That bitch!
“How nice,” I seethed through my teeth. “Tell me, is there any way I can get the video recording of my last thirty minutes in Barliona? It shows exactly who betrayed whom…”
“Of course you can,” replied Alexander, “if you write a letter that…Hang on, are you trying to say that Anastaria lied? That it all didn’t happen the way she claims?”
“That’s the thing…But okay, if you don’t have any more business for me, I’d like to be alone. I need to think about what we just saw…”
The more I considered what had happened, the more I hated Anastaria—and I hadn’t thought I could hate her more. She really was terribly precise—it wasn’t enough that they had robbed me and forced me out of the game, but they’d also manipulated public opinion against me. They made it seem that I had used my warriors to earn my release—actually even worse: that I had used them to pocket the clan funds. Even if I manage to prove that Phoenix set me up, the matter of the money will keep players away from me. Who wants to play with someone who’s known to have embezzled clan finances? I need to see a lawyer urgently!
So I launched the internet and began searching…
“Unfortunately, no one will be able to help you,” said one of our city’s leading game lawyers shaking his head. I had spent basically all the money I had left before being sent to Barliona to arrange the consultation in the hopes of receiving an answer to the question of ‘How much can I get from Anastaria for her stealing from me?’ And yet, the lawyer heard me out, inquired about some details, requested the logs from the Corporation—it turned out that game lawyers could obtain these with the players’ permission—then went through them, examined each episode in detail and finally explained that, unfortunately, Anastaria had acted wholly within the rules of the game. I spent an entire day only to receive an answer I already knew: The dummy was me. No one had forced me to unlock my bag to the girl—after all, one of the fundamental laws of Barliona, the one that attracted players to the game, was that anything that could be appropriated became the legal property of the player who’d taken it. As long as my inventory bag was closed, the Eye, the Chess Set and the other items were my property and if they’d been removed by the devs or some hackers, I’d be within my right to be outraged. But as soon as I granted Anastaria access to my inventory, the items effectively acquired a second owner. I had done this voluntarily—there had been no official pressure on me from the current deputy of Phoenix. So all in all, the dummy was me. The same went for her interview—formally speaking, I couldn’t lodge any complaints against the girl. Had I used the clan funds for my personal purposes? Yes. Had the resources been sold? Yes. Had our players gone over to Phoenix? Yes, goddamn it! Even if I file a complaint of slander, it’d be impossible to prove it—Anastaria had chosen her words very carefully.
The only silver lining in what the lawyer told me was that according to one of the laws of Barliona, if a player signs out to reality against his will, his required presence at various locations is suspended until his return. So if I return to the game and discover that Altameda has ceased to be mine, I’m allowed to petition a court to regain it—although there’d been no precedent for this, since the Corporation made sure to follow its laws carefully. Furthermore, I retained priority ownership of the castle over my spouse or my legal brother—Anastaria and Plinto, that is. This was all a bit of sunlight in the general gloom of my situation.
“Hello, Daniel!” Alexander called me on the phone as I was returning home. “I have good news—we’ve completed the transfer of your character and you may reenter the game whenever you like. By way of compensating you for the recent problems we had with your account, the Corporation would like to make you a small present that, naturally, won’t affect gameplay, but will make your experience a little better. I’m referring to your ability to choose the projection selected by your clan—now, your clan members can receive whatever projection they wish, not only the ones generated by the Imitator. We believe that you and your clan members will welcome this feature.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind of you,” I muttered in reply to such a ‘generous’ offer. Considering that the Legends no longer have any members except for me, the option to change my Dragon projection is about as useful to me as a bicycle is to a dog—theoretically the dog can learn to ride one, but it’s probably safer off on its own four paws.
“If you have any further questions, feel free to call me or my colleagues in the adaptation department,” Alexander went on. “All the best to you and good luck in your conquest of Barliona!”
The phone beeped, signaling that my conversation with the Corporation had drawn to a close: I had been rehabilitated, returned home, given a present and stamped with the official ‘case closed’ seal. From now on I was on my own.
While I had been with the lawyer, the cleaning service had come by and returned my apartment to a civilized state, cleaning it to a pristine condition. Everything that could sparkled, and even my time-ravaged wallpaper glistened with a bright new layer. Nothing suggested that this residence had spent a year in utter dilapidation reminiscent of a bachelor’s lair. Which, in effect, it was.
Having finished all my remaining chores, I sat down on my bed and began to stare at the gaming capsule. On the one hand, I couldn’t wait to get back to Barliona and find out what had happened to my clan during the past week. Was my castle still in one piece? How many people were still with me? What funds did I still have? On the other hand, there was one serious problem: As soon as I return, I’ll start ‘hearing’ Anastaria’s thoughts. I doubt I’ll find the strength to respond properly to hearing her voice in my head and I really wanted to avoid freaking out. The immediate task was to come up with a way to make Phoenix regret what it had done and teach them that they couldn’t get away with humiliating me. And yet, this was not a dilemma that I could solve right this instant.
The capsule offered no answer as to whether I should enter Barliona or not, so I opened my computer and decided to check my mail—I’d been free two days now and still hadn’t gotten around to it. I’d never allow myself such a luxury in the past—the various offers to take part in contests came with time limits for registration and if I didn’t react in time, I’d lose out.

Hello, Daniel! We don’t know each other, but we have something in common—Phoenix. Just like you, I ended up a victim of this clan and now want nothing more than to exact vengeance against those bastards. I don’t know what you’re planning—perhaps, you won’t even want to return to Barliona after all that they did to you—but just in case, here’s a link to a video. You’ll understand why Phoenix wanted to send you to the mines: Watch it and consider it. And if you decide to seek revenge as well—I suggest we work together. It’s not important who I am at the moment and what resources I have at my disposal. All you need to know is that I have the means. Make your decision, Shaman!

Among the hundreds of emails about contests and spam that had made it through my filters, there was this one stunning letter. And the most interesting part wasn’t so much the text of the letter, which said plenty on its own, but the very fact that the letter had found its way to my inbox. It turns out that this person was perfectly aware not only of what had happened to me in actual fact, but also that I was Shaman Mahan, that this was my email and, what seemed quite clear to me, where I lived. The sender’s address was ‘2233443322@burnermail.vxn’ which told me only one thing—this was a disposable email address intended only to send one letter and receive one answer to it. Very curious…
The letter was so interesting that I decided to ignore the first rule of the web (don’t click on any unfamiliar links) and opened the video. Before me appeared the scene of Shaman Mahan’s last few moments in Barliona. My heart shuddered when I heard Anastaria’s voice again—a wave of hate for the girl and Leite, the leading players in my betrayal, swept over me from head to toe—and yet even through these overwhelming emotions I could see the image, the moral annihilation of the Shaman. Of me. Were I to encounter Anastaria right now, I couldn’t guarantee that I’d let her live, even if it meant spending the rest of my life in the mines. Finally, I watched myself sit down on the boulder in a stupor, waiting for the final countdown, and at last dissolve into the surroundings. Shaman Mahan had ceased to exist in the game called Barliona. At any rate, for the time being.
The camera switched to a different angle to show the door to the Tomb swinging open. An enormous slab which Anastaria never managed to destroy, slid aside with ease, opening an ordinary passageway to a Dungeon. However, as soon as the passage opened and the players made their first steps in its direction, a star fell from the sky and turned into two angels—a white one and a black one.
“The Creator has opened the Tomb!” roared the black angel, who—unusually for Barliona—didn’t have a name.
“From now unto eternity this Dungeon shall have the ‘Original’ status!” the second angel echoed. “Any items found in tis location shall be Unique or Legendary! However, this status will apply exclusively to the Creator himself!”
“Where is he?” asked the black angel. “Where is he who must receive the original key from us, the key to the most sought after place in Barliona?”
“He is not here, sentries,” Anastaria replied, bowing her head. “Having opened the Tomb, the Creator was overcome with rage and hate for this world and abandoned it forever. You cannot give him the key…”
“You speak the truth!” the white angel exclaimed with astonishment. “How could the Creator begin to hate this world having just managed to open the passage? Who shall receive the key in his stead? Was the opening really in vain?”
“There is one here who is allowed to receive the key,” Anastaria went on and pointed at Barsina. “Here she is! Give her the key! She can replace the Creator.”
“It is confirmed!” announced the black angel. “Barsina is permitted to receive the key. And yet we are patient! If the Creator does not appear before us within a month, the key shall be given to Barsina and all Free Citizens will be allowed into the Dungeon. However, anyone who attempts to slip past us until that time, shall be immolated! That is all!”
“Please forgive my impudence,” said Anastaria, “but if the Creator doesn’t appear before the deadline, will the Dungeon lose its status?”
“If the Creator does not appear before us, we shall declare Barsina the Acting Creator! The Dungeon shall retain its status and twenty sentients, including Barsina, will be permitted to enter.”
The angels fell silent, guarding the entrance to the Tomb with their immense bodies and, suddenly, Anastaria and Hellfire who had been standing next to them flew toward the entrance. And, importantly, they flew there against their will as if some invisible force had flung them there—one powerful enough to send two of the game’s highest-level players flying. Plinto!
Two curt swipes from a black wing and white wing dissolved Anastaria and Hellfire, sending them to respawn, while simultaneously the Rogue appeared behind them, cast a bloodthirsty look at the shocked bystanders who had gathered at the entrance and said: “All right you bastards, shall we dance?”
I’d never seen such a crazed look on Plinto’s face. With his red eyes and black wings he resembled the Patriarch in his foulest of moods. The Rogue, or rather, the Vampire dissolved into the air and the players on the plateau began to vanish one after the other—Plinto began to avenge his leader. That was the end of the video.
Staring at my screen blankly, I struggled to get a grip on what I’d just seen. After a short while, I noticed with some surprise that my hands were trembling and like Plinto all I wanted in this world was to personally grab each person who was there on the plateau by the throat, squeeze out their eyes and look on as the blood oozed from their eye sockets and their bodies withered to those of desiccated mummies. I couldn’t care less that there was no blood in Barliona—I’d imagine it myself…Hmm…Never figured myself to be so bloodthirsty, but what Phoenix did deserved nothing less.
When I could think clearly again and the first wave of emotion abated, I tried to consider what I had seen.
And so!
Anastaria wanted me off the plateau as soon as the opening process was underway. She could have gotten rid of me in various ways, but she chose the most radical one—manipulating me to send myself back to the mines. If it weren’t for my composure, I would have definitely attacked the girl who’d betrayed me and found myself in the hands of the Heralds the next instant. Phoenix’s plan was perfect and had it come off as they planned it, I’d be toiling in the mines for the next seven years, reading notifications about how the great players of Phoenix had completed the Creator’s Dungeon. Well, tough luck!
Ridding myself of my feelings about Stacey for a second, I occupied myself with another no less important question—who was the mysterious eavesdropper who’d recorded this video? A second watch-through did not answer this question—everyone I remembered being there was in frame—Clutzer, Leite, Magdey and the raiders. Consequently, the cameraman was one of the players who’d arrived to the plateau with Phoenix. This gives rise to a whole host of new questions, which I have no way of answering at the moment. Or rather, I could answer some of them—at the price of agreeing to ally myself with someone I didn’t know…How do I know whether it’s beneficial to me or not? Do I really want to ally with someone in order to exact my revenge against Phoenix? Do I really want to spend some part of my life in order to hurt someone? A quick glance at the video, which was looping before me, featuring Shaman Mahan as he was leaving the game (oh! I’m speaking of myself in the third person!), yielded the answer to all these questions—yes! I want this!

Greetings! I enjoyed your demonstration of what you were capable of—a video recorded by one of the Phoenix players, your knowledge of my email address, and your knowledge of my real name. All this tells me that you have spent a significant amount of time or money on one thing—to speak to me. I’m open to a conversation. I can assure you that revenge against Phoenix is the highest priority for me. At the moment, I can’t fathom how I could harm them in some way. All of my thoughts on that subject seem rather unproductive. If you have something specific in mind—I’m willing to discuss it and work to make it happen. I’m fully behind depriving them of their hegemony in Barliona.

Having written the letter, I already knew what I’d do next—I would no longer have to face Anastaria on my own. Let’s see who this guy is and what his actual goals are. In any event, I could be sure that Shaman Mahan would return to Barliona in the next five minutes! Anastaria won’t worry me any longer.
“Character transfer in progress,” announced a pleasant feminine voice. Unlike the harsh metallic screeching that I had grown used to in the prisoner’s capsule, this voice did not cause shivers to run along my spine. “Object modeling complete. Player data synchronized with capsule. Logical network initialized—Anhurs central square. Character settings activation in progress…”
A loading bar raced across my vision and I found myself looking at the settings screen. My Shaman stood against a backdrop of an enormous volcano spewing lava, smirking at the world before me, err, him. The Thricinian armor did a good job of accentuating my Shamanic class. The tip of the staff of Almis in my hands emitted a bright light. A small projection of a dragon flitted around my avatar, while behind my back, between me and the erupting mountain, stood an enormous dark-blue dragon—Draco. Only a week ago he was merely big—about three meters long, but a manageable size for a pet. Now, however, a mature, full-grown Dragon was looking out at the world from behind my back—from a height of four meters. I shudder to even guess the length of my Totem. I wonder whether he’s really grown this much over the past week or whether I’m merely seeing my Totem’s final form. Even in my Dragon Form, I’d look rather small beside him.
The settings screen reminded me of my 595 unallocated stat points, and recommended I turn my attention to developing my character, yet in this matter I was still in full agreement with Anastaria—the higher the level, the more complicated it’d be to grow. If there was some problem or necessity, it’d take me a second or two to pump everything into Intellect, but right now it’d be better to leave these stat points untouched. There was no pressing need.
I didn’t bother looking at my settings—I already knew them by heart. But before entering Barliona, I opened the inventory tab. This listed everything that belonged to me as a player, including real estate. I’m curious to see what I’ll have to work with…
There were 6.6 million gold in my inventory and 36.4 million in the clan treasury—all numbers that made my heart constrict in my chest. While I was sitting in Barliona as a prisoner, I didn’t have to think of money at all—even my personal bail—the 100 million—seemed like an insurmountable sum. I couldn’t believe that by selling the Eye, my castle, the Chess Set and everything else I had, I’d earn such a sum. Admittedly, the castle alone was worth much more than 100 million, but finding a buyer prepared to pay the fair price…I had my doubts that I’d be able to sell the castle for more than 50 million. People with those kind of means were snug and safe in their own castles, while newbies would hardly permit themselves to spend so much money. It was I—Richie Rich—who could afford to dump almost twenty million on hiring personnel for my castle. Back then, Barliona was my only reality, while gold was simply game currency—not real money. Now, however, with 43 million to my name that I could transfer to reality and forever forget about having to work a job, worry about bills as well as all the other myriad perils of life, I experienced a surge of confidence. I don’t need to look for work, traipse around company offices and struggle to prove that my time in the mines had been a misunderstanding that would not happen again. In a sense I had accomplished one of my goals—even two—I had been released from prison and I had enough funds to live on. As a result, I am within my moral and financial right to spend several months on dealing with Phoenix the way they deserved to be dealt with.
The castle remains mine and is located—I even opened the map trying to figure out where it had ended up—right on the border with the Empire of Shadow, not far from Barliona’s inland sea. It seemed that Viltrius had had quite a scare, since he’d sent Altameda to the other end of the continent. But all right—I’ll wait three months and transfer the castle to a more populous place. The important thing was to make sure it was safe. In this matter, like it or not, a crew of NPCs wouldn’t be enough. I’d have to recruit some players.
As a matter of fact—on the topic of players!
Checking one more time to make sure that my personal inventory no longer contained the Chess Set, the Eye or the squidolphin scale that I’d found in the Oceanic Abyss, I opened the ‘Clan’ tab. I looked at it, hummed with surprise, looked at the description one more time and hummed again because the current state of the world did not quite gel with the one I’d come to expect.
The clan currently had 4,388 players, most of whom were at the rank of Recruit. About 400 players were gatherers, another 150 headed by Eric were craftsmen, 50 were raiders headed by Clutzer, while the clan deputy—like the warden of a nuthouse—was Plinto. Neither Barsina, nor Anastaria, nor Leite were listed in the Legends; however I couldn’t for the life of me explain how a clan that a week ago had at most 400 players now had four thousand whose average Level was 155. I mean, this must be some hallucination…
The next tab in the Clan section informed me that the financial mechanism that Leite had set into motion had gone on ticking like clockwork even in his absence. Altameda’s storehouses continued to be rented out for storage, resources and goods were being traded back and forth, and the accounts ledger informed me that 1.8 million gold had flowed into the clan last week alone. Here, it’s worth noting that Leite had factored the costs of the castle and its NPC personnel into the daily clan expenses. And still the clan remained in the black!
No, but I must be hallucinating!
Clicking around the various tabs in shock and utterly befuddled since the last thing I expected was this kind of news, I finally reached the ‘Properties’ tab. Here I had to stop because I decided that everything that was going on was no more than the fruits of my overexcited imagination and I’m really actually lying on the floor next to my capsule, drooling deep in Dependence Level Black. How else do I explain how I managed to become the owner of a town called Bulrush in Lestran Province? According to its description, the reforms that Leite had instituted in the three villages placed in my charge had borne their fruits—during the two months, the villages had grown threefold and several days ago had passed a resolution consolidating them into one municipality. Four days ago, the provincial Governor, with whom I enjoyed Exalted status, approved the villages’ petition and the three locations ceased to exist on Barliona’s map. Instead, they were replaced by a town which was now one of the major locations for steel smelting in the Empire—after all, the Elma mountain range was a stone’s throw away from Bulrush. The descriptive text ended at this point, and yet it was clear as day that I needed to urgently choose an official from among the locals and take care of the tax issues. And that meant the taxes due to Lestran—as well as the ones due to my clan. After all, missing out on an extra source of income…
Blast! What’s been happening in Barliona during the week that I have been absent?
“Welcome to Barliona,” said the settings system as soon as I pushed the ‘Enter’ button. I couldn’t explain what was going on without being in-game, so I didn’t feel like contemplating the meaning of life any further. It was time to act. The settings screen vanished and the Anhurs central square rose up right before my eyes.
Shaman Mahan was back. The time had come to seek revenge.

Chapter Two. Return to Barliona

“Greetings, student,” said Kornik’s sarcastic voice as soon as I materialized in the central square. A litany of notifications began to stream past my eyes regarding increases to my reputation with the Malabar Empire, the Shamanic Council, the Emperor, the Governor of Lestran and a whole bunch of other NPCs. My castle was in a different location, I needed to choose a head of the settlement in my charge, the Guardian of my Castle’s new location was waiting for me to pay taxes for using his lands…There were so many notifications that I didn’t even have time to read them meaningfully enough to react.
“Greetings, teacher,” I replied, swiping away the wall of text blocking my sight. I’ll deal with them later.
“Come with me. They’re expecting you,” Kornik held out a green paw.
“Who?” I couldn’t help but ask and only then understood that another class-specific scenario was awaiting my attention. If the Council wishes to meet with me, then as soon as I enter the game, a script is launched informing me that the Shamans have already been in session an entire week, deliberating how best to describe the new quest I had to do. I wish I knew what it was.
“Whoever,” quipped the goblin and took me by the hand to whisk me away. Before we left the square however, I managed to hear: “Why that’s Mahan! He’s the one who…”
It was only upon reaching the Astral Plane that I realized that I didn’t feel a thing. The cold light and sweltering abyss that made me writhe every time I’d been here earlier, were no longer there. The pressure I felt from the Supreme Spirits’ presence was gone too—as well as the subconscious terror of slipping from the dividing line and hurtling deep into the embrace of the light or the shadow. I was playing with the sensory filter all the way up and I couldn’t say that I was pleased with it. I got the impression that some part of me was missing—like it had been turned off because it was unnecessary, and yet it was this part that completed my being. I’d make sure to look into this issue tomorrow and see whether I could turn off the sensory filter entirely. I really wouldn’t want to play with these kind of settings.
“SHAMAN!” thundered the darkness and the air around my avatar froze, triggering a system notification about a slight amount of damage taken from the heat. Before I didn’t even notice this, figuring the darkness was ‘nice’ in that it saved me from the freezing light, but now I understood that these two elements could not be ‘nice’ by definition. They were the Imitators of the gods for whom both players and NPCs were hardly more than bugs. “WE HAVE BEEN MONITORING YOUR PROGRESS, SHAMAN!”
“Oh Supreme Spirits,” I replied respectfully, slightly bowing my head. I had assumed that I was being taken to a council session, since it never occurred to me that Kornik could act as the messenger for the Supreme Spirits. “You wished to see me?”
“WRONG QUESTION! WE HAVE BEEN MONITORING YOUR PROGRESS, SHAMAN!” the Spirits repeated, evidently wishing me to play the ‘guess the song based on one note’ game. As a prisoner, these kind of encounters with their constant allusions and hints drove me nuts, so now, no longer under any restrictions, I decided to test the degree of my freedom.
“The Spirits do not wish to speak with me?” I raised an eyebrow inquisitively, focusing my gaze right between the spots of light and dark. “Why am I here then?”
“WRONG QUESTION! WE HAVE BEEN MONITORING YOUR PROGRESS, SHAMAN!” The Spirits growled once again and a notification appeared informing me that I’d lost 50% of my Hit Points. If it weren’t for my sensory filter, that would have really hurt!
My tongue wanted to let slip another irrelevant question, but I decided to use my brain and think things over a bit. No one could guarantee that, goaded a third time, the Spirits wouldn’t send me to respawn. Nothing bad would happen of course, but I wouldn’t find out why they were so eager to see me. I mean, I have to know! If they want me to ask them a question—I figured this from their first two statements—I need to figure out what it was.
It must be somehow related to a game process, since NPCs do not deal with anything beyond the game, and therefore it should be related to Shamanism, it should be related to me and it should be related to my Way. Parsing several options in my head, I asked the dumbest of the questions that occurred to me:
“What Totem did Fleita choose?”
Boom! A white glow wrapped me from all sides as if a bright sun had exploded at my feet and for an instant I lost my sense of spatial orientation. When my eyes could again focus on the gray border between the two spheres, the Supreme Spirits began to speak:

Quest ‘The Way of the Shaman. Step 4. Training’ completed.
Quest ‘The Way of the Shaman. Step 5. The Student’ completed.

Once again, my vision filled with a tidy list of notifications announcing that I had earned new skills that I would have to examine in more detail later. An icon with the tooltip ‘Blink’ and an image of a portal appeared right in front of me. Reading the description brought a satisfied smile to my face: ‘Activating this ability will teleport you to the selected location of the continent. The desired coordinates may be entered by…’
Here followed a long text about how I needed to set up my Blink, the number of players I could teleport with me, the cooldown duration, and the restriction against blinking into the new Shadow Empire as well as various other information which—once again when I had time—I would read carefully later.
“And he remains your brother,” came the familiar voice causing me to turn. An enormous, four-meter long, dark blue dragon, whom I’d already seen in the game’s launch screen was standing several steps before me, smiling widely with his two rows of sharp fangs. “I remember it all now!”
“So what Totem did Fleita choose?” I repeated my question over the surging wave of ecstasy in my chest. I was a Harbinger at last! I could blink all over our continent like some inter-dimensional cricket. I no longer had to splurge vast sums on scrolls of teleport! I could visit neighboring continents by blinking to their embassies! This…this was really something!
“A DRAGON!” announced the Supremes. “SHE SELECTED A DRAGON!”
My jaw almost hit the floor at the news. Fleita chose a Dragon? But how?!
“Thank you, oh Supreme Spirits, for initiating my student into the order of Harbingers. His time had come,” said Kornik, barely suppressing his laughter. Considering that even Draco was cracking up, the look of bafflement on my face must have been all too evident.
“Will you blink on your own, or do I need to hold your hand like a little boy?” The goblin went on having his fun—pulling me from my deep shock. The one week I had been absent really had seen some miracles happen in the game. What’ll happen if I’m absent for a month? Maybe they’d make me Emperor in absentia?
Opening my settings, I copied the castle’s coordinates and pasted them into the ‘Blink’ input field. I took a breath and pressed the icon, dragging it while I was at it to the side—I didn’t want it in front of me the entire time. The surrounding world wavered as if I had stepped through a portal, but a second later everything fell into place and I found myself standing in Altameda’s main hall. That was also the first time I’d left the Astral Plane on my own two legs, instead of being kicked out of it by the Supreme Spirits of the Higher and Lower Worlds. It was a nice change, what can I say…
“Master!” sounded Viltrius’ joyous yelp as the happy goblin appeared beside me, fiddling with his ears in his joy. “The Master has returned!”
“That’s right. I’m back. Draco,” I turned to the enormous Dragon who’d teleported to Altameda with me and was now taking up all the space in the hall, “are you always going to be so…uh…large?”
“Don’t whine,” grinned my former Totem and in an instant turned into a much smaller dragon, just a little bigger than what he had been as a hatchling. “Is that better?”
“That’s perfect,” I tussled Draco’s nape automatically as if he were some large, gentle dog that I hadn’t seen in a long while.

Buff received: ‘A friend’s joy’ (+1% to all main stats for 24 hours).

“I missed you too,” I smiled and gave Draco a friendly hug. No really—Barliona is quite the social game—unlike other players, if the NPCs love you, then they love you as sincerely as their AI permits it. In that sense, Barliona is perfect…
“Two Dragons embracing,” sounded Kornik’s voice—and, simultaneously with it, Viltrius’ panicked exclamation:
“Master, I cannot prohibit him from entering the castle! My authorization is insufficient!”
My majordomo really sounded terrified, which made sense considering that he believed himself the only sentient in the entire world besides me who had power over the castle. Kornik’s uninvited appearance, however, had dispelled my majordomo’s illusions about the hierarchy of Barliona, giving rise to pure panic in Viltrius’ very soul. I’ll need to play around with the castle’s settings to grant the goblin more powers—it really was no good that Harbingers could teleport in here whenever they felt like it. Plus there was the question of how Kornik had managed to discover Altameda’s coordinates…
“Next time you blink, make sure to close the portal behind yourself,” explained Kornik. Either I’d asked my question out loud or it was obviously imprinted on my face. “And by the way, what are you standing there for gaping? I thought that you had a million questions for me. The one time in my existence that I actually want to spend ten minutes answering your questions and there you are just standing wondering how I managed to get here. What person in his right mind would call you a Shaman after that?”
“How did Fleita get a Dragon?” I asked, once the words ‘spend ten minutes’ had properly sunk in.
“I’d like to say ‘just like that’ but it wouldn’t be true. She completed her trial like no one ever has. To be fair, there’d never been a Zombie Shaman to attempt it…But that’s not the point. When she re-enters this world,” (these words came as a great surprise to me, since NPCs do their utmost to ignore the players’ constant absences in the game) “you can ask her yourself about how she kept the wolf and calf alive, how she erected the bridge across the pit and demolished the statutes. Having earned the right to select a Totem, she went through all the available options, turned around without choosing anything, stepped out to Prontho and the Supreme Air Spirit and announced ‘I want a Dragon.’ I know now why you accepted her as your student—you wanted to pay us back for everything. With a Shaman like that, we’ll have fun times ahead of us indeed.”
“And so she was granted the Dragon?” I prompted Kornik, who’d fallen silent.
“Well try and not give to her! We had to take her to Renox, explain the situation—one of his older Dragons was just then getting ready to leave this world, so they convinced him not to and to be reborn again as a Totem. I should mention that one of his limbs was pretty hurt anyway, so in general…Well, no matter! Now your student has a Dragon and she’s busy training him. And she’s not dragging her heels about her own progress either—are you aware that your student is about to become a Great Shaman? And it’s only been three days since she became an Elemental Shaman!”
“They spent a long time asking me what it’s like being a Totem,” Draco offered his two cents, not giving me the chance to open my mouth in astonishment. Fleita was about to become a Great Shaman? Mind-boggling! “And so Aquarius (that’s the name he chose for himself) died in his old form and became the Zombie’s Totem.”
“Which is all a bit much,” said Kornik.
“Why?” I went on inquiring.
“Because Zombies can’t have normal Dragons,” Kornik explained. “They don’t have the permission. So I think when he gets his memory back, old Aquarius will be in for a surprise.”
“Fleita’s Totem isn’t an ordinary Dragon,” Draco said. “Fleita’s Totem is an Undead Bone Dragon. There have only been seven such creatures in Barliona’s history, and Aquarius is number eight. Considering that he is effectively a singular creature that other Dragons are terrified of…Well basically it’s not only the Shamans who’ll have some fun once Fleita will become a Harbinger—it’ll be a ride for us too.”
“And she certainly will become one eventually,” I completed the thought. “She’s my student after all…”
“That’s what I’m talking about…” Kornik nodded. “All right, you two figure stuff out over here. If you need anything, you know how to find me. Just remember to close the portal after you blink, otherwise anyone who wishes can follow you…”
“Master, the trespasser…” squealed Viltrius as soon as Kornik vanished, reminding me that it’d be a good idea to protect the castle from such visitors. No, I won’t do it just because of Kornik, but after all he’s not the only Harbinger in Barliona. Geranika could do the same, and we were right beside his Empire.
“What do I need to do in order to make it so you can block visits from any sentient, including a god?” I asked the majordomo.
“I have to,” Viltrius began, when suddenly his green face went chalk white and the goblin collapsed to the floor.
“Leave us,” sounded a familiar voice, addressing my majordomo and Totem.
“All right, brother. I’m going to go see our father. If you need me, summon away,” Draco said and dissolved into thin air. Viltrius followed him without bothering to get up off the floor. If he had already grown accustomed to my conversations with Heralds and even Emperors, then the appearance of a goddess was an even greater shock.
“Greetings, oh Eluna,” I said, standing up from my chair and bowing to my visitor. Even though we had no relationship formally, I was nevertheless the subject of the Supreme Spirits of the Higher and Lower Worlds and as such it would be idiotic of me to disregard the official head of Barliona’s pantheon of ‘light’. As they say in Barliona, all gods are equal, but Eluna is more equal than others. And that’s not a mere formality either…
“I think that’s the first time since we’ve met that you’ve looked me in the eyes instead of studying my sandals,” smiled the goddess.
“Times change,” I replied philosophically, noting the beauty of the woman standing before me. I guess Eluna didn’t have an official appearance, since I didn’t recall her looking like this—every time she appears to a player, the system processes what the player wants to see and generates a new avatar for the Imitator. The players like to obsess over the goddess’s perfection, compose verses in her name, go mad for her and generally behave like a bunch of fools. I’d probably be doing the same if it weren’t for the fact that, this time, Eluna had appeared to me in the guise of Anastaria. A perfect copy of the woman I loved and, judging by the system’s choice in the matter, continued to love. What is this—some form of manipulation?
“Eluna, before we continue our conversation, I’d like to ask you—do you have an appearance that could be considered ‘natural?’ I’m happy of course that you try to appear perfect for everyone, but I’d like to speak to the real you instead of a form of you. Forgive my impudence, but…”
“Shaman, Shaman,” said the goddess smiling and the image of Anastaria imprinted on her face began to waver and change. “In times gone by, you could be sent to Tartarus for such words.”
“Times change,” I repeated and barely contained a cry of surprise—beside me stood a woman from the Blessed Visage of Eluna—a detail from the chain I’d crafted back in Beatwick. An ordinary, everyday, pleasant and smiling woman with a turned up nose and several extra kilos in her hips.
“Is that better?” Eluna asked, adjusting her clothes as well and turning them into something resembling a Greek tunic.
“A little,” I managed, surprised at my earlier assumption that Eluna shouldn’t match her appearance. It was so self-evident now! “You wished to see me?” I asked the goddess, inviting her to sit on my throne. By the way, I will need to order Viltrius to add some more chairs in my throne room—besides my rocking chair and the throne, there weren’t any places to sit here.
“That’s right, I did,” nodded the goddess. “I do not want you to save Renox…”
The goddess had uttered a single sentence but she trailed off and stared silently at the fire in the fireplace. My initial reaction was a desire to argue that Renox was my father and I simply could not allow him to pass away before it was his time. However, I restrained myself and tried first to answer the great universal question of ‘Why?’
First of all, the goddess had come to me personally—and I made sure to check that I didn’t enjoy Exalted status with her and my Attractiveness with her was at a mere 57. Consequently, the first why is why she came to me herself instead of sending a messenger through, say, Elizabeth? Formally speaking, Eluna is not my goddess. The second why is why I’m not allowed to save Renox. Barliona had recently acquired a new Dragon—I’m thinking of Fleita here—and yet Renox, who remained unknown to most players, still had to depart. The Corp wouldn’t destroy an NPC of his level without good reason—consequently there had to be some larger plan behind this choice. The third why is why…Wait! Eluna doesn’t want me to save Renox! She didn’t say that she doesn’t want Renox to be saved in general—she merely doesn’t want me to do it! Why? The only answer that comes to mind is that something will happen during my attempt to save him. Something that will affect me as a player. Erm…I don’t think I put that well—something that will affect my character and make the game difficult for me. What could that be? The obvious answer was Geranika. Perhaps he has managed to acquire Rogzar’s Crystal in some manner and if the player receives it, then he can kiss his character goodbye. Although—this is pure idiocy. The devs would never pull something like this. If for instance Anastaria was saddled with such an item, she’d instantly raise hell demanding that the Corporation grant her a quest to destroy the item. Actually, while I’m on the topic, I really like this idea—of slipping an item like Rogzar’s Crystal into her bag. That would certainly make her squirm. I need to speak with Geranika.
“What could happen to me in Armard?” I asked and judging by Eluna’s smile guessed her thoughts pretty accurately.
“You saw Rogzar’s Crystal,” said the goddess, “so you can appreciate what I’m talking about here. Rogzar was unique and the crystal was one of a kind as well, but Geranika has other similar crystals.”
“Big deal, so I’ll have to walk slowly,” I smiled, and yet Eluna’s melancholy smile indicated to me that her warning wasn’t mere words. “Or not..?”
“Rogzar’s Crystal is the weakest of the weapons in the arsenal of the Lord of Shadow,” said the goddess. “The three other crystals are much more terrifying and valuable—they are called the Petrified Tears of Harrashess’s Hate. Do I need to explain to you who that is?”
“The Patriarch already told me,” I replied, gradually beginning to understand the gravity of the situation. The Tears of the dark son of Barliona’s Creator were a lethal thing even in name alone.
“A Tear of Hate has practically the same properties as Rogzar’s Crystal—it cannot be transferred, dropped, broken or destroyed…But, unlike the item you’re familiar with, the Tears block all abilities. All of them…You are the main foe of the Lord of Shadow, who was even kind to the Emperor when he made a show of handing him the sheath to the dagger. But when it comes to you, he’s not playing around. I know for certain that the Tears of Hate have been activated because the entire magical ether shuddered from a wave of pain and hate emitted by these crystals. This means that they can now be given to some other sentient and then the victim will never be able to rid himself of them. You won’t be able to use your abilities—none of them, including the summoning of your Totem. Shaman Mahan will die forever, becoming simply Mahan. I cannot interfere with the events of this world directly. Even this warning that I’m giving you will carry enormous penalties for me from Barliona, but you and Anastaria are important to me. I really do not want to lose you two. Think about these words, Shaman. If you go to Armard, Geranika will find a way to burden you with the Tear…”
Having finished her speech, the goddess dissolved into the air, leaving me deep in contemplation.
This isn’t possible!
The Corporation would never introduce some crystal—even in the form of a Tear—that would ruin the game for a player. After all, the most a player can even be restrained for is one hour and repeated deaths lead to the ‘anti-death’ status in which the player is immune from other players’ damage, so the possibility that a player’s avatar is completely incapacitated forever is pure nonsense. An NPC sure, but not a player character. Otherwise the Corporation would be sued in a jiffy…And yet! The goddess didn’t simply stop by for a visit! She’s not some ordinary NPC with an average Imitator—she is one of the game’s key characters and any warning from her is equivalent to a warning straight from the devs—the Tears are real, they exist and there is a danger I’ll receive one.
Damn them all!

Dear Game Administrators,
Just now, at (<System_TimeStamp>), I had the pleasure of speaking with an NPC playing the role of Goddess Eluna who told me something very interesting. I was informed that…
Please explain the principles underpinning the Tear, the reasons for its appearance and how this item might affect my character.

Once my email received the ‘Received for processing’ status, I called for my goblin:
“Yes, Master!” The castle’s majordomo appeared beside me in a flash. I don’t know what algorithms had been activated but currently this little green goblin was standing before me as straight as a nail, as if he was trying to show me how courageous he was. And this is supposed to be the majordomo of a Level 25 castle?
“Tell me what needs to be done to ensure that you have full powers over this castle. So that we don’t receive any uninvited guests. I want you to immediately whitelist Kornik, Prontho and Fleita. Those three are allowed to visit Altameda. But the others, just like that Archdemon who showed up to litigate for our portal demon, must only have access to the castle if you grant it to them. I’m listening!”
“In order for me to have full control of the castle, the castle must contain at least three hobgoblins (though five is ideal), each of which shall have his own territory to guard. Only these creatures can block visitors from entering their territories, be they Harbinger or deity. However…”
As Viltrius was speaking, I was already digging around the castle’s settings, looking for the hobgoblins section. If I had to hire several NPCs to ensure my safety, then…What the hell is this?!
“However, this cannot be done at the moment,” Viltrius continued in a guilty tone of voice. “Your spouse stored four alganides in the castle—and hobgoblins are allergic to this mineral and refuse to enter a castle that contains it.”
The button for hiring the hobgoblins, which were medium-sized furry creatures of indeterminate gender dressed in red shirts, was grayed-out. Even despite the annual cost of a hundred thousand for each hobgoblin, I was ready to hire five, but the system wouldn’t let me do that…
“What is algana-what-cha-ma-call-it?” I asked the goblin.
“Alganide is a mineral mined deep in the Elma Mountains. It is used in Alchemy. It is very toxic and it emits a specific odor that hobgoblins can’t stand.”
“And this mineral is somewhere in the castle? Or in the storehouses?”
“In the castle. It is in Anastaria’s personal chamber. She brought a chest there, placed it in the center of the room and forbade me from touching it. It is that chest that contains the alganide…”
“I see. Well, let’s go take a look at this chest then,” I offered, getting up from my beloved rocking chair.
“Master,” Viltrius squeaked once again, looking at me guiltily. “That’s not possible.”
“What do you mean it’s not possible?” I sat back down from surprise. “You have unrestricted access to the entire castle. I own this place, remember? What could be off limits to us in Altameda?”
“The private chamber of Mistress Anastaria as well as Master Plinto—these are both areas that you may not enter without their permission. Such are the rules of tripartite ownership.”
“WHAT?! Where does it say that? Who came up with these rules? I am the rightful owner of Altameda and only I can decide who can and who cannot enter its rooms! Show me!”
The Goblin was getting ready to squeak something about the need to respect property rights, but I wasn’t listening to him anymore. Anastaria and Plinto have personal chambers that I can’t enter? Like hell! Shut everything down. Tear the rooms out by their roots and toss them over the castle walls. This is my territory!
I forbid you from touching that chest!” No sooner had I burst into the room than a thought from Anastaria burst into my head. The good thing was that my rage at the thought that the girl still had something of hers in my castle and, moreover, that I couldn’t touch this thing was so immense that I didn’t even consider how I should respond to her. Earlier, back in reality, I wanted to just ignore her, then blow her off, then yell at her, then ignore her again and, finally, choosing none of the above, I had entered Barliona hoping to figure it out when it came up—and yet now I didn’t feel like reflecting at all. What’s the difference how I spoke with Anastaria if it was her fault that I couldn’t hire the hobgoblins I needed?
Oh and welcome back, by the way,” the girl added.
“No way, this castle is mine! You can take all your junk with you!”
“You’re mistaken, my dear, that castle is OURS. I am just as much its owner as you or Plinto. So get out of my room and forget it even exists. I won’t allow you to bar me from Altameda.”
“What’s going on here?” I exclaimed as my hands passed through the chest like it didn’t even exist. Smack dab in the middle of a small room with one window—furnished with nothing but a simple bed and a rug—stood a locked chest which was inaccessible to me. What was more was that Anastaria had been automatically warned when I broke into her room! That means there’s some alarm here, notifying her of any intruders.
“Yes, Master,” said the goblin, pressing his ears to his head. I guess I seem pretty terrifying right now, if my poor majordomo is this scared of me.
“How did Anastaria find out that I entered her room?” I asked, trying to calm my nerves and speak normally. It wasn’t the NPC’s fault that Anastaria had thought of installing this thing on the lock, so I couldn’t blame my servant.
“The properties of a personal chamber are basically no different than that of a Bank of Barliona. As the owner, you may enter, but you can’t do anything else without permission from the room’s owner.”
“How can I strike Anastaria and Plinto from the list of owners?”
“We can’t. Even the Emperor cannot do this. Although…”
“You can buy out their shares of ownership. If they sell them to you officially, you’ll become the sole owner of Altameda.”
“What do you mean their shares?” I asked, stunned. “Altameda belongs to me!”
“That’s not entirely accurate,” Viltrius corrected me. “The Emperor did grant you exclusive ownership; however, as soon as you married Anastaria, under the laws of the Aristocracy, 10% of your property passed to Anastaria. You are the rightful owner of the castle and can decide where it teleports to, but Anastaria may also do whatever she wants with her territory. Aside from selling it to another sentient. The same goes for Plinto. Your blood brother also owns 10% of the castle’s territory and if he showed up at the castle’s gates, I could not bar him from entering. They’re both owners too! Accordingly, if you wish to take full ownership of the castle, you must buy out the shares of the other owners. This is stated in the Code as well.”
Well I’ll be! In order to complete a quest, I gifted Anastaria and Plinto 10% of the castle. Opening the castle’s properties, I launched the calculation for assessing the castle’s value and couldn’t help but whistle to myself when it was complete—if it were built from scratch, Altameda would have cost me 450 million gold! In my fit of largess, I had given 90 million worth of equity to two players, one of whom had been using me all along! I suppose I need to have a careful chat with the other too…What the hell is going on?!
Take a deep breath and activate that part of the body that’s responsible for reason. In humans that’s typically the brain. In actual fact my largess and my lovely existence on this planet isn’t what’s at stake here. That’s a mere consequence. What should be much more interesting is the cause of all these events—what scared the Corporation so much that it decided to gift an ordinary prisoner like me a castle worth 450 million gold? It’s almost as surprising why this question hadn’t occurred to me since I got the castle. Did the Corporation people really fail to consider that I might sell the castle, even if only piecemeal, pay for my release and transfer all the money out to reality? Missteps like this don’t just happen on their own! This isn’t some fairy tale! In which case, the question is why?
Actually, ‘why’ seems to be the word of the day.
“Viltrius, could you explain to me how the clan has so many members?” I asked the goblin, after blinking back into the main hall. In addition to the standard coordinates input field, the Blink spell also came with another interesting feature: It allowed me to select a specific point on a 3D model of the area around me, with a radius of several kilometers, to teleport to. Furthermore, this interface scaled very smoothly and was a cinch to navigate, and therefore also gave me the chance to study Altameda from ‘within.’ Seeing yet another notification in the clan chat, I remembered my surprise from the huge number of people who’d suddenly appeared in the castle and therefore decided to put aside the issue of the castle’s ownership and Anastaria’s room and ask Viltrius some questions.
“I don’t know, Master. When Plinto became the clan deputy, he began to recruit Free Citizens…”
“Hold up. How did Plinto become deputy?”
“Well, he’s not technically the deputy. He’s more of an acting deputy,” Viltrius began to explain. “According the Charter of the Legends of Barliona, which Clutzer and Anastaria drew up, the clan cannot exist more than three days without a deputy, a treasurer and a Raid Leader. When Barsina, Leite and Magdey left the Legends of Barliona and when you failed to transfer their duties to yourself, the issue of disbanding the clan came up. That’s in the Charter too. So a general meeting was held and the meeting decided to make Plinto the acting deputy. Clutzer became the Raid Leader and Uruk became the treasurer.”
“Who the hell is Uruk?”
“One of the Free Citizens who used to work for Leite in the auctions department.”
“I see…” I shook my head with displeasure, opened the Charter and read it carefully, focusing on the clauses that the goblin had mentioned. Yeeeah…You really do have to trust people a lot to allow something like this to happen. The Clan Charter, which we rewrote after the clan changed its name—or more precisely which Clutzer and Anastaria rewrote—really did contain several clauses about filling required positions. Why does everything have to be so crappy?!
“I’ll be back in a bit,” I told Viltrius, opened my map, looked up the Anhurs coordinates and blinked to the capital. It was time to visit the guild registrar and take complete control of the clan. I can’t have random players named Uruk managing my clan’s treasury.
“Mahan, Hello!” I had barely assumed the duties of Raid Leader when Clutzer called me.
“Hi,” I replied dryly, not yet sure how I should talk to this person. Clutzer was one of the ones who plotted against me with Phoenix, so it’d be foolish on his part to imagine that I’d meet him with open arms. In fact, he’s probably better off watching his jaw in case my fist found it.
“I saw you returned to the game but didn’t want to bother you immediately. However, since you’re adjusting the clan duties, you must have time. Can you spare me several minutes? I’m at the Golden Horseshoe. Can we chat?”
“Let’s chat,” I replied. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
There was no point in avoiding my problems: They need to be solved right away or not solved at all. In all honesty, there’s nothing for me to discuss with the Rogue—everything he had to tell me, he’d already said to me back there on the plateau in front of the Creator’s Tomb. So the most precise move was to kick him out of the clan—and yet something kept me from going through with this. I wanted to look him in the eyes, even if they were just the eyes of his avatar. I wanted to look at him and ask, ‘Why’d you do it?’ Mulling things over a bit, I reached for my amulet and made a call. I really didn’t want to go to the meeting on my own, since I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t attack Clutzer with my fists—I still had a week-and a half before the happy moment when I’d get my Spirits back.
“Yo…” came Plinto’s voice. “Whatcha want?”
“Hi, Plinto. This is Mahan. I’ll be waiting for you at the entrance of the Golden Horseshoe in two minutes.”
“Uh…you want me to come downstairs and show you to our table?” the Rogue countered sarcastically. “We’ve been waiting for you two hours already. Why don’t you get a move on?”
“Oh gawd, why is everything so difficult with you? Do I really need to come down, or will you come up on your own?”
“All right, all right. Relax. I’ll be up in a second.”
I hung up the amulet and hummed to myself. So they were already waiting for me. Clutzer really deserves his fame as an analyst—he understands perfectly well that, one on one, our meeting won’t go very well. So he invited Plinto. Hmm once again…But really, what a pair those two are! No doubt they had set up an alarm to notify them when I reentered the game and all this time they were just giving me the space to do what I needed. And it’s only when I turned my attention to the clan that they decided to talk. Well, if it was time then it was time. I’m always ready to talk.
Are you still here, Dan?” Stacey’s thought suddenly popped into my head, forcing me to stop and clench my fist. What the hell was it now? My first interaction with Anastaria had occurred under emotionally trying circumstances, so I hadn’t really felt anything except anger. Now, however, a wave of unvarnished hate all but flooded me from head to toe. If she showed up beside me—I’d kill her!
I’m still here, kitten,” I replied as softly as possible. I couldn’t allow myself to show Stacey my anger, hate or desire to strangle her. She didn’t deserve to know my true feelings. And who cares what she’ll think about me talking to her like this. From now on, this is the only way I’ll speak with her.
Oh my darling, it’s so lovely to speak with you again!” Anastaria immediately caught on. “Listen—how are the Legends doing? I heard that my little Clutzer’s been recruiting people left and right, is that true? Have you all decided to rebuild the ruins?”
You know, the Legends are doing just fine, thanks to your assistance. As for the ruins, when are you going to give that Chess Set back to me kitten? The Eye too—I wouldn’t mind seeing that again.”
What Chess Set, love? I don’t believe I recall what you’re talking about.
No matter! When we meet, I’ll make sure to remind you.” I avoided hanging up by some miracle. That bitch is having her fun too! “What about you? How are you?
Not bad, not bad. Listen, what am I even talking about—we should meet up tomorrow! I’ve filed for divorce and you have to attend the ceremony. So a Herald will come for you tomorrow. I just wanted to warn you in advance. Who knows, maybe you’ll be busy or something…It’s scheduled for two o’clock server time. Anyway, that’s it. Talk to you later! Kisses, my beloved Shaman.”
Excellent, wonderful, until tomorrow,” I grunted. There’s weren’t any more messages from Anastaria, yet my mind had turned into an enormous hippodrome around which my thoughts raced like horses.
Until this conversation, I really had planned on breaking all ties with Anastaria so that there wouldn’t be anything that bound me to her, but now that she broached the topic herself, I wanted to hold on to our marriage with everything I had. That damn premonition of mine, suddenly awaking for the first time in several days, began to scream that under no condition could I become a divorced Earl. I’ll have to dig through all the relevant laws of Barliona to figure out before tomorrow’s meeting what will happen in the event of a divorce, in the event of refusing the divorce and in the event of even showing up to begin with…It wasn’t for nothing that back in Narlak, I’d received the A Noble & Healthy Lifestyle Companion—a tome expounding all the laws and regulations of being a member of the aristocracy. Even if it was two thousand pages long, I should have time to figure out the important items. What if during the divorce proceedings, half of my property, including Altameda, would be given to Anastaria? Did I need that? No! So I’ll chat with Clutzer and Plinto right now and then go back to Altameda. I’ll abandon all the chores I’ve begun and focus on reading that book—and I won’t leave the game until I figure out what I am entitled to as an Earl and what my duties are. I don’t have much time—tomorrow and two days. And I’m not about to duck the meeting either—the time had come for me to change from a player who runs around a lot to a player who reads and makes his decisions objectively and judiciously.
“Please come in. You are expected,” said the host, helpfully opening the front door and inviting me into the Golden Horseshoe. Once upon a time the tavern’s owner used to stand here, but over the years he ceased to greet his guests personally and simply hired a player to do it. Despite the fact that it would be much cheaper for him to employ an NPC for the job, the goblin owner rejected this option: According to him, NPCs would never work in the Golden Horseshoes. Full stop!
“Would you like to order now or would you like to see the menu?” the server asked politely. Clutzer, Plinto and Eric waited silently while I made my decision. I managed to notice that they hadn’t spent the last week sitting by idly—Clutzer was sparkling at Level 204, Eric was now a Master of Malabar, and Plinto boasted the red badge of a PK-er. All three remained silent as I sat down at the table, waiting for me to begin—but I too stayed silent. I nodded each one a greeting and turned to the server.
“Dish du jour and a Tartarus ale.”
Having taken my order, the server left, leaving me on my own with my three former companions. Why do I say former? Because in this world, my only remaining companion was Draco. Everyone else is an acquaintance. That’s enough for me.
“I suggest we don’t beat around the bush,” I began, sitting down, “and get to the topic at hand immediately. First of all, a question—did all three of you know what would happen on the plateau?”
“No, only I did,” replied Clutzer. “I was the only one who participated in designing the plan. The others weren’t in the know. They are prepared to swear an oath to the Emperor about this.”
“An oath which doesn’t mean anything to me if for instance knowledge of the plan was passed along out in reality,” I smirked bitterly.
“That’s true. You know, I wanted to meet you one on one originally, but later I understood that for you, I’ll always be a member of Phoenix and it doesn’t matter how much I swear to the contrary. That’s normal and I don’t expect any trust from you. But we made a mistake that we want to correct, so we stayed in the clan and began to recruit people. I have several ideas and I’d like you to listen to them. You can make your decisions later—for now, just listen…”
Taking a gulp of water, Clutzer waited for the server to place the plates of food before us and leave the room before continuing:
“First of all, let’s go through the reasons for why and how everything was done. After that, I’ll go through our options…As I already told you, I was the one who originally brought the three of us to Phoenix. I just didn’t believe that a prisoner in this game could accomplish anything. It’s never happened before, so I figured it’d never happen. So we joined Phoenix and began to wait for you…”
Clutzer rehashed his captivating tale about the young analyst’s entry to Phoenix and about how he went from being a simple advisor to one of the authors of a vast global strategy to acquire the Chess Set of Karmadont. In effect, he didn’t tell me anything new, but I made a second mental checkmark—hearing the story for the second time no longer made me want to destroy the world. Even when he broached the subject of Anastaria, I felt no urge to tear her apart into little bits and pieces. Although—it’s completely plausible that this was due to the tactic I had concocted for speaking with her. Who knows?
“That was before you left the game. Now, about what happened afterward,” Clutzer went on. “Here’s a link to the video. You really need to watch it.”
I wasn’t interested in letting them know that I knew what happened after I signed out of the game, so I opened the trade window, loaded the video file and watched the opening of the Tomb once again. There were the angels and there was Anastaria speaking with them…
Hold on…
No one can see right now what I’m looking at and in what sequence, so they think that I’m paralyzed with the shock of this revelation—and yet, I was trying my hardest to remember the angle from which I’d watched this same scene earlier. The current video was clearly taken by Clutzer, since I could hear his commentary. I was however interested in something else entirely—who had recorded the clip that I’d seen?
I couldn’t care less what my companions thought, so I signed out of Barliona, got out of my cocoon, opened the link I received in my email earlier, found Clutzer, approximated where the cameraman must have been and returned to the game. Before making deals with unknown strangers, I’d like to have an idea of what resources they had at their disposal.
What can I say…When I spied who must have recorded the first video—in terms of deduction and geometry—my eyes popped out of their sockets. After all, I was perfectly familiar with this player—it was Exodus, one of the Hunters of Phoenix. I finished watching Clutzer’s video, which was longer than Exodus’ and which documented how Plinto went on to kill everyone on the plateau, I located the frame in which you could most clearly see the spy and paused the video.
The Level 302 Hunter, as far as I recalled, was either the leader of Phoenix’s Hunters or someone very closely placed to that role. In the Dark Forest he had proven himself a good player, since he was about the only ranged fighter who could survive in seemingly any situation, so it was now difficult to accept the fact that he was the one who had shot video. Over the past week, I had lost my faith in miracles and now one thing was clear: Either this was a set-up and Exodus’ video was shot for personal use and later stolen, or I was missing something important. In any event, it’s now evident that I have to meet this mysterious stranger. I’ll wait for a reply to my letter and see what he has to offer.
“Very nice,” I quipped, letting everyone know that I’d watched the video. Fifteen minutes had passed since I opened it, and it wasn’t nice to keep people waiting. “In other words they needed a deputy to enter the Tomb, and the plan was to send me to the mines…”
“That’s precisely why we’re here,” Clutzer went on. “And this is also why the clan has so many members. We really didn’t want you to return to the game and disband the clan—and none of us doubted that you would return eventually. Even if you’d kicked everyone out and remained the only member, the clan would cease to exist. And the Charter doesn’t matter here—that can always be revised after all. What matters is that Phoenix would win and the Legends of Barliona would be gone.”
“Are you trying to say that you began recruiting people so that I’d feel socially awkward kicking everyone out and ultimately do what you all wanted—and not what I wanted?” I asked sarcastically. As much as I disliked it, Clutzer was right: My original plan was to remain in the Legends on my own. Now, however, when there were so many people in it…I wasn’t so sure…
“Among other things,” the Rogue admitted sincerely. “You see, that’s not all that we have to show you. Several days ago, Anastaria gave an interview which they published on Phoenix’s site.”
“I’ve already seen it,” I cut Clutzer off. “Which is why I’m all the more surprised by the size of the clan now. After all, Shaman Mahan betrayed his players and became the villain of Barliona. If there’s anyone who wants to join me, then either he’s stupid or he’s a white knight who wants to prove Stacey right and lock me up behind bars.”
“You don’t know people very well, Mahan, or else you forget your status…”
“My status?” I frowned, completely lost about what Clutzer was getting at.
“That’s right—your status. You are Shaman Mahan, the central hero of two feature-length movies—and a positive hero at that! A player who has a unique castle, unique projections and immense luck when it comes to the game’s scenarios. The guards of Anhurs still speak of your wedding with Anastaria with awe. No one had done so much damage to the capital before. And here you believe that the players will trust Anastaria in this matter? We didn’t sit around twiddling our thumbs this entire time either—the forums are currently discussing an alternate version of Anastaria’s account, in which you two had a serious quarrel, you left because of a broken heart and are now in the middle of a drinking binge. An ordinary old drinking binge, which any ordinary person would go on. You’ll have to forgive us—we couldn’t think of anything better. But then again people love their dramas and a quarrel between two virtual spouses is much more plausible, pleasant, and ordinary than what happened in actual fact. And yet, everyone awaits your return. I’ve already had about seven news agencies contact me today, begging for an interview—it’s not like you check your mail. You’re a celebrity Mahan, whether you like it or not. So everything depends exclusively on you, or more precisely on what you intend to do.”
“All right, fine. But what are these two here for?” I asked, indicating Eric and Plinto. I could hardly believe the latter’s silence, yet Plinto hadn’t opened his mouth once like a well-disciplined boy. This wasn’t the Rogue I knew.
“Oh, they’re just extras. I figured that, one on one, our meeting would take a different turn. After all, I’m Anastaria’s creature, her right hand man and all that. Were I Anastaria, I’d make sure to get in touch with you and ask: ‘How’s my Clutzer doing? He hasn’t ruined your clan entirely yet, has he?’ Your telepathic link is still functioning after all.”
“Still?” I asked with surprise.
“As soon as you get divorced, you’ll lose that ability. But once again—if I were Anastaria, divorce would be the first thing I’d go for. I’m sure that you haven’t examined this subject at great length, so listen up: In order to get a divorce, both spouses need to be present. It won’t happen if only one half of the cookie’s there. However, there are several hidden perils which—if you’re unaware of them—could cause you to lose half of your virtual possessions. And quite legally I might add. The status of an Earl in Barliona is as follows…”
Clutzer began to tell me such things that my eyebrows climbed higher and higher. It turns out that under Malabarian law adopted back during the reign of Karmadont, several layers of the nobility didn’t have the right to get a divorce. Or, more precisely, they had the right, but they incurred such penalties in doing so, that it was far simpler to live out the rest of your life with a person you didn’t love. These unlucky layers include only several titles—Dukes, Councilors, Heralds, Emperors and, unfortunately, Earls.
All this meant that I could lose 30% of my property to the Empire, be demoted from Earl to Baron and have the remainder of the property I acquired since entering the marriage split. And that went as much for my things as for Anastaria’s. Considering that during our grand campaign she didn’t really acquire anything valuable, I’d be the one on the losing end of this. And as further consequence of all this, the Ying-Yang would be destroyed and we would lose our telepathic link.
“Hmm…” I said philosophically after hearing out the Rogue. “Where’d you find all this information?”
“Several sources. At first I assumed that the basis for the legal code would be the Rules and Obligations of the Aristocracy, a copy of which you should have. However, upon closer inspection I realized that this is merely a digest of decrees, laws and directives of Malabar. So I was forced to go to the source. Here, I’m sending you a file—it says the same things I just told you, only with legal citations so you can look everything up yourself.”
“So what do you suggest?” I asked unwillingly, understanding perfectly well that I needed third-party advice that wasn’t emotionally biased. Whether I’d accept it or not would be my own decision, regardless of what Clutzer would tell me, but I did need to hear him out.
“At the divorce ceremony, if it happens, I advise you to dig in your heels. As in ‘no, I don’t want a divorce,’ and ‘but I love her,’ ‘I can’t imagine life without her,’ and ‘oh darling, please don’t leave.’ If you’re against the divorce while Anastaria insists on it, then you won’t have to pay the Imperial treasury and you won’t lose any possessions. You’ll be clean before the law. However, I have one suspicion…” Clutzer said slowing down, but then trailed off entirely.
“What is it?” I prompted.
“According to the rules, the husband speaks first. That is, you’ll be examined first, irrespective of who initiated the divorce. They’ll only ask Anastaria afterwards. And—here’s my crazy idea—if you agree to the divorce and Anastaria then says ‘darling, don’t leave me’—and she very well might say that, then…Well, I think I don’t need to explain it to you. You understand.”
“She’s definitely capable of it,” Plinto spoke up for the first time. “She’s not human…She’s like a robot or something. No feelings whatsoever.”
“I have a question for you too,” I decided to ask, now that Plinto had entered the conversation. “Have you met her out in reality?”
“Yes, many years ago we used to go to the same school. That was before Barliona. Stacey was already a monster back then. Over the years that I’ve known her, I’ve never heard of her even going on a date with someone, much less going steady with them. That goes for Hellfire too. Everyone considered him her man, but he was little more than cover for her, so that she could avoid annoying suitors. When you two began dating, I was pretty taken aback. Stacey expressing any emotion whatsoever is something pretty incongruous to me. I reckoned she had changed—that you taught her the charm of love—so I kept my distance and didn’t say anything…What came of it is what came of it…”
“All right,” I said, pushing aside the million questions I wanted to ask him about Anastaria in her real form. “Let’s say I agree with you and refuse to get a divorce as well as agree to keep the clan running, but did you three really only want that from me? It looks a bit one-sided, is all. Some crap happened and you feel guilty that you didn’t warn me because Stacey ordered you not to, but I mean, you guys aren’t really like that. By the way! After I paid my bail I had to undergo a rehab course, whether I liked it or not. The program took me five days and only because I was at Dependence Level Green when I came out. How did you manage to do the rehab course without me noticing it?”
“Simple—Anastaria is familiar with the dependence levels as well as how the process of rehabilitation can be initiated while still in the game. We spent several weeks doing a special course in game and as soon as you went absent in your crafting, we’d get the signal to sign out. It took me three days. Eric managed it in seven and Leite did it in five, if I’m not mistaken. By the time you’d crafted the Giants and the clan symbol, we were already free. Albeit under a ton of contractual obligations.”
“And of course there was no way to warn me, even if in reality?” I smirked.
“When you’re under observation around the clock?” Eric almost yelped, unable to maintain his silence. “There were always two or three people from Phoenix around me! Even when I went to the bathroom, the bastards! They didn’t just keep us on lockdown, they corralled us like we were crazed maniacs! My wife wasn’t allowed to visit me, since I could slip her some information. And all of this was set forth in our stupid contract! You think Clutzer was the only one who tried to let you know what was going on? Did you even look at the first item I crafted? The one that unlocked Crafting for me?”
“Sure I did.”
“Then tell me, what did it portray?!” Eric said, still clearly agitated.
“Nothing, they were Bracers…”
“Bracers-shmacers! Did you examine the fillet?! When you gave me the Gladir, I almost said the hell with everything and told you the whole truth. I managed to keep my mouth shut at the last moment and decided to let you know through my craft. Do you have them with you, the bracers?”
“No,” I shook my head sadly after checking my inventory. “Anastaria took them. They were a Rare item…”
“The fillet portrayed a battle between the Siren and the Dragon…Not even a battle, but a…First the Dragon was standing on the Siren, pressing her into the ground with his paws, but the venomous beast had twisted around and was offering a gift to her vanquisher—an apple. A poisoned apple…And the next image displayed the triumph of the Siren and the death of the Dragon…That was the only way I could tell you of the danger you were in without incurring the wrath of the Heralds, but you didn’t understand a thing…Eh,” Eric sighed bitterly.
“Leite was the only one who was perfectly happy with Anastaria’s offer and did everything as she commanded to a T,” Clutzer continued. “Remember when he kept asking if Stacey was aware of what was going on? As I recall, you’d declared war on Phoenix and Leite had blown his cover…Stacey later remarked that back then Leite had almost lost it.”
“You know, Mahan,” Eric intervened again, producing the shining Gladir from his bag, as well as the belt and gloves of Crafting. “The devil knows what you’ll decide, but if you kick me out of the clan, then these things will stay with me. That’s the agreement that you drew up yourself. Here you go.” Eric offered me the items over which players engaged in Crafting would simply kill another player. A total of +11 to Crafting is too useful in our business to be abandoned just like that.
“Okay, I’ll think about it,” I said, taking the items. “I’ll admit that initially the idea was to boot everyone out of the clan, but now I should probably noodle on it a bit. But I’ll say it again—you could have told me all of this without meeting in person. What are we all here for?”
“You’re right,” grinned Clutzer. “Everything we’ve said so far are just the hors d'oeuvres. Now let’s move on to the main dish. Leaving you to choose what happens next—even if your decision is to shutter the clan—I’d like to describe several possible plans of action. Here’s what I suggest…”
I couldn’t help but smirk as I listened to Clutzer. Plinto periodically jumped in with corrections, so I got the distinct impression that this plan had been cooked up a long time ago, discussed and mulled over, but never agreed upon fully. On the basis of incomplete information and the assumption that I knew more than they did, Clutzer and his warriors had concocted a pretty plausible plan of revenge. It’s practically impossible to hurt an individual player in the game—I didn’t count, since my case was pretty unusual—but it is wholly possible to hurt a group of players. The important thing is to know what to aim for.
And so!
First of all, we would formally declare war on the Phoenix Clan. This step would attract everyone who loved PvP to our banner. The opportunity to safely attack players from an enemy clan in the city, or rather in its ‘safe zone’—without running the risk of being thrown in jail, would attract a whole mob of bored trolls.
Second of all, I had to give an interview in which I accused Anastaria of taking the Eye and the Chess Set from me without my consent. I’d also claim that she’s ignoring my requests to return those items. Here I’ll have to invoke the Emperor, after first demanding that Anastaria return the Chess Set and the Eye to me several times. The public must see the white aura of truth flaring around me during my performance. What actually triggers the confirmation isn’t important—what’s important is that it is visible. This is pure psychology—if the Emperor confirms it, Mahan must be clean! Clutzer was very happy to hear that I’d already asked Anastaria to return the Chess Set and was rejected. With that said, Clutzer rejected the idea of airing Anastaria’s confession that her family had used my clan to obtain access to the Tomb. On the one hand everyone would see the true face of Phoenix—bastards without any principles who were ready to commit any evil for their own personal gain. However, from a gaming perspective, the clan would also acquire new advantages through the confession, since we’d basically be advertising that Phoenix has earned the most desired scenario in the entire game. If you want to be the best, join Phoenix and not some other clan like the Legends of Barliona or whatever, who are where they should be—in their rightful place, lagging behind.
Thirdly, we needed to hit Phoenix in its purse. Here Plinto would help us. Clutzer confessed that he had adjusted the plan on the fly as soon as he’d seen that I had received my Harbinger title. The gist of the financial blow would be that we would clean out Phoenix’s treasure vaults. When I looked at Clutzer with befuddlement, suspecting that he was suffering from heat stroke, he explained further: Plinto would sneak into the castle and record the exact coordinates of the entrance to the treasure vault. It was 100% certain that Phoenix’ treasure vaults were exactly like ours—located somewhere in the mountains. And here my newly acquired skills as a Harbinger would come in handy. An ordinary scroll of teleport can send someone to a concrete point in a two-dimensional coordinate grid. If the treasure vault is buried deep underground, then even if you know its location, you can only teleport to the surface. But not in my case—a Harbinger uses a three-dimensional coordinate grid to teleport. Even if it means fighting, Plinto has to break through to the vault, record his coordinates and send them to me. As soon as Phoenix calms down, I’ll take both players as well as two maximum-capacity bags with me and blink to the treasure vault to relieve it of its contents. This is a one-time deal, since Phoenix will make sure to install hobgoblins in its vaults afterward. In fact, Clutzer had to admit right then and there that there wasn’t any guarantee that the vaults didn’t already have hobgoblins. But it was worth a shot…
And yet all of these foregoing points paled in comparison to what the Rogue proposed next—we would assault, capture and destroy Phoenix’ castles…At this point, I could no longer control myself and burst out laughing. No matter how many people we managed to assemble in order to capture a castle, two Raid Parties led by Hellfire and Anastaria would smash us to smithereens. There was an enormous difference between a player of Level 350 and even, say, one of Level 250. We wouldn’t even be able to approach their walls! Clutzer, however, uttered a single word that forced me to stop and think.
The process for crafting this terrifying weapon—which was practically impossible to survive—was simple enough. The spell was enchanted on a special sheet of paper that grew once a month from the Alvandella tree. Every clan worth its salt had one of these trees, which would typically grow right in the center of the castle. This meant that we had to acquire one of our own. That was obligatory. Second—the scroll had to be ‘charged,’ which involved channeling about twenty million MP into it over the course of a day. Clutzer assured us that this wasn’t a problem—he already had a gaggle of Mages that would charge our scroll. After that we’d need to go see the High Mage and have him inscribe the spell structure onto the scroll. Finally, the Emperor or the Dark Lord would need to imbue the scroll with life. This was where I’d come in handy. Clutzer planned on channeling Mana into ten scrolls over the next six months. Beside the ones we’d grow ourselves, we could obtain paper for the scrolls from the Azure Dragons and the Heirs of the Titans. No doubt they’d be happy to help, since Phoenix’s dominance was a problem for everyone. Clutzer would guide the Mages, while my job would be to deal with the High Mage and the Emperor. In view of my relationships with the powers that were, it shouldn’t be difficult for me to arrange the necessary audiences. As for activating the scroll after it was charged—that was a matter of technique. Plinto would burst into the castle, start a melee and receive the ‘In Combat’ status. He’d have to survive for a minute and then cast the wave of flame in the very center of the castle. Phoenix’s castles weren’t Altameda. They weren’t built from Imperial Steel. Furthermore, the spell would be cast within the walls, increasing the devastation…In general, we could be sure of knocking several levels off their castles at least. And if we went so far as to detonate five scrolls simultaneously inside Phoenix’s main castle (this was the number that Clutzer reckoned Plinto would have time to activate) the number of levels lost would be even more substantial. We could even block the clan’s access to their treasure vault. And that would entail a severe blow to the reputation and finances of Ehkiller’s clan, which couldn’t help but please us. Either way we’d have to spend the next six months in preparations. Such a plan wouldn’t come to fruition any earlier.
I promised the guys that I’d consider their proposals and called Viltrius to have him summon me back to Altameda. I didn’t feel like saying yes or no without having first considered everything. I liked the plan of using Armageddon very much, but there was a downside—there was nothing to stop Anastaria from doing the same thing in Altameda. I’m sure that if we managed to pull this off against Phoenix, she would find my castle and set off several scrolls of her own inside of it…So I needed to think things over very well before making my decision. Take for example the declaration of war. A portion of the players would happily join our clan, looking for a fight with Phoenix. And yet the gatherers and craftsmen don’t really like being in a clan dedicated to PvP. What did I need then—a clan of fighters or a clan that could sustain itself? Did I need a clan at all? There were so many questions that I didn’t have answers to. This definitely wasn’t what was on my mind when I entered Barliona this morning.
And then there was that visitation by Eluna…By the way! I had sent a letter to tech support!
I opened my email and smiled at the twelve million letters that had filled my inbox during the past week. Then I clicked on a special section that blinked green notifying me that I had a message from the Barliona admins.

Dear Mahan,
Thank you for your inquiry…

Right, we’ll skip the formalities…

We’d like to bring to your attention that we are currently offering a new service—you may now transfer your character to a different faction…

We’ll skip this part too…

As for your inquiry, we are happy to inform you that, indeed, an item called the Tear of Harrashess was developed for the game. However, we assure you that players cannot acquire this item for their own use. The warning you received from the Imitator playing the role of Eluna was no more than a precaution taken by another Imitator playing the role of the High Priestess of that goddess. You have a unique reputation and attractiveness with this NPC, so she asked the goddess to warn you of the threat. We assure you that this item poses no danger to you whatsoever since it is technically impossible for you to receive it.
We wish to use this opportunity to recommend to you a new…

The rest of the letter was an ad offering various cosmetic improvements to my castle, so I didn’t keep reading. Glancing over the tech support part of the text again, I could be sure of one thing—it was a good idea for me to be afraid. After all, no player could receive the Ying-Yang either. Only an NPC could own that item.
Thus, not having decided anything, I opened my mail and began to go through the letters. The twelve million emails that snuck through my spam filter in the past week was just too much. I don’t even know how else I can set the filters up in order to sort out this torrent of information. I already have an ad blocker in place and another filter to block requests for money as well as…Excuse me?!
When I opened the list of filters to add another one, I was astonished to find their utter absence. The list of applied filters was empty, which meant that ads and other spam could now reach my poor consciousness. So it follows that during the transfer of my Shaman, all the settings were reset. No wonder I felt a bit uncomfortable in Anhurs today, surprised at the extreme activity of the players. Everyone was yelling, making noise, while the chat was bursting into little pieces…I’ll have to start everything all over again. I somehow missed this part before.
“Master, there’s a package here for you with a request that it be delivered to you personally,” Viltrius said, distracting me from my renewed attempts to set up my email and offering me a small package.
“From whom?” I asked surprised. The fact that the package was sent through an NPC meant that someone with access to the castle had found Altameda’s location, walked up to the gates, called Viltrius and handed him the package. Furthermore, this someone did all this while I was in Anhurs just now. In other words, I needed to think carefully about what I would do.
“Master Spiteful Gnum, whom you hired to repair the gates and refresh the building’s ornament. He is bound to the castle, so he sent the package to you with his demons, since Altameda’s location remains unknown to him.
“Thank you. I’ll take a look,” I said, taking the package from the goblin. Somehow I’d forgotten that my castle was playing host to one of Barliona’s odder players. When I teleported the castle to a new location and blocked all access to it, I had left Gnum without work and, consequently, further development, which for a creative type like him could not fail to evoke displeasure. So I guess I could roughly guess what was in the package already. After all, besides his skillful carpentry, the gnome was also a pretty good Tailor…

This is no way to conduct business, Mahan! What the hell? I enter the game and find the castle’s gone! I call Viltrius, but that green twerp doesn’t pick up. My demons are in shock—they don’t know that castles can teleport, no one can find you, everyone’s upset and in a trance, while meanwhile my materials are rotting…Anyway! I found a way to express how I feel about you! Here’s another gift from me! If you want to continue your repairs, don’t bother calling me.
P.S. You know where to find me.
P.P.S. How did you manage that anyway?
P.P.P.S.S. Lol, S.S.

Item acquired: Cape of the Opposite. Description: A sentient who equips this cape adopts the appearance of those of non-traditional sexual orientations. When this item is equipped: +20 Attractiveness with members of your own gender, -40 Attractiveness with members of the opposite gender. Item class: Unique. Creator: Spiteful Gnum.

A bright piece of cloth fell into my hands, shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow. The power of Gnum’s creation was so great that even holding this piece of cloth in my hands I could see my hands grow elegant like an elf’s. A manicure began to transform my fingers. Dropping the cape to the floor and making sure that this was no more than an optical illusion, I ordered Viltrius to remove the cape to the treasure vault. No one’s cursed me out in such an extravagant way before…
But in one sense I was thankful to Gnum—I had finally decided how my clan would develop from here on out. Yes, the clan—I decided against disbanding it, yet in my plan, the Legends of Barliona wouldn’t engage in any hostilities against Phoenix either. To the opposite—my main task in the next six months, while the scrolls of Armageddon were being prepared—would be to stay as far away from battles as possible. If something happened, I’d have Plinto and Clutzer with their Raiding Parties. They’d deal with the contingencies. Instead, I was faced with a different problem—the development of different professions. And I don’t mean gatherers—there were endless numbers of those in Barliona. But autodidacts like Gnum and Svard are one in a million. As long as I can maintain their interest, I want them to stay with me. And as long as they’re with me, I have the advantage. This means that I have to retain their attention, and I know exactly how to do that.
After all, I have to not only destroy the main castle of Phoenix, but also try and rummage around its darker corners—and these are mere preludes that no one will notice. I want to aim my main blow at the foundations of Phoenix’s budget—the sale of unique items. If I can wriggle my way into this market and push Phoenix out, the losses suffered by the clan of the fried chicken will be colossal. Which is what I need.
For now, I had to meet with Gnum and encourage him to work with me. Without players like him, I’d never achieve my goals…

Chapter Three. A Meeting and New Quests

“Mahan!” As soon as I entered her office, Elizabeth’s sullen face looked up from the documents that were occupying her and brightened. “How nice of you to stop by!”
“Hi Elsa,” I greeted the High Priestess and following her gesture, sat down in the chair. “I have some business to discuss with you…”
Having made a decision about my clan’s further development, I understood perfectly well that I wouldn’t be able to verify what Clutzer had said about the divorce at the moment—and since I needed to get some sleep too, I decided to run two more errands before signing out to reality. The first was to go to the plateau and appear before the Angels to receive access to the Tomb. The second was to see Elizabeth and ask her for advice about the divorce. I didn’t trust anyone else when it came to this question.
I located the coordinates to the plateau before the Tomb in my logs, opened the Blink settings, entered the data, pushed the Blink button and…remained in place. To my immense surprise, an unpleasant notification appeared before me, telling me that Anastaria had considered her plan down to the slightest details.

Teleportation to the indicated coordinates is impossible—this location has an activated anti-teleportation crystal in place.

Fully aware that I could become a Harbinger or use my castle’s capabilities, Phoenix had installed crystals that blocked any teleportation to the Tomb. It followed that I’d have to blink to a neighboring locale and reach the Tomb on my own two…well, wings. And if Phoenix is as committed as they seem to preventing me from reaching the entrance, then they’ll have placed a hundred or two high-level players whose assignment it is to keep me from breaking through.
“Your business can wait,” Elsa jolted me from my ruminations. “Better tell me something else—why is this here lying on my table.”
With undisguised revulsion, Elsa picked up one of the documents from the pile before her with two fingers and offered it to me. A notification about having received a document from an NPC flashed before my eyes as a text appeared below it:

To the High Priestess of Eluna,
Oh High One, please listen to this plea of mine, for I have not the strength to bear this burden any longer. My priceless spouse, known to you as High Shaman Mahan, has variously sought ways to avoid meeting with me—as if that unearthly spark that caused the Ying-Yang to flower and burn with all the colors of the rainbow, has faded. With immense hurt in my heart, I met my husband’s eyes, filled with hate, after which he pushed me away and forgot about his eternal oath…He has ceased to love me. If you believe that I am lying, summon my husband yourself and speak to him about me. Listen to his feelings. There will be no love there, only hate, anger and the desire to crush and destroy me. I admit that I am not without fault and I realize the cause of this behavior—after all, I returned to my father’s clan, but if you love someone you must know how to understand and forgive. Mahan is incapable of forgiveness. I’ve already understood this, so I have nothing left to do but fall at your feet and beg you to annul our union. I am ready to sacrifice myself—if only I can cease to be a burden on my beloved husband. Let me suffer—so long as he gains his liberty.
Anastaria, Captain of Paladins and Paladin General.

“Tell me this isn’t true, Mahan,” Elizabeth said expectantly when I had finished reading. “Tell me that you don’t hate your wife…”
To say that I was surprised would have been an understatement. It’s one thing to file for divorce claiming irreconcilable differences—it’s something else entirely to claim these grounds. So Stacey is guilty, but I’m the bastard who was incapable of heeding the feelings that are greater than actions. And it’s not like I can explain to Elizabeth that it was because of Anastaria that I lost the Chess Set and the Eye—or that she used me for her own personal ends. The real world didn’t exist for the High Priestess. The fact that Anastaria had switched clans—the fact that she’d returned to her father who perhaps missed his daughter, didn’t mean she had fallen out of love with me. The clan that one belongs to, the colors one wears, doesn’t mean anything to an NPC. Instead, the player’s feelings are everything.
“Elsa, this letter is like a knife to my heart,” I said at last. My initial emotions had ebbed and I managed not to swear. No one was tracking my body metrics, or at least the system didn’t mention this, so Elizabeth was still waiting for my verbal response. If Anastaria had written a letter like this, then she wanted to cast me in a very unpleasant light. I doubt that they’d show me this letter tomorrow. But if I started arguing with Anastaria in front of Elizabeth, even if I had refused the divorce, my Attractiveness with the High Priestess would decrease from its current level of 100 points. Well, best of luck to you, Anastaria! I’ll turn on stupid mode and act like I don’t know anything. “Forgive me, I’m just stunned, stunned at what my beloved wife writes here and…No but this is some kind of counterfeit letter! Anastaria could not have written this! Elsa, are you sure that this if from her?”
“Naturally—she handed me the letter herself.”
“That’s impossible,” I droned on, trying to gain some time and figure out where I should go next. It was evident now that if I start accusing Anastaria in Elizabeth’s presence, I would hurt my relations with the High Priestess. And I really didn’t want this to happen. I had to choose each word carefully and purposefully—I couldn’t allow Anastaria to drive a wedge between me and Elsa. “Impossible, I tell you!”
“I was also very surprised,” Elizabeth agreed. “If you hadn’t loved each other completely, you’d never have gotten the Ying-Yang to bloom. The stone cannot be tricked—it heeds the deepest feelings of sentients and makes the decision of whether or not they are worthy of being together on its own. Your Ying-Yang showed that you were worthy. Could you really fall out of love over the course of two months? No, that’s pure folly—you still wear the amulet…As soon as you stop loving each other, the Ying-Yang will ignite, burning away to ashes, and your abilities will vanish. Or does the amulet already not work?”
“No it still does,” I assured Elizabeth and made up my mind. If Anastaria had written this letter, let her squirm before the High Priestess herself. I’ll deny everything and insist that I love my wife with all my heart, and claim it’s she who wants to leave me. “I propose we check—I’ll summon Anastaria right now and she will explain the letter herself.”
“Indeed!” Elizabeth brightened up again. “Why play a guessing game when we can ask her directly?”
Are you there, my beauty?” I asked Anastaria telepathically.
“I am, my sun. What did you want?”
“Could you drop by for a visit, dear?”
“I’ll still respawn in time for the divorce, silly. There’s no point in ambushing me. But since you miss me so much, summon away.”
“The Ying-Yang still works!” Elizabeth exclaimed when Anastaria appeared in the office. It took Stacey only a second to assess the situation and a forced smile spread across her face. The girl hadn’t expected this move on my part. “You are mistaken, my daughter. Your husband could not have stopped loving you. Otherwise your abilities would not work. Mahan loves you and you love him. Explain to me please what prompted this letter as well as your desire to get a divorce.”
One-zero to you,” came Anastaria’s thought, after which she sank to her knees before Elizabeth.
“Forgive me, holy mother. My mind was confused and I made a terrible error. I beg you to please destroy that letter and punish me—I admit my falseness and repent. When I had to return to my father’s clan, I spent too much time thinking about how my spouse would react and I mistook my imagined fears for the truth.”
“You deserve punishment,” Elizabeth concluded without a shadow of doubt. “Eluna shall decide your main sacrament. I’ll say personally that I find your disunion with your spouse unpleasant. It doesn’t do when two people who love each other spend time apart from one another.”
“The High Priestess cannot compel us to change clans. One’s membership in a given clan is not related to our relations or feelings,” Anastaria replied immediately, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. I have to admit that the High Priestess’s words had surprised me a great deal too—was she really about to force us to be in the same clan? That would contradict the game rules and the players’ free will. And that’s impossible.
“You are correct. I cannot,” Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “I was merely expressing my thoughts on the matter—I don’t like the fact that you two are living apart while still loving each other. And that has nothing to do with your clans—each sentient is free to be where he is most comfortable. What is odd to me is something else—the fact that you don’t spend time together. When the full falseness of the letter came to light just now, I was very upset. I have nothing left to do but cancel tomorrow’s ceremony and assign you a punishment. Well, it’s not even really a punishment—but more of a request. You are free to ignore it, since as a Paladin you do not serve the Priestess. And the same goes for Mahan—Shamans are entirely unrelated to Eluna and her Priests. However, that which I will ask you to do will be impossible to perform on your own. It requires teamwork from both spouses. Over the course of a month, you must spend no less than one hour with each other, questing, raiding, exploring or even simply speaking. The main rule is that you must work together, not separately—otherwise, the time you invest won’t count. This is the only way I’ll be able to ensure that you’re both a single whole and capable of further deeds. Are you prepared to accept my wish?”

Quest chain available: ‘Tight-knit family. Step 1.’ Description: Meet up 30 times over the course of 3 calendar months, spending at least 1 hour together in questing or speaking to one another. Quest type: Unique, family. Reward: +2000 Reputation with the Priests of Eluna, +1000 with Goddess Eluna and the next quest in the chain. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -2000 Reputation with the Priests of Eluna, -1000 to Reputation with Goddess Eluna.

“I bow before your wisdom, mother,” Anastaria replied with a bow, “and I accept your wish. I will prove to you the strength and endurance of our family.”
Two pairs of eyes fixed on mine, each pair expressing utterly different things. If Elizabeth was looking at me like a loving and caring mother looks at her child after having solved some problem and now awaiting the correct words from her child, then Anastaria’s expressed only one thing—triumph. I was getting the impression that I had once again made some misstep that turned out to be beneficial to the girl. The sensation that I had been used yet again was so evident that it took enormous effort not to push the ‘Decline’ button. And yet any way you look at it, an increase in my Reputation with Eluna and her Priests would be very useful to my character. A single unique item that I craft grants me 500 points of Reputation, and it’s not like I make one item each day or even each week, so I suppose I’ll be able to tolerate Anastaria being next to me for an hour. And besides, this is a quest chain with several steps. The important thing was to smother the hate in my chest for the girl standing beside me. Since, after all, we’re a loving and inseparable family.
“I accept your wish, oh High Priestess,” I said, pushing the ‘Accept’ button.
“A very wise decision, my children,” Elizabeth replied, illuminating us with the sign of Eluna. “As soon as you complete my assignment, I will personally meet with you. I will always have a quest or two to strengthen a family and make it indestructible. In the meantime, you’re free to go…Although wait! Mahan, you had some business for me!”
“It’s no longer important,” I parried, noting the curiosity in Anastaria’s eyes. There’s no reason she needs to know about why I came to see the High Priestess. Then again, I guess Stacey could figure it out on her own.
“In that case, I will now leave you. You should spend some time alone together…”
“I suggest a neutral option—an hour’s worth of conversation over dinner at the Golden Horseshoe,” Anastaria proposed as soon as we left the temple. The girl was behaving as if nothing had happened between us and we were still in love as before. I didn’t feel like playing that game.
“All right. An hour at the Golden Horseshoe will suit me fine,” I replied in what I thought was a calm voice but which in fact was more hissy and unclear than I had imagined. I guess my patience was rapidly running out. Another minute and I’ll throw myself at Anastaria with my bare fists, and the hell with fines and jail.
“Okay, since you’re back to your old self, it’s time we part,” Anastaria immediately replied with the same smile. “We can begin our meetings tomorrow, around 2 p.m. server time. I’ll call you. Didn’t you drop my amulet?” Mockingly, Anastaria stroked my cheek. “Of course you didn’t. One doesn’t throw away items like that…Until tomorrow, Harbinger. Sweet dreams.”
Anastaria took a quick step, embraced and kissed me and then vanished into thin air, once more performing her favorite little trick of signing out to reality. That stupid Ice Queen. Well whatever, let her have her fun—I’ll have the last laugh. Although I was sure that Clutzer remained a player of Phoenix, there was some sense to his plans. I just needed to consider it and adapt them to my purposes.
My first voluntary exit from Barliona was so unusual that I spent a few moments lying in my capsule enjoying the sight of my ceiling. Say what you will, but a year in a fantasy world really does leave its mark. Understanding that I wouldn’t really get any sleep in the turned-off capsule, I activated the ejector and toppled over the edge of the capsule. The time had come for dinner…
The phone call caught me at the critical moment of deciding why I shouldn’t have to wash the dishes today. It was only two plates, a cup and a couple spoons, but I simply couldn’t force myself to rinse the remnants of the food and salad. A hundred reasons raced through my mind—from the need to distribute labor among people to the recognition that I never even liked these plates and could safely toss them instead of washing them. I might as well buy new ones.
“Speaking,” I picked up the phone, deciding finally that the dishes would remain unwashed and it’d be the caller’s fault. Whoever he was, it doesn’t do to distract me in the evenings. Like it or not, it was already midnight.
“Good evening, Daniel, could we speak?” said an unfamiliar male voice, clearly tinged with metallic notes. I got the impression that this wasn’t a human but a computer, speaking to me through voice modulation software.
“We already are,” I said carefully, realizing that I couldn’t really blame a computer for my dishes going unwashed.
“I am calling you about our offer regarding Phoenix. We have received your response and wish to discuss the details. Could you come see us right now?”
“At one in the morning?” I asked caustically.
“It’s only a few minutes after midnight,” the metallic voice corrected me. “We will send a car to pick you up. It will bring you back home too. The meeting won’t take long. You should be home by three. What do you say? Do you have time?”
“You know, I always welcome a chat, but chatting with someone without knowing their name, or for that matter, being taken who knows where in the middle of the night without any guarantees of safety…This is all a bit too complicated for me, so I must politely decline such an enticing offer.”
“You didn’t manage to reach the plateau, did you? Even the powers of a Harbinger don’t allow you to jump where Phoenix doesn’t want you to be—and you’re okay with this?” The voice lost its metallic edge and became an ordinary male voice. Judging by its timbre, its owner was well over fifty, as I could make out notes of age in the voice. At the same time, there was a confidence of power in the voice too. “Or have you changed your mind and decided to shelve the whole idea under the assumption that Anastaria still loves you? Do you imagine that you’ll make an inseparable couple? A strong family?”
Well this is a little more interesting already! Someone still unknown to me can track my actions in Barliona. This someone seems completely familiar with what I wanted to do, what I did and whom I met. The conclusion is evident—this someone has some special relationship to Barliona. Even though the caller was clearly indicating that he had violated a term of use or even a law, I knew that I had to go and meet this person. What if he could handle Phoenix?
“Send the car,” I decided. After all was said and done, if they wanted to hurt me, they’d have done it long ago. And if these people knew what I was doing in Barliona, then they wouldn’t have any trouble finding me in real life.
“Go downstairs, it’s already waiting for you,” came the reply and the caller hung up.
Maybe I’m no Julius Caesar—but still: ‘Alea iacta est.’
“Please forgive me for such an unusual meeting,” said the older man whose appearance resembled that of a prim, ossified Lord of ancient England. A large checkered suit, a bow tie, a cane, dark polished shoes reflecting the starry sky…Seeing a man like this at the shore of the same city pond that had once suffered from my bet, was quite unusual. People like this typically sit around expensive restaurants and relate tales of their exploits with young girls in their youth. “This is my only opportunity to meet you without attracting undue attention to myself.”
In view of the several bodyguards I’d noticed on my way into the park, the standing of my companion was quite high. As far as I understood the outward appearance of Barliona’s upper management, this person was not one of them, so I was becoming more and more curious.
We took a seat on a wooden bench and began staring at the pond in silence like two lovers afraid of speaking the first word. I recalled the powerful voice of the old man—who still had not introduced himself to me—and decided that our rendezvous was all the stranger for it—if he had so little time, why didn’t he start talking?
“Tell me, Daniel,” the old man finally began, half-turning to me and leaning on his cane, “what’s it like to be humiliated by the person you considered to be your second half?”
“I doubt you brought me here to have a heartfelt conversation,” I parried. Whoever this guy thought he was, I wasn’t about to let him pluck at my heart-strings.
“Don’t be angry with an old man for his tactlessness,” my companion apologized to my surprise, “It’s only that what the Phoenix leadership did with you, they once did to me. But in reality, instead of in the game. It was only through a miracle that I didn’t lose my mind and remained myself, so I decided now to begin our conversation with that tactless question. You have suffered from Stacey’s manipulations, while I have suffered from the one you know as Barsina.”
The old man fell silent again, staring off into nowhere as if succumbing to the recollections of the past. A minute passed, then another, and the third one was already under way and we were still sitting there in silence enjoying the view of the nighttime park—stylized to resemble older days by its dusky lamps.
“You wanted to speak with me,” when the silence became too tedious, I was forced to remind him of my presence, “and discuss something.”
“Yes!” the old man perked up returning to reality. “I want to offer you vengeance for everything that clan did to you!”
“Forgive me for interrupting, but before you explain further, could you tell me what you need me for? If you can carry out the revenge yourself, then I’m not sure what I can do that you and your people cannot. I’m just an ordinary player. I don’t have any relatives among the elites and any revenge I can even imagine would be a drop in the ocean for Phoenix.”
“A reasonable objection,” agreed the old man, “I was about to address just that. Tell me, what do you know about the Zv---ky family?”
“Nothing,” I admitted sincerely, making a mental note to dig around the internet to find out about Stacey and her parents. If I wanted revenge, I’d need to at least know against whom it’d be.
“Hum…” the old man replied with some surprise. “You didn’t bother to figure out whom you’re dealing with?”
“Not yet. I suppose it’s no secret to you that I’m a former prisoner, that today was the first time I entered the game as a free player and that I simply had no opportunity to look up these things until now.”
“I am aware of your status, but I don’t understand one thing—you began to date Anastaria and didn’t bother to find out who she was in real life? Whether she has a husband, children, or all her limbs? What if she was the victim of some accident and her in-game appearance was all that remained from the way she was, while in reality she was a charred piece of meat?”
“I don’t really want to talk about this right now,” I muttered, grimacing from revulsion. In a way this was a pretty good answer for why Anastaria had refused to enter the Miss Barliona contest this year. She would’ve been disqualified for the discrepancy between her real-life and in-game appearances. Ugh…However I felt about this girl, I’d never wish something like this on her. It was too much.
“Don’t worry. Anastaria is in one piece and unhurt, but I was very surprised by your attitude toward it all. In our day and age, information is the greatest weapon and a voluntary refusal to employ it is…very odd.”
“Let’s discuss oddities some other time,” I offered, avoiding this slippery subject. He did have a point—I could have asked someone—anyone—to find out whatever I wanted about Stacey, but for some reason I never got around to it. Guilty as charged and I apologize for it—but I won’t allow anyone to drag me around the floor like some naughty kitten.
“In that case let me tell you a bit about them. You can find out the rest on your own. Victor Zv---ky—you know him as Ehkiller—is one of the wealthiest people of our continent. To be more accurate, he is number 188 among the continent’s wealthiest residents. However, unlike the majority of his colleagues, Victor maintains 80% of his assets in the game, making no attempts to transfer them out to reality. The Phoenix corporation, and at the moment this is a corporation, comprises the leading clan which in turn contains the management, the raiders and the best craftsmen, as well as hundreds if not more affiliate clans, like, for instance, everyone thought the Legends were. Phoenix is one of the few truly profitable clans in the game and has a financial cushion that protects it from any harm, including even the complete destruction of all of its castles. Naturally that would hurt, but it wouldn’t kill them…”
“If what you say is true, then the only way to hurt Phoenix is to destroy the entire Zv---ky family,” I said, surprised at my own words. You can’t even think such things, much less say them out loud, and yet…
“I like how you’re thinking but I must disappoint you—it’s impossible to destroy Victor. No one knows where he lives at the moment and all attempts to find him have failed. No! We must adopt a different approach. Given the particularities of Phoenix, we have to hit them in their most cherished place—their money, and now I’ll tell you how we’ll do this.”
Slowly but steadily like a train gathering steam, the old man began to reveal his plan of revenge, in which I was designated to play no small part. In essence, the plan was based on me playing the most important role. With all due respect to my companion, it’s very stupid to concoct a plan that depends on another person. Who knew what was going on in my head really? Hell even I didn’t really know.
The plan as the old man told it to me was as follows: First—I have to make it to the Angels and receive access to the Tomb from them. As soon as I manage to do this, Barsina will receive access to the Tomb too, the Angels will depart, and Phoenix will be able to enter at will. However, only I will have the ‘original’ key to the Tomb, which makes all of the loot in the Dungeon Unique or Legendary. If I receive the original key, Phoenix won’t enter without me—it just wouldn’t make any fiscal sense to do so. Consequently, a fee of one hundred million from each member of Phoenix is a very fair price of admission. Nineteen participants then is practically two billion gold…Even for Phoenix this’ll be a significant monetary blow.
“It’s a pretty idea,” I said as soon as the man fell silent. “But there are two ‘buts’! The first is that I won’t be able to reach the entrance to the cave. I can’t teleport to the plateau and it’s sure to be guarded, so I’ll be killed before I make it to the Angels. Second—why would Phoenix spend the money? No item in Barliona, not even their cumulative price, can cost two billion gold and therefore there’s no reason Ehkiller should agree to pay such money. I don’t know what he’ll actually do naturally, but I definitely wouldn’t agree.”
“These are reasonable objections. I’ll address them in order. As soon as you agree to our plan, the crystals will stop blocking your Blink spell. How that’ll happen is my problem—but it’ll happen. All you’ll have to do is enter the coordinates at the Angels’ location, blink in and then you’ll be under their protection. As for the second point—before departing, the Angels will announce that only he who carries the original key can receive the Salva. No one is forbidden from venturing the Tomb without you, but the Salva will only be obtainable with you.
“The Salva?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“That’s the second part of our plan. The Salva is an item that can destroy the Tears of Harrashess. Shall I go on?”
The realization of whom I was dealing with was like an electric shock. And I don’t even mean the specific person with whom I was speaking, so much as the organization that stood behind him—you can’t accomplish things like this on your own. Eluna had already told me what the Tear of Harrashess was, but the fact that an ordinary player could be burdened with it after all, considering that the Barliona admins had told me otherwise…
“You will have to complete two Dungeons,” the old man interrupted my thoughts. “In each one of them you’ll find two parts of an item which, combined, will create a portal. The Mages will charge it and you’ll be able to teleport right into the center of Geranika’s castle, which currently contains four activated Tears. Your job will then be to take the Tears and slip them to Anastaria, Hellfire, Fiona and Alveona—the leading players of Phoenix. I can’t tell you how you will be able to do this because that is the most sensitive part of our plan. However, as soon as the Phoenix players are in possession of the Tear, a notification will appear about the Salva and the fact that you are the only one who can find it. It’s for these reasons that you shouldn’t teleport to the angels before the time is right—otherwise, by the time you get your hands on the Tears, Phoenix might have completed the Dungeon.”
The old man’s plan stunned me with its cruelty and thoughtfulness. If I slipped Anastaria the Tear, Phoenix would absolutely play two billion to free her—the other three affected players be damned. And yet…
“According to its official description, the Tear cannot be transferred to another player,” I recalled the properties of the crystal that I’d found in Altameda. “The idea of giving this item to Anastaria is a good one, but it’s unrealistic.”
“There’s nothing unrealistic about it,” smirked the old man. “You’ll have to hurry and reacquire at least one of the Crastils—those orbs scattered throughout the continent that no one knows what to do with. You had a couple, but Anastaria took them, so now you’ll have to obtain one from Grygz, the head of the pirates. We’ll help you in this. A player who has a Crastil as well as another item that you’ll find in the Dungeon, will be able to transfer an activated Tear. In fact, before it’s activated, a Tear won’t affect a player with a Crastil. Anastaria has a Crastil, but as soon as the Tear is activated, Phoenix won’t have a choice but to pay for access to the Salva…And still this isn’t all.”
“There’s more?”
“Salva isn’t an item. It’s a scroll with a recipe. A Jewelcrafting recipe. A Jewelcrafting recipe with certain requirements: 20 points in Crafting, the title of Blessed Artificer, and the ability to enter the Astral Plane. In other words, it’s a class-specific scroll for the Shaman and, when the raid is done, only you will be able to read it. No one will trick anyone—if there’s no raid, no one gains access to the Salva. But neither is there a guarantee that you’re the only one who’ll pick it up. This means that it’s vital you draw up a proper contract for your raid party. I’ll help you with that. After that, you activate the Tear and all four players will effectively lose their characters. That’ll be the biggest blow to Phoenix—ten years’ worth of grinding experience to level up their four top players will all be wasted. All of their Reputation, Achievements and skills. They wanted to destroy your Shaman so I’ll give you the opportunity to destroy their characters. A two-pronged attack on Phoenix—we’ll hit their money and their talent. It seems to me that this will be a worthy revenge for the humiliation you and I have suffered.”
“Two billion is a very hefty sum to spend,” I said pensively. “It’d be easier for Ehkiller to sell his name or kill me in real life than spend that much money. Especially once the Tears have been activated.”
“You will enjoy the best security available. You will leave this city. We will provide you with top-of-the-line equipment and high bandwidth uplinks to Barliona. No one will know where you are. The important thing is that we need your help, since the entire plan depends on your abilities.”
“I won’t be able to complete the Dungeon without trusted people,” I continued thinking out loud. “I need people who can help me with advice at the right time, and therefore they will have to also be aware of what’s going on. How many players can you give me?”
“Only one, at the moment,” the old man replied sadly. “As soon as we agree to the terms of the plan, my person will get in touch with you.”
“How will your manipulation of the game affect me?” I couldn’t help but ask another vital question. “I don’t feel like being sent to the mines once again. A chat with you is one thing—altering game data is a whole different ballpark.”
“It won’t affect you at all. You are an ordinary player, completing his series of scenarios. What happens in the other planes of the game doesn’t concern you. The important thing is that it helps you. You won’t be breaking any rules. This is why we won’t be signing any papers—if something doesn’t go according to plan, Daniel Mahan the player will remain unaffected.”
“Do we split the money?”
“Let’s wait until we get there,” the old man smiled. “As soon as the Phoenix players receive the Tear, they’ll file lawsuits against the Corporation for limiting their game experience. We’ll have to survive that. When it becomes clear that everything happened according to the rules and the players themselves are at fault—and that in fact there is a remedy in the form of the Salva—then we’ll talk. There’s no point discussing money at the moment. This by the way ensures your safety—as long as you have the money, your life won’t be in danger. Certainly not from me, at any rate.”
I kept wanting to ask why the old man wanted to do all this, as the fairy tale about Barsina sounded very unconvincing, but I controlled myself. What difference did it make why this person hated Phoenix so much? What difference did it make that someone was about to use me again to achieve his personal ends (and again in the dark like Anastaria). What I wanted right now was to have a chance of revenge against Phoenix for what they had done to me and my clan. If I’d have to do what someone wanted to achieve this, I was ready. I couldn’t care less what ulterior ideas this person had in mind—even if it meant he’d take over Phoenix with my aid. It was all okay with me so long as those four Phoenix players would be destroyed. Even though I didn’t have any beef with Fiona and Alveona, destroying Anastaria and Hellfire would be an excellent revenge indeed. I could stand to be a puppet for the sake of it.
“I’d like to know what to call you because ‘old man’ or ‘hey’ doesn’t really suit someone of your age.”
“Agreed, I don’t particularly like responding to ‘hey,’ smiled the old man, still deep in his thoughts. “But I’m not opposed to ‘old man,’ so let’s just agree to that. What did you decide? Shall we work together?”
“We shall,” I nodded. “What do you need me to do in order to begin making our plan a reality?”
“Complete two Dungeons. You already have the quest for one of them—you need to kill the Dragon of Shadow. He will drop the first half of the artifact. It doesn’t matter who goes with you—take the artifact yourself. You’ll recognize it pretty easily—it’s the hilt of a dagger. I won’t tell you the name of the item, since I don’t know it, but you’ll know it when you read the description. The second Dungeon will be the Dungeon of Shadow. There you’ll receive the blade of the dagger and a unifier. You can find out the coordinates to the second Dungeon from the High Priestess—she’ll issue you the quest as well. And that’s all for now—you have four weeks to accomplish all of this. Then you’ll have to appear before the Angels. Otherwise Barsina will receive the key to the Tomb and all our efforts will be in vain. Don’t worry about the deadlines—my person will remind you of them constantly. Are there any questions?”
“Not at the moment, but I’m still wondering—how will you adjust the game data? The Corporation runs such a comprehensive security system that any interference with the game process is typically intercepted at the level of intent. To say nothing of the unlawfulness of such actions. It’s one thing that I know about your plan. I’ll already be breaking the law if I don’t say anything to the law enforcement agencies. I really don’t want to go back to the mines, so I’d prefer to approach all of this with a clear understanding of the people I’m working with.”
“With great knowledge comes great sorrow,” the old man remarked. “Don’t cram your head full of trivia—that’s my job. You’ve agreed to work with us. You don’t need to know anything else. That’s all for now then.” The old man got up from the bench, propping himself with his cane. “The driver will return you to your home, and I expect you to complete the two Dungeons as soon as possible. Remember—you only have four weeks.”
“When am I going to meet your man?” I asked, also standing up.
“Soon. A player will approach you and speak a code word. Let it be ‘Crastil.’ That’s how you’ll know that he’s come from me and that you can trust him completely. We shall meet again soon, Daniel! I hope everything will work out for us…”
My return trip home flashed by unnoticed as I was buried in oppressive thought. On the one hand, the old man’s offer wasn’t just good—it was perfect. What scared me the most was that I saw no pitfalls, and yet there were definitely pitfalls. Life had taught me that if it seemed like nothing but roses, there were thorns lurking not far off. I couldn’t see the thorns at the moment and that stressed me out. As much as I hated her, Anastaria had taught me one thing—I could trust only myself. Everyone else only wanted to use me. And now I was consciously taking this step, since the advantages were evident, but the absence of pitfalls….it just wasn’t right. Things don’t work this way.
Thinking in this manner, I collapsed into my bed and fell asleep…

“How’d you sleep, bunny?” Anastaria asked sarcastically, sitting down in the chair across from me. “Did you miss me?”
My nocturnal escapade didn’t come without a price. I ended up sleeping in until it was almost two in the afternoon. Glancing at the clock, I almost swore out loud—I had a meeting to go to! I quickly stuffed two sandwiches down my throat and then stuffed myself into the capsule. It was very important to me that I wasn’t late to our ‘date’—I didn’t want to give Anastaria another opportunity to have fun at my expense.
“I did, my sunshine,” I grinned, noting to my surprise that I didn’t actually feel any hate towards Anastaria at the moment. With a clear plan of action for the next month in my head, I no longer felt at a loss in front of the girl. In a month this doll would turn into a monument and I wasn’t about to give her the Salva to regain control of herself. Anastaria would be enshrined for all eternity in Barliona—as a statue.
“Oh! You’re not spitting and sputtering today,” Stacey again tried to get into my head. “Did you have a good meal?”
“Uh-huh. I sure did. Stacey, I’m officially asking you to return the Karmadont Chess Set to me as well as the Eye of the Dark Widow, the Crastil of Shalaar and of Gwar, Babar, et cetera et cetera. Oh! And the Bracers that Eric made and the squidolphin scale…I think that’s the full list of the things you stole from me.”
“You forgot to turn your video recorder on,” the girl smiled back. “How are you going to prove that I’m a big ol’ bitch without it? Or did Clutzer decide to play with words and summon the Emperor as a witness to your oath that I refused to return your items upon your official request. A pretty move…I’ll think of something though. What do you plan on doing today?”
“I dunno, stuff,” I shrugged. “You said yourself that I missed out on continental quests too often. So I guess maybe I’ll try and find one. I want to get a handle on being a Harbinger—I have the powers but I still can’t use them for the next two weeks. There’re lots of quests and I’m short on time, so I’ll find something to occupy myself with before the clan tournament begins. By the way, tell me again, when is it supposed to be?”
“In a month and a half. The Emperor keeps delaying it—first it was the Dagger. Now it’s the heart of Chaos. Are you planning on saving Renox?”
“No. Eluna made it very clear to me that I shouldn’t set foot in Armard. I’m an obedient person. I listen to a goddess when she speaks to me, so I’ll figure something else out…What about you? Will you go to fight Geranika?”
“You know, I’ve been forbidden from going there too…No, this won’t do. Here you go!” Anastaria said suddenly, opened her bag—which was closed for me (I’d checked just in case)—and retrieved a painfully familiar case. The very one that contained the Chess Set of Karmadont. “Everything else is contestable, but the Chess Set really is yours regardless of how you spin it. Mahan, I officially give you these items.”
Anastaria placed the case with the Chess Set right on the table. A notification flashed by saying that I had received an item and instantly a ‘self-destruct’ timer appeared—the case was lying on the table without an owner, so the system decided that it was trash that must be destroyed. In five minutes, there would be nothing left of the Chess Set—unless I pick it up.
“Everything else, is my rightful loot,” the girl smiled as soon as I picked up the case in my hands and opened its lid. Eight green orcs, eight blue dwarves, two giants, two ogres, two lizards and one king. Everything that I managed to craft by that point was mine once again—but I didn’t understand how. Anastaria would never act so carelessly with items like this, which meant she had her reasons. I needed to speak with Clutzer. Damn it!
“So I guess it’s pointless to ask for the Eye?” I ventured, replacing the figurines and stuffing the whole case into my bag.
“Well…” said Anastaria with a silly face. “What Eye?”
“I see. What do you want for Eric’s bracers and the Crastil of Shalaar? The Bracers are the first item Eric crafted, they unlocked Crafting for him, so I’d like to return them to him…As for the Crastil of Shalaar, that’s the only item that I have from Renox.”
“You’re scaring me, Danny,” Anastaria shook her head with surprise. “You’re so calm, collected, thoughtful, constructive…You don’t seem at all like the Shaman that I spent three wonderful months with.”
“But you haven’t answered me. We can deal with the Eye later, but I’d like to decide about the Bracers and the Crastil right now. Do you want to make a deal? And if so, what do you want for those items?”
“Hmm, yeah, that’s quite a dilemma you’re raising,” said Anastaria, watching my eyes carefully. “I understand why you want the Bracers—the first crafted item is also the first of its kind. But the Crastil…You must know something no one else does, right?”
“You still haven’t answered,” I went on plying my line.
“I will give you these items in exchange for information—specifically, what you need the Crastil for,” Stacey announced. “You will tell me everything and summon the Emperor to confirm that you haven’t concealed anything from me. Once the Emperor confirms your words, you’ll get the bracers and Crastil.”
“There are many Crastils in Barliona,” I shrugged, “and Eric can always make more bracers. It’s not like I won’t survive without them. Simply, they were originally mine and I’d like to have them back. We still have a half hour ahead of us. You don’t mind if I eat, do you? I have a busy day ahead of me…”

Greetings Kreel! I’m finally ready to take a trip with you to the cave of the Dragon. When are you going to be ready? I’ll be bringing a Level 204+ Raid Party with fifty people, Plinto and several others. I figure that should be enough to kill the Shadow Dragon. Let me know when you can take on this Dungeon.

Leaving Anastaria on her own as soon as our hour of daily spousal interaction had ended, I began to put our plan in action. To begin with, I wrote a letter to Kreel, the owner of the Dragon of Shadow quest. Who knows how long it’ll take him to get ready, so it was better to deal with this sooner. The important thing was to receive the Dungeon coordinates; I’d figure the terms of our venture with the Titan later. The right way to do it would be to buy the coordinates from him and stop worrying about…By the way! I can attack players now! I’ll have to fine tune our contract. Sorry Kreel, I’m not that easy to deal with—and neither is life in general…
“Mahan!” Elizabeth met me as happily as ever. “I’m so happy that you’re doing what I asked you and spending time with your spouse! Family is the most important thing we have in Barliona!”
“Elsa, I don’t have a lot of time right now. Tell me—do you have any quests for me? I’m a bit tired of sitting in one place and I want to wander around the world and encounter some scary monsters…If Eluna forbids me from participating in the war against Geranika, maybe I’ll be able to help some other way in my battle with Shadow? I don’t know…Maybe someone needs me to carry some water for them?”
The High Priestess laughed at this: “Water? What an idea! That’ll be a real picture—Earl Mahan carrying water for the pigs. I could sell tickets to such a show. No, Mahan, you won’t need to carry any water; the serfs can take care of that. As for the battle against Shadow beyond the borders of Armard…” The High Priestess’s eyes fogged over as if she was downloading information, but then went clear a moment later and Elsa continued sadly: “Of course, I have one assignment! There’s been a tragedy on our side!”
“A tragedy? Let me help,” I immediately offered. If the old man was right and there would be an investigation into how the Tears of Harrashess were obtained, then giving me the coordinates to the Dungeon directly was impossible and I had to receive them through standard gameplay. So first I would be issued a quest in the course of which I would stumble across the Dungeon I needed. Or, if I skip it, I’d receive a hint about its location. The important thing was to be in the right place at the right time.
“That would be wonderful of you. We recently sent a mission to the famed city of Klarg in the Free Lands. My priests took up residence on the city’s outskirts, several kilometers from the village of Blue Mosses and began to bring the light of Eluna to the inhabitants of that Dukedom, when something odd began to happen—they began to lose their cows.  The priests are worried and afraid that there’s something in the woods! A huge favor—go there and find out what’s making the livestock disappear. I’m worried about my subjects—they have hardly become adepts and already I’ve had to send them on such a serious mission.”

Quest available: ‘Lost Cows.’ Description: Cows have begun to vanish in the woods outside of the village of Blue Mosses. Find out what is happening. Quest type: Common. Reward: +100 Reputation with the Priests of Eluna and 30 silver. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: –100 Reputation with the Priests of Eluna.

I have to confess that I couldn’t help but smile as I read the quest description—a reward of 30 silver coins was quite the bounty! Accepting the quest and glancing at the map to see where these Blue Mosses were located, my smile grew wider—a portal would have cost me several thousand gold, were I not a Harbinger.
“You find this funny?” Elsa asked, misunderstanding my grin. “People are suffering, they’re afraid, they have to spend money they don’t have, and you’re happy as if nothing’s going on?”
“No, not at all!” I had to hide my smile and provide explanations—when you have a very high Attractiveness level with an NPC, you’re constantly forced to be careful because they can find fault in any trifle. The developers find it advantageous to keep the players working for Attractiveness, so they try to lower it any chance they get. “I simply recalled a moment—you remember when we traveled to Krispa recently, the town on the border with Kartoss. Well, we encountered an enormous mob of Free Citizens from Kartoss there! Your quest simply reminded me of that happy battle, so I smiled…”
“No but I’d know for certain if there was a mob of Kartossians in Mosses,” Elsa assured me. “I talk to the head of the mission every day over my amulet and she hasn’t mentioned anything of the kind. When will you go?”
“Today—why waste time? I’ll go to Blue Mosses and find out what’s going on with your cattle there. I figure I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“It’s decided then! I’ll be waiting for your report tomorrow evening to see what you’ve managed to accomplish. For now, forgive me, I have to run. Business awaits!”
I emerged from the temple, looked at the small square with its pretty fountain, at the players darting here and there and suddenly a wondrous idea occurred to me. Retrieving one of my many amulets, I made a call.
“What’s up, Evolett? This is Mahan troubling you. Do you have a moment?”
“You know yourself that for a partner I always do,” came Evolett’s immediate reply, but I cut him off.
“Let’s skip the idealistic stuff for now. I’m calling because I remember you once offered me two tickets to the celebration of Tavia’s and Trediol’s wedding. I understand that the deadlines have long since expired, but you wouldn’t be able to arrange a tour of the Dark Lord’s castle for a partner? I don’t even need to see the Dark Lord—I just want to see what the designers cooked up in the Nameless City. Can you do it?”
A silence ensued in the amulet, forcing me to smirk. The idea of calling Evolett had been so spontaneous that I couldn’t restrain myself. It was difficult to admit it, but I liked this person and at the moment, I wanted to clarify what our relations would be like in the future. Since I was no longer going to disband my clan, there’d be a life for me in Barliona after my revenge and Evolett was one of the few clan leaders who had respectable clan resources at his disposal. It was a bit dumb of me to do this of course, but something told me that I had to do it this way. Call him up and ask him directly.
“The celebration was called off due to the Heart of Chaos stuff,” the answer came at last. “If you decide to visit our Empire, I’ll be happy to give you two tickets.”
“Oh really? And when has the celebration been rescheduled to?”
“Either right after the Heart is destroyed, or never—what’s the point of celebrating when the world’s been destroyed? The NPCs aren’t fond of feasts during times of plague…So in other words, it’ll happen in a month and a half, no sooner.”
“Wonderful! Save two tickets for me and I’ll make sure to swing by for them,” I assured the Priest, delicately skirting around the topic of what had happened to me on the plateau. I need Evolett for his resources and he’s just made it plain that if I ask him, he’ll help me out. That’s enough for me.
Hanging up, I placed the amulet aside and decided to check one more thing that wouldn’t leave me alone. I wouldn’t have my Shamanic powers back for another week and a half, but this didn’t prevent me from speaking with Kornik. I wonder if the same channel would work if I wanted to get in touch with Fleita.
Student?” I sent a telepathic message into nowhere, imagining the Zombie. I have no idea how this works, so I’ll just do what I know—and all I know is how to send the messages.
AAAAAAHHH! Fleita’s terrified and savage scream erupted in my head. A second later my amulet began to vibrate.
“Hello!” I answered happily, knowing full well who was on the other end of the ‘line.’
“Mahan! You scared me! How’d you do that?! You entered my head! I could hear your thoughts! That was cool! Let’s do it again!”
A torrent of random requests began to pour from the amulet, then Fleita hung up and thoughts began to appear in my head as if I were speaking to Anastaria:
Perhaps ‘appear’ is an understatement. The thoughts filled everything around me, stifling the noise of the city and forcing me to fall to my knees with my hands clapped to my ears. I felt as if I had two megaphones screaming in both ears, amplifying the sound by hundreds of decibels.
You’re right—old Mahan ain’t much fun,” I replied to Fleita, still shaking from the clamor in my head, and added: “Now stop yelling. I can hear you just fine. If you keep this up, I’ll get tinnitus!”
Oh, I’m sorry,” Fleita replied quietly. “Can we really communicate this way?
Well theoretically not, but it’s not like anyone will overhear us,” I quipped sarcastically. “Now I’ll be able to read all your secret thoughts and find out where you were last night.”
WHAAAT?!” An angry roar filled my head, forcing me to grab onto my ears again. A notification popped up informing me that I’d just received the ‘Dazed’ debuff, and giving me pause for thought—maybe I could do the same to Anastaria? It’d be mean of me of course, but hey, it’s fun to be mean too. “Don’t you dare dig around my head!”
Calm down. No one’s going to dig around your head. That was a joke! I didn’t think you’d react this way. Tell me, where are you and what are you up to?”
“What, you don’t know?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking.”
I…” Fleita began and our link broke off. I guess the girl’s Energy had run out, since mine was halfway depleted, and so now my student was lying on the ground somewhere, croaking something incomprehensible and scaring innocent bystanders. One major downside of exhausting your Energy was that signing out to reality and re-entering the game didn’t restore it. You either had to wait or drink water. There was no other option.
“Mahan, such conversations really take a lot out of me,” Fleita wheezed through the amulet five minutes later, simultaneously telling me two things. The first was that she had restored her Energy the natural way—which meant there hadn’t been anyone around her with water—and second that Fleita had her sensory filter turned off. This is what surprised me the most, since underage players in Barliona weren’t allowed to do this.
“Tell me, dear, how high is your sensory filter set to?” I asked the question that concerned me.
“It’s at ninety per…Oh! That’s not fair!” Fleita all but screamed in a bitter voice. “I wanted to surprise you!”
“I’m sick and tired of surprises,” I smiled. “But you still haven’t answered my question. Where are you and what are you doing?”
“I’m outside of the Nameless City, gathering mushrooms. Evolett told me that it’s not fitting for a Raider to go where he shouldn’t be and sent me to training. He thinks that if I’m busy picking mushrooms I won’t send a Spirit of Eavesdropping to their meeting.”
“Erm, what for?”
“Well I’m curious! They discuss all kinds of things there! For example, before they noticed my Spirit, I managed to hear that the Dark Legion is getting ready to attack one of the cities of the Free Lands, that they plan on expanding and become a true competitor to Phoenix, knocking them off their throne, that…Oh, I think I’m spilling clan secrets here…Mahan, don’t ask me about this—I only found this stuff out by accident and in fact have forgotten all of it. By the way, did you know that Evolett has three scrolls of Armageddon? They were talking about this right before they found my Spirit, so I remember it clearly…”
“When were they talking?” I inquired, pricking up my ears.
“This morning. After that they caught me and sent me to gather mushrooms. Forty forest toadstools…Which grow at a probability rate of 3%. I’ve only found three so far…”
“Okay, I see. All right, once you’ve caught them all, call me and I’ll take you with me. We’ll go kill some monsters.”
“Cool. With who?” Fleita wondered, but I hung up and reached for the previous amulet. So you have three scrolls of Armageddon and you just happen to mention them several moments before some Rogue or Assassin, with high level Detection, noticed Fleita’s Spirit? Well, well…
“Evolett, this is Mahan again. I imagine you know why I’m calling.”
“About the tickets?”
“That’s right, the tickets. Three tickets to a big old fireworks show. You know, aside from all the other stuff, I’m curious how you obtained these tickets. You didn’t have them only a couple weeks ago. I remember that very well—when we were on our sailing expedition, your tickets would’ve come in very handy.”
No doubt Evolett is not alone at the moment and therefore I didn’t want to speak about the scrolls of Armageddon openly. But I couldn’t not ask either—we’d almost died out there on the seas. Something wasn’t tallying here.
“You’re right. I do have three tickets, and I am ready to share them,” came the reply. “I won’t tell you how I acquired them, but I will say that I had to make new friends with some interesting people to do it. The tickets are theirs, not mine. I’m sure you want to relax a bit, so I’ll be happy to give you the three invitations as a partner. Use them wisely. Write down these coordinates—I can meet you in ten minutes.”
The amulet fell silent, giving me the chance to consider the news I’d just heard. Why does it have to be so complicated with everyone? Evolett had seen Fleita’s Spirit from the get go, and used her to tell me that he wants to hurt Phoenix. He’d mentioned the scrolls and, if I understand correctly, the chance to take part in a small raid. And what’s more is that, judging by my first call, he had expected it. Hmm…yeah…Considering that Evolett and Ehkiller were family, I’m having trouble understanding the motives of the Kartossian. Doesn’t he know perfectly well what I’d use the scrolls for…Is there a dispute between the brothers then? Damn! I may as well head back to the mines and never worry about anything but ore and rats for the rest of my life…
“Have a seat,” Evolett indicated an unoccupied seat. I looked around and automatically opened my map in order to figure out exactly where I was. I opened it and froze, for the normal locale map had been replaced by a three dimensional projection of the castle. The system had determined where I was and adjusted the locale representation. And because I was a Harbinger and in a castle, I had to have the option of blinking to any part of the building. I had assumed that this only worked in Altameda, but….
“The main hall of the Dark Legion castle?” I asked with surprise, realizing where I had been invited. “Open for teleportation?”
“Certainly not, but that wouldn’t stop a Harbinger or a god.” The Priest smiled meaningfully. I suppose that in the intervening ten minutes between his invitation and my arrival, he had told the hobgoblins, who were supposed to block my Blink, to go take a walk.
“So what’s up with the tickets?” Accepting the invitation, I sat down in the armchair. “And why three at once?”
“Three clans, three tickets,” Evolett shrugged. “It’s a bit easier in Kartoss than in Malabar when it comes to these things. Everyone tries to work together here.”
“Okay, I’ll put it a different way—why? I know that you know how these tickets will be used. You know that I know what your relationship is with Ehkiller. Why?”
“Would you like some wine maybe?” asked the leader of the Dark Legion as if he hadn’t heard my question. “The best vintage from the Golden Horseshoe, presented to me by the owner himself. What I like about Barliona is its fantasy. You enter it in order to feel like a hero saving little children. I love children very much, Mahan. I’m already almost sixty and, trust me, my appearance in-game doesn’t match the one in real life—this one is heavily modified. Back in reality, Evolett is an ordinary old man who wants only one thing—grandchildren. Children are more than just little people. They’re what makes life worth living.”
“I don’t understand,” I shook my head. Either I’m dumb or Evolett has confused me with someone.
“In real life my job is to help orphans find their new families. I don’t place them in some orphanage somewhere, no—I find families for them, facilitate the adoption process, help them adapt and return to life. I even got a job in the mayor’s office in order to obtain the power to punish abusive parents who do such terrible things to their children that…” Evolett checked himself as if it was difficult for him to even remember this, let alone speak of it. “I was very concerned about the fate of one girl in particular. I won’t mention what her father did to her, but it was so bad that even the mines weren’t a sufficient punishment. The girl had been broken so completely that she had become a vegetable. She was shut up within herself. The only time she showed any signs of life was when she’d panic at the approach of a man…I know what my brother and my niece did to you and can imagine how you feel at the moment. But I also know what you did for Rastilana. In real life, her name is Julia. Even if all she does now is babble about Dragons, at least she came back to life. Uncertainly and tentatively at first, but she has begun to get in touch with the doctors and has stopped trembling when they are near her…It was her flight on the Dragon…”
Evolett poured himself some wine and drained the glass in one go, as if it were filled with eighty-proof vodka. For a short while he fixed me with a distant stare and then finally went on:
“Yesterday I found out that you had returned to Barliona. One doesn’t have to be a genius to know why you came back. No one would forgive what they did to you. You don’t have the resources to exact your revenge, but I did want to thank you for helping Rastilana. I’ll deal with my brother myself. That’s all I have to say.”
“A campaign to the Free Lands?” I asked another question, accepting three scrolls with the most destructive spell in Barliona from the Priest.
“Tell Clutzer to get in touch with Zlatan to hammer out the details. I want to capture a city that has nothing to do with our empires, so there shouldn’t be any issues with reputation.”
A silence ensued which I was afraid to disturb. On the one hand, I had nothing left to do in Kartoss and it was time to go back to Anhurs. On the other hand, I felt like a gift such as this called for some words from me. A present of three scrolls with a nominal value of six to eight million gold kind of begged for some statement of gratitude, but what exactly…so I remained silent, staring into the blazing fireplace.
“In three weeks, it’ll be Allie’s birthday,” Evolett said all of a sudden.
“Barsina. They plan on celebrating in the game as well as in reality—in Vengard. All of the Phoenix leadership should be there, as well as the leaders of their affiliated clans. Everyone will come dressed in their best clothes. Everyone will do their best to show off their status, their riches, their success…No one knows about these tickets and I hope very much no one will know until the very end. I’ll be there too. I’m going to ask my Tailor to make me the best suit possible today. Do we understand each other?”
“We understand each other,” I confirmed, shook the Priest’s hand and entered the coordinates for the village of Blue Mosses. It’s hard not to understand a person who offers you the chance to destroy the belle monde of Malabar with all its unique items. After all, Armageddon doesn’t work any other way.
I imagine that if this celebration goes off the way I want it to, Anastaria will be a little vexed…

The book is going to be released August 20, 2017

No comments :

Post a Comment