Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mirror World - 4: The Twilight Obelisk




The Twilight Obelisk
by Alexey Osadchuk




release - December 4, 2017





It's quarter past four in the morning. The dawn is nearing. The snowstorm has died down; the stars twinkle yellow in the distant sky.
"Would be nice to have some sunshine for a change?" I ask Prankster.
My pet is curled up at my feet, sniffing in his sleep. His ear twitches, betraying his eavesdropping. I already unsummoned Boris but let this lazy SOB to lounge around for a bit.
"I could use some peace," I tell him. "At least for a few days. Let's hope Laosh and his gang get here soon."
We have set up camp by the collapsed wall of the very same house where we met the Nocteans' attack. The crackling of the fire sounds so soothing. My hands reach out toward its warmth. Heaven!
I need to add some wood to the fire. The others need to get warm. The Caltean warriors are fast asleep. The city ruins reverberate from their heroic snoring.
Seet and Horm are making a remarkable recovery. No wonder: this new legendary order we've received does indeed work miracles.
The Grace of the Earth, what a strange name. Its effects are even stranger. It gives +25% to my group's regeneration times. By regeneration, however, the system means both Life and Energy. Excellent, what can I say? Just when we needed it, too.



"And that's not all!" I whisper to Pranky as I open the characteristics tab. "We've received two more legendary orders! Shadow of a Giant and Friend of the Breeze. Both are very powerful spells. Cool, eh?"
Pranky twitches his hind leg in his sleep by way of reply.
"Okay, let's take a look."
For some time, I study the new stats in silence. "I see. The Shadow of a Giant  adds 30% to Life. Which means if I now have about 10,000 hp, this buff brings it up to 13,000," I knead my beard as I try to work it out. "And that's not all. I can cast it on all fellow raid members."
Pranky sniffs his content in his sleep. He doesn't seem to care.
"Not impressed, are you? Very well. How about Friend of the Breeze? Don't you like the sound of it? Here, listen to what it says."
I puff my chest and recite in a low voice, "The spell adds 45% to Speed to all raid members."
I cast a meaningful stare first at Pranky, then at my comrades in arms. All of them are dead to the world. I suppress a smile. We must look a sight!
"You've no idea guys, who you've got involved with."
I glance over the next line. "Wait a sec. So stupid of me. I have another spell, don't I? The Hand of the Outcast? That's what I received with the legendary achievement for maxing out the clan's Reputation. Plus 30 pt. to all clan members' Morale, wasn't it? Whatever that's supposed to mean. Never mind. I'll work it out, I'm sure.
The gifts weren't without their drawbacks. All the new magic tricks I'd just received had a cooldown of 24 hours. Too long, but that was a negligible inconvenience compared to all the perks.
"I really can't complain, buddy, don't you think? First the late-night scuffle with the Nocteans, and then the meeting with the ancient NPCs! I have less than twenty levels left till 100. My Control skill is at 5 now. That's five scarabs, can you imagine? That's one hell of a force. Don't even ask how I’m going to pay for all the metal, but it's worth it!"
I rub my hands, realizing I probably look like a nutcase. What can I say? It's not normal for me, I know. I never thought I could get to love fighting so much.
"And that's not all!" I whisper in excitement. "We had scarabs and fleas, and now we have a new blueprint: a Scorpio! Call me the Lord of Insects if you want!"
Pranky still plays dead - but his cunning moist nose twitches in synch with his rising belly, signaling for me to go on.
"Okay, if you insist. The Scorpio's specs say that it's mainly metal plus 15% toxins. Originally designed by Master Brolgerd in order to deter predators from attacking the shepherds' flocks. Later it was adapted for military purposes. Oh. Now why am I not surprised? Humans! Sentient beings, yeah right. They just have to wage war on each other."
I mechanically readjust the non-existent glasses. "Now let's check out the stats of our new six-legged team member. A poisoned blow... what else can he do? Aha, he can also grab an enemy with his pincers, immobilizing them for a few seconds. Useful thing, especially against physical classes."
I pause for a second, mentally comparing the Scarab to the Scorpio. "Just as I thought. One is a tank who's already excelled in action, the other is sneaky with excellent speed and agility."
I close the insects tab and move over to the pets. Both have grown almost a hundred each. That's good news. The bad news is, if I want my little menagerie to continue advancing, I'll have to travel all the way back to Master Rotim and level up Riding.
The problem is leveling up my beasties' respective skills. Both Boris the Hugger and Prankster the Grison seem to lag behind. And I never got the chance to read the warning messages because I've been so insanely busy just lately.
I could level up Boris' Flight up to level 3 and his Triumphant Crow to 2. Same for Prankster. So it looks like I'll be obliged to fly Boris back to the the Tallian Prairie to see Master Rotim in the village of Tikos.
There's just no other way of doing it. Pretty predictable, if you think about it. The game developers have to have their profits. I have a funny feeling this is going to cost. A lot.
More expenses. I just hope Rrhorgus likes the loot. Werewolf fangs, stone clubs and animal pelts - that was all the loot the Nocteans had offered. Which wasn't a lot to begin with: we didn't get any loot or XP for those killed by the Forbidden City guards. 
"Talking about loot," I murmur. "Isn't it time to open the remaining chest?"

Are you sure you want to open the Precious Wrought Iron Chest?
Accept/Decline

"Absolutely," I say, pressing Accept.

Congratulations! You've just opened the Precious Wrought-Iron Chest!
Reward: The Magic Mirror of Ishood, 1.

That's interesting.

The Magic Mirror of Ishood is an ancient artifact, the work of an anonymous Master of the Divine Era. There is a theory that the Master had once endowed the item with part of his own soul. Until today, the item was considered lost.
Part of the legendary collection The Five Masterpieces of the Divine Era.

The item's characteristics:
The Mirror's owner can use it to summon his own reflection to his or her aid.
Warning from the item's designer:
Beware! The summoned entity is but a mirrored reflection of your own soul! It's a fake - a phantom!
Restrictions:
The reflection's life span: 2 hrs
Cooldown: 2 hrs

More system messages start pinging in my interface,

Congratulations! You've received Achievement: A Self-Professed Collector
Reward: +1% to your chances of receiving Knowledge in battle

Congratulations! You've received Achievement: A Beginner Collector
Reward: +3% to your chances of receiving Knowledge in battle

Congratulations! You've received Achievement: An Advanced Collector of Relics
Reward: +5% to your chances of receiving Knowledge in battle

Congratulations! You've received Achievement: A Treasure Owner.
Reward: +10% to your chances of receiving Knowledge in battle

Congratulations! You've just found an item from the legendary collection: The Five Masterpieces of the Divine Era.
Collect all five items to receive a bonus!

Puzzled, I scratch the back of my head. I've heard about collections before, of course. There're tons of them in Mirror World: you are supposed to collect sets of figurines, tableware and even pieces of mosaic.
In this case, however, I've been lucky enough to lay my hands on a legendary - and hopefully very useful - amulet. Its effects are still a bit unclear but the description sounds rather promising.
I turn the small and rather plain mirror around in my hands, studying it, then place it in my backpack. In any case, collectibles are always in high demand at auctions, and relics like these are expensive. My friend Rrhorgus will be ecstatic about it.
"Ah! Pranky, I completely forgot," I say, rummaging through my bag. "I've got one more item, haven't I? Where is it now... Aha, found it."

The buckle of the Wings of Death combat belt.
Effect: +150 pt. Strength
Effect: +100 pt. Defense
Effect: +250 pt. Endurance
Effect: +150 pt. Stamina
Restriction: Only Ennan race
Level: 50
Warning! This item is non-transferrable!

"Just look at this, buddy! This is also almost a collectable, isn't it? Look at these stats! It suits my level, too. Only how am I supposed to wear it? I need a belt to put it on, don't I? That's another thing to add to my to-do list: visit a leatherworker."
After some careful studying, the buckle too goes into my bag, replaced by the last masters' gifts.
"Now the main part," I say, unraveling the yellowed parchment scroll. "Let's take a look. According to Master Satis, the scroll holds the answers to many important questions."

... I've never seen anything as majestic in my life - and let me tell you, I've seen a lot. The Emerald Palace of the Alven prince... The Brown Deserts of the Narches... The boundless marches of the Dwandes... all these places pale in comparison with the Brutville Halls located at the heart of the Twilight Castle...

(The Notes of Arwein, page 12)

It takes all of my self-control not to explode with laughter. "What, is that it? Answers, yeah right! This sounds like even more questions! You guys have a really sick sense of humor..."
Shaking my hand in disbelief, I throw the scroll back into my bag. After a brief inspection, the bunch of keys I received from Master Axe follows in the same way.
"Why would I need keys in a city without a single door left standing?" I grumble while studying the magic sphere. "Can you even call this a city? You can't even find an outhouse here!"
I struggle to concentrate on the artifact's stats. Oh well. I force a sarcastic grin. We've just received two weeks of absolute immunity.
With a sigh, I close my eyes. "Congratulations, Olgerd, my boy. You’ve just become the new guardian of this tip. The Lord of the ruins."
I can understand the game developers. They need a sensation; a war to end all wars. A mega scuffle! The more clans that go at each other's throats and try to lay their claim to this city, the more profits there are for the Glasshouse owners.
For some reason, mundane obelisk activation isn't good enough for them. In any case, it's too early to even think about it. I've only been here for a few hours, and I've already begun to overcomplicate things.
In any case, what did I expect? They used me as a bait. And they told me as much. I was their whipping boy. I knew what I'd been getting myself into. With a handful of NPC warriors, a useless bunch of keys and a protection sphere I was meant to be a red flag to motivate other players into action. As in, "if this useless noob activates the obelisk, he's going to get all the rewards that come with it!"
I was pretty sure the Twilight Castle was already being discussed in every chat and forum. Auction prices for the few fragments of old maps mentioning No-Man's Land must have rocketed. Very soon, the strongest armies in Mirror World would arrive here, possibly wiping us off the face of this earth like the wind wipes away the dust.
That's why Tanor must have stopped messaging me. Why would he? This was the end of the line. The cards were on the table. Now everything depended on the other clans' quick reactions and how well they prepare for the raid. Or, as a certain Julius Caesar once put it, "I came, I saw, I conquered".
Very well. The clans' agendas as well as those of the Reflex Bank owners were pretty clear to me now. Now what would my next steps be?
At first sight, my affairs seemed to be in a sorry state. That's putting it mildly. But if you tried to look at the problem from a different angle - or even better, from several - their offered a very interesting view of the picture. Naturally, my lack of gaming experience didn't allow me to grasp it all, but even I could see that not all was lost.
What's more, I too was in the mood for a big scuffle. Anyone who'd attempt to arrive here in order to "see and conquer" would be in for a truly unforgettable experience. I'd take care of that. I knew I could do it.
"I can and I will! Honest to God I will!"
"Olgerd? Whatcha mumbling there?"
Droy's sleepy voice distracted me from my musings. He levered himself up with his elbow, his half-opened left eye staring ironically at me. "Are you casting your magic?"
I chuckled. "You could say that, I suppose."
He beamed. "That's good. Keep going. Your witchcraft is helping the boys, I can see that."
I glanced at the sleeping Seet and Horm who kept regenerating. "Yes, leader," I replied. "Soon both will be back on their feet. They will need some rest and care though."
Droy nodded. "Good. When the others arrive, Orman's wife Carina will soon put them right. She's the tribe's wise woman."
"A wise woman?" I asked curiously. "That's interesting. Do you have many of them around here?"
Droy craned his neck to make sure Orman was still sleeping, then turned back to me, "Olgerd, you amaze me sometimes. You're such a smart guy. But some of the things you say..."
"Why, what did I say?"
Droy shook his head in amazement. "You're lucky Orman can't hear us. He would have told you a thing or two... He might have even punched your lights out despite you being the tribe's friend and all that."
"But why? What have I done?"
"Don't you understand? His wife is unique. There's nobody else like her in the whole world. Every woman is equally unique. And you're talking about them as if they're a bunch of rag dolls. Please, next time watch what you're saying."
"I see..." I mumbled, open-mouthed.
What was that now? Had this NPC just made it clear that I needed to change my attitude to them if I wanted to keep my Rep points? This piece of binary code actually supported the illusion of this world's perfect authenticity? How interesting.
"Droy, my friend, I'm very sorry," I began cautiously. "I'm afraid you misunderstood me. No, it's not that. I just failed to formulate my question correctly."
"I know what you wanted to formulate," Droy shrugged my apology away. "You wanted to know whether there were other healers in the tribe. Of course there are."
Was he kidding me?
Droy frowned. "Don't look at me like that. I'm a smart man - it's because I know you for quite a while. But other Calteans might not understand you as well as I do. We're all different. Some are smarter than others; or should I say dumber? It's just a lesson for you for the future. Make sure you don't say something you might later regret. It would be a shame."
Jesus Christ. Was it my imagination or was the relationship between the NPCs and players gradually evolving, rising to a totally new level? Every time I looked at this black-bearded Caltean tribe leader, I began to wonder if he was indeed controlled by the invisible puppeteer - or had all the AI controllers been fired?
"I can see that got you thinking," Droy said with a sarcastic grin. "That's good. They say that thinking is a healthy habit."
I shrugged. "What can I say? You're dead right there, my friend. Thanks for the tip."
"That's all right," Droy grinned good-naturedly. "As long as you learn from my words. Like I learned from yours that day when we battled the Darks by the River Quiet."
We both heaved a sigh, staring at the dancing flames.
Personally, I couldn't tell whether that slaughter had been beneficial for me or detrimental. All I knew was that without it, we'd now have had fifty more warriors. Plus a shaman. Which is a power to be reckoned with.
"Very well, soldier," Droy said. "Carry on with your watch. I'll get some more sleep."
Judging by his Energy bar, it would take him another couple of hours to fully restore. Same for all the others - except for the wounded warriors, of course.
Now was a convenient moment to do what I'd planned to do all along but never had the time. I needed to study their stats.
Let's start with Droy.
Level: no problem. Another battle might bring him up to 300.
How about his characteristics?
Oh wow. That was in fact quite complicated! A combat class. Abilities. Skills.
Class: Warrior. Sub-class: Lancer. Why lancer? Droy was good with all sorts of weapons, wasn't he? He was an excellent archer and could brandish his sword with the best of them. What was the catch?
Aha. Found it.

An NPC's sub-class depends on the skill level of a particular weapon. In its turn, the skill level of a weapon depends on how frequently it is used in combat.
    
That made sense. Indeed, the spear seemed to be Droy's weapon of choice. He was good with it, too. How he'd skewered the Nocteans with it!
Droy took a great deal of pride in his spear: a strong, well-made shaft topped with a long iron head. Still, a closer inspection of the weapon's stats proved less than impressive. Its level corresponded to that of his own, but its icon... it was gray. Ditto for all of Droy's gear: his knife, his sword, his bow and his clothes.
Same applied to all the other warriors. They didn't have a single "green" or "blue" item between them.
Oh wow. Once again I caught myself rubbing my hands like some... some nutcase?
No wonder! A whole Klondike of opportunities was opening up before me.
Thoughts began thrashing about in my mind like a flock of scared birds. What if I was wrong? What if NPCs couldn't change their pre-programmed weapons? Then my discovery wasn't worth jack.
On the other hand, why would they color the icons at all? Why would they allow NPCs to level up their skills and abilities?
I couldn't remember NPCs ever picking up loot - but that didn't mean anything! Everything in Mirror World happened for a reason. For instance, Nocteans' stone weapons were of a different class and therefore not suitable for the Calteans who in turn didn't seem to be able to see certain types of players' weapons. Was there a pattern there somewhere?
"Never mind," I murmured. "We'll tackle that problem when we come to it. What next?"
Apart from his military skills, Droy also boasted other more peaceful abilities. Apparently, he was a passionate hunter and fisherman; he could cook you a mean meal; etc etc. The numbers against each skill said nothing to me. Once I compared his stats to those of his warriors, I might draw some conclusions. But even that wasn't that important. The main thing was, they did have skills which could be leveled.
I'd been so busy studying Droy's potential I was oblivious to everything around me. In the meantime, it had started snowing. Oh, well. So much for the sun. At least it wasn't windy. I suppose that was good news.
I had to climb to my feet and go fetch a new helping of firewood. There was plenty of it lying around, anyway.
The fire accepted my offering and began to grow, reluctantly at first, its circle of warmth widening. Now the snowflakes melted in mid-air just out of our reach.
"Excellent," I sat back down and made myself comfortable. "Who's next?"
Seet the Burly and Horm the Turtle were both archers. But as for Orman the Bear and Crym the Hammer, both were light infantrymen.
How interesting. Seet was only three levels away from becoming a lancer. And Horm must have used his sword a lot in the recent skirmishing: it looked like he might soon swell the ranks of our infantry.
As for their more peaceful skills, Orman was an excellent cook (with which I agreed wholeheartedly) while Crym the Hammer was a budding mason - a colleague of mine, to a degree.
Each of them had a good couple of dozen other skills in various degrees of arrested development. Never mind. We had a lot of work to do. Plenty of opportunity to level up every warrior's skill and ability.
Talking about stat comparing... what was that little app I'd received? The one with all the graphs? I'd forgotten all about it.
Very well. I pressed Raid Control.

Active raid members:
6/296

What was that supposed to mean? Aha... Number six was our little group. The other 290 were still on their way here. So apparently, I only had access to the stats of those NPCs who were currently with me.
Very well. That little was clear. What next?
Jesus. They didn't make it easy for you, did they? Tabs and more tabs, at least fifty in total, packed with charts, graphs and diagrams...
Aha. The Morale tab! Wasn't it the one I could improve with the Hand of the Outcast? Let's have a look.
Wow. Judging by the numbers and the icons' intense green hue, my clan members could take on the world. Which was normal, really. They'd defeated the Nocteans; they'd found a seat for their clan; they'd even managed to stay in one piece. Apart from a few wounded, we had no casualties. No wonder their morale was sky-high!
Even though the developers had skimped on information, this characteristic was pretty much self-explanatory. A drop in Morale could have had some potentially unpleasant consequences, especially for me as the raid leader.
The interface was pretty clumsy, I could see that. Still, it did simplify the task of raid control. I wouldn't be surprised if at some point the game developers asked for my feedback.
Next tab: Life Support. So many stats! Satiety, Fatigue, Physical Health... and so on and so forth, at least twenty of them. Now I didn't have to peer at every warrior to find out how he was feeling. All I had to do was to open the chart.
Actually, judging by the sagging graph, my men were hungry as hell. Also, I could see that our food supplies were running low.
How strange. I'd never looked at it that way. To me, the Calteans had always been pretty self-sufficient. They used to cook their own meals on the fire, they drank their own drinks and mended their own clothes. They had managed very well without me. But now that I could see the whole picture, I could on one hand monitor it all but on the other, it added to my already quite hefty responsibilities.
I spent some more time studying the interface until I located another very useful little app: Coordinator. From now on, it was going to report all instances of level drops for each and every one of my raiders' stats. I could monitor each person individually or control the raid's combined characteristics.
I tried it out, setting it to 80%. Immediately I was flooded with hundreds of alerts. I brought the number down to 60%, then to 40%. In any case, it looked like food was a priority.
When the others woke up, I should really watch Droy issuing orders. According to the app, we had enough food left for two more meals. Hunting was the only way we could restock our supplies. And now that I knew each person's Hunting levels, I was curious which of them Droy would choose for the job.
I just hoped I wouldn't have to interfere with what I used to consider an automated process. Because if I did, I might end up being buried under an avalanche of petty problems. Then I could kiss my big plans goodbye, that's for sure.







Chapter Two



"CRYM, I WANT you to check the area for any game," Droy said, dishing out lumps of cooked meat out of the cauldron. "See if you can catch something."
Crym the Hummer nodded. "Will do."
Bugger. So much for my not interfering.
Everything had seemed to go smoothly once the raiders had woken up. Orman - who'd been the first on his feet - got busy making breakfast which looked more like an oversized dinner. So far, so good. Apparently, the system worked well without me.
But once Droy had started allocating daily tasks, I got worried.
Okay, both Seet and Horm needed to heal and couldn't be disturbed. But why had Droy left Orman behind to keep camp while sending Crym out hunting? Crym was hopelessly behind in Hunting: in fact, he had 50 pt. less than Orman. Shouldn't Droy have left Crym to keep camp instead?
I waited patiently for both to get on with their tasks, then took a seat next to Droy. "Mind if I ask you something?"
"Fire away," Droy said, warming his hands over the embers.
"I just wonder, why did you send Crym out hunting? Isn't Orman a better hunter?"
I very nearly told him about the stats but bit my tongue just in time.
My friend arched a surprised eyebrow. "Funny you ask me."
"Why?"
"Well, think about it. You were never interested in these things before."
I nodded. "I wasn't. I'm just curious."
"Very well. It's quite simple, really. Your mistake is you only look at the problem from one angle. What you need to do is see the entire picture."
"Sorry, I don't get it," I said.
"I'll explain," Droy said, still smiling. "You're absolutely right in saying that Orman is the better man for the job. But!" he raised a meaningful finger. "You only thought about hunting. You seem to forget that Orman is also an excellent cook. So I want him to stay in the camp and set up his own kitchen. This is something only a cook can do. And if I asked Crym to do it instead - and you probably know what kind of 'cook' he is..."
"How can I ever forget," I winced, remembering the dinner Crym had helpfully cooked for us once.
Droy chuckled. "Exactly. And you shouldn't doubt Crym's hunting skills. He'll be back with something, that's for sure. He's a Caltean, after all!"
"You think?" I asked, still unsure.
"Of course! When I took a leak this morning, I saw some boar tracks real close. They've never seen man in this part of the world. They've probably never been hunted before. I don't think the ancient Gods were into hunting that much. So I gave Crym a tip. You shouldn’t think I'm going to hang around doing nothing. I'll help Orman a bit, then I'll keep an eye on Seet and Horm. There's something you can do, too. The snowstorm is over. Now is the time for you to summon your flying beast and take a flight around our new territory."
I nodded, deep in thought, digesting yet another lesson I'd just learned from this NPC.
He was right again. Embarrassing, really. On the other hand, it was great news. It meant I wouldn't have to concentrate on petty stuff.
And as for taking a flight... What a good idea!
Boris materialized out of nowhere full of life and energy, his eyes shiny, impatient to take to the sky. What was I waiting for? I unsummoned Pranky and leaped into the saddle. With a joyful cry, Boris the Hugger shot into the sky.
Immediately the wintry air froze my facial muscles. My eyes watered. The speed! Well done, Boris! He's come a long way.
I allowed him to frolic about for a bit. After a few loops, I told him to level out.
We soared over the ancient city ruins. You couldn't make anything out among the heaps of collapsed stonework and banks of age-old snow. Not a single building was left standing. What had happened here? A tornado? An earthquake?
Only an occasional glimpse of the remaining foundations gave you some idea of the city's layout.
So what did I see? The city's main landmark was a mountain which had offered its foothills to the Ennan builders. I could clearly see the outline of the five city walls which had encircled it: it was a bit like looking at a slice of a layered cake.
The lowest wall - or rather, its ruins which served as a base for our camp - was also the longest. If we wanted to restore it by the deadline, we would probably need to enroll all of Mirror World's builders. And even then I wasn't too sure that they'd make it.
Restoring the wall was only part of the problem, though. We also needed to defend it. I dreaded to even think how many warriors I might need just to post on the city walls.
Never mind. This structure was way out of my league at the moment. Ditto for the next three walls. But the highest and the shortest one... I just might make it.
If the maps were to be believed, that's where the Brutville Halls used to stand. Almost on top of the mountain. You could indeed call it the heart of the Twilight Castle.
I needed to take a closer look.
Obeying my order, Boris landed on top of the tallest fragment of the wall.
"So! It's not that bad at all!" I exclaimed, surveying our future campsite.
Boris sniffed his contempt. I could understand him. Here, the tallest of the wall fragments were about seven foot high, not even. Considering the nature of our enemy, these so-called fortifications weren't going to stop anyone. Some of our future opponents might not even need to jump: they'd simply step over them.
Now, what else... According to the map, I was now standing at the very center of the Brutville Halls so eloquently praised by Arvein.
I suppressed a bitter chuckle. I'd done so much in order to get here; I'd traveled so far - and finally I'd arrived.
"What now?" I shouted at the empty, wintry sky.
Silence. As if. Even Boris had ignored my outburst of frustration.
Then again, who said it was going to be easy?
I spent some more time walking about the ruins. This place seemed perfect for our little gang.
How ironic. This part of the city used to be the grandest. This is where their elite used to live. Or even their kings. And here we were, barging in like some barbarian tribe into Rome, settling down here with all our caboodle. The only thing that excused our presence was the fact that unlike the Vandals and such, we hadn't come here to destroy.
I gave the gloomy ruins one last look. They seemed okay. There were only a few minor points left to check out. Once that done, I could go back and report.
I told Boris to take off. "Let's circle the mountain one last time, then we can go back to the camp."
Silently he obeyed.

* * *

My recon flight lasted until midday. We could have stayed longer had it not been for the snowstorm. Still, what I'd already seen was plenty. Time to return to base.
As we flew over the mountain summit, I noticed a rather wide rocky ledge. I could almost bet that it hadn't been there when I'd first passed. Someone must have taken great care to keep this part of the cliff as inconspicuous as possible. You could only see it from the air, and even then only at a certain angle. Even so I had a funny feeling that discovering it must have had something to do with my Survival Instinct.
Boris banked into a smooth turn and landed on a flat rectangular platform at least fifty paces wide. Its outer part was completely snowed in. Closer to the wall was a black rocky platform. Someone must have invested a lot of TLC into this hideout.
"So that's what it is, then," I whispered, staring at an enormous door hiding under a rocky outcrop. "Not all is ruined, apparently."
Calling it a door was actually an understatement. A gate, rather, big enough for a smallish truck to drive through.
Slowly I looked around me. To my left was a descending staircase cut into the rock, wide enough for two people to pass each other - three even, if they're someone my size.
Okay. Now, the door. Without leaving the saddle, I told Boris to get closer.
He'd barely took two paces when a new system message popped up,

The gate to the West Grotto
Would you like to enter?
Yes / No

My body erupted in a cold sweat. So this place wasn't all ruins and desolation?
My heart missed a beat as I pressed Yes.

Warning! In order to open the gate, you will need the key.

I reached into my bag and began rummaging inside with a shaking hand as my gaze searched for a keyhole.
A bunch of keys appeared with a sonorous clink. One key was highlighted blue: a heavy rectangular lump of steel two inches wide and at least two hands long. Its sides were machined with a jagged pattern of square teeth.
I sprang softly down onto the stone tiles. The keyhole was now level with my chest. No wonder: this place had been built by and for fellow Ennans!
The key struggled a little, squeaking its way into the lock. Now I had to press it. My shoulder muscles tensed.
The lock clicked, triggering some invisible process. The door's recesses began to clank and rattle. Then the key sprang slightly backwards as if letting me know it had completed its job.
I pulled it out with ease. That must have been the signal for a transformation. The heavy slab of rock shuddered with a crunching sound. Emitting little clouds of stone dust, the door began to slide upward, showering the tiles below with sand and small pebbles. The gaping dark entryway behind it oozed cold and damp.
Finally, the stone door disappeared into the cliff's innards.

Congratulations! You've unlocked the gate to the West Grotto!

Boris and I looked at each other. His eyes glittered with enthusiastic curiosity. So did mine, I suppose.
I leaped back into the saddle. Better that way. "So, kiddo? How about we take a look at this grotto of theirs?"
Boris flowed gracefully in. A new warning appeared before my eyes,

Warning! The West Grotto had remained unclaimed for many a century. Finally, it became home to a colony of Thorn Rats.

Warning! This location can be too dangerous for players under level 290. Please turn back.

Aha! I mentally rubbed my hands as I stepped back. There it is, the first instance we'd found in the Forbidden City! Excellent. I needed to wait for Laosh and the others. We needed to discuss this properly.
Thorn Rats, oh well. As I had no access to the bestiary, I couldn't look them up. I inserted the key in the lock and closed the door. Better safe than sorry. I didn't want those beasties to escape and prowl the area. We had enough on our plate as it was.
When I was already up in the air circling the cliff one last time, a new thought struck me. A West Grotto. Did that mean there might be an East one somewhere? Or, who knows, one more in the South and another one in the North? That would make sense, wouldn't it?
I spent another hour circling the mountain slopes but to no avail. I hadn't noticed anything. I got the funny feeling that the 55 pt. of Survival Instinct I'd received with the Fort Guardian Kit, wasn't enough to detect any other grottos. It was already a good thing that it had allowed me to discover the West one.
"Never mind," I told Boris. "Let's go back to the camp."

* * *

The results of my little recon sortie produced quite a stir in the camp. Everybody grew restless. I too felt pretty much on edge. Apparently, not all had been lost. There were still some places left in this ancient Ennan city which didn't resemble the ruins of a Roman circus.
The only person who'd kept a cool head was Droy. Had it not been for him, we'd have already been on our way to the grotto to genocide the Thorn Rats. I wouldn't say he was less excited than the others but he kept his cool as a commander should, insisting we waited for Laosh to arrive.
So we had lunch instead. The hot meal and the warmth of the fire seemed to have had a soothing effect on our nerves. We began to wind down.
Indeed, what was the point in going there now? There were only four of us. This was the worst moment to die a stupid death. Me, I could always resurrect but my friends couldn't. So we decided to wait for Laosh, call up a raid and purge the instance properly.
Even though their first bout of enthusiasm had already expired, the warriors hurried to finish their meal and immediately began preparing their weapons.
As I watched their practiced actions, a new idea struck me. Why not? I could try, couldn't I?
What a shame I didn't have anything on me I could experiment on. Never mind.
I heaved a theatrical sigh and reached into my bag. The Noctean stone axe felt as heavy as a ton of bricks. I tried to take a swing with it but failed miserably, receiving a shower of penalty messages which brought each and every one of my characteristics deep into negative numbers.
I closed the messages, then studied the primitive weapon, pointedly ignoring everyone around.
Oh. It wasn't even an axe really but more of a club. I even got some idea of how it had been fashioned out of a young tree: someone had bashed a flat stone into its roots and cut the trunk to about five foot long. Nothing was strapped down. I could even see the bits of earth still stuck to the roots. This was stone age in all its prehistoric glory.
The axe's stats, however, came as a surprise. This was one hell of a lethal weapon. Its damage was impressive. Its durability, however, left a lot to be desired.
The Calteans had ceased talking and were now watching me, disgust and animosity in their glares. Sorry, guys. It's either this or the slingshot. I had nothing else to use for my experiment.
Crym spoke first. "Just get rid of it, Olgerd," he said, frowning. "Filthy thing."
Well, he'd have to grin and bear it, wouldn't he? I didn't say so in his face, though. "In a moment," I replied. "I just want to have a look at it."
"There's nothing to look at," he insisted. "Useless stick."
"That's what you think," I said. "Even a stick like this can tell a lot about its owner."
"I can tell you all you need to know about its owner," Droy said calmly.
"Which is what?"
Droy grinned. "He's dead, isn't he?"
The others guffawed. Orman slapped their leader on the shoulder.
I wasn't going to give up so easily. "Anything else?" I asked once they stopped laughing. I sat down next to Droy and offered him the axe.
He looked at it with disgust and shook his head.
"And you, what can you see?" Orman asked with a cunning smile on his bearded face.
I pursed my lips and turned the axe in my hands, doing my best Sherlock Holmes impersonation. "Firstly, our enemies don't know tanning yet. The stone isn't strapped up," I ignored their sarcastic smiles and continued, "Secondly, it is an axe, not a club. The stone is covered in tree sap which means they used it to cut down trees. And thirdly, the axe's owner was quite intelligent for a Noctean."
"What makes you think so?" Orman asked.
Droy replied, joining in my little Baker Street game,
"Think for yourself. He had enough brains to break down a tree and stick a stone between its roots. And not just any stone but a flat one to make it easier to cut things down with."
The others stared at me, waiting for more. I didn't play hard to get. "The type of stone and the kind of tree can tell us where they came from. The fact that the earth still sticks to the roots means it was made recently. There's little blood on the blade which also means its owner didn't use it in combat a lot."
The Calteans fell silent, staring pensively at the item.
I continued, "The handle is covered in dark red spots. Its owner must have rubbed his hands raw which means he's not used to handling this sort of tool. It looks like this was his first weapon - and probably also his last."
"Anything else?" Droy asked. His eyes glowed with respect.
"Actually, yes," I said. "He was left-handed."
Seeing the amazement on their faces, I explained, "Look at the handle. You can still see the handprint. It's a left hand, isn't it?
Now the moment of truth. I offered the weapon to Droy. Would he accept it? Fingers crossed.
After a moment's hesitation, Droy took the axe from me and began studying the handle.
Yes! He did it!
Shaking with triumph, I hurried to open Droy's stats. Oh wow. He'd received more or less the same penalties as I had. But that was irrelevant. I've just managed to prove that the Calteans weren't tied to their own weapon types! How cool was that? It opened up some truly promising horizons!
The axe was already changing hands. The Calteans were busy discussing it as they studied it closely, looking for some signs known only to them.
I leaned back, staring at the fire and trying to calculate how much my future re-armament race might ultimately cost me.







Chapter Three



EARLY NEXT MORNING we grabbed a quick bite to eat and set off for the Upper City as I'd christened it. We'd broken camp, planning to set it up anew on the mountain top - the tribe's future home.
To show some team spirit, I chose to walk on my own two feet, especially seeing as the two wounded raid members couldn't walk at all. They were dragged along in makeshift sledges that Crym had fashioned the night before. I was helping Orman to drag Horm while Droy and Crym took turns pulling Seet along. Judging by their stats, the wounded guys were about to come round. With all its fabled authenticity, Mirror World was still a computer game.
The sledges slid effortlessly over the snow, allowing us to reach the summit before midday. We had to thread our way around many a collapsed building which was actually for the better: this didn't make it any easier for our potential enemy.
Actually, I needed to check the hunters' stats to see whether they could make traps and snares. If they could, then this trek was begging to be turned into a deadly gauntlet for any trespassers.
The Calteans loved the spot. They even began discussing how they were going to set up tents and things. Yeah, dream on, guys. I had my own ideas regarding our future camp's planning. Some of them might not like it but one thing was for sure: I wasn't going to tolerate the chaotic mess that passed for a Caltean camp.
Orman started the fire. We were already making ourselves comfortable around it, about to discuss everything we'd seen, when a strange noise alerted us.
The Calteans froze momentarily, then leapt to their feet and ran toward the wall which offered a good view of the valley.
While I was getting my act together, the sound repeated, again and again, louder and stronger every time, until finally I realized what it was I was hearing.
It was a Caltean bugle.
The snowstorm had stopped already an hour ago. The valley lay before us in a dull cloudy half-light, revealing the black dots of our fellow tribesmen on the white snow below.
Something wasn't right there... definitely. But of course! How stupid of me! If they signaled with their bugle, it meant they were in trouble! Our clan was under attack!
I had to act fast, before my team awoke from their stupor and did something they would later regret.
"Droy," I said, investing as much authority in my voice as I could muster.
The Caltean leader startled and looked at me.
"Wait for me here," I said. "Do you hear me? You can't do anything there. At least the enemy can't get here. The ancient magic of this place won't let them in."
After last night's battle, I'd already explained to them how lucky we'd actually been.
"Make sure the guys keep their emotions in check. They're not in a position to help the tribe. If they try, they'll only get themselves killed. I'm going to fly there. My little mechanical friends will be of more use there. You know that yourself."
Droy's gaze cleared. He must have remembered my scarabs and their defeat of the Nocteans. "Go," he wheezed.
Good. Droy seemed to take it seriously. Now I could leave them. I could only imagine what it was going to cost him. His own son was with the tribe, as well as the other guys' families.
The moment Boris appeared, I sprang into the saddle. With a sharp jolt, we were already airborne.
The air screamed in my ears. My eyes were running. Sensing my state of mind, Boris was doing his best.
We crossed the valley as if it wasn't even there. As we approached, I could see the Calteans waving their hands to me. The carts and sledges, the animal noises, the shouting of the children and women...
The bugle sang its melody again. What a powerful instrument!
I was already flying above the traveling group when I finally understood the reason for their anxiety. They were surrounded by Nocteans on three sides who drove them like a herd of bison from a safe distance of about two hundred paces. They probably didn't dare come any closer for fear of Caltean arrows.
How many of them were there? At least three hundred. They walked unhurriedly; their ugly faces betrayed no sign of fatigue.
The Calteans, however, looked exhausted. Their numbers seemed to have gone down.
I ran a quick check. I was right, dammit! The system showered me with warnings and alerts. The Calteans were at the end of their tether. Most of their stats had dropped at least 40%! We were 260 now: minus 26 clan members. Damn those Nocteans!
Why weren't they attacking? I double-checked their positioning. Aha. From what I could see, the Nocteans seemed to be thinking they were herding their quarry to the slaughter. They were sure that the Calteans wouldn't dare enter the Forbidden City, so they'd be forced to stop and fight. Their ugly mugs betrayed their impatience. This group didn't seem to have anything in common with the Nocteans killed by the city's ancient guards.
One of them stood out even among his hairy tribesmen. He towered at least two heads above the rest, his body covered in short dark fur which looked almost black. Definitely the leader of the pack, judging by how the others were running around him.
A werewolf, for sure.
A group of about fifty more Nocteans armed with stone axes surrounded him as some prehistoric analog of bodyguards.
I flew up closer. He'd noticed me a long time ago and was looking at me with curiosity now.
Our eyes met. So! This one seemed to be marginally smarter than the rest. His black eyes glinted with all the superiority of a wild beast - and maybe just a tad of discomfort. Normal, really. A midget flying a magic animal can discomfort anyone.
Boris banked into a steep turn, heading back toward the Caltean group. I made out Laosh' gaunt frame at the center of their ranks. He was looking up, waving his hand to me.
Soon I was already standing before him. The old man was in a bad way, his eyes red from lack of sleep. Apparently, the Nocteans prevented their prisoners from stopping for the night.
The Calteans' rough voices cheered my arrival. Laosh gave me an unembarrassed hug. Hands kept slapping my back and shoulders.
"You've made it," I said when they finally left me alone.
"Not all of us, unfortunately," the shaman replied. "Still, we're here. And you?"
"We're fine," I reassured him. "The city belongs to us. What about those?" I nodded at the Nocteans.
"They attacked us in the dead of night," Laosh replied curtly. "We lost almost thirty warriors in that battle. It's been three days they've been following us."
I clenched my teeth to suppress my anger. "They're driving you like game beaters. Never mind. As long as we make it to the city, they'll never get you."
Laosh' eyes focused watchfully on me. "I can sense some powerful witchcraft."
I produced the sphere from my bag by way of answer.
Laosh closed his eyes. "Two weeks' protection," he whispered with relief.
I climbed back into the saddle. "Laosh!" I turned to the shaman as Boris took off, "I'll try and buy you some time. But be quick!"
The old man nodded and began barking orders. As Boris headed toward the Noctean ranks, I noticed a few smiles on the Calteans' faces. I checked their stats. Indeed, their Morale numbers seemed to have improved ever so slightly.
And what if...

Would you like to activate the Hand of the Outcast?

Absolutely.

Congratulations! You've received +30 pt. to all your clan members' Morale!
Duration: 5 hrs.

By now, the entire tribe had already heard the good news. The Forbidden City was safe and off limits for Nocteans! That, in combination with the Hand of the Outcast, had produced the desired effect. The Calteans picked up the pace; even the women and children fell quiet. Men strengthened their grips on their weapons, their faces glowing with determination. Even the animals seemed to realize the importance of the moment.
I seemed to be feeling different too. How weird. My emotions seemed to have intensified, my blood boiling with adrenaline. What's that? Had the VR capsule staff injected my lifeless frame with amphetamines after I'd activated the Hand of the Outcast? I absolutely needed to find that out once I resurfaced back in the real world.
The change in their quarry's mood hadn't gone completely unnoticed by the Nocteans. They grew restless. Their leader emitted a powerful growl, encouraging the others.
Bad timing, dammit! That bastard was too smart for his own good. Never mind. We'd give him something to do in a minute.
Actually... easier said than done. What was I supposed to do, step in their horde's way with my insect squad? But this wasn't a couple dozen werewolves! These guys would just trample right over us, end of story. All I'll do I'll waste the remaining metal in vain.
Still, I had to put my money where my mouth was. Especially because I already had the first inklings of a very simple plan. I decided to attack the leader. Why not? I would fly over to him and set a few fleas on him, how about that? Maybe loose a few slugs from my slingshot, just to keep him on his toes. He's not gonna like it. And when the others see their leader's humiliation, they'd be reluctant to continue their pursuit.
That's settled, then. The dark hairy Noctean leader was already directly below me. He scowled. Level 350! Not too shabby at all!
The other Nocteans bared their teeth at me. I was at least fifty feet above them and still they jumped high in the air, trying to get to me. Those creatures could jump, that's for sure.
Their leader abstained from their impromptu pogo jumping competition. He could see he wouldn't make it, so what was the point in looking stupid in his own warriors' eyes?
I kept a watchful eye on my clan. They were making good speed. I'd managed to distract the Nocteans, that's for sure. They were too busy now trying to catch me.
I met the Noctean leader's eye. What a bastard! He too could see the Calteans' escape so he promptly switched his priorities, losing all interest in me.
The leader emitted a threatening roar. The gray hairy mass of Nocteans shifted as one man, about to follow their fleeing quarry. That made sense. I hadn't aggroed them, had I?
Never mind. I'd do it - now.

You've built the simplest mechanical creature: a Swarm of Fleas!
Level: 120
Number of swarm members: 5

The first swarm came as a complete surprise to the leader. They even managed to bite him at least once each before being struck by his bodyguards' stone axes.
The leader howled in pain. The Nocteans froze, then hurried to his rescue. All hell broke lose! All of them were jumping, trying to get to me and Boris. While they were thus engaged in this admittedly useless exercise, the Venom of Swamp Monk began to work, sending the leader shrieking to the ground.
Then a strange thing happened. A giant gray Noctean slid like a shadow out of the crowd and went growling for their leader. Soon the two Nocteans were at each other's throats.
"Oh wow. It looks like we've triggered a local power struggle," I whispered, watching this battle of the titans.
Soon the two Nocteans transformed to their werewolf shapes. Now they were twice their original size. The venom couldn't kill the leader whose level and regeneration were now considerably higher. It looked like his opponent realized it, too. Shifty-eyed, he lowered his ears, apparently regretting his impulse but not enough to surrender. I could see he'd decided to fight to the last. Even if he'd wanted to escape, he couldn't: the Nocteans surrounded the two fighters, encouraging them in this prehistoric version of gladiatorial fights. They were too busy now to worry about us.
The leader's gray opponent couldn't have chosen a better moment to claim power. Unfortunately, he was no match for the tribe's leader who was ten levels above him. Still, that wasn't my problem. As long as he managed to distract the leader for a while, that was fine with me. Should I send in a few more fleas? Pointless, really. Everything was working out just fine without me. The two were ripping each other apart.
The Calteans had crossed the valley remarkably quickly. Their first sledges reached the town walls just as the hairy tribe leader finally dealt the decisive blow to his opponent. He tilted his head up to the skies and howled, informing the world of his victory. His hapless rival lay at his feet with his throat ripped out.
The leader gave his tribe a long, almost insane look as if challenging the next contender to come forth. Predictably, there were none. Heads lowered in a mass act of subordination. Wheezing, the leader turned the still-warm body on its back, then ripped his heart out in one strong, practiced motion.
Yuk. Time for me to go. Blood and gore had never been my thing. Especially as most of the Calteans had already entered the city.
As Boris whisked me away, I sensed a hateful glare focused on my back. I turned round. The tribe leader watched me leave, munching on his rival's twitching heart.
Oh. It looked like the Nocteans were here to stay...




release - December 4, 2017


2 comments :

  1. Very nice. Looking forward to reading this book and seeing how it proceeds

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  2. *sigh* December is so so far away. I just binged books 1-3, book 3 felt short by comparison. Looking forward to this one.

    ReplyDelete