Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Way of the Shaman, Book VII: Clans War

The Way of the Shaman
Book 7: Clans War
by Vasily Mahanenko

Release - February 12, 2018

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Chapter One. Return to Barliona

“Welcome to Barliona. While the capsule configuration is in progress, please review the latest update notes…”
A soothing female voice began to list off the updated game mechanics and their particularities; however, I’d already examined these back in reality. Stacey had summarized the major changes to me: The level of the Emperor NPCs had been raised from 500 to 1000, which meant that even a dozen scrolls of Armageddon wouldn’t pose any danger to these characters. The levels of Advisers and Heralds had also been raised to 900 and 800 respectively. Meanwhile, the developers had played a mean trick on the players and removed the max stat cap entirely. Now, the most stubborn among us could increase their stats infinitely. At the same time, the stat points gained from every new level had been decreased. The gaming forums immediately burst into flames with the outrage of high-level players who had long ago reached their maximum stat points and therefore lost the bonuses from all the levels they had gained since. Still, the Corporation stayed firm and no one would be receiving any extra bonuses. The greatest concession here was that players were still permitted to allocate the unused stat points they had saved up, and at least now everyone knew what the deal was. We’d have to be happy with that at least.

There weren’t any other global changes to the mechanics, aside from several new classes and races as well as locations for them. Likewise, the continent’s area grew due to some kind of earthquake caused by an island ramming the land mass. I believe it was this island where the new races appeared, though I was only half listening to the update notes. Instead, my eyes were fixed on the 3D image of my character, decked out in sumptuous Shamanic armor. I hadn’t looked like that before blowing up Geranika. It didn’t occur to me to complain, however. The violet glow of Legendary items radiating from my new gear let me know that I would be happy when I got around to checking their properties.
After all, my former Thricinian gear lost its efficacy after Level 300.
The Corporation had decided to resurrect Geranika and his army. It turned out that my five Armageddon scrolls destroyed not only the Lord of Shadow and his attendants, but also the new Shadow Dragon that the devs had placed so much of their hopes in. This time James and his team didn’t bother reinventing the wheel and simply asked Mr. Johnson to restore Barliona to its state an hour before the global disconnection. They wrote mountains of explanatory letters and assessed the compensation they would pay the players for their loss of an hour’s worth of grinding, after which Mr. Johnson personally pushed the big ‘Reset’ button. Geranika and his Dragon of Shadow sprang back to life, the players received their due compensation, but the Corporation didn’t bother touching my character. Mahan retained all the XP he had earned. Moreover, the Corp outfitted my Shaman with such loot that every time I ran into their representatives all they did was smile mysteriously and remind me to return to the game as soon as possible in order to personally see their generosity.
In the meantime, after leaving the capsule, my life had become one big fairy tale. Three days in the rehab center was all it took to get me back on my feet. This was followed by a week of court where I testified as a witness instead of a suspect. Then there were unique agreements with the Corporation regarding my character; Anastaria’s appearance and her speech; our half-hour-long silence as we sat and simply looked into each other’s eyes, unwilling to say a single word; the tempestuous and passionate lovemaking that followed; the mad and foolish words of apology and confessions of love…My disconnection from reality. Tears. Happiness. Love.
If it weren’t for Stacey’s father insisting that we return to Barliona, perhaps our fairy tale would have gone on forever. But all good things have to end at some point, so…


Quest list updated. Please review it.

The first thing that appeared before my eyes when Barliona replaced reality was a notification that my quest list had been updated. This enormous notification refused to be swiped aside, telling me one thing—until I open the quest list and review it, this notification won’t be going anywhere. Making sure just in case that I had spawned in a safe location—the main hall of Altameda by the looks of it—I took a seat in my beloved rocking throne and began to peruse my to do list. Something tells me that until I familiarize myself with all the changes that have been made to my Shaman, I won’t even be allowed to leave Altameda.

‘The Creator of the World.’ Description: Speak with the hermit living in the foothills of the Elma Mountains. He shall help guide your craft in the proper direction.
‘The Pirate Brethren. Step 3: Аrmward Ho!’ Description: Assault the capital of the Shadow Empire with the pirates. Destroy the Heart of Chaos (15 days until expiration) or plunder the city. This quest must be done on your own ship.
‘Training: Level 2.’ Description: Complete the training grounds of the Vampire Patriarch. Training duration: six weeks. Reward: +60 to all stats, +5 Levels.
‘Audience with the Emperor.’ Description: You have earned Exalted status with the Emperor and the Empire of Malabar. The Emperor wishes to see you in order to grant you your reward.
‘Audience with the Dark Lord.’ Description: You have earned Exalted status with the Dark Lord and the Empire of Kartoss. The Dark Lord wishes to see you in order to grant you your reward.
‘The Emperor’s Reward.’ Description: You have earned a First Kill and received two tickets to an audience with the Emperor. The Imperial audience will be held in five months.
‘The Tomb of the Creator.’ Description: You have received the Original Key to the Tomb of the Creator. Any items acquired in this Dungeon will be Unique or rarer. The minimal level of monsters in the Dungeon is equal to that of the highest-level player on your continent. All clans of Barliona have received this information.
‘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.

Ok…Look at all these new things I’ve learned, reading a simple old list. First of all, the quest descriptions have been adjusted, since there was never a reward of five levels in the Patriarch’s training quest. Second, my Reputation with Malabar and Kartoss had reached its ultimate peak. Feeling a twinge of curiosity, I opened my list of unlocked Achievements, but didn’t see anything new about being the first to reach Exalted status with two Empires at once. Someone had earned it before me. It’s too bad. Third, the list now omitted several social quests, which I had received in times immemorial, and which I hadn’t gotten around to or didn’t feel like doing. It seemed that the Corporation’s people had deemed these quests unnecessary and deleted them.

Character updated. Please familiarize yourself with the changes.

The next step of familiarizing myself with the changes to my character involved the statistics and equipment. I had actually wanted to check them out in the very beginning, but the quests thing popped up first. Opening the properties I instantly encountered the first item and pulled up its properties before me. Let’s see what Legendary items the devs had gifted me.

Edka’s LXXII Breastplate. Description: One of the founders of Shamanism, the ancient troll Edka was renowned for his taste in armor. Hard to please, Edka either didn’t like the description or the item didn’t offer sufficient bonuses or the item didn’t look convincing enough. Then one day, the troll came across the LXXII Breastplate and had a nervous breakdown because of how perfect it was.
Bonuses: +2500 to Stamina, +3200 to Intellect, +600 to Strength, +900 to Agility, +40 to Energy. +3400 Resistance to all damage types.
Stacking bonus with 2 set items: +5000 Intellect.
Stacking bonus with 6 set items: +5000 Stamina and +10000 to Intellect.
Bonus for equipping the entire set: +30% to all base stats.
Item class: Legendary Set. Restriction: Shaman, Level 300+.

I swallowed hard and glanced over at my Hoarding Hamster and Greed Toad, who had collapsed in a fit on their backs. I hadn’t expected a present like this—nine Legendary items. Edka’s full set. The devs had kindly stored my old Thricinian items in my bag—and that’s where they stayed after I compared their stats with my new gear. At Level 300, the gap between the Thricinian items and the new set was monstrous. It was almost twofold. The only item that even stood up to the new gear were the boots the Emperor had given me and if it weren’t for the set bonus, I’d probably wear them.
All my other equipment remained unchanged. For example, I still had some Minor Copper chain on my neck, granting me a mere +12 to Intellect and serving as a bold reminder that it was time to do some crafting. I closed the window with the equipment and stats, wishing to move on to my mail, when a new notification popped up before me:

Please allocate your free stat points.

There was no other choice. As hard as I tried to close the window that had popped open behind the notification, the system insisted I do its bidding. Even popping out to reality didn’t help the situation. As soon as I returned to the game, the stats screen reappeared covering everything in sight and insisting I distribute my 1500 free stat points. There was no way out…

            “Master!” No sooner had the stats screen closed, than my majordomo, Viltrius, popped in to visit me. The system had decided that it had completed its mission of informing me about Barliona’s new update and finally allowed me to swipe away all the other annoying windows and deal with the game itself. “Do you have any orders?”
“Fill me in on what’s been going on with the castle lately.”
Viltrius adjusted his jacket’s lapel in a serious manner, as if gathering his thoughts, and then proudly raised his green mug and began to speak with feeling, sense and composure. I could hardly contain my smile, since all the goblin was missing was a small podium. That would complete the image of a small boy who was being forced to recite verses at Christmas dinner to get his present from Santa Claus.
There hadn’t been many changes to or happenings in the castle. Considering the relative remoteness of Altameda from the places that NPCs lived in and the fact that its current location was designed for Level 180 players, Viltrius allowed himself the liberty of letting the Gray Death and her pack out for a stroll in the castle’s surroundings. It’s unclear how he communicated with the wolves, but the goblin managed to assign several conditions for the stroll—such as that 30% of the Experience gained from the killed mobs would be channeled to the castle’s account, while the loot would be delivered to its treasure vaults. The Gray Death agreed and several days later, an enormous area around the castle had been entirely cleared of any monsters. And I mean entirely—even the frogs and crickets, to say nothing of the bears, elks and other fauna. Moreover, several new wolves joined the pack. The Gray Death found them in the forest surrounding the castle. And on top of it all, several of the she-wolves in the pack bore cubs. Thus the overall level of the pack had increased to 240, while the Gray Death herself had become a mature Level 280 she-wolf. Here it hit me that I had effectively acquired a substantial and quite powerful army of NPCs, which unlike my guards, wasn’t bound to my castle. Vimes, my head of security, and his warriors were assigned to the defense of the castle, which meant that using them as mercenaries on raids was a risky and expensive venture.
Viltrius also surprised me with the news that it had been three weeks now that Spiteful Gnum was in my castle. The gnome had appeared before the cataclysm and was currently driving the vaults keeper insane. Cataclysm was the term the Corporation had assigned to the period that Barliona had been down. The updated lore explained that a strange meteor had passed near our world and in so doing had stopped time for an entire two weeks. For the living creatures as well as for all the phenomena and events. I’m not sure why they did this, since they could’ve easily resumed the game from the moment the servers had gone down, but the meteor was necessary for their internal goals I guess. Thus, Spiteful Gnum had made good on his promise and repaired the gates of my castle, expending basically all of my reserves of Imperial Oak for the purpose, after which he locked himself in his workshop and remained there for the last two weeks. At times, you could hear his muffled laughter, explosions, curses, laughter again and periodically, one of the demons would emerge from the workshop to hand Viltrius a list of all the ingredients the gnome needed next. Very high level ingredients, at that. Considering my direct order to supply Gnum with everything he needed, the majordomo couldn’t say no to the gnome, but you could tell just by glancing at the goblin that he was entirely against this new tenant.
Vimes’ merry band of guards did its job to a T. During the three weeks since my last sojourn in my castle, nothing of note had happened. Mr. Kristowski had come by with some unknown persons to visit the storage vaults, after which new contracts appeared in our clan. At the current moment, our storage vaults were at 70% of capacity, of which only 30% was taken up by my clan’s assets. Everything else consisted of items that other clans had entrusted to the Legends of Barliona under the storage contracts. Viltrius concluded his report, but did not hurry to leave me. Judging by the way he keeps fiddling with that lapel of his, he’s clearly expecting something else from me.
“We should hire some hobgoblins!” Viltrius blurted out what was eating at him. “Without the hobgoblins, the castle’s empty. There’s not a soul in it. Nor is there any defense against the almighty beings of this world. Master, couldn’t we reach an agreement with Lady Anastaria to have her remove the alganides?”
The goblin gave me such a pleading look, that I couldn’t refuse this trifle and called Stacey then and there. We’d entered the game at the same time, so she had to be somewhere in Barliona.
Darling, I’d like to remove the alganides from Altameda.
“Not even a question. Are you in the castle right now?”
“Yes. I’ll summon you.”
“Hang on a minute, I’m talking to my dad. Actually—I formally grant you access to my room and to my personal chest. You can remove them yourself. By the way, let me know when you’re done with the castle and I’ll summon you to our location. There’s a matter to discuss here.”
“Has something happened?”
“Yes. War has been declared on our continent. Haven’t you checked your mail?”
“War? Who?! No—I haven’t had time to get to my mail. What’s in my mail?”
“If I understand correctly, you should have several offers in your inbox. Dan, we opened Pandora’s Box. Everyone wants the Tomb of the Creator. And everyone wants you, the owner of the Original Key as well. We’ve been issued an ultimatum…I don’t want to overload you right now, so deal with your business and then head our way. I’ll send you the coordinates by mail, and my dad’s granted you access to his castle.”
“Viltrius, I’m granting you access to Anastaria’s room and her personal chest. Remove the alganides from the castle,” I said automatically, still in shock from the news. Was the Tomb of the Creator really such a vital game object that an entire continent had decided to attack ours? Didn’t they have enough Dungeons of their own? There’s no arguing that the Celestial Empire was full of absolutely amazing players—the average level of their top clan was 380 and the highest-level player in Barliona played there too—a Level 433 Warrior with a difficult to pronounce name. And in view of the fact that two of our Level 300+ players had been sent to the mines—I mean Hellfire and Donotpunnik—our position was an unenviable one. To try and stand up to monsters like that amounted to nothing short of throwing away Legendary items. Meanwhile, trying to battle them with any other items was pointless—they’d crush us without bothering to figure out what our names are. The only factor that could help here was that generally players in the Celestial Empire weren’t much interested in PvP. If I recall Plinto’s words correctly, anything that doesn’t earn XP is viewed as worthless in the Celestial Empire, and players who specialize in killing mobs might encounter some difficulty fighting players experienced in PvP. And yet, it doesn’t matter one damn bit what a player specializes in when the level disparity is 100 Levels! They’d blast us out of existence in a matter of moments and head back home! Why did the Tomb attract their attention? Do they know something we don’t? The Celestial Empire certainly could…
“Master! Master!” Tearing me from my burdensome cogitations, Viltrius appeared before me glowing with happiness. The joy the goblin radiated was so contagious, that I couldn’t help but crack a smile myself. “We can hire hobgoblins! Four of them! No, five is better! Master, the alganides have been tossed from the castle! Nothing is keeping us from installing a defense worthy of a Level 25 castle!”
Understanding that if I don’t hire some new employees for my castle this very instant, the goblin might suffer a fatal shock, I got up from my rocking chair and sat down on my official (and uncomfortable) throne. Hardly had I stuck the crown of the Owner on my head, when the castle management interface appeared before me. The first thing that caught my eye was the castle’s ‘green’ status and a note indicating that the castle’s durability was currently at 100%.
I switched over to the personnel tab, cursed silently at the cost of Vimes and his army and then fell into deep contemplation. It was true that I had to hire some hobgoblins—that was a given. And, yes, I already had a small staff of seven NPCs, a portal demon with his own portal, a whimsical majordomo ready to do my bidding, and yet the castle still lacked something. Some small detail, some trifle that would make this already lovely place utterly brilliant. I flipped through the other tabs, but found nothing that extraordinary for Altameda—everything had already been built and everything had already been bought. The castle’s further development depended on improving its living conditions and decorations, but I couldn’t buy this through the interface. The players had to do this on their own. So the idea of upgrading the castle seemed dead in the water, since Gnum alone wouldn’t be able to accomplish much and inviting other high-level craftsmen required advertisement. And pretty elaborate advertisement at that…Here’s a thought!
“Viltrius,” I immediately voiced my idea, approving the payment for five hobgoblins, “tell me, what would a dinner party do for the castle and its owner?”
“M-master, did you say ‘dinner party?’” the goblin asked with a stutter.
“Dinner party. A ball. A party. You can call it whatever you like, but the gist remains—advertisement for the castle and the clan. We’ll invite the Emperor, the Dark Lord and maybe even the Lord of Shadow will deign to stop by if we guarantee his safety. We’ll assemble the belle monde of our continent and hold a tournament.”
“Master!” squealed the goblin and made a face as if an enormous slab weighing sixteen tons was beginning to press down on him from above. “Can you imagine the funds that this would require?”
“No, how much will it be?” I inquired, rolling up my sleeves. The Corporation had reimbursed me my hundred million, so why not make myself a little present? I hope that Mr. Kristowski won’t kill me too painfully if I spend several dozen millions.
“Inviting guests of such a level must be arranged ahead of time. Security has to be appropriately high. There have to be high-ranking officials from all the empires. If you wish to arrange a tournament, you must announce it publically and allow anyone to enter. As I recall it, there has never been an event of such a scale held on our continent, since it’s simply too expensive. I couldn’t even estimate a budget for such an affair, but it would certainly have to be no less than two hundred million gold.”
“WHAT?!” The sum caused me to jack my eyebrows way up high.
“Inviting the Emperor and the Dark Lord would cost our treasury no less than 50 million alone. Everyone knows that. I imagine that the Lord of Shadow wouldn’t say no to such a sum either. We would have to upgrade the castle, build a tournament arena, and provide food, entertainment, and above all security, since the Free Citizens might start to fight each other. Or not each other, but NPCs…Who knows what occurs to them. Either way, we’ll have to hire security. All of this is very expensive and I have no idea where to begin in order to provide you with a reliable estimate.”
“You don’t need to estimate anything,” I immediately started to argue. Had the Corp lost the plot cooking up such prices for inviting Emperor-level NPCs? Like hell! “Calm down. It was just a dumb joke. Deal with the hobgoblins—they need orders and oversight.”
Viltrius dissolved defeated, while I spent several minutes considering what to do next—go through my mail or go check in on Spiteful Gnum? The castle management interface indicated that the gnome was in his workshop, so the right thing to do was to stop by and see what he was cooking up in there. But laziness won out—I didn’t feel like zipping off somewhere and talking to anyone right now. I still hadn’t recovered from my meeting with my majordomo and the news that I’d have to shell out two hundred million gold for a tournament. Opening the mailbox, I sighed bitterly at the insane amount of unread mail I had to deal with once again.
Goodbye the next few hours of my life. No, this won’t do. I really need to do something about this! I guess one option was to hire a secretary.

            Hi Mahan, you famous Scrooge!
            Ten thousand for a unique map isn’t even funny. It’s just dumb! I can see your point—my initial letter was a bit naïve. But in that case…In light of recent events involving the Tomb, the map’s price hereby grows to one million gold and 10% of the loot that you’ll pick up in the dungeon it leads to. I get to come along and gain some of the Experience you earn along the way. As for the location that the map points to, it’s a small cave in the Free Lands, concealed under a magical shroud. By way of stimulating your interest—this is the very cave in which Karmadont earned his power. The cave is inhabited by Level 350+ phantoms, so I can’t do it on my own, but something tells me that you’ll be quite interested in a location that’s related to Karmadont. After all, you’re the Creator of the Chess Set!
            With all due respect and hoping we manage to come to an agreement,
            Hunter Sabantul the Fortunate

My heart skipped a beat from my agitation, so I jumped up from the throne and began to pace back and forth across my hall. The Ergreis! The crystal that Lait had brought from a different world and which was now in the Tomb of the Creator! The phantoms that Sabantul had mentioned were the mighty Mages of the past who had died when the crystal was activated. I’m sure I’d be able to find out from them what the Ergreis was and how I could overcome it. How has Sabantul acquired the map? Where had he dug it up?! Stop! I already have Reptilis working on finding that cave!
“Listening,” the kobold grunted into the amulet.
“Reptilis, this is Mahan…Tell me, please, how is your search for the Crastil coming?”
“Huh? I already sent you a letter with a report? Didn’t you get it?”
“I haven’t gotten through my mail yet. I just re-entered the game after the re-launch.”
“I didn’t find the cave you told me about. I scoured all the foothills of the Elma Mountains, but no dice. Mahan, you promised me that Pendant regardless of the outcome.”
“I remember. I’ll craft it tomorrow. I need your official permission to use your other half’s image as well as to bind her to the item. Preferably in writing and to my mail.”
“You got it. What are you going to do about the Crastils?”
“Nothing. I don’t really need them anymore anyway. But thanks for the help. Write that letter and tomorrow I’ll craft the Pendants. You’ll get the first ones. “
I placed the amulet back in my inventory bag and went on pacing my hall. Reptilis had failed, which meant that the cave really was impossible to find without a map. My desire to simply pay Sabantul a million gold was so immense that I had to take ahold of myself, open the mailbox and go on sorting it, figuring that doing so would quench my desire to spend money. Before doing this, I needed to weigh the pros and cons, gather some information about Hunter Sabantul the Fortunate and only then make my decision. The whole affair with Donotpunnik had been more than enough for me!
“Stacey, I need your help. I want to find out anything there is to find out about a player named Sabantul. Who, what, where, when and how…All the way down to who this person is out in reality. He’s offering to sell me a unique item and doing so at a really opportune moment. My paranoia tells me that I need to do due diligence here.”
“I’ll do it. What’s the item?”
“A map with coordinates to a cave where the Ergreis and the Crastils were discovered. Do you remember what the High Mage told me? Sabantul wrote me a letter offering to sell me the map for a million gold and 10% of the loot. I haven’t replied yet. I need to understand how a player I’ve never heard of got his hands on such an item. Maybe it’s a fake? Maybe it’s a set up?”
That a boy!” Anastaria replied. “I’ll ask my dad to pull up all there is to know about this Sabantul. Will you be a while?”
“I’m just going to go through my mail and I’ll be on my way.”
Having shifted my cares about the Hunter onto Stacey’s svelte shoulders, I created a new folder in my mailbox and placed all the requests for crafting the Pendants into it. To my immense surprise, those who wanted the Pendants were not only limited to our continent—there were several dozen thousand players from other locations. How’d they find out about it? I don’t remember there being a third movie about the Legends and their capers…Did Mr. Kristowski advertise this item to such a degree that even players from other continents were willing to spend a week working for my clan for six hours a day? In that sense, the situation was pretty great, but on the other hand, eighty-seven thousand requests for Pendants really was a depressing thought. At four minutes per one Pendant, it would take me 348 thousand minutes to fill all these orders. And that equated to 241 days, working at 24 hours a day! I would collapse from exhaustion!

            To the leader of the Legends of Barliona, Shaman Mahan!
            Greetings to you, oh Creator! We wish to express our esteem of your craftsmanship and your desire to invest this our world with new colors and feelings, depth and unparalleled beauty. We know that you created the Chess Set of Karmadont for this world, opened access to the Tomb of the Creator and received the Original Key to complete it. We are interested in ensuring that our warriors enter the Tomb fist, and therefore wish to offer you the following: You shall receive one billion gold if you complete the Tomb with us. You will receive the Experience, First Kill and title of one of the wealthiest players of your continent. Consider our offer. I await your response in a week’s time. No one aside from our warriors shall complete the Dungeon. Become a unique player on your continent—join us!
            Bihan the First, Leader of the Era of Dragons Clan. Celestial Empire.

I spent several minutes staring into nowhere. What’s going on here anyway? As soon as I had pried the Tomb away from Phoenix, here comes a third faction trying to snatch it away from me. Well it’s not happening! If this Bihan is naïve enough to imagine that I’ll just throw myself into his embraces upon seeing a number with nine zeroes, then he’s sadly mistaken. He should’ve thought about all this much earlier…

“And that’s how things stand,” I concluded my tale, relating to Anastaria and Ehkiller what had happened. “I received similar letters, though with different offers, from representative of the other continents. Five letters, five billion and everyone wants the Tomb and the Original status. It’s stressing me out a bit, to be honest.”
“Our situation isn’t much better,” Ehkiller said pensively, staring into the magical fire smoldering in the fireplace. “We came in last at the last inter-clan tournament, so generally the players of Kalragon aren’t really viewed as equals by the others. As far as the player community goes, we’re the weaklings who can be bullied at will. Phoenix has already received three ultimatums—if we don’t share the coordinates of the Tomb and ensure safe passage to it, everyone else will initiate a targeted hunt after us and our resources. And it’ll get underway on our territory.”
“Coordinates? They haven’t leaked yet?” I couldn’t help but exclaim with surprise.
“No, but that’s still temporary. There are too many people who know the entrance’s location and it’s too difficult to control them all. Someone will definitely like the idea of getting some clean cash for a few numbers. The Celestial Empire and Astrum is keeping quiet. I’d guess they already have the coordinates, so I propose we proceed on the assumption that the Tomb’s location is already public.”
“In that case, we have five high-level raid parties which have up to 100 players each,” Anastaria began to calculate our forces. “The portal between the continents closed during the Cataclysm and hasn’t yet come online. We have a week, at most two, to prepare ourselves.”
“I don’t think they’ll come through the portal. Why risk their forces?” Ehkiller smiled grimly. “What if we ambush them and repel their invasion?”
“I get the impression that I’m utterly lost,” I confessed. “What would they be risking? If we kill them, so what? They’ll respawn and head for the Tomb again.”
“Players from other continents don’t have a respawn point in Kalragon,” Anastaria explained after a short pause. “If they come here to do a Dungeon, the game will respawn them at the nearest cemetery. But they’re coming here to fight other players. In that case, their binding location plays a role—if they want to do PvP on another continent, they’ll need to respawn at their bound location. And lose a level in the process.”
“Hold up! What level? That’s against the rules.”
“If the risk of losing a level wasn’t involved, than the other continents would’ve been conquered by Astrum or the Celestial Empire long since. The highest-level players are there after all. With the exception of scenarios, PvP on another continent is the only thing that can decrease a player’s level. Unless of course he’s bound to this continent. And the binding can only be obtained by two means—build a castle or bring an obelisk. I checked. Neither Malabar nor Kartoss have received requests to build a castle. And Geranika doesn’t give castles away, so this option is out of the question. The only thing that remains is an obelisk.”
“The more time I spend with you two, the more I realize how little I know about Barliona,” I couldn’t help but crack a sad smile. “What’s an obelisk anyway?”
“It has a different names: The clan symbol, a mobile respawn point, a binding point. Synonyms aside, it’s a big old ten-meter-tall statue that’s really heavy and incredibly cumbersome when it comes to transporting it. You get it once your clan reaches Level 25. An obelisk can’t be moved through a portal. It’s a really fragile thing that is entirely immune to magic. The cost of an obelisk varies from between 30 and 40 million gold and a clan can only have one at a time. If they really do decide to bring one over here, I’ll be at a loss. What for after all? Would they really do this to get to the Tomb?”
“Not only the Tomb, although it served as the trigger for the activation,” Ehkiller sighed sadly. “While you two were resting, the enemy was leveling up. The departments of the Corporation responsible for developing the other two continents didn’t have any new Empire launches or treacherous employees, nor did they have to create a new enemy like Geranika. As a result they spent their time making their age-old dream a reality—the conquest of Barliona’s oceans. In a word, Mahan’s already managed to visit one of these locations when he was hunting the Squidolphin—the Oceanic Abyss. At the moment the ocean is turning into an enormous game location with all its monsters, dungeons, islands, scenarios and events. The Corporation decided that it’d be dumb to forego such an excellent game space. Why do you think the pirates have shown up in our continent? We haven’t been able to find a quest for them in five years, and suddenly you and Mahan became captains. They’re the defenders of our continent against an invasion. I looked it up. Currently, forty-two players followed in your footsteps and that’s just the beginning. It’s not only the battle for the Tomb that lies before us, but dominance over the seas. If the borders between the continents are erased, the high-level players of the other locations will wipe us from the face of Barliona.”
“The sea,” Anastaria said quietly. “They’ll bring the obelisks over the sea, erect a beachhead on our continent and then head for the Tomb. But how can they be certain that the Tomb will remain uncompleted?”
A silence ensued and I realized with surprise that both Anastaria and Ehkiller were waiting for an answer from me.
“No need to look at me like that!” I objected. “I never sold anyone anything and…Oh, blast it all to hell!” I exclaimed when I recalled the updated quest list. Stacey’s eyes instantly narrowed in suspicion, so I had to explain my reaction: “The highest-level player is currently at Level 433, correct?”
Having received the nod of confirmation, I went on:
“My quest for the tomb was updated. From now on the level of the Tomb Dungeon is equal to the highest-level player on the continent. If you’re right and the Celestial Empire installs its obelisk on Kalragon, then the Tomb’s level will shoot through the roof.”
“In that case the final boss of the Tomb will be Level 483,” Stacey muttered at a loss, realizing the significance of what I was saying. “We won’t have anyone who could beat it. We’ll need to stop the transport ships. An obelisk can only be renewed once a month. If we destroy the ship, we’ll get a chance to complete the Tomb first.”
“We have to do it,” Ehkiller smiled bitterly again. “But how are we going to do it? Where are we going to intercept them? Where will they try to land? What kind of fleet do we need to destroy a single ship? And is it just a single ship? The Celestial Empire is the only one that consists of a player union. The other continents might send us several clans with their own obelisks. How are we going to intercept them all? How are we going to monitor their landing sites? I don’t have answers to these questions. Don’t forget that the sea is a new frontier for us, while for the other continents it represents a familiar and almost native location.”
“We’ll need a fleet,” Anastaria began to generate ideas. “The north is well-defended, since the players up there are seafarers. The south is covered by the pirates, assuming we can come to an agreement with them. Daniel and I have the quest. All that’s left is the west and the east.”
“Geranika’s out west with his shades and shadows. We can’t do much there. The invaders will skirt around closed locations like Skyfoal, since the Corporation won’t allow them to enter that territory. In a word, the north is inconvenient—our continent is located in a way that only make it vulnerable from the south or the east. Stacey, we need the fleet of the north. We need to meet their captains and arrange a defense of our coast. Start thinking about what we can offer to get them to fight under our flag.”
“In the best case scenario, no battle will be necessary,” I spoke up. “If we destroy the transport with the obelisk then the rest of the enemy fleet will be harmless for a month. Let them cruise around all they like…”
“The transport will be sailing in the center of an entire armada. No one’s going to let us get close to it just like that. We could of course sneak up to it under water, but there aren’t any submarines in Barliona. Or rather, there aren’t any anymore, since I was forced to order Stacey to destroy your Squidolphin.”
“So that was your idea?” I echoed surprised. “Why?”
“Because upgrading a ship takes time that you didn’t have,” Ehkiller explained. “If you hadn’t opened the Tomb, Donotpunnik would’ve been forced to ‘close’ you. So I made the call and ordered Stacey to destroy your Squidolphin. It’s true that it would come in handy right now, but at the time it was the right move. It’s too late to cry over spilled milk—the Squidolphin won’t be coming back.”
“Well…” I began, considering the politically vital decision of whether I should mention my Giant Squidolphin Embryo or not…On the one hand, Phoenix and I were on the same side now. On the other, my memory of Ehkiller’s words and deeds was still fresh in my mind.
“Dan?” Stacey started forward and stared at me with curiosity. “Don’t tell me that you have another Minor Squidolphin.”
“Unfortunately not,” I shook my head and looked earnestly at the girl, who immediately became crestfallen. She leaned back in her chair in deep thought about how we would have to proceed and therefore paid no attention as I produced my mailbox, found the letter I needed, produced its attachment and placed it on the table that was so enormous that even the Emperor could have used it. Phoenix really does seem to get by just fine. “I don’t have a Minor Squidolphin, but I do have the embryo of a giant one…”
Anastaria’s bombastic laughter filled the main hall of the Phoenix castle.
“Was that the surprise you promised me?” Stacey asked after she’d caught her breath. “The one you told me about before opening the Tomb?”
“Dan, you’re so wonderful…” Anastaria went on happily—and yet even a bystander who didn’t know her would’ve caught the note of something unspoken in her voice. What’s there to say about a person who knew how to read her mind?
“There’s some ‘but’ here, isn’t there?”
“Assuming that the leveling up of a Squidolphin is analogous to that of, say, a griffin,” Ehkiller explained, “we’ll only be able to use her in combat operations no sooner than in a half year—and that’s with our most intense grinding regimen. Remember your old ship. At its first level, she was sunk in mere seconds. In order for this embryo to have a chance against the invading armada, we’ll have to level her up to between Level 10 and 12. That would take half a year.”
“In that case I’m not sure why you just said you were sorry for destroying the minor Squidolphin.”
“If she had remained alive, by this time, you could’ve leveled her up to at most Level 6. And in that case we could’ve used her as a diversion. We could do the same thing now, but the result will be the same and the Squidolphin will be destroyed. And as you know, ships don’t respawn in Barliona. So let’s get back to our initial plan—we need the fleet of the north. Stacey, I want you to work on this problem. I’ll go speak with the pirates and ask…”
“You said that magic doesn’t work on the obelisk,” I interrupted Ehkiller unceremoniously. “What about simple physics? If a high-level player makes it onto the transport, how long will it take him to destroy the obelisk?”
“About three minutes,” Stacey replied, trying not to look at her father, who had fallen silent and fixed me with his stare. Someone clearly didn’t like it when I opened my mouth.
“In that case, there’s the option of using the griffins…”
“The airborne approach, my young friend,” said Ehkiller, not passing up a chance to interrupt me in turn, “is impossible for several reasons. The enemy will field veteran players and it would be daft to think that the armada won’t have flight jammers deployed around its perimeter. So basically imagine an enormous fleet of ships surrounded by a no fly zone…Tell us again how you were planning on flying into it?”
“Hang on, Stacey,” I said. For the first time in many months of my acquaintance with Ehkiller, he appeared before me as the ruthless head of a leading clan, instead of a kind and generous father figure—and this caught my attention. His look, his tone, the scorn on his face—I couldn’t say exactly what annoyed me, but I wanted to argue and prove my point, even if it was obviously a losing one. After all, this was my opinion and I needed to defend it. It was like something had bit me—the idea of flying over the sea was dumb? Okay, I’ll approach the issue from another angle:
“I can fly in no fly zones while in my Dragon form. I can carry two people. I could take a dps, say, and a tank. I’d be the healer. I think the tank and I could give the dps three minutes to destroy the obelisk.”
“I see. Daniel,” Ehkiller, switched to a semi-formal tone, “try and fly up to the ceiling.”
“Dad!” Anastaria objected again, yet Ehkiller was unshakable.
“Hold on, Stacey. Come on, Mahan! Turn into a Dragon and touch the ceiling. If you do it, I’ll hand you the crown of the castle owner right here and now! And I mean right this instant, I swear on the Emperor!”
A bright, white cloud momentarily enveloped Ehkiller, confirming his words, so I had nothing left to do but change into my Dragon Form and fly up. Or rather, I mean try and fly up, since nothing came of it.
“Did they ban flying inside buildings or something?” I inquired, returning to my human form.
“Let’s just say that if a certain someone had bothered to read the patch notes, he would see that flying for all creatures, even those that can fly without special means, has been blocked where flying’s already blocked for the others. Thus, this certain someone will no longer be able to fly over cities or castles or whatever else. And, again, he is welcome to read all of this in the update notes.”
“The flight jammers should only work around the outer perimeter,” I just about dropped my hands from the demonstrative destruction that Ehkiller had visited on my side of the argument, but at the last moment a mischievous thought popped into my mind. “There has to be a flying area inside the armada. These are players we’re talking about here!”
“Agreed, they wouldn’t prohibit flying between the ships,” Stacey came to my aid. “The players would be outraged. A hole in the center should remain open, but how would it help us? The radius of the outer ring will be several hundred meters. You won’t be able to build the inertia to glide that distance. Don’t forget that, inside the no fly zone, the system actively decelerates you and tries to make you plummet as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter what speed you come flying in at, you won’t have much of a chance.”
“On the one hand you’re right,” I continued to develop my thought, having encountered support, as odd as it was. “I won’t have enough velocity or altitude to cover the prohibited area. So I will need your help. Don’t you have a fast ship, Stacey?”
“It’s not that fast,” Anastaria narrowed her eyes, unsure of what I was getting at. I love that look of hers—when she knows that she doesn’t understand something and it drives her insane. “If we really need it, we could get it from the pirates. But what for?”
“Since the airborne option doesn’t, erm, fly, I had another idea—we’ll take a fast ship. Just one. We put a catapult on it. Just one again. We sail up to the enemy armada, using maybe like some kind of stealth or something, but maybe without it too. We get as close as we can, but in some way that keeps us relatively safe. Then we load the catapult with the tank, the dps, and me…Should I go on, or will your imaginations fill in the rest?”
“Hmm,” Ehkiller replied, cocking his head pensively and finally ceasing to drill me with his gaze.
You’re a real wonder, you know? I owe you dinner tonight and then some!” Anastaria’s joyous thought popped into my head, as the girl before me reclined with a look as satisfied as that of a cat that had eaten its fill of cream.
“Tamerlane the Wondrous will be our tank. No one will manage as well as he,” Ehkiller said after a short pause, more for his benefit than for ours. “As for the dps, that’ll be have to be Plinto…or…Well I don’t see any other option really. Plinto’s the only one who could pull it off in the timeframe we need. It’s decided then!” Ehkiller shook his head, making some decision and almost instantly reverted back to the kind generous uncle. Like at the snap of his fingers—snap and you’re looking at an entirely different person. I wouldn’t want to find myself on Ehkiller’s bad side.
“Tomorrow I’ll receive information about our enemies’ movements and figure out the course they’ll set on their journey. Stacey, you owe us a ship. Mahan, you need to make several test flights. You’ll have to train turning into your Dragon Form in midflight as well as catching the other players in midair. Get this part down pat. What else? I think that’s about it. Let’s get to work then!”
“I still have a question that I haven’t gotten an answer to.” Even though Ehkiller and Stacey had already jumped up from their seats, wishing to get to work on the plan we’d just concocted, I remained sitting. “Why couldn’t we complete the Dungeon during the next two weeks? No one will be bothering us right now, and the Dungeon level is still manageable for Plinto. Surely we can handle this in two weeks. It’ll be a cinch!”
“The Ergreis,” Anastaria answered simply. “That’s the entire problem.”
“I don’t understand,” I shook my head. “What does a crystal from a different world have to do with it?”
“That’s the point—that until I figure out precisely this question, it’s a really bad idea to set foot into the Tomb. Can you imagine what’ll happen if that crystal has similar effects to the Tears of Harrashess? After all, no one knows what kind of scenario has been attached to that crystal and why any time anyone mentions it, they also mention the other world? I’d really rather not risk it. So the first thing we need is information and we need time to find it. And it’s time we don’t have if we start trying to complete the Tomb right this instant.”
“If our plan with the catapult fails,” I began—it seemed that today was my day because the ideas were just pouring out of me like from a horn of plenty—“the players from the other continents won’t wait another month to buy a new obelisk. Why? It’ll be faster for them to just conquer some nearby castle. Something tells me we need to prepare the Emperor and the Dark Lord against this idea.”
“Let’s assume that we’ll get an audience,” Ehkiller sat back down in his chair, though he remained in his avuncular form. “It doesn’t seem to me that the Emperor will be happy to hear that we wish to keep him from selling someone a castle. We won’t be able to keep other players from spending money on our continent.”
“Why not? Of course we can.” The next idea came tumbling out of my ‘horn of plenty.’ “Everything depends on how we frame the problem when we pitch it to him. Any way you spin it, the inter-clan competitions will get underway soon. If I remember correctly, in two or three months. Doesn’t matter. If we really wish to protect ourselves from our enemies acquiring castles, we’ll need to arrange a tournament of the clans of Kalragon. We need to assemble a team of the highest-level players. Why is Phoenix always participating in the competition anyway? What we need is some kind of dream team with representatives of all the clans. And when we organize and hold a tournament like that, neither the Emperor nor the Dark Lord will have any reason to deny our minor request—that is, not to sell castles to anyone for several months. After all, we would have united. We would be one whole. Doesn’t the Corporation love single wholes? We’ll give them just that, merely requesting a small favor in exchange—the chance to complete the Tomb. If we don’t achieve anything in three months, then we’ll have to give up on the Tomb—it’ll be too much for us.”
“A tournament…” Ehkiller muttered. “We need to hold a tournament…”
“And make sure that Kartoss and Shadow participate as well,” I nodded in agreement.
“What do we need Shadow there for?”
“For ornamental purposes as well as for the unity of the entire continent. They’ll be responsible for providing us with monsters to kill. Or at least that’s one option.”
“Shadran!” Ehkiller said quietly and a phantom materialized several steps away from me. The majordomo of Phoenix’s main castle was a phantom orc. “I need a cost analysis for holding a tournament which would be attended by three emperors. Draw up a tournament ladder that resembles last year’s continental competitions. Limit the number of entrants to ten million.”
“Shall I factor in the costs of building the venues?” the phantom inquired immediately. Unlike my Viltrius, this majordomo performed his orders professionally and without any unnecessary handwringing. Perhaps I should tweak my goblin’s settings a bit? Although, I kind of like him the way he is. “The location of the tournament will play an important role. If you plan on inviting all three emperors, we’ll need a castle in the Free Lands. It’s simply not possible to use a location in one of the empires.”
“Altameda’s in the Free Lands,” I offered. “I’ll provide a portal for anyone who wants to come.”
“Accepted,” Ehkiller echoed. “How’s that cost analysis?”
“According to the input values, the cost of holding a tournament is assessed at between 300 and 420 million gold. Prizes and rewards are not included in the cost analysis.”
“What would we have to do to submit a request to hold a tournament like this?” The calm voice of Phoenix’s leader did not suggest that he would regret parting with such an astronomical amount.
“The request has been drafted. Please confirm it.”
“So what’s next?” Making several passes with his hands, Ehkiller first looked at me, then at Anastaria, who had arranged herself in her chair to more comfortably observe this expenditure of crazy sums of money. Stacey barely managed to shrug her shoulders before a shimmering portal appeared beside us. Even hobgoblins couldn’t restrict a Herald from doing his job.
“The Emperor wishes to see you!”

Chapter Two. Unforeseen Difficulties

Residents of Kalragon! In three weeks’ time, the Phoenix and Legends of Barliona clans shall hold a tournament to determine the best players of our continent. This tournament’s winners shall defend the honor of Kalragon at the global inter-clan competitions. During the preparatory period for the tournament—and until its conclusion—Free Citizens shall no longer be permitted to kill other Free Citizens! The tournament shall be held in the Free Lands. Free tele-transportation shall be provided by the sponsoring clans: Phoenix and the Legends of Barliona. Become the best! Enter the tournament and show your worth! Information about the various contests and categories will be posted to the official Barliona site in four days. Make sure to check the news!

The enormous system notification blotted out everything in sight, including Ehkiller’s pensive face.
“I’m assuming it’s too late to back out of this?” he asked the Emperor who was looking majestically down on us from his throne. Once every blue moon, the audience seems to take place in the palace’s throne room instead of the typical round table of the Emperor’s study. I’m not even sure if I should consider this an honor or not. As soon as we appeared before the Emperor, he asked us if we were sure about our decision and, receiving our affirmation, sent the above message to the entire continent. And yet, he’d never said anything about blocking PvP mode, and this condition came as a sudden and very unpleasant surprise to us.
“You can always back out,” Naahti replied. “Even despite the fact that the continent’s residents have already been notified of the upcoming event. Judging by your shocked faces, you have some doubts. What are they?”
“The Tomb of the Creator,” Anastaria replied cautiously, carefully choosing her words. “There are other players from the other continents sailing in our direction. Their objective is straightforward—they want to take away our right to be the first to complete the Tomb and solve the mystery of the Ergreis. Now, with this condition you’ve set, we’ve effectively lost our ability to defend the Tomb from the other Free Citizens, which was why Ehkiller inquired about the possibility of calling off the tournament. We weren’t ready for this.”
“I have spoken my word and my word is not subject to revision,” the Emperor clattered off implacably. “All duels between the Free Citizens have been blocked until the culmination of the tournament. Sooner or later, the mystery of the Ergreis will be solved and it doesn’t matter who’ll do it—you or the newcomers. The power of the Ergreis is so great that we cannot afford to send favorites or unworthy sentients to face it. Only the truly mighty Free Citizens will be able to deal with the secret of the crystal—anyone else will be annihilated, along with all of Barliona and all its continents. I can still cancel the tournament—you only need to request it. Do you truly wish this?”
Ehkiller and Naahti locked eyes and froze in place. The air between the clan leader and the Emperor seemed so charged that if any sentient stumbled between them, I imagine it would be sent to respawn immediately regardless of whether it was player or NPC. The heavy gazes of the two self-assured administrators would have destroyed it in a blink of an eye.
“We would be happy to arrange the tournament!” Ehkiller gave up after an eternity that lasted an entire minute. The icy glow vanished from the Emperor’s eyes and the head of Malabar added:
“I knew that I could count on you. As for the Tomb, consider how you can safeguard it without resorting to force. It’s not up to me to tell you that any problem could be solved in a number of ways and the forceful approach is not always the best way out of a difficult situation. The prohibition against combat will cover all the Free Citizens, regardless of their territorial origin. But enough about the Tomb. Since we’ve decided that the tournament will go on, I’d like to discuss the concessions that the Phoenix clan expects to receive for rendering such an enormous service to the Empire.”
“Not just Phoenix,” Ehkiller corrected the Emperor. “There are two clans organizing this tournament…”
After thirty minutes of negotiations, I understood only that I had ceased to understand anything at all. Ehkiller bartered and haggled with the Emperor like a cook at a market, and Naahti for his part didn’t budge an inch, wringing his hands and complaining that Phoenix was trying to bankrupt his Empire. Literally a few minutes ago, they were ready to incinerate each other with their eyes, playing the parts of spoiled princesses who look down proudly on this poor world, but as soon as it came to eking out an extra gold piece, it was like Ehkiller and Naahti had been replaced by two strangers.
“I have an idea,” Ehkiller said suddenly, smirking at my bored face. What else could I do? I simply wasn’t very interested in what province could help us with what resources, in what amounts, how the logistics would be arranged, what bonuses were best exacted from Kartoss, what villages and even towns would be handed over to our control, what percentages from the selling of attributes would trickle to our treasury…This just wasn’t in my wheelhouse! “In order to make our discussion more productive, I suggest we invite Serart—the treasurer of the Legends of Barliona—as well as someone from Kartoss. I’m sure that the Dark Lord’s representatives, or perhaps he himself, would be happy to discuss how to organize the tournament. As for Anastaria and Mahan…I suggest we let them go. Negotiations aren’t really their cup of tea.”
“Agreed,” the Emperor said, and several moments later the Heralds had delivered Mr. Kristowski to the main hall, while a Magister of Kartoss emerged triumphantly from his portal. The preparations for the tournament began to burble with renewed force.
“What’ll we do about the Tomb?” Anastaria asked pensively as soon as the Herald had delivered us to Phoenix’s castle. “Surely we’re not going to defend it using NPCs? Suggestions?”
“Well,” I muttered, “unfortunately nothing’s coming to me except for the most obvious and simplest option.”
“What’s that?”
“Since PvP is blocked for everyone, then no player will be able to squeeze through a tight wall of other players. It’s one of those situations where a crowd of newbies can stop a crowd of Level 400s. The important thing is to hold the line and block any flying. The entrance to the Tomb is pretty small, so we can hire some minnows, arrange them in several chains and make them work in shifts. The downside is we’ll have to arrange a round the clock watch. And plus we’ll need some device that jams flying…which they could break, so we’ll also need…”
“Daniel, you’re a genius!” Anastaria interrupted me happily. She jumped up and began to pace back and forth with undisguised impatience. “I’ll work out the details and we’ll find the right people either in our clan or from dad’s, I’ll talk to Serart this very day. Damn it! This really is the simplest option and, what’s stranger, the most obvious one! Even the Emperor was hinting at it! This is what happens when you get used to playing at the higher levels. All right, we’ve settled this issue then. I’ll set up the guards this very day. Send me an invite to the Legends. It’s no good when the husband and wife are in different clans.”

Player Anastaria has joined the Legends of Barliona. Current rank: Deputy Head.

Congratulations on your return,” Plinto instantly wrote in the clan chat. “Are you going to be here for a while, or are you just stopping by for another fling?”
“Baby, I’m planning on going to see my trainers and teachers, and then I have to go see Nashlazar,” Anastaria went on, leaving the Rogue’s quip without a reply. Adjusting her already perfectly-arranged hair, Stacey embraced me, placed her head on my chest, shut her eyes in pleasure and forced me to embrace her.
“What do you think—can the teachers wait a half hour?” I asked her in a hushed voice. Despite the time we had spent together in the game as well as in reality, when Stacey was so close to me, my breathing locked up treacherously, my head filled with noise, and a warmth spilled out in my chest, filling my whole being.

Quest completed: ‘Tight-knit family. Step 1.’ Speak to the High Priestess of Eluna to receive your reward and the next step in the quest chain.

“How about later tonight, Dan?” Stacey gave me a cunning glance and slipping playfully from my embrace. “I just knew that there’s no reason to wait all thirty days! It’s enough to prove that we’re together again. Shall we go see Elsa tonight?”
“So that was all for the quest?” I almost choked from outrage, but Anastaria instantly reappeared in my embrace, her hazel eyes shining in triumph from yet another victory.
“I love you too, my darling,” she meowed in my ear, giving it a nibble in the process. “Will you drop me off at the Paladin’s training grounds? In the evening I promise to suffer my deserved punishment!”
Grudgingly fulfilling Stacey’s wish and still upset by her trick, I decided to busy myself with chores. Since I’d been so suddenly promoted in levels, it makes sense to find out what this gives me. The time had come to become a real Shaman.
Hi, Fleita! What’re you up to?” I began by contacting my student to determine her progress. Something told me that if I show up in front of Kornik or Prontho without this quest, I’ll get an earful.

You cannot communicate with your student telepathically without first establishing a private bond.

WHAT?! I sent the request to Fleita again and again, but received the same answer over and over again—our telepathy was blocked. The system didn’t tell me that my student wasn’t in the game—it told me that I wasn’t allowed to speak with her without an amulet! How was this possible? Coming to grips with the futility of making further attempts to contact the Shaman, I decided to ask Kornik to explain what was going on…

You cannot communicate with your teacher telepathically without first establishing a private bond.

It’s a good thing that this here wall is right here so I can lean against it in my shock. I’m sure that the spectacle of a Shaman Harbinger collapsing to the ground with his face contorted in amazement would make the rounds on the Barliona forums. My telepathy had been blocked!
“Stacey?!” Panicking, I sent a thought to Anastaria.
“What happened?” came Stacey’s immediate reply and I relaxed a little. Only now did I notice that I had tensed up like a coiled spring in expectation of the answer. Even though everything had worked fine just that morning, the Corporation could easily put an end to something like telepathy whenever it felt like it.
“Hmm…Never mind, I thought the Corp had blocked my Shamanic powers…!”
“Not all of them. I get the impression that all the undocumented features that we’ve been using before the update have been disabled now. For instance, I can’t speak with Eluna without first getting permission from the Priests or simply asking them to do it for me. Despite the status, a warrior of the goddess isn’t supposed to speak to her directly. I’m sitting here trying to figure it out as we speak. What about you?”
“So far all I’ve discovered is that I can’t speak with my student or my teacher. I’ll start testing everything else.”
Let me know what you find tonight,” said Anastaria and disconnected. Here I discovered that even the act of disconnection was now so palpable that I had even gritted my teeth: Before the update, Anastaria’s thoughts would appear in my mind suddenly and leave it just as unexpectedly, but now it seemed like everything was happening according to strict protocol: ‘Do you wish to speak with your second half?’ ‘Your second half has terminated your conversation. Please rate your telepathic exchange…’ What’s that Corporation up to with this update?
I made my way to the shamanic training ground and opened the Spirit summoning interface. My heart skipped a beat. The panel was empty. Entirely empty. All eight quick slots were utterly bare, as if I’d never used them before! The spellbook icon was blinking conspicuously, drawing my attention. A bad premonition—I opened the spellbook and cursed one more time. At the moment, I could only summon two Minor Spirits—of healing and of lightning. And that’s it! Even though I was still learning an enormous number of summons, the spellbook contained nothing at all.
“Our failing apprentice has decided to honor our humble abode?” Kornik’s wry voice sounded beside me, forcing me to look up from the book. “What doth his Harbingerness require of us?”
“Teacher,” I bowed my head deferentially, slipping on the mask of the student. “Please explain to me what has happened with my powers?”
“What about them?” the goblin asked with mock surprise. It was obvious that he knew what was going on.
“I can’t get in touch with my student, I can’t get in touch with you, I don’t have any…” Patiently and methodically, I began to itemize all the ‘bugs’ I had encountered up till now. Perhaps they were ‘features,’ if you looked at them in the right light.
“Of course you can’t get in touch with us,” smirked Kornik. “Have you established a private bond with me or your student? Nope. Did you inscribe the Spirits you were taught into your spellbook? Nope. Did you do any of what every other ordinary Shaman does at all? I’ll give you one chance to guess the answer. I wouldn’t be surprised if you have no idea what your student is doing at this very moment. ‘Oh woe is me! I can’t reach her telepathically!’ How about just calling her on the old amulet? And you call yourself a teacher..! Be thankful that you still have the power to jump all over Kalragon like some interdimensional flea. I’d take that away from you too, were it up to me. How can you summon Spirits if you give no thought to your elemental? The Supreme Spirit of Water doesn’t even remember you anymore. No—things can’t go on like this. You, my remedial student, will have to learn how to be a true Shaman instead of the strange paradox you were before the Cataclysm. It doesn’t do after all to go about summoning Rank 50 Spirits while still at Rank 1.”
“If I had done everything like an ordinary Shaman, I would’ve never become Harbinger.” I wasn’t about to let this NPC berate me unanswered. “According to you I’m not acting like an ordinary Shaman? So what? Every Shaman has his own Way, and I have traveled mine to its end. According to you, the Supreme Water Spirit’s forgotten about me? Do the Shamans have rules that they must follow in their practice of shamanism? Or is there some ideal Shaman out there somewhere that I have to compare myself to? The Shaman I was before the Cataclysm is a very real Shaman! If someone wants to destroy him in some manner, then I’d prefer to hear the truth, so do me a favor and quit telling me this nonsense. I’ve heard plenty of that over the last few months.”
“Oh, oh, you’re scaring me!” Kornik continued to mock me. “He doesn’t like nonsense, he’s so no nonsense—no sir, no nonsense for him! You’re my student! If I tell you that you need to relearn something, then that’s what you have to do. It doesn’t make sense to do whatever you like and then later scour the Free Lands in search of a problem you should’ve solved months ago. You have to be like everyone else and follow the rules!”
“Geranika offered a deal,” sounded Prontho’s voice behind my back. I turned and bowed my head respectfully before the head of the Shaman Council. I guess it’s some holiday today because it’s not every day that you see the head of the Council outside of his office. “He agreed to destroy the Heart of Chaos if Eluna and Tartarus adjusted the abilities of all Free Citizens to conform with the standards of their chosen classes—that is, to the main class template. The Battle of Armard demonstrated to Geranika how unpredictable the Free Citizens could be, so he decided to do this.”
“And the gods agreed to this?” I asked surprised. As I recall it, Renox was supposed to sacrifice himself in order to destroy the Heart of Chaos. Did the Corporation really revise this scenario? What did they not like about nonstandard players? The entire game was built on our shoulders after all! The most interesting part of Barliona was the option to improvise some unexpected power or solution. Maybe the Corp had gotten tired of constantly correcting the scenarios to account for all the things we came up with?
“Don’t you see the consequences?” Prontho raised an eyebrow inquisitively, managing thereby to demonstrate his immense dissatisfaction with my all too obvious question.
“But why?” I sighed, trying to ignore the orc’s reaction. “Why do the gods want the Free Citizens to be…average?”
Prontho didn’t bother to give me an answer. Turning triumphantly and losing all interest in me, the head of the Shaman Council headed toward the only building on the training ground. Our audience had ended.
“Kornik?” Realizing that I shouldn’t expect anything more from the orc, I turned on the goblin.
“What do you mean, ‘Kornik?’ Anytime anything happens, it’s always Kornik, Kornik, Kornik,” aped my teacher. “You’ve learned all there is to learn! And much more than everyone else, I might add. I’ll say it again—you need to act like everyone else and avoid trying to change anything. I doubt that Eluna or Tartarus would leave a loophole for their favorites. Why would they? I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow. We’re going to learn how to summon Spirits all over again…Pshaw! Now I’ve seen it all! A Harbinger who hasn’t a clue about how to be a Shaman! What a nightmare!”
Still muttering into his nose, Kornik stepped a few paces away from me, gave me another glance, smirked and vanished. The air around me filled with the buzz of other Shamans, many of whom had never seen Prontho in the flesh before. For my part, I tried to detach my mind from it all. Kornik had basically told me outright that it was possible to go on summoning the Spirits in my accustomed manner, so I had to now consider this matter in the proper manner. I didn’t feel like becoming an average Shaman.

“Mahan, it’s been so long!” Favaz, my Jewelcrafting teacher—who had become first among the masters of Anhurs—welcomed me with sincere happiness. The workshop that had been destroyed during the blooming of the Ying-Yang had long since been restored. The gnome had added several floors to it so that now the pitter-patter and bustle of the craftsmen housed up there descended down to us. Over the last half-year, the Jewelcrafting profession had undergone a renaissance. The popularity of this profession now rivaled that of Smithing or Tanning, and consequently had affected the costs of the ingredients and prices of the finished products. Even before the Cataclysm, Mr. Kristowski had begun sighing about the bygone days when a simple Gold ring of +5 to some old stat cost a mere hundred gold. Now, however, the price of a ring like that was lower than the cost of the ingredients you needed to craft it, which was making the crafting of low-level items prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, the gathering and mining business was on the up and up—players were buying up stacks of ingredients by the thousands, wishing to become the next exquisite jeweler and dazzle Barliona with the craftsmanship.
“Teacher,” I bowed my head as per custom, greeting my senior. The Barliona NPCs really get off on subordination, and bowing your head or curtseying one extra time never hurts. “I am pleased to see your workshop is prospering.”
“It’s all thanks to you!” In a fit of gratitude, the gnome placed his hand on my shoulder, pouring oil on the fire of my vanity. If I had any vanity, that is. “It’s no small honor to say that I taught a Jeweler who managed to cause the Ying-Yang to bloom! Every new Free Citizen who comes to study with me first asks whether Shaman Mahan studied here at some point. Even if you did not learn the basic skills from me, the polishing and faceting of your trade was the work of my hands!”
The gnome called over one of his assistants, issued a curt order and then ushered me into the next room which turned out to be a reception room.
“I saw your recipe,” Favaz went on, offering me some tea. “A very curious solution—giving lovers a chance to speak telepathically with one another. Have you made one yet?”
“Only one set,” I replied, sipping the tea and noticing the temporary boost to my Jewelcrafting stats. Even if it was only +10 for sixty minutes, the important thing was that Barliona now had drinks that would boost your profession. A welcome feature for players who had dedicated themselves to crafting. “I need to create several thousand Pendants but I have no idea where I’ll find the time to do it. Three or four minutes per item is too much. Much too much. And that’s why I’m here. Figured you might have some useful advice for me.”
“Why, what could I possible advise you…” the gnome spread his arms. “The only thing you can do is sit down and get to work. You can’t transfer the recipe. You can’t not do the work. So the only thing that follows is work, work, and more work. You have to work even when you’re taking a break from working. There’s no other advice I can offer.”
Suddenly, the sound of shattering glasses resounded overhead.
“Why that no good, useless, armless thing!” Favaz yelled in anger. The gnome cast me an apologetic look, then glanced up at the ceiling, then back at me and, trying to speak calmly, added, “Mahan, please wait for me here. Feel free to read the books or have some more tea. I’ll be a second. I had told a certain dunderhead to wash the windows, and what do you know, the oaf’s shattered them instead! Why is it that some Free Citizens can create unbelievable things, while others can manage to break even a cast iron sphere? With their bare hands! How do you all manage to be so…so…different?”
Despite his young age, the Jeweler got up with a creak and shuffled over to the ladder—to issue his punishment to the hapless player. I even grew curious who it was who’d messed up so badly, but since the gnome had asked me to wait for him in his room, it was better for me to stay put. It’s hard to believe that Favaz doesn’t have the information I need about how to create the Pendants, so risking my Attractiveness with him right now would be a bad idea.
I heard the sounds of argument come from upstairs, mixed with a girlish sobbing—the dunderhead turned out to be female. My desire to go take a look grew to such a degree that I even stood up from the table and approached the staircase. Right at the last moment and by sheer force of will, I managed to change course and stopped beside a small bookcase. Since Favaz had granted me the permission to read the volumes on the shelf, then there wouldn’t be anything valuable or useful among them, and yet—in the hopes of overcoming the desire to go upstairs and have a laugh at the hapless girl with the other players—I picked up the first book I came across and began to read it. Myths and Legends of Jewelcrafting. The update had not affected the mechanic of reading literature in Barliona—until you’d read the entire book, it would forever open to the first page and the only way to flip to the next one was to read the entire text. The Imitators were real sticklers for ensuring these rules were followed.
To my immense surprise, I liked the book. Either Favaz selected the books for his modest collection very carefully, or this work simply resonated with my current state…All I knew was that it was really interesting to read about the great jewelers of the past, who created true masterpieces with their cunning and artistry. How many amazing items had been created only to be lost to the ages! Marvels such as Borgia’s Ring, which the oppressed gnomes presented to the head of the orcs, thereby earning their liberty. Or the Chain of Desires, created by the elves and presented as a gift to the king of the dwarves. To make a long story short, the Chain of Desires only made the desires of the elves come true and as a result the poor dwarves spent several years serving the long-eared folk. Nowadays the dwarves deny this simple historical fact, but a legend wouldn’t lie now would it?
I had to catch my breath when I saw an illustration of a whimsical ring with a green stone. Tourmellorn—a ring of tourmaline with the symbol fashioned from the mellorn mineral. A ring created by Karmadont for the lord of the elves, who in the end never did accept the dominance of men. It’s only in the present day that the kingdom of the light and dark elves occupies the north of our continent. In bygone times this people lived throughout all of Kalragon, exceeding humans both in terms of population and their artifice. Not wishing to conquer the elves, Karmadont created the Tourmellorn in the hopes of demonstrating that humans could not only fight but create as well—and do so at a level that surpassed the elves. The elves never did get their ring—the caravan that was transporting this artifact was ambushed. The Tourmellorn was lost, forever vanishing from Barliona and becoming one of its more vivid myths.
I didn’t remember the moment that design mode enveloped me. Simply, a moment came in which I realized that I was in a large, well-lit room, filled with shelves, workbenches, various jeweler’s tools, two furnaces, copies of the items I’d already created and many other things which would make the process of crafting items in Barliona much more pleasant and effective.
Looks like along with my updated character, the Corporation had also presented me with the official design mode. After all, I never did complete the quest chain that unlocked it…
Like hell!
My sudden desire to craft the Tourmellorn vanished on the spot. I don’t know why, but I became so used to working in my old, gloomy design mode that now I felt incredibly uncomfortable in this well-lit room. It was like I was naked and on stage in front of a large crowd. No doubt there are some who like to show off their bodies, especially if there’s something to show off, but I’m not one of them. This brightly illuminated workshop had everything I needed to create efficiently, even a separate panel for making sketches, but I didn’t actually need any of that. Opening my mailbox (without even having to leave design mode), I began to compose a letter. Let them figure out what to do with me on their own—I want my old design mode back!

Dear admins, I’d like to bring to your attention that I have stumbled upon a rather embarrassing design mode, now active for my character. I understand very well that it would be a pleasure to do my crafting in such an environment. However, I would strongly prefer that you return my old, dark design mode to me. It is highly unpleasant for me to realize that I have been stripped of the chance to complete the quest chain for becoming a creator. Thank you!

Re-reading my letter, I sent it to the admins with a mean smirk. Now, whoever’s responsible for me only has one way out—return everything to the way it had been. The Corporation can’t ignore my letter—they’re the very reason that I had become a ‘certain Shaman Mahan.’ If I begin to voice my displeasure, heads might start to roll. And who needs that? No one. And in the same way, they couldn’t disable my design mode in general and force me to complete the quest chain. Who knows when I get around to doing it? Maybe in a year, maybe in two. When there’s time. At the same time, I—as a Jeweler—have the only recipe in Barliona for an item that allows couples to communicate telepathically. Here, the Corp would have to either toss the recipe and inform its playerbase of this, or agree to my conditions. And both options suited me just fine. Anyway you spin it, the Corp didn’t have much of a choice, so they’d have to give me back my initial design mode. After all, I’m ready to fight for it to the bitter end!
“That’s a good book,” sounded Favaz’s voice, snapping me back to the game. I looked around with surprise and realized that during my cogitations, I had managed to leave design mode and was now standing beside a bookshelf, holding the volume of the Jewelers’ fairy tales in my hand. “It’s too bad that the items described in it are merely the stuff of myths. I would happily study the structure of several of these artifacts and attempt to make a recipe.”
“Teacher, this book speaks of the Tourmellorn. Where else may I read of this ring?”
“The Tourmellorn?” the gnome echoed with surprise. “What do you need it for? This ring is useless to humans—oh, I beg your pardon—Dragons. Besides, it’s just a myth, a pretty tale about a master Jeweler of the past.”
“Experience shows that when it comes to Karmadont, the myths tend to be true. I’m interested in this sentient. Both as an individual who existed, as a Hunter who became an Emperor, as well as a Craftsman who created the Chess Set, the Altarian Falcon, the Tourmellorn, and the three Emperors. What other miracles did Karmadont’s hands conjure?”
“The Altarian Falcon?” Favaz furrowed his brow, trying to remember something, but then shrugged and muttered: “I’d never even heard of that before…Mahan, I understand your desire, but I have to disappoint you—I don’t have the quest you’re looking for. Perhaps the hermit has the answers you seek. One of our masters told you about him, I believe. Have you visited him yet?”
That’s right! How had I forgotten about that quest? According to my initial understanding of it, the hermit could be Karmadont himself, since no one knew where the Emperor’s grave actually was. Or whether it exists at all! But, let’s leave these hypothetical theories stand—both of the hermit and of Karmadont—while we continue to pump Favaz for all the info he’s got.
“Unfortunately, neither before nor after the Cataclysm, have I managed to visit him, but thank you for reminding me. Teacher, I’d like to return to my initial question—is there some way of accelerating the production of the Pendants? Are there perhaps some elixirs, such as your tea, that will increase not only craftsmanship, but the speed of crafting as well?”
“Elixirs?” The gnome rubbed his chin pensively and stared at the ceiling. “There’s one elixir…but, no, that won’t do…a bit of nonsense, a fairy tale, no more….No, I really don’t think that anything will help.”
“Please forgive my rudeness but I heard something about a fairy tale. What did you mean?”
“A perfectly ordinary fairy tale. The Alchemists have spent the last several millennia trying to recreate Merlin’s Potion…to no avail. According to those legends that you hold so dear, this elixir has miraculous effects on craftsmen. What exactly it does remains unclear, but the only documented case of someone quaffing Merlin’s Potion led to the creation of the current Imperial palace. By one man alone. In one day. No one remembers what his name is, but everyone knows that he used Merlin’s Potion—which was given to him by Karmadont.”
“Again Karmadont?” I blurted out.
“Hmm, I guess so…yes. Again him,” the gnome said thoughtfully. “The man was an Architect, so the Jewelers didn’t really pay much attention to the affair, but…You know it really is interesting. There’s never been any other mention of Merlin’s Potion, whether before or after. I wonder how the first Emperor acquired it…”
The gnome fell quiet, following his thoughts into nirvana. I tried to continue our conversation, but Favaz answered me in monosyllables, indicating that it was time for me to get going.
Trying not to bug the gnome, I again picked up the book about the legendary jewelers and opened it to the page with the Tourmellorn. The ring seemed perfect to me. The desire to enter design mode and try and recreate this masterpiece again began to smolder in my chest, but I made an effort and pushed it away—I didn’t want to craft in the illuminated design mode. Returning the book to its place with a sigh of disappointment, I began to make my exit. However, as I was passing through the workshop, something held me back, something stopped me…The players around me were diligently crafting rings taking no note of their surroundings. Almost all the workbenches were filled with laboring craftsmen—but only almost. Right next to me, an empty workstation winked and nodded at me like some solitary nymphomaniac.
Realizing that I needed to go meet the hermit and figure out who and what was going on, I approached the table hesitantly, sat down on the wooden bench and placed my hands on the well-scratched surface. The Tourmellorn? No, not right now.
Design mode almost consumed my mind, turning the surrounding environment into an illuminated room, but I did my best to concentrate. Barliona is a very interesting game. If players are allowed to unlock a skeleton design mode without completing a hundred quests, then it stands to reason that you could use it whenever you felt like it. Even despite the newly unlocked functionality. I simply need to imagine that I’m surrounded by darkness. They couldn’t have cut it off completely!
But at some point, instead of the dark design mode, the Lovers’ Pendant appeared before my eyes. As I understood it, my subconscious was feeling guilty, reminding me in this manner about the letter that Mr. Kristowski had sent me with a list of the fifty couples who were first in line to receive their Pendants. He’d already arranged with them what they’d do for my clan. The only thing that everyone was now waiting for was the actual item. Only a single Diamond fit in my mail. Serart offered to take the rest into the clan storage vaults. Indeed, my CFO had several times reminded me in the letter that the order had to be filled urgently. What I liked most of all was that I hadn’t received a single call on my amulet. Serart understood perfectly well that if I didn’t feel like doing anything at the moment, then forcing me would be pointless, and so he treated me very specifically. His was a considerate approach.
Using the advantages of the new design mode, I opened the mailbox and projected the letter with its list of fifty pairs. The first group. The player couples who’d decided to grow so close to one another that they were prepared to work for my clan to do so. Fifty pairs—that’s like 150 minutes of office work. Damn it! That’s too long! That’s really too long!
I opened my mailbox once again, messed around with the settings of the mail daemon and a long list of 87 thousand lines appeared (and vanished in the distance) before my eyes: the complete list of everyone who wanted a Pendant. The enormity of my predicament stunned me. The first lot was but a drop in the ocean in comparison to the main torrent. I had to do something. But what?
Creating the Pendant was an entirely standard process. I activate the recipe, create a projection of the Diamond, the system processes the stone on its own, breaks it in two halves, polishes it and generates a window with two entry fields for the lovers’ names. Once I enter the names, the Pendants are bound to the players. Then this virtual projection is combined with a real Diamond and the Pendants are complete. There’s no tricks or difficulties here—a rote and lengthy process of forming the binding that takes up three minutes. And the entire time, the Jeweler is little more than a spectator—the system really does everything on its own. It just takes forever to do it!
Sighing and trying to calm down, I decided to brainstorm the various ways I could solve this problem. The simplest solution was to expedite the binding process. For that I’d need Merlin’s Potion, which I didn’t know how to come by. What else could be done? Start one process and somehow move on to the next one while it’s running. In parallel. The interesting question is how to do this? Or is it even possible? I need to ask Favaz. I think that’s about it. There’s nothing else that could be thought of—the sequence of creating the Pendant was simply too regimented and…Hold on…
My heart skipped a beat with anxiety when I swiped aside all the projections that remained before my eyes, trying to bring my idea to fruition as quickly as possible.
Who said that I first had to form the stones and then apply the images to them? Why not try to do everything in reverse? For instance, form a huge pool of virtual names, and then apply the image of the stone to it? I have no idea how to do this, but I liked the idea. I had to try it.
Complications popped up right off the bat. The first question that I hadn’t an answer to was how to visualize the name? It’s a simple name, with no attributes regarding gender, class, appearance, race—a name that is associated with a player only due to the fact that’s it’s always hanging over their character’s head. How could I make the system understand that this player was closely entwined with another one, of whom I knew nothing but his or her name, even if that was a unique one in Barliona? And Barliona as a whole? Was there a chance that the names were only unique as far as the continent went? A good question. I’d need to work it through carefully. But something else was important at the moment—how?
Hmm…Maybe, I’m posing the wrong question? Maybe instead of asking ‘how?’ I need to be asking ‘why?’ Why do people decide to be together? Why are people prepared to spend a week of their time in-game to be able to communicate with another person more intimately? Love? A pretty answer—perhaps even the correct one—but one that bore no relation to an item. For some people, love is being constantly beside each other. For others, it’s a minute-long meeting once a week or a fleeting glance of two passersby on the street who may never speak with one another—or even some common activity, common thoughts, common interests. The individuals who want the Pendant are incredibly different and it’s impossible to come up with some universal principle that ties each one with a concept of ‘love.’ In that case, we’ll return to the original question—is love really the matter here? Is it simply for love that the players want to be able to communicate telepathically? The chance to be closer to one another? The option of using a channel of communication that remains closed to everyone around them? The desire to share not only words but also emotions with the other person?
Despite the fact that I was surrounded by design mode and Barliona, shivers ran along my body. Physiologically speaking, a game avatar doesn’t have something like ‘shivers,’ and yet no one had removed the nervous system of the real person—I suddenly realized what unites those who wanted the amulet! My first thought had been accurate—it was love after all—but that was also the tip of the iceberg. If I hadn’t had Anastaria, it would’ve been really difficult to reach this conclusion.
The first batch of fifty orders was sent to the trash can. The bright glow of design mode no longer bothered me—I didn’t pay it any attention. If I was going to work, I’d work with the full list and nothing but the full list. What’s the difference whether one couple needs a Pendant or eighty-seven thousand couples? In its current formulation, the number of Pendants played absolutely no role.
What mattered was something else—unity!
We’ll take that as an axiom—that two people love each other. What does this mean? The manifestations of love, as I already understood, could be diverse. Even though Stacey loved me, before the Cataclysm, she did absolutely terrible things to me. But that was still love, as odd as that may seem. Why did she do this? Because she simply likes masochism? Yeah right! She did everything in order to protect me from an external threat. And she did it the best way she knew, but she did it. The question that follows is ‘why?’ but I already have an answer to it: because a person in love doesn’t feel whole without the other half. The very expression ‘second half’ suggests that only together does the new, single whole form. It’s referred to differently—a couple, a family, partners—but the gist of it doesn’t change. At a certain point in time, people who love each other feel like a single whole. Why ‘at a certain point in time?’ Because you can’t ignore the possibility that people might fall in love with someone else. Anything is possible, but this has no effect on the creative process.
I need to split the Diamond into its parts, polish them, and combine them with the names…This approach could work too, but it’s not the right way to do it. I need to learn how to work with the names. I need to take any two names (as if reading my thoughts, the names of a couple appeared before me) and create a single union from them. Intertwine them in such a manner that only the High Priestess could untangle them and with her might tear the bonds between the players. They want to be together? Let them be together then!
Without understanding myself how I did it, I associated Rosgard the Annoying with my right hand—and Cyree the Defender with my left. I brought my palms together, and intertwined my fingers, locking them. Forever and anon, I declare you a couple! The two names before my eyes clashed together, mixed, forming an indescribable mixture of letters and colors and formed a shining sphere. The Pendant for one couple was ready.
Looking up at the list before me, I already knew what to do. Associate with the right, then with the left, form the lock, the mixture, the shining sphere and…
“MAHAN!” Favaz’s hysterical shriek reached me even within design mode. “HOW MUCH MORE OF THIS?!”
I guess I’d done something terrible, but I could look at what had happened because the ‘Paralysis’ debuff blocked this for the next 48 hours. At the same time I realized that I was lying on something cold and terribly uneven, as if someone had piled a bunch of stones on the ground and then dumped me onto them.
“Shaman Mahan! You are under arrest for destroying the Jeweler’s workshop and sending 52 Free Citizens to the Gray Lands!” The gnome’s shrill outburst was joined by the menacing growl of the Anhurs City guard.
Stacey, I need help!” I managed to think as the cold, iron collar clapped around my neck. They were about to escort me to jail in chains. “The guards got me, they’re taking me away…”
Barliona jail is a fun place. On the one hand, I didn’t see a thing beyond the darkness—the ‘Paralysis’ debuff kept me blind. On the other hand, I’d been in here before as a Hunter, so I could imagine my surroundings just fine. Stone walls that blocked not only all chat communication and Mage summons, but even my telepathic link to Anastaria. A small window with a rusty grate that could somehow stand up to a battering ram. A wooden door that separated the player from the outside world. Everything as usual in other words and I was even grateful that the debuff kept me from beholding this dour place.
No matter how hard I tried to bring it up, design mode didn’t work in jail. All I could do was sit there and wait for Stacey. If she paid my bail in a half hour, I’d leave the jail, exit the game and go dig around the forums to find out what the hell was going on.

“Come on out, Mahan!” Twenty minutes later the door slid aside. The guard regarded me grimly, scanned me up and down, and added with barely-disguised contempt: “You’ve made bail this time around, you murderer! Be grateful that our Empire has such lenient laws.”
The two points of Attractiveness I had with this fellow suggested that the guard could barely keep himself from sending me to the Gray Lands. What’d I do to him? Had I killed an NPC with my accident? That couldn’t be the case—they’d never let me go to begin with. Anyone who killed an NPC within city limits was punished with the full weight of the law. All of Barliona was built on this principle. Although…What killing? The rules forbade it!
“Criminal!” growled the guard, delivering me to the jail warden. Right then, my vision returned to me—the system informed me that Anastaria had dispelled my debuff. I found myself in a small office, with a grizzled NPC behind the desk. His black mustache appeared like a target against a white background. Stacey was standing a bit to the side, watching me with a wry expression. I knew this smirk—it didn’t bode anything good for me. It looked like I really had managed to cause some trouble.
“How many times do I have to tell you, sergeant,” said the NPC warden wearily, “criminals stay in their cells. As soon as a sentient is set free, he or she ceases to be a criminal. You’re dismissed!”
“Shaman Mahan,” the old man began as soon as the guard had left the room, “in the name of the Empire, I hereby offer my apologies for your detainment. We had no right to take you under guard. The Herald and Anastaria already explained everything to us. You may go now.”
“I don’t understand a thing,” I muttered in surprise. “Why did you detain me then?”
“You, my darling, managed to destroy the workshop. Again,” Stacey explained.
“I destroyed it last time but there wasn’t a punishment!”
“Last time you didn’t destroy 52 Free Citizens along with it.”
“But killing other players is blocked. I couldn’t do anything physically! Barliona should’ve barred me from harming them!”
“And yet you did it anyway. You have a PK marker on you. Or at least you had it when you entered the office. But there’s no penalty as such for your murders. It seems the Emperor himself didn’t understand how you managed to do it. They wanted to imprison you for something else.”
“For destroying two squads of the Anhurs city guard,” the warden spoke up, entering our conversation. “By your hand, twelve worthy warriors were sent to the Gray Lands and only half of them bore the marks of death. Six recruits hadn’t yet earned their marks and now never will. This is what we wanted to punish you for.”
“Two squads?” I whispered surprised. “But how?”
“One of the recruits was the brother of my sergeant,” the warden went on, ignoring my question. “They grew up fatherless and their mother asked the older brother to look after the younger one. He was recruited into the Anhurs city guard, one of the safest possible stations to serve, and yet Shaman Mahan showed up and proved the opposite. You should be proud—your name has entered the annals of Anhurs city history.”
“Stacey, what’s going on? What’s with the guilt trip?”
“I think everyone’s just in shock. No player has ever managed to kill a guard before. Typically they collapse to the ground with 1 HP, but in your case, as always, the typical outcome didn’t happen. Send me your logs—I want to see what you were up to.”
“Could I help in some way?” I asked the jail warden carefully, sending Stacey the logs of my Pendant crafting. The next time I begin combining them with the gems, I should first go somewhere far outside of any populated area.
“With what? His widow shall receive gold. She’ll never know hardship again, but that won’t bring back her son. You, the Free Citizens, only know how to do one thing—kill. Those who bear the mark of death cannot understand the grief of a mother who has lost her son.”
“Stacey, here’s a global question for you that stuns me with its novelty—is there heaven or hell in Barliona? A place where dead NPCs go? The Gray Lands are only for the players, aren’t they?”
“Erm…Every god has a different set-up. This guard was probably a follower of Eluna, so after dying he should enter Erebus. It’s a place of non-being—where the souls mix and dissolve into one another, ceasing to be individual entities.”
“Is the transition instant? Do the souls immediately dissolve, or does it happen over a period of time?”
“Please don’t tell me that you’re thinking of going after the guards, Dan. It’s not possible.”
“An amazing woman once told me: ‘There are no impossible things. There are only the fetters of your consciousness that forbid you from doing what you wish to do.”
“I never said anything of the kind!”
“Who said anything about you? I was talking about my mother…When are we going to attempt the Tomb?”
“We’re starting tomorrow.”
“So I have an entire day. Excellent!”
I sighed deeply, gathering my strength and then blurted out:
“The death of your sergeant’s younger brother is my fault. I won’t ask for forgiveness, I won’t act like nothing happened, and I won’t promise the impossible. I can only tell you one thing—I will do everything in my power to bring him and the other guards from Erebus. I give you my word as a Shaman!”
Stacey shook her head as if deciding which mental clinic she had best check me into, but as she did so the following notification appeared before me:

Quest available: ‘Who will guard the guards themselves?’ Description: Bring back the Anhurs guards from Erebus…Time limit for completing the quest: 24 hours. Quest type: “I knew you’d choose this option!” ~James. Reward/Penalty: Variable.

Chapter Three. Erebus

“Mahan and Anastaria!” Elizabeth said in a surprisingly cold voice as soon as we appeared before her. The completed quest allowed us to avoid a long waiting line and we were ushered directly into the office of the High Priestess of Eluna immediately. “To what do I owe the honor of beholding the Harbinger and the Paladin General?”

Reward received: +2000 to Reputation with the Priests of Eluna, +1000 to Reputation with Goddess Eluna.

“Your highness,” Stacey and I said at the same time as soon as the reward notification appeared before us. We bowed at the same time too as if we’d been practicing all this for a long while, exchanged surprised glances and burst out laughing.
“I can see that the time you’ve been spending together has done you good,” Elsa remarked in the same chilly tone of voice, ignoring our happiness. The astonishing thing was that I’d never encountered such a frosty attitude from Elizabeth before. I was really trying to stop laughing, but nothing was helping—the pressure of having been imprisoned earlier was now channeling into my laughing fit.
“High Priestess we have come to see you on business,” Anastaria was the first to get a grip on herself and, sighing several times to dispel her laughing fit, addressed Elizabeth. “We’ve completed the first part of your assignment and proved that our family is a strong one.”
“So strong that you interrupted your studies with my priestesses and ran off to pull Mahan out of jail?” Elizabeth raised an eyebrow eloquently. “A couple hours were so critical for you that you decided to disregard my gifts?”
Dan, we’ve got to get out of here immediately! My Attractiveness with her has fallen to 50 points already. There’s something off about her,” Anastaria’s urgent thought flashed through my mind.
“Elizabeth, it’s my fault that…” I began, but the High Priestess cut me off:
“Of course it’s yours, who’d even argue that point,” Elizabeth turned to face me. I noticed with astonishment that my 100 points of Attractiveness with her (which I had always been quite proud of) had dwindled to 70. This was still a pretty hefty number for an average player, but for me it was entirely unacceptable. My laughter quit me in a flash. What happened?! “What upsets me the most, is the instability around you. If there are any problems, then there’s always a high probability that Shaman Mahan is right in the middle of them.”
“High Priestess,” I continued stubbornly, despite Anastaria’s best attempts to pull me out of the office. “We have lived through many trials, both good and bad. We’ve watched each other’s backs and saved one another again and again, so please explain to me what has caused your displeasure…”
“Explain?” An expression of false surprise appeared on the NPC’s face. “Why are you so suddenly interested in explanations? Especially those of others and not your own? Isn’t your motto: ‘Onward and only onward!’ Without ever looking back?”
“It seems like you’ve confused me with someone,” I parried. Anastaria failed to budge me from where I stood, so she muttered something but remained standing beside me. “During the duration of our acquaintance, I haven’t once done anything without good reason. No one can accuse me of that.”
“Oh really? Literally two hours ago, a Shaman sent six future guards to their eternal rest. They were young, inexperienced, untrained! Of course this was done completely consciously and with full awareness of your impunity. Good work, Mahan! You barely even noticed it! And you’re going to tell me that you can always justify your actions?”
“That’s exactly why I’m here,” I began to explain, but Elsa interrupted me again:
“You’re betting on my kindness and understanding? You wish to escape your deserved punishment? That shall not be…”
“Why, I couldn’t give a damn about my punishment or who metes it out!” No one thought I knew how to yell. Most of all myself. Elsa went quiet with a look of surprise on her face, allowing me to go on: “I’m prepared to suffer any punishment right this instant! But before you make any decision, tell me how I can enter Erebus!”
Elizabeth collapsed in her chair, as if her legs had failed her, and a deep silence descended on the office.
“You cannot bring back the dead, Shaman,” Eluna’s melancholy voice let me know that a new visitor had appeared in the Priestess’s office. “Even a mourning mother, like Elizabeth here, cannot allow that to pass.”
“WHAT?!” Stacey and I blurted out at the same time and began to turn our heads from Eluna to Elizabeth and back in stunned amazement. Elizabeth was the mourning mother? Something had happened with Clouter?
“Avtondil hadn’t yet received the mark of death,” Eluna went on, as Elizabeth stared grimly at the empty sheet on her table. “He was so eager to be of service to the Empire that he signed up to be an assistant guard. The explosion, which you accidentally caused, happened precisely as Avtondil’s squad was passing alongside the workshop. Six dead. Six young and inexperienced subjects of the Empire. And among their number, the son of my High Priestess. There is nothing I can do, Mahan. Just like you.”
“I have twenty-four hours to bring them back,” I said stubbornly. Eluna’s authority in these matters weighed on me with the weight of a stone slab, forcing me to reject this venture, flee to some remote corner of Barliona, delete my Shaman and generally forget what a capsule even looked like. If the goddess says that it’s impossible to bring back the dead, then there’s no sense in getting myself into this. However, the quest entry in my quest list forced me to go against one of the most powerful creatures in Barliona and, clenching my fists, insist on my position. Clouter had to be returned to this world and the quest suggested that he could be too.
“Erebus is off-limits to the living,” Eluna went on.
“Then I’ll go there as a dead man,” I refused to concede. “The longer you restrain me, the less time I have.”
“Mahan, this is not possible,” Elizabeth tore her gaze from the empty sheet and looked up at me, her eyes brimming with tears. I could’ve killed those damn devs! Gazing into the eyes of a mother who had lost her child because of me, the sense of irreality evaporated. A sense of disgust I had never experienced before filled my inner being. I wanted one thing only—to help this woman regain her child. For me Barliona had become real again, and the NPC with the codename ‘High Priestess of Eluna’ became a mother who had lost her child. Not some bit of software code.
“Elsa, this world has something called hope. As long as it exists, Clouter lives. As do the other five guards. Eluna, what must I do to enter Erebus?”
“You must die,” the goddess said pithily after a short pause. “You must die and forsake the Gray Lands. Be aware Mahan, you might never return.”
“In that case, consider me a democrat,” I managed to say before my head exploded into a million tiny bits. Eluna had personally sent me to respawn.

Please confirm that you wish to enter the ‘Erebus’ location.
Please read the rules…

I was forced to read a huge chunk of text, which would ordinarily have caused shivers to zip along my spine. It turns out that Erebus is one of the closed-off locations and if I fail the quest here, my Shaman might remain here for all eternity. That is, not for all eternity, but until the Corporation permits his lost spirit to return to the game. Smiling to myself, I pushed the ‘Accept’ button that appeared only after I had read the entire text, and my surroundings snapped into motion.
A fog formed around me, smoothly transforming into darkness several meters away. I got the impression that I had become a little lamp that was trying to scatter the dourness of this world but lacking sufficient power to do so. I was sparkling and sputtering but not very convincingly. Nevertheless, there was enough light to see the cobble-paved path receding ahead of me into the fog and the precipice plummeting away into the same fog on either side of the path. My legs wavered beneath me, forcing me to squat. Who knows what the depth of this precipice is—it could be two meters or it could be endless. The path before me was about fifty centimeters wide, so it wouldn’t take much but a breeze to misstep and plummet into the depths.
Forcing myself to get back up to my feet and take a first step turned out to be a fairly nontrivial challenge. My mind understood that I was surrounded by a game, but my wild fear of the unknown and the height fettered my movements, turned my legs to cotton and forced me to lie down on the path to ensure I wouldn’t fall. I had to struggle with myself for several minutes, even exiting to reality several times to prove to my sub-consciousness that the world around me was merely graphical. It seemed to help and I managed to creep along the path.
As I expected, my connection with the external world had been cut off—neither the clan chat, nor mail, nor the amulets, nor my telepathy with Anastaria. Nothing at all. The only good news was that the quest timer before my eyes stopped every time I exited to reality. I had to complete this quest in 24 game hours, not real ones. This pleased me because it meant I would have time to talk to Anastaria when she yanked me out at the end of the day to tell her everything I’d see. By the way, about the things I was seeing…Damn it! I can’t record video here either!
“STRANGER!” all of a sudden a drawn out, malevolent whisper tore through the silence. It sounded like some giant snake had forgotten how to hiss and learned how to speak and scare the crap out of wandering Shamans. “WHAT DO YOU SEEK IN THE LAND OF THE DEAD?”
“Greetings!” I yelled just in case, noting the debuffs that blinked and instantly vanished, taking with them 10% of my HP. The voice didn’t merely scare me, it also hurt me. “My name is Mahan and I come in peace!”
“YOU DID NOT ANSWER THE QUESTION,” whispered the unknown creature, after which I lost control of my character: my hands and feet began to contort themselves, their joints creaking from the strain, my Hit Points raced my Energy to the bottom, and yet I remained watching this chaos of my Shaman from the side and suddenly realized that I wasn’t feeling any pain! My character’s sensory filter was set to maximum! If I had ventured into Erebus even a couple weeks ago, I’d be a ball of pain right now, tearing muscles and burning nerves without even a hint of consciousness. After all I still recall the ‘pleasure’ of cracking joints. But now…
“I have come for the six dead guards of Anhurs, who died several hours ago! Erebus is not their place!”
In keeping with what was happening to my body, my voice emerged high pitched and pierced with notes of panic and shock, yet I succeeded in the main thing—the spasms stopped.
“DEATH FOR THE DEAD, LIFE FOR THE LIVING!” whispered the voice at the level of a kitchen stoic who had spilled a pot of boiling water onto himself, leaving me on my own on the narrow path with 5% HP.

The Shaman has three hands…

I reflexively summoned a Spirit of Complete Healing, forgetting entirely that all my unlearned summons had been blocked, and so wasn’t particularly surprised when instead of the desired result I beheld a notification. What drew my attention was that, even though the notification was completely ordinary, it was also illogical:

You may not summon Spirits in Erebus.

If I was prohibited from summoning Spirits that I hadn’t yet learned, then the system should probably first check whether I can summon a Spirit at all and only then evaluate the location I’m trying to do it in. After all, I could simply sing a song of the Shaman mutant without even hinting at a summons. Why waste system resources tracking every word and checking whether it’s a summons or not? It’s dumb and unprofessional. Things like that are discouraged in the most introductory programming courses. The conclusion is evident—the restriction against summoning ‘unlicensed’ Spirits is superimposed and in the main world it might be difficult to summon them, but it’s possible. The important thing was to figure out how to do it.
The good news was that health potions worked just as well in Erebus as anywhere else. Quaffing four bottles and making a mental note to replenish my glass stocks (which had been calculated for a Level 160 player), I cautiously moved further along the path as the quest timer continued to creep mercilessly towards zero.
The path seemed endless. I was no longer paying attention to the precipice at its edges, moving forward at a fairly brisk pace when suddenly I came upon a fork. More precisely, a second path that joined mine at an acute angle and which boasted a lumbering, half-transparent orc with a sour mug. Wearing a burlap sack, the orc moved slowly, shuffling his feet unwillingly, as if something was prodding him onward. The paths evened out, allowing me a closer view of the orc. Not a single emotion, not a single look to the side—the face of the creature lumbering beside me displayed utter disinterest, mixed with weariness and submission to his fate. Judging by his muscles, the orc was a warrior, perhaps even a good one, but this hadn’t saved him from Erebus. I guess he came across someone stronger. I couldn’t help but touch the shoulder of the trudging creature. That is, I wanted to touch it, but my hand passed straight through the orc as if he was a projection. A ghost. At the same time, the ghost didn’t react to my lack of tact and slowly continued to approach the point where our paths joined. I didn’t exist as far as he was concerned.
Like hell!
The system again glibly informed me that Erebus was no place for Spirits. I was passing through the ghost like a supermodel passes through a crowd of geeks—meeting no resistance. The orc didn’t react to a single gesture I made, neither to my hands waving in front of his face, nor my shouts, nor my expletives. The Imitator couldn’t care less that I spun like a top through him, trying to scatter his form. He walked towards a goal only he knew, somewhere far ahead, reducing all my attempts to naught.
Like hell squared!
Design mode greeted me with its light and the happy recognition of upcoming work to be done. Finding the Blessed Visage of Eluna among my recipes, I combined it with an ingot of Imperial Steel, since I didn’t have any Marble in my bag or in my mail. My idea was as simple as a Barliona penny—create an Amulet of the Junior Novice and pin it to the ghost. I didn’t see any other options for having a word with the orc.

Insufficient resources to create ‘the Blessed Visage of Eluna.’ Make sure that you have 1 unit of Marble in your inventory bag.

Here’s where I really got angry…I don’t have the resources?! How am I supposed to craft if the Corporation blocks any attempt of doing something out of the ordinary? Am I supposed to look for recipes for everything? Like hell cubed!
I can’t create a Pendant because I don’t have any Marble and, looking ahead, Copper ingots. I can’t create a new visage of Eluna out of, say, Imperial Steel because I simply won’t have time to do so. Yet I can do something else!
I caught up with the ghost who had managed to get ahead of me in the meantime, opened design mode again and with a malevolent grin created the projection of an orc. If they want to force me to work by the rules, then let it be so—I’ll follow the rules. Only, the rules will be mine!
Using the ‘Alter Essence’ ability, I inserted Eluna’s Visage into the orc’s chest, thought a bit, opened my Smithing recipes, found the most basic sword I had, added its projection to the orc’s hand (since it does no good for a warrior to die without a sword), shut my eyes and imagined what this entire arrangement would look like in reality. Were I in the normal gameworld, these actions would have created a simple statue—fragile and short-lived, since a Sculptor wouldn’t be involved in its creation. But Erebus should have its own laws…
“Nooo!” the savage plea of the creature tore the silence around us to shreds. I opened my eyes and beheld the embodied orc, on his knees with his eyes shut, bellowing like a herd of elephants. A light as bright as a supernova burst from within him, but it didn’t blind me in the process, and I could see as the fog left the surrounding environment. Everything went cold inside of me: There were hundreds, no, thousands of paths here, all uniting and intertwining and headed towards an enormous cliff that loomed on the horizon. Animals, monsters, two-legged creatures, even fish—all trudged along the paths—an enormous army of those whose time in Barliona had reached its end and who were now heading in the direction of their last stop—the point of complete rest.
The light went out, allowing the fog to flow back in and with it, the orc stopped screaming. Falling from nowhere, the sword clattered upon the stones, but the orc snatched it up with a quick motion and stood up, turning in my direction.
“Freemie Cur!” he spat out with undisguised hate and his hazel eyes began to fill with blood. “The gods had mercy upon me and granted me a chance to have my revenge!”
Before I could say anything, the orc lunged at me with his sword over his head, wishing to cleave me into two, smaller, symmetrical Shamans. On one hand, he was at Level 120 and not particularly scary to me. On the other hand, his fierce demeanor alone was enough to cause trepidation.
“Damn it all, you’re a ghost!” the embodied orc spat when his sword passed through my arm, which I reflexively held out to protect myself. Wishing to make sure that I was a projection, the orc pushed me and then kicked me—but the result was the same. We were in two different planes of reality. But at least we could talk!
“Who are you anyway?” I asked what seemed like an obvious question, which however led to unexpected consequences.
“A talking ghost!” The orc’s terrible face cycled through a gamut of feelings, beginning with shock and ending with fear, after which he hopped high into the air, vanishing momentarily in the fog. Returning back to earth, the orc collapsed heavily onto the path and began to crawl away from me, scattering stones and with every moment getting closer to the edge.
“Stop crawling!” I roared in a terrible voice, betting on the assumption that the orc was a soldier who was accustomed to following orders. “Atten-Hut! Ready, front! At ease! Report: Who, What, Where and Why? On the double!”
A notification that my Charisma had gone up by several points flashed before me, but this didn’t bring me much joy:
“WHAT?!” roared the orc, jumping to his feet. “No Freemie Cur shall order me around!”
“Calm down, soldier.” I held out my palms in supplication, turning off my officer mode. “No one’s trying to give you orders. If you had gone on crawling, you would’ve fallen over the edge. Who are you anyway?”
“The lies of a Freemie Cur shall find no audience in my soul!” Paying me no attention, the orc again tried to stab me with his sword and again confirmed that we were ghosts to one another.
“All right, do whatever you like.” Once I realized that I wouldn’t be able to chat with this creature, I waved my hand and continued along my path. I needed to find the guards.
“Wait!” I had only walked a few meters when the terrible stamping of the orc sounded behind me, and he ran through me, stopping and turning to face me several steps ahead. “Where am I? And what is this creature?”
“Actually, I wanted to ask you the same thing,” I replied with surprise to the warrior who was pointing at a round monster covered in sores who was crawling along the path beside ours. I figured that the revived warrior could help me figure out how this Erebus worked as well as its rules, but it looked like the orc didn’t know anything himself. “Tell me, what is the last thing you remember?”
“Fire,” the orc seethed. The warrior’s face filled with an internal struggle between his hate of all ‘Freemie Curs’ and the thirst to communicate with this strange creature. It was a thirst strong enough to quench the fire of fear before the unknown. And it won the day. “A Freemie Fire Mage incinerated me and my men. We were garrisoning a village. Then you appeared, this fog and this path. Where am I?”
Ah! So this isn’t just a warrior but a commander? In that case, his Imitator must be fairly advanced to try and fight for survival. If that’s even permitted to the local AI.
“We are in Erebus.” At these words, the orc’s face once again filled with utter despair and resignation, so I had to think of something to cheer him up. “I came here to retrieve six dead souls and return them to Barliona. If you like, I can take you with me. Will you be able to overcome your loathing of all Free Citizens?”
I’m not really sure why I’m even dealing with this fellow. He’s an orc; he doesn’t like players; he’s only a Level 120…You could find a dozen of orcs like him in any village for the cost of a couple gold pieces. Heck, you could even ask for change. However, there I was, standing before the orc, awaiting his response. As one ancient author once said: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” Or in my case…created. Or embodied. It doesn’t matter.
“You don’t seem like the other Freemies,” the orc remarked after a some consideration. “You’re different.”
“Can I take that as a ‘yes?’” I asked. The orc didn’t respond, but his eyes turned hazel again, indicating that he had already made his choice, even if he hadn’t voiced it. Looks like someone wanted to protect his pride.
In order to safeguard myself in the future, I selected the orc and offered him to join my group. What if we had to fight? He’ll go berserk and start crushing the enemies left and right and accidentally nick me in the process. At the moment we’re in different planes of reality, but who knows what awaits us up ahead?
“A Dragon?!” the orc’s astonished voice resounded throughout Erebus, drawing a smirk from me. Yup, I’m a Dragon. Tremble before me and all that. For the first time I recall, I actually regretted that this locale didn’t allow me to record video—the vivid expression of astonishment on the dark-green mug really was picture-worthy. The orc’s facial muscles were dancing so rapidly that I was beginning to be afraid his jaw might lock up.
“These are all the creatures that once lived and are now dead,” I waved my hand in the direction of the path along which the round monster had passed crawling who knows where. Even if there wasn’t anyone there anymore, the orc should’ve understood whom I meant. “They are following their path to non-being as you were just now. There’s an enormous cliff up ahead which might not even be a cliff, but an enormous magnet drawing the souls towards itself. That’s where we need to go.”
“In that case, will we be able to return to Barliona if we head in the other direction?” the orc asked, confirming my hunch that his Imitator really was an advanced version. He wanted to survive.
“It’s possible, but I can’t go find out. First we have to search. We’ll decide how we’re going to get out of here later, after we’ve found everyone I’m looking for. Are you with me? Or are you going to go back?”
“Gerdom Steelaxe doesn’t betray his allies, whoever they may be!” The orc puffed out his chest proudly and directed his gaze in the direction of the fog-covered cliff. If I understood what the NPC was saying, we would be going together after all.
I’ll remember our journey to the cliff for a long time. Not so much for the terrible sight of monsters and creatures we passed along the way, as for the resignation imprinted on their faces. The ghosts trudged bleakly to their unknown goal and, the closer we got to the cliff, the more worried I became about Gerdom. What if he’s sucked into the cliff? Then reviving him would’ve been in vain. As his creator, I don’t want to see my creation destroyed.
“Mahan?!” A familiar voice exclaimed in astonishment, causing the orc to adopt a combat stance. I automatically tried to place my hand on Gerdom’s shoulder, intending to calm him, but yet again only encountered thin air. We remained in different planes of reality.
“Slate?” I asked cautiously, disbelieving my own ears. Several moments later, a shade appeared in the fog and slowly gained the form of a bear.
“I thought you became human?” I blurted out when I realized that the enormous bear and the Prince of Malabar were the same entity. An entity several heads taller than my orc, who stood frozen with his sword.
“That’s right,” the bear confirmed, transforming back into his human form. The fur along the hide withdrew into the torso, revealing an entirely nude and wrinkled bear, after which the body began to withdraw into itself, forcing the joints to twist in an unnatural manner. Not a very pleasant sight, especially for someone unprepared, so I wasn’t surprised when Gerdom bellowed a war cry and leaped on the werebear with his sword. Sparks went flying from where the sword struck the stone, the orc was flung around by his own inertia and he barely caught his balance at the edge of the path, halfway ‘inside’ the body of the Prince. These two were in different dimensions as well.
“Your friend is a bit touchy,” Slate remarked, completing his transformation. Paying no attention to Gerdom’s sword flashing before him and piercing his torso, the werebear approached me and offered me his hand as greeting. The gesture was so natural, that I automatically shook his hand.
“You don’t belong in Erebus,” noted Tisha’s husband, smiling at the shock on my face. Slate was real for me!
“What the…” I said the most articulate thing that came to mind.
“The dead don’t linger too long in the Gray Lands either,” the werebear understood the gist of my inquiry and began to explain. “Anyone who bears the mark of death enters Erebus in a month. We spend the rest of the time here, in the form that we arrived in. I’ll become human when I return to Barliona. There’s not much time left. How is Tisha doing?”
“Okay, I believe,” I muttered, still out of sorts. All of this was just too unexpected. “Geranika returned her mother, so Tisha is catching up on lost time with her and is getting used to having two parents again.”
“Her mother was alive?” Slate asked with surprise, forcing me to recount the recent events in the living world.
“I can see you’re not sitting around idly,” the Prince smiled when I had completed my tale. “In that case, let’s get down to business. I’ve been sent to negotiate with you.”
“Negotiate?” I echoed surprised. “Who?”
“The boss of this entire mess,” Slate gestured at the fog all around us. “The one who consumes the souls of all the dead creatures. The one who wishes to snatch a crumb of his deserved treat. The son of the High Priestess of Eluna is a very great delicacy. I am even afraid to ask how you’ve managed to involve yourself in this affair. The Servant of Chaos has sent me to you.”
Given that Slate couldn’t contain his laughter looking at my face, its expression was quite telling. If I relate to Anastaria everything that’s been said here word for word, she’ll eat me alive! Why doesn’t my damn camera work?!
“As you know, Barliona isn’t unique. It is but one of many world spinning in eternity. Every world has its own Creator and often several worlds have the same one, but haven’t you ever considered the question of who created the Creator? Who was the primary cause of everything that is? Now you know the answer—it was Chaos. Self-sufficient, whole, joining everything within himself, eternal, Chaos decided to play a game and structure certain parts of himself, fettering those parts with certain laws. This being of absolute power created the Creators, who were granted the power to create worlds, and then Chaos began to wait patiently when these worlds would eventually return unto itself. Each dead creature that does not bear the mark of death, returns to it, bringing with it the pleasure and joy of reunion.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked surprised. I’d never had a reason to delve so deeply into Barliona’s history, and my mind was now absorbing the new information like a sponge.
“The portal of reclamation is located several kilometers from here. A piece of Chaos that the deceased enter. The portal takes all creatures aside from those that bear the mark. We who bear the mark can only wander around and talk to each other, sharing information. Five months of doing nothing will drive you crazy unless you speak to someone. But there are some lucky ones whose time of revival is short. I recently met one of them—a Dungeon boss named Gigantic Mantis. He comes here every week. He told me that after revival, we won’t remember a thing about Erebus. Death, darkness and new life—that is all that our memory retains. However, once we return here again, we will remember everything. Such is the lifecycle of information.”
“What did the Servant want from me? And why does he seek negotiation instead of making his demands? By the way—this might be a dumb question—but why you? Did this entity appear before you and order you to go find the Shaman and hold talks with him?”
“I…No, everything was…” Slate hesitated, blinked his eyes, trying to understand why he had appeared before me, and even backpedaled several steps from me as if I was about to attack him.
“YOU CANNOT SPEAK TO ME FOR VERY LONG!” came the reply, forcing me to my knees. All of my stats plummeted towards zero, pausing at the 10% line, and almost for the first time in my time in Barliona, I wished peace and fortune to the unknown technician who had set the sensory filter on my capsule to maximum.
“I understand,” I creaked, pouring my quickly diminishing supply of HP potions into myself.
“The Servant of Chaos knows what you seek. Six ghosts are slowly yet surely moving in the direction of their last point of rest. There is almost no time. You are being offered a deal—you will perform two tasks and you can take the ghosts with you.”
“Mahan, try to understand, I didn’t come up with this. Moreover, I won’t remember a thing when I return to Barliona, so you have to decide on your own. The first thing you have to do is sacrifice this creature,” Slate pointed at Gerdom, who tensed at the words. “Simply knock him off the path. He will return to the same place you plucked him from. If you adopt your Dragon Form, you will be able to touch him.”
“Got it,” I drawled. “What’s the second assignment then?”
Slate breathed a deep sigh as if gathering his courage and then blurted out:
“You have to compensate Chaos for every soul you take. You must make a sacrifice. A thousand deaths for each soul you seek to retrieve.”
“To make this task easier to perform,” Slate went on, shutting his eyes, clenching his fists and spitting out the words unwillingly, “the Servant will give you the coordinates to the Annihilator. You must adjust it to destroy the required number of cities. The Mages aren’t expecting another attack for two years, so you won’t have any problems.”
The Annihilator…Mages…Two years…Cities…As if at a click, the mosaic came into sharp focus. The Annihilator was the device that once every fifty years generated the black fog of which the High Mage of Anhurs had spoken. A device to destroy cities. Sounds fun—I was being offered the chance to be remembered as the Destroyer of Barliona.
“So what do you think?” asked Slate, opening his eyes. “Is that a fair price for rescuing six sentients from the land of the dead?”
“Here’s my counteroffer. Ten for one,” I gibed, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be able to send even one sentient to Erebus. Otherwise, I could go ahead and delete my Shaman right now—Eluna, the Emperor and the Dark Lord would never forgive something like this. Perhaps only Geranika would welcome it. Hmm…Geranika, eh?
“A THOUSAND!” the bombastic voice boomed, taking my words seriously. Maybe I should make a little ‘/s’ sign and hold it out at the right moments.
“Mahan!” Slate exclaimed angrily, but I was off and running:
“Fifty! I mean, I’m not asking for Karmadont here—and he’s the only one who could be worth a cool grand. Everyone else is spare change. We’re talking about town guards here! They’ve all got arrows in their knees! Fifty is the most I’ll do.”
“FIVE HUNDRED!” the Servant of Chaos rejoined after a thoughtful pause. Slate and Gerdom were staring at me with pure loathing, like I was the vilest creature in the world. But by this point I had already formed a plan and I wasn’t about to abandon it.
“A hundred—but only out of my respect for a representative of the creator of life, the universe and everything. A hundred souls for one guard!”
“Deal! But I have two conditions,” I yelled, barely concealing my glee. “The first is that I have to see the guards to make sure that the goods are in good condition. And the second is that I get to take Mr. Steelaxe here with me.”
“WHAT?!” I was forced to the ground once again. “HE SHALL BE DESTROYED!”
Begone smile! We’re haggling again!
“I don’t understand why you sent Slate to see me, if you’re the one doing all the talking,” I grumbled, quaffing the last of my potions. “If all your yelling kills me right now, there won’t be anyone to make a deal with. Gerdom comes with me. Twelve hundred souls is a completely reasonable price for seven. Now let’s see the goods, er, guards I mean.”
“You have changed,” Slate spat, while the master of Erebus made his decision. “The Mahan I knew would never do this.”
“It’s a good thing that you won’t remember anything then. How do I use this Annihilator thing?”
“Two hundred more souls for Gerdom.” Slate ignored my question. A map icon was flashing alluringly, inviting me to check the updated map. Swipe that aside. Now’s not the time.
“Sure,” I agreed. “And so we agree on one thousand four hundred souls. Where are my guards?”
“Look.” A passage formed in the fog leading into infinity. Several silhouettes appeared on its other end. The distance between us was so enormous that the figures did not seem to move. “Are you satisfied?”
“What is this?” I asked with surprise, when the corridor disappeared. “Where is that anyway? All you showed me were some strange silhouettes, nothing I could make out. Is that even them? Are you trying to pull one over on me?”
“Try and think about what you’re saying!” Slate exclaimed. “You’re dealing with the Servant of Chaos, the progenitor of all that is!”
“Which includes lies and deceit,” I parried. “Didn’t he create that too?”
“What do you want?” The Servant asked through Slate.
“I want to see them at arm’s length. To make sure that they’re the ones I’m looking for. Then we can keep talking.”
“YOU ARE INSOLENT, SHAMAN!” the master of Erebus couldn’t contain himself.
“I’m merely looking out for my interests.”

Skill increase:
+2 to Trade. Total: 21.
+2 to Charisma. Total: 82.

“WATCH OUT!” Erebus went spinning around me, Slate and Gerdom disappeared and once everything had calmed down, I saw the six guards trudging along at arm’s length from me. With Clouter in their midst.
“One thousand four hundred souls, Mahan. You have eighteen hours,” said Slate appearing beside me. Gerdom didn’t trail far behind and again tried to stab me with that sword of his that I gave him. What is wrong with the orcs anyway? Why are they so stabby?
“How do we get out of here?” I asked, reining in my anxiety. James knows me very well, and he’d never come up with a quest like this for me. I had to think!
“If you walk from the portal,” Slate explained, trying not to look at me, “then you’ll get tossed out of Barliona in ten seconds.”
“And Gerdom?”
“Is he somehow different from you?” Slate spat out once again. “Ten seconds in the other direction and he’s free of the Servant of Shadow. What do you need him for, murderer?”
“He’ll bring me my slippers!” I couldn’t help but quip. Those silly NPCs are going to try and teach me how to live my life!
Slate fell silent, clearly considering his next speech, so I addressed the orc:
“Are you ready to obey my orders?”
Flaring his nostrils and trying to restrain his anger, the orc merely raised his head and boomed:
“Gerdom Steelaxe shall never carry slippers! I shall be happy to return to Chaos with my honor intact! Better you kill me somehow!”
“YOU! WILL! OBEY! MY! ORDERS!” I didn’t even yell this so much as growled it, expelling the words through clenched teeth. Swiping away another notification about +2 to my Charisma, I caught up with the guards who had left us behind with one giant leap. Opening design mode as I flew, I created the projections of all six guards. The outward appearance of the guards had been a mystery to me until now. In order to foil the Servant, I had to see them, including Clouter, who had grown up and changed a lot since the day we had met. I needed to act quickly, while the Imitator responsible for the Servant hadn’t understood what I had in mind.
All that I needed was to come up with ten seconds somewhere.
“Nooo!” six throats screamed in unison as the blinding light shattered the fog of Erebus to pieces. No time to lose! I opened my wings and only now realized that I had already become a Dragon. Hell with it! Leaving the path, I glided at the guards and grabbed them in my arms. All six of them. Gerdom was a dozen meters away, so I flapped my wings, grabbed the orc by the leg with my teeth, biting down to the bone or perhaps even through, and then darted away from the center.
One second!
“Mahan!” Slate’s shout faded behind me. To hell with it!
A third second!
“WHAT?!” The Servant of Chaos came to much too quickly, beholding my flight with astonishment.
The sixth!
“SHAMAN, YOU ARE VIOLATING OUR AGREEMENT!” the orc’s and guards’ life bars fell halfway. They were little more than dangling dolls, allowing me to carry them away from the center of Erebus. In my Dragon form, the voice of the master of Erebus had no effect on me. A little consolation, that!
The ninth second!
The tenth!

You have left Erebus against the will of its master. From now on, this location will be off limits to you.

Scattering benches, candles, players and other dross in every direction, I landed heavily in the hall of Eluna’s temple. The guards, who still had no idea what was going on, fell out of my grasp and rolled along the floor. I spit out Gerdom and grimaced: The orc’s HP was practically at zero.
Stacey, I need help!” I hollered telepathically, sending a summons. I urgently needed a healer.
“What do you want me to do?” Stacey appeared instantly, still in her Siren form. The players around us gasped in awe at seeing the Siren and the Dragon in the flesh for the first time. I pointed at Gerdom, who had somehow still avoided returning to Erebus. The orc was fighting tooth and nail for the chance to remain in Barliona.
“Who’s this, Mahan?” Anastaria exclaimed with astonishment. Her actions weren’t doing any good—the orc was wheezing on the floor, his Hit Points had waned to 3% and went on waning, the auras and flashes around him doing nothing besides making the orc groan more hysterically. “What the hell?! He’s a Zombie!”
“What’s going on here?” Elizabeth’s ringing voice forced the temple into silence. I stared dumbly at Gerdom’s properties and didn’t know what to do: A Dark Zombie Warrior. Level 120 and with every passing moment burning away under the light of Eluna’s temple. Anastaria’s healing had done the opposite of what I wanted.
“Have you returned, Mahan?” Elizabeth asked, surprised. “So quickly? Did you fail to…”
“Mother!” sounded Clouter’s barely audible voice.
“Son!” The High Priestess immediately turned into a mother. Elizabeth rushed to one of the guards. Falling to her knees, she pressed him to herself…and immediately pushed him away.
“NO! Anything but this!” Elsa whispered in despair. I looked up from the creaking Gerdom, peered closely at Clouter and couldn’t help but blurt out:
“Oh goddamn!”
The properties of the High Priestess’s son were more telling than any swear words: ‘Clouter (Level 250). Zombie Priest.’

Chapter Four. The Harbinger

“Dan, what have you done?” Anastaria asked quietly, looking over from Elizabeth who was frozen in shock to me and back.
“I brought them back from Erebus,” I grumbled, checking and seeing that all the guards were now Zombies. “The way I see it, it’s better than nothing.”
“Okay, we’ll figure out what to do with them later. What’s with the orc?”
We looked over at Gerdom who was still spasming on the floor. His Hit Points had fallen to 2%, he was foaming at his mouth and his eyes had rolled back, but the orc continued to cling on to life.
“I’m pulling him out of here. Deal with Elizabeth. I’ll tell you everything later,” I grabbed Gerdom by his legs as Anastaria looked on in puzzlement, opened my ‘Blink’ input box and blinked right into the center of the Nameless City. If the orc is suffering from Eluna’s light, perhaps, he’ll feel better in the murk of Tartarus?
What I liked was that as soon as I set foot on the cobblestone street of the capital of Kartoss, the orc stopped groaning and foaming and his Hit Points froze. However, the good news ended there. The bad news took over from here—the orc’s green mug turned gray and lesions began to appear on his skin.
“The enemy has breached the walls!” A squad of the Nameless City guard appeared beside me and leveled its pikes at the graying orc. What in the living hell! If these Minotaur guards didn’t treat Gerdom as one of their own, the Priests of Tartarus may have a similar issue.
“Stop it!” I yelled, shielding the orc. “I need help!”
“We don’t help the minions of Shadow and their lackeys!” boomed the guard captain. Nevertheless the pike tips ceased their advance on my orc.
“Dan, where are you? Elizabeth has locked herself in her cabinet and isn’t letting anyone in. The Priests are all in shock.”
“You have to buy us some time, Stacey. I’m in the Nameless City. Get Fleita, she’s a Zombie and maybe knows what to do.”
“I’m no minion of Shadow! Nor am I his servant!” I shouted at the guard.
“We’re not talking about you, Shaman! You brought this creature to our city.”  The Minotaur pointed at Gerdom. “It must be destroyed! The Nameless City is no place for the minions of Shadow.”
I swore out loud. Today was clearly not my day. Not only had I turned the guards into Zombies, but now it turned out that Gerdom was aligned with Shadow. No wonder Eluna’s light has a negative effect on him. I’m amazed the orc even survived those few moments in the goddess’s temple!
Understanding that there was no point expecting a miracle in the Nameless City, I blinked toward Altameda. There was one last thing I could try to save Gerdom. The healers of Malabar and Kartoss couldn’t help—it wasn’t in their line of work. They’d be more comfortable throwing my orc on a pyre. The only other option was one I really didn’t like. It was fraught with the peril of punishment from Eluna and Tartarus. And it didn’t promise anything other than further problems. But I had managed to snatch the orc from the jaws of death and my pride prevented me from allowing those same jaws to have him after all. Especially, mere minutes after I’d saved him.
Master, the enemy is here with you!” The Gray Death’s thought flashed in my mind and we were instantly surrounded by a pack of wolves. My wolves. Who, it turned out, knew how to speak to me! I’d need to get to the bottom of this.
“Save him, don’t attack!” I ordered, again shielding Gerdom. I cast a longing glance at Altameda, stepped away from Gerdom just in case and exhaled several times, clearing the air from my lungs (though really I was just delaying the inevitable). Finally, I yelled:
“Geranika, I summon you! I require your assistance.”
Practically speaking, nothing happened. Flaming arrows didn’t rain from the sky; the earth didn’t cleave asunder; the woods didn’t cease to be green nor the sky blue. Only the wolves tucked their tails in and dashed away like hurt puppies, leaving the Gray Death bristling and rearing on her own. In her pride, she didn’t abandon her master! I imagine someone in her pack is going to get it tonight!
“THE ENEMY!” the local Guardian yelled somewhere barely within earshot, after which his heavy, receding steps indicated that the ruler of these lands was indeed wise and experienced: After all, who would willingly enter battle against a stronger foe? The tactically correct decision is to retreat to a safe distance and apprise the situation. Which is exactly what the Guardian is doing at this moment as fast as his legs can carry him. If he has legs that is…
“You called me, my failed student?” Geranika asked in a tone so neutral that it seemed more appropriate to friends or coworkers than two sworn foes as we had been before the Cataclysm. Geranika arrived dressed in his finest garb—a black, velvet suit, polished shoes, a red tie, a cane, a flawless coif. His appearance elicited sympathy, but not fear. If you told someone that he was one of the scariest creatures of Barliona, they’d laugh you out of town.
“I managed to rescue your warrior from Erebus,” I pointed at Gerdom. “My acquaintances can’t heal him—no one knows how to work with Shadow. I need your help.”
“How curious,” Geranika circled Gerdom, paying no heed to the Gray Death’s growling. “What do you need with one of my fallen soldiers?”
“When I was rescuing him, I didn’t know that he was one of your own. In Erebus, all the shades are gray.”
“I understand. Does it upset you to destroy a creature that you yourself created?” Geranika guessed. “I won’t lie to you. I’m not going to heal him. I don’t need him. A mere Level 120 Zombie…He’s nothing. But we can make a deal.”
“About what?” I furrowed my brow.
“You can heal him yourself,” grinned Geranika. “I’ll teach you!”
“I won’t become a servant of Shadow!” I cut him off.
“Pff…Shadow, light, darkness,” Geranika scoffed indignantly, “they’re all just names really. Names for one and the same thing. You were in Erebus—so you know how it all ends. Chaos spawned us and to Chaos we shall return.”
“I won’t become a servant of Shadow,” I said again, although my voice was a bit gravely this time.
“What the heck do I need you for? I’ll show you how to heal my minions and you can figure out the rest yourself. Use my gift or don’t use it…If you want to save this Zombie, heal him. If not—let him die. What a princess you are—‘this but not that and this way but not this way.’ Make your decision, Shaman! Are you going to the end or are you stopping right here?”

New ability acquired: Summon Minor Shadow of Healing. You are temporarily renouncing the Spirits of the Ancestors and calling on the Shadows, tearing reality and being to fragments. Cost of summoning…Cost of healing…May be used anywhere except in Imperial palaces. -50 to Reputation with all Kalragon factions for each summon of the Shadow. Upon reaching Hatred status with any faction, a hunting party will be sent out after you.
New faction unlocked: ‘Lord of Shadow.’ Current Reputation: Hatred.
The first summon of a Battle or Healing Shadow is a test and does not have an effect on Reputation.

“You can figure out when and why you should use my gift on your own,” smiled Geranika, noting my long face with satisfaction. Along with the Healing Shadow, I also received a Minor Battle Shadow and now I didn’t know what to do. What did I need any of this for? I hadn’t asked for it! After a few seconds, Geranika hiked his eyebrows and asked:
“So are you going to revive my warrior or are we going to go on acting like two young and inexperienced lovers on their first date?”
The spellbook appeared before my eyes with a thick red line that split its pages in two halves: A top section for my Spirits and a bottom section for the Shadows. A vivid and sparkling Spirits icon occupied the top half of the first section, while the bottom section featured a gloomy and grim Shadow icon, resembling a spit stain. A standard game mechanic, the book’s pages, even the empty ones, were divided in two halves. The grim conclusion I drew from this was that the Corporation had granted the players a chance to play with the Shadows. This meant that Barliona would soon see an enormous army of Shadow, assembled from Free Citizens. And this, in turn, would cause an outbreak of PvP battles. The players would start massacring each other left and right. These were Shadows after all: They could be used anywhere. Even in a city…
I heard Gerdom groan as his Hit Points dipped to 1%. A timer appeared before me: 60…59…58…
I had a minute to make my choice.
It was painfully easy to use a Shadow—all it took was stretching out your hand in the direction of the patient, casting the summon and enjoying the result. No dances with a tambourine or Intellect requirements. Just your hand and a summon.
Geranika was examining my castle with a bored look on his face, demonstrating his utter disinterest in my decision. There were no signs or omens from the figureheads of the world, not a peep from my premonition, as if nothing important or fateful was taking place, so I swore, stretched my hand at Gerdom and pushed the Healing Shadow icon. The first summon is harmless…
The world vanished. Images began hurling past my eyes, replacing one another at an unimaginable rate. No sooner did my eye latch onto some item than it vanished replaced by another. An alabaster throne. A scowling green monster. A falling meteor. An explosion. A bloodied and charred creature, standing on two legs and leaning against some kind of stick. Fog. A cave. A crystal.
The whirlwind of images ended. An enormous, semi-transparent, red crystal appeared before me. It hung in the air, emitting a wondrous light. If the Cupid faction, which busied itself with Barliona’s Valentine’s Day event, saw this wonder, I bet their personal menageries would go mad with the desire to acquire it. A crystal in the shape of a heart, the form that enamored girls so loved to draw. What could be sweeter?
The apparition vanished just as abruptly as it had appeared. I stared with surprise at my own hand, from which a Shadow resembling a thick snake was coiling in the direction of Gerdom. As soon as it touched the orc, the world around me was pierced by his savage scream—the Shadows reached the orc even in his unconsciousness. The scream was so piercing, so overflowing with emotions and pleas for help that I barely managed to keep myself from jerking my hand away and interrupting the summon. The Shadow enveloped the orc slowly, as if relishing his agony. At last it reached his head and the scream choked and sputtered out. The orc drowned in the Shadow, turning into an ugly cocoon.
“The Shaman decided to summon the Shadow,” Geranika said with bemusement, approaching Gerdom. The summon ended, yet the orc didn’t even think to stir. He didn’t seem to be thinking anything at all actually. The cocoon rose one meter off the ground and began to bend in various directions as if the creature inside of it was struggling in agony. Only now did I notice that the Gray Death remained standing beside us, scowling at Geranika.
“Let’s see whom you snatched from Erebus’ clutches,” Geranika went on in a business-like tone, touching the cocoon. A sharp clap followed and the orc’s body plopped heavily onto the ground.

Your Reputation with the Lord of Shadow has changed. Current status: ‘It’s complicated.’

“Mahan, I don’t even know how to thank you for such a present,” Geranika drawled with satisfaction, examining the listless body. I stepped forward. The creature lying on the ground was about twice as massive as the former orc. Its Hit Points were full, its properties hidden and in general it was unclear to me what I had created. I needed to take a closer look.
Master is joining Shadow?” the Gray Death’s telepathic question was so unexpected that I froze for a moment.
“No,” I said aloud after several attempts of answering her telepathically. It was clear as day now that the she-wolf was sentient.
“Master has revived a warrior of Shadow.”
“I know. That doesn’t make me a minion of Shadow.”
“You know, Mahan, talking to yourself is a symptom of several mental illnesses,” Geranika didn’t let the chance to score a cheap point slip away and butted into our conversation. “I have a nice white shirt with really long sleeves that I’d be willing to give you if you like.”
“Very funny. Take your orc and get out of here,” I snapped.
“How would I simply go without first thanking you for my new General? You just gave my army a senior officer. Now it’s my turn to repay the favor.”
As soon as Geranika said that, Gerdom’s properties became visible to me and I could barely contain my feelings. And my feelings made me want to start cursing the entire world, with the choicest expressions reserved for the devs and James. The players would kill me.

Gerdom Steelaxe (Level 750 Shadow Orc). Shadow Army General. Creator: Mahan.

“There’s no point in offering you items; you won’t take them,” Geranika went on. “Titles, honors, lands…That’s all dross. I know!”
“I am ready to serve, your lordship!” the orc boomed, interrupting Geranika’s exclamation. Gerdom staggered to his feet, swayed, leaned against an enormous two-handed scimitar, which the cheap short sword I’d given him had turned into, swayed again, caught his balance and breathed deeply. The orc hadn’t the strength to take even one more step.
“Oh you shall serve, don’t you worry.” Geranika made several motions with his hands and Gerdom vanished in the portal. “All right, one’s been dealt with, now it’s your turn.”
“I don’t need anything from you!”
“Not even information?”
“You want to tell me how we can best capture Armard?” I couldn’t avoid a gibe.
“No, Shaman! Why would you need Armard when you have Altameda? Everything is much more interesting than that. You have six Zombies on your hands, correct?”
“How did you…? Yes,” I switched off my emotions and tried to apprehend the Lord of Shadow’s speech as an old movie that I’d seen a hundred times already. ‘Cause I just knew something really crappy was coming.
“In Kartoss lives a creature named Knucklear. Once upon a time he was a Troll Monk, a mad ascetic, one of the radical patriots of Kartoss. Fate, however, played a mean trick on him, turning him into a Zombie. Knucklear didn’t abide this and turned back into a troll. Then into a Zombie. Then again into a troll. After that he got tired of transforming back and forth and he became a Zombie again. Now he teaches the Monk adepts. If you find a way to see him, you might be able to discover how you can turn six fresh-baked Zombies into living creatures again. That’s enough information to pay you for my General.

Quest updated: ‘Who will guard the guards themselves?’

“And that’s about it,” Geranika concluded, leaving me in stupefaction for the third time. This entire story had been pre-planned by James? He knew that I would summon Geranika and accept his conditions? “In a few weeks, we shall meet at the tournament. Gerdom will show you what he is capable of. Until we meet again, my future ally!”
“Dan, Elizabeth has emerged from her cabinet. She refuses to acknowledge her son.” Anastaria’s thought occurred in my mind. “She says that her son has died and the creature that you brought back isn’t Clouter.
“Summon me, Stacey! There’s been some new developments.”
“…and banish them! My decision shall enter force and effect right this…Ah! Mahan! You too shall be…” In the form of the Ice Queen, Elizabeth was looking down on the surrounding world, not noticing, or not wishing to notice anything around her. Clouter was sitting on the floor bawling, his hands covering his face. The five guards that I’d pulled out of Erebus were standing grimly in a clump beside the far wall, glancing at the High Priestess from under their brows. About fifty players had crowded into the main hall, not wishing to miss the spectacle. We were separated from them by an invisible line that the players didn’t cross. Either the game didn’t allow it, or they were afraid of incurring the wrath of the High Priestess. The resulting clearing served as a good site for the trial that Elizabeth was now putting on—the punishment of six inadequate guards and one insolent Shaman. The only problem was that the Shaman wasn’t about to take the NPC’s wrath silently. I had other plans for this evening.
“I know how to bring them back to life,” I cried, interrupting Elsa. “Clouter shall be human again!”
A silence ensued. Elsa froze with her hands still akimbo, absorbing my words. The guards trained their grim eyes on me and even Clouter ceased crying, unveiling his tear-stained face from beneath his hands. What kind of a guard was he? He’s still a child!
“How do you plan on doing this?” Anastaria asked after a short while. The pause was drawing on and neither Elizabeth nor the servants nearest to her were about to speak, so Stacey began to rescue our situation.
“There is a Monk teacher who lives in Kartoss named Knucklear…” I related the story of the troll, without mentioning the source of my information. “Those whom I returned from Erebus shall live once again!”
Silence reigned.
“Clouter, we need to go. We don’t have much time,” I approached the boy and offered him my hand to help him rise. The timer was still hanging before my eyes, counting down the time I had to complete the quest, so I needed to hurry. There were only about 20 hours left.
“Is that possible, Mahan?” Clouter asked sniffling, wiping his running nose.
“What a question. Everything is possible in Barliona. Do you men need a personal invitation?” I turned to the grim-faced guards. “Company at attention!”
The reflexes embedded in the Imitators triggered flawlessly—all six, including Clouter, ordered themselves in two ranks of three. The guards cheered up noticeably—their faces acquired meaningful expressions, their backs straightened, and their hands stopped shaking. If it weren’t for their chalk-white faces, set off by their gilded cuirasses, you’d be hard pressed to recognize that they were Zombies. Assuming, you couldn’t read their properties, that is.
“High Priestess,” I addressed Elsa bravely, heartened by the guards’ reaction. “Permit us to leave the hall without any further remarks.”
“Permission granted. Oh!” Elizabeth exclaimed and blushed deeply.
“Company, right face! Straight march!”
The players clumped at the passage and blocking it, dissolved as if a magic wand had been waved at them, yet I didn’t need that. Why use your feet to walk when you pay a portal demon? I got out an amulet and ordered:
“Viltrius, send me a portal. We have guests coming…”

Upon reaching my castle, I ordered delivery from the Golden Horseshoe, collapsed in my rocking throne, shut my eyes and sighed deeply. Viltrius took care of the Zombies, taking them on a tour of the castle. The guards’ eyes sparked with excitement—not everyone got a chance to visit Altameda. Maybe I should keep them? Vimes would come up with something for them. They’d fit right in…No, all that later. Right now I need to rest a little. It’s crazy to think that I returned to Barliona only ten hours ago. Any other player would take a month to accomplish this! Right this instant, I should probably speak with Mr. Kristowski to determine how our clan should proceed in the wake of the Cataclysm, but he was still over in the palace hammering out the details about the tournament. Why the hell did I come up with that idea anyway?!
“Dan, we’ve started working on the Tomb,” Anastaria’s voice yanked me from my sweet slumber. I believe I fell asleep.
“Who is ‘we?’” I asked puzzled, at a loss and still half dreaming. Here it struck me—Phoenix! “How’s it going? By the way, I thought you wanted to start this evening? Why’d you change your mind?”
I need to approach the game more calmly. I don’t have the resources to complete the Tomb. Only Phoenix has the raid parties to do that, so there’s nothing odd about them starting earlier.
“It was just a test run. We weren’t planning on killing anyone. We needed to see what was inside.”
“Judging by your face there’s something unusual in there. Don’t keep me in suspense. Out with it.”
“We can’t use ordinary methods of illumination in the Tomb. Neither torches, nor magic lanterns, nor fluorescent moss work in it. No one can see anything. The Tomb is completely dark. The floor is made of stone but we couldn’t feel any walls, as if we were in an open space. One of the Rogues crawled ahead but a slab fell on him, killing him instantly. We lost a second Rogue to a pendulum that knocked him into an abyss—it’s looking like the first level is a stone labyrinth. Both Rogues lost a level upon dying.”
“When you enter the Tomb, you get a notification that it’s a different kind of Dungeon. Each death costs the player a level. But only within the Tomb—as soon as the player exits to Barliona, he’s back at the level he entered at.”
“And if he reenters again, the level goes to what it was in the Tomb,” I guessed.
“That’s why I was in my Siren form when you summoned me. There are a ton of pendulums in the Tomb. They’re constantly threatening to knock you off. My raid party held on to my tail while I crawled ahead, feeling the way. But that’s not even the main thing. Sooner or later we managed to sketch a map of the Dungeon—we got the newbies who don’t care about levels so much to do the work. We promised to level them up out in Barliona in exchange. The main thing is that the Tomb’s floor is constantly shifting. Changing. And so are the pendulums and the falling slabs. It’s a really horrible labyrinth. I have no idea how to get through it. We’ll have to think hard about how to proceed.”
“There’s no light at all in there?” I clarified.
“None whatsoever. I tried everything I could think of, even lit a bonfire. Nothing.”
“Maybe there’s no light in the Tomb because you guys were doing it without me?” I suggested.
“That’s got no effect on it,” Stacey snapped annoyed. “The Original status only extends to the loot. Trust me—you’re not the first ‘Original’ that I’ve had to deal with in this game. You’re the third actually. We managed to make a deal with the first, but not with the second. Still, we completed both Dungeons in question. So it’s not about you. I’m missing something. Something important…We won’t be going anywhere this evening. There’s no point in entering the Tomb until I figure out how to complete that first area.”
Stacey collapsed on the throne, shaking her head and muttering something to herself. I was at a loss. I realized that the girl before me wasn’t some iron maiden or a powerful neural network that could process hundreds of possible actions in a minute, but an ordinary girl who didn’t know what to do. The change was so striking that I unconsciously got up from my chair, walked over to Stacey and took her hands, trying to warm them. Overwhelmed by the beauty of Barliona, I’d somehow forgotten that Stacey was human—and that therefore she could lose to, as seldom as that happened.
“Everything will work out,” I began to assure her automatically with foolish platitudes. Then, I took her in my arms and suddenly we found ourselves in the real world. The cocoon’s lid slid aside, the wires disconnected, we jumped out of our capsules and…How nice it is that the quest timer stops when the player is out in reality.
We didn’t stay there for very long…

“You have a pretty castle,” Clouter said excitedly. The sorrow, bitterness and resignation had left his mind, like all the useless information leaves the mind of a student who’s passed his exams. Clouter again resembled our old companion from Beatwick.
“There’s this bit of business,” I tussled the fidget’s head as Clouter, in turn, began to stroke and scratch the Gray Death, causing the she-wolf to slit her eyes and almost purr like a cat. She’d never encountered such friendly attention before.
“Mahan, tell me, why did I become a Priest?” Clouter left the she-wolf alone with difficulty and looked up at me inquisitively. “Mother said that there’s nothing divine about me and that the goddess does not hear me. I even considered becoming a Warrior, and then this thing happened…”
“What thing?” I asked carefully.
“Well…I don’t even know how to explain it. There wasn’t anything in Anhurs, but here, when I met Viltrius, it was like I found some bit of truth. I could see the goblin as if he was in the palm of my hand—his torments, his desires, the deep esteem he felt for his master. I also realized the Viltrius has a very negative relationship with his god. I don’t know whether you can see it or not, but there’s a negative relationship emblem hanging over the head of your majordomo. It’s simply screaming that you are dealing with a creature who is not loved by his god. Or a creature who doesn’t love his god, I’m not quite sure. I have no idea why I only see it above him. Neither you, nor my guard friends have an emblem above their heads.”
“An emblem? What does it look like?” I asked baffled. If an NPC can suddenly see the bars for Hit Points or Reputation, then something’s really broken somewhere. And I had better notify the admins about it.
“Well…An emblem is simply the name I’ve give it, since I don’t know what it is,” Clouter backpedaled, dispelling my worry. Back at the very dawn of full-immersion games, the learned scholars fought pitched battle, tearing theirs and each other’s beards out, trying to prove their points of view. Some said that humans would fall over the edge and completely relocate their consciousnesses into the game. Others claimed that nothing would happen and their mad colleagues should seek qualified help. There were pickets, rallies and protests. But that was twenty years ago. I was still young and ignorant and didn’t understand why we couldn’t simply enjoy the immense quantity of fantasy literature that appeared in response to the new technological leaps. Dmitriy Rus, Ruslan Mihaylov, Andrei Vasiliev—the works of these men had embedded themselves in my consciousness, engendering a deep affection for computer games. It’s a good thing that the future they predicted hadn’t come to pass. “I simply don’t know how to describe it correctly. Viltrius’ emblem is kind of like…well…it’s all whorls, red, all intertwined and decorated with scary images, skulls and teeth. It’s very difficult to concentrate and get a long look at it. It’s constantly shifting and moving like a mirage. The only thing I’m sure of is that only Viltrius has it.”
“Does Vimes have one too?” I ventured. Viltrius is a goblin. A creature that’s incredibly uncommon to Malabar. On the other hand, in Kartoss, goblins are a dime a dozen. What if upon turning into a Zombie, Clouter had become a Priest not of Eluna, but of Tartarus?
“Who is that?” Clouter frowned cutely, trying to appear more mature.
“The captain of my guard. A huge and terrible Tauren.”
“You have a Tauren in your castle?!” Clouter hopped up with excitement, glanced several times at the door, wishing to get away from me as quickly as possible, and then rattled off impatiently: “Where is he? Will he let me touch him? Does he look like a cow? Does he have real horns? What about hooves?”
“Viltrius, call Vimes in here,” I asked the goblin, interrupting Clouter. I’ll confess that I was quite shocked when I first laid eyes on my guard captain—Taurens were considered extinct. But I’m a player who’s prepared for the twisted fantasy of the developers. Clouter however is an ordinary NPC, and everything in Altameda is a wonder for him.
“Oh mommy!” Clouter’s eyes went round and he clapped his hand over his mouth, stifling his scream. Proud and dauntless, Vimes thundered through the doors. Clad in steel like a tank, the Tauren instilled fear and trepidation, as any high-level NPC should.
“Master!” Vimes boomed, inclining his head respectfully. Only now did I realize that Vimes was playing to the audience. In the presence of Clouter and the guards—I noticed the new Zombies in the doors—the captain of the castle guard had appeared in his full splendor, demonstrating who enforces order in Altameda. One glance at a guard like that is likely to banish any sinister thoughts from your head. Aside from maybe getting out of the vision of this monster as quickly as possible.
I looked at Clouter and barely contained a satisfied smile. Along with the hand clapped over his mouth, the boy looked completely shocked. It was like he’d seen a ghost. It’s nice to be the owner of things so unique they cause such trepidation. Even if it’s only among the NPCs. And even if it’s only in a virtual game.
“Oh but he’s so sick!” Clouter finally came to and looked over at me. I was stunned—his eyes were full of everything but surprise and wonder. Pain, consternation, compassion…Clouter was looking at me like I was a person who abused animals. “Why don’t you help him?”
Without awaiting an answer, Clouter approached the Tauren. Vimes didn’t know how to react, so he froze and looked over at me several times searchingly. The boy didn’t evoke a sense of danger in the Tauren and you could see that he himself didn’t feel any fear of the imposing warrior. The other guards were pressing themselves against the wall, trying to stay out of the Tauren’s sight, but Clouter headed confidently towards my head of security, set on doing something known only to him.
“You poor fellow.” The fledgling Priest shook his head, placing his hand on the Tauren’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. We will figure something out.”

Mandatory quest available: ‘The Pain of the Captain of the Guard.’ Description: Vimes, the guard captain of Altameda, executes his duties perfectly, concealing from the world the sorrow of his loss: The truth is that Vimes’ love has been abducted by the son of his tribe’s chieftain. Vimes could not oppose the will of his tribe and so left his tribe to be a guard, seeking death in battle. Solve this problem. Quest type: Mandatory, castle-related. Reward/Penalty: Variable.

Two impossible things appeared before my eyes basically at the same moment. The first was a mandatory quest, which were so rare in this game that you could count them on the fingers of one hand. The second was that Vimes sank to his knees, covering his weeping face with his hands like a small child. Clouter began to console the Tauren, stroking his head, and here the third impossible thing happened—Vimes collapsed to the floor entirely. At first I thought that my guard had taken ill and I even lurched in his direction; however, Clouter stopped me. Vimes was merely asleep.
“Did you know that he hasn’t slept in three years?” Clouter looked at me. He didn’t resemble a happy fellow anymore, but rather an old man wizened by life, who had just solved another difficult problem and was now scolding a poor student. In the given case, me. “Or do these things not interest you?”
“How did you learn all this?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I simply saw it. You can’t not see it. It’s a flaming fire. A hope cornered in a tight corner. The desire to die. Mother told me that Priests can see through other creatures, but it was off limits to me. I was a Warrior. But now I am a Priest and therefore…Don’t force me to explain what I don’t understand myself, Mahan. Let Vimes get some sleep and then help him. It doesn’t matter how, just help him. Even if it’s just ordering him to forget about his beloved once and for all. Vimes respects you; he won’t dare ignore a direct order. Promise?”
“I will make sure to help Vimes,” I confirmed, discovering an entirely new appreciation for the phrase ‘resolve this issue.’ The quest didn’t tell me that I had to rush to save the girl, even if she was a girl with two horns and hooves. Who knows, maybe she’s happy and returning her to Vimes won’t actually solve anything. I need to resolve this issue the way the owner of a castle would do it. Damn! I am getting the distinct impression that there’s a trap here somewhere!
“We must travel to Kartoss,” Clouter went on sadly. “There’s nothing else we can do here.”
The portal demon opened the way to the central square of the Nameless City and our detachment of seven sentients set off on its journey in mournful silence. That’s the way things work out sometimes—you feel like everything’s okay, that you’re happy, and then you speak with an NPC and everything changes. Your mood plummets and doesn’t even seem like it’s about to return. Who asked me to invite Clouter to my castle anyway?

We found the Monk Instructor at the cemetery outside of the Nameless City, under the shadow of a great tree. Knucklear was busy honing one of the most important monk skills. He was sleeping. We barely managed to shake him awake. The stout man reeked of wine. Maybe I’m missing something, but the last thing I imagined was that this creature could be a teacher. I’m not sure what the devs were on when they came up with him…although, actually that’s not much of a mystery. The mystery is something else—how did the quality control department approve this drunkard. This is a social game after all!
When a meaningful expression appeared on his inebriated face, I began to relate the gist of the problem. Knucklear scratched his belly and drawled meaningfully:
“So that’s how it is! Yeaaaaah…Sounds like work…Ah-ah-ah-hrrrrooo…”
When it finally dawned on me that ‘ah-hrrrooo’ was not the continuation of a meaningful phrase, but a simple old snore, I exploded. I guess it wasn’t Knucklear’s day since it had begun with Elizabeth’s unexpected anger and ended with Vimes on his knees bawling and Mars ascending in the Taurus constellation. I never imagined I’d feel so angry about an NPC, but Knucklear really got my goat. He managed to accomplish what even Prontho hadn’t. He made me lose my temper.

The Shaman has three hands…

You are attempting to summon a Spirit beyond your rank. You are summoning a Spirit you have not mastered. The summon is impossible.

…and behind his back a wing…

You are attempting to summon a Spirit beyond your rank. You are summoning a Spirit you have not mastered.

…from the heat upon his breath…

You are attempting to summon a Spirit beyond your rank.

Shining candle-fire springs…

For an instant the candle’s flame flared around me with the full intensity of the sun—only to be snuffed out and give way to the coolness and gentleness of water. Reality slipped away from me as I found myself in a liquid environment. I was filled with feelings that I had never felt before. How do you describe the way a fish feels, able to change direction at any moment in three dimensions? Freedom? Independence? The opportunity to make a choice, that only it will be responsible for? Who knows? Fish are pretty strange creatures when you think about it. How can you stay silent when you’re surrounded by such beauty? Such grandeur? Such might?
“Remember brother, the water is deceptive. Don’t let it drown you,” I heard a faintly familiar voice, forcing the thoughts in my mind to turn over limply. Someone was trying to accuse my beloved, darling water of doing something illegal, so someone was really asking for it. Water is the source of life! How could it be deceptive?
“Shaman—these aren’t Spirits and dances with the tambourine. This isn’t petitioning the ancestors and appealing to their wisdom. A Shaman is a guide between the worlds. Not a bridge. As soon as a Shaman becomes a path between those who remained and those who wish to remain, he loses himself. A Shaman may guide someone but he cannot pave his own way. The time has come to decide who you are—a guide or a path. Don’t let the water deceive you, Harbinger. Feel.”
The heavy voice grew heavier with each word. I scowled with displeasure—not only was this jerk accusing my beloved water, but he was also forcing me to do something, to think about something! Me—a Harbinger of Malabar!
The desire to find out who considers himself immortal grew so intense that I tried to push away the pleasure that had gripped me and concentrated. And I do mean tried because nothing came of it—the water remained inside of me, around me, I was the water and I wasn’t about to leave this state.
“A powerful and cruel element. It has claimed more than a thousand fools, who thought they were stronger than it. You cannot fight against the element. You must agree with it. You must pacify it. Feel.”
The obnoxious voice continued speaking to me like to a small child that had gotten its hands on an electronic device and was now trying to figure out how it worked by means of a hammer. The rage and irritation that the unknown creature’s voice evoked in me were much more vivid and intense than the desire to dissolve and vanish in the water’s gentle hands. It had been a long time since I had to make a decision like this—I had to choose the type of pleasure I would receive. Either the pleasure of the water, or the pleasure of smearing someone’s face across the floor. Kornik would have a fine smirk if he learned this…
Kornik! The Shaman! Barliona!
An electric shock ran through me. I remembered who I was! Player Daniel Mahan, who had found himself in a strange scrape with water and somehow forgotten, even if temporarily, his own self. What were these strange experiments that the Corporation was conducting? The ‘Exit’ button appeared before me for a second, offering me an escape to reality where I could dig deeper into these humans experiments, yet something held me back. My mind understood that what would follow would be an illegal action, since my faculties of feeling were too excited, and yet something inside of me demanded that I go on. It wasn’t the water’s flirtation, but the desire and chance to extricate myself from this situation and understand why all of this had happened.
“Return to me.” As soon as the ‘Exit’ button vanished, another wave of pleasure engulfed me, with its pleasant and barely perceptible whisper. The water was insatiable. I was soaring in weightlessness, watching the play of light, whole beautiful creations appeared and vanished around me, beckoning into some dark distance. My mood was improving, my objectivity was waning, so with my last crumbs of consciousness, I shut my eyes and tried to concentrate. The water was all around me in all its majesty and beauty. If I allow it to engulf me, maybe something bad might happen, something that might influence my future existence in Barliona. If I don’t allow it to engulf me—the opposite will happen and I will receive bonuses. All that remained was to decide what to do…
“What do you need all these cares for, Shaman? Renounce your doubts and sorrows and return to me.”
When it became clear that I could resist the caresses and gentleness of the water, I brought the heavy artillery to bear. The voice. So gentle, so inviting, so mesmerizing that for a few moments I forget everything that existed. There was only the voice and its calling. Leave everything? No problem. Forget it all? Right this instant! Return to the voice? Of course! I’ll only have to think of what to say to Anastaria, since…
Anastaria! Barliona…Damn it all!
The hallucination vanished as if it had never been. The ‘Exit’ button appeared before me again and it was only through sheer will that I managed to keep myself in Barliona. If initially my premonition had whispered quietly that I couldn’t leave, now it was screaming and waving a red flag. Something powerful was coming, something that I would like, though I still had to earn it. I had to remain. I had to hold on.
Suddenly the water’s gentleness and care vanished. Along with its mesmerizing whisper. In their place came cold and abrupt currents which eliminated all the pleasure I had experienced earlier. The abrupt change in environment caused me to open my eyes and see the water around me roiling in motion. Several meters ahead of me, as well as all around me, the water began to embody itself, gradually adopting the form of a semitransparent water elemental. Thirty seconds elapsed and I found myself surrounded by a dense ring of nine Level 300 monsters. With eyes as red as oxygenated blood. Aggroing mobs! Progress bars were glimmering above the monsters’ heads, steadily approaching 100%. If I understand the elmentals’ transformation correctly, the bar reflects the final formation of the creatures. Right this instant, the monsters were at 82% of readiness, and with every passing moment, the distance between me and the Gray Lands was growing smaller. Dealing with nine mobs would be too much for me.
Like hell!

The Shaman has three hands…

This time I didn’t bother singing out loud. The water surrounding me didn’t keep me from breathing, but it did keep trying to get into my mouth as soon as I opened it. I had to resort to doing my summoning mutely, like Kornik had taught me. The system again informed me that I’m not allowed to summon a Spirit that was beyond my rank, yet I swiped away both the notification and the system itself. I am a Shaman! The only limitation to which I would agree was my own unwillingness to do something. Everything else had to be intercepted and cut out at its root. Since I’m not allowed to work with the Spirits directly, I’ll have improvise. And how can I improvise, being a Shaman Jeweler? That’s right—only in design mode.
Without even considering how foolish my actions were—spurred on by my sharp feeling that I was doing everything correctly and the way it needed to be done—I opened design mode. Finding myself in the middle of my well-lit creative chamber, I mentally bound one hand to one edge of the room and the other to the other edge and then abruptly brought my hands together. I’d done a similar thing when I was crafting the Pendants, so my mind didn’t bother resisting the novelty of this action. Since a completely reasonable precedent already existed—one which had caused me to end up here to begin with—then there wasn’t much to think about or consider. I needed to act.
The room began to waver; it contracted and collapsed with a clap into a formless lump like a tablecloth that had been whipped from the table and crumpled. I was plunged into my customary and longed-for darkness, punctuated by the shelves bearing my former creations. My old design mode. I kicked the illuminated interface away from me with revulsion, causing it to roll along an invisible floor and vanish in a bright flash, and created a projection of the Water Spirit. Kalatea had once told me that Spirit summoning and crafting have nothing in common. That these things exist in different planes of reality. Well…Let’s see which one of us was wrong—the insolent Shaman who lets his premonition guide him at all occasions or the experienced ideologue and creator of our class. After all, I intend on working with the Spirits through my crafting.

Damage taken…
Damage taken…
Damage taken…

A litany of notifications began to flash past my eyes, telling me that I was taking damage and trying to distract me. Once again thanking the unknown technician who had turned off my sensory perception, I completed the creation of the Spirit and looked him over critically. Outwardly he looked like an elemental, but he was quite different—my creation had appendages. Six appendages in his lower portion, which served as his legs and about seven-eight flexible appendages throughout his body, variously appearing and vanishing along his barrel-like torso. Due to his warped face, my elemental was more of some monster than a Spirit, but to my untrained eye, the result was excellent. The Spirit should scare his enemies. If not with his actions, then at least with his face.
The most important thing remained—I had to force my Spirit to do what I told him to. Simply put, he had to defend me from the rabid elementals who had by now managed to take my HP down to 60%. This, despite the insane amount of armor and all the magic resistance that came with it. If I had been wearing my old gear—the cocoon’s lid would long since have slid aside, releasing me to my own devices for the next twelve hours. By the way! I should really pay to shorten my respawn time. A million gold isn’t the kind of money that you’re sorry to lose six hours of gameplay over.
Embodying the Spirit didn’t work. Whenever he acquired the required density, I realized that I had created a simple statue which would fall apart in a few seconds due to my lack of the Architect or Sculptor professions. Try as I might, design mode only created lifeless items, since that was all it knew to do. But that didn’t make me happy. I needed a result…

You have entered the unity.

Since nothing else occurred to me, I completely shut off my brain and began to act on pure instinct. I can’t embody the Spirit? No problem—I’ll be the Spirit myself!
Greetings, brother!” A ringing voice sounded instantly in my head. At first I was taken aback, then I understood who was speaking: Spirit-Me. I was hearing those whom I had summoned! “I can’t activate your creation. Give me a way to reach it.”
He is weak, take me instead! another Spirit-Me yelled from some other part of the Universe. “No one but me will be able to control your elemental!
Me! Only me! The rest are too weak!” Dozens, hundreds, thousands of Spirit-Me’s hung over me, offering their services. All I had to do was reach out my hand, touch the entity I wanted and allow it to soak into the created Spirit through my essence. All I had to do was serve as a bridge between the world of Spirits and my world of real things…No! I won’t be a path! I am a Shaman!
I was about to dispel the unity, since I wasn’t seeing anything useful to me here when suddenly a question occurred to me that I couldn’t answer.
Who are you?” I asked, since the opportunity had presented itself. “Why can the Shamans summon you? Why weren’t you destroyed in Erebus? Why don’t you return to Chaos?”
Like at the wave of a wand, the noise and clamor disappeared. When I began to think that the Spirits had fallen silent because of my insolence, a thousand throats spoke in unison:
As the Spirits spoke, each word cast me deeper and deeper into a state of utter shock. The entire logic of the Barliona afterlife I had believed in, collapsed like a house of cards. Completely and irrevocably.
The Spirits were basically vampires. Like all mortal creatures, they had once died and their souls had been consumed by Chaos. However some essence (I didn’t really understand what it was) had remained in Barliona. Every time that someone recalled a deceased creature, he would give it a piece of his life force. In a word, if a sentient begins to live only in the past, it dies very quickly. Barliona seemed very strict about this. Furthermore, the more renowned the creature was during its life, the more life force its essence received, to the point that eventually it would become conscious. Yes, it could no longer return to Barliona as a living creature, since its Spirit had already died, but the stronger essences received the ability to inhabit a dead body, turning into a Zombie. Some become Spirits for Shamans to summon, acquiring this or that power in the process. Others become phantoms, others Astral demons, and others great heroes of the past who could temporarily embody themselves in the living world. Basically, there were many options for what could happen to an essence. The main problem was to remain consistently remembered and thereby receive this life force…even if doing so meant having to kill living creatures. The main goal was to live at the expense of the living. Thence the devourers of the essences and hence…vampires.
I couldn’t help but draw an analogy to the real world. We too remember our ancestors…And even today, people believe in ghosts, strange voices, odd howls…Blech! Enough! I didn’t come here for this!
In other words, you can’t become living because your souls have been absorbed by Chaos?” The idea struck me. “What if someone managed to steal a soul from Erebus? How can it come to life in that case?”
If there were two, there could be more,” I refused to surrender.
As Alice once cried: “Curiouser and curiouser!” What an enormous, elaborate world Barliona is! If you just look around a little, there’s no limit to what you can find…
A lightning bolt of epiphany pierced me through my head to my toes. I understood! A Shaman cannot be a bridge or a path between two worlds. If he is, he must surrender himself and eventually he’ll cease to be a Shaman. An NPC will die; a player will lose his powers. A Shaman must serve as a guide. To guide the Spirit to the correct place and sacrifice this other creature. Until the Shaman becomes a Harbinger, he must give his own life force to summon Spirits. I was always surprised by the cost the Shamans had to pay for each summoned Spirit, and only now did I understand where my hands and feet were. As soon as a Shaman becomes a Harbinger, he is granted the ability to figure out himself and decide what is more important for him: to engage in sadomasochism, giving up his own life force for each summons, or to become a conduit, allowing the Spirits to devour other creatures. Warriors, children, animals…whoever…as long as it isn’t the Shaman himself. What a nice little class I chose to play!
I looked at the created Spirit and yet another realization dawned on me. It wasn’t for nothing that I had entered a unity…
I was told that the water is deceitful and tricky. Dangerous and unreliable. Pitiless and senseless. Naïve and foolish creatures! Water is the source of life! No creature can exist without it. How can someone call it terrible? No. It is the way it is. All-consuming, multiform, embracing and gentle. It’s stupid to resist this. Water can only be limited by some other form, figure or vessel. For example, the Spirit I had created…

You have subjugated the Supreme Water Spirit. Duration of subjugation: 31 (Crafting) seconds.

The eyes of the elemental I had created filled with a bright light as, simultaneously, my unity and design mode vanished into non-existence. I was again surrounded by enormous sheets of water—the nine elementals trying their best to kill my character—and yet a new challenger had appeared: the Spirit I had created.
“Let them have it!”
The system hiccupped one more time about how I had to work within the rules, but I wasn’t paying any attention to it. The battle had begun…
“Q.E.D.” Kornik’s mocking voice tore the surrounding space in twain and suddenly I realized that I was standing in front of a great tree. The elementals and my Spirit had vanished, as if they’d never existed. Beside me stood the six Zombie guards, cautiously examining the graves at their feet, while right before me, in a lotus pose, sat Knucklear satisfied and smiling. Behind the monk’s back stood a whole detachment of Barliona’s finest NPCs: Kornik, Prontho, Nashlazar, as well as another dozen or so Shamans that I hadn’t yet met. What’s this all about?
“I won’t waste time on pretty words,” Kornik went on. “I’ll be brief—good job and all that. I’m sad to admit it, but I no longer have the right to call you my student, just as you can no longer call me your teacher. Welcome to Barliona, Harbinger!”

Harbinger class confirmed.
The ‘Water Spirit Rank’ restriction has been lifted, as you will no longer need it.

Release - February 12, 2018

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