Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Bard from Barliona 2

The Bard from Barliona - 2
A Song of Shadow

release - November 19

Chapter One

Re-entering Barliona turned out harder than I imagined. My fingers trembled as they reached for the capsule’s sensors. My memory unkindly replayed the terrible agony I’d experienced during the changing of my alignment. It wasn’t right. Who came up with the idea of torturing players like that? Or was this supposed to be a particular ‘penalty’ for switching to the dark side? A tacit punishment for choosing the faction of the gameworld’s villains? And if so, what would I face later?
As soon as I slid into the capsule, the first thing I did was carefully double-check the sensory filter settings. Everything was as before—a pain threshold of 10%. After a couple seconds’ hesitation, I turned this down to five percent. Realism is good and all, but I think I’ve had enough. More than enough.

Welcome to Barliona!

An updated Lorelei the Captivating looked at me reproachfully from the game’s loading screen. There hadn’t really been anything captivating about her before, aside from her epithet. Now, new, small and sharp thorns protruded from her aquamarine epidermis, their arrangement forming whimsical patterns in some places and completely chaotic ones in others. The epidermis itself was streaked with little black veins which contributed to the ornament’s eeriness. The veins reminded me of the kind that frequently appear in holofilms as a symptom of some plague spreading through the victim’s circulatory system. However, instead of the branching of vessels, these veins formed something like a runic script on my Blighted Biota. Perhaps this creative tattoo meant something in one of Barliona’s languages. The only question was whom to ask for assistance in decoding it: a botanist, a dermatologist or a linguist.
My avatar’s eyes had changed too: A regular green glow had consumed the iris and pupil. Strange—in the video from the web, the shaman’s eyes had seeped with fog during the transformation. Was this a racial trait? Or was my scenario different? It didn’t do any good to guess—I was better off entering the game and figuring things out on location.
I don’t know what I expected—fanfare and an achievement like ‘You have become the first player of Shadow’ or maybe heaps of presents from the renegades, moved to the bottom of their hearts by my selfless deed—but whatever it was, nothing happened. Nothing at all.
I was even upset for a second: That Shaman Mahan got an epic sacrifice from the top players, trips to the ancient past, a unicorn on a leash, but little old me…all I got was a camp full of renegade vegetables. No fortifications, major facilities, haunted castles or even ordinary old houses. The place looked less like the headquarters of sinister conspirators, and more like a temporary camp for some tourists to spend a few days. Even the Sixth’s ‘throne room’ was little but a simple meadow, albeit covered in blight. Although, I have to admit that the conspirators’ tents were kind of pretty: Instead of the players’ typical tents and huts, these were large cup-shaped flowers, whose stalks grew normally and then doubled over at about half-height so that the actual flower would cup a plot of ground.
Renegades from both races were running to and fro between the tents, individually and in units. Sentries in polished armor stood about; cauldrons boiled over bonfires under the watchful eyes of pirqs, awaiting troops returning from their missions. The ones about to set out were checking their weapons and equipment, going over their orders; a little off to the side, at a safe distance, some mages and bowmen were practicing.
All of this stood in contrast with the scenario I had seen in which Geranika recruited an apprentice, thus putting me on the thought that my plot line would be somewhat different.
“You’ve spent a long time coming to your senses, my new ally,” a voice said so unexpectedly that I started and turned quickly.
Elegantly-attired, as if he’d just returned from a soiree, Geranika stood in the meadow smiling. It’s odd to smile like that. Like a cat that was deliberating whether to eat the mouse now or play with it some more.
“The process turned out to be a fairly…painful.”
The mere memory of it made me start.
“You had to be reborn, Lorelei. And birth is always a painful process. For a human, for an idea, for a new world order…”
As Geranika went on speaking, I tried to understand what the great villain wanted from me. I doubt he’s about to pull out a celebratory cake with a burning candle and suggest I make a wish.
“A new empire is being born, Lorelei,” Geranika went on. “An Empire of Shadow. A great war is coming and like any emperor, I will need useful people. Companions, strong and faithful. You are a special free citizen, Lorelei. You were unafraid to join the side of the renegades. You accepted Shadow, despite the loathing of those who live in Malabar and Kartoss. I find you interesting.”
I listened in silence.
“But interest on its own is insufficient,” he went on. “You are still too weak and I doubt you will be useful to my empire.”
I perked up my ears. I doubt I’d survive another ‘trial’ like the last one. To hell with that. I’d rather delete my avatar and start again than go through that again.
“I can help you become stronger.” Fog whirled in Geranika’s open palm. “But first you must prove to me that you can be useful, Lorelei. Prove to me that I should expend my time and effort on you.”

Quest available: Impress the Lord of Shadow.
Description: The Lord of Shadow seeks allies, but it’s no simple task to join their number. Do something that will earn Geranika’s consideration.
Quest type: Unique chain. Reward for completion: Variable, next quest in the chain. Penalty for declining the quest: -20 Attractiveness with Geranika.

So the rumors are true. Ever since Kartoss became a playable empire, the fora have been rumbling about a new Shadow faction. The wildest flame wars raged about the question of whether players would be able to play for Shadow. It looks like I now know the answer to that.
“I will do this,” I promised and noticed Geranika’s lip jerk just barely before he vanished.
I was left alone in the middle of the camp. Neither the Sixth nor her bodyguard were around. A short stroll around the encampment didn’t afford me anything apart from the esthetic pleasure derived from the exotic flora-architecture, some observations of army life in the field, and the benefit of breathing some fresh air. The typical gaming infrastructure I was accustomed to, was entirely absent here. There were neither signs, nor barkers nor the barest indicator of where to go or what to do. Nothing but rows of flower huts, some sentries loitering beside them and the odd messenger hurrying past with a leather satchel. And that’s it. An ordinary guerrilla outfit, with a touch of the local, floral flavor. And how was I supposed to level up my character? How was I supposed to make scratch here? Where could I find the gear I needed?
The answer to the last question popped up on its own. Using the scientific method of poking around aimlessly, I came across the local quartermaster, hiding out in one of the flower huts. This biota was sitting so still that I initially assumed he was part of the decor, and I would have moved on if he hadn’t spoken up.
“I’ve never seen you before, Lorelei,” the renegade said flatly. He was ensconced in the same plate armor I had observed on all the guards in the city. The same combination of wood and metal, only the wooden parts of it were black. He had a whimsical name too—Palisandro.
“It was only recently that I…” I hesitated, trying to find the right word. Switched? Became blighted? Turned?
“Joined Astilba,” Palisandro came to my aid. He smiled compassionately. “I know that the first days are the hardest. The life you were used to has ended. Difficult trials in the name of our brothers and sisters who cannot yet even fathom our motives lie ahead of you. I remember how shocked I was at first. Do you know what helped me?”
“Work. Occupy yourself with whatever it is that brought you here. Move toward your goal and your doubts will waft away like dried chaff.”
“Work…” I echoed. “I can’t even imagine where to start and who to ask…”
Palisandro’s thorny brows rose with surprise.
“Are you saying that no one has briefed you? Given you a quest? Assigned you to some task?”
I coughed with some confusion, recalling what an offline player looks like to an NPC. It’s like sleep, but I suppose you could call it a deep coma too.
“No. After my transformation, I lost consciousness and came to only recently.”
“It is a painful procedure,” Palisandro agreed. “At least now you get to experience a new power. Our strength has grown so much among these shadowy lands that there are no unwanted guests that would dare visit us.”
He had a point here. Whereas before the transformation the blighted ground would saddle me with a debuff, now it worked in the other direction:

Blighted Strength. +50% to all stats. +1% HP for every minute spent on blighted ground.

“Are there many unwanted guests that try to come here?” I asked.
“There will be quite a few soon enough,” Palisandro squinted unkindly. “So don’t waste time and prepare yourself properly. Choose the equipment you need and locate Yavar. He is personally in charge of the preparations.”
The equipment was available without any restrictions, unless you take level requirements into account. There was no required reputation status—friendship sufficed. However, the quartermaster’s inventory was hardly impressive. The same old assortment of vegetable, leather and metallic gear with the typical ‘Shadow’ skin and a modest +2 to various stats. Strictly speaking, some of my items weren’t any worse, but I dispensed with modesty and picked out a full set of blighted gear. At this point, another not-so-unimportant detail occurred to me: The ‘weight’ of the armor affected stamina cost as well as my spellcasting time. Wearing the lightest gear available, which consisted mostly of the leaves and stalks of mysterious plants, I could cast spells at my full capacity. Leather armor would penalize my stamina slightly. Chain mail had a serious effect on my stamina and a little one on my casting time, while plate armor really encumbered both. A quick search of the fora brought me to a thread full of complicated formulas, from which I surmised only that as long as my Strength and Constitution stats remained below certain thresholds, heavy equipment was not for me. If I were a pirq bard, for instance, I could calmly jingle jangle around in my heavy plate armor all day long.
I couldn’t help but recall the drawing I had seen on the forum: A pirq in what looked like knight armor (as it is depicted in historical films) with drums of skulls hanging on his chest. It looked impressive, but…As Pasha-Chip would say, it’s not for me. Which is too bad…I could imagine it now: I step out all dramatic like the heroine of a mega-blockbuster about elves, jingling my plate armor and lute and the enemies just collapse all around me…in laughter. After all Pasha and Sasha would surely be right behind me, making stupid faces and just generally clowning around in their uniforms.
On the other hand, this fact didn’t upset me in the least. The new gear looked quite solid—I was ready to step out on the stage of some goth festival. I wonder if I try to cosplay all this out in meatspace, whether I could wear this gear for a long time? I doubt it, considering the cute accessories like the belt and the bracelet of thorny rose and, even prettier, a necklace of the flowering branches of black bramble. The vaguely BDSM style was completed by a small, sheathed dagger hanging on my belt. It’s not like I really needed it, but the renegades were giving me the equipment for free, so why not grab the dagger too? There was no concrete calculation here on my part—I just figured it’d be nice to have a knife if I went out into the wild.
When I had finished, I surrendered to my vanity for a second and stepped up to the large mirror and turned on my camera in order to take a memorable selfie-hologram. Recalling my assignment to shoot footage for our video, I didn’t bother turning it off. The guys and I could select the more effective footage later and put together a nice clip.
“If you’ve satiated your narcissism,” Palisandro taunted me kindly, “you should go see Legate Yavar and get to work.”
Thanking the quartermaster, I set out to find the legate, relishing the creativity of the devs along my way. As Chip, my personal know-it-all, had explained to me, Barliona featured a mixture of old languages and cultural traditions of all the different races and peoples of our real, human history. At this point, Sasha set off on a wide tangent, comparing tattoos and writing, but Pasha stopped him in time, begging the lecturer to go make tea in the kitchen. Otherwise our excursion into comparative anthropology could have cost us a few hours at least.
I located the legate at one of the countless huts that housed the renegades. I was expecting to see something like a yurt of the peoples of the north, but approaching closer realized that I had made a mistake. The hut was constructed of enormous leaves, three times my height. They were bound in a clever manner by means of some kind of sticky substance, to which small litter had managed to stick before it had dried.
Legate Yavar was a stocky pirq with a leopard’s markings, sealed in coal-black plate armor that sumptuously harmonized with his fur. The typical alterations caused by Shadow only made this NPC appear more vivid. The sword hanging from his side looked more like a mutated sickle with a long handle. And it was on this handle that he drummed with his fingers as he spoke with two other pirq officers also outfitted in black plate armor. Noticing me, Yavar dismissed his companions with a gesture and concentrated on my person.
“Ah, a recruit,” he rumbled in a throaty baritone, and looked me over from head to toe, paused at my lute and shook his head disapprovingly. “And what am I supposed to do with a little booger like you?”
I made a mental note to cut this phrase out of my video, otherwise, I could just sense that this ‘little booger’ would stick to me—courtesy of my idiot friends.
“Any ideas, centurion?” The legate glanced over at the colossal, jet black pirq standing beside us with a Zweihander.
The pirq growled grimly, raised his upper lip, baring a row of sharp teeth and grumbled with displeasure:
“What could you possibly do with her? The best she could do is be a buccinator, but then she’d have to swap her lute for a buccina.  And yet this piece of brushwood wouldn’t even be able to lift the horn and were she to attempt to blow it, she’d fall apart to leaves…Better send her over to Altaik’s turma, I say.”
Listening to this exchange, I was silently grateful that I hadn’t decided to play for the pirqs. It looked like this race had a militaristic society with a touch of ancient history about it. No wonder Pasha chose them.
“To the velites?” the legate asked. “You think I should send her beyond the blighted ground at her level?” He squinted. “It’s too high a risk.”
“She’s a free citizen,” the centurion reminded him. “It’s easier for her: The free citizens can return from the Gray Lands.”
The legate twiddled his whiskers, weighing the pros and cons, as I tried to understand what they were even talking about. Well, I mean, in general I had understood that my formidable Level 7 made it difficult to find me a suitable quest, yet the details of their conversation escaped me.
At the same time, Yavar glanced at me and asked with some doubt in his voice:
“We need to think…You can’t summon an army of phantoms with your music like your Tenth, can you Lorelei?”
“Then it’s decided,” the pirq stuck his paw into a huge bowl carved of wood, pulled out someone’s charred rib and began gnawing on it with a pensive look on his face.
“To the velites,” he declared. “Seek the scarlet banner with the lightning bolt emblem on it. You will report to Centurion Altaik.”

Quest available: Help the Renegades.
Description: The Renegades of the Hidden Forest have committed themselves to preventing an alliance with Kartoss. Locate Centurion Altaik and offer your assistance. Quest type: Rare scenario. Reward for completion: +50 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest; +100 XP. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -50 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest.

Naturally, I accepted the quest and leaving the hut began peering around for a scarlet standard. It was nowhere to be seen, but at least my old friend Vex appeared on the horizon. And I still had questions for that book thief.
“Vex, hang on!” I called, hurrying after my fellow bard.
“Ah, Lorelei,” he waved and stopped. “Are you feeling better?” he inquired when I approached.
“Yes, quite a bit! I have some business to discuss with you.”
“Is it urgent?”
“Not very,” I confessed, “but it won’t take long.”
Vex looked away somewhere to the right, in the direction of the enormous tree whose roots formed the seat of Astilba’s throne and answered unhurriedly: “Go on then, but do so quickly.”
“Did you take a part of the songbook from the Tree library?” I asked without wasting any time.
The renegade looked at me a little oddly and nodded.
“I did. How do you know this?”
“Back at the Tree, I was trying to decipher the songbook and discovered that it was incomplete. The librarian recalled that you were the last one to work with the scroll.”
All of Vex’s hurry vanished instantly. He turned to face me, squinted his eyes and asked tensely: “You know how to decipher the songbook?”
“Well, yeah,” I said with some surprise. “Weren’t you doing the same thing?”
“Not at all. I’m a poet, not a musician. I was merely copying the scroll at Astilba’s request, but I didn’t manage to finish my work and was forced to…extract the last fragment from the library.”
“What does Astilba want with the songbook? She’s definitely not a bard.”
The renegade nodded, sighed deeply and waved his hand, offering me to have a seat in the shade of a sprawling thorn bush. It did not seem like he was in a hurry any longer.
“As you know, a bard’s spells are learned in conjunction with the spells of other classes. Astilba is trying to divine the structure of Cypro’s spell and recreate it on her own.”
“What kind of a spell is it?”
Vex hesitated and then replied barely audibly:
“Cypro knew how to summon the souls of heroes who had passed to the Gray Lands. Astilba cleaves to the hope that she can return the Fifth. She asked me to find all mention of this spell and my search brought me to this scroll. The writing in it is some kind of cypher, so I was simply copying the scroll to give it to the Sixth. Unfortunately we have no bards who specialize in music and so we had no luck deciphering the scroll. But if what you say is true…Perhaps Astilba will accomplish what she’s sought all this time.”
“Perhaps,” I echoed, though I had my doubts.
As far as I understand the info in the Barliona FAQs, the dead could only return as mindless undead or members of the zombie race. In order to have an NPC return to the world in his right mind and sense, some kind of magic seal would be required. It followed that the Fifth didn’t have this seal…and a zombie lover would please only some fan of stupid pseudo-romantic movies, not Astilba.
“Notes are written in it,” I explained to the excited biota. “I already deciphered the part in the library, so if I get the rest of it, it won’t take me long to recreate the songbook.”
Vex jumped lightly to his feet and announced decisively:
“I will speak to the Sixth and if she grants her permission, I will bring you the missing fragment. Wait for me.”
“Hang on,” I stopped the renegade from rushing off. “I’ve been sent to Centurion Altaik. Tell me where I can find him and we can just meet there.”
“Altaik?” the bard ruminated. “Follow that there brook downstream and you’ll come upon his turma. But wait for me to return and if anyone orders you otherwise, tell them that you’re waiting for orders from the Sixth. Understand?”
“Yes. Do I have to wait long?”
“Not long,” Vex insisted and dashed toward Astilba’s meadow residence.
I decided to pass the time productively—by filling in my map. To my surprise, Chip’s drills paid dividends and I managed to chart a part of my route from my former place of imprisonment to the renegades’ camp. It wasn’t very precise, but there were definitely less white space on the map when I finished. If things go on this way, the cartographer’s mysterious prize is as good as ours. Chip just has to copy my map and complete the quest. There was just one issue…If we did this, Eben would get his hands on the map with its vague, yet discernable, location of the renegades’ camp. And then who knows what the spymaster would do? No. First I have to find out how the Sixth’s attempts to resurrect her lover will turn out and only then move on to the map quest.
At last Vex returned. He looked very worried and was all but dancing from impatience.
“The songbook!” He waved a small scroll in front of me. “Here is the missing portion. You have to decipher all of it. This instant!”

Quest available: Decipher the Songbook.
Description: Vex wants you to restore and decipher Cypro’s songbook this instant. Quest type: Unique, class-based. Restrictions: You must begin the quest on the spot and perform it until it is complete.
Reward for completion: +1,000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest, +14,000 XP. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -1,000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest.

“Erm…” I mumbled, a little at a loss as I read the quest description. “I guess I’ll just do this now then.”
I looked around, found myself a spot near the roots of a tree where a stranger wouldn’t run into me, sat down and leaning against the trunk unfurled the remainder of the scroll. This was definitely it—the same babble about the sun, the Milky Way and the seven planets. There was no surface suited for writing on, so per habit, I arranged the parchment on the body of my lute. Someone else might find this uncomfortable, but my guitar synth had served me as a desk, as an umbrella and even a club in its day.
The experience I already had in deciphering the scroll did its part and my work went quickly. The only irritation was Vex who stood over me and drilled the scroll with his eyes to the point that I was afraid he really was going to burn a hole through it.
“Are you going to stand there all day?”
Instead of replying, Vex nodded curtly and pointed at the unfurled piece of scroll impatiently. No one has any patience these days. Although, hell, neither do I. I do want to know what spell the Tenth used to summon the army in my vision.
Just over two hours had passed and the work was done. A lean stack of sheets covered in notes was lying before me, and still nothing happened. No fanfare, no system notifications about a completed quest…Nothing but Vex’s impatient and inquisitive look. There was nothing left but to shrug in reply and start reviewing the notes. Maybe I had made some mistake? A single inaccuracy could throw off the harmony of the composition. Of course, there was a simple way to check the thing.
Having no music stand, I placed the sheet music right before me, picked up my lute and recreated my uneven row of marks with sound. The melody was a pretty one but clearly unsuited to a lute. The sound was missing something. As harmonious and complete as the music was, there was something inadequate about it. Still, I sensed no mistake in it.
As soon as the final chord had rung, the sheets with the deciphered notes began to glow. My yearned-for fanfare sounded from somewhere and the parchment vanished, leaving behind a songbook shimmering in a pearl glow.

Congratulations! You have recovered Cypro’s legendary songbook!
Your deciphering of the songbook has taught you a new spell: ‘Bonds of Memory.’
Since times of yore, bards were the keepers of memory about the feats and tragedies of Barliona’s heroes and villains. Thanks to the bards, tales of the past remain in the memories of the races, creating an imperceptible bond between the present and the past, the living and the dead. This bond permits certain bards to use their songs to summon the souls of the heroes of yore. To be resurrected, the souls require a portion of the Bard’s vitality and their strength depends on the strength of their summoner.
Casting time: Perform a composition about the summoned soul from beginning to end. Cost of performance: 50% of the Bard’s max HP. Maximum level of the summoned soul: (Bard’s Level + Composition) Maximum number of the summoned soul’s skills and spells: (Soul Level ÷ 10 + Composition). Maximum number of souls summoned at once: (1 + Composition) Duration of summoned soul’s stay in Barliona: (Intellect ÷ 10 + Composition) hours until the soul exhausts its vitality. Cooldown: 72 hours.

Skill increase:
+3 to Bardic Inspiration. Total: 14.
+3 to Fame. Total: 14.

Quest complete: Recover the Songbook.
+500 Reputation with the Biota. Current status: Hatred.
+10 to Fame. Total: 21.
Speak with the Tree’s Librarian to receive the rest of your reward.

Quest complete: Decipher the Scroll.
+1,000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest. Current status: Friendship.

Experience earned: +14,000 XP.
Level gained!
Level gained!
Current Level: 18.
Unallocated stat points: 90.
Training points remaining: 6.

Achievement unlocked:
‘Legendary Hit I’ (Four learned or created songbooks remaining until next rank).
Achievement reward: +1% chance to receive a quest that leads you to a legendary songbook.

The pure glory of the notification made my eyes ripple, while the golden flashes that accompanied the new levels only aggravated the situation, and I spent a long time blinking dumbly and rereading the system messages. My entire rich lexicon failed me, leaving a single unprintable but ecstatic exclamation in my head. Now this is the way to complete a quest!
“It worked,” Vex whispered in shock. “You did it, Lorelei! Quick! Give me the songbook so I may bring it to Astilba!”
The songbook, which had managed to appear in my palm, was shining enticingly.

Cypro’s songbook. Songbook type: Legendary. Contains the ‘Bonds of Memory’ spell.
Attention! To reproduce this song, you must have a rare musical instrument.
Attention! Your spellbook already contains ‘Bonds of Memory.’
Attention! This songbook may not be copied.
Attention! This songbook may not be traded.

I was holding a scroll with a unique spell. I wonder, purely theoretically, how much I could ask Astilba for, for a spell she wanted so badly. As far as I know, NPCs in this game cannot take a player’s property outside of very rare scenarios. Theoretically I could haggle and refuse to hand over the songbook for free.
Eh. I’m not much of a businesswoman and lucre’s just lucre.
“Here you go.”
I handed the songbook to Vex without further thought. It’s much more interesting to find out how the Sixth’s experiments will work out than to get my hands on a heap of gold.
“Tell Astilba I wish her luck. I hope everything will work out for her.”
The renegade clenched the scroll tightly in his hand and smiled warmly. My Attractiveness with him surged to 55 points.
“I will relay your words to her. Thank you, sister.”
And Vex rushed off like a whirlwind in the direction of the Sixth’s residence.
“Think nothing of it,” I called in his wake, forcing him to look back.
It was always like this: Either a torrent of new events or solitude and indecisiveness. If you discount the new levels I had gained, nothing had changed for me at all. I couldn’t even use my new spell—I had no rare instrument. And no way of finding one. The local quartermaster didn’t seem to have any, and the craftsmen around here weren’t exactly master luthiers. Maybe I could ask Chip? And yet, even if we pooled our resources we wouldn’t have enough for one of Pirus’ pieces. All right, we’ll talk it over out in meatspace. Only, before exiting the game, it wouldn’t be bad to find out what quest I’m supposed to get from the mysterious centurion.
The camp, meanwhile, had gone on with its own life. You could hear the growling of the pirq teams, the clangor of arms, the coming and going of small bands of warriors. Those who had returned were eating ravenously outside of their quarters and then immediately collapsing and falling asleep in their bunks without taking off anything apart from their footwear and armor. It’s much easier for the players in that sense—we could sleep in our armor without experiencing the least bit of discomfort.
Centurion Altaik turned out to be a light-ginger, almost blond, pirq. At the moment of my visit this glorious warrior was occupied with five tasks at once. He was hungrily consuming his bowl of gruel and meat, drinking milk, kicking his boots off his feet, glaring into a map and bitterly arguing with one of my cousins, a biota.
“What’d you need?” Altaik growled, generously bespattering my new cape with his spittle and bits of gruel. Uncultured bastard…
“Legate Yavar has sent me to you,” I rattled off, carefully brushing off my cape.
My answer forced the two quarrelers to fall quiet. Then again, the centurion used this interlude productively, taking the moment to stuff more grub in his maw. Smacking, he began to inspect my person. My cousin, Immortal Biota, also fell to looking me over and for a while the silence in the hut was punctuated only by the centurion’s smacking and chewing. Having finally finished his meal, Altaik purred with contentment, licked his spoon, placed it on the table and deigned to interact with me.
“Well and then what does he want?”
I definitely didn’t expect this question. The transition from legendary events to ‘what’d you want?’ was a little too swift.
“Erm…” I declaimed profoundly. “He wants you to give me some quest.”
“Recruit,” the pirq barked at his companion.
Only now did I notice how closely the two resembled each other—the pirq and the biota. Not in appearance but…in their expressions, their eyes. They were filled with an old weariness mixed with some kind of grim, doomed decisiveness and confidence, which did not gel with their intentionally-careless demeanor.
 Altaik slid the empty bowl aside and asked: “Do you know how to read a map?”
Receiving my nod as an answer, he went on: “Look. We’re here right now.” The centurion’s finger poked a green triangle in the middle of a forest shaded with black. “Our turma’s objective is to extend the fortifications up to this location…” Altaik picked up a lead pencil and marked a series of dots indicating a route. “We haven’t any time to spare, so everyone has to work. Right now, you will go to Signifier Lotos, receive equipment and instructions and then get to work. Any questions?”
A short dotted line between the forest and the foothills indicated where my future work lay.
“Where can I find Signa-uh-fier…Lotos?”
“He’s in the third bulb-tent downstream from here.”
Signifier Lotos turned out to be a sickly-gaunt biota of a reddish hue, which I couldn’t help but associate with the color of spoiled meat. Having heard my explanation, he quietly issued me two linen bags filled with black seeds, large and small, a piece of parchment with something that reminded me of a rat maze charted on it, made a mark in his giant book and dismissed me with a gesture.

Quest complete: Help the Renegades.
+50 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest. Current status: Friendship.
Experience earned: +100 XP.

Items acquired: Shadow Seeds.

Quest available: Help the Renegades. Step 2.
Description: Sow the Shadow Seeds. Quest type: Rare scenario. Reward for completion: variable reputation increase with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest, variable XP gain. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -500 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest.

Boy, I sure am lucky: First the garrulous legate and centurion, and now this dumb plant who doesn’t even deem it necessary to explain what it is they want me to do.
“Erm…And where am I supposed to sow them?” I asked when it became clear that further instructions would not be forthcoming.
Lotos glanced over me gloomily, sighed barely noticeably as if he was sorry to have to speak the words and replied: “Sow them based on the pattern—the locations have been marked on your map.”
And he stuck his thumb in the direction of the exit.

Quest updated: Help the Renegades. Step 2.
Description: Sow the Shadow Seeds in the locations indicated on your map.

Once I was outside of the tent of the unfriendly biota I opened the map and studied the locations to be sowed. At least there was a bit of luck there: the quest area was practically abutting the Arras. This means that the time had come to coordinate with everyone who wanted to cross it.
It was time to exit Barliona.

Chapter Two

Our further gaming plans became subject to wide-ranging discussion. In addition to Sasha, Sloe’s guildmates also wanted to cross the Arras and at this point Sloe announced that he would act as the scout. The plan was elegant in its simplicity. Sasha hit on the idea of selling his contacts in the Dark Legion the opportunity to enter a closed location. By way of payment he was going to ask the Legion to teleport his avatar to the Arras as well as protect him from the hostile mobs in the area.
“Under no conditions can we let third parties in on this! Let alone the Dark Legion,” Sloe objected on the conference call. He looked like he was about thirty, tall, gaunt, with a pocked, narrow face. “My clan will handle teleportation and security. We’ll sweeten the deal with some gear for you, useful scrolls and whatnot—whatever your noob soul desires. But no Dark Legion or anyone else!”
“What do you care whether you lot get in there alone or with someone else?” Chip asked, surprised by his reaction. “The more, the merrier—and the higher the chance of victory.”
“Why there’s a whole forest of local scenarios here!” Sloe brushed him off. “And they’re there for those like me who started playing as pirqs or biota. The new location has to have a new dungeon. Whoever completes it first, will earn incredibly useful bonuses for his guild. There’s nothing dumber than sharing an advantage like that with your competitors. Got it?”
“Not really,” my warriors shook their heads in sync, and Sasha elaborated:
“The hell do you need to get into the game so much? It’s like you people are losing your minds in there…” At this point Sasha trailed off and began to snuffle the air with his long nose. In the next instant he yelled, “The burgers are burning!”
And Snegov jumped from his seat and dashed into the kitchen.
Sloe’s sigh of despair sounded in the comm, while Reed, who had stayed silent this entire time, remarked bashfully: “For some people this isn’t a game but a means of survival. For people like that, having an advantage is important.”
Reed’s appearance matched his voice. He was an ordinary-looking guy my age with a potato-shaped nose and a shock of reddish hair. His mussed hairdo reminded me of the Scarecrow from that ancient kids’ movie. All he lacked was a straw hat.
“We won’t ever understand that,” Pasha confessed, opening a box with the model of some ancient vessel named SS Great Eastern. I don’t know why this five-funneled steamship was famous, but both soldiers had danced a shamanic dance over the kit’s box when it was delivered and were now planning on spending all evening assembling it. They had a generally unhealthy, in my view, obsession with various models of historical and speculative-historical machinery. Pasha’s room, for instance, was decked out with shelves full of all kinds of junk: From an ancient T-34 tank to a small Death Star. On the other hand, this hobby helped Pasha train his fine motor skills which were lacking following his accident.
“I don’t want you to understand, I want you to keep in mind,” Sloe explained patiently. “Don’t you care who it is that helps your friend reach the Hidden Forest?”
“Not one bit,” Pasha replied laconically, using a precision knife to separate the parts from the rest of the plastic cast. “The goal is the most important thing…Everything else doesn’t matter. Hah!” He triumphantly raised half of the hull and held it out to us like he had just dug up a nugget of gold.
“Excellent,” Sloe smiled with satisfaction. “I will coordinate the party and conduct the negotiations. Now, explain to me please exactly what you’re planning on doing. As I understood, we won’t be leveling up with Lori anymore, but we now have the opportunity to provide the Seventh with information about the renegades. I imagine we can use this to squeeze out something interesting.”
“You can decide this among yourselves. I’m curious to see what’s going on among the local villains. You can figure out how to use this information on your own. I’ll tell you everything I see without any problems.”
“What are your plans, Chip? Are you going to switch too or will you go on fighting on the side of good?” Sloe asked Pasha.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” the pilot replied vaguely, concentrating on some unruly piece of the model.
“Uh-huh,” Sasha backed him up, returning from the kitchen. “You can rest easy my fine friends—I have saved our dinner!” He sat down beside his friend, and arming himself with some pliers began to separate the tiny pieces of plastic.
“Good, evil…” the ranger smirked, “It’s all nonsense. As they used to say: What’s good for one is death to another. Like for instance, who decided that Bastilda or whatever her name is, is evil?”
“Astilba,” Sloe corrected him fastidiously. “Well it’s just an example. Anyway, why do you want to go to that location? The pirqs and biota won’t exactly welcome you—crossing the Arras will immediately give you a negative rep with them. The renegades won’t be happy to see you either. They’re like Nazis or whatever—they’re opposed to alliances with other races. And what are you going to do there at your Level 30?”
“See the sights, hear the sounds, smell the smells,” Sasha shrugged. “Maybe dig some holes…”
“Tourism, in other words,” Sloe concluded.
“I’m a tourist in general,” giggled the ranger. “Where haven’t I been! I’ve even gamboled on the surface of the moon! And all on the taxpayers’ dime.”
Sloe waved his hand grimly and turned to the most taciturn member of our party.
“Reed, do you have any plans?”
“Not in particular,” Reed shrugged his shoulders. “I’m reading the forums bit by bit, considering how I’ll make money and leveling up. Only…” He blushed deeply, coughed bashfully and with a little difficulty added: “I uh…I’m in a party. With Kate…I mean Brouhaha. We’re leveling up together.”
At the mention of Brouhaha, Pasha twitched a cheek, which led me to conclude that he hadn’t forgotten her insult. Like a little child, I swear…Sasha merely smiled to himself, and Sloe calculated something to himself and then looked over at Reed doubtfully.
“Once you leave the starting location, I’ll ask my people whether they need a bard for their party. All right, let’s get in touch later. I’m going to arrange the raiding party for crossing the Arras.”
“I’m going to return to the game too,” Reed announced, concluding our slightly muddled deliberations.
The burgers in the kitchen sure smelled good.
“Time to eat,” Snegov ordered, intercepting my look and sliding aside his tools. “Pasha, set the altar of sacrifice.”
To my amazement, the burgers tasted much better than the ones the autocook would make. The guys discoursed about man’s superiority over technology, while I couldn’t help contemplate a small paradox of life. All of my guy friends proudly claimed that cooking wasn’t a man’s job, but a woman’s—that they were humans, not kitchen appliances. And as a result it worked out that in the minds of most of my generation, cooking became an unworthy activity, a lowly one and entirely non-masculine. And here were two grown men, who had seen things that I hadn’t even seen in the movies, cooking their hearts out without for a second imagining that this was somehow to the detriment of their masculinity. To the contrary: What kind of a man would you be if, far from civilization, you died shamefully as a result of your own inability to provide food and shelter for yourself? You can’t argue with that. Eh, something strange and perverse is happening in our society if helplessness has become a synonym of civilization and progress.
“But really,” once I’d satiated my hunger, I returned to the topic of Barliona, “what are you really going to do in the Hidden Forest?”
Still munching on his burger with gusto, Sasha flashed me a sardonic look.
“You’ll laugh,” he said. “I just want to get out.”
“No, I get that part. But—how? Everyone you meet is going to try to kill you. The biota for crossing the border, the renegades for being an alien. Dying again and again seems to me a bit suspect as a form of entertainment.”
“They’ll have to find me first,” the ranger waved his hand. “I’ve got a good handle on camouflage and I’ve had a decent cloak made. Once we meet up with Pasha, we’ll figure out what to do next.”
“Are you asking me out?” The pilot formed a little gable with his recently-regrown eyebrows. Considering how the rest of him looked, the ensuing face was simultaneously comical and terrifying. “Oh you monster!”
“What of it?” the ranger spread his arms akimbo. “A romantic stroll through the woods. A bonfire of ents, a bouquet of biota skulls…”
“You don’t say,” Chip agreed. “You, Snegov, should be writing novels instead of wasting your time in the army. Novels about love among psychos.”
“You forgot a muff of pirq hide,” I couldn’t keep myself from contributing my own banter to this idyllic scenario.
“And you should be his coauthor,” Pasha chimed in. “A perfect partnership.”
In response, Sasha stuck out his tongue and shuffled closer to me, saying:
“Keep your jealous envy to yourself, you pirq muff. You better hope we won’t come skin your hide for its fleas! Right, Lori?”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Pasha squinted slyly.
“Like what?”
“Well…” The pilot propped himself up against his chair’s armrest with an expression of triumph on his face. “Your numb skull has forgotten how Lori likes to treat her allies!”
Sasha made a grimace of terror, stole a piece of the burger from my plate and jumped away, almost losing his balance and rolling out of the kitchen on his stool in the process.
“I rescind my offer!” he yelled, stuffing the stolen piece into his gob.
“Eh, where has my knight in shining armor gone?” I sighed with all the pathos I could summon. “All you men are alike! You only think about one thing—how to get some more grub!”
“Thass uss alright…” The ranger agreed through his stuffed mouth and spread his arms helplessly.
After dinner, Sasha went home. As we understood from his vague explanations—he had to get ready for a ‘romantic stroll through the Hidden Forest.’ Pasha and I chatted some more and then went to our rooms. He went to bed, and I entered Barliona. I wanted to go over the quest I’d received and see what it entailed.
I traveled the not-so-short distance to the location indicated on my map without any problems. The blighted beasts didn’t bother me and the mysterious sentries of the Hidden Forest didn’t enter blighted ground. The tall thickets of thorns and brambles, like the one that fenced the Sixth’s meadow, kept them from shadowing me. If this were all happening out in reality, the thick thorns would have long since tattered my leafy cloak to pieces, as well as my dark blue dress and thin fringe.
In general, these thickets were all over the place and they didn’t grow randomly as much as according to some sort of system. I tried my best to fill them in on my map, but I didn’t bother checking everything out either, so my ‘doodles’ looked a bit like the intestines of some mysterious animal. I don’t even want to imagine what I would be in this simile.
The difficulties began once I’d reached the border of the blighted ground. My path wound its way through, but there was an overgrown ent with a very unpleasant appearance standing in the fog. A Level 300 Forest Sentry. So there’s the catch in this seemingly simple, at first glance, quest. Go ahead and try to get past a guard like this.
“Okaaaay…” I remarked to myself, staring into the monster’s smoldering, red eyes.
I wonder whether he’s a sentient relative of the biota or something like a nature elemental.
“Greetings, my dear fellow!” I called as politely as I could from a respectful distance.
No reply. No reaction whatsoever. He kept staring at me from the edge of the blighted ground as before.
“I mean you no ill!” I reassured the creature without much enthusiasm. “I would simply like to pass on my way!”
Zero emotion. The dull log! Standing there, guarding the border. Hmm…why that’s an idea…
Knowing ahead of time that this idea was actually a dubious one, I got out my lute and played the Hendrix lick…
Machine gun
Tearing my body all apart
Machine gun
Tearing my body all apart…
Three magic missiles went flying at the wooden giant and one after the other slammed into the monster. Fail. The Forest Sentry shifted his weight with a displeased look, but there was no other discernible reaction. That’s what you call, ‘not even tickled.’
Right. Even if the sentry can step onto the blighted ground, it would take me two months to kill him, no less. If I can even hit them, given our level difference. This means I have to find another way. The tactic of moving in camouflage had worked earlier, maybe it’ll work now too?
I activated my natural camouflage and began creeping along the border. The sentry followed me with a stern look. Oh come on…Okay. What are my other options? I looked over the wooden colossus critically: He had short legs. This Pinocchio might not be much of a sprinter. In theory I could simply run away from the sentry, reach the location indicated on my map, toss out some seeds and then book it to the next patch. I wonder where I’ll respawn if things go awry? The Tree with its Branch of Oblivion was closed to me and according to the lore that was where we biota received our new bodies. Although, surely there was a mechanic for biota players to respawn in the wider world? In that case there should be a respawn point here too. The only question was how far it would be from my current position. I didn’t want to check, but my options were fairly scant.
Okay, what else do I have in my arsenal? Buffs won’t help, debuffs…Weakening spells wouldn’t do me any good and I didn’t have any slowing debuffs. Song of Confusion? A debuff to perception might allow me to creep by camouflaged, but I’m afraid that playing the lute will give away my location, and that spell was channeled—the target had to hear the music. It wouldn’t work.
Vengeful Flame. Here I had to pause for thought. In theory, this spell would allow me to kill the sentry even at my level. That is if he will maintain his distance and doesn’t have any ranged spells to take me out with first. He might throw some pine cone grenade or something, who knows. But even if things went perfectly according to plan, the spell would destroy us both. If I stop at 1% HP for the two of us and heal myself…Practice had just shown that it would take me hours to finish off the ent, and that wasn’t taking into account any regeneration that he was capable of, or self-healing etc. Meanwhile, Vengeful Flame’s cooldown was 24 hours. Nothing doing.
Therefore, the only useful spell was Shadow Haze. What’s the deal with its range and effect duration?

Shadow Haze: Target area is covered with a haze of impenetrable Shadow in which only creatures who have adopted Shadow can see. Even a divine gaze would have trouble piercing the haze of Shadow.
Negative effect: -40% to efficacy of divine magic.
Negative effect: Blocks all communication.
Effect duration: Until spell ends. This spell is channeled. Confusion or some other form of control over the character interrupts the spell. Casting time: Instant. Cost of performance: (Spell radius) MP per second. Maximum radius: (Intellect ÷ 4) meters.
Cooldown: 1 hour.

Hmm. Purely theoretically, I can cast the haze, dart in the direction I need and gain a decent head start before the sentry realizes what’s going on, leaves the area of effect and finds me again. The question is whether he uses sight to orient himself or some other sense. I wish I knew whether I had the mana pool and stamina to make this work. All right. My mana regeneration was 2 MP per second, which wasn’t great. Either way, I’d never know if I didn’t give it a shot.
For the lulz, I waved farewell at the sentry and returned to the thicket of black brambles where he couldn’t see me. It’s dumb to hope, but it’s dumber not to try—what if losing sight of me, the sentry will simply go about his business? I’ll study the pattern that Lotos gave me in the meantime, compare it to the lay of the land and visualize where I have to sow the seeds. It’s better than trying to figure all that out while on the run.
The Forest Sentry didn’t go anywhere. Either the jerk sensed that I’d be back or that was his typical post. For the sake of curiosity, I returned to the brambles where the sentry couldn’t see me and left the blighted ground at a tangent to the path I needed to take, skirting the watchful ent. It’s much easier to loop around the dangerous area than perform dubious experiments.
The first few minutes it seemed to me that I had tricked the system and that my ruse had worked. My minute of patting myself on the back was interrupted by the sentry’s thunderous footsteps. He was ponderously moving to intercept me, returning my intellectual benchmark to its previous position—average. Of course. The Forest Sentry had sensed a threat to his dominion, otherwise, what kind of sentry would he be? I didn’t much feel like checking what means of intercepting me he had at his disposal, and so as quickly as I could, I dashed for the area I was supposed to sow with the seeds. According to my guesstimates it was near a plant that resembled a giant gladiolus. The sentry added speed but was still moving much slower than me. The forest echoed with my triumphant laughter. That’s how we do it! First you have to catch me, you slow stump you!
And then the stump caught me. A tangle of roots burst from the earth, two of them coiling around my legs, binding them with the force of steel shackles. I went down and kissed the ground at full sprint, earning a ‘full kisser’ (as Sasha liked to say) worth of leaves and humus, which, unexpectedly, tasted pretty good! Still, I began spitting and sputtering reflexively and cast Shadow Haze. The world went gray but didn’t lose its definition, while the sentry slowed his pace and began looking around in confusion. So his sight is important to him after all. It’s too bad only that it isn’t vital. This driftwood was no dummy, and he continued to lumber in my direction where, in his educated guess, I should be fettered by the roots. And, damn it all, there was some logic to this.
I quickly tried to get up on my feet, fell down, sat up awkwardly, grabbed my lute and cast Song of Cleansing, really, really hoping that the roots wrapped around my legs were classified as a ‘negative magic effect.’ There was no result. And for good reason—there was no debuff to dispel. What to do? Scorch everything around me with Vengeful Flame? Or should I start casting magic missiles at the roots one at a time. My mana would evaporate in a moment…
The approaching sentry wasn’t helping my thought process. The ground beneath me kept shaking from each footfall. Damn, damn! I’ll try to destroy my fetters. I quickly selected a wooden noose wrapped around one leg and was about to blast it with a magic missile when I noticed that the root was subject to a coveted buff: ‘Magic Control.’
Song of Cleansing—on the root this time!
This freed my right leg, the root holding it slithering back under ground where it should’ve stayed all along. Now the other leg…
I jumped up and dashed away from the approaching guard. He had just reached the spot where I had been trapped. He tarried there without finding anything and again stomped his bark-covered paw. Once again roots burst from the ground, and again I faceplanted into the earth, but this time I managed to free myself much faster. Even if belatedly, but I recalled that I can spread my spells across several targets at once. It’s too bad only that I didn’t gain any more knowledge or mana in the process. The sentry turned his terrible face in the direction of my lute and thumped in my direction. I gave myself a knock on the head: If I only had a brain! I needed to use Canopy of Silence immediately!
I cast the canopy with the smallest radius possible—one meter—but I didn’t dare start running again. Another faceplant was guaranteed, the spell’s channeling would be interrupted, and the sound of the faceplant and its attendant jingling would clearly be heard by the monster. My mana wouldn’t hold out for too long, so I should use the time left to me to study my opponent and work out a sensible strategy.
I forced myself to calm my beating heart and walk carefully backwards, away from the Forest Sentry, playing my lute and maintaining the canopy. Damn, my hands were occupied and I couldn’t drink a mana potion or even some water!
The log had just now reached the site of my second fall. He stamped in place pensively and then began stomping, telegraphing the roots’ appearance. This time I stopped ahead of time and avoided faceplanting. Moreover, my brains finally woke up and began to analyze what was going on. Another Song of Cleansing made a deep hole in my mana reserves, so I had to dispel the canopy of silence and drink a mana potion.

Due to your racial trait, a minor mana potion restores 100 MP.

Drinking the potion doubles your mana regeneration for 10 seconds. Current mana regeneration: 4 MP per second.
Current mana: 293/760 MP.

Life goes on! It’s too bad only that my reserve of a dozen mana potions seemed a bit meager at the moment. On the other hand, I began to discern a pattern to the sentry’s actions. The roots were popping up only within 100 meters of the thumping log. They would pop up and if they missed their mark, they’d disappear again underground. And what if I tried jumping in place at the exact moment that the sentry stomped?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The next blow that shook the ground followed about ten seconds after the previous one. I didn’t try to run and merely waited for the log to lift its paw and then jumped as high as I could. I have to say that in meatspace, my jumps weren’t so impressive—here I flew up by a good one to two meters and watched with pleasure as the roots that erupted from the earth retreated empty-uh-handed.

Current mana: 133/760 MP.

A second potion of mana.

Current mana: 233/760 MP.

This time the Forest Sentry didn’t leave. He tossed his hoary head left and right, trying to hear the trespasser. I, in turn, tried my best not to make any noise. After ten seconds a new stomp came. A jump, the roots flailed in the air futilely and retreated underground. It looks like it takes ten seconds for his spell to cool down. The radius remained unchanged, about a hundred meters.

Current mana: 73/760 MP.

I drank seven potions in a row and looked sadly at the remaining three bottles. Finding a timer in my interface, I waited for the next ‘stomp,’ jumped and as soon as I landed, sprinted away from the sentry.

Current mana: 701/760 MP.

Never in my life have I run so fast. By the next appearance of the roots, I had managed to leave the haze’s AoE and cover a quarter of the distance left, when the timer reminded me that it was time to jump again. The roots popping from the ground didn’t get me, but they did indicate that the sentry’s spell range was close by: About five meters ahead of me, the vegetation was behaving itself as it should without any writhing roots to be seen. Without slowing down I ran for my yearned for gladiolus.

You are tired. Current stamina: 35/100.

Without breaking my stride, I whipped out my flask, sipped some water and happily read a notification about my fully-restored stamina and temporarily increased mana regeneration.

Current mana: 305/760 MP.

I was nearing the gladiolus, while my timer counted down until the next stomp. Two, one…Jump! And nothing. Landing, I looked around in midstride. The sentry far behind me was slowly trudging toward the border of the Shadow Haze, the presence of which had no effect on my own vision. It just looked like a portion of the forest landscape had been filmed in black and white. And in this monochrome scene, a solitary ent was slowly trudging to the land of Technicolor.

Current mana: 241/760 MP.

I only needed time to plant at least one seed before he gets out of there and my mana goes to zero and the haze is dispelled. As I approached my flower objective I slowed to a fast pace and opened my map. I need to head north a little and skirt that small hill…Uh-huh! Right there!

Current mana: 81/760 MP.

I couldn’t see the sentry for the hill and I hoped that stupid stump couldn’t see me either. My mana was almost out and I needed to save the remaining potions for an emergency. As for now, it was time to sow some seeds.
There was no explanation for the big and small dots in the pattern, but I figured that these designated the spots to sow the large and little seeds respectively. The earth shuddered beneath my feet, reminding me of the Forest Sentry’s implacable approach. I quickly took a large seed from my bag and examined it. It seeped black fog in my hand. How was I supposed to sow it? Simply stick it into the ground? Which way was up and which was down? And how deep did it have to be planted? The earth shuddered once more. The hell with the details! Taking out my dagger (I guess it turned out useful after all), I feverishly dug a shallow hole, stuck in the seed and covered it with the loose earth.

Quest updated: Help the Renegades. Step 2.
1 of 14 large seeds planted.
13 large seeds and 57 small ones remaining.
Achievement unlocked! ‘Grim Sower I’ (Sow 9 more Shadow Seeds to earn the next rank).
Achievement reward: +1% to Blight spread.

As I was about to run for the next waypoint, my old friend, the Forest Sentry, appeared from behind the hill. I still did not have much mana and there was a good hour left on Shadow Haze’s cooldown, so I had to act quickly and accurately. Wait for the root spell, jump into the air, reset the timer and keep running!
As the log caught sight of me, he roared triumphantly and raised a stumpy paw. I jumped as the roots erupted all around me.
Hang on. Not all around me!
The spot of earth immediately under me was growing black, the grass withering and sprouting thorns. As soon as I landed, the system greeted me with a welcome buff.

Blighted Strength: +50% to all stats. +1% HP for every minute spent on blighted ground.

A safe space! The large seeds blight the earth and create a refuge for me! It was too bad that the blight spread slower than the sentry’s approach. Something tells me that he won’t have to step onto the actual blighted ground in order to get at me with his big old paw. And this means I have to keep running. In theory, the problem isn’t a complicated one: Maintain a respectful distance, jump once every ten seconds and wait until the blight spreads and creates a refuge. At that point, ‘I’m back on base!’
In actual fact everything worked out differently. The sentry chased after me with all the grace of a galloping elephant, and I tore in a wide arc, dutifully hopping according to my timer. After the third seed, though, the sentry no longer ‘stomped’ to send the roots after me. He stopped, looked up at the sky and glowing emerald will o’ wisps began to circle his ample trunk.
A bad feeling rose in my gut and I took off as fast as I could for the slowly-spreading spot of blighted ground…I didn’t make it.
Whirling in a spiral, the swarm of fireflies beelined after me…

Damage taken. -230 HP.
 HP Remaining: 0/230.
Attention! Respawn Penalty: -30% XP.

The launch screen and a familiar notification:

 You have died. Enter Barliona again in 12 hours.

Sheer pedantry compelled me to open the battle log. I’m curious after all just how hard the stump had let me have it. What I saw was impressive: 100,000 damage from a spell with the telling name ‘Sylvyn’s Wrath.’ I expect it’ll take me another couple hundred levels to be able to survive that kind of attack. Like I give damn though. I was pleased with myself: Despite the sad conclusion of today’s adventure, I had found a way to complete this quest. Maybe not at my first attempt and maybe not even the second, but with practice I definitely would manage it. And that means that I’ll be able to reach the Arras and lead Sloe’s clan through it, then get my hands on all kinds of nice gear and have an easier time of this game. But that’s all later. Right now, I needed to sleep.

Chapter Three

I slept in right through the morning. I’d forgotten to set the alarm, the apartment was dead silent, and so I only woke up to a cautious knocking on my door around noon.
“Kiera…” The door cracked open and Pasha’s snout appeared in the opening. “Do you feel like having some breakfast?”
“Mmm?” I muttered and tore my head from the pillow. I glanced at my comm lying on the ottoman, made out the time and muttered something by way of confirmation. The door shut and the room turned into a mini-zombie-apocalypse complete with the awkward shuffling, incoherent mumbling and generally undead appearance of the main heroine. It was only once I’d come to in the shower that I mentally reproached myself. Some assistant I was, sleeping in until the patient had to call me to breakfast and not the other way around.
I made up for it by doing the daily cartridge swap. I had already mastered this procedure: Take out the empty cartridges, put them into the sterilizer, insert the new ones until they click and make sure that the regenerators are working. Pasha would blush and huff and puff like an ancient steam engine every time I performed this procedure. In order to distract from his clearly awkward thoughts, he began to rattle off his morning’s virtual adventures with an exaggerated bravado.
“After I respawned, I found myself back at the training ground,” he said, making an effort to look away from the sterilizer, which I was loading with used cartridges. “It’s all messed up in there, worse than you see in the post-apocalyptic horror flicks. That weird touch-me-not, the botanic Krampus was there. He jumped on me as soon as he saw me; almost pulled out my whiskers in his excitement.”
“Touch-who-what?” I inquired about yet another one of Pasha’s verbal pearls.
Used to this, he explained:
“Like a prude. You know, one of those who won’t abide any jokes in their direction and immediately adopt the pose of a Spanish cavalier ready for a duel. Old Eben in other words.”
“I’m afraid to ask how you came up with that one. And so what did this, uh, prude want from you?”
“Eh…He wanted to know what the hell happened at the training ground and who was responsible for the damage to state property at his secret facility. I explained to him in simple terms—I mean that piece of oak really has trouble understanding simple speech—what was what, so he grabbed me by the gills and dragged me to the local jail. I had to explain to him that you were really getting into your Mata Hari act and that I was like your tracer agent.”
“Tracer agent?”
“Come on, Kiera, you’ve been living with us how long?” Pasha seemed outraged by my lack of knowledge. “And you still haven’t mastered ordinary human speech! A tracer agent is like a messenger for other secret agents. That’s it…I’m putting Snegov on notice for his neglect of your military intelligence education. Although never mind…” Pasha caught himself, “we’re dealing with a ranger here. They’re too sensitive for punishment. Reproach them once and they’ll soil the slippers the same morning.”
“I think I can even guess whose,” I chortled. “So what about Eben? Did he give you some new quest? A medal perhaps? Tell me he gave you a cookie at least!”
“Yeah right. I’d have to wait till kingdom come before that cactus would offer me a baked good,” Pasha snorted and twitched a little as I inserted another cartridge and the alimentary liquid once again flowed through the regenerator’s tubes, growing the tissue. “He deigned to grant me four levels. And it wouldn’t be a big deal but that I went in there as a Level 9 druid so that now I guess I’ll have to be a druid forever. That’s all she wrote, the ship has sailed and we will all die now: You can’t change your class at Level 13. That herbarium cheapskate, mmm…yeah…He’s worse than my old master sergeant at the academy. In exchange, he heaped me with a ton of orders—not shy that one.” Pasha giggled: “He wants a breakdown of their resources and the location of the HQ and their future plans and he wants it all nice and chewed up like fodder for a chick’s beak…or for his roots…how do those plants eat anyway? But basically, he wants it all on a plate.”
“And half a kingdom as a reward, I hope?”
“If only…He’s just offering some magic junk from the local warehouses. I didn’t delve into the details, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you. These penny pinchers are watching every tax copper. So it’s good if they don’t punish us, and the whole reward thing is a different matter altogether.”
“What are we going to do then? I’ve already marked the camp on the map, but I don’t know anything about their plans yet. And what if Eben & Co. decide to act all of a sudden? I still haven’t learned the renegades’ history.”
“Dang, Kiera!” Pasha howled like a hero of Greek tragedy and grabbed onto his head for dramatic effect. “I keep teaching you and teaching you…We’re going to inflate our valuation on our own. You’ll feed some info to that damn root and he’ll give you some trifles in exchange and heap praise and titles on you, after which everyone will set out to do battle against the rebel barons. Just make sure to plug up their throats: Our whiskers are our own and we won’t be led about by them. So we draw out the fun, hike the payoff amount and when we reach the maximum, we’ll deliver the goods. In the meantime, make sure to avoid taking any initiative that may affect our family budget.”
“Already family?” I asked, surprised by such a turn.
“Uh what? Are interracial marriages banned in there? Discrimination,” Pasha sighed. “But all right, in that case we’ll call it the company budget—which is even more important.”
“And how are we going to increase our valuation as you say?” I asked just in case. “Relay news from the field like, ‘I’ve died once again in an attempt to infiltrate the citadel of evil?’”
“Leave that to me,” Pasha said soulfully, pressing his hand to his heart. “An old warrior is a wise warrior. When it comes to telling tall tales, only our long-nosed friend could outdo me. I promise you: You’re going to be number one in the botanic spy rankings by the end of the week. They’ll even present you with a gilded spike.”
“Why a spike?” I asked, baffled.
“So you can poke a hole again after they kiss your butt closed,” Pasha explained.
“The poet in you has died,” I replied to such a lyrical turn of phrase. I was even envious.
“Well I’m an old soldier and I don’t know anything about words of love…” Pasha sighed pitifully and added: “And yet I know many other shorter but very effective words! This old lieutenant colonel will make a human of you yet!”
“Listen, maybe you should give it up? The army, I mean. You could be our band’s manager. With your cunning, we’ll be touring the world within a month.”
“No, no, no!” Pasha shook his head, frightened. “It’s me who’s going to end up doing a tour—in prison for murder. Or at the cemetery from a heart attack: Edilberto alone is worth a squad of greenhorns, and that’s not mentioning the hordes of civilians at your concerts!”
“Well, you’ve torn out my career at its root,” I feigned sorrow. “Actually, about careers. What are we going to do with your character? You was going to be a warrior. How is a pirq going to play as a caster?”
“I imagine I’ll get by one way or another,” Pasha shrugged.
I really had found my way into odd company. Pasha didn’t care about his character’s future, Sasha only ever repeated that it was just a game, and I had borked my own character for the sake of a plot twist. When Pasha climbs into his capsule, he groans like a centenarian, but when Sasha offered him the box with the steamship, he hopped up and down like a 10-year-old and almost sent his regenerators flying to the floor.
“Honestly, this whole thing is kind of whatever to me,” Pasha went on in the meantime. “When I get better, ain’t no one ever going to see me in that Barliona again. Oh, by the way! You were asleep! Listen up: We’ve hatched a sly and artful plan!” Propping himself up on one arm, Pasha lowered his voice conspiratorially.
“‘We’ as in you and the biota, you and Snegov—or you and your schizophrenia?” I asked suspiciously.
“Well, persons two and three in your list are actually just the same individual,” the pilot corrected me. “My plan with the biota isn’t artful, it’s merely racy—more so than OG Kush. Anyway, they’re going to remove that thing from my jaw today and then tomorrow we can go and do a barbecue! What do you say?” He gave me a look like he’d just gotten tickets to Iron Maiden undead at the Albert Hall.
“I’m up for anything, apart from a hunger strike. I’ll have to reschedule band practice with the guys though and wrap up some business in Barliona. Ideally, I’d like to reach the Arras, so don’t wait for me too long. I imagine I’ll be eating dinner inside the capsule tonight.”

I respawned close to the renegades’ camp, in the center of a circle of mossy boulders. It wasn’t exactly Stonehenge, but it looked solid all the same. I wonder how the game lore justifies being respawned in this spot. And whether any of the NPCs know it…Then again, now isn’t the time for idle curiosity. I have a lot of work ahead of me.
First I need to increase the time I can channel the Shadow Haze. Should I invest some points into Intellect? Then I’d be able to increase the AoE of the haze and get a big leg-up. It’s too bad but it looks like I won’t be able to avoid doing this. I’ll invest a few unallocated stat points before my next attempt and try to grind Intellect in the meantime. First I’ll heal myself until my mana’s gone, then take a sip from the flask, a small yet welcome increase in my mana regen, after that more healing and so on and so forth.
Mana potions are vital too. I had the alchemist trait and even a small collections of herbs, but those would be but a drop in the old mana pool. I hadn’t seen any chemists around here and, anyway, most of my cash was in the bank. I’ll have to ask Chip to pick up some potions for me. The important thing is to choose some place that won’t be too difficult to rendezvous at.
This is where the difficulties began: The renegades were obviously trying to blight the entire forest and I didn’t know the areas already blighted and more importantly the paths connecting them. Should Chip and I simply beeline for one another, or should we check out the renegades’ territory? I’d guess the second. I have to know where I can move safely.
The next item on the day’s agenda was traits. I spent a long time ruminating why unlike that Mahan, I didn’t get any of those shadow spells I’d seen in the videos. Every class in that quest got new skills and powers, but not me. And, I believe, I stumbled on the answer. I could simply learn whatever powers I wanted from the renegades’ classes. And in that case I should figure out what I can spend my training points on as well as what I’ll need for my upcoming battle to sow those seeds. In other words, the time had come to chat up some folks.
I didn’t have many acquaintances in the camp: Vex, Palisandro the quartermaster and the not-so-friendly legates, centurions and all those other velites. I didn’t bother adding Geranika or the Sixth to this list for obvious reasons. Those two weren’t about to teach me for nothing. Heck, I couldn’t even have much of a conversation with them. Although…Aren’t I on good terms with the Sixth now or something? Should I try my luck? And yet how exactly is a necromancer going to help me kite the Forest Sentry? Either way, I should talk to her last. Vex, on the other hand, was someone who could surely help my cause with some sensible advice.
As it turned out, I wasn’t destined to talk to Vex just then. As soon as one of the armored pirqs saw me, he waved an enormous paw.
“Lorelei!” he barked so bombastically that I jumped in place. “Astilba wishes to see you!”
“W-why?” I was so stunned by the bellowing of my name, I even got the hiccups. Had this been meatspace, I would’ve outrun my own squeal.
“The details of the matter aren’t my concern. My orders are to deliver the Sixth’s summons and bring you to her.”
It all sounded so emphatic that I didn’t even bother arguing. My only connection to the Sixth aside from our mutual faction was the Cypro songbook quest. It’s reasonable to assume that I was about to discover the next episode in this chain.
We headed for the familiar meadow but contrary to my expectations, I didn’t find Astilba sitting on her throne. In fact she wasn’t around at all. The pirq didn’t seem bothered. He stomped confidently past the giant wolves following us with their eyes and approached the spot where the roots webbed together. He had barely entered the dusk cast by the immense tree’s shadow when I finally noticed that which lay hidden from the prying eyes of anyone straying into the camp’s closed area. An entrance to a dungeon stood darkly within the tree’s roots, cloaked with a shimmering film. A dungeon! The very one that our dear Otolaryngologist and his buddies were looking for, and the same one Sloe wanted to find. Yeah. Given the renegades’ level, none of the above would be finding this dungeon any time soon. I think Chip was having his effect on me because my next thought was to sell the location’s coordinates. Not now, of course, but once the scenario was done. I wonder how much I could get for this info…?
As soon as I stepped through a barely glowing area of the meadow, a system notification appeared before me:

Message for the player! A new dungeon has been discovered: Headquarters of the Renegades of the Hidden Forest. +50% chance an enemy drops a valuable item. +20% XP earned.

Yup. Really valuable information. Hell, I could turn this entire place, the Sixth and all, into a loot-rich source of XP mixed with compost. As for unlocking new areas, that was as useful to me as a saddle on a cow.
My contemplation of the meta ended barely having begun. No sooner had we entered the dark passageway, which smelled of humid earth and withered leaves, than we found ourselves in a curious facility. A system of tunnels running among several spacious halls was built into the tree’s roots. The floor, the walls, if these terms still applied here, were covered with barely glowing moss which created a mysterious gloom and lightened the otherwise grim ambience. Here and there hung clumps of some kind of blighted plant. I could swear that when I passed, some part of them moved.
We went through about seven halls but I only managed to glance into one and even then briefly. I saw an imposing biota in beautiful, intricately-ornamented, wooden armor explaining something to a ginger, furry pirq. I recalled both the pirq and the biota from my vision of the Schism. This was the Second—the eldest warrior of the biota—and one of the pirq chiefs that I was seeing with my own two eyes. Does this mean that these boys were going to be the bosses in this dungeon? And so Astilba too? The thought alone made me feel a bit queasy. This means that the scenario’s outcome was predetermined and the renegades would become XP fodder for the players coming from Kartoss. Shall good triumph or shall evil conquer? Who cares? The game was all that mattered. It would be an ignominious end to an interesting story.
As I reflected on all this, we reached the end of our brief journey. I would call this place a laboratory, even though there weren’t any workbenches with alembics, vials, crucibles and all that other fluff that typically decked out labs in the movies. In exchange, there was one very ominous-looking altar and shimmering pentagrams etched into the very even and for some reason stone floor. There were hexagrams too and a couple other-grams. The Level 400 demon standing in the center of one of these etchings did not seem like an ornament that the Sixth had chosen for her interior. And indeed Astilba herself looked different from last time: Her traditional biota dress of flower petals, as well as her vermillion mantle, were decorated with various characters. A small scabbard hung from a belt fashioned of the same petals and a necklace of a dozen softly glowing stones was clasped around Astilba’s neck. It all looked like items from the ‘Dream of the Necromancer Set,’ no less.
“I have no answer to your question,” the demon standing on the other side of the magical barrier growled to Astilba. “That which you wish for is impossible!”
“You err,” the Sixth replied in a deceptively soft voice—an indomitable flame blazing in her eyes. In one deft flick she whipped out a strange looking knife, squatted down smoothly and with one swipe etched a new line, changing the image. The glowing lines flared up for a moment then faded and the demon vanished in a puff of red smoke.
“Greetings, oh Sixth,” the pirq escorting me bowed reverently and I hurried to follow him. This NPC gave me the shivers. I don’t know who programs the game imitators—or how—but they definitely know what they’re doing. A single glance at Astilba was enough for me to sense her presence with my own skin: Hers was not the kindest vibe, but it was definitely vivid.
The Sixth straightened out, put the dagger away, raised her head and fixed me with a dour, trying look.
“Thank you, Borofos. Leave us now.”
Without a trace of obsequy, the pirq bowed his head and retired, leaving me one on one with the local dungeon boss.
“Lorelei,” Astilba said with an odd intonation, either greeting me in this manner or acknowledging the fact of my existence. I glimpsed at the level of my Attractiveness with this NPC: 32 points and that was taking into account both the quest I completed for her and my Charisma. Not bad at all. In any case, she wasn’t about to sacrifice me.
“Sixth,” I replied unable to think of anything better and bowed in response.
The necromancer approached the altar and picked up a scroll lying there. A very familiar scroll. Cypro’s legendary songbook.
“You are very young, Lorelei,” Astilba went on. “And yet you managed not only to decipher my old friend’s songbook but master the spell that it contained. The question, however, is—will you manage to use your music to summon a soul from the Gray Lands?”
“I think I could.” I didn’t bother offering anything further because I hadn’t even tried using my newly-learned spell yet. Who knows, maybe there’s a snag there, some secret requirement? “However, my poor lute is too crude and common to perform such a summons.”
“I shall procure for you a worthy instrument,” the Sixth promised, “but I need you to summon the soul in my presence. Bardic magic is compatible with other forms of conjuring, and yet I was unable to understand the structure of this spell on my own. The best I can do is observe the channeling of power, study the magic that you wield and then recreate the same incantation in a spell of my own. As a reward, I’ll teach you one of my spells. Are you willing to help me, Lorelei?”

Quest available: Summons from the Gray Lands.
Description: Astilba wants you to summon a soul from the Gray Lands in her presence. Quest type: Unique, class-based. Reward for completion: +1,000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest, +15,000 XP, and one of Astilba’s spells. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -1,000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest, -30 Attractiveness with Astilba.

There wasn’t anything to consider really.
“Of course, oh Sixth, I will be happy to help you.”
The necromancer nodded as if my answer had never been in doubt.
“Excellent. Let’s move on to the instrument now. Our camp lacks a suitable luthier and purchasing it through our brothers who remained on the Tree would take some time. But it just so happens, that I have held onto an instrument for an old friend. If you manage to get the eid to produce a sound, we won’t have to await a delivery from master Pirus’ store.”

Quest available: Taming the Eid.
Description: Make the eid—one of Cypro’s legendary instruments—produce a sound. Quest type: Unique, class-based. Reward for completion: Hidden. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: None.

Everything seemed to be working out suspiciously well. That’s a hell of a reward for casting a single spell, and it comes with the opportunity to play a legendary instrument that used to belong to the oldest bard of the Hidden Forest…And what’s the difficulty? What’s this taming deal? The eid isn’t some bull or mustang to need taming. More than likely it’s some exotic hurdy-gurdy that takes ‘a few drinks to figure out’ as Beast liked to say about any instrument that had more (or, for that matter less) than his four string Ibanez. All right. In any case, I won’t risk anything if I fail this quest.
“I have never seen an eid, but I can try to…uh…tame him.”
The Sixth hummed to herself for some reason but didn’t say anything more. She gestured me to wait and left the hall. I fought my desire to touch the altar, walk around the etched symbols and stick my curious nose in all the nooks and crannies. This isn’t meatspace of course, where (were it even possible) poking around the palaces of power would end in tears, yet still, I didn’t feel like risking Astilba’s good graces. Who likes having a guest wander around rummaging in their cupboards when they’re out of the room? As a result, all I could do was look around, recording everything on my camera.
I didn’t have to wait long. The Sixth returned with a large vegetable cocoon in her hands. Not a bad case for this eid, it catches the eye. All that remained was to figure out what the eid actually was. Astilba dispensed with any further drama and suspense. The necromancer recited a spell, touched the cocoon with her hand and it opened, revealing its contents.
It’s not like my knowledge of acoustic instruments was exhaustive, but it was ample enough to understand that if this thing can produce music, then it’s entirely due to magic. A body of leaves without the slightest hint of a sound hole, the fretboard’s heel growing right out of the body, a smallish growth where the bridge is supposed to be and as for the strings themselves…they were neither steel nor nylon and not even the sinew of some legendary dragon. More than anything else, they reminded me of the whiskers of some coiling plant, stretched taut. The pegs were made from pine (or perhaps cyprus, I’m not much for wood) cones.
Mmm…yeah….It’s not much of a surprise that not just anyone can play this strange invention of the devs. I too feel a bit at a loss. But okay. There are plenty of players who run around this place armed with swords that are larger than they are—why can’t I jam out on some botanical Stratocaster. What’s so complicated about it? Pick it up and play—that’s the extent of it. Thinking such happy thoughts I picked up the instrument.

You meet a hidden requirement of this quest: Master of String Instruments.

Please confirm that you wish to enter the ‘Intermundis’ location.

What’s this Intermundis place?

Chapter Four

The first thought I had upon entering the new location was that there had been some glitch in the game. I was surrounded by a white blaze that roiled in constant motion. A milky ether whirled and tumbled all around me, triggering nausea and dizziness. Thankfully the game’s interface remained motionless, a single island of clarity and regularity in the constantly changing world around me. I shut my eyes and breathed in and out several times. I felt a little better. My nausea ebbed and I regained the ability to think a bit.
And so. I am in some kind of quest-based location. A strange location. What I can do here aside from throwing up what I’d eaten wasn’t clear. But logic suggested that since this quest was connected with the eid, who remained in my arms, then I should focus on the instrument. After all, I still need to learn to play it. So what does it matter where I do this—in the forest or in this vomit comet.
I was forced to open my eyes after all: It’s very difficult to play an instrument you’re unfamiliar with without being able to see it. I tried to look only at the eid, ignoring the white vortex, and gradually I ceased to notice it entirely. A close examination of the instrument did not enlighten me about the bridling procedure. What am I supposed to tame here, when I’m holding what amounts to the weirdest guitar in the world. Recalling a phrase from an ancient joke—‘there’s no time to think, you have to jump!’—I placed the fingers of my left hand on the fretboard and strummed the strings with my right, fretting several chords. The eid produced a strikingly deep and clear sound and out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the white vortex twitch.
I halted my experiments and, taking ahold of myself, looked at where I had seen the odd motion. Alas everything remained as before: a dizzying vertigo. I concentrated once more on the eid and promised myself that I would hold off from enjoying the local landscape. I’d be happy to rip off the hands of the jerk that thought up this Intermundis—right down to his knees. Perhaps someone wasn’t well after an intense drinking binge and decided to recreate his feelings in VR. Fifty shades of nausea, or something like that.
I brainstormed a dozen or so stinging epithets for the dev in question and, having blown off some steam, turned back to the eid. On the whole, the problem wasn’t such a complicated one. The fretboard was a bit too long and there were twelve strings like a concert guitar, but nothing radically new. A little practice and my fingers were soon finding the right frets. So what’s the taming part all about?
If Master of String Instruments was a hidden requirement, then I suppose I have to do better than finger some chords and play a cogent piece too. I didn’t attempt anything fancy and decided to try one of the fantasy songs I had learned especially for the gaming audience, one composed by some musician larpers. Their oeuvre was all over the web but I downloaded several greatest hits albums in this genre and chose the songs that would sound best on lute.
I liked this song. It had that special, elusive magic which took its listener to the nonexistent world of fairy tales. Perhaps a sad one, but beautiful and magical. In addition to this, the very name of this place, Intermundis, forced me to recall a song about the intersection of worlds.
The beautiful ballad of love and separation, of traveling between worlds, was captivating. Every musician tries the song on himself, for a short time living as the protagonist, living the song, believing in it. You can’t instill true passion or sincere feelings into your performance without this. If you don’t believe in what you’re singing, the listener won’t believe it either. So I too transformed into a wandering minstrel, suffering from the many separations in his life.
The last chords sounded, I lowered my trembling hand and inhaled the fresh forest air, tinged with a hint of smoke. Some people really know how to compose…To invest an entire world and an entire destiny into four couplets…
The epiphany came with a bright flash. A forest? Smoke? I looked up from the eid and around in astonishment. The milky white nauseating ether was gone. I was surrounded by a warm, summer night; a full moon filled the meadow with a silvery light and the fading embers of a bonfire pulsed at my feet.
Where had all this come from? How?
“Beautiful…” said a voice behind my back blissfully.
I jumped from surprise and managed to turn while in midair in violation of all the laws of physics, which I guess isn’t surprising considering how they’d just been violated anyway. Before me stood a knight decked in heavy plate armor which glowed dimly in the moonlight. A long white cape draped over the stranger’s shoulders revealed a sword in its scabbard and a shield’s rim peeking from his back. His helm’s beaver was down, covering the knight’s face.
“Who are you?” I blurted out, a bit shocked at what was going on.
“Me?” The knight seemed surprised at my question. “I am Eid. Or rather, I am the spirit of the eid.”
I suppose my astonished expression led him to the conclusion that I was a bit dumb because the knight pointed at the instrument in my hands.
“The great master craftsmen channel a part of their souls into their best works,” the knight explained languidly, clearly relishing the chance to chat. “Thus, I am a part of my luthier’s soul in addition to my own unique soul—and still the largest part of me is determined by the musician who makes me sing. My nature is transitory and I change in order to better represent whatever image the bard expresses through me with her music. Today you have created me in this form. I find it pleasing. Both myself and this place. It is beautiful.”
I shook my head, crudely trying to clear my thoughts. It didn’t work very well. I remembered only that I was in a game where anything was possible and that helped me calm down. I had merely found my way into a unique scenario—and it looks like I’m making progress. Here’s that Eid. I need to tame him. Only, he doesn’t look untamed. He is calm, courteous and quite pleased with life.
For curiosity’s sake, I tried to look at the soul’s attributes.

Eid. Attributes hidden.

Who could’ve guessed?
“This place,” I asked. “Where did he come from?”
“You don’t know?”
The knight seemed surprised yet again, and so sincerely that I involuntarily felt like a student who had forgotten the answer to two plus two.
“This is the Intermundis. The place between worlds, if that helps you understand. There are many worlds and planes, which exist side by side without intersecting. The space between them is called the Intermundis. Although, this is more of a state of being than a place. A potential. An unrealized idea, containing all possibilities within itself. Through your music, you have temporarily given structure to a part of the Intermundis. You have in effect selected one of its possible forms and brought it to life through your power. You don’t have much of it, so this place will soon vanish. But there were beings in the past who had the power to create entire worlds. You call them gods.”
I took a fresh look at the world around me. The song had barely described it, but I could see the familiar characteristics: The oaks rustling in the breeze, the black shadows of birds flitting in the moonlight, the four roads leading in the cardinal directions. Even Eid’s cape bore a Templar cross. Neither blind fate nor death was anywhere to be seen, but perhaps the song wasn’t recreated literally?
“Why am I here then?” I had many questions, but this one seemed the most relevant. “To meet you?”
“Among other things,” the ghostly head nodded its heavy helm. “But above all you are here for your trial.”
“Trial of what?”
“Your ability to summon the requisite soul from the Gray Lands—without letting the others out.”
I hiked my eyebrows, giving my face a shocked-idiotic expression. This seemed enough to apprise Eid about my knowledge in this area.
“Come with me. You have already created a suitable road. Along the way I will tell you about what happens to Barliona’s creatures after they die.”
I didn’t say no to this and we set out along one of the roads that wound its way into the oaks’ dense shadows.
“Every creature,” Eid began, “essentially consists of three parts. The body, the spirit and the soul.”
“What’s the difference between the spirit and the soul?” I interrupted.
“The soul is your bodiless essence. It is something akin to your unconscious and conscious memory of the world and at the same time, the world’s memory of you. Your spirit, or your ‘vitus,’ as it is called, is that which generates your vital force or vitality. It’s a bit like an animal spirit. The vitus fills your body with life, allows it to breathe, move and perform various actions without your input. More importantly, the vitus does so by generating vitality. Thus it is your vitus that regenerates your health and magic. In most languages, the concepts of soul and spirit have blended, becoming synonymous, so for the sake of clarity, I will simply refer to the spirit as the vitus. It is the vitus that allows living creatures to derive energy from the world through alimentation and a series of other less obvious actions. This makes creatures that are full of vitality desirable prey for those who lack vitus or whose vitus is distorted. Vampires and the majority of the undead are the examples here.”
As I listened to Eid, I contemplated the ensuing conception of Barliona’s world. No doubt all of this is self-evident to some necromancer that spends his time manipulating souls, vituses and other non-material forms of being, but for me it was entirely new.
“I, for example,” Eid went on in the meantime, “have a soul and a body incarnate, but I have no vitus. Thus my body generates no vitality. Some animals have a body and have a vitus but lack a soul. Non-sentient zombies have a body and a perverted vitus but lack a soul. Sentient zombies have a soul and a body but their vitus is absent or perverted. The overwhelming majority of beings are triune. Death violates this unity. Stripped of its vitus, the body ossifies and dies. When that happens, the soul sets off for the Gray Lands, where Erebus calls it to itself. If a soul lacks the strength to resist the call—it will eventually make its way to the gates of Erebus where Chaos will consume it.”
We came around a bend in the road and discovered that the road ended. In the most literal sense possible. The concrete, pleasant world ended like an etching that had been ripped out of a book. The milky haze moiled beyond the precipice, gradating into a gray fog towards the horizon. The gust of wind that struck our backs tore off onwards, reached the fog and scattered it momentarily, and I beheld countless streams of ashen shades plodding along thousands upon thousands of cobblestone paths. No doubt the magical nature of the place, or perhaps Eid’s assistance, allowed me to perfectly make out the tiny figures at this great distance.
Several seconds passed and the leaden fog and the milky haze refilled the vista.
“That is Erebus, the border region of the Gray Lands. Never approach it. You risk losing your vitus.”
Hm. Aren’t I player? What could happen to me? Character deletion? Or would my race change to ‘zombie’ or ‘bodiless spirit?’
My companion touched my shoulder and nodded in the other direction, suggesting we return. I had expected something special from his touch, but it turned out entirely ordinary. Neither goosebumps nor shaking in my knees—a simple touch. I was even a little miffed.
Casting a farewell glance at where the milky haze had occluded Erebus, I followed after Eid.
“In the absence of a vitus, the soul grows weak and begins to evaporate, vanishing forever,” he went on. “But there are others as well. Souls that have been preserved in the memories of the living. The more frequently that the living remember them, the more vivid the emotions that come with the recollections, the more energy the souls receive in the Gray Lands. Some barely have enough to resist the call and delay their last journey to the gates of Erebus. But others accumulate quite a bit of power. And all of them want to return. Not for long, but return all the same.”
He fell silent and I suddenly began to consider what had happened to the instrument’s soul while he was gathering dust in Astilba’s coffers. Was he in the Gray Lands? Did he languish in the Intermundis? Or was he dispersed and unconscious? I’ll have to make sure to ask him about it.
 “Through their songs, bards preserve the memory of the souls,” Eid began again. “Frequently, this is the strongest memory there is. Songs of heroic deeds and passionate love are sung for centuries. Thousands upon thousands of the living preserve the memories through songs. A famous song can become a substantial and direct path between the Gray Lands and the world of the living. I was created by my luthier in order to help one bard summon such souls. And I know the perils that lie along the way well. Rare is a hero’s feat that doesn’t involve some villain. And as a result, the songs also involuntarily preserve the memories of great villains, traitors and scoundrels. They too are nourished by the memories of the living, they too seek to see the world again and the bard’s songs pave their way for them.”
Listening to this, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the inventiveness of the game designers. They had arranged things quite neatly. This lore worked well with the natural human tendency to preserve the memories of their ancestors, as well as be remembered in song and thus leave a trace in history. This was just the souls’ desire to survive death. Yet the thought that I could summon some villain of yore instead of the hero I needed, worried me.
“And how does one avoid this outcome?” I asked.
“There are several ways, but at the moment you have access to only two of them. The first is to perform or compose songs which mention the villain as little as possible. Songs that mention no names and only a general outline, as a rule, leave the villain out of people’s memory.”
“And the second?”
“You can return from the Gray Lands and therefore can go there on your own and bring back the soul you need to the world of the living. With time you will learn how to properly direct energy at the Mindful, those who remember. You will learn to close the way to evil but this knowledge won’t come right away.”
Should I go to the Gray Lands and retrieve a soul? It’d be cool to roleplay Orpheus, who went down to Hades to retrieve Eurydice. But how does this work in the game? Do I have to die for each summons? Doesn’t sound very enticing.
In the course of our conversation we reached the place we had first met. With the steel toe of his boot, Eid nudged the ash, uncovering the glowing embers in the fire pit, and sending scarlet flashes coursing along his armor. The knight raised his helm’s beaver and I saw the same milky white haze where his face was supposed to be. The sight forced me to start and Eid, noticing my reaction, spread his arms akimbo.
“When you sang your song, you didn’t imagine my face. My corporeality is an expression of your will and fantasy. Just as pretty much everything that you see around us. The Intermundis is infinite possibility, an idea awaiting embodiment.”
I now saw the white haze, the constituent matter of this place, differently. If I recall my physics correctly, sunlight contains all the colors. A potential rainbow as long as you know how to select the colors of the world. An infinity of possibilities…I couldn’t help but recall the classic series of novels by Roger Zelazny. The will that created a world from the magical primordial soup. That or tiny fragments of various worlds, ephemeral day flies when compared to real worlds. I’d be ready to give quite a bit for such an experience, even if it was only in-game. I mean, this was awesome after all! A form of creation that literally and immediately changed the world!
An impatient excitement flared to life inside of me, calling me to start experimenting with this unique opportunity. Who knows whether I’ll ever be able to find my way back to this wondrous place?
Glancing at the white haze moiling in the knight’s beaver, I touched the eid’s strings without any further doubts. I’m sure there are other ways to create here, but I like the idea of creating a world through music too much to try anything else.

His eyes are subterranean lakes,
Abandoned, royal chambers…

Lev Gumilyov’s immortal verses, depicting a portrait of a man, caused the white haze within Eid’s helm to transform into a handsome, proud and somewhat melancholy male face. Hazel, almost black eyes, a light satin skin, lips pressed in a smile. He was a bit too cute for my taste, but this was entirely lost in the euphoria that filled me from the very fact of creation. I had created him! Who knows why, but I had done it!
“Thank you. This is a little more comfortable,” Eid bowed picturesquely, removed his helm and scratched his neck. “I’ve been dreaming of doing that forever, but uh, well I didn’t have a nape before,” he explained in reply to my inquiring glance. “A nape is a pretty rare occurrence in this world.”
“Pudding—Alice: Alice—Pudding,” I quoted another classic.
“What?” Eid echoed, surprised.
“Nothing, I’m just babbling,” I shrugged, considering what else I should create.
All sorts of nonsense was popping into my head and I couldn’t help recall the alien rabbit from the ancient cartoon. He created a materializing cream and sold it to people, but they only had enough imagination to use it to create watermelons.
The Intermundis reminded me of the White Book. A hefty, leather-bound volume issued on art paper and containing not a single letter. A tiny mirror occupied the spot where the author’s name was supposed to go and all of the pages were virgin blank. SNOW press, which published this book, had preceded the release with a large-scale ad campaign in which it advertised the countless number of stories that could occupy the White Book’s pages. Every reader could read something entirely original and unbelievable. The book immediately became extremely fashionable, taking up its position on the shelves of collectors. Several hundred people discovered their talents for writing, but the overwhelming majority saw only blank pages, in the best cases, scrawled with the expletives that one may typically find on fences and the walls of underpasses.
“Tell me,” I turned to Eid, who had remained watching me, “since the Intermundis is like a connective tissue between worlds, then can I use it to reach any world I wish?”
“In theory, yes,” the knight replied after a little hesitation. “But you can’t reach all of them. Some of these worlds are inaccessible to the living—and others to the dead. Many of the worlds are guarded by guards. Besides, as soon as you pave your way to some world, its inhabitants will be able to use it to get out. And not all of them are friendly.”
This tidbit forced me to think some more. At my newbie level, any encounter with aggressive monsters would end predictably—with my premature demise. I should consider that in that case I would die and have to leave the gameworld for twelve hours. As a result, I would fail the quest. Then again how important is this quest? Especially since I still don’t understand what exactly it entails. If I can’t play Eid, I’ll wait until I get a rare instrument from Pirus and then continue the Sixth’s quest. But here…Here I can experience what it’s like to be the Creator!
“Tell me,” I decided to iron out the details right away. “What will happen to me if I die upon meeting one of these creatures?”
“Like everyone else, you will go to the Gray Lands and then be reborn in Barliona.”
“Will I be able to reach the Intermundis again?”
“Maybe one day you will find a way. I don’t know this.”
I gathered from Eid’s vague reply that I wouldn’t get a second chance in this quest, but that I could still theoretically find another way here. And yet it wasn’t a given that I would ever succeed. And in that case—I might as well burn it all to the ground!
As soon as I made my decision, I felt a lot better. It was as if I had sprouted wings on my back. I cracked my fingers and shifted the eid in my hands.
“Well then, how would you like to take a stroll through some worlds?” I asked the instrument’s soul incarnate.
“Do you realize how dangerous and reckless it could be?” the knight inquired, yet I thought I saw his eyes flash for a moment.
“And do you realize that you’re getting the chance to relax and adventure a bit in…FSM knows how many years?” I replied to his question with my own.
Eid hummed vaguely but didn’t offer any further objections.
The road leading to Erebus did not appeal to me. And it wasn’t even the risk of losing my enigmatic vitus. A grim and dour place. What’s to catch there? Three more roads were left, so without hesitating I set out along the next one before me. I wonder where it’ll lead me.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. After several bends and turns, we reached the edge of our miniscule world. The white haze and its limits faded before me, illuminated by scarlet flashes from somewhere below. To see their source, I had to approach the very edge and look down, but here an irrational terror enveloped me. My imagination rendered a dizzying height, a long, plummeting flight and a painful stop below. The thought that this was just a game didn’t do anything for me. I’d rather climb into the maw of a terrible monster than fall. The first at least resembles reality.
Gathering my wits, I forced myself to approach the edge and squatted down. As Eid looked on mockingly I carefully crawled up to it on my knees. Far, far away, at the very edge of the visible, I could make out a darkness cracking with fire-red thunderbolts. The sight reminded me of a video of volcanic eruption at night—a grim and terrifying beauty.

The Fire of Tartarus burns not for mortal sight.
None of the Dark Gods wish to protect you!
You have been damned for your temerity!

A debuff called ‘Curse of Tartarus’ appeared in the corner of my vision. +100% vulnerability to dark magic. How lovely. I wonder whether the curse will expire when I leave the Intermundis or die? Or will my character carry it forever?
One way or another, I hadn’t any desire to receive a tourist visa to Tartarus. I don’t think I was much welcome there. At least I don’t have to go on sitting at the edge of this cliff! As I backtracked carefully, I happened to glance upward. A light as thick as melted gold struck my eyes, blinding me with its majesty.

The Divine Chambers glow not for mortal sight.
None of the Holy Gods wishes to protect you.
You have been damned for your temerity!
The Holy light blinds you!

The blinding light gave way to pitch darkness, disturbed only by a list of debuffs. Blindness for a day. ‘Curse of Eluna’: +100% vulnerability to holy magic.
‘See the world,’ they said…But what really upset me wasn’t the curses so much as the blindness. Does this mean that I have to hang out here for a full day before I can go on with my exploration? Or should I figure out a way out to the larger gameworld and look for healing? Although…It’d be a good idea to take care of this on my own.
Blindly, I felt my way away from the edge, got to my feet and felt around until I found the eid. After some practice I managed to produce a clear chord, activating the Song of Cleansing. There was no effect.
“You’re an odd creature,” Eid’s voice sounded in the darkness around me. “You have something within you that is clearly reviled by both Light and Darkness.”
These words set off a whole chain of associations. Omar Khayyam’s immortal verses floated up to my mind:

The hypocrites say, “Heaven and hell are in the sky.”
Glancing within myself, I was sure this is a lie:
Heaven and hell are not spheres of the world’s creation.
Heaven and hell are two halves of the soul.

But the concepts of heaven and hell did not exist here, so these verses didn’t apply. On the other hand, there was one old song called “Forbidden Reality” which fit perfectly. It was too bad only that I didn’t have my guitar synth or at least an ancient Telecaster…
I imagined how fitting a guitar synth would sound in this setting with its ability to produce practically any sounds. I could play something with organ and electric guitar—that would be some concert! On a whim, I strummed the strings and to my astonishment heard the familiar sound. A triumphant organ filled the infinity of the Intermundis. On the eid, every note sounded exactly as it would on my syntar in reality! At the same time, the realization of how deeply Barliona’s technology had penetrated into my mind didn’t scare me so much as made me ecstatic.
Okay. So how do I switch to electric guitar? There weren’t any controls and I wasn’t aware of any voice commands. Then again, how did I produce the organ to begin with? I simply imagined the sound I wanted.
My imagination immediately recreated the riffs of a heavy metal guitar and the strings at my fingers sang with a new voice—a mighty roar that caused every cell in my body to shiver. All I need now is a mic!
Several minutes of practice later, a harmonious duet of organ and electric guitar thundered around me. Let the Chambers of Tartarus and Eluna file all the noise complaints they want! It felt like my voice, also amplified by some unknown method, had flooded the Intermundis and every world it bordered.
The song about the thin, vanishing line between light and darkness, good and evil, thundered in the very tissue of the Intermundis. The icons of my ‘Curse’ debuffs began to tremble, left their ordinary place and began to twirl in the darkness before me. But that didn’t matter. I was drunk from the eid’s new sound and the power of my own voice.
The debuff icons hurled like mad comets at one another and smashing together, created a bright flash. A moment later the darkness faded, returning the familiar landscape at the edge of the world.
The milky white haze stitched together the figure of a woman. Blurry, barely recognizable with empty eye sockets in a motionless face, as in my song’s verses. The woman raised a transparent hand which pointed at me. Yet I looked upon her without fear. She was just another being created by the music. My music!
The song poured from me, telling of a merciless fate and a friend’s betrayal—a blow to the back. In the next instant, true pain pierced my body and a sword tip appeared from my breast. Eid’s sword.
“You cannot escape Fate,” roared the eyeless woman and the world went dark, leaving a system notification in its wake:

You have died and gone to the Gray Lands.
You will automatically leave this location in 12 hours.

Chapter Five

Darkness, my heavy breathing and the echo of fading pain. My heart was beating like a hectic metronome, my fingers clenched the eid’s fretboard. What was that?
“Forgive me,” a familiar voice sounded next to me. “There’s no arguing with Fate, and you yourself sang of dying from my hand. You are destined to complete the trial in the Gray Lands. You cannot escape Fate.”
Only now did I realize why it was dark—I had reflexively shut my eyes from the pain, as little as there was due to my filter settings. Opening my eyes, I took in the dour, gray landscape. It was like all color had drained from the world, transforming its vibrancy into grayscale. The grass, the stones, the trees, even the sky—everything was faded and somehow unreal. No trace of the sun. No trace of shadow. A monotonous, oppressive grayness.
Eid had changed too. Now he was little more than a blurry silhouette, a vague trace of his former incarnation. I couldn’t make out the expression on his face since he didn’t have a face, but for some reason I imagined that he was sincerely remorseful for what had happened.
“Don’t worry about it,” I shrugged after a little bit more thought. “They say that everything comes back in this life. That’s what I get for offing Chip.”
“Doing what to whom?” Eid didn’t understand.
“If you behave, I’ll introduce you two,” I promised. “I don’t know whether you’ll get along but you won’t be bored. Speaking of boredom. Why do you look like Hamlet’s father all of a sudden?”
“My previous incarnation was a part of the world we left, and you haven’t given me a new form yet.”
“Hmm…” I muttered with some curiosity. “So I can make you look however I like?”
“Something like that,” Eid replied carefully, perhaps anticipating something bad.
“Well aren’t you lucky!” I tried to clap Eid’s silhouette on the shoulder but my hand passed straight through him.
“Why is that?” the spirit wanted to know.
“If Beast had stumbled upon you, you’d be a chesty sex doll. He always said that the bass was his one true love. You’d present him with the chance to make this sentiment a reality.”
Did I imagine it or did the spirit backtrack slightly?
“Relax buddy,” I guffawed, reassuring Eid’s anxiety. “Spiritophilia isn’t one of my fetishes. Ours is a professional relationship exclusively. Although it’d make a heck of a love song.”
“I seem to have grown unaccustomed to you mortals’ humor.”
“What, Cypro didn’t crack jokes like that?” I wondered, only now realizing that I was speaking to an authority on all things Tenth.
“By the time I was created, he was over a hundred years old already and his humor was a bit more…mature,” Eid explained delicately.
“And who taught you to be so polite?” I said a bit disheartened, wary that I was about to travel with a humorless companion.
“This character trait, I believe, I inherited from my luthier,” Eid replied in a dignified tone.
Meanwhile, I was contemplating what form to give him. Chatting with an incorporeal spirit wasn’t exactly pleasant. And at the same time, for whatever reason, nothing occurred to me.
“Any requests?” I asked my companion hopefully.
“I liked my last form,” he replied. “I was handsome and it fit my sound. So how about something masculine and heroic?”
I tried to run through the relevant songs in my head but all that came were dumb jokes. I wonder what would happen if I sing some malarkey like ‘her legs never ended, her teeth reflected the moon?’ Would the system dutifully recreate such a bit of surrealism? Or would it be Lobachevsky time? An introduction to non-Euclidean geometry?
Luckily for Eid, I didn’t bother experimenting and played what I felt like: Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore.”
This time, as I played, I watched his transformation carefully, unwilling to miss such a strange sight. Eid changed with every word I sang. The smoke that the spirit consisted of swirled, waxed, thickened and took on the form of a black knight on a raven-black steed. For whatever reason, I imagined his warhorse this way. It’s also worth mentioning that Eid now resembled a Ringwraith from The Lord of the Rings. I guess this is the failure of my impoverished imagination, but this is what I associated with a black knight who had taken thousands of souls. By the way…On the topic of taking souls…Was it a waste to use the verses on someone who’d already sent me to the Gray Lands? Although, where else would I go? I’m here already. As Sasha liked to say—they can’t send you further than the frontline.
The world around me hadn’t changed one bit. There were no fires in the distance, though the gray dust was still there. And here and everywhere else. Either the song didn’t fit or in the Gray Lands I couldn’t change reality as I wished.
Eid’s steed snorted impatiently and stomped his hoof, while the Black Rider atop him looked down on me.
“More than happy, thank you,” the spirit nodded majestically.
He dismounted and patted his horse on the withers. Oddly, Eid wasn’t as gray as everything else around us. And I too still had my ‘basic’ coloring. I suppose that was because he and I belonged to a different world. But I wonder why. After all, technically, I’m dead…Eid had killed me, hadn’t he?
The thought pierced me quicker than Eid’s sword. What did that creature in the mirror tell me? “These writings are open only to the dead.” And I couldn’t be deader! I’m standing in the middle of the Gray Lands!
My fingers trembling with excitement, I got Cypro’s notes from my bag. Opening the tattered cover, I found uneven lines, written in a small script.

You were curious enough to find all the sigils around the Tree and reach the repository. Since you chose the unassuming travel journal, stories attract you more than artifacts, magic armor and the secrets of craftsmen. You are not prepared to sacrifice others to reach your goals, and your music is capable of touching others’ souls. Besides this, you are sufficiently acute to find a way to reach the Gray Lands and read these lines.
Whoever you are, you and I are alike. The road is our fate and it seems to me that one day it will allow us to meet.
Every traveler can use a guide. And you need a very special guide for the roads of the Gray Lands. A guide that belongs to two worlds at once. Finding someone like that, is a great stroke of luck. But luck is not a trustworthy companion. You should not rely on such a fickle lady. I will teach you how to create such a guide—a cicerone for the land of the dead.

The text ended at this point, giving way to a system notification right there on the journal’s page.

Quest chain available: Creating a Cicerone.
Do you Accept? Yes/No

As soon as I accepted, the rest of the page filled with handwriting.

The nature of the Gray Lands is complex and not fully known to any creature I am aware of. At times, it seems to me that this place is not at all the way it appears to us mortals. For example, why do I sometimes encounter the souls of animals? Are there really so many sentients that preserve memories of them? I sense that this is somehow related to certain tribes venerating totem animals.
Either way, you have to locate one of these souls and bind it to yourself. Good luck to you, my mysterious friend.

The quest changed, specifying the object of my search—an animal soul. But there was no hint where I should even look for this soul. The journal’s other pages remained blank.
“Listen Eid,” I turned to the spirit watching me with curiosity. “Where do you think I can find an animal soul around here? And how can I bind it to myself? I don’t suppose I’d need a lasso like a cowgirl…”
“Have you forgotten that you must complete a trial?” Eid answered my question with one of his own.
“Why should I forget it? But tell me what I have to do to complete it.”
The phantom knight assumed a pose and announced triumphantly:
“You must select a soul and lead it from the Gray Lands to Barliona.”
“And that’s it?” I asked, a little surprised.
“You think that’s simple to do?” Eid smirked.
“Well, it doesn’t sound very difficult,” I admitted. “Tell me about the souls of animals. Could I perhaps lead an animal soul out?”
“Not very difficult?” echoed the instrument’s soul. “In that case you should be able to handle this quest without any problems. As well as all the other ones.”
Having said this, Eid fell silent, clearly unwilling to provide any further instructions. Well he can go to cold pasta hell then, this moody knight. I’ll figure it out on my own.
Now that my vision had adjusted to the monochrome palette of the world beyond the grave, I could take a proper look around. A strange landscape. Paradoxically, the first thing that stood out was the awful visibility. There weren’t really any dust clouds, fog or other natural phenomena, and yet about a hundred meters ahead of me everything kind of melded together as if I were looking at a smudged pencil sketch.
But even within the limits of the visible there were plenty curiosities to examine. Buildings of diverse dimensions and styles were arranged all around without any discernible order. Some of them seemed clear and rendered in detail, while others were no more than vague outlines. Approaching one of these buildings, I could study the viscous substance it was built from. Fluid and yet dense like mercury, it was in constant motion, changing the edifice past recognition. A bas relief depicting some arachnoid creatures appeared and gave way to a dimpled wall of some unpolished stone, and then another bas relief but this time depicting a sacrificial ritual. It was like the building couldn’t make up its mind what form it should take.
I turned to Eid as the local expert on traveling through the Gray Lands.
“What’s wrong with this wall? And where’d these buildings come from anyway? I thought this was the place souls go to, not a construction site. Or do you think that the souls need places to live too?”
“All of these are like me—the works of great master craftsmen,” the spirit explained. Or should I say, ‘soul,’ since he still had his spirit/vitus…? But that sounded a bit awkward and not quite right so I decided to keep thinking of Eid as a spirit.
“Creations that acquired a soul thanks to their creators’ efforts. Legendary objects that lost their material incarnation but remained preserved in memory. Ruined temples and palaces, sculptures and paintings, armor and arms. Their souls too reach the Gray Lands.”
I took a renewed look at the gray world around me. The cemetery of legends. A museum of memories from a myriad generations that had lived in Barliona. And perhaps, not just Barliona? If the Intermundis is the space between worlds, then maybe the souls that come here are collected from many worlds too?
Unfortunately, try as I might, I could see nothing that either confirmed or refuted this theory. Eid and I passed many objects and buildings but I couldn’t tell if a single one belonged to some other world.
I turned my head left and right like a country bumpkin at her first visit to the capital. The Gray Lands amazed me with their impossible blend of the lifeless and the changing. A completely stunning impression…
“Why are some objects static while others are constantly changing?” I asked after watching the transformation of a tree that grew right in the middle of our road. “You had no form at all, and when you acquired one, you remained unchanged.”
“Some items were described accurately and their images were preserved,” Eid nodded at a sculpture of a winged woman who reminded me a bit of Nike from Greek mythology. “Only contradictory legends survive about others and each person who remembers them imagines them differently.”
My eye caught something vaguely familiar and I stopped to get a better look. A chess set stood on a pedestal that kept changing from a stone altar to an immense table to a simple, crude hunk of rock. Some of the pieces were missing, and those that were there kept changing constantly. The board on the other hand remained distinct: The light and dark squares were a sufficiently classic image. Everyone imagined them the same way, unlike the constantly changing finish.
I tried to determine what the pieces on the board were. The squares where the pawns were supposed to be were vacant. The knights were rendered as classic animals in elaborate metal armor as well as the local variety of mountable lizards. The pieces ‘drifted,’ changing form, but remained recognizable on the whole. The rooks were present only for one of the sides: The two pieces towered over the others and yet changed so quickly that my eyes didn’t have time to process their various guises. The bishops were less ephemeral: One pair possessed the body composition and pointy ears common to elves. The bishops on the other side boasted the fanged maws characteristic of trolls.
The queens proudly occupied their proper squares on d1 and d8. One of them wore a strange hat with deer antlers and was covered in melted wax, making it impossible to determine its race or gender. The only difference with the other queen was that I could discern a staff in its hand.
On the other hand, the kings were a bit more definite. One was clearly an orc. Time and again, a wolfskin appeared on its shoulders, the sword in its hand transformed to an axe, a spear and sometimes even a scimitar. The other chess king was clearly a human, though its apparel and weapon kept changing from a sword to a staff and back.
Chess, chess…Something about chess kept spinning in my mind. That’s right! The Legendary Chess Set of Karmadont…Or was is Kardamon? I couldn’t remember exactly but it was something like that. The Barliona fora had been erupting at the news that some unknown jeweler had begun to recreate the legendary chess set. It followed that the souls of the recreated pieces had been reincarnated in the world and I was seeing the ones that were next.
I wonder whether all the other buildings, sculptures, suits of armor and weapons were also awaiting some craftsman to start recreating their ancient legend. Was it possible for me to reincarnate the soul of an item in Barliona at least temporarily too?
I was seriously considering conducting some experiments when a motion drew my eye. Not the mere transformation of one image into another but one that was self-contained, autonomous. Among the changing silhouettes of items, a person was plodding along the dusty ground. His bowed head, drooped shoulders, hunched back and scuffling gait was at odds with the impressive plate armor he was wearing.
The dead man’s cuirass boasted a masterful engraving of a lizard, clearly visible even under the layer of gray dust. His ash gray head was crowned with a metallic circlet and his shoulders were wrapped in a long cape, pinned with a fibula in the shape of the same lizard. His limp hand gripped his long sword, dragging it along the ground behind its long-dead owner.
Looking closer, I noticed that his armor was fairly ragged and his sword was nicked and chipped from many blows. Some king who had fallen in a legendary battle? Judging by the state of this soul, his ancestors had forgotten much of that ancient story.
The spirit paid no attention to Eid and me. He simply plodded along, periodically skirting some chance obstacle. I looked around with curiosity trying to see any other denizens of this afterworld. In the distance, at the very edge of visibility, I made out an enormous figure creeping across the horizon, but the intervening gloom concealed its details, making it impossible to examine the colossus. Who was it? A titan? A dragon? A fallen deity?
My feet carried me after the receding figure of their own volition, but the giant’s stride was so long that he quickly dissolved beyond the indefinite horizon of this world. In exchange, a tall, stately figure of a woman stepped out from behind a majestic maple tree. Maybe there was some legend associated with this tree or this was the spirit of some dryad…She held her chin raised proudly, her shoulders back, and she stepped with a smooth yet confident step. Even ignoring her sumptuous dress, I could guess that this wasn’t some poor, recently-deceased girl.
Unlike the dead king, the lady noticed me. She stopped for a few seconds, appraised me with an exacting glance and crumpled her face in derision. It was as if she had encountered some horse dung amid the pretty path that had been laid for her personally. Having expressed her contempt, the lady continued along the way only known to her through the dust of the world of the dead.
I shut my mouth, which I had opened to greet her. My desire to chat up this sour-faced dame about returning to the world of the living evaporated just like that. No big deal. I still had an entire king in reserve. By the way, where’d he go?
Luckily, catching up to the slowly shuffling man in a crown turned out to be as simple as pie. Alas, it was the last piece of pie. How was I supposed to bring him back?
“Hey…your Highness!” I ventured without much confidence.
He didn’t react in any way, plodding onward to a goal that remained unknown to me. Although, why do I say that? Eid had told me that the souls that no longer had the strength to resist Chaos’s call would wander toward the Gates of Erebus. I guess this soul’s hour had come.
Just to make sure, I tried touching the soul, waving in front of his eyes, stepping through it and even trying to prod it with the eid, which earned me a look of disapproval from the instrument’s soul. None of this had any effect. The plodding phantom did not react to my efforts in the least.
Call me callous, but I thought the whole thing was funny. What an interesting quest the game had assigned me. I wouldn’t call it common at any rate: It was certainly far afield from the typical ‘kill ten rats and harvest their hides and tails’ fare. This one required thought.
I circled the blindly plodding spirit and contemplated what I should do. Call me callous (again), but the ghost’s pitiful sight did not elicit much compassion in me. I wasn’t familiar with this NPCs history, so the nameless king was nothing but a faceless bit of code for me. He did however interest me as a lab rat of sorts. I’d be curious to know what power I had over the souls and in this place in general. The only hitch was that I really didn’t know his story. In fact, I didn’t know the history of a single local ruler, fallen in battle. And in that case, how could I sing about him?
I trailed the king unhurriedly as I considered the situation. I sure am lucky today with my companions. It’s all knights and kings like in the popular romance novels. Though, unlike in those novels, the local knight had already stabbed me today. And I mean that literally—not figuratively-erotically. And now this nameless king was ignoring my illustrious person.
The nameless king….That reminds of something…
I stopped and rubbed my face with my palms, trying to catch the elusive song. The tune dodged and avoided my consciousness for a bit but finally gave up and dredged up a memory of a fantasy song I’d heard recently. It was in the collection of fantasy songs I had downloaded when doing research for the game. A classic of prog. I hadn’t ended up learning it, but I remembered the first chords and I tend to memorize the lyrics the first time I hear them. And if there’s something I don’t recall, I can always improvise. As long as the foundation is there, filling in the gaps presents no problem. And so Em9 to Em9 with a flat sixth, I believe…
Eid followed behind me, leading his horse by its bridle, and observing with interest as I muttered the song’s verses under my nose and fingered various chords, trying to weave the sounds into a melody. It was clear that he wasn’t about to help. When I had finally remembered the lyrics and found the one chord that kept eluding me (F#m7b5, ugh!), I sprinted ahead of the ghost and sat down in the middle of his way so that he would hear me play as he passed.
For the first time since we met, the ghost reacted. Hearing the singing, he started and slowed his already turtle’s pace. I rejoiced to myself. There’s a sign! He can hear me. Or see me. Either way, we have contact.
The ballad of a witch arriving to a royal court that whirls with revels, tournaments, and puppet plays resonated with the soul. He stopped and raised his head with noticeable difficulty. The look in his eyes was terrifying. Empty and senseless, it gave rise to an otherworldly horror in me. Living people never look like that. Or at least I hope they don’t.
As I sang, the soul of the nameless king approached me. The man straightened out to his full height and looked me in the eyes. A look of comprehension appeared on the ghost’s face. He was listening.
When the ballad’s last notes faded, the phantom was still staring at me. Suddenly a fire flared in his eyes, scorching the dusty grayness of the land of the dead. The world filled with color and smells, changing everything entirely.

Like barbed wire cutting at it, the scent of ashes parches my throat and the acrid smoke stings my eyes and squeezes forth tears. I cannot move in the slightest—I cannot control what is happening—I am only a bystander, an observer.
A crescendo of ringing steel sounds amid the roar of raging fires. Through the tongues of flame, I can see a wave of steel-clad cavalry rushing towards me. The surging fear forces me to start back, but my back encounters an obstacle and someone’s hand pushes me forward.
“Not a step back, carrion! Either you consign the souls of these filthy beasts to the Lords or they will consume yours!”
I still the trembling in my hands and notice in passing that my skin is a vivid green. I grip the spear’s haft tighter like a piece of rope that will save me from drowning. I am much more afraid of the Lords than the oncoming foe.
“To battle!”
Obeying the command, I take a knee and stick the spear’s heel into the ground, pointing the tip in the direction of the avalanche coming toward me.
The infantry bristles with two ranks of spears, awaiting contact with the cavalry. The mages conjure a wall of flame not five meters before us. My armor heats noticeably from its heat. Even trained warhorses would not rush through such fire, I tell myself. They will buck their riders and all we will have to do is finish off the unlucky ones, allowing the Lords to devour their souls. Their souls—not ours. But the cavalry does not stop. They have mages too and the tall wall of flame wanes to a harmless barrier no higher than my shoulder.
And then the riders fall upon us.
Time slows. I can clearly see the first rank of mounted knights. Among them, I discern a rider with a crimson lizard on his breastplate. My heart, feverishly beating in my chest, goes still from terror and skips several beats. It is he—the Salamander King—the one who dared challenge the Lords and rebelled against the Tarantulas!
The earth rocks and falls from my feet. Weakened by the enemies’ spells, the ground yawns beneath us and the even row of spears collapses, allowing the cavalry to break through our ranks. Something heavy slams into my helmet and the light fades in my eyes.

I open them again when the battle’s already ended. Corpses strew the field before the castle; the Lords step languidly among them. The spiders’ immense bodies halt over their fallen foes, the terrible fangs plunge and a barely noticeable mist seeps from the fallen bodies into the Tarantulas’ maws. The Lords harvest their crop.
One of them approaches me and I overcome my pain and get to one knee.
“Lord…” I whisper hoarsely, hoping that the plentiful food has been enough and the same terrible fate will pass me by.
The enormous spider hangs over me. I stop breathing. No, not me. I fought for you. You promised to spare our souls. The moment which lasts an eternity passes and the Tarantula moves on. The feast continues.
Stumbling over the earth, rutted by spears and spells, I head for the castle. My people are there—there are healers there. The Lords are not there right now. Two ogres drag a moaning, wounded person past me. He has crimson hair and the familiar lizard on his breastplate. Yours is a sad fate, oh Salamander King. You shall serve as an example to everyone unhappy with the Lords’ rule. A terrifying example.
I do not rejoice at his fate, I pity him. If I had believed in his rebellion even for an instant, I would have joined him. But I did not believe. And I was right. We are too weak, too insignificant to oppose the Lords. And yet, may the Abyss take me, how I yearned for your victory…

The world wavered before me and the first vision gave way to the next.

I am standing sentry outside of the dungeon and listening to the screams of agony. They have been sounding for many days now—all throughout the fortress of the Crooked Tusk. The Lizard King, as the minions of the Lords called him, had swapped his throne for the rack, yet remained king. The Tarantulas’ torturers knew their craft, yet Salamander did not give up. The blood froze from his screams, but the captive refused to recognize the Lords. The Tarantulas could naturally devour his soul, but first they wanted the leader of the rebellion to publicly recognize their hegemony. To this day, they had not gotten their wish.
Another soul-freezing scream, forcing my body to tremble, cuts off abruptly. I hope that Salamander has finally said farewell to his life, but the torturers emerging from the chamber curse, discussing new methods for breaking the prisoner. That means he merely fainted. A pity.
The torturers depart, leaving me to guard the chained and powerless prisoner. As if he can escape. Escape…
An unbearably outrageous thought appears in my mind. Flight. A desperate flight from the Lords’ domain. Not a single one is in the castle at the moment, which means they would not be able to catch me. The thought of freedom makes me drunk, granting me a careless courage, and I hurry to the chamber, worried that my decisiveness will evaporate. I lock the chamber from the inside and with great effort scoot the now-vacant rack to prop the door shut. The wounded man hangs limply in the stocks. The sight of his twisted joints and lesion-covered body no longer affects me. None of this is important. We will be able to escape.
The Salamander King opens his eyes, as if sensing something. His eyes stop on me. I do not know how but he has understood it all. He grins toothlessly. And I plunge the dagger home.
Go with peace, Salamander King. They will not have your soul. By the time they realize what has happened and call the Lords, we will be in the Gray Lands. They cannot reach you there. Neither you nor me.
Now I will plunge the dagger, its blade soaked in Salamander’s blood, up to its hilt into my own throat. My lips strain to form a grin. I am free.

The darkness that veiled my eyes gave way to dull grayness. I was sitting in the dust, staring dumbly at my trembling hands and trying to understand which world I was in. My eyes tickled but there were no tears. Players can’t cry in Barliona—this is a place of entertainment and diversion, not tears. The screams of the tortured man lingered in my ears, and my mind refused to comprehend the system notification that had appeared.

Attention! Through your Bardic Inspiration you have recovered lost lore about the Salamander King.
You have used song to bind yourself to the soul of the Salamander King. From now on, you may summon this soul from the Gray Lands by performing this song.
Attention! Binding a song to a being that is not directly mentioned in the song can only be accomplished in person in the presence of the being in the Gray Lands.
Attention! This song does not mention the Salamander King directly and its performance will not nurture this being in the Gray Lands.

Stats, bindings, performances and other game mechanics simply didn’t gel in my shocked consciousness. I was looking at the soul of the Salamander King and it was looking at me.
“Who are you?” The spirit spoke slowly as if with great effort.
“I’m a bard,” I replied, looking up at him. It seemed that Salamander didn’t care about names so much as what was going on. “I have traveled to the Gray Lands from Barliona to conduct a departed soul back to the world of the living. But only temporarily,” I added, noticing Salamander’s eyes flare with fire.
“Barliona…” the king said pensively. “What is it like right now? Have the Tarantulas been defeated?”
“To be perfectly honest, I’d never even heard of them until now.”
“Haven’t even heard…” Salamander gaped.
His sword fell to the ground with a dull thud, his legs wavered and he collapsed awkwardly to the ashy earth. Salamander was staring ahead somewhere into a nearby sky and smiling. Tears of joy streamed down his cheeks.
“They have fallen…They have fallen and been forgotten…”
I watched him silently as thoughts about the contradictory nature of human behavior flowed through my mind. Sometimes we laugh in moments of peril and cry in moments of happiness.
Eid didn’t say anything, preferring to remain a detached observer. I wonder if he cares about what’s going on even a little. After all, I think of him in ordinary human terms, yet when you consider it, he’s not one bit human. What does a musical instrument—even one that’s been imbued with life by its creator—care about our joys and sorrows? As if he had sensed something, Eid looked over at me but didn’t say anything. Meanwhile, the Salamander King finally processed the good news from the larger world and returned to his dull reality, picked up his sword, swept the dust from its blade and slid it back in its scabbard.
“If even the Tarantulas have been forgotten, it is no wonder that I am barely remembered,” he said with humility and resignation in his voice. “It has been a long time since I’ve heard anything, aside from the call of Erebus. Your music managed to drown it out, but it hasn’t grown any weaker. And I haven’t the strength to resist it any longer.”
My reply came of its own volition:
“I will remember you, Salamander.”
The rebel king smiled bitterly, yet bowed his head gratefully.
“Thank you, bard. But I am afraid that your memory won’t be enough to save me from the call. And there isn’t much sense in it anymore. The Tarantulas have fallen and I can dissolve in Erebus peacefully now.”
“Don’t!” I blurted out.
I looked pretty dumb I bet. A player begging a long-dead NPC to cleave to life. Not so much as live, as ‘be.’ However, the visions I had lived through made this person and his history real. To me, at least. And the thought that in exchange for his deeds he would only receive oblivion and utter dissolution, forced me to protest. His life and death deserved a reward. Even if only a small one. Even if it was no more than several hours in the world of the living. That was all I could grant him.
Or was it?
“I will write a song about you,” I promised the spirit. “A good song. It will spread among those who want to remember and you will regain your strength.”
Salamander smiled and shook his head.
“That is the most generous offer I have heard since my death. Thank you. But spare yourself the futile labor. Look around. The Gray Lands are not the place where one would want to spend eternity. And even if time passes differently here, I see no reason to cling to this kind of existence. The Tarantulas are gone and my debt has been paid. I can depart with peace in my soul.”
As bitter as it was to admit it, his words made a lot of sense. I don’t know who came up with the afterlife in Barliona, but whoever it was, was clearly a sadist. You wouldn’t wish an eternity in this dull place on your worst enemy.
“Maybe you’d like to see Barliona one more time?” I asked after a little hesitation.
The hell with the Fifth. He’d waited so many centuries that he could wait a little more. I’d be willing to bet that Astilba’s might, as well as her maniacal obsession with her departed lover would suffice to maintain an entire army of spirits. Meanwhile, Salamander did not have long left, and this was his last chance to look upon the world he had fought to defend in his time.
“Lay eyes upon Barliona?” the spirit echoed. “Is that possible?”
“In theory. This would be the first time I summon a soul from the Gray Lands to the world of the living,” I confessed.
Salamander got up to his feet, bowed ceremoniously and offered me his hand, helping me up in turn:
“In that case, it would be an honor to accept your offer. And don’t worry about failing. You can’t make my situation any worse.”
“You sure know how to cheer a girl up,” I quipped, and by sheer reflex grabbed his hand to pull myself up.
Stop. Grabbed his hand? Didn’t I walk through him just a second ago?
“Hey Eid, why is it that I can touch him all of a sudden?” I asked the instrument’s soul.
“You have promised to lead him from the Gray Lands, and he has taken his first step on the Way that you are to pave for him. He no longer belongs to this place, temporarily, like you and I.”
I looked at the Salamander King again, noting the changes taking place. It was like a layer of dust had been blown from the ghost. The grayness of this world was melting from him like the snow on a spring meadow. It was like the setting sun had illuminated his hair, his circlet began to glint with dull gold, and the lizard on his breastplate flushed with crimson. The colors were dull, like on a tapestry that had faded with time, but they already stood out vividly in the colorless world around us.
“And what must we do now in order to return to Barliona?” I asked Eid without much expectation of an answer.
This morose instrument is about to tell me that this is what my trial consists of and I have to figure it out on my own…
“The Gray Lands have several Gates,” Eid began to explain in spite of my misgivings. “Each Gate has its own Gatekeeper whose duty it is to guard the border between the worlds of the living and the dead. You must find the Gate, deal with the Gatekeeper, reach the Intermundis and pave a way back to Barliona.”
Such clear instructions lifted my spirits, though the many gaps in them, dampened my mood at the same time.
“And how am I supposed to find the Gate?”
“You are a Bard,” Eid reminded me. “Think of a suitable way.”
Music, in other words. I could’ve figured that out on my own. I’m doing a class-based quest and am in an area that is accessible only to bards. Although…Don’t shamans and necromancers also work with souls and spirits? I wonder whether they drop in here as well?
But away with these unrelated thoughts. I need a guiding song. I looked around, trying to find some hint in the landscape around me. A dull grayness and an oppressive silence.  I need to shake up this musty place!
As soon as my fingers touched the eid’s strings, I recalled a fitting song from the same immortal album as before—Forbidden Reality. Maybe it didn’t fit as perfectly as I wanted it, but for the moment it would be enough. More life! More roar!
Deafening guitar riffs erupted in the silence of the Gray Lands. The Salamander King started from surprise, whipped out his sword and began spinning in place looking for the source of the clamor. Eid jumped up into the saddle of his steed, which had begun to stomp nervously, and burst into mirthful laughter. He clearly enjoyed the new noise.
The musty, stale air of the Gray Lands suddenly began to spin in a twister, carrying the dust up to the leaden skies and with a powerful burst struck me in the back. The black steed bucked and reared up on his hind legs, Eid’s black cape began flapping like a pair of wings and I, carried by the wind, couldn’t help but take a step, then another and another until I was hurrying in the direction nature wished me to go.
I sang of the wind of travels and the wind led us along the lifeless world. Although, I guess it wasn’t quite so lifeless. Souls began to gather around us. Some of them, like the Salamander King earlier, could lift their heads only with great difficulty; others looked quite lively—if this word even applies to bodiless spirits. Humans, trolls, minotaurs, elves, sirens…Dozens, then hundreds of souls drifted to the source of the sound and followed in our steps. The wind, tearing at our capes, tussling our hair, pushing at our backs, passed through the ghosts surrounding us. Not a single burst bothered the shades of the departed.
When the last sounds of my song had ended, the earlier silence did not return. The wind howled frantically and desperately like some living creature. Perhaps it too was locked in this place like the other souls? There are natural spirits too after all. Perhaps this wind was one of them? It roves about, desperately trying to break out to the world of the living…
Whatever it was, the wind stubbornly pushed us along a course known to it alone. We walked, no, we almost ran past transparent castles and cities, ruined masterpieces. And the host of souls followed behind us. The sight was both impressive and slightly creepy. Eid’s words about how many of the souls yearn to escape the Gray Lands along the ways that bards open for them, surfaced in my mind. It follows that as soon as I open the Gate, all the souls will try to burst through it?
These troubling thoughts hounded me until the moment we reached the Gate. Though to be honest, I didn’t see any Gate at all at first. All of my attention had been fixed on the mountain. That’s right. A true mountain, about one and a half kilometers tall, complete with wooded slopes and a plateau where its peak would have been. Its majestic silhouette came gradually into focus as we approached and we soon found ourselves at the foot of this colossus. The wind gave me one last shove in my back as if saying goodbye, rustled the leaves and fell still.
I stood with my head tipped back looking up and starting to suspect that the mysterious Gate was right there on top of that plateau. Am I really going to have to climb up there? The very thought of climbing that high made me forget all about the retinue of hundreds of souls following our party. They, however, did not forget about me.
“Take me with you…” said some suspicious lady quietly and mournfully. Her long hair dragged along the gray ground behind her like a forgotten bridal gown.
Something about her appearance suggested pernicious witchcraft. Considering that in Barliona, the NPC’s appearance almost always corresponded to their character, I was reluctant to take on a companion like this. She’d boil me in a cauldron the first chance she got and then have a nice vegetable broth for supper.
“You must lead me to Barliona!” demanded an opulent man in a mighty, impatient voice that brooked no objections. With his sable cape and overwrought crown, this one would make Sauron weep in envy. “Lead me from this place and I shall tell you where my riches are buried!”

Quest available: Return of a King.
Description: The soul of a deceased ruler wishes you to lead it from the Gray Lands and to Barliona. Quest type: Unique. Reward for completion: Hidden.
“What do you need riches for when I can offer you secret wisdom!” interrupted a gaunt, sharp-nosed spirit in a long cloak. The winding staff in his bony fingers was crowned with a crystal—in which a face, distorted from suffering, flashed for an instant. The instant passed and the crystal’s surface regained its pristine stillness, yet the icy hand of fear had gripped my heart.
“Help me pass the Gate,” the warlock went on smoothly, “and I shall teach you a spell of unimaginable power!”

Quest available: Unlocking the Warlock.
Description: The warlock’s soul wishes to pass through the Gate from the Gray Lands. Quest type: Unique. Reward for completion: Hidden.

“Don’t listen to them!” popped up a mighty knight in plate armor. For whatever reason, I realized instantly that I was looking at a paladin. “These are dark creatures who wish to feast on the living, stripping their vitality. If you revere the Blessed Eluna, hallowed be her visage, help her true defender leave this place for a little while to complete a duty I have been charged with. My enemy has not been vanquished and that means the commoners are in peril!”

Quest available: A Soul’s Debt.
Description: The paladin’s soul wants you to lead it from the Gray Lands to Barliona to help it complete a task. Quest type: Unique. Reward for completion: Hidden.

“Save me!”
“Take me!”
“No, me!”
There were so many voices that they merged into one general clamor. Pleas, threats, promises, orders, exhortations—my head was simply cracking from this din. Kings, emperors, counts and dukes, heroes, villains, saviors and traitors—human memory turned out to be very inventive indeed. I couldn’t see a single peasant or laborer among this crowd. They’re not frequently the subjects of ballads.

Quest available: …
Quest available: …
Quest available: …

Hah! At this rate, I could start a soul delivery service in Barliona. I’d have it all: treasures, rare spells, ancient wisdoms. I could even start to hold auctions…
This last reverie was dispelled by the weeping voice of a child that pierced the crowd’s babble.
“Take me to my mother…”
The little voice sounded so pitiful that I couldn’t help but start. A girl of about six was smearing her tears down her cheeks with her knuckles.
“I want to see my mommy! This place is terrible and someone scary keeps calling my name…”
My heart sank from pity. I told myself that this was only an NPC, a simple script, but the face of the bawling, lost child suppressed every thought. Had I the opportunity, I would stick the dev who’d come up with this scenario here and forced him to listen to this child’s crying all eternity. What kind of sadist places a child’s soul in a place like this?
“Come here, little one,” I called her, not entirely sure what I had to do.
The girl approached me haltingly. She looked neither like a princess nor a heroine of legend. She wore simple clothes and had ribbons tied around the little ponytails that stuck out from her hair. Her feet were bare. Most likely she was a peasant child that died recently and was languishing in this place on the strength of her loved ones’ memories. I reached out my hands to hug and console the poor girl, but they merely passed through her ghostly body. What a bunch of bastards, those devs!
“Will you take me from here? To my mommy?” the girl asked. I could only look at her at a loss.
What do I say? That I already made a promise to another? That even if I lead her out of this place, it’ll be temporarily? That I doubt I’d be able to locate her mother?
“Of course she will, darling,” the Salamander King interrupted my futile brainstorm. He squatted down next to the girl and flashed her an encouraging smile. “We can’t leave a little one like you without some kind of supervision. And I just remembered that I have some very important business to take care of here.”
I watched Salamander silently, understanding that neither one of us could permit ourselves another course of action. I would have started crying, yet Barliona doesn’t have that feature for players. And this amounts to perversity on the part of the developers: The souls of children wander the land of the dead, but a player can’t express her sadness.
I could kill those devs…
The soul of the Salamander King looked on me with an approving smile. I think he was even happy to do this kind deed.
“I’ll take you with me, little one,” I promised, paying no attention to the displeased murmur of the rest of the souls gathered around us. “But I doubt I can bring you to your mother right away. I live very far from her.”
I could say that again. Without even trying to guess which continent the girl’s mom lived on, I could confidently assume that she wasn’t in the Hidden Forest. And even if I ever make it out beyond the Arras, human settlements are off limits to me. Those who’ve aligned themselves with Shadow have a negative rep with all of the other Empires. They’d kill me before I could explain what I wanted. I wonder what happens to a soul I’ve summoned in that case…
“Where do you live, lady?” the girl looked up at me with her little, gray, tear-streaked face. Although, it was already not as gray as before. Like the Salamander King, she was regaining her faded colors.
“In a magical forest,” I smiled, deciding to stay quiet about the blighted beasts, Geranika’s Shadow and the further wonders of our lovely biome. Not right now.
Now I could even embrace the girl. It was a strange feeling—like touching a hollow plastic doll. A little elastic and pliant, not cold and not warm. Not living. The plague take those devs.
“Oh, you’re so warm.” The girl shut her eyes blissfully and pressed herself to me tighter. “It’s like I’m back home, asleep in my warm bed.”
This memory caused her to start weeping again quietly, while I again cursed the sadist who’d come up with this scenario. I’ll never set foot in the Gray Lands again, or I’ll end up spending my entire gaming life pointlessly rescuing little ones from this purgatory. And the system will just generate new ones and new ones…
Salamander sat beside the girl quietly, stroking her hair in silence. It seemed that Eid was the only one entirely unaffected by what was happening. The instrument soul stood apart, holding his steed and observing the unfolding events with the impassiveness of a theater director who had seen the scene before him hundreds of times. Then again, what else can you expect from a 12-string guitar?
The other spirits, meanwhile, refused to calm down: some were appealing to my pity, some were talking about the legions of orphans wandering Barliona, others were promising all the world’s riches, and I barely managed to keep up with all the quests I kept having to decline. The reward always remained hidden, so even if the Salamander King and the little girl hadn’t been here, it would’ve been worth it to think well before agreeing to any of these offers.
“I hope you will be able to make it out without any problems,” said Salamander, ignoring the pleas of the spirits around us. “Let me know if I can be of help somehow. Maybe, I will be able to perform one last good deed.”
“I’m sorry,” I said mutely, mouthing the words.
But Salamander understood and smiled happily in reply.
“I would not have it any other way!”
Eid snorted contemptuously.
“You are making a very foolish decision, bard. Giving up the presents, powers and knowledge offered you in order to help some snot-nosed orphan? What kind of help is it anyway? You won’t bring her back to life, Lorelei. That’s not within your power. She will be nothing but a soul, rejected by Barliona, and she will exist solely as a parasite to your own powers. What use is she to you? She cannot help you in battle. She won’t teach you anything. She won’t even be able to reward you for your service.”
My mind agreed with Eid’s callous but reasonable words. Instead of taking a risk and choosing one of the souls that had offered me something enticing, I was about to play babysitter to an ordinary NPC who was a dime a dozen in any rural village. I could at least write a song about the Salamander King, but what could I do with the little one? No one cares about some banal ‘tearful’ tale about a dead peasant girl—doesn’t matter how you dress it up. There’d be no profit in it.
The girl began to shift in my arms, she looked up at me with her bright eyes and gave me a look of such limitless trust that all my rationalization dissolved into nothing but a litany of empty arguments. My heart stubbornly repeated that I had to live according to my conscience instead of for gain. If I wanted profit, I’d be better off playing in the stock market instead of a virtual world.
“I’ll speak with Astilba. I believe she is close to inventing a ritual that returns a soul to its body…”
“The Sixth won’t waste time and energy on some human child!” Eid cut me off sternly. The Nazgûl guise I had created for him really fit him to a T at the moment. “This girl is no one. Dust under our feet. An empty waste of talent and effort. You have potential, Lorelei. You can achieve great things. You feel music and you know how to weave magic with it. You could reach the heights of Cypro one day, if you had the ambition. But you are throwing it all away for this little girl!”
The spirit shamelessly jabbed his finger in the direction of the quiet child.
“You have no heart!” the Salamander King roared, jumping to his feet.
“I do not,” Eid agreed. “And I never did. My luthier created me perfectly, without any of the weaknesses that afflict you lot. I am created for true grandeur, not for languishing in the company of the wretched who are unable to realize and nurture their potential. I want you to know, Lorelei, that if you decide to follow the path of pointless pity, then at the end of this journey you won’t be able to pull a single note out of me.”
I paused to think here. And I thought hard. It would be stupid to decline a legendary instrument. And stupider still to decline the equivalent of my guitar synth, which I so missed here in Barliona. And on top of it all I would throw it all away for a social quest which I probably wouldn’t even be able to complete.
I cast a long look at the girl and sighed heavily. I’ve lived a fool’s life so I guess I’ll die a fool’s death too.
“In that case, you’ll just have to go on gathering dust in Astilba’s closet. Master Pirus makes wonderful instruments. I imagine I’ll be able to find something to my liking when I get out of here.”
Eid’s smirk gave way to utter disappointment. Well…who cares. At least the Salamander King looked at me with evident approval. But of course—senselessly heroic deeds are just his thing. I guess he decided that he’s found a kindred soul in me. How does that proverb go? A fool knows a fool from afar. Or was it something else…?
My ruminations were interrupted by the hiss of Salamander’s sword leaving its scabbard. I followed the spirit’s eyes—and was struck numb.
The cause of this hostile and threatening act by Salamander was the appearance of a new individual. Then again, I’m not sure that the eight eyes crowning the thorax of this creature qualified it for the term individual. Due to the nature of the local atmosphere, which permitted the eye to see only up to a certain point, the tarantula’s immense silhouette came into focus only gradually. It was about ten meters tall and just as gray as the surrounding world, yet I could discern a slightly darker pattern on its belly and paws. Spiders have never scared me. One time I’d even held a large bird spider in my hand. But seeing a creature the size of a small townhouse, I experienced an intense spasm of xenophobia mixed with arachnophobia.
“It looks like someone in Barliona still remembers the Tarantulas,” Salamander seethed through his teeth.
The fallen king stepped forward, screening the child and holding his sword en garde. What he was about to do remained a mystery—the spirit’s weapon looked like a toothpick relative to the impressive spider torso.
Seeing the tarantula, the rest of the souls around us scattered every which way. I wonder what one spirit can do to another? Why are they so afraid of this creature? Or was this merely their vestigial memory of living under the yoke of the Arachnid Lords? And yet there were some who didn’t take fright at the sight of the giant spider. My paladin friend also unsheathed his sword and stepped shoulder to shoulder with the Salamander King, while the gaunt warlock examined the Tarantula with naked interest, but without fear—like an equal.
“Art thou here still, Lizard King?” the sounds emanating from the spider were odd, full of clicks and chirrs. But the voice pierced me to the core. The girl squealed in terror and hid herself under my cape. “Do some weak minds still recall thy senseless rebellion, thy just suppression?”
“It wasn’t quite so senseless if you’re here instead of in Barliona,” the rebel king parried.
I couldn’t discern any emotions on the Tarantula’s terrifying visage, but its tone oozed condescension.
“‘Twas maugre all thine efforts, worm. Thy life, as thy death, were naught but a fleeting hindrance. No matter—I have come to speak with thou, oh nullity.”
All eight of the spider’s eyes fixed on me, kindling a strong urge to exit the game. However, the trembling girl clutching my leg and the intrepid king’s spirit before me—prepared to fall once again to save another—forced me to suppress my terror.
“Let me guess, you want me to lead you through the Gate as well?” I asked with a challenge—even as I repeated silently to myself: ‘it’s just a game, this isn’t real.’
The spider wiggled its tentacles revoltingly, and began to chirr and gurgle. It took me a moment to realize that this sound was its version of laughter.
“I haven’t spent millennia accumulating my powers in order to re-enter the world for a brief space as some insubstantial spirit. Nay, I seek not thy conduct to the Gate.”
These unexpected words caused Salamander and me to exchange glances.
“What do you want then?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“There are still creatures in Barliona who have maintained their fealty to their lawful Lords,” the Tarantula replied with evident pleasure. “I shall tell thou where thou may’st find my trusty servants. Obeying my word, they shall welcome thou and perform the orders I relay with thee. Following the cataclysm, caused by a certain cretin, there are only a handful of my kind in Barliona. Feral and insensate, they have hidden themselves. Only I know where. All thou must do is bring one of my servants to them. They shall accumulate energy that will permit them to summon me into the world of the living in my full might and power. The rest shall be my care. I shall possess the body of an insignificant descendent and the world shall once more shiver beneath the Tarantulas’ myriad heels! My servants shall reward thee with ancient, powerful artifacts and thou shalt assume a noble station in the restored chain of being.”

Quest available: Tarantella Reprise.
Description: Locate the Tarantella Cult in the Free Lands and relay to them the commands of their Lord. Help the cultists perform the summoning ritual with the Tarantula’s spirit and his living descendant. Quest type: Unique scenario.
Reward for completion: Exalted status with the Tarantella Cult.
Respect status with the Tarantula Lords.
Hatred status with all other Barliona factions.
Three artifacts from the treasure vaults of the Tarantella Cult. An official title and property.
Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: Hatred status with the Tarantella Cult.

“You’re wasting your time,” the Salamander King laughed. “She would never accept your offer. No one aside from some madmen wishes to see the return of your hegemony.”
I have to admit that such sincere faith in my character, warmed my heart. The sadder it was to disappoint this person.
“Four artifacts and we have a deal!”
Salamander turned slowly, clearly unable to believe his own ears. The puzzlement in his eyes gave way to such a deep disappointment that I felt unbearably ashamed. Eid, meanwhile, burst out into loud and triumphant laughter.
“I see you have seen reason, Lorelei.”
“Don’t do this, bard!” the paladin spoke up. “No treasure in the world is worth dealing with such a monstrous villain! All of the gods of Barliona will curse you!”
“They’re not too happy with me as things stand,” I informed the indignant spirit and then turned back to the Tarantula: “So what do you say? Four artifacts, or do you prefer to dwell here another hundred years before some other bard finds a way into the Gray Lands?”
“Thy disposition pleases me,” the Tarantula chirred contentedly. “One must care for one’s interest, snatching the boons from Fortune’s hand at every chance. Thou hast my consent. Four artifacts it shall be!”

Quest updated: Tarantella Reprise.

“I will do what you ask,” I said, accepting the quest. “Tell me where I am to seek your servants and descendants.”
The immense spider body quivered in seeming ecstasy. Although, I haven’t the tiniest idea about arachnid body language.
“Thy map has been marked, bard,” the Tarantula clicked happily. “And now ‘tis time I depart. I must contact my servants. Let them prepare for the ritual…”
Twitching his furry fangs and emitting the odd click, the Tarantula Lord crawled off languidly. This one had it made. He could communicate with the world of the living and he had some cult that kept him remembered. It looks like even in death, the mighty creatures have it easier than everyone else.
“How wrong I was about you, bard!” the Salamander King spat in my face. He looked enraged: his eyes fierce, his hands trembling from barely contained wrath. “Maybe the Tarantula was right. In vain I fought for my descendants—who with their own hands pave the way back to Barliona for this greatest of all evils!”
“I am not one for excessive theatrics,” remarked the warlock, whom I’d already forgotten about entirely, “but you are treating with powers that you could not even imagine.”
“Do you want to help that scary spider monster?” the girl backpedaled from me. “Are you going to send that nightmare to my mommy?”
The paladin, meanwhile, didn’t mince words or moralize. Getting a better grip on his claymore, he raised it overhead and brought it crashing down onto me. I jumped reflexively but the blade passed through my body without any pain.
“By the Light of Eluna’s Blessed Visage!” the holy knight cursed and took another swipe at me perhaps to make up for this latest transgression. Also without any effect, but I appreciated the gesture. A man of action. I can respect that.
Eid was the only one enjoying the situation. The instrument’s soul was giggling like a madman. In general he behaved a little oddly. Back in the Intermundis he was quite the polite spirit. He had even apologized when he killed me. Now however he was acting like the Dark Lord. Had his new Nazgul guise gone to his head?
“I suggest that everyone calms down,” I tried to assuage the spirits’ righteous wrath. “We need to find the Gate.”
“And you think that I’ll go on helping you?” Salamander seemed stunned by this new audacity.
“Don’t you want me to rescue the little one’s spirit from here?” I appealed to the rebel king’s soft spot.
He ground his teeth and forced himself to nod:
“Only for the sake of this child shall I help you, oh false-faced abomination!”
“Your assistance, noble paladin, would be welcome too,” I said to the paladin, insolently. “If you care for this poor, innocent child, you will help me find the Gate that leads out of the Gray Lands.”
The paladin glanced from me at the clammed up girl and then at the irate Salamander. The rebel king returned his look heavily and then, after a moment’s hesitation, nodded.
“All right,” the holy knight agreed. “I don’t understand entirely how I am to help, but for this child’s sake I shall escort you. However, if Eluna can still hear me, she will curse you as soon as you return to Barliona, bard.”
“I am sure she will,” I assured him. “But at the moment, I need to find the Gate.”
The mysterious warlock didn’t try to join our company. He merely repeated, “Remember my offer, bard” as a farewell and went off on his business.
No one said anything else after that. Salamander and the paladin cast me immolating looks, the girl (whose name I still hadn’t bothered asking) preferred to hold onto the deceased king, and Eid, as per usual, walked apart, enjoying the show in the company of his mount.

[1]The army of the Lair models itself on that of Ancient Rome. Accordingly, the titles and the names of the units and their specializations conform to those used in Ancient Rome.
[2] Scarecrow — a character from a fairy tale by L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
[3] SS Great Eastern—the largest vessel of the 19th century. Launched on January 31, 1858.

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