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 resurrected the terrible agony I’d experienced during the changing of my race. It wasn’t right. Who came up with the idea of torturing players like that? Or was it supposed to be a particular ‘perk’ of 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 got into the capsule, the first thing I did was carefully review 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 strange ornament of her epidermis. 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 flower would cover 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 pircs, 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 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 spend 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?”
“What?”
“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 I 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 got in the way of 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 pirc 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 pirc 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 video.
“If you’ve satiated your narcissism,” Palisandro taunted me kindly, “you should go see Legate[1] 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. Sasha was about to go down a deep hole, comparing tattoos and writing, but Pasha stopped him in time, telling the lecturer to go to the kitchen to make tea. Otherwise our excursion into history 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 pirc 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 pirc 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 pirc standing beside us with a Zweihander.
The pirc 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 pircs. 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 epic 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?”
“No…”
“Then it’s decided,” the pirc 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 repeated. “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. Class: 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 casting about 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 on his task. “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 usefully—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… In that case, 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. Class: Class-based unique. Restrictions: You must begin the quest on the spot and perform it until it is complete.
Reward for completion: +1000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest, +14,000 XP. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -1000 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.”
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 turned the uneven row of marks into 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 peoples, creating an imperceptible bond between the present and the past, the living and the dead. This bond permits certain Bards to summon the souls of heroes long gone with their songs. To be resurrected, the souls require a portion of the Bard’s life force 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) Length of summoned soul’s stay in Barliona: (Intellect / 10 + Composition) hours until the soul exhausts its life force. Cooldown: 72 hours.

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

Quest completed: 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 completed: Decipher the Scroll.
+1000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest. Current status: Friendly.

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

Achievement unlocked:
‘Legendary Hit, Level 1’ (Four learned or created songbooks remaining until next level).
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 class: 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 pirc teams, the clamor 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, pirc. 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 pirc barked at his companion.
Only now did I notice how closely the two resembled each other—the pirc 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 you’ll come back here and go 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 bud 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: Friendly.
Experience gained: +100 XP.

Items acquired: Shadow seeds.

Quest available: Help the Renegades: Step 2.
Description: Sow the Shadow seeds. Class: 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 sorry to have to speak the words and replied: “Sow them based on the pattern—the location’s 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 indicated location on the map with the Shadow seeds according to the plan.

Once I was outside of the tent of the unfriendly biota I opened the map and studied the location of the sowing. At least there was a bit of luck there: the spot 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. Besides Sasha, Sloe’s guildmates still wanted to cross the Arras and at this point Sloe instantly announced that he wanted to act as the scout. The plan was elegant in its simplicity. The sly orc hit on the idea of selling his contacts in the Dark Legion the opportunity to enter a closed location. By way of payment he decided to ask for the teleportation of his game party to the Arras in order to provide security from aggressive monsters that were too strong for us.
“Under no conditions can we let third parties in on this!” Sloe announced 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 bargain with some gear for you, useful scrolls and whatnot—whatever your newb soul desires. But no competitors!”
“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 pircs 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 the ranger’s long nose began sniffle the air and in the next second he yelled: “The burgers are burning!”
He 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.[2] 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.[3] 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 they got it 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 he had some problems with 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 their sheet. “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 for 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? Pircs and biota won’t accept you—you’ve crossed the border and will immediately have a negative rep. 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! Even on the moon! And all on the public dime.”
Sloe waved his hand grimly and turned to the most taciturn member of our group.
“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,” Sasha 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 people, who had seen much of what I hadn’t even seen in the movies, cooking their hearts out without considering this any threat to their masculinity at all. To the opposite: What kind of a man would you be if, far from civilization, you die shamefully as a result of your own inability to provide food and shelter for yourself? You can’t argue with it either. 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, Sasha, should be writing novels instead of wasting your time in the army. Novels about love among psychos.”
“You forgot a muff of pirc 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 pirc 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 numbskull 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. Okay. 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 at the glowing eyes of the monster.
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 blight border 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…
Two 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. Doesn’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 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 Film. What’s the deal with its range and effect duration?

Shadow Film: Target area is covered with a film of impenetrable Shadow in which only creatures who have adopted Shadow can see. Even a divine gaze would have trouble piercing 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 Film, 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 that out as I 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 tree. 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 Film. The world went gray but didn’t lose its definition, while the sentry slowed his pace and began looking around a little confused. 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 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 Film’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 level of 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.

The gladiolus was nearing, 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 Film, 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 it was in this sector that the overgrown ent was slowly approaching the area of color.

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 Film 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…Aha! 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 trembled beneath my feet, reminding me of the 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 trembled beneath my feet 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 update: Help the Renegades: Step 2.
1 of 14 large seeds planted.
13 large seeds and 57 small ones remaining.
Achievement unlocked! ‘Grim Sower Level 1’ (Sow 9 more Shadow Seeds to reach the next level)
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 Film’s cooldown, so I had to act quickly and accurately. Wait for the root spell, jump into the air, reset the timer and keep going.
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 base 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 enter the actual blighted area 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 something emerald and glowing began to fly around his 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 devil 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 public 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, a connection. That’s it. I’m putting Sasha on notice for his neglect of your 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 a 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 shrilled 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 ample-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 on a world tour in 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 avatar? You was going to be a warrior. How is a pirc 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. Chip 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 Sasha—or you and your schizophrenia?” I asked suspiciously.
“Well, items two and three in your list are actually just the same thing,” the pilot corrected me. “My plan with the biota isn’t artful, it’s merely racy—more so than Afghan ganja. 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 the premiere of some show at the Bolshoi.
“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 Film. Should I invest some points into Intellect? Then I’d be able to increase the AoE of the Film 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 free 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 that would be a drop in a bucket. 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 Pasha 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 pircs 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 task is 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 pirc 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 territory 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 meta-gaming contemplation 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 a group of biota in beautiful wooden armor explaining something to a ginger, furry pirc. I recalled both the pirc and the biota from my vision of the Schism. This was the Second, the eldest warrior of my people, and one of the pirc advisers that I was seeing with my own two eyes. Does this mean that these boys were going to be the bosses in the dungeon? And 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? Either way, the game was all that mattered. 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 clasped Astilba’s neck. It all looked like loot 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 pirc 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 vibe with my own skin: Not the kindest, but 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 pirc 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 learn the spell that it contained. But 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, watching the magic that you wield and then recreate the same dynamic 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. Class: Class-based unique. Reward for completion: +1000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest, +15000 XP, and one of Astilba’s spells. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -1000 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. Class: Class-based unique. 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 junk that takes ‘a few drinks to figure out’ as Beast liked to say about any instrument that had more than four strings. 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?
Confirmed.



[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.
release - November 19



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