Thursday, January 24, 2019

Disgardium: Class-A Threat by Dan Sugralinov

Disgardium by Dan Sugralinov
Book 1: Class-A Threat

Release - April 22, 2019

Chapter 1. Sandbox

For my birthday, my parents got me an Infinitum 8. Not a very expensive model of immersion pod, but one of the best in its class. It was the present I wanted most for my fourteenth birthday because that is the age you can finally start playing the coolest and most popular game on the planet – Disgardium.
As soon as the birthday party was over and the guests were gone, dad smiled:
"Can't wait to test it out?"
I nodded. How could I!? An immersion pod is not some steam-powered VR-helmet with sensors gloves!
"Go on then, Alex," mom said and laughed, embracing dad.
"Don't go in too long your first time!" he shouted after me. "Alex?"
"Yes, dad!"

I answered, almost running to my room where the new pod awaited me. I mean it was already installed, calibrated and ready to use. I hurriedly got undressed and went inside. It was vertical, but could change its orientation based on my actions in the virtual world. Gravity is a heartless bitch and it’s hard to feel like you're standing when your real body is lying down.
I grabbed the metal handles and froze. A few seconds passed, but nothing happened. Does it really not work? I was going to run down to get in touch with the manufacturer when a stern voice rang out in the pod:
"Alex, your heart is beating too quickly for your first immersion experience! Access denied."
"Oh come on!" I shouted.
"Apologies for the inconvenience, but characters can only be generated when the player is in a normal physical condition..." the voice muttered an excerpt from the user's manual. Then it followed up with some helpful advice: "Alex, do your best to calm down and try again. Thank you."
With a sigh, I climbed out of the pod and walked out onto my little balcony. On the backdrop of the starry sky, all kinds of silvery delivery drones quietly buzzed past, landing and taking off from the windows of our huge residential complex.
Higher up, a procession of public flying cars darkened the sky above. As of today, I was legally allowed to pilot them without computer control and I was eager to try it out. Of course, I would have to pass the license test first, but I had no doubts about that.
A cloud of condensation burst out of my mouth. I shivered. The cold damp wind made me shiver even though, earlier today, it was pretty clearly turning to spring.
A few minutes later, I was calm and back in the pod. This time I saw no warnings, and the immersion process began.
Intragel filled the space, going over my head, but it didn’t hamper my breathing. Finally, I closed my eyes.
And when I opened them, I was in space. The sensation of weightlessness took my breath away, and I could barely resist waving my arms and legs. That couldn't do any harm though: the pod assumed control over my muscles, while the intragel kept my body suspended and out of harm’s way. That way, if something went wrong and it lost control of my body, the gel would protect me from injury.

Good evening, Alex!
Please choose the world you would like to be immersed in.

The text was then read out by an airy female voice. In terms of worlds, there wasn’t much choice. I had the moon-sized test world Infinitum, made to demonstrate the pod's capabilities, or the huge Disgardium, which came factory preinstalled on all pods.
And that was what I chose. Some system logs ran before my eyes:

Biological age confirmed.
Access to Disgardium permitted.
Notifying Department of Education... Success... Status confirmed.

Welcome to your first immersion experience!
Scanning body... Success... Character appearance generated.
Allowed version of the world: Sandbox.
Recommended location: Tristad.

Unfortunately, I could only play in the sandbox until sixteen. It was a private location with access is restricted to underage players. Adults from the full version were not allowed in, and all content was strictly age-appropriate...
All around me, I saw a flurry of majestic cities and abandoned villages; epic battles and ghastly monsters; the six not yet entirely explored continents; heavenly gardens and fiery wastelands; a billion active players and just as many non-player characters, which was to say nothing of the noncitizen workers; seaside resorts and city blocks of forbidden pleasures...

Welcome to Disgardium, Alex!
Welcome to a world where dozens of nonhuman races live in harmony. A world where sword and magic reign! A world where anyone could become a king or a hero! A world you will want to live in! A world where anything can happen...

I didn’t even think of interrupting the intro, savoring the massive scale and brilliant colors of this world that was so recently off limits. I had been dreaming of this moment for far too long.
The primer on Disgardium came to an end. I was immersed in darkness for an instant and suddenly found myself in a room full of people.
It was a few boys and girls and we were all wearing identical canvas garb and looking around in surprise. I was just overtaken and couldn't hide my glee. It was all so real! The wooden floor creaked underfoot, rafters peeked out from behind the high ceiling, and light from the windows jumped along the walls, playing off our shadows. I could smell a sappy tree, dust was whirled in the rays of the sun. The canvas shirt fit loosely over my body and, when I touched it I could feel my ribs through the fabric. Unbelievable!
"Woah!" shrieked a girl with long black hair. "Who pinched me?"
Everyone laughed. The girl sneezed, and that caused a new burst of laughter.
"Happy birthday, all!" I shouted.
"Happy birthday!" rang out discordantly through the laughter.
All of us had just today reached our fourteenth year, that was obvious. Who in their right mind would put off their first taste of Disgardium?
"Just a minute! Shouldn't we see our names?"
"We haven't even generated our characters yet, dummy!"
In our fevered anticipation, we didn't notice at first but the door had opened.
"Welcome, guests of Tristad!" came a sonorous male voice.
We turned. In the doorway, hiding a smile in his whiskers, there stood a respectable man with graying locks. Over him hovered the words:

Peter Whiteacre, level 30
Chief Councilman of the city of Tristad.

"It is my pleasure to welcome you to the free city of Tristad, where everyone has a place be they a hero or a warrior, bard or wise man, hunter or mage, druid or a common quarry worker..." the councilman listed another series of classes and professions, then got to the list of races inhabiting the Commonwealth: "We are equally glad to see people, elves, and gnomes..."
I listened with interest. Studying materials online was one thing, but finally becoming part of all this was another. The councilman then gave us a brief overview of the state of the world: all races of the Commonwealth were at war with hordes of orcs and barbaric nonhuman tribes. They also repelled raids of the beasts from the Abyss and the illogical attacks of the Devastators, resisted dark brotherhoods, the Sleeping Gods, the Goblin League...
Lots of things happened in this world, and it was possible that some of us would remain in the Commonwealth after transitioning to the adult world. Though others would certainly use the chance to change their character to a different faction.
"I can see that you're all tired from the long road," Whiteacre said finally. "Now please complete your registration with Carlson the scribe, then I'll answer any questions you have. If there are no questions, go out and see the city, meet its inhabitants and bring it good fortune..."
We started heading toward the registration desk. There was a plump rosy-cheeked scribe sitting there, and I was at the back of the line.
"Complete these arrival forms," said Carlson, handing them out.
That paper, once in hand, unfolded into a character registration form.
In the sandbox, you could only play a person, so it wasn't clear why Whiteacre had listed all the races of the Commonwealth for us. And we could only choose a class at level ten, so now we could only fill in our name and allocate attribute points.
I had my name picked out long ago, back when my dad used to keep me entertained with stories from ancient history.

Your game name: Scyth.

I could say it has no meaning, but that isn’t true. I hope I can live up to the name.

Scyth! You have 15 main attribute points.
In large part, your attributes will determine your entire life in Disgardium from your strategy in battle to the way others perceive you!
Take your time and think carefully! Your attributes cannot be reset!

In school, I heard that no matter what class you choose, you need every attribute to be ten at least. Strength – at the very least so I can carry lots of weight. Agility and perception – so I don't miss my targets and do critical damage. Intelligence defines mana regeneration, and without it you cannot use any special moves, even if you are a warrior. With low charisma, you can forget about good quests and discounts from traders. And luck, meanwhile, has a bit of impact on just about everything.
So then, after some brief thought, I put two into each one. I added the extra point to endurance without really thinking, just because it was there.

Scyth, level-1 human
Real name: Alex Sheppard.
Real age: 14.
Class: not chosen.

Main attributes:
Strength: 2.
Perception: 2.
Endurance: 3.
Charisma: 2.
Intelligence: 2.
Agility: 2.
Luck: 2.

Now finished, I handed the completed arrival sheet to the scribe. He scanned it, snorted, gave a strained smile and, with exaggerated enthusiasm, announced:
"Welcome to Tristad, Scyth!"
Coming out, I stopped on the stairs, looking down the central street dreamily and smiling.
Disgardium, meet your new hero!

Chapter 2. A Year and a Half Later

There were only five minutes left in class, and the students was starting to get restless.
"The bell hasn't rung yet," Greg Kovacs, our history teacher, noted sternly. "Take your seats! Edward! Sit down this instant!"
Ed Rodriguez, leader of the Dementors clan, scraping his desk along the floor, sat back down despite himself. Modern history was the last lesson for today, and he just couldn't wait to dive back into Disgardium.
"I’m not finished," Greg frowned. "Alright kids, class is extended by two minutes! You know who to thank."
"But teacher!" Ed objected. "Mr. Kovacs..."
"No 'buts,' Rodriguez!"
Blonde-haired Tissa, sitting behind Ed, hissed out something that sounded very much like "shit!" She was in Ed's clan and, seemingly, they had a raid scheduled today.
"That’ll be three minutes, Melissa Schafer," the historian corrected himself nonchalantly and continued the lecture: "After the collapse of the world banking system..."
Tissa rolled her eyes and gave a loud sigh, not unclenching her lips. Ed, turning around, blew her a kiss. Tissa shot him a middle finger back.
"... the UN," Greg said, writing the name on the whiteboard and underlining it. "That led to the creation of the Unified World Bank and the single world currency. Who can tell me what it was called?"
"The phoenix," the class answered in unison.
"Exactly," the teacher nodded. "And who knows what a phoenix looks like?"
Silence. Knowing my history teacher, it was better to answer. Otherwise we could end up sitting here a whole half hour.
"The phoenix is a mythological bird that can burn itself up and come back from the ashes," I said. "The first written mention of the phoenix myth is found in Herodotus."
"I appreciate your knowledge of mythology, Alex, but I was asking about the currency. The phoenix doesn't have a material form. It is a digital currency, independent of economic and political conditions. In the same year, another important change took place in society..."
He started talking about the upcoming mandatory citizenship tests, what a pitiful existence noncitizens must live, how there were now more of them than citizens, and how they are constantly dying without support from society... But by the end, no one was listening anymore. For the last seconds of our extra minutes, we were drumming on the desks, and shouting out a countdown:
"Three! Two! One!"
The thunder of every chair scooting back at once drowned out what Mr. Kovacs said about homework and the upcoming test.
The Dementors were the first to race out of class, driven on by Ed. They treated Disgardium seriously, because they saw it as their future. Snowstorm Incorporated, the developer, was the first company to pay people to game.
And ever since, it has been the most widely played full-immersion game, even receiving certification from the United Nations itself. And now that is where noncitizens and citizens with low qualifications spend their days and earn their money. For many, it was the only way to change their lot in life.
But definitely not for me.
It had been a year and a half since I first loaded up Dis. I thought I was very clever setting all my attributes the same. How wrong I was! That gave me a character with piss-poor damage and dispiriting aim. I was hardly fit to live. Unfortunately, even though I had read a few guides before my first session, I missed that particular factoid. I knew that every level would give me five attribute points, so I figured if anything was wrong I could just fix it in no time at all. It seemed so trivial to get just a few levels.
But it wasn't all puppies and rainbows like I imagined. Bots were in no rush to give me quests, and farming mobs turned out to not only be tedious, but quite difficult!
Level-one rats refused to be easy farming, and took me down in a couple of bites every time. I had to land ten or so blows, constantly swinging, before I could even take down one of them. And that was if I had someone holding the rat for me.
And when I joined a group with beginners like me, those drips of experience became dewdrops. When I realized that, my enthusiasm was extinguished. And this wasn’t exactly an uncommon experience. Some just stopped playing, others opted for social quests.
But leveling like that was hopelessly tedious and never-ending. Just to get one experience point, for example, you had to spend a few hours doing social labor like cleaning out stables or pulling weeds in gardens. Half a year in the game to get a couple levels? Oh abyss!
And one day I quit the game, but the next I was inspired by the success of a few classmates and entered again with new hopes and plans. But the longer I played, the more disenchanted I grew.
At the beginning, you can’t get any equipment, armor or weapons. The lowliest knife in the weapons store cost a few silver, and you have to complete fifty social quests to get just one silver coin. Fight rats with my bare hands? Ha! These things were so big they’d have the upper hand on a rottweiler in the real world! And even if I could kill one, the reward was just one experience point, maybe two if I really got lucky.
So in the end I just couldn’t stand it. After a few weeks trying every way to level, the experience bar was no more than five percent full. I didn't even hit level two.
For some reason known only to the developers, it was impossible to delete a character and create a new one from scratch in sandboxes. Maybe that was to make us more responsible for our decisions.
Meanwhile, I was disgusted by the idea of spending real money on the game both then and now. I mean, I knew how hard up my parents were for cash. It wasn’t like basic equipment would cost some astronomical amount, but by the time I considered it, Dis had already lost its charm to me.
I won't argue, at first it was interesting to explore an absolutely new world with its own laws, rules, geography, history and races. It even had different physics, given both magic and teleportation were possible.
But it was only truly engaging for the first few days. Weeding or respawning again and again after the deadly bites of some overgrown spider? No, thanks.
What was more, my heart yearned for outer space. The first settlements were being made on Mars, and it seemed to me that exploring a real new world was somewhat more interesting than a virtual one. I greedily ate up anything I could find about space expeditions, studied the requirements for getting into university and prepared for exams. My parents supported my ambition too, setting money aside for my studies.
But I still had to play Dis. And every day.
From the age of fourteen, every underage person was required to spend at least one hour per day in the game. Snowstorm Inc.’s long tendrils reached into the UN Department of Education. Now it was thought to be an important part of a child’s education, providing necessary socialization skills and preparing us for adult life, whether it be in the real world or Disgardium.
Every day was exactly the same for me there. I usually spent the whole hour sitting on a bench opposite the Bubbling Flagon tavern. Just after me, the neighbor girl Eve O'Sullivan would come into the game. She couldn't even stand a hint of pain, so she was also not super happy with the game. And for that reason, she came to kill time with me.
The sooner the citizenship tests came the better. After that, I could be done with this onerous requirement.
Thinking about all that, I hurried to leave school. Our lot had a limited number of flying cars, and if you didn't manage to get one on the first go around, you'd have to wait for one to come back.
And that's just what happened. Or more accurately, one of the last ones still had an empty seat, but I wanted a whole flying car to myself so I could drive it manually.
The school parking lot was on the roof, next to a solar panel array. Eve was sitting there. She always waited for me so we could fly home together. Her father's business was really taking off, but they were still in our apartment complex.
Eve's face lit up. I might have thought she liked me, but that didn't do anything for me. She was sweet, but not at all to my taste and didn’t watch her figure, eating chocolate bars in quantities that vastly surpassed Department of Health recommendations.
"How was your day?"
"Like normal, Eve. Two classes of ethics of modern society, two programming domestic robotics, two modern history. Dullsville."
"Oh god, I never understood, why we need history!" she shouted and, her voice changed, trying to parody Greg's unique manner of speaking. "The last president of the United States..."
Eve got distracted and started thinking. I threw off the backpack and sat down next to her. All the flying cars were gone, so we would have to wait here at least ten minutes. Then a tarry column of acrid bitumen shot up into the air from the asphalt of the take-off platform.
"That damned Dis again," she sighed. "When are you going in today? As usual, right after you eat?"
"Mhm. The sooner I start, the sooner I'm done. Then I can do whatever I want."
"And what do you want to do?" Eve asked, emphasizing the word "what,” attempting a languid tone, drawing out the last word and slanting her gaze.
Aw, abyss! Flirting was definitely not her strong suit. Where had she seen that move? Nevertheless, I was caught off guard.
"Probably not what you had in mind," I answered with a smile. I didn't want to offend her, she was a great girl and I had known her since childhood. "I'll be studying materials on the Leman expedition to Mars."
"I see. I just thought... Maybe you'd want to..."
"What?" I didn't want to embarrass her, but it was better to break it off right away before it turned into an upwelling of unjustified hopes.
"Maybe... Maybe we could watch it together?" she blurted out in one breath.
"Sorry, not today. My parents are working on a new project, I don't want us to distract them."
I tactically said "us," although I meant only her. My father and mother had finally gotten an easy order, but the client was fickle and it was best to keep risks to a minimum. Money had been tight at my house recently.
Dad suspects mom is having an affair, which is driving him more and more to the bottle, and when he drinks he gets paranoid, suspicious and aggressive. Mom, of course, doesn't like that. And so she leaves home on the sly and comes back around morning. I definitely think she’s seeing someone.
Their constant fighting ruins my mood so much I don't even want to do my homework. And that is a problem. To get into university, I need high average points.
"We can watch it at mine," Eve didn’t relent.
"Let's decide later," I answered, hoping that by then her spark would have gone out.
Flying cars began returning to the parking lot. We got into one, and I gave a nod to Eve:
"So, are we flying, or the computer?"
I changed the automatic steering to manual and took off into the air. Flying... what could be better? Only the stars.

Chapter 3. Bad news

After eating, I went on Dis. Eve and I sat on the bench across from the Bubbling Flagon tavern which was, by the way, the only one in all Tristad. We just chatted and looked around.
The city’s life had its own rhythm. Players ran around unimpeded, coursing between the market square, bank and the auction. There was so much noise that twenty minutes after loading I wanted to go deaf at least for a bit. Everyone around was screaming, arguing, negotiating, inviting people to groups and just-formed clans.
The sound of criers and barkers for local merchants and craftsmen energetically cut into their din. Maneuvering between them all was awkward due to my low attributes. Couriers and other low-level players darted here and there, carrying out social quests for the city.
And they all ignored the red-faced town drunk Patrick. They just pretended that he didn't exist – that's how much he bothered everyone. That unlovable bot was always begging for copper. Yet there were rumors that if you cranked your reputation with him up to maximum, you could get some legendary quest. But few tried, because at a rate of one rep per copper, the price was too steep for most noobs.
A bit further down the street some restless gnomes were causing a ruckus with some dignified dwarves, negotiating for every silver. Even from here I could hear that they were talking about some new gnomish formulation. The city guard was standing at the entrance to the tavern looking suspiciously at the passersby...
By the way, in the sandbox taverns the players were only served cream beer. No alcohol! Explicit language was beeped out and penalized with experience points. And also it was not possible to get fully undressed here and, instead of sex organs, all you could touch was... Nothing. Like a child's doll.
Too bad, of course. I had no problems with girls, but the very thought of something greater than a normal conversation made me shiver. I would not have said no to a bit of practice.
Just so you know, that does not apply to Eve O'Sullivan. One bit. And the nick she chose, Aphrodite, was somehow not very fitting for her. Although maybe she simply didn't know who that was.
But if I dreamt of something greater than chatting, it was only with Tissa Schafer. And it just so happened that she was walking on the other side of the street just then with Ed and the other guys from the clan. They were talking loudly and laughing.
Based on how they were barely moving their legs, they were all encumbered and heading to auction on the market square, to the smith or to a merchant stall to get rid of all their loot before another raid. They probably didn't have anything of value, maybe just a hunk of rusty scrap from the mine of the hyena-like gnolls. That was not the most complicated instance, but it had to be done before raiding the dungeon of the man-eating ogres where they were going. And maybe they were planning to go to the new ins in the Olton Quarries, which everyone was talking about in school...
"Does she have to shake her thighs like that?" Eve asked in annoyance, looking at Tissa.
I led my gaze over Melissa's tall and well-proportioned figure, wrapped in the short white dress of a priestess of Nergal the Radiant – that was the name of the main deity in this world, or at the very least that god had the most followers, which meant faith points. I couldn't look away. It was a captivating spectacle, and only Eve's look of admonishment in the corner of my eye made me stop leering at Tissa Schafer's back.
Here all characters were an exact copy of the people who played them but, in the real world, Tissa never wore clothes like that. There she usually loafed around in oversized pants and baggy hoodies. So I could only admire her here. And that was the only thing I liked about the game.
Of all the players I knew in Tristad, only she and Ed "Crawler" Rodriguez had become mages. Magic was an inalienable part of the world. In theory everyone here could master it, but it cost unspeakable sums of cash to learn. A tome of basic magic of any school cost at least ten thousand gold! That was approximately the same number of phoenixes, and that was enough money to buy a flying car.
But neither of them bought any tomes. Tissa randomly found a quest object that brought her on a long chain where the final reward was light magic training in the Temple of Nergal the Radiant.
And Ed got the fire magic class supposedly after getting a tome as loot in an instance. Fate had been kind to him, or he just got the loot as the clan leader – I didn't know.
"I'm bored," said Eve, looking at me demandingly.
"Do you want to take a walk around the city?"
"Not really," she shook her head, and I understood that I had guessed wrong. But I wasn't going to play her naïve little flirting game.
"Then let’s please just sit quietly."
Eve went silent.
I would gladly have read something, but there was no way to bring stuff in here. This was a medieval fantasy world, where the highest achievement of technology was the primitive powder guns of the gnomes and dwarves. So I'd have to read, or more accurately, reread the game encyclopedia: "Gnomes provide the dwarves with various powder weapons: rifles, muskets and even cannons. And they also do not disdain steam machines either, among other things..."
Boring. Why should I care about steam power in the age of colonizing the Solar System?
Damn, time was drawing out so long! Too bad I couldn't break up the required hour per day into several sessions. It was thought to be harmful to the psyche, constantly changing between realities. There were cases when people didn't manage to adapt post-virt. In the game, they rakishly carry heavy two-handed words, but in the real world they were weaklings, which at time led people to overestimate their abilities and hurt themselves.
Feeling bored, I once again opened the interface menu and looked at my profile:

Scyth, level-1 human
Real name: Alex Sheppard.
Real age: 15.
Class: not chosen.

In the sandboxes, you had to show your real name and age. That was to cultivate responsibility in schoolchildren for their behavior in the game. In the first years, only your nick was indicated in your profile and you could generate any appearance.
That was a truly blessed time for dorks and losers, who took revenge in the game on their real-life bullies. Then a wave of parent outrage swept the world and, after brief discussion, real names were added to sandbox profiles and characters were given their true appearance. The next day, almost none of the gankers went back to school…
Eve stood up. She probably wasn’t mad. She always forgave me for stupid jokes.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm sick of sitting here," she answered, turning. "Shall we go take a walk?"
I also stood up and we headed to the city gates. On the way, I remembered that five minutes earlier I had suggested we take a walk and she didn't want to. Girls...
Mills, the gate guard, tossed us a passing gaze and gave a signal to his partner:
"Let them through!"
For the next few seconds we waited patiently for the gates to open enough to get through, then we went beyond the city limits. Eve said something about a gift her parents were getting for her birthday, but I was barely listening.
The edge of the forest was just twenty yards away when we were caught by a group of running players. I spit out a curse. The last thing we needed were the Dementors. I always thought their leader Ed "Crawler" looked at me funny, quick to tease me whenever he got the chance.
"Where are you guys going?" he asked, giving a jocular smile. "A romantic date in the Murkwood? Or are you going raiding for rabbits?"
"Come on, Rodriguez," I answered.
In the last few months, I had grown used to my classmates teasing me. It always followed the same scenario. Now Malik "Infect," the tanned thief would make some joke about my progress, and Hung "Bomber" would pile on. Then Tissa would frown and try to bring her clanmates to reason, and Crawler would balk, saying they had no more time to waste on pathetic noobs...
"Not likely," Infect said. "A rare mob just popped up by the rabbits. They won't be able to take it; their equipment is too low level."
"Do you think they'll attack the butterflies?" Bomber asked, keeping the serious expression on his face. His father was Chinese, and his mother Swedish, which explained how Hung turned out a six-foot-six wall of muscle. "They'll get wiped, one hundred percent."
Ed broke the scenario. Waving his rare wand, he left a stream of fiery sparks in the air behind the tip. Then he took a few steps toward me and said in confidence:
"Listen, Scyth. I understand that Aphrodite's family has it made, and her parents will set their daughter up with something cozy. Disgardium doesn't mean squat to her. But what about you?"
"What about me, Ed?"
"Call me Crawler, Scyth. We aren't in the real world!"
"Back off!" Eve screamed.
She stood in front of me and shot Tissa a mean look.
"Hey Aphrodite, we were having a little talk here! For you all this," Ed led his hand over everything around, "means nothing. But for us it's all very important. Much more important than what happens there, where the world is ruled by hypocritical bastards like your parents!"
"Don't you dare speak badly of my parents!" Eve flared up. "You don't know anything!"
"Is your father going to be elected prefect? Everyone's saying it. How many asses did he lick? Or is Mr...." Ed made a face and spit, "O'Sullivan not going to share that with his one and only precious little girl?"
"Up yours, dumbass!"
"Choose your words carefully, fatty," Tissa said lazily.
"And what if I don't? Are you going to kill me? Ha!" Eve was going nuts, and I anxiously placed a hand on her shoulder, but she threw it off. "It’s impossible to even really kill someone in your stupid game!"
She took a step forward and gave Rodriguez a slap. Ed easily dodged the next one, then unwittingly threw a fireball. His flaming left hand came unclenched, shooting a spurt of condensed plasma the size of a walnut. It reached Eve in one second, and the plasma covered her body like napalm.
Her clothes – a light standard beginner’s dress – caught fire and burned up in an instant, while her health points fell sharply downward. Eve screamed. Sensations of pain were significantly dulled here, but they did still exist. The girl fell to the ground, trying to beat out the fire, but the damage was too much for her level one. A few moments later, she died.
"Geeze Crawler, what was that for?" Tissa wrinkled her nose.
She could hardly have been talking about the fire. Tissa Schafer visually mocked Eva's plump body, which was now only in underwear and beginning to flicker. Five seconds later it was gone. She left the world.
"What, you won't even go to bat for your stupid girlfriend?" Crawler asked acridly, egging me on.
"She's not stupid, if you're talking about her intelligence," I objected calmly. "Definitely not dumber than you."
"No, she isn't dumb. You're right there. But still she's a big piece of crap like the rest of her family!" Crawler provoked me, cradling a new fireball. "Well! Come on then!"
"Do you really need a moral justification to burn a player many levels below you to death? At the end of the day..."
"Acting smart again, Scyth?" he interrupted. "You prefer to use your tongue, not your hands? Ha-ha!"
"Good one."
He was now conscious of his reputation with the city. Eve attacked him first, so he was defending himself. It was his right to kill her. Now he was expecting me to do the same.
"Coward," he said, hawking another loogie.
"This is pointless, Eddie. There are four of you, all at level fifteen. I won't even get through your armor. I mean sure, I could get myself fired up into a righteous anger and tell you to go to hell. I could even call you a dick and run at you swinging, if that helps your principles and allows you to send me to respawn with a clean conscience."
"He is acting smart. Right guys?"
"Yeah, running his mouth is all he's good for, Crawler," answered Bomber Hung. "You want me to swat him down without all this heckling? I could also..."
"Let him be," Tissa interrupted. "We're wasting time!"
She turned to leave, but Rodriguez got what he was after. Regardless of what I said, their words hurt me and I wanted to answer.
"Hey, Ed..." I called. "You know what?"
"What?" he shuddered.
"At the end of the day, this is just a game. Nothing more! No matter how cool you make yourself here. No matter what you’re worth in the game, real life still means something..." They were all listening carefully, even Tissa, but they kept silent and I continued: "And you know what? No matter how hard you try, you're gonna have to live in a fake world. And that's if you can pass the citizenship test. Otherwise... The virtual mines? Work on plantations? Street sweeping? Is that a life?"
Not one muscle twitched on the Dementors' faces. Just a light shadow ran by on Tissa's cheeks: she had lost her mother, and her father worked in Dis. She had no chance at university.
"Come on, to the abyss with him guys. We're wasting time for nothing!" she said.
"Just a sec, guys. The ogres won't go anywhere." Crawler walked up to me, coming forehead to forehead. "As long as I've known you, Scyth, you've always thought you were above everyone else. I might not be so smart but, at the very least, I have friends. Do you have any friends, Alex Sheppard?"
"Yes. I do."
"And who are these invisible friends?"
I had nothing to answer with. Only lonely kids dream about space. Everyone else has someone to lose.
"Exactly," Ed nodded. "Think about that... smarty pants. Tissa, buff me!"
The priestess of the Radiant One renewed everyone's movement speed buffs and they ran to the west, not turning back.
I exited Dis.

Scyth, you have left Disgardium.
Please wait to adapt to the real world.
Remaining time: 00:59… 00:58… 00:57…

I was immersed in impenetrable darkness. I felt deaf, dumb and unconscious. Just the flavor of burning was left in my mouth – a trick of the mind remembering the soot of Aphrodite's burned body.
Just then the pod went vertical, it's sensors relinquished control over my body and handed the reins back to my brain. Then the intragel, which provided balance and shock-absorption, and also maintained muscle tone, was sucked into the pod walls to undergo antiseptic treatment and filtration.
My senses returned. I was standing in the middle of the pod. It's doors slid aside silently.
I crawled out and froze. My hearing was back, allowing me to sense that my parents were fighting loudly in the other room. Their fights had become a daily occurrence, nothing out of the ordinary.
I put on my shorts and t-shirt and went into the kitchen to get a couple sandwiches and a bottle of mineral water, which I was planning to consume as I studied the materials on the Leman expedition to Mars. But I stopped and listened. My father was trying to get something through to my mom, and he was calm, now that was weird:
"... you'll have to tell him, Helene. He's smart, he'll figure it out."
"Mark, you're so heartless! This is his last year of school, citizenship tests, do you even understand what a blow that would be to him? He might not recover!"
"No, you don’t understand!" My father raised his voice. "Sooner or later, he'll have to find out! And let it be sooner rather than later so he has time to think it all over and decide what to do from there!"
What were they talking about? What was I going to figure out? I just happened to come out when my mother's mouth was already open to answer my father. Seeing me, she gave a noisy sigh:
"Mom, dad? Is everything alright?"
"Everything's alright buddy, everything is fine..." my father muttered. His hands rested on my shoulders, and we sat on the couch. He tossed a gaze at my upset mom and, looking aside, quietly said:
"Alex, your mother and I are getting a divorce. No-no, not now. We're going to wait until after your citizenship test."
"You're getting a divorce?" I repeated stupidly. "And what about me?"
"Yes, you..." my dad looked at my mom. "Helene?"
"No way, this was your idea, you say it. I don't want him to hate me his whole life!"
"It was my idea?" he asked, enraged. "You should have thought about our son when you..."
"Mark!" my mom whispered. "Not in front of Alex!"
My father nodded at her enraged gaze again, but held back. Their flares of tension were so intense I could hear them.
"Hey, what was that? Care to explain calmly?"
"Alex..." my dad coughed out. "We can't pay for your studies. I'm sorry."
"But why?" I figured I'd misheard. "Why?!"
"Divorce will automatically lower our civil status to G. There won't be enough money to pay for university, and we can only help you get set up. You're gonna have to start working, son."
Work? With no education? And what, pray tell, did they think I was going to do? Oh abyss, but they were saving for my studies! Or...
"And what about the deposit?" I made up my mind to ask, already knowing the answer.
"There he goes!" mom answered with particular vengeance, looking at my father. "What do you think we've been living on all this time? We haven't had a decent project in a long time!"
I looked helplessly at my dad and he, shaking his goiters, looked away. And mom just kept coming at me:
"Our income is going to be barely enough to live on. Congratulations, Alex. You're an adult now and have to fend for yourself..."
I couldn’t hear either her, nor my father, who was saying empty words. Just one idea was clanking around in my head? No outer space? Then I exploded.
"That isn't right!" I shouted. "Mom! Dad! What are you talking about? What divorce? Everything is fine! And sure, you fight sometimes, but so does everyone! I know every couple fights, but they don't all get divorced!"
My face twisted and, as not to burst into tears like a baby in front of my parents, I turned away.
"Sorry, son. We’ve already decided," came my father's voice from some unfathomable distance. "When you get older, you'll understand..."
Sensing my mood, our catdog AT rubbed up against my leg. He meowed and tapped me with his big forehead. I mechanically grabbed him under the arm, brought him to my room, and only there let my silent tears out, my head buried in a pillow.
No work without higher education. No education without money. My welfare money will only be enough for a cupboard in a building for poor L-class citizens, and all I'll have to eat is flavorless universal nutrient blend.
And all I'd have left is Disgardium?

Chapter 4. Back into the game

I was in no mood now to watch materials on a Mars expedition, considering that my path there was closed, perhaps forever. After all, I couldn't get a stipend, for that you needed to be a particularly great student at least at your city level, and we had plenty of kids smarter than me. Maybe Ed Rodriguez thought me a "smarty-pants," but I was never so truly enthralled with learning to go beyond the mandatory coursework.
I didn't know how long I sat there, staring aimlessly at the ceiling. I didn't pay any attention to my parents' fight flaring up again in the guest room, or to my communicator beeps. The only thing running through my head was how could two adults be so selfish as to decide to deprive their only son of his future. What happened?
My mind was searching fitfully for other options of how to solve the problem, refusing to accept my new reality and hoping it could all be solved. I even tried to talk to my mom and dad again, but that just got me in trouble and made everything worse. Seemingly, they hated one another so much that they didn't give a damn about me or my future. All they wanted was to forget one another and never see each other again.
That's when it dawned on me clearly. Their relationship was like a shattered cup. It could never be glued back together. And I'd have to dig around for other ways of getting money for education. And the only way to do that was Disgardium.
And that actually comforted me. Now I knew what to do, though I didn't yet understand what I'd do in the game.
But how to get back there? It may seem stupid, but I was worried how Ed, Tissa and the rest would react after all the stuff I'd just said. Why couldn’t I just shut up?
I was also sorry that I hadn't gone to bat for Eve. After all, today she was my only close friend, and I was leaving her message unread!
Feeling pangs of conscience, I picked up my comm and turned on the recording:
"Hi! How's it going?" Eve's hologram moved into the middle of the room. "Did those bastards leave you alone? Don't worry about them, Alex! They’re just jealous..." she kept silent, not having made up her mind to continue. "Uh... Basically, remember when you said you were gonna watch something? If you want, I could come to your place. But it isn't urgent or anything, I just thought..."
She finally grew embarrassed, squeezed out a "Bye!" and the message came to an end. I valued her tact. She didn't call, she sent a message, so I didn't have to answer. But I did answer, though I kept it brief: "I'm going back on Dis. I'll explain next time I see you."
After that I went into the kitchen for food so I could shovel down the cold sandwiches and drink the mineral water almost without appetite. I was planning to spend a lot of time in the pod, and I didn't have one of the advanced versions that could keep you fed and healthy.
I just couldn't forget about my parents' divorce. What went wrong in their lives and when?
Aw, to the abyss with all that. What was the point of suffering aimlessly and putting off the inevitable? It was time.
Undressed, I walked up to the pod and placed my palm on the sensor. It read the print, lit up green and gave a beep of greeting. The pod doors opened.
Going inside, I grabbed the handles and activated start-up. The pod closed, the lighting went out and intragel quickly filled the space. I winced reflexively.
I opened my eyes. I took a breath, filling my lungs with piney air and feeling rays of the sun baking my skin. I was surrounded by a light and surprising forest. A huge butterfly flew by, brushing my cheek with a wing. Trying to catch it, I took an awkward step and heard a branch crunch underfoot. My bare foot shot with pain, and I swore for a while then spent a bit of time sitting on a stone on the roadside, fishing out the splinter.
I finished and looked around in search of hostile mobs, then decided to think up a plan of action. I had to begin with an evaluation of my character.
This time I wasn’t just browsing my stats in boredom, but looking carefully, absorbed.

Scyth, level-1 human
Real name: Alex Sheppard.
Real age: 15.
Class: not chosen.

Main attributes:
Strength: 2.
Perception: 2.
Endurance: 3.
Charisma: 2.
Intelligence: 2.
Agility: 2.
Luck: 2.

Secondary Attributes:
Health points: 23/23.
Mana points: 12/12.
Recovery speed: 9 health points per minute.
Movement speed bonus: 2%
Base damage: 1.2.
Carrying capacity: 108 lbs.
Accuracy: 20%
Spell power bonus: 2.4%
Dodge chance: +4%
Critical damage chance: +5%
Trade discount: +2%
Chance of receiving a unique quest: +0.2%
Chance of receiving improved loot: +0.2%

Fame: 0.

As for clothing, I was wearing only standard beginner stuff, no bonuses. Canvas pants and shirt, not even any footwear.
In the game’s quality scale, my stuff was grey. The items were such low quality no trader would even buy them. Normal white stuff was a bit better, somewhat more resilient, but no bonuses.
Bonuses begin with the unusual, green. At the first levels, getting an enchanted green object was akin to a miracle. There were also supposedly rare blue, epic purple and orange legendary, as well as some set and scalable items, but I hadn't crawled far enough into the thicket of the game encyclopedia to even know what that was.
And that was probably not going to be relevant in the foreseeable future. Here’s what I had now:

Beginner’s canvas pants
Cloth armor.
Armor: 1.
Durability: 4/10.
Required level: 1.
Sale price: 0.

Beginner’s canvas shirt
Cloth armor.
Armor: 1.
Durability: 7/10.
Required level: 1.
Sale price: 0.

The pants had less durability than the shirt after a memorable battle with some aggressive level-two bunny. I could probably get it repaired, i.e. get a patch and sew it on, but that required a separate skill. Or to pay a tailor... That was the most painful issue in Disgardium, especially when you realize that after the sandbox game money could be easily withdrawn as real phoenixes. By the way, I still didn't even have a single bronze coin.
Generally speaking, the gear I had was given to everyone. If I died, I could find a new set in my personal chest in the tavern. The very same canvas pants and shirt.
Farming mobs unarmed with my stats was not only a drawn-out process, it smelled of masochism. So I would have to earn XP with long and routine social quests: give, bring, clean, collect... Experience and money. Money and experience. I needed to get together at least ten silver for more serious gear and maybe not a sword, but at least some shabby dagger.
"Outta the way!" Someone hit me with their shoulder and ran past.
Unable to keep my balance, I fell off the road right into the dirt. A few more people ran past after him.
"Where are you going?" I threw out, not hoping for an answer.
"A Class-Z Threat!" A strangely dressed level-six archer turned and shouted back at me. He had a helmet on his head that looked to be a cast-iron pot, and was forced to hold it with one hand to keep it from falling off as he ran. "Some necromancer raised a churchyard!"
Ah, that was it! The game gave generous rewards for eliminating "threats" to peace (if you let a necromancer go wild, he might take over the world!)...
I got up, shook off the clumps of damp earth and, walking carefully along the edge of the path, headed to town. Players ran by in a rush not to miss the event and that was only to my advantage. Maybe we'd be able to take some kind of quest before evening while the city council was at work. A large amount of Tristad's quests were given by the Chief Councilman. Although that was only during the day while he was at work. Other NPC's lived their own lives and gave out quests only if they actually needed something.
Approaching the city walls, I saw the row of black-market merchants stretched out along them. These were players just like me who didn't want to pay commission to the auctioneer or waste money on a market license. Or maybe they just wanted to unload their goods on the cheap. Now, honestly, there weren't so many people here. Clearly most of them ran off to eliminate the "threat."
The sun was already starting to hide behind the city wall, and the market rows were covered in shadows. The monotone hum split into individual pressing cries and the voices buyers and sellers doing business.
"Woven battle jacket! Plus two strength! Just three gold!"
"Minor healing potions! Bulk discounts!"
"Endurance and agility scrolls! From levelling prof, buy them at cost!"
"What are you driving at?! Those ingredients cost a penny! And what do you sell them at, cheapskate?"
"Don’t have any greed scrolls, keep walking!"
I decided to walk past and get some prices. I would have to get somewhat more appropriate gear and figure out prices eventually. For the most part, they were selling trash, second-hand, things grown out of. Nothing of particular value, often with reduced durability, but cheaper than buying new.
"Are you looking for something in particular?" someone's hoarse voice made me turn around. The short lean level-nine player with the apt game name Underweight looked over what I had on, then shrugged and came to a conclusion: "Not likely."
"Beginner?" asked a very tall girl by the name Overweight sitting next to him. In fact, she was half a head taller than me.
In front of her there were piles of weapons sorted by type. Underweight had primarily clothing and armor. Sure, I guess they’d found their niche – they take stuff on consignment or buy for more than the NPC merchants then resell at a premium.
"I don't think so," Underweight answered. "He's fifteen, that means he's already spent a year here at least."
"Wait... I think this is the freak that's always sitting next to the tavern! That's right!" she turned to me. "Is it you?"
"Yes it is. Scyth."
"How can we help you, Scyth?" the traders asked in unison.
"I'm getting an idea of what I can buy to easily farm mobs."
"Got it!" the boy exclaimed. "We'll show you everything! So... Level one... What's your Strength?"
"How much? Two? Uh... That, putting it lightly, was pretty dumb, bro... I see, that means plate and mail are out. Give me a minute..."
Underweight snorted, digging through the cloth and leather armor, setting things that might work for me in a separate pile. I shifted from foot to foot, thinking and listening to what the other sellers were shouting. I could make it to the city council, there was still time, but then...
"Don't listen to him," Overweight said. "Maybe you want to become a mage? Or a bard? Is there some reason you just hang around the tavern all the time?"
"I haven't really thought about it..."
"Well, there is time, you can still make it. It's just better to figure it out now, so you level the right stats."
"Think nothing of it. Everyone already knows that."
"Still thank you, Overweight. And hey, why do you have that nick?"
"You can't tell by looking? What do you think about him?" she snorted. "He's a hat-rack and me... I've got big bones, ha-ha!"
She couldn't be called fat, but she definitely wasn't delicate either, more like curvy. Most powerful of all were her thighs. Laughing it off, she took a skeptical look at her partner, his head buried in a pile of gear, then asked:
"Well handsome, do you have any money?"
"Not even one copper," I admitted. "I haven't done any work here."
"So then, what made you waste all that time?"
"I wasn't having fun," I shrugged, not knowing what else to say about my inaction in Dis.
"It happens. But it's a shame. And you know why?"
"I can guess."
"Because we don't sell on spec!" the merchant shouted. "Listen, Undy! False alarm! The client doesn't have any money! Empty pockets!"
"What?" he whooped, throwing some shoulder pads off in a fit and raising his head. "What are you doing troubling me and wasting my time then, loafer?"
Underweight finished looking through the things and was not planning to continue. He stood from the improvised counter and looked angrily, puffing his nostrils. He was a head shorter than her, even though he was human not a gnome. It looked amusing.
"I wasn't thinking of it, honorable Underweight. I said up front I was just looking, not planning to buy. So maybe you can tell me what you have to sell me?"
He looked untrustingly, did the math and spread out into a smile:
"My apologies for the... flare-up. That was a misunderstanding. Our small but proud enterprise is always ready to give some help to beginners!"
"And what does your small but proud enterprise have to offer a noob like me?"
"Well, take a look," Underweight grew serious and got to business. "I picked out some cloth armor for you and a few leather pieces. The main one is a normal cloth condor set: a chest wrap, pants, braces and shoulder pads. All white with no bonuses, but all together it gives a good boost to strength. I recommend you take leather boots right away and high ones. The main mobs are shorter than you at the beginning, so the first thing they'll bite is your feet. I’ve got a leather belt too, though a bit shabby. But it does have a one-point endurance bonus. That’ll help you survive a bite or two longer. Also, it's best to take leather gloves, but I don't have any right now, sorry."
"Come on, Undy!" Overweight shot out.
"But will he ever get money?" he smiled.
"We don't sell on spec!"
"There's a first time for everything, Rita," not turning his gaze from me, the trader kept smirking. "I'm prepared to do you a favor, brother. I'll give you this whole excellent set of beginner armor, which is worth more than two gold if you do two things for me..."
"I pay you back not two, but twenty?" I smiled skeptically.
"You pay me exactly what I give you. Two gold and twenty silver. And that's with a wholesale discount!" Underweight raised a pointer finger. "But! When you grow out of the set, you give it back to me."
"So you'd lease it to me?"
"How fast do you want the money back? What about a week?"
"No, thanks."
"No? Are you serious? In that gear, you’ll be mopping up the city jail all by yourself tomorrow!"
"Ha-ha, very funny. Not likely. But thanks for the offer. As soon as I manage to earn some money, I'll come back and buy something. Sorry for wasting your time."
The girl elbowed her partner in the ribs. He cast a dismayed gaze and sighed:
"Okay, bro. But this is a special offer only because you’re such a weirdo!"
"Underweight, thank you, but I have to go," I still needed to reach the chief councilman, and the continued discussion of loans and credit were no interest to me. I didn't know why, but I wanted to live within my means and not be bound to obligations.
"Hear me out! You give me fifty silver a week. Hm?"
"Alright, I'll consider it. Thanks."
"Alright," he nodded and patted me on the shoulder. "If you reconsider, you know where to find us. Good luck, brother!"
I had already taken a few steps away when my friend called out:
"Hey, Scyth!" Overweight called me over, holding a stick of some kind. "Here. On the house! A bit better than bare hands..."

Large bear bone
Bash damage.
Damage: 1-2.
Durability: 8/20.
Sale price: 0.

"Take it, take it!" She practically forced it on me. "There you go. No need to thank me, no one wants that shoddy crap anyway, it's just taking up space."
I imagined where best to hold the bone and how much it might weigh: ten or fifteen bounds. I’d have to hold this in both hands.
"Good, now beat it," Overweight rudely finished. "Are you in a rush?"
"Thanks," I looked into her profile. "Thanks, Rita!"
She rolled her eyes.
"Beat it, Sheppard!"

Chapter 5. Officially displeased

I threw the club over my shoulder and walked up to the gates listening to the appeals of the traders, but I was stopped by the guardsman Mills:
"Hide your weapon, young man!"
"Is this really not allowed?"
"Not for you it isn’t. The city doesn't trust you. I don't trust you. Put your weapon away!"
He put his hand on his sword handle in his scabbard and stared at me with a look of anticipation. I see, I didn't have enough reputation with the city. Honestly, I had none whatsoever, and the city dwellers treated me with distrust. So I nodded in agreement and hid the club in my inventory. That was one of the old-school gaming conventions Snowstorm left in Dis to the detriment of reality: inventory here was independent of space and immeasurable. It just considered bag space measured in slots and your character’s carrying capacity.
I walked toward the city council building down the straight central street and could sense Mills’ suspicious gaze boring into my back for a long time.
Crowds of people were walking around Tristad, even despite the fact that many had run off to fight the class-Z threat, which was some hapless player who had become a necromancer and got more than he bargained for. I didn’t know so much about it, but I heard often that "threats" in Disgardium were accidentally triggered by players. That put some variety into the gameplay and staved off stagnation in player development, constantly generating a bunch of "threats" at any level.
Another question was what the benefit was to the threats themselves. I didn’t know. At some point, I got curious and tried to dig through the forums. I didn't find anything but rumors and riddles. I was getting the feeling that the corporation simply forbid all players who had ever been one of these world-wide scarecrows from saying anything, and had powerful levers that would allow them to cut-off any attempts to do so...
With my attributes it was no easy task for me to get through the crowd of people. Everyone around was stronger, heavier and more powerful than me.
Slipping between some warrior in plate armor and a girl, I stepped on the hem of her dress. The fabric stretched and began to audibly tear. The girl's legs were left bare, she nearly fell over. But the plate-armored dude grabbed her. With another hand he managed to grab me by the shirt collar.
"Hey, don't move!" he barked out menacingly.
"I'm not moving," I sighed in disappointment.
After the news of my parents' divorce, everything was rolling into a bottomless chasm, and this was just another of life's tricks adding to them.
"Excuse me, you have done harm to this lady!"
The "lady" was a level-one fourteen-year-old girl, Vista. While the pedigree bull trying to pass himself off as a knight was a level-twelve warrior named Crag, played by the fifteen-year-old Tobias Asser. Jesus, what a cheap pick-up attempt! But Vista liked it and she looked at me demandingly.
"It was an accident. I beg your apologies..."
"Apologies aren't gonna get you out of this one! You must compensate her for the damage!" Crag drew out his words, looking at Vista in satisfaction. She gave a suggestive smile, not at all embarrassed to be half naked.
"Come on, what damage? This is a standard beginner's dress. Have her die and go into her room in the tavern, then pull a new one out of the chest..."
"Well I'm in a hurry, my friend is waiting for me!" Vista threw out. "And now I have to go respawn because over some butthead?"
"It was an accident!"
"Pay for the damage, otherwise I'll call the guards!" the warrior bellowed.
"I don't have any money. No way to pay for the damages, so..."
"Guards!" Crag shouted out suddenly. "I have apprehended a criminal!"
Come on. What bullshit! Is he serious? I tried to get out of it, my shirt ripped then the warrior grabbed me by the arm. He really was gonna do this!
"Come on, Crag. Why bring the guards into this? I really don't have any money!"
"Sure, of course. You've been here more than a year and expect me to believe you haven't found even one pitiful copper? You'll explain yourself to the guards... Ah, there they are now!" Crag placed me before a trio of guards that ran up. "Guardsman Gayle! This criminal has damaged the beautiful lady Vista's dress and must be punished!"
"Let's let an honorable judge decide if he's a criminal or not," Gayle grumbled. "Take him away, boys!"
The guards lifted me by the armpits. Gayle pointed them where to go and barked loudly:
"Make way for the guards!"
The people cleared a path. "You're so strong!" Vista's voice rang out behind me. I no longer heard Crag's answer, but I thought he was happy. Picking up girls in the game was nothing new. And neither was the fact that some of them were not opposed to being helped by a high-level player, drawn in by a glance of their pretty little eyes.
"You're all off your rockers!" turned over and over in my head until the guards put me down. People here were behaving as if this was real life, not simply playing a character in a role-playing game. That was somehow strange...
We made it a few blocks, then the guards brought me to an empty alley and pressed me against the wall. Senior guardsman Gayle brought his face close to mine and, his boozy breath intermingled with meat and onions, loudly belched and whispered intimately:
"Can we come to an agreement without the judge? Three copper, one a piece, and you're free to go. Shake on it?"
"I don't have any money, guardsman Gayle."
"What if you think about it?"
"I could think all day, I have no money."
"Not even one copper? For the guys to blow of some steam after our shift, huh?"
"If I had a copper, I'd have given it to the girl, guardsman Gayle."
He angrily pounded his plate-armored glove on the wall and furrowed his brow, thinking what he could squeeze out of me.
"Drag him to court, Gayle?" one of them asked in dismay. "Maybe, well he..."
"To the abyss with him!" Gayle gave his verdict. "Let's go, boys. And you, Scyth. Keep your head down in Tristad. We are now officially displeased with you!"

Your reputation with the city of Tristad has been lowered by 5.
Current reputation: mistrust.

The guardsmen left, forgetting about me instantly. In their thoughts, they were already at a table with their friends, carousing and playing cards.
I looked at my reputation with the city progress bar. It was not yet "hostile," but getting close. I couldn't allow myself to tumble that far, otherwise I couldn't get back into the city.
Alright, no big deal. I could do some social quests to restore my rep and even increase it to at least "friendly." That would increase my trade discount, and give me a greater variety of missions. Overall it would just make living in Tristad more comfortable.
With these thoughts, I ran to the city council building before it closed. The entrance had an announcement board hanging near it with present missions:

Street sweeping. One full work day. Reward: 1 copper coin, 1 experience point.
Delivering postal correspondence. Requires agility over 5. Full work day. Reward: 2 copper coins, 2 experience points.
Weeding. Full work day. Requires Herbology level 1. Reward: 2 copper coins, 2 experience points.
Guarding the border with Murkwood. Full work day. Requires level above 10. Reward: a share of the loot, 10 silver coins, 30 experience points.

All told I read a few dozen of the so-called "dailies," which were replaced once a day and gave quests for the public good, but every advertisement had a stamp reading: "Mission unavailable. Come back tomorrow!"
Alright then, made sense. The day was turning to night, plus the number of vacancies was limited. You couldn't very well send a thousand people to weed a single garden. Weeds here of course were impossible to kill and grew back every day, but everything had reasonable limits.
I couldn't get a daily today, but I could try my luck with Chief Councilman Whiteacre.
I walked into the building. In a small cozy wood-floored hall with a huge chandelier, Whiteacre met me personally. He was pacing the hall with his hands folded behind his back but, when he saw me, he stopped and melted into a joyful smile:
"Scyth! How glad I am to see you! Have you been enjoying your stay in Tristad?"
His kindliness, no matter how false it seemed, pleased me for some reason. I understood he was an NPC controlled by artificial intelligence, but after seeing those guardsmen behave a bit too realistically, even this false joy warmed me. Just some amicability.
"Great city, welcoming residents, Councilman Whiteacre. I like everything here!"
"Wonderful!" he said, his joy still overflowing. "How can I help you?"
"I'd like to be of use to the city. Maybe you have some missions for me?"
"Of course, honorable Scyth! We're always glad to have guests in the city who want to help. So... Let me think..." he raised a pointer finger. "I have an extremely important assignment for you!"
"I'll do everything in my power!" I stood at attention, because usually he didn’t say the words "extremely important" and just got straight to business giving the quest. "What needs to be done, Councilman Whiteacre?"
He threw a skeptical gaze over me.
"Hm... You see, this is a very delicate assignment. I don't even know if I can ask you for this..."
"Of course you can! I'll do it as fast as I can. And of course, this stays between us."
"Okay then..." he nodded, having made a decision. "Go to Bakers Street and there find the pastry shop Piping Hot. Do you know where it is?"
"I do, councilman."
"Excellent!" he wiped his hands. "Go there and tell Mrs. Grossman that this evening everything is canceled because of... unforeseen complications on the right flank."
"And?" I didn't see a quest window open, and I was surprised at that. Maybe this was the introductory part of some unique chain? "Is that all?"
"Yes, esteemed Scyth. That is all. Will you do it? Do you remember what to do?"
"Mrs. Grossman, Piping Hot. This evening, everything is cancelled in view of unforeseen complications on the right flank. I'll run right there, Councilman Whiteacre!"
I flew like a bullet out of the city council building and dashed to Bakers Street. I knew exactly where the fresh pastry shop was. I had taken a walk there with Eve a few times. I carefully doubled around passersby so I wouldn't step in more trouble, and I ran to the shop just as my energy bar hit zero. But my deadline was in five minutes.
It was empty in the store. The sweet-looking stately Mrs. Grossman heard me out with a stony expression on her face and nodded in silence. I shuffled my feet, expecting a continuation, but she got back to her business, placing the unpurchased pastries into a large sack.
"I'm sorry... Mrs. Grossman?"
"Yes? Is that all?"
"Yes, I told you everything word for word."
"Then what do you want? Wanna buy some fresh pastries?"
"Uh... No, I just wanted to ask if maybe you have some requests for me? Maybe you need me to send a message back to the Chief Councilman?"
"No, no requests. Although..." a shadow ran over her forehead. "Answer him that something must be done with the right flank. It can't go on like this. Alright, go. You're getting in the way."
There it was! I'd see how Whiteacre reacted! My energy was back, so I ran all the way back as well.
"Something must be done?" he clarified when I brought Mrs. Grossman's answer. "Alright. Thanks, Scyth!"
The councilman smiled privately and, whistling, headed into his office. What? No experience? To the abyss with this quest chain, it didn't even give me one meagre copper. And that was fine, but not even one experience point?
"Councilman Whiteacre! Wait!"
"Yes?" he turned around, his feet tapping in impatience. "What do you want, Scyth?"
I took in some air and exhaled slowly. Okay, sure. Just a typical gaming moment. I wasted ten minutes, no big deal. Now I needed a quest I could complete with this character.
"Maybe you have some more missions for me?"
"Oh, Scyth, what a pity!" he threw up his arms. "All missions for today have already been given out, come back tomorrow and I'll think up something for you."
"I'll definitely be back tomorrow, Councilman Whiteacre, thank you. But still... maybe you've got something more interesting than street sweeping or delivering mail?"
It was as if the smile was glued to his face, but his eyes had stopped smiling. He studied me with his gaze, but something undetectable flickered past in it.
"Something more interesting?"
"Yes. Less boring."
"Less boring? I see. I'm afraid I have to explain that cleaning communal areas and timely postal delivery are very important to our city dwellers. There are many things in this life that are important and vital, but could never be called interesting. You see, work is not supposed to be fun. Fun, you see, is not something we get paid for. When newcomers do a service for our city, taking on these, as you put it, boring tasks, the city answers with respect and welcoming. But if newcomers turn up their noses at foundational tasks, the very things which make Tristad an attractive city with a comfortable lifestyle, that means... That means those newcomers have no place in Tristad. The city cannot entrust these important functions to guests such as you, Scyth."
"Excuse me?"
"I have to refuse you. The city will no longer hire you for daily social tasks. No matter what. At least as long as I have any say here."

Your reputation with the city of Tristad has been lowered by 5.
Current reputation: mistrust.

He turned away, letting me know that I could go. My reputation took another step closer to "hostile." But even worse, this was the only inhabited area in the sandbox where a player of my level could get a quest. I needed to turn this back around!
"Councilman Whiteacre!"
"We're done here," he answered, not turning around.
"Sorry, I was wrong! That wasn't what I meant! Just understand... I couldn't wait to start doing good for the city, and in that all public works were finished for today..."
"What?" seemingly I had awakened his interest, and although he wasn't smiling, he had stopped and turned toward me.
"Maybe I could still be of use to the city dwellers? I'd really like that!"
"Alright then..." he showed his teeth again, but the smile was much sincerer than before. "Alright! I understand that for a young person such as yourself, it can be hard sometimes to formulate your thoughts properly..." seemingly he was mocking me, and had just called me an idiot.
"Sorry, you're right, that really is hard for me," I played up to him. "Making the words out of letters, and the words into sentences..."
"Enough clowning around," the councilman cut me off midsentence. "The Temple of Nergal the Radiant. The crypt. Something is happening there. Something bad. See what it is and take care of it!"
And with his last words, a mission window popped open.

Chief Councilman of Tristad Peter Whiteacre wants you to figure out what is causing problems in the crypt of the Temple of Nergal the Radiant and take care of it.
Reward: 1 silver coin, 100 experience point.
Recommended level: at least 5.
Penalty for refusing mission: reputation with Tristad reduced to "hostile."

Now he really was having fun with me. I turned from the mission to the councilman, trying to see if the expression of confusion on my face looked authentic enough.
"You're still here? Go and prove your worth to the city, Scyth!"
Oh abyss, he wasn't joking! I accepted the quest, and Whiteacre nodded.
"How much time do I have?" I asked and, fitfully thinking the only option was to level up on mobs using the club I thankfully had, then go into the crypt, even if it was in a month or two.
"You've got plenty of time," he answered favorably. "More than enough! I expect results by tomorrow, end of the work day. Off you go!"
Off I go? I had been given the send-off so many times today that I didn't know how to go on.

Chapter 6. A Curse and a Blessing

On the way from the city council building to the temple, I met Eve. She had left the tavern in a new beginner's dress and was turning her head. As soon as I saw her, I noticed a flickering notification in the chat: "I’m on. Where are you?" And I remembered I'd left her a message.
"Hi, Alex! My mom wanted help picking out new furniture, we just left the VR store. I came straight here when I saw your message. What happened? Why are you back on Dis?"
I briefly told her about my parents and their upcoming divorce, but she couldn't comprehend the gravity of the situation. Not to waste time, I kept walking to the temple as we spoke.
"And you're just giving up on your dream so easily? After all, this isn’t that bad. Their status will be lower after divorce, but that's all temporary. They'll have it all back by their next attestation, then they can pay for your studies!"
"It isn't that easy, Eve..."
"And why not?"
"Well, they work best together. Their weak sides are covered by the other one's strong suit. Dad has awesome ideas, but he can’t do anything with them without mom's love of minutiae. And it’s that way with a lot of things, which means they’ll never get their status back on their own."
"So why don't they just keep working together?"
"It won't impact their status evaluation, because they have stopped being a family. Those are corporate categories..."
"Then why are they getting a divorce?" Eve exclaimed.
"Who can say?" I swallowed a lump in my throat, feeling my eyes starting to tear up. "I guess they just reached a point where it was harder to live together than work separately."
"And now you think there's no way out except this stupid game?" she exclaimed. "God, tell me you're joking! This is a joke, right?"
"I don't have any other ideas. I don't know how else to pay for my studies. To be honest, I still have no idea how I'm gonna live without my parents support... That is, I understand that when I get my citizenship, I'll have to make it on my own anyway because of the law... But there's still a long time until I'm twenty-one!"
"That law about mandatory independence from parental care for adult citizens? Greg was telling us about that just yesterday..."
"I beg sincerest apologies!" Eve was interrupted by a ringing voice.
Our path was blocked by the city beggar Patrick. The NPC or bot as all nonplayer characters were called, was controlled by artificial intelligence. Its age was hard to determine, but the level was relatively high at twenty-five. That was higher than the city guards.
"I wish you the greatest of evenings, young man and woman!" he removed his tattered and holy hat.
"Good evening, Patrick," we answered him in kind.
"Allow me to make an inquiry, if I may. You wouldn't happen to have an extra copper to lend some color to this gray evening, would you?"
We shook our heads, and Eve answered:
"Sorry Patrick, we don't have any money."
"Are you sure? What about you?" he asked his bulging eyes staring at me morosely. "Dig deep, little one! Find a little copper for old uncle Patrick!"
While he bored unwelcomingly into me with his gaze, I remembered how hard it was for Snowstorm to insist on keeping physical cash in their world. The players demanded they simplify game currency, but the corporation balked and now we were forced to haul coins with us everywhere. Good that they at least didn’t limit the number of coins you could have in your inventory.
"We have no money, Patrick! All the best!" I bid him adieu fairly sharply, because he was a bothersome character and if he sensed a lack of confidence, he'd just keep pressing.
"Alright then, it's so deplorable to know that guests of this city couldn't even dig up one pitiful copper for a respected citizen of Tristad!" He spat at our feet.
"More like a respected drunk," tore itself out of me.
"What did you just say, fleabag?" he furrowed his brow and walked forward, looming over me. "Do you have any idea who you're talking to?"
"A pitiful boozer, a beggar?"
Patrick took in a full chest of air, pursed his lips to say something but then... just waved a hand. And only when Eve and I exchanged glances, surprised at his behavior, did I realize:
"Curse you, you wee bastard! May your soul never know peace, just like my poor dry throat!"
After his farewell, Patrick spat out a few curse words with some spittle and walked away. What an unpleasant mob! I was just trying to have a chat, but Patrick is only polite and affable if you're willing to part with a coin. And me, idiot that I am, I gave him my last one ages ago. My reputation didn't change, I didn't get a quest. Ten minutes later I met him again and he turned on the same old song and dance about "spare a copper" on his second pass as if I hadn’t just helped him out.
"Where are going?" Eve asked, leading a gaze over Patrick.
"The Chief Councilman gave me a mission to check the temple crypt. I need to finish it before tomorrow evening."
"Can I come?"
"Of course, but it's dangerous. It's a quest for level-five and up, which means it's not exactly going to be a leisurely walk. It might hurt!"
"Bad?" Eve winced.
"If we don't try, we'll never know." We arrived.
There were always many people at the temple. The Radiant God was generous with bonuses for his adepts, but he did require the main principles of the faith to be strictly followed. One of them was that his followers must to visit the temple and pray to his glory every day. That way, the players increased their reputation with Nergal and got buffs to their attributes.
Getting through the crowd, I considered how to approach the mission. Walk a circle around the temple to find a separate entrance to the crypt, or just go straight to the high priest and say I was here on a mission from the Chief Councilman? Eve held back. With her complexion, it wasn't so easy to get in a big crowd.
"Scyth?" Tissa's voice rang out next to me. Now there's a surprise!
"Hey, Melissa!"
"Look at you in your torn-up rags. How’d that happen?" she asked.
I looked at myself and grew embarrassed. My ripped shirt revealed a heaving chest and protruding ribs. It was hard, but I got myself together: it was just a game.
"Torn up? Ah, I happened to meet a defender of the weak and powerless. He ripped my shirt. Some guy named Crag..."
"Crag? Ha-ha-ha!" Tissa laughed. "Did that loser raise a stink over some girl's skirt again?"
"Don't pay it any mind. He's an asshole. There aren't many of them. That's why he’s not in a clan. He always gets thrown out. He's such a crap-head..."
"To the abyss with him!" I interrupted her, then it hit me. "Hey, it's actually cool I saw you. Think you could help me out? I have a quest in the temple. There's something there in..."
"You? A quest?" Her eyes went wide in astonishment, but Tissa was even more surprised when she saw Eve. "And what is that fatty doing here?"
"Come on, she isn't 'that fatty.' That's Eve," I corrected her, hoping she was far enough away not to hear.
"Ah, screw it. What did you want to ask?"
"Chief Councilman Whiteacre said something was going on in the temple crypt. I need to check."
"Pff... I could have told you that. Some undead have taken root! Like, you know, skellies, zombos and the boss there is a small but very mean lich. Me and my clan passed that mission a long time ago, it isn't hard."
"And how do you get in there?"
"Go through the back door into the temple, you'll see a ladder going down. You go down it, through a short tunnel then you reach the entrance to the ins... And that's all! Why'd you decide to get quests all of a sudden? What about this whole 'I'm too cool to play your childish games' act?"
"I got bored. There's nothing to do, I decided to check it out a little bit," I tried to keep on my mask of indifference, but I wasn't sure I succeeded.
"Hm... let's say I believe you. Did that cow also take the quest?"
"You're the..." Eve exploded, walking up, but realized she could never call Tissa a cow. "Beanpole!"
"Come on Eve, calm down. I'm not talking to you," Schafer answered. "Alright, I'm in a hurry. I've still got to bless some new adepts. You two, by the way, would you like to accept Nergal as your protector? It gives a bonus to dark magic resists, and damage against undead. Plus, the more faith points Nergal has, the higher the reputation, and that’s not all! Scyth, it will definitely help you in that ins, what do you say?"
"No thanks. I want to read up on all the gods first, figure it all out..."
"You still haven't figured it out? Abyss, guys, what have you been doing here all year? Polishing that bench?" she rollicked with laughter.
"Very funny!" Eve snorted, but quietly so Tissa wouldn't hear and laugh even more.
"We've got to go," I said. "Thanks for the hint."
"Sure. Good luck with the ins! Actually, wait... Are you level one? How were you going to pass it?"
"I'm helping!" Eve threw out.
"Sure, just... Guys, you're pretty funny! Do you even have a weapon? You'll be chopped into coleslaw down there before you even touch any mobs! They will do increased damage to you, and you will do the opposite! You won't even be able to hit them! You'd better get a group together, maybe you can find someone... Although it isn't likely. Loot will only drop for the people who have the quest. And what kind of loot will it even be? Scrap metal and bones. You'd be better off paying a power-leveler! For a few gold, you can find a high..."
"And you can't help?" I asked, finding the boldness to ask, but I immediately regretted it.
"Me? Definitely not. Sorry, Scyth. You're a decent guy..." Tissa drew out her last word, then interrupted herself: "... though a bit strange, but Crawler won't understand. Especially after everything you said today. See you in school!"
She left, heading to the main temple entrance, but then she turned around and winked. For a second, light enshrouded me: Tissa cast a +5-strength buff on me. Unfortunately, me only.
I heard some sniffling behind me. If you spend enough time with Eve, you quickly get used to that.
"A strange, but decent guy? What was that about?"
"I have no idea what she was talking about. Well, are you coming?" I turned and looked skeptically at my combat buddy. "Those aren't rabbits, it's gonna hurt!"
"I think I'll manage," she answered and looked away. "Too bad you can't just break a branch in this game and fight with that..."
Yes it was unrealistic, but if an item was not classified by the game as a weapon, the damage it did was generally equal to zero. What a mechanic!

Chapter 7. When You're not Prepared

We pushed through a crowd of people listening to the senior priest getting one-day buffs along the way. Then we got out in the open and breathed more freely. The smell of one hundred and fifty unwashed bodies was faithfully recreated in the game.
We walked along the side of the temple down a cobblestone street. The building was in excellent condition: ideally clean, undamaged with no dirt or anything else a normal city building had. Even the city council building was scratched up, but it was as if the temple wasn't even made of stone, but cast marble, if such a thing was possible.
In the twilight it was especially easy to see the faint light radiated by the wall, but it was not a mortal light. When I raised a hand to it, my hand stayed dark. The divine glow gave no warmth, no illumination, it had just one function: to announce the presence of the god.
We finally found the back door near the far end of the temple wall. Following Tissa's instructions, we reached the entrance to the ins in just a few minutes. We would have made it faster, but Eve tripped on a big cobblestone and nearly died. What it was doing in this tunnel, we had no idea. Then I turned to check a side passage, which led to a dead end, just wasting time for nothing. It was always that way in this game – if there was some kind of hole, passage or abandoned cave, most likely it was simply generated by a heartless artificial intelligence, and there were no hidden objects or treasure chests, nor even decaying bodies with intriguing notes to kick off a quest chain.
Back in the tunnel, we reached the flickering pall of the quest instance "Crypt of the Temple of Nergal Radiant," and tried to enter the ins. Eve even went first.
"I can't go in!" she said. "It says: 'you have not been assigned a quest associated with this location, and are not in a group with someone who is.'"
I hurriedly added her to the group, took a deep breath and dove into the instance. The first room revealed itself. It was weakly illuminated by a couple black-smoking torches on the walls. In the corner, wisps of a spiderweb hung, but I didn't see its eight-legged owner, nor any other aggressive creatures. Eve appeared at the entrance soon after.
"Don't be afraid, no one is going to attack now, it's empty," I said.
Eve squinted, looking deep into the crypt. I then took out my club and suggested a plan:
"Just wait here, I'll scope things out. If I die, you leave."
Eve nodded in agreement and stayed at the door. The first and most important rule of going through instances was not to die. If the whole group died, you had to do everything over from the beginning. But if Eve didn't die and left the crypt, I’d also have to start everything over again, I just... I just didn't want her to get hurt. What was more, she was wearing a light dress that didn't even reach her knee, and was totally unarmed.
I left her and looked into the corner. There was a narrow dark corridor, and I could see a vaguely moving silhouette at the other end. If I listened closely, I could hear a scraping sound. I stared a bit and saw who it was:

Raised skeleton warrior, level 5

The smell of rotting flesh struck my nostrils, and I could barely keep myself from vomiting. I held my breath, grabbed the club in both hands and spent a few seconds getting set up.
You can't postpone death with a deep breath – that saying was extremely relevant now, considering the reeking smell of rot. I took a decisive step into the next room with my club at the ready and swung it, also bringing down the distance. The languor of the risen undead played into my hand. The skeleton didn't even have time to turn around and took a blow to the back of his head. The bear bone slammed into the human bone. I heard its skull crack. I saw some bits of flesh that hadn't fully decayed left on the bones.

You have critically damaged the Raised Skeleton Warrior: 4!
Health points: 35/39.

Even if he could wince, he wouldn't have. Turning unflappably, his short rusty sword shot up and landed a blow I just couldn't dodge. His languor turned out to be illusory. This mob was an energetic runner.

The Raised Skeleton Warrior has damaged you: 7.
Health points: 16/23.

The flash of sharp pain in my chest quickly passed, but I was not exactly burning with desire to experience it again. The exchange of blows after that was clearly not going to end in my favor, and I instinctively took a step back. But when the skeleton took a step toward me, I caught him moving the wrong way and swung.


And so, trading blanks, we walked all the way to the beginning of the ins. The battle was silent. My enemy didn't make any sounds, ignoring the clinking bones. In silence and with the perseverance and tranquility of a robot cleaner, it landed a scripted chain of blows: straight at my chest, from left to right, from right to left, straight on...
I started to get scared. It was depressing to see that he instantly changed his tactics to suit me and my attempts to dodge to the side.

The Raised Skeleton Warrior has damaged you: 8.
Health points: 8/23.

I had enough health left for one more hit. I could land just one more accurate blow, which would reduce the undead creature’s life by just three health points.
The skeleton thrust forward, Eve squealed behind me and I got distracted, taking the final blow. The skeleton's sword cut through my neck, and this time a dull wave of icy cold burned through my whole body.
After dying, I didn't head straight for respawn at the graveyard, using the allowed ten seconds to sit in my dead body and see whether Eve could pull it off. At least I had some luck there: my body was facing her.
"Just run!" I thought, but I couldn't even write her in the group chat. Dead people can't talk, and I was dead.
But she didn't run! Squeezing out a cry of rage, Eve closed her eyes and flew at the mob like a predatory chicken. Her little fists thrashed the vexing skeleton, but even without logs it was obvious she wasn't hitting.
And the skeleton didn't miss once. He was so much higher level that every blow was accurate, and the damage was increased. Eve gave a frightening shout and fell dead.
Just then, my respawn timer counted down its final second and the dialogue window disappeared. I was back to life. What the heck?! I didn't come back in the graveyard! I was right back in the instance!
The undead, already on its way back to the patrol zone, sensed a new enemy and immediately turned around. What was happening?

The Raised Skeleton Warrior has damaged you: 6.
Health points: 0/23.
You are dead.

Back in a corpse. The respawn timer started counting down again. I pressed the respawn button.
And found myself in the same room where I'd just died again. The skeleton had walked away again, and looked back at me a bit puzzled and didn't attack right away, but still took an unconfident step.
I looked at my life bar: 1/23. Come on, what the crap?
"Where are you?" Eve wrote in the group chat. Where, where... I had a fleeting thought of a porn star – I was never strong in poetry, especially with a living corpse coming after me.
The skeleton was already next to me, and I was infuriated. I took a step to the right, but then immediately shifted my weight left and jumped past so I could grab the club I dropped after my first death. The system did not agree with my assessment of my own agility – I was only half able to pull off my plan.
A short jab of the skeleton’s sword caught me midjump. Too slow!

The Raised Skeleton Warrior has critically damaged you: 9!
Health points: 0/23.
You are dead.

This time I was in no rush to respawn. I decided, let the butcher get some distance, then I'd just grab my club and ditch this stupid ins. Eve was still bombarding the chat, and one of her messages drew my attention: "I can't enter the ins! It says you’re in battle!" Well, that made sense. As long as at least one group member was in the instance, the others couldn't get out after respawn. Otherwise any boss could be shot down in flames by coming back to battle right after dying.
The skeleton was in no rush to leave. He was standing next to my body and slowly turning his skull like a tank tower, staring suspiciously all around. And all that in dead silence.
The timer ran out and Alex Sheppard was back as a guest on the show One on One with a Stinking Corpse. The same Scyth, the same ghastly failure... Abyss, it hurt! The rusty sword with a chipped blade – I got a very good look! – was driven between my eyes when I tried to get my club up off the floor.

The Raised Skeleton Warrior has damaged you: 7.
Health points: 0/23.
You are dead.

Freaking a! Why had I reached for my weapon when I was planning to get out of there. Heck knows, but then why was I burning not with desire to leave, but hate and rage. Something in me was stubbornly saying: that thing hurt me too many times. It must be punished!
Only then did I notice that the mob's health was stuck at 32/39. I guess this little skeleton couldn't last forever! I guess if I had respawned at the cemetery, the instance would have rolled back, but I was still here, though I was a ghost most of the time.
I respawned again and mentally I was swinging. As soon as I was in my body again standing next to the mob, I punched the bony bastard in the forehead.


I managed to get in two more blows before dying again. And the last time I hit my target!

You have damaged the Raised Skeleton Warrior: 1.
Health points: 31/39.

The Raised Skeleton Warrior has damaged you: 8.
Health points: 0/23.
You are dead.

And although I was lying on the ground, just a corpse, and my enemy was grinning in self-satisfaction, pulling the rusty sword from my chest, inside I was smiling. Until level ten, dying didn't cost me any experience. And I just had to land thirty-one more accurate blows to crush this bony heap of shit into dust! Then I could get to the bottom of whatever bug was afflicting me…
When I was at over thirty deaths, I finally lost count. By then, I had the skeleton's life down to 19/39. After one respawn I managed to grab the club. It happened when an especially forceful attack sent me back and I died a few steps away. It allowed me to make just one accurate blow with the club, but what a blow it was!

You have critically damaged the Raised Skeleton Warrior: 5!
Health points: 14/39.

Eve had been writing for a while already, but I hadn't yet been able to answer: dead men can’t talk, and the brief seconds of life were not enough to type an answer. In that regard, the corporation was also conservative. If you want to use your voice long distance, buy a signal amulet or a mirror of far sight. Obviously, Eve and I had neither...
People can get used to everything, but it wasn't possible to get used to being stuck through with a sword every ten to twelve seconds. I instinctively winced or covered my eyes with a hand every time I came back, hopped, crouched, dodged. Basically I was doing everything I could not to die again right away and get off a hit.
And every time expecting a flare of pain, I could literally feel my heartbeat speeding up in my chest in the real world. If you think pain reduced many times is bearable, try poking yourself with a needle. First in the eye, then side, then chest, tack on your stomach or neck, too. And keep doing it every ten seconds. How quickly would you give up? I was getting close.
My rare hits – approximately one per five or six deaths – I made with my bare hands, and they never did more than one point of damage. I hated the bone creature with every fiber of my soul. It was seemingly scoffing at me, killing me with a blow to the groin. My teeth just clenched!
At first I was consoled only by the fact that the skeleton's health was not infinite, but then my enthusiasm was bolstered. After a successful attack, lying dead, I read the logs and felt a strange satisfaction.
I had acquired my first skill!

Unarmed combat skill discovered!
Damage dealt without a weapon increased by 10%
Attack accuracy increased by 10%.
Present skill level: 1.
Keep perfecting this skill in combat with enemies of your level or higher to get new bonuses and attacks.

You have learned a new attack "Hammerfist!"
Cost to use: 2 mana points.
Deals 150% of normal damage.

You have received experience points for discovering a new skill: 10.
Experience points at present level (1): 36/400.

I got the twenty-six other experience points in my first weeks in the Sandbox, before I finally lost all interest. And now, ten at once!
I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I hadn't looked further ahead or thought about what to do next yet. Leave the instance or try to go further down it the same way? That way, I might complete Whiteacre's quest. In the second option, I might simply go mad, but I decided to think it over later. But now... I activated Hammerfist and my hands turned blurry in the air. It felt like my fist was wrapped in a steel glove. That was how loud the crack was when it went through the skeleton's ribcage! Fragments of bone flew about the room!

You have critically damaged the Raised Skeleton Warrior: 5!
The level-5 Raised Skeleton Warrior is dead.

Experience points received: 10.

By the end of the second hour in the temple crypt, my torture was over. The bone warrior fell to dust. With a vengeful kick at what remained of the skeleton, I could feel my agitation gradually receding.
I was so tired I was in no rush to see the fallen loot, I just sat down next to it and took a ten-minute breather with my back up against the wall. Eve was no longer in Dis, but I still wrote in the group chat that I was stuck in the instance and couldn't get out.
While I caught my breath, my health went back up to full. That made me even happier than the loot. And actually, it was worth checking what fell. I stood up, happy, and picked up the gear and one copper dropped by the skeleton.

Inscribed leather spaulders
Leather armor.
Armor: 5.
Durability: 60/60.
Required level: 1.
Sale price: 1 silver coin, 15 copper coins.

Would you look at that! Earning that much money with low-level social quests like picking weeds would take a whole month! Now I see why the Dementors devote all their time to clearing ins’s.
I thought for a minute whether it was worth putting on the spaulders, but decided "no." Enough fighting dying and pain for today. Sure, maybe I'd fail the quest, unable to clear the temple crypt after school, but the game wasn't going anywhere. If I failed tomorrow's modern history test in Greg's class, though, it would be a blow to my final grades. As my uncle Nick, my mom's brother, always says, you always need to keep your priorities straight.
I headed for the exit from the instance. But a pall at the door lightly pushed me back.

You cannot leave the Crypt of the Temple of Nergal the Radiant until you finish the quest or defeat the boss of the location.

Alright, makes sense. That was so a group wouldn't run outside to heal or refill their reserves. But I had no desire to keep dealing with this, I wanted to get back to my cozy room as quickly as possible, study for the test, then finally watch the materials on the Mars expedition...
I glanced at the word “Exit” in the game interface. A warning window jumped in:

All your progress will be lost!

Those sage words about lost progress gave me pause.
What then, did I just spend two hours dying here for nothing? I closed the interface window and thought. I had gotten the unarmed combat skill and the Hammerfist attack, which gave me reason to hope it would get easier.
I opened my attributes window and reread the information about my new attack and saw another line in my character's profile that wasn't there before: Restless Soul. I focused in on it and a very bad word burst out of me. That was why I wasn't respawning at the cemetery!

Restless Soul
You are cursed! You must have insulted or offended very badly someone when they needed you most. His curse was heard by the universe, acquired force and took form: from here on out, after dying your troubled soul and cursed body cannot enter a cemetery. You will always respawn in the same place you accepted death with one health point.

"Damn that Patrick! May your throat always burn! May you drink and never get drunk! May ale and wine always taste like piss to you!"
I kept shouting, hoping that my curses would also take form and acquire the force of the universe, but I already knew this game was over for me. No matter how many levels I got after ten, a group of gankers would beat all the experience points money and gear out of me in no time at all
"Patrick! Alcoholic bastard!" Tearing my throat and coughing, I kicked the wall taking damage and I could only hope that drunk was at least hiccupping.

Chapter 8. Skeletons and Zombies

It took me more than an hour to clear the little room of wine barrels. In the same corridor where I encountered the first skeleton, I discovered a door in the wall. It was locked, and no matter how I went after it, I just couldn't get it open. I started thinking it was simply a decoration like those smoky torches on the walls that couldn't be removed – just part of the way the world looked.
I was supposed to ignore it, but the thought that there might be something of interest behind that locked door wouldn't leave me. Furthermore, I thought I could hear some kind of rustling behind it.
The next patrol down the corridor was not a warrior. That Raised Skeleton Keymaster was much easier to kill. It took just a quarter hour of respawning, and I got eleven experience points and a keyring.
Locked door, dropped keys... You didn't have to be a genius to put these two facts together.
I went back and started trying keys one by one until one of them worked. But as soon as I opened the door, I heard a delicate shriek that seemingly burst my eardrums. First a few rats dropping bits of decaying flesh rushed at me, shrieking the whole time. A bit later, waiting to respawn, I read their exact number – five at various stages of decay. And that whole endless string of lives between deaths I was accompanied by their constant squeal.
While their pack remained full, it was hard to get even one hit in without dying. Plus I couldn't always hit the same zombie rat every time. I was hoping to hit at least one of them. Thankfully at least thanks to my Hammerfist I could take more than one sad point, but two to four every time. They also had less health points than the skeleton warrior. Still the battle was tough going.
The last rat that remained stopped attacking at ten percent of its life, trying to hide among the wine barrels. Then I got some time to restore my health, pick up the club and calmly land the final blow.
The wail of the huge zombie rat came to an abrupt end when my club smashed its head into a wall. Silence fell. I could hear my heart beating, a vein pulsating in my temple, my breathing gurgling, but other than that calm and grave-like silence reigned.
The time had come to pick up the loot. I dug through their bodies in disgust but other than Zombie Rat Innards, I didn't find a thing. No pelts which, to speak the truth, they never especially had, no claws which they did have and just so happened to be frighteningly powerful. What was more, no coins or items fell either.
The only use for the innards was given with a few brief lines: "Alchemy ingredient. Cooking ingredient. Value: 2 copper coins." Cooking ingredient? I made a mental note to figure out which dishes contained this and never to try them. But as for the value... Well, fifty rats was one silver, that could be a pretty tidy business.
I finished that and looked at the time. It was getting near midnight, but I had already decided not to sleep tonight. My room was locked, and my parents would think I was already asleep. Tomorrow morning I would take a shower, run through the materials for the test, get some breakfast and fly to school.
And for now – keep clearing the instance. At the back of my mind I understood that Patrick the drunkard's curse was the only way for me to finish the Chief Councilman's quest. I don't know how long it will last, but the very ability to spend one night farming up a mountain of experience and money was valuable. And that was not considering leveling Unarmed Combat, which was growing much quicker because I was fighting enemies five times my level.
Right after I killed my fourth rat, the skill and attack both levelled up. My damage and accuracy in Unarmed Combat were now increased by fifteen percent, while Hammer increased my normal damage by another twenty percent. In battles with rats, I got the hang of kicking at them when I realized I wasn't hitting with my fists, but I hadn't gotten an attack for that yet. Either I hadn't used my legs enough (kicking barefoot, you take more damage than the enemy) or new attacks were linked to skill progress.
Clearing the rats from that wine cellar gave me a strange satisfaction. A thought flickered by that I needed to check my flanks. And seemingly that idea crawled up from somewhere in my genetic memory.
I thought some more from that point of view, even put on the leather spaulders to raise my defense before my first death in the next battle. And I had no doubt I would die a few times.
"Boo-uh..." reached me when I got to the end of the narrow corridor. "Yghgh-uh..."
I heard some more rustling of feet on the floor, accompanied by disconnected sounds as if someone was about to barf but couldn't. The next room was three times more spacious than the previous one. The torches only provided good illumination in a small radius so, in order to see who was there, I had to come up as close as possible. And when I did, the name of the nearest mob flickered up.

Brainless zombie, level 6

The group of risen corpses moved in a circle in the middle of the room like convicts in a prison yard. They were bad at coordinating their movements unlike the skeletons I'd come across and constantly ran into one another, hobbled, wobbled and clearly because of that constantly bickered in zombie language. There was an arrow protruding from the head of one mob, and it was constantly catching on a rag hanging off the zombie in front of him.
I watched them, already thinking where best to die, whether I could retreat and kite them closer to the ins exit. I was nourishing a hope that, if I brought them out of this room, after I died they would leave and I could calmly restore my health. At the same time, the first flickers of a new plan were born in my head: it was more cumbersome, but if it worked, I would die less.
Then I took a critical look at myself. I was totally naked, not considering the boxer shorts I couldn’t remove. My first shirt had lost all its durability points and was decaying into dust, then three to four deaths later my pants also met their end. It all happened back at the first skeleton, and that made the stretched-out spaulders look extremely funny on my body. To hell with it, it was better this way. Otherwise I'd lose them too. I put them in my inventory and my gaze hit on the rat innards. What if...
I pulled out the innards of one of the rat zombies and, holding my breath so I wouldn't get nauseous, threw them into the crowd of walking dead. Zombies don't eat zombies, but what if?
The first zombo to be alerted was the one with the arrow in his head. Hearing the flesh slap onto the floor, he stopped, turned his head and his eyes latched onto the bait. The one behind him ran into his comrade, also stopped and asked:
"Hoo-uh," the arrowhead replied and took a step toward the chitterlings.
His buddy hissed and kept walking, but arrowhead took a few cautious steps toward the guts. I took a step toward him and he saw me. Forgetting the chitterlings, he gave an elated gasp and sped up! He was still hobbling and wobbling, but his step had a lot more pep.
I started walking back into the hallway, hoping I could kite him away from his compatriots, but it was all in vain. The arrowhead made a few especially loud exhalations of "Boo-uh!" and a moment later all the corpses were walking a different way.
"Fresh brains! Fresh meat!" I was absolutely sure that was exactly what these monsters had in mind.
The zombo with the arrow was out in front in this race, but no matter how he moved his decayed legs, I was faster.
I reached the wine cellar and slammed the not totally flimsy oak door and locked it tight.
"Eeugh-oo!" came a walking corpse from the other side, somehow particularly disappointed.
While they held a meeting, exchanging ideas for how to break the door down, I suddenly got the impression I could discern nearly intelligent speech. That is, of course without lips or a tongue, which had long since rotted away. Not many sounds could be produced, but I could make out a certain logic in their moaning.
Thinking that over, I rolled the wine-filled barrels along the ground one after the next and barricaded the door. I managed to brace it with a few rows of heavy barrels and I was greatly hoping that would be enough to pull off my plan.
"Boom! Boom! Hrrss!" the zombies were still knocking and scratching at the door.
I unlocked it with the key and took a step back. The narrow gap was immediately filled with several hands and feet. And we’re off!
Full force I swung down along the gap and hit the hands of two of the living dead, taking two or three health points each. They were getting in one another’s way, trying to climb inside. As for the one with the arrow in his skull, he was just stuck, which blocked the path for everyone else once and for all.
I looked at the club and considered whether I should start hitting with my bare hands to level the skill, but common sense took the day. They could grab me and pull me toward them, and with my stats I would hardly be able to escape. No, I’d work with the club.

You have done critical damage to the Brainless Zombie: 5!
Health points: 43/50.

The zombies lost it, and in the groans of the headwound one seemed to now contain notes of offense:
"Hoo-uh!" I squeezed out with my next blow.
The process was ongoing...
With its last health points, arrowhead tried to get out of the gap, but his own comrades were blocking him.

You have done damage to the Brainless Zombie: 3.
The Brainless Zombie is dead.

The body of the now doubly dead creature collapsed with a smashed skull. In its place another came to test out my club. He was already dented up – he got hurt when I was swinging at random. The zombie extended a hand and nearly got me with his petrified nails, which had some sticky black ooze coming out of them. I needed to be more careful. The last thing I needed was to take a debuff from corpse poison.
With that thought, I managed an especially good blow. My powerful smack to his nose pressed the flesh inside its skull.

Bashing weapon skill discovered!
Damage dealt with a bashing weapon increased by 10%
Attack accuracy increased by 10%.
Present skill level: 1.
Keep perfecting your skill in combat with enemies of your level or higher to get extra bonuses and new attacks.

You have learned a new attack "Battering Ram!"
Cost to use: 2 mana points.
Deals 150% of normal damage.

You have received experience points for discovering a new skill: 10.
Experience points at present level (1): 126/400.

I grinned, got a better hold on the club then activated Battering Ram. That made things a bit less bleak. I was still missing frequently and doing little damage, but still it was better. Mana practically didn't regenerate in battle, and I had to intermix my attack with normal blows. But knowing that every successful attack gave a couple experience points to skill progress put me on a real hot streak...
The whole pack of six zombies took me no more than half an hour. Losing my caution, I leaned over to pick up the loot. Just then something grabbed me by the hair and tenderly said:
"Oh-ah-ya? Ah-ah-ah!"
I tried to escape, but it was holding me tight. I turned my eyes and saw a zombo I’d missed before. He bared his teeth in glee and repeated:
"Oh-ah-ya! Oh-ah-ya!"
Why did I seem to hear the word "gotcha?"
The zombie nodded with enthusiasm:
It was almost friendly, if he hadn't bit into my shoulder at the same time.

The Brainless Zombie has damaged you: 8.
Health points: 15/23.

The pain pushed me on. I braced my legs on the wall and sharply pushed, yelping in pain. This zombie was stuck in the passage but had part of my hair and a piece of my flesh. I then rolled back into the middle of the wine cellar, dropping my weapon. The zombo, chewing what he'd bit off, looked after me disappointed, not trying to slip through the narrow gap. What a weird mob.
I picked up the club and cautiously came near. A miss... The zombie walked back, disappearing behind the door. Was he definitely brainless?
I changed viewing angle and saw he was standing beyond where I could reach, looming in the hall. Seemingly, this one wouldn't be so easy to kill. Well, I guess I'd have to die.

Chapter 9. Cursed Lich

The "smart" zombie sent me to respawn twenty times. After realizing that I respawned right where I died, he was always on guard, never going anywhere and waiting next to my body. In the space of a second, I wasn't always able to get off even one accurate blow, so I had to play on the element of surprise: sometimes I went right to respawn, sometimes I waited the whole ten seconds.
He really had me whipped up, too. It was like he was mocking me, letting out belittling comments, laughing and even making indecent gestures. One time he didn't even kill me right away, walking a few yards back prudently. He made a whole speech, of which I didn't understand anything except that it was a question.
"Ah-eegh uh-oh yeh-ah-yeh? Eegh oh eegh-uh? Oh-ah ooh-uh!" After that he shrugged and attacked.
I did kill him in the end. It seemed like he was letting himself be killed, and was even relieved. He was just so sick of it. And that was finally enough experience to push me over the equator: 210/400. The thought that levelling up would give me five more attribute points gave me strength. The only thing that really upset me was a growing thirst. I wanted to drink so badly I had to fight the desire to do make an emergency exit, crawl out of my pod and drink to my heart's content.
The loot from the zombie pack was my final reason to wait out the thirst. For someone like Tissa, it would seem like gray shoddy stuff, not worthy even of a place in her inventory. But for me anything was a great help: the cloth Robber's Vest (+2 to armor), Worn-out Arm Braces (+1 to armor) and, most happily, Worn-out Shoes! Sure they gave just one point of armor, but now I wouldn't be barefoot! All in all it was worth a bit more than two silver, but I was not going to sell it. As soon as I got out of this idiotic ins I would finally get some clothes on.
After the room with the walking dead, I went down the next corridor with a couple patrol skeletons. I had to mess with them for a bit, because one was carrying a round wooden shield, which he used deftly to protect himself from my blows. Those two took me a bit more than an hour, but in the end I got a rusty Flimsy Sword that did 3-4 damage, and immediately equipped it, putting the club in my inventory. The shield unfortunately did not drop. A few extra copper did, though.
And I also got my first achievement. My body lit up for a second, illuminating a corridor. My mana and life were completely restored and, accompanied by a brief horn fanfare, a notification popped up:

You have unlocked the "On fire" achievement!
Defeat 15 enemies who are more than five times higher level than you.
Once is a coincidence. Ten times can happen. But fifteen? That's an achievement!
Reward: +10 health points.

Of course, I immediately forgot about my desperate thirst. This was starting to be fun.
In the hallway, I discovered another locked door but, after opening it, I found nothing but a room full of bones. I scratched it all up with my hands and feet, but didn't get anything of value. There was just trash – bones and chips of bone.
And then, the serious problems started. The next room had a platoon of skeleton archers. Sure, there weren't twenty or thirty, just four, but that was plenty for me. As soon as they saw me, they ran away to a certain distance, shooting from afar.
Luckily, they didn't just stay in one place and kept wandering aimlessly, sometimes ending up right where my harried corpse fell. When that happened, I respawned and managed to land one or two Hammer blows. They had less health points than the skeleton warriors, so as a rock can be sharpened by droplets, I eventually did the pack in. As a reward for my torments, I got Torn Leather Gloves (+4 armor) which were worth twenty-six copper and another four coins.
The next room was to the left and led to a room full of zombies. They were all of the brainless variety, and both packs of six I lured by throwing rat chitterlings. They ran at me, and from there it went the same as the first pack of zombies, even though they didn't have a smart and talkative one. That just made it take less time. What was more, I was using the sword! Sure it did two or three damage more than my club, but it was also just easier to use.

You have unlocked the "On fire – 2" achievement!
Defeat 30 enemies who are more than five times higher level than you.
We are starting to suspect you're a cheater! Ha-ha! Relax, it was a joke. But still... Thirty? Something just ain’t right!
Reward: +20 health points.

After that, I started to understand achievement chasers. No, seriously. It was pleasant enough all on its own, but it also gave big-time bonuses! My health points were already two and a half times higher than before, and that was all down to the achievements.
As for the loot, unfortunately just one thing fell, a low-quality Decayed Leather Helm (+3 to armor) and around fifteen copper. But now I was just about up to level two: 358/400. I also discovered a new skill:

One-handed sword skill discovered!
Damage dealt with a sword increased by 10%
Attack accuracy increased by 10%.
Present skill level: 1.
Keep perfecting your skill in combat with enemies of your level or higher to get extra bonuses and new attacks.

You have learned a new attack "Sneak Attack!"
Cost to use: 2 mana points.
Deals 150% of normal damage.

You have received experience points for discovering a new skill: 10.
Experience points at present level (1): 368/400.

It was just about four o'clock in the morning. Now my thirst was not only a dried-out throat, my eyes were starting to stick together. In the game I experienced the same thing as my real body. But I wasn't going to abandon all my progress when I was half way there. Thinking about it, I had completed more than half the crypt. There was actually very little left.
After clearing the room, I started a new corridor, also on the left-hand side. There was a mixed patrol: a skeleton warrior, a skeleton archer and two brainless zombies. All four I kited back to the wine cellar, where I handled them the same way, except the archer. He was being tricky and not coming up to the gap, looking at me and shooting from the corridor. I had to take a risk: I pulled on all the stuff I bought and started to fight.
To my delight, he couldn't shoot as fast as I could hit, I didn't even die. The archer collapsed into a pile of bones.

You are now level 2!
5 free attribute points available!

I no longer even had the emotional capacity for a storm of joy. Instead I just sat there frozen for a while, studying the attributes list. In my current condition, I figured the best possible route was increasing Perception. I weighed it all again and put all five points there, raising my accuracy to forty-five percent.
Then I went back into the corridor I lured the last patrol from. There were two locked doors. And I shouldn't have opened the first...

Foul Quease, level 7

The mob’s bulging ten-foot-high body was seemingly sewn together from several people: three legs, one sticking out of the stomach, four arms, eyes on shoulders and a huge lipless mouth filled with teeth. When the monster saw me, it burst forth, extending all its arms and the one leg out to greet me, and charged me with unexpected verve. I turned tail, hoping the monster would get stuck in the doorway but it must have ducked and crawled out somehow.
I had to run with all my might, sensing its foul breathing and sniffling behind me. Then I realized these sounds were coming from the oozing wounds on its body. I reached the trusty old wine cellar, closed the door and barely managed to lock it shut. The Quease started slamming the door and nearly broke it down while I, slightly panicking, put the barrels that got moved back in place.
Then, following the repeatedly proven plan, unlocked the door and immediately took a flat blow to the forehead, losing a quarter of my life. That was thanks to the helm (and I hadn't yet figured out if all my armor was cumulative), otherwise the damage could have been fatal.
But at that point the Quease's health bar fell below white and, a few minutes later, its joyless life was also at an end. My sword stuck into its rotting body like a knife through butter, not only knocking out health points, but bits of flesh as well. I got coated head to toe, and the nauseating smell of rot was just dead stuck on me.
It dropped no loot, and the just twenty experience points hardly compensated the horror and disgust.
I went back to the room it came from and, behind the second locked door, which I opened cautiously, ready for anything, I found an empty room with a small chest. It was not locked, and inside I found a few small vials of healing and mana potion. I put that all in my inventory along with two silver coins. In comparison with the old poor Scyth, I was a rich man! I could finally afford to drink cream beer in the tavern! And of course I'd treat Eve, too...
What a beautiful sight, as my Uncle Nick used to say: it was already almost six AM. In an hour my parents would be up and calling me to eat breakfast. But I was still in the game. My stomach had gone on strike, demanding food. My guts were churning, my throat was like an emery board, and I still had the final boss ahead of me.
I could see him at the far end of the spacious room. The walls were lined with some kind of temple vessels. The boss cut a fairly undaunting figure. He was short, plump and didn't look like a problem. Especially with my curse from Patrick the drunkard. It looked like a simple tactic: land a blow or two, die, respawn and keep going until the boss was dead. Even if he was a custom creature.

Dargo the Cursed Lich, level 10
Crypt Boss

My gaze slipped over him. I was totally equipped. Ready. I gathered my courage and took a step out to meet him.
"Who dares disturb my slumber?" his hissing whisper filled the whole crypt.
What a worn-out phrase. But I hadn't spoken with anyone in so long, not counting that clever raised zombie, that the answer burst out of me as I held my sword horizontal and walked toward the boss.
"My name is Alex Sheppard, a.k.a. Scyth, and I am here to kill you."
"You are a mere weak mortal," the lich's said, emotionless. "I have been summoned by the Plague Blight. It is not for you to tussle with me..."
I made a blow, trying to hit his unprotected neck, but Dargo easily dodged and threw a magical pinkish black ball, which looked like a clump of dirt and worms. The ball slammed into my stomach with a swish and went inside. The cold of eternal calm entered my blood and ran over my whole body.

Dargo the Cursed Lich has damaged you: 49.
Health points: 4/53.

With a wail of pain, falling down I made a Sneak Attack with my blade into the lich's thigh and died after a tick of dot.

You have critically damaged Dargo the Cursed Lich: 8!
Health points: 272/280.

Not wanting to waste more than an hour on this bastard and be late to school, I didn't wait and immediately respawned on the same place: naked and unarmed. My stuff was just lying on the floor and I didn't have time to put it back on. I ran at the lich as it walked away to hit, but I ran into the same curse.
I got back up, ran... Died. Got back up...
On my eighth respawn I immediately drank a health potion, and I was able to cut Dargo the lich in his noseless face.

You have damaged Dargo the Cursed Lich: 2.
Health points: 278/280.

Lying dead at his feet, I looked at the battle logs in disbelief, then over to the boss's health bar. This bastard was regenerating much faster than I was doing damage!
This had to be the end.

Remaining time to respawn 9... 8... 7...

Chapter 10. You Scratch my Back and I Scratch Yours

A few seconds to die, another few to respawn. No less than four deaths per minute. More than one hundred in the first half hour of battle with the Cursed Lich.
I had only seen furor like this in the movies. The hero is defeated, his efforts fruitless, yet he continues stubbornly. Not does that look pointless, it looks stupid, but he just keeps going, making moves as my Uncle Nick always says. Apathetic and totally drained of confidence, faith, spirit and energy, he still keeps going.
That was about what I felt like. Like a rat with an electrode in his brain's pleasure center, I pressed the respawn button time and again and went balls to the wall at the boss, hoping for a miracle. Sometimes I managed to hit him with my fist, but usually not.
He was also getting burned out, but probably more mentally. Seriously, he even stopped ominously whispering: "You pitiful weak mortal!" every time I came back.
After killing me fifty times, he changed tactics and started alternating between deadly balls of grave worms with their devouring plague, covering half the room in bubbling smoking slime then just resorting to physical damage, knocking me on the head with his staff, which was crowned with a heavy black stone. The logs shed light on the names of his spells, one more foreboding than the next: Scourge, Plague, Blight...
I managed to think that all over during my next few attempts, having made peace with failing the quest and being expelled from Tristad. I just... decided to try one more time. I have a half hour still.

Dargo the Cursed Lich has damaged you: 37.
Health points: 0/53.
You are dead.

Oh, Patrick, Patrick, you old boozehound! Couldn't you have given me a curse that would make me respawn with full health? Then I'd have a chance, but now... Wait!
After respawning, I mentally tensed up expecting a flicker of pain, but still I ran at the lich. A blow! Hammer! Another blow! None of them landed, the boss easily dodged, laughing. Not understanding what was happening, I stopped, breathing heavily. Dargo was looking at me with... pity?
"You pitiful weak mortal! I have been summoned by the indomitable, merciless Plague Blight. And together we shall conquer all Disgardium. It is not for you to tussle with me..."
As he said these words, the lich beckoned me with a finger, then pointed at the earthen floor. After making sure I saw him, he wrote with the handle of his staff: "So you just don’t give up?"
In amazement, I couldn't squeeze out a single word. I just nodded. He erased that and wrote more: "I see. Well, I'm sick of this." He was writing one thing, but saying another:
"You worm! Do you really not understand how pointless this is?"
"But I have no other way out, Dargo," I explained. "Failing the mission will destroy my reputation with the city, and Disgardium is my only chance to earn money for my studies."
"Studies?" the lich wrote and said bombastically:
"Feeble human, your self-assurance will be your ruin!"
"Yes. I'm studying to be a space guide," I of course was confused but was now sure the boss was being controlled by a real person. "As long as I remember, I always dreamed of working in space."
"You'll be eaten from the inside!" he started conjuring a ball of grave worms, but threw the curse away from me.
"Cali Bottom, 270-36. Ask for Clayton. Bring donuts. UNB just makes me sick anymore!" the lich wrote with his staff, then looked closely and attentively at me.
UNB is universal nutrient blend. It contains everything a human needs, and is cheaper than drinking water. The synthetic cocktail is artificially flavored with hundreds of variations, but they all taste like paper.
"Cali Bottom, 270-36. Got it. That’s a two-hour flight from me..." I said, imagining what I'd tell my parents. "I'll come right after school. I'll be there near evening."
Dargo nodded. Then he stashed his staff, spread his arms and looked at the ceiling.
I looked under his legs and saw only one word: "Hit me."
Not looking away from the strange lich, I walked over to where my stuff was piled in a heap that fell after my first death, got dressed and picked up my sword.
"It'll be faster this way," I explained to the boss, raising the sword.
He blinked. He understood but kept showering me with his stuffy phrases:
"Shut your mouth, worm! It is not for you to tussle..."
A Sneak Attack cut him off midsentence.

You have critically damaged Dargo the Cursed Lich: 9!
Health points: 271/280.

Missing every other time, I mixed my only attack with normal blows, going all out with my two strength points. I tried not to raise the sword, so I wouldn't hit him in the head because it seemed wrong, although maybe I was just making it harder on myself. To the abyss with all this.
Yet another Sneak Attack landed a crit for twelve damage. Dargo didn't even wince, maybe because he didn't feel pain.
By the end of the second minute, I was done with the crypt boss. A moment before the last blow, he threw up his hands and, his thumb and pointer finger touching, forming a ring.
"Donuts?" I asked with an exhale.
He didn't have time to answer.

You have critically damaged Dargo the Cursed Lich: 5!
Dargo the Cursed Lich is dead.

Experience points received: 90.
Experience points at present level (2): 117/900.

You have passed the Crypt of the Temple of Nergal the Radiant!

The damp and crumbly soil floor, which smelled of rot and decay started changing from the place the boss died. Murky and barely lit by the tar-smoking torches, the room lit up with faces of the Radiant God appearing on the wall. The damp disappeared, the earth instantly went dry, then just disappeared, leaving a fine wooden floor behind.
A series of flashes followed, then some victorious fanfares, and my vision was obstructed by some interface messages. I gathered my things, then returned to the lich's body and sat next to it, my hands crossed on my knees to catch my breath. I looked over my rewards.

Mission of the Chief Councilman of the city of Tristad Peter Whiteacre completed.
You managed to establish that an unknown evil slunk into the crypt of the Temple of Nergal the Radiant – an emissary of the Plague Blight, Dargo the Lich. The undead raised by the lich had multiplied, defiling the very foundations of the Temple, parasitically absorbing the emanations of faith from adepts of the Radiant God and threatening the blessings of all city dwellers.
With your efforts, the Temple has been cleared of that abomination!
Tell the Chief Councilman of the city of Tristad Peter Whiteacre about your successes to receive the reward.

Experience points received for completing the Crypt of the Temple of Nergal Radiant: 100.
Experience points at present level (2): 217/900.

So there were plusses to going solo through instances. All that experience looked respectable only if not shared by the party. Eve was still in my group, but she probably wouldn't get experience because she was outside the crypt. Although maybe it would count as her passing it?
Somewhere behind me, a door screeched open. I turned around and saw a flickering pall to exit the instance. The exhaustion and ambivalence that had overtaken me a half hour earlier were swept away by glee. I smiled like an idiot, swallowed trying to somehow help my dry throat and raised my now cottony arms in a sign of victory.
There was just one message left unread. I purposely left it for last, already knowing what came next, and decided to savor it.

Unique achievement unlocked: "The lich is dead! Long live the new lich..."
You defeated the main crypt boss all on your own (!), and it was five times (!) higher level than you, yet you didn't take any damage!
Dargo the Cursed Lich died once and for all, but before completely disintegrating, he unintentionally transferred you a modicum of his power.
Reward: Mark of the Plague Blight.

I opened my profile and read the description of the ability, trying to hack through but my brain was categorically opposed to working at full steam. At first glance, the ability seemed to be of dubious utility. It had bone-chilling side effects, and the name didn't seem to promise anything good.

Mark of the Plague Blight
Passive skill.
Present skill level: 1.
When taking a killing blow, you have a 1% chance of receiving "Curse of the Undead." If it triggers, you will begin to rot alive, but will not die, and all damage you take will be reduced by 100%.
This curse will be active until you completely restore your health points.

Another curse? Was the one from Patrick not enough? I thought about it and decided to figure out how to live with this later. I grabbed the loot off the floor. It was illuminated by the interface. It contained some strange and unpleasant feeling scaled belt. I threw it in my inventory and ran to the exit.
The workday in Tristad hadn't begun yet, and that meant I would have to first fly home after school to pass the quest, then go see Dargo/Clayton after that.
The sun was already rolling over the horizon, painting the building roofs and temple spire a beautiful shade of gold. After the murky and musty crypt, Tristad shone with new colors. The air was transparent, and the smells of fresh morning inspired joy. And I was happy, in no rush to leave the world.
Somewhere in the city, a bell rang three times, making my temples shoot with pain. I slipped my gaze over a global notification about a new threat. I had seen plenty of them before I turned them off. Strange that this one made it through the filter... Ah, there was the issue – the potential threat level was higher than normal:

A disturbance in the strings of creation! A new evil has awoken in Disgardium!
Evaluation of potential threat class: L.
Evaluation of current threat class: Z.
Most likely location: foothills of the Nameless Mountains.
Don't let this awoken evil gather strength. Find it first and eliminate it, and the reward of the strong of this world will be generous!
And the gods will also be favorable to you, bravehearts and heroes!

Nameless mountains? That might be somewhere nearby, but it might also be on another side of the world. It was a mountain ridge that went on for three hundred miles. To the abyss with that, I was late for school. And oh how I want to drink...
I focused my gaze on the “Exit” button.
Oh abyss, let me free.

Release - April 22, 2019

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