Saturday, March 23, 2019

Disgardium: Apostle of the Gods by Dan Sugralinov




Disgardium, Book 2
Apostle of the Sleeping Gods
by Dan Sugralinov



Release - June 10, 2019

Foreword

Your parents are getting divorced. Now, once you turn sixteen, you’ll be doomed to a pitiful existence on the lowest rungs of society. The neighbor girl got plastic surgery for your sake and is levelling fast to impress you. A Sleeping God gave you its power, but now demands absolute loyalty and obedience even in real life. Something called the Destroying Plague wants its Emissary to infect everyone alive and, as luck would have it, that Emissary is you! But the city sees you as its salvation, not a cause of great suffering...
Scyth aka Alex is a potential Class-A threat to the whole world of Disgardium. That's how the system classifies imba players with an unfair advantage.
However, it is hard to threaten the world while you're stuck levelling up in noob town. It's even harder when all the preventer clans are on the verge of announcing a hunt for you and even your best friends can't be trusted, all while your two patron gods tear you apart from the inside. And now, to make matters worse, your biggest enemy has just become a threat as well.




Chapter 1. Sleeping God

Thunder blasted out in an absolutely clear sky. The earth shook, and ripples ran across the swamp muck. Then slimy creatures started frantically crawling and jumping over one another, scrambling to get out of the water. The water started steaming, then bubbling and the creepy crawlies all went belly-up up, boiled alive. The huge bloodsucking leeches and dimly glowing balls burst, spattering droplets of disgusting brown slime.
A global notification rolled through all Disgardium, breaking my train of thought. Behemoth's voice was still whispering, but it was more the muttering of a sleeping person than anything I could make sense of. His greeting was the last intelligible thing I heard him say.

We have detected a disturbance in the strings of creation! A new evil has awoken in Disgardium!
Estimated potential threat class: A.
Current threat class: Q.
Most likely location: cannot be detected.

Praise all the gods that they couldn't determine my location! Clearly the disturbance in the strings of creation was so strong it shook the whole world, not just one particular location.
I was so tired I could really feel it. The few hours of semi-sleep I got last night first in the instance, then while waiting for the Dementors to reach the final boss were helpful but not exactly great rest. Even in Dis I could feel my head just splitting. I wanted to bring the situation to its logical conclusion, find out what the Sleeping God wanted from me and finish Patrick's quest.
I decided I'd think the rest over later. I just wanted a break from Dis. Plus by evening, my parents would be home and I wanted to spend time with them.
When I hoisted myself onto the island in the middle of the swamp, the entity I saw there was least of all reminiscent of a god. It was a small blob of green protoplasm sloshing about in inside some film or skin. If I weren’t looking closely, I might have thought this was a puddle covered in duckweed and fluttering in gusts of wind. Only the system's explanation convinced me this was something more, namely: Behemoth, Sleeping God. For a noob like me there was no way of telling whether this was a creature of an indeterminate level or a very high level.
We exchanged greetings, and the blob was suddenly at my feet asking to be let in. And I let it in. As it turned out, it meant into my head. Then a notification thundered about my potential and actual threat class going up.
And everything changed: Behemoth's speech became intelligible and started making sense. And I could see a transparent figure, probably the god’s avatar. It even looked vaguely like a hippopotamus, a nod to the biblical origin of its name. It was hard to describe. There was no easy comparison with any of the animals or fantasy creatures I knew of. A monster? A creature? A nightmare? None of the bosses of any instance I’d ever seen came anywhere near Behemoth. But all that aside, it was the same height as me and looking me right in the eyes with ill intent.
"I thought you'd be bigger," I admitted. "I mean you're a god after all, even if you are Sleeping. And hey, you're not sleeping now. Does that mean you aren't a Sleeping God anymore?"
"My size is immaterial, Scyth the apostle," the voice rumbled. "The body you see now is just a reflection of one of my appearances in your mind. It has taken a size convenient for conversation. My true nature is locked very deep down, and you and everything around are just my dream."
"I think this world’s several hundred other gods, some of whom have had mountains split in two by their names, might disagree."
"All intelligent creatures might disagree," Behemoth agreed with surprising facility. A thick steam escaped from the many trunks on his face and ghastly toothed openings all over his massive body with a hiss. I couldn’t tell at first, but that was how it laughed. "None of us the Sleeping Gods can control our dreams. But after we all awaken, everything will be destroyed. And that includes the so-called gods like the abomination that has staked a claim to you. I can smell its mark."
"Mark?" I perked up my ears. "Is this about the Destroying Plague?"
"The Destroying Plague..." he issued a dull roar-like boom in dismay. "Empty words that pay no reverence to their creator. A masquerade. But that abomination gives you strength, and I say let that be to our advantage for now."
"Our advantage? I wouldn't be so fast, Sleeping God. I am not on your side just yet! But you're right, I did come to help you." I was sick of standing, so I sat down on the withered grass. "I was sent here by Tristad resident Patrick O'Grady. And in return for my future help I ask you for the thing you promised him but didn't do."
"Tristad... Patrick... More empty words with no meaning. If you're referring to that psycho who showed up here with a wolf-pup he kidnapped from its mother, I never promised him anything. What happened to him was not in this world, and the thing he thinks he was promised was not promised by me. And you are here not because some Patrick sent you here but because I have snared you in my ropes of the depths."
"Wait, Behemoth! I don't understand... I'm confused!"
"It is not for you to understand," the voice of the Sleeping God sounded tired and noticeably quieter than before. "That means nothing, apostle. You are weak, so my reflection in you is weak. It is melting. We're wasting time."
"Well, it means something to me!" my voice, on the other hand, had grown stronger. I was not going to accept an answer like that from Behemoth. And I was not going to fail the only full quest I’d ever taken, other than the ones I'd picked by the fistful from the prison bulletin board. "I promised Patrick O'Grady to do as he asked. I am prepared to help, but in return you must do something for him! What did you promise him?"
"He lost his wife and the meaning of his life." the god's trunks drooped, but I didn't know how to interpret that. "I cannot give him back either thing. But I can help him find a new one... Of either..."
"A wife or a meaning?"
"The first will become the second, and with the second he won't need the first. It doesn't matter. Empty words. I'll say what to tell him so he can get back what he's lost. Are you satisfied, apostle?"

Mission of Honorary Tristad Citizen, former city guard patrol squadron captain Patrick O'Grady complete.
You made it to the place he told you to go in the Mire, offered help to Behemoth and asked for what he promised Patrick as a reward.
Unfortunately, it will not be the reward he's hoping for.
Tell Patrick O'Grady about your talk with Behemoth to receive the reward.

"I am satisfied. Why are you calling me apostle? And what does Sleeping God mean?"
"Because you shall be our herald. The one who brings the others. You are our apostle and now we are inseparably linked..." Behemoth slightly lowered his head and flickered his eyes. "What was that? You don't need it. I have removed the blot that madman placed upon you in my name."
I wasn't able to tell what he was talking about at first. But when it reached me and my profile confirmed my guess, I didn't know whether to be happy or sad. Restless Soul, Patrick’s curse that made me respawn where I died, was gone.
"My reflection is fading," the Sleeping God continued. "Neither I nor the other Sleeping Gods can control our dreams, otherwise the spawn of our dreams will not believe in their creators. Without our monitoring, everything would be swallowed up by the Nether sooner or later. And your abominable gods only hasten that process. And the Nether brings a never-ending nightmare from which there is no waking up."
"But what can I do?"
"You are our apostle. That means that in this world we are you and you are us. Do not be afraid, it just means that you are our main proxy."
"You keep saying 'our.' Who else?"
"All the Sleeping Gods. The time shall come for you to learn everything, but for now listen. The greater our power, the stronger you shall become. You can attract new followers and everyone who joins you will make both themselves and the rest even more powerful! In the name of unity!"
I could barely hear his last words.

Behemoth the Sleeping God has given you the divine ability Touch of the Sleeping Gods!

Touch of the Sleeping Gods
Active ability.
Allows you to turn intelligent beings into new followers of the Sleeping Gods.
Requires confirmation from the target.

Behemoth the Sleeping God has given you the divine ability Unity!

Unity
Passive ability.
+1 to a random attribute for each follower per follower of the Sleeping Gods.

"Well, well!" I exclaimed. "With upsides like that I can get the whole world on my side!"
"Unfortunately, for now your number is limited to thirteen intelligent creatures..." the avatar of the Sleeping God dissolved into thin air. But the voice remained, now just rustling away in my head. "Ask..."
"How can I increase that number?"
"An island in the Bottomless Ocean to the west of the continental shore. There, find the ruins of an ancient shrine. It is the closest place of power to the Sleeping Gods. Build a temple there to concentrate faith, then build it bigger."

Behemoth the Sleeping God would like you to build him a new temple on an unnamed island in the Bottomless Ocean.
Rewards: unknown.

I accepted the quest without a second thought. It was a divine quest chain and had no penalties. What was there to think about?
"I see. I don't know how I'll start, but I'll try. What should I tell Patrick?"
"Bid him go to Darant. His Jane is alive and studying at the University of Magic. But before he goes, he must make his body and mind the way they were before."
"Anything else?"
"She was never his wife. So tell him that she doesn't remember anything. And given he's the only one other than you who's seen me, convince him to become a follower."
"I don't think it'll be too hard after what I've got to tell him about Jane. By the way, he mentioned that you call yourself the one true god. But you just told me there are several Sleeping Gods. How does that work?"
"That one true god remains in his world. That madman simply got confused and forgot how to tell reality from nonsense. My powers are waning, Scyth..."
"Wait! How do I get back to you? What if I need to ask you something or...?"
"The same way you got here..."
Its rustling thoughts finally disappeared. I looked around and noticed that the muck around the island had retreated and the level of the bog had gone down. The sun was nearing the horizon. Depths Teleportation wouldn't cooldown until tomorrow.
Before I, like Patrick, started mixing up worlds, I had to get back.
Exit.

Chapter 2. Alliance of Preventers


My parents came home in the evening. I spent the few hours between exiting Dis and their arrival getting the apartment and myself cleaned up. And I got caught up on my studies. I had now missed a critical number of days in school, and I was sure my parents had already been notified. I missed a few phone calls from mom, resulting in an enraged message that all but confirmed it.
So I hurriedly skimmed through what I'd missed, studying school books. At that time Tissa called me to ask how I was doing and where the Depths Teleportation had taken me. As it turned out, the Dementors had been dispersed to the furthest corners of the sandbox, and they would need a long time to get back.
I was caught up guessing what classes I could choose. In the Mire I just wasn't feeling like looking, then I talked with Behemoth and exited without remembering to check the system message. Tissa, by the way, had said that tomorrow after school Ed and the gang were going to celebrate the First Kill and asked if I wanted to join. I answered that I would be happy to.
Overall, when I reached quantum field theory, which was covered in physics in my absence, the front door opened and mom and dad collapsed inside, impossibly tired and sullen.
"Alex, Alex..." she shook her head. But contrary to expectation, she didn't start shouting right away. "Your citizenship tests are in a few months, then you'll have to live on your own. What hope do you have when you treat your studies like that?"
While she sermonized, father tousled the back of my head and locked himself in the bathroom. For the next half hour I heard him splashing, gurgling and grunting away inside.
"How was the flight?" I asked.
"Fine..." mom muttered and spent a long time in silence. "The project was rejected. At least they didn't ask us to pay back the advance even though they easily could have."
"But how? Why?"
"He and I had another bad fight," mom answered and I realized she was talking about father. "Our calculations were way off and some big bugs crawled out in testing. The clients were furious. They were preparing for a top raid dungeon for a global event in Disgardium. They have an inside man in Snowstorm who gave us mechanics and attributes for the boss and our job was to use that data to make a beta training ground."
"For what clan?"
"One of the most influential in Dis Modus. They won the last adult Arena and are the most successful preventers."
"Why didn't they give you time to fix it, mom?"
"Oh, they suddenly had bigger fish to fry. A class-A threat popped up in Dis. It’s the highest class there’s ever been! Naturally, they went bananas and now they're practically digging a hole to China to find it!" Mom laughed. "That might be why they didn't insist we pay back the advance. There was an emergency gathering of all preventers..."
"A gathering? Why, mom? Don't clans usually try and find threats separately so they don't have to share the reward?"
"After eliminating a D-Class threat, some unknown clan from the top eight thousand entered the top three. What do you think, Alex, do these guys know what they stand to get for a threat three levels higher than that? After all, the rewards practically grow in a geometric progression with every level! As far as I managed to overhear, they're going to make an Alliance of Preventers."
It was only then that I realized exactly what I was up against. Just me against the whole world, discounting whatever the Destroying Plague was and a blob of protoplasm that called itself a Sleeping God.
Eve... things were dicey with her and, I was afraid if I didn’t reciprocate her feelings, they might do a one eighty.
And when I was with the Dementors, it was like being tied to a powder keg. From a distance, they might think it was a beer keg, but one day they’d realize who they were dealing with. If they hadn't already...
The celebration tomorrow would open my eyes to many things. I wasn’t sure, but there could be alcohol and loose tongues. I hoped that might clue me in on how to act around them from here on out.
"Mom..." I faltered, putting my thought more mildly. "Have you and dad..."
"What Alex?"
"Have you and dad tried patching things up? I mean, you've been together for so long!"
My question caught her off guard. She spent a long time before answering pretending that she was busy making tea. But when she eventually came and sat opposite me, placing a mug in front of me, the water went quiet in the bathroom. Dad was done washing up. We sat in silence listening to father shave the old-fashioned way with an electric razor instead of just removing his stubble once and for all with lotion (he thought stubble made him look more manly). I wasn't decisive enough to repeat my question, and she didn't want to answer.
But she did say something eventually. By the time dad was rustling a towel and wiping off his face, she coldly stated:
"I don't love your father, son. I don't love Mark. I have another."
I guessed as much, but hearing it out loud hit me harder than a Hammer. I felt a lump in my throat, my face crinkled up like a baby and I covered it with my hands, holding back tears. That was the final verdict.
For the whole past week I still had some hope, subconsciously sure that they would get it out of their system and change their minds, but now it was final. Dad would never live with her knowing she had a lover. And mom was losing her mind waiting for freedom so she could move away from him to be with her beau...
I looked at her with different eyes. She was thirty-six years old. She was still attractive and had a smoking-hot body. But now she was in the embrace of another man?
Feeling a furious attack of hatred for whatever lustful dipshit did a number on my mom's head, I walked into my room, not finishing my powdered tea. Old man Furtado was right: the drink mom made had nothing to do with the noble beverage called tea.
To distract myself I tried to contact Eve, but her comm was unavailable. Then I dove head first into a physics textbook. "Quantum theory for systems with infinite degrees of freedom..."
A gripping read.


***


As the last bell of the day rang, the class kicked into a din, stood up and headed for the door. I caught up with the Dementors. We were going to fly to Ed's to celebrate the First Kill, but my teacher's hand stopped me.
"Sheppard, hang back," said Mr. Kovacs, his eyes focused on a panel showing my performance.
"Yes, Greg?" I stopped next to him. His eyes shot up in surprise even though last week he said I could call him by name, and I corrected myself: "Mr. Kovacs."
"We'll wait up," Ed nodded at me and the Dementors left class.
"You'd better sit down," Mr. Kovacs pointed me to a chair next to his desk. "We're gonna have a long and serious conversation, Sheppard."
This is the first time in my memory something like this has happened. He'd never talked to me with such a serious dry and official tone, calling me by my family name. Usually he pretended to be equal with his students.
Kovacs stood up, closed the door and came back. He drummed his fingers on the table top and sharply said:
"I don't have a lot of time, Sheppard, so I'll be brief. Your attendance in the last block is eighty percent. Your integrated performance score is seventy-nine. Nothing fatal, but very close to it. I cannot allow that. So this morning I called up your parents to see why this was happening, and you know what they told me?"
"That they're getting divorced?"
"What?" Mr. Kovacs asked in surprise. "So they're getting divorced? That clears up a lot..." he drummed his fingers again. "Hm-hmm... Okay then, I feel like I have even more responsibility for your future, Alex." His tone softened. "I’m assigning you two extra classes every day until your integrated performance score is completely back to normal. Starting today. I've already signed you up for a study spot in the lab, so right after our conversation you can head there and get started."
I had no answer to give and just nodded. As he said, it wasn't fatal, I'd survive. And I myself understood I needed to do some extra studying. Sitting through the lessons I missed in a normal VR-helmet and retaking the tests didn’t scare me.
"That's not all. Your mom, Mrs. Sheppard, told me about your unhealthy fixation with Disgardium."
"What? Unhealthy? Are you saying something everyone enjoys is unhealthy?"
"Maybe I didn't express myself properly. Anyway, I was just repeating your mom's words. Most likely she meant your interest in Dis has risen sharply. And you know I don't agree with the Department of Education on that particular rule... How to put it lightly... To me, it seems they crossed the line requiring kids to spend time in the game. You understand? It might make sense for kids with low citizenship status. After all, they really have nowhere else to go after school and Dis is great at reducing social tension..." he chewed his lips and stroked his nose. "But Alex, you're from a good family! Status F! Your path toward becoming a full member of society is obstacle free!"
"Did you forget? They're getting divorced!"
"But they aren't divorced yet!" Greg slapped the table and leaned up on it. I could see flickers of fury in his eyes, and in surprise I flew back into my chair. "And if they're smart enough they won't, at least until your citizenship tests!"
He was right. My parents' high citizenship status might afford me extra points in the eyes of the commission. It also might not, that was just rumored. But the rumors were stubborn and statistics seemed to confirm them.
Maybe that was just because high-status families had more opportunities to provide their offspring better health, social skills and education starting in early childhood if not from the moment of conception. Gene editing cost a lot of money, but it was possible and available to almost all who wanted it.
Mr. Kovacs spent a long time boring into me with his gaze but finally the wrinkle between his brows smoothed out, his nostrils stopped flaring threateningly and he found the chair under him and sat back down. He went right back to his usual tone as if that flare-up hadn't just happened:
"An hour ago I sent a request to the Department of Education to temporarily ban your character from Disgardium. I ticked all the boxes to get it done too, including referencing your potential value to society... of this world, not Dis. My request was approved. Your character has been banned for two weeks. I hope that'll be enough time for you to catch up on everything you missed."
"What? You have to be joking, right Mr. Kovacs? You can't..!"
I just about told him I was a threat and thus required to spend at least eight hours a day in the game but he fortunately spoke over me.
"Do I look like I’m joking? You better believe I can!" He flew into rage again. "Stand up, Sheppard! Into the VR-lab for extra classes! Now!"
Slamming the door behind me, I was thinking that rumors of our teacher's past as a fighter may have had a firm basis. In the hallway I saw the astonished faces of the Dementors, who had been listening. Hung was standing at mock attention.
"Sir yes sir!" he shouted, bulging out his eyes.
"Hung Lee!" Kovacs's voice came from the class. "Two extra classes with Sheppard! Step to!"


***


Out of solidarity, everyone else waited for us. For me, the hour and a half immersed in bionics lectures flew by fairly quickly. But Hung Lee took it worse. Removing the VR helmet, he shrugged his shoulders, turned his head and said with frustration:
"Damn! They say in decent schools they have real capsules, not this ancient trash." He pulled off the manipulator gloves, threw them on the floor and cracked his fingers. "So we gettin' out of here?"
"Yep," I nodded. "But it was fun. No, really! I probably wouldn’t have learned it without school but now I know that, just one hundred years ago, you would have been one-eyed."
Hung reflexively touched his left eye. It was bionic, but indistinguishable from the normal one he'd lost in some brainless kid's game.
"A hundred years ago? Grandpa said that back then at least everyone had work. But he was little then. He might be imagining things. He has all kinds of tall tales!" Hung slapped me on the shoulder and gave a somewhat unhappy laugh. "What are your plans, Alex? Me and the guys just can't stop guessing. What made you get so good at Dis?"
"I'll talk about it at Ed's. I don't wanna have to repeat myself."
The guys were waiting at the flying car pad. When they saw us, they got up, shaking off some snow.
"Finally! We've been freezing our asses off out here!" Malik shouted.
His heated clothing would hardly have allowed that, but he Tissa and Ed all had rosy cheeks. The first snow had fallen in the night and so much of it fell that climate control platforms hadn't managed and the snow simply was shoveled to the edges of the roofs. And over there they clearly had a snowball fight while waiting for me and Hung.
The five of us got into a flying car and Rodriguez set the destination. On the way we talked about all kinds of stuff but, for some reason, avoided any mention of Disgardium. Even when I raised the topic of my account being banned for two weeks, they didn't react. Tissa shook her head and softly touched my chest, whispering with just her lips: "Later."
A quarter hour later we landed on the roof of the building where Ed lived.
It was an H-category neighborhood, inhabited by citizens of low civil status. And the differences were instantly obvious wherever you looked: the buildings were taller, and denser. There was less green space... The windows even looked smaller.
"Let's go." Ed brought us through the parking lot and stuck his finger into a lock. It gave a click and the door went up. "Stomp all the snow off."
The elevator brought us down to floor twenty-four. That too was different here. It wasn't as fast or as silent, nor as spacious as in my building.
In the long hallway we stopped next to one of the doors. While Ed opened the lock by putting his head up to the facial recognition camera, Malik started whistling a recent hit and even tried to dance, but Tissa whispered:
"Infect! Quiet! You'll wake up Ed's grandma!"
As soon as the door opened, I heard a sonorous girl’s scream:
"Eddy!"
A five-year-old girl threw herself at Rodriguez and, jumping up, hung around his shoulders.
"Who's there Pollyanna?" I heard a woman's voice from deep in the apartment. "Edward, is that you? You're late, Edward!"
"Yes, grandma! Mr. Kovacs assigned extra lessons!" Ed shouted over the girl's head.
She jumped out of her brother's arms, hugged Malik and Hung, then hung off Tissa's neck. Clearly they were frequent guests here. Melissa whispered something softly into her ear and she nodded and laughed, casting me a furtive glance.
"My name is Alex," I extended a hand.
"Polly," she barely touched my hand with her palm and got embarrassed.
"I'll go talk with grandma," Ed said. "There's cokes in the fridge, grab some and go sit your asses on the balcony. Little Polly, have you eaten?" She nodded. "Good, then go play in your room."
I studied Ed's apartment. It was spacious, no less than ours, although of a lower category. The guys pulled a couple big bottles of soda out of the fridge. Tissa picked up a packet of disposable cardboard cups and a few bags of chips.
With all that stuff, we walked over to a wide glassed-in balcony that had a view of... the gray neighboring building with blue window frames just a couple dozen yards away from us. But there was room for four chairs and small plastic table. The rest of the space was taken by a pile of random stuff: pictures, a ton of statuettes and some boxes. Everything was covered in dust. The house had a certain feeling of neglect, as if it hadn't seen a woman's touch in ages or at least the hands of a robot cleaner. And by the way, I didn't see one.
"There could be five people living here," I noticed while we waited for Ed. "It's a big apartment."
"There used to be five," Hung answered gloomily. "Until Ed's parents caught the Rock virus in Africa three years ago."
"Is it treatable?" I asked in surprise. New diseases appeared just about every year, but medicine found ways of defeating even such hellish foes as the Rock virus, which caused living healthy cells to decay.
"It was at the very beginning," Tissa explained, opening a bag of chips. "They were in the first wave before anyone even knew how to diagnose it."
"But they were good artists," Hung added.
"What was it?" Tissa rolled her eyes, remembering. "The value of the cultural contribution of their works... bla-bla-bla... Basically it allowed Ed's grandma to keep that citizenship status so they wouldn’t have to move."
"And what about his grandma?" I asked. "Should we go say hi to her?"
"It isn’t necessary," Tissa shook her head. "She can barely walk, is just about deaf and doesn't like strangers. And to her you're definitely a stranger."
"And you will always be one unless you go meet her," Malik snorted. "Actually it's a good idea, go introduce yourself."
I got up from the chair and headed for the door, but Ed showed up in the doorway.
"Quiet down! Granny just fell asleep. Why'd you get up for, Alex? Bathroom?"
"No, I wanted to go meet your..."
"Another time," Ed shot out. "She needs peace and quiet. So... We need one more chair..."
He disappeared from the doorway and soon came back with a stool in his hands. He closed the balcony door tight and got set up with us. A slight smile came onto his face. He led a gaze over us and stopped on the big guy:
"Hung, did you get it?"
"Of course!" Bomber sniffed the air and gave a broad smile. "We came here to celebrate! So..." he took a large flask out of an inside pocket and shook it in the air. "Pure whiskey, folks! From my dear old dad’s bottomless stash!"
"First kill, whiskey and coke... Let me think..." Ed rubbed his hands together. "Guy's, we're wasting time! Tank it, Bomber!"

Chapter 3. Immersion Ban


A message from Snowstorm came when I was still at Ed's with the Dementors. No matter how clouded my mind was with strong alcohol, I had enough sense not to read it.
I opened my palm and glanced at the notification on my communicator. In the notification text I could make out the name of the corporation and immediately clenched my fist before Tissa got curious and read. She was sitting between me and Ed, periodically touching me here with her shoulder and there with her hair. A few times she put her hand on my knee. Just to be fair, she had her other hand on Ed's at the same time. It was as if our legs were just armrests for her.
Soon I could tell I was getting tipsy and my tongue was about to get too loose. And not even so much because I was an inexperienced drinker. This was a fun hang session, and they all radiated friendly warmth. I tried to give a furtive goodbye, but they wouldn’t let me leave alone. We all went together to the flying car, Hung made sure I said the right destination, then they spent a long time hugging me and patting me on the back. Ed, his tongue loosened, said that they would look over the loot from the dungeon and start quickly selling everything they didn't need, and I would definitely get my share for the whole ins, not just the last boss. And only after that they let me go...
I fell asleep on the way home and didn’t know how long I spent sleeping in the flying car on my parent's rooftop. Maybe a minute, maybe an hour. Then I, hitting my shoulders on doorframes and wiping down walls for support, lumped myself home, pulled myself into the bed and fell into a thick dream.
I woke up from a gut-splitting thirst just before morning. I was dressed and under the covers. One of my parents had taken pity on their son, who had gotten drunk for the first time in his life. As proof, there was a bottle of water and a glass on the bedside table and next to that a fizzy tablet, something I knew well from father's hangovers.
I sated my thirst with the fizzy liquid analgesic and got up from the bed. AT was lying next to me, her head on her paws. Noticing that I was up, he raised an ear but, sensing my mood, didn't come over.
My head splitting, I paced around the room, gathering my thoughts. There was still a lot of time left before school, and I decided to start with the basics: I got into the shower and spent a long time standing under the warm water, bringing my body and mind to life. I was afraid to even imagine how much money I wasted between the water and electricity to heat it.
But it made me feel better. I decided to check Greg's threat and got into my capsule. But as expected I got a message that I was temporarily banned from immersion in all game worlds. Then I remembered the letter from the corporation.

Dear Alex!
With this letter I would like to inform you that you have received a two-week academic ban from Disgardium.
Taking into account your special status in the world and your required time in the game, I wanted to write you personally to reassure you. All of us here at Snowstorm went to school once :-) So we understand what you’re going through and will act accordingly.
For the duration of your academic ban, you are free of all obligations to spend time in the world of Disgardium.
I wish you a speedy resolution of all issues impeding your immersion! May the skies of Disgardium always be blue over your head!

With friendly greetings,
Marianna Da Silva, Customer service department,
Snowstorm Incorporated.

With a satisfied snort, I got ready for school and left my room. I stuck my head out and saw father's sympathetic gaze then heard a sermon from mom, ate breakfast and went to school.
Lessons just flew by. For the first time in recent memory, I hardly thought about Dis, carefully listening to all teachers and finishing my assignments the right way. During breaks, I would talk with the Dementors. They could taste themselves getting close to Tristad and passing First Advisor Whiteacre's quest. We all got a scorpion eye from the final boss, which was a quest starter.
We had Thanksgiving coming up, so Greg didn't insist on extra classes, but I still went to them to make up for lost time.
The four-day weekend felt like just one. On Thursday we had guests and they ate all the food mom made. Although saying she made it might have been a bit much. It didn't take her more than one hour: she just unpacked a high-end cooking set called “Thanksgiving” into a food processor, and it spat out a full meal for eight to ten people. It cost just ninety-nine phoenixes. The star of the table was a roast turkey, and next to it was mashed potatoes, a cheesy corn casserole and a pumpkin pie, among other things.
On Friday it was our turn to be the guests. My parents carefully hid their impending divorce and did a great job playing the happy family. It was easy for them to do. They just about had me believing it, if I hadn’t heard mom say she didn’t love dad anymore.
On Saturday and Sunday I did normal stuff: I studied, watched movies and video material from the Leman expedition to Mars, and I tried unsuccessfully to drag Tissa out on a date. She didn't answer for a long time, having been in Dis but when she did write, her message was dry: "Can't. Not in the mood." I even considered whether it was worth getting upset over but decided that it definitely was not.
Out of boredom I even tried to call up Eve but her mother answered, saying that the recuperation process was dragging on because her daughter "was starting to like it."
Basically, over the weekend I got sick of vacation and on Monday I flew to school with glee. And that was where everything became clear.


***


Dead of sorrow. Gloomy. Downtrodden and crushed. That was how the Dementors looked when I found them in the schoolyard. And although the sun was blinding down from the cloudless sky, there was a cloud of coldness and despondency around them as if the Dementors had become their clan's namesake.
They weren't in first period, and they showed up to second late. During the break Greg held me up and I only managed to find them after that. They were sitting on a bench and looking dismal as frozen sparrows.
"Hi..." I drew out cautiously. "How's it going?"
"Hi," Tissa answered gloomily and turned away. She was in a touchy mood.
The others kept silent. They all grew visibly tenser when I showed up. Seemingly I'd interrupted a conversation they didn’t want me there for.
"To hell with it," Hung spit out. "This is his problem too."
Ed sized me up with an empty gaze and lowered his head, covering it with his hands.
"What happened? Did somebody die?"
"Yeah, all of us!" Malik laughed nervously. "A ton of times!"
"Alright..." Ed muttered, having made up his own mind. He raised his head and exclaimed: "Alex, we're way up shit's creek!"
"I can see that." I said, sitting on the bench between Hung and Malik. "But what happened?"
"Axiom..." Malik started explaining. But Ed stopped him and spoke:
"Last Thursday, Big Po added us all to their KoS list and set a reward: fifty gold for each time one of us is killed."
"And me?"
"We aren't sure about you, but you can check the forums," Ed answered. "For now there are just four of us: me, Tissa, Bomber and Infect. As for you, they have questions. But for what it's worth, we said you weren't with us."
"Did you at least get the loot back?"
"We did!" Hung exploded unexpectedly. "But we lost almost all our gear! None of us made it back to town on foot! They caught us all!"
"Where are you now?"
"Same place," Hung burbled. "The respawn point in the Olton Quarries."
"We all got brought down to level ten. They stripped us down to nothing!" Ed took a loud breath in through his nose. His voice dropped and he said barely audibly: "I lost my epic. Cloak of Urfin the Fiery. They won't let me leave. There are constantly headhunters waiting to rack up kills until the diminishing effect kicks in."
"What is that?"
"The same player or group can't kill one person more than three times in a row per day," Tissa explained. "After the third time, their attacks stop doing damage. So they switch out."
"What about teleportation?"
"It doesn't cast instantly," Hung complained. "They are looking out for that. They don't let us leave. Ed did manage once but he fell into the hands of the nagas, and they tore him up quick."
"What was I supposed to do?" Ed snorted. "Naked at level ten!"
"And is that gonna keep happening for long?" I asked.
"Until we leave the sandbox. Me and Hung flew over to see Big Po this morning. We wanted to come to an understanding..." Ed spat. "He just laughed! He told us he values the moral and material compensation at one hundred thousand gold. We've never had that kind of money, so..."
"What?"
"We don't know, Alex!" Tissa moaned. "We don't know! We'll wait a few days, maybe things will quiet down. The biggest thing for us is to reach the city and get dressed. From there we can go off to some place without people, maybe the Mire, to level there. There's no other way."
"If it doesn't work, we'll quit Dis until we can go out into the big world," Ed threw out and changed his mind: "Hey, you think you can go with us? If we find a new ins, we could easily level only there! Alex!"
"It won't work, Ed. I don't have that curse anymore."
"What do you mean?" Rodriguez exploded. "Why?"
"I finished Patrick's quest. Right after that, the curse was removed."
"Aw nether!" the Dementors all shot out at once...
"So that means..." Ed squeezed out.
It was over... This was how my short friendship with the Dementors would end. Obviously no one said it out loud, but I could feel it. Disgardium was what connected us but when it was out of our lives, there was nothing to talk about. They sat out classes in silence, drily answering my greetings showing no desire to talk, and during breaks they would just disappear somewhere. Meanwhile, I didn't intrude. There wasn't even any time. All I knew was that a week later, they eventually did get into Tristad, bind there and were now preparing for an ill-considered flight to the Mire.
Greg, delighted at my renewed upwelling of interest in my studies, loaded me up not only with extra lessons but also homework, not limiting himself to the framework of the required school program. I then tried to make progress in it, using the time before my return to the game to maximum effect.
At home my parents had signed a ceasefire, and in that shaky peace both father and mother were particularly cautious in their words and actions. He stopped drinking, she stopped nagging. And they both threw themselves into a new project, having decided not to mess around and earn as much as they could before the divorce. I don't know what the deal was with mom's beau, but the whole two weeks of my ban she never once left home without father. It was like before, even better. But it was all just an illusion.
Eve, just after being discharged from the clinic, flew south to heal up. Mrs. O'Sullivan must have gotten the school to agree to distance learning. I still hadn't seen my old friend, but we did talk on our comms. She had changed a lot. I hadn't seen anything except her face, but that was plenty to make an impression on me. Eve had become perfect. Ideal. But still not to my taste.
In the evening of the last days of my ban, I got another letter from Marianna, congratulating me on the end of my immersion ban and reminding me that my required time in Dis was coming back. That was Tuesday.
And on Wednesday right after school, I ate dinner and crawled into my pod.

Welcome to Disgardium, Scyth!

Chapter 4. Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?

The small island where I met Behemoth had grown larger in the two weeks of my absence. Due to the lower water level, it had also sprouted a good bit of grass. And there were no reminders of the Sleeping God. It must have poured the last bits of its energy into me, giving power to my new skills and now it was dozing disquietly in expectation of new adepts and a temple.
During the immersion process, I had time to think about how having a packed and exiting life can change your perception of time. Since I heard my parents were getting divorced I had spent one week in Dis. And now I hadn't entered for two since Greg's ban. But it felt different. It was as if I had lived a whole past life in the world of "sword and magic", was exiled from it and now was finally returning. A strange feeling especially considering how bored Dis used to make me.
For some time I thought over how to start. Flickering envelop icons, notifications about new letters, system messages about unchosen class and unspent stat points, uncompleted quests from Patrick and Whiteacre, the set epic in my inventory. It was all intriguing but I wanted to... savor it or something.
But here in the swamp, hostile creatures could appear at any moment and I now had no way of taking them down. If I died, I would lose experience and go to the Tristad cemetery. The Mark of the Destroying Plague couldn't help me here. My undead curse was long gone, and the chance of the Mark coming back was just eight percent.
So it was decided: I had to go to Tristad to my personal room and as quickly as possible. But Big Po's guys might be there to waylay me. I doubted they’d let me go before shaking me down for everything I had.
I just needed one little thing. For the great random of the depths teleportation skill to act how I wanted. Well, Sleeping God, don't fail me now... Depths Teleportation!
But I didn't land in the city.
This place was gloomy and morose, but still light thanks to the bright sun. The swamp all around was replaced by the constant twilight of Gloomwood. As soon as I realized that I immediately fell to the dry cracked soil, hiding in Stealth. Something crunched under me. something stuck into my chest, and my hands were immediately covered in green slime.
There was a clattering rustle around that would not stop. With a careful look around, I shot to my feet. My field of vision was flooded with notifications about failing stealth checks. But no conspiracy can help if you find yourself in the middle of a huge guarded clutch of spider eggs. Beyond the walls of stretched-out spiderweb, I couldn't even see any trees! Thousands of eggs dotted everything around, and from a few of them I could see little spiders poking out. But all that faded in comparison with the monstrous silhouettes of the adult arachnids. I quickly scanned one of them:

Corrupted Arachnid Guard, level 14

Next to him were the towering column legs of an even more powerful creature, a Corrupted Arachnid Brood Watcher at level seventeen.
As for me, my excursion into the new Gloomwood ended before it even got started. A moment later all the spiders attacked me at once.
With Stoneskin on I managed to last a whole thirty seconds, then another ten thanks to my Resilience at ninety percent. In that time I managed to lay low fifteen spiders without sparing plague energy or a Ghastly Howl, but my fate was sealed. Without the curse of the undead hanging over me, it would be stupid to hope for anything better.

Newborn Arachnid has damaged you: 16.
Health points: 0/405.
You are dead.

After dying, I was in no hurry to respawn. The logs said all my Resilience wasn't worth a wooden nickel against these mobs, which were of a much higher level. Here even a newborn spider was already level thirteen. And every level of difference in the enemy's favor cost me ten percent damage. In the end, even though the spiders were hitting me half-heartedly, they had overwhelming numbers. And me... my current amount of life could last two or three blows against something like a Corrupted Arachnid Brood Watcher.
The timer counted out my last second in the corpse body. On an old habit, when I respawned I was ready to activate a chain of skills to instantly rejoin the fight, but this time I didn't need it. Before me now was the towering wall of Tristad. No one was in a rush to attack me. I appeared in the city graveyard. Before my eyes in the air there was a warning:

Penalty for death: -550 experience points.

I thought a bit and remembered the mechanic for calculating penalties: present level multiplied by fifty. Not pleasant, but bearable. That was killing about ten mobs at any level. It only became a problem if someone held you at your respawn point.
I dismissed the notification and checked my inventory. Thanks to my rare bag, all the loot from Evil from the Depths was where it belonged. I mentally composed a route, calmly made it to the city walls and from there ran to the Bubbling Flagon like a coward. I wasn't going to leave my room until I'd figured out all the letters, classes and plans.
The city hadn't changed visually though there were perhaps a bit more people walking the streets than usual. The reason for that became clear when I ran up to the tavern. At the doors of the Bubbling Flagon some level-twelve player was tearing his throat:
"Vote in the City Council elections! For the first time a player everyone knows is participating, the respected Polynucleotide! His main goal is to increase the reward for social missions! Beyond that players may acquire realty within..."
Astonished, I wanted to know the details but suddenly found someone staring stubbornly at me. I turned my head and realized I'd been spotted: a level-fourteen courier girl by the name Vishenka from Axiom was silently moving her lips in front of a communication amulet. She made sure I was looking and pointed a finger at me, which could be understood to mean: "Don't move a muscle!"
 No, thanks. With a shake of my head, I walked to the tavern and went up into my room. I'd have to talk with them one way or another, but better not now. I was wearing only underwear and hadn't spent my stat points. Psychologically, I had nothing to gain from that conversation.
In the room I spread out on the bed and breathed a sigh of relief. Half a month ago when I left here I was level six. Now coming back I was eleven...
Oh well, time to sort through the gifts. I opened the window to choose and quickly noted the names of the classes the system had on offer with surprise: Solo Adventurer, Wandering Monk, and Herald. None of those meant anything to me, but I would rectify that in due time.
I opened my mail box and saw a bunch of unread letters and the very freshest, from one day ago, was from Tissa:

Alex!
Sorry that I'm only writing here and now. Ed is paranoid irl and we're trying not to say anything to anyone until the time has come. Even you. I know it's stupid, but it's what we decided. Sorry again.
By the way, Hung was right. DT gives you two possible destinations at level three. And there it’s the luck of the draw.

Obviously DT meant Depths Teleportation. That meant that they used it every day trying to escape until they were all in Tristad? I'd take it into account. But why not tell me just by comm? Or just say it to me in school? All this mysteriousness looked weird. I didn't answer, having decided to talk one on one.
Then I opened the next letter. It was from Overweight:

Hi, Scyth!
I haven't seen you in a while so I decided to drop you a line. Today me and Undy sorted through our goods. Well, you know, like took stock. Basically, we found a set of equipment for level five. Undy set it aside for you. How's it going, did you hit five yet?
Overweight (Rita)

Had I hit level five? I chuckled and quickly popped off an answer: "Rita, hi! Sorry, I haven't been in Dis in two weeks. I'll be by soon!" I didn’t know if I'd buy anything from them, but I wouldn't mind seeing her.
The next letter I opened was written by Big Po:
       
Sheppard!
I know you were there. I hope you won't wuss out when we meet and deny it. Your friends have already been punished and rightly so. If you don't know yet, the only reason you aren't in our KoS list yet is that I wanted to have a talk with you before you go sour. Answer as soon as you enter Dis and read this. Don't draw out the inevitable.
B.P.

My answer to him was even shorter than to Rita: "One hour in the tavern." He was right. There was no reason to draw it out. It was better to solve this issue, then make plans. Honestly, I wanted to figure out my class and attribute points first. And take a look at what changed when my potential threat to the world went up.
And all the better because that was exactly what the next letter was about. It all started with a familiar greeting:

Greetings, fair Scyth, from the gods of Disgardium!
The rusty gears of creation have turned and given an impulse. A great number of independent events took place leading to the impossible. Now two horrifying calamities of the old and new world have met in one intelligent creature!
I haven't seen a threat as fearsome as what you could become since the times of the Rending of Worlds!

Potential class of your threat to the world: A.
Present class of your threat to the world: Q.
Threat traits: overt, Sleeping Gods, Destroying Plague, rending, pandemic, explosive character growth, global cataclysm, war of gods, hidden advantage against much higher-level enemies...

After that came some words I had seen before. Warnings, penalties for disclosing and a list of rewards which were again not written out explicitly. And only at the end was there something new. It said that for reaching class L the previous threat ceiling I would get a state-of-the-art pod with full life provisions, massage and muscle stimulation and other important and less important plusses. For example, faster transmission of brain data to Dis, which gave owners of such capsules the jump on the others even if only by a fraction of a second.
But that all faded in comparison with what was at the very end. There were some lines about a new reward for bringing the threat to maximum. The number looked like pure zeros, and I had to count them two times. I wasn't wrong, and for a long time after that I couldn't believe my eyes, staring until the zeros went away.
There were nine zeros after the one. One billion phoenixes if I could level my threat class to maximum! But that wasn't all. If I reached at least D they promised a fully-fledged work contract with Snowstorm as a consultant in the threat department with an eight-figure yearly salary. And that was before bonuses!
My heart was beating so fast I could feel it even in Dis. Big Po, the Dementors, school and even Tissa. All that faded as soon as I thought of the reward. That could solve all my problems! I could study on Snowstorm's dime! My citizenship status would be at least C that one was for millionaire level! A space guide? Ha, for a hundred million I could buy myself a new space yacht and fly wherever I liked!
I pressed “Accept,” but for now that was only in Disgardium. Now I needed to sign a contract in the real world.
Not wasting time, I left the game, waited one minute in total darkness for adaptation while the intragel returned control to my body, got out of the capsule and opened my real electronic mail to sign the updated agreement with Snowstorm. Getting right to it how can you get distracted with something like this on the line? I attentively read all nine pages of the contract and placed my electronic signature everywhere it was required.
Right after I appeared in Dis I wanted to get to choosing my class, but there was someone knocking stubbornly in my private messages:

Player Polynucleotide (Wesley Cho) would like to add you to his friends list. Accept?
You may set privacy settings to determine friends' information access level about your character.

Wesley Cho, aka Polynucleotide, aka Big Po was reminding me of himself and our meeting.

Chapter 5. Too Many Pos


In the part of the Bubbling Flagon where Big Po was sitting at his leisure, it was as if the space was dead. The free tables around him and the other Axiom fighters clearly had plenty of room. And people walking through the room avoided this zone.
As it turned out, when I got closer, I ran into an invisible curtain. When I pushed it gave, but it felt like being back in the thick muck of the Mire. My body was enshrouded by an invisible pressure, my ears lay back and it grew harder to breathe. I couldn't hear what the top clan was discussing over the table, but I could see Big Po's lips moving. The field disappeared and out of inertia I fell inside the bubble.
At the same time, almost all the Axiom players stood up and, a few of them hitting me with their shoulders, headed to leave the tavern. I recognized one of them by name, JJ, a level eighteen bard who used to lead the Night Stalkers and was now Big Po's second in command after they joined forces.
There were only two left. Next to Wesley Cho sat a girl with shaved temples and a long blue pony-tail.
"Wesley, Irina," I nodded and, not waiting for their invitation, sat at the table.
They sized me up. Both the information available in my profile and what I was wearing. And I did the same to them.

Polynucleotide, level-19 human
Clan: Axiom.
Real name: Wesley Cho
Real age: 15.
Class: Chieftain.

Irina was a Mystic two levels lower. And though I'd heard of hear class, "Chieftain" meant nothing to me.
"Cool class you’ve got there, Big Po," I drawled as to somehow break the fallen silence. The bubble made the silence deafening. I could hear my heart beating. "Is it at least a combat class?"
The leader of Axiom raised a pointer finger, calling for silence. Then without breaking his gaze, bowed in toward Irina. She whispered fairly distinctly:
"Forty-four thousand experience points in the last week, plus or minus a week. An average of five thousand points per day. Class not chosen. Seemingly didn't have time. You were at six when you entered our ins, after the ins you got an academic ban. The last five levels were gained in the day before the ban. He was there."
He threw himself back, his arms now behind the bench back and turned to me:
"You heard her, Sheppard. My analyst is sure you were with the Dementors."
"No 'hi Scyth?' No 'nice to meet you' or, at the very least, a 'we've been waiting a long time to see you, dear Alex?"
"Don't be rude," Irina said harshly. "You are nobody here and thus you have no name. Thank Po for his decision to be fair and hear you out before announcing a hunt for your head."
"Deepest gratitude, Big Po!" I stood up and bowed like a jester. "So, why do they call you Big Po? Not Medium, not Little, but Big?"
I don't know what came over me. With the perspectives I was imagining ten minutes earlier, I should have been more polite with the head of the best clan of the sandbox. Why fan the flames of an already tense situation? If I were polite, they would be too. So what, weren't they taught to say hello?
"Polo. Pogrom. My little brother Polynuclear," Wesley started counting, bending his fingers. "There are too many Po's for one clan. I'm big. I've got some metabolism problem. So that's why they call me big. Any more questions?"
"Not for now. Thanks for answering," I nodded in embarrassment. He disarmed me. I expected anything right up to being instantly added to their KoS list, a flareup of rage, an overturned table, anything but a simple and clear answer.
"Now you answer me. Were you in the ins?"
"Yes."
"Tell me just one reason..." Big Po made a big pause to take a swallow of ginger beer. "Why should I forgive you?"
"Forgive me?" I laughed. "For what? It was your guy who let me into the dungeon."
"What happened after that?"
"After that it was all easy. The ins was closed for technical service and I left before they threw me out..."
"Hm-hm..." Irina didn't believe me. "Keep lying."
"In the morning I came back and noticed my toon was still inside and called the Dementors. You know what happened next."
"He's lying!" the girl cried out dogmatically, turning to Big Po. "During service, dungeons are completely reloaded. All players get sent to their resp point."
"Look, Sheppard." Wesley sat his big paunch on the table, squinting his already narrow eyes. "Crawler and his guys are finished. There will be no game for them until they leave into the big world. I guarantee it. And if they try anything funny, they'll have problems irl. They left me out of a First Kill in a very ripe dungeon. Such things are not forgiven. In big Dis people get killed for that. So do you understand what's at stake? According to our observations, you guys scooped up some stuff a bit more valuable than low-level epics. But to hell with that. It can be bought. The ability to teleport is something we can never get now. You understand?"
"Your disappointment yes, but as for the 'can never get now,' no. Why is that? You've got your whole life ahead of you. The day will come for you to get other First Kills."
"Screw that!" Po thundered his fist on the table. "The top clans control everything. If some noobs find a new dungeon, they're more likely to sell the coordinates to the big ten than to risk passing it themselves. It's both more profitable and more reliable. The tops have scout networks that cover all known Disgardium, and these networks are meticulous! So if we happen to get lucky, there's no guarantee what kind of First Kill we get if we even can get it. I mean teleportation precisely."
Finishing the hot-blooded speech, Po started sucking on a glass of beer. While he greedily wet his throat, Irina turned to me. She spoke quietly and measuredly, but every one of her words had a drip of poison:
"Scyth, do you have any idea how much it costs to hire a mage who can open portals in big Dis? Depending on distance, the price of one transportation can come up to ten thousand gold. It isn't enough to be a mage. You need to specialize in spatial magic precisely. The price of a full course in it, the required folios and scrolls can come up to a million gold. Plus that class is worthless in combat and usually gets levelled by a strong clan for their own needs. Stationary teleports work only in the capitals and are also not cheap. You and those idiots of Azkaban stole invaluable skills..."
"Aw nether!" Wesley cursed, describing how and in what poses he would perform the act of sex with Ed Rodriguez and his clan. Tissa he did not mention. "Heck with that Latin freak, but Hung! We're practically related! If only I'd convinced him to join us then... With no tank, Crawler would have just sucked down candies in the dungeon until he died and everything would be fine!"
I was watching their discoveries with a certain surprise. I mean, I believed their anger and indignation, their grief and disappointment but, before, they played completely different roles strong, cold-blooded, calculated. I mean, that was why they were called Axiom! And now this whole spectacle? What were they playing at? Were they trying to make me feel so guilty that I would admit a nonexistent guilt? If so, it didn't work.
"So then, Sheppard," Big Po snorted, watching my reaction that whole time. "You tell us what you really did in that dungeon. Tell us what loot fell from the last boss and send us a full description of the ability it gave you. Then I'll think whether I should kill you or not."
Before he'd even finished talking, I had made up my mind. If they add me to their KoS list, I'd run off to the Mire. Or just sit out my required hours in my personal room. Admitting what actually happened and by the looks of things the Dementors hadn't given me up, which is what they were paying for was not in the cards. And I couldn’t give a single hint of my true status, after all Big Po had connections with preventer clans.
"No."
"What do you mean 'no?'" Wesley asked in astonishment. "Don't kill you?"
"No, as in I won't tell you. I can't stand this Dis and I'm not planning to keep playing. I've got college, studies plus citizenship tests ahead of me. I won't have time."
"We've all got the tests..." Irina muttered, gloomy.
"So you understand. Ed, Hung, Malik and Tissa are my friends. I've known them since first grade. I've never met you before. If they didn't talk, I'm not gonna."
"Understandable position," Wesley nodded. "Accepted. I will not add you to the KoS list."
"Are you serious? That easy?"
"Absolutely. You were right when you said it was my guy who let you into the ins. He by the way is no longer in the clan. As far as I understand, you didn't promise him not to kill Murkiss, right?" He guffawed. Irina also smiled. "No then?"
"No, I didn't."
"Then no further questions. You can go, Sheppard. My apologies, but we are gonna watch you a bit... Unobtrusively."
"And that's all?" I couldn't believe my ears and was waiting for a catch. "You'll watch me a bit and that's it? No more problems?"
"If you decide to share, write me a message," Polynucleotide shrugged. "I could even invite you to the clan if you suddenly decide to play Dis seriously..."
"I have a question," Irina shot out. "Did you do that levelling, or did the Dementors power-level you?"
"A little of column a, a little of column b," I answered indistinctly and got up from the table. "Alright, bye."
"Yep, bye..." he answered. "By the way, Sheppard..."
"Yeah?"
"Chieftain is a combat class," he said, hiding a smile by lowering his head.
I smiled back. Big Po was giving a clear demonstration of his stronger position, not leaving a single question unanswered.
Irina took down the "bubble" and my ears were struck by bass tones and clanging music from a group of joyous bards on stage and the tumult of tavern guests. There were only players and bots in the room. Workmen were still earning their keep on shift. Patrick, who I wanted to talk to and finish up the quest, was also not around. The map showed that he was hanging around near the Tristad trade platform and all the better. Passing that quest with invisible Axiom spies around would be a mistake.
I took a look around and saw Big Po whispering into a communication amulet and Irina giving commands to a bandit and a thief who were somehow now next to her. Were they there the whole time?
I guess the talk with the leaders of Axiom wasn't quite as unpleasant as I expected. What was more, that changed my system of values in a way: Depths Teleportation in my eyes was now more valuable than any legendary. Especially when I considered how important it was for me to be mobile. In terms of getting out of an ambush, this was the ideal lifeline.
I ran up the stairs to the second floor, jumped down the hallway, running into couple of fourteen-year-old noobs hugging and dove into the portal to my personal room.
Today I'd get my class. If it took a while, I could study the descriptions and crawl out of Dis to look over some guides. First choice of class was not fatal. After all, you could regenerate your character, retaining all your levels when you leave into greater Disgardium. But that clearly was not my case. I stood to lose too much: my threat status, achievements and skills like Ghastly Howl and teleportation. What was more, then it would be possible to choose only standard classes even if I had four hundred and some. And that was disregarding specializations from courier to gunsmith. As for the unique ones... okay, okay. The game's AI gives out rare classes only in the sandbox based on gameplay style.
So then, what were my options: Solo Adventurer, Wandering Monk, and Herald. Before me stood three full sized copies of my character.
The first, encased in plate armor, twirled a sword and sat it on his shoulder. The second, in trousers and a vest, performed a series of moves with his legs and arms, then did a flip and froze at attention. The third was wearing light-absorbing armor and either a crown or a simple band that was completely black. He was just standing with his arms crossed over his chest and blinking his glowing green eyes forebodingly.
I decided to leave him for desert and started from the easiest:

Wandering Monk
Rare combat class (less than 0.01% of players).
Specializations: melee, support fighter.
Bonus attributes: Agility.
In the hidden and faraway parts of Disgardium there are monasteries which only a few know how to reach. There, monks learn not only faith and how to use defensive and offensive auras, but also deadly martial arts.

Reading the class description, I mechanically kissed the knuckles of my right hand. My lips spread out into a smile: if I as an untrained noob could do nuclear damage with Hammer, then what would happen after I learned combo moves and deadly attacks, reinforced by plague energy?

Chapter 6. A Difficult Choice

As it turned out, wandering monks were a very particular class. They had no homeland, they could not belong to any faction or adhere to any particular deity. They preach altruism and cannot initiate a fight or they suffer huge penalties to faith power and are forbidden from using class combat moves.
A bearable minus was that wandering monks couldn't take any professions. Beyond that, they were forbidden to refuse quests or wear heavy armor.
But still, the more I studied the game class, the more I wanted to choose it.
First of all, it turned out that beyond mana used to activate spells, monks could use soul. That additional resource governed spell and attack power, and just how much depended on faith. This wasn't the same thing the priests of the many gods of Disgardium used to operate but perhaps the exact opposite.
If followers of a cult believe in the power of their deity and receive little bits of reputation and faith points are used to activate buffs and new abilities, then...

...Wandering monks, thanks to their ardent faith that the world, although made by gods, yields easily to change and is formed by the mindpower of intelligent creatures, have the ability bend and warp reality.
Their unarmed attacks still deal physical damage, but added to that is also mental damage, which nevertheless can be crushing.
With power of faith, monks can control the speed time passes in battle which increases their ability to dodge or land a series of unstoppable blows in the space of a second. And the stronger faith and attacks become, the more nightmarish an opponent the monk will make.
A monk is, I suppose, one of the fastest classes in Disgardium. And the most unpredictable. After all, they have the strongest combat attack. By literally tearing the fabric of reality with the power of thought, a monk has a certain chance of taking down any enemy. Of course, the chance is extremely small, and the higher an enemy's level the lower it gets, but it is there. Always. In battle with any enemy of any level and with every attack.
At the same time, a monk can be a valuable support fighter. His defensive auras increase dodge chance and insignificantly reinforce the armor of all allies. Healing auras restore health points, and offensive auras constantly do damage to all enemies in the active radius.

Class bonuses:
+5 agility per level
+1% recovery speed for health, mana and soul per level
+30% unarmed combat damage
+25% polearm combat damage
+10% attack speed
+5% to movement speed on foot

So, no swords, rings or armor? Sure, I could get used to that. I had spent almost all battles in nothing but my underwear! Beyond that, although it was a rare class, it did a great job of masking my abilities. Oh, I’m doing crazy damage with my fists? It's cause I'm a monk! Walking around bare-assed? Pants are taboo! Not in the city often? Monks cannot spend the night in taverns or spend longer than one day in cities. And that, by the way, was true.
Overall, studying the two remaining classes might be a formality but, considering that it was a one-time only decision, I needed to look it all over carefully. Then unhurriedly comb the forums and sit with a calculator putting a build together and figuring out attributes. And with the class bonus, I'd have one hundred and twenty points there. Anyhow, there was no rush, I should do it wisely.
Just in case there was no info on this class online, I took a screenshot of the description and opened the next:

Solo Adventurer
Rare mixed class (less than 0.01% of players).
Specializations: soldier of fortune, universal warrior.
Bonus attribute: any two at your choice.
The path of a loner in Disgardium is prickly and winding. Where a group may go by clearing the way with fire and sword a lone adventurer goes around but, if need be, they will accept battle and fight with the strength of three...

While I was reading that, my avatar completely changed equipment a few times: first he looked cool with two curved daggers in his hands, pulled on some leather armor, changed it for chain mail, then into plate. The daggers converged into a short narrow sword which grew longer and two-handed before my eyes before changing into a halberd. Then it flashed and turned into a composite bow with an arrow notched. The animation looped back around...

...Lone heroes cannot get used to relying only on themselves. And they choose their own path.
A soldier of fortune prefers to be inconspicuous and attack suddenly. And in places where one can get by without combat, he manages with conviction alone. If that doesn't work he'll do an enemies head in just so that he'll become a friend for a time.
Still, different situations require different abilities. Some solo adventurers are famed for their ability to perceive the essence of things. Also, by levelling one type of weapon, they have a high chance of improving adjacent weapon classes. A talented swordsman will be just as good with a cudgel or an axe. And learning to shoot a bow gives your character the ability to use crossbows and slingshots as well.
Depending on path, this class will receive various bonuses and abilities. Soldiers of fortune, although they can put on heavy armor, they would never do so as not to lose their advantage. Universal warriors have identical success with any armor or any weapon.
Traders and tavern owners feel sympathy for lone heroes, and give them good discounts.
The Essence Perception skill gives an adventurer knowledge of an enemy's vulnerable points, and the ability to properly pack for a journey and leave room for loot allow you to carry more weight.
Still, the main and most important side of a solo adventurer is their independence. While not in a clan, they receive huge attribute bonuses and even larger ones when not in a group...

Unlike the wandering monk class, this one gave different skill bonuses depending on chosen specialization. Unfortunately, they could not be combined. But I found general ones, and both bonuses and penalties.

Class bonuses:
+3 to any chosen attribute per level
+10% to all main attributes (outside a clan)
+20% to all main attributes (outside a group)
+30% health and mana recovery speed outside battle
+20% to critical damage
+15% carrying capacity
+5% to movement speed
+10% to vendor discount
+100% to inventory size
+1% to chance of receiving improved loot

Class penalties:
-10% to all main attributes (in a clan)
-20% to all main attributes (in a group)

Those bonuses inspired admiration. Standard classes only got +5 points to bonus attributes per level, a solo got six more in total. And the choice would be mine to balance how I liked. This one-point advantage would grow to one hundred extra attribute points at level one hundred ten, and with bonuses that was one hundred thirty. Without a clan, not in a group, this was a killing machine. Strange it was such a rare class... Although it was only possible to get through a Dis dungeon alone with curse of the undead, same went for taking down rare creatures. So with no group you're nobody. I would have to spend a long time sitting with a calculator busting my brains. After all, I'd have to consider potential bonuses from the cult of the Sleeping Gods and the Destroying Plague.
Cult! Nether, wandering monks were not allowed to be cult members! What did that mean, would I not be allowed to choose this class? Or would I be forced to refuse Behemoth's quest and they'd undo my initiation?
What about the Destroying Plague? Was that a deity or what? I wiped the perspiration off my forehead and spread out on the bed. Something beneath me gave a plaintive creak and I spat out a curse. The room started to smell musty and bits of dust stirred up in the beams of the sun coming off the dusty window, shimmering. Time to upgrade my personal room, or what? Who knew? Maybe I'd have to spend a lot of time here now...
I closed the class window despite myself and got to the next part. The name intrigued me:

Herald
Unique class (never before chosen by a player).
Specializations: none.
Bonus attributes: charisma and luck.
Only those marked by the gods may herald future changes to the world. And given we haven't seen any of those around, but Mr. Ingannamorte insists on implementing all possible classes before the release of Dis, I'm just filling up empty space. Bla-bla-bla, great herald, something here, get it done. Nergal shoots lightning out his ass! Or light? Aw screw it. My cat pissed in my boot, the jerk! Oh... Elsa, stop pumping your ass around in front of that stupid bastard Ramachandra! What kind of name is that anyway? OMG, so much work, and I've gotta fill text! This is never gonna get used!
Okay, I'm going for a coffee. Guy, no matter who you are, if you're reading this just know it's my last day working for Snowstorm. I might even say my last hour! So, how much more do we need here? Five thousand characters and that's just the description. Nether! I trust this text is unique enough for you, Mr. Ingannamorte? What's with this rush to launch?
I've still got bonuses to earn, and this damned class specializations department, of course, didn't send a damn thing! Lol. Who in their right mind can think up ten thousand different classes? Who needs all them? Why come up with a hundred different kinds of warrior? Plate armor, sword. That's a warrior. No, we've gotta stamp out every class in between to meet all tastes! Pff... If you name the class Bogatyr, that doesn't stop it being a warrior. But how, we've got a huge Russian market! A higher strength-to-damage modifier? You need a separate class for that? And that's saying nothing of the Chinese. A shu warrior or a ji warrior. Coders just change one line but we've gotta sit here and peck out a whole description...
"Our game will be self-regulating!" "Sure, of course."
Crutches on crutches. That is just idiotic: a whole department spent a year hacking away at the functionality of the Sleeping Gods, who aren't even in the game! We have to have Sleeping Gods, they have them in every self-respecting game. Of course, Mr. Inga-kissmyass-nnamorte! No one will play your stupid game. This is complete crap, and no new-fangled immersion technologies can help! It's one thing to press buttons. It's totally different to take a real sword to the stomach. Where are you going to find so many masochists?
No more than twelve bonuses and penalties per class. Hehehe... Hit two thousand characters...

That same kind of nonsense went on for a long time. My first thought was to tell Snowstorm support and I would have done so if I hadn't gotten to the class bonuses first.

Class bonuses:
+100 to convincing skill
+5 to charisma and luck every level
+50% long-distance damage
+30% to movement speed
Skill Hide your True Nature
Skill Imitation
Skill Herald (single use)
Skill Divine Revelation (spontaneous)

Class penalties:
-50% to vendor discount
-30% carrying capacity
-90% to inventory size
-50% to armor value

Unique class, taken automatically. Cannot be refused!

The final lines of the unique class description contained a mocking message:

"Russian random in action! Try your hardest now, dude. I pity you! I'm going off home in the first flying car I find! If you're ever in Orenburg, drop by a restaurant called K Mikhalychu. Ask for Vova Kartavy and tell him how you managed to get this one."

Wow...!

Release - June 10, 2019


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