Saturday, June 22, 2019

Underdog: Dungeons of the Crooked Mountains by Alexey Osadchuk

Underdog, Book 1
Dungeons of the Crooked Mountains
by Alexey Osadchuk

Release - August 12, 2019
Pre-order on Amazon -

Chapter 1

"Foreman Aren, it's a boy..."
The head of one of the most prosperous mining crews in Orchus, Foreman Aren looked deeply into the gloomy gaze of the healer woman who delivered his wife's baby and was sincerely perplexed. What possible reason could there be for someone to tell him this joyous news with such a sour face? But a few moments later, it began to reach him. He was born, but there’s no crying...
"Is he dead?"
Despite being a man who had seen all manner of things in this life, the words didn't come easily to him.
"He is alive," the healer woman answered darkly and quickly added quietly, almost whispering:
"But it would be better if he weren’t..."
Aren squinted his eyes predatorily and took a step forward. If his gaze could burn, not even ash would remain of this witch doctor. Dalia calmly bore the miner's hateful stare and said:

"But there is also good news. Your wife took the birth marvelously."
These words extinguished the fire of rage already starting to burn in the soul of the new father. It took some effort to get himself together and continue the questioning. This woman is the only healer of her level for the whole region. What's more, it's remarkable luck that she is still even in Orchus. She was supposed to go to the capital long ago. It's all because of the rainy season coming a week early. Now Sleepy Pass would be closed for two months. Only a madman would even think of traveling through the mountains at a time like this. Fortunately for Aren and his wife, Dalia was not feeble minded.
"Speak," the foreman grunted shortly.
No matter how he wanted to be at the side of Liana and his son, business came first.
"He's nulled," the healer squeezed out drily.
Aren's face went completely blank. His self-control was the envy of even the Black Crag, first stone to meet the northern storms of the Dead Ocean. But inside he felt his heart being clenched in a cold grip. The poor boy! How could it be?!
Meanwhile, the healer continued:
"First I thought he was born dead. But then I looked at his life and energy supplies. Just ten points each... And the normal minimum is twenty."
"But how is that possible?!"
"I don't know," Dalia shrugged, perplexed. "I have never encountered anything like it before. I didn't even have to listen. This is a trick of Bug, no two ways about it."
"Do you blaspheme, old woman?" Aren's calm again showed a crack. "What does the malevolent spirit have to do with this? Or do you not believe that everything in this world happens by the will of the Great System?"
After these words, the healer's face twisted up like she just ate a lemon.
"As a matter of fact, I do believe that..."
"Then where does the evil spirit come into it?"
"Alright," relenting to the foreman's pressure, the healer began speaking wearily:
"But first swear that you will not drag me off to the nearest temple of the Great System to be slain as a heretic."
"You have my word," the foreman swore gloomily.
The healer, receiving a system message that the oath had been accepted, shifted to a hushed voice and began to speak:
"As you know, when we are born, the Great System bestows us with our first level, fills our supplies and gifts us our first characteristic tablets. And their number depends on the god Random. Most get ten or twelve. The most tablets I've ever heard of is fifteen."
Aren nodded in silence. Ivar, his firstborn had received fourteen when he was born. A shadow slowly crawled over the foreman’s face. It had been just two years since he and Liana received the news he died in battle in the Wastes. He was hoping the birth of a second son would drive off the gloom that had taken root in their home after Ivar's death. But apparently it was not to be...
"But some have also received less than ten tablets. They all had rough childhoods. They were weaker than their peers... But with time many of them worked their way up to a respectable life."
"Yes," Aren agreed. "Some of the men in my crew were born that way."
His face lit up slightly. How could he have forgotten! Does that mean his son could live a normal life in the future? And right then he made a promise to himself. Of course he could! Aren would see to it!
Seeing the foreman's mood, the healer hurried to bring him down to earth:
"I know what you're thinking, Aren. You're under the impression that your son is in the same basket. But you are mistaken. The babe is nulled. He did not receive his level one or the tablets due to him. His supplies are pitifully low. And I don't believe Random had any hand in this. It was all Bug..."
It hurt to even look at Aren. Hope just gave him a little wink but now it is being dragged through the mud.
Meanwhile, Dalia continued:
"As you know, Bug is known by many names. Glitch, Failure, Virus, but there is also one more. My teacher read it in a manuscript of the Ancients. The Departed called him System Error. Do you understand? Error! That means the Great System is not perfect and can make mistakes! There are many other things written in that book, but I do not wish to speak of them. And they aren't for your ears..."
Aren collapsed wearily on a bench.
"Level zero," he whispered. "But that's..."
"Yes," the healer nodded sadly. "He will not progress. He cannot use tablets. Even if you give him your experience essences, nothing will come of it. Almost everything created by the Great System has a restriction. Minimum level one."
"But then what can we do?" Aren asked fatedly.
Dalia crouched on the bench next to the foreman. Her face, lined with deep wrinkles, was frozen in deep thought.
"How old is she?" he suddenly thought. Everyone knows healers have long lives. They also say they have discovered the secret of eternal youth. The man chuckled to himself... Nonsense of course... But Bug works in mysterious ways... And if Dalia looked seventy, that number could be safely multiplied by two, maybe even three...
"Ha!" the woman exclaimed surprisingly loudly. Her dark blue eyes glimmered with joy. "I've got it!"
Rubbing her palms, which were bone dry, Dalia turned to the workman;
"Weird that I never thought of this before. I'm getting old... You're not much better..."
Aren stared at the woman in confusion.
"Okay," she waved a hand. "Let me explain. I see you’re not much for thinking... For now, the only way out of this is the artifacts of the Ancients."
"You mean to say..."
"Precisely... Those are the only items that have no restrictions. They have no requirements at all. But you have to understand... Such items are a rarity and cost dearly. But your son will only need two or three items with plusses to main characteristics..."
The old woman said a bit more, but Aren was only half listening. He was already imagining where and how he would buy artifacts of the Departed. He wasn't thinking of money... His son's life that was his main concern...

14 years later...

"You're a heavy sumabitch!" flatulating and cursing through his teeth, a fat mover dragged a heavy chair over to the front door.
My great grandfather's "throne." Father loved to sit on it after dinner, smoking a pipe with his feet warming by the fire. That always put him in a very softhearted mood and he told me many stories, tales and legends while sitting in the seat...
"Yeah all their furniture weighs a ton!" an annoyed voice from the dining room echoed him.
"Old oaken armchair – one," the bank clerk stated in a calm voice, ignoring the mover's cursing and farting. His long desiccated fingers fluttered a white goose-feather quill, carefully taking down every object removed from the home. Three sheets were already fully covered in small calligraphic handwriting.
A wiry bearded man emerged from the kitchen. A cracked tureen in his quavering hand. The cloudy gaze of his red eyes paused on the clerk's gaunt figure.
"This thing looks like trash. We taking it?"
My mother's favorite tureen. Every time she placed it on the table, we heard the very same little adage. "Who cares if it's got a crack! It keeps soup warm a long time!" Then when mom would run out to the kitchen for the next dish, father would whisper to me that women all had a hard time parting with objects. And at that, smiling, he stroked his old vest. For the record, mom was always threatening to throw it out.
The clerk tore his gaze from his notes and looked at the bearded man. In his small narrow-set eyes, he could read clear scorn.
"Tox," he rasped. "Exactly what part of the simple phrase: 'remove everything from the home and load it on the carts,' didn't you understand?"
"Well it's just so..." Tox tried to object, but the giant came into the house and interrupted him rudely:
"Shut your fat mouth and do as you're told! And move your butt!"
The bearded Tox, his head drooping between his shoulders, tried to slip away to the exit.
"Where do you think you're going?" the giant barked.
Tox gave his boss a blank stare. The giant was standing in the doorway, his arms crossed on his chest and his big gut out in front.
"Did you think I was gonna let you just bring out one tureen at a time? Come on, step to. Back to the kitchen and do it right!"
Tox blew away like the wind.
"Mr. Dreher, you could stand to be more careful in your choice of staff," the clerk noted acridly.
"I don't remember asking you, filing weasel," the big-bellied Dreher waved it off and headed for my parents' bedroom, carelessly batting the thin clerk's notes.
The white sheets of paper flew out of his hands like a spooked flock of pigeons and slid around the floor. The "filing weasel" then gave a loud feminine gasp and fell to his knees to collect his treasure. His body was shaking in indignation and a line of green snot hung down from his long birdlike nose.
Fitfully crawling around the floor, the clerk grunted a curse at the idiot movers and their boorish leader. Mocking the pencil pusher's humiliating position, a rude whinnying came from a few tinny throats in the dining room. The clerk's face instantly turned crimson and tears of anger welled up in the corners of his little eyes.
Finally, his dry fingers carefully put all the papers back in order. The clerk, clutching an inkwell hanging from a cord around his neck, got up from his knees. Patting the dust from his pants with his right hand and giving a few slaps to his very worn but neat frock, the scribe calmed down.
At that very moment, our gazes met...
I was sitting on a kitchen stool in the corner of the entryway and awaiting my fate. Only yesterday had I learned that the bank was taking our house to pay off my parents' debts. In fact, just one day before that, my parents perished in a nearby mine.
"What are you staring at, half-baked whelp?" the clerk hissed.
He really is a weasel, I chuckled to myself.
"You think this is funny?" in the weasel's eyes, a mixture of sincere puzzlement and acrimony. "After all, everything happening now is your doing!"
I don’t get it... What is he talking about?
"Haha! I can see you aren't getting it."
Dreher appeared in the doorway of my parents' bedroom, his arms loaded with mom's vases. He looked gloomily first at me, then at the clerk.
"Shut it, office rat!" he barked. "If you don't leave the kid alone, you'll be going home without teeth!"
Giving me an encouraging wink, the big bellied guy left the house.
Based on his angrily gnarled lips, the weasel wanted to say something, but a shout from above broke off his tirade before it could begin.
"Don't do it, Sakis. Better hold your tongue."
We raised our heads together. On the stairs leading to the second floor, there stood a man. His head, bald as an egg, was looking down at some notes. His full lips were moving in time with the letters being written. An inkwell wasn't so much hanging as perched on his gut.
"But Velen! You must see! This is utter disrespect to a bank employee!" Sakis howled.
"Just don't," the fat clerk repeated and continued down the stairs meanwhile continuing to take notes. And then, tearing himself from the papers, he added:
"And really, leave the boy alone. He is none of our concern."
"What do you mean?" Sakis asked, surprised. "I thought the bank..."
"No," Velen interrupted. "The remaining debt was bought by Bardan."
The weasel's narrow face stretched out to such a point it made his face look flat.
"That Bardan?!"
"Uh huh," Velen answered casually, again immersed in his notes.
Sakis slowly turned his head in my direction. A moment of pity flickered in his eyes.
"Aherm-m-m..." he drew out. "I do not envy you, half-baked whelp."
Enjoying the lack of understanding and disquiet on my face, he gradually made his way to the exit, his head raised proudly.
I couldn’t help but overhear a muffled conversation from the two movers in the dining room.
"Listen, Tox, why does that bank rat keep calling the kid half-baked?" I couldn't see the speaker, but I recognized him by voice. It was the dumpy Roy, a big guy with blond hair who resembled a beer keg.
"Well, that's what he his. Crippled since birth," Tox answered carelessly.
"Hrm," Roy answered in surprise. "To look at him you'd never know. I guess he is a bit scrawny, and has bags under his eyes. So, you reckon he fell ill recently? Yeah and he lost his mom and dad a couple days ago. That's why he's pale as death."
"Naaah," Tox objected. "He was born that way. Hrm... I guess old Aren, Great System rest his soul, had bad luck with sons..."
For some time the conversation in the dining room ceased. They were both contemplating.
Roy was first to break the silence:
"Say... We've still got half a day's work here, and time passes quicker talking..."
"Yeah there's not really much to tell," Tox answered in excitement, clearly moving something heavy. "As you can see, the family had means. A two story house. The farm is doing pretty well. Horses, cows, pigs."
"That's for sure," notes of envy could be heard in Roy's voice.
"The Bergmans are a family of miners," Tox continued. "They had the strongest crew. And that whole crew died in a cave-in."
"Bergman's wife and another couple ladies were bringing their men lunch in the mine... And basically they went down with their husbands...."
Based on Tox's vocal timbre, he was truly bothered by the death of my parents and their friends.
"And what about their sons?" Roy asked.
"He had bad luck with sons. Well, it all started well. Real well, actually! When his first was born, he got a good set of characteristics. He was the strongest of his age group. By fourteen, he started working with his father in the mine. And in the winter of that same year, he also won the tournament. And that was when the baron took him on as an apprentice in his retinue."
"Woah! What's so unlucky about that?!" Roy exclaimed, baffled.
"A month later, the Bergmans got news that their son was dead..."
"Ah, there it is..."
"Yep, so..."
The movers fell silent again, digesting the information. But not for long. This time Tox was first to speak up:
"The years of grief passed and Aren's wife got pregnant again. And you'd think that'd be cause for joy, but here's the thing... The baby was born with a flaw. Actually, a bit worse... At first they thought he was just dead. No crying, no movement, eyes closed. But they hired a very capable medicine woman as midwife and she noticed he was breathing. Barely, but breathing."
"Ge-eeeze..." Roy drew out.
"Ha!" Tox exclaimed. "You haven't even heard the most important part yet. Aren paid out the butt for a healer from the capital."
"I bet!"
"Anyway, she saw that the kid was born nulled, level zero!" Tox said triumphantly.
It seemed that Roy's jaw fell down to the floor with a thundering crash. But then I realized the movers had just gotten to father's tools.
"That's no big deal!" I heard Roy's amazed voice.
To be frank, I was surprised. He told my story almost exactly... A few details were off, but overall that was how it went... My father had told me many times about my birthday.
"Hey, you two chumps!" Dreher's roar made me shudder. "Move your butts! I'm not paying you idiots to talk!"
The giant lead mover suddenly appeared in the front doorway and gave a gloomy stare at the workmen as they hurriedly darted over to the door.
"Lazy bastards," he continued growling under his breath. "No worries, we’ll have plenty of time to talk when you come to me for your money..."
He spent a bit longer watching what was happening in the yard then turned toward me. His gaze had slightly warmed.
"Get ready, kid," he said sadly, nodding at the exit. "They've come for you."
Weirdly, I catch myself on the thought that I've been impatiently waiting to hear that since morning. If anyone could know what I'm thinking right now, they'd say I lost my mind.
Ugh... At a certain level they'd be close to the truth.
Two days ago my world, never the most wonderful to begin with, about what a cripple could expect, just ceased to exist. Watching distantly as our home was plundered, I suddenly realized clearly that I was all alone with this world, one on one. My big strong father would not be coming to help me again. My talkative and tender mom would never again be drying my tears of despair and anger.
I felt a lump coming up my throat. My eyes started stinging, betraying my feelings. No! I will not burst into tears here – that would just amuse these marauders. After this, I can find some hole to cower in, and there I'll let my feelings run wild. But not here and not now. Otherwise I'll betray my father's memory. He taught me to be strong.
I watched them moving out my parents' favorite things. Destroying the history of our family. And I understood that this place ceased to be my home with their death... At the time, I didn't know that I had already penetrated one of life’s greatest truths home is where the people who love you live.
I slowly crawled off the stool. That was all the speed I was capable of with two points of agility. But I was happy to have even that.
I was two years old when I took my first step. That was also when I said my first word. Luck finally shined on father then, and he was able to buy me my first artifact of the Ancients on the black market in the capital of our barony. Out of old habit, my arm reached for my chest.

- Rock Monitor bone Button.
- Category: Simple.
- Agility +2.
- Strength +1.
- Mind +3.
- Restrictions none.
- Resilience 25/25.

Some probably think it funny how happy I was to have a pitiful six characteristic points... But for me, after spending two long years confined to a bed like a senseless and speechless plank of wood, my father's gift was and still is the best thing ever...
I had a small knapsack in my hands. There I had a small portrait of my parents, two boiled eggs and a crust of bread. Madam Horst, our neighbor, brought me some food for the road. I always used to think her evil and quarrelsome, but in the end she managed to surprise me. She was the only one who came to find out what was to become of me.
On my normal belt, also "nulled" by the way like all my clothes, I kept a small pocketknife in a special pocket.

- Dragonfly pocketknife.
- Category simple.
- Damage +2.
- Restrictions none.
- Resilience 55/55.

It was the last artifact father had obtained. My parents gave it to me as a birthday present. A few hours before they died...
Somehow my pitiful three strength points were able to handle both my own body and the little knapsack. All thanks to a feeble looking little ring.

- Steel ring.
- Category simple.
- Strength +2 .
- Restrictions none.
- Resilience 30/30.

I once asked my father why these simple items were so valuable. As it turned out, there were some fairly significant reasons.
First of all, artifacts of the Ancients have no restrictions. That means anyone can wear them regardless of level and characteristic numbers.
Second, despite the low figures, I could improve their category in the future. For now, I still don't know how to do it.
Third, but this is just rumored, improving them would not only increase my already existing characteristics but add a few new ones.
And the last reason is that these objects, these sca...scalaaa... scal-ab-les... It means my level number is added to all the item's characteristics. If I were level one now, all the characteristics of my artifacts would be improved by one. Ah... dreams... dreams...
And also... Dalia told me this. Crafts of the Ancients can only be recognized by those with high "mind." For normal folks, they're normal items, totally unremarkable.
And as for how they look... Well, expensive jewelry like a gold ring on the finger of a miner's son is sure to attract the wrong kind of interest. So it’s perfect that they appear plain and inconspicuous. After all, the crafts of the Departed are one of a kind, expensive goods. There's no reason to draw unneeded attention. That's one of the first rules father taught me.
That was exactly why every time a new artifact came to our house, Dalia the healer, who had helped my mother give birth, came as well, and became a friend of our family. Thanks to that little trick, no one ever asked any questions. For example, why I started to walk after spending more than two years motionless on my back.
It also created a logical explanation for why the foreman of a miner crew was always going to the bank for another loan. Healers are expensive. Especially healers like Dalia. By the way, mom once spilled that it was none other than the old healer woman who tracked down my works of the Ancients. Father paid her a small finder's fee for her trouble.
I suspected my parents were spending lots of money so their son could live like a normal child but when I actually saw exactly how high their debt was with all the runaway interest, it made an impression. The bank took their house, land and whole farm. And I still owed the bank almost a hundred gold. But the bank sold that debt... Now I’d have to pay back some guy named Bardan...
Walking out the door of my parents' house for the very last time, I turned to the head mover:
"Mr. Dreher, would you mind telling me who this Bardan is?"
The giant took a heavy sigh and, hiding a gloomy look, answered:
"Bardan is a lanista. He owns some gladiator pits."

Chapter 2

Two years prior.

"So then, attention!"
Came trainer Droom, his voice booming throughout the cave. The red-headed tough guy was from a mining crew that competed with my father's, and he was teaching us the basics of the art of mining.
"Today you will all learn to handle a pickaxe!" he barked, staring gloomily into our young faces.
After that, his stinging black eyes paused on me.
"Except for Eric Bergman, obviously," his wide toad-like mouth spread into an acrid smile. Revealing a row of yellow crooked teeth.
My former classmates all looked at me right on cue and started chuckling with glee. A blonde named Mia, the very prettiest girl in the class, laughed especially hard. Surrounded by a crowd of friends, also cute but not quite as pretty, she looked like a queen.
Mia's father Hroot - one of the twelve elders of Orchus, was at daggers with my father. He just about broke old Hroot’s face, and it was topic of discussion in the city for quite a while. It all came about because the stuffy elder didn't like the fact that there was a lame bugged cripple studying in school alongside his daughter.
Honestly, it eventually got brought to court. Hroot had the support of the other elders, and my classmates' parents were behind them. In their words, my deficiency was slowing down the rest of the class. When hunting for example, my mere presence weakens the whole group. I don't do damage, but still I supposedly lay claim to the spoils. Plus I was no end of trouble for the trainers. They were constantly making sure the "half-baked whelp" didn't accidentally get struck dead by some mob. My life supply is just ten points... One bite from a big garbage rat.
Theoretically that was how it looked, but in practice no one actually ever shared anything with me. And trainers didn't give a damn. If I survived, good. If I died, it was my own fault.
Gathering resources was also an issue. The tools and resources all had restrictions: minimum level one. And that was the least of it! I couldn't even eat all mother's dishes. Only the ones with a little zero. The most basic food like bread, butter and honey. Simple fare like meat or porridge with no accoutrements. Seeing the way other kids wolf down sweets was a whole other kind of torture...
In the end, the court decided I should be expelled from school. But I was allowed to sit in and observe. Just be present at lessons. The basic formula was: "go ahead and look, but don't touch..." Naturally, the trainers took no responsibility for me...

A small pickaxe appeared in Droom's hands. Father had shown me one like it. Little, for training. Five points of damage.
"I will only explain this one time!" the trainer barked. "You hold it here, the handle! Take a swing! Hit!"
The steel, shooting dozens of tiny sparks, struck ore. Without particular effort, Droom applied pressure to the handle and popped out his first rock.
"Presto! Everyone get it?!"
A dissonant chorus of children's voices gave an affirmative answer.
"Okay then, let’s see. Who's gonna be first?!"
A tall strong figure quickly broke off from the cluster of trainees.
Haakon, son of Ulvar the hunter. Hair black as tar. A supple stature. Soft animalistic movements. The group of girls headed by Mia watched the boy with admiration.
They say, when he was born, Random bestowed him with a generous fourteen tablets. Exactly the same as my older brother Ivar got once upon a time... And alas I never even met him.
Thanks to the generous gift of the Great System, Haakon was progressing much faster than his peers. A week ago, he left with his father and older brother to hunt at level two. He came back at five. The guys from my former class worshipped him for his strength and agility.
"Master Droom, could you maybe give me a better tool?!" Haakon shouted with defiance.
Chest puffed out, hands on hips. Poser...
Droom croaked back happily.
"I don't see why not."
And extended him a more substantial "adult" pickaxe.
"Woah!" marveled Thomas, a bigger kid. Also a miner's son, like me. "Level five! Like my dad's! That thing must be heavy!"
If Haakon was the least bit worried worried, no one noticed. His handsome face just beamed with the same self-satisfied smile.
Walking up almost face to face with the trainer, the hunter's son extended his right hand for the tool. Droom extended the heavy pickaxe with ease, as if it were light as a feather.
"Better use two hands," he said with a smile.
Despite his self-confident appearance, Haakon was cautious for which the teacher rewarded him with a nod of approval.
All that time we stood in silence, holding our breath and watching Haakon. He grasps the handle with both hands. Nods at the trainer. Drrom lets go. I see the veins on Haakon’s forehead bulge. His hands are quivering in strain, but still he keeps hold of the handle.
A heavy swing and the steel tooth cuts into the ore. Not with quite as much ease as Droom, but it doesn't matter...
Haakon puts all his bodyweight onto the handle and, with enormous effort, to the admiring gasps of his classmates, pops out quite a large piece of stone.
"Well done!" the master barked and patted the boy on the shoulder.
A satisfied smile froze on Haakon's face. His eyes ran over some system notifications we couldn't see.
"What did you get?"
"What is it?"
Questions leapt in, vying with one another.
Haakon raised a hand demandingly.
"Quiet!" shouted Skeggi, Haakon's best friend. "Read, bro!"
Haakon concentrated on the text, invisible to the rest of us, and began to read it at his leisure. Was I the only one who noticed how slowly he read? He must have less "mind" than even me.
"Attention you have mined four pounds of ore! Congratulations! You receive..."
Haakon ran a sly meaningful look over all of us and continued:
"Clay tablet of strength!"
Everyone shouted for joy.
"Clay tablet of agility!"
"Yeaaah!" Everyone yelled in concert.
"Clay tablet of endurance! Clay tablet of 'Mining!' Clay tablet of carrying capacity! Experience essences five!"
 As Haakon read through his loot, I unwittingly imagined myself in the hunter's son's place. What must it be like to be strong and agile? To achieve everything you desire? To catch the prettiest girls staring at you with stars in their eyes?
It took me a second to realize that Haakon had stopped boasting and everyone was staring at me. I looked around, not understanding.
"Did you see his face?!" shouted Snorri, another of Haakon's flunkies, pointing a dirty finger at me. "That defective is drooling over Haakon's loot!"
A wave of loud whinnying boomed through the cave. They pointed their fingers at me. They all made faces. That must have been exactly how they thought I looked.
Unable to bear it any longer, I turned and ran for the exit. Well, it seemed that way to me. It would be more correct to say I crawled slowly like a turtle. I mean, a turtle would honestly have been faster. My "epic" run caused another burst of laughter. Snotty Snorri and fat Thomas even cheered.
I don't remember getting home. I only remember that I wept all night. The anger and humiliation made me want to fall through the earth. But most of all I hated myself for my shameful retreat.
That very day, around morning, before falling into a restless dream, I promised to never again to show my back to an enemy...

The present.

"Eric Bergman?"
Thin as a decaying tree, the old man stared half-blind at a rumpled sheet of paper. A little bald head, narrow bony shoulders, an overly hunched stature. Just level nine. I wonder what he did all his life. Another failure like me. Actually, no. I’m the only one like me. At the very least that’s what Dalia told me.
"Yes, that's me."
The old man finally tore himself from the paper and looked closely at the words over my head.
"What the..." the old man’s faded teary eyes went round. He even blinked a few times.
"My old lady told me to stop drinking that moonshine," he rasped out angrily. "Now I'm hallucinating zeroes."
A mover walking past guffawed.
"What, Repay? Had enough drinking at your old age?"
"What are you laughing about, loafer? Now I'm gonna have to fork over a wad of cash to some healer."
"Oh, you’ll learn what it’s like to cram junk down your throat alright!" the mover kept laughing.
Repay spat in anger and, again frowning, started looking closer at my level.
I decided to take pity on the old man.
"Mr. Repay, don't you worry. You're not hallucinating. I really am a zero."
I thought I was reassuring the poor fellow. Hardly! The old man only grew more afraid.
"How can that be? Oh, Great System!" he lamented, clutching at his head. "What will I ever say to Mr. Bardan?! He'll flay me alive for bringing him a defective!"
"How is that your problem, old fool?" the chief mover decided to intervene. "Bardan made a deal with the bank. He bought the peonage certificates. If he didn't look who he was buying, that's his problem. Not yours, old man."
"That's true!" the geezer happily spread his arms. "After all, I’m only a small part of this. Just transport the people on this list!"
"Exactly," Dreher smiled. "And you were about to bury yourself."
"Thank you, sweet man, you’ve set my soul at ease," Repay quickly bowed to the lead mover and turned to me. "And you, kid, climb up on my cart. We have some more peons to pick up."
It was around evening when we finally arrived. To my surprise, I took the trip well. My head buried in a pile of sweet-smelling hay, I slept the whole way. I opened my eyes only when Repay stopped to pick up more peons. It was hard to sleep with all the heart-rending screaming of women and children. A family sending off one of their own into peonage is not a spectacle for the faint of heart.
I had never seen such a thing before, but Repay was eager to explain what all was going on. For an old man, he was pretty talkative.
"Let's say a man comes to the bank and takes out a loan," the old man said. "How does the bank stand to benefit from throwing gold around willy-nilly? Exactly, they don't. It needs to make a profit, that's why it's a bank. And so they give the man a little cash to grow. And he racks up interest. If he's got the gold to pay them back on schedule, then good. But if he doesn't, the debt gets bought up by someone like my master. He always needs people... And when the time comes, they have to work off the debt, until they’ve paid off the whole thing. Ahem, see I haven't even gotten to it... It's good when a family has strong sons. Usually their fathers give them up to peonage, and themselves try to quickly get the money together to buy their boy back. Well, that's for good fathers... Sometimes, children spend half their lives toiling for creditors, and sometimes they even die in peonage..."
The last family we went to had no sons. They had children, but only five girls. The very oldest looked to be about my age. And she was being taken. The mother of Jaybird, which was the girl's name, was surprisingly not crying. But her gloomy face was affixed with a mask of pain and despair. The youngest sisters, wiping away tears and snot, whimpered pitifully like puppies.
I looked at Jaybird's old house, at her mother hugging her oldest daughter with tense arms. At her father who looked like he never crawled out of the bottle. I realized it would be a long time before she'd be able to pay off her debt... If that time ever came.

Bardan's home was of impressive dimensions. Three floors. Granite walls. All the windows fitted with massive steel grates. Not a home but a fortress. His whole fairly large property was enclosed by a tall stone fence. At the gates and front door, there were well-armed guards. By all appearances, this Bardan was made of money.
The cart with us quiet peons rolled over to the barracks, which were a distance from the master's home. There were people waiting for us.
Two men. One subtly reminded me of the bank clerk Sakis. An identical inkwell around his neck, the same mustached evaluating gaze. Gaunt. An unhealthy tinge to his face. Definitely a clerk.
The second was his complete opposite. Tall, broad-shouldered. Hands like excavator shovels. Green eyes burning with energy and power.
Repay fitfully lined us up next to the cart and extended a familiar rumpled paper to the "clerk:"
"Here you go, mister steward. Just as the list says, exactly six. Four men, one girl and one boy."
The steward accepted the paper with disgust, using only two fingers and quickly scanned our names. When he reached me, his eyes went wide.
"What have you brought me?!" he shouted. "Doddering old fool, did you not see who these Bergmans were trying to slip you!!! What will I tell my master now?! Valhard, order this idiot flogged!"
The red-bearded giant, previously standing blankly, took a threatening lurch forward. Repay lost all his eloquence and collapsed to his knees before the raging steward. But he just flew deeper and deeper into a rage. Valhard loomed over the poor man. His wide palms came down on the bony shoulders of the weeping old geezer.
"Mister steward!" I think even I shuddered to hear his voice. "Permission to speak!"
Bug pulled that out of my big stupid mouth! But it was too late to take it back!
An oppressive silence hung over the courtyard. My companions in misfortune stared at me, dumbfounded. Even Repay stopped his howling.
The "clerk" squinted predatorily and barked:
"Speak! But keep in mind, if you interrupted me for no reason, you'll get a lashing alongside this muttonhead! Got it?"
"Yes, mister steward. I accept all the risk." It took effort to keep my voice from quavering.
"Mr. Repay is not at fault. As a matter of fact, he dutifully carried out your orders."
"Then why are you here and not your father, older brother or sister?"
"Well, mister steward, I don't have a sister and never have. My older brother, fell in battle in the Wastes fighting for our baron, and my father and mother died two days ago in a mine collapse... I am all alone... So you see, Mr. Repay had no choice but to bring me."
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught an intrigued glance from Jaybird. During our trip, I inconspicuously got a good look at her. Much to my surprise, she was level five. Based on her flexible figure and smooth cat-like movements, she had invested heavily in "agility." A lock of fiery red hair stuck out from under her kerchief. Her eyes were like two dark emeralds. The freckles on her slightly upturned little nose and pale cheeks don't diminish her at all. Quite the opposite...
 "Is he speaking the truth?" The steward was still angry, but by the tone of his voice I could tell the storm had passed.
"Yes, sir," the old man bleated out. "I swear it was so!"
Clearly having received a system message confirming the oath, the steward's rage changed to sweetness.
"Alright," he crowed at the old man. "Get everyone a place to stay. Tomorrow I'll decide what to do with them..."
Repay quickly hopped up and led all the peons to the farthest barrack.
I wanted to also turn and go but suddenly heard:
 "But it won't be so easy with you..."
The prickly gaze of his squinty eyes hooked into me. I forgot how to breathe.
"Master will be outraged. The bank screwed up, and now we’re left to pick up the pieces... After all, you're utterly worthless. Just think! Level zero! How are you still alive...? And where to stick you?"
"Ing," the red-bearded giant unexpectedly spoke up. "Look how puny he is. The scouts from Skorx's crew have been asking for someone like him a long time."
"Have you lost your mind?" the leader replied, distraught. "Send a null like him out to the mine? For what, so he can keel over before his first hour’s up?"
Seemingly, I gulped. My heart was just about to jump out of my chest.
"Well, who cares if he does?" Valhard continued. "Then you can trot out a grievance against Skorx saying he damaged master's property. You might even come out ahead."
"Are you out of your mind? His debt is almost a hundred gold! Skorx won't accept a risk like that. For that kind of dough, he could hire a few dozen boys like him!"
"Who are you talking about?" the big fellow laughed. "Skorx, who would sell his own mother for ten copper? Haha! You're a funny guy! That miser would never say no to fresh meat if it's free. And who's to say the little guy is gonna kick the bucket on day one. He comes from a family of miners. At the end of the day, he's a Bergman."
After that, Valhard shot me a happy wink. It made a chill run over my skin.
"Yeah but why does he want scrawny kids?" Ing asked, intrigued.
"Well, to scout out long tunnels. Only tiny bodies can fit into the burrows of the stone worms."
"I see," said the steward, stroking his beard in thought.
"Think for yourself," Valhard applied some pressure, seeing that Ing was almost about to give in. "Did he put out a request for scrawny kids? He did. Did you react? You did. And now it's up to Skorx to decide. If he sends him into the tunnels, it's his responsibility. If he sends him back, no big deal. You can set the kid up somewhere in the kitchen before master comes around. They say he's only gonna come in two weeks."
"Yes," Ing agreed. "He's busy buying up new gladiators. Marshal Vestar's supply train just got to the capital. They have lots of prisoners of war, orcs and goblins."
"All the better. Master will hardly notice some new whelp. And you'll have a great chance to get back at Skorx. After all, didn't he send master a grievance against you last month?"
Based on Ing's angry face, the seeds had hit fertile soil. To my pity, Valhard hadn't only invested in strength. He had a way with words as well.
"And Skorx will also never learn the size of the boy's debt. The kid will give us an oath not to speak," said the big fellow, adding his last argument.
After those words, Ing shot a gaze at me. Brr... Cold as ice.
"Well then bigmouth, you'll be learning the profession of your dearly departed daddy."

Chapter 3

"Here sweetheart, eat. I expect you haven't had anything all day."
A little thin old lady extended me a clay bowl full of some vittles which smelled mind-blowingly good. I held my breath and swallowed a mouthful of spit, stared at the level of the dish. As if reading my thoughts, the old lady started convincing me:
"Don't you fear, sweetie. It's common vegetable soup. Level zero."
And with a chuckle, as she left the barracks, she added:
"We don't have any other food here."
Despite my savage hunger, I did my best to accept the bowl delicately.
"Oh, Great System, how wonderful this smells!" My eyes rolled back.
The traveling food Madam Horst put together for me, Random bless her, ran out this morning. Thankfully Repay was generous and gave me a bit of dried onion and the end piece of some slightly stale bread. I wouldn't say I was accustomed to delicacies in my normal diet, but my mom always tried to feed me until I was full, even if it was just normal food. Father once explained that it was her way of soothing an unfounded feeling of guilt.
Remembering my parents, the tears came right back to my eyes. I still felt like this whole nightmare would be coming to an end any time soon. My dad's broad-shouldered figure would be appearing in the doorframe of the dirty barrack I was temporarily sheltered in. And then mom would jump out from behind him, hug me, squeeze me to her chest then we would get in our carriage and ride back home, happily discussing the ludicrous mistake that landed me here.
I finished the food so quickly it was as if there never was any to begin with. Carefully, as not to damage the valuable pieces of carrot, I sopped up the remaining soup with the end of a piece of bread. I drank all the cool water and sat back satisfied on a dusty hay-filled sack. Now this is my bed.
"Well, how are you doing, perked up a bit?"
A quiet raspy voice to my right tore me from the pleasant embrace of sleep. On the next bag over, half a step from me, someone turned over.
"I guess so," I answered just as quietly. In the dark barrack, there were at least thirty other people. All of them already asleep. The whole day of work obviously had them very tired. I didn't want to wake them.
"I love aunty Agatha's vegetable soup," I heard notes of satisfaction in the unseen man’s voice. "It's a world away from when that brainless idiot Hrika makes it. You no doubt got twice as much carrot and cabbage."
"I didn't notice," I answered. "I was done with the soup so fast."
"Well you did," the unknown person whispered in a confident tone. Seemingly, I caught a head nod through the darkness.
"But why did she give me more?" I decided to ask.
"What do you mean why?" the voice asked, resentful. "You saved her husband's life today."
"What do you mean? I didn't save anyone."
"What about Repay? You think he would have survived today's punishment? Last month, when they caned the old bat, it was a miracle he didn't die. They say Agatha gave almost all her savings to a medicine man. Just so he'd get better."
My throat ran dry. After all, with my little life supply, just one whip would be more than enough.
"By the way, you got fed for free today," the voice shared some more wisdom from the darkness.
"For free?"
"Well sure. What, did you think they were gonna feed us here just because? You've gotta pay for grub. Where are you going next?"
"The mine they said, something about Skorx."
"Hrm, bucko," I could hear notes of compassion in the voice of the unseen man. "That's bad luck... Skorx is a real animal. And his mine is basically a cesspit."
I felt an unpleasant chill run down my spine.
"Let me give you some free advice, kid. Try to keep your head down there. Don't flaunt your valuables. Grow eyes on the back of your head. It isn't only peons down at Skorx's mine. They have lots of exiled convict laborers. All kinds of thugs and killers. And the mine tunnels are teeming with underground creatures. You'd be barely a mouthful to them. But they aren't the ones you need to be afraid of. You should fear Skorx and his lowlife helpers. They're the real monsters in that gods-forsaken place. Follow my advice and you might make it out alive... But boy, don't you spend too much time down there..."
He said the last sentence very quietly, but I still heard it. And that made my heart beat all the harder.
"Th-thanks," I whispered back, hiccupping. But no answer followed. Clearly he considered the conversation over and fell asleep.
I spent a long time lying there and listening in the darkness. What if the stranger suddenly said something else useful? But he was unfortunately already asleep.
Turning over a few times on the bag, smoothing out especially hard pieces of hay, I finally calmed down and fell into a restive sleep to the measured snoring of my comrades in misfortune. Unprompted, events of two days earlier popped into my head...

Two days ago. Several hours before the death of my parents.

I love this day! Although, what am I talking about? Who doesn't love their own birthday?! At the very least, I’ve never met anyone that stupid.
My excellent morning mood wasn't spoiled even by the rain, which had been pouring since yesterday evening. I woke up to a muted jingling of dishes coming from the kitchen. I spent a few minutes lying down and grinning like an idiot. I love these sounds. They can only mean one thing. Mom is cooking something tasty.
Following the sounds, a mind-blowing smell came into the room which made my stomach groan loudly.
Oh, Great System! Mom is baking my favorite - sugar bread! For some, the dish may be too simple, but not for me. There's nothing tastier than a slice of warm fresh-baked sugar bread with a thick layer of fatty fresh cheese on top and doused in amber honey. Every bite is an unforgettable explosion of sweet and sour enjoyment followed by a big swallow of still-warm fresh milk.
On that day it was as if the housekeepers didn't notice me. But it's all a game! It's always like that. First they put on serious faces as if it were a normal day but then they shower you with birthday wishes and gifts. How I love this day!
A few days earlier, mom said something she shouldn't have. Father has a special gift prepared. Something unlike anything I’d had before. Ever since, I'd been burning in impatience. And the closer I got to the long-awaited day, the more bothered I became.
I washed up and brushed my teeth, then went down into the dining room. My parents were already sitting at the table and talking in a low voice.
Trying to look manly, like a grown-up, I wished them good morning as I sat at the table. I might have gotten away with it, but my quivering arms betrayed my worry.
A few weeks earlier, father had gone to the market in the capital. He brought back many necessities. Flour, honey, fabric. A few pieces of jewelry for mother. But he also brought a little bundle which he hadn't shown anyone. He placed it in a special hiding place where he kept all our savings and important papers. Even mom wasn't allowed to touch it. Well, at the very least that was what she told me. To be honest, there was such a tricky smile on her face when she said it. Only the biggest sucker in the world would have really believed her.
I asked mom about the bundle almost every day, but she remained firm. Just as expected, that bundle was now sitting on the opposite end of the table! And father and mother, pretending not to notice, just kept up the peaceful conversation. Hrm, I'd lose my mind in no time at this rate...
The morning meal finally came to an end. Even swallowing the tasty food couldn't distract me from the mysterious object lying just an arm’s-length away.
After thanking mom for the food, father finally looked at me. There was a happy and cunning smile dancing on his face.
"Alright mother," he chuckled. "Enough teasing this silly goose."
Then to me:
"Come over."
And, with a stupid smile, I walked over to my parents on cottony legs. Father turned the bundle over. A leather case. A simple bone handle. When it hit me what I was seeing, I lost my breath! A knife! A weapon! Damage! If I could do damage, that meant I could earn experience essences and tablets!
"This is Dragonfly!" smiling happily, father extended me the gift. "It's yours!"
"Happy birthday, son!" mom said, kissing me on the forehead.
Absent-mindedly replying to their congratulations, I took the knife out of the case, my hands shivering.
"Here is the switch," father told me.
I immediately pushed where he showed me. A narrow bar of steel the length of my palm abruptly jumped out of the bone handle.
"See," father commented. "A bit curved. Like a dragonfly's wing. It's only sharp on one side. It looks like a simple field knife. Based on the very sharp tip, it's also good for stabbing."
I turned it over in my hands a few times, admiring. This was the first tool I could use for work. Perhaps, depending on the situation, it was also my first weapon. Finally! It's silly damage figures didn't even bother me. I was elated!
"Yes the damage is just two, but don't you worry," father justified. "That's temporary. When your level starts going up, the damage will go up too and very quickly. It's a scalable item and those are no laughing matter! Hehe! I spent fourteen years saving up for this thing! Without Dalia, I don't know what we'd have done..."
I stood up and gave father a very big hug. Then mom...
"Thank you... I'm so grateful to have you..."
Mom, smiling, kissed me another few times. After that, wiping a welled up tear with the edge of her apron, she hurried into the kitchen.
"Well, well. You've really touched your mother," father chuckled and immediately asked:
"Will you wait for me? Wanna do an experiment together? As soon as I'm back from the mines, we'll go into the woods and test out your new knife. What do you say?"
"Of course, father! I'll wait for you!"
"Excellent! Who knows, maybe you'll hit level one by the time we get back? Huh?" Father was enthusiastic.
I don't know who was happier, him or me. I might have asked... But neither he nor mom returned that day...

The present.

"Here, take this. Aunty Agatha put you together some travelling food."
Jaybird was standing next to the cart with a few other people headed to the Crooked Mountains. That was where Mr. Bardan's old copper mine was located. I didn't want to think bad thoughts, but seemingly this would be the final destination of my journey.
"Th-thank you," I said, hiccupping in anxiety and taking a small pack the girl extended me.
She's so pretty she could even give Mia a run for her money. But their beauty is different. Mia's beauty is cold like ice. Jaybird's is like a flame. Her affinity for fire comes from long thick red curls. Yesterday, when we were in the cart, she removed her kerchief to fix her hair. It startled me. I forgot how to breathe. What beauty! I could even smell her hair. It smelled of grass and spring.
The gaze of her dark emerald eyes turned me inside out. What's happening to me? That never happened before!
"Take care of yourself out there, boy," she said protectively and walked toward the barrack where the kitchen was.
Boy? She saw me as nothing but a boy? My right arm squeezed the bundle tight. It was not anger. No. it was more like annoyance at myself for my helplessness and weakness.
Suddenly I saw Valhard standing nearby. He was staring at Jaybird's supple figure, his red-bearded face frozen in a lustful smile.
Was it just me, or did she see him? And it didn't embarrass or frighten her. I didn't totally understand the game they were playing, but I quickly realized that Jaybird was much older than I first thought.
"Hey, kiddo, crawl up on the cart," Repay commanded. "If we hurry, we can get there by evening."

Chapter 4

"So then, listen son," the cart driver, who looked like a bear and was named Kril said didactically to his seven-year-old boy. "Once upon a time there were three brothers. A warrior, a hunter and a mage. And they embarked upon a journey to distant lands in search of wealth and glory..."
The fire gave a measured flickering, driving back the darkness. Sparks, like newborn fireflies, flew up onto the sky to quickly go out and come back to earth as tiny little embers.
In the end, we didn't reach the mine by evening. One of our carts got a broken a wheel. We had to stop halfway, fix the break and at the same time prepare the area for a night's rest. None of us wanted to encounter anyone out here at this time of night.
We had already all eaten, and those who hadn't yet made it to sleep were sitting around a big fire. The conversations fell silent. Everyone was thinking about their difficult fate and about what awaited them at our destination. The only one cheery enough to speak was Kril. He had to bring his son, because his mother died prematurely. He was telling an old tale in a hushed tone – the adventures of the three brothers.
My father used to tell me the same one. I didn't know it then, but trainer Roglex later told us it was a way parents taught their children the basics of personal development.
The tales of the Three Brothers were about a warrior, a hunter and a mage who can only achieve their goal by working together. Alone they never get anywhere. Just like in the story Kril is telling now. At first, the big strong warrior can't handle a nasty monster without the agile hunter and book-smart mage.
There Kril ends the story and moves from the allegorical fable to the moral. I gave a furtive smile, wrapped myself tighter in a blanket Repay thoughtfully shared with me and got ready to hear Kril's lesson just as I’d done many years before from my father.
"So then, son," said the carriage driver, stroking his mop-headed boy's hair. "The Great System gave us three branches of development - Strength, Agility and Mind. It bestowed upon us silver tablets when we were born, each giving one point to any of these characteristics so we can choose our own path. Which of the brothers do you like the best?"
"Warrior, of course!" Tim answered without thinking.
That made me laugh again. It was the exact answer I'd given to my own father. Based on the thoughtful smiles on the bearded faces of the men listening to the conversation, all of them must have seen themselves in him.
"Hehe," chuckled Kril and patted his mop-headed boy's hair. "Strength is nice. But without Agility you can't apply it properly. And of course without Mind, you will spend it twice as fast and never get what you're after. Do you understand?"
"Yes," the boy nodded seriously.
"The three main branches are intertwined. If you only work on one of them, the other two will wither. What would have happened to the warrior without his brothers, if he fought the big monster all alone?"
"He would have died," Tim answered quietly.
"Exactly!" his father raised a pointer finger in the air instructively. "Never forget that."
In response, Tim nodded slowly, then after a bit of thought asked:
"Hey dad, how do you improve the branches?"
"Good question, son. The Great System gives us tablets for that. There are different kinds. Clay, stone, iron, bronze..."
"And silver like I got?" the kid asked, smiling.
"Exactly right. The kind you got from the Great System on the day of your birth. They are very valuable."
"Because they can give a whole point to any characteristic. That was so your mom and I could choose which of your branches to invest in. All parents do it."
Listening to the quiet conversation between father and son, I saw Repay making a sad, thoughtful face. The old man must have been overcome by memories...
"What other kinds of tablets are there?" Tim continued his interrogation.
"Gold, diamond and rainbow."
"Rainbow?" the scamp's eyes lit up.
"Yes," Kril nodded. "But you know, son, everyone's heard of them, but no one has seen them. At the very least no one I know. Rainbow tablets are probably more legend than anything."
"Woah! Legendary tablets!" Tim admired.
"Exactly, son," his father laughed. "Exactly right. Legendary."
The men all nodded happily.
The look of admiration on Tim's face was suddenly replaced with perplexity.
"But father, where do these tablets come from?"
"Good question, son," Kril praised him. "You can earn tablets in war, on hunts, gathering resources or performing very difficult tasks. And when raising level using experience essences. Every time you level-up, the Great System gives you three silver tablets."
"Ess... Ess-eh-nces?" Tim asked, struggling with the word.
"Correct," his father answered. "They can be earned the same way as tablets. Every essence is one point of experience. Go look how many essences you need to get to level two."
Tim's eyes froze for a moment. His lips moved as he tried to figure something out.
"It says zero then a slash, a two and another three zeroes," Tim squeezed out.
Hm, clearly Brother Mage was not favored in Kril's family. They must have put just one or two tablets into Tim's Mind.
"That means," Kril explained patiently. "You need to earn two thousand essences."
"Woah! Are you gonna help me?"
"Of course I will, but you're gonna have to do most of the work on your own. Such is the law of the Great System!"
"And can I fight with a sword or a spear like Brother Warrior?!" Tim's eyes glimmered in anticipation of future adventures.
"You can," Kril answered confidently and then slightly cooled his son's jets:
"But you'll have to earn many tablets by using the corresponding skill. And you'll have to improve your energy supply."
"And how do I do that?"
"Get endurance tablets and practice. Plus carrying capacity. After all, like Brother Warrior, you will be wearing armor and carrying a weapon. Then increase damage. Now you're at level one. That means your natural damage is just one. And you shouldn't forget about health and agility, either. Remember? Without Brother Hunter, Brother Warrior never would have gotten anywhere."
Kril doesn't often talk about Brother Mage. But that's basically the same as everyone I know. The Mind branch is the least popular of the three. Although, remembering father's tales, it is the most powerful. But alas, it was the hardest to get to.
We have only two supplies when we enter this world life and energy. Even someone as bugged as me got those from the Great System. But the third supply, mana is something you have to earn.
In order to unlock the supply, you need a tablet of intellect. Even the most basic kind, clay, will do. But the catch is that the only way to earn one is by gathering a magical resource or killing something with magical abilities, which is even harder.
Of course, all secondary characteristics that derive from the mind branch are activated the same way as intellect. Oh yeah, I totally forgot! There's one other way of earning tablets of any kind or quality. They can be bought, as can experience essences. Honestly, I'm scared to even imagine how much a mind-branch tablet must cost.
I considered it and didn't notice that Kril was already not at the fire. He must have been putting his son to bed in the cart. I looked around, tired. By the looks of things the only ones not asleep were me and two sentries watching the fire. I lay down just a step from them. I close my eyes. Time for me to hit the hay, too. Then through my dream, I hear the squeaky voice of one of the sentries. I don't know his name, but everyone calls him Flea.
"You know what's with old man Repay today?"
"What do you mean?" a raspy voice answered his question with a question. It's Hart. Despite his whole head of gray hair, he is not yet an old man. Level fifteen. Many scars on his hands, arms and face. His predatory gaze penetrates into my marrow. One of Skorx's cutthroats. That's what the others call him behind his back.
"Yes, when the old man heard Kril talking, his face went blank," Flea explained.
"Ah, there you go," Hart answered understandingly. "That old bump on a log must have remembered his youth when he heard about the tablets."
"Can you tell me?" I could hear impatience and intrigue in Flea's squeaky voice.
"Sure, why not?" Hart rasped. "We've gotta sit another few hours anyway. And as we know, time passes quicker while talking."
"Yep, yep..."
"About the old man? Alright, I'll tell you... Not many know it, but Repay was born in the barony of Arundel."
"And where is that? I'm not sure I've heard of such a place..."
"That's because you're young. And it hasn't existed for a long time. It's in the east. You probably know these lands under a different name."
"But the only place east of here is..."
"Exactly. The Wastes."
"Old man Repay was born in the Wastes?" Flea asked in surprise.
I also shuddered when I heard the familiar name. That was exactly where my older brother died.
"But the steppe orcs control the Wastes!" Clearly learning these facts about the life of our driver did a lot to awaken Flea's imagination. He was really worked up.
"Hey, you calm down, blockhead! You're gonna wake everybody up," Hart snapped at his younger comrade. "Yes, in the Wastes! And why are you yelling? It’s no shock to me. You know how many of our brothers were born in orcish slavery? No? Well let me tell you, too many to count! Almost every family in the east has someone who has spent some time in slavery under those grayskins. Some get taken in battle, others just get snatched up on a raid. Some like Repay were just born into it. Our pregnant women are just about the biggest prize for those steppe nomads."
"Why is that?" Flea asked quietly.
By the looks of things, he also hadn't been especially focusing on the mind branch. Even I could see why the orcs would want pregnant women.
"Too dim to guess?" Hart asked acridly. "Don't look at me like that, dolt. It isn't the ladies they want, but the future people they carry in their womb. And to be even more accurate, it's the silver tablets the Great System gives to newborns."
"Bastards!" I could hear hate and indignation in Flea's voice.
And I felt solidarity. My right hand clutched the bone handle of my knife in outrage.
"Bastards is exactly right," Hart agreed in a calm voice. "To put it briefly, they aren't human. The shamans give sleeping potions to the mothers so they can't quickly use the tablets on their children and they take everything the Great System bestows upon the child. But that is not all. When the kids grow up a bit they are given the simplest possible gear with stats and sent out to earn tablets and essences to give to the tribe. That is why our Repay is so weak. He spent half his life working for the orcs."
"Hrm... well cra-ap..." Flea drew out his word, dazed. "And how did he get here? Did he run?"
"Run from the orcs?" Hart laughed. "From the steppes? No-ope... Not many have the strength for that."
"Then what?"
"Flea, as long as I've known you, I've always been surprised how daft you can be. Don't be so stingy next time and invest a bit in Mind. Hehe... Haven't you heard the tale of the brothers? Or didn't your mom not tell you fairy tales when she put you to bed?"
"Well, I uhh..." Flea burbled.
"You're a dolt," Hart put it briefly. "Use your brains a little bit. How could he have gotten out here from orcish slavery? I see two options. Either the orcs sold him or the orcs were themselves enslaved. As for Repay, it was option two. A tribe of steppe warriors was broken by our baron's retinue. All the slaves of the orcs became peons of the baron. Our master bought many of their debts, including Repay's. And that's the whole story."
Could that have been the battle in the Wastes that took my brother? I'd have to find out exactly when that battle took place. If that was so, it meant old man Repay was freed partially thanks to my brother. Although it was hard to call peonage freedom. It was basically the same as slavery, just with more steps. And if anyone came out most ahead it was without a doubt our Baron, Berence. That was why my father didn't like nobles. He called them monsters who grew fat on our blood...
The Crooked Mountains greeted us with a cold rain. Due to the huge torrents of water falling from the sky, the road among the gray cliffs gradually turned into a raging river. A few times, I got the impression the carts were about to fall into the abyss, but thanks to our driver’s masterful ability, not a single bag or box of provisions was lost.
Repay, for the record, caught me by surprise. Despite his frailty, he displayed marvels of skillful cart-driving. He had probably been investing in that skill all his life. I guess he really was worth his salt.
When we finally reached the miners' village, we were soaked to the bone and no less tired than the horses.
While we strolled the main street, I managed to look at the living quarters of the locals. Mostly it was old barracks but there were also some separate newer little houses. In some of the windows, I saw the faces of women and children.
We stopped for a few minutes outside one of the homes. The doors flew open and a woman hopped out onto the street, wrapped in a gray down shawl. To look at her, I would say she was fifty. To my surprise, her face seemed familiar. She ran over to Kril's cart, grabbed Tim, who was wrapped in a leather shawl and ran back into the house. That was when I realized the woman, Kril and his little son were all very similar looking. It instantly dawned on me. It was Tim's grandma!
I distantly remembered tales of my own relatives. The Bergmans hadn't always lived in Orchus. My father and mother were born in the western lands. And that was also where they got married. That day, two strong clans were bonded. And by the end of the year, mom said she was expecting the heir to both families. But their happiness was darkened by news of a horrible epidemic raging on the western coast. In order to avoid my expectant mother falling ill, my grandparents convinced my parents to move to Orchus for a time. To wait out the disaster. What was more, the city had already sent out riders to the healers’ guild in the capital.
And hindsight showed they made the right choice. The messengers never even reached the capital. The illness took them on the way. Then over one week, the plague ate through almost the whole city. Not very many survived. And among my relatives, none. The local baron, in order to keep the infection from spreading, ordered the town burned to the ground. Along with the remaining survivors. I think that was the very moment my father began to hate nobles with such a fury...
We rode another few minutes down the main village street and our column turned right down an alley. After that, we turned again, and again... A few more turns and we finally stopped next to a large barn, which was behind a tall stockade fence and guarded by five warriors. Provisions must have been very expensive here, seeing how they were guarded so closely.
Just then, a crowd of beggars appeared at the heavy gates holding clay bowls and mugs. It was mostly old folks, but also there were children. When they saw us from afar, they ran out to meet us, badgering and begging us to give them a bit of food or money.
Hart, Flea and another two warriors who accompanied our caravan, not dillydallying and not especially making a big deal of things, drove off the poor folks with lashes.
When they saw me looking dazed, Hart bared his teeth and barked:
 "Look, lad. Take this as a warning! If you act lazy, you'll fall to the level of these poor souls!"
When the warrior turned back around, someone shook me by the sleeves. I looked down. It was a kid, eight years old. A mop of black uncombed hair. Colorless simple clothes. A pitiful gaze in his hazel eyes. A grubby face.
"Please, some bread?" he squeaked.
I shuddered. It made me feel beside myself. I understood that my position was not exactly enviable, but I was feeling like a rich man compared to this little kid.
"Sorry, boy," I shrug my shoulders. "No bread, but I do have this here..."
I get a little green apple from my bundle and extend it to the kid. I see his admiring gaze. The fruit disappears almost magically and the boy, without saying a word, starts off for the nearest alley.
Hart's raspy voice makes me shudder despite myself.
"You'll come to regret that very soon," he said and headed toward the guardsmen coming our way.
The newcomers, including me, were lined up right under the downpour of icy rain. Two steps from the entrance into the warm and dry barracks. On the doorstep, under a wide visor and surrounded by guards, stood Knud. The second man after Skorx, who was now away.
A thin and spiteful old man with a ravenous gaze. Thin lips, rotten teeth, a nose sharp as a bird's, a greasy clump of gray hair on his chin an unsavory type. The only feature I liked in him was the lack of a right ear.
He'd lost it at the hands, or more accurately teeth of one of the peons. Honestly, it was said that Knud later arranged an "accident" in one of the tunnels for the sap who did it to him. Based on his spiteful rat-like face and harsh gaze One-ear, as he was called around here, was capable of much worse than that.
"Mark this well, I will say it only once!" unhurriedly and monotone, Knud began our intake session. "You are standing here up to your knees in shit because you shit the bed. The bank was so kind and generous as to lend you their hard-earned cash, and you failed to pay it back."
One-ear led a harsh tenacious stare over us and continued.
"Let me warn you assholes right away. If you go nuts and get it in your stupid head to do something we don't like the conversation will be short and sweet."
The old man nodded toward ten pillars at the far barracks wall. A few of them had bloodied naked bodies tied to them. Giving us time to admire the ghastly spectacle, Knud continued:
"Now onto the main event. How you will repay your debt to my master. All of you are peons, and that means that, other than your principal, you must pay off three percent interest each month with your labor. Believe you me, Mr. Bardan is merciful and generous. Other masters charge much higher rates."
Making some crude calculations in my head, I fell into a stupor. In my case, that's three gold per month. That means I need to somehow earn ten silver a day...
"If you haven't paid back your interest by the end of the month, they will add that to the principal and the rate for the next month will be calculated off that," Knud continued beating it into us. "For one daily quota of ore, you will be given three silver coins."
Robbery. As son of a miner, I could confidently say that the minimum for one quota is generally around six coins. And if the ore is valuable, it could be even more. Probably Skorx is taking a bit off the top. Honestly, that doesn't affect me either way. I couldn't harvest ore anyhow.
As if hearing my thoughts, the old man continued:
"Other work will be judged in measure with its usefulness. Low-skilled labor is worth no more than a silver per day."
Only then did it start to reach me what a serious debt hole I'd fallen into.
"For a place in the barracks and food from the common pot, you have to pay. You'll pay for your tools as well. If you haven't got money we can make a loan for a place to sleep and food to get you started. If it takes too long to pay back... hm... Let me give you some advice. It’s in your interest to pay us back as quickly as possible. Remember, you have no rights here, like cattle. And until you can repay my master, you cannot leave this place."


I suspected that Hart's prediction would come true, but I wasn't expecting it to come so fast...
Now I was sitting on the floor of an old barrack. Soaked to the bone. My teeth were chattering so hard I could feel them getting loose. Through a gap in the rotten boards, an angry damp wind was howling up, chilling me straight to the marrow.
When Knud finished his intake lecture, all of us in turn gave an oath promising we'd repay the debt and the Great System confirmed. Now I have two ways out. Either on my own two after repaying the debt, or feet first into the grave. Based on the conditions the peons are kept in, the latter is more likely.
Just barely, the thin blanket Repay gave me as a parting gift was rescuing me from the cold. The old man also advised me to stay away from the northern tunnels before he left. It was said to be the most ancient and dangerous part of the mine. Overall, a deadly place...
Oooh! I want to eat so bad! My stomach is just in knots. The night before, no one had any plans of feeding us. We all had to get by on our own rations. And I had given my last apple to some street urchin out of the goodness of my heart. I had no money, so I had to get started here with an empty belly.
My energy supply was already not doing great, but now it had been sitting at a mere two for quite some time. Strangely, I never regretted giving away the apple... well, so far... We'll see how I start to feel when the supply runs dry...
Of course, at a time like this, I couldn't help thinking about a backup option. I always had one. Even when I was sitting on a stool in the corner of the entryway of my parents' home and watching my parents' things be plundered, I had it in mind. I just ordered myself no matter what happened to never think about it.
My stomach again turned and my gaze caught on a knife despite myself. That was my backup way out of this shit situation. The artifact of the Departed. If I sold it, all my problems would be over.
First I thought about the ring or button, but I quickly decided against those options. I couldn't get by without characteristics. I could at least live without damage.
As soon as I started thinking about selling the artifacts, I remembered father and mother. Had all their efforts been in vain? Father spent so long hunting for each of these artifacts. He went into debt. He risked being uncovered or robbed. He paid tons of money for each item and all so his son could just give into weakness and sell them for a pittance? Just to fill his stomach and warm his body? Honestly, my parents would hardly have wanted me to die here of cold and hunger either.
But no! I won't give in so easy! Tomorrow is another day. I'll think of something!
"Hey kid, you alive over there?!"
The sound of a voice from the darkness made me shudder.
"F-for now, yes," I answered, my teeth chattering. My hand reached for the knife all on its own.
A strong figure dove out of the darkness and a joyous flaxen-haired face loomed over me. Big blue eyes, a slightly upturned snub nose. An open smile. A boy of twenty years. Level eleven. Dressed simply, but soundly and clean. His face beamed with goodness and inspired trust, but I frowned out of decency and screwed up my face.
"Hey, hey, kid! Calm down!" he said, seeing my reaction. "Sorry I scared you. I saw you in this piece of shit shaking from cold and decided hey, why not come over? I figured I could ask. Maybe you need help."
"You help everyone around here?" I ask untrustingly, my voice skeptical.
"No, of course not," he answered seriously and immediately added pointedly:
"Only those who are also willing to help. I saw you share that apple with Tiny. By the way, what are you doing here? No one has lived in this barrack for a long time..."
"No money."
"What about a loan? Lots of people here started out that way. Me included."
"Knud said I wasn't allowed. He said I'm useless. And to let Skorx decide what to do with me."
"Well the Marked One isn't coming back for a week."
"The Marked One. That's what everyone here calls Skorx. You'll see soon, you'll understand."
"Then what should I do?"
"First of all, get a bite to eat, warm up and sleep."
The boy smiled disarmingly and extended me a hand:
"By the way, I forgot to introduce myself. The name’s Frody."
"Eric," I answered his firm handshake.
"Happy to meet you, Eric," Frody said and nodded at the exit:
"Let's go. There's nothing for you here."
"Uh, wh-where?" I asked, worried. But still I got up from the cold floor.
"Let's go, come on then," my new acquaintance said in a friendly manner and then asked as if in passing:
"You like porridge with mushrooms?"
My stomach groaned treacherously, answering for us both. Frody, after hearing the unique response, gave a loud laugh. I looked at the boy. His kind open face, his tidy appearance. Listening to his endearing vocal timbre I was sincerely confused why was I still doubting? My stomach gave another unwilling burble. As if to say, what are you waiting for, master? Somewhere there is warmth and mushroom porridge! That was the final argument.
Frody patted me on the shoulder like an old friend and said:
"Let's go quick! Otherwise they'll eat it all without us!"
My new acquaintance lived in a small but new and warm barrack with fresh floorboards. There were another seven men living there as well. All higher than level ten. They were strong and well equipped. Truthfully, none of them had a face as kind as Frody's. Everywhere I looked, I saw cutthroat faces.
Noticing my perplexity at the entrance to the barrack, Frody laughed:
"Come in, don't be afraid. Everyone here is a friend. Isn't that right, boys?"
He was answered by a discordant chorus of hoarse and smoky voices. And by the way, none of them even paid me any mind.
"Frody, you little creep! Close the door!" Someone shouted angrily from far away. "You'll let all the warmth out!"
The boy gave my back a gentle push and quickly slammed the door.
"Let's go," he nodded toward a small oven.
I walked on cottony legs past some good quality loungers which is what the barracks men used for sleeping, sitting or just lying around. Up close they seemed even more strange and dangerous.
It was very warm in the barrack, even hot. So they were all stripped to the waist. Based on the abundance of tattoos on the body of each person in the room, I seemingly realized what kind of place Frody had brought me to. This barrack was for convict laborers.
"Sit here next to the stove," the boy pointed me to a stool. "I'll bring us some food."
I sat timidly on the edge of the stool, ready to run to the exit at any time. By the way, they're all still ignoring me as if I weren't here at all.
A few moments later, Frody came with two deep bowls in his hands. I could smell the mind-blowing mushroom aroma from a distance.
"Here," he extended me the porridge, which was still steaming. "Shovel it down while it's still warm."
There was a rye rusk in the bowl along with the porridge. I'd use that for a spoon.
As expected, I ate through the porridge very quickly. The food and warmth quickly tuckered me out. As I put down the last "spoonfuls," I was already dozing off. I had strength only to slowly crawl off the stool and curl up into a ball in the corner on the floor a step away from the stove.
A few seconds before I passed out, I heard a fragment of a conversation.
"How'd it all go?" one of them asked in a raspy powerful voice.
"Fine," Frody answered.
"He doesn't care."
"Good," I heard satisfaction in his hoarse voice. "Take him to the mine tomorrow."

 Release - August 12, 2019

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