Monday, October 28, 2019

Disgardium: The Destroying Plague by Dan Sugralinov


Disgardium, Book 3

The Destroying Plague 

by Dan Sugralinov


Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07ZPB3BV6
Release - January 9, 2020


Chapter 1. Breaking Out of the Sandbox

“I’m rooting for you, Alex,” Tissa said in parting. “We won’t be able to talk, what with me being in the sandbox…”
“I’ll let you know as soon as it’s done, as soon as we break through and I leave Dis.”
“I’ll be waiting. Look after yourself. Good luck!”
The girl blew me a kiss and her hologram disappeared.
My parents had flown off somewhere, and the catdog AT and I were left to fend for ourselves. The pet, however, was thinking only of itself at that moment; so carried away with cleaning himself that it was as if he really was a cat, not just imitating one.
The projection of the Solar System on the wall gently hummed away, and if one zoomed in to look closer, one could see a column of colonization shuttles flying to Mars. Months of travel separated them, but on the map the shuttles formed a dashed line. I’ll be there one day too.



Space… My dream to find the funds to study in university had almost become a reality, but there were a few ‘buts’ left. The winnings from victory in the junior Arena, the bet I’d won, the rewards for raising my potential to L and for eliminating Big Po — all this added up to over one and a half million gold. Unfortunately, the money was stuck in the game until adulthood. It wouldn’t arrive until I’d passed the citizenship tests, which I had to wait two months for.
Incidentally, Tissa and Infect had already received their artifacts for neutralizing the ‘threat.’ As for what I’d receive, I didn’t know yet. To find out, I’d have to at least log into Dis to start with.
I hadn’t visited Disgardium since the Destroying Plague broke through to Tristad. In the meantime, the former Dementors and I celebrated my birthday in a small family restaurant on the coast of the Pacific. Eve was invited too, by the way, but she said she couldn’t come.
The next day, once we’d recovered, we held a clan meeting with our new clan member taking part for the first time; Tobias Asser, also known as Crag. The former members of the Dementors, once kicked from the clan for ganking, kept quiet and didn’t even react to taunts from Hung and Malik. They didn’t go too hard on him. They knew how much Tobias would strengthen the clan.
Especially since Infect had seen the battle machine he could turn into the day before, gaining a seven-times boost to all his main stats. We swept away the the remnants of the Destroying Plague’s assault easily, as if we weren’t up against powerful mobs at level thirty or above, but a mere rat pack from the cellar of the temple of Nergal the Radiant.
We had a meeting on the balcony of Ed’s apartment and decided to go out into the wide world along with Crag. They’re expecting one ‘threat,’ and if something happens, a second could slip away. Thinking a little longer, we finally realized this was the only option. If they met Crag right after character registration, then the only way to get him out would be to group up and jump with Depths Teleportation. Because he might just not reach the Darant town hall room which was the real meeting place.
We summarized our short-term plans. Infect was supposed to be coming out of the sandbox very soon, while Tissa would have to wait two more months. Until then, we decided to keep building our nearly finished clan fort, investigate the island and level up in zones that match our levels.
We thought about moving to the dark side, but decided to stay in the light. Our cobold adepts were in this area, and Patrick and his new trogg friends were waiting in Darant. Dangerous to show your face there on the dark side…
I took a deep breath and slowly breathed out. Then I grabbed AT, lifted him up and gave him a peck on the nose. The catdog meowed in indignation. Went back to his spot and resumed cleaning himself.
Time to go.
At that moment, our clan noob Crag was waiting for my signal so he could climb into the capsule at the same time and enter great Dis after completing the adult registration procedure. “Let’s go!” the message went to Tobias, Ed and Hung all at once.
Crawler and Bomber awaited us in the tavern at our clan fort, ready to celebrate our breaking out of the sandbox. We’re waiting. Jump with the noob ganker right after you reg, Crawler answered. Bomber immediately chimed in. Don’t even think about leaving the guest room! There’s a whole rally of those damn preventers out there!
Throwing off my clothes, I approached the Altera Vita, a new capsule issued by Snowstorm for reaching class L, the maximum initial threat potential.
They released the capsule in a limited-edition series. When they brought it in, dad whistled shook his head in envy. I can imagine the dens of iniquity he’d love to visit if only he could use the capsule. The capsule used consumable cartridges to provide intravenous nutrition, hydration and first-aid. In addition, it could influence one’s emotional state, and an active intra-gel stimulated the muscles and massaged the body.
If I wanted to, I could immerse myself for several days. If I had someone to swap out the consumables, I could do even longer, but such long periods of immersion weren’t good for you anyway.
“Initiate immersion,” I commanded.
“Understood, Alex.”
In a capsule configured and trialled in test worlds, the immersion site was set to Disgardium by default. The intra-gel quickly filled up the space, the capsule took control of my body, and three heartbeats later I hung in a sterile vacuum of limbo.
A huge game world appeared underneath me, and the outlines of its six continents broke through the clouds.

Welcome to Disgardium, Alex!
You have reached an age threshold, Alex. Your character will be moved out of the sandbox!
You must regenerate your character.

Attention! Because you are a threat, the game nickname Scyth cannot be changed.
Attention! Because you are a threat, the game class Herald cannot be changed.

You can change your faction, race and appearance.

Deciding to change only my appearance, I enlarged the window with my character model. I saw that the system had updated my previous form of a fourteen-year-old boy; my face was rougher and harder, I was taller, my shoulders were broader.
Thinking for a moment, I dragged the age slider to the right, adding on another ten years. After a moment’s hesitation I changed my eye color as well. My real eyes are green, but in the game they’d be blue. This avatar would be permanent, and as it happens, people take adults more seriously not only in the real world, but in Dis too.
All done.

Character successfully generated.

The system showed me the character profile and moved on to the final stage of registration:

Scyth, do you want to claim a reward for being online or do you prefer a permanent +5% experience bonus? You can change your choice at any time in the future.

I chose the second one, because ‘payment for being online’ could earn you no more than thirty phoenixes a month, and only if you practically lived in the game. Five percent to experience, on the other hand, was a big advantage in the higher levels.
I skimmed the profile to make sure everything was alright. At the same time, I changed my privacy options, resetting them to the defaults. Only my nickname, class and level remained visible.
Taking a deep breath, I confirmed the selection. My interface disappeared.
I started to fall down, to the Luteria. The earth rushed up to meet me and I could make out the tall, colorful houses and broad streets of the capital of the Commonwealth. Suddenly, everything went black for an instant, then noise, light and smells crashed down on me.
Operation Breakout had begun.

***


In contrast to my first visit to Tristad, there were far more new players who had chosen Darant as their starting zone. Several hundred humans, elves, gnomes, dwarfs and other races of the Commonwealth bustled through the town hall’s guest room, pressed up against the registration desks or just staring around and feeling their arms in awe. The latter were always new players, in Disgardium for the first time.
The room smelled of dust and age, although everything looked clean. The high windows were overshadowed by the foliage of trees, not enough daylight got in, so lanterns burned on the walls.
Looking around, I felt a cold sweat. A huge area the size of a hangar, filled with lively players of all species, ages and genders, all shouting over each other. But even among the crowd, some high-level players stood out clearly, those from the three top preventer clans: Modus, Azure Dragons and Excommunicado. How? How, in the name of all the Sleepers, did they get here? Neither Crawler nor Bomber had said anything about this. Here they just saw noobs, and just calmly got their grade and walked out into the hall where they the preventers checked them by the fire of the True Flame.
I span my head trying to make out Crag, but couldn’t find him. Judging by the active avatar in the clan list, he’d already logged into Dis. Might be stuck on the character generation screen.
Artifacts of the True Flame flashed here and there around the hall. From level two hundred, the top players walked around the hall in pairs and scooped up any noobs over level one exiting the teenage sandbox. I don’t doubt that on Shad’Erung, the continent of the dark side, the clans there checked for those defecting to the Empire. And the variety of neutrals in the capitals no doubt got checked too. The stakes were too high, even for the top players who were ready to split it among the whole Alliance of Preventers.
Alright… Time to calm down. I looked around for the Depths Teleportation icon and sighed in relief: it was active.
Now the important thing was for Crag to finally get there. I’d group up with him and take him to Kharinza, the clan fort. Gyula and his brigade of rough workmen had just finished construction…
“Noob, twenty six!” I heard from afar. I’d been seen. “Hey, you! Stay there and wait your turn!”
The nearest group of preventers got distracted by an elf that was asking for more money for the right to check her wrist. Banger split off from another group and headed toward me, splitting through the crowd like an icebreaker. He was a gigantic lopher, part elephant and part man, at level two hundred and twenty. A rare race. Who would want to live in a lump like that, and with a long trunk to boot? But people still took it for the racial bonus — high endurance.
I took a few steps back and hid behind a broad twin bas-relief column. I wasn’t completely sure, but it looked as if our worst fears had come true. Big Po, although unsure that I’d kept my threat status, but surely burning with a thirst for vengeance, had shared his suspicions with the preventers. And they had somehow got access to the guest room from the Mayor of Darant. Fine. I’d thought about this outcome as well.
Flashing a glance around the other side of the column, I looked toward the exit. The stocky, bearded level-fourteen dwarf called Gonzo had already gone through the checkpoint and was now moving into the guest hall.
Imitation worked successfully. Great, now I was Gonzo the dwarf, tested in the fire of the True Flame. I walked out from the other side of the column and confidently melted into the crowd. Where was Crag?
Banger from Excommunicado was heading to where Scyth was hiding. A hobbit pattered behind him with a minor elemental floating above his shoulder, distorting the air with its heat. Nether!

True Flame Spirit, level 224
Elemental
Tierz’s pet.

I tried not to look worried and calmly headed for the far end of the hall, where the scribe tables stood in long rows. I’d register and then take it from there.
“Gonzo, wait!” I heard from behind my back.
I didn’t realize at first that the shout was meant for me. I took another step or two out of inertia, then stopped and turned. The lopher Banger walked toward me, while his partner, the hobbit Tierz, was looking behind one of the numerous portals, trying to find the elusive Scyth there. The portals work only one-way to this side and only for new players, so logically, there was no way I could get through there, but the hobbit still checked it. Unsurprisingly without success.
“What?” I asked in displeasure. “I already went through the checkpoint…”
“Have you seen a tall man around?” Banger boomed, narrowing his eyes. His arms were as thick as my torso, but with human hands. Huge, monstrous, but human. “Um… Nick Scyth, level twenty six. Rare class, too… Um… I forgot it! So you ain’t seen ‘im? He was just there, behind the columns…”
“I saw him,” I nodded and waved toward the far corner end of the guest hall. “He went to the scribes.”
“Ugh, damn him,” Banger decided. “He’ll get checked again after he registers anyway. Show me your wrist!”
The sudden order made my heart beat faster, blood rushed to my face. The elephant-person turned to his friend.
“Hey, Tierz, come here, let’s check this noob!”
The halfling was examining the wrist of a level six forest elf that had just come out of the portal. When he finished, he gave the long-eared player a gold coin and walked over to us. Looking around again in search of Crag, I decided to leave alone. It seemed something had gone wrong. Taking advantage while Banger was looking at his colleague, I activated Depths Teleportation.
The falling sensation and the visuals that take place when you use that ability are pretty extreme. I’d compare it to jumping off the top of a skyscraper; the contents of your stomach rise to your throat, your heart beats a hundred miles an hour, your vision blurs… In short, it’s an acquired taste. I instinctively closed my eyes.
Even then, I realized something bad had happened. System messages don’t care if you have your eyes closed.

Depths Teleportation interrupted!
Unable to leave Darant Town Hall Guest Room without finishing the character registration process!

Nether! Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. The worst of it was that the system still counted the ability as used, and the talent started its half-hour cooldown time.
Then Crag appeared! I would never have recognized him if I hadn’t seen the nickname; the previously tall man had become a short dwarf. Artful waves in his beard, a tattoo covering half his face, his hair immaculately braided. It was obvious what had delayed him. He’d been giving his character a new look!
The crackle of the teleporter drew the attention of the Excos, and both moved to intercept. The elephantine Banger didn’t seem quick on the uptake. He checked himself, turned around and barked out:
“Stay there, Gonzo! We’ll check you and you’ll get a gold coin! For nothin’!”
“I already got one, thanks!” I pulled out a coin with my free hand and span it before him for effect. “Or are you going to give me another?”
“Um… Nah, we won’t give you more. It’s never enough for you noobs! But you’re still getting checked! Got it?”
“Got it,” I agreed peaceably. “I’ll wait.”
I was really in trouble! If they’d had a one-time-use artifact, they might have spared me, but with an elemental pet, these checks cost them nothing. I threw Crag a group invitation. He immediately accepted it and I began to think feverishly.
My clanmate started making all kinds of excuses, playing a dumb noob that didn’t understand what the hobbit Tierz wanted. The Excos couldn’t use force on Crag, since Darant was a peaceful zone, and any aggression could send their reputation into the minus points. On the other hand, the network was full of conflicting information, but how it was in reality…
Play for time I wrote to Crag, then lost myself in the crowd. When the lopher turned, I was no longer Gonzo, but Reyman; a paladin at level three hundred and forty seven, from the Azure Dragons. Yes, I took a risk, but it worked out. If I reached a scribe and registered, nobody would be able to stop me from grabbing Crag and jumping to Kharinza.
I bowed my head and crossed half the hall before I saw that I was about to be next to the real Reyman. I couldn’t turn back into Gonzo — he was nowhere to be seen now. Turning around, I focused on Banger and turned into him. The trick looked normal to those around me — just someone swapping one equipment set for another. The name shows up only when you look close. In the meantime, Crag smiled stupidly while the hobbit Tierz explained something to him.
“Hey, Bang! What’re you doing over here?” a tall elf in a green mantle hailed me, Koba from Modus. “The Exco inspection zone is over there. Where’s Tierz anyway?”
He pointed to the far end. Fortunately for me, the real Banger was hidden behind a column at this point.
“Tierz is over there…” I copied Banger’s manner of speech and intonation and vaguely waved my hand. “I’m… Um… I lost track of a noob, actually. He disappeared in the crowd. Just lookin’ for ‘im…”
“What?” Koba asked. “You let a noob get away?”
“Well, yeah. No problem, I’ll find ‘im…”
“Alarm!” the elf suddenly shouted into the signal amulet hanging around his neck. “Potential threat! Cover the exit!”
The next instant, several soldiers from Modus gathered at the exit and dragged those leaving the room back inside. A gaggle of commands filled the hall, including from Koba’s signal amulet.
“Entrance covered! We’re locking down the building! Repeat all the checks!”
The elf kept hold of his amulet and asked:
“What’s the noob’s race, name and nick?”
“Um… One sec… Gonzo, I think. Level fourteen dwarf.”
“Got it,” Koba nodded and shouted into the amulet again: “Nickname Gonzo! A dwarf…”
I slipped through to the scribes and stood by the desk of the nearest free one, an elderly gnome lady in glasses and an extremely unhurried way of talking. After listening to her welcoming speech, hurrying her up and interrupting her, I finally got it through to her that I wanted to register.
And that’s when I ran into a roadblock. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Crag was flooding me with panicked messages and threats to give me up to the preventers if I didn’t keep my promise, the gnome lady in front of me shook her head and said something. It was tough to hear her in the cacophony, but I noticed she wasn’t hurrying to hand me a registration sheet.
“Sorry, what?”
“Switch to your true form before starting the registration procedure, young human!” the gnome said strictly, raising her voice.
She emphasized the word ‘human.’ A girl standing at the next desk shot me an interested glance. In the meantime, Crag stopped writing coherently and just spammed my direct messages with exclamation marks. Crawler and Bomber had joined him, realizing by our delay that something had gone wrong. Hung was swearing so hard that the chat window even blushed.
“Stop holding up the queue, ya big lug!” someone hissed from behind. “What’re you doing here anyway?”
Now I’d drawn even more attention. I shot a glance over my shoulder and saw a little level one fairy called Mint floating in the air, piercing me with a gaze of displeasure.
“Sorry, kiddo.” I stepped away from the desk.
“You’re a kiddo, elephant boy!” she shrieked. “Stick that trunk you-know-where!”
Quickly slipping behind another column, I switched back to my true form. I heard blood bumping in my ears when I reached the newly vacant desk of scribe Yonesku and began the registration process, trying not to pay attention to the shouts from the other end of the hall. The bustle and chaos behind me grew, and I felt myself begin to sweat.
“They’ve caught a threat!” a gnome standing nearby suddenly gasped in surprise. His eyes widened, he stared and excitedly clicked his tongue. “Woah!”
I heard shouts from all over. The people were watching as Crag was dragged from the other end of the hall. Tierz got his way after all, and revealed Tobias’s status.
High-level players all over the hall rushed to help the already strong group. I couldn’t even see Crag himself now behind all the preventers clad in gleaming armor.
Crawler and Bomber had caved before the anxiety of the unknown and jumped to the town hall building in Darant. They already knew that a threat had been caught. Rumors spread throughout the Commonwealth instantly.
Woeful messages filled up the clan chat — the guys had already mentally buried not only Crag, but me too. The city guard, high officials of the Commonwealth army and all the players were gathering outside the town hall. Scyth, write something, anything! Bomber demanded. Who have they taken? You, or Crag?
Without answering, I agreed that my character choice was final and not subject to change, and handed the completed arrival sheet to the scribe Yonesku. He glanced at it and nodded in satisfaction.
“Welcome to Darant, Scyth!” the scribe said, stamping the form with a dull thud. “Next!”
Modus, Azure Dragons and Excommunicado loudly shouted across each other and had already started arguing about whose territory should be used to eliminate the threat. The neighboring hall stirred with the sound of teleporters activating, and preventer leaders rushed into the hall. I saw Yary among them. A leader of Modus, he had invited me to visit him after the final of the junior Arena.
The leaders congratulated each other on the move, smiling and joking, and the junior ones stopped arguing when they appeared. It seemed likely that Tobias was about to be dragged away and taken somewhere where he could be quietly eliminated, with no witnesses. Crag filled my message inbox with demands to do something, anything at all.
All attention, eyes, and, I don’t doubt, recordings of what was happening — it was all directed at the procession of preventers, so I calmly shifted into the form of the fairy Mint…
What? I looked down and saw that my legs weren’t touching the floor! Of course, I’d turned into a damn fairy! That was why everything around me looked so big! With that thought, I soared up to the ceiling. Don’t even ask how — I just wanted to go up, and I went up.
Depths Teleportation hadn’t cooled down yet, and there was no way to get Crag out without it…
“Hey, little one,” I heard from below. “Come down, we need to check your status.”
Tierz the hobbit from Excommunicado gestured for me to fly to him, offering a gold coin in his other hand. The little True Flame Spirit smoldered beside him.



Chapter 2. Plan B

While I furiously tried to come up with a way out, the hobbit’s signal amulet buzzed. “Tierz, we’ve found the dwarf Gonzo and checked him. He’s clean. Tell banger he’s an elephant, ha-ha-ha!”
“Got it, thanks. I won’t tell Banger anything, he’s already sick of your lame jokes.”
“Alright, alright… Listen, the boys outside are wondering who we’ve taken. Is it really the guy with potential A?”
“No,” the hobbit answered, frowning. “I can’t tell you, the elders have forbidden it for now…”
Without listening to the rest, I seized the moment and flew to the end of the hall, where I started watching Tierz and what was happening with Crag.
The hobbit seemed to have gotten on my case for formality’s sake. What threat could a level one fairy be anyway? Especially since he’d already found a threat and relaxed. So without bothering to look for me, he spat and joined his celebrating comrades. The sound of corks popping filled the hall. The Elvish sparkling wine was making the rounds.
Nonetheless, some preventers stayed at the hall’s exit and kept checking everyone, even the level one noobs. Anyone who didn’t need to be there was sent packing. Judging by the voices from the signal amulets, it wasn’t just happening within the building, but around it too.
By then, they’d brought Crag to a registration desk and started processing him. I carefully flew closer and hid underneath a huge chandelier covered in lit candles, then messaged the guys to tell them what was happening. I decided to try and listen to what Yary was saying:
“Don’t do anything stupid, kid,” one of the Modus leaders said with an arrogant grin. “We know all about you: Tobias Asser, sixteen as of yesterday. You live, to put it mildly, in privation. Your parents are about to lose their citizenship. Do you want the same for yourself?”
“No,” Crag shook his head. “But I won’t get shit if you eliminate me. I just built up a little threat, you can’t particularly climb with that…”
“You’ll climb, Toby,” Yary clapped him on the shoulder. “Just not now. All in good time. We’ll take care of your future…”
Crag grew thoughtful. Or he was waiting for me to do somehting. He held the registration sheet in his hands, but seemed in no hurry to confirm it. The scribe waited patiently.

Crawler, level 31 mage, and his group (Bomber, level 31 warrior) want to join your group.
Accept? Decline?

I accepted the request and told them what was going on, hoping that the three of us could think of something. The answers came quickly:

[19:48] [Group] [Crawler]: I’m on cooldown too. But Bomb can get us all out. The important thing is for us to be close by, otherwise the teleport won’t catch you.
[19:48] [Group] [Bomber]: The trouble is those damn preventers are chasing everyone off, and the guards are helping them! We’re a ways off the town hall.
[19:48] [Group] [Crag]: Do something!

Apart from the group chat, my direct message tabs blinked. I answered at once.

[19:49] [Private] [Crawler]: Scyth, get yourself out! It’s too late for Crag! We’ll help him level back up later.
[19:49] [Private] [Crag]: Scyth! You close by? What do I do???
[19:49] [Private] [Scyth — Crawler]: Stick to the initial plan while there’s still a chance. We have to get him out! Anyway, I doubt I’ll pass their checks. It’s still me inside here.
[19:49] [Private] [Scyth — Crag]: I’m close. I can see and hear everything. Stay calm and stall for time, Toby. Depths Teleportation is on cooldown for now.

With a slight hum, a Dome of Silence formed over the section of the hall around Crag. The mage had spared no mana in making it large enough to cover all the interested parties, and fortunately for me, I ended up under the dome too. And of course, I could have sat there until the preventers left, but I didn’t like that idea. Crag and I were far from friends, but I’d promised to help him. Even his threat to give me up if he got eliminated didn’t bother me. The important thing was keeping my word.
In the meantime, Yary continued trying to win Tobias over.
“Think about it. I can’t speak for the other preventers, but I guarantee on behalf of all Modus that we will automatically accept your next character into the clan. And that means equipment, boosts, help with leveling up, a paycheck.”
“Why are you messing around?” a gnome mage said, the level three hundred and seventeen Niu Lu from Azure Dragons. “You…”
Yary shot a glance at the gnome and he shut his mouth. Modus itself had respect, but its leaders commanded even greater respect and fear. Yaroslav-Yary wasn’t the chief, but he was practically second after the clan leader Hinterleaf.
“Toby, this offer is available for ten seconds. We’re going to kill you anyway, only on top of that, you won’t get anything in real life either. You can forget about a career in Modus too. I don’t want to brag, but you must know what we can offer…”
“Are you the ones that hired those inwinovas that wanted to kidnap me?” Crag interrupted him, raising his head.
“We don’t work so crudely, kid. That was one of the losers who aren’t here. Finish the registration! The time has come…”
I made my decision. I messaged Crag, told him to agree with all the conditions, that we had it all under control. Then, yet again thanking the game designers for the abundance of columns in the hall, I dropped to the floor behind the nearest and switched back to my true form.
“Hey, Yary!” I shouted loudly, emerging into full view. “Remember me?”
The preventers reacted instantly. I heard the ringing of weapons materializing, the flashes of spells preparing.
“Who the hell are you?” the gnome Niu Lu said, the first to collect himself. “A noob? That way!”
He pointed at the scribe desks beyond the perimeter. Fortunately, Banger wasn’t there to recognize me. A gnome from the Azure Dragons moved toward me, but Yary stopped him, putting a hand on his shoulder and addressing me.
“Remind me… Where do I know you from?”
“The Junior Arena. Our team won the final, and you asked me to get in touch with you after I left the sandbox.”
“I said that?” Yary asked in surprise.
Well, that made sense. For him, that was just a short episode from three months ago, after which I’d made no effort to be remembered, for obvious reasons. I knew his real age — well over forty — but the character, a Bogatyr-class human, looked fifteen years younger. Unlike many, Yary had kept his appearance.
“Yes. Apart from you there was Ye Xiu, also known as Glyph, from the Azures. And Yagami from Mizaki. And some other top player…”
“Some other top player!” Reyman grumbled, a human paladin at level three hundred and forty seven. The same one I’d transformed into on my way to the scribe. “Get rid of him, we don’t need him!”
Yary didn’t like that. I don’t know what his relationship was with Reyman, or with the Azures in general, the leading clan of the Asian cluster, but the right-hand of Modus answered defiantly.
“No, let him stay.” He took a step and shook my hand. “Sorry I didn’t remember you right away, Scyth. Stay close. You have potential, but Hinterleaf has the final say. I’ll set you up a meeting…”
He turned to Crag, but before continuing to pressure him, he turned back to me again.
“You ever seen a threat being taken care of? Now’s your chance.” Yary glanced at Tobias. “Isn’t that so, kid? Come on, Toby, don’t drag this out.”
I joined the group pressing Crag against the desk. He quickly turned around to glance at me, and I blinked fast. Taking a deep breath, Tobias confirmed the registration sheet. Thank the Sleepers, he hadn’t forgotten to hide his allegiance to the Awoken, otherwise it would have all ended there.
“Welcome to Darant, Crag!” the scribe bellowed as if nothing was amiss. “Next!”
We left the town hall in a long procession. The crackling sound of preventers teleporting in continued in the square. Ordinary players were coming in too, but they were immediately escorted off the square. They complained, of course, but quickly calmed down when they got a coin or two. The preventers had to be given their due — they spared no expense in smoothing out public opinion. I remembered too well what a whole gold piece meant to a noob.
It seemed Yary had completely forgotten about me, but when he saw the minotaur — and clan leader of the Azure Dragons — Glyph appear and greet me, he called me over and told me to stay close.
But then everything got messy. Since it wasn’t possible to harm Crag in the heart of the capital, the preventers had planned in advance to perform the threat-banishment ritual in neutral territory. After all, their alliance included not only Commonwealth clans, but also clans of the enemy Dark Empire. However, the precise location of the ritual was kept secret, and the leader of Modus, Hinterleaf, was preparing to open the portal there personally.
The royal guard cordoned off the square in front of the town hall. Apparently, based on the danger of the threat, the authorities were working together with the preventers, creating as favorable a situation as possible for them.
The top players started summoning flying mutants, and one after the other they launched up beneath the clouds.
“Koba, take this guy with you,” Yary said, turning to me. “Scyth, fly with him.”
“Can you find space for two more? A couple of guys from my team are here too, but they got turned away.”
Yary weighed something up mentally, then nodded.
“Alright. Tell me their nicknames, I’ll give the order to let them through. They’ll have to be quick though.”
I watched my friends appear from thirty meters up, sitting behind Koba on his Golden Gryphon. Crawler ended up on a Battle Hippogryph with a beautiful elvish woman in the saddle. Bomb was less lucky. He found himself on the tail of a long, sinuous Flying Snake, which regularly threw him up and down in flight. It looked like the snake’s rider was spurring the mount on and laughing, and that Bomber, somehow staying on by grabbing onto the saddle by his teeth and all his limbs, was a fine example of striving to survive at any cost.

***

None of us were able to grab Crag with Depths Teleportation in flight; the mounts were spread out too far apart.
Even at the ritual place, he was too far away, surrounded by high-level players. He was immobilized with a few control spells, and three battle ‘stars’ from Modus, the Azure Dragons and Excommunicado guarded him. Two leaders of the Children of Kratos also joined them.
A minute after we arrived, warriors from the other members of the Alliance started pouring out of portals, including neutrals and the Empire. I immediately recognized the mighty orc Horvac, the clan leader of the Travelers. His clan was the strongest among the dark factions, and he himself was so renowned for his eccentricity in real life that he never left the gossip column. Horvac, Glyph from the Azure Dragons (also well known as Ye Xiu), the Colonel from Excommunicado and, of course, the head of Modus, Hinterleaf — these were probably the strongest players in the world. The Solo Adventurer Dek might have been catching up in levels, but in strength, opportunity and influence, he was no match. The very strongest was still the former Modus member Magwai, the druid animalist. That player, after reaching the Resilience cap, declared that he was tired of Dis and had decided to take a year off.
The gorge we flew into wasn’t far from Darant, close to one of the Battlefields. It was getting dark, but the sheer mass of magic all around meant we could see as clear as day.
Formally these lands belonged to the Commonwealth, but that was no barrier to representatives of other factions showing up there with impunity. Of course, outsiders would be subject to attacks from NPCs[1] in any territory, and if the level allowed it, then from players too. Global PvP wasn’t just encouraged with the chance of equipment dropping from defeated opponents (even bags with one-hundred percent protection against losses were no guarantee), but also by Marks of the Valorous and Honor Points. The Commonwealth considered hostile even neutrals who belonged to neither of the strongest factions in Dis: the Commonwealth and the Empire.
And now the gorge was packed with top players from the Alliance of Preventers, which included ten clans: four from the Commonwealth, four from the Empire and two from the neutrals.
The best of the best from billions of players swarmed, gleaming with auras and buffs. Their mounts and battle pets roared, shrieked, growled, chittered. Giant spiders and preying mantises, dragons and lizards, bears and walking trees, phoenixes and dire wolves, hellhounds, elementals, demons, succubi, golems, rattling gnomish tanks and gyrocopters…
Someone summoned a fifty-foot tall Bronze Colossus, and someone else responded with a Tree of Life just as large. The mass of people shrank back from the giants, and Crawler and I were pressed against the walls of the gorge. Bomber had been swept off to the side, where he was talking animatedly in Chinese to a girl from Azure Dragons.
Thirty paces from me, the leaders of the Alliance argued bitterly — something was wrong. Thanks to the strange acoustics of the gorge, I could hear them just fine.
“I demand that any superfluous troops be withdrawn immediately!” Horvac shouted.
“You say that after bringing your own here?” the grey-haired miniature gnome Hinterleaf answered harshly. He rolled his Rs, giving away his Russian roots. “Where is the logic? We have a saying for this where I am from — a guilty mind betrays itself!”
“The dark ones are definitely planning something!” Glyph declared. “And the neutrals along with them!”
The Colonel, a mighty goliath[2], gave some hushed commands to his officers. Another portal opened a few seconds later and Excos streamed out of it, no fewer than ten stars. Seeing this, the others activated too. Within a few minutes, the concentration of high-level players per square foot in the gorge broke the record for the entire history of Disgardium.
“Yes, Horvac, the allies are right,” Yary said quietly, but I and all the others heard him just fine. Moreover, when he fell silent, so did the others. “We’ve been guarding the threat, and that’s why we brought more than the agreed number of stars with us. But our people were meant to leave the gorge as soon as…”
I got distracted before I could hear more. The familiar voice of the lopher Banger made me sweat.
“Tierz, look who I found!” Banger rumbled, pushing his way through to me. “I was wonderin’ where he got to!”
Frowning, Hinterleaf clicked his fingers and all the leaders were covered in a shield of a nature I didn’t recognize.
“Distract him,” I whispered to Crawler, pointing out Banger with a glance. “They wanted to check me, but I slipped away.”
I’d need to walk thirty paces to get close enough to catch Crag in my teleportation. I started trying to get closer to him.
Bomber wrote that all the arriving troops of the preventers were buffing each other and forming battle parties, and not by faction, but by clan. A storm was brewing.
The pressure beneath the dome grew as well. Yary and Hinterleaf stood back to back. Glyth was telling them something while the neutral clan leaders whispered with Horvac and the heads of the other dark clans. The same was happening around Crag: five Modus members closed ranks with some Dragons, Excommunicados and Children of Kratos, defending the threat from the rest.
This is our chance! I wrote to the group. Let’s push through to Crag. Whoever makes it leaves with him.
The atmosphere of mutual distrust was rising to a point of no return. Accusations flew back and forth, and any spark could light the fuse.
And then the spark came.
“Scyth! Stop!” Banger shouted from somewhere behind.
I’m not sure exactly what the trigger was. I guess it was his attack. In a fantastic display of his somewhat poor intellect, the lopher threw a magic bolus toward me, thereby igniting what might be the most chaotic slaughter in the history of Disgardium. My legs were entangled with spells, but Liberation cleared them. I rushed forward, changed my voice and boomed out:
“We’ve been betrayed!”
The trick worked. The rank and file troops behind me cast defensive auras and magic shields around themselves; flasks of battle elixir popped open all over the hall, flaming blades hissed, battle staffs crackled with energy. A veil of fire covered me — Crawler’s Fire Shield. I felt great regret in that moment that I hadn’t had time to hand in my quest and get Behemoth’s rewards. Not only that, but I hadn’t activated the crystal I got from Big Po, the eliminated threat! Whatever happened, that would have come in handy!
I summoned my pet, the Swamp Needler Iggy, and ordered him to stay close. Banger’s attack actually worked in our favor — the stats of all the group members flew up, multiplied by seventeen. My pet was no exception. I’d already gone through this during the outbreak of the Destroying Plague, when Crag, Infect, Tissa and I cleansed the streets of Tristad of the undead, so I wasn’t surprised when I grew, became stronger, felt my shoulders broaden and energy boil within me.
Without getting caught up in the fight, I kept pushing my way toward Crag until I hit the impenetrable barrier of the dome. I was still too far from my clanmate. Judging by the minimap, Crawler and Bomber were far behind me.
Hinterleaf shouted something beneath the dome in the meantime, calming his allies down with gestures. Yary stood behind him, Glyph and the Colonel stood at either side. Two Children of Kratos pressed against the wall of the dome. They were a strong clan, but their leaders were known for their entirely non-combative talents.
It seemed Hinterleaf’s entreaties had no effect. Horvac shouted something, and a cloud of toxic yellow smoke filled the dome. Fire and lightning flashed within it, and a few seconds later Hinterleaf’s magic dome broke with a crystalline ringing, flying apart in a barely visible shower of glass, injuring those nearby. A fair share hit me; sharp shards pierced my chest and shoulders. I had to pull them out, tearing my flesh.
“Plan B!” Yary shouted into his signal amulet. His voice boomed throughout the gorge. “Plan B!”
Hinterleaf, an illusion mage, created ten copies of himself and left them to help, while he himself blinked to a small cliff above us and raised his arm, baring his teeth in a sinister grin. He held a black scroll in his hand.
Everyone started fighting, but all with the same goal — Crag. All present wanted to kill and eliminate him as a threat, and they no longer cared about the Alliance or clan leadership. The victors would write the story.
The aftereffects of mass spells flooded every inch of the gorge. The ground beneath my feet shifted, turning into a mire. Venomous predatory plants grew from the rocky surface. The air burned with frost one moment, then melted armor the next. Ultrasonic waves from a tower summoned nearby tore off chunks of equipment and flesh, ripping space itself. One of the feet of the monstrous colossus crashed down mere yards from me, crushing several players at once. The snaking branches of the Tree of Life strangled everyone they could reach. A few different types of mist scorched my nostrils, throat and lungs, and I held on only thanks to Crag’s talent. The debuffs started stacking up perilously, but I only had another ten feet to go.
In the fury over betrayal, everyone fired off everything they could against friend and foe alike. Expensive scrolls and last-chance weapons were spent in their dozens and hundreds. Nobody saved their ultimate abilities — top players died trying to take with them whoever they could.
Gnomish tanks fired off cannons into the crowd. One of the shells flew into the melee around Crag, and the people there thinned out. Someone had placed an Invulnerability Bubble on Toby himself, and that saved his life.
The light players around him had beaten back both the dark ones and the neutrals with the help of Hinterleaf’s illusions, then started on each other.
Yary used Sprint to ram into the back of a former ally from Children of Kratos, waved his two-handed sword to cleave someone else in two, then shielded Crag with his body. A mage standing nearby opened a portal. With a dull squelch and its structure sparking with veins of blue and green light, the portal swallowed up Yary, Crag and the only Modus fighter still on his feet. The mage who opened the portal didn’t make it in, stunned by a rogue from behind, then exploding in a shower of blood.
Hinterleaf, sure that his boys had escaped with the threat, threw a couple of deadly area-of-effect spells into the crowd. But there was far worse to come.
“Armageddon!” the Modus clan leader shouted.
The black scroll in his hand crumbled into soot and dust and he disappeared from the cliff.
The sky lit up with blinding light. As the meteor fell, its growing roar burst eardrums and shook brains. I cast Stone Skin and rushed toward the portal.
At first Bomber got covered in the crumbly, rusty flakes of something poisonous and huge, and neither his increased defense nor his legendary ring helped him, because the colossus stamped on him immediately after. Crag’s boost disappeared as soon as they carried Toby through the portal.
My view of the glimmering passageway disappeared upwards, and I suddenly fell flat on my face. Someone had cut off my legs with a poleaxe, slicing my life down to a few percent and leaving a Bleeding debuff. Hearing my heartbeat heavy in my ears, I crawled to the portal. Only my extremely high Resilience kept me hanging on. I don’t know what I was hoping for. I was too used to my undead curse, so I had no healing potions. And nowhere to put them anyway.
There were about six feet left to crawl to the portal. I knew I was going to die. Didn’t have a clue where they’d revive me: I wasn’t bound to Darant, hadn’t really had time. And I doubted they’d return me to Tristad.
Acid burned my vocal chords. I couldn’t waste any time chatting, so I just hoped that Ed wouldn’t let me down. In vain.
Crawler got caught in someone’s spell and failed to get out of the impact zone. Then he got Fear cast on him and the effect made him run clean away from the portal. A few moments later, his avatar in the group interface flashed red for the last time, grinned out a skull and turned grey.
Someone’s leg flashed from the side and I jerked out my hand and grabbed it. Its owner dragged me forward and a little to the side a step or two before he realized someone had grabbed him. The heavy metal toe of a boot struck my chin, wiping out the last of my health. A fraction of a second before that, I activated Ghastly Howl. It didn’t work because of the level difference, so then I set Iggy on the attacker.
The meteor from Hinterleaf’s Armageddon crashed into the center of the gorge. All color faded, all shadows filled with the blinding light of a nuclear explosion. I was ripped from the ground in unimaginable heat and thrown through the closing portal at an insane speed.



[1] An NPC, or Non-Player Character, is a character controlled by a program or artificial intellect, and not by a player.
[2] The goliaths are a race of gigantic intelligent humanoid creatures that prefer to live in tribes in nature (mostly in the mountains). The race’s name refers to the biblical myth of David and Goliath.


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Release - January 9, 2020




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