Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones, book 2

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones - 2
by Dem Mikhailov

Release - May 29, 2020

Chapter One
The Red Demons. Dark Tidings on a Sunny Day. The Trembling Earth. Angels in a Nosedive.
I’d almost reached Mossy Hills when I saw the battlefield covered in “bodies” straight ahead of me and pulled hard on the reins to stop Sist.
I turned my steed aside, and, having moved some 60 feet away, exhaled with relief. That was a close shave. I stayed in the saddle, examining what had recently been a battlefield, calling myself every name under the sun as I did so.
Noob! Moron! Wide-eyed idiot! How could I possibly have forgotten to take something absolutely essential for a traveler along?
A spyglass!
My kingdom for a spyglass! In Waldyra it was imperative to have one handy.
Alternatively, you could buy the Eagle’s Eye—a relatively inexpensive spell that served the same purpose, but sapped away at your mana. Additionally, observing the terrain through a spyglass (or with the aid of a spell) gave one a specific achievement—you became an Observer. I never cared much about these achievements before. However, now that I had a diamond account, they gave me pretty decent bonuses. There were also many skills that could enhance one’s observational ability tremendously. A player with a well-selected and leveled-up set of skills could see a lot—not quite X-ray eyes, perhaps, but the next best thing, for sure.

Still, that was neither here nor there. If there was anything like a spyglass in the Mossy Hills, no matter how poorly-made, I’d definitely buy one. In the meantime, I only had my naked eye to rely on.
The road was dusty and narrow, and the village stood about a third of a mile away. There were at least three dozen wagons by the roadside and on the road itself; some smashed to pieces, others still burning. The ones that hadn’t burned all the way through had some mark drawn upon them—something resembling a capital T or a hammer standing vertically. The wagons looked like they’d belonged to a small trader train. No beasts of burden could be seen anywhere—the attackers must have taken them along or killed them. There were players as well as locals guarding the train, since I could see about two dozen silvery blobs of mist suspended above the ground. Come to think of it, the guards may have been players exclusively—that would all depend on who’d been the owner of the luckless train. It was no longer possible to surmise the classes or the races of the “deceased” players, but it must have been a mixed team specializing in defense. Still, they’d failed in their task, and got wiped out completely.
The identity of the attackers wasn’t much of a secret—there were red birds circling the pillars of smoke, their many voices cawing hoarsely as they hovered above the bodies of the slain. The utterly incongruent color of their plumage did not deny the fact that they belonged to the Corvus corax species. Ravens. Blood ravens were a trademark of the Red Demon killer player clan.
The ravens’ purpose was mockery and intimidation, of course, but they were also a trap. Anyone who’d dare to come closer and cross the invisible border would instantly be attacked by the whole conspiracy—the ravens would come after you just like so many Stukas. A beefed-up high-level player could probably fight them off, but it wouldn’t be easy—especially considering that their claws and beaks were doused in an unidentifiable and very strong poison, another trademark of the Demons. No looter would be able to take anything from the “corpses” of slain players, including their owners—the same Hitchcockian scenario awaited everyone.
Newbie players would often fall for such traps before they developed a proper appreciation of the grim realities of Waldyra. They would see something that interested them and rush right towards it, hoping to grab some money or a valuable item for free, and ending up biting off a lot more than they can chew ultimately, coming to their senses at the respawn location, completely naked and with lots of unpleasant memories involving dozens of beaks and sharp claws rending their flesh . . .
A conspicuous enough sign with a perfectly clear message has been left behind for absolute idiots unaware of the killer clan’s trademarks and incapable of appreciating the scale and the magnificence of their deeds—you’d have to be blind to miss it. There was an enormous stake of red copper driven into the center of the battlefield, sporting a black banner with edges of crimson red. It was too far away for me to make out the details, but I’d known what I’d see there, anyway. Right in the middle there would be a black raven with its wings spread wide perching on a bloodied human skull, with the legend Red Demons in black lettering over the crimson top side. The lettering on the bottom side was a laconic mockery: “Look at our works, ye mighty, and despair.”
Information of less important nature would be specified on the very same flag, but in much smaller lettering—the “feather” that carried out the attack and the “wing” it had belonged to. Anyone willing to exact their revenge would have to waste no time on finding out the names of the assailants—they’d already been announced. One could go right after them—having what it took to do that, of course . . .
I’d ended my observations right there and urged the horse onward with my knees. That was enough sightseeing for today, and what had happened here was no great mystery.
The Demons sure had their fun.
I’d been certain it was the very squad I’d missed just a while ago so fortuitously. A quick assault making short work of the train guards, pillaging, and just as fast a retreat. Everything must have been over in a few minutes, and the job was done with great professionalism. It took me a while before I started wondering what the hell a killer player gang would be doing here in the first place. This was a backwater, after all, and they must have had more important things to do than pillage a few wagonloads of barley, corn, or some other grain . . . Anyway, none of that was my business.
I had no idea whose wagon train they’d pillaged, but there was zero motivation for me to find out. There’d been too much on my plate already. Apart from that, the irate owners of the “bodies” might have turned up any moment and dispatch me on sight, mistaking yours truly for an enemy spy. I could definitely do without any of that.

The place wasn’t very popular, by any account. I’d only seen three players in passing on my way to the center of Mossy Hills.
The owner of a small village store greeted me exuberantly. His shop probably didn’t get many patrons, and any buyer coming in must have been quite an event. Few players ever visited such remote locations, and fewer still parted with any of their money here.
“Come on in, good sir!” He hurried towards me.
“Good afternoon,” I bowed politely as I entered the cool and shady store. “I see your establishment is open and thriving.”
“Not much thriving going on here, I’m afraid,” the owner made a dismissive gesture. “Travelers and passersby are my only hope, but people only visit about once in a blue moon. Would you like to inspect the wares?”
“I would indeed,” I said with gravitas. “But I’d prefer to sell something first. Here, take a look at this.”
I spread all my loot in front of the trader with a flourish—namely, a luxurious deer pelt and three wolf pelts accompanied by a pair of magnificent antlers that resembled a crown. A clothes hanger for my private room would have to wait until later.
“Uh . . . Seventeen silver pieces for the lot would be just about enough,” the merchant named his price before I could take a breath.
“One gold,” I said firmly. “That’s my minimum. And I wouldn’t want to argue with you, kind sir. This lovely village certainly has a currier who’ll be delighted to get his hands on pelts of such quality.”
“All right,” the trader waved his hand with a sigh. “Nineteen silver pieces.”
“One gold piece,” I wouldn’t budge, and the man gave up.
“As you say, good sir. If such is your pleasure.”
The trophies disappeared from the counter to be replaced by a round glinting piece of metal that I instantly pocketed. Now I had some money, at least.
“Is there anything else?”
“Actually, there is. Would you happen to have any decent red wine?”
“Certainly! The finest stuff you can get in these parts! Just a silver piece a bottle!”
“I’ll take two . . . No, better three bottles, I think,” I sighed, giving back the gold piece I’d just received and taking a handful of silver coins as change.
The bottles were dusty, made of dark glass and with nothing like a label to be found anywhere. The dust could be interpreted in either way—as a sign of a well-aged vintage, or as testimony to the wine being so hideous no one would ever buy it, the bottles just sitting there gathering dust.
“What’s the wine like?” I inquired suspiciously. “I’ve a suspicion it might be on the sour side.”
“Perish the thought! As sweet as a young maiden’s kiss! Would you mind me asking whether you’re over for a visit? Could it be the widow Larkryssa, eh?” The trader gave me the complete nudge and wink treatment. “She sure is a looker still! Whew!”
“Uh . . . Actually, no, kind sir,” I grunted. “I’d been meaning to pay my old friend a visit for quite a while now. Name of Jogley. Ever heard of him?”
“Oh, of course!” The trader waved his arms. “The poor man had been a good neighbor for so many years! So that’s it . . . Now I see why you’d want a few bottles of red. He must have been a close friend of yours since you’d taken the trouble to travel this far and splurge on the wine. Just the sort for the occasion.”
“Hold on a moment . . . ‘Poor man?’ And what occasion exactly?”
“Why, his wake, of course!” The shop owner looked at me with unfeigned surprise. “We buried old Jogley just this morning. The wake is in the evening—we’ll gather together and raise a toast in his memory. He was a great old sort! Right, sir?”
“Uh . . . Sure . . .” I barely managed to bleat those two words as I pulled out the cork with my hand and took a good swig right from the bottle. Fortunately, no corkscrew was required.
I downed the bottle in no time at all as the trader was watching me in astonishment. Once I reached for the next one, I asked, just to make sure,
“When did you say you buried him? This morning, was it?”
“Indeed. At the very hour such things are done—the crack of dawn. But do not take it so hard. He’d lived a long and happy life. Now is not the time to grieve. Or did you want to make it in time for the funeral? Oh, I see . . . You must be really saddened now.”
“I am, and very much so,” I admitted glumly, taking a few more swigs from the bottle.
The shop owner had been telling the truth. The wine was indeed excellent. Having uncorked the third bottle, I handed it over to the harbinger of dire news, and told him in a hoarse voice,
“Down the hatch. In memory of the deceased.”
“Uh . . . It would be a sin to decline!” The shopkeeper waved his hand as he accepted the wine. “May his soul rest in peace!”
“Right,” I quacked into the bottle.
“There were rumors, of course,” my interlocutor leaned closer as he switched to a conspiratorial whisper. “But there always are, with the king of old gossips that live around here. Always yammering away, nineteen to the dozen.”
“What kind of rumors?” I asked, without much actual interest. My mind was in a state of utter chaos and confusion, so the chatty trader was just the person to converse with. Listening to someone who liked to talk was one of the best ways to keep dark thoughts at bay.
That damned fortune teller! I hoped her tent got swept away by a hurricane, wishing the same for her and her nosy nephew with his unsolicited advice.
“Well, you know how these chatterboxes are,” the shop owner kept on whispering, leaning towards me over the counter. “They’ve been saying the old man didn’t die a natural death! Someone’s supposed to have helped him along, no less!”
“I’ll be stuffed sideways!” I said, having adopted a less formal tone of voice somewhere along the way. “Is that what they’re saying? So, he didn’t die of natural causes, then?”
“That’s just the thing—a day before his death a healer mage gave him a full checkup, the very same one who’d cured my neighbor from hernia with just a single spell!” The shop owner’s voice sounded triumphant. “You could instantly recognize him as the real thing! A true master of the art! And an honest one, too!”
“I don't quite get it . . .” I had to admit.
“What isn’t there to get, my good man?!” The trader must have thought my inability to grasp his words irritating. “The old man’s son was very fond of his father, always worrying about Jogley’s health, so he didn’t hesitate to pay the healer whatever it had cost to examine him. So old Jogley got a full checkup—the mage said a few spells to see whether his ticker functioned properly, and what was going on inside him in general, and then said, not to worry, the patient was in great health for his years, and had many more ahead of him. Then the healer left, and the very next morning the old man was found dead in his bed! Imagine that!”
“Ri-i-i-i-i-i-ight,” I said in a long drawl, suddenly keenly interested in everything I’d just heard, trying to recollect whether locals involved in quests ever died, and coming to the sad conclusion that they unfortunately did.
In particular, this could happen if a local was afflicted by some strange disease or poisoned by the venom of some unidentified monster. Such characters could ask any player they’d meet to find a cure or an antidote in the nick of time, and would expire if it took said player too long. Other scenarios were also possible, but there was no actual quest involved here—just a very nebulous recommendation received from a suspicious fortune teller.
“That’s just what I’m telling you!” The shopkeeper whispered conspiratorially, then rummaged behind the counter, producing two more bottles of wine. “Let’s have a few more! On the house, as it were!”
“Let’s!” I agreed, reaching for a dusty bottle with a less then steady hand. The wine packed some punch, and I was beginning to lose my coordination. “So if those venerable old ladies suspect something, the general feeling of doubt is legitimate, right?”
“His daughter-in-law is the only reason anyone would suspect anything, really! Speak of bad luck! The son’s a great lad—takes care of his old man in his late years like few others do. But that wife of his is a piece of work for sure. The whole village laughs about her. Can’t cook, can’t clean—feeding the old man’s chickens is too much of a challenge to her already. And think you can make her smile at you? Pah! If she decides to throw a glance in your direction, you start hiccuping instantly! The late old man really hated her. They kept fighting—there’d be shouting and clouds of dust flying nearly every day.”
“Hold on! So the old hens are saying the daughter-in-law has done him in?” I was surprised. “Meaning that she’d been the one to have . . . uh . . . given the old man a ticket to the great beyond . . .”
“Well, who else could it be? Who could have wished death upon the old man?” The shop owner answered my question with his own. “She’s a real snake, I’m telling you! But, anyway, kind sir, it would be too late to guess or suspect right now. Old Jogley rests in peace, and can tell us nothing anymore. Unless his spirit speaks to someone from his grave, har har . . . I’d give two gold pieces to know the truth, and no mistake. We were really fond of old man Jogley. He’d have a kind word for everyone, and would always offer help. Let’s toast his memory again, kind sir . . . Sorry, I don’t think I caught your name.”
“Rosgard,” I replied.
“I’m Stevan,” the shopkeeper nodded in response. “Bottoms up, Rosgard.”
“Here’s to old Jogley,” I nodded, recollecting Stevan’s earlier words. “Unless his spirit speaks from his grave, huh . . . Listen, Stevan, if she’s really such a sourpuss, and of no use around the house, why would Jogley’s son marry her in the first place?”
“Haven’t seen her, have you?” Stevan squinted at me slyly.
“I haven’t indeed,” I shrugged.
“Well, then. You’ll get it once you do. She’s the most beautiful woman in this village. So shapely!” Stevan exclaimed, twisting his mustache with panache. “If I found myself sharing a hayloft with her for a night, I’d stay up until the crack of dawn for sure . . . heh heh . . .”
I had no interest in the shopkeeper’s lewd dreams, and got right down to business.
“Right, I get it. Stevan! How about I look into this? What do you think?”
“Look into what?” A somewhat inebriated Stevan asked, obviously not getting my drift and wiping the sweat from his brow, whether it be from the wine or his fevered fantasies of entertaining another man’s wife in his hayloft. Speak about village playboys . . .
“Well . . . I could get to the bottom of this thing—find out why old Jogley’s pushing up the daisies, and whether his sudden death had come of natural causes . . .”
“Natural, my foot!” Stevan said gruffly, banging the counter with his heavy fist and making it rattle. “I’m telling you, something stinks to the very heavens here! They wouldn’t be gossiping otherwise!”
Village gossips were apparently the ultimate heralds of truth now.
“If he died of natural causes, I won’t charge you so much as a copper,” I said in an insinuating voice. “And should it turn out that the old man did in fact receive some assistance with his departure from the world of the living, you’ll pay me the two gold pieces you’d mentioned. So, what do you say?”
“Ag-g . . . Ug-g-g-gh . . .” Stevan’s body started to convulse, the bottle fell out of his spasming fingers and started rolling across the counter, leaving blood red drops of wine behind it. “Agh . . . Uh . . . Whoa, mm-rr-gg-gh . . .”
“Stevan?” My eyes bulged as I swayed drunkenly, taking a few unsure steps back. “Stevan!”
What could possibly be afflicting these traders? There was the Crèche case, and there we were again in Mossy Hills . . .
“Agreed!” Stevan came to his senses in an instant, picking up the bottle deftly. “My, I’ve sure had a few over my limit, eh? Har har! And there you were saying it would be sour! Top notch stuff! I agree! Two gold pieces aren’t that high a price for a just cause!”
You have received a quest: ???
Investigate the death of old Jogley, the fisherman from the village of Mossy Hills.
Minimum quest completion requirements: ???
Your reward: two gold coins.
“All right,” I nodded carefully, taking a step forward and shaking the offered hand with caution. “I’ll do everything that’s within my powers.”
“So, we’re agreed, then! And trust me on this one, Rosgard—traders are stingy as a rule, but this time I’d prefer to spend my money than hold on to it! So do whatever you can, I beg of you!”
“I’ll go all-out,” I reiterated, trying on my Sherlock Holmes hat mentally. “Say, Stevan, how much exactly do you know about the circumstances of old Jogley’s death? Was there anything strange that you may have seen? For instance . . .”
I never managed to finish the phrase.
The earth rumbled, and there was a tremor—the shop’s log walls creaked with tension, and white dust started falling from the ceiling. I couldn’t stay vertical, so I fell to my knees, dropping the wine I’d never managed to finish. The bottle smashed to pieces, and there was a pool of dark red on the floor, reflecting the grimace of total surprise on my face.
“What the?!”
The next tremor was even stronger. I saw the beams sag with a loud wail above me, and dashed towards the exit on all fours, yelling as I went,
“Stevan! Outside! It’s an earthquake! Hurry up!”
We tumbled out into the street together, falling flat on our faces in the dust and keeping still, waiting for the crust of the earth to tremble again. The air was filled with frightened shouts of the villagers; the dogs in the yards were howling, and the cows were mooing in panic . . . Still, that seemed to be it. Everything else remained the same, other than the strange residual rumbles and the clouds of dust in the air that gave the impression of twilight. There were no other tremors but the first two, powerful as they were. The earthquake—or, rather, Waldyraquake—seemed to have ended successfully, and the world didn’t come to an end after all.
I waited for a few more minutes just to be on the safe side. Once I got certain my precious life was no immediate danger, I rose slowly to my feet and grumbled to Stevan, who’d still been lying in the dust,
“Get up, friend. It’s all over.”
The only response I got was the sound of loud snoring.
Stevan must have overdone it with the wine and the stress, falling asleep like a baby right there in the roadside dust next to his shop.
I groaned bitterly as I looked at the sky. Now, why did such things always have to happen to me?
The very next moment I forgot all about the shopkeeper and the rest of it. The reason was a host of the Immortal Ones diving down from the sky in what seemed like great hurry, wrapped up in fiery auras and leaving visible smoke trails. I’d first assumed they were diving right towards me, but shortly realized they’d had zero interest in this small and sleepy village.
Five of Waldyra’s angels whooshed through the skies above Mossy Hills with a roar of ripped-up air, disappearing behind the edge of a faraway forest. A muffled boom was heard seconds later. The earth did not rumble, but a dark cloud rose from the direction where the live comets had disappeared, apparently consisting of earth that got pulverized after an impact. Did they just ram into the ground at full speed, I wondered?
“Have you seen it?! Have you?!” I heard an excited yell in the street and turned around at once.
A Level 18 elf player clad in leather armor was approaching me, waving his hands excitedly.
“I have,” I nodded, still in a stupor. “What’s going on?”
“No idea!” The player shook his head and instantly proposed, “Hey! Would you look after me for a sec? I’ll just pop out for a few minutes to check out the forum. I’ll tell you everything as soon as I return, promise!”
“Absolutely!” I nodded, without having him ask me twice. “Just make sure you don’t take too long.”
“Right on!” The elf slumped down onto the ground, and his face became a lifeless inanimate mask in a second. The soul had left its virtual body, going back to the real world.
That surely didn’t happen often—he’d gotten so curious about what had been going on that he asked a perfect stranger to look after his character. Had I wanted to, I could finish robbing the lifeless body and retreat unhurriedly in a matter of four minutes or so.
However, instead of stooping to such a nefarious deed, I got the snoring Steven on my shoulder with a groan and pulled him back into the shop, placing his unresponsive body on the floor carefully. My eye roved over the goods lying on display everywhere, then I sighed sadly and got out, shutting the door carefully behind me. I may have been tempted to take something, but I remembered I’d had business here yet, and trouble with the locals was the last thing I needed.
I spent the next quarter of an hour sitting on the shop’s porch staring into space and nibbling on a stalk of clover I’d just picked as I corrected my schedule.
Death was never the end in Waldyra, and that was true for some of the locals as well, not just the players. Of course, this rule only worked in case of the really important locals—those involved in quests, or simply famous characters like barons, counts, and kings. All the high-ranking locals went to an “afterworld,” which was a specific location inhabited by spirits. Players could not reach it, but it didn’t mean that the reverse was true as well . . .
There were artifacts, rituals, and spells that could help you summon the “spirit” of a deceased local from the great beyond. However, it was impossible to coerce them into speaking unless it concerned a quest or was of some benefit to the spirit itself. Both conditions applied in my case—provided that old man Jogley did not indeed expire of natural causes.
A ghost thirsting for revenge would instantly reveal all the circumstances of its death and identify the culprit. That was my main hope. Once the vengeful spirit would launch into its accusatory diatribe, I’d only need to ask it a few questions concerning Grym’s legendary set of armor, and would hopefully receive some answers. On the other hand, if the old man died of natural causes, his spirit would most likely be reluctant to get candid, telling me to get stuffed, or altogether refuse to be summoned by a noob like me. In that case, I’d need to look for clues elsewhere.
Apart from all the trouble, I’d need to level up three or four times before nightfall at least, so that Gosha wouldn’t have any reasons to blame me for arrested development. It would be better still to level all the way up to twenty, earning some gold on my way and upgrading Ice Needle to Tier Two, where it became Ice Shard. It was sure nice to dream . . .
“You’re welcome,” I nodded, looking sideways at the elf, who had just returned. “Well? What happened? The Immortal Ones’ autopilot broke, and the brakes didn’t work, either?”
“Oh, never mind the Immos!” The player made a dismissive gesture, forcing me to move, and sitting down next to me. “You won’t believe what’s happening!”
“So . . . What exactly is it?” My curiosity got the better of me.
“Fire Hawks have brought down the Diamond Hammer dwarf egg and made a crack in it!”
Well said! I only wished I could understand that . . .
“Uh . . . Would you say that again, please?” I replied, somewhat baffled by his statement. “In terms accessible to mere mortals like yours truly.”
“I’m giving it to you like it is! The Hawks have brought down the Dodecahedron of the Diamond Hammer clan! It cracked! The forum’s discussion boards are totally off the hook! The Hammers have raised a stink to the heavens, all the Immortals have arrived, and they’re trying to establish whether it was a con job or legit gaming! While the Hammers were howling and lamenting, the Hawks got in through the crack and mopped up everyone inside. Oh, and they also robbed the clan’s vaults! They took everything but the furniture! The Hammers are weeping, banging their heads on every wall they can reach, and pulling out their hair in grief. But I don’t think they’ll have any luck with the administration. The portal has already published news about the fall of the clan’s citadel, and the forums are flooded with comments!”
“Could you be more specific? How exactly did it happen?”
“Listen here!”
The elf got on with his impassioned report, his hands moving all the time the way that would garner admiration even in southern Italy. I hung on to every word, recollecting everything I’d ever heard of the Dodecahedron and slowly going from impressed to flabbergasted. What the Hawks had done was unrivaled by any other deed in Waldyra’s history and was a legendary event worthy of a picture at every inn by any account.
The Dodecahedron was one of the oldest and best-protected clan citadels in the world of Waldyra. It was owned by the Diamond Hammer clan—one of the oldest and the richest, specializing in trade and politics, for the most part. The militant name of the clan notwithstanding, they normally avoided military action. Instead, they sold all sorts of goods or resources, loaned money at exorbitant interest rates, and bought prime real estate wholesale. Every city in Waldyra had a shop owned by the Hammers, selling excellent hand-crafted weapons and equipment, as well as myriads of artifacts and potions. The prices were steep, but the wares were worth the money.
The Hammers built their clan citadel emphasizing protection and the minimization of the unavoidable sieges and attacks. They built a monolithic dodecahedron deep underground, naming the citadel after its shape. It had no entrances or exists, and was only accessible via teleport. The construction material was a complex alloy of various metals and minerals, extremely hard even in small amounts, and the Hammers had invested an incredible amount of money into the construction, making its walls as thick as possible. Protective magical artifacts were obviously present in great abundance, too.
The citadel was hardly oviform, and yet most players would call it “Egg,” since “dodecahedron” was just too tough to pronounce. The Hammers themselves claimed they followed the Pentagon’s precedent in naming their construction after its shape.
Many clans tried to reach the underground citadel, invariably failing each and every time. And today the Hawks suddenly succeeded in their assault, although the term only applied very loosely.
The Dodecahedron was a perfectly autonomous structure that never interacted with its surroundings—it was “suspended” deep underground. The attackers used this very circumstance to their advantage.
According to the news published at the forum, the Hawks had made a tunnel, too; however, they used a novel tactic—instead of digging from the top down to the bottom, they went from the bottom up. They’d started digging a few miles away, went almost vertically down, and then headed slowly for the Dodecahedron. First they dug an enormously deep and wide vertical well underneath the citadel, and then started to whittle away at the “seal” of earth and rock that had supported the construction. The laws of gravity did the rest—once the supporting layer eventually became too thin for the Dodecahedron’s enormous weight, it cracked, and the thing fell right through, cracking from the impact with the hard rock at the bottom like the shell of an actual egg, thus doing justice to its popular nickname.
What befell the Hammers that had been inside the citadel at the moment defies imagination—I was certain few enough survived the fall and the horrendously strong impact. Battle mages had found themselves at respawn locations first—that much was obvious. The respawn location was doubtlessly inside the citadel, right next to the battlefield, but the mages would respawn naked, wearing nothing but their diapers, since all their equipment must have remained where they had been killed. This didn’t do anything good to their survival capacity and benefited the attackers.
As soon as a fracture appeared, the emboldened Hawks swarmed into the Dodecahedron, making short work of the greatly surprised guards, looted the plentiful clan vaults, took all the high-class equipment off the bodies of the slain Hammers, and, most importantly, purloined the clan’s symbol—the main treasure of the clan; an artifact giving clan players an enormous number of buffs and bonuses. It could be said that the Hawks had stolen the very heart of the Dodecahedron, shaming the famous traders for all of Waldyra to see.
The Immortal Ones left their celestial abode to heed the howls and cries of the Hammers claiming that their opponents had cheated, exploited a bug in the system, and, generally, played foul. Right at that moment, scores of epic proportions were being settled underground, at the ruins of the legendary Dodecahedron, the main objective being to find someone responsible for the whole debacle. As for yours truly, the only thing that had surprised me was the sheer scale of the Hawks’ operation. They didn’t just capture the clan’s citadel—they smashed it to smithereens, leaving the Hammers without a roof over their head. As for the traders, they’d need to focus on something other than the ingloriously defunct Dodecahedron—namely, the ransom they’d have to pay to get the clan symbol back. The Hawks would certainly demand a price steep enough to turn yesterday’s tycoons into beggars. The citadel could be rebuilt, but nothing would replace the clan symbol.
A clan symbol was a very sensitive subject in general. It was unique and could not be copied. It also bestowed a substantial amount of bonuses on the members of the clan as chosen by the clan’s leader. They could affect characters, the amount and the quality of gold and items received as loot from monsters, boost certain skills and give unique buffs. You couldn’t have it all at once, of course. The clan had to make choices from an enormous list personally, making sure they conformed to the clan’s objectives and gaming style.
The worst this was that the symbol could not be copied or replaced. Or, rather, one could make an exact copy, but it would have no beneficial effects on clan members.
The Diamond Hammer clan only had two options left—they could either reclaim their treasure by force or pay a ransom to the raiders. Fortunately for them, it only helped clan members, and only if it was placed on a special pedestal at the center of the clan’s citadel. Thus, there was no point for the Hawks to keep the Hammers’ symbol other than prestige and gloating rights.
That was certainly a story worthy of telling, and it would doubtlessly generate a lot of hype.
“Get it now?” The elf was all but hopping in excitement. “Fancy getting involved in something like that! And there we are chasing rabbits through the wilderness . . . Hot damn! As soon as I gather a few levels, I’ll apply for membership with the Hawks! As soon as I’m eligible, I’m telling you!”
“I can surely relate,” I agreed, my peripheral hearing registering Stevan the trader beginning to move heavily, coming to his senses after his short-term blackout. I was free to go.
“All right, thanks for the story, uh . . . Squeak,” I read the elf’s nickname. “I’ll be off now.”
“Hey, hold on!” The elf got all agitated. “They must be posting all sorts of interesting stuff at the forum now! So it’s your turn.”
“Come again?”
“Well, log out for a few minutes and check if they’ve written anything interesting,” Squeak explained. “I’ll watch over you in the meantime.”
“Oh, right,” I said in a drawl, throwing a furtive glance at my right wrist where the very edge of the tight-fitting silver bracelet could be seen from underneath my sleeve. “Nope, bro. I’m no longer interested. You’re free to check if you want; I’ll wait here while you’re gone.”
“Duh, what's the matter with you? Too lazy?” Squeak looked sour. “Didn’t take much out of me to go and look.”
“I’m kinda busy right now,” I said nebulously, rising to my feet. “There’s just too much to do. See you later, Squeak. Good luck, and thanks again.”
“Sure, good luck,” the elf nodded reluctantly, his eyes sliding over my forearm for a split second. I cursed silently.
I nodded my goodbyes and set forth unhurriedly, heading towards the outskirts of the village. I looked behind me quickly. The shop porch was deserted. The elf had gone, and my suspicions grew. He shouldn’t have disappeared this quickly, forgetting all about the forum and the latest news.
I sped up at once, dashing right past the wall of fences before I reached a wattle fence that was just waist-high, with rows of tall plants looking very much like corn right behind it.
I looked around, and, having made sure no one had been looking, jumped right over the fence and slipped into the wall of stalks sideways, making sure I broke none. Once I was concealed by the green wall, swaying gently in the wind, I went down on one knee and froze, observing the street through the gaps between the plants. I may have had a different character class now, but the experience of playing as a ranger came in handy every now and then.
+20 to Disguise.
This should do it. Squeak did not look like a spy, so he wouldn’t have any tracking skills. I regretted the fact of having failed to find out his character class—his hands were empty when we were speaking, and his equipment would fit pretty much anyone—light leather armor, with boots and pants made of the same material. No headgear, and a dark blue cloth sack behind his back, and that was that.
Much to my chagrin, my horse wasn’t with me. I’d found a stable as soon as I entered Mossy Hills, and handed Sist over to a friendly stable boy, having paid for a full day and given him a few extra coppers for my bay to be walked and curried well. Horses like comfort just like anybody else, and restore much more quickly in a stable than they would in a field. Predictably enough, they treat their owners better if they’re well cared-for, and tend to become less prone to nasty tricks. A tamagotchi with hooves, for want of a better description.
I spent a few minutes in the corn without seeing anyone, but I didn’t hurry to leave my hiding place. Having activated the summoning spell, I grabbed the softly-hissing snake from the ground and placed it in my sleeve. The Hedge of Thorns took its rightful place in my left palm, and the Needle, in my right. All the healing potions were sitting in my jacket pockets snugly, and my HP bar was at the maximum. So far, so good. Dang . . . I only wished I’d known this Squeak’s class.
The pointy-eared player turned up in a few minutes, albeit in a somewhat unexpected manner—I heard a rustle behind one of the taller fences made of wooden boards, one of them, which must have been loose, slid to the side, and the elf edged his way through the gap. He instantly crouched and kept on looking around.
He was armed this time. There was a short daga in his right hand, and a long, but very thin double-edged blade resembling a very narrow sword or a scimitar’s straight cousin. He was also an obvious bastard who must have noticed the mystery object on my wrist and decided to claim it as his own. What scum. He’d tried to coax me into logging out like a total mark; once the tactic failed, he decided to opt for another approach. If it came to a battle, my best bet would be to avoid a close-quarter fight and keep him at a distance—especially given that he’d be bound to have battle skills at Level 18.
The best-case scenario would be for him to simply go away. However, Squeak’s predatory face and his eyes scanning the street made that highly unlikely. This one would keep on looking until he found his quarry. Hiding in the corn forever was definitely out—I’d run into him elsewhere. I was fortunate enough to have gleaned something concerning my potential opponent.
I moved very carefully as I equipped my staff, looking at the slowly-dwindling mana points with some irritation. The snake was sure a glutton for magical energy. Fortunately, I’d just upped my regeneration, compensating for the mana expense, if only a little.
The elf, who’d been sitting near the fence, failed to locate me, cursed out loud, clearly peeved, and headed towards the other end of a street without delay, turning his head left and right. I waited until he was some thirty paces away, and slowly got into the open, staying behind the wattle fence, however, without walking out into the street. I rested both my hands on the staff, and addressed the player in a loud voice with a note of mockery in it.
“Hello there, Squeak! Are you looking for me, by any chance?”
The player turned around instantly, facing me. He threw a glance at the weapons in his hands, grinned in a somewhat embarrassed manner, shrugged, and admitted,
“That’s right. Been looking for you, o child of the corn. Have you been hiding?”
“I’ve been biding my time,” I replied in the same tone of voice. “Look, why don’t you leave me alone, really? I’ve really got other stuff to do than fight you. Lots of errands to run.”
“No problem,” Squeak grinned widely, putting the daga away with a flourish. “Just give me that weird knickknack that you wear on your wrist, and I’ll disappear at once. On my honor.”
“Hey, you’re equipped better than me already. Trust me, my knickknack isn’t worth a red status.”
“I can live with that,” the elf shrugged, then produced a miniature crossbow from behind his back in a single movement, fast as greased lightning.
The bowstring clicked dryly; then several things happened at once. The elf’s nickname as displayed over his head changed it color from peaceful green to a menacing red, and a short crossbow bolt hissed over my head only to get lost in the corn as I dropped to my knee. I’d been waiting for just that—his first hostile action. Had I attacked first, I’d have gone red instead. Now Squeak was the aggressor, and me, just an innocent victim. I could have called the guards, but the elf would have enough time to skin me alive three times over before those lazy lumps made their entrance. I’d be best off handling it myself.
Squeak did not recharge the crossbow, throwing it to the side and dashing towards me, eager to get close the sooner, the better. The little rat must have had some experience.
The Hedge of Thorns made no sound as it appeared in Squeak’s way, enveloping him in its gentle embrace and stopping him from getting any farther. Another Hedge appeared around the first, capturing the elf from the front and from behind in a wall of very prickly vegetation. Squeak, still processing said fact, let out a loud curse as he jerked back and the sharp thorns caught him under his knees. That was when my first Ice Needles hit him in the face and in the chest. I’d been aiming for his exposed neck, hoping for a crit, but it was a good enough result, given the distance.
“You’re a mage!” yelled an irate Squeak, grabbing a vial of potion from his belt and downing it. “A mage, dammit!”
Who did he expect, a parakeet with tits? Of course I was a mage!
The elf’s HP level was in the green again, but I kept pelting him with Needles without answering his shouts—the Hedges were still in place, too, sapping away at the enemy’s HP. Squeak flexed his whole body, dashed sideways, and broke free at the price of about ten HP. He dashed straight for me in a low crouch.
“You’re dead, Rosgard! Dead!”
A Hedge . . . I missed.
Another one. And I instantly cast yet another, somewhat to the side.
Squeak evaded the first thorny bush that had appeared underneath him in a single graceful move, ramming right into the second Hedge that caught him by his feet. He lost his balance and fell face first—right into the third Hedge I’d cast, virtually depleting all of my mana. I cast that one running, taking giant leaps towards my downed opponent.
As soon as I got near Squeak, him still trying to escape from the deadly thorns, I leaped up and roared as I brought my staff down on my enemy, aiming at the head. The elf blocked the blow with his right arm. His HP level was back in the yellow. The strange sword’s blade flashed above the ground, scraping my ankles. I dodged the daga that he threw at me, jerking my whole body away to one side, then grabbed my staff as a club and started to pummel at my enemy, virtually driving him into the ground. The yelling elf swung his sword around, occasionally getting me, but I kept my tempo up, even though I’d already been in the yellow zone.
“You swine, Rosgard! Take that! And that! Die!” Squeak kept on yelling, while I stayed silent all along.
I dealt him another blow, and then leaned backwards, swinging my hand up swiftly and hurling my adder right at Squeak’s face. The gray snake flew through the air, hitting the elf in the chest, and instantly wound itself around its neck like a tight scarf—perhaps, one that was just a little bit too tight. The elf, who’d been trying to shout something, could only emit a hoarse rattle as he grabbed the snake strangling him with both his hands.
I instantly took advantage of this mistake, dealing him a few quick and well-aimed blows to the head. My fourth blow activated the Skull Clangor skill for the first time, and the elf’s eyes clouded. His movements slowed down instantly, becoming weak and unsure. His red HP bar flashed for the last time, going black the instant when I ran out of mana and the snake disappeared from the “dying” foe’s throat with a soft pop.
“Don’t . . . take . . . my stuff . . . Ple-e-e . . .” Squeak never got to finish whispering his famous last words as his face disappeared inside a blob of silver mist.
“How about I do what the hell I like,” I said, furious, as I got to my knees and stuck my hands into his “body.” He sure had the nerve to swagger trying to take my stuff away, and then instantly becoming a crybaby at the prospect of parting with his own. He was free to become a killer player, but true killer players never whimpered.
I took all the elf’s possessions in one fell swoop, dumping everything into my own pack. There wasn’t much—just the money and his equipment. He must have preferred to run around unburdened.
I decided against examining my loot for a very simple reason—the nearest respawn location was in Mossy Hills, and I would very soon be facing a naked Squeak who would either attack me again in a harebrained and desperate attempt to reclaim his stuff, or start following me, treating me to all sorts of BS about how he only attacked me by mistakes, begging me to return his equipment that was certainly obtained as a result of long and hard toil. Been there, done that, got enough t-shirts for a Salvation Army shop.
 Apart from that, I still hadn’t replenished my mana. So I started away from the village, heading for the nearest forest and musing on why so many players had thought that becoming a killer player would make them rich quickly. PvP for profit was a true art, and you made the inevitable sacrifices.
I hurried—it would soon be evening, and I’d need to level up properly before I’d have to go back to old Jogley’s wake.
Damn that old coot! The nerve he had to expire so suddenly! But I wouldn’t let him go even after his death. I’d drink a toast to him at the wake, take a good look at the allegedly irresistible daughter-in-law, and head right for his grave.
I was thanking my luck and all the gods that I’d only run into amateurs so far. I wouldn’t last a minute against pros such as the Red Demons. Incidentally, I’d have to develop some tactic for fighting other mages. I wouldn’t be able to just stay put and wave my hands around with a dignified look on my face. My unassuming little snake was a pleasant surprise today—I’d need to develop the critter.
“Rosga-a-a-a-a-rd! You ba-a-a-a-a-sta-a-a-ard!” I heard a voice from a distance.
“I most definitely am,” I muttered as I quickened my pace.
This was worse than a daycare center. First a kid tries to take a toy he fancies away from another kid; when he gets a bloody nose as a result, he starts to bawl and call his mommy.
The forest was aspens and birches—all the colors were bright, and the landscape was pleasing to the eye. I kept thinking of vampires for some reason, though. Possibly, it was the creaking of the aspens in the wind.
Or was it the birches? I noticed strange wooden cups attached to some of the trees. Not all birches had these decorations, but quite a few of them did. This drew my attention, and I approached one of the trees to examine the strange contraption. The bark was pierced, with a small wooden trough inserted. Clear liquid was running down the trough right into the cup. There was nothing mysterious about it—somebody was collecting birch sap. It tasted nice, boosted HP and mana regeneration for a while, and was also a component used in many potions. I took my time watching the heavy drops that had almost filled the cup, then straightened my back and stepped away.
I instantly froze, as if running into a wall. Well, it was the next best thing—there was a young female player standing right in front of me, Level 63. She was human, with long hair the color of honey and bright green eyes observing me with slight surprise. She was twisting a small gnarly stick with a bunch of emerald green leaves at the top carelessly. All her clothes were in various shades of green, too. So that was who’d been collecting the birch sap.
“Hi,” I smiled my widest smile, and took a cautious step backwards. “I’ve only been looking. I haven’t touched anything.”
“I know you haven’t touched anything,” Stormbringer, whose nickname I’d already read, smiled in response. “That’s why I’m not touching you, either. What exactly are you doing here, kiddo?”
“I live here,” I said in a dignified voice, making a helpless gesture with my hands.
The punchline from an ancient joke got me another smile. It seemed I wouldn’t get killed right away.
“But you’re still too little. Local mobs are too serious for you . . . Rosgard. What’s your class?”
“Uh . . . The kind that deals with magic,” I said, somewhat embarrassedly. “A nature mage.”
Judging by the clothes and the weapon, Stormbringer was the same class, but way out of my league.
“I see,” the player grunted. “There’s a group of you here?”
“Nope, I’m on my own. Leveling up slowly, but surely.”
“Who’s that, then?”
I wasn’t afraid to turn my back on the young woman to look in the direction she’d been pointing. Had she intended to kill me, she would have done it already. However, having examined about a dozen birches and aspens, I noticed nothing, turning my head back at Stormbringer, a puzzled look on my face.
“There he is, hiding in the bushes,” the girl giggled as she pointed at a row of tall plants with thick wide leaves. “Give me a second . . . Level 18, name of Squeak. Judging by the color, an amateur killer player, freshly-respawned.”
“Duh,” I said with some chagrin, checking my status automatically. “That one’s following me. He’d tried to rob me a short time earlier, but didn’t succeed.”
I reshuffled my spell, placing Summon an Adder in my left palm and waving my hand gently. A modest-looking grayish snake materialized in the fallen leaves, beady black eyes glinting for a second before it disappeared. The elf had found me, after all.
“Hold on a second,” Stormbringer stopped me and whistled softly.
A giant shadow dashed through the forest, and a huge brown bear presented itself, stopping right next to the girl. The beast must have been around seven feet tall—and that was standing on all fours.
“Ursula, won’t you take care of that baddie over there?” The girl nodded towards the bushes.
The enormous beast instantly set into motion, dashing for the bushes; a scream of terror followed instantly. The bushes shook when Squeak, who’d been crouching behind them, stood up straight, and I managed to see him at last. I instantly added his name to my enemy list, and then proceeded with my scrutiny of the hapless killer player.
He was quite a sight, clad in a leather jacket reaching down to his waist, with a snow-white diaper and bare legs underneath, a dagger in each hand. He must have made it to the local inn, grabbed his stash of weapons from the private room, and then followed me, most likely intending to sneak up and ambush yours truly. I didn’t manage to make out the details of his strange and somewhat risqué outfit—the yelling elf set off, fast as any bullet, chased by a roaring brown bear. Whoever had said they couldn’t move fast must have never seen one in action—nothing short of an SUV . . . furry and with a set of formidable teeth.
A minute later we heard the echo of a loud cry and the roar of a predator about to attack its quarry. And that was the end of the pointy-eared avenger.
“Thanks so much,” I said to Stormbringer with unfeigned relief, but she just waved it off.
“I can’t stand killer players. They’d attacked me so many times when I was little I lost count. I still have to hide in the bushes sometimes,” the girl grunted. “Are you new?”
“I am,” I nodded, checking gingerly whether the jacket sleeve hid my silver bracelet well.
“It wasn’t that great a choice to play as a mage,” the player said. “A tank would be easier. Less damage, but fewer worries, too.”
I shrugged.
“You might be right. Still, things may get tough every now and then, but it’s more fun this way. Well . . . I’ll be off, then?”
“Sure,” Stormbringer laughed and thrust her hand towards me. “Here, this should help.”
A shimmering cloud of green formed in her palm and engulfed me from head to feet. Stormbringer didn’t stop there and cast another buff—this one looked like a cerulean cloud.
“The first one slows down the rate at which you get tired, and the second boosts mana regeneration,” the young woman explained. “I’d have cast a few more, but they don’t last long, while you can count on these to stay active for three hours. Got it?”
“I have! Thanks a lot! Oh, by the way! Stormbringer, have you heard about the Red Demons already?”
“I haven’t. What about them?” The girl instantly became alert. The killer player clan was known to everyone in Waldyra.
“I spotted them nearby,” I said. “A mounted group. They’d raided some trader’s wagon train right near the entrance to Mossy Hills. They may have gone away already, or they might not. So make sure you’re careful—you know how they like to play fast and loose, and what vile tempers they have.”
“Gotcha. Thanks for telling me, Rosgard. So me and my girl will just hide away in the bushes for the time being,” the player grunted and took a step towards the bear who’d just emerged from the bushes. “Ursula, darling, have you had your fun? Oh, who’s my cute little girl, my sweet little cub, my teddy-weddy, wild and unkempt, hm-m? Who’s got the cutest little nosey-wosey? Who’s got the cutest little ears?”
I watched Stormbringer speak to the gigantic animal in baby talk for a while, shook my head in surprise, and headed onward, towards a clearing that lay in front of me. There were bound to be decent mobs there that wouldn’t present too much of a challenge. I only hoped I’d never run into a teddy like the one Stormbringer had, or my diaper would instantly get soiled.
The bear wasn’t a summoned beast, either—it was a real companion, just like my Sist, and having such a companion cost a mint. And I haven’t even started on the incredible amount of effort required for bringing up a friend and partner like that. In the beginning you’re saddled with a tiny cub, virtually helpless and not too bright; absolutely useless and a constant nuisance. You have to watch out for it so that it doesn’t get killed, you cannot leave it at a care center or in your private room for too long, and you can’t feed it just anything. However, once the clumsy little ball of fur grew into a snarling beast, a player’s life became a lot more fun—they’d gain a powerful protector, a sturdy mount, and a loyal friend all in one.
The flower-covered meadow didn’t disappoint me. The instant I took my first step out of the thicket, I came across a few peppermint plants, which I instantly collected and stuffed into my pack. My snake rustled past me, and waved its tail goodbye as it disappeared in the tall grass. I took a look at my mana level, which stayed the same, and decided against banishing the reptile as I headed in the same direction. The buffs I’d received boosted regeneration, and it was the first time I didn’t have to bother about my supply of mana for a whole three hours, when I’d originally planned to spend a maximum of two on individual improvement.
Some strange Level 16 critter became my first victim. It resembled a porcupine the most, which made it look out of place in a birch forest. It had a narrow snout without anything remotely resembling eyes attached to a disproportionately long neck, and long needles jutting out of its back all the way to its tail, which was more like a flexible and spindly mace. When I noticed this uncanny beast, it was digging in the ground with enthusiastic grunts, paying no attention whatsoever to anything happening around it.
I took advantage of this circumstance as I sent three Ice Needles, one after another, into its trembling plump rump. The spindly creature screamed ear-splittingly as it turned around, and I was surprised to realize it did have eyes—namely, a single bloodshot eye glaring furiously on its absolutely naked leathery chest. And it was some glare for sure . . .
I’d never come across anything like this beast. The administration must have decided to have more fauna diversity and introduced a new species.
The mob tilted its whole body forward suddenly and waved its tail as I hurried to fall flat on my face, managing to cast Hedge before I got horizontal. A few spindles buzzed over my head heavily as the beast found itself inside a thorny bush. I hastened to add a few more Hedges, encircling the mob completely. The strange porcupine kept dashing this way and that, trying to disentangle itself, but it didn’t forget about me, either, striking me with portion after portion of bony needles every now and then.
I turned my head a little, only to see the adder who’d been basking in the sun without a worry in the world, looking at me with its tiny beady eyes lazily.
“What do you think you’re looking at, you swine?” I hissed as I pressed myself into the ground, feeling like there were shells falling left and right. Protect your master! Attack!”
The adder started towards the raging mob unhurriedly while I fired back as I kept on erecting barricades of thorns. The snake slid through the hedge; a second later, the porcupine grunted in unfeigned surprised and fell to the side, its tangled front hooves jerking in the air—if you could call those bony protuberances hooves in the first place. I was no longer in the line of fire, which was a welcome development allowing me to get up and finish the monster off with a barrage of Ice Needles.
Your Nature Magic level is up by 1.
Command of Nature Magic: 6.
Speed of casting Nature Magic spells is up by 6%.

Your Elemental Magic level is up by 1.
Command of Elemental Magic: 1.
Speed of casting Elemental Magic spells is up by 1%.
Finally. My Nature Magic was up by another level, and I leveled up in Elemental Magic for the first time. Progressing slowly, but steadily.
The ugly creature was no longer among the living, which was also fine . . . Still, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of just how out of place this strange mob had been. It was like stumbling on a giraffe in the tundra.
Anyway, I’d get an opportunity to do my research in a second.
I leaned over the remains of the weird creature and picked up a whole bunch of stuff. A piece of “weird” meat, around twenty thin bony spindles that could be thrown at enemies, a unieye’s hide . . . Oh, so that’s what it was called . . . And, yeah, the eye itself—a bloodshot orb as big as my fist.
A unieye, no less . . .
I stashed my loot away pensively, making a mental note to converse with the mayor of the village about it—I haven’t met him yet. He might have a quest to find and destroy a dangerous creature terrorizing Mossy Hills and abducting young virgins . . . my recent victim did not quite look the part, but it never hurt to ask.

I spent the next two hours methodically killing every living creature careless enough to catch my eye. I wouldn’t leave any mob alive, no matter how low its level. There were gray sparrow-like birds, Level 5, that would become a flurry of feathers after a single Ice Needle hit. They gave very little XP, but I was dealing damage wholesale. I could afford to—my mana regeneration levels were formidable, and I didn’t need to worry about winding up dry. So I just dispatched everything I could see like a small-caliber machine gun.
Thus, ubiquitous badgers, multicolored snakes, wood grouses sitting on bottom branches of trees, spry squirrels (now, what were they doing in a forest comprised of birches and aspens, I wondered), quails sitting on their eggs, and narrow-snouted ferrets lurking in tall grass were all grist to my mill. Even the motley butterflies and the buzzing bumblebees, which gave me no XP whatsoever, were still legitimate quarry for my snake.
I saw no more deer or wolves, but that suited me just fine—they took too much time. I did see a huge bull moose once—he’d emerged from the wood all of a sudden, trampled across the clearing, and disappeared in the thicket on the other side—but prudently decided to leave him well alone. He’d flatten me with his hooves in no time at all.
Anyway, I kept on playing the part of a machine gun, meeting every movement with a volley of Ice Needles, and shooting out a Thorn Hedge every now and then. I came across a whole bunch of groundhogs that looked like travel-sized but impressively plump bears, and it took me a lot of effort to dispatch all the Level 12 mobs. I leveled up after wasting the twentieth groundhog or so, but refrained from distributing the points to save time. I also did some training with the adder, whom I kept hurling at the enemy with the battle cry “Rah!” chosen as the command to attack. It may not have sounded that great, but it was short and clear enough.
By the end of the second hour I gained another level. My Elemental Magic also went up by one, and my bag of loot became so heavy I could barely lift it. It was time to go back to the village, especially considering that my buffs would soon wear off, and that I might run into Squeak, who’d have a few bones to pick with me and the whole world by that point. Beefed-up regeneration could be a boon in another fight with an elven swordsman. At any rate, I’ve seen enough action for one day. I could raise Ice Needle and Summon an Adder to Tier Two any moment now, and my character was Level 18.
Therefore, it would be logical for me to hurry to Mossy Hills for some rest in my private room. I’d be highly unlikely to get any sleep during the night—first there’d be old Jogley’s wake, then I’d have to talk to the villagers gathered there, and after midnight I’d need to head straight to Jogley’s freshly-made grave. Then I’d grab some supper IRL and rife through the forum in search of information related to summoning the spirit of a deceased person for a conversation. I might as well take a look at the offers made to Navigator, news on the construction of ocean-faring ships and the fight for resources, and so on. No rest for the wicked, as usual.
I sighed, called the snake, which had been frolicking in the grass, and placed it in my sleeve. Then I placed the heavy pack on my shoulders and trotted towards Mossy Hills unhurriedly.
I crossed the birch and aspen wood once again, but Stormbringer was nowhere to be seen, likewise her “teddy” Ursula. The wooden cups for collecting birch sap were gone, too. She must have gathered enough, then decided to call it a day and ride her bear into the sunset.
It took ten minutes the most to get back to the village from the forest.
 Then I spent as much time carefully making my way through the peaceful and sleepy village streets, exercising the utmost caution, freezing every now and then to examine my environment and identify any possible threat. I took detours around lush flowery bushes, and tried to keep away from fences, which were perfect to hide behind if you wanted to plant a dagger in someone’s back, or shoot them with a well-aimed arrow at point blank range. Hello, paranoia, pleased to meet you.
Incidentally, speaking of arrows and other weapons . . . I thought I should sort through Squeak’s possessions and take a good look at the miniature crossbow and his strange sword sometime soon.
I all but barged into the village inn—the sleeping rooms were upstairs, with the dining hall at the ground floor. I probably gave the round-cheeked woman sitting behind a small desk a bit of a fright.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I apologized politely, switching to a slower and more dignified pace.
I was definitely safe here.
“No problem at all, sir,” the local woman replied, a beamish smile back on her face after a short confusion. “I wish you to have a good rest.”
“Thank you,” I nodded, and then inquired, stopping before the emerald green door, “Could you please tell me when the next full moon is?”
 “In three days,” the woman replied without stopping to think for a second.
I nodded again before I tumbled into my room.
I dropped my pack to the floor, sat down next to it, reclined against the wall, and pressed Exit.
There was a flash . . .

Chapter Two
The Price Keeps Growing. Real Beef in Real World. Kyre. Fun at the Wake. Sad but True.
Real world did not greet me kindly. My muscles were stiff, refused to flex, and responded to every effort to set them into motion with a dull pain. As for my back, it felt as though the very unieye I’d dispatched a while earlier had made a nest here to prick me with its spindles every time I’d move. My right shoulder blade and the base of my neck suffered the worst.
I barely managed to crawl out of my cocoon, groaning, and slumped down to the floor like a boneless blob of slime. The muscles that had just emerged from a deep slumber had no juice in them. I surely didn’t feel my age—I hadn’t even turned thirty yet—more like an octogenarian with all the ailments that go with the age. On the other hand, the cocoon has made me give up smoking . . . That meant I’d die healthy . . . and young.
I felt like crap.
 Having barely managed to get up and drag myself to the entrance hall, I realized this wouldn’t do. I urgently needed to whip myself into something resembling a human condition at least, and a hot shower wouldn’t cut the mustard here. I’d need to exercise my muscles a bit.
I grunted as I picked up the garbage bags and went out onto the landing, closing the door behind me carefully. I took a dejected look at the stairs that seemed too steep, and started to descend slowly, dragging the garbage behind me.
I barely managed to take a few steps when the door of the apartment across the hall opened, showing the prune-like face of the old lady who’d lived there. Her name was Ms. Bobrikov, she was a well-respected pensioner, and even our local constable had been afraid of her sarcasm, her insatiable curiosity, and her elephant memory. The lady was a virtually unrivaled chatterbox, too—if you forgot to zip up your trousers, the whole neighborhood would be informed no later than the very next day.
“I say, Rostie, why on earth are you holding on to that wall?” The old lady bypassed the usual greetings and wouldn’t take any quarters. Some people never seem to sleep . . .
“Good evening, Ms. Bobrikov,” I said in a hoarse voice.
I should have had a drink of water before venturing out, I thought to myself.
“And a very good one to you, love. So what’s with holding on to the wall? Had a few, have you?” The old lady was all sympathy while her eyes glinted curiously from behind the thick lenses of her glasses.
“Perish the thought, kind lady,” I hadn’t expected myself to hit on that tone of voice. “It’s that pesky back of mine—would you believe I can barely take a step? And how are you doing, my most esteemed neighbor? I hope nothing ails you? No unfortunate impediments such as ague or rheumatism?”
The old woman needed about a minute to translate my flowery greeting into human words, and then about as long to decide whether I was deadpan or trying to mock her. I managed to take four more steps downstairs, barely keeping my trembling legs from folding underneath me.
 My neighbor did not reach any conclusion, so she reached forward, revealing an old robe with a mind-bogglingly psychedelic print on it, and cooed gently,
“Oh, you haven’t been drinking, I can see that. But there’s something wrong with you—my, look at your face, it’s all gray. Did you snort something, by any chance? Or, perhaps, you shot up some of that nasty smack? Should I call you an ambulance, dear?”
You wish!” I snapped. “Ms. Bobrikov, really, have you got nothing more pressing to attend to other than spying on your neighbors and sticking your nose into other people’s business? Isn’t it time for your next series? Actually, it’s well past your bedtime!”
That old hag! Always on the lookout for free entertainment. Bread and circuses with a side order of blood. She’d be delighted to call someone an ambulance—and a black Maria to boot. Then she’d wail about the youth of today being nothing but drug addicts and drunkards, and that Stalin would definitely know how to set us straight.
 “How dare you talk to your elders like that?!” I seemed to have made the old woman’s day—she was loud enough for all the other neighbors to hear.
Reluctant to engage in further hostile activity under such unfavorable conditions I sped up and ambled downstairs at the pace of a pregnant tortoise, my head already pulled into my shoulders. I really wanted none of that! I was simply intending to take out the garbage and get some blood flowing through my muscles.
They just keep coming! And people like me have lived their whole life here!” The old lady was on fire. “And I had been working hard for a living in my day!”
What did that have to do with anything?
“I won’t take any lip from unemployed idlers!”
The old lady certainly was up to date, I thought as I reached the next floor.
“A drug-addled parasite!” The voice echoed from the concrete walls for all the neighbors to hear. They’d show their faces soon enough—it was evening, after all, and most of them would be back from work by now.
“Grandma, really!” I gave in at some point, mid-diatribe.
“Don’t you ever call me grandma! May the good Lord never curse me with a grandson like you! That would be the death of me!”
“You have no grandchildren, anyway!” I roared as I took a few more steps. Or children, for that matter!”
I regretted that instantly. The last thing I’d wanted was to trigger a lonely old lady that way. Her only son was killed in some war, leaving no offspring.
On the other hand, I’d been at the end of my tether. I never intended to get in an altercation with her. Damn! Why did it always have to be that way?
You little . . . I’d rather have no children than someone like you!”
“Well, you don’t have any, do you?” I muttered under my breath. However, the old woman’s advanced years did not make her hearing any less keen.
 “How dare you! My son died a hero! He gave his life for his Motherland! They decorated him posthumously! And you . . . You . . .” Suddenly, she sobbed, and I felt like the very scum of the earth. I really should have kept my big mouth shut.
A door creaked open as someone else decided to “break on through to the other side.” Its always the doors, one way or another . . .
“Ms. Bobrikov, did anything happen?” A low voice from upstairs sounded concerned; I recognized it as belonging to Nikolai, a forty-year-old pillar of society—he was an excellent plumber, well-loved and respected by the whole neighborhood and a paragon of virtue. He didn’t drink, stayed loyal to his wife, was always ready to help, and could fix virtually everything. The only thing he’d lacked was a pedestal.
 “Oh, Nicky, my dear boy,” the old lady started weeping. “You won’t believe what’s happening . . . I am being humiliated one step from my own apartment! My beloved dead son is being mocked . . . They say I didn’t look after him enough. Had my dear Alexei been here, he’d never have let anyone talk to his old mother like that. Oh, my poor heart is breaking . . .”
Crap. We were in for a real show. The real thing, with other people’s words put in my mouth.
“Who would dare to say something like that?” There was some ire in Nikolai’s basso now. Judging by the sound, he’d already been on the landing.
My neighbor! The drug addict!” The old lady didn’t waste this opportunity to spill whatever beans she’d had, real as well as imaginary, while I groaned in anguish. That Rostislav! My goodness! Such a good and decent Russian name . . . wasted on a scoundrel like him! There he was getting out of his apartment, all pale and blue, and, of course, I just had to ask him whether he may have needed any help—you know, he might have been ill, or had heart trouble . . . And what he said to me . . . Oh, what he said to me was . . . He’s a drug addict, Im telling you! The likes of him are best off behind bars! Nikolai, love, leave him well alone, you know how those meth fiends are. He’ll stick a knife in your back just as well as look at you . . . I’ll call the constable this instant, let him take care of it! My son was nothing of the sort! He had a real moral compass! He treated his elders with respect!”
That old battle-ax!
 I hissed curses as I ambled into the streets and headed toward the garbage container, twitching nervously. That’s how people no one would ever suspect committed murders right in their neighborhood. And speak of brain-addled neighbors . . .
I hurled the bag of garbage toward the outside container, and missed—little wonder there. I could barely control my hands, and my fingers and elbows felt like there were ants living there. On the other hand, my legs and the rest of my body were beginning to feel more or less normal.
 I didn’t feel much like going back to my flat. I moved away from the garbage containers and started to do push-ups vigorously—thankfully, my tracksuit fit the activity. I kept at it until my muscles felt alive again and started to hurt in a way that was completely different from when they hurt as a result of inaction.
I kept track of what had been going on behind the door. The old lady was far from simmering down—on the contrary, her voice kept getting louder, occasionally verging on ultrasound frequencies. Little wonder—Ms. Bobrikov was holding a strategic position, and currently had to boost her battle morale before an encounter with a hostile neighbor, namely, yours truly. She must have been applying all sorts of battle buffs, and, possibly, picking up some epic weapon such as a “Dirty Mop.” Having noticed that I wasn’t going for a walk, but rather intended to throw away some garbage, she would stay out for as long as it would take, the hag . . . She could also summon a loyal familiar commonly known as Weary Constable. Wasn’t she a sweet and friendly old lady just a few years ago? I remember her treating me to some jam-filled pastries once . . . Could that be her advanced age?
I had no time to get to the end of this thought. I was doing twists and taking deep breaths when I heard the roar of a powerful engine from the direction of the road that separated the elite gated community across from our row of decrepit 70s five-story blocks, followed by brakes screeching sharply and the clangor of breaking metal and smashed glass. The silence over our sleepy neighborhood was broken by the sound of a car horn that wouldn’t stop.
“Holy crap!” I exhaled, jumping back instinctively and falling on my behind. An accident!
I came to my senses, then got to my feet and started towards the place of the accident, obscured from my sight by the greenery.
That was odd. Our street was straight as an arrow—who could have had an accident here? I sincerely hoped there’d be no casualties. I didn’t need to bother about the ambulance—a whole bunch of windows had lit up, and there were dark silhouettes in them now. One could rest assured that someone would call the ambulance by now, and the cops as well.
That Ms. Bobrikov was a bad jinx. Could she be an actual witch? I should have asked her about the location of the other parts of the legendary set of armor. Perhaps she’d know . . .
My concern for stupid drivers instantly became replaced by paranoia and a sense of menace the instant I heard the motor that had seemed dead rev into action again, accompanied by the sound of metal being torn apart. I saw red lights flash through the green of the trees when the car that had moved back braked all of a sudden. It looked like an SUV. Then the driver hit the accelerator, sending his enormous vehicle forwards. I could hear broken glass and folding metal again. The car horn went dead. What on earth was that guy up to?
“Hey!” I yelled, frozen in place. “Are you drunk, or what? What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The driver must have indeed been drunk or high, trying to escape and failing to realize he was driving his car into the other one yet again, which ranked as attempted murder and no mere DUI.
There were no signs of life coming from the other car. What was I to do, I wondered?
Should I place my mortal and rather weary body in the way of the berserk driver? Not an option. I’d be like an ant under his wheels. He wouldn’t even notice me.
I slumped down to my knees, rummaging in the roadside dust for a rock I could use, but the only thing I found was a gnarled piece of wood that weighed next to nothing. I wouldn’t be able to use it to divert the drunk’s attention or smash his glass. Just a curved piece of wood. The twilight made it look like . . . My, what have we?
I grabbed the piece of wood with both hands, ambling onto the road, but prudently staying to the side of the enormous black vehicle that was already in reverse again. I pointed my find at the dark figure of the driver behind the glass and started to yell whatever silliness came to my mind there and then:
“Stop where you are, you bitch! I shoot first and ask questions later! You are talking to Sergeant Pronin! Get out of the car, place your hands behind your head, on your knees, and your eyes at my boots! Hop to it, or I’ll shoot to kill!”
The reaction was instant.
 The SUV revved its engine again, continued in reverse, then made a U-turn and drove off at breakneck speed, leaving a trail of smoke from burning rubber in the air. I looked at the escaping felon and yelled at him angrily,
You bastard!”
The driver was definitely drunk. But how come he drove with such confidence? He managed to turn very smoothly, even though he’d had the accelerator floored. Did the adrenaline sober him up?
I tossed away the piece of wood and rushed towards the car that had tilted to the side. Its front left side was crushed like a beer can. The silver-colored car looked like a sleek and expensive toy, even in its current pitiful condition.
I sniffed the air instinctively. There was a strong smell of gasoline. The lights were out, and the engine wasn’t running. And not a soul in sight anywhere! No one wanted to get involved, damn them all to hell.
As I reached the driver’s door, I realized one would need a metal saw to open it, and that it would take some time even in that case. The door glass was either down or broken—I didn’t pay much attention to that, concentrating on the driver. It was a burly man in a shirt that had once been wife, his bloodied head dangling helplessly on his chest.
“Hey, mate, can you hear me? Are you alive?” I couldn’t think of anything less silly to say as I leaned over. Once I saw the driver’s face, I jerked my head so hard I hit it on the roof of the car.
The driver was Gosha! Sitting right there, large as life! Judging by the bloody bubbles forming at his nose, he was still breathing. I touched his neck to make sure, but couldn’t feel anything and only got my fingers bloody.
Damn . . . What was I supposed to do now? As far as I could remember, you weren’t supposed to move traffic accident victims. But what if the car caught fire?
I straightened my back, confused, rubbing my face with the palms of my hands. Then I swung about and shouted like mad into the twilight,
“You bastards! Why are you hiding?! Call the ambulance at once! And the cops!”
“Ros . . . You . . .” I heard a mumbling from the car and turned back to the window.
“Gosha, are you alive at all? Where does it hurt? Just make sure you don’t move, man! Don’t move! You’re stuck! Remain where you are and wait for the ambulance! Got it? You’ve had . . . You’ve had an accident. That bastard on the SUV has already made tracks.”
“Ros . . .”
“I read you loud and clear, Gosha! Just hold on, bro! All right?”
“Ros . . . Shut up . . .”
“Say what?”
“Take Kyre away . . . Right now,” Gosha said in a hoarse voice, barely managing to lift his chin from his chest and looking at me with terrifying bloodshot eyes.
“Who?! Gosha, you’re alone in the car! Besides, we’re not in Waldyra, we’re in real world. Don’t worry, just stay put, will you?”
“I know we are . . . She’s on the back seat . . . Moron . . . Take her away at once if she’s OK . . .”
“You’re a moron yourself!” I roared angrily, feeling an adrenaline rush I could barely control. Hold on a second . . . Where? Did you say the back seat?”
I pulled myself back, grabbed the other door’s handle, and swung the door open. The back seat was empty, but there was someone wrapped up in a checkered quilt on the floor of the car, lying motionless.
I threw caution to the wind as I got in, grabbed the lifeless body, then took a few steps back and slumped to the ground. The body landed on me, knocking the air out of my chest. Damn . . . I sure was no superhero. The quilt opened and I saw it contained a dark-haired girl, her face right against my neck. I felt her breath on my skin and sighed with relief. I’d been thinking the body might have been dead. Well, hello there, Kyre . . .
I freed myself from underneath the girl’s motionless body, got to my feet, and shouted, rubbing the elbow I’d hurt falling,
“Gosha, it’s all fine! She’s alive! I’ll drag her to the side right now, don’t worry! There seems to be nothing wrong with her. No blood. But she’s unconscious. I’ll drag her away in a second . . .”
“No!” My burly friend’s voice sounded more confident—he was definitely coming to his senses. Speak of the benefits of bodybuilding! I’d have been dead if it was me driving, and wouldn’t you take a look at this gorilla, who could already think and talk, by the look of it. “You can’t just pull her sideways.”
“What do you mean, I can’t?” I was completely baffled, since none of what he’d been saying made any sense. “What am I supposed to do with her? Stuff her back in the car?”
“Take her with you,” Gosha said clearly and distinctly, still sitting in the driver’s seat motionlessly. “Take her to your place.”
“Gosha, are you serious? Or delirious? You’ve just had an accident. You need to get to a hospital soon! She’s unconscious! She might die any moment!”
“She’s all right . . . Just drugged . . . She’ll come to her senses soon . . . I’ll explain later. Just take her away from here, Ros. Do it right now.”
“Take her away!” Gosha yelled, spitting out clots of blood as he twisted his body. “Quick! Don’t argue!”
“You assholes, the lot of you!” I shouted, grabbing the girl in a fireman’s hold without even feeling her weight. “That’s way over the top, you hear me? Once you’re back on your feet, I’ll break your legs again! Damn!”
Once I was done, I shuffled off to my apartment, followed by Gosha’s voice.
“Thanks, Ros . . .”
“Go to hell!” I said, without turning my head.
I could hear a gurgling laugh followed by a groan. Gosha’s initial shock would wear off shortly, and he’d be in a lot of pain very soon. I should know—I had an accident once, at a much earlier age. I could only hope my friend wouldn’t kick the bucket.
As I got into the apartment block, I started up the pockmarked concrete steps, the only thoughts going through my head being, “What are you doing, you idiot? What if she dies on your hands, leaving you with a dead body to explain? In your own apartment! You’ll be done for!”
I reached my floor’s landing with many a hoarse sigh and heavy groan, driven by fear and blind frenzy, and instantly ran into Ms. Bobrikov standing in the doorway of her apartment with Nikolai standing right next to her, munching on a pastry. So it’s pastries for some and curses for others. That old hag . . . The two of them must have wanted to have a word with me so hard they’d even missed the accident.
“Now, Rostislav, look here. How could you . . .” Nikolai started talking first, but instantly checked himself, his eyes bulging as he saw the arm hanging out of the bundle.
I opened my door with my shoulder, turned to my neighbors, made an ugly face, and yelled,
“Shut up! Both of you! And get the hell away from here—you both have homes to go to. Am I clear enough?!”
Ms. Bobrikov disappeared instantly, slamming the door behind her. Nikolai’s hurried footsteps followed shortly, then another door slammed. They must be trying to beat each other to calling the cops, I thought.
“Well, Ros, you’re in deep shit now.” That was my conclusion as I entered my flat, closing the door behind me with my back.
I took a few short steps and dropped the girl onto my bed. Then I landed heavily on the floor, gasping for air. That was sure some workout.
Not bad for someone who’d just intended to take out the garbage.
Kyre groaned barely audibly, and I hastened to rise and look on her face. Her skin was pale—too pale, in fact—but the color of her lips was normal, they weren’t anywhere near blue. My father always told me that blue lips were the worst symptom. Her eyes were shut, but I could see her eyeballs move behind the lids.
Did Gosha say she was drugged? Was I stuck with an addict? I gingerly felt her head with a trembling hand for bumps and cuts. Everything seemed fine, although I was no doctor, and acted like a total dilettante. Still, her head seemed okay. There was some blood on the forehead, but it came from my hand. Gosha’s.
I’d forgotten all about him!
He must have still been sitting there in his smashed-up car, bleeding . . .
I groaned dejectedly as I rose and hurried for the door again, peeking into the bathroom en route and grabbing a few towels from the hanger. I’d toyed with the thought of taking a few aspirins along, but I swore at myself the instant I realized how stupid that was. I grabbed the keys and slammed the apartment door shut behind me. Getting down the staircase was much harder now—my feet were shaking and my knees were wobbly.
I took a shortcut across the thick decorative vegetation grown by the first-floor neighbor, treading on some flowers on my way. Another thing to answer for tomorrow.
I got through and stopped instantly, my feet digging up the soil. I could see blue lights flashing through the least. It wasn’t the ambulance—the cops got here first.
I leaned forward and managed to see a police officer inspecting the inside of the car, saying something to Gosha, while two others were contemplating the asphalt, shining their flashlights on the road, and yet another one was reporting something on the car radio. About a dozen spectators gathered nearby, dressed in whatever they could find and looking towards the smashed-up car with fascination. Damn vultures. On the other hand, one of the men was holding a portable fire extinguisher, which, fortunately, wasn’t needed, so I guessed some of them must have been all right.
I could hear the sirens wail from a long way off. The ambulance at last. I took a few steps back, getting out of my hiding place, the towels I had no use for still clutched in my hands. I stood there thinking for a second, and then set into motion again, taking a wide detour around the place of the accident and coming to the glass entrance of Gosha’s condominium. I didn’t have to knock or ring the bell—the huge frame of a guard stood right behind the door. As soon as he saw me, he flexed and reached for the strange baton hanging on his belt.
“What do you want?!” the man yelled through the glass, taking a good look at me and clearly finding me wanting.
I didn’t blame him—after all, I was wearing an old tracksuit and muddy slippers, and had a bunch of washing in my hands. There must have been blood on my hands and my face, too, so I probably looked suspicious as hell.
“There was an accident!” I interjected. “A little to the side. About a hundred paces away.”
“So?” The guy said in a somewhat less agitated voice, looking sideways at his colleague, who had joined him to investigate the commotion. “The police have just got here, as well as the ambulance. How can I help?”
The ambulance passed behind my back just then, turning a corner, its wheels screeching. The siren went silent in a second, and I could hear doors slamming.
“There’s not much you can do, I guess,” I shook my head. “However, one of the people involved in the accident lives in this building. He’s on his own now, since his wife is away. Could you notify his next of kin? I don’t have any of their contacts.”
“Name?” The other guard said in a low rumble, taking a step forward.
Not yours! The accident victim’s!”
“I don’t know his surname,” I admitted, hurrying to recollect everything I’d known about Gosha. “He’s a friend of mine, name of Gosha. He definitely lives in this building. Fourteenth floor, left of the elevator, dark brown door of polished wood. I can’t remember the apartment number . . . He works in a bank, and he drives a silver sports car . . . Or, rather, used to—it’s all smashed up.”
“Gosha? Georgiy, you mean? Georgiy Panteleyev? Serge, will you check whether he’s back?”
“It must be him,” I nodded, adding. “He’s a big guy. Over two hundred pounds. No fat, all muscle.”
“That’s definitely him,” the older guard said gruffly. Damn! Serge, whats the situation?”
“He left at half past ten in the evening, and he hasn’t returned yet,” the younger guy shouted, looking up from his computer screen. “Definitely him, by the looks of it.”
“Stay here,” the older guy ordered. “I’ll go and take a look.”
I took a few steps back, letting the guard through, and pointed in the direction of the accident spot.
“Over there. Thanks, guys. Don’t forget to contact his next of kin.”
“We’ll take it from here,” the guard rumbled as he took a look around, satisfied to see I was alone and there was no gang of thugs around the corner. Or was I imagining things? The guard seemed like an okay guy.
“Anyway, it’s over there,” I repeated, and then trotted off, holding the towels close to my chest.
“Hey! Where are you off to?”
“Home,” I replied, without turning back. “I still have some washing to take care of!”
That was that. Enough good deeds for a single day. I must have been taken for a crazy do-goodnik, but I didn’t care much.
I no longer paid any attention to anything that’s been happening on the road. I just entered my block as fast as my feet would carry me, and somehow managed to get to my apartment’s door, supported by the railings. I found the key in my pocket with shaky hands, heard the lock squeak shortly, and tumbled into the flat, shutting the door behind me soundlessly. I dropped the towels right onto the floor, kicked off my muddy slippers, took a few uncertain steps down the entry hall and peeked into my room. My jaw dropped. Neither the quilt, nor the girl were present. The bed stood empty.
“I wonder what the punchline is,” I said, and that must have been the silliest phrase of the day. Then I shuddered as I felt someone move behind me. I turned around quickly, almost catching the doorway with my face, and stared at the sight that had presented itself standing right there next to the kitchen door.
It was Kyre. Her dark hair looked matted, she was still wrapped in her quilt, her eyes were on me, and she had a knife in a shaky hand. The knife was my own—the one I used around the kitchen, the dull blade still covered with specks of bread crust.
“Kyre, it’s me,” I said softly, slowly showing her my empty palms. “Ros. Remember me?”
“Ros?” The girl whimpered, pointing the knife at me. “Prove it!”
“How?” I grunted angrily, taking a step back. “On the other hand . . . The Crèche, running from the Graver . . . Look! Isn’t it enough already? It really is me. The door is right there, if you don’t believe me. The key is in the lock. You’re free to open it and go wherever the hell you like. I’m sick of the lot of you already! First this moron Gosha demands that I take you to my flat, then I run around like a rabbit on amphetamines taking care of his business, and now that I’m home, I’m being threatened by a drug-addled maniac armed with a knife, no less! Get out! Just give me my knife back, it’s the only one I’ve got.”
The girl dropped the knife—it clinked dully as it hit the floor—and started to bawl, hiding her face in her hands.
“Hey, Kyre, what gives . . .” I was completely out of my depth. “Sure, you’re free to stay, just don’t cry.”
The wailing remained just as loud. I sighed, took a step forward, and held the girl close, gingerly hugging her shaking shoulders.
There, there. Calm down. It’s over. It most definitely is. Whoever’s heard of a crying paladin? So rise, Kyrea the Protectress, high and mighty, wielder of the Checkered Robe of Power and the Kitchen Knife of terror . . .”
My monologue appeared to have helped, silly as it was. The sobbing abated, and the girl started to shake less. Finally, the words came out in a barely audible murmur:
“It really is you. Ros.”
“How did you tell?” I inquired, still in my silly mode. “By the shabbiness of my attire? By the way, feel free to gloat.”
“What do you mean, why?” I looked surprised, freeing one of my hands and stroking the girl’s hair. “You’re the only person I carried in both worlds. Incidentally, you weigh a lot less in Waldyra.”
“That’s not a reason to gloat, and I’m nowhere near heavy!” Kyre muttered. I still had to learn her real name. “You know I’m Kyrea the Protectress. The ones who’d injected me with this crap didn’t. They wanted to . . .”
“I don’t even want to know,” I hastened to interject. “Hey, you’re probably unaware of this. Gosha was driving you here on his car—most likely, over to his place. There’s been an accident. Be quite, will you?” I had to get cross for a moment, holding the girl as she jerked. “He’s alive. Most likely, on his way to the hospital right now. Before the ambulance and the cops arrived, he asked me to take you to my place. That was just what I did. Thankfully, I live just nearby. I’ll tell you the rest later. Just tell me whether you feel all right. Does anything hurt? Any ringing in your head? Any sharp pain?”
“Everything seems to be all right,” Kyre whispered. “There’s a slight vertigo and some nausea.”
“I see,” I breathed out in unfeigned relief. “But, at any rate, you shouldn’t be standing. Sit down—or, better still, lie down. You might still be in shock and unable to feel. Basically, you’d need to go to a hospital, too. For a routine checkup, at the very least.”
“Not right now,” the girl interjected.
“Right,” I grumbled.
So Gosha wasn’t the only loco around. Kyre didn’t look after herself much, either . . .
“Will Gosha definitely be okay?”
“I think so. Hey, how about a cup of tea? I even have some jam. Strawberry.”
“Are you completely out of your mind?”
“A bit,” I had to confess. “If I had any wits around me, I’d keep out of that whole business, and you wouldn’t be standing here.  So how about some tea?”
The girl never managed to answer. My flimsy door shook from a heavy knock, and there was a loud voice that definitely belonged to someone considering himself a figure of authority.
“Open up! It’s the police!”
An old lady’s voice chimed in.
“You should be careful around the likes of him! Those drug fiends are dangerous! He’ll just as soon stab you as look at you!”
“We’ll deal with it. Please return to your apartment.”
“Make sure you don’t believe anything he says! I’ve seen the girl myself! She was wrapped in a quilt or a checkered blanket. Dark hair, I think. Her arm was hanging down! She was lifeless!”
“We’ll deal with it!” the policeman rumbled, reiterating. “Ma’am! Please return to your apartment.”
Crap. Ms. Bobrikov, you old lizard. May all the neighborhood cats pee under your door forevermore.
“Who is it?” the girl whispered, leaning away from me.
“Can’t you hear?” I replied in just as low a tone. “The cops! My neighbors spotted me when I was taking you here. And you looked rather poorly, to say the least! They must have decided I was a sexual predator—or, perhaps, that I freelanced as a taxidermist, Norman Bates style. Damn!”
“Open up!” The door shook twice as hard. This time it must have been a fist—or a boot.
“Stay here!” I hissed, rushing to the bathroom as I shouted, “Coming! You don’t have to bang the door like that! Some of us have to sleep sometimes!”
“Open up at once!”
“I said I was coming! Am I allowed to put my trousers on?” I yelled as I opened the faucet and started to wash the caked blood off my hands. I looked at the mirror and cursed, washing my face—it had been bloody, too. Now I knew just what it felt like when cops had a killer bang to rights. All the neighbors must have been up by that point.
I jumped out of the bathroom, picked up the towels, and hastily wiped myself dry, managing to open the door before the policeman started banging and yelling again.
“Good evening!” I said, looking innocently at a bemustached policeman standing to the side of the door. He was completely unfamiliar to me—definitely not the local constable. He wasn’t alone—there were two more servants of law and order on my landing. Ms. Bobrikov’s door was cracked open, too—a pointy nose and a glint of a curious eye were visible well enough through the crack.
The policeman didn’t deign to introduce himself. He stared at me sternly and got right to business:
“We’ve been informed about certain activities on the premises . . .”
“Honey, is anything wrong?” My door opened wider, and Kyre appeared next to me, wrapped in a quilt up to her neck. Her hair was tousled, and her eyes half-closed. A naked female arm wrapped itself around my neck, and I felt a female body pressing itself against me. Oh, my ears and whiskers . . . The cops’ eyes bulged, and Ms. Bobrikov nearly fell through the door of her apartment.
“I’ve no idea,” I managed to pull myself out of the stupor, hugging the girl around her waist. “It’s the police. They say they’ve had reports of suspicious activity. But we didn’t play any loud music, or make any loud noises.”
“I want to go back to bed,” the girl puffed out her lips, making one of the policemen cough.
“Ri-i-i-i-i-ght,” the guy with the mustache said, turning around to face the opposite apartment.
I sighed with relief at the sight of his uniformed back. The fact that he wasn’t afraid to turn his back on us meant that our ruse had been partially successful at least.
“What do you mean, ‘right’? Nothing’s right here!” The old lady started to jabber. “I’m telling you, I’ve seen him bring a body into the apartment! Maybe it wasn’t her! Maybe it’s his partner in crime . . .”
“Partner in what crime?” I raised my voice. The role of an irate actor came easy to a method man like yours truly. After all, I was bothered at an inopportune moment. “So it was you who’d called the police, Ms. Bobrikov? I say! I’d never have expected something like this of you.”
“Quiet!” the policeman said, and I obligingly shut up. “We’ve been told that a body had been brought into this apartment less than an hour ago . . .”
“That much is true. This very body,” I interrupted him, painting a blissful smile on my face and nodding towards the girl right next to me. “I did bring her in. I admit to that. Is it against the law to carry girls on your hands these days? Actually . . . Why don’t you come in and inspect my apartment? There’s just one bedroom, so it won’t take much time. I have nothing to hide. With all due respect, I’d had other plans for tonight, and they didn’t involve standing outside in the cold. By all means, come in.”
I stepped aside, supporting the girl who could barely stand, to let in the cops, giving the neighbor an infuriated glare of wounded innocence.
“You give us consent for inspecting your apartment?” the cop with the mustache asked.
“Affirmative,” I smiled broadly, feeling Kyre grow heavier by the moment. I hoped she wouldn’t zonk there and then.
“Thank you for cooperation,” the policeman in charge said curtly, nodding to the others.
The policemen’s boots made a loud noise as they entered the flat. I followed. Ms. Bobrikov made an attempt to follow right behind me, but I gave her a look that made her freeze right there on the landing. The mustached cop noticed, and grunted sympathetically.
My situation was easy enough to understand for any normal person. A guy wanted to get romantic, brought a girl all the way up the stairs in his arms, and was about to lay her down on a bed of roses when he got interrupted rudely as a result of a half-crazed old woman’s interference.
The flat was tiny, so it didn’t take long to inspect. It took the cops around five minutes, but they’ve checked everything thoroughly. The first places that drew their interest were the bathroom and the storage cabinet built into one of the walls, for some reason.
There was just one room, so there was nothing to see there—a bed, a cocoon for gaming, a small closet, and a desk with a computer on it. There’d be nowhere to hide a body, although the youngest cop still checked inside the cocoon and underneath the bed.
Damn . . . I’d check the cocoon, too, and stay there for a few hours. Time was running short—I still had a wake to catch. The cops checked the balcony last, checked underneath with their flashlights, and that was that. They exited the flat and shook their heads at once, demonstrating that nothing incriminating had been found.
Ms. Bobrikov, who’d already been at the door of my flat and not halfway across the landing—the old battle-ax sure could sneak up on you—puckered her lips in disappointment and appeared to have grown smaller, pulling her head into her shoulders. It was easy to understand her—giving the cops a false alarm is never fun, especially when you promise them dozens of bloodied corpses.
“I see,” the cop with the mustache sighed, taking a look at his watch. “My apologies.”
“No worries, I get it. All in a day’s work,” I shrugged, pulling Kyre closer with both my arms.
“That sure is true,” the cop sighed in response, looking completely human for a moment as he nodded towards the wall adorned with two photographs in plain plastic frames. “I see you’re a navy buff, eh?”
“Say what?”
“Well, you must be one, if you have the portrait of Rear Admiral Gorokhov on your wall,” the mustached cop squinted at the photograph with a naval officer in full uniform looking at the camera sternly. “He was in the news just recently. Sure gave them Somalian pirates the shivers at the very sound of his name. He was commanding some part of a fleet there.”
“Oh,” I said, in a completely different tone. “Nope, I’m the furthest thing from being a navy buff, in fact. Those are my parents. Mom and dad. Mom’s an economist, and dad is in the navy.”
The flat grew silent, and I got caught in a scrutiny of several pairs of eyes, including Kyre’s—she’d returned to the real world from her dreamland for a moment.
“I sea,” the policeman coughed. “So you must be . . .”
“Rostislav Grokhotov. My father’s name’s Alexei,” I shrugged, pulling up my old tracksuit bottoms, about to slip off. “My passport’s on the fridge.”
“And you would be?”
“Kyra Krapivina. Dad’s name’s Konstantin,” the girl answered in a slightly husky voice. “My passport’s at home. But I can call my father, if you really need to see it.”
“Uh . . . Would the First Deputy Mayor be any relation? Konstantin Krapivin?”
“Yeah, that’s dad,” Kyre sighed, and poked me in the side with her finger. “Ros, I’d really prefer to be horizontal right now.”
“We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused,” the mustached cop said curtly, and all three of them set off towards the exit.
“He had blood on his face! And on his hands!” the old woman bleated uncertainly, hurrying to give the cops gangway. “That’s what had gotten me worried!”
The cop with the mustache exhaled loudly and gave me a tired look.
“I did,” I confirmed calmly. “I’d just taken out the garbage and stood there waiting for my girlfriend’s taxi when I saw a traffic accident right next to our block. I didn’t see the accident itself—I only got there by the time the second car had driven off. I tried to help the wounded driver of the silver-colored sports car. He lives right across the street, in the twenty-story block. That was when my girlfriend came. She’s had a serious cold, so I got her home and called the ambulance. Then I reported the accident to the gated community guards and got right back. That was when you made your entrance.”
“I see, Rostislav . . . Mr. Grokhotov. Thanks again for your cooperation and for doing your civil duty.” The cop saluted and stepped outside, hissing in a barely audible but very promising whisper, “Oh, you old hag . . .”
I saw the policemen out, saying my goodbyes politely, and closed the door softly behind them. The lock clicked, and that was when I could finally exhale with relief. I was surprised to hear no further commentary out of Ms. Bobrikov—she’d just stood there, looking lost.
Kyre, who had her face pressed into my chest, said something in a barely audible voice, and I asked her, feeling concerned,
“Is it that bad? Look, maybe it would make sense to call you an ambulance?”
Kyre shook her head negatively. I sighed in dejection, picked her up, and placed her on the bed. The small of my back strained and popped, but ended up managing the load.
“Make sure you stay awake!” I told her, heading towards the kitchen. I didn’t keep my larder stocked well, but I’ve always had an ample supply of water. I finally got my fill—my throat had been parched with all the worry—and brought a full bottle to the girl.
“Drink this.”
“What is it?”
“Water, what else would it be?” I grunted. “Come on, drink it! Two pints at least. You need all the crap you’d been given out of your body ASAP. Come on! Drink!”
Kyre tried to protest, but I wouldn’t abate until she downed about half the bottle. I placed the rest next to the bed, within her reach, and placed a blanket right over the checkered quilt.
“Thanks, Ros,” Kyre whispered, nodding off. “I’ll sleep for a while.”
“Are you sure you don’t have to call your parents?” I inquired. “It’s late, after all . . . By the way, where’s your cellphone?”
“Gosha has it,” the girl replied. “No need to call. They think I’m staying with this friend of mine . . .”
“R-right,” I said, looking at the sleeping girl. “Out cold” would actually be a better term.
If her bigwig dad raised a hue and cry, trying to find his precious daughter all across the city, especially seeing as how her cellphone was in the hands of the injured Gosha or the police . . . Something foul-smelling would hit the fan for sure, and I’d be standing right in front of it.
I scratched the back of my head pensively, shrugged, and shuffled my feet towards the kitchen, where I made me a huge sandwich and devoured it ravenously, washing it down with sweet tea. I could have eaten more, since I’d spent the whole day hungry, but time was at a premium, and I was already running late.
I stretched out on the elastic surface of the cocoon’s bed, throwing my last glance at the sleeping girl, and pulled on my helmet. The cover snapped shut with a soft click.
Logging in.
Hello there, Waldyra. Guess who’s back.
A flash.

I’d heard the din of drunken voices much earlier than I made it to the house I’d needed. That was all for the better—this way, I wouldn’t have to ramble in the dark in search of the right address.
The old fisherman’s wake ceremony was held right in the yard, with well-laden tables standing right under the boughs of fruit trees. There was nothing fancy—it was a village, after all—but the food was fresh and plentiful, and the tables could barely hold all the wooden plates and the clay jugs. The wake was well-attended, too. Women in mourning were singing a sad air, the men, who’d already had a few, kept on loading themselves even further, and the village patriarchs sat in a separate group—more somber and solemn, looking like crows in their dark garments.
I stood behind a wicker fence, observing the gathering for a while. I couldn’t get rid of the thought that everything looked just a little bit too real. I realized I was looking at nothing but an array of digits driven by ingenious software. It was just that they looked more alive than a lot of people I knew IRL. My former colleague Igor, for example, looked more like a cyborg, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’d been animated by an AI all along, with his taciturn manner, his immobile face, and his ever-present thousand-yard stare. What I was seeing in front of me, on the other hand, was the very image of good and wholesome human fun.
I barely managed to make out the wide back of Stevan the shopkeeper on one of the benches, and headed right towards him. As I took a few steps, I got stopped by a guy who’d been swaying from side to side like a reed in the wind. He gave me a formidable tankard, and said, without any preamble,
“Let’s drink!”
“Let’s,” I agreed amiably, downing the tankard in a few gulps. It contained beer, and it was an excellent brew, if I was any judge.
The man nodded approvingly, took away the empty vessel, and headed off on unsure feet towards a fat keg that had stood in the distance. I hastened to get to Stevan. A few more villagers stopping me like that would render me incapable of communicating with the trader with any coherence.
Stevan had already been rather merry when he noticed me. He slapped me on the shoulder and all but made me sit right next to him, making his neighbor move aside. Someone pushed a plate of roast pork in my direction as the shop-owner elbowed me in the side, rumbling contentedly,
“So, you came at last! Well met! I’d been starting to think you’d forgotten about our bargain. Who’d want to meddle with that poisoned apple of a beauty who’d sent old Jogley right to his maker . . . Urgh!”
The good trader grunted for a good reason—I elbowed him back, right in the ribs, and with some force, hissing angrily,
“Sh-h-h-h-h-h! My dear Stevan! If you mention our bargain in front of everyone, I’ll never get to the bottom of things!”
“Say, you’re right,” the trader nodded in acquiescence, rubbing his rib in embarrassment. “In that case, let’s drink!”
“Oh, damn,” I grunted, receiving a Gargantuan mug that must have been the size of my head.
“It would be a terrible sin not to drink deep in memory of the deceased!” Stevan said weightily as he slurped his fill from his own mug.
I just sipped, and instantly inquired,
“Stevan, can you tell me which one’s the alleged miscreant? Old Jogley’s daughter-in-law, I mean?”
“There she is,” Stevan nodded somberly, and I looked in the same direction.
There were two people at the head of the table. An incredibly somber and glum-looking man of about forty-five, with straw-colored hair in a bowl cut and a bulbous nose. And to his right . . . I lost my breath for a moment. All I could see before my eyes rolled all the way up and my jaw hit the floor was a thick mane of jet black hair, olive skin, and sensuous lips parted just a little. I must have gone blind shortly afterwards. The woman’s beauty made me think of an old classic:
“I saw her standing there,
Her with her jet black hair . . .”
No, that wasn’t quite how it went. Was it “pretty woman, sweep me off my feet?” What the hell?! I was beginning to ramble. I’d start speaking in mutilated song verses like this, which would entertain the general public no end. I’d need to stop stuttering first, though.
“Oh, I see! First exposure,” Stevan grunted understandingly, attacking a chicken leg with gusto. “We’ve gotten used to it by now! But when she first came here, every single male got wobbly legs at the sight of her.”
“Uh-h, right,” I barely managed to utter, looking at the girl again and trying to be more objective in my assessment.
My initial impression wasn’t the result of any illusion—the woman was beautiful to the extent one couldn’t keep wondering how she’d ended up with a simple village guy like that. The contrast was amazing. A peasant and . . . a queen of grace and charm. A true love goddess. Someone like her would have swarms of men losing sleep over the thought of the look on her face.
I was sure that the character designer got paid handsomely for his job. This was a true masterpiece.
The woman’s supple figure was shrouded in a mourning attire reaching up to her very neck, but even that couldn’t hide her perfect proportions. She just sat there modestly, staying perfectly silent, unlike her husband, but making sure the best food ended up in his quickly-emptying place, and that his goblet of wine stays full.
“I advise to keep on drinking,” Stevan said. “You’ll never come back to your senses otherwise. And a good brew is the best cure for everything.”
“Uh, right,” I replied, taking another small sip and looking at the woman over my mug.
She was surreal.
The face, the figure, and the rest of her looked perfect. They had nothing in common with the run-of-the-mill templates used by game designers for locations as parochial as faraway villages. Her type belonged at the capital, where thousands of players thronged daily, eager for sights and impressions. Some silk and some velvet, a diamond necklace, and a shiny diadem would make her look like a bona fide princess. Apart from that, all the locals were fair-haired and round-cheeked, while the woman had a distinctly Oriental look.
“Say, Stevan, what’s her name?”
“That’s right.”
“Alishana,” Stevan snorted. “Some name! Sounds foreign for sure. How about some roe?
“Versus Wade?” I asked automatically, my mind miles away.
“Sure, you have to wade when you catch’em, but you don’t need any verses! Just salt it, and there you go! It’s a local specialty—the fish is called eardraw!”
“Say what? Ear-what? Oh, nevermind!” I wasn’t a fussy eater, and the well-inebriated trader started to pile the fish eggs onto my plate, heedless of the fact he was placing those transparent savory black pearls right on top of roast pork. Not that I’d paid it much attention myself. I was thinking of something else.
Alishana certainly wasn’t a local name, and there must have been a reason for the woman to have ended up in this village. There should be an associated quest, or at least a bit of in-game narrative. For instance, she was accompanying her trader father as a young girl when brigands attacked their caravan and killed everyone, yet she managed to survive, by chance or by the will of providence. So the poor orphan made it to the nearest village . . . There was definitely a story behind this, but I was interested in the late Jogley first and foremost.
“Stevan, where exactly is the village graveyard?”
“Right on the slope of that hill,” the shopkeeper waved his hand, pointing somewhere in the dark. “It’s all covered in graves. You’ll see a temple first, and the graveyard is right behind it.”
“So where’s old Jogley’s grave? How do I find it?”
“Find it? You won’t have to search for too long. It’s all covered in fresh flowers. Oh, and there are five oil lamps burning on it, of course.”
“I see,” I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Hey, do you mean you intend to go there right now? Are you in your right mind at all? What kind of idiot wanders around graveyards at night? That would be looking for trouble, I’m telling you.”
“We’ll see,” I said, rising from the table.
I kept my promise to come to the wake, and I’ve taken a good look at Jogley’s son and daughter-in-law. I wouldn’t be able to talk to them there and then, so I’d need to get to something that would prove more rewarding.
I said my goodbyes to the shopkeeper and started off, checking the spells set into my palms. Once I reached the gate, I bumped into a burly man with a dignified face.
“Good evening, sir,” I said politely, looking at the human obstacle in my way inquisitively.
“And a very good one to you, too, stranger,” I got a nod of the beard. “I am the mayor here. Name of Gregor.”
“Rosgard,” I introduced myself at once.
“I have a proposition for you, Rosgard. Pray hear me out,” the mayor pronounced the standard formula for a quest.
“Why wouldn’t I?” I nodded in response. “It’s just that . . . Could our conversation wait until tomorrow? The hour is late, and I’m in a bit of a hurry. How about it, Mayor, sir?”
“Duh, but it’ll only take a minute!” the man wouldn’t take any nonsense, and I had to acquiesce in face of the inevitable. I could have declined the quest, but it made no sense to be on bad terms with the mayor, so why not hear him out, after all?
“Something dire has befallen our village, my good man,” Gregor sighed as he stroked his beard. “If you help me out, you won’t regret it! I’ll give you five silver pieces and a barrel of ale at least!”
“What exactly happened?”
“Oh, nothing major! You’ll take care of it in the blink of an eye, I’m sure!” The mayor was laying it on. “It’s just that our mascot has gone missing!”
“Who has gone missing, sir?”
“Our mascot. Well, that’s what we call him. These beasts are called unieyes in the city where I’d bought him a while ago. Heard of them?”
“Uh-h-h . . . I might have,” I became wary, glancing back at the pack behind my shoulder with the remains of the scary-looking unieye. “Would you like me to find the runaway beast and to finish it off?”
“Perish the thought! Never!” The mayor started waving his hands. “By no means! Our mascot protects the village from evil spirits and other misfortunes! You never know what could be roaming in the woods! But this little critter has a gift—its eye sees that which ours cannot. And it begins to squeak and grunt instantly, giving us a sign. Moreover, every evil spirit flees from his squeaking! They cannot stand it! So he’s very important. Would you, perchance, agree to find him and bring him back? He’s a peaceful beast—show him a carrot, or some other tuber, and he’ll follow you, meek as any pooch. So, what say ye, my good man?”
“Uh . . .” I said hoarsely, and then hastened to say, “I agree, my good mayor. I’ll have a look around the village. If I see the beast, I’ll take him back for sure.”
You have received a quest: Find the Unieye.
Find the runaway unieye in the environs of the Mossy Hills.
Minimum quest completion requirements: find the unieye and deliver it to Mayor Gregor.
Your reward: five pieces of silver and a barrel of ale.
“We’ll be grateful to you no end!” said Gregor, visibly relieved, as he pushed some cloth parcel into my hand. “These are the roots and tubers that he likes a lot! Just make sure to do him no harm, and don’t let his appearance scare you! He might look fearsome, but he’s really sweet as any calf! Give him a sweet tuber once you see him, and he’ll be a friend of yours forevermore!”
“Uh . . . Right.”
“I’ll be expecting news from you, then!” the mayor said, hurrying back to the laden tables.
I looked in his direction as I sighed sadly and went out into the street.
Crap. Then again, who could have known? Thankfully enough, I didn’t tell him about the contents of my pack. The remnants of the precious unieye would have given him a hell of a shock, and I’d probably be unable to show my face in the village again. And there I was, hoping for a reward . . . Moron.
Those were the thoughts I had as I was walking in the direction I’d been shown, looking around me every now and then. I kept glancing at the moon, too, hanging right there among the stars. It would be full very soon. And then . . . Werewolf time would begin.
The temple with its tall spire must have made the hill really picturesque in the daytime. During the night, however, the impression was more one of dread. The night wind kept making the boughs creak; strange shadows of menacing shapes were everywhere, and my ears registered a strange howling—most likely, the echoes of the wind among the gravestones, but realizing that did not alleviate my paranoia.
The path paved with white stone leading to the temple could be seen very well in the darkness, and it took me very little time to get to the temple’s locked doors. The priest was at the wake right now, raising another toast to the memory of old Jogley.
Having gone around the square construction, I found myself next to the village graveyard’s waist-high railing. I went past without slowing down, looking this way and that to find a light. I walked some fifty paces before I noticed a glimmer of a flame on the left. Soon I was at Jogley’s grave. I looked around me, seeing nothing, and so I set down and crossed my legs, resting my chin on the palm of my hand. Now that I was where I’d intended to be, I needed to gather my wits about me.
A neat hill of freshly-dug earth was all covered in wild flowers, and their zesty aroma still lingered. The headstone, cut roughly and still rectangular, still looked fresh—there was some lettering on it, invisible in the darkness, probably something along the lines of “rest in peace.” And amid this flower display stood five oil lamps with a spark of fire in each, arranged in a perfect pentagon. There wasn’t that much light, but it still kept the dark at bay a little. The last light, as it was known . . .
That was another quirk of Waldyra’s creators. They could have taken a ready template from any real-world religion, not that there was any shortage. But they decided to think up about a hundred indigenous religions, each one with a creed, prayers, rites, and gods of its own. While the deities of old mother Earth had long been dormant and didn’t reveal themselves to mere mortals, over here it happened on a near-daily basis.
The gods of Waldyra were perfectly real—as digital entities, of course. And they would often reveal themselves to players. Sometimes they would even give their very own unique divine quests, rewarded very handsomely indeed.
Not that any of that had ever happened to me—I’d never had any contacts with any deities, be it in real world or in Waldyra. It wasn’t easy to make gods notice you with favor. First you’d have to choose a deity, and then pray piously in said deity’s temple, complete the quests given by priests, and behave accordingly. For instance, if you pledged your allegiance to the militant Grakharg the Fiery, you’d need to spend your life in battle, show no mercy for your enemies, and despise any craft. Literally. The god could start despising you and turn his face away if you so much as sewed yourself a shirt. There were lots of limitations like that—you couldn’t have your finger in every pie.
Back in my Khrushchot days I tried to “befriend” the sly god Sness once—he was supposed to favor the human race. He was a god of thieves for the most part, but the bonuses he gave would have been very useful to me, too—greatly increased disguise ability, increased chance of a critical and even deadly strike, noiseless walk, night vision . . . Lots of things. I even prayed in front of his serpent-shaped altar.
That was as far as my piety went. I got approached by a priest, who’d told me I should donate five hundred gold pieces to the temple. Well, I did scrape up the last of my reserves, spent a week hunting monsters in impenetrable forests, and performing quests, and eventually managed to get the necessary sum together. I seethed as I gave it to the temple as a charitable gift. The priest accepted the money indifferently, and then asked for a thousand in gold, accompanied by a black dragon’s fang. That was the last that temple had seen of me. I did find out about the prices on dragon fangs out of sheer curiosity—you could find most anything in the alchemists’ shops, after all. It was just under seven hundred in gold, so I ended up deciding it wasn’t my thing, after all. Considering that Sness also favored paupers, he also required you to give alms to any beggar you would encounter. In the best-case scenario, you’d also be a killer player stealing left and right from anyone.
But that was nothing compared to what some people had to go through. I used to know a paladin—we even fought as members of the same party a few times. He was a real fanatic, and had managed to receive divine protection from a god of the Light Side. It came with ostensible bonuses to healing, negation of evil influences, and something else. I asked him once about the things he needed to do in return.
His reply was the weirdest thing. He shrugged, smiled a crooked smile, and went away, singing a Michael Jackson song through his nose,
“Heal the world
Make it a better place
For you and for me
And the entire human race.”
That got me thinking . . .
I kept on ruminating and recollecting, and spent about half an hour at the grave, but Jogley’s spirit didn’t show itself. The Last Life kept on shimmering, and the night wind kept on whooshing through the trees. There were several methods of summoning spirits, but I’d hoped I wouldn’t need to resort to any of those for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it affected your standing with the Gods of Light negatively. There was also the fact that I didn’t know how it was done, nor did I have any necessary paraphernalia—I certainly hadn’t counted on old Jogley dying this early.
But gods were only half the problem. I could do my research at the forum, but what would I do about the ingredients? If I needed marsh gas or a few dozen black toadstools, I’d be out of luck.
I spent a few more minutes like that, which seemed never-ending, sighed, got up, took a few steps to the side, and sat down again, resting my back against a mossy gravestone. Then I pressed the Exit button.
The iridescent silent whirlwind embraced me eagerly.

Nothing has changed in my room since my “departure.” Kyre was still lying on the bed, her head on the pillow, and her blanket tossed aside. I got out of my cocoon and approached the bed, trying not to make any noise, and scrutinized the girl’s pale face. Fortunately, she was still alive. Her breath was troubled, however, and her face, covered in a thin sheen of sweat, sometimes contorted in a grimace, and there was a barely noticeable tremor shaking her body. It must have been the comedown.
“Oh, Ros,” I whispered softly to myself. “Why the hell would you get involved in any of this, eh?”
I looked at Kyre glumly and headed right to the kitchen. This wouldn’t do. She didn’t want to go to the hospital or call her parents . . . Damn!
First I rummaged through my meager first aid kit, producing an opened blister of activated charcoal. I made a rough measurement of the girl’s weight, and counted out four black pills, then thought about it for a moment, and added another one. I grabbed a bottle of water and got back, no longer trying to move silently. I’d have to resort to time-tested methods. I sat down on the bed and shook Kyre’s limp shoulder unceremoniously, without lifting her dark-haired head off the pillow.
“Kyre, wake up!” I roared, trying to shake her awake.
“My head . . . hurts,” Kyre said, without opening her eyes.
“I believe you,” I nodded, grabbing her by the shoulders and placing her upright. “Take these.”
I filled the palm of her hand with pills, and said,
“Come on, take them. One by one.”
“What is it?”
“Activated charcoal,” I explained patiently. “And you have to swallow them all.”
“I won’t . . .”
“Down the hatch, I said!” I raised my voice, giving her a bottle of water. “Three of them right now. Then three more in about two hours. Followed by another quarter-gallon of water.”
“Ros . . .”
“Get on with it,” I said. “It will feel much worse otherwise.”
Kyre obediently took three black pills, and spent quite a while with the water bottle. Once she was done, there was another complaint,
“I’ve got a splitting headache.”
“You’ll have to wait it out,” I said, trying to comfort her. “You should go back to sleep. You’ll feel better when you’re up again.”
“Haven’t you got any painkillers?”
“I’ve only got aspirin, and you shouldn’t mix it with alcohol. And you’ve been drinking, I can feel it on your breath. It may lead to an internal bleeding.”
“Come on already,” Kyre said, pressing her face against my chest. “An aspirin. Just one. Please. I haven’t had that much alcohol, just one drink.”
“Oh, all right,” I pulled out the bedside table drawer, got out some aspirins, and handed one to her. “Here goes. And drink more water . . . It’s never easy with drug fiends . . . That’s how it goes, more water.”
“I’m not a drug fiend!”
“Sorry. Just a clumsy joke,” I smiled. Having made sure she’d taken her aspirin, I gave my next order. “And now, get up, and off you go to the bathroom.”
“Say what?”
“The bathroom,” I said, looking at the suddenly bashful girl with unfeigned surprise. “Was there anything confusing about what I’ve said? Get going.”
“Ros! I didn’t mean to . . . And, really . . .”
“No objections, cadet!” I barked, copying my father. “Follow orders!”
“Listen here . . .”
“You listen to me! You need to get the toxins out of your body. It might be serious! Alcohol and an unknown drug are a hell of a cocktail. There’s risk of liver failure—or it might affect some other organ. So what you do is get to your feet, go to the bathroom, and get rid of the waste. Then you drink more water, and lie down again. Get to it!”
“Look at you, all high and mighty,” Kyre grumbled.
“Should I carry you? And make sure you do everything you’re supposed to?” I inquired gruffly. “I guess I could, if I absolutely had to.”
“No, I’ll do it on my own!” The girl replied at once, and instantly winced. “My head . . .”
“Listen to your body as you go,” I added. “Pay attention to your arms and legs—whether there are any pains or any strange pops, and whether or not everything bends the way it’s supposed to. You’ve just been in a traffic accident, after all. Or would you like me to take you to a hospital? They could do a decent checkup, give you a drip and a few shots to perk you up . . .”
“Well, suit yourself, then,” I sighed, looking at the girl slowly walking down the hall. “Call me if there’s anything.”
“She’s got a great figure,” I thought to myself all of a sudden, having seen Kyre out of the funny-looking checkered quilt for the first time. She had a short white top and tight blue jeans; both garments outlined her shape perfectly.
Whoa, cowboy . . . I was rushing into something I could well do without.
I shook my head, turned away, and prepared myself for some forum-searching.
I ended up finding lots of stuff, but nothing of any use. There were dozens of know-it-alls and gurus sharing all kinds of information, listing all known methods of summoning and controlling spirits, describing the associated rituals and everything remotely related to the process in great detail, but nothing was pertinent to my case, since I’d lacked absolutely everything in the way of items and ingredients.
Only by reaching the second page with links did I encounter a short comment by an unfamiliar author, who said it clearly and concisely—the spirit remained linked to the buried body, and, correspondingly, the grave, for the duration of the first few days after death. That was the very reason they placed the Last Light on a fresh grave—it was supposed to provide the ghost’s dark abode with some illumination, preventing it from returning to the world of the living at the same time. Therefore, any beginning summoner should take care of the Last Light first. They could put out a lamp or two, or rearrange their order. The author advised against putting out the lamps to avoid provoking the spirit in question. Moving some of the lamps aside would give the deceased an opportunity to answer the call, given that they were so inclined. That was a necessary condition. Otherwise, the ghost could be summoned by force, but in that case one would need special gear. Well, it never hurt one to try . . .
Right then Kyre entered the room—as pale as before, but her motions seemed less stiff. She glanced at me with darkened eyes silently, then got back into bed, and placed her face on the pillow again. I wondered how she managed to breathe through the fabric.
“Have some water,” I reminded her.
Kyre mumbled something incomprehensible, refusing to move.
I sighed and repeated myself, louder this time.
“Have some water, then lie down on your right side and cover yourself. Your jeans are at least two sizes too tight, so I advise you to undo your designer belt and unbutton the jeans themselves. You don’t have to look at me with such suspicion. All I’m saying is that nothing should interfere with your breath or circulation, particularly at a moment like this.”
“Ros, you’re worse than Aunt Lena, really!”
“Never you mind who,” Kyre coughed in response, obediently taking another long pull from a well-depleted water bottle.
“So much for the conversation, then,” I concurred. “Lie down. When you wake up tomorrow, life will look a lot brighter.”
“And get something to cover yourself.”
“It’s hot as it is . . .”
“That’s good. The more you sleep, the better you’ll feel eventually,” I concluded as I got up and stepped towards the cocoon.
“Are you planning to sleep inside that thing?”
“Almost,” I chuckled, groaning as I got onto the elastic bed and reclined. “I’ve got things to take care of in Waldyra. And you need to get some sleep. Oh, one more thing. If you feel worse, for whatever reason, get me logged off at once. Just press the emergency logout button. Got it?”
“Yes, daddy. By the way, what’s this fossil?” An eye peeked from underneath the blanket, scrutinizing my rather ancient cocoon. “I don’t think they even sell them anymore. They don’t have any auxiliary systems, do they? Just the basic functions, as far as I remember.”
“I’m not that well-healed. This is the best I could afford,” I said in a muffled voice, placing the helmet on my head. “It works, which is good enough for me. Good night, Kyrea.”
“Good night . . .” was the last thing I heard.
The iridescent vortex opened itself up in front of me, pulling me ever deeper.
Logging in.

Nothing’s changed at the graveyard since my departure—neither for better, nor for worse. I hadn’t expected anything else, in fact.
I looked around me furtively, going down on one knee, and broke the circle of lamps with a few quick motions. I simply moved four of them aside, and removed the fifth from the earthen mound altogether. Before I managed to stand up straight, a gust of wind put out the Last Light I’d disfigured in a blink of an eye, and the grave got lit up by a ghostly blue light. I was about to rejoice at the success of my endeavor when a horrendous bearded face with glowing red eyes came out of the earth, got close to my face, and yelled, showering me in ectoplasmic spittle,
“Murder! Mu-u-u-u-u-u-rder!”
“A-a-a-a-a-a-argh!” I cried out, caught unawares, doing a back flip I’d normally have considered beyond my ability, and finding myself three paces away from the grave.
The specter would not be thus defied. It slipped right after me, grabbed my shoulders with its transparent hands, and shouted into my face once again,
“I was mu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-rdered!”
“A-a-argh!” I cried out again.
The ghostly old coot sprang up so suddenly my instincts got the better of me. The spectral spittle flying into one’s face were rather ghastly, too, even though, logically, they were completely harmless . . .
Achievement unlocked!
You have received an achievement: Spirit Summoner, Tier 1.
You can see the table of achievements in your character's menu.
Your reward:
Your reward: +0.5% to the chance of success when summoning spirits.
Current level of the bonus: +0.5%.
“Get away from me!” I roared, pushing the ghost that had hovered over me away—or, rather, trying to. As I should have expected, my hands went right through the spirit’s body. However, the ghost obeyed the motion and slid back again in the same liquid motion, once again beginning to howl,
“I’ve been mu-u-u-u-u-u-u-rdered! There’s a killer on the road . . .”
“Shut up!” I hissed, coming to my senses completely, and the ghost shut up, astonished.
“That’s better,” I nodded in satisfaction. “It won’t do to raise a hue and cry for all the graveyard to hear. The dead need their beauty sleep, too!”
“Can’t you hear me, mortal?” The nebulous ghost instantly grew enormous, its eyes flashing a menacing red. “I said . . .”
“You said you’d been murdered,” I reminded him. “That was precisely why I’d decided to trouble your peaceful sleep, most esteemed Jogley. If you are, indeed, the old fisherman Jogley.”
“Peaceful?” the ghost yelled again, grabbing its head with its hands and beginning to shake from side to side. “What peace can I find? I was killed! How can I rest in my grave when my killer walks around with impunity? I am overcome with ire and fury! And my son . . . That simpleton will never see beyond the rim of his teacup . . .”
“Sure. No rest for the wicked, I get it. Sorry, but am I right to assume you really are Jogley, the old fisherman?”
“Sure am! Or, rather, I was him . . . My memories of that life have become rather vague.”
“Just how vague?” I asked with some worry. If the old man had forgotten everything, I was screwed.
“Not vague enough to forget the identity of my killer!” Jogley’s ghost roared furiously, puffing itself up even further and becoming some eighteen feet tall.
“Sir! Could you please assume your former size? Otherwise, it isn’t your face I’m looking at, but rather . . .  Uh . . . I’d rather not even mention it.
The ghost gave a long and despondent sigh, shrinking to normal size, and suddenly complaining,
“You’re no fun.”
“Oh yeah?” That stung a little. “Not if you ask my neighbors . . . Uh . . . Dear spirit of old Jogley the fisherman! My name is Rosgard the Truth-Seeker, and I roam the world in search of injustices to redress. That’s about it . . .”
By the time my impassioned speech was over, ghostly Jogley was waist-deep in his grave, listening attentively, his bearded chin resting on his hand.
“The whole world? Really?” he asked incredulously, and I cringed, irritated.
“Just like that, most esteemed Jogley.”
“So you’ve been across the ocean, then?” The spirit looked curious. “What’s it like over there? Is it true that they walk on their heads and use pails to catch fish in the sea?”
“Sir! My original reason to bother your peaceful rest was to solve the mystery of your death so that justice could be done to those guilty. I’m also here to . . .”
“Hold on, hold on,” the old man waved his semitransparent hands. “So you’re saying you travel the world, and dress . . . Who was it, once again? Inn justice?”
“I redress injustices,” I said gruffly, looking at the old man with some confusion. He must have been a real piece of work when he was still alive . . . His curiosity was almost palpable—he was prepared to forget about his own violent demise to hear some new gossip now that he’d gotten through the yelling-and-intimidaiton routine.
“How do you do that?” Jogley asked impatiently.
“How do I do what, gramps?” I was beginning to get irate.
The entire conversation seemed to be going in some weird direction, and it was all my own fault. I should have wrapped my cloak around my shoulders and stand next to the grave, looking aloof, my very sight commanding respect . . . and there I was doing back flips, for every ghost in the neighborhood to laugh at me. They must have been having the time of their posthumous lives, the lot of them.
“How did you say you were, uh . . . Addressing . . .”
“Redressing, gramps! Well, I take money from the poor and give it to the rich, protect the strong from the weak . . .”
“Anything else?”
“I also . . . uh . . . comfort poor orphans, helping them in any way I can . . . Giving them money, and so on . . .”
“Anything other than that?”
“Well, I also destroy all sorts of monsters that bother peaceful folk.”
“Is that all you do?”
“Did you say . . . you gave money away? Just like that? Really?”
“Well . . . Yeah, I do . . .”
“And you demand no reward for what you do?”
“N . . . no, I don’t,” I drawled out cautiously.
“What an idiot,” the fisherman’s ghost sighed, scratching his beard. “An absolute doofus. And you don’t seem quite right up there . . . Say, son, did they drop you on any hard surfaces as a baby?”
“Now, look here, gramps!” I was beginning to get royally pissed off. “Did you crawl out of your grave just to pick on me?!”
“Well, I got out expecting someone serious!” The obstinate old man wouldn’t be gainsaid, standing there with his ghostly arms akimbo and a challenging look on his face. “I’d intended to talk business!”
The old blighter was definitely spoiling for a fight.
“You mean I’m not serious?” I was beginning to lose what had remained of my temper by then.
“Of course you aren’t! What good of you when you don’t even request a reward? You won’t put any elbow grease into it! You’ll just go through the motions!”
“Who said I wouldn’t demand a reward? I sure will!”
“Now, that’s more like it!” The ghost looked happy. “This is closer to a serious conversation. Who do you think I am, feeding me all that horse? So, what is it you want? Not that I have anything, mind you. I’m a ghost without a body. Well, you could take the flowers from my grave, I guess . . .”
“So why were you mentioning a reward in the first place?” I exhaled and inhaled deeply, trying to get into a meditative state, then did it again. “All right,” I exhaled wearily. “Let’s begin at the beginning, dearest Jogley. The esteemed trader Stevan asked me to find out the real reason for your sudden demise, which is the only reason I dared to trouble your sleep in the great beyond.”
“Okay, so you can lay it on. That’s good enough,” the old man rumbled approvingly, sitting down with his back reclining against the headstone. “Keep going.”
“So, that’s why I troubled you,” I repeated. “I’d need to find out the name of the killer, even though it’s already been revealed to me. But I would like to find out more about the circumstances . . .”
“So you know, don’t you?” The spirit got closer. “Right, then, smarty-pants, who’d done me in? Tell me!”
I made a theatrical pause, then puffed out my chest and said,
“Alishana, your daughter-in-law.”
“So you are an idiot, after all . . .” Jogley said in disappointment. “A total idiot.”
“I don’t get it,” I mumbled, feeling embarrassed.
“What is there not to get?! It wasn’t her!” The ghost gritted its luminescent teeth, and suddenly disappeared from the grave.
Before I could bat an eyelid, the old man’s bearded face was snarling right in front of me, shouting furiously,
“And if you accuse Alishana falsely, I’ll get you even from my grave! I’ll bury you so deep they’ll never find you! Got it?!”
“Sure,” I nodded in shock, jerking back against my will. “I mean, I don’t understand anything . . . And why don’t you stop spitting already, gramps?!”
“I knew it! They’d accuse my daughter-in-law,” Jogley exhaled sadly, his agitation suddenly over. “It wasn’t her, and that’s that. What was your name again? Rosgard? Well, Rosgard, I have a request for you. I don’t have much in the way of reward, but if you do it for me, I’ll be eternally grateful.”
“Sure, no problem,” I replied cautiously. “Shoot.”
“Everyone in our village kept giving my son’s wife dirty looks, and now they’ll make her life a living hell. Don’t let it happen. Name the real killer, I beg of you, in the name of all the gods.”
“Hold on, sir,” I placed the palms of my hands in front of me. “You don’t even have to ask me. That’s why I’m here—I want to see justice done. It wasn’t my fault that I’d initially suspected your daughter-in-law—they’ve been telling me you could barely live together, and kept yelling at each other every day.”
“Duh! Our Alishana is a daughter-in-law anyone could dream of! That silly lummox of mine sure got lucky—he’d somehow managed to capture a true beauty’s heart. She may not have been that great a housewife at first, but nowadays you won’t find a speck of dust anywhere in the house! And she’s always been a great cook, only it wasn’t our fare like boiled grain and soups, but dishes from faraway lands! I still remember them. Take one bite and you start prancing around the yard like a goat, and all your tongue feels like it’s on fire . . . Those sure were the days! Damn! Such rotten luck to have died now—I was about to become a grandfather! Well, anyway, I hope they’ll bring the young one to my grave every now and then for me to admire . . .”
“Just a moment, Jogley,” I interrupted the ghost’s trip down Memory Lane. “So you didn’t quarrel with her? The two of you lived in peace?”
“Peace, my bum,” the ghost snorted. “We’d fight every day! So what? It was none of the neighbors’ business, anyway! I say her a word, and she replies with a dozen. That’s when dust would start flying! She’d chase me around with a towel, I’d cover myself with a barrel lid, and that idiot son of mine would run around urging us to quiet down . . . That sure was the life!”
“Indeed,” I agreed, somewhat stupefied.
No rest for the wicked is a saying describing this very sort of old men—he must have been really something when he was alive.
“Still, we were on great terms!” The ghost, lost in its memories, grunted challengingly, thrusting out its beard. “Everyone was envious! My son finally started to make something of himself with her. He wouldn’t so much as raise his voice at her! He’s kind-hearted, just like a calf, but he surely isn’t among the brightest. He might be strong as an ox, but what about it? He never sees what his interest is—we’d barely managed to make ends meet before. He’s a good hunter, but he’d often come back from the hunt with nothing left but the pelt and the hooves, and the neighbors would get all the meat. Once Alishana started to take care of the house, things got much better. My son would no longer drink or go to taverns, and he’d bring everything he’d catch right home.
“Right. So things are never as simple as they seem . . .” I exhaled wearily, and implored the old man’s ghost, “Sir, so who could have killed you? I haven’t found any other suspects . . .”
“There’s nothing to suspect! It was Phelagea, our neighbor, may she burn in hell!” The old man roared. “Who else?!”
“Indeed,” I nodded hurriedly. “Just as you were saying. Right. Yes, it’s really all clear. So it was her, right?What’s her name . . . Phelagea?”
“It was!” Jogley declared with certainly, hovering up over his grave and growing in size. “I’ve had a doctor check me up, and he said I’d live another hundred years. So I called all the neighbors over to tell them the good news and to celebrate. And by the evening Phelagea came over with some pickled mushrooms—she knew I’d always been fond of them, especially with some home-made beer. So we’d sat there talking about days gone by, and said our goodbyes. And, come morning, I felt a sharp pain in my stomach—I barely managed to open my mouth to call my son when I kicked the bucket! It was only once I became a ghost that I remembered something: Phelagea surely didn’t mind drinking all the beer she could get, but never touched the mushrooms once. That old witch! That poisoner!”
“I see,” I said pensively. “So, your neighbor Phelagea . . . And why would she decide to poison you?
“What do you mean, ‘why’? Because Alishana got pregnant! Didn’t I tell you I’d been expecting a grandchild? That’s why Phelagea decided to poison me!”
“Say what? Uh, but what would her interest be?!”
“Phelagea’s fondest dream had always been to marry her ugly daughter off to my son! That way she’d get all we have at once! The yards are right nearby! Bring down the fence, and you get a single huge yard! And she sure covets our wheat fields! Get it now? My son is like a mule—way too meek, will never say a contrary word, nothing like me! And now that I’m dead, there’s no one left to guard them! Phelagea will get her hands on everything!”
“Right on! So, give me a moment to recap—am I right to understand you’ve been poisoned by your neighbor Phelagea, whose intent was to remove you as an obstacle to her becoming the sole owner of all your assets, real estate etc?”
“You lost me with all the big words. You wouldn’t be one of those brainy types who do nothing but read books?” The spirit looked at me askance, full of suspicion.
“Oh, definitely not, I’m nothing like them!” I shook off the accusations indignantly. “So, have I understood you correctly?”
“Is there that much to understand?” Jogley sighed sadly. “It’s all perfectly obvious. You don’t have to be a scholar to make sense of it. Phelagea’s had her eye on my son for a long time, trying to get him interested in her daughter. Then Alishana appeared, and all her plans fell through. Not that I was too fond of her cow of a daughter, either. Fancy my son marrying someone like her! So Phelagea’s decided to wait it out, hoping my idiot would fall out with Ali, or that I would kick the bucket soon. But she got burned there twice. Alishana got pregnant, and my son got me checked by a doctor, who said it for everyone to hear that I’d live for another hundred years . . .”
“And Phelagea instantly went from passive contemplation to active measures,” I summed up.
“Gave you some toadstools!”
“Right on! Toadstools for sure. But she sure pickled them fine. I’d had a bowl all to myself, and wolfed down every single one!”
“Not much to be proud of,” I said gruffly, and the ghost zipped it in embarrassment. “Hey, Jogley . . . But it’s far from over!”
“This isn’t over, I say!” I barked. “She’d managed to get rid of you, but that leaves Alishana and her unborn child!”
“Hot damn!” Jogley’s ghost made a helpless gesture with its hands, soaring high into the air. “How could I have not thought of that? Old fool! She’ll try to poison Alishana next! And once she does that, nothing will stop her from marrying my grief-stricken son to her harridan of a daughter! Oh, dear! Why are you standing still?! Run!”
“Where to?”
“Right to our yard! Warn them! My son and his wife! Hurry, Rosgard!”
“Hey, chill, old guy,” I waved him off. “This parochial Borgia of yours can’t be that stupid to poison two people in the course of a single week. She’ll wait a while—I gather, Alishana’s life will be out of danger for at least a month or two. But then, once everything quiets down and people start forgetting . . .”
“Hurry up all the same! Tell the people the truth! Name my poisoner!”
“How? How would I do that?”
“Point at her with your finger! How else? You might kick her, if you want,” the ghost said angrily. “I’ll be the last to mind!”
“Gramps, are you out of your mind?” I roared, dispensing with my formal tone of voice. “So I’ll point my finger at her; what do you think will happen next? She’ll claim her innocence, and the entire village will be chasing me with stakes and torches! This goes beyond fun and games!”
“They won’t!” The old man disagreed emphatically. “Make sure there are lots of people around, and summon her to be tried at the statue of white marble, the one in front of the temple. It’s our protectress—Helione, Goddess of Justice. You can accuse her of her sin there! If she refuses, she’ll admit her guilt! And if she doesn’t, the goddess isn’t blind! She’ll let the truth be known at once!”
“I see,” I said in a slow drawl.
Old Jogley was perfectly right. Waldyra’s religious system permitted this. If one demands justice next to the statue of a deity, the deity in question will mark the culprit. However, if the accuser turns out to be wrong, they can expect a severe punishment for slander.
What if Jogley was wrong? What if the mushrooms contained no poison? Could he have died of natural causes, or been killed by someone else?
A deity’s curse was the last thing I needed. It would be like a dark cloud hanging over my head and visible to everyone without exception. And it wasn’t just it’s visibility—a curse affected all the character’s stats and skills in a manifestly negative way. Most of the local shopkeepers and traders will instantly refuse to have anything to do with me. The curse’s effects would also be experienced by any fellow group member for as long as they remained in the same group as me.
I was sure Gosha would be anything but pleased if I managed to get cursed by a local goddess. Such a curse would stay with me for as long as it would take me to expiate my guilt, which was anything but easy. If I turn out to be right, I’ll receive a blessing from the same deity, and those last a long time . . . Still, it would be a huge risk.
“It is her!” The ghost broke the silence, approaching me slowly and staring me right in the eye. “Her and none other! I swear it on my soul!”
“Jogley, are you quite sure? I’ll be risking my neck here. If you’re wrong . . .”
“It was her! She’s my killer! I’m certain! Rosgard, aid us in our hour of need! If you refuse, Alishana will die, too! And if that happens, my son will either try to kill himself, or, worse still, get scooped up by Phelagea! I’d lived a long life, but they haven’t yet! They’re good as children! Help us!”
“It’s easy for you to ask me for help,” I said gruffly.
“Well, I can’t get away from my grave! I’m bound to it! And who knows when someone might decide to come here at night . . . And I cannot show myself during the day! And there’s that damned mascot that keeps running around and squealing hideously! It ran past my grave earlier on, and I couldn’t help wincing . . . If that thing’s anywhere near, I won’t even be able to come out at night!”
“The mascot?” I asked automatically. “The unieye, you mean?”
“The very one. It keeps going wherever it likes! And it’s been munching the flowers on my grave, too! The swine! Its jaws kept making those hideous sounds, yuck!”
“Well, he won’t be running around any longer,” I muttered under my breath.
“What are you mumbling there?”
“I said I’d do it,” I said with a sigh. “But I’ll expect a reward.”
“And what will you ask of me? I’m in your hands now,” the ghost looked deflated. “I was never rich . . . But I’ve hidden a war chest in a safe place. A few silvers, and three dozen coppers. They’re buried under the porch. Would that be enough?”
“I won’t be asking for money,” I shook my head. “I need information.”
“Come again?”
“I need to find out a few things, my dear old Jogley,” I rephrased it to get my point across. “Tell me everything you know of the Silver Legend and Grym the Inconsolable. We’ll be even then.”
“Uh . . .” the ghost said, falling silent for a long couple of minutes, its eyes raised towards the night sky and its lips moving in contemplation.
I kept shaking with impatience, barely managing to stop myself from telling the old man’s ghost to hurry.
“The Silver Legend, you say . . .”
“And Grym the Inconsolable?”
“Him and none other!”
“Never heard of either,” Jogley spread his hands, giving me a puzzled look. “Who are they?”
“Have you gone a little deaf, perhaps?” the ghost said irritably. “This is the first time I hear them mentioned! Look, how about we keep it simple and you just take the money I’d left under the porch, eh? I don’t know what you’ll think of next . . .”
“But this is impossible!” I blew up, taking a quick step towards the ghost and unsuccessfully trying to shirtfront it. “You’re the old fisherman Jogley! The very one pointed out to me by Snessa the seer!”
“She must have been wrong, then!” Jogley barked back. “I am a fisherman, the name’s mine, and I don’t need you to tell me I died an old man, but I’ve never heard of anyone called Grym in my whole life!”
“Damn . . .”
“So you’ll refuse to help now, won’t you?” The ghost looked saddened and deflated. “My measly savings are of no interest to you, I don’t know anything you want to know, so my fool of a son and Alishana with a child in her womb will have to die horrible deaths, while you just walk away grinning that ugly grin of yours, is that right?”
“Hey, mind what you’re saying, gramps! And what has that got to do with anything?” I waved my hand disappointedly. “I’ll help them and accuse the poisoner of her evil deed. But, damn and blast . . . It really didn’t play out the way I’d hoped it would . . .”
“You’ll help?” Jogley looked overjoyed at once, soaring above his grave yet again. “Now, that’s more like it! You’re a real mensch, Ros! And your smile isn’t that ugly by far . . .”
“You sure are a bit of a chatterbox, gramps,” I replied in a jejune voice. “Especially for a ghost . . . There are living folks who talk less.”
“What about that legend, anyway? Who’s this Grym? And why is he so inconsolable?”
“He was a legendary warrior. The Silver Legend is the legend of his armor. He had renounced his power once, throwing all of them into the Elyrne River off the Doom Rock. Something of that sort . . . Well, it doesn’t matter now, since you don’t know anything. No point in idle chitchat. So I’ll get going, I guess,” I exhaled wearily. “Would you like me to light up your Last Light lamps for you?”
“Hey, hold your horses!” The suddenly pensive ghost said gruffly. “Silver armor, you say? Elyrne? Doom Rock?”
“Ye-e-e-e-s,” I said in a soft drawl, placing myself down on the grass very carefully. “Just like that. Did you just remember something?”
“Well, old or not, I’ve never complained about my memory,” the pesky old ghost said, contradicting his earlier complaints about forgetfulness. “I’ve told you I knew nothing of this Grym, and that was the whole truth! Well, my memory does give out at times, of course, but . . .”
“But what?”
“Well, many years ago, when I was a strapping lad, and every girl hurried into my arms, while the lads covered their faces in sackcloth at the sight of someone as fair-faced as me . . .
I kept silent, holding my breath, my eyes fixed on reminiscing Jogley, who kept rolling his eyes and making contented sucking noises.
“Anyway, we were fishing on the Elyrne, me and a few other fishermen. Our net was so big that we barely managed to pull it with four boats. The current is strong there, and the water’s murky . . . There’s also a lot of deadwood on the bottom . . . But the catch was worth it! I filled up my purse with silver and gold in just a month, and my friends made a pretty penny, too, may they rest in peace. None of them are alive now; we might meet again over there . . . But I was talking about something else. Listen to me, o Rosgard, our savior! One late evening we pulled out the net—just as usual, it was full of all sorts of stuff, not just fish. And what would we find at the very bottom? You know, the part that keeps collecting all kinds of sunken junk . . . I’ll tell you. There were three strange things, all covered in dirt. Catch my drift?”
“Could they be . . .”
“Aye! Once we cleaned them from dirt and rinsed them well in the water, we couldn’t believe our eyes—it was silver! And not just any silver, either! There were all kinds of ornaments and letters no one could read. But they didn’t look much like armor, sorry to disappoint you.”
“Right, but what did they look like? Can you tell me?”
The ghost scratched its head, and started describing the items they’d found:
“There was a wide bracelet, a silver belt, and some weirdly twisted thing with leather straps attached to it. So that was the catch we got that evening. Could those things be what you’d been after?”
“I’m sure they were!” I said with conviction, taking a step towards the ghost. “Take a look, Jogley. Did the bracelet look like this?”
The ghost studied my forearm carefully, and nodded affirmatively.
“It looked exactly the same. The ornaments, too. My . . . So your clairvoyant was right, after all. Her gift must have been strong.”
“Dearest Jogley! What did you do with your catch?”
“Sold it, of course,” the old man replied matter-of-factly. “At the very same village where we’d been staying. There was a trader there, name of Kumowan, and he ended up buying all of that stuff. He’d grabbed it all the instant he’d seen it, and gave up eight full gold pieces, two each. That’s how I became rich in just a day. But I know nothing of what’s become of those things since. Sorry about that. You’d need to visit Kumowan personally and question him well. It’s not that far from here. It’s a village by the banks of the Elyrne, name of Selene. That’s where he lives. You’ll get there in no time at all.
“Selene, next to the Elyrne, trader by the name of Kumowan,” I repeated. “Is the trader a local, or not?”
“I’ve told you he lived there,” the ghost gave me a confused look.
“I get it, but is he from over here, or . . . uh . . . a stranger like myself?” I wormed my way out of that one.
“He’s a local!” Jogley said with certainty. “I’ve seen enough strangers like you, so I can tell by now. So, tell me, have I helped you?”
“You have, and very much so!” I replied with gratitude, recording all the information I’d just received in the notebook that was part of the interface.
The thread I’d been following as pointed out to me by the clairvoyant didn’t break, and I was thankful to all the deities for as much already. Even though the items ended up in a trader’s possession, who must have moved the “hot” stuff instantly, making a lump sum in the process, I did have some leads to investigate.
“Say, my good man . . . You’ll keep your promise, will you?”
“I’ll do it this very night,” I replied instantly. “I’ll accuse Phelagea the poisoner of her vile deed—fortunatly, there won’t be a shortage of witnesses at your wake. So we’ll have the crowd and the opportunity. The mayor’s there, too. So I should hurry, old man.”
“Are they remembering me fondly?” Jogley inquired with great curiosity. “What are they saying? I hope my fool of a son didn’t skimp on the food and drink? Is there enough beer? Do the maidens howl? Do the crones cry? And, if they do, are they putting any feeling into it?”
“Oh, everybody’s recollecting you with great fondness. There’s enough food and drink for everyone, and the howls and cries are loud and heartfelt,” I grunted. “Look, I should really run, or the wake will end.”
“No way,” the ghost shook his head. “It’s our village. If it’s a feast, the folk will keep on sitting there until the morning. But you should hurry still. And once this is over, tell my family to come to my grave often!”
“I sure will!” I replied, already running. “Don’t you worry!”
“And may they raise as many mugs as they can in my memory, so I might rest in piece!” The old man kept on going, giving me his last pieces of advice.
“And don’t say you’ll do stuff for free the next time, you simpleton!”
“Also, tell my son to treat Alishana well!”
“I will, I will! Stop yelling loudly enough for all the graveyard to hear!”
“Good luck to you!”
I waved my hand goodbye as I left the graveyard and started running towards the village. It was time to raise a ruckus at the wake.
Judging by the sad songs I heard from the direction of the village, the party was still in full swing. Perfect.
“Hold on to your petticoats, Phelagea,” I thought to myself. “I’m coming to get you.”

Release - May 29, 2020

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