Monday, April 20, 2020

The Alchemist by Vasily Mahanenko

The Alchemist by Vasily Mahanenko
Book 1: City of the Dead

Pre-order on Amazon -
Release - May 20, 2020


The blizzard brought with it driving winds, but Farmer-883-PR8 wasn’t giving up. He pushed on relentlessly toward the temple. With one hand held out to shield his face, in his other he held the dearest of burdens: a rosy-cheeked little boy sleeping peacefully despite the cold, gusting air. The father wasn’t worried about his son’s health—he was under the protection of the god. No snow, wind, or even stray arrows or spells could have hurt the child until it passed its initiation. The few passersby turned and stared, surprised to see the naked man carrying an equally naked child. It was only the snow-white underwear created by the god that covered their shame.

“Where are you going?” The guard statue at the main gate came to life and held out a threatening hand. A blue light enveloped its fingers as it prepared for combat.
“I want to ac-c-ctivate my so-o-on.” Unlike the child, Eight, which was what everyone called the man, felt the snow, wind, and cold, sharp rocks under his bare feet all too keenly. Already down to ten units, his shield level was slipping lower with each passing minute. He had to make it in time.
“Access confirmed. Welcome.” The glow left the guard’s fingers as it stepped to the side and turned back into a lifeless statue. Unwilling to leave the job to humans, the god always protected its temples.
The man walked stiffly inside. It was his fourth time there. The first had been when he was little, when they’d brought him in for activation. Since his parents had been poor, they hadn’t been able to afford a bonus to get their third son a good roll, though to be fair, they wouldn’t have gone for it even if they’d had the money. All they owned had gone toward their oldest, though he’d died a year before Eight had been born. His roll had been unlucky—less than twenty. That wasn’t even good enough to pick out a name, so they’d had to go with the randomly generated one. A good half the people in the small town of Culmart had similarly random names.
The other three times he’d been there had been with his wife to bring their elder children. Three times, they’d bought a +5 for the roll. The eldest had rolled a 13 and become a hunter. Ten years later, he was killed tracking boar in a local forest. Both daughters had rolled a 45, giving them a great shot at solid attributes, only there had been a raid. It was unexpected—there had been no way of knowing it was coming. Ringold’s green lixes had swept in to grab all the initiated girls. And by the time the baron’s forces had burst into the town, it had been too late. The whole thing was over. The lixes had disappeared into a portal, their captives disappearing along with them. Eight’s wife was beside herself. Her grief wasn’t for long, however, as she found herself pregnant once again that very same evening. But the god turned its back on her that time—even with her chances of dying during childbirth just 2%, she got incredibly unlucky.
Left alone with his son, Eight got to work. He took any job he could find no matter how much it paid and even if it meant leaving the child alone for weeks. That was fine—the god’s servants took care of children. And after living as ascetically as possible, Eight had come up with an unheard-of amount: a hundred and two gold. Of course, he had to sell his house, not to mention the clothes off his back, to pick up even that little bit extra. But there he was in front of the altar, resolute in his determination to do everything he could for his son.
“Farmer-883-PR8, welcome to the temple. What brings you here?” the god asked lifelessly. Eight shivered. The voice, bereft of emotion, raised the hackles on his neck, giving him the urge to fall down on his face before the god’s majesty. But he couldn’t do that without losing the blessing. There was something else he was there to do.
“My son’s initiation.” Eight held out the year-old boy. Lithe silver snakes appeared, wrapped themselves around the child, and pulled it toward the shimmering film by the wall. The locals called it the eye of the god.
“Your initiation request has been approved. Would you like to modify the initial data?”
“Yes,” Eight replied decisively. “I’m giving all my coins for the bonus as well as…”
The man faltered. Saying the words turned out more difficult than he’d been expecting. Back home, as he’d practiced his short speech, it had been easy to get out. But there, in front of the god, Eight stopped short. Who was he to ask something like that?
“One hundred and two gold were deducted from your account. The current bonus is +10. Would you like to modify the initial data?”
“I give my life for my son!” Eight blurted out, finally gathering the courage. His body shook. That time, it wasn’t from cold; it was the fear. He’d just doomed himself to certain death.
“Offer received, currently processing. Note! Confirmation needed. By sacrificing yourself for your uninitiated child, you don’t just give him additional bonus points. You also spawn a monster whose main goal in life is to kill the child.”
Eight hadn’t heard about that. Actually, it hadn’t been that long before that he’d found out it was even possible to sacrifice his own worthless life. Busy cleaning some animals, he’d overheard a conversation between two traders who’d somehow found themselves in his neck of the woods. One of them had been boasting about buying his son two victims, having paid their families large sums. The move had significantly boosted his son’s initial chances. Eight liked the idea. And while he couldn’t afford any slaves, what he was able to give for his son was his own life, doing everything he could to make sure his son’s was anything but the one he’d been cursed with. Death was worth the reward. Of course, he hadn’t known about the monster, but that wasn’t bad enough news to give him pause. If it took creating a monster, so be it. He had confidence that his son would be equal to the task.
“I confirm it!” he said as he hit the green square in front of him. When the god demanded confirmation, mere words didn’t cut it. Action was required.
“The life of Farmer-883-PR8 is valued at +22 to the bonus. Current bonus: +32. Initial settings accepted, the monster was generated. Rolling now. Farmer-883-GGN43 rolled a 71. Applying bonuses. Note! Farmer-883-GGH43 was renamed Tailyn Vlashich. Note! Tailyn Vlashich rolled better than 100. Mana initiating. Village elder informed. Tailyn is released from paying taxes until sixteen years of age. Between sixteen and twenty-one, the tax will be one crystal a year. Beginning at twenty-one, the tax will be adjusted to account for his achievements. Tailyn Vlashich initiation complete.”
But Eight heard none of that. His body had crumbled to the ground, a black dust that seeped away, after he’d done everything he could for his son. At the same time, somewhere deep in the Black Mountain, a black lix opened his eyes. His mother gone, the child was alone. If he was strong, he would survive. If not… His dozen brothers and sisters also needed food. Before she’d left the cave, his mother had glanced over at her youngest child and grinned. She knew which of her children would be leaving the cave they’d been born in. The newborn had a mana bar below its life meter, the first of the black lixes to have one.

Chapter 1

You found an Ordinary Loach (32).

Tailyn Vlashich grinned happily as he dropped the flower into his bag. The god was merciful that day. It wasn’t so often he found more than five flowers, and that made thirty-two in the space of just the morning. Mistress Valanil was going to be happy to see him. And if he could come up with another eight loaches by the end of the day, he would have four silver coins coming his way—a fortune for a ten-year-old kid.
The boy gave himself another mental pat on the back for his courage and ingenuity. Heading up into the ruins had been the right move. While the adults generally kept their kids away from the ancients’ ruined city, Tailyn’s guardian couldn’t have cared less about him. The god’s laws made it illegal to send anyone with a mana bar to do physical labor, and the town elder wasn’t about to invest time and energy in someone leeching off society. Paying for the kid was enough of a burden.
For a long time, the boy just wandered the streets, unsure of what to do. His friends were all off working the fields, chopping wood, or mining stone, picking up at least one specialization in the process, but that wasn’t an option for Tailyn. Master Isor, his guardian and the village elder, announced that the treasury just didn’t have the thousand gold it would have taken to develop the sponging slacker. And while the god gave kids without mana a random work specialization when they turned six, Tailyn was going to have to wait until he turned twelve. Only then would he be permitted to stand before the god and find out what his life held.
It was only Mistress Valanil, the local herbalist, who took pity on the boy. She couldn’t teach him the herbalism skill, though what she could do was draw the flowers she needed and explain where they grew. And with that, the boy became an herbalist, albeit without the requisite skill, crawling around the fields as he compared every flower he found to Mistress Valanil’s sketches. It was quiet outside the city. The guards had long since destroyed all the monsters, leaving nothing there to threaten Tailyn. And the herbalist even paid him one silver coin for every ten flowers, which stunned and amazed him. Without his own expenses, as Isor begrudgingly paid for everything, the boy had managed to save up enough over two years of work to buy one divine gold. One day, he would have the courage to head over to the temple and make that happen.
Tailyn had decided to pick his way through the ancient ruins not far from the city that day. It was a forbidden area, which was why boys headed that way to pick up their “valor stone” as soon as they turned six. That proved they were grown up and ready to work for the good of the town. And while the adults didn’t like it, a quick glance at their own stone sitting on a shelf reminded them to keep their mouth shut. Nobody had any intention of stopping a tradition that had already lasted more than a thousand years.
Even Tailyn had a valor stone. It was lying on a shelf in his room. Otherwise empty, the shelf made it painfully clear that he had no other evidence of his bravery—no weapons, no loot, nothing he’d mined or chopped himself. Even the flowers he picked for Mistress Valanil refused to find a home there. Until the boy unlocked herbalism, the plants wouldn’t be accepted.
Taking a deep breath, Tailyn headed onward, his path taking him higher and higher. His notes told him ordinary loaches grew in the sun, peeking out between rocks, with three bright-red petals each. Everything similar except for a different color was the dangerously poisonous shark flower. Mistress Valanil had instructed the boy not to touch them—doing so could result in the kind of enormous burn she’d earned herself when she was little. A shark flower had cut straight through her protection.
After finding his way to a high ridge that turned out to be free of flowers entirely, Tailyn decided to take a quick break. He pulled up his attributes. For whatever reason, staring at the semi-transparent window floating in front of him calmed him down.
Status table
General character information
Tailyn Vlashich
No class
Shield level
Mana level
Attack (physical)
Attack (magic)
The numbers in the table were low, lower, in fact, than any of the other children in the town above the age of six. But there was nothing Tailyn could do about that.
The most important entries in the table both clocked in at one: his level and his yearly tax. And while his level more or less made sense—it only increased when he did something extraordinary like enrolling in a magic academy or completing a mission from the god, should it deign to come down and offer one—things were more complicated when it came to the tax. Everyone paid a tax starting when they turned sixteen, be they a lowborn peasant or the emperor himself. May he enjoy many years of health. Crystals were extracted from the ancients’ deepest mines by the country’s most esteemed workers: miners. Being a miner meant prosperity. It meant everything. And since people with mana weren’t sent to the mines, Tailyn was worried his fate lay elsewhere. Crystals were all sent to the capital, where the emperor personally gave the god its due on behalf of his subjects.
Nobody knew what coins were. At least, none of the other boys had ever heard so much as a rumor. Gold, sure—that was what you could buy at the god’s temple for two hundred silver coins so you didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing your treasure.
The shield level was his personal protection. It formed around everyone as a gift from the god they received at birth, increasing by one with each passing year. From what people said, it also had something to do with your level, though there were too few people in the town who’d gotten past level one to tell. Mistress Valanil, who was all the way up at level twelve, had promised to tell Tailyn all about that when he turned twelve and got his class.
The mana level was something like the shield level. It also increased with each year, only Tailyn had no way to use it. Without special skills, mana was just as useless as the magic attack value that was tied to it. The boy really had no idea what it was about—Master Isor, the only adult with mana, categorically refused to answer any questions on the subject. Of course, there was one more “lucky” kid with mana, Master Isor’s son Dort. He was a year older than Tailyn and already had the designer skill. The town had obviously come up with the money for him. But no matter how hard he tried, Tailyn couldn’t make himself call Dort master. The kid was small, scrawny, a young version of Master Isor. Three years before, Dort had been torturing an innocent dog when someone gave him a walloping. Master Isor had lost it, assigning to him a couple adult blockheads looking to become city guards. The thirteen-year-olds had clear orders to protect his darling Dort from all enemies. Six months later, the whole thing had gone to Dort’s head, and the rest of the kids were under his sway. That went for Tailyn, too. Every week, he was supposed to pay one whole silver coin, otherwise his back was introduced to a club. And that was as dangerous as it was painful. With each year that went by, the guards grew stronger, and it was a matter of time before they were going to be able to take out his personal shield, leaving him defenseless against the world. Getting the shield back would have been nigh on impossible… The only option would have been to head over to the temple and beg the god for pity—he certainly wasn’t going to find an elixir off in the middle of nowhere.
If that last attribute, physical attack, had been higher, Tailyn would have tried to stand up for himself. It determined how hard he could hit with his bare hands. And yes, if he’d had a club, his attributes would have increased his attack strength, but who was going to give a nameless parasite a real weapon?
Suddenly, Tailyn heard the sound of rocks falling. He froze, straining his ears. While the city of the ancients had long since been explored from one end to the other, weirdos occasionally did show up to see if they could find something valuable.
“Careful!” called Dort’s annoyed voice. Tailyn pressed himself against the rocks in an effort to disappear. It was a good thing he’d gotten as high as he did—the elder’s son never traveled alone, and if his guards caught Tailyn, he would be in for a beating. Just to make sure he didn’t spy on them. They’d even take his flowers, which meant he needed to stay quiet and hope they didn’t notice him.
“What’s he doing here?” one of the guards boomed. A boy of sixteen, Meron’s voice had just started to change, making it easily recognizable.
“None of our business,” Dort shot back, and Tailyn practically stopped breathing. The elder’s son was usually polite to his own. But something had happened, he was nervous, and that intrigued the boy hiding among the rocks.
“Hey, you little ruffians, I’m over here!” an adult voice shouted. Taking a risk, Tailyn poked his head up. Just a bit below where he was hiding, there was a man who definitely wasn’t a local. His bonus clothing gave that away instantly. Only Master Isor and Mistress Valanil had access to them, and the voice didn’t belong to either. Tailyn’s stomach tightened—a stranger had shown up in their valley. Did the elder know? What was he doing there?
The hood pulled low over the stranger’s face kept it hidden. Soon enough, Dort appeared riding on Meron’s back. Climbing up the rocks was apparently too great a humiliation for the elder’s magnificent son, though he was annoyed with how the big lunk kept losing his footing.
“We agreed you’d come alone!” the man snarled rudely. Dort begrudgingly climbed down and gestured for Meron to head back where they’d come from. The latter was only too happy to beat a hasty retreat.
“Did you bring them?”
“Father told me to take a look at the goods first,” Dort replied. “That was the deal.”
“Go for it.” The stranger pulled his cloak open; Dort gasped. Tailyn’s curiosity skyrocketed. “Good enough?”
“Y-yes.” The elder’s son had even developed a bit of a stutter. “H-how many do you have?”
“Plenty. What about the crystals? How many did you bring?”
“F-five. Here, l-look.”
Tailyn’s eyes grew wide as saucers when the warm blue light bathed the area. Dort was holding its source in his hands—a translucient crystal. Just owning one was tantamount to treason, a crime punished by death with no chance of reprieve.
“Just five?” the stranger asked, dissatisfaction tinging his voice. “Why so few?”
“They’re c-closely monitored,” Dort replied, though he was quickly interrupted.
“The deal was for ten!”
“You’ll have the other f-five in a month.”
“And that’s when you’ll get the goods! But I’ll take these five now.”
“What?! No!” Dort exclaimed as he hid the crystals in his pocket, though the man’s arm shot forward in response. A rope snaked its way around the boy’s neck. The stranger was holding the other end, and a jerk pulled Dort over to him. Unable to breathe, the boy wheezed. Cold metal flashed.
“Either you hand them over nicely, or I pick them off your dead body.” The heavy voice meant nothing good. Sweeping along Dort’s leg, the dagger blade left a long bloody streak—the boy’s entire protection was gone just like that. He squealed like a pig and tried to pull away, but the man was holding him too tightly for that.
“You have five seconds to… What was that? You were followed?!”
Tailyn’s stomach sank. In an effort to see just a little more, he’d leaned forward slightly and accidentally knocked a pebble off the edge of the ridge. And while it may have been small enough to be barely noticeable, the sound it made as it hit the ground was like rolling thunder. The stranger whirled around, and the boy practically hiccupped in horror when he realized he’d been spotted. Jerking Dort closer, the man growled into his face.
“The crystals! Now!”
The elder’s son squeaked inarticulately as the space around them was once more bathed in blue light. The stranger grabbed the crystals and squeezed his fist closed. Something snapped, and Dort’s body twisted in agony, thrown to the side as the man dashed up the ridge without even taking the time to check the boy’s inventory. He couldn’t let anyone see him there. There would be time to deal with the idiot who came with the elder’s son later—in the meantime, he had to deal with the spy.
Dropping the crystals into his inventory, the man began clambering up the rocks. And while his whip remained ready to pull back anyone he found, there was nobody to be seen. He leaped up onto the ridge, looked around, and cursed quietly. Someone had definitely been lying there. Not long before, even. But while the man didn’t have any tracker skills, he didn’t need them to figure out which way the spy had dashed off. He set off running into the heart of the dead city, finding the spy his only option.
Tailyn ran senselessly. All he could see was Dorn lying broken on the rocks. Behind him, something hissed, and he ducked just in time, a snap above his head eliciting a cloud of rock dust. Sweeping straight through the stone, the tip of the magic rope left a deep furrow behind it. Just a little lower…
That kind of fear had never gripped Tailyn. His reason out the window, he was left nothing more than an animal fighting for its life. He slipped, his body hit the ground, and that was when he heard the next hiss—with another cloud of rock dust, the whip cracking directly above him. His pursuer was barely an arm’s length away.
“Stop right there!” yelled the stranger practically in the boy’s ear. Crazed by fear, Tailyn leaped toward some thorn bushes, and the man’s swing came up empty. He cursed and unfurled his whip yet again. It was time for the final blow. The boy, a nimble little lizard that kept squiriting out of his grasp, needed to be destroyed. Nobody could know that a crystal fence had been in the area.
The whip stretched toward its victim and…wrapped itself one more time around nothing but air.
Tailyn could only see what was happening directly in front of him—his peripheral vision was gone. His hearing was, too. The world was a place bereft of sensations, fear having taken complete control of his body. All he could do was run. Straight ahead. Straight—
The area the thorn bushes were growing in looked firm enough, only “looked” was the key word. Before he’d taken two steps, Tailyn felt the stone give way beneath his feet. The fear kept him running, unable to swing his arms, but there was nothing left in front of him. It was empty space. Tailyn was hurtling downward, not even noticing the whip’s last futile attempt to grasp hold of him.
Darkness and uncertainty came up to meet him.
Hitting the ground practically did Tailyn in. His head spun, and he saw stars, but his shield held up. Landing on an earthen mound, he tumbled down the incline. And with his crazed mind still pushing him to run, he leaped to his feet as soon as he stopped rolling. He picked up speed, hurtling downward without paying any attention to where he was going. There was barely time to watch where his feet were landing. All he could think about was putting distance between himself and the scary person who had killed Dorn.
It was the fear that saved Tailyn’s life. He wasn’t watching where he was going and didn’t even notice that he was running like a crazed stallion—all he did was push on ahead. The earthen mound ended. His feet found their own way, jumping from rock to rock. The light barely filtering in through the hole was enough for his subconscious to just make out the boulders. But he had to slow down, one final leap taking him over to a rough stone wall. Noticing a slight glow, the boy ducked into a recess and stopped still. His body shook, and he wanted to gulp down air, but the fear had taken him from flight to freeze. And while his head spun from the lack of oxygen, the boy held on, trying to breathe as infrequently as he possibly could. The stranger’s shadow blocked out the sun. Tailyn stopped breathing entirely—it was time to play dead.
The crystal fence carefully made his way over to the crack. It was an unlucky break, exactly the reason he hated the old cities. There were tunnels and gaps everywhere, all formed as the buildings left behind by the ancients millenia before had crumbled and decayed. Everything that could rot had rotten, metal included. All that was left was the stone and some unusual structures the ancients had made out of both stone and metal—stone blocks had somehow been fitted right around iron cables. In a word, all that was left of the ancients were the rare items given them by the god that had managed to survive the thousands of years since.
The man listened intently. Nothing. Looping a rope around some nearby rocks, he carefully made his way over to the very edge. It was a deep fall, at least five stories. Presumably, the boy’s body had shattered on impact. It wasn’t visible, but that was probably because it had rolled off down somewhere among the rocks. Still, there was a reason the crystal fence was still alive and kicking—if there was any doubt, he had to see for himself. There was no way he could leave behind any witnesses.
Tugging on the rope to make sure it was knotted tightly, the man tossed the other end into the gap, eased himself over the edge, and started down. He had to find the boy.
Tailyn watched the assassin as he descended, the boy somewhere between living and dead. He’d done everything he could—run, hide, almost die. But it hadn’t been enough. The dangerous enemy was coming for him. Coming ever closer. Coming to end the life of the nobody who sponged off everyone else, which was how Master Isor put it. Tailyn shoved himself deeper into the niche he’d found, finally stopping to make sure the strange glow was completely covered. Presumably, he was sitting on some mushrooms. He needed to get rid of them, as they were going to tell the assassin exactly where he was, and so Tailyn twisted slightly. But he froze just before his foot kicked at the treacherous glow.
There were no mushrooms.
Instead, three strangely shining items were lying on the ground—gifts from the god. One looked like the same kind of bag Mistress Valanil had, only with more compartments and pockets. The second was a bent metal device complete with a button. Tailyn had never seen anything like it before, the same true of the third item. It was a square with something you pushed. His hands were reaching out on their own when a message popped up:

You found the place where Lavr Nalin, a level 23 human, died.
Virtual inventory with 36 slots received.
KORT-II ray pistol received.
Last Statement recording received.

Everything inside Tailyn went cold—it was an ancient. The spot was presumably the grave of one of them, and the little idiot had just disturbed it. A thousand calamities were going to come crashing down on him, the god was going to turn its gaze away, and… To be fair, the god had already turned its gaze away. What could have been worse than the assassin making its way down the rope? The stranger had just gotten to the earthen mound and was looking around to find the boy’s tracks. Tailyn swallowed and pinned a hand against his stomach as he felt the spasms beginning. But suddenly, the god decided to begin talking with him.

Would you like to integrate your virtual inventory?

The usual square buttons appeared in front of the boy, who tapped yes. Something changed. Next to his status table, there was a new picture the god used to open a large field full of cells when he hit it. That was a surprise, and it told the boy that nobody had turned their gaze away from him after all. The god was still there regardless of the fact that he’d found the grave. The other kids had been shooting hot air, apparently—there was no punishment for finding the ancients.
With newfound confidence, Tailyn picked up the L-shaped device. There was only one way to press the button, and when he grabbed the device the way it was supposed to be held, it began modifying right in front of him.

KORT-II adapting to new user.

Tailyn squeaked in surprise.
“Ah, that’s where you are!” the stranger called happily when he noticed the boy. “You’re a hardy little guy.”
Tailyn turned and pressed himself deeper into the niche. Fear began to cloud his mind. It wasn’t every day a terrifying assassin wanted to squash you like a bug, and so he cowered, holding his shaking hands up to shield himself.
While it wasn’t a great spot to use his whip, the crystal fence didn’t particularly need it. The boy was right there. He was alone, defenseless, holding…
“Hey, what’s that?” the man asked in surprise. “Where did you find it?”
The boy was definitely clutching something from the world of the ancients. It would go for a good hundred gold in the Zarila market, maybe even more. Heading down had turned out to be the right decision—besides the five crystals, he was going to be picking up a mysterious device. It was the kind of great day he was going to celebrate with a nice bottle of booze.
Through the haze of fear, Tailyn saw the stranger getting closer and closer. He cursed the moment he’d decided to head into the ruins looking for flowers, the moment that damn pebble had fallen over the edge of the ridge, the moment he’d slipped into the hole into the ground. All he wanted was to be home listening to Master Isor yell at him.
The stranger’s hand reached out, and Tailyn closed his eyes, squeezing himself into a tight little ball. It was the end.
After a short shriek of pain, a silence fell in the cave.
Tailyn saw the messages the god was sending him even through his tightly closed eyelids.

You killed Elass Jing, a level 4 human.
Note! KORT-II marked for disposal.
KORT-II ray pistol removed from circulation.
Compensation received for lost item: you can begin the initiation and receive the attendant specialty.
Analyzing human Tailyn Vlashich and his belongings.
3 alchemical scrolls detected.
Generating class…
Your new class: Alchemist.
Attendant specialty unlocked: Alchemy.

Tailyn’s body bent over double in excruciating pain. He wanted to howl, only he couldn’t breathe, and the yell stuck somewhere in his throat. As his mouth foamed, his eyes opened wide and threatened to pop right out of their sockets, only for darkness to finally fall an eternity later to bring relief. Still, Tailyn’s body continued to convulse as he went through the initiation. The boy was becoming a full-fledged member of the world he lived in.
A world the game had arrived in several millenia before.

Pre-order on Amazon -
Release - May 20, 2020

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