Friday, May 13, 2016

The Citadel by Alexey Osadchuk - Chapter II

MIRROR WORLD Book II: The Citadel
by Alexey Osadchuk


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Chapter Two

Captain Gard! A coincidence? Very possible. Another prank of my mysterious patron programmer? Not very likely. Whoever he was, Andrew “Pierrot” Petrov wasn’t that influential. Mellenville was way out of his league.

What was it, then? Could it be my Trust characteristic finally kicking in? This was a workable theory. Why not? I would be the first to agree that none of it sounded particularly plausible. Then again, anybody could have been in my place. I’ll tell you more: had there been a player back there by the fountain on my first day in Mellenville whose Trust level was one point higher than mine, Tommy would have asked him for help instead — not me.

Then again, what if I was wrong? That was also a possibility. In any case, I had plenty of food for thought.

It looked like I’d managed to lay my hands on one of those multi-step Reputation quests that Dmitry had described in such picturesque detail. If I stuck to my “theory of non- eventuality”, I was looking at a very interesting picture indeed. What had happened could be viewed as some sort of chain reaction. First I meet Tommy. Through him I meet his Mom and his uncle Ronald. Next thing, the system generates a long-term quest tailor-made for me — which was already a bit of a stretch. Actually, had I asked Mila about the name of Tommy’s father earlier, it would have clarified a lot of things straight away.

So that man with a scar from the picture was Captain Gard. In other words, my future commander was Mila’s husband and Tommy’s father. I found it hard to believe that there might be another Captain Gard in the game. Oh. Hadn’t Mila told me her husband served on the border? At the time, I hadn’t paid any heed to her words. Oh well, lesson learned. If I wasn’t mistaken, of course.

Actually... I got the impression that an NPC’s status in the city directly affected the size of quest rewards. No wonder players flocked around the Mayor’s and Chief of City Guards’ houses. I could understand them: they wanted it all and they wanted it now. But as a rule, their kind didn’t last in Mellenville. It didn’t take them long before they gave all these Reputation quests the finger and left for the more mob-rich locations to prove their prowess. I had nothing to do with the likes of them.

I just hoped that Captain Gard was a powerful figure in this game.

I had to stay in Ronald’s house for another half-hour. The moment Mila had learned about my mission, she immediately wrote another letter recommending me to her husband as a friend of the family. Things seemed to be working out. Better still, things were definitely looking up! It’s true that some high-paying player might find my petty reputation exploits a worthless waste of time — and my forthcoming trip to the Frontier, an exercise in senility. I didn’t care. I didn’t give a damn what anyone might think about me. As Weigner had rightly said, each Mirror World player had his or her own agendas.

I walked away and bade my farewell to the city. I especially liked the Flower Boulevard which led directly to the portal station. I could have taken a shortcut via Craftsmen’s Alley — my route of preference in my errand-running days. But not today. Today I wanted to take my time to admire the beautiful flower arrangements that the city florists replaced daily. Many years ago I’d happened to be in Beijing on business. They had put me up in a small, tidy hotel. My windows faced a square. Can’t remember its name — nor that of the hotel, either. I remembered surprisingly little of that trip. Everything around me had been happening too fast. Besides, it hadn’t been a long visit — two or three days at most.

The one thing I did remember was my awakenings — or rather, what I could see from my window every morning. An enormous flower bed occupied the center of the square. Beijing is absolutely packed with them. In October, the city is full of flowers and greenery. So this particular flower bed — my flower bed — used to change its pattern and color scheme every morning. On the day of my arrival, I admired its blue blossoms. The next morning, I expected to see the blue and green patch from my window — only to be greeted by a red and yellow floral dragon. I froze by the window open-mouthed. Later I was told that a special team did nightly rounds of the city in their van, changing patterns on some of the city’s flower beds.

The Flower Boulevard was very similar in this respect with its blossoming turquoise arches, colorful statues of magic animals frozen in fancy poses, its snow-white fountains and bright shrubs fashioned into fantastical shapes. Today of all days I was desperate for my girls to see their splendor. For the first time in the many hours I’d spent in Mirror World, I made myself a solemn promise that one day I would show all this to Christina and Sveta.

The portal station met me with its habitual bustle. Actually, this place revealed the players’ respective gaming experience like no other. Newbies stood out like a sore thumb — they always did. And it wasn’t even about their yellow name tags: more about their behavior. Take the two Alven girls who’d just stepped out of the portal. Their eyes were about to pop out, their heads seemingly turning at 360 degrees. Despite their rather high levels, the girls grinned from ear to ear, behaving like village schoolgirls on their first trip to a big city. Heh! I’d only stayed here for nine days but already I felt like a local.

I froze in front of the ticket terminal.

Greetings, Olgerd!
This is Portal Terminal # 4578.
Would you like to buy a ticket?

If you say so.

Please choose your destination.

Last night, I’d had plenty of time to look into this seemingly innocent request. Mirror World’s meager info portal had offered me lots of options. Getting to the Maragar Citadel required two transfers. Or three, rather — but the latter, as I understood it, was nothing to look forward to.

My future duty station was located at the very edge of the Lands of Light. Which was probably why the game developers had decided not to create a direct portal jump to the Maragar Citadel. Why would they, if they could extract more gold from the players’ virtual pockets this way?

I had several possible routes which didn’t differ much, after all. I could make the first two jumps without even leaving the portal stations. Their choice made no difference: they all cost the same.

The Maragar Citadel and Its Environments was an enormous location that was divided into several smaller sub-locations, instances and one-horse towns. My initial itinerary was Drammen Town where Lady Mel’s emerald fields were located. That was where I’d have to sign up in her local office. There were quite a few other little towns in the area: our Lady Mel, a.k.a. the Lady of Storms, had laid her groomed hands on quite a large chunk of real estate during the clan wars. Drammen suited me fine — mainly because it was quiet. Or so it was described on gaming forums. As for the third and last transfer... as I’d said I wasn’t looking forward to it. Especially considering the fact that I’d have to take it at least twice daily.

The thing was, the only way to get to the Citadel was by crossing a rather large location known as the Wastelands. And that, let me tell you, was something — at least that’s what the few eyewitnesses used to claim. A wide prairie inhabited by all sorts of in-game creatures — which were, unfortunately, equal doses of advanced and nasty. In other words, my level zero precluded me from as much as showing up in that part of the world.

Still, every problem has a solution. As practice shows, human ingenuity knows no limits. Some of the more entrepreneurial players who must have realized that the Citadel would always be a Mecca for Reputation pilgrims had thrown together a quick and quite lucrative business: the Caravans.

I wasn’t exactly sure how it was supposed to work but some forum members swore by their reliability. Very well. We’d have to see, wouldn’t we?

I scrolled through hundreds of place names, finally settling on Drammen.

The chosen destination requires a double transfer.
Please choose the first transfer point.

I clicked randomly on the list of towns offered.

Cost: 20 gold.
Warning! The effect of teleportation will cause your Energy level to drop 500 pt.
Confirm your purchase: Yes/No


Thank you! Your name has been added to the Portal listings. You can teleport when ready. Have a good trip!

So that was basically it. I’d chosen my destination. I’d bought my ticket. Time to bid this station goodbye. I wasn’t likely to come back here for the next month at least.

Before entering the portal, I cast a look around. What was awaiting me there? I just hoped I wouldn’t end up as some mob’s breakfast on my very first day in service. And I still had to get to the Citadel!

Never mind. Off we go!

As I stepped into the portal, I glimpsed a player standing next to the terminal I’d just used. His face was half-concealed by the hood of a dark cloak. One of the magic classes, apparently. From where I stood, I couldn’t make out his name or level. Nothing special really: just some guy standing by the terminal.

It was his eyes. The wizard’s glare bored a hole in me. When our eyes met, he swung round and headed toward the exit.

For a few moments, I watched him go but he never looked back. Could I have been mistaken?

Paranoid? Probably. Never mind. Now I really had to go.

* * *

Oh. This Drammen Town was a right hole! I could already feel that staying here was going to be a bunch of laughs.

Cold rain pelted me from the moment I’d exited the portal. A game it might have been, but I was cold and miserable just like in real life. The local architecture had some leaning toward gothic which made a nice backdrop to the lousy weather and knee-deep mud. Yuck. How had I managed to get into this cesspit after the neat sunlit Mellenville? I only had to hope that the rain wouldn’t last.

The system’s greeting set my alarm bells ringing too, especially its last part,

Greetings, Olgerd! Welcome to glorious Drammen Town!
Warning! Type of climate: moderately aggressive
Warning! Players below level 80 are advised to abstain from visiting Drammen.

I just loved it. Already I felt like turning round and diving back into the portal in search of sunnier climes.

I hurried to install the Drammen and Its Environments app. As if sensing my impatience, the bot helpfully highlighted the route to Lady Mel’s offices. Off we go, then!

The first drawback declared itself soon enough. After only a few minutes of walking, I was soaked. Cold raindrops hammered my face, sending rivulets of water trickling down my beard as I waded through the mud. What was the local Mayor thinking of? Or was he simply past caring about his town’s Reputation? If the game developers wanted to let players experience the entire scope of the doubtful allure of Frontier life — they had succeeded brilliantly.

Drammen indeed turned out to be a very quiet place. Too quiet, I’d say. Apparently, forum users had been careful not to alienate any potential newcomers.

As I walked, I met no one. The town seemed dead. Actually, I could understand them. They were probably sitting by their nice cozy fireplaces in their nice cozy houses, snug as a bunch of bugs in a rug.

Finally the bot brought me to a dark gloomy edifice with the familiar sign depicting Aquila — the Roman legion’s eagle. It was already 11 a.m. but no one seemed in a hurry to answer the door. I couldn’t see any potential workers impatient to get down to work, either. Apparently, business wasn’t booming.

Never mind. Hadn’t Weigner told me not to bother to clock on but to go straight to the mine and start working? Still I thought checking in was a good idea. I went on knocking.

After ten more minutes of unsuccessful door-bashing, I gave up and entered a new address into the bot’s memory. My conscience was clear, anyway.

It took my satnav a few minutes to guide me to the town’s center. Or should I say, to its poor excuse for a center. The dark gloomy buildings, some in a bad state of semi-repair, created the impression I’d somehow ended up in one of those vampire sagas.

The good news was, the road was getting considerably better as I progressed. Although no one had bothered to switch off the rain, at least the place was relatively mud-free. My first steps along a street paved with ugly uneven cobbles felt like absolute bliss. I’d only been here a half-hour and already I was prepared to run for my life! Which must have been exactly what the game developers wanted players to feel. Very well. In your freakin’ dreams.

I still had another five-minute walk to the caravan office that pushed its services under a sign saying The Guiding Eye when a system message popped up,

Warning! Your Hat and Boots have lost 1 pt. Durability.

Was this a joke? I reread the message. It didn’t look as if it was. No one was poking fun at me. Apparently, local rain had this destructive effect on a player’s clothes. No wonder the street was empty!

I stepped it up. I wasn’t going to lose my expensive gear to some stupid rain!

As I pushed the caravan office’s door, I was darker than the thunderclouds hovering over this abominable excuse for a place. My walk through the town had cost me a few points of my clothes’ Durability. I had to look it up on some forum or other. I couldn’t remember seeing anything about it anywhere. The admins must have kept a close eye on official resources. Their strategy was quite clear to me: players had to learn from their own experiences. And still I found it quite annoying.

I entered the caravan office and stood there, slightly lost. I hurried to check the bot — but no, it had taken me to the right place. Could it be that the app was out of date? Thing was, this place was anything but a caravan office. I saw rows of crude tables and wooden chairs and a bar, as well as several thugs patrolling the entrance.

Excuse me? As if confirming my doubts, a system message reported that I had the pleasure of entering the Boiling Pot Inn which offered barbecued lamb with onions and other veg as tonight’s piece de resistance.

A few players sat at the tables. The place didn’t seem too popular. I studied their faces. They looked drawn and expressionless as if the men were sleeping with their eyes open. They paid no attention to me whatsoever. They must have been studying the info portal to while away the time.

Despite the building’s gloomy exterior, the Boiling Pot’s rooms looked considerably homelier — cozier, I’d say. An enormous fireplace breathed heat by the far wall. The floor and the walls were lined with wood. I’d expected myself to walk into a dark stone trap — and God was I happy to be wrong!

Mud squelched in my boots as I crossed the room toward the bar. Oh. I’d made a right mess of their floors. I just hoped they wouldn’t take offence. Having said that, their cleaning lady needed to earn her skill points too, LOL. She might even make a new level mopping up after me.

“Good morning, Olgerd! How can I help you?”

A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman smiled at me from behind the bar.

“Good morning, er... Talina.”

She cast one glance at my drenched clothes and smiled her understanding. “It’s some weather outside, isn’t it? Wasn’t very clever of me to wish you a good morning.”

“It’s all right,” I waved her apology away. “I appreciate your concern. As for the reason of my being here... I have to admit I feel a bit lost. My satnav must be playing up. I was looking for the caravan office but it brought me here instead.”

“Don’t worry,” she answered with another little smile. “There’s nothing wrong with your bot. The Guiding Eyes meet here in my Boiling Pot. There’s no point in them renting an office space. They’re constantly on the go.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “I see now. I was afraid I might need to go out again, you know. Into the great outdoors.”

She nodded knowingly. “That’s what we can do,” she suggested. “Varn — the caravanners’ leader — won’t be here for another hour. I suggest you install their app. It’s not big but it might take some time for you to study. I can see you’re soaked. You must be completely frozen. I insist you take a seat by the fireplace. This way you can combine business with pleasure. In the meantime, I’ll fetch you a nice hot cup of tea. What would you say to that?”

“Excellent,” I smiled back. “You’re so kind. This place isn’t at all as gloomy as I thought it would be. Thank you!”

“Thank you,” she replied, than added with a bitter note, “Kind is an overstatement, I’m afraid. It’s just that my brother Varn is a certified penny-pincher. He knows I’m kind as you say — and he uses it.”

It was true that I’d been slightly puzzled by her involvement with the caravanners’ affairs and the fact she’d suggested I install their app. But now the picture was clear. This was a family business. I could never understand people who were eager to discuss their family in front of total strangers. Not that she’d said anything negative about her brother, but still. Personally, I was a very reserved person in this respect. I could never air my family’s affairs in public. Neither did I enjoy listening about somebody else’s.

“Actually,” I hurried to change the subject, “seeing as your brother isn’t coming for a while, I’d love to have a quick bite to eat. The smells coming from your kitchen are irresistible.”

She flashed me another smile, followed by a system message offering me a download of the aforementioned app.

I sat back on a broad bench and stretched my legs, offering my feet up to the fire. Oh. It felt too good. A well-deserved meal and some warmth were definitely welcome.

Let’s have a look at their app, then.

It was indeed small but very informative. Just as I supposed, The Guiding Eye offered both transportation of passengers and their protection. It had over twenty routes to choose from, complete with security guards. In my particular case, the guards’ levels were all 100+, even though the mobs in the caravan’s path were below 90.

Never mind. What did I expect? They needed to make their living too. Me, however, with my miserable level zero was more than dependent on their services.

The transfer from Drammen to the Citadel took about forty-five minutes. Cost: fifteen gold. Multiplied by two trips a day: that’s thirty. Costly but doable. Not as comfortable as portal travel but I couldn’t do anything about it. I’d made my bed and now I had to lie in it. It was already a good thing there was a commute available, allowing me to come and work here daily. At least I’d save some money on the rent! I could only hope that living in the Citadel barracks was worth it. Jesus. How on earth had I managed to walk into all this?

The caravanners had their own discounts too. They offered a choice of travel passes: for ten, twenty and thirty trips each. I could use the twenty-trip one. It cost 260 gold. I thought I might buy one once I finished reading.

Another important thing: I wouldn’t have to walk these forty-five minutes’ worth of travel. Which in my case was extremely cost-effective. The Guiding Eyes transported their clients in armored wagons which by themselves offered guaranteed protection from local monsters. That’s provided the guards failed to defend the passengers — which, according to the caravanners themselves, was impossible.

I also saw some positive reviews of their work left by top players and respectable clan members. All this looked perfectly kosher. No sign of any strings attached.

“You! Are you warmer now?!”

The threatening growl distracted me from my musings. I raised my head. A giant Rhoggh towered not two paces away from me. Name: Varn. Level 150, he was hung like a Christmas tree with stabbing and slashing weapons. The grimace on his fanged mug was apparently supposed to denote a smile.

This was one tough guy. If all the caravan guards were like him, it wasn’t that bad after all. You wouldn’t want to mess with Talina’s brother.

“Yes, thank you,” I managed a smile.

“You’re the one who wanted to join a caravan?” he asked, taking a seat opposite. The crude bench creaked its complaint. I got the impression that the inch-thick tabletop was buckling under the weight of his elbows.

“Exactly,” I hurriedly assured him. “I’d like to buy a twenty-trip pass. To the Citadel.”

Varn bared his teeth in a scowl which seemed to signify his satisfaction with my words. Strangely enough, his toothy grin betrayed no surprise. They must have seen a lot of guys like myself. My mentioning the Citadel didn’t seem to throw him, either.

“Oh well,” he growled. “If you’re happy, I’ll forward you the contract.”

* * *

Once we’d signed the provisional agreement, he said, “There’s one little problem.”

I tensed. “What’s up?”

“It’s this wretched weather, dammit. We can’t get to the Citadel until tomorrow night.”

“You don’t mean it!”

Talk about bad news. I was going to lose another day, almost. And I needed to report to Captain Gard. This was bad. Very.

Seeing my jaw drop, Varn tried to reason with me,

“You need to understand, in weather like this you’d better steer clear of that location. Traveling cross-country in this weather is not a walk in the park. I wouldn’t like to be seen there on a night like this. Let alone you, with your zero level and unprotected gear. Cheer up, man. The local wizards say it will clear up by tomorrow night. This place doesn’t have weather forecasts. It’s all different here.”

I fell silent, digesting the news, as he impatiently tapped his curved claws on the tabletop.

“Right!” he finally said. “I’m sending you a friend request. I’ll contact you tomorrow to let you know the departure time.”

“Okay...” I mumbled, deep in thought, as I mechanically accepted his invitation.

This was a far cry from Mellenville. Mellenville! This was worse than Leuton even. This was exactly what I didn’t need: unscheduled transfers that depended on weather conditions. Between my serving in the Citadel and working in Drammen’s mines, popping my clogs seemed to be only a question of time.

When Varn began to rise from the table, I finally came round and hurried to ask, “What did you mean by unprotected, er, gear?”

He chuckled. “It must be your first visit to this kind of place.”

“Why, is it so obvious?”

“Sure,” he nodded. “Anyone in the Glasshouse can tell straight away you come from more neutral climes.”


“Yep. You might have noticed that it’s rather damp here. It’s like this virtually all year round. Winter is even worse. We have snowstorms and freezing temperatures. I can see you used to work in starting locations.”

“I didn’t realize it was that obvious,” I said. “Now I’m curious. What else can you say about me?”

He grinned. “That’s not difficult. I’ll bet you got some cool quest and hurried over to the Citadel to complete it. Which doesn’t happen very often to zero levels. The Citadel is not a good place for the likes of you. The best you can do is finish your quest and fuck off back home.”

He was right, of course. While I’d been sitting here reading up on them I’d noticed there wasn’t a single Grinder in the room. All players here were level 100 give or take.

“You don’t see many working-class heroes here, do you?” I asked.

“We do and we don’t. But loners like yourself don’t come here often.”

“I see. I’ll keep that in mind. You still didn’t tell me what’s wrong with my gear.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “For a zero level, it’s actually quite decent. Now you need to add some elemental protection to it otherwise it won’t last long, not in this kind of weather. Water eats through Durability like hell. If you get soaked, you can expect all sorts of surprises. I can see you already noticed that.”

“I did. It’s not a good thing. The info portal said nothing about it.”

“The info portal!” he guffawed. “You know anyone who reads it? Want a tip?”


“Go to the auction and have a look around. Check out the prices. They have everything there. What you need is elemental protection called Anti-Humidity. That’s the only kind you need for the time being. Right, I’m off. See you tomorrow.”

He waved me a clawed goodbye and headed for the exit.

I followed his massive bulk with my stare. He might be right — I really should do some market research. Seeing as I had time to burn.

Elemental protection, he said? Let’s have a look.

The auction’s search engine helpfully offered a dozen pages of relevant results. They had all sorts! Protection from humidity, sunshine, cold — you name it. I also saw lots of things that might fit my pet. Not that I needed them at the moment. My Prankster and I, we were doomed to remain level-zero for the rest of our in-game lives.

A message from Varn interrupted my studies. I jumped. I’d completely forgotten I’d added him to my friend list.

Olgerd, I’ve been thinking. This might be interesting for you. There’s a local shop called Rainbow. They sell all sorts of cool stuff. I’m not sure but I think they have elementals too. The owner’s name is Nilius. Tell him I sent you. Here’re the shop’s coordinates in case you’re interested. Take care! Don’t get your feet wet!

The message ended with an active link highlighted in blue. Opening it would make my bot create the optimal route.

I thanked Varn and clicked it. Let my bot do its job. Why not? I could use a walk. I had plenty of time till tomorrow night. Information was always welcome. I just hoped I could glean something from the shop owner.

Before leaving, I made the necessary arrangements with Talina to secure a room for the night. I walked out without saying goodbye to anyone. The rain was pouring down now. If it rained in hell, that’s exactly what it would have looked like. Not as wet even.

Apart from the optimal route to the shop, my bot had helpfully offered me a list of all magic-trading shops in the area. The choice was admittedly modest but this Rainbow place had some competition, that’s for sure. Supposing that Varn received a commission for every customer he sent Nilius’ way, no wonder he’d bothered to PM some humble Grinder. You’d think he had nothing better to do with his time than offer free tips to noobs. But if he received a nice little bonus every time he meted out his advice — that was totally different. Then again, why should I care? Everyone needed to earn a living. He probably had to feed his family or pay for his studies.

I ran all the way to the shop. A couple of times I slipped and very nearly stumbled over the cobblestones but it was worth it. I entered the shop with a satisfied smile: I hadn’t lost a single Durability point.

The Rainbow’s interior was styled like an alchemist’s lab: carved wooden cabinets and shelf after shelf of all sorts of little pots and vials.

Behind the counter stood a middle-aged man. A thick black beard hung down to his chest. He was wearing a large beret and a long dark green robe.

I couldn’t see the wizard’s name even though I already knew it. An NPC, apparently. That was a surprise. How interesting. I understood Varn much better now. Sending me here must have been part of a quest he was doing.

“Good evening, sir. How can I help you?” the wizard asked with a friendly smile.

“Good evening,” I replied, fighting off my desire to tell him everything I thought about this “good evening” in this wonderful place. “I’m looking for Nilius.”

“Who sent you here?” the wizard asked, businesslike.

Oh. So my new friend wasn’t his only “agent”, apparently. “Varn did.”

I struggled to remain serious. He looked so much like that shaggy French comedian, Pierre Richard. Why not? If you shaved off his beard and removed his beret you could cast him in the French original of The Toy instead. Heh! Actually, he might look better in the beret...

“Is everything okay?” the wizard asked.

“Sure. Fine. I... I just remembered something. I hope you can help me. Varn says that you might have some protection for my clothes.”

“Ah,” he smiled, “you’ve come to the right address.”

Once he’d said that, his nametag appeared above his head. Excellent. The ice was broken.

“What exactly do you have in mind?” Nilius paused, then waved his own question away. “Why should I even ask! It’s Anti-Humidity, isn’t it? You must have already appreciated all the joys of our local climate.”

“You could say that. Think you can help me?”

“Of course. Take a look at this.”

He produced several small boxes and laid them out on the counter. They looked eerily familiar.

“Runes?” I asked.

“Not quite. Elemental protection.”

He gingerly opened one of the boxes. What did he have here? Small — about half the size of the palm of my hand — flat teardrop-shaped tablets made of glass. He had four kinds of them — or rather, four different colors: green, navy blue, purple as well as some made of regular transparent glass. I focused on the latter.

Name: Vann
Type: Elemental protection, regular.
Effect: +5 to Resistance to Humidity
Restrictions: none

I gave each a quick check. The purple ones were the most powerful: +20 to Resistance to Humidity. The good news was, all of them fitted me. Now all I had to do was ask about the price. Actually, taking the purple ones wouldn’t be such a good idea. They were for Master-plus and seeing as I didn’t want to blow my cover prematurely, I decided to make do with the blue ones.

“Master Nilius, would you be so kind as to tell me how these undoubtedly wonderful appliances work?”

“Oh! Absolutely! I’d be honored! Seeing as you asked me yourself... Actually, it all depends on the degree of the environment’s aggression. For instance, you have no need for these transparent elements. Even if you attach them to each and every item of your gear, it still wouldn’t be enough. The easiest and cheapest option would be to buy a regular cloak with +50 to Resistance to Humidity. This would last you the few days it normally takes one to sort out whatever business one has here and leave these rainy climes for good. In other words, the transparent elements are only good against some gentle sun-shower in one of the Southern provinces. Now the green ones... they’re actually quite popular among office workers, shop assistants and tavern owners.”

“In other words, they’re good enough for a quick dash from building to building,” I said.

“Exactly. They might suit you as well. You’re going to work in a mine, aren’t you? Having said that, the local mines have high humidity levels but the green elements manage the problem perfectly well.”

“I appreciate your being so open with me.”

“My pleasure,” the wizard hid a flattered smile within his beard. “I’m not a profiteer. I’d never try to capitalize on a customer’s ignorance.”

“Which means I’m doubly lucky to chance upon you,” I played along. “How about the remaining runes?”

“The blue ones are popular with all the local Grinders who work outdoors. They have an excellent track record in this part of the world. And as for the purple ones... a proud owner of a full set of those might even take a marathon swim in our local river without having to worry about the state of his gear. Which is only my conjecture, of course. I’m still going to put this idea to the test. I hate swimming in icy water, you know.”


The wizard laughed happily. He seemed all right. Never mind that he was only an NPC. But the game developers! What a bunch of sharks! The info portal said nothing about damage from the elements. It was, like, come and get soaked so we can sell you some elemental protection. As soon as I logged out, I’d have to do some quality research — spend a week looking it up if necessary.

“So, what have you decided?” the wizard’s voice shook me from my musings.

“Oh yes,” I said, resurfacing. “Sure. I might take the blue ones.”

“Good choice! How many would you like?”


The good news was, elemental protection was considerably cheaper than malachite or sapphire runes. A full set of blue ones was going to cost me two hundred and ten gold. Where was the catch?

“A word of warning,” the wizard said. “You can’t install the elements onto items. They can only be installed onto runes which in turn have to be installed first. In your case, a Vann Elemental Set would only fit a set of sapphire runes.”

This was the answer to my question. In order to protect themselves from Humidity, players would have to shell out for both the runes and the protection itself. And one other thing. Had I still been a Seasoned player, I’d have had a hard time battling the local elements. Now I understood why Lady Mel’s offices were permanently closed — I wouldn’t be surprised if the lock itself had rusted solid. What Grinder in his right mind would come here to work in the mines? To suffer the cold and humidity damage when he or she could happily work in some normal location with a neutral climate?

I wondered if Weigner had known about this. If he had, it might mean that he needed me more than I needed him. Old fox! Never mind. We’d have to have words about it later, that’s all. It looked like visiting the local HR was a total waste of time. I had to follow Weigner’s advice and head directly for the mines.

Which was good news, really. I might still do my daily quota, provided the local emerald fields weren’t located too far away. I’d have to check the map.

“I’ll take them,” I said to the wizard. “All seven. They will fit my set of sapphire runes just fine.”

“Great news!” Nilius seemed sincerely happy. “No amount of rain can damage your clothes now. Just make sure you don’t abuse them. It wouldn’t be a good idea to stay out in the rain for hours at a time.”

I nodded. “Thank you. May I install them here?”

“Absolutely! Be my guest!”

After about ten minutes, I left the shop. My characteristics sported a new line:

Resistance to Humidity: +105

Oh well. This was one good thing. At least now I didn’t risk losing all my clothes at the least opportune moment. I imagined my gear melting like soggy paper... yuck.

It was a good job I’d come to this particular shop. Firstly, because of the discount. Even though auction prices for elemental protection were cheaper, Nilius’ offer had made it worth my while.

Secondly, in the absence of the Internet I’d gleaned quite a bit from my conversation with the wizard. I’d learned a lot about other things — like different kinds of elemental protection to name just one.

Thirdly, I’d received a quest. Which was only natural, considering that Nilius was an NPC. I could understand Varn’s enthusiasm much better now. His job was to advertise Nilius’ shop to all and sundry. In return, Nilius offered his “agents” some decent discounts and bonuses every time they needed something from his shop. Good system.

The rain was bucketing down. Perfect weather to check out my new acquisitions. I purposefully stepped into the next puddle that chanced my way. My boots stayed dry! Ditto for my clothes: they too were dry as if covered with a layer of protective film. Excellent.

Cold raindrops pelted my face; rivulets of water ran down my beard. Still, I was smiling. Things had turned out not as bad as they had originally seemed.

As I stepped into the next puddle in my way, I noticed that my experiments had an audience. It took me a few more moments to realize:

I was being followed.

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