Thursday, November 10, 2016

Dark Paladin: The Beginning by Vasily Mahanenko

Dark Paladin: The Beginning
by Vasily Mahanenko

Release - Feb 7, 2017
Preorder here -

Is it easy to survive in the game world? You could say yes, if you didn’t know what the additional conditions were. They are unusual: it’s the real world in which you have lived all your life. The enemy, craving to destroy you. Your own class who couldn’t care less about you. Are you still sure that survival is easy? Then welcome to THE GAME! It will prove you wrong.

Chapter One. Birth of the Paladin

THE ARMY OF ORCS led by Yargul headed to the tall forests of Idilrance. The wood elves were planning to bring a great mage of the past back to life the one who had destroyed half of the world, so the orcs decided to interfere and show the whole world once again who were the true rulers of Zalta. Along enormous chords the army of orcs was moving towards the woods without even noticing…

“QUIT PICKING YOUR NOSE, you grunt! Three laps around the drill field once we get back to the base!” The sergeant’s booming voice jerked me out of my dreamland. The orcs evaporated from my imagination like a ball of ice cream on a server under peak load – fast and frying the motherboard in the process. Clinging to the side of the APC I stared at the mountains gloomily: four hours in a dusty metal box never made anyone happy. Particularly on a narrow road. When I started imagining horrendous monsters under every shrub it became clear: my brain needed a reboot. The orcs came to my rescue, saving me from the monotony of the ride, but the sergeant destroyed them ruthlessly, totally blowing all the fun. I wouldn’t be able to run three laps after a ride like this. Not even if I walked. I wasn't sure about crawling, but I wouldn't want to have to find out.
Scheduled patrol of the area around the base on three APCs was our commander’s weekly fun. Sometimes he made arrangements with a platoon of contract troopers from the neighboring base to ambush us “to keep the grunts on their toes.” On those days a dozen or so powerful fighters would attack us and knock us out – purely for instructional purposes. So that we would not lose our edge! Those of us who managed to roll off from the vehicle onto the ground and start shooting blanks at the appearing “enemy” the troopers did not bother: these soldiers were considered to have lived up to expectations. We were shooting blanks; only the commander had live ammo. Of course, the middle APC also had the battle large caliber NSV machine gun, but no one was allowed to even come close to it. There was just that one time, in the mountains, when the commander let us take a couple of shots from that wonder of military technology. It would be impossible to convey the feeling of great power completely controlled by you! At that awesome moment I felt like I could level the mountains, only provided the machine gun had enough ammo! Sadly, this only happened once in the whole year of service and by now it felt like a dream. Sweet and pleasant, but still a dream. The rest of the time we either waited for the troopers to attack or trundled along narrow roads. Bloody romantic!
“You crowbag, is your bag hanging down?” The hoarse rough voice of lance-corporal Fagov came from the other side of the APC, and the privates on his side guffawed in unison. Some stand-up comics, my ass! Fagov was the worst wacko old-timer in the platoon and taking it out on the newbies for his sordid childhood. He managed to take the top spot even among his peers. When a huge thug, almost two meters tall, whose face brightens with intelligence only when he is straining to take a crap, is hanging over you it’s hard not to acknowledge him as a leader. There was an unspoken rule among the privates: never argue with Fagov. He would yell some, wave his arms in the air, hit you a couple of times, but it would only take a minute for his attention to switch to something else. His attention span was something remarkable – like a baby’s.
Lieutenant Sintsov, our platoon commander, included all three of his squad sections in today’s patrol. Twenty-seven knuckleheads and three sergeants. You didn't need a crystal ball to understand: today was when he planned the massacre of the innocents. Sintsov must have arranged it with the contract guys again! Formally we were listed as paratroopers, but it was beyond me to see a hidden paratrooper among the brush and stones – a real professional and not a cheap imitation like us. I didn't even try. Instead I quietly sat at the side of the APC, didn't bother anyone, clutched my useless assault rifle dreaming of elf girls, hot shower, soft bed and treating my surroundings as if they were just a figment of my sick imagination.
“Did you go deaf, you?” Amazingly, Fagov had not forgotten about me. “Think you're immortal?”
“Check that!” shouted Sintsov from the second APC. “Smarty-pants, if you keep picking on the young ones, I’ll send you to the right place right away. They'll make the first part of your name very true very quickly! Shut up and look sharp! Homemade Rambo…”
In reality all of the above was conveyed in highly specialized military curse language that most of the army speaks. Most of what I understood were prepositions, and I guessed the overall meaning based on the emotional content. Before I joined the army I practically never had to curse so actively, so any communication with the lieutenant turned into an educational session. He managed to shoot out such strings of obscenities that my eyebrows crawled up and a smile appeared on my face: Sintsov combined incompatible things, but it all worked out so smoothly that I was just left in wonder at the capabilities of the Russian language. I was sure that no other language could possibly deliver, with such flourish and effectiveness, a single thought into the soldiers’ minds.
“Return to base!”
The command that sounded about five minutes later triggered a unanimous sigh of relief: no massacre today. The troopers never attacked on the way back considering that extremely rude. The troops were returning to base, so it wouldn't be right to interfere with them. Looking forward to resting soon, the soldiers relaxed and were smiling feeling like they were nearly home…
But suddenly …
I never understood why the leading APS was thrown into the air. There was no explosion, no noise or dust – but suddenly the huge metal vehicle buckled like a nervous horse and rolled over. I clung harder to the side of my vehicle, stunned, staring at the blood that appeared from under the machine. Several soldiers were crushed! To death! What kind of blasted training could that be when people were being killed?! Some force pulled on my boot making me fall on the ground. The sergeant. Cursing like mad he was grabbing the grunts, pulling them down from the vehicle, kicking them to force them to lie low to the ground. Hanging on to the useless assault rifle I was nervously seeking the enemy who must have lost it. After the drill someone will get it real bad!
“Issue live ammo!” came a shout from Sintsov, making me hug the ground harder. What did he mean, live ammo? There was a set of live ammo in each APC; it could be accessed only by the senior sergeant, but to issue live ammo on patrol? Had Sintsov taken a hard hit on the head?
“Catch!” as soon as the magazine with red tape wound around it fell in front of me I heard the lieutenant’s wild scream:
“Get down!”
I didn’t stare at the magazine, I pulled it under my body, raised my head and saw one of the soldiers running to the nearest line of trees. He almost made it. When the trees were just within reach, the private suddenly stopped, standing straight still and then, like an activated cracker, burst into hundreds of small bloody pieces.
“It blew Vas up!” Fagov screamed in a panicked voice, “— А-а-а! Take it, bastards! You're all dead!”
To say that I was shocked would be a gross understatement. The sight of the exploding body just turned my brain off. I turned into a motionless mannequin, dumbly staring at the bloody boots: all that was left of the soldier. Chaos broke around me: shots, screams, orders to cease fire, but none of that existed for me. Just the boots stained with blood. Then, suddenly, silence fell. It was so terrifying, so physical, that I let go of the assault rifle and pushed my face into the ground, as if trying to dig deep into it. It seemed that the silence would cause my eardrums to rupture at any moment! The silence!
The overturned APC with several crushed bodies under it suddenly exploded into shards turning into a huge shrapnel bomb. If I had not pushed my head into the ground fighting the overpowering silence, a huge chunk of the armor would have become my personal guillotine. The silence dissipated, replaced by pleas for help, screams of pain and the monotonous hum of a working transformer. I lay on the ground completely unsure what to do – we were never taught anything like that in boot camp. I didn't see the enemy; all the fire came from our side. From fear my muscles were so cramped that every move was painful. All I was able to do was to clutch my useless assault rifle. As if it were a life ring. Live ammo was near me but it did not even occur to me to switch magazines. I dully noticed that my shoulder was ripped practically to the bone; there was a lot of blood but I felt no pain at all. As if someone had switched it off.
“Retreat!” I heard from somewhere ahead. “Cover us!”
Who was I supposed to cover, and from what? What was I supposed to do generally?! One of the sergeants jumped up on the second APC, turned the machine gun in the direction in which the column had been moving and took a few shots, looking like he knew what he was doing. After this all hell broke loose.
Here is a sergeant, standing and shooting at something. Bang, and there is no sergeant. Only the rain of bloody scraps tells you that a moment ago there was a person here.
Here are three surviving privates from the first APC jumping to their feet and running towards us. Bang, and they are gone. Just the bloody rain again, without a single shot. What are they shooting at us?!
“Private! Follow me! On the double!” I heard the squad sergeant’s order next to my ear.
I lifted my head dully and looked at our sergeant without seeing him.
“Get up, damn you! Swap the magazine and follow me! Quick!
I was not sure what affected me: the clear command, the sergeant’s awful appearance, the sight of exploding soldiers, or Fagov frozen between the APCs, staring with terrified huge eyes at the soldiers exploding next to him and not even attempting to drop to the ground. Maybe he thought he was a hero. Who knows? I sprang to my feet, switched the magazine to live ammo and, without thinking that I too could turn into bloody rain, started for the APCs. The only way to provide cover was the machine gun; the assault rifle would not help much. The most important thing was to make it there.
Several steps away from the vehicle I tripped, ploughing the stony road with my face. My arms immediately came into motion, lifted the assault rifle and aimed it at a man slowly walking down the road. His arms were covered with unnatural fire. Actually, they weren’t his arms – the man’s fists were covered in blue and gold flames as if two magical fireballs had flown into our world by mistake and stuck to the stranger’s hands. The dark cloak streaming behind him and the hood covering his face made him look like a character from some computer game. A Warrior Mage.
The man took another step, raised his hand and just a few steps away from me another bloody cloud formed; the sergeant’s remains showered the ground.
А-А-А!” I screamed, pushing the trigger. For the first time in my life I was shooting at a living person, but at that moment the thought did not bother me in the least. If this prick was to blame for everyone around him exploding and dying, he must be stopped.
I sent bullet after bullet at the man coming towards me, but something weird was happening. At the shooting range, on average I hit 40 points out of 50 but now all my shots went nowhere. It’s not like I missed him they just dissipated! Small fiery flashes appearing right in front of the walking man indicated that my aim was good, but the shots produced no result at all. I’ll be damned! This freak had some kind of mean protection device! A normal assault rifle wouldn’t do it, I would need a more powerful weapon!
The NSV!
Two dark cords of fog swiftly snaked from the enemy’s hands. They bent around the APC that I was using for cover and rushed onward. A scream of horror joined the cries of pain. I turned my head and saw the APC of my squad floating about two meters off the ground. It started growing smaller. Like a balloon that had lost all its air. “Back to the taxpayers!” A thought flashed through my mind, and then blood started pouring from the shapeless heap of metal. Someone had stayed in the vehicle to the last.
“All the way!” Sintsov rushed with a wild roar from somewhere behind the bushes. Shooting at the oncoming enemy using one hand, as the bullets produced the fiery flashes which I recognized, the lieutenant was carrying several grenades in his other hand as he ran towards the enemy. He’s right! If it’s impossible to destroy the defense from outside you could try to blow it up from the inside!
Having seen Sintsov I threw away the spent assault rifle and jumped onto the APC. Fear left me when the lieutenant appeared: now I knew with certainty who I was supposed to “cover” and from what. I am a soldier who must fulfill his duty until the end! The whole side of the vehicle was covered in blood but it didn't bother me anymore; there would be time to throw up later. If there was a “later”. I had never thought that in a critical situation like this I would be able to act calmly and rationally. Having reached the machine gun I aimed it at the enemy and nearly lost all my determination: the lieutenant was being torn in half! With just two hands! Along his body, completely ignoring the armor vest! Sintsov’s torn-off arms were lying on the ground a few meters away: he never made it with the grenades.
“All the way!” I whispered, tightening my fingers on the trigger. The enemy turned and I was overpowered by hellish pain. I felt as if I was skinned alive, doused with salt and thrown on hot embers while acid poured over me. Pain dimmed my mind, something warm trickled down my legs, I could not move a single muscle. I was unable even to draw in some air for a scream. At the edge of my consciousness I felt the NSV start shooting. If I were to die, I would die fighting.
I was rammed in the chest and thrown a few meters back; both my arms were torn off. The last thing I saw before fainting was a bloody fountain gushing from where the enemy’s head had been. The torn-off arms still pushing on the trigger did it: the enemy was destroyed. The rest was not my concern…
All the way!

New user initialization in progress
Choose a name

Darkness retreated instantly, as if someone had thrown a switch. A moment, and I became aware that I was lying on my back staring at a snow-white ceiling. I felt no headache, no sleepiness, no nausea – the standard symptoms of vodka overindulgence. The only thing breaking the pattern of my usual world were strange messages obscuring the ceiling. Perhaps they were the reason for me finding myself in the hospital: someone had figured out that I had a bout of DTs. I could also feel that something was not right with me: the battle I had dreamt about was so bright and vivid that it seemed real. Ha! Why would warrior mages show up in our reality? They would only appear to someone who was seriously intoxicated.

Choose a name

The apparition refused to disappear, thus confirming its unnatural origin. It was amazingly similar to a standard game message used by all computer games, and it kept floating in front of my eyes. Even when I closed them to rest from the whiteness of the hospital room. I would have to report this to a doc, that I'm having residual hallucinations. Perhaps they'd give me some pills? I opened my eyes and finally looked around. White walls, white ceiling and the white floor on which I was lounging so comfortably. Everything was white. Even my clothes were white. I noticed with significant relief that my arms were still attached to the right places. The nightmare I had just gone through was so realistic that I was in doubt for a few seconds. But no, my arms were in order and working properly, so there had not been any mage. Besides, how would something like that appear in real life? This is no game after all.

Choose a name

Blasted thing! Oh well, that would not do! Something needs to be done with my head or else they will stick me in a loony bin for sure. Could this be a test? The guys had been saying that close to our base there was some kind of a top secret facility; could it be that I'd been shipped off to there? The brainiacs there figured out that I have a gaming problem and so they fitted me with undetectable lenses similar to G*-Glass and were now sending their messages to me? Perhaps they were now watching me and placing bets on how soon I would start bashing my head against the wall.
“Sergey Lemeshev!” I stated my name clearly, wanting to proceed to the second part of the test.

You cannot choose the name used by you during life
Choose a name

During life?!
“This is not funny!” — I screamed, trying to fend off the panic “what kind of a stupid joke is that?”

Name chosen “This is not funny”
Save changes?

When to huge buttons backlit in white "OK” and “Cancel” were added to the messages I could not take it any longer and tried to pull the lenses out of my eyes. May they all rot in hell! I never agreed to that, and did not want to keep taking part in this absurdist theatre. Pretend I am dead, my ass. For jokes like that people end up in court in a flash!

Waiting time expired, changes will be reset
Choose a name

The buttons disappeared. But they took my self-control with them: there were no lenses. I clawed at my eyes mercilessly, but the messages would not even budge, as if they appeared directly in my head. As if they were outside of this world. Just like me!
“NOOOOOO!” I screamed bitterly, refusing to believe the obvious: the battle had been real. I happened to die at the hands of a warrior mage, and the place where I came to was purgatory.
On this note my consciousness could not take it anymore and faded, sending me into a faint. The mind refused to accept my own death.

Choose a name

I did not know for how long I stayed unconscious. But at some point in time I came to, and realized that it was not a dream. Not a figment of my sick and feverish imagination. Not someone’s mean joke. I really did die, and now for some reason it was proposed that I take a new name. I wanted to howl and scream, close my eyes and leave this nightmare forever, but the persistent message would not leave. Quite the opposite – it became brighter and shone more intensely as if it worried that I might have missed it. Besides, it grew larger, by now filling most of my field of view. I looked at the silver letters with open hatred, and growled the first name that popped into my head:
“Yari! Yaropolk!”
Over the last seven years this name had become so much a part of me that many called me that even in real life. Few remembered that the skinny guy was named Sergey, but many knew me as Yari or Yaropolk. The Paladin of Light, damn it! I registered with that name in all the computer games, which were the reason, by the way, why I ended up in the army after college rather than getting a fine job. To be more precise – because of which I decided to serve a term in an army that would definitely not offer any online games, so I could get rid of my game addiction. I used to spend ten hours a day playing those games, forgetting about the real world, so the idea to do a term in the army where no online games would be available for sure seemed ideal to me. Since the games were the reason why I ended up dead, let them atone for this at least by that name.

Name chosen: “Yaropolk”, short name “Yari”
Accept changes?

Two buttons appeared and I realized that unless I pressed “OK” immediately, the changes would reset again and I would have to stare at that loathsome message some more. Unable to figure out a better way, I stared at the button, mentally commanding it to push itself. I recalled a situation from my life: there was a time when I had sat in front of my cat for the longest time and tried to hypnotize him in a similar way. I wanted the stupid animal to succumb to my superior mind and start talking, but all I got was a cat who lost interest and turned away from me, and a broken cup that I shattered in my rage. As an ESP I was not much.
Once I replayed in my head the situation with the cat and compared it to my current situation, I started laughing so hard I bent over. I had never laughed like that before. All the comedians in the world stood in no comparison to my yawning cat and my rage. Laughter swelled within me, trying to bubble over and show its overwhelming emotional power to the entire world.

Name accepted
Character race determined
Character is being generated

At some point the wild uncontrollable laughter was replaced by tears; I completely shut off the "manly” side, which was supposed to be strong as granite and not feel any excessive emotions, but which was drowning in tears. I died. I will never see my relatives and friends. Some bastard in the magic coat destroyed me like a fly, tearing my limbs off before killing me. And now I am in a purgatory for gamers, where they are made into computer game characters; this process does not resemble anything else. Such a simple hell for hardcore gamers – to stay an NPC for the rest of eternity.

Character generation complete

I wanted to tell everyone to get lost, but suddenly someone turned off the light, and my consciousness along with it. Something blinked and I heard some voices nearby:
“…the patient is steadily declining. We are struggling, but there is no improvement so far.”
“Is there any hope?”
“No. He was treated too late. We can keep him going for a couple more days but then he will slip away.”
“That’s a pity. This soldier saved fifteen people and destroyed the enemy. Another hero to be rewarded posthumously. I’ve seen so many of them already…”
Something blinked again and the voices changed:
“…final journey. He will live forever in our memory!”
“My son, my darling...”— the familiar voice of my mother, full of tears, sounded right next to my ear, followed by a burning touch of lips to my forehead. Hey, mom, I'm alive!
Something clunked dully, then I was jolted and found myself again in the room with white walls.

Choose character class

A colorful window popped up in front of me, showing a lengthy list: mage, hunter, priest, druid, warrior, fighter… hundreds if not thousands of lines appeared before me; once I focused my gaze on one of them an image instantly appeared. A mage casting lightning bolts; a shaman calling on the spirits; a warrior crushing all around him; a druid working with plants. I stared at the dance of the images, but basically couldn’t see anything. After I heard my mother’s voice I felt so low that I mumbled without even listening to my own words:
Leaving for the army I did not give much thought to what my mother’s life would become if she stayed alone with my twelve-year-old sister. But now it felt like a band tightened around my chest: mom was slaving at two jobs to make sure there was food on the table and clothes for us; she did everything she could to make sure her babies knew no hardship. She forgave me constant gaming and mediocre grades. She rejoiced when I entered college and shook her head in bewilderment as I decided to join the army, but never said a word against it. According to her, I would need to choose my own path… So look where all that choosing landed me…

Current class: Paladin
Initial settings complete
Character level: 1

A status bar, standard for games, appeared at the bottom of my field of view once again, informing me that I had gone into the game. Emotions faded as tears dried up, so I decided to take another couple of minutes to assess the abilities of my character. If I was destined to continue as a computer unit, I should know what it could do.
Drawing on the experience I already had pushing buttons, I stared at the icons in the status bar and issued a mental order: “Open”. Immediately a semi-transparent window appeared, covering practically my entire field of view.
Yari, Paladin, human. Level 1 player. Points needed to progress to next level: 1000. There was also something called “Specialty”, but it wasn’t clear what it covered or what advantages it conferred. There was Energy. What was that for? Another unknown. I could not help noticing the absence of the familiar indicators: Strength, Intelligence, Agility, Endurance and Life reserve. All games had these five core indicators in some way or another. Sometimes it was even considered that games without these words were perceived to be deficient, but the game in which I happened to end up could not care less about that. Energy was a be-all and end-all here…
By the way: where was I?
Judging strictly by how I felt, I was still alive. I could hear I made a noise to verify that, just in case. I could see: the white walls served as confirmation. I could feel and breathe I could do anything! I could even think! The conclusion was obvious: I had no idea what was going on.
If I were a gamer, then where was my character? If I were a character then where was my gamer, and why did I have a certain degree of freedom? If I was both gamer and character at the same time, how could that be possible? And finally – even though it was a rhetorical question anyway, but still – what would happen if I were killed?
The questions went unanswered. No window appeared with a detailed description of the game, nor did I see a specially trained character who would bring all the newbies up to speed. There was nothing besides the semitransparent window and the white room. I bit my lip in annoyance; the pain I felt was quite real. I kept studying the tabs.
Spell Book. A book appeared in front of me, floating in the air and iridescent. Now it was blank, but a strange feeling of recognition overwhelmed me. Right! This was the Spell Book from the game “Heroes of Might and Magic III!” Exactly like it! The same massive book with the pages yellowed from age, sporting several currently inactive bookmarks and funny icons. Someone’s into plagiarism! Either the HoMM3 developers or the game itself!
Generally I was very glad to see that magic could be used in the game. I would bring forth the truth by my sword as well as by my word. I liked Paladins because they were universal: in each game I’ve played this class was capable of performing all sorts of functions: tank, healer, fighter. Role selection depended exclusively on how many of your fingers were thumbs. If you had just the right number of them, you could become a healer or a tank. If you had a few too many, shaky and crooked and liable to keep your character in some puddle of fire — only the fighters for you, only hardcore. Mostly, the hardcore task would be for the healers trying to cure the twit with the last drops of mana and screaming into the mike to get that moron to come out of the fire. Besides, afterwards the healers would be the ones having to put up with “The healers suck! They can’t do nothing! Ham-handed noobs! I'm leaving!”
Location map. While it had several available scales, in all the modes my map was covered in fog. There was not a single hint as to where I was or where I needed to go. Very informative indeed.
Personal inventory. A small shimmering shelf invited me to put something on it. It was so tiny that it would house three or four books, not more. Five centimeters long and ten wide; my personal inventory storage space reminded me more than anything of the line I read at the initial screen: “Newbie”.

Initial character familiarization is complete. Are you ready to start the game?

I looked at the buttons angrily and smiled without humor. To hell with you! If my fate is to become a game character, there is no sense in delaying it. Sooner or later it will happen anyway.
An electric shock jolted me, making me faint. Once I felt my body once again, I realized that I was lying on my back. In complete darkness. And I could not move a single body part. I was not even breathing!
If I could have drawn some air, I would have screamed with all my might. Not because I was afraid of darkness – because I was afraid to stay like that for the entire rest of eternity. What if my role was that of a paladin locked in a tomb, never to be found? Hundreds, thousands, millions years of solitude! While you could go mad here in a week!
“Shit, that’s new,” – suddenly my solitude was broken by a hoarse voice – “looks f…ing fresh.”
“Squint, what if there’s no shit there? Why should we bust our ass for nothing?”
“Shut the f… up! I saw the old hag at the funeral – she was crazy as f…! Could have easily thrown something in with that bastard. Look, what if there’s a medal there? That’s no shit! Petrovich’ll give us a couple of bottles of vodka for it, and maybe some money too!”

Body control will be available after return to world. Wait.

I was found! Guys, friends, pull me out – quick! I am here! I am alive!
The wild fear that had washed over me a few moments back was replaced by complete happiness. I didn't even bother with the thought that I was in a coffin; the joy from knowing that the darkness would soon recede filled my whole being. Somewhere at the periphery a thought flashed that since I was lying in a coffin the diggers must be grave robbers, who would not want to have extra witnesses. They could hit me over the head with a shovel or hoe sending me back to the grave. This time for good. But all of that flashed somewhere at the back of my mind and vanished right away: the anticipation of returning to the world pushed everything else aside.
“Squint, I’m tired of digging! Why in hell did they have to dump him so deep in?”
“F..ed if I know! Come on, there’s just a dick’s width left! Suck it up and dig harder! Here it is!”
There was a sound of metal hitting metal.
“I got the box! Whack it here, it’ll bump the lid.”

Full body control reached. Game world: Earth. Local time: year 2015
Have a great game!

Absolute darkness dissipated replaced by the twilight of a summer night and the dim light of a lamp. In addition, there were two dirty bearded mugs staring at me with interest from above.
“That was an ugly one for sure,” one of the diggers drawled, and I was immediately overwhelmed by a wave of sensation. I felt the cold, something sharp pricking my back, clumps of earth sliding down, but the most important thing I felt was that I really needed air.
“Aaaargh!” I sighed noisily, stretching my back. Like a young inexperienced diver coming to the surface after holding on underwater without breathing for two minutes. Colored sparks jumped in my vision, my head was swimming, so I sat up purely on reflex, pushing with my hands on the edge of the coffin. With my hands! I had hands! And arms! Two normal working moving arms! This fact cleared my head, the sparks faded and I was finally able to see my saviors, frozen at the far edge of the grave.
“Hi,” — that’s all I was able to say before bending over in a fit of coughing. My chest felt tight, breathing was almost impossible and it felt as I was coughing out what was left of my lungs. Each breath came in with a wheeze, the sparks happily regained their places in front of me, and instead of dizziness there was a huge message that obscured my entire field of view:

Negative effect sustained: “Tomb dust”. Consequences: uncontrollable coughing fit. Duration: unlimited; resets for 30 seconds every 5 minutes. To neutralize the effect drink any liquid.

“Water,”— I croaked, having read the message on something like the fifth attempt. Judging from how I felt, I had already coughed out my lungs and now it was my stomach’s turn. — “Gimme water!”
The coughing would not stop. All thoughts vanished from my head, space contracted to a point and sucked in the entire world around me like a black hole. All I had left was the word “water” that I mumbled like a mantra.
I recovered instantly, as if someone had thrown a switch; there were no consequences from the fit. A number appeared in front of me: “30”; in a second it was replaced by “29”. The countdown! It was resetting! I had only 28 seconds to find liquid and relieve that damned cough! I jumped to my feet, noticing the grave was empty. My rescuers had vanished somewhere, leaving me alone. Ignoring the dirt I started climbing out of the grave, surprised by how deep it was. It was a couple of meters at least! In any case, even when I stood on the edge of the coffin only my head showed above the grave edge. I did not know how tall my new body was, but the old one was a meter seventy three. They really did put me six feet under!
No matter how much I tried I was unable to climb out. Judging from the marks on the soil the grave robbers had used a ladder which they did not forget to take with them. The good thing was they did not whap me over the head with a shovel. Realizing that I would not make it I started digging holes in the wall: I would use them to step up the next time.
The second fit was worse than the first. Once I saw the countdown once again I was surprised to feel wetness on my hands. I stood up, leaning against the wall, as I was tired, and looked at my hands. Hmm… in the moonlight I could see black glistening trails. I smelt it. Nothing. No smell at all. The timer had gone down to twenty when I licked my hand carefully. So what was it?

Liquid consumed (blood) is not sufficient to neutralize the negative effect. Constraint: own blood is not suitable to neutralize the negative effect.

WHAT?! A fit of nausea twisted me in knots right there in the grave. The thought that I would be drinking someone’s blood was beyond my ability for self-control.
Water! Oh, well, to hell with water – I’ll take blood!
The third coughing fit settled my priorities. I climbed out of the grave with one clear thought: the nearest source of liquid would be mine! It did not matter what – or who – it would be. I might not survive the fourth fit.
“I'm not going there!” I heard someone’s voice just as I climbed out of the grave.
“Yes you will!” – a menacing growl stated in response. “Have you gone f…ing mad with your movies? What f…ing zombie?! You should quit drinking, idiot!”
“Petrovich, f..k me if I’m lying, it’s true! Look, Squint still can’t get over it!”
I was so weak I was swaying from side to side: apparently, each coughing fit produced a cumulative effect. I was stumbling on my own feet, my head was ringing, so I could not understand who was talking: the digger or someone else. I could not even figure out all of the words. I looked around; seeing no puddles nearby I steeled myself and started running towards the voices. I needed some kind of liquid and I only had twenty one seconds to get it.
“Water!” I rasped, tumbling into the door of a simple trailer. Most likely it was the office of the local custodian. I did not care what they would think of me – the most important thing was to drink something within the ten remaining seconds. Something, anything! I stopped still at the entrance, looking around the room. I needed something, bottle, kettle… a glass or even a toilet. I would stoop to drinking from the toilet bowl if it meant I could make it within the ten remaining seconds.
Two pairs of eyes were staring at me. Another person was sitting in the corner howling and rocking from side to side. Having found no liquid – there was nothing even on the table – I looked at the people. I’ll be damned!
“It’s him!” — the skinny guy with the beard screamed — “It’s the zombie!”
“Hey chap, who are you?” the voice I heard was quite calm, although wary, and the description appeared right above the man’s head:

Sergey Petrovich Selivanov. Level 3 Reading skill needed to learn the other parameters.

“Fellow, do you understand me at all?”

“Gimme water!”
“What? Talk more clearly!”

“Petrovich, what is he mumbling about?”
Bastards! I hate you! I don’t want this!

“A-a-a-a!” — the bearded one screamed again; then his screams became more distant. I didn’t care: I was frantically swallowing hot salty blood from Petrovich’s neck that I bit. I could not remember how I ended up next to him. I paid no attention that the huge guy was not trying to push me aside – I was reaching for the only source of liquid I could see. I would not have survived the fourth coughing fit.

Negative effect “Tomb dust” is neutralized.
NPC Sergey Petrovich Selivanov has been destroyed. You receive +1 Experience
You drank blood of a live creature. Negative effect sustained: “Poisoning” Duration: 10 minutes.
You have not completed initiation; therefore, you can change race. Races available: Vampire. Accept changes?

Only the two buttons – “Accept” and “Reject” helped me retain my sanity. They reminded me that everything happening around was no more than a game, no matter how real it seemed. I had not killed a person; I killed a common game NPC. The graphics of this one were a little more advanced than the games I was used to playing, but it was still a blasted game!
There was no new coughing fit and the counter disappeared; however, that didn’t make me feel better: pushing Petrovich’s still warm body aside I pushed two fingers down my throat and pressed on the bottom of my tongue to induce vomiting. My body bent in a cramp, trying to remove the source of irritation. Bloody slime mixed with something white poured onto the floor. Once I realized that these were pieces of Petrovich’s skin I had swallowed while biting him, I bent over in another heave. The second fit was followed by a third one, and then a fourth. I threw up until my throat started burning with stomach acid and the salty sweet taste of blood in my mouth became acrid. Suppressing the fifth heave I crawled to the wall on all fours. Too weak to stand up I collapsed where there was no blood, vomit or dirt. My head throbbed, my stomach felt like I would throw up again, my muscles felt like lead, as if I had been exercising for too long. There had only been one time when I had felt so horrible – from food poisoning. The sausage I ate had been spoiled. Curling into a fetal position since I didn’t have the strength to do anything else, I finally paid attention to the buttons. Since they were the only thing that kept me from just curling up and dying.
The buttons never went anywhere; moreover, they stayed in the center of my field of vision regardless of the direction in which I looked. Even when I closed my eyes trying to escape this nightmare for just a moment, the buttons were fixed in front of my internal vision, laughing at common sense and logic. They lured, they shimmered, they longed to know my choice, vibrating with impatience! I felt with my entire being that the longer I delay my choice the worse I would feel. The game system wanted to know how I was going to advance in that blasted game.
I suppressed the initial desire to press “Cancel”. Given that I had actively played a number of games before ending up here, it would be very stupid to reject something before finding out what its attributes were. What are the advantages of the race “human”? What would be the advantages of the race “vampire”? What constraints do both of these races have? The questions appeared in my head despite my awful state, but there were no answers to them. Just the buttons kept shimmering in front of me. Losing it completely I shouted:
“Information! I need comparative information on the races. That’s the only way I can make a choice.”
The last sentence came out garbled as my innards started burning as if they were on fire. I had no idea what was happening to my body now, but I felt clearly that in the next few minutes I would be dead. I did not know if this game offered respawn or if I would just disappear completely, but I did not want to find out. If I was given a second chance at life it would be silly to let it end in just thirty minutes.

Request is granted. Access to Temple of Knowledge is provided.
For the duration of study of comparative attributes time for player Yari is suspended.

The pain vanished completely. Along with it vanished the blood, the vomit, the trailer, and the world around, Everything that had surrounded me just a few second ago just vanished! What appeared instead was the white room where I had been previously. Except that now, unlike during my previous visit, a gray haired man of uncertain age was present. He could be fifty to infinity. Actually, it’s the latter that I was inclined to believe the most. All the Christian pictures showing god right after the creation of the world contained that very image: white flowing clothes, gray hair, kind and understanding gaze. Could that really be him?
“Welcome to the Temple of Knowledge, young recruit,” — the old man said, spreading his arms in a welcoming gesture. — “You have requested information on the comparative characteristics of two races: human and vampire. Your request was reviewed and ruled justified. The information you need is in this scroll. Study it.”
A glass coffee table appeared in front of me with a small sheet of paper on top of it.
“Where am I?” — I blurted out, subconsciously expecting to hear a squeaky rasp. But no, my voice was quite normal. Amazing – a second ago I was writhing with horrible pain and now there was not even a phantom trace of it. As if my consciousness had been detached and relocated to a different place, leaving just the empty shell to suffer.
“Three questions on subjects unrelated to the initial query lead to a ban on access to the Temple of Knowledge for a year. You shall receive an initial warning. For the next unrelated question you will receive a penalty. Pay attention, young recruit.”
Damn! Shut up and be quiet! I had just received a very clear illustration of the expression “A man’s ruin lies in his tongue.” The old man standing in front of me instantly lost the veil of divinity: HE could not possibly be so indifferent to His creations. I surveyed the surrounding space thoroughly. There were no indicators suggesting a time limit for staying in the Temple of Knowledge; I settled down in front of the coffee table. I decided against reaching for the paper sheet: there were no guarantees that as soon as I got it in my hand I would not be thrown back into my body suffering from pain. If someone or something suspended the time for me, I would do well to thoroughly think over everything that happened to me..
Judging from the appearance of my surroundings, I was indeed placed within a computer game, through some incident combining the functions of character and player. Or supposing that I was a player. It was quite likely that in some other world there was a zitty nerd in glasses sitting in front of a monitor and controlling me, making me go in one direction or another. On the other hand, if I were under someone else’s control there would not have been the option to choose a race. Immediately after I had killed Petrovich I should have been turned into a vampire and received a whole heap of info on my new race. However, that was not the case, and I was allowed to visit the Temple of Knowledge. A gamer is not likely to take it well to have a character that decides on his own what path to choose for development. Or it could be a type of game where the character makes decisions independently and the gamer only determines the main direction for development? Damn! You could really wreck your brain on this!
I hadn't spent much time in the game itself, if it could be called that. Even though I was conscious only for a few minutes, now that I was recalling my sensations and the overall environment I could state with certainty: the game did not differ from the world in which I had lived for twenty-three years. Remembering the strange opponent that I had managed to destroy would lead me to conclude that I had been living in the game even before I died. Because it was just an ordinary mage that came out to fight our platoon. Protective magical sphere, flaming hands, the APC soaring into the air… the whole scene of my death looked too much like a fight between a mage and some peasants with pitchforks. Besides, one peasant had managed to stick his pitchfork straight into the mage’s head.
The first question that came up – did I kill him or send him for respawn? Does it exist in this game at all? If so, what is the cost to the player – does he lose a level? Is he rolled back to the starting point in development? Does he transfer to a respawn point? Will he try to avenge his death? Why was I made a player? Is it because I killed another player? Or because I sent him for respawn? Swarms of questions popped up in my head, but they all went unanswered. No one hastened to me with an open embrace to explain the core rules of the world in which I had ended up. The old man became still as a statue. During the entire time that I was sitting on the floor he never moved, waiting while I read the crumb of knowledge allocated to me and returned for more suffering. I was allowed to become one sheet of paper wiser. How could there be anything more valuable than that?

I leaned closer to the paper and read a couple of short paragraphs.

Human. Unpopular game race (0.0092% of all players). Commonly occurs in the following game worlds: “Altair” (82.3376% of players, dominant role in governing the world), “Gliax” (57.0093% of players, dominant role in governing the world), “Earth” (7.4471% of players, advisory role in governing the world). In other game worlds humans constitute less than 1% of the total number of players; have no influence on governing the world. Positive features of the race: adaptability to the environment is 180% of normal. Negative features: initial level of physical and energy state is 20% of normal; rate of increase of attributes is 20% of normal.

Hm… that is a rather interesting description that brings up more questions than it provides answers. Earth is just a game world among others. So, we are not alone in the universe after all and there are other locations where other people live? Not little green men that every second earthling secretly wants to see but just normal people that look exactly like us? Scientists and ufologists of the Earth of my past would have given several decades of their lives for this information. Stop! Now is not the time for figuring out where and how people live. That’s not what I am here for. Even without reading the description of the bloodsucker I could tell that humans were weaker on all accounts. Disadvantages were too great and it was unclear whether they were offset by adaptability. What was it needed for, anyway? I wondered if I were to ask the old guy a question on terminology, would be consider it a question on an “unrelated subject”?

Vampire: popular game race (3.4419% of all players.) Common in 42 game worlds <list of worlds>, playing the dominant role there. In another 172 worlds <list of worlds> represents over 5% of players and takes an advisory position. Absent in 5 game worlds. Positive features of the race: initial physical condition is 150% of normal, elevated resistance to mind energy, accelerated recovery of attributes during nighttime. Negative features: initial energy level is 1% of normal, in daylight rate of attributes recovery is 1% of normal; requires blood consumption at least 1 time per week.

This was the end of information. No classes, directions of development, locations for study and training – there was nothing more. Those in charge of the game considered that in order to make a decision it would be enough for me to have a brief overview of the areas where the races are common and a few words on their features. Very bloody informative indeed!
“You have read the comparative characteristics of the two races,” stated the old guy. I was right: they were going to take me back as soon as the information was in my brain. Who am I to stay in such a “sacred” place? A level one player unable to decide what would be better: a human or a vampire? On the other hand, why unable? I have already sorted it out for myself.
“You must make a choice. In order for it to be a justified one you will be taken back. Remember: the doors of the Temple of Knowledge are always open to seekers.”
Something flashed in front of my eyes and the whiteness of the Temple of Knowledge was replaced by the dirty floor of the trailer covered in blood and vomit.

You have not completed initiation; therefore, you can change race. Races available: Vampire. Accept changes?

The pain returned together with the message. My body curled into a fetal position of its own accord, trying to calm the burning innards; my head felt like an iron band was tightening around it; my eyes were trying to roll out of their sockets and my mind stopped perceiving the surrounding world altogether, stuck on the sensations. Only the stubborn message kept floating in front of my face. Colored circles jumped around it, black dots were flying, strange images appeared and dissipated, but the message could not care less about the flashes that surrounded it or about my condition. It wanted a choice.
“NOO” – a rasp escaped my throat. I was unable to concentrate enough to push a button. So people in this game have obvious problems with numbers; their abilities are abysmal compared to vampires; perhaps my end in this game will not be enviable, but I will not regularly drink blood of living creatures. I’d rather die now than ever taste it again. This is not my thing.

You have rejected a race change.
Bonus received: your initial levels of physical and energy state are 25% of normal, rate of increase of the attributes is 25% of normal
Character adjustment is in progress

If I had thought that the fire burning me up from the inside was pain, I was grossly mistaken. The moment I mumbled my refusal, the flickering flame of a candle was replaced with the roaring fire of a smelter. I lost my hearing. My sight. My speech. I lost all feelings but THE PAIN. Screamed even though I could not talk. I pleaded with the shadows around me to kill me, even though I could not see. I heard the monotonous hum of one-dozens-hundreds-thousands of voices even though I was deaf. I lost my mind even though I kept thinking. I was the pain and the pain was me. At some point the blessed darkness took pity on my shattered mind and carried it into oblivion. Perhaps I was destined to die and never exist again, but staying in this hell was beyond what I could bear.
My consciousness returned, harsh and sudden, like the onset of winter for the snow removal services. At some point I realized that I was lying on the floor in a fetal position, shaking from the cold and the memory of the nightmare I had just gone through. I opened my eyes and saw a view worthy of the most illustrious impressionists: a bloodied floor covered with clumps of dirt, and Petrovich with his glassy eyes and torn-up throat. The digger, wedged between the table and the cabinet, rocking back and forth and mumbling something unintelligible and nonsensical. The underside of the table covered in congealed snot. A totally disgusting sight.

Quest received: “Road to the Citadel”. Reach the headquarters for the forces of your class. Coordinates of the Citadel are indicated on your map.

The location map icon started blinking compellingly, informing me of new data available. However, new information was not useful at all: the map was still covered in dark fog, obscuring the map from me. The Citadel was marked on the map with a small flag, and if I figured out their scaling correctly the central base of the Paladins was somewhere on the other side of the world relative to where I was right now.
“I can’t really figure it out — did you become a vampire or not?” — a derisive voice sounded, making me shift into a vertical position. I did not have the strength to stand, so I simply sat up, leaning my back against the wall of the trailer, and tried to look around. I was not able to accomplish the latter though: the amount of physical work required to sit up made me dizzy and breathless, as if I were an untrained runner having to cover a distance of a hundred meters in full battle rattle. In the midst of the multicolored sparks and fireworks in front of my eyes I practically saw a question come from my body: — “What have I turned into if I am choking just from trying to sit?! This is what they call 25% of normal?” An eternity went by before I could think clearly and finally was able to look around. And then my jaw practically dropped. In the door, wearing steel armor shining brightly in the light of moon and stars, there was a cat, standing there with his paws crossed on his chest and smiling sardonically. His sharp teeth were bared for all to see. More precisely, it was a man with a cat’s head, paws and tail. As far as I recalled, felines were unable to stand on their hind paws so naturally, shoulder leaning against the doorframe.
“I will ask the question once again — did you become a vampire?” the cat repeated.
“Vanish!” I managed to squeak hoarsely. My thoughts were preparing to waltz again against the backdrop of multicolored circles, but I was suppressing the dizziness. I was able to anchor myself by a simple question: why was my mind perceiving a person who entered as a cat? Did my mind decide to follow the way of the digger who was still rocking back and forth and mumbling nonsensically?
“I will for sure. But later. So, are you a vampire?”
“No.” Since the hallucination was not going to vanish, I decided to respond to it. Of course, it is not quite normal to talk to your imaginary companion, but I was not concerned with “normalcy” at the moment.
“But you did drink blood?”
“I did.”
“Did you receive an offer to change your race?”
“I did.”
“But you remained human. Why?”
“Salt is bad for you,” I grumbled.
“Well, that’s an option too,” the cat chuckled. “Anyway, it’s time to get you out of this pit; we’ll figure out what to do with you at the Citadel. I hope you received the quest at least?”
“Well, at least something. Want to see something funny? Of course you do, you can’t avoid it anyway. Look here! That’s you!”
A mirror appeared in front of me – a huge one, hanging in the air unsupported. I should have been surprised by an object appearing out of nowhere, but this minor issue faded into the background. A head was staring at me from the mirror – ugly, bloodied, dried to the point of resembling a mummy – and in it were two bright blue eyes.
“Aren’t you a beauty!” the cat commented sarcastically. “Even if someone on Earth were to remember you, they would definitely fail to recognize you now. Congratulations, brother Paladin! I have completely blotted you out of this world. My quest is complete! … Wait.. Something is not right…”
“What do you mean by ‘blotted out’?” I asked the contemplating cat with surprise, having temporarily forgotten my horrible appearance.
“It means that… Right! We have a living witness right here! I was starting to think that I had missed something, and here he is, rocking coolly right here.”
Something like a green jedi light saber from Star Wars appeared in the cat’s hands.
“O-Oomph!” the hallucination said matter-of-factly, as it moved its hand sharply. The sword went through the digger’s body smoothly and without resistance; the cat then smiled contentedly. My breath caught from seeing how the neatly removed head of the person who had been so withdrawn into his own world rolled on the floor, so I missed the moment when a light level-up halo standard in many games started forming around the Paladin. The cat grinned mockingly and concluded:
“Dear Archibald, I congratulate my dear self on my new level of 352! You have been striving for this goal for a long time, blah-blah-blah, fanfare and the like. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Wh-h-aat?” I stumbled through the question, as I was completely confused. All my attention was concentrated on the digger’s head that had rolled up to the wall and stopped. The cat had just killed a person just to complete some quest! Just so! In passing! Because he wanted to get some blasted experience points!
“What’s your name, pray tell?” Archibald repeated without concealing his mirth.
“Sergey.” The shock of the digger’s death was so huge that I forgot that I was surrounded by the game.
“For demons’ sake, what 'Sergey'?! Stop clinging to your past life! Forget about it! Nothing links you to that previous world anymore! The Sergey that you used to be is dead! Got that?”
“How can nothing link me to it? I have a sister, mother, friends…” I stumbled seeing the scowling face of the cat — “WHAT?!”
“Every time a new player appears,” the cat started to clarify, ignoring my attempts to stand up and grab him by the throat. This bastard killed my relatives! He is a dead man! I will destroy him even if I die trying! — “Head of class receives the quest for zeroization of the new recruit. He doesn’t do the quests himself, his status is above working in the fields; so there’s a lottery held among best players. Experience for kills, experience for quest completion, the loot – all goes to the lucky one. You were good loot, I have not seen such rich pickings in a long time. I can say for sure: you left lots of traces in your previous life. Normally the system generates a dozen or so targets, but in your case there were 32 NPCs defined as mandatory targets, 67 as recommended and 91 as desirable. I got them all! That’s why, frankly speaking, I was a little late: one of my tasks was to pour some water down your throat after you spawned. But this way it worked out even better – I got two additional bodies for power leveling. The one that ran out of here ten minutes ago and this one. The System defined them as additional mandatory targets, so the experience… Quit thrashing! Get it, bro you cant do anything to me right now. After they appear the recruits are weak and dystrophic. If you decide you want to settle a score, I’ll be happy to accept your challenge. If you come back from the Academy, that is.”
“You are a dead man!” I growled with hatred, abandoning my attempts to stand up. The cat was right: at this stage there was nothing I could do to that freak. There was only one thing to do: remember him and wait for the right moment to avenge every person he killed!
“Of course I am a dead man what else could I be? Because a fearsome nasty battle hamster which has a 99% probability of giving up the ghost in the Academy without the right of respawn is threatening to take revenge on me! My poor tail trembles in fear!” — The cat chuckled, then continued in a graver tone, "Get used to it, brother: from now on you are a player. Everything that surrounded you before is just one of the game locations, and the people you considered to be independent creatures were merely NPCs controlled by the System. You think the 192 bodies I popped off will leave a blazing trail in the criminal reports? Ha! The System chose them as payment for converting you into a player; the system itself blotted… No, I really do enjoy the way you are looking at me! Hatred, determination, bloodthirstiness! Let’s do this: I will not say anything now about the specifics of becoming a player. Pass through the Academy. Survive, learn, become stronger, survive again and then we’ll see each other once more! My name is Archibald, a Catorian, level 352, Paladin, respawn point is Earth. If after the Academy you retain your itch for revenge, I am always at your service. By the way, someone formerly known as Sergey, you never introduced yourself.”
“Yari,” I growled angrily. “Remember this name, you freak. I will it remind you in the final moments of your life! I am Yari! Non-initiated, human, level 1, Paladin, no respawn point assigned yet.”
Нu-uhh,” Archibald drawled, scratching his head in a purely human gesture. Then he swept the supper of the now dead cemetery custodians off the table to the floor, settled in the cleaned space as if it were a throne, shook his head as if deep in thought and continued: “It looks like we still have to take a brief tour into the game. Otherwise you don’t stand a chance of coming back from the Academy. Who will then take revenge on me? The game interface has a button for recording conversations; press it.”
“Where is it?” I gave up after a minute of fruitless attempts to figure out the status bar. The icons available to me were player description, map, personal inventory, book of spells, list of quests – and not a single hint at recording conversations.
“I see,” grinned the cat. “Have you ever played games before?”
“I have. A lot.”
“Doesn’t show though. You should be able to see the standard player status bar at the bottom of your field of vision. Do you see it?”
“I do. But it doesn't have means to record conversations.”
“Don’t hurry. You need to call up the status bar properties. Imagine that you are using a computer mouse. To activate the icons you were using the left button, now you need to be working with the right one. Surprise me, my future enemy. Beginner players master this task after just a couple…”
Archibald fell silent without clarifying: a couple of what? But I was not interested in these technicalities. Unless the cat was lying, the status bar is interactive. Which opens up a lot of possibilities for changing its settings and using it. Who said that it reacts only to two buttons? What if I had not a two-button, but a three-button mouse? Or a four-button one? Would the bar react differently to each button? As if confirming my words a rectangular semi-transparent box appeared in front of me: status bar properties. The panel contained twelve buttons, only two of which were available to me: descriptions and additional options. The rest were covered with a freakish looking icon showing a scowling skull with three red eyes.
“Judging from your joyful squeak” — Archibald continued, noticing my reaction — “you have discovered properties. Very good. As I already mentioned, it takes new players a couple of months. You will have to fiddle with the descriptions yourself; now open the additional options. There will be three options available to you: recording, calculator and system time. Drag recording to the main bar – you need to use this thing all the time.”
“What for?” I could not help asking as I was performing the sequence suggested to me. The cat was not lying: at the first level only three options were available to me out of a huge list. The rest were locked by the same scary skull. “If this is a game, the system itself should keep the records.”
“Did you turn on the recording?” Archibald responded with a question, waited for me to nod in confirmation and continued: “Remember, my future enemy, the game could not care less about you, about me or about all the players generally, perhaps with the exception of the Emperor. It never does anything on its own initiative. No recording, no conflict resolution, no constraints on using magic – the game does not control what it has created. Even more so – it would never create anything that would require its control. Players should be responsible for their fate themselves. If you want to revisit some points of the game, turn on the video. If you want to have remote access to trading, use the auctions. If you want something else, take care of it yourself. Don’t rely on the system.”
“The scary three-eyed skull covering most of the buttons: what is this? Or who is this?” I asked once Archibald fell silent.
“That’s an unusual question from a former NPC to whom the prospect of immortality has opened. Is that the only thing that concerns you at the moment?”
“No, but you have already delighted me with the statement that you will only tell me the information necessary for survival in some Academy. What’s the point of asking you something that you are not going to tell? The skull is obviously not part of the data that you are hiding.”
“That’s logical.” Archibald nodded and started swinging his legs. “The skull is the emblem of the Emperor. Who is the only player with moderator powers. Do I need to tell you what powers those are? Once you reach a certain level the skulls will disappear. Now to the most important thing. Remember, Yari, information on your personal attributes is your most guarded secret. Never tell it to anyone, under any circumstances. Especially to warlocks. Particularly if the warlock is an elf. Have you ever read the Bible? Remember those guys demons mentioned there? They were extremely unlucky in disclosing personal data; they had, like, the worst luck ever. One of the elven warlocks, Solomon, destroyed their whole race practically single-handed. Acting through a front man whose name was not even retained in history, Solomon captured a minor demon, found out its name – Ornia subdued it, and then through Ornia captured first the head of the demons Baal and then another 70 great princes from his clan. The captives were interrogated, chained, then forced to do the hardest labor; then, once Solomon was tired of dealing with them, the great demon princes together with the great hosts of their servants were imprisoned in a copper vessel and thrown into Chaos. If you are ever interested, you will find the details of this abominable affair in the grimoire “Solomon’s Covenant”.
“Why abominable?”
“Because humanity has never been framed so badly! Note the subtlety with which Solomon set it all up: he didn't capture a single demon himself. He acted either through a front man or through the demons themselves. What do you think, once the survivors of Baal’s clan decided to get to the bottom of it and punish those at fault: who bore the brunt of their righteous ire?"
“People?” I put forth a guess.
“Exactly! The elves appeared innocent; Solomon gained so much experience points for destroying 72 princes that he was able to take his grinning ass to another location, and only people were left behind high and dry to face the enraged demons. Hello, Priest player Innocent III and the Inquisition he created, looking for any manifestation of demonism under the pretext of eradicating heresy! Hello, the slaughter known to everyone as the Black Death epidemic, which was, in fact, a demonic ritual that took, around the 1340s, about 60 million NPCs and one third of all players on Earth. Hello… oh, there were a lot of things going on in those times! Just the “Malleus Maleficarum” counts for quite something! The priests, under the pretext of fighting the demons, started to kill their own dark brothers — maleficars and witches, as the priests wanted to increase their own numbers! That’s history, you can’t get away from it. So, the maximum you can tell other entities about yourself is name and class. Level, respawn point, race, properties, specialty, other information — all that must be hidden. Otherwise you will follow the path of the demon princes.
“What do you mean by 'increase their numbers'? How can the number of priests increase at the expense of witches?”
“Well… Ok, I’ll tell you that as well. At this time Earth houses the headquarters of 42 classes. As you understand, a class may include more than one race. So. There are several ways to become a player. The first and most standard one: every month for each class the System independently selects the most suitable person and converts him into a non-initiated player. The class members do a little purge – normally 3-4 people and transport the recruit to the headquarters, from which he is then transported to the Academy. If the recruit complies with the game requirements and finishes the Academy, he returns and becomes a full-fledged player. As I mentioned, about one out of every hundred returns.”
“Because if a player is killed he loses one level. Do you think the level 1 recruits have a lot to lose? Some classes developed a habit for power leveling their newbies before the Academy to level 3, the maximum allowed for non-initiated players, but it did not improve the survival rate. One out of a hundred. The other way to become a player is a kill. If the stars align the right way and an NPC kills a player, he will become a player himself. The killed player will return to respawn point and receive a quest 'Revenge'. The System does not like unplanned noobs so it tries to restore balance every way it can. If you return from the Academy you will have another enemy besides me. The third and currently most popular method is a player zeroization. The number of players is practically always stable. The newbies that come out of the Academy don’t affect the stats much, and your case is just unique. So. If, for example, a Paladin completely wipes out a Priest, then Paladins get a chance to turn one of their minions into a player. The minion they gain that way will go to the Academy and will finish it with a 100% guarantee: the System does not allow initiated players to die. By the way, had you become a vampire, the Academy would have been an unpleasant memory for you. Because of the third way of becoming a player: in the old times classes slaughtered each other like pigs. Priests, together with us, killed Witches, Maleficars, Warlocks, Mages and other magical classes. In turn, we were killed by the Blades, Warriors and Assassins. It was quite a slaughter. Finally a peace treaty was made to stop the mayhem that reigned on Earth, so for 600 years now there has been an armed neutrality between the classes. Well, that’s about all you need to know for now. You will learn the rest in the Academy. Oh yeah, one more thing! You already killed an NPC. Take this: that’s your rightful loot.”

Received: 1 Granis

“Granis is the monetary unit of the players,” Archibald immediately explained. “It is used in all the worlds. Objects, mercenaries, services, auctions: everything operates on granis.”
“If I am killed, will I lose the money?”
“Dude, first live to the point when this becomes relevant for you,” the cat laughed. “You’ll die in the Academy: what do you need extra knowledge for? I’ve taken too long with you anyway. Any more questions?”
“Yes. You said that personal information is the utmost secret. Then why did you reveal it to me?”
“So that you’d know who purged your family. Who killed your mom, your sister, your friends and neighbors. Your dog too! Who completely wiped you out from the world of the living. You want revenge, right?”
A dark veil of hatred flooded me again. If I only had the strength I would have jumped on the cat without a second thought.
“Remember that feeling, brother, once you come to. Hold on to it and don’t let it fade. Then you’ll have a chance to make it. See you soon!”
The last thing I remembered before fainting were the two cords of fog shooting from the cat’s paws and snaking towards me.

The book is released -


  1. I'm looking forward to reading the full version. Are there any more chapter updates, or will we have to wait until the book is published?

    1. Vasily is runing paid subscription for the book on his website, so there is a way to read this one before release here -