Friday, February 10, 2017

LitRPG/Fantasy - AlterGame: The First Player by Andrew Novak

The First Player
a novel
by Andrew Novak


 The book is released!

Buy (Kindle, KU, paperback) -

Chapter One. Beta Version

EVEN IN THIS desolate, mangled world, where the foundations of all things have collapsed, there were some things that endured. There still existed things of everlasting value. Whiskey, for example.
Jack had noticed the shine of bottle glass in the truck bed on a previous walk and decided to stop here, should he need the money. This is what those items of eternal value were for - to help one through rough times.
There were no longer automobiles that ran on liquid fuel and few people knew that these kinds of truck were called pickups. Jack knew. He generally knew quite a lot about the old world because he earned his living as a Walker, which meant that he roamed the Wasteland in search of old-world treasures. If he were to be honest, though, he simply liked to travel. He always dreamed of making his way to some far-off place, where no one had been before. At least, not any of the residents of the Clusters dragging out their boring, miserable existences near the Barrier of New Atrium. The problem was that the further you got in the Blighted Wasteland, the more dangerous it became. You won't get very far...

The rear tires of the pickup had sunk into a deep hole, so the cabin had gotten stuck raised toward the sky, and in the truck bed, bottle glass gleamed under a layer of dirt and mud. Jack looked around, detected nothing new on the grey plain under the grey sky... and tossed his backpack down, pulled on tarpaulin work gloves, and got busy excavating.
He raked aside the broken fragments and tugged an unearthed bottleneck out of the caked trash, then shook off several years' worth of hardened dirt. The remnants of wooden boxes turned to dust under his gloves and the infernal flies buzzed overhead. When he had reached about halfway to the cabin, he found the first intact bottle. Jack wiped it reverently with his sleeve, gently shook it to hear the sloshing of eternal value inside, checked the sunlight... and began to dig again.
Half a day's work and his haul amounted to nine bottles. Jack stowed them in his backpack, each carefully wrapped with rags. No one travelled at night in the Wasteland - he was stuck here for the night. The cabin door, naturally, was locked. He would have to break it. It was easy, as everything here had rotted away or rusted through long ago. It was odd that the glass was intact. The driver, too. There was even a half-smoked cigar hanging between the yellow teeth of his skull. In the skeleton's right hand was a revolver, in the left - a crumpled, blackened lump. Jack wondered what the dead man had grabbed when he set out on his final journey. It turned out to be a charred banknote with a barely recognizable "100" on it. The driver had thoroughly filled up on the whiskey from the truck bed - an empty bottle stood on the dashboard in front of him. Then one last cigar, lit with a hundred-dollar bill. Then... bam.
Very carefully, so as not to disturb the driver, Jack sat down beside him in the passenger seat.
"You ever been to Alterra?" he asked the man, who died God only knows how long ago. "I bet you'd love it. Judging by the end you set up for yourself here, you were an okay guy, knew a thing or two about games. Pretty classy, deciding for yourself when and how to die."
In front of the driver and Jack, through the thick patina of dirt on the windshield, a huge, red sun sagged toward the straight line of the horizon. The pickup was heading west when it broke down. Maybe it had been evening then, too, and the sun had shone like this on the driver's face as his lit his last cigar with the bill...
"Decide for yourself, when and how you die," Jack repeated, uncovering a bottle. "It has a lot of class."
He planned to deliver most of the whiskey to a merchant for a very nice sum of money, but he did open one bottle. Took a drink. He felt a pleasant wave of heat slide down his throat... and reached for the glove compartment.
"Hey, brother, I see I wasn't wrong about you!" Jack declared, pulling out a small console tangled in thin cables. He had to set aside his bottle so that he could carefully fish out the sensor gloves and blocky goggles, which were fitted with a plastic ring that wrapped around the head. "You were one of the originators! In the beta version of Alterra! I'd heard that it dated back to before the catastrophe, that we inherited it from you, our ancestors."
Jack almost reverently tried on the antique VR headset, fiddled with the sensor gloves, and carefully wound up the cluster of long sensor cables. It was a pretty unwieldy system. Nowadays, the console to enter the virtual world looked much more compact. The batteries had obviously run down. He decided to recharge the device and try to enter Alterra from the pickup driver's account. However, it could only be charged in his trailer and then... And then he could try to enter Alterra from the driver's old account.
"If you left any unfinished business, buddy, I'll try to finish it," he promised the dead man. "It can't be that fate accidentally brought us together. Nope. This is a quest line that someone thought up, up there."
Jack took another sip, his eyes narrowed at the red rays of sunset and thought: this guy brought all the most important things - whiskey and Alterra. Fantastic choice! The only choice. Definitely things of everlasting value.

* * *

ALL THE NEXT DAY, while he walked across the grey plain, Jack wondered what the late pickup driver could have left in Alterra. When the Gendemic began, it destroyed everything - daily life, culture, laws... and Alterra. Civilization survived on a few small, safe islands. Those like New Atrium. Evidently, it was to one of these splinters of the safe world that the driver was trying to escape. He brought with him only what was most important... but never made it to his destination.
Gradually, life of the survivors adjusted, namely when the alpha-citizens of New Atrium restored Alterra. They even allowed the omegas, the residents of the ghetto, to log into this wonderful world. But in the restored Alterra, just like in real life, the alphas had far more opportunities. The driver had seen a version of Alterra, where everyone had equal rights, where all the joys of the virtual world were equally available to everybody.
The Blighted Wasteland were behind him, and the Clusters of the ghetto stretched out before him. Walking through the slums, Jack could barely restrain himself from running home, so he could leave this filth and try to dive into Alterra, not through his own avatar, but through another older character - a sort of granddaddy of the virtual world. And all the while, he had to constantly look this way and that because these areas were rotten to the core.
Admittedly, even the most bat-shit crazy creeps didn't bug Jack, as a rule. That he was one of the veteran drifters was enough to scare off the riffraff. Jack took deliberate care to look menacing. Husky, slouching, with a shock of sun-bleached white hair sticking out from under a wide-brimmed hat and his face covered in scars... and, of course, a large, formless canvas cloak with dirty, frayed flaps. You could hide anything under that kind of cloak.
Today, Jack only once noticed a group of teenagers, who had stopped as he approached and begun to whisper. Dangerous guys - too puny to fight. These guys might use any dirty trick to bring you down fast, with the first hit. It was enough that he held back a step and stuck his hand under his cloak. The little suckers scattered like cockroaches. Jack liked this cloak. It always worked like a charm.
Here were the trailers, scrapped together from the trash of dilapidated buildings, iron containers, tangles of thorny bushes, and above it all - an intricate web of cables. In the distance, the shining towers of New Atrium stood, petitioned off from the poor Clusters by the unassailable Barrier wall. The fortress of the alphas, masters of Alterra.
Near his own hovel, Jack was met with another delay. When he emerged from the cluster of trailers, his neighbors came pouring out, complaining over one another that every night, Phil, after smoking his fill, would holler and scare the children. Jack internally screamed. So many obstacles on the path to important things! But he preferred to maintain good relationships with these women. They looked after his home in his absence, meaning that they scared suspicious drifters away from the trailer. It was better than any pack of guard dogs. He would have to deal with Phil, who, of course, screeched that he was singing very quietly and that he just couldn't control himself when performing. In Alterra, he was a famous bard. When he sang before crowds of critics, they all loved him - but those old geezers knew nothing about art...
Jack didn't say anything, just bent down and very pointedly picked up a rusted reinforcement rod. That did the trick. Phil changed his tune at once and began to moan that he'd try to restrain himself and sing a bit quieter.
He finally managed to shake everyone off and make it to his own trailer. He needed to eat, organize his equipment, clean the revolver from the pickup... but Jack just couldn't wait any longer. He hooked the strange device up and stared at the blinking light indicating that the batteries were charging.
The driver had been a simple fellow - the password to Alterra was written in marker on the plastic case of his console and retinal identification hadn't existed then. The camera set in the old headset didn't have that option. Not that way anymore...
While the console buzzed back to life after its decades-long sleep, Jack untangled the sensor cords. A different person wouldn't have been able to figure out this antiquated mess, but Jack was a Walker. He'd seen his share of all sorts of strange things and could imagine the thought processes of the people who had lived before the Gendemic.
The sensor gloves were obvious, and the old console also came with several sensors on cords, the longest of which attached to his ankles and others like a belt, circling his chest. It was a lightweight analogue to a virt-suit that was sensitive to the player's slightest movements and transmitted it into the form of a full-fledged virtual character.
Jack placed the sensors and put on the VR goggles. The console was ready for operation. A prompt appeared requesting him to enter a personal code and Jack typed in the string of letters and numbers that were written on the case. Finally, another prompt popped up addressed to Andrew Vigo, the character name of the console's previous owner.
"Nice to meet you, Andrew," Jack mumbled. "Let's see where you left off."

* * *

ANDREW VIGO had left off in the dungeon of a dilapidated temple. Or maybe a palace. At any rate, the developers had had something massive and pompous in mind. It was a spacious vaulted room with columns and buttresses, built from inky black stone, and completely empty. No furniture, no signs to show what the cellar had been used for before the building above it collapsed. It was indeed destroyed - sunlight pierced through a huge hole in the dome.
Jack loved new places. Loved open spaces, the distant horizon... but he also loved all kinds of unconventional dungeons. If he had his way, he'd travel all over Alterra. For the moment, though, the only continent known to omega-players was Stoglav. However, it was huge, as even Jack hadn't discovered all its areas, not even close. His dream was to discover a new land. They had to be out there, somewhere. Fit a ship, fill it to the brim, gather a team, and set off into the uncharted virtual expanses... maybe he didn't need anything else to be happy.
Wonder how long it had been since someone visited this place? If it survived since the oldest versions of the game... perhaps, it was some kind of isolated location that could no longer be entered or exited? Or maybe just the opposite and the dungeon was standing right under everyone's nose. However, it was so neglected that it was of no use to anyone. Alterra was huge, after all, and there were many nooks and forgotten places.
Piles of stones, the fragments of broken columns and carvings, had crumbled inside, evidence that the outside walls had been demolished from above. Something large and powerful had broken into the dungeon and created the enormous hole. The pickup truck where he had found Vigo's final refuge could have easily fit through that gap.

This version of the game is out of date. Update download in progress!
Update download in progress!
Update download in progress!

The character froze and the image of the basement was obstructed by static. He would have to wait. Jack used the time to check out the weapon and equipment slots. Andrew had reached level twenty-four and, it seemed, made a career as a warrior and adventurer.
"Twenty-four. Not much by today's standards," Jack mumbled. He had already reached level thirty-three himself and planned to keep going. "But who knows what kinds of resources there were in your time? Maybe by those standards, you were pretty awesome."
A lightweight helm and chain mail armor with some defense bonuses, nothing special. A bastard sword in the weapon slot... and a dagger. That dagger was the most interesting of all. In virt, it looked completely black, both the handle and the blade. When Jack drew it from its sheath, a murky haze flowed around the blade, as if the weapon were emitting a stream of dark mist. Conversely, it seemed to glow. The dagger radiated darkness around itself just like a candle emitted light. If he looked at it for a while, an info window would appear:

Shadowkiller Dagger
Level: Legendary

There was nothing else - no bonuses, no instructions. The ancestors had been terse, but the modern design of Alterra provided much more informative descriptions.
The updates finally finished downloading and the image smoothed out. Jack took a few steps into the basement depths, to wherever Andrew Vigo had once set out. Because that man trekked down here for something. This place might have nothing valuable, or there might be something there. Jack walked around several pieces of black debris covered with carvings.  Ahead, something glittered among the stones. Jack started to move closer, but the image in front of him began to shake and an admin message floated before his eyes:

User "Andrew Vigo", you have been absent from Alterra for 2.#?? / undefined / years.
To verify your identity, enter the six-digit code sent to your personal communication device. You have 30 minutes to verify your identity. If you do not enter the code within this period, your account will be suspended.

Aw, dammit!
Although, not surprising. Without retinal identification, you had to jump through these kinds of hoops. What was with the personal communication device? Jack checked Andrew's conversations but there was nothing resembling a six-digit code. Nothing new, except a few admin messages and a single letter. Andrew hadn't been a very sociable guy.
Out of curiosity, Jack looked at the letter since it wasn’t very long. Someone with the username Doblin-Doe wrote to Andrew:

That passage from the legend that you were asking about goes like this:
"When the Dragon God cast out the King of Demons Azeroth, he, dying, peered at his shadow and said:
'Oh, how splendid my Shadow is!'
The King of Demons let a tear of delight fall, the only tear of his entire life because Demons do not cry, and Kings least of all. This tear held within it all things, life and death, beauty and ugliness, cruelty and compassion. The tear fell onto the Shadow of the King of Demons and pierced it, like a thorn pierces silk."
There wasn’t anything else. I don't know why the hell you need the overwrought crap that the writers come up with.

After he finished reading, Jack suddenly realized - he hadn't done what he should have from the very first minute! It could only be explained by the fact that he was in the body of someone else's character and it still didn't feel like his own. Remembering himself, Jack opened the map of Alterra. He examined it - oh, boy, he was very far north. At the edge of the Fashir marshes. Jack's own character hadn't made it this far north and this area remained uniformly grey for him. In Andrew's version of the map, a bizarre, winding line led to this place from Svetlograd, the capital of Havian. It looked like Andrew had doggedly walked specifically to this place. Jack pushed on, avoiding the debris... He had less than a half an hour to figure out what he was looking for.
Frowning, Jack looked at an area on the map near the spot where the tiny triangle representing his character was. Ruins... and a portal. It was the familiar silver circle of a standard portal, but with a golden lock superimposed on it.  A closed padlock. What did that mean?
He shook his head, gathering his wits. It was a locking spell. This sometimes happened when a guild or high-level player discovered a new area or, more likely, got stuck in a place without people, then performed the ritual to seal the local portal, making it difficult for others to use. To ensure no one would block all public portals, this ritual was expensive enough that people didn't use them too often.
Did that mean that there was someone else here? He looked around, thinking. No, not necessarily. The portal may have be locked and whoever did it was outside somewhere. Or he was in here... it was impossible to tell.
Closing the map, Jack looked very closely at the glittering thing he had seen earlier. Dim light filtered in through the opening above, rainbow sparkles playing off the small object that was lying on the floor among the black debris.
He cautiously approached it and bent over a crystal-clear droplet, incongruously clean and transparent in the surrounding black stone.

Tear of the Demon King Azeroth
Level: Epic
Attributes unknown

Epic level? That was high level. Essentially the highest. Epic-level items in Alterra could only be what they called "prime relics". Only a few of them existed and dated back to when the gods created the world. Jack couldn't even begin to imagine how much such a thing might be worth.
"Well, well... So this is where the final battle of Azeroth and the Dragon God happened..."
Now Jack looked around the ruins with a great respect. None other than the Dragon God himself made that hole in the roof when he had caught up with his enemy in his last refuge. It was in exactly this spot where the King of Demons last saw his shadow.
"Whatever its attributes, an epic-level item can't be cheap," Jack said, resuming his conversation with the long-dead pickup driver, "And I understand why you died as you did. In fact, it's a shame. To reach your objective, to see the epic-level Tear, and - bam! The world falls to pieces, the electricity cuts off, Alterra won't load... and then your pickup flies into a pit... Fate - what a bitch!"
Jack bent over the Tear.
"All that's left is to figure out how to get my avatar here. Judging by your map, that old thing, there is a portal here, but I can't use it because if I sign on my account, this portion of the map will be grey to me. Moreover, the portal is locked, which means that neither of us can use it. To come to you here, I’d have to stomp across half the continent. Maybe while I still have Vigo's avatar, I can take the Tear somewhere and hide it bit better within half an hour? I don't know when I'll be able to come for your legacy."
The Tear was one quarter the size of a fist and was quite light, but when he tried to lift the artifact, he felt resistance. The sensation didn't last long, though, the bottom part simply had a conical shape and was stuck in the inky stone. It wasn't too difficult for Jack to pull the tip out of the pile.
Then the floor came to life. A concentric wave ran across the coal-black tiles. Something made of the same ebony as the room gathered toward the center, toward the little recess left by the Tear. The thing was swelling and rising... Jack backed away and a dark figure, similar to a man draped in a loose cloak, began to grow out of the floor in front of him. It was black, of course. The stooping, silent figure grew and grew... the Shadow! It was the Shadow of Azeroth himself!
"Like a thorn pierces silk," he remembered the words from the letter! The Tear had pinned the Shadow to the floor, the darkness fastened to black stone, and Jack had pulled that "pin", releasing the Shadow. Although the Shadow hadn't done anything threatening so far, Jack sensed danger. A dark, deadly danger. Such a malevolent and insidious creature like the King of Demons couldn't possibly depart this world without one final trick. And Alterra's writers, even those who wrote the texts for the beta version long ago, could not pass up the opportunity. Fortunately, Andrew Vigo had prepared for this. Remembering the black dagger, Jack yanked it out and when the dark, stooping figure lurched at him, he met it with a long thrust.
The dagger pierced the blackness. The impact of steel against the Shadow was noticeable but... nothing happened. The Shadow continued to move toward a recoiling Jack. Who was backing away, stammering:
"Hey, that's not fair! Shadowkiller should have killed you! What the hell?!"
He turned and ran to the opening, shot up the rockslide toward the light and tumbled out. It turned out that, in his hurry, he had climbed the pile of rubble up to the second floor. The ground was three meters below him, so that fall came hard.

You receive damage!
You lose 4 hit points!

To hell with it, it would regenerate.
Judging by the clatter of stone behind him, the Shadow wasn’t far behind. Jack glanced around. Ruins stretched out around the destroyed palace. Fallen columns, statues, remnants of walls - everything was black. Even the creeping shoots entangled in the rock. There was no end in sight to this demon city’s boneyard.
Winding through the ruins in the direction of the sealed portal, Jack glanced behind. The Shadow was headed for him and picking up speed. Daylight didn't scare it. Here it touched a piece of stonework in the place where its shoulder should be under the dark cloak, and rocks sprayed out in different directions. The Shadow raced forward, colliding with remains of the building and destroying everything that it came across.
Among the ruins ahead, Jack noticed movement and swerved toward it. The sound of smashing stone continued, the Shadow on his tail.
On the sunny lawn between the boulders, goblins were scurrying about, little green gargoyles. Jack ran straight for them. The one closest to him let a black cobblestone fall, which skidded away, and bared its yellow teeth. Jack kicked it with his boot and kept running. The rest of the little beasts scrambled after him but the Shadow crashed into them. Jack, already turning the corner of a squat building, heard a piteous squeal. He ran along the wall, hunting for a place he could slip into and hide.
The Shadow tarried a bit. Goblins were screeching so pathetically, that it was clear it wouldn’t tarry long. Then a small green figure flew over the wall that Jack was running along. A dead goblin flipped in the air, its limbs swinging limply, and smashed to the ground. The squealing ceased. Jack, not stopping, slipped into a moss covered crevice, turned again, then once more. It looked like he had lost it, but probably not for long.

User "Andrew Vigo", to confirm your identity, enter the six-digit code.
Time remaining: 20 minutes.

Chapter Two. The Shadowkiller

MECHANICALLY waving away the messages obstructing his view, Jack started running toward an arch. Were these the remains of the old city's wall? No, it was just some courtyard wall. The ruins continued beyond it. On the other side of the wall, he could hear voices. Young, clear, and excited... This area wasn't completely deserted, then. There was someone else here besides the goblin NPCs. Jack took off across the courtyard in the direction of the voices.
"Kill it!"
"These two are mine! Don't touch them!”
He could hear the clatter of weapons and goblins screeching. Jack looked around but the shadow was nowhere to be seen. He then very carefully peeked through the opening.
There were a dozen players goofing off on the other side of the wall. They were too far away for him to read their stats, but he got the general idea. A group of low-level players was here killing goblins to earn XP. There was no one else in the ruins, so it was a special location. In these kinds of places, players can earn XP faster by killing NPCs. They looked like the initiates of some guild.
Jack had never been in a guild. He was too... How to put it? It was just that he didn't like being responsible for others and always believed that people should be in charge of themselves. It wasn’t right when the head of your guild calls the shots for you, nor is it right when you do the same for other guild members. That was why he appreciated the way the man who created Andrew Vigo set up his own death. He had chosen for himself and followed through.
Most players in Alterra adhered to entirely different principles. Like this situation, for example: one of the more experienced guild fighters opened the way to the abandoned city, sought out the portal, and now he could lead the initiates here to hunt. They were having a ball - Jack heard their excited shouting, heard the goblins squealing. These goblins were small and very aggressive. Their programming instructed them to attack without hesitation, not even realizing that they were simply skewering themselves on the player's swords.
If he booked it to the portal right now, the hunters might get caught up in the moment and attack him... And what was the point? The portal was locked.
Then something changed, and Jack could easily guess what it was. The crevice through which he had been watching was narrow and it was difficult to see, but the excited shouts ceased. The players were retreating, huddling together. Jack saw them look toward their leader- the experienced warrior who had brought them here. He was easy to pick out by his powerful armor.
"What the hell?" the warrior asked loudly. "This wasn't here before. Try your arrows!"
Now that the entire group was in Jack's field of vision, he could see there were more than ten people. Some of them equipped crossbows. Arrows rained down, but the squad continued to retreat. The players backed away; it was clear they couldn't win this battle. It was one thing to hack little goblins to pieces, but it was another thing entirely when a creature that swats arrows away like flies is chasing you.
"Come on, come on, run for the portal," Jack urged. "That's right, get worked up enough that you don't even notice the strange player run out with you. I'll teleport with you, find a bank, and leave my treasure there for my character. It's easy, you guys, just run for the portal! The Shadow will chase after you and I’ll slip through!"

User "Andrew Vigo", to confirm your identity, enter the six-digit code.
Time remaining: 15 minutes.

"What are you doing?!"
Jack even pounded his fists on the rocks in frustration. These idiots, instead of booking it to the portal and saving their own asses, decided to fight the black apparition. While the portal, judging from the map, was just on the other side of the yard! The Shadow floated closer... Now Jack could take a proper look at the creature – it was a tall, dark silhouette, a shadowy plume trailed behind it along the rocks, like a long cloak. The beast was corporeal in the sense that it cast a rather normal shadow in the sunlight, albeit one with a slightly grotesque form.
The dark figure stretched out its arms, two spears of absolute darkness, toward its attackers.
It was a quick encounter. The Shadow easily blocked any weapons aimed in its direction and broke them effortlessly. It increased its speed and crashed into the crowd, darting around between the fighters. Now their cries, which they initially used to motivate themselves, became cries of alarm. The Shadow managed to kill a few people before the rest scattered in different directions.
"Fools!" Jack declared in annoyance when he checked the map and saw that no one was running toward the portal. "What a bunch of dimwits."
The Shadow darted around the ruins - overtaking, thrashing, destroying. And remained between Jack and the portal. The timer was steadily ticking. A new message popped up before him:

User "Andrew Vigo", to confirm your identity, enter the six-digit code.
Time remaining: 10 minutes.

"Time to change the plan," Jack said to himself.
He walked to the end of the wall, peered out to be certain that the Shadow was focused on the fleeing group, then scrambled from one hiding place to the next, making his way to a pair of fighters hiding in a pit behind a fallen column. They were laying low, watching the clearing, where the Demon King's Shadow flitted in a complicated zigzag - from the prostrate form of one enemy to the next target. Their bodies were slowly vanishing.
Jack went around the would-be warriors' hidey-hole and crouched over the pit.
"I see that you're in a bit of trouble," he announced in a hushed voice.
They nearly jumped out of their skins.
"And who are you?!” one asked. “Where did you come from? These hunting grounds belong to our guild!"
Jack spotted their guild insignia, two crossed shovels. "Brotherhood of Gravediggers". It sounded badass, but this pair definitely didn't look all that bold.
"I'm an errant knight, saving all who find themselves in danger. See the white horse and suit of armor? No? Oh, well. Just tell me, are you in trouble or not? Do you need help?"
Jack's new friends looked at each other uncertainly. Got it. They were used to living under the command of a senior officer. And here he was! The warrior in charge of goblin hunting party, in full heavy armor, fell into the same pit, where the pair of guild members were already hiding.
"Bastard," he muttered, "shit… my helmet and dagger! I dropped my helm and dagger! And the rez point, damn it, is right nearby, just inside the chapel! Two minutes and you're right back in front of that monster. Just barely got away before it noticed me.

User "Andrew Vigo", to confirm your identity, enter the six-digit code.
Time remaining: 7 minutes.

"Here's the deal," Jack said, interrupting their complaints. "Decide quickly - do you need help or not? I won't wait forever."
The senior member turned toward him, "You're not one of us."
His tag read,

Burt, Scand
Expertise: 31
Health: 45

"I repeat, I'm willing to help you. I will draw the creature off, distract it, while you haul ass to the portal. You got a better suggestion?”
"Not bad," Burt sighed. "But what is that thing? It cut me down in two hits. And I'm wearing the Breastplate of Courage, by the way."
He was supposed to ask threateningly what a stranger was doing in an area that the Brotherhood of Gravediggers claimed for themselves, but their present situation was lousy.
"I'm not sure, but something demonic. But I do know someone who can help you get rid of that thing. At the very least, he'll try."
"Go on, go on," Burt nodded nervously.
"Where does that portal exit?"
"In the temple on Copper Street."
"Wait there," Jack said quickly, because time was short. "In five minutes, a Scand named Jack will meet you and you, Burt, will teleport him here. Bring Jack here and you can fall back to Copper Street.”

User "Andrew Vigo", to confirm your identity, enter the six-digit code.
Time remaining: 5 minutes.

Jack frowned. There was no time!
"Actually, these are our lands - they belong to the guild. We're not allowed to bring strangers here," Burt informed him. "How did you wind up here? Did you walk here or something? You can see that we locked the local portal."
"So, you choose. Either Jack takes this beast down or your guild loses its hunting grounds."
"We'll send our mages. They'll deal with it."
Jack smiled with Andrew Vigo's face.
"If they manage to get back, then they'll kick the crap out of you for setting them up. You'll spend the rest of your life cleaning the guild stables, to be sure that you know what happens when you send the best mages to certain death. And then they’ll ask Jack to solve their problem anyway, but it'll cost the Gravediggers twice as much."
Burt sighed. He believed him and didn't. While he was thinking, the program delighted Jack with a new message:

User "Andrew Vigo", to confirm your identity, enter the six-digit code.
Time remaining: 3 minutes.

"Well? Agreed?" Jack urged.
"Fine! Agreed! But if..."
Jack didn't bother listening. Time was running out. He crept back a little ways, hiding behind rocks. No need to draw the Shadow's attention to the hiding spot.

* * *

User "Andrew Vigo", to confirm your identity, enter the six-digit code.
Time remaining: 2 minutes.

JACK CREPT closer. The Shadow was making slow circles over the area where the skirmish with the Gravediggers had happened. It was strange that, even if you looked at it for a long time, no info-window popped up. It appeared for any character, whether it was a living player or an NPC. It wasn't clear what the developers had been trying to say by emphasizing the Demon King's Shadow in this way... Jack waited until the Shadow was near the rock he was hiding behind and, when the unearthly wight floated by, he leapt out behind it.
There was another theory he wanted to test: what if the black dagger was deadly to the Shadow only after it had formed completely? Maybe it had still been too intangible to die from the blow in the palace dungeon?
Jack thrust out the hand holding the black blade, planting its tip into the Shadow's back. The dark figure flinched, but clearly was not going to die. Jack didn't bother waiting and tore off, away from the Gravediggers' hiding place and the portal. He looked around hastily - the Shadow was racing after him, picking up speed. It was unlikely that the dagger had done any appreciable damage.

User "Andrew Vigo", to confirm your identity, enter the six-digit code.
Time remaining: 1 minute.

Now that he couldn't see any other players, he had one last thing to do.
He turned, and again - Jack wasn't heading for any particular place. He was just looking for a little nook where he could leave the Tear and black dagger. It was a shame that Andrew had so little time, that he couldn't finish what he'd begun. For all that, he still wasn't going to make it!
This was a good place. It was the ruins of small structure with a rounded dome. It looked like a chapel, like the ones scattered everywhere in Alterra, except, in the city of demons, the rear of the building was black in color and showed traces of destruction.
Jack ducked in. Without any artifice, he tucked his loot into a gap between the rocks and quickly sprinkled gravel over it. It was dark inside under the dome and, if you didn't know where to look, it was unlikely that you would notice the cache. Then he sat on the threshold and gazed at the ultramarine sky of Alterra. It was an unbelievably pure, saturated color. A color that couldn't be found in real life. In the Wasteland, the sky was grey, like dust. Over the slums that clung to the wall around New Atrium, it was more like a yellow color with a brownish tint. This was due to the fumes that rose over the shanty Clusters.
The Shadow silently rounded the corner. It slowed and drifted slowly toward him because Andrew Vigo had nowhere to run. And he didn't try. The timer was counting down the last seconds of the character's life and Jack looked at the incredibly blue sky.
"Well, goodbye, Andrew Vigo," he mumbled.
When the Shadow was a couple of feet away, the image in the headset began to dim, then blurred... An admin message swam before his eyes:

User "Andrew Vigo", your identity cannot be confirmed. Your account has been suspended by the administrators of Alterra. To unlock your account, please contact support services. Thank you for your participation in the game.

At least Shadow hadn't managed to kill him. Everything blurred and darkened. The text slightly flickered against the black background, and Jack sighed when he sensed that he had left Alterra.
That was it, then. He was in his own trailer. He took off the headset, blinked, and unfastened the harness. Not wasting any time, he immediately switched on his own console.

* * *

TWO HEARTS, the symbol for a portal, adorned the Temple of Astra on Copper Street. The group of fighters from the Brotherhood of Gravediggers were crowded in front of him, their insignia easily identifying them. Jack spotted Burt among them and headed in his direction.
"Greetings," he got down to business. "Burt, you and Andrew Vigo made an agreement. Are you ready to take me there, as agreed?"
"Well..." Burt hesitated. "You see..."
"If not, then no," Jack cut him off. "Just say it, that's all. I still have a lot to do, and I'm not in the mood to waste time figuring out exactly why the Gravediggers are breaking their agreement. In all honesty, I'm not too interested in the reason."
"You listen here," Burt began. "I'm willing to do it! I would! But guild command decided that this was some kind of set-up. Blackmail. That you and Andrew were going to double-cross us. Deliberately summoned that damned black thing so that you could save us from it."
"And so what?" Jack tried to feign surprise. "Let's say that's exactly what we did. How does that change anything? You can't deal with the Shadow and I'm willing to try. What difference does it make, where the creature came from? I honestly just wanted to help Andrew Vigo. We've been friends for a long time."
"But I have to follow orders..."
"Ok, whatever. You can find me in the Rusty Rose, if you need me."
Jack saw an entire procession of mages and warriors marching along Copper Street toward the portal. The color of the Gravediggers! They had a large guild... Well, let them try. He had faith in the Shadow. It wouldn't let him down.
Jack didn't bother waiting for the main force of the Brotherhood of Gravediggers to arrive. He just nodded at Burt and left. He didn't look back, being sure that a lot of people were watching him. That was okay.
It was always crowded and noisy in the Rusty Rose. Jack sat in a corner and, sipping his virtual beer (excellent flavor, the kind you couldn't find in real life), regarded the people at neighboring tables. There was so much to look at here - a various armors and clothing, pretty faces, slender figures. Nearly everyone in Alterra was beautiful. Except for the occasional oddball, everybody wanted to be cute.
The Gravediggers showed up after two hours. Jack approved - it had taken them very little time to come to the right decision. Burt and two others came to negotiate. Jack half stood and waved at them. Burt introduced his superiors, although this was simply a formality, as the info-window automatically appeared over the characters. Then Burt moved away from the table and fell silent. Speaking on behalf of the guild was a mage by the name of Weaver Lund. He looked like a middle-aged man with a wise face and shrewd eyes. An imposing man.
Jack interrupted his long-winded opening with a question.
"You tried to kill the Shadow, right? And nothing worked?"
"What do you know about the Shadow?"
"No, I asked first."
"Yes, we employed some tactics that were usually effective."
"I bet it was just a pillar of dust," Jack nodded. "Were you there, too? Did you notice that the info-window doesn't come up above it? It's something very particular."
This phrase saved him from having to answer what he knew about the Shadow.
"Yes, it is like a piece of unexecuted texture!" the mage remarked. "How do we deal with it?"
Jack shrugged his shoulders.
"Andrew tried and failed. I'm not even sure that I can do it. Have to try. But that area is grey on my map. I haven't been there, and it's pretty far to walk..."
Actually, Jack had been thinking about just that: find a guide that would teleport him closer to the black ruins and then he would set off on his own from there. Andrew Vigo's legacy was calling.
"And what are you expecting?" the mage regarded him closely. "I can see that your stats aren't particularly remarkable. No, that is, they're all right. Decent, even, for a lone omega. But, excuse me, you are far from being a great hero. Do you think you can succeed where our best guild fighters could not? Why is that?"
"Are you worried about me?" Jack tilted his head. "Thank you, I appreciate your concern."
"Everyone has their methods, Weaver. You see, I have a bit of experience with battling mysterious monsters. Just a specialty of mine."
For a full minute, Weaver Lund peered at Jack, trying to allay his doubts. He finally made up his mind.
"Fine. I will take you to... to, well, the place."
The mage kept quiet about the fact the place was the ruins of a demon metropolis. He didn't voice the words “Black City". The Gravedigger wanted to keep at least a little bit of information secret. Both of them followed the same principle: learn more and reveal less. Jack swirled the dregs of his beer and said:
"I don't want to do it. At first, it seemed interesting to try to kill this thing... but it's pretty comfortable here and the beer is very good. Basically, figure it out yourselves."
Weaver didn't hold an important position in the guild for nothing. He got the hint. Negotiations lasted fifteen minutes and they came to an agreement of 200 gold.
"Last question," Jack said, rising when his virtual coin purse clinked with the soft, soothing jingle of coins, "I hope the Shadow isn't hanging around the portal sanctuary? Will I have a little bit of a head start?"
"We distracted it with phantoms before we retreated to the portal," Weaver reassured him. "The phantoms should have led it away. Well, and then there are the goblins. For some reason that place is always full of goblins. That's why we use it for training initiates."
"Goblins. Yeah, they'll distract it... well, I'm ready!"

* * *

THE SHADOW wasn't in the portal sanctuary. Usually, the Temple of Astra was closed to all monsters and teleportation happened safely. However, Jack had his doubts about that creature, for which the info-window didn't even appear. What if it wasn't subject to the usual rules?
However, Weaver hadn't deceived him. The Shadow couldn't be seen anywhere in the temple nor in the surrounding area. Convinced that the way was clear, Jack nodded to his guide.
"Great. Time to go. You can go back home and wait for my message. "
"That’s quite all right. I will wait here," the mage answered.
"Ah! And you'll come to my rescue in my time of need!" Jack feigned delight. "Very noble."
Weaver silently gazed at him. He couldn't count on any help. Jack dipped his head in farewell and walked across the lawn, where armor and weapons littered the grass here and there, dropped by the hapless initiates. Delving deeper into the ruins, he slowed his pace, listening and turning his head. He needed to get to the cache, but the Shadow moved noiselessly and could turn up at any moment.
Somewhere in the distance, goblins began to squeal. It looked like the Shadow was busy with them, which meant that Jack had a bit of time. He searched out the ruins where Andrew had spent his last minute. Here was a building with a dome that resembled the chapel. His heart raced. Jack surprised himself. Usually, the game didn't make him so emotional. Maybe a bit of emotion from that guy in the pickup had passed to him? It was an unusual feeling, being excited about experiences in the virtual world. In real life, Jack had found himself in these kinds of messes and had long ago learned to keep his cool.
Would the Tear still be there? Jack crossed the threshold where Andrew Vigo had been sitting when the game disconnected him. He had been sitting and looking at the sky. Then the Shadow had arrived and... and there it was! The stash! The Tear of Azeroth and the black dagger.
Jack dropped the Tear into a bag slot, but didn't put the dagger away. Should he just leave with his loot, and tell the mage that he couldn’t manage to kill the creature? No, it would be wrong to use Andrew's legacy like that. The right to someone else's loot had to be earned. Don't lose it to some foolishness. If you have a moral right to it, then that will benefit you later in the future. Jack went to the place where, judging by the goblins' cries, the Shadow was playing.
A round-shouldered, black figure emerged from the ruins and headed toward Jack. Of course, it couldn't possibly recognize the person who had liberated it in the form of another player character. However, it seemed to Jack that it remembered and wanted to settle things specifically with him. Emotions, emotions...
He stepped away from the wall to give himself more room to maneuver, drew up the dagger, and waited. Finally, when the distance between them had lessened, the Shadow picked up its speed and rushed at Jack, like a spurred horse. The dark plume billowed behind it like a cloak, and darkness spread on the grass at its feet - a shadow, cast by the Shadow.
Jack stood motionless, but when the enemy was just a step away and had already thrown its two dark spikes forward, he crouched and pulled back to the right. The black apparition swept by so closely, that Jack felt as if his face touched the breeze raised by its movement. Falling, he threw his arm out and plunged the black dagger into the darkness running along the grass. The Shadow's shadow - that was what Jack had pierced, nailing it to the grass. A hissing sounded overhead. Jack released the dagger, leaving it stuck in the ground, and rolled. The Shadow, frozen, was trembling, its dark cloak-like plume fluttered in waves... then the dark shape began to shrivel, curl up, and sink into itself. It was hissing, trembling, and diminishing in size. At the same time, the shadow on the grass was also shrinking, curling around the dagger piercing it. The Shadowkiller.
When it was over, Jack pulled the black dagger from the ground, took a couple of deep breaths, calming his heartbeat, and looked at the dagger. Then, he gazed thoughtfully at the sky. What a blue sky in Alterra.
Over the Blighted Wasteland, the sky was always grey. Underneath it, you wouldn't get far away from New Atrium. Alterra was quite another matter. It was endless. No one knew exactly how many continents and islands there were. If he had the money to fit out a ship, he could try to find another land. The Tear of Azeroth would be worth a few ships, for sure. You could always find alphas, who would fork out gold for such a unique item. Jack knew a couple of dealers who could sell it.
The main thing was to make a decision. Then, follow through with that decision.
Jack stood up and walked to the portal. Alterra's blue sky spread out over him, and he was already certain that he would set off under this sky on the biggest journey of his life.

Chapter Three. Dark Service

JACK DREAMED about the Tear all night. They were strange dreams. Nothing in them, except the Tear and him. Jack was inspecting the artifact, shifting it from hand to hand, listening to his senses... and woke up with the firm conviction that he did not want to sell the Tear. Why? It was hard to explain. It was just impossible to part with the Tear, that was all! Trying to find a rational reason, Jack told himself: random loot could be the beginning of a quest line, which could help get a ship. Yesterday's thought about a journey had gotten stuck firmly in his head and wouldn't leave. The sea, a distant shore, new lands that no one had seen before... The Tear of Azeroth felt like the beginning of a road, one without an end.
Usually, the game would notify you if you had stumbled upon a new mission, but this time there hadn’t been any info messages, nothing like that. Which meant he had to look for them.
With this thought in mind, Jack got up, stretched, and padded over to the window. Dim light filtered in through the cloudy glass and slightly rusted metal screen. The sky was grey, darker than usual. A row of heavy storm clouds stretched from the seaside. It was stuffy and looked like it was going to rain. Jack was going to go to the trader to ask about revolver cartridges, but decided that it was better to stay home in this kind of weather. He logged into the Shell and began to look through guides and articles about the sea. The Shell was a place to chat, with a set of sites and applications for Alterra. If you needed information about the game world, then this was the best place to start. So, ships and sailing...
At first glance, everything was straightforward, but there was one catch: the further out to sea, the higher level a player needed be. Basic fishing boats were available at 10 XP, a sail boat at 20, next there was a coastal barque, which couldn’t go far from the coast... basically, distant sea voyages could be done on a ship, which could be only obtained by a guild, led by a player with a level no less than fifty. No special knowledge or abilities were required for distant campaigns: if you could get a large sea vessel, then you could fill it with a crew of NPCs. In this case, there was less freedom to command, but there was a smaller chance of navigation errors occurring. The crew would include helmsmen and a navigator, an NPC that, in standard situations, rarely made mistakes.
It turned out that he needed 50 XP and his own guild... Jack had a lot of growing to do to get from level 33 to 50. Which meant that he should take bonus quests, to bring in the gold needed for a guild registration. But, where to find them?
The Tear... it was certainly connected with those kinds of quests. Old quests from the past were designed for the original version of the game, but had somehow been forgotten. Ha! If they were forgotten, then no one could come and snatch the loot. Only Jack! How to find the beginning? How to start the quest? There were no guides in any forum connected with the Tear of the Demon King.
In fact, the topic of demons was barely covered. What was known about them? The dragons, in an alliance with the natives of Stoglav, the Areuts, defeated the demons in ancient times. Later, there was another war, which buried all memory of the demons. Conquerors arrived in Stoglav from Gaerthon, the lost continent. So the game legend told.
The four peoples of Gaerthon - Scands, Taunites, Lahittes, and the Achaeans - conquered the dragons and Areuts, and by that time, virtually nothing of the demons remained. Certain relics, portentous lore, and the art of necromancy.
Necromancy and the other dark arts were banned in Havian - the realm where Jack usually played. There, and in the other kingdoms of Stoglav that he knew about. Black magic was openly practiced only in despotic Nightmare on the southwestern coast of Stoglav, but Jack couldn't access the necromancers' forums. There was a complicated registration process, loads of verifications... In a nutshell, outsiders weren't allowed.
Where could he ask about the Tear? Jack mused. He needed to find a specialist, an antiquarian, to determine how much the Tear was worth, what its attributes were, and how it could be used to get a quest.
Thunder boomed in distance – the storm was approaching. That settled it, then! Today, he wouldn't go anywhere. He would login to Alterra, drop in the temples in Svetlograd, and chat with the priests. Relics, secrets of the past... the road to them may very well begin in a temple. The gods knew everything. They remembered when the Dragon God waged war against the King of Demons. The only problem would be whether they would want to share their knowledge.
Jack sent a message to a couple of friends who sold artifacts in Alterra and could give him some information about demonic relics. Then he dug around a bit more in the guides for temple quests, and logged into Alterra. The familiar rainbow-colored tunnel, which carried his consciousness to virt, appeared before his eyes... then he was in a little chapel and behind its door were the glorious streets of Svetlograd.
Jack pushed the door open and found himself on a sunlit street. All around him there was the movement and noise of a crowd in full dress. The weather was perfect, unlike the weather in reality. The sun was brightly shining in the clear blue sky, its rays bouncing off the knights' armor, off the precious stones, on the multitude of embellished outfits and townspeople. The heart of Svetlograd, as always, was glittering. Joining the motley crowd, Jack walked along the street and listened to the conversations.
You could hear all sorts of things here. Someone was discussing a quest, another was boasting about a good deal he got on equipment, and someone else was complaining to his companion that Queens had become impossible to pass because of some young thugs there, picking off stragglers. He was talking about the real world, of course. However, those types of conversations were rare, because the ghetto inhabitants didn't come to Alterra to think about their miserable reality. No, they were trying to forget about the hardships of real life. Alterra was a way to escape, to hide, to live, at least for a little bit, carefree and grandly.
Here was the square with the marble fountain. Crystal-clear jets of water spouted from the statue at its center and sprayed dazzling white foam, the sun playing unnaturally on the clear water. Jack admired the fountain for a moment and walked across the square to the temples.
In the center, of course, was the temple of Chronos. He was great father of the gods, whose disappearance set in motion the beginning of Gaerthon's fall. Alterra's history seemed too complicated and confusing to many, but Jack actually liked working out the tale that the developer's had woven. During his wanderings in the Wasteland, from time to time, he would come across old books. Some he had even read through to the end, so he knew that humanity’s history before the Gendemic had also been long and complicated. Alterra's scriptwriters had often borrowed from real life. It was incredibly interesting, how they wove their own fantasies into humanity's mythology.
Jack climbed the stairs, passing the massive columns of the portico and entered through the temple archway. At the altar, where the eternal flame burned, was a priest in white robes. Chronos had been the god responsible for the passage of time, and time was infinite. Accordingly, the NPC priest was ancient man.
"Father God bless you," he declared in a sonorous voice that did not match his feeble appearance. "What has brought you?"
"I need guidance, holy father," said Jack, reciting the phrase he had found in the guides. "By chance, I came across a demon trinket..."
Jack was going to show the Tear to the NPC, but he had barely reached into the equipment slot...
"Stop!" the priest sharply cried, unexpectedly. "Do not withdraw that abomination in this holy place!"
"But I just... just wanted to know..."
"Cast aside this thing of darkness!" thundered the old man, deaf to Jack's timid attempts to explain. "Get rid of that filth and return here, cleansed. Pray to the Father for forgiveness!”
In short, Jack obviously couldn’t count on receiving an explanation or a quest here.
Jack stepped back and left the temple, the NPC's cries ringing behind him. In fact, he hadn't particularly hoped to find all the answers right away, but for the priest to immediately pounce on a humble parishioner? That hadn't been in any of the guides. Well, this could only mean one thing: the Tear was indeed unique.
Standing between the columns of the portico, in the shadows, Jack glanced around. Something had appeared in the square... something that he automatically registered, even without really getting a good look... a-ha! Amidst the players and NPCs, lingering around the fountain, was someone who didn't act like the rest. He moved back behind the marble fence and turned away. But he had definitely been watching Jack as he exited the temple of Chronos. Who was he and what did he want?
Jack, without looking at the suspicious stranger, walked casually around the square, the turned abruptly and ran to the fountain. The man jerked his attention to him, but it was too late - Jack was standing in front of him, already reading the man's stats. The Brotherhood of Gravediggers.
"You need something? Why were you following me?" Jack barked.
This was a PvE zone, so players couldn't attack one another. Had something like this happened in real life, Jack would have unceremoniously beat the truth out of him. In Svetlograd, however, that sort of thing wasn't permitted. The game wouldn't let you damage another player, and if you kept it up, the guards would come, clad in warrior armor and armed with a few hundred points of health. They were impossible to injure and they wouldn't kill you, but get yourself arrested, and you'd receive a fine, a boring community quest with no reward, and, moreover, be ridiculed. Basically, don't use force here. Nobody had banned yelling, though, and Jack could bellow at least as well as the priest.
"Gravedigger! For some reason, I keep running into you a bit too often. I wonder, why is that?"
The Gravedigger silently shrank away from Jack's pressing, but his answer came from another side - several more people from the guild materialized in the square. Jack immediately recognized the foremost man as Weaver Lund, the mage and big kahuna in the Brotherhood of Gravediggers. Well, that made sense. The guy hiding behind the fountain had contacted the guild through chat and called Weaver...
Jack turned toward the mage,
"Hi, Weaver. Why are you spying on me?"
"Is that so?" the sorcerer asked, feigning surprise. "We were just wandering, looking around."
"Oh, yeah, right! Looking! Only, I can't understand why you're looking specifically in my direction. I saw that this guy called you when he spotted me! Which means that you gave the order to have me watched."
"The youth could benefit from studying a famous monster killer," Weaver tried to match Jack's tone. "So, let them watch how he prepares for his exploits. A pious lifestyle, temples, prayers, all that."
"Aw, man, you've discovered my secret!" Jack shook his head woefully. "Now, you know how to kill monsters. You just need to pray on schedule. Well, seeing as it's no longer a secret, you gonna back off?"
"Jack, tell the truth," Weaver changed his tone. "Did you find something in the black city? How did Vigo wind up there? Who are you two, anyway?"
Jack poked his finger upward, where the sorcerer could see his stats:

Jack, Scand
Level: 33
Health: 45

"Let Vigo tell you the rest. Ask him, when you see him."
"No, Jack, you had better tell me. If you stumbled onto something interesting, some high-level quest or something, it's better to share it with us. Serious quests are too tough for a single man, but the Gravediggers can handle them. If the job is worthwhile, you can expect a share of the reward. Tell us!"
"And if I don't tell you, then what? You won't accept me into your super-duper guild?"
"We are the Brotherhood of Gravediggers!" proudly announced one of the players standing behind Weaver. "We don't take just anyone. Show us that you're worthy, and our officers will think about accepting you."
"No," Jack cut him off, "I haven’t seen anything about your guild that would make me want to join. You, by the way, first tried to flake on me, plus you failed to deal with the creature, which I took on alone... no, you guys, I'm not interested."
"Jack, Jack..." Weaver drawled, clearly losing patience. "You shouldn't have said that. We will learn your secret, sooner or later. You know you won't always be able to stay in a PvE zone, right? Better to tell us yourself what was there, in the north? In the black city? Otherwise, we will follow you and...”
"Follow me? Then, after me, guys, don't fall behind!" Jack, too, was a little angry. "Today will be a day of holiness. You’ll get to see a bunch of temples!"
He didn't turn around, but knew that the Gravediggers were marching behind him. Whatever, let them run around... what could they do inside Svetlograd? Or even in Alterra, with its portals and the ability to leave the game at any moment? Let them run after him.
Now it was time to get back to business. The temple of the great Chronos was a no-go. Next, Jack was going to visit the temple of the warrior Ged. This god, a lover of combat and patron of the Scands, the race that Jack played. Come to think of it, Ged would likely give the quest to a warrior and adventurer, both specializations which Jack had developed. It wouldn't be necessary to show the Tear. Ged was an expert on weapons, so Jack could present the dagger, Shadowkiller, to the priest.
Jack had already had dealings with Ged's priest and knew what to expect. He had taken a couple of jobs suitable for a warrior Scand in this temple. Destroy a sacrificial altar or kill a dangerous predator. Before reaching level twenty, those quests were perfect. However, even those bosses rarely reached level twenty, so he would hardly gain any XP for them now. Perhaps the warrior god would give the holder of a legendary dagger something more serious?
The priest, stately and broad-shouldered, was a man of advancing age with a face full of jagged scars, no worse than those on Jack's. Maybe it was because of this that the NPC evoked in Jack a bit of irrational sympathy? Were the developers implying that the priest of the god-warrior had been a swordsman himself? It made sense!
"Greetings, visitor!" the priest met Jack with a dazzling smile. Although his beard was grey, his rosy cheeks and clear voice were more suited for a younger man. The developers had an interesting interpretation of former soldiers. "What has brought you to this temple?"
"I ask for the blessings of the mighty Ged," Jack replied, as was expected. "And I would like his assistance in one matter. A strange weapon has fallen into my possession, the like I've never seen before."
"Come now, then, show me," the priest smiled wider, "before devoting myself to the temple, I, as you know, held quite a lot of sharpened iron in these hands. Let's see, can you surprise an old warrior?"
Jack withdrew Shadowkiller. The rosy-cheeked priest's smile immediately disappeared.
"You have become involved with a dangerous and dire thing," the NPC said in quite a different tone. "This item reeks of black magic. Discard it! It is unfit for a good Scand to even pick up this abomination!"
"I will rid myself of the dagger," Jack hastily assured him. "Just to know, what is it? What if I throw it away somewhere and another finds it? Will misfortune not come of it?"
"Throw it into the sea! Or bury it in the forest! Far from living areas!" demanded the priest. "And do not tarry! Every moment that this cursed thing remains with you, it may destroy you! Go!"
When the priest, drawing his grey brows into a scowl, uttered his threats, Jack made out the heavy rumblings of thunder. They barely reached him, as if from afar, and herealized that it wasn't coming from the game. It really was thunder rolling - in reality, outside the trailer window. That was too bad. It would have been nice if the priest's speech had been accompanied by special effects. It would have been awesome.
"But what is this dagger? What dangers does it hold?" he made one more attempt.
"Go, you imbecile! Quickly, purge the world of good men of this accursed corruption!" the old man roared.
What a bummer. No one wanted to explain... and even the order to get rid of the Shadowkiller wasn't a quest, so it wouldn't result in any kind of reward. At any rate, there were no info messages, which meant no new quests there.
Jack left the temple in such a state of thoughtfulness that he didn't even glance at the Gravediggers waiting for him outside. One of them promptly entered the temple. Jack wondered, would the priest be amiable with him? Or would he tell this guy off, too?
Maybe they thought the priest would repeat his conversation with Jack. Ridiculous. NPCs weren't capable of such a thing, as they had a limited set of dialog lines. Then a thought immediately superseded his contemplation: what to do next?
Try his luck in the other temples? Go to Zaratos the Wise, the god of answers? In fact, this seemed right up his alley, solving riddles. But, Zaratos was an Achaean god. He never gave a straight answer and required a fee for each word. Or should he turn to the god of questions? Faceless protected Taunites, but was always up for playing some kind of dirty trick. Slap you with a debuff, who knows what, for asking the wrong question... no, better to stay out of his temple. That left the goddesses. Astra, Ged's companion and beloved, always followed the warrior god and healed the wounds that he inflicted. She favored the Lahittes, but he could try. Although, it was unlikely that Astra would be very helpful...
Crossing the square, Jack approached the temple of Shining Vecta. She was a kind goddess, who surely wouldn't get angry. Vecta was the wife of Chronos, and one of two entities. Her husband was responsible for the overall passage of time, while Vecta oversaw the transition of day and night.
During the day, she was the all-merciful and good Vecta, who granted everyone peace and tranquility. However, at night, in the form of Necta, her evil incarnation, she plotted all kinds of mischief. She was the mistress of black magic... that wa it! That was exactly who Jack needed. Necta was not well regarded in Svetlograd and there were no temples dedicated to the evil incarnation of the two-faced goddess. Her shrines were located in the dungeons beneath Vecta's temples. To reach her, you first needed to gain the favor of Shining Vecta's priestess.
The priestess in white robes was a tall woman, statuesque, with a very kind face. She greeted Jack at the threshold.
"What has brought you here, good man?"
"I am a sinner, mother," Jack replied cheerfully.
The guides that he saw on the Shell described in detail the different dialogues, after which the priestess gave quests. Youngsters just beginning their path in Alterra willingly took quests in the temple, but after the twentieth level, temple quests did not give experience. No one went down to the lower church, that was for sure. With some effort, Jack found the right dialogue.
The priestess continued to look at him with her clear, kind, and understanding gaze.
"I have committed many sins, done terrible things, but there is still light in my soul. I would like to do something good to atone, if only a little, for the woe that I have brought into the world."
"Good intentions," the priestess smiled. "It is good to see sincere repentance. What good deed will you do?"
"I am a warrior, mother. Perhaps, you have need of a protector of good people somewhere? To help those in trouble?"
"If your intentions are sincere, then Shining Vecta has a request of you:  the town of Narim is beleaguered by a giant wolf. Help the good residents of Narim and kill the wolf."

You receive the quest "Rid the town of Narim of the wolf".
Reward: 50 gold
Accept / Reject

"I will do it, mother. Bless!"
Jack knelt down and the priestess placed her hand on his head. The touch was pleasant. It was even useful. A message appeared before Jack, informing him that he'd received a half-hour buff - a five percent increase in strength, speed, and stamina.
The effects of the buff would end before Jack would leave Svetlograd, but Narim appeared on his map, marked by a red circle. It was in the west, pretty far from here.
Jack stood up and walked past the priestess into the temple. He’d had to accept the quest, so that the priestess would allow him inside. In the center of the sanctuary, between the columns, a fire burned on the altar. Bright, like the sun, because Vecta was the goddess of day. If you didn't know exactly what to look for, then the way down to the lower temple would be easy to miss, but Jack knew. He passed between the columns and noticed a doorway in the shadows, darkness behind it.
Going down the stairs, he heard the rumblings of thunder through his virt-headset. The thunderstorm was already very close and was about to blanket the slums.
A fire burned on the altar in the lower temple, too, but it was quite dull, giving almost no light. This priestess looked like the one above, except her robes were black. Jack didn't see her until she stepped forward. She was incredibly similar to the one above, like a sister, but, although the facial features were the same, they were cold and aloof.
"What has brought you here?”
"I... uh... mother, I've found a weapon... a dagger that emanates darkness." Jack held up the blade. "I thought that this item had something to do with the great Necta. She is our night mother, and there is night flowing from the blade."
"Yes, it is a weapon of darkness. It is of the past," the priestess said coldly. "All in the past, buried and forgotten. As you should forget. Go."
Jack did not move. Maybe the priestess would change her mind?
"The era of this dagger is long passed. Leave, and forget," the NPC said tersely.
Jack took a step back and turned. He was still procrastinating, because he had laid his hopes on Necta more than anything else... and because the woman had seen something interesting about the dagger, right? So, why not admit it?
Outside, thunder crashed and the image of the temple shook in front of Jack. The storm had finally broken. Something in the virt-headset clicked and the picture turned to blinking lines. Jack mentally cursed under the cracking noise - now, because of the lightning, the connection would be broken and he would be booted out of the game, which would result in a fine. Exiting Alterra outside of designated player areas meant a fine of five coins!
But the image stabilized and Jack walked to the stairs, so that he could quickly reach an approved point to exit Alterra.
"Are you ready to embark on the path of dark service?" he heard behind him.
Jack slowly turned around. The priestess was already standing in front of him and her eyes, black as night, stared at the visitor.

You receive the quest "Dark Service".
Reward: Unknown
Accept / Reject

"I'm ready!" Jack hastily blurted out, squeezing the handle of the Shadowkiller, before the NPC could change her mind and return to the previous script.
"Leave Svetlograd, where the great Necta is not revered as is proper. Bring the Mother the sacrifice at the crossroads!" the priestess said clearly and solemnly. "Let the blade of the black dagger bathe in blood."
Before Jack a message appeared,

Attention! You are the first player on the path of dark service, with the Shadow in hand...

Chapter Four. Wolf Blood

Attention! You are the first player on the path of dark service, with the Shadow in hand.
You receive +1 XP.
You have 34 XP. Earn 6 XP to unlock new skills.

NOT A BAD little thing, this dark service, Jack thought, climbing the stairs. I still haven't killed anyone and already gained an experience point. Looks promising!
He passed the Shining Vecta's priestess, who stood before the entrance and took no notice of him. He took the stairs out. Six Gravediggers were waiting for him in front of the temple. Weaver nodded. A player hurried into the temple that Jack had just left. Persistent guys, methodical.
While everyone's gaze was following their friend, Jack broke into a run. Although it was already getting dark in reality, the number of players in Svetlograd hadn't declined. The weather sucked. What else was there to do, besides hang out in Alterra? The streets of Svetlograd were crowded today. Jack managed to dive into a narrow alley before Weaver and his crew emerged from the throng in the square. Without slowing down, he kept running. He pressed against the wall to avoid colliding with oncoming traffic. It was easier for one person to do than for five, or six if the one from the temple changed his mind and decided to run after the others. Jack didn't look back. It didn't matter whether there were five or six — he had left them all behind. He reached the exit point before the Gravediggers could notice whether he had turned back or not.
Jack ran past the slightly open door of a temple where he could legally exit the game inside Svetlograd. He turned a corner, then another, grinning widely when he thought of how Weaver would order his fighters to set up post at the temple. They could wait as long as they liked. The longer, the better.
Having made sure that his pursuers had fallen behind, he slowed to a walk. That lucky buff that Vecta's priestess granted him came in handy.
Jack sought out the Wanderer's dias and turned toward it. The Wanderer was the mage NPC who sold teleports. Glowing above his dias was the symbol of Astra, discoverer of pathways, but this wasn't connected with the cult of the goddess. There was just a legend that one day, Astra was hurrying to heal Ged, wounded in battle, but night had fallen and Necta had muddled the roads. So Astra, driven by her love, opened the first portal in Alterra. Since then, Wanderer mages have been decorating their sites with two hearts, the symbol of shared love, and followers of black magic were still leaving sacrifices for Necta at the crossroads.
Jack bought a port to a desert locale to the west of Svetlograd. From there, it wasn't very far to the town of Narim, but it was best to go the rest of the way on foot. Less likely to leave a trail that way and tip off his pursuers.
Having paid the Wanderer, Jack stepped into the open portal. A wall of light encircled him... then the glow disappeared.
Before him was a road, the forest pressed up on both sides of it. A milepost stuck out beside it, the portal's anchor point. The sign showed that it was another ten miles to Narim. That would work. Jack walked along the road until the temple became visible. The exit point from the game was a small building with a rounded roof, like the one where Andrew Vigo had left his legacy. Jack left the game here.
Before logging off completely, he popped into the Shell to check his mail. One of the dealers that he had contacted the day before had just responded.
Word on the street was that Shifty Peter had some contacts in New Atrium. Though Jack suspected that Peter spread those rumors himself to add to his credibility. At any rate, the one-eyed swindler bought old junk from the Walkers and even kept a weapons stand in Alterra, where he plied practically the same trade — buying loot from players. Jack didn't care for Peter's stinginess. He always tried too hard to drive down the price, but once agreed, he would never shortchange you. Besides, artifacts were his area of expertise, both in reality and in game. In fact, maybe he marketed them to buyers behind the Barrier — the one in Alterra and the one in real life. There were artifact aficionados in New Atrium, too.
Peter wrote that .38 caliber cartridges for the Smith & Wesson weren't in stock, but he would look around and give an answer tomorrow. Same thing for the demon artifacts. Peter didn't know who might be interested, but he'd ask some friends and try to find a buyer. And was expecting a 10% commission on the sale.
Jack replied that 10% was too much. But a commission was possible if a deal could be arranged. He had already decided not to sell the Tear, so he could promise a percentage with a clear conscience, since he would never have to give anything anyway. Enough from Peter and the split he'd get off the cartridges. There was no doubt that he would significantly jack up the price Jack had agreed to this in advance, since he had no choice. Arms trade was prohibited and very few dealers chose to buy and resell cartridges. The Barrier defenders kept a close eye on that.
Plus, he hoped that Peter find a specialist of demon relics, who he could chat with and get at least a little information about the quests they had managed to get. He wrote to Peter: If you can't find a buyer, then at least find a specialist.
Then he slipped off the virt-headset and gloves, rubbed his eyes with his fists, and went to the window. The storm had already drifted over toward the Blighted Wasteland, the rain whispered steadily outside the window. Muddy rivulets were running down the glass, but he could see the windows of the neighboring trailers, spots of light outlined by a thick gauze of falling spray of rain.
Through the rustle and splash, a new sound broke through, a steady buzzing. A new set of lights were creeping up over the irregular chain of window lights — an airship of patrolmen was approaching from New Atrium. It was a black shadow surrounded by a dim halo, its searchlights piercing through the spray of rain. The airship floated over the pipes and moved toward the Wasteland, following the retreating storm.
Jack took a few sips of water from a bottle, looked at the streams cascading down the glass, and went back to his pallet. Alterra was two hours behind reality, but it was already getting dark there. It would be night soon, the hour of the deceitful Necta. Which meant that it was time to get down to business.
Before returning to the game, Jack took a look at the forum for the Brotherhood of Gravediggers. Of course, there were private threads for guild members, but there was a public area that looked more like a block of advertising. Jack knew very well what advertising was. Before the Gendemic, this stuff had been of great significance.
Well, here... Under the page banner with their emblem, the crossed shovels, and the guild name, was their motto: "Bury them all!"
The guild invited all to join their ranks, with a special preference for those who would contribute legendary- and epic-level relics to the guild treasury. This bit piqued Jack's interest and he defined a search across the entire Shell with the keywords: "relics, epic, special". In the forums, they were chatting about the upcoming Battle — the yearly quest for all players — and about how the outcome would hang on this or that relic.
Nobody knew anything for certain, but the hunt for relics had begun. And this explained the Gravediggers' interest. It was a large guild, with more than a thousand members, and naturally, they wanted to win. The prize for winning the yearly in-game Battle was alpha-citizenship and entry into New Atrium. It was an award worth competing for... just not for Jack. He absolutely did not want to be locked away inside the Barrier for the rest of his life. No. The complacent life of an alpha-citizen... It was just another form of captivity. No freedom, no adventure.
It was with this thought that Jack entered the game. He was once again facing the road with the looming forest on both sides. It was already getting dark in Alterra. Jack glanced around and then set off down the road. He reached Narim at dusk. He asked the guards where the mayor could be found and went to the address they gave him. NPCs didn't need to sleep, so they could discuss the wolf problem now.
The mayor — a fat, bearded man with a kindly face — met him on the doorstep.
"That's right, good man, a terrible wolf has been harassing the entire province," he confirmed, when Jack stated that the Shining Vecta's priestess sent him. "If you can rid us of this scourge, then you will have the entire city's gratitude and earn 50 gold. Simply deliver the beast's tail."
"And where to find to this wolf of yours?"
"He can show up anywhere, and that's the problem," the mayor shook his head regretfully, "but it's been sighted most often in the Gray sector. It's not far, just along the road to the west."
A new waypoint appeared on Jack's map and he checked that there was a crossroads not far from the Gray sector. That was fine. He could complete all the quests in one go.
He said goodbye to the fat man and walked off toward the city gates. When he had reached a turn in the road, he heard a knock behind him — the mayor had another visitor. Jack pressed against a building and listened. Well, shit! Was it really the Gravediggers? How did these guys get here? They took the quest in Vecta's temple, no doubt. Now the fat man could very well tell them that he had just given this quest. Or maybe he wouldn't say anything — it was unclear what was written in his script. This wasn't a temple in the capital. The priest there could give players different quests without worrying about them crossing paths. But they used a purely local script here, so the NPC could alert other players, so they wouldn't interfere with one another.
Jack decided not to leave these two behind his back. Walking a little farther along the path to the Gray sector, he left the roadside and hid in the shadows behind some trees. Nighttime in Alterra was an interesting thing. There was the sensation of total darkness, but visibility was still good. At ten paces, for sure. Jack had never bothered with concealment. In real life, he relied more on his menacing appearance than stealth. That's probably why he hadn't really raised his skills in concealment in the game — out of habit. And why he didn't pick up gear with bonuses to concealment. Much better to hide in the shadows.
He had to wait about ten minutes before the two players appeared on the road. When they passed by Jack, he read their stats:

Gower Scand
Expertise: 14 Health: 40
Guild: Brotherhood of Gravediggers

Darsin Lahitte
Expertise: 15 Health: 35
Guild: Brotherhood of Gravediggers

These guys weren't particularly formidable, maybe they were just doing the quest. An opponent like the wolf would be just right for their level. Or maybe it wasn't a coincidence that they were here. What if Weaver Lund had sent his people out on all the quests that were available in the few temples in Svetlograd? There were many more people in the Brotherhood of Gravediggers than quests.
Jack waited a bit and set off after the Gravediggers. In the Gray sector, he abandoned the road again and crept along the roadside, keeping to the shadows of the trees. Then the Gravediggers stood in the road, looking around. Maybe they really weren't here for him, just doing a quest? Jack edged closer to hear their conversation.
"He's not here," announced the Scand, Gower.
Who's not here, Jack thought, him or the wolf? That was the big question.
"Report to Weaver," the Lahitte, Darsin, said — and everything clicked into place. "The bastard isn't here but we'll finish the quest anyway, just to be sure."
From deep in the forest came a long howl. The Gravediggers retreated to the middle of the road and drew their swords. The howl sounded again, already closer. Jack backed away, so he wouldn't get caught between the mob and the players.
While those two were listening to the noise in the woods, Jack ran off farther into the darkness where the Gravediggers wouldn't notice him. He crossed the road and returned to the area of the upcoming battle. Now he was behind his rivals.
The howling and cracking of branches that marked the mob's approach were very close. Uh... and the wolf didn't come alone! Three lanky, sinuous shadows emerged from the thicket onto the road. One was enormous. Its withers nearly reached Jack's chest.

Alpha Wolf Health: 35. Aggro zone: 15
Wolf Health: 20. Aggro zone: 15
Wolf Health: 20. Aggro zone: 15

The Gravediggers stepped toward the beasts, blades lifted, but neither one of them managed to get a hit. Jack rushed up behind them and, with one broad sweep of his sword, cut them both down. They didn't even have time to utter a peep, and didn't notice who'd ganked them because their gaze never left the wolves.
The unlucky hunters collapsed on the road, dripping shiny, oily liquid textures. Jack jumped over their bodies and stood facing the wolves.
"Well, come on!" he shouted at the beasts. "Before even more Gravediggers show up." They were everywhere tonight.
The wolves, of course, didn't need prodding. The two smallest bared their teeth and ran to the sides, while the alpha, stepping lightly and crouching, moved for Jack. All three jumped at once. Jack leaped back and the wolves collided in the place where he had been standing. The alpha, due to its larger mass, carried the two smaller wolves along with it. The furry ball rolled on the road towards Jack's legs. Two short blows and the only the leader remained. But the creature didn't even think of retreating.
The wolf sprung up, shook itself, and leaped again. Jack turned around with lightning speed, slipping past its creaking jaws and slammed the hilt of the bastard sword into the wolf's crown. The beast dropped, burying its nose in the dust of the road, then tried to get up, but it was too late — Jack had gripped it by its shaggy scruff. A couple more blows to the head, and the beast was already struggling less. Everything was simple in the game- Jack was stronger and his hits fixed the wolf with the "stun" debuff, but this stunt would never work in real life with a wild dog from the Wasteland.
"Let's go," Jack wheezed through clenched teeth, using all of his strength to grasp the folds of its furry pelt, "Take me to the crossroads. We're both a part of the show, now. But remember that I've got the lead role."
The mob, it seemed, wasn't about to give up the lead to Jack and attempted to break free. Every twenty paces, Jack had to renew the "stun" and knock the wolf over the head with the sword hilt. Jack dragged the animal down the road — he needed a crossroads.
And here it was! The trees parted, revealing a clearing where two roads intersected and rickety milepost stood. The developers didn't bother coming up with anything special. Both forest roads looked the same — the same dust-covered ruts and the same pine trees on both sides. Everything was silvered by the light of Alterra's nighttime star, Shadris.
Hmm, how to best appease Necta? Jack hadn't found any instructions or guides that fit his circumstances. Would such a shabby crossroads be suitable for the goddess? Or did he need something more respectable, with some kind of specific decoration, like a shrine or a stone that could serve as an alter? There was nothing like that here. Okay, well, if it didn't work here, he could retry it somewhere else. Were there not many crossroads in Alterra? And wolves? Only, it was as if this were the right place to arrange it...
"Uh..." Jack began. "Great goddess..."
The wolf began to growl and twitch. The debuff effects had worn off.
"Be quiet," Jack snapped at it. "You can see that I have an important conversation. Now, where did I leave off? Great goddess! Night mother Necta... just... please accept this sacrifice."
Jack put the bastard sword into the scabbard, drew the Shadowslayer, and slit the wolf's shaggy throat. The growling cut off as its blood gushed over the black blade.
And an instant later, a message slid in front of Jack.

Attention! You have completed the quest "Rid the town of Narim of the wolf". The reward of 50 gold can be received from the mayor.
Attention! Quest progression in "Dark Service"...

The lines were scrolling, disappearing and dissolving at the bottom of his field of vision, but Jack wasn't reading them. He was staring at the apparition of a woman that had materialized on the road in front of him. A statuesque figure, three times taller than Jack. It was difficult to distinguish the giantess's facial features. She was too tall. Her face was lost in the darkness, the silvery sheen of Shadris barely outlined the silhouette of the giant figure. And the most surprising thing was that she was transparent. Well, almost transparent. In any case, he could see the outlines of the trees behind her, as if through clouded glass.
"Jack, my son," the apparition began, "You serve me well. The sacrifice is accepted."
Her voice was also strange, simultaneously ringing and hissing. It slithered into his ears and reverberated into a slowly fading echo.
"You will pass through the entire path," she buzzed in Jack's skull, "For this, you will need strength and I give THIS to you. This sword, which contains the Shadow of the Demon King Azeroth, will serve my faithful acolyte. Locate my temple, forgotten by all, in the realm of the otherworldly forests near the dark city Dargoth. The temple alter is a closed lock. You understand what this means. Your sword will serve as the key..."
Sword? The hand gripping the Shadowslayer had begun to tremble slightly. Something was happening to the knife. Jack squinted at the blade. The dagger was lengthening and all the while it remained black, darkness still flowing from it. A sword, indeed. And above it read:

Shadow of the King Sword Weapon of the servant of Necta.
Level: Epic

Wow! His legendary dagger had become an epic sword! The goddess said something else, but was interrupted by a loud shout from behind Jack:
"Jack, get rid of the sword! We need to talk!"
It seemed that the apparition existed only for Jack, and that those present on the road didn't see Necta, nor did they hear her sibilant, ringing, and reverberating voice. And the goddess had already disappeared, her apparition had melted into the darkness. Jack slowly turned his head — on the road behind him stood several Gravediggers. Weaver was among them. The mage stood closer than the others, his right hand raised, a hot red ball burning in his palm. Weaver was keeping the spell at the ready. The Gravediggers couldn't see Jack's right hand, which was holding the black sword. So Jack slowly and deliberately unfastened the scabbard for the bastard sword and tossed the weapon onto the road.
"What do you want?" he called out.
The Gravediggers slowly moved forward. There were four of them, their weapons held at the ready in front of themselves. But most importantly, the fire in Weaver's hand extinguished. At close distance, the spell could hit the mage as well. That meant that they would be, more or less, on equal footing. Jack and the four guild members.
"Jack, it's best if you tell us everything," Weaver began, drawing closer. "We will find out anyway what was in there, in the black city. Tell us yourself, and a share of the prize is yours. You are wasting time for nothing. You see it for yourself. You can't hide from us"
Jack didn't care to chat — it was the common problem of all slum dwellers. It's how things were done with these guys — before the start of a fight, they spent a long time trading threats and boasting about their own coolness. A waste of words. When the distance between Jack and his opponents had been reduced to three paces, he turned, sending the sword out in front of him in a wide arc. He had been hoping to simply knock aside the sword blades pointed in his direction, but hadn't expected what did happen. The King's Shadow passed through all obstacles without stopping, cleaving bodies and chopping their blades in two. Jack hardly felt resistance and, because of this, nearly lost his balance. Three Gravediggers, including Weaver, dropped to the road and a wide puddle, looking black in the darkness, immediately spread out around their crumpled bodies.
The fourth adversary shrank away as Jack ran up to him and raised his sword. The remaining Gravedigger hadn't a hope of winning and blurted out,
"Hey, don't! I'm here by chance... was just nearby when Weaver was gathering anyone he could catch... I really don't know anything."
"Okay, alright," Jack nonchalantly waved his sword. At this movement, the final chatterbox started and stepped back.
"Alright, you don't know anything. Got it. Fine. Just tell me one thing — how did you find out that I was here? Why exactly did you look in a crappy little town, what's it called... Narim?"
We sent people out to all the locations where they send players from Vecta's temple. The ones who came to Narim died and resurrected together two minutes later. They couldn't explain how it happened. But Weaver decided that we needed to come here."
"Good call," nodded Jack. "He's a clever one, that Weaver Lund. Then, that's how you convey information in the guild, through the rez points. Let's send them another message."
One long, sudden step forward and a thrust of the black sword, from which rivulets of darkness spilled out... And the bodies of all the Gravediggers were melting slowly in the dust, coming transparent and fading. Jack lingered at the crossroads only as long as necessary to collect the drops. On the wolf, as expected, was a tail.
The goddess didn't make another appearance, and why would she? She had already given him his mission. Jack headed back to Narim. Had to get the gold and find the local Wanderer. And if he came across a weapons merchant's stall, then he would sell the looted weapon. He was going to need a lot of gold now. There were going to be some serious costs in the quest progression. Then he would need to register a guild, and that wasn't even for the ship. It was just for the privilege to get the ship. That was at least five thousand gold to register a guild. And the ship itself would set him back a considerable amount. Not to mention preparations for the expedition, and supplies, and the crew!
It was daunting to even guestimate. Jack pulled up his wallet.

You have 532 gold in your account.
Do you want to perform a transaction? Yes/No

Ports weren't cheap and if the Gravediggers were planning to be difficult, then ports would be a necessity. And it definitely didn't make sense to go back to Svetlograd. Especially since one of the items looted from the dead Gravediggers turned out to be a very nice little Torque of Veneration with +10% to health. Of course, it belonged to Weaver himself. The mage was going to miss this little trinket. Best not to come across him.
Jack decided to keep the torque for himself. On the way, to save time, he opened his Quest Log and checked the new notifications of received and completed quests for the ones that he didn't finish reading because of Weaver and his buddies. Now he had the time to take a good look.

You have completed the quest "Rid the town of Narim of the wolf". The reward of 50 gold can be received from the mayor.
You have successfully completed one achievement of the quest for Shining Vecta and Dark Necta. You are the first player to reach this achievement.
You receive +5XP.
You have 39 XP. Earn 1 XP to unlock new skills.
Attention! Quest progression in "Dark Service".
Find the forgotten temple near the dark city Dargoth. Use the sword King's Shadow at the altar.

Chapter Five. The Best Men of Maxitor

JACK DIDN'T FIND a Wanderer in Narim. He'd have to continue on foot. The country’s borders were still pretty far off and, of course, a teleport would save time, but Jack was almost glad that it hadn't worked out. Wanderer services were expensive and if he was going to establish his own guild, he would have to shell out a pretty penny.

You have 582 gold in your account.
Do you want to perform another transaction? Yes/No

No, not yet. For two hours, he just walked along the moonlit road and mused. Naturally, people didn't play in Alterra just to take long walks. There were all sorts of adventures here, skirmishes with players and mobs. Here was a different, more beautiful life. And there was no lack of walking in Jack's real life. But he needed to think and the forest road was conducive to contemplation...
So, what had happened? The black dagger didn’t kill the Shadow but rather absorbed it: swallowed it up. Necta's meddling turned the dagger into a sword. For what? The goddess had an objective and to achieve it, she needed a servant with this sword. Weird. This was incredibly different from the usual adventures in the virtual dreamworld. The gods had left Alterra, according to the official version. And here Necta had appeared to Jack in the flesh – well, okay, in the form of a ghost, but she still appeared!
No one had ever seen the gods of Alterra. It looked like Jack was the first in this, as well... And how did that happen? By going through Andrew Vigo's account, had he launched a quest chain that no one else had found before now? An old, forgotten questline?
And the sword, Shadow of the King, was now an epic weapon. And a hell of an epic it was! It just cut down the others' blades. Jack had never heard of such a thing. And he figured that he knew quite a bit about weapons. In melee range, the Shadow of the King would be an enormous advantage. Of course, even a fighter with the sword could be beat at a distance. It wouldn’t be a problem, for example, for a high-level fire mage or a unit of archers... but once he had already reached his enemy, then Jack could take anyone down. The goddess made it that way for a reason. Which meant that Necta would ultimately present him with an objective equal to these abilities.
Jack crossed the border separating Havian and Maxitor, a Scand nation. Up till now, he usually played in Havian, the capital city of which was Svetlograd. But there were Gravediggers there at the moment, especially in Svetlograd, where their headquarters was located.
Maxitor was also a Scand country. He could hide there for now. Let the Gravediggers blow off some steam and cool off. He just needed to give them some time. Of course, though, Weaver wouldn't let it go. Any player would be ticked off about being killed. But eventually, they would realize that it was just stupid to send the entire guild out chasing a single player, when they had plenty to do without him. When Weaver no longer had all of the Brotherhood's resources at his disposal, he wouldn't be so dangerous. As a matter of fact, the best thing right now would be to disappear from the game for a few days, just to annoy the Gravediggers. But Jack’s curiosity was already killing him. He'd completed two stages of Service to the Dark, as it was called, in one go. He wanted more, more! Jack knew he wouldn't be able to stop.
Maxitorian soldiers greeted the traveler as he crossed the bridge over the boundary river. Jack answered with a wave. Let them look. Even if they asked, the border guards couldn't tell anyone who exactly had crossed their post in the night. They were NPCs – their code didn't allow for such conversations. The Narimite mayor, too, wouldn't be able to tell anyone that Jack had returned to the town. The wolf had already respawned in the Gray sector and the portly man was offering the quest again. And he was ready to pay another fifty coins for a recovered tail. Curious, how many times in the history of the game had he counted out gold? If he were to add it all up, it would come out to a huge amount. Yep, that was Narim – a generous city! Who would’ve thought it? Because from all appearances, it just looked like a plain, hole-in-the-wall town.
Jack walked a bit more along the Maxitorian terrain, and then turned into the first roadside chapel he found and left the game. Now he could sleep. Settling into his cot, he imagined how furious Weaver Lund was right now... and fell asleep with a satisfied smile.
He woke up late, when the sun was already at its zenith, and reached for the console right away. Before entering the game, however, he checked his messages. Sure enough, a note had come from Shifty Peter:
"Take a peek tonight, the cartridges will be here. And about your other question, I found a lead. There's just such a guy. His in-game name is Egghead. He lives in Maxitown, maybe he can help with your demon artifacts. No one's really interested in them but Egghead might be able to tell you something. If he can't, then no one can. Mind you, though, Egghead sells his secrets for a fee. You'll have to settle it with him, and it won't be cheap. One more thing – he won't deal with just anybody, so tell him that I sent you. You'll find his house on Sapphire Shields road. It's a large green-roofed house with a courtyard and stables. You can't miss it.
“And fine, I won't take anything from you, but you owe me a favor! Well, we'll talk about that tonight. It’ll be a cash transaction; you won't be taking a loss. See you tonight."
Jack even reconsidered entering Alterra. He strapped the virt-headset on and scratched at his nape. This was unprecedented. Peter wasn't charging for a service. Maybe the world had flipped and the sky had fallen? Hmm, no, the sky was in its place – outside the window there was still the gray veil of fumes and the dim, white orb of the sun peeking through.
Jack again wished for a boat. Wished to have no reeking haze in the sky, to have a sun that shone as brightly as possible, to have the wind blowing on his face and lapping waves...
Yeah, but what exactly had Peter thought up if he wasn't asking for a percent?
That guy that he mentioned lived in Maxitor's capital, Maxitown. Very convenient. Jack had even just spent all night traveling in that direction. Well then, he needed to continue the journey.
Jack yawned, looked around his shack and noticed only now that a puddle had collected in the corner. He had a quick bite to eat, then climbed up onto the roof to see where the leak was. After a hasty patch job, he switched on the console. It was a long way to Maxitown, but his curiosity got the better of him: what kind of person had Shifty found that could make him so suddenly loosen up? So, in the first city that he came to, he used the Wanderer services and bought a teleport to the capital. Minus 50 gold. Jack checked his wallet:

You have made a payment in the amount of 50 gold.
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Maxitown was a large, beautiful city, almost like Svetlograd. The only difference was that Maxitor was a kingdom and at its center was the Royal Palace. You could raise your XP by completing quests for the nobility here and later, if you reached the higher levels, for the king himself. Everything else was the same – the temples, market square, the lavish homes of the aristocrats in the center. Except here, each house served not only as a residence, but there were also a bunch of buildings for servants and animals.
Sapphire Shields road was one of the wealthiest. Jack walked along it, looking happily at the outfits of passersby and the villa facades. The house with the green roof wasn't the largest, but fit into the overall picture of magnificence. Egghead lived very well.
Jack knocked on the gate. A servant in livery opened it for him. The banner with his stats was a light turquoise color, which meant he was an NPC. They used this color specifically for official administrative messages and general game characters. The doorman let the visitor into the courtyard.
"How shall I announce you?"
"Tell him that Jack's come. On business. A man by the name of Peter's told your master about me."
"I shall inform the master," the doorman nodded regally, "please wait here."
While the servant took the arrival announcement to Egghead, Jack surveyed the yard, which seemed more like a cozy, little garden. There were flowerbeds, overflowing with blooms in the most vivid colors, neatly trimmed shrubs, and a white-marble gazebo under a sprawling tree. In front of the gates stood a carriage, an elegant piece of work with gilded wheel spokes, carved cornices, and lace curtains in the windows. Nice, Jack thought. It was strange to look at this delicate beauty after a fun night spent on a road in the forest and the encounters with the mobs and Gravediggers.
Soon enough, Jack was asked into the mansion. The scene inside was in line with the one he had seen in the courtyard – carvings, braided trim, rich embroidery on the curtains and gilt wherever possible. And where it shouldn't be, in Jack's opinion.
Jack's host met with him in the office. He stood to greet his guest from behind a table with cabriole legs and swept into a graceful bow.

Egghead, Scand
Expertise: 38
Health: 40

Scands were a race of warriors. They were usually bulky, thickset, and broad-shouldered. Something light and ephemeral was standing before Jack. A narrow face with delicate features framed by curls and a slight smile... Put him in a woman's dress and all the women from the trailers neighboring Jack's would just die from envy of his beauty. And an expertise level of 38... It was hard to imagine this personification of daintiness running around on quests and fighting with barbarians and beasts. Having said that, he did live in Maxitown and the Royal Court was here. They had their own ways of earning experience.
Egghead nodded toward a chair.
"Please. How can I be of service? Peter mentioned something about ancient artifacts."
Jack hesitated. It would have been easier for him to pick a fight with someone than to engage in small talk.
"Artifacts, yeah," he stammered out with some difficulty. "Demon."
"Demon," repeated Egghead with that same smile. "A rare thing."
"I need someone who’s familiar with quests connected to these kinds of artifacts, knows where to get them... and, you know... that sort of thing."
"Oh, that's an easy question to answer!" Egghead gracefully clasped his hands, showing his brilliantly white lace cuffs. "Such quests don't exist!"
Jack perked up a bit. So, this dandy didn't know everything! Until now, he had felt awkward, sitting on the edge of his chair, and didn't know how to act. Now Jack sat back in his seat, crossed one leg over the other, and smiled:
"Here's where you're wrong – they do exist. I've stumbled onto one myself. That's why I'm asking."
"Outstanding. I just wanted to be sure this was real," Egghead was not the least bit flustered "Not much is known about these kinds of quests. This will be interesting to hear. So?"
"Uh, no, I came to ask, not answer. I need someone familiar with demon artifacts, history of the demon war, and service to Dark Necta. I'm willing to pay a reasonable price... Oh, and one more question! Where is Dargoth? And what is it?
“After Necta gave the last quest, no new waypoints were added to the map." Jack hadn't heard anything about Dargoth and had no idea what it was.
"The more you tell me, the more complete my answer will be," the pretty boy explained. "I can't answer half a question. Right now, based on what you've told me, I would answer this way. For one hundred gold, I'll give you the name of a person who deals in demon artifacts and will find Dargoth's coordinates for you."
"That's not much... for a hundred."
"See for yourself. For example, demon artifacts: they exist and are used by the necromancers in Nightmare for their rituals. These rituals aren't game quests, but are for their own entertainment. The sorcerers of Nightmare arrange these spectacles for the Despot and for each other. They're all nutjobs there, who have their own special kind of fun. Sometimes, their rituals are just that – simple entertainment, no game rewards. What's more, they're very specific. The Necromancers' guild is... a private club. Do you know what that means?"
"A private club. This means that not just anyone can get in. You can start the quests associated with black magic; get some experience along the way. But after level ten, the game throws a limit at you: to continue leveling in black magic, you must join the necromancers' guild. And you can join only if three active guild members can recommend you. In other words, you have to prove to at least three of these crackpots that you, like them, have a few bats in the belfry. I don't have any dealings with the Nightmarians and know very little about their activities."
Egghead went silent for a moment, straightening his cuffs and smoothing the wrinkles on his green and gold-trimmed waistcoat. Jack waited patiently. He had never met with such a pretty boy. He'd seen them around. You couldn't go out on the streets in Svetlograd and miss such a sight. To sit here and chat with one, no, this was a first for Jack. For this reason, he didn't know how to act around Egghead and, just to be on the safe side, simply waited. But his host was in no hurry. He spoke only when he finished straightening his cuffs.
"And I'm not the only one. Maxitorian warriors deal with them, but only during border skirmishes, which happen fairly often. But!"
"There is a player here, in Maxitor, who hunts after demon relics and surely knows a good deal about them. I will give you a name and address. Get him talking and he will share what he knows with you. But it won't be easy, as black magic is banned and showing interest will raise suspicion."
"And it's a hundred gold for that?" Jack said with an incredulous smile. "A name and address?"
"I'm telling you, no one's going to talk about necromancy and demons with a stranger. But you may use my name as a reference. I'll write to this player and give him a heads up. I'll also give you Dargoth's coordinates. As a free bonus, I'll briefly explain why demon relics are useless."
Jack thought for several minutes. One hundred gold was not a huge sum, but sizeable... Twenty-five panbucks, if you converted it into real money. Besides, he'd recently had to spend gold on teleports and still had to form a guild. On the other hand, Jack's hands were tied. If he so much as poked his head out, he'd immediately catch the eye of the Gravediggers. It would have been wiser not to get mixed up with those jackasses, but by some quirk of fate, they had locked the portal to the black city and he'd had no choice but to go through them.
He glanced at Egghead, who smiled indifferently. If Shifty Peter wasn't lying, then Egghead had plenty of customers. And that meant that, for a dandy like him, a hundred gold was practically nothing – a trifle. For Jack it sure as hell wasn't a trifle! Egghead knew that he wasn't selling a valuable commodity and had named a low price. Jack figured he'd better get used to throwing hundreds of gold around without a second thought.
"I sent you a contact request," he told Egghead. "Accept it, and I'll transfer the gold."
A melodious twinkling, very pleasing to the ear, usually followed money transfers in Alterra. It was a very nice sound. But this time, when the gold had drained from his pouch, that melodious twinkling did not please him at all. Jack, wrinkling his nose, reviewed the floating window in front of his eyes and sighed heavily. It was going to require a heap of game gold for the guild registration needed to buy a ship capable of sea voyages... As it was looking, it wasn't going to be easy for him to scrape it together.

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When the payment had been completed, Egghead spoke.
"First, a bit of theory. Originally, according to game lore, there were two continents in Alterra, Stoglav and Gaerthon. The gods of Order, led by Chronos, ruled Gaerthon and the Scands, Achaeans, Lahittes and Taunites lived there. Then there was Stoglav, Chaos's land, ruled by the Dragon God. The dragons dwelt on Stoglav and the Areuts inhabited the islands off its coast. Chaos and Order, naturally, opposed each other. But from somewhere outside, from another world, the demons came to Stoglav, headed by Azeroth. They began to drive out the dragon nation. Then the Dragon God called on the Areut peoples for assistance, and Stoglav became their land. Together, the Areuts and dragons prevailed over the demons. Supposedly, the Dragon God took out Azeroth himself..."
"It's a theory I already know," Jack interrupted. "How could I not? If I've been to the ruins in the demon city myself... Maybe we can something more practical?"
"I was just getting to that," Egghead gave another of his honey-sweet smiles. "Then, consider this Alterran history lesson as a bonus. You aren't paying for this. So, Dark Azeroth, King of the Demons, had been vanquished. However, the Dragon God, having received serious wounds in the final battle, disappeared somewhere. The strangest thing was that the great Chronos failed to take advantage of the disappearance of the Dragon God, his eternal nemesis. Because shortly after, Chronos also disappeared from this world. How and why did Chronos and the Dragon God disappear are the two Great Mysteries, which were the whole essence of the game in the old days."
"In the old days?"
"In the very beginning, right after its creation."
"You mean, before the Gendemic?"
"And why are you telling me this?"
"Here's why. After Chronos vanished..."
"His continent began to deteriorate. Everyone knows this!"
"Yes. The four peoples of Gaerthon crossed over to Stoglav and conquered it. The dragons were exterminated; the Areuts were herded into ghettos. The descendants of the conquerors and the vanquished are we, the players. We no longer search for demon relics or investigate the disappearance of the gods. The key to solving the Great Mysteries of Alterra is tied to that first war and the demon relics. They would have been useful... but for some reason, the alphas decided to replace this game objective with another, simpler one – the Battles. We no longer care about the legend; we don't try to unravel the mystery. We just fight. And the old quests that could lead to the Great Mysteries, well, nobody can find them. There are no tasks associated with them."
Jack nodded thoughtfully. That meant that other well-informed people Egghead did business with also thought as he did. Something unfolded that night Jack went down to Necta's temple. Something unusual, some anomaly in the game had allowed an early quest from an older version of Alterra to rise to the surface. What brought it on? The relics from the black city, naturally.
"That's why demon artifacts are useless – no one studies the Great Mysteries. Everyone thinks only about winning the annual Battle."
"Yes, I understand," Jack nodded. "And the necromancers?"
"Then there's those psychos! They don't take part in the Battles. They're looking for something..." Egghead snapped his fingers, "special. Alterra, for them, is just a way to get something that doesn't exist in reality... No, that's not it! We all find something in Alterra that's better, cleaner, more beautiful than reality. But what they want is abominable, understand? So foul that you won't see it in real life."
"Gonna be hard to find, then," said Jack.
"I've never understood those who play necromancers. But you're lucky you've come to me. I know the player you need. Sartorius, a light mage. Well, ostensibly light. He lives in a tower on the outskirts of Maxitown. He spends his time searching in secret for anything related to the first war between the dragons and the demons. Tell him about your artifacts and he'll dance a jig out sheer joy. On the ceiling."
"How do I find him?"
"Stargazer's Tower. That's what his lair is called. Bring up the map of Maxitown and zoom in on the northeastern quadrant... ready? Find Three Copper Rings street and look there, where it meets the city wall. And there next to the wall..."
"Ah, I see! The Stargazer's Tower!"
"Exactly! That's the one. The mage Sartorius. I'll write to him about you. Otherwise he won't even talk to you. You do understand, this is a forbidden topic and shouldn't be discussed with just any player. I'll tell him that you can be trusted."
"Outstanding. What about Dargoth?"
"It's rubble. Gloomy, black ruins. All manner of evil spirits, goblins, snakes, and spiders nest there... And there are catacombs that descend several floors. Essentially, it’s a multi-level dungeon. The only odd thing about it is that no one sends players thing there. There are no tasks for Dargoth, no quests, and no rewards. I gained a couple of levels there, just out of curiosity. There were no rewards, no loot... So, it's a useless area that everyone's just forgotten about. Check the chat, I sent you the coordinates."
Jack quickly entered the numbers into the map search bar. It was on Maxitorian territory. For Jack, Dargoth was in a gray zone. It was a place he hadn't been yet, and that area on the map was just a flat colorless, gray.
He didn't ask about the temple. No reason to tip Egghead off. Better to go and explore the area himself.
When their business had concluded, Egghead added one last piece of advice.
"And there’s this thing about Sartorius... He usually appears in the game around evening time. You won't catch him at any other time."
"Why's that, do you know?"
"He's an alpha. Who knows why they do what they do..."
"An alpha?"
Wow, Egghead had some impressive acquaintances! Jack had yet to run across alphas. It was a fact that he had absolutely no idea how the alphas lived on the other side of the Barrier. Living in the ghetto, on this side of the wall surrounding New Atrium, to put it bluntly, sucked. Those who were born after Gendemic didn't even realize how awful it was. They just hadn't seen anything other than the filth and destitution. But the Walkers, like Jack, occasionally came across fragments of the old world in the Blighted Wasteland and had a basis for comparison. Everything in New Atrium was probably pretty and clean, like the pictures in the old magazines that Jack had found a couple of times. Generally speaking, all omegas aspired to live in New Atrium. They dreamt of becoming alphas and getting that implanted chip, living in comfort, and stuffing themselves to their heart's content. This was their idea of happiness.
But who knew what it was really like? No one came back from there. As for Jack, he wanted something else entirely, since he'd never thought much about how the alphas lived.
And really, it was better not to think about it. Jack had no intention of being shut up behind the Barrier. It was much better to have a distant goal, blue skies, with the wind in the sails and blowing on his face.
He came back to the main square. First, he found the weaponsmith's stall. The NPC bought any drop, but at a rather low price. If he approached a player, then he could haggle a bit, squeeze them for a bit more... but the NPC took everything in bulk and, most importantly, didn’t want to chit-chat with the customer. The loot Jack picked up after the encounter the Gravediggers at the crossroads near Narim brought in more than three hundred gold.

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Jack cheered up at this. Now he could use the portals without worry. Practically speaking, the fact that the Brotherhood was hounding him had a positive side!
He found Three Copper Rings Street and went to look for the alpha-mage's place. When the lofty tower came into sight, its top jutting out above the other roofs, Jack knew at once that he'd found it. Eyeing the tower, he nearly missed it – two Gravediggers walking down the street. He barely had time to read their stats and dip into an alley.
Jack couldn't tell if they'd noticed him or not. Half running, he ran through a few blocks, frequently turning down different streets. The top of the tower served as a great landmark so he wasn't afraid of getting lost in the unfamiliar city.
The Stargazer's Tower was a huge, white-stone structure. It abutted the city wall on one side and its foundation occupied a sizeable area. Five, maybe six, average-sized city townhouses could fit within it.
Before knocking on the massive, copper-banded oak doors, Jack walked up and down the front several times. The Gravediggers were nowhere to be found, so Jack figured that they hadn't seen him. It was possible that the pair was doing their own thing and didn't have anything to do with Weaver. If there were more than one thousand players in their guild, then not all of them would necessarily drop everything to scour cities and villages just because Weaver Lund got offended.
A handsome old man with a neatly trimmed white beard opened the door when he knocked.

Doorman Malvey, Scand
Expertise: 20
Health: 40

The color of his stats banner was light turquoise, which meant this was an NPC. The doorman was probably bound to the Stargazer's Tower. Jack had never thought about what it would be like to have real estate in Alterra, let alone NPC servants. This wasn't just some mount that you could pull out of your sleeve in a tight spot, but a character who lived here, who was always in Alterra, even when you exited the game. You could give him some kind of particular function, set his behavior. It was probably amusing.
"How may I be of service?" Malvey enquired sedately.
"My name is Jack and I have an important matter with Lord Sartorius. He should be expecting me."
"I do apologize," the older man bowed his head ceremoniously, "but the master is very busy right now with magical studies. He is not accepting visitors. Be so kind as to stop by later. We accept visitors in the evenings."
Jack had already opened his mouth to insist that he needed to see the mage right away... but then he caught on. Sartorius wasn't in the game. He had programmed the NPC servant to answer the door with this phrase.
"All right, I'll stop by later," Jack agreed. "Please tell him, good sir... that I have something that he needs."
You could argue with a living doorman and probably even convince him. But it was useless to squabble with an NPC. Jack turned and strode away. In order to make good use of time, he could pay a visit to Dargoth and look around for the abandoned temple. Since the red dot marking Dargoth’s coordinates on the map stuck out amid a sea of gray, that meant that covering the whole way by teleport wouldn’t work. Though, a teleport to the nearest point on the open part of the map would, of course, shorten the road.
He could find a Wanderer mage in the city, but that encounter with the Gravediggers had Jack inclined to get out of there soon. So, he followed the city wall from the Stargazer's Tower and would leave Maxitor via the first gate he came across.
As usual, there was commotion at the gates. Players and NPCs of all sorts, some on foot, mounted, in carts and wagons... and a couple of Gravediggers, standing off to the side and talking animatedly. Or perhaps they were faking the lively banter, but were actually keeping track of who passed through the gates? Jack froze for a few seconds, then turned around and walked back. Which was a mistake, as the abrupt movement definitely attracted the attention of the pair of observers. As he turned into an alley, Jack threw a glance over his shoulder. Nope, no Gravediggers running after him. But it was enough for Jack that they broke off their chatter and intently watched him go.
This was bullshit... Jack broke into a run. Then stopped. Where was he going and what was the hurry? In the city, those bastards could do precisely zilch – it was a PvE zone. There was just one question: how could he shake them and leave Maxitor without being noticed? If the Gravediggers were guarding the gates, then they probably also put eyes on the shops that sold teleports. Had something like this happened in Svetlograd, Jack would have found a way, maybe asked someone for help... but he didn't know anyone in Maxitown. Although... why nobody?
Jack reached out to Egghead in chat.
Hi. I have another question. It's not exactly up your alley, but you're in the business of answering questions. How can I leave Maxitown unnoticed?
Fortunately, Egghead was in the game and replied right away.
"What happened?"

"Nothing yet. And it would be nice to keep it that way. I need to leave the city, but not through the gates or by teleport. It’s a very simple question. You're not going to charge me for nothing, are you?"

"Come to me. I'll arrange everything. As payment, tell me who is following you. And why."

"That's too expensive. I'll toss you hints."

"No, that won't do.

“Okay, I'm coming. We'll come to an agreement."

Jack understood Egghead. The dandy made his money trading secrets. And now he could smell first-class goods. Jack made his way to Egghead's townhouse, trying to stay to the shadows and avoiding the wider streets He saw almost no one and, what was particularly nice, didn't see anybody from the Brotherhood of Gravediggers. He knocked on the gate and when he walked into the yard... he was only able to give a whistle in surprise. No, he was starting to think that a wealthy lifestyle had its pluses. And why hadn't it ever occurred to him? His own home, obedient mobs, and the ability to leave the city without using the gates or teleports.

A coach was already standing before the gates. Harnessed. Hitched to a pair of snow-white pegasi. Egghead was pacing next to it. Seeing Jack, he smiled widely, as if he'd found a new reason to live. With a nod:
"Sit. You may even choose a destination. If it isn't very far, I'll take you there. And you can talk along the way."
"No one's on the coachbox," Jack looked back, already stepping up on the open-work foot rung.
"It's no matter. Gog and Magog are very well trained. They don't need a driver."
Jack settled gently into the sofa, which gave slightly under his weight. Egghead stretched out effortlessly directly across from Jack and crossed one leg over the other.
"Well, then..." Jack began slowly, gathering his thoughts.
"Wait until we start to climb," Egghead stopped him.
The coach shuddered as it broke away from the ground. Jack fell a bit deeper into the soft, downy sofa.
"You can speak now," nodded Egghead after a minute.
"Why only now?"
"Look out the window."
Jack pulled back the lace curtains, snow-white with ruffles all along the trim, and appreciated the view. The coach was rising above the rooftops, the urban landscape falling away below them. In the distance, the already-familiar Stargazer's Tower gleamed.
"And, most importantly, without me, you can't get back down," Egghead said with his former amicable smile. "The PvE zone ends at the city wall, so I wouldn't like for you to get any funny ideas. Gog and Magog only listen to me."
The dandy was controlling the pegasi with his mind from inside the coach. Jack realized it when Gog and Magog began to maneuver, changing direction. Without breaking his concentration, Egghead asked:
"So, where are we flying?"
"To Dargoth. Where else? That's not too far away, is it? It's still in within the bounds of your kingdom, after all."
Egghead compelled the pegasi to change their course again and gave him a nod:
"Go on, tell me."
For a moment, Jack just watched as the city wall sailed past, appearing toy-like from this height, and checked the map to be sure they were actually flying towards Dargoth. Then spoke:
"Thing is, I received a quest tied to the demon artifacts."
"I already knew this. Who gives these quests?"
"Necta. I was down in the basement, you know how to find the Night Mother's temple, right?"
"Of course."
Jack decided to omit the beginning of his story. Some things were better kept to himself.
"Well... I passed a couple of the earlier stages and get rewards in the form of quest updates. Not exactly a money-maker, I'll tell you."
"And how is this related to the reason you're avoiding the city gates?"
"Some people found out that I was on this quest – the Gravediggers. It's a guild, the Brotherhood of Gravediggers. For some reason, their officer, a player by the name of Weaver Lund, got it into his head that this isn't a quest for individuals, but for a large guild. They started trailing me. I already sent several of them to respawn... but there are a quite a few of them. Moreover, what's particularly annoying is that they somehow always know where to find me.
"Did you also kill Lund?"
"Had to."
Egghead nodded.
"Then it's understandable. So, Dargoth is the next step in the quest?"
"Right. But I'm letting you know right now – I won't tell you about the quest. If you don't like it, take me back."
Egghead was no longer smiling. He was stroking his narrow chin in thought, calculating something. Jack briefly wondered, was this dandy calculating how profitable it would be to give his passenger to the Gravediggers? Nah, probably not. He'd make some money once with the betrayal, but would gain an enemy and forfeit the opportunity to follow an interesting story. That would be stupid, and Egghead – he was an egghead, not a blockhead. Surely they didn't call him that for no reason?
"So, that's what this is about!" Egghead finally announced. "Does this mean that they're giving the old quests again in Alterra? That is amazing! But why?"
"When I went down into the lower shrine, a thunderstorm had just started. Remember yesterday's bad weather? There was so much interference that I was even afraid that I would disconnect, and then bam – the priestess threw me an entirely different narrative. As if it changed the script."
In reality, Jack knew exactly what had changed Necta's speech, but he was in no hurry to inform Egghead about it.
"Thunder and interference? No, that's not enough to make an NPC switch to a different script," Egghead said with a frown. "Something else happened... something took place... ah, by the way, the necromancers in Nightmare have begun to stir."
"What do you mean, 'stir'?'"
"I don't know. I certainly don't deal with them. They've simply become more active or something. Maybe their Priestess of Necta has also changed her script?"
Surprised, Jack asked:
"They have temples of Necta, too?"
"Of course!" muttered Egghead, absently. He was contemplating something. "Except, there, Necta is typically in the upper temple, while her lighter half is in the basement. I wonder what happened…"
Now that Egghead was wondering where to look for the answer, it seemed he didn't have any more questions for his passenger. Jack sat in relieved silence and stared out the window. The toy landscape stretched out below the coach. He could see the leafy treetops, small specks creeping along the web of roads – riders, carts and pedestrians. Groups of miniature houses. They were villages. Wow, Alterra was huge! The forests, towns, and castles rolled by, one after the other. Gog and Magog flapped their wings in even stokes, their white feathers falling into his vision over and over.
A dark slash appeared in the sky that grew as they approached until the details emerged: walls and towers on a wide, flat foundation. The Skyfort was a flying fortress, which sometimes appeared in the sky above Alterra, and everyone just gazed at it from below. It rarely appeared above Svetlograd, and when it did, players stopped and lifted their heads to marvel.
Even with the strongest flying pet, it likely wasn't possible to reach the Skyfort. It was too high and flew fast. Residents of Alterra racked their brains trying to figure out who lived on the heavenly stronghold and concocted the most outrageous theories.
"What do you think, who sails on the Skyfort?" Jack asked.
Egghead, wrapped up in his thoughts, only shrugged.
"Alphas, naturally. Not just any alphas, either, but the most important people."
The Skyfort sailed over the horizon and diminished, again becoming a small spot in the middle of the blue sky.
Jack realized that he liked this. The sensation of flying, the coach rocking to the beat of wings, the vast space under his feet... He was so engrossed, that he didn't notice the time. Egghead's voice brought him out of his reverie.
"We're almost there. Where should I let you out?”
Jack shook himself and pressed close to the glass. That broken, black shadow on the horizon – was that Dargoth? From a distance, it resembled a pile of coals spilled from a shovel. It looked ominous enough. Well, what he needed wasn't there. The "forgotten temple" was tucked away in the forests around Dargoth.
"Circle over this place, will you? It’s my first time here, so it wouldn't hurt to take a look around."
Egghead gave the pegasi a new mental command and the coach rocked, descending in a wide circle. The black ruins drew nearer. He could almost make out the towers, half-demolished walls and the caved-in rooftops. Stone buildings were drowned in a chaotic green jumble – trees and bushes had overwhelmed the ruins. They were partially concealed, entangled in the mesh of shoots. The ancient ramparts were almost indistinguishable among the forest underbrush, and gaping holes in the walls were barely discernable against the background of black masonry.
The coach changed course and flew toward the ruins. Jack noticed movement among the trees, but the tree canopies blocked his view of what was creeping around down there. He squinted at the surrounding copse – did he spot the gleam of rock? Black rock?
When the coach had almost completed its circle, Jack finally saw a spire poking out above the forest to the side, covered in pitting, as if giant teeth had gnawed it. Then, even further from Dargoth, he saw a couple of stone islands and some other kinds of structures. Surely one of these was the temple that the goddess had talked about. That one with the spire fit the description best.
"Well, time to say goodbye?" Egghead broke the silence. "Step out onto the foot rung, shut the door firmly, and hold tight. There is something out there to hold onto. When we get lower, jump."
Jack carefully cracked the door open. His face was immediately struck by a strong gust of wind.
"Hey, were you just going to fling me off?"
"Of course not!" Egghead's smile finally returned. "There won't be any wind down below. But when we reach a safe height, you'll be outside the coach and I'll be inside. It'll go more smoothly for both of us."
He didn't feel like arguing. Besides, he'd seen from the inside that there indeed were some decorative elements that he could hang onto. Jack froze, using all of his strength to lock onto the damned gilded... whatever it was and pressed himself against the side. The coach slowly descended, Gog and Magog steadily flapping their wide, white-feathered wings, and the grass and bushes below shook from the wind blown up by the pegasi. Jack once again marveled at the stunning level of detail created by the developers of Alterra. Even the wind displaced by their wings was depicted.
A young birch tree bent with the next flap of the two pairs of wings, its canopy swept to the side, and Jack saw a goblin crouched, hugging its trunk, and staring angrily up at him. Realizing that he had been noticed, the mob released the birch and jumped into the field – right under Jack's feet. Stretching its clawed forepaws out toward the carriage, the goblin bared its teeth.
Jack felt a slight push in his side.
"Or perhaps you've reconsidered and you'll tell me about the quest?" the sound came from over his head.
Egghead had opened the door a crack and looked at Jack in all seriousness. If he were to push the door just a little harder, Jack probably wouldn't be able to keep himself from falling. It was five meters to the ground.
Jack didn't bother with an answer and released his hold on the coach. The hovering carriage wobbled as it was stripped of his weight and Jack, pushing off with his legs, aimed his fall directly at the crown of the goblin's head.

Chapter Six. Magic is Black and White

THE LANDING came hard. There was crunching and squealing under his boots, but Jack barely heard the noises issuing from the goblin as it left the world of Alterra. Jack himself tumbled heavily to one side and rolled along the ground. The game softened pain received from impacts, but instead occasionally it obscured his vision because a message would flit before his eyes, like right now:

You receive damage!
You lose 5 hit points!

Five wasn't much. The goblin turned out to be soft enough to cushion the impact with the ground.
Jack shook his head and rose with difficulty, the black sword already in his hand. Jack hadn't even noticed that he had drawn it. There were some skills that worked independently from the brain. And those skills did not disappoint. No less than ten goblins were already rushing toward Jack from all directions, hurling stones as they ran.
A sweep of the sword blocked a couple of stones and a few goblins missed, but one cobblestone clocked him square in the shoulder.

You receive damage!
You lose 2 hit points!

Ignoring the messages flashing in front of him, Jack hurled himself at the beasts. One at a time, the goblins weren’t much to be afraid of, but if they gathered together into a horde and attacked from all sides at once, then you were bound to let a few blows slip through. So Jack was in a hurry to divide the group before the little gargoyles came together. The Shadow of the King cut them down, one by one, and the goblins yowled, leaped... and fell. Those who came at him in one piece, left in many.
With the first wave out of the way, Jack retreated. There were too many of them. The green, shrieking monsters were everywhere... but not all of them were rushing to attack. Only a few crouched low to the ground were closing in on Jack, but most of them were just making faces – baring their teeth and hopping, but staying put. Jack probably hadn't entered their aggro zone.
He began to back up even more quickly and then, once he was sure the nearest mob was at least fifteen paces away, he simply turned and ran. His pursuers dropped back and the goblins returned to their own affairs, which meant making faces as before and screeching, but they were no longer paying attention to the stranger.
Jack skirted the area where the critters were clustered, noted where the black spire, looking like a gnawed bone, stood above the trees and headed off in that direction. Nearby, a shadow slid across the grass. Jack stopped and craned his head. Egghead's carriage was drawing circles over Dargoth. To hell with it, Jack thought, it was my own fault. He should have seen it coming! Now Egghead was going to tail him. Or maybe not. The temple stood in thickets so dense that nothing could be seen from above.
He cast another glance over his shoulder – where were the goblins? No, he hadn't left the horde's aggro zone. The goblins were gathering into a mass, jumping off trees and worming through the thorn bushes. Three dozen, maybe even more, had already swarmed together. Clawed fingers pointed at Jack, the goblins squealed and chirped as if a fierce argument had broken out in their community. They had never behaved this way before. But it seemed that they weren't going to attack, so that was alright.
Jack hurried to get away from the pack of mobs. When he ducked into the shade of the thick canopy, he sighed in relief. Now he couldn't be seen from the coach. On the other hand, he was still perfectly visible to the goblins! The little monsters were gathering again and slowly advancing behind Jack. Every ten paces, he looked behind and saw the goblins plodding after him. If he stopped, they froze. This had never happened before. Goblins could only attack, but right now they weren’t interested in Jack in terms of prey. And at his level, to raise his XP by at least one point, he would need to kill at least a hundred of them.
So what happened to them? Did their scripts change, too? Jack made his way slowly through the trees toward the looming spire. Looking back, he saw the creeping goblins immediately stop and freeze. Finally, Jack decided to just forget about their odd behavior and get back to his own business. He turned resolutely and strode off through the woods to ruins. But after walking a hundred feet or so, he heard the sounds of the green imps skulking after him: the snap of twigs under their feet, leaves rustling as goblins kicked them aside. This was how they would interfere with the quest in the temple!
Jack came to a halt in a clearing, drew his sword, and waited. A minute later, hunched figures appeared at the edges of the clearing. At last, one finally made up its mind and stepped out of the shadows. Slowly, hesitantly, it approached sideways and stretched its paw out to Jack. There was nothing threatening in this gesture, so Jack stepped closer and bent over the goblin. It cowered even more, drew its head into its shoulders, but still held its paw out to the man. Now Jack saw something sparkling in the goblin's bony, green paw. Hey, it was a ring! He cautiously collected the thing from the goblin's palm. It was a strange little ring with a bizarre stone – yellow and round, with red veins and an elongated, black oval at its center, somewhat like a bloodshot eye with a pupil.

Eye of the Demon Ring
Level: Legendary
Bonus: You understand goblin speech.
Bonus: 5% boost to experience while completing Service to the Dark quests.

Attention! You are the first player to receive Eye of the Demon.
You receive +1 XP.
You have 40 XP.
You receive a new skill: Berserk
Earn 10 XP to unlock new skills.

I'm the first player, Jack thought. First again! The first to go through this age-old questline. Would this message really follow after each completed stage? If so, then he had snagged a massive potential bonus. Extra experience for every step of the Service to the Dark path.
And what was Berserk, anyway? Jack tapped the word "Berserk" and scrolled through the Help section. The theoretical explanation read:

Berserkers, ancestors of the Scands, were named the most fearless and reckless of warriors, to whom Ged granted the ability to not perceive received blows. Their enemies believed the Berserkers to be immortal and feared encountering them in battle.

Alright, yeah, in theory, but... ah, here it was:

For 30 seconds you will not feel damage... resistance to all types of magical and physical debuffs.

A valuable buff for a damage dealer. If he charged into a group of enemies, then for thirty seconds he could stack 'em up!
The goblin started to chitter and a status bar that hadn't been there before appeared in front of Jack, at the very bottom of his field of vision.
"The Black Sword, Black Sword," the little green beast said to Jack. "Are you a servant of the Master? The sword is dark, like the shadow of its master!"
Jack swung his blade in front of the goblin so that slivers of darkness slid from it and nodded.
"Forgive us, Dark Servant!" rasped the creature. Ugh, they had disgusting voices, the goblins. "We did not know it was you! Tell us what to do! How to repent? We serve the Master, we serve the Shadow of the Master, and we serve the one who wields the Shadow!"
"For starters, you can tell me where the temple is. You understand me, right? I'm looking for the temple. In the temple, there is a black altar. This is where I need to deliver the Shadow."
"Yes, dark servant!" the green beast croaked in his own language. And a scrolling line of text translated for Jack. "We go, go!
The goblin capered ahead. It ran about on its two hind limbs at the same time supporting itself on its left front leg, and it continuously used the right to poke into thickets or point the way. The others followed quietly ten paces behind.
When a black stone wall appeared beyond the bushes, the goblin drew aside the branches and indicated with a nod:
"Here, here, Dark Servant! The temple, the altar!"
"Perfect," Jack said gruffly.
He wondered whether or not these little runts actually served him now. Maybe they were luring him into a trap? Although, what point was there in a trap? And that one had even given him a ring...
"Dark Servant, Dark Servant!" called his goblin. "Can we... can we see? A little, just a very little bit?"
"See what?"
"The Master's tear! Life and death! Beauty and ugliness! Cruelty and compassion! Want to see! Just a little!"
Following what was probably their little goblin leader, the others began to keen.
"A little! Want to see! Master's tear! Life and death! Beauty and ugliness! Cruelty and compassion! Want to see! Just a little!"
They whined so piteously, that Jack couldn't refuse. Still holding the sword in his right hand, he drew the Tear out with his left and lifted it above his head.
When goblins smiled, it looked even nastier than when they bared their teeth in aggression. Jack now knew this as a fact. He stood for a moment longer looking at their faces, wrinkled with reverent grins, and put the Tear away. Then he waved the sword.
"Well, time to go! Service to the Dark doesn't suffer delays."
And with those words, he stepped out of the brush towards the black ruins. Once again in an open area, he glanced up. A white-gold speck was floating in the sky. Egghead hadn't gone back to his swanky mansion. He was still just milling about, watching. Well, let him enjoy the view... Jack wasn't going to worry about something he had no control over.
He continued along the thorned ivy-covered wall, found the entrance, and ducked into the darkness. He moved along for a while by touch only, putting the tip of the sword out in front of himself. Darkness, flowing from the Shadow of the King, poured into the gloom that reigned under these ancient vaults. But the light nevertheless broke through down here through cracks in the roof, although the holes were almost completely veiled by creeping shoots. When his eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, or rather, when the eyepieces of the virt-headset responded to the block of code that set the illumination in the temple, Jack began to make out pieces of columns on the floor, withered leaves carried in by the wind, and other traces of neglect.
Farther and farther... the altar had to be somewhere. It was probably at the far end of the long hall. Jack went on. Dry leaves crunched under his boots and stone fragments rolled across the floor. Finally, in the dim, ghostly light, something appeared in the distance that somewhat resembled an altar. It looked more like a huge hump. The thing towering over the ground had an irregular, slightly rounded silhouette. But Jack couldn't see anything else even remotely resembling an altar.
A ray of light fell on the surface of the strange stone and Jack noticed a black spot, either a hole or an indentation in the shape of an exceptionally long, thin rhombus. "The temple altar is a closed lock. Your sword will serve as the key," the goddess had said. The sword! The hole in the stone matched the cross-section of the double-edged blade!
Jack carefully fit the Shadow of the King into the opening and plunged it in until the tip struck the bottom. The alter shook and lurched, changing shape. The sword hilt tore from Jack's fingers and he recoiled. The altar, which now looked like anything but an altar, grew and widened. From the lump emerged the contours of massive shoulders and a small head – no neck – sitting directly on the torso, which was growing from the opening in the floor.
The altar transformed into something resembling a stone man, tremendously massive and powerful. And probably deadly, as well.
The thickset figure, sword sticking out between its shoulder blades, spun and stepped toward Jack. It looked extremely threatening – the stone behemoth advancing toward Jack, creaking and crunching in the shadows. Well, shit! He couldn't reach the sword!
Jack backed away and then his eyes fell on the place where the altar had been. There was a cavity left in the floor and a faint light trickled from it. This was his quest objective... but how to get over there? The dark, heavy stone... whatchamacallit was advancing in clearly threatening manner. It was then that a shrieking, bounding, thrashing wave ran past Jack. The throng surged into the temple and pounced on the golem. A sentry golem, that's exactly what it was. The little monsters closed in on it, leaping from all sides. They scratched at it with their claws, scrambled up its powerful sides, pummeled it with tiny fists. The stone guard vanished completely beneath them. It couldn't take even a single step.
Jack rushed toward the roiling mound, ran around, and groped around in the shifting mass for the hilt of the Shadow of the King and tore it free. The blade was snug in its back and moved with great difficulty, but slid slowly in its stone vice... and finally pulled free. The golem stopped dead. Then it fell to all fours, compressed, and folded into itself. Its head disappeared into its shoulders, its back bent over the floor. It was a welcome sight, but now was not the time to admire it. He needed to get what was hidden under the altar. Jack bent over the hole. The thing there emitting the light rested in a pit that resembled a well. There were steps leading down, too narrow to place his feet comfortably. Jack, moving sideways, was scarcely able to squeeze into the well. He crouched, bent, stretched his arm, and blindly grabbed at whatever came to hand. It was a small, flat rectangle. It felt like a book. Yep, definitely a book!

Attention! Quest progression in "Service to the Dark"...

Jack, not even reading the message, began to wiggle out of the hole. He was too vulnerable. That gut feeling, which had saved his skin more than once in the Wasteland, was telling him now: danger, danger! Very close.
The chat icon was blinking in the corner of his field of vision. Jack ran away from the hole, the motionless golem, and the goblins, who were performing a victory jig on the petrified sentry.
Egghead wrote:
Shame you scuttled off so quickly. We had more to discuss. Watch your back. There are people heading toward you. A lot. Ten or more. Judging from your story, it could be the Gravediggers. I was thinking, if you got something from the drop off Weaver Lund, then you'd better get rid of it. Get in touch with me when this is all over.
Jack backed toward the temple exit but had barely gotten a couple of steps before a deafening bang sounded above his head. A portion of the wall had exploded in a fiery blast, stones sprayed in all directions. Something hit his shoulder, then stomach...

You receive damage!
You lose 4 hit points!
You receive damage!
You lose 7 hit points!
You receive damage!
You lose 5 hit points!

Jack felt his feet lift off the ground, himself flying, then landing hard on his back...

You receive damage!
You lose 5 hit points!

He crawled along the chilly floor tiles... Another blow!

You receive damage!
You lose 6 hit points!

Another blistering blast struck, shredding new chunks from the temple wall, but they missed Jack. He was already out of range. All he could do was make sure he kept the sword in his hands and crawl under a fallen column that rested askew against the wall. It was the best shelter he could find nearby. Hey, where was the book? He dropped it when the mayhem started. Jack looked around. Everything was littered with wall rubble. The book was lying somewhere among the cobblestones, but searching for it wasn't an option right now.
Egghead had written about that drop from Lund. It was an interesting thought. Jack whipped the Necklace of Veneration off and tossed the trinket across the hall, away from his hiding place.
The goblins, now much fewer than before, were snarling and writhing among the rubble... And in the breach, a man appeared and looked inside.
"Weaver, there are goblins here!" he called out. "He can't be hiding here!"
"Get out of the way!" a familiar voice answered.
A third volcanic blast hit the wall and more wreckage flew at the goblins. The same guy that had been speaking to Lund peeked in through the breach again.
"Just like I said, it's full of goblins!"
Cracks ran outward from the fissure in the wall. Jack could see daylight streaming through them. Another section of masonry collapsed, raising clouds of dust. Now the hole was the size of a decent-sized gate and the Gravediggers climbed inside, bringing up their weapons. They entered and spread out. A few shell-shocked goblins tried to attack but were killed in a matter of seconds. Jack shrank back in his hiding place. His health bar was refilling slowly and he wasn't ready for battle yet.
"He must be here...” Lund muttered, looking around.
The dust around the Gravediggers slowly settled, but the visibility inside was still awful. Too dark. Only the area near the break in the wall was well lit. Gravediggers slowly branched out to the sides, plunging into the gloom. But Lund stayed where he was, either turning his head or peering at the small object he was holding in front of him. Probably some sort of scouting amulet? Was it configured to find the Necklace of Veneration?
Jack weighed his chances. To be honest, they didn't look good, but he was out of options. He would have to attack these guys. It would be better to take out the first guy to start. He'd be able to take out one before the other Gravediggers laid into him. How would he manage to take two, hm?
Jack groped at his vial belt for a healing elixir and hastily brought it to his lips. His life bar slowly crept up, returning to full. But even with full health, this wasn't going to be easy. If he cut down two Gravediggers right off the bat, it would increase his chances, even if just a little, of getting out of there alive.
He had already prepared himself to hop out and jump on the closest enemy, but another explosion sounded from outside. The surprises continued.
Weaver Lund, who was closest to the hole, was blanketed in a green glow. The Gravedigger began to twitch and howl. And it was a real howl – he was really hurting.
Jack pressed back into the wall again. What the hell was going on here? Another round of green flame followed the first, then another, and another... someone was approaching from the outside – the hiss of flying spells, shouts, and the clang of metal grew ever louder. And there was some kind of incessant knocking. A dry, bony knocking.
A new cast of characters piled into the hall. They were thin, wearing dark robes, and carrying very menacing blades. Those were skeletons! Well, shit, Jack thought. Necromancers were just what he needed for his life to be complete!
Swords clashed and rattled as the skeletons attacked the Gravediggers, who were fiercely defending themselves. Jack managed to scan the stats of the closest undead:

Undead Warrior
Expertise: 35
Disease: 60

Whoa! Tough guy... Jack had never come across an undead of this level.
Another pair of the shapeless, black hooded robes ducked in through the breach, one large, the other quite small. And apparently they were living characters, not skeletons.
The larger of the two threw up a rod topped with a silver, skull-shaped knob and sent a new wave of green flames at the nearest Gravedigger. As he did so, his robe swept open and Jack spotted the person through the green light. Stately, with broad shoulders and trim waist, he was simply handsome. But his good looks were of a different sort than Egghead's. This guy wasn't wearing lace, but was in black from head to toe. He just radiated power. His burnished steel plate armor was embellished with silver. The pommel of the sword hanging at his waist was also in the shape of a skull. An arrogant sneer was etched into his wolfish face. Jack saw that the necromancer enjoyed using the green fire to annihilate the Gravediggers who were busy fighting skeletons. The spell didn't harm the Undead Warriors, but the living players were forced to the ground, writhing and howling. Must be strong stuff if the pain could be felt even through the game's filter.
The second necromancer, much shorter, thin, and agile, rushed into the hall and began milling around the debris and bodies, avoiding the Gravediggers. This one was clearly searching for something. Jack just stared blankly, watching the scene before him.
The struggle lasted for several minutes and before long, all Gravediggers had fallen, their bodies beginning to dissolve one after another. The undead were standing in the place where they found victory, and the larger necromancer, looked around and went outside, leaving a parting shot over his shoulder:
"Keep looking, El, look carefully. I'll be nearby, making sure no one bothers you."
Jack froze, hoping that the undead and their masters would soon leave. After all, this was the kingdom of Maxitor. The necromancers were on enemy territory. And it made no sense for him to attack. It was unlikely that Jack would have time to take them all out before their master interfered.
Moreover, it wasn't a fact that he could even cope with the skeletons. Sixty health points! Not even health, but disease, malaise... Even the black sword couldn't handle that. Better to remain unnoticed. Or should he attack anyway?
The necromancer busy searching the area was already heading toward him. And spotted Jack at the exact moment when he'd almost decided to attack. Jack had just started to raise his sword... but something stopped him. Most likely, it was his enemy's appearance. Close up, the player proved to be quite small and skinny. The voluminous, black robes completely swallowed him. The necromancer bent over Jack and raised a finger to his lips – quiet!
Here, under the wall and far away from the hole, it was dark, but Jack could see that this was a girl.

Eloise, Areut
Expertise: 22
Health: 30

Areut? But Areuts were dark-skinned. El was white. Not just white, but shockingly white, as if she had been rubbed with chalk. So pale that in the dark, she seemed luminous, radiant. Her face was like a mask made of porcelain. A very nice mask, for that matter. She had a delicate little nose, plump lips... And her eyes were huge, opened wide. The girl's gaze slid over Jack's head. The necromancer was reading his stats. She whispered something barely audible that threw Jack soundly for a loop:
"Jack? Jack the Tramp? I need you. Really need you. I'll find you. Wait for me."
Then she slowly backed away, turned around, and again began to scour the hall, searching for something in the dust, debris, and disappearing bodies... She stopped. And after a second, Jack realized why – one of the Gravediggers on the floor wasn't dissipating. Which meant he was still alive. The body on the floor moved and the player rose. He threw out his sword, but the little necromancer deftly jumped back, lifting her arms over her head. When she waved, the sleeves of her robe slid down, revealing her arms – skinny, like sticks, and unnaturally white. Green fire flashed between Eloise's fingers. She dropped her arms sharply and the ball of radiance slipped from her hands. It enveloped the Gravedigger, who howled in pain as he was overcome by the nasty green glow. He was still writhing and whimpering as Eloise resumed her search.
She bent down, picked up some object, and immediately rushed to the exit, shouting loudly:
"I found it! Master, I found it! I have the book!"
A moment later, the skeletons shuffled into motion and made for the breach. They were leaving.
When the destroyed hall had emptied, Jack dropped the arm holding the sword and exhaled. Wow! What was that about? Was that it? And what about the quest progression? He needed to read the book.

Attention! Quest progression in "Service to the Dark".
Read the Corrupted Book of Bacchus.

Yep. For sure, the Corrupted Book of Bacchus was the same one that had been lying under the altar. The same one that the chalk-dusted Eloise had carried off to her master. After bringing Necta the nighttime sacrifice at the crossroads, Jack had received the sword, which opened the way to the book. There must be something important in it. Some valuable information that would turn aside the veils covering Alterra's past.
What else was there in the messages? It had been a long message feed. So...

Attention! You are the first player to touch the Corrupted Book of Bacchus.
You receive +1 XP.
You have 41 XP
Earn 9 XP to unlock new skills.

Jack frowned. That was, of course, fantastic, but he'd lost the book. And now he had no idea where to look for it.

The book is released!

Buy (Kindle, KU, paperback) -

1 comment :

  1. Nice. Very interesting starting chapters. Seems we have the usual heavy handed leading Guild, trying to tell others how the world should be, and a lower levelled player, with a very interesting quest indeed.