Monday, January 15, 2018

Dark Paladin, Book 3: Restart

Dark Paladin:
by Vasily Mahanenko

Release - March 6, 2018

Chapter 1. The Day Before

“Paladin Yaropolk!” the herald announced, and the wide double doors opened before me. Containing my worry, I stepped into the hall for official ceremonies of the Residence of the Sector 446 Coordinator, nobleman by birth, Count Bernard Kalran. My suzerain graciously put his “humble” abode at Madonna’s disposal, and representatives of all the game worlds hurried to pay their respects to the Great One. No matter how great the hall was, it was unlikely that all the creatures gathered here felt comfortable  ̶  they were devoid of any personal space. In other words, the hall was full to bursting: everyone was in a great hurry to look at the reincarnated Madonna. But anyway, whom was I trying to deceive? Who would want to simply take a look at the Great one? They were all attracted by the hype that inevitably accompanied those kinds of events. Where else would one see the grand scale characteristic of the Creators, as they reward the undeserving and punish the innocent?

I was standing at the entrance to the hall, completely unwilling to move any further. Thoughts were idly circling around in my head – what would it be for me, reward or punishment? Everyone else was doing the same thing; they were not even bothering to hide sidelong glances and whispers. No one had tried to divide those who came before me into the guilty and the worthy, so for the rest of the guests our appearance and Madonna’s reaction were intriguing. Since I was the last in the line of the lucky (or not) ones, I already knew that Archibald had been pronounced guilty of the problems that had occurred during Madonna’s return. He was declared an outlaw, stripped of all the ranks he held and condemned to oblivion. The guests were highly entertained. After that they became somewhat bored: the moment of excitement was followed by the standard procedure of receiving rewards from the hands of the Great One. Some even dared snorting if they considered the reward useless or insignificant. The NPCs described all this in vivid detail to us as they came back to fetch the next in line. The Head of the Order of Paladins,  Gerhard van Brast, was seen before me, and the crowd was astonished the second time that evening, but this time with the scale of the reward. As I was listening to my escort on the way to the Hall, I allowed myself to dream about a personal world with millions of slaves. Since I was the player who had done most of the work to make sure the Great One returned.
Casting an understanding glance over the whispering guests, I started out for the throne after all. The crowd parted, as was expected, enabling me to pass forward down the road at the end of which the powerful and eccentric Great One was waiting for me. Madonna easily occupied the throne of the host, moving Bernard aside. Meanwhile the Coordinator was nearby: he was standing to the right of the throne like a most devoted servant, and showed not the slightest displeasure about his current situation. On the contrary, he was being witty, and did everything to serve his Mistress and guest of honor. There was a reason for that. The Coordinator of a backwater sector instantly became an important figure in the Game world, and he was not about to miss his chance. I spent the entire week before the ceremony in my suzerain’s residence, and had plenty of opportunity to observe Bernard basking in the attention of other Coordinators and influential players, condescendingly accepting their gifts and requests to put in a word for them to the Great One. Madonna did not like the premises provided to her by the Priests, so she stayed with the Coordinator instead, making him first among equals.
Bending her head down to Bernard, the Great One was listening to him with a fleeting smile, responding something from time to time. However, her eyes followed my approach unswervingly. Even though I had had enough time to steel myself for this meeting, I still fell out of stride. Madonna noticed that and, smirking contentedly, averted her eyes. The enemy was defeated and could now be forgotten. I did not know whether that was the deal, but at least I could continue in peace.
By the way, to the same extent that my master was demonstratively basking in the Creator’s attention, he was just as demonstratively ignoring my approach. That was easy to explain. First of all, there was no way to know my future fate. Then, Bernard still retained his misconception that I was under his full mental control due to the activated Book of Lumpen. For that reason I had been for a long time assigned to one of the least valuable categories in his listing of animate and inanimate property. Even though I was considered a slave without rights, I still knew I was remembered. Before the ceremony started, Bernard’s loyal guard, the vampire Malturion, handed me a  looped anti-grav with Light Source so that the dear guests would not be bothered with my hundredth level of Darkness.
I almost reached my goal, when I noticed a completely impossible creature. The Necromancer Lumpen was present in the hall for official ceremonies. Not in person, of course: his status of “Enemy of all Life” did not really help him move about the Earth freely. Even the Sanctuary would not fully protect him from being attacked by other  players. Lumpen came to the meeting in the form of a hologram projected by a device hovering closely above the floor. The horrid dark specter was looming over the other players, and even though the hall was chock-full, there was almost a yard of empty space around Lumpen. Only the Viceroy kept the necromancer company, and now those two were talking quietly but urgently, ignoring the ceremony. Madonna had already been presented to the world, most of the ceremony was behind us, so one could work on his own affairs without having to waste one’s time dealing with the unworthy.
“Paladin Yaropolk!” I kneeled and Madonna’s eyes settled on me again. The humming in the hall died down. As they say, curiosity is not a sin, but unsatisfied curiosity is a major headache. My peripheral vision seemed to indicate that even the Lumpen and the Viceroy put their conversation on hold, waiting for the outcome.  “We know of all the facts as you took part in the recent events. Having measured all your deeds undertaken for the sake of Our return, and taking into consideration external evidence, We desire to fully give you your due and …”
Madonna paused and glanced at Bernard. The Coordinator dispassionately waited for the conclusion of the statement, while those around demonstrated lamentable lack of restraint now and again. The woman did not hurry, enjoying the few tense moments as everyone felt silent; however, her sense of timing did not let her down. Turning towards me without extending the pause too much and ruin the moment, she finished:
“We pronounce you guilty!” The sentence seemed to nail me to the floor. What did that mean – “guilty”?! And of what?!
“By your stupid and presumptuous actions you jeopardized Our reincarnation. You treacherously snatched the activation process from the hands of experienced players.” Apparently, that was a hint about Zangar and his teacher. Madonna was getting more and more aggravated with each new accusation. “You wasted time, which delayed Our resurrection, and spurned help. You brought Lumpen back to this world!” At this point the woman jumped up, not at all regally, and pointed accusingly in the direction of the hologram of the necromancer; that gave so much more expression to her words. Everyone hastened to turn their glances towards Lumpen, who was now serving as a visible illustration of my shame. Ignoring the necromancer’s moment of fame, I stared at Madonna expectantly. Unless my eyes were failing me, a fleeting coquettish smile had just graced the face of “The Great One” and it was intended for the “Enemy of all Life”! What kind of circus was that? I was being publicly whipped for resurrecting him, while she was flirting with him? Some Creator, indeed! Or was she just trying to build a safety net for herself? Despite his Game status, Lumpen was a very interesting and, most importantly, a very, very powerful figure. In the upcoming war he would have excellent chance of winning. Apparently, I was not the only one who thought along those lines…
“The only way I was able to resurrect was by sheer luck.” Madonna said, calming down and returning to the throne. “We are displeased with you, Paladin Yaropolk! We consider that you deserve a most severe punishment. However…” at that point she turned towards Bernard and smiled at him openly, patronizingly. “We value servants who are loyal to us, and accept the petition of our kind Coordinator. It does not mean that you will avoid punishment! We grant you a month to serve to everyone’s benefit, and then you will suffer the just punishment at our hands! We are announcing to the entire Game community: we would be extremely displeased if due to someone’s stupidity the guilty one were to not live long enough to face his sentence.”
The Hall hummed with approval. Madonna waved her hand in disgust:
“Get him out of my sight!”
Immediately a couple of genies materialized next to me: they grabbed my arms and dragged me out of the Hall as if I had been a naughty kitten. They did not teleport nor escort me, but dragged me out. They deprived me of an opportunity to leave the Hall on my own, preserving my honor and dignity. The entire Game community was being shown that no one should have anything to do with me.
The genies dragged me beyond the door, and the world around me swirled in a portal. Multicolored lines started jumping in front of my eyes. Gradually the colors settled, showing me a small office. The bright setting sun flooded the room through wide French windows; for a few seconds I was blinded.
“The Paladin has been delivered!” One of my escorts boomed. I was released and lightly pushed down into a soft armchair. A friendly voice said peacefully:
“Good afternoon, monsieur Yaropolk.”
Squinting from the light, I looked around the room, but could not see anyone. Feeling my confusion, Steve hurried to help me, highlighting in red a small creature next to the far wall. The stranger blended in with his environment so well that I immediately called him “Chameleon” to myself. Had it not been for Steve, I would not have been able to see through the creature’s camouflage, no matter how much I turned around.
“Hm, you are quite observant: good for you, monsieur!” The creature immediately sensed that his presence and location were no longer a secret to me, and paid me the compliment in an annoyed voice. Separating from the wall, it moved towards the desk. It kept changing its shape and coloration; besides, it used light refraction masterfully. It was impossible to determine the true shape of the owner of this office; nor was it easy to look at him for a long time. I squinted, trying to single out or identify at least individual body parts, since I was unable to see the entire image. At some point it even seemed to me that the true shape of the creature was not that different from an actual chameleon that existed on Earth. Finally, I gave up on that, letting the professional do his work. Steve would process the images and show me that wonder in all its glory. The Chameleon chuckled contentedly:
“Don’t burden yourself. I am used to it – members of your species have a hard time looking at us.” The creature settled in an armchair in front of me and got down to business. “Monsieur Yaropolk, you are here in order to understand the role you are supposed to play in upcoming events. My name is Delcatran de Lure, and I am the personal assistant to the Great One.”
The Chameleon looked at me expectantly; however, due to recent events I was unable to produce any reaction other than wariness and deep grunts. Perhaps that was the reason the creature offered:
“Would you care for some Cartanian liqueur?”
Two glasses with ominously red liquid appeared on the small table. My tired brain considered that a pretty bad sign, yet did not pass up a chance to relax. De Lure joined me. Several minutes passed in silence as we enjoyed the strong drink. I was not worried for my life. The status of the Sanctuary was reassuring; besides, if Madonna had in mind to kill me, she would not have bothered with all the trappings and bringing in personal assistants. One thing I did not doubt was that in another month I would face either a painful wiping out or tortures directed personally by the Great One. Moreover, she might stoop to not only directing, but to personally putting in a “Great hand” to it. Or foot. That would not surprise me. Such fresh thoughts popping up in my head indicated that I did in fact manage to relax. I really did need this liqueur to become myself again. The Chameleon was right.
“What a grrreat thing this is.” I rolled the “r” on my tongue for a bit, cleared my throat and took control of the subject. “So what role are you talking about? The Great Madonna was very clear in her indication that I am not worthy of fulfilling her directives.”  It took a great effort to keep sarcasm out of my voice.
“It’s not up to us to judge the words and deeds of the Great Ones,” the chameleon cut me off. “The Great Mistress is displeased with your actions during preparation for Her return. For good reason, too  ̶  you nearly botched everything! And yet as the Guide you still have certain obligations to the entire Game community. And until now you have not been doing your best to fulfill them. That was what caused Her displeasure. However, She is very kind. And, as it turns out, you have worthy protectors. Rejoice! You now have a chance to right everything, prove your competence and loyalty to the great cause! You understand what I mean, monsieur Yaropolk?”
“Are we talking about finding Merlin and the Nameless One?” I ventured a guess.
“Only Merlin,” Delcatran hastened to reply; apparently, he did not expect that some lowlife would know about the third participant of the Restart. The fingers on his right hand came into motion and Steve pointed that out to me. The sly chameleon was quickly typing a message on the keyboard built into the armrest of the chair. Unfortunately, neither Steve nor I were able to read the missive.
“It does not matter; I don’t know anything about them anyway.” I tried to look careless. Internally scolding myself. What an idiot! How could I relax! The last thing I needed was Gerhard worrying what I might know about the Nameless One. Those who know too much don’t stay in the Game for long, even if they are thrice the Guides! I immediately tasked Steve with working out a plausible explanation about how Zangar had told me about the third participant in the Restart. I needed to cover all possible scenarios for future developments.
“That’s what we are talking about here  ̶  that you have no information,” the Chameleon nodded, pleased. “The Guide’s task is to bring all the participants of the Restart together. How will you do this if you have still not identified Merlin? At this time this is the highest priority for you  ̶  the purpose of your very existence!!!”
The logic of the conversation called for me, a humble wretched creature, to become self-effacing, and I hurried to present myself as such, nodding all the way. Nobody asks much of daft people. Particularly since I already had the right kind of reputation. So off we go; follow the chosen course and make sure the interlocutor remembers the effect he wanted to see in the first place.
“You are right there  ̶  my bad. But I do have an excuse here – my training went awry, I was not trained like the others. Archibald…,” I sighed for effect and made a guilty face, hoping I was not playing it too hard. But Delcatran was affected by the liqueur as well. He was inspired by my contrition and willingness to cooperate. The Chameleon even leaned back in his chair, feeling that he was in control of the situation.
“We are aware of the gaps in your education, and we are willing to help.” The Chameleon was now substituting “we” and “us” for “I” and “me”, copying his mistress’s manner of speaking. “But only within the scope of your mission.”
“Madonna’s generosity knows no…” I was not even hiding my sarcasm any more, but Delcatran interrupted me so harshly that for a moment I was afraid he had figured it out:
“The Great Madonna. You must treat our Mistress with respect.”
“Do I only need to find Merlin, or something else?” I was getting bored with the games. I wanted to finish it quickly and find out what it was that Madonna wanted from me.
Actually, over the past week I had been quite impressed by her “grandeur” and “saintly deeds”. A hysterical woman, wallowing in her own strength and power. Given to showering rewards and punishments without any reasonable cause. Today’s reception was not the only demonstration of her grace. The day before she had demoted the Heads of Clerics and Priests who somehow had not curried her favor enough, sent some players into exile as she did Archibald, stripping them of class and rank… she actively interfered with the Game on Earth without bothering to familiarize herself with current issues. There was growing discontent among the player masses, but it found no relief. Everyone kept quiet, unwilling to draw fire on themselves.
“You are instructed to find, within a month, the creature into which Merlin reincarnated.” The Chameleon now assumed a businesslike manner of conversation as well. “It would be enough to simply find out who he is and report to the Mistress. Then your mission will be considered complete.”
“Simply find him?” I was genuinely surprised. “I do not need to bring him to command headquarters?” \
“Command headquarters?” The Chameleon smirked and aimed both his fantastic eyes at me. “Perhaps you happen to know where it is located?”
“What do you mean, where?” I mumbled. I simply had to confess to myself that I was not pretending to be an idiot – I actually was one. “I think it’s here, on Earth. I could be wrong of course, but it seems logical to me.”
“So you don’t know for sure?” My interlocutor kept questioning me. In response I simply shrugged my shoulders once again and nodded. “Why do you find it logical?”
Figuring that I was not losing anything by sharing my considerations I clarified:
“Command headquarters is a standard feature in practically all Games. It would be logical to consider that it exists here as well. Would you agree? All the known key figures reincarnated on Earth: the Guide, the Keymaster, the Great Madonna. Moreover, She is certain that one should look for Merlin on our world as well.  That brings about a reasonable question: why? What did Earth do to deserve such an honor? Maybe the answer is that it has the Command headquarters on it?”
“It could be, it could be…” Madonna’s personal assistant said contemplatively. “But it does not matter. Monsieur Yaropolk. We are realists here and we prefer to task players with what they are capable of doing. So, find Merlin and report that to me. We do not require more from you.. My comm number has already been sent to you. If you manage to succeed, you will receive a substantial reward from the Mistress; if not, you will lose the status of Guide  ̶  I am sure you understand the consequences.”
So simply and clearly he put me in my place. I imagined the consequences quickly and vividly.
“Can I count on any help?” Since “the realists” gathered here, perhaps I could hope for some perks and additional bonuses.
“We have put in place everything that is necessary to start the search. Players have been warned that it is not a good idea to attack you. As for the eccentrics and other crazies that think they are messiahs of whatever sort, you will have to fight them off on your own. However, there are not many of those on this world.” I was not particularly upset; in all fairness an extra month of life was quite a fat perk in and of itself.
“Where should I start the search?”
“There is really nothing I can do for you there. You should be in a position to know better.” The Chameleon disappointed me again. “Trust your intuition. Your essential aspect will let you know where is the path that would lead you to Merlin. Let me remind you, you have one month. It’s time for you to go!”
The assistant made a gesture, and the familiar genies lifted me from the armchair. Another portal trip, and I was at the Paladins’ Citadel. This trip destination was unexpected to me, but everything was clarified at once:
“The Head is waiting for you, brother Yaropolk. Follow me.” An orc Paladin immediately appeared next to me. Escorts and guards were replaced with more escorts and guards. That was oppressive. We moved forward and had already passed two or three halls when a belated thought struck me: we were moving away from the reception. As far as I could tell based on the 3d projection of the Citadel. I was turning my head in confusion, trying to figure out what to do. My companion noticed that:
“We can’t go through the reception now. You are an outlaw now, brother. Gerhard cannot see you openly. So…”
The orc let the sentence trail off meaningfully, and sighed a few times. That made me feel wronged. At the same time, I kept walking, calmer now. We walked for another minute before I figured out what bothered me. “Gerhard!” Not a single Paladin from Earth would be so deliberately casual when speaking about the Head. Only outsiders would do that! This orc was not from our world! I rolled over, activated all my defenses and my artifact as well.
“Your debt is paid, Sharnadan.” A shadow in the far corner of the room turned into an entity about which I had short-sightedly forgotten. This was really bad timing on the part of Garlion to try and satisfy his craving for revenge. In the thick of things I had already forgotten about this couple of advantage-seeking elves: Nartalim, whom I had killed, and his mean dad.
“I will take it from here.” Keeping his eyes on me Garlion gestured to the orc, indicating that the latter was free to leave. At the same time, the two six-foot gremlin statues standing near the door came into motion, extracting some nets.
“Nothing personal, brother Yaropolk,” the orc boomed, indifferent to my fate now, “I just needed to pay off a debt.”
One of the gremlins allowed the orc to freely leave the room; then he stood motionless at the door, blocking the entrance with his massive body. A silvery net whistled through the air, trying to tie me up, but this role of prey was not to my liking. Preempting his move I dodged sideways, letting the net flash above my head, and keeping the gremlin between myself and Garlion. The elf did not follow the practice of villains from various movies wasting half an hour to tell everyone about his malevolent misdeeds. He attacked silently, but viciously. Blue lightning flashed from his hand, and I dashed away from the line of fire, jumping around like a mountain goat. The floor in the spot I just vacated exploded with shards of stone. Lightnings of this level of power from a Paladin worried me quite a bit. Steve immediately revealed to me the reason for this inconsistency: the elf was using a small staff that generated those lightning bolts.
The stone gremlin regarded his empty net sadly, then hurried, to the extent it was possible for one like him, to make another attempt. I was only happy that it took the dummy at least a couple of minutes to prepare for the next throw, or sometimes even longer; this way I did not have to be too distracted from my main opponent. I realized my mistake too late, as the silvery threads covered me head to toe. I had forgotten about the other gremlin by the door, and turned my back to him. My artifact was powerless against the net; only sparks lit the air every time I used the “Templar’s Blow”.
Garlion came closer, still silent, without lowering the staff that was still aimed at me. He looked me straight in the eye, and I knew full well that words would change nothing. I was counting the seconds in my mind and waiting to go for respawn without closing my eyes. Let my enemy wait in vain for fear in them. All that was there was frustration with this whole situation, and looking for it to resolve itself quickly.
Lightning flashed, but practically nothing changed. At first I did not even understand what had happened. I was steeling myself for pain, but instead I lost feeling in my legs. I stared at the elf in bewilderment, trying to understand the point of his actions. But all I received was an evil grin and another lightning bolt. That’s what made his intentions clear: with each new bolt my body was becoming more and more frozen and numb. Garlion rendered me completely motionless, and I had a hard time breathing. I tried to hold my breath to try and trigger a respawn, but my reflexes worked all too well: I was gulping air raggedly, while the elf was laughing at me. Having enjoyed this view of my humiliation, Garlion, finally, started talking:
“Don’t count on respawn, brother Yaropolk.” His voice was dripping with hatred. “That would be too simple. I have something different in store for you. I will lock you up in a place where no one will ever find you! You will spend millennia in confinement, motionless: the only sound you will hear will be the sound of dripping water! Drip! Drip! Drip! It will drip, second after second, minute after minute, day after day, counting off your worthless existence, and driving you mad! An infinity in darkness and solitude, without any hope for welcome unconsciousness! Would that not be a worthy punishment for the death of my son?”
The elf was so carried away that he did not immediately hear a knock on the door that grew louder and louder.
“Don’t let anyone in!” Garlion ordered the gremlins. The dummies obediently headed for the door and thought of nothing better than to sit down straight on the floor, creating a stone door-block. But the visitor or visitors were obviously tired of trying to gain entry peacefully, and proceeded to actively attack. Whoever was storming the door, they did not consider either the doors themselves or a couple of monumental dummies much of an obstacle. With a thunderous blow that sounded like a cannon shot, the doors splintered to pieces and the gremlins exploded into tiny stone shards. Before the dust had a chance to settle Sharda calmly stepped into the room, wearing a full battle outfit. His battle hammer shone so bright that it looked like the sun rising from the morning fog.
Garlion did not waste any time on excuses, and immediately attacked the unwelcome guest with lightning bolts. The gnome grabbed a huge shield out of the air; the lightning just licked at it and petered out harmlessly. Sharda obviously had something more to show the librarian. A few more lightning bolts flashed, with a similar result. The gnome immediately teleported himself right next to Garlion. A deceptively slight swing of the hammer, and the elf’s staff, broken in half, went flying to some unknown corner. The elf’s hand was now hanging lifelessly twisted while Garlion was wailing hopelessly, holding his shattered limb. The enemy was defeated. It was a pleasure to watch a real Paladin work: fast, precise and to the point. I had a lot to learn.
“I warned you, brother Garlion.” Sharda said calmly, having made sure that Garlion had lost all his battle ardor. Sharda clicked his tongue, extracted an elves’ potion and offered it to the elf. The gnome’s care could mislead one, but his eyes did not hold anything good in store for the now quiet librarian.
“I am within my rights! He killed my son!” Garlion hissed, as if trying to justify his actions.
“You are just an old and evil elf! Had Nartalim survived the Academy, you would have had to kill him yourself!” Sharda cut him off decisively, raising his voice. “He betrayed his brethren in class! He ceased being a Paladin! Brother Yaropolk saved you from disgrace, Garlion. You are the one who brought up your son this way!”
Garlion, indignant, kept opening and closing his mouth, unable to respond anything to the gnome, and only shuffling in place clumsily. Sharda exhaled noisily, but in a few moments continued in a calm and tired voice:
“Get thee back to your library, brother. I will notify the Head of your actions.”
Considering this issue settled, Sharda grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and dragged me out of the room. In the hallway there was a team of five Paladins with their weapons at the ready, waiting for the gnome’s return. The support team was prepared to come to their brother’s aid at any moment, but, seeing how things turned out, the Paladins sheathed their weapons. Sharda approached his team and handed me to the largest warrior. He slung my body over his shoulder like a trophy that one would grudge to discard, but that was quite heavy to carry. So that’s how we started out through the corridors and halls full of echoes. The brothers joked good-naturedly about my Bucephalus. The warrior laughed at the jokes together with them, not at all offended, but did not talk back. Finally I saw a regular patterned wood floor instead of the stone slabs; then I was relieved from the need to look at the butt of my strong and patient “steed”.
“Brother Shardangabat, your timing is always impeccable. I found a most curious plant…” first I heard the local doctor, and only after that was I able to see him. As a true warrior of Hippocrates, the healer immediately switched his attention to the new patient. “What happened to him?”
“Zeroed lightning, brother Dragore,” Sharda explained. “He is conscious and is still breathing. How long?”
“If we are speaking about time, it would be three to four hours. We need to restore the frozen muscles. I can’t send him to respawn, right?”
“Preferably not. Brother Yaropolk has changed the anchor point, and it is unclear how long it would take him to return. And we need to do it fast, the Head is waiting for him.”
“Fast?” The doctor scratched his beard in contemplation and started going through scores of little vials on his shelf, muttering under his breath. “What do we have here? No, that won’t do… Or maybe… No, let’s not risk too much… Oh, here it is… wait, it may have a strong adverse reaction on the digestive system… What’s that…? oh, that would erase the personality… that would not do at all  ̶  no, sir! Oh! Finally! That’s what we need. Fast, easy and very painful. Oh well, whatever  ̶  the result is what we need first and foremost. And the result is guaranteed in thirty minutes! But after that, no later than in four hours, make sure you let him sleep for a long time.”
“Go for it. Brother Yaropolk will remember everything; he will endure now and sleep later.”
Half an hour later I was sitting in Gerhard van Brast’s waiting room trying to stop myself from shaking. That was not easy; sometimes my legs seemed to develop a life of their own and started to shake so hard that I had to hold them in place with my hands. The doctor had not lied. It really had been painful. Several times during the procedure I fainted as my body tried to escape the torture, but I was brought to immediately, as the method required that I stay conscious throughout.
Sharda was sitting next to me in the room, and watched my every move. The gnome did not say a word as he carried me there. Sharda generally seemed different from the gnome I used to know. He was glum and silent. He had not made any ironic comments or jests. He stared from under his eyebrows. My mood had really plummeted, and I tried to strike up a conversation, looking for topics that would interest him:
“Have you been able to find out anything about the third participant?”
Sharda’s left eyelid twitched, but that was the only reaction I got.
“Did Archibald call you?”
Same twitch of the left eyelid and nothing else Maybe that was a sign for me to shut up, but I was irritated by his silence to such an extent that felt unable to stop.
“I was able to find out that they call the third participant the Nameless one. He erases all the information about himself. Who could that be, now is only known to…”
“Enough!” Sharda cut me off sharply. “Want to know nothing about the Nameless One, nor about the Restart. You have already said too much. How many times do I have to tell you, knucklehead, that even walls have ears?”
I hunched noticeably, recognizing that the reproach was justified. Yet that was his own fault; he could have said something to me  ̶  say, about the weather. I had just been frozen all the way to my brain. By the way, speaking of the freeze and its consequences:
“What will happen to Garlion? He…”
“Forget about the library.” Sharda cut me off again, not hoping for my aptitude any more. “You won’t be able to get in there, period. That topic is closed. Shut up and sit quietly!”
Sharda hunched up like a sparrow on a perch. Now the gnome had really destroyed all my willingness to talk, and drove away the thought that his condition had anything to do with me. Why? Simply because he cut me off on the topic of Restart, and shut me up with a reproach that I talk too much. Here he also had the last word, like the mentor of infinite numbers of dumb students. I was really not able to become the cause of Sharda’s great headache. The only reasonable explanation for this behavior was Archibald being in disfavor. The gnome and the catorian had been close, and the latter’s exile and the stripping of his class and rank would upset Sharda quite a bit. An indirect proof of my supposition lay in the gnome’s tone of voice as he mentioned the topic of Restart. If they had not gotten themselves into this whole Restart business up to their ears, perhaps the catorian would have still been on the good side of the Head. Hm… That’s it! Sharda simply feels guilty! And the things I said only exacerbated that feeling.
“If I were to see my teacher in the near future, what should I tell him?” I asked, holding the gnome’s heavy stare. The silence lasted for a long time, until finally Sharda said quietly:
“Delra kan rog. Videotape it, or else you’ll forget it, you knucklehead!”
“Delra kan rog.” I repeated, and nodded. “I will tell him.”.
Sharda puffed his cheeks, obviously about to say something else, but at that moment the doors to Gerhard’s office opened and I was invited to come in. Alone. I went through the security and sanitation zone quickly, getting just three signals of the markers removed. I accepted the message telling me I was totally clean now, and finally I was standing before the Head. During the week that had passed since Madonna appeared, Gerhard had changed. And not for the better. Perhaps it was just my subjective opinion, and I simply pitied the man whose Doll was such a bitch. It seemed to me that his face was drawn, his cheeks were hollow, his eyes were red, and generally all his features looked peaked. Gerhard looked like someone who last rested a couple of Restarts ago. However, he greeted me as always, with a fatherly smile and wisdom in his tired eyes..
“You had a long and difficult week, brother Yaropolk.” With this simple phrase Gerhard indicated that he was fully aware of all my troubles and the reasons why I had not been able to report to him for training earlier. Immediately after Madonna’s return Bernard had taken me to his estate, and did not let me out until the ceremony. I was certain that the incident with Garlion had already been reported to the Head as well.
“Quite a few people could say the same thing.” I responded. “But I do agree, calm and boredom are in fact lacking in my life.”
Gerhard smiled at me supportively.
“Have you decided on the ability you would like to learn?”
“The diamond protection dome.” Even though I had spent a week under home arrest, I had been able to study some of the Paladin abilities. Thanks to Alard who had not abandoned a brother in hard times. Now I knew precisely what I wanted. The absolute protection that Gerhard had set up for me during the battle near Lecleur estate required an enormous amount of Energy. Even if my crystal had been fully charged, I would have only been able to maintain this kind of shield only for about ten minutes. With respect to my attack abilities, everything was more or less clear: several hundred bunches of scrolls with the Templar’s Blow were sitting in my inventory in case times got tough. But my defense left a lot to be desired. My fight with Garlion demonstrated this one more time: the elf did not even have to work hard in order to break through. The diamond dome was not a universal method either, but it would have helped against Garlion. Probably.
“Good choice,” Gerhard praised me. He spent some time looking for a clean sheet of paper on his desk, then quickly sketched a few symbols on it, and extracted a jar of golden powder from the top drawer; covering the still-wet inscription, he carefully shook off the excess. Satisfied with the result, the Head handed the paper over to me. As soon as my fingers touched the sheet, and his left the paper, the Game immediately highlighted the message on me receiving a new ability. The scroll flashed in magic fire, and disappeared without as much as a trace of ash on my fingers. My training was completed.
“You will go to Moscow.” Gerhard said without wasting time. “Try to keep quiet and not be noticed by anyone undesirable. Work on explorer tasks: walk around the city, watch the ways players interact with NPCs under normal conditions. It will take time to bring everything back to normal again. Madonna’s disfavor won’t last forever, since women have short memories.”
“I understood the subtle hint, but could not agree with the Head. Such power-seeking creatures are actually likely to bear grudges for a long time. But of course I did not say that out loud. Just shook my head and brought up another important problem:
“Moscow is full of churches.” Gerhard had promised to teach me to block sources of Light. It was high time to work on that.
“Yes, clerics are fond of that city. Russia is generally an extremely strange country; under certain circumstances people are capable of latching onto an idea and start implementing it with the self-sacrifice of real fanatics. For example, there was a time when the country’s rulers decided to promote atheism among the population, so immediately all the attributes and external signs of a faith were actively condemned by the authorities and mass media. All the churches and religious communities were eradicated. Then the government changed its mind, and immediately the whole county was full of repentance, preparing for the arrival of the next messiah. There are no subtle shades in that country. Even though this is the reason it wins all its wars against external aggressors. The bravest soldier is a fanatic ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of his country. Others are just not capable of that.”
“I disagree.” I was never an avid patriot, but this made me feel for my country. “It’s not right to equate patriots with self-sacrificing fanatics! Besides: regarding the faith…”
“I did not imply that they were equal; nor did I make any value statements as to whether that was good or bad.” Gerhard grinned, making me fall silent. “It was just a statement of fact. I consider this feature of the Russian people amusing. Nothing more than that. But you are right: at this time Russia is chock-full of Sources of Light, so you need protection. Let’s start with theory.”
The difference between Light and Dark ones was purely in the mechanism for generating Energy. Dark ones were able to obtain it directly from their environment, while Light ones needed an intermediary that would accumulate Energy within it. The so-called “Source of Light”, which destroyed all free emotion around itself. Actually, that was the main problem of the Dark ones: they continuously absorbed available free emotions from the surrounding world. If there are none available, as is very common on Earth, since all emotions are aimed at specific deities, they would have to absorb whatever is available. In this case it would be Energy infused with Light, and that is quite detrimental for Dark ones.
“What is the conclusion you make from all that?” Gerhard was not about to present it to me on a platter; rather, he wanted me to take active part in the learning process.
“In order to be able to stay near a Source of Light, one needs to conduct the absorption of emotions from the ambient space to… for example…. Now that stumped me. To oneself? But that’s physically impossible. To an accumulator? That would not work either, because it did not generate emotions. Generally the only sources of emotions are living beings, but you can’t continuously drag around a… I got an idea!
“A pet!” I exhaled, proud of myself, and was rewarded with an approving nod from my teacher. The gift from the Chancellor of the Academy had a twist to it!
“Specifically, the kind of pet that is capable of feeling emotions. Whether they are negative or positive, the choice is entirely yours. The important thing is that in order to overcome the effects of a Source of Light within a certain proximity to you, the pet should be nearby and feel strong emotions. The stronger the Source, the more vivid his feelings must be. Otherwise you still feel the effects of the Light. Unfortunately, pets are incapable of strong positive emotions. And no matter how noble the Dark Ones’ intentions, sooner or later we take the easier path to reaching our goal. The instinct of self-preservation wins. So here is my advice to you: don’t get attached to pets. Some feelings should be rejected right away, or else they make us weak. And nobody forgives that.”
“Pets don’t live very long, right?” The horrible realization dawned on me.
“A year, sometimes two if you work hard on avoiding Sources. At the Auction one can purchase special cages and devices that scan the ambient space, searching for Sources of Light, and initiate the torture process automatically. The Dark one will just have to remove the remains from the cage and replace them with a new pet. There is no reason to bother feeding them, either.”
It probably would take time to get used to those things being common. It’s easier to torture people, most of the time they are really begging for it, and, at least theoretically, they are in the same league as you. One would really have to change one’s mind in order to torture a helpless creature. But Gerhard was right; guided by self-preservation I would quickly become used even to this.
The Head gave me a few minutes to think about the new information, and made sure that I fully understood everything that had to do with blocking the Sources of Light. But in any case, Darks are the way they are. One could not help but expect oceans of blood and suffering. I had known what I was getting into.
“Brother Alard requested permission to accompany you,” Gerhard said, realizing I was not going to ask any questions. Orcs from Zagransh have their own notions of honor and dignity; I see no reason to deny his request. I have already approved his assignment to Moscow, al the logistical problems are being resolved now.”
If a being at the level of Gerhard van Brast decided that in Moscow I would benefit from the presence of brother Alard, so be it. In this I could rely completely on the Head. The orc would be useful to me even if he had another directive, whether I knew about it or not. For a spy the Paladin would not be a suitable figure at all, so on the whole I was actually quite pleased with the news. So pleased that despite my initial intent not to be the first to bring up the issue of Madonna’s task, I decided to ask for advice.
“Sir Gerhard, I need your help or advice. I think you know that Madonna told me to find Merlin within a month. If I were to fail I would no longer be the Guide. It seems unlikely that I would remain Paladin Yaropolk either, unless her anger fades. But I intend to do everything within my power. I am asking your permission to visit the classified section of the library. Archibald was certain that in there one could find references to Merlin’s Diary, or, rather, indications of where one should look for it. Perhaps you know what my teacher had in mind. I don’t even really need access – I just need information. Please forgive my forwardness, but one month is too short a time to rely only on one’s own abilities.”
Gerhard was taken aback for a moment, not expecting such direct talk from me. However, he was the Head of Class for a reason, and knew how to deal with the unexpected.
“I will think how to help you. Issuing books or copies thereof, particularly from the classified section, is strictly controlled, and even I am powerless to change it. It will take time. Now go. Brother Demitre will see you to the Auction and back.
Gerhard pressed a button on his desk, and immediately a hulking Paladin entered the room. Brother Demitre, the new Head of the Battle Wing who had replaced ousted Iven, turned out to be an interesting character. He was a typical rough warrior, one of those who intercept any attempt of speech by terrifyingly squinting their eyes and barking thunderously: “Silence! Enemies are close by!” But this particular one advanced this skill even further. At first, as he listened to his orders silently, he nodded and  immediately gestured me to the door, I thought that was cool and laconic. But throughout our outing, not only did I not hear a word from him, but his face was totally expressionless. All information was conveyed to me with very spare gestures, basically reduced to orders “Stop” or “Go”.
In the hallway we were joined by another six brothers, who fully surrounded me in a square formation. It was very serendipitous of Gerhard to take care of my safety. My new guards were like their commander, except they actually sported some facial expressions. At least they were capable of frowning, and, occasionally, smiling.
In the Sanctuary, one of the Paladins extracted a long feeler which he used to examine space far ahead of himself. I tried to find out the name of this strange contraption, but all six turned their heads to me and gave me such a look that it drove away any desire to communicate. So we kept moving silently all the way to our destination. The NPCs did not notice us; other players tried to clear out of the way as fast as they could, so we reached our destination without any delays. There was just one instance when the Paladin with the feeler drew back, as a portal flashed in front of him. The feeler departed in an unknown direction, and the Paladin simply frowned in displeasure and took out another. The strange portal indicated that in the foreseeable future I might be in for an unexpected trip. After I left the Sanctuary these silent Paladins would leave me, and in Moscow I would have to sort out my problems by my lonesome.
I liked the Auction. The process of purchasing items was not what attracted me the most. A host of figures and pictures, descriptions, and generally mountains of monotonous information. What I liked was a different thing: with each reviewed item my artifact experience level would grudgingly creep up by one hundredth of a percent. If I had had more time, I would have made the Auction my second home.
At the point when the hatred of my bodyguards reached a level I could physically sense, I stopped aimlessly leafing through the catalogue pages and proceeded to actual purchases: a cage, a couple of torture devices, a few other small items. It took me a record amount of time: five minutes. As I turned in my hands the steel cage with its horrible contraptions, I realized very clearly that I simply would not be able to stuff small furry Rragr in there. Having realized and accepted the thought, I started looking for a new pet for myself, preferably something disgusting both in terms of character and appearance. I did not have to search for long: there was a mean blob of fur, with fangs and claws. It emitted horrendous smells and drooled green goo. Just as I was about to confirm the purchase of the beast, I noticed a system information warning. It turned out that the rules of the Game limited the number of pets for all players, except hunters. Everyone else was only allowed one per player; the small font below indicated that if the player confirmed his purchase while already in possession of a pet, the money would not be refunded. I had to pause and verify Rragr’s status. My assistant studied the question of ownership of my furry pet and reassured me. At this time the pet was listed as the property of my Doll, and the process of transfer of ownership was successfully completed. Only in case of Helen’s death would Rragr revert to becoming my pet again. With this welcome information I completed the purchase of “cannon fodder”.
Having finished with the Auction, I visited the bank. A goblin with a “D” license immediately appeared from the infinite stream of employees and froze expectantly:
“Mister Yaropolk: our bank is at your service.” The goblin was completely unabashed by the presence of the steely Demitre, who followed just a couple of feet behind me. By the way, it took quite an effort to get the silent Paladin to stop at the bank. It’s hard to ask for something when it seems that you are being thoroughly ignored. Eventually I stooped to threatening to complain to Gerhard, and that worked.
“Only today we have special offers for deposits on extremely beneficial terms. I am sure you would be very interested to know…”
“No.” I rudely cut off the clerk and his waterfall of words. I preferred to talk with their lot as little as possible. Otherwise, before you know it you would give them all your money “on very beneficial terms” and will owe them to boot. Just like peddlers from my life while I was still an NPC. “I need a normal account and exchange of one granis into gold, with subsequent conversion into Euros. That is all.”
“Sure, sure, whatever you prefer.” The goblin’s ears twitched, but his professional training kicked in. The goblin quickly logged in on the nearest machine, fulfilling my request, and then voiced an unexpected proposal: “I recommend that instead of Euros you take US dollars and Rubles at the rate of two to one. It would be more practical for you.”
“Fine,” I agreed, looking at the goblin suspiciously. He hurried to explain:
“The bank is informed about your assignment location, Mr. Yaropolk. In Moscow ordinary people tend to prefer dollars and Rubles. You would have to exchange Euros, and then you would lose money paying commission. I am sorry if I embarrassed you. Are you already familiar with the procedure for cashing granises?”
My negative movement of the head was welcomed by the goblin, who briefly outlined the method to me. As it turned out, regarding the situation with money in the Game, not everything was as transparent as I had thought at first. Just because a player converts granises into game coins, gold, securities or foreign exchange, the player’s granis balance in the Game did not change. The Game would automatically calculate it regardless of the conversion. At any given time everything was calculated as granis equivalent, and the Game monitored this very carefully. As soon as it exceeded the number of basic granises, it would activate the “terror” mode. So one would not be able to get around this by converting granises into gold: it wouldn’t work.
Without dragging out the formalities I signed a couple of agreements and finally received two plastic cards. The money available in those accounts would provide for decent existence, even in Moscow, which had been expensive for a couple of Game years. But one thing became obvious to me: I urgently needed to increase the number of basic granises available to me. Once I was done with the Explorer’s tasks I would work on the Dungeons. Of all the ways I knew to earn some money, that one was the most effective.
Moscow greeted me with fair weather, which was suspicious in and of itself. The city I remembered as stuffy and dusty was, to my surprise, a poster-child of great infrastructure. My eyes kept stumbling on ideally clean cobblestones, while my nose wrinkled from air that smelled too fresh. The contrast with the Moscow I knew was so stark that I just kept standing in front of the stationary portal in the center of Red Square. I just stood there, astonished, getting in the way of newly arriving players.
“Paladin Yaropolk?” The player who was meeting me had to tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. I turned around, and instead of going through with meet-and-greet kept staring at a luxurious limo nearby. A limo. A government limo, no less. A well-known brand. Right in the center of Red Square. Which is closed to vehicles. The greeter cleared his throat a couple of times, making sure that I focused on him, then waved carelessly towards the limo without introducing himself:
“Get in  ̶  the meeting is in thirty minutes. I hate being late.”
With the flashing beacon on, we dashed across the square and rolled up to the entrance to the Kremlin. The gates opened as we approached and a whole dozen of guards, both NPC and players, saluted our cortege. The car rolled up to the main entrance of the Great Kremlin Palace. Several NPCs rolled out a red carpet on the stairs to the limo. Soldiers from the Kremlin Guard lined up on the sides, looking very smart at attention; an orchestra nearby played a welcome march. Everyone’s eyes shone with trepidation and ingratiation. Everything was so ceremonial it made you want to take a huge spoon and scrub all that idiotic corniness to the nearest dumpster and slap everyone on the face for their slavish outlook and perpetual desire to curry favor. It is so sad that people all too frequently turn the noble concept of service into the farce of servility.
The guards opened the doors of the limo, and my companion stepped out regally. The guards stood at full attention with even more fervor. No one showed any interest in me at all. The gentleman started ascending the stairs slowly and pompously. I looked at the back of the player as he was walking between the two lines of guards, but I was in no hurry to rush  after him. So who was it that had deigned to meet me?
A shortish guy rushed out from the crowd and pushed me forward a little to encourage me to follow the big boss. The latter had meanwhile reached the top of the stairs and heartily kiss the young girl holding the round bread in the welcome ceremony. Only after that did he first notice that I was not by his side. He looked back and asked in surprise:
“What’s keeping you? Come on, I have to register you still! Keep up!”
So then it was the Registrar himself who did me the honor and welcomed me personally. Not bad! Immediately following the entrance I was scanned several times for prohibited items. I was forced to leave my machine gun; that indicated that the contents of the player’s personal inventory was no secret. For quite some time the guards pursed their lips at my Book of Knowledge, arguing with me about the need to surrender it as well. Only the interference of my companion protected me from being forced to feel completely naked. The registrar’s vice in all of that was being patronizing and casual. As if he were a denizen of heaven deigning to descend from his official Olympus for the sale of the problems of a mere mortal.
Our journey ended in a huge office. I noticed a few players in the anteroom, waiting for their turn to register, but they were a lot less lucky than I. Once in the office, the Registrar occupied a luxurious chair at the head of the desk, and opened a shiny leather folder which had been prepared in advance. I spent several minutes in silence, waiting for the Registrar to finish his reading and speak. Notably, the room was devoid of any kinds of seats for visitors. Either because its occupant preferred communicating through his secretary, or because visitors were supposed to remember their place in that office.
“Well, well, well… So you are assigned to Moscow, then.”
I nodded, confirming the obvious.
“You were allocated an initial stipend for two months and a studio apartment in Nth street? The keys were issued to you in the Sanctuary?”
I nodded again. The Registrar looked concerned, sitting still for a while, with only his searching stare traveled over me trying to find something visible only to him. After a lengthy pause he continued harshly:
“So, then, Paladin Yaropolk, all the preliminary agreements are now void. Return the keys to the apartment to the secretary, and there is no initial stipend for you either.
“I don’t get it…” I said slowly, surprised.
“What is there to get? There was an apartment allocated, but then the drift changed and no, there is no apartment. Same thing with the stipend.”
The drift, eh. I would expect that this drift was not drifting from the Registrar himself. That’s too petty for someone at his level; besides, he would not bother to personally welcome me if it had been so. It looked more like a woman’s stupid willfulness on the part of certain pissy individuals. Bitch! Right, put some hobos under my door, too, so that I would realize more fully how powerful you are! And the local tycoon ran off to fulfill the order personally and to satisfy his curiosity about who was that guy being personally humiliated by Madonna Herself?
“Is there anything at all that is provided for me?”
“Sure there is. A room in a dorm. It’s a decent room; the neighbors are good, too. Just the ticket for a beginner player.” I could not understand any more whether he was mocking me or just trying to cheer me up in earnest. “My secretary will issue the keys to you.”
My patience ran out. I had already opened my mouth to tell him my thoughts, but the Registrar raised his palm, stopping me:
“Before you say anything, you need to know that according to the rules of the Game you cannot say no. And for insulting an official on duty you will be designated persona non grata. I am not touchy, but the order is the same for everyone! Head hunters would be issued a permit for your respawn. You have any extra levels?”
“No.” I felt deflated. My interlocutor hemmed, satisfied that he had discovered my reactions to be adequate. Relaxing, he reached for the bottom drawer of the desk, and I heard the sound of some liquid being poured. Leaning back in his chair the Registrar swished some amber drink in his glass.
“Don’t fret so much. Anyone could be in your place. Never say never… to the dorm.” The Registrar laughed at his own joke, superstitiously spat over his left shoulder and knocked on the desk before taking a great swig from the glass. This player, even if he were to end up in the “dorm”, would only be there if he wanted it himself. People like him feel great under any kind of “drift”, they always land on all fours because they are really good at adjusting to any environment. “By the way, we cannot force our guests to stay in social housing projects during their work trial period if they have their own real estate. You just have to officially notify us. You have some granises?”
The Registrar raised his eyebrow quizzically.
“I have some granises.” I repeated like a parrot.
“Good deal.” The Registrar beamed at me and clasped his hands exaggeratedly. “Oh, my God, why did I take my medication on an empty stomach! That’s wrong, I should not do it  ̶  my doctor will yell at me! I need to correct that right away.”
“I do beg your pardon, sir Registrar, but I just arrived, and have not eaten since morning. I hope it would not be too forward on my part to ask for some indication of good places for lunch?”This was a game two could and should play. What is not expressly forbidden is allowed. Can one player not provide a simple service to another player? Why not, if he is paying in granises? The Registrar jumped off of his chair immediately and pushed the speaker button on his desk:
“Sveta, I’m off to lunch. I will be back tomorrow. Today please provide the housing key to Paladin Yaropolk and tell him about the notice procedure.” As he was at the door, he added quickly as he was locking the office: “It’s not like it is a problem normally dealt with at my level, but why not provide some help. May everyone be rewarded according to his deeds…at some later point in time, as they say.”
Followed by many displeased looks, we left the anteroom and went down to the local cafeteria, which was decorated in an old but rich design. The Registrar took a table in the corner, far from curious onlookers, and waited silently till the chef came out to greet us.
“Good afternoon! The usual?” The chef’s voice was polite and his back was bowed, despite the fact that the chef was an elf.
“Yes, Master Silturine. If it is ‘the usual’, you know best.”
Elf bowed to the Registrar again, gave me a fleeting glance, grimaced and left proudly. No one offered me a menu. Seeing that I was bewildered, the Registrar laughed:
“Master Silturine is a chef with a broad field of expertise, and is a true professional. In order to determine one’s tastes in food he only needs one look. When he prepares the dishes, he takes into consideration the guests’ mood or the nature of the negotiations. He likes visitors with exquisite tastes… While your attitude to food is only so-so. You are not an aficionado , to put it in one word.” The Registrar laughed again.
“I see…” I replied slowly. It seemed as though I did not hear anything new, but it hurt.
“While the food is not yet here, now is time to talk business. As I mentioned, you do not have to stay in the housing that is assigned to you  ̶  just take the keys, say ‘Thank you’ politely, then buy yourself some property and live there. What else did you want to know?”
“Information. A detailed guide to all the interesting and useful places in Moscow. An unofficial one, of course. And some contact information for useful players. The standard set to get me out of trouble fast in case I encounter trouble.”
“You are asking for a lot… two granises.” The profiteer said without a pause. I nearly choked.
“This is rob …”
“Do be careful in your choice of words.” The player cut me off rudely.
“Sorry,” I said calmly now, not willing to spoil relations from the outset. “I was not thinking right. I meant to say, that is expensive for a beginner player.”
The Registrar hemmed contentedly and agreed:
“I know. But it was worth trying.” He laughed loudly.
“One granis.” I countered his proposal.
“One and a half. Or else you’ll have to get by without the useful contacts.” The Registrar would not give up.
I sighed sadly and crossed the useful emergency contacts off my “good to have” list.
“Fine, but please tell me, what was the precise wording of Madonna’s order, and why are you still helping me? Even though this help is far from being free.” I could not let this just pass by without a dig at him.
“Deal. There is nothing to hide there. ‘Make his life complicated without going too far. Take away his privileges, but play within the rules.’ As for the help, that really is clear. She metes out a punishment, but it is a petty one. A purely female way of doing it  ̶  just for the fun of it. This is not serious, so that means the exile will not last long. She needs you, or else we would not be talking here now. See the logic?”
“I do.” I agreed. I would like to believe those convincing conclusions…
The first courses were presented and that put a stop to our conversation. It is hard to communicate when your mouth is full and all your thoughts are circling through “Divine!” Incredible!” “Delectable” “I’d kill to have him nearby!” and the whole sequence repeats with each change of course. An hour passed by before I felt any urges that did not have to do with food. I did not care anymore that at the first encounter the elf was unhappy with my tastes and attitude towards food. He was a Master, and those are allowed a lot. For him food was like a separate religion which bestowed pleasure on others, and enabled him to greet each new day with joy.
“Your granis.” I offered the exchange to the Registrar and, finally, found out his name: Yurmil. In return my interlocutor passed me a substantial volume.
“This is an atlas of all the areas in Russia that are related to the Game. From nightclubs to the mysterious burial sites of giants in the Urals. I am sure that as an explorer you will be interested in this. Consider this a gift from me.”
“Or an investment.” I offered my own interpretation.
“We shall see, we shall see,” the Registrar replied, not without irony, and we hastened to part our ways, pleased with each other.
Two hours later I was stuck in a traffic jam, “flying towards my bright future”. In the past I had frequently been indignant about active road construction at the height of rush hour traffic. Some sorry bums posing as road workers would come up and dig out a hole in the freshly repaired road, then slowly proceed to take a smoke break, never bothering to as much as tape the area off. But now, as I passed by yet another construction site, I could see the complete picture, which explained a lot. There were several ugly monsters belly up in a ditch. Mages, presented as road repair engineers, were casting spells over them. That meant that every time I had seen some out-of-place road construction there had in fact been monsters breaking into the Earth, and various services worked on capturing them and eliminating the consequences. The situation was quite similar with respect to buildings: now and then I saw various airships of most improbable designs that had lost control and crashed into buildings. The aforesaid services, this time posing as renovations to historic buildings, were working on the results of those collisions. This way the Game took care of NPCs, or rather of their frail minds.
The dorm that was allocated to me was in the suburbs. There was a little local market, a couple of large malls; also within easy walking distance I saw some branches of a popular bank, a post office and a Vital Statistics registration office. It was noteworthy that right next to my building, right across the marriage registration office, there was a bus stop with a large billboard indicating “To N Cemetery”. Old ladies formed a little market there. Selling plastic flowers and wreaths for the grieving relatives. But that was not the funny part. What made me laugh was that even though it was a work day, rather tipsy young men who must have been drinking to someone's health would run out of the office and buy flowers from those old hags. As I headed to my new home, I noticed one of those buyers:
“Granny, give me the nicest one! And keep the change!” He proudly handed her a hundred-ruble bill. The guy was deeply in his cups.
“Here, dearie, one moment. Here, take some lilies. They’re nice flowers  ̶  for purity  ̶  and I tell you right, they’ll be just the thing!” the old woman happily cajoled him. The guy grabbed a paltry bunch of flowers without looking twice and rushed right back to the marriage office.
“Good woman, why do you sell them flowers for the dead? You could make up some fit for marriage, no?” I asked the spry old lady, stopping next to her.
“Why bother, dearie? With live flowers, they’re such trouble, an’ they cost a bunch, too. An’ them boys wouldn’t even see, they won’t… And that’s right  ̶  sure it is  ̶  we all need to drink to the death of the girlie’s freedom; there, they are dragging ‘nother one, to wash an’ cook an’ clean them rags an’ such. It’s all the right way, dearie,” said the old woman, her old teary eyes following yet another bride. The Judge in me did not even stir, since the truth was different for everybody.
As I was ascending the bedraggled stairs to the third floor, my heart grew heavier. Narrow dirty stairs, dank air, constant noise… That was far from an exhaustive list of features for a “normal dwelling area for a beginner player”. The walls were dirty, the plaster was peeling. You could hear all the noise from every apartment, and the windows were broken, no doubt to improve natural lighting and ventilation, since there were no light bulbs at any of the landings. Dirt and dilapidation reigned everywhere. Judging by the aroma, there was only one toilet available for the entire building. Its powerful smell brought a strong note into the overall stench of food these people must have been making. Some hallways were adapted by practical gals for drying clothes, so I had every chance to enjoy ragged underwear and badly stretched flowers on someone’s nightgowns and underpants.
The local denizens deserved separate mention. All along the way I felt their heavy menacing stares on my back. I was glad that was all I felt. The local thugs near the entrance way spat on the ground and turned away, moms with their offspring pretended to turn away and lose all their curiosity, and the kids ran off in the opposite direction from me, while the local hags stopped cursing at the local winos as soon as I appeared within their field of view. The Game came to my aid, creating in the head of each NPC an image necessary for their mind to activate a conflict avoidance algorithm. Had it not been for Helen, I would have never bothered showing up here. Finally, I got to the right door and opened it quietly.
“Yaropolk! You are back!” A small blond whirlwind rushed towards me and threw her arms about my neck. I never even had a chance to say anything. I was showered with kisses mixed in with little noises to show how much I was missed. That was nice. Well, not just. Actually, I was really happy that I had her and she was capable of such open and sincere joy. I was not trying to deceive myself about freedom of choice on the part of my Doll; I simply enjoyed what I had. My main mistake was that I was unable to perceive Helen as my property, despite all the laws of the Game.
The next few days flew by. I bought an apartment, a new car, and, following Gerhard’s advice, did everything to simply forget that I was part of the machinery called “the Game”, and that the list of my priorities starts with the item marked “urgent”: finding Merlin. I dedicated all my attention to Helen. Unbeknownst to myself I was starting to fall in love with her. That comes easily when your partner is loyal to you to their last breath. I had no doubts whatsoever about it. How could it be different? The very point of existence of the Doll was to make me happy. May it be so then! We walked around for days on end, returning to our cozy nest only for the night, but not for sleeping. Sex with the Doll was outstanding, and every time I felt on cloud nine with pleasure.
The only reminders of the Game were visits from Alard and Mizardine. The hunter settled in Moscow as well. They were both making everyday arrangements, while making sure they took time to see the main points of interest in the city. Then they came back bursting with impressions from the huge megapolis with its urban ways. There was nothing of the sort in my companions’ native worlds. They were particularly overwhelmed with Red Square. At the place of the historic execution platform, Lobnoye Mesto, where, as far as legends had it, many hundreds of criminals had been executed over the years. In fact, it contained a very large hole in the ground that housed quite a strange creature. It had neither eyes nor mouth – it just looked like a rounded lump of brown flesh with a few thin tentacles extending from it. The creature gorged on the emotions of the people around it. The more impressionable a person was, the more emotions he or she generated. There was a viewing bridge above the pit for all those willing to look. Mostly those who were willing were NPCs, even though they could not see the monster. They were just drawn to the bridge, and they did not resist their urges. The NPCs “felt” the atmosphere of the place, sank into thoughts about their pointless existences, and left the viewing platform deep in those thoughts. They left all the positive emotions to that bottomless pit of a creature. Players were rare guests here  ̶  understandably so. The monster affected them a lot more. So the ones that made it to the bridge were either enthusiasts who had lost a bet, or, on the contrary, wanted to win one by demonstrating their resistance to the consumer of emotional delicacies. But as far as I knew, everyone lost, ending up doubled over and nauseous on the viewing bridge. However, somehow new ones came up every time.
Carried by this wave of nostalgia, I could not resist the temptation to visit the city district where I had grown up. The things that had been my reality for the twenty-three years of my previous life demanded that of me. I wanted to see something or somebody. Not my relatives – of course there was no way to bring them back. But at least the courtyard where I used to play, or the local wino who hung out there all the time with his perpetually hungry cat. Everyone in the yard always offered Barsik some food, pitying him for having a torn-up ear and only one eye. No one actually knew how or when the cat had been injured, and the guy told a different tragic story every time. We all admired the cat’s courage, and pilfered fancy bologna for him from home.
However, the Game disposed of all my hopes cruelly. The building was simply not there. There was a paid parking lot in its place instead. I went into a nearby courtyard to ask when the building had been demolished, but was unanimously assured that there had never been a building there. I was unable even to find out what had been there prior to the parking lot. People were confused, and everyone came up with their own story. No one had heard about a wino with a cat, either. It could be that he still was in existence somewhere – there were all sorts of alcoholics hanging around, and some even with cats. I was even more upset when I decided to visit my first school. That was something that should have been there for sure! I would have even been happy to see our horrid home room teacher, who had scarred my young mind for life.
There was in fact a school around the corner, but it was a different type of building, and with a completely different set of teachers. Even the school name was different. I had to put up with this final hint from the Game that the past should be laid to rest, and left the area.
Helen consoled me quickly, and distracted me from all the dark thoughts. I kept immersing myself more and more into the illusionary world that we created for ourselves. There was nothing preventing me from doing so. Other players tended to avoid us remembering Madonna’s instructions. I was completely satisfied with that. Alard and Mizardine worked on their own affairs and did not interfere with our lives. No one attacked me; it was as if everyone had simply forgotten about me, and that was cool! It was so cool that I would have never left that bubble on my own. But reality came to bite me precisely on the sixth day of my personal bliss:
“Paladin Yaropolk, you are instructed to immediately report to the Judge Supervisor.” A low hoarse voice boomed from the speaker of my comm. The call came precisely at three o’clock in the morning. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard scary alarm bells instead of the usual ring tone, and did not understand why. But once I saw the comm screen light up while Helen was still sleeping, I quickly took the call.
Oh well, when I heard the orders I was very tempted to tell them all to go to hell, turn the phone off and go back to sleep, but the caller was very insistent: “I repeat! Paladin Yaropolk, you are instructed…”
The words filled my empty sleepy head, and seemed to echo on and on without the caller having to repeat them. It made you want to jump up and run headlong to pay respects to the Supervisor, whom I actually, let’s be frank, had been ignoring all those days. When the voice repeated for the third time what I was supposed to do, I decided to agree with it, and thankfully the line went dead at last. Just about the last thing I needed was a reprimand from the Game for tarrying too long. As soon as I got out of bed, the portal opened next to me. The Game did not wish to waste a moment of its precious time.
A slight bout of vertigo, and then I found myself once again in the familiar place: in the middle of Red Square. A young lieutenant ran up to me right away, introduced himself and explained that he had been sent to bring me to the Supervisor. As it turned out all roads in Moscow led to the Kremlin. Particularly if you were looking for someone of higher rank.
The Supervisor of Judges, in the same way as the Registrar, and any player in general sporting any kind of high Game rank in Moscow, lived and worked directly in the Kremlin. Once Steve showed me the level of Light Energy within its territory, that explained why players were so attached to the red brick walls. The Kremlin in and of itself was a powerful Source of Light. Perhaps not as strong as the remains of saints. Yet it was plenty for the local inhabitants. That was not surprising: one hundred and fifty million NPCs living in Russia revered the Kremlin as a symbol of the unity of faith and power. The compound simply accumulated all the emanations directed at it, converting them, essentially, into free Energy. Who would ever give up such a feeding source on their own?! Nobody. They would all agree to it, and would guard it with their lives.
As I was proceeding down the hallway to the office, I noted to myself that I never felt the pressure of the Light – neither when I visited Kremlin for the first time, nor now. That meant that the new pet was coping with its task and I needed to make sure I set up the purchase of a new one in advance for that purpose. With those thoughts I entered the office of the Judge Supervisor. He was an elf. And a priest. His reddened eyes betrayed chronic fatigue and lack of sleep. His face was just physically incapable of looking friendly, and I could easily see the reasons for that: there were some jobs that simply did not include an easy life and sleeping in your own bed.
“Sit down.” I received a curt nod. As he was downing the dregs from his coffee cup, the elf continued: “According to the determination of the Great Madonna, you shall receive case No. 557732. Review that.”
A thin folder plopped on the desk. I was not hiding my bewilderment as I opened the document and started reading. A ritual murder. Victims: four NPCs. No witnesses. No signs of death by violence, even though the bodies had sustained odd damage. It was possible that magic was involved, but no traces of it had been discovered. No tracks or footprints were found around the crime scene. The case was being investigated by the Moscow Police Department. Priority task: find the motive for the crime. The clue: the victims’ bodies had been set in a particular pattern, probably a sacrificial seal. Preliminary version: summoning a demon. There were grounds to suppose that the murderer was a player. Everything seemed to be clear and written in a way that was easy to understand. It was not clear, however, why Madonna had decided to remember me in view of these murders.
“You will report to me every day on your progress. Sign up for appointments for the entire ten days.” The Supervisor finished and leaned back in his chair. From the way his eyes gleamed I guessed that whatever was in the cup, it was definitely not coffee. But I was far from blaming him: it had been a long and difficult night, and the body needed some stress relief. After that latest piece of news I would not turn down an offer of some hydration for my throat and brains.
“Why for the entire ten days?” My mind caught on the specified timeframe.
“You’ll see in a moment. Take it: I have offered you an exchange. My guys took a preliminary look at the scene. In the center of the sacrifice there is an inscription. NPCs just don't have the skills for that. This was done by a player.”
The Supervisor offered me a video from the crime scene. No matter how horrible it was, one could not ignore precise lines and perfect symmetry. The bodies lay on the ground like broken dolls, forming, however, an elaborate pattern. Its horrifying beauty and precision would satisfy a most demanding perfectionist. That enabled me to rule out fanatics or maniacs. The master’s hand was too precise.
The pinnacle of that horror was a flaming inscription in the center of the pattern:


“I received instructions from my superiors to transfer this case to you. I reviewed your file and I am wondering, what use are you?” the Supervisor added, without too much reverence to Madonna or her protégée, myself. “But an order is an order. Keep working. There are no injuries on the corpses, and no indication that they were killed by magic. If it really is a summoning, that means we have a drifter. I have no illusions that you would be able to catch him, but I have very clear orders not to interfere with your investigation, nor to start my own investigation, and generally to pretend that nothing happened. But bear in mind, Paladin, that if, through your incompetence, more NPCs die or we get into some serious kind of trouble… you’d be better off removing your sorry ass from here in whatever way you know. Got that?”
“Is this a threat?” I was surprised. From the tone and words of the Supervisor it seemed as though he genuinely cared about the Earth, which was not normal for high-ranking players, who mostly care about their own well-being rather than the motherland. And even less for NPCs.
“Just a statement of fact,” the Supervisor corrected me curtly. “You have ten days. I repeat, I expect daily reports on your progress in the investigation. Unofficially, you may count on my support. It’s time to remember that you are a Judge and not a piece of shit. Go on  ̶  they are expecting you at the crime scene.”

Release - March 6, 2018

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