Tuesday, July 10, 2018

An NPC's Path: Kingdom of the Dead

An NPC's Path, Book 2
Kingdom of the Dead

by Pavel Kornev

Release - October 8, 2018
Pre-order: Amazon, iTunes, Google, Kobo

Check out the first book - The Dead Rogue

Chapter One
The Doldrums

THE TOWER OF DARKNESS was impressive. Overpowering, even.
No amount of advertising could impart the  sheer splendor and magnitude of that pitch-black obelisk which towered over the bay. In reality, it looked much more-
In reality?
I cussed and shuddered.
In reality! Dammit! I already considered the game a reality! Having said that... that’s how it was. I couldn’t press the logout button. I had no hope of ever waking up in my virtual reality capsule . My character’s dead body had already become part of the local scenery. It had ensnared me like the Devil’s own net and would keep me so until the day I was reborn. Reborn in the game, that is. Or until I was dead in real life. There was no other way. Sad, but that’s how it was.
As soon as I realized it, I felt free from the Tower’s suppressive illusion. I didn’t even feel like looking at it anymore. I even wanted to go below to my cabin. Still, I forced myself to stay on deck. Dammit! I’d been striving to get to the capital for too long to now hide away in a dark corner and miss all the interesting bits.

The barge unhurriedly glided down the Azure river whose far banks disappeared into the morning mist.  Small islets emerged out of the milky fog that hovered over the water. The river’s navigational lights flickered everywhere I looked.
Soon the river bed began to split into a multitude of narrow gullies. The current grew faster. The crew of orcs with long poles lined the decks, preparing to guide the boat around any eventual obstacles.
On top of the mast, my undead pet spread his wings and filled the air with his thunderous Craaah!
Wretched bird! The problem was, the game didn’t recognize me as a bona fide player, and therefore I couldn’t control my own pet. The bastard did what he wanted.
The orcs raised their heads, scowling. Still, none of them wanted to be the one to climb the mast.  They’d already known from experience that they wouldn’t be able to shoo him away for too long.  In any case, soon they had more important things to do: the helmsman couldn’t control the current, leaving the other crew members to fend the boat off from the numerous jetties and breakwaters.
According to the latest figures, there were up to half a million players in the city at any given time. Even the sky-high local prices couldn’t scare them off. The capital of the dark world had been prudently built on a plethora of small islands which helped to somewhat contain its restless inhabitants. There were even rumors circulating about banning entry to the city to all new players below level 25. But this was still in the preparatory stage.
I caught a glimpse of the stone embankments peeking out of the mist. Then the barge surged through into the open. The wind blew away the murky fog. The rising sun’s rays glittered on the rippling waters.
Immediately my Perception dropped. I pulled the hood down.
A dark shadow fell from behind me. I turned round. The side of an impossibly high galleon loomed over us. It overtook our boat in seconds as it headed out into the open sea, the players on its upper deck not even trying to conceal their contempt for us.
The orcs hurried to raise the sail which immediately caught the wind, pushing the barge into the port. The enormous back of some sea monster flitted amid the waves, then disappeared into the depths.
I loosened my white-knuckled grip on the rail. Some monster that was! What if it had swallowed us whole?
Still, I forgot about the leviathan as soon as I glimpsed a giant golden dragon take off from one of the islands. Two gryphons trailed in his wake, blindingly bright sunrays reflecting from their riders’ polished armor. And to top it all, a three-masted flying ship appeared from behind the Tower of Darkness.
I picked up my dropped jaw from the floor and shrugged. This was all virtual. It was only a game.
Still, these attempts at self-persuasion didn't help me much. The capital of the Dark Side seemed so boundless that my mind refused to contemplate it. Where was I supposed to go? How? And what for? This was a huge world which didn’t give a damn about some deadman’s problems.
Stubbornly I ground my teeth. I didn’t care! This was no different from any other time I’d had to follow a new map. It always felt incomprehensible. I knew that I’d work it out, given time. I might not even have to, provided Isabella hadn’t wasted her time and had managed to approach the right people.
A cold shiver ran down my spine. I had too much at stake to wager all my hopes on a casual acquaintance.  I didn’t even know how she was going to meet me after such a prolonged absence. The priestess had never been known for her patience.
I forced myself to dispel any doubt. The level gap between us wasn’t that big anymore. She could no longer smoke me with a single blow from her staff these days. I chuckled. I’d make myself heard. I'd make her see things my way. Everything would be fine.
I had no doubt that I’d meet up with Isabella in the very near future.  We were bound by a quest, after all. We could track each other’s position on the map. And if her marker was to be believed, she was already waiting for me on the pier. Perfect opportunity to talk things over.

THE PORT TURNED OUT to be absolutely enormous. It was bigger than the entire island that constituted Stone Harbor. On one side, it was lined with deep-water quays for sea-going ships; on the other, with jetties for smaller river craft. The harbor was absolutely packed but miraculously, there were no collisions between any of the boats.
Miraculously? Oh no. That was navigational magic at work. The orc helmsman stared almost unblinkingly at the ghostly sorcerous sphere that was his pilot.
Gradually, other passengers came up on deck. There weren’t very many of them, though. Few players had managed to coincide their login with their arrival in the capital. They had no need for it: the moment the ship moored, their respective respawn points were transferred automatically to the vicinity of one of the local Towers of Power. There was no shortage of them in the capital. Minor places of power were located on every even remotely important island.
Neo had come up on deck, too, and froze open-mouthed. The other players  cast sideways glances at our white monastic habits embroidered with silver phoenixes. Although they knew better than to ask questions, their attention made me cringe.
You had to face it: arriving at the Tower of Darkness wearing the robes of a god of Light wasn’t a very healthy idea. What was the point of going Incognito if every Tom, Dick and Harry  regarded me as  potential quarry? I had to change, the sooner the better.
A few larger boats sailed past. They resembled Chinese junks. Our helmsman let them through, then steered our barge into the farthest corner of the port toward a lopsided jetty which was occasionally washed by the wake of other vessels.
Here, the picturesque buildings with their stained-glass windows gave way to squat warehouses, the bustle of the port replaced by silence in its deserted narrow lanes.
Not far from where we were about to moor, some fishing boats were bobbing on the waves. My Night Hunter’s refined sense of smell made me cringe from the sharp stench of rotting fish.
The side of our boat collided softly with the wooden trestles of the jetty. I felt a slight jolt. As soon as the sailors had laid down the gangplanks, the fanged captain began screaming at the top of his voice,
“Everyone off! Quick! Move it!”
The passengers hurried across the unstable gangplanks onto the jetty. A crowd of stevedores moved toward the barge past them, as well as players who’d already bought tickets for the return voyage, creating an unruly crowd.
I struggled out of the heaving mass of people and stood in the middle of the fish scale-covered jetty. I rearranged the swords behind my back and looked around, searching for Isabella.
The Elven girl was waiting by the nearest warehouse. Much to my surprise, this time she was clad in a modest cloak, long and shapeless, instead of her usual eye-catching combat armor.
Neo tugged my sleeve. “Auntie Bella!”
“Please keep your voice down,” I said, then headed toward her. She’d already stood up straight, staring at us in disbelief.
In disbelief? - you could say that! Her eyes had very nearly popped out of her head!
“What the hell?” she cussed the moment we approached. “What have you done to the boy, kitten?”
I shrugged. “It just happened.”
“It just happened?” she hissed, furious. “Just happened?
“Yeah,” I said while Neo hurried to hide behind my back.
“You can’t be left alone for one minute!” she scowled. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you reply to my messages?”
“Eh,” I faltered. “How about I tell you everything as we get going? Okay?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so!” The teeth of the skull topping her staff started to chatter. “Come on then, out with it!”
A few heads turned to the sounds of our exchange. I tapped a finger on the silver phoenix on my white-robed chest,
“I’m afraid our clothes aren’t the best choice here. We’ll have to change first.”
She sized me up with her glare - but luckily, she must have decided to leave it be for the time being. She pointed at a dark passage between the two windowless walls of adjacent warehouses. “Screw you, kitten. We’ll see about that... later...” she’d managed to inject a lot of meaning into the last word.
I shrugged and led them off the jetty. A long desperate Craaah! followed in my wake as the undead black phoenix left the boat’s mast and took to the wing. His tatty wingbeats didn’t strike one  as particularly graceful but they kept him aloft. When a curious seagull got too close to him, he gave it an almighty whack with his beak, sending it tumbling straight into the water.
“Get a move on!” Isabella snapped. “Where on earth did you get those stupid clothes? What happened to the boy? No, scrap that! Start from the beginning! Why didn’t you use the portal?”
“It’s a long and sad story...”
Isabella turned round to me and smiled unkindly. “You’d better not test my patience, kitten!”
I replied with an equally malicious smile. Still, due to my mask  all my efforts had been in vain.
“Okay,” I heaved a sigh unwilling to strain our relationship. “I was late because some bad dude had started hassling me at the worst possible moment. And by the time I’d sorted him out, the portal had already closed.”
‘But why didn’t you reply to my messages?” she demanded, furious.
“My PM box is glitchy,” I lied. “I can read messages but I can’t reply to them.”
“Very useful!”
“Listen, why should I lie to you? You still have the  shard of the Sphere of Souls!”
This last argument calmed her down a bit. “Okay,” she grumbled. “So what have you been up to all this time?”
I didn’t get the time to reply. The passage between the two walls had led us out onto a wide square which was so busy with players that our ears rang with all the clamor.
“Cheap power leveling services!” shouted a knight in full armor with a huge halberd behind his back. “I can rush you from level 25 to 50 in a week!”
“Join us in a raid on the Lights!” one of Isabella’s Elven compatriots screamed, theatrically brandishing his longbow. “PM me for details!”
“An island quest!” a blue-skinned pirate with golden earrings hollered. “The Treasure of the Corsair King! Piles of gold just for the taking!”
“WTS full Amber Cross set!”
“A Gray Mountains raid! Dwarven mithril!”
“The sword of the Star Destroyer! Half-price! I need money urgently!”
“Strength runes to order!”
I felt lost from all the cacophony around me. Isabella tugged on my hand, forcing me out of the way of a demonologist, pale like death itself, who towered above the crowd. A hell hound on a leash trotted subserviently behind him, its smooth coat oozing black infernal flames.
“Portals to Infernal planes, I’ll send you and bring you back, but I don’t lay claim to any loot,” he murmured occasionally under his breath.
Strangely enough, he seemed to be one of the most popular, constantly hassled by other players who asked him about his fee.
Humans and elves made up the majority of the crowd but there were enough dwarves and orcs amongst them too. Occasionally my eye chanced on some truly strange creatures. And as for armor and weapons,  the choice was mind-boggling. My flamberge sword paled into insignificance next to them.
As we skirted the outside of the crowd, Isabella warned me, “Keep your eyes peeled. The local pickpockets go after noobs like you.”
Indeed, the place seemed perfect for thieves of all kinds. Most new players arrived in the capital by sea. Many of them didn’t have enough patience to even make it to the shops. They’d spend all their hard-earned cash right here on this impromptu junk market. Some never even got the chance to spend anything.
I stopped gawking around and hurried to check my inventory. The wretched skull was still there. Big sigh of relief.
Isabella swung round to me and snapped, “You kitten, and you... whoever you are... move your backsides!”
We followed her into a side lane and soon left the noise and clamor of the crowd behind.  Isabella led us via some dark deserted alleys until finally we rejoined the motley stream of players. After a short while, we found ourselves on the square behind the port’s main building.
“Wow,” Neo couldn’t suppress his delight.
I too slowed the pace, studying the wide square in front of me. Beyond it flowed a canal, with a temple towering on its opposite bank.
The majestic building with its dome topped with a spire, seemed to grow straight out of the water. That somehow added to its mystery and charm. A flying carpet floated from behind it.
I shook my head, forcing my mind to reject the illusion.
This was only a game. Just a bunch of pixels evoking an image in my brain. Virtual reality made all kinds of things possible.
“Come on, kitten, move it!” Isabella called.
I stepped after her, pulling Neo by the hand. He looked just like any other provincial boy stunned by big city life.
The realization of this made me cringe as this boy too was supposed to be a bunch of pixels. A combination of ones and zeroes. Just part of a program code.
I caught up with Isabella. “Where’re we going?”
“Somewhere away from here,” the Elven priestess replied. “You two with your white robes might just as well have targets on your backs.”
You couldn’t argue with this. I kept receiving new messages about others’ interested stares. All sorts of unpleasant whispers followed in our wake. I pretended I didn’t hear anything even though some of them made me feel like sorting out some of the jokers with my flamberge.
I’d have loved to but I couldn’t.  The burly city guards in their black armor wouldn’t hesitate to chop any potential troublemaker to pieces. If I made the first move, they’d immediately send me to meet my Maker. And even if they weren’t strong enough, I’m sure the wizards would give them a helping hand. Other players wouldn’t just stand aside looking on, either. Anyone would be eager to earn some XP and boost their Reputation.
“Should we hire a gondola?” I suggested as Isabella ignored the rentals wharf and headed for the bridge.
She snorted. “Is your name Rockefeller or something? You don’t even know their rates!”
I cussed under my breath. Immediately an agonizing pain pierced the base of my skull. It felt as if I’d been pierced with a red-hot poker.
Or had I been?
I swung round just in time to see my undead phoenix drop into the canal, struck by an arrow. My phoenix!
A Drow archer brandished his bow victoriously and issued a long piercing whistle. A few passersby applauded his skill.
A crimson haze filled my eyes.
Firstly, it hurt. Dammit! I couldn’t remember the last time I’d experienced pain in the game. Secondly, it had been my pet! Ugly and dead, but mine all the same!
The pain just wouldn’t subside. A system message appeared at the very edge of my vision, informing me that I’d been attacked. The city guards had ignored the shooting entirely. Their protection didn’t extend to covering the dead.
Bunch of lowlifes.
A wave of fury surged over me.  Still, what remained of my common sense made me reappraise the situation before launching an all-out attack. Unfortunately for him, the Drow was only level 28. And he was alone.
“Hold this for a moment, Neo,” I handed him the black orcish longsword and  stealthed up.
“John!” Isabella shrieked. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I didn’t even listen. The Drow had already slung his longbow behind his back and sashayed toward the rentals wharf, apparently unable to even conceive that someone might try to attack him in full view of the city guards and other players.
So he downed a bird, big deal.
The archer appeared slim and lanky. He definitely had good Agility numbers. But as for his Constitution, he’d most certainly given it a miss. I had every chance of winning in a couple of powerful blows - but had I missed, it could turn into a painful and protracted fight.
Unwilling to drag it out, I attacked him with a well-practiced combo.
Downward, from left to right, then diagonally!

Scythe of Death combo!

The undulating blade of my flamberge hacked into his right shoulder, slicing through his fine chainmail and going right through his ribcage with a surprising ease. It then exited his left flank, sparking on the cobblestones. The momentum swung me round; I managed to keep my balance at the right moment without being dumped on my backside.
I raised my sword again but stopped in full swing. There was no need for another attack.

Player Lucas III is killed!
Experience: +1496 [25 674/28 300]; +1496 [25 718/28 300]
Undead, the level is raised! Rogue, the level is increased!

My single blow had cleft him in two, leaving me standing over his dead body at the center of the busy square covered in blood from head to toe. My own blood was boiling with adrenaline.
And not just mine. The crowd around me bristled with cold steel. Still, seeing as the PK mark never appeared over my head, gradually the players began to calm down.
“Have you got a vendetta going on, you two?” A bearded sorcerer asked me as he reluctantly deactivated a combat spell already flickering between his fingertips.
“Yeah, sort of,” I mumbled, stepping back from the pool of blood spreading over the cobblestones. I swung round and hurried toward the bridge.
The other players gave me a wide berth. Now they knew better than to stop me. Especially because the city guards had completely ignored the murder.
“Are you freakin’ mad?” Isabella hissed.
I shrugged. My headache had finally subsided; the  flashing system message in the corner of my eye had now disappeared.
“Listen, Roger,” Isabella addressed the skull topping her staff, “don’t you think our kitten is completely off his trolley?”
“Give it a break,” I said, retrieving the black sword from Neo. “He killed my pet bird. I just repaid him in kind.”
She cussed and dragged me into some dark side alley. “Wait for me here,” she said. “If you so much as move, I’ll lop your legs off!”
I wanted to tell her where to stuff it but reconsidered just in time. It was pointless trying to aggravate the situation. Instead, I began wiping the Drow blood off my mask and gloves. There was no way I could get it off my white robes.
”Poor bird,” Neo sighed. “It was so funny...”
I shrugged. I hadn’t felt attached to the undead phoenix in the slightest. The only thing he ever did was squawk. He’d only been good at making noise. Completely uncontrollable. And this way, I’d avenged him and had even managed to level up a bit in the process. I was dying to find out what new kind of undead went after Night Hunter.
Still, I didn’t have the time to check my stats before Isabella arrived.
“Get changed,” she ordered, hurling a shapeless gray cloak at me.
The boy got an identical one in a smaller size. Still, I was reluctant to discard my white robes. I threw them into my inventory and donned the cloak. “Where to now?”
“To hell,” she snapped.
“You seem to be a bit jumpy today,” I said. “Is it because your negotiations about the fragment of the Sphere of Souls didn’t go through, or what is it?”
“It’s got nothing to do with that! Whatever possessed you to pick a fight in full view of everyone? And what if the Drow had dodged your first blow? You’d be still dancing with him now!”
“I’d love to have seen him dodge it,” I smirked as we walked out into the street. “I stabbed him in the back, didn’t I? Plus I was stealthed.”
“Don’t speak too soon! There’re amulets for that! And plenty of various Agility skills you don’t even know about. Oh dammit! I completely forgot who I was talking to!”
She strode along the street. I hurried after her. “So what about the Sphere?”
“We’ve reached a preliminary agreement but I decided not to meet the customer without you,” she replied, then hurried to add before I could ask her any more questions, “No! Your story first!”
I heaved a doomed sigh.


THE INN WHERE Isabella had taken us was situated on the third or fourth island from the port. There was no direct route there. Better-off players would go by boat while all the others had to amble down damp lanes so narrow that two carriages couldn’t pass each other. And whenever I’d managed to find a shortcut through narrow side passages, I had to elbow my way through the crowd of like-minded players.
We crossed a bridge, then another and yet another, then took a ferry across a wide canal. When at last we turned back to the embankment, I finally protested,
“Wait up! Why are you going around in circles? Couldn’t we take a more direct road?”
She stopped and shook her head. “This is Hellspawn Island, private property of the clan.”
“Oh really?” I whistled, looking up at a tower dominating the houses, its peaked roof topped with a dark angel. “The whole island? They must be rolling in it!”
“Let’s go!”

THE OLD ARCHER INN occupied the corner building of a busy crossroads. We took the back door and climbed the stairs to the third floor. The room wasn’t too spacious but it was a double. In the real world, it would have slept at least five people. But here, it was only the means of getting a permanent resurrection point. That worked out cheaper and more convenient than constantly reentering the game next to one of the Towers of Power.

Do you want to make this rented accommodation your new login location?

I’d have loved to, but unfortunately, that option was still blocked for me.
“Neo, go get some shut-eye,” Isabella motioned the boy toward the other room. When he was gone, she swung round glaring at me. “What’s wrong with you, kitten?”
I deactivated Incognito, removed my mask and flashed her a toothy smile. “Why, what’s wrong with me?”
“Oh,” she drawled. “My kitten had turned into  a scruffy junk yard cat! My kitten is a tough nut now!”
“Your kitten,” I cringed as I uttered the word, “just wants to get to the Kingdom of the dead. So what about the Sphere?”
She slumped onto the bed and crossed one leg over the other, making sure one of her shapely thighs was in full view. “Tell me what happened to you two. I want to know everything?”
‘What’s the point? It’s a waste of time!”
“Go on!”
With a shrug, I drew both my swords from behind my back and set them in the corner. I perched myself on the windowsill and looked out into the street. It was already getting dark. The flood of players heading for the port had eased up. They unhurriedly strolled around, gawking at shop signs and checking out various entertainment establishments.
Still, I knew better than to test my Elven friend’s patience. I gave her a quick run-down of all my adventures, starting with the necromancer’s attack  and the defense of Stone Harbor and ending with our restoration of the Temple of the Silver Phoenix.
“So you do have a vendetta,” Isabella said pensively as she listened to my story. “That could become a problem.”
“That’s nothing,” I waved her concerns away. “He’ll never find me now. I’ve disabled map tracking.”
She shook her head. “Don’t be so sure, kitten. There’re plenty of other ways of tracking an enemy.”
“Like what?” I asked rather nonchalantly.
She was already standing up. “Don’t leave the room. I’m gonna arrange a meeting and come back for you.”
“A meeting with whom?” I asked.
The slamming of the closing door was her only reply.
I didn’t give a shit. With a shrug, I opened  my stats. I really should use this time to distribute the available points. This may be just a game but admittedly I couldn’t wait to find out what kind of undead I’d turn into this time.
Without much thought, I increased both Strength and Perception. But when I was about to invest a skill point into Stealth, I froze open-mouthed.
I didn’t just have one point available. Not two, even. I had a whopping twenty-six points!
What was going on?
Could it have been some kind of error? I decided to check it by increasing Stealth to 15 pt. And just as I was trying to add another one, a new system message  flashed up,

Further skill increase will be available after  additional training!

Still in disbelief, I increased Dodge to 15. Ignoring a new message, I opened my character profile.

John Doe, Executioner, Hangman
Undead. Junior Lich. Level: 25./ Human, Rogue. Level: 25
Experience: [25 674/28 300]; [25 718/28 300]
Strength: 28.
Agility: 27.
Constitution: 24.
Intelligence: 5.
Perception: 14.
Life: 1200.
Endurance: 1300.
Internal energy: 475.
Damage: 216—324.
Covert movement: +15.
Dodge: +15.
Critical damage when attacking in stealth mode, backstabbing or attacking a paralyzed target.
Professional skills: “Incognito” (3), “Execution”, “Hangman”.
Fencer: two-handed weapons (3), weapons in one hand, “Sweeping Strike”, “Powerful blow”, “Power lunge”, “Sudden blow”, “Accurate Blow”, “Crippling Blow”, “Blind Strike”, “Rapid Strike”.
Creature of the Dark: night sight, penalty for being in sunlight, Lord of the Dead, Almost Alive, Skin of Stone +5.
Neutrality: the undead; subjects of the Lord of the Tower of Decay
Enemies: Order of the Fiery Hand, the Swords of Chaos clan.
Immunity: death magic, poisons, curses, bleeding, sickness, cures and blessings.
Achievements: “Dog Slayer” Grade 3, “Tenacious”, “Man of Habit”, “Defender of Stone Harbor” Grade 1.

Wait a sec. A Junior Lich?
But a Lich was a dead sorcerer, wasn’t it? How could I possibly be a sorcerer with my meager 5 pt. Intellect? And where were my old skills, dammit? Where was my Sprint? And what had happened to my Claws of Darkness?
Suddenly I knew where all the extra skill points had come from. They had been deducted from all the deleted skills. Bastards! Give them back!
So this latest upgrade of my undead status had only served to bring more disappointment. But what if I was wrong and things weren’t as bad as they looked?
I opened my Magic tab. Pointless. I didn’t managed to activate a single spell from the sorcerer’s book.

Level-1 spells available to study: 0

Dammit! My penalty to Intellect had left me without any hope of ever using magic. What was the point in making me a Lich, then?
I walked over to a mirror on the wall and stared at my reflection. Deathly pallid skin clung tightly to my skull. My sunken eyes reflected crimson Infernal flames. Nothing else. The fancy black lines covering my face were now gone, replaced by magic runes and formulas. Admittedly I looked better for it. But as for the rest, it had been a change for the worse.
My teeth were as sharp as before. My nails still resembled claws. But as for my bite, it no longer could syphon my victims’ Life and Stamina. Also, I’d lost the ability of stunning an opponent with a single blow. My Night Hunter Sprint was also gone. And what had I gotten in return? A magic which I couldn’t even use? Shit!
I perched myself on the windowsill and stared mindlessly out of the window. The evening street was bustling with revelers. Many of the players weren’t even wearing either armor or weapons. They’d come to the world of the Towers of Power, intending to have a good time and be merry.
As for me, merry wasn’t on the agenda. If the truth were known, I was deep in shit.
Having said that, as I continued to level up, theoretically I could level up Intellect to the 10 required pt. I gave it some thought and decided it wasn’t a good idea. Magic was all well and good but how was I supposed to know what I’d become at level 60? Did I really want to waste five points only to lose the ability to use magic later? I didn’t need that!
If the truth were known, my lich didn’t stand a chance against real wizards while my level-1 spells were poor protection against a top warrior. The sheer thought was ridiculous.
What a predicament!
I heaved a doomed sigh. I really should start worrying prematurely. After all, if Isabella managed to secure our participation in the raid on the Kingdom of the Dead, all my leveling mistakes would become irrelevant. And I knew she could do it. You could tell just by looking at her she was one pushy lady.
I stopped torturing myself with bouts of regret and concentrated on my professional skills.  The memory of how long it had taken me to smoke the immobilized Nest Hunter still smarted. So I increased Execution, bringing my chances of killing a character whose level was equal to mine with one blow to 12%.
But that wasn’t all.

Execution II
Your firm hand and sharp eye allow you to strike where your enemy is the most vulnerable!
+4% to your chances of dealing a critical hit
+2% to your chances of dealing a crippling blow

Not bad. Not bad at all. But no more than that.
I breathed a sigh and began studying the Lich’s abilities. The Skin of Stone was nothing surprising. All it offered was some additional protection. That wasn’t so bad for a newb but didn’t sound too serious for a level-50 player. Still, it was better than nothing. It wouldn’t make things worse, that’s for sure.
The Lord of the Dead was also a rather predictable skill which allowed you to control the undead. That sounded quite interesting, the sole problem was that the combined level of the controlled creatures couldn’t exceed half of that of the Lich.
However, the last of my new skills - “Almost Alive” - made me scratch my head in puzzlement as I read its description:

“Almost Alive”
You haven’t been dead for very long so you haven’t yet forgotten what it feels like to be alive. You can fool even the most attentive observer, but remember: the moment the sun rises, its light will render your camouflage useless.

Very interesting. So what did that actually mean? That I didn’t need Incognito anymore?
I stood in front of the mirror and activated my new skill.
Immediately my face rounded. I got a bit of color back in my cheeks. My eyes lost their dark fiery glare. That was the extent of it, though, if you didn’t count my waning internal energy. Anyone who wished to double-check me could still access my profile which still classified me as Undead. But not if I used it in combination with Incognito...
The sight of a mask on their companion’s face normally makes people nervous. But this new skill allowed me to look perfectly alive without having to use such blatant disguise.
“Neo?” I called, turning to him. “What do you think?”
The boy yawned sleepily. “You’ve changed again, Uncle John!” he said without hesitation.
I laughed. “You’re dead right there!”
“You’ve changed but you’re still the same!”
“What makes you think so?”
“I just feel it.”
I frowned. “What is it you can feel?”
The kid faltered in hesitation. “I feel you should be burned at the stake. Sorry, Uncle John.”
I snorted, unable to contain my laughter. “That’s nice of you!”
I hadn’t expected what happened next. Creaking, the wardrobe door opened a crack. I could see darkness swirl amid its empty hangers, blacker and thicker than in the deepest of cellars.
My hand lay on the hilt of my Soul Killer hook. Still, I didn’t have to use it. The darkness parted, releasing a bird’s scruffy head. My undead phoenix focused his unseeing white gaze on me.
Then he opened his beak,
I cussed in relief. “What a scarecrow!”
The dead phoenix sprang out of the wardrobe and alighted on the cupboard, his powerful talons leaving deep scratches in the polished wood.
“The  birdie’s back!” Neo exclaimed excitedly.
“That’s not a bird. It’s a Scarecrow.”
The Black Phoenix opened his beak again, preparing to emit another ear-rendering squawk. I was getting a bit fed up with it. I threw a protesting hand in the air - and he froze in place.

“Lord of the Dead!”

I still hadn’t sensed any mental connection with my pet. Still, my new skill had somehow kicked in. Being an undead, Scarecrow had fallen under my full control.
“You don’t mean it!” I muttered as I forced open a creaky window.
The room filled with the noise of the city night. Obeying my order, the undead Phoenix jumped onto the windowsill, emitted another shrill squawk and soared into the air.
Strangely enough, I felt as if I was being pulled into the air after him. The city roofs and the snaking ribbons of the canals flashed through my mental view. My head spun. Exhausted, I collapsed to my knees.
“Uncle John! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Perfectly fine. I’m all right.”
I managed to stop myself vomiting. It wasn’t that difficult: after all, my stomach had been empty for quite a long time. I dumped myself on the bed and leaned my back against the wall. My first attempt at controlling a flying undead mount had proven not to be too pleasant.
In the meantime, Scarecrow landed onto a neighboring chimney and began sharpening his beak on the blackened firebricks, casting sarcastic glances at me. Still, I was absolutely sure I’d be able to bring this cantankerous bird back under my mental control the moment it was necessary. Which in turn opened some very interesting avenues...
“Uncle John? I’m hungry!” the boy announced.
I looked first at him, then at the door. Reluctantly I scrambled back to my feet. “Come on, then.”
I wasn’t sure whether I should take the flamberge with me. In the end, I left it in the room because it would have been little use in the narrow corridors of the inn anyway. In case of an attack, I’d be better off brandishing my Soul Killer.
The door key hung on a nail hammered into the doorframe. I took it and walked out first. Neo followed. I locked the door and took the creaky stairs to the bottom floor.
When we’d reached the spacious dining room, empty and badly lit, I was in for another surprise. The barman - a short stocky middle-aged guy who stood there toweling beer mugs - turned out to be a player.
My world was blown apart. Why would anyone pay good money to access virtual reality only to work as an innkeeper, and in such an ungainly body at that?
“Hi,” I managed, suppressing my surprise.
“Good evening,” the innkeeper replied. He noticed Neo and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“A quest,” I explained monosyllabically, as was quickly becoming a habit. “Can you give him something to eat?”
“Not a problem,” he chuckled, opening his guest book. “And your names are...”
“We’re with Isabella,” I offered. “The Dark Elfa.”
“That’s right. It’s full board. Take a seat, please.”
I motioned Neo toward one of the tables and stayed by the bar. I was curious to see if my newly-acquired Almost Alive ability could conceal my undead nature.
“Only the boy’s eating!” I shouted after him as he disappeared into the kitchen. “I don’t need anything!”
He peered out of the kitchen, balancing a loaded tray. “Beer?”
“No, thanks,” I replied. “I still have a business meeting to attend.”
He gave me a wink. “A business meeting. In the game?”
“Well, it’s not as if you’re hunting dragons either.”
The innkeeper laughed. He set the tray down on the bar and proffered his hand. “Mark.”
“John,” I replied, prudently keeping my profile closed.
He smiled. “Nice to meet you, John. Get stuck in, boy!”
Neo didn’t have to be told twice. He grabbed the tray and carried it to his table.
“I can see you’re curious,” Mark smiled. “You’re probably asking yourself what’s in it for me, right?”
I looked over the spacious room with its paneled walls, carved furniture and cartwheels which served as chandeliers. “Well, it’s a nice cozy place,” I shrugged.
Marked produced a dusty bottle and filled a shot glass with some acid-green drink. “Nice joke!” he laughed, then downed the weird drink. He exhaled noisily and added without a trace of merriment, “You’re not so far from the truth, you know that? This place is indeed cozy. Not everybody’s into raids and stuff. Some of us would rather have a nice meal and a glass of wine without having to suffer from hangovers and high blood pressure afterward. Not to even mention the fact that a night of virtual passion won’t end up with a visit to the doctors as it sometimes does in the real world. And even if someone slits your throat, well... it’s only a game, ain’t it?”
I chuckled. It had never occurred to me before that someone might go virtual simply to continue with their boring little lives.
“You’d be surprised how many people come here just to check out our brothels and bars. They’re not interested in dragons in the slightest.”
“How strange,” I murmured. “But still, for you it must be more than just entertainment?”
He nodded and rubbed his nose which was quickly turning red after the drink he'd just consumed. “Here, I could finally fulfill my lifelong dream of opening a small drinking establishment. I’ve invested half of my pension fund into it and I don’t regret it one bit. I’ve already recuperated about 40% of it, so returns are quite decent.”
As we spoke, a respectable-looking gentleman in a black cloak and a wide-brimmed hat appeared at the top of the stairs. A long rapier hung from his belt: not  a serious weapon really but rather a status item unsuitable for any serious killing. Mark saluted him. The man nodded, crossed the room and walked outside.
“The place is excellent,” the innkeeper told me. “Lots of traffic. These days, you just can’t buy something like this for a reasonable price.”
I allowed myself a quiet chuckle. “It doesn’t look as if you have to fend new guests off with a stick.”
“Why should I?” he sounded genuinely surprised. “This isn’t real life. Money works differently here. “Whoever needs a suitable login point for their needs, has to rent a room. I pay for the server’s capacity and put the difference into my own pocket. It’s not my thing to offer strip shows to the public. Don’t get me wrong, they do pay very well. But you can go bust in no time, too. The locals have seen everything. Competition is stiff. Each and every one of the local girls is a player. Nobody wants NPCs anymore.
“You don’t mean it.”
He nodded. “Oh yes I do. So why would I need all the hassle? Everyone should do their own thing.”
“Does that mean that all the local establishments have been bought up by players?”
“In large city centers, yes, almost all of them,” he assured me. “There’re certain quotas, of course. Certain places aren’t even put up for sale. But that’s on the Dark side. The Lighties don’t approve of private enterprise.”
“Why not?”
“There, they concentrate on players’ interaction with each other. Things like quests, raids and events. Killing ten orcs, finding fifty golden lotuses, delivering a hundred messages... I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, but I personally find it a bit of a rat race. No opium dens or women of easy virtue for you there. They could lower the age limit to 14 right now if they wanted to do so and they wouldn’t even have to change a thing!”
I flashed him a polite smile, realizing that Mark’s unfulfilled real-world dream had also included a grateful listener at the bar. In the course of our conversation, at least ten people had descended into the room and left straight away without saying a word to their innkeeper.
“D’you wanna drink?” he offered again.
“I’ll pass.”
He refilled his glass and shook his head. “You know John, these days, I’d be too scared to invest so much money into the game.”
“Why is that?” I offered the cue he was apparently waiting for.
He downed his drink and sighed. “Before, I could see how the strategy of this world was working. And I agreed with it. But now something weird is going on . You tell me: how could they have axed the Intuit Project?  Just tell me!”
I’d never heard about it before. I told him as much.
“All these little icons and logos flickering before your eyes,” he explained. “I find them so annoying. They only distract you. At some point, they were going to completely abandon them and make the special-ability control entirely intuitive. But somebody in their infinite wisdom must have deemed it too complicated for an average player. They said it would take too long to implement and that the contrast with the competition would be too drastic.”
I nodded pensively. He had a point. I hadn’t seen any icons in my field of vision for quite a while. How had I managed to activate my special abilities, then? For me, my inventory was just a bag like any other. Had I spent too much time in the game? Possible.
Oblivious of my absent-mindedness, Mark continued to share his reservations with me,
“Sometimes I think that all this confrontation between the powers of Light and Dark in the game is only  the reflection of the confrontation within its board of directors,” he reached for the bottle and reluctantly put it away under the counter.
Now he was completely over the top. Unwilling to listen to any conspiracy theories, I rose from my stool. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “It may sound crazy if you don’t know the shareholders list. Half of the shares belong to the game developers, and the other half is owned by a company who holds the patent for players' brain data processing algorithm. They may well disagree on the game’s future.”
I shrugged. “Possibly.”
The innkeeper was about to add something else when the front door swung open, letting in Isabella.
“Good evening, Ms. Ash-Rizt!” the innkeeper piped up.
She gave him a nonchalant nod. “Kitten?” she motioned me toward the stairs. “Need to talk.”
“Neo,” I turned to the boy. “Finish your food and go back up to your room.”
“I’ve already finished!” he replied, running after us.
I caught up with Isabella on the stairway. “And?”
“We’ll talk in the room,” she snapped.
Once we’d got inside and locked the door, she couldn’t help but reproach me, “I thought I told you not to leave the room?”
“Oh, give it a break,” I waved her concern away as I deactivated both Incognito and Almost Alive.
My illusionary face fell away, revealing taut skin stretched over a skull. She recoiled.
“What the hell is th-?” she gasped, stopping mid-word. “A Lich?”
“A Junior Lich.”
“But how did you-”
“I keep leveling.”
“You’re full of surprises, kitten,” she drawled in amazement. “A Lich, of all things!”
I shrugged. “So what? A dead necromancer, big deal!”
She shook her head. “Oh no. This is totally different. Don’t even try to compare death magic and the magic of the undead.”
A long-suffering sigh escaped my chest. The magic of the undead! I couldn’t even dream of ever learning it. Still, I decided against sharing my own problems with her. “So, what about the meeting?”
She beamed a smile of self-satisfaction. “Relax, kitten. We’re expected.”
“Right now,” she flashed me a mysterious smile, delivering the good news. “But first we need to get ready.”
She removed her shapeless cloak. I couldn’t help letting out a low whistle of surprise. Her armor was trimmed with black patent leather which made her look extremely sexy. She’d always looked a bit frivolous, playful even - at least until she turned into a furious harpy - but now she reminded me of one of those women of easy virtue mentioned earlier by Mark.
“Is kitten into hardcore?” she squinted at me, playing with her cat o’ nine tails. “I’d make a good dominatrix, trust me!”
“What kind of sick masquerade is this?”
“That’s only part of it,” she licked carnivorously her brightly painted lips, throwing me a collar and chain. “Try this on.”
“What the hell?”
“Come on, kitten, don’t drag it out! We don’t have much time until the meeting!”
“Put it on!”

Release - October 8, 2018
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