Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Bard from Barliona 2

The Bard from Barliona - 2
A Song of Shadow

release - November 19
pre-order here - Amazon

Chapter One

Re-entering Barliona turned out harder than I imagined. My fingers trembled as they reached for the capsule’s sensors. My memory unkindly replayed the terrible agony I’d experienced during the changing of my alignment. It wasn’t right. Who came up with the idea of torturing players like that? Or was this supposed to be a particular ‘penalty’ for switching to the dark side? A tacit punishment for choosing the faction of the gameworld’s villains? And if so, what would I face later?
As soon as I slid into the capsule, the first thing I did was carefully double-check the sensory filter settings. Everything was as before—a pain threshold of 10%. After a couple seconds’ hesitation, I turned this down to five percent. Realism is good and all, but I think I’ve had enough. More than enough.

Welcome to Barliona!

An updated Lorelei the Captivating looked at me reproachfully from the game’s loading screen. There hadn’t really been anything captivating about her before, aside from her epithet. Now, new, small and sharp thorns protruded from her aquamarine epidermis, their arrangement forming whimsical patterns in some places and completely chaotic ones in others. The epidermis itself was streaked with little black veins which contributed to the ornament’s eeriness. The veins reminded me of the kind that frequently appear in holofilms as a symptom of some plague spreading through the victim’s circulatory system. However, instead of the branching of vessels, these veins formed something like a runic script on my Blighted Biota. Perhaps this creative tattoo meant something in one of Barliona’s languages. The only question was whom to ask for assistance in decoding it: a botanist, a dermatologist or a linguist.
My avatar’s eyes had changed too: A regular green glow had consumed the iris and pupil. Strange—in the video from the web, the shaman’s eyes had seeped with fog during the transformation. Was this a racial trait? Or was my scenario different? It didn’t do any good to guess—I was better off entering the game and figuring things out on location.
I don’t know what I expected—fanfare and an achievement like ‘You have become the first player of Shadow’ or maybe heaps of presents from the renegades, moved to the bottom of their hearts by my selfless deed—but whatever it was, nothing happened. Nothing at all.
I was even upset for a second: That Shaman Mahan got an epic sacrifice from the top players, trips to the ancient past, a unicorn on a leash, but little old me…all I got was a camp full of renegade vegetables. No fortifications, major facilities, haunted castles or even ordinary old houses. The place looked less like the headquarters of sinister conspirators, and more like a temporary camp for some tourists to spend a few days. Even the Sixth’s ‘throne room’ was little but a simple meadow, albeit covered in blight. Although, I have to admit that the conspirators’ tents were kind of pretty: Instead of the players’ typical tents and huts, these were large cup-shaped flowers, whose stalks grew normally and then doubled over at about half-height so that the actual flower would cup a plot of ground.
Renegades from both races were running to and fro between the tents, individually and in units. Sentries in polished armor stood about; cauldrons boiled over bonfires under the watchful eyes of pirqs, awaiting troops returning from their missions. The ones about to set out were checking their weapons and equipment, going over their orders; a little off to the side, at a safe distance, some mages and bowmen were practicing.
All of this stood in contrast with the scenario I had seen in which Geranika recruited an apprentice, thus putting me on the thought that my plot line would be somewhat different.
“You’ve spent a long time coming to your senses, my new ally,” a voice said so unexpectedly that I started and turned quickly.
Elegantly-attired, as if he’d just returned from a soiree, Geranika stood in the meadow smiling. It’s odd to smile like that. Like a cat that was deliberating whether to eat the mouse now or play with it some more.
“The process turned out to be a fairly…painful.”
The mere memory of it made me start.
“You had to be reborn, Lorelei. And birth is always a painful process. For a human, for an idea, for a new world order…”
As Geranika went on speaking, I tried to understand what the great villain wanted from me. I doubt he’s about to pull out a celebratory cake with a burning candle and suggest I make a wish.
“A new empire is being born, Lorelei,” Geranika went on. “An Empire of Shadow. A great war is coming and like any emperor, I will need useful people. Companions, strong and faithful. You are a special free citizen, Lorelei. You were unafraid to join the side of the renegades. You accepted Shadow, despite the loathing of those who live in Malabar and Kartoss. I find you interesting.”
I listened in silence.
“But interest on its own is insufficient,” he went on. “You are still too weak and I doubt you will be useful to my empire.”
I perked up my ears. I doubt I’d survive another ‘trial’ like the last one. To hell with that. I’d rather delete my avatar and start again than go through that again.
“I can help you become stronger.” Fog whirled in Geranika’s open palm. “But first you must prove to me that you can be useful, Lorelei. Prove to me that I should expend my time and effort on you.”

Quest available: Impress the Lord of Shadow.
Description: The Lord of Shadow seeks allies, but it’s no simple task to join their number. Do something that will earn Geranika’s consideration.
Quest type: Unique chain. Reward for completion: Variable, next quest in the chain. Penalty for declining the quest: -20 Attractiveness with Geranika.

So the rumors are true. Ever since Kartoss became a playable empire, the fora have been rumbling about a new Shadow faction. The wildest flame wars raged about the question of whether players would be able to play for Shadow. It looks like I now know the answer to that.
“I will do this,” I promised and noticed Geranika’s lip jerk just barely before he vanished.
I was left alone in the middle of the camp. Neither the Sixth nor her bodyguard were around. A short stroll around the encampment didn’t afford me anything apart from the esthetic pleasure derived from the exotic flora-architecture, some observations of army life in the field, and the benefit of breathing some fresh air. The typical gaming infrastructure I was accustomed to, was entirely absent here. There were neither signs, nor barkers nor the barest indicator of where to go or what to do. Nothing but rows of flower huts, some sentries loitering beside them and the odd messenger hurrying past with a leather satchel. And that’s it. An ordinary guerrilla outfit, with a touch of the local, floral flavor. And how was I supposed to level up my character? How was I supposed to make scratch here? Where could I find the gear I needed?
The answer to the last question popped up on its own. Using the scientific method of poking around aimlessly, I came across the local quartermaster, hiding out in one of the flower huts. This biota was sitting so still that I initially assumed he was part of the decor, and I would have moved on if he hadn’t spoken up.
“I’ve never seen you before, Lorelei,” the renegade said flatly. He was ensconced in the same plate armor I had observed on all the guards in the city. The same combination of wood and metal, only the wooden parts of it were black. He had a whimsical name too—Palisandro.
“It was only recently that I…” I hesitated, trying to find the right word. Switched? Became blighted? Turned?
“Joined Astilba,” Palisandro came to my aid. He smiled compassionately. “I know that the first days are the hardest. The life you were used to has ended. Difficult trials in the name of our brothers and sisters who cannot yet even fathom our motives lie ahead of you. I remember how shocked I was at first. Do you know what helped me?”
“Work. Occupy yourself with whatever it is that brought you here. Move toward your goal and your doubts will waft away like dried chaff.”
“Work…” I echoed. “I can’t even imagine where to start and who to ask…”
Palisandro’s thorny brows rose with surprise.
“Are you saying that no one has briefed you? Given you a quest? Assigned you to some task?”
I coughed with some confusion, recalling what an offline player looks like to an NPC. It’s like sleep, but I suppose you could call it a deep coma too.
“No. After my transformation, I lost consciousness and came to only recently.”
“It is a painful procedure,” Palisandro agreed. “At least now you get to experience a new power. Our strength has grown so much among these shadowy lands that there are no unwanted guests that would dare visit us.”
He had a point here. Whereas before the transformation the blighted ground would saddle me with a debuff, now it worked in the other direction:

Blighted Strength. +50% to all stats. +1% HP for every minute spent on blighted ground.

“Are there many unwanted guests that try to come here?” I asked.
“There will be quite a few soon enough,” Palisandro squinted unkindly. “So don’t waste time and prepare yourself properly. Choose the equipment you need and locate Yavar. He is personally in charge of the preparations.”
The equipment was available without any restrictions, unless you take level requirements into account. There was no required reputation status—friendship sufficed. However, the quartermaster’s inventory was hardly impressive. The same old assortment of vegetable, leather and metallic gear with the typical ‘Shadow’ skin and a modest +2 to various stats. Strictly speaking, some of my items weren’t any worse, but I dispensed with modesty and picked out a full set of blighted gear. At this point, another not-so-unimportant detail occurred to me: The ‘weight’ of the armor affected stamina cost as well as my spellcasting time. Wearing the lightest gear available, which consisted mostly of the leaves and stalks of mysterious plants, I could cast spells at my full capacity. Leather armor would penalize my stamina slightly. Chain mail had a serious effect on my stamina and a little one on my casting time, while plate armor really encumbered both. A quick search of the fora brought me to a thread full of complicated formulas, from which I surmised only that as long as my Strength and Constitution stats remained below certain thresholds, heavy equipment was not for me. If I were a pirq bard, for instance, I could calmly jingle jangle around in my heavy plate armor all day long.
I couldn’t help but recall the drawing I had seen on the forum: A pirq in what looked like knight armor (as it is depicted in historical films) with drums of skulls hanging on his chest. It looked impressive, but…As Pasha-Chip would say, it’s not for me. Which is too bad…I could imagine it now: I step out all dramatic like the heroine of a mega-blockbuster about elves, jingling my plate armor and lute and the enemies just collapse all around me…in laughter. After all Pasha and Sasha would surely be right behind me, making stupid faces and just generally clowning around in their uniforms.
On the other hand, this fact didn’t upset me in the least. The new gear looked quite solid—I was ready to step out on the stage of some goth festival. I wonder if I try to cosplay all this out in meatspace, whether I could wear this gear for a long time? I doubt it, considering the cute accessories like the belt and the bracelet of thorny rose and, even prettier, a necklace of the flowering branches of black bramble. The vaguely BDSM style was completed by a small, sheathed dagger hanging on my belt. It’s not like I really needed it, but the renegades were giving me the equipment for free, so why not grab the dagger too? There was no concrete calculation here on my part—I just figured it’d be nice to have a knife if I went out into the wild.
When I had finished, I surrendered to my vanity for a second and stepped up to the large mirror and turned on my camera in order to take a memorable selfie-hologram. Recalling my assignment to shoot footage for our video, I didn’t bother turning it off. The guys and I could select the more effective footage later and put together a nice clip.
“If you’ve satiated your narcissism,” Palisandro taunted me kindly, “you should go see Legate Yavar and get to work.”
Thanking the quartermaster, I set out to find the legate, relishing the creativity of the devs along my way. As Chip, my personal know-it-all, had explained to me, Barliona featured a mixture of old languages and cultural traditions of all the different races and peoples of our real, human history. At this point, Sasha set off on a wide tangent, comparing tattoos and writing, but Pasha stopped him in time, begging the lecturer to go make tea in the kitchen. Otherwise our excursion into comparative anthropology could have cost us a few hours at least.
I located the legate at one of the countless huts that housed the renegades. I was expecting to see something like a yurt of the peoples of the north, but approaching closer realized that I had made a mistake. The hut was constructed of enormous leaves, three times my height. They were bound in a clever manner by means of some kind of sticky substance, to which small litter had managed to stick before it had dried.
Legate Yavar was a stocky pirq with a leopard’s markings, sealed in coal-black plate armor that sumptuously harmonized with his fur. The typical alterations caused by Shadow only made this NPC appear more vivid. The sword hanging from his side looked more like a mutated sickle with a long handle. And it was on this handle that he drummed with his fingers as he spoke with two other pirq officers also outfitted in black plate armor. Noticing me, Yavar dismissed his companions with a gesture and concentrated on my person.
“Ah, a recruit,” he rumbled in a throaty baritone, and looked me over from head to toe, paused at my lute and shook his head disapprovingly. “And what am I supposed to do with a little booger like you?”
I made a mental note to cut this phrase out of my video, otherwise, I could just sense that this ‘little booger’ would stick to me—courtesy of my idiot friends.
“Any ideas, centurion?” The legate glanced over at the colossal, jet black pirq standing beside us with a Zweihander.
The pirq growled grimly, raised his upper lip, baring a row of sharp teeth and grumbled with displeasure:
“What could you possibly do with her? The best she could do is be a buccinator, but then she’d have to swap her lute for a buccina.  And yet this piece of brushwood wouldn’t even be able to lift the horn and were she to attempt to blow it, she’d fall apart to leaves…Better send her over to Altaik’s turma, I say.”
Listening to this exchange, I was silently grateful that I hadn’t decided to play for the pirqs. It looked like this race had a militaristic society with a touch of ancient history about it. No wonder Pasha chose them.
“To the velites?” the legate asked. “You think I should send her beyond the blighted ground at her level?” He squinted. “It’s too high a risk.”
“She’s a free citizen,” the centurion reminded him. “It’s easier for her: The free citizens can return from the Gray Lands.”
The legate twiddled his whiskers, weighing the pros and cons, as I tried to understand what they were even talking about. Well, I mean, in general I had understood that my formidable Level 7 made it difficult to find me a suitable quest, yet the details of their conversation escaped me.
At the same time, Yavar glanced at me and asked with some doubt in his voice:
“We need to think…You can’t summon an army of phantoms with your music like your Tenth, can you Lorelei?”
“Then it’s decided,” the pirq stuck his paw into a huge bowl carved of wood, pulled out someone’s charred rib and began gnawing on it with a pensive look on his face.
“To the velites,” he declared. “Seek the scarlet banner with the lightning bolt emblem on it. You will report to Centurion Altaik.”

Quest available: Help the Renegades.
Description: The Renegades of the Hidden Forest have committed themselves to preventing an alliance with Kartoss. Locate Centurion Altaik and offer your assistance. Quest type: Rare scenario. Reward for completion: +50 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest; +100 XP. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -50 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest.

Naturally, I accepted the quest and leaving the hut began peering around for a scarlet standard. It was nowhere to be seen, but at least my old friend Vex appeared on the horizon. And I still had questions for that book thief.
“Vex, hang on!” I called, hurrying after my fellow bard.
“Ah, Lorelei,” he waved and stopped. “Are you feeling better?” he inquired when I approached.
“Yes, quite a bit! I have some business to discuss with you.”
“Is it urgent?”
“Not very,” I confessed, “but it won’t take long.”
Vex looked away somewhere to the right, in the direction of the enormous tree whose roots formed the seat of Astilba’s throne and answered unhurriedly: “Go on then, but do so quickly.”
“Did you take a part of the songbook from the Tree library?” I asked without wasting any time.
The renegade looked at me a little oddly and nodded.
“I did. How do you know this?”
“Back at the Tree, I was trying to decipher the songbook and discovered that it was incomplete. The librarian recalled that you were the last one to work with the scroll.”
All of Vex’s hurry vanished instantly. He turned to face me, squinted his eyes and asked tensely: “You know how to decipher the songbook?”
“Well, yeah,” I said with some surprise. “Weren’t you doing the same thing?”
“Not at all. I’m a poet, not a musician. I was merely copying the scroll at Astilba’s request, but I didn’t manage to finish my work and was forced to…extract the last fragment from the library.”
“What does Astilba want with the songbook? She’s definitely not a bard.”
The renegade nodded, sighed deeply and waved his hand, offering me to have a seat in the shade of a sprawling thorn bush. It did not seem like he was in a hurry any longer.
“As you know, a bard’s spells are learned in conjunction with the spells of other classes. Astilba is trying to divine the structure of Cypro’s spell and recreate it on her own.”
“What kind of a spell is it?”
Vex hesitated and then replied barely audibly:
“Cypro knew how to summon the souls of heroes who had passed to the Gray Lands. Astilba cleaves to the hope that she can return the Fifth. She asked me to find all mention of this spell and my search brought me to this scroll. The writing in it is some kind of cypher, so I was simply copying the scroll to give it to the Sixth. Unfortunately we have no bards who specialize in music and so we had no luck deciphering the scroll. But if what you say is true…Perhaps Astilba will accomplish what she’s sought all this time.”
“Perhaps,” I echoed, though I had my doubts.
As far as I understand the info in the Barliona FAQs, the dead could only return as mindless undead or members of the zombie race. In order to have an NPC return to the world in his right mind and sense, some kind of magic seal would be required. It followed that the Fifth didn’t have this seal…and a zombie lover would please only some fan of stupid pseudo-romantic movies, not Astilba.
“Notes are written in it,” I explained to the excited biota. “I already deciphered the part in the library, so if I get the rest of it, it won’t take me long to recreate the songbook.”
Vex jumped lightly to his feet and announced decisively:
“I will speak to the Sixth and if she grants her permission, I will bring you the missing fragment. Wait for me.”
“Hang on,” I stopped the renegade from rushing off. “I’ve been sent to Centurion Altaik. Tell me where I can find him and we can just meet there.”
“Altaik?” the bard ruminated. “Follow that there brook downstream and you’ll come upon his turma. But wait for me to return and if anyone orders you otherwise, tell them that you’re waiting for orders from the Sixth. Understand?”
“Yes. Do I have to wait long?”
“Not long,” Vex insisted and dashed toward Astilba’s meadow residence.
I decided to pass the time productively—by filling in my map. To my surprise, Chip’s drills paid dividends and I managed to chart a part of my route from my former place of imprisonment to the renegades’ camp. It wasn’t very precise, but there were definitely less white space on the map when I finished. If things go on this way, the cartographer’s mysterious prize is as good as ours. Chip just has to copy my map and complete the quest. There was just one issue…If we did this, Eben would get his hands on the map with its vague, yet discernable, location of the renegades’ camp. And then who knows what the spymaster would do? No. First I have to find out how the Sixth’s attempts to resurrect her lover will turn out and only then move on to the map quest.
At last Vex returned. He looked very worried and was all but dancing from impatience.
“The songbook!” He waved a small scroll in front of me. “Here is the missing portion. You have to decipher all of it. This instant!”

Quest available: Decipher the Songbook.
Description: Vex wants you to restore and decipher Cypro’s songbook this instant. Quest type: Unique, class-based. Restrictions: You must begin the quest on the spot and perform it until it is complete.
Reward for completion: +1,000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest, +14,000 XP. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -1,000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest.

“Erm…” I mumbled, a little at a loss as I read the quest description. “I guess I’ll just do this now then.”
I looked around, found myself a spot near the roots of a tree where a stranger wouldn’t run into me, sat down and leaning against the trunk unfurled the remainder of the scroll. This was definitely it—the same babble about the sun, the Milky Way and the seven planets. There was no surface suited for writing on, so per habit, I arranged the parchment on the body of my lute. Someone else might find this uncomfortable, but my guitar synth had served me as a desk, as an umbrella and even a club in its day.
The experience I already had in deciphering the scroll did its part and my work went quickly. The only irritation was Vex who stood over me and drilled the scroll with his eyes to the point that I was afraid he really was going to burn a hole through it.
“Are you going to stand there all day?”
Instead of replying, Vex nodded curtly and pointed at the unfurled piece of scroll impatiently. No one has any patience these days. Although, hell, neither do I. I do want to know what spell the Tenth used to summon the army in my vision.
Just over two hours had passed and the work was done. A lean stack of sheets covered in notes was lying before me, and still nothing happened. No fanfare, no system notifications about a completed quest…Nothing but Vex’s impatient and inquisitive look. There was nothing left but to shrug in reply and start reviewing the notes. Maybe I had made some mistake? A single inaccuracy could throw off the harmony of the composition. Of course, there was a simple way to check the thing.
Having no music stand, I placed the sheet music right before me, picked up my lute and recreated my uneven row of marks with sound. The melody was a pretty one but clearly unsuited to a lute. The sound was missing something. As harmonious and complete as the music was, there was something inadequate about it. Still, I sensed no mistake in it.
As soon as the final chord had rung, the sheets with the deciphered notes began to glow. My yearned-for fanfare sounded from somewhere and the parchment vanished, leaving behind a songbook shimmering in a pearl glow.

Congratulations! You have recovered Cypro’s legendary songbook!
Your deciphering of the songbook has taught you a new spell: ‘Bonds of Memory.’
Since times of yore, bards were the keepers of memory about the feats and tragedies of Barliona’s heroes and villains. Thanks to the bards, tales of the past remain in the memories of the races, creating an imperceptible bond between the present and the past, the living and the dead. This bond permits certain bards to use their songs to summon the souls of the heroes of yore. To be resurrected, the souls require a portion of the Bard’s vitality and their strength depends on the strength of their summoner.
Casting time: Perform a composition about the summoned soul from beginning to end. Cost of performance: 50% of the Bard’s max HP. Maximum level of the summoned soul: (Bard’s Level + Composition) Maximum number of the summoned soul’s skills and spells: (Soul Level ÷ 10 + Composition). Maximum number of souls summoned at once: (1 + Composition) Duration of summoned soul’s stay in Barliona: (Intellect ÷ 10 + Composition) hours until the soul exhausts its vitality. Cooldown: 72 hours.

Skill increase:
+3 to Bardic Inspiration. Total: 14.
+3 to Fame. Total: 14.

Quest complete: Recover the Songbook.
+500 Reputation with the Biota. Current status: Hatred.
+10 to Fame. Total: 21.
Speak with the Tree’s Librarian to receive the rest of your reward.

Quest complete: Decipher the Scroll.
+1,000 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest. Current status: Friendship.

Experience earned: +14,000 XP.
Level gained!
Level gained!
Current Level: 18.
Unallocated stat points: 90.
Training points remaining: 6.

Achievement unlocked:
‘Legendary Hit I’ (Four learned or created songbooks remaining until next rank).
Achievement reward: +1% chance to receive a quest that leads you to a legendary songbook.

The pure glory of the notification made my eyes ripple, while the golden flashes that accompanied the new levels only aggravated the situation, and I spent a long time blinking dumbly and rereading the system messages. My entire rich lexicon failed me, leaving a single unprintable but ecstatic exclamation in my head. Now this is the way to complete a quest!
“It worked,” Vex whispered in shock. “You did it, Lorelei! Quick! Give me the songbook so I may bring it to Astilba!”
The songbook, which had managed to appear in my palm, was shining enticingly.

Cypro’s songbook. Songbook type: Legendary. Contains the ‘Bonds of Memory’ spell.
Attention! To reproduce this song, you must have a rare musical instrument.
Attention! Your spellbook already contains ‘Bonds of Memory.’
Attention! This songbook may not be copied.
Attention! This songbook may not be traded.

I was holding a scroll with a unique spell. I wonder, purely theoretically, how much I could ask Astilba for, for a spell she wanted so badly. As far as I know, NPCs in this game cannot take a player’s property outside of very rare scenarios. Theoretically I could haggle and refuse to hand over the songbook for free.
Eh. I’m not much of a businesswoman and lucre’s just lucre.
“Here you go.”
I handed the songbook to Vex without further thought. It’s much more interesting to find out how the Sixth’s experiments will work out than to get my hands on a heap of gold.
“Tell Astilba I wish her luck. I hope everything will work out for her.”
The renegade clenched the scroll tightly in his hand and smiled warmly. My Attractiveness with him surged to 55 points.
“I will relay your words to her. Thank you, sister.”
And Vex rushed off like a whirlwind in the direction of the Sixth’s residence.
“Think nothing of it,” I called in his wake, forcing him to look back.
It was always like this: Either a torrent of new events or solitude and indecisiveness. If you discount the new levels I had gained, nothing had changed for me at all. I couldn’t even use my new spell—I had no rare instrument. And no way of finding one. The local quartermaster didn’t seem to have any, and the craftsmen around here weren’t exactly master luthiers. Maybe I could ask Chip? And yet, even if we pooled our resources we wouldn’t have enough for one of Pirus’ pieces. All right, we’ll talk it over out in meatspace. Only, before exiting the game, it wouldn’t be bad to find out what quest I’m supposed to get from the mysterious centurion.
The camp, meanwhile, had gone on with its own life. You could hear the growling of the pirq teams, the clangor of arms, the coming and going of small bands of warriors. Those who had returned were eating ravenously outside of their quarters and then immediately collapsing and falling asleep in their bunks without taking off anything apart from their footwear and armor. It’s much easier for the players in that sense—we could sleep in our armor without experiencing the least bit of discomfort.
Centurion Altaik turned out to be a light-ginger, almost blond, pirq. At the moment of my visit this glorious warrior was occupied with five tasks at once. He was hungrily consuming his bowl of gruel and meat, drinking milk, kicking his boots off his feet, glaring into a map and bitterly arguing with one of my cousins, a biota.
“What’d you need?” Altaik growled, generously bespattering my new cape with his spittle and bits of gruel. Uncultured bastard…
“Legate Yavar has sent me to you,” I rattled off, carefully brushing off my cape.
My answer forced the two quarrelers to fall quiet. Then again, the centurion used this interlude productively, taking the moment to stuff more grub in his maw. Smacking, he began to inspect my person. My cousin, Immortal Biota, also fell to looking me over and for a while the silence in the hut was punctuated only by the centurion’s smacking and chewing. Having finally finished his meal, Altaik purred with contentment, licked his spoon, placed it on the table and deigned to interact with me.
“Well and then what does he want?”
I definitely didn’t expect this question. The transition from legendary events to ‘what’d you want?’ was a little too swift.
“Erm…” I declaimed profoundly. “He wants you to give me some quest.”
“Recruit,” the pirq barked at his companion.
Only now did I notice how closely the two resembled each other—the pirq and the biota. Not in appearance but…in their expressions, their eyes. They were filled with an old weariness mixed with some kind of grim, doomed decisiveness and confidence, which did not gel with their intentionally-careless demeanor.
 Altaik slid the empty bowl aside and asked: “Do you know how to read a map?”
Receiving my nod as an answer, he went on: “Look. We’re here right now.” The centurion’s finger poked a green triangle in the middle of a forest shaded with black. “Our turma’s objective is to extend the fortifications up to this location…” Altaik picked up a lead pencil and marked a series of dots indicating a route. “We haven’t any time to spare, so everyone has to work. Right now, you will go to Signifier Lotos, receive equipment and instructions and then get to work. Any questions?”
A short dotted line between the forest and the foothills indicated where my future work lay.
“Where can I find Signa-uh-fier…Lotos?”
“He’s in the third bulb-tent downstream from here.”
Signifier Lotos turned out to be a sickly-gaunt biota of a reddish hue, which I couldn’t help but associate with the color of spoiled meat. Having heard my explanation, he quietly issued me two linen bags filled with black seeds, large and small, a piece of parchment with something that reminded me of a rat maze charted on it, made a mark in his giant book and dismissed me with a gesture.

Quest complete: Help the Renegades.
+50 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest. Current status: Friendship.
Experience earned: +100 XP.

Items acquired: Shadow Seeds.

Quest available: Help the Renegades. Step 2.
Description: Sow the Shadow Seeds. Quest type: Rare scenario. Reward for completion: variable reputation increase with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest, variable XP gain. Penalty for failing or refusing the quest: -500 Reputation with the Renegades of the Hidden Forest.

Boy, I sure am lucky: First the garrulous legate and centurion, and now this dumb plant who doesn’t even deem it necessary to explain what it is they want me to do.
“Erm…And where am I supposed to sow them?” I asked when it became clear that further instructions would not be forthcoming.
Lotos glanced over me gloomily, sighed barely noticeably as if he was sorry to have to speak the words and replied: “Sow them based on the pattern—the locations have been marked on your map.”
And he stuck his thumb in the direction of the exit.

Quest updated: Help the Renegades. Step 2.
Description: Sow the Shadow Seeds in the locations indicated on your map.

Once I was outside of the tent of the unfriendly biota I opened the map and studied the locations to be sowed. At least there was a bit of luck there: the quest area was practically abutting the Arras. This means that the time had come to coordinate with everyone who wanted to cross it.
It was time to exit Barliona.

release - November 19
pre-order here - Amazon

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