Saturday, March 23, 2019

Disgardium: Apostle of the Gods by Dan Sugralinov

Disgardium, Book 2
Apostle of the Sleeping Gods
by Dan Sugralinov

Release - June 10, 2019


Your parents are getting divorced. Now, once you turn sixteen, you’ll be doomed to a pitiful existence on the lowest rungs of society. The neighbor girl got plastic surgery for your sake and is levelling fast to impress you. A Sleeping God gave you its power, but now demands absolute loyalty and obedience even in real life. Something called the Destroying Plague wants its Emissary to infect everyone alive and, as luck would have it, that Emissary is you! But the city sees you as its salvation, not a cause of great suffering...
Scyth aka Alex is a potential Class-A threat to the whole world of Disgardium. That's how the system classifies imba players with an unfair advantage.
However, it is hard to threaten the world while you're stuck levelling up in noob town. It's even harder when all the preventer clans are on the verge of announcing a hunt for you and even your best friends can't be trusted, all while your two patron gods tear you apart from the inside. And now, to make matters worse, your biggest enemy has just become a threat as well.

Chapter 1. Sleeping God

Thunder blasted out in an absolutely clear sky. The earth shook, and ripples ran across the swamp muck. Then slimy creatures started frantically crawling and jumping over one another, scrambling to get out of the water. The water started steaming, then bubbling and the creepy crawlies all went belly-up up, boiled alive. The huge bloodsucking leeches and dimly glowing balls burst, spattering droplets of disgusting brown slime.
A global notification rolled through all Disgardium, breaking my train of thought. Behemoth's voice was still whispering, but it was more the muttering of a sleeping person than anything I could make sense of. His greeting was the last intelligible thing I heard him say.

We have detected a disturbance in the strings of creation! A new evil has awoken in Disgardium!
Estimated potential threat class: A.
Current threat class: Q.
Most likely location: cannot be detected.
The world has never seen a threat of such might! Now that this evil has awoken, we mustn’t let it grow more powerful. Be the first to find and eliminate it, and the powers that be will reward you generously!
And if you succeed, oh bravehearts and heroes, the gods will be favorable to you as well!

Praise all the gods that they couldn't determine my location! Clearly the disturbance in the strings of creation was so strong it shook the whole world, not just one particular location.
I was so tired I could really feel it. The few hours of semi-sleep I got last night first in the instance, then while waiting for the Dementors to reach the final boss were helpful but not exactly great rest. Even in Dis I could feel my head just splitting. I wanted to bring the situation to its logical conclusion, find out what the Sleeping God wanted from me and finish Patrick's quest.
I decided I'd think the rest over later. I just wanted a break from Dis. Plus by evening, my parents would be home and I wanted to spend time with them.
When I hoisted myself onto the island in the middle of the swamp, the entity I saw there was least of all reminiscent of a god. It was a small blob of green protoplasm sloshing about in inside some film or skin. If I weren’t looking closely, I might have thought this was a puddle covered in duckweed and fluttering in gusts of wind. Only the system's explanation convinced me this was something more, namely: Behemoth, Sleeping God. For a noob like me there was no way of telling whether this was a creature of an indeterminate level or a very high level.
We exchanged greetings, and the blob was suddenly at my feet asking to be let in. And I let it in. As it turned out, it meant into my head. Then a notification thundered about my potential and actual threat class going up.
And everything changed: Behemoth's speech became intelligible and started making sense. And I could see a transparent figure, probably the god’s avatar. It even looked vaguely like a hippopotamus, a nod to the biblical origin of its name. It was hard to describe. There was no easy comparison with any of the animals or fantasy creatures I knew of. A monster? A creature? A nightmare? None of the bosses of any instance I’d ever seen came anywhere near Behemoth. But all that aside, it was the same height as me and looking me right in the eyes with ill intent.
"I thought you'd be bigger," I admitted. "I mean you're a god after all, even if you are Sleeping. And hey, you're not sleeping now. Does that mean you aren't a Sleeping God anymore?"
"My size is immaterial, Scyth the apostle," the voice rumbled. "The body you see now is just a reflection of one of my appearances in your mind. It has taken a size convenient for conversation. My true nature is locked very deep down, and you and everything around are just my dream."
"I think this world’s several hundred other gods, some of whom have had mountains split in two by their names, might disagree."
"All intelligent creatures might disagree," Behemoth agreed with surprising facility. A thick steam escaped from the many trunks on his face and ghastly toothed openings all over his massive body with a hiss. I couldn’t tell at first, but that was how it laughed. "None of us the Sleeping Gods can control our dreams. But after we all awaken, everything will be destroyed. And that includes the so-called gods like the abomination that has staked a claim to you. I can smell its mark."
"Mark?" I perked up my ears. "Is this about the Destroying Plague?"
"The Destroying Plague..." he issued a dull roar-like boom in dismay. "Empty words that pay no reverence to their creator. A masquerade. But that abomination gives you strength, and I say let that be to our advantage for now."
"Our advantage? I wouldn't be so fast, Sleeping God. I am not on your side just yet! But you're right, I did come to help you." I was sick of standing, so I sat down on the withered grass. "I was sent here by Tristad resident Patrick O'Grady. And in return for my future help I ask you for the thing you promised him but didn't do."
"Tristad... Patrick... More empty words with no meaning. If you're referring to that psycho who showed up here with a wolf-pup he kidnapped from its mother, I never promised him anything. What happened to him was not in this world, and the thing he thinks he was promised was not promised by me. And you are here not because some Patrick sent you here but because I have snared you in my ropes of the depths."
"Wait, Behemoth! I don't understand... I'm confused!"
"It is not for you to understand," the voice of the Sleeping God sounded tired and noticeably quieter than before. "That means nothing, apostle. You are weak, so my reflection in you is weak. It is melting. We're wasting time."
"Well, it means something to me!" my voice, on the other hand, had grown stronger. I was not going to accept an answer like that from Behemoth. And I was not going to fail the only full quest I’d ever taken, other than the ones I'd picked by the fistful from the prison bulletin board. "I promised Patrick O'Grady to do as he asked. I am prepared to help, but in return you must do something for him! What did you promise him?"
"He lost his wife and the meaning of his life." the god's trunks drooped, but I didn't know how to interpret that. "I cannot give him back either thing. But I can help him find a new one... Of either..."
"A wife or a meaning?"
"The first will become the second, and with the second he won't need the first. It doesn't matter. Empty words. I'll say what to tell him so he can get back what he's lost. Are you satisfied, apostle?"

Mission of Honorary Tristad Citizen, former city guard patrol squadron captain Patrick O'Grady complete.
You made it to the place he told you to go in the Mire, offered help to Behemoth and asked for what he promised Patrick as a reward.
Unfortunately, it will not be the reward he's hoping for.
Tell Patrick O'Grady about your talk with Behemoth to receive the reward.

"I am satisfied. Why are you calling me apostle? And what does Sleeping God mean?"
"Because you shall be our herald. The one who brings the others. You are our apostle and now we are inseparably linked..." Behemoth slightly lowered his head and flickered his eyes. "What was that? You don't need it. I have removed the blot that madman placed upon you in my name."
I wasn't able to tell what he was talking about at first. But when it reached me and my profile confirmed my guess, I didn't know whether to be happy or sad. Restless Soul, Patrick’s curse that made me respawn where I died, was gone.
"My reflection is fading," the Sleeping God continued. "Neither I nor the other Sleeping Gods can control our dreams, otherwise the spawn of our dreams will not believe in their creators. Without our monitoring, everything would be swallowed up by the Nether sooner or later. And your abominable gods only hasten that process. And the Nether brings a never-ending nightmare from which there is no waking up."
"But what can I do?"
"You are our apostle. That means that in this world we are you and you are us. Do not be afraid, it just means that you are our main proxy."
"You keep saying 'our.' Who else?"
"All the Sleeping Gods. The time shall come for you to learn everything, but for now listen. The greater our power, the stronger you shall become. You can attract new followers and everyone who joins you will make both themselves and the rest even more powerful! In the name of unity!"
I could barely hear his last words.

Behemoth the Sleeping God has given you the divine ability Touch of the Sleeping Gods!

Touch of the Sleeping Gods
Active ability.
Allows you to turn intelligent beings into new followers of the Sleeping Gods.
Requires confirmation from the target.

Behemoth the Sleeping God has given you the divine ability Unity!

Passive ability.
+1 to a random attribute for each follower per follower of the Sleeping Gods.

"Well, well!" I exclaimed. "With upsides like that I can get the whole world on my side!"
"Unfortunately, for now your number is limited to thirteen intelligent creatures..." the avatar of the Sleeping God dissolved into thin air. But the voice remained, now just rustling away in my head. "Ask..."
"How can I increase that number?"
"An island in the Bottomless Ocean to the west of the continental shore. There, find the ruins of an ancient shrine. It is the closest place of power to the Sleeping Gods. Build a temple there to concentrate faith, then build it bigger."

Behemoth the Sleeping God would like you to build him a new temple on an unnamed island in the Bottomless Ocean.
Rewards: unknown.

I accepted the quest without a second thought. It was a divine quest chain and had no penalties. What was there to think about?
"I see. I don't know how I'll start, but I'll try. What should I tell Patrick?"
"Bid him go to Darant. His Jane is alive and studying at the University of Magic. But before he goes, he must make his body and mind the way they were before."
"Anything else?"
"She was never his wife. So tell him that she doesn't remember anything. And given he's the only one other than you who's seen me, convince him to become a follower."
"I don't think it'll be too hard after what I've got to tell him about Jane. By the way, he mentioned that you call yourself the one true god. But you just told me there are several Sleeping Gods. How does that work?"
"That one true god remains in his world. That madman simply got confused and forgot how to tell reality from nonsense. My powers are waning, Scyth..."
"Wait! How do I get back to you? What if I need to ask you something or...?"
"The same way you got here..."
Its rustling thoughts finally disappeared. I looked around and noticed that the muck around the island had retreated and the level of the bog had gone down. The sun was nearing the horizon. Depths Teleportation wouldn't cooldown until tomorrow.
Before I, like Patrick, started mixing up worlds, I had to get back.

Chapter 2. Alliance of Preventers

My parents came home in the evening. I spent the few hours between exiting Dis and their arrival getting the apartment and myself cleaned up. And I got caught up on my studies. I had now missed a critical number of days in school, and I was sure my parents had already been notified. I missed a few phone calls from mom, resulting in an enraged message that all but confirmed it.
So I hurriedly skimmed through what I'd missed, studying school books. At that time Tissa called me to ask how I was doing and where the Depths Teleportation had taken me. As it turned out, the Dementors had been dispersed to the furthest corners of the sandbox, and they would need a long time to get back.
I was caught up guessing what classes I could choose. In the Mire I just wasn't feeling like looking, then I talked with Behemoth and exited without remembering to check the system message. Tissa, by the way, had said that tomorrow after school Ed and the gang were going to celebrate the First Kill and asked if I wanted to join. I answered that I would be happy to.
Overall, when I reached quantum field theory, which was covered in physics in my absence, the front door opened and mom and dad collapsed inside, impossibly tired and sullen.
"Alex, Alex..." she shook her head. But contrary to expectation, she didn't start shouting right away. "Your citizenship tests are in a few months, then you'll have to live on your own. What hope do you have when you treat your studies like that?"
While she sermonized, father tousled the back of my head and locked himself in the bathroom. For the next half hour I heard him splashing, gurgling and grunting away inside.
"How was the flight?" I asked.
"Fine..." mom muttered and spent a long time in silence. "The project was rejected. At least they didn't ask us to pay back the advance even though they easily could have."
"But how? Why?"
"He and I had another bad fight," mom answered and I realized she was talking about father. "Our calculations were way off and some big bugs crawled out in testing. The clients were furious. They were preparing for a top raid dungeon for a global event in Disgardium. They have an inside man in Snowstorm who gave us mechanics and attributes for the boss and our job was to use that data to make a beta training ground."
"For what clan?"
"One of the most influential in Dis Modus. They won the last adult Arena and are the most successful preventers."
"Why didn't they give you time to fix it, mom?"
"Oh, they suddenly had bigger fish to fry. A class-A threat popped up in Dis. It’s the highest class there’s ever been! Naturally, they went bananas and now they're practically digging a hole to China to find it!" Mom laughed. "That might be why they didn't insist we pay back the advance. There was an emergency gathering of all preventers..."
"A gathering? Why, mom? Don't clans usually try and find threats separately so they don't have to share the reward?"
"After eliminating a D-Class threat, some unknown clan from the top eight thousand entered the top three. What do you think, Alex, do these guys know what they stand to get for a threat three levels higher than that? After all, the rewards practically grow in a geometric progression with every level! As far as I managed to overhear, they're going to make an Alliance of Preventers."
It was only then that I realized exactly what I was up against. Just me against the whole world, discounting whatever the Destroying Plague was and a blob of protoplasm that called itself a Sleeping God.
Eve... things were dicey with her and, I was afraid if I didn’t reciprocate her feelings, they might do a one eighty.
And when I was with the Dementors, it was like being tied to a powder keg. From a distance, they might think it was a beer keg, but one day they’d realize who they were dealing with. If they hadn't already...
The celebration tomorrow would open my eyes to many things. I wasn’t sure, but there could be alcohol and loose tongues. I hoped that might clue me in on how to act around them from here on out.
"Mom..." I faltered, putting my thought more mildly. "Have you and dad..."
"What Alex?"
"Have you and dad tried patching things up? I mean, you've been together for so long!"
My question caught her off guard. She spent a long time before answering pretending that she was busy making tea. But when she eventually came and sat opposite me, placing a mug in front of me, the water went quiet in the bathroom. Dad was done washing up. We sat in silence listening to father shave the old-fashioned way with an electric razor instead of just removing his stubble once and for all with lotion (he thought stubble made him look more manly). I wasn't decisive enough to repeat my question, and she didn't want to answer.
But she did say something eventually. By the time dad was rustling a towel and wiping off his face, she coldly stated:
"I don't love your father, son. I don't love Mark. I have another."
I guessed as much, but hearing it out loud hit me harder than a Hammer. I felt a lump in my throat, my face crinkled up like a baby and I covered it with my hands, holding back tears. That was the final verdict.
For the whole past week I still had some hope, subconsciously sure that they would get it out of their system and change their minds, but now it was final. Dad would never live with her knowing she had a lover. And mom was losing her mind waiting for freedom so she could move away from him to be with her beau...
I looked at her with different eyes. She was thirty-six years old. She was still attractive and had a smoking-hot body. But now she was in the embrace of another man?
Feeling a furious attack of hatred for whatever lustful dipshit did a number on my mom's head, I walked into my room, not finishing my powdered tea. Old man Furtado was right: the drink mom made had nothing to do with the noble beverage called tea.
To distract myself I tried to contact Eve, but her comm was unavailable. Then I dove head first into a physics textbook. "Quantum theory for systems with infinite degrees of freedom..."
A gripping read.


As the last bell of the day rang, the class kicked into a din, stood up and headed for the door. I caught up with the Dementors. We were going to fly to Ed's to celebrate the First Kill, but my teacher's hand stopped me.
"Sheppard, hang back," said Mr. Kovacs, his eyes focused on a panel showing my performance.
"Yes, Greg?" I stopped next to him. His eyes shot up in surprise even though last week he said I could call him by name, and I corrected myself: "Mr. Kovacs."
"We'll wait up," Ed nodded at me and the Dementors left class.
"You'd better sit down," Mr. Kovacs pointed me to a chair next to his desk. "We're gonna have a long and serious conversation, Sheppard."
This is the first time in my memory something like this has happened. He'd never talked to me with such a serious dry and official tone, calling me by my family name. Usually he pretended to be equal with his students.
Kovacs stood up, closed the door and came back. He drummed his fingers on the table top and sharply said:
"I don't have a lot of time, Sheppard, so I'll be brief. Your attendance in the last block is eighty percent. Your integrated performance score is seventy-nine. Nothing fatal, but very close to it. I cannot allow that. So this morning I called up your parents to see why this was happening, and you know what they told me?"
"That they're getting divorced?"
"What?" Mr. Kovacs asked in surprise. "So they're getting divorced? That clears up a lot..." he drummed his fingers again. "Hm-hmm... Okay then, I feel like I have even more responsibility for your future, Alex." His tone softened. "I’m assigning you two extra classes every day until your integrated performance score is completely back to normal. Starting today. I've already signed you up for a study spot in the lab, so right after our conversation you can head there and get started."
I had no answer to give and just nodded. As he said, it wasn't fatal, I'd survive. And I myself understood I needed to do some extra studying. Sitting through the lessons I missed in a normal VR-helmet and retaking the tests didn’t scare me.
"That's not all. Your mom, Mrs. Sheppard, told me about your unhealthy fixation with Disgardium."
"What? Unhealthy? Are you saying something everyone enjoys is unhealthy?"
"Maybe I didn't express myself properly. Anyway, I was just repeating your mom's words. Most likely she meant your interest in Dis has risen sharply. And you know I don't agree with the Department of Education on that particular rule... How to put it lightly... To me, it seems they crossed the line requiring kids to spend time in the game. You understand? It might make sense for kids with low citizenship status. After all, they really have nowhere else to go after school and Dis is great at reducing social tension..." he chewed his lips and stroked his nose. "But Alex, you're from a good family! Status F! Your path toward becoming a full member of society is obstacle free!"
"Did you forget? They're getting divorced!"
"But they aren't divorced yet!" Greg slapped the table and leaned up on it. I could see flickers of fury in his eyes, and in surprise I flew back into my chair. "And if they're smart enough they won't, at least until your citizenship tests!"
He was right. My parents' high citizenship status might afford me extra points in the eyes of the commission. It also might not, that was just rumored. But the rumors were stubborn and statistics seemed to confirm them.
Maybe that was just because high-status families had more opportunities to provide their offspring better health, social skills and education starting in early childhood if not from the moment of conception. Gene editing cost a lot of money, but it was possible and available to almost all who wanted it.
Mr. Kovacs spent a long time boring into me with his gaze but finally the wrinkle between his brows smoothed out, his nostrils stopped flaring threateningly and he found the chair under him and sat back down. He went right back to his usual tone as if that flare-up hadn't just happened:
"An hour ago I sent a request to the Department of Education to temporarily ban your character from Disgardium. I ticked all the boxes to get it done too, including referencing your potential value to society... of this world, not Dis. My request was approved. Your character has been banned for two weeks. I hope that'll be enough time for you to catch up on everything you missed."
"What? You have to be joking, right Mr. Kovacs? You can't..!"
I just about told him I was a threat and thus required to spend at least eight hours a day in the game but he fortunately spoke over me.
"Do I look like I’m joking? You better believe I can!" He flew into rage again. "Stand up, Sheppard! Into the VR-lab for extra classes! Now!"
Slamming the door behind me, I was thinking that rumors of our teacher's past as a fighter may have had a firm basis. In the hallway I saw the astonished faces of the Dementors, who had been listening. Hung was standing at mock attention.
"Sir yes sir!" he shouted, bulging out his eyes.
"Hung Lee!" Kovacs's voice came from the class. "Two extra classes with Sheppard! Step to!"


Out of solidarity, everyone else waited for us. For me, the hour and a half immersed in bionics lectures flew by fairly quickly. But Hung Lee took it worse. Removing the VR helmet, he shrugged his shoulders, turned his head and said with frustration:
"Damn! They say in decent schools they have real capsules, not this ancient trash." He pulled off the manipulator gloves, threw them on the floor and cracked his fingers. "So we gettin' out of here?"
"Yep," I nodded. "But it was fun. No, really! I probably wouldn’t have learned it without school but now I know that, just one hundred years ago, you would have been one-eyed."
Hung reflexively touched his left eye. It was bionic, but indistinguishable from the normal one he'd lost in some brainless kid's game.
"A hundred years ago? Grandpa said that back then at least everyone had work. But he was little then. He might be imagining things. He has all kinds of tall tales!" Hung slapped me on the shoulder and gave a somewhat unhappy laugh. "What are your plans, Alex? Me and the guys just can't stop guessing. What made you get so good at Dis?"
"I'll talk about it at Ed's. I don't wanna have to repeat myself."
The guys were waiting at the flying car pad. When they saw us, they got up, shaking off some snow.
"Finally! We've been freezing our asses off out here!" Malik shouted.
His heated clothing would hardly have allowed that, but he Tissa and Ed all had rosy cheeks. The first snow had fallen in the night and so much of it fell that climate control platforms hadn't managed and the snow simply was shoveled to the edges of the roofs. And over there they clearly had a snowball fight while waiting for me and Hung.
The five of us got into a flying car and Rodriguez set the destination. On the way we talked about all kinds of stuff but, for some reason, avoided any mention of Disgardium. Even when I raised the topic of my account being banned for two weeks, they didn't react. Tissa shook her head and softly touched my chest, whispering with just her lips: "Later."
A quarter hour later we landed on the roof of the building where Ed lived.
It was an H-category neighborhood, inhabited by citizens of low civil status. And the differences were instantly obvious wherever you looked: the buildings were taller, and denser. There was less green space... The windows even looked smaller.
"Let's go." Ed brought us through the parking lot and stuck his finger into a lock. It gave a click and the door went up. "Stomp all the snow off."
The elevator brought us down to floor twenty-four. That too was different here. It wasn't as fast or as silent, nor as spacious as in my building.
In the long hallway we stopped next to one of the doors. While Ed opened the lock by putting his head up to the facial recognition camera, Malik started whistling a recent hit and even tried to dance, but Tissa whispered:
"Infect! Quiet! You'll wake up Ed's grandma!"
As soon as the door opened, I heard a sonorous girl’s scream:
A five-year-old girl threw herself at Rodriguez and, jumping up, hung around his shoulders.
"Who's there Pollyanna?" I heard a woman's voice from deep in the apartment. "Edward, is that you? You're late, Edward!"
"Yes, grandma! Mr. Kovacs assigned extra lessons!" Ed shouted over the girl's head.
She jumped out of her brother's arms, hugged Malik and Hung, then hung off Tissa's neck. Clearly they were frequent guests here. Melissa whispered something softly into her ear and she nodded and laughed, casting me a furtive glance.
"My name is Alex," I extended a hand.
"Polly," she barely touched my hand with her palm and got embarrassed.
"I'll go talk with grandma," Ed said. "There's cokes in the fridge, grab some and go sit your asses on the balcony. Little Polly, have you eaten?" She nodded. "Good, then go play in your room."
I studied Ed's apartment. It was spacious, no less than ours, although of a lower category. The guys pulled a couple big bottles of soda out of the fridge. Tissa picked up a packet of disposable cardboard cups and a few bags of chips.
With all that stuff, we walked over to a wide glassed-in balcony that had a view of... the gray neighboring building with blue window frames just a couple dozen yards away from us. But there was room for four chairs and small plastic table. The rest of the space was taken by a pile of random stuff: pictures, a ton of statuettes and some boxes. Everything was covered in dust. The house had a certain feeling of neglect, as if it hadn't seen a woman's touch in ages or at least the hands of a robot cleaner. And by the way, I didn't see one.
"There could be five people living here," I noticed while we waited for Ed. "It's a big apartment."
"There used to be five," Hung answered gloomily. "Until Ed's parents caught the Rock virus in Africa three years ago."
"Is it treatable?" I asked in surprise. New diseases appeared just about every year, but medicine found ways of defeating even such hellish foes as the Rock virus, which caused living healthy cells to decay.
"It was at the very beginning," Tissa explained, opening a bag of chips. "They were in the first wave before anyone even knew how to diagnose it."
"But they were good artists," Hung added.
"What was it?" Tissa rolled her eyes, remembering. "The value of the cultural contribution of their works... bla-bla-bla... Basically it allowed Ed's grandma to keep that citizenship status so they wouldn’t have to move."
"And what about his grandma?" I asked. "Should we go say hi to her?"
"It isn’t necessary," Tissa shook her head. "She can barely walk, is just about deaf and doesn't like strangers. And to her you're definitely a stranger."
"And you will always be one unless you go meet her," Malik snorted. "Actually it's a good idea, go introduce yourself."
I got up from the chair and headed for the door, but Ed showed up in the doorway.
"Quiet down! Granny just fell asleep. Why'd you get up for, Alex? Bathroom?"
"No, I wanted to go meet your..."
"Another time," Ed shot out. "She needs peace and quiet. So... We need one more chair..."
He disappeared from the doorway and soon came back with a stool in his hands. He closed the balcony door tight and got set up with us. A slight smile came onto his face. He led a gaze over us and stopped on the big guy:
"Hung, did you get it?"
"Of course!" Bomber sniffed the air and gave a broad smile. "We came here to celebrate! So..." he took a large flask out of an inside pocket and shook it in the air. "Pure whiskey, folks! From my dear old dad’s bottomless stash!"
"First kill, whiskey and coke... Let me think..." Ed rubbed his hands together. "Guy's, we're wasting time! Tank it, Bomber!"

Chapter 3. Immersion Ban

A message from Snowstorm came when I was still at Ed's with the Dementors. No matter how clouded my mind was with strong alcohol, I had enough sense not to read it.
I opened my palm and glanced at the notification on my communicator. In the notification text I could make out the name of the corporation and immediately clenched my fist before Tissa got curious and read. She was sitting between me and Ed, periodically touching me here with her shoulder and there with her hair. A few times she put her hand on my knee. Just to be fair, she had her other hand on Ed's at the same time. It was as if our legs were just armrests for her.
Soon I could tell I was getting tipsy and my tongue was about to get too loose. And not even so much because I was an inexperienced drinker. This was a fun hang session, and they all radiated friendly warmth. I tried to give a furtive goodbye, but they wouldn’t let me leave alone. We all went together to the flying car, Hung made sure I said the right destination, then they spent a long time hugging me and patting me on the back. Ed, his tongue loosened, said that they would look over the loot from the dungeon and start quickly selling everything they didn't need, and I would definitely get my share for the whole ins, not just the last boss. And only after that they let me go...
I fell asleep on the way home and didn’t know how long I spent sleeping in the flying car on my parent's rooftop. Maybe a minute, maybe an hour. Then I, hitting my shoulders on doorframes and wiping down walls for support, lumped myself home, pulled myself into the bed and fell into a thick dream.
I woke up from a gut-splitting thirst just before morning. I was dressed and under the covers. One of my parents had taken pity on their son, who had gotten drunk for the first time in his life. As proof, there was a bottle of water and a glass on the bedside table and next to that a fizzy tablet, something I knew well from father's hangovers.
I sated my thirst with the fizzy liquid analgesic and got up from the bed. AT was lying next to me, her head on her paws. Noticing that I was up, he raised an ear but, sensing my mood, didn't come over.
My head splitting, I paced around the room, gathering my thoughts. There was still a lot of time left before school, and I decided to start with the basics: I got into the shower and spent a long time standing under the warm water, bringing my body and mind to life. I was afraid to even imagine how much money I wasted between the water and electricity to heat it.
But it made me feel better. I decided to check Greg's threat and got into my capsule. But as expected I got a message that I was temporarily banned from immersion in all game worlds. Then I remembered the letter from the corporation.

Dear Alex!
With this letter I would like to inform you that you have received a two-week academic ban from Disgardium.
Taking into account your special status in the world and your required time in the game, I wanted to write you personally to reassure you. All of us here at Snowstorm went to school once :-) So we understand what you’re going through and will act accordingly.
For the duration of your academic ban, you are free of all obligations to spend time in the world of Disgardium.
I wish you a speedy resolution of all issues impeding your immersion! May the skies of Disgardium always be blue over your head!

With friendly greetings,
Marianna Da Silva, Customer service department,
Snowstorm Incorporated.

With a satisfied snort, I got ready for school and left my room. I stuck my head out and saw father's sympathetic gaze then heard a sermon from mom, ate breakfast and went to school.
Lessons just flew by. For the first time in recent memory, I hardly thought about Dis, carefully listening to all teachers and finishing my assignments the right way. During breaks, I would talk with the Dementors. They could taste themselves getting close to Tristad and passing First Advisor Whiteacre's quest. We all got a scorpion eye from the final boss, which was a quest starter.
We had Thanksgiving coming up, so Greg didn't insist on extra classes, but I still went to them to make up for lost time.
The four-day weekend felt like just one. On Thursday we had guests and they ate all the food mom made. Although saying she made it might have been a bit much. It didn't take her more than one hour: she just unpacked a high-end cooking set called “Thanksgiving” into a food processor, and it spat out a full meal for eight to ten people. It cost just ninety-nine phoenixes. The star of the table was a roast turkey, and next to it was mashed potatoes, a cheesy corn casserole and a pumpkin pie, among other things.
On Friday it was our turn to be the guests. My parents carefully hid their impending divorce and did a great job playing the happy family. It was easy for them to do. They just about had me believing it, if I hadn’t heard mom say she didn’t love dad anymore.
On Saturday and Sunday I did normal stuff: I studied, watched movies and video material from the Leman expedition to Mars, and I tried unsuccessfully to drag Tissa out on a date. She didn't answer for a long time, having been in Dis but when she did write, her message was dry: "Can't. Not in the mood." I even considered whether it was worth getting upset over but decided that it definitely was not.
Out of boredom I even tried to call up Eve but her mother answered, saying that the recuperation process was dragging on because her daughter "was starting to like it."
Basically, over the weekend I got sick of vacation and on Monday I flew to school with glee. And that was where everything became clear.


Dead of sorrow. Gloomy. Downtrodden and crushed. That was how the Dementors looked when I found them in the schoolyard. And although the sun was blinding down from the cloudless sky, there was a cloud of coldness and despondency around them as if the Dementors had become their clan's namesake.
They weren't in first period, and they showed up to second late. During the break Greg held me up and I only managed to find them after that. They were sitting on a bench and looking dismal as frozen sparrows.
"Hi..." I drew out cautiously. "How's it going?"
"Hi," Tissa answered gloomily and turned away. She was in a touchy mood.
The others kept silent. They all grew visibly tenser when I showed up. Seemingly I'd interrupted a conversation they didn’t want me there for.
"To hell with it," Hung spit out. "This is his problem too."
Ed sized me up with an empty gaze and lowered his head, covering it with his hands.
"What happened? Did somebody die?"
"Yeah, all of us!" Malik laughed nervously. "A ton of times!"
"Alright..." Ed muttered, having made up his own mind. He raised his head and exclaimed: "Alex, we're way up shit's creek!"
"I can see that." I said, sitting on the bench between Hung and Malik. "But what happened?"
"Axiom..." Malik started explaining. But Ed stopped him and spoke:
"Last Thursday, Big Po added us all to their KoS list and set a reward: fifty gold for each time one of us is killed."
"And me?"
"We aren't sure about you, but you can check the forums," Ed answered. "For now there are just four of us: me, Tissa, Bomber and Infect. As for you, they have questions. But for what it's worth, we said you weren't with us."
"Did you at least get the loot back?"
"We did!" Hung exploded unexpectedly. "But we lost almost all our gear! None of us made it back to town on foot! They caught us all!"
"Where are you now?"
"Same place," Hung burbled. "The respawn point in the Olton Quarries."
"We all got brought down to level ten. They stripped us down to nothing!" Ed took a loud breath in through his nose. His voice dropped and he said barely audibly: "I lost my epic. Cloak of Urfin the Fiery. They won't let me leave. There are constantly headhunters waiting to rack up kills until the diminishing effect kicks in."
"What is that?"
"The same player or group can't kill one person more than three times in a row per day," Tissa explained. "After the third time, their attacks stop doing damage. So they switch out."
"What about teleportation?"
"It doesn't cast instantly," Hung complained. "They are looking out for that. They don't let us leave. Ed did manage once but he fell into the hands of the nagas, and they tore him up quick."
"What was I supposed to do?" Ed snorted. "Naked at level ten!"
"And is that gonna keep happening for long?" I asked.
"Until we leave the sandbox. Me and Hung flew over to see Big Po this morning. We wanted to come to an understanding..." Ed spat. "He just laughed! He told us he values the moral and material compensation at one hundred thousand gold. We've never had that kind of money, so..."
"We don't know, Alex!" Tissa moaned. "We don't know! We'll wait a few days, maybe things will quiet down. The biggest thing for us is to reach the city and get dressed. From there we can go off to some place without people, maybe the Mire, to level there. There's no other way."
"If it doesn't work, we'll quit Dis until we can go out into the big world," Ed threw out and changed his mind: "Hey, you think you can go with us? If we find a new ins, we could easily level only there! Alex!"
"It won't work, Ed. I don't have that curse anymore."
"What do you mean?" Rodriguez exploded. "Why?"
"I finished Patrick's quest. Right after that, the curse was removed."
"Aw nether!" the Dementors all shot out at once...
"So that means..." Ed squeezed out.
It was over... This was how my short friendship with the Dementors would end. Obviously no one said it out loud, but I could feel it. Disgardium was what connected us but when it was out of our lives, there was nothing to talk about. They sat out classes in silence, drily answering my greetings showing no desire to talk, and during breaks they would just disappear somewhere. Meanwhile, I didn't intrude. There wasn't even any time. All I knew was that a week later, they eventually did get into Tristad, bind there and were now preparing for an ill-considered flight to the Mire.
Greg, delighted at my renewed upwelling of interest in my studies, loaded me up not only with extra lessons but also homework, not limiting himself to the framework of the required school program. I then tried to make progress in it, using the time before my return to the game to maximum effect.
At home my parents had signed a ceasefire, and in that shaky peace both father and mother were particularly cautious in their words and actions. He stopped drinking, she stopped nagging. And they both threw themselves into a new project, having decided not to mess around and earn as much as they could before the divorce. I don't know what the deal was with mom's beau, but the whole two weeks of my ban she never once left home without father. It was like before, even better. But it was all just an illusion.
Eve, just after being discharged from the clinic, flew south to heal up. Mrs. O'Sullivan must have gotten the school to agree to distance learning. I still hadn't seen my old friend, but we did talk on our comms. She had changed a lot. I hadn't seen anything except her face, but that was plenty to make an impression on me. Eve had become perfect. Ideal. But still not to my taste.
In the evening of the last days of my ban, I got another letter from Marianna, congratulating me on the end of my immersion ban and reminding me that my required time in Dis was coming back. That was Tuesday.
And on Wednesday right after school, I ate dinner and crawled into my pod.

Welcome to Disgardium, Scyth!

Release - June 10, 2019

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