Tuesday, July 23, 2019

An NPC's Path: Deadman's Retinue by Pavel Kornev

An NPC's Path, Book 3
Deadman's Retinue
by Pavel Kornev

Release - October 21, 2019

Time left:
29 days 23:59:59...

WHAT’S A LEVEL-99 player capable of doing?
Well, practically everything. For example, he could use the Scroll of Rebirth.
Unfortunately, the player in question wasn’t me...

Barth Firefist
Level 99

... but it was my sworn enemy.
Barth would have no trouble ripping all four of us to shreds, and the worst thing was, he knew it. Why wouldn’t he? Goar - who was the most advanced among us - was still a good 25% below him. And Neo was just a weak NPC not worth mentioning. So Barth wasn’t at all afraid of coming up against any decent resistance, apparently intending to trump everything with his first blow.
With a resounding whoosh, a swirling vortex of flame formed around him and shot up, licking the marble of the stairwell and spilling every which way as if it were alive, roaring and howling.

In an instant, my mithril mask became almost red-hot. I had to activate the Veil of Death. I felt a little better, but the defense spell was quickly depleting my energy stocks. I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for much longer.
Goar had it even worse: the flames were licking his black armor, trying to find their way in and forcing the orc to retreat toward the bookshelves. To no avail: the fire had already consumed the entire ground floor of the library. Barth wasn’t playing for peanuts: he’d invested his all into the fight, not willing to leave us a single chance of survival.
Even Isabella - who was perfectly at home with the element of Fire - now appeared lost. Unable to counter the fiery spell, she put up a desperate defense. Barth, however, had no intention of just standing there like an idiot. Roaring with laughter, he swung his diabolical mace and threw himself at us.
Indeed it was! We were all like sinners consumed by hellfire.
I raised my flamberge, ready to counter the mace (bad, bad idea!) but Barth changed the direction of the blow at the last moment, selecting Isabella as his target. Caught off guard, the Elven priestess received an almighty whack with a fiery spiked steel ball which threw her against the wall.
You bastard!
The momentum of Barth’s attack had turned his back to me. I swung my flamberge with all my might, burying it into a gap between his armor and his helmet.

Powerful Blow! Accurate Blow!

The swing itself was a beauty but unfortunately, it didn’t book any result. The flames which licked his reddish-orange armor suddenly solidified, bearing the brunt of the blow. The freezing cold harbored within my sword proved stronger than hellfire itself, dispelling the fiery spell which disintegrated with the sound of breaking glass. My undulating blade glanced off Barth’s armor with a screech, unable to penetrate it.
Forgetting all about Isabella sprawled on the floor, Barth turned round in a graceful, almost dancing motion. Now it was my turn to dodge the terrible mace. The fire raging inside tried to impede my movement, forcing me into the weapon’s path. Still, I easily slid out of its singeing embrace, evading Barth's deadly weapon.
He laughed. “I can see you’ve been practicing!”
Even though he’d failed to get the Scroll of Rebirth, Barth seemed to be in an excellent mood. Why wouldn’t he be? His fiery blow had put us on the defensive, stripping us of the possibility of engaging the lone opponent in a merry-go-round of attacks from all sides in order to exhaust him and finish him off.
Now there was nothing we could offer against him.
Offer? We were simply burning alive!
My skin under the red-hot mask began to hiss. There was only one cold thing left in the whole world: my flamberge. Unfortunately, the ice trapped within it couldn’t counter the fierce onslaught of the element of Fire.
Run! We had to get out of here. Now!
The universal knowledge I’d received with the sword now offered me the path of the shortest retreat. I cast one last glance at the cornered Isabella, then stepped back.
And then...
Then it was all over. The furious light of the magic fire had faded; so had the unbearable heat of the Paladin’s righteous fury, replaced by a blissful, cool darkness.
“What the hell?” Barth cussed. “Are you messing with me?”
Triumphant crowing resounded from above. Tilting my head back, I saw Neo standing stock still on the stairs overhead, exuding waves of healing darkness. The young man was shaking and reeling from side to side as the pitch blackness that now lived within him escaped, extinguishing the sunrays seeping through the windows.
Barth followed my gaze. He bared his teeth in a hateful grin but didn’t get the chance to do much more. A furious roar echoed through the room, shaking the still-burning bookcases. A moment later, the smoke parted, releasing Goar’s black bulk. Normally, the power of Equilibrium would have helped him to either immobilize or slow his opponents down. This time, however, he used the other side of his skill, slowing down  time itself. With the speed of a crossbow bolt and the power of a torpedo, the orc flashed through the room and clattered into Barth.
The two heavily armored warriors rolled toward the far wall, striking a flurry of sparks off the stone floor. Goar ended up on top and took full advantage of the situation. Not having the time to draw his sword, he simply smashed his armored fist against his opponent’ helmet, bending the visor.
Still, my enemy kept his wits about him. He uttered a short spell which threw Goar off as if he were a ragdoll, sending the orc flying against a still-smoking bookcase which disintegrated on impact, Goar landing on top of all the debris.
Barth climbed to his feet and once again began swinging his mace. This time, however, the fiery storm couldn’t burn us alive anymore. Goar promptly recovered, jumped back to his feet and covered Isabella with his body.
“Die, you worm!” Barth growled as he swung his arm, launching an orange fireball at the orc.
Isabella held out her staff in front of her, deflecting the combat spell. The fireball hit and smashed a window in a cascade of glittering shards.
Emboldened by her success, the priestess lashed out at Barth with her ghostly whip. Still, the attack was thwarted by the orange armor and crumbled without doing any damage.
I glanced at Neo. The boy was still busy blocking Barth’s fiery magic. His face was drawn and beaded with sweat, his white-knuckled fingers clenching the banister. The freshly-minted Commander of the Order of the Black Phoenix has reached the end of his tether and couldn’t help us any further.
Oh well. In that case, everything depended upon the strength of our weapons.
Barth took another swing with his mace. Goar blocked the blow with his pauldron. He staggered but stayed on his feet and even managed to strike back with his sword, penetrating the paladin’s armor with its black blade. Immediately I slid behind Barth’s back and struck his thigh.
The edge of my undulating blade sliced through the joint in Barth’s armor, dealing a bleeding wound. Barth cussed as he swung his terrible weapon again. Like a fiery comet, it struck me right on the head.

Damage taken: 688 [470/1440]

A moment before the impact, I had started to duck, so the mace only glanced off me,but it was enough to send me sprawling onto my back. My game logs exploded with new messages reporting a new level gained as well as my current resistance to fire and magic. My head swam. My eyes - or my eye, rather - dimmed. Before I could recover my vision, I rolled to the side and stealthed up.
Unwilling to chase an invisible target, Barth switched back to the orc. Time and time again, his heavy mace flashed gracefully through the air while Goar struggled under its pressure, unable to counterattack.
Isabella wisely kept out of it, concentrating on blocking all the attack spells while pumping Goar’s magic shields with energy and casting an occasional blessing upon him.
Once again I slid behind Barth's back - but this time, Stealth failed to deceive him. The spiky ball crafted with an alloy of steel and fire met me full-on, forcing me to somersault aside. My next attack, however, was slightly more successful, my  blow hitting Barth precisely where I’d aimed, the sturdiness of his armor the only thing that saved him from serious harm.
Burn in hell, you scumbag!
His wounded thigh didn’t seem to hinder him in the slightest. He'd long restored his depleted health using some healing spells. Goar, however, didn't boast such stamina. He started missing blows more often, losing his footing, his sword slow and cumbersome in his hand. Isabella’s support couldn’t really do much to tilt the battle in our favor; all she did was postpone the inevitable.
And Barth seemed to be indefatigable. He kept blocking our attacks with his sword, not letting us deal a precise blow to the joints of his armor - all this while methodically beating the crap out of Goar.
Suddenly Barth turned his attention from Goar. With a clever flourish, he hurled his mace at me. I was saved by my Leap. The fiery mace cannonballed past, only to be followed by yet another swing, forcing me to constantly duck and recoil in an attempt to put some distance between us.
Goar tried to counterattack. Barth noticed the danger just in time, parrying the blow with his magic shield which trapped Goar’s sword in its viscous embrace. The mace chain twirled itself around the orc’s sword, ripping it out of his hand. Isabella dashed forward and parried the next deadly blow with her staff.
Just as the two warriors gripped each other in a clinch, Barth hurled Isabella through the air.
We were toast.
We might actually still be able to get the hell out of here while we still had the chance.
Right at that moment, a figure appeared in the doorway, clad in a full suit of armor with pauldrons fashioned as lions’ heads with bared teeth. Its helmet was shaped like the head of a tiger.
Prince Julian.
He took a swing with his spear. There was no way I could dodge its leaf-shaped tip.
Talk about bad timing. As if he couldn’t have respawned some other time!
He hurled the spear with all his might, launching it through the room. I watched it sink into Barth’s orange armor, entering his body between his shoulder blades, its tip protruding out of his chest.
Unfortunately, the spell which was deadly for the undead had failed to deal the paladin much damage. He swung round.
“You!” Barth gasped.
Without saying a word, Julian drew a two-handed sword from behind his back and went straight on the attack. His recent defeat must have really pissed him off, seeing as he’d even forgotten all about me, impatient to get even with Barth.
Or was it because of Isabella?
With a clatter of steel, Barth the Paladin and Julian the Dark Knight were now locked in combat. I hurried toward Goar’s sword lying on the floor and kicked it toward the orc. Goar quickly perked up and grabbed it, then sprang to help Julian corner his opponent. He did so quite cautiously, though, and wasn’t in a hurry to stick his neck out, preferring to play the support role.
I wasn’t really looking forward to falling prey to a chance blow, either. Now and again I’d shorten the distance between us and jab at the joints in Barth's orange armor, then promptly stealth up, all the while keeping a watchful eye on Prince Julian. Trust him to give me a taste of his sword at the least opportune moment.
By now, Isabella had changed her tactics too, assaulting Barth with brief flashes of combat spells. Although most of them were absorbed by his resistance to magic, she did manage to deal occasional damage, forcing the paladin to jolt and make mistakes. Stripped of his divine magic, he gradually began to knuckle under. Compared to Prince Julian who was very experienced in hand-to-hand fighting, all Barth could do was cover himself, losing health which was now at 50%... 33%... 25%....
Come on! Just a bit more!
At this point, Barth transformed into a fiery flourish which exploded in an avalanche of new blows. Disengaging from Julian, he went for Goar and wrapped the chain of his mace around his neck.
“Die, you swine!” Barth roared, ripping Goar’s head off. As simple as that.
The orc’s beheaded body collapsed to the ground. Once again I recoiled, about to scamper away. Then I promptly changed my mind and stopped.
Shit! I only had a month to make level 99! Only a month! How could I miss the chance to earn a shedload of XP for killing the paladin?

Haste! Rapid Strikes!

My greed and desperation propelled me forward. I lunged at Barth, every bit as fast as he was. Faster even.
Barth parried my first blow with the shaft of his mace. My two subsequent blows found their target, but only the second one was a success as my flamberge’s undulating blade glanced off his knee-piece and slid into the joint of his armor, slicing through the flesh.
I drew back. Still, Barth wasn’t going to chase after me. His supernatural acceleration had already left him. His wounded leg buckled under him.
That’s when he went berserk. With a sharp swing, he hurled his mace at Neo, twirling it around him and jerking him off his feet.
The darkness dispelled. I sensed the return of the fiery heat.
The paladin laughed, wrapping himself in the scorching embrace of the fire aura. “That’s your lot!”
This time he didn’t bother to start a firestorm. Instead, he himself transformed into a tongue of blinding flame. Two fiery swords grew out of his hands. His very first blows burned effortlessly through Prince Julian’s blue armor, evaporating a curse hurled by Isabella. In a split second, the tables had been turned.
What a scumbag!
I almost choked on the wave of fury which flooded over me.
That’s when I heard an almighty crowing overhead. Scarecrow dropped onto the scene - but instead of descending onto Barth as I’d expected him to, he dove onto Prince Julian, the phoenix’s dead black shadow enveloping the knight’s armor and altering it ever so imperceptibly.
The eyeslits of the tiger helmet lit up with hell’s dark flames. The lion heads crowning Julian’s  pauldrons came to life and bared their teeth. The armor itself turned dark and slimy like the hide of a submarine monster. Julian’s two-handed sword now resembled a bluish black lash which effortlessly repelled the next blow from Barth’s fiery saber while the scaly armor fended off the paladin’s other sword.
Before Barth could do anything, his cuirass was cleft in two by a return blow. Immediately Julian struck again, this time aiming at his enemy’s legs. Barth’s wounded knee betrayed him, preventing him from leaping out of the way; he staggered and barely managed to stay on his feet. As he stepped back, I saw my chance. In a powerful but accurate combo, I thrust my flamberge forward, burying it with all my might into a gap between his pauldron and his breastplate. Barth’s left arm dangled listlessly.

Critical hit! Crippling injury!

Prince Julian immediately rushed back into the fray. He brandished his metamorphed sword with terrifying speed, sinking its black blade time and time again into Barth’s orange armor. The paladin’s health dwindled quickly. I only had time for one or two more slashing blows when Isabella joined in the massacre and gave Barth an almighty whack with her staff.
Roger the skull - which had grown a nice layer of spikes - crushed the damaged visor, turning Barth’s face into a bloody mess. With a wave of his arms, he dropped onto his back. The glow exuded by his armor faded.
At first, I didn’t even realize he was now dead. Then a system message flashed through my field of vision, reporting the XP received. This was followed by an avalanche of new level alerts.
How many of them were there? One... two... ten!
Although I’d only received my share of XP, the game had generously rewarded me for the victory over such a high-level player, allowing me to jump 10 levels from 60 to 70. Then again, it wasn’t much reason to celebrate: somehow I doubted that Barth would be quite so easily defeatable ever again - and in order to activate the Scroll of Rebirth, I still needed to earn about 13 times more XP compared to what I’d just been awarded for this little slaughter.
And where was I supposed to find equally juicy mobs?
I gave Prince Julian an appraising look but, having met his glare ablaze with hell’s flames, I hurried to step back.
“Don’t  even think about it, boys,” Isabella said, arising from Barth’s body with a chainmail belt in her hands.
After a brief hesitation, Julian sheathed his sword on his back. The darkness which had transformed his armor now shrank back like a snake shedding its skin. His armor regained its original luster.
With a triumphant crowing, Scarecrow materialized out of thin air and shot upward.
Shit! Neo!
I ran up the stairs and heaved a sigh of relief. Barth’s mace had failed to kill the boy, only stunning him. Neo was already sitting on the floor, wiping his bloodied face with his sleeve.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I’m okay, Uncle John,” the young man replied as he raised his hand. Scarecrow flew down and alighted on it.
Although I hadn’t seen their stats, all things pointed to the fact that Barth’s death had brought them a fair slice of the gaming pie.
“And what was that?” I asked. “I mean, what did you do to Prince Julian?”
Neo climbed to his feet and shook his head to come back to his senses. “A Blessing of True Darkness,” he caught my quizzical stare and added, “You can’t use it on dead creatures. And as for Goar and Auntie Bella, they’re dedicated to other beings.”
I chuckled. “Talk about luck.”
Just as I said it, the door was kicked open. Several players piled in from the street.
I reached for my sword but promptly calmed down as I recognized Grakh among them. These were our Black Tracker escorts. I just hoped that they didn’t hold it against us that they’d been dragged into this meat grinder. Otherwise we would never fight our way out.
At the sight of Prince Julian, the warriors bared their swords.
Isabella hurried to step forward. “He’s with us!”
“Whatever,” Grakh mumbled unhappily.
The priestess ran up the stairs. “Julian, come with me! Grakh, you check the second floor! Don’t forget to post a watch! Grab all the scrolls!”
“Right,” the Barbarian replied,  with much more enthusiasm this time. When did he ever turn his nose up at a good bit of looting?
I chuckled and hurried after Isabella and Julian up to the third floor. That’s where they kept the most valuable books.

Time left: 29 days 22:38:13…

TO MY SURPRISE, Isabella managed to organize our looting foray in an uncharacteristically practical manner. Each of us, even Neo, was given an area to search. We rummaged through bookcases and carried our discoveries to her for further sorting. The sheer amount of scrolls precluded us from loading up the whole lot.
Strangely enough, Prince Julian worked alongside all the others without even attempting to question her orders. I tried to give him a wide birth but we still bumped into each other in the narrow corridors of the library. Whenever we passed each other, neither of us let our guard down.
Our own greed prevented us from going for each other’s throats. The sale of all the looted scrolls could fetch us a whole heap of gold, so this wasn’t the right moment to start any silly quarrels.
And although our paths were bound to cross in the future, this prospect worried me much less than the countdown timer hovering in the corner of my eye. Whether created by the game or my own overwrought imagination, this visual proof of the seconds burning away really got to me as I watched my remaining time literally slipping through my fingers.
A month! Only a month! Less than thirty days!
If I failed to make level 99 and activate the Scroll of Rebirth in order to bring myself back to life, that would be the end of me. The moment they had no more need of me, all charity would end and someone would pull the plug on my hospital bills.
A sharp pain shot through my back. I smelled scorched flesh. My whole body was racked by a convulsion. I fell forward onto the bookcase just as Goar came back into the game. Clad in armor from head to toe, the Paladin of Equilibrium clattered to the floor, drawing his sword from behind his back.
“It’s all right,” I reassured him, struggling to overcome my malaise. Apparently, being the altar of the Mistress of the Crimson Moon wasn’t the most pleasant sensation in this world. “Grab some scrolls and take them to Isabella.”
“Is he with us?” the orc asked in surprise, glimpsing Julian’s outline in a neighboring corridor.
“Sort of,” I replied non-committally, loading myself with books and carrying them to the front hall. When I saw that Isabella was alone, I asked, “You sure you can keep the Prince on a short leash?”
She smiled. “Don’t you worry, kitten. Everything’s under control.”
Admittedly, her reply failed to reassure me. Still, I chose not to dwell on it. Instead, I changed the subject.
“Goar’s come back.”
“I felt it.”
“And if the vampires get killed, will they respawn next to me too? They’re really the last thing we need here. Also, I can’t say I enjoyed the experience.”
“I’ve already deleted them from your respawn point,” she replied. “You’d better get back to work! Nobody’s gonna let us rule the roost for long. This place is far too coveted.”
Oh yes, she was dead right there. We could expect visitors any moment now. And if they happened to be some Spawn of Darkness looters, then the big question was how Julian would react.
I cussed under my breath and hurried back to the depository. I even managed to empty a few bookcases when I heard Neo’s voice,
“The Lighties are coming!”
Air reconnaissance is a great thing, whatever you say. All this time, Scarecrow had been circling above the library. He’d noticed the enemy’s avant-garde just in time, allowing Isabella enough time to cast a portal.
She pointed at the pile of books and scrolls. “Take as much as you can manage,” she leaned over the banister and shouted down, “Grakh! We’ve got guests! Start building barricades! We need to play for time!”
The sound of bookcases being upended was her answer.
We hurried to scoop the trophies into our bags, starting with the most valuable ones. That done, we continued packing our inventories with everything we could lay our hands on. Isabella took no further part in it, busy building some complex spell. It sort of reminded me of the incandescent cloud back in the Dungeon of the Dead, only this time the fiery lines that reached out to the ceiling forming the outline of a majestic figure expired before they could heat up to a forbidding crimson.
I had no idea what she was up to but it didn’t bode well for the approaching Lighties. Actually, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to join in the slaughter.
It was all experience, wasn’t it? I could always use some more.
The sound of an entry being forced came from below. The warriors of the Sons of Light stormed the building and stomped up the staircase. They were met by a flight of arrows which failed to stop them. The barricade of the upended bookcases did the job much better, though.
In the heat of the fray, a few enemy sorcerers decided to use Levitation to get to the second floor but Goar and Julian lifted an empty bookcase and hurled it down onto them while Pathfinder archers peppered them with arrows until they retreated.
In the actual stairwell, however, the odds weren’t going in our favor. The enemy was much more numerous. I supported Grakh’s men by launching one Arrow of Death after the other but the measly damage dealt by my spells couldn’t turn the situation round. The enemy continued to hurl fireballs and bolts of lightning from below until we lost one barricade, then another.
The Sons of Light kept up the pressure. Their fighters had already flooded the staircase, replacing each other when necessary. We had less than a dozen Pathfinders left standing.
When we reached the landing between the second and third floors, Grakh was about to engage everyone in a pitched battle.
“Enough!” Isabella called. “Let’s get out of here!”
She was the first to dive into the portal, followed by all the rest. Lingering, I noticed a crimson cloud form under the ceiling, about to release torrents of liquid flame. The next moment, the library tower became a blazing inferno.

Time left: 29 days 20:47:28…

THE CAPITAL of the dark side of the world was located upon hundreds of islands in the Azure River delta: the smooth waters of the seemingly boundless bay, majestic temples,luxurious palaces and grim clan castles, dominated by the imposing Tower of Darkness could be seen from any point in the city. The sheer affluence of it; all the expanse and grandeur!
We, however, had been ported to a small closed courtyard, dark and damp, its overhanging roofs allowing only a glimpse of the sky.
“What the hell?” I snapped, looking at the moldy walls surrounding us. “Where do you think we are? Or is it all part of your plan?”
“Of course not!” Isabella retorted. “The force field isn’t stable, that’s all. It must have caused the exit point to shift. I was going to port us to Lloyd’s shop!”
I opened the map. Apparently, we’d been released on a neighboring island about ten minutes’ walk from our supposed destination.
“Okay,” I shrugged. “Let’s take a walk.”
“Shut up!” she held up her hand and closed her eyes. “Give me five minutes!”
Goar removed his closed helmet and gave a broad toothy grin, exposing his fangs. “You can have ten if you want,” he sniggered as a barely visible glow enveloped his body.
Aha! He'd received a new level too!
I gave Prince Julian an appraising look. He didn’t seem in a hurry to distribute his freshly-gained points. So I too decided against it. Distributing points is a rather intimate pastime, don’t you think? Also, I was very close to another upgrade of my undead side. You never knew who I might turn into. It would be better to wait.
Only half a dozen Pathfinder warriors had survived the battle. None of them seemed in a hurry to leave us. As for Grakh, he didn’t let Isabella out of his sight.
I’d love to know what kind of deal they had between them.
“Uncle John!” Neo walked over to me, then added under his breath, “I can open a portal to the shop and take you with me. But only you.”
His ginger hair made a stunning contrast with his pale complexion, appearing almost fiery, his eyes unfathomable pools of black. The newly-baked Commander of the Order of the Black Phoenix had evolved from a gap-toothed boy to a scrawny teenager who hadn’t yet come to grips with his new status.
A piece of program code? I beg to differ...
“No, thanks,” I patted him on the shoulder. “I think I’ll wait for Isabella.”
“Please be careful, both of you.”
Just as he said it, I heard the sound of an explosion not very far away. The earth shook underfoot.
“Neo?” I said, becoming anxious. “Can I borrow Scarecrow?”
He nodded. The dead phoenix hopped from his shoulder onto mine and fidgeted unhappily, leaving claw marks on my armor.
“See you in the shop!” Neo shouted. A shimmering aura enveloped him; then it faded as Neo disappeared from the here and now. This didn’t at all resemble a normal teleportation.
Clever little shit!
I threw Scarecrow into the air. “Go, birdie! Go!”
With an indignant squark, the black phoenix took to the wing. My ability to control the dead had formed a mental link between us, allowing me to see the area through the bird’s eyes.
And I can tell you, this was something to behold. The sky was enveloped in a gray haze. In the distance, pillars of black smoke rose over burning buildings. Combat spells flashed through the air. Two groups of players clashed in a desperate fight on a nearby street: their war cries, barely audible over the rattling of weapons, were picked up by the phoenix’s sharp hearing.
“Darkness!” one group shouted.
“Chaos!” the other replied.
I opened my eyes and shook my head, trying to recover. “Darkness and Chaos? What’s this, a civil war or something?”
“More like a St. Bartholomew’s night,” chuckled Goar who’d already finished distributing his points. “The Darkies are massacring the Chaosites.”
Hearing this, the Black Trackers leader shivered uncomfortably and pointed his warriors to the courtyard’s exit.
“Let’s kick some butt!” he shouted as he drew his sword from his shoulder scabbard.
My uncomprehending gaze followed the players as they left. I demanded an explanation from Goar but before he could answer, Prince Julian piped up,
“Some of the Darkies have switched sides and joined Chaos, so they’ve been declared outlaws.”
“That’s right,” Goar said. “Those who didn’t manage to get out of the city in time are now fair game for everyone.”
I whistled in surprise. The admins must have noticed the Darkies’ military superiority. It must have been them who’d organized this little confrontation in order to redress the game's balance which had been disturbed by the Darks' zealous enthusiasm in seizing the Light Towers of Power. But if so...
I looked at Isabella. “And what about the Mistress of the Crimson Moon?”
Prince Julian sniggered. “What a dumbass! Once a zombie, always a zombie!”
 “Our foxy priestess is now with the Chaosites,” Goar said with a grin, confirming my suspicions.
I looked back at the Black Trackers.  But...”
“I can’t work it out, either,” Goar replied under his breath.
It was nice to see that even Julian was at a loss this time.
Just then, Isabella sighed noisily as she came out of her trance. Goar’s eyes widened as he looked at her.
I could understand him. She was already level 61, and somehow I didn’t think she’d gotten it all just for killing Barth. Even if you counted her burning of the Lighties back in the library, this kind of progress was still suspiciously fast.
“I can’t open a portal from here,” the priestess announced. “We’ll have to walk back to the shop.”
“Do we have to?” Goar grumbled. “What the hell for?”
“We need to get rid of the scrolls before every auction is stuffed with trophies from the Kingdom of the dead,” she explained.
Her desire to cream off all the spoils seemed a good enough reason to take the risk.
I opened the map. “It’s about a mile away. There aren’t many people around but there’s a bridge on our way.”
Julian cracked a condescending grin. “We’ll battle through,” he beamed as he caught Isabella’s approving glance.
“Are you ready?” she asked Grakh.
‘Yes! Move out!” the Barbarian commanded.
The Black Trackers were the first to advance into the blind alley. I hurried after them to point them in the right direction.
Scarecrow circled the sky above the rooftops. With his help, we had no problem sticking to deserted lanes in order to avoid groups of players regardless of their affiliation. Goar had been right: here in the city, orthodox Darkies had the upper hand, storming the Chaosites’ fortifications, rounding them up and posting pickets.
The game had acquired a yet unseen urgency, especially for those hapless players who’d picked the wrong side. Still, the balance was a sacred thing which might endow the Chaosites with quite a few unique skills and abilities for their troubles. Freebies like those were worth dying for; they were probably even worth selling your soul for - in real life as well as in the game.
You think I have a bad opinion of the human race? I wish.
Having met no one on our route, we finally delved into a maze of windy side lanes when we were jumped by three players  hiding in a gateway.
“Darkness or Chaos?” they shouted before they could even work out our affiliation.
“Equilibrium!” Goar snapped, shaking his sword. Confused, the players quickly made themselves scarce. Not one of them was above level 50: our group was way out of their league.
At the next crossroads, I raised my hand, motioning everybody to stop. The embankment lay before us, with a picket posted on a stone bridge across one of the wide channels. The entry to the bridge was barricaded with furniture looted from the neighboring houses. Several archers wearing identical black armbands were sitting on it.
Although there were barely a dozen Darks there - whom we could handle if push came to shove, - there were also two figures in gray robes, frozen by the pentagrams chalked onto the paving stones further on.
Scarecrow banked into a steep turn, allowing me to take a better look of the casters.
Shit! They were demonologists! There was no knowing what type of legions from hell they might summon once we tried to battle through.
I told Isabella about this sudden hurdle.
She cringed. “Don’t even count on me. I haven’t quite restored yet.”
“The next bridge is too far from here,” Grakh said, frowning. “We’ll have to take a detour across two more islands.”
“My time is almost up,” Goar growled. “How about you?” he squinted at Julian. “Can’t you get us through?”
Julian shook his head. “They’re not my clanmates. They won’t listen to me.”
“Then we’ll have to battle through,” I said, not seeing any other way of reaching the far bank. “Get ready!”
I stealthed up, seeing no reason to continue this pointless conversation. There was still a slight chance of some particularly observant guard noticing me due to my insufficient stealth level, but luckily, it never happened. I jumped onto the parapet and walked right past the barricade, but none of the archers were the wiser.
They must have used very average players to block the bridge: people who were more than happy, for a few Reputation points, to serve as a living shield for the demonologists who were the ones I had to deal with.
I knew perfectly well that no amount of luck would allow me to take out both of them. I had to think out of the box. I chose one of them: a grim woman who appeared to be the more dangerous of the two. Still standing on the parapet, I threw my magic lasso over her and yanked her toward me while launching myself at the other caster.
The woman shrieked, her body hitting the water below with a splash. I already stood behind the other demonologist’s back: a Dark Elf, his robes decorated with complex embroidery.
The undulating blade of my flamberge sliced through the puny caster's chest.

Powerful Blow! Critical Hit! Damage dealt: 1070
Player Ron Brother of Abyss has been killed!
Experience: +1220 [107 239/114 000]; +1220 [107 283/114 000]
Darkness: -50, Chaos: +17

He dropped dead onto the cobblestones, right in the middle of his own pentacle. Luckily, no demons got the chance to come to our world, but even without them, I didn’t have it easy. The other players all came for me at once, and no amount of dodge could have saved me from a few direct hits. My breastplate repelled some of the blows - but even so, I’d immediately lost a good 25% of health.
Death was imminent - until the barricade flew into the air in a cascade of burning debris. It was Goar, Prince Julian and all of the Black Trackers trying to turf the bridge defenders off. The archers didn’t even get the chance to loose off a single arrow before they were all mowed down, followed by the warriors. Finally, Isabella made the river water boil, cooking the female demonologist alive.
“Let’s get going!” she shouted.
We rushed over to the opposite bank.
We managed to cover another couple of locks without a hitch when Scarecrow screeched at the top of his lungs.
I reestablished my link with him and surveyed the area from a bird’s eye point of view. “Watch out!”
A dozen mounted Valkyries appeared, galloping three abreast toward us along a narrow side street. This in actual fact saved us: in the resulting melee of men and horses, we managed to fight our way into a gateway and across a courtyard that opened up into a quiet boulevard that led toward old Lloyd’s shop.
“This way!” Isabella shouted as she dove into the shop’s back yard. As soon as the gate closed shut behind the last of the Black Trackers, we heard the horses’ hooves clatter over the cobblestones outside: the Valkyries rode past without noticing us.
We’d made it.

Time left: 29 days 19:55:49…

ONCE IN THE SHOP, Goar elbowed his way to the counter and poured all the scrolls out onto it.
“I’ll be waiting for my cut!” he warned us before logging out.
Seeing as only three of the Black Trackers had survived the last skirmish, his leaving had considerably shifted the balance of power in our little group. I cast a wary glance at Prince Julian, but he was too busy fawning about Isabella like a lapdog.
Lovey dovey, bah.
“Stand in line!” Ulrich ordered. “I can’t serve you all at the same time!”
First, he took the scrolls off the remaining Black Trackers who then promptly logged out, too. Now Grakh was the only one left in the shop. The burly Barbarian posted himself by the window and looked out onto the street, not even trying to conceal his anxiety. Still, he didn’t dare hustle Isabella.
Nevertheless, I’d love to know what kind of deal they’d arranged behind my back.  What kind of consequences might it have for me?
I heaved a sigh, then opened my status tab.
Strangely enough, I hadn’t received the PK mark despite the fact that I’d killed that demonologist back on the bridge. Neither had any of the others. Did that mean that the devs had issued all players a license to kill and do as they pleased? Not a good idea. That way, the Chaosites might not end up being the only victims; in fact, the incensed players might start slaughtering everyone in sight.
But once my eyes fell on a new bar entitled Darkness/Chaos, everything fell into place. Its slider had barely moved - but if I continued to smoke Darkies I might be automatically switched to the Chaos camp.
What an elegant solution: to gather all the scum of the earth under the banner of Chaos where they truly belonged. Because true Darkness was the epitome of true order, the kind that the powers of Light couldn’t ever aspire to.
Having said that, the Lights had their own share of hangups, too.
Neo’s voice awoke me from my musings.
“Uncle John!” the boy called, going down the stairs. “Your cup!”
He gingerly held the Moon Grail by the chain in his outstretched hand, clearly fearful of touching it accidentally.
I walked up the stairs and took it from him. “Thanks. I’d forgotten all about it.”
His smile betrayed obvious relief. The boy slid down the banister and walked out into the back yard.
I stroked the cold silver side of the Grail and stashed it into my inventory.
“Kitten!” Isabella called as she took a set of regenerating potions from the shop assistant. “You’re the last one! Turf out your stuff! Don’t keep us hanging about!”
I began unpacking all the scrolls, books and parchments, laying them on the counter. In the meantime, the priestess gulped all the colorful elixirs and waved her hand in the air, casting a portal to places unknown.
“Wait a sec,” I said, alarmed. “What about the money?”
“The scrolls will be auctioned off,” she said. “That way we might get more for them. Come on! It’s time we got out of here!”
“Where to?”
“To my mistress’ tower. Staying in the city is too dangerous.”
The door opened a crack, revealing Neo’s curious head. “Can I come with you, Auntie Bella?”
“Come here,” Isabella said, making some kind of sign over him, then did the same to both Grakh and Prince Julian.
The fact that she’d ignored me didn’t sit good with me. “Wait a sec. What was that now?”
Isabella laughed. “Didn’t you see what was going on in the city, kitten? Darks aren’t gonna be welcome in the lands of Chaos. My mark will protect them. It’s a bit like the friend-foe system.”
“Well, that’s nice for them!” I said, indignant. “So I don’t need your protection, then?”
“Kitten, please. Use your brain. First, you’re not a Dark one. Secondly, you already have my mistress’ mark. Have you forgotten about the altar? You’re now a latent Chaosite, kitten.”
Grakh and Julian exchanged meaningful glances, then guffawed.
I cringed. “Sounds a bit suggestive, don’t you think?”
“Don’t worry. Only the most observant of them will sense the Chaos in you. And you should be staying away from them, anyway.”

She couldn’t have made her hint at my undead nature any clearer. I shrugged. “Just forget it.”

Ulrich coughed theatrically. “Would you mind getting the hell out of here already? This thing makes me nervous,” he said, pointing at the portal.
Isabella smirked. “As you wish,” she walked over to the portal and motioned us to follow her. “Don’t lag behind!”
We tagged on after her.

NIGHTFALL. A grim tower, built with brown stone veined with scarlet. A huge crimson moon, hanging high in the sky.
The small town nestled on the empty prairie. Not a single light disturbed its dark expanse which reached to the horizon. But the town itself resembled a disturbed anthill. The place was bustling with workers busy building fortifications out of granite blocks and magic. Countless NPCs were digging moats supervised by priestesses who placed holy relics in the foundations.
The town was preparing for a siege - and it didn’t look as if they’d make it.
Still, why was it night here?
As I voiced my question, Isabella gave me a funny look. “That’s how our protection manifests itself,” she deigned to reply. “This way, we’re safe from any attack for three months.”
Grakh coughed, attracting our attention. “I’ll go, then?”
“Please do. They’re waiting for you in the temple.”
The Barbarian dashed into the night. Isabella followed unhurriedly.
“Where are we going now?” I asked.
“The Sisters will put us up in the guest house.”
We strode along the dark streets of the little town.
Three months of never-ending night? The idea gave me shivers. The dead might be used to the pitch blackness of underground tunnels, but three months? That’s a bit too much.
Shit! What was I talking about, three months? I only had one month left! One month!
Twenty-nine days, eighteen hours and how many minutes?
And in this relatively short time, I was supposed to earn over a million XP point? 1,300,000, to be precise. What guest house was she talking about? I had to go and start smoking mobs ASAP!
Strangely enough, Isabella seemed to have lost all interest in my problems after her recent outburst. She walked in front, talking to Prince Julian as if nothing had happened.
“If you don’t take the orcs’ territories into account, the lands of Chaos are scattered all over the world,” she was telling him. “I don’t think we’ll be able to unite them.”
“Don’t the Light have their share of renegades?”
“They do, but far fewer. It’s still not quite clear to us which of the enclaves will fall and which might become the harbingers of the new world.”
Harbingers of a new world? Was she off her rocker?
I was dying to shout, You’d better get on with your work! Are you a lieutenant or not? Still, I didn’t really feel like airing our dirty linen in public. Prince Julian was the last person I wanted to hear about my problems.
Dammit! Why would Isabella suck up to this nonentity?
Was I jealous? The thought caught me unawares. I gave a mental chuckle. I was indeed. I could say I was jealous! At the moment, I needed her undivided attention. All her in-game time should be devoted exclusively to me. And instead, this “lieutenant” was making eyes to a total stranger! That just wouldn't do.
I sighed. Neo was walking alongside me, staring curiously around.  Talk about carefree.
And he was immortal to boot. Not the fake immortality of human players - he had the whole of eternity in front of him. Or... at least until the last server of the Towers of Power shut down. Which was still nothing to sniff at. He had more time than me, that’s for sure.
Neo watched Scarecrow soar back into the sky. “Uncle John, what’s with all the gold we get from the scrolls? Would you like to take my share?”
I really wanted to say yes. I was dying to. I even knew what I’d spend it on. Still, I shook my head. “You keep it.”
“What am I gonna do with it?” he asked in surprise.
“What about the Order’s treasury? You’ll have to recruit more followers and build new temples,” I stopped and snapped my fingers. “Wait a sec! Are you sure you have at least one temple already? Where are you going to respawn if you get killed?”
“Sure,” he said. “I received that shrine in the mountains.”
The young Commander of the Order of the Black Phoenix lingered behind, pensive, while I caught up with Isabella and Julian.
Just as we walked past the central entrance of the Temple of the Crimson Moon, Grakh came running out of it, shouting,
“It worked!”
I stared at him, trying to pinpoint the change in him but noticing nothing new. He was still the co-chairman of the Black Trackers clan. Then my gaze fell on a new line in his status:

Guard of the Crimson Moon

Grakh had switched sides and joined Chaos? Why was he so happy, then?
Prince Julian proved quicker off the mark. “So!” he drawled, turning to Isabella. “His whole clan has sworn allegiance to your mistress?”
She smiled. A shimmering crimson haze enveloped her, merging with her own aura, empowering her and filling her with incredible force. She’d become the High Priestess!
My jaw dropped. How come?
“You’d better shut your mouth, kitten,” she said, “you’ll catch flies.”
“We need to talk!”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Later!” she snapped, turning back to Graph. “Can you open the portal on your own, guys?”
“We can,” he replied. “But we’ll do it tomorrow.”
The outline of his body began to flicker, then faded as he logged out.
Today had been a real day of surprises, dammit! You could say that again.
I stared hard at Isabella again, but she didn’t allow me to utter a word.
“Not now!” she quipped as she started to skirt the temple.
We walked all the way around the grim edifice, then threaded our way through a maze of narrow passages and blind walls, leaving behind the flashes of magic, the shouting and the builders’ fussing about. It was now completely dark; even the ominous light of the Crimson Moon couldn’t penetrate down here.
I was seething inside, eager to clear up the situation here and now. Still, some stills are better left unsaid in the presence of strangers, so I had to hold fire.
I had to wait. Wait.
Wait! And wait! How I hated the word!
By the time we’d reached the guest house, I was completely beside myself. Still, Isabella immediately sloped off with Julian to his room on the third floor.
“We won’t be long, kitten,” she gave me a wink before slamming the door shut right in front of my nose.
What the hell?
I felt like breaking the door down and forcing an entry, but came to my senses just in time. I stomped down the stairs and went outside.
Neo was still there, busy feeding the dead phoenix with scraps of food he’d scraped up from somewhere.
“May I?” I asked, reaching for Scarecrow.
The boy nodded. I took control over the bird which hissed his displeasure and made him fly up to the third floor and perch himself on the relevant windowsill. Although the shutters were closed, the dead bird’s hearing had no problem detecting the rustling noises and whispers that came from inside.

“Normally, I don’t do this sort of thing IRL...”
“Normally, I don’t, either...”

I felt a tug on my sleeve.
“Uncle John! It’s not right to be a peeping Tom!” the boy announced with somewhat misplaced moral rectitude.
“I’m not peeping!”
“You’re eavesdropping!”
I heaved a doomed sigh. With a powerful flap of his wings, Scarecrow shed off my control over him and took to the air. His black outline flashed past the crimson disk of the Moon and disappeared into the darkness.
“I was just doing a bit of reconnaissance,” I explained, trying to justify my actions to him.
“You should learn to trust people,” the boy remarked patronizingly.
I shook my head and tousled his ginger mop. “You should dump that dangerous notion as soon as possible.”
His head shrank back. “Get away with you, Uncle John!” he made a face. “I’m being serious!”
“Me too.”
For a while, we continued arguing just for the sake of it. Finally, Prince Julian came out into the yard. I had to bite my tongue not to say something improper: in Isabella’s absence, he could very easily take offence and go for his sword, so I had to keep my witty observations to myself.
He gave me a grim look, then proffered his hand to Neo. “Count me in.”
They shook on some deal that was unbeknown to me. Immediately Julian’s armor darkened. A new line appeared in his status:

Champion of the Order of the Black Phoenix

Unable to keep the next stupid question to myself, I let out an amazed whistle. “So! Are you sure they won’t kick you out of the clan?”
Julian winced. “That’s none of your business.”
“You think it’s worth it?”
The newly-baked Dark Knight - for he was truly Dark now - gave me a condescending look. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” he said, then pointed upstairs. “She’s waiting for you.”
I immediately lost all interest in the conversation and flew up the stairs to the third floor. The door was wide open; Isabella stood in front of a full-length mirror, studying her reflection with a satisfied smile.
I couldn't contain a sarcastic smile. “I take it, you failed to lead him off the right path? Did he refuse to join your coven?”
She gave me a haughty look and shrugged. “I've only just started,” she said suggestively.
I laughed. “Get over it. Neo must have offered him a better deal.”
“He bought your Prince lock, stock and barrel.”
Isabella launched on a complex diatribe of cussing. A new system message popped up:

Isabella Ash-Rizt has deleted you from the High Priestess of the Mistress of the Crimson Moon quest!

“You didn’t expect that, did you?” she said with a smirk.
I ignored her provocation. “Didn’t need it, anyway.”
Never mind. There’re lots of ways to skin a cat in a game. If you failed a quest, all you had to do was look for another option. And Isabella had done just that, probably realizing that I was as useless as a chocolate teapot for her purposes.
“So I wasn’t the only reason you accepted the quest?” I asked darkly.
She sniggered. “You joking? You just happened to be there, so I grabbed you. I have my own agenda here. I won’t cry because you’re not around.”
“That’s funny. You don’t seem to mind that I might not get out of the game in time.”
She slumped into a chair and crossed her legs. “You’ll manage,” she said with a dismissive shrug.
How can you be so sure? I need to raise over a million XP within a month! You think that’s nothing?”
“Keep your hair on. Tomorrow I’ll find you a nice dungeon to cleanse. You’ll get by. Goar will see you’re all right.”
“Is that it?”
She arched a brow. “Is it not enough for you? Do you need money? That’s not a problem, either. You can take all the gold we’ll get for the scrolls. Julian doesn’t mind. Just make sure you pay Goar and the boy.”
I faked a pensive chuckle. “That’s already a bit better.”
“Enough, kitten! I need to split! My time’s up!”
“Wait,” I stopped her as she rose from the chair. “Does that mean you’re the top dog here?”
“Not at all. I’m just part of the inner circle now.”
“What, by striking an agreement with some third-rate clan?”
She laughed. “A stitch in time saves nine. Didn't you see what was going on in the city? This will bring a shedload of players to our camp, and not all of them will agree to side with the Swords of Chaos. The Black Trackers might become the proverbial grain of sand which will become a precious pearl. And don’t forget that thanks to you, my mistress was able to enter the Kingdom of the Dead. It might come in handy in the future.”
“Bah!” I snorted. “The place is now overrun by the Spawn of Darkness!”
“It’s not set in stone yet,” the priestess said. “They never managed to take over the Power of Decay.”
“No way! Seriously?”
“Bye, kitten!” she disappeared into thin air, leaving me alone.
“Hey, wait up! What about me?”
Too late. The only answer I got was Scarecrow’s lousy crowing outside.
Oh great.

Time left: 29 days 17:56:29…

I DECIDED AGAINST leaving the room. I closed the door, cast a dubious look at the disheveled bed and planted myself into the chair which creaked its protest under my weight. At the end of the day, it made no difference where I waited for Isabella and Goar to log back in. It was still better than pacing up and down the street.
Also, there was a new message blinking in the very corner of my eye, asking me to distribute the available points. Which was exactly what I decided to do. I had to know what kind of creature I might become this time.
Out of force of habit, I started by investing 3 of the 10 points I had into Strength. Immediately I regretted my decision. My damage numbers were decent anyway, so what was the point in persevering with this stat? Shouldn’t I concentrate on Agility instead? On the other hand, I was still a sorcerer albeit a greenhorn, so I could always use a few magic abilities in combat. Which meant that I shouldn’t ignore Intellect and Perception, either.
With a heavy heart, I added 3 points to Agility, then gave 2 to Intellect and another 2 to Perception. I might regret my decision in the future but in any case, I had no intention of staying in the game long enou...
I dropped to the floor, suddenly shuddering in convulsions. Never before had I suffered such a cruel transformation. My whole body burned as if on fire; my evaporating flesh hissed, turning me into a taut, pale-skinned bag of bones. The magic tattoos had swollen up, filling with a wicked sapphire glow and burning right through me like countless lightbulb filaments planted under my skin.
Then it was all over, replaced by insurmountable fatigue, indifference and the realization of the fragility of life.
Dammit! So what was I supposed to be now?
I scrambled out of the chair, walked over to the mirror and removed the mask.
An abhorrent skull stared back at me. A sunken nose; thin pale lips did nothing to cover my teeth. My only eye glowed with a blue flame.
Only a mother could love a face like this! The worst thing about all this was the disappearance of my Almost Alive skill. I tried to activate it but couldn’t. I just couldn’t find it.
What the hell was that now?
I checked the description of my new identity. Aha. Now it all fell into place.
Ancient Lich!
Shit. It wasn’t as if he’d died recently enough to be able to pass for a human being. Which meant that now I couldn’t appear in public without the mask.
Overcoming the desire to check all the other changes in my char, I added 1 pt. to Dodge. Dammit! My status as an Apprentice didn’t allow me to raise it any further. Ditto for Stealth. What a predicament.
How about professional skills? I improved Incognito and Execution, selected Circle Strike as an additional skill and invested the two remaining points into Two-Handed Weapons.

John Doe, Executioner, Hangman

Undead. Ancient Lich. Level: 35. Human, Rogue. Level: 35

Experience: [107 239/114 000]; [107 283/114 000]
Strength: 35.
Agility: 35.
Constitution: 24.
Intelligence: 12.
Perception: 12.
Life: 1680.
Endurance: 2065.
Internal energy: 840.
Damage: 500–650.
Covert Movement: +25
Dodge: +35

Critical damage when attacking a target oblivious of your presence.

Professional skills: “Incognito” (5), “Execution” (5), “Hangman”.

Fencer: two-handed weapons (6), weapons in one hand, “Sweeping Strike”, “Powerful blow”, “Power lunge”, “Sudden blow”, “Accurate Blow”, “Crippling Blow”, “Blind Strike”, “Rapid Strike”, “Circle Strike”, “Lightning Reflexes”

Creature of the Dark: night sight, penalty for being in sunlight, Retinue, Suzerain, Crypt, Lord of the Dead, Skin of Stone +15, Resistance to magiс +10%, internal energy +20%, spells’ efficiency +20%.

Neutrality: the Undead

Enemies: Order of the Fiery Hand, the Swords of Chaos clan, subjects of the Lord of the Tower of Decay.

Immunity: death magic, poisons, curses, bleeding, sickness, cures and blessings.

Achievements: “Dog Slayer” Grade 2, “Tenacious”, “Man of Habit”, “Destroyer”, “Slayer of Circle-5 Demons”, “Defender of Stone Harbor” Grade 1, “Pioneer”, “Carrier of Divine Will”.

Well, well, well. So what had I received with my new reincarnation? My dead flesh had become slightly more resilient to slashing blows; my resistance to magic had improved as had my internal energy; I’d also received a 20% bonus to magic damage. Not bad, even though none of these changes made me a great wizard. All it did was more or less allow me to compete with same-level players, that’s all.
How about Retinue and Suzerain?
The former turned out to be an improved version of the Lord of the Dead. It allowed an Ancient Lich to control all the undead whose levels were four times lower than his own. It happened automatically, requiring no expenditure of internal energy. That wasn’t bad; then again, it was nothing to write home about.
But the latter skill made me chuckle in surprise. If Entourage allowed the Lich to surround himself with a retinue of the dead, Sovereign permitted him to enslave human beings. The Lich could use his vassals to siphon their health and energy. He could even devour their souls, turning them all into undead in exchange for himself becoming stronger and faster, albeit for a short while.
My joy was somewhat tempered by the fact that you couldn’t enslave the first person you met: he or she would have to swear an oath of allegiance first.
I could play this trick on Goar, I suppose, but he wouldn’t be much use for my purposes, anyway. How about a group of mercenaries? I spent some time contemplating the idea, then shook my head. Too costly. I’d rather use the money to buy the missing items of the Deadman’s Set.
The money? Which money? I had nothing yet! Selling scrolls at auctions is a long-winded affair.
Cussing, I scrambled out of the chair.
Very well. What else did I have? The Crypt? What the hell was that?

The Crypt is a place of power of the Ancient Liches, allowing their spirits to materialize once their physical bodies are destroyed. Being in the Crypt improves one’s sorcerous abilities and restores one’s energy.

The description was followed by a number of stats: rate of regeneration as well as various bonuses. Still, my gaze was glued to one particular line.
“Allowing their spirits to materialize”! Did that mean that I could finally get rid of the wretched skull?
Yes please!
The crypt-building ritual proved to be not too difficult. All I had to do was find a suitable dungeon. As soon as Isabella logged back in, I’d have to talk to her about it. Her Mistress of the Crimson Moon wouldn’t miss some scruffy old basement, would she?
My mood thus improved, I moved on to studying my Executioner skills.

Execution V.
Experienced executioners never hurry. They know which points of the body hurt the most. Their knowledge of anatomy allows them to observe their opponent’s physical vulnerabilities to crippling blows whenever they get the chance to study their enemy prior to combat.
+10% to your chances of dealing a critical hit.
+5% to your chances of dealing a crippling blow.

Not bad, you think? Not bad at all! Such a shame that this ability was tied up with Perception which wasn't my strongest point. In any case, the improved chance of killing an immobilized victim with one blow was already good news.
Never mind. What next?

Incognito V
Sometimes, executioners have to keep a low profile, hiding from the enraged families of the criminals they’ve executed. They’re quite used to taking on another person’s identity.
Stealth: +25%

Oh really? I laughed quietly. This improvement, on top of being able to conceal my profile from other players, would also allow me to assume another person’s name and even pass for an NPC. Although I wouldn’t be able to fool those who already knew me, it would deceive any strangers with no problem at all.
Life is a bitch, isn't it? I got myself a unique character that I could spend my whole life playing - and instead, I was desperate to get back to real life ASAP.
Just think of all the opportunities!
I shook my head and opened the spell book. Unfortunately, my character’s lack of Intellect had dropped me in it: I’d only received one spell for each level between 7 and 10. The bad news was sugarcoated by the Girdle of Memory which had added an additional spell each, classes 4 and 5.
At this point, I completely zoned out, trying to weigh up all the pros and cons and fit my unmeasurable needs to my rather curtailed possibilities. I couldn’t become a full-fledged sorcerer but I could use magic to give a lethal edge to my combat skills. I just had to give it a lot of thought.
In the end, I added Shield of Death to Haste and linked Dust with Decay. Unlike Veil of Death, the former spell didn’t cover the sorcerer with a protective sphere. Instead, it created a small power shield which required much less energy. The latter spell turned all dead bodies to dust, raising a cloud which absorbed all magic attacks and deflected arrows and crossbow bolts. All you had to do was kill enough people to activate the spell. Yeah right.
After a brief deliberation, I selected Phantom Skulls for level 7. This spell created additional magic energy storage which could become quite useful in combat, seeing as my own internal energy stocks left a lot to be desire. What was the point is choosing some super-powerful combat spells which might use up all my mana in one or two hits? That would be neither here nor there.
I opened the next tab in the spell book. First things first, I checked the unique magic of the undead as was my habit. Immediately my attention was drawn to Bone Path.

Bone Path
A dead sorcerer has no problem getting into his own crypt, wherever he might be. Bone Path will lead them right through the world of the dead.

Seeing as my crypt was already as good as sorted, I unhesitantly chose it.
Thus encouraged, I opened level-9 spells. Still, they proved to be so impressive that I, miserable excuse for a wizard that I was, couldn't cast most of them anyway, simply due to my lack of energy.
Why on earth had I had to waste my available points on Intellect and Perception? That made no sense.
I kept shuffling the spells until I finally decided to study The Trump Up My Sleeve. This was an auxiliary spell allowing me to set up any other spell one level inferior to it, then activate it literally with a flick of a finger.
As I turned the page, I already had a distinctly bad premonition. Shit! Almost all of the icons there were gray and inactive.
Seeing as my stats didn’t allow me to use them, all I could do was study the few exceptions. Strangely enough, I soon got lucky, spotting a strange name amid all the standard attack spells which were way out of my league.
Apparently, this spell allowed me to burn up the entire internal energy stocks of any sorcerer provided I caught him unawares.   All I had to do was touch him and spare a little of my own mana. I was a bit worried about the spell’s limitations which required my enemy to have no more than three times my own stocks of internal energy. But still...
Not bad! I’d make quick work of any ability-deficient mage!
But that was me. The majority of normal casters wouldn’t be able to even approach their enemy Without their sorcerous skills, they were pretty useless.
Having studied the skill, I paced the room for a while. Unable to keep my excitement to myself, I then walked downstairs into the yard but it was completely deserted. Neo had sloped of somewhere, so I had to go back up. Never mind. My conversation with him would have to wait. I was already lucky I hadn’t bumped into Prince Julian down below. Even though he’d already calmed down a bit, I wasn’t looking forward to any sort of tete-a-tete with him. That was the last thing I needed.
Once my excitement had abated - and as the sky outside had no intention yet of turning to daylight - I decided to try out my newly-acquired skills. I started by setting up Trump Up My Sleeve. Choosing a spell to go with it was a no-brainer: I used Cloud of Death which took the longest to activate.
It didn’t happen straight away: the magic just refused to compress. But after some focused effort, I managed to set it up. The spell took shape, weighing down on me quite palpably. Never mind. I’d been through much worse.
Next, I activated Phantom Skulls but the result was, how can I put it, rather unorthodox. Their fabled “external magic energy storage” turned out to be a real skull hovering in mid-air. So I had to deactivate it: anyone who’d see it would know straight away that I was a Death mage. Did I really need that? Also, its capacity was only 10%, and in order to get another one - I scrolled through the description - my Perception had to be level 15.
What a predicament.
Never mind. I could always use it in the dungeons. It wasn’t a good idea to appear in public with a thing like that.
Having finished with all that, I turned the armchair toward the window and leant back in it, waiting for the day to dawn. I had no other option, I’m afraid.

Release - October 21, 2019

No comments :

Post a Comment