Friday, November 1, 2019

An Equation with One Unknown by Vasily Mahanenko

Invasion 2: An Equation with One Unknown
by Vasily Mahanenko

Release - February 10, 2020


To make a clan does not necessarily mean to make it successful. First you have to walk the hard path from the foundations of your castle to victory in interclan conflicts. Only then will you be recognized. Only then can you be listed among the location's top clans. Your adversaries, however, will not be sitting around twiddling their thumbs. No currently dominant clan needs yet another wannabe clan. Or its two founders. Which is why Kvalen and Eradani are being hunted down. Bugles sound as players sharpen swords and draw arrows. Bring on the show! Just one thing – have the contestants accounted for all the factors involved in such a dubious undertaking? For in this equation not all the variables are known.

Chapter 1

If you have a cool plan, but have not considered the risks, you may remove your pants with confidence and use your plan for its true purpose. Although even here there are options: wipe or insert. It's up to the individual. But one thing is for sure: the plan will not succeed. I'm telling you this in my capacity as a former project manager.

"In which case, let operation "Rip 'Em to Shreds" begin! The province of Lok'dar will be ours!" Eradani ran his finger all business-like down the list of clan ratings, hovering momentarily over several competitors. I was observing closely and remembering, when suddenly from the street came the invocatory shouts of a guardian:
"Demons in the city! The western wall has fallen! Action stations!"
The registrar froze like a Madame Tussauds creation, mid-conversation with a client, and we received a notification.

Location scene: Defense of Lok'dar

Description: Demons (levels 40 to 80) have penetrated the western wall and swept into the city. Understand who you are — a hero or a coward; do you take on all comers, or do you hide in your holes? Remaining demons: 220. Time to end of scene: 2 hours 30 minutes. Rewards will be issued in accordance with contribution to defense.

General chat. Vardunas: All players in the location! I am the leader of the clan Ruard. This is our location. Touch even one demon–and you sign up for rebirth.

"Everyone's so cock…" My partner didn't let me finish, dragging me quickly outside and sprinting off.
"Where are we going? To fight?"
"To fight," he echoed in reply.
I could barely keep up with Eradani. He moved swiftly, as though he knew the city inside out. We had to dodge oncoming players and NPC guardians. After accidentally elbowing a bewhiskered warrior and receiving a contemptuous look in return, I realized that, unlike most, we were running away from the point of penetration.
"Eradani?" I looked around, lost. "Where are we going?"
He heard me, but didn't stop or slow down.

Eradani: Why are you stopping? We have to find shelter!
Kvalen: What for? Everyone's running to fight.

No answer. Something crashed and clanged above us, and I involuntarily started after the tiefling. I caught up to him by a dilapidated building enveloped in scaffolding, and only then because he'd stopped.

Kvalen: This is your genius plan? Scamper around like rats for the whole game?
Eradani: Yes, but live rats. Get a move on!

Not waiting for a reply, he pulled me towards the rickety entrance to the building. His behaviour confused me. No sooner had he pulled me backward into the darkness, his hand over my mouth, than I heard someone land heavily on the cobblestones. Dust scattered down. Eradani let me go with a quiet, "Shh." We held our breath and froze.
"I CAN FEEL YOU!" An evil whisper. The tips of my horns and tail began to itch excruciatingly, like my crotch in real life whenever I sensed danger.
"Go, go, go," Eradani whispered and tore into the depths of the building, shovelling building rubble aside with his hands. "There's a basement!"
Curiosity is no sin, but its punishment is painful, as I discovered when I lingered to look back at the door. Two wooden objects (my forehead and a ceiling beam) clashed almightily, resulting in tangible losses. The beam was sizably dented, and I lost a hard-hitting 100 HP. But I did get a look at our pursuer. Nothing special. Only a massive steroid demon with a "boss" pictogram and laser pointers for eyes. His level 80 was enough for me to switch into warp speed and hightail it after my partner.
By now I was in full support of Eradani's tactic. Run! Run like the wind. Run like you've never run before! Attacking such a beast at our level was akin to giving ourselves up as sacrificial lambs.
"PREY!" I couldn't see, but I could feel the demon's snout beaming with the thrill of the chase. I hadn't managed to avoid its laser-eye sights.

Debuff received: Stun. You are immobilized for 30 seconds.

Despite the description, I still had some control over my body. Heavily, and scrabbling for each centimeter, I was moving. The training camp sessions swam up in my consciousness. There was just me and the route to the basement. No falling girders, clattering sounds, or distant shouts from the resistance. Just me and the passageway. By chance I heard the boss successfully negotiate the narrow entrance, demolishing the scaffolding in the process. Somewhere in another universe Eradani was yelling. The dark basement doorway was enticing and seemed a safe oasis in all the bedlam. Of course it was self-delusion, and the demon would easily get through, but it was best not to think about that. Suddenly a large wooden chandelier flew down from the ceiling, describing an arc on its supporting rope before disappearing behind me. I hoped it would at least hinder the demon, if not stop it. Bam! My peripheral vision caught shards from the once fine light fixture. It didn't stop the demon. The heavy breathing drew closer. The back of my neck broke out in goosebumps. Damn! Damn! Damn!
My chest tightened. What could be worse than feeling the hot breath of an incubus on your back? My eyes began in absolute seriousness to search for the Exit button. You'll never take me alive! But the button kept mysteriously slipping out of focus. WTF? I couldn't concentrate, either because of the stun, or because I was panicking. Suddenly Eredani shot off ahead, seizing my hand and pulling me after him as best he could. The boss's taloned paw only managed to graze my clothes. After that I remember a kaleidoscope of hard stone steps, the last of which triggered a supernova flare in my conscious, and everything began to fade. Somewhere in the distance sounded a terrible ruckus, dust drifted down, and I sailed off into a blessed darkness known as "Blackout, a one-minute debuff."
"Come on, you filthy rat, open your eyes."
Something vile was being poured into my mouth. I regained consciousness slowly, allowing myself to feel the difference between the process in reality and here. I'd had a blackout–concussion–once before, and was off sick for two weeks. My wife spoonfed me healthy soup, tucked in my bedsheets, and flicked back and forth between Sport-1 and Muz-TV, because it was hard for me to even wiggle the toes of my right foot. In Barliona everything was sorted with a flask of healing potion, and your body was instantly ready for new feats.
"Are we in a basement? Where is it?" I asked, wiping my eyes. The race abilities of fire tieflings provided nothing of use in the dark. A thick pall obscured the view, scarcely revealing the outlines of objects. It was just enough to move forward, but sightseeing was out of the question.
"Where else?" Eradani replied to my first question and sent me a link to a map of the location. In lieu of an answer to the second question, I heard dull thumps and a wrathful snarl from above. The doorway was securely blocked, and the incubus was a searching for a way to get to us.
"What the hell's it latched onto us for?" I wondered, opening the map. The part of the basement we were in was an extended corridor with a stairway going up at one end and a foggy patch at the other. The image was 2D and primitive, with different colored triangles representing us, but it was now easier to navigate.
"Have you not read tales about dragons?" asked my partner for some reason.
"I have."
"Well this incubus, like those dragons, only likes good-looking, but stupid, a virgins," sniggered Eradani, hinting at the inexpedient inquisitiveness which had nearly got me nabbed by the incubus.
"Old, experienced perverts too," I said. "And in actual fact…?"
"Kvalen, it's chasing us because we're tieflings!"

Scene update: Defense of Lok'dar. 219 demons destroyed.

Vardunas: Guys, has anyone seen the boss? A thousand gold for any info!

"The Ruard lads are sharp," came Eradani's voice once more through the haze. "Enough lying around! It won't take the boss a minute to pick that pile of rocks apart."
"Let's write to Vardunas that the boss is here," I suggested. A thousand gold and riddance of the demon struck me as an excellent conclusion to a game session.
"Absolutely not! We must ca-te-go-ri-ca-lly not show our faces! Until our castle is level three, better even level five, we lay low out of sight of the other clans," said Eradani too quickly and too vehemently. Intuition told me he was hiding his true motives. "If anything happens, we kill ourselves. Let's go! Let's see what lies ahead."
Ahead were silence and a twilight murk. Unable to trust my vision, I felt the walls. Nothing. No furniture, no crates, no random garbage. Just cold bare stone. Eradani made his way along the adjoining the wall, and the map automatically added the contours of the room. Wall, corner, wall, doorway, spiral staircase leading down.
A crash confirmed my partner's suspicions about the boss's abilities. It was making its way through the rocky barrier very quickly. I began to doubt it was after us because of our race.
"Down!" The blue triangle set foot on the staircase first, updating the map as it went and adding the second level. My hands on the wall to be safe, I followed him warily. Fortune (or the system) rewarded my caution as my splayed fingers almost immediately stumbled upon a cold shaft. Probing the object fleetingly, I recognized it as a torch. Obviously my inventory contained no tinderbox or matches, but I took the torch with me anyway.
"QUAKE, TRAITORS! I'M COMING FOR YOU! I SMELL YOUR SWEET FEAR!" The snarl heralded the boss's breakthrough to the first level of the basement. I was concerned what the brute's night vision was like. Worse than ours would be all right with me.
The stairway was strewn with rocks, significantly frustrating our descent. In places the passageway was so narrow I could hardly squeeze through. If the boss could make it, nothing would stop it.
Sure enough, I got stuck. Unlike the scrawny Eredani, my character had a healthy, fleshed-out physique.
"Give me your hand!" He tried to haul me through. "No. Go into settings and remove your breastplate. It's getting in the way."
"CLOSE! I SMELL TRAITORS!" Our relentless pursuer was already at the stairs. Bam! The building shuddered. Stones and dust showered my back–the demon was digging a new entrance, made to measure for its size.
"Go, go, go!" Progress was much easier without the breastplate, and the passageway became wider anyway. Eredani ran ahead, occasionally glancing back. At some point he activated a deceleration scroll and lobbed it deftly behind me. I followed its flight with my eyes and, seeing the results, automatically activated Retreat. The demon's head appeared in the new hole, and the scroll smacked it right on the forehead, guaranteeing to slow it down by fifty percent.
Another stairway. I followed my partner, confused as to why we were going stubbornly deeper when it would have been so much simpler to die upstairs next to a guardian.
On the third level it became clear this was the end. Eredani stood in the middle of a wide corridor, his torch held high. I had to shield my eyes from the blinding light, but I'd seen what there was to see. A dead end. Unable to believe our bad luck, Eredani lit my torch and gestured for me to inspect the walls. We took one each, thoroughly examining the blackened plasterwork, and met back at the stairs.
"Hooey…" said Eredani, lost.
Had I been asked to describe his condition, I would have said he'd got five balls out of six in the lottery, crashing and burning at the last. I imagined, real as life, Fortuna slowly drawing five balls, each time lingering to prolong the intrigue, and throwing the sixth ball down on the table without really looking at it, before breaking out in triumphant laughter. No bingo, dipshits!
"I was mistaken, Kvalen, there are no…"
What there were none of I didn't find out. The boss broke through to our level, showering us with dust and pebbles. We squashed ourselves virtually flat against the opposite wall.
Claws extended towards us, eager to embrace us before death, or whatever he wanted from us. This time I found the Exit button straight away, but knew I wouldn't press it. If I left, Kvalen's body would remain in danger, along with my partner. His level fourteen was no match for eighty. And scrolls wouldn't help here. Unless Eluna herself should deign all of a sudden to descend to this nether world to assist the outcasts. A-a-a, yes! Eluna!
There was no time to think; it was now or never. First I knocked Eredani out with an accurately placed hoof. He knew nothing about it, flying to the side, sliding down the wall, and slumping to the floor. While I ran ahead, directly into the incubus's embrace. The boss's paws closed in, and a symphony of emotions struck up in my chest, hatred precipitously replaced by bitterness, then agitation, tenderness, and a bunch more uncharacteristic feelings besides. In real life I was sparing with my emotions, so I understood the clear distinction between the tiefling Kvalen, nestling in the paws of a love demon, and Brody West, lying in capsule number… um… whatever.
"Gotcha, red face!" I growled, hugging the demon back. I required a second to disorient it, which I got and used to shove my burning torch right into its laser eye. What a fortuitous piece of loot! The boss snorted, more from surprise than from the impact or pain, and while it was shaking its head, I snatched the ring from my inventory and put it on one of the boss's horns. Now it was bingo!
A pity there was no full-blown celebration. I had just fifty percent from the demon, and disagreeable sensations were only switched on to ten percent, but the large platinum ring of Eluna put a serious dent in that, twisting each nerve and relieving me of my mind. I wanted to die sooner to be done with it all.

You have claimed an unnamed incubus. Subjugate its will, enslave and name it. The demon will become your eternal slave, capable of fulfilling its master's fantasies.

I didn't fully understand the message at first, but I got the gist: incubus, slave, fantasies. No big deal.
The ring's action radius was so wide it even caught Eredani, who lay whimpering and hunched in a fetal position by the wall I'd kicked him against. The boss was in a far sorrier state, dropping me, grabbing its head, and howling as it tried to pull out its horn. It couldn't touch the Light object. A bouquet of debuffs riveted me to the floor, forcing me to lie there and behold the agony of the enemy. Utterly berserk, the demon charged, and battered its head against the blind wall. The building shook, earthquake-style, before the incubus began to thrash about along the corridor, clattering now into one wall, now into the other. I contemplated our situation with a sinking feeling. It remained to wait for the boss to kill himself before we could retrieve the ring, if the Ruards didn't get to us first.
"Hi, horn-boys!"
The ringing female voice silenced even the incubus. Three silver lightning flashes, and the boss ceased its thrashing and collapsed on the floor beside me. The proximity of the ring made everything even hazier. Realizing I would not survive prolonged agony, I reached out to something else's horns. I felt a stabbing pain in my heart, and my consciousness muddied further for a second, but I managed to swipe the ring and shove it back into my inventory.

The will of the unnamed level-80 incubus has been suppressed. Destroy the boss and gain its essence for later embodiment.

Sapped of strength, I closed my eyes and let my head flop to the floor. Something cold brushed my cheek. Opening one eye a crack, I saw a boot made of thin leather. I could muster just enough strength to study them. They were beautiful. And stylish. And well made. I had always had a weakness for fine leather footwear. It would be a shame if the wearer of these boots was not worthy of them.
"Do you like them?" I winked an affirmative reply. "Me too. Have a look from this angle."
With a chuckle the girl turned her foot, and my eye was presented with a masterfully fashioned and whetted heel. In response to the unambiguous threat, I found the strength to roll onto my a back, out of the line of attack, and let my gaze wander slowly over the lady's figure.
"Had a good eyeful?" the owner of a marvelous bust asked crudely, before jerking me to my feet and cutting short my detailed inspection of the sights.
The view from above wasn't half bad either. Her eyes alone–two pieces of heaven sent down to the sinful Earth at the behest of the gods to aid the level-243 huntress. I would not have called Varmilda beautiful, but there was something about her. Her sharp, even mildly coarse features repelled and attracted in equal measure, forcing me to study each square centimetre of her face. I cannot say she was to my taste, yet I wasn't averse to consorting with her a while.
"Madame." I bowed my head in greeting and flicked my tail, acknowledging her part in my deliverance from the incubus.
"What are you doing here?" intoned the siren unctuously, batting her eyes.
Part of me wanted to recount my completion of the training camp, exile, creation of a clan, and evasion of a demon, but the other, much smaller part–Brody West–resisted. It didn't understand why Kvalen wanted to open up to the first girl he met. Even if she was interesting. When the irrational intervened, the Brody in me eased Kvalen aside, and I mumbled:
"Playing with incubi… Basically, Ruard bagged themselves a boss, and you showed up.
Thunder clouds obscured her heavenly eyes. My desire to confide disappeared in a flash, and clarity of thought returned. I shook my head to chase away the remains of the illusion, and regarded the huntress with my own eyes. Asian-looking, an excessive attachment to spiky objects, craggy facial features: the attraction soon fizzled out. Nothing special. I'd seen better.

Eredani: Kvalen, +1 to respect! She used Siren's Pollen to win your favor. A banned substance. If the guardians find out, she'll be imprisoned. Don't look at me; distract her.

The information was most timely. Everything became crystal clear.
The huntress shrugged, took a silver arrow from her quiver, and loaded it into the drawn horn bow that materialized in her hands.
"That's their problem."
A fourth silver lightning bolt flashed, and the location closed.

Scene completed: Defense of Lok'dar. See governor for issue of rewards.

Upgrades gained
·     Experience +8, until next level: 80
·     Reputation with Light of Barliona faction increased by 3
You receive the essence of a nameless incubus. This object is not bound to a player and may be transfered or sold.

I was delighted with this last message. I would somehow fulfil my fantasies without this incubus. It needed selling or giving to someone soon. Maybe Varmilda? Oh yes, speaking of gifts… The archeress had destroyed the boss, so there was no reward for that; the experience was for the scene. Five basic points, one for the pod, and a couple for charisma. I urgently needed to shell out for experience gems, then level up, intensely and for a long time. Everything looked distinctly woeful without the training camp coefficient.
The girl approached the incubus and grumbled, "Filth. Boss, my ass! Not worth the arrows."
General chat. Vardunas: Which bastard felled the boss?!
"Maybe you're not looking in the right place?" I snickered. "Maybe it is the reward? Do you need it?"
Varmilda rolled her eyes.
General chat. Varmilda: It was Kvalen and Eredani. I'm a witness. Old workshop, basement, level three.
"You…" I couldn't even find the words. The Ruards would now come running, snuff us out, and deal with it. Or maybe they wouldn't, and this critter would go into hiding.
General chat. Kvalen: She's lying. It was her who killed the boss. I can prove it.
Varmilda laughed sonorously.
"Take care, horn-boys." With these words, the character dissolved into the air, and the player became invisible. It was a pity the boss disappeared along with Varmilda, denying us even the smallest reward for our trouble.
"Kvalen, help! We've got one minute!" Eredani shouted. While I'd been dealing with the huntress, my partner had reached the place where the boss collided with the wall, and begun to dismantle it, loosening the stones with his pickaxe. A twinkle of silver. I joined him, helping liberate a smooth metal door from under the stonework covering.
"What is it?" Varmilda's voice rang out.
"Our ticket to freedom," mumbled Eredani.
The archeress materialized nearby and set about groping the metal plate for signs of a handle, a hole, anything. She found nothing. But her movements were very feminine, and instead of being indignant, I imagined myself in place of the door, her fingers boldly following the relief and stopping enthusiastically at… Now then, Brody West, 238,682 multiplied by 333 equals…?

You have successfully resisted Siren's Pollen for a second time in 10 minutes, and gain immunity to the powder for 24 hours.

Varmilda shrugged once more and went invisible. My joy at the message was interrupted by a shout from Eredani:
"There's a hireling from the Cranes group! It's a setup, so they can get to the treasure!"
If the archeress even reacted to the allegations concerning these "Cranes," I wasn't meant to know about it. She reappeared as a petrified doll, accompanied by two pointy-eared bandits, Garleem and Shamble, levels 187 and 226 respectively. The emblem of the Ruard clan stood out proudly by their names.
"A setup, you say?" said Garleem, playing with some daggers. "Perhaps it was you who wanted to set her up? What's that door? Who are the "Cranes"?
Eredani was silent. We stood and watched Vardunas appear. The head of the clan squeezed through the door and began barking orders: "Bind Varmilda and take her to the governor. Let her sit a while in jail. We'll interrogate her there. Take the tieflings to the castle. I wonder how they knew about the cache. Crack the door and take the treasure. Jump to it!"
Vardunas played for the Shaman, but for the chief of a location's top guild his level was an inadmissibly low thirty-three. Were it not for the demon hacking a way through the rock, the broad-shouldered dwarf might never have gotten through to us. Dressed simply, not for raiding, old tambourine. A poor relation of sorts, given his own clan's warriors. But all that meant nothing when your eyes met his. I was fully aware what category of alpha-male possessed that stare. We were evaluated, pondered, and ranked; all while I'm absolutely sure our lists of achievements and mob kills were also being scrutinized. Apparently not even my passion for boxer shorts escaped the Ruard leader's keen eye.
Players bustled about, doing the chief's bidding, and I couldn't keep a straight face.

Kvalen: Everything just as you suggested–hunker down and keep a low profile.
Eredani: A little less sarcasm. Play the simpleton.
Kvalen: After you shouted at the top of your voice about a bunch of "Cranes" and found the treasure?! By the way, can you share the info?
Eredani: Later.
Kvalen: No, now. I'm sick of playing blind. All I get is doublespeak and half truths.
Eredani: Give me time to think of a plausible explanation for the Ruards.

I sniggered again. Just for the Ruards?
When they led us in convoy to the stairway, a portal opened close by, from which emerged two local guardians, preceded by their whiskers. A strange-looking, angular young man brought up the rear. Or girl. It was hard to be sure without a certain amount of hands-on investigation.
"Tieflings Kvalen and Eredani, you are under arrest! Step into the portal!"
A guy, after all. His speech was accompanied by a jerking of his Adam's apple along to the chimes of Christmas bells, which created a certain dissonance, since what I was witnessing didn't tally with the traditional white beard, red hat, and "Yo-ho-ho." As far as I was concerned only Santa could jingle like that.

Messenger, a creature without level. Description: hidden. Abilities: hidden.

"What are we accused of?" I fixed my gaze on the painstakingly mascaraed eyes of the black- and curly-haired Cupidon. He fingered a precious stone that served as a button on his doublet, pursed his made-up lips, and waved a careless hand at the guardians.
"You'll find out when we get there."
A shove in the back made me take a step straight into the glimmering ring. When we get there it is, then. They probably wouldn't roll out the red carpet for us at Vardunas's castle either.

Teleport to the city of Velkor, capital of the province of Utmar

Chapter 2

I hadn't come across many paladins in my brief gaming career. I saw a couple when my character was being born; one saved me from Ireness's clutches; and Anastaria's pearly smile sparkled on the covers of all the glossies. There you have it – that's all the paladin's I know.
That said, as soon as I clapped eyes on the governor of Valtarossa, I knew I was in the presence of a true paladin, without even looking at his properties. His golden armor did not conceal, but rather it emphasized his mighty warrior's figure. The chiselled, square, noble face, the eagle eyes, the strong jaw–the governor was a collage of hackneyed cliché. The only blemish was the modest, yet jolly tuft of fair hair adorning his head.
If my literature teacher had asked me to describe this NPC, he would have grimaced long and hard as he read my work, before shaming me in front of the class for overuse of cliché. To this I would have retorted fervently that the fidelity of the image is more important than the rules. What could I do if the governor really was a walking cliché? Outside and inside. I didn't have a clue about game design and development, but deep down I was sure this was no way to work. By the looks of the governor, I would suppose he was a fleeting character rather than a ruler of five provinces.
"I have sworn an oath to root out evil spirits, whatever form they may take. There is no place for them in a Utmar. They must be expelled, and that's that! Let them make themselves scarce!" With his very first utterance the paladin demonstrated his disdain for compromise. His voice, as was to be expected, was thoroughly consistent with his appearance–low and very masculine. Another two shillings into the cliché piggy bank.
"The tieflings are guilty, you're right there," confirmed the unisex messenger, affectedly pouring himself some water from a carafe. "But my lord, we cannot expel them. It would show you in a bad light and may reflect badly on your reputation. You know you'll never live that down. Let them pay for their crime first."
Our crime, as it turns out, was our last exchange with Ireness. To be more precise, there was nothing wrong with the exchange itself, but we should not have given the Glaive of Seth to her. The leaders of the Light of Barliona faction noticed the appearance of a new enemy, and wanted to punish the guilty party. Which meant me.
The discussion dragged on, the governor arguing with the messenger about the seriousness of our crime, and completely ignoring my attempts to exonerate us. I admit it wasn't so difficult, considering that several debuffs had robbed us of the ability to move and speak. I couldn't even take in the surroundings at my own pace, which I so wanted to. It's not every day you find yourself in the reception room of such an influential NPC.

Eredani: It isn't so bad. Four months of corrective labor, maximum. Mining or lumber milling. Then you get your reputation back. Don't agree to expulsion. I thought about it; it'll be worse.
Kvalen: It couldn't be worse. I don't have four months. I have a deadline and criteria.
Eredani: Hogwash! Brody, you disappoint me. You're wasting time trying to fulfil criteria. Why work in reality when the game supplies all your needs? I don't understand you.
Kvalen: And you won't understand me. You can't get out of here, and I can.
Eredani: That's not the point. I used to practically live in Barliona.
Kvalen: And what did that get you? Pretend battles, variable scripts, and digital pick-up sticks? Everything's make believe.
Eredani: But the money's real. And what's the difference anyway? Reality has the same battles, scripts, and pick-up sticks. They just have a different backdrop. You're deluding yourself and you don't understand that.

I was quiet, not wanting to continue the argument, but my usually tactful partner wouldn't let it go.

Eredani: You have to understand, your work distractions only get in the way. You spend 6 hours a day on pointless shit instead of leveling-up. Nobody's asking you to live in Barliona. Work hard here, live and play there. Get married, have kids, visit your parents.
Kvalen: Victor, shut up! Stop brainwashing me! I'll work it out myself.

We couldn't continue our squabble, since the debuffs had worn off and the messenger and the governor wanted to pronounce a sentence.
"Tieflings Kvalen and Eredani! Your crime warrants the very severest punishment. For you, Free men, this means banishment to the Free Lands for a minimum of one year. However, the empire is merciful. You are being given the chance to work off your debt. The place of your labor will be selected randomly. Eight hours a day for one hundred and twenty days, and you will be fully absolved. The governor is inclined to banish you, but I have insisted on labor. Work hard and earn the right to remain here.

In regard to the transfer of the Glaive of Seth to the NPC Ireness, you are offered the choice of two options. One year's exile, or four months' labor.

Inflamed by the row, I read and reread the message, becoming all the more wound up. What should I choose? Neither option was any good for me. What freaking socialization if I'm in exile or the mines? It would be a fiasco for my criteria, and I'd lose my job. Screw Barliona and all its convolutions! I got by without it for thirty-six years. My partner chuckled to see my torment, but remained silent, leaving me to make my own decision. A Random Selection timer appeared before my eyes, gingering up my already racing thoughts. Five minutes. Either I choose for myself, or the system chooses for me. To hell with you and your conditions!
"I don't agree!"
"With what?" The messenger frowned and exchanged glances with the governor.
"I should be rewarded, not punished!"
"That's just what I said!" The reddening paladin brought his fist down on the table, his tuft nodding along with the strike. "Give 'em an inch, and they'll take the whole province! Banish them!"
"I demand the right to explain!" I said, avoiding the word "justify." I'd done nothing that required justification.
"We can always banish them later, my lord," said the messenger amicably. He'd noticed my steady gaze on him, awaiting his permission to have my say. "Let us first listen."
"Great," I exhaled, joyful and smiling. I was now faced with the hardest of tasks–organizing my speech correctly. "Merciful lords! I came here reckoning on a reward, acknowledgment, and bonuses for the clan. That is no joke. I must confess that the advantages to the empire of Ireness powering-up are obvious."
"Just listen to this bullshit!" roared the governor. "So, all of Barliona went blind and stupid when you showed up?!"
"No, no, your grace. It's just such a difficult situation that the worthy heroes of Barliona may not have thought about it. I shall explain in just a second. Tell me, how is Ireness dangerous right now? She is far away and not attacking the empire. Is that good? Yes, it is. She is somewhere, and that's fine. She existed before and it didn't worry anybody. Although we do know for sure the demons' attitude to Seth and his cult. They will do anything to destroy it. They need our world in its entirety and they won't want to share it with Seth. What does that mean? It means the demons' main forces will now be transferred to the battle with Ireness. Look at the intelligence data–skirmishes have died down, demons are withdrawing deep into their own territories. The empire's troops can rest, level up, get ready. When the demons are done with Ireness, we shall become only stronger, and they will incur losses. What are we guilty of? Fighting off Ireness and demons, and essentially gifting the empire victory?"
Of course I was relying on guesswork and my own conclusions, but it was a fine attempt. Silently I applauded myself.
"How did you get access to intelligence?" frowned the irrepressible governor. "Are you spying on us?"
"I fancy his spies are logic and common sense." The messenger was suddenly on my side. "Kvalen is both right and not right simultaneously. It has indeed become calmer at the border, but a new threat has appeared. One of Ireness's generals occupied the Tower of Thunder precisely three hours ago, while the cult of Seth was regenerating in Barliona. What it might mean we don't yet know. It may not be victory at all, just the calm before the storm.
"So give me the opportunity to help! What's the point of me wasting time in exile or labor? In those four months I'll send Ireness's general back to the Abyss!" A third possibility had presented itself, and I was completely cool with it.
"Too long." The paladin looked me up and down. "A month. Not a day more. The Tower of Thunder is just fifty nalyseds from the border with the empire. That's not the kind of neighbourhood we need. If you want to remain on Stivala, destroy it within the month!"
"That's impossible! Let's be realistic. Do you see my level? I evaded a level-eighty demon throughout your entire basement. And you're talking about a general!"
"You still ran," noted the messenger, inspecting his nails. "You escape, you run down an enemy, and maybe he dies from exhaustion."
"That's settled then!" declared the paladin, closing the court hearing. "If, within one month from today, you have not destroyed Ireness's general, who is presently occupying the Tower of Thunder, you will be banished from Stivala for one year. That is my decision. Messenger, confirm it!"
"You still have the opportunity to do labor for four months," said the youth, and the updated description lit up before my eyes:

In regard to the transfer of the Glaive of Seth to the NPC Ireness, you are offered the choice of two options. Destroy General Ad'var, who is occupying the Tower of Thunder (deadline for completion: 1 month from today; if you fail, you will be banished from the continent of Stivala for 1 year), or do four months' labor.

"I agree to destroy the general," I confirmed, and Eredani face-palmed. A countdown timer appeared in the top right corner: 29 days 23 hours 59 minutes. Exactly how long I had left to live on Stivala.

Upgrades gained
·     +1 to Charisma
·     +1 to Luck
New characteristic available: Eloquence
Description: You are eloquent. Your ability to engross NPCs in conversation (from 1 to 100 creatures simultaneously) and curry nalys is impressive. Each characteristic point increases your ability to engross an interlocutor/crowd and put them to sleep for 20 minutes by 0.1% right up to 50%. Integrates with charisma.

"Send them back," the governor requested of the messenger, and strode off. The audience was over.
"Portal to Lok'dar." The ill-tempered messenger waved a hand, creating a glimmering circle. Eredani stepped right through without waiting for me. I hesitated and looked at the youth, who was now standing by me. I could easily imagine him as an artist, a designer, or a life model, but not a representative of a higher power. Although in truth, what did I know about them? Noticing my interest in him, the messenger questioningly raised a painted eyebrow.
In my head arose a question: What if…?
So, first: He must have a delicate psyche, amenable to flattery.
"Your grace, I would like to thank you. You have done much for me. You defended me in front of the governor, insisted on labor, allowed me to justify myself."
The messenger viewed me askance, but the natural ruddiness of his cheeks confirmed that my praise had achieved its purpose. Now to use the opportunity.
"Might I offer a gift as a sign of my gratitude?"
"Are you offering me a bribe?" The youth darkened and began to grow until he hung threateningly over me. I had to pick up the pace. Since the boss's death, a dark crystal containing the essence of the incubus had lain in my inventory, and I now hastened to offer it to the messenger.
"It's not a bribe. It's a modest gift from the leader of a modest clan."
"Gi-i-i-ft…" exhaled the youth, enchanted, and the surrounding space began to reel. Beneath our feet opened a portal which threw us right into a thicket of coniferous trees. A dark fog on the map indicated that cartographer had no idea where we were and was giving up.
Shrinking back to his regular size, the messenger tried to take the crystal from my hands, but as I hadn't yet given my consent to the transfer, his hands passed through the object. They were simply in different dimensions. A second attempt followed, and a bout of unintelligible cussing in an unfamiliar language, before the messenger extended a demanding hand.
"Show me! And I shall decide whether or not to accept your gratitude."
The youth's fingers were trembling lightly. He was more like a junkie meeting his dealer than an emperor's representative. I handed him the crystal and he stroked it like a kitten. His look glazed over, and he began to mutter, barely discernibly:
"A level-eighty incubus. Fully subjugated. What a gift! You are my precious."
"Ahem!" A delicate cough as a reminder of my presence.
"Yes!" The messenger tore himself away from the crystal. "You said it was a gift. Non-reciprocal."
"Absolutely correct. A modest gift from a modest clan."
"Yes, modest indeed." Contradictory to his evaluation, the messenger continued to fondle the crystal. "And you understand you get nothing in return?"
"I do not wish for anything. Apart from to know where I am." I looked around, but except for the woods I could see nothing.
"Somewhere in the borderlands of the province of Lok'dar," shrugged the youth. "You'll have to find yourself by yourself."

Map updated
Description of changes: You have received a fragment of a map of the province of Lok'dar.
Familiarity with current location: 70%.

I opened the map and struggled to keep my mouth shut. A vast province stretched before me, nearly three hundred nalyseds wide and two hundred long. The empire's western border was a full-flowing river, and beyond it the lands of the demons burned red. Somewhere out there stood the Tower of Thunder. To the south the province was bathed by the Southern Ocean, with its scattered profusion of islands large and small. In the south-east and farther to the east rose mountains, and only in the north were forests to be found and the next province visible.
"It's time for you to return." The youth cast a scrupulous eye over the forest, snapped his fingers, and we were in the center of a perfect forest glade. There he conjured up another portal for me. "I shall remember your non-reciprocal gift, tiefling Kvalen. By way of reciprocal nalys, I shall tell you my name. Marcel. Remember it."
I bowed and entered the portal. Before the snow-white vortex span me in its crazy dance, I managed to catch the low bass of the embodied incubus: "Your wish is my command." That's the higher echelons of power for you!
The eponymous capital of the province of Lok'dar greeted me with the buzz of a wasps' nest. The local task had been replaced with a new one–urban renewal. Everywhere saws squealed, hammers knocked, steel rang, and sharp words were voiced, as players industriously boosted their levels and reputations. I didn't care for all the racket. I'd never been drawn to manual labor and wasn't much up for new acquaintance. Tranquilizers pepped me up, though it was already 3:00 a.m., and I would have to be up for work in four hours. I had things other than rebuilding to think about.

Eredani: Where are you? It's time to choose a site for the castle.
Kvalen: I'm done for the day. Back tomorrow.

If I'm honest, I could have busied myself some more, but my vexation with Eredani hadn't passed. Walking to the nearest hotel, I paid for twenty-four hours' security, and pressed the Exit button.
The lid of the pod slid aside, releasing me to freedom. I crawled to the bathroom and spent some time contrast-showering Barliona out of my system. It was only upon detailed inspection of my body in the mirror, that my brain clocked the disappearance of my tail and horns. What a sorry sight! Matty was right. A month in the game, and I looked not so much pinched as deflated or burst, like Eeyore's balloon. My skin hung in ugly waves, like I was being fitted for a suit several sizes too big. It occurred to me I ought to cancel tomorrow's girls. It was one thing to saddle an elastic wave, but quite another to do it on a semi-flat mattress. Yuck, what a gross thought!
I wasn't tired at all. I checked in on Matty, noted his pod working, and plodded back to my room. The image in the mirror wouldn't leave me alone. How much weight had I lost? Twenty, thirty pounds? My health concerned me the most. Leaps like that could cost me dearly. There's your super pod for you–not a single problem notification! I opened the fitness-module records and my heart skipped a beat.
If the stats were to be believed, I'd lost fifty-two pounds in almost four weeks.
No way! After quickly rooting out my ex-wife's scales from the closet, I double checked. No mistake. My hand reached for the telephone all by itself to call for an ambulance.
I had tried to lose weight many times, most often getting as far as reading up on the latest method or theory. You could say I was a professional weight-loss theorist. And, like any professional, I knew that a man could lose up to six kilograms a month with no physical consequences. And for beginners, particularly of my constitution, that figure could double. That's twelve, maximum fifteen kilograms, but nowhere near twenty-four.
The medics arrived three minutes later. Of course my family doctor was asleep, so the Imitator found me a physician from another time zone. By the time the mawkish smile of Dr. John Mellow from Calgary appeared on the screen, my fresh test results were already on his desktop.
"Brody, our conversation is being recorded and will be made available to your local doctor along with the test results. What seems to be the problem?"
I was lost. When I called the Imitator, I clearly stated I suspected it was an emergency, and this walking toothpaste ad was grinning like nothing had happened.
"Doctor, I've lost almost thirty kilograms in a month. That's the problem."
"Ah! I see the problem. I'll send you a prescription for some sedative tablets."
"I don't need sedatives," I sputtered, exasperated, wondering where they found these idiots. "Dr. Mellow, are my test results in order?"
"Yes, absolutely." The Canadian smiled his confirmation.
"But I've lost twenty-four kilograms!"
"Brody, surely you didn't think you would recover fully in a month? Considering your age, height, and metabolic disorder? You were absolutely right to switch the pod to rehabilitation mode. Yes, you would have gotten better results on full, but at what price? It would have been hard on your body."
"So, you don't think anything critical is happening? This kind of weight loss is perfectly safe?"
"Oh, I see what you mean." The already broad smile broadened further. "You think you've lost too much, right?"
After hearing the doctor out and dismissing the medbot Imitator, I chewed over what I'd heard for a while. I was as bad a theorist as I was a practician. This time I screwed up on data collection.
According to the doctor, my professional pod checked my metabolism, nalysed the readings, and sent the results to my local GP every hour. My point was that he hadn't shown his face for a month, when he used to demand blood all the time. Now the pod did everything, and so well that for the first time in ten years not one of my blood bio readings was outside the permissible limits. I was essentially as strong as an ox. But a problem really was looming, and the pod wouldn't cope with it.
Active fat burning and redevelopment of my muscles had resulted in sagging folds of skin. With each month I looked more like the Michelin man, and Dr. Smart Ass was categorical here–there was no way to return the skin to its original condition. If I wanted to remove the repulsive folds, I would have to go under the knife, but not for a another three months. It was a great weight off my mind to know I wasn't dying.
4:00 a.m., and I still wasn't tired. Thanks to Dr. Mellow, and the pod with its bracing injections. After a couple of cups of coffee alone, I decided the only sensible thing was to go to work. The roads were empty; I'd make it in half an hour. What did it matter where I killed my time? I wasn't going back to Barliona.
The door winked a green light at me and opened. The building was filled with a deafening silence cut with the gentle hum of the air conditioning. The morning sun peeped through the partially shut blinds, and reluctantly I smiled. It was alright. I was alive and well, nearly young, and soon to be beautified. The day promised to be sunny, but not hot.
Snapping my fingers in time to the music in my head, I went to the conference hall.
"Brody? What are you doing here?"
The boss's secretary gawked at me from the doors to the lift area.
"I… I couldn't sleep, so I decided to do some work. What about you? Do you live here?" My question was entirely serious.
"No," she smiled, accepting my explanation. "I'm here on a personal matter."
"At work? A personal matter? At five in the morning?"
"Yes. Although I admit it does sound strange." Victoria smiled again, then checked herself. "You know, it's actually a good thing you’re here."
"Really?" Seeing her enthusiasm, I began to rue my presence.
"Yes. Brody, you're a man, right?" There was definitely a trap around the bend. That question had never yet boded well for a man.
"Last time… I… looked." It was a silly joke, but simply to confirm her suspicion would have been trite.
"Excellent! Then you'll have no problem carrying a box to my car. I was going to call a transport Imitator, but you know how long they take. And we don't have them in the office."
She knew very well I couldn't refuse her after that. It would be awkward, and contrary to my upbringing. I hated women being manipulative, especially if they did it so primitively. Never mind, let's see this box then.
As befitted a hero, I proudly approached the enormous box, which stood on the floor in the foyer, and lifted it. Then I very unheroically grunted. What on earth did she have in there? Victoria regarded me quizzically, expecting me to ask for assistance, but I refrained. Don't hold your breath, viper-lady! Professional pods rule–I have muscles now! With a quiet "Mmm…," Victoria scooped up her bag and strode confidently towards the lifts, while the box staggered wheezing and puffing after her.
"Have you got a body in here?" Traveling in silence in the lift was hard, psychologically and physically. I was forced to recommence the conversation.
"What?" Victoria was miles away and didn't immediately understand the question. "Ah, no, just parts."
Well done. Calmly answered, casual even.
"Brody, be careful with your expensive shoes. If blood leaks out, it'll ruin them.
"So you're in on it after all?" I grunted, in the hope it was her strange sense of humor. Even so, what was she doing in the office so early?
"Don't worry. If we get caught, my family will make sure you get a regular jail cell, not a pod. I know how much you like virtuality."
"You're too kind." The lift stopped on the parking level, and we walked past rows of empty spaces. "Could they put us in a cell together? By way of compensation?"
"That's out of the question. I'll get off. I'm an only child."
"I see," I croaked, hoisting the load into the trunk of a very expensive, latest model, exclusive series monster of a car, before the rear door closed smoothly.
Why oh why would such a fragile slip of a woman need such a speedy beast as this?
"It was a gift. I couldn't refuse. It's considered the safest car on the roads today," explained Victoria, sliding in.
"I didn't say a word." Damn, my fingerprints were on the box.
"You made such a face I thought it best to explain."
"You were standing behind me," I countered.
"My I, Brody, this joke about complicity's made you really slow-witted." Victoria continued the conversation through the opened window. "Tinted windows. Just like a mirror. I saw your reflection."
"Victoria, they don't by any chance call you the 'All-seeing Eye,' because of your eyes, do they?" Her perceptiveness and involvement in everything going on at the company were really annoying.
"They call me all sorts of things because of my eyes," she replied, unruffled.
While I was contemplating what to say next, Victoria activated the autopilot.
She might at least have said, "Thank you." It wasn't so much offensive as awkward. I was turning to leave, when she called my name.
"Brody, where are you going? I didn't thank you for your help."
"So thank me, and I'll be off," I shrugged. The door on the opposite side of the car opened.
"Hop in. Work doesn't start for another three hours. Breakfast's on me."
I hesitated for show before getting in. Victoria inquired about my preferred choice of cuisine, entered the address into the GPS, and we pulled out into the emergency lane. Secretaries don't live half badly these days!
"Thanks for your help. You're a good man. I thought you'd refuse."
"I wanted to. More than once. So what's in the box? Definitely not a body?"
"Only in an allegorical sense," Victoria laughed. "It's part of a bronze statue. An antique. That's why I came in early. They promised to deliver it by lunchtime yesterday, but the plane was delayed and it only came in the evening, when I was already at home. They refused to change the delivery address."
"Are you a collector?"
"Not me. My grandfather. So, how can I thank you?"
"Well since we're going for breakfast now, how about you buy me dinner?" I was joking, and I was sure she'd refuse anyway, but just to quash any doubt, I hastily added, "But I must warn you, I eat a lot."
"I actually thought you'd stopped eating since you joined the company."
"If you don't take me on, I'll stop drinking as well," I promised.
"Okay, dinner it is, but not today," Victoria agreed, but not overly enthusiastically. It all felt a bit silly. For some reason I'd suggested, and for some reason she'd agreed, when we weren't particularly attracted to each other.
"By the way, in two weeks there's an informal corporate event out of town."
"And what does that mean?"
"Nothing in particular. Mr. Williams sometimes organizes a picnic or something for the staff, with an entertainment program."
"Is attendance mandatory?" The prospect of going somewhere and pretending to be interested in eating with strangers didn't inspire me.
"For you, yes," she emphasized, pulling into an empty parking lot.
All sensible people were still asleep.

Chapter 3

"Hey, I don't get it, where's my fifteen-course lunch?"
I arrived home from work to a kitchen sparkling with sterility and emptiness. A month ago it would not have surprised me, but now, unable to see Matty, I felt mildly annoyed. After the turmoil of the night, my body was demanding at least a mammoth, and Victoria's light breakfast snack had merely whet my appetite.
Matty's door closed, and he entered the kitchen, yawning widely. "What's all this shouting about?"
"Didn't you cook today?"
"Nah, I was on a raid. Choose something from the robocook," he said, waving me away.
My mild annoyance was replaced by umbrage. "You could have cooked something nice. I finished the nursery yesterday, for your information."
"You could have warned me. What's with the attitude?" Matty was a bit rattled. "I thought you didn't like my cooking."
"I like it. Your cooking's okay," I sighed and understood the funny side of the situation. "Wow, sorry. I'm so used to you greeting me after work and feeding me, I'd begun to take it for granted."
"Ah, yes," Matty nodded, choosing a program on the robocook. "It's easy to get used to the easy life. So what about the nursery?"
Tasty food is an underrated weapon. Eat your fill, and half the battle's won. You wish nobody any harm, you don't want to attack anybody. You're not really that bothered about moving at all. Hold on a sec, I'm gonna have a nap! It's a control mechanism to suit everyone. If only we knew where to find enough tasty food to pacify all the ambitious, the angry, and the hungry!
Sated and mellowed together, we lay back to discuss plans.
"So, I head over your way." Matty yawned again and scratched his belly.
"No hurry. There's nowhere to head yet. We've created the clan, and Eredani and I are going to choose a site for the castle today."
"I can help you."
"How? I've already got more than enough problems, what with deadlines, criteria… By the way, how's that unique task going?"
"It's going great. Helen's team have really helped me level up. I don't know how to thank you for her." My friend's face was so joyful I wondered what exactly he was thanking me for.
"Finish the task, then you can thank me. I'll have to pour a whole load more money into you. Eredani won't like it if we don't see results."
"Eredani this, Eredani that…" Matty muttered before sitting up suddenly. "Brody, what's going on?"
"Mmm?" I opened one eye.
"When he was rubbing shoulders with you in the nursery, I kept mum. I understood. But taking him into our clan on the continent… Why?"
I didn't like his emphasis on "our," and was wide awake in no time.
"I don't get it, Matty, what's your problem with him?"
"What do you know about him? Nothing!" He spread his arms and bowed his head in bewilderment. "Great advisor. Are you sure he won't betray us? I'm not. What's he doing time for? And what's with the conditions–'Tell nothing to anyone!'? Very convenient. I wouldn't refuse either. He clung onto you like a leech. What does he want?"
The worst thing was that Matty's questions were damn right. But there was no need to admit it.
"That's what we do know. He needs someone tried and tested. Someone he can trust and rely on. Yesterday he was insisting I quit work in reality to concentrate fully on the game."
"I don't like it." Matty's voice was drier than a herbarium. "What about you?"
"Me?" I was thinking about Victoria. If there was no way to find out there and then about his crime, everything we knew about Mr. X would require systematizing.
Elderly, married (or was), children, educated, ambitious, a certain amount of power and wealth. That's no use at all. Nothing to do with anything. Ah, here we are! Master's degree from Rivaldo's dance school. Not too many of them around.
"So what do you think?" persisted Matty. "I mean… about work?"
My mind still on Victoria, I told it as it was. "I have no idea. It's a strange company. In a month I haven't figured out what they do. I'm just some poor gofer. 'Get lost, don't interrupt!' With my experience?! The director appears to have senile dementia. That secretary has her nose in everything. Ridiculous criteria. Today I get to work–it's not even five o'clock and the secretary's dragging a huge box out of the office."
"Right. You get to work at five in the morning, and they're strange? I think you fit in there." However hard my friend tried to seem relaxed, his jittery leg gave him away.
"What? Work in reality first and foremost, got it? Do we have a plan? Yes, we do. So we stick to it."
"What about Eredani?" Matty said, pulling a face. His ill feeling toward the clan advisor was only growing.
"Forget about him! I wasn't born yesterday either. His business is to advise, and my business is to accept or reject advice. We can always get rid of him later. First we complete the task to find the island. I'm interested."
Matty looked untrusting daggers at me.
"Don't panic. Run around with Helen for another two weeks. I have a month to kill the general. If I don't, I get exiled. You can't go with me." I maintained a discreet silence concerning the fact that in exile I wouldn't be able to fulfill my criteria.
"Agreed. But I'm coming with you after the general."
"We'll see how you behave," I muttered, realizing I didn't have the strength to fight off sleep. It seemed somebody switched off the lights and sound.
I returned to Barliona two hours later, after a good deep sleep, my head cleared and my muscles feeling a natural–as opposed to a medicinal–energy. Eredani was in the same hotel I'd stayed at the day before. He was sitting at a table downstairs and picking lazily at his plate. You didn't have to be psychic to see he was waiting. Apart from him the bar was empty.
I approached the bar and knocked to attract the owner's attention. The fat innkeeper, his apron and hair equally greasy, tore himself away from his book, glanced at me, frowned, and returned nonchalantly to his reading.
"Excuse me!" I exclaimed, knocking perseveringly as if to hint that I wasn't going anywhere. The big man raised his eyes again before lumbering to his feet, tucking his book under his arm, and stamping over to me, the glasses on the bar jumping in time to his footfall. The Beer Baron. From Tavern to Lord of the World, I read the title of the book. Bizarre.
"What do you want?" Squeaked the potential "Lord of the World." My agreeability to him was only fifteen, which was five below standard.
"Good day. I see you're reading an interesting book." My attempt to boost my agreeability failed. The musclehead's eyebrows knitted even further, and he repeated his question: "What do you want?"
"Breakfast, and to extend my stay." I gave up.
Instead of a reply, the barkeep slammed a "No Vacancies" sign down on the bar and squinted unfavorably at my horns. If this were to continue, it was going to be hard to win back the tiefling.
"What about food?" I forced a smile.
"Okay," he replied with aversion and nodded toward Eredani. "Eat up fast and get out of here with your buddy. Don't frighten my customers off!"
I nodded meekly and joined my partner. We clearly wouldn't be getting any quests out of this bibliophile. As I approached, Eredani pushed aside his plate and reached for his beer.
"The Ruard question is sorted. They won't be bothering us." Taking a couple of swigs, he gave me time to appreciate what a good boy he was. I nodded, half in greeting, half in acknowledgement of the information, and took a seat. "You were asking who the Cranes were."
"I already know. Hirelings without clan affiliation. They work for the Celestials, carrying out special assignments. That's why they're clanless. So the actions of one don't affect the reputation of the rest. Did I leave anything out?"
"Why do you think she's a Crane?"
"That's classified information, but I was right." The old man's eyes radiated smugness. "We've already contacted Vardunas and bailed Varmilda."
"How does that threaten us? Is she going to wreak her revenge?"
"I don't think so. The Cranes are here on reconnaissance. They're looking for something. They don't need the unnecessary attention."
"Is that why she killed the boss right under Vardunas's nose?" The skeptic in me awoke. "And then popped up in the general chat and waited for Ruard to come and sort it out. Yeah, right!"
"Don't sneer. That's just details. We know Varmilda went crawling to Ruard herself, but that doesn't concern us, right? Let's just assume she was banking on an epic garment from the boss."
A lame old woman brought my breakfast, clattering the plate on the table and forcing a lull in our conversation.
"How much time have you got at the weekend? How much can I reckon on?" Eredani asked. I understood my sortie into reality the previous day had ruffled his feathers.
How much can I reckon on? I aped him in my head. Good question. Well today's Friday…
"I'm all yours until Sunday evening."
"Excellent," he said and wiped his mouth thoughtfully. "There are ten provinces on Stivala, and ours is the smallest. The province of Lok'dar is in the south, the spot most remote from the main batallions, and the least popular. Ideal for a castle. I can sketch a map in two weeks. Then we'll choose a site."
"I've already sketched it." It was nice to get one over on the experienced and resourceful player. Sending him Marcel's map, I couldn't resist having a dig: "Don't ask where I got it. It's classified information."
Eredani squinted to inspect the picture only he could see.
"Who did you manage to sell your soul to?" he blinked and regarded me with interest.
"You guessed it. Just not my own, unlike some." I was testing the water in the hope of an honest conversation. It didn't happen. Eredani didn't react in the least, didn't hide his eyes, and didn't take them from mine, bombarding me with highly disgruntled vibes. Steadily I batted them back. He cracked first and materialized the map on the table.
"Here." He prodded a finger in the very south, at the point where the Green River flowed into the Southern Ocean, separating the empire from the lands of the demons. "Forest, ore, sea, one hundred fifty kilometers to Lok'dar. Ideal for a castle."
"Plus with all the demons, pirates, crank players, and lack of a portal, ain't no way we draggin' folk out to these boondocks! As you can see, I'm not stupid either." I really didn't like the place Eredani was suggesting, and I prepared to argue my case. As did he.
The door opened with an unpleasant groan, denying us both a sneaky head start. We both looked around to see someone vaguely familiar enter.
"Hey, barkeep, beer for me and my friends!" Looking closer, I recognized Master Bartulun, a student of Borh Goldenhand, a dwarf we had saved from oblivion and demons. He waved to us. He looked almost well, despite having gone bald. He walked assuredly to our table, pulled up a stool, clambered onto it, and cursed violently when his head barely showed above the table. Even the warhammer he placed under his butt didn't save the day.
"So, where's my beer?!" he bawled, hanging his weighty nose over the table. It looked like he was sniffing it. In a trice the barkeep lay his book aside and leaped into action. The same hobbling crone brought us three dark beers, wiping the table before she put them down.
"To our meeting!" Without waiting for support, the dwarf drained his three-pint mug and demanded a refill. When he reached the bottom of his third, he let rip a mighty burp before reclining against the back of the chair. Which turned out not to be there. Predictably he fell, his bald head hitting the deck and splitting the rotten floorboards in two. Nobody stirred.
Kvalen: Is this a quest chain? What's it doing here?
Eredani: Could be. We'll see.
"Ah, you motherfucker!" The irate master jumped to his feet, seized the two nearest stools and a neighboring table and, before anyone could blink, was lost in a cloud of busyness. The hall was filled with dull thumps, the buzzing of a saw, and the smell of freshly worked wood. When the dust settled, the beaming Bartulun was perched atop a wooden throne. And a perfect throne, at that: the back, the padded seat on the hard apron, the carved armrests, and the interesting properties.

Throne of Master Bartulun
Description: A unique object with no category. Any dwarf who sits on the throne will receive a buff: the Blessing of Master Bartulun: +10 to all characteristics and inebriety for 1 hour. The object is bound to the Unicorn of Dreams pub.

"That's better." An intoxicated smile spread over the dwarf's face. "Bartender, a year's worth of free drinks for me and my tiefling friends!"

Discount received: 100% off all drinks in the Unicorn of Dreams pub for 1 year.

The big man nodded, satisfied, and rushed to single-handedly clear up the waste from the creation of the masterpiece. Wonders will never cease! This was what it meant to represent the Light of Barliona faction and be labelled, "Boss without level, non-combatant."
"Now to business." Bartulun ran an eye over us. "I was sent by Argalot. He never had the chance to compliment you in person. He said it's not every month hunters become destroyers. You did good. Hic…"
The dwarf went quiet to allow his untimely hiccups to pass. I wanted to shake him, but Eredani shouted for the barkeep to bring more beer. The master necked another mug, and his hiccups stopped.
"Pfft…! You're good lads, you saved me again!" The dwarf exhaled and, smiling with his whole gappy mouth, fell silent again.
"So what else did the demon say?" asked Eredani.
"That you did good… did good… and then… Forgot." Bartulun's brow furrowed with the effort of trying to overcome his amnesia. "What was it?…"
"Maybe he asked you to give us something? An object or a map?" I was getting fidgety.
"That's it." In a second the master brightened up, fished around in his pocket, and produced a piece of paper.
Eredani snatched it from his hand. "A load of gibberish. I can't read it. It's in a strange language."
The dwarf shook his head in disbelief, retrieved his glasses from his breast pocket, took the paper back, and read, stressing each syllable:
"There are no greens or lights on Sti-va-la! Understand? None! They are bur-ied where they were bo-orn. Jug Ears is hid-den deep in the Moun-tains. Mountains are good. I'll go with you into the mountains."
"Is that all?" Eredani cut off the garrulous dwarf.
"No. It also says: Lok'dar is the right province. That's all."
Done reading, the dwarf screwed up the message and flicked it into the fire behind the bar. The paper met a random spark and caught alight, but struck the side wall of the fireplace and fell to the floor. The barkeep cursed as he splashed water on it, but said nothing.
"Shoot…" The little man drew a sharp breath. He was definitely never going to play center for the Golden State Warriors. But now we knew why he'd been sent packing from the nursery–for being drunk in charge of a hammer. "Ah, the map! Why isn't it complete? You need to get to the Tower of Thunder, and it's not here. That's not good."
Whipping, magician-like, a pencil stub from behind his ear, Bartulun drew a crooked tower on the demons' lands. We assessed his knowledgeability in silence. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing he'd been sent to us.
"Here it is, I think…" He scratched his bald patch thoughtfully. "No, it's definitely here. I'd bet on it! When are you leaving?"
"Soon," Eredani said and narrowed his eyes in contemplation. "We choose a site for the castle, build it, and then move out for the demons."
"What's with all the choosing?" The surprised dwarf reached out and took my beer.
"That's what you have to do for the castle to level up quickly, so it's protected and has resources close by," I explained, pushing Eredani's beer closer to the master.
"Pfft, you've lost me there." Bartulun drained another glass, ran his bleary eyes over the map, and stabbed at the point where Eredani's finger already was. "Here! On the estuary of the River Green. You won't find a better place in Lok'dar, you mark my words! Master Bartulun knows what he's talking about!"
Reinforcing his words by downing the last beer, the dwarf rubbed his hands and jumped down from his throne. "Right, to work! The sooner we start out, the sooner we start building! I've had a word with some folk about you. They promised to help out, give us a discount. Never let it be said Bartulun doesn't return his debts!"
While my partner and I stared each other down, the dwarf ran to the door and stamped his foot in irritation at our dawdling. "Are your hooves stuck to the floor or something? Quick march, come on! We still have resources to discuss, caravans to dispatch, and masters to find. You're up to your necks in work, yet you're barely moving a muscle!"

Kvalen: Judging by the throne, he could be a valuable asset. What do you reckon?
Eredani: Absolutely! Only he won't work for nothing. It's just as well we saved his life.

And so it was decided.
Sales of castles were handled by the governor's deputy. Bartulun led us hassle-free to the outer office, but there we had to wait as the deputy inspected a city-redevelopment project. The wide doors of his personal office opened to reveal the visitor. The chief of the Ruard Clan exited the office arm in arm with the lavishly attired deputy. Piggy eyes, puffy lips, pasty face, slicked-down hair, and numerous pockets (evidently for accepting generous donations to be used exclusively for the needs of the city).
The provincial chief laughed, giving both Vardunas and his own pudgy pocket a friendly pat, and it occurred to me our task was harder than it originally seemed. If the Ruards were tight with the deputy, it would be difficult to get around them.
"At last! Here is my hero!" The deputy flung out his arms, Vardunas already forgotten. The greeting was addressed to the dwarf, and we were ignored. Replacing one embrace with another, the over-congenial leader drew Bartulun into his office, from where, while closing the door behind them, he condescended to notice us. "What?" he asked.
"We're with him," Eredani nodded at the dwarf.
"Wait here."
The door closed, and only then did I notice that Vardunas had been eyeballing me closely all this time.
"Son?" He asked Eredani, as though continuing a previous conversation.
My partner merely smiled, neither confirming nor rejecting the idea.
"I thought as much. My proposal is still valid. If you decide to switch leagues, the position of deputy is yours."
I struggled not to let my jaw drop.
"I've refused once and I shall refuse again," Eredani said and grunted like an old man. "I have to get Kvalen up on his feet. Then we'll see."
"Get him up, father, just not in my way. You're a wise man. You understand." Vardunas nodded and took his leave. I turned to Eredani.
"Father, am I your Luke?"
"Quit clowning around! I couldn't think of another sensible reason to be with you."
The door flew open again and a gnome shuffled toward us. Shorter than Bartulun, he barely came up to our waists.
"His grace will see you now," said the secretary in an old voice. Then I noticed his gray hair, saggy skin, and dull eyes. The infirm gnome was totally out of keeping with the opulent working atmosphere of the office. We'd seen a few such offices in reality, and they always had a first-rate young secretary.
"Friends of a true hero are always welcome." With a cheesy smile the deputy invited us to the table.

Kvalen: Why does the deputy always call the dwarf a hero?
Eredani: That's what they call all the ancient masters. Especially if they're students of Borh.
Kvalen: And Borh is…?
Eredani: Later. Look at the deputy for now.

"Master Bartulun told me about your problem and asked for help. I gather you need a castle?" asked the chief, tidying objects on his desk. He casually opened a small trinket box, demonstrated that it was empty, and moved it closer to me.
"Yes, your help would be most opportune," I confirmed. The deputy glanced meaningfully at the box, then at the stage-prop purse on my belt, and back at the box.
"We must think about what can be done."
"We will be indebted to you." On Eredani's hint, I counted out a thousand gold, hoping he hadn't made a mistake with the local rates. The jangling purse hopped smartly into the box, and the speed at which the deputy raked it into the desk drawer would have made a Formula One car envious.

Agreeability with the deputy of the province of Lok'dar increased to 30.

"It's very good that you chose our province." A contented smile spread across the leader's face. He appreciated the size of the donation. "But before we turn to the question of the castle, I want to reward our heroes. When we were attacked by the demons, they did battle with the enemy and helped to fend off the attack, with no thought for their own hides…"
The deputy's speech was long and insincere. Had I heard it on the stage, I would not have believed one word, and would personally have rewarded such mediocre acting with a rotten tomato to the forehead.

Reward received for participation in local scene: Defence of Lok'dar
·     Discount on all Lok'dar traders' wares: 3% for 30 days.

No great shakes of course, considering the prelude was worth thirty percent.
"Now to the main business. I have been told where you want to build your castle, and I have looked at the papers. You made a good down payment when you created the clan. That was very prudent. Otherwise I would have to give you a castle in a random location, as demanded by the law."

Eredani: Yes, yes. The law. No problems are anticipated with the law. He'd sell his motherland and his soul for gold.
Kvalen: Agreed. The deputy has an enviable appetite.

"Master Bartulun requested you be given a chance to show what you can do to earn a castle better than is normally reckoned for novices. He assures us you are well-meaning folk and worthy of a trial. I unconditionally take his word for it, yet at the same time I have heard nothing serious about the Pareto clan. What will my residents say if I entrust the town to tieflings?"
I got it–one palm greased, present the other. A second trinket box appeared on the table, and another thousand gold skipped into it.
"However, when all is said and done, sometimes it's worth giving youth a chance. As the saying goes: 'Beauty before age.' "
And the bribe-takers shall have a separate cauldron in hell, I continued the phrase in my head.
"Good! The place you have chosen is teeming with pirates. Drive them all out, and I shall place into your trust the six villages near the castle. That will give the castle level three right away. If you can't… well, it happens. You'll get by without the villages."
"Do the villages come with a title attached?" Eredani asked ingratiatingly. Grudgingly I counted out another thousand and placed it openly on the table.
"A title?" asked the deputy thoughtfully, looking at the purse. "That's for six villages, yes?"
"Yes, your grace, a title," confirmed Eredani, nudging me to increase the sum to ten thousand."
"Yes, I do recall there was a decree like that somewhere. I'll have to look for it." The deputy's lips moved, and another ten thousand slipped into the purse.
"Ah, there it is." The covetous pencil pusher threw up his hands. A file lying in front of him flipped open to reveal the document in question. The management of six villages is accompanied by the title of Baron. How could I have forgotten? In that case, all that remains for you to do is buy the castle and make a start for it. Pirates are attacking our province."

The deputy of the province of Lok'dar offers the Pareto Clan a nameless level-1 castle for 5,000 gold. Castle location (coordinates). Accept offer?
Time for making decision: 120 seconds.

According to the map, the coordinates in the description indicated the estuary of the Green River. He hadn't been lying.
"Another five? " I muttered my discontent, bored of counting out money.

Eredani: That's a standard price for places with bare rocks. Don't whine out loud. We still need to find out about movable property.

"Your grace, might I ask a question? How many people live in these six villages?"
"Two thousand four hundred eight sentient beings," replied the deputy, checking with the papers.
"And how much will our taxes be?"
At that moment Bartulun coughed to remind us of his presence. The provincial chief looked sidelong at the dwarf and mumbled:
"The standard rate in the provinces is one hundred fifty gold, but we make concessions for friends of a hero. One hundred gold per sentient head per annum."
"That is satisfactory for us," Eredani hurried to say before I had the chance get wound up. Frankly, I did have reason, and not little. I could count quickly, and you don't have to be Einstein to multiply 2,500 by 100 anyway. So, shit, that's quarter of a million per year! What's with the hellish taxes?!

Kvalen: A hundred gold?! Man, we're the champions of speed impoverishment!
Eredani: Pay! Six villages will give us an income of twice that. As your adviser I insist.

Adviser? Yeah, sure! As soon as debts appear, advisers like that are the first to pack their bags. My hand wavered above the Decline button, and shifted with enormous difficulty to Accept. It was still a risk, mind. Perhaps I was putting my faith in another person for the last time, but Eredani hadn't let me down yet.

The Pareto clan has gained an unnamed level-1 castle. Acquire ownership and naming rights from the deputy of the province of Lok'dar.

"Congratulations on your ownership." The deputy rubbed his hands and bestowed on us a blanket of system text.

Clan achievement received: Castle owner. Hire cost of work crews reduced by 10%. You must name the castle. Conditional to your ownership of a level-1 castle, you are obliged to pay a tax on the castle at a rate of 5,000 gold per level.

Task received: Expulsion of pirates from Lok'dar
Description: A unique task. Pirates are terrorizing the south of the province. Find them, destroy their hideout, and banish those vermin from the lands of Lok'dar. Minimal criterion fulfillment: destruction of 499 out of 1000 pirates (levels 40 to 100). Deadline: one month from now.

·     Experience +5
·     Reputation with Light of Barliona faction +1
·     6 villages; 2448 inhabitants
·     Title of Baron
·     Tax, per capita: 100 gold per annum
·     Bonus for destroying all pirates: +1 to all main characteristics
Attention player!
If the task to destroy General Ad'var is not completed, you will be stripped of your right to remain in your lands for one year, while still being liable to pay taxes.
Unnamed level-1 castle named Mindfell.

We parted company with the deputy the best of friends. We were escorted from the reception room the same way Vardunas had been earlier–with a pat on the shoulder. I should think so too! Twenty two thousand gold would make anyone your buddy.
"I told you I'd get us a discount!" boomed the delighted dwarf as we came out into the hall. "Now, about me. Ten thousand a week plus rations. The clan supplies materials, one day off a week, and fifty men. That's to start wi…"
"Thanks, but I can't afford you." I cut the insolent fellow off. He batted his eyes uncomprehendingly and looked to Eredani for support. My partner shrugged and distanced himself from the problem.
"Well then… what is your offer?"
"Thank you for your help with the castle, Master Bartulun," I repeated. "But I cannot pay for your work. I have no money. If you like, you can help for free. If you don't, I won't keep you. Eredani, let's go, we have a lot of work."
Bartulun stood there like a stone statue, and I waved him farewell. Yes, such a laborer would be very useful to the clan, but only if the clan was already firmly on its feet. Just then Bartulun would have been to me like a new Merc to a poor student: expensive, pointless, and more likely to provoke derision than respect.
No sooner had we exited onto the central square than I seized Eredani by the hand and yanked him back into the building. There I clashed foreheads with Bartulun, who was on the way out.
"Aha, pranksters! I knew you were checking up on me!" The dwarf smiled widely and threatened with a finger. "I agree I went overboard with my demands. A thousand a week and it's a deal. To begin with I'll supply my own resources, but later I'll need compensating. And I can't do anything without men. You must understand."
"You're hired," I muttered, just to be rid of the bore. Eredani nodded questioningly, and I motioned towards a window that looked out onto a square, where two familiar demon hunters were arguing with a guardian.
We watched the pantomime to the end: the lippy pair were arrested and bundled into a portal. And off to prison, I hoped. I wondered what the Vartalinskys needed in Lok'dar.

Chapter 4

The trip to the industrial guilds was a washout from the start.
"So, Bartulun of the Blue Dorks, tell me again what you want us to do!" The head of the Lok'dar guild of stonemasons cupped a hand to his ear and turned his head to Bartulun. Titters arose amid the masters who had organized the all-hands meeting for us. "Send you off with our apprentices and materials?"
The bald dwarf shrank, inasmuch as that was possible, and nodded.
"Well, well," continued the head, stroking his thick whiskers. "Tell me, where did you lose your beard these past three hundred years, huh? Speak up!"
Bartulun looked so embarrassed I felt sorry for him.
"As I recall, before you disappeared, you took a good many orders, charging deposits from folk, enough for three mills. Then you began to court Von Vorlohov's daughter, before disappearing without a trace!"
"Well, I… lost my memory—"
"Your conscience, Bartulun, is what you lost!" He was interrupted by another master.
"He drank it away, along with his beard," said a third.
"The whole community took the rap for you. You shamed us in front of the whole empire. What a scandal you brought on the Dork family! And now you stand here and make demands? This will not do! I, Tirlin of the clan Stonehead, will not sit with you at the same table!"
"Hear, hear! Chase the beardless one out with a broken pickaxe! His place is not among respected dwarves," the other masters consented. "Tirlin speaks sense. Banish him! And the tieflings with him. We don't work with demons. He created just the one legendary, and brought a hundred legendaries' worth of disgrace upon us!"
Bartulun, crushed by the consensual denunciation, looked hauntedly from one bearded mug to the next in search of support. He didn't find it. All nine masters of the industrial guilds of Lok'dar were immovable. Banishment, and that was the end of it.
"Honorable masters!" I addressed the assembly. "Master Bartulun speaks the truth. My partner and I wrenched him from the claws of demons who would have eaten him alive. He was barely conscious and could not remember anything, even his own name."
Everybody fell silent at once, unsure how to react to the announcement of a tiefling, until the floor was taken by the owner of the most magnificent grey beard, master Bartil of the ore-mining and smelting guild.
"And what of it?" A heavy look from under bushy brows chilled the defense attorney in me. "Nobody chased him to the demons. He disobeyed his father, messed up, and ran away."
The bald dwarf hung his head dejectedly and made no further attempt to justify himself.
"We cannot have anything to do with Bartulun." Master Bartil delivered the verdict, and the remainder nodded their concord. "But since you saved a dwarf, albeit a good-for-nothing one, we shall not banish you immediately. We shall hear you out. We know there are no castles in the south, but there is much ore."
Bartil was a fair dwarf, but he put the interests of the guild above public opinion. A dissatisfied murmur passed among the gathering.
"Quiet!" shouted Bartil, silencing the resentment at a stroke. "There's not just much ore there. Wood, fish, grass, hide. Enough for all. It is a favorable place, despite being far away. We could even set up sea-going trade."
"Be in no hurry, Bartil, to hobnob with half-demons," Tirlin retorted. "The place is favourable, but there's no shortage of pirates and demons about. There'll be no working calmly. That's what I think."
"The pirates and demons will soon be annihilated! I promise you that, as the owner of Mindfell," I said triumphantly, trying to make an impression. "And if you help me now, I shall give you the most favorable conditions on my land."
This was met with deathly silence. It was clearly a case of taking the rough with the smooth. The dwarves ruminated for a while, before a red-bearded individual boomed out:
"Bartil speaks true. We have no use for Bartulun. We can't be sure what to expect from him. But the tieflings' plan is good. And if they also clear the land, we'll be rolling. Except that Kvalen will hold out until later for his spoils, while he's asking for help now. It's a risk, and for what?"
All nine masters stared expectantly at us. Eredani immediately faded. I looked round at the bald dwarf in the hope that he could help at least here.
"For the heart of Pimisti!" he exclaimed loudly before sticking his meaty nose in the air like a fishing float.
The commotion recommenced, and this time they nodded unanimously and panted approvingly into their beards. As though it wasn't they who wanted to banish us two minutes ago. Bartil alone did not hurry to agree to Bartulun's proposal. Several tense minutes passed before he said:
"So be it! You have a week. If you should lay your hands on the heart of Pimisti, you shall have stone for building, and workers, and supervisors, all at affordable prices. I, Bartil of the clan Blastfurnace, give my word! Should you not succeed, not to worry. There is stone and land aplenty. And there are masters among the people, and the elves, and if worst comes to worst, the kobolds."
"But nobody has masters like us!" Tirlin jumped in again, concerned we'd get off scot-free. "Well, are you in?"
"That depends what the heart of Pimisti is," I replied.
 "Fifty kilometers to the north lie some mountains. Once we had a settlement there–Pimisti. Our foundation stone remains in its depths, delivered there from Sintana, our homeland. We call this stone the 'heart.' Bring us the heart of Pimisti, and we have a deal."
"Who will we be up against?" Eredani sensibly inquired.
"Ghosts, monsters, beasties from the depths. The settlement has four levels. Nobody's been lower than two. The level-one beasts are weak, level twelve. Level two is more serious, maybe fifties. What's on three and four we have no idea. It's been ten years since we lost the settlement, but everyone who goes there comes back empty handed."

Task available: The heart of Pimisti
Description: A rare task. The Lok'dar industrial guild of dwarves, in return for its assistance in building Castle Mindfell, demands the return of the foundation stone of the settlement of Pimisti (take a pickaxe with you to dig the stone from the wall). Get past the monsters occupying the village, and return to the dwarves their stone.
·     Experience +5
·     Reputation with Light of Barliona faction +1
·     Assistance with building Castle Mindfell
·     1 supervisor, 2 masters, 50 apprentices
·     Bonus for total clearance of settlement and destruction of source of threat: +3 to all main characteristics; reward from personal reserves of dwarf masters of Lok'dar

Kvalen: What is this nonsense? The continent was opened at the same time the demons appeared. How can there be dwarves here? Dwarves who lost a settlement 10 years ago?
Eredani: What do you care? The continent was opened for players, and it's long since written into the history of Barliona. +3 to all characteristics. It'll be hot in Pimisti, we won't cope alone, we need a group.
Kvalen: You think it would be easier to go straight to other masters?
Eredani: It might be easier, but not right. We need the dwarves.

As we left the industrialists, Bartulun gave a halfhearted wave and trudged off. I wanted to call him, but Eredani stopped me.
"Leave him. We'll fetch him from the Unicorn later. He can't help us anymore. We have to sort out the group and go for the heart."
Figuring he was right, I took out my amulet.
"Yes?" Communication amulets didn't display the caller's name, so Matty didn't know who was calling.
"Kvalen calling Kieron Marley!"
"Marley speaking!"
"Pack your inventory. I need you."
"Right now?" Matty was flustered. "Bro, you… today…"
"Bro? Who is that?" A female voice came from the amulet. "Ah, it's Mr. West, yes?"
"Yes," whispered my friend. "Let me spea—"
"Mr. West, hello again!"
"And good day to you," I muttered, so she wouldn't hear. "So what about helping out?"
"You need help?" She wouldn't let Matty open his mouth.
"Yes!" I was losing my temper. "Helen, let me speak with Matthew! Alone!"
"Yes of course."
"Don't be like that! She's not being malicious." Matty stuck up for the girl. "Tell me what's going on at your end."
"Dungeon. I can't get through alone. I need you."

Eredani: It's not a dungeon, don't confuse people. It's a standard quest to clear a location.

I immediately pulled myself together. "So come on, Stivala and demons await."
"Mr. West, can I come to Stivala? Please! I really want to. I'll behave myself and keep quiet. And I have a high level."
Eredani nodded energetically. The more the better.
"Sure. Bring someone else along too, if you can. There'll be loads of mobs. I'll be waiting."
Just as I rang off, I got an incoming call. "Mr. West, why are you waiting when we have no access?"
"Why not?"
"Because you either have to pay for it, or join the clan on Stivala, and my clan isn't so big that I'm first in line for tickets to a new continent. They say a couple of months. Will you wait?"
"No time to wait. I can send you an invitation to join the clan. Is that okay?"
"Absolutely!" replied the girl ardently. "I'll be there to help you clear, then the guys can take me back."
"Bro, don't forget the coordinates." Matty eventually got a word in. "And how urgently do you need us?"
"You have at least two hours. Just the clearing, that's all. Then you can go about your own business. I don't need you full time yet."
A minute later the membership of the clan was increased by the addition of the druid Kieron Marley, level 203, and the paladin Helen Ruddy, level 214.
"Not bad, not bad at all," Eredani said, rubbing his hands.
"And most importantly, it's all for free," I responded, sharing his joy.
"Speaking of paladins, summon Aniram. With all this running about, we still haven't shaken her down for information about Tamerlane."
I was embarrassed to have forgotten. The previous day had been so eventful I'd clean forgotten the demoness's words about the paladin. Perhaps I'd have remembered if I'd summoned her since the exchange with Ireness, but I hadn't needed to.
"Dwarves? How low do we go after them? Rats and roaches?" Aniram surveyed the yard of the industrial guild with contempt. I wanted to dismiss her forthwith.
The demoness looked heaps better than last time we'd met. All glamorous and imperious, a far cry from the wretched thing sprawling at my feet after escaping from Ireness. Although I'd liked her better the day before.
"We work with Seth's myrmidons if needs must," I said, putting her in her place.
"Indeed." Aniram bared her teeth. "Are you aware that since you took me back, all our agreements are annulled? Now I have the power to hurt you again. Cool, huh? I'll let you off this first time. But you better be ready next time, master. Although… if you have anything to offer me…"
"Where's Tamerlane's tomb?"
"That's all? Aniram was surprised. "You summoned me for that?"
"That's right." I was already regretting taking her back.
"Did you hear what I just asked you? What can you offer me?"
Apparently the stress of recent days was taking its toll on my mood. Anger was flaring all too quickly.
"Nothing, nothing at all! No more! I made a mistake, and it's up to me to fix it. And on that critical note, our collaboration is over."
"What do you mean 'over'?" The demoness was alarmed.
"I mean just that! I gave the Glaive of Seth to Ireness for you. I took pity on demented old you. And you? Well I've had enough! You and I are incompatible. We're breaking up. Agreed? Agreed. See the task about banishing the general?" I waited for her nod. "I'm giving you back to Ireness, and she can recall the general from the tower. Everyone's happy, everyone's satisfied. I'll get myself a lower demon and enjoy my life, and you can get your comeuppance in keeping with your loathsome character!"
"You're bluffing!"
"I swear on Barliona I'll do it," I replied, desiring with every fiber to be rid of this horned pain in the ass. "Get lost! The next time I summon you will be to return you to Ireness."
A snow-white light appeared around me. Barliona had considered my frame of mind and was confirming that this was exactly what I would do. At any rate, with Ireness standing in front of me, Aniram would waste no time in returning to her. And I would solve the problem with the general. Or find out about Tamerlane.
"Master, I was joking!" When the demoness sensed the shit hitting the fan big time for her, she began backpeddling. "We can always come to some arrangement—"
"Enough, I said! Enough coming to arrangements! Either you're totally with me, without your stupid jokes, taunts, and setups, or you go back to Ireness. Choose!"
"Choose?!" She became really mad. "Between what and what? Death and degradation?"
"Precisely," I confirmed. "I can offer you nothing else."
"Let me go back to the abyss."
"Forget it! I'm asking you for the last time. Where. Is. Tamerlane's. Tomb? This is your last chance."
Aniram's look was a real song without words or music. The demoness grew massive and towered over me, twilight descended on the street, and on-looking dwarves disappeared from the yard. But I calmly held her bloody gaze. She was a sanguineous demon. If she wasn't captive, she would gladly wipe more than one settlement from the face of Barliona in order to satiate herself.

Upgrades gained
·     +10 to Charisma
·     +1 to Trade

"The tomb is on Kalragon," the demoness whispered barely audibly. "He was born there. In a village called Fresh Growth, at the source of the river Altair. The tomb is guarded by a higher demon. Will you allow me to stay with you now?"
I paused a moment before nodding. It was just the way it was. Live with it.
Aniram dropped to her knees and wrapped herself in her wings. Her shoulders shuddered from the silent weeping of a broken woman.

Task update: Evil doesn't sleep
Description of update: You have learned the name of the first hero of the past, and his location. It is Tamerlane, the founder of the order of paladins. The tomb of the great warrior of Seth is located in the village of Fresh Growth, at the source of the river Altair, on the continent of Kalragon, and is guarded by a higher demon. In addition you have learned that on Stivala, in the mountains of the province of Lok'dar, is located the tomb of a she-elf, the second hero of the past. The identity of the orc is unknown, but you have discovered that its tomb is also on the continent of Kalragon.
The ability Demons Revenge has been removed from your spellbook. In connection with a spell update, restrictions are imposed: you do not have the right to reject the archdemoness Aniram; you do not have the right to receive a higher demon (if a corresponding level is reached).

Well, dang! So that means after level four hundred, all else being equal, I'll be doling out less damage? What nonsense. My first thought was to write to tech support, to complain I hadn't been warned of the consequences, and to demand everything be returned. Then I had a second thought and shelved the first. Vardunas had shown demonstrably that the leader of a clan did not have to be on a level with everybody and play the terminator. The task of the leader was to manage, not to compare damage. And anyway it wasn't manly not to keep your word, even if you gave it to a digital woman. Let everything remain as it is.
"My congratulations," said my partner after I deactivated Aniram. "You'll make an excellent clan chief."
I wanted to tell the old man where to get off, but instead decided to ignore him. I wasn't proud of my victory over Aniram, and I didn't feel like a victor. My father always said you should win with your mind, making correct decisions, especially when you're talking about a woman. That special esthetic pleasure is what you get from a skilfully woven game, but what had worked here was just blunt pressure. Effective, I won't argue, but I wasn't best pleased with myself.
"Let's go, we have to move out for Pimisti."
As the dwarves said, Pimisti was fifty kilometers from the city, and that soon became a problem. A one-way jump cost thirty-two gold, which was peanuts if you had the precise coordinates, but we didn't, so the magi couldn't create scrolls for us. Bartulun didn't help either. He said he could only show us the right way. As it turned out, we would either have to hike to Pimisti or use some kind of transport. Only having been to a place once could you use its coordinates for scrolls the next time. The same with the castle–first we had to get there on foot, and after that we could jump. Not incredibly convenient, but perfectly in the spirit of Barliona. The developers wanted players to study the world, not leap from point to point avoiding scenes specially prepared for travellers.
It remained to decide on our means of transport.
Reference information
Forms of transport in Barliona
Public – flying or water-floating devices allow movement between large cities or continents. This is free of charge, but travel time can be up to 24 hours. Sometimes travellers might become involved in local scenes.
Individual – terrestrial or water-floating devices. Obtained from traders or in dungeons. Flying transport devices have been withdrawn in the Invasion update (exceptions: GAS, phoenixes of all kinds, dragons, players' flying forms). Speed of transport devices depends on possession of a maximum-speed permit, calculated relative to average running speed (7.5 mph). Transport devices are varied in form and are not subject to uniform classification. Transport devices may have their own abilities.
Cost of parameter: maximum speed permitted
·       +50% to speed. Cost: 3,150 gold
·       +100% to speed. Cost: 10,500 gold
·       +150% to speed. Cost: 21,000 gold
·       +200% to speed. Cost: 105,000 gold
·        +300% to speed. Cost: 315,000 gold
Means of transport in Barliona are another way to screw money out of you. And if the first of the three speed improvements were more or less affordable, the last two were meant exclusively for higher-league players.
The very simplest bridle, without abilities, cost 2,100. These skinny nags moved at the speed of a running player, which is why beginners preferred to run around on their own two feet. I wanted to follow their example, but Eredani insisted on buying a second-level permit. Wisecracking that cardio was important at his age, I allowed myself to be tempted. Honestly, I didn't want to run anyway. We ought to cover the fifty kilometers to Pimisti in about two hours.
Helen and Matty didn't bother waiting. Halfway to the village I gave them the coordinates, and stopped for a breather with Eredani. The reinforcements appeared almost immediately from the portal. Nobody had said anything about payment for this kind of transfer, although I was interested how much it cost to get from one continent to another.
Keiron stepped out first, cautiously, and Helen skipped out after him.
Scrutinizing their game characters, I compared their real appearances to their avatars. Matty had kept his own face, adjusting only his crooked nose and his slightly protruding ears, while the rest was now two metres of sheer muscle, compared to an average-height adolescent's body. A bear-head hat, a necklace of teeth, and a carved staff which would drop a dragon. Just one association occurred to me: Achilles in a feathered costume, with the emphasis on power and agility. While the appearance of the druid was imposing, it paled shamelessly next to the level-214 paladin. Anything would pale alongside that painted golden plate armor, including the sun. I couldn't help but smile.
"Exclusive? Latest collection or vintage?" The words came out by themselves. Matty looked disapprovingly at me, and Eredani suddenly alighted from his horse and approached Helen. After asking her permission, he began to run his hands over the pattern, nodding his head respectfully and asking something of her. She replied softly, his nods intensified, and he moved on to the next pattern. It turned out that what I took for simple knickknackery was actually reinforcements for paladins, and Eredani understood them well. Being serious now, I noticed that the no less leveled-up druid did not arouse my partner's interest so much.
"We're heading for those hills." After finishing his inspection, Eredani pointed at the snowy caps. The desolateness of the path leading to the mountains was conspicuous. Thick grass had long since grown through the rock, signs were discolored and crooked, and nobody cared.
"With your vintage transport, it's going to take us ninety minutes to get there," said the little plague, activating her amazing snow-white steed.
"Helen, I'll take point, you bring up the rear," said Keiron, leading a noble stag out onto the path. "It seems quiet, and the grass isn't trampled, but…"
But all the same we were caught unawares. Two came out of thin air right in front of the druid. One of them I knew: the huntress Varmilda. Mounting my horse, I looked around and realized our escape route was also blocked by another three warriors. There was a horrifying screech, and my horse turned back into a bridle, dumping me on the ground.
"Helen, Kieron, you may leave. We have no business with you," Varmilda offered charitably, her predatory look trained on me. A heavy feeling arose in my solar plexus, and my legs turned to jelly. I understood I was surrounded by a game, but the open aggression was frightening. It appeared we were about to be beaten."
"Light!" shouted Helen, throwing her arms in the air and creating a dome around us, bringing immediate relief. How cool was it to have your own paladin? The fear subsided, only to be replaced by the surety that she had just signed her own and Kieron's death warrants. Five against two–Eredani and I didn't count. Varmilda, at level 243, was the weakest of the assailants. The rest were over 270. Things didn't look great.

Clan chat. Keiron: Helen, we take Varmilda down. The rest of you take cover.
Clan chat. Helen: Ok.

I just had time to marvel at how quickly the ditherer Matty had assessed the situation and taken the helm, and how unreservedly Helen had accepted his leadership. My wonder was blended with a misplaced pride in my friend.
"Your decision," shrugged Varmilda before commanding, "We need the tieflings alive. The rest–we'll see what happens. Forward!"
What happened next could be called public flagellation. The five Crane warriors were just a distraction. The main combat force of the group was invisible, and the moment the order came, it materialized alongside Helen and Kieron. The fellow clan members froze like statues, and a notification skimmed before my eyes:

Debuff received: Stun; 2 minutes.

A white shroud veiled the whole world, and my ears felt like a free-diver's. Despite an imaginary layer of water and my own pulse, I could hear Varmilda saying, "Quick, tie them to a tree!"
I was knocked off my feet and my back slammed into something hard, my HP dropping from the impact, and my shoulder stinging sharply. When the shroud dispersed, my partner and I were sitting on the ground and bound to a thick uncomfortable trunk. Our legs were entwined, our arms stretched back and also bound. My nose immediately began to itch unbearably. I screwed up my face and tried to turn my head, but the rope around my neck tightened. Keiron began to grunt somewhere to my right. To my left sat Eredani, looking absolutely in rude health. Helen was nowhere to be seen, nor heard, but her frame indicated she was alive.

Clan chat. Eredani: Don't move a muscle. Wait for Character Stuck to activate. Then run.

The Cranes, however, were no fools either. As if she'd read Eredani's message, Varmilda ordered:
"Change their positions once a minute. Take one each and control them. Meanwhile, I'll speak with the horn-boys. Let's see, who do I begin with? You seem like a wimp." Varmilda made her decision and squatted down facing me. Her words piqued somewhat. "Tell me, friend, how did you find out about our group?"
"Aa-a-h, you bitch!" Eredani screamed frenziedly.
Varmilda and I turned to look at him, and saw a dagger being thrust into his shoulder and twisted several times.
"What's he doing?" I couldn't quite comprehend how it was even possible. It was a game, a pastime. Where the hell were the human rights champions? This was fucking torture! "Stop him!"
The archeress ignored me and watched calmly as the Crane fighter produced another dagger and homed in on the other shoulder. But the blade bizarrely rebounded, meeting a bubble on its way. Helen was definitely somewhere close by and had popped it on the tiefling. Eredani got a breather for thirty seconds.
"I can wait, I have patience. In the meantime, you think about what your friend's experiencing. What suffering he'll have to go through if you don't tell all. I'll repeat the question: how did you know I was a Crane? My employer also wanted to know—"
"Are you insane?" I interrupted her. Her jaw muscles went into overdrive.

Clan chat. Eredani: Kvalen, don't breathe a word about my "level"! It'll only make things worse.

This was his covert way of requesting I keep mum about his prisoner status. A meaningless request, since he would give himself away the second the torture resumed.
Varmilda slowly unsheathed her dagger and directed it towards my eye.
"Maybe I am insane. Are you scared?"
I wasn't scared, because a red portal opened behind the archeress and a new character took the stage. Never before had I been pleased to see a menacing three-meter demon. The creature stepped coolly out, spread its wings, stretching sweetly, and came towards us. Its every step left a pile of gray ash on the ground, its giant flaming sword producing the heat of a blast furnace, and the hideous hounds howling at its feet threatened to drown in slobber anything their master left unburned.

Clan chat. Helen: What have you gotten me into? You only mentioned a simple clearing!!!

She had every right to complain; our guest's properties suggested my joy had been premature.

Higher demon Abyssal, a creature without level. Description: hidden. Abilities: hidden.

Abyssal raised his sword and pointed it in Eredani's direction. The bubble's time had run out, but the attack on my partner's shoulders had also ceased. There were other things to think about.
"You! The time has come to pay the piper! Baal sent me to remind you of the agreement."
"Jinn Gone!" exclaimed Varmilda in ultrasound, and I tucked my head into my shoulders in an attempt to merge with the tree. The Crane warriors tried to attack the demon, and the archeress disappeared. A pack of lower demon hounds lunged at them in retaliation, snarling fearsomely. Abyssal swung his sword, lightning flashed from him and… I shut my eyes tightly. In the hush that descended, a low growl and a gnashing of teeth could be heard. I hoped the level-350 dogs would finish off the more sluggish of the Cranes, and I waited a couple of seconds before opening one eye slightly. Abyssal stood in front of us, obscuring the whole view.
Looking around to be sure nobody else wanted to interrupt our chat, the higher turned once more to Eredani and said, "Baal has an errand for you!"
My partner looked the demon up and down in silence. His face reddened, tiny beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, and his lips pursed so tightly they became a whitened thread. His entire body was somehow drawn into itself, the taut cord cutting into his flesh. I don't know what the demon was doing to him, but I couldn't sit and watch his suffering.
"Hey, Abyssal! He can't do the errand!"
The demon's eyes shifted to me. Eredani's head flopped lifeless onto his chest, but to my relief he was breathing.
"What do you want, you lowlife excuse for a tiefling?"
"I am the chief of the Pareto clan! Eredani cannot serve Baal just now. He must earn his freedom. If he does not build me a castle, he will be returned to the mines, where he will be no use to anyone. Even you could not pry him away from the mines. Are you prepared to present yourself before Baal with an unfulfilled errand?"
The speech, of course, sounded dubious, but from a certain angle you could tweak a couple of facts. I had already begun to do so mentally, when the higher swung his sword and the blade stopped a few millimetres from my neck. The ropes caught fire, but no unpleasant sensations ensued, because demon fire was like mother's milk to tieflings. Unlike a physical dog bite. Abyssal called two dogs over with a whistle and pointed at me. The beasts stuffed my hooves into their mouths and chomped down threateningly. It was bearable, but my HP slid down.
"You're lying! I can sense it."
"No." I dug my heels in and tried to sound convincing. With Aniram the system had calculated the necessary emotions, so I'd known in advance she would never return to Ireness, and was able to play on that. What was important here was playing with words. "Look, I hired the tiefling to build me a castle and, I swear on Barliona, if Eredani contravenes his agreement twice more, he'll be sent to the ore mines."
It was halfhearted and barely noticeable, but the snow-white radiance engulfed me all the same. There it was—the superiority of human intelligence over artificial. Only people, not machines, have the talent to turn soft into green!

Attention player! You are using Barliona verification too often. A restriction has been imposed on you for 24 playing hours. If you swear on Barliona during this time, you will incur a fine.

"Free him from the agreement or you die!" demanded Abyssal, turning his attention fully on me and, more importantly, accepting my explanation.

Clan chat. Keiron: Bro, what's happening? What language are you chatting in?

Only now did I realize we'd been speaking in demon and neither Kieron nor Helen could understand us. Possibly Varmilda too, if she was around. That was good. Very good even.
"First I want to know what errand we're talking about." I tried to maintain aplomb, but it was difficult with the chops of ghastly beasts clenched around my feet. If I could only get a good night's sleep after a virtual reality like this!
"He must destroy what he spawned!" Once more the sword came to life, finally burning through the rope around my neck. "Baal tasks him with destroying General Ad'var and returning the Tower of Thunder to the demons. The overlord's slave must do this forthwith, before the general can muster his forces."
So that's it! That's what we suffered for. There was universal justice after all, and now I was experiencing absolute contentment. How little was required for it–one solitary, useful demon with a task like that.
"So we have no choice but to come to an agreement. Otherwise Seth will become strong and it'll be bad for the demons. Tell me, Abyssal, how much do you want to fulfil your overlord's errand?"

Upgrades gained
·     +1 to Charisma
·     +1 to Trade

Well yes, I got carried away. But worse things happen on a wave of euphoria.

Release - February 10, 2020

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