Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Underdog: The Wastes by Alexey Osadchuk

Underdog, Book 2
The Wastes
by Alexey Osadchuk

Release - December 23, 2019
Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07XGL6WCW

Chapter 1

“WE GOTTA GET out of here,” I said after staring for a while at the broken shield. “It isn’t safe.”
Jay just nodded in silence. All this time she had been trying to keep no more than one step away from me, as if she was afraid I would just magically evaporate into thin air.
Taking a final look at the blaze, I breathed another heavy sigh. Black embers, smoking partially-collapsed hearths, ash mixed with mud... ugh, this was not at all how I imagined my return to the surface.
Gorgie ran back over to us, having been snooping around nearby.
Old tracks. Female. Younglings,” he told me shortly.
“Did he find something?” she asked with hope in her voice.
“Looks like it,” I answered. “Say, you know what’s over that way?”
Jay looked where I pointed.
“The Yellow Bog.”
“So it’s a swamp...”
“A gods-forsaken place,” Jay said with a shiver.
“Well, Gorgie says the women and children went that way a few days ago,” I told her quizzically.

“Wait a second!” her pale face lit up with recognition. “I remember! Ah, of course! How didn’t I think of this right away?!”
“What are you talking about?”
With a happy smile, she started to explain:
“The local hunters are frequent visitors to the bog. They know all the secret trails.”
“Do you mean to say...?” I muttered. “When the men found out about the threat, they hid their families in the swamp, and went back to the village? But why?”
“How should I know?” she shrugged. “Obviously they weren’t expecting to all get killed. They walked up behind their houses to catch a glimpse, then you see how it turned out... And it never used to be like this. The barons have always had their quarrels, but they never much committed atrocities.”
“So something has changed...” I answered thoughtfully.
“We have to go to the swamp!” Jay said firmly and stopped in the middle of the road.
I turned.
“What do you mean why?” she asked in surprise. “There are people there. My aunt is there. We have to tell them what happened to their husbands and sons! We have to help them!”
Aw shucks... It’s started again. And just like the time with the moss, it’s too late to explain. I’ll have to take the easy way out...
“I’m not going.”
“And why not?!” Jay exclaimed.
“You told me yourself that the swamp is a gods-forsaken place. Or do you know the secret trails?”
“No,” she answered, hurt.
“Then I would advise you to keep a healthy distance. Furthermore, I suspect the men left some nasty little surprises on their way back to town. I would have if I were in their place.”
“But what about the women and children? They need help after all! We must...”
She wanted to keep speaking, but I interrupted her.
“You’re wrong about that ‘we.’ What do I have to do with this? If memory serves, I owe these people nothing. Exactly the same as they owe me. You mentioned children... Well, look over here!”
As I said that, I spread my arms.
“What kind of person do I look like to you? I am myself a child, you know. Somehow I don’t remember your friends and acquaintances lining up to buy me out of peonage or rushing into the caverns to help me escape!”
Her cheeks went crimson. I meanwhile continued calmly:
“Furthermore, even if by some miracle we can avoid all the unpleasant surprises the hunters left and find their secret trail, what makes you so sure we’ll be welcomed into their sanctuary with open arms? Do you think they want three more mouths to feed?”
Jay looked like a blazing fire. Her lips pursed tight. Eyes squinting. Her chest positively heaving.
“You...” she squeezed out between her teeth. “You... But you’re a mage! The Great System has bestowed a true Gift upon you! You could use it to help these people! Fighting bad guys on their behalf!”
I flashed a crooked smile.
“I see that you don’t understand a thing yet. But I’ll still answer, even though I don’t have to. You call it a Gift, but I had to work for it by the sweat of my brow, risking my life every step of the way. If anything I earned it. Let me repeat! These people are no one to me! And I do not plan to fight for them, risking my life and Gorgie’s. What’s more, he is the only creature in this world I would be willing to lay down my life for.”
“But you saved me!” she stated, raising her chin.
“Let’s be fair Gorgie did that,” I clarified.
“Hrn...” the cat called out at once.
“Without him, I could never go toe to toe with a coldune. As a matter of fact, the only thing I ever did as a mage on my own is stun a fish.”
“And yet I’m alive!”
“What were we supposed to do? Just sit there and watch you get eaten by a coldune?” I asked in surprise.
“You saw that the beast was about to get me, and you jumped in. Even though you didn’t have to... What is the difference between me and those people in the swamp?”
“Nothing,” I answered. “But this isn’t about you.”
“Then who is it about?” she asked in surprise.
“Our opponent,” I answered calmly. “We were sure we’d win with you.”
On Jay’s face, I could read outrage, fury and seemingly offense.
“Do you mean to say that if a more dangerous creature had been after me, you wouldn’t have helped?!” she asked, dumbfounded.
“Well, we aren’t suicidal.”
“And you can just say that so easily?”
“I am being honest with you,” I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t want to offend you by lying. Should I have said something else?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t know, Eric.... Your truth hurts just as bad.”
“Listen, Jay...” I started, looking around. “I’m sorry I hurt you. But I have one very good justification you’re still alive. Do you want to die? Go ahead, it’s your right. But don’t demand that I do the same.”
After listening carefully, she asked in a calmer voice:
“Then what do you intend to do?”
“What do you mean?” I asked in surprise. “My plans haven’t changed I’m going to Orchus. I’m going to rid myself of this oath and become a free man.”
Jay thought for a moment. After that, clearly having made up her mind, she stated in a firm voice:
“Okay, Eric. Then this is where we part ways.”
“But where are you gonna go?” I asked, perplexed.
“First to the swamp,” she answered. “If I can’t find the trail, I’ll go home as I was planning from the very beginning.”
“You don’t wanna come to Orchus with me?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I can sense that my family needs me.”
“There’s nothing I can do to change your mind?” I asked.
“What about you? Nothing I can do?” she answered with a smile.
“Heh... Gotcha.”
She took a step forward, gave me jerky embrace and kissed me on the cheek. Then she smiled and walked over to Gorgie:
“Take care of him.”
Once she was ten steps away, I shouted:
“Try not to do anything stupid!”
Jay smiled sadly and, waving a hand, ducked into a row of yellow bushes.
Gorgie and I were left alone again. To say I was puzzled would be to say nothing. For the last few days, she was afraid to stray more than a step from me, and today she was just up and going her own way. Although I do understand. Her beloved aunt is somewhere very close by and she’s just supposed to walk past? No. I couldn’t do that either.
I was also confused by how fast it all happened. In the depths of my soul, I was hoping Jay would come along with us. It was more fun the three of us. And I was used to her. Then just a quick goodbye and she disappears among the leaves.
Maybe I was too straight and to the point, too brusque? I just don’t know any other way. Beyond that, I personally would always rather hear the truth no matter what it is.
“Hrn...” I felt the demanding touch of a wet nose against my hand.
“Yes, yes, buddy. We’re leaving...”
* * *
In the middle of the day, we went up a small hill that gave us a good view of the plains.
I approximately knew which direction to find Orchus, and that was enough for the harn. He was leading me through the forest on old animal trails, keeping us well clear of large groups of people.
I should note that the young Baron Corwin was fulfilling his promise with zeal. These lands were just teeming with his mercenaries.
And the extreme cruelty of the scoundrels was striking. Many times, Gorgie warned me about yet another grisly mass slaughter near our path. I even took a peek at one of them an hour ago out of curiosity.
And I should have just walked past. It was two families inside. Based on the stoppers under the wheels of their carts, they were setting up camp in a forest clearing to spend the night. And that’s where they were caught. Using our mental connection, Gorgie helped me interpret the tracks left by the raiders.
If I understood everything correctly, a few horsemen had also been visiting. All told, there were nine people.
They killed the men right away. Their breathless bodies were lying under a nearby tree. By all appearances, the women survived a bit longer, much to their misfortune. I found their corpses on in the farthest cart. Their torsos were cloven from groin to chest and their ears and noses had been cut off. Their eyes had been pulled out of their sockets, too... What made them treat these poor women this way?
I’ll remember this bloody scene for a long time. And along with it the nauseatingly sweet scent of human flesh and the buzz-buzz-buzzing of the flies feasting upon it...
I didn’t find the bodies of the children, although Gorgie assured me there had been three “younglings.” The attackers must have taken them.
I left the meadow with an uncanny heaviness in my heart. It was exactly the same way I felt after I watched Crum and Happy die... And I had already thought a million times that perhaps I shouldn’t have let Jay go it alone. Maybe I should have tried harder to convince her to come with me? Although, who am I to her? Not a father, not a brother. Just a fellow traveler. I sincerely hope she can find her aunt.
I stood on top of the hill and stared at the valley below in the evening light. Just off to the left, there’s a river shimmering in the rays of the setting sun. Somewhere in the middle of the valley, the forest ends and an expansive field begins. To the right extends a craggy mountain ridge the last bulwark of the Crooked Mountains. Not a cloud in the sky. A warm breeze ruffles my spectacularly grown-out mane. Watching over the idyll below you’d never think it, but blood is being spilled on those very lands this very instant. Lots and lots of blood...
I estimate Orchus is still another five days’ walk. And that’s if we don’t get sidetracked. Somehow, I don’t want to think about what I’d do if the capital of our barony is already under siege. I’d have to cut more sleep time, even though Gorgie and I are already not exactly spoiled in that regard. We usually get five or six hours a night as is.
Almost immediately I decided against spending the night on the hill we’d be too exposed up there. We descended back into the forest.
A few hours later, night fell. When I was already thinking about where best to set up camp, the harn informed me of a strange scent coming from the east. And a few moments later, my nostrils also picked up on it. There was a fire burning not far away...
I gave Gorgie permission to go scout and, silent as a shadow, he slipped into the bushes.
Weak enemy. Prey. Female. Younglings, he reported a few minutes later.
“Is it the same bastards who were behind that slaughter in the clearing?” I asked in a whisper.
“Hrn...” Gorgie said negatively.
“New smell... I see...”
Based on the harn’s sensations, the captives were still alive. Weighing all the pros and cons, I asked with a heavy sigh:
“You say the enemy is weak?”
“Weaker than a coldune?”
“Lots of food? You got my attention.”
Food would be nice! Food would be awesome! We’ll be out of fangbloom stems soon, and I don’t want to use the valuable potions unless absolutely necessary. I also have no desire to go hungry again.
The harn had tried hunting, but wasn’t successful. He said all the big wild animals had gone deep into the forest. And all the little creatures like squirrels and birds were high in the trees. Berry and mushroom seasons were already over. Despite the warm autumn days, the forest was gradually getting ready for winter. So hearing there was a large amount of food in possession of a “weak enemy” filled me with enthusiasm.
“I’m sold,” I nod to Gorgie. “Let’s go...”
We reached the unknown enemy’s camp fairly quickly. Even if I had been alone in the woods, I probably still could have found it easily. The light of the fire was visible from a long way off through the dark trees.
We crawled up as close as possible. The darkness and wide trunk of a fallen tree made good cover.
I wonder which of these guys Gorgie considered weak? In the meadow there were three bearded fellows sitting around a fairly large bonfire. One of them is level nine and the other two are ten.
Not warriors, though they are armed. They look like cartmen. The three wagons on the other side of the clearing speak in favor of that theory. Every one of them is emblazoned with a black crow.
Based on their raucous mirthful voices, all three of them had been drinking quite a lot. Hm... Pretty easy-going. Or had I just grown used to always being on guard?
“Tim, what do you think — when will the boss come back?” one asked the red-bearded niner with a hiccup.
The bald man he called Tim gave a villainous smile and replied:
“I think tomorrow at the earliest. What, you got an idea?”
The broad chip-toothed mouth of the red-bearded man spread into a smile no less villainous than his partner’s:
“Of course!”
“We’re listening carefully, Vlas,” came the third, largest of the group. By the looks of things, he was also the drunkest.
“Did you see that fine little chickee they brought in today?” the redhead asked. “Red as a cherry!”
“Hey, Vlas, if the boss hears you talking like that, he’ll cut your balls off!” the big guy tried to cool his comrade’s jets. “And ours too, just for knowing you...”
“Yeah, well who’s ever gonna find out?” Vlas asked in surprise. “Did you hear what Tim said? Rath won’t be back until tomorrow! Come on Piers, just admit it. You like her too! Hehe!”
“I’m not gonna lie,” Piers nodded. “She’s a looker. When I think of her, the blood in my veins starts running hot. But if we start acting up, Rath will definitely find out...”
“No he won’t,” the redhead smiled cleverly. “And we won’t be acting up! She’ll do everything herself! Of her own free will!”
“How are you gonna make that happen?” baldheaded Tim shot forward. Big old Piers did the same.
The redhead led a victorious gaze over his buddies and said:
“Because she wasn’t brought alone. She had a kid. And for his sake, she’ll do anything.”
“The brains!” bald Tim exclaimed.
“Seems somehow inhumane...” the big guy knit his brow.
“But why?” Vlas objected. “She’ll like it, too. I mean, we’re not ugly guys. We’re a couple of distinguished gentlemen.”
“Yeah, and think back on when the Bear’s retinue ran through our villages two years ago!” Tim snapped angrily. “She’ll do it all herself. Nobody even has to raise a finger!”
“But what if she acts stubborn?” Piers asked with doubt in his voice.
“She won’t,” Vlas smiled. “Ladies will do anything for their offspring. You’ll see! Come on Tim, drag her over here!”
The bald guy gave a loud whinny, stumbled, and shuffled off toward the nearest wagon.
A few minutes later, he was back to the bonfire holding a terrified beautiful woman of thirty-five years by the elbow. All that time he was walking next to her, embracing her by the shoulders, and whispering something into the poor woman’s ear. She was sobbing quietly and kept nodding very rapidly, agreeing to something. A thick red braid was sticking out of her gray shawl. There was an expression of hopelessness frozen in her big blue eyes, at the same time filled with valiant determination.
“Well, pretty lady, tell my friends here what you just told me!” the bald man announced, smiling vilely as he did. “Otherwise they won’t believe me!”
“I’ll do it!” the woman said firmly, and ran a heavy gaze over the scoundrels.
“Piers, you’re in charge!” Vlas said. “You should go first!”
The big guy, shamed by her gaze, lowered his head.
“Pretty lady, go help our friend out,” Tim said with strain in his voice, pushing the woman forward. “See, he’s the most easily embarrassed of the bunch!”
Vlas gave a vile laugh.
The woman shuddered in fear and took a few steps forward. Lowering a dainty white hand onto the big guy’s arm, she timidly pulled him toward the wagons.
The unfortunate woman’s blue eyes were tearing up. But she pursed her lips tightly and continued doing everything the scoundrels ordered for the sake of her flesh and blood.
Finally, Piers snapped to. He took a decisive look at the woman and, stumbling, climbed to his feet.
“Well, if you say so,” he declared. “Then lead the way!”
What a nasty bastard! I figured at least one of them would be sympathetic to the poor woman!
Disappointed by the big guy, we waited for him and the woman to go behind the wagons. With him out of view, I figured we’d never find a better opportunity and got started.
I knew that I’d be taking part in the murder of a human in one second, but I wasn’t experiencing any doubts. To be frank, these three and whoever they served ceased being people to me after what I saw and heard today.
With a gulper’s ram, I slammed the two vilely snickering degenerates like a hurricane blowing a straw scarecrow off a cabbage patch. They didn’t even have time to make a peep before Gorgie cracked their stupid skulls wide open. Truly weak enemies...
Then Piers hopped out from behind the wagon to see what all the commotion was about, awkwardly holding up his pants. Before he could properly tell what was going on, he flew back a few steps like a broken doll. In two bounds, the harn was at the would-be rapist’s side.
And a few moments later, the Great System informed me of another victory.
I took a look around. Silence hung over the cartmen’s camp. It was only then that I noticed my body was shaking fitfully...

Chapter 2

I LISTENED TO MY FEELINGS. I wasn’t experiencing even the slightest pity. Those bastards got what they had coming.
I looked over the loot. A standard set: Silvers and a corresponding number of esses. So that means these three are no different from the monsters of the caverns.
A muted woman’s squeak distracted me from rummaging through the backpack. I raised my head. The harn perked up his ears and froze next to one of the wagons.
“It’s over! Come on out!” I gave a muted call to the hidden woman. “Don’t be shy! Nobody is gonna touch you!”
A few moments later, a familiar shock of red hair poked out from under the wheel of the cart. Her blue eyes open wide, her arms were shivering and her chest heaving rapidly.
The woman walked my way slowly, as if her legs were made of cotton. As she went, she looked over the cartmen’s bodies with a shell-shocked gaze.
“What is your name? Where are you from?” I started asking questions when she stopped a step from me.
“V-veseya,” the woman answered with a hiccup. “We’re from Pinevale...”
“There are other people in the wagons. Are those your neighbors?”
The woman shuddered in fear and lowered her head.
“I know your child is in there. Don’t worry, we aren’t going to touch anybody. We only want food and, if possible, information. As soon as we get what we need, we’ll be on our way.”
“Did our Baron send you?” she asked, emboldened.
I shook my head silently. I don’t think our Baron gives a great goddamn about any of us. But out loud I asked:
“How were you taken captive?”
“The Raven’s mercenaries attacked our village. Killed all the men... And stuck the women and children in carts and wagons.”
“Were there many wagons?”
“Yes,” Veseya nodded. “More than ten.”
“So where are the others?”
“I don’t know. These three never mentioned them...”
The woman glanced scornfully at the corpses of the cartmen.
“I wish I knew what’s making them commit all these atrocities.” I said, floating an issue that had been bothering me.
“You can say that again,” Veseya gave a heavy sigh. “It didn’t used to be like this... I heard these guys say something like the young Corwin hired mercenaries, but can’t keep them under control. And that’s why they’re marauding. They’re acting very indecent... They also said the campaign is actually being conducted by Vestar the Black.”
“The same Vestar who used to command for our Baron?”
“The very same!” the woman said, nodding fast. “Berence got rid of him many years ago. And he tortured his wife and child to death...”
“So that means our former commander got some forces together and has come back to get revenge,” I said thoughtfully.
“That’s about the size of it,” Veseya sighed sorrowfully. “But what do we have to do with this?”
“Well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs...”
“Hrn...” Gorgie piped up.
I nodded and turned to the woman:
“You must know where these cartmen stashed their food.”
“Yes, of course!” the smiling woman exclaimed eagerly. “I’ll be back in a moment!”
After saying that, she quickly ran over to the farthest wagon. The harn sensed he was about to get fed and followed after her.
I meanwhile decided to continue looking over our defeated enemies. I couldn’t find any tablets or esses on them, but there was money. A few silver coins and a few copper on each. That was good. When I got back to civilization, I wouldn’t have to show anyone my essences right away.
“Here I packed you up some food for the road,” said the woman, passing me a bag with a smile.
Loosening the draw string, I glanced inside... I could tell immediately that she was trying to give me the best they had for my level.
“And I gave all our fish to your beast. From this morning’s catch.”
“Thanks,” I said, and asked: “You going anywhere?”
“We’ll make for an isolated farmstead that belongs to my relatives.” Veseya nodded in the opposite direction of where I was going. “It’s deep in the forest. But this filth won’t be able to find us there. And you needn’t worry about us. We come from hunting families. This forest is our home. We know every trail, tree and sapling in it. The soldiers will be back tomorrow, but there isn’t a single decent tracker among them.”
“But the tracks will still be here,” I objected.
“That’s true,” the woman answered with a smile. “But we’re gonna confuse them so much those blockheads will be searching until winter. We won’t take the carts; we’re going to set the horses loose. We’re only gonna take what we really need. We’ll cover everything here in the blood and guts of these scoundrels. Let them think a wild beast attacked while they slept. I mean, your cat left plenty of tracks around.”
Okay then... This woman can handle herself. She reminds me in some way of Miri. You’re never truly lost with someone like that.
“I think it’s for the best if the others from your village don’t find out I was here.”
The woman nodded in understanding, then answered shortly:
“I swear no one will find out about you!”
The Great System didn’t keep me waiting. Reading the confirmation with satisfaction, I said:
“Okay then, it’s time for me to go.”
“And may the gods go with you, good sir mage!”
* * *
Last night we feasted! After so many days wandering the caverns and eating whatever we happened across, the simple grub from Veseya’s bag was truly a royal repast!
In the cold light of day the next morning, honestly, I regretted eating so much the night before. My stomach felt uncomfortably tight. But it eased up in a few hours and we returned to our former pace.
Near midday, the forest ended. In its place came rolling fields.
“That’s it,” I muttered when we reached the forest edge. “Now we’ll travel by night.”
“Hrn,” Gorgie said, and the scales on his neck scruff started vibrating.
I turned my head where he pointed. In the distance, at the right edge of the forest, there was now a column of dust. And it kept getting bigger and bigger, which meant someone was coming our way and fairly quickly at that. A few minutes later, a cavalcade of ten riders appeared on the country road.
“Ah, so there are the Raven’s valiant little mercenaries,” I whispered, cautiously peeking out between the dense yellow leaves of a large bush.
In the lead is, I believe, the commander. He’s a big older guy with a mustache and aquiline nose. Level fourteen. Unlike his companions, he’s decently equipped. I see chainmail, a beat-up steel helmet, a sword and shield with the emblem of Baron Corwin. A serious enemy.
The remaining soldiers are more reminiscent of the three from the clearing. For weaponry they had axes and short spears. I also see two bowmen. Levels nine to twelve.
They’re riding right out in the open. Talking to one another loudly. They aren’t looking around. They clearly already consider these lands their domain.
But before I was done looking over the first squad, a second appeared on the road behind it. And another an hour later. Then another...
All told, before sundown, five more horse patrols rode past us down the country road. Beyond that, there were two wagons and one large squadron of sixty infantrymen. Seemingly all of them were heading toward the capital of the barony, same as me.
After what I’d seen, it seemed too risky to go directly over the plains. Gorgie and I decided instead to take a detour through the forest along a rock ridge. Honestly, it was going to make our journey twice as long, but what could we do? We just felt more at ease with the trees as cover.
The first part of the night passed without incident. We were easily able to get around all the potentially dangerous places. But nearer sunup, the trail led us to a small lake with a lonesome farmstead perched on its shore. A high stockade fence, sturdy gates it looked more like a small fortress in the woods.
The harn sent me a warning before we got too close. Something was happening there. I decided to take a look.
We went unhurriedly, trying to walk as quietly as possible. And the closer we came, the louder the booming men’s voices sounded.
Stopping for a moment behind a large rotten log, thickly overgrown with years’ worth of moss, I caught my breath. After that, I peeked out cautiously and saw what was out there.
The outlanders were four in number. They were sitting around the trunk of a wide tree on the edge of the forest. All men. Levels nine to eleven. One was holding a broad shield and axe; the rest were archers.
They were talking openly and constantly pointing their fingers at the stockade fence and gate.
At first glance, the farmstead looked abandoned. But there’s no fooling Gorgie. There were two people hiding behind a wall inside. A man and a woman. Ready for an attack. Beyond that, the cat reported many children’s tracks around. So there were at least two, maybe three children hidden in there as well.
Meanwhile, the outlanders finally reached some kind of agreement and started off. One, the very thinnest, walked around the clearing using the trees as cover.
The shield man waited for his partners to hide, stood up to his full height and walked toward the gates. The remaining two got their bows ready and took position behind the trees.
If I understood everything correctly, they weren’t feeling bold enough for a head-on attack. Instead they were going to distract the farmstead defenders while the thin bowman tried to slip in between the stockade poles.
“Hail, good farmers!” the warrior shouted in a booming voice. “Prithee let a peaceful traveler spend the night?!”
Not waiting for a response, he asked loudly with a hint of mockery:
“Why so quiet?! Are the folk of these lands not a hospitable one?”
His raspy voice reminded me of the sound of two saplings rubbing together.
I heard one of the archers start quietly snickering.
Finally, a no less booming voice replied from the other side of the wall:
“By peaceful traveler, do you mean yourself, roaming scavenger?! One step closer and I’ll treat you to an arrow right between the eyes! How do you like that for hospitality?!”
The bowmen started fidgeting and looking at one another. I could distinctly make out satisfied smiles on their faces. The fish had taken the bait.
The warrior shouted something back loudly, but I was no longer listening. I looked at the harn. The cat was ready to attack. One really shouldn’t let such chances slip through their fingers.
For an instant, my eel lightning flickered in the darkness. I think only the farmers could have noticed. But even that isn’t likely...
The archers, who had just been giving clever chuckles, slowly slumped to the ground. The harn slunk over to their bodies like a ravening ghost. I walked behind him, taking out Dragonfly as I went. Two short stabs into one neck... Then another... My conscience wasn’t exactly eating at me. These rapscallions had come here to kill a family.
The harn finished things.
When the system messages arrived to inform me of the victory, Gorgie dissolved into the bushes on my signal, a silent shadow. A few long minutes later, another set of notifications came before my eyes, telling me the thin one had also died. I breathed a sigh of relief. The creep never even made it inside.
Done. The only one left was the big talker at the gates. And by the way, he was noticeably on edge. He was probably wondering why his partners hadn’t gotten to work yet.
Finally, the farmsteaders moved from words to action. Arrows rained down on the loudmouth one after the other. And he, ducking behind his shield and spraying profanity, stumbled back right up against the forest edge.
Breathing heavily, the man ran into some shrubbery, which just so happened to put him in range of my Ram. A second later, Gorgie jumped out of the bushes with all his considerable heft and fell down hard on the big man’s chest. Okay, he’s done too.
Two or three arrows flew in our direction from beyond the stockade. One whizzed dangerously close to my cheek. With a gasp of fear, I fell onto my stomach. Whew... Just two fingers to the right and my eye would have gained a nasty little ornament.
When the farmstead defenders stopped shooting, the harn slowly dragged the bodies of the downed men under the trees for cover. Unlike the cartmen, these three were carrying bags full of esses. No tablets though. They must have been using everything they earned on themselves right away. Beyond that, I found myself another couple dozen silver and copper coins richer. I didn’t take the heavy weapons or any equipment I’d never get far dragging all that stuff. Not with my characteristics.
I listened to my feelings again. As I rifled through the pockets of my downed enemies, I wasn’t feeling the least bit squeamish. Happy was right. These items belonged to me by right now because I defeated these horrid men.
We quietly walked around the farmstead. Gorgie told me the defenders had split up. The woman was still at the gates, while the man had walked to the wall opposite. They must have been putting some diversion into action. Honestly, they’d have been too late. If we hadn’t intervened when we did, the thin man would have already been stabbing them in the back.
An unfortunate raider’s body was lying near the stockade. He was no more than three feet from his target when Gorgie caught him.
I breathed a heavy sigh. We’d have to leave that one. The farmer must have noticed the dead man and thus taken out his bow.
“That’s all, buddy,” I whispered. “Let’s go. We have nothing else to do here.”
* * *
You have acquired Dry Gorse.
Congratulations! You receive:
Experience essence (5).
Clay tablet “Herbalism.”
Clay tablet of Agility.
Clay tablet of Observation.
Clay tablet “Knife Proficiency.”
I came upon the small unremarkable plant by complete coincidence while resting. Gorgie and I had been drawn to a small low-profile hill. It was densely overgrown with dry grass and bushes, and among the vegetation I discovered some dry gorse a zero grass with extremely low value.
Unlike the gray moss, which grew in large sheets, I had to hunt for the gorse. After watching me eagerly crawl around on the ground for a bit, digging through dried grass, the harn himself got carried away hunting for more.
You have acquired Dry Gorse.
Congratulations! You receive:
Experience essence (5).
Clay tablet “Herbalism.”
Clay tablet of Agility.
Clay tablet of Observation.
Clay tablet “Knife Proficiency.”
“Found another,” I muttered under my breath in a satisfied voice.
A mocking man’s voice behind me made me shudder.
“How’s the hunting?”
I feel a chill run down my spine. Slowly, not making any sudden moves, I turn.
Literally two steps from me there were three men standing stock still. I looked at their levels and went dismal. The lowest among them is twenty-two. The highest twenty-seven. He looks to be in charge.
Tossing a quick gaze over their excellent equipment, I fell into a deeper state of gloom. The strangers are dressed like scouts. As for weaponry short blades and compound bows. Each of them with ten or so amulets around their neck. Seemingly, I’d fallen into the hands of a group of forest rangers. To these warriors, I was no more than some farcical magician.
“Well, spill it,” the twenty-seven turned calmly to me. The look in his ice-gray eyes pierced me straight through. On his sunburned bearded face, there’s a crooked scar running from his left brow to the lobe of his right ear.
Meanwhile, the lowest-level of the three stepped forward and took the knapsack off my shoulder. Deftly undoing the draw strings, he dug into my belongings.
“Trash,” he commented and flung the bag at my feet.
Despite the fear clenching my heart, I found the strength inside to mentally chuckle. You’ll never get to the ephemeral backpack... Only over my dead body.
“You were asked a question, scamp,” the third ranger furrowed his thick brow. Level twenty-four. Broken nose. Full lips. Big protruding ears. He looks somewhat like my old neighbor, who worked his whole life as a stevedore at the Orchus river port. They used to say he loved fist fighting for cash.
“W-what do you w-want to know?” I asked, hiccupping and screwing up my face into the most authentic expression of fear I could muster.
“Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here?” the head honcho interrogated in clipped phrases.
“Eric... Eric Bergman... A peon of Mister Bardan... I’m on my way to Orchus...”
I decided to speak the truth. I was sure these warriors had sky-high Lie Detection scores.
“He’s telling the truth,” came the big-eared one.
The head honcho nodded in silence as if to say he also thought so.
I looked at the men and tried to figure out who they served — Corwin or Berence?
Unexpectedly, the head honcho raised his right hand in a precautionary gesture.
“The beast is near,” he said mutedly.
“Finally,” the young one smiled in satisfaction.
I already knew what beast they were talking about. Gorgie was back from his hunt, and hadn’t yet caught these hunters’ scent. If I hadn’t warned him, he’d have walked right into the line of fire of these rangers’ arrows.
All the hair on my body stood on end when I started imagining what might happen to my friend.
“Strange,” the head honcho frowned, pulling his bowstring taut. “The thing picked up our scent.”
“How is that possible?” the big-eared one asked. “It’ll be level seven or eight at most...”
It took me a lot of effort not to shudder at the highly accurate guess. A harn figurine appeared imperceptibly in my hand.
Would you like to recall your pet?
Yes! Now! Then I set the amulet back in my backpack.
“It’s gone,” the head honcho said immediately, looking around perplexed.
This time I couldn’t resist and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oh abyss!” the big-eared one barked out angrily. “This is about to turn into another wild goose chase!”
The head honcho looked at me suspiciously.
“Well maybe it won’t have to,” he said and turned to me: “Get up! You’re coming with us!”
* * *
If I had any remaining hope I’d been captured by rangers serving my Baron, they fell into oblivion as soon as we left the forest.
On a wide clearing at the foot of the rocky ridge, there was a military encampment. A few dozen tents of various sizes were surrounded by a wall of wagons, carts and carriages lined with armed sentries. And no matter where I looked, I saw the image of a black raven.
The neighing of horses, mooing of cows, bleating of sheep, barking of dogs, squealing of pigs, screaming of people it all mixed together into one solid drone.
I walked through the camp with my jaw hanging down in surprise. Everywhere I looked — at bonfires and tents, under awnings and open sky — there were soldiers sitting, standing and just lying around. And they were all doing their own thing. Some were cleaning their weapons or mending clothes; some were playing dice or cards. And some were just snoring under the open sky.
There were also many women in revealing outfits with bright cosmetics on their face. Based on their wanton mannerisms, nobody was forcing these ladies to be there.
Walking past one such woman, the big-eared one immediately launched a greasy little joke in her direction. And much to my surprise the woman not only didn’t get offended, she shot back a an equally indecent retort. And she accompanied her words with inappropriate gestures and shameless winking.
What I saw and heard made my face burn. I felt like I’d been dunked into boiling water...
Finally, we walked up to a large multi-colored hut with two sentries standing guard at the entrance. Both their levels are beyond twenty. They look like two solid steel boulders. Gorgie and I would barely be a mouthful to them.
“Is he in?” the head ranger asked calmly.
“He’s waiting for you,” one of the sentries boomed out in a deep bass.
The ranger nodded and, pushing me forward, threw out to his subordinates without turning:
“You’ve got one hour.”
“Thank you, captain!” I heard the big-eared one say joyfully.
When we got inside the fairly cavernous yurt, I shuddered in fear. And there was good reason!
On a wide thick carpet running straight across the middle of the tent, there was a white viper curled up in a few rings! It was hard for me to hold back and not bash the snake with a Ram.
But the subterranean creep didn’t react to our arrival in any way. Though I was certain that it was ready to attack at any moment.
Abyss! Where did I land myself?!
“Captain Morten! Finally! I’ve been waiting for you!”
When I heard the pleasant soothing baritone, I immediately turned my head to the right. The strong voice belonged to a middle-aged man. Tall with thick black hair, he had a short trimmed beard and a lithe figure concealed by expensive clothing and footwear. It was immediately apparent that this tent’s occupant was very conscious of his appearance. A white-toothed smile played on his sophisticated pale face.
When I saw his narrow dark-blue eyes and level forty-five, my heart was ready to jump out of my chest. I’m really in trouble now...
“Greetings Master Chi!” the captain gave a short bow.
“Morten, have you captured the beast like I asked?” the man asked hurriedly, ignoring the greeting.
“Alas, sir, I have not,” the captain shook his head. “We almost had the thing, but it suddenly caught our scent.”
“How is that possible?” Master Chi asked in surprise. “You’re wearing an amulet of stealth! I created it with my own two hands! Even a level-thirty creature wouldn’t have been able to detect you!”
“That’s true, sir,” the captain answered. “But somehow this level-seven or -eight beast picked up our scent and disappeared without a trace.”
“Curious...” the master muttered.
“And here’s the really strange part,” the commander of the forest rangers continued. “All that time this kid, who looks absolutely harmless on first glance, was right next to us.”
After the captain said that, the mage started staring at me stubbornly.
“Furthermore, when we followed the beast’s tracks a bit, we found a set of smaller footprints next to them.”
Smiling, the master lowered his gaze to my threadbare boots.
“Curious... Let’s quick check something then.”
When he said that, the mage quickly turned and hurriedly headed toward a wide table covered with items and scrolls.
Lowering his hand into a round box, he pulled out a small square mirror. When he came back, he pointed it at me while staring at his own reflection for some reason.
A few seconds later, his brows climbed upward in surprise while his thin lips spread into a predatory smile.
“Captain,” Master Chi said happily. “I can say with absolute certainty that your mission to capture the dangerous beast has been completed. You can leave the kid here.”
“As you say,” the ranger nodded.
“I consider your contract complete!” the mage declared. “Excellent work, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you! You can go to my assistant for payment.”
“Thank you, Master Chi!” a smile appeared on the captain’s fearsome face for the first time.
With a bow, the man quickly left. And we were all alone.
“So then, you used a summoning amulet?” Chi chuckled understandingly.
A lump rose up my throat. How did he know?!
“At times, fate is not just,” he said suddenly. “If not for my passion for unusual beasties, you probably would have made it past all of Vestar the dunderhead’s sentries. But to your misfortune, I had my best trackers on your trail... And today my collection has gained two interesting new specimens.”

Chapter 3

“I SEE YOU ARE bound by several oaths?” the mage asked, intrigued. “How’d you get those at your tender age?”
“Family debt,” I answered shortly. My mouth went dry...
“I see,” the man muttered. “And the others?”
“Oaths of silence.”
“Well, those are no impediment to us, but the monetary ones may cause certain discomfort. Let’s just get that sorted.”
Master Chi gave a creepy chuckle and made a lightning-fast swipe.
Attention! You have been subjected to mental magic!
I didn’t even have time to make a peep before I heard his commanding voice:
“Listen and do not move! From this moment forward, I am your master. You must obey all my orders. And here is your first and most important one from now on, you may not do me any harm. That’s all. Now get lost!”
I took a deep loud breath, filling my lungs with air. Using nothing but words, this creep had just rendered me motionless! I couldn’t even breathe! Oh gods! Why is this happening to me again?!
“No need to worry about your obligations for now. My spell has temporarily suppressed them.”
Temporarily? Does that mean I’ll be free again if I kill this scumbag? That’s how it worked with the vampire.
As if reading my thoughts, the mage chuckled and said:
“You’re probably feeling sorry that you didn’t try and attack Captain Morten and his underlings back in the forest, right? Let me assure you — you did everything right. I just read the description of your spells... Yes, yes... Stop staring at me like that. This Amulet of Reveal Essence allows me to see everything about you...”
After saying that, Master Chi gave the small mirror a shake.
“So, what was I talking about? Oh yeah! It never would have worked. The captain and his warriors are well equipped and protected by magical amulets. Although I must admit that lightning of yours is quite promising. It ignores all kinds of defense and immobilizes... Up against someone without high level resistance to all kinds of stunning and numbing effects, that spell would be truly amazing!”
At that moment, I was plagued by a few feelings. Hatred and disgust for the man intertwined with rage directed at myself. Worthless idiot! To be caught so easily!
But there was also another feeling... I was perplexed the mage had simply and casually mentioned things he was never supposed to reveal.
“Alright,” came Master Chi, still carried away with his discussion. “Let’s say you activated your lightning and immobilized the captain and another person. And sure, let’s not be petty we can imagine all three of them ended up stunned. What next? Your beast would come and finish them off? Answer.”
“Yes,” I said, despite not wanting to speak.
“Well nuts to you! You and your beast!” the mage shouted joyously and gave me the middle finger. “Those fifteen seconds would not be enough for either you or your beast to get through the magical shields my amulets confer. You don’t have deep enough supplies to fight opponents such as them. Ahem... I’m afraid to even imagine the rage in the rangers’ attacks after a three ring circus like that.”
The mage was speaking with such confidence in his voice that it was hard not to believe him.
“Okay,” said Master Chi, rubbing his hands together. “Now that we’ve handled this one, let’s get to the next question.”
He came to his table and opened a small bright-raspberry colored chest. Then he turned and called me:
“Come here.”
When I stopped a step from the table, the mage said:
“Take out all your belongings and place them right here.”
His manicured hand pointed to a meticulously polished tabletop. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice he’s wearing one signet ring on each of his fingers. His wide wrist is wrapped in a silver bracelet of exquisite handiwork. And it probably isn’t just simple jewelry...
“If you try and act smart, I’ll punish you,” he warned, his thin brows furrowed. “I know that ratty knapsack is just a decoy.”
With pain in my heart, I started taking out everything I’d so painstakingly accumulated.
“Well, well!” the mage exclaimed when he saw the mountain of esses. “This is three hundred gold in experience essences alone!”
When I set the Intellect tablets on the table as well, the master’s thin lips spread into a satisfied but restrained smile. To be honest, I was expecting a stormier reaction.
But when I got to the items from the Stonetown arsenal, he shuddered.
“Where’d you get this stuff from?!” he shouted, his voice quaking. “Answer in detail!”
I winced. It was as if some invisible person was pulling the words out of me and assembling them into short, choppy phrases. The uncanny force made me tell the master everything that happened to me in the caverns.
My latest captor listened carefully. At times he winced and others he smiled, rubbing his pampered hands together. From time to time, he would ask leading questions. In the end, he managed to get everything he was after. Well, almost everything...
As soon as that thought crossed my mind, Master Chi said:
“Very intriguing. I have much to consider. But there’s one thing you haven’t yet told me...”
“What do you mean?” I asked quietly, my eyes pointed at the ground.
“Don’t play stupid,” he menaced with a finger. “I would like to know how you got your hands on the iridescent tablets! Hehe! Or did you think I’d believe you were just born this way? Stop. Wait a second... I almost forgot!”
The mage gently patted his forehead.
“The artifacts of the ancients you have on — where are they from?”
A cold sweat ran down my back.
“My parents gave them to me,” I angrily spat out between my teeth.
Paying no attention to my tone, the mage started thoughtfully stroking his chin and said:
“Alright, you can keep them. I would rather not have to carry you around after all!”
Then he boomed loudly:
“Haha! Just imagine the scene! And all the questions! Haha! So master Chi, who you carrying there? Oh! This is just my slave! Haha!”
After hearing the word “slave,” a lump rose up my throat. I wanted to wail in impotence.
When he saw my gaze burning in indignation, the mage calmly said:
“It’s good you’re angry, slave. Very soon, we’re going to need you mad. Shen!”
“Yes, milord!” I heard a vile hissing voice to the right.
Oh gods! That means we weren’t alone this whole time! The shock made me jump back.
A short middle-aged man was standing perfectly still next to me. Gray hair. I’d even say pure white. The tips of his moustache slightly pointed. The gaze of his black squinting eyes turned me inside out. His pale face showed no emotion. All that created the impression that the entity standing before me felt absolutely nothing at all. Ghoulish, ravening and very dangerous. And for what it’s worth, he was level thirty-six.
“How do you like our little hunter, Shen?” the mage chuckled. “He couldn’t even sense you. And incidentally, his reputation with the order is over three thousand points.”
When I heard him mention the order and reputation, I tensed up.
“He won’t be able to sense me anytime soon, lord,” Shen answered dispassionately.
Master Chi snorted, nodded and said:
“Why don’t you show him then. Let him know who he is dealing with.”
“Yes, lord,” the gray-haired man answered calmly and his face began to shift.
Oh, Great System! Just about every hair on my body stood on end! In the space of a few heartbeats, every trace of humanity fled Shen’s face. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to even call it a face now! His animalistic snout is a ghastly cross between the head of a bat and that of a snake. His wide mouth is packed with needle-sharp teeth. Triangular ears almost on his forehead. A broad flattened nose greedily pulling in the scent of prey. His black eyes harbor a desire to maim and kill.
Only then did I notice that my mouth was filled with bitter saliva.
“I have someone I’d like you to meet, slave!” the mage said, satisfied at my condition. “This is a blackblood! One of the most dangerous creatures of the Dark Continent!”
Savoring the look on my face for a bit, Master Chi said:
“Okay Shen, enough! We’ve had our fun. We have lots of work to do.”
“Yes, sir,” the blackblood answered dispassionately, having changed shape again.
“Tell the Baron I am returning home,” the mage started giving orders.
“Young Corwin won’t like that,” Shen stated coldly.
“That’s his problem,” the master waved it off, dumping all my belongings into the raspberry box. Seeing my heavy gaze, he gave a cheery wink.
“And how goes the military campaign?” the blackblood asked. I was getting the feeling the mage was trying to force Shen to dissent and question him by some method I was unaware of.
“Let him keep listening to Vestar the demented!” the master shot out in dismay. “They make a fine pair! A couple of idiots! They think the Bear ill and weak! Sure, Berence has grown old. But he’s still the same clever little snoop as ever. He’ll sit in his den and bide his time until guests show up. If only Valer the stupid pompous boy had ever once listened to my advice, he’d know now that one of Berence’s little sons is engaged to a daughter of Count Boarg.”
“Are the Boargs allied with the Berences?” Shen asked dispassionately.
“Imagine the surprise in store for our little upstart when the Bear and the Boar come from different directions to smash his army.” Master Chi chuckled. “Now do you understand why Corwin’s brigades are not encountering any resistance? It’s nothing more than a clever trap. And I’ll tell you one thing. This will not end with the upstart merely getting his feathers plucked.”
“And you aren’t warning him?”
“No, Shen. He made his bed, let him lie in it. I’ve had enough of that snot-nose. That ungrateful whelp made his choice in favor of a madman bent on revenge.”
“I understand, sir,” the blackblood answered coldly. “Any other orders?”
“Order a place made up for our newcomer. And treat him carefully. I have grand plans for the boy.” After he said that, Master Chi turned to me with strain in his voice. “Walk with Shen. Do exactly as he says.”
Obeying the order, I followed the blackblood out of the tent.
“By the way, I almost forgot!” the mage said as we were on our way out. “Shen, take care of Captain Morten and his rangers. I don’t need any witnesses.”
“Yes, milord.” Finally I heard emotion in the blackblood’s voice. “You have my gratitude!”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the creature’s thin pale lips spread into a bloodthirsty grin, revealing his sharp fangs.
* * *
Once upon a time, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the home of my school’s natural sciences teacher. A quiet, lonesome man who dedicated his entire life to collecting butterflies.
He could be seen all kinds of different places, sometimes quite unexpectedly. Be it a meadow, a forest clearing or the terrace of a fancy restaurant in a word, he was everywhere his beloved insects might be found.
Always wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, draped in all kinds of little boxes and holding a long butterfly net the man had become something of a symbol of our city.
In the winter, when there was nothing to catch, the teacher locked himself in his house and spent ages studying his catch in great detail. But there were also days when he put on public showings of his collection, which had specimens numbering in the thousands.
One such day, I saw all his multicolored butterflies. Pinned to flat wooden boards in special glass cases and cabinets, they delighted the eye of his enamored visitors. Now, after seven days underway, I felt like just such an insect — an object of intensive study for Master Chi. Thankfully, we weren’t quite to the pinning stage yet.
Every day he would summon me to his wagon and force me to tell him more of my story. Beginning with collecting the moss and ending with my exit from the caverns of the Crooked Mountains.
Sometimes I would have to repeat all the system messages about my heroic achievements several times. My tale about the monster hunter markers merited particular attention, and specifically the fact that the ancient magic reacted positively to my blood.
When I said that, Chi looked truly satisfied. His face gleamed like a freshly polished copper basin, a smile of joy plastered on.
“Shen!” he said to his dispassionate servant. “This boy is truly the crown jewel of my collection! Keep him safe. He’s the apple of my eye!”
“Yes, lord,” he answered melancholically.
“Just imagine! We have every reason to believe ancient blood courses through his veins! I think the Great System tried to kill him when he was born, but Bug intervened and something happened that was not supposed to.”
“He’s weak,” objected the blackblood.
“True! But that is his advantage! Every time he gathers resources or fights, the Great System gives him the maximum possible reward! And iridescent tablets?! Given the right conditions, he’ll be able to bring them to me like mushrooms after a rainstorm! His blood can give us access to our world’s most ancient mysteries! Haha! If I told someone about this, they’d never believe me! Some pitiful zero is gonna make Master Chi Grand Magister! All the doors in the capital of the Kingdom will open for me! His Majesty will certainly want to get to know me!”
My heart skipping beats, I was soaking up all the information the mage could spout. And with every passing day, I grew gloomier. But still I refused to believe that I was doomed to spend the rest of my days in servitude to this ugly bastard.
Gorgie helped me not to break. My friend shared with me his confidence in the future, told me to keep my head down and, when the time came, to strike.
And so I did just that. Kept my head down...
* * *
At noon of the tenth day, our journey was nearing an end. The mage’s train of five wagons accompanied by twenty well-armed soldiers reached its destination.
I must note that all the warriors and servants on the way behaved similarly to Shen, silently and implicitly carrying out every order whether from the mage or his top assistant. It was like they didn’t notice me. Like I was just empty space to them.
The caged creatures the master caught before finding me were riding in closed wagons and not displaying any aggression. One of my travelling companions was a hexapod.
The highly dangerous cavern monster was sitting with its long appendages folded and looking like a lifeless clump of fuzz. For the whole duration of our trip, it stirred only once — when a sheep was brought in for it to eat.
The neighboring barony was no different from our own. The nature, architecture, people. If I didn’t know I was in a foreign land, I’d have thought we were somewhere to the west of Orchus.
Based on the way the locals greeted our wagon train, Master Chi must have been a famed and influential figure here. Fear in the eyes of the city’s elders and leaders followed by flagrant bootlicking spoke to the fact that Master Chi also enjoyed a kind of infamy.
When I saw the mage’s estate, I was slightly surprised. The manor was a fairly large two-story building with lots of light. He also had a smithy, a farrier’s, a manicured garden, an ovular fountain outside the front door, and plenty of white-sand paths both wide and narrow. Nearby and a bit to the right, I could see a pond with a white boathouse. To be honest, I was picturing the mage’s home very differently. I mean, Bardan’s manor looked grimmer with its window grates! But this... It’s the normal house of a normal landowner...
His entire small staff came out to greet their master. They were just as silent and phlegmatic. Now that made my skin crawl. It felt like I’d just been brought to a puppet theater...
Hm... And there’s the puppet master in the flesh. Smiling, he’s beckoning me over with a manicured finger.
“Let’s go!” he called. “We have lots more work to do!”
Slipping past the servants swarming around the wagons, I followed after the mage. I imagined slamming into him with a Ram and instantly felt more at ease.
The house greeted us with ideal cleanliness and freshness. Bright walls, elegant furniture, everywhere vases containing fresh flowers.
Following my gaze, Master Chi said in self-satisfaction:
“Everything you see around you — this home, its decor, my very own orangery, the furniture, the sheets, the glass vases was made by my workers.”
Taken aback, I looked at everything again with different eyes.
“Surprised?” the mage chuckled. “Let me tell you a secret. I was not born into wealth, but my father was a very practical man. Thanks to his thrift and stinginess, we never went hungry. Many considered him a miser. Fools! He was the very picture of good sense! It’s been two hundred years or more since he died and still I thank him for what he taught me almost every day!” Seeing incomprehension in my eyes, he asked: “What level do you think a carpenter must reach before they can make something like this?”
The mage stopped next to a small carved chair and patted its lacquered back.
“You may answer.”
“I’m not sure,” I muttered and, frowning, gave a rough estimate: “Thirty? Forty?”
Chi folded his arms across his chest and told me victoriously:
“Not even close! Half that. And to be more accurate eighteen.”
I looked at the chair, perplexed. The warped carved legs, the dark burgundy lacquer, the neat upholstery, clean lines. This would have been quite expensive furniture. At the very least, my family home never had anything this nice.
“And now answer this question for me. What’s better to spend a huge amount of money on furnishings such as these or to make your own carpenter for no more than the cost of that sofa over there? Come now... Don’t frown. It isn’t my fault all these people ended up slaves. I bought them at the slave market. I gave them a roof over their heads, food, invested lots of tablets and essences into all of them!”
Well, and you also made them your puppets, may the abyss swallow you up!
“Alright,” said Chi. “Let’s go... Now it’s your turn.”
I wasn’t totally sure what he was talking about but, obeying his order, I shuffled off after him, consumed by anger and hate.
We went up to the second floor. We came across a long corridor and stopped in front of a large exquisitely-carved door.
“Follow me,” the master commanded and stepped into a fairly spacious room.
I looked around in a daze. No matter where I turned my head, I saw shelves laden with books and scrolls. At the far wall there was a huge table and large armchair covered in dark leather. There were also lots of unusual items around. From menacing skeletons of unknown beasts to little boxes and small chests.
And the mage was heading for one such chest.
“Shen is right,” he said as he walked. “You’re a weakling. A stiff breeze could blow you over. Before our endeavor may begin in earnest, I must attempt to improve your figures.”
Taking the little chest under his arm, Chi walked over to the table. Plopping down in the seat, he threw back its embossed lid and started digging around inside.
“Where are you?” he muttered. “I’m certain I remember leaving it here. Aha! There you are!”
A small fiery-orange sphere the size of a chicken egg appeared in the mage’s hands.
“Here!” he extended it to me. “Read the description but don’t use it yet. I got it from an explorer fresh off a trip to the Dark Continent. You know, for the future. It cost me a pretty penny. It’s an unbelievably rare item, there are no more of them on our continent... Hm... Although your tokens and Hunter reputation are indisputable evidence that these lands still harbor some mysteries.”
He kept speaking, but I wasn’t listening. My heart was just about to jump out of my chest. My eyes refused to believe what they were seeing.
Sphere of Temporary Growth.
Type: Magical objects.
Rarity: Epic.
Increases level by 1.
Effect duration: 30 minutes.
Sphere disappears after use.
“Well, how do you like it?” the mage chuckled. “Pretty nice, huh?”
Inadvertently forgetting where I was, I nodded joyfully.
“Hehe... Just don’t get your hopes up. You’re sure you gave me all your esses? Because you never know, you might go and ding on me for real. Then how are we gonna get iridescent tablets? So I ask you again, have you surrendered all your esses?”
“Yes, lord,” I answered dejectedly in a rasping voice.
“Alright then,” the mage nodded and pushed a small copper box in my direction. “Here. When I say the word, you start to use them.”
I glanced inside. A few hundred clay tablets and another ten or so silvers.
“Too bad the sphere only gives plus one,” the mage sighed, digging in yet another chest. “All you can do is unlock base characteristics. Skills, abilities and spells can only be activated from level three. And the ceiling is gonna be just ten... Mind will be stuck at two. But it doesn’t matter. This way, if you lose your button and ring in battle you won’t turn into a vegetable right away.”
Master Chi finished sorting through the box, sat back in his chair and looked me stubbornly in the eyes.
“After you activate the sphere, don’t you dare use any experience essences. Got it?”
“Yes, lord.”
“Good. Then you may begin.”
Attention! Your level has been temporarily increased to 1.
Remaining duration: 29:59 minutes.
“Now use the clays to bring your Mind, Strength, Agility and Endurance up to maximum. Alas, your Intellect and Health are already at the ceiling.”
Attention! You have used Clay tablet of Mind (20)!
Present value:
Mind: 5/2.
Attention! You have used Clay tablet of Strength (100)!
Present value:
Strength: 13/10.
Attention! You have used Clay tablet of Agility (100)!
Present value:
Agility: 12/10.
Attention! You have used Clay tablet of Endurance (100)!
Present value:
Endurance: 10/10.
“Now,” Master Chi continued in a calm voice. “Use the silver tablets to bring all your magic up to maximum.”
Obediently, operating like a mechanical puppet, I used one hundred silvers, bringing all my abilities and spells up to one.
The mage was keeping a close watch over the process, holding a small mirror in his hands all the while.
“Eh-heh... You’re still very weak... Take this too.”
He extended me a small muddy-gray stone.
Small crystal of mana.
Mana: 0/800.
“Hide it where no one will find it. You can slough off all your excess mana into it. You may begin right now. And you can level your beast on your own. Shen!”
“Yes, milord,” the blackblood called back immediately, materializing out of nowhere. Unlike the first time, I was no longer shuddering at his unexpected appearances. Over the last few days, I’d gotten used to the constant invisible presence of the mage’s assistant.
“Everything ready?” I asked Master Chi.
“Yes, lord,” Shen nodded.
“Excellent!” the mage shouted and, smiling, turned to me: “Okay then, now we’re gonna see you in action. Your first battle is in one day’s time. Prepare yourself!”

Chapter 4

AS I LEFT THE MAGE’S STUDY, I felt a slight queasiness. At first I assigned it no meaning, but with every step I was feeling worse and worse. I glanced at my supplies and gasped! Energy was constantly flowing out of my body like a leaky wineskin.
When I reached the ladder that led to the cellar where my tiny room was located, I could barely see farther than an outstretched hand. I grabbed the rungs with the last of my strength and took my first step. A strong hand saved me from falling. Slowly turning my head, I saw Shen’s pale face. In fact, that was the last thing I saw before I lost consciousness...
The first time I woke up for only a brief moment. Through the blur in my eyes, I could see that I was lying in a bed in a tiny little room. I was very hot. My clothing and the bedsheets were all soaked in sweat. A dull aching pain ensconced my entire body. Eerie vibrations were emanating from the crown of my head to the tips of my fingers and toes.
After that came a series of strange occurrences. Seemingly the half-sleep swallowed me whole. I finally came to my senses for good when my forehead touched something searingly cold.
Wincing, I opened my eyes.
“Gathered your wits?” came a familiar malicious voice.
Master Chi was standing next to my bed and carefully watching an elderly slave woman dab my face with something wet and cold.
“What’s wrong with me?” I rasped.
“Can’t figure it out on your own?” the mage asked mockingly. “What do they teach you in those schools?”
What is he talking about?
Seeing the lack of comprehension on my face, Chi rolled his eyes and lowered himself to answer:
“It’s a side effect of activating a large number of tablets at once. Your body is changing and using a huge amount of energy. Hungry?”
“Yes,” I nodded contentedly even though I’d most likely have eaten an entire cow that very second. So this is how Gorgie feels when he’s famished. I’d have to give him more consideration when splitting up the food. Thankfully, with his energy supply, it never reached the point of fainting...
“But I’ve used tablets on myself before... And nothing like that ever happened.”
“No comparison,” the mage chuckled. “You were using iridescents, after all!” then he waved a hand and said unhappily: “I don’t much care for delays, but the crossing over will have to wait. Fortunately for you, I have an old friend coming to visit me tomorrow. He comes bearing important news... Hehe, he’s probably gonna try and spook me with those upstarts from the Order again...”
On his way out, he threw out to my nurse-maid:
“Get him fed and bring him a new set of clothes.”
The woman complied and instantly leapt out of the small room, leaving me alone. Sitting up more comfortably, I decided to look at my figures.
Level: 0
Mind: 5
Strength: 13
Agility: 12
Endurance: 10
Health: 10
Intellect: 20
Life supply: 110/110
Energy supply: 65/110
Mana supply: 210/210
Skills and abilities:
Gulper’s Lair.
Level: 1 (0/30).
Muckwalker’s Aquatic Regeneration.
Level: 1 (0/30).
Glitterspark Eel’s Chain Lightning.
Level: 1 (0/30).
Gulper’s Shattering Ram.
Level: 1 (0/30).
Muckwalker’s Defensive Aura.
Level: 1 (0/30).
All the positive effects of my abilities and spells had noticeably improved. And my mana expenditure and cooldown times had gone down considerably. Master Chi said I was still very weak. Heh, he should have seen me two months ago.
After studying my characteristics, I listened to my feelings. I was contented. But this contentment was akin to that of a caged wild animal being thrown a hunk of meat. I got fed, but it only meant I would be ready for action when the time finally came.
* * *
“So then, let’s repeat one more time,” Master Chi says, sitting with a glass of wine and staring at the ceiling. For the umpteenth time, he is harping on about the rules for my conduct. “What do you do with loot?”
“I must surrender all loot to you, lord,” I answer for the umpteenth time, reciting by rote.
“Correct,” the mage nods and takes a sip. “And if someone wants to give you a gift?”
“I must not accept.”
“And I must inform you.”
Master Chi wanted to ask another question, but a timid knock came at the door.
“Enter!” he commanded.
The door opened to reveal the head of a young servant.
“My lord, Master Ting’s carriage will be arriving any minute.”
“Excellent!” The mage exclaimed, slapping himself on the knees and jumping up nimbly.
“Order everyone to come down and meet our honored guest!” Turning to me, he said: “But you hide over there in the corner.” And he added, menacing with a finger: “And make sure you keep your head down for me.”
Submitting, I hid behind a heavy curtain. Through a narrow gap between the folds I had an excellent view of the entrance and dining table, which was set with all kinds of exquisite delicacies. And thirty minutes later, two mages came barging into the room. They were smiling gleefully and patting one another on the shoulder, hobnobbing.
Master Chi’s very old friend was a plump middle-aged man. Luxuriant fire-red hair cascaded over his shoulders. His curly red beard was neatly trimmed, and the pomaded tips of his moustache twirled rakishly. Expensive clothing, flashy jewelry in general, mages were defined by good grooming and fanciful mannerisms.
After them, a few servants hurried into the room carrying more dishes. As soon as Chi and his friend sat at the table, servers scurried up next to them.
“Wine?” asked Master Chi.
“Ragonian!” Master Ting answered in a deep bass.
“An excellent choice!” said Chi with a snap of the fingers. And the servant smoothly but at the same time nimbly poured bright pink nectar into two wine glasses.
For a few minutes, the mages savored the beverage in silence.
“Marvelous!” the redhead rendered a verdict.
“Incidentally, it’s a year five!” Chi said with self-satisfaction. “And that, as you know, was the best year for grapes of this varietal!”
From there the men started in on the fine foods, which made my mouth involuntarily fill with saliva.
“What do you think of the young Corwin?” Ting asked first.
“A stubborn dunderhead,” Chi answered flippantly with a wave of the hand. “His late father was marked by greater prudence.”
“I must disagree with you on that account.”
“I wonder if the Bear and the Boar have begun plucking his feathers yet.”
“According to reports I’ve heard, Corwin has begun sieging Orchus,” the redhead said.
“That means the trap will slam shut any day now. And what about the Order? Have they decided to support him?”
Master Ting shook his head.
“He’s too restive.”
“On whom then will they confer the baronial crown?” Master Chi asked, intrigued.
“A nephew of the elder Corwin a very quiet and timid young man,” the redhead answered profoundly.
“Ugh,” Chi breathed a short sigh, shaking his head. “A little mind control could solve this issue.”
The redhead took a heavy sigh.
“I do not agree. In fact, it would complicate things significantly. The courtiers would raise a stink, then it would be the events of two-hundred years ago all over again. We were driven to the brink of extinction as it was. And don’t you forget that every little baron out there aspires to unlock the mana supply.”
Chi just sighed in silence and took a deep swallow from his glass, which was immediately refilled by the lightning-fast swipe of a servant’s hand.
The mages fell silent again, each thinking about something else. Master Chi started the discussion back up. Squinting, he turned to Ting:
“Well old bean, that can’t be why you came to visit, right?”
“Indeed, my friend! You are absolutely right. I come bearing bad tidings for you.”
Chi gave a careless chuckle.
“The old worm got another itch?”
“You’d do well not to speak that way!” Ting objected. “And your flippant manner frightens me! Beyond that, you are disrespecting the council of the Order of our barony. There were mages sympathetic to you before, but your Bug-may-care attitude has driven them all away. I believe I am the only friend you have left. I remember perfectly who saved my hide back in that tomb.”
Chi gave a kind smile and patted the redhead on the shoulder.
“I know, my friend. That is why you are here drinking wine with me today. And as for our elders, here is what I have to say — that ditherer occupies a seat which does not belong to him. I was supposed to be head of our cell. You know that perfectly well!”
“Yes,” nodded the redhead. “But he was appointed by the Five with the Grand Magister at their head! Their will is our law!”
Slamming his palm loudly on the tabletop, Chi hopped up nervously. His face went crimson, his lips screwed up into an evil grimace and his manicured hands balled up into fists so tight his knuckles turned chalky.
“Everyone knows Magister Shitang forced that dunderhead on us! That old snake was consolidating positions by placing his people in elderships throughout the Kingdom!”
Paying no mind to his friend’s shouting, Ting responded calmly:
“That’s just where your problem lies, old bean. You’ve grown so accustomed to creating soulless marionettes that you can no longer stand being subordinate to anyone. You are too proud to be an elder, too independent. And as a rule, with time, those who run afoul of our leaders become a dangerous hindrance. That’s why I am here. To warn you. You’ve pressed on too many old sore spots. The council was saying so openly at their last meeting.”
My heart aflutter, I was taking in all the information. If my father could hear what these people were saying, he’d be no less shocked than me. I had guessed this world was not as straightforward as I was led to believe. But not to this degree...
Meanwhile, their conversation was ongoing.
After the quick flare-up, Master Chi got himself together just as quickly and sat back down at the table. Smiling broadly and, raising a glass, he said:
“Let’s drink, old bean. And to the abyss with all these scoundrels!”
The redhead chuckled sadly and raised a glass.
His goblet drained, Chi gave a sweep of the arm and every last servant left the room. When the door closed behind the last one, Chi walked right up to his fellow mage. Squinting conspiratorially, he began to speak:
“My friend, I no longer give a damn about becoming an elder of our back-woods Barony. My aim is to climb higher. I want to become Great Magister! And to do that, I will need trusted associates. I will need people like you, my friend!”
Ting frowned and glanced suspiciously at his friend. I could see perfectly well that the redheaded mage did not like what he was hearing.
“Chi, have you lost your mind?! Those words alone could get us turned to ash and scattered in the wind! You live among your puppets without a care in the world, but I have successors to think about!”
“Don’t you worry about a thing, my friend,” the master of the house answered in a calm voice. “I have a plan. And you know perfectly well that once I set myself a goal I always get what I’m after. I have discovered a way to make many influential people dependent on me. You simply cannot imagine the kind of perspectives that have opened up before me! And if you follow me, you can share in my success!”
“Explain yourself,” Ting asked, his right brow arched.
Master Chi stood easily from the table, rubbing his hands together and smiling intriguingly, then said:
“Why explain? Better to show you! Shen!”
“Yes, milord,” came the blackblood, on the lookout as ever.
I must give the redheaded mage his due. He didn’t even shudder when Shen appeared. And no surprise. He is level forty-three after all. Tricks such as these are no novelty to him.
“Is everything ready for the crossing over?” asked Chi.
“Yes, lord,” Shen answered phlegmatically.
“Where are you planning to go?” Ting inquired.
Chi, still smiling happily, replied:
“Well, first of all, not me — we. And second, it’s better to see a thing one time than hear about it seven.”
Ting chuckled rakishly. Getting up from the table, he reached for a flagon.
“Well, in that case! I’m not going anywhere without wine!”
They laughed together and, embracing at the shoulder, headed to leave.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, we were on a small plaza in the manor’s internal courtyard. Other than the two mages, Shen and myself, there were four warriors laden with bales, baskets and boxes of rations. The fourth and healthiest was carrying a bulging barrel on his right shoulder.
When Ting saw the food and wine, he smacked his lips in delight and took a swallow from his rather emptied flagon. Wiping his lips on a pure white kerchief, he finally saw me and frowned in surprise:
“Is that bag of bones coming with us, too?”
I was standing at a slight distance. On my back, a small pack of zero food. In my hands, a familiar raspberry-red little chest. Chi handed it to me with a smirk before leaving his study. May the abyss swallow him up!
The master gave a careless wave and, with a surreptitious wink to me, answered:
“Pay him no mind, Ting! The boy is carrying delicacies for us to eat.”
The redhead shrugged his shoulders and got back to slurping at his flagon.
Meanwhile, Chi pulled a small scroll out of his pocket.
“A portal?” Ting asked with slight surprise. “Are we going far? I promised the missus I’d be back by dinner.”
“Don’t you worry, old bean. We’ll have you back in fine form.”
At that, Master Chi activated the scroll, which turned into thousands of glowing little sparks and dispersed, leaving behind a blurry arch the size of a normal door.
“Okay then, let’s go!” the master proclaimed, walking first into the portal.
And the redheaded mage followed calmly behind him, as if taking a relaxed stroll. A moment later the rest followed. Meanwhile, Shen pushed me lightly on the back.
In the space of a second, we were transported to a stone platform on the tip of a huge rock. The wind was blowing from all directions and it was so cold and piercing I felt like the marrow in my bones was about to freeze solid. Ting’s calm showed a crack.
“Where’d you drag us off to now?” he exclaimed, looking around in alarm.
“Old bean!” Embracing him by the shoulders, Chi was laughing uncontrollably, joyfully. “Don’t you worry yourself so! We’re merely in the Wastes! I put lots of effort into creating this place! And today, you are the first to look upon my creation! I call it the Hive. Down there is my entire collection. It took me a long time to gather all these specimens! Rare magical beasts from all corners of our world! And now, this location will provide me a level of power you cannot even dream of! This is where the first stage of my ascent to the summit will begin! And I am offering to let you share a portion of my future might!”
I turned my head, stunned and saw nothing but endless steppe in every direction. But what scared me most of all was whatever was resting there, in the bowels of the cliff. I finally realized what the nutty bastard had in store for me.
“This way!” Chi said, pointing to a wide opening in the cliffside.
But by the looks of things, Ting wasn’t going anywhere. He shook his head and said contritely:
“They were right... You are losing your judgment and becoming dangerous! You spit on our laws and rules! And that cannot be! You make people into puppets and treat the nobility with arrogance. Your behavior is drawing too much attention to our Order!”
Chi opened his mouth in surprise and looked at his fellow mage.
“What are you saying my friend? My mind is clearer than ever before! It runs like clockwork!”
But the redheaded mage wasn’t listening anymore. He breathed a heavy sigh and quietly said:
“Forgive me...”
A glowing object suddenly appeared in his hand. One sharp swipe and I found myself in a daze and watching another portal open. And gradually, figures enshrouded in black cloaks began to emerge from it.
There were seven of them. All over level sixty. As soon as the portal disappeared, they surrounded Master Chi.
It all happened so fast I didn’t even have time to blink an eye.
“Ting!” my master cried out in a voice not his own. “What have you done, you old fool?!”
The redhead was no longer looking at his associate, instead moving toward one of the dark figures.
“What took you so long, Ting?” one of the strangers asked calmly, throwing back his hood.
It was a tall bald man with sharp facial features. The powerful gaze of his black eyes stopped on Master Chi. In his turn, covering himself with a semitransparent dome, Chi shouted defiantly:
“You doddering old backstabber! You set this all up?! Why have you brought a pack of Executioners here?! Have you forgotten the law?! You cannot execute me extrajudicially!”
The bald man replied dispassionately:
“Hm... Didn’t Ting tell you? The trial has already taken place, and a verdict has been rendered. You have been sentenced to death!”
What happened next felt like a nightmare.
As the old man said his last words, the dark figures lunged toward the reviled mage. With my characteristics, I couldn’t quite make out what was happening. It was just too fast-paced.
Gradually conjuring a ball of lilac smoke around his fist with intricate hand movements, Chi gave a curt shout. Shen and the warriors immediately dashed out to meet the attackers.
Suddenly, the earth shook and I heard a loud roar from down below. That must have been the master summoning a specimen from his collection to his aid. But to his great misfortune, help never arrived.
The warriors died first. The Executioners dispatched them like little paper soldiers. Shen held out a bit longer. But he had no way of standing up to opponents almost two times higher level than him. Run through by several icy stakes, he fell at the bald mage’s feet like a broken doll.
To be honest, I was surprised. Why hadn’t my master ordered me to fight as well? Does he think he can win and is trying to keep me secret to the very end? Now there is a truly calculating bastard.
Master Chi’s defensive dome cover was constantly flickering and blinking, but it was still holding out. I saw his amulets, rings and bracelets give a bright flash and fall to dust one after the next.
Finally, he finished casting the spell and tried to use it to strike his attackers. And that was the very moment the old bald man joined the fray. He extended a twig-thin hand toward the condemned mage. A coal-black arrow raced away from his long, dry fingers and, when Chi saw it, he squealed in a voice not his own. My mouth immediately filled with bitter saliva and a slight taste of rot.
Passing unimpeded through the defensive dome, the arrow entered the mage’s chest with a flourish of black. Chi choked on his own scream. His body started jerking in violent convulsions. A tar-black spot appeared where the spell made contact and expanded like an ulcer before my very eyes! A moment later, what was left of Master Chi fell to the ground like a formless sack. And I saw a message:
Attention! The mental magic you were subjected to has been terminated!
At that very moment, I felt the ground beneath me shudder again. Tearing through the stone flesh of the platform, a gigantic level-thirty spider-like monster crawled out from below. While my former master’s Executioners focused on the new opponent, I ran toward a small passage in the cliffside, not wasting any time.
A wail came from above mixed with the cracking of stones and hissing of spells, driving me farther and farther inside the cliff. I activated my amulet and Gorgie appeared, quickly got his bearings and led us forward into the darkness of Master Chi’s Hive.
The farther we went down the tunnel, the louder the horrible din, howling, squealing and creaking from all sides became. The inhabitants of the Hive spun out of control after the death of their master.
The hallway quickly came to an end and we jumped outside. It was a broad terrace. The harn tore off to the opposite edge of it without stopping. A narrow stone stairway started there and stretched to the foot of the mountain.
Meanwhile, the mountain continued to quake and everything was plunged into chaos. Shrieks of pain, snarling, roars of rage — it all mixed together into one deafening howl. I’m afraid to even imagine what was happening inside.
When we reached the middle of the stairway, something small and hairy jumped down on us from above. Not especially caring what it was, I rushed to activate Ram.
The beast flew back like a hairy blob, stunned by the spell. When the monster landed on the sharp outcroppings of rock below, the system immediately told me I had defeated a level-sixteen black biter.
I noted mechanically that it was not a magical creature. And that was a shame. It was an easy victory.
Finally the stairway ended and, not turning back, we ran onto the steppe. The distant roar and thundering of stones followed us for a long while.
With my elevated characteristics, I could run much faster than before. It was a glorious feeling! The cold wind beating right against my face, blowing away the hot tears of joy on my cheeks. We’re free!
The harn was constantly telling me we were not alone. The beasts fleeing the Hive were small for the most part as, for the record, were we. Informed by self-preservation instinct, they were driven by a single-minded urge to get as far from their fearsome prison as possible. And twenty minutes later, when the harn sensed no other creatures, we decided to stop at a small ravine for a short breather.
Only then did I realize, when the initial fear had passed, that all that time I’d been carrying Master Chi’s raspberry-colored chest.
“Bastard!” I shook a shivering fist menacingly in the direction of the mountain, just visible on the horizon. “Bet you never thought these things would come back to me!”
Spitting on the ground emphatically, I gave a nervous laugh. But it didn’t reach the point of hysterics. Gorgie made me get myself together.
I calmed down a bit and opened the top of the box. Alas, to my disappointment it contained no more tablets or esses. But it did contain the monster hunter tokens, blots, potions of satiety and scrolls of fury. I don’t know about the tokens, but clearly the mage was planning to give me everything else to help me fight his monsters. Well, at least I made away with something...
I quickly transferred the arsenal items into my ephemeral backpack. But the box was too heavy and bulky, so I threw it into some bushes. I also transferred all the quick-spoiling foods from my new bag into the freshness-preserving backpack.
After that I quickly had a bite to eat and sated my thirst, then we started for the west. If I’m not mistaken, that is the way that will take us to Orchus.
I walked at Gorgie’s side, taking in deep breaths of the frosty air of the orcish steppe. I was immeasurably happy! I’m sure I’ll remember this smell forever.
The smell of freedom!

Release - December 23, 2019
Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07XGL6WCW

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