Monday, February 17, 2020

Disgardium-4: Resistance by Dan Sugralinov

Disgardium by Dan Sugralinov
Book 4: Resistance

Release - April 29, 2020

Prologue. Taranis

All of Vermillion could be seen from the tower roof. City of the brave and the stubborn, as the local councilor Westwood put it when he greeted Taranis.
City! Taranis spat.
His spit evaporated as soon as it touched the red-hot roof. Only an inwinova who had never seen the megapolises could call Fort Vermillion a city.
Taranis, a level three hundred and thirty-six scout from the Children of Kratos preventer clan, had seen real cities. Not counting real life, he’d spent most of his time in Darant, performing a thorough investigation of the Commonwealth capital’s fleshpots. He’d had the chance to see the Empire’s Shak as well. But both capitals cowered before Kinema, the main city of the Goblin League on Bakabba. It would take more than one lifetime to sample all the forbidden pleasures there.
The green-skinned little creatures were born traders. No trivial middlemen who knew where to buy and who to push their wares on, no. The goblins had a sixth sense for what any intelligent creature needed, be they a dull-witted minotaur, an aristocratic vampire or a poor craftsman from the most distant pit of northern Latteria, and they offered them what they wanted. And if anyone had ever had a need for a type of object, then it could be found in Kinema.

Like, for example, this Far-Seeing Visor, a unique dwarven spyglass bought on the private markets in Kinema. Using it, you could not only see everything within two miles in the very finest detail — you could also identify it. The system showed the names and levels of mobs, players and NPCs only if you focused your view on an object nearby. With the Far-Seeing Visor, everything far away was always nearby.
Taranis took a swig of his flask of Leprechaun’s Vigor — a coffee with a generous share of the strongest dwarven liquor. His shift was ending. Darin, the clan’s other scout, should show up at any moment to take up his post.
Yesterday, when Nergal the Radiant sent out his call to arms for war against the Sleeping Gods, preventer scouts like Taranis flooded into all the frontier settlements. True, they were making do without the leaders of the top clans — they were probably already sipping expensive cocktails on the beaches of Jumeirah in preparation for tomorrow’s Distival. There the fate of Dis players would be decided, alliances destroyed and created, deals for billions of gold made…
Taranis had planned to go there at first too, but changed his mind. He couldn’t get into the closed events — he hadn’t achieved anything outstanding in the game yet, and nor did he have a personal invitation. And hanging around in the crowd with the trash fans? To Nether with that.
Vermillion, a dusty Commonwealth fort full of narrow streets, ever covered in sand, was waking up. It was three or four hours after dawn — the best time for activity. The heat was at its least scorching, the debuff relatively merciful. Just the time for forays out into the Lakharian Desert. Groups of players — mostly raids, but occasionally there were small squads of resource collectors — moved out beyond the frontier. Individual points ranged out like a fan — clan scouts. Top players in gleaming legendaries sat astride fearsome mounts, their greeting roars and shrieks echoing throughout the locality.
Taranis noticed that the groups were getting far more serious than they had been three days ago when he first got there. The instant the wave of notifications sped through Dis to declare the first kill against Sharkon, every self-respecting clan sent observers to the frontier.
Yesterday, Vermillion even became the most popular spot in Dis as the fort closest to the temple of the Sleeping Gods. Clans were rushing to create a base for the coming assault. Private and group portals were too expensive to transport large numbers of people, so all the top clans were building stationary portals: workers swarmed around the fortress walls erecting clan portals. The rest had reason to stay awake too: herb collectors rooted through the desert under the protection of battle stars, stocking up on reagents for powerful potions; special hunting brigades roamed in search of prey; kitchen workers stayed up for their third day straight to feed so many visitors. Merchants filled the market to bursting and all the prices shot up, including for adult entertainment. Vermillion was too small for such an influx of visitors, and being there without a roof over your head was a death sentence.
Taranis’s clan, the Children of Kratos, was considered the strongest in Dis not for its strength or achievement points. The Children could hardly compete in that regard with the Travelers, Azure Dragons, Modus, Excommunicado or Widowmakers. But if real-world influence was the metric, the Children had no equal. They were all citizens of at least class C, the cream of society, hand-picked aristocracy, members of the richest families, children of rulers of individual regions and of the global government alike.
Twenty-nine-year-old Taranis Ward, named after the Celtic god of thunder, tried to live up to his name. His father led a department that dealt with non-citizen Zones, his mother managed secret projects at the UN, his uncle… Almost everyone in Taranis’s family was in the ‘platinum hundred’ — thus were called the first hundred thousand of the planet’s most significant citizens.
Taranis found his path in Dis. By the rule of blood unity, if someone in a family had particularly high status, some of their privileges extended to their closest relatives: parents and children. That suited Taranis.
In the southeast, on the peak of a distant dune, a dust cloud was forming. Switching on his Far-Seeing Visor, the Children of Kratos scout gasped: an enormous pack of mobs was moving toward the fort. He couldn’t make out what kind of beasts they were; it was too far away even for the dwarven artifact. But even from his position, Taranis saw the sand flying up as if a titanic megabulldozer created to tear down old cities had suddenly appeared in Dis and was belting through the Lakharian Desert at full speed.
The scout activated his comm amulet and spoke clearly, but quietly, so as not to draw attention from an Azure Dragons observer nearby.
“Come in, Schindler. Taranis here.”
“I hear you, Taranis,” the clan’s watch officer answered a few seconds later.
“I’m seeing some strange activity. Something is moving toward Vermillion.”
“The Imperials?”
“Hard to say for now. Looks like basilisks, only… Damn, I think they’re undead! Yeah, undead! One has a bone sticking out…”
“Where’re they from?”
“Identifying… Got it, my visor is giving me info. Confirmed undead. Tumbleweeds, basilisks, a herd of desert vultures, sand cobras, a hermit… The whole group is undead! Levels are four hundred plus. Oh, holy shit!”
Taranis couldn’t hold back his shock, and cursed too loudly. Turning around, he grimaced — the Azure scout, until now lazing peacefully, looked in the same direction and immediately jumped up, pulling out his comm amulet. Paying him no more attention, Taranis summoned his Golden Pegasus mount, climbed up and zoomed toward the undead, commenting on what he saw:
“Several dozen mobs, one is a superelite, also a zombie. It’s Sharkon! Do you hear me? I repeat, it’s Sharkon himself! Wait… They’re all minions!”
A ringing bell drowned out his clanmate’s words. Vermillion’s garrison had woken up.
“Unknown. I see their leader! He’s riding a dragon, I’ve never seen anything like it. The profile is hidden, and it must be some kind of advanced incognito level. I can’t make anything out, just a shadow.”
“What does he look like?” The voice on the other end of the comm amulet was no longer Schindler’s. The clan leader Joshua himself was getting involved. “Can you at least tell me if it’s a human? A dwarf? A troll?”
“No, sir, negative. It could be anything, the outline is too vague. The mobs are already close enough. I see some top players, they’re getting ready to meet them. I ran into the Travelers’ third static in full gear…”
“The dark ones are already there too?” Joshua mused. “Well well, those boys will take any excuse to wander our territory unpunished. Is Horvac anywhere to be seen?”
“No, there’s nobody else from the Alliance, it’s mostly PuGs[1]. Switching to long-range mirror, sending feed…”
While Taranis soared above the strange arrivals from the desert, silence reigned on the comms.
“Tar, keep observing, record what you see. Don’t get into combat! We’re sending the clan’s battle core,” Schindler said. “Estimated arrival time — ten minutes.”
“Why so long?”
“They were asleep… Good thing Josh handed out some magical kicks in the ass. Alright, over and out.”
Groups of top players milled about below, forming into battle ranks. The garrison guard stretched from the defensive walls to the players. None of the NPCs were above level three hundred, while the attacking NPCs were all well over four hundred.
They’re doomed, Taranis thought.
The Children of Kratos scout counted fifty-five different types of desert creatures. The undead were moving in an arrow formation. At its tip was Sharkon, careering ahead and throwing up piles of sand, a nightmarish creature with an angular muzzle and a threatening spiny plate all down its back. In comparison to Sharkon, the twenty-foot basilisks that Taranis had seen from above looked like tiny geckos. Vultures ran, shedding feathers and flesh as their bony wings flapped in vain.
What? Taranis shook his head. Four undead with personal names moved behind Sharkon. A hermit called Toothy, a vulture skeleton called Birdie, a creepy morten called Kermit, and even one of those horrible tumbleweeds, a nightmare for any player, called It.
The scout steered his pegasus a little lower to get a better view of the battle. Raid buffs flashed across the assembled rows of players.
Judging by how obediently the puggers were listening to her instructions, the warlock Tammy was in command, a big orc girl. That made sense. A top player from the Alliance of Preventers, an officer in the Travelers. Taranis knew her from the battle at Alma’arasan Gorge, when the preventers were fighting over Crag, a Threat that was still at large to this day. Who knew, maybe he was the one controlling the undead?
A shared enemy united two eternal enemies — the Commonwealth and the Empire. The tanks stood in the first row behind a wall of shields: warriors, bear druids, paladins, knights of light…
Immediately behind them, ready to jump over the tanks, were all kinds of classes of melee fighters, frozen in expectation. The last rows looked to be filled with all the colors of the rainbow from above: wizards, mages, spellcasters in variegated mantles, healers, priests, supports and ranged fighters. Engineers and standard bearers ran all along the front, setting up dwarven turrets and flags that buffed allies within their range.
Taranis looked back: a chain of players rushed to the event from the city council building, which had a stationary portal inside. The chain was far smaller than he expected.
Z-z-z-zip! With his peripheral vision, the scout saw a dirty arrow emitting a trail of smoke leading to the mysterious rider on a dragon, and he felt pain. The last thing Taranis saw was electric charges flashing from the dragon’s tail.

<Identity Hidden> dealt you critical damage: 938,734!
You are dead.
Reviving in 10… 9… 8…

In the ten seconds it took for his body to fall from the pegasus, which disappeared as soon as its master died, Taranis watched in flickering black and white as Sharkon easily swept away rows of players that took the main thrust. The undead tore the top players into pieces like ragdolls, and the necromancer ruling over them didn’t even slow his pace as he entered the fort.
Taranis revived at Vermillion’s graveyard. Within an instant, he’d summoned his pegasus, mounted up and was rushing to the site of the attack to record as much as he could. His job was to observe. It would be up to others to analyze this mess.
The undead army had broken into the city, tearing down the wall. The lone megaboss Sharkon was basically doing it all, with the smaller undead crowding behind, tearing up townsfolk and finishing off wounded players and guards. Their master stayed out of the battle. Now the mages’ spells, archers’ arrows and reinforced ballistae on the walls were aimed at him, but as it turned out, none of that bothered him. He just hovered above the battlefield, apparently sending his minions toward a target known only to him.
The undead had reached the city council building. Sharkon tore down half the building, grabbed the corner of the bank and turned. The necromancer landed nearby, clapped his dragon on the side — an entirely normal, living dragon — and, shading his eyes with a hand, glanced upward. At Taranis.
As if enchanted, the scout began to descend to the silhouette, which looked as if woven from gloom. Reviving players were returning from the graveyard, but none of them dared to approach.
By this time the undead had torn the building down and grabbed the stationary portal, which seemed so indestructible with its billion durability points. After seeing its durability drop under the assault of the undead desert monsters, Taranis’s confidence in the portal’s indestructibility fell. Suddenly, the portal sparked and deep cracks covered its horseshoe-shaped adamantite frame. The magic veil between worlds flickered, lost power and died. The portal switched off just as someone appeared from it. Someone’s hand fell to the stone-strewn ground.
“Are you recording?” said a vibrating voice from beneath the invader’s hood.
His smoky silhouette constantly changed shape, shifting and flickering. The only thing Taranis could make out in detail was the burning gaze of his bright-blue eyes, which switched color to green, then to fire-red. The incomer pointed a finger toward Taranis, who gulped and nodded nervously.
The stranger raised his voice and spoke.
“I speak to all who planned to join Nergal’s crusade. You have seen our power. But we have shown you only a fraction of it. Every clan seen in the Lakharian Desert more than thirty miles from Vermillion will be considered an enemy of the Destroying Plague. So say I, its legate. We will come. We will grind your castles to powder. Keep away from us. This is our land!”
His speech over, the invader disappeared. As if into thin air. His army of undead, five and a half dozen nightmarish creatures, rushed back from where they came — the desert.

Chapter 1. Beast God’s Legacy

The image of a bemused top player from the Children of Kratos still stood before me when I emerged from Depths Teleportation right into the Pig and Whistle tavern. The cacophony of breakfasting miners began to die down, the conversations ceased.
Grinning with all thirty-two of his teeth, Bomber stood and began to slowly applaud, his arms spread wide. A second later, everyone in the tavern was clapping — Crawler, Infect, Gyula, the builders and miners.
We’d split up only three hours before, but the plot was risky, so they greeted me almost as if I’d been on a mission beyond the bounds of the Solar System. Crawler, with the support of Infect and Bomber, had tried to convince me not to risk it and to abandon the plan, but in the end he gave in. Now they were all smiling.
I silently looked over my friends’ faces, removed Cloak Essence and spoke, holding back my glee.
“I smashed that portal to oblivion.”
“We all heard it,” Crawler nodded. “Good idea to keep the comm amulet switched on, Scyth.”
“This is our land!” Infect quoted him. “That was awesome, Alex! Was there a lot of loot?”
“I went up six levels, and the loot…” I glanced at my inventory. “Two legendaries, a few epics. I didn’t bring in blues with Magnetism, so there isn’t all that much.”
“Shame we didn’t see their faces,” Bomber said. “I’d gladly log out of Dis right now to see the video. I bet it’s doing the rounds online already!”
“It’s a good thing there was nobody there more serious than the Travelers’ reserve,” I answered.
I sat at the table and began to unload my loot under the interested gazes of Bomb and Infect. It immediately disappeared into Crawler’s inventory. Grunting in satisfaction, Ed nodded.
“I’ll go through the loot. Whatever doesn’t come in handy we’ll sell through Rita Wood. We already met and came to an agreement. I still doubt our decision to invite her to the clan, but the profit from the auction commission isn’t bad,” he admitted begrudgingly. “And she benefits too. Trading levels up from sales volume, so our legendaries are a good boost for her.”
“Good. The guards?”
“At Tiamat’s temple, like you said,” Bomber answered. “Watching and waiting.”
“Sure,” Infect snorted. “More likely guarding barrels of ale. They took almost all the supplies with them. They’ll meet your dead minions when they return from Vermillion, and get started leveling up. How did you transfer control of the undead to them?”
“I promoted the guards to my lieutenants. Now they can command my brainless servants.”
Bomber yawned widely, infecting me with the same. Shaking my head, I raised my hand and ordered some coffee.
“Have you thought about Holdest?” Crawler asked. “If the mobs there are even fifty levels higher than in the desert, then it’s gonna be even faster to level up there.”
“Yeah. I need to level up Immortality to increase my plague reservoir. Otherwise it isn’t a given that we’ll even be able to kill anything there…”
“Well, maybe we could at least check it out?” Infect suggested.
“We have other things to do for now…”
Gyula’s daughter Eniko approached our table, a girl with an easy laugh who helped out Aunt Steph in the tavern. She put a cup in front of me.
“One black halfling coffee, Alex.”
“Thanks, Ennie.”
She smiled and walked off, her hips swaying. Bomber threw a careful glance at Gyula, made sure he wasn’t looking and gave us a thumbs-up.
“Have you figured out a way to deliver gear to the sandbox?”
“Yeah, we checked it this morning.” Crawler the dwarf mage yawned, covering his mouth. “Tissa arrived when you were attacking Vermillion. I gave her an epic and she went back to Tristad. It all worked, the item stayed with her. So we’ll deliver goods to Rita through her.
“Maybe Tissa could teleport her here? Wouldn’t take long to bring her into the clan…”
“She could do that herself as a clan officer,” Crawler interrupted her. “She’ll bring Rita into the clan as soon as Distival is over, if we don’t change our minds. I think too many people know about us as it is. That security guy from Excommunicado, Big Po, Crag. Now Overweight too. We need to figure out a base in real life. Gyula?”
He looked at the builder at the next table. The man stood up and came to sit with us.
“We’ve found a decent option for a base, a new building, just finished,” Gyula said. “Empty for now. I have the design. If you don’t mind, I want to give our boys more space.”
I nodded, remembering the tiny rooms the workers lived in. Gyula continued.
“Alright, thanks. I’ll go check out the building today, discuss the conditions.”
“Do it.” I exchanged glances with my friends. We hadn’t told the workers about our run-in with Hairo Morales. “Only, we need another option. Just in case we get made in Cali Bottom.”
“Got it,” the builder answered impassively. “About that design…”
“Not here,” I cut him off.
In the morning, before my foray into Vermillion, I’d given him a design for a Stronghold of the Destroying Plague, asking him to figure out the materials he’d need to build it. We’d be able to protect Tiamat’s temple only with the help of Shazz and his undead army. But I didn’t want to talk about it in front of everyone. I remembered Hairo’s warning about rats. I changed the subject.
“About the portal in Vermillion. “How long do you think it’ll take them to restore it?”
“At least a week,” Gyula answered. “It’s a grandmaster level design. With all the boosts, they won’t be opening it sooner than that. They need mages too.”
“Alright… I can pay them a visit myself, in a disguise, and sabotage construction. We also need to take care of the next closest fort to the temple. Bridger is sixty miles from Vermillion…”
“Don’t even think about it, Scyth,” Crawler shook his head. “You caught them unawares today. They won’t let you get away a second time. Worse, they could have a trap waiting for you. Especially since your diversions won’t particularly bother serious clans. They have their own space mages.”
“But they will slow down the huge crowd of casuals…”
“Everyone seems to be headed there,” Bomber agreed. “Did you know that portals to the frontier are free for the duration of the event?
“No way?”
“Yep. Read the news, Scyth. It can come in handy. My grandfather always used to say…”
The crash of the door slamming open drowned out his words. The clan’s grubby gardener ran into the room, stopped at its center and waved his dirty spade.
“Trixie planted tree! Tree growing! Tree will protect!”
My heart sank into a chasm. Even with a gardening level of master, there was a chance to ruin the Tree Protector seed, and Trixie was just a pupil. It looked like I wasn’t the only one who had the thought. Crawler went white and asked hesitatingly:
“Wh-where? Where d-did you p-plant it, Trixie?”
“There!” the gardener pointed at the bar, where Aunt Steph was bustling around.
The heads of those present turned in synchrony. Stephanie looked up from behind the bar, frowning in confusion.
“You mean where the temple was?” I asked, finding my bearings.
“Yep. Ryg’har brought…”
Not waiting for him to finish, we jumped up from the table, ran out of the tavern and rushed for the ruins. Trixie followed behind us, his little legs spinning, and behind him came the workers, sensing something amiss.
In an open space in front of the ruins of Behemoth’s temple towered a heap of rich, dark earth, with a bluish three-foot-tall stalk sticking out of it, boasting a single leaf. This was the epic Tree Protector? I carefully approached and extended a hand.
The tree shuddered and the soil beneath it exploded, letting out fine, bluish roots. One of them reached me, touched my pant leg almost gently, then the roots disappeared underground.

Flesh-Eating Tree Protector, level 1, Awoken fort.

“Took root,” Trixie declared with fatherly pride. His face shone with a wrinkly grin. “The finest shit. Ryg’har brought. The finest…”
“Wait, Trix,” Bomber stuck a finger in his ear as if trying to clean it out. “What do shit and the kobold shaman have to do with this?”
The dwarf stuck his arm into his crafting bag and took out a hardened piece of the realest manure.
“With this, everything grows,” Trixie nodded. “All and everything!”

Beast God’s Droppings
Alchemy ingredient. Can also be used as a fertilizer that significantly increases the chance of seeds taking root and speeds up their growth.

“Montosaurus shat! Ryg’har found. Is finest! I dig hole!” The dwarf jabbered on, swallowing syllables, and I puzzled out the meaning of some words rather than understanding them. “Covered with shit! Makes everything grow fast! Hundred percent! The finest…”
“The Montosaurus is back?” one of the workers asked in fear.
“Anything but that!” another sighed hopelessly.
“Trix, do you understand what you’ve done?” Crawler started to speak, clearly painted by the dwarf’s adventurism. “Not only did you plant the tree on the temple grounds, you also risked losing a priceless epic!”
I couldn’t get used to the fact that Crawler was a dwarf now, and he and Trixie were almost the same height.
The hunched figure of Ryg’har appeared from the thicket on the other side of the ruins. The shaman leaned on a crooked staff. Behind him, maintaining a respectful distance, came two young kobolds. Trixie continued babbling with his back to them, pointing a dirty finger first at the tree, then at the ground, then at me, until he realized that nobody was listening.
“May the Sleeping Gods never wake!” the old kobold uttered hoarsely as he reached us.
“And may their sleep be eternal,” we answered discordantly.
“Greetings, chosen one of the gods,” Ryg’har nodded to me and approached the sapling.
He gently ran his fingers along the thin sapling, took some dry slabs of fertilizer out of his patchy bag and, breaking them up, sprinkled them on the earth around. Then he sat down nearby and closed his eyes. The young kobolds crowded together off to the side. Trixie appeared instantly next to the shaman with his signature Bottomless Watering Can. After watering the tree, he touched the kobold’s furry hand and whined at him.
“Tell them, Ryg’har. What’s up with them?”
It took the shaman a moment to understand the dwarf’s request. He asked a few probing questions and then told a long, drawn-out and very boring story about how his people, in following their ancient tradition, have been using on their farms the divine excreta of Kurtulmak, the patron saint of all kobolds, since time immemorial…
Now that I understood the point — Trixie wasn’t risking anything by planting the tree — I left the others and approached Gyula, who was wandering the temple ruins with a worried air about him. Realizing what I wanted to ask about, he spoke up first.
“I can’t build this, Alex.”
“What’s the hitch? Time? Materials? You need more people?”
“My crafting grade isn’t high enough. You have to have master level, and even then the chance of a failed project is fifty percent. And you say it’s an urgent job. Damn it!” the ordinarily calm and judicious builder swore. “I couldn’t even read what materials it needs and or how long it takes to build!
“Lot of experience left until you reach master?”
“It’s the first rank.” Gyula was silent a moment. “I hit the cap at rank zero a long time ago.”
“The trouble is the capsule?”
The builder nodded. My swagger in Vermillion suddenly seemed very foolish to me. Without Shazz’s army and his skills, I wouldn’t be able to hold back Nergal’s army. And I wouldn’t get any new talents from the Nucleus myself until I built the stronghold.
Even if I had money for a capsule for Gyula, he was still at level one. How, Gods damn it, in the week before the invasion, could we level him up to a hundred, collect all the required resources, build the stronghold, open the Plague Portal and drag Shazz and his horde of undead into the desert? I needed to level up myself, and help my friends!
“You can’t buy a capsule with gold, you need phoenixes,” I started musing aloud. “I can transfer you a big enough amount to take it out in real life, but Snowstorm will block your withdrawal, guaranteed. Give you a legendary to sell? You can’t access the auction house. I can’t go visit the goblins, or the black market. Hmm, hmm…”
I also rejected the idea of getting dad involved. I hadn’t known that he’d not only quit Dis, he’d long since deleted his character to save his collapsing relationship with mom. Creating another wouldn’t be a problem, but by the time he leveled up in the sandbox, by the time he reached the wider world…
A little spark appeared in the mounting hopelessness. A vague idea flitting around, luring me in but not letting me catch it. I kicked a stone in annoyance.
I watched as it flew off, hit a palm tree and fell into the underground. I finally understood the connection, grabbed at the thread and got the point: I was with Manny and Gyula when we first found ourselves on Kharinza and fell afoul of the Montosaurus. I’d recorded what happened then, and nobody had ever seen monsters like it. Today’s undead assault at Vermillion was no doubt a hit. The channel it was uploaded to would be getting virtual wagonloads of phoenixes from monetizing its gawping audience.
Maybe I could share some exclusives too? Disgardium Daily leaped into my mind — a global media channel dedicated to the game. In contrast to the paper newspaper Commonwealth Herald, which existed in Dis and was available not only to players, but NPCs too, Disgardium Daily was a real-life news agency. And that meant they’d pay in phoenixes for my unique material.
“Clear some space, you’ll be getting a full-capability capsule installed in a couple of days. One more day and you’ll be level one hundred. And then… then you’ll try to build the stronghold in time, Gyu. We aren’t the only ones depending on you. The damn Sleepers are too!”
Gyula didn’t know what to say. He held his head and frowned…
“Scyth, come in!” my comm amulet woke up. “Time to move out. Haul your undead ass back to reality, we’re going to miss the plane! Today’s Distival. Or did ya forget?”

Chapter 2. Competitors

“You are approaching Downtown Dubai, a category A district,” a robotic voice sang from the flyer’s speakers. “Your means of transport will be forcibly stopped at a border zone inspection station.”
Our flyer slowed its movement and was soon hovering in place. Right in front of us, the needle of the famous Burj Khalifa pierced the clouds, until recently the tallest building in the world, now second only to Google Tower. Terrorists had blown up the skyscraper in World War II, but not only was it restored later — its height was doubled.
With a chance of ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent, today was expected to be a usual torrid and cloudless day, but in honor of this storied event, the weather had been adjusted; fluffy clouds filled the sky.
Tissa froze in anticipation, excitedly peering into the urban forest of skyscrapers stretching out before them, gleaming with chrome and plastic, washed by the waters of the Persian Gulf and surrounded by a swarm of buzzing flyers. Today the vehicles of Distival guests added to that swarm. Myself, I looked farther, beyond the bounds of the Megapolis, at the endless Rub’ al Khali, which, in translation from Arabic, means “empty quarter of the world.” A good name for the Lakharian Desert, which took up around the same amount of space in Latteria.
Nearby hovered the flyer with Hung, Ed and Malik inside. The guys gave us a thumbs-up through the glass, smiling. This trip really had opened up a world we’d only seen in the movies. Snowstorm had provided us with cozy first-class air travel, and someone met us in the airport and escorted us to the red Ferrari Falco superflyer we were now sitting in. This ‘means of transport’ differed from the city and school flyers the way a Storm Dragon differed from an ordinary horse.
The word ‘flexing’ sprang to mind. The whole car was gaudy: the color, the droplet-shaped crystalline frame, the spacious cabin with its armchairs that adapted to the shape of your body, and a mahogany table. While Tissa excitedly examined the design and contents of the mini-bar, my hands itched to switch off the autopilot and drive the thing myself, but that certainly wasn’t possible now — the flyer was moving along a guiding beam toward a checkpoint.
Five minutes later, we reached the checkpoint, flew through three scanning security rings and stopped by a police flyer. Tissa dug her nails into my arm and bit her lip. All the way there, she’d been tirelessly adjusting her short, form-fitting night-black dress, which she didn’t feel comfortable in, and worrying that they wouldn’t let us into the elite district. I was out of sorts myself. First class, a superflyer… Too much bling, it was all so cheesy, and… I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were there by some mistake. It felt as if they were about to put us in jail and deport us at any moment, as soon as they figured out that we’d won in the Junior Arena through dishonest means.
“G’day, youngsters,” we heard a man’s voice through the flyer speakers. “What’s the purpose of your visit to Downtown Dubai?”
“Distival,” Tissa answered shyly.
“Distival,” I confirmed. Apparently they needed an answer from each passenger. “We’re invited.”
“Please show your left wrist and look in this direction…” An invisible scanner beam did its work. “Thank you! Your right to enter has been confirmed. Please be aware that your stay is limited to three days. Welcome to Distival, Miss Schafer and Mister Sheppard! We hope you have a great time!”
Our flyer continued its journey and started to slowly descend to one of the skyscrapers gleaming with Distival advertisements. Tissa’s lips spread into a smile. She raised her hands and exclaimed in joy:
“Yes! We did it! Look, look!”
Once certain that the others had also successfully passed through the checkpoint and were behind us, I glanced below. A huge motley crowd of cosplayers shrouded in the holographic images of Disgardium characters unhurriedly flowed toward the Dubai Arena, where Distival would take place over the next three days.
Holographic spells flashed all around, looking identical to the spells in Dis. When they hit a target, holographic damage numbers flashed above the victim’s head. People were clowning around — there were no real health indicators, just a mirage for the sake of fun and entertainment.
Judging by Tissa’s frown, she was already thinking of her own image. Although to get one, she’d have to get a special accessory licensed by Snowstorm. The corporation made money on everything: from classic fan gear like keyrings, badges, baseball caps and t-shirts to precise copies of in-game weaponry and armor. The list included a gadget for generating a holographic image.
A ticket for all three days at Distival cost two hundred and ten phoenixes. Apart from all the fun fun, Distival attendees were also lured in by in-game souvenirs and meaningless achievements like I Survived Distival-2075! From a purely physical perspective, Dubai couldn’t contain everyone who wanted to come, so huge fan zones were set up in the desert, and for anyone who couldn’t fly in, there were round-the-clock live feeds, with access sold in the form of virtual tickets. Achievements were given with them too, although they had no practical value. Just a line in your profile.
There were ticket options to match every taste, and some of them included all manner of useless pets, kittens and cubs: non-combat pets that didn’t grow, but were adorable and couldn’t be killed. The kittens, just like my Diamond Worm, were tied to a location, while the cubs ran alongside their masters.
None of this interested me. Considering all the problems that were piling up, plus a severe lack of time, I wasn’t planning on spending more than a day there. I’d visit the exclusive Distival opening ball. I’d hang around there, talk to Yary and the other preventers — I needed to figure out whether they’d guessed that I was a Threat, and what their thoughts were in general on that count.
I’d listen to the founding fathers of Snowstorm and try to figure out which of them or which of the company directors I’d exchanged messages with. Considering I had the highest Threat status, I was almost sure they’d want to talk to me. And straight after that, I’d fly home.
Tissa and the guys had other plans. My friends were planning to spend all three days here, making contacts, talking and gathering information. The festival, with its behind-the-scenes conversations, was the best place for that. Aside from leveling up their characters, the former Dementors would be more use here than in the game.
We landed. The flyer doors opened soundlessly onto a red carpet leading to the hotel doors. I climbed out of the flyer and extended a hand to Tissa. My girlfriend hesitated for a few seconds, not understanding what I wanted from her, then got it, shook her head and sprang out on her own. Tissa Schafer wasn’t used to the whole ‘boyfriend’ thing.
“Welcome to the Royal Palace hotel!” a doorman greeted us, bending in a half bow.
Another unloaded our baggage in the meantime: Tissa’s suitcase and my backpack, which mom had packed. She failed to convince me to take a suit, but did get me to take more than just shorts and a t-shirt. There was a pair of jeans in the backpack.
A pair of doormen bustled around the guys’ flyer too.
“I bet you five phoenixes Hung won’t trust him with his backpack,” Tissa whispered.
“I bet you none of them will,” I answered.
And so it was. The guys looked ready to fight the doorman to get their bags off him as he unloaded them into his cart. Hung clapped him on the shoulder and said something. The doorman wasn’t upset. On the contrary, he laughed.
The guys headed toward us and Tissa sighed and transferred my winnings over.
We entered the hotel, signed in at reception and went up to floor eighty-one. Our ears popped from the speed of the elevator — it only took ten seconds to get us up there. The doors hissed open.
“Let’s meet in the lobby in half an hour,” Ed said as we walked along the corridor, passing identical plastic doors imitating wood. “We can go for a walk, take in the city…”
“Wouldn’t mind getting a bite to eat first,” Hung said.
Malik was the first to find his room. We heard an excited exclamation from inside as he walked in, although we all roughly knew what to expect. Burning with anticipation, we ran along the gleaming clean corridor in search of our rooms. A robot cleaner followed behind us, its brushes working furiously.
My room was the last. After keying in the sacred numbers 81207, I stopped and placed a palm on the screen on the door. The green stripe of a scanner bean ran down from top to bottom, the invisible ray scanning the shape of my face, assessing my expression to decide whether I was under duress, then the door beeped and lifted.
Crossing the threshold, I found myself in an ordinary-looking room without overly garish luxury; a rug bearing Arabic patterns on the floor, beige walls with three-dimensional paintings, curtains the color of wet sand. The huge bed, on the other hand, astounded the imagination. The whole Awoken clan could have fit on it.
I took a step forward and Denise Le Bon materialized before me. I froze, stunned, then realized that it was just a ridiculously realistic hologram.
It felt as if the most beautiful woman on the planet really was in the room with me. She smiled and spoke.
“Welcome, Mister Sheppard. We hope that your stay at the Royal Palace hotel will be a comfortable one. If you dislike my appearance, you can change it. Please state your name or say a phrase of at least five words so that we can identify you by your voice.”
“Well, hi, my name’s Alex Sheppard. I hope that’s enough.”
“Thank you for your understanding, Alex.”
Denise’s pleasant voice flowed like a stream, relating all the conveniences of the hotel. It had tennis courts, a whole spa, a pool on the roof, restaurants, bars, a cinema. If I wanted to, I could change up the interior design, decide whether a human or robot would clean my room, or opt out of cleaning altogether. Just as the voice was starting to bore me, I was asked if I wanted to give any voice commands, and I ordered Denise’s hologram to disappear.
My wish was fulfilled instantly and I walked toward the window. The curtains began to slowly move aside, revealing a panorama of the city. Then I suddenly noticed a swarthy and dark-haired man around age twenty-five sprawled out on a leather armchair in the far corner of the room.
There are three reactions when you perceive danger: fight, flight or play dead. My body chose the third option and froze. Instead of calling for security, I stared at the uninvited guest; he had a smooth-shaven face and languid, almond eyes like Malik’s, speaking of eastern roots.
“Hello, Alex,” he nodded, not getting up, and crossed one leg over the other. His chocolate-colored costume blended in with the armchair. No wonder I hadn’t noticed him right away. “Before you call security, allow me to introduce myself. I’m Kieran Jackson, a director of Snowstorm.”
The man’s status had the desired effect on me. I didn’t answer right away, nor as confidently as I would have liked.
“Um… Pleased to meet you, Mister Jackson… I think. Are you the one that answered my emails?”
“Emails?” Kieran put on a surprised expression and smiled.
“Ah… Forget about it.”
I stopped in the center of the room. My head was a whirlwind of thoughts. What did this mean? Could I trust this man? Was he really in the corporation, or had the preventers figured me out and infiltrated my room?
If Kieran was telling the truth, then why had they decided to contact me like this? It looked like this was to be a very informal conversation, like our previous correspondence. The only question was, did Jackson plan to speak on behalf of all Snowstorm, or would he be out for his own interests?
“How was your flight? Take a seat…” Kieran pointed at an armchair in another corner of the room and turned his own toward me. “There are plenty of cold drinks in the mini-bar. I recommend the Disgardium Special, a limited edition version of your favorite Coca Cola with some special additives that restore your energy, lift your mood and put you in a positive frame of mind, heh-heh. You’re sixteen already, right? So you’re allowed.”
I didn’t refuse. Keeping track of the guest in the corner of my eye, I tried to grab a bright bottle shaped like a Dis health potion out of the transparent mini-bar, but failed because I couldn’t find any buttons or panels to place my hand on. Remembering that I’d been invited to use voice commands before, I spoke:
“Open mini-bar.”
One of its walls lowered. I took the bottle out and sat down next to Kieran. Twisting off the cap, I drank a little of the Disgardium Special and barely held back a grimace — the drink sure was alcoholic.
“What do you want to talk about? And how can you prove that you are who you say you are?”
“About your status, Alex,” His face turned more serious, his cheekbones sharpening, his forehead creasing. Now he didn’t seem twenty-five at all, but at least forty. I suspected he was actually well over fifty. “You’re a Threat with a potential of A, a herald of the Sleeping Gods and a legate of the Destroying Plague. Your clan, the Awoken, has a fort on the island of Kharinza. Does that prove my knowledge and my affiliation with Snowstorm?”
“Hmm… Maybe. But I’m tired of this secrecy from you guys. You’ve probably even given me a fake name, just like before. Where’s my guarantee that you aren’t some preventer trying to lull me into a false sense of security?”
“Amazing,” Kieran muttered in annoyance. He jabbed his comm and brought up the official Snowstorm page. “Take a look for yourself.”
The second name in the list of the corporation’s council of directors was Kieran R. Jackson. And his photograph matched the man in front of me. Unable to restrain myself, I walked up to Kieran and touched his hair. Real. He was no hologram.
“Happy now? Alright, Alex, I’d be glad to chitchat some more, but you see, the situation obliges me to be somewhere else right now. So I’m going to be brief, and you listen carefully. Forget about the Sleeping Gods. Just forget about them. That’s a dead script that someone from among the first programmers put into the game’s kernel.”
“Someone? One of the programmers?”
“Don’t get hung up on my words. Of course we know who did it, but the name won’t mean anything to you. The name ‘Sleeping Gods’ is no accident. They’re powerful AIs that operate on a mere fraction of a percent of the capabilities of the system. They really are in sleep mode, so the name has a double meaning. According to the game’s lore, all of Disgardium is their dream. In reality, their function is something else. ‘Awakening’ can mean only one thing: the world reaching a critical mass of cascade errors, which means it would have to reload.”
“And what would be so bad about that, Mister Jackson?”
“Everything will be destroyed. Disgardium will revert to its initial version, and not the one the first players once started with, but to the very sources of the world: the creation of life, the first intelligent creatures, the old gods, a single continent. The Sleeping Gods will ‘fall asleep’ again, and their dreams will begin anew. Everything in the game will be regenerated from nothing. Do you understand what that threatens? Billions of non-citizens will lose their jobs in an instant. Billions of players will lose their characters. Revolutions have begun over less, Alex.”
“But I’m not planning to wake them up. Behemoth said that the Nether threatens the world, and only the Sleeping Gods can fight against it. To do that, they…”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Kieran interrupted him. “Listen to me. It’s been almost twenty years since the game launched. The kernel remains unchanged, but the world itself lives by its own rules. It grows, Alex, it evolves. And the Sleepers perceive certain things as critical errors. But they aren’t errors!”
“You mean everyone turning into a rotting corpse is perfectly normal?”
“If you’re referring to the Destroying Plague, yes, that’s normal. It’s no worse than fairies or centaurs. We’ll talk about that more later, right now I want to talk about something else. Think about what has happened from the point of view of real life. All the so-called gods are merely AIs. Powerful, sentient, but nonetheless, just artificial intelligences. No feelings, no sentimentality, with clear goals built into their program. You have to understand that the AIs have their own competition. For resources.”
“What resources? Faith?”
“In Dis, everything is interconnected. No AI can get more influence than their capacity allows. Their capacity is always limited. Obviously, this is reflected somewhat differently in the game. The ruler of the Commonwealth, Bastian the First, fights against Emperor Kragoshom for land and increased popularity, which gives him more power and opportunities. The old gods, the beast gods, the elemental gods, the new gods led by Nergal and Marduk, and now the Sleeping Gods — they all compete for Faith, and the more followers they have, the more computing power these AIs who believe themselves gods have.”
Jackson spoke hurriedly, but enunciated every word clearly. He took a pause to give me time to process what I’d heard, then pulled something like an inhaler out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth. Catching my confused glance, he explained:
“It’s an Accelerator. I’ve been on my feet for three days.” He smiled, his eyes gleaming. “Tell me, do you understand what I’m trying to explain to you?”
“That the Sleeping Gods just want processing power?” I asked, taking a swig of my Disgardium Special.
“Exactly right!” Kieran beamed. “I won’t hide the fact that these AIs are potentially the most powerful among all those playing gods. In contrast to the others, they can interact with the kernel of Dis itself, change its physical laws. And the most terrible thing of all, Alex, is that they really do believe themselves to be gods. To them, you and all other intelligent creatures are dust, microbes. It’s already clear that a conflict between them and the ruling divine pantheon is inevitable. Nergal has taken their coming very seriously. He even made peace with his eternal enemy Marduk, just to suppress the Sleepers before they can take root. The Sleepers themselves consider the new gods parasites, disturbing their dreams. If all five of the Sleeping Gods are able to activate, then Dis is done. Once they reach full power, they won’t stop until they tear it apart, ‘cleansing’ it of its parasites. That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst-case, they just reload the world.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Give up on Behemoth. Thanks to you, he’s gained the most influence among the Sleeping Gods, but his temple is already destroyed. Remember, Alex, he’s just a virtual droplet of intelligent protoplasm. The allied forces will take care of Tiamat’s temple. For you, the upcoming event is a great opportunity to bring the Destroying Plague event script to its natural conclusion. Concentrate on that. Finish the Nucleus’s quest chain.”
“What’s the Destroying Plague good for anyway? It’s… abominable.”
“Do you really think so? That somehow didn’t stop you using it to level up, to start collecting First Kills…”
“Alright, alright, I get your point. All the same though…”
“The coming of the Destroying Plague is another twist in the game’s development. A new faction, new conflicts and variety in the gameplay. Some of the players will cross over to the Destroying Plague, which will change the current balance of power, add life to the stagnant swamp. You must understand, the undead race itself is the key to conquering territories with an extreme climate, and it’s a powerful boost to the economy…”
“Listen, Alex, I really don’t have time for this. In ideal conditions, our conversation shouldn’t be happening. The script would have continued on without our interference, like when the dark races were unlocked. But for some reason, you’ve gotten stuck on the Sleeping Gods, although the game itself has given you clear signals — it’s a dead end.”
“But what does the economy have to do with it?” I finished off my bottle, wanted to get up to grab another one, but thought better of it. I needed my head clear, my mind sharp.
“Leave it alone, Alex. You understood it for yourself when you turned your inwinova friends undead. The undead are inexhaustible, they know no tiredness. The productivity of labor in resource collection professions will skyrocket, and to prevent severe drops in the prices of resources, several long global wars will start at once. Everyone will be fighting everyone else. At least, that’s the gist of what our analysts predict.”
“I see. But what do I have to gain? My Threat potential is linked to the Sleepers, not to the Destroying Plague.”
“Bring the script to its end and delete your character. Then you’ll have options. A contract to work at Snowstorm in the Threat department with citizenship class C guaranteed, along with a house of the same class in the Celestial Valley. Your citizenship tests are coming up soon, right? Think of how happy your parents will be. If you don’t want to work for us, you can choose another class and keep playing. We’ll give you a special booster that will make you level up several times faster. Everything that Scyth collected will, of course, remain with you. Or if you decide to study — we’ll set that up for you. Any Ivy League university, the choice is yours. What do you say?”
“I say I like the sound of that, Mister Jackson. But there might be some practical difficulties.”
“The preventers?” Kieran asked in understanding.
“That’s part of the gameplay, Alex. I can’t help you there. Even if they eliminate you, the scenario will take a little longer to launch, but not by much. The Nucleus is gaining strength. It’ll find someone, heh-heh.”
“That’s not all. People from the Triad have threatened to pay my family a visit.”
“Do you have proof?”
“Um… No.”
“What are their demands?”
“One million and a clan invitation.”
“So do it!” Kieran scoffed. “God, what nonsense! Subthreats are going to try and cozy up to you, you should know that. As for the million… Sell any artifact from the treasury, who cares? All you have to do is hang on for a week or two and that’s it, your job is done!”
Kieran stood up.
“Well, Alex? Do we have an agreement?”
“Of course, Mister Jackson. We have an agreement.”
He shook my hand, sprayed more of his Accelerator into his mouth, frowned and took a deep and noisy breath. Shaking his head, he seemed to recall something else.
“By the way, Alex. Find the cultists of Moraine and contact the goddess herself. Convince her to join your side. I won’t tell you where to look for her; that would be interfering in the gameplay. But I have every faith in you. The event will be more large-scale that way, if you catch my drift.”
Kieran winked, smiled, clapped me on the shoulder and suddenly disappeared, leaving me in a state of elation. I took out another bottle of Disgardium Special. If this wasn’t a special occasion, I didn’t know what was. For the first time in half a year, the weight of uncertainty was lifted from my shoulders. I knew exactly what I needed to do and when it would all end.

[1] PuG, PuGs (Pickup Group) — a group consisting of players in different clans. Members of such groups can be called ‘puggers.’

Release - April 29, 2020

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