Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones-3 by Dem Mikhailov

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones-3
by Dem Mikhailov

Release - July 16, 2020
Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088GV4SGB

Chapter One.

The mountain met me with darkness, emptiness, and silence. Just the way I liked it.
There were doors slammed shut behind my back, and the black maw of the abyss in front of me.
There was brittle icy slush underneath my feet, remaining from the shard of ice that had carried me through the skies.
The main thing, though was on my right—a staircase carved in stone, leading to the foothills of the mountain. The most important thing—what I’d needed the most—was a relatively straight way towards a place where I could rest.

The nameless wolf cub I’d been holding close to my chest jerked his paw, dreaming, and then started to wheeze again, looking satisfied. I opened the flaps of my old jacket, all torn and tattered, nodded at the temple gate to say goodbye, and started towards the exit.
I’d need to weather a long and winding staircase cut in stone before I’d get to the local hotel. I didn’t mind. It was the last section of the way; the final effort. I would be able to rest afterwards.
I just took a few dozen steps before icy wind hit me in the face, making me sway. There was a fading whisper in my ears; a merry snowball ran over my ribs and spine. I felt the icy touch and smiled a crooked smile. This feeling was like none other, and I should have expected it. As I descended the seemingly endless stairs, I raised my face to the sky and whispered,
“All right, I get it already. Logging out. Wait a little; don’t get your knickers in a bunch.”
Having looked behind me, I realized that the Temple of Grief had lost its attractiveness over the last couple of hours. Myrthe’s stone face has stopped crying those precious fiery teardrops, making all the “pilgrims” shove off in a shower of fog. There were but a few shapes seen far below, hurrying to reach the foothills, lit with a few lights of a tiny mountain village.
Another airwave reached me with a rustling sound, its whisper being more commanding this time.
My reaction was a muffled laugh and a quickening of footsteps. The Herald of Fading again; I hadn’t seen him in a long while.
Waldyra took care of its own. Whenever a player would outstay their welcome, they would receive a voiceless notification; a sudden touch of chill, no matter where one was. And the icy message would even be received in a sauna or in a desert. The message was clear: take a break; you should rest for a while.
No one had the right to interfere total immersion. Some people just played and ran around; others played their parts the Method Man way. They could be sharp shooters, sly traders, or learned men with hoarfrost in their beards, never leaving the pub next to the seaside.
Everyone would need a really valid reason to interfere with your gaming process.
No one had the right to send you a command or so much as a recommendation to quit the game since you’d been there for too long.
No one could make you leave the game if it weren’t a case of a given body’s or cocoon’s physical dysfunction.
Every minute spent in the fantasy world of Waldyra was paid for in cold hard cash; little wonder that everybody would normally want to take it to the max and squeeze dry every cent. Or just get too involved and lose all sense of time.
This is why the administration had chosen a different approach. Those spending too much time in the game would be visited by a chilly mocking breeze, crawling across their body with frosty fangs and whispering something indecipherable.
Waldyra would hold a grudge against those reluctant to listen to good advice.
The colors would fade for starters, slowly; the brightness and contrast we’d valued the world for would be gone. The grass would start looking less green; the sky would start changing from cerulean blue to something grayish . . .
Later on, one’s weapons would miss more often, and one’s spells would turn into harmless sparkles. A craftsman would be unable to produce anything of any value; a long-distance traveler’s road would become twice as long.
This is the very beginning of the Fading, and it gains momentum with every hour.
The very word “Fading” has been invented by the players, given the administration’s blatant denial of the existence of such a “notification mechanism.” All the questions and the occasional altercations would always be answered and resolved with a polite smile. The legend would be, “none such exists in the game;  any player is free to stay here for as long as they like. There is no wind, and definitely none of those nasty ‘frosty fangs;’ they are but a legend. Who’s going to believe you, anyway?”
Not the players, definitely. The Immos are full of it. Every player encounters the same effect; a wave of cold flowing through their body; the whispering wind, and the fading colors. Everybody can hallucinate, surely, but people don’t do it in the same way.
The funniest thing was that there had never been an established time limit. I used to spend days in the game, only taking a break for a few minutes to go to the bathroom and to hydrate myself. Nothing. No warnings whatsoever. But it could have been different. A few hours; a displeased breeze ruffles your hair, the spiky chill rubs against your ribs, and your arrow hits anything other than your target.
I managed to get through half the staircase before I got a warning:
The enemy is near! The character’s name is Dorth Viderrr!
The enemy is near! The character’s name is Ariella Fernleaf!
At the very same moment I saw three players in my way, some thirty paces away. A group of three players; two men and a woman. All with player killer nicknames flashing red.
I slowed down, drawing a heavy sigh and rubbing my temples. Damn. I was really beginning to feel tired.
What were the chances of running across one’s enemies in the world of Waldyra? One in a million? One in a billion?
Yo, Rosgard!” One of the characters jerked towards me. My, how youve grown! Over fifty now . . .
“Hi, Sith bitch,” I nodded in response, taking one step after another unhurriedly. Youre late. The doors of the temple are already shut.”
“Yeah, we know,” Dorth shrugged, reaching for the hilt of the sword behind his shoulder. “We’ve already heard it about three times from latecomers. Take a look, if you wish.”
I looked further down; there were three silvery clouds floating gently above the steps. One looked ready to drop into the abyss, protruding far beyond the edge of the staircase.
“She’d wanted to commit suicide,” the Sith said gruffly, chuckling as he turned towards his companions. “But we decided against letting her commit that mortal sin.”
“To keep her stuff,” I said as I got the point.
The abyss was deep. Getting to the very bottom and finding one’s own cloud of mist in it would be fraught with trouble. The owner who’d flown to the respawn location wouldn’t be too chuffed to look for their own carcass, either, but throwing your stuff into the abyss would be better than let greedy killer players get it and empower them on your own account. The abyss is always the better option.
“You’ve killed me!” Ariella’s decided to make the solo a duo. “You hit me in the back! You’ve taken my tournament cloak!”
Odd . . . They’d attacked me, and now I was to blame, somehow.
“It was the neck, not the back, but I did approach from behind,” I gave it to her straight with a pained cringe. “OK, folks, I’m really tired, and you’re the least important items on my priority list. Gangway. We’ve chewed enough fat already.”
You . . .
“Shush, Ari,” the Sith said. “Rosgard, do you really believe we’ll let you go free like that? You’ve killed me twice. Now it’s personal, and there are no more bushes of the sort you like that you could hide behind. It’s bare rock and a narrow path. You either go forward or back, with the third option of jumping into the abyss. How do you like that?”
Do you know him?” The third killer player broke the silence for the first time. A mage, apparently, Level 28. Not too shabby. The Sith edgelord got to 33. The fern girl was the strongest at Level 36. A committed girl, apparently, but slightly off her rocker, in my humble opinion.
“We’ve been waiting for you for three hours,” the Sith said, ignoring his mate’s question. “All they’re talking about at the forum is that a few players got drawn into the fire, one of them called Rosgard. There’s even a video. You should have seen that silly look on your face! But you appear to have grown since then; you’re at 51 now, but we’ll manage.”
“You’ve been waiting for me for three hours?” I was amazed. “You must be kidding.”
Dorth ignored my question as he slowly drew a narrow sword from behind his back, its blade glowing red, softly. An enchanted item. It had looked cool, I had to give him that.
“Do you see the glow? It’s like a real light saber. Got anything of the sort?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, raising my hand. “But mine’s a bit bigger.”
I waved my hand. There was a short and furious hiss, and a blinding lightning hit Dorth Viderrr right in the chest with a flash, the zigzags of residual electricity spread across the steps. A cloud of silvery mist landed on the steps.
I threw a sideways glance at the baffled players, raising my wand that had looked so harmless yet again.
Hold on!”
“Sorry . . . I have to hurry,” I disagreed, hitting the mage with a bolt.
The reticent mage joined ranks with the Sith; another cloud of silvery smoke on the wet stone.
Yeah, right. What you folks had really needed was a tank with lots of HP and a good shield with element resistance. Mages, archers, and Siths . . . An amplified charge from a craftsman’s wand would be all it took to wipe you out.
I slowly aimed at the girl, running away quickly, dallied a little, sighed, and placed the wand back in my backpack. She sure was a fast one, and I’d most likely miss, wasting a charge, and those blighters were expensive.
After a few ritual bows (as in bowing over the “bodies” of the killer players and grabbing everything they’d had on them) I took a transportation scroll out of my backpack and started thinking. Those things were even more expensive than wand charges. But one should always finish what one had started. I could let off my residual steam that way, too.
I crossed the empty entry with my fingernail, whispering,
“The Foothills of Sorrow.”
There was a flash for a second, jejune and pale, and I found myself at the very same place where I’d met Kyre and the griffin named Bumpkin. A long, long time ago. Back when I’d still considered her a friend.
There was a peak over my head, barely visible in the darkness; just a few seconds ago, I had stood on that slope. I started running, passing a few nondescript buildings, crossing a bridge over a narrow crack in the rock, diving into the cloud, scratching the rock with its belly hanging low, and, once past it, I stopped near the first step out of many leading to the Temple of Sorrow.
I didn’t have to wait for long. There was a tattoo of hasty footsteps, and a thin female silhouette revealed itself in the light of the moon.
“Hi,” I said to Ariella Fernleaf, who’d almost run into me. I couldn’t help but complain, saying, “Dealing with you guys is becoming too expensive.”
The flabbergasted elven maiden opened her mouth, but didn’t have time to say anything—the flash of lightning was the ultimate period in our conversation.
I bowed and took everything from the silvery blob of mist, cursing under my breath as I read the system message:
You are carrying too many items! Weariness . . .
Oh, shut up already!
I’d reach the inn, anyway, and why would I get rid of any of the stuff?
“Rosgard.” A voice just as scary as it was familiar.
I turned on my heels and nearly hit the belly of a large figure with my face, jumping back instantly to widen the distance.
It was Grym. Damn!
Whats the matter with you, friend?” The werewolf who had recently shapeshifted looked surprised after having gotten into my physical proximity unnoticed. You look scared, but why? Im Grym, your friend. Have you forgotten the well-deserved reward you’d received from me?”
Grym was naked but for a black loincloth, and any “real-world” bodybuilder would die of envy upon seeing him.
“Grym . . .” I squeezed out a bleak smile, without an inkling of what to say. “Sorry I backed off . . . Got you confused with someone. Uh . . . But what exactly are you doing here?”
“Urgh . . .” Grym stuck his fingers into his shaggy hair in obvious embarrassment. “I have no idea myself. I remember sitting at a fire and skinning a deer I’d killed. Then I came to my senses on wet rock. I heard your voice and felt drawn towards you . . .”
“That sounds ambiguous,” I noted, having put my head back together somewhat. You know what, Grym, mate? I should probably shove off. It’s late, and one can always encounter creatures of the night at this hour . . . Such as werewolves, for example . . .”
Hold on! Hold on!” A huge hand grabbed me by the shoulder, taking 10 HP off my character instantly. That sure was some strength.
Grym half-gurgled, half-roared, ignoring my scared and tense mien.
“I’m telling you. I heard your voice, and something just clicked in my head. I saw Myrthe, but the way I’d seen her in real life . . . Yet she was bloodied, with scars on her face, and someone’s enormous paws flickering . . . And it felt like you were there, too. Can you help me understand? Was it a vision? Was it a dream? There must have been a reason for me hearing your voice when I woke up.”
“Well,” I started to get evasive, easing my shoulder off his grasp. Not my lucky day for sure.
“If you know anything, pray, tell me!”
Rosgard! You bitch!” Dorth Viderrr, clad in a diaper, appeared from the murk, holding some stick as a weapon. You bastard! I hate you! You’re a dead man!”
“I seem to attract half-naked men for some reason,” I thought to myself, watching the approaching killer player with unfeigned malice.
“Stay out of the way!” Grym didn’t even have to turn around as he let out a fierce roar. He waved his hand, and Dorth flew up like a snowflake. There was a short cry, vocalizing pure confusion, as the Sith fell right into the mist-covered abyss.
A cry reached my ears, filled with rage.
“Rosga-a-a-a-a-a-a-rd! You bi-i-i-i-I . . .”
“How the hell am I to blame? I was obviously confused, staring at the abyss that had just consumed the Sith. Ive only been standing here.”
There was no answer, once I turned around to face Grym, he was no longer there. He’d disappeared in a split second without even making any noise.
Hells bells!” I grunted, switching into a gallop. Or, rather, a hurried and lame semi-trot. The overload’s been waiting me down, but I kept on going forth, using cuss words as motivation and remembering to look around me, even though I’d be unlikely to see anything in this complete blackness.
We never finished the conversation. Given that Grym had disappeared so suddenly, he might have been transforming into a werewolf right now. I’d be unlikely to escape, but I could at least try and get the sleeping wolf cub to my private room, knowing that his dad’s fangs had thirsted for my blood all along. Never mind those half-baked player killer wannabes . . .
The square flashed before my eyes, and the dark blue light above the inn split the darkness apart. The door creaked, and I stumbled inside with a groan of relief.
I didn’t have to look around much; things were as they’d always been. The ground floor; the bar stand and the dining hall. A staircase leading upwards, with a rug on it.
The hall was nearly empty, with only two tables occupied and a few folks sitting next to the fireplace, drinking mulled wine and staring into the digital fire, listening to the sound of the blinking embers; tell me true where are those armies marching to. A right bloody idyll innit.
I have somehow caught myself thinking I envied them. Just recently, that was the very reason I’d gone to the world of Waldyra. Everyday adventure in places still unknown to me; fights with strange monsters, and late night hangouts it taverns where you can learn lots of new things and make plans for tomorrow while you’re at it.
What about now?
Just running around with my tail underneath my legs, fearing every shadow. What kind of game is this, pray?
I nodded to the sullen innkeeper briefly, and then went upstairs, forcing myself to give a friendly smile to the girl sitting at the reception desk.
“Oh . . . Hello there,” her face cracked in a languorous smile. She leaned towards me hard enough for me to see her cleavage, and that sure was a sight,
“Hi,” I said, worming my way around her.
“But where are you going?” she said, pouting.
“Gotta get some sleep,” I responded, hastily looking for the familiar door.
“Sleep?” The girl looked flabbergasted, her arms akimbo, putting her hourglass figure into sharp relief and staring at me in obvious inability to understand my motivation. But . . .”
“Good night,” I said quickly, all but diving inside my private space.
“Hold on . . .” I heard her say, but the door made a soft clicking sound and the girl’s irate voice got muted.
“Damn this love shit!” I hissed. “That was sure some drink of water!”
I tore away the cloak, throwing it into the corner, and placing the wolf cub above it gently. I dumped everything from the pack right onto the floor, and, as I blatantly ignored the mess on the floor, I pressed the logout button, thinking to myself of how to name him—Spot? Buddy? Grymsonic? Kyrephobic? Damn . . . I’d have to choose something nice and menacing, but all of that would be for later.
A flash.
The apartment met me with silence, and it was just as silent outside and inside the apartment block. Everyone normal was either sleeping or having sex, perhaps, while I was escaping the attention of horny females and werewolves in another reality.
Unlike the flat, my body, having taken the toll of staying in a single place for too long, did not wish to remain silent and protested against the way it had been treated vocally and emphatically. Those emotions were reflected as a horrendously stiff neck—and a general feeling of stiffness, which was fading gradually, but the neck was hurting pretty badly. All of it a result of being in a hurry and that damned Gosha who’d told me to get inside the cocoon. I didn’t lay down well; the position of my arms and legs had been wrong; my neck had remained in an uncomfortable position—reaping what I’d sown, really. There was a manual with a dozen of pages on how to place your limbs in the cocoon before you start gaming, and  I had ignored them all, paying dearly.
I massaged my hurting neck as I got to the bathroom, peeled off the sweat-soaked clothes, and got underneath a hot shower. I rubbed myself with a sponge ruthlessly, and stood there underneath the jets of hot water until my skin got all red, and then turned off the hot water faucet. The contrast was enough to almost make me jump up and down screaming like a girl. Another hot shower; five minutes of enjoyment; then, back to cold . . . yippee! I finally felt human, with a spring in my step, and, most importantly, my body was coming back to life. The headache tapping on the temples subsided with a bit of a grudge, replaced by reawakened appetite.
I whistled a simple melody as I got down to cooking. I’d really wanted to go to bed, but that would be a crime against my own body. Just out of the cocoon, and back to bed again? No way, José.
I took my time making a late supper or an early breakfast, whatever one calls it, got as much hot tea with lots of sugar inside me as I could, grabbed the plate, and sat down at my computer. I really needed to check out the gaming forum. So many new topics. One might get the impression that certain people started topics as a hobby.
I have taken an effort not to read any of the screaming new topics, having gotten tired of “Lumberjacks Needed!,” “Miners Required!” and “Ahoy, Shipbuilders,” not to mention “Where Are the Smiths?” In Manchester, I thought to myself, and disbanded ages ago. “A Craftsman’s Work: Top Quality!” Judging by the number of the topics in question, craftsmen of all sorts were highly sought after, and getting even more so.
The next one was more interesting: a brief outline of the main events happening in Waldyra.
Today’s sensation! The famed clan of traders and craftsmen has been disbanded! The Fire Hawks ended up with nothing!
“The Diamond Hammers opted for disbanding their clan completely rather than having to pay an enormous ransom for the stolen clan symbol. Judging by the information available, the Hawks made a demand for a completely ludicrous amount of money! They weren’t too happy about learning that the clan had disbanded. So, are the Hammers completely devoid of honor if they’d decided to disband the clan? Or was it a cold and sober calculation of Waldyra’s most famous traders?
The Fire Hawks filed in an official protest, demanding that the disbanding of the Hammer clan be paused until they paid their ransom; the head of the clan reported that the sum of the ransom was negotiable and that he would be delighted to engage in negotiation as soon as possible.
The administration is currently considering the request; in the meantime, a new clan has been formed in Waldyra; its name might raise a few eyebrows: The Crystal Hammer.
Interesting . . . but not that much. That was my conclusion as I scrolled down the page. I wasn’t interested in clan wars or high-level politics.
A present to every citizen of Waldyra from the Sleepless Ones!
“Considering the imminent journey to lands unknown, the Sleepless Ones have installed lavish decorations in five of Waldyra’s biggest cities; ships hovering over jets of water. Apart from being beautiful, they house a host of trading stalls where every player can purchase anything they like at a discount!
Yeah, been there, done that. No more visits to this merry amusement ride for me, please.
The following topics dealt with detailed descriptions of attacks at wharves, sabotage, resources purloined halfway to their destination, and murders of peaceful miners and lumberjacks. I scrolled through them without reading, too.
The next one was more interesting, though.
An invasion into the water element!
The underwater wharves of the achylotes have been subjected to a massive attack! The water was literally boiling, with pillars of steam rising up to the sky. About two dozen birthing chambers were destroyed, with no more glorious leviathans to emerge from them. However, the underwater world is an alien element inasmuch as landlubbers are concerned; apart from that, the attackers were met with concerted resistance and had to withdraw just before they had reached the central structures of the submarine wharves. But if we believe those who’d taken part in those battles . . . Anyway, we shall claim no responsibility for other people’s words and just quote them.
“We couldn’t reach the very center; the place where you could see actual underwater peaks. But we’ve seen something there. Something alive and enormous; big enough to eat an apartment block without blinking an eye.”
The words of the Nautilus Lockhard Swordfish underwater clan were, “Well, the landlubbers that have attacked us managed to get away with some of it. However, things have changed. Each and every one of them should think twice or thrice before they board any vessel, no matter how well it is protected. And remember these three names well. Megalodon, Orthocon, and Mosasaurus. We weren’t the ones who’d started this battle, but we’ll be the ones to finish it.
The achylotes got their fuzzy end of the lollipop, too.
The muffled sound of broken glass made me shudder and finish my reading, entertaining as it may have been.
What the actual factual?
I turned my head around automatically; the windows were still intact. The neck instantly responded with another jolt of pain, the vengeful bastard that it was. I crawled off the chair, hissing cuss words, and crawled towards the kitchen. Nothing had fallen or been broken; all the windows were intact (and needed washing, by the way).
The faint clinking sound was repeated. This time I located the source—it was coming from the direction of my front door.
I spent about a minute hoping I’d just been hearing things, but reality grinned wildly; the noise coming from the direction of the landing didn’t stop, and it was the middle of the night.
However, there was no one knocking on the door, either mine, or any of the neighbors’. That sound didn’t bode well.
I chewed on this for a few seconds, then got back to my bedroom, tearing the rusty “katana” off the wall, putting on my track suit bottoms and slipping well-worn comfy slippers on my feet before venturing out to see what was going on.
Was my neighbor being robbed?
There was a click of the lock as I cracked the door open to inspect the environs with one eye, the plan being to open it wide and rush outside, armed with a piece of rusty iron.
What I saw on the landing was Kyre’s body; the lower part on the staircase, the rest of her on cold concrete, surrounded by shards of glass, a wet blotch nearby spreading softly.
They’ve killed her! They’ve tracked her and killed her! Clan competitors . . . Oh my Lord.
Kyre! Kyre! The piece of metal made a ringing sound as it dropped on the floor of my apartment and I slumped down next to the immobile girl, my face close to hers. Kyre! Kyre! Can you hear me at all?! Say something!
Keep it . . . Down . . . Mrs. B-b-b-obrikov might hear you . . .”
“Kyre, damn and blast it all! Are you drunk? Just drunk?”
Shpeak shoftry . . .”
“Oh, bloody hell!” I got a whiff of the blotch that had been spreading across the floor off the while; it smelled of alcohol and something sweet. “Baileys Irish Cream . . . You mean, you have gotten that pissed on Baileys?”
Gurgle mumble muffled grunting.
“You’d be best off keeping your mouth shut!” I grunted in response. “Or well wake Mrs. Bobrikov!”
“Gwar!” Kyre didn’t make any sense, but the word sounded like she’d meant it as she waved her hand in the general direction of my face, nearly hitting me by some large object she’d been holding.
I managed to grab her hand and take the strange object while Kyre mumbled something and went out cold, her head dropping to the floor.
“Blimey,” I hissed as I rested my back on the door frame. “So what the hell am I supposed to do now? Drag you in? Leave you here? Call Gosha? Or just crash here right next to you?”
I took a look at the unidentifiable object in the bag, and started to unwrap it. Another bottle of Baileys? I wouldn’t mind a drink right now, really!
The glass. My favorite glass was in the plastic bag, with something inside it, rustling and clinking.
“I say,” I grunted. “You’ve broken the bottle, but the glass is still intact.”
The girl didn’t answer, so I shrugged and looked inside the vessel returned to its home.
Two hundred-dollar bills. Understandable; even though I wasn’t asking for it.
There was an unsealed white envelope with the legend “To Ros” on it. I opened the envelope, shook it, and discovered a fat sheaf of greenbacks in my hand, as well as a piece of paper covered in weird brownish spots. Even though I hadn’t specialized in counting money, there was a lot. I counted it and whistled pensively. Five thousand bucks exactly.
I took a look at the piece of paper that had been attached to it. There were a few words written, the handwriting being anything other than steady and sure.
Great job! Thanks, Ros. Sorry for any misunderstandings that may have arisen. Gosha.” There were a few dark spots on the paper. Baileys again? Were they celebrating?
The last thing I fished out of the glass was a huge badge; bright orange, with a smiley face and enormous dewy eyes on it, and the inscription, “Please forgive me.”
Also from Gosha? I hoped not.
Kyre mumbled something, jerked awkwardly, and started to slide down the stairs.
Bloody hell! Where do you think youre going?” I roared, moving forwards and grabbing her by the shoulder. “Stop!”
I barely managed to stop her from sliding downstairs when something buzzed and music poured out of the girl’s pocket; it echoed like a live concert at the landing. I knew the song from ages ago, but that didn’t change anything. I hissed and cursed while I tried to grab the phone from a narrow pocket, while the jovial singer was still crooning about his home land.
“ Hello Africa, tell me how you're doin'”
“Hello motherland, tell me how you're doin’”
Damn and blast! The thing had stuck!
“Hello Africa, tell me how you're doin'
Hello motherland, tell me how you're doin”
Get out already, you bastard!
In the meantime, the choir joined in with the same message.
“Hello Nigeria! That's my motherland . . .”
“Urgh-h-h-h!” My response was anything but musical. I made an effort to pull out the phone, pressed the answer button, and roared “What the hell?”
“Who the fuck are you, asshole?”
“Come again?”
“Who are you and why have you got this phone?!”
“Fuck off! If either of us in an asshole, it’s you!” I really lost it at the moment. “Give me your address so that I could come over and bash your head in!”
There was a silence. A somewhat uncertain question followed. “Ros! is it you?”
Sure! Hold on . . . Vlas?”
Yeah, hi, Ros. Listen, that thing that’s happened . . .”
“Let’s not talk about it. Really, Vlas,” I had to interrupt him.
Uh . . . All right, then. So Troubles visited you?”
You could say that,” I sighed. “Just in front of my door; pissed as a newt. Damn . . .”
Phew! That’s a weight off my chest! Not the fact that she’s drunk, I mean. Just that shes safe. Listen, are you and her . . .?”
“Are we and her what exactly?”
“Are you dating her?” Vlas said in a neutral tone of voice.
Say what?! No! Whatever gave you the idea?!”
“Well, let’s start with the fact that she broke our bodybuilder banker’s nose. Were you aware of that?”
Just that! Right in the hospital ward! Jesus H. Christ! I don’t know the details; Gosha didn’t share anything, but he was speaking in a whiney voice, sounding somewhat frightened. So he’s whining into the blower and I can barely manage not to laugh out loud. But Im really sorry, Ros. It wasnt a good show, blood. And we nearly lost it when we were talking. I’d just talked to Gosha and decided to find out about Kyre; it’s the night time, after all. And there’s an angry guy responding, so I kinda got my pants in a bunch.”
“How did she manage it? It’s only been a couple of hours!”
“Trouble always comes suddenly,” Vlas guffawed. “Came to Gosha already, har har . . . No, Im positive you and her have been . . .”
There was nothing between us! I roared, then lowered my voice, remembering the time and the place. Nothing!”
Tell me,” Vlas didnt sound convinced. “If there was nothing, she wouldn’t sabotage the plans of the party leadership! Hey, I’ve learned a couple of new words recently, fancy that! Self-improvement!”
Hold on . . . Sabotage? Kyre?”
“Her. She’d had a special package prepared for all kinds of unexpected events in the clan vault. Just reach out and grab it. Everything accounted for. Craft equipment, staves for battle mages, a whole bunch of scrolls with top-level spells, lights, and about a hundred vials of potions. Every single detail accounted for, including a sloop-summoning scroll. You read it, a boat materializes right in front of you, and you can steer it wherever you want to. And what did she bring?”
Uh . . . Swords, axes, suits of chain mail,” I started to recollect. Really cool arrows . . . But no bow.
While my mouth was mechanically listing the stuff grabbed by Kyre, my hand stretched out to stroke the hair of the girl lying on dirty concrete.
My angel, my darling . . . I am so grateful to you for your weird nature and the fact you’d left the boat-summoning spell behind, even though it would have helped us cross the Sea of Tears. I could literally see the grimace of suspicion on her face when I’d have declined a ride on that boat. Or my pathetic efforts to find a reason why I’d prefer swimming. It would have been just like that; nothing could have made me board a boat. Thanks again, Kyre. Thank you, dear.
Vlas didn’t even suspect I’d been overcome with emotion and kept on talking.
“That’s it! Once you set off to do the quest, our manager took a look at the clan’s logs, and he nearly fainted. The prepared package had remained untouched, and what she took wouldn’t even help anyone in a village barn full of rats. It’s like a total noob had raided the vault. And, brother, Kyre is anything but a noob. Back in the day she had taught me what one should take along, and for what purpose.”
“It just takes the cookie.”
“It does! But what’s done is done, and Kyre is safe, so I’m off!”
“Off where exactly?” My whole body jerked. “Whos going to get Kyre home? She’s totally blotto. You do it; you’ve got a car, I’m sure.”
No way! She came to you, so you deal with her. It’s your Trouble,” Vlas laughed again. “See you!”
The response was nothing but silence, and the silence didn’t last long.
A door creaked softly, and the one and only Mrs. Bobrikov came out of her flat onto the landing. Looking sleepy; that was untypical. We must have woken the old lady up, after all.
Rostislav? Is it you? Oh, dear! Kyre, darling! What’s the matter with you?” The old lady got into full mother hen mode, pretending to have just seen the girl lying on the concrete floor. She must have woken up a while ago just to collect all the information available through her spyhole.
Or, perhaps, not. The neighbor looked really worried.
“She’s OK, Mrs. Bobrikov,” I hastened to reassure her before she’d call the cops or the ambulance. “She’s just had too much to drink. I’m really sorry about having woken you up.”
“Drunk? It doesn’t seem like her,” the old lady looked worried as she smelled the whiffs of alcohol on the landing.
“How would you know what’s like her and what isn’t?” The thought rustled through my mind, but what I ended up saying was something completely different.
“That’s right. Drunk.”
“In that case, she must have had a reason!” Mrs. Bobrikov said sternly, leaning over Kyre. “And look at you! Leaving her on the cold floor like that! Why don’t you carry her into your own apartment?”
“Why don’t I indeed,” I cough. “As for the reason . . . Well, we had a quarrel.”
“Young blood,” the old woman sighed, giving me a deprecatory look. “Get the girl off the floor and get her in, or she’ll catch a cold, and women shouldn’t! You’ll regret it yourself when you won’t be able to have a kid! And youll have no one else to blame!”
Mrs. Bobrikov! Whos been talking about kids? Is it a conspiracy of some sort?” I nearly howled, starving, hysterical, but with my clothes on.
“There’s no reason to get into a row for a reason as petty as this! Life isn’t a game! It’s easy to get into an altercation, but it’s much harder to make amends,” the old woman sighed, and then switched back into her angry mode. “Get the girl off the floor! Haven’t you heard me right the first time? I’ll deal with the broken glass and the stain in the meantime.”
“I can deal with it,” I tried to show initiative, but Mrs. Bobrikov waved her hand at me angrily, and I had to deal with Kyre, mumbling to myself, “Life is no game . . . Duh.”
Dealing involved grabbing her in a fireman’s carry and dragging her into the flat, all but crying out loud from the pain in my neck. The neighbor wasn’t impressed much; it was a far cry from the recent “romantic” version of bringing her into my apartment in my arms, and made a sour face. I couldn’t lift the damned woman! My arms felt like cotton, and my neck could barely turn! I’d been walking sideways like a crab already, and carrying women drunk to near-unconsciousness was nowhere on my to-do list. It also felt like she was heavier than she’d been before, or was it the lack of adrenaline?
“The burden of treachery is heavy, isn’t it?” I couldn’t help saying it hoarsely as I dropped Kyre onto the bed and slumped down right next to her.
I breathed in and out a few times, massaged my neck carefully with my fingertips, and reached for the drawer to get my notebook.
Damn. Other people have fat check books, and the only one I’d had that kept on growing was the notebook with my list of contacts.
I instantly found the number I’d needed marked “only at night” and dialed it.
“Hello?” a throaty voice answered in a drawl.
“Hey, Rashid. Are you sleeping or driving?”
“Both, my friend!” My old acquaintance replied in a jovial voice. A taxi driver who’d only work at night. “Do you need me?”
Sure do. Im home. Do you remember the address?”
Duh! Of course I do, brother! I’ll be there in some twenty or twenty-five minutes. Is that OK for you?”
“Just fine,” I was actually happy about the short delay.
Im on my way.”
I dialed off, having thanked Rashid and dialed another number. It took as long as ten beeps before I got a reply.
“Vlas! You’re still a bastard!”
“Sure, my blessings to you, too, Vlas said, breathing heavily. “I’m not dealing with Trouble tonight! I’m busy!”
A bitter voice somewhere in the background said,
“Vlas . . . Don’t leave me, sugar lump, come over here.”
Sugar lump!” I roared. “You asshole!”
“As your attorney, I advise you to do the same,” Vlas said. “And you’ve got an amazing girl right next to you!”
I stared at the “amazing girl,” drunk and asleep, winced, and asked,
“So, do you know where this ‘amazing girl’ lives?”
“Sure, gimme a sec. I have her landline number somewhere.”
“Why would I need her number?”
“Hey, it’s a posh neighborhood! A gated community patrolled by a bunch of lean and mean security men. They won’t even let you approach the gate unless the residents approve it.”
“But they’re probably all asleep . . .”
“That’s just what I’m telling her. Let her stay over and sleep. Stick her into a cab tomorrow; no probbo. Why go through all the extra trouble, mate?”
“Let her stay over, you say . . .” I mulled over it for a second, but then the image of her waking up in the morning and us doing the explanatory song and dance lit up in my head, and it didn’t feel comfortable or comforting. Give me the number!”
“Right on . . .” the two of us drawled in unison upon seeing the house.
“I wish I lived like that, mate!” Rashid summed it up quite succinctly.
“Not too shabby,” I agreed as I opened the taxi door and crawled out.
It wasn’t exactly a house; it was a three-story suburban mansion, the likes of which you could see somewhere in Essex. Lock, stock, and ivy on the walls, and a perfect lawn with flower beds scattered here and there tastefully. You didn’t need to squint; the space was well-lit. The owners didn’t care much about their electricity bills, apparently.
I didn’t even have to knock. A luxurious wooden door opened, and a young guy came out, most likely under twenty.
“What’s up,” I nodded, barely managing to hold down the yawn and opening the car door with all due respect. “Are you the guy I’ve been talking to on the phone? Kyres brother?”
“That was me all right,” the guy said, shaking my hand. “I’m Misha; her brother. It’s a good job I wasn’t sleeping. Had Auntie Lena answered the phone . . . Why, she’d raise a right ruckus. “So keep it down for safety’s sake.”
“OK,” I switched to whisper. “Here she is.”
The guy dove into the car only to crawl back a few seconds later, holding Kyre in his arms easily. I could almost feel jealous, considering it had taken me much effort and a lot of cuss words to take the girl down the stairs. Not weak. Just . . . Really tired.
Are you an athlete?”
Sure am. A swimmer; I do water polo, too,” Misha nodded.
“Why aren’t you sleeping, then?”
“Duh . . .” he waved his hand. “I’d gotten lost and was scurrying back and forth . . .”
Misha?” A worried voice came from the doors. “What’s happened? Is it Kyre?”
Damn! Auntie Lena!” The guy said in a doomed voice.
“Good luck, then!” I said curtly, getting into the car. “Rashid, pedal to the metal!”
The engine roared and we drove away, leaving Misha behind.
“It’s your Trouble now,” I said gruffly, looking into the rear-view mirror. Scurrying here . . . Scurrying there . . . Ive heard something like that recently.”
Going back?” Rashid interrupted my reverie.
Yeah! Going home and getting some sleep! Although . . . We should stop on the way to get a couple of bottles of Baileys. I feel like something sweet . . . Oh, and also a box of pralines for Mrs. Bobrikov.”

Release - July 16, 2020
Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088GV4SGB

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