Monday, June 29, 2020

Disgardium: Holy War by Dan Sugralinov

Disgardium-5: Holy War
by Dan Sugralinov

Release - September 4, 2020
Pre-order on Amazon -

Prologue: Hairo

Forty-year-old Hairo Morales has been working in the Excommunicado security service for the past three years. A former peacekeeper and veteran of the Third World War and local conflicts in the Middle East, Northern China and Africa, he struggled to find activities that suited him in retirement. He’d been a special operative in the army and tried to find something similar in civilian life. Sure, you got gray hairs faster, but he was too late to change now.
Rain had been falling since dawn. Clouds of flint hung over the city. They seemed as if endless, divulging an eternal downpour. The thought bothered Morales. His body didn’t get along too well with inclement weather. The rain brought phantom pains and he gritted his teeth. It was on a gloomy day like this that he lost a leg, burnt off by a plasma mine explosion in one of the Central American Zones. Only the life-support system built into every peacekeeper exoskeleton saved him.
The army provided him with new bionic limbs. Better than before! the doc said, with exaggerated enthusiasm. At least they won’t smell, Hairo! Haha! Morales had laughed, but he was far from happy. He’d been pushed out of the army in spite of his service. The least they could have done was waive his treatment bill.

Who would have thought that he’d find himself in the company of Caesar, younger brother of drug baron Ishmael Calderone. Hairo had once been in a raid to capture him. They’d failed, and maybe that was for the best. In any case, Caesar, when he accepted Hairo into the Excommunicado security services, had no issue with him.
Caesar Calderone himself, better known as Colonel, had also once been in the military. He personally interviewed every applicant to the company, needing only a short time to make a clear-cut decision. Often it was ‘no.’ Nobody knew what influenced him, but Hairo was lucky; Colonel approved his hiring.
In their meeting, after describing the company’s requirements to the new hire, Caesar said on parting:
“Make a character in Disgardium, Hairo.”
“Is that mandatory? I thought my work didn’t involve video games.”
“I’m afraid it does!” Caesar’s voice rasped like a bunch of nails in an iron bucket. “Everything that happens in the company in real life is merely to support the Excommunicado clan in the game. Our businesses are no more than investments. Do you know who the investor is?”
“The clan?”
“Right. Most of your duties will be in real life, but first and foremost, you are a member of Excommunicado. You just get your paycheck from the company.”
At first, Hairo got an old veteran as a partner, but he soon retired. A new Exco noob replaced him — Willy Brizuela. Then a routine began: alongside Willy, Hairo patrolled the clan’s residential district where its key personnel lived, protected Colonel’s mansion, escorted the clan leader or the offices on trains… It was boring. Boring and humiliating: players in the clan’s main personnel treated him and the other service workers with contempt. This was not expressed in words or deeds. After all, according to corporate policy, everyone was formally equal. But it came through in faces, tones, whispers behind backs.
As it emerged, the function of the security service was not just security, but also reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance, and what Colonel jokingly referred to as pro-active defense, by which he meant his brother’s protection racket. The members of Excommunicado were always at war with someone, be it hot or cold: with competitor clans, the government, the Triad… And that meant that when two serious Threats appeared, Colonel gathered his security officers in secret and told them to start digging. He didn’t just want to find the Threats in real life, but also prevent his sworn friends from the Alliance from suspecting anything.
After studying the analysts’ reports, Hairo decided that one of the Threats must be a non-citizen. Hairo himself was one, and from a place known as Hell on Earth, in the Guyana Cesspit. He got citizenship through ten years of service in the peacekeepers, then changed his address, but never forgot his old non-citizen friends. It was them — in the Guyana Cesspit and neighboring Cali Bottom — who he went to for information.
When one of his agents told him of some strange events in Cali Bottom, Hairo’s ears pricked up like a hunting dog on a scent. He started to dig, and in the end his efforts were rewarded: one of the students he and Willy intercepted in the sky over Cali was the Threat! But he hadn’t decided what to do with the information yet. First he needed to meet the Threat, understand what he wanted. Maybe get some more intel out of him…
He downed a painkiller, drank up his coffee and got ready for work. His wife Maria kissed him, adjusted his collar and sighed anxiously.
“What, dear?”
“Have you spoken to Caesar? About that promotion?”
“Yeah. He told me where to stick it. When Joao learned that I’d gone over his head, he shouted loud enough to break the windows.”
“Oh, no…” she groaned. “We could lose our home, Hairo! If you don’t confirm your status, they’ll raise our mortgage rates… What about Isolda? How will we pay her..?”
“I’ll fix it. Don’t worry…” Hairo pulled his wife close and hugged her.
He hadn’t yet told her of the money from the Threat in Dis. He’d split the money fifty-fifty with Willy, and it was all still in the game. He had to think about how to get it out. Back then, when he’d met those teenagers in Cali Bottom, he’d improvised. But now that all his hunches were paying off, to his own limitless surprise, and he’d gotten the money for the copper bar, he was panicking, afraid of losing it. Nothing prevented him from withdrawing it all to his account. Nothing except the unavoidable questions from the financial services. They had unlimited access to player transactions in Dis, and the metal bar he’d sold for a million wasn’t worth even a single gold coin. There would be questions that he could not answer. And then… Hairo didn’t want to think about what might happen next.
“Gotta go, darlin’,” he gently released his wife and left the house.
Once at the base, he met his partner, detailed the plans for the day. They agreed a work front and Hairo and Willy set off on their patrol groups.
“Brought it?” Hairo asked soundlessly by moving his lips.
Willy nodded.
Flying above one of the Zones, their Shark stopped above a small village of the Wild Ones. That was the name for the inwinova that left for districts declared by the authorities as unfit for life. Inwinova! Hairo spat mentally. Individuals of no value to society that’s what citizens called non-citizens in contempt. But Hairo had childhood friends from among the people who lived in those places. Willy knew people there too. Good people with big hearts…
The partners regularly dropped crates of UNB rations universal nutrient blend — along with clothing and medicine. But today, the cargo contained something else.
“I gotta take a leak,” Hairo said loudly for anyone who might be listening to in the future.
The Shark stopped a couple of yards above the surface. Willy silently passed the crates of machine-guns and ammo to the people that met us. They were old guns, long since removed from production. An echo of war, as a character from an old-timer movie once said.
Once the ‘packages’ had been taken, Hairo launched the Shark rapidly and continued on their previous route. The colorful men below, with their worn clothes and rugged faces, raised their fists as one and shouted something. Hairo nodded, but it was unlikely that they saw him. In the Zones, you can usually see the air you’re breathing.
Willy and Hairo didn’t discuss what had happened; they’d talked it all over yesterday. ‘Hunters’ sometimes went to the Zones; successful citizens thirsting for adrenaline. They set up so-called ‘safaris,’ shooting the Wild Ones. There isn’t a single animal left in the world that isn’t protected by law, Hairo thought bitterly. But you can shoot a whole village full of Wild Ones unpunished and get nothing but silent approval. It cannot be said that the Wild Ones were defenseless. Unlike the ‘hunters,’ they had nothing to lose; they fought tooth and nail. But knives and whips are no match for plasma rifles and machine-guns.
Hairo had learned yesterday of another ‘safari’ preparing to invade the Zone in which his friends lived. He couldn’t protect them; he risked being turned into an inwinova himself, if not worse. But he could support them with weapons…
For the next few hours, he and Willy patrolled a large area that included Cali Bottom and the Guyana Cesspit. The airwaves were quiet. The whole clan was responding to Nergal’s Summons — the event began that morning.
Willy was reading the latest news of Dis. Suddenly, he did a double-take.
“Something’s happened! Mary Mother of God… Hairo, look at this!”
Morales looked at his partner’s comm screen. The video showed the blessing ceremony at the temple square in Vermillion. The High Priest spread his arms, recited prayers. Bright waves emanated from him, covering the whole square. The crowd surged forward from the masses striving to get closer to the blessing.
“Here, watch now!” Willy said excitedly.
For a couple of instants, the screen was filled with white. The cameraman fell and the colorful picture turned monochrome, but Hairo had enough time to notice bodies burning away to ash.
He turned back to controlling the flyer, immersed in thoughts about the Threat. He was still waiting for an answer after agreeing to meet them. Willy continued to watch the videos flooding the net from the explosions in Bridger, Vermillion and Fort Smith, listened to eyewitness testimony. Then the speakers whined, and the partners heard the familiar voice of Joao, the security chief.
“Attention all patrols! Number One has declared a general assembly! Everyone get off your asses and get to the base now! That’s an order! Confirm receipt, over.”
Hairo grabbed the radio.
“Morales-Brizuela squad here, confirming, over.”
The voice of Vladimir, one of their colleagues, stood out from the series of answers from the other patrol groups.
“Boss, this is Krasnov-Kalinich. We’re far away. What happened? Over.”
“Vlad, keep the channel clear! I repeat! Everyone back to base!”
“Don’t be an asshole, Joao!” Vladimir exploded. “We’re over Siberia! We’re checking out some Russian inwinovas! We got half the globe to fly across! What the hell is up?”
Joao sighed over the airwaves.
“Men… I don’t know the details, but it seems the Threat has cooked the whole Alliance…”
Then the comm crackled. Hairo checked the message’s sender, looked at Willy. He understood without words. They’d both been waiting for the Threat’s response.
“Let me take the wheel.”
“3 PM/ET. Will wait 5 minutes today and tomorrow. Private room. Invite cipher attached.” That was it. No signature, no return address, burn-after-reading flag.
Morales deleted the message, checked his watch. Only ten minutes until the set time — three in the afternoon, Eastern time.
“Descending, need a piss,” Hairo said.
When the flyer landed, he went outside, taking a VR helmet and manipulator gloves with him. He synchronized with the comm and pulled it toward him. A way to talk in a private room without a capsule.
He had to wait for the appointed time to arrive and the link to activate. The program activated. Hairo chose a default avatar and entered the room. The cryptoworld loaded instantly: an empty room with black walls. At the center was a small wooden table with a lamp on it and two chairs next to it.
Using the gloves to control the avatar, Hairo walked to the table and ‘sat.’ A couple of seconds later, a figure separated from the far wall; a young blond man, something from the base set of standard avatars.
“Hairo,” the boy nodded, sitting at the table. The voice sounded sweet, appropriate for the avatar, but the security officer didn’t let the soft voice fool him. “Thank you for agreeing to meet.
“Thank you for the mil,” Morales chuckled. “All our units just got called in. They say someone blew up all the Alliance bosses. Your handiwork?”
“I won’t deny the obvious. Neither of us have much time, so let’s talk business. I’m sending a contract for a million phoenixes per year. My friends and I need security. We have funds.”
Hairo wanted to show off what he knew, point out what had the kid shook up: Sheppard was clearly the Threat. He was the only one that talked like this out of those five students — Hairo had carefully studied the dossier for each. Rodriguez and Lee had a different style of speech. Abdulalim wouldn’t have risked the meeting. As for Melissa Schafer, she was still in the sandbox. He wanted to, but… decided against it.
“What’s stopping me from just going on earning a million a week, instead of a year?”
“The fact that I won’t pay you any more. Your intel’s going out of date. I’m not planning on hiding much longer. I’m sick of it. But I don’t need extra attention either.”
“I get it… Why me?”
“I’ve studied your biography, the public part of it. Born and raised in Guyana, you lived through the war. A veteran many times honored. You lost your legs. Not only do you have friends in Cali Bottom, but I’ve heard tell of Hairo Morales. They say the Lobo can be trusted.
Hairo’s breath caught. It was a good thing it didn’t show on his avatar. El Lobo, the Wolf, was his childhood nickname. Few remembered that now.
“So can you be trusted?”
“Are you sure you have a year? If I agree, then I’ll want payment in advance.”
“Even if I don’t have a year, the clan does. I’m offering you a contact with the clan. The money is legal. And we’ll pay you that amount after taxes, in cash.
“I want a million and two hundred. Six hundred each for me and my partner.”
“Hmm… We can do that…”
“Do you know why?” Hairo interrupted. “Life has taught me not to back people into a corner. In desperation, a man will promise a great deal, but I don’t have any use for empty promises. If I come over to you, then I want stability. Willy and I will work for your clan a year, and if all is well, we’ll discuss a promotion.”
“Agreed, Mr. Morales.” The boy stood and offered a hand.
Hairo shook it, held on.
“Just to be clear… Is contract control enabled?”
“Good. Speak your offer.”
“I, Alex Kieran Sheppard, representing the Awoken clan, offer a yearly contract to Hairo Morales and his partner…”
“William Brizuela.”
“… William Brizuela for a total of one million and two hundred thousand phoenixes after taxes for working in the clan’s security service. Payment for the first year of service will be transferred within three days of this moment.”
“I, Hairo Morales Garcia, representing myself and the interests of William Brizuela, accept the Awoken clan’s offer. I give my word not to reveal the information I have received during negotiations.”
That was it. No way back. A verbal contract had judicial force, although a few formalities yet remained. Hairo gathered his thoughts.
“Now I need to fly to the base right away. I’ll find out what Colonel wants, and tomorrow morning I’ll resign. This is an irreversible step, kid, and I have a family: a wife and daughter… Tell me, how are you guys doing out there? Who are you most afraid of?”
“Nobody is a threat to us in Dis. In the real world… The Alliance of Preventers, the Triad… Maybe Snowstorm. To grow, we need a place where we’ll be safe.”
“You can add the Cartel, since Exco is involved. Colonel will definitely bring his brother in. Never mind, we’ll deal with it. How many of you are there?”
“Over a hundred, counting the non-citizens. They have an option for a base…”
“We’ll discuss it once I’ve left Exco. For your own security. I suggest we meet at your friends’ place tomorrow in Cali Bottom.”
“The roof of block thirty-six, Hairo.”
Morales nodded and finally released the Threat’s hand. The boy kept his gaze fixed on him.
“You know, Alex…” Hairo said. “A million is enough for Willy and me.”
“Because this is the first time I’ve seen a citizen talk about non-citizens without using the word ‘inwinova.’ And we’re going to need a lot of money. Defense droids and turrets ain’t cheap. And you can forget about community flyers, Alex. We need a Shark.”
“Because after what you did this morning, you can say good-bye to a quiet life.”

Chapter 1. First Battle

I soared high above the desert atop Storm and watched. The sun leaned down to the horizon, but I was sure the battle would start before nightfall.
The Alliance of Preventers had recovered after their fight with me and were gathering their forces into a single thrust. They were rushing to Tiamat’s temple so fast that by the time I’d come to an agreement with Hairo and returned to Dis, they were already approaching the Stronghold of the Destroying Plague.
And I didn’t know what to do. If my plague abilities were ineffective, then getting into a fight with a few thousand of the best players wasn’t just stupid, it was suicidal. It would be easier to eliminate myself as a Threat. If only that were possible, that would have been funny.
All the new Plague Fury explosions in the frontier forts were no more dangerous than a firecracker to those that responded to Nergal’s Summons. But those who caused the explosions died: the Yoruba members, who hadn’t taken the blessing. The Radiant God kept his promise and gave his followers protection. News of this traveled at the speed of light. I hadn’t had time to read the news properly, but the headlines made it clear enough: End of the Class-A Threat, Ace Up the Alliance’s Sleeve, It’s All Turned Around, Pyrrhic Victory… That last one was probably referring to me crushing the Alliance’s camp.
All that remained was to figure out whether the blessing protected them from all abilities related to plague energy or only from Plague Fury.
I counted twelve columns, matching the number of clans. The Alliance forces were moving on foot, without mounts. Maybe Nergal’s blessing didn’t extend to them. Each column consisted of three raid groups with a hundred men each — a total of three thousand and six hundred players and almost the same again in pets and minions. There was a broad trail of loosened sand clearly marked with wheel grooves from the Great Portable Altar as it carved its way through the desert in the rear. The real one this time. Unlikely that they’d dragged a second fake deep into the desert.
The army kept catching aggro from mobs, but even with their massive superiority in level, few of them reached the tanks. I couldn’t figure out how the preventers had managed to overcome the penalties; they shouldn’t have been able to hit a mob sixty levels above them at all…
Around six miles from the army of preventers, another army approached to meet it in uneven rows — the undead. Shazz had apparently leveled up his strategic skills, because he sent some scouts out in advance: Banshee Lieutenants and Bone Gargoyles, which reported on the alliance troops’ movement.
Now the walking dead and the other nightmarish creatures were moving in apparent disorder behind and to the sides of a walking skyscraper. Deznafar, Battle Avatar of the Departed, was covered in rotting flesh and chitinous plates like the kind I’d seen on the Ravager. All eight of its massive undead legs sank almost halfway into the sand, and the monster left behind two deep ditches. Our entire fort could have fit in either one.
I was unable to stop the battle. And in any case, I’d lose. If the preventers won, their path to Tiamat’s temple would be clear. If Shazz won, then the Destroying Plague would never stop; the lich would turn the top players into legates, and those like Big Po would retain control of their characters, becoming the pioneers of the officially launched new faction. Immediately after that, the undead race would probably become playable for everyone else. That’s how it had gone down when the dark ones were unlocked. It was a good thing Kiran considered our agreement complete — all I had to do now was delete my character… But we’d see about that. I was planning to defend the temple and fort to the bitter end, no matter what happened.
Cloak Essence hid my Blackberry disguise, which I’d decided to keep for now. Not long before, Pecheneg had written that when I warned them that she’d been discovered, the elf girl logged out of Dis and managed to escape the Modus clan building in the chaos I’d caused. As for Hinterleaf’s astral mark on the girl, they’d deal with that when Victoria (her real name) came back to Dis.
The Alliance leaders saw Deznafar’s towering frame from a couple of miles away. Of course, they already knew of both Shazz’s undead and the Battle Avatar of the Departed from their scouts. Only the flying mounts of that class were protected from the heat, not counting mounts obtained in the Lakharian Desert itself, like my Storm.
When I met him, the lich reported indifferently that “all whose shadows fell on us have been eliminated,” but the scouts would have made their reports all the same. However, this was the first time the preventers saw the mega-undead with their own eyes. They stopped.
The raids took up defensive formations. The preventers chose their defensive spot on the crest of a dune, in a semi-circle before the smaller undead army. The flanks stayed in the same row with the rest for now, but I knew they’d move out and surround the undead when Shazz came close.
Mere minutes remained until the collision.
I saw a gleam of glass in the constant flashes of buffing spells. Looking closer, I made out the familiar face of one of the Children of Kratos. It was Taranis, that scout from Vermillion whom I’d told a week ago that I was a Legate of the Destroying Plague, and his news release had stunned the world. My super-high Perception allowed me to make out every face. Taranis was looking through something like binoculars. He opened his mouth and jabbered into his comm amulet, keeping his eyes on me.
Another few dozen heads jerked upward. I tried to keep myself beneath the sun to remain unnoticed, but now that they knew where to look and what to look for, it wasn’t hard to make out big Storm in the sky with a rider on her back. Glancing at the Alliance leaders, I saw that Yary was already giving commands. Mogwai frowned nearby. Crag was hanging around nearby in the form of an elf. After our meeting in the headquarters of the preventers, my friend had found a way to get out of his capsule and told me in CrapChat that Nergal had punished him for helping the enemy: his divine ability had been halved in strength.
Several top players summoned mounts at once, but only one ascended. I got it. They’d decided to figure out whether I could break through Nergal’s protection.
Without moving, I waited for the guinea pig on a white hippogryph to reach me. I wanted to know if my plague energy could damage him or not too, and so as soon as he got within range, I loosed an arrow, adding half a million plague energy.

You dealt damage to the player Zomba, level 379 Drunken Monk: 91.
Health points: 1,856,239 / 1,856,330.

The fat stocky monk grinned when he saw the damage numbers. I swore — the plague energy hadn’t gotten through, and rank zero Archery dealt pathetic damage. If it weren’t for my accuracy, which was now over two thousand percent, I’m sure I would have missed at my level three hundred and nine. But this was no time for pessimism.
Zomba stood up on his hippogryph’s back, balanced, prepared to attack. A whirlwind of air surrounded his body, and when the distance between us closed to thirty yards, he jumped and stretched out his arm like damn Superman, flying straight at me. My Sharkon’s Mane shield flew from my hand to meet him and got caught in the monk’s whirlwind defense. They both flew toward me. It all happened in a split second, but I had enough time to greet the monk with Hammerfist. I broke through his defense — the whirlwind seemed to harden, then shatter — but then everything went wrong.
The top player’s swift charge knocked me from Storm’s saddle like a leaf in the wind. My eyes managed to catch the Reflection damage numbers — almost three hundred thousand, and from one hit! — and then everything started to flicker. The earth and sky span, swapping places, and the monk and I fell toward the earth, locked together.
Riderless Storm roared, discharged bolts of lightning. The monk’s fists were a blur in the air, wrapped in some kind of legendary cloth, smashing through my ribcage with such ferocity that I didn’t even have to hit him again. Reflection did my work for me. I managed to grab my falling shield, but now I faced death: I couldn’t survive a fall from a great height, even with three million health. Such were the game mechanics. And Immortality wouldn’t work with another Legate nearby!
In a panic, I tried to activate Depths Teleportation, but the cast was interrupted — the preventers had started shooting at my falling body. I heard shouts, commands, spells, the whistling of arrows, crossbow bolts and darts all around. A motley mass of battle pets clustered where I would land.
Smack! I fell in a bad position, head down. My bones crunched, my neck twisted unnaturally. As I hurried to hit the respawn button, I realized I’d survived. I’d gotten so used to Immortality that I’d forgotten all about Diamond Skin of Justice. Nine seconds of full invulnerability!
I heard a few explosions; dwarven tanks firing their cannons at me. The cannonballs bounced off into the sand with a dull metal thud and span there, red-hot and deadly. Diamond Skin of Justice absorbed the shock. I survived and ran away, recalling Storm and activating teleportation.
Three seconds later I stood in complete silence outside the Stronghold of the Destroying Plague. Sticky anthracite soil covered in sand and crisscrossed with green veins led to the fort. Only the glimmering veil of the portal was gone — it seemed my sectarian friends from the cult of Morena had smashed all the ziggurats on the other side.
Digging through my inventory, I took out the Bottomless Healing Potion with a half-hour cooldown and drank it. Honestly, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d used it — there had been no need. Now it came in handy.
I turned my head around, made sure my neck was right again, summoned my dragoness and rose into the air. The carelessness of a few minutes ago had put things into perspective for me. I couldn’t get into another scrape like that, or eliminating me would be a piece of cake. Shazz was nearby, which meant that any death — and under such furious fire from so many top players, I’d die in within ten seconds of Diamond Skin ending — would be final for the character Scyth.
The sky darkened a few miles away from the battlefield and three bright dots appeared in it, leaving a fiery trail behind them. I recognized the overwhelming sound of meteors rushing to earth at once — Armageddon! And not just one, but three at once! It seemed the top players had decided not to spare their scrolls worth a million and a half gold — although it wasn’t even about the cost so much as the extreme rarity of the ingredients. There were very few Armageddon scrolls in all Dis.
I’d arrived just in time. The three massive meteorites ripped into the undead army with a second between them. The first one pulverized the left flank, the second — the right. The third, central meteorite crashed through Deznafar’s ribcage. The explosive shockwave swept aside the dead minions that weren’t hit directly. Shazz himself, through some miracle escaping the danger, was pushed five hundred yards away. Nothing was visible in the smoke and rising dust where the meteorites fell.
Almost all the undead creatures were down. Some surviving banshees scurried around at one edge, howling; the frame of a Sickening Rotter crawling through the sand with its bottom half torn clean off; a Bone Hound pinned down by a shard of meteorite, whining pathetically. My brain mechanically remarked on the individual scenes, each showing the undead army dying helplessly.
I couldn’t believe my eyes — was it really all of them? — and I even felt respect for the preventers. Or at least for the Armageddon scrolls.
In real life, I wouldn’t have made out any details so far away; this time I kept my distance and didn’t descend too far. But in the game, thanks to my heightened Perception and the game conditions, I saw gleeful excitement reigning in the preventer ranks; they were jumping around, hugging each other and shouting.
What if I descended rapidly down to the cart with the altar, left at the foot of the dune with a guard of a single raid group and the giant haulers? I could try to destroy it while the soldiers were distracted with loot. Deep in thought, I didn’t notice at first what was happening where the meteorites had fallen. And something interesting was happening there.
The raised dust settled, and three huge black craters with slopes of glass appeared. Something moved at in the central crater.
Deznafar! The monster had survived, although Armageddon had cut him in half, and thrown his bones across the area. I didn’t see how much health the Battle Avatar of the Departed had left, so I’d assumed he wouldn’t get up. But with Plague Boost, Deznafar had absorbed experience from his disincarnated allies and now arose as a level nine hundred and thirty super-mob! Bones began to twitch here and there around the crater. Shazz had returned to the battlefield and streams of plague energy stretched out from his hands, raising the fallen.
The preventers celebrated too soon. Instead of a thousand minions, Shazz had around a hundred left, but all had leveled up and gotten stronger. Looked like the Alliance was fresh out of Armageddons
I was wrong. Below, I could make out the Modus raid group by its flag colors and clan crests. A figure of a familiar gray-haired gnome emerged it, hand raised. Then I decided to take a risk.
Taking advantage while the raid’s attention was locked on Shazz, I focused on Hinterleaf and made Storm drop through the air like a stone. As soon as the Subjugate Mind skill turned active, I cast it.
The world doubled up. Through the eyes of the Modus leader, I saw an Armageddon scroll clenched in his hand and a red circle overlaid on the terrain ahead, showing where the spell would hit and where the explosion would cover. The cast bar was half full.
Turning sharply, I redirected the meteorite to another area and waited for the spell to finish casting. The scroll crumbled to dust, the sky darkened. Not even the rising rumble of the falling meteorite drowned out the exultant cry from Hinterleaf’s lips:
“For Cthulhu!”
I examined the stunned faces of the Modus soldiers, shouted an order:
“Everyone attack the lich!” I ran first to show them that the clan leader wasn’t joking.
Hinterleaf surely had something to protect him from mind control. The raid surely had someone who could remove the spell’s effect, and maybe they were trying, but as I’d already learned, the abilities of the Destroying Plague broke through resists. I recalled how Koshch the Cursed Lich had twice gained controlled of the succubus Nega in spite of her in-built resistance to mind control magic.
As Hinterleaf got within attack range of Deznafar, I had him fire some spell at the monster and then gave up control. The cast required an enormous amount of plague energy to sustain, and there was no chance to top up my reservoir — I wasn’t about to put myself under fire.
My vision went back to normal. I came back to myself quite literally, and pointed Storm sharply upwards to get out of the Armageddon’s blast radius.
The preventers split into chaotic disorderly ranks. Some rushed ahead after Hinterleaf, some away. Other shouted loudly, pointing at the sky — the meteorite wasn’t falling where it should. It was aimed at the Great Portable Altar!
Deznafar had recovered from the strike that hit him and now he made his presence known on the battlefield. The monster roared, drawn out and screeching, drumming like a baton raked across metal bars. The roar pierced the eardrums, filling the air to the brim. The top players directly in front of Deznafar, with Hinterleaf at their head, froze in place…
I thought it must have been something like the Montosaurus’s paralyzing roar, but a moment later I realized I was wrong. The space in front of the mega-undead dematerialized into vibrating pixels and the air blurred as if spreading across shards of mirror. The bodies of the players within the area of effect of Deznafar’s ability shook, vibrated, then burst all at once, exploding in showers of blood.
Then came the blast on the other side of the dune!
The fiery meteorite crushed the cart along with its altar and unlucky giant haulers. The defensive raid legion survived thanks to its last-chance artifacts, but couldn’t withstand the hellish heat that followed. Few climbed out of the crater.
Deznafar, suddenly incredibly mobile, tore into the ranks of the preventers; paying no heed to the mosquito bites from the top players, he trampled the ground with all eight limbs at once and released his terrible roar, blowing up humans, orcs, elves and minotaurs, gnomes and dwarfs, lophers, fairies and hobbits, vampires and werewolves, ogres and titans, centaurs, trolls…
The raiders’ formations devolved into separate groups that immediately fell into skirmishes with the advancing undead. A few rotters and queases killed by Armageddon had been combined into one enormous rotter that towered over the preventers like Gulliver over the Lilliputians. The beast leaked acid slime and feasted, grabbing players with its ten limbs and swallowing them alive.
The raiders had gone from slapping each other on the back a few minutes before, united and confident, to fleeing to the four winds. It seemed the whole Alliance was in shock. The wipe was unavoidable, and a new threat had descended on the preventers. Before they had time to appreciate their immunity to Plague Fury, something even scarier had hit them. Deznafar tore space itself in a thirty-yard cone in front of himself. I couldn’t see any way to defend against it. I felt sure that even the Montosaurus itself would be reduced to blood and guts if it stood before the attack of the Battle Avatar of the Departed. If the Departed had such pets, then how strong were they themselves?
The chief puppeteer made himself known too. My fellow Legate, the lich Shazz, joined in with the fun. He flew above the crest of the dune and span in a deadly dance. Bubbling Devouring Plague like the one I saw during the battle at Behemoth’s temple covered almost the entire dune, finishing off the despairing survivors that continued to fire off spells at Deznafar. I dropped lower to see his health stats — Armageddon and all the following attacks from the preventers had taken just a third of his health.
Shazz busied himself with precisely finishing off survivors, throwing handfuls of Grave Worms at their backs as they ran. The sickening dead magic hit hobbit rogue Romaroma, one of the Azure Dragons as he went into Stealth. The unlucky rogue was knocked out of invis, and the segmented bloody worms started diving into his skin. The massive combined damage killed the preventer in seconds. A Sphere of Serendipity appeared above the corpse, shook and disappeared, absorbed by my Magnetism.
The lich flew ten yards into the air, raised an arm and began to spin in place. His clothes in the shape of an inside-out tulip sparked. Petal-like scraps began to peel away from him. They filled with mist and flew all across the battlefield. Grave Storm! My breath caught as I remembered the spell’s events.
They flew through the air in a deadly rain of black flakes, and when it hit the preventers’ armor, it melted away like wax. Shazz had gotten a little stronger since the battle on Kharinza: there were three times as many flakes in that Grave Storm, and they flew so far that all I could see was black land wherever my eyes fell.
I decided to use the distraction to make sure the altar was destroyed. Grave Storm had no effect on me, but it ruined visibility. I had to fly around to find the crater of the last Armageddon. From all around I heard screams of pain from players, the wailing of banshees, the crack and shatter of bones, Deznafar’s roar and the lich’s triumphant whisper. I tried to make out at least one player that had been raised as undead, but saw none. Maybe raising players was only my job, and Shazz had his own assignments.
The altar had survived. Dropping down almost all the way to the surface, I looked at the range of glimmering dome shields covering not only it, but also the reviving players. They weren’t hurrying back into the battle. Mages were casting shield after shield. From above, it looked like bubble wrap. So satisfying to pop. The undead hadn’t gotten here yet, and it seemed the preventers were taking advantage of the breather to discuss strategy. There was nothing for me to catch here.
I pulled up on the rains to ascend, and then…
The world roared and I went deaf. In the ringing silence, I watched as if in slow-mo while the neighboring dune exploded, throwing megatons of sand into the atmosphere, smashing the bubbles above the preventers. The colossal body of Deznafar toppled from the dune’s peak and swept away the remains of the undead.
The thunderous voice boomed across the desert, bounced off the sky and returned in a thrice-amplified echo. From where the dune had stood a moment ago, a tiny dot hovered immobile for a few seconds, then sped toward us.
It was a man. Naked save for a worn loincloth, all skin and bones, with a beard down to his feet. Hair just as long covered his face.

Oyama, Human, level ??? Supreme Grand Master of Unarmed Combat

The very same Oyama who once taught my teacher Sagda! He was supposed to be traveling the astral plane. He looked far from meditative now.
From a range of a couple of hundred yards, still floating above the earth, Oyama performed a few strikes. The air thickened where he’d struck, creating an impression of his attacks. The next second, the dune with the reviving preventers at its foot exploded. I couldn’t escape the shockwave — Storm span and roared in terror, fell to the earth. Her wings broke as she landed, pinning me as she died. Diamond Skin activated to save me. I jumped to my feet, rushed to Oyama — this must have been Fortune’s influence. I really needed to talk to the master.
In the spot that had been a mighty dune a moment before, nothing was left. Deznafar’s bones were strewn across half a mile, and the lesser undead had been crushed to atoms. I couldn’t see Shazz anywhere. The preventers hadn’t survived either, but the Great Portable Altar still stood.
I found Supreme Grand Master of Unarmed Combat Oyama lying on the sand, unconscious. I carefully touched his shoulder.
What? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the master’s health bar. It was in the red. He was near death! No way… But the logs confirmed it: it was my fault. My Reflection nearly killed him. I survived thanks to Diamond Skin, but Oyama took three times as much damage as I absorbed.
I took out my Bottomless Healing Potion, uncorked it, poured it into the master’s half-open toothless mouth. Oyama’s health bar crawled up. He opened his eyes, coughed and stood up sharply. I didn’t see him rise, because I flew into the air, carried away by his uppercut. Fortunately, it was a normal strike and not a special move, so I didn’t fly far and Oyama didn’t kill himself. I stood up and took a couple of paces toward the old man — now I could clearly see an ancient and hunchbacked old man before me, barely staying upright on his rickety legs.
“Supreme Grand Master Oyama, please allow me to speak!” I shouted hastily, afraid to get much closer. “My name is Scyth. I am a student of your student Sagda, and I wish to learn more of your knowledge…”
“What? That idiot is still wasting air?”
“Forgive me, mentor Oyama, but Master Sagda is alive and well…”
“Who are you calling mentor?” Oyama interrupted. I started to understand where Sagda had gotten his oppositional character. From his teacher. “You are nobody to me and you have no right to call me that. And the same for that Sagda of yours. Get away, before I send you to your ancestors.”
He snapped his fingers and a portal opened nearby. The master raised a foot to walk through it, but stopped.
“What is your name, undead?”
“I’m a human. My name is Scyth.”
“I see what kind of human you are,” Oyama snorted, obviously seeing my true form beneath Cloak Essence. “A rotting dead man in a sharp-eared babe costume. What can you do?”
“I know Hammerfist, Stunn…”
“Enough talk. Show me.”
Glancing around and making sure we were alone, I charged a full Combo with twenty or so strikes.
“Heh… Cute. Did you only learn two moves, dead man?”
“I’m a human. And yeah, I only learned two moves, but… I got ‘em down!”
“I don’t know, I don’t know…” Oyama shook his head. “You’re pretty quick for a corpse, but I don’t teach the undead.”
I knew how that went. Another master had told me a month before that he wouldn’t take archers until I offered five hundred gold.
“Master, if it is a matter of money, then I am willing to pay any sum for your teachings.”
“I don’t care about money. But you do have potential…” Oyama yawned. “I’m very tired. I intend to rest. There is a small village in southern Latteria, Jiri. The people there are simple. When they see a dead man, they bring out their pitchforks. And disguises don’t fool them. But if you can… Come say hi.”
Yawning widely, the old man strolled through the portal, which clapped shut.
I spent the next hour up on a mechostrich and careering around the scorched and soot-covered desert, collecting Spheres of Serendipity. They probably only existed for a while, and would disappear if I didn’t collect them in time. They’d go to the demons of the Inferno, Marduk or someone else. In any case, my supply of Serendipity was now over eight hundred thousand. Fortune would be pleased.
There were bones and undead guts everywhere, four crates gleaming with black glass… The player bodies had disappeared, strewing equipment items all over. My inventory was full to bursting — distracted by the epic battle, I hadn’t noticed Magnetism pulling in loot.
Guys, there’s mountains of loot here, I wrote to the clan chat. I can’t take it all. Head to the fort, we’ll meet there.
We’re waiting for Infect and then moving out. Just got back from school, Crawler answered.
I had to do something before the preventers revived. I’d been waiting for Diamond Skin to cool down all this time so that I could withstand the altar’s Shining. The real Great Portable Altar had three times as much life as the fake one. Armageddon removed the protection of the magical blessing and the dome shield. Oyama’s ranged attacks did some damage too. Frowning, I stepped into the hit zone. Six reflected ticks of Shining were enough.
The sky flashed, drawing in the energy of the broken altar. In the tremble of the explosion and the furious roar from Nergal, I missed some words aimed at me:
Looking up, I saw Shazz floating above me. He looked in a bad way even for an undead, but he’d survived. Mystery-level Oyama, if he’d stayed longer, would have finished the lich off with a snap of his fingers, but the master of martial arts was gone, and I couldn’t damage my ally.
I guessed what I had to answer:
“But there is no death in service to the Destroying Plague!”
“Is that it?” The lich pointed a crooked finger at the wreckage of the altar.
“Yes. I don’t know how long for, but all the undying ones we killed will revive far away from here now.”
“That is well,” Shazz hissed. “I need time to restore my legion.”
“What about Deznafar?”
“He will be restored. It will take time and much energy, but I managed to preserve him. I must retreat to the stronghold, Legate. What will you do?”
“I have a mission from the Nucleus to complete…” I answered mysteriously. “Tell me, Legate, why did you not raise any of the undying?”
“The Nucleus did not order me to. In any case, the undying that we encountered today are weak. Weaker than the weakest of the local fauna. I will take into consideration my mistakes. I will erect a Plague Ziggurat and create a legion of the desert monsters. The flesh of sentients is too fragile. But that is not news.”
Done talking, Shazz floated away toward the stronghold without a word.” He was lurching a little, but I saw the thousands of fine streams of energy he was pulling from the corpses.
The preventers would recover and they too would consider the lessons of the first battle. Another hundred thousand players were on their way here too.
The Holy War had officially started.

Release - September 4, 2020
Pre-order on Amazon -

No comments :

Post a Comment