Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones-4 by Dem Mikhailov

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones
Book 4
by Dem Mikhailov

Release - October 29, 2020

Chapter One
The Guild of Mages. A Global Shakeup. Peace Today, War Tomorrow!
The magical teleport’s soft flash brought me right to the main thoroughfare of Algora. It was after sunset; the streets were lit with golden lights, and I stood like a rock in the middle of an unhurried stream of locals and players. You could see someone with ants in their pants every now and then, running through the crowd, but they were few and far between. The City Guard could look at a lot of things through their fingers, but running through the central streets and parks late at night was a definite no-no—nothing should interfere with the residents’ and guests’ of Algora’s enjoyment of their evening walk through the city.

I walked aside unhurriedly, stopping next to an advertising column plastered with bright posters. I stood still for a moment, looking about me and trying to get used to my surroundings changing so quickly. Traveling from a damp dungeon to a city street full of revelers after sunset would drive anyone into a stupor. So I just stood there and looked around me for a while. There was no shortage of sights—or people—to marvel at.
The street lights’ iridescent glow with flickering flames dancing inside the shining spheres, so small, and yet so bright, lit up the street, conveying a feeling of military grade coziness. A few narrow ladders leaned against some of the lightposts—the army of lamplighters would look over their domain with good-hearted grumbling and pour in some special charmed oil. Those small details were what made Waldyra particularly realistic—lamplighters pouring oil into the lamps, streetcleaners swinging their brooms, housewives hanging out their washing on lines outside their windows, which could easily be stolen, given the inclination—everything felt perfectly real. It wasn’t an imitation of life; it was life itself, no less real for being digital.
The flower buds on “nocturnal” vegetation of all sorts had opened; they would look like regular greenery during the day, only to show their actual magnificence during the night—enormous snow white and cerulean flowers, glowing visibly, with myriads of small light bugs and other insects of every hue swarming over them. You could also see the somewhat bigger lights, also rushing from one flower to another hurriedly. A closer look would reveal a tiny night colibry or a small flower fairy that woke up at sundown and rushed to collect sweet nectar and catch small insects without even suspecting of being a very picturesque adornment of Algora at night.
And underneath all this multitude of flowers, you’d have cozy benches scattered here and there, made of all sorts of materials, and of any hue, shape or size, all of which looked really cozy. Some were low and massive, and primarily carved out of stone, as if they were made for dwarves. Others looked like an elastic mesh of vegetation and seemed ideal for elves. Even achylotes wouldn’t have any problems with finding a place to sit—there were small roundish ponds with crystal clear water scattered every here and there next to the benches, and even a few reservoirs of glass and crystal allowing achylotes to look at other people and show themselves, and indulge in unhurried conversation, popping their heads out of the water occasionally. The aquariums would have an exit, also filled with water and leading right to a well-lit underground waterway, which, in turn, would connect to some larger body of water outside city limits. Everything was accounted for.
The benches were occupied by numerous couples relishing in the majesty surrounding them and the starlit sky, just as majestic. There were bowls of fruit, open bottles of wine, and crystal glasses on low tables. A guitar or a mandolin somewhere in the distance, accompanied by a soft female voice doing a brazenly altered version of an ancient song.
“Waldyra’s breeze makes me feel fine blowing through the jasmine in my mind.”
All the players saunter down their streets dressed their best.
Inasmuch as the variety and beauty of attire are concerned, the women are definitely in the lead. Frilly skirts with all kinds of decorations, tight corsets, elaborate hairdos, domino masks on their faces, fans fluttering in their fingers, lips open in inviting smiles, with every colour, style, and epoch represented. All that, accompanied by a sonorous clangour of heels striking the paved streets. And who’d blame women for being beautiful, be it the real world or a digital illusion?
The guys try to keep up with them, wearing doublets with silver and golden embroidery, Persian-style robes, kaftans, vests, baggy pants, breeches, stockings, jackboots—the list would be too extensive to name all the garments. And many faces were bedizened with the same Zorro-style dominoes, the result being there were no names of their levels, nicknames, and clan associations. Nothing but a short legend such as Mr. Incognito or Lady Mystery. The masks were made that way, enabling one to conceal one’s personal information and transform into a mysterious stranger—only during the night and in the city center.
Those were convenient, especially for famed fighters and tournament winners, heads of famed clans, or others whose actions had made them popular and famous in the world Waldyra—or, au contraire, a public enemy (a killer player clan leader, for example). It would be most inconvenient to walk down a street in Algora hugging a lady barraged by insults by every player who’d ever been wronged by you. That would be overkill even from hardened criminals used to insults. Dominoes were a perfect solution in this case. Of course, one would have to pay attention to details such as taking off a particularly rare and memorable set of mythril armor the like of which was only owned by you—that would sabotage the very concept of camouflage, wouldn’t it? Another thing was that the city guard could see right through the concealing magic, seeing all the data they’d need whether or not you had a mask on. But the guards wouldn’t out you to anyone, anyway.
Basically, a domino was the easiest means one could find on the streets of Algora in the evening to evade the annoying onlookers, beggars, advengers, and everybody else. A domino would be vital for the Baroness, for instance—otherwise there wouldn’t be a second’s peace for her. And… and for me, too, come to think of it. With all of this adventuring, I have forgotten about how notorious my nickname had become all over Waldyra. Everyone’s heard it; everyone’s been talking about me. Whoever would yell “Rosgard!” would get a reaction from everyone around, be it even something as simple as turning around and measuring you up lazily. Others would definitely try to get to know me better, and I needed none of that.
I instantly stopped admiring the sights, looked about me for a while, and made sure that I haven’t attracted anyone’s attention yet, thankfully. Then I dashed to the left, towards a small and well-kept stall owned by an old local, right by the intricately wrought railing. It was a simple box on high legs with a mirror in a silver frame installed over it, facing the customer, and all the wares spread on top of it—simple dominoes sold for a ridiculously low price. There was also a handle attached to the box, which emitted a barely audible melody and apparently doubled as a street organ. The old man chewed his lips, glancing my way, expressing nothing, and gesturing towards the stall, obviously urging me to take my pick.
Picking wouldn’t be the problems. Money would. I had non at all—nothing but items. Such as torn burgundy cloaks, wet and singed to boot.
I started a conversation with a simple good evening, trying to put on a happy face, my accumulated weariness nothwithstanding.
“And a good one to you,” the old vendor said in a reedy voice, giving me a short nod. “Pick whatever you like, my good man. The wares don’t last long, but they’re fun to wear! I have simple cloth masks, or masks adorned with mother of pearl, or sequins, or feathers of many hues… There are bandanas of all kinds as well. My prices are good. You won’t get robbed, and I’ll make a few pennies, too.”
“I’d want a simple cloth mask,” I replied quickly. “Black. But there is one problem. Not a penny in my pocket.”
“Then you walk it like you talk it, away from here,” the old man said with a merry glint in his eye. He must have found me somewhat entertaining.
“Would be just fine, but I need one for this mug of mine,” I confessed, spreading my arms and looking about me worriedly.
“So you must be a thief?” the old man suggested, looking more and more amused after every exchange of bad poetry.
“More like, desperate beyond belief,” I grunted. “If you could spare a mask, I could perform my task. In an hour or two I will sure repay you.”
“You have a way with words,” the vendor sighed. “You must be a con man. Words that flow to fool folks you don’t know.”
“I am guilty of no such thing,” I had to object. “I’m just a simple folk.”
“Oh, a ladies’ man then? Making married women’s hearts beat faster, running from a disaster, a husband with horns who’d got you in the morn?”
“No husbands, no horns, no fair maids, weary morns!” I said. “Look, here, old man, could you please give me a mask? I’ll pay you back every single penny, I swear it!”
“There you go,” the old man handed me a mask, giggling mockingly. “A poet, no less. In a mask. And in boots.”
“I’m the furthest thing from a poet. Oh, thanks for reminding me about the boots, old man! How much for the mask?”
“It’s free,” the old man waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “You’ve made me laugh. Just make sure you look at yourself in the mirror.”
“Right,” I nodded, placing the black piece of cloth over my eyes.
I looked into the mirror through the narrow slits of the mask, only to see the legend over my head melt into nothing slowly. In a second, there was no game-related data left, and a message popped up offering me to choose a temporary name and say it aloud.
“A poet without a rhyme,” I said, still under the impression of my interaction with the vendor where rhymes and trade interests went hand in hand.
The temporary name has been approved. Duration: 04.59.59
That was the system message of approval that I received after a short pause.
So I had five hours of time. That much would sure be enough for me.
The old man giggled and offered me a broad-brimmed hat, saying, “You’ve made me laugh again, and it doesn’t happen often.”
I placed the hat on my noggin, bowed to the vendor awkwardly, and walked away accompanied by a well-meaning laugh, feeling just like Zorro, whom I’d mentioned earlier, only a lot less charming or cool. No blade on me; no trusted steed, either. But the search for me in Waldyra had nothing on Zorro—everybody was looking for me, individual players and whole clans alike. All I’d needed was a personal sigil I could leave wherever I fancied. Something to say “Ros was here,” for example.
I cursed, stopped for a second, removed the extremely conspicuous high boots and put them away in my pack. I patted myself diligently, trying to remove the layer of crusted dirt and remains of algae from my clothes. I was beginning to look halfway acceptable, which went perfectly with my nickname, A Poem Without a Rhyme. A half-start and near-destitute denizen of nocturnal Algora doing his rounds. I could have started mumbling freestyle poetry, but I lacked the courage. Those would most likely result in my verbal evisceration. There were always lots of critics.
Also, there was the possibility of me failing to pull it off looking like a mere bum. Many famous players indulged in playing the part of a simple-minded pauper wandering the streets. Rags did not immediately equal poverty. Kings used to do it a lot back in the day, and now, virtually everyone. But I didn’t think I needed to invest any extra effort into it—there were thousands of people out on the streets looking just like me. I’d be all right for the time being.
Something in front of me crackled like a machine gun rattle, with flashes and sparks galore. I twitched, since I’d expected nothing like that, only to realize (in retrospect) that one of the players had lit a bunch of firecrackers, only to make tracks very shortly afterwards. The Guard disapproved of that, but in a sedate and good-hearted manner. They did realize that there was no harm from that but the noise, and that everyone was having fun, especially when a well-thrown firecracker exploded underneath one’s feet. I grunted and kept on going, trying to keep the same unhurried pace.
A rather interesting couple was walking in my direction—interesting enough to turn quite a few heads. Their masquerade nicknames struck me as fun, too—Plague Doctor and C-3PO. One was wearing a strange gilded armor covering all his person and a stiff face, walking in an awkward manner; the other had a long black cape with his face hidden by a mask with a bird’s beak, its eyes glowing green ominously. Despite the more morbid aura, heavy footsteps, and a scary mask, the other player was more popular, as was reflected clearly by the number of “likes” scattered across the gilded chest. Some thirty diamond-like points or more, whereas the Plague Doctor had five at best on his dark cape. During such evenings each player can give a single “like” to the character whose costume and appearance they find the most appealing; all you needed to do was to touch the player and say “Like!” Characters with the most likes received prizes from the administration; valuable ones for the most part. Oddly enough, the android C-3PO was extremely popular, despite looking dated and somewhat dazed. I thought I should look him up; did they feature him in some popular movie or something?
In general, folks were having fun. Some players were getting on with their adventuring, while others were enjoying themselves strolling across the streets of Algora. This would all depend on the player’s character and what they liked best—defeated monsters falling at their feet or late-night strolls across a decorated city.
I could only imagine what was going on in the vicinity of Sefosque; there’d be fun enough during the daytime, and right now it would probably be like a house of fire. There were rumors that famous designers, film directors, and the like visited the square in the evening hours. Nobody could say whether there was any truth to these rumors, but the players populating that famed (yet niche) place always tried to go out of their way to give their best performance during these hours.
All this vivid display of color only benefited me, and I made my way towards the gates of the Mages’ Guild just like that; part of the crowd of players dressed to the nines and locals who’d also wanted to make a public appearance. They made me look like an unnoticed barn mouse in comparison.
Right now was the time for people to get acquainted or to flirt. There were countless clowns, jesters, amd fakirs around. There were wires hung up over one of the streets, and those were now used by several players for running, jumping, saltoing, and doing all sorts of other barely imaginable tricks. The most outstanding one of them all was a thin girl in an intricate silver mask and a matching bikini—she drew everyone’s attention as an image of beauty and grace. She must have worked really hard on creating her image, and there were enough people in the crown watching her performance charmed, and occasionally tossing coins into the enormous top hat on the ground, big enough for any giant. But the performance was worth it. I couldn’t even imagine how many Agility points it would take to prance on those thin high-strung wires, defying the laws of physics openly.
“Here, take this!” A small boy pressed a gaudy piece of paper into my hand and instantly lost himself in the crowd without so much as asking for a single penny.
When I saw the paper, I chuckled—it was an ad, of course.
“Don’t miss this one! Tonight’s main event!
The Grand Opera of Waldyra presents!
A theatrical opera performance entitled Coming to Zaar’Grad with amazing decorations, special effects, and amazing vocals! Starring the famous actor Luigi Galvari as the Navigator with more than three hundred actors and singers!”
That soured my mood immediately.
Imagine yourself on the deck of the flagship making dramatic gestures with your arms and singing something like “Fi-i-i-i-garo… Fi-i-i-garo… Zaar’Graad!” in a lyrical tenor.
To the accompaniment of the sailors singing “Ahoy! Ahoy! Right there on the horizon!”
With a boat behind the ship with the Black Baroness rowing and singing, in a strained but upbeat voice, “Don't leave me this way, I can't survive, I can't stay alive…”
Uh… I must have let my imagination run wild there.
I threw the ad into the nearest brightly-colored bin, chuckling. I instantly heard a pleased humming noise coming from it—the garbage-collecting slim got to its meal with gusto. I hoped it would enjoy the paper, although these creatures seemed to eat everything you could feed them with delight.
It didn’t take me long to get to the well-familiar gate of the Mages’ Guild, open welcomingly, since the Guild worked around the clock. Players didn’t only visit Waldyra at night, after all, and some of them leveled up their skills at odd hours. However, the mages serving players were of low rank, whereas their superiors should have been sound asleep at this hour. The locals slept as well. How would thieves get into their houses in the still of the night and tiptoe across creaking floorboard in mortal fear of waking up the household otherwise, after all?
I was really hoping that killing a famed werewolf would cheer up a certain old mage enough to make him crawl out of his warm bed and deign me an audience, preferably to be excited to such an extent about it as to forget all about sleep altogether.
I’d really wanted to pass this hot potato of a severed wolf’s head on to someone and get my just reward. My expectations didn’t betray me—I was met right at the gates. As soon as I stepped in, a teenager in a long robe and a silly tall hat screamed something and rushed for the doors of the Guild’s building. He wasn’t much of a runner, stumbling every second and holding his ridiculous hat with this both hands, but it wasn’t him I was interested in at that moment.
That scream must have meant something…
I froze for a minute, trying to take full stock of my surroundings. I could carry on walking or turn back the carriage of my fate and make my escape.
But I didn’t get any say in the matter.
“Rosgard!” a voice that had authority painted all over it rang across the park before the building in a muffled echo, virtually nailing me to the stop. “Welcome, o hero!”
Well, the beginning was good. One could even say promising.
I puffed out my chest and smiled brightly to Tarnius, the great Archmage, who was standing on the steps looking as stern and majestic as any Gandalf.
I trotted towards him with a puffed chest and greated him:
“A good evening to you, o great Archmage Tarnius. I come bearing good tidings…”
“How brave you are!” The old man interrupted me as he looked all over my insignificant person. “Insanely brave, I’d say!”
“Are you talking about the ruthless werewolf?” I wondered.
“I was talking about the gods,” the grumpy archmage said. “You’ve had enough courage to make them angry at you. Few can do this; few can chance this; few have so little brain so as to…”
“Right on,” I said, cutting off the archmage whose narrative was getting somewhat insulting. “Could you tell me more about the angry gods? Oh, and by the way, I’ve killed Grym. I have the head right here.”
“Right on,” Tarnius said, gesturing me onwards with his hand. “Come along, hero… There’s a posthum… uh… a great award awaiting you.”
Did he really try to say “posthumous?”
We traveled down the winding corridors, ending up in the room already familiar to me, so I could just recline in a comfortable chair and stretch out my weary feet. A lazy thought flashed through my head—they could have shown me a few other rooms, too; they weren’t exactly short of space. But I was probably getting too full of myself. Most players couldn’t even dream of getting into one of the Mages’ Guild rooms of this sort at all, and there I was looking for a change of the scene.
Tarnius coughed insinuatingly, and I jumped to my feet and rummaged through my pack to present a gigantic wolf’s head frozen in a furious rictus grin.
The archmage pointed towards a low table, and I obediently placed the werewolf’s head in the middle of an empty silver tray, which looked as if it was placed upon the table for this very purpose. Although why would I say “as if?” It was clearly there for this very purpose, covered in all sorts of runes and squiggles as it was. Not your average pie dish. They must have been afraid of the werewolf growing a new body, heavens forbid. Once was more than enough for me. My mind would not survive another encounter with the monstrous wolf, let alone my body.
Tarnius looked at the werewolf’s dead eyes with some awe, stroked his well-trimmed beard, and said,
“It was a great deed you have done, Rosgard! Truly a great deed!”
You have completed the quest: The Beast that Sleeps in Grym the Inconsolable.
Your reward: Five hundred gold coins.
Current level of the bonus: +2 to friendly disposition from the Algora Mages’ Guild.
Friendly disposition was great, especially considering the power of the Mages’ Guild of Algora. Five hundred gold coins were even better.
But what happened to the “any item of my choice from the Sapphire Vault” bit?

Release - October 29, 2020

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