Wednesday, September 23, 2020

League of Losers-2 by Michael Atamanov

League of Losers-2
by Michael Atamanov
In Service of the Pharaoh

Pre-order on Amazon
Release - December 3, 2020

Chapter One. Invisible Swordmaiden


The Abandoned Veich Village of Ori-Tavi

Sherkh Outpost, Guild Eastern Garrison

Clan Leader’s Tent



“They’re gone?”

Avelia Un Ponar, respectfully down on one knee before her leader, nodded silently. Yes, the group of thirty humans from the river village really had gone beyond the barrier. And the Swordmaiden had no doubt that her all-knowing guild leader, level 78 Shadow Master Al’tair Un Ponar, already knew the answer to his question. The leader’s next words confirmed it.

“What was that chaos at the forcefield? Why did you interfere in human affairs?”

Avelia kept a neutral expression with difficulty. It seemed she had been watched. And the task had no doubt been assigned to one of her very own squad, perhaps even her own brother. Sherkhs were not supposed to interfere in the affairs of other races, and her help to Sergeant could be interpreted as subversive. She would have to weasel her way out, make excuses.

“Two of the humans sent beyond the barrier refused to comply with the order from the river village’s leader. They decided at the last moment to stay. There was a conflict between the humans. The sherkhs do not need new settlements of races competing with us for land. And my task was to track the departing group and ensure that the humans truly did leave, and not settle in our territory. That’s why I decided to send the stubborn ones through the barrier. In the end, all the humans left, apart from two low-levels.”

“Such zeal. I approve of your initiative.”

The strict and eternally displeased level 51 Councilwoman sitting next to the guild leader — a representative from the Grand Emperor of the sherkh race, sent to ensure that law and tradition was upheld in Eastern Garrison — also nodded with approval. It worked! The Swordmaiden sighed with relief. However, the guild leader’s next question put her on guard again.

“Avelia, I have had reports that for the last few days, you have often spoken to humans without reason. Specifically with one human, a Beast Catcher by trade. Would you care to explain your interest?”

Avelia held the guild leader’s long, piercing gaze without dropping her eyes. No doubt remained — she had been followed, which was peculiar. That had never happened before. But the girl felt no guilt. Now all she had to do was convince the others she wasn’t guilty.

“The new lands interested me, leader. Knowledge is the most valuable thing that can be stolen or spied out from our neighbors. The low-level human Beast Catcher managed to tame several dangerous monsters in a short time, thereby noticeably strengthening his guild. Our enemies, the veichs, sent their own people to buy the knowledge from the Beast Catcher. Even the Cartographer flew in on his dragon to learn the methods of taming such beasts. It is not the sherkh way to trade with competing races, so I watched the Beast Catcher and gained the knowledge for free. In addition,” Avelia hurried to add, seeing the old Councilwoman at the leader’s right hand shift, wanting to object or add something, “I needed to retrieve a weapon that one of the humans had taken. I lost my crossbow after a death to the night beasts on the river island, and I couldn’t find it, although I scoured the entire human settlement. Our Blacksmith crafted the crossbow specially for me, and it was a reward for successfully completing a dozen dangerous missions in the veich war. I learned from the human where the crossbow was and stole the weapon back that very night. I broke no laws, kept closely to sherkh tradition, said no words in our own language, shared no food with the human and limited myself entirely to matters of business.”

The leader glanced at the Councilwoman, but after a moment’s hesitation, she shook her head, retracting her unspoken objection. Al’tair Un Ponar’s face dropped its strict mask, brightened. He even allowed himself to sit down on a carved wooden chair found in an abandoned village, which signaled that the conversation with the Swordmaiden was now in the informal stage.

“Well then, my daughter, you have pleased me! Your little scouting squad has provided excellent reconnaissance all along the big river, and you have proved yourself a worthy commander. Just explain one thing to me, Avelia — how did you contrive to die to the night beasts? Have the creatures learned to detect sherkhs?”

“No, father. The Feelers and Alphas are still unable to see our race. But on the river island, I encountered a new beast — flying, with the ability to corrupt the mind. It made me panic and act irrationally. It knocked me out of stealth, and then the other beasts caught up to me and finished me off. I have learned that painful lesson, father, and will not repeat it!”

“Your fourth death, daughter… Be more careful from now on, particularly when near humans. Humans are foolish, reckless. They violate the laws of nature and gather in overly large groups, causing the night beasts to appear. This has happened not only on the island. Our other scouts have reported that the situation was even worse in the villages of Orshi-Ur and Un-Talavi. Hundreds dead. Many of the humans died permanently. I believe that our Great Leader is right. We need not hurry to declare war on them — they will destroy themselves without our help!”  

The Councilwoman nodded approvingly and declared that she saw no more need for her presence in this conversation between father and daughter. They waited for the tent flap to snap shut behind the sour old woman in black, then the Shadow Master spoke quietly:

“Now I can finally relax and speak openly, without fear that any incautious word will be relayed directly to the Great Leader. I’m glad to see you in good health, Avelia!”

The guild leader stood and warmly embraced his daughter. And whispered into her ear:

“There have been several complaints about you in the last few days, Avelia. The scouts from your party weren’t always sure where to find their squad leader. You did not appear at the designated meeting places. You left no messages for your subordinates. Your brother Arvedo stated plainly that he saw you last night practically naked in the company of a human man with a sordid reputation for consorting with women of other races.”

Avelia sniffed in righteous indignation and opened her mouth to explain to her father what had happened on the river island, but the guild leader just waved it away.

“Nonsense, of course. The entire guild knows of the strained relationship between you siblings. So Arvedo was not believed. Moreover, I ordered my son to keep his mouth shut and stop spreading rumors that tarnish our family’s good name. But always know — you are the commander of a squadron of spies. And you are the chief’s daughter, so the demands on you are greater and the eyes on you sharper. Especially now, with all this talk of potential war with the humans.”

The Swordmaiden thanked her father for his care and asked how true were the rumors of war. Al’tair Un Ponar turned serious again. He even opened the tent flap, checked to make sure there was no one nearby. Avelia knew that her father’s special abilities as a Shadow Master meant he could not only remain invisible even when all other sherkhs were revealed, but also detect other invisible creatures. Once certain there were no listening ears, the chief returned to the tent, closed the flap tightly.

“Daughter, the situation is extremely serious. The guild leaders of Northern Garrison, Northwestern Garrison and Southern Garrison are in favor of war against the humans. They say that after our victory over the veichs, the time has come to push the other competing races beyond the barrier and provide our race with a safe shelter, where sherkhs can live for centuries in a world of peace and safety. Only I and the leader of Western Garrison spoke out against war. You know my stance on this — if war is declared, then may we have no mercy for the enemy, but if there is still a chance to keep the peace, then we must try. Now that the veichs are gone, our people have gained vast lands, and we must focus on taming those lands, not on war. The Great Leader has not decided yet. He hesitates. The humans are, after all, not so simple and helpless as they appear. There are many good fighters among them, and some powerful spellcasters. And… have you heard of the trophies that Angea Un Vari’s group took from followers of the Pharaoh?”

Avelia shook her head. She really hadn’t spoken to many of her own people in the last few days, while carrying out her mission to track the humans on the river. She had missed all the latest news. Fortunately, her father painted the picture.

“We found one of the Pharaoh’s nobles in our new lands — a very powerful mage accompanied by a bodyguard. The fight was fierce — three groups of our soldiers were sent back to the graveyard. But it was worth it! We found much of interest among the trophies. A device for communicating over long distances, and a rapid-firing ranged weapon. But what interested our wise men most of all was a type of headgear made of leather straps and pieces of glass bound in tubes. If you put it on your head and look through the pieces of glass, you can see any sherkh within three hundred paces, even in stealth. Do you understand what that means? The humans don’t need high Perception, high-level detection skills or complex eye mutations to see our race even in total darkness and at a great distance.”

“Father, but this is…” The Swordmaiden was shook and didn’t even try to hide it. “That means if we do go to war, we’re guaranteed to lose! The humans are more numerous and better armed, and they have those guns. And now it turns out that our main advantage — invisibility — isn’t even that useful against the humans! Does the Great Leader know about this? Do the other sherkh leaders?”

“Of course they know. But if I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t worry about what the guild leaders know, I would worry about making such hasty and categorical predictions of our race’s upcoming catastrophic downfall. If anyone else heard you talk like that, you’d be in trouble. The sherkhs are still strong, omnipresent and practically omniscient. But it is these very ‘infrared goggles’ and ‘night-vision scopes’, as the humans call these devices, that provoke our leaders to start the war sooner rather than later, while these items are rare and available only to chosen few servants of the Pharaoh. If humans begin to mass-produce tools to detect sherkhs, then our omnipresence and dominion is at an end!”

Avelia lowered her head, said nothing for half a minute, then spoke thoughtfully:

“Father, what if the leaders who want war are right? We need to act now, before it’s too late!”

But the guild leader just shook his head.

“Starting a war is simple enough, daughter, but there won’t be a way back once it’s started. It’ll be us or them. I even feel certain that our squads would easily eliminate or drive away the humans from all the villages east of the mountain range and south of the great river. But what then? Their main settlements are in the west, and they’re well defended. We won’t take those fortresses by storm, and a drawn-out war is no good for the sherkhs. As you yourself noted, humans are more numerous, better armed. And they get fifty to seventy reinforcements every day. When was the last time you saw sherkh arrivals to the new world?”

“But father, the priests claim that there will yet be a third coming of our race! You told me that yourself! We all believe it faithfully!”

“Yes, daughter, the third wave will come, of course. But when? And how many sherkhs will it contain? There were only two hundred pioneers in the first wave. At great risk, by exploring the unexplored and paying with lives to gain knowledge, they collected information on this new world, built our first settlements and paved the way for the coming of the others. Ten thousand sherkhs came in the second wave, more than enough to gain full control of the lands of our shelter. If it weren’t for the betrayal of those four leaders who took their entire guilds beyond the forcefield, things might have gone very differently, and the problem of humans might never have gotten so serious…”

The Shadow Master clenched his fists until bones crunched. That split last autumn still lit a burning fury inside him. Back then, at a regular high council meeting, the Great Leader — the ruler of the largest and strongest sherkh guild — declared to the other nine leaders that he planned to start a great war against the veichs, and he wanted the support of all nine of the garrisons. He said some very convincing words on the need to push the competing veich race out beyond the forcefield and to create a safe shelter where the sherkhs could peacefully advance the sciences, raise children, create new technology and forge weaponry for further expansion into the wider world. He said that the third and final wave of sherkhs was coming to the new world, and the new arrivals would need fertile and resource-rich lands for settling. The veich lands were a perfect fit, he said.

Humans weren’t even taken into consideration then — they were weak, bogged down with internal conflict, always killing each other. The last of the sentient races — the veyers — had made the sherkhs’ job easier by all gathering together and flying out beyond the barrier unprompted. It seemed the perfect time for an attack. Al’tair Un Ponar was the first of the nine leaders to express his absolute support for the Great Leader and declare his readiness to provide soldiers from Eastern Garrison for the united sherkh army. The heads of other guilds followed, voicing their support for the war one after another.  

Which made subsequent events even more surprising. The leaders of four guilds at once declared to the Great Leader that they would not participate in his ‘senseless war,’ and, moreover, they were taking their four thousand sherkhs beyond the barrier to colonize the wider world. Al’tair Un Ponar neither understood nor forgave those traitors — not then and not know. How could they do it? Abandon everyone else, betray the interests of their species and create a rift that badly weakened the sherkhs? Especially his blood brother Aquila Un Ponar, leader of Central Garrison. How could he?! 

Al’tair spat in disgust, as he did every time his traitorous brother’s name came into his mind.

Despite the departure of four of the garrisons, the sherkhs still decided to go to war with the veichs, but it was tough, bloody and lasted over half a year. In that time, the humans took root, united around the Pharaoh — a cruel warchief and leader of the strongest human guild, which had swallowed up all the others and become a serious problem. And the third wave of new arrivals, upon which the sherkhs laid all their hopes, still hadn’t appeared…

“Father,” Avelia pulled the clan leader from his thoughts, “why doesn’t anyone even consider other options besides war with the humans or a fight for survival against them?” 

“What do you suggest, daughter?” The Shadow Master tensed, frowned, even placed a hand on the pommel of his blade. “Abandon our shelter and go beyond the barrier like those traitors?”

Avelia felt it; one wrong word and her father would kill her with his own hands right there in the tent. Yes, the Swordmaiden knew perfectly well that the chief was worried sick about his brother, who hadn’t wanted to take part in the war and had taken his guild beyond the barrier. The subject was taboo in the family.

“No, father. I speak of something else entirely. Why can the sherkhs not live in peace alongside the humans, in the same lands? Or even side by side in the same settlements? The more I observe the humans, the fewer differences I see between our races…”

A sharp slap interrupted Avelia Un Ponar’s speech. The Shadow Master’s voice rang with displeasure:

“Silence, fool girl! And thank the skies that the Councilwoman didn’t hear that! That Beast Catcher truly has addled your mind. You can no longer tell friend from foe!”

“Sergeant has nothing to do…”

“SILENCE!” Her father’s fearsome shout put a dead stop to Avelia’s timid attempts to explain herself. “Since these conversations obviously do you so much harm, from now on, I forbid you from ever speaking to humans! Carry out your orders — gather intelligence and immediately report everything you see to your superiors. And go and finish your challenge in Hundred Skull City already! I’m starting to see looks in people’s eyes — as if the chief’s daughter is incapable of dealing with a task that serves to make talented commanders stand out from the crowd. If you don’t complete the challenge within three days, then your brother Arvedo will be scout commander! Consider yourself officially warned. That is all. Now begone from my tent!”

The Swordmaiden bowed to the guild leader with a stony expression on her face and held herself upright as she silently walked out of the tent. As soon as the tent flap shut behind her, a figure in black separated from the shadows in a far corner of the large tent, approached the guild leader and stopped a step behind Al’tair Un Ponar’s chair.

“You were right, Arvedo,” the Shadow Master declared glumly, not turning round. “Something ill is afoot with your sister. Whether due to her failures in the challenge or flattery from that Sergeant, your sister never used to give seditious speeches. Keep a close eye on her! Or better yet,” now the guild chief lowered his voice to a whisper, “kill the one called Sergeant! He has offended our family. Take his lives, all of them. One after another.”

“With the greatest pleasure, father!” The young man spread his dark cloak, baring his right arm, bound in bandages after his fight with the human. “I’m going to make that Beast Catcher pay! Even with only one arm.”

“Good, my son. You will find Sergeant at the ancient ruined tower. NBut do it quietly, so that the human never knows where his death comes from time and again. The sherkhs truly do not need a serious conflict with the humans right now.”

“I will be careful, father. But what about Avelia’s challenge? Can I forestall my sister? As I’m sure you understand, with the conditions that you have voiced, I do not want Avelia to succeed in Hundred Skull City at all.”

There was a long silence before the Shadow Master answered. The chief stood and started pacing back and forth in the tent, hands behind his back. Finally, Al’tair Un Ponar stopped, raised his head.

“I allow you to attempt to stop your sister from completing the challenge. But not if your interference costs Avelia any lives. And I now declare a new condition: the one of you who brings the most valuable treasure from the ruins of Hundred Skull City will be declared commander. Not of five sherkhs, but of five hundred. I have spoken!”

Chapter Two. [Sergeant] Ancient Fortress


I nearly sprained my arm on the reins and barely bit back a curse when my mount, until now meandering slowly through the stones and bushes, suddenly took a sharp leap forty feet into the air and snapped her mandibles.

“What was that?” Julie said, shaken from her reverie. She sat up next to me on the arachnoscorp’s back. I just shrugged in confusion.

“Must have been some creature hiding in the bushes. I didn’t see it. The Marsh Mistress killed it too fast.”

While the Marsh Mistress devoured her prey, the bluish-purple Atlas following behind us took advantage of the breather to start tearing branches off bushes with his beak-like mouth. Both beasts were hungry, and the Cruel Arachnoscorp, unused to long journeys, was exhausted. She’d begun to limp again. The giant spider’s speed had dropped noticeably, and I suspected that we wouldn’t make it back to the river meadow by nightfall.

Although the tireless giga-komodo Atlas was still at full strength, it was the Marsh Mistress who limited our movement speed. We couldn’t abandon the arachnoscorp — the giant death-dealing beast was our only defender in these wild and dangerous lands. If it weren’t for the Marsh Mistress, who knew if we could have defeated the massive creature whose skin our many-legged mount was just now spitting out. Nonetheless, only three hours remained until dark. We needed to do something. Especially with the weather getting worse; the sky was filling with dark storm clouds, promising a downpour before nightfall. I stood up atop the giant spider’s back and looked around.

All I could see were yellow-brown hills covered in faded grass, with the occasional island of thorny bushes. Although… My gaze caught on some ruins of an ancient fortress on the horizon. I noticed them on the way to the barrier forcefield, but the group of settlers I’d been leading hadn’t wanted to turn from the path and waste precious time to explore the ancient ruins. What if we stopped there now? It looked like we’d make it before dark. It might even offer some cover from the bad weather. Anything would be better than spending the night under the open sky in a deluge.

It wasn’t that I feared the dark or the night beasts that came with it — there were just two of us, my sister and I, so the creatures’ maximum level could only be two, which was easy to deal with. Well, three at the most — using my thermal vision, I’d spotted a semi-transparent red silhouette tracking our group a few times throughout the day. A sherkh, and a small one. Just a child. I didn’t know what he or she wanted from me, but the watcher followed us a long time before finally falling back. Or perhaps they just wanted to keep a little further away, and that was why I didn’t see them again. The range of my thermal vision was only twenty to twenty-five paces, and Sergeant’s Perception was very low, so I wasn’t much good as an invisibility detector.

I would have easily dealt with three low-level Feelers without help from the Marsh Mistress. But there were plenty other dangerous creatures in this primordial world apart from the night beasts. The idea of hiding away for the night in an old fortress was tempting.

“Let’s go check out those ruins! We can spend the night there!” I pointed them out for Julie, and the cat sitting on my shoulder meowed in approval.

Whiskers had been slumbering on my shoulder practically all day. He hadn’t even eaten with us, and only woke up toward the evening. What a funny little critter! Sometimes I felt like he must understand human speech. His feline ‘comments’ sometimes seemed so… appropriate. Outwardly, he was completely harmless — a fluffy and cute little kitten. And yet he was a level 19 Hexxer, and the blue nameplate above his head meant that my furry pet had better combat stats than other creatures of his level. I have to admit, I still don’t understand how a tiny cat can fight anyone, but the traveling Cartographer insisted that Whiskers could cast spells, so I guess it’s possible. The only thing I noticed throughout my close contact with the cat was that fatigue quickly passed when he was near. And not only for me, but for anyone else nearby too. Even now, as soon as Whiskers woke up and shouted his displeased “meow!”, the Marsh Mistress perked up, started working her legs faster. That cat was definitely doing something.

Riding skill increased to level thirty-six!

Although… Maybe it wasn’t Whiskers, but my leveled-up skill? Riding not only increased speed, it also boosted the mount’s stamina. My girlfriend Shelly, whose game class was Rider, had told me that she’d replaced all her now inactive skills for other ones related to controlling animals. And after she gained a few levels of Riding, her creeping crocodile Katy never seemed to tire! Ah, Shelly, Shelly… How was she doing out there in the big wide world? Would she survive, with her critically low Luck? Would she catch up to her packmates? And would they take her back, with her reputation as a walking disaster?

As if reading my sad thoughts, my sister stirred:

“It’s a good thing we didn’t make it back to the river village tonight! You know, I’ve been really worried about you since what happened with Shelly, bro. You’re too impulsive. If you’d have told the new leaders everything you thought of them, they would have chased us both out of the village. Or worse, you might have gotten into a fistfight with that damn Warrior and died…”

I gently stroked my sister’s mussy hair, tucking disobedient locks behind her ears, trying to calm her down. I promised her that when we returned to Rumbler’s Refuge, I wouldn’t pick a fight with the new leaders or accuse them of treachery and breaking their word. If I’d been alone, that’s exactly what I would have done. But since I had a younger sister who needed taking care of, who needed a safe place in the village, I had to be diplomatic. No, I had no intention of forgiving Rumbler or the others for their misdeeds. I still wanted to take vengeance, but only when my sister and I were better situated.

My words calmed Julie. I didn’t voice the thought that I’d never be able to trust Rumbler again after what had happened. He and I wouldn’t get along for long, and that meant we needed to make plans to leave the river village. But we couldn’t do it spontaneously. We needed to carefully gather the clothes, provisions and tools we needed, and ideally without anyone noticing. The most important thing would be to talk to others who were displeased with the new order. And try to take them with us.


“Brother, why didn’t the humans or veichs settle here?”

“No idea. It would only take a couple of months to turn this place into a strong fortress. And it would be great protection against the night beasts.”

My sister and I walked the perimeter of the outer stone wall, at least twelve feet tall at its shortest. We looked down on a decently preserved moat only half full of mud, with the remains of sharp spikes at the bottom. The four defensive corner turrets equipped with narrow arrowslits seemed to be in perfect shape. A squadron of archers could take up residence in them today. A fifth giant turret had been guarding the bridge to the fortress, but that had collapsed, filling in the moat and the inner courtyard with stone. The giant outer gates with their wrought metal hinges sat atop the bridge on a heap of stones. I went down to look at the gates up close, even crawled under them and inspected them from beneath. The hinges definitely needed changing, as did some of the rusted metal bindings that held together the thick stained wooden beams. There was no problem with the wood itself — it would last another thousand years. On the whole, it wouldn’t take much to restore the gates. Even I could probably have done it, but a professional Builder, Engineer or Blacksmith would do it even faster.

The buildings within the fortress were in far worse condition. There was barely anything left of them. The two large stone houses had collapsed and were now just big piles of stone with broken wooden beams jutting out here and there. We found no well or other source of water. If there was a well, it was beneath the ruins now, so we had no access to water. At the very center of the fortress stood a round tower at least nine floors high, with a collapsed roof. The tower caught my interest at once — if there were any valuables left in these ruins, they’d surely be there. But unfortunately, the entrance to the tower was blocked up, and the nearest windows were far too high to reach.

I remembered my low Luck Modifier and didn’t even bother thinking about climbing up to the windows — I’d just fail the Luck check and fall down. Then I saw some strange movement in the windows of the upper floors. Something was living in the tower. Probably huge bats or some species of bird.

Eagle Eye skill increased to level twenty!

The sky was already thick with dark clouds. Thunder echoed in the distance. I herded Atlas into the inner courtyard, left the Marsh Mistress to guard the bridge and started making dinner with my sister. There was still some tea left in our flask. At first we planned to warm up some leftover fish and meat, but we opened our supplies to find disaster — all our supplies had gone bad in the day’s heat. We’d need to open the second to last can of food I’d brought into this new world and dip into our rice, boiling it with precious water from our flask. Just as I was lighting the fire, an unexpected game message appeared before my eyes:

Taming skill increased to level fifty-eight!

What the hell..?! What was happening? I span my head and saw nothing. Atlas was wandering around the courtyard, pulling up green shoots from between the stones with his sharp beak. The Marsh Mistress rested with her legs folded up beneath her. The cat was still sitting on my shoulder. Who could I be taming?

Taming skill increased to level fifty-nine!

Something was definitely happening. I wandered around the fortress courtyard, even looked down into the moat. I couldn’t figure it out… And then a frightened cry from my sister brought me running back. A large gray-brown lizard almost three feet long stood frozen just a few paces from Julie, the front section of its torso raised. But more interesting than the reptile itself was the nameplate above its head:

Sharp-Toothed Rock Lizard. Level 34 Male. Sergeant’s pet.

My pet? Another lizard joined the first one, this time emerald green. It ran to the fire without a glimmer of fear and stopped by my sister’s feet. A level 25 female. This one was my pet too! I started to suspect something. Julie and I walked over to the hole where we’d discarded the rotting meat and fish. I carefully looked down into the darkness, but all I saw was some vague movement. And then, as if specially for me, bright forked lightning lit the sky and I reeled back from what I saw — twenty more of the large and agile lizards teemed in the pit, and one of them showed as my pet! Right before my eyes, an anthracite-black level 50 male also started showing as my minion. Then a bright gray level 11 female with a colorful crest on her head.

ATTENTION! Pet limit reached! Maximum number of pets your character can control: 10. Use the Beast Master skill to increase the limit!

Well, thank God! I was already starting to worry that the entire creeping mass of reptiles would become my pets. What could I need so many lizards for? Incidentally… Apart from their level and gender, each of ‘my’ lizards showed the number five above their heads. But the wild ones had the number eighteen. What could that mean? Unfortunately, my character didn’t have enough Intellect to figure it out, a fact which the game wasn’t shy about sharing. Julie couldn’t figure out what the number meant either.

“Brother, give me that white one with the pink crest on its head!” Julie asked. I indulged her.

The girl extended a hand without the slightest fear, picked up the lizard as it flitted up a vertical wall, and put it on her shoulder. It suited her. It even seemed as if the white female started to look down on the other reptiles with a sense of superiority — look at me, I’m the chosen one and you’re all losers!

As soon as I gave it to her, another lizard became my own pet again and I got another message about reaching the limit. In the meantime, the number above the heads of my tamed creatures changed from five to six. For the wild ones, it actually went down to seventeen. It was starting to make sense. The lizards were herd animals, and their stats got a boost with each new member of the herd. The ‘herds’ for the wild reptiles and the tamed ones were different.

At that moment, it started to rain. First with rare heavy droplets, but ten seconds later, the heavens opened. I lifted my hood and Julie and I ran to the nearest watchtower to hide from the rain.

“Meow!” I heard from behind us. The cat sounded disgruntled, maybe even scared. I turned.

Some winged shadow appeared for a moment by the fire, barely visible through the thick veil of rain. There was someone there! Whiskers was in danger!

“He took our stew, brother! And he’s stealing our things!” my sister wailed right into my ear. She had the best Perception among us and could see what was happening better than I could.

I ran back to save my pet and my backpack by the fire, taking out my axe as I went. Only the melee weapon turned out completely useless. The thief was a veyer — a member of the winged race. Clearly overloaded, he slowly took off, flapping his leathery wings and holding my backpack tight to his chest. The veyer was young, still just a boy. But that didn’t mean he could steal my stuff!

Damn it! He was getting away! If I had a crossbow, I could easily shoot down the slow and clumsy target. But I had no crossbow. The winged thief climbed slowly, with great effort, up toward the top floors of the tower where he seemed to live. It must have been him or a relative of his that I’d seen in the tower.

I cursed, spat, then lowered my axe — there was nothing to be done. I couldn’t fly, and there was no way I could catch up to the thief. In the meantime, my cat screeched out piercing complaints, apparently terrified by the stranger’s sudden appearance. Then a miracle happened!

The veyer froze in place, tiring and unable to keep hold of the backpack, which was heavy even for me. He hovered in place for a moment, then dropped his loot with clear unwillingness. The backpack fell to the stones by my feet.

“Meow! Meow!” Whiskers continued his hysterics.

In fitful jerks, the winged boy kept trying to climb higher toward the safety of the window, but his strength seemed to have completely left him. Spreading his wings, the veyer began to slowly descend, gliding and trying to make it beyond the fortress walls. A strange whine caught my attention. I lowered my eyes and saw six new pets rushing to my aid. Five of my own, plus my sister’s crested white female, which jumped down from Julie’s shoulder and rushed to bring the fight to her masters’ enemies. Now we’d see what this lounge of lizards could do.

“Get him, gang!” I shouted, feeling my blood rise, pointing my axe at the descending thief.

All six razor-toothed reptiles launched toward the target, some running on four legs and some rising up onto two as they chased toward their prey. They moved with incredible agility, much faster than a man. I wouldn’t want to go toe to toe with that mass of teeth!

“Stop them, brother! They’re going to eat him!”

I turned to Julie, about to object that the thief just tried to take everything we had and deserved no mercy. My sister just kept objecting:

“Come on, please! Don’t kill the kid, brother!”

“Alright, if you insist…”

I ran to the veyer’s crash landing site on the fortress wall. He came down hard, rolling across the stones before coming to a stop. He looked badly hurt. I chased off the lizards as they impatiently stretched out their reptilian necks to the fallen prey, licking their lips and whistling in excitement. Just in time! I saw just two or three bites on our unlucky Icarus. Serves him right!

“Ari unto no tori! Ari tori! Un yava!” the frightened boy jabbered, raising his arms and showing his empty hands.

“Yeah, I see you don’t have anything now,” I muttered and looked closer at the would-be thief.

Avir Tan-Hoshi. Veyer. Male. Level 35 Thief.

He was a young kid, looked between thirteen and fifteen. Emaciated, all skin and bones. Dirty rags that even a homeless man down on his luck wouldn’t have worn. Mussy dark hair, big gray eyes, a sharp face. And two big leathery wings at his back, half-open. It was the wings that I remembered him by. It was the same veyer that I saw in a cage when I met the traveling Cartographer! He must have escaped. Or the Cartographer decided that the thief had been punished enough, and released him from the cage.

In the meantime, the kid kept on babbling in his own language. He was trying to show me something with gestures, but I couldn’t get what he was saying. Then my sister ran up, crouched down next to the thief and, without a word, began to treat his bites and scrapes with a healing ointment. Our ginger kitten limped over on his three good feet too, settling down to watch the winged creature with interest. He even sniffed him and shook his head with disgust a few times. The stink from Avir Tan-Hoshi was incredible — an acrid bouquet of an unwashed body, rotten food, sweat, musk, piss and a dozen other no less repulsive scents that I couldn’t identify. Even the rain couldn’t overpower the stench. I tried taking a couple of steps back from the source.

The thief kept jabbering on, pointing a long clawed finger at a sack on his ragged cloth belt and trying to explain something to me. Then he untied the belt and poured out a handful of long bright gray berries. Was he planning to eat them?! They were stinkberries — the same ones I’d been asked to taste-test on my first day at Pan’s Landing. They were disgusting, but they quickly recovered Stamina Points. It seemed Stamina was just what the winged boy was missing. He immediately smiled in satisfaction, bowed low to my sister, who was now done binding his wounds, and then… made a sharp lunge and grabbed my ginger kitten around his belly! He jumped up, spread his wings and began to gain height fast. A frightened “meow!” drifted down from the rain-filled sky, along with a sinister laugh from the treacherous thief. A few seconds passed, then the self-satisfied veyer disappeared through the dark yawning window in the tall tower…

Chapter Three. [Kitten] On the Edge


A second of panic gave way to extreme surprise. I’d been kidnapped? But why?! Could it be the bonus from the Everyone’s Favorite ability, which made people of all sentient races feel tenderness toward the little fluffy kitten? But the bonus usually worked more on women. And how could this smelly birdbrained moron think that the cute little kitten would stay with him, and not escape at the first chance it got?

Or was Avir Tan-Hoshi acting on orders from the Cartographer? That traveling merchant sniffed me out right away. He knew I was no pet, and he took an interest in me. Could he have ordered his caged veyer to kidnap me, as a condition for his release? The Cartographer himself couldn’t kidnap me. He had to remain neutral on the surface, so that he could continue to pass through the barrier from the wider world into the sandbox and back again.

In the meantime, the winged veyer had already risen to the upper floors of the old tower, nimbly landed on a narrow ledge and crawled through the window hole, folding up his wings behind him like two fans. My kidnapper laughed and danced a jig, holding me above his head in outstretched arms like I was a cup for winning a game. Some kind of madman… and rotting away in a closed room so stuffy it made my eyes water.

“Amonti unto!” the veyer announced, putting me down on a large and dirty wooden table and holding me down with his hand. While I whined and tried to break free, the winged kidnapper covered me with an old woven basket and then weighed it down with a heavy fire iron, to prevent his tiny and weak prize from escaping the prison.

Laughing and jabbering away in his own language, the veyer grabbed an old rusty axe leaning against a wall and started to cut firewood, throwing kindling into the almost dead hearth and fanning the fire back to life. It seemed unlikely that my kidnapper was cold — it was a hot summer’s day, and it had been warm and stuffy all evening until the rain began.

I looked through the rather large holes in the woven basket. It was clear we were in a kitchen — there were some old clay dishes, rusty scissors, a blackened iron pot and a spit for roasting meat. It was starting to look very much like the smelly winged boy was about to cook up a hearty meal. Was I really going to be the main course? It seemed so. The veyer looked at me hungrily and kept muttering away excitedly as he chopped some long stems of something that smelled a lot like garlic and some bundles of small blue herbs. Preparing spices for the meat. Once done with the chopping, he threw the herbs into the empty pot and licked his lips, looking at me like a predator.

Was I scared when I realized that he wanted to eat me? No. I was more disappointed — I’d been thinking up all kinds of wild scenarios, imagining that I was being captured as a slave, but it turned out to be far more boring and mundane than all that. I even surprised myself — I watched the veyer cook not with fear, but with distant curiosity, as if it didn’t concern me in the least. The kidnapper had had his chance to kill me when he held my kitten form in his strong clawed hands. It would have been enough to just snap my fragile neck and be done with it. But the veyer missed his chance. Now, in spite of the fact that Avir Tan-Hoshi was a whole sixteen levels above me, I had no doubt that I could deal with him. In addition, my kidnapper carelessly left me alone in the room. He ran off upstairs somewhere with an empty birchbark basket in hand — apparently rushing to fetch water for the pot.  

Well, time to escape. I could turn into an arachnoscorp — in that form, I could even hold a human in my strong chitinous legs, let alone move the basket. But I did something else instead. Transform into Snake!

Transformation Magic skill increased to level ten!

Now a two-foot-long emerald snake, slender and flexible, I slithered through a gap in the wicker basket, dropped from the table to the stone floor and crept behind some big jugs and pots standing by the wall. Transform back into cat! Stealth! And finally, translucent mode! Of course, I could have crept into another room or even flown out the window in my beetle form, but I wanted to see what would happen next. And it was worthwhile — the sight really was entertaining.

Avir Tan-Hoshi returned to the kitchen with water and poured it straight into the pot. Then he threw in the chopped herbs and even added a pinch of roughly ground salt from a pot on a nearby shelf. Salt!? A valuable resource! I heard from Ashot that there was a serious lack of salt in the river village — they were down to their last crumbs from the old world, so the cook was sparing with it. Avir Tan-Hoshi mixed the water with a wooden spoon and hung the pot over the fire. Finally, it was time to add the cat. The winged chef picked up his knife, turned and… stared at the empty wicker basket.

“A mi tur ka vara?” he laughed, baring sharp teeth and picking up a fine piece of kindling. He stuck it through a gap in the basket and started waving it around inside, feeling for the cat who he thought must be hiding in stealth.

Gradually, the satisfied smirk slipped from the winged thief’s face. With all the care in the world, the veyer slightly lifted one edge of the basket and stuck a hand into the trap. Finally, it got through to the hapless cook that his dinner had slipped away. Oh, how he swore and rampaged around the kitchen, smashing pots and rooting through corners! He wrung his hands, wailed and cried to the heavens for this grievous affront to justice — the kitten, you see, had failed to be eaten! In his despair, the would-be cook threw a knife. It bounced off the stone wall and nearly hit him. The veyer dropped to his knees, emitted a long drawn-out howl and beat his fists against his head hard, damning himself for his carelessness.

Stealth skill increased to level twenty-one!

Tireless skill increased to level eleven!

I glanced at the game system messages, then went back to staring at the cringing veyer. He was putting on quite the scene. I would have understood if he really was starving to death, but the thief had downed a whole can of stew only minutes ago when he suddenly landed by the fire. It had taken him three seconds to devour the whole contents of the can, stuffing the meat into his mouth with his dirty hands and growling in pleasure. I must admit, I was so surprised by the sight when he landed that I did nothing at all to stop him.

Well, enough was enough. I was sick of this show. Time to teach my little kidnapper a lesson. In the beginning I’d been preparing myself to fight a fearsome high-level foe for life or death, but now I felt only disgust and pity for the creature. I changed my mind about killing the loser. But he certainly had to be punished for kidnapping me, so he wouldn’t try it again. 

Curse Magic. Slow! Slow! Slow! Weaken! Weaken! Spending my mana carefully so that I had enough Magic Points to do everything I had planned, I sent curses at the veyer from stealth. There. Now the thief was no danger. I carefully slid from cover and slithered toward the bereft chef from behind. Transform into Arachnoscorp! Attack! I could easily kill the winged boy with a bite, but instead I decided to paralyze him with a strike of my venomous stinger to his neck. And then, still in my large arachnid form, I wrapped up the veyer’s helpless body in thick sticky thread. All done! Just in time before I turned back into a cat!

Transformation Magic skill increased to level eleven!

Mysticism skill increased to level twenty-one!

Your character is now level twenty!

Reward: three skill points (total available: six) and one mutation point (total available: nineteen).

ATTENTION! You have reached level twenty. You can now choose another three skills.

Finally! I’d been waiting so long for the chance to add some variety to my skillset!

Thanks to my sensitive ears, I was already sure that the veyer was alone in the tower. There were no more dangers to me left. That meant I had a spare moment of peace to think of how best to level up Whiskers. It was worth thinking seriously about — my next chance to choose more skills was at faraway level fifty. Judging by other players I’d seen, I had to survive at least another half a year in this world full of danger to get there.

Alright, what did we have to play with?

Whiskers. Kitten. Male. Sergeant’s pet.

Class: Hexxer, level 20.

Character stats:

Strength 8 (-30% damage dealt in close combat)

Agility 18 (+20% movement speed, +20% reaction speed, +20% action accuracy)

** Due to an injury, Agility is temporarily reduced to 16, bonuses received from Agility stat reduced

Intellect 22 * Your high Intellect gives your character special abilities

Perception 18 (+20% range to vision, hearing, sense of smell)

Physique 15 (No bonuses)

Luck Modifier -2 * Your low Luck gives your character special abilities

Character stats:

Health Points: 187 / 187

Stamina Points: 381 / 381

Magic Points: 79 / 79

Carrying capacity: 2.2 lbs * Inventory unavailable

Mutagens used: 1 (10 points spent)

Fame: 1

Character skills:

Hand-to-Hand Combat 5

Curse Magic 70

Radar Ear 22

Mysticism 21

Stealth 21 * Translucency ability

Soothe 24

Transformation Magic 11

Dodge 2

Tireless 11

Bookworm 2

10 of 13 possible skills at level 20 chosen

Attention! 6 unspent skill points available

Attention! 19 mutation points available

I saw right away that there were three skills I practically hadn’t been using, so they hadn’t leveled up. I had no regrets at all over my choice of Bookworm, in spite of its current low level — I suspected that it would come in handy many times again by allowing me to gain new spells. But Hand-to-Hand Combat and Dodge bothered me. I’d gotten Hand-to-Hand Combat at the start of the game. Nothing to be done about that. But I’d clearly made a mistake with Dodge — with my playstyle, the skill practically never activated and just took up a valuable slot that I could have made better use of. I hoped those skills would disappear when my character reached level 25 and my character class would finally be confirmed.

Alright… What did I need to get stronger? A third type of magic, that was most important right now. Illusions? Healing? Elemental Magic?  An easy decision — Elemental Magic, of course! I really needed a way to deal damage — my little kitten couldn’t fight with its puny claws and teeth!

Level one Elemental Magic skill learned!

Fiery Spark. Icy Touch. Stoneskin. Wind Blast.

11 of 13 possible character skills at level 20 chosen.

Not bad, not bad at all! I tried Stoneskin on myself right away. The buff lasted ten minutes, made my skin tougher and added a +1 bonus to armor. Not much, but that was just the start! Now for Fiery Spark!

A tiny red flame flickered through the air for about four feet and then went out. Not exactly hellfire and brimstone. But still, I was glad to have the skill.

Elemental Magic skill increased to level two!

Hmm, what was this? A game hint told me that I could combine spells of different schools and create new spells by mixing multiple elements, but to do that, I’d need the Conjurer skill. Very interesting indeed. I’d need to learn more about that skill!

But I wasn’t allowed to sit quietly and study the game manual — a strange repeating sound began to carry up from the courtyard beneath, cutting through the sound of the rain. As if someone was periodically coughing, groaning and dragging iron across stone. And the strange noise was coming closer. Light flashed in the window, then an ominous dark shadow overshadowed a narrow arrowslit. Just in case, I hid in invisibility and quickly went behind the jugs and pots by the wall.

First a huge arm ending in a claw appeared in the window space. Then I saw a man. Sergeant?! My master had climbed up the rain-soaked wall of the tall stone tower on the Marsh Mistress! The man was risking his life to save his kitten! Truly, I never expected such self-sacrifice from my master; until now, Sergeant never seemed to care what happened to me.

Gasping for breath, the big human squeezed through the narrow window and jumped down to the stone floor, holding a torch in one hand and his axe in the other. He looked around, tense. Julie climbed through the window after her brother, armed with a harpoon and also ready for decisive action. Of course, they immediately noticed the body wrapped up in spider silk lying by the kitchen table. Damn it! If I’d have known that the humans were coming to rescue me, I’d have just played for time. I could have stayed in cat form and let the thief chase me around the old tower, without revealing my skills. Now it would be tough to convince the humans that the winged veyer had somehow just wrapped himself up in spider silk and gone to sleep. This was it. I’d have to own up, admit to everything.

“Meow!” I said, coming out of hiding.

“Whiskers! There you are, you mangy thing!” Sergeant said. He breathed a sigh of relief, picked me up and set me on his shoulder. “You’re lucky the spiders didn’t get you too, you silly kitten!”

Sergeant looked around, casting light into the corners of the room with his torch, then turned to his sister.

“Be careful, Julie! There are giant spiders in the tower! Looks like we arrived just in time and scared them off. And saved this flying thief at the same time.”

My jaw dropped in surprise. What, I’d gotten away with it again? Even with such clear evidence of my activities? I thought my master was beginning to suspect something back in Orshi-Ur, with Badass, but apparently not. Oh, Sergeant, Sergeant… How much Intellect do you have again..? At least a little more than a plank of wood, right?

On the other hand, I was thinking too harshly of my ‘other-me.’ The human had courageously climbed up to save me, and never mind that his critically low Luck could have caused him to fall from the arachnoscorp’s back and crash down to the rocks below. So I would be grateful to him. And just like before, I would keep saving the big moron’s bacon in my disguise as a fluffy little kitten.


Pre-order on Amazon
Release - December 3, 2020

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