Saturday, November 7, 2020

Underdog: Labyrinth of Fright by Alexey Osadchuk

Labyrinth of Fright
by Alexey Osadchuk

Release - January 4, 2021

Chapter 1


"Tempting invitation, but I'm gonna pass".

My response made the troll frown.

"You must not have heard when I said you cannot simply leave."

"Look, I don’t doubt that this is a nice place, but I’m gonna have to go anyway."

As I spoke, I was staring pointedly at the gloomy stone parapet and cracked floor of the observation platform.

The Gatekeeper rolled his eyes back with a heavy sigh and said:

"Not gonna happen."

"I thought we had no quarrel."

"That's right," the troll nodded. "And that's the reason you're still alive. Other contenders... ones like you, didn't get so lucky."

"Ones like me?" the Gatekeeper's caveat caught my attention.

The troll winced. He must have said more than intended. But nevertheless he answered, nodding at the floor under my feet:

"When someone kills one of the forces of chaos, then activates the manuscript, they come through this portal. And I greet them."

I took another look at the stone slabs I was standing on. Here and there, I could make out faded writing on the time-weathered stone. It finally hit me. The whole viewing platform is itself the portal. But then why isn't it reacting to me?

"Figure it out?" the Gatekeeper bared his teeth.

"Are you blocking the portal?" I asked, dumbfounded.

The troll snorted.

"Not me."

"Then who? Actually, just a sec... It's the Great System!"

"Well then, took you long enough."

"Are you trying to say that, when I agreed to take part in this test of yours, I made it so I can’t leave?" And, not waiting for the obvious answer, I asked another question: "Is there any way to fix this?"

"Yes," the troll nodded. "But why?"

"I'm in a hurry."

The big guy snorted, puzzled.

"That’s odd. Lots of people would give half their life for the chance to come here and grow stronger. But you just keep trying to run away. I don't get it."

"I'm in a hurry," I repeated insistently, though the phrase "grow stronger" did pique my interest.

The troll shrugged his shoulders lethargically. As if to say it was not his problem. And turned sideways, inviting me to toward the door.

"You said there's a way to fix this," I continued to insist.

Seeing that I was not going to budge, the Gatekeeper breathed a heavy sigh. Knowing how trolls could be, he must have been straining to keep himself together. Just how long will the amulet keep this big brute's fury at bay?

Having partially overcome his irritation, the Gatekeeper ran a wide hand over his eyes just like a person again and said slowly:

"There are ways. For example, the magister of our faction can expel contenders for dereliction. To be frank, if I were magister, I’d do just that."

Seemingly, my unwillingness to partake of the mysteries of chaos was annoying him more than my stubbornness.

"In any case, you'll learn everything soon enough. The magister always has a personal conversation with every new contender. Let's go."

After he said that, the troll turned and headed toward the dark passageway. He took a few steps inside, slightly turned his head and said gloomily:

"There’s something I think you should know. You are the first newcomer to step through these doors in the last two hundred years."

My indignance and anger retreated. But before apathy fully paralyzed my ability to reason, my brain started feverishly analyzing my circumstances.

My eyes bored into the troll’s broad back as he walked away. No level, no figures. Just one laconic word over his head: Gatekeeper. Just what is this troll capable of? In the two hundred years he’d been standing watch, his mettle had probably been tested a fair number of times. That combined with the fact that manuscripts are probably only given out for killing relatively high-level forces of chaos adds up to a pretty stark conclusion. This troll could probably easily toe to toe with the Primordials. Thank the gods we didn’t have to fight.

With a heavy sigh, I followed after the Gatekeeper. If I had to meet the magister before I could leave, oh well ― so be it.




We came down a stone staircase and walked through a few darkened corridors, then stopped in front of a wide door.

"You'll have to wait here for a bit," the troll told me, opening the door and inviting me into a fairly spacious room. "I must inform the magister of your arrival."

In no hurry to cross the threshold, I quickly took a look around. Stone walls, a wide cot, a crudely constructed hefty stool and a table. The overall somber picture was completed by a narrow window fitted with a grate. Through it, I could see lightning flickering from the storm that had just reached the citadel.

"Looks a lot like a prison cell," I said with skepticism in my voice.

The Gatekeeper scrutinized the room’s interior and shrugged his shoulders vaguely.

"Never thought about it that way," he muttered in embarrassment.

The troll's reaction caught me off guard. It was as if I had offended him. Then it suddenly hit me.

"One second," I started, furrowing my brow. "Do you live here?"

The troll nodded and said:

"You are a friend to trollkind. I must be hospitable."

I felt my face flare red. How awkward.

"I didn't..."

"It's fine," the Gatekeeper interrupted me. "I haven't had guests in ages. Come in. Make yourself at home. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. You have my word."

Now in the room, I took a few steps in and turned.

Before closing the door after himself, the troll quietly added:

"You're right ― this place really is like a prison. I used to think so, too."

I didn't know how to react. Did that mean the troll had been brought here against his will or was it just a figure of speech? I didn't really care. What matters is to leave this place as quickly as possible, though not without first determining my precise location. After all, I still don't know what part of my world I'm in. As soon as I got myself together, squirreling away all the sorrow in the deepest reaches of my subconscious, my brain started tossing out questions I should have considered before.

The first thing I did after clambering up onto the bulky stool was to summon the harn. I greeted Gorgie's arrival with a sigh of relief. My friend sensed my mood and, trying to cheer me up, poked his flat forehead into my shoulder and licked my cheek with his hot tongue.

"I'll never see her again," I whispered, squeezing Mink's little doll in my hand, horrified at the words.


"You're right, bro. This is not the time to wallow. Let's make good use of this little breather. Something is telling me that we won't get another chance like this anytime soon."

I wanted to start tallying up my loot, but Gorgie unexpectedly gave a warning growl and a second later, the door began to open. The Gatekeeper is back.

He's quick. Somehow too quick.

All I had time to do before the door opened was to recall Gorgie. I was not planning on showing off my pet just yet. But when I saw who was standing in the doorway, I regretted not having him at my side.

The Lady of the Anomaly! Jorogumo! The Black Widow in the flesh. She was standing in the doorframe and smiling pensively, revealing her pearly white fangs.

I was already prepared to activate shields, but the troll's voice chimed in from behind the Black Widow and stopped me.

"This is our magister," he droned. "And this is the new contender. He..."

"Killed my sister," the woman finished for him and stepped through the door.

I tried to gulp, but my throat was already bone dry.

A moment later, the troll's hefty figure appeared in the doorway. His entire appearance spoke to the fact that he felt out of sorts. Very soon I realized why.

"And you found him worthy?" the magister asked with a mocking edge, boring into me with her gaze the entire time.

"Yes, magister!" the Gatekeeper answered firmly.  Meanwhile, he straightened up and splayed his shoulders.

"Curious," the magister snorted.

I couldn't say for certain what exactly she found curious. The troll's response, or the fact she was not able to probe me with her mental magic. The system faithfully reported that she had already attempted to use various spells on me three times.

"Well then, what do you have to say?" she finally turned to me.

The magister's failures encouraged me. So my Will pulled it off. How could you not be encouraged by that?

"I'd like to leave this place," I answered as calmly and politely as I could. "And I already know that I shouldn't have activated the manuscript, but the way it all worked out I didn’t have much of a choice..."

Not letting me finish, the magister cut me off.

"He's actually pretty tough, eh?" she asked the troll, continuing to bore into me with her eyes. And then said to me: "Tell me, how were you able to take down my sister?"

"Me? I didn't," I answered curtly. I didn't like the way she was talking to me.

"And yet she is no more," the magister frowned.

"Yes," I nodded. "The Heart of the Forest tore her to shreds before my very eyes."

When the magister heard me mention the Heart of the Forest, she gave a slight shudder, but immediately got herself in hand. I though was pleased by the effect my words were having. I was also amazed at myself deep down. Here I am standing two steps away from someone who's sister I had a hand in killing, and I'm acting flagrant. Anyone else would be cowering under the stool in terror already, but I'm not particularly bothered. Where am I getting all this reckless courage? Is it perhaps because I don't feel threatened by either the magister or her Gatekeeper? In fact, they’re looking at me the same way. It’s like they're sizing me up. Has the test maybe already begun, and they forgot to tell me?

"Heart of the Forest you say?" the magister said thoughtfully. It was plain to see that the news of her twin sister's death didn't bother her in the least. More the opposite. I could hear notes of joy and seemingly relief in her voice.

"She brought it on herself," suddenly tore itself from me.

"What do you mean?" the magister asked, curious.

"She was able to somehow subjugate the Heart of the Forest and create a dangerous anomaly. And it was starting to get bigger and more powerful. She transformed every creature that lived in the forest, turning them into hideous monsters. The Woodwose..."

"Did you say the Woodwose?" the magister shuddered and took a step forward.

"Yes," I nodded slowly.

"Hm... Now I see... Still, keep going. I'm intrigued."

"Well there's not really much more to tell," I shrugged. "The Woodwose used me as a distraction. And when hm... your sister lost control, the Heart of the Forest seized its chance."

The magister chuckled:

"Sounds a lot like him..."

Even an idiot could tell who she was talking about. The old woodsman was a master manipulator. She must have known him personally. Another thing I realized was that she must have known where her sister was. After all, the old man had clearly led me to believe that there had been several of his kind once upon a time.

"So then, what makes you want to leave?" the magister asked unexpectedly.

"I'm in a hurry."

"Explain," she demanded shortly. "The thing is, I don't understand what could be better than unity with one of the elements. Chances like this come but once in a lifetime, and only to a select few."

I understood that whether or not I would get out of the test depended on her, so I tried to be convincing.

"My friends have been taken prisoner. I have to save them."

"And who has taken them prisoner?" the magister asked.

"The Steel King."

"Is that so?" her brows shot upward. "The longer we talk, the more questions I have. And just how were you planning to break your friends out of his dungeon? I of course don’t mean to cast aspersions on your talents and abilities, but nevertheless... How could a zero such as yourself, unusual though you may be, stand up to one of the most powerful entities in this entire world? And that’s not all. I reason to believe he also has several Primordials at his command."

It felt like I had been living with a dusty old sack on my head. The world that I thought I knew had just expanded from a little dot into a whole vast universe.

"I can see you didn't have the foggiest notion about the true might of the man Fortuna brought into your path." The magister chuckled. "By the way, what's in it for him? If he's holding your friends in his dungeon you must be valuable to him. But how? I can see that you descend from the Ancients without any system info, but there must be something else. Right?"

My insistent silence brought a smile to her face which looked more like a predatory scowl.

The magister turned to the troll and said:

"Good thing you didn’t kill him. I still can't figure out why though. But you can tell me later. Looks like our faction has had the kind of luck that only comes around once every few centuries. A very promising contender. Chaos has answered my prayers."

"I'd like to leave," I insistently reminded them.

"Ah, yes," the magister snorted carelessly. "I almost forgot! You may go. Yeah, yeah. Don't look at me like that. You're free to go."

To back up her words, a short text appeared before my eyes.


― Would you like to withdraw from the test Unity with Chaos?

― Yes/No?


I reread the system message two times and glanced sullenly at the magister.

"What's the catch?"

"There isn't one," she shrugged. "We aren't interested in forcing adepts to become one with Chaos. I am not my sister. Occasionally, our methods differed. I believe that it must be a conscious choice. A sincere desire. Not some chance warp."

I glanced at the troll looking for support, but his countenance had no expression.

"It wasn't a slip-up that I called you an adept either. I'm beyond sure that you will pass the test."

"But what's in it for me?" I asked. "Why should I become dependent on your chaos?"

The magister gave a sincere belly laugh. A semblance of a smile even appeared on the troll's lips.

"So that's how you see unity with Chaos! What do you mean 'dependent,' you fool? Chaos will give you freedom, change your body, share its power. Your spells will improve! It will help you along on the path to perfection. You have made some very powerful enemies. You will need an ally like Chaos! With time, if you can prove yourself worthy, our mysteries will be revealed to you. You will be permitted access to our faction's armory. Our alchemists will be happy to provide you with their potions. You will learn new spells. Obtain abilities that mere mortals can only dream of!"

As I listened to the magister's speech, I was slowly coming to the realization that I had come to a place which was structured similarly to the order of monster hunters. When the foxman was singing the praises of the order, that was approximately what he said as well. But the faction of chaos was still a living, breathing organization. The prospect of getting access to functioning armories and alchemy laboratories instead of just mountains of dust and ash had me seriously animated. If the chaos elixirs are even half as effective as those Blots or satiety potions it was worth sticking around.

Above all that, I must admit ― I don’t stand a chance against the Steel King. Especially in light of what I just learned. I must grow stronger. If chaos is what gets me there ― so be it.

I took another glance at the system message hovering before my eyes and, not feeling a hint of pity, chose the word "No."

"You made the right choice, future adept!" the magister came solemnly and left the room, throwing out to the troll as she went: "Take him to the others and bring him up to speed."

When the sound of the magister's footsteps disappeared in the maze of hallways, the troll turned to me and asked:

"Want some chow?"

My stomach answered unexpectedly with a deep belly grumble, which made the troll chuckle and nod understandingly:

"Let's go to the kitchen. We can talk there."




The fare at the Citadel of Chaos was basic but tasty and filling. To be honest though, despite having grown used to the varied delicacies Mink produced, I was forced to switch back to nulled grub. Today, there was a vegetable stew on the menu.

"The magister said to bring me to the others," I started, licking my spoon. "Are there others like me?"

"Not like you, no," the troll answered, greedily leaning into his stew. And he was already on his fifth or sixth bowl.

There was no one in the kitchen. We were sitting at a long wide table close to a smoldering fireplace. On the middle of the table there was a big huge cauldron with a recently prepared stew. When I asked who cooked it, the Gatekeeper just waved me off like a mettlesome fly. But he did explain. As it turned out, everyone here was terrified of him, so they all tried to stay away. They would cook the food and vamoose.

"Then who are the 'others?'" I inquired.

"Those marked by Chaos," the troll answered shortly, letting me know not to expect more information from him on that account. But still he gave me hope: "You'll find out for yourself tomorrow."

"What does the test consist of?" I got to the point.

"Finally asking the right questions. You must gather chaos particles, then be inducted at the altar."

Hm... Familiar procedure.

"I see that does not surprise you." The troll looked at me from beneath his bushy brows. "Have you been inducted to another faction before?"

"Is that a problem?"

"If it's fire or forest magic ― then yes."

I shook my head “no.”

"Then it's fine," the troll nodded and carried on eating.

"Where can I find these chaos particles?"

"The Labyrinth of Fright. You get them for killing the creatures that live there."

"What kind of place is that?"

"An ancient one. A place that lives by its own rules. I could go on for hours and you still wouldn't learn anything. It’s something you have to see."


"You should always be prepared for a fight — that's all you need to know," the troll cut me off. "Just hold out as long as you're supposed to, and it’s over."

A-hem... Pretty middling instructions. Either he doesn't want to tell me the whole truth, or he isn’t allowed.

"How long is that?" I asked.

"It's different for every person: could be an hour, a day, a week," the Gatekeeper answered. "The record is twenty-eight days. As for me, for example, the labyrinth held me for sixteen days."

I scratched the back of my head in perplexity.

"Don't worry," the troll waved it off. "Practically no one will notice you're gone here. Time works differently in the labyrinth than it does in our world."

"Will I be going in alone?"

"You'll all go in together. But whether you'll take the test alone or in a group is something you’ll have to work out with the others."

Setting down his spoon, he raised a pointer finger and said seriously:

"And let me give you one last piece of advice ― don't trust anyone in there. Rely only on your own strength. Based on the look on your face, I don’t think you’ll follow my advice but, sorry, I can't say more. That's all. Time for you to go. You need to get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a hard day. For me and for you. In fact, it'll be the impost important day of your life."

Getting up from the table, I caught myself thinking that I was not afraid. The Woodwose was right ― I had to grow stronger.



Chapter 2


The troll again led me down a series of dimly lit corridors and stone tunnels. We walked in silence. Neither me nor my guide made any attempts to speak. Swallowed up by my thoughts, there was one little quirk I missed at first ― the farther we went, the more I became convinced that the troll could have brought me to our intended destination long ago but, for some reason known only to him, he was just taking me in circles.

At corridor intersections, he sometimes stopped and took a closer look at the wall for some reason, as if searching for some kind of guide marks. From an outside perspective, one might think he was lost. But I understood something different was going on.

When the Gatekeeper stopped yet again and started closely studying some utterly unremarkable length of stone wall, it finally hit me, and I activated Scolopendra's Sixth Sense.

As soon as the spell took effect, a totally different picture revealed itself. The walls, floor and ceiling were riddled with bright lilac magic symbols wherever I looked. After the recent dimness, the light of the unknown magic basically blinded me. I even covered my eyes with my hand. And that move did not evade the attention of my guide. The troll nodded curtly at the ceiling and placed a pointer figure to his lips, as if to say, "not a word." Then he beckoned with his palm. I pretended to understand and came forward.

"Look," he whispered and pointed at a barely visible magic probe stretching from his supply and connecting with the writing on the walls.

I nodded as if to say, "got it." I had seen such a thing before. There was a similar system of magic channels in Stonetown and Fort Stout. Like that golem that helped us fend off the otherworldly fiends in the Stone Forest, the troll was connected to the Citadel of Chaos. So that was where he drew his powers from. And at that, the size of his personal mana supply was difficult to determine.

The troll gestured for me to follow him and took a few steps down a dark corridor then stopped, again pointing his finger at the ceiling. Intrigued, I looked up. So there it is...

Right where the troll was pointing, there was a small gap in the magical ornamentation. The Gatekeeper took a step forward and stopped right beneath it. The magic tentacle stretching out of his supply grew thinner then disappeared.

"We don't have much time," the troll quickly started. "The rupture will close soon. Ask your questions. Just don't waste time and ask why I didn't say anything before."

"Is it true?" I quickly found my place. "Will I really get all those things your master said?"

"And more," the troll affirmed, nodding. "It will all depend on you."

"The labyrinth..."

"The most ancient location in our world and, I suppose, all worlds," the troll hastily cut me off. "No one knows who made it or when. It has its own set of laws. No one has any power over the Labyrinth of Fright."

"What can I expect there?"

"Every faction has its own portal leading to the labyrinth."

"Do they also need chaos particles?" I asked.

"No," the troll answered and glanced anxiously at the gradually closing breach in the magical script. "Every faction has its own resources to give the labyrinth."

"You're talking like it’s a living creature," I snorted.

The troll turned his gaze to me. There wasn't even a hint of humor in his black eyes.

"Go ahead and laugh," he grumbled. "But I really do think the labyrinth has some kind of soul. And everything that happens inside of it are its dreams. Sometimes they're short, sometimes long."

"What do you mean?"

"There are many anomalies in the labyrinth of fright," the troll started patiently explaining. "And they consist of snippets of time, events of the far distant past. And they can last for a matter of hours, or a matter of months. While walking the labyrinth's tunnels, you can suddenly find yourself on the field of battle between two ancient armies in the very heat of the struggle. Or you might discover that you’re in the middle of some ancient city which ceased to exist long ago. Anomalies can be large or small. All participants in the anomaly disappear together with it when the time comes, like ghosts. Beyond that, there are also times when individuals in the labyrinth can themselves become anomalies without changing appearance. Some call them ghosts, but that is a fundamental misrepresentation. After all, they are made of flesh and blood. Everyone else, meanwhile, just comes up with their own ways of making sense of it all."

I rubbed the back of my head in perplexity.

"I know it's hard to grasp," the troll said understandingly. "But after you've been there a few times, it starts to feel normal."

"What do you mean a few times?" I asked in surprise.

"Well why not?" the troll snorted. "Here in the citadel, chaos particles are the most valuable resource. For example, there will be many going into the labyrinth with you tomorrow, but only two of them have yet to be inducted. All the rest are nowhere near first timers."

"Should I be afraid of them?"

"Of course," the Gatekeeper nodded readily. "Once in the labyrinth, you become part of it. They will receive chaos particles for killing you."

"Are there many of them?"

"Two groups and a few loners."

I nodded to let him know I was listening closely.

"The first group is a pack of shapeshifters," the troll started. "Or as you might call them ― werewolves. Chaos loves their kind. They are all born with the mark of chaos. The second group is a couple snakefolk from Nure-onna’s personal guard."

"Who?!" I asked, thunderstruck.

"Nure-onna," the troll repeated calmly. "That's our magister’s name."

So that was who the Black Widow's sister was! Yet another bedtime story used to scare children. A snake woman who sucks the blood out of her victims. An ancient monster, who turns into a beautiful woman and lures mere mortals with her songs of lament.

"I see you recognize that name," the troll chuckled.

"You might say that," I responded with a sunken voice.

"No doubt you've heard your fill of the old wives' tales," he remarked skeptically, then added pensively: "Although many of them are true."

Then he shuddered and glanced up at the ceiling.

"Make haste, the breach has started closing even faster."

"Why are you helping me?"

My question caught the troll by surprise.

"Is that all you wanted to know?" he asked, frowning. "Is that really so important right now?"

"Of course," I answered confidently. "I need to be sure that I have an ally here or at least someone who won't harm me. So then, why are you taking the risk of helping me?"

"The laws of my people are all I have left!" the troll responded, raising his hefty chin proudly. "And the amulet you showed me isn't something they just hand out willy-nilly. You must have earned the right to carry it. Isn't that right?"

I understood what the troll was driving at. He wanted to know how I got it.

"It was in the Stone Forest," I answered, and saw the Gatekeeper's eyes light up. "We fought side by side with a tribe of trolls against throngs of dark creatures that came flooding out of an otherworldly portal. We turned back the tide and closed the portal. Not for good, but it stayed shut long enough for the shaman to lead the women and children deeper into the forest. I hope they made it to safety."

"You said 'we...'"

"I had friends with me," I nodded. "One of them a healer. He saved many that day." Recalling Mee, I smiled and added: "Believe me, he has many more of these amulets than I got."

"Am I correct in understanding that the Steel King is holding him prisoner?" the troll guessed.

"Indeed," I nodded.

"Then you did the right thing staying," the Gatekeeper nodded and added in a dispassionate tone, glancing at the narrowing gap in the ceiling: "Let's go, I'll take you to the others."

The wide round room with tall stone columns lining the walls greeted us with silence. But before too long, I heard rustling in a few places in the shadows, then muffled conversations.

Thanks to my Sixth Sense, I could see who I was dealing with perfectly well. Off to the right there's a magic shield pulsating with a thousand points of protection. Around it, I can see a few bodies twitching around. That must be the first group the troll mentioned. The werewolves. I counted five of the ruffians. The one with a magic supply is probably the alpha of the pack.

Opposite them, I can see three smaller magic supplies. They’re keeping to themselves. They greeted the Gatekeeper’s coming with overlong whispers that sounded more like hissing. No questions there either. Snakefolk. The magister’s personal guard.

But I can see one more small grouping of supplies, so the situation must have changed recently and there was another group the troll knew nothing about. In fact, they seemed to be the strongest and most numerous with seven in their group, two of them mages.

 There are also loners. I see three. One of them is a mage with a two-thousand-mana-point supply. He was the only one who didn’t react when we entered, just snoring away peacefully.

And speaking of the reaction, they were clearly all afraid of the Gatekeeper. Some more and some less, but I had learned to smell fear. As a matter of fact, Gorgie taught me to use my new abilities for that end. And so now I knew that fear had a particular smell.

The way everyone reacted was entirely expected. A mixture of scorn and mockery. Seemingly, they actually took me for some kind of servant until the troll left me there. Only when the last of his heavy footsteps came echoing down the corridor did the others finally realize that I was going to visit the labyrinth along with them.

I heard scornful snickering from the werewolves. The snakefolk flagrantly ignored me. And the third group meanwhile, figuring that a nulled kid like me wouldn't be much use, quickly started to ignore me. Thanks to my powerful hearing though, I was fully aware of everything they were saying about me.

"They’re wrong to underestimate you, right?" a mocking and creaking voice addressed me from the darkness.

He hadn’t snuck up on me. No one had been able to do that in a long time. I noticed him coming from the right almost as soon as I got settled. But still I didn’t make a move. The troll had cautioned me that fighting inside the citadel was forbidden.

"I hope you aren't planning on making the same mistake." I said calmly, not turning around.

The voice was speaking common imperial tongue but, based on the intonations, I had an approximate idea of who I was dealing with. Juvess, a goblin from Papa Gino's house had a similar accent.

To be frank, I found it hard to speak without my voice trembling. After all, the lowest level character in the room other than me was twenty-two. The goblin behind me, for example, was twenty-nine. Plus his magic supply had nine thousand points. Bug knows there might be surprises in store.

"You’re a zero, but the Gatekeeper himself led you down here?" the raspy voice chuckled behind me. "No. I would not like to face someone who killed one of the forces of chaos. I'm just bored. We've been down here for days waiting for the portal to open. Do you know when the magister will open it?"

"Am I understanding correctly that the big black boulder in the middle of the room is the portal?" I answered the question with a question.

"Yes," the goblin responded and finally deigned to show himself.

He sat down on a stone stoop a step from me and said with a funny tone:

"The name's Dobbess."

"Highlander," I introduced myself curtly. I decided not to use my real name.

"Alright then Highlander, so do you know when they're gonna open the portal?"

"I heard tomorrow."

The goblin shouted out unexpectedly loud to everyone:


His cry was met by joyous exclamations from every corner of the room.

"So, you're a newbie, right?" the goblin asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"Then you better look for allies."

"Is that an offer?" I asked.

"No-o-ope," the green pipsqueak chuckled. "I'm only going so I can kill that bastard."

After he said that, the goblin nodded at the sleeping mage. Seeing a baffled look on my face, he was all too eager to explain.

"You see, Highlander, the forces of chaos are not supposed to kill one another. It's against the law. But there is a way."

"The labyrinth has different laws," I guessed.

"Correct," the goblin chuckled. "Gred insulted me, and tomorrow he will pay for what he said."

This guy was proving to be quite the talkative fellow. And curious.

"So which one of us did you off to get here?" Dobbess asked, continuing to leer.

At first I didn’t want to say anything, but I had a change of mind. I wanted to see what would happen.

"Your magister's sister," I answered calmly and stared into the goblin's eyes.

It took a second to register, but as realization dawned, the smile slowly crept off his face.

"Did I hear you right?" he rasped with a parched throat, slowly backing away. "The Black Widow is dead?"

"You heard me just fine," I answered, no longer looking at him.

I had already started to think my new acquaintance would leave me alone, but he stayed where he was. His gaze was so persistent it was like I could feel it in my skin.

"And the magister didn't punish you?" he finally squeezed out.

"Does it look like it?" I shrugged.

We sat in silence for a few minutes. He was clearly trying to come to grips with the new information, while I stared down my potential adversary mistrustingly. I didn't have much faith I would simply be left alone in the labyrinth. Probably, someone will have the bright idea to take down and rob the newcomer.

Well, Bug help them.

I broke the prolonged silence.

"I have a question for you, too, Dobbess. Could you possibly tell me where we are? I mean, I know this is the Citadel of Chaos. I want to know what part of the world I'm in."

"Are you serious?" the goblin's countenance stretched out in surprise again.


"We are on an island," Dobbess answered. "My kind know it as Snake Island. Humans like you call it the Snake's Tooth."

I tried to recall the scant geographical knowledge I was taught in school, but alas, nothing came to mind. I had never heard of this island before. The only thing I knew was that the island was large. The mountains surrounding the citadel on all sides, which I had seen on the observation deck stretched far beyond the horizon.

"And this island, what part of the world is it located in?" I asked a clarifying question.

Understanding appeared in the goblin's gaze.

"Snake Island is the largest in a group of islands located north of the Dark Continent," he answered patiently.

"So I'm still on the Dark Continent," I whispered thoughtfully.

"You might say that," Dobbess confirmed.

He wanted to ask or say something else, but I heard a sound from a far corridor. Another five snakefolk had slithered into the room and, hitting me with disdainful looks, went to join their compatriots.

"Now this is getting interesting," the goblin grumbled thoughtfully, getting up from his place.

I thought so, too. The magister had not in fact forgiven me for the death of her sister. She had sent assassins down to take my life. Or was this a sophisticated torture method?

"May the Goddess Fortuna bless you with her smile, Highlander," the goblin bid me farewell and scampered off into the darkness. Based on the intonations in his voice, he didn't believe I would make it through the next day.

The five newcomers caused a commotion among the others. I caught myself on various sides of intrigued looks here and there. In the end, I got fed up with all the unhealthy attention and followed the goblin's example, moving closer to the wall. Farther from the middle of the room.

Leaning my back up against an unexpectedly warm wall, I placed my arm on my knees and thought. Only now, when I was able to somewhat calm down did I finally appreciate everything that happened to me over the last few hours. Fighting the Queen of the Draks, warping to the Citadel of Chaos, agreeing to take part in the test. Like a little leaf torn from its branch by a strong gust of wind, I was flying off into the unknown.

I recalled my conversation with the troll time and again, then with the magister. And every time I came to the same conclusion ― I made the right decision. Enough running around. Time to stay put. Well and the fact that people would be trying to kill me tomorrow was no longer so far outside my frame of reference. In my case ― that's more the rule. Beyond that, I had plenty of "party favors" for my potential adversaries.

Gradually, as if all on their own, my thoughts started going back to Mink. It was like my heart was being squeezed in a vice. The little figurine appeared in my hand. It's all I have left of my beloved.

Hurriedly wiping my hot tears on my sleeve, I tried to get myself together. This is not the time to mope. I have a tough day ahead of me. I need to get ready.


 Chapter 3


My guesses about the iridescent tablet proved right.


— Attention! The Higher Powers smile upon you! You have replicated the legendary feat of Ramilia the Illustrious! You defeated a magical being more than 80 levels higher than you!

— Congratulations! You receive:

— Experience essence (16,000).

― Silver tablet (50).

― Diamond tablet (3).

— Iridescent Tablet "Queen of the Draks" (1).


I looked around warily to make sure no one was watching me. But I was in the clear. Everyone else was just minding their own business. The initial curiosity trailed off fairly quickly. The only one still looking at me was the goblin. Obviously, he just couldn't figure out what magic tricks I possibly could have used to take out the Black Widow. He didn’t go scampering off to tell any of his order-mates though. I could only guess why he was acting so restrained. After all, just a few minutes ago, Dobbess had proven to be quite talkative. He's probably afraid of being perceived as a blabbermouth. He wants to make sure I’m not lying first.

Just in case, after activating Sixth Sense again, I read deeper into my notifications. The more I read about my last battle, the rounder my eyes went in surprise. Without a doubt, Earth Tremor’s destructive abilities topped all the spells I'd activated before it. That's what using offensive magic in the right location gets you!

Honestly, I didn’t know how the mountain that housed the Queen of the Draks’ lair had fared though. In one way or another, before the savage creeps got there, it was a monster hunter city. My ancient predecessors had a fairly meticulous approach to construction. I could only guess at the scale of the destruction, but the number of dead in my system notifications proved just what a misfortune my visit was for the creatures that called those caverns home.

All told, I counted up three hundred victory notifications. Just over two hundred of them were low-level creatures. Different kinds of insects, lizards and even fish. Clearly, a few underground bodies of water also got hit. The snake ruler’s "Guard" had also taken a beating. The dead draks, guides, and poisonteeth totaled almost a hundred and fifty. But there were more serious monsters on my account as well. Twenty-eight black vipers ranging in level from forty to forty-five. As well as sixteen cave monitors ― all over fifty.

When I finally got to the full loot list, I had to rub my eyes. In terms of esses alone, I got just under one million five hundred thousand. A-hem... I'll be just fine on those for the next few years. All told, I had just over five and a half million experience essences in my backpack. The rewards for gathering the legendary resources in the anomaly were just painfully generous.

Seeing all the tablets, and more specifically their number, took my breath away. Just shy of two thousand four hundred silvers, four hundred eight stone, one hundred twenty apiece of iron and bronze, almost fifty diamond and the cherry on top ― another iridescent.

When I saw the second pearlescent sheet, I chuckled happily, unable to hold back. How did I miss this?!

A few intrigued looks immediately shot my way. They're looking at me like a fool. The werewolves gave vile snickers. I could easily hear them joking around and saying I’d lost my mind. The smallest one figured I was not able to take the tension here and the fear drove me crazy. A few moments later, utterly shamelessly, they were divvying up my belongings. These guys move quick. Oh well, I've got a lot of surprises waiting for you.

The snakefolk reacted to my "hysterics" with scornful looks and hissing. I wonder what they're whispering about. But alas, the system gave me a clear indication that their language was beyond my grasp due to anatomical incompatibility. Too bad, of course. But what can you do? Truthfully, I'd take just being able to understand them. Even if I couldn't speak. Obviously, you can’t just partially activate a language pack. The Great System is all or nothing.

Paying no attention to the werewolves snickering and snakefolk hissing, I got back to examining my loot. Based on the timestamp, the notification for my second iridescent tablet was slightly delayed. It only came after I warped to the Citadel of Chaos. I must have just automatically dismissed it while talking to the Gatekeeper.

This tablet was awarded to me by the mysterious Higher Powers, impressed by my deeds as ever, for masterful use of a powerful spell which essentially caused a mass die-off of three hundred bloodthirsty creatures. As for the draks and their queen, there's no argument. But I did feel bad for the utterly blameless little fish and small lizards. It's one thing to hunt or fish for nourishment, to survive. It’s another thing entirely when they get caught in the crossfire of some undertrained juvenile mage. Although, who could say what kind of fish they were or how vicious they may have been.

To get rid of the unwelcome thoughts, I opened the description of both tablets in turn. So then, the first, which dropped for defeating the queen of the draks was standard, just like the kind I got for the eel or gulper female. Out of a long list of spells, I chose the only one that suited me.


 Damage Dispersal.

― Level: 0+5 (0/20).

― Type: Spell.

― Rarity: Epic

― Description:

― Using magic, the Queen of the Draks can spread 70% of damage received by her to all creatures currently under her control.

― Requirements:

― Intellect – 95.

― Expends 4000 mana points.

― Note:

― Remains active until all controlled creatures are dead.


When I finished reading, I stroked my chin thoughtfully. Now I see why that brute was able to hold out so long. She was "sharing" the damage intended for her with her servants, basically sucking their life away.

While creating the bookmark, I wasn’t thinking about Gorgie and Mee. Even a fool could see I wasn’t even remotely considering using this spell on my friends. In fact I was thinking about the mask of Jorogumo. It allowed me to take control of up to five unintelligent creatures at once, and I would use Damage Dispersal on them. I had just one little thing left to take care of. My Mind was still just a bit too low to use the mask.


― Congratulations! You have raised your Mind by 10 points.

― Present value: 26.


Continuing my experiment, I took out Black Widow's mask and tried it on. It felt warm against my face. There were no straps or other kinds of fastener. It was as if the mask just grew into my face. Like it became part of me. I didn't experience any distaste or discomfort. And the thing was pretty easy to take off. I just had to tell the system, and it was back in storage. And I in fact did just that several times.

Once I had enough fun, I decided to take my experiments further. With the mask back on my face, I slowly led my gaze over the room. Much to my surprise, the system informed me that my Will was high enough to take control of anyone in the room! The only stumbling block was if my potential target had Mind. Just then I realized just how powerful Master Chi really was! That both scared me and filled me with confidence. What could this artifact do in its original condition? What possibilities did it open up for its wearer?

I dreamed for a bit and put the mask into my backpack. Yet another thing to play close to my chest. I hope my foes like surprises.

With a malicious smile, I got to studying the second iridescent. Unlike the first, this one looked like the kind I got for gathering resources. It contained a legendary offensive earth magic spell.


― Stone Spikes.

― Level: 0+5 (0/30).

― Type: Spell.

― Rarity: Legendary.

― Description:

― Using earth magic, a mage can cause sharp stone spikes to instantly grow under an opponent's feet.

― Effect:

― Deals 15,000 units of damage.


― Requirements:

― Intellect – 60.

― Expends 1000 mana points.

― Note:

― Cooldown time: 9 hours.

― Radius: 130 feet.


Looks like the Higher Powers really did appreciate what I'd done in the snake den. They even provided me with a spell of the corresponding element.


― Congratulations! You have raised your Will by 10 points.

― Present value: 134.


In light of recent news, and specifically the fact that the Steel King has several Primordials at his beck and call, raising my Will had become top priority. I thought back on the old mage who was at all of my conversations with the King. He had once confidently declared he could "crack" my will no problem. Back then, I had less than half of what I do now, but who knows what that old man could really do?

After I got a handle on the new spells, I decided to finally look at the bonus crystal and sphere I'd gotten while gathering oblivion stones and guardian hearts. If memory serves, the Woodwose said I didn't have enough Mind to read them. Alas, a few seconds later, I realized that twenty-six points was still not enough. The descriptions of the mysterious stones were still hidden from me.

But the Mind boost was not entirely wasted. Beyond being able to use the mask, I got another helpful ability. Now I could raise Gorgie's characteristics without summoning him. There were probably a few other beneficial aspects, but I hadn't noticed yet. I'll figure that out with time.

When it came time to distribute tablets, I realized that Gorgie wouldn't be able to "digest" that many at one time, and that was with his regeneration figures. I could have tried to use all the tablets in one sitting by also using potions and regeneration spells, but a fear of hurting my friend stopped me. Better take it slow.

I decided to start with the stone tablets but was shocked to discover a system notification saying that doing so was impossible.

A minute later, it finally hit me... Gorgie had outgrown both Clay and Stone. Now only iron tablets and above.

I used up the Bronzes and Irons and decided to bring Gorgie's level to twenty. There was no reason to draw things out. Beyond that, I there were another two sticking points I wanted to get to. First I was hoping to raise the ceiling of my harn's Mind characteristic. And second ― to raise the level of his spell to four. Thankfully, now we had a virtual plethora of tablets.


— Attention! Your pet has reached level 19!

— Free characteristics: 3.

— Attention! Your pet has reached level 20!

— Free characteristics: 3.


But alas, the harn's Mind ceiling stayed the same. Still just one. Too bad... I hope something will change at higher levels. Though I was starting to have my doubts. What if the Great System just made the harn that way? And I couldn’t do a thing about it? As a matter of fact, I shouldn't be complaining. My Gorgie is already smarter than a few of my former neighbors and classmates.

Then, as planned, I raised the level of Thorntail's Jump to four. That jump cost me eighty Silvers, but it was worth it. After using the spell to move, Gorgie could now spend forty seconds invisible. The length of the jump was up to eighty feet as well. Honestly, mana expenditure was up too. Now it was a hundred points but, I repeat, it was worth it. This spell had saved our lives on more than one occasion.

When I moved on from the spells, I had a pleasant surprise waiting for me.


― Attention! Your pet has received a new combat ability: Tail Whip.


From the description, I realized that the spike that had been slowly forming on the tip of the harn's tail had finally become a formidable weapon. I immediately invested a hundred silver tablets into the new ability and raised it to the maximum. I calculated the approximate damage the harn would deal with his new weapon and smiled in satisfaction. I was already looking forward to Gorgie's reaction.

The only thing that bothered me was that it expended so much energy for every blow. Two hundred fifty points with just two thousand in the supply. If Gorgie abuses this... And he will, I know him... Anyway, if he does abuse this new ability, he will tire himself out very quickly. Ugh! I wish I got some loot that could improve my pet. It would be great if I could at least double the size of Gorgie’s supplies.

And so, pondering the vicissitudes of fate, I tossed four hundred fifty silvers into Gorgie characteristics bit by bit, not forgetting to keep an eye on my surroundings. In the end, getting him to level twenty cost us four hundred thousand esses and almost a thousand tablets of varying kinds. The higher the level, the higher the expenditure. But that didn't have me too worried. I had basically not spent even half of what I had in my backpack. Something else was more important ― Gorgie was gradually turning into a highly dangerous monster. And I had to be happy about that. I understood that we were still at the beginning of our path, but the first steps, the hardest and most important ones, had already been made.

The magister of the Chaos faction appeared at the exact moment I made up my mind whether to bring Gorgie up one more level or not. She was walking with an entourage of ten or so snakefolk ― all over level fifty. Her coming was greeted in different ways. The snakefolk hissed obsequiously, the werewolves called back with happy grunting while the others like me just calmly made for the middle of the room. Looks like Black Widow's sister had decided not to wait for the next morning and was going to open the portal into the Labyrinth of Fright right now.

The only person who had no reaction at all to the master's coming was the sleeping mage. He was just still snoring away and, funnily enough, the master of the citadel paid him no mind, same as everybody else. This individual was starting to raise more and more red flags.

Finally, the procession stopped in the middle of the room a few steps from the portal and the magister, not making too big a deal out of it, shortly ordered:

"Contestants, step forward!"

As the Gatekeeper warned, there were three of us. Other than me, encouraged by sharp growls and howling from his compatriots, a young werewolf walked into the middle of the room. Stripped to the waist, he was ferocity personified. Taut knots of muscle, tattoos on his chest shoulders and stomach, slightly elongated fangs and fingernails that had almost formed into claws ― the black-haired boy was about to turn into a beast at any second.

A lithe warrior broke off from the group of snakefolk that arrived earlier. The complete opposite of the shapeshifter. Flexible, gracious. The look in his snake eyes was so arrogant that even I thought he was overdoing it. I was more inclined to believe that, behind all that dramatic flair, he was hiding common fear.

For the record, the goblin seemed to have been wrong. Nure-onna is not planning to take revenge on me. The snakefolk were here to help their compatriot pass the test. Although who could say? Whatever happens, I'm ready.

When we stopped a step away from the magister, she slowly led a dispassionate gaze over us. Then shortly demanded:


The snake kid was first to react. He tore the leather bracer off his right wrist and extended his hand. The werewolf and I followed his example.

Despite the fact that the serpentine kid was quickest, the magister started with me for some reason. The look on that ugly bastard's face! That and the malicious snuffling from the werewolf told me that I had just gotten myself into trouble.

Nure-onna's hand was ice cold as expected. As was the gaze in her dark gray eyes. We made contact for several seconds and some text appeared before my eyes:


― Attention! You have received the Seal of Chaos! You may now gather Chaos Particles!


Alright, so the magisters of other factions are doing the exact same thing as well. This is the way contestants gain the ability to gather the particles that correspond to their faction.

After the snakefolk and werewolf got their seals, the magister turned around and walked toward the portal.

"You're done for, dogmeat!" the snake kid hissed practically into my ear as he slithered past.

The werebeast nodded pointedly, agreeing with the serpentine creature and headed toward the portal which I understood would be opening soon.

I wasn't too worried about threats. Just half a year ago, these ugly bastards' levels - twenty and twenty-two - would most likely have had me hiccupping in terror, but those times were long gone now.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some stirring to the right. The mage had finally deigned to wake up. His black head of hair looked like a mop. Beard looking like a ratty old broom. Beer belly. Clothes wrinkled and greasy. All that spoke to the fact that this man had long since stopped taking care of himself. When our gazes met, I realized that all my initial conclusions were mistaken. I saw nothing human in his yellow animal eyes.

And what happened after that I wasn't expecting in the least. The animal-eyed mage, scornfully ignoring everyone else, gave me an unexpected nod as if to an equal and headed toward the portal. Then an instant later, a notification came before my eyes:


― Attention! The passage to the Labyrinth of Fright is now open!



Chapter 4


Before giving the System my agreement to warp, I mentally checked myself again. Mana supply full. As for shields, only muckwalker's aura and lair had cooled down. Slim pickings. Though I do have invisibility and the mask. As for weapons, I have Spike and Dragonfly. I'm afraid my bow and arrows from the otherworld are still useless. I had planned to bring them to craftsmen in my world in case something could be done to alter them. But that would have to come later. For now ― spells.

The magister wasn't looking at me, unlike her retinue. The snakefolk were incinerating me with hateful looks. The cunning Nure-onna's stunt had essentially served to announce a hunt for me. I understand where she’s coming from. If someone kills your sister, even one you have no lost love for, they must be punished. It’s a question of honor. The honor of a Primordial.

All that time, there was a strange sensation I was unable to get over. Like someone was watching me. Someone I couldn't see. I stole a look around and realized I was right. Deep in the corridor, I could make out the outlines of a giant figure in a horned helm. The Gatekeeper. Did he lead the magister here? Or did he come to take me? The troll realized I had seen him. We exchanged short nods. It was strange, but that nod from a creature I knew very little did a lot to inspire even more confidence in my heart.

Deep breath in. And a breath out. Let's go!

I was one of the last to go into the portal. And the snakefolk and werewolves were hot on my heels. They were waiting for me to the very end. Well, well... let's play a little game then.

In the blink of an eye, the darkness of the portal room was replaced by a bright sunrise. I was standing in the middle of a broad city square surrounded by three and four-story buildings. The facades of a few of them were adorned with variously colored signage in an unfamiliar language. But I didn't need to be able to read to know that over to the right was the fish shop, while twenty steps from me was the bakery. The city seemed to be just waking up. The traders were opening their little shops and stalls. They placed their wares on their counters and displays.

The place somehow reminded me of my hometown of Orchus. The architecture, faces and clothing of the people ― it's like I'm back in the Empire. A sharp metal tinkling to my left, followed by joyous feminine laughter brought me to my senses. I quickly tossed invisibility on and looked around. No one else had come out of the portal. But there was a whole procession of guys hot on my heels, hoping to see the color of my blood. I wonder where they are. And for that matter, where are the people who went into the portal before me? I had only one explanation: we were all spat out in different places. I chuckled at my thoughts. It would be nice if that hissing and growling gaggle was sent, for example, up to the snowy peak of that mountain far off on the horizon.

For a brief moment, I even lost courage. So, what to do next? Where can I get these chaos particles? After all, it's not like I'm supposed to just start slaughtering peaceful townsfolk and their children, right? If that is the point of the test, then you can all get Bugged! I'm not having any part!

Vague doubts started to beset me. Is this the labyrinth? Could the gods possibly be playing a joke on me and sending me Bug knows where?

I don't know how my foolish standing around might have ended if the belltower of the temple that loomed large on the opposite end of the square hadn't started to ring out deafeningly. The alarm bell carried over the city and spooked all the city's pigeons. And right away, all the temple belltower's "brethren" started chiming back from all directions. Something had happened. The city must have been under attack. Suddenly it dawned on me. Were they ringing the bells because of my order-mates?

The merchants and tavern owners as well as early-bird shoppers, much to my surprise, were not panicked by the alarm. While they packed up their half-unpacked wares and closed up their stalls, they were just shooting the breeze calmly. Some of them were even in high enough spirits to joke around. Seemingly, this was not a rare occurrence for them.

I considered walking up closer to hear to what they were talking about when, from a distant alleyway, some odd coal-black creature suddenly hopped out. At first I thought it was someone's ox that got spooked by the bells and broke out of its harness. But when I saw the way its every jump crushed the large cobbles on the road into tiny shards, a chill ran down my spine.

I froze in place. The black something went racing toward the merchants as they unhurriedly packed up their stalls. Honestly, their languor was very quickly replaced by panic and heart-rending cries. The people finally noticed the brute running their way.

For the record, it did not smell me even though I was standing closest of all to it. When it whizzed by ten steps from me, I forgot how to breathe. I finally got a good look at the monster.


― Necromorph (67).


Oh Gods! How can this be?! How did this monster from the Age of Dead Warriors make its way here? After all, they were wiped out over a thousand years ago. Just like their masters ― the necromancers. Or had our history textbooks lied? Had this ancient evil really returned?

A drawn-out aquiline cry, and second that followed made me raise my head. Down from the sky a pair of riders atop golden-hued gryphons dive-bombed the running monster. They were wearing shimmering suits of armor, wing adornments on their helmets and crimson cloaks that billowed in the wind. The surprise even made me rub my eyes. The legendary Guardians of the Wind, the personal guard of the no less legendary King Nidas. Oh Gods! They looked just the way I saw them in my textbook!

The warriors meanwhile didn't wait for their beasts to catch up to the necromorph, which had slightly slowed down. They jumped down simultaneously from their saddles and landed just a few paces from the townsfolk. And they by the way had stopped their panicked scurrying and had begun to return to the square with joyous welcoming cries. And rightly so! With the golden level-eighty gryphons and their riders, who were over ninety ― what's to fear? This is now nothing but a free show they can tell their grandchildren about for decades to come!

An instant later, two gryphons fell upon the hideous necromancer creation, their wings spread wide. The morph tried to fight them off, but it was no use. The guardians were obviously not stingy with tablets for their pets. Not even a few seconds later, the black brute had been ripped into several large chunks. I had the scandalous thought that I should work up the guts to cast an ice arrow at the necromorph, but I chickened out.  I just refreshed my canopy of invisibility and slowly edged away from the scene of the battle before anyone detected me. Who knows how the locals will treat some newcomer mage. For the record, I no longer had any doubts about whether I was in the Labyrinth of Fright.

I reached a narrow alleyway and stopped to catch my breath. The bells were still pealing. From the sky I heard the occasional gryphon screech. Seemingly, the undead had gotten into the city.

While the werewolves looked like people, albeit distantly, I did not envy the snakefolk or that goblin right now. Nonhumans cannot hide from the Guardians of the Wind. And actually, I'm not gonna summon Gorgie just yet either. I'll have to stay cautious with the canopy of invisibility, too. As a matter of fact, the best camouflage right now is to just be myself. And specifically, a normal boy.

While walking down the alleys, I occasionally came across well-armed city guard units. One time I decided to risk it and, pretending to be a local kid hurrying back home, openly ran past some guardsmen. My natural camouflage did the trick. Nobody stopped me. In fact, they even told me the safest streets to use. Thankfully, I had already activated the language pack for the local dialect.

Not having a clear plan or fully understanding why I was doing it, I followed the guardsmen's pointers and headed to the southern part of the city. After all, I also need to gather chaos particles somehow.

The ringing of the bells was gradually winding down, with echoes coming just rarely from the northern part of the city. The bellringers must be signaling to the gryphon-riders where the undead are.

The farther I went, the more animated the streets became. No one was running anymore. Life in the city was gradually returning to its usual groove. Seemingly, the townsfolk were used to such incursions.

Running past some pub, I stopped and went back a few steps. Walking up to the front door, I peeked inside. At the bar was sitting none other than the animal-eyed mage from before. Honestly though, his eyes were normal now. Human. He by the way fit his circumstances perfectly. Half the people in the pub looked just like him: beer guts, unkempt beards and drowsy expressions. There are necromorphs hopping around somewhere in town, but here they've been pouring mugs of ale and serving up plates of black pudding since early morning.

"Hey-ho," the mage recognized me and waved a friendly hand, inviting me to sit next to him at the bar.

Considering it briefly, I got up on the stool.

"Ale?" the mage inquired casually.

"I'd take a nice cold root beer," I answered.

The mage snorted understandingly and raised a hand, calling over the gray-haired publican:

"Get my pal here a root beer. Make it cold."

"We don't serve it any other way," the publican nodded and slowly headed toward a bulbous barrel.

"Tired of running around?" the mage asked calmly.

"Yep," I answered curtly and sipped at my cold foamy mug.

"How are you finding it?" the mage pointed vaguely at either the pub or what was going on outside.

"Hard to put into words," I muttered from the mug.

"You can say that again," the mage snorted. "Should we get acquainted then...?"

"Highlander," I said, placing my half-empty mug on the bar.

"Pinebogey," he introduced himself.

"Curious," I said thoughtfully. "Dobbess called you Gred."

"Well, yeah. He knows me as Gred," the mage answered vaguely, ordering himself another beer.

For the record, my new friend was just level forty-three, which made for a baffling combination with his short mana supply, which was just two thousand points.

"You get any particles?" he questioned.

"Not yet," I shook my head.

"Never fear, it isn’t evening yet," Pinebogey waved it off.

"What do you mean?"

"It’s just been a couple necromorph scouts so far. This is just the beginning."

His tone was seemingly meant to reassure me. On the one hand, I was indeed somewhat annoyed by the fact that I hadn’t gotten any particles yet, but on the other hand the last thing he said had me on guard.

I wanted to ask him what exactly he meant, but Pinebogey got out ahead of me:

"By the way, have you seen that goblin around?"

"No," I answered. "I haven't seen anyone since I warped here."

"You will," the odd mage "reassured" me yet again. "If the Guardians don’t take them down first of course. You and I will have an easier time. The snakes and goblin will have to spend mana on a disguise."

Hm, now that I did not consider. I looked around warily.

"Don't worry," the mage reassured me. "There aren't any here. And their disguises won't fool you. As far as I can tell, you've made quite the investment into Will."

I just shrugged my shoulders indefinitely.

"Modest," the mage chuckled.

To be frank, his style of conversation was starting to get on my nerves. Yes, he was sharing information, but it was like he was leaving out some important details.

"So does that mean this is all real?" I took a look around the pub.

"Absolutely," the mage nodded. "The tables are wood and that shield over there is iron. The publican is flesh and blood. He's as real as you or I."

"How is this possible?"

"Nobody knows," the mage shrugged his shoulders.

"Are we in our world in the past?"

"I'm not sure," Pinebogey shook his head. "Most likely a fragment of it. But that is just a guess. Or rather, I find it easier to think so."

Hm... The troll said the same thing.

"And these things... If I buy something here..."

"No point," Pinebogey forewarned. "The labyrinth will take what belongs to it in the end. You can only take what you had with you when you crossed over. The Labyrinth only respects faction seals. That is the only reason we have the ability to gather particles."

"So have you been here before?"

"What makes you say that?" Gred/Pinebogey responded with surprise.

"You said this is just the beginning," I boldly clarified.

"Yes," he answered shortly.

"But what did you mean?" I wouldn't relent.

"Well, that this is just the beginning."

I had to strain not to overreact.

"The beginning of what?"

"Beginning of the end," Pinebogey shrugged his shoulders and, standing up off the stool, turned to the publican: "My friend will get the tab." And turned back to me: "We are friends now, right? We got each other's backs?"

Hm... Alright. It’s actually better this way. You give me information; I give you beer. And nobody owes a thing to anyone.

"True," I answered and placed a silver coin on the table, which the publican snatched and stuffed in his pocket in the blink of an eye.

On the way out, Pinebogey turned and said:

"You did study history in school, right?"


"That'll make things easier then. Once you hear this city’s name, you’ll be able to guess what’s coming. As long as you weren’t slacking off in history class."

After that, Pinebogey stepped out of the pub and disappeared into the stream of scurrying townsfolk.

I scratched the back of my head and looked at the publican, who was no less surprised by what Pinebogey said than me. After that, my gaze fell on an old, slightly rumpled shield hanging on the wall behind the publican. This old man must have done his share of fighting. As soon as I realized what the design on the shield was, a cold sweat immediately drenched my back.

Well of course! The Guardians of the Wind! King Nidas! A manticore on the coat of arms! The Labyrinth of Fright had spat me out in the ancient capital of Darta, Solenholm...

"What do you want, kid?" the publican asked me guardedly.

I got up off the stool quietly, turned around and walked slowly to the door. The publican tried to say something else after me, but I didn't hear him.  I took another look at the alleyways and people going about their business, little stray mongrels rubbing themselves ingratiatingly on the door to a pub kitchen. All of this will cease to exist very soon. If history is to believed, the necromancers will level this city to its foundations. And that will be the starting point for a series of historical events known as the Age of Dead Warriors.

Another round of alarm bells splashed over the city from the north like a wave at sea. I wasn’t surprised, but to the townsfolk, it came as a shock. This must have been the first time an attack was followed immediately by another attack. To me it was all exceedingly clear.

My mission was to find a defensible location where I could hold out until the labyrinth to let us go.

I checked my magic supply for the umpteenth time. An old habit from the otherworld, it was proving to die hard. Everything was fine. The Labyrinth was generous with mana.

The bells were now ringing from every direction. From somewhere off to the right, I heard high-pitched shrieks one street over. The people exchanged fearful glances and ran for the hills. It turned into a stampede. I heard more whooping and screaming, but this time from every direction. Someone shouted out loudly from the pub where I had been peacefully quaffing a root beer just a few minutes earlier.

I saw the Guardians racing through the sky here and there. They dived between the buildings, attacking an enemy only they could see. Their arrival was greeted by cries of joy.

But a little while later, everything changed. The gryphons now had competition in the sky ― giant bats. Their levels were lower, but there were more of them. There were a full five or six of the flying brutes attacking just one rider. Like gigantic black inkblots, they were sticking to the warriors on all sides, preventing their gryphons from spreading their wings properly.

The elite guardians died one after the next. And there were more bats coming all the time. Very soon, there wasn't a single gryphon left in the sky and the vile flying brutes turned their gazes at the little people darting around down below. The city drowned in human screams.  

Quickly turning down a narrow alleyway, I looked around and activated canopy of invisibility. After that, I put on the Black Widow's mask and threw on my Marauder hood. Spike in my right hand, Dragonfly in my left. Just five steps away from me, a formless hunk of flesh splatted down on the road and oozed blood, having very recently been one of those splendid golden gryphons. Three beasts fell on its remains right away.

Just like before, no one was paying any attention to me.

"It's time," I whispered and struck the hideous morphs with lightning.

The system informed me I had incapacitated three level-forty-five necromorphs. I considered it briefly and burst forward. Spike easily pierced the temples and eyes of the undead, while the system faithfully reported on my victory and dropped loot.


 — You have killed Necromorph (45).

— Congratulations! You receive:

— Chaos Particle (50).

― Scourge of the Undead Crystal (5).

― Attention! You have gathered enough Chaos Particles (100). Report to the nearest Citadel of Chaos and to complete the mission from the Magister of the Chaos Faction!


Before I had even come to fully appreciate the Great System's sense of humor, I was getting ready for another scuffle. The toothed maw of a level-sixty necromorph poked around a corner...



Chapter 5


Despite the degree to which the necromancer magic had warped its body, the monster had easily recognizable features of a big huge monitor lizard. Honestly, instead of a tail, it had a stump dripping with a muddy green pus. Bits of rib were sticking out of its distended sides. Instead of eyes it had two gaping holes. Its curved teeth had pieces of fresh meat stuck between them. The brute had already treated itself to at least one townsperson.

The fact it did not have a tongue constantly sampling the air, or eyes led me to believe this dead creature was navigating based on its victims' supplies. It clearly had not detected me yet, but it seemed to have "seen" its "buddies" fall. Or rather, not him exactly but whoever was in control of this brute.

Time to summon Gorgie.

The harn appeared three steps to my right. When I saw him, at first, I couldn't believe my eyes. Was this really my pet?! First of all, he was quite a bit larger. He'd also grown stronger but, despite his new heft, there was a litheness and grace to his movements. Second, the scales... They had changed in ways I wasn’t expecting. The crest of bone going down his spine had also fully sprouted. The armor on his neck and stomach was darker and rougher. I must have been seeing the next stage in my pet's gradual metamorphosis, which would come to an end at a certain point. My Gorgie will get a new suit of armor.

The harn’s claws and fangs had also grown longer and larger, while his mouth was now larger. I'm afraid to even imagine how much chow he could wolf down now.

The finishing touch was that his tail had grown longer and was now tipped with a formidable bone spike.

"Hrn!" Gorgie commented happily on his new weapon.

"What say we test it out?" I asked, nodding at the approaching necromorph. For the record, despite it being level sixty, the dead monitor lizard didn’t look so scary anymore compared to the harn.

Gorgie gave a fearsome growl and disappeared into the air instantly. He kicked the party off with a thorntail's jump. And I understood why ― he wanted to test out all his new toys.

"Hit it in the head!" I shouted after him and cast my first ice arrow.

A second later, the dead monitor's head gave a couple twitches and burst open like a rotten pumpkin. The beast lurched and fell clumsily on its side.


— You have killed Necromorph (60).

— Congratulations! You receive:

— Chaos Particle (70).

― Scourge of the Undead Crystal (7).


Gorgie appeared from "invisibility" and glanced my way. I could read a question on his fanged face: "Well, how’d I do?"

"Great job!" I mentally praised and gave him a thumb's up. Unlike the others, the harn could see me perfectly.

With a disgusted tail twitch to flick off the dark green slime that had once been the brains of the poor monitor lizard, Gorgie looked up and sniffed.

"They're everywhere," he shared.

"I know," I answered. "In order to grow stronger, you have to kill as many of these beasts as you can."

As expected, the harn liked that plan. What was more, after killing the undead creature, he had unlocked a new characteristic ― Scourge of the Undead. I didn't have time to figure out what it was because a new cast of characters had appeared in "our" alley.

They were two Guardians. Pretty beat-up. Covered head to toe in blood. Based on the fact that one was missing a right leg, he had just a few minutes left to live but, despite how tired the second looked and the wound on his shoulder, he was still insistently dragging his buddy along.

When the warriors saw the harn standing in the middle of the alley, they froze in place. The more intact one reacted with lightning speed. Despite the serious wound, his right hand grabbed a loaded crossbow off his back sharply in a well-practiced maneuver and pointed at the scaled monster. The bowstring gave a dull thud, and the bolt went racing forward with a predatory whistle. The guardsman was shooting at random without aiming but, with his level being forty, such tricks were not new to him.

I had seen his facial expression change a few times over a short span. From cold determination and self-confidence to disappointment and surprise. The unknown beast, just level twenty, easily dodged his shot and basically disappeared into thin air.

It all happened so fast that all I managed to do was throw on Canopy, and loudly shout out:

"Gorgie, no!"

After I appeared, the crossbowman's face grew even longer. He followed my gaze, turned around and froze. The monster he had just been trying to shoot was just a step away from him. The scaled tail with its bony spike hung just inches over his head. If I had wasted just one more second, it would have been too late.

"We’re friendlies!" I shouted. "And we can help!"

The crossbowman looked at me dumbfounded, then he looked down and saw the dead morphs. I must give him his due though. He found his footing instantly.

"Forgive me, good sir mage!" he said, wincing in pain. "The city is teeming with beasts, and so I..."

"No need to apologize!" I waved a hand, quickly settling into the role. "Would you allow me to help you?"

"If possible, start with Agvid," the crossbowman asked, lowering his wounded comrade to the ground. He had already long since lost consciousness and looked like a ragdoll, his appendages hanging limp.

When I ran up and hunched over the wounded man, the crossbowman suddenly said quietly:

"It’s no use, good sir mage... Poor old Agvid is beyond help."

"Too bad," I said, looking at the dead man's pale face.

"Looks like I've been dragging his dead body around this whole time," the crossbowman breathed a heavy sigh, sitting wearily next to his late brother at arms.

I silently activated Forest's Blessing. The warrior shuddered and looked at me. I could see regret in his eyes.

"You have nothing to blame yourself for," I tried to reassure him. "You did everything you could to save your friend."

"Agvid was not my friend," the warrior chuckled for the first time. "I'd sooner say the opposite. It's hard to call someone a friend after they stole your wife..."

Both of the guardsmen looked to be somewhere over thirty. He was clearly referring to bygone times. I realized that his over-talkativeness was a consequence of shock, so I decided to try and change to a more constructive topic.

"With whom do I have the honor of speaking?"

The crossbowman didn't realize what I was asking at first, but then I saw him make sense of it. He looked around as if he'd just woken up and tried to stand.

"Sit down," I ordered. "Give the spell some time."

"Lave Vallin, city guard unit number five," he quickly introduced himself and cast a tenacious look at my gear and level.

"Eric Bergman," I decided to use my real name. Why bother coming up with something?

"You have a perfectly clean Solenholm accent but, based on your clothes, you aren't from around here," Lave easily determined my outsider status.

"You are correct," I nodded. "I am a Tarian. I’m here on business."

I wasn't afraid to name my country of origin. I was positive that my history textbooks said Taria and Darta had never gone to war. And whenever there were conflicts, our countries were always allies.

My response seemed to satisfy Lave completely.

"What's going on?" I asked. "Where did all these beasts come from?"

"It's all Udun," Lave answered, clenching his teeth in anger. "He was conspiring with the necromancers,"

"Just a sec," I frowned. "Udun, the King's younger brother? Are you sure about that?"

"Yes," Lave shook his head. He had gray almost white eyes like all Dartans, and they looked confident. "Udun was spotted outside the walls in the necromancer camp. He's behaving like an invader. He's the one that sold the maps and plans to our enemies, showing the strong and weak points in our defenses. They also say our King was poisoned..."

Lave said the last part so quietly it was like he was afraid of finding out it was the truth.

A-hemm... So there's one more myth busted. We were taught that Udun Vanquisher of Death was a legendary mage that saved everyone. It was supposedly under his leadership that the allied armies of the three kingdoms managed to finally defeat the army of the dead. Legendary King Nidas meanwhile was supposed to have died a hero's death, holding back the first wave of necromorphs. But this was how it happened for real...

"So who's in charge of defenses?" I asked, already suspecting approximately what the answer would be.

"General Hardy!" Lave said proudly. "Who else?!"

A-hem... He was right. Who else? Ugh, if only you knew what version of these events made it down to your ancestors. In my history, General Hardy, the right hand of King Nidas, was portrayed as a traitor that joined the necromancers. I wonder why they twisted that story. What were they trying to hide from us? As an aside, those who visit the labyrinth of fright probably know more about things that happened in bygone times.

Our conversation took just over a minute. In that time, the wound on Lave's shoulder had slightly healed over, while the bleeding stopped. A slight blush had appeared on his pale cheeks. He'll live. Although, based on the shouting from practically every direction, probably not for long.

"What will you do next?" I asked.

"Make my way to the King's palace in the middle of town," Lave answered confidently. "They're forming new units there with the survivors."

I see... So that's where the necromancers will land their main blow. That leads me to conclude that I should stay away from downtown.

"But something's telling me you won't be coming with me, right?"

"Alas," I shrugged my shoulders.

The guardian snorted understandingly.

"Then you need to head for the northern gates. And make it quick. I think the hordes of dead have already broken through the eastern wall."




— You have killed Necromorph (25).

— Congratulations! You receive:

— Chaos Particle (30).

― Scourge of the Undead Crystal (3).


I am going on seven hours in the Labyrinth of Fright. And I'm still just halfway to the northern gates. As it turned out, making my way across an entire city teeming with undead was harder than I thought.

I have almost three thousand chaos particles and around three hundred crystals in my backpack. Lave was right, the beasts just keep coming and coming. And there are more of them in every wave. We tried to find a secluded little spot to catch our breath, but no use. Morphs are basically slithering out of every nook and cranny. I'm afraid to even imagine how long it took for the necromancers to get all these dead creatures in one place.

As an aside, some of the morphs had once been members of intelligent races. Humans, orcs, elves, gnomes. I also saw trolls and ogres.

The city defenders weren't asleep at the wheel though. In some sectors they were even able to hold back the onslaught. But I think every one of the defenders already realized they had lost the battle. Sometimes gryphon riders appeared in the sky, but it was never long before were caught by the flock of bats and torn to shreds before they even hit the ground.

In all that time, I didn't come across a single other devotee of chaos. However, about an hour ago, I just about came face to face with a group of five mages who clearly were not from this era. If not for Gorgie's timely warning, I don't know how that encounter might have ended. Although based on the fiery blades these mages so generously used to turn the undead to ash, they wouldn’t exactly be thrilled to see a chaos faction contestant.

The level twenty-five necromorph we had just taken down was probably an exception to the rule. By and large, most of the creatures' levels didn't go beyond forty. But strange as it may have been, they weren't all that hard to kill. They didn't have any defenses as such either. Their speed and agility were also limping. To their credit they have strength, numbers and lack of self-preservation instinct. They don't feel fear either. And they never retreat. Their appendages get cut off and they just keep fighting. One or two creatures like that don't look too serious. But when there are thousands, or tens of thousand and maybe even hundreds of thousands, you only want to do one thing ― get as far away from there as possible.

We nailed a morph while climbing over the fence of a Solenholm manor. Pretty sturdy fence. Tall. Thick. Stone.

Same for the house. The narrow windows were protected by hefty grates. The doors were affixed with thick sheets of bronze. The person who built the residence seemed to have known what was coming.

But alas, it was not their lucky day. We discovered the owners’ mauled and half eaten bodies on a path in their internal garden. What was more, they seemed to have died about seven or eight hours earlier. The farther we went, the more bodies we found. And then we started seeing morph bodies, which was quite strange. Because I didn't see a single warrior among the dead people. Only civilians. Mostly old men and women. There were children here, too. So it wasn’t the undead that killed all these unfortunates.

A few moments later, I realized who was behind it. Werewolves. I found one of their bodies at the front door.

What does it all mean? These hideous freaks had run off to murder innocent townsfolk right after we crossed over instead of concentrating their efforts on the necromorphs. To them it made no difference whose lives they took to get their chaos particles. Alright then, now I'm certain of one thing: if the goddess Fortuna brought our paths together again, I would do everything in my power to make sure that pack of villains never left the labyrinth alive.

But I had no idea when I made that promise to myself that I would have to make good on it very soon.

Gorgie warned me about the incoming shapeshifters with plenty of time to spare. Obviously they had also decided to make their den here until the end of the test.

We had just happened to finish looking through the house a few minutes earlier. Its owner was clearly not a mere commoner. This was no home; it was a true fortress. The basements are full of provisions. Lots of weapons. In a far wing we discovered a large warehouse filled with all kinds of stuff. Fabrics, carpets, lots of bags and boxes of various sizes filled with various wares. If I may be so bold, I suppose we're in a merchant's house. If I go looking, I'm sure I'll find a hiding spot or two. But there’s no point. Pinebogey gave me a clear indication the Labyrinth would not allow me to take anything with me. You can only take out what you take in. If you survive, of course...

But Pinebogey told me only half the truth. He didn't mention tablets or esses. If I manage to find them in the hiding spot, I don't actually have to take them out of the labyrinth.

The werewolves could also smell me. They committed my scent to memory before we crossed over. I could hear how happy they were when they noticed I was visiting. They came scampering down the corridors, anticipating a fun time.

I met them in the big main room after activating canopy of invisibility. You might say I was using live bait so that, gods forbid, none of them would flee. Gorgie meanwhile jumped out the window, hiding outside.

The four werewolves poured into the room with joyous howling. The alpha out front, the rest just behind. The contender was the happiest among them.

"What a nice surprise!" he roared out loudly. "We'd already given up hope we'd ever see you again! We figured you got eaten at the very start! But looks like you found somewhere to hide like a rat!"

The rest gave vile snickers. Not exactly like orcs, but it made my skin crawl just the same. As an aside, the alpha was not taking part in the celebration. He was sniffing the air tensely. He must have smelled Gorgie. He's really starting to freak out.

I need to keep him busy.

"Well, it’s not like we’re so different. Looks like you're hiding here too," I expressed with a smirk.

"Don't you dare compare wolves to rats!" a big black-haired fellow shouted out angrily and bared his teeth. "We are warriors! And you are a rat!"

"You sure have some strange ideas about warriors," I continued chuckling. "Look at all the innocents you slaughtered. Women, children, old men. And all for chaos particles? I saw your fifth group member. He try to take on someone his own size and die like a rat?"

Getting the werewolves worked up proved to be child's play. Just a few insulting phrases and they're all champing at the bit. Actually no. Not quite. The alpha of the pack was not moving. Now fully transformed, he reminded me a lot of my cursed enemy Livid. All his attention was trained on the place Gorgie was now hiding. Sniffed out our ambush in the end, the furry bastard.

He tried to stop his compatriots but Gorgie and I beat him to the punch.

Taking out my blades and tossing on a Canopy of Invisibility, I activated lightning. But alas, I was not able to stun the alpha. Gorgie took care of him for me, though.

The other werewolves meanwhile, were stunned while moving fast, so they tripped and rolled forward out of inertia. Before the "fingers" of my lightning touched their bodies, I committed the surprised expressions on their stupid gaping mugs to memory. And in the following instant, my sword pierced through the first of the beasts' eyes. I enhanced my blow with Blade of Vengeance to make it a sure thing. When all was said and done, I waved off the victory notifications and dashed over to Gorgie's aid.

The alpha was a tough nut to crack. But that was only at first glance. By the time I was ready to activate Ram, the werewolf's body was already a solid lump of bloody pulp. Gorgie's spike was flitting like the needle in my momma's old sewing machine. The wolf's chest had two big holes in it. His side had a deep tear wound from Gorgie's claws, his right shoulder was deformed, and his left arm was limp as a lash. The alpha of the already dead pack's wounds were not healing as fast as Gorgie was dealing out new ones. We were a matter of moments from victory but, suddenly, something I did not foresee happened. The werewolf rolled to the right with the last of his strength and got next to the window Gorgie broke. And an instant later, instead of throwing himself at his opponent, he disappeared out the hole and fled right through the bushes and flower beds.

It was so unexpected that neither Gorgie nor I had time to react. The harn first dashed off after him, but soon came back empty handed. The werewolf had gotten away.

I reassured my friend as best I could and suggested we take this breather for all it was worth. Rest up and use another couple tablets.

As for the alpha... I was hoping he would be easy pickings for the undead in his state, but my inner voice was telling me this beast wasn’t going to give up so easily. 

Release - January 4, 2021

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