Monday, February 8, 2021

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones-6 by Dem Mikhailov

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones-6 
by Dem Mikhailov

Release - May 25, 2021

The Land Beyond Is not the End

Chapter 1

Arriving, Falling, and Getting In

We never managed to found out whether our bald imp had managed to set the wooly mammoth Callowan on fire.

Obviously, a living creature would not have blown up, but the mammoth could have gone off his rocker, making lots of noise and causing us a lot of trouble. On second thought, that might have been for the better. The Land Beyond wasn’t all too welcoming a place; our troubles began as soon as we arrived.

The myriad of spiraling stars flashed brightly for a moment; there was a loud hum, almost drowning out Orbit’s voice—he was still carrying on with the countdown. On the count of one I felt the starry sky shatter into a thousand of pieces. We were no longer free from the inexorable pull of gravity.

Bright sunlight blinded us for a second. I was relieved to see the familiar cerulean sky with cirrus clouds scattered here and there. Afterwards, everything became an enormous vortex and we started to crash-land. The mammoths started to trumpet, unable to stand straight, their bodies leaning against the thin rods forming the wicker cage.

“God almighty! We’re falling!” The thought ran through my mind somewhat belatedly, and I yelled at the top of my lungs,

“Hold on!” However, after having yelled, I realized people around me had already been giving concise and confident orders, quite at odds to my dilettante’s exclamation.

“Jump! Jump!” The Crimson Lynx roared. “Everybody jump outside! Don’t dally!”

“Pterodactyls! Take off!” A loud woman’s voice sounded in unison with that of Crimson Lynx. “Take off, everybody!”

There was a loud scream, and a huge orange shadow flashed somewhere in the distance, veering off somewhere to the right. I noticed a few players clinging to its scaly back. There was a lunge, and I fell off, Trouble holding fast to my hand. The three of us tumbled out of the wicker cage, still spinning through the air, and all I managed to do was yell at the top of my voice,

“Follow us!”

Brown earth with green spots scattered across it flashed before my eyes. Kyre was holding on to me, and I was holding on to Tyrant, the legendary wolf, howling loudly to express his extreme displeasure at this way of travel.

Bits of wood kept splintering off the cage, still above us. Players and animals kept falling out. One of the white rhinos was plummeting, fast as any bomb, its horn pointed downwards, mooing in surprise. All of the above objects and beasts were catching up with us at breakneck pace, being much heavier.

“Spread out your arms!” Kyre yelled.

“Perhaps I should flap them as well? Oh, hell! Callowan!”

Callowan the mammoth was falling right on us, his thick legs twitching frenziedly and his thick trunk reaching up as if he was trying to find something to hold on to. We jerked aside and barely managed to get out of the prehistoric creature’s way; fortunately, the mammoth missed us. The hero piloting the creature spread himself out on the latter’s head—in baggy trousers and with a bald head as per usual. We heard his extremely confident and decisive voice giving orders so outlandish I forgot we’d been falling from an enormous height.

“Your years! Move your ears! Tail to the left! Blow through the trunk!”

“O-o-o-o-orbit!” I howled.

The pilot of the doomed Callowan plane didn’t hear me, still plummeting and trying to save his aircraft.

“Turbines on!” The hero cried in just as confident a voice, and the heavy mammoth passed us by at last, still in freefall, catching up quickly with the white rhino as if it was a race.

Wooden bits of the cage caught up with us in the meantime, as well as yelling players, long snakes slithering through the air, and a bunch of other animals. Kyre kicked away a stuffed sack, and I barely managed to dodge an enormous spike covered in wet mud.

“My dear,” Trouble purred into my ear, holding on to my neck. “Since we haven’t landed yet, tell me one thing… Do you love me?”

“The best time to ask a question like that!” I barked. Tyrant chimed in with a roar of outrage.

“Sourpuss!” Kyre puffed in a voice that made her discontent very clear. “The best time… Ros, to the right! All of us!”

I glanced towards the ground quickly, realized what she’d been talking about, and lunged to the right, holding on to the wolf’s shaggy fur. That was enough to change the view from the brown checker to a green one. We were indeed falling onto a checkered field; a game of life and death (in theory). The brown checkers represented hard and ruthless ground. Fortunately, we were heading for the green; water, which would be our salvation, given enough depth. I sincerely hoped there wouldn’t be a catch with that one as well—like a ravenous Loch Ness monster, for example.

Pterodactyls were flapping their wings about, clearly following somebody’s orders, grabbing snakes, still slithering helplessly, and carrying them away, releasing them over the green checkers. They were doing the same to the players, pulling them away from the death-bound trajectory. But who could have given orders so quickly, given that every clan was fending for itself?

“I believe I can fly-y-y-y!” Dock shrieked in the distance, already pulled away and heading for one of the watery patches. I could see no other members of my team with the exception of Orbit, who’d already fallen towards an unknown fate accompanied by Callowan the mammoth.

“Halapuer tulips! Halapuer tulips!” An unknown player from The Sleepless Ones’ team yelled, staring at the approaching ground through a copper spyglass. A herbalist? A madman? Or both?

“Yee-haw!” an achylote player hissed fiercely, trying to maneuver with his webbed hands. I didn’t notice him before. Above him, a girl of the same race was doing the same; both of them affiliated with the Architects. Water races in a landlubber clan? We’d had our share of surprise before even having made a landing—or a splashdown. There seemed to be a few more achylotes from The Sleepless Ones in the distance.

The cage fell apart completely, with debris flying in every direction and with the last passengers leaving its torn-apart maw.

I managed to notice a few more details such as sealed boxes, sacks, enormous carrier bags, and so on. Then the freefall ended and we fell into duckweed-covered water. The duckweed layer must have been incredibly thick, but we barely managed to notice it as we plunged into the dark depths. Kyre was trying to reach the surface, and Tyrant was paddling furiously underneath. The bar showing the remaining amount of available air popped up before my eyes, but I still managed to pull the girl down, the general commotion notwithstanding, my eyes on the glowing green duckweed carpet above us. The surface kept getting broken by players, beasts, and objects, each of which could smash us. There were splashes of bubbling water everywhere. We used our arms and legs not to drown, waited for about ten seconds, and decided to emerge around that time; fortunately, the hail of heavy stuff was already coming to an end.

Two achylote shadows slipped by gracefully; one in front, and the other in the back. They looked like predatory fish out for a hunt.

A few agonizing moments later, my head tore through the duckweed layer. I gulped in the air of The Land Beyond, paying no attention to the horrendous ruckus beside me. Some must have gotten less lucky than us and had a hard landing on the hostile and hard ground.


You are the first heroes to have reached The Land Beyond: a mysterious location.

You’ve had bad luck!

And yet, resilience and courage may help you get over all the obstacles.

You’re a trailblazer!

Being a trailblazer is always hard. Those following in your footsteps will have it easier.


Physical damage dealt to those populating these lands is lowered by 25%.

Magical damage dealt to those populating these lands is lowered by 25%.

Chance of getting loot from the monsters you destroy is lowered by 25%.

The chance of dealing critical physical or magical damage is lowered by 25%.

The chance of collecting resources successfully is lowered by 25%.

The physical damage dealt by monsters is up by 25%.

The magical damage dealt by monsters is up by 25%.

The cartography quality is lowered by 25%.

The speed of travel by any means is lowered by 10%.

HP and mana regeneration speed is lowered by 10%.

The penalties will be valid for: 23:59:59.


Ancient artifacts: Yes.

Current condition and quantity: 5/5.

Availability of ancient non-magical skills and recipes: Yes.

Current condition and quantity: unknown.

Availability of ancient magical knowledge: Yes.

Current condition and quantity: unknown.

Unique monsters not encountered previously: Yes.

The number of species: Unknown.

Signs of former presence of the extinct race of The Great Ones: Unknown.

A reminder!

There are many guilds that will be delighted to pay handsomely for any unique trophy or skill you might find here!


A unique achievement!

You have received the following achievement: Trailblazer!

(This achievement has no tiers and cannot be upgraded).

This achievement only applies to any adventurer to have found a way to a previously undiscovered location!


Your reward: A deliberately crudely-made wooden figurine of a weary traveler peering into the horizon.

Item class: rare.

Object status: a collector’s item. 



The guardian of these lands has not been destroyed yet!

Stay vigilant!



Flora and fauna status: E. A. F. D.


“Damn! Damn!” I could find nothing better to say as I was spitting out the water, approaching the bank without even moving a limb. Tyrant did all the work, paddling hard towards terra firma and dragging me along. Kyre was holding on to the neck of her armadillo, looking like a disfigured turtle in water. “Did you get that, Kyre? The local ‘daddy’ is still unvanquished.

“Could be a mommy…” The paladin maiden nodded, clad in a full suit of armor and looking at me through the T-shaped opening in the visor of her dark blue barbute helmet. A long sodden cape of a matching color without any markings was trailing behind her. “We’re the first ones. Gods forbid we run into the Protector. Given our powers… And yet, if we do and we manage to off it…”

“Yup,” I bubbled to her. The wolf had reached the bank, so sheer it wouldn’t be out of place in a swimming pool, and leapt to dry land swiftly. I followed him at a much slower pace.

Protectors… All parts of Waldyra had them—a long time ago. Absolutely unique monsters of any kind, of any size, and with any characteristics one could possibly imagine. They could only be killed once—they didn’t respawn.

Back in the day, you could run into a Protector as soon as you’d leave your main city; such an encounter would not necessarily be deadly. For instance, there were the Rabbit Downs populated by a bunch of gray and white rabbits living in deep warrens among the bushes, thriving. There was also a pitch black rabbit among them with thrice their level. Not much of a “daddy.” Impressive, but nothing to write home about. And yet, offing one of these was quite a feat—you’d get a bunch of loot and an achievement, as well as a chance of getting something truly unique, although not necessarily useful, with the loot.

Single or multiple encounters with the Protectors were the privilege of the very first players; the ones who’d leave their starting point and wade straight into terra incognita. To our generation of players, an achievement like that was next to impossible. It was just like the real world in that respect, with every spot already explored by someone else. The first players had been trailblazers; we were mere tourists.

But everything changed upon our arrival here, and I became a trailblazer against my will. The Protectors might be called “mums” and “dads,” but they had no paternal or maternal sentiment, and would often be capable of calling upon other denizens of their domain. As for the legendary Land Beyond… I was pretty certain that the local Protector was someone like the abovementioned black rabbit. It was guaranteed it would be someone else, and we’d be fortunate indeed not to run into the creature in question. Even if it was someone peaceful like a unique bison or a sloth sleeping on a bough all day long.

“There must be a lair, too,” Kyrea said in a low voice, having just crawled out.

“Oh, there must be,” I said with a sigh.

Any protector would definitely have a lair—a hole, a nest, a ravine, a bunch of bushes, and so on. And there’d definitely be a bunch of loot there—some were bigger; others were smaller. Including equipment—especially if the Protector in question was a predator of some sort, but even the herbivores had unique items of some quality. However, in this case all my information came from tavern banter, books, and forums. This was the first time I found myself in the role of a trailblazer.

“But we’re not gonna look for it, are we?” Trouble had to be sure.

“We won’t!” I nodded. “The others definitely will—the beast, its lair, lock, stock, and barrel, hoping to find a bunch of quality items—some of them might even turn out unique. But what about our comrades-in-arms? I hope none of them have become human pancakes after falling, unfit for battle. And what about respawning?”

“No way!” I was happy to hear the well-familiar roar of Bom the half-orc. Our mule was alive, spitting out water and shaking off the duckweed. “What about it?”

“I was wondering where we’d respawn in case of death,” I explained, taking a good look around me for the first time. “I haven’t noticed any respawn location from above. In this case, the winner takes it all, and the loser has to fall, and things will look even more dire. Hey! Kray! Callen! Doc! Orbit! Are you alive?!”

“There’s no respawn location!” An unfamiliar dwarf from The Sleepless Ones notified me as he passed by. “One of our mages landed on a bastard of a rock. He fell down here, and right now he’s taking stock of his losses on ‘mainland,’ sitting naked on another rock. It really sucks…”

“Thanks!” I said with gratitude. “It does indeed.”

“Tell me about it!” An impassioned female voice, well familiar, addressed me from behind.

I turned around and nearly lost my speech. The first thing I saw was a shimmering haze that shortly became black, and then transformed into a slim silhouette covered in black leather. The Baroness… At least I thought so, since she’d had no readable nickname or indeed any other information displayed about her head. There was a half-mask covering the lower part of her face and reaching up to her eyes, looking like a hideous maw, bare fangs and all. Her dilated pupils darkened, but the air around her kept on shimmering like a heat haze, although I didn’t feel her emit any heat.

Baroness slid right past me easily, headed for the direction where the excited voices were coming from.

“Kyre,” I whispered. “That was The Black Baroness right now, wasn’t it?”

“Sure was.”

“I wonder what her character class is.”

“Don’t you know?” My troublesome girlfriend looked surprised as she petted the armored head of her pet fondly. “It’s another one of Waldyra’s legends—if the rumor has it right, that is. The Black Baroness studied with the Dead Sands Clan. Everybody assumes it, but nobody knows for sure. But only they have this character class. Warrior and battle mage both.”

“That mask of hers makes her look like a damn ninja!”

“That’s exactly what she is,” Kyre nodded, dead earnest. “Even though this class doesn’t officially exist. It’s all based on rumors alone. People say she’d somehow weaseled her way into the Dead Sands Clan and managed to get trained by them. That’s no skill you can learn in a guild by paying them some money and pressing your thumb against a page in some tome. She’s got the full training, and it must have taken more than a week or two. Some say she’d spent a whole year IRL training in those sands and learning all sorts of secret skills, but I’ll never believe that. Spending a year in the game with nothing but training drills in barracks hidden away in some desert? Doesn’t make sense to me. Who’d do that? That makes as much sense as a conspiracy theory. Some had believed the story and even tried to follow suit, the result invariably being a complete fiasco.

“Well,” I replied musingly. “They’re a hard-headed and eccentric family… I-i-i-i-i-i-interesting, in other words. The Dead Sands Clan… I’ve heard the name before; I’m certain of that.”

“We’ll all be better off if you think about E. A. F. D.”

“Why would I think about it? I’ve never heard of it or seen what it is.”

“I had a few encounters back in the day. We’d better stick around the higher-level boys and girls, or we’re toast.”

E. A. F. D. stood for “Extreme Aggression, First Degree.”

My knowledge of said phenomenon was, however, extremely limited. I spoke the truth when I told Kyre that I’d never experienced it before. There were three aggression degrees in general, the first one being the toughest, and this must have been a complete nightmare, since the plants would be as aggressive as monsters. It didn’t take the players long to change the acronym to S. N. A. F. U. And that reflected the nature of what one would be likely to expect perfectly.

The land we’d ended up in was completely hostile to us. It would be like swimming across a pool filled up with sulfuric acid concentrate.

The only reason we could have a breather now was that we’d ended up in a starting point of sorts, providing us with the opportunity to prepare for the unknown and the inevitable tribulations.

“Hey!” I yelled once again, looking around me. The only ones I could see were Kyre and Bom; the rest kept silent, and I was beginning to wonder whether my comrades may have had a hard landing.

The terrain was as flat as a tabletop and looked like an enormous chessboard. Good visibility with nothing obscuring the sight. Yet all I could see so far was a seething mass of players and animals. Some of the latter made a successful splashdown and were now crawling out of the water, roaring, grunting, and howling irritatedly. Four warrior-class players were sweating as they pulled on a thick rope tied to the white rhino, trying to get him out of the square swimming-pool, albeit made by nature, but just as steep. They kept getting closer to success, inch by inch.

Two mammoths were stepping heavily some forty feet away from me, with their wooly hides, covered in duckweed, dripping with water profusely. Players from both clans were making a bustle around them; four healers at once thrust their hands forward, healing the beasts with their magic.

There was a trumpet call from behind, and I was relieved to see yet another mammoth as I turned my head—Callowan and none other, with the bald elf smiling broadly, standing on his head. I had no idea how they’d managed to land, but judging by the wet pelt and the duckweed, they landed in one of the “survival” locations; apparently, Callowan was in no dire need of healing, moving his enormous bulk energetically and looking perky. Orbit the pilot managed to land his “aircraft” safely, after all.

Kray was sitting right behind the elf on the mammoth’s broad back, with Callen holding him by the waist. The dwarf looked a little worse for the wear, but Callen the mage was pouring the well-familiar white light of healing into him. The pets followed the enormous animal—there’d been no place left on the mammoth for them, the only exception being the two-headed parrot sitting on Orbit’s shoulder. It took me a while to see there was a ghost clinging to each of Callowan’s ears, with another one flying in circles around the bald elf’s scarred head.

So, where were we?

I automatically started to count my fellow party members on my fingers.

Yours truly, Kray, Callen, Orbit, and Bom. All six of them alive and kicking.

I’d still need to find out about Doc, but I remained calm, having seen a pterodactyl carry him to a safe landing zone.

“Hey, guys!”

The man himself. Doc, too, was alive and well, harrumphing and shaking off duckweed as he hurried towards us. There was a snake coiled around his neck, blessed by an actual goddess and looking much bigger now.

Everybody else reached us by this point, Callowan the mammoth included. Our healer instantly turned on his auras to heal us and to boost our regeneration. The air became filled with healing goodness instantly, leaving no one out—not even Callowan. He shook his head, broad forehead and all, clearly displaying gratitude, expressing it physically by slapping our company’s healer on the back in his trunk. Doc merely managed to stay on his feet, but he didn’t begrudge the mammoth such a heavyweight gesture of affection.

“So, we’re all here,” I summed up. “And everybody seems to be alive. The pets…” I took stock of the beasts surrounding us. “The pets are also OK. So, shall we take a look around?”

“Hold o-o-o-o-o-on, Ros,” Orbit said softly, stopping me with a gesture only the two of us could see.

“What’s the matter?” I froze for a moment.

“Right no-o-o-ow we ne-e-e-ed to step aside. Over the-e-e-e-ere,” the tall elf’s spindly finger pointed towards the cage lying nearby; none of the players who’d arrived to The Land Beyond were to be seen there. “To avo-o-o-o-oid becoming victims of colla-a-a-a-teral damage.”

“Victims of collateral damage?” Kray said gruffly. The mage, standing nearby, looked at the elf in surprise as well.

“A showdown?” I asked in a businesslike manner.


“OK, folks we grab Callowan by the trunk and head off towards where our bald friend had told us to go,” I ordered, and started in said direction first, to lead by example. “You think there’ll be a skirmish between them, Orbit?”

“De-e-e-e-efinitely… Right now they’re counting their lo-o-o-o-osses… Once they’re do-o-one… Given there’s no respa-a-a-a-awn point here…”

Indeed. The place would be ideal for a showdown, since none of the dead players could return into action; nor could either clan count on support from their ranks. We were on our own, and only the survivors could carry on. Given our enormous level gap, we’d be fools to participate; we wouldn’t contribute much, and the consequences would be dire.

“Just make sure you walk calmly,” Kyre added, already by my side. “Don’t look back, don’t run, and don’t discuss high-level players aloud, placing wagers on who’d kick whose ass. The last thing we want for our little group would be an area damage spell. There’ve been lots of cases when those who’d expressed the most interest in other clans’ skirmishes got burnt the first.”

We didn’t walk away too far, deciding to stop around a hundred and fifty feet away, on the checker right next to us, out of the way of the two clan blocks gathering closer. The general chaos was over, and the process of saving the drowning was coming to an end. The wedge driven between the members of what had started off as a single team was becoming more visible, and the split got wider by the minute. Characters of high-HP warrior classes were gathering around the no man’s land in between the teams of both clans, forming the avant-garde in an unobtrusive way. Hell’s bells… Orbit had been right and we were now witnessing preparations for a serious showdown. So silly! They couldn’t have picked a worse time—or a worse place. Instead of forgetting the beef the two clans had had between them, The Sleepless Ones and The Architects were about to start rattling their sabers at each other. Damn!

A huge shadow passed us by in an instance. The bright yellow wings made a loud clapping sound, and the legendary dragon landed right next to us. Two of its riders got off—the knight in shining golden armor and the burly dwarf. There was a loud screeching sound as another legendary creature appeared from underground, instantly coiling itself around its owner as a stone wall. A huge crater remained where the rock monster had emerged.

“Oss!” The Architects’ golden knight smiled, giving us the traditional karate greeting. The owner of the rock worm stayed silent, just giving a slight nod in response. A taciturn character, that one…

“I get what his interests are,” I said, shooting a glance at Murkchrome. “But what about you? You’re supposed to be a great clan warrior of The Architects. Why would you decide not to take sides?”

“I’m here to get legendary equipment for my little one,” Florian responded. “And I’ve told as much to everyone in advance, including my clan leader and The Black Baroness so as not to get caught between a rock and a hard place. Losing a chance to get legendary equipment for my pet just to take part in another clan showdown? The hell I will. Murkchrome is of the same opinion. You concur, too, I believe.”

“Sure, I nodded. I’m only here for the gear.”

Florian was definitely telling the truth. To piss away a chance to get legendary gear at such a moment would be complete idiocy. Florian definitely wasn’t an idiot. Cunning, yes. Sweet-tongued, definitely. Vindictive, perhaps. But definitely not a fool, and he knew which of his bread was buttered on.

Apart from that, a legendary dragon meant a lot for his clan, and a dragon with legendary equipment would be an even greater asset.

“What if The Sleepless Ones win?”  Doc inquired. “And then turn on you?”

“I have a promise from the Baroness,” the knight said as he shook his head. “And she stands by her word. I’m telling you, I’d instantly told everyone explicitly that I’d only go here to receive legendary equipment for my pet; it would be useless to anybody else.”

“On the other hand, you could place it in your clan vault and make anyone pay through their nose for it,” Bom shrugged his wide shoulders. “That’s what I’d have done.”

“I have the word of the Baroness,” Florian reiterated. “Also, I hope they’ll cool down. We’re as friendly as cats and dogs, but settling old scores here, in The Land Beyond is just so silly!”

“But it’s i-i-i-i-i-interesting!” Orbit interjected.

“No, count me out!” Florian said gruffly. “No matter how interesting. By the way, is the mammoth ours or yours!”

“It’s our bo-o-o-o-o-omber jet!” Orbit said curtly. “With a ve-e-e-e-ertical landing option! A jump je-e-e-e-et!”

“Speak about technological progress,” Kyre sighed.

“Right on,” I said, producing my spyglass from the pack and observing the two great clans from afar. You could see a lot even without it, but this way everything could be seen in finest detail.

The clan leader of The Architects decided to skip it. But the Black Baroness would never give up the chance to take part in such an adventure. And she was standing right in front of an enormous half-orc affiliated with The Architects, fearlessly, her hands behind her back. Her opponent must have been the leader. Two small armies were preparing for war, and the outcome of their exchange would decide the further course of events. War and Peace. Tolstoy wouldn’t have been out of place here. Those damn clans!

The Architects’ half-orc looked very Italian, inasmuch as an orc can—his gestures, stomping, and facial gestures expressed his emotions most eloquently. The Black Baroness remained perfectly calm, like a shield maiden statue. She might have been saying something, but I couldn’t see her lips for the face mask. However, I could clearly see the Crimson Lynx holding two crystal spheres glowing furiously red, behind his back—they must have been the local equivalent of high-power explosives.

The half-orc roared in anger—not the way a mere player would do, but more like a mythical monster brought to life, loud enough for us to hear. At the very same time, two players left The Architects. A human mage and an elven archer crossed the distance between the two clans in just a couple of paces, joining ranks with the Sleepless Ones in an instance, turning around to face their former allies.

I wondered what the hell was happening.

The roaring half-orc choked on his cry of rage, his eyes bulging out at the comrades who’d just betrayed him and joined an opposing clan.

“What the…” words failed me.

“Cobalt? Edge?” Florian seemed to be just as baffled. “Well, I’ll be…”

“They’re moles!” Kyrea interjected. “Moles of The Sleepless ones! Now, that’s what I call weird.”

“Hell!” Florian still sounded pissed off. “They’ve been with us for over a year, and we’d run background checks on them both! It’s impossible!”

“It’s possible—and, moreover, a done deed,” I grunted. “Can’t you see? There’s your Edge, if you’re talking about the elf nicknamed Death’s Edge, already aiming at your colleagues, with five arrows on his bow.”

“That’s it,” Kyrea sighed with relief. “The fight’s off. It would be stupid now that the opposing party has an archer and a battle mage, and you’ve lost as many fighters.”

I could but agree. The half-orc looked deflated, looking at traitors with eyes like gimlets. Baroness showed no emotion at all, although I could swear she’d given the moles a secret signal to reveal themselves.

The party leaders continued their conversation. However, judging by the now-silent half-orc, The Black Baroness was doing all the talking now. The atmosphere was becoming less tense by the minute.

“We can prepare for the expedition,” I said, passing the spyglass to Kyre. “The only thing I didn’t get is: are we setting off together or separately?”

“Separately, I think,” Kyre said with a shrug.

“Not toge-e-e-e-e-ether,” the bald elf drawled. “Two battle forma-a-a-a-ations moving pa-a-a-a-arallel to each other…”

“I don’t care as long as we’re going somewhere!” Bom grumbled, eyeing the purple flower he’d just picked thoughtfully and clearly trying to find out how it could be used. “There’s no name, just question marks! Does anyone know anything about these flowers? What are they worth in cold hard cash?”

“Ask a specialist,” I shrugged. The flower was completely unfamiliar to me.

“Where’d I get a specialist?” Bom said gruffly, looking at the poor flower with malice.

The poor half-orc hoarder was in a bit of a quandary—there were at least fifty purple flowers like that one in our immediate vicinity, with more to be seen in the distance. So they could be worth serious money or turn out to be pretty weeds. What could one do?

“Specialists!” Bom said in a merrier tone of voice, smiling so wide you could see the size of his fangs. “Hey, I know one! I’ll call Braver’s alchemy hotline. He might know something.”

“Sure,” I said indifferently, my attention focused on the loosening tension between the two clans.

Both parties pulled back. The mages and the warriors turned their backs to the enemy one by one, headed towards the beasts of burden standing close nearby, also divided by clan allegiance. The pets followed. The skirmish turned out to be psychological rather than physical. No one had wanted to respawn back home, and everyone would rather stay in the legendary and the previously inaccessible location longer.

I exhaled, relieved, and instantly got tense, having heard the bald elf’s incredibly mournful whining.

“This is bo-o-o-o-o-oring! Oh! There’s a balli-i-i-i-ista in this pack! Prepa-a-a-are to fire!”

Having noticed everybody’s baleful eye fixed on him, Orbit pouted and started to shake up the enormous carrier bag hanging on the wooly mammoth. The elf snorted in dejection and turned away to admire a waterfall roaring in the distance. The mammoth snorted through his fat trunk, too, and also turned his attention to the waterfall. He was clearly on the elf’s side.

“He’s like a nuclear warhead with a broken timer,” I sighed as I peered at the back of the reckless boredom hater’s head. “Bom, and what are you doing?”

The half-orc was like a combine harvester, picking the purple flowers with both his hands.

“Can’t you see?” Bom roared, still on all fours. “The lot of you might help! These aren’t flowers! These are purple diamonds growing right out of the earth!”

“Purple diamonds?” I chortled. “They must be really valuable.”

However, I couldn’t help myself, picking half a dozen of purple flowers and stashing them in my pack. The rest started to harvest the local flora with a lot more diligence. I could understand them—plants of this type and size weighed next to nothing. There’d be thirty flowers to a pound at least; most likely, more. Their diamond-like quality depended on the demand on the alchemy ingredients market. In that case, the legendary Land Beyond was a gold mine comparable only to the mythical Inca cities of gold, lost in the jungle. There was money right underneath our feet—one only needed to pick it up. And we were doing exactly that. It must have been contagious—I’d gathered about two dozen before I knew it. Did I come here to gather flowers or mushrooms, I thought to myself? Damn!

The only good thing was that the clans didn’t waste a minute while we were picking flowers; I could only marvel at their discipline. The Sleepless Ones were already approaching us in rows of three—beasts of burden at the center; battle pets and warriors to their side, keeping formation. Four riders and two powerful glowing ballistae appeared on the back of the second mammoth walking right in the middle, already with  a helmet on its head, with something like sharp spikes on its trunk—a morning star like that would deal a lot of damage. The other beasts got their gear on, too. The entire party seemed engulfed in a nebula of protective auras—like an iridescent bubble, with pterodactyls and a couple of birds hovering above. That was a true raid party. Limited in capacity, but nonetheless powerful.

That was how one would do raids in Waldyra, slamming through the enemy lines and barricades right to the goal.

And this was a raid—I couldn’t have described it differently.

To our side there was a similar bubbles—the Architects. Our potential enemy and ally at the same time. The orange-and-white dragon flying above our heads flapped its enormous wings and took off with Florian on his back. The golden knight was clearly given orders to change his dislocation. As for Murkchrome the dwarf, he seemed to be in no hurry, waiting for the Sleepless Ones patiently together with the rest of us.

He was a secretive and an extremely mysterious character. He must have come to some conclusions of his own and decided to stay with us rather than join the Architects.

As soon as the dome-like and multi-layered aura reached us, we all got messages offering to join a raid group pop up. More proof.

There was a limit to the side of a regular fighting team—a dozen. No one else could join, and that was that.

The size of a raid group was set at eight dozen, or ninety-six players. But there was an important limitation, since a raid group could not be formed in just any location—only those associated with quests or extremely hostile to players.

I decided not to screw around and pound my broad leader’s chest with my fists. Instead, I accepted the invitation from The Black Baroness herself, the raid leader. A list of the rest of the members flashed up before my eyes; then it shriveled up into an icon located in the top left corner of the virtual screen. It was followed by a list of protective auras and buffs I could now have all access to.

Then I let Callowan grab me by his mighty trunk and place me on his wide back. Callen the mage was shortly aboard, too; as for the bald elf Orbit, he’d already been sitting on the mammoth’s massive head and definitely didn’t seem like he’d swap places with anyone. We were joined by Doc, who plopped down right next to me. All the rest of the old brigade remained on foot, which stood to reason—the “intellectuals” with low HP needed protection first and foremost; the armored warriors had enough HP to withstand a sudden enemy attack. An unfamiliar player nicknamed Ultima Forever placed himself right behind Orbit. He made a gesture with his hand, and, suddenly, there were two ballistae of a familiar kind on the mammoth’s back.

The construction was simple, but effective. Two bows placed upon a long pole. Judging by the smooth predatory shape of the mediaeval weapons, they were made by a truly experienced craftsman. Afterwards, they must have been passed on to master wizards, who’d added some mojo to the already powerful weapon to make it recharge faster, shoot quicker, and hit the target with a higher likelihood.

“Do you know how to use one of these?” Ultima, whom I’d already dubbed Ull, inquired.

“I used to be an archer,” I nodded in agreement. “But I don’t have any of the necessary skills.”

“Nobody does,” Ull sighed, placing the ballista into a special mount in Callowan’s harness with one swift motion. “The teleport couldn’t handle another archer. So you’ll play the part now. Do I need to explain to you how to use it and so on?”

“No,” I shook my head, grabbing the ballista and turning it from side to side effortlessly. “This is cool! What projectiles does it use? What are the markings?”

“The markings are standard. Those with green arrowheads are poison; red ones, fire; black ones, explosive. Everything deals area damage, so mind your aiming. The tan ones are those you have to be really careful with—they’re rust and will devour any metallic armor better than a bunch of specialized nanobots. If you fire one of them at a warrior, first you’ll see an involuntary striptease, and then a very angry face and a pair of huge fists. Get it?”

“Sure. How about this?” The moment I joined the raiding party, I instantly got access to Callowan’s cargo bags and a bunch of other stuff. “Blue is frost, obviously. What about the blue ones with a white spiral?”

“Tornado,” Ull replied.

“Blue ones with white lightning are electricity, right?”

“That’s right. They produce an electric sphere on impact. Duh! Forgot all about these! Do you see the ones with large orange arrowheads, Ros?”

“What about them?”

“That’s flak! You only shoot them upwards. A large explosion with lots of smoke. Real cool stuff!”

We exchanged a few more phrases while the heavily-treading mammoth took his place in the team. The outside rows stood in tight formation again. I gave Tyrant a short order to stay by my side and not get involved in any fights. The black-and-white wolf obediently took his place to the left of Callowan, followed by Kyre’s armadillo and Callen’s deer, prancing gracefully.

“And now, some brief instructions,” Ultima said in a loud and clear voice. Listen up, everyone!”

Having made sure he’d had all the passengers’ attention, he gave a very short speech.

“We have several categories, but ‘everyone’ is the only one that concerns you. Unless you hear the tactician say ‘everyone,’ you just enjoy the view. Until then, none of you attacks any opponent, even if they’re close to you or trying to gnaw at the mammoth’s leg. We don’t need any heroes or martyrs! Just stay put! Got it?”

Everybody started to nod except for myself and Orbit. The bald elf didn’t give a damn, being busy with Callowan. I realized that since I’d been entrusted with a ballista, I’d be in a different category.

Ull turned to me, saying, “Our category is ‘Stake.’ So listen well to the arrow type requirements and change it accordingly. Doc helps you with loading and so on. Callen follows my orders. We only fire once our category and the target are named. If they just say ‘Stake,’ don’t shoot at once. Wait for the target to be named by voice or marked read on your screen by a tactician. But you seem to know what you’re about,” the instructor said, looking at the expression on my face, and added, “Your call sign is Ros, to be used in case if you need to fire at a specific target. That’s it… Damn, no one’s got their shields up!”

“Damn!” I cursed myself as I rummaged through my bag. I found what I’d been looking for… and shrugged in embarrassment. Protective barriers, also known as shields were so heavy I couldn’t pull them out.”

“Fun, isn’t it?” Ull chortled. His class wasn’t that big on Strength, either. “Roni! Set up our shields!”

Roni the Fiery leaped onto the back of the mammoth, who expressed his displeasure by trumpeting loudly, in a single easy motion, placing his two-handed sword behind his back while still in air. He instantly pulled out the necessary items, muttering something about “wimps” under his breath, placed them in their mounts, and left us. What we had on the mammoth’s back now was like a machine-gun nest, well-defended. Every shield was covered in spikes and hooks on the outside, with boosting runes glowing on the inside.

Ull gave Callen two milky-white glass spheres, explaining,

“If I say ‘fire,’ activate them at once.

“Aye aye, sergeant!” The mage squeaked readily, already at ease with playing her role.

“Just don’t throw them at the enemy immediately upon activation,” Ultima grumbled. “We’ve had such a case… It’s not a damn grenade! Well, so far, so good. We’ll soon stare the Grim Reaper in his cunning eyes! I’m enjoying this!”

I was envious as hell, rocking on Callowan’s back. I didn’t mean it in a bad way, but the envy sure was there. I’d make learning this spell a priority!

One of the riders on the other mammoth turned out to be an extremely high-level earth mage, specializing in just that field. It just took him a wave of his hand for the ground to the sides of our team to erupt, forming enormous mounds. The rocks crawled across it, as if of their own volition, gaining momentum with every second and leaving deep tracks behind it. In but three minutes, two colossal rock warriors appeared next to us, taking their first heavy steps. They looked as if made of solid rock—on the outside, at least. They had rectangular shields and enormous spiked maces. Underneath the crested helmets there were menacing black holes instead of eyes. Each one was over twenty feet tall, and I’d had no idea about what their weight might be. Your average high-level stone golems. The mage, wearing a dark cherry-red cape managed to support two of them, although such creatures normally consumed an enormous amount of mana, and the supply had to be constant.

At any rate, the guy on the mammoth next to mine was almost a role model. Golems had high resistance to physical and magical damage. They had enormous strength, although were somewhat slow—inasmuch as the term could apply to someone making fifteen-foot steps. We had another magical barrier—a mobile and aggressive one this time.

But that wasn’t all.

The player in a violet velvet suit with fancy golden embroidery sitting right next to the mage spread his hands. A bunch of multicolor cards flashed between his arms.

A living and breathing card master with a level above 200. He paused for a moment, listening to someone’s question or request, chose three cards, and flicked his fingers to send them flying. They turned into dust in flashes of different colors. Two birds soared—a minivan-sized pitch black one, and another avian wonder, all ablaze. A phoenix. The damn card master managed to stuff an actual phoenix into a card!

The strangest thing was that such birds weren’t indigenous to any location. Those were no regular mobs—they’d occasionally appear in some location for a short while, only to disappear in an unknown direction afterwards. They were extremely hard to kill, especially considering their unique ability to rise from the ashes. Regular players dreamed of such pets, while others fancied extremely unique ingredients phoenixes yielded—their fiery hearts, feathers, eyes, and other body parts, each of which would cost a mint. Fancy this player trapping a bird like that in a card! Alternatively, he could have bought the card from a luckier colleague.

Two majestic birds joined the pterodactyls and birds of the regular sort hovering above us: one fiery, and the other, pitch black… or so it seemed. Its breast and the inside of its wings were light blue. It emitted cold, and it would begin to snow wherever it would fly. An interesting creature of the air. I’d never seen its like, my “close” familiarity with a wide variety of monsters notwithstanding. We had fire and ice floating in the air right above us. But that wasn’t all. There was also the third card. The monster that came out of it preferred hard ground—predictably enough, giving its appearance. It was a cloud of fog with what looked like lighting inside it trailing along on the ground. Another completely unfamiliar monster that dashed forward bravely to be on the front line. I just saw an enormous amount of gold scattered to the wind—even the combined gifts from all the crabbers we’d received for finding their fallen god wouldn’t have covered those expenses.

I wondered for a while, my hands still on the ballista, what exactly The Black Baroness had expected to find here, given the resources invested into the expedition and her personal presence.

Even the leader of The Architects decided to stay behind, preferring to remain on “mainland” and take care of the clan’s other affairs. The investment could have been explained by hopes of getting even more gold in return, but why would the leader of The Sleepless Ones decide to tag along?

I remembered the system’s warning about unique monsters. I also had good eyesight and picked up many details, such as our team’s firepower growing exponentially. What else would one want? But each time I got convinced that the sky was the limit. None of my prior experience, which had often saved my skin, would be of any real use here.

I could have pondered this most interesting topic for a little longer, but my focus shifted elsewhere in a second—there were warning cries from the pterodactyls. Something stirred in front of us, in the fog-covered tall wall of green—in many places at once. Both raiding parties were headed right there like tank battalions aiming to break through enemy lines. And we’d had no idea what kind of enemies waited for us there.

Given the fact that the ground was literally shaking under our feet, our foes would probably prove really tough.

Release - May 25, 2021

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