Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Crow Cycle by Dem Mikhailov

The Crow Cycle
by Dem Mikhailov
Book 1

Release - August 11, 2021

Chapter One


            The bright virtual sun hung directly over the great city of Algora, generously pouring light over the roofs of houses, reflecting off of colorful stained-glass windows, and drying out puddles left from yesterday's rain. The rain had evidently been quite heavy. It cleansed the city from dirt and garbage, sending them into the gutters, and thus straight into the deep catacombs of Algora.

            The guards, feeling lazy from the sun's warmth, watched the endless throng of people going in and out of the city. None of them bothered getting in the people's way. One of the guards noticed a white dot moving among the crowds, and, looking more closely, squinted in disbelief. He said nothing, however, while following the steadily moving form of a short and stocky dwarf. The guard's surprise was understandable. The dwarf looked far too ridiculous, dressed in only a canvas shirt that was worn and torn in places, plus a pair of similar-looking pants. He had no shoes, no hat, nor any kind of weapon in his hands. Only a thin sack was slung over his back. Well, that was his business. As long as he wasn't walking around naked, the guards didn't care. Let him go on his way. That was the mentality of the "locals," the native inhabitants in the world of Waldyra.

            The “outsiders” or “foreigners,” as the players were called here, looked upon the passing dwarf with sincere curiosity and even bewilderment. Their attention was drawn to his "noob" clothes, which every player receives at the start. There wasn't the slightest hint of weaponry on his back or on his waist. Upon further inspection of the strange player-dwarf (it was definitely a player), their confusion only deepened. What particularly stood out was his bizarre nickname, "Crow Eater," which sounded neither heroic, nor meaningful, nor even remotely exotic. A dwarf that eats crows... Ridiculous! Beside the innocently green nickname was a very lonely and pitiful-looking number "1".

            Level One! Without any equipment! And he is mindlessly heading right outside the safe walls of Algora! What a noob!

            Stifled laughs were heard from all sides, and someone tried to call out to the strange dwarf:

            "Hey, newbie! Wait! Isn't it a bit early for you to go outside these walls? You'll get eaten by mons--

            The well-wisher did not get to finish his sentence. The dwarf's broad back was visible for a split second—then it vanished among the crowds that thronged into the archway of the gates.

            "You fool!" groaned the well-wisher in frustration, casting a last glance at the city gate. "You'll get killed over there! Stupid newbie..."


            Oblivious to these dire warnings, Crow Eater was already past the gates and outside the city. Turning sharply, he walked along the outside wall. He directed his steps towards the emerald tents slightly further ahead, which were situated in the shade of five spreading ancient oaks. His bare feet trod confidently on the bright green grass, with his gaze fixed on his destination. Despite what the other players might think, the dwarf knew exactly what he was doing when he left the securely guarded city. And he left right on time, in order to arrive at the tents an hour before noon. As soon as the dwarf reached the tents, he was stopped.

            "Halt, stranger!" called a thickset guard with a gray mustache. He was sitting at an ordinary wooden table, and, despite the heat, wearing a corselet polished to a shine. "You cannot pass through here! These are summer barracks for the guards. No trespassers allowed."

            "Good morning, most honorable sir. I thank you for the warning." The dwarf sank into a deep bow, nearly touching the tall grass with his forehead. "Will you listen to my humble request, sir?

            "Hmm..." hummed the guard uncertainly, eying the rather modestly dressed midget. "I see you're well-mannered... No harm in hearing you out. Well, speak!"

            "I am weak," the dwarf confessed his status outright, "and I still have a long journey ahead. Anything can happen on the way."

            "That is true. But what do you want—what's-your-name?"

            "Crow," said the dwarf, breaking into a wide disarming smile. "My name is Crow. May I know your worthy name, most honorable sir?"

            "Hmm..." mused the guard, smoothing his mustache with his fingers. "How respectful you are, Crow... I am called Andregvaartiel. Do you hear?"

            "I hear."

            "Now try to repeat it!"

            "A splendid name! Andregvaartiel! If I am not mistaken, such names are given in the faraway northern regions with harsh climates, where only the strongest survive. You must be from Winterhills, are you not, honorable Andregvaartiel?"

            "That is correct," nodded the stunned guard with the unpronounceable name. "That is exactly where I am from—Winterhills."

            "And your name means 'tough as a vaart'!" added Crow. "Your esteemed parents gave you a splendid name, honorable Andregvaartiel!"

            "I am simply amazed," confessed the man with the graying mustache. "You are wise beyond your years, boy! I'm impressed!"


+1 goodwill towards interactions with Andregvaartiel, head of summer guard camp!

            Crow did not show the slightest surprise upon seeing the message pop up on the virtual screen in front of his eyes. He merely closed it, taking it for granted. His conversation with the head of summer guard camp had not been improvised on the spot. Before coming here, he already found out some things about the gray-mustached guard and skillfully laid out his cards on the table, earning one point for his reputation. Crow researched this information even before his rebirth into the world of Waldyra. He even made sure to memorize the long and difficult name by repeating it aloud dozens of times. And now he was reaping the well-deserved fruits of his labor. Everything was going according to plan.

            "Thank you for your kind words! I do not deserve them." The dwarf bowed politely once again.

            "Crow... I will remember that name, son," promised Andregvaartiel. "But what did you want? Hurry, I need to send two dozen guards to their shift soon."

            One of the traits that was commonly—but not always—shared among the guards was their strong sympathy towards "foreigners" who recently arrived in this world. Sometimes, this amounted to a desire to help.

            "This was exactly what I wanted to talk about, good sir. May I accompany the noble guards on their journey? One of the passing travelers, seeing my weakness and poverty, advised me to seek help from you and ask for your charity. I cannot protect myself from beasts or highway robbers."

            "Hmm... You do not ask for much. Why not help?" The head of guard nodded decidedly, "Your request is granted! What is your destination? And for what purpose?"

            "My destination lies toward the Gray Peak, honorable Andregvaartiel," responded Crow. "Common folk say there is plenty of work there for those who do not mind hard labor."

            "Gray Peak...hmm...That is exactly where my guards are headed. A guard post has been established there by royal decree for the protection of travelers. And you are right: there is plenty of work over there. Alright, then! I will give my young men the order to watch over you on the way. You will not get there by foot. Even though it is not very far, you do not look like an exceptional hiker. We will put you on top of the cart with supplies."

            "I thank you again with all of my heart," said the player Crow, pressing his hand to his chest.

            "Let us go already," the gray-mustached guard grunted good-naturedly, getting up and beckoning to the dwarf to follow him.

            The head of the guard knew his job well. Less than ten minutes later, the dwarf was already sitting on the cart loaded with heavy sacks and hitched to a pair of bay draft horses. Two dozen mounted guards surrounded several carts on all sides, and the tiny convoy set off down the road, moving south, towards the outline of the tall mountains barely visible in the distance.

            Crow did not forget to wave goodbye to Andregvaartiel of the Winterhills, expressing his gratitude for the help. He waited until the emerald tents and waving royal flags were completely out of sight before turning to the nearest guard, whose horse was walking unhurriedly alongside the cart. He began a conversation about nothing in particular, the sort of talk reserved for a long road ahead. At least, that's what it looked like from the side. Actually, Crow was working hard to establish connections. If they couldn't be friends, or even buddies, then they could at least be casual acquaintances. And he was quite successful. By the end of the relatively brief journey, when the lonely watchtower came into view, the ragged dwarf managed to find out and memorize a dozen new names. To avoid relying only on his memory, Crow carefully wrote all the information into a notebook that was part of the interface. Each name was accompanied by a short description of outward characteristics and special traits, if any.

            "Glintius: Tall guard with long red hair, round nose, and deep scar on left cheek. According to Glintius, scar was received from sword blow during fight with robbers. This occurred 10 years ago."

            Over a dozen similar notes were made for the others. He didn't manage to raise his reputation with any of the guards, but that wasn't Crow's objective at the moment. There would be time for local social games.

            With a last creak of its wheels, the cart stopped in front of the tower. Not waiting to be told, the dwarf hurriedly jumped down to the ground and bowed low, loudly addressing all guards at once:

            "Thank you kindly, good guards! Only thanks to you was I able to stay safe and sound!"

            "Don't mention it," answered one of the older guards with a careless wave. "You are a good, modest fella. Helping your kind is only natural. Good luck!"

            He was dismissed, but the dwarf had no plans of leaving. By that time, most of the guards had already dispersed and were conversing with their buddies from the previous shift. Only three of them remained near the cart: they were the youngest and without mustaches. Glancing sideways at the cart, the dwarf scratched his head and asked uncertainly:

            "Shall I help with unloading? As a thank-you for your help."

            "Will you manage?" inquired the raven-haired Scipio with a slight laugh, whose name the dwarf had already found out and written down.

            "I'll try!" the dwarf shot back with enthusiasm, his eyes searching for the smallest bags and containers. "I cannot manage anything too heavy, as my strength cannot rival yours yet, but I'll do what I can! I cannot leave my debt to your kindness unpaid!"

            "Come on, then!" grinned Scipio, exchanging a brief look with his friends. “T'is a sin to refuse help so willingly given.”


+1 goodwill towards interactions with the watchmen of Gray Peak!

            Crow did not wait to be told. Knowing the limitations of his character, he grabbed a small white sack labeled "salt" and, clutching it to his chest, hurried after Scipio, who had slung a huge 150 lb sack of flour over his shoulder with ease. They were heading towards a fairly short but solidly built loghouse, which was attached to the watchtower. The tower itself was made of stone and crowned with a wide lookout platform under a thatched roof. As it turned out, there was a general warehouse inside the loghouse. Once inside, Crow was careful not to show excessive interest in his surroundings, and only glanced sideways out of the corners of his eyes. On top of the shelves lay food supplies, bunches of arrows, some armor... That was pretty much it. Only the most needed items for carrying out duties. Without looking more closely, the dwarf carefully set down the little white bag of salt on the indicated shelf. Then he hurried back to the cart, glancing anxiously at his quarter-filled tiredness level. He wasn't going to slack off. He needed to put in his best effort; the guards must see that he is trying his hardest, not just pretending to work.

            Soon, the supplies cart was empty—mostly due to the efforts of the powerful guards, rather than those of the feeble dwarf. Level One is only the first level, after all. Nevertheless, Crow put in 200% effort, decisively grabbing objects of more-or-less suitable weight and nearly dragging them to the warehouse. At times, he would practically crawl out the doors of the warehouse and fall down exhausted, lying flat on the ground until his energy came back. Then he would bounce to his feet and hurry back to the cart, searching for the next suitable object to carry. His greatest achievement was a small barrel of dill pickles. He could have rolled it along the ground, but instead, Crow carried it in his arms, huffing and nearly collapsing within a few feet of the shelf. Still, he managed to cover the last few steps and put the barrel in its place. In reward for this feat, the game system took pity on him and presented the following message:

Your strength has increased by 1 unit.

            The game system had counted the exhausting unloading as physical exercise. As if wishing to add zest to this statement, the system threw him another surprise: his canvas shirt suddenly tore along the shoulder seam. Plus, it now had more dirty stains than ever. After this fact, another message appeared, this time containing a direct hint:

A character's outward appearance plays an important role in the world of Waldyra!

            Completely unconcerned, the dwarf closed both messages dispassionately. He looked over at the cart, making sure it was empty. Smiling with relief and wiping his dirty face on his sleeve, he turned to the trio of young guards. Laying a hand to his chest, he gave them short bow:

            "I hope I was of some assistance, good guards!"

            "Participation counts," smiled Scipio. "You helped as much as you could. And that is enough. Am I right, brothers?"

            "That's right!"


            "Here, take this!" The guard whose beard had barely begun to grow stretched out something in his hand: a wooden spool of black thread with a couple of needles stuck deeply into it. "It's a present from me. Since your clothes have completely worn out, I see."

            "My thanks!" Crow decided not to refuse and happily accepted the gift.

            "Take this, too!" Scipio handed him a large red apple. "For a snack."

            "Thank you, kind Scipio," said the shabby-looking dwarf, remembering to express gratitude as well as mention the name of his benefactor.

            "Here's something from me, too...why not..." rumbled the voice of the largest-looking of the three, who reached out and handed Crow half a huge loaf of bread. "You can't work on an empty stomach."

            "Thank you!" Thank you very much, kind Theos!"

            "I hope we'll see each other again," said Scipio, clapping the dwarf on the shoulder, “but now it's time for us to go to our shift."

            After saying goodbye to the guards, the player watched them depart; then he carefully placed the gifts inside his bag, looked around, and, spotting a sloping hill a short distance away, jogged towards it.

            Sitting at the top of the hill, which was thickly covered with dry grass, Crow began to study the surrounding area. His sharp eyes noted every minor detail, every landmark, and every feature in the surroundings, committing even the most trivial things to memory.

            The area was relatively flat; the soil was rocky. There was some vegetation, though it was quite sparse. The nearest trees were rather distant, but not too far away. The location resembled a small valley, in the middle of which stood the watchtower constructed from roughly hewn stone. That was all. There were absolutely no other buildings, unless you counted the log warehouse and the two canopy shelters beside it. One of the shelters was used as a kitchen; a dozen hammocks also hung there. The other one was an improvised stable, able to shield from the sun or rain, but not from the wind.

            All in all, everything was just as Crow had expected, based on the information he read about this new watchpost created barely a week ago by special royal decree. Most importantly, the guards were already here. The location was declared conditionally safe. The large square area with a tower in its center was free of monsters, with the guards vigilantly scouting the surroundings. The top of the hill where he was sitting offered an excellent view—Crow watched a dozen newly arrived guards leave to patrol the nearby area, a few more soldiers taking their posts, and the rest busying themselves with housekeeping, such as cooking and other minor chores.

            To the side was a very tall and narrow peak of grayish brown grim-looking stone, which gave the post its name: Gray Peak. It was just a big chunk of rock, covered with deep cracks and quite unfriendly in appearance. It was quite close by—less than a half-mile away.

            "Good day," spoke a soft voice from the bottom of the hill.

            Involuntarily flinching, Crow looked down and met the gaze of an angel, who was quietly standing at the base of the grass mound. His snow-white robes were embroidered with gold; his golden curls were elegantly styled into an elaborate hairdo... Blimey... A member of the admin decided to pay him a visit.

            "Good day, Immortal One," said the dwarf with a slight smile. "An angel has descended for me? My time has come, then? To go to heaven? Already?"

            "Please do not joke like that!" The angel sounded reproachful. "There is no reason to worry—or to make such foolish jokes."

            "My apologies," smiled the dwarf yet again.

            "You are in excellent health. There is nothing to get anxious over," repeated the angel forcefully. "Believe me, we watch quite carefully over...your kind. This is no more than a courtesy visit. Live happily and prosper."

            "Live..." repeated the dwarf grimly. "Thank you, I'll try."

            "But your chosen location—isn't it a bit boring?"

            "Not at all. I like it here," Crow assured the admin representative. "I like it a lot."

            "So you've decided to stay awhile?"

            "Uh-huh," beamed the carefree dwarf.

            The angel responded with an equally warm-hearted smile.

            "The choice is yours. All the roads of Waldyra are open to you," shrugged the Immortal One. "How are you feeling?"

            "I am very well, thank you."

            "Well, let me take my leave then. Good luck!"

            "Thank you!" said Crow to an already empty spot as the angel vanished in a flash of gold.

            Sitting still for another minute or so, the dwarf's face suddenly split into a wide happy grin. He scooped up a handful of soil, let it fall through his fingers, and muttered:

            "Live happily and prosper...I shall try. Try to live, to be happy... to prosper. Well? Is it time to start? Yes, I think so."

            A window of basic characteristics appeared before his eyes, indicating that his character was currently at the very beginning of his path.

Basic characteristics:

Strength - 2

Intelligence - 1

Agility - 1

Endurance - 1

Wisdom - 1

            After skeptically scrolling through his pathetic stats, the dwarf pulled off his ragged shirt with a sigh, and regarded his own powerful biceps and bulging chest with amusement. His torso looked extremely muscular (which was unsurprising, given that Crow had personally created the character's appearance), but it had no strength whatsoever. At least not yet. It was all just for show, a complete sham.

            He needed to start correcting this flaw immediately. The guard post was ideal for this purpose, as it was still in the process of being built; however, the "newborn" dwarf could not yet take advantage of the opportunities it offered. He simply didn't have enough strength.

            Judging by the information obtained from his research, the Gray Peak location was bound to change significantly. Future building plans included barracks for the guards, with a summer kitchen beside them and spacious stables nearby; and later, when the basic amenities are in place, they will add a small market, where travelers can purchase supplies for their journey and sell excess meat or pelts. But that's still far off in the future. The game world of Waldyra was notorious for creating difficulties for both players and "locals." All the above-mentioned things will not magically appear out of nowhere. Everything will need to be built by the hands of the guards, who have enough to deal with already. Crow planned to offer his services to the tired guards very soon. But not until he can manage to lift at least a small log. There is no use for weaklings at a medieval construction site, where the only mechanically assisted means were horses and carts.

            Flopping onto his back, the dwarf rolled over and dug his palms into the firm rocky soil; with a short exhale, he straightened his arms in his first push-up. O-one... t-two... His elbows bent and straightened again obediently as his tiredness level crawled rapidly upward. On the twenty-fifth push-up, his elbows refused to obey, and his entire body collapsed to the ground. Lying face down on the ground, Crow smiled contentedly while closely examining the emerald blades of sparse grass that sprouted between rocks. No sooner than the scarlet indicator of tiredness stopped blinking, the dwarf resumed his exercise, managing to squeeze out another four push-ups. After this, he briefly froze in another stupor. The most important thing was to not let his body rest too much, to not let tiredness disappear.

            A half-hour's worth of exhausting and somewhat laughable exercises later, Crow was rewarded by the merciful system.

Your strength has increased by 1 unit.

Your endurance has increased by 1 unit.

            Sighing tiredly, he stretched out his trembling arms for the last time; then he slowly got to his feet, his face shining with happiness. Here was something to be proud of—the first stage of a carefully planned dream was fulfilled! Although he could have continued with the exercise, physical development was not the only thing on his mind. Relationships with the guards played a major role in his plan. Therefore, Crow turned his attention to his torn shirt, bearing in mind that "a character's outward appearance plays an important role." Fortune, in the form of a generous guard, had gifted him a spool of thread. He should put this gift to use, before his only clothes became ruined entirely. He was no master tailor, of course, but he should be able to thread the needle and close up the torn seam.

            Ten minutes into the task, the dwarf was soberly reminded of his lack of sewing skills. Though he managed to sew up the ripped seam and patch up all holes in his clothes, it looked awful. The sharply contrasting black thread on the white canvas background only made things worse. Nevertheless, the shirt had recovered part of its strength and all major holes were gone. The bonus skill was also worth something:


You have achieved "Tailor—Class 1"!

Your list of achievements can be viewed in your character's settings menu.

Your reward:

+0.5% quality of created clothing.

+1% quality of clothing repairs.

+1% chance of successfully creating clothing.

            The spool of thread was returned to the bag, which already held a bit of bread, one red apple, and a pristine clay bowl. Those were all his earthly possessions.

            After dusting himself off, the dwarf descended the hill and instantly bent down to pick up a crooked stick with worn bark. And so he went. From the side, Crow looked like a pilgrim journeying to a holy temple, bowing with every step he took. But the dwarf was not heading to a temple; rather, he directed his steps towards the canopy shelter. It housed a stone hearth, over which hung a sizable copper cauldron with sides blackened by soot. Beside it stood a solid-looking table with a roughly hewn tabletop.

            On the way, Crow consulted his notebook and read up a few tips. He had a good memory and didn't really need it, but it was better to be sure. Now the dwarf was certain that the guard assigned to cooking duty was named Dredin. Moreover, Dredin was a dwarf, who had a braided silver beard and a heavily wrinkled face. It seemed the dwarf was a reputable chef: Why else would such a worthy warrior be sent to the kitchens?

            "Kind Dredin," said the player as soon as he reached the kitchen, "I've brought some fuel for the fire. As thanks for the help during the journey."

            "O-ho!" rumbled Dredin, looking rather skeptically at the thin bundle of skinny sticks. "Not bad! Pity it's not enough. Throw it by the fire!"

            After obeying the order, Crow bowed silently and turned to leave.

            "Wait a moment!" came Dredin's cry. "I have an idea..."

            "Yes?" the player-dwarf fired back enthusiastically.

            "Bring me a couple more of these...” Dredin shoved the firewood bundle carelessly with his foot. "In return, you can have a bowl of thick stew, plus a chunk of bread. What do you say? Deal?"

            "Thank you for the offer, kind Dredin!" replied Crow immediately. "I will do it!"

Congratulations! You have received your first assignment!


You have achieved "Helping Hand—Class 1"!

Your list of achievements can be viewed in your character's settings menu.

Your reward: +0.1% chance of object recognition.

Current chance of successful recognition: 0.3%


You have received the assignment "Gather firewood"!

Bring the guard from Gray Peak, Dredin, firewood for the kitchen hearth.

Minimum requirements for completing assignment:

Bring enough firewood to make dinner.

Reward: a large bowl of thick stew and a chunk of bread.

            Completely satisfied, the dwarf left the kitchen, whistling happily. He headed directly towards the boundary where the "safe zone" created by the watchtower ended. On his way, he passed a hill with an empty stone-paved court—the local respawning site—which played a big role in the dwarf's choice of location. Crow had the sense not to cross the boundary. He did not pay the slightest attention to the fat rabbit of class 5, which was peacefully grazing some distance away. He did, however, stare closely at the fiery red fox of class 10 that stalked the rabbit, its whole body pressed to the ground. The local ecosystem in action! It would take about five seconds for this little fox to send the flimsy dwarf directly to the respawning spot.

            Bending down, Crow grabbed a thick fallen log, added a few thin branches that lay nearby, and snorted contentedly again, picturing a large bowl of stew in his mind. That was something worth working for! It was important not to just do the job, but overdo it!

            The dwarf nearly crawled back to the kitchen, struggling under the weight of the firewood he gathered. To his deep regret, the game system did not reward such a mighty feat. His characteristics did not level up. Nonetheless, Dredin, who was still cooking, grunted his approval of the midget's efforts. Dropping the bundle of wood with a crash, Crow wordlessly set out to gather more firewood.

            When he brought another bundle, Dredin opened his mouth to say something, but the "foreigner" had already disappeared to search for the next portion of wood. On his third return, Dredin opened his mouth again, this time in surprise, due to the sight he beheld. Huffing and puffing and straining with his whole body, Crow was hauling a small chunk of a rotten log that, unfortunately, had quite a few branches. With one last mighty push, the log came to a halt near the hearth, and a small message appeared in the player's view:

Your strength has increased by 1 unit.

Your endurance has increased by 1 unit.

            "I've brought the firewood," gasped the dwarf, breathing hard and addressing the amazed cook.

            "Yes. You've worked hard," nodded Dredin in agreement. "You have fully earned your dinner! I see you're a hardworking fellow. You can have seconds, too. You'll have your belly full!”


+1 goodwill towards interactions with the watchmen of Gray Peak!

            "Thank you, kind Dredin," nodded Crow, recovering his breath and shaking dirt off his shirt. "I'll accept it with gratitude. If you need anything, I'll be happy to help."

            "I'll let you know," grumbled the dwarf with seeming indifference and turned back to the fragrant meat stew.

            Crow nodded silently and stepped out of the kitchen to avoid being a nuisance to the cook. He sat down on a boulder warmed by the setting sun and reopened the characteristics window:

Basic characteristics:

Strength - 4

Intelligence - 1

Agility - 1

Endurance - 3

Wisdom - 1

            He made progress. And he already earned +2 towards interactions with the guards of Gray Peak.

            A light breeze ruffled Crow's jet black hair, and he couldn't help smiling; he tilted his head to feel the wind on his face. It was great to feel alive. And full of energy. It was even better to have a plan for his life again. No—what felt great was the possibility itself, to make plans again. From complex and daring plans, to simple and childish ones. From beneficial ones, to those aimed at pleasant entertainment. That's what life is all about. That which fills human life with meaning.

            The flaming virtual sun was almost touching the sharp tip of Gray Peak with its fiery belly—a reminder that daytime would soon be over. Well then, he must hurry with building a shelter for the night. Afterwards, he'd have a relaxing dinner. And then, a bit more training...

            The dwarf managed to accomplish a lot before Dredin's carrying voice called everyone to dinner. Selecting a suitable spot near the bottom of his previously chosen hill, he began to fetch small chunks of rock and long sticks that he noted earlier and spared from the insatiable kitchen bonfire. It would be a pity to burn such good building materials. Crow arranged the rocks to form a simple fire pit, placing small chunks of wood and aged bark into it. But he didn't light it, reasonably assuming that there was still plenty of sun, enough for both heat and light.

            He was the last to arrive at the kitchen, when every guard had received a bowl of stew, and some had already demanded seconds. It wouldn't be fitting for him to receive his food before the guards. The short-spoken Dredin kept his promise. The clay bowl was filled with the thick stew; half a loaf of rye bread was laid beside it and a clean wooden spoon was dropped overtop. With sincere thanks, Crow dug in enthusiastically, deliberately clanging his spoon loudly against the bottom of his bowl. He didn't say no to seconds, either, remembering to express his admiration of the cook's masterful skills. Dredin simply grunted in response to the praise, but couldn't quite conceal the satisfied smirk on his face.

            Upon finishing his meal, the dwarf visited a nearby stream and thoroughly washed his bowl, and then returned it to the kitchens. One glance at the guards, who looked sluggish and drowsy after the meal, told him that he wouldn't be getting any more assignments today. He returned to the stream where he noted something interesting while he was washing dishes. The stream itself was flowing from a round and fairly deep pool, the bottom of which apparently contained the spring source. The happily babbling water flowed over white sand at the bottom of a narrow channel that stretched into infinity. It was full of life. Small minnows, about a finger in length, darted to and fro; pompous-looking bullfrogs were also there.

            Dipping his hand into the cool water, Crow tried to catch one of the fish; but it easily evaded his clumsy fingers with a derisive flick of tail. The dwarf did not give up. Yet, time after time, the little fish escaped from his overly slow movements.

            "Can't do anything without agility here," muttered Crow, vexed. "Fine, I'll keep that in mind."

            And again, his face lit up with the joyful smile of a mischievous boy, who had been locked indoors for too long and just now managed to get outside into the sunshine. It didn't matter that he hadn't managed to catch the quick little fish. It did matter that he had the opportunity to try.

            Unwillingly, Crow tore his attention away from the stream and checked his status. The stew made by the guard provided a two-hour bonus of +2 endurance and +1 strength. He should use this temporary boost wisely. Taking a few dozen wide steps, the dwarf found himself next to a half-buried moderately sized boulder that looked fairly heavy. Last time, which was before dinner, Crow couldn't move the large stone even an inch. He didn't have enough strength back then. He took off his shirt, leaving himself half-naked. Grunting, the dwarf embraced the rock and heaved it upwards, straining his digital muscles. For a few lingering seconds, nothing happened. Then, the half-buried boulder shifted reluctantly and began to emerge from the ground. Using his remaining strength, the struggling player exerted himself the limit, straightened his bent legs, and finally managed to upturn the stone! He had no strength left for a victory cheer—the tiredness scale flashed scarlet, and the dwarf simply collapsed beside the rock, planting his face into the ground. He waited a couple of seconds, jumped up, pressed his shoulder to the stubborn stone, put his arms around it and tried to lift it slightly. The rock remained indifferent towards his pathetic efforts; the compassionate game system, however, couldn't stand the poor dwarf's struggles anymore and hastily sent him a small boost.

Your strength has increased by 1 unit.

            Which was exactly what Crow was after. Whistling with delight, the player closed the pleasant message and turned toward the heavy boulder again. This time, the heavy rock, shaped like a deformed pear, yielded to his efforts slightly easier, although it still seemed to sneer silently at him...


            Two hours later, Crow was sitting in front of the stone fire pit that he made himself, watching the crackling flame and gradually feeding it small sticks. The burning embers for making the fire were graciously given to him by the guards.

            In front of the ragged dwarf's eyes hung the window of basic characteristics, clearly showing his achievements for today.

Basic characteristics:

Strength - 6

Intelligence - 1

Agility - 1

Endurance - 4

Wisdom - 1

            Thanks to the nonstop exercise for two hours with the stubborn rock, Crow raised his strength by another point, same with his endurance. By that time, the bonus from the dinner ended, and twilight had gathered.

            Digging in his sack, the dwarf took out a battered magazine, the Worldwide News of Waldyra, received as a gift from Dredin the Guard when Crow came begging for fire embers. It was a cheap magazine, yesterday's edition, but you could still read it. And look at the pictures. Skipping the first page, Crow buried himself in the magazine, reading slowly and drinking in every word.

Mysterious Navigator!

            Our dearest readers! The world has been shaken! The world has been upended! The world is ready for great change! The Great Navigator has appeared! The ancient spell has been read and analyzed! All of this can only mean one thing: The great voyage towards the lost continent of Zar'graad begins! It is our magazine's daily duty to bring the latest news on this fascinating subject, which has captured the interest of every player in the magical world of Waldyra. And most of them, including our editorial team, are asking the same question—that which resounds in inns and city squares, escapes from the lips of the powerful, and echoes from every corner of this great wide world: Who is he? Who is this lucky person that managed to find the ancient spell? Give us their name! We want to know our hero!...

            Turning page after page, the dwarf was so engrossed in his reading that he hardly noticed his next achievement and another bonus added to his stats:

You intelligence has increased by 1 unit.

You have achieved "Reader—Class 1"!

Your list of achievements can be viewed in your character's settings menu.

Your reward: +0.5% reading speed.

Current speed reading bonus: 0.5%

            Towering over the rocky valley, the majestic Gray Peak stared with indifference upon the tiny figure huddled beside the flicker of a crackling campfire. Soon, even this tiny lone spark died out, so that the only light left came from the watchtower kept secure by the stern guards.

            Curling up beside the remains of the fire, Crow slowly closed his eyes.

System query: Do you really wish to go to sleep?


Waldyra wishes you good night and sweet dreams.

Have a good rest before immersing yourself in further adventures. Sleep well.

            "Thank you," quietly whispered the player, falling into the dark abyss of dreams.

Release - August 11, 2021

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