Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Demonic Games by Dan Sugralinov

Disgardium-7: The Demonic Games

by Dan Sugralinov

Release - May 18, 2021
Pre-order -

Prologue: Malik

Malik always was a joker. He grew up in a large family of immigrants from Marrakesh. His relatives occupied a small living complex in an outer district belonging to a rich countryman of theirs, who gave a discount to his own and didn’t punish them when they needed an extension on the rent.

Malik had so many cousins that they could have easily started their own basketball league.

The head of the family was Grandpa Yusuf, a retired general and decorated veteran whose citizenship privileges provided sustenance for his many descendants. The one-child limit came along only after the citizenship categories were introduced. This meant that Yusuf not only had many children, but also an army of brothers and sisters and the Creator only knew how many cousins. They all followed Malik’s grandpa to the American continent and put down roots. But even once they all had citizenship, the family was always looking for ways to earn money.

While grandpa, in the meantime, was quietly descending into senility. He spent most of the day snoozing in his rocking chair, his legs always cold and covered with a blanket. His memory had started to fail him even before Malik was born — his eldest son’s name was the only one he remembered with surety. At the sight of a descendant, the general rattled off names for a while, swearing and trying to guess right (which, on occasion, he even did), but he never recognized Malik, so at some point he just nicknamed him Saghir — Little One, in Arabic. Grandpa’s love only stretched so far, and none of it reached the youngest grandson.

The clan lived poor, but Malik’s parents got it worse than the rest. The table was set at their house only for dinner. Full-fledged breakfasts and lunches were replaced by UNBs, said to contain all the necessary nutrients — synthetic proteins, fats and carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, supposedly all the body needed, but in reality far from it: Malik grew up sickly.

In their small family community where weakness was detested, but bravery and courage lauded (with the proper respect for elders, of course), Malik armed himself with jokes. Dumb ones, it has to be said. Malik played the clown who usually chose himself as the butt of the joke.

“A-ha-ha!” his cousins roared as they listened to a story from Malik about yet another scrape he’d gotten into. “What a dumbass!”

But then they’d call Saghir over to treat him to some leftover pizza or fries. Malik got so used to the nickname that he thought of it as just a second name.

His quick wit worked well on his cousins, but not his classmates. He couldn’t get into any of the school gangs. The cool guys like Hung, Tim and Ed paid him no more mind than they paid the teacher in class. The rest looked down their noses at the hand-me-down clothes he wore to school and felt superior. The smart guys, or the ones who thought of themselves that way, like Alex Sheppard, just didn’t notice him.

Malik blamed all this not just on the poverty in his family, but also on his appearance. Truth was, he hated himself. He was short, he slouched, he had a big nose and long eyelashes like a girl, thin arms and legs, a hollow chest with his ribs sticking out. And stupid frizzy hair… He was a real monster.

Even his family was ashamed of him and treated him like a doorbell baby. Not his parents, of course, but the others. Sometimes aunts came to visit and disdainfully gave Malik’s mother clothes their own children had grown out of, old gadgets and other garbage, whatever they didn’t have enough room for but couldn’t bear to throw away.

Almost four years ago, in the middle of August, Malik entered seventh grade. Mr. Kovac gave the introductory lesson. He decided to raise the subject of social inequality, and to discuss the methods the government used to give everyone a chance. And he spoke of Disgardium.

On that day, Malik thought only of one thing: just another year and a half and he would start his own life. His parents, with their lowest of the low citizenship status, could never have afforded to buy him a capsule. But they didn’t need to! At age fourteen, the Department of Education would provide one for him. And then everything will change! Malik swore to himself. I’ll do something there that will make everyone respect me!

As for what exactly, he didn’t know yet. But he was sure of one thing: all those who smirked at his hand-me-downs, who looked at him as if at a slug, sometimes even forgetting that Malik Abdualim was their classmate… They would all find out who he really was. And maybe Tissa Schafer would pay him some attention too. Sorry that I didn’t notice you before, Malik, she would say. Would you like to go somewhere with me? Of course, he would agree, but not right away. He had his pride, but he knew how to be generous. He could forgive. And when they went on the date, he would kiss her and admit that he’d loved her for a long time. But not right away. Let her twist a little first.

His soaring dreams crashed upon the cliff face of reality. A few days later, Malik was nearly in tears, not because Ed Rodriguez pantsed him in physical education, but because Tissa had seen it. At least she didn’t laugh like the others.

Malik filled with resolution and concentrated on his goals.

School, family and even Tissa, of whom he dreamed as he drifted off to sleep, disappeared into background. All his plans centered on Disgardium. He spent days and nights studying materials online. He delved into the mythology of the world, tinkered for hours with spreadsheets and damage calculations, dug through stories of success, trying to figure out which playstyle would bring him to victory.

In the end, he decided to be a Thief. In contrast to the other classes — Assassin, Headhunter, Bandit, Pirate, Ninja and so on, — the Thief not only dealt excellent damage, but also helped the group with useful combat techniques. But the most important aspect of the class was in its name — the Thief could successfully steal. ‘Successfully’ was the key word; anyone could unlock the skill of Thievery, but only Thieves had the innate talent and the right bonuses to properly use it. Why spend days on end completing routine social quests for a few silver pieces when you can steal whatever you need from a merchant stall?

After choosing his class, Malik listened to all the free podcasts by famous thieves of Disgardium (he couldn’t afford the paid ones) to try and figure out the exact playstyle that would get him the right class at level 10. He had to avoid ranged weaponry, or better still, use only knives and daggers; try to attack from behind; run away after losing half health; and, of course, steal at every opportunity, even when the item was unnecessary.

He spent more than one day thinking of his game name. Saghir, like he was used to? No! his pride snapped. He was no Little One. In the game, nobody would dare call him that! He spent a long time going through the options, then finally chose. Infect, because he knew that whatever he was going to do, his ideas would be so good, they’d infect others. Malik imagined himself as Infect and smiled. Yes, that’s exactly who he’d be!

Soon after, he made friends with — who’d have thought it?! — Hung and Ed. His knowledge of Disgardium helped him. Now under the wing of the two most popular (although the teachers wouldn’t have said so) boys in the class, his spirit soared. Now he could walk to the toilet without lowering his eyes. The kicks to his behind, the legs stuck out to trip him up in the cafeteria, the pranks and bullying, it all stopped. In mere days, it was like Malik had gotten +500 reputation with the entire school. Even the girls started showing interest in him… Well, at least they didn’t turn away when they saw him, and answered when he said hello.

It was important to fit in. At home, Malik threw a tantrum over having to sew yet another patch onto his trousers. His howling was so loud that it reached grandpa Yusuf. The old man learned that one of his dozens of grandchildren was getting bullied in school because of hand-me-downs. Blood is thicker than water! Yusuf exploded. Nobody will dare laugh at the Abdualim family! Saghir was bought new clothes.

A year later, Malik turned fourteen. Visitors came to offer insincere congratulations and cheap gifts in colorful paper, but the main prize awaited Malik in a corner of the living room separated off by a partition — a standard immersion capsule that had arrived the day before! With a sour smile, Malik sat at the table for the minimum socially acceptable time, then, once the adults had had enough of him and his cousins dispersed, he rushed to the capsule. He had to wait for his heart to settle before the complex device allowed him to finally log into Dis.

Infect unlocked the Thievery skill only in his second week of gameplay. Nagual and Bomber were already exploring the sandbox, but he spent his first days in the Tristad city jail, imprisoned for an attempt to steal a dagger from watchman Malone.

His second try went better. Infect crept behind Nergal’s temple (although there was no point in stealth; the place was empty) and, looking around in fear, picked an unripe Furious Pepper. The system’s cogs turned: on the one hand, the pepper was useful in potion-making; on the other, it was city property, which meant Infect had committed theft. Two notifications came up: the thief took the Thievery ability, but refused Herbalism. It didn’t suit him to go around picking flowers and herbs. Archeology, on the other hand, now that was tempting!

Stealing little things — bread from the bakery, candles in the library, mugs in the inn, — allowed Infect to level Thievery up to 10 and gain the Lockpicking skill. He sought out locked boxes and chests, practiced at night on the doors of townspeople and achieved what he wanted, leveling up Lockpicking to 10. Now he could prepare for more serious ventures.

It worked on the first try! Infect got a merchant talking, and while he was rooting around for an item beneath the stall, a dagger went missing from his display. The weapon was ordinary, with no bonuses whatsoever, but the boy was happy.

He got a taste for it. Leveling up Thievery helped him find gear not only for himself, but for Bomber too. Nagual had been missing all this time, and it later turned out that Ed’s character was a Threat! By depriving him of his status, the friends got an unimaginable reward — ten thousand gold! Infect also got a scalable epic dagger, and Dis as if took on new color — it got easier to kill mobs, and soon they even started doing instances.

Summer began, and Tissa joined them. Malik lost his cool; he was one step closer to his dream. They were clanmates now, and naturally, they spoke every day. Now all he had to do was achieve something that would make Tissa leap into his arms all on her own. But what?

The girl seemed to like him, but she was just as friendly to Hung and Ed too. Malik had no chance; there was no way he could compete with them. And he never seemed to be able to get her alone. In Dis, in school, even in the flyer — all four of the Dementors always stuck together. Thick as thieves. That was great, Malik knew the value of friendship better than anyone, but his blood rose from the girl’s every accidental touch. Sometimes he barely held back the heartrending urge to embrace her and not let go again. Even if she got angry at him and stopped talking to him… Well, he’d have something to remember.

But the problem solved itself. Tissa easily rebuffed both Ed and Hung, although they hadn’t really tried — they got plenty of attention from girls, both in Dis and real life. But Malik, who concentrated on Tissa, got more of her attention.

Once, she invited him round to see her. Her father, Mr. Schafer, had just finished another long drinking binge and was now locked in his room with an equally long depressive hangover. Tissa was going mad. She needed someone to talk to.

Here it is, this is my chance! Malik realized as he sat down on the sofa with the girl. His heart tried to beat out of his chest, his throat went dry… He was panicking.

Tissa brought him some cold beer and sat down next to him, and they started talking about things so familiar and understandable to Malik that his uncertainty evaporated. He listened carefully and sympathized, even sincerely, understanding her perfectly well.

As he said good-bye, he even worked up the courage to kiss her, though it was just a peck, their lips just touching. Tissa ran a hand over his neck and smiled.

“Message me when you get home.”

They say things like that make you grow wings. If that were true, then a whole helicopter rotor would have sprouted from Malik’s back.

But the story got no sequel. For a few days, Tissa behaved like she usually did, and Malik lost confidence, got too eager, came on too strong, and then…

Then Alex came into their lives. And everything changed.

First Sheppard took Tissa from him, then Ed and Hung. And along with them went the hope that one day Malik himself would win the respect of his friends and classmates.

You can’t compete with an A-class Threat, even if you’re as smart as Einstein.




Tissa messaged first. She asked how he was doing, how the clan was doing, but the girl’s true motive became clear toward the end of the message. As if in passing, Tissa asked him to help her unlock a route to a zone with level 40 mobs. I think I can handle them. My stats are super high thanks to the Sleepers. Just the few seconds before I die from Exhaustion should be enough, she wrote. Will you help me?

Malik thought about it. Alex had mentioned that he himself had given Tissa the idea of how to break the sandbox record, which belonged to some guy from Seoul. To achieve that, the priestess of light would have to reach level 31, which she could do very quickly if she could kill mobs over double her level. It was obvious why Tissa wanted that. Unique achievements always came with hefty rewards, and plenty of Fame. Malik wouldn’t mind those bonuses either; it was a shame he hadn’t thought of it when he was stuck in Tristad. But Sheppard made his position clear: Tissa had betrayed the clan, even if not by her own will. Interestingly, Alex hadn’t taken the girl’s departure for the White Amazons as a betrayal, but her relationship with Liam… It was clear that the girl had no fault in Mogwai’s attack on Kharinza — anyone could have been in her place, even Scyth himself!

It didn’t take him long to decide. He agreed to help. In principle, not much was being asked of him; he just had to teleport Tissa from Tristad to a zone that suited her aims. She’d do the rest herself — teleport there and try to quickly take out a mob before Exhaustion killed her. Anyway, Infect couldn’t help her even if he wanted to — Tissa wouldn’t get any experience from mobs below the bard’s level, and he wouldn’t be able to deal with any above. His was a support class! He ground his teeth at the thought, angry both at Scyth, who made him change his class, and himself for giving in.

Her message had come in the day before, and today was last day before the Demonic Games. Who knew how long they’d last? It might be that Infect would return to ordinary Dis too late, after Tissa was already gone from the sandbox.

That meeting when Alex had been eating those strange pastries (blya-shi, Malik remembered) and declared that he had been sentenced to the Ordeal was the last straw for Malik. The signal that it was all going to the Nether.

As soon as the Awoken left the sandbox, the clan and its leader had so much to reckon with that every day as he fell asleep, Malik was sincerely grateful that everything still seemed to be going well. The status of class-A ‘subthreat’ had tempting rewards, but getting them was another matter. Developing the maximum possible potential to the limit was impossible. But the penalties if Scyth was eliminated promised to equal the rewards. It might even involve losing characters. And what then?

Would the fairytale end? Would Malik have to go back to his parents’ slum and live with his idiot cousins? All of them, even his uncles, aunts and other relatives — they all dreamed of becoming millionaires. Thanks to Malik, of course. Thanks to little Saghir. That’s just what got to him. The contempt in their eyes was real as can be, but when they saw the chance to get rich and escape the slums to a better district, Saghir was suddenly ‘our famous Malik, our pride,’ and even grandpa Yusuf woke up and started taking an interest in life again, spending all day watching important talking heads discussing his grandson and his friends on the holovisor.

In any case, Malik started getting his parachute ready early. Especially when he saw how good Tissa was doing. Yes, she’d lost out in Dis, but made gains in real life. Her life was set up, her future guaranteed. But what would be Malik’s fate if something happened to Alex? Ed had scooped up all the financial operations, and Irita had been pulled into them too (How did she earn that? Malik wondered in surprise, but never voiced the thought). Hung himself had become a Threat, and even without Scyth, he would provide for himself — his divine quest chain into an underwater kingdom would ensure that! As for Alex… Well, Malik had no doubt at all that he’d squirreled away plenty for himself.

So the bard began to do the same. Scyth’s trust allowed him to set aside a few valuable finds, gear, money. It was all attached to him personally, not his character, so that was at least some insurance.

In his heart, Malik hated himself for acting this way. He was behaving like a rat. Grandpa Yusuf would never have approved. He would have beaten Malik with his cane and not only demanded that he give it all back, but that he kneel before his friends and beg them for forgiveness. And he’d be right! Ed, Hung, Alex and Tissa were Malik’s best friends. His only friends! When he was with them, he was truly happy. They had replaced his family. His father had always been overly strict with him for no good reason, as if trying to make up for Malik’s uselessness in the eyes of his relatives. And his mother… She feared to contradict his father, and although she never said it, she seemed to feel shame before her family. They had somehow managed to convince her that her son was the family’s shame, and it was her own fault for spoiling and humoring him. The result was that in public, she was even stricter with him than his father. And they never got to spend much time in private. The door was always wide open, the house more a public thoroughfare than home. No personal space whatsoever.

In short, two identities fought constantly within Malik. One, born in his childhood, was full of envy and believed that his friends didn’t value him, that they were tricking him, and their good words were merely a cover for laughter behind his back. The other, which emerged recently and was the more mature, loved his friends and was ready to give up anything for them. There was a third, too, the one in love with Tissa. It seemed that this was the one, combined with the first, that now guided Malik’s steps…

Infect checked the clan tab to see who was where. Scyth’s nick was gray, although he was still online. Apparently the Ordeal didn’t count as taking place in the world of Dis. The same had happened when Alex was stuck in the Nether. Crawler and Irita had gone to Kinema, and Bomber was moving toward the Kharinza coast. Perfect.

Infect activated Depths Teleportation to the Mountain Dams, where Bomber had caught his goldfish. The place wasn’t popular and was often deserted.

Tissa was waiting for him. As soon as he appeared, she invited him to her group, cast a regeneration spell on him and only then threw herself into his arms.

“I missed you so much!” she said.

“Likewise,” Malik answered, glancing impatiently at his teleport cooldown timer. “Let’s jump to the Blencatra Foothills, the mobs there start at level forty-five. Does that work? Nether, the junior debuff is killing me!”

“How long on the cooldown?”

“A minute…” Malik stepped back unwillingly. “We have time to talk. How are you?”

“Just great,” she answered, her tone making it clear to Malik that things weren’t going so well. “As soon as we’re done here, I’m flying out to see my dad. Shame you and the boys aren’t in the district, or we could have met up.”

“Actually… You must know already — Scyth and I are heading to the Demonic Games.”

“I heard about that. I’ve decided to enter too.”

“What?” Infect smiled in surprise. “Are you serious?”

“Why not? I have the right. Elizabeth liked the idea and came to an agreement with school.  It’s all arranged, so we’ll see each other there.”

“Are you doing this for Scyth?”

“What? No! I have a chance, so why not use it?” Suddenly, her face lit up with an idea. “Hey, we could fly there together! Me, you, Scyth…”

“I’m not sure he…” Infect stumbled. “I mean, we’ll be flying separately.”

“Has something happened?”

“He always has a million things to do. He’s going straight to the Games, but I’m going to stop off at home first. Need to pay my folks a visit.”

“That’s great!” the girl said. “When are you flying? Today? Does that mean we can get a drink somewhere?”

Infect wanted to answer that he was planning to set off tomorrow, but then thought: What the hell? The thought of seeing Tissa in real life excited him even more than the coming Demonic Games.

His vision turned red. The cooldown on Depths Teleportation was down to 2… 1…

Infect activated the ability, and a few seconds later they stood in a small grove in the Blencatra Foothills. Snow hid the base of the trees and a cold wind sighed through the air. Tissa shivered in her cloth equipment.

A branch snapped under the foot of a level 48 Hill Yeti. The humans caught the mob’s eye, but it was too wary of the bard’s superior level to come closer.

“See you tonight,” Infect said quickly, before the Exhaustion debuff killed Tissa. “For a… for a date, right?”

“Oh yeah, babe, we’ll have lots of fun!” she growled menacingly and laughed.

Then she died, the smile still on her lips. Infect crouched by her corpse, stroked her cheek, leaned down and kissed her. The body disappeared. He pulled out his guitar and ran a finger down the strings. The attacking riff boomed out through the area, blowing the yeti’s head into little pieces.

Returning to Mengoza, he messaged his friends to say that he’d decided to go see his parents earlier than planned. He invented a cousin’s birthday as an excuse.

While he packed his things, Willy got the flyer ready. He should have told Alex about his altered plans, but that was impossible, so Hairo made the decision himself.

Ed and Hung went to say good-bye to their friend.

“You have to win,” Ed said. “I’m sure Alex will survive the Ordeal, but I doubt he’ll make it to the Games in time. Sometimes the Ordeal takes two or three days. And latecomers aren’t allowed to enter the Games…”

“I know,” Malik answered, deciding in the end not to tell them that Tissa would also be entering. If he told them, he’d have to explain how he found out… “I know. But I hope Alex does make it.”

“Shame there’re no depths in real life,” Hung said. “Zip! And you’d be where you need…”

The comm vibrated and emitted Willy’s voice:

“We’re ready for you, Malik, head upstairs! Don’t forget your camo cap.”

All three boys went up to the roof together. They hugged as they parted.

As he took off, Malik looked down. Hung and Ed were walking toward the door and discussing something — they’d probably forgotten him and were talking about their very important business in Dis.

The flight gave him time both to daydream and to think about the building diagram for the Sanctuary of the Departed. The discovery was awesome, but he hadn’t yet found the last part. Plus, there was no direct benefit from it for Malik. Even Gyula would level up his construction skills by building the sanctuary.

Malik set aside two hours for meeting relatives. He was welcomed like a hero, with even grandpa emerging from his own reality and sitting his ‘beloved grandson’ down on his right side. What Malik had dreamed of since childhood had come to pass; his many cousins, who had mocked him only a few months ago, now watched him raptly, hanging on his every word.

On any other day, he would have stayed there longer to enjoy his triumph, but he had bigger things to think about that day; his second dream was knocking at the door, one that turned out to be far more significant to him.

So Malik waited out the two hours, listened to his relatives shower him with praise as if they’d been saving it up for sixteen years to throw it all at him now. Then he claimed he was pressed for time, hugged everyone who wanted it, shook the hands of even those he only vaguely remembered, then set off to see Tissa, sweating in anticipation.

He was five minutes late. The girl was waiting for him on a lively street, leaning with her back to the wall and foot up against it.

Tissa’s disguise was traditional: sunglasses, a baseball cap, a baggy hoodie and wide-leg trousers. It was hard to make out her face with the hood up. Malik had activated a camouflage hologram, so the girl didn’t spot him until he spoke to her. She flinched at first, turned her head, then lit up and threw her arms around him, hitting him with the scent of unfamiliar flowers.

“Malik, I’ve missed you all so much! Eeee!”

He froze like a statue, not knowing where to put his hands. He tentatively patted her on the back. He got angry at himself again; instead of showing the initiative, he was behaving like a jackass again.

“Where are we going?” he asked hoarsely.

“There’s a cheap restaurant in the next district where we can get a booth and keep a low profile,” the girl whispered, her breath tickling his ear. “We don’t want anyone to recognize us.”

They took a community flyer. Willy, assigned to the boy, kept an eye on them unnoticed to Tissa. Say nothing, the security officer whispered as he walked by them into the lounge. Malik nodded and forgot him immediately.

The young duo sat down in a reversed booth and ordered a real-meat steak each (Make it bloody! Tissa said as she made her choice on the robot waiter’s menu panel) and some beer. Then Malik finally removed his disguise.

Both were awkward at first — their lives had gone in very different directions, and so had their interests. On top of that, Malik was bound by a mental contract, and what did they have to talk about but clan affairs?

All the same, he unwittingly forgot everything else and got carried away in the conversation. Tissa told him colorful stories of her life and shared her plans for the future. She planned to break up with Liam, or he with her — Malik didn’t care which. Only the present moment had meaning.

“I had a lot of doubts before I accepted the offer from the White Amazons,” Tissa admitted. “I knew why they wanted me. All those tales about how I was a perfect fit for them, how my appearance fit in perfectly with the clan image, how my success story would be an example to millions of girls… I saw Hinterleaf on the island. I don’t know what’s between him and Elizabeth, but they’re clearly friends.” Tissa rubbed her forefingers together. “You get what I’m saying. They needed me because of Scyth. To be honest, I wasn’t sure they’d keep me for long. So I insisted on a clause in the contract which would force the White Amazons to pay for all my university tuition in advance. Then they could throw me out, it didn’t matter.”

“What are you going to study?”

“Nothing has changed, Malik. I love to paint. My dad didn’t even want to hear about it,” Tissa sighed, her voice changing to imitate Mr. Schafer: “Every girl and her cat is an artist now! And only one in a million can afford it!”

“What does he want?”

“Did want,” the girl corrected him. “Now he supports all my ideas. Of course — what does he have to worry about now? His bank balance is green, he has premium medical insurance, a new flyer as a gift from Elizabeth. Now he’s neck-deep in work, trying to raise his category. But he used to want me to go into world testing. A year of study and a year of unpaid internship and that’s it, you’re a qualified beta tester with guaranteed work. And guaranteed category-G citizenship, the limit of dad’s dreams.”

“So I’m eating with a future famous artist?” Malik chuckled. “Well, then we’re almost colleagues!”

“Yeah? Why?”

“I’m going to be a rock star.”

“Rock?” Tissa laughed. “Who listens to that now? Old farts? If you like music, get into crayjungle!”

“Nah…” Malik frowned. “That stuff makes my ears bleed. But rock… It’s real music, you know? The guitar and the strings are alive… I’m a bard after all, remember?”

“Haha! So what? I’m a healer in Dis, does that mean I should be a doctor? Come on…”

“I can do it,” he said seriously. “I’ve tried. An uncle gave me an old guitar. I had to change the strings, but apart from that, it works fine. And you know what?” He looked around conspiratorially, lowered his voice to a whisper. “I can play all the songs I wrote in Dis in real life! Really!”

“Bullshit,” Tissa frowned, sat back in her seat, not moving her eyes from him. Then she leaned back towards him, her eyes wide. “You aren’t joking, are you?”

“No jokes,” he said, smiling from ear to ear. “Shame I don’t have a guitar here or I’d show you…”

He shared with her his plans to become world-famous, told her how he would win glory by first performing in small taverns in Dis, then getting a band together and playing at the arenas. And the more he spoke, the more he believed his own words, although at first he was just trying to impress her.

“Do you remember when the Infinity Dragons played at the final of the Junior Arena?” Malik asked. “Well, they started in a sandbox tavern too! One day I’ll perform at the Arena final as well. And in real life! Maybe at Wembley Stadium — the whole place will be full, and billions will watch the stream!”

“I want to join your band!” Tissa said. “Let me be a backing singer!”

“Hmm, but I need someone who can sing for that,” Malik teased.

“Huh?! I can’t sing?” Tissa said, playing offended. “I’ll make you sing in a minute, you dumbass!”

She started punching him playfully and he fought back. A minute of playful struggle later and Tissa was sitting on top of him, his legs pinned beneath her, but Malik’s brain had switched off completely — all the blood had gone elsewhere. The girl checked herself and sat back down again, tousled and blushing. The moment to grab her and kiss her was gone.

“What do the boys think, anyway? About your plans, I mean,” Tissa asked. Malik didn’t hear her right away, but when he did, he sighed in annoyance. “What are Alex’s plans? I mean, apart from all the ‘citizenship’ stuff he has going on…”

Tissa had used their old code word for Threat status. Alex’s name rang out unwelcome in the semi-darkness of the cozy booth, destroying the intimacy of the moment and opening up old half-healed wounds. Jealousy reared its ugly head.

“The hell with Alex and his secrets,” he said. “Let’s discuss our strategy for the Games!”

Tissa’s expression turned serious. She straightened her back and coughed. She leaned closer and whispered:

“If Alex isn’t there, then let’s just stick together. Like in the good old days.”

“And if he shows up?”

“Then…” The girl’s hot breath played across Malik’s ear again. Goosebumps spread over his skin. “Listen carefully, this is very important…”


Chapter 1. Registration

Hairo flew our unprepossessing flyer to the European district where Snowstorm was hosting the nineteenth Demonic Games. The last few days had left me completely exhausted, and the Ordeal had been emotionally devastating. So I sat down in the passenger seat and spent most of the journey asleep, opening my eyes only when we passed through the border checks at citizen zones.

They started checking us particularly often after we crossed the Atlantic and entered European airspace, most of which belonged to high-category citizenship districts.

“You are approaching Snowstorm Lakes, a category-A citizen district. Your vehicle will be forcibly stopped at the zone border inspection station.”

The flyer slowed and began to follow a guiding beam of light. Hairo, whose status for serving in the peacekeepers was higher even than my parents’, turned to me:

“We might have some trouble now. I don’t have access to category-A zones. You did make a request to come in your own flyer, right?”

“Well… I just signed it, Maria took the biometrics. You’re down as the pilot, Hairo.”

“The confirmation hasn’t arrived,” the security officer shook his head.

The scanning rings lit up green and emitted a beep of approval as we flew through. We successfully passed the automated check for banned items and substances. Now we had to go get through identification. In the meantime, Hairo contacted Maria in the hope that the confirmation had gone to her, and I checked my own comm. Nothing.

“If they pull me out of the flyer, you go on alone,” the security officer said. “You can fly manual if you have to, right?”

“Pfft… Easy.”

Something else bothered me. There was less than an hour left. Any unforeseen delay and we might as well go home — latecomers were disqualified.

A flyer approached us, still recognizable as a Lamborghini Freccia beneath the black and gold police paint job. In districts like this, even the police zipped around in premium superflyers.

“Good evening, gentlemen!” a pleasant female voice greeted us. “What is the purpose of your visit to Snowstorm Lakes?”

“I’m entering the Demonic Games,” I answered.

“Wow! Another one! And you, pilot?”

“I’m a pilot of the Awoken company,” Hairo answered honestly. That was one of the security officer’s official roles. “I’m dropping the kid off and then heading back.”

“Please display your left wrists and look this way…” Without a doubt, the police already knew who we were, but protocol was protocol. “Thank you! Alex Kieran Sheppard, dependent category-F citizen, you are on the list. Welcome to Snowstorm Lakes!” A short pause and then the policewoman’s voice again: “Hmm… Mr. Morales, we have some questions for you. Please leave the pilot seat and approach the exit.”

The guiding beam landed our flyer on the checkpoint platform. It had checking services, additional inspection zones and even paid parking — far from all flyer models met the high standards of the upper-class district. The passengers and pilots of those were forced to leave their vehicles and continue on a community flyer.

Hairo left the cabin, but didn’t close the hatch behind him. He stuck his head back inside:

“I don’t think they’ll let me go any further. I’m not good enough for ‘em,” he chuckled. “You fly on, Alex.”

Glancing at the clock, I answered:

“Alright. Almost out of time… How are you going to get back?”

“Willy ain’t far. He brought Malik in this morning, then went to see an old army buddy of ours in the Polish district. He’ll pick me up. Anyway… Good luck, Alex!”

The door closed. I switched to the pilot’s seat, fought the urge to switch the flyer to manual for a moment before common sense took hold — I didn’t know this district and could easily get lost. Hairo had set the route back in Cali; all I had to do was press the ‘Continue flight’ button.

Europe… I’d been here on vacation after grade six. My parents had just finished a big project and saved enough for a decent getaway. They decided to make the trip both fun and educational by taking a tour round Europe. The vacation ended up mixed — a few days on beaches in Spain and Greece and tours through the historical places of Italy, France and England. My favorite part of that trip was a night in the restored Colosseum, where we went to watch the Global Gladiator League battles. Robots fought against robots and non-citizens against non-citizens — to the death. I remember mom covering my eyes at the worst moments. Why are they doing this? I thought in confusion. Now I know why. They fought for citizenship. The top gladiators joined the elite of society.

I looked down on Snowstorm Lakes without much curiosity. The district was in the Bavarian area, with high mountains in the background. Unlike Dubai, there were no skyscrapers, and it was hard even to call the place spread out beneath me a city. A huge zone of untouched nature with dewdrops gleaming on rich greenery — that’s how the lakes looked from above as they reflected the sunset. Luxury villas, mansions and whole castles hid among the trees.

One of those was the Ruhm und Ehre hotel, chosen by Snowstorm to host the Demonic Games this year. I’d seen holographs of the interior — only the outer walls of the castle remained, with everything inside done up in a modern style.

Ruhm und Ehre wasn’t Snowstorm’s only hotel. The corporation owned dozens of such establishments all over the world, so the Dis developers had never held the Demonic Games in the same place twice.

I spotted the castle hotel from afar. It was hard not to notice it. It stood out clearly against the background of the virgin forest, although it somehow didn’t look out of place. It seemed the huge and ancient ten-story structure had stood there untouched since medieval times. A stone arch decorated the brick castle wall, with turrets of rough stone at its corners, and beyond them the castle itself, dotted here and there with more turrets and towers of all sizes, piercing the gray clouds like daggers. The old stone walls were moss-covered and worn by bad weather and the burning sun, or at least they seemed to be. And somewhere down there far below, green firs brushed the stone monolith of the foot of the castle…

A couple of minutes later, the flyer slowed and landed softly in a parking lot in front of the castle that fit elegantly into the landscape, hidden behind tall firs and pines and almost invisible from above. The parking lot looked out over a clear view of the mountain gorge and drawbridge.

“Destination reached: Ruhm und Ehre hotel, Snowstorm Lakes district,” the on-board AI reported. “Ambient temperature at…”

I didn’t bother listening to the weather report, just jumped straight out of the flyer, almost knocking over a bellboy — a real one, not a robot — and running along the path leading to the gates, where a crowd of reporters and herds of camera drones hovered.

Sheppard, confirming, came a commanding voice from one of the security guard’s comms. The hotel’s security service encircled me, keeping the journalists, streamers and bloggers back as they rushed to meet me. Paying no attention to the flood of questions and the microphones pointed at me, I walked through the gates into the inner courtyard. There were no reporters here, but there was a whole cordon of police droids.

A massive imposing man towered over me:

“Mr. Sheppard? Welcome to the Games. We’ll just clarify a few things before you go in. You have been told that throughout the event, all participants are forbidden from any communication with the outside world, apart from accredited journalists?”

“Yes. I have no communication devices with me.” I’d left my comm at the base.

“Alright. Raise your arms and pass through the arch.”

I did just that, and judging by the lack of an alarm, I passed the check.

“Thank you, Mr. Sheppard!” the guard said. “Good luck in the Games!”

Thanking him, I entered the castle and stopped to look around. The hotel’s hall was full to bursting and voices filled the air. People were gathered around the carved marble columns and talking excitedly, holding glasses of juice or wine. Human and robot waiters drifted between them. The former carried drinks while the latter offered finger food.

My eyes paused on the holographic sign beneath the ceiling. Burning letters triumphantly announced: “Welcome to the Demonic Games XIX!” Beneath the greeting was an arrow pointing to the right and down: Registration.

I started heading that way. I quickly felt eyes on me and heard the even hum of voices switch to whispers. Finally, I was across the hall and at the registration desk.

A clerk in medieval clothes sat there as if snoozing, his head bowed over a leather-bound book. A holomask gave him elvish features. His arrow-like brows jutted out to either side like a cat’s whiskers. Next to him stood three shapely women in the leather armor of experienced forest trackers.

“Good evening!” the platinum blonde greeted me. “How can I help you?”

A holographic label hovered above her: Irime, elf, level 1,000 Assistant. The label above the clerk read Ravencrow, Royal Scribe.

“I’m Alex Sheppard. Scyth. I’m here to enter the Demonic Games by invitation from King Eynyon.”

Leaning over the scribe, she translated into elvish:

“Ha na Scyth…”

Only then did Ravencrow raise his head, study me with his gaze and open his book. He leafed through it, ran a finger down the lines and stopped at my name. Our entire conversation from that point went through Irime the translator.

“Summoned Scyth, what made you answer the call?” Ravencrow asked.

“The path of justice brought me here,” I said, repeating the phrase mentioned in the message from Snowstorm. “I wish to become a Demon Fighter, to rise up to defend Disgardium on Judgment Day.”

I sensed a crowd forming behind me. Disapproval and even hatred burned into my back. Someone laughed and commented:

“Said the guy who killed thousands of innocents! Defend, my ass…”

“He’s a brainless freeloader!” an older grating voice added.

“Unworthy!” some girl squawked. “Go back to your hole, Sheppard!”

“We demand he be banned from participating!” came from all around.

“Go home, kid!” a rough male voice barked. “You don’t have a chance!”

“Hey, cheater!” This one shouted right in my ear. Turning my head, I saw the harsh face of a gray-haired man in a dinner jacket with a bow-tie. “Remember Kinema? You answer me!”

I’d expected something like this, but I was still shocked. So much concentrated hatred in just a few seconds! With some effort, I straightened my slouching shoulders and back, raised my head and turned around to look at the diverse crowd. Young and old, they all looked amazing. Healthy, fit, flourishing. Each had achieved great success in Dis through hard work and patience. And here I was, a contradiction to everything on which their self-importance was built. An ordinary schoolboy from an ordinary family who happened to be in the right time and place to become a top-tier Threat.

Suddenly, Malik’s curly head flashed in the crowd, along with… Tissa? She was here too! I felt a little easier and started to look for them again in the crowd, but that man’s face appeared before me again:

“Hey, kid! Look me in the eye when I’m speaking to you!” Bow-tie said, turning to the crowd and shouting: “He doesn’t give a damn about us! Throw him out of here and be done with it! Shame I can’t lay a finger on him!”

Neither the guards nor the Snowstorm employees paid any attention to what was going on. I rubbed my face, kept my eyes on the furious man, then reached out and adjusted his cockeyed bow-tie:

“Easy to be brave here in real life. What did you say your nick was in Dis?”

Bow-tie choked, reddened, said nothing. I turned away and didn’t turn back again, ignoring the rising wave of indignation. I pretended like the damage from the words just raised my psychological Resilience. Words can’t hurt you unless you let them.

The scribe had been silently watching the exchange and now pinned me with a hazy stare, his eyes as if covered in white film. It looked like he was reading data right on his retina — must be some new technology that hadn’t yet reached the mass market.

“Summoned Scyth,” Ravencrow suddenly said. “You have arrived in time. Your entry is confirmed! Welcome to the Demonic Games!”

The furious hum of the crowd drowned out his next words. The people split into groups and spread out through the hall, chattering disappointedly.

The three ‘elf girls’, their smiles blinding, handed me a backpack branded with the Dis logo and full of souvenirs, a platinum token that would add ten thousand phoenixes to my account (for gifts for relatives after the Games ended, one of the girls said) and several books and booklets: Complete Encyclopedia of Disgardium, The Demonic Games: The Complete Rulebook and a ream of other pamphlets including a map of the hotel. They also gave me a special comm — it wouldn’t contact anyone outside the hotel except Disgardium Daily, and it had a bunch of pre-installed applications to allow the participants to communicate amongst themselves.

I turned my head in search of Malik and Tissa, but couldn’t find them. But I did see one interested glance among the sea of despising eyes — a tall and thin man with a big smile winked at me and waved. I nodded and he came closer. His multicolored locks stuck out in all directions. He looked around twenty, but could easily have been forty — if he was a high-category citizen, he could have ‘frozen’ his appearance.

“Loran,” he introduced himself, offering a hand. “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Sheppard.”

“Just Alex,” I said.

“Sure,” he smiled even wider. “Or Scyth. Let’s take a walk? Everyone is watching. And listening, for sure!”

We moved off to the side. Loran grabbed a couple of glasses from a waiter’s tray and offered one to me. I sipped it and grimaced; dry white wine. Mom’s favorite.

“You kept your cool pretty well, Alex!” Loran said so loudly that many turned around. “I didn’t hear what you said to that man, but it looked like he was having a stroke! Do you know who he is?”

“No clue.”

“It’s Ketzal. Heard of him? No? Damn, what rock have you been living under? Ah, sorry!” He smiled disarmingly again. “Of course, that makes sense, why would you know them in real life? Ketzal is from the Excos, a top gladiator in the Arena. He started from the very bottom, which is probably why he didn’t like it much when you rolled right over him and his buddies at Kinema. Rumor has it they lost some top PvP gear that cost them years of Honor Badges…”

A voice boomed through a loudspeaker in the ceiling:

“Mr. Sheppard, please approach the registration desk. Mr. Sheppard…”

Loran shrugged:

“Snowstorm wants you. Alright, it was nice to meet the legend! Want to team up in the Games?”


“Okay, I’ll find you. I’ll be a werewolf, nick Messiah.”

I shook his thin hand and then walked back to the registration desk, still looking around for my friends. When I approached, the ‘elf girls’ took me by the arms and led me through the background hologram of a forest glade behind Ravencrow the scribe’s table. There stood a bald lady around thirty years old, her eyebrows shaved and her face covered in thick gothic makeup. For a moment, I felt like I was looking right into the face of a legate of the Destroying Plague.

“Thank you, girls, I’ll take him from here!” she said in a singsong voice and offered me a hand: “Hello, Alex. I’m your personal assistant. The name’s Kerry.”


Chapter 2. A Stab in the Back

“Miss…” I said to her, trying to make out whether she wore a wedding ring. There was a ring, and more than one! Two on each finger.

“Pleased to meet you!” she said, chains jangling from her strange black gown covered with cuts. She gave me her arm and said happily: “Just Kerry, Alex. Like I said, I’m your assistant. Let’s hurry, we need to record your video message and get you scanned!”

As she said this, Kerry led me toward a silver door behind a column in the corner of the hall.

“Quicker this way,” she said. “Your arrival really riled up the people. They signed a petition to have you disqualified, did you know that?”

“No, how could I? I only just got through an Ordeal…”

“Ah… the Ordeal, yes, of course. That’s why Ravencrow hesitated. Management was uncertain…”

“About what?”

The door took us into a long service corridor. Kerry sped her pace, not answering. We reached a lift and she pressed a button. A broad scanning beam passed across her face and the doors opened. Inside, Kerry pressed a button marked DG — Training Grounds on the control panel and only then answered me:

“You see… You were added to the list of entrants, but nobody expected you to make it here. So the petition wasn’t taken seriously either: why set a precedent when gameplay would sort things out? You weren’t even assigned an assistant…”

“Aren’t you my assistant?”

“I am, but I only found out half an hour ago when you arrived at Snowstorm Lakes. I actually work in the PR department. The other contestants have assistants hired on a one-time contract. That means your character and information sheet for the viewers won’t be as flashy as the others’. You shouldn’t have…” Kerry yawned, covering her mouth. “Sorry. Didn’t sleep much. I meant to say, next time don’t be late if you want a proper welcome with fairies and fireworks.”

“Yeah, you’re not much of a fairy…”

“Exactly, bro, exactly!” Kerry grinned.

Her teeth were painted too. Black.

The lift doors opened. We emerged onto a service floor filled with bustling Snowstorm employees.

“The Demonic Games Department works its hardest one month out of the year. The rest of the time it spends getting ready for it,” Kerry said. “But nobody envies them, because… Well, see for yourself…”

Waving to a man sitting down and thoughtfully eating a burger, she shouted:

“Vel, Sheppard’s here!”

“Who? Didn’t you say he’s not coming?” he shouted back angrily. His burger fell from his hands and covered his knees with tomato sauce. Vel threw the remnants of his food into a wastebasket in annoyance. “Take him to section six first! God, what did I do to deserve all this? We haven’t even compiled the kernel yet!”

“Hey, Alex! Could I take a selfie with you?” asked a girl with layers of makeup and bronzer on her face and a twinkle in her eye. She clicked her comm into camera mode. “Why the long face, huh?! Say ‘ti-i-itties’!”

I smiled automatically, but didn’t even have time to ask the girl’s name before Kerry dragged me along another spacious corridor full of unpacked boxes and heaps of cables. A real two-handed sword leaned against the wall. A corgi ran by us, a projection collar on its neck making its head look like a dragon’s. The little guy barked and flame blew from his dragon mouth.

People bustled behind transparent partitions. Finding myself behind the scenes at a global show, I looked around with interest. I felt some envy for these people, so engrossed in their work.

In section six, I was asked to undress and climb into a medical capsule. For several minutes in total silence and darkness, the system took my physical readings, then Kerry led me to the testing hall.

The testing hall was something like a library that had opened an archery range, and one of its visitors had left behind a barbell. All kinds of devices were built into the walls, one of them a punching bag for measuring strike strength.

An analyzer was placed on me. An athletically built girl led me through the hall. I lifted a magnetic barbell, first bench presses, then squats. The girl recorded the data. Then I hit the punching bag, ran on a special panel, jumped up and down, stretched out…

After the physical tests followed mental ones. I was asked to solve a range of puzzles designed to test thinking, attentiveness and memory.

Then I spoke to a psychologist. He asked tricky questions:

“You and a friend kill a local boss. According to the loot distribution rules, he gets the item, but it’s more suitable for you. Your friend decides to sell it at the auction house. What do you do?”

The torture lasted almost two hours until Kerry fed me some chili chocolate and led me to a studio. The chocolate burned my tongue, and I guzzled some soda to try to cool down . I started breathing faster, through my mouth. Kerry misunderstood the source of my suffering:

“Almost done, Alex. Your fault for being late! We’ll going to record a video message for the contestant sheet…”

There were fewer people in the studio, but everyone was still engrossed in their work. Nobody paid us any mind.

“Sheppard is here! Hey!” Kerry shouted. “Come in! A-class Threat here!”

The reaction to my surname was weak, but the mention of ‘Threat’ perked up some ears. A stylist and makeup artist dragged me off to their lair, escorted by my assistant. They made me try on a few outfits and settled on a ‘School Thug’ look. I didn’t come up with that, that name was just in their system. Knee-high boots, torn black trousers, a gray t-shirt emblazoned with the dumb phrase “Don’t threaten the Threat hiding in Darant”, which changed to animated advertising: “The undead faction is your path to success!”, “Say no to tiredness! Turn undead!”, “Turn undead and join the bloodshed!” featuring a handsome zombie dressed like Elvis.

The stylist worked on my hairstyle too, tousling my hair.

“A scar, I need a scar on the brow!” the chubby and aging man with rosy cheeks said. He stroked his beard, leaned down, looked at me, then brightened. “No, not a scar… Something else! Earrings! That’s it! Karim, grab some earrings for Alex!”

“Stunning!” the stylist’s assistant crowed.

“Earrings, Dante, really?” Kerry said in surprise. “Leave the boy his individuality!”

“That’s not what they pay me for,” he waved dismissively.

“No earrings!” I said and sneezed. The makeup artist had gotten powder in my mouth.

“Well, alright, just one! It’ll suit you perfectly, Alex, my dear!” Dante said, clasping his hands together. “The world sees you as a villain! All those people… They must see that you’re an awesome cute guy with a refined aesthetic sense!”

“No!” I objected, covering my ears just to make sure. “And no scar either. Hey, what are you doing?”

The makeup artist was running a brush across my eyebrows.

“Makes them more expressive,” he answered, a bald man literally covered in piercings. He stuck the tip of his tongue out of the corner of his mouth and nodded. “A little more white pomade for flare…”

I jumped up from the chair and hid behind Kerry. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow:

“Enough. Thank you. Wonderful as always, Dante! You too, Karim.”

“Always at your service!” Dante answered.

“Say hi to Chloe for me,” Karim answered.

Kerry led me to the studio. I was seated on a black chair in the center of a black room, a drone with a microphone hovering next to me. They raced through the talking points I was meant to bring up. It was all in Snowstorm’s email, and I wasn’t surprised.

The lights switched on, blinding me. The operator counted down with their fingers — three, two, one, action!

“Hi!” I said, seeing nothing at all through the light bearing down on me. I think my eyes started watering. “I’m Alex Sheppard. I responded to a summons from King Eynyon to fight for the rank of Demon Fighter.”

“Stop, stop!”

The lights shut off. The director, who Kerry called Tim, approached.

“Alex, dear boy, are you really the Sheppard we all know? Where is the anger, the expressiveness? You’re the greatest Threat in the history of Dis! The people want to see a cool dude, not some shy schoolkid! Do it again, but with feeling! Remember how you addressed the world in Vermillion! Feel your emotions anew, say it like in your speech above the Widowmakers’ former castle! Go on!”

“Alright, Tim.”

By the sixth take, I was baking. It was hot in the studio, the air conditioning wasn’t doing enough, and my back wouldn’t stop itching from the sweat. In tandem with Kerry, Tim the director got what he wanted — I got so worked up that I finally lost my temper, and the speech went great:

“My name is Alex Sheppard. In Disgardium I am known as Scyth, the class-A Threat! I’m in the Demonic Games to win..!”

The formalities were done. Kerry and I went back to the lift, and there she told me what would happen next:

“I’m about to take you on a short tour, and then I’ll show you your room. If we hurry, you’ll have time to give a couple of interviews before the Games begin.”

The lift doors opened and she beckoned for me to go first. I stopped, not knowing where to go; before me extended a spacious and bright conservatory filled with plants, palm trees, six-foot-tall grass with meaty stalks, even a bamboo grove. The glut of color made my eyes widen. The high ceiling was hidden behind an imitation blue sky. The wall behind me was made to look like the face of a cliff.

“The recreation zone,” Kerry explained. “All the entertainment you need: twelve restaurants, a cinema, pool, petting zoo, gym, spa…”

We walked along paths winding like forest trails and covered with soft carpet bearing a three-dimensional pattern that imitated stone.

“At night, this whole place changes,” my assistant said. “This level turns into a small resort town, the Boom Boom nightclub opens, along with some bars, a casino and… Uhh… Are you over sixteen?”

“Of course!”

“Oh, great!” she winked. “If you want, there are rooms for intimate relaxation here. Check the catalog, there’s plenty of choice!”

“Sexbots?” I clarified, blushing.

“Hmm… Are you sure you’re sixteen?” Kerry giggled. “See for yourself. I won’t spoil the surprise.”

The level was deserted — almost all the entrants to the Games were gathered below.

“Meeting, talking,” Kerry explained. “Most of them arrived yesterday, some even the day before. In… yep, in six minutes the hotel will let the journalists in, that’s why the contestants are hanging around down there. They all want their time to shine for the viewers… You know how it is, a lot depends on the sympathy of the public in the Games! The opening stream will start right after the shared meal. At midnight local time.”

Midnight seemed to be Snowstorm’s favorite time. The ball at Distival had begun at twelve too.

We toured the whole level, but didn’t go inside anywhere. All I could do was look through doors and spin my head. Unfortunately, I saw none of the promised ‘rooms of intimate relaxation.’ But I did manage to stroke a fierce-looking white rabbit in the petting zoo — that took a lot of willpower after the Nether. It was soft as a pillow.

“You have five levels in total,” Kerry said between yawns as she stroked a listless lizard. “The two upper floors are living quarters, we’ll get to them soon. The third is the immersion level. Each contestant has their own individual capsule. The settings are taken from your own devices. The fourth is where we are now, the rest and relaxation level. The contestants gather here to talk and share impressions after each day of the Games.”

“What about the fifth?”

“The fifth floor is the media center. It’s for reporters and official events. After you settle into your room, I’ll take you there. That’s where the shared meal will be, by the way.”

We went up one floor from the recreation area. Kerry led me to my room.

“Damn, I almost forgot! Chloe asked me to take you to see her before the interview! Do you need a lot of time to get ready?”

“I’ll just wash off this powder,” I grumbled, although I was dreaming of a shower.

“There’s clothes in your size in the wardrobe if you need them! But best you don’t get changed, I think Dante made you look just great!”

There were no personal items in my room apart from what I had on me before the visit to the stylists. Hairo had only given me three minutes to pack for Alaska. I only had time to put my hoodie on.

Looking around the room quickly, I chuckled – no worse than what I had in Dubai, more spacious if anything. It was all modern, but with retro styling: thronelike chairs, a natural-wood imitation table, a bed with a carved wooden headboard and a cupboard that was simply a work of art, with a carved door and gilded curved handle. I couldn’t help but stroke the back of a chair, and I noticed the material didn’t seem like plastic. It was real wood!

Throwing my clothes into the laundry basket, I put the comm the organizers had given me on my arm, went into the bathroom, washed off everything the makeup artist had put on my face, then fixed my hair.

“Hmm… Pale again,” Kerry shook her head. “Shame you washed it off. Karim made you look healthy, but now you look like a vampire. You should get more sun, Alex! Or isn’t there much sun where you live?”

“Very little,” I lied, sending potential pursuers on a false trail. Cali got plenty of sun all year round, I just didn’t have any windows. “It rains all the time…”

More running through corridors, a lift, another of the hotel’s service floors, this time for the managers of the Demonic Games. It was quiet and empty. And, amazingly after what I’d seen in my room and the hall – it was humble. In one of the corridor sections, we stopped at a door labeled ‘Chloe Cliffhanger, Community and Connections Director.’

Kerry knocked, then opened the door a touch.

“Miss Cliffhanger, I have Sheppard here.”

“Come in,” a sharp woman’s voice answered.

Behind the door was a spacious room outfitted as an office. A young-looking woman in a beige pantsuit and golden-rimmed glasses walked over to greet us.

Chloe offered me a hand:

“Hey, Alex, how was your trip?” The woman gestured to a black sofa, the only dark item in her office. “Take a seat,” she said, turning to Kerry. “You’re dismissed for now, wait outside the door. We won’t be long.”

My assistant walked out, leaving me alone with Cliffhanger. I bit my lip, not knowing what to expect. I doubted that high-ranking Snowstorm executives talked to every contestant like this.

The woman offered me a drink, but I refused. Then she sat down next to me, looked me hard in the eyes.

“Alex, you know how highly we at Snowstorm value gameplay. We know what you’ve been thorugh…” I heard sympathy in her voice. “You’ve become an outcast. Your time in the Nether…”

“Hold on! Did you say the Nether? You confirm that it exists, then?”

“The Nether?” Chloe asked, her eyes wide and face blank. “What do you mean, Alex? Oh, you mean the mythical game zone? But it’s inaccessible to players! I meant it metaphorically, the abyssal situation you found yourself in…”

Sure. She knew, but there was no way she was going to admit it. I’d already guessed what she wanted.

“What’s this conversation about, Miss Cliffhanger?”

“You don’t beat around the bush…” Chloe said thoughtfully. Sitting back on the sofa, she looked at me again with fresh eyes. “Alright, I’ll be straight with you. Your victory in the games would not be good for us. Nor for anybody else. What would the people say? Even now, they call you a cheater. All the contestants have signed a petition to get you banned…”

“I know.”

“Then you must know what awaits you. My superiors will reward you generously for your loyalty. Alex, you’re about to meet with the journalists and make a statement.”

“A statement?”

“You’ll say that you changed your mind, that you’re resigning from the Demonic Games. We’ll make a show of trying to convince you to stay, but you’ll refuse. A mutual acquaintance of ours asked me to convey to you that you will get what was promised if you do this… And what you said you would do before.”


She remained silent, only half-closing her eyes for an instant. I got the picture – that lying son of a bitch wouldn’t lift a finger to do what he promised. So they want to play, huh? Alright, let’s play!

“I agree,” I said.

Chloe sighed in relief and smiled widely.

“My man! Good decision! Best for everyone!” She brought her comm to her lips. “Kerry, we’re done here!”

The assistant led me to the press center. Cliffhanger gave her her instructions alone, but I figured out what they were later.

It was loud in the press center corridor. A multitude of reporters all rushed toward us to ask me questions, but Kerry blocked their path. She raised her hands:

“Mr. Sheppard will not be answering any questions before his official statement! Everybody please move to the press conference hall!”

The other contestants watched me, frowning after instantly losing all the reporters’ attention when I walked in. Camera drones swarmed around like a cloud of midges, getting shots of me from all angles. Kerry walked along with her head raised proudly; a little of the fame of the class-A Threat bounced off me onto her. The whole world was watching us.

The woman led me to a conference table with microphones, sat me down and disappeared behind me.

The hall was filled to the brim with hundreds of journalists, buzzing, crowding by the door, rattling chairs as they sat down. The contestants were there too, pressed against the back wall. The chairs next to me were empty.

A tired young woman in a Snowstorm t-shirt was seating the journalists. She held a microphone:

“Mr. Katz, Disgardium Daily, your seat is there!” She lit up the second row. Mr. Katz asked something and the woman answered: “No, the first row is for accredited streamers. Yes, yours are on the list too! No! I will not change the seating…”

Looking around, I foresaw the spectacle that set to unfold. Holographic labels over the chairs showed all the speakers of the conference: Chloe Cliffhanger, Alex Sheppard, Kiran Jackson. It all became clear as day. They had counted on me failing at the Ordeal, but just in case, they had a plan B: Sheppard would resign from the contest, lose his chance to get Concentrated Life Essence and accept Kiran’s offer, which required him to destroy the Sleeping temples and delete his character. Dis would lose its Threat, and the Sleepers their Initial. Everybody would be happy except Behemoth and a few hundred non-citizens.

Two people emerging from the crowd caught my eye: Malik and Tissa. My heart quickened and I waved to them:

“Malik, Tissa, over here!”

Without looking at me, they walked past the journalists, stood before them with their back to me and raised their hands, calling for attention.

“We have an announcement to make!” my friends shouted.

“Excuse me, please go back to…” the woman organizing the journalists began, but Tissa grabbed her microphone and interrupted her:

“Hi! I’m Melissa Schafer. My friend and I have an announcement!”

Malik stood next to her and leaned into the microphone:

“I’m Malik Abdualim. Infect.”

“We’re from Sheppard’s clan. From the Awoken,” Tissa said.

There was jeering, whistling. The noise rose and Malik raised his voice:

“We officially declare that we are leaving the Awoken! We understand what we might be risking; after all, the Threat might not let us go! But in that case we swear that we will harm the clan until Scyth frees us!”

“We want nothing to do with Sheppard!” Tissa shouted.

It was as if a taut string in my soul had suddenly snapped. What were they saying? What was going on?

The noise of the onlookers began to subside, but the journalists all shot to their feet. Questions rained down from all sides.

“We’ve suffered Sheppard’s arrogance for too long,” Malik said, his voice ringing. “We’ve had enough!”

“Alex Sheppard is a fame-blind piece of shit!” Tissa shouted. “From now on, please remember that we have nothing to do with him! We hate him! He’s our enemy!”

“And…” Malik laughed, turning to me. “Melissa and I are together now!”

My former friend embraced Tissa and kissed her on the lips. The kiss was long, and the hall erupted in laughing approval. A spatter of applause turned into a thundering ovation. The crowd started chanting:

“Class-A Threat, class-A loser!” It sounded so harmonious that it was as if they’d been practicing for days. “Class-A Threat, class-A loser!”

I caught a sympathizing glance from Ian Mitchell. Next to him sat a short and balding man in horn-rimmed glasses – Clark Katz, editor-in-chief at Disgardium Daily. He frowned, studying my reaction.

Anger bubbled inside me like molten lava, burning with the desire to break free, but I clenched my will in my fist and somehow kept my back straight, my head up and my expression stony. I just ground my teeth.

Hairo had said that I might have a hard time with the other contestants. He even predicted Malik’s behavior: You kids are going to be on your own there, he had said. It’s fully possible that the corporation finds a way to get to your friend. My predictions might not come true, but best be prepared for everything.

Staring at a single point, I disassociated from the jeers, from the image of Malik and Tissa embracing, from everyone shaking their hands and slapping them on the back. What next? Should I expect betrayal from the other Awoken? A feeling built in my chest that the lava had frozen, had all burnt out and left only ash behind, and now even that was dropping into a cavernous black hole that swallowed up my enthusiasm, my joy at having arrived at the Games in time, my hopes… Trixie, Malik, Tissa… Who next? Hung? Ed? Irita?

“Ahem…” Someone coughed into a microphone and knocked on it. “Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of your silence and attention please! Mr. Sheppard, and Snowstorm directors Mr. Jackson and Miss Cliffhanger are about to give a joint statement!”

Jolted back to reality, I suddenly realized I was no longer alone. To my left sat Kiran, to my right – Chloe. Smiling, businesslike. Jackson, leaning down beneath the table as if to pick something up, sprayed some Accelerant into his mouth.

The room fell silent. The eyes of three hundred contestants and just as many journalists all fell on me. In the sea of faces, I saw only the three I knew well: Malik and Tissa, exulting, triumphant, and Ian Mitchell, sympathetic. The old journalist caught my eye, nodded encouragingly and closed his eyes for a moment.

“Mr. Sheppard?” The host of the press conference reminded me why I was there.

“Hello…” I said, tapping the microphone to make sure it worked before continuing. “As you all know, I nearly didn’t make it to the Games. I arrived in the final hour of registration, so I didn’t get much chance to talk to people. But what I did hear was enough. Nobody here wants me to compete. People think I don’t deserve it, that all my victories were dishonest. I can’t fully agree with that, but I do admit that I owe all my successes in Dis to my unique status…”

I paused and Kiran immediately started off his script:

“What are you talking about, Alex, buddy? You can’t mean you want to resign?”

“Oh, God, Alex, don’t do it!” Chloe said, flinging up her hands almost naturally. “The Demonic Games is the perfect place for you to prove that your success is anything but random!”

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re here to report an unprecedented event!” Kiran said, smiling and addressing the whole hall. “For the first time since the inception of the Games, a globally renowned Threat has entered! But the opening night may be marred by some sad news…”

He turned and looked at Chloe. Cliffhanger picked up the speech like a professional runner in a verbal relay race:

“Well, it’s quite understandable. Young Alex has been through so much… Just so much!” She clasped her hands together. “The weight of all that responsibility, the constant challenges from the entire game…”

“And global!” Kiran said.

“Yes, and global community. It’s a terrible shame that the world is going to miss out on Alex in the Games! Snowstorm tried to convince him to change his mind. Heck, we still are trying, right, Kiran?”

“That’s right,” Kiran shook his head. “I’m sure it’s not over yet and Alex will think again…”

“I would like to remind everyone gathered here of the words of founding father Mike Anderson!” Chloe said imploringly. “Mr. Anderson said that Threats are an important part of Disgardium…”

She continued her speech, convincing the entire hall with total certainty that Alex Sheppard would no longer be taking part, and that this was a terrible loss for the Demonic Games. My lips smiled on their own – I was imagining their faces when I said what I was about to say.

Finishing, Cliffhanger turned to look at me.

“What do you say, Alex?”

“I can’t disagree with Mr. Anderson,” I said. Chloe nodded approvingly and Kiran clapped me on the shoulder. “And you really make a strong argument…”

“Your decision?”

“I agree with you, you’re right!” I said, addressing the hall. “Listen, I admit that I leveled up thanks to my status. But the Demonic Games makes us all equal, right? I’m going to try and prove that I can successfully play without the perks of being a Threat. I’m going to take part! I can’t deprive the audience of the sight they’ve been waiting so long to see…” I finished, spreading my arms.

Then the real chaos started. Kiran started hyperventilating, Chloe stood opening and closing her mouth and the journalists shouted questions. Somewhere out in the great nothing, the Sleepers stopped tossing and turning. The streamers in the first row shouted as they commentated their feed.

Behind them, Ian Mitchell was roaring with laughter and rubbing tears from his eyes. He slapped Katz on the shoulder. Katz gave me a thumbs-up.


Chapter 3. Cursed Outcast

No matter how brave a face I put on when I said I was staying in the Games, no matter how Kiran’s twisted snarl of fury warmed my heart, I still felt mostly dead.

My emotions showed only while I spoke, shored up by Ian’s silent support and my own confidence that I was doing the right thing. But then…

An icy indifference overtook me, as if I’d brought Cold-Blooded Punisher into the real world with me. The sight of Malik and Tissa embracing didn’t bother me, nor the catcalls from particularly vindictive contestants, nor the falsely sympathetic questions from the journalists. My brain seemed to understand – just a little more and I’d either fall into the despairing dark of depression or I’d go insane. Or maybe it was the Sleepers helping me – they always seemed to be with me, somehow. Whatever the reason, my state didn’t change: I stopped feeling emotions, deciding to do what I must and let be what would be.

Ian disappeared into one of the press center’s capsules after whispering to me that my friends (if they even were friends) Edward Rodriguez and Hung Lee had contacted him, wanting to comment on the situation with Tissa and Malik.

I stayed sat behind the table, my arms crossed, seeing nothing until I suddenly realized that someone had been shaking me for some time:

“Alex! Hey, Alex!” I turned and saw Kerry. “Well, thank Two-horns, you woke up! Come on, the communal meal is about to start! That’s it now, kiddo, you’re officially a contestant in the Demonic Games and obliged to follow the organizers’ rules! You have a contract!”

I made myself stand up. Kerry stroked my cheek and said quietly:

“Now you’ve done it… Chloe is screaming and crying, Kiran is out of his mind with rage!”

“I have to compete. They all think I’m a coward since I didn’t accept the challenge in the desert.”

“I know, I know…” She sniffled, hugged me and held me close. I scented sweet perfume that reminded me of rotting flesh. “I know. They all just see your status, but they forget you’re just a kid…”

“Ahem,” someone delicately coughed nearby.

Pushing myself away awkwardly, I saw a girl on rollerskates, in a tube top and the shortest skirt I’d seen in my life. The girl smiled warmly, but her eyes were serious. One flashed red – she was streaming.

“Hey, Alex! You’re live on the air! All forty million of my subscribers are watching you and they’re bombarding me with questions. Will you answer some?”

“Do it,” Kerry whispered. “Win them over!”

Nodding, I forced a smile:

“Hey!” It was hard for me to concentrate; the girl’s legs ended at around the level of my stomach. “Hey, uhm…” 

“Oh, sorry, I thought you know me,” the streamer said, blushing. “I’m Lia Solo, but that doesn’t matter, millions are watching you. I’m not here, I’m just the eyes of the audience!”

I got a grip on myself and spoke:

“Hey, Lia! Hey, viewers! You probably saw what happened. My friends… former friends, Tissa and Malik… That was sudden. And it hurt. So sorry if I don’t seem too friendly right now… Anyway, ask your questions.”

“Oh, yeah! We’re sooo sorry that happened!” Lia cooed. “What are you feeling right now?”

“Sadness. Disappointment.”

“Be yourself!” Kerry whispered in my ear.

“Hell, I’m having a shit time, guys! I’m used to hate from strangers, but friends… That’s something else.”

“We know just how you feel, Alex!” Lia clapped her hands together. Her sympathy even seemed sincere. “Another question. Your class, Herald. Tell us, what’s special about it? There’s nothing about it online or in the game encyclopedia!”

“I’m very charismatic,” I laughed. “That’s a decisive stat for the class. I also have a high level of persuasion and…”

“That’s enough, sorry, sorry!” Kerry moved between me and the streamer. “Alix is late for the shared meal!”

“Hold on, Alex!” Lia shouted as we left.

Kerry walked me out of the press center, looked around and hissed:

“Are you out of your mind? Keep your secrets to yourself!”

“I know what I’m doing! I didn’t plan to tell them more than they need to know…”

I didn’t remember anything about our path to the ceremonial hall, I was so deep in thought. Kerry gave me advice, tried to convince me that I had to be strong, and even explained her own stake: the assistants to the players made bets between themselves with a big prize pool – the longer her ward stayed in the game, the greater her reward. The company bonus system worked the same way.

We reached a wooden door with a wrought-iron handle… not a door at all really, but a full-fledged set of gates, and Kerry handed me over to a servant droid. The huge gates opened inwards.

Following the droid, I crossed the threshold and looked around. The hall of ceremonies was impressively large. It even made me wonder for a second if Snowstorm had learned how to work with parallel dimensions. How else could such a massive room fit into the hotel?

The hall was like a two-tiered amphitheater. At its center was a round stage, not yet lit. Shadows moved there behind holographic stage curtains. Dozens of tables for the contestants were arranged around the stage. Unoccupied tables sank into the floor, and as soon as you approached them, they rose on special pistons. The journalists and VIP guests were seated on the upper level.

The droid brought me to a table with one empty chair.

“Mr. Sheppard, your seat is here. Please sit down.”

My neighbors were silent a moment, then just resumed their conversations without greeting me.

My comm told me that the white-haired beauty sat to my left was the sculptor Anna, Miss Commonwealth-2074, and the portly old bearded man sat opposite was a Grand Master of jewelmaking and winner of a professional tournament. Next to him sat a brown-haired man with high cheekbones called Zbiegnev, champion of Dis in gryphon racing. The man was flirting with Anna and dropping sarcastic comments. The fifth at our table was bald Theodor Novak, also known as Shamshur, a tamer, and the only one to shake my hand. He sat to my right, and was here as champion of the pet battles.

A waiter appeared like a shadow behind me and asked what I’d like to eat, rattling off several dishes with unfamiliar names. I chose some strange fish with an odd-sounding side and an unknown sauce. There was also salad, soup, little canapes with black and red caviar, desert and all kinds of other fancy delicacies. I declined offers of alcohol; I needed a clear head, especially with millions of viewers watching. I could feel hateful stares on me too, like the one that guy Ketzal had tried to drill a hole in me with at the registration desk.

When I’d finished my soup and was waiting for the waiter to serve the fish, the stage in the center of the hall lit up. Triumphant orchestral music began to play and lasers flashed. The room fell silent and started to watch.

Chloe Cliffhanger emerged first, wearing a long silver dress, a glimmering crown atop her head. She effusively welcomed all the contestants on behalf of Snowstorm and then handed over to the presenter of the opening ceremony… Aaron Quan would have fallen off his chair!

Slowly, snow-white wings beating behind them, two angels descended to the stage: Denise Le Bon and Brad Pitt-66. Brad Pitt-66 was the most successful reincarnation of a famous actor from the start of the century – an android made to be a perfect copy of the living actor. The synthetic, introduced to the public in 2066, had probably long since overtaken the human original in terms of viewer count and money earned.

“The angels greet the chosen ones!” The human and android flew in a circle around the stage.

“Well, people!” Denise shouted. “Are you ready to show the world what you can do in the Demonic Games?”

“Yes!” the crowd roared.

“I can’t hear you!” Brad cried.

Beautiful Anna stood up and shouted:

“I love you, Brad Pitt-66!”

Zbiegnev frowned, destroying the android with his gaze:


The show lasted around an hour. The audience ate, drank and delighted in the stars’ performance. Famous singers and bands took to the stage, stand-up comics and great champions of the Games of the past…

I had no appetite, but I had to give the chefs their due – I still ate all the fish. Then I dug around in my desert with my spoon until I felt someone’s eyes on me and looked around. Ian was waving to me from the second tier. He pointed at me, then at the door to the right. Nodding, I headed there and found myself in a smoking room. There was nobody there except a robot cleaner.

Ian showed up a minute later. Spreading his arms wide, he hugged me and slapped me on the back:

“Finally, Alex! There were too many eyes after the press conference, but here… Glad to meet you in the flesh! You’re a lot more real here, so to speak!”

“Likewise, Mr. Mitchell. You’re a little different from the virtual you.”

Mitchell let me go, chuckling and rubbing his bare chin.

“Yeah, I’m still getting used to being clean-shaven. Wanna sit down?” He pointed to a leather couch.

I sat. Ian sat down next to me and started cutting a cigar. Staring at it, he spoke quietly:

“Your friends are not happy. Edward said he’s going to kick those two, and I quote, ‘the fuck out of the clan.’ Hung promised that to ‘strangle that bastard personally.’ I put a hold on the interview. The way Clark and I see it, you’re better off playing like you’re alone in this. You’ll get the sympathy vote that way.”

“Got it. Thanks, Mr. Mitchell. One good thing, at least.”

“Good luck, Alex!” Ian lit up his cigar and breathed out a cloud of smoke. “Will you give me a quick interview?”

“Sure thing.”

“Great! Ready?”


Ian’s eye lit up red, showing that he’d started recording.

“How are you feeling on the whole? Liking the ceremony?”

I shrugged.

“It’s all just great. My friend Aaron Quan is a big fan of Denise. In case she’s listening, I want to say a big hello to her from Aaron. Denise, he’s your biggest fan and dreams of meeting you!”

“I’ll tell Denise,” Ian smiled. “What about you? Would you like to meet her?”

“We’ve met, she presented our team an award at the Arena.”

“All the same. Do you like her?”

“It would be silly to deny her beauty, Mr. Mitchell, but my heart belongs to someone else… No, no, no names.”

“At least a hint. Does her name contain the letter ‘I’?”

“Uhh… Fine, I can tell you that. Yes. But not a word more!”

“Alright,” Ian winked at me, thinking he’d guessed right. “I think your viewers and readers will understand why you’d rather keep the lucky girl’s name secret. Alex, I know that the last half a year has totally transformed your life. When they imagine your huge bank account, people often forget that you’re just a schoolkid. You’ve learned and seen many new things. Tell us, what surprised you most of all? The opportunities you unlocked? The attention from the press?” Ian smiled. “Or from girls?”

“The punishments.”


“The punishment TV streams. At home, my parents always kept an eye on what I watched, all the channels had a parental lock on them. So I only learned about the online punishments recently.”

“Ah, I see. And what surprises you about that?”

“The injustice.”

“But wait, isn’t it a good thing that society delivers the verdict, not some judge who can be bribed or a jury wrapped around a lawyer’s finger?”

“Sure, it’s probably good that not just one person gets to decide whether the accused lives or dies, or even a few people, but everyone. Well, everyone in theory; in practice, most of them probably don’t vote. But even if they all did, would it be justice? The viewers only know what they’re told. They don’t know the first thing about the accused…”

“Alex, I don’t know where you’re going with this…” Ian was floundering.

“I just want to say… the majority isn’t always right. Sometimes people are just bored and want entertainment. Blood.”

“Bread and circuses…” Ian muttered.

The recording eye went out. It looked like I’d touched on something that couldn’t be talked about publicly. Mitchell wanted to ask something else, but suddenly the door opened, several camera drones flew in and Ian gestured to me that it was time to end the interview.

Leaving the journalist to finish smoking his cigar, I returned to the hall and immediately fell deaf. An advertisement clip for the undead was playing, booming out a soundtrack. A holoprojection above us showcased the advantages of the new faction, and on stage, actors performed a theatrical introduction for the Destroying Plague. I swore under my breath. Such bullshit. There were no zombies so beautiful and plastic!

When the show ended, Kiran and Chloe reappeared. Jackson shouted:

“And now, folks, we’re saying good-bye and handing off the Games to someone who has been hosting them for almost twenty years! His name is…”

“Gu-u-u-uy!” Chloe shouted, and the hall began to erupt with cheers and screams.

“Ba-r-r-r-ron!” Kiran continued as if introducing a boxing match.

“Octius!” the crowd roared.

“Please welcome to the stage Guy Barron Octius, the irreplaceable master of ceremonies of the Demonic Games!”

Rock music roared, pounding so loud that the plates on the tables rattled. Kiran and Chloe pointed to the ceiling where a platform was descending. A fearsome armored man with a grey beard stood upon on it, his arms crossed. The hilts of two swords stuck out above his shoulders. He surveyed the hall with a frown.

Chloe and Kiran disappeared in the darkness. Spotlights lit up Octius. Without waiting for the floating platform to finish descending, the steely gamemaster jumped off it, landing with a crash of platemail. The music stopped. A few seconds’ silence… Then Octius struck his fist into the air, shouting:

“I wish all summoned here a night to remember! I declare the nineteenth year of the Demonic Games officially open!”

The hall lit up with the flashes of devices recording the official start of the Games. A holocube above the stage showed scenes of this year’s contestants. I saw Tissa there, healing me in the final of the Junior Arena.

“Allow me to introduce all the contestants!” Octius said. “This year we have almost three hundred arrivals!”

The tables rose one after another on their columns and Guy Barron listed the names of their contestants while the lights moved over them. One of the first tables to rise up was Malik and Tissa’s. My former friends got different welcomes: Malik got scattered clapping, with even a disapproving boo here or there, but Tissa got an ovation.

My attention quickly switched to the next contestant:

“R-r-renato Loyol, better known as Ketzal the Destroyer!” the gamemaster announced. “Member of one of the strongest clans in the world, Excommunicado! Champion of the Solo Arena!”

It was that same aggressive man with the bow-tie from before. He raised both his arms, his fingers intertwined, and shook them above his head. It turned out Ketzal had tons of fans. I set myself the goal of finding out what the gladiator’s class was.

“Mar-r-rcus Yansson, also known as Marcus the Str-r-rongarm! Member of another mighty clan – Warsong! Vice-champion of the Solo Arena, losing only to Ketzal in the final!”

A large man in a colorful short-sleeved shirt rose from the table. He raised his strong hairy arms over his head.

After introducing both the gladiators, Octius moved to their neighbor:

“Yulan Hao, also known as Sorceress Yulan from the Azure Dragons!” Octius said. “One of the greatest mages of modernity!”

I looked at her face on the big screen, a thin Asian woman with short faded hair, tightly pursed lips and a frowning stare from beneath her brows. She sat between Ketzal and Marcus.

Soon I saw the already familiar bandit Berstan and the ice mage Kara – they had defended the cell where Crag was locked up in the Modus castle. Koba the elvish hunter sat with them – he was the one that carried me on his Golden Gryphon when Crag’s fate was being decided. I wondered what instructions Hinterleaf had given them concerning me.

Now the lights were on T-Modus, our opponents in the final of the Junior Arena. For the first time, I saw the entire team in the flesh: their captain, Filex the Rogue, Yen the Archer, Olaf the Mage, Kart the Warrior and Kana the Druid. They looked much older than back then – the images then were shot when they were fourteen, and now they were sixteen.

And Alison Wu the templar was with them too! She had been in reserve, but had made her contribution a little earlier. I hadn’t seen Alison since that memorable night at my place, when Scyth was stuck in the Nether. I didn’t know if she and Hung still stayed in touch after we went underground…

Our table was the last to be shown.

“Zbiegnev Pontiek, better known as Zbiegnev the Jockey!” Octius announced to the applause of the hall. “Champion of the gryphon races! The fastest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen!”

Zbiegnev rose, placed his hand on his heart and bowed.

“Jewel of the night, the incredible Anastasia Kovalenko, Anna the Sculptor and Miss Disgardium-2074!”

The girl stood up and waved to the hall, her smile blinding. Only then did I notice that Anna was taller even than Hung.

“Ooh!” the hall sighed in ecstasy.

“Joseph Rosenthal, who you all know as Meister the Jeweller, winner of the royal and imperial contests for the best jewelry!” Octius paused for everyone to drink in images of the craftsman’s fine necklaces and bracelets. “Just stunning, Joseph! Our viewers will recall that this is the sixth time Meister has entered the Demonic Games!”

“Only for this singular wine!” Joseph shouted, raising his glass.

“You pay a high price for our wine!” Octius laughed. “For those who don’t know, after each loss, Meister gave up 1% of his total health to the champions of the Games!”

“Take it all!” the jeweler waved a hand. “I don’t need it in my workshop anyway!”

Everyone laughed and Octius moved to my bald neighbor:

“Theodore Novak, better known as Shamshur the Tamer, master of the pet battles at the Arena! I remember that final like it was yesterday! Shamshur’s spectral chimera versus Mushekvi’s rhinoceros… A stunning battle, Theodore! Glad to see you among the contestants!”

Theodore struck his chest twice with a fist and sat down to roaring applause.

Octius saved me for last.

“Alex Sheppard!”

I rose to a tidal wave of booing and whistling. My heart thumped in my chest and I felt the blood rush to my face. I wanted to hide under the table, but I kept standing there like a tin soldier. I didn’t feel like waving, striking my fist on my chest or smiling.

“Also known as Herald Scyth…” Octius fell silent, waiting for the public to calm down, but they had no such plans – the shouts drowned out even the music. “Ladies and gentleman, I demand respect! I swear on my role as master of the Games, if any of you fail to be silent now, they will get a personal penalty from me for the entire first day!”

The threat worked and the room fell silent, but then someone figured out a loophole and the rest took it up – they all just started roaring so that it would be impossible to make out individual voices. They all howled.

Octius twirled a finger in the air and someone behind the scenes raised the volume on his voice sharply:

“Alex Sheppard, the class-A Threat! Scyth the Herald! I have to give credit to this boy’s bravery for accepting the summons! Remember, Scyth has none of the abilities from his Threat status here! So let’s applaud him for not being afraid to be here in the same room with all of you! A welcome this warm will boil the blood in your veins!”

Guy Barron Octius smiled and the hall laughed.

“Sure, you can’t hit Alex here, but what stops you doing it in Cursed Chasm? Ha-ha!”

Cursed Chasm was the damned place where they were going to send us all.

The master of ceremonies finished laughing, coughed and began speaking again, his voice growing more serious:

“Before we finish the opening ceremony, let’s wait for the votes! Our viewers have had the opportunity to meet all the contestants. They have seen not only this ceremony, but also your videos and greeting messages. The vote will determine the best and worst contestant of the Demonic Games on opening day!”

The hall froze. I filled with a sense of foreboding. Thinking about it, I had many fans, especially among those sick of the preventers. But votes were easy to manipulate, and the audience bonus could go to anyone. A one-time ability, artifact or enhancement. The debuff, on the other hand, lasted for a full day following the vote. On the first day, a second death meant ejection from the Games, and running around Cursed Chasm with a debuff… That would mean guaranteed disincarnation for me.

“The viewers’ favorite player of the opening day is…” Octius paused as if drinking in the tension in the hall. “Priestess Tissa! My sincerest congratulations, Melissa Schafer! With a slight lead of a fraction of a percent, you overtook unrivalled gladiator Ketzal and queen of beauty Anna! It seems the viewers appreciated your performance earlier on!”

All the cameras turned to Tissa, who squealed and jumped into Malik’s arms. I looked at her shining face, recalling the night I’d spent reassuring her after she suddenly turned up on my doorstep. Back then, Tissa had been on the edge – in despair after burying her hopes for a bright future. Now the girl was the total opposite of the Tissa I loved.

Octius raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. A hole opened up next to him and a huge boiling cauldron rose up onto the stage, multicolored smoke whirling above it.

“The Cauldron! The Measuring Cauldron!” my neighbors all gasped at once.

“That’s the good cauldron,” Anna said.

“Remember, there are no secrets on opening day!” Octius said with a flourish. “We’re about to find out exactly what Tissa’s reward will be…”

Octius stuck an arm into the brew, mixed it and pulled out an orb around the size of an apple. He raised it above his head and it exploded in thousands of colorful sparks. A message flashed above him:


Banshee Queen’s Cry

One-time ability.

On use, makes all enemies within visibility radius freeze in terror for 1 minute.


“My congratulations to Tissa! This Cry could save this beautiful young woman’s life! But, Melissa… Are you listening to me? Remember, the ability will disappear after one use!”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Octius!” Tissa answered.

“Great, great! It’s always nice when a young lady like yourself doesn’t argue and just takes advice gratefully!” Octius blew her a kiss. “And now we move on to the worst player of the opening day. Unfortunately, that will be… Wow…”

As if from nowhere, a glass appeared in Octavius’s hand and he took a big swig. Then he wiped his forehead with his sleeve:

“Ahem… It’s never nice to give bad news. The viewers have made their choice almost uninamously. With a huge lead over Meister the Jeweler and Infect the Bard, the unlucky loser of day one is… Herald Scyth!”

What a surprise!

I knew the voting would be easy to rig, I’d expected those kinds of tricks from Snowstorm, but I’d still hoped for the best until the end. And there was no way to verify the result, no way to argue! If it goes on like this, I’m going to be thrown out of here on day one!

The gamemaster raised his left hand and snapped his fingers. A filthy black cauldron rose from beneath the floor, its brown contents emitting clouds of black smoke.

“And that’s the bad cauldron,” Anna noted.

Fastidiously dipping his arm in the gloop, Octius pulled out a ball of tar. I watched enchanted as the container exploded into oily smoke and a holographic description of my ‘reward’ appeared above the master of ceremonies:


Cursed Cripple

Your limbs are broken. They canot be healed.

-75% movement speed.

-50% damage dealt.

Duration: 24 hours.


“Wo-oo-oo!” the whole room roared, all leaping to their feet and shaking their fists.

Theodore, master of the pet battles at the Arena, squeezed my shoulder. “My sympathies, Alex.”

“Yeah, doesn’t get much worse than that,” Anna said, looking off to the side. “But that’s what you deserve. Success should be earned. You’re just a wannabe who got lucky…”

Ketzal the gladiator caught my eye, grinned and ran a finger across his throat.

When the founding father of Snowstorm, Mike Anderson, came on-stage to wish us all luck, I saw none of it. I stared striaght ahead with my back straight, gazing at the spotlights until my eyes teared up and remembering that it wasn’t just my enemies watching the stream.

My parents, Uncle Nick, Ed, Hung, Irita, Gyula, Manny, the people of Cali Bottom and even Aaron Quon could see me then. I couldn’t believe that all players now hated me for some reason. There were too many on my side.

And they had to see that I wasn’t broken.


Chapter 4. Let The Demonic Games Begin!

After the ceremony, everyone relocated to the recreation level to continue the party. I locked myself in my room instead – I needed to read The Demonic Games: The Complete Rulebook. It would be dumb to start my first day at the Games unprepared.

The main thing I wanted to find out was which abilities I’d still have in Cursed Chasm. But I couldn’t find anything specific in the book – it seemed like we would keep our class abilities and everything earned from achievements, but I didn’t know if I’d still have Depths Teleportation. Or Flight. It would be good if I did. But I found no clarity, so I had to come up with separate strategies for the different options.

The comm I’d been given distracted me a lot at first with constant notifications of new messages in an app created specially for contestants of the Games. Judging by the photos, the other contestants were having a blast. Nobody was thinking about the hangover to come – everyone had a personal Home Doctor in their room to take care of that.

I put the comm into sleep mode so it wouldn’t bother me, read the rest of the rulebook and moved onto History of the Demonic Games, where I learned that Mogwai had managed to triple his health when he became the champion. His strategy was interesting: the druid powered through the first two-hundred levels, tanking all the bosses and kiting the others, and then deliberately left combat with some gate guards so that his raid group fell. He finished off the boss solo, while the others lost levels and fell behind. His advantage growing, Mogwai returned to the upper floors and started killing players this time.

In the morning, I woke up to a soft neutral voice:

“Wake up, Mr. Sheppard! Wake up!”

Rising, I looked around the room. Nobody there. The voice belonged to my AI helper and seemed to be coming from everywhere at once:

“Good morning, Mr. Sheppard! Would you like breakfast in your room or would you prefer to visit one of our twelve restaurants?” A holographic panel appeared before me with a description of the venues on offer. “If you would like to take a bath, please indicate your preferred temp…”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I waved it away. I never had an appetite in the morning, but it was important to eat. I’d need a lot of energy for my first day in the Games. “Breakfast in my room, please.”

The AI squawked out the names of dishes, projecting their holograms before me, but I cut it off again and asked for an ordinary omelette with bacon and tomatoes, jam toast, coffee and a glass of orange juice.

While breakfast was on the way, I took a shower and read the day’s itinerary. The Games began at midday with an uninterrupted eight-hour session in a capsule. Then dinner and a review of the best moments of the day, plus a mandatory interaction with the media. Then free time and a few activities to choose from, including a couple of concerts, no-rules robot battles and dancing… The organizers approved of any activity that could lead to romantic connection, intrigue and scandal. The real part of the Games was just as entertaining to the viewers as the virtual part.

At eleven, when I’d already had breakfast, Kerry called me on the comm. My assistant examined my face closely and seemed pleased.

“You look refreshed. Sleep did you good. Get ready; I’ll be coming to get you in an hour. Octius is hosting a briefing to remind you all of the rules, then it’s into the fray!”

I spent that half an hour in my room, still reading the stories of the other champions. I had no desire to interact with the other contestants after what happened last night. Then Kerry came in, took me to the immersion level and showed me to the room set aside for me.

Each contestant had their own isolated immersion room, and it was three times bigger than any non-citizen cell. Apart from a capsule, it contained a sofa, a chair, a shower room and a closet. The refrigerator brimmed with snacks and drinks. If I wanted to, I could live here without risking any contact with the other contestants. I would have happily done that, but billions were watching. I couldn’t show cowardice. Like Uncle Nick said, you have to look your problems in the eye, not hide from them.

Soon a Snowstorm engineer appeared and helped me into the capsule, almost identical to the one I got as a reward for hitting my first maximum Threat level, but it was the newest version: the Altera Vita II. Kerry tactfully left the room and I got undressed and climbed inside.

“Ready?” the engineer asked, and I gave him a thumbs-up. “The first immersion for each contestant can only be initiated externally.” He looked at his watch. “To avoid… Three! Two! One! Starting!”

Intragel filled the capsule instantly. It just sprayed in from everywhere, there was a click, and suddenly I was in an endless space filled with bright light. Others began to appear in black circles around me – in their Dis bodies, but with ordinary basic clothing with variations for class and gender.

“Greetings, contestants!” came a thunderous voice from above.

Guy Barron Octius appeared before us, at least eighteen feet tall so that everyone could see him. Waving his hand, he spoke in a relaxed manner:

“Alright, folks! You know the most important thing about the Games, and if you don’t, then it sucks to be you! You should have read the materials we handed out instead of partying all night.”

“Can’t I just sleep it off in the tavern?” an elf girl whined. I recognized her as Anna. She was even more beautiful here than in real life. “There’s a tavern somewhere, right?”

“Do as you wish,” Octius waved a hand amid laughter and complaining from the rest. “But I’m about to hold the traditional briefing before your first immersion into Cursed Chasm. As you know, we change the mechanics a little each year, so that those who participated before don’t have an advantage over the rest. I don’t mean you, Joseph, although experience doesn’t seem to help you at all.”

The little gnome Meister bowed with a grin.

Octius unfolded a piece of parchment and read:

“The rules of the Demonic Games are unchanged. All begin anew, but they keep their skills and abilities, both from their class and those obtained through other means, with the exception of divine abilities, which are unavailable in Cursed Chasm. However! With your skills there is one ‘but,’ which I will voice later.”

A bird’s-eye view of a village materialized beneath our feet. The camera suddenly dropped down and focused on a crow picking an eye from a corpse. My heart dropped into my heels from the suddenness of it. Many others reeled and some even fell to the floor.

Paying no attention to the contestants’ reactions, the gamemaster continued:

“Cursed Chasm is a village in the northern Commonwealth. Along with its neighboring territories, it is cut off from the rest of the world and from Disgardium. Put simply, it is stuck between Dis and the Underworld. There has been only one way to get there since the days when the fell hooves of demons corrupted the land! Highborn elves keep the demonic knowledge, and once a year, they can send the spirits of the worthiest players to Cursed Chasm to determine who among them is the best! The one who will join the ranks of the Demon Fighters! The losers will forever lose a portion of their life force to the champion!”

I remembered the words I read in History of the Demonic Games – “Champions of the Demonic Games make the best tanks. Mogwai is the most memorable example.”

“The Games are not limited by time until Eynyon’s Gong strikes,” Octius continued. “And strike it will not until the final top 10% of surviving contestants has been determined! From that moment, the chance that Eynyon’s Gong will strike will increase significantly and will grow with each passing day.”

“I just hope I survive that long!” Meister the gnome whined dreamily.

“Yeah, getting into the top 10% would be awesome!” someone agreed with him. “And the bonuses…”

“There are two main changes!” Octius interrupted him, raising a finger. “The first: you start the Games with the Amnesia debuff. This is the very ‘but’ that I mentioned before. Everyone starts from absolute zero, with no skills whatsoever! Congratulations, you’ve forgotten them!”

A buzz spread among the contestants. Guy Barron chuckled, snapped his fingers and a Seal of Silence descended on us.

“I wasn’t the one who came up with it! Our marketers are always looking for ways to add some variety to the event, to make it even more fun for the audience. Last year, many complained that the Games were imbalanced; although all were made equal, the combat classes leveled up faster thanks to their skills, which made the game less interesting to watch. Yes, yes, I know. This isn’t what you prepared for… Surprise!” Octius screwed up his face, then smiled. “But there’s good news: your first loot is guaranteed to be a Memory Scroll, which will restore your lost skills. As usual, they will be locked for now.”

Thinking for a moment, he clicked his fingers again. The Seal of Silence lifted and Meister was the first to realize it:

“What if I can’t kill anyone? What if they kill me?”

“Then you will be considered to have touched the astral plane in the space between worlds, and thus returned your memory,” Octius chuckled. “Alright, that’s enough of that. The second innovation concerns the structure of the Pitfall. Though previously the level bosses defended the passageway to the lower tiers, now…” Octius spread his hands. “Our designers have reviewed that situation. And so, ground level is considered level zero. Starting there, the Pitfall is split into 666 levels. Each floor is approximately twenty yards in height. You can go down a spiral staircase all the way to the bottom of the Pitfall if you so desire – there are no mobs on the stairs. The entryway to each floor is blocked by gates protected by a boss sealed within them. As a rule, the boss is of the same kind as the mobs that inhabit that level, but is far stronger than they. Bear in mind that the boss always aggros on the one who removes the seal.”

“Let’s mob them all together!” someone shouted.

Octius shook his head.

“Not so fast. Don’t forget, the boss scales depending on number of opponents. With diminishing returns, however.”

“What does that mean in human speak?” someone shouted.

Octius smirked. “One on one with the boss – its strength is equal to X. If two attack the same boss, his strength will be X times two. But if four attack, that number won’t be doubled, but will be somewhere around X times three point nine. And so on.”

“Now I get it, thanks,” the same man mumbled. “I need a calculator and a shot of dwarven whiskey for this!”

“Just keep in mind that reasonable teamplay will make the bosses easier.”

“What do you mean ‘reasonable’?” Anna asked.

“The passageway into the dungeon narrows beyond the gates. And the deeper you go, the narrower it gets. For level one, for example, I would recommend no more than a hundred people. And for level three hundred – a maximum of forty. And only in a balanced group.”

“Hey!” a dark-skinned orc next to me suddenly growled. “I like these new rules! Now we don’t have to complete every level, right? We can go straight to level 10, say?”

“That I don’t recommend, unless you’re wanting to get out of here soon,” the gamemaster replied. “Remember, the mobs don’t respawn. If you don’t get experience from mobs at your own level, you’ll be sorry; you need to equip yourself from nothing, and it’s easier to beat gear out of opponents your own size. In addition, the demons’ strength leaps up every ten levels…”

Octius spent more time talking about the bosses, then reminded us of the grand prize: not only Concentrated Life Essence, but also the lifelong Demon Fighter perk. The losers would be afflicted with the Hell’s Curse debuff – 1% of the health of each is given to the champion. In addition, he mentioned two ways to win the Games: as part of a raid group that defeats the final boss, or as the sole survivor by the end of the Games. Nobody had yet accomplished the former.

“And one last surprise for the newcomers. In Cursed Chasm, the pain is real! There are no pain filters at all, so keep that in mind.”

An unhappy murmur spread through the onlookers, but Octius ignored it and raised his voice:

“On that note, the briefing is ended. May the Demonic Games begin!”

And we were taken to an area out of time. We all found ourselves in a forest glade surrounded by burnt tree trunks. The interface didn’t show up in this strange place. I quickly looked myself over and swore under my breath – the Cursed Cripple debuff was active.

A tall and stately elf stood before us – Eynyon, king of the elves.

“The stars shine on the hour of our meeting, brave ones! You have the hearts of lions! With pain in my heart and hope in my soul, I open for you the way to Cursed Chasm!”

He spread his arms wide, clapped and pointed to a portal burning amid the trees.

“I wish you fair wind and good hunting! And may the leaves of your trees of life never yellow!”

The contestants exchanged glances and started running through the portal one after another.

Release - May 18, 2021

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