Tuesday, July 4, 2017

AlterGame, Book 2: On the Lost Continent




On the Lost Continent
by Andrew Novak





Read the first book - The First Player
release September 28, 2017





I am Jack the Tramp. That's my registered name in the virtual world of Alterra. It's a stunning place, Alterra. A huge continent, with kingdoms and principalities, wars, heroes, mages and necromancers. Anything you can find in reality, you can find it there. Secrets, danger, terrifying beasts. There are even some things that our world lacks. It's beautiful and carefree there... Diverse landscapes and blue skies. Over the ghettos, where the omega-citizens huddled, the sky is always yellow from fumes. The sky above the Blighted Wasteland that surrounds our tiny, cramped community is yellow from dust.
Omegas are the descendants of the Gendemic survivors, the series of disasters of unknown origin that battered the Earth and brought about the end of civilization. The only known pocket of the bygone splendor of civilization is New Atrium. Inside its glittering towers live people of a higher order. The alpha-citizens, the source of all blessings that exist in the ghetto - canned goods and medicines in humanitarian consignments containers. What's more, the alphas share the virtual grandeur of Alterra with us.
New Atrium, surrounded by the impregnable Barrier, and the ghetto resting at its base. That's it. All that's left for us in reality. Unsurprisingly, everyone is drawn to Alterra.
In one of my expeditions in the Blighted Wasteland, I stumbled upon a stalled truck. The driver had been dead several decades already, but I know for a fact that he was a standup guy. Because in that pickup, I found something with real value - aged whiskey and a console with an old version of Alterra. Thanks to this unexpected gift from the past, I was able to get my hands on an incredible rarity, the Tear of Azeroth, King of the Demons. This discovery was the beginning of a grand quest, one of a kind.
The Night Goddess Necta appointed me as her Servant, armed me with the Black Sword, and sent me on my journey... But it turned out that my discovery awoke something up in the game. It soon became clear that I wasn't the only who had managed to find the old quest chain. There was the necromancer Ruger Eckerhart - a dangerous competitor, powerful mage, and alpha-citizen to boot. As if that weren't enough, I had a guild hounding my every step. I’d taken the Tear of Azeroth right out from under their noses. It became clear that, without allies, I wouldn't finish the path of Dark Service. A merchant of Alterra's secrets, a player by the name of Egghead, led me to another alpha, the light mage Sartorius. He had long been searching for a road to the Great Mysteries of Alterra, and my Service to the Dark might just have been that road. Our third companion was Eloise, the former servant of the necromancer Ruger, from whom she had stolen the Book of Bacchus. This book described the way to the forgotten continent, Gaerthon.
Sartorius hoped to find his Great Mysteries on Gaerthon, but I want to continue Service to the Dark. As for Eloise... It didn't matter to her where we went, as long as she was with me. Honestly, I felt that I didn't really want to unravel the mysteries of the game without her. The three of us started a guild, sailed along the great river Chand, fought with bandits, savages and beasts in the Fasheer marshes. We fended off pursuers from the Gravedigger guild. Yeah, good times.
Eloise and I succeeded, though it's a shame that Sartorius couldn't finish the journey. And at the very last moment, just as the lost continent came into sight, alphas seized us. Someone from their administration in New Atrium didn't like the game world becoming larger and that omega-players would have access to Gaerthon. It was a mystery. Why was the second continent hidden from everyone?  Why did the cryptic rulers of New Atrium decide to tweak the program so that Gaerthon remained hidden in a fog of oblivion?
Help came from a source I couldn't have possibly expected. Ruger Eckerhart, retired general and incredibly influential alpha, turned out to be a romantic. Who'd have thought it? As it happened, the secrets of Gaerthon drew him as strongly as they did us. And he was the one to make the alphas leave the path we forged to the lost continent open. Not to mention the small bit about him saving Lisa and me from death. Not a player death, either. A real one.
We survived and the lost continent awaits us. Secrets, mysterious prophecies, deadly enemies - this is a game worth playing. A life worth living.
A life worth risking.



Chapter One


The Lost Continent



RUN! SAVE YOURSELVES! They’re back!”
“And you said there was nothing going on here,” Jack turned to Lisa, glancing at the people buzzing about on the shore.
Granted, it was much more fun in Alterra than where they were in reality right now, in the dark basement of Simon's House. They entered the game in a tiny little cellar under the demolished house in the middle of the Blighted Wasteland.
The Dead Wind navigated along the coast of Gaerthon for more than an hour, bypassing the shoals and rocks jutting out from the water, like sharp fangs. Nothing grew on the coastal stones, belted by a white line of surf, and there was no sign of movement on the cliffs rising behind them. Each time they skirted another giant stone, the passengers became more convinced that this was an island, and a small one at that. The islets and sheer, towering cliff faces formed a labyrinth and the channels between them resembled giant cracks, as though the earth here was split at the seams.
The Dead Wind rounded another rock and a gently sloping beach opened before them, when screams sounded in the distance. There was vegetation here, wildlife, and even natives. Natives, who were presently tearing up and down the shore, shouting frantically, climbing into boats and hurrying away from the land. Chickens squawked and sheep bleated as they became entangled under running feet.
Yep, it was a large island. Possibly even a terminus point of the mainland. Steps of craggy rock grew out from the ocean and the farther from the shoreline, the higher they climbed. There were green groves in the valleys between them and a tall mountain that loomed over it all, capped with the remains of a city. Its battlements were surrounded by a conglomeration of buildings. Their empty windows gazed blankly at Jack.
“Wind, take us there! Head toward the shore!” Jack commanded.
Yes, master,” the demonic ship answered in its sepulchral voice. The invisible helmsman shifted their course and the black schooner surged forward to cut off the chaotic exodus of fishing boats.
“Hey, what's happening?” Jack called to a man in one of the boats as the Dead Wind caught up with the flotilla of frightened fishermen.
“Giants! They're comin' back again!”
Fisherman Tuphus, Scand
Expertise: 25
Health: 35
These are small folk here, Jack thought, reading the stats of his new acquaintance. The color of the text above his head indicated that he was an NPC. Yeah, okay, and who else would they meet on Gaerthon? After all, the way here was closed to players.
“What sort of giants?”
“Wicked ones, m'lord! They live in the ol’ city up top. Three of 'em. Sometimes they come down and grab anyone who can't hide. Now they dragged off Elder Nevil. Oh, we lost our elder! The wicked giants will gobble him up! Sir, you look like a mighty warrior. Maybe you can save the poor old man?”
You receive the quest “Save Elder Nevil from the giant".
Reward: Unknown
Accept/Reject
Alright, I'll try,” Jack nodded. “So, you say there are only three giants?”
“Three, sir, but they always come down from the mountain one at a time. Hurry, because if the monster carries the elder away to his mountain, he can't be saved!”
“Yeah, this is me hurrying,” Jack grumbled. “Didn't you notice? Wind, make berth at the shore!”
After the ship stopped at the surf line and the anchor chain unrolled with a clatter, Jack jumped into the waves. He plodded to the shore in the waist-high water. There were no more people left, everyone was hurrying out to sea. Only chickens and goats were wandering on the pebbly beach. Jack looked around. No trace of the monster or the elder. Lisa came to stand next to him and shook out her sopping cloak.
A path led to the city sitting on the high mountain summit. It snaked along the furrowed side of the cliff, emerging and disappearing again into the crevices. Surely, they would be able to catch up with the giant if they kept to the trail.
“Well, let's go look?” asked Lisa.
Jack strode off toward the deserted village. The newcomers walked along a street lined with squatty buildings. Everything here was small, poor, and as expected, forsaken by God. Jack even had a flash of hope that this place wasn't home to especially large giants. He and Lisa rounded one rocky crag, then another, as the trail climbed toward the city, meandering along the slopes.
“You hear that?” asked Lisa. “Something's going on over there.”
Jack could also make out a crackle and snarl coming from around the bend. They broke into a run, rounded an outcrop... and...
“Shit,” was all Jack could eke out.
The giants here were big. Very. This one was simply enormous. Compared to it, even a troll from the wild lands of Stoglav would seem like a runt. And the bad news didn't end there. The giant gave a ferocious roar, throwing its head back, and swung its huge cudgel. It was trying to reach an enemy attacking from above. A rider on a black gryphon.
Ruger first descended and tried to jab the giant with his sword, then flew his pet into the sky and fired at his opponent with splashes of green fire. However, it seemed his magic couldn't seriously injure such a large creature.
Waving its club, the giant hopped up to reach Ruger. The earth trembled as it landed, rubble rolling down the steep slopes. Jack spotted a person in a voluminous white robe lying prone at the beast's feet. This, of course, was Elder Nevil. And at this moment, lying under the giant's feet, he was clearly in very great danger.
“Try to drag the elder out of there!” Jack shouted, rushing toward the fight.
“Wait! Stop! That's Ruger!”
But Jack was no longer listening and didn't look back. Within about fifty paces from the giant, he swerved. He didn't draw his sword. Even Necta's weapon probably wouldn't bring such a leviathan down if he hit it from below. Jack ran toward the cliff behind the giant. He and Lisa caught Ruger's eye, but not the giant's — not yet. The gryphon dove again, soaring on stretched black wings and clusters of green fire flew at the monster's head. The giant roared again and brushed them aside with its cudgel. Whether the general guessed his intentions or not, his actions were useful to Jack. He began to clamber up the cliff where the slope was rather flat. The giant staggered under the pressure of the necromancer's attack. Its club thrashed uselessly at the air, while the gryphon kept out of reach.
Jack saw Lisa darting from one boulder to another, slowly making her way to the mammoth feet and the motionless elder. Okay, good, except at its great height, the closer she got, the less the stones would hide her from view. It appeared Ruger also realized this. He immediately swung his pet about, sending it into another banked turn and distracted the enemy.
The giant stepped one foot after the other backward, back toward the cliff.
Cliff Giant
Health: 843
Agro zone: 100
Holy crap! There had surely been at least a thousand health at the beginning of the fight... Ruger had given this guy a good beating, but even at this rate, the battle would drag on into the night. Jack hurried even higher. Pebbles rolled out from under his boots, producing a rustling rockslide, but the giant didn't notice. Though it did spy Lisa underfoot, who had already crept up to Elder Nevil and grasped the edge of his white robe. The giant let out a bellow and began to bow, readjusting its grip on the monstrous club. It was preparing to slam it down.
Ruger dove again toward its head. The gryphon folded its wings and rushed into a steep nosedive. The necromancer shifted lower in the saddle, extending his sword arm. The gryphon's scream was drowned out for a moment by the hoarse roar of the monster, and the great beast straightened sharply, switching back to its former opponent.
Lisa backed away, dragging the old man behind her with one hand and the Rod of Despair in her other, splashing green flames. The giant tottered, but its club still managed to graze the gryphon, making Ruger's strike a little off balance. The blade barely slipped along its huge pate. It moved on, trying to reach Lisa, who had ducked down. She released a stream of flame that scorched the tremendous feet, causing it to reel, and the injured gryphon lurched and landed somewhere away from the encounter.
Jack drew the Shadow of the King, shoved off from the rock and leaped toward the monster. He held the sword in a reverse grip with both hands, raising it overhead in-flight. The black tip pierced the monster between the shoulder blades and inertia helped Jack plant the weapon deep in its body. Red textures gushed from the wound, mixing with the darkness that streamed from the blade. Jack hung there by the sword hilt and the blade ripped down the huge spine under his weight, sinking lower and lower. Jack slipped down, soaked in the giant's blood. His opponent's immense spine cracked and quivered stiffly. The giant began to fall, and Jack realized that he would be flattened between its bulk and the side of the mountain. He pulled his legs up, braced his feet against the beast... the blade of the sword bumped against a twisted cord, which served as the monster's belt, and his descent ceased.
The thought flashed that the belt was something unusual, as it wouldn't cut. Until now, nothing had been able to withstand the black blade, but this was not the time for musing. It was time for him to drop off this perch. Jack freed his blade from the wound with a jerk, pushing of with both feet, and flew toward the stones. The giant began to ever so slowly tilt over and fall onto its back. Jack landed with such a crack, his vision would have darkened if he'd been able see before the landing. But he was so drenched in the giant's blood, that there was now a solid, crimson veil in front of Jack. He could only see the message:
You receive damage!
You lose 8 hit points!
The club thudded to the ground, then the giant landed so hard that the image inside the virt-helm jumped. Jack guessed at where the hulk lay and, blinking vigorously, crawled away from it.
When the game deigned to roll back the red shroud and Jack could see again, he sat down and looked around. Lisa was backing away and pulling the senseless old-timer through the gravel. The giant was sprawled so that it blocked the trail and red streams continued to flow out from it. Ruger splashed through this puddle to the supine enemy. He hopped up on the limp, unclenched hand and wobbled up the arm. Then he stood on its chest and raised his sword.
Cliff Giant Health: 93...
Health: 73...
Health: 53...
With each blow, the mob's health dropped and Ruger continued hacking at the dying enemy with an exceedingly intent expression.
“Lisa!” Jack called out. “Leave the old man! Over here!”
Ruger had stopped hacking and was staring into the defeated giant's face.
“Yes!” he yelled. “This is it! Look at me, giant! Look into my eyes!”
Jack, leaning on his sword, rose heavily. Lisa approached cautiously and hid behind him, just to be safe.
“He used to demand that I look him in the eyes during rituals, too,” she explained in a whisper. “He wanted to see the person's eyes as they died. I suppose Ruger likes the moment when the signs of life disappear. You see how he's savoring the moment? Or something like that. Sometimes he mumbles that he's searching for 'that one look'. He's always searching for it.”
“Watch the stats, too,” Jack ordered. “As soon as Ruger catches his high, raise the giant up.”
“What do you mean? It's enormous!” Lisa's eyes widened. She was probably imagining herself lifting the dead giant.
“Not in that sense,” explained Jack, “with necromancy. Use the Rod of Despair.”
“No, no, that's not it,” Ruger muttered indistinctly. When Jack raised his voice, he caught his last words, “Hey, my Rod! El, bring it here.”
Lisa flinched. No doubt the general's commanding tone was too familiar to her, and she shuffled slowly toward the dying mob.
“But, sir...” Jack began.
“Oh, stuff it with the 'sirs'. In the game, we're on a first-name basis! You can call me Ruger. Why are you lifting the rod, huh?”
“Ruger, at the top of the mountain, there are two more giants. We were barely able to defeat one.”
“And?”
“If we summon this one as a zombie...”
“Ha!” a smirk brightened Ruger Eckerhart's wicked face. “Ha ha! El, hand me the Rod. You don't have enough mana for it anyway.”
Ruger jumped from the giant's breast, collected the artifact from Lisa and, pointing it at the dead enemy, began to weave a lengthy, intricate spell. Jack had already seen it before. When Lisa performed it, though, the spell sounded detestable. But when Ruger recited it... In fact, was unclear whether the magic would work on the giant or not, but it was worth a try, of course.
For a moment, the necromancer worked his dark magic with no observable effect. Then a tremor ran through the mammoth corpse. It was barely noticeable at first, but slowly became more dramatic. The blood-soaked body began to twitch.
“Rise!” Ruger bellowed, shaking the Rod of Despair.
He likely used this tone to issue orders in combat. Even Lisa gave a little shiver. But the dead giant carried out the order. It pulled its big meat hooks up, flipped onto its side and rose ponderously. It was formidable, covered in red streaks, with its split back.
“Go to the top of the mountain!” the necromancer commanded. “Kill the two giants! March!”
The monstrous zombie tossed the club up onto its shoulder and, staggering just a little, stomped off down the trail. Ruger, swishing the Rod, marched close behind.
“Where am I, good people? What happened to me?” asked a trembling, aged voice.
It was Elder Nevil, who Jack had somehow managed to completely forget. He'd finally regained consciousness.
“You're safe, Father,” Jack assured him, leaning over the old man. “Well, as safe as you can be in the thick of these wild places inhabited by necromancers and giants.”
Jack examined himself. The red textures hadn't disappeared and, naturally, he looked more than a little fearsome, but his appearance did not affect Nevil at all. The old man had strong nerves.
“The giant, yes! I remember the monster grabbed me! Where is it?”
“The giant is dead,” Lisa announced.
“Yes, we killed it,” confirmed Jack. “And you... well, let's just say that we've carried you to a safe place.”
“You are great heroes!” the old man let out a deep sigh. “Indeed, there are still people in our godforsaken world who are capable of such a feat! Please, accept my gratitude! Only...”
“Only what?” Jack echoed.
After all, he hadn't received any messages about the reward, which meant they had to wait for the quest to continue, right?
“Only, if this deed is within your power to accomplish, would you not rid our island of this scourge entirely? I know I ask for the impossible,” the old man murmured, “but I am the elder of my people. My duty is to care for my clansmen. While the remaining giants still live, we can never have peace.”
Attention! Quest progression in “Save Elder Nevil from the giant".
Kill the remaining giants.
Reward: Unknown
Accept/Reject
I'm already working on it,” Jack replied proudly. “Wait here, old-timer. I'm going to the top of the mountain, and I'll return to you after I take care of the giants. We need to talk. I am, you see, not from this place. I don't know anything about it and I have many questions for the local elder.”
Jack and Lisa passed the slowly paling pool of giant’s blood, walked along the trail that wrapped around the rocks, and the elder soon disappeared from view. They were silent for several minutes.
“To hell with it, maybe? Let's not go to Ruger?” asked Lisa.
Jack sensed the strain in her voice. She was afraid of her former master. Without Ruger around, she could put on a brave face, but now her fear had become evident.
“Why? We returned the Rod of Despair to him and everything’s set right. Doesn’t that sort of make us not enemies anymore? He even laughed.”
“It's even worse when he laughs,” Lisa grumbled. “I already have chills running down my spine. Did you see how he looked into that giant's eyes? He likes seeing death. Do you know how many times he's stared at me that way?”
“Seventeen, that's what you said.”
“What I said... Words can't express how he draws the life from you, as if he were an actual necromancer. At least, that's what it felt like.”
“I won't let him do anything to hurt you,” Jack promised, although he wasn't positive that he would be able to stand up to Ruger if it came down to a fight.
But then, the general was in quite an amicable mood. At any rate, if he wanted to cause trouble, he could have done it at any point.
Lisa didn't continue to argue, just sighed repeatedly – and the closer they got to the summit, the louder it became. With each loop of the path, the city at the top emerged from behind the slope, a bit closer each time. They could discern the crumbling masonry of the walls and the gaps for arrow slits. Everything was pale-colored, both the stones and walls lying like sun-bleached bones.
“Well, that sucks,” Jack said gruffly. “Not a single crossroads. The trail loops around, but doesn't cross any other road.”
“So, what? Why do you need another road?” Lisa asked offhandedly.
Before Jack could reply, a gate arch rose up on the trail ahead. Ruger was standing in front of it like a black hole in the bleached, sun-baked vignette. The necromancer swished the Rod of Despair and a slam echoed from the other side of the wall following each flourish. Jack would have likened Ruger to the conductor of a large orchestra, that is, if he’d ever watched one before.
“Come on!” Ruger urged under his breath.
Jack drew near and looked through the gateway. A familiar back, laid open by his sword, was weaving its way along the road leading to the summit. The dead giant occupied the entire thoroughfare between the buildings, swinging its cudgel rhythmically left and right. Another one of the massive monsters armed with a similar chunk of wood was visible beyond him, except this one was alive. The living giant didn't display any aggression toward its deceased brother. It simply milled around, unable to pass along the road to the gates, where the necromancer was waiting. It growled with each impact but could do nothing about the zombie giant standing in its way.
Ruger threw a quick glance over his shoulder, pulled a phial with an azure liquid from his inventory and gulped it down, replenishing his mana pool. Then he spoke:
“You can return to your flea house now. I withdrew the bounty of two hundred panbucks on Jack the Tramp and Eloise.”
“The bounty for capturing us in reality? I thought as much, that’s your job,” Jack replied.
“It's mine. Now there's a new message traveling those channels. If anyone attacks you, I'll...”
Ruger fished for another elixir. The necromancy was draining his mana rather quickly.
“Then you'll look into their eyes?” Jack finished for him.
“Yep. You catch on quick, don't you? Well, alright then, go about your quests and I'll keep close, so I can peer into your enemies’ souls. Hopefully, they'll be more interesting than these giants.”
“This is just the beginning, though. Just the first little encounter on Gaerthon. It'll get better later on, for sure.”
Lisa kept quiet. Jack didn't know what to say, either. It was good the threat had passed since they couldn't sit in the basement of Simon's house forever. The batteries would die. Not to mention their water supply was limited.
The building next to the giant collapsed with a crash and the formidable form of another monster emerged from the clouds of dust. The second living giant, apparently, had been trying for a while already to pass the one who was just milling about. It finally decided to simply break through the building. The dilapidated masonry gave way easily. The zombie turned toward its new enemy and, when it stepped away, it became evident that it had already laid out the first one. The living giant had sensed an enemy inside its agro zone and was trying to advance toward the gate, but the zombie stepped into its path and began battering it with the club, steadily hammering away at its hit points.
“So, how did you wind up in Dargoth?” Jack ventured. “I mean, on the quest with the Book of Bacchus?”
“Necta's devotees in the temples started giving out odd tasks in connection with Service to the Dark. They said true servants of the Night Mother should give aid to those who walk the path. Getting the Book of Bacchus from a forgotten temple, for starters. The whole thing didn't last long and then the priestesses returned to their usual script.”
“I see.”
Jack didn't bother asking for clarification. Even without it, it was clear the general felt that taking part in Service to the Dark in a secondary role wasn't respectable enough for him and he'd been trying to make a grab for the quest. Ruger was not the sort of person to help others, even at the command of a goddess. Then Eloise had stolen the Corrupted Book from him, and that's where it all began.
A few minutes later, the dead giant had dealt with the living one, and Ruger finally let him rest in peace. The zombie brought down yet another building as it fell to the ground. A couple minutes more and the giant bodies began to grow pale and melt away. After they disappeared, they could see that the street where they had been standing was reminiscent of a city square. The trio slipped between piles of scattered stone. There was a modest drop at the spot of the encounter. Clubs and bracelets, each of which would serve as a belt for an ordinary person, and similar rubbish.
Jack spotted the same cable that had been belted around the first giant's waist. He remembered the Shadow of the King hadn't been able to cut through it. Something about it wasn't what it seemed. So, he went first thing for the giant belt. The fabric in his hands unfolded into a tattered sheet, above which read:
Cloak of Theokrist
Level: Rare
Increases concealment by 20%
The three bracelets weren't as interesting, but still unusual.
Cord of Strength
Level: Rare
The belts were strips of distressed leather with scarlet patterns, which emanated a soft glow with each movement. The buckles had a greenish cast, like aged bronze. When Jack placed them into his inventory slots, question marks flashed over the item icons. Hmm, hidden properties. But usually the question marks were white. These were red. Odd. Very odd.
Jack glanced around furtively as he picked up his loot. Ruger wasn't looking in his direction. He had picked up a white blade and was studying it. Bone, by the look of it. One of the giants had been using the little thing as a dagger.
“A nice little thing there,” Jack said carefully. “Will you take it?”
“I'll nab it for the collection,” Ruger gave the white blade a couple of experimental swishes. “A bone sword. This is a necromancer weapon, all right. I sent you a request. Reply to it. In the future, you call me if you come across something interesting. But now it's time for me to go back. I left the ship anchored at sea and right now, all Beelzebub’s stats are reduced by 50%. The giant snagged him.”
“Beelzebub?”
“My gryphon. Hey, you haven't released the coordinates of Gaerthon to anyone, right?”
“Not planning on it,” Jack declared. “Let them find it on their own.”
“Good call. If you reveal this secret, I'll snap your neck.”
Jack opened the menu and created a personal contact with Eckerhart. At this, Ruger lost interest in the conversation, put the white blade away in his inventory, and summoned his gryphon.
As Beelzebub climbed into the sky, gaining altitude with difficulty, it became clear what he had meant by a stat reduction. The black pet was laboring, its wings flapping with visible effort, and it was clear that it wasn't flying at maximum speed.
Lisa let out another sigh, this time with obvious relief. She clammed up while Ruger was around, but now she proceeded to prattle on, as if she were rushing to compensate for her previous silence.
“He's going to show up in the game tomorrow, now. That's how it usually happened. He'd only log in at night if there was a reason, like a particularly important ritual in Necta's temple or something like that. Usually, though, more often in the mornings. And Beelzebub will have recovered. He'll be like new in 12 hours. Another reason for Ruger to wait until morning. Now what're we going to do? Back to Nevil? And why did you need a crossroads? And who is this Theokrist? The cloak's owner?”
“Good question.”
“Which one?”
“Whichever. First, I want to find a temple of Vecta and go down to the basement. This is a city, and temples are usually in the main square. Let's go!”
But they had to abort the trek to the center of the fallen city. They had taken only a few steps up the hill, when a strong gust sprung up. From nowhere, dark, leaden clouds slid across the sky with frightening speed. Within a couple of minutes, the sky had grown inky black and stormy. It looked especially grim over the sun-bleached ruins. Thunder crashed and a dazzlingly bright flash of lightning struck the mountaintop, followed by another, and another. The ruins trembled. Somewhere at the top, buildings were collapsing, the rocks under their foundations set into motion. The entire mountain shivered.
Jack and Lisa tore down the slope along the shaking pavement to the gates. The city collapsed, lightning lashed the mountaintop again and again, and the image wavered in front of their eyes. Black interference bands ran across their vision.
“What is this?” Lisa shrieked. Jack could just barely make out her voice over the sound of thunder. “It's not in the game! It's outside!”
“The antenna!” Jack realized. “I fastened the antenna up top, on the debris of Simon's House! Someone's destroying the antenna!”



Chapter Two


A Shadow at the Crossroads and Fire From the Sky



THE PICTURE in the virt-helm shuddered one last time and the image disappeared, replaced by hissing static. Then a line flashed:
Error 307: lost signal
You can enable logging analysis if you continue to receive error messages.
Jack whipped the helm off and blinked furiously. The only illumination in the dark basement was the winking lights of the power supply unit. He switched on a flashlight. In the wan light, Lisa's face seemed pale, nearly as pale as in the game.
“Wait here,” Jack ordered and headed for the stairs.
He climbed cautiously, listening. But all was silent outside. With an ear pressed to the door, the only sound he could make out was a soft creaking. Not footsteps, nothing distinct. He withdrew the revolver and gently pushed the door. It was evening outside. Pale red light flooded the remains of Simon's House. There was no one in the empty room, no tracks in the dust coating the floor. But the cable Jack had worked through a crack between bricks was twitching gently.
Jack attached the antenna over the door so as not to stretch the cord too far. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time but now he couldn't see what was happening with the antenna without leaving the building. So, he'd have to go out there and check. Jack shoved the door open, stumbled outside, spun in mid-air and landed on his back in the dust, raising the Smith & Wesson.
A strange beast was gazing down at him from the top of a wall. It was an animal Jack had never seen before. It was the size of a small dog, but lithe and sinewy, with a short, sleek coat of gray. Everything was gray in the Wasteland. Any other color could expose you. The survivors were those, who were well-concealed. But this was a species Jack had never run into in these parts. Before Jack appeared, the beast had been gnawing on the cable. It had already chewed the antenna to pieces and was now busy with the cable jacket. When Jack had landed on the floor, flinging up dust and startling the creature, its clawed paws slipped off the wall. The animal jerked, jumping around, trying to hang on. Jack fired.
The creature uttered a brief, plaintive whimper and tumbled down Jack rolled out of the way, his face streaked with hot spatter. The carcass smashed into the ground where he had just been lying and its heels beat the ground in convulsions. Jack swiped a sleeve across his face to wipe away the blood, and shrunk back, pulling his legs up quickly. The creature was slight, but its claws looked rather menacing and he was mesmerized by the way the death spasms made its limbs writhe.
The beast was still in the process of dying a minute later, and doing it quite loudly, although with less vigor.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Jack glanced over his shoulder. Lisa stood staring out from the darkness of the doorway, a hammer in her right hand.
“Think you're going to take out a giant with that hammer? I was just slugging it out with one here.”
“You have blood on your face.”
“It's not mine.”
“What is that thing?”
The little beast's convulsions were starting to fade. It's struggling had already quieted and the blood splattered less freely.
“I have no idea. From time to time, strange things wander in from the far reaches of the Wasteland. But with claws like those, it doesn't really matter what it is. We're leaving tomorrow. We can't do it at night, but we're taking off at dawn. Go get some sleep while there's still time. I'll repair the reception and we'll pop back into Gaerthon from here one more time tonight. We need to find a crossroads.”
“Again, with the crossroads! Why?”
“What do you mean, 'why'? You have make sacrifices to Necta at a crossroads.”

* * *

Jack dragged the dead creature away from Simon's House, sprinkled the blood on the floor with a mixture of dust and a handful of tobacco, and only then could he deal with the antenna. Tobacco was supposed to mask the scent of blood. Otherwise, they would be guaranteed some nighttime entertainment.
By the time he'd finished, night had already fallen in the Wasteland. But nighttime in Alterra came three hours later than in reality. So, Jack had some time to think about the situation, because so far, it was all rather odd. He reached Gaerthon, but the quest for Service to the Dark hadn't updated. And what was with the freak storm that broke out over the city ruins? It came out of nowhere at the very moment when Jack decided to visit Necta's temple. He served the Night Mother, right? Now, it was unlikely he would be able to visit her sanctuary.
What was the point in worrying? Better to log into the game and see for himself. First order of business in virt was to pay the five-gold fine for exiting the game outside of a designated area. What's more, Eloise had transferred every last bit of her money to Jack for the guild registration. He had to transfer fifty gold back to her, so she could pay the fine and have a handful of gold for unforeseen expenses. Jack then checked his own finances.
You transferred 50 gold.
Do you want to see the details of the transaction? Yes/No
You have 266 gold in your account.
Do you want to perform another transaction? Yes/No
I'm broke,” Jack muttered, looking around at the familiar mountain slope. “Gonna have to nip back to Stoglav to sell loot.”
Lisa appeared next to him and began looking around.
“The old codger is gone,” she said.
This is the spot where they killed the giant together. The puddle of blood had already melted away. What about the city? As far as they could see in the fading light, all that remained of the walls and buildings were piles of rubble. Was it possible that Vecta's temple survived? Or at least the basement underneath. Those vaults could have easily survived the storm.
“First, we'll visit the village at the foot of the mountain,” decided Jack. “Nevil is probably there and we still haven't completed his quest.
They walked down the path to the shore. The house windows glowed, the silvery light of Shadris flickered on the waves, and the Dead Wind, anchored near the shoreline, resembled a tear in a twinkling universe — a long smudge of absolute black. Jack spotted a light speck in the distance above the open sea. What might be over there? It was far away, at a distance where the light was barely discernable. And it must have been quite large if it was still visible... What was it?
“Lisa, did Ruger ever tell you what the Skyfort is?”
“No, he just started cursing if anyone mentioned it in front of him. Why do you ask?”
Jack pointed at the speck of light over the sea.
“Looks like it’s moving away,” Lisa observed. “Do you think the Skyfort was here when the storm began?”
The thought occurred to Jack, but he hadn't seen the flying fortress during the storm. The clouds had been so dense, it was impossible to see anything in the sky! While he mused, the blurred spot of light flashed brighter for a heartbeat, a spark separated from it and slowly floated across the sky.
“Here they are! The courageous travelers!”
Jack shook his head to chase out thoughts of the Skyfort. Nevil himself was hurrying along the path to meet him and Lisa. Despite the late hour, he had been hanging around the outskirts, watching for his saviors. There were a few other people with him. Everyone looked at the outlanders with adoration.
“We are a poor people,” Nevil insisted, “but we will try to repay you for your kindness! There are no more monsters on our island. We are saved!”
“So, this is an island,” Lisa interjected. “And I thought...”
Jack also assumed that the mountain and ruins were part of the mainland.
“I want to give you the most precious thing in our village,” the elder continued. “In truth, it is our only treasure. Take these Rosary. Legend goes, they belonged to Theokrist himself!”
“And who is Theokrist?” Lisa interrupted him. “We actually aren't from these parts. We come from a distant land and know nothing about this place.”
“Dark days followed after the Gods abandoned us,” Nevil said, ready with the explanation. An introductory text was probably written in his script for newcomers just arriving to Gaerthon and the time had come to recite it. “Monsters came here from some unknown place, a unique misfortune for each island. Ours, for example, was the settlement of the giants'. Prayer did not help us, for the Gods had left our land. The people suffered without their supervision. There were many men of courage who challenged these dreadful beasts, but they were unable to overcome this adversity.”
The fishermen surrounding the elder made noises of agreement. He took a breath and continued:
“An honorable, brave young man by the name of Theokrist volunteered. He promised that he would find a way to rid the land of these monsters, and took to the road. He descended into the deepest chasms and climbed mountains. He discovered abandoned temples and beheld long-forgotten shrines. They say he learned the secret of the Gods.”
“But the giants are still here?” asked Jack.
“After returning from his journey, Theokrist said that only the Gods had the power to destroy all the monsters at once.”
“What a grand discovery,” murmured Eloise. Quietly, so only Jack could hear.
“But we do not know how to bring the Gods back to our land,” old Nevil went on. “Theokrist believed that we needed to light the fire in all the old temples of Gaerthon. The ancient sanctuaries have been neglected, their fires extinguished, and monsters have settled in their ruins.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Jack muttered. “Light the fire, draw the Gods back to this place. But the temple on the mountain is destroyed now, yeah? Or did it survive?”
“Theokrist brought magical items back that were supposed to simplify his endeavor,” Nevil continued, ignoring Jack's remarks. “There was his belt, which granted strength. An invisibility cloak and a sword, the likes of which the world has never seen. And other powerful artifacts. He left for the ancient city at the top of the mountain. We haven't seen Theokrist or his enchanted weapons since.”
“He was killed in a battle with the Giants, I guess,” Jack said.
“Must be so,” the old man lamented. “We found only one item from his outfit on the mountainside. These prayer beads. Please accept them as a gift. We have nothing else with which to express our gratitude.”
Attention! You have completed the quest “Save Elder Nevil from the giant".
Reward: Theokrist's Rosary
You receive 1 XP.
You have 51 XP. Earn 9 XP to unlock a new skill.
Attention! You receive the quest “Restoration of the divine fire".
Reward: Unknown
Accept/Reject
Aha, Jack thought, there it was. The great, multi-step quest on Gaerthon. Well, now things were starting to come together...
He accepted the beads from the elder.
Theokrist's Rosary
Level: Unique
Properties: Unknown
It looked like an artifact of some significance. Eight stones strung on a cord, two white and two black. The rest were smaller and varied in color. Ruby red, emerald green, yellow beryl and sapphire blue. When Jack brought it to his eye, it became evident that these weren't typical gems. Something shifted inside them. Something lived there. Mysterious... Some force... or forces were imprisoned in the stones.
This didn't look like warrior gear, but Theokrist hadn't exactly been a warrior. He could have been considered a mage, a priest, and pilgrim in equal measure. The beads made sense, then.
But the item's unknown properties, which were supposed to serve him in the quest? It didn't get any more unique than that!
“Okay,” Jack nodded, “I'll try to discover Theokrist's secret and help these lands regain the favor of the Gods. Either way, I decided to participate when I agreed to fight the giants.”
“A great feat, just great,” the elder bowed his head.
His countrymen echoed their agreement.
“But it will be long and difficult,” Jack interrupted. “Who knows how long it will take to solve all the mysteries. In the meantime, can I buy a sheep from you?”
Nevil paused for a couple of seconds and Jack thought he could feel the game's digital gears spinning.
“I won't allow such a great hero to spend his money on my island,” Nevil finally said. “The sheep will be our gift to you. In fact, anything you require, you need only ask. You may claim anything in our village.”
“I won't burden these poor people. A small sheep will do. To start.”
They immediately brought the animal for Jack and, after exchanging goodbyes with the fishermen, he headed up the hill once again. Lisa hurried after him. She kept silent at first, but her patience didn't last long.
“Where are we going? Jack, what are you looking for? Are we searching for something? Talk to me! What are you trying to find?”
“Knock it off! A crossroads! Did the crossroads abandon these lands with the Gods or something? Speaking of which, what's with this damn place...”
Lisa fell silent, mulling over his words. Jack soon noticed a path that snaked around to an adjacent ledge. He already knew there were no crossroads on the main trail leading to the mountaintop city. They had to check the other trails. Jack, Lisa, and the sheep, who bleated docilely at the new owner at the other end of the rope, cut through thickets of scraggly shrubs and exited onto a slope separated by the rocky ledge on another side of the mountain. A quarter of an hour later and fortune smiled on Jack. He located an intersection of narrow mountain paths, which seemed to lead nowhere. These were most likely the trails the shepherds used to herd their sheep and goats from one tiny mountain pasture to another. Would it pass for a crossroads? Unfortunately, he had nothing better to offer Necta in this backwater.
Jack stopped where the trails crossed, tugged on the rope to bring the sheep closer, and withdrew Shadow of the King.
“Great Necta,” he began, “I hope you can hear me? Because, if you're not here, then this really is a terrible spot. But, to be honest, it's not my fault that you, the gods, created Elder Nevil's island so poorly that it's damn near impossible to find a decent crossroads. Anyway, please accept this sacrifice and instruct your faithful servant, who has lost his way. Especially because there aren't any decent roads on this island, like I already said.”
He slit the animal's throat with the blade that streamed darkness and took a step away from the fallen sheep. When the enormous figure of the goddess rose before him, he couldn't contain a sigh of relief. It worked! Necta was appearing!
She seemed more corporeal here on Gaerthon than before. Well, these were her shores. The old gods of Order ruled Gaerthon.
Jack, my loyal servant, you have come far on the path of service to the Dark,” her ringing voice reverberated in Jack's ears.
Lisa, who wasn't prepared for Necta's appearance, had been looking away. Now, she turned back and gasped at the sight of the huge figure.
Now it is time to announce your goal,” she said. “Free my husband. The Black Sword was given to you for this purpose. Find and release him. Solve the Great Mysteries of Alterra. Hardship awaits you on this path. You must pass through the wild lands and encounter enemies, the most dangerous who inhabit this world. However, the reward will be worthy of such a feat.”
The dark figure of Necta shivered. But not like a person would shiver. She disappeared for a split second and reappeared, as if the image transmission had been disconnected and then turned back on.
And do not trust the minor gods,” Necta added in a quiet, almost normal, voice. “They no longer serve the people. They need only the gray shadows.”
“Shadows?” Jack asked, surprised. “What does that mean?”
The shadows without souls. The empty cover, beyond which there is nothing. The lesser gods are gathering an army of gray shadows. Do not trust them. They aren't who they claim to be.”

* * *

While Jack was thinking about the quest and, especially, what Necta could have meant by her warning against the lesser gods, the talking specter disappeared, dissolved in the twilight. The mountainside was somehow too empty and quiet without her. With Necta here, albeit in the form of a ghost, the entire area had seemed... significant. Like every rock and bush possessed tremendous meaning. With the Night Mother's departure, though, the sensation disappeared and Jack was left standing at a barely-discernable crossroads on the most ordinary slope of the most unremarkable mountain. Amidst common stones. He rubbed his forehead, trying to wrap his mind around what the goddess just told him.
The image of the world in front of Jack blinked, lines slid across his vision:
Attention! Quest progression in “Service to the Dark".
Locate and free Necta's husband.
Attention! You are the first player to make a sacrifice to Necta on Gaerthon. You receive 1 XP.
You have 52 XP. Earn 8 XP to unlock a new skill.
Lisa pulled on his hand and pointed to the sky, effectively distracting him from his thoughts.
“Look! It's coming! It's moving right toward us!”
The spark falling from the light spot in the sky was actually moving directly toward Nevil's island and clearly descending. Now the spot had become a wispy, copper-colored flame and they could make out the outline of wide, blazing wings, flapping evenly. With each thrust, sparkles floated away and scattered, then gradually dissipated.
“What is that?” Jack asked, surprised.
There was no reply. Lisa knew no more about it than he did.
The winged flame slid across the sky in an arc, a glimmering tail stretching behind it. Its trajectory seemed to point directly at the top of the mountain.
“Up!” Jack shouted. “Hurry!”
They ran up the trail to reach the top before the flaming visitor, but were too late. The fiery shadow dropped into the ruins and its red glow warmed the broken walls. A fierce, hoarse growl echoed over the mountain.
Lisa grabbed Jack by the arm and they stopped. They could hear something approaching over the clatter of tumbling rocks and crackling flame, Bands of light shifted through the fragments of wall. Jack backed away, dragging Lisa behind him, but the living fire raced faster... and then leapt out from behind the ruined gate onto the path.
They had never seen such a creature. It was huge, the size of a horse, a beast woven from fire. Red tongues licked its sides and withers. Its eyes sparkled with a dazzling light. When the monster parted its jaws and began to roar, it flashed fangs several inches long, glowing like white-hot iron spikes. Folded wings bristled over its backbone, along which danced little tongues of flame.
Jack drew his sword and swung it in front of himself to cloak himself and Lisa under a curtain of darkness. The beast raised its head, looking around. The light coming from it easily penetrated the veil created by the Shadow of the King. Those eyes flashed and the fiery beast, crouching, made for the pair of players.
There was the sound of wings flapping in the night sky and a tight stream of glowing green flashed in the darkness. It struck the creature, engulfed its head, and swirled down its body. The beast roared again, shaking its head. Jack shoved Lisa toward the trail downhill and ran toward the burning monster.
Ruger streaked by on his black gryphon, shrouded by magic, and began regaining altitude. The green glow dissipated into a weightless, colorless vapor. The monstrosity let out another roar and jerked its head toward the night sky, where Beelzebub hovered. But Jack was already next to it. He swung his sword and slashed at the flaming creature's side. The blade passed harmlessly through it. It was woven from fire! What was a blow from steel supposed to do?!
The creature turned to face Jack and he jumped away, swinging Shadow of the King to hide himself in the darkness that flowed from the blade.
He was lucky the beast was more interested in its flying opponent. The enormous wings unfolded with a crackle, shedding sparks and dashing Jack against the rocks in a fiery hurricane.
You receive damage!
You lose 6 hit points!
As the beast shot into the sky, the light radiating from it was so bright, Jack had to squint. The fire soared, snatching the black rider on the black gryphon from the darkness. The two flying creatures began to spin in the sky. Ruger cast green fire over his enemy again and sent Beelzebub into a steep turn. Whether due to his pet’s lost speed after the blow from the giant's cudgel, or the fire beast was simply faster and unaffected by the necro-fire, but it was the clear favorite in this match. Its fire damaged the necromancer, who trying not to engage the beast. Instead, the gryphon pitched from side to side, trying to escape.
Backing away from the battle, Jack barely had the sense to take a few screenshots. It was a feature he rarely used. The ability to take screenies, or “magic pictures", as they liked to call them in Alterra, was part of the mystical arts, which he had never really developed... but the feature was incredibly useful when you were standing witness to a battle between a great necromancer and an arcane beast. Jack had certainly never seen anything like it and wasn't sure he would be able to describe it. The fiery creature seemed invincible. They needed more information, but how to obtain it if the monster was unprecedented and, frankly, indescribable?
Lisa bobbed up behind him, grabbed his arm and pulled, forcing them off the trail to take cover behind the rocks.
Ruger swept upwards along the mountain. The burning creature overtook him, beating the gryphon over and over with its wings and snapping with its teeth. First, smoke billowed from Ruger's dark form and then his cloak burst into flames. The gryphon was soon engulfed by the fire and, shedding burning feathers, crashed to the ground. The bundle of fire, wings folded, descended on the fallen enemy, and the mountainside was covered in smoke.
When the smoke cleared, the fiery beast spread its wings again with a victorious roar, preparing to take to the air. Jack did one more screengrab. It turned out to be the best one, no motion blur. The wings, maw, the blazing fire — it was all visible.
“Let's go, let's get out of here,” Lisa was tugging Jack toward a scattering of boulders, where they could slip away from the mountaintop unnoticed. “What is that thing?”
“I don't know, I've never seen anything like it.”
“Those wings! And that fire!”
“Yeah, a strange brute.”
The scree ended and a view opened of the mountaintop, where they could see the fiery glow prowling.
“What's it doing, hanging out at the top?” Jack mumbled. “What, it's not going to fly away?”
“That's good!” Lisa said, her voice forceful.
“That's bad,” countered Jack. “I mean, good that the thing isn't chasing us, but bad that we can't get into the city now. Personal experience tells me that if we aren't allowed somewhere, then that's exactly where we need to go, no matter what. Now we have a new puzzle to add to the collection.”




Chapter Three


Relic Hunters


THIS TIME, they were able to leave the game legally, through the cabin on the Dead Wind. Jack, before exiting back to reality, commanded the schooner to set a course for the nearest port on Stoglav, then he logged into the Shell. He had a letter waiting from Egghead.
There was a public announcement that someone had reached Gaerthon. Did you make it to the shore? Do they give quests there? Did your quest update? Eager for your reply. I'm already warming buyers up for your loot.
Jack was too tired to describe all the details and understood too little to clearly articulate their problems. So, he didn't bother explaining anything and logged out.
“And I thought we were going to really dig into Gaerthon,” Lisa remarked disappointedly when he removed the virt-helm.
“Ruger's dug in deeper than anyone. That fire beast killed his pet,” Jack said. “Now, if we try to press farther, we'll just be sticking our heads in a noose. We need to sleep, and then go back home. First, we need to settle matters in reality.”
“And later?”
“I set the Dead Wind on a course for Stoglav. I'll drop in on Egghead and dump all our discoveries on him. Let him deal with the headache. My brain already can't handle it. Why did that flaming monstrosity attack us? Why can't we trust the minor gods? What's the meaning of Theokrist's quest? Egghead loves riddles, so let him deal with it. All while he pushes our loot, too.”
“Are you going to sell Theokrist's Cloak?”
“Not right now. We don't need money that badly. And what if we need this guy's full set later on in the quest?”
“But Ruger took the sword.”
Lisa gave a little shiver at the mention of her former master's name and added:
“Oh, I bet he's in a nasty mood right now.”
“It's fine, we'll play it by ear. But the cloak stays with me for now.”
“It's black,” Lisa blurted.
Jack thought about that for a minute, then understood. She loved black clothes.
“All right. You can have the cloak.”
What did it matter? Jack never bothered with stealth and he hadn't leveled concealment. It was of no importance to a Scand. But Areuts, who lived in oppression on Stoglav, relied on concealment. And Lisa was an Areut. Let the cloak with concealment bonuses sit in her inventory. Perhaps it would come in handy sometime.
In the morning, before they left Simon's House, he removed the antenna from the roof, coiled the cable, and they painstakingly sprinkled dust over the floor in front of the doorway to hide their tracks.
Along the way, Jack began to speculate on the quests they'd gotten. How was Theokrist connected to Service to the Dark? There was seemingly no correlation between them. Then there was that fiery monster, which killed Ruger. Where had it come from?
It flew out from the Skyfort, right?
The flying fortress, incidentally, had always been a mystery to the players in Alterra. It simply hovered over everything and never meddled in affairs on the ground. Celestial beings dwelling in the sky, disdaining the little people.
Even the fact that the Skyfort reacted to the discovery of Gaerthon was in itself an astonishing thing. Curious, how closely were they watching the lost continent? What else would they send out if they felt the players from Stoglav were in the way? Questions and more questions...
On the outskirts of the ghetto, Jack checked his revolver and told Lisa to keep her eyes peeled. Regardless of what Ruger said, best to stay on guard. Just in case.
But no one stopped them, nobody even called out to them. Jack didn't even notice any sidelong glances. Just another confirmation of how Ruger persuasive could be.
A familiar man was milling around the front of the trailer. It seemed to Jack that they had met recently, but he didn't recognize the man's face. He didn't recognize the trailer door, either. Now, another stood in place of the old, shabby — but solid — door. It appeared to be sturdy as well, but new. The hinges gleamed with fresh grease.
The vaguely familiar man sauntered toward Jack and Lisa with apparent reluctance.
“I... I'm supposed to give you a message,” he mumbled. “To apologize.”
Apologies in the ghetto were no less rare than epic artifacts in Alterra.
“Do I know you?” Jack asked, to be sure.
“We met a couple days ago.”
“Hmm,” Jack searched his memory. But he still couldn't place the man's face.
He was unassuming man of average height, wearing a battered jacket and cap pulled down over his eyes.
“And in what circumstances?”
“Well, I'm the one... who jumped on you from the wall. And missed. Then you kicked me across the alley.”
“Ahh, that's right. There was something about your face I didn't recognize.”
Seeing that Jack was in a good mood, the old acquaintance perked up a little.
“Customary practice, I was covering my face. So, can I give you the message?”
“Go on,” Jack nodded.
He didn't hold any grudges against the goon. You never knew who you'd meet in similar fashion. If he got irritated at everyone for this sort of thing, then he would lose his mind.
“Romeo said that the door is a replacement for the one we broke. Our mistake, sorry about that. This door is just as good as the old one, though. Here are the keys.”
“All right. What's your name?”
“Mike.”
“Mike, and why exactly did they send you? As punishment for something? Or what?”
“No, it was Romeo's decision. He said, 'He's already kicked you around, so maybe he won't get too angry. You've already been punished. If we send someone new, he might kick their ass.' Something like that. Anyway, we're sorry, we were in the wrong. That's what Romeo said to pass on.”
“He's a sensible guy, sending you,” Jack admitted. “Well, tell Romeo, no hard feelings. But now he owes me. One door doesn't make us square. That whole thing seriously upset me. Damaged my self-esteem. Got me?”
“Not really,” Mike confessed.
“I thought I had a good reputation. And people with a good reputation don't get their doors kicked down. So, now I think a little less of myself. Yeah, okay, don't get too worked up over this. Just tell Romeo that he owes me.”
There were traces inside of strangers' presence, but at first glance, he could see nothing was missing. There weren't even many dirty prints on the floor. Jack thought maybe this Romeo wasn't such a bad guy after all. And Ruger turned out to be really cool.
Lisa didn't engage in conversation with Mike, but after he left, she began making a fuss over the break-in. She grumbled that now they would have to put everything back in order.
“The door lock will have to be changed,” said Jack. “Who knows what these keys are. But that'll be later. Now I want to check where the Dead Wind ended up.”
The schooner was still at sea, but they could already make out the shoreline on the horizon. Another few hours and the ship would reach Stoglav. Jack ordered the schooner to keep to the course for the coast of Maxitor.
“Before we do anything else, I'm going to take you to Egghead's. Have you ever been to his place?”
“No, we didn't meet in Maxitown. I was still in the necromancers’ guild and it was too dangerous for me to cross the border into the kingdom.”
“Ah! All the more reason to go, then. You'll like it,” he promised Lisa. “There's so many lace ruffles gathered in one place, you can’t help but appreciate it. But we need to deal with the door first, so we'll have to forgo our sea voyage.”

* * *

The Dead Wind pulled into a Maxitorian port called Leuven. It was a small, unremarkable town. The important thing was that there was a temple of Astra with a portal here and Jack had stocked up on teleport scrolls on previous adventures. To be on the safe side, Lisa hid her stats with a “wipe", but it soon became clear that it was an unnecessary precaution.
On the road leading from the port to the main square, passers-by only talked about how the war with the necromancers had ended so unexpectedly. Nightmare and Maxitor had reached a truce, and Eckerhart announced that anyone daring enough to offend his former servant, Eloise, would become his mortal enemy. Essentially the same story as in reality. Now Lisa was out of danger. She was protected, even.
“I feel a little weird,” she told Jack, “I'd gotten used to the need to be afraid.”
“I'm surprised, too,” he replied. “But something tells me that this calm won't last for long.”
Near Astra's temple, he stopped to listen to a conversation between two players. One, it seemed, had just spoken with the priestess.
“I don't understand it,” he said. “The NPC always used to be friendly. I come here sometimes just to chat and get a blessing. She's so hot, it's a shame that she's not a real person.”
Wasn't that the truth. Jack had already noticed that the priestesses of the gentle goddess were young and cute.
“But this time, she just attacked me,” the distressed player continued. “What blessing! Sin, a bleeping sin on you! Repent! And I only asked if it were possible to use a portal to Gaerthon. It's been discovered, you know!”
“That's right. The first player set foot on Gaerthon, all right.”
“Well, I thought, if that's the case, then maybe the player opened a portal there? Astra would know. It's her job to manage the portals. But the little priestess began to shout at me that it was a sin. I'm just glad she didn't hit me with a debuff.”
The player sighed and finished:
“I mean, even when she's angry, she's still a babe... Too bad there aren't chicks like that in real life.”
Jack led Lisa to Sapphire Shields road and pointed out the green-roofed mansion.
“Take a look at how successful players live.”
“Our castle is cooler,” Lisa snipped, thought Jack could see she that Egghead's home intrigued her.
It was one thing to stroll the streets of Svetlograd or Maxitor and see all the facades of the buildings. They were a natural part of the environment, an element of a beautiful game. Similarly, it's how players perceived a darkly beautiful cliff overlooking the sea or the emerald green woodland. Just part of the picture.
It was quite different to look at this kind of luxury when you know that it belongs to someone you've spoken, argued, and closed deals with. Someone like you, but look at how much better his toy is. You don't have one like it.
“Of course, our castle is quite another matter,” agreed Jack. “We aren't ordinary players. We're the super cool discoverers of the lost continent. But for a regular guy from the ghetto, Egghead's done well for himself.”
Jack tapped on the door. The same doorman recited the same script, word for word, as he had on the previous visit:
“I shall inform the master, please wait here.”
Lisa began to explore the tiny, prim garden Egghead built in his courtyard and Jack was already worrying that she would demand that something in the same vein be constructed at Dagon castle. But Lisa wrinkled her nose and commented that it was too variegated. Not enough black.
However, the return of the doorman prevented her from expanding on this thought. The status of the guests, as set in his program, had clearly increased. Without stopping to bow, the servant invited them inside.
Egghead ran into the drawing room, rubbing his hand together:
“Well? Tell me! You should have plenty of news! What about Gaerthon? Did you do a lot? What kinds of quests do they give out? Oh, you've gained levels! How did you raise your XP?”
There was nothing of his previous, languid calm in his behavior. Jack couldn't resist:
“Stop. This is all backwards. You're supposed to invite your guests to sit, then fiddle with your cuffs... Okay, Listen.”
Jack briefly related their first adventures on Nevil's island. He wasn't eager to reveal all his cards, but Egghead wouldn't be able to help if he didn't know all the details. Finally, he laid out the most intriguing tidbit — the fiery, winged creature.
“I'm sending you a screenshot of that marvel. Take a look. I can't get into the ruins of the old city to locate the temple and restore the fire. If I go to another temple on Stoglav, that damn thing might follow me. It has wings, it can fly from the island after me.”
“Mmm, yes...” Egghead murmured, staring into space. He was examining the screenshots. “I can't recall anything like it. What kind of stats did it have?”
“No stats that I could see, even when I was standing right next to it, hacking at the thing with my sword. The sword did nothing and there were no stats.”
“It doesn't work that way.”
“You keep saying that, but I also saw there were no stats on Shadow of the King. This is the same thing. I'm constantly surrounded by things that 'don't work that way'. And we have to deal with this thing somehow. The Shadowslayer dagger helped me with the Shadow. Maybe there's an artifact called Fiery Winged Beastie Slayer?”
Egghead was lost in thought. It was evident that he wasn't dissembling, but was in fact thinking it over. Finally, he said it just wasn't enough information.
“Now, if you were to continue on Theokrist's questline... And could see the beast in action a couple of times... Hey, can I look at the beads?”
Jack showed him and added:
“They aren't for sale. I would like to put the Cords of Strength on the market, though. Two, for sure, maybe three. I still haven't decided. They have hidden properties and look pretty unusual. I didn't have a 'descrier' on me, but the question marks over the inventory icons are red. I don't know if a standard Eye of Zaile would even work.”
“They're red? Red question marks?”
“Don't tell me it doesn't work like that. By the way, what do your contacts think about the discovery of Gaerthon?”
“All speculation at this point. After all, nobody was expecting this. Players were more concerned with the war against Nightmare, then the news dropped, one after the other. First, Ruger retreated without a pitched battle, said he was offering peace... yes, Eloise, as far as you're concerned...”
“I already know,” Lisa nodded. “Now I can walk around the capital, bump and abuse whoever I want. I’ve got a security umbrella.”
“Well, the way I see it, as long as I'm around, you could've been doing that all along,” Jack said. “But let's get back to the matter at hand. I need coins. More than that, I need info on this fire creature. How soon can you find a buyer and information about these ‘things that don't happen’? And what can you tell me about Theokrist's questline?”
“The buyers will be here today,” Egghead promised. “I already notified those who might be interested in such loot. I indicated that the first goods from Gaerthon would be available only through me. You'll have to sell the Cords for a token amount or gift them to me, to conceal your identity. The buyers should never see you. I'll put you in the next room, you'll hear every word.”
“All right, here, take two Cords.”
Egghead studied the Cords of Strength for a few moments, now in his own inventory slots.
“Yes, they are indeed red. Good. It'll be immediately clear that the item isn't local. Which means it'll be ridiculously expensive.”
“This is just the beginning. Just give me time and money. And your guidance, of course. Then the loot will pour from the skies.”
“Wait a little. I'll write a few messages in chat and invite the buyers. We can talk later.”
Egghead stared off into space and moved his fingers in the air. A few minutes later, he shook his head and turned back to his guests. The dandy had already regained his composure and returned to his previous, sickly sweet manner. He was smiling, straightening his cuffs, and so on.
“Everything's in order,” he assured. “The two are in the game, both responded. They'll arrive within the hour. Well, as for your quests, Jack... It's still unclear what Gaerthon is. If there is any mention of the continent's destruction in the guides, then that means it broke up into pieces, or islands, at some point... or is it still a whole continent? The geography will become clearer as you continue on Theokrist's quest... along the islands, from one demolished city with a temple to another...”
Egghead fell silent, fiddling with a curly lock of hair. He was deep in thought. After the pause, he continued:
“If so, then each island will have its own monsters. A separate quest on each, given by the local elders. Or its own monsters in every region on the mainland, a ruined city with a temple. You kill the monster, find the temple, and light the fire. How are these beads connected to this? Eight gems, as a reminder that you should restore eight temples? And should something happen after that? But why are two of the stones black? In Alterran mythology, there are six Gods of Order: Chronos and his wife, Ged, Astra, Zaratos, and Faceless.”
“The six white and colored stones. But what about the black?”
Egghead thought for another minute and gave up.
“No, I can't say anything off-hand. I need time to think, dig through the info. By the way, about the Gods. All players received the message that Gaerthon was found. It was expected that the priests in all the temples would call for a great campaign... but it didn't happen.”
“It's more than that. They're declaring any questions about Gaerthon to be a sin. I overheard a conversation on the way here, in the square,” Jack nodded. “It made me remember what Necta said about the lesser gods. They aren't who they claim to be.”
“The lesser gods. Then that would be Ged, Astra, Zaratos, and Faceless. I'll ask around about what changes have been seen in the priests' scripts. Maybe there's a clue there?”
“And what do you think the purpose of Service to the Dark is? Save Necta's husband... Isn't that Chronos? I'm supposed to save Chronos himself! What would his return to the world lead to?”
“That's just it, there's another mystery in that. In all the legends, Chronos doesn't appear at night. He is a light deity and next to him stands his wife, Vecta, the day incarnation of the Mother. When the minor gods complained about Necta's nighttime antics, he condemned them. Her antics, I mean, not the gods. Although Necta specifically requested that you to save her husband. Something here doesn't fit.”
“And the Dark Service,” Jack added. “Is that what will end up saving Chronos, a god of light? It's nonsense.”
Egghead mused some more, rubbing his pointed chin. Jack remembered what the man looked like in real life and began to feel uneasy. A bifurcation of perception or something. Egghead, meanwhile, was staring off into space again, moving his fingers. Chatting with someone. This went on for several minutes, then Egghead flashed them his sugary smile, which always made Jack want to vomit.
“Very well, our buyers are already hurrying here. No more than half an hour and we can begin the auction. I invited two at once. You'll see how it works. Jack, what do you want for the Cords of Strength? I need a number to toss out there.”
“Probably a hundred each,” Jack suggested uncertainly.
Egghead gave him a skeptical look.
“More?” Lisa guessed.
“This is an item from Gaerthon! An unprecedented rarity. All right, I've had it with you two. Sit in the next room, be silent and be glad you enlisted me to sell your trophies. That gladness will help you come to terms with my thirty percent commission.”

* * *

Egghead directed his guests to a small room and pointed out the hidden opening in the wall:
“You can hear everything from here. And even see, somewhat. Sometimes I use this room to look guests over before I join them.”
Jack pressed to the hole and saw a table before him.
“Keep quiet and don't give away your presence.”
“No problem, we'll manage,” Jack said. “Hey, have you seen Sartorius in the past couple days? From what I understand, he doesn't log in only in the evenings now.”
Jack thought the mage had been a decent companion. No need to completely sever relations with him.
“What do you want with him?” asked Lisa. “He's so two-faced. I had him pegged from the start. And he's definitely taken up with Ruger.”
“Did you not serve Ruger in his castle? And who was it, I wonder, that helped us take those giants out? Think about it! We should stop by the Stargazer's Tower and reconcile the relationship, or something.”
“No way!” Lisa frowned.
“No arguing,” Egghead broke in. “Sartorius no longer lives in Maxitown. The Stargazer's Tower was put up for sale and I'm looking for a buyer. Our light mage is going to start a new life in a new place. That new place will most likely be in Nightmare, but that's just my guess. Well, I'm off to accomplish a financial miracle.”
“Good luck!” Jack wished him.

Both buyers arrived at almost the same time. The first was a Scand in plate armor. A warrior, by the look of it. The second looked more like a merchant. He was a stocky Achaean, sturdy, rather broad-shouldered, with a bulging belly and a curly black beard, which was obviously drawn in using a custom game mod. Jack appreciated Egghead's strategy. The buyers looked more like one another than the seller.
“Well, my friends,” Egghead greeted his guests, rubbing his hands together. “Just as I promised! The very first items from Gaerthon. Precious relics, unbelievably rare. But most importantly, this purchase offers you access to the secrets of Gaerthon. And you will be the first to possess such a marvel. But please remember the terms of our transaction. You are getting a chance to be the first appraise Gaerthonian loot, and in return — no inquiries about the way to the lost continent. None! This is non-negotiable. We are already in agreement, right?”
Jack pressed to the hole in the wall, examining the buyer's stats. The warrior was closest.
Clive Melwig, Scand
Expertise: 46
Health: 45
Battle Seeker Guild, Deputy
Meanwhile, the Achaean began studying the Cord of Strength that Egghead placed on the table.
“Nothing indicates that it originated on Gaerthon,” he finally said. “How can you confirm it?”
Sango Lettis, Achaean
Expertise: 35
Health: 45
Key Wardens Guild, Master
Sango, you insult me,” Egghead gave him a meaningful grimace, “my reputation is known throughout Stoglav. You know very well that I would not deceive you for the sake of a single transaction.”
“For one, you wouldn't, but what if this is a large-scale racket and you've prepared a series of artifacts for sale? The info about Gaerthon's discovery gives you the opportunity. The information exists, but no one knows anything specific.”
“And no one will learn anything specific anytime soon, if not for me!” Egghead said. “I produce exclusive goods only for the best clients. Rare level, and this is only the beginning. The Cords are even unusually marked. Look closely, and see how the hidden properties are marked. Notice the question marks are red. Have you come across this before? Not on Stoglav, I’d wager.”
“A rare-level item with red question marks, it’s not typical on Stoglav. I'm prepared to believe it. I would be interested to see any legendary- and epic-level items found on Gaerthon,” Clive admitted.
The Achaean studied the goods for a long while, but even he admitted that the red question marks were unprecedented. Most likely, he just didn't want the rare artifact to go to his competitor.
Egghead was enjoying the moment. He nodded, his curls bouncing, fiddled with his cuffs, and smiled. The conversation finally turned to the matter of cost.
“I would say three,” Egghead announced. “But since you are both long-time clients, and I care about your satisfaction, the starting price is two hundred fifty gold.”
This figure, naturally, provoked outrage. The buyers tried to bring the price down. Egghead, crossed his legs, leaned back in his chair and smiled, rocking the pointed toe of his shoe.
In the end, the Achaean agreed to the price.
“I'll take it. On the condition that you'll call me first, when new relics appear.”
“Two hundred sixty,” the Scand countered.
The bearded Sango let himself get caught up in the fervor and wasn't going to give up. He added five coins... The auction ended with a sum of 280 gold.
The Achaean got the Cord of Strength, paid... and, in parting, reminded Egghead of his request to contact him in the future as new items turned up.
“And I would advise you not to inflate the price so much,” he said. “As soon as the first portal to Gaerthon opens, these relics will become significantly cheaper.”
“Want to have a bit of revenge on me?” Egghead proposed. “There's something I need. And you, if you can acquire it, will fleece me for a heap of gold, eh? I'll send you a picture. Look in the guild archives. I need to find out how to defeat it.”
As the guests stood, Egghead called out to the Scand:
“Clive, hold on, please. There's one more deal I want to offer you.”
“Are you collaborating behind my back?” Sango frowned.
“Hey, you got the artifact!” Egghead reproached. “My question for Clive is not about the transaction. I need fighters. The Battle Seekers are a strong guild.”
After the Achaean left, Egghead spoke:
“Clive, I want to make you an exclusive offer. You are my regular customer and I value our relationship. So, I held another Cord of Strength aside especially for you. Just don't betray me! Otherwise, I cannot continue to do such friendly favors. For you, it's a special, discounted price.”
The second Cord went to Clive for 270 coins. The Scand was satisfied and Jack had received an instructive lesson in commerce, but that wasn't what concerned him most.
When the auction ended, and he and Lisa were allowed back into the drawing room, he asked:
“Egghead, what did the bearded man say about the portals? Could a portal really be placed on Gaerthon?”
“Highly unlikely, of course. But theoretically, yes, it's possible. Once you discover a temple to Astra, then a portal would probably appear there. But it will, by all appearances, work only within Gaerthon.”
“But it's still possible? What if a portal between the continents appears?”
“If that kind of portal appears, then you could simply call it a miracle. Then again, who performs miracles, if not the gods? And Astra is a goddess. Now, that's a question...”
“But the priestess of Astra forbids even the suggestion of such a portal,” Lisa remarked.
Jack thought, she forbids it today, but what about tomorrow? Or the day after? What if he unlocks Astra's temple on Gaerthon when he lights the fire, then a portal appears and they start handing out quests in all the temples with a reward in the form of transport to Gaerthon? It was something to consider. For now, he wasn't under any circumstances going to be playing with fire in Astra's temples.
Which reminded him of his first encounter with the Gravediggers. When it turned out they had locked the portal into the black city. He needed to find out how to do that and how much it cost.
Afterwards, Egghead counted out his share, thirty percent. It was a bit much, but without Egghead, Jack would never have been able to fetch that much money for the Cords. Finally, Egghead said:
“When you get underway, don't forget to watch your back. Pay special attention to the Key Wardens.”
“What, does that guild have a bad reputation? Why did you contact them, then?”
“They know how to keep secrets, so I reached out to them. They also know how to find secrets. The Wardens aren't particularly malicious, but they are very persistent and stubborn. It's a small guild. They aren't famous mages or warriors. They are my competitors, in some ways. Secret hunters. If anyone can find info on the fiery creature, it's them. What do you think they'll do with the Cord of Strength, for example?”
“Well... what do you mean? They'll give it to one of their tanks.”
“They’ll study all the guides and descriptions in their search about the artifact. They’ll look for quests that award such a prize. Then they’ll rummage through all the scrolls at the bookshop and scour every temple library. Oh, and they will have you followed. So, I’m telling you: watch your back. Especially when you go out to sea.”
“Got it,” Jack was sure that the Dead Wind could shake any pursuers, but it was good that Egghead had given the warning. “And what about Clive and the Battle Seekers?”
“Ordinary fighters. They will use the Cord as intended, no ulterior motives. They’re simple guys, artless. The only thing I don’t know about them is the Master that commands them.”
“What do you mean?
Egghead was shifted uncomfortably. He was embarrassed to admit there was something he didn’t know.
“You see, Clive always speaks on behalf of the Seekers. He’s their Deputy. He commands them in quests, leads their negotiations. I’ve never seen their Master and there is no information about him anywhere. You can see his name in the clan portal, but nothing else.”
“Okay. What should we do now?”
“I’ll try to find out about that fiery beast on Gaerthon. It’d be nice if you could dig up more information about what’s happening there.”
“Which means we’re setting sail. Write to me in the Shell if something turns up.”
Egghead wasn't too lazy to escort his esteemed guests to the gates. Already saying goodbye, he asked casually:
“Ah, Jack, one more thing. Remember my old friend, the one who wrote the script to raise the backup? When you launched the outdated version of Alterra? You haven't seen him in the last couple of days, have you?”
“What do you mean?” Jack was taken aback. “You didn't tell me anything about him! You also said his identity was a secret, not a part of our deal.”
“Yes, yes, that's right,” he nodded hastily, his curly locks bobbing. “That's right. It's just that he's been missing for two days and I'm asking everyone who has dealt with him in any way. Of course, you couldn't know. Well, good luck! Don't forget about the Wardens.”
And Jack realized that it had been a test. Egghead suspected him. Most likely, the mysterious expert programmer actually had gone missing and Egghead figured that Jack was somehow involved. He could never allow himself to forget what the charming Egghead was.





Chapter Four


Encounters on the road



JACK SPENT nearly all the coins he'd fetched from the Cords of Strength on teleports. The first haul had proven that questing on Gaerthon was indeed a profitable business, which meant it was time to get serious and stop wasting time traveling between the port town of Leuven and Maxitown. Since the Wanderer mage's shop was right next to Astra’s temple and they had to stop there anyway, Jack decided to see the priestess’s reaction for himself.
The priestess really was rather easy on the eyes, just as the players had said. Young and slender, and even her baggy priestess garb couldn't hide the incredible figure underneath. She greeted them with a smile, which displayed the charming dimples in her round cheeks.
“Welcome. What has brought you to the sanctuary of gentle Astra?”
Jack couldn't help smiling in return and Lisa frowned.
“I humbly seek the counsel of Astra, patron of travelers,” Jack began. “I heard word that some travelers have reached Gaerthon.”
The priestess' smile faded but she nodded, encouraging him to continue.
“And I wondered if I might go on a pilgrimage to the lost, though recently rediscovered, continent to worship Astra in the local temple? Could the tender-hearted goddess open a way to Gaerthon? A portal or perhaps...”
The priestess frowned, causing her round face to lose all its loveliness. There was no more kindness in her eyes than in the gaze of a Wasteland snake, lying in wait for a heedless Walker.
“Gaerthon is a cursed place!” the NPC hissed. “Forsaken by the Gods! Good Astra follows her valiant husband Ged far and wide. She opens the portals to find him, wherever his heroic passions may take him. There is no place on Gaerthon for Ged and, by that measure, no need to establish a route there. Astra's temples on Gaerthon are gone forever. Follow the example of the Gods, traveler. Do not seek a way to that cursed place! Beware of sin!”
As he was leaving the temple, Jack remarked, “It looks like she's already fed up with questions about this portal, that's why she freaks out. The bottom line is that we can't count on the lesser gods... especially since, as Necta said, they aren't who they appear to be. But who, then? Who are they really, our alter-gods? Is that not the most important mystery? We'll have to do this on our own. Let’s go to the port in Leuven.”

* * *

The Dead Wind understandably drew considerable attention in the little port of Leuven. It stood out among the merchant and fishing vessels, like a kite among ducks. Jack spotted a handful of curious players on the quay in a lively discussion about who might possess such a ship and where they could get one like it.
As Jack and Lisa strode across the quay to the gangway, maintaining an important and mysterious air, the conversations ceased and surprised, jealous gazes followed the owners of the exotic schooner. The Eternal Wanderer guild boarded and a round of whispers ran through the gathered players.
Lisa was delighted to be the focus of so much attention. She began to bow and blow air kisses to the crowd. It was all fun and games for her. Jack, however, noticed something else. As soon as they boarded the schooner, a neighboring ship also began preparations to set sail. It was nothing special, the NPC sailors simply came to life. They cleared the gangplanks away without much fuss, began hoisting the anchor, and a few sailors clambered up and began prepping the rigging.
But NPCs can't act without orders, right? There wasn't a single living player in sight on board, which meant they were hiding. Lurking. And why would that be in such a remote, peaceful town? While Lisa was carrying on, Jack examined the suspicious vessel closely. It wasn’t a remarkable ship, just an ordinary coastal barque. A heavy, single-masted vessel with a conventional name. The Prosperity.
“Wind,” Jack commanded. “We're casting off. Don't rush. Set us at quarter cruising speed. I want to see who follows us out of this port.”
Yes, Master,” the demon ship crooned in its incredible, otherworldly voice.
Under the onlooker's admiring gazes, the Dead Wind cast off from the pier and set a course for the open sea. The Prosperity, of course, left the harbor behind them. Jack ordered the Dead Wind to change course several times, taking the schooner first to the east along the coast, then directing it to turn west. All the while, the black schooner sailed slowly, in no way indicating the speed it was capable of reaching. Jack wanted to be sure. The Prosperity kept its distance, but mirrored each maneuver the demon ship performed, clearly shadowing them. What, exactly, were they expecting? Whoever ‘they’ were, the player or players hiding on board the barque? After all, if the Dead Wind were to raise its sails, they had no hope of catching it. It made no sense.
Jack took the schooner away from the coast and released his goblins. He had to wait a few minutes for their exuberance to subside after being confined, as usual. The little green monsters pranced around on the deck, expressing delight at their newfound freedom. Then, when they had calmed somewhat, Jack motioned to Hercules and ordered him to send a lookout up the mast. NPCs had perfect vision and the goblin would spot any vessel following them, even at a great distance beyond the Prosperity.
Lisa finally took notice of the situation.
“What's happening? Why aren't we going at full speed? And why are we decorating the mast with goblins, now?”
“Take a look at this rust bucket behind us,” Jack pointed to the sail astern.
“What about it? It’s just a merchant barge. A piece of junk. Not like our ship.”
“Hercules, what's on the horizon?” Ignoring her questions, Jack turned to the goblin.
The goblin leader began to chatter, raised his snout toward the mast, and the lookout responded.
“A ship, a ship! A small ship on the horizon. Very small, can barely see!” Hercules chirped.
Jack explained to Lisa that the lookout saw another vessel beyond the Prosperity, just at the edge of its range of vision, and this one was most certainly faster than the trading barque. It was simply trying to stay out of sight for now.
“And I’d bet its crew is sitting in chat with the guy following us in the Prosperity.”
“So, what? Can't we outrun it? The Dead Wind is faster.”
“Yes, but they'll track our course, like Ruger did. The second, faster, vessel will keep following us for as long as it can keep us in view,” Jack paused to think. “Listen. Dead Wind, head west. And keep close to the coast. Maintain this speed.”
Yes, Master. As you command, Master.”
What are you going to do?” Lisa was growing suspicious, alarmed even. “Nightmare is to the west. Ruger isn't an enemy anymore, but he's not here and the other necromancers will attack anyone who approaches their shores.”
That's right,” Jack nodded blithely. “That's my plan.”
“Hey, you don't know them, but I do!” Eloise protested. “It's a bad plan. Our ship won't be able to gather any speed unless we buy the local sailing directions, but they're difficult to get and very expensive for that area along Nightmare's coast. And without those directions, you risk running aground or breaching the bottom on an underwater rock. If the necromancers catch us...”
“Then we will remind them that Ruger ordered them not to harass us. Calm down, I've got the situation under control. Wind, take us closer to the shore. We need to be spotted by those towers over there.”
I hear and obey, Master.”
As the chase continued, the Dead Wind skirted Maxitor's coast and grim black towers rose up on the cliffs. Precisely where the schooner was heading. The barque reduced its speed but the flyboat behind it, on the contrary, added sails. It could already be seen from the deck. They were afraid of falling behind. But now things were, as Jack had planned, up to the necromancers. Their move.
And they did not disappoint. Three boats under the black flag of Nightmare emerged from the cliffs. Their predatory, pointed prows chopped the waves, whipping up foam caps, on a course to intercept the Dead Wind.
“Full speed! Wind, twenty degrees to the left!” Jack commanded.
The goblins were brandishing their crossbows and issuing warlike shrieks. They had it in their heads that their beloved master was going to battle, but quickly realized their mistake and began to grumble with disappointment. Jack wasn't planning to get cozy with the necromancers. The black schooner executed the maneuver and was now retreating from the dangerous shoreline and pursuing ships. The necromancers began to lag behind... two of their ships turned to intercept the sailboats pursuing Jack. The flagship, however, continued to chase the schooner.
“What are they thinking?” Jack growled. “Wind, can they catch up with us?”
No one will overtake me, Master,” the black schooner crooned. “Simply order me to catch a tailwind, Master, and they will not be able to keep pace with us.”
“Alright, do it. Catch the wind and fly as fast as you can. Hey, Hercules! Get all the goblins off the mast. This is not the time for them to be swinging on the lines.”
The lookout returned to the deck and the Dead Wind changed course again. Its sails caught a tailwind, the distance between them and the foremost necromancer boat grew more quickly. The other two necromancer ships had moved in on the ships from Leuven hunting the demon schooner.
Jack saw a black cloud rising over the necromancer vessels — riders on flying mounts were lifting off from their decks. Multicolored sparks flashed on the ship decks under attack. They had begun throwing battle magic, but Jack couldn't make out the details at this distance. Lisa brought a spyglass out from the cabin to admire the view.
Meanwhile, the necromancer flagship stubbornly continued to follow in the Dead Wind's wake. Lisa swished the tube from side to side, trying not to miss any of the action on the deck of the flagship, although the most interesting events were unfolding where the two groups of sailboats converged.
She frowned, bit her lip, and stopped shifting the eyepiece. Then she handed it to Jack and grimly promised him, “Now you'll see what they're thinking. Watch the ones gathered on foredeck.”
Jack trained the instrument on the foredeck and observed the events there. Yes, there were several people in black crowded on the forecastle of the necromancer vessel. One lifted his arm and the blade of a dagger flashed. Another kneeled before him and exposed his neck. The dagger dropped sharply and red splashed over the deck... and the ship immediately gained a dramatic increase in speed. Jack even started in surprise and nearly dropped the spyglass.
“What was that?” he asked.
“A black ritual. Necromancer magic in action.”
“And the one they sacrificed? What, did he want it? Like a volunteer?”
“Well, yes,” Lisa turned away and stared at the waves over the side. “Exactly that. Now, do you understand what I used to do in Ruger's castle? In fact, some victims even enjoy it.”
Jack fell silent and tried to imagine what it would feel like to take part in one of those rituals. True, Lisa had told him that was how necromancer magic worked, but seeing it with his own eyes... the way that man laid his own neck under the knife with a grin... Totally batshit crazy.
It took just a few minutes and the vessels were almost equal in speed. The Dead Wind hadn't lied, they wouldn't be able to catch it. But the necromancers were keeping pace.
“Lisa, how long does this spell last?”
“Depends on the mage's level. Probably no longer than fifteen minutes, though.”
“Ah, then we'll just wait.”
The effects of the black magic ended sooner than fifteen minutes. Their pursuers began to lose speed and the distance between the necromancers and the aft of Dead Wind slowly, but steadily, grew. Another bright idea popped into Jack's head. He opened the chat menu and... Bingo! Sartorius was online.
Jack quickly typed:
Sartorius, hi! How's life? I hear that you finally switched over to the dark side. Listen, we didn't part on good terms. I hope there are no hard feelings?
His reply came right away.
Hello. What hard feelings? I'm actually grateful to you. Ultimately, our journey helped better myself. I discovered new sides of myself. Or, rather, not new, but genuine. Sides that were hiding deep inside, that I was trying to hide from myself. Granted, living in society, we have to hide our natural urges, but now I'm uninhibited.
The tiny pencil began to scribble in the chat window as Sartorius wrote something else. Jack shook his head. This was a man who loved to talk, often complicating the simplest things. What was the point?
The scribbling pencil paused. Jack glanced at the pursuing vessel, then the shore, as it floated away into the horizon. Yeah, too far, probably. Chat was no longer supported at this distance.
Of course, if Sartorius had gotten the chance, he would have immediately proceeded to pour his little heart out, like that time they sailed along the great river. People like him just needed to get things off their chest, to explain their extraordinarily keen emotions to someone. But Jack was in no mood for other's emotions.
“Wind, set a course for Gaerthon! We've wasted enough time.”

* * *

The sea voyage should have taken several hours, even at the speed of the Dead Wind. Jack decided to put those hours to good use, so he logged into the Shell and opened the Key Wardens' forum. The most interesting stuff would be, of course, in the private sections, but there was plenty of curiosity about the discovery of Gaerthon on the publicly accessible areas.
He couldn't find anything in the Battle Seekers' forum, except the usual idle chitchat of the players. It goes without saying that a few players made mention of the search for Gaerthon. One even complained about their Master not being overly concerned with the topic. Otherwise, the guild was more occupied with raiding their neighbors and reselling pets. Their domain was far from the sea.
In short, nothing specific. Yet, someone was still trying to follow the schooner out of Leuven. As for their Master, Jack learned that his character name was Brandt Ironfist. A level 32 Scand. Not much of a name for a guild leader. He didn't visit the forums and practically no one spoke about him. A mysterious individual.
Afterwards, Jack turned to the help pages and searched for any reference to the fiery, winged beast. He did it mostly just to soothe his conscience. Information about phoenixes and gryphons was common knowledge, but those were pets, which didn't attack without a command from their owners. Although unusual, they sometimes appeared in certain quests as independent combatants and even in those instances, they had stats. And neither of these creatures could compare in strength with the beast that appeared on Nevil's island. Well, that, and their appearances were different. All he could do was hope that Egghead found something.
Before Jack finished reading an article about phoenixes, he felt a touch that had nothing to do with the game.
“Jack, where are you?” Lisa's voice reached him from afar. “I thought you came back to reality. You're not on the ship. Seems like you're here, but not totally. Or not? Let's check.”
Jack disconnected and tugged the virt-helm off. Lisa was lying next to him, pressed close, and was focused on her inspection.
Night had already fallen in reality and Jack decided to show her just where he was at the moment.
“Is that how you raise the dead, wicked little necromancer?” he murmured. “It's dangerous entertainment.”
But he didn't get a chance to show Lisa the hazards of a necromancer's profession. They were distracted by a knock at the door. The visitor rapped softly, but insistently. Lisa heaved a sigh and moved away. Jack pulled his pants on and padded to the door. Standing on his doorstep was... Clive, the Deputy of the Battle Seekers, in the flesh. Granted, he looked less formidable without his armor, but still easily recognizable. Clive looked like an experienced fighter in real life, too. Tall, beefy, guarded movements, seemingly thickheaded. But his watchful gaze betrayed him as a streetwise, dangerous man.
Jack tried to conceal the fact that he recognized his visitor and asked:
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“Jack the Tramp, I want to offer you a deal. My name is Clive.”
“What kind of deal?”
“An good one. Profitable. I need you to go somewhere in the Wasteland and bring something back. You'll have detailed instructions and payment is five hundred panbucks.”
Jack gave a low whistle. “A fortune. Ninety percent of omegas have never held that much in their hands, let alone seen that much.” Too much for just a “good deal".
“Well,” he said slowly, “you're off to a good start. Where's the place and what's the item.”
“It's a small thing, fits in a backpack. You won't even break a sweat carrying it,” Clive promised.
“The place, tell me about the place,” Jack reminded. “Quit stalling,”
“A tall building, thirty floors, in the Dead Strip. They also call it the Middle Finger.”
“I know it,” Jack nodded, “They call it worse names than just the Finger. No, not happening. Too dangerous. There's only death there.”
They called that valley the Dead Strip for a reason. Almost no vegetation grew there and no other place has a worse reputation. Walkers wouldn't step foot there. Been that way for as long as anyone can remember.
The Dead Strip was already known as a forbidden place, even when Jack was just learning his trade and making his first trips into the Wasteland. It was a place to avoid at all costs. They said that those who went in didn't survive. Jack didn't know exactly what happened to them. All the rumors said something different. But one fact remained: there was not a single Walker in the ghetto right now that had traveled to the Middle Finger. Those who had, died long ago.
“That's why the compensation is so good. Five hundred,” Clive repeated patiently. “That kind of cash doesn't come easy.”
“No,” snapped Jack. “What good are five hundred panbucks to a dead man? Besides, I have things to do. So, you can find yourself another Walker. I'm sure you can find some lunatic for five hundred. A few lunatics, even. Good luck, Clive.”
He was about to shut the door and put an end to the conversation, but Clive stuck his boot in the threshold and said:
“I know you have things to do. On Gaerthon, right?”
Clive looked at him sedately. Or perhaps he was only pretending.
“What are you talking about?” Jack retorted. “What do you mean, Gaerthon?”
“You discovered the way to the lost continent. And bragged that one could get their hands on untold riches there. Tomorrow, all of Alterra will hear about it,” Clive pulled his foot back. He already knew that Jack wouldn't cut the conversation short. He even smiled.
In that instant, Jack wanted nothing more than to ruin that smile with something heavy.
“You'll pay for this,” he growled “I only look harmless. My appearance is like that, deceptive. But in fact, it would take me the blink of an eye to make you change your mind about lying.”
“Yes, and that's not something I want,” Clive stepped back. “I placed a few of my guild members to outside Egghead's house on Sapphire Shield. They saw who was at that peacock's house while I was buying the Gaerthonian relics.”
Shit, Jack thought. And Egghead said it was the Wardens they needed to watch out for!
“Well, then they followed you,” Clive continued. “The Key Wardens were chasing a strange ship off the southern coast. I was able to get information about the players who boarded that ship in Leuven. It all adds up. So you decide. Five hundred panbucks and my silence. Or...”
Something in Jack's expression unsettled Clive so much, that he shut his mouth and took another step back. Jack cleared his throat.
“I don't like it either, to be honest,” Clive added. “But business is business. We desperately need a good Walker.”
“Strong guilds have a Walker they work with regularly.”
Clive winced.
“We had one, but we lost him.”
“Killed in the Wasteland?”
“No, he... have you heard about the degenerates?”
“Yeah... players who've fallen into a coma, right? I heard about a few cases.”
“It recently began happening more often. People are blacking out, lying unconscious in their homes. They're still alive in Alterra, but can't remember anything. But in reality... they're just lifeless lumps of meat that still breathe. Anyhow, we don't have a Walker anymore. But the offer is an honest one. I'll give you a detailed description of the place and item you need to find. So just agree and everyone will be happy. You'll get the five hundred and your secret is safe. We're not going to back down, so let's settle this peacefully. Or all of Alterra will hear who to look for... Every guild, every alpha. Then the manhunt will begin and, believe me, not everyone will agree to keep your secret for a single service, like me. Think about it.”
Jack hadn't considered the other guilds and alphas. Ruger promised to wring his neck if he were to shoot his mouth off about Gaerthon and that was enough for Jack. And there was still Lisa. This was going to leave a sour taste. Gaerthon! Omegas would resort to any old trick to get their hands on the coordinates of the lost continent. Not to mention batty old Ruger.
Jack's first thought was to take care of Clive right now. He even considered dragging the body into the trailer and where to dump it after dark. But then what? It wouldn't solve the problem. The Seekers were an entire guild. If not Clive, then someone else would step forward to trap him and Lisa. What were they supposed to do? Hide from the whole ghetto, like rats? Cower in some hole again, afraid to stick their noses out? How long could they last like that? No, hiding away for their entire lives was out of the question. Later on, it would interfere with the game. As soon as they showed their faces in Maxitown, a whole mob would be on their tail.
He had no choice but to strike a bargain with Clive.
“What's the item? And how do I find it?”
Clive approached him warily and extended a piece of paper folded in four.
“A drawing and description. You'll have to go up to the seventeenth floor of the Middle Finger. There will be an inscription: “Department Three". It's a large, multi-room section with a laboratory... You can't miss the entrance, a short corridor chamber lined in white plastic, with a thick, densely insulated steel door at both ends...”
Jack listened to the description. Damn, there was a mystery here. Clive was describing it with too much detail, everything written on the paper explained exactly what and where to look. How did he know all this if no one had been to the Middle Finger in several years? Or maybe someone had been? He would have to keep that in mind when set out. He nodded, slammed the door, and spun around. Lisa had been standing next to him and heard everything.
“I have to go,” Jack threw his hands up. “Can’t do anything. They've got me where they want me and we won't be able to wriggle out of it. On the plus side, it'll give Egghead time to find info about the fire beast.”
“I'm going with you!”
“No. End of discussion. And don't play without me, okay?”
“Will you be gone long?” Lisa asked quietly.
Jack could see that she was near tears, and not entirely because of the game. He swore to himself. After all, he had just blurted out that the Middle Finger meant death. Now who knew what Lisa would imagine.
“Two, maybe three days. Try not to leave the trailer unless absolutely necessary. Don't open the door for anyone and check your mail in the Shell... Well, that's it, I guess.”
Jack desperately lacked the words to express all his feelings. Talkers like Sartorius somehow always found plenty of suitable ways to express the most ridiculous things in detail, but this was a serious matter and Jack simply couldn't find the words. How could he explain it to Lisa to keep her from worrying? That he would hurry back, no big deal? That it was only a couple of days and then everything would be okay?
But nothing came. Lisa sighed and said:
“You need to get some sleep. I'll pack a bag.”
Naturally, he prepared himself for the trip as well. When you didn't know what you might encounter, it was best to take as many weapons as possible. Jack disassembled the revolver, cleaned it, and counted his cartridges. He found one he didn't like and set it aside. Then he resharpened his knives, one large and one switchblade. They were already sharp and didn't need it, but the activity was calming. And one last thing — Egghead's device. A strange little thing. It emitted a subsonic sound and had an unpredictable effect on Wasteland beasts.

* * *

Jack woke up long before dawn. Something shoved him out of his dream. True, he had been dreaming of the flaming monster from Gaerthon. In his dream, he had been able to get a better look. And Jack knew exactly what it was... a dog. A huge, fiery hound with wings.
He looked out the window. Dawn was still some ways off, but Jack was wide awake. He crossed the room, opened the door and sat down on the doorstep. There, he rolled a cigarette and lit it. He generally didn't smoke but sometimes it just called him, so he carried a tobacco pouch. Like now, he had a craving for some reason. Jack watched the smoke, illuminated by the light of the cigarette tip, as it floated up to the heavens, then dissolved in the darkness. The stars shone through web of cables over the ghetto... No, sleep was out of the question. Quietly, so as not to wake Lisa, Jack put the virt-helmet on and powered on the console.
The Dead Wind cut through moon-silvered waves, the light of Shadris dancing the whitecaps. A flat, black shadow in the shape of mountains loomed on the horizon. The ship was approaching Gaerthon. Jack sat on the deck, his back resting against the mast, and wished smoking was allowed in Alterra. Which made him crave it even more. A good fight would be a welcome distraction right now. Not with the fiery dog, though, because another defeat would not give him any peace of mind. Jack needed a victory.
The closest mountain of Gaerthon rose from the wave as the schooner neared the island.
“Wind, we were on this island, right?”
Yes, Master. I cast anchor off these shores.”
And then an answer came from another direction. A fire appeared on the mountaintop. A red glow, restrained by the wall remnants, roamed through the ruined city on the mountain. The burning hound was still guarding the ruins.
“Hard starboard, Wind,” Jack commanded. “Find another land.”
The rigging creaked and the sail slammed as the schooner laid a new course. Jack's gaze followed the light wandering the mountaintop and already another crag had appeared from the waves in front of the Dead Wind. The schooner slowed and Jack could make out a scattering of dim lights on the shore. Another village.
When the Dead Wind had come to a stop in the surf and the anchor chain unrolled with a roar, Jack leapt into the water and waded to the settlement. He reached the shore, crossed the pebble-strewn strip, and stopped amidst squalid homes with dimly glowing windows.
“Hey, people!” He shouted. “Come out!”
Shadows flitted across the lit windows, then he heard the faint creak of a door. An aged voice uttered:
“Who's there?”
“I'm a traveler,” Jack replied. “Visiting your lands for the first time. Why won't you come out and greet your visitor?”
“Please don't take offense, stranger,” the old man answered, “but we do not dare leave our home after sunset. A dreadful monster that preys on the unwary at night.”
Jack took a couple of steps to stand before the door shielding the old man. A moment of silence passed as he looked Jack over.
“You look like a great warrior,” continued the old man, “Perhaps, you would agree to rid us of this menace? My name is Kaled, the elder of this village.”
When Kaled opened the door wider and more light filtered out, Jack read the NPC's stats:
Kaled, Lahitte
Expertise: 40
Health: 35
What kind of monster is troubling you? And how can I find it?”
“We call it a hydra, a tremendous and ghastly beast. It has five heads, each with a sharp-toothed maw. These heads sit atop long necks and attack as one from different sides and none of my fellow townsmen can endure such an attack. If those heads weren't enough, the monster strikes with its poison, stinger-tipped tail. One strike from the stinger of a hydra injects venom into the victim's bloodstream. Our weapons inflict only minimal damage to it's armored hide. It's difficult to fend off. We have but one hope left, the arrival of a brave hero from beyond the sea who will save us from the hydra. Do you think you can this beast?”
Attention! You receive the quest “Kill the hydra".
Reward: Unknown
Jack accepted the quest and asked Kaled where to find the hydra.
“It's settled in an old, derelict temple,” the old man pointed at a winding path leading into the hills. “Before the Gods abandoned us, we went there to worship noble Astra.”
And so, their brave champion trotted off along the trail. He walked about ten minutes, then saw the silhouette of a temple with a pointed roof, silvered by the light of Shadris. Time hadn't been kind to Astra's shrine. A pieces of crumbling stone from broken masonry lay around the building, forming a bizarre labyrinth. The hewn chunks were massive, some even taller than a man.
Jack picked one of the bigger stones, climbed onto it and began examining the building. Judging by the bones scattered near the broad entryway, the monster had made itself quite comfortable inside. Jack hopped to another stone, one closer to the building. The slap of his soles on the rock must have disturbed the hydra. Jack saw the faint yellow glow of its eyes first. Then, a head on a long, sinuous neck emerged from the darkness beyond the entryway arch. It issued a long hiss and rushed at him, its toothy mouth parted wide. The endlessly long neck stretched and stretched, but the torso was still concealed in the shadows... Jack drew Shadow of the King and prepared to slash at the crown of its head when it came close enough, but the rustle and clatter of rocks at the base of his boulder made him glance down. Two more heads atop long necks were creeping along the ground, slipping between the gravel, and were positioning themselves to attack from the left and right. The stats over their heads read:
Five-headed
Hydra Health: 1500
Agro zone: 200
True, the giants each had a zone of about a thousand, and the difficulty of an encounter with a boss should increase. Although the three giants together were a combined total of three thousand, they attacked in turns. Here, though, were five adversaries attacking as one... A serious opponent, to put it mildly.
He had to retreat. Jack leapt from the boulder and the teeth of the first head clicked fruitlessly over him. The other two immediately appeared on either side, their necks gently curved, flowing around the stone. Jack waved the black blade to create a veil of darkness around himself, and broke into a run. When the temple and its inhabitant had disappeared behind a turn in the road, he pulled the box of goblins from his inventory and summoned Hercules and his brothers.
As usual, he had to wait for their newly-liberated exuberance to pass, then Jack briefly described their enemy in the upcoming heroic battle.
“Your task is to avoid the creature's mouth. Keep your distance,” he counseled, “but fire an arrow occasionally to keep the heads busy. I'm going to try flank it.”
The goblins turned serious and, taking up their repeating chu-ko-nu crossbows, and split up. Meanwhile, the monster had left the temple. Now it out, big as life and twice as ugly. Stubby, bowed legs supported the scale-covered body. Not the nimblest creature. In contrast, the heads were constantly moving, ducking between stones, occasionally popping up to look around. That's how they were able to attack with lightning speed.
And there was still the tail, arched over its haunches, like a scorpion's, and tipped with a curved needle a good foot long. A transparent drop of viscous liquid swelled at the tip and the light of Shadris danced across it. A goblin appeared from behind a stone with its crossbow, released an arrow and took cover. One of the heads darted for it, lunging behind the boulder... A second goblin fired, then a third, each from a different direction. The goblins team worked efficiently together, like parts of a single organism. They attacked, quickly retreated, and a minute later, all five of the hydra's heads were bristling with arrows. In truth, the short arrows didn't cause any significant damage. The hydra's health was decreasing too slowly. However, it was enough to make the hydra stand still while its heads were busy darting between stones after the goblins.
Jack couldn't have asked for more. He dashed around the ruins, keeping his distance, and approached the temple from the rear, pressed close to the rough stones and carefully slipped around the building. There was the entrance... and the hydra, which was waddling slowly among the rocks, heads shooting in all directions, wherever a grimacing goblin mug appeared. The venom-filled stinger bobbed with each step. Jack, raising his sword, flew at the creature. Armored or not, he had the Shadow of the King, a divine sword. He severed the tail in a single stroke, seized the wiggling appendage and plunged it into the hydra's broad, hulking rump, then immediately rushed back toward the temple wall.
From the corner of his eye, Jack saw the hydra's health bar jolt, the numbers changed on it changed, and the lumbering body spasmed with waves convulsions. No time to watch, though, because Jack was busy defending himself from two attacking hydra heads. He tried to chop off one head but his stance was off, and the sword simply slid across the ugly snout. The second head, meanwhile, managed to nip Jack in the thigh.
You receive damage!
You lose 20 hit points!
He broke free and ran. Teeth snapped behind him, but missed. Faster, faster... Jack ran as fast as he could and managed to reach a safe distance before the hydra turned around. It was still shuffling after him, a mass of snapping teeth and lashing necks, but Jack was already out of reach.
It was impossible to see its health bar at this distance, but the tail stump was still sticking out of the fat hindquarters. The poison was doing its thing.
“Hercules, retreat!” Jack roared as he withdrew farther from the temple and hydra.
Behind his back, he heard the crash of toppling boulders as the beast advanced after him. There was the faint squealing of goblins, barely audible over the sound.
“I told you to retreat,” Jack muttered. “That's how the strategy works. Gotta cut out at the right time.”
The noise was getting closer. It seemed the goblins carried out his order after all and were now chasing the hydra at a distance. Good job, guys.
When the first head appeared from behind a stone, Jack backed away slowly, swinging the sword to create more darkness around himself. The head, swaying, crept between the stones, as if feeling the road for the others. It no longer moved with a smooth glide, but in faltering twitches. The venom possessed some kind of paralytic properties. Good thing those toothy chops weren't venomous.
Jack moved behind a boulder and got ready. A head on a trembling neck slithered listlessly by and Jack, gripping the Shadow of the King's hilt with both hands, chopped it off and broke into a run without a second glance. He heard something behind him flopping heavily, scales scratching the rocks, and the sound of teeth snapping at air. Jack circled back, often peeking around stones, ready to withdraw. But it wasn't necessary. The poison was working. The hydra's movements became more and more sluggish. Then, the goblins' triumphant howl pealed through the night. It was over. All he had to do now was return to the coastal village for his reward, but decided to save it for later. The temple was right here... why not try to continue Theokrist's questline? He couldn't find anything resembling a portal in the area surrounding Astra's shrine. It was worth a shot.
The hydra's carcass lay sprawled among the overturned and scattered stones. The goblins didn't dare approach, and chose to hop and dance around off to the side. Jack took a closer look... No, the monster was still alive.
Five-headed Hydra
Health: 187
Agro zone: 5...

Health: 157...
Health: 127...
Every two or three seconds, the inflicted poison damage was reflected in its stats.
“Great. We're on the right path,” Jack told the dying hydra, “keep it up.”
The hydra couldn't hear him, but diligently continued to expire anyway. Eventually, the hulking form began to melt away... and all that remained were the victor's spoils.
Venomous Hydra Stinger
Rare
Properties unknown
There was also a full drop of teeth.
Hydra Tooth
Rare
Properties unknown
Oh, look, more work for Egghead,” Jack muttered, shoving the loot into bag slots. Let him have all the dirty work, I'll take the glory. Astra's shrine awaits. Hey, Hercules! Gather your team and I'll put you away. You can't go into the temple.”
Attention! You have completed the quest “Kill the hydra".
Collect your reward from Kaled.
You receive 1 XP.
You have 53 XP. Earn 7 XP to unlock new skills.
Attention! You have earned a total of 20 XP while completing Service to the Dark quests.
You receive a second Dark skill: Path of Blood.
Continue to complete Service to the Dark quests and earn Dark skills for every 10 XP. Earn 10 XP to unlock more Dark abilities.
Path of Blood, thought Jack. Hmm, I wonder what it does? And how do I activate it? No new icons had appeared in his skills menu. And another mystery! What had he got ahold of now?
Jack brought up his skills tab. There were the old skills, the ones he'd had for a while, and then some relatively new ones...
10 XP Furious Strike increases the force of your blows by 50%. Can be used up to three times within 10 min. Cooldown: 1 hr.
20 XP Tireless Wanderer increases stamina while traveling. Lasts 3 hours. Cooldown: 6 hours.
30 XP Sprint increases movement speed in combat by 30%. Effect lasts 15 seconds. Cooldown: 1 hr.
40 XP Berserk reduces sensitivity to damage and increases resistance to all magical and physical debuffs. Lasts for 30 sec. Cooldown: 1 hr.
50 XP Shadowmaster doubles stealth stat. Doubles the effect of artifacts with camouflage and spells with no additional mana cost. Effect lasts 10 min. Cooldown: 2 hours
He still hadn't used that last skill. Under these icons was a second row with the Dark skills and there was only one:
10 XP Leader grants the ability to form a squadron of five dark units.
He didn't see the second skill. While herding the goblins back into their box, he remembered how he had gotten his first Dark skill. It was a quest connected with the box and he'd had to consult Egghead for advice. What about now? Evidently the devs were supposed to give him something. Where was the guy dragging a box? No, not a box. A box wasn't big enough. Now, a barrel or chest... because the second skill should be important than the first. But no, of course it's not that simple! The box had been part of a quest, which meant that now he had to complete some task. So, what was the solution to the task of unlocking Path of Blood?
Jack looked around for a clue. He was standing among hewn stones that had once formed the wall of Astra's temple, but were now a scattered mess. Here was the trail he'd used to get here from the coast, which crossed a flagstone path that, in better times, had circled the temple.
Ha! It was a crossroads! This, this was the path where he was supposed to shed blood. He needed to bring a sacrifice to Dark Necta. That was it! Path of Blood would unlock when Jack shed blood at the crossroads. There were no animals around to test his theory, though... Maybe he could summon the goblins and order them to catch a rat? Because he did not particularly want to go all the way back to the village for a sheep...
A noise came from overhead, there was the smell of hot wind, and the crossroads was flooded with blazing orange light. Dazzling sparks danced around him. Jack bolted. There was a group of large stones nearby, but he didn't reach it in time. A roaring ball of fire fell from the sky and landed in front of Jack, flaming muzzle stretched wide to reveal white fangs. The fiery hound stood before him, wings fanned out. The beast inhaled. Jack saw its ribcage expand as it drew in the spark-filled air...
That was it. All he could do was fall prostrate to the ground.
You receive damage!
You lose 17 hit points!
Jack rolled, jumped to his feet and hauled himself toward the safety of the stone pile. Orange light flared behind him. The dog had taken to the air, flapping its great wings. It was overhead in an instant. Jack staggered back and flung his sword up to defend himself. The dog dropped from the air, just missing his head, and the sword passed through the flame without causing the creature any harm.
You receive damage!
You lose 22 hit points!
Jack slipped out of the flame's embrace and tossed back an elixir as he went, but his health bar was almost empty. Shadowmaster! The skill for reaching 40 XP was a bonus to concealment! It wouldn't be enough to escape the fiery beast, even at night, because concealment had always been a weak spot for Jack. Shadowmaster amplified the player's skill and he had practically nothing to increase... Darting from side to side, he dodged between boulders, shadows dancing under his feet. The hound rose into the air and circled, eyes searching for the runaway. A pillar of flame struck the ground nearby.
You receive damage!
You lose 6 hit points!
Jack careened away from the fire, tripped, and plowed a furrow in the ground between the rocks.
You receive damage!
You lose 2 hit points!
He froze. In the next moment, something heavy crashed down from above, pressed him into the rocky ground, and enveloped Jack in darkness. Lisa's voice whispered just behind his ear:
“Don't move! And don't play without me, got it?”
Jack took a deep breath. He lay still, digging his nose into the gravel, while Lisa settled herself and shrouded them with the Cloak of Theokrist. The muffled sounds of flapping wings and crackling sparks carried through the heavy fabric. The hound continued to circle, gradually moving away and climbing higher...
Lisa's cheek rubbed Jack between his shoulder blades. Her hair slid across the nape of his neck, but the game didn't render it as tickling... A few minutes passed, then all fell quiet.
“Dawn's getting close. It's time for you to go,” Lisa sighed.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “It's time. But, holy hell, do you understand what just happened here? That thing flew over here for me... This is a personal enemy. Someone set it on us, someone who doesn't want me to light the fires on Gaerthon. Somebody really doesn't want the mysteries of the lost continent discovered.”




Chapter Five


The Middle Finger

THE BLIGHTED WASTELAND was a good place for thinking. Look at the scenery or don’t, it didn't really matter. There was rarely anything new. Jack had already been walking for most of the day, but there was nothing in the gray landscape to hold either his gaze or thoughts. So, out of habit, he reflected on the events of the previous evening. If he just let his thoughts wander, they returned to Lisa. Jack didn't want to let his thoughts wander too far and talked thoughtfully to himself:
“Was that the same winged hound? Or was it a second one? No, it was the same one. I didn't see any stats or descriptions, but it was unlikely that there were two of such a unique monster. The only place he could find a bunch of identical dogs was in the Wasteland because they're weren't winged and made of fire. Nature loved to scrimp on things like fire and wings.
Jack stopped and gazed at a strip of dust rising into the air. It could be the wind or, worse, a pack of wild dogs. It turned out to be the wind. He could continue.
“So, it was the same dog. It had been on the Scand island, where I completed Nevil's quest with the giants, and prevented me from visiting the temple there. If the island inhabitants were Scands, then the temple was most likely dedicated to Ged. When I came to the Lahitte island, it showed up there at the exact moment I was going to enter Astra's temple. It didn't appear right away, because it takes time to fly from island to island. Was it following me? No.”
Jack pulled out a canteen and took a couple of gulps.
No, it can't be, because it didn't chase the Dead Wind when I steered the ship away from the shore. The brute was watching the temples. It was making sure that no one entered and lit the fire. You'd think the indigenous monsters on Theokrist's path would be enough. Like Nevil's giants and Kaled's hydra. But a flaming dog with wings and no stats that chases me from temple to temple? Something didn't fit. Especially since I saw the Skyfort when this creature made its first appearance. How is the Skyfort connected?”
In the distance ahead, a bank of oddly-shaped, dust-covered hills cut through the Wasteland. Jack studied it for a moment, then took his binoculars out... and whistled. It was a highway. The asphalt could still be seen in some places under the sediment. A string of cars sat on the highway. There were dozens — a couple of trucks at the front of the line, but mostly passenger cars. Not a single one had an intact body. They were all crushed, compressed as if something had run a giant iron across them. The asphalt in front of the lead car rose in the air, the broken layers stood upright, and Jack could see the bent tail of a helicopter sticking out of the piles wreckage. The tail rotor blades were crumpled and twisted. The copter had taken a nosedive into the line of cars, driven itself into the asphalt and flattened. Afterwards, the helicopter exploded. A few of the foremost cars had been swept back and tossed in the blast wave.
Jack lowered the binoculars and continued on his course, without turning toward the derelict highway. No, he didn't particularly want to see up close the remains of a bygone disaster. No time for that. Later, maybe, when he didn't have any pending quests.
His path was blocked by ridge of low hills peppered with bristled shrubs growing in the shade between slopes. Wasteland bushes had more thorns than leaves and even those were thin, rigid, and needlelike. And they often served as a good hiding place for certain animals.
Jack abandoned his speculation about the fire dogs of Alterra and began studying the dust underfoot. Would he find tracks? If a creature had a lair nearby, then they always left traces around the area. Probably nothing. The dust was undisturbed and he couldn't find any prints. Now to survey the hills through the binoculars, and what Jack saw made him none too happy. Black spots, probably holes, darkened the hillside. And any hole is a potential burrow. And a burrow most certainly means trouble. Anything you meet in the Wasteland is trouble. Reality was not Alterra, and no one handed out rewards for dealing with trouble. Jack veered and walked parallel to the hilly ridge.
He was already at the boundary of the Dead Strip, the Middle Finger should come into view any moment now... Evening was fast approaching and he needed to find shelter for the night. He would approach the Finger early tomorrow morning. Jack spotted a passage through the hills — a narrow valley about a hundred feet wide that offered no shade or vegetation. Jack strode off in that direction. As he came up to the hills, a view of the infamous Dead Strip opened up before him. Wind drove waves of dust across a stark, utterly flat valley. No bushes, not a single tuft of grass. Here and there, the remains of old buildings stuck out and the Middle Finger loomed in the distance beyond them. It was a tall, smooth column dotted with rows of black windows. The rubble surrounding this vast hulk seemed small, insignificant.
Jack chose some ruins with an intact, more or less, house with an attic to spend the night in. As a general rule in the Wasteland, the higher off the ground you are, the better. Animals scurry and crawl all over the ground, and it was just safer to sleep on the second floor. Leaving the hills behind, Jack wandered toward the ruins. From time to time he glanced at the Middle Finger. What was so dangerous there? Why did this place have such a shitty reputation?
Was it possible that the thing that spooked Walkers in the past had already abandoned the skyscraper? He wouldn't know until he got inside. When Jack walked around the Middle Finger and looked at it from the other side, he found a huge hollow at the base of the building, as if something had gnawed away a portion of the lower floors. He saw beams, pieces of concrete hanging from twisted reinforcement rods, and lumpy heaps of debris through the hole. The tower had been built to last. Even this assault hadn't brought it down.
The wind picked up, clouds of dust obscured the hole, and something stirred in the darkness behind the empty window openings. Jack hastily grasped at his binoculars, but the gust of wind passed and all was still again in the gloom inside the building. The dust, swirling slowly, subsided.
“Tomorrow we'll take a closer look,” Jack said to himself. “Now I just have to survive the night.”

* * *

The two-story house Jack had chosen looked terrible. Floorboards rattled and sagged disturbingly with each step, half of the wooden ceiling overhead had collapsed, but the exterior brick walls still held and there was room on the remaining attic floor to settle in for the night. The roof seemed solid enough and the attic window directly faced the tower. He'd be able watch it after dark.
Jack clambered up the ceiling debris to the attic and settled into an intact corner. He propped his spear against the wall, took Egghead's subsonic device out of his bag to have at hand... and dozed off. When he woke up, the sun had already set and twilight settled over the Wasteland. A faint light trickled in through the window, but the attic was otherwise dark.
He pulled out the binoculars and pointed them at the windows of the Middle Finger. Something was moving in the darkness. Maybe it was some fortunate poster that survived or peeling veneer fluttering in the wind. Or perhaps not. Time went on, the sky grew dark and heavy, but nothing happened. It could be the movement was simply no longer visible.
Jack again moved away from the window and leaned against the wall. Every time he moved, the floor creaked and quivered. Everything here was rotten and falling apart.
A light breeze found its way in through the window and shifted his hair. Something scratched at the roof. The sounds were soft, not too alarming. A bird, maybe? There weren't many birds in the Wasteland. They didn't have anywhere to build nests that land animals couldn't reach. But they had a tower here. Jack stood up, walked over to the window, and stepped into the dimly lit rectangle on the floor. Before he even reached the window opening, he was hit with a wave of stench and a shaggy, formless... something pushed inside. The thing immediately filled the entire opening and the attic went dark. Jack staggered away from the teeth snapping just in front of his nose, and stink puffed in his face...
He backed all the way to the wall where he left his weapon. The shaggy creature flopped over the window sill, claws struck lightly on the floor, and the window was obstructed by another shadow. Before it blocked all the light, Jack managed to see protruding ears, faintly glowing orb eyes, and just below — jaws full of tiny, sharp teeth. He snatched the revolver from his pocket and fired at the spot where the ugly, grinning mug had just been. Then immediately retreated back to the wall for his weapon. As he took up the spear, the second creature jumped down from the sill. Its form seemed fluid. At first, it looked thick, broad, when it blocked the window, then it unexpectedly shrank and slipped inside without effort. It slipped in blood, straightened, and hobbled toward Jack. As it advanced, he could see it was at least three feet tall, but it moved lightly and the flimsy, cracking floorboards underneath didn't squeak.
Two more faces appeared in the window, hissing and baring teeth. Two more of the bastards, jostling each other, climbed inside. As they shoved through the window together, it went dark inside. Jack stabbed the spear blindly, stepped back, and thrust a couple more times. The spearhead didn't strike anything, so Jack pointed it lower and finally hit something. Something rustled right next to his feet and Jack, flipping the shaft, struck straight down. The tip stuck firmly into the boards, the floor under Jack shuddered and the impaled creature gave a screech. By then, the two beasts in the window finally squeezed through, followed by more and more. Jack moved back along the wall, swinging his spear like a club. Sometimes a blow hit its mark, sometimes the beasts just yelped and jumped aside. Meanwhile, creatures continued swarming in through the window opening one after another. The clicking of their jaws sounded all too close, waves of fetor rolled over him. Jack heard rustling above him, then a creaking, claws scratching on wood, but he had nowhere else to go. He was at the edge of the intact portion of the floor. He ducked, exposing his back to the thing creeping along the rafters. Clawed feet grasped at his cloak from several sides.
With a deafening crack, the boards gave way under his boots and Jack, with creatures clinging, tumbled down amidst the rotting debris to the first floor. In his fall, he turned over, putting one of the shaggy smelly things between himself and the floor. Fragile bones broke upon impact. Jack rolled off the crushed beast, the other two jumped away. Overhead, a few more of these strange beasts fumbled about, hissing and squealing with creaky voices.
Jack jumped to his feet and seized the spear and the sudden movement caused the floor to give way again. He fell through to his waist and felt something under his feet begin to move.
“How many of you are there?!” Jack pushed off from the doughy, squirming thing hiding under the floor and slipped out of the hole. The floorboards cracked again, threatening to break, and he rushed for the door. He flung it open, shot outside, and immediately dove to the side. Oddly enough, though, nothing else attacked. Something was bustling and scratching around in the middle of the room where he had broken the floor. He could see it through the doorway.
The shaggy beasts slid over the edge of the attic floor to the ground, slipped into the hole, trying to enlarge it... Jack sat back on his heels so they wouldn't notice him. The creatures that attacked him upstairs were winged. Now that he could take the time to look, he could see the membranous wings folded against their bodies. At the moment, the creatures were flapping them to drag their prey out from under the floor more easily.
This explained why their forms seemed to change in size. They were opening and closing their wings. But what was under the floor? The flying creatures dragged something long, fat and wriggling up to the first floor. Was that a worm? Ten feet long?!
Jack, doing his best to keep quiet, slowly crept away from the wall into the skeletal shadow of a neighboring building, crouched under a concrete slab and lay low. The moon emerged and washed the ruins with its silvery sheen. Jack stayed to the shadows and listened to the rasp of wings inside the building next door.
After a short time, the winged creatures emerged again, ponderously flapped their wings and flew away from the rooftop. Some headed toward the Middle Finger, others began circling above the ruins. Jack stayed hidden and waited.
“I see,” he said to himself after they were out of sight, “it was a bad idea, hiding in the attic.” Got to hide closer to the ground in a place where the animals fly. Good thing they weren't fiery creatures... but I always knew Alterra was cooler than reality.”

* * *

At dawn, he returned to the building where the bat-like animals had taken him by surprise.
They'd had large eyes, typical of nocturnal animals. He could only hope that they weren't active during the day, like ordinary bats. But he could only test this theory in person. We'll see soon.
Jack cautiously peeked through the doorway and hopped back. He thought over what he saw. Nothing dangerous in there, it seemed. He looked again. In the middle of the room was the gaping hole, surrounded by fragments of rotting boards and splotches of dried slime. Dampness rose up from the hole.
He went up to the attic and gathered his bag, which was a little worse for the wear but they hadn't managed to rip it. He also found Egghead's device. The only thing to do was wait until the sun was a bit higher and then he could head for the Finger.
Jack sat on the doorstep of the ruined house, lit a cigarette and waited. He wanted to be done with all this, soon, and felt a little unsettled when he recalled how many of those things circled the ruins at night. Would this be all he had to deal with?
Finally, he decided that the sun was high enough, stood up, tossed his backpack over his shoulder, and made for the skyscraper. The closer he got, the more dramatic the damage to the lower floors became. Now it was clear that it was made by an explosion originating somewhere in the basement, deep under the building, because the wall was turned from the inside out. The Finger, however, held fast. Apparently, it was built to withstand any event, like an explosion in the basement. But what did that matter? Right now, it was more important to get up to the seventeenth floor as quickly as possible, locate the laboratory, and collect Clive's item.
Jack headed for the breach. No winged creatures in sight. He scrambled right up the fallen concrete slabs to the second floor. The walls here were quite thick, come to think of it... no, it didn't matter. Hugging the wall, eyes alert, he walked down the hallway. A thick layer of something dry and white crunched underfoot. Jack guessed it was excrement. Oddly, the beasts themselves stank worse than their droppings.
The corridor led to a spacious area with heavy double leaf doors. The elevators. A stairwell had to be somewhere nearby. Jack reached the end of the area and looked around a corner. There it was. Jack began the long climb, listening and trying to step so that the white gunk under his feet didn't crunch too loudly. More importantly, he couldn't lose count of the floors he'd already passed. So, he counted, as well.
Exits out of the stairwell were closed off with steel-plated doors. On the fourth floor, he came across the carcass of a dead animal. The kind with wings. Jack finally saw what he was dealing with. Indeed, it was a bat. There wasn't much of it left. These critters clearly didn't have an aversion to cannibalism. The bay was lying over the steps, wings spread wide, tattered like beggar's rags. These wings took up half a flight of stairs, over a ten-foot wingspan, it seemed. The upturned face, vaguely resembling a dog's, with widely spaced, pointed ears was oriented toward the ceiling, like its huge bulging eyes were carefully studying the cobwebs and cracks.
Jack poked at the body with his toe and it slowly rolled down a few steps, revealing white ribs jutting out of a gutted ribcage. The thing had to weigh fifty pounds. No more, even at its best, and not half-eaten by its brethren. That, and a heavy animal wouldn't be able to fly. The door on this floor was ripped off its hinges and Jack looked down the corridor. Empty, except for dust and excrement. Okay... Well, moving on. With each floor he passed, Jack whispered the number to keep count. Then he listened. Nothing but the rustle of wind. A draft swept through the Middle Finger, entering through the broken windows. Dust swirled lightly in the air.
The door to the seventeenth was closed. Jack gave it a push. Locked? Or just rusty hinges? He adjusted his backpack straps, drew out the revolver, took the spear in the other hand, and kicked the door hard. Something crunched and small metal piece on the other side broke off, clanged on the floor, and the door gave way. Then Jack heard rustling and a quiet scratching, like two rough surfaces rubbing together. He kept still for a few minutes. When all was quiet on the other side, Jack nudged the door open with his boot and pressed his eye to the slit.
The creatures were here, though he didn't realize it right away. He only saw filthy bags hanging at evenly-spaced intervals from the ceiling. Then he understood. They were overgrown bats. They were hanging upside down with their wings folded around their bodies. Clawed feet clung to the light fixtures. One slowly turned its head, extricated from under the leather bag made by its wings. Huge eyes blinked dully at the light. The others, apparently, were out for the count.
At the opposite end of the hallway was a door, exactly as Clive had said. Beyond it was a corridor with walls covered in white plastic. Jack waited until the bat tucked its head away again and slowly, lowering his boots carefully on the layer of dry, white droppings, went down the corridor. Coming up to the first hanging bag, he pressed up against the wall. The backpack slightly hindered his movement, but Jack squeezed past without disturbing the animal. Then another, and the next.
There were doors to the left and right. If they were open, Jack saw fragments of furniture, shattered cabinet glass scattered around bizarre contraptions, instruments and bundles of rotten paper. Heh, it might be worth his time to dig around here. He could probably find some interesting stuff...
When he was three quarters of the way to the lab, the restless bat shifted again, poking its muzzle out from under the wrinkled skin of its saggy folded wings. The creature ran its glassy eyes over the room, but saw nothing. Its nostrils fluttered, toothy jaws opened wide, and Jack, without thinking twice, and drove the spear into the mouth. He underestimated his strength. For an animal of its size, it was incredibly light. The blow ripped it from the fixture and flung it to the wall, its teeth clacking against the blade tied to the end of the stick.
And instantly, the corridor came alive. Bats everywhere fell from the ceiling, crashed together in their attempts to fly, and bounced on the floor, screeching in frustration. Jack, covering his head with his hands, rushed past storm of beating wings, clawed paws, and grinning snouts. He burst into the corridor sheathed in white plastic, slamming the door behind him and leaning against it. From behind the door, the animals screeched and flapped their wings, claws scraping on the walls... A couple of times, heavy bodies beat against the door, but it didn't budge. Jack slowly and carefully turned the knob of the lock. The bolt clicked and he stepped from the door.
As he backed away, he kept the spear tip aimed at the entrance until he was sure it was secure, then turned around. The second door was made of heavy steel with an electronic lock. Which was, fortunately, unlocked. The door itself stood half open. It was impossible for him to move, even a little. Most likely, it worked with a servomotor that had shut off mid-process.
It was a tight fit, but Jack squeezed through into the next room. The single, tiny window barely allowed light into the room. Surprisingly, the glass was still intact. Shatterproof, probably. The concrete walls were bare, the shelving nearly empty. And two skeletons in tattered clothing rested on the floor in the corner. One was lying face down, legs splayed, hands wrapped around its skull. The bones had since scattered, but it gave the impression that he had died clutching his temples. The other was hunched over, sitting against the wall, something resembling a weapon lying across his knees. Jack had never seen anything like it before, except for the drawing on the sheet that Clive had given him. This was exactly what was drawn there. Yes! The very thing Jack came all this way through the Blighted Wasteland. This was it!
And this was clearly a weapon. It had a very distinctive stock and the hilt under the bony left hand was notched to make holding it easier. Even something like a trigger in the usual place where a trigger would be. Neither the magazine or bolt were anywhere to be found.
Of course, it was a weapon. Why else would anyone these days pay five hundred panbucks? Nothing else was so highly valued. How did it work? It was likely very powerful if the Seekers were willing to organize a campaign in Alterra and pay five hundred in reality.
Several levers and sliding gauges of unknown purpose where bolt carrier was supposed to be, a pair of cables in a corrugated metal braid running along a short barrel to a quadrangular bolt frame at its end. The frame was fitted with a lattice where a normal gun had a muzzle. Another cable was running from the breechblock and stretched to a flat metal box, which hung like a knapsack on the back of the operator. If the weapon had an electric drive, then there was a battery in that backpack, Jack thought. He pulled the straps off the shoulders of the skeleton, and the bones crumbled with a whisper. Whatever it was, this wasn't the time to sort it out. The battery was dead anyway, and it was unclear how to use it. He'd have to make his way to the stairs with what he had. Jack put the find in his backpack and swept his eyes around the poorly lit lab. A shame there was nothing else of value here.
Which meant that he could leave... except the only way out was filled with those winged beasts. It was best to leave right away, so he could put as much distance as possible between himself and the Finger.
Jack stood listening for a long time at the door leading to the long corridor. Outside, there was the rustle of wings and tapping, a screech here and there. Not sleeping. Bastards. There was another option, though. Jack pulled out Egghead's device and pressed the button. And then the area behind the door exploded with sounds. The critters screeched, flapped their wings. Light bodies slammed against the walls with a knock... and all this flowed into a wild howl, a knock and a crash. Jack just in case, wedged his boot at the door.
If they looked like dogs and their brains worked in a similar fashion, then the subsonic sound should cause panic. However, after panicking, they wouldn't be able to get out. That's the trouble. The hallway was narrow and the only exits from the room were the windows. A panic-stricken bat wouldn't have the wits to understand that it needed to fly out through a small opening.
And he had no idea how long the battery in this thing would last. Probably not long. Jack took a deep breath and flung open the door. The scene in the corridor was inconceivable. Giant bats were trying to fly away, beating against the ceiling and walls, but simply collided with one another. The snapped and scratched and squealed... Jack, setting the spear in front of him, rushed into the whirlwind of claws, jaws and flapping wings. The first to fall in his path he pushed aside with the shaft, then he found himself in the middle of screaming chaos. He simply tried to cover his face with his left hand, his right shoved wings and squealing muzzles away with the spear. Claws scratched along his sleeve. A creature fell onto its bent back, wings pounding the ground and, for a moment, Jack found himself enveloped in the webbed folds. He staggered to the wall, smashing the creature into concrete. He rushed on, blindly flailing the spear in front... In his left hand, Egghead's device vibrated lightly.
Jack tore through two interlocked beasts, stumbled and, losing his balance, fell to his knees. Creatures hung from him, furiously flapping their wings... Jack noticed an open door nearby and fell, rather than crawled through it. The bats broke off and remained outside. He shoved the door closed with his foot and clicked the lock.
Jack looked around... Where was he now? There were white tiled walls, chipped sinks and, next to them, some plastic boxes. The floor was covered with broken mirror shards. He rose heavily to his feet and went over to the sinks. Outside the door, the bats were still raving. And Jack didn't dare go into the hallway.
He walked across the room, broken glass clinking underfoot, to a narrow window and looked out at the sky and endless Wasteland. The seventeenth floor! Even if he managed to squeeze through the narrow opening, where would he go from there? It was pretty far to the ground.
Maybe he could go down a floor? But outside, hanging on a rope, he certainly wouldn't be able to squeeze into the window. A shadow slid over Jack's face. A few distraught bats had flown out and were now zipping around the Middle Finger. No, outside wasn't an option. He was trapped here! And where? In the toilet!
He didn't see a way out and the battery in the device was draining quickly... Jack just shook his head. There was a way out. There had to be. He just needed to find it...
Above his head was a grille leading to the ventilation system. Ha, his way out! Jack climbed up on the sink, pulled out his folding knife and began to loosen the screws that secured the grille plate to the wall. Behind it was a dusty chute made from metal sheets, stretching into the darkness. Jack squeezed his head and shoulders into the narrow space, kicked his feet, desperately scrabbling on the metal, raking piles of dust... and somehow managed to pull himself into the ventilation shaft. He crept along, elbows and knees knocking against the sides. The illuminated entry left behind, Jack made his way in the cramped quarters and dark. He sneezed, hitting his head on the metal, but continued to creep through the sweltering innards of the Middle Finger.
Suddenly the darkness parted before him, his hands lost their hold and he tumbled down. One floor down, he frantically caught hold of the metal edges of the ventilation channel and planted his foot. He just hung there for a moment, gathering his wits. Then climbed into the new duct and looked around. In the distance was a faint light, a grey smear in the pitch blackness. And Jack moved to the light. The restroom on the lower floor was exactly the same as the one he'd left on the seventeenth floor. Jack looked out the door... and met eyes with a bat, which clumsily hobbled down the hallway, dragging a twisted wing. Its ears twitched and it issued a squeaky squeal. Somewhere nearby wings clapped. Jack ran to the stairs, which were a short distance away. He kicked the crippled beast out of his way as he ran, fell out onto the landing, and slammed the door shut.
Behind the door, the lame bat squealed again... but Jack was already flying down the stairs, bounding down with all the speed he could muster. Don't stumble, don't fall.
Bright sunlight struck his eyes as he popped out onto the concrete slab at the ruined portion of the wall. He cleared it in two leaps, sprung from it like a trampoline and rolled on hard, dry earth, raising a cloud of dust.
He sprung up and ran from the Middle Finger and the score of shrilly howling bats circling overhead. In the daytime, they were blind, frightened by the infrasound, and panic forced them again and again to draw loops in the white hot sky.




Read the first book - The First Player

release September 28, 2017



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