Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Reapers (Neuro, book 3)

The Neuro, book 3
The Reapers
by A. Livadny

release - January 24, 2018

THE AGRION MARKET square was uncrowded. Not many players online today. Only the NPCs continued living their own computer-generated lives.
For them it was business as usual: merchants praising their wares, a crooked old lady shuffling her feet past the swordsmiths' row. She leaned heavily on her staff and mumbled something to herself as she cast watchful glances around in search for any newbs whom she might reward with a social quest for their penny's worth of alms.
A gust of wind raised twisters of dust, stripping a lone tree of an armful of yellow autumn leaves which floated swirling onto the cobblestones.
Business as usual indeed, had it not been for the cold in my chest and the group of high level riders who'd just dismounted by the tavern.
The city patrol seemed quite alarmed by their arrival. The guards officer and two lancers hovered nearby, casting sideways glances at the tired warriors and their lathering horses with the tavern keeper fussing all about them.
I didn't know any of the warriors in the group led by Enea's father. Their gear was worthy of note: it lacked the usual abundance of useless elements so typical of fantasy armor. Normally, a group of high-level warriors can be quite a motley bunch as each player strives to stand out in the crowd as much as their wallets and Strength numbers allow them. Especially Strength numbers. If a player's stats allow them to lug around five hundred pounds of fancily decorated metal, that's exactly what he or she will do.

Still, this group's minimalistic and practical brigandine armor and chainmail were also remarkable in their own way. The fabric cotta dress which was meant to protect the armor plates from the sun, dirt and rain, hung in tatters. It looked like the group had had to fight their way here.
All these seemingly insignificant details seemed to fall into a picture, confirming the truth of what Enea's father had just said. The minimalistic practicality of the group's gear must have had something to do with the neuroimplant's peculiar nature.
So this hadn't been a nightmare, after all. Enea and I had indeed visited the very kernel of the experiment carried out by the Corporation. Our minds must have collapsed, unable to sustain the information overload.
No. I refused to believe it. Agrion looked the same as normal. And as for Enea's father, he must have hired someone to level up for him. That way he could have made the Top 100 within a mere couple of days.
Why would he lie to me, then, saying that it had been several years since we'd last met? He treasured his daughter and wouldn't have toyed with her respect so stupidly.
The cold in my chest kept growing. I needed a definite answer. I wanted clear-cut evidence.
The guards' captain... I didn't know him. When had they replaced the old one?
The old lady hobbled past the guards. Normally she never pays any attention to NPCs. She's only interested in newbie players. This time, however, she stopped.
The officer seemed to have expected it. He leaned toward the woman and handed her a small object wrapped in a piece of cloth, then nodded at the alchemists' row.
Without saying a word, she turned round and shuffled off toward it.
There was only one buyer in the alchemists' row, a level-92 rogue. His high-level Veil of Secrecy wouldn't let me read his nickname, but his avatar looked familiar.
Well, well, well. If that's not Heilig! The cheeky PK with whom I'd already crossed swords twice!
Last time we met was only a few days ago, or so I remembered. Then he'd been level 35.
I headed toward him, overtaking the old lady on my way.
"Hi. Looking for new potions?" I asked just to attract his attention.
He gave me a lopsided grin. "Alexatis. You owe me, remember?"
Our level gap was enormous now. This may be a safe zone but he was too vindictive to miss his chance.
I highjack the situation by playing on his greed. "So how about the cargonite? Two hundred pounds, wasn't it? Are you still looking for it?"
He appeared interested enough to suppress his animosity. "We're generous today, aren't we? Where did you disappear to? They closed your castle and shut down the entire sector, why? Yeah, they opened some sort of mirror but it was BS. You weren't there, anyway."
"Why, were you looking for me?"
"What do you think? The Ravens weren't happy with you, were they? Your scuffle cost me very dearly. And the next day the admins changed my login location!"
"What, just like that?"
"Yeah, they sent me a letter. Like, 'due to technical difficulties, we were forced to temporarily close the Agrion cluster. We apologize for the inconvenience'. Yeah right! What happened to your clan, then? And the Ravens? You both disappeared off the radars! I find it weird."
"You could say that. One question: do you log in via your neural implant?"
He shrugged and spat at his feet. "How else do you want me to log in? You're worse than a noob sometimes. The questions you ask..."
What a relief. The uncertainty of the last few hours was gone. Enea and I were alive and back in the Crystal Sphere. That was the main thing. The rest we could sort out later.
"So whassup? Are you gonna pay up?" he grew impatient, assuming his invincibility. Even if I didn't give him cargonite, at least he'd get even with me and stealth out like I was sure he'd done many times in the past.
Before I could reply, the old lady had finally caught up with us,
"Good sir, spare a trifle for a poor woman," she addressed Heilig.
"Piss off, bitch. Do you think I'm a noob to be interested in social quests?"
The woman looked visibly upset. She stopped and leaned on her staff as if catching her breath. "No one wants to help me," she complained weakly. "What if they're right? Do I really need this kind of life? Do I?"
She whipped out a dagger from her rags and buried it in Heilig's throat in one practiced, powerful thrust.

* * *

What happened next was surreal.
The already-familiar bluish haze comprised of neurograms poured out of Heilig's slit throat, breaking into separate puffs which reached out for the old lady, the alchemist vendor and a few more NPCs who had chanced nearby.
"A Reaper!" one of White's riders thundered in, then flung his heavy pike at her.
The pike pinned the old woman to the vendor's stall. Once again the murky haze poured forth: the bluish cloud of neurograms containing the identity of the disembodied PK player. The cloud fell into separate strata, groping for the NPCs who'd happened nearby and pouring into their frozen bodies.
A noisy murder of crows took to the wing from the crenels of the city wall. Was it my imagination or had I noticed the hunched outlines of crossbowmen on the walls?
The spine-chilling glitch in gameplay was rapidly snowballing into an uncontrollable event.
The marketplace dissolved into panic. Vendors, buyers, passersby and idle onlookers — they all scattered in every direction, pushing each other and knocking over the stalls. They separated me from Enea who was still standing next to her father on the steps of the city hall.
Old Friedrich White wasn't a slouch though. He gave his shield to his daughter and bared his sword, pointing it at the guards' captain,
"A Reaper!"
In the meantime, the NPCs unlucky enough to have been infected with Heilig's neurograms (Heilig having never been among the cream of humanity to begin with) began to recover from their stupor. No points for guessing what kinds of thoughts had possessed them once the remains of that unrepentant PK's identity had altered their behavioral models.
Agrion was a starting location always swarming with low-level players, even in off-peak times. None of them seemed to be affected by the panic. They looked around curiously, apparently believing the tragic events to be a mere glitch.
An NPC greengrocer's name tag blinked. A new icon appeared in it: a pictogram of a blood-red skull.
"Watch out!" I shouted.
The greengrocer barged into a swordsmith's stall, grabbed a morning star mace and swung it mercilessly at a petite wizard girl who'd chanced to be next to him.
Other players were even less lucky. In several more places, the ominous blue haze rose into the air. The city guards, however, chose to ignore the unfolding mayhem.
With the new Reapers' support, they threw themselves onto the warrior who'd hurled his pike. In compliance with gameplay, his name tag had turned fiery red. Now it was everyone's duty to kill him, sending him back to his respawn point and stripping him of his levels and expensive gear. The marketplace was a safe zone and the old woman was a quest NPC. Attacking her had been a very unhealthy idea. Her age and appearance didn't matter.
"Alex, go away!" Enea's father shouted, fighting three guards whose levels were on a par with his own. Now I could see: he'd leveled up all by himself. The neuroimplant radically changed the entire fight pattern, and I knew this better than anybody else.
He was actually a great fighter. Without the shield, he used a two-handed grip on his sword, increasing both impact and damage while not parrying the lancers' attacks, dodging their sharp thrusting blows with remarkable cool.
One of the guards had lost his patience and flung himself onto Enea's father, commencing a well-practiced combo. Not that it helped him much: Friedrich White sliced through his spear's shaft in one calculated motion, then shouldered his opponent onto the wide steps. The guard lost his balance and came rolling back down.
The two others stepped back, taking cover behind their shields, but White's sword drew a wide arc through the air, throwing both off balance and forcing them to weaken their defenses. I froze with bated breath, awaiting a coup de grace, but no: White had second-guessed their counterattack and recoiled just in time, so that their spearheads barely grazed his armor. Then he dealt one last powerful slashing blow.
The guards' bodies rolled down the steps of the city hall.
"The crossbowmen!" Enea shouted.
White reacted instantly. Picking up the shield left behind by one of the lancers, he dropped on one knee. The heavy bolts thudded into the shield's wood right through its thick rough leather.
"Leave!" he said to Enea in a muffled voice. "Go inside!"
My interface blinked with a new message,

Friedrich White has invited you to join his group.

As soon as I clicked Accept, the battle chat came to life,

Crossbowmen on the wall! A Reaper in the square! Finish off the guards and wait for my orders! Alex, wake up! Get out of there ASAP!

Only now had I noticed the change in the guards' captain. I could barely recognize him. He'd grown considerably taller and broader. His eyes glowed with a dark fire. His tarnished armor was dropping flakes of oxidation as if it had been reborn in some invisible furnace.

Reaper. Level 200

By now, the market square was almost deserted. The crossbowmen continued to shoot, this time targeting those of the NPCs who'd accidentally absorbed some of the killed players' neurograms. They eliminated them mercilessly and efficiently.
But why?
The answer was not long in coming. The familiar bluish haze drifted low over the ground. Confidently the Reaper stepped into it. The murky haze heaved and reached out for him, enveloping his body in its swirls like a slow, unhurried tornado.

You're witnessing neurogram absorption.

Short but pretty clear. The Reaper was ingesting fragments of the dead players' identities. The horror of it was in the fact that this manner of death had caused his victims to die in both worlds. I could only guess at the mechanisms behind it.
There was no way we could stop him. By now, the bluish haze had enveloped him completely, permeating his armor. With his level 200, there was precious little we could do to stop this process even if we attacked him all at once.
The rattling of weapons had died away. White's warriors had already disposed of the guards. The local NPCs had made themselves scarce. The tavern keeper alone (can't remember his name now) was still standing by his front door like a pillar of salt, bug-eyed, his white-knuckled fingers locked over the wooden banister.
Just by chance, I happened to be the only one left in the square. I secreted myself behind the upended stalls, watching the Reaper while keeping a cautious eye on the crossbowmen on the city walls. There were about ten of them. They behaved weird to say the least: now that they'd stopped shooting, they stood up peering at us through the gaps between the crenels with greedy, insane eyes. Their tags contained an icon of some buff unknown to me.
The Reaper exuded a wave of heat. His charred armor began to flicker. His face was distorted, his lips cracked, his burnt hair crumbling to ashes.
The bluish mist had all but disappeared as he'd absorbed most of it by now. Only a few faint wisps of it still swirled around his sinister figure. The vendors' upended wooden crates heaped around him smoldering, about to catch fire.
Suddenly his body arched in a spasm. His skin rippled with interference. His level numbers began to change at random as did his appearance while he was consumed by a chain of metamorphoses.
An old man. A girl wizard. A young warrior. A spice vendor. The Reaper's face now resembled molten wax which some crazy sculptor was molding into grotesque masks, crumpling them and starting anew.
"Now!" White's snapped order singed my nerves.
Was he crazy?
Like an uncoiling spring, his words launched the five dark knights into the Reaper's path.
A defective mob. That's how the Corporation workers used to call them.
The knights knew what they were doing. Their expertise wasn't limited to martial arts. They lashed out at the crossbowmen with a Chain of Lightning while showering the Reaper with poisoned arrows, sending his damage-taken counter into a spin. Predatory vines broke through the cobblestones under his feet, entwining them in their grip. The knights changed their weapons on the run as they surrounded him.
In the meantime, the Reaper's random change of cyphers had logically led to his drop in levels. By absorbing the identities of low-level players, he'd lost his unique abilities, rapidly becoming weaker and slower. The game engine had recalculated his characteristics, replacing the question marks in his tag with the number 98. His Life bar plummeted.
Still, the experienced warriors weren't fooled by their now seemingly easy prey. They hadn't changed their tactics.
Two of them, armed with heavy shields and long steel shafted pikes, carried out a series of powerful attacks, stripping the Reaper of half his hp, then immediately switched back on the defensive, blocking his response blows.
In the meantime, a knight armed with a two-handed sword attacked him from behind with a well-calculated combo, stunlocking him.
That was it. Now one last coup de grace...
The Reaper roared back to life, shaking himself out of his stupor and busting himself free from the vines' embrace.
His virtually empty Life bar soared back up. The number 200 reappeared in his tag. With a shattering circular blow, he crumpled the steel shields, sweeping the knights off their feet.
He didn't stop there. Once again did the Reaper raise his black two-handed sword, lower this time, and drew a humming arc through the air, splitting the upended stalls into cascades of wood chips and slicing clean through the knights' legs as they struggled to get to their feet.
The five knights' avatars rippled and turned dark, then disappeared.
He smoked them! Just like that, in two mighty attacks!
What had Enea's father told me? I should have vacated the market square while I still could.
Slowly the Reaper turned round. His avatar had already stabilized. His eyes glowed with an ethereal light.
The air in front of him thickened, forming a translucent arch surging with fiery charges of energy. With a soft popping sound, a cloud of crimson haze filled the arch, swirling.
The Reaper stepped into it and disappeared.

* * *

The smashed crates were still smoldering. The market square resembled a deserted battlefield. Contrary to the rules, most of the players' avatars hadn't disappeared. Riddled with crossbow bolts, they remained lying on the cobblestones amid the scattered remains of market stalls and the vendors' wares.
Scared horses whinnied softly by the tavern. The breeze had brought a whiff of burned flesh: the Chain of Lightning which had killed the crossbowmen on the wall had also set the roof of the parapet on fire, collapsing it on top of them.
Slowly Friedrich White looked over the disastrous panorama. He picked up his helmet and sat on the city hall steps with his graying head hung low.
"Dad?" Enea came running up to him. "What's going on? What are you doing here?"
"I was looking for you."
"But you saw me only a few days ago!" she said, uncomprehending.
"You're wrong. Not days. Years."
"That's impossible!"
"He's right, Enea," I said.
She cast me a look of reproach, "Alex, please. We were in the library, you and I."
"Enea, I can prove it."
"Please do. I can't wait."
"Not here. We need to get back to the castle."
"He's right," Friedrich White said grimly, staring at the humble cloth bundles left where his dark knights had once stood. "This place isn't safe."
"Your knights, will they be all right?"
"I haven't noticed any blue haze. They haven't lost any neurograms. Which means they should make it."
"Do you want me to pick up their stuff?" I asked. "Or should we wait for them to respawn? Where's their respawn point, anyway?"
"It's far from here," White leaned heavily on his sword, clambering to his feet. "In a nearby cluster. It'll take them some time to get back. Leave the bundles. There's nothing in them, anyway. Our gear is all no-drop. It's also charmed against theft. We leave nothing behind. We've learned our lesson: you can't imagine how hard it is to get items with these kinds of stats."
The expression on Enea's face was hard to describe. I could almost bet she'd never expected her father to be so well-versed in gaming slang.
"No point staying here, then," I summed up. "Let's port to the castle. Then we can talk."
"Can we port from the tavern?" White asked. "I'd hate to leave the horses. Also, there're some useful things in the saddle bags."
"We can't cast a portal in the square. The guards will be on us straight away."
"Then I suggest we go to Dimian's old shop," Enea suggested. "I have the key to his back yard."

* * *

The Resurrection Hall of Rion Castle met us with deep silence.
Holding two of the horses by their reins, I looked around, habitually taking in my surroundings.
Top-level NPC guards stood watch by the portal, impassive and silent.
The torchlight cast uneven shadows on the walls. The cold green glow of the respawn zone reflected in the precious stones decorating the ancient wall carvings.
My heart warmed to the familiar sight.
Sarah, the mountain lynx that Enea and I had brought back from our recent trip to the Azure Mountains, stepped softly out of the dancing shadows. Her green eyes betrayed an intense hope. The masterless pet had taken the habit of waiting by the portal, hoping that one day her beautiful Drow owner would step out of it.
No idea what could have happened to Liori and her friend Kimberly, though. They had disappeared in a most mysterious way, complete with Master Jurg.
The lynx may have found a new home in our castle but she wasn't in a hurry to show any signs of attachment to anyone. She was her own master walking by herself wherever she wanted. Even Lethmiel couldn't explain how she managed to cross the numerous magic barriers.
I could see that she'd been leveling up. No wonder: she spent every night prowling the moors, bringing her prey to the castle gate every morning. A couple of times she'd even brought us some very badly shaken goblins, which had complicated our already strained relationship with their local tribes.
"Oh hi, Sarah," Enea stroked her back.
The lynx emitted a nervous growl, sniffed White all over, headbutted my knee by way of greeting, then ran and lay sprawled on the floor.
The protective magic seals flared. The tall doors swung open, flooding us with daylight.
The servants I'd hired took the horses away to the stables. Lethmiel was the next to arrive.
His eyes lit up with reserved curiosity. Lethmiel still remembered White: for both of them, only a few days had elapsed since Enea's father had been here.
"Any news?" I asked.
"Not good, I'm afraid. The Elves have returned, the ones you sent home to see their families. Their settlements have been pillaged. The forests have been stripped of everything that was alive."
"Do you know the reason?"
"No. They've brought back some refugees but I haven't spoken to them yet."
"Make sure they're comfortable. What about the Guards of Gloom?"
"They haven't found a trace of their people, either. Only some long deserted camps."
"I'll speak to them later. Anything else?"
"There's a Raven raid spotted by the approaches to the moors. Two hundred people at least."
"Have they already entered the moors?"
"Not yet. They've set up camp about one day's hike from Chaffinch Creek."
"I want you to double the watch on the walls. Tell Archibald to send out some scouts. Get on with it and don't bother us until we say."
"Very well, Sir."
I turned to White, "Would you like to get some rest?"
He shook his head, apparently not happy with the news. "Let's set the record straight. I'm afraid, time is against us."

 * * *

The future.
I'd never wondered about it. Would it arrive unawares or would it just smolder without crossing the line beyond which lay new discoveries capable of changing the lives of billions of people?
And now it had arrived.
Who were we now? Digitized phantoms whose physical bodies were confined to in-mode capsules, reliant solely on life support systems?
My eyes met Enea's. Words just stuck in my throat. Would I ever be able to tell her?
She glanced at me, then at her father. "Please. Don't try to spare my feelings," she sat down in an easy chair.
Young, beautiful, smart — but pale and tense. I'd never seen her like that before.
"I want to know what's going on. You tell me. Don't keep anything back. I can take it."
"Are you sure?" her father asked. He meant it, too. He was stubborn enough to dig his heels in and refuse to say anything.
"Dad, look around you. The Crystal Sphere is my dream world. I have only two people whom I love more than anything in the world. It's you and Alex. You're both with me now. The rest is doable. Don't you think?"
White slumped into a chair. He removed his steel gauntlets and put them away into his inventory, then sat silent for a while with his hands locked.
"So you think you can brave it out? Very well..." he looked up at her and added in a low voice, "The Crystal Sphere has changed a lot. I'll tell you more. The real world as you knew it is gone too."
"You're kidding?" Enea asked mechanically.
"You and Alex disappeared three years ago. At the same time, the Agrion cluster was sealed. No one could gain access to this place."
"Wait," she covered her face with her hands. "Wait a sec. What do you mean, we disappeared?"
"We had an agreement, remember? You were supposed to log out in a week's time and join me for dinner. Remember that?"
"Of course I do! Why?"
"You stopped taking my calls. Your online status was Unspecified. The night we were supposed to have dinner I drove to your home. Your door wasn't locked. The status panel said, For Rent. I walked in. It was absolutely bare. The in-mode capsule was gone, mountings and all. Everything was so clean and faceless as if you'd never existed. Can you imagine what it felt like?"
She didn't say anything. Of course. Desperate to find his daughter, White was quite capable of anything.
"I knew where to go and which door to kick open," he said. "And that's what I did. Only I didn't find a single clue. Infosystems denied everything. The company which had installed your in-mode seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Ylien and Stephen were gone too. Someone had broken into our country house and taken all the Crystal Sphere equipment we'd used to log in. My neuroimplant had been disconnected. It became a funny trinket taped to my temple. I just couldn't take it. Me too, I had big problems. All of a sudden, my business began to sink. Then one day it started disintegrating under a very focused, well-coordinated attack. Despite our excellent safety margin, the company had to file for insolvency."
"That's impossible!" Enea cried out.
"That's what I thought too. You wanted the truth, didn't you? So there you have it. TransEnergy had three of the biggest buyers: Infosystems Corporation, the World Government and the Military Space Forces. All three of them filed complaints, returning huge shipments of our products. Our reputation was gone, our accounts frozen, our factories stopped. We suffered billions in claims. All this happened within a few days. A month later, I was on my own and penniless."
"How did you manage to survive this?" she asked softly.
"I knew you were alive."
"I demanded answers from one of corporate technologists," White replied reluctantly. "He refused to tell me anything at first. Still, I can be very persuasive when I have to be. Finally, he admitted that both you and Alex had experienced some side effects while testing neuroimplants. They said that both of you had suffered significant brain damage. Still, according to him, the data you'd received was extremely valuable for the corporation which was why they were going to do everything possible in order to save you and reclaim the Crystal Sphere."
"Did you believe him?"
"He gave me what I needed: hope and purpose. Which was more than enough under the circumstances."
"But you had nothing left!" Enea exclaimed. "How did you live?"
White's eyes warmed, losing their prickliness. "I don't give up so easily, you know me. I had to spend some time in the gutter, sleeping in those downtrodden capsule shelters. I had to dispose of the implant so they couldn't track me. Luckily, that particular model was easy to remove. All you had to do was pull the nano needles out."
"So you were hiding from your creditors while waiting for the Corporation to unseal Agrion?"
"That would have been a signal that the two of you had been returned to the Crystal Sphere. Still, it didn't quite work out like that. After a year, the cluster was still sealed. While in the real world... it had fallen prey to some rapid and irreversible developments."
Enea jumped to her feet, crumpling a fine lace napkin, and walked out onto the balcony. There she leaned over the low parapet and froze, staring in front of her.
I didn't follow her. We all need to be alone sometimes, if only to come to grips with a sudden and terrible blow. We need to take a deep breath and listen to our own uneven heartbeats.
White and I exchanged glances.
"It's all right, Alex," he said. "She can manage."
He didn't shower me with accusations even though he could have.
Was it by accident that Enea and myself had decided to participate in this implant testing program?
I don't think so. My own fate had long been sealed. I was meant to die in the name of progress. I'd never really believed in the corporation's academic altruism. The data they'd made us process presenting it as a unique quest proved much more important for them than any amount of human lives.
Enea had fallen in love with me. She'd decided to be with me no matter what — and unwittingly shared my fate in the process. Even White had lost everything he had for the same reason.
"Cheer up, Alex," he raised his wine goblet and took a swig. "We'll make it. I still managed to buy a country estate in a nearby cluster and even hired an alchemist. But... I suppose it's the Reapers who're there now drinking my wine," he fell silent, hearing his daughter's light step.
"Sorry, Dad," she said, sitting back at the table. "I didn't mean to interrupt you. What were you saying?"

* * *

"A year after your disappearance Infosystems made an absolutely inexplicable breakthrough in neural cybernetics," White continued. "The company which traditionally created virtual worlds had now introduced the prototype of the first neural implant featuring an integrated mind expander. It was called Neuron.[1] At the same time, they started building so-called in-mode centers where anyone could hire a new-generation VR capsule complete with life support. Let me tell you that equipment of this caliber had never been used before outside of spaceship technologies."
"And now they put it on the mass market?" Enea gasped. "And they made it affordable?"
I couldn't understand the cold revulsion in her voice. "Why not?" I asked. "If lots of people can experience full immersion VR, what's wrong with that?"
"If life support cartridges are changed regularly, nothing prevents them from spending years in the in-mode without detriment to their health," White replied. "Now try to look at it from a business prospective. All those game consoles, environment generators and high-density holograms have been around for decades. Their user spends a few hours a day online while remaining perfectly active in real life. Alex knows what I'm talking about. He used to live this kind of life for years. And in this case they should have left this system well alone. The mass introduction of the new technology has crippled the real-world economy. The game developers have got us hooked on the incredible authenticity of the experience. But what have they achieved?"
"Earth has become deserted?" I offered.
He nodded. "Compared to the Crystal Sphere which is over-populated, yes. This so-called progress benefits no one. All it does is it rapidly brings our civilization to the brink of a complete collapse."
"Then I don't understand anything," I said. "Why did they do it? With whose permission?"
"Nobody confronted them. On the contrary: the World Government actively lobbied Infosystems Corporation. This was all carefully planned with the full consent of the powers that be."
"But why?" Enea demanded, uncomprehending. "I just don't see the point of such rapid changes worldwide! There must be a reason!"
I couldn't quite follow their logic. Unlike myself, neither Enea nor her father had lost their touch with the real world. I would never have paused to consider the consequences of these recent developments... but now he got me thinking.
Still, if we'd indeed become the Crystal Sphere's permanent inhabitants, what was the point in searching for answers?
"Dad? Was there an official explanation? Not everybody likes playing computer games, you know. A lot of people would have required some powerful motivation in order to rent an in-mode and change their lives forever."
"The toxic emissions," White replied. "They were getting out of hand. The in-mode centers are located in secure bunkers deep underground. There were talks of the potential remodeling of the cities," White took a large swig of his wine. "I personally think that's bullshit. They used every trick in the book to coerce people to embrace virtual reality. You couldn't even get a job without having a neural implant installed. The cities became deserted. The fact that the government and the Space Forces were in it together with Infosystems makes me believe there must be a certain threat to our existence. I'm just afraid that their best intentions might lead us directly to hell."
"Wait, what are you talking about?" Enea demanded. "Can't we just live here? I don't mind all the game rules! In fact, I'm quite happy with them!"
"The Reapers."
"Do you mean the defective mobs?" I asked him.
"Yes. That was a side effect that the implant developers hadn't expected."
Enea frowned. "You two seem to know what you're talking about. Would you terribly mind telling me what it is? Please."
White was about to reply but I motioned him to stop. "Infosystems received their new technologies from the Space Forces. They're a product of an alien civilization. Apparently, the military discovered a prototype while doing some space research."
"How do you know?" she demanded.
"Dietrich told me. He was the first Reaper. He started it."
"Keep talking," White tensed up, viewing me with cautious suspicion.

* * *

I told them everything, starting with my first accidental encounter with the two "defective mobs squad" workers in the underground vault on my second day in the game. Then I described my first meeting with Dietrich (which had happened just before I had to fight Reguar the archdemon). Finally, I tried to give my own interpretation of what had happened to us in the library of the Temple of Oblivion.
"I think I remember something too," Enea whispered. "So do you think that when our minds went into overload, they put us into an induced coma?"
"Exactly. Still, Dietrich managed to contact me."
"Why would he?" White asked dryly. "How can you even be sure it was him?"
"He was looking for an ally. I know it was him because I recognized a phrase he'd used before. Back in the Rion dungeons he'd warned me saying, 'The Corporation is using you. They'll drain you dry and leave you to die.' And those were the exact same words he started our last conversation with. He somehow penetrated the biocybernetic lab network and altered my in-mode's settings to temporarily bring me out of my coma."
"Please don't get me wrong," White said. "Are you sure it's not your imagination playing up? Can you prove it?"
"As a matter of fact, I can. My mind expander made a copy of it," I waved my hand, conjuring up a small crystal screen.
Two sarcophagus-like pieces of equipment were mounted on massive pedestals. They were connected to several transparent pipes and cables which reached out from the wall. Pumps were wheezing, sending fluids up and down the pipes.
The servodrive creaked again. Obeying my surge of emotion, the camera zoomed in. I peered through the tinted plastic at the face inside.
She was pale, her eyes closed. But judging by the moving graphs on the medical monitors, she was alive.
The camera turned again, then refocused.
I peered through the lid of the other sarcophagus. That was me inside.
I zoomed in some more to focus on the inscription embossed on the pedestal,

Life support unit. Property of Earth's Military Space Forces.

A door hissed open. Two Infosystems officials walked in, followed by a Space Forces colonel...

Enea and White watched their unfolding conversation in dead silence.
"So that's where they took your in-mode!" White's cheek twitched. "Mind rewinding it a bit? I'd like to take a better look at that guy over there..."
Mr. Borisov? Why? True, he'd had a hand in my and Enea's tribulations but still...
"I can't believe it! You bastard!" White gasped, staring at the screen. "I trusted you! I saved your life how many times?" he turned to me. "Alex? Do you still have that summoning scroll?"
"Yes, why?"
"I want it. Please!"
"Here you are," I pulled the yet-unused scroll out of my inventory and handed it to White.
The seal cracked open. The scroll crumbled to dust. A flash followed but no one arrived. Instead, the air condensed, forming the quivering, unstable outline of a portal.
White leaped to his feet very nearly upending his chair and hurried toward the filmy opening, about to lunge into it. Still, it bounced him back.
"Borisov! D'you hear me?" he shouted, furious.
His face was distorted with rage, his eyes frantic. I wouldn't have wanted to swap places with the Corporate worker whom he'd grilled after Enea's disappearance.
"Calm down," I said. "You can't go through. I know enough about portals. The best we can do is try to peer inside and try to copy the place's coordinates."
"Do it!" he snapped.
"Dad, please! What's Mr. Borisov done to you?"
"Not to me — to you! Is that not enough?"
"But judging by this video, he was on our side! Alex," Enea turned to me, "what if we try to stabilize the portal?"
"Wait a sec. I'm trying to copy the coordinates."
A map materialized over the table, a bright dot flashing at its center. I uploaded the data from my map-making app and activated Pioneer.
The image of an ancient tower appeared before us, several stories high and surrounded by overgrown ruins.
I reached out and touched the portal.
It bounced under my fingers, giving in to the pressure. My hand began to prickle.
Enea grew worried. "What are you doing?"
"Wait a sec. We'll soon find out where it leads."
White squinted at the image. He didn't seem to recognize it. Neither did we. Judging by the map, those ruins were located far from Rion Castle, on a continent that lay beyond the ocean.
It worked! I was really grateful to Lethmiel for the Elven spell he'd shown me. Thanks to my having practiced it a lot, I'd now managed to use the remaining energy of the not quite fully formed portal to create a Magic Eye.
Another image appeared next to the first one.
It was a room — or rather, a wizard's abode. A candle flickered weakly on the table. A pale morning light seeped through the vaulted window. This looked like early morning.
The bed was unmade. The scorch marks on the walls must have been caused by some fire magic. The chair by the table lay upside down, next to a torn piece of still-smoldering fabric.
"Borisov, where are you?" White thundered. "Come out!"
Pointless. I didn't think he'd reply. Struggling to control the Eye, I made it turn around. Now we could see a broken door hanging on one hinge. And next to it lay a dead body burnt beyond all recognition.
We heard a noise. Someone was climbing the spiral staircase in the hallway behind the splintered door.
"He's gone," a muffled voice said.
"Impossible," someone replied irately. "How could he?! The tower's surrounded!"
"He's a powerful wizard. He might have ported out."
Two men climbed up the stairs into the hallway. They appeared to be players even though their name tags weren't visible which pointed at their high levels and maxed-out stealth.
"We need to search the place. He might be hiding here somewhere."
"Pointless. He ported out, I tell you!"
"He couldn't have. Look what I got from the Reapers," one of the two, a tall warrior, showed some kind of cargonite amulet to the other. "It blocks every portal. We need to search the place. Tell your men to make a ladder and climb the roof. He has to be here somewhere!"
"Wonder if he's stealthed up?"
"Then they'd better search the place with their halberds, every inch of it!"
"Okay. We can do that. Why are the Reapers so pissed with him?"
"He used to work for Infosystems. They say he very nearly killed Dietrich. We need to get rid of him. Otherwise, they'll never set us free."
"But," the other one faltered, "what if he's more dangerous than the Reapers?"
"Just find him!" an Orcish growl escaped the other man's closed helmet. "I'll take care of the rest."
He produced a rather unusual-looking dagger. I took a few screenshots just in case, even though the item wasn't easy to forget to say the least. Its short blade was covered in rectangular shapes which looked suspiciously like microchips. Each was marked with a glowing rune of the Founders' language, forming a sequence of symbols yet unfamiliar to me.
"What does this dagger do?"
"It releases one's identity."
"Dammit! Why did we have to make this deal with the Reapers!" the other one wiped away the large beads of perspiration from his forehead.
"Don't you understand? Serving them is much better than receiving the point of a dagger like this. I saw a couple of Reapers suck neurograms out of people. I don't want them to rip up my identity and share it between themselves!"
"We're humans," the other ventured. "They're just freakin' NPCs!"
"Oh, please. They're hybrids. Enough of your nonsense. Let's find this wizard. He can't have disappeared!"
The image began to fade, then expired. The unstable portal rippled and collapsed.

* * *

I slumped into a chair to restore my strength. "How do you know Borisov?"
I'd failed to keep the portal open. The only reason the scroll had worked at all was probably because of the two men's mysterious amulet whose effect must have resonated with it.
White paused, trying to calm down. "He was in my group for a while. We met over a year ago when the Reapers first came about. Then he disappeared."
"What are those Reapers? Can somebody tell me?" Enea demanded. "What are we dealing with? What happened to the Crystal Sphere?"
"Reapers are what used to be NPCs," White replied curtly.
"Very informative!" Enea snapped. "Mind telling us a bit more? Or is it that you don't know anything yourself? Are we supposed to just accept their existence?"
"Please don't. It's not so easy to explain."
"We're not in a hurry, are we?"
"Very well. I'll do my best," he walked around the room, collecting his thoughts. "About two years ago, just as the first mass neuroimplant campaign had begun, we had a series of accidents with players who apparently hadn't survived the effects of full immersion."
"I thought you'd fine-tuned the feedback?" I asked.
White shrugged. "People are all different. We couldn't have foreseen all of the implants' effects."
"So why did you risk it?"
"Enea, I don't work for Infosystems. I'm still trying to figure out why they did it! Now if we found Borisov and spoke to him..."
"Sorry, Dad," she took a gulp of water.
White reached into his inventory for a small container which he then set on the table. Gingerly he opened it.
A greenish light poured forth from the vessel. I saw a small transparent sphere set in a cargonite frame. It looked rather like a standard magic lamp.
"This is an ancient artifact," White said. "Borisov gave it to me before he disappeared. He asked me to save it for him."
"What does it do?"
"This is a Soul Catcher. Touch it. Don't be afraid. It might feel scary at first but you've been through much worse. At least this way you'll understand what the Reapers are and how they came about."
"All right," I offered my hand to the sphere.
The greenish glow enveloped my fingers. They began to prickle. Then a tidal wave of somebody else's memories flooded over me.

* * *

Arrum the Tree Giant used to live on the very edge of a thick forest next to the ruins of an Elven temple.
Twice as tall as any human, he had a powerful body and the strength to match. The problem was, his fibrous limbs had become wooden over the years which negatively affected his agility.
His behavioral patterns (like those of all other mobs in the Crystal Sphere) were generated by a neurocomputer. Several neural networks allowed him to use a few combos and even endowed him with a couple of very unpleasant abilities — unpleasant for the players who'd strayed away into his parts of the world — but overall, he wasn't really aware of his own existence.
His main neural networks were still dormant. The game developers wanted Arrum to develop slowly, gradually gaining XP. That way he would need no updates, becoming stronger and smarter with each year.
That unfortunate morning, he was sitting on the hill as was his habit, offering his limbs to the sun. He had no foreboding of the looming tragedy.
Frostil, a level-20 wizard, was going through a bad patch. His longstanding career as a warrior had hit a brick wall in the Crystal Sphere, forcing him to delete his account and create a new char.
The neuroimplant — that wretched piece of new state-of-the-art technology — had completely changed his game experience, highlighting his biggest weakness: as Frostil had discovered, he couldn't stand the slightest pain. He did his best — but it was only getting worse. The mobs whom he'd used to fight with gusto, now evoked a desperate and almost subconscious fear in him, forcing him to cower in the undergrowth waiting for an opportunity to attack them on the sly.
This couldn't go on for much longer. Finally, he'd bitten the bullet and deleted his account, hoping to start from scratch.
He really should have chosen a crafter or some other non-aggressive class. Still, old habits die hard. After a long deliberation, Frostil had chosen combat wizard, reasoning that the use of distance spells might rid him of the necessity of getting too close to the enemy.
Still, it didn't quite work out. His char had turned out to be both weak and lacking. His new cloth robes annoyed him no end. Frostil was ashamed of how he looked. He especially hated his staff, that piece of gnarly wood, but unfortunately, he needed it to cast spells promptly.
His first visit to the city catacombs — the starting location for most newb wizards — was another eye-opener. The narrow, dark maze of tunnels required him to stand motionless while reciting the spells he'd so laboriously memorized. But how are you supposed to stay focused when a horrible monster armed with a rusty scythe lunges at you from the depths of a tunnel? In moments like those, an uncontrollable fear surged over him, forcing him to scramble to safety.
He'd made the first ten levels purely by smoking rats. He'd found a barn where he could climb a ladder up onto the rotting beams and scorch rats to his heart's content from their relative safety. What else could he do? His so inopportunely awakened self-preservation instinct was a power to be reckoned with.
His further development appeared problematic: difficult and way too dangerous. With every new level gained, he received less XP for each rat he'd smoked. Still, his fear prevented him from pushing his limits, becoming his shadowy companion in everything he attempted to achieve.
He spent some time in the city doing petty social quests. Still, it couldn't go on like this for much longer. When he finally ventured beyond the city walls, he stuck to a single simple tactic. Every time he saw a mob, he'd appraise his chances, then attack from the biggest possible distance — and only if his spells could deal enough damage to prevent the enemy from coming any closer than at arm's length.
What do you want me to say? The world of the Crystal Sphere is enormous. There's place for everyone there, heroes as well as cowards.
Gradually Frostil had come to grips with his sorry lot. He'd become ever more fearful, frustrated even. The soul of the ex-warrior had shrunk; the first seeds of treachery had begun to germinate in his heart.

That sunny morning, as he walked along the mud road skirting the woods, he noticed a tree giant napping on a hill.
Frostil froze, prepared to run for his life. Still, he looked the monster up in Wiki just in case.
The information whetted his greed. The tree giant was strong but rather clumsy and vulnerable to fire damage. A few direct fireball hits could fetch Frostil 1,000 XP! Also, if the comments were to be believed, the giant could drop a couple of gold and even a random precious crystal!
Two gold! Thoughts began flashing through his mind. He was so fed up with living from hand to mouth. He could use some new clothes to replace his old rags, too...
Overcoming his fear, he approached the giant from behind and launched two fireballs in rapid succession. Then he gulped, trying to catch his breath, and resumed his spell casting.
The first projectile hit the giant directly on the head, setting him on fire. The second one singed his shoulder. And after that... well, after that things went awry as usual.
With a long cracking sound, the monster activated one of his abilities, transforming into a large ball of intertwined branches. Accelerating, it rolled toward its attacker, stamping out the flames.
It happened way too quickly for Frostil to spring out of its way. The fat gnarly branches pierced his body, pinning him to the ground and forcing a brief shriek of pain out of him. His mind shut down.
He didn't respawn, though. Something irreparable had happened. His body had collapsed, unable to survive the 100% authenticity of the experience. His brain had failed to tell fiction from reality.
His heart — the heart of a fifty-year-old man — had stopped. There was nothing the life support systems could do. He died instantly.

Having gotten rid of his attacker, Arrum resumed his usual shape and turned around, about to return to his sunlit hill, when he froze. Something extraordinary was happening to him.
The squashed remains of the hapless wizard began oozing a faint bluish haze. It reached out to the tree giant and was immediately absorbed by his digital body, awakening the yet-dormant neural networks reserved for his future development.
The last moments of Frostil's agony, his pain and the fear that used to control his mind added to Arrum's neural matrix. Plus the few words of the spell the wizard had never completed.
A sound came from behind him.
Still glitchy and groggy with the experience, Arrum turned round. A warrior was running toward him, impatient to avenge a fellow player's death.
Arrum emitted a muffled creak. Fear overtook him: an acute feeling yet unfamiliar to him, forcing him into action.
In those few split seconds, a whole new world had opened up to the tree giant, crushing him under the weight of human emotions he'd accidentally imbibed. He became aware of his own existence — which was admittedly inadequate and miserable, a sad stretch from one respawn to the next.
The fear made him furious. He was cornered. The warrior was much stronger and more agile than himself. Arrum couldn't reuse his transformation ability. His desperate attempts to find a way out forced his updated neural network into overload.
Creaking, Arrum spread his long branchy arms.
The words of the spell unfinished by Frostil fell from his lips.
The warrior didn't expect that. He dodged a few blows of the branches, dealt a couple of slashing blows with his sword aiming at the giant's wooden torso, then rolled over, about to complete his attack with a coup-de-grace combo when a fireball swept him off his feet. A crit!
A furious bunch of branches pierced his leather armor, sending the player back to his respawn point. The warrior's avatar rippled and began to fade, leaving behind a small bundle of his stuff.
The bluish haze of Frostil's neurograms still hung in the air. Now Arrum had absorbed it all whether he liked it or not — and with it, he'd absorbed a life's worth of his attacker's miserable emotions and experiences.
Arrum's eyes lit up with unquenched fury. His gnarly fingers ripped the warrior's bundle apart, scooping up ten gold coins.
An alien thought flashed through his mind, I could use a good meal.
Still, the snippets of weird human desires didn't last, leaving him with a few stronger emotions and bits of knowledge he might use to his advantage.
His name tag blinked and turned red. A new sign added to it, saying, Defective Mob.
But that wasn't all. His new fear had subsided, replaced by a spiteful rage which boiled within him, demanding an exit.
Arrum turned his attention to the road where a group of unsuspecting players walked toward him, feeling perfectly safe.

* * *

The prickling sensation in my fingers had stopped. The green glow began to fade. I looked up.
"What was that?" Enea shrieked weakly, freeing herself from the nightmare.
"You've just come into contact with the neuromatrix of a typical defective mob," White replied. "Now I know where Borisov got these kinds of items. He worked for Infosystems, didn't he?"
"He was better than most of them," I said in all fairness.
"He knew about you but he wouldn't tell me! He used my confidence to collect information."
"It doesn't matter," Enea said, rubbing her temples. "If I understand correctly, the arrival of the Reapers was a sporadic effect caused by the interaction of several revolutionary technologies. On one hand, the neuroimplants, which were built using some alien prototype, were forced onto unsuspecting users without first studying them for any possible side effects. The fate of Frostil speaks for itself. Few of us are capable of surviving 100% authenticity."
"That's right," White agreed. "I had to learn how to bear pain. And on the other hand, there were neural computers which were first introduced in the Crystal Sphere. They possessed extra capacities meant to accommodate the mobs' future development. That's what allowed them to intercept fragments of players' identities. When a player dies in the real world, his identity matrix disintegrates into separate fragments which Infosystems workers call neurograms."
Enea looked at him. "That's not all, is it?"
He gave a grim nod. "The defective mobs are dangerous but they can be defeated. The Reapers are the real problem."
"Are they not the same?" I asked. "What makes a Reaper different from that tree giant?"
"The first Reapers were based on the more advanced NPC characters, such as quest NPCs. They're capable of absorbing a much bigger number of neurograms which then form a hybrid identity. But as you well understand, such a patchwork mind isn't self-sustainable. Hybrids behave like madmen torn by conflicting urges. Most of them simply disintegrate — but a few manage to survive and become self-aware. They are the problem. They constantly crave new neurograms — and the only way for them to get them is by killing more players. Did you see the Harvester in the market square?"
"Who is he?"
"Harvesters are Reapers' creations. They're basically a temporary storage. Their job is to harvest as many neurograms as they can and deliver them to the Reapers."
"Does that mean they already possess some form of magic enabling them to create creatures like that?"
"And not just that. Reaper worship is currently spreading among the NPCs. Defective mobs have seized several castles and even cities."
"Why can't Infosystems close the Crystal Sphere?" I exclaimed.
"They don't control the situation anymore," White replied. "Whatever threat had prompted them to force neuroimplants and in-modes upon us, the real danger came from virtual reality. Nobody could have expected that. As you must have seen in Arrum's example, neurograms may contain knowledge as well as emotions. The few Corporation workers killed by the Reapers could have passed on to them the kind of information even you and I don't have. But still I have a question. If Borisov indeed joined the Crystal Sphere over a year ago, who in that case unblocked Agrion Castle?"
Honestly, my head went round with all the news. I couldn't even imagine the scope of the looming catastrophe and its consequences.
"So what can we do?" Enea asked softly.
"We live as we always did," White replied. "The Crystal Sphere survived the first blow. It didn't fall apart under the pressure from defective mobs. The laws of virtual reality still work here. If we keep leveling up faster than our enemies, we will survive. Then we might be able to look into it and hopefully get to the bottom of it. I'm not gonna lie to you, things didn't go well in Agrion. The harvester managed to collect the neurograms and left unhindered. Now we'll have a few more high-level Reapers. We need to make sure it doesn't happen again."
"We need to find Borisov," I added. "I know you're mad at him for not telling you about us. Still, now he has no reason to be so secretive anymore."
"He's on a completely different continent. This was the only scroll we had. We can't open another portal. We can't call him."
"We have something that allows us to travel long distances," Enea said, apparently meaning the device we'd found in the Temple of Oblivion, together with the Founder's Glove which allowed us to control it. "You can be mad at him all you want, but we still need to find him."
White frowned, then raised his eyebrow in surprise. "I've received a quest!"
"Me too," Enea nodded.
Several system messages appeared in my interface,

New quest alert: Mysterious Wizard!
Quest type: Unique
Find Mr. Borisov and ask him what he knows about the Reapers.
Reward: new information and a new ally
Deadline: None

New clan quest alert: Hard Times!
Quest type: Unique
Unite your players under the banner of the Black Mantis Clan. Find a quick way to level up the clan's combat section to levels 100+.
Reward: +50 pt. to Rion Castle's defense and attack potential
Deadline: 30 days

New quest alert: The Enemy of My Enemy!
Quest type: Normal, Diplomatic
Try to come to an agreement with the Black Ravens' raid leader
Reward: a new ally in your fight against the Reapers
Deadline: 48 hours

The Crystal Sphere's engine was still ticking over like clockwork! This virtual world created by Infosystems had survived multiple glitches and had proven to be highly adaptable. White had been right: we could still turn the situation round.
Dietrich's words echoed in my mind,
"Together we'll kill more researchers, you and I. We'll get their knowledge and their neurograms! We'll change everything here! The Crystal Sphere will belong to us!"
Unhesitantly I accepted the quests.
You're wrong, I mentally addressed Dietrich. We won't surrender our world without a fight.

The Crystal Sphere
Rion Castle

FOR ME, THE NEXT MORNING began with bad news and urgent household problems.
The Ravens' raid seemed to be stuck. Peasant fugitives from Chaffinch Creek told us about some strange and ominous goings-on there. According to them, the previous night the sky had changed color, resembling green marble. Two tornadoes formed in it for no reason whatsoever. They skirted the Ravens' camp and headed for the swamps, brushing over a goblin settlement.
"The Ravens are surrounded," Archibald finished his report. "The Swamp Goblins claim the incident on "overseas wizards and their wicked tricks".
"The goblins, do you think they'll attack us?" Enea asked.
"Not during daytime, no," the warrior replied. "They're scared witless too. If they decide to attack, it'll be closer to nightfall."
We heard a knock on the door. Lethmiel walked in.
"Where do you want me to put the fugitives up?" he came straight to the point.
"You can give them tents and tell them to set up camp behind the castle walls," I said. "Make sure they have everything they need. Any news from Agrion?"
"The townsfolk are worried about what happened yesterday. They blame it on White's men."
"It's got nothing to do with them!" Enea protested.
"That's not what the city officials think," Lethmiel replied impassively. "Dimian went to his old shop early this morning and asked around a bit. Everybody seems to think that 'the city was under attack from the Dark Knights'. The guards captain is dead. And a few vendors, too."
"That's not true!" Enea exclaimed indignantly. "I need to speak to my father. If we don't disprove this blatant lie, Rion's reputation will suffer! Alex, can you wait for me, please?"
We'd been thinking of paying the Ravens a diplomatic visit, but it looked like we'd have to put it off until after lunch.
"Don't worry," I said. "I have other things to do."
Enea left. Archibald hurried to leave, too. He still had the clan's combat section to train, war or no war.
I dismissed Lethmiel and walked out onto the balcony to take in the surrounding panorama.
The castle was buzzing with life. Its central court was crowded with scaffolding and all sorts of hanging platforms the dwarves used. They worked hard rebuilding the donjon, meticulously restoring every little detail — not just of the fortifications themselves but also of all the finishing touches. A faint haze of stone dust hung in the air. Several restored statues swayed on the cables as the dwarves hoisted them back up. The outside perimeter of the castle, however, still lay in ruins.
I peered at the crowd of workers, searching for the fabled Master Walmord of the Copperbeards.
He was busy ordering everyone around on one of the conarps: the defense platforms encircling the donjon. Strong and secure as the cliff ledges they were cut into, conarps added a touch of ancient elegance to the whole structure.
In the light of recent events, I didn't care much about all the fine ornamental carvings and trimmings. I simply teleported Master Walmord to my balcony. We needed to talk.
"You could have warned me," Walmord grumbled: he hated miniports.
"I'm sorry. I have very little time. How's it going?"
"Can't you see?" he puffed out his chest with pride. "Today, the sequence of Air will be complete! Our stone carvers have managed to fully restore seventy runes. This is one of the greatest achievement of my people!"
Great news. Before, Rion was protected solely by the runic sequence of Earth which had survived since time immemorial.
I made a quick mental estimation. It would take Rodrigo and Iskandar a long time to work out the sequence of Chaos. "Walmord, I'd like your groups to start working on the outer walls."
He didn't like it, I could see that. "There isn't much XP to be gained there."
"Don't be too picky," I said. "There's an enemy raid about to besiege the castle. We need to restore all the walls and the towers ASAP."
"Excuse me, Alexatis," Walmord objected hotly. "That wasn't in the agreement! My Copperbeards work in areas which allow them to level up their professional skills. Go hire some peasants, they'll restore the stonework no problem!"
"Have you heard about the Reapers?"
He gave a reluctant nod. "Only rumors. What do I care? Strangers aren't welcome in our underground cities. They'll never be able to invade us."
"Reapers can appear amid any race. They're not outsiders. They act from within. They're neither a race nor an enemy army."
"What are you implying?"
"I'm afraid you might need to consider moving over here. There's a huge underground dungeon under the castle. The imps built it during the centuries of their lording over this place."
In my eyes, this was an interesting and generous offer. Still, Master Walmord didn't appreciate it.
"Are you mad? Why would I want to relocate my clan?" he sounded quite pissed.
"It's up to you. But as soon as the first Reapers arrive in your cities, the offer will become null and void because I won't be able to offer my hospitality to those of whom I'm not sure. You're the head of the clan, so you need to find out more about this looming catastrophe. In the meantime, you need to restore the outer walls."
"You can't give me orders!"
"I'm not. I'm asking you. I insist."
"Every single worker in my clan is already a Master!"
Goodness, he was unbearable sometimes. So cocky and pig-headed. He wasn't a Copperbeard: he was a Copperhead!
Thanks to the castle stonework's unique properties, most of his clanmates had already leveled up their professions. They weren't quite the cream of the elite yet but not very far from that. Our agreement was, they worked for a symbolic remuneration as long as they could level up their skills.
It looked like our cooperation had hit a brick wall. After all, I had indeed promised not to use them on second-rate jobs.
"Very well," I had to agree with his reasoning. "You're right: I did give you my word. It can't be helped."
He immediately cheered up. "In that case, we'll keep working on the central towers," he said as if nothing had happened. "We still have about thirty feet of stonework to restore before we get to the Element of Fire. Plenty of work for the carvers, too."
"Very well. You can go now," I said, trying to keep my cool. Without the dwarves, Rion Castle would have still been in ruins.
"Lethmiel?" I said. "I'd like to see Quieton and Smarty."
He replied almost instantly, "They're on their way."
He seemed to be using his authority to practice ancient Elven magic at every opportunity. Now, too, a very unusual portal opened up before me, disgorging two scared peasants enveloped in a faint portal haze.
Quieton hiccupped. "Is there a demon in the castle?" Seeing me, he breathed a sigh of relief and made the sign of the Gods of Light.
"Jeez, it's not for the faint-hearted," Smarty admitted. He was a young lad from Chaffinch Creek.
"How are things going?" I asked them. "How are you settling in?"
"We's a-doin' well," Quieton replied. "We's all workin'."
"How many of you are there?"
"All of us!" Quieton replied. "We's all come a-runnin' here from Chaffinch Creek after those fiends started killin' us," he rendered his own unflattering version of the situation.
Smarty tugged at his sleeve, warning him to keep his mouth shut.
"You're right," I said. "I failed to protect your village, I'm sorry. Still, I had my reasons in doing so. I want all the villagers to move to the castle. You'll live here now."
"Stone houses, that'll be great," Quieton cheered up. "But how about all the fields, the hunting grounds and the pastures? Would we give them up to the enemy?"
"No, we wouldn't."
"When do you want us to start building new houses?"
"How about today?" I said. "Do you have stonemasons?"
"If you want all the villages to move in, we might manage about thirty," Quieton replied confidently. "They don't shy away from hard work."
"Where did they learn their masonry?" I asked, sincerely surprised.
"There're so many of them old ruins everywhere here! We bring stone by boats to our village," he admitted reluctantly. "We use them for foundations. We have to build foundations nice and high because of the floods, you know. Without them, we'd lose all our belongings every time the water rose."
"Very well. I'd like you to bring all those who know how to work the stone. They'll be your foremen. I want you to start by restoring these walls."
Quieton perked up. "I's sure we can do that! And then we might build them houses too. One can't have too many skills."
He was quick on the uptake, wasn't he?

* * *

We had so many other things that demanded our immediate attention.
Food deliveries, stocking up on weapons, finding more craftsmen... my to-do list was so long it made my head spin.
Lethmiel had already dispatched messengers to the neighboring villages with orders to urgently relocate to the castle.
While there was even the slightest threat of a Reapers' invasion, I couldn't leave the peasants unprotected. They might need to become townspeople and learn how to restore castle walls, build houses and master new crafts.
I ported to the castle's inner yard and walked through the gate toward Dimian's new shop. It was on the right just within the second ring of the city walls, next to the recently restored wizards' tower: a tall spired building occupied by Iskandar and Rodrigo.
A clashing of swords and the thumping of arrows hitting targets was coming from the training grounds to my left, just next to the barracks.
Earlier, White had repeatedly warned me by saying, "Whatever you do, don't trust NPCs".
I knew what he meant. Still, I tended to differ. Without NPCs, life in the castle would have ground to a halt. Besides, many of the more complex toons had already become my friends. I saw no reason to demonize them, let alone banish them from the castle.
Thus thinking, I walked into the shop.
"We need bows and arrows!" Arwan's indignant voice demanded inside. "Proper ones! Not these lame imitations! You understand?"
"Yeah but... where do you want me to get them?"
"Are you a merchant or just a pretty face?" the Elf continued to vent his indignation. "I can buy better gear anywhere in Agrion!"
"Okay, okay! Keep your hair on! You'd better tell me who I can get them from. Alexatis told me to only buy the best of everything."
"You wish! The best thing you can do is send a caravan to our forest craftsmen."
"You mean, Elven craftsmen? How am I supposed to find them? You said the forests were dying everywhere! There's a map over there on the table, show me! Just point! I can work out how to get there myself."
Well done, Dimian. The guy definitely knew what he was doing.
"Hello, Arwan," I stepped into the room. "What's all this about?"
"We don't have proper weapons!"
I could see that Arwan felt out of his comfort zone. He'd accepted a certain informal responsibility for the Elven refugees he'd brought here from the dying forests — but he didn't have enough experience to either control them or provide for their needs.
"Found a place for everyone?" I asked him.
Arwan nodded. "In the tent camp. Many of us can't get used to it. The druids are complaining about the absence of shrines and relics. Hunters can't feed their families as they can't eat monsters' meat and that's the only game available here. They left in a hurry with only the clothes on their backs. Most of them don't even have a decent bow."
"Can't you make them?"
"We can't find suitable materials. Local plants are mainly hollow-limbed. Also, it's not easy to make a good long-range bow! You need to treat the wood first, dry it, then treat it again and again. It's the same with arrows. You don't think, do you, that they're made of ordinary twigs? You aren't going to send me to the hazelnut grove over the wall, are you? That's what some people told me I should do," Arwan added with a nervous smirk.
Honestly, I had no idea what kind of wood they needed to make bows and arrows with. What I did know was that the game devs were bound to have made provision for such an occasion. This was an elaborate virtual reality, after all.
I switched over to the market interface. Unlike NPCs, players had many more options there. I started by habitually checking the auction, knowing that you could find all sorts there. I ran a quick search until I found some affordable bows. On second thoughts, I ran another search, this time for wood suitable for making bows and arrows. It would cost less while providing the Elven craftsmen with the practice they so desperately needed. They might even teach their skill to others.
I paid five gold from my account. A large bundle of wood materialized in my bag. It was surprisingly big and heavy.
"How about this?" I placed it on the counter.
To Arwan and Dimian, this must have looked like nothing short of magic. They froze open-mouthed, then began studying my purchase.
"This is perfect!" Arwan announced.
The bundle contained two roughly planed blanks for the bows as well as a hundred thin straight shafts for making arrows. The fact that it had neither bowstrings, fletches nor arrowheads didn't seem to baffle Arwan. Judging by his sincere joy, he loved the materials.
"We have the oil for treating the wood. Hydra tendons will make perfect bowstrings. Our blacksmiths will forge the arrowheads. And there're plenty of birds around whose feathers we can use for fletching."
"How many experienced archers do you think you can muster?" I asked.
"Our hunters will defend the castle gladly, especially if it becomes the seat of an Elven shrine," Arwan replied. "In case of an attack, I can guarantee a hundred and fifty archers to defend these walls," he added, studying the materials with delight.
"Who's in charge of the Elven camp now?"
"No one. Any disputes are brought before the Council of three druids. Apart from that, it's every man for himself."
"I'm putting you in charge of all the Elves."
"Sorry, Alexatis. You can't appoint an Elven leader, let alone a warlord. He's chosen from the best warriors who must compete for the post."
"Do you really think you won't win it? Especially now that your kinsmen are in mortal danger?"
Arwan paused, undecided. "I don't know, really. It never happened before. Not that I remember, anyway."
"Never mind. I'll talk to the druids. Can you tell me who built the Elven temples?"
"What do you mean, who? The Elves did!"
"Do you have builders?"
"No, we don't! You see, all the stone buildings were erected by our ancestors during the Era of the Founder Gods. And today's shrines are grown, not built. They take decades to grow, centuries even."
Oh. That was a bit of a disappointment.
The clan quest icon blinked in my interface. A new system message popped up,

New Clan Quest Alert: The Spirit of the Woods
Quest type: Unique
Find a way to build a new Elven shrine in Rion Castle.
Any clan member can join you on this quest.
Deadline: 10 days
Reward: Your Relationship with the Forest Elves will improve. You will receive 150 archers at your disposal.
Penalty for failing or declining the quest:
Your Relationship with the Forest Elves will deteriorate until they leave Rion Castle.

I accepted the quest even though I had no idea how to go about it. I might discuss it with Enea later that night. She might think of something.
"Dimian, can I have the keys to the warehouse?" I asked.
"Here you are. Why?"
"You'll soon see. Arwan, stay here for a moment."
I walked into the large half-empty room and shut the door behind me. Then I reopened the market interface and bought a hundred more bundles of wood suitable for making bows and arrows. Removing them from my inventory and stacking them up on the shelves was some work, I tell you!
After about ten minutes, I called Arwan and Dimian.
"This is witchcraft!" the latter announced, staring at the shelves groaning from the weight of the goods.
I didn't want to disappoint him. "We have new arrivals every day. I'd like you to find out what they need. If you don't find the necessary goods in Agrion, feel free to send caravans to other cities as long as you have your warehouse stacked with everything we might possibly need. Do you understand me?"
Dimian scratched the back of his head. "You bet I do."
"Get on with it, then. Forget everything else for the time being. This is a priority. Forget profits: what's truly important now is regular supplies. Arwan," I turned to the Elf, "сan you give Dimian an example of the arrowheads you need? We'll buy them in the Azure Mountains. The bows you can make yourselves now. You have plenty of materials. And one more personal task specially for you," I added. "I want you to ask around to see if any of the local peasant craftsmen would like to learn your bow-making skill. You could employ them as apprentices."
"Sorry, Alexatis. I'm afraid it's not gonna work."
"Why not?"
"I don't think other Elves will appreciate it if I start revealing ancient Elven secrets to the local peasants. They won't approve of it. Please allow us to do everything ourselves."
"Very well. On one condition. I'd like you to give every fifth bow you make to the clan's arsenal."
"That's not a problem," he agreed without disputing it.
A noise from the street invaded the little open window. Apparently, the first boatfuls of villagers had begun to arrive.
They all had to be housed, fed and assigned suitable jobs. I could feel I wasn't going to make it on my own. Too many petty mundane tasks to sort out.
"Lethmiel!" I shouted.
He seemed to have expected my call. A portal appeared in a spiral of light, disgorging my majordomo.
"I'd like you to take care of the camp," I told him. "Think you can do it?"
"We have plenty of food and tents," Lethmiel replied. "Can you take a look at the plans, please? I've drafted them for you just in case," he offered me a sheet of parchment.
He definitely knew what he was doing! On the plan, Lethmiel had housed different races together, apart from each other, and separated blocks of tents with wide streets. At the center, he drew a large round tent and an awning. Judging by the inscriptions, that's where he planned to set up a second temporary inn and a small marketplace. In the future it might expand, becoming a proper market square.
"Yes to everything," I sealed the parchment with my magic seal. "Get on with it. Report to me in the evening."

Chapter Three

The Crystal Sphere
Rion Castle

AFTER THE TURBULENT EVENTS of the last few days, we’d entered a period of relative quiet.
Even the goblins had decided to give it a break. Once we’d moved the local villagers to the castle, the cheeky little mobs had nobody to pester anymore. Before, they used to rip the peasants’ fishing nets and steal the fish or bring a train of hydras to a village — but now the moors around Rion were completely deserted apart from an occasional Elven hunters’ raid — and goblins knew better than to mess with them.
The Battle of Chaffinch Creek had quickly become a breeding ground of the most incredible rumors. Already the following day, local taverns had filled with stories of my supposed duel with Allan, followed by the Ravens’ defeat and the invasion of wyvern-riding demons who were then completely eradicated by a small group of Rion warriors.
Dimian puffed his chest out with pride. He was now the most desired guest in the whole of the city, enjoying dinner invitations from high-standing NPCs who couldn’t wait to hear every detail of the recent events.
I read him the riot act, telling him to keep his lips sealed. As if! He stood his ground, referring to all the good deals he’d struck with Agrion’s officials thanks to a few largely exaggerated tales of Enea’s and my adventures. Indeed, our warehouses were rapidly filling with everything we might need for a siege.
Finally, I gave up. Let them gossip. Especially because some devil-may-care players had found their way to Chaffinch Creek and uploaded a video of the incinerated island complete with vultures feasting on the wyverns’ rotting carcasses.
Our clan’s ranking had grown a bit. New applicants had begun to trickle in again, thoroughly vetted by Archie, Iskandar and Rodrigo.
Today, our main cadre had sworn the Blood Oath.
Enea and I had meticulously reconstructed every detail of this ancient ritual. The pressing threat of the Reapers’ advance had accelerated our research. As a result, we’d lost 6% of our clan members who’d openly chickened out, unwilling to take the oath even though it didn’t bind anyone to Rion in the slightest. No one was obliged to live here or restrict his or her travels.
Still, the prospects of lifelong debuffs in case of treason had resulted in this unavoidable 6% dropout rate. Which, if the truth were known, did us a lot of good.
The Raven clan had 153 survivors. We’d buried the avatars of the 24 dead players on a small island not far from the castle.
The next morning after the battle, Allan wanted to talk to me.
“I think we’re deep in it,” he said. “You know anyone we can turn to?”
“What do you mean?”
“I sent a message to the admins. No one replied. We want to quit the experiment, all of us. I know you have friends among Infosystems workers. I’d like you to help us cancel our contracts.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
He cast me a frowned look. “Are you with them?”
“No, I’m not. My Logout button is blocked, too. There’s no special treatment for me, if that’s what you mean. That’s not the problem. I think the corporation has lost control over the Crystal Sphere. We’re on our own now.”
“Impossible!” he said. “That’s not what we were told! They said that the real world was becoming unfit for human habitation. They were moving us here while they were demolishing the old cities and building new ones!”
“Nonsense. Ask White if you don’t believe me. Or find someone with a working Logout button. No one’s building new cities, let alone demolishing the old ones. They’re falling into decay even as we speak.”
He stared blankly at me. “What’s the point?”
How could I explain? I had no real evidence. And I couldn’t very well show my mind expander video footage to all and sundry, either. I’d seen the truth twice in its most painful and agonizing form — plus I knew the bits of intel that White had shared with me — and still I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it.
All I knew was that something disastrous had happened on planet Earth. But still I had no idea what that had got to do with luring the entire population into the mushrooming in-mode centers.
I offered Allan a rolled-up sheet of parchment.
“What’s that?”
“This is a mass teleport scroll with Rion’s coordinates already entered. A guest portal, naturally. It’s set up on the small island by the barbican.”
“Why are you giving me this?”
“Just in case. You never know.”
“Bullshit. Two clans sharing one castle? Don’t be ridiculous.”
That morning, neither of us had understood the other.
I couldn’t blame Allan, really. His neuroimplant had drastically changed his outlook.
“The offer still stands,” I said. “Whenever you change your minds, there’s plenty of space in Rion. Are were friends now?” I proffered my hand.
He returned my handshake. “Sure. Thanks for coming to our rescue,” he turned round and headed for the Ravens’ tents.
A new system message appeared in my interface,

Quest alert: The Enemy of my Enemy. Quest modified!
Quest type: Normal, Diplomatic
Don’t engage in any hostile acts against the clan of Ravens.
Reward: a potential ally who might still take your side in need and battle the Reapers with you.
Deadline: none

* * *

I found Enea poring over ancient manuscripts.
“I woke up but you weren’t there,” she said.
“I spoke to Allan.”
“He plays his cards close, that one. He wants to get rid of the implant and go back to the real world. He didn’t even listen to me. When I offered them to stay in Rion as an independent clan, he refused point blank. They’re breaking camp now.”
“Shame,” Enea sighed. “Still, we can’t force them to stay. Don’t worry about them. They can get back home safely and quickly by using stationary portals. In any case, the feud between our two clans is over, and that’s already a lot. Would you like some breakfast? Did you get the chance to take a look at Christa’s scroll?”
“Not yet. We can do it together now.”
“You’re not even asking me about her.”
“If she wants to stay in Rion, I don’t mind. But that’s her decision. A demon of her caliber is a great addition to our garrison.”
“Alex, please. She’s not a demon anymore, can’t you see? She may have kept her combat avatar, but that’s the extent of it. She’s changed a lot.”
I sat down at the table. “How do you know?”
She smiled. “We spent some time in chat this morning. Come on now, show me the scroll,” she hurried to change the subject.
Admittedly, my heart missed a beat when I broke the seal.
The dry sealing wax snapped, crumbling in my fingers. No magic visual effects followed. I unfolded the scroll.
Enea leaned over my shoulder. A loose lock of her hair tickled my cheek.
“That’s weird,” she sounded disappointed.
Indeed, Borisov’s last message hadn’t lived up to our expectations. The parchment was filled with hurriedly scribbled, uneven columns of numbers which appeared to be some kind of coordinates, followed by a long list of codes and the hasty postscript below,


You can only use this in the direst emergency. Hold on. I’m trying to fix things.

I opened my map-making app and entered the coordinates.
My mind expander zoned out, going through its map database of the Crystal Sphere, then reported the search result,

No matches found
The coordinates you provided do not exist

I sighed. “This makes no sense.”
“I don’t think he would’ve sent you something if it made no sense,” Enea said. “Mind if I make a copy? I’ll think about it when I have a moment. You don’t think it could be some new location which isn’t marked on the maps yet?”
“Even so, the marker itself should show on the map, even if it’s covered in the ‘mist of war’. But it says that the coordinates themselves don’t exist!”
“Could it be a typo? What if Borisov misspelled the numbers?”
“I’ll try,” I started a partial match search. Its progress bar didn’t even budge although I could sense the growing pressure on my mind from the map-making app processing data.
Someone delicately knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Enea switched off the shield.
“A very good morning to you,” Dimian faltered in the doorway, realizing we were having breakfast.
“Come and sit down with us,” I said. “Would you like some coffee?”
“I’d rather have some water,” Dimian replied cautiously. He wasn’t really used to all these new exotic drinks from overseas. He probably wondered how we managed to get them by bypassing the trade agency.
“So, what brings you here?” I asked, pouring some water for him. I wasn’t in the mood to explain that it was Platinus who’d developed the coffee formula. That would scare the hell out of him. Dimian never trusted alchemy, only using a few tried and tested old elixirs.
“The shops are running out of stock,” he complained. “New people keep arriving, and it takes ages for supply caravans to get here.”
“So how can we help you?” Enea asked. “The nearest sea port is five days away. We can’t change that.”
“Oh yes we can!”
I already knew what he was driving at. “Come on, spit it out. Just don’t expect us to use teleport scrolls. They’re only for emergencies. It’s up to you to handle regular deliveries.”
“I understand that. They probably cost a fortune. I have another idea. There’s an old road, the Ogres Road. It’s two days shorter. It fell out of use, though.”
“Because of the ogres. It was a long time ago. My grandfather was still young. They killed travelers and robbed caravans. Nobody could do anything about it. That area is very rocky with plenty of cliffs and caves.”
“Has anything changed now?” Enea asked.
“My father used to tell me that all the monsters were dead. Some wizard had sent a plague upon them. I was still a little boy when it happened. But the road fell out of use.”
“Why do you think? It’s scary!” he fumbled with his beard. “Some are afraid of the ogres, others of the plague. Still, those who occasionally use it come back in one piece. So I thought, what if we check it out?”
“Good idea. Now tell me, what’s the catch? Couldn’t you just ask the travelers themselves?”
“I did. They say the ogres are gone. Some old bones lying around, that’s all. There’s another problem. The road goes past Warblerford. There used to be a bridge there, but not anymore. It was swept away during the last spring flood. Whenever the villagers need to cross to the other side, they use the ford but it’s too narrow and the current is strong. A loaded cart won’t get across there. And if we cross by boat, we’ll lose a whole day just by loading and unloading. We need to restore the bridge.”
“And what do the Agrion authorities think about it?” I asked.
“They don’t care, do they? If the road is restored, they’ll have to ensure the caravans’ safety. Too much extra work for the city.”
I glanced at the map. A chain of relatively safe low-level locations lay between the Toxic Moors and Warblerford. There was indeed an old road there which went past the moors and led directly to Agrion.
“You can restore it, I know!” Dimian continued, hinting heavily at my uncategorized magic. “It’ll only take you an hour. And it would mean the world to us. All the profits we lose!”
“He’s right,” Enea agreed. “The two days saved on each trip would pay for the works. If Agrion’s not interested, it’s their problem. We, however, could gain a lot.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “Let’s go there and see for ourselves. The Warbler is a wide river, as far as I remember. We could check out the work and see if we’re up to it.”

* * *

The stationary teleport brought us to the outskirts of Warblerford, not far from the ford itself. This was near the local inn where I’d met up with Enea once.
That’s right. Here was the small impromptu market — and next to it, a guards’ post alongside some stacks of logs. It looked like they were indeed going to build a bridge here.
“It’s so quiet,” Dimian looked anxiously around.
“Where is everybody?” Enea echoed.
The market was deserted, and so was the river bank. No guards had been posted. The place looked dead.
Our bank of the River Warbler was high and steep; the opposite, flat, with forest encroaching on the waterline. I could make out a few logged clearings in the distance.
The road in question cut through the forest, disappearing by some cliffs which marked the beginning of the bordering location.
And the sky... I didn’t like it at all. Cloudless on our side, it was gloomy and overcast with thunderclouds on the other. Gusts of strong cold wind rippled the water on the opposite bank.
“Go back,” I told Dimian.
He looked around him uncomfortably. “How about you?”
“We’ll check the area. Come on, quick, go back to the portal!”
“Do you want me to send someone to help you?”
I gave it some thought. Enea’s father had left the castle early that morning in search of his group, having promised to be back before nightfall. Archie had taken the clan’s combat section to the moors for a bit of leveling. There were no players left in the castle, only NPCs.
“It’s all right,” I said. “We’ll manage.”
“I’ll be off, then,” Dimian warily hurried over to the portal.
The only street of the village was equally deserted. A biting wind was raising dust, rustling the leaves and swinging the creaky sign saying The Ford Inn.
Enea let Alpha out. The Black Mantis had no problem in finding a crack in one of the inn’s still-locked doors and shutters. He crawled inside and began streaming us his vision of the place. The weird-colored mosaic picture wasn’t easy to work out but the main thing was clear: the inn was empty and in perfect order.
We found the same scenario in the other houses. No trace of fighting, furniture undisturbed — but all the village NPCs had vanished without a trace.
In the meantime, the weather on the other bank had grown worse. The heavy thunderclouds flashed with unusual discharges which didn’t resemble lightning. Could it be magic?
Enea and I exchanged glances. There was no cheerful curiosity in her eyes this time, only a fleeting trace of fear.
“We need to take a closer look,” she said.
I remembered my Blood Ties ability which allowed me to instantly transport to Rion once every seven days. “If the going gets tough, grab my hand and hold it tight. Whatever you do, don’t let it go,” I told her.
“Very well. Let’s just wait till Alpha comes back.”
Unlike ordinary pets, Alpha the Black Mantis couldn’t be summoned or unsummoned. He was always by his mistress’ side.
This time we called him twice — but to no avail. Alpha hovered around the village’s well, stubbornly refusing to come. We had to go and get him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Enea began.
Alpha didn’t even turn his head. He kept peeking into the well, scratching his legs nervously against the stonework.
“Alex, look! This is players’ stuff!”
The grass around the well was wilted and trampled down by constant use. Several identical pieces of white cloth lay trodden into it.
Those were players’ bundles, empty.
Normally when a player is killed, he or she goes back to their respawn point leaving a bundle with their possessions behind. The player then has twelve hours to return to the scene and pick up the bundle before it disappears. The only exception is during PvP fights when the winner gets access to the loser’s possessions straight away.
Whatever had happened here? I counted seven empty bundles.
Enea looked into the well and turned pale. “Alex!”
I was next to her in a flash. “What is it?”
“Help...” a weak voice echoed inside the well.
I looked down but couldn’t see anything at first. The taut rope of the well disappeared into the clouds of thick swirling fog.
The rope jolted. The faint sound of metal hitting stone came from below.
“Pull!” Enea grabbed the broken handle of the withered old crank.
“No! Wait! Can’t you see the rope is almost worn through? We’d better cast Levitation!”
The spell didn’t work, though. It shattered against the swirling haze, exploding in cascades of special effects.
I lay on my stomach on the edge of the well and tried to reach out for the part of the rope which hadn’t rubbed against the stone. I grabbed it with both my hands and pulled hard.
It was heavy. The sounds of metal screeching against stone grew closer. Finally, a disheveled head appeared from the mist, followed by its shoulders.
The player’s deformed steel suit of armor was rather plain — the kind preferred by newb warriors — and already touched by rust. How long had he spent there — two days, three? Or was the mist so corrosive?
All these thoughts flashed through my mind as I tugged at the rope praying it wouldn’t break.
Enea did well. She kept her cool. The moment the torso of the newb knight peeked through the mist, she cast another Levitation. This time it sort of worked, taking some of the weight off the rope. The kid, too, cheered up and tried to help us, fending himself off the walls of the well with his steel greaves.
We pulled him out.
The player rolled over the well’s edge and collapsed heavily onto the wilted grass. He lay there groaning, unable to move with fatigue.

Lloyd. Level 10. Warrior

We turned him over on his back. The kid’s face was pale, his eyes hollow, his lips chapped. The Exhaustion icon flashed red in his name tag.
“I’m cold,” he wheezed.
Enea moistened his lips with a healing elixir. The kid gulped. Color began to return to his cheeks.
“That’s better,” Enea supported his head. “Drink it slowly... that’s good.”
I perched myself on the edge of the well. “Who did this to you?”
“You’d better get down, man...”
“Don’t worry. I’m not gonna fall in.”
“It’s the mist... it syphons your strength...”
“Okay, okay,” I rose, tied some string around the neck of an empty vial and lowered it into the mist, then pulled it out and put the stopper in. Platinus would know what to do with it.
“You didn’t answer my question,” I said. “What happened here?”
“The villagers...” Lloyd said thickly. “They seized all the players who were in the inn and threw them down the well. I grabbed at the rope... No idea how long I spent there. I tried to climb out bracing my legs against the walls but I couldn’t.”
“How about the others?”
“They’re all down there. The fog has bled them dry.”
“Why did the NPCs attack you?”
“No idea! They wanted to sacrifice us to some Reapers, whatever that’s supposed to mean. That’s all I understood from it. This is one hell of a glitch. They seemed completely deranged. They said, ‘Let’s throw them in the well and head over to the Ogres Road. If the Reapers accept the sacrifice, they’ll meet us in the forest and escort us.’
“Escort them where?”
“No idea. The location ends there by the cliffs, doesn’t it? Also, they mentioned some guy called Dietrich. Apparently, whoever wants to join his army has to offer a sacrifice first.”

* * *

“Do you have a place to stay?” Enea asked.
“No idea. The inn is closed. The Logout button is blocked, just as the in-mode rental contract says,” he cast a look around. “I’m not in the mood to seek new adventures, to tell you the truth. Could I stay with you for a while?” he asked, apparently impressed by our levels.
“You think we could take him to Rion?” Enea whispered in my ear.
“I don’t know. What if he’s a Reaper agent? Or, God forbid, a Harvester?”
“I don’t think so. He’s only level 10. He seems okay.”
“How lucky does one need to be to grab at a conveniently hanging rope to stop one’s fall?”
“Please don’t be so... so uncharitable. The kid is what, fifteen years old? Not even.”
“Very well. Let’s go back to the castle and bring reinforcements. It’s too dangerous to continue on our own.”
“Do you want to call up a raid?”
“Oh, no. Raids are too loud. A small group will be enough.”
“Are you talking about me?” Lloyd asked bluntly.
He was standing aside, crestfallen. Even Alpha seemed to cast sympathetic glances at him. The kid had had it tough. I wouldn’t have survived one hour down that well.
“Have you ever heard of Rion Castle?” I asked him.
He perked up. “Sure!”
“You can come with us. We have strict discipline, though. You’ll have to spend some time in a tent by the castle wall. No one can get inside without a thorough vetting.”
“I don’t mind. I’ve got nowhere to go, anyway. All I need is grab a bite to eat, get warm and get some sleep.”
How quickly things had changed in the virtual world! Before, no one used to give a damn about neither food nor sleep.
Enea smiled. “This I can promise. Let’s go to the portal now. Don’t be afraid.”
“You’re talking to me as if I’m a little kid,” he said.
“Sorry. How old are you, fifteen?”
“I’m twelve. So what?”
Enea frowned like a schoolteacher. “And where are your parents?”
The preteen warrior sniffled. “They’re on an expedition studying Jupiter’s moons. They rented this in-mode for me. Tell me, is it true that Rion Castle is ruled by an uncategorized wizard? Do you know him?”
Enea gave me a wink. “Yeah, sort of. We met him a few times.”
“Aren’t you afraid of him? They say his girlfriend is a shapeshifter!”
She frowned. “Who told you that?”
“A cleric told us in the inn. This Rion wizard, he fought the Ravens’ clan leader. And when he was cornered, she turned into a demon and healed him with Dark Regeneration. There was a battle on the moors like you can’t imagine! Demons, goblins, humans... they were all fighting each other.”
Enea sniffed. “They don’t know what they’re talking about! Wretched gossips. Alex is okay, I assure you. He fought an honest fight.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m that demon they’re talking about!”
“No way!” Lloyd slowed down.
“Joke. But you, my friend, are a bit too gullible. Do you really believe everything you hear?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m not. There was a demon fighting there. Only it was a different girl entirely.”
“Wow. Does he have two girlfriends?”
“You talk too much,” I took him down a peg.
I still couldn’t bring myself to think of that battle. My use of Dark Regeneration had cost me dearly. A sliver of darkness had stuck in my chest like a block of ice, and nothing I could do could melt it. As for the arrival of Christa, that was a different subject entirely.
“Oh, come on,” the kid said. “Everybody’s talking about them. Lots of people say Alexatis is an NPC. He doesn’t belong to any known class!”
Enea frowned. “You meet him first before you speak.”
“If you say so. Thanks for saving me.”
We stopped a few paces away from the village portal.
The weird weather on the other bank had grown worse. Greenish bolts of lightning forked through the darkness overhanging the old Ogres Road. Snowflakes danced in the unrelenting wind.
“Come on, then, let’s go before we freeze to death.”
The flash of the portal swallowed us.

* * *

Two hours later, we returned to Warblerford.
This time we’d come prepared. The danger here was much more serious than a couple of stone giants or a gang of highwaymen.
This time we’d taken along only those we could trust.
That meant we couldn’t take Arwan with us, unfortunately. He was an NPC himself. As it was, he’d already received a couple of neurograms during my battle with Reguar the Arch Demon. Too risky.
Iskandar caught up with me. “How do we cross the river?”
“We could use the ford, I suppose. But I’d rather take a boat.”
“Are there any boats there?”
“There must be. There’s a jetty just next to it. You think you could help me? Do you know how to row?”
The village was still deserted, all the NPCs gone without a trace. Three boats rocked on the waves by the jetty.
Rodrigo eyed them with suspicion. “They’re falling apart!”
He picked the strongest one and cast a durability spell on it. Lately, we’d been constantly forced to adlib, seeking ways out of a multitude of petty but annoying household problems.
“It doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s still leaking.”
“Let me try,” Platinus said, climbing into the boat. “We need to bail the water out first.”
Archie and I removed our helmets and began helping him scoop out the murky sludge covering the bottom.
“I can see it!” Platinus peered at the bottom, then poured one of his vials onto the damaged place. “Now it’ll work!”
While we were fixing the boat, Raoul and Iskandar had fetched some oars and a long pole.
“What’s wrong with porting over there?” Togien grumbled. “It’s not as if we don’t have any scrolls!”
“They’ll notice it,” Enea replied. “Quite a few wizards can sense the disturbances in the air.”
“There’s nobody there!” Togien muttered. Grumbling for a dwarf is his life’s bread. “I know the Ogres Road. It runs parallel to the river bank. Where the forest ends, there are some cliffs that mark the end of the location. There’re a couple of caves there but they’re tiny. You can’t hide an army in them.”
“We’ll see,” I sat down on the wide bench and inserted the oar into the rowlock.
Iskandar picked up the other oar. Raoul stood on the stern holding the pole. Enea and Rodrigo sat on the bow behind a wicker shield which could serve to protect us from arrows in case of any emergency. Togien and Archie looked watchfully around, crossbows at the ready.
Platinus pushed the boat away from the bank, then jumped in.
We began to row. The current was fast and strong here, so it was quite a challenge. The bank slipped by slowly.
“So what’s there?” Iskandar asked nervously when we were halfway through. He didn’t feel comfortable sitting with his back to a potential danger.
“Seems okay,” Enea replied, peering at the riverside vegetation. “Keep slightly to the left.”
Finally, the boat’s stern lodged softly in the sand.
Trying to move noiselessly, we climbed out. A nut grove ran along the narrow bank.
Everything was drowned in a thick gray fog. The rubbery silence was unsettling. No birds singing, no leaves rustling. The light breeze seemed unable to shift the heavy, unyielding layers of fog.
The sky shimmered with acid green sheets of dubious light.
“Gosh it’s spooky,” Enea said, releasing Alpha into the air.
The Black Mantis dashed for the trees but was back almost straight away. He flitted out onto the sandy bank and ran along the water’s edge, shaking the droplets of fog off his wings.
“Let’s find the road,” I peered at the location map. “We’ve been drifting downstream. We need to walk another couple hundred feet or so.”

* * *

The old Ogres Road started right there by the ford. It crossed the little wood, then turned off toward the first banks of cliffs.
The visibility was better here. The fog was gradually thinning out, separating into layers.
Togien, Archie and myself walked in front.
Aha. A signpost!
Two signs were nailed to an old stake cracked with age and overgrown with moss.

—> To the Ford
<— Port, 15 miles

Someone had scribbled a handwritten note below,

Roadway checked. No ogres. The caves are farm-worthy, lvl 20-25.

Archie stopped. “Let’s take the road?”
“I suggest we check the caves first,” I said, consulting the map. “We’ll see a tall cliff in a minute. The entrance to the caves is just behind it.”
That’s exactly what we did. A barely visible trail took us in the right direction.
“Look,” Iskandar pointed at some tree stumps by the roadside. “They’ve been cut recently. Look at the moss, how it’s stripped off the wood. I think they dragged the trees over there,” he pointed to the cliffs.
Rare snowflakes fell from the sky. This was weird. It had never snowed in our region before.
“What’s going on?” Togien stopped. “The cliff is gone! But I remember it very well! Gwain and I were here together looking for some ore deposits! You just can’t miss it!”
“The trail goes that way,” Archie said in surprise. “This is also a road! It’s been used recently!”
Platinus sniffed in the cold air. “Can you smell the smoke?”
“Someone’s got a fire going?” Raoul suggested. “Alex, can’t you launch a Magic Eye?”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” I said. “We shouldn’t attract attention to ourselves. We can’t see anything in the fog, anyway. And if I try to fly the Eye higher, they might see it.”
“Who they?” Togien snickered.
“This is what we’re going to find out,” I stepped forward.
Nothing happened. Even though, according to my map, I’d just crossed into the neighboring location.
The others seemed to understand this too.
“Could it be an update?” Enea tentatively offered.
About thirty feet further on, the fog began to thicken, then dissipated completely. It felt as if we’d walked through a thick wall of cotton wool out into a boundless distorted space.
This was a different reality altogether. There was no sun here. A diffused light seemed to be seeping from everywhere at once.
Сracked barren ground lay underfoot. No sight of vegetation anywhere, but plenty of fire and ice.
Icy banks lined the deep fissures in the earth which breathed underground fire, their edges overgrown with permafrost. The cold transparent air would occasionally thicken, forming the spirals of Mortal Cold as if a powerful invisible wizard was attempting to freeze the remaining life out of the place.
The fissures exuded a crimson glow. They spat occasional clouds of ash which trailed along the ground.
Not a very cheerful setting, if you ask me. A dark strip of unknown origin stretched along the horizon at least several hours’ hike away.
Right. I’d had enough. Time to use some magic.
I formed three Magic Eyes and motioned them into the air.
We awaited the first results with bated breath. The three cameras streamed pictures without a glitch. The maps kept updating to include this new region of the Crystal Sphere which hadn’t been marked on them before.
Gradually, the mist of war was disappearing, replaced by the terrain’s outlines.
And what the hell was that?
A fortress?!
Oh, no. It was a modern multi-level highway lying in ruins. Several junctions, spiraling up and down. Their surfaces had collapsed in places, their support pillars corroded as if they’d been drenched in concentrated acid, exposing their skeletons of rusty construction steel.
But that wasn’t the biggest shock by far.
This technogenic monstrosity was enmeshed in a web of freshly-laid dirt roads. They were packed with NPCs, both mounted and on foot, their carts groaning under the weight of their meager possessions.
Further on, I saw some kind of building site illuminated by bonfires. There, creatures of various races were busy working stone, gradually filling in the gaps in the corroded steel structures.
A motley makeshift army had set up camp slightly further up. Each and every one of the Crystal Sphere’s many races was present there. Contrary to their custom, they showed no antagonism toward each other.
These were Reapers.
Or at least those who’d been infected with neurograms accidentally. Several Harvesters walked among them, keeping a watchful eye on the crowd.
Finally, one of the Eyes chanced upon a mounted group of high-level Reapers.
They rode unhurriedly, feeling quite at home. They had excellent weapons and gear. We watched them with some trepidation as they stopped by one of the bonfires and called a priest.
He listened to their orders and nodded. Whipping out his sword, he swung round and slew a dozen unsuspecting peasants sitting around the fire.
The cauldron with their humble stew went flying into the fire, hissing and extinguishing it.
Bluish whiffs of the peasants’ neurograms trailed over the ground. The mounted Reapers imbibed them greedily.
Then they noticed our Eye.
A priest shot his hand up in the air, pointing. One of the high-level Reapers thrust his lance upward, its tip enveloped in a ghostly light. The picture disappeared.
“We need to go,” I croaked. My throat was so dry as if I’d spent several days without water.
I couldn’t quite grasp what I’d just seen. What had happened to the location’s borders? Where were we?
“These are the Corporation’s testing grounds,” Enea said softly.
“How do you know?”
“The two other Eyes managed to fly on a bit further,” she forwarded the picture to the group chat. “This is what they’d filmed before they were detected and shot down.”
We saw a different area of the same location. This too was a camp, only a well-appointed one, not like the chaotic mess we’d just seen. It was equipped with the kinds of tents and marquees used by players. A little further lay the collapsed edge of a ravine, with a dark mouth of a car tunnel gaping in the middle of it.
Next to it were several holographic signs,

Infosystems Corporation Training Grounds

Recreation Zone

Advanced Research Sector

Neurocybernetics Sector

Phantom Server Project Sector

A red sign flashed below,

Warning! The training grounds have been compromised! The defective mobs automatic elimination protocol has been initiated. All virtual staff are advised to log out ASAP.

The Reapers were bound to work out our position pretty soon.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

* * *

White returned about midnight, tired, hungry and quite annoyed. He wasn’t happy when the two Guards of Gloom controlling the portal informed him of my request to meet me at the Conference Hall.
Stephen, Iskandar and Rodrigo had built a 3D map of the area which was now hovering over the ancient round table which still remembered the meetings of the Cohort of the Chosen.
“I haven’t found them. My group seems to have vanished from the face of the earth,” White collapsed into a chair, locked his fingers as was his habit and began studying the map.
He noticed the destroyed highway straight away. “What’s the Corporation technopark got to do with it? Did any of you log out into the real world? Wait a sec... What the hell are NPCs doing there?”
“These are the Corporation’s virtual testing grounds,” I replied.
“You don’t mean it! It’s an exact copy of the real thing! I’ve been there. It’s their Mont Blanc technopark,” he explained. “Now tell me what happened here.”
“Our locations have merged,” Enea explained. “We wanted to check the old Ogres Road. According to Dimian, it could save us two days’ journey to the port city. Instead, we found this,” she pointed at the map.
The 3D model made by our wizards resembled an enormous screenshot of one of those ancient strategic games with the camera pointing down at a slight angle. We could clearly see the terrain’s relief as well as thousands of NPCs. Some still had name tags hovering above their heads, others’ were hatched in with gray.
Before going back, we’d used up all our mana supplies to launch about a hundred more Eyes. Even though the Reapers had eventually discovered and destroyed them all, the total amount of the information they’d sent us was huge. Stephen — the clan analyst — was now busy processing it. As he worked, more and more little symbolic NPC figures appeared on the map.
As White studied the map, I told him about the empty village and the young warrior Enea and I had rescued from the well.
“I heard about it before,” White replied. “These things began to happen about two months ago. NPCs would attack players and throw them into wells, caves or mountain gorges, apparently sacrificing them to the Reapers. We thought that any such glitchy NPCs had been removed from the game. Apparently, they haven’t. It’s much worse than I thought. Could you upload our side of the location, please?”
Iskandar nodded. Together with Rodrigo, he began to conjure up a new image. We saw the edge of the moors, the village of Warblerford and the river. The old Ogres Road snaked around the cliffs.
Then the invisible boundary disappeared, connecting the Crystal Sphere to the Infosystems training grounds. We could clearly see the breach where the two virtual worlds merged together: a small area which abounded with caves and cliffs.
White frowned. “I see now. Those caves must have been the transition point between the training grounds and the Crystal Sphere. Putting it plainly, they are basically high-capacity data exchange channels. Other objects can play the same role, such as wells, caves and gorges. Very clever of the Reapers!”
“But why would Infosystems want to connect the two virtual worlds?” Archie objected. “Their staff could log in whenever they wanted, anyway. Receiving the information from the Crystal Sphere was never a problem! Why did they have to over-complicate things?”
“What if they didn’t?” Christa offered. “Could it be Dietrich who created all this?”
A cold shiver ran down my spine.
“But that would mean he did get hold of the corporate workers’ neurograms. Which gave him access to the game’s control interface,” Enea said. “In that case, why does he need all this? An NPC army, what’s that for?”
“Oh, do me a favor!” White snapped. “You make him look like some kind of super hacker. Well, he isn’t. He’s a criminal sentenced to death. He agreed to become a test subject for a neuroimplant prototype. Apparently, something went wrong. He lost his identity. His physical body died. That’s how he became the first Reaper. Their forefather, if you wish.”
“How do you know?” Christa asked.
“Ask Alex. He met him.”
“Alex? Is that true?”
I nodded. “He may have died but his phantom imprint has survived somehow. It began prowling the test grounds looking for neurograms to piece a new identity together for himself. Then he discovered the passage to the Crystal Sphere.”
“He can only exist in VR,” White added. “So he’s obliged to follow this world’s rules. That’s why he needs the NPC army. He wants it to manipulate the security systems. He’s a defective mob, don’t forget. Hacking is the only weapon available to him.”
“Let’s not underestimate what we’re dealing with,” Christa said. “The facts speak for themselves. The two virtual worlds have merged. Also, Dietrich somehow managed to build Harvesters.”
Heavy silence hung in the air. We just stood there not knowing what to think. Rumors of the Reapers’ occasional forays into the Crystal Sphere were one thing. Seeing the two worlds actually merged was quite another.
The true horror lay in seeing the desolation at the testing grounds with our own eyes. Now we knew that most Infosystems researchers had died — while the results of their revolutionary experiments had fallen into Dietrich’s hands. That was truly horrible.
Raoul who’d been silent until now looked up sharply at us. “So what’s the number one thing we should be doing?”
“No idea,” Enea replied. “Personally, I think we’re stuffed. A lot of people whose Logout button was still active tried to get out. They all say the same thing. The real world is deserted. There’s no one left to maintain the planet’s technosphere. It’s about to collapse. Which might lead to a number of sporadic natural disasters.”
“But Dietrich has survived,” Raoul insisted. “Okay, maybe not as a human being but as a virtual imprint. Can’t you see?”
“Which means we can do it too,” Christa agreed. “As long as we can preserve the Crystal Sphere and save it from all those defective toons!”
White’s eyes lit up. “Can we see the footage you took, please?”
“In a moment,” Stephen’s voice replied from the Hall of the Elements. “We released a hundred and four Eyes in total, didn’t we? I’ll just finish processing all the data.”
The map came to life. The static Reaper figures began moving about.
For our convenience, Stephen added a fine grid to the image. “Tell me if you want to take a closer look at a particular section.”
As we didn’t have computers, we were forced to process all the data using our mind expanders which demanded a lot of energy, both physical and mental. Back in the Hall of the Elements, the clan’s healers and elemental wizards surrounded Stephen, pumping him up with the energy they syphoned from the castle’s runic sequences.
The animated picture offered us a new source of information. Now we were watching the events from a bird’s eye view, noticing the details we couldn’t have seen before.
The glowing skies above the training grounds parted, releasing a falling human figure.
The picture zoomed in on him.
A player. A warrior. His name tag was already dimming but still legible. His face was distorted with fear. The thickening air flickered around him.
He fell to his death, releasing a cascade of neurograms. Their faint glowing haze surged in all directions, forming fading images and snippets of memories.
Harvesters were already heading to the scene. They absorbed his neurograms instantly.
What followed next made our blood freeze. Several NPCs saw what was going on and walked over to the Harvesters. They were peasants who’d been sitting by the fire next to a lopsided makeshift cabin covered with frost.
An old man with a scraggly beard stepped forward. “We too have made a sacrifice,” he said.
“I know,” one of the Harvesters turned to him and swept his arm out. Wisps of bluish haze fell from his fingers. They reached out toward the NPC and filtered through his clothes into his body.
“It’s so warm,” the old man whispered, his lips blue with cold. “So good... Why didn’t I ever feel it before?”
The others muttered something unintelligible, apparently in shock as they tried to absorb the yet-unknown experiences.
An orc who had somehow ended up among the peasants growled his fury, “They killed us for fun! They killed us over and over again!”
This was yet another NPC who’d just become aware of the sad role he’d played in the game, thanks to the memories he’d just received. The dead player must have been a frequent visitor to the orcs’ lands.
The Harvesters knew very well what they were doing. They knew exactly which memories to give to whom.
This was disturbing. Sick. The infected NPCs were about to start their own sporadic development. Now that they’d gotten a taste of human emotions, they craved more of them. They’d become Reapers. But how were they supposed to quench this craving?
“If you follow Dietrich, he’ll give you more,” the Harvester said, then walked away in the direction of the collapsed highway.
“Jesus holy Christ,” Enea whispered.

* * *

“Hey, look what I’ve found,” Stephen’s voice disrupted the silence.
The picture changed. Stephen zoomed in on the Ogres Road where it led down to the ford across the River Warbler.
A group on horseback was moving toward the river, closely followed by the spirals of Mortal Cold.
“The training grounds’ defenses are still active,” Stephen commented. “They’re trying to destroy Reapers.”
“They’re not very good at it,” Rodrigo said grimly.
“Are you familiar with this spell?” White asked. “What does it do?”
“It syphons Life and brings both Strength and Stamina down to zero,” Rodrigo replied. “It does it gradually, depending on the target’s resistance, of course.”
“Let’s see if it can do it, then.”
Large snowflakes floated in the air. The horses were enveloped in clouds of mist. The Reapers’ armor was covered in the fancy patterns of ice flowers.
Where the road turned toward the ford, the frosty haze thickened, blocking their path.
Two of the Reapers dismounted. Both had staffs in their hands. Their name tags showed levels 150.
Judging by their hesitation, the haze was an impassable barrier to them. Unwilling to take risks, the two wizards sent a warrior forward. He took a few steps. Once the haze reached his knees, he froze, turning into an ice statue.
The wizards didn’t look too discouraged. The remaining warriors formed a cordon around them. Using the sharp tips of their staffs, the two wizards began scratching runes of Fire into the frozen ground.
Tiny flames arose into the air but expired almost straight away. Still, the wizards were patient. They proceeded to work in silence with machine-like precision.
Unable to trigger the testing grounds’ defense mechanisms, our Magic Eye floated low enough for us to survey the scene in every detail. The Reapers kept shuffling the runes around, creating their own sequences out of the available symbols and trying them out.
After yet another failure, they spent a long time discussing something. They must have decided to change their tactics as they produced a few scrolls and began reading them, mouthing the spells.
It didn’t work. I lip-read the spells anyway, just in case. Not that I needed to memorize a failed practice, but still.
A new gust of cold wind brought a flurry of prickly snowflakes, reducing visibility over our part of the bank.
The Reapers hadn’t left.
A sphere of transparent blue flame formed around them, shutting the snowstorm out.
The frozen warrior stirred, shaking the crust of ice off his body. He could barely move. His hp was deep in the red. Still, he took a few steps back proving that Reapers could override security programs.
The fiery blue sphere looked familiar. This was one of the numerous variations of a high-level Air spell which briefly boosted one’s strength and stamina.
Even though such a limited-effect spell couldn’t possibly allow the Reapers to leave the confines of the testing grounds, this was a worrying sign. The enemy wizards had displayed remarkable perseverance. They were both methodical and ingenious. They didn’t hesitate to ignore the standard routine by shuffling the runes — which could result in either a lethal outcome or a success.
White must have come to his own conclusions. “They’re weaker now than the levels displayed on their tags. But once they shake off the debuffs, we’ll have a problem. That’s why we need to face them and kill them where the locations meet: on the river bank.”
“Stephen, how long do you think it might take them to completely disable the security programs?” Enea asked.
Our analyst gave it some thought. “A couple of weeks at least.”
“Then we need to use these two weeks to speed-level the clan,” White said. “As I already said, we’ll need good gear and lots of stat-boosting rings. I hope you all understand that the Reapers will invade the Crystal Sphere. In which case, Rion will be the first hurdle on their way.”
“We need to find Borisov,” I said. “That way we might solve several problems at once.”
“Did you manage to locate the scroll’s portal exit?”
“I did. It’s on one of the Yonder Isles.”
“The Yonder Isles are a myth,” Archie said. “There’re no known routes there.”
“They’re not a myth,” I said. “The Yonder Isles are a series of locations meant to be activated during a future update.”
“So how on earth can we get there?” Archie asked.
“You’ll know in the morning. I want you to throw a raid together and choose some scouts who could stay in Warblerford and keep an eye on the Reapers.

* * *

The Clan’s senior officers parted ways: some to prepare the raid, others to arrange surveillance of the River Warbler, and some just to grab a couple hours of sleep.
Christa rose, too. “It’s getting late. I should be going. Alex,” she turned to me from the doorway, “I know for a fact that no updates have been installed in the last year. Borisov was the only person who could have brought you and Enea back and activated the Yonder Isles region. If you’re going to look for him, I’d like to be part of it. I owe him a lot.”
“She’s right,” White agreed. “We could use some help. Especially because this concerns everybody.”
Enea nodded a silent agreement.
“You don’t trust me, do you?” Christa said. “I can swear the Blood Oath if you wish. I’m not going to hurt the Oathing Stone, I promise. I’m just fed up with all this constant traveling.”
We needed to forget the past. We had to stop thinking in terms of demons and good guys. The world wasn’t black and white anymore. What we had now was humans against Reapers and their henchmen. New times were upon us.
“Please stay,” I asked Christa. “You’re right, we were about to talk about Borisov.”
Was it my imagination or did I glimpse a flicker of respect in White’s gaze?
Enea breathed a sigh of relief. She definitely liked Christa. Human feelings can sometimes be difficult to explain by logic alone.
“So how do we get to the Yonder Isles?” White asked.
“We have the Founder’s Glove. It’s one of a kind. It can open long-distance portals amongst other things, can’t it?”
“Yes, but you still need the coordinates! Did you copy them?”
“I tried to. It didn’t work.”
“Because whatever they used to block Borisov out is still active. We’ll do it in a different way. Lethmiel once visited the Yonder Isles. A visual will be enough to open a portal.”
“He can’t have! It’s only been activated very recently!”
“Yes, but all of the Crystal Sphere’s future events and locations were set up by its script writers well in advance,” I said. “Lethmiel believes his memories of visiting the Isles to be true. According to him, he went there when he was still young, two hundred and fifty years ago. And this looks like our only chance of getting there.”
“Would you entrust the Glove to him?”
“I can’t see any other way.”
“Can’t you tweak the coordinates ever so slightly? Just to make sure that the portal doesn’t open too close to whatever device they used to block Borisov?”
“Not a good idea. It’ll require some trial and error, otherwise the portal might open over the sea or above some cliffs. It’s too time-consuming. I should trust Lethmiel. I don’t think we’ll be so lucky as to locate the tower straight away, but the Isles answer our other objectives. We can use this opportunity to level up the raid. In the past, the Isles were famous for their Master Jewelers so we might see some very interesting loot there.”
“Excellent. When do we start?”
“I’ve already asked Lethmiel to come. He’ll be here any moment. We’ll run a quick test first — then if everything works well, we’ll set off for the Isles tomorrow morning.”

[1] Neuron was the first model of the neural implant. Synaps (which is mentioned in Phantom Server) was a later model which came in three modifications: Synaps A, Synaps B and the most advanced one Synaps Z which allowed for the possibility of connecting additional cyber modules.

release - January 24, 2018

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