Saturday, February 24, 2018

AlterGame: God Mode by Andrew Novak




AlterGame
by Andrew Novak

Book 3: God Mode




Release - May 24, 2018



How far the Dark Service questline has brought me... It all began like an epic adventure. Finding the Tear of the Demon King and the Black Sword, journeying to the lost continent, meeting good friends and battling vicious adversaries. It was a breakthrough into the depths of the virtual world, where no one before me had gone. What more do you need when your name is Jack the Tramp, both in the virtual world of Alterra and in reality’s ghetto?
The quest started out promising at first. I met the ancient hero Theokrist, who spoke through divine fire, and earned his Rosary. Each bead had the power to reignite a fire in each of the abandoned temples. So I went, temple to temple, reviving the sacred flames. This was how I was supposed to uncover the Great Mystery of Alterra and find Chronos, the king of Alterra's gods.
Everything changed, however, the day Brandt Ironfist blackmailed me into traveling to the very place in the Blighted Wasteland where, according to the old Walker stories, death itself lived. I came back alive and brought back the infragun, a forgotten weapon located in an old laboratory. And what did I discover upon my return? That Brandt had killed my girl, Lisa, and that I'd been hit with a lethal dose of radiation, with only a little time left to live. Days.
So much to do in such a short time, but I managed. Brandt is dead now and the infragun went to my former patron, the resistance leader, Shifty Peter. An unconventional old man, known to me only as Goodwin, promised to cure me of the radiation sickness. All we had to do was make it across the Barrier and infiltrate New Atrium, our last island of civilization. The alphas who live there share the magnificence that is Alterra with us, the omegas. Many have dreamt about this, many have tried. But few have succeeded.

General Ruger Eckerhart, resident of New Atrium and influential alpha-citizen, was going to carry me across the Barrier on his personal airship, but death caught up with him. Which, again, added to my considerable task list. Enter New Atrium, cure myself, and now I had to find the one responsible for killing Ruger... Yeah, so the old general wasn't a good man. Yeah, so he had hundreds of omega lives on his conscience. But he died trying to save me! One might say that it wasn't the ideal time for revenge but, for me, it was perfect. I’d settle the score for the general, then continue along the path of Dark Service in Alterra, complete Necta's quest, and solve Alterra's Greatest Mystery. First, though, I had to save myself from the deadly illness that came back with me from the old Genotech company laboratory.
What options did I have left? Only to seek help from Sartorius, my adventuring partner in the virtual world. Sartorius wasn't one of the most prominent alphas. He couldn't simply fly over the Barrier under the gaze of the guards, but he did know where New Atrium's water supply system opened the sluices to pump water in from the East River.
So, here I am in New Atrium. The first move’s been made and the game continues, so help me Dark Necta!

Prologue

The man stood at the edge of the cliff. A warrior, he wore plate armor and a scarlet-crested helm rested on his head. In his left hand, he held a round shield and a massive sword in the right. The broad, red cloak on his back fluttered like a banner in the wind.
Far below, waves lapped the stone. The man stood transfixed on the edge of a flat, stone slab, poised hundreds of yards above the sea. Castle walls adorned with lancet window towered behind him. Long ladders and arched bridges connected the countless towers. This place, the castle and the rock bed underneath it, was called the Skyfort. It was controlled by game magic, a magic nearly as ancient and powerful as the most fundamental laws of the virtual world. The Skyfort could go anywhere its few inhabitants desired. At the moment, though, there was no consensus among the rulers of this heavenly castle.
The armored warrior was one of the four living inhabitants of the Skyfort. All others were servants, guards, domestic beasts. NPCs, children of the software.
He was gazing intently at what was occurring ahead. The horizon was gone. Where the glassy surface of the water should have met the sky, something inconceivable was happening. Lines, spots, streaks, and blobs mixed and flowed together, broke apart and then reformed again. From time to time, strange silhouettes formed and straight lines appeared. Impossibly straight, the sort that weren't found in nature. Spirals coiled and instantly scattered, becoming something paper-white, like little rips in the landscape. These tears in the universe were filled with the chaos of thousands of whirling dots. There was no end to this process. The four castle residents called it Fragmentation.
Scattering pebbles clattered behind the observer. He finally tore his gaze from the cosmic Fragmentation and spun around. A man and woman were casually making their way down to him from the rampart wall. She was lovely. Anyone in Alterra could design their character to be beautiful, but this young woman was devastatingly stunning.  Her dazzlingly white dress, drawn in precisely selected spots with silver chains, showcased the elegance of her figure. Gems sparkled in her tresses, which created a beautiful frame for her face.
The man supported her down the steep slope. Rather, more accurately, he simply had his arm around her waist. And was trying to drop his hand just the slightest bit lower. He was the complete opposite of the lovely woman and the warrior. Where she was audaciously beautiful and the warrior in red was the embodiment of valor, the third man looked neither heroic nor handsome. Broad-shouldered and thick-set, with a noticeable paunch under his humble attire. He wore a dark mantle and, instead of a sword, a purse hung at his belt, just as rotund as its owner. An unpleasant smirk cut through his scraggly beard.
His palm slid along the woman's white dress. She was smiling demurely.
"Hey, you, take your paws off! That’s another man's wife!" the warrior growled. It was clear now that his contemplation on the Fragmentation had put him on edge and he was taking it out on the first person to turn up. "I'll get around to it... Look! It’s approaching."
The woman pursed her lips petulantly.
"It's hard to see from here. We should fly closer."
"It's too dangerous to get closer. Even for us," murmured the man who had come down the hill with the beautiful woman.
He hadn't removed his hand but did shift it higher, back to her waist, and squinted at the formless jumble on the horizon. The smirk faded. He'd become serious, now.
"You claimed to have found a way to stop it," the warrior subconsciously dropped his hand to his sword hilt. He had been playing in Alterra for so long, the motion was second nature. "Well? What are your promises worth?"
"We need more souls for Alterra. It's the only way to keep the Fragmentation at bay."
"That's what you said last time, too... Take your paws off her, I said!"
Finally, the warrior had found an excuse to vent his anger. The sword slid from its scabbard and the warrior stepped toward his bearded opponent. His sword tip traced a curve in the air, creating a stream of bright radiance. The ray of light from the sword rushed toward the paunchy man. Who, as if expecting the attack, jingled the purse at his waist. A handful of coins shot into the air, surrounded the squat man like a dull halo, and the light emitted from the sword went out, trapped in the ring of little, golden discs.
"Stop!" sounded from nearby.
It had come from the fourth inhabitant, who appeared on the rock ledge from out of nowhere. He hadn't been there a moment ago.
Lanky, lean, and wrapped from head to toe in a dark blue cape. His face was hidden behind a white mask with narrow slits for his eyes and mouth. The fat man stepped away from the woman. Oddly, the masked man's tranquility held a greater sway than the warrior's rage.
"If we do not intervene in a more active manner, the Fragmentation will devour Alterra," the warrior muttered, his temper cooling. "Zaratos promised us that he had found a way to stop the Fragmentation. But, as you can see, Alterra is unravelling."
"I've found it," repeated the lumpish Zaratos. "We need more souls. Many more. Astra, my dear, you'll have to begin sending signs more often in your temples."
The woman made another face.
"Me, again! Why must I always do the dirty work?"
"Because you are the kind goddess and the people turn to you most often. Kindness is dreadfully unprofitable, but someone has to be kind. And beautiful. It draws the players in scores."
"That's just it! They show up in my temples in crowds, but the sign is meant for only one viewer. For others, the effect is blurred. They don't experience the full impact, but become witnesses. You said it yourself. This is dangerous."
"Yes, I did say that. Omegas call it "degeneration" because they don't understand. However, suspicions are already creeping around the ghetto and too many people are whispering about the degenerates. We should pick them up one by one, no witnesses."
"What am I supposed to do, wait day and night by a crystal ball for a single temple visitor?"
The squat man thoughtfully turned his head and tugged at his beard.
"Then we need to alter the sign to obtain several souls at once. And add the algorithm to our temples, as well. We need more souls."
"Then take care of it!"
"Of course, o fairest one. As soon as Gaerthron is clear of all players, we will be free to deal with the signs in the temples on Stoglav. Dealing with the outlanders was Ged's task, but it seems that he is only so bold when he's angry with me."
"But we've gotten rid of the players on Gaerthron," the warrior objected. "That old bastard, Eckerhart, is dead, and he posed the most dangerous threat. And even though he had a couple of flunkies hanging around..."
"Three," the most recent arrival, the one in the mask, interjected. "The general is gone, but three others remain. And they are dangerous, Ged. Your Fiery War Hound was a strong fighter, was it not? Yet, even it failed."
"That was a good hound," the warrior murmured. "However, I believe none of the outlanders showed on Gaerthron yesterday."
"Alright," the fat man recapitulated, "Astra will continue sending out the signs. Faceless and I will also begin sending them out in our temples, just as soon as we can we can embed the appropriate scripts. But it's not enough! Gentle Astra should be seen suffering outside of the temples. Think of a way to do it. Ged, we are trusting you with Gaerthron. You must track down the remaining outlanders. You do want to avenge your Hound, don't you? Find the one who killed your doggy."
"I will turn him to ash. Annihilate him. Right back to level one," the warrior muttered. He was still angry at Zaratos and would gladly drop the god of answers right back to level one before all else. "Why are you ordering us about, anyway?"
"I'm not ordering. I'm providing the best possible answers to the questions we face. This is my task, for I am the god of answers," the fat man gave another crooked smirk. "If you had attacked the outlanders on Gaerthron as decisively as you attacked me minutes ago, the matter would be resolved already."
"Victorious Ged’s mobs are powerful. I did not want to bring them into play, but it seems that I must. Afterwards, I'll introduce you to them. You listen to me, little man. If I see your paws where they shouldn't be one more time, I'll rip your arms from their sockets."
Zaratos gave an insolent smile.
"Enough!" the man with the mask finally raised his voice. "Your squabbling makes you look ridiculous and pathetic. We have more serious matters. The Fragmentation is drawing nearer. If we've finished, then we should clear out of here."
The warrior remained on the precipice while the rest climbed the path back to the magnificent castle. Astra walked ahead, her wind-blown dress pressed flat against her body, and the men couldn't pull their gaze from her sculpted figure.
"Stop antagonizing him," the man in the mask hissed. "Now is not the time for your jokes."
The fat man, troubled, pulled at his beard and muttered,
"No, no, let him get good and angry. He underestimates these players on Gaerthron. In fact, my temple was unsealed after we removed Eckerhart. Which means the threat remains. Can you imagine what will happen if this player completes all the temples? If he reaches the Hall of Oblivion or the smith? A new conflict with the AI, that's what. And that's something we can't afford right now. The Fragmentation is advancing."
"Alright," the masked man nodded. "Maybe you're right. Necta always seemed inconsequential. We underestimated her, too. Without her help, the players would never have been able to reach Gaerthron. She needs to be dealt with - either neutralize her or get rid of her presence altogether."
"Oh, I've already thought of a fun little game. Remember the Undying Light?"
"Sounds familiar," the mask nodded again. "It's one of Vecta's relics, right?"
"Right, that's it. Vecta's daylight relics are quite injurous to her nighttime incarnation. I've obtained the Undying Light, and all we have to do is use it deftly. If we're lucky, we will force her out of the game. Without the Goddess's help, the players will weaken and then even our Ged should be able to take care of this problem."
"By the way, they didn't show on Gaerthron yesterday, these... outlanders. What if they're already dead? Omegas die quite often."
"You also put too much hope on chance! No, we must stay alert. I hope that the loss of his Hound and my behavior today infuriated Ged enough to make him focus on catching the players on Gaerthron... To be honest, I'd also prefer it if they would just disappear and save us the trouble. However, something tells me that they're alive."
From his place on the cliff, the warrior watched the trio with a frown. Then, an embossed bronze horn appeared in his hand. He brought the horn to his lips and blew, issuing a lengthy howl, and golden swarm of horsemen on winged pets soared over the castle. Their gold armor twinkled as they drew a final circle above the Skyfort and swept down over the waves of the endless sea. A long flight awaited them to the continent known as Gaerthron.




Chapter 1 Don't Turn Your Back

"All of us in the ghetto think New Atrium is such a bright, clean place. But, really, it's just a bunch of dark, dank dungeons," Jack declared, hurrying after Sartorius.
It was through these very dark, dank dungeons they were walking now. Sartorius led the group with the flashlight, while Jack and Goodwin, who was gravely silent, followed behind. Light bounced over concrete walls and narrow archways covered with dark mold stains. The beam visibly trembled. Sartorius felt nervous and it was causing his hands to shake. Jack knew perfectly well that the alpha was no hero, and had utterly quailed when he'd agreed to bring them into New Atrium. So, deciding to cheer his companion up a little, Jack caught up with him and patted him on the shoulder.
Sartorius turned his head and looked at Jack from under the hood of his cloak.
"I'm leading you through areas without sensors. Topside, obviously, everything looks different. It's somewhat cleaner there," he said with a tight smile, but looked miserable all the same.
Then he added in a whisper, "Who did you bring with you? We didn't agree on two people. I barely had enough for the one chip."
"We can trust him. Plus, he's an alpha and his chip is in good condition. Don't worry. As soon as I can get to the medical equipment in New Atrium and cure myself, we'll return to Gaerthron. Continue on the Path of Theokrist. There'll be plenty more abandoned temples, rekindled altars, vanquished monsters... well, and loot, of course. You'll recoup your expenses, for sure."
"To tell the truth, I'm not worried about the money," the alpha confessed. "These people... to implant your chip..."
"Right! I can't walk through the city without a chip, and that's the only place I can recover. Dying in New Atrium's underground is no better than croaking in the ghetto. So, whoever it is we’re going to meet, there's no way around it."
"You do understand, these are very dangerous types," Sartorius babbled. "They deal in illegal business, risking their necks, and probably won't observe any formalities. I don't have anything to be afraid of until I pay them, seeing as I'm still a profitable client. They need me. As soon as I hand over that money, though, we all become dangerous witnesses."
"Got it. Then we just won't turn our backs on them."
Jack felt around in his pocket for his pistol, recently acquired from Brandt Ironfist. No big deal. He was no stranger to dealing with the kind of people you didn't want at your back. They're everywhere, even in New Atrium. That was why, as they had been hiding the scuba gear and unnecessary junk in a niche Sartorius pointed out, Jack had taken the gun and knife with him. Goodwin was more provident. He'd taken a rather hefty bundle and was now shuffling behind them, panting.
They'd already passed a decent stretch of the underground corridor. Occasionally, mud would squelch under their feet and some areas were flooded up to their ankles. Every now and then, droplets fell from the vaulted ceilings. Not only were there no sensors here, as Sartorius said. There was nothing here at all, except dirt and puddles of muddy water.
"Hey, wait!" Goodwin called from behind. "Can you shine the light over here?"
Sartorius sent the beam along the passage. Goodwin ran a hand over the wall and squinted at his fingers or, rather, at the dirt he'd scraped off the wet concrete.
"Someone's been here, and recently," he observed.
"People live in the underground utility lines," Sartorius explained. "Not many, just the outcasts who have no need to go the surface. Jack, I should have warned you earlier - your chip won't be a proper chip. It'll only fulfill some of its functions. You'll be able to walk around the city without tripping the sensor alarms, but you won't pass for a full alpha-citizen. The less you hang out in the open, the better. I know that, sometimes, omegas who make it into the city get this chip first, settle into a life here, then find a way to pay for the upgrade. I couldn't haggle for more."
"We'll figure it out," Jack said. "You're too gloomy."
"Well, we don't have much farther to go. We'll buy the chip, then I'll take you to a safer place to rest."
"What place?"
"Where a man named Mendez lives. We've known each other for a while. Bumped into each other in the sewers when I went down there with a repair crew. Ever since, I visit occasionally, bring him... well, just little things. He's an okay guy. You'll see."
"And what kind of people will I meet on the surface? After I get my chip and go out in public? What should I say, so I don't look like an outsider?"
"Usually, there aren't too many people on the streets. New Atrium occupies a small area. Everything here is nearby, but alphas mostly use airships. Just think of it like this, you live in a residential suite on the fortieth floor and your club is on the fiftieth floor in a building two blocks away. It only takes a minute to fly, but going downstairs, walking over, then going back up? Well, that's already a decent chunk of time spent. You can walk around New Atrium for a long time and see virtually no one."
Jack nodded. This city was nothing like he'd imagined. Not at all.
"And what if, for example, someone calls out to me from a window?"
Sartorius wanly smiled.
"That happens often in the ghetto, I take it? People yelling out of windows at passers-by? No, the lower floors aren't very populated. There are plenty apartments on the upper floors for the few alphas living here. Sometimes, huge buildings are taken out of use for preservation and nothing goes in except machinery... well, and communications staff. But that's only if something urgent happens and it's necessary for the staff to step in."
"That's you, I assume?"
"That's right. Occasionally, I go into these empty buildings if they call me in for a malfunction. To omegas, we live a strange life here, Jack. As for you... No, the sensors and scanners present far more danger to you, and they are at every turn. This is where the fake chip will help you."
Another couple of turns and they arrived at a massive steel door. Sartorius handed the flashlight to Jack and, after digging in his pockets for a moment, produced a set of keys.
"Everything here is simple," he explained, "a minimum of electronics, maximum security. I got ahold of the keys used by the technicians responsible for the water intake system. Now, we're going into the city proper."
The door opened with a screech to a staircase on the other side, and the alpha led them up. On the second level, there was another door. This one led to a corridor, but not the damp pit, like downstairs. It was dry here. Evenly spaced lamps burned on the ceiling, illuminating locked doors and branching passageways along each side of the hallway. And it reeked. The atmosphere below had been heavy and damp, but this level smelled more or less like the ghetto. This must be where the outcasts were squatting, Jack guessed.
Dirty footprints were visible on the floor and the walls were covered with inscriptions and drawings of ugly faces, strange figures, rallying slogans such as "Praise the Gendemic", "Burn Svetlograd", "The Scribe's stall is garbage" and so on.
Sartorius turned the flashlight off and said, "Now, follow me and be careful. Stop and wait where I tell you. I'll go ahead. When I give the signal, run to me."
They did this twice. Sartorius would walk a couple dozen paces ahead, raise some kind of buzzing device over his head, then call for them. Jack and Goodwin would then run down the corridor. The old man explained to Jack that there were sensors and Sartorius' machine caused interference. If he were to disconnect or damage the sensor, it would raise the alarm. A momentary disruption, though? Nothing unusual.
A couple of times, Jack saw movement in the side tunnels, but couldn't make out who was moving around. They ran off in an instant. Finally, they came to another door. This one differed from the previous doors in that it had a peephole, a small window with cloudy glass. It was a very thick door, too, by the look of it.
"We're here," Sartorius announced and rapped his knuckles on the thick, steel door.
The sound boomed throughout the corridor.
"Otherwise, they might not hear," the alpha explained. "They may well both be hanging out in Alterra. They're necromancers. That's how I met these people."
Something moved with a scrape behind the door, heavy footsteps sounded, and Sartorius quickly added, "The big guy is Douglas, the small on is Sal. Jack, do you remember what I warned you about?"
Jack nodded and Sartorius stood in front of the peephole, so that the dungeon inhabitants could see him. Looked like this place had its own set of rules, and they were rather strict. The lock clicked and the door opened a crack. Well, big Douglas really was big. Huge, actually. He was a beefy guy and wore a sleeveless leather vest that displayed muscular arms covered in tattoos of interlaced snakes. The snake heads were drawn on his chest, jaws open. Douglas’s bald pate gleamed in the lamplight of the brightly lit room behind him. Someone like him wouldn't look out of place on the other side of the East River. He looked like a native resident of the ghetto. Jack had pictured alphas very differently...
Small eyes examined the newcomers intently from under thick eyebrows.
"Sart, you said there'd only be one client," Douglas's deep voice boomed.
"The second's going to sit quietly in the corner. He's not a client," Sartorius replied, "Can we come in?"
"Only if you have the panbucks with you."
"Yes, I've got it. Let us in!"
Sartorius was trying to remain confident, but Douglas was clearly wary. It was visible in his every gesture.
"Alright, come in," the giant stepped aside, admitting the guests.
Jack was surprised by the contents of the room. He'd never seen so many kinds of electronics all in one place. There were piles of hardware here, some of it familiar, some not. Stacks of boxes formed a wall that partitioned the room. He only recognized the console boxes, the kind they shipped from New Atrium in consignment containers. All the rest were marked with an unknown brand and the name didn't mean anything to Jack. To the left was a table littered with junk: bundles of cables, plugs, switches, circuit boards. And a large bowl filled with cigarette butts. They smoked a lot here - dozens of ceiling lamps glowed through the cloud of smoke hovering in the air. Another chaotic mess of electronics like the one on the table covered the entire floor, forcing them to step carefully over the particularly large heaps. One entire wall was covered with monitors. Most were dark, but a few displayed different images, such as underground corridors and empty rooms. Three showed pictures of the surface. Jack saw the nighttime streets of New Atrium, flooded with multicolored shafts of light from windows. Above it all, chains of airship lights glided between towering skyscrapers...
The second occupant emerged from somewhere behind the boxes. Douglas's polar opposite. This man was shaggy, small, and rail-thin, wearing an oversized, floor-length robe. Perhaps, at one time, the robe had been white, perhaps not. At this point, it was impossible to tell. Half of Sal's face was hidden under a strange contraption held up by a hoop wrapped around his head and fitted with a pair of glinting, iridescent lenses, somewhat like eyeglass lenses. Sal looked at the visitors through them.
"The second guy will sit in the corner, you say?" he began in a businesslike manner. "Well, here you go, there's a chair. Sit down and don't get underfoot while we work."
He nodded to Jack, pointing to a chair.
"I'm the client," he explained.
It was easy to guess Sal's thoughts. He’d figured that the chip was for old Goodwin, and Jack was just the muscle. A big guy to make himself feel confident. Very much in the spirit of the ghetto. So, practices here in the lower city were the same. Goodwin sat silently in the corner.
Douglas turned to Sartorius, "Show us the panbucks, then we'll start."
The alpha rustled the waterproof fabric as he unbuttoned his cloak. To Jack eyes, he was too flustered.
"It's all here," Douglas rumbled and Sal sat at the table.
He grabbed a smoldering cigarette butt, took a drag, groped for a keyboard under the junk and began clicking keys. One of the black monitors in front of them switched on. The screen flooded with blue light and a red signal light flashed in the middle. Jack, interested, looked at it with curiosity. He'd never seen one before. All the while, though, he surreptitiously kept an eye Douglas, as he seemed to be the more dangerous of the two. But he was still, also staring at the screen.
The red signal light turned green, then a picture of a large room appeared. In it, a narrow face framed by a thin, black beard loomed. Huh, it was the Lahitte khan, Tevis! Well, it was a real person with the same face, the owner of the in-game character. How about that? Tevis, the great warrior, the storm of the steppe, was involved in hustling counterfeit chips.
Behind Tevis were white walls and an amazingly pure white floor. The table, the strange gizmos - all of it dazzlingly white. Jack had only seen so much pure white inside Alterra. The real world always found a way to stain any whiteness and disrupt any clean lines. Jack thought he could make out the shape of a motionless body under a white sheet on the table. Well, the boots sticking out from under the sheet completed the picture. And sure as shit, they were white, too. What the hell was this?
"How you doing, Tev? Ready?" Douglas asked, leaning towards the monitor.
Jack figured out that there was a video camera transmitting an image to Tevis and, to be safe, took a step back. Even though Khan Tevis hadn't seen his face in virt when they'd met, it was best if he didn't see him now.
"I'm good," Tevis jabbed his thumb behind himself. "This alpha's grieving loved ones already said their last goodbyes. I can begin as soon as you give the go-ahead."
"Is he reliable? Do you trust him?" Goodwin said from the corner. He didn't care for Tevis, for some reason.
"No one more reliable," Sal grinned at Goodwin Half his face was smiling, the eyepiece covering the other half glinted impassively and created a wholly unpleasant effect. "He's safe. Plus, he gets a cut. A fair share of it, let me tell you."
It finally dawned on Jack. Tevis himself had once gotten a chip this way! He'd been born an omega, made it across the Barrier, gotten a chip, and now worked... well, as a funeral director. He recovered chips from dead alphas. Now it made sense why he played a Lahitte in Alterra. When he was young, he hadn’t had enough panbucks for a Scand. And now he was doing his damnedest to prove he was as good as any alpha born in New Atrium.
Of course he was reliable. His own heritage was a secret. While Jack had been speculating about Tevis' origins, Douglas had demanded payment. Sartorius began laying panbucks on the table and Sal counted. Meanwhile, Tevis went to the table, folded the sheet back from the dead man's arm, and pressed something like a syringe to the pale skin. Snap! Tevis brought his head up to examine the instrument in the light.
"Is that a disinfectant in that syringe?" Goodwin asked.
"Mmhmm, you got it, pops," Sal murmured.
His hands flashed as he counted the bills. Tevis disappeared from the screen, somewhere out of the camera's line of sight. Then he appeared again and went to work on the table with the dead man. The table scooted slowly away, and Tevis raised a remote control and the screen went dark. Something in the wall clicked resonantly. Douglas reached across the table, opened a round hatch, and withdrew a flask with a greenish solution.
"Here's your entry ticket into the delightful world of New Atrium, client. Sal?"
"Yeah, everything's in order."
Four-eyes put the money away and swept the junk from the table. He hauled a flat, metal box onto the tabletop, opened it, and emptied the flask contents. Tools materialized in his hands, tipped with ultrathin needles no wider than a hair, and Sal's lenses came to life. With an unpleasant grinding sound, they moved forward on telescopic attachments. Sal began working his magic over the miniscule chip, poking it with the needles, their tips glistening.
"Don't fall asleep on me, client. Give me your arm. We're going to make an alpha of you," Douglas grinned. "My partner is blocking the identity nodes. You'll be an alpha-citizen without the right to property, social services, and other fun perks. You'll be poor, but honest."
"Honest. Hardly," Jack warned. "What can I do with this chip?"
"Sensors won't react to you. You'll be able to wander around the city, wherever your fancy takes you. Best not to get too close to the Barrier. It has its own security system, and no one knows how it'll react. Otherwise, New Atrium is your oyster. But not just yet. In twelve hours. The chip needs time to adjust to your biometrics. So, hide out for half a day and then..."
"Got it, got it," Sartorius interrupted. "Well, can you implant it now? Sal, are you finished?"
So far, the alpha had kept silent, sweating, wan, and barely breathing. He had been incredibly anxious, then. Now, he couldn’t stand it anymore and was eager to finish it, to get out. Restlessness is no good... particularly around people you didn’t trust.
Jack took his time rolling his sleeve up, still wet from their swim in the East River, and extended his left arm. The left specifically to leave the right hand free to grip the pistol.  It was simply instinct. When something significant was about to happen, his body reacted without any direction from his brain.
Sal had already switched instruments and now held a syringe. Probably the one Tevis had used. Jack immediately noticed that the solution was a different color, but had no chance to ask. The small man worked quick as lightning, his extensive practice evident. He seized Jack's arm and pulled it closer. The lenses over his eye moved again, grinding... Jack felt a slight prick.
"All done," Sal announced. "But there is one thing. Doug?"
"Price's gone up," Douglas continued. "Sart, it’s going to be another five thousand. Job's done, time to pay up."
Jack sensed a sudden weakness wash over him. Everything had been so unusual, that he'd actually forgotten about his illness. That's why he hadn't paid attention to the chill rippling through his gut, his body's way of warning of danger nearby. It was a mistake. His legs felt like rubber and his arms were heavy as lead... Damned runt had injected him with something... with the chip... Bastard, even his thoughts were moving slower.
"I don't have any more," Sartorius babbled.
He took a step back, but there was nowhere to retreat in the cluttered room. Sartorius pressed his back to the pyramid of console boxes.
"Let's just see," Douglas stood over Sartorius, who had finally lost all his nerve. An emitter gleamed in Douglas's hand. "Empty your pockets. Slowly. Then take off your cloak and we'll take a peek at what's under there. If you really don't have any more cash, I'm willing to take whatever I can find. I'm sure a couple of respectable boys, like yourselves, have plenty of nice toys in your pockets. Slowly, I said! And don't look at our client. Sal gave him a sedative, so he's going to sit this one out."
Sartorius, who had already thrust his hand into his pocket, flinched. He did, in fact, glance at Jack, who could only blink in response. Or maybe that wasn’t all? With a smooth motion, barely stirring, he began to withdraw the gun. Damn, too slow.
It was then that Goodwin, who had been forgotten, darted into the shadows behind the wall of plastic boxes. He stumbled and something crashed to the floor, rolling, but the old man was already out of sight.
"Sal, go after him," Douglas commanded, shifting his arm slightly, as if pointing in Goodwin’s direction.
Sartorius inched to the side, stepping out of the line of fire, and Jack was finally able to pull the gun from his pocket. Sal stood up and started for the wall of boxes where Goodwin was hiding. As he took a step, Jack, having gathered all his strength for even just this small movement, kicked him in the ankle. Sal yelped and his legs gave out. He fell, striking his head hard. The eyepieces on his face, squealing and gnashing, extended, folded and spun. Sal's shoes scrabbled on the floor tiles, cutting through scattered garbage.
Douglas briefly glanced at what was happening by the table, swore, and again pointed the barrel at Sartorius.
"Wow," Jack croaked, barely able to force the word out, "I didn't realize they'd invented invisible armor in New Atrium. Douglas, you do have armor on, don't you? Invisible armor, I mean. Because I definitely don't see any."
"What are you going on about?" Douglas slanted his eyes at Jack and focused on the pistol aimed directly at him.
Jack was holding the gun with both hands and the barrel still trembled anyway, but it would be hard to miss at this distance. He planted a foot on Sal's back and pressed.
"So, no armor? Then I just don't get it. What makes you so brave? Drop the emitter. On the table. Take a step back. Sartorius unlock the door. We're leaving. Hey, Goodwin! Unless you want to stick around, come on!"
Sartorius nabbed the emitter from the table and dashed to the door.
"Hey, client, you've got it all wrong," Douglas said slowly. "This, it's not a big deal. We didn't even poison you, just gave you a little sedative. You're actually better off. As a matter of fact, it's good for you. Plus, it'll pass in half an hour."
"All right," Jack croaked. "Live."
He had nothing left in him to say more. Even those two words were difficult to produce. Sartorius clicked the lock and the door screeched open. Goodwin immediately emerged from his hiding spot. He sped past Jack and shot out of the room. Leaving last, Jack worked to unclench his fingers of his left hand from the pistol grip and scooped up two console boxes from a pile.
Once in the corridor, he heaved a relieved sigh and finally let himself lower the weapon.
"Sartorius, twelve hours."
"Yes, yes, the chip needs time to adjust," the alpha nodded. "I've planned it all out. There's a place for you to hide here. I told you, we'll wait it out at my friend's place. At Mendez's. Why did you take the consoles?"
"Twelve hours. Twelve hours..." Jack could hardly get his tongue around the words, "in Alterra."


Chapter 2 Good, Old Stoglav

"Are you seriously going to play right now?"
"Did you forget?" Jack gasped, noisily sucking in air. "Path of Theokrist. We've finished three temples, but there are eight stones on the rosary. We have a ton of quests. Each stone is another temple. And first up is Faceless's temple in the Secret City. It’s right on the way. Now, with this chip, I'm also going to need..."
His throat closed up and it took a minute for him to catch his breath again. That sedative, damn it all to hell, worked…
"...need cash," he finished, barely. "For my part, you'll get as much from the game as I can give you."
"How can you still be thinking about the game? You can't even stand! Give me those boxes."
"Don’t worry about it," Jack wiped the sweat off his brow. "Lead the way."
Fortunately, there were no sensors on the way to Sartorius's intended shelter, and they reached it with no delays. The alpha stopped in front of the correct door, briefly glanced to the left and right of the corridor, then knocked.
"Mendez, it's me. Open up!" the alpha called.
The man called Mendez was a stoop-shouldered, bearded man. He didn't look as colorful as Douglas and Sal, and Jack relaxed a little. A seemingly nonthreatening guy, even for an alpha. Yeah, all of them here were alphas. Jack ought to be cautious with everyone but Sartorius trusted this guy, and to gain the trust of such a cautious person... that meant something.
Mendez unlocked and opened the door to reveal another corridor, this one barely-lit. They had to pass a few more sewer tunnels before they reached Mendez's lair. It was clean, dark and empty, however everything was ready to receive guests. There was a couch, chair, and a chest in place of a table. Mendez had no way of knowing Sartorius would bring two people and so made up a place for one. Jack also noticed a bundle of cables running through a dark doorway and the multicolored lights of a large machine blinking in the darkness... no, not just a large machine. It was a virt-capsule, just like the one Egghead had, and the cables ran directly to it.
As he walked by, Jack peeked inside the room. In the flickering lights of the instrument panel, he could distinguish the face of a young woman lying under the semi-transparent lid.
"Don't go in there," Mendez requested. "That's my daughter. She's... she's in the game."
The sedative was still doing its thing and Jack collapsed onto the couch. Funny enough, he was wide awake. A consequence of all the day's adventures, probably. He simply lay there and stared at the low ceiling while Sartorius hooked up the consoles, whispering an explanation to their host. Little by little, the fog in his head lifted and he could move again. He could already hear what Sartorius and the basement owner were talking about.
"Sartorius, are you sure no one followed you here? Especially down by the tanks? You didn't see anyone on the way with eyes that shine deep red in the dark?"
"Mendez, I know that living underground puts you on edge, but come on, you're a smart man! You can't believe in stupid superstitions!"
"I wouldn't believe them if I hadn't seen them myself. Very recently, too. Two days ago. Those eyes were moving through the lower levels, and they... they moved in total darkness, glowing dark red. Saw it myself! I tucked tail and ran, so I don't know where they came upstairs to us, but I saw them here, too. Not far from my home and, afterwards, I found tracks. This isn't a person, Sartorius. The prints... the prints I found weren’t normal."
Jack remembered at that moment that Goodwin found strange footprints on the lower floor. It was weird, of course, since New Atrium was covered with sensors and everything was closely controlled. Yet there was some kind of monster gallivanting under the city? Sartorius was probably thinking the same, too. At any rate, he made a skeptical grimace and turned away. Jack was heading to the surface, since he had precious little time remaining, and there were no bogeymen up on the streets. Which meant it was time to get on with it.
He stood, nodded to Sartorius, signaling him to follow suit, and donned the virt-helm.

***

The chapel near the town Narim might seem like the quietest, most peaceful place in Alterra. Jack had already caught himself thinking the same thing several times. But damn, how many of his adventures have started here!
To calm himself and feel more in harmony with the serene game world, he brought up his stills table. Well, now, what have we got? He still had 55 XP and, therefore, five unlocked skills, which were the special abilities each player receives for every ten experience points.

10 XP Furious Strike increases the force of your blows by 50%. Can be used up to three times within 10 minutes.
20 XP Tireless Wanderer increases stamina while traveling. Duration: 3 hrs. Cooldown: 6 hrs.
30 XP Sprint increases movement speed in combat by 30%. Duration: 15 sec. Cooldown: 1 hr.
40 XP Berserk reduces sensitivity to damage and increases resistance to all magical and physical debuffs. Duration: 30 sec. Cooldown: 1 hr.
50 XP Shadowmaster doubles your stealth stat. Doubles the effects from artifacts with camouflage and spells with no additional mana cost. Duration: 10 min. Cooldown: 2 hrs.

Each skill was represented by a small icon. Underneath these was a second row with the dark skills given to him by Dark Necta, who Jack began to serve at 33 XP.

10 XP Leader grants the ability to form a squadron of five dark units.

He’d gotten this one at level forty-six. The second came after another 10 XP.

20 XP Path of Blood gives the player the ability to teleport to any place where a sacrifice to Dark Necta has been made.

He had his usual weapons in his inventory, the most remarkable being the Shadow sword. Discretely nestled off in the corner was the Tear of the Demon King Azeroth. These two artifacts marked the beginning of a long road, the end of which was nowhere in sight. Jack used the sword every day, but rarely needed the Tear. New artifacts gradually filled the upper equipment slots and he'd had to shift it lower and lower.
It was a shame, of course, that the outstanding fact of Jack’s new alpha status hadn’t changed anything… But what was most important was reaching the Genotech building in time to save his rapidly expiring life. How much time did he have left? A day? Two? That’s what Goodwin told him. If he did manage, however, to deal with this radiation sickness, then he’d have more skills, more quests… more everything.
Sartorius appeared in the game a minute later. The mage walked out of the chapel with his staff at the ready, clenching it with both hands and directing the tip from side to side. Once he saw Jack’s casual stance, he relaxed and lowered his weapon.
"Why’re you so tense?"
“I’m a necromancer and this is Maxitorian land. We’re considered enemies here.”
“Well, yeah. Black isn’t exactly in vogue with the knights of Maxitor, it’s true. Let’s figure out our next moves. If you left anything in Nightmare, like weapons, artifacts or things you need for traveling, then it’s probably best to get them now. I don’t think you’ll have time to go back again. Not for the next few days, anyway. All I’ll need on Stoglav is Egghead. He’ll sell the loot and hand me the profits. You’ll have to convert it to panbucks because…”
"Yes, you told me. But, you can't open a chat with Egghead from here, can you? We're pretty far from the capital."
“You’re right. I wanted to get closer to Maxitown, but you’re a necromancer. It’s dangerous for you to wander around here… besides, Egghead’s probably not in the game right now. It’s the middle of the night in reality. Alright, I'll write to him in the Shell. We're not here for that. Did you not think to bring a mount for travel? I already got myself a horse.”
Sartorius stared off to the side.
"I don't have a pet. And I can't afford to buy one. I don't even know how to get to Nightmare from here since all my teleport scrolls are gone."
Damn it, he'd used everything he had to get Jack that chip! It was even a little embarrassing that he'd driven Sartorius to such lengths... although, he was an alpha. He'd be just fine in reality. But he needed game gold... Jack would have to contact Egghead after all. The fat man said he found a buyer for the Hydra Stinger. Maybe he'd already sold the Teeth? There had been quite a few, so they should fetch a decent amount. Plus, he still had some money left from the sale of the Fiery Heart. True, he needed to settle up with Egghead for the aqualungs... At the time, he only had one thing on his mind: getting past the Barrier. Now, even though Jack hadn't reached the Genotech building yet, it was time to get his finances in order. He couldn't get distracted with it while Goodwin would be taking him to Genotech, which is why he had rushed right into the game. No time to put it off.
"We should've taken the money back from Douglas," Sartorius muttered. "I'm a dumbass for not thinking of it sooner."
"No, we needed to get the hell out of there while I could still stand. Seriously, that drug Sal injected me with really knocked me on my ass. Plus, they actually inserted the chip, those bastards. Only fair to pay for the work. Let them work it out with Tevis. Egghead will bleed him later for all he’s worth.”
"Who's Tevis?"
“Their accomplice in the funeral home or whatever it was in New Atrium. The one who extracted the chip. He’s one of the buyers for Gaerthronian artifacts in Alterra. Besides, this way, Douglas has one less reason to come looking for you in reality."
"Yeah, still... Eh, I'm afraid Douglas is going to be furious anyway, if only for the emitter. But I couldn't just leave him with a weapon!"
Sartorius shook his head and tightened his fingers around his wand. He was much more confident with a weapon in Alterra than in real life, for sure.
"We'll go to Narim now," Jack declared. "It's a town not far from here. Shabby little place, but maybe they'll have a horse there for sale? Or scrolls at the Wanderer's shop. You wait outside the city walls and I'll stop in alone. I also need to get a sheep for sacrifice. Later, though..."
Jack yawned and his character reproduced the motion.
"No, I need to rest," he admitted. "Okay, so, we'll come back to this chapel and exit the game here. I'll write Egghead in the shell. He'll get the message in three or four hours, then fly here in the morning. Then we can take a count of our resources and take off for Gaerthron.”
Sartorius stood outside the gates and Jack walked into Narim. As always in these kinds of provincial towns, the nighttime streets were quiet and deserted. However, there was an exuberant group was gathered in the center square that looked like they'd just streamed out of a tavern and were searching for a new source of entertainment. Virtual wine wouldn’t get you drunk, but it did deal intoxication debuffs, such as reduced agility and intellect, together with short-duration buffs to strength. Many people had achieved great deeds with it. So, the result was roughly the equivalent of drinking a small amount of alcohol
Six players were standing under the bright lamps in the square, shouting and laughing. Jack picked up snippets of their conversation as he passed.
“I told you – don't play when you’re high, man. The experience ain’t right.”
“It’s the same!” shouted the merriest reveler in response. “Look, I’ll pop in Astra’s temple right now, ask for the blessing, and the priestess will lay another buff on. Like a high… Oh! Has anyone tried to send a priestess a bang-claim? They’re all choice little pieces there. Even in this little hole of a town, she should be a hottie.”
“Don’t be dumb,” his friends shut him down. “There are places Svetlograd where you can roll around with the NPCs all you want. The priestesses are a different story.”
“And that’s what I wanna check. Haven’t been turned down yet.”
The player tromped off after Jack, who was heading to the Wanderer mage’s shop, which was in the same direction as Astra’s temple. The entire group trailed behind, chuckling. They were wondering how a fling with Astra’s priestess would turn out. Jack veered to avoid the procession of revelers and, out of habit, read the stats of the one who planned to send the bang-claim.

Taven, Scand
Expertise: 22
Health: 35
Guild: Light-fingered Lads

Then Jack turned to the mage’s shop and didn’t see the cheerful Taven enter the temple. The Wanderer, as usual, was a scrawny, bearded old man. Jack asked him for teleports to Nightmare and the old guy jerked in surprise, his mantle rustling, his gray brows higher. He said sternly, “That place is damned and I do not sell teleports there. An honest Scand, as you seem to be, ought not to besmirch his reputation by visiting that cesspool. Stay away from the demonic arts!”
Jack swore to himself. He should have guessed what the Wanderer would say. He put on his most bewildered face and babbled, “How am I supposed to fight the necromancers? Don’t I have to go into Nightmare?”
The NPC’s expression softened a fraction.
“Yes, you look like an experienced warrior…” meaning that Jack’s fifty-one levels commanded respect, but he couldn’t say outright that he’d read the stats. The NPC had to hold to the game’s conventions for conversation. “…and I might be able to somewhat serve your fair cause of striking the necromancers. Here, take this scroll. It will deliver you to the border of this land of evil and dark magic. Begin your exploits there.”
Jack bought five scrolls, each for thirty gold.

You made a payment of 150 gold.
Do you want to see the details of the transaction? Yes/No
You have 8432 gold in your account.
Do you want to perform another transaction? Yes/No

It was a decent amount, but he still had to pay for the aqualungs… nevertheless, they still needed to get to Gaerthron and finish a couple of quests on the road to the Secret City. Any income would come in handy.
Then Jack asked where he could buy a horse in the city. The Wanderer declared, very importantly, that he had no need for horses with the teleport scrolls and therefore didn’t know where to buy one. Nor did he want to know where to buy one of those dirty beasts. Jack had to fork out five gold coins for a city map of Narim with all the shops marked, where he located a cattle yard with a stable.
By the time Jack returned to the square, the players’ drunken adventure with the priestess had come to an end. Clearly, though, not in a way the cheerful Light-fingered Lads had anticipated. Five of them were huddled in a group near the entrance to the temple. The sixth, Taven, who was going to submit a bang-claim to the priestess, lay motionless on the pavement.
“He went into the temple,” the one who had been behind Taven explained. “I fell back a little, maybe only by thirty seconds. Saw something flash inside and fire ran up the columns…  A second later, the light disappeared. I ran in and Taven was lying on the floor just like this. I dragged him out and then you guys showed up.”
Jack stopped under a lamp and read the name of the streets that led to the stable. He didn’t care one bit about the Lads’ escapades. They weren't giving him a hard time and he was fine with that.
“What about the priestess? What did she do?” he heard from the back.
“Nothing. She was just standing there, like she’s supposed to, in front of the altar, blinking at me.”
“Obviously, this idiot sent the claim right as he walked in and she slapped him with a debuff.”
“Kinda happened too fast… I was right behind him.”
Taven began to stir and all conversations fell silent.
“Who are you people?” Taven asked shakily. He lifted his head, looked around. “What city is this?”
The other players burst into a bewildered racket. Jack spotted the right street and walked away from the noisy group. The NPC city guard strode in the opposite direction, plate armor rattling. They’d heard the clamor and were rushing to sort it out. Fantastic, let them deal with it.
“Who am I?!” Tevan raised his voice. “Where am I? Damn it! What’s my damn name?!”

***

“It’s only level two,” Sartorius said in disappointment as he inspected the horse Jack brought. Well, not brought so much as carried in his inventory.
“Narim is a small town. The stable merchandise here doesn’t get any higher level. But if you want to go to a bigger city, they’re just waiting for necromancers to show up.”
“I can’t so much as poke my nose out anywhere here,” the mage sighed. “You’re right.”
“Then take the teleports to the border of Nightmare. And, hey, you can call the horse Adelia! Your housekeeper in the Stargazer tower, remember? Now you can ride around on Adelia, just like the good old days. You miss her, don’t you? Be honest.”
“She had extremely primitive programming,” Sartorius grumbled, gazing off to the side. “I’m surprised at you, Jack. You’re barely alive. You’ve only just snuck into New Atrium and your future is wholly uncertain, and yet here you are making stupid jokes.”
“I do what I can. Not good for much else at the moment, except dumb jokes. Okay, I’m going to send Egghead the letter asking to meet us here. Then I’m going to sleep for about three hours. You stay awake. How many panbucks do we need for halfway decent clothes? Decent enough that people in New Atrium won’t avoid me in the streets? You’ll have to buy me some stuff.”
It only just occurred to Jack that he was wearing dirty, wet rags. He wasn’t exactly planning on attracting a lot of attention in the city but he’d need new gear all the same.
“Mm, probably around a couple hundred,” Sartorius said, uncertain.
"Eight hundred game gold, then. Better to have a little extra, just in case.”
He opened his wallet, invited the mage to a private chat and requested a transfer.

You made a payment of 1000 gold.
Do you want to see the details of the transaction? Yes/No
You have 6957 gold in your account.
Do you want to perform another transaction? Yes/No

“Turn the rest into cash. I’ll need to have a little on me.”
“I’ll do my best to save as much as I can,” the mage promised.
“Main thing is a cloak. A roomy, canvas cloak. Can you find something like that?”
“Pretty much everything is closed at night, but I’ll try.”
“A roomy cloak with big, deep pockets. You can go now, if you want. I’m going to hang out in the Shell and write up the letter to Egghead.”

Hi, miserable omega! We have some unfinished business between us and I have decided to descend to your level from the radiant heights. I’ll be waiting for you in the morning, seven o’clock, at that chapel just outside of Narim. I have no doubt that you’ve already calculated our balance. We’ll run the numbers and then I’m going directly to Gaerthron for more loot. Don’t be late. This is in your interests, too. If I don’t see you in virt, I’m going to hop on over to Gaerthron and will be gone for a long while.
Oh, yeah, and feel free to offer Tevis any goods we get. He just earned a pretty sum of money.

When Jack slipped off the virt-helm, Sartorius was already gone. Goodwin was murmuring quietly with Mendez, sitting knee-to-knee, like old friends.
“… And it turned out that Alterra just wasn’t for me,” sounded like Goodwin was telling him about his cerebral disorder.
“I wouldn’t play either,” Mendez mumbled, “but Anna, my daughter, is stuck in the game. Have you heard about the degenerates? That’s what happened to my little girl. She’s not here, anymore. She’s in there, completely consumed. Her body is here, but her mind is there. I tracked her down in Alterra… Except she can’t remember anything. She doesn’t recognize anyone.”
He shook his head mournfully.
“Even me. Still, sometimes we cross paths in Alterra. That’s all I have left.”
“I know it’s difficult,” Goodwin sympathized. “So, she doesn’t recognize you?”
“I was able to form a friendship with her. With the new her, the one in the game. She has no idea what reality is. For her, Alterra is the only real, material universe. She’s in such a strange haze! All I can do is keep her alive in the virt-capsule and see her now and then in-game.”
Jack stretched, yawned, and fell onto the only bed in the room. Damn it, he’d earned some rest. Everyone in this world had their own troubles. Even alphas experienced tragedy.
He woke up when Sartorius returned with packages. His priority, the cloak, was there. Spacious with just the right kind of pockets for storing his knife and pistol. Of course, Jack’s old cloak had been much more daunting and was capable of deterring anyone who might cross him, but it was lost to him now. No matter. This one would learn. It just needed some breaking in and to make it through a couple of scrapes.
“No one followed you?” Jack asked as he tried on the unfamiliar clothing. “No one wondered why you were buying clothes in a different size?”
“This is New Atrium, Jack. I bought all this in an automated shopping center. Plus, I was the only buyer. It’s not even morning yet.”
“Shit, time! What time is it?”
“Six forty-eight.”
“It’s time to meet Egghead! Let’s go!”
Jack, tuning out Sartorius’s muttering about being on his feet all night, reached for the console.

***

When they walked out of the chapel, the golden carriage was already drawing circles in the sky over the forest. The fat man hadn’t only read the message and rushed to the meeting, he’d even come a quarter of an hour before the designated time. He even risked dropping lower, so he wouldn’t miss his companions’ arrival.
Spotting them, Egghead gave the command to his pegasi, Gog and Magog, to descend. The gleaming, gilded, etched wheels hadn’t even touched the ground when the door swung open and Egghead burst out.
“So, you're an alpha-citizen now! And you’re alive!” he announced, beaming with his most affable smile.
“That’s right, I’m an alpha,” Jack replied. “Can’t you see that I’m twice as tall now?”
“Well, you’ve definitely done something. Last night, they divvied up Brandt’s holdings. No one else in his gang was capable of taking power after his death and, immediately afterwards, several of his neighbors attacked his people. Modest estimates count six bodies overnight and this won’t be the end of it.”
“Alright, alright, omega, your petty ghetto squabbles only bore our brother here,” Jack gestured grandly. “Better yet, tell me, how much did the aqualungs set you back? Actually, no. What’s our total balance?”
“To be brief, you owe me roughly eight thousand game gold. Well, eight thousand and some change. I drew up an itemized account. I’ll send you the text file and…”
“Got it. This debt is going to have to wait. I’m leaving right away for Gaerthron and I’ll try to finish a few quests as fast as I can. Afterwards, I’ll send you a letter in the Shell. Sartorius is going with me and from this moment, you can consider us partners. Send him your text files. I probably wouldn’t understand most of them, anyway. Don’t worry, he’s as easy to hustle as I am.”
“Hey, have I ever lied to you?”
Egghead flashed another friendly smile, directing this one toward Sartorius, who had initially hung back a few steps behind Jack, but now came closer.
“In short, you can do business with him, if need be,” Jack concluded. “Because I’m still not sure I’ll hold out for long. Getting across the Barrier was only half the battle. All the rest should play out tonight. But I'll devote today to Gaerthron. Sartorius, you ready? We're leaving. See ya, omega. And expect trophies."
"Excellent," a smile spread across Egghead's face, which then turned serious. "Oh, one more question. You haven't come across any, how should I say it... any disruption in the game image?"
"What do you mean, disruption?"
"Well, it looks like... Even the players who've told me about it generally don't know how to describe it. It's as if the world is breaking up. Just a jumble where the horizon should be. Grayish... greenish... lines appear, then shift to emptiness, and back again to something swirling. Sailors who were in search of Gaerthron far from the mainland saw it over the sea. No one approached it, for obvious reasons. Who would want to risk it? Maybe it's simply a glitch in the game. Perhaps it's something more. But several people saw the anomaly, so it's not simple coincidence and not an isolated bug. This thing is global. So, you haven't seen anything?"
“My whole life is just one never-ending glitch," Jack grumbled. "But nothing as weird as what you're describing. Mine's more specific."
He brought up his menu, which now boasted two mounts. Next to the image of a horse's head denoting Pickup, a second icon showing a head with long ears glowed.
The stable where Jack purchased the pet for Sartorius didn't sell sheep, only pack and riding animals. He'd had to buy a level-one black donkey. The cheapest one, too. Jack barely had time to get acquainted with his new acquisition. He was only able to rename it.

Victorious Ged, Pack Mule
Expertise: 1
Health:10
Attributes:
Able to carry loads up to 120 lbs.
Max. duration of continuous transport with max. load: 20 mi.
Max. speed: 3 mi/hr.
Attention! An untrained mule may kick and harm its owner or others.

Docile. Jack wasn't planning on using the mule for hauling things, though.  This animal's services were required solely for the purposes of sacrifice. When it died, the donkey resurrected after three hours. Plus, unlike goats and sheep, Jack could hide it away in his inventory. Incredibly convenient, having a constant sacrifice on hand, which is why Jack didn't particularly regret the 75 gold he spent. This donkey, named after the God of Battle, ought to pay for itself very quickly.
"A little ass. How cute," Egghead said with a mawkish smirk.
It was enough to draw the pet's attention. The donkey directly turned and kicked out with its hind legs, trying to land on Egghead. Its exploits ended there, however, because Jack hastily proclaimed:
"Accept this sacrifice, Mother Necta, and open the Dark Path for your servant!"
Victorious Ged lost his very first battle as the black sword cut him down on the spot. With a buzzing sound, the dark, swirling portal vortex appeared. Jack chose a point on his map near the Achaean settlement where he'd left the Dead Wind and, together with Sartorius, stepped into the roiling darkness.

Chapter Three

Back to Gaerthron. Back to Fire from the Sky.


After the travelers materialized at the crossroads and summoned their pets, it seemed to Jack that his Pickup was looking with interest at Sartorius's mare. What was her name, anyway? Sartorius had decided against naming it Adelia. She was still Swallow, as were probably half the mares in Alterra. Actually, when all this blew over, maybe they should start breeding horses? They already had the bare minimum needed to start - a couple of horses. He’d have to take a look at the guides and see how to do it.
However, now was obviously not the time for such peaceful pursuits. They went past the Achaean village to the shore of an unnamed river.
Along the way, Jack began to muse, “We need to earn money. It's a long way to the Secret City of the Taunites, right? Something's bound to turn up along the way."
"But the three temples we completed were pretty close to one another," the mage reminded him.
"Yeah, the first two are at the very beginning, so that the first player to discover Gaerthron doesn't lose enthusiasm on the Path of Theokrist. It's always like that with multi-step quests. First, you finish stage after stage, get excited, then - bam! Suddenly, some unexpected challenges come up, then more and more... We got to Zaratos' temple pretty fast, but that was because the Dead Wind was using the Compass to choose the best path. Without the schooner, then we would've had to look for it and complete a bunch of lower-level adventures along the way. That's exactly what we need right now. We need to earn some coin, get to know the area... everything went too fast in the beginning. And then there's the real world! We need panbucks in reality. Don't you want to recoup your losses?"
Sartorius just shook his head. He wanted to renew the flame in the next temple as quickly as possible, but Jack knew better than to rush. Moreover, he felt he was in rough shape at the moment. Once Goodwin brought him to Genotech and cured him, though...
The Dead Wind's masts loomed especially vivid against the backdrop of the bright blue early morning sky. Jack and Sartorius boarded.
"Wind, report. What happened while I was gone?"
"Nothing, Master. If you give the command, we shall continue.”
"Yep, I’m giving the command. Cast off, and if you see anything interesting on the shore along the way, like a village or fortress, then turn towards it.”
The river snaked between rolling hills, many of which were capped with ancient ruins. Places abandoned long ago.
"Not only did the gods leave this land but everything else left, too, it seems," Sartorius said with disappointment, "I can't see even small villages, though they should be right on the river."
Jack agreed with that observation, but his attention was directed elsewhere. He'd noticed that the river channel was deviating increasingly farther from the direction shown on Theokrist's Compass.
"Hey, Wind, we're moving too far from our objective!"
"There is nothing I can do about this, Master," the ship sang contritely in its sepulchral voice. "The river runs in this direction. I must follow the channel."
"When will we come back around?"
"A day's journey, Master, and another half a day."
"No, that won't work. Bring us to shore. Sartorius, we go by land from here."
The Dead Wind landed on the beach. A ridge of low hills obscured their view, but there was a path leading from them down to the beach and a few blackened logs driven into the land and plank fragments - the remnants of a quay - were visible where it approached the water. Not an altogether vacant place, then.
The travelers left the ship. Jack thought he should mark this place with another Dark Portal. In other words, make a sacrifice. That way, if anything happened, they could return to the schooner without wasting time.
Ged the donkey's respawn cooldown was nearly up, just a quarter hour left to wait. Jack used this time to release the goblins from their box. Let them stretch their legs and get acquainted with their new companion, the donkey. The little green monsters set about romping, dashing through the tall grass and praising their master. When Jack called the pet out, they were utterly delighted. The goblins crowded around Victorious Ged, began petting his shaggy black wool, and chirped with joy. Somewhat surprisingly, the animal didn't exhibit its bad temper, dutifully enduring their touch. This donkey, even if just a virtual illusion, was more intelligent than he seemed. Clever boy caught on quick!
Jack realized that he couldn't raise a hand against the animal in front of Hercules and his brothers. He had to herd the goblins back into the box first, and then he could create the anchor point for the Dark Portal. It didn't feel quite right.
"So, this... Great Goddess, please accept this sacrifice..." he forced out, "for no reason in particular, just to praise you... even though this isn't really a crossroads. But still, the path from the hills leads to the river, and it's like a road. People travel on it, right?"
He stalled and delayed the moment of sacrifice, and still hadn't finished his sentence when Sartorius shouted, "Jack, look! Look quick! What's that over there?"
Jack jerked his head up and saw Sartorius was poking his finger up. A mass of golden sparks was streaming across the azure sky. They were still far off but were slowly sinking behind the hills, clearly drawing closer. At this distance, they looked like flying insects. In fact, though, they were rather large objects. Flapping wings and riders appeared as they flew nearer... what could they be? Pegasi? Gryphons? They glittered in the sunlight, as if cast in metal.
Once they were a bit closer, the golden riders scattered, each in a different direction. One winged rider was heading for the Dead Wind. Jack, who still hadn't killed the donkey, watched as the golden figure in the sky slowly grew, observing the sweeping, shining wings of a gryphon. He saw clearly now that it was a gryphon with a warrior in golden armor on its back.
"What is that? Who are they?" Sartorius stammered when the gryphon rider disappeared behind a hill close to the shore.
"I don't know yet, but nothing good's come from the sky so far," Jack replied.
He was expecting trouble. And he was right. The winged rider reappeared over the crest of the hill, now certainly coming for them. Clutched in his right hand was a giant trident with shining spear points.
Flying low, just a dozen meters off the ground, the warrior on the gryphon rushed toward Jack and Sartorius, evidently preparing to attack.
"Hit him!" Jack bellowed.
He didn't have anything for ranged combat, but the mage brought his staff up and launched a fireball at the approaching adversary. The fiery orb struck the gryphon in its gaping beak and exploded, shrouding its rider in a swell of fire. A moment later, their opponent tumbled out of the flames. He was smoking but had lost neither his ability nor desire to fight. The gryphon folded its wings, shot toward Sartorius, and struck. Jack rushed to help, but the speed of the attacking pet increased sharply. Knocked from his feet, Sartorius bounced like a ball. The gryphon swept its wing at Jack. Such a blow would have easily brought down the second player as well, but Jack placed the Shadow of the King in front of himself... and the black sword did not let him down. Bloody shreds and bits of feathers splattered everywhere, red textures streamed, and the gryphon moved away, dragging its torn wing.
The rider jumped to the ground and rushed at Jack, lunging with the trident. A blinding light blazed from the tips, so bright that Jack thought the world had turned white. He squeezed his eyes shut and drew back, swinging the sword wildly, trying to avoid the three blinding spears. Flashes of unbearably bright light flared one after another. Jack saw them even through his closed eyelids, and they looked like dark blotches against the white landscape. As if their brilliance exceeded the limits of the visible spectrum and inversely manifested itself as blobs of darkness. Jack focused directly on those black spots. Where there were flashes, there were the trident spear tips.

You receive damage!
You lose 8 hit points!

That trident had just grazed him, clipped with the edge.

You receive damage!
You lose 11 hit points!
Critical hit! Movement is reduced!

The golden rider's second blow fell on Jack's leg. Jack slowed, but the blindness didn’t pass. Well, this battle was going to be interesting if he couldn't open his eyes... Something in the white world around Jack changed. Shades of orange burst through the whiteness, the dark blobs of new flashes moved away, and Jack used the last of his strength to hurtle himself at the enemy, throwing the sword up in a desperate swipe.
Crack! The outline of the beach and hills began to break through the white haze... and he could see the warrior in golden armor, who had for some reason turned away from Jack. And immediately it became clear why. Sartorius, who'd had to fend off the injured gryphon while its rider attacked Jack, managed to fling a fireball at the more formidable assailant. Jack, dazed, had seen it as an orange tint in the blinding landscape. The rider was turning back toward him and that's when Jack attacked. Hobbling on his injured leg, he couldn't catch his enemy, but instead sliced through the weapon’s shaft and severed the trident head.
The white haze dissipated and he could see who he was battling. It was a gray-haired old man but powerful and sturdy-looking, and he stood half a head taller than Jack. The golden plate armor sparkled and shone. His head was protected by a helm with a tall, scarlet crest, and above the helm was his name:

Askaton. Harbinger of Victorious Ged
Expertise: 100
Health: 250

"I doubt my donkey sent you," Jack muttered. "I'm guessing you're a messenger of the actual god."
The golden warrior chucked the staff fragments aside and drew a gigantic curved sword. He'd already gauged the Shadow of the King's abilities and didn't bother parrying blows from the black steel. Instead, he began dodging and diving from side to side. The speed of his movements increased. After the next movement, the warrior morphed into a blurry shadow. His ability was much more effective than the basic Sprint skill the game provided to Scands. Jack didn't even register where the old man hit him. There was just a jolt and he was already leaking red.

You receive damage!
You lose 15 hit points!

His health bar shrank to a thin strip and Jack knew that he wouldn't be able to withstand a second hit. The enemy, leaving super-speed, materialized a few feet in front of Jack, out of reach of his sword. Catching him with his mobility limited was out of the question.
This was where fate intervened. The would-have-been victim of the dark ritual, forgotten by everyone, Victorious Ged the donkey had crept up to the golden Askaton from the rear, spun, and bucked his hooves. The blow struck the divine messenger in the back. Although the mule was relatively weak, it did carry a fair amount of mass. The hoof kick forced Askaton to totter and take a step forward toward his enemy. Jack thrust his sword out, as far as the length of his arm would allow and the black steel sank into the golden armor, burying a third of the blade in the warrior. He jerked the hilt upward, splitting the shining figure of his enemy. A scarlet fountain buffeted from the cleaved cuirass and Jack wheezed, "Accept this sacrifice, Dark Goddess! Glory to you, Necta!"

Attention! You have defeated a Divine Being, a Harbinger of Victorious Ged. You are the first player to vanquish a Harbinger.
You receive 1 XP.
You have 56 XP.
Earn 4 XP to unlock new skills.

Fifty-six experience! Jack remembered that it was the next set of ten experience on the Dark Service path. He ought to be getting a new skill, then, and as soon as a convenient moment presented itself... hey, what was going on with Sartorius and the divine messenger's pet? Oh, no, now was not that convenient moment. Later, it would need to be activated, which it wasn't that simple, either. He’d need to communicate with Necta, which could only occur at night. At a crossroads. With a victim.
After gulping down an elixir for ten health, Jack began hobbling over to the gryphon. The golden beast was fighting fully autonomously, even after the death of its rider. It had already knocked Sartorius off his feet and, shining hindquarters turned toward Jack, was now trying to finish the fallen mage.

Idos, Golden Gryphon of the Divine Harbinger
Expertise: 50
Health: 711... 704... 697...

Sartorius continued to defend himself with globs of fire, but his mana was nearly gone and the fireballs he released were weak. His health was probably running low, too. He was in dire need of intervention and Jack hurried as quickly as he could with his reduced movement speed.
Except for its hindquarters, there were no more areas of brilliant gold left on the pet's immense body. It was covered with coal-black scorch marks left by the fireballs. The beast's head was bobbing up and down, and the mage rolled between its gigantic paws, evading the beak. Jack reached the beast, raised his sword and struck. Then again, and again. He didn't aim. Simply hacked to pieces whatever fell under his blade.
When he was done, he stepped away and surveyed the defeated enemy. From the front, the gryphon was black with soot. Its rear was red with blood. No trace of its former brilliance remained.
"What was that?" Sartorius spluttered, pushing up with effort. He was sitting in the center of the red puddle he'd been rolling in as he tried to escape from the gryphon.
"I told you that nothing good comes from the sky. Ged's messenger and his gryphon.”
Sartorius examined the body of the fallen creature before it faded away, then shook his head. "Uh... You know, there were a bunch of those golden riders."
"Yup. And so far, we've only dealt with one and almost died. I hope these higher-tier NPCs can’t respawn, like the Fiery Hound or the giants from the first island."
"I'll have to read the archives about Ged's messengers. Just hope I can find where they talk about them."
"Egghead'll find it. He has loot to push, so he'll have to research it anyway. I'm going to go take a look at what the big guy dropped."
It proved to be a large haul and Jack had reason to hope that there were some big-ticket items. He picked up the helm, bisected trident, and pauldrons. All the items looked interesting. They gleamed gold and were certainly worth a fair sum. Especially the scarlet-crested helm.

Helm of Ged’s Harbinger
Enchanted
Class: Rare
+15% to health.
Durability: Indestructible
Special features: places up to 20 NPC characters with 1-30 XP under your control. Duration: 1 hr. Cooldown: 1 hr.
Available at level 50.

The pauldrons weren’t too bad either, but couldn’t compare with the helm.

Pauldrons of Ged’s Harbinger
Enchanted
Class: Rare
+10% to health.
+5% to block.
Durability: Indestructible
Available at level 50.

Trident of Light
Weapon of Ged’s Harbinger
Enchanted
Class: Rare
+15% to health.
Durability: Broken
Available at level 50.

Broken... but the Trident remained for some reason, right? Maybe it could be repaired or it was an essential ingredient for constructing something super magical? After all, the thing was rare-level and of divine origin.
Sartorius walked over and showed off his own loot: four Golden Gryphon Talons. And they were all labeled with a red question mark. Here was another puzzle for Egghead. Overall, not a bad start if you didn't count the fact that there were other Harbingers on the continent now and they were hostile. That landing party obviously didn't belong to the Path of Theokrist quest. This was the younger Gods causing trouble.
"How did you take care of yours?" Sartorius asked.
"You'll never believe it. The Harbinger of Victorious Ged was struck down by a mighty blow from my own Ged. Out of jealousy, probably."
Jack glanced at the donkey, who, having achieved its great deed, had again slipped into a meditative mood and was now grazing peacefully. What a shame, for that matter, that he hadn't even gained a level. Maybe kicking divine messengers in the rear was outside the scope of the immediate objectives of donkeys and so, there were no rewards for it. He'd probably get some XP after he’s traveled a thousand miles with a load on his back. Such was the unenviable fate of the humble hero.
"Alright," Jack announced, "it's time to go. I think the Harbinger was heading to a place on the other side of that hill, but came over here when he noticed us. Which means that we'll find something over that hill worthy of his attention. Now let's go see what's over there."

***

From the top of the hill, they had a view of the surrounding country. The path where Jack made his sacrifice to Necta ran across the plain. The edge of a forest loomed in the distance. It wasn't clear how far this forest went, it just stretched into the horizon. Gabled roofs dotted the land between the woodland and steppe. A small village.
"What are they doing?" asked Sartorius, rising in the stirrups. "Can you make it out? Looks like a big battle."
Figures bustled in the bushes in front of the settlement, but Jack couldn't see what they were doing at this distance.
"Let's get closer and find out," he said.
"It's not too dangerous?"
"It's a tiny village and there aren't any ruins nearby that could hide a monster. Remember the first settlements on the islands? And the Achaean village on the mainland? Even the elders there were lower than level forty. There's nothing to worry about."
Jack cast a backward glance at the slender black masts of his schooner, and he checked the map for the Dark Portal icon marking the spot where Askaton died on the shore. Together with the mage, they led their horses at a walk down the hill.
The lowland strip was three miles wide and they crossed it quickly. Now it was evident that the movement in the bushes was in fact a fight. Jack didn't have the heart to call it a battle. Two dozen villagers in grey clothes, armed with axes and short spears, were advancing on... a group of the same characters, only fewer. The opponents, three fighters, were dressed and armed exactly the same as the rest but less sensitive to damage, it seemed. The larger group surrounded them from all sides, raining blows upon the men, who backed away, feebly warding off the blows.
"Zombies," Sartorius said, reining in Swallow. "Those, in the smaller group, are definitely raised dead! Wait, hold on. I don't understand! After all, there can't be necromancers on Gaerthron. Necromancy comes from demon magic. It was created by the traitors who turned to the Demon King Azeroth in the early years of his conquest of Stoglav."
Jack peered again into the thickets where the scuffle was and, hiding out to the side of the fight, he noticed another character crouched behind the bushes. Jack couldn't make out the details of this inconspicuous person. Only the crown of their black-haired head flashed over the bushes and the stats over it were impossible to read at this distance.
Sartorius also saw him and froze, flabbergasted. Then cried in a choked voice, "A player! What?! But, yeah - it's an actual player! His stats are green."
Stats for players in Alterra were green and NPCs were marked with turquoise. Jack couldn't see what color the stranger's stats were, either because his eyesight wasn’t restored yet after being blinded by the Trident or it was an effect of his radiation sickness, but Sartorius was certain this was a player.
The trio of zombies collapsed almost simultaneously. Perhaps they had taken equal amounts of damage, or maybe it was due to the fact that the necromancer directing them had run too far. The peasants - and it was obvious now that the entire male population of the village had gathered here - immediately turned to the riders. Their weapons, aimed at Jack and Sartorius, and the dour expressions on their faces spoke volumes. They were clearly going to attack.
Normally, a couple dozen low-level NPCs wouldn't present a serious threat to the adventurers, but Jack still hadn't fully recovered after the battle with the divine Harbinger. His health bar had crept up slowly, only up to the middle. What point was there, anyway, wasting time on such small fish? Any drops from them would be mediocre. Wouldn't it be more interesting to find out what happened and where that necromancer came from? A living player? Who wielded black magic to boot? Sartorius was right. According to game legend, necromancy was practiced exclusively on Stoglav.
The peasants were drawing nearer. Achaeans, no higher than level twenty. Sartorius suggested leaving but this was eating at Jack. Where the hell did that player come from?! Were people from Stoglav starting to show up on the continent? Was his secret out? Had someone else reached the shore of these forgotten lands? No, better to clear these things up and talking to these NPCs would be a good way to do it. It was a shame they didn't seem to be in the mood for conversation.
Although... the Harbinger Askaton had dropped that damned interesting Helm. Jack retrieved the artifact and put it on. Now, how to activate the ability? Aha, there it was. An icon that hadn't been there before appeared in front of him. Something like a web. He activated the symbol and a new menu unfolded before him. There were two dozen stylized human figures with empty boxes over each.
"Jack, perhaps we should leave?" Sartorius said warily.
"Hold on, hold on..." 
Jack went through the boxes over the head in the menu with his eyes, "clicking" each one. Green checkmarks appeared in eighteen of the boxes and two remained empty. The Achaeans' figures were outlined in green.  They stopped, heads bowed to their chests. Jack narrowed his eyes. These, then, were the eighteen and were under the Helm’s influence. The highest-ranking character came forward, a level twenty-five elder.

Elder Dathon, Achaean
Expertise: 25
Health: 30.

A frail people here. Not leveled...
"What please you, master?"
"How'd you do that?" whispered Sartorius. "Will they obey you? Are you sure?"
"For the next hour, they're mine," Jack whispered back. Then he addressed the NPCs loudly, "Tell me, what happened here? A Harbinger on a golden gryphon came to your village, right?"
"A winged Harbinger fell to us from the heavens," the old Achaean confirmed. "For ages, the Gods have been silent, long ago leaving this poor land unguarded. Now, the messenger of the great Ged has reappeared. He declared that evil forces have infiltrated our lands. As if life was easy without these wicked forces... We have enough troubles of our own!"
"Get to the point. We only have an hour," Jack ordered. "Then you'll lose your minds again and bye-bye civil conversation."
"Er... yes, sir!" The NPC slowed as it determined which of Jack's remarks he should respond to. "The Harbinger told us that the infiltrators came here from a distant land and were endowed with dark abilities. That it was our duty to destroy them on sight. After giving us this terrible news, the Harbinger left us, desolate. I do not know if he will be gone long."
"For forever, I hope. Then what? What happened after that?"
"Afterwards, master, it was as if our eyes were opened. We saw a Black Witch wandering past our village. Before we were oblivious, then we saw everything at once."
So, when Askaton had given them the order to attack living players, they'd aggroed the Witch, to whom they'd previously been "oblivious". Probably because it wasn't written into their script to react to passers-by unless they approached the village themselves.
"And you attacked her, of course?" Jack prompted. "Tell me about it, already. Am I supposed to tell the story myself?"
"We are simply poor peasants, master. Not warriors. Do not be angry with us. We let the Witch slip by us. She bewitched us with her dark magic! She brought three good people down on the spot and then... I cannot find the words to describe what happened to their dead bodies."
"Nothing fancy. They rose and started defending the witch."
"Alas, my wise master! You speak the truth, as if you had seen it all firsthand. So it went. While we were dealing with the unfortunate dead men, the Witch disappeared and I do not even understand where she went. The dead attacked us so powerfully."
Jack turned to look at his companion.
"Do you understand anything?"
Sartorius shook his head no.
"Did you notice which way this Black Witch took off?"
Sartorius nodded to the tree line.
"I think she wanted to sneak off to the woods while her zombies held the crowd. Makes sense. She's alone and there are several NPCs. It would be dangerous to engage them in earnest."
A single necromancer was making her way into the interior of the continent...  He supposed there were many visitors here from Stoglav, and this lady simply wandered off from her group. Now way it could be a solitary player just hanging around here. Most likely, her whole guild had come.
Eh, that was unfortunate. If someone had already found their way to Gaerthron, then it wouldn’t be long before even this place was too crowded. They should track her down, this Black Witch, find her buddies... and figure out what the hell was happening here. And, more importantly, how to stop it and keep the way to Gaerthron a secret.
"Alright, listen and remember. Don't believe the Winged Harbingers. They want to draw you into trouble. And if you see anyone suspicious, don't attack immediately. Ask first. Now, what was it you were saying about troubles you were experiencing before this trickster on the Golden Gryphon showed up?"
"What manner of misfortune doesn’t fate have in store for an honest peasant?" the elder Dathon said morosely, scratching the back of his head. Probably searching through the memory of his troubles. "Either the Lahitte nomads swarm down from the steppe, or Scand raiders come down the river on their barges... and worst of all are the bear-men. They don't even need to travel to attack us. The bear-men are always here, in this very forest."
Theokrist's Compass was poking its bronze finger in the direction of the forest and that's where the mysterious Black Witch had escaped. They had to go through that forest anyway. Jack figured, why not take care of these bear-men and finish a quest at the same time? They did need the money.
"Come on, tell me, what's this about bears?"
"They are terrible, my master, and the forest bears serve them. Or maybe they are bears themselves? They look very much like beasts. They appear from the woods and grab whatever's available. Sheep, goats... and we don't dare oppose them, because they come riding on huge bears. We can cope with the human. With the bear, too. But together, one sitting on the other... We are poor tillers, and such an enemy is beyond our abilities. Were that one could save us from this scourge. Perhaps you and your friend would take on such an act of heroism? We are a poor people, but whatever the cost, we will repay you for your kindness with what we can."

Attention! You receive the quest "The Bear-men".
Reward: Unknown
Accept / Reject

"Did you take the quest?" Sartorius asked anxiously. "Why? If the villagers serve you, you can simply order them to bring their valuables here and hand them over."
Jack hadn't even considered that option. After all, he'd only recently become an alpha and hadn't learned to think practically, like they did. And here, Sartorius, pushover though he was, realized it right away.
Not wanting to confess to his slip, Jack replied with affected aplomb, "And? Miss out on the drop from the bear-men? And any bonuses given for an honestly completed quest? Besides, we have to pass through the forest anyway. Let's go! Bear-men, a Black Witch, and more fun await us in the woods. I'm taking the quest."


Release - May 24, 2018

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