Thursday, March 1, 2018

An NPC's Path: The Dead Rogue




An NPC's Path: The Dead Rogue
by Pavel Kornev




Release - May 30, 2018



            Virtual worlds are places of boundless freedom. Anyone can become an elven mage or an invisible rogue, join a clan and go on raids, fight, develop their characters and most importantly, escape from the daily grind.
            However, a game is only a game if you can quit. This is something I learned the hard way. I just wanted to let off some steam in virtual reality and ended up getting murdered and imprisoned in the body of one of the undead—slow, clumsy and cursed to die at the hand of other players over and over again.
            The only way out of this awful predicament was to find the legendary Scroll of Rebirth, but the helpless plague-ridden corpse would need to be turned into a real killing machine. If   only people knew what it was like to level up a dead rogue...


Book 1. The Dead Rogue


Chapter 1
A PLAGUE-RIDDEN CORPSE

1

The bracelet was covered with hypoallergenic plastic but the skin underneath still itched like hell. I pulled the tracking device away from my ankle as far as it would go so I could scratch it. The bracelet vibrated and buzzed in reply.
“Relax, Comrade Major,” I quickly said. “All quiet on the western front!”
The tracking device that traced offenders under house arrest was full of various electronic modules such as GPS, GLONASS, Wi-Fi, GSM and even an altimeter, so I was in no doubt that they would have added a simple microphone to it. It did not matter what the actual rank of the controller assigned to me was—a little sympathy goes a long way. At least it was someone to talk to...
It was already my second month of being under house arrest and I already managed to really start missing normal human contact. I wasn't even a hardened criminal or a sociopath—I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I got a job at the wrong place, to be more exact.
It had all started so well! My salary wasn't bad, there was a great package of perks and excellent career prospects, but it all went down the drain when the bank's senior management ended up behind bars accused of money laundering! I was never made part of the illegal scheme, but most of the payments had gone through my department, so the most that my defense attorney could do for me was a concession to get me placed under house arrest. At least it was better than jail.
Ah, here comes my attorney...


I picked up my buzzing smartphone which could only accept incoming calls from a single number and put it to my ear.
“Good evening, Jan!” I was greeted with a clear baritone voice.
“Hello, Boris!”
“Jan, I have good news for you!”
“Are you serious?”
Life hadn't been treating me to good news lately. It was becoming increasingly similar to being repeatedly hit around the head with a hammer.
“Why would I be messing with you? There's been some sort of malfunction in the data center tonight and there is talk that they lost the records of a number of your most dubious transactions. It's unknown whether that's true or not, but the prosecution has finally decided to make a deal. Evidence against Kogan in exchange for becoming a witness instead of one of the accused and complete immunity to prosecution.”
“I agree!” I replied without the smallest hesitation as I had no intention to cover for the bank's former chairman of the board.
“I had no doubt!” Boris laughed. “The deal is in our pocket but it's really important not to do anything stupid now. Relax. Listen to music, watch some TV, get into your gaming box...”
“I thought I was not allowed to use the Internet?” I asked with surprise, looking over at the virtual reality capsule.
“The way it works is completely different. I'm telling you as a lawyer—it won't be considered a breach of your conditions. Tomorrow won't be easy, so I would definitely recommend and even insist that you relax and rest. This is only the beginning of this nerve-wracking mess and we have to stay strong until the last.”
The attorney disconnected, so I threw the smartphone on the sofa and approached the capsule, which I the bank had given me as a bonus for one of my deals. I chronically lacked the time to have a full virtual reality experience and only managed to walk around the starting location which experienced players contemptuously called the “Playpen”. I still managed to get my rogue up to level 9 already. One more level and I could move into the open world.
So why not?
I would at least have a distraction and relax a bit...

The main menu of Towers of Power met me with the gloom and silence of a palace hall. My rogue appeared half a meter above the stone floor and skillfully landed on it in complete silence. It was me that stood up straight.

John Shadow, Rogue. Level 9
Strength: 9
Dexterity: 14
Toughness: 11
Intelligence: 10
Perception: 11

Life: 99
Stamina: 103
Energy: 94
Damage: 6-10

Stealth: +9
Critical damage when attacking in stealth mode, backstabbing or attacking a paralyzed target.

Some stats could have been increased at the expense of others during character formation, but I didn't go for that. Ten points were considered to be the baseline and lower stats would carry penalties. If you decreased Perception, you turned into a half-blind mole with minimal accuracy and no chance of getting a critical hit and if you decreased Intelligence you won't be able to open even the simplest of locks. The purpose of a rogue isn't just stealth attacks, it's a universal character. Just what someone needs that has no friends among the players and no clan.
A pentagram glowed red upon the floor. I stepped inside it and fell through the stones, appearing on the uneven paving of the square, with the graceful Tower of Power reaching to the skies in the middle.
It was late evening in the game. Old Gardens was a small town for newbie players and it sank into the dusk as the sky quickly darkened. However, this was good, as there was nothing better than the darkness for a rogue like myself who was focused on stealth.
I adjusted my weapon belt, which was weighed down by a shortsword and dagger and strode away from the square down one of the narrow side streets. The starting location was not particularly big—the only things interesting for newbies were the city park with its pair of dungeons, the swampy riverside and the catacombs under the monastery. You could get some tasks from the characters populating the town, but they held no interest for me right now. I just wanted to relax.
After pulling a bright green leaf from a tree, I rubbed it between my fingers as I walked. When I smelled it, my nose was filled with a sophisticated and pleasant aroma. Everything in the game seemed to be completely real, but it did not particularly surprise me—I was used to it. Unlike the equipment of their competitors like Swords and Fire or Distant Space, the patented technology of Towers of Power allowed the player to get information about the virtual world and fill in some of the small details themselves. What this basically meant was that the brain became a dedicated server which increased the processing power of the gaming hardware.
So was this smell programmed by the creators of the game or did I think of it myself?
Who knows?
Anyway, it doesn't matter...

The square in front of the monastery was unusually full of people and a monk with a scrap of parchment stepped out of a back alley.
“Could the noble sir clear the city park of the undead?” he asked me, offering me a map.

Do you want to accept the Malicious Corpse quest?
[Yes/No]

I agreed, took the map and carefully looked through the objectives. They turned out to be as easy as they could be—I just had to kill the slow-moving walking corpse that I already got to hack into pieces a couple of times without being on any quests.
A green dot appeared on the map to mark the cave that I needed and I went off towards the park. The monk did not ask other players for help but returned to the alleyway, to my great relief.
A personal quest? That was absolutely great!
I only had to earn a little more XP to reach level 10. Kill the zombie and immediately get out of the city, where I'll get to relax.

The park was large and neglected. It was surrounded by a decrepit fence that had magical crystals shining with yellow light upon it. Apart from the cave with the lonely walker, there was a descent into a much larger dungeon somewhere among the trees, but the Skeleton Lord that lived on its bottom level could only be defeated by a large group of players. I never went there and I was satisfied with hunting foxes, wolves and random undead.
After I crossed a stone bridge over the quiet little river and its swampy banks I activated stealth mode and dissolved into the shadows. My energy bar immediately started to crawl downwards and I was happy that I didn't reduce Intelligence and Perception which would have affected this stat.
I never had to wander around through the darkened avenues as the mark on the minimap led me directly to my destination. I only turned from my path once, when I noticed a rabbit under a tree.
Stealth allowed me to get right up to the creature. My sword cut through its spine and I killed the animal with my first attack.

Critical hit! Damage: 20
The Rabbit has been killed!
Experience: +5 [1658/1730]

It was a shame that it was far from every time that this worked with wolves—the predators often had a sense of smell and hearing that was too acute and they noticed me in advance.
I waited a little and then entered the shadows again and moved on straight towards the cave through the bushes that grew thick down the hillside. I carefully stepped into the empty mouth of the dungeon and set off on my search for the corpse in the faint glow of the mold that covered the walls.
It smelled... quite bad there. I could sense the smell of dead flesh and decomposition.
I felt an unpleasant feeling in my throat but I easily dealt with the nausea and continued to carefully step over the human bones that were strewn here and there. I couldn't make any noise.
The walking corpse was found in a far corner of the dungeon. Fat and swollen, it stood by a sealed chest, its dead rags unable to hide its pustule ridden skin.
A wave of the foul smell came over me again. I held my breath and circled around the back of the corpse with bared blades in both hands. The shining slime on the walls did not give enough light, but my senses were sharp enough to make out the whiteness of the bones in the darkness and avoid stepping on them.
The corpse did not notice my approach and I attacked it in the back. I slashed it with my sword and immediately followed up with my dagger.

The Walking Corpse has been killed!
The Malicious Corpse quest is complete!
Experience: +350 [2008/2070]

You have gained a level!

I decided against making up anything new and raised my Dexterity as well as improving my Stealth skill. Then I opened the wooden lid and the shadows of the dungeon suddenly laced together into steel snares.

Shadow Snares: you are paralyzed!
Damage taken: 37 [73/110]

I tried to jerk away but my body refused to obey me.
“Greetings from Kogan!” someone whispered from behind.

Damage taken: 37 [36/110]

“You should have kept your mouth shut!”

Damage taken: 37 [0/110]
You have died!

2
00:01:00... 00:00:59... 00:00:58..

The timer slowly counted the time until I would return to the game, but I felt completely bewildered inside, as my thoughts flew around inside my head like terrified sparrows.
“What the hell?” I shouted into the emptiness.
Did Kogan decide that he can scare me by telling someone to kill a game character in a virtual world? What was this madness?
Or was this just a warning?  A hint at what awaited in real space?
I had to call my attorney immediately!
However, I could not exit to the main menu as I was thrown into the game again.

It was dark and cramped and something was crushing my chest.
I flexed my muscles, trying to push the weight away and my hand went through the crumbling obstacle. I tried to get up and... found myself standing up from a shallow grave in that already familiar cave, bathed in the light of the slime covering the wall.
What was going on? Resurrection in the start location was only possible by the side of the Tower of Power!
Something appeared to be clenched in my hand. I took a closer look and threw away what turned out to be a human skull, skillfully carved from some sort of bright stone. After throwing away the skull, I stared at my hand with amazement and disgust. My fat and clumsy sausage fingers were covered in pustules and purplish cadaveric spots.
No! This simply could not be!
No one died inside a game!
I lowered my gaze and discovered that I had been trapped in the body of a walking corpse through some quirk of the game. I recoiled in fear, tripped over a bone under my foot and clumsily fell to the floor. What the hell?
I opened the menu, staring at the grayed-out and inactive tabs until I noticed that there was no quit button either! Was it an error? Had I been hacked? Were the game servers being restarted? I had to contact the game admins!
There was no more in-game chat or personal message service in the menu anymore.
I was overcome by a terrible panic, so I had to lock my swollen fingers together and force myself to calm down. This was nothing! It was a total non-issue! All I needed to do was ask one of the players for help and they would get in touch with the admins to resolve this situation.
Elementary!
I somehow got up from my hands and knees and strode off through the cave with the shambling gait of a living corpse. I was simply brilliant at finding my way in the darkness but my sight started to swim more and more from the bright light the closer I got to the exit from the dungeon.
Was it day already? Hmm... That was strange.
Shading my eyes with my hand, I stepped forth under the open sky and my skin immediately started to smoke!

Bright sunlight! Perception penalty: 75%
Damage taken: 1 [22/23]
Stamina: -3 [17/20]

An insufferable radiance cut through everything around me. I blindly took another step, hoping to hide in the shadow of the trees, but the sun struck me again immediately. Damn it! I would never reach it!
I started to panic again so I had to return to the cave. I calmed down a little once I got inside.
It would be all right! There was nothing to be afraid of. Someone would come here sooner or later. That's when we would talk.
The sunlight streaming in from outside suddenly blinked—I started to turn around and this was the only reason why the level 3 Rogue appeared to my side, rather than behind my back. A falchion darted towards me, as I protected myself from the attack with my left hand and shouted, “Stop!”
An incomprehensible growl came out of my throat instead of words and the blade slashed into my wrist a moment later, cutting my hand clean off. My arm immediately hung limp by my side.

Damage taken: 5 [16/23]
Left arm injured!

“Just wait a minute!” I howled, but it seemed like the rogue did not hear me.
He slashed at me once again. I let an attack on my chest through, swayed and swatted at him with my right hand, but I was unable to get even close to the agile rogue. In an instant, the blade flashed down and cut through my skull. The shadows of the dungeon merged into an impenetrable darkness.

You have been killed!

Darkness. Weight. The whisper of falling soil.
I got out of the grave and threw the skull that appeared in my hand away again in disgust, shouting, “You scum!”
All that came out of my mouth was a throaty growl, so I angrily punched the wall so hard with my swollen fist that the pus burst out of my boils.
What the hell? How could I have forgotten how to speak?
A horrifying realization flashed through my mind. I opened up the menu, selected the Character Attributes and went stone dead with terror as I suddenly realized that everything that happened to me was not a random error but the work of a hacker!

Walking Corpse, undead. Level 1.
Strength: 18
Dexterity: 3
Toughness: 23
Intelligence: 1
Perception: 5

Life: 23
Stamina: 20
Energy: 3
Damage: 1-4

Damn it! The hacker that sent Kogan's greetings had thrown me into the body of one of the walking dead who has an Intelligence of only one! This zombie isn't just on the dim side, he's just an animal! The developers strongly recommended to never make your Intelligence lower than five, because the character won't even be capable of understandable speech, so I wouldn't understand whoever I'm speaking to if I had one point!
Bloody hell. It wasn't enough for the hacker to just trap me inside the game, but he also made any interaction with other players impossible! How long can a body lie in a virtual reality capsule without food and water before it dies of hunger?
Two days? Three days?
A timer would have switched it off in a normal situation, but I was sure that my attacker took care of this as well.
The malfunction in the data center was no accident, was it?
Everything had been thought through in advance! They destroyed the evidence and got rid of the key witness...
I growled and shambled off towards the exit from the dungeon, stumbling and shaking. The low Dexterity was making itself known, while the rather good Strength and Toughness stats could not compensate for the terrible clumsiness of the undead.
I gathered my determination and stepped from the cave into the clearing, and the light only cut into my eyes but did not burn my pustuled skin.

Dim sunlight! Perception penalty: 50%
Stamina: -2 [18/20]

The world was becoming blurry and getting lost in the whitish haze, but I stubbornly shambled on through the clearing towards the trees. One step and then another, as the Stamina bar inexorably crept down to the left. One step, one more and yet another one... I finally found shelter in the shadow of the trees, but a new surprise awaited there. It was an unpleasant one as always.

Diffused sunlight! Perception penalty: 25%
Stamina: -1 [3/20]

My attempt to move under the broad canopy of an oak was not a success. The sun had already burned away the last of my Stamina when I got halfway there so I froze in the middle of the cluster of trees like a clockwork toy that had come unwound. My Stamina restored itself with time, but the rays of the sun brought it back down to zero before I even had the chance to take a step. Would I really have to wait for darkness to fall?
Time was passing! How long had my body already been in the capsule?
I suddenly heard a rustle—I lowered my eyes and saw a rabbit which had fearlessly come near to the immobilized undead. As soon as I got a single unit of Stamina I immediately grabbed the creature, squeezed it to my chest and twisted its neck with my clumsy but powerful fingers. Еhe rabbit started to shake and shrink before I heard the crack of bone. All that was left in my hands was a skin full of bones.

Deathgrip!
Energy: -3 [0/3]
Stamina: +3 [3/20]

The rabbit has been killed!
Experience: +5 [5/100]

Without wasting any more time, I shambled towards the oak, tripped on a root fell down and continued at a crawl, without even trying to rise to my feet. Stamina no longer burned away in the thick shadows, so I crouched under the tree, trying to make sense of what had happened.
Did I earn some experience? Was that even possible for NPCs?
The stats tab confirmed that this was possible. I just needed to earn another ninety five points of XP to reach the next level. This would be an additional point that I could add to Intelligence!
So, another nineteen rabbits? Well, at least I could do that. I had no choice anyway.
I started to rise off the ground and nearly fell back down when an arrow hammered into my shoulder.

Damage taken: 6 [17/23]

I turned to face a level 5 Ranger in a green jacket, tight leggings and a tall pair of boots, got another arrow in my chest and tried to protect myself with my arms.
“Don't shoot!”
My incomprehensible wail had no effect on the player as he drew his bow again. It was impossible to run away so I bent down low and ambled towards the shooter. I reached him, swung and tried to hit him with my empty hand, missed and raised my arm again. Another miss. The ranger put away his bow and drew his dagger, took a punch in the face and did not even notice the pathetic single point of damage I caused as he confidently drove his blade into my pus-ridden eye.

Critical hit!
You have been killed!

Darkness, the weight of loose earth and the stench of the dungeon. The skull that I was already sick of in my hand. I hurled it at the wall with all my strength and growled in disappointment and shame.
My wounded eye was still pulsating and reminding me of my recent demise, while my whole body ached as if it had been broken into pieces and clumsily reassembled.
It was very unpleasant to be dead. Even though the blades that pierced my body caused no pain, each death took away valuable time, so I had no intention of dying again. Nobody would pepper me with arrows, chop me into pieces or crush my skull with a hammer anymore.
I would hunt the players now!
I opened up the description of my undead character, but I found only one positive feature which was neutral relations with other undead and immunity to death magic, poisons, curses, bleeding and for some odd reason, spells of banishment. However, this was more than compensated by being unaffected by blessings and healing. My Deathgrip would be of no help in fighting players either as it did not cause physical damage and only drained the target of Stamina.
Weapons! I needed weapons more than life itself! Only rabbits could be fought bare handed.
With hope, I opened the lid of the chest, but all I could find inside was a handful of coppers. I searched around the cave, but there was no result again. But then, some bones crunched beneath my feet, so I picked up one of the pieces and couldn't believe my eyes.

Sharpened bone
Damage: 1-2
Additional corpse poison damage: 1 per second for 3 seconds
Durability: 2

Now this was already something. While my swollen fingers refused to hold the piece of bone tight, I still managed to arm myself in the end and I moved towards the exit, where the players would spend a while getting used to the meager light in the dungeon. I squeezed myself into a small niche and stood still, awaiting my first victim. It was unexpectedly easy to stand there unmoving, even though my emotions welled up inside me.
What was happening to my real body? How much time did I have left? Would I manage to get out of this accursed game or did the hacker completely cut off this option? And where were the other players, damn them all!
A shadow quickly appeared as if in answer to my silent curse as an incredibly tall Priest in a long sleeveless chainmail hauberk appeared, with a mace upon his belt.
Level 6! Damn it!
However, I did not retreat but stumbled out of my niche and hit him in his scrawny neck as hard as I could with my bone. It was a great hit, so good that a powerful stream of blood gushed out of the wound.

Critical hit! Damage: 32

The priest swayed, turned around and let through another attack—the bone cut into his temple, taking away another eight points of Health. It's a shame I didn't poke out his eye!
The player's figure started to be surrounded by a blinding light, but the corpse poison made itself known before the priest could cast his spell. The healing magic dissipated without trace!
I stabbed at the eye of my opponent with the bone but missed, while the astounded player tried to use priestly magic again to be met with failure for the second time. The poison interfered with concentration as well as causing damage.
The priest back-pedaled so I grabbed him with my free hand and actually hammered the bone into him, aiming just above the edge of the chainmail. I surprised myself by hitting yet again—my opponent did not have a particularly high Dodge skill. He obviously never bothered to raise his Dexterity either...
The next stab was met by the iron chainmail rings and the bone shattered, while the priest finally snapped out of his daze and swung his mace. He took away a quarter of my life with his first hit and then we traded strikes, but fists are not the best choice against a mace. My Health instantly went into the red.
Thankfully, the corpse poison continued to damage my opponent so he panicked. The priest stopped swinging at me and grabbed a flask with the elixir of life out of his bag. I caught his hand, trying to stop him from restoring his Health. After a short struggle, I managed to bite into his wrist but his leather sleeve proved too tough as my fangs simply fell out of my rotten gums.
That didn't matter. The priest was shaken by a short seizure and he fell to the ground, dead from the poison.

Player Faroukh the Bright has been killed!
Experience: +120 [125/200]
You have gained a level!

I was overcome with the sense of euphoria that I always felt when I reached another level and I hurriedly opened the character's Attributes menu. Yes! I had a free point and the menu was working!
I put my hard-earned point into Intelligence, but I did not have to modify any of my skills. Deathgrip got automatically improved. It would now suck twice as much Stamina from its victims.

Walking Corpse, undead. Level 2.
Strength: 18
Dexterity: 3
Toughness: 23
Intelligence: 2
Perception: 5

Life: 46
Stamina: 41
Energy: 7
Damage: 1-4

I was no killing machine of course, but I was no longer a punching bag. I had a rather decent amount of Health for the Playpen. I also simply wanted to get some sort of normal weapon.
However, to my great disappointment, I could only take that flask with the healing potion from the body of the player. Without much hope, I poured it into my crusty mouth but nothing happened, just as I expected.
Interesting. How do you heal the dead?
After I threw the empty flask away, I returned to the deep cave and spent a long time digging through the pile of bones, but I couldn't find a single poisoned one. I had to make do with a simple sharpened shard, but at least it caused 1-3 damage.

By the time that I got out of the dungeon, it was already getting dark in the park so I did not suffer a Perception penalty. Dark shadows coalesced between the trees as I tore through the bushes into one of the alleyways and trudged towards the gate. My revenant clumsily put one foot in front of the other as he swayed from side to side, but I soon got used to the way that the grotesque character moved and quickly reached the iron fence.
I don't know what I was expecting when I got out of the park. Did I think that I could quit the game, move into my own body, talk to someone, even an NPC if not a player?
None of this actually happened. I never even managed to come up to the gate. As soon as I approached, the magical crystals on the fence shone with bright blinding light and furiously shot out zigzagging electrical charges.
 An instant later, I was toast...

Darkness and a shallow grave, with earth carelessly thrown over it. The annoying skull was in my hand as usual.
Raging, I shambled to the exit from the cave and threw the stone skull with its bared teeth into the bushes.
I was fed up with it!
The bone that I picked up the last time turned out to still be in my inventory and I did not have to come back to the cave for a weapon, so I set off into the forest. It was completely dark by this time and the Perception bonus that the undead got at night kicked in.
I did not have to get that much experience to get to level 3, so I decided to avoid players and hunt animals instead. One of the walking dead could easily take care of a fox and should be able to bring down a wolf. I had a decent amount of Health and it was a shame that everything was spoiled by issues with accuracy.
This time, I went in the opposite direction from the park fence and soon got out onto the swampy bank of the river. A twisting path led me to a log which was laid across a stream and I recklessly tried to use it to cross to the other side. My lack of Dexterity showed itself and my second step already resulted in me falling in.
The stream turned out to be unusually deep and the surface of the water was above my head. I prepared for yet another death and suddenly realized that I did not feel any discomfort whatsoever. Ah, yes. The dead didn't have to breathe!
I had to struggle for a while to get out onto dry land, but there were no injuries or wounds in the end. I fell down, but so what, it was no matter. I just needed to keep it in mind for the future. What if I had to run away from other players? Well, if I managed to level up higher than level 10, it would be the local noobs who would be running away from me.
I just wanted to know how much time I had left before I would die in real life. How long had I already spent in the virtual reality capsule?
My mood was hopelessly ruined, even though it did not seem like it could get any worse.   Things can always get worse though...

When a hill appeared by the riverside ahead, I turned away from it, crossing a swampy meadow full of darting snakes and flowers that glimmered in the night, finding myself by a ring of stone menhirs that had been dug into the ground.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning arced nearby and I froze in place, completely still. My feet started to slowly sink into the unsteady swampy ground, but I kept standing there and cursing my rather low Perception.
What was going on over there? Damn it, I couldn't make it out!
Another flash, then a howl and a roar!
As soon as the noise abated and the soft light of a healing spell emanated from the stone circle, I dragged my head out of the sticky mire and went around it, giving it a wide berth. The swamp was soon behind me and a fence with bent and sometimes completely torn bars appeared in front of me.
An abandoned cemetery!
The darkness of the night was split by a battle spell yet again as an armored paladin entered the gate with a shield in one hand and a longsword in the other. Level 10, I automatically noted, as the warrior kicked down one of the gravestones, turned around and ran from the cemetery. Clumps of earth exploded and flew everywhere as a ghoul that got disturbed by the noise rose up out of the grave.
The humanoid creature with its tooth filled maw and sharp claws chased after the one that had disturbed its peace, but the paladin did not keep running, he just lured the beast out of the graveyard. By the time I got near the gate, the knight was easily resisting the ghoul's attack as he defended against it with his shield, while two level 9 elven archers were turning the undead creature into a pincushion. The creature was tearing into things and jumping around, sometimes reaching the player with its clawed hands, so the healer mage in a gray cloak and pointed hat had to restore the warrior's Health.
That was a great idea, but I had an even better plan.
I climbed into the graveyard through a hole in the fence and started to shake and push over one gravestone after another. The ghouls that came out to face the light angrily snapped their terrible fangs and wandered between the graves looking for prey in confusion, while paying no attention to my walking corpse whatsoever.
Undead neutrality!
I had already managed to push over ten or eleven gravestones before the paladin returned. The player tried to run away but it was too late—the furious pack noticed the human and ran after him. I could not catch up with them so there was a real battle going on by the time I managed to shamble back to the circle of menhirs.
Without the armor, the archers were torn to pieces in an instant, while the paladin was skillfully swinging his sword and causing an amazing amount of damage for his level. The healer mage was casting one healing spell after another on his companion.
The well-coordinated pair had quite a good chance of winning the battle, but a ghoul that had broken away from the pack suddenly rushed towards the spellcaster. One strike from a clawed hand took away half of the Health of the puny mage so he immediately forgot about providing support to the paladin who was surrounded by the undead.
A ball of lightning from the healer's staff hit a ghoul, immediately frying it, while I threw myself into the attack, not wanting to miss such an opportune moment.
One step, two steps, stab!
The sharpened bone went through the spellcaster's cloak without meeting any resistance and sunk deep into human flesh. The healer turned around and tried to shout a spell, so I poked the bone into his open mouth.

Critical hit! Damage: 28
Enemy stunned!
Weapon destroyed!

The mage fell to the ground, choking on his own blood. I bent down over him meaning to finish him off, but then the paladin showed his extraordinary capabilities. He threw his shield to the side, gripped his sword with both hands, raising it over his head and a blinding bolt of lightning came down from the skies. The ghouls were thrown in every direction and I was paralyzed.

Sky Sword: defenses failed!
Stamina: 0/41

I lay curled up on the ground, unable to move my hands or feet as the paladin ignored the ghouls and headed straight towards me. The player had suffered much in his battle with the undead as his armor was dented and splattered with blood, so the paladin walked slowly and heavily. The slot in his helmet shone with a dark fire. The warrior gathered his strength for a moment, gripped the longsword with both hands again and had already started to raise it above his head when the Deathgrip ability icon appeared in front of my eyes.
The unconscious spellcaster was easy prey and it was no problem to suck the Stamina out of him. The paralysis set me free, so I got up and punched through the throat of the spellcaster with my fist.
An instant later the sword fell from up above and the long blade took off my head with a single strike. Everything spun in front of my eyes as it rolled along the ground!
The usual darkness engulfed me immediately.

3

Darkness, loose earth and tree roots. Tree roots?
I crawled out of the shallow grave and was surprised to find myself in the bushes at the edge of the meadow where I had thrown that irritating skull instead of the cave.
The stone skull had appeared in my hand again too. Was it really responsible for the location where I was resurrected? I did not waste time thinking about this mystery because the sun was already rising and my skin started to smoke under its bright light. I had to hide in the thick shadow under the canopy of the oak. Once I was there I opened the game log and couldn't help growling happily.

You have gained a level!

The game mechanics didn't just give me XP for killing the healer; it also gave me the XP for the archers that had been torn apart by ghouls as if I was the master of the pack, so my level immediately jumped from two to five! I quickly invested the three free attribute points in Intelligence and admired the results.

Plague-ridden Corpse, undead. Level 5
Strength: 18
Dexterity: 3
Toughness: 23
Intelligence: 5
Perception: 5

Life: 115
Stamina: 102
Energy: 25
Damage: 1-4

Wow! I was no longer a Walking Corpse, I was a Plague-ridden Corpse and my Deathgrip now sucked the life out of the victims along with the Stamina! A new skill called “Aura of Fear” appeared as well. However, the greatest changes were to my appearance. The bloating had disappeared, the leaking pustules had dried out and were partially replaced with cadaveric spots. The Perception penalty from sunlight was reduced by five percent but the main thing was that my fingers were no longer like sausages that had been boiled too long and they could now bend properly.
The change from the Walking Corpse category to the ranks of the Plague-ridden Corpses really made me happy, but I also started to feel hunger. It was not in-game—I had the impression that this was the way that my brain was letting me know that my real body needed food.
Alas, there was nothing I could do about it now. Or could I? My Intelligence was sufficient to speak now. So what was I waiting for?
After hiding the mysterious skull among the roots of the oak I went towards the nearest alleyway, but I still lost several points of Health and a third of my Stamina no matter how much I tried to keep to the shadows because of the rays of sunlight burning my skin.
I even thought of getting a cloak, but I did not take the idea seriously. If I managed to talk to some player I would not need it anymore.
However, I did not come across any players for some reason. I only came across a lovely looking elf in green clothing that hugged her shapely body like a second skin by the gates of the park.

Eladriel Emeraldvine, elf. Druid, Level 8

I spread my hands in front of me and quickly stammered, “I'm not going to hurt you! I'm a player too and I need help!”
There was no more howling and incomprehensible moaning. I said exactly what I meant to say. The problem was that I said it in some unknown language!
Throaty sounds, short phrases and unfamiliar intonations. If I wasn't dead already, my hair would have stood on end.
The elf reacted immediately. She threw a green sphere at me and gripped her battle staff with both hands.

Growing Thorns: defenses failed!
Damage taken: 2... 4... 8...

A rough-looking warrior jumped out from somewhere to the side, raised his club and shouted, “Leave it to me!” to the elf.
“Go away!”
I decided against getting into a hopeless battle and jumped into the bushes, but I fell and started to convulse after taking two steps. There was no pain, but something alien was growing inside me. My swollen skin burst and the spiky shoots of a thorn bush started to rupture outwards.

Damage taken: 64
You have been killed!

Earth, tough oak roots and the whisper of leaves above my head.
I was reborn in the forest this time, right in the place where I had hidden the skull. When I got out of the grave I shuddered as I remembered the thorns piercing my insides and decided to find a more reliable shelter. Thankfully, the wind had brought clouds from somewhere and it was overcast. The first place that came to mind was the abandoned cemetery, so that was where I went, taking the skull along. The question that kept coming to my mind along the way was, “What went wrong?”
Why did I speak gibberish instead of normal words? What was that language? Why did I start speaking it? A lack of Intelligence was definitely not the issue.

I was distracted from my uneasy thoughts by loud shouts and the ring of steel. I carefully moved out onto the edge of the forest and immediately understood that I should not look for shelter in the abandoned graveyard. Half a dozen players were methodically clearing it of ghouls, checking one grave after another. The undead could not put up a worthy fight against humans in the light of the sun. Their cries kept ringing out.
“This one's mine!”
“Don't touch it!”
“Leave it to me!”
“Get lost, noob!”
The newbies were trying to beat each other, shouting and swearing. None of them noticed the lone undead creature in the bushes. I retreated, but then a red dot suddenly appeared on the minimap. One of the players had managed to get a pet and the little cur ran straight towards me, barking furiously.
There was no point in counting on hiding from a dog in the forest so I had to run to the swamp. The bark soon quietened down, but I had suddenly reached the river, surprising even myself. I was forced to walk along the bank.
The sun that shone through the cloud was burning away Stamina at a fearsome pace. Even though I could have gone under the water and waited for the coming of darkness, I did not want to waste time for nothing. When a riverside hill appeared ahead with some sort of ruins on its bald top I immediately headed there to find shelter from the burning rays.
I barely managed to walk up it. I thought that I would just remain lying there on the slope, but no, I managed to curl up in the shadow of a ruined wall. I sat there awhile, waiting for my Stamina to be restored and set off to examine the ruins.
There was a broken gate in the wall on the side of the river, but as soon as I stepped through it, a stone slab sank under my foot and an unpleasant metallic creak rank out. “A trap!” rushed through my head, as a log hanging on chains swung towards me, hammered into my chest and threw me off the hill. After immediately losing half of my Health, I fell into the water with a great splash and went down to the bottom like a stone.
I spent a while struggling around in the silt, but then I calmed down, gathered my strength and crawled out onto the shore, covered in weed and ooze. I couldn't believe my eyes—the river had washed away the slope, the earth had fallen off and revealed a rough stone of laid walls. To add to it, there was even a black hole in the wall.
Knee deep in the mud, I burst through the cattails and entered the comfortable dimness gloom of the dungeon. It turned out to be spacious and empty inside, apart from a steel-bound chest with a great padlock hanging on it. A stairway was nearby, but the way up was blocked by collapsed walls while the lower level had been flooded by the river, with the slimy steps descending into the dark water.
A small and dark niche was by the side of the stairway with a smaller wooden chest inside. It turned out to be unlocked, so I immediately opened it, becoming the owner of a dozen gold coins, an unidentified magic bracelet, a worn-out chainmail hauberk and a rusty knife which caused 1-2 points of damage.
There were many holes in the hauberk and it was not too good at protecting from stabbing or blunt weapons, but I put it on without hesitation. At least it was armor of some sort!
Next, I hid the enchanted skull in a pile of stone and tried to use the knife to pick the lock on the large chest with no success. I walked around the dungeon again but I could not find any hidden passages so I returned to the hole in the wall. It was starting to rain outside, so I decided to use the bad weather to get out into the forest.
I did not need much more experience to reach the next level, and the more I would skill up my Plague-ridden Corpse the more chances I would have to survive... Survive a conversation with yet another player.
There was a sandbank overgrown with cattails by the slope and I used it to reach the already familiar swamp to gather fifty points of experience slicing up the snakes that lived there with my knife. The minimap soon burned with numerous red dots, so I had to get away from the poisonous creatures which were infuriated by my intrusion. Snake venom had no effect on me, but every bite took away one or two points of Health, which did not restore by itself, unlike Stamina.
So how could I heal? To hell with it, anyway.
Maintaining some distance from the graveyard, I went deeper into the forest and came across a rabid fox almost immediately. The predator jumped to the attack and fiercely bit into my leg.
I bared my teeth, grabbed the fox by the scruff of its neck and activated the Deathgrip.

Energy: -11 [14/25]
Health: +11 [34/115]
Stamina: +11 [102/102]

Now I was healed.
After spending another eleven units of energy I killed the fox and kept going. The XP I received for killing the animal was not enough to get to level 6, but I came across no more minor forest creatures and I gave the bear I saw a wide berth. It could have easily torn one of the undead to pieces.
It started to rain harder and darkness started to fall. The Perception penalty went away but the distance I could see still decreased to one and a half dozen paces. I got out of the thick forest into one of the alleyways and literally walked into a sorcerer.
The tall, thin and pale Necromancer immediately cast a battle spell at me, but the stone ball powerlessly burst into ghostly shards without causing me any harm.

Command Undead: immunity

“Stop!” I shouted when the level 9 necromancer raised his staff with a menacing steel hook on the end. “Wait!”
“A talking undead?” the necromancer asked with surprise, but did not lower his weapon. “What do you want, creature?”
The necromancer and I were speaking the strange throaty language but still understood each other perfectly. He understood me and I understood him!
What could I say which would not scare away the player and provoke him to attack? Everything got mixed up inside my head and I blurted out the first thing that came into my mind.
“A quest!”
The quest generation menu immediately opened. The necromancer put the staff behind his back and graciously agreed to hear me out.
“Speak, creature!”
I wasted no time and put up the maximum reward of ten gold that I could afford and asked him to bring a hooded cloak, footwear, trousers, gloves and a morningstar. I could have also transferred ten percent of the experience I had collected but I did not think that it was a good idea.
Ten gold was a more than generous reward for this junk.
The necromancer did not seem to think so, however. He frowned and hesitated until I quickly moved one of the sliders changing the single quest into a series of three tasks.
The necromancer surrendered and waved his hand dismissively.
“You've persuaded me, dead one. Wait here.”

Garth Deathblade has accepted your quest!

The sorcerer left and I closed the system message and hid in the bushes. Waiting for the necromancer in the alleyway would have put me in danger of coming across other players and I had no desire to die and fail to find Garth.
I wasn't sure that anyone else could understand me, as necromancers were not a popular class among the players at all. When would I end up meeting another necromancer?
This was why I did not tell him my sad story immediately. People visit virtual worlds to relax and they don't need anyone else's problems. Garth may have believed the dead man and would not have refused help, but he could also tell me to go somewhere very far away.
A quest was something else entirely. Quests were sacred.

The necromancer returned when the rain had calmed and the wind started to gradually blow the clouds away from the city. After giving him his reward, I immediately dressed in a black robe of rough black cloth and put the hood over my head.
My Perception penalty decreased to ten percent.
“What next?” Garth asked hurriedly, staring at me intently with the red eyes of an albino.
The necromancer's white hair flew in the wind and he looked rather unfriendly.
I decided that I shouldn't test the sorcerer's patience and set up the objectives of the second task.

Quest: Deliver a message.
Reward: Help in the game.

“Help?” Garth sneered. “What could you help me with?”
“Command Undead,” I replied and clarified, “How many ghouls are you able to take control of at a time, necromancer?”
The sorcerer thought for a moment.
“Four or five. If I do them all at the same time. So what?”
“I will collect five ghouls in one place. You will be able to clear any dungeon around here with that sort of support.”
The necromancer looked doubtful. He would usually be barely able to rely on taking control of more than one of the undead, so my offer did interest him in some ways.
“What sort of message?” Garth asked at last. “And who do I need to deliver it to?”
“It won't take much time. Do you agree?” 

Garth Deathblade has accepted your task!
Garth Deathblade is your temporary ally.

That was right—the marker that showed the position of the necromancer on the minimap glowed green.
“So what is the message?” the necromancer repeated impatiently. “Get a move on! Time is money!”
Time really was valued as much as money in virtual reality, so I immediately wrote my message with a knife on the wet earth. I first wrote down the email address of my attorney and then added in English, “I have got stuck in the game. I can't get out. Tell the admins that the program has been hacked.”
“What the hell?” Garth swore as he watched my actions.
“Take a screenshot,” I demanded, “and send it to this email address.”
“I don't like it,” the white-haired necromancer shook his head. “It's some sort of setup!”
“Just send the letter!”
“I will have to quit the game!”
“You don't have to do it right now,” I replied, feeling like I had to agree to this inconvenient concession.
“Well, if it's like that... All right, I'll do it...” Garth decided reluctantly. “Now take me to the ghouls!”
“Let's go, necromancer...”

To my great relief, there was no one by the abandoned graveyard apart from the crickets singing in the grass and the larks circling in the clear sky. Steam rose off the wet earth and it became hot, but I did not lower my hood—the thick fabric offered great protection from sunburn. Even my Stamina did not get depleted any longer and the penalty was limited to the loss of sixty percent of my Perception.
“Wait for me behind the gate, necromancer,” I demanded, as I entered the graveyard and started to lure the ghouls by hammering the gravestones with my morningstar.
The denizens of the graveyard had not yet completely regenerated from the previous clearance so I had to go through a couple of dozen graves until I gathered the required number of undead.
“Everything's ready, necromancer!” I shouted.
As soon as the necromancer appeared in the gates, the fanged monstrosities went on the attack, with a bone sphere sent to meet them. When it hit the first ghoul the spell exploded and burst into half a dozen pieces. One of them hit me, making my eyes go blurred for a moment, but my eyesight was instantly restored.

Command Undead: immunity

The ghouls had no such protection from enslavement so all of them fell under the control of the sorcerer.
Wait. The necromancer captured all but one of them! The beast with its blue-black hide roared fiercely and jumped upon Garth. He only managed to use his staff to block the attack aimed at his head at the last moment.
A second later I was by his side, slamming the ghoul with my morningstar. The spiky ball smashed into its back with the power of a cannonball and immediately took away fifty points of Health. My Stamina only slightly decreased and I immediately changed to a two handed grip and bashed the creature on the head as it turned around.
A miss!
The ghoul swatted at me with its fearsome claws but did not manage to penetrate the chainmail. I struck again but there was no result. It was even worse than that—the claws of my opponent sliced through my arm and cut it to the bone. Thankfully, the damage was not high and I was protected from the corpse poison by my immunity.
A moment later, Garth stabbed the hook on his staff into the ghoul and literally tore it in half.

Garth Deathblade has killed the Old Ghoul.
Experience received: +55 [844/1000]
You have gained a level!

Level 6! I used the stat point I received to raise my Dexterity and caught the thoughtful eye of the necromancer.
“The experience is split between the two of us?” he frowned, but then waved his hand and strode out of the graveyard. Four ghouls ambled along after him, whining quietly because of the bright sunlight.
“The ghouls won't last long!” I warned as I caught up with the sorcerer.
“I won't be able to hold onto them long myself!” Garth replied angrily and drunk an Elixir of Mana to restore the Energy he had spent on the spell. “It'll be fine. They won't have time to rot. The skeleton dungeon is nearby.”
A skeleton dungeon? Well, if the experience keeps trickling in, why not?

We met several other players on the road to the cave. Some looked at Garth with respect and others with apprehension. No one paid any attention to me. Just another of the undead under the control of a necromancer and that was all.
There was no one by the entrance to the dungeon—the players would usually descend there in groups of ten to fifteen people, as there was no other way to get to the lower levels afterwards.
“You're going first!” Garth ordered.
I remembered about the neutrality of the undead towards me so I made no argument. The ghouls had also been quite severely burned by the sun, so they needed to be preserved.
“If one of us dies, we'll meet by the graveyard!” the sorcerer warned.
“All right, necromancer,” I replied as I went ahead of him to go down the stairs.
The darkness was kept at bay by the burning torches on the walls and the floor was flagged with cracked stone slabs. A Skeleton Spearman stood at the far end of the corridor by the entrance to the hall. I fearlessly walked right up to it and tried to hit it with the morningstar on the top of its skull but missed unexpectedly. The skeleton stepped back and stabbed out with its spear.
Damned creature!
I caught hold of the shaft to prevent my opponent from using its weapon and started to smash it over the head. Most of the attacks missed, but I eventually managed to knock off its helmet as a ghoul appeared by my side and broke the skeleton's spine with a swing of its clawed hand.
Screwing up my face from the unpleasant feeling in my chest as it had been pierced by the spearhead, I stepped over the pile of bones and got completely shocked by the surprise. Ten Skeleton Crossbowmen awaited their uninvited guests among the stone pillars. I retreated, but the plague-ridden corpse moved slowly. Way too slowly...
Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!
Three or four crossbow bolts immediately sent me to be regenerated.

Darkness, rocks and the nearby splash of water.
I got out of the pile of rocks and curled up in the niche, unable to rise to my feet. The pain in my chest soon went away, but the durability of the chainmail hauberk which had been pierced by many bolts obviously did not come back. One or two hits and I would have no armor anymore.
When I scrolled the game log back a little I discovered a notification that Garth Deathblade had left the game. Suddenly, I heard the ringing sound of chains and a loud thud. A moment later, the body of yet another simpleton that visited the ruins on the hill splashed into the river, but it turned out that the one that got caught by the trap was a truly lucky devil. Judging by his loud cursing, the player had enough Health to survive the attack without their heavy armor dragging them down to the bottom.
There was a series of squelching sounds as the dim light became even darker and the lithe figure of a dark elf appeared in the opening.

Iss El-Morten, drow. Rogue, Level 10.

“Unbelievable!” the dark elf exclaimed and rushed straight towards the chest.
Without looking around the dungeon, he immediately fell to his knees in front of the lock and started to dig around inside it using his picks. As soon the click of an open mechanism rang out, I stepped out of the niche and moved towards the thief. He strained to open the massive lid of the chest and only noticed my presence when we were but a couple of paces away from each other. I decided against attacking with the morningstar as I was not at all sure of my own accuracy, grabbing the drow instead and dragging him down the dark flooded stairway instead of the floor. We fell into the water and rolled down the stairs into the depths.
The rogue twisted around and stabbed me in the hip with a curved dagger, while I activated my Deathgrip. The dark elf jerked around but did not manage to get free, so he started to feverishly stab me with his blade. He only managed to take away half of my Health before his own Health bar shook and started to rapidly decrease.
Air. His lungs had run out of air!
The thief let go of his dagger and started to convulse, but I only gripped him tighter, preventing him from rising to the surface.

Player Iss El-Morten has been killed!
Experience: +259 [1103/1200]
You have gained a level!

Wow, I was already at level 7! It was far quicker to level on players than the puny local monsters.
I did not spend long choosing the stat to increase and raised Dexterity to five points. I took fifty silver coins and a pair of unidentified boots off the body, picked up the dagger that the rogue dropped and started to climb back up the flooded stairway.
I needed to get out of here as soon as possible. If I was the drow, I would hurry back immediately after regeneration to pay back my assailant and take the items I lost. The dungeon could no longer serve as a safe harbor.
The first thing I did was find the skull hidden among the ruins and then took the gold which had appeared in the wooden chest again. I was already heading for the exit, when I remembered about the opened chest. Its lid was wide open, I looked inside and took out a strange looking dagger—it was white and very light, carved out of the shard of a gigantic bone.

Bone Dagger
Damaged against Skeletons: 500
Durability: single use

A quest item to use against the Skeleton Lord? Whatever, I would work it out later. Right now, I had to head to the graveyard. The necromancer could already be waiting for me there. That’s what I really wanted to believe.


Release - May 30, 2018


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