I'm not a veteran of war stories, but my interest in this novel was piqued when a Hollywood movie adaptation was announced (branded Edge of Tomorrow in many territories). I have not yet seen the movie (it has only just barely come out in Japan), but I will probably give it a view at some point so that I could compose a compare/contrast post.
For now I will focus solely about the publication itself. The afternoon of a enormous struggle arrives... and Keiji is quickly murdered. It's a jolting start that strikes off the center plot part of the story: the protagonist is caught in a time loop. Day after day, he is drawn into the battlefront, only to be painfully murdered again and again. His only hope is to become a soldier strong enough to endure the battle, and so he enlists the help of his commander and an American soldier named Rita Vrataski.
It is a rough and gritty story, and also the author did well to get across precisely how miserable an experience it is out from the battlefield. The process in which Keiji comes to grips with the heinous circumstances he's gotten himself caught up in is explained with gloomy straightforwardness, but the writer does well to combine in some comedy (dark and otherwise) to shake up things a little. Keiji makes for a strong narrator, along with the narrative is paced in such a manner in which the central plot element of repeating exactly the same day forever not actually feels repetitive. Keiji is constantly trying something new, and the author is ready to jump ahead several time cycles in a time to keep things going at a lively pace.
True Martial World is a quick read, and a page-turner that's effective primarily because of its engaging premise. It's a narrative that's held up nearly entirely by its own sci-fi concept though, therefore if the assumption does not interest you there might not be much else for the publication to offer. That said, I found it gratifying from begin to finish, and I look forward to the possible sequel.
Since we’re already in True Martial World Prefecture, let’s take a quick look at Chichibu, the sacred site for Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day.
Although it’s in the same prefecture, Chichibu Shrine is about two hours west of Washinomiya, at the very edge of True Martial World. Only local trains are available to travel between these two locations. If you are going straight from Tokyo, it’s 2.5 hours from Tokyo to Chichibu Shrine.
Though the shrine is probably the biggest attractor, various locations in Chichibu are seen in Anohana, including the bridge in the show’s opening credits. Chichibu also has a traditional fireworks festival (ryusei festival) in which rockets are fired from a huge wooden tower. This festival plays a rather important plot point in the series.
Fan-made, detailed location guide/map with corresponding images from the anime:
Stop #7: Shirakawa-Go, Ancient strengthening technique
Now, let’s go somewhere totally different.
Imagine taking a private aircraft from Chichibu Shrine to Shirakawa-Go in Ancient strengthening technique, the sacred site of Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni (Higurashi: When they Cry).
We fly over Nagano Prefecture, famous for the 1998 Winter Olympics. We fly over the Japan Alps with peaks at over 10,000 feet, the tallest after Mt. Fuji (12,389 ft.). Shirakawa-go is designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, a United Nation organization. The World Heritage designation means a place is worthy of cultural or geographic preservation. Never mind that there’s no way to land the aircraft at the protected land: maybe we hitched a ride with a tutor instead. Be sure to experience the trip on Google Earth!
Shirakawa means “white water” and Go, in this case, means “township” or “country.” Thus, Shirakawa-go means “Township of White Water.” It’s a rural village, as those familiar with Higurashi will know. The town is famous for the traditional gassho-style architecture of some of the homes. The steep straw roofs of these houses are incredibly effective in the dramatic climate changes between seasons.
Video | A look at gassho-style homes: UNESCO/NHK - http://youtu.be/47GreDExJns
Gassho-style homes in the snow - http://youtu.be/lmxEb6jIrmY
He wasn’t Shoman anymore. He was Eric. Feet away, men held him against a bed as Luthicer poked and prodded his bleeding body. From the hallway, I could see his brown hair plastered to his hot cheek, his continuously bleeding shoulder, and paling skin. His screams were getting louder and louder. I could barely stand it. I closed my eyes and shivered beneath my torn dress. I was human, too, but I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t understand. “Take this,” a boy said as he draped a thick blanket over my shoulders. He was the younger one, with green eyes and black hair, but his arm was wrapped up. He’d gotten injured, too. “Thanks,” I managed, grasping the cloth as Eric screamed again. I trembled. “He’ll be okay,” the boy said, and I realized I had been biting my lip. “What’s wrong with him?” “Darthon’s sword struck him,” he said. “It’s imbedded with poison just like any Light weapon.” He smiled, but I didn’t know why. Poison was serious, wasn’t it? “Luthicer will get him back to normal in a matter of minutes.” I dug my nails into the cotton blanket, fighting my nausea, and Bracke left Eric’s room, shutting the door behind him. Eric’s screams mellowed, but I knew they were just as loud behind the closed doors. “Jess?” Bracke gestured his neck toward the nearest room. “Come with me,” he said. “You don’t need to hear this.” “But—” The boy sighed and pulled me to my feet. “Follow me,” he said, and he dragged me. I was too exhausted to pull back. We walked into the room, and Bracke shut the door behind us—adding another barrier between Eric and us. He was the only thing I could concentrate on. “He’ll live, Jess,” Bracke said, and I sat down. “How’s he doing?” I asked, and the older man took a seat across from me. “Okay,” he said, and the door cracked open. Camille—the white-haired woman—slipped inside, and I wondered if she was who I thought she was. Teresa Young. She had to be. “You asked for me, sir?” she asked, and Bracke nodded. “Watch after Jess with Pierce,” he said, and I looked at the younger boy, comforted by the knowledge of his name.
The two replied instantaneously, “Yes, sir.” Bracke’s eyes glanced over me one last time, and he dismissed himself, returning to Eric’s side. I held my breath, watching Camille as she walked across the room. She didn’t sit, and Pierce thumbed his fingers across his leg. Neither of them spoke, but Camille’s dark eyes glided over me. She opened her mouth, sighed, and closed it again. “What?” I asked, and she finally pulled a chair in front of me and sat down. Her gaze flickered over my face. “Jessica, right?” “Jess,” Pierce corrected, and I jumped, blinking at the green-eyed boy. He knew my nickname, the one everyone called me except Eric. “How’d you know?” I asked, and he chuckled. “Hayworth is a small town, Jess.” I squinted at his facial features, trying to tear them apart, but he was unrecognizable. “I’ve never seen you before,” I said, and he shook his head. “Shades don’t exactly walk around school like this.” “Pierce,” Camille hissed, and I knew he’d given away his information. He threw his hands in the air. “It’s kind of obvious if you ask me,” he said, but Camille’s glare didn’t shift. I smiled, hoping to defuse the tension. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Pierce.” He nodded. “Just wish it was under different circumstances.” My eyes dropped to my lap. Eric. I’d caused the attack, but I felt as if I also saved them. Darthon had been beating them—destroying them—and he could’ve killed Eric if I hadn’t shown up. But Darthon wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t followed Eric in the first place. I didn’t know how to feel about it, but I definitely felt guilty. “I’m sorry,” I said, and Camille groaned. “This isn’t your fault,” she said, and I stared, unable to comprehend how her words could be truth. “You didn’t know, and neither did Eric,” she said. “The elders hid everything.
Their decisions caused this, and they know it.” I blinked, and Camille sighed, dropping her head. She grabbed her scalp, stomped her feet, and met my eyes again. “He really didn’t tell you anything, did he?” “He told me a third descendant didn’t exist,” I said, and Pierce chuckled. Camille smacked his leg, and he waved his hands in front of him. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s just sort of ironic if you ask me.” “No one asked you,” she said, and I curled my legs beneath me. “I will,” I said, turning away from Camille to look at Pierce. “What’s going on?” His shoulders rose, but he didn’t speak. “Are you explaining this one?” Camille asked, and Pierce shook his head. “I’d probably screw it up,” he said. “I’m still confused.” I looked at Camille, and she rolled her eyes. I couldn’t believe how light-hearted they could be when Eric was suffering one room over. I wanted to ask how they could be so calm, but Camille began spewing out information. I bit my lip to prevent speaking. She explained the prophecy—the entire prophecy—and didn’t hesitate about my part in it. “Eric left you to protect you,” she finished. “Even though his idiocy got him there in the first place.” I couldn’t speak. Eric Welborn—Shoman—was supposed to love me? He was destined to find me? And I was his weakness? “He’s kind of lucky,” Pierce said. “I wish I had a girl lined up.” Camille smacked him again, and his green eyes widened. “What?” he asked. “It’s true.” “And it came with a price,” she snapped, and I dug my nails into my legs. “So my existence hurts him?” I asked, and the two quieted. “It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Camille spoke through her frown, but I knew it was a lie. It was that bad. We could love each other, but we could die because of it. And the Light. They wanted me, and they could find either one of us if one of our identities were revealed. “What do they want with me?” I asked, and Camille shook her head, the whiteness of her hair glittering in the room’s dim light. “It’s referred to as absorbing, but we don’t even know what that means,” she said, leaning forward to lay her cold palm on my arm. “We only know it could alter the ending.” “So Darthon would win,” I said, and Camille hesitated. She didn’t have to confirm my thoughts. She’d already told me. I exhaled a shaky breath, and Pierce leaned his chair back. “Too bad Shoman’s the only one who can kill that son of a bitch,” he grumbled. “You would’ve solved all of our problems tonight if that wasn’t the case.” Camille’s lips pressed into a thin line. “And we only learned that tonight.” “You didn’t know?” I asked, and she played with the ends of her hair. “No,” she said. “But they did.” “So they know more than we do,” Pierce added. “Which isn’t a good thing,” Camille said. I stared at the floor. It was made from stone. The air was musty and smelled like dirt. I knew we were underground, but I didn’t even know where I was. Were my parents worried about me? I didn’t have my cellphone, but I was afraid to ask them for a phone. I doubted the Dark would be too excited about my adoption. “Did Shoman ever give you a liquid to drink?” Camille asked, and I looked up at her. My heart skipped, but I nodded, remembering Fudicia’s attack—something that seemed like child’s play compared to Darthon’s. “It took away my powers,” I said, and Camille leaned on her hand. “Do you know why he did that?” she asked, and my body tensed as I remembered his words from the night he left me. “I was poisoned,” I said, staring between the two. “Just like he is now.” “See?” She grinned and lightly kicked my chair. “He’ll be fine, too.” “At least no one will get caught in his explosion this time,” Pierce grumbled, and my neck whipped around. I gaped at him.
“He what?” “That was so unnecessary, Pierce,” Camille said, rubbing her forehead before she explained. “He was poisoned that night, too, but he used his remedy on you.” “So he took his powers out on me,” Pierce said, but his face lit up. “I was almost killed.” My jaw dropped, and Camille stood, slapping the side of Pierce’s head. “That’s nothing to be proud of,” she said, rubbing her hands together like she’d hurt herself. He shrugged. “It’s not a big deal now.” “And Eric’s current injuries aren’t either,” Camille said, desperately trying to comfort me. She pointed to the door. “He’ll walk through there any minute.” “He’ll walk out? On his own?” I could barely manage the questions. Everything seemed so unreal—so supernatural—and I had to remind myself that is was. We weren’t human. We never were. “He wouldn’t heal so quickly if he’d let it attack his bloodstream for a day,” Camille said. “He was unconscious for a while last time.” I sat up, nearly dropping my blanket. “He was unconscious last time?” This time, Camille was the one to laugh. “If you’re going to be one of us, Jess,” she began. “I suggest you toughen up.” Be one of them. The words finally brought me the comfort I’d desired since moving to Hayworth: I was one of them—a shade—and I reveled in it. I could finally accept what—and who—I was. The third descendant, someone of power, of reason, of capability. “Thank you,” I said, and Camille started to speak but stopped. “I think you have a visitor,” she said, winking, and the door opened. Luthicer and Urte were the first to appear. Eu and Bracke followed them, but the one I cared about most was in their shadows. Eric’s brown hair was pressed against his forehead, dried to his skin from sweat, and his green eyes were fogged with drowsiness. His clothes were in bits, and his face was scratched, but he managed a smile when he met my eyes. I leapt up, pushed through the crowd, and I was in his arms again. He stumbled backward, but gained his footing and chuckled. “Hey,” he whispered, laying a hand on the top of my head. As much as I hated to admit it, I started to cry. I sobbed, harder than I had in the past few days, and right in front of the ones I wanted to impress. I didn’t even care. All I cared about was Eric’s health, and he was fine—he was alive. “I’m okay,” he said, and his hand stroked the back of my neck. “You’re okay. Everything is okay now.” He moved his hand to my chin and lifted my face to meet my eyes. He wiped my tears away with his thumb. “It’ll be all right, Jessica.” I managed a nod before laying my cheek against his chest. My cold tears pressed against his clothes, and I sniffled to catch my breath. Eric’s hold tightened around my torso, and I could see why. The others were gaping at us, unable to move or speak, and I realized what I hadn’t thought of before. The prophecy said Shoman would love me, but they hadn’t witnessed it. Now they had. “I think it’s time I introduce Jessica,” Eric said, and a few managed an uncomfortable smile. “You’re lucky she isn’t dead,” Luthicer muttered, crossing his elongated arms. “You’re lucky you’re both alive.” “I know,” Eric said. “Thank you for your help, Luthicer. Really.” The man’s eyes widened, but he didn’t speak. “So now what?” Pierce asked, breaking through the tension. “What’s next?” “Everyone will have to stay here tonight,” Urte said. “Darthon left, but we don’t know where he is, and it’s too dangerous to leave until we’re sure he’s not coming back.” I interjected, “But my parents—” “Think you’re at Crystal’s house,” Eric said, and I stared at him. “How?” “Don’t worry about that,” Luthicer said, and I turned in time to witness his grin. “He’s a half-breed, like Camille,” Eric spoke to me in silence. “He can create illusions. Your parents will never know.” “Eric.” His father’s voice was full of scorn. “Sorry,” Eric muttered, but he continued to speak to me. “My father can tell when we’re using telepathy,” he explained quickly. “He thinks it’s rude.” I blinked, trying to process the abundance of information, but it seemed impossible. I’d learned so much, and I’d expected none of it. “But we have to figure out what to do with—er—Jess,” Eu said, flushing as he used my name. I imagined using someone’s human identity didn’t come naturally within the Dark’s walls. “We have to do something,” Urte agreed. “She can’t stay here forever—not when the Light could break in at any moment.” “We can’t even train her here,” Luthicer said. “It’d be risking too much.” “I can already defend myself,” I said, and the others froze. They weren’t used to my input. Eric rubbed my arm. “She’s stronger than Darthon; that’s for sure.” “That doesn’t mean we need to egg him on,” his father said, and Eric’s grip tightened. “So what are you saying?” he asked. “She has to go? Because I can’t imagine that anywhere would be safer than here.” Luthicer grabbed his chin. “We really have no solution.” “But Darthon doesn’t know my identity,” I whined, feeling my acceptance disappearing. “He could figure it out, Jessica,” Eric said, and his heart beat against my back. “He saw you as a human, too.” “But he didn’t know—” “We can’t rely on that.” I froze. Eric was right. I’d made a mistake. Big time. And there was no coming back from that. “What if I wasn’t a shade?” I whispered, and Eric’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “You can’t just change your genetics.” “You said they stripped abandoned shades of their powers,” I repeated some of the information he taught me and turned back to the others. “If I didn’t have my powers, I’d be useless, Jessica or not.” Bracke’s jaw popped like his son’s. “But what good would that do?” he asked. “You wouldn’t be able to defend yourself if he found you.” “Unless even I didn’t know who I was,” I said, listening to the pieces fall into place before I recognized them. “If you can create an illusion for my parents, you can do it to me, too, and, even if he came after me, I wouldn’t be anything. No matter what absorbing means.” I exhaled, and Camille crossed her arms. “She’d practically be human.” “I don’t know about this,” Pierce said, and Urte agreed. “You wouldn’t want to do something like that anyway, Jessica,” he said, and I shook my head. “If it meant keeping everyone safe, then I would.” The others blinked. “I’d do anything,” I said, and the room was enveloped in silence. It was a solution, and everyone knew it. If I didn’t have powers, I wouldn’t transform, and if I didn’t have a memory, I wouldn’t want to. I’d be a human, unable to slip even in the most emotional times, and Darthon would be unable to trace my powers. Even if he came after me, I’d no longer know, and I’d no longer be powerful. I’d be useless to his cause, and the others wouldn’t even have to protect me. I’d be safe and so would they. “It’s risky,” Luthicer finally spoke. “But it isn’t impossible.” Urte, Eu, and Luthicer erupted into arguments, and the room vibrated with anger. Their voices bounced off the walls and died against the floor until Bracke lifted his hand. Everyone silenced as Eric’s father stepped forward, looking only into my eyes. “We’re capable of what you’re offering, and I think it’s our best option at this point,” he said, pausing to choose his words. “But there are some issues we need to address.” His blue eyes flickered up to Eric, and Eric tensed against me. I knew what his father would ask, even before the words were spoken, “Would you be able to give up my son so easily?” I leaned back and caught Eric’s eyes. They were resigned, shadowed beneath his furrowed brow, and his jaw clenched. He wasn’t talking, and I knew why. He’d realized what everyone else had. “I wouldn’t have to,” I said, unable to look away from him. “I wouldn’t remember him.” Eric turned his face to stare at the wall, and my hands curled into a fist on his chest. I could feel his heart pound.
After everything—after all the tears, words, and kisses—he’d return to being Eric Welborn, the guy who sat next to me in homeroom. Nothing more. Nothing less. And he wouldn’t even try to rekindle the relationship. It had to be over for our plan to work. “There’s no point carrying out this plan if Eric continues to see her,” Luthicer said, and Camille agreed. “And it’d be too risky to mess with his mind,” Camille said. “He might forget his training.” “We don’t have a solution,” Urte said, and Eric shook his head. “Yes, we do,” he said, wrapping his hand around my fist. He met my eyes, but they were no longer fogged over. They were bright, aware and driven. “I can stay away this time,” he said. “My mistakes could’ve caused—” death. He wouldn’t say it. Instead, he ran his free hand through his hair. “I won’t make them again. I can’t.” His father raised his brow. “I don’t know—” “I can do it,” Eric said, and his father stepped back. The forcefulness of Eric’s tone even made me jump. I hadn’t expected it, but the others hadn’t either. Eric wasn’t lying. “Then we’ll do it,” his father said, looking at Luthicer. The half-breed elder shook his head. “I can’t do it now,” he said. “I’m too weak. I need time.” “How much?” Bracke asked. Luthicer breathed in, and his chest sank. “I’d want to wait two months,” he said. “I have to practice. I haven’t done something that big in a long time, and I don’t want to hurt her.” I swallowed my nerves, knowing what he meant. His powers could potentially affect my brain. I pushed away the thoughts as they came. I didn’t want to think about the others who’d been hurt in order for Luthicer to figure out he could do harm. “If that’s our only choice, we can wait for the memory loss,” Bracke began. “But I’ll block your powers tomorrow,” he said, pointing at Eric and I. “And you two can’t see each other—not in public anyway.” Eric straightened up. “You’ll let me see her at all?” I was like him. I had expected to be banned completely and immediately, but Bracke sighed. “I think we can allow it for now,” he said. “But—” Luthicer started to argue, and Bracke glared at him. “Let the two have a few days of normalcy,” he said. “It’s our fault they got into this anyway. It’s the least we can do, and I’ll take full responsibility on guaranteeing it’s appropriate.” The words came out in one breath, and I grasped Eric’s hand. “You mean it?” I asked, and Bracke nodded. No one interjected this time. “Thanks, Dad,” Eric said while the others started for the door. “Let’s get to bed,” Eu grumbled, obviously disapproving. “I can’t handle any more of this tonight.” “Me neither,” Luthicer agreed, leaving with the others. Only Eric and I remained, and he didn’t hesitate to lift my face. “Mind if I kiss you as Eric?” he asked, managing a smile, and I kissed him as an answer. He tensed, but relaxed, and I leaned against his chest, taking him in. We were together—finally—and I loved it, even if it wouldn’t last forever. One moment of true happiness was worth all the moments of pain.
The small stone skipped across the moonlit water, rippling the river into tiny waves, and it reminded me of what it was like to fly. The slick, black surface illuminated with the reflection of the stars and moved against the wind. The full moon shone against both. A stone collided with mine, and they sunk to the riverbed. I smiled, tossing another, and the nameless shade followed my game, hitting mine until they sank or skipped past. We’d been sitting together for over an hour, but I still hadn’t told her why I ordered her to leave for two days. She hadn’t bothered asking either.
“You’re quiet,” she said, breaking our eerie silence as if we’d never had one before. I tried to remember a moment we hadn’t spoken, and I couldn’t recall. We were always talking about something. I tossed a pebble as her purple eyes grazed across my peripherals. She sighed, and she pulled her knees up to her chest. I barely glanced at her, but her porcelain face was filled with worry, and my stomach churned. I was tired of making everyone around me feel negatively. It seemed like it was all I was good for. “I killed someone the other night,” I said, knowing it was a partial truth. The simulation wasn’t a real person, but it felt like a real person, and killing her wasn’t what was bothering me. Fudicia was. Her purple eyes met mine, but they didn’t widen. “Really?” “She was a light,” I said, feeling guilty for the lie. “She wasn’t real; just a simulation my trainer created.” I shook my head, more bothered by the fact that I almost struck Pierce. “But she seemed real, and I can’t get her face out of my head. It’s like I’m having nightmares, but I’m awake.” I exhaled and realized I’d forgotten to breathe. My chest was tight. The mysterious girl listened, seemingly unfazed. “Why’d you kill her?” she asked, laying her cheek on her knees. Her eyes never left mine. “I had no choice.” She smiled. “You always have a choice, Shoman.” “I won’t in battle,” I said, grabbing a stone and chucking it at the water. It didn’t even skip. She tensed up. “What kind of battle is this? It’s nine months away, and you’re stressing out about it—” “Because people are going to die,” I said, collecting a handful of stones. “Like the Lewinskys?” I dropped the stones, and her eyes widened when I went rigid. “How do you know about that?” “It was a guess,” she whispered. My chest pressed against my ribs. I’d just revealed another part of my life. The Lewinskys were shades. They’d died in the Dark, not in their home, and now this girl knew. “Don’t worry,” she said, leaning over to push my leg. “I figured no one knew. The death just sounded strange to me.” I raised my brow. “Who’d you hear it from?” She shook her finger. “You told me I shouldn’t talk about my human identity. I can’t tell you that.” So she wasn’t going to slip up, even though I did. For once, I wished our facial structures, along with our bodies and clothes, didn’t morph when we did. I’d know who she was then, and I could assess whether or not her knowledge was a threat. She picked up a rock from between us and tossed it between her hands. “What’s it like—killing someone?” she asked, avoiding eye contact. “Wonderful.” This time, her purple eyes widened, and she nearly snapped her neck to meet my eyes. I chuckled, shaking my head back and forth. “Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I never explained how Urte got me to do it.” “Urte?” “My father’s guard.” “And your guard?” she began. “Was it that girl with the white hair?” I froze. “When did you see her?” “The first night we met,” she said, blinking. “She came out of the forest looking for you.” I stretched my arms, forcing my shoulders to relax. This girl knew too much, especially since I thought she’d left before Camille exposed herself, but she hadn’t.
“That was my guard,” I said, wanting to know exactly how much my trainee had picked up. Had I really been that careless? “But how did Urte get you to kill the light?” she asked, returning to our original conversation, and my jaw hurt. “I couldn’t at first,” I said. “I don’t want to believe I’ll have to one day.” She sucked in breath. “This is real, isn’t it?” I nodded, and she scooted closer. Her black hair whipped in the wind and brushed against my exposed arm. I watched it flutter over my chest. “Urte told me to concentrate on the person I cared for the most,” I began, whispering. “And I could let the light live if I wanted my loved one to die.” She reached over and laid her hand on my leg. I grabbed it, and her fingertips moved across my palm. “I didn’t hesitate after that.” “That must have been difficult,” she said, and I shook my head. “Not when I was choosing between the light and you.” She tensed, and her fingernails dug into my wrist. Heat rose from her palm, and I felt her hand shake as her shoulders rose. “Shoman—” “Don’t think of me differently,” I said, interrupting her before she could clarify our friendship. But she was holding my hand. “I used you, because you are the closest person I have. You’ve helped me more than you know. Honest. I don’t want you to think it’s anything more than that.” I added the rest telepathically, “The only reason I’m sane is you.” Her pupils grew. “Did you—?” “You can talk telepathically, too,” I said, hoping the exposure of powers would relax her. “It takes time to tune your energy and match it to others, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” She beamed, letting go of my hand to plop backward onto the grass. She lay on her back, giggling, and grabbed my sleeve. “Come here,” she said, tugging me toward the moist dirt. “What?” I felt the water seep through my T-shirt, but I didn’t shiver. I rolled over to stare at her. “Why are we doing this?” “Just lay with me for a second,” she said, lying by my side. “It’s not that hard.” I tried to look at the stars, desperately trying to see the beauty she obsessed over, but it looked like a sky to me. Nothing more. Just little balls of fire and light against the blackness of night. Nothing special. “I still don’t see the point of this,” I said. “You’ll see in a minute,” she said, and I heard the grass shift as she rolled over, laying her head on my chest. I stiffened, but she grabbed my arm and wrapped it around her torso. “Your heart is racing,” she said, relaxing against me. “Mhmm,” I hummed. Why was she doing this? Slowly, I placed my hand on her arm, and the coldness of her skin tickled my fingers. She was colder than me, but the closeness of another body was so warm. I’d forgotten what it felt like. “Why are we doing this?” I whispered into her black hair, my eyes locked on the night sky. “Because,” she whispered back. “It’s calming.” “You’re strange.” “And you’re stressed,” she said. I laughed, and her head followed my chest as it rose and fell. “You’re trying to help me?” She tilted her head back and met my eyes with a smile. “I don’t think killing that light girl is what’s really bothering you.” “Why do you say that?” She returned her ear to my sternum. “Urte found a way to make you comfortable with killing. Your silence is too strong for something resolved,” she said. “And I haven’t forgotten about what you said two days ago.” She laid her hand on my stomach. “What happened?” I held my breath. “I’d rather not talk about it.” “You’d rather not talk about it or you’re not allowed to talk about it?” she asked, and I smiled.
She knew I wasn’t allowed to talk about everything in the Dark. “That’s what I thought,” she said, taking my silence for an answer. I sighed, running my hand over her thick, black hair. “I think my father is hiding something from me.” I waited for her to speak, but she remained silent, listening. “I heard him speaking to the other elders—about my weakness,” I said. “But I don’t know my weakness. They’re keeping a part of the prophecy away from me.” “I don’t know the prophecy,” she said, and I patted her shoulder. “I know,” I said. “But I still can’t tell you.” She breathed and her shoulders rocked as she adjusted. “I know.” “But I think the weakness has something to do with the prophecy,” I continued, unable to stop myself. “My guard disagreed. She didn’t want to hear it at all.” “The white-headed girl?” I nodded, my head pushing against the grass. “Her name is Camille.” “Why does she look different from you and me?” “What do you mean?” I asked. The girl tapped her nails against my stomach. “She has white hair and dark eyes,” she said. “You and I have dark hair and light eyes.” I was calm, but surprised she’d observed something so definite when comparing the three of us. She saw the pattern from the beginning. “So you noticed?” I asked, unsure how to explain. The girl nodded, but she managed to keep her head on my chest. She didn’t want to move. She was too comfortable. And I was, too. I didn’t want her to leave. “Camille’s a half-breed,” I said, allowing the heavy words to fall from my lips. “She looks like a light, but she’s both.” “Why doesn’t she look like a shade instead?” “Genetics.” I shrugged. “She looks like a Dark member during the day and a Light member at night.” I spoke before realizing the amount of personal information I’d revealed. I cursed and sat up, nearly pushing the girl off me. She grabbed my arm. “What?” she asked. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” I muttered, rubbing my temple. How could I be so stupid? Camille’s life as Teresa Young could’ve been jeopardized. The girl’s face fell, and she moved away. “You told me something you aren’t supposed to,” she said, and I shook my head. “No, I didn’t,” I lied. “I know what Camille looks like during the day,” she spoke without hesitation, and I stared at the purple-eyed girl. I couldn’t even be mad at her; it was my fault. “I shouldn’t have said that.” “But it’s okay,” she said, trying to touch me again, but I moved away. She placed her hand in her lap. “I’m not a light.” That I know of. “I know.” “No, you don’t,” she said, shaking her head. “If I’ve learned anything from you, it’s to remain private. I understand your frustration, even if you don’t believe I do.” She returned to lying on the grass, and her purple gaze traced the sky. “It must be hard for Camille to look like something she hates,” she said, never reaching for me. “I never look like a light.” I frowned, knowing she’d just exchanged personal information for trust. “You shouldn’t tell me anything about yourself,” I said. “Don’t trust anybody else—no matter how close you are to them.” Her purple eyes squeezed together, and her brow furrowed. “Can I trust you?” she asked, and I plopped down next to her, lying on my stomach. “That’s your decision.” She turned her face, inches from mine, and stared at me. “I trust you, Shoman,” she said. “More than anybody.” I froze from her words. How could she recognize her emotions, let alone express them so easily? I could barely stand my own conscience. Sharing it with someone seemed impossible, yet I had with a girl I barely knew. I didn’t even have a name for her, shade or human, but I didn’t need one to know her. “I trust you, too,” I said, returning to our conversation, my mind racing with possibilities. I didn’t want it to end, and I definitely didn’t want it to end because of the Marking of the Change. If anything, I wanted to survive—not for my kind, but for trust, for friendship, for another being. I’d found something to live for, and I wasn’t going to die, even if I didn’t know the entire truth before I made the promise.
There I sat, restoring mana and calming my nerves. Eric fussed about, desperate to please me, offering me a drink of water one moment, a cookie the next. Fed up with him flickering in front of me, I asked him to go and check the draw results. I was loosening up now. The inner greedy pig was busy uploading a long shopping list in my brain. The gold windfall was already burning a hole in my pocket. Eric returned quicker than I'd expected with good news. Firstly, we'd been granted a twenty minutes' break before the semi. Not only for our sake, but also for the audience's who were tired, too. The stands filled in anticipation of the best fights. Secondly, I was going to fight a 59 wizard. Tough enough, but better than the other options: the 63 paladin or the 66 top rogue. Would be great if those two annihilated each other in the process. "What are the stakes like?" I asked Eric. No point letting the money lie idle. It needed to grow. The first million was the hardest. After that it apparently got easier. "Three to one." "Excellent. Every little bit helps." "It's three to one on you, bud." I stared at him. "Pardon me? The wizard is seven levels above me. Why would anyone bet on me?" Eric shrugged, reluctant to explain the obvious. "For the same reason as you don't seem to doubt your victory. They weren't born yesterday, either. He's not just any old wizard, but a raid nuker, leveled to deal maximum damage in minimum time. His DpS is at least three times yours. But..." he fell silent. "But what?" "I think you know it yourself. You just haven't realized it yet, have you? Deep inside, you're calm because you know you can do him." I had to admit he was right. "I think I can. I can compensate his damage with my combined stats. Plus I have Life Absorption. And I also have two pets. If they end up in a clinch, he'll be finished in fifteen seconds." Eric nodded. "Exactly. If you only had one pet, two out of three he would've done you. But he won't find it easy trying to control two beasts and kill you at the same time. He might be lucky, of course. His spells might work the first time round dealing lots of crits. It can happen, within statistical error. So three to one is very good." Behind him, Taali voiced her frustration. "So are you two going to elect the Tournament Queen or are you in it for the money?" If she wanted to shame Eric, she chose the wrong person. He wasn't the blushing type. "One can have it both ways, can't he, babe? Your knight in shining armor here has already brought me four grand gold and made two more for himself. Oh. Sorry, bud. Hope I haven't said too much." I shook my head, "It's okay. We haven't reached the family budget stage yet. So I don't squirrel any loose cash away, if that's what you mean." I turned to Taali. "We've made a few bets here, pretty risky ones though. But this fight is as good as fixed. I should stake a few if I were you. It's entirely up to you, of course. It has to be your decision and your responsibility." "Yes, I heard what you two were saying," she answered. "I suppose I could try. I have eleven hundred gold. That's all I've managed to put aside this month. Where should I take it?" Her words made me physically sick. If the girl blew all her money now, I'd be the one to blame, no matter what I'd just said. I'd have to compensate her losses. Too late, anyway. I shouldn't have suggested it to begin with. No good deed goes unpunished. Eric scooped our savings—over seven grand in total—and took it to the bookies. Five minutes later, he came back happy, rubbing his hands. "Guys, you won't believe it. The tournament has attracted two out-of-town bookies. They too accept bets on the outcome, with much better rates. What they offer is almost two to one. In other words, we might end up with ten grand if Max doesn't let us down. I might need some strength elixir to lug all the gold away." I didn't like it. "What if they make off with the cash?" "They can't. All financial professions are licensed. To put your foot in the door, you need to either pay a non-returnable entry fee to AlterWorld Bank or fork out for the insurance. It costs a fortune but then all liability payments are guaranteed. Cheer up, bud!" As he spoke, Dan came to greet us, looking preoccupied. "There's the cloak and dagger coming," Eric waved to his rogue friend. "Come sit with us." Dan didn't share his excitement. "Happy now?"
"Sure." "Placed your bets for the next fight? How much?" I tensed up. "Everything we had." Dan turned to Taali. She nodded her decision to double up. Eric frowned. "I did bet quite a bit, too. Why? Have you nosed something out?" "You can kiss your money goodbye, folks. This is a stitch-up for gullible little boys," he looked at Taali and added, "and girls." Taali gasped and covered her mouth. Eric jumped up. "Don't drag it out, man. What is it you think you know?" "How much life do you think this wizard has?" I gave it some thought. "A thousand? Fifteen hundred?" I met his ironic stare. "Let's make it two. Where would he get more? Even I don't have two, with all my shields and stuff." "Five and a half thousand! A thousand of his own and three more from gear. Plus a personal buff and Eternal Maggot shield charm." We fell silent. Dan went on, "This wizard has been working with those out-of-town bookies for a while. But it's the first time they decided to try and fleece us. I'm now looking into how they managed to obtain the invitations." Eric struggled to think. "Shit. How did they manage to pass gear restrictions?" "Easy. The charm is four grand. But the rest of his hit gear is crafted. Top stuff but quite cheap. He has more than enough mana. Considering his stats, he'll have plenty of time to rip an opponent apart, caster or no caster." "Max, no worry," Eric tensed. "You'll do him standing on your head, bud. What's your gear cost? Send me a viewing permission, will ya?" Warning! Eric wants to view your equipment parameters. Allow: Yes/No. I pressed Yes as I answered his question. "Should be about two and a half grand. I've no idea how the judges have valued it, though." "Almost five grand," Dan said. "The judges use their own worldwide database to evaluate all stuff at its current retail price: gifts, special offers, everything." Eric finished examining my gear and scratched his absent stubble. "Your jewelry is trash, pardon my French. I'm off to the bank now. Will see a few guys I know on the way. I think we'll be able to pool together a few Rings of Magic Life. They should fit the ten grand limit. And they'll raise your mana and hits a thousand percent. It ain't over till it's over." He started for the exit when Dan stopped him. "Wait up. I'm not done yet. A little birdie told me that this wizard is leveled as a fire mage. All his top spells are fire-based. His previous history shows his preferred pattern: controlling the target, then scorching it this way or other. To which I think we have an answer." He turned to me and held out his open palm. Two gold rings glistened with heavy rubies. I opened the parameters. Ring of Fierce Flames Item class: Rare Effect: 45% resistance to fire Requires level 50 "Take it. Just don't forget to give it back to me after the fight. Now you have over 100% resist. It doesn't mean you'll be able to ignore his spells. But you won't be so easy to smoke, either." I slid the rings on my fingers. They felt uncomfortable. I'd never liked large signet rings. Then I asked the question that worried me most. "Why are you helping us?" He laughed. "Let's just say I like you. Besides, I want to show you that our clan can appreciate its friends." "I can appreciate that, too. Although I have a funny feeling you have a double agenda here somewhere." Dan laughed even louder. "You nailed it. I have quite a few, if you know what I mean. But you probably already realize that." I paused, trying to second-guess his motives and brainstorming a few versions. "Could be several things. Could be that you're trying to protect the clan's assets. Or preventing potential fraudsters from infiltrating your territory. Finally, there could be something in it for you, too." For a brief moment his face froze, devoid of all emotion. The mask of the cheerful rogue came off, replaced by his real expression, that of a Stalinist NKVD officer. Then he brought his emotions back under control and demonstratively applauded me.
"You're not stupid, you. No need to remind you that talk is cheap and..." "And silence is golden," we all answered. The rogue chuckled, convinced. "Eric. The same applies
to you. It's your money at stake, too—literally. But I'm not going to interfere. It might scare them off. So you're welcome to your little party. Lots of people betting at the moment so they're in it for a good couple hundred grand. It's a big loss for them but they can handle it. So I don't think they'll quit, not until the tournament is over. Max will be in the final against the 66 thief who will mince the paladin in the semi. So I just hope he'll be in for a nasty surprise. You got your torches?" I nodded. "I'm counting on you. They need to learn a few things so we'll teach them a lesson. The clan bet some serious money on the last fight. They can't refuse it: we can be quite persuasive when we want to. I'll see you during the break. Get ready now. You have five minutes left." I watched his back as he walked off. "He's too much. First he brings us up shit creek without a puddle, then he generously saves us and lectures us like children, and now we're playing by his rules, up to our ears in some dirty scheme of his." "Please don't," Eric said. "He's not so bad. Talking about children... he has three of his own out in the real world. He was in that personnel carrier when it drove straight over a landmine. Dan got thrown out of the hatch. It's a miracle how he survived. Broke every bone in his body, including his spine... imagine how it feels for a red-blooded male to be left paralyzed with a beautiful young wife and three preschool kids. So he went perma. Didn't have a pot to piss in. He made it all by himself. He can support his family now." "And what about the beautiful wife? Sorry, I don't mean anything. Just that... they're in different worlds now." Taali tensed up. Apparently, my question touched her to the quick. "Difficult to believe, but they're just fine. At least on the surface they are. She manages to find a few minutes every night to meet him in the FIVR. Sundays are their family days when his kids take over the castle. He and his wife, they're just waiting for the kids to grow up and leave home. Then she'll move over here permanently. You call it a strange relationship? I'd say, it's no more strange than the family of a sailor. Or a trucker. At least here they can see each other every day." We fell silent, thinking. Going perma had turned our lives ass over tit, creating the most weird combinations and relationships. Taali and myself were a prime example... I stole a glance at her. She sat there biting her lip and staring vacantly in front of herself. What was she thinking about? What was she up to? The bell. I stirred, clearing my head and concentrating on the fight. I took another step, and there I was back in the arena. The breeze played with the wizard's robes opposite, sending grains of sand flying in the air. The man stared at me with a sarcastic smile. Planning to surprise me, eh? That we were yet to see. The stands were brimming with people now. The clan's lounge didn't stay empty, either: I could make out Dan in the company of other officers. Did this mean that the top brass were all in the know, or were we striking gold for one of them in particular? The bell. Rebuff. I boosted the demoness' life and strength and left the rest till later. I had to go easy on mana. Then I summoned Hummungus and sat down to meditate. The demoness squinted her black eyes at the sun while the bear fidgeted, leaving deep ruts in the sand. Impatient beasties. They were going to love the crunchy wizard guy. The bell. I jumped up. After a standard textbook opening, I sent in the pets. The wizzy responded with an equally textbook sequence. One root followed another until my pets froze in the middle of the arena, pinned to the ground. Oh well, that was what wizards generally did. Immobilizing the two pets was one thing, but keeping them immobilized was quite another. After a brief and random interval, both would escape, and then the wizard would have to break whatever spell he was casting, switch target and try to catch them again. Giving me a welcome break so I could concentrate on him. At least that was how I thought it would be. I cast a DoT and started another, tense with foreboding. It was taking him too long to cast. I was in for some sick surprise. A meteor flashed across the sky, its gleaming drop of fire hitting the ground right at my feet. Bang! The earth shattered. Both my magic shields dissolved without a trace. My health shrank 30%. Holy cow, I thought I had that fire resist of theirs? Provided what had hit me was fire, of course. The wizzy began casting more magic. My new absolute memory recognized the colorful play of light as another meteor spell. I hurried to cast Life Absorption, but all it did was siphon hits off his outer shield. No way I could disrupt his concentration. With another bang, my health bar dropped into the orange zone. At least some of the damage had missed me but I had a funny feeling it wouldn't help me much.
Finally, Teddy broke free, covering the distance to the wizard in a few powerful leaps. He was already ripping the wizzy's shield apart when a new spark glistened in my opponent's hands. I barely noticed his smirk as I hurried to bring my hits up into the yellow zone, restoring about 30% life. It wasn't fair. Fortune shouldn't be so one-sided! The skies flashed with another tracer. Bang! Servitude Mirror effect activated. The damage dealt to you has been reflected toward your summoned creature. Lady Luck, I was wrong. Thanks! Furious, the wizzy began casting a new spell when Teddy and myself finally broke through his fifteen-hundred-gold shield. His blood flew everywhere. Enraged, the demoness broke free, too, forcing the wizzy to drop his spell. Then he surprised me. He cast a Random Portal, a quick spell which allowed you to evade an attack. Only workable within the limits of the arena, it was still enough to help him retreat. He went flying about twenty feet, unable to begin a new spell. My beasties went for him. Another teleport, this time to the far end of the arena, was some three seconds' run for my pets. He sent two fire bolts my way and teleported again. We started playing chase: a fire bolt, a teleport, then another, all over again. His tactics were quite original. All those aerobatics had equaled our DpS. In theory, whoever had the most mana could now win. If I lost mine, I would be dead within a couple of minutes, unable to restore life. Actually, I shouldn't have blamed the rings. Now that I had enough stats, Lady Luck seemed to become more balanced. I kept resisting every third spell and avoiding quite a bit of damage. My two beasties kept getting to him so by the time both of us ran out of mana, he only had half life left. By then, I was already empty. My casting looked more like hand-waving. Mentally, I was apologizing to everyone who was about to lose their money. The stands shook with the fury of all those who'd counted on a quick 30 or 50% to their money. Now their stakes were about to give up the ghost. The wizard pirouetted once more and froze. But unlike him, I still had my guns about me. In a spray of blood, my pets had finally sunk their teeth into sweet magic flesh. The wizard raised his hands in the air. Was he going to surrender? If he was a perma or playing in full immersion, then it could hurt, of course. Not much—a bit like being attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes on a summer night. Not that it mattered. The rules didn't provide for surrendering in the arena. My shark-tooth pups were welcome to him. Like myself when nervous, I too started eating all sorts of junk. Congratulations! You've won the semi-final of the East Castle Guest Tournament! 400 points Fame received! I left the arena to the audience's uproar for the third time that day. I was all done in—a slack mass of burned-out nerves. Wonder if in the virtual world your digital nerve cells could regenerate? I turned and walked into Taali's hands. A very excited Eric was prancing around us. "Dude, we did it!" Yeah, right. He'd been a big help. But I was too tired to protest, so I just nodded to him, smiling. After all, I'd just earned myself a grand, another six hundred for my girl and two grand for my friend. Plus I'd saved a whole lot of strangers' money. Talk about the devil. Dan didn't fail to show up. I just hoped he wouldn't ask for a confidential report in triplicate. He was in a good mood. "Way to go," he slapped my shoulder. "He had a trick or two up his sleeve. All those teleports and the opening sequence, all those meteors—it's not the school of Fire, but an Air and Earth combo. When I saw the third one coming, I thought that was the end of you. Great job, seriously. Now you have fifteen minutes. You can listen to me as you rest. The rogue did the paladin in. His technique is as blunt as a crowbar. Stealth behind your back followed by a killing combo. Sprint, stealth. He's leveled for arena practice. Must be planning to become a PK or a mercenary, one of the two. You're a baby against him. But for every cunning stunt there's a stunni-" Grinning, Eric breathed in, about to add something definitely not for ladies' ears. Dan planted his elbow in his ribs, causing my friend to burst out coughing. Then he turned back to me. "What do you know about combat tactics? Tell me." I shrugged and gave his words some thought. "I allow him to stealth past me, then take out the Torch. It allows me to see the target.
Then I kill him." Eric grunted, impressed by my brevity. "Well, right. Don't forget to control him. He knows you will, so he's wearing the right gear. You need some different control spells that won't allow him to break free and hide in stealth." "Did I say otherwise? You have something to offer?" He nodded and reached into his bag producing a pair of enormous, weird-shaped steel gauntlets. He pressed a clasp or something which rattled, releasing silvery blades. Winnypore's Moon Blades Item class: Rare Weapon type: for combat mount only Damage 46-58, Speed 2.4, Durability 190/220. Effect: Gives a 11% chance to blind target with moonlight, paralyzing it for 1.6 sec. Awesome. Teddy would love them. I would love them myself if I could afford them. "Aha. Claws of Winnie the Pooh," Eric butted in. Then he added, seeing our confusion, "That's what we call them here. They look the part, don't you think?" Dan produced a handful of rings and poured them into my open hand. "These will bring you up to the limit. Winnie's Claws are four grand. The rings are rather simple, seventy hits and about fifty gold each. But you'll have eight of them. They just might save your skin, if necessary. Oh, and can I have my Fire Rings back, please?" Oh. I'd hoped he wouldn't remember them. Never mind. My inner greedy pig wept as I exchanged the rings. The sight of my agony made Dan laugh. "I promise you that if you win the final, I won't ask for this stuff back. Whatever you have is yours. Wait a sec. I got a message." His eyes clouded as he switched to his inbox. "I see. Bets are six to one against you. Don't put too much pressure on our broker. If you want to bet, go to the other two." The more you have, the more you want. I had three grand, Taali only two. And this seemed to be a safe thing. We could be missing out on a whole lot of cash. It was sink or swim. I turned to Dan. "I don't suppose you could lend me some money for half an hour?" He gave me an appraising look. I hated to be indebted to him of all people, but we were already up to our ears in his little schemes so the least we could do was put the situation to good use. "Very well," he finally said. "I have some idea of how much you've bet. I'll send word to Mr. Simonov and he'll double it. Good enough?" "Perfect. Thanks!" "It'll all come good," he said slowly, making it clear it was no free ride. Taali gave me a frightened look as if saying, are you sure we have to do it? I lay a soothing hand on her knee: cheer up, babe; we'll make it. Dan jumped to his feet. In a typically digital gesture, he squinted his eyes at the virtual clock. "That's it. You've got five minutes. Better get ready." I knew what he meant. I summoned Teddy and showed him his new outfit. He even seemed to stand taller when he clicked the blades in an out a few times sending sparks flying over the paving stones. I leaned back against his warm side and closed my eyes. Hummungus froze as if afraid of disturbing his master. Was it my imagination or was he really changing? Growing more, er, alive? Showing some glimpses of emotion? Or was I going off my trolley? Eric next to me sniffed, shifting from one foot to the other. Taali cuddled up to me, hugging my arm. So calm and secure... The bell. Taali started. Eric slapped my shoulder. I got back to my feet and gingerly retrieved my arm. It was time. Again—the arena, the golden sand. My opponent, calm and confident. I lowered my head ever so slightly, greeting him. The rogue mirrored my actions. I seemed to like him. How weird. This wasn't a snobbish schmuck like that wizard. I paused for a second and did something against all logic. I PM'd him. PM. Some unhealthy activity here today. I shouldn't bet on your winning. Bad idea. The next second, I received his reply. TY. Already know. Not the 1st time. Seen them around. Never bet where they operate ;-) I seemed to be lucky when it came to rogues. Having said that, I hadn't seen Cryl for a while. I wondered if he was stuck in jail like I had been, nailed for stealing something he shouldn't have to. The bell. Rebuff. Time to give it all. I had enough mana to handle him. Now I had to keep him in my sights and hopefully not die too early. Bell. No more bets. The stealthed rogue disappeared from sight. I took five steps forward, exposing my back and
inviting him to use my negligence. Would be good to catch him between my pets and the edge of the arena. My brain pulsated in unison with the countdown. It was time. I attached the staff to my belt and clutched the torch. Activation: max. The rogue backed off, exposed by the rays of True Flame. So he'd seen one of them before? Well, tough. I turned to my beasties. "Attack!" The rogue unstealthed, darted to one side to avoid the lit-up area and disappeared again. Oh well, time to do a bit of running. The arena was rather small, about fifty feet in diameter at most. I zigzagged across it, but he was nowhere to be seen, the bastard. I did it again. This time I saw him, trying to squeeze his way along the barrier. I bolted for him. Attack! He tried to duck this way and that, saw it was no good and went for me. My pets intercepted him halfway. I promptly cast Deadman's Hand, but still the rogue made it through to me. We engaged in close combat. Not all of his combos worked face to face: most of the best ones were of either the backstab or vault kinds. But it was no picnic, I tell you. He showered me with blocks of rapid shallow hits interspersed with powerful bleed combos. I was still trying to control him, but he was too fast. My magic shield collapsed. Too bad. Bone Shield went out with a flash. Numerous flesh wounds hurt, disrupting my concentration. In a flash of light, I used the Moon Blades to paralyze him. Ducking aside, I cast Life Absorption, but the rogue was already going for me, dripping blood from my beasts' attacks. I bolted again, trying to keep my distance, but the rogue was faster. Even under pressure from Hummungus and the demoness, he caught up with me in under five seconds. His armor was covered in blood, his health shrunk to 50%. He was no tank at all. He couldn't be, what with his meager armor and hits, his stealth and magic-resistant armor. I stood there taking his hits, casting an occasional Life Absorption. I lasted about fifteen seconds purely on my armor and stuff until paralyzation kicked back in, sending the rogue's life into the orange zone. His speed dropped. Time to play tag again. I made him chase me around for another half-minute while my pets finished the job. At the last moment, I turned round and activated the last Life Absorption. I thought it would be fair. He deserved being killed by his adversary and not some wretched zombie. I won. Congratulations! You've just won the East Castle Guest Tournament! 1000 points Fame received! Fame Alert! Your Fame has exceeded 7000 points! You've reached Fame level 3: Everybody knows you. Friendly faction vendors might surprise you with lower prices. You will also gain access to some secret quests. Local dignitaries may invite you to their official functions. The stands were raging, people throwing down likes and ribbons into the arena. Gold glittered in the sand. Did they have a special collection boy or was I supposed to crawl on all fours picking up their offerings? I bowed slightly to the audience and walked over to the exit—not mine but the one where Dan had just reappeared, smiling. I came over to him. He gave me a bear hug; we slapped each other's shoulders causing the stands to scream with delight again. "Everything OK?" I asked. "Great. Everything went without a hitch." I shook his hand one last time and hurried to where my friends were jumping with impatience. I glimpsed a magic bubble cover the finance sector as Dan and three of his high-level clan members hurried toward it, about to seize the winnings. How much could it be? I hugged Taali and kissed her. Total strangers applauded me and I accepted their praise. Then I peeled off my armor and basked my tired body in the breeze. Taali suggested I wash my face; she brought a pitcher and poured some fresh water onto my head and shoulders. Life was good. A couple minutes later, Eric came back running—he'd been checking our winnings. He was beaming, which told me he'd been paid in full. "The two have been skimmed for every penny. Here's your cut," he announced. He handed me thirty four thousand gold. Not bad. I very nearly went into weight overload. This was serious money gamewise. My inner greedy pig was beating his head against the wall, ecstatic. "And that's for you," Eric handed Taali her share. Twenty-two grand. She cried softly. I stroked her thick hair and whispered in her ear, soothing her. She looked up at me, tearful. "I'm scared." "Of what? No one can take it from you. There won't be any problems. Besides, it's not that much money, after all.
couple grand USD, big deal." "I didn't mean that. I have some more money saved back in real life, too. Now I have enough to buy a gun. But I'm scared..." "Normal," I said. "If you were calm and cheerful, now that wouldn't be normal. You sure you don't want to give this whole revenge thing a miss? Alternatively, you could hire someone. Find a junkie in need of a fix and pay him to plant a rusty nail into the client's liver." "No. I must do it myself. It's personal." I could understand her. Logically, it made sense. If someone killed your sister, whether directly or not, you had every right to smoke the motherfucker and he had to be grateful it was only him and not his entire family up to his cousins twice removed. But Taali wasn't the type. She'd get burned even as she bought the weapon. All those Internet hired killer ads and guns-and-drugs forums were 99% police joints to trap naive wusses. Even I was totally inadequate when it came to advice giving. Besides, I now lived in a different world. "Taali, we just won't be able to pull it off. You'll get into trouble before anything else. Shall we leave it to the pros? Eric here spent half his life in the army. I'm sure he has all the right contacts and skills. And he's digital—he has no reason to rat on you." She paused. Then she breathed what sounded like a sigh of relief. "Okay. As you say. I'm an idiot, I know. So stupid of me to even think about it. And now I've dragged you into it, too." "Relax. We're not in the system, not yet. The local moneybags may well be, for succession purposes. Good for them. To all intents and purposes, the criminal law doesn't apply to us." "To us?" she said. "To you, Max. You're local. I still live in real life." "Oh, right. I keep forgetting. But do you understand that sooner or later they'll single you out? What you gonna do once you smoke them?" "There's only one place where I could be happy," she said. "Here. And they can't really get to me here. I'll have to go perma." I paused remembering a poet's words. You're responsible for what you have tamed. I couldn't say whether it was love but we felt good together. We walked the same road, and I wouldn't mind our journey to be long enough. I leaned toward her and kissed her. "Very well, babe. You know where you can stay at first if you want to. There's your portrait in the room already, anyway. And I might give you a tip about how to rig a capsule and meet my mom in the process."
I wasn't going to change my plans because of that quest I'd gotten myself into. On the contrary: now I really needed some quality time off. The quest was nothing to sniff at and the rewards could be worth their weight in gold. I spent the next morning doing some crafting. My alchemy had been stuck at 50 points since our last farming session, so now I was forced to go to the Guild to upgrade my status. I also bought another hundred empty vials and some new recipes. My two days' worth of farming now allowed me to put my vast collection of ingredients to good use. The money situation just didn't want to look up. I had less than three hundred left in my account. I hadn't had any interesting loot over the last few days—the beasties had mainly dropped pelts and alchemy ingredients. This was compensated by excellent experience, but it also meant I had to address my finances. Overall, we'd farmed about two hundred gold, but then we had to share it between the three of us which made the results less than impressive. By the evening, I'd filled a hundred twenty vials with various potions. After some thought, I auctioned all the Minor Life elixirs, leaving only two for myself: a medium vial of life and the same of mana. Both healed you 100 points, not bad at all. I'd also added a few more exotic bottles to my collection, like True Vision, Invisibility Vial and Fear Potion. The latter duplicated a useful new spell I'd learned last night. A very clever bit of magic. It allowed you to frighten the target so much that it bolted away and kept running for ten to fifteen seconds, scared witless. The effect stopped once you dealt damage to the target. It was a competent use of control spells like these that decided a player's efficiency. Stuns, roots, blinds, fears—these were things that nearly always meant the difference between a victory and a defeat. I put the remaining Talent points to good use, too. I raised the summoned creature's level, fine-tuned my buffs, Life Absorption and DoTs, then got myself a new poison-based one. I distributed the Characteristic points between Intellect and Spirit 3 to 1. That was it, no spare points left. As far as skills were concerned, I was all maxed out. I spent the evening with Taali. We went for a walk around the city, stopping occasionally in a café or two. We listened to a nice band, followed by a performance from a truly talented singer. All of them were just other players enjoying themselves in the role of a minstrel. Later that night, two fire mages offered an impressive firework display in the city's main square. Altogether, it had been a great day. The next morning I donned full combat gear and headed for the city gate hoping to buy myself a couple of nice fat buffs. After some wait, a high-level cleric arrived and, sitting down on the parapet, posted his price list in the chat. I hurried to pay him for the most expensive hit buff he had: a four-hour +110 Life. He charged me twenty gold, the bastard, plus I needed a piece of malachite to make the spell work. At least he added the free gift of a +90 Armor buff. In total, counting the shield I'd gotten from Eric, good old me was worth over 2000 Life. Not easy to smoke; my Life Absorptions could give one bad indigestion. Finally, I ran across a Conjuror and got myself a 30-min mana regen bonus. Now I could go back to the cave. The hermit studied me without saying a word. Finally, he nodded his approval and waved his hand in the air, removing the spell. The passage opened. I stepped in. "Good luck," the weak voice croaked behind my back. The door slammed shut. The bars clanged. It didn't look as if I'd be able to go back to reclaim my corpse. Either I'd walk out of here on my own two feet, or I'd be doomed to spend the rest of eternity on the graveyard bench with all the other disrobed losers. A steep rough passage had been cut in the limestone. A set of two torches had been mounted on the wall every dozen feet or so, allowing me to see my way. I concentrated on their flames, triggering a pop-up: Torches of True Flame. No stealth or invisibility spells can hide one from the light of Primary Fire. Yeah, right. Apparently, AI wanted me to fight in the open. I couldn't just steal my way to the altar. The torches would make super artifacts. I tried to pull one off its mountings. As if. My inner greedy pig heaved a sigh of disappointment. Okay, time was money. The buffs weren't going to last forever. I reached into a pocket where I'd stored the Soul Stones I'd so lovingly selected last night. My private elite. One level 50 and two 49. I recited the summoning spell. Alert and long-limbed, Plague Panther arose from the stone fragments. He'd been a pain to capture, using at least three skills to fight us.
When the dust had settled, I noticed a new message in the system chat. Activation alert! Gnoll King's Breastplate has activated its magic effect! The summoned creature has preserved the Bleeding Wound ability giving 5% probability of delivering the attacked creature a blood wound and dealing 140 points damage over 10 sec. Excellent. My heart missed a beat as I checked the panther's level—51. Now we were cooking. I switched to the alternate spell layout and buffed him up a bit. After a short regen stop, I summoned Hummungus who filled the narrow cave passage. All ready. Time to do it. The passage led to an enormous hall, its fallen columns teeming with imps. Well, well, well. Zombies I'd expected. But these were hell monsters. Then again, who said it was going to be easy? The imps—the same level as the panther—whizzed across the room. You needed good spatial thinking if you wanted to pull only one mob and not a dozen out of the air packed with monsters. I watched them for a while before casting a DoT with a snare over one of them. The imp dived to the floor and hedgehopped to me. The panther intercepted him halfway, then Hummungus joined in. I waited a few seconds before casting a couple more DoTs. Then I got closer, exposing myself to his hits, redirecting some of the damage to myself. I shouldn't have any regen problems; plus it was time I started using the shield's effects to help absorb the indecent amount of hits. No need to get my pets exposed if I was entitled to 500 damage off each pull. The melee lasted another minute. Finally, the imp shrieked and collapsed. One done, a thousand to go. I did a quick status check. Mana loss 20%, Health on full, the panther down 30%, Teddy fit as a fiddle. Not bad. Looked like I could manage two mobs, if necessary. Immediately I reminded myself not to get too greedy. Wouldn't be a good idea to attempt a fresh monster with mana under 50%. Better safe than sorry: the dungeon was a one-off thing. I looted the imp's corpse. Holy cow. I could use a couple of those. Seven silver and a Soul Stone. My inner greedy pig was drooling over himself as he estimated the number of monsters, multiplied it by seven and calculated the difficulty factor equation. Myself, I was more than happy with the Soul Stone, a great replacement to the one I'd just used. As I later found out, hell creatures' souls were quite loose in their bodies, dropping Soul Stones twice as often. Still, at first I didn't know what to think about their abundance. The first hall had taken me almost thirty minutes. The mobs were too difficult for solo pulling. At least they didn't respawn. Once I mopped up the room, I walked around the perimeter creating a map and checking the room for any buried treasures. Herbal skill kept clicking as I picked some mushrooms and a handful of glowing moss and transferred them to my bag. And what would that be? A clay-sealed niche glittered silver in the corner. I slammed it with a gauntleted fist. The clay cracked, letting silver coins trickle onto the floor. Congratulations! You've discovered a treasure! Your Piercing Vision ability has improved! Current level: 1 This is a passive ability that demands no activation or training. You should spend some time visiting the locations abandoned by humans and searching for hidden treasures. Great timing. I scooped up the silver. Thirty coins felt heavy in my purse. Off we go, then! Two and a half hours later, I was sitting next to a long passage. At its other end stood the floor boss. My shield and staff lay on the dusty floor next to me. I lowered my eyelids to keep an eye on the monster while I enjoyed the cold beer and sandwiches, courtesy of the Three Little Pigs' chef. The floor hadn't cost me much blood. I'd done my best to spare Teddy and the panther which even managed to steal the fire imp's Ignition ability. Then the Lich skill got activated, adding more smoldering corpses to the dungeon's interior. In all honesty, I hadn't been sure if accepting it was the right thing to do. By now, I'd done 1.5 levels as opposed to Teddy's two. And still I was angry. I stroked my precious pocket with a level 52 stone, the one which now held the soul of a Succubus. My heart craved revenge. The hellish thing had kept casting Magic Nullifier, stripping both me and the panther of our precious buffs. I'd really had to watch my back for the last hour of combat. I was so upset I even improved the Bone Shield to absorb 130 points damage. Not much—a hit or two max—but it's that couple of hits that very often makes the difference between life and death.
Also, I liked this kind of buffer, enabling me to receive part of the damage in exchange for some mana I could use on shield regen. There was another good thing about it. While I tried to use magic under the mobs' pressure, I inadvertently improved the passive concentration skill. It allowed me to resume a spell broken off by a hit without losing concentration: no need to start casting it all over again. Which was when I discovered another mega bonus my leveling pattern offered. Pure mages didn't really get a chance to level this particular skill. They simply couldn't be exposed to hits: it was a sign of certain death for them. That's why any hand-to-hand fighter who got close enough could make mincemeat out of a mage before the latter could finish the spell. Which was exactly why mages had so many control spells to keep their distance in battle. As for me, I could have afforded to tank, all the while leveling up that truly life-saving skill. Looking into the future, I could see an amazing top character: an impervious caster armored to his ears, with an equally impervious concentration. Love it. I turned my attention to the floor boss. She was beautiful in the Lilim way, a cross between a demon and a human, a whip in each hand. What I didn't like was her level. 55. In theory, it had to be the ceiling for this particular dungeon. Who would the next floor boss be, then? And could anyone tell me how many more floors I was yet to do? The boss was alone. Without much thinking, I sent the panther to meet her: I was too wary of some vicious ability in the vein of the Gnoll King's daily Deadly Touch to attack her myself. Whips cracked. The panther's blood and tufts of hair flew everywhere. I cast a bunch of DoTs and sent Teddy toward her. But Lilim was full of surprises. She uttered a short songlike spell, and the bear swayed in a trance. For combat purposes, he was now little less than useless. Enchantment! Hummungus has fallen for Lilim's charms! He is temporarily unable to control himself and follow your orders! You Succubus bitch! I stepped in, redirecting some of the damage to myself as I tried to draw out the fight, allowing Teddy and the DoTs enough time to work. I pulled out at 60%, renewed the spells and gave the bear a quick heal. Teddy came round and was about to jump into action when he froze again like a tit in a trance. Oh—I just hoped I had enough mana left. That's the triumph of intellect for you: I took a swig of hits/mana elixir, my second one in that fight, renewed the shield and stepped back in. Rinse and repeat. Bang! Lilim collapsed. The dungeon's walls shuddered, its ceiling crumbling, sand flying everywhere. The torches flared up twice as bright. The floor was cleansed. Only then did I notice a short pedestal and a tiny stone on it, glinting black. I picked it up. Tiny Fragment of the Dark Altar Item class: Rare Suitable for improving other items Requires level 50 Effect 1: 10% bonus to all Dark spells (Blood, Death, Hatred, Shamanism, etc.) Effect 2: 10% resistance to all spells of Light Aha. This wasn't the quest object yet, but a hefty freebie nevertheless. I crouched over Lilim's body. Ten gold coins clinked. My hand grabbed the whip. Whip of Constraint Item class: Rare Weapon type: one-handed Damage 31-48, Speed 2.1, Durability 180/180 Effect: Gives 9% chance of getting control over the victim and paralyzing it for 1.5 sec That was It. A stun puncher on speed. Bug would absolutely love it. But I had to agree with my inner greedy pig in that we couldn't afford giving freebies just at the moment. Most likely, I'd have to auction it. After a quick regen, we walked down the stairs to the second floor. Same stones. Same glowing torches cast shadows on the sooty ceiling. In the very first hall I walked into a huge slug, its insides bulging under the translucent skin. A loathsome creature, too big for a monster. I really, really didn't like it. But I had no choice. There was no way I could bypass it. Banzai! Teddy made a dart for it, his teeth sinking into the soft flesh. The creature squealed. My mana bar shrank. Warning! The slug has used Mana Absorption skill to strip you of some of your mana! I knew it. I knew it couldn't be as easy as it looked. I had to smoke the bastard quickly before it drained me dry. I reached for more elixirs.
But the monster was full of sick surprises. With every 10% Life lost, it produced two level 40 maggots. Every thirty seconds it emitted a blood-curdling squeak. I had to send my pets to fight the maggots while I had to cast Life Absorption over the slug double quick. That was the only way I could deal some fast-working damage. That had been close. But at least now that we knew the monster's tactics, we could come up with some quality countermeasures. Er... had I just done 47? I hadn't even noticed which particular pair of maggots had earned me a new level. Having said that, Hummungus didn't seem to have risen in level for a while. I opened the menu. WTF? The pet's level had frozen at 23. His experience bar was maxed out. Why wasn't he growing? I opened the Wiki. After two minutes' search, it became abundantly clear. A combat mount's level couldn't exceed half of that of the player. Shame. Still, it made sense. The comments advised not to get too hung up on numbers. The most important thing was that a combat-leveled mount could pull the aggro from a pet onto himself. So his level didn't really matter as long as it worked well in the end result. True, where would I have been without my Teddy? I wouldn't have even smoked the first dungeon boss, that's for sure. I distributed the characteristic points based on the fight results. Every spare point had to go into Intellect. You could never have too much mana. I also maxed out Life Absorption. I definitely lacked kill speed, which could be quite dangerous as the slug had just shown me. I frisked the corpses. Twenty maggots gave me three handfuls of gold, a dozen vials of craft slime and eight low-level Soul Stones. I hoped the floor wasn't going to be all like that. My inner greedy pig got restless, seeing top Soul Stones slipping through his grabby fingers. I spoke too soon. Four hours later, I was sitting near the floor boss enjoying a well-deserved rest and a snack. I still hadn't farmed a single decent stone, but at least my bag was bulging with five pounds of magic dust. The slugs had been a pain. I'd finished the floor by long dangerous bouts of fighting interspersed with even longer butt-hurting episodes of mana regen. Slugs kept siphoning my mana, so by the end of every fight it hovered dangerously close to zero. Then I saw the Slug Queen spread all across the hall right in front of me. An enormous belly bulged out of its weak little frame topped by a tiny head. I didn't like any of it. Including the monster's name. Never mind. Fortune favors the brave. Come to Daddy, you slimy bitch. Hummungus—attack! Grrhhrw! Bang! His first bite ripped the Slug Queen's ripe belly apart, letting out a crawling mass of maggots. Jeez, how many of them were there? Forty at least. I targeted one and recoiled in dismay. Level 40? That was the end of it. Were those game developers completely bonkers or something? This was way too much even for a fully equipped group. I didn't give up, though. Mechanically, I tried to do crowd control, backing as I immobilized the mobs. Thank God their speed wasn't up to much but neither was mine: this was a closed space after all and not a battlefield. Consulting the map so as not to let them corner me, I kept backing up, controlling those who tried to stick their necks out. My two pets were still busy in the first hall. A message popped up reporting experience received. One maggot less. As if that would change anything. I switched my attention to their new leader trying to slow him down. Excuse me? Why was he 39 now? I clicked on a few others, but all the maggots seemed to have lost a level. Another experience message—it had to be Teddy, he must have wasted his opponent. All the maggots became 38. I got it! The more of them there were, the stronger they became. If we killed another dozen, we'd make mincemeat out of the rest. Come on, Teddy. Come on, everyone! Hopeful and encouraged, I decided to fight my way back to join the pets. They were sure to need my help and guidance. The maggots lined up along the corridors, each of them trying to kick or even poison me as I ran past them. I met my pets halfway. The panther was doing his best—probably, due to his Vampire ability. Teddy wasn't faring so well. By the time I called him off, his life was flashing in the red zone. I shielded him from the mobs, gave myself a heal as I finished off another maggot, then healed the bear. Crowd control. Experience. And some more. Come on, Ted. Your turn to help the panther. The dungeon shuddered. The torches flared up. Holy cow, we'd done it. Plus, all three of us had done another level in the last thirty minutes. I didn't even mention my 49, not when the panther had managed to skip to 52. If the results of this melee were to be believed, we'd even grown stronger. I invested some more into the Bone Shield which could now absorb 260 damage. It looked like I was going to love it. The maggots weren't that poor. Each dropped a gold piece. I stuffed the forty gold into my bag and walked over to the Queen who had died at the death of her last offspring. Any loot? A vial, glowing bright through the piles of slime. Mystic Skill Essence Item class: Epic Contains a random skill. In order to learn the skill, drink the contents of the vial. Oh, cool. Never heard about anything like that. I sat down for a regen and opened the auction panel. They didn't have anything of the kind listed. I checked their sales history. A couple weeks earlier, a similar vial had been sold for twenty-six grand. Admittedly, it had dropped from a hundred-plus monster and had all the necessary screenshots and paperwork. I wondered how much mine would cost without either? Would anyone believe my word? Should I sell it or should I try it myself? Jesus. Hell's Temptation, part two. By the staircase down to the third and last (hopefully) floor, I saw a modest pedestal. On it lay a black fragment. I picked it up. Small Fragment of the Dark Altar Item class: Rare Can be used to make a Minor Travel Altar Requires level 50 Effect 1: 20% bonus to all Dark spells (Blood, Death, Hatred, Shamanism, etc.) Effect 2: 20% resistance to all spells of Light Yess! I could use that. Only how was I supposed to make the altar? And where could I buy the recipe? Questions and more questions. In any case, an interesting little stone. It definitely had potential, so in the bag it went. The next floor was hard. All the monsters there were level 55—the limit. On top of that, they were all different. Hell hounds, desolators, demons, destroyers, abyss creatures... you name it. Every time I had to brace myself, preparing for new surprises. The mobs' skills were unknown and their tactics, unpredictable. I was sitting on the floor, completely run down, leaning against the panther's icy side and staring at the familiar archway leading to the floor boss. I'd almost finished in there. But how could I fight on without Teddy? Yes, you heard it right. Hummungus had heroically thrown in the towel. My (admittedly short-sighted) leveling him for strength had finally backfired. For one brief moment he'd pulled the aggro to himself, and that was enough for the Lord of the Abyss. Now Ted was out of circulation for the next twenty-four hours. Awful timing. Anyway! Time to close this circus show. It had been nine hours chopping monsters non-stop. I renewed all the buffs, activated the shields and boosted up mana. Fragments of broken stone crunched underfoot. Trying to step noiselessly, I walked to the passageway and peeked in. And there they were. Aquilum, the Dark Guild magister, and his entire Masters' Circle. All present and correct, guarding two more pedestals—or rather, the fragments resting on them. Aquilum the High Lich and eight Master Liches. I slumped against the wall. That was it. That was the end. Apparently, the surge of necro energy was too powerful for those Dark guys to die their own death. Magic had summoned them as its servants. Or could it be the obligatory end of the game for the likes of myself? I really didn't know. I didn't want to try. The choice of the undead for the final battle had to be an unpleasant surprise for anyone about to finish the dungeon. To spend all day fighting beasts of Inferno only to end up facing a totally unknown and unexpected enemy. Three Master Liches defended the first Altar fragment. The second one was about sixty feet deeper down the corridor, past six more Liches and the High One. The Masters were level 55. Aquilum, in disrespect for the dungeon rules, was 60. What was I supposed to do with them all? I couldn't get to the second picket without fighting through the first one. And I had nothing to do it with, even if Teddy had still been here with me. With my level 52, there was no way I could fix three 55 mobs. Freakin' zombies. Wait a sec. Had I said zombies? I pulled the crown off my head and reread its properties. Renders all the undead such as skeletons, zombies, spirits, etc. neutral and unable to attack first. Halves their aggro radius in case of the wearer's attack. Still not quite knowing what I was doing, I somehow sensed this was the only possible way, no other options available. I slammed the crown back onto my head and stubbornly walked toward the first block. The Liches' gazes followed me.
The creatures didn't move, though. I gave them the widest berth possible as I walked behind their backs and stealthily reached for the stone. Even if they were going to smoke me, I'd have the stone first. Squeezing my eyes shut, I clenched it, quite logically expecting a hit. Shoulders hunched, I waited for about half a minute. Then I stood up and breathed out. I examined my booty. Fragment of the Dark Altar Item class: Rare You can use this item to restore the destroyed Dark Temple Altar. Requires level 50 A message popped up. Quest completion alert: Knowledge Breeds Sadness II. Quest completed! Reward: access to unique quest Knowledge Breeds Sadness III: Temple Restoration Another one: New quest alert! Unique quest available: Knowledge Breeds Sadness III: Temple Restoration It's been many hundreds of years that the Lands of Light had no Dark Temples left. All of them, including the First Temple, had been desecrated and destroyed. Use this fragment to restore any one of the deserted Temples! Reward: secret Accept. No question about it. I still had that Hell Hound quest to take care of. But why would they need the second stone, then? Why seven liches guarding it? I gingerly squeezed into the guarded circle and walked over to the pedestal to read the fine script. Large Fragment of the Dark Altar Item class: Epic You will need this stone to restore the destroyed First Temple Altar! Requires level 50 New quest alert! Secret unique quest available: Knowledge Breeds Sadness IV: The First Temple Restoration For years, the Large Fragment of the Dark Altar has been soaking in necro emanations. Use it to restore the mythical First Temple, destroyed by the Alliance of Light some five hundred years ago. Reward: secret Aha. Curiouser and curiouser. Accept, definitely. I reached out and picked up the fragment. Warning! You already possess a Dark Altar fragment! Dark energy concentration is approaching critical levels! If you pick up another fragment, the possibility of ripping the world apart approaches 100%, resulting in a new outbreak of the Darkness! Leave one of the stones on its pedestal! Yes, yes, I got it. As if I didn't know about the A-bomb and stuff. Plutonium 239 had a critical mass of twenty pounds or something. Here it probably was something along the same lines. I tiptoed to the first pedestal and gingerly placed the first fragment onto it. Then I came back and packed the Big Fragment into my bag. I looked around to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. I hadn't. Time to teleport. A hand touched my shoulder. I froze and squinted at a Lich's mummified fingers. Slowly, I turned around. Empty eye sockets glared at me. The sockets of the Aquilum the High Lich. "You must destroy it." The voice was wispy but somehow it tore through your brain. I winced with pain. "Destroy what?" The Lich's withered skull turned toward the first fragment I'd left on the pedestal. "The stone. Its magic won't let us go. There's enough of it here to last another several thousand years. If you remove at least some of it, we'll be able to retire to the afterlife." "How do you expect me to do that? I wouldn't know where to start. You need that second-floor slug up there for that sort of job." "I'll show you." "We'll show you," The Liches repeated in unison, circling me. Aquilum laid his bony hand on my head. Congratulations! You've learned the out-of-class spell: Astral Mana Dispersal. Cast time: random Mana expenditure: 100 points per sec Every five seconds, the spell absorbs target's mana. The
amount of absorbed mana doubles with every tick. The first tick absorbs 1 mana pt., the second, 2, the third, 4, etc. Warning! If you receive damage or run out of mana, the spell will be broken off. This is a High Circle spell: even your Concentration skill won't be able to help you. Warning! All High Circle spells have the highest aggro generation. Your chosen opponent will select you as a target. Holy cow. I shook my head, disbelieving. I wasn't quite sure how I could use this wonder freakin' waffle, but thanks anyway. Still, I had a problem. "Thank you, Magister," I said. "But I'm afraid, I only have enough mana left for the first twenty seconds of the spell. That's four ticks. Minus the stone's twenty mana—provided the magic works on it." "Don't worry. Just start. We'll give you all the mana you need. The stone is protected against us. We can't harm it, anyway." I shrugged. No harm in trying. I moved the shimmering icon to the control panel and activated the spell. The earth shattered. The walls shook, sending rivulets of stone fragments from the ceiling. A black twister began to form before me. The targeted stone covered with a fine web of black lightning. Impressive. It did give the caster away, though. No way anyone could miss a display so spectacular. The Liches closed in with a singsong whine. My mana bar stopped dropping and began creeping back. The fragment was now visibly shrinking. One of the Liches collapsed, emptied. But the undead was still alive, if you'll excuse the pun. Another minute. The stone had shrunk to half its original size. But now only two of us remained standing—myself and Aquilum. Tick. Tick. Tick. The mana flow stopped. I held the spell for another twenty seconds and collapsed, pinned to the ground by an invisible load. My head span. Quest failure alert! You've failed the unique quest: Knowledge Breeds Sadness III: Temple Restoration. Before I could tell them where to stuff it, another message popped up. Warning! Casting the Great Spell results in a magic cooldown. You won't be able to use magic for the next 5 min. You won't be able to cast this spell again for the duration of 24 hrs. Bastards. Couldn't they have told me earlier? Not that I was in a hurry, anyway. I turned to the Liches. One by one, they noiselessly rose, gave me a silent bow and disappeared in flashes of black light. Aquilum turned his frightening frame to me. "Thank you, Dark brother. Is there anything I can do for you?" As I sought for an answer, my inner greedy pig perked up and began jotting down a quick wish list. "Think fast," the Magister said. "I only have a few seconds left in this world. My magic powers have been depleted by the rite. All I can give you is information." "The First Temple. Do you know where I can find it?" I blurted out. Aquilum nodded, showing me I'd asked him the right thing. "The Dead Lands. The Valley of Fear. You'll make it. The crown will help you, and so will the Altar fragment. Fare thee well! We will not see each other again in this world." In this world? Did he say this world? As if we could get to the other one. Or could we?
Thor, carrying Krohn inside his shirt, was overwhelmed by the noise as Reece opened the door to the alehouse. A huge group of waiting Legion members and soldiers, crammed inside, met them with a shout. It was packed and hot inside, and Thor was immediately sandwiched in between his brethren, shoulder to shoulder. It had been a long day of hunting, and they had all gathered here, at this alehouse deep in the woods, to celebrate. The Silver had led the way, and Thor, Reece and the others followed. Behind Thor, the twins, Conval and Conven, carried their prize possession, the boar, bigger than anyone else’s, on a long pole over their shoulders. They had to set it down outside the tavern doors before coming in. Thor took a last glance back; it looked so fierce, it was hard to conceive they had killed it. Thor felt a squirm inside his jacket and looked down to see his new companion, Krohn. He could hardly believe he was actually carrying a white leopard pup. It stared up at him with its crystal blue eyes and squeaked. Thor sensed he was hungry. Thor was jostled inside the alehouse, dozens more men streaming in behind him, and he proceeded deeper into the small, crowded place, which must have been twenty degrees warmer in here—not to mention more humid. He followed Erec and Kendrick, and in turn was followed by Reece, Elden, the twins, and O’Connor, whose arm was bandaged from the boar’s slice, but had finally stopped bleeding. O’Connor seemed more dazed than hurt. His good spirits had returned, and their whole group shuffled deep into the room. It was packed shoulder to shoulder, so tight that there was barely room to even turn. There were long benches, and some men stood, while others sat, singing drinking songs and banging their tankards into their friends’, or banging them on the table. It was a rowdy, festive environment, and Thor had never seen anything like it. “First time in an alehouse?” Elden asked, practically shouting to be heard. Thor nodded back, feeling like a rube once again. “I bet you’ve never even had a tankard of ale, have you?” asked Conven, clapping him on the shoulder with a laugh. “Of course I have,” Thor shot back defensively. He was blushing, though, and hoped no one could tell, because, in fact, he had never truly had ale, aside from the small sip at the wedding. His father had never allowed ale in the house. And even if he did, he was sure he couldn’t afford it. “Very good then!” cried out Conval. “Bartender, give us a round of your strongest. Thor here is an old pro!” One of the twins put down a gold coin. Thor was amazed at the money these boys carried; he wondered what family they hailed from. That coin could have lasted his family a month back in his village. A moment later a dozen tankards of foaming ale were slid across the bar, and the boys pushed their way through and grabbed them; a cask got shoved into Thor’s hand. The foam dripped over the side of his hand, and his stomach twisted in anticipation. He was nervous. “To our hunt!” Reece called out. “TO OUR HUNT!” the others echoed. Thor followed the others, trying to act natural as he raised the foaming liquid to his lips. He took a sip, and hated the taste, but saw the others gulping theirs down, not removing them from their lips until they finished. Thor felt obliged to do the same, or else look like a coward. He forced himself to drink it, gulping it down as fast he could, until finally, halfway through, he set it down, coughing. The others looked at him, and roared with laughter. Elden clapped him on the back. “It is your first time, isn’t it?” he asked. Thor reddened as he wiped foam from his lips. Luckily, before he could reply, there came a shout in the room, and they all turned to see several musicians shove their way in. They started playing on lutes and flutes, clanging cymbals, and the rowdy atmosphere heightened. “My brother!” came a voice. Thor turned to see a boy a few years older than him, with a small belly yet broad shoulders, unshaven, looking somewhat slovenly, step forward and embrace Reece in an awkward hug. He was joined by three companions, who seemed equally slovenly. “I never thought I’d find you here!” he added. “Well, once in a while I need to follow in my brother’s footsteps, don’t I?” Reece shouted back with a smile. “Thor, do you know my brother, Godfrey?” Godfrey turned and shook Thor’s hand, and Thor could not help but notice how smooth and plump it was. It was not a warrior’s hand.
Godfrey leaned back and roared with laughter, and his three companions joined him. One of them, a head taller than the others, with a huge belly, bright red cheeks, and flush with drink, leaned forward and clamped a hand on Thor’s shoulder. “Bravery is a fine trait. But it sends you to the battlefield, and keeps you cold. Being a drunk is a better trait: it keeps you safe and warm—and assures a warm lady by your side!” He roared with laughter, as did the others, and the bartender set down fresh tankards of ale for all of them. Thor hoped he wouldn’t be asked to drink; he could already feel the ale rushing to his head. “It was his first hunt today!” Reece yelled out to his brother. “Was it then?” Godfrey replied. “Well then that calls for a drink, doesn’t it?” “Or two!” his tall friend echoed. Thor looked down as another cup was shoved into his palm. “To firsts!” Godfrey called out. “TO FIRSTS!” the others echoed. “May your life be filled with firsts,” the tall one echoed, “except for the first time being sober!” They all roared with laughter as they drank. Thor sipped his, then tried to get away with lowering it—but Godfrey caught him. “That’s not the way you drink it, boy!” Godfrey yelled. He stepped forward, grabbed the tankard, put it to Thor’s lips, and the men all laughed as Thor gulped it down. He set it down, empty, and they cheered. Thor felt lightheaded. He was beginning to feel out of control, and it was harder to focus. He didn’t like the feeling. Thor felt another squirm in his shirt, as Krohn reared his head. “Well, what have we here!” Godfrey shouted in delight. “It’s a leopard cub,” Thor said. “We found it on the hunt,” Reece added. “He’s hungry,” Thor said. “I’m not sure what to feed him.” “Why, of course, ale!” the tall man yelled. “Really?” Thor asked. “Is that healthy for him?” “Of course!” Godfrey yelled. “It is just hops, boy!” Godfrey reached out, dipped his finger into the foam, and held it out; Krohn leaned forward and licked it up. He licked again and again. “See, he likes it!” Godfrey suddenly retracted his finger with a scream. He held it up and showed blood. “Sharp teeth on that one!” he yelled out—and the others all broke into laughter. Thor reached down, stroked Krohn’s head, and tilted the remnant of his drink into the leopard’s mouth. Krohn lapped it up, and Thor resolved to find him real food. He hoped Kolk would let him stay in the barracks and that none of the Legion would object. The musicians changed their song, and several more friends of Godfrey’s appeared. They came over, joined them in a fresh round of drinks, and led Godfrey away, back into the crowd. “I will see you later, young man,” Godfrey said to Reece, before leaving. Then he turned to Thor: “Hopefully you’ll spend more time in the alehouse!” “Hopefully you’ll spend more time on the battlefield,” Kendrick called back. “I very much doubt that!” Godfrey said and roared with laughter with the rest of his compatriots, as he disappeared into the crowd. “Do they always celebrate like this?” Thor asked Reece. “Godfrey? He’s been in the alehouse since he could walk. A disappointment to my father. But he’s happy with himself.” “No, I mean the King’s men. The Legion. Is there always a trip to the alehouse?” Reece shook his head. “Today is a special day. The first hunt, and the summer solstice. This doesn’t happen that often. Enjoy it while it does.” Thor was feeling increasingly disoriented as he looked around the room. This was not where he wanted to be. He wanted to be back in the barracks, training. And his thoughts drifted, once again, to Gwendolyn. “Did you get a good look at him?” Kendrick asked, as he came up to Thor. Thor looked at him, puzzled. “The man in the woods, who shot the arrow?” Kendrick added. The others crowded around close, trying to hear as the mood grew serious. Thor tried again to remember, but he could not. Everything was fuzzy.
“I wish I did,” he said. “It all happened so fast.” “Maybe it was just one of the King’s other men, shooting in our direction by accident,” O’Connor said. Thor shook his head. “He wasn’t dressed like the others. He wore all black, and a cloak and hood. And he only shot one arrow, aimed right for Kendrick, then disappeared. I’m sorry. I wish I saw more.” Kendrick shook his head, trying to think. “Who would want you dead?” Reece asked Kendrick. “Was it an assassin?” O’Connor asked. Kendrick shrugged. “I have no enemies that I know of.” “But Father has many,” Reece said. “Maybe someone wants to kill you to get to him.” “Or maybe someone wants you out of the way for the throne,” Elden postulated. “But that’s absurd! I’m illegitimate! I cannot inherit the throne!” While they all shook their heads, sipping their ale and trying to figure it out, there came another shout in the room, and all the men’s attention turned toward the staircase leading upstairs. Thor looked up and saw a string of women walk out of an upper hallway, stand by a banister, and look down at the room. They were all scantily dressed and wore too much makeup. Thor blushed. “Well, hello, men!” called the lady in front, with a large bosom and wearing a red lace outfit. The men cheered. “Who’s got money to spend tonight?” she asked. The men cheered again. Thor’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “Is this also a brothel?” he asked. The others turned and looked at him in stunned silence, then all broke into laughter. “My God, you are naïve, aren’t you!” Conval said. “Tell me you’ve never been to a brothel?” Conven said. “I bet he’s never been with a woman!” Elden said. Thor felt them all looking at him, and he felt his face turn red as a beet. He wanted to disappear. They were right: he had never been with a woman. But he would never tell them that. He wondered if it was obvious from his face. Before he could respond, one of the twins reached up, clasped a firm hand on his back, and threw a gold coin up to the woman on the stairs. “I believe you have your first customer!” he yelled. The room cheered, and Thor, despite his pushing and pulling and resisting, felt himself shoved forward by dozens of men, through the crowd and up the staircase. As he went, his mind filled with thoughts of Gwen. Of how much he loved her. Of how he didn’t want to be with anyone else. He wanted to turn and run. But there was literally no escape. Dozens of the biggest men he had ever seen shoved him forward, and did not allow retreat. Before he knew it, he was up the steps, on the landing, staring at a woman taller than he, who wore too much perfume and smiled down at him. Making matters worse, Thor was drunk. The room was positively spinning out of control, and he felt that in another moment he would collapse. The woman reached down, pulled Thor’s shirt, led him firmly into a room, and slammed the door behind them. Thor was determined not to be with her. He held in his mind thoughts of Gwen, forcing them to the front. This was not how he wanted his first experience to be. But his mind was not listening. He was so drunk, he could barely see now. And the last thing he remembered, before he blacked out, was being led across the room, toward a lady’s bed, and hoping he made it before he hit the floor.