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?