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."