Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Crystal Sphere by A. Livadny - Chapter #2

Chapter Two

The Crystal Sphere. Login

The dwarf's pick struck hard, procuring a cascade of ice fragments that sparked in the torch's light. His breath misted, his beard and mustache already covered with frost.
This was all I managed to take in as I came round.
His pick came down with another powerful swing. Ice crumbling all around me, cascading to the cave's floor and releasing me.
"Finally," the miner grumbled. "Let's have a look. What have we got here?"

Neuroimplant: activated
Mind expander (Synaps, basic model): installed
Activation successful
Mnemonic interface downloaded

The message appeared right in front of my eyes, startling me.

Alternative start point: set up.
You've received a new ability: Two Worlds. From now on, you'll be able to experience the same range of sensations in cyberspace as in the real world. Courtesy of the neuroimplant, all your skills and reflexes will be identical regardless of the time and place of their initial acquisition.
For your information: all interface types are currently set to 'cyberspace' by default.

The dwarf recoiled, replacing the pick with a battle hammer that surged with pulses of lightning.
"Who is it, Togien?" a voice came from the dark. Judging by the echo, the cave wasn't very big.
"It's all right. It's only a spirit. I'll sort him out."
Focusing on me, the dwarf began to incant some kind of spell, his voice grim and low. I couldn't make out the words apart from the final phrase,
"Whoever you are, go back to where you belong!"
Another system message appeared in my mental view, overlapping the cave's interior,

Welcome to the Crystal Sphere!
Please choose your race.

The cave around me became a freeze frame. I watched the tame bolt of lightning entwine the hilt of the dwarf's sword. He was short and stocky, clad in a pair of leather pants and a jacket with sown-on protective links of some dull metal. A pointed helmet perched on his head.
The dwarf's eyes glared at me from under his bushy eyebrows. His frosted salt-and-pepper beard was plaited and could use a good dose of dye. The metal inlays of his gear too could have done with a polish. His jacked was patched; his helmet dented. He was more than likely a grave robber.
Well, well, well. Did that mean that until I created my character, he could only see me as a ghost? How interesting. Was my arrival in the Crystal Sphere part of some global event? I didn't think so. Most likely, the dwarf couldn't overcome his craving for gold and had decided to check out the cave.
His torch was wedged into a small crevice in the wall. Its flame was static now, fancy swirls of smoke hung in the air. The torch illuminated a small area covered in large globules of transparent ice entrapping various objects. The picture was reminiscent of some shipwreck flotsam brought into a cave by a turbulent ocean and instantly frozen.
I was curious, of course, but this wasn't the right moment to enjoy the views. I had more important things to take care of.
This neuroimplant of theirs was actually quite good! It seemed to be able to recognize my thoughts and react accordingly. The moment I'd thought about creating a character, several translucent figures appeared in my view, apparently symbolizing the available races.
Excellent. Mechanically I focused on one of them. Immediately the picture zoomed in and took center stage, acquiring detail.
The mnemonic interface was a pleasure to look at. It was simple and functional. Even though its icons overlapped the general picture around me, they didn't hinder your perception. I quickly discovered, by some basic trial and error, that you could activate icons by swiping them with your eyes. The system was constantly following my gaze, promptly determining if I was focusing on something or other.
A long line of holograms appeared out of the dark. It wasn't for nothing the Crystal Sphere claimed superiority over all other game worlds. Having to choose from hundreds of races many of which were only represented by small fringe groups imported from other game settings wouldn't be at all easy. You could spend weeks just studying their respective properties.
Still, I'd already made my choice. Considering this implant of theirs, I was going to stay human, simply for safety reasons. I still couldn't forget my conversation with the Corporation rep. None of the exotic races could suit me for the simple reason that I had no idea how the neuroimplant would behave in an unhuman body, generating some totally alien perceptions.
I gulped. The dwarf may have been frozen in time — but I wasn't. I was freezing, literally. This was a definite drawback. How could a spirit experience physical discomfort?
I had to hurry. I didn't like this icy cave. I had to go out into the warm sunlight.
I was full of projects and hopes. During our last meeting, Mr. Borisov dryly thanked me for recommending Christa to them. She'd agreed to participate. I was going to find her. We had a lot to discuss.
Something had changed around me almost imperceptibly. I noticed a chunk of ice below to my left. It looked as if the dwarf had initially tried to hack it off with his pick but had failed. I could see deep cracks piercing the ice lit up by a tiny flame glimmering within.
I took a better look. The flame was emitted by a fiery aura enveloping a doubled-up figure inside.
The creature stirred. The light grew slightly brighter, blurring the ice from the inside as it began to melt, the quickly forming cavity within filling with swirling steam.
Was the player who was about to escape his icy prison also one of us? Did he have a neuroimplant too?
Never mind. Time would tell. Enough stalling! Time for me to get out of here!
So, let's have a look at their choice of human races.

Racial bonus: Determination
You receive two bonus points to add to any characteristic of your choice at your convenience, plus another skill point every five levels.

Not bad at all.
I pressed Confirm.
A new choice of character classes followed.
Normally, every class supported two skill development branches: the main one, available to everyone, and an additional one which could only be opened at level 50.
Considering my choice of race, I could pick from among a Warrior, a Wizard, a Hunter, a Light or Dark Knight, a Monk, a Sorcerer, a Rogue — the list went on and on thanks to their account transfer option.
Wait a sec. What was that now? In the midst of all the predictable and expected classes I suddenly noticed a name that struck a familiar note, reminding me of recent events,

A Neuro

I swiped my eyes across the name, activating it.

The Founders, creators of all living beings, used to possess a unique wealth of knowledge, endowing our ancestors with a whole number of long-forgotten abilities.
In bygone days, the Founders visited a great number of the worlds which have since disappeared without a trace. Still, we are reminded of the consequences of their genetic intervention as various nations give occasional birth to a Neuro: a creature whose true potential is still dormant.
Could you be one of them?
Class bonus: a unique development branch not tied in with the character's specialization, available already at level 5.
Would you be up to the challenge?
Accept: Yes/No

It looked like I could forget my habitual choice, a Warrior. The temptation was too great. I also had a gut feeling that this class had appeared on the list for a reason. I was pretty sure that normal players didn't have this option.
In a swipe of my eyes, I accepted.

Please wait. Character generation in progress.
Merging... Scanning...
Character generation complete.
Name: Alexatis
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Class: Neuro
Please confirm or go back to edit your avatar.

He looked the split image of myself: skinny, pale and unshaven. Not the best version of me.
I edited his build here and there, added a darker hue to his skin and got rid of the stubble. Much better now.
I quite liked the nickname. It sounded unpretentious and similar enough to my own name.
I lingered. It felt like diving from a great height. The moment I pressed the button, my new virtual life would begin.
In the meantime, the melting block of ice had thawed through in the middle, forming a hole that arrayed a net of cracks in all directions.
Enveloped in steam, surrounded by a weak but already clear fire aura, the creature inside turned out to be... a demon!
Its spidery fingers clutched at the fragile ice, crumbling it, until they found a holdfast. The demon emitted a weak groan as it began to pull itself out of its ice prison. Long rear-facing spines ran the whole length of its forearms. They grew through the demon's grayish olive skin which was covered in asymmetrical black swirls.
Its muscles tensed. The creature eased itself out, peeping its head and shoulders out of the hole in the ice.
The recognition petrified me.
Her short ash-blond hair, her fiery gaze, the thin line of her pursed lips — these were features I knew, familiar and yet strangely different. Repulsive.
Glinting with darkness, a supple suit of armor clung to her body, protecting her chest, stomach and hips.
Unlike me, Christa hadn't wasted her time.
I hurried to confirm my character choice. Once again time began to fly by. I jumped to my feet, shivering with cold in my canvas shirt and pants, still in disbelief of her horrible choice, hoping it was a mistake.
"Get out of my way!"
Her fiery aura became more pronounced, outlining a burning name tag,

Christa. Level 1. Demon

I knew why her name hadn't changed. She'd told me she'd had it legally registered.
"Christa, it's me!"
"As if I can't see," her glare faded, acquiring an almost human expression, then burned again, oozing an uncontrollable, impetuous fury. "Out my way!" she hissed, snake-like.
"Hey noobs! You've got a cheek!" the dwarf's amazed voice broke the heavy silence. "How did you get here?"
He never received an answer.
"Alex, step aside."
"No, I won't," I could be stubborn too. "What were you thinking about, creating this abomina-"
She responded with a lightning attack. The spines on her arms ripped through my shoulder, grazing my throat. My chest seized with agonizing pain. I dropped to my knees. She leaped at the dwarf, her tail lashing him across the face. For a brief moment her body clung to the low ice-covered ceiling, then she darted into the tunnel that oozed a cold draft.
My Life bar faded. My neuroimplant was pumping my brain with sensations of harrowing agony like nothing I'd ever experienced before.
"Don't overact," the dwarf cringed. A crimson scar ran across his cheek. "Gwyn, where the hell are you!" he bellowed.
The sounds of scampering footsteps came from the tunnel.
"Togien, did you see that?" another dwarf arrived — a Monk, judging by his gear. "What kind of fire monster was that?"
"A demon," Togien replied, than added, "Give the kid a heal, pronto!"
A healing aura enveloped me. I breathed again. My Life bar quivered and began to grow.
The pain subsided. Still, I'd already learned my first lesson in the world of Crystal Sphere. Its authenticity levels were really off the scale.
"Better now?" the dwarf hid a good-natured smile within his mustache, apparently misunderstanding my stare. "Don't worry. I don't hurt babies. I'm not a grave robber. I'm just a bit down on my luck gear-wise," he stroked his beard mechanically.
"Thanks," I sat up, looking around me.
"How did you get here, anyway... Alexatis? This is miles away from the nearest nursery."
"Must have been a glitch. I've no idea how it happened."
"Have you tried to log out and log in again?"
I maintained a moody silence. I didn't want to lie to him — and I couldn't tell him the truth.
"Never mind. It's gonna be all right," he said. "You can stay with us if you want. We won't be here long. We just want to check this cave out. I want you to meet Gwyn. He's my nephew. A real-life nephew, I mean."
This Togien turned out to be a nice guy, after all.
"Thanks for the heal, Gwyn," I said.
He beamed. "That's not a problem."
I got the impression that Togien was quite strict with his nephew and didn't mete praise out gladly.
"We level up Archeology, you know," Gwyn added. "It may be a secondary profession and all that, but still-" he cut himself short, meeting his uncle's disapproving glare.
"Too much information! Grab your pick and go back to work! Alexatis, you'd better stand aside — better still, wait in the tunnel before one of those ice fragments does you some serious damage! Just meditate or read some guides, or whatever."
I complied. I did have a few things to ponder over.
Togien and Gwyn began hacking at the ice, digging for artifacts. Admittedly, they were good at what they did.
I focused on a transparent ice bauble encasing one of the objects, its outlines showing vaguely through the ice.

A Large Block of Ice
Durability: 70/70

The two dwarves must have specialized in Mining. Their picks effortlessly crumbled the fragile ice. They were giving it their all. I really should keep a safe distance: at level 1, I only had 50 pt. Life. The first large fragment of ice flying my way would be the end of me.
I had no idea where their resurrection point was. I'd been lucky enough to have come across two such friendly individuals. Togien was level 18 and his nephew, 12. Which meant they also hadn't been in the Crystal Sphere long.
The tunnel was damp. Water streaked down its walls. The depths of this underground maze exuded subterranean heat.
The tunnel was overgrown with soft pale moss. I slumped down onto it, watching the fancy play of light from a torch wedged in a crack by the cave entrance.
My first impressions were sharp and contradictory.
Before, I could never understand why the choice of race was considered a "social act". I'd even gotten into a heated argument with some smartass on the Middle Earth forum about it. My point had been, the reason I'd chosen a Warrior was because I wanted that particular set of abilities, and nothing else!
I might have been wrong, I agree. Everything we hide deep inside our hearts under a fine veneer of social conventions is released into the virtual world. You can't really play a holier-than-thou Paladin if you have a tendency for much lowlier behavior. That's how it happens that by changing chars and adding various alt characters — who might suddenly become our main ones — we look for our online identity. Sooner or later, we all find it.
Did that mean I'd known nothing about Christa? Back in the Middle Earth, she'd still been trying to control herself — while here she'd finally lost it, complying with the voice of pain devouring her from inside.
I could change nothing, anyway. Our choices had been made. It was unlikely we'd ever cross paths again. Unless it was in battle.

* * *

I opened my interface, about to distribute the available points, when the earth shuddered, showering me with crumbling rock from the tunnel's ceiling.
A chain of powerful shocks ran through the tunnel, dying in the distance.
The two dwarves ran out of the cave and froze, listening to the far-off rumble of rockfalls. Judging by their alarmed expressions, nothing like this had ever happened in the Crystal Sphere before.
"It has to be the City Guild and its wizards," Togien grumbled. "Let's go back in, Gwyn. It seems to be all right now."
They returned to their work. I proceeded with my character research.

Alexatis. Level 1. Neuro.
Life, 50/50
Physical Energy, 37/50
Mental Energy, 50/50
Physical Defense, 2.5 (homespun clothes, 0)
Physical Attack, 2,5 (weapons not equipped)
Mental Defense, 0.5% (abilities not activated)
Mental Attack, 0 (spells not studied)
Mental Energy Regeneration, 2,5 pt./sec (Spirit divided by 2)
Strength, 5
Intellect, 5
Agility, 5
Stamina, 5
Spirit, 5
Main Professions, Not opened  
Achievements, None

You have 7 main characteristic points available.

At first, everything seemed simple enough.
Strength was responsible for the amount of damage dealt by Physical Attack, as well as for the weight the char was capable of carrying and the numbers of absorbed incoming damage when parrying.
Intellect was responsible for the amount of Mental Energy as well as the damage dealt by spells. It also affected the char's Learning Skills and the amount of XP (experience) received.
Agility was responsible for the char's reaction times which affected all of his actions in some way or another.
Stamina determined the amount of Health points that decided the quantity of the char's Life.
Spirit decided the char's resistance to magic attacks, increasing his or her chances of blocking a spell or continuing to cast one while being attacked.
Still, in practice it wasn't that clear-cut and easy. A char's main characteristics were all interrelated. Their interactions could be calculated using special formulas. To give you a rather exaggerated example, every weapon had such characteristics as Weight and Damage. A strong character would have no problem lifting a heavy mace and using it to deal a hit that would strip his or her opponent of (say) 10 HP. But a character who is strong and agile would be able to strike twice in the same amount of time dealing double damage — because the high Agility numbers would increase his Attack Speed.
You see my point? My ability branch was still closed. I hadn't been given any tips regarding which particular stats could be vital for a Neuro's successful development. I had a funny feeling it was Intellect — but this was only my conjecture. Which was why I came to the decision to wait until I reached level 5 before distributing any available stat and skill points.
"Alexatis? Mind coming here for a moment?" Togien's bellowing voice disrupted my train of thoughts.
I closed the interface and walked into the cave.
Oh wow. They'd done a good job there, hadn't they? Possibly, with a little help from the earthquake. Tiny ice fragments crunched underfoot, sparkling in the torch light. Not a single block of ice was left — they'd ripped them all apart nice and neat!
"How much weight can you carry?" Togien asked me.
"Sixty pounds."
"That's nothing," he sounded upset. "How big is your inventory?"
I shrugged. "Twenty slots. A standard one."
"I have a proposition for you. What if we give you an extra bag for a hundred slots? We've got too much stuff, you see. We could go all together to Agrion — that's a city on the River Warbler. It's not far from here. We'll give you 1% of the price of what's in the bag. What do you think?"
A newb would have to be a total idiot to refuse this kind of offer. Besides, it didn't look as if the hike to the nearest safe locations was going to be easy, either. The local mobs were definitely more advanced in levels than humble me.
"I'm in."
"Let's load up, then. No, wait," Togien gave my starting clothes a critical look. With a sigh he reached into his stashes, producing a suit of well-worn leather armor. "This is yours. Take a look around and get yourself a weapon," he probably meant the trash items they'd found but which didn't merit the inclusion on their Valuables list.
"Thanks," I hurried to change into my new clothes: a set comprising a leather jacket, pants, gloves and boots with 40% Durability still on them. It fit me well. Judging by their stats, the items didn't have any bonuses but they did raise my Protection to 12 pt. — excellent for starting out!
"Suits you," with another good-humored smile, Togien made some mental calculations. "Thanks don't fill a purse though. We'll subtract the kit's price from your share. Actually, the clothes weigh 12 pounds extra. But it's all right. Gwyn will cast a few buffs on you. He needs the practice. Good for both of you."
As the two dwarves continued to sift through their finds, arguing over their potential value and sorting them into several piles, I decided to check out the trash. Lots of curious objects were lying around in the slush — mainly weapons and armor made of some alloy unknown to me. Despite being untouched by rust, their metal had grown dull and brittle.
I reached out for what looked like a decent helmet. It crumbled to dust at my touch. It must have suffered some magic attack.
It was trash indeed.
Finally, I had my eye on a sword. Four empty stone slots gaped on its hilt. Its handguard was rather unusual for a sword, formed by several thin masterfully forged strips of metal that completely protected your fingers and the back of your hand. The grip was good. It might take some getting used to but I could already see the design's strongest point: striking it out of your hand wasn't going to be easy. The four empty slots must have been there for a reason. The double-edged blade wasn't too broad. If you took a good look at the fine layer of patina covering it, you could see faint symbols of some mysterious language underneath.

Item received: a Mysterious Sword
Damage: 5
Weight: 2,450
Durability: 15/500
Requires level 1 and 5 pt. Strength.
Class restrictions: none

"I can see you've made your choice?" Gwyn glanced at the sword's stats. "Not enough damage. The durability is a bit low too."
"It doesn't weight much," I argued.
"You're right there," he pointed at a heap of small objects — mainly precious stones and all sorts of weird-looking artifacts. I wouldn't know what to do with them. "Load up. I'm gonna cast two buffs on you: one for Stamina, the other for Strength. Ten minutes both."
"How did you find this cave?" I asked, distributing the items between the slots of the capacious bag they'd given me.
"A quest," Gwyn replied brusquely. He raised his hands to cast the spell, apparently unwilling to go into detail. Pale blobs of light escaped the tips of his fingers. For a brief moment they enveloped me, filling me with strength.
"How much mana does it take?" I asked.
"One-third of a full charge. That's all right. I also have elixirs. By the time we get to the city I'll raise you a couple of levels. You'll see."
Who was I to argue?
I decided against equipping my new sword. I put it into my inventory and assigned a quick-access icon to it. Easier that way. I could still whip it out in no time but this way it was safe from prying eyes. Once we got to the city, I'd have to look it up. I'd love to know what kind of trophy I'd gotten. I might even restore its durability which in turn would improve damage. Besides, all those question marks admittedly intrigued me.
"Ready?" Togien gave me a critical look but seemed pleased with the result. "Off we go, then!" he headed for the tunnel first, lighting his path with the torch. "Alexatis, try to keep up. If we come across any mobs, don't stick your head out. I'll do the tanking. Gwyn will heal us."

* * *

Keeping up with them proved not that easy!
Ten minutes later I was already stumbling and falling behind. My Physical Energy reading was dwindling fast. The extra 25 lbs. of weight were taking their toll. The neuroimplant was adding its two cents, too.
Let me tell you: it had changed the entire gameplay radically. Before, my char could be exhausted and still I hadn't felt a thing. Now my legs shook and started to give under me.
"Gwyn!" I called.
"I see," he grumbled. "You're a mana gobbler, you. Wait, I need to sift through the spells."
Being a mule was hard work. Still, I had to grin and bear. It was well worth it.
As we walked, I pondered over my situation.
My character's class was bound to attract attention and raise unwanted questions. Still, at the moment that was the least of my worries. I could always explain it away by having had to import my account from a different game world. However, no one should suspect anything about the mind-shattering authenticity levels I was experiencing. Otherwise I'd be a very easy target. Christa had already taught me this lesson.
So I might need to practice self-control. If the tiniest of wounds made me linger in battle, others were bound to notice it.
Finally Gwyn found the spell he'd been looking for. This buff, on top of raising both Strength and Stamina, would also halve my Physical Energy losses.
"It took you some time," I walked faster, feeling the energy flow into me.
"My spell book's too thick," he replied, apparently proud of the fact.
"What, at level 12?"
"We're both from Middle Earth, aren't we? We had our accounts transferred from there. We lost our levels but kept all the rest. You have any idea how many scrolls I'd studied there? And this," he grinned, "this girl... do you know her?"
"You gotta cool it, man. You never know with them. Today she's a princess, tomorrow a demon. Just like in real life," he joked in a clumsy attempt to cheer me up.
Togien didn't join our conversation. Still, he kept his ears pricked.
"What prompted you to level Archeology? Aren't there any mines around here?" I asked simple-heartedly.
"There are but they're either poor or you need to mop them up first," Gwyn replied. "Local mobs have six hours' respawn time. If you do it with two people, there isn't enough time left to mine anything."
"I'm sure they'll fix it soon," Togien said confidently. "They'll be mopping mines up regularly. Then we can talk about resource farming on an industrial scale. First with small groups, but sooner or later big clans will muscle in. Familiar scheme."
"Don't you have clans already?"
"Small ones. They still keep close to cities and starting locations. The Crystal Sphere has incredible territories but its players still need to level up first. Level 45 was the biggest I've seen. And within a week's hike from Agrion you can already come across level-50 mobs. It's a young world, what do you want?"
His words took my breath away. I'd always dreamed of discovering virgin locations. I was so fed up with following in other guys' tracks, doing guidebook quests that had been completed a thousand times before me. I wanted to be a pioneer!

* * *

The long winding tunnel kept forking and branching off. It was riddled with deep crevices: some of them oozing water, others breathing subterranean heat, yet others sweeping you with chilly drafts, freezing you to the bone.
No idea how one could find his way here without a detailed map. Still, Togien strode along without hesitation, taking confident turns every time the tunnel forked.
The two dwarves definitely enjoyed the underground trip. I, however, felt utterly out of my depth.
As if reading my mind, Gwyn (he walked behind me) cheered me up, "It's all right, man. Soon we'll come to the city sewage-" he cut himself short as he stumbled into me, nearly knocking me off my feet.
"Alexatis, what's wrong with you?" he exclaimed. "Keep going!"
I didn't reply. I had a very bad feeling. A whiff of icy cold touched my heart. My breathing seized.
I couldn't keep it to myself. "Togien, wait!"
He turned round. "What is it?"
"You can't go further!"
"Why not?"
"I had a bad feeling about it. Don't laugh! It's true!"
"What's that, an ability you have or something?" Togien asked, hiding a smile. "Or are you taking the mickey? You can't have any abilities, can you? Not at level 1! We still have some walking to do before we can stop for a break," he added sternly.
A shadow flashed behind his back. Two swords slashed through his knee ligaments in a treacherous combo. With a yelp, he dropped his battle hammer and slumped to the floor.
Three rogues materialized out of the shadows. Players, levels 16 to 20.
Wheezing, Togien tried to get back to his feet but couldn't. I could clearly see a debuff icon in his tag: both swords were poisoned.
"Finish him off, Mouk! Otherwise we can't collect the loot."
"No, wait. I want to bleed him first. I need some blood for my Alchemy," one of the rogues produced a vial and bent down, filling it with Togien's blood. The other two moved toward me. The tunnel was too narrow so for the moment, they couldn't get to Gwyn yet. Why hadn't he run off while he'd still had the chance? Rogues were good at ambushing you or assaulting you from the back, but there was no way they could catch up with a dwarf in an underground maze.
"So?" one of the players came closer, playing with his swords. His name tag was recognizably bright red. "Whatcha you gonna do, newb? Will you give us your bag or would you rather we send you to your respawn point?"
The red name tag with a skull icon on it meant he was a PK: a Player Killer. Any city guard's duty was to kill him.
"You aren't gonna kill me," I continued to block his way in the hope that Gwyn — judging by the bustling sounds behind my back — would finally see his chance and flee.
"Why not?"
"Can't you see my level? This is noob hunting. Go ahead, then. Your PK counter won't like it. This time you won't get off lightly. This isn't a community-work sentence, man."
"Quit being smart," he snapped. Still, he seemed to realize the consequences. At the moment, he was denied access to the city for the ungrounded murders of other players. But if he as much as touched me, the punishment would be much more severe, stripping him of most of his stats.
"In that case, get out of my way! Hey dwarf, quit hiding behind the newb! We're gonna get you, anyway!"
"Alexatis, step aside please," Gwyn said behind my back, his voice quiet but intense. Was it my imagination or had I heard an empty mana vial clatter to the ground? What was he up to? He couldn't possibly take on three rogues way above his level.
Suddenly Gwyn shoved me against the wall. He'd stuck the torch into a crack in the wall. The hood of his gray cloak covered his head. He'd put his weapons out of sight.
"Give us your bag, monk," said the one called Heilig (I automatically added his name to my KOS list) as he resumed playing with his swords. 'The newb is right. My PK counter doesn't need exercise. This way I can stash away the loot, give myself up to the guards, work a couple days in the stables and start it over with a clean slate."
"You're absolutely right," Gwyn mumbled, looking perfectly harmless in his baggy cassock. "Here you are, Sir, take it," he pulled out a fat bag out of his inventory. "Just please don't hurt my uncle. I'm gonna give you his bag, too."
On hearing that, the rogues obediently let him go past the gang's leader. Once he found himself between the three hoods, he bent his back in a deep bow, spreading his arms wide.
"Peace be with you..." a dazzling shimmer enveloped his hands. A blinding light came out of his eyes. A warm healing wave washed over me (because I was neutral to Gwyn). Not so for the PKs! The aura of a blanket debuff turned all three to stone.
The one busy collecting blood thumped to the ground, collapsing to one side. The other two stayed on their feet, petrified.
Gwyn slumped down the wall. Blood soaked his clothes.
"Shitheads!" Togien's roar echoed through the tunnel. He was healed completely. Grabbing his hammer, he took a swing — which was stopped by Gwyn's weak outcry. "You can't finish them off! You know that, don't you?"
Gasping, Togien tried to overcome his fury. "You're right.'
He turned to me, "Alexatis, help me, quick!"
"What do you want me to do?"
"Check his bag! Look for a vial with some purple liquid!"
"This one?"
"Yes! Give it here! I'll unclench his teeth and you pour it down! Like this! Good!"
Gwyn groaned, stirring weakly. His Life bar began to grow.
Having made sure that Gwyn was okay, I motioned Togien to step aside so that the paralyzed rogues couldn't overhear us.
"Was that a Humble Bow?" I asked.
The dwarf frowned, looking at me unkindly from under his bushy eyebrows. I could understand him. It looked like this account transfer had just played a bad joke with the Crystal Sphere admins.
"How do you know about the Bow?"
"I played in Middle Earth. From what I heard, you couldn't get this ability for love nor money. You have to complete a quest chain issued by the Higher Priests without killing a single mob. That's how they teach Meekness to any potential candidate. Am I right?"
"You should keep your mouth shut about that," Togien said anxiously. "It took Gwyn a year to complete it. That's why he lagged behind me level-wise. If anyone hears about his imported ability..."
"You shouldn't worry about me. You'd better worry about these PKs here. They will talk, trust me. You should have given them the bags, really. It was stupid of Gwyn to expose himself like that."
"Wait a sec," Togien crouched by the wall, laid his hammer on his lap and logged out. Nothing seemed to have changed. His hands still clutched the weapon's handle. His gaze, however, had become empty and lifeless.
Gwyn had already come round. Still, he didn't seem too eager to talk, apparently realizing he'd screwed up.
Now is a good moment to say a few things about that magic ability of his.
When activated, the Humble Bow sucks the life out of the monk who cast it, leaving only 1% — just like the Bleed debuff does — and heals all neutral and friendly characters while paralyzing all enemies within 150 feet for 10 hours with a Stone Curse. Cooldown: 10 days.
Nothing special, you might say? What is so unusual about being able to heal your friends and simultaneously paralyze your enemies once in ten days? Still, the Humble Bow has one truly unique factor. It affects all players regardless of their levels.
Now imagine two clans fighting for a new territory, fortress or resource. The battle reaches a critical point; you give it your all, throwing all available forces into the strife; your wizards are out of mana, your warriors barely standing on their feet, and the enemy's high level players are hacking their way through your ranks, about to storm your casters' positions.
At this moment, a humble monk stands in the attackers' way and bends his back in a deep bow. "Peace be with you..."
A blinding light blankets the battlefield.
The monk drops dead. And all around him, your exhausted clanmates arise to their feet and pick up their arms while your enemies freeze like a sea of statues. And nothing can change that!
In all honesty, I didn't envy Gwyn at the moment. His unique ability had evaded the Crystal Sphere admins during his account transfer, putting him in constant danger. In this young world troubled by its first territorial wars, he wouldn't be able to preserve his neutrality and enjoy undisturbed gameplay. The moment the word got out, everyone would start applying pressure to him, desperate to get a fighter like him into their ranks.
But whoever he joined, others weren't going to stop. They might try to bribe him or simply make his virtual life unbearable. Gwyn would lose his freedom, turning into the closely guarded property of a group of influential top-level clan members. If his goal was to make money playing, he would sure do that. Still, I had a funny feeling he was in it for the thrill, just like myself. Gwyn craved adventure, not a hedonistic excuse for an existence in some classified citadel vault.
Togien stirred, coming round, and let out a deep breath. "I found it. All three are paying players. They couldn't have played in Middle Earth. They're about seventeen in real life."
"How did you find that out?"
"I paid. There's this online dealer, Arbido."
The recent memory smarted. "I know him. I once ordered some relic gauntlets from him. I needed a full set of armor to complete an instance and I had no time to get them myself."
"Arbido's quite correct. His intel is solid."
"You think these guys don't know about the Humble Bow? They won't be able to put two and two together?"
"I hope not. Middle Earth is closing soon, anyway. They're about to archive all the guides and forums. Just please not a word to anyone. Otherwise others won't leave Gwyn alone."
"Sure. I understand that."
"I hope you do. We can be grateful, you know."

Togien has invited you to join his group!

Shit. That was the last thing I needed.
"Hey, Alexatis, what's up? What's there to think about?" he sounded sincerely amazed. "I sent you an invitation, man! We could rush you up to level 5 or even more, how about it? Or are you too conscientious to accept? All right, let us take you to the city, it's a safe zone with newb locations, social quests and whatnot. Do you seriously fancy genociding frogs in the city pond? Or catching rats in the barn? I don't think so."
He didn't understand anything, did he? His sincere surprise was about to give way to quite understandable suspicion. Problem was, genociding frogs in some slimy pond was the exact thing I needed. It was all because of this neuroimplant I had. I'd no idea what kind of surprises the "hundred percent authenticity" might have in store for me. Small creatures would suit me perfectly well at the moment, allowing me to gingerly feel out my pain threshold and other intricacies of a new combat strategy I still had to work out. And if I joined the group, the dwarves might easily smoke a dozen mobs, rushing me through the first five or six levels (because I'll be receiving my share of XP as a group member). This was gameplay. And once I finally made it to the hypothetical pond, I might be faced not with a harmless frog but with some giant sharp-toothed predator toad.
Still, if I ignored the invitation, Togien might take offence. He might even become suspicious. Normally, no one refuses this kind of offer.
I couldn't help it. It looked like I'd have to play hard. I joined the group and added both dwarves to my friend list.
Togien visibly relaxed. He'd probably already had all sorts of ideas about me.
"Thanks," I said calmly. "What do we do with these guys?"
"Just leave them here. We can't finish them off. If we do, Gwyn might lose the ability."
"What, you want them to walk away?"
"Oh no, they won't! They'll get their just desserts, trust me! Come on, let's go now. The city isn't very far."

* * *

The first hour of my new life had elapsed.
The tunnel continued downhill. Its interior was getting more and more interesting. Its offshoots were now blocked with massive chunks of stone covered in complex script. I didn't recognize the language. These must have been dungeon entrances.
After our encounter with the rogues, Gwyn had clammed up. He hadn't said a word.
"One thing I don't understand," Togien said, leading the way, "is how the hell those idiots got here?"
He seemed to be angry with himself, blaming himself for failing to notice the ambush in time.
It was getting considerably warmer. A hot, dry air wafted into my face. The cracks in the tunnel's uneven floor glowed crimson, apparently formed during the recent earthquake. From time to time, we came across wide fissures which we had to leap across. I looked down one of them and discovered another level below, streaked with slowly flowing lava and studded with the ruins of underground cities. The sight of shadows flitting amid them made your blood freeze.
I shouldn't have worried about Christa. This place was perfect for a demon. Me, I still had some walking to do before I reached safe starting locations.
Mechanically I made screenshots of the dungeons below. This kind of info might come in handy one day.
The exorbitant realism of the experience was beginning to grate on my nerves. It was also causing me considerable discomfort. I'd never had to worry about the size of my gear before — but now that had all changed. The tunnel was so hot I was dripping with sweat. The leather armor was chafing against my body. I should have kept the shirt on. And the bag felt like it weighed a ton.
"Gwyn?" Togien said. "What's up, man? Are you asleep or something?"
"Why, is it time already?" the monk said with a start.
"Ten seconds left."
"Sorry, guys. I was away with the fairies," he cast another spell on me, restoring my energy.
"I think the rogues had followed us all the way from the city," Togien mumbled. "They'd been stealthing along, listening in. They knew we'd be back with plenty of loot!"
I broke into a cold sweat. The sensation of being watched returned, as if the walls themselves kept an eye on my progress. The feeling washed over me, then disappeared, leaving an itch between my shoulder blades. I must have left the danger behind me.
I celebrated too early. Something touched my face — something light as a feather, gentle and inviting.
With every step I took, this feeling like a tender caress grew stronger. Considering the setting, I had reasons to believe it was fake. What would a friendly creature be doing in subterranean dungeons?
The darkness oozed whispers.
I couldn't make out the words yet. The dwarves didn't seem to notice it. Togien's stocky figure was hovering next to a cave mouth up ahead, illuminated by the flashes of lightning from his charmed hammer.
Should I trust my suddenly acute intuition? And how was I supposed to react to this? Unlike the freezing cold that had assaulted me just before we'd met the rogues, this gentle touch felt good.
"Come here," the darkness whispered. "Come to us..."
"Togien, don't move!"
This time he obeyed instantly and froze, peering into the darkness. "What is it?" he asked without turning to me.
"Can you hear whispers?"
"No. All I can hear is the crackling of the rock. And the earth rumbling below," he added.
"Stay where you are!" My gaming experience kicked in. I might be level 1 but I couldn't make newb mistakes.
A taut wave of energy emerged from the cave, filling me with strength.

The Call of the Depths is summoning you

Togien hadn't sensed that, either. Gwyn, however, exclaimed in surprise,
"Alex, someone's just cast a buff on you! You've got +10 to Strength for 60 seconds!"
"I shouldn't be so sure. There's something wrong here," I said, reading the system messages. "This is called the Call of the Depths! Heard anything about it?"
Gwyn startled. "Shit! It's either a dark caster or an obelisk! Togien, stay away from that cave! We need to check it first!"
"If you say so," Togien shifted his combat stance: now he was holding a shield as well as the hammer. "I need more aggro!"
Gwyn raised his hand and drew a golden symbol in the air.
Their plan was simple. The spell increased the level of danger generated by Togien until one of the little monsters sensed it.
I was right. A mob popped out of the cave.

An Imp. Level 3. Mine Digger

The creature was short and ugly, with a large head, pointy ears and a scrawny body covered with wrinkly red skin. He clutched a pick in one hand and a deformed bucket in the other filled with pieces of ore.
On seeing us, the imp froze bug-eyed and open-mouthed, about to scream an alarm.
No chance. Togien reacted promptly, his battle hammer squashing the little bastard into the ground.
Gwyn drew another symbol in the air. I watched the unfolding scene without proffering any unwanted advice.
A fine veil enveloped Togien's body. Under its protection, he took a peek into the cave. Immediately he shrank back, forwarding us the resulting screenshots.
The cave's deep mouth was dimly lit by an unsteady, uneven light. A dark obelisk towered atop a small pedestal formed by runs of solidified lava. It was this that was emitting the gentle whispers, soft touches and the Strength-enhancing buffs.
All around it, emaciated figures stooped in small mining shafts: the creatures of many races who had succumbed to the obelisk's charms, forever bound to this place, doomed to mine ore for the powers of Darkness.
Imps scurried among them. I peered at their tags. Those closer to the entrance were workers. Further on, lurking behind the rocks and solidified lava, were imp warriors. But that wasn't the worst of it. If you peered through the crimson gloom, you could make out the larger outlines of some much more dangerous spawn of the dark.
"Where did they all come from?" Togien sounded puzzled. "We took this very road not two hours ago! There was nobody here!"
"The earthquake?" I suggested.
"Could be. The imps must have crawled out through the cracks in the ground. Even the Dark side needs resources."
"But the obelisk? Surely they don't lug it around with them?" I asked.
"They don't. Ever heard about form and substance? What you see now is the form. But it's the substance that matters. Inside the obelisk lives a spirit which controls the prisoners," Gwyn began to explain. "As soon as this place is depleted, the imps will use a special spell to set him free while the prisoners move to another cave. There they'll trap the spirit in another slab of rock to create a new obelisk."
Gwyn's eyes glistened with an almost insane glow. What was it with him?
"Can some of them be players?" I asked.
Gwyn shrugged. Apparently, he wasn't that interested in the prisoners' fate. It was something else.
"Some may be," he replied. "Still, you can't keep a player prisoner for longer than twenty-four hours. It's against the rules. Normally, no one likes wasting time obeying orders. They try to mine as much ore as they can in order to exhaust themselves and then go on to their resurrection point."
"How about their gear?"
"It stays here."
"Do you mind if I ask you why Togien and you don't seem to be affected by the obelisk?"
"Our levels are higher than his. The spirit can only control those weaker than himself. But over time, his powers will grow."
Togien too looked strangely agitated. He exchanged meaningful glances with his nephew, then turned to me. "Alexatis, I'm gonna ask you to keep quiet about this cave. You shouldn't show your map to anyone. Agreed? We might throw in a few more gold for you for the trouble."
"Why, what's up?"
I could see Togien didn't really want to tell me. Still, he must have failed to come up with a believable excuse because he said,
"Thing is, you know... sooner or later the imps will leave and take the spirit with them. But the rock he's trapped in now, it will stay where it is."
"Is it worth something?"
"It's Smoky Rock. Transformed matter. Obelisk fragments can be sold for a hundred gold apiece, depending on their size. Only a master miner can farm them. But you still need to know which rock the spirit used to inhabit. Because once he's out, the rock will look like any other, you understand?"
"Yeah. I won't tell anyone. I promise."
This he seemed to be greatly relieved to hear.
"You'd better tell me," I went on, "this transformed matter, what's it good for?"
"Alchemists need the dust and the chippings," Gwyn replied eagerly. "Smaller fragments can be used to decorate weapons and armor with. Large ones are used to make stat-enhancing runes. There's also crystal armor, very rare. To make it, you need to be a Grand Master — and not in Blacksmithing as you'd think but in Jewelry."
I made a mental note to look into it. "Does that mean we can't go further?"
He shook his head. "Unfortunately. Gwyn and I might have battled through on our own. But not with you, we can't. You need to understand. The weakest imp will smoke you before you know it."
His bad mood was in fact perfectly understandable. The most valuable albeit lightweight part of their loot was in my bag.
"What other options are there?" I asked. "Any Plan B? Any teleports stashed nearby?"
To my disappointment, Togien shook his head. "Teleports! We're less than an hour's walk from the city. Nobody knows about this tunnel, believe it or not. Gwyn and I happened to discover a piece of an old map. We couldn't read it so we took it to a local antique dealer. Imagine when instead of buying it he produced the missing part of the map from a box — and on it was the part where the tunnel was marked. Next thing we knew, he issued us a quest to get to the old tomb and bring him any ten items made of cargonite — which is a very rare alloy. The secret of its manufacture is long lost.
So that's what was in their overstuffed inventories!
"Who could have known we'd have an earthquake? Imps are nasty little bastards. The moment there's a crevice in the ground, they pour right out there and then!"
"And how did the rogues get here?" I said, unwittingly touching a sore spot.
"They must have stealthed up to us," Togien gave his nephew the evil eye. "This is what happens when you discuss your plans in a tavern and lay the map on the table for everyone to see!"
"If you hadn't skimped on the room, I wouldn't have had to do so!" Gwyn snapped back.
"Enough! Stop aggroing each other!" I shouted.
Both turned to me. "Who do you think you are?"
Shit. I kept forgetting about my level 1. Not a healthy idea arguing with higher-level guys. Still, it was a question of survival. The dwarves had no idea I'd be literally risking my life battling through hordes of imps. How would the neuroimplant react? Would I survive the pain of my injuries? I'd been planning to find that out slowly and gingerly — definitely not by combatting a host of mobs whose levels were five times my own!
Still, I didn't lower my gaze under their glares. "Now. We have two options. Option one is to go back. The ice in the cave where we met had frozen in those runs for a reason. It means the water was coming from somewhere. We need to have a good look. There might be some crevice there that might take us up to the surface."
"Waste of time," Togien rejected my suggestion straight off. "By the time we go there and come back, the rogues will recover."
"In that case, option number two. We need to lure the mobs into the tunnel. I want you to rush me a couple of levels, then we might be able to fight our way through."
Judging by Togien's silent sniffing, he liked it.
They had no idea that for me this meant mortal combat — literally.

* * *

"Five are coming your way!"
Gasping, Togien ran out of the cave and swung round, holding a shield in front of himself.
The imps scurried out along the cave's wall and ceiling. Clever bastards! Three level 5 workers and a couple of warriors. So many! That was one hell of a pull. I had a funny feeling there might be more coming.
One of them lobbed his tin bucket into Gwyn's face. He ducked just in time. Others attacked Togien. The tunnel was too narrow for all of them to get a good foothold. The warriors began hacking Togien's shield with their heavy scimitars. They were slightly taller than imp workers: about four foot or so. They fought with abandon — why wouldn't they, considering they received a constant flow of buffs from the obelisk.
The three workers hung overhead like bats, clutching onto the tunnel walls and low ceiling, and kept hacking at Togien's helmet with their picks. Still, they did little damage to his armor's durability considering the level gap.
Togien stayed put, receiving virtually no damage and waiting for his opponents to run out of steam. Still, the obelisk kept recharging them time after time. We should have retreated further down the tunnel.
Strange things were happening to me. I could still hear the tempting whispers and feel the touch of energy, continuing to receive the buffs to Strength. Still, the call didn't seem to affect my mind. Actually, yes, it did. For a brief moment I experienced a strong desire to pick up the deformed tin bucket and hurry into the cave as if mining ore was my sole purpose in life. The urge disappeared as fast as it had come, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
Realizing his mistake, Togien changed tactics and slammed his attackers with his shield, knocking them out. They recoiled, shaking their heads, finally allowing him to launch an offensive. His axe whooshed through the air, stripping two of the workers of their lives. He then finished off the two warriors with a few slashing blows.
"Go easy on mana," he said, addressing Gwyn. "I'm okay for the moment."

You've received a new level!

A golden shimmer enveloped me.
"Quit stallin'," Gwyn gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder. "Let's retreat a little bit. That way the obelisk can't buff the mobs."
So far, so good. I'd gotten a new level. A couple more, and I'd be able to smoke imp workers. That way I'd be less of a liability.
'Any loot?" I cast a meaningful stare at the fallen mobs.
"Sorry Alex, our inventories are packed," Togien said, choosing a place for any new combat.
"I'll just take a look," I said.
I picked up a scimitar.

Damage, 5
Weight, 5.5
Durability, 7/10
Requires level 3, 10 Strength, 5 Agility

This was classical trash: a low damage weapon, heavy and cumbersome. What about this one?

A Spikey Round Shield
Defense, 4
Weight, 4.5
Durability, 5/10
Requires level 3
+5% to your chances to deal damage while parrying.

I had to take it, no doubt about it. You didn't need a shield to parry — it was a default stat every weapon had. Still, in my situation it was useful. Considering the local authenticity levels, it would be stupid to rely on my leather armor alone. Pain was pain.
"Alexatis! Where the heck are you?"
"I need your help. Can you feel the obelisk's call?"
"Think you can define its range?"
I obeyed. We had to walk back a good fifty feet, all the way round the bend, before fatigue overcame me. My Strength had dropped to its old reading.
"It takes us too long!" Gwyn kept casting anxious glances behind us.
My sentiment entirely. As we'd walked back, we'd come across quite a few crevices formed by the unexpected earthquake. I had a sneaky suspicion that imps hadn't been the only creatures of the Dark who'd escaped them.

* * *

"Coming!" Togien sprang out of a bend in the tunnel and swung round, covering himself with his shield.
This time he'd only brought two imp workers. He made quick work of them, then assumed a combat stance, "Get ready!"
Demons! Two of them! Both level 18!
I'd heard before that imps were nasty greedy creatures standing on the lowest rung of Infernal evolution.
I should have known they were too primitive to control the spirit imprisoned within the obelisk. They weren't the bosses here!
"Behind you!"
I swung round to Gwyn's voice. He was right. The ethereal shadow of a lich draped in flowing tatters of clothing peeled off the wall.
Immediately it materialized, its tattered rags a cloak thrown over a rusty suit of armor. The eyeslits of his helmet oozed gloom.

Ancient Lich. Level 3

He didn't attack me. Instead, he raised a bony arm, mouthing a spell. I could hear his blood-curdling whisper, his fingers enveloped in a faint aura.
I had to disrupt the spell!

Mysterious Sword: equipped.

This was my mnemonic interface's knee-jerk reaction which gave me a chance to launch a sudden critical attack.
The sword weighed my hand down. In a lightning motion, I chopped the lich's hand off and shrank back, trying in vain to escape his response attack.
His scream assaulted my eardrums. An invisible force punched my chest, throwing me hard against the rock wall. My vision darkened. My throat seized up.
Gwyn came to my rescue. I knew that monks were expert hand-to-hand fighters but I was yet to see one in action. Even now I wasn't able to see it clearly as the tunnel swam before my eyes. The aura of his blessing removed the Lich's curses from me. The next thing I heard was the clatter of bones and the clanking of rusty steel as the lich collapsed in a heap under Gwyn's devastating assault.
"You freakin' nuts?" Gwyn snapped at me, hurrying to return to his position. "You can't do this on your own! Always call us when you need us!"
Very nice. Thanks a bunch, Mr. Borisov. Your idea of an alternative start sucks, if you want to know. Talk about sink or swim. Why did they need to do it?
The demons were pressing upon Togien. He assumed a defensive stance, struggling to fight back against two opponents at once. Parrying with his sword, he was looking for the right moment to counterattack. Gwyn kept healing him but still our little group definitely missed a warrior who could deal the damage while Togien was pulling the aggro to himself.
I couldn't help them with that, not yet. Not against level 18 mobs. My hits were little less than mosquito bites for them.
Once I came round a little, I hurried toward the slain lich. Something glinted weakly in the heap of bones and crumbling armor, like a precious stone. It turned out to be the knob of a staff hidden under the lich's tattered cloak!
I grabbed it and checked its stats,

Lethal Wound Staff
Crushing Damage, 5
Dark Magic Damage, 5. Effect: Bleeding, 5 sec
Durability, 9/10
Charges left, 12
Requires: level 2, Intellect 10
Restrictions: Only the undead

Pretty useless for me, wasn't it? I was about to throw it back when my fingers clenched in a spasm. What was that now? I had nothing to do with Dark powers!
My hands were shaking. I tried to fling the staff away from me but I couldn't! My body began to prickle. It felt as if I was the attracting center of some dark, viscous energies flowing toward me from every direction.
One of the demons pushed himself away from Togien's shield, finalizing an attack. The creature clung to the ceiling, growling and emitting an unbearable stench. Then he lunged at me.
Instinctively I raised my hands, trying to block him. I failed to stay on my feet. Still, the demon wasn't interested in me. He grabbed the staff and pulled it out of my hand. His jaws closed around it until it snapped.
A silent crimson flash enveloped the demon. I scampered into the opposite corner, unable to get to my feet or take my eyes away from the scene.
Brown goo gushed from under the demon's armor. He whimpered and collapsed to one side.
The dwarves didn't waste time. A cleansing aura flashed in the dark, consuming it, as Gwyn used yet another one of his abilities. Togien performed a clever combo, stripping the other demon of 30% Life, then attacked him again before he could recover from it. Another scream echoed from the rocky walls, then it was quiet.
I struggled to my feet, disgustedly rubbing my clothes clean from the droplets of nasty goo that had showered everything around.
Experience in our group was distributed equally. The two mobs killed by Togien (who'd also finished off the demon that'd snapped the staff with his jaws) had brought me up to level 4. I ignored the system messages for the time being. I had more important things to do.
"You fucking nuts?" Gwyn yelled at me, bug-eyed. "You should know better! What possessed you to pick up the staff?"
"Why not?"
"What's your resistance to magic?"
"Point five percent."
"So? Use your head! It's charged with Dark energy! If you held it for a bit longer, you'd be a fucking zombie by now!"
I didn't reply. I may be an experienced player but I hadn't been allowed the time to look into this new game world. Besides, Gwyn wasn't exactly right. This wasn't how it had happened. Firstly, for some unknown reason I'd managed to aggro the demon. Secondly, it didn't look as if it could transform me. The obelisk, too, had been buffing me with Dark energy, but it had failed to control me. Which meant I must have had some resistance to magic — but for some reason, I couldn't see it in my settings.
"Stop it," Togien said sharply. "We'd better think how we're going to get out of here. It looks like we're stuck, doesn't it? If there're demons in the cave, it now makes it an instance. And I don't think we're strong enough to tackle it."
"An instance!" Gwyn fumed. "Since when? Two hours ago there was nothing here! We walked through, then the rogues stole after us!"
"An upgrade, maybe?" I offered.
"Possible. It doesn't help us, anyway," Togien grumbled. I told you we should have bought a teleport scroll, didn't I?"
The two were about to argue the toss again. I had to do something.
"You two are dwarves," I said. "You're second to none when it comes to mining and metalwork. Don't you have some cunning ability that might help us get out?"
Togien stared at me. "You're right!" he slapped his forehead. "Well done! That's smart! The Rescue scroll! I should have thought of it!"
"The Rescue scroll? Never heard of it."
"That's because you've never worked in the mines," Gwyn replied. "Miners get buried alive in rockfalls an awful lot. No one wants to hack through the rock for weeks just to get out."
"Will it work? I don't have Mining open yet."
"Doesn't matter. The scroll works for the entire group. The only problem is, we're not buried alive yet."
Togien chuckled. He laid his weapon down and reached for his pick. Then he pointed at a small crevice that branched several feet away from the main tunnel, ending in a dead end.
"Try to get in as far as you can," he said, beaming, apparently pleased as Punch with the solution.
Gwyn and I squeezed our way deep into the narrow opening.
Togien took aim and puffed with a noisy breath, then began hacking at the tunnel wall. Small rocks showered down. A large crack ran across the wall. Part of the tunnel ceiling collapsed, breaking into large chunks of stone.
"Togien!" Gwyn looked seriously worried.
"I'm all right. Light the torch, will you?"
A shaky uneven light illuminated the small space around us. The entrance to the crevice had been blocked solid.
Togien broke the seal on the scroll, opened it and recited a short spell.
The ground rumbled and shook. An invisible force lifted me and jerked me upward.

* * *

The sky was aglow with a fiery sunset.
Peaceful countryside lay all around us. A patrol of three level-100 guards walked unhurriedly along the mud road.
 After the stuffy darkness of the tunnel, I felt dizzy. We were sitting by the roadside, gasping. Ignoring us, the patrol sashayed past us toward where the far-off city walls and towers peeped above the horizon.
My Strength buff was still working but I was completely exhausted. It must have had something to do with the fact that this was the neuroimplant's first activation. I might not last very long now before I collapsed with fatigue.
"That's it. Let's move it," the hardy Togien was ready to get going.
"Sorry guys," I said. "I'm afraid I need to log out. Now."
"Oh do you? And who's gonna carry your bag to town?"
I scrambled to my feet in the hope I might feel better. As if! If anything, I felt worse. "Sorry. I really need to go. Can't you do anything at all about it?"
"And what are you gonna do with your char, leave him here by the roadside?"
"Is there an inn in this village?"
"As a matter of fact, there is," Togien grumbled. "Ah, fuck it. We'll hire a horse and load it up. We'll give you an advance of five gold. The rest we'll transfer to your account after we close the quest and sell the loot."
"Fine. Thanks. You should deduct the horse hire from my cut."
"We will, don't you worry!" Togien swung round and strode toward the village which was only a few hundred feet away. Gwyn and I plodded along.
"You shouldn't have touched that staff, man," Gwyn misunderstood the reason for my sorry state. "The powers of the Dark never sleep."
I could barely hear him. I'd passed my first trial. I'd earned myself four levels and had lots of new experiences. I'd found new friends and made new enemies.

The only thing I wanted now was get to the inn, rent a room and collapse onto the bed.

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