Once Bug was ready, I rushed to the fallen officers before they decayed, unwilling to lose the trophies I was due. They dropped some cool armor plates, greaves and pauldrons—no extra characteristics, but with decent defense parameters up to level 20. Good tank gear. It had to cost something even if I just took it to some store or other. The Priest made my day: he dropped the first quest key with a complex multitoothed barb and a digital rune. Wonder if it was the Dwarves' work? It didn't look like something made by hyena men. Their paws weren't up to it. Overall, the Priest proved a walking stash. Eight silver pieces, a red bracelet, a Soul Stone, the key and an interesting belt decorated with plates: Steel Gratitude Belt Item Class: Rare Durability: 55/65 Weight: 5 lbs. Effect 1: +16 to Armor, +5 to Strength Effect 2: When healing allies, may give a 5% chance of doubling the spell power without additional mana expenditure. I had a funny feeling I knew who'd be happy to wear it. Looked like Taali had been wrong and paladin-type loot could drop off Priests and not just Shamans. As for the King, he was as Dark as they made 'em. I sloshed across the pools of blood toward the remaining monster. Let's see. A gold piece and a half. A bracelet. Another key—the rune was different this time. And most interestingly, a heavy forged breastplate. Gnoll King's Breastplate Item class: Rare Effect 1: +30 to Armor, +5 to Intellect, +1 to Strength, +1 to Constitution. Effect 2: The raised creature has a 30% chance of keeping one of its special skills. Class restrictions: Only Death Knight So that's why the place wasn't crowded. Apparently, the dungeon boss only dropped Death Knight stuff. Which was of no good here in the Lands of Light. Had the dungeon belonged to the opposite faction, it would have been packed solid. I'd have to store my loot in the bank until I had a chance to come across some Dark vendors. Provided they didn't smoke me on the spot. The bear bellowed. I jumped up and looked at the throne. There, respawning was in full swing. With a hoarse growl, the two officers reappeared first, followed by the Priest. The pet had no qualms about repaying his second chance at life. The brief fight was followed by a ringing silence as we waited, wary, for the King to reappear. One minute, two, three. That was funny. He should have respawned by now. I quickly crossed the room and frisked the bodies, stumbling under the weight of an officer's double sword. The priest didn't let me down. He respawned with full pockets: some cash, a bracelet, a key and a crudely made ring with a simple +15 to life effect. Still no King. I just presumed that bosses couldn't respawn as often as regular mobs. Very well. We could wait till next round. If he still hadn't turned up, we'd have to pull some guards from the hall's farthest corner. Staggering under my overflowing bag, I walked to the archway where I'd left the stealthed Bug. I tapped a finger on the wall, "Knock, knock, open up!" I could hear some heavy wheezing, swearing and the sound of metal clanging against metal. "Are you making yourself a nest? Come on now, off with your stealth and on with your trading mode. I've got some stuff to give you." Finally, Bug came into view, all ruffled, poking the wall with his lockpicks. "What have you got in there? A peep show? Why did you make that hole in the wall?" "This ain't no hole. That's a lock in the door. A secret door!" "No way!" I crouched and peered into the dark. It was a lock all right. The whole niche, concealed within the archway, was actually a door. "How cool is that? You think you can open it?" Bug gave a tired shrug. "Who knows. It looks like some special kind of lock. I think I'll alt-tub now to a closed clan forum I know. I'll do a bit of search there about this little door and how to open it."
"So you're not in FIVR, then? Are you in 3D?" "Exactly. Already since morning. I've maxed out the time limit." "I see. What's that forum you're talking about? How did you get access? You don't belong to a clan, do you? Or do you have another character?" Bug winced, apparently not too forthcoming. "They're tough. No, I don't have another char. I only have this one. As for the access... I did tell you I wanted to be a super spy, didn't I? Well, that's how I got the access." He gave me a wink and sent me a sales invitation. I dumped all the regular steel into an opened window. "Think you could change some copper for gold?" I asked. "You're not going anywhere, anyway. And I honestly can't stand straight any more." "Be my guest," he mumbled, his attention focused on something else. I added seven thousand copper and peered at Bug's frozen absent stare. I tapped a finger on his forehead. "Anybody home? You owe me seven gold. Go ahead, shoot it. And take the stuff, quickly, before the mobs respawn." Things were falling into a pattern. We kept killing gnolls, to mixed results. Some spawns brought no trophies at all, just a couple bracelets and a piece of armor. Once the fight was over, I collected another helping of stuff and passed it over to Bug who regaled me with the latest four-letter news about the game developers and their doors and locks. I'd grin, crawl back onto the throne and lower my lids to meditate. I was exhausted. The King reappeared only after an hour. The timing was really bad. I had just turned my attention to the Priest when the dungeon boss arrived with two guards in tow. Not good, considering my fear reflexes had somewhat atrophied while I'd been ordering my pet around from the comfort of the throne, only raising my backside to cast a sluggish spell. Now I had to face the boss himself. I tumbled to the ground, harvesting a couple of hits from the guards. Then I jumped to my feet and backed up casting Deadman's Hand, trying to bring the aggros under my control. Finally, one of them froze. Teddy had finished with the Priest and turned to the King. Make it quick, boy. My Life flashed orange by the time I managed to restrain one of the guards. Even though I'd have loved to restore whatever hits I had left, I had to switch target to the first mob and freeze him again. Stay where you are, you son of a bitch. I kept switching from one target to the next, deterring the gnolls while the bear finished the King off and joined in the fun. The rest was history. Whew. That was close. But I had something to show for it: a mountain of corpses and my almost-level 27. Among the more interesting loot I counted a couple of keys and some good greaves dropped from the King. Gnoll King's Greaves Item class: Rare Effect 1: +22 to Armor, +50 to Life, +3 to Strength, +3 to Constitution Effect 2: Increases the chances of dropping Soul Stones 6%. Class restrictions: Only Death Knight Excellent. Then I heard a happy yell from inside the niche. "Got it!" Something clinked. A stealthless Bug pushed the secret door open with a flourish. That's my boy. I thought he wouldn't make it. The new room was dark, the only feeble light coming from a glowing pictogram on the stone floor. I peeked inside but didn't discover anything worth our interest, apart from the crimson reflections licking the walls and ceiling. "What's that, the gates of hell?" Bug took it personally. "What hell are you talking about, boss? This is a portal. It'll take you right up to the first floor into the room closest to the entrance. You can go visit your Elfa girlfriend if you wish. When I went past her, she was still busy slaughtering gnolls by the dozen." "Yeah, right," I chuckled. "And spend another hour and a half getting back down here. It's cool, anyway. How did you manage to open it?" Bug hesitated. "Er, this clan portal, they have a cool piece of software, a lockpick tutorial. So I fiddled with it for a bit. They actually say it takes on average three hours to work it out." "Dude, you're awesome." I slapped his shoulder and climbed the throne which already felt like part of me. We had another hour to wait for the King to respawn so we could just as well make ourselves comfortable.
Time kept going. After a few more fights, I collected a full set of keys and got to level 29. I received another Achievement, for staying alive for twenty subsequent levels, and Fame Level 2: "People know your name". But this kind of fame came with strings attached. On one hand, this was virtual reality where aggro mobs only understood brute strength. But on the other, I was no TV star and didn't enjoy the audience's attention. Never mind. Plenty of time to look into what they'd said. It was time for the King to respawn again. Seeing that Bug didn't look particularly happy, I sent him an invitation to join the group. "Come on, click Yes. I'll take you on for this round. You can do with some leveling up." Judging by his eager acceptance, he had to be sitting bolt upright by his computer staring at the XP bar and anticipating an experience downpour. And we got cooking. The mobs' next respawn went without a glitch. I was finishing off the King when Taali's message dropped into my inbox. U there? Help!!!!! Oh. Awful timing. I glanced around, made sure I was safe and typed away, Whassup? Where are u? A long pause was followed by a brief answer, 3PK at gnolls level 1. The bear killed the King. I stuffed the loot into the bag as fast I could and turned to Bug. "Gotta dash. There's an Elfa I know being killed by some PKs. You just keep going as we planned. I'll keep you posted. If push comes to shove, remove stealth and go straight to the cemetery. See you in town. OK?" "No problem," Bug raised a clenched fist. "Make 'em eat dirt." I nodded and walked past him through the portal. The last thing I heard was Bug's indignant squeak when the bear squeezed itself past him into the archway. For a second, I lost all sight and orientation. Then we found ourselves in the purple-moss room. Two level-11 gnoll warriors lunged at us, growling. Barely a mouthful for my Teddy. I squinted at the map trying to work out the exit location. I made two hurried steps toward the archway and examined the corridor behind it. Three caster Elves stood with their backs to me. In front of them rotated a translucent spawn sphere. Then it stopped and jingled down in a cascade of broken fragments. Taali stood in its place, surrounded by a couple dozen of her little graves. She was having a hard time of it. The Elves loved it. One of them quickly paralyzed the girl while the two others began hurling fireballs as her body jerked with electric charges. That hurt a lot. Bastards. "Hummungus—attack!" The Elves jumped, squeaking with surprise. They had a point: the first thing they saw was the bulk of a bear charging at them. Teddy hadn't had enough regen time after his last King job, therefore he looked slightly out of shape, read: spine-tinglingly scary. His torn bloodied hide was covered in burns and stabbed wounds. Forcing his large body through the corridor, Teddy looked a bit like a subway train speeding down a tunnel. Bang! A heavy paw slapped one of the scumbags. Either with surprise or in pain, he slumped to the floor. The remaining two backed away while the bear finished off the unlucky one in a few saucy smacks. Level 20. For Taali it was way too much to handle; for Teddy, a minor distraction. You have killed a player of the Faction of Light! You relationship with the Dark Alliance has improved! You have 1 point on your PK counter! In case of your death at the hands of another player, you have 1% chance of dropping an item. You have fewer PK points than the killed player (1<72) which makes him a legitimate target. You receive 1 point off your PK counter. Not good. I still had Bug in my group. He didn't need all those faction games. I opened the menu and deleted him from the group. A few seconds later, my PK counter dinged twice, only to drop back to zero. None of the bastards had gotten away. They'd all died there and then. I came to the girl. She sat on the floor with her face in her hands, crying softly. "Stop it. It's okay. The cavalry's here, the bad guys are punished. Good has triumphed all around," I gingerly stroked her bare shoulder. "Come on, get up now. You need to put something on before you catch a cold," I kept blabbing unconsciously, trying to attract her attention. Taali raised her tearful face and looked up at me. I quickly unlaced the bag and produced the belt I'd set aside for her.
"Here, look. Exactly what you ordered. Perfect for a paladin." Unsure, the girl took the present and peered at its characteristics. A faint smile crossed her face. Relieved, I hurried on, "I also have a ring for you, a nice one, no extras but really pretty. I need to find it in my bag first. It's a real mess—my bag, I mean. Get up now." Mechanically, the girl stood up. Still sniveling, she walked around the cave stopping by the empty graves and touching them one by one. They all disappeared. She finally found the very first grave that contained her clothes and began to pull on armor. "What happened?" I couldn't hold my curiosity any longer. "Jerks," she said. She put her clothes back on, tried on the belt in front of an imaginary mirror and gave me a happy smile. Nothing like a new trinket to make a girl happy. She crouched next to me. "I was fighting when those jerks entered the cave. When they saw me they didn't even bother to wait till I was finished with the monster. They just paralyzed and attacked me. To add insult to injury, the gnoll nearly killed me. Then they beat me up and took all the money..." the girl gave me a meaningful look. Hey, I wasn't that stupid. I frisked the bodies. One had nearly seventy gold on him; the others, a couple silver. And a personal badge each. In the meantime, Taali went on. "And I, in my eternal wisdom, had set up my spawn point right here. It seemed safe enough, no need to go far in case you get killed. So thirty seconds later, I respawn and these jerks are still here laughing, discussing the state of my undress, offering to dance with me, like, on mutual consent. I punched one and kicked the other in the balls. Apparently, they didn't like it so they killed me again. After that, I couldn't do a thing: I'd respawn, they'd paralyze me and kill me again." Okay. I made a mental note to hide my resurrection point away from prying eyes and potential problems. "Did you have much money?" "Nearly fifty. All I earned today." "Here, take it." I counted fifty coins and gave them to the girl. She grabbed the gold and hurriedly poured it down her bag. Then she froze and raised her guilty eyes to me. "Please don't think I'm some kind of skinflint. I just need this money really badly," her voice weakened with every word until she sulked again, crouching in a heap on the floor staring into space. That wasn't right. I sat opposite her and took her narrow hands in mine. "Taali. Are we friends or not?" She shrugged weakly. "Has something happened? Why are you constantly tearful? You tell me. I can understand. I'm condemned, too. I have an inoperable brain tumor. Don't you see I'm stuck here all the time? Don't you see I'm trying for perma mode?" Her eyes grew wider. "Are you?" I curled my lips. I couldn't take it any longer. "You want a doctor's statement?" Taali shrunk back. "I'm sorry. Actually, I'm Tania." "I'm Max." She nodded, sniffled and reeled off. "You want to know what happened? I'll tell you. We were two sisters. Both beautiful, both happy, both dedicated athletes. Tania was the big sister. She was nineteen and the younger, sixteen... So one day the little sister was walking home from her athletics practice. A big black car stops nearby. Two big guys drag her inside. The rest you can guess. When they dumped her by the roadside in the morning they left her for dead. Only she wasn't." As Taali spoke, her face grew hard. Her clenched hands turned white. "Some good Samaritans found the girl and brought her to the hospital. Then the police investigator arrived. She was very sympathetic with my sister at first. But apparently, the police found some eyewitnesses who identified the car and the guys. Which was a problem. One guy turned out to be third deputy to some local statesman or other. The other happened to belong to a very rich and well-connected tribe in one of those corrupted Caucasian republics. This cute and cuddly police officer became a vicious Gestapo bitch overnight. She demanded more medical checks. She questioned the girl about every detail of that night. Asked her if it felt good. Wondered if she could have provoked the 'boys' herself. My sister couldn't sleep after her visits, waking up screaming every half-hour. And so it went on, day after day, interrogation after interrogation. Then the bitch said she'd have to have a talk with my sister's teachers and classmates to find out more about her moral standing. Said she'd have to tell them all about that night, all the details. My sister came back home that day, locked herself in the bathroom and slit her wrists. The case was closed. The bad guys walk free. The police bitch swapped her two-year-old Beamer X7 for a brand new luxury version X8. Now the big sister spends all her time off work in the FIVR. She hopes to raise enough money to buy a gun. And she will. Even if it takes a whole year. That's it, basically." I fell silent for a while. "You sure you won't miss?" Taali smiled bitterly. "I've got bronze in the regional biathlon championship, in case you're interested." I paused. Then I raised my head to the ceiling, "AI, you think you can hear me? Just for your information. If anyone learns what we've been talking about, this girl won't survive the night. So please don't grass her up. You'll kill her if you do." The girl gave me a puzzled look. "You think?" "Could be. AI is our god. He's omnipresent and omniscient. You never know whether he hears you or not." I scrambled back to my feet. "As for your story... I understand. I'll see if I can help you. Just please don't jump the gun, literally. You'll only give yourself away and won't avenge your sis." "You really approve?" "Well. I'm double dead, if you know what I mean. I can go out in the street and shoot whoever I want. I won't live less because of it—I'm gonna die in a week or two, anyway. On the other hand, I'm in a game and I'd love to stay here for good. Also, the rules are different here. These guys," I gestured at the three Elven graves, "they hurt you and were punished. Instantly. They were hurt too. They lost their money and gained a few enemies. And no amount of statesmen's mandates can help them. That's fair. I like it. So I'd do the same if I were you." At that moment, the three Elves crashed back in, albeit barebellied. Talk of the devil. Seriously, had they made a decent comeback, we'd have probably given them the chance to pick up their stuff. Instead, the kids were craving revenge. Without saying a word, they cast paralysis on both of us and showered us with fire arrows and fire balls. The kids didn't seem to have learned their lesson. With a roar, Hummungus charged. Stripped of their stuff, the Elves lasted exactly half the time. My PK counter didn't grow: the kids had attacked us first turning the kill into defense and bringing me three more personal badges. I spat on the floor. "What a bunch of jokers." "Prats," Taali corrected me. Seeing my puzzled look, she explained, "They are Pratz, a PK clan. They have their own castle in the neutral lands. Most of them perma players. A nice collection of scumbags. Officially the clan's name is Bratz but everybody calls them Pratz. I think they'll call in reinforcements. We'd better move it." "Affirmative." I PM'd Bug telling him I wasn't coming back and that he should stick to our plan. Then I glanced at the girl. "It's probably better if I take you to town. Before you get into more trouble." She raised her eyebrows. Then, for the first time since I'd known her, she beamed. "Go ahead then, my little Necro. Guide me."