Friday, November 13, 2015

The Kartoss Gambit (The Way of the Shaman: Book #2)

 Chapter 1. At the fringe of the Empire.

I boldly stepped into the portal and prepared myself for long struggle with the Governor. The three months I would be forced to spend entirely in his power were no cause for celebration, but I had no intention of surrendering, crawling on my knees or cowering like a kicked dog before this fumble of the developers. That sweaty toad can kiss my ass and forget about the Orc Warrior figurines, for all his attempted bribery: peace, love or lots of dough. Potential use of physical force against me wasn't much of a worry. I was sure that the freed prisoners couldn't be casually punished or tortured – we did have rights, after all, even if these were somewhat curtailed. It was worth bearing in mind that the system was fully aware that the sensory filters were disconnected, so I had little to worry about and... What on earth is this?

To the player located in a prisoner capsule! You have earned 'Respect' with the Pryke Mine guards and are being transferred to the main gameworld.
You have the option of taking part in the adaptation scenario: 'The Governor's Castle'. Time to be spent at the location 'The Governor's Castle': 2 months 26 days. Role taken: 'Castle craftsman'. Conditions: eight hour work day, a weekly salary, the results of the daily labour go to the Serrest province; every seventh day is a holiday, development of crafting professions (up to level 30 inclusive) – at the expense of the Governor.
Reward for taking part in the adaptation scenario: Respect with the Serrest Province, two items of the ‘Rare’ class.
Should you decline, you will be sent to a random settlement in the Malabar Empire and your reputation with the Serrest Province will fall to the level of ‘Hatred’.
Do you wish to take part in the adaptation scenario 'The Governor's Castle'?

Judging by the shimmering portal that surrounded me I wasn't going to be taken anywhere until I made the choice. If that's the case I had time to think about it, weighing up all the pros and cons.
First. An adaptation scenario... How much more adaptation can I need? I get it already – I'm a loser and a wretch, who only gets handed truckloads of compulsory adaptation instead of the standard game and normal communication with other players. That is definitely a minus.
Second. There's the close proximity to the Govertoad, even if just geographically. I'm sorry Mr. Digital NPC, our encounter was a mistake and mutual love is definitely not on the cards. You just wanted to use me... Right, my thoughts are getting in a mess again... In any case, the Governor's personality amounts to two fat minuses.
Third. I am a business-like person and should think things through rationally. It would be foolish to simply walk past such a pile of freebies: the salary, the development of an unlimited number of professions, the character level being my only limit. I could be learning Smithing, Alchemy, Enchantment, Cartography and level up in many other things at the same time, all justified by the conditions of the scenario. Definitely a double plus.
Fourth. If I refuse, I'll get Hatred with Serrest. This is a clear minus or rather a plus towards taking part in the scenario. There are just forty provinces in Malabar and to lose access to one of them is a very short-sighted choice.
I think that's it. I don't know about anyone else in my place, but for me the choice was clear. I didn't want to limit my freedom to one holiday a week. If that's the case, I'd say 'Good luck' to the Govertoad - he'd have to make do without me. I was all but crestfallen when I jumped into the portal with the flashing message that for two months and twenty six days I'll be stuck in the Governor's castle. Things turned out a lot less dire - the system simply provided advance information of the scenario, naively thinking that I would go for it. After all, it came with so many freebies and big bonuses... They can dream on!
I confidently selected the 'Refuse' sign, small as it was next to the larger 'Accept', and in an instant the world was filled with color, sound and the fragrant scent of a pine forest.

To the player located in a prisoner capsule! You have declined to take part in the adaptation scenario and were sent to the settlement of Beatwick. Time to be spent at the settlement: 2 months 26 days. Maximum time you can spend outside the settlement: 48 hours. If you are found outside the settlement beyond the allotted time, you will be teleported back into the village and a record of violation of the parole conditions will be made. Three violations annul your parole and you will be returned to the mines to serve the remainder of your prison term.
Have a pleasant game!
Compulsory quest accepted: 'Visiting the Village Headman'. Description: go to the headman of Beatwick to be allocated living quarters for the next three months. Deadline for completion: 12 hours. Penalty for failure: 3 violations.

I made a few steps towards the village visible in the distance, but was stopped by another message:

Your reputation with the Governor of the Serrest Province has fallen by 22000 points.
Current level: Hatred. You are 12000 points away from the status of Enmity. Due to receiving a maximum negative value, your bonus for daily reputation gain is invalid.

So they did land me with that after all. That's right – I knew what I was signing up for: the maximum value in negative reputation. Although... A negative reputation is a reputation nonetheless. In Barliona there are four levels of negative reputation: Mistrust, Dislike, Enmity and Hatred. From Neutral reputation to Mistrust there are minus 1000 points and to Dislike another 3000. Then it's minus 6000 until Enmity and 12000 until Hatred. I was given the maximum in one go! When I played my Hunter, I managed to get Exalted, the maximum positive reputation, with only one faction and that only after playing for a couple of years, while now in just three months I went straight to Hatred! Yes, of course a Shaman knows no half-measures, with reputation it has to be at the maximum, with crafted items – only Legendary ones, and with girls only those who get you locked up in prison. Just one thing was bad: now Serrest was lost to me – as soon as I get spotted by the guards there, I'd be immediately sent to prison 'to assess the situation'. Then it's spending a day in the preliminary detention cell and then teleportation to the borders of the province. The next time I'd spend two days in the cell. After that it's three and so on without a limit. The most unpleasant part was that a reputation like that is almost impossible to improve - you need the personal intervention of the Emperor.
Visions of the lost carefree life in the Govertoad's castle floated up on the fringes of my consciousness, but I quickly dispelled them and headed to Beatwick. At the first glance it was a pretty standard average village; judging by the chimneys it had at least seventy households. The wooden houses, roofed with wooden shingles, the barking of dogs, happy shouts of children running around after a madly screeching cat that had something tied to its tail - all of this was a picture of normal village life, which I remembered from the times I had gone to visit my parents. The enormous stockade of thick logs around the entire perimeter protected the village from the dark forest that stood about a hundred meters away. The strange expression 'forest of masts' involuntarily popped into my head - the trunks of the pines, as straight as spears, shot up into the sky, hiding the sun with their thick canopy and creating deep twilight beneath. Fallen pines, shrubbery and hazel thicket, together with other kinds of trees, made the forest quite literally impassable. Only rare paths, probably hacked through by the locals, lead into the depths of this wonder of nature. Despite such surroundings, life was not restricted to the interior of the stockade – up until the very edge of the forest there rolled wide yellow fields of some kind of cereal crops, green meadows, where cows and sheep grazed, and hundred-meter-long vegetable patches that had villagers bent over them with their hoes. The village theme was played out to the full. Thick black smoke and the ringing blows of a hammer came from the smithy that stood near the road to the village. Great: there was a place here for leveling up. The only drawback for me was the red band on my head: without it Beatwick would have all but rolled out a red carpet for me as a free citizen of the Empire. Right now though, I'd be lucky not to get dogs and pitchforks.
I took a deep breath in the fresh air and headed at an unhurried pace towards the village gates, looking out for any special aspects of local life. My main task was to find the local Headman and 'register' my presence in the village. If I only knew where to look for him. This was no Pryke mine, where the orc always sat behind his desk – here the Headman could be running around anywhere.
As I made my way towards Beatwick, I tried to take note of every detail that could be of use in the next three months.
I saw how the smith, large as a bear, came out of the smithy, lifted a small barrel of water and, breathing out a loud 'Eehh!', emptied it over himself, snorting and giving off a lot of steam. He stood there for a couple of seconds giving me an unfriendly stare and loudly breathing in the cool air, then he lifted the anvil from the ground as if it was a feather, shot me one more glance and disappeared back into the smithy. With that I felt my plans for leveling up in professions take a nosedive: I hate heat. For me it's better not to work at all than be sweating buckets, my tongue hanging out as I gulp in the sizzling air.
A group of three bearded men were actively swinging the scythes and giving me extremely unfriendly glances. Their small foreheads, menacing and, at the same time, unintelligent eyes made them look very similar to Neanderthals, whose pictures I remembered from history lessons. They only lacked some animal skins on their backs, otherwise they'd be a spitting image of them. When I walked by them I could hear muttering that didn't sound at all like Barliona's common tongue. I could bet that these three had some kind of a quest connected to them: either they were the quest givers or they would provide some kind of related information. If I asked the locals, it would probably turn out that these guys weren't from around here.
An interesting-looking tree caught my eye...
"Watch out!" the clear voice of a child tore me away from contemplating the local sights. I turned towards the source of the sound and opened my mouth to ask what happened, when my forehead was struck with something large, hard and very painful. Bam! The peaceful county landscape was enriched by the image of a flying Shaman, sending curses on anyone and everyone. My flight came to a stop almost immediately – inside a fresh haystack. With some effort I dug my way out of the green entanglement, spitting out grass and brushing it off my coat. What the hell!? I habitually looked at my Hit Points, and cursed once again. 40% of my Hit Points were gone! What have I done to deserve this? The answer came soon enough, but left me somewhat perplexed. It was a huge cartwheel, tied around with a rope and framed with metal sheets. Riiight. Something like that could send you off for a respawn in no time!
"Are you all right?" a small out-of-breath boy, his face red, flew up to me, barely older than seven, by the look of it. "I was... my tooth... the wheel! It's so heavy! And there you were! And it rolled the wrong way! Took my tooth with it! And then – 'Bam!' And you're flying! Into the grass – 'Whack!' Did it hurt?" He was looking at me with such concern and guilt, trying to tidy up his messy ginger hair with fidgety hands, that I was totally unable to get angry at him. "You won't tell mum, will you? Our blacksmith is good at pulling teeth, but he's so busy all the time, so I have to do it myself," the little boy started to explain, fitfully gulping in air between words and flashing the gap where his tooth use to be.
"Now I have no tooth, like Bald Bobby," the kid continued to chatter and it dawned on me that the wheel that sent me flying was the local replacement for a dentist, when the smith was too busy.
"You really won't tell mum? Otherwise she won't let me out by myself again, only with my sister! And she's such a bore – that's not allowed, don't touch that, keep away from the dogs! Yuck! How can you be so boring? I remember how we went to the forest..." It seemed like part of this NPC's settings stated that if silence lasted for more than a minute he'd immediately vanish from the face of Barliona. It didn't matter what the topic was or whether anyone was listening – he just had to keep talking. "Right, stop!" I interrupted his tale of venturing into the forest and gaining victory over the great vicious rabbit, "Do you know the village Headman? If you take me to him, I won't say anything to your mum," I could use a guide at the start, and the boy must know each and every one in the village.
"The Headman? Who doesn't know him? Everyone does! Five coppers and I'll take you to him right away. He's always hiding, so you can hardly ever find him," the kid was grinning and stretching his small hand towards me, with an expectant look.
"Here you go, you young extortionist," I threw five copper coins into his hand and they immediately disappeared, as if they had never existed. Of course, I could have made the boy take me to the Headman for free, but five coppers weren't going to break the bank and this way I might get some kind of a quest out of his parents (or a good hiding, if it turns out that one mustn't give the kid money under any circumstances.)
"What's your name, then?" I asked the young rascal, who was fussing around the fallen wheel and trying to decide which was the best side for getting to grips with it.
"I'm Clouter," the lad replied quickly and started to redden from the effort of trying to lift the wheel.
"Quit fibbing, there isn't a name like that. Let me help," I came up to him and put the wheel upright. It really was heavy. "Where will you roll it now?"        
"I'm Clouter," said the little guy insistently, wiping his nose with his sleeve, "I don't like Avtondil. I won't be called that. Everyone has good names, only I've got a stupid one. I always get a beating for it from the Straighters. No need to roll it, just push it that way, it'll get there by itself." Avtondil... no, Clouter pointed towards the village, "with luck it won't hit anyone this time."
"And who are these 'Straighters'?"
"They are from the neighboring Straight Street, Al Spottino's gang. Watch out!" Clouter screamed after the rolling wheel and shouted to me: "We'll meet down the-ere!"         
Clouter tripped up a couple of times, tumbling down the hill, but immediately got up and continued running after the wheel, shouting at the top of his voice. I chuckled at his goofiness and was about to follow him when I was suddenly turned around, lifted off the ground and thrust into the enraged bearded face of the blacksmith:
"Why are you bullying Clouter, you thug?" before I could answer anything, the blacksmith took a good swing and sent me flying again. It's not like I was expecting a royal welcome, but this was too much. These flights were beginning to wear me out with their frequency! I got up from the ground and quickly glanced at my Hit Points. Oh boy! I only had 18% of Life left! A blacksmith's punch hit much harder than the wheel! I saw that I might not survive a second blow and started to summon a Healing Spirit on myself.
"What's with the dancing? You're a warlock!" It was just as well that the Tambourine sped up the Spirit summoning - I managed to completely heal myself only a second before my next flight. This was some blacksmith! Strong as a bear. I tried to get up, but my feet gave way and I slumped to the ground, seeing a semi-transparent message appear:

Dizziness! You lost concentration for 10 seconds.
Skill increase:
+10% Endurance. Total: 60%.

"Stop, Mr. Slate!"
"Leave it, Clouter, stay out of the way. Can't you see that we've had a killer-warlock land on us?"
"He's no killer! He helped me to bring the wheel back to the village and he wanted to see the Headman!"
"The Headman, you say?" Slate loomed over me and then with one hand lifted me off the ground. No-one would believe me if I told them that I got caught between a Slate and a hard place in Barliona! Quite literally. "What did you want from the Headman?"
"I'll be living here for three months," I croaked through a half-strangled throat. Well, well! Playing as a Shaman I was beginning to discover Barliona from a completely different angle: I would have never thought that if you press on the throat, the player would start to croak like that. He won't be getting suffocated - just a status bar would pop up, stating that he didn't have enough air. But the rasping is not something I've noticed before. The blacksmith let go and I fell on the ground like a sack of potatoes.
"Going to live here, eh? Then why are you loitering here as if you're trying to snoop around? There's no Headman around here," without waiting for my reply the blacksmith turned around and went back to his smithy. By the looks of it, my first encounter with Beatwick residents was far from a success.
"Don't be upset," fired off Clouter. "Mr. Slate is nice, he just probably failed to make something today and that made him all cranky. Let's go together, I've finished rolling the wheel. See where it's crashed into the fence? It can stay there."
By the wooden gates I found the local guards - two red-nosed men with puffy eyes. They were doing their best to stop themselves falling to the ground by propping themselves up against their spears. They clearly weren't doing so because they were tired or spent too long at their posts, but from uninhibited imbibing of spirits. The scent of syrupy homebrew wafted a few dozen meters away from the duo, and several bottles strewn across the ground were clear pointers to what the brave upholders of law and order were really up to. You couldn't say much for their overall appearance either: a short chainmail that reached down to the middle of their beer bellies, sitting on top of a simple tunic, studded thick trousers and worn bast shoes made the guards' appearance so 'terrifying', that even if an enemy decided to invade the village he was doomed to laugh himself to death first.
"Halt! Hic! Who goes there?"
"I'm on my way to the village Headman, I was sent to live here," I gave the simple reply. It looked like the local Headman was someone well-respected and referring to him might open doors.
"To the Headman, eh?" the second guard started to mumble in a drunken voice. "Tell him that the gates are in safe hands, we're watching them like hawks. No enemy will get past us!" The guard straightened out, showing what a strong warrior was guarding the village. He was so overwhelmed with emotion that he lost his balance, took several steps backwards, hit the stockade with his back and slid down, having lost his support from the spear.
"Hold it, Wilkins!" the second guard hurried after him, totally forgetting about the unfairness of things like balance and the force of gravity. I shook my head in resignation at the sight of such guards and was about to head into the village, but then caught sight of the opened gates, which had previously been hidden by the plump guardsmen. They were made of common wood, but one side had been scarred by the four-digit claw of some unknown monster. Moreover, this had been done from the side of the village, as if someone wanted to make an opening into the world outside. I wondered whether there was some quest connected to these gates. Was it to find and destroy the monster? In that case I would be offering my services to the Headman.
"What happened to your gates?" I asked Clouter, when we approached a large house located right in the centre of the village.
"Nothing's wrong with our gates."
"But what about the marks that look like they were made by some claws?"
"That's a prank played by the Straighters. Each night they sneak past the dosing guards and cut the gates with knives. Anyone getting caught gets dragged in front of the Headman and anyone who doesn't gets a ton of honor and respect. For example, I've never been caught yet!"
"So how many times did you sneak to the gates?" I asked, disappointed, and just trying to keep the conversation going now. That could have been such a great quest!
"So far zero times, but I didn't get caught either, right?" the kid gave me a toothless smile and pointed towards a brightly-painted house. "We're here now. The Headman's sitting inside, as usual." He then took off so fast that all I saw were his flashing heels. "And don't forget," Clouter shouted after running a good distance and turning around, "Not a word to mum about the wheel!"
"So you've been sent to live with us?" the Headman asked me, as he carefully rolled up a paper and hid it in a draw of his table. As soon as I set my eyes on him it was clear - this was someone who liked order, a pedant and, at the same time, an NPC who was very sure of himself. I couldn't say why, but his appearance really put me in mind of one of the advisors of the Malabar Emperor. He had the same commanding face, framed by a short goatee, and penetrating watchful eyes that took note of every detail; in general, he was a complete picture of one of Barliona's good officials. He was the complete opposite of the Govertoad and it was no surprise that such a leader had the respect of the people in the village.
"Yes, for almost three months."
"No need to stand, take a seat. We have to decide what you'll be doing here," the Headman gestured me to an armchair and then leaned against the back of his own, looking at the ceiling, as if trying to think of how I could be of use to his village.
I sat in a soft and rather comfortable armchair, which was clearly not of a local make. It was strange that the house of an ordinary NPC should have such furniture, Headman or no. Reluctant to interrupt his thinking I began to examine the village leader's 'office'. It was a separate room in a residential house. An enormous wooden table, like that of the Pryke Mine governor, stood in the middle of the office and was a prime example of a well-ordered work space: everything was in folders and neat piles, with nothing out of place. He really was a pedant. A few modest-sized glass cabinets with books and scrolls, a fireplace and a luxurious thick carpet were the other furnishings of the local leader's office. I was about to shift my gaze back to my host, when it was caught by a relatively small painting: there was the Headman, two grown men, an attractive young woman and a smudge of paint that covered the fifth person in the picture.
"We have no inns, so we'll have to assign you to lodge with someone. I think Elizabeth wouldn't mind, her house has been on the empty side for two years now," the Headman began to fill out a paper, which he then handed to me, "here, please relay my request to her. Furthermore, before I decide what type of work to appoint for you, I need to know what you can do and the level of your skills. I need exact numbers."
I opened my stats and began to read out my professions and their levels. It's just as well that he didn't demand that I should tell him all my stats - I was reluctant to reveal that I had Crafting even to an NPC.

"A Jeweler, a Miner and a Cook," said the Headman thoughtfully. "Totally useless professions in our parts. We have no Precious Stones, you'd have to buy them in town, which is two days' travel away on a cart. Mining might have been useful, but we have only one vein, by the smithy, and it's worked by our blacksmith Slate every day. You're not advanced enough to work an Iron Vein in any case. You could, of course, travel to the Free Lands. That's not far from here. You can get Tin and Marble veins there, but our forest is a dangerous one. Few would go there without decent protection. The Cook profession doesn't even bear mentioning: our Mrs. Potts can teach any cooks - even one of the Governor's - a thing or two. So that's that."
Free Lands nearby? Where the heck did I end up? Is this place really in the middle of nowhere?
"You don't happen to have a map of the Empire? It would be good to know where I was sent to serve my free settlement time," I asked the Headman. He squinted, giving me a long piercing look, and then replied, "Yes, there is a map."
He cleared the table, took a scroll out of one of the drawers and unfolded it. It was an enormous map of the Empire, about a meter by meter and a half. Where did he get such a wonder?! Such a map costs around ten thousand gold! "We're here," the Headman pointed his finger at the very edge of the border with the Free Lands. I bent over the map and quietly swore under my breath. 'Middle of nowhere' would be putting it mildly.
After the unification of all the countries took place and one language was adopted, the real world was split into five large regions, along the continents: Eurasia, Africa, Australia and the two Americas. In parallel with reality, five great continents were formed in Barliona, with each being divided roughly into three zones. For example, on our continent there was the Malabar Empire, Kartoss and the Free Lands. Malabar was where the players lived. It contained the main resources, quests, factions, cities, including the capital, and also some yet unexplored lands. Thus the area where I now found myself had not been completely mapped yet - even on the Headman's map it was sketched out very roughly. Kartoss, the Dark Empire, headed by the Nameless Dark Lord, was about five times smaller than Malabar in territory, which didn't stop it causing a great deal of trouble with its constant incursions and raids. But you had to give this Empire its due: it abounded in unique objects and resources, which were often sought out by high-level players. It is interesting to note that both a raid group of a hundred players and a loner that secretly snuck into Kartoss had equal chance of getting loot. It was impossible to play on the side of the Dark Empire, although many times the players signed petitions and held demonstrations, asking to be permitted to play for the dark side of Barliona. The Corporation kept promising to develop this feature, but, as far as I knew, nothing was ever done in this direction - Kartoss remained the realm of the Imitators. And, finally, the third zone on every continent, which took up almost sixty percent of all the areas accessible for play: the Free Lands. Rare independent towns with their own reputation rating, villages made up of two-three dozen houses, great forests, endless steppes, impassable bogs and mountains that rose up to the sky. In the fifteen years of Barliona's existence only thirty percent of the Free Lands territory had been mapped, with the rest remaining a veiled mystery. Naturally, there were some enthusiasts who dropped everything and dedicated themselves to exploration and travel, but they either failed to produce maps of the explored areas or chose not to share them with the rest. Or, which is most likely, they sold the maps for crazy money to the leading clans. For the majority of players the territories of the Free Lands remained uncharted. One could only guess what quests and achievements they contained, although the Corporation representatives have repeatedly encouraged the players to stop battling Kartoss and explore the Free Lands, saying that these held the 'best bonuses' in the Game. The developers even placed all the new Dungeons, one opened every half a year, inside the still unexplored parts of the Free Lands, to give players an incentive to spend their time on making their way there. But I digress, a lot...
I had been sent for settlement to the farthest reach of the Empire, on the border with the Free Lands, which here took the form of impassable woods, bogs and mountains. There were no towns or villages. On the map, almost exactly by the spot labeled Beatwick, there were several icons indicating free mines in this area. I should go there and check them out. However, what really dampened my spirits was that the nearest Imperial town, Farstead, was a really long way off. Two days on a cart is not exactly next door, if I understood the scale of the map correctly. Considering that I cannot leave Beatwick for more than two days, a visit to Farstead was out of the question.
"Had a good look now?" inquired the Headman and then rolled up the map and put it back in his table. "We may not be in the centre of the Empire, but there's still plenty to do here."
"Do you have any assignments for me?" I asked out of habit, knowing full well that the red band on my head wouldn't make me seem particularly trustworthy in the eyes of any NPC. I had to spend around a week in the village for its residents to get used to me and get less wary of my headband and only then start seeking out any quests. But there's no harm in trying.
"Of course there are, but I can't give them to just any stranger," replied the Headman, confirming my thoughts. "First live here for a little while, make some contribution to the village and then there'll be assignments for you. Although... there is one. Recently a pack of wolves has appeared in the woods. They've become bold and started raiding the herds. The shepherds said that they are lead by an enormous Wolf. If you do away with the Wolf, we can see about other assignments. In any case, it is high time for that pack to be culled, it's no good for it to be roaming the woods in such numbers. But bear in mind – I won’t take your word for it. I will need proof.

Quest available: 'The Hunt for Grey Death.'
Description: A pack of wolves lead by an enormous alpha wolf has appeared in the lands around Beatwick. Destroy 10 Wolves and the great Grey Wolf. As proof that you've completed the assignment bring back Wolf Tails, which have 100% drop rate from each mob. Quest type: Common. Reward: +100 to Reputation with the Krong Province, +200 Experience, +80 Silver. Penalty for failing/refusing the quest: -100 to Reputation with the Krong Province.

"I'll take it. I'll go after the wolves tomorrow, first thing in the morning," I said as I accepted the quest. "But I have a few more questions. How many..."
"Wolves first, questions later." The Headman cut me off in a tone that indicated that the matter was closed. "Now Tisha will take you to Elizabeth, to whom you must remember to give the letter. Go on the hunt tomorrow and after that we'll talk. Tisha!" called the Headman, and a couple of moments later the girl from the painting flew into the room.
"Let me introduce you, this is my daughter Tiliasha. This is Mahan, he'll be living in our village for three months. Take him to Elizabeth, he can stay with her."
"Just call me Tisha." The gentle voice of the girl was in tune with her beautiful appearance. "Let's go, I'll show you the village," she then moved gracefully to the door and gestured to me to follow her.

Quest 'Visiting the Village Headman' completed.

It was a large village. From the side of the hill I counted around seventy houses, but in actual fact there were one hundred and three households. Quite a lot, especially by frontier standards. The village followed a standard layout: the central square, where the Headman's house stood, and three streets: Straight, Crooked and Serpentine. The kids from these streets were always in the process of trying to establish who was the best and strongest, so fights were fairly frequent. Tisha also told me about the gates - a year ago her father carved three claw marks into them in order to put some fear into the kids, who were really beginning to get out of hand, making it look like there was a werewolf in the village. But the plan somewhat backfired: everyone was too scared to set foot outside their homes for a whole week. So he had to come clean about it. Then it became a tradition among the youngsters: if you wanted to prove yourself - you had to carve some claw marks into the gates. During the day the gates were guarded by a couple of drunkards, who were no good for any other job in any case, but at night the more serious guards took their place - either her brothers or hired hands, free citizens of the Empire, same as myself. The same in all but the red bands, that is. I couldn't stop myself from asking if there were any free citizens in the village right now, and was very disappointed to hear the answer that the last such person came through the village half a year ago.
Tisha's own story turned out to be quite interesting. She had come to the village together with her family just two years ago, immediately after the death of the previous Headman, Elizabeth's husband. Before that Tisha used to live in a large city. Her father held quite a high-ranking position, because a carriage use to take him away early in the morning and in the evening a large crowd of richly dressed people would gather at their house, lock themselves in the study and hold long discussions. Then something happened and father gathered the household and came here to the edge of the Empire.
"So the gates are guarded at night by your brothers? All three of them?" the thought of the painting with the smudge wouldn't leave me alone - something was amiss here. From the time of my initiation I had decided to put more trust in my instincts.
Tisha's face darkened, she fell silent and walked for a while through the village without saying a word. She then regained control of herself and said in a serious voice:
"No, not three, just two. But they only do it once a week. Never ask me about my third brother. I don't remember him myself, but we do not speak about him in the family. All that I know is that he betrayed our kin and our homeland and father banished him from the family forever. Not a word more about him. We're here. Elizabeth lives in this house," Tisha turned around and quickly vanished around the turn in the road. Oops. Looks like all my ambitious plans to seduce her have just been destroyed. Now I won't get anything other than a mere greeting out of her until I increase my reputation. A pity. But, in general, she did share some very interesting information with me. Banishment from the family is a very serious act for an NPC. I can't imagine what had to have happened for a former high-ranking official to personally banish his own son. Once I level up my reputation to Friendly, I will certainly ask the Headman about the painting myself. I'd bet my life that the story behind the banishment is quite a complicated one and must have a quest attached to it. Assignments like these are exactly in Barliona's style - improving players' social skills by getting them to reconcile families.
"But you said you wouldn't tell mum anything about the wheel," an upset child's voice pulled me out of my thoughts. "You promised!"
"Firstly, I promised no such thing and, secondly, I have no intention of telling anyone anything. What are you doing here?" It took a little while for me to spot Clouter hiding under the porch.
"What do you mean? I live here. With my mum and my sister," replied the boy, crawling out of his hiding place.
"Then it's you that I've come to see. Is your mother home?"
"She's home, all right," Clouter looked around, gave it a thought and started to crawl back under the porch. "But I'm not going in there. It's porridge for dinner and I hate it. If mum sees me, she'll take me by my ear and sit me at the table. I'd best stay here for a while."
"How can I help you?" a low woman's voice made me look up from Clouter's hiding place. Judging by the squeaking of the floorboards the kid was trying to signal me that he wasn't there and that I really had no idea where he might be. With a wise mother's smile Elizabeth looked under her feet and then asked a completely unexpected question: "Excuse me, I wonder if you've see a ginger boy around here? I've baked his favorite pie, but it will get cold soon and won't be as tasty. I'll have to give it all to Dawnie, like the porridge."
"You gave the porridge to Dawnie? For real?" after hitting his head a couple of times on the floorboards, Clouter ran like lightning from his hideout and stood before his mother, eyes shining. "Is it a blueberry pie?"
"Of course, it's the blueberry pie, just as you like it. Run along while it's still hot, you rascal," Elizabeth ruffled his hair, as the kid ran past her and then turned to me again, "So, how can I help you?"
"I was sent to you by the Headman. He said that I could come and live with you for three months. Here are the papers," I handed Elizabeth the letter. If her behavior with her son was so natural, I shouldn't have any major problems with this NPC.
"Three months, eh?" muttered Elizabeth, scanning through the paper. I couldn't help wondering what the Headman wrote in there. I didn't manage to have a look in his house and then was too busy talking to Tisha. What if it gave me a boost to Intellect? You never know. "The nights are warm at the moment, so I can give you the summer house. Is that all right with you?" my landlady looked me over. "Are you going to live here as a freeloader or as a help?"
Was there a quest in this for me? I may have to do it for free, but a quest is still a quest!
"I don't like being a freeloader. If you need anything done, just tell me and I'll do it: whether it's fetching the water, chopping wood or digging the garden..."
"No, my laborers can do all that well enough. The Headman said that you aren't new to cooking," Elizabeth paused and I froze in expectation. A profession-based quest! It's a dream for any player! You can't even imagine the kind of bonuses you can get there! Elizabeth hesitated, but then appeared to come to a decision and said: "I'm not a rich woman, so I can't feed another mouth. You will be completely responsible for feeding yourself?" she then glanced at my red headband and added: "I also ask you not to come inside my house uninvited."

Attention to the player! You have been denied access to the main house of Elizabeth, the widow of the former Beatwick Headman. If you breach this restriction, one violation of your parole conditions will be recorded. Have a pleasant game!

Elizabeth turned around and went into the house, leaving me on the porch in a state of complete depression. I had already gotten all excited about getting quests and a friendly attitude to me... How could I have forgotten my red headband status? With that any NPC will treat me warily and with suspicion. A former criminal, what do you expect? What if I start killing everyone left and right, or pickpocketing and nicking their money? Who knows with these ex-cons! So it looks like earning levels wasn't going to be such a simple task after all. And I had all these plans to gain a dozen or two in the coming three months by doing various quests... A pity. I'll have to do something about that, that's certain. And as soon as possible too.
The summer house, kindly provided to me by Elizabeth, was astounding in its simplicity and Spartan feel. Its entire collection of furniture consisted of one bed, which took up half of the free space. That was it. There was the earthen floor, which remained cold even in today's heat, grey wooden planks for the wall and narrow windows right by the ceiling, which had trouble letting even the moonlight through. Great place for spending the next three months. I threw myself on the bed and started to make plans, just to keep my brain occupied.
First. I'll have to do the quest with the wolves first thing tomorrow. Extra experience and reputation with the Krong province should help me win Elizabeth's trust and move into the big house. I had little desire to be stuck in this cage for three months.
Second. I had to solve the problem of how to visit Farstead. Getting there on a cart wasn't an option - it would take too long. So I had to find another way. The Headman said that a caravan travels to that town from time to time. I had to make an arrangement with its leader to buy a scroll of teleportation from Beatwick to Farstead. The return scroll I could buy there. Judging by the distance to the town, the scroll could cost around eight or nine hundred gold. It's quite a lot, but I had to get to the Bank of Barliona and get my hands on the possessions of my former Hunter character. There should be at least eleven thousand there just in gold, not counting all the leftover equipment. Although all of it was focused on boosting Agility, I could use even that. It would be like plate mail compared to what I had on now.
Third. I had to find out about the mines that I'd seen marked on the Headman's map. He did warn me, of course, that it's dangerous to go it alone there, but I really mustn't let an opportunity like this get away. If I understood correctly, the closest deposits of something or other are located a couple of hours' walk from Beatwick. I didn't really feel like sleeping, so if I left now I'd be back by the morning. This will also give me a better idea about what I can count on in terms of leveling up professions.
Fifth... there is no fifth, I'm done planning. Now is the time for action - to go and look at that mine. But first I had to look through my bag, since I haven't really had time for that until now. After the Dungeon it was quite full of things I haven't even looked at. I threw the contents of the bag right on the floor, lit a rushlight, put it into a small hole in the wall and began the inspection. There were the chess pieces. It was a pity that each Orc Warrior took up an entire slot in the bag. The thought of having to drag all thirty-two figurines around with me left me somewhat stumped. Where on earth will I get a bag that big? Then there were seven rings with a +3 stat bonus and four rings with a +2 bonus. They were the ones I failed to sell at the Pryke mine and were now outdated. There was no point of keeping them for later for a potential sale at an auction. Junk like this wouldn't even sell for five gold. I'll have to offload them with a normal NPC merchant. I didn't even look at the chainmail gloves, dropped by the last boss of the Dungeon. These belonged to the members of my future clan and I had no intention to turn into a rat. Why expose myself to extra temptation? What if I liked them and didn't want to part with them? Twenty three pieces of Malachite, one hundred pieces of Copper Ore and sixty eight Copper Ingots would all come in handy for leveling up my Jewelcraft until I solved my ore supply issues. There was my old friend, the Mining Pick. And, finally, there was the large pile of various skins, tails, meat, claws and other junk, which had dropped from the rats and spiders of the Dungeon. I fought off the impulse to gather it all up and sell it without even looking at it - the first completion of a Dungeon gave quite a good chance to get a considerable bonus even from simple mobs, so I didn't want to throw away something potentially useful. As I sorted through it all, I set aside a Spider Eye, horrible in its look and feel. Its properties remained unidentified, and I did not have the Wisdom stat, which would help in this task. It's not like I needed it in any case. It was much easier to go to mage NPCs in any town and identify the object for a couple of gold. I also set aside twenty two Rat Tails with 'Used by Alchemists' property and twelve Spider Mandibles, with the 'Used by Armorers' property - I would go around the relevant shops trying to sell these goods later. Just look at my thoughts running ahead - 'go around the shops'. I haven't even sorted out the teleportation scroll, but I'm making all these plans for the town anyway. The rest turned out to be total trash, with only the Rat Meat being potentially useful for leveling up in Cooking.
After going through the items, I put them back in the bag, got a solid grip on my Mallet and went out into the night. The owners of Barliona know very well that many of the game's players only appear during late evenings. For this reason the nights here are very light and generally have very good visibility. I took a couple of steps from the door and cursed. Just my luck! It looked like Beatwick was on that unique list of places where the rule about lighter nights did not apply. Pitch black darkness covered the village like a blanket and it was impossible to see anything even a couple of meters away. Thus my plan to go to the mine fell through quite thoroughly. I had no desire whatsoever to trudge around in this dark. I sat on a bench, leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. There was an almost complete silence that seemed to arrive in the village together with the dark, broken only by the rustle of the forest and the quiet chirping of crickets. There were no dog noises or shouts from crowds of NPCs, which were now peacefully sleeping in their houses. It was an ideal night to go out by yourself and breathe in the crisp, clean air, which contained hints of pine resin, fir needles and a tangy whiff of an animal. An animal?! I immediately opened my eyes and saw just a couple of meters away an indistinct cloud, out of which two red eyes were staring at me. What the...? I selected the indistinct cloud and tried to see in its properties what I was dealing with.

Object properties: hidden.

Hidden? How's that? Concealing a mob's properties was impossible in Barliona. Or at least it was until just now. The entire game is built upon the ability to read them, which allows the players to devise combat strategies with the mob or a boss. I had to get into the manual or on the forums to see who is able to hide their properties and whether this was even possible. But that's for later, right now I had other matters to deal with - what does this thing in front of me want? I had little doubt that its intentions were anything but nice and friendly. As a rule, in Barliona if a mob is aggressive, it's sure to have red eyes. Neutral or friendly mobs would have eyes of any other color but red. The two red lamps looking straight at me did not make my immediate future look very promising.
Trying not to make any sudden movements, I got up from the bench and started to shift sideways towards my door. I had to cover just a couple of meters. With every small step I took the strange thing also shifted sideways, always keeping a meter and a half in front of my face. I don't think I'm liking this anymore. Maybe I should attack it first? Attack is the best defense, after all. I was about to summon a Lightning Spirit on this incomprehensible something, but then my hand slid against the door knob. The thought of testing which of us was tougher was evaporated in a second - a door, despite its humble status, was a great obstacle against mobs. No-one abolished the principle of 'My home is my castle' - even in Barliona.
I carefully slid my hand behind my back, slowly lowered the door handle and quickly dropped inside the house. Immediately turning around, I tried to slam the door shut with my whole weight. Just as I was making my first move the beast lunged forward and began to push hard on the closing door from the other side.

Damage taken. Hit Points reduced by 30: 260 (Door hit): 230 (Physical defense). Total Hit Points: 650 of 680.
Skill increase:
+10% Endurance. Total: 70%
+5% Strength. Total: 60%

I was just a couple of centimeters away from completely closing the door. I strained all I could, heaving my whole body against it, but the beast that was pushing on the other side just wouldn't let me do it. Moreover, gradually, centimeter by centimeter the door began to open. At some point a mist-covered appendage slipped through the crack that formed. Inside the house the mist dissipated and I could see four sharp claws in the twilight. What is this, an overgrown wolverine? The claws dug into the door and left deep marks - exactly the same as those on the village gates. Was I suppose to think that this is the way the local youth got its kicks? It'll become a running joke if it gets around the village tomorrow - how the Shaman got scared by children's pranks. I was about to stop resisting, but then a message popped up:

Energy level: 30. Stop, you angry Shaman!

This was the automatic message I put in place back at the mine to stop myself biting the dust from the Energy loss. This was no joking matter. It's not like the local kids would have the strength to demolish my Energy in a matter of seconds. This is something else.
But what this something was I didn't get a chance to find out. A couple of seconds later a message flashed that my Energy had gone down to zero and I froze like a broken doll. Unlike in the mines, in the main gameworld Energy can be easily restored from zero, even without the aid of water. But until it is restored to at least ten points, the player freezes like a wax figure.
Another blow on the door threw me far back into the room and already mid-flight I saw some grey shadow speed after me. There was no mist around it, but in the darkness of the room I couldn't make out what it was. Only one thing was clear - the beast had two arms and two legs. Or four appendages, to sum it up. Why did I put out the lamp before leaving? That way I'd know what I was dealing with now. There was a flash of four sharp claws: a sharp pang of pain and the surrounding twilight became even darker. So, my house is not much of a castle, it would seem. Though it's not like it's really my house - I was getting ahead of myself.
There was a flash and it seemed to me that I almost immediately found myself at the entrance to the local cemetery. A very symbolic respawning point. A small temple stood a few meters away from me, shading me from the bright morning sun. Looks like that unidentified beast did get me in the end, and the compulsory twelve hours from the moment of death went by in a flash. Great.
I was about to head to the temple when I found myself staring angrily at a message that popped up:

In connection with your death, your level of Experience has been reduced by 30%. Current Experience: 199; points remaining until next level 1201.

I checked my purse. That's right, it now contained only three thousand gold. The other half was lying in the summer house. I could only hope that no-one had come in and laid their hands on it. It should have been somewhere behind the bed and not really visible from the door.
But what was it that got me? Despite the fact that I had 680 Hit Points and 230 Physical defense, the beast sent me for a respawn with a single blow. I looked into the combat logs, hoping that this feature had become unlocked since my leaving the mine. Yes! Now we'll read what it was that swatted me. I switched on the filter for the damage sustained in the last thirty hours and saw several lines:

23:45:23  Damage taken: 28 (258 'Door hit' - 230 'Physical defense'). Hit Points remaining: 652.
23:45:26  Damage taken: 28 (258 'Door hit' - 230 'Physical defense'). Hit Points remaining: 624.
23:45:39  Damage taken: 28 (258 'Hit against the wall' - 230 'Physical defense'). Hit Points remaining: 596.
23:45:41  Damage taken: 24762 (24998 'Unknown' - 230 'Physical defense'). Hit Points remaining: 0.

I looked at the messages dumbfounded. That was some swatting! Twenty five thousand damage can be inflicted by a mob that's no less than level 70. But where would an aggressive mob of such a level come from in Beatwick and why on earth did it decide to pay me a visit?
"Were you looking for something, my son?" a voice sounded nearby and made me turn around. A small, plump and pink-cheeked priest of some god was standing by the temple, thumbing through the prayer beads in his hands. A black robe covered him from head to foot, but failed to conceal the size of his enormous stomach. "Do you want to receive a blessing from Vlast? In that case you have to become his novice. Are you ready?"
So this was a temple of Vlast. The god of winemaking. He was an analogue of Bacchus, Pan and other such gods from the real world. I went into the manual to read the main limitations imposed by serving this god and was surprised to see that there were none - any NPC or players could become this god's novice without any restrictions. This didn't concern just the novices, but you could even become a priest just a few months after becoming a novice. There were no additional costs or donations to be made. All you had to do is drink a glass of wine or homebrew every day and thus receive your divine blessing. Although if you failed to drink it, you'd incur a divine curse, not a pleasant thing, as a rule. This meant that you'd have to atone for your sins with two glasses of homebrew. All right, I was never that interested in Barliona's religions as a Hunter and as a Shaman had even less need of them. Of course, Vlast is a convenient god for leveling up the Faith stat, but there are just too many complications in this field. Not my thing. Now it was clear, however, where the priest got his large stomach - probably from saying all those daily prayers with his parishioners and anyone else who dropped by. With the devout aid of wine and homebrew, that is. I bet those guards I met by the gates yesterday were also his active novices.
"No, thank you. I respect Vlast, but I am not ready to become his novice. You have my thanks," I bowed to the priest, receiving a similar bow in response.
"As you wish. Vlast doesn't force anyone to serve him. Only someone with true insight could fathom the real depth of his teaching. Can I help you with anything else, my son?" the priest run the standard phrase by me.
"Yes. Holy father, can you tell me if there are any monsters in these parts that roam about at night and bring grief and destruction to the local people?" the incident with the respawn wouldn't let me be. I was dying to find out what dealt me all that damage.
The priest stopped fingering the prayer beads, looked around and then gestured me to follow him:
"Enter into the temple, my son. This isn't the place to talk of such things."
There was nothing interesting inside the temple. There was the altar with the depiction of a rather chubby Vlast, whose bleary-eyed gaze stared into empty space, and a couple of benches. That's it. The place was totally Spartan. The priest went behind the altar, took two cups from somewhere and handed me one of them.
"Vlasts' commandments do not permit one to start a conversation without wine passing one's lips first," the priest said in lofty tones. "I see that there's a reason that you asked me about the night monster," he began as soon as we had drunk a couple of draughts. It was ordinary wine and did not give any stat bonuses - just a 'slightly tipsy' debuff after drinking it. "I can see that this trouble has not passed you by. Yes, there is trouble in our land. People don't like talking about it and everyone's pretending that nothing's happened. You've seen the claw marks on the gates, yes? The Headman had to make up a story, saying that he was the one that scratched them on - just to calm the villagers down. But every seven days the claw marks appear again. It's just as well that the local kids got it into their heads that they are the ones getting up to this, so people stopped worrying. And the fact that every seventh night either a cow or a sheep disappears from the common herd - everyone blames the wolves for that. But no-one gives a thought about how wolves would get through closed gates. The whole village is surrounded by a solid stockade, which not even a mouse would squeeze through. Only the Headman and his sons know the truth, since they spend nights trying to catch the elusive beast. It's been evading them for two years now and they've only glimpsed the monster's red eyes a couple of times. From afar. Your help would be invaluable. Would you take this on? If you could at least find out what beast it is that roams Beatwick, you would receive an ample reward.

Quest available: 'Night terror of the village'
Description: Once every seven days a monster roams Beatwick, which brings trouble and destruction to the residents. Find out who is the night terror of the village. Quest type: Rare. Reward: +400 to Reputation with the Krong Province, +500 Experience, +80 Silver coins, a Rare item from Headman's Stores. Penalty for failing/refusing the quest: -400 to Reputation with the Krong Province.

"I'll take it. I'll find out who is hiding under the guise of the beast," I accepted. Now it all became clear. The beast's properties could not be seen, because that was the nature of the quest. So it looks like I'll have to find out about it the normal way and not the one that only players could use. All right, I'll postpone this matter for a week, when it's time for the hunt once again. Our first meeting with the beast ended with its complete victory, but we'll see how things go from here.

"Thank you, Mahan! If you need help, you can ask for it straight away," the priest thanked me and I headed for the village. It was now time to collect my dropped cash and go wolf hunting. There was leveling up to be done.

Kartoss Gambit (The Way of the Shaman Book #2) is finally on Amazon:

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