Thursday, November 10, 2016

New LitRPG/Fantasy series from Vasily Mahanenko - Dark Paladin

Dark Paladin: The Beginning
by Vasily Mahanenko



Release - Feb 7, 2017
Preorder here - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MXIZK80

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Chapter Four

Is it easy to survive in the game world? You could say yes, if you didn’t know what the additional conditions were. They are unusual: it’s the real world in which you have lived all your life. The enemy, craving to destroy you. Your own class who couldn’t care less about you. Are you still sure that survival is easy? Then welcome to THE GAME! It will prove you wrong.





Chapter One. Birth of the Paladin





THE ARMY OF ORCS led by Yargul headed to the tall forests of Idilrance. The wood elves were planning to bring a great mage of the past back to life the one who had destroyed half of the world, so the orcs decided to interfere and show the whole world once again who were the true rulers of Zalta. Along enormous chords the army of orcs was moving towards the woods without even noticing…


“QUIT PICKING YOUR NOSE, you grunt! Three laps around the drill field once we get back to the base!” The sergeant’s booming voice jerked me out of my dreamland. The orcs evaporated from my imagination like a ball of ice cream on a server under peak load – fast and frying the motherboard in the process. Clinging to the side of the APC I stared at the mountains gloomily: four hours in a dusty metal box never made anyone happy. Particularly on a narrow road. When I started imagining horrendous monsters under every shrub it became clear: my brain needed a reboot. The orcs came to my rescue, saving me from the monotony of the ride, but the sergeant destroyed them ruthlessly, totally blowing all the fun. I wouldn’t be able to run three laps after a ride like this. Not even if I walked. I wasn't sure about crawling, but I wouldn't want to have to find out.
Scheduled patrol of the area around the base on three APCs was our commander’s weekly fun. Sometimes he made arrangements with a platoon of contract troopers from the neighboring base to ambush us “to keep the grunts on their toes.” On those days a dozen or so powerful fighters would attack us and knock us out – purely for instructional purposes. So that we would not lose our edge! Those of us who managed to roll off from the vehicle onto the ground and start shooting blanks at the appearing “enemy” the troopers did not bother: these soldiers were considered to have lived up to expectations. We were shooting blanks; only the commander had live ammo. Of course, the middle APC also had the battle large caliber NSV machine gun, but no one was allowed to even come close to it. There was just that one time, in the mountains, when the commander let us take a couple of shots from that wonder of military technology. It would be impossible to convey the feeling of great power completely controlled by you! At that awesome moment I felt like I could level the mountains, only provided the machine gun had enough ammo! Sadly, this only happened once in the whole year of service and by now it felt like a dream. Sweet and pleasant, but still a dream. The rest of the time we either waited for the troopers to attack or trundled along narrow roads. Bloody romantic!
“You crowbag, is your bag hanging down?” The hoarse rough voice of lance-corporal Fagov came from the other side of the APC, and the privates on his side guffawed in unison. Some stand-up comics, my ass! Fagov was the worst wacko old-timer in the platoon and taking it out on the newbies for his sordid childhood. He managed to take the top spot even among his peers. When a huge thug, almost two meters tall, whose face brightens with intelligence only when he is straining to take a crap, is hanging over you it’s hard not to acknowledge him as a leader. There was an unspoken rule among the privates: never argue with Fagov. He would yell some, wave his arms in the air, hit you a couple of times, but it would only take a minute for his attention to switch to something else. His attention span was something remarkable – like a baby’s.
Lieutenant Sintsov, our platoon commander, included all three of his squad sections in today’s patrol. Twenty-seven knuckleheads and three sergeants. You didn't need a crystal ball to understand: today was when he planned the massacre of the innocents. Sintsov must have arranged it with the contract guys again! Formally we were listed as paratroopers, but it was beyond me to see a hidden paratrooper among the brush and stones – a real professional and not a cheap imitation like us. I didn't even try. Instead I quietly sat at the side of the APC, didn't bother anyone, clutched my useless assault rifle dreaming of elf girls, hot shower, soft bed and treating my surroundings as if they were just a figment of my sick imagination.
“Did you go deaf, you?” Amazingly, Fagov had not forgotten about me. “Think you're immortal?”
“Check that!” shouted Sintsov from the second APC. “Smarty-pants, if you keep picking on the young ones, I’ll send you to the right place right away. They'll make the first part of your name very true very quickly! Shut up and look sharp! Homemade Rambo…”
In reality all of the above was conveyed in highly specialized military curse language that most of the army speaks. Most of what I understood were prepositions, and I guessed the overall meaning based on the emotional content. Before I joined the army I practically never had to curse so actively, so any communication with the lieutenant turned into an educational session. He managed to shoot out such strings of obscenities that my eyebrows crawled up and a smile appeared on my face: Sintsov combined incompatible things, but it all worked out so smoothly that I was just left in wonder at the capabilities of the Russian language. I was sure that no other language could possibly deliver, with such flourish and effectiveness, a single thought into the soldiers’ minds.
“Return to base!”
The command that sounded about five minutes later triggered a unanimous sigh of relief: no massacre today. The troopers never attacked on the way back considering that extremely rude. The troops were returning to base, so it wouldn't be right to interfere with them. Looking forward to resting soon, the soldiers relaxed and were smiling feeling like they were nearly home…
But suddenly …
I never understood why the leading APS was thrown into the air. There was no explosion, no noise or dust – but suddenly the huge metal vehicle buckled like a nervous horse and rolled over. I clung harder to the side of my vehicle, stunned, staring at the blood that appeared from under the machine. Several soldiers were crushed! To death! What kind of blasted training could that be when people were being killed?! Some force pulled on my boot making me fall on the ground. The sergeant. Cursing like mad he was grabbing the grunts, pulling them down from the vehicle, kicking them to force them to lie low to the ground. Hanging on to the useless assault rifle I was nervously seeking the enemy who must have lost it. After the drill someone will get it real bad!
“Issue live ammo!” came a shout from Sintsov, making me hug the ground harder. What did he mean, live ammo? There was a set of live ammo in each APC; it could be accessed only by the senior sergeant, but to issue live ammo on patrol? Had Sintsov taken a hard hit on the head?
“Catch!” as soon as the magazine with red tape wound around it fell in front of me I heard the lieutenant’s wild scream:
“Get down!”
I didn’t stare at the magazine, I pulled it under my body, raised my head and saw one of the soldiers running to the nearest line of trees. He almost made it. When the trees were just within reach, the private suddenly stopped, standing straight still and then, like an activated cracker, burst into hundreds of small bloody pieces.
“It blew Vas up!” Fagov screamed in a panicked voice, “— А-а-а! Take it, bastards! You're all dead!”
To say that I was shocked would be a gross understatement. The sight of the exploding body just turned my brain off. I turned into a motionless mannequin, dumbly staring at the bloody boots: all that was left of the soldier. Chaos broke around me: shots, screams, orders to cease fire, but none of that existed for me. Just the boots stained with blood. Then, suddenly, silence fell. It was so terrifying, so physical, that I let go of the assault rifle and pushed my face into the ground, as if trying to dig deep into it. It seemed that the silence would cause my eardrums to rupture at any moment! The silence!
The overturned APC with several crushed bodies under it suddenly exploded into shards turning into a huge shrapnel bomb. If I had not pushed my head into the ground fighting the overpowering silence, a huge chunk of the armor would have become my personal guillotine. The silence dissipated, replaced by pleas for help, screams of pain and the monotonous hum of a working transformer. I lay on the ground completely unsure what to do – we were never taught anything like that in boot camp. I didn't see the enemy; all the fire came from our side. From fear my muscles were so cramped that every move was painful. All I was able to do was to clutch my useless assault rifle. As if it were a life ring. Live ammo was near me but it did not even occur to me to switch magazines. I dully noticed that my shoulder was ripped practically to the bone; there was a lot of blood but I felt no pain at all. As if someone had switched it off.
“Retreat!” I heard from somewhere ahead. “Cover us!”
Who was I supposed to cover, and from what? What was I supposed to do generally?! One of the sergeants jumped up on the second APC, turned the machine gun in the direction in which the column had been moving and took a few shots, looking like he knew what he was doing. After this all hell broke loose.
Here is a sergeant, standing and shooting at something. Bang, and there is no sergeant. Only the rain of bloody scraps tells you that a moment ago there was a person here.
Here are three surviving privates from the first APC jumping to their feet and running towards us. Bang, and they are gone. Just the bloody rain again, without a single shot. What are they shooting at us?!
“Private! Follow me! On the double!” I heard the squad sergeant’s order next to my ear.
I lifted my head dully and looked at our sergeant without seeing him.
“Get up, damn you! Swap the magazine and follow me! Quick!
I was not sure what affected me: the clear command, the sergeant’s awful appearance, the sight of exploding soldiers, or Fagov frozen between the APCs, staring with terrified huge eyes at the soldiers exploding next to him and not even attempting to drop to the ground. Maybe he thought he was a hero. Who knows? I sprang to my feet, switched the magazine to live ammo and, without thinking that I too could turn into bloody rain, started for the APCs. The only way to provide cover was the machine gun; the assault rifle would not help much. The most important thing was to make it there.
Several steps away from the vehicle I tripped, ploughing the stony road with my face. My arms immediately came into motion, lifted the assault rifle and aimed it at a man slowly walking down the road. His arms were covered with unnatural fire. Actually, they weren’t his arms – the man’s fists were covered in blue and gold flames as if two magical fireballs had flown into our world by mistake and stuck to the stranger’s hands. The dark cloak streaming behind him and the hood covering his face made him look like a character from some computer game. A Warrior Mage.
The man took another step, raised his hand and just a few steps away from me another bloody cloud formed; the sergeant’s remains showered the ground.
А-А-А!” I screamed, pushing the trigger. For the first time in my life I was shooting at a living person, but at that moment the thought did not bother me in the least. If this prick was to blame for everyone around him exploding and dying, he must be stopped.
I sent bullet after bullet at the man coming towards me, but something weird was happening. At the shooting range, on average I hit 40 points out of 50 but now all my shots went nowhere. It’s not like I missed him they just dissipated! Small fiery flashes appearing right in front of the walking man indicated that my aim was good, but the shots produced no result at all. I’ll be damned! This freak had some kind of mean protection device! A normal assault rifle wouldn’t do it, I would need a more powerful weapon!
The NSV!
Two dark cords of fog swiftly snaked from the enemy’s hands. They bent around the APC that I was using for cover and rushed onward. A scream of horror joined the cries of pain. I turned my head and saw the APC of my squad floating about two meters off the ground. It started growing smaller. Like a balloon that had lost all its air. “Back to the taxpayers!” A thought flashed through my mind, and then blood started pouring from the shapeless heap of metal. Someone had stayed in the vehicle to the last.
“All the way!” Sintsov rushed with a wild roar from somewhere behind the bushes. Shooting at the oncoming enemy using one hand, as the bullets produced the fiery flashes which I recognized, the lieutenant was carrying several grenades in his other hand as he ran towards the enemy. He’s right! If it’s impossible to destroy the defense from outside you could try to blow it up from the inside!
Having seen Sintsov I threw away the spent assault rifle and jumped onto the APC. Fear left me when the lieutenant appeared: now I knew with certainty who I was supposed to “cover” and from what. I am a soldier who must fulfill his duty until the end! The whole side of the vehicle was covered in blood but it didn't bother me anymore; there would be time to throw up later. If there was a “later”. I had never thought that in a critical situation like this I would be able to act calmly and rationally. Having reached the machine gun I aimed it at the enemy and nearly lost all my determination: the lieutenant was being torn in half! With just two hands! Along his body, completely ignoring the armor vest! Sintsov’s torn-off arms were lying on the ground a few meters away: he never made it with the grenades.
“All the way!” I whispered, tightening my fingers on the trigger. The enemy turned and I was overpowered by hellish pain. I felt as if I was skinned alive, doused with salt and thrown on hot embers while acid poured over me. Pain dimmed my mind, something warm trickled down my legs, I could not move a single muscle. I was unable even to draw in some air for a scream. At the edge of my consciousness I felt the NSV start shooting. If I were to die, I would die fighting.
I was rammed in the chest and thrown a few meters back; both my arms were torn off. The last thing I saw before fainting was a bloody fountain gushing from where the enemy’s head had been. The torn-off arms still pushing on the trigger did it: the enemy was destroyed. The rest was not my concern…
All the way!

New user initialization in progress
Choose a name

Darkness retreated instantly, as if someone had thrown a switch. A moment, and I became aware that I was lying on my back staring at a snow-white ceiling. I felt no headache, no sleepiness, no nausea – the standard symptoms of vodka overindulgence. The only thing breaking the pattern of my usual world were strange messages obscuring the ceiling. Perhaps they were the reason for me finding myself in the hospital: someone had figured out that I had a bout of DTs. I could also feel that something was not right with me: the battle I had dreamt about was so bright and vivid that it seemed real. Ha! Why would warrior mages show up in our reality? They would only appear to someone who was seriously intoxicated.

Choose a name

The apparition refused to disappear, thus confirming its unnatural origin. It was amazingly similar to a standard game message used by all computer games, and it kept floating in front of my eyes. Even when I closed them to rest from the whiteness of the hospital room. I would have to report this to a doc, that I'm having residual hallucinations. Perhaps they'd give me some pills? I opened my eyes and finally looked around. White walls, white ceiling and the white floor on which I was lounging so comfortably. Everything was white. Even my clothes were white. I noticed with significant relief that my arms were still attached to the right places. The nightmare I had just gone through was so realistic that I was in doubt for a few seconds. But no, my arms were in order and working properly, so there had not been any mage. Besides, how would something like that appear in real life? This is no game after all.

Choose a name

Blasted thing! Oh well, that would not do! Something needs to be done with my head or else they will stick me in a loony bin for sure. Could this be a test? The guys had been saying that close to our base there was some kind of a top secret facility; could it be that I'd been shipped off to there? The brainiacs there figured out that I have a gaming problem and so they fitted me with undetectable lenses similar to G*-Glass and were now sending their messages to me? Perhaps they were now watching me and placing bets on how soon I would start bashing my head against the wall.
“Sergey Lemeshev!” I stated my name clearly, wanting to proceed to the second part of the test.

You cannot choose the name used by you during life
Choose a name

During life?!
“This is not funny!” — I screamed, trying to fend off the panic “what kind of a stupid joke is that?”

Name chosen “This is not funny”
Save changes?

When to huge buttons backlit in white "OK” and “Cancel” were added to the messages I could not take it any longer and tried to pull the lenses out of my eyes. May they all rot in hell! I never agreed to that, and did not want to keep taking part in this absurdist theatre. Pretend I am dead, my ass. For jokes like that people end up in court in a flash!

Waiting time expired, changes will be reset
Choose a name

The buttons disappeared. But they took my self-control with them: there were no lenses. I clawed at my eyes mercilessly, but the messages would not even budge, as if they appeared directly in my head. As if they were outside of this world. Just like me!
“NOOOOOO!” I screamed bitterly, refusing to believe the obvious: the battle had been real. I happened to die at the hands of a warrior mage, and the place where I came to was purgatory.
On this note my consciousness could not take it anymore and faded, sending me into a faint. The mind refused to accept my own death.

Choose a name

I did not know for how long I stayed unconscious. But at some point in time I came to, and realized that it was not a dream. Not a figment of my sick and feverish imagination. Not someone’s mean joke. I really did die, and now for some reason it was proposed that I take a new name. I wanted to howl and scream, close my eyes and leave this nightmare forever, but the persistent message would not leave. Quite the opposite – it became brighter and shone more intensely as if it worried that I might have missed it. Besides, it grew larger, by now filling most of my field of view. I looked at the silver letters with open hatred, and growled the first name that popped into my head:
“Yari! Yaropolk!”
Over the last seven years this name had become so much a part of me that many called me that even in real life. Few remembered that the skinny guy was named Sergey, but many knew me as Yari or Yaropolk. The Paladin of Light, damn it! I registered with that name in all the computer games, which were the reason, by the way, why I ended up in the army after college rather than getting a fine job. To be more precise – because of which I decided to serve a term in an army that would definitely not offer any online games, so I could get rid of my game addiction. I used to spend ten hours a day playing those games, forgetting about the real world, so the idea to do a term in the army where no online games would be available for sure seemed ideal to me. Since the games were the reason why I ended up dead, let them atone for this at least by that name.

Name chosen: “Yaropolk”, short name “Yari”
Accept changes?

Two buttons appeared and I realized that unless I pressed “OK” immediately, the changes would reset again and I would have to stare at that loathsome message some more. Unable to figure out a better way, I stared at the button, mentally commanding it to push itself. I recalled a situation from my life: there was a time when I had sat in front of my cat for the longest time and tried to hypnotize him in a similar way. I wanted the stupid animal to succumb to my superior mind and start talking, but all I got was a cat who lost interest and turned away from me, and a broken cup that I shattered in my rage. As an ESP I was not much.
Once I replayed in my head the situation with the cat and compared it to my current situation, I started laughing so hard I bent over. I had never laughed like that before. All the comedians in the world stood in no comparison to my yawning cat and my rage. Laughter swelled within me, trying to bubble over and show its overwhelming emotional power to the entire world.

Name accepted
Character race determined
Character is being generated

At some point the wild uncontrollable laughter was replaced by tears; I completely shut off the "manly” side, which was supposed to be strong as granite and not feel any excessive emotions, but which was drowning in tears. I died. I will never see my relatives and friends. Some bastard in the magic coat destroyed me like a fly, tearing my limbs off before killing me. And now I am in a purgatory for gamers, where they are made into computer game characters; this process does not resemble anything else. Such a simple hell for hardcore gamers – to stay an NPC for the rest of eternity.

Character generation complete

I wanted to tell everyone to get lost, but suddenly someone turned off the light, and my consciousness along with it. Something blinked and I heard some voices nearby:
“…the patient is steadily declining. We are struggling, but there is no improvement so far.”
“Is there any hope?”
“No. He was treated too late. We can keep him going for a couple more days but then he will slip away.”
“That’s a pity. This soldier saved fifteen people and destroyed the enemy. Another hero to be rewarded posthumously. I’ve seen so many of them already…”
Something blinked again and the voices changed:
“…final journey. He will live forever in our memory!”
“My son, my darling...”— the familiar voice of my mother, full of tears, sounded right next to my ear, followed by a burning touch of lips to my forehead. Hey, mom, I'm alive!
Something clunked dully, then I was jolted and found myself again in the room with white walls.

Choose character class

Bastards!
A colorful window popped up in front of me, showing a lengthy list: mage, hunter, priest, druid, warrior, fighter… hundreds if not thousands of lines appeared before me; once I focused my gaze on one of them an image instantly appeared. A mage casting lightning bolts; a shaman calling on the spirits; a warrior crushing all around him; a druid working with plants. I stared at the dance of the images, but basically couldn’t see anything. After I heard my mother’s voice I felt so low that I mumbled without even listening to my own words:
“Paladin.”
Leaving for the army I did not give much thought to what my mother’s life would become if she stayed alone with my twelve-year-old sister. But now it felt like a band tightened around my chest: mom was slaving at two jobs to make sure there was food on the table and clothes for us; she did everything she could to make sure her babies knew no hardship. She forgave me constant gaming and mediocre grades. She rejoiced when I entered college and shook her head in bewilderment as I decided to join the army, but never said a word against it. According to her, I would need to choose my own path… So look where all that choosing landed me…

Current class: Paladin
Initial settings complete
Character level: 1

A status bar, standard for games, appeared at the bottom of my field of view once again, informing me that I had gone into the game. Emotions faded as tears dried up, so I decided to take another couple of minutes to assess the abilities of my character. If I was destined to continue as a computer unit, I should know what it could do.
Drawing on the experience I already had pushing buttons, I stared at the icons in the status bar and issued a mental order: “Open”. Immediately a semi-transparent window appeared, covering practically my entire field of view.
Yari, Paladin, human. Level 1 player. Points needed to progress to next level: 1000. There was also something called “Specialty”, but it wasn’t clear what it covered or what advantages it conferred. There was Energy. What was that for? Another unknown. I could not help noticing the absence of the familiar indicators: Strength, Intelligence, Agility, Endurance and Life reserve. All games had these five core indicators in some way or another. Sometimes it was even considered that games without these words were perceived to be deficient, but the game in which I happened to end up could not care less about that. Energy was a be-all and end-all here…
By the way: where was I?
Judging strictly by how I felt, I was still alive. I could hear I made a noise to verify that, just in case. I could see: the white walls served as confirmation. I could feel and breathe I could do anything! I could even think! The conclusion was obvious: I had no idea what was going on.
If I were a gamer, then where was my character? If I were a character then where was my gamer, and why did I have a certain degree of freedom? If I was both gamer and character at the same time, how could that be possible? And finally – even though it was a rhetorical question anyway, but still – what would happen if I were killed?
The questions went unanswered. No window appeared with a detailed description of the game, nor did I see a specially trained character who would bring all the newbies up to speed. There was nothing besides the semitransparent window and the white room. I bit my lip in annoyance; the pain I felt was quite real. I kept studying the tabs.
Spell Book. A book appeared in front of me, floating in the air and iridescent. Now it was blank, but a strange feeling of recognition overwhelmed me. Right! This was the Spell Book from the game “Heroes of Might and Magic III!” Exactly like it! The same massive book with the pages yellowed from age, sporting several currently inactive bookmarks and funny icons. Someone’s into plagiarism! Either the HoMM3 developers or the game itself!
Generally I was very glad to see that magic could be used in the game. I would bring forth the truth by my sword as well as by my word. I liked Paladins because they were universal: in each game I’ve played this class was capable of performing all sorts of functions: tank, healer, fighter. Role selection depended exclusively on how many of your fingers were thumbs. If you had just the right number of them, you could become a healer or a tank. If you had a few too many, shaky and crooked and liable to keep your character in some puddle of fire — only the fighters for you, only hardcore. Mostly, the hardcore task would be for the healers trying to cure the twit with the last drops of mana and screaming into the mike to get that moron to come out of the fire. Besides, afterwards the healers would be the ones having to put up with “The healers suck! They can’t do nothing! Ham-handed noobs! I'm leaving!”
Location map. While it had several available scales, in all the modes my map was covered in fog. There was not a single hint as to where I was or where I needed to go. Very informative indeed.
Personal inventory. A small shimmering shelf invited me to put something on it. It was so tiny that it would house three or four books, not more. Five centimeters long and ten wide; my personal inventory storage space reminded me more than anything of the line I read at the initial screen: “Newbie”.

Initial character familiarization is complete. Are you ready to start the game?

I looked at the buttons angrily and smiled without humor. To hell with you! If my fate is to become a game character, there is no sense in delaying it. Sooner or later it will happen anyway.
Accept!
An electric shock jolted me, making me faint. Once I felt my body once again, I realized that I was lying on my back. In complete darkness. And I could not move a single body part. I was not even breathing!
If I could have drawn some air, I would have screamed with all my might. Not because I was afraid of darkness – because I was afraid to stay like that for the entire rest of eternity. What if my role was that of a paladin locked in a tomb, never to be found? Hundreds, thousands, millions years of solitude! While you could go mad here in a week!
“Shit, that’s new,” – suddenly my solitude was broken by a hoarse voice – “looks f…ing fresh.”
“Squint, what if there’s no shit there? Why should we bust our ass for nothing?”
“Shut the f… up! I saw the old hag at the funeral – she was crazy as f…! Could have easily thrown something in with that bastard. Look, what if there’s a medal there? That’s no shit! Petrovich’ll give us a couple of bottles of vodka for it, and maybe some money too!”

Body control will be available after return to world. Wait.

I was found! Guys, friends, pull me out – quick! I am here! I am alive!
The wild fear that had washed over me a few moments back was replaced by complete happiness. I didn't even bother with the thought that I was in a coffin; the joy from knowing that the darkness would soon recede filled my whole being. Somewhere at the periphery a thought flashed that since I was lying in a coffin the diggers must be grave robbers, who would not want to have extra witnesses. They could hit me over the head with a shovel or hoe sending me back to the grave. This time for good. But all of that flashed somewhere at the back of my mind and vanished right away: the anticipation of returning to the world pushed everything else aside.
“Squint, I’m f..ing tired of digging! Why in hell did they have to dump him so deep in?”
“F..ed if I know! Come on, there’s just a dick’s width left! Suck it up and dig harder! Here it is!”
There was a sound of metal hitting metal.
“I got the box! Whack it here, it’ll bump the lid.”

Full body control reached. Game world: Earth. Local time: year 2015
Have a great game!

Absolute darkness dissipated replaced by the twilight of a summer night and the dim light of a lamp. In addition, there were two dirty bearded mugs staring at me with interest from above.
“That was an ugly one for sure,” one of the diggers drawled, and I was immediately overwhelmed by a wave of sensation. I felt the cold, something sharp pricking my back, clumps of earth sliding down, but the most important thing I felt was that I really needed air.
“Aaaargh!” I sighed noisily, stretching my back. Like a young inexperienced diver coming to the surface after holding on underwater without breathing for two minutes. Colored sparks jumped in my vision, my head was swimming, so I sat up purely on reflex, pushing with my hands on the edge of the coffin. With my hands! I had hands! And arms! Two normal working moving arms! This fact cleared my head, the sparks faded and I was finally able to see my saviors, frozen at the far edge of the grave.
“Hi,” — that’s all I was able to say before bending over in a fit of coughing. My chest felt tight, breathing was almost impossible and it felt as I was coughing out what was left of my lungs. Each breath came in with a wheeze, the sparks happily regained their places in front of me, and instead of dizziness there was a huge message that obscured my entire field of view:

Negative effect sustained: “Tomb dust”. Consequences: uncontrollable coughing fit. Duration: unlimited; resets for 30 seconds every 5 minutes. To neutralize the effect drink any liquid.

“Water,”— I croaked, having read the message on something like the fifth attempt. Judging from how I felt, I had already coughed out my lungs and now it was my stomach’s turn. — “Gimme water!”
The coughing would not stop. All thoughts vanished from my head, space contracted to a point and sucked in the entire world around me like a black hole. All I had left was the word “water” that I mumbled like a mantra.
I recovered instantly, as if someone had thrown a switch; there were no consequences from the fit. A number appeared in front of me: “30”; in a second it was replaced by “29”. The countdown! It was resetting! I had only 28 seconds to find liquid and relieve that damned cough! I jumped to my feet, noticing the grave was empty. My rescuers had vanished somewhere, leaving me alone. Ignoring the dirt I started climbing out of the grave, surprised by how deep it was. It was a couple of meters at least! In any case, even when I stood on the edge of the coffin only my head showed above the grave edge. I did not know how tall my new body was, but the old one was a meter seventy three. They really did put me six feet under!
No matter how much I tried I was unable to climb out. Judging from the marks on the soil the grave robbers had used a ladder which they did not forget to take with them. The good thing was they did not whap me over the head with a shovel. Realizing that I would not make it I started digging holes in the wall: I would use them to step up the next time.
“Water!”
The second fit was worse than the first. Once I saw the countdown once again I was surprised to feel wetness on my hands. I stood up, leaning against the wall, as I was tired, and looked at my hands. Hmm… in the moonlight I could see black glistening trails. I smelt it. Nothing. No smell at all. The timer had gone down to twenty when I licked my hand carefully. So what was it?

Liquid consumed (blood) is not sufficient to neutralize the negative effect. Constraint: own blood is not suitable to neutralize the negative effect.

WHAT?! A fit of nausea twisted me in knots right there in the grave. The thought that I would be drinking someone’s blood was beyond my ability for self-control.
Water! Oh, well, to hell with water – I’ll take blood!
The third coughing fit settled my priorities. I climbed out of the grave with one clear thought: the nearest source of liquid would be mine! It did not matter what – or who – it would be. I might not survive the fourth fit.
“I'm not going there!” I heard someone’s voice just as I climbed out of the grave.
“Yes you will!” – a menacing growl stated in response. “Have you gone f…ing mad with your movies? What f…ing zombie?! You should quit drinking, idiot!”
“Petrovich, f..k me if I’m lying, it’s true! Look, Squint still can’t get over it!”
I was so weak I was swaying from side to side: apparently, each coughing fit produced a cumulative effect. I was stumbling on my own feet, my head was ringing, so I could not understand who was talking: the digger or someone else. I could not even figure out all of the words. I looked around; seeing no puddles nearby I steeled myself and started running towards the voices. I needed some kind of liquid and I only had twenty one seconds to get it.
“Water!” I rasped, tumbling into the door of a simple trailer. Most likely it was the office of the local custodian. I did not care what they would think of me – the most important thing was to drink something within the ten remaining seconds. Something, anything! I stopped still at the entrance, looking around the room. I needed something, bottle, kettle… a glass or even a toilet. I would stoop to drinking from the toilet bowl if it meant I could make it within the ten remaining seconds.
Two pairs of eyes were staring at me. Another person was sitting in the corner howling and rocking from side to side. Having found no liquid – there was nothing even on the table – I looked at the people. I’ll be damned!
“It’s him!” — the skinny guy with the beard screamed — “It’s the zombie!”
“Hey chap, who are you?” the voice I heard was quite calm, although wary, and the description appeared right above the man’s head:

Sergey Petrovich Selivanov. Level 3 Reading skill needed to learn the other parameters.

5…
“Fellow, do you understand me at all?”

4…
“Gimme water!”
“What? Talk more clearly!”

3…
“Water!!!”
“Petrovich, what is he mumbling about?”
2…
Bastards! I hate you! I don’t want this!

1…
“A-a-a-a!” — the bearded one screamed again; then his screams became more distant. I didn’t care: I was frantically swallowing hot salty blood from Petrovich’s neck that I bit. I could not remember how I ended up next to him. I paid no attention that the huge guy was not trying to push me aside – I was reaching for the only source of liquid I could see. I would not have survived the fourth coughing fit.

Negative effect “Tomb dust” is neutralized.
NPC Sergey Petrovich Selivanov has been destroyed. You receive +1 Experience
You drank blood of a live creature. Negative effect sustained: “Poisoning” Duration: 10 minutes.
You have not completed initiation; therefore, you can change race. Races available: Vampire. Accept changes?

Only the two buttons – “Accept” and “Reject” helped me retain my sanity. They reminded me that everything happening around was no more than a game, no matter how real it seemed. I had not killed a person; I killed a common game NPC. The graphics of this one were a little more advanced than the games I was used to playing, but it was still a blasted game!
There was no new coughing fit and the counter disappeared; however, that didn’t make me feel better: pushing Petrovich’s still warm body aside I pushed two fingers down my throat and pressed on the bottom of my tongue to induce vomiting. My body bent in a cramp, trying to remove the source of irritation. Bloody slime mixed with something white poured onto the floor. Once I realized that these were pieces of Petrovich’s skin I had swallowed while biting him, I bent over in another heave. The second fit was followed by a third one, and then a fourth. I threw up until my throat started burning with stomach acid and the salty sweet taste of blood in my mouth became acrid. Suppressing the fifth heave I crawled to the wall on all fours. Too weak to stand up I collapsed where there was no blood, vomit or dirt. My head throbbed, my stomach felt like I would throw up again, my muscles felt like lead, as if I had been exercising for too long. There had only been one time when I had felt so horrible – from food poisoning. The sausage I ate had been spoiled. Curling into a fetal position since I didn’t have the strength to do anything else, I finally paid attention to the buttons. Since they were the only thing that kept me from just curling up and dying.
The buttons never went anywhere; moreover, they stayed in the center of my field of vision regardless of the direction in which I looked. Even when I closed my eyes trying to escape this nightmare for just a moment, the buttons were fixed in front of my internal vision, laughing at common sense and logic. They lured, they shimmered, they longed to know my choice, vibrating with impatience! I felt with my entire being that the longer I delay my choice the worse I would feel. The game system wanted to know how I was going to advance in that blasted game.
I suppressed the initial desire to press “Cancel”. Given that I had actively played a number of games before ending up here, it would be very stupid to reject something before finding out what its attributes were. What are the advantages of the race “human”? What would be the advantages of the race “vampire”? What constraints do both of these races have? The questions appeared in my head despite my awful state, but there were no answers to them. Just the buttons kept shimmering in front of me. Losing it completely I shouted:
“Information! I need comparative information on the races. That’s the only way I can make a choice.”
The last sentence came out garbled as my innards started burning as if they were on fire. I had no idea what was happening to my body now, but I felt clearly that in the next few minutes I would be dead. I did not know if this game offered respawn or if I would just disappear completely, but I did not want to find out. If I was given a second chance at life it would be silly to let it end in just thirty minutes.

Request is granted. Access to Temple of Knowledge is provided.
For the duration of study of comparative attributes time for player Yari is suspended.

The pain vanished completely. Along with it vanished the blood, the vomit, the trailer, and the world around, Everything that had surrounded me just a few second ago just vanished! What appeared instead was the white room where I had been previously. Except that now, unlike during my previous visit, a gray haired man of uncertain age was present. He could be fifty to infinity. Actually, it’s the latter that I was inclined to believe the most. All the Christian pictures showing god right after the creation of the world contained that very image: white flowing clothes, gray hair, kind and understanding gaze. Could that really be him?
“Welcome to the Temple of Knowledge, young recruit,” — the old man said, spreading his arms in a welcoming gesture. — “You have requested information on the comparative characteristics of two races: human and vampire. Your request was reviewed and ruled justified. The information you need is in this scroll. Study it.”
A glass coffee table appeared in front of me with a small sheet of paper on top of it.
“Where am I?” — I blurted out, subconsciously expecting to hear a squeaky rasp. But no, my voice was quite normal. Amazing – a second ago I was writhing with horrible pain and now there was not even a phantom trace of it. As if my consciousness had been detached and relocated to a different place, leaving just the empty shell to suffer.
“Three questions on subjects unrelated to the initial query lead to a ban on access to the Temple of Knowledge for a year. You shall receive an initial warning. For the next unrelated question you will receive a penalty. Pay attention, young recruit.”
Damn! Shut up and be quiet! I had just received a very clear illustration of the expression “A man’s ruin lies in his tongue.” The old man standing in front of me instantly lost the veil of divinity: HE could not possibly be so indifferent to His creations. I surveyed the surrounding space thoroughly. There were no indicators suggesting a time limit for staying in the Temple of Knowledge; I settled down in front of the coffee table. I decided against reaching for the paper sheet: there were no guarantees that as soon as I got it in my hand I would not be thrown back into my body suffering from pain. If someone or something suspended the time for me, I would do well to thoroughly think over everything that happened to me..
Judging from the appearance of my surroundings, I was indeed placed within a computer game, through some incident combining the functions of character and player. Or supposing that I was a player. It was quite likely that in some other world there was a zitty nerd in glasses sitting in front of a monitor and controlling me, making me go in one direction or another. On the other hand, if I were under someone else’s control there would not have been the option to choose a race. Immediately after I had killed Petrovich I should have been turned into a vampire and received a whole heap of info on my new race. However, that was not the case, and I was allowed to visit the Temple of Knowledge. A gamer is not likely to take it well to have a character that decides on his own what path to choose for development. Or it could be a type of game where the character makes decisions independently and the gamer only determines the main direction for development? Damn! You could really wreck your brain on this!
I hadn't spent much time in the game itself, if it could be called that. Even though I was conscious only for a few minutes, now that I was recalling my sensations and the overall environment I could state with certainty: the game did not differ from the world in which I had lived for twenty-three years. Remembering the strange opponent that I had managed to destroy would lead me to conclude that I had been living in the game even before I died. Because it was just an ordinary mage that came out to fight our platoon. Protective magical sphere, flaming hands, the APC soaring into the air… the whole scene of my death looked too much like a fight between a mage and some peasants with pitchforks. Besides, one peasant had managed to stick his pitchfork straight into the mage’s head.
The first question that came up – did I kill him or send him for respawn? Does it exist in this game at all? If so, what is the cost to the player – does he lose a level? Is he rolled back to the starting point in development? Does he transfer to a respawn point? Will he try to avenge his death? Why was I made a player? Is it because I killed another player? Or because I sent him for respawn? Swarms of questions popped up in my head, but they all went unanswered. No one hastened to me with an open embrace to explain the core rules of the world in which I had ended up. The old man became still as a statue. During the entire time that I was sitting on the floor he never moved, waiting while I read the crumb of knowledge allocated to me and returned for more suffering. I was allowed to become one sheet of paper wiser. How could there be anything more valuable than that?

I leaned closer to the paper and read a couple of short paragraphs.

Human. Unpopular game race (0.0092% of all players). Commonly occurs in the following game worlds: “Altair” (82.3376% of players, dominant role in governing the world), “Gliax” (57.0093% of players, dominant role in governing the world), “Earth” (7.4471% of players, advisory role in governing the world). In other game worlds humans constitute less than 1% of the total number of players; have no influence on governing the world. Positive features of the race: adaptability to the environment is 180% of normal. Negative features: initial level of physical and energy state is 20% of normal; rate of increase of attributes is 20% of normal.

Hm… that is a rather interesting description that brings up more questions than it provides answers. Earth is just a game world among others. So, we are not alone in the universe after all and there are other locations where other people live? Not little green men that every second earthling secretly wants to see but just normal people that look exactly like us? Scientists and ufologists of the Earth of my past would have given several decades of their lives for this information. Stop! Now is not the time for figuring out where and how people live. That’s not what I am here for. Even without reading the description of the bloodsucker I could tell that humans were weaker on all accounts. Disadvantages were too great and it was unclear whether they were offset by adaptability. What was it needed for, anyway? I wondered if I were to ask the old guy a question on terminology, would be consider it a question on an “unrelated subject”?

Vampire: popular game race (3.4419% of all players.) Common in 42 game worlds <list of worlds>, playing the dominant role there. In another 172 worlds <list of worlds> represents over 5% of players and takes an advisory position. Absent in 5 game worlds. Positive features of the race: initial physical condition is 150% of normal, elevated resistance to mind energy, accelerated recovery of attributes during nighttime. Negative features: initial energy level is 1% of normal, in daylight rate of attributes recovery is 1% of normal; requires blood consumption at least 1 time per week.

This was the end of information. No classes, directions of development, locations for study and training – there was nothing more. Those in charge of the game considered that in order to make a decision it would be enough for me to have a brief overview of the areas where the races are common and a few words on their features. Very bloody informative indeed!
“You have read the comparative characteristics of the two races,” stated the old guy. I was right: they were going to take me back as soon as the information was in my brain. Who am I to stay in such a “sacred” place? A level one player unable to decide what would be better: a human or a vampire? On the other hand, why unable? I have already sorted it out for myself.
“You must make a choice. In order for it to be a justified one you will be taken back. Remember: the doors of the Temple of Knowledge are always open to seekers.”
Something flashed in front of my eyes and the whiteness of the Temple of Knowledge was replaced by the dirty floor of the trailer covered in blood and vomit.

You have not completed initiation; therefore, you can change race. Races available: Vampire. Accept changes?

The pain returned together with the message. My body curled into a fetal position of its own accord, trying to calm the burning innards; my head felt like an iron band was tightening around it; my eyes were trying to roll out of their sockets and my mind stopped perceiving the surrounding world altogether, stuck on the sensations. Only the stubborn message kept floating in front of my face. Colored circles jumped around it, black dots were flying, strange images appeared and dissipated, but the message could not care less about the flashes that surrounded it or about my condition. It wanted a choice.
“NOO” – a rasp escaped my throat. I was unable to concentrate enough to push a button. So people in this game have obvious problems with numbers; their abilities are abysmal compared to vampires; perhaps my end in this game will not be enviable, but I will not regularly drink blood of living creatures. I’d rather die now than ever taste it again. This is not my thing.

You have rejected a race change.
Bonus received: your initial levels of physical and energy state are 25% of normal, rate of increase of the attributes is 25% of normal
Character adjustment is in progress

If I had thought that the fire burning me up from the inside was pain, I was grossly mistaken. The moment I mumbled my refusal, the flickering flame of a candle was replaced with the roaring fire of a smelter. I lost my hearing. My sight. My speech. I lost all feelings but THE PAIN. Screamed even though I could not talk. I pleaded with the shadows around me to kill me, even though I could not see. I heard the monotonous hum of one-dozens-hundreds-thousands of voices even though I was deaf. I lost my mind even though I kept thinking. I was the pain and the pain was me. At some point the blessed darkness took pity on my shattered mind and carried it into oblivion. Perhaps I was destined to die and never exist again, but staying in this hell was beyond what I could bear.
My consciousness returned, harsh and sudden, like the onset of winter for the snow removal services. At some point I realized that I was lying on the floor in a fetal position, shaking from the cold and the memory of the nightmare I had just gone through. I opened my eyes and saw a view worthy of the most illustrious impressionists: a bloodied floor covered with clumps of dirt, and Petrovich with his glassy eyes and torn-up throat. The digger, wedged between the table and the cabinet, rocking back and forth and mumbling something unintelligible and nonsensical. The underside of the table covered in congealed snot. A totally disgusting sight.

Quest received: “Road to the Citadel”. Reach the headquarters for the forces of your class. Coordinates of the Citadel are indicated on your map.

The location map icon started blinking compellingly, informing me of new data available. However, new information was not useful at all: the map was still covered in dark fog, obscuring the map from me. The Citadel was marked on the map with a small flag, and if I figured out their scaling correctly the central base of the Paladins was somewhere on the other side of the world relative to where I was right now.
“I can’t really figure it out — did you become a vampire or not?” — a derisive voice sounded, making me shift into a vertical position. I did not have the strength to stand, so I simply sat up, leaning my back against the wall of the trailer, and tried to look around. I was not able to accomplish the latter though: the amount of physical work required to sit up made me dizzy and breathless, as if I were an untrained runner having to cover a distance of a hundred meters in full battle rattle. In the midst of the multicolored sparks and fireworks in front of my eyes I practically saw a question come from my body: — “What have I turned into if I am choking just from trying to sit?! This is what they call 25% of normal?” An eternity went by before I could think clearly and finally was able to look around. And then my jaw practically dropped. In the door, wearing steel armor shining brightly in the light of moon and stars, there was a cat, standing there with his paws crossed on his chest and smiling sardonically. His sharp teeth were bared for all to see. More precisely, it was a man with a cat’s head, paws and tail. As far as I recalled, felines were unable to stand on their hind paws so naturally, shoulder leaning against the doorframe.
“I will ask the question once again — did you become a vampire?” the cat repeated.
“Vanish!” I managed to squeak hoarsely. My thoughts were preparing to waltz again against the backdrop of multicolored circles, but I was suppressing the dizziness. I was able to anchor myself by a simple question: why was my mind perceiving a person who entered as a cat? Did my mind decide to follow the way of the digger who was still rocking back and forth and mumbling nonsensically?
“I will for sure. But later. So, are you a vampire?”
“No.” Since the hallucination was not going to vanish, I decided to respond to it. Of course, it is not quite normal to talk to your imaginary companion, but I was not concerned with “normalcy” at the moment.
“But you did drink blood?”
“I did.”
“Did you receive an offer to change your race?”
“I did.”
“But you remained human. Why?”
“Salt is bad for you,” I grumbled.
“Well, that’s an option too,” the cat chuckled. “Anyway, it’s time to get you out of this pit; we’ll figure out what to do with you at the Citadel. I hope you received the quest at least?”
“Yes.”
“Well, at least something. Want to see something funny? Of course you do, you can’t avoid it anyway. Look here! That’s you!”
A mirror appeared in front of me – a huge one, hanging in the air unsupported. I should have been surprised by an object appearing out of nowhere, but this minor issue faded into the background. A head was staring at me from the mirror – ugly, bloodied, dried to the point of resembling a mummy – and in it were two bright blue eyes.
“Aren’t you a beauty!” the cat commented sarcastically. “Even if someone on Earth were to remember you, they would definitely fail to recognize you now. Congratulations, brother Paladin! I have completely blotted you out of this world. My quest is complete! … Wait.. Something is not right…”
“What do you mean by ‘blotted out’?” I asked the contemplating cat with surprise, having temporarily forgotten my horrible appearance.
“It means that… Right! We have a living witness right here! I was starting to think that I had missed something, and here he is, rocking coolly right here.”
Something like a green jedi light saber from Star Wars appeared in the cat’s hands.
“O-Oomph!” the hallucination said matter-of-factly, as it moved its hand sharply. The sword went through the digger’s body smoothly and without resistance; the cat then smiled contentedly. My breath caught from seeing how the neatly removed head of the person who had been so withdrawn into his own world rolled on the floor, so I missed the moment when a light level-up halo standard in many games started forming around the Paladin. The cat grinned mockingly and concluded:
“Dear Archibald, I congratulate my dear self on my new level of 352! You have been striving for this goal for a long time, blah-blah-blah, fanfare and the like. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Wh-h-aat?” I stumbled through the question, as I was completely confused. All my attention was concentrated on the digger’s head that had rolled up to the wall and stopped. The cat had just killed a person just to complete some quest! Just so! In passing! Because he wanted to get some blasted experience points!
“What’s your name, pray tell?” Archibald repeated without concealing his mirth.
“Sergey.” The shock of the digger’s death was so huge that I forgot that I was surrounded by the game.
“For demons’ sake, what 'Sergey'?! Stop clinging to your past life! Forget about it! Nothing links you to that previous world anymore! The Sergey that you used to be is dead! Got that?”
“How can nothing link me to it? I have a sister, mother, friends…” I stumbled seeing the scowling face of the cat — “WHAT?!”
“Every time a new player appears,” the cat started to clarify, ignoring my attempts to stand up and grab him by the throat. This bastard killed my relatives! He is a dead man! I will destroy him even if I die trying! — “Head of class receives the quest for zeroization of the new recruit. He doesn’t do the quests himself, his status is above working in the fields; so there’s a lottery held among best players. Experience for kills, experience for quest completion, the loot – all goes to the lucky one. You were good loot, I have not seen such rich pickings in a long time. I can say for sure: you left lots of traces in your previous life. Normally the system generates a dozen or so targets, but in your case there were 32 NPCs defined as mandatory targets, 67 as recommended and 91 as desirable. I got them all! That’s why, frankly speaking, I was a little late: one of my tasks was to pour some water down your throat after you spawned. But this way it worked out even better – I got two additional bodies for power leveling. The one that ran out of here ten minutes ago and this one. The System defined them as additional mandatory targets, so the experience… Quit thrashing! Get it, bro you cant do anything to me right now. After they appear the recruits are weak and dystrophic. If you decide you want to settle a score, I’ll be happy to accept your challenge. If you come back from the Academy, that is.”
“You are a dead man!” I growled with hatred, abandoning my attempts to stand up. The cat was right: at this stage there was nothing I could do to that freak. There was only one thing to do: remember him and wait for the right moment to avenge every person he killed!
“Of course I am a dead man what else could I be? Because a fearsome nasty battle hamster which has a 99% probability of giving up the ghost in the Academy without the right of respawn is threatening to take revenge on me! My poor tail trembles in fear!” — The cat chuckled, then continued in a graver tone, "Get used to it, brother: from now on you are a player. Everything that surrounded you before is just one of the game locations, and the people you considered to be independent creatures were merely NPCs controlled by the System. You think the 192 bodies I popped off will leave a blazing trail in the criminal reports? Ha! The System chose them as payment for converting you into a player; the system itself blotted… No, I really do enjoy the way you are looking at me! Hatred, determination, bloodthirstiness! Let’s do this: I will not say anything now about the specifics of becoming a player. Pass through the Academy. Survive, learn, become stronger, survive again and then we’ll see each other once more! My name is Archibald, a Catorian, level 352, Paladin, respawn point is Earth. If after the Academy you retain your itch for revenge, I am always at your service. By the way, someone formerly known as Sergey, you never introduced yourself.”
“Yari,” I growled angrily. “Remember this name, you freak. I will it remind you in the final moments of your life! I am Yari! Non-initiated, human, level 1, Paladin, no respawn point assigned yet.”
Нu-uhh,” Archibald drawled, scratching his head in a purely human gesture. Then he swept the supper of the now dead cemetery custodians off the table to the floor, settled in the cleaned space as if it were a throne, shook his head as if deep in thought and continued: “It looks like we still have to take a brief tour into the game. Otherwise you don’t stand a chance of coming back from the Academy. Who will then take revenge on me? The game interface has a button for recording conversations; press it.”
“Where is it?” I gave up after a minute of fruitless attempts to figure out the status bar. The icons available to me were player description, map, personal inventory, book of spells, list of quests – and not a single hint at recording conversations.
“I see,” grinned the cat. “Have you ever played games before?”
“I have. A lot.”
“Doesn’t show though. You should be able to see the standard player status bar at the bottom of your field of vision. Do you see it?”
“I do. But it doesn't have means to record conversations.”
“Don’t hurry. You need to call up the status bar properties. Imagine that you are using a computer mouse. To activate the icons you were using the left button, now you need to be working with the right one. Surprise me, my future enemy. Beginner players master this task after just a couple…”
Archibald fell silent without clarifying: a couple of what? But I was not interested in these technicalities. Unless the cat was lying, the status bar is interactive. Which opens up a lot of possibilities for changing its settings and using it. Who said that it reacts only to two buttons? What if I had not a two-button, but a three-button mouse? Or a four-button one? Would the bar react differently to each button? As if confirming my words a rectangular semi-transparent box appeared in front of me: status bar properties. The panel contained twelve buttons, only two of which were available to me: descriptions and additional options. The rest were covered with a freakish looking icon showing a scowling skull with three red eyes.
“Judging from your joyful squeak” — Archibald continued, noticing my reaction — “you have discovered properties. Very good. As I already mentioned, it takes new players a couple of months. You will have to fiddle with the descriptions yourself; now open the additional options. There will be three options available to you: recording, calculator and system time. Drag recording to the main bar – you need to use this thing all the time.”
“What for?” I could not help asking as I was performing the sequence suggested to me. The cat was not lying: at the first level only three options were available to me out of a huge list. The rest were locked by the same scary skull. “If this is a game, the system itself should keep the records.”
“Did you turn on the recording?” Archibald responded with a question, waited for me to nod in confirmation and continued: “Remember, my future enemy, the game could not care less about you, about me or about all the players generally, perhaps with the exception of the Emperor. It never does anything on its own initiative. No recording, no conflict resolution, no constraints on using magic – the game does not control what it has created. Even more so – it would never create anything that would require its control. Players should be responsible for their fate themselves. If you want to revisit some points of the game, turn on the video. If you want to have remote access to trading, use the auctions. If you want something else, take care of it yourself. Don’t rely on the system.”
“The scary three-eyed skull covering most of the buttons: what is this? Or who is this?” I asked once Archibald fell silent.
“That’s an unusual question from a former NPC to whom the prospect of immortality has opened. Is that the only thing that concerns you at the moment?”
“No, but you have already delighted me with the statement that you will only tell me the information necessary for survival in some Academy. What’s the point of asking you something that you are not going to tell? The skull is obviously not part of the data that you are hiding.”
“That’s logical.” Archibald nodded and started swinging his legs. “The skull is the emblem of the Emperor. Who is the only player with moderator powers. Do I need to tell you what powers those are? Once you reach a certain level the skulls will disappear. Now to the most important thing. Remember, Yari, information on your personal attributes is your most guarded secret. Never tell it to anyone, under any circumstances. Especially to warlocks. Particularly if the warlock is an elf. Have you ever read the Bible? Remember those guys demons mentioned there? They were extremely unlucky in disclosing personal data; they had, like, the worst luck ever. One of the elven warlocks, Solomon, destroyed their whole race practically single-handed. Acting through a front man whose name was not even retained in history, Solomon captured a minor demon, found out its name – Ornia subdued it, and then through Ornia captured first the head of the demons Baal and then another 70 great princes from his clan. The captives were interrogated, chained, then forced to do the hardest labor; then, once Solomon was tired of dealing with them, the great demon princes together with the great hosts of their servants were imprisoned in a copper vessel and thrown into Chaos. If you are ever interested, you will find the details of this abominable affair in the grimoire “Solomon’s Covenant”.
“Why abominable?”
“Because humanity has never been framed so badly! Note the subtlety with which Solomon set it all up: he didn't capture a single demon himself. He acted either through a front man or through the demons themselves. What do you think, once the survivors of Baal’s clan decided to get to the bottom of it and punish those at fault: who bore the brunt of their righteous ire?"
“People?” I put forth a guess.
“Exactly! The elves appeared innocent; Solomon gained so much experience points for destroying 72 princes that he was able to take his grinning ass to another location, and only people were left behind high and dry to face the enraged demons. Hello, Priest player Innocent III and the Inquisition he created, looking for any manifestation of demonism under the pretext of eradicating heresy! Hello, the slaughter known to everyone as the Black Death epidemic, which was, in fact, a demonic ritual that took, around the 1340s, about 60 million NPCs and one third of all players on Earth. Hello… oh, there were a lot of things going on in those times! Just the “Malleus Maleficarum” counts for quite something! The priests, under the pretext of fighting the demons, started to kill their own dark brothers — maleficars and witches, as the priests wanted to increase their own numbers! That’s history, you can’t get away from it. So, the maximum you can tell other entities about yourself is name and class. Level, respawn point, race, properties, specialty, other information — all that must be hidden. Otherwise you will follow the path of the demon princes.
“What do you mean by 'increase their numbers'? How can the number of priests increase at the expense of witches?”
“Well… Ok, I’ll tell you that as well. At this time Earth houses the headquarters of 42 classes. As you understand, a class may include more than one race. So. There are several ways to become a player. The first and most standard one: every month for each class the System independently selects the most suitable person and converts him into a non-initiated player. The class members do a little purge – normally 3-4 people and transport the recruit to the headquarters, from which he is then transported to the Academy. If the recruit complies with the game requirements and finishes the Academy, he returns and becomes a full-fledged player. As I mentioned, about one out of every hundred returns.”
“Why?”
“Because if a player is killed he loses one level. Do you think the level 1 recruits have a lot to lose? Some classes developed a habit for power leveling their newbies before the Academy to level 3, the maximum allowed for non-initiated players, but it did not improve the survival rate. One out of a hundred. The other way to become a player is a kill. If the stars align the right way and an NPC kills a player, he will become a player himself. The killed player will return to respawn point and receive a quest 'Revenge'. The System does not like unplanned noobs so it tries to restore balance every way it can. If you return from the Academy you will have another enemy besides me. The third and currently most popular method is a player zeroization. The number of players is practically always stable. The newbies that come out of the Academy don’t affect the stats much, and your case is just unique. So. If, for example, a Paladin completely wipes out a Priest, then Paladins get a chance to turn one of their minions into a player. The minion they gain that way will go to the Academy and will finish it with a 100% guarantee: the System does not allow initiated players to die. By the way, had you become a vampire, the Academy would have been an unpleasant memory for you. Because of the third way of becoming a player: in the old times classes slaughtered each other like pigs. Priests, together with us, killed Witches, Maleficars, Warlocks, Mages and other magical classes. In turn, we were killed by the Blades, Warriors and Assassins. It was quite a slaughter. Finally a peace treaty was made to stop the mayhem that reigned on Earth, so for 600 years now there has been an armed neutrality between the classes. Well, that’s about all you need to know for now. You will learn the rest in the Academy. Oh yeah, one more thing! You already killed an NPC. Take this: that’s your rightful loot.”

Received: 1 Granis

“Granis is the monetary unit of the players,” Archibald immediately explained. “It is used in all the worlds. Objects, mercenaries, services, auctions: everything operates on granis.”
“If I am killed, will I lose the money?”
“Dude, first live to the point when this becomes relevant for you,” the cat laughed. “You’ll die in the Academy: what do you need extra knowledge for? I’ve taken too long with you anyway. Any more questions?”
“Yes. You said that personal information is the utmost secret. Then why did you reveal it to me?”
“So that you’d know who purged your family. Who killed your mom, your sister, your friends and neighbors. Your dog too! Who completely wiped you out from the world of the living. You want revenge, right?”
A dark veil of hatred flooded me again. If I only had the strength I would have jumped on the cat without a second thought.
“Remember that feeling, brother, once you come to. Hold on to it and don’t let it fade. Then you’ll have a chance to make it. See you soon!”
The last thing I remembered before fainting were the two cords of fog shooting from the cat’s paws and snaking towards me.









Chapter Two. Departure for the Academy





“TAKE THIS ONE, brother!” Archibald’s voice came through the fog, filling my mind: returning me to the horrible nightmare called reality. " One more body for the Academy."
“What’s wrong with him? Is he sick?” an unfamiliar voice asked tensely. I tried to open my eyes to refute the accusation of sickness but the body would not respond. No matter how much I tried I was unable to move a single muscle. The only thing available to me in my current state was the game interface, so I opened the map and stared at my current location with an angry grin. The Citadel. I had been delivered to the right place.
“Information on the purge overwhelmed him, so I had to stun him."
“What?!” The exclamation of surprise from the unknown interlocutor was so natural it became clear: Archibald had committed a serious violation. “It is prohibited to use magic on uninitiated players outside the Citadel! You are facing…”
“I know the rules, brother,” Archibald interrupted. “Don’t bother; I will report myself to the head of the Order!”
“Fine, brother, you may leave him. What stun did you use?”
“A complete one. With a mental block.”
There was a long pause.
“The Head of the Order is expecting you,” the Catorian’s interlocutor said after a while, having gathered his thoughts. “As you leave, send a couple of recruits my way. It would do them good to see how to remove a full stun.”
“But what’s the point? If a miracle occurs and Yari returns from the Academy, why should we present a new player to the Mages? He sent Devir for respawn. That wacko already submitted the request to surrender the offender to him. It’s much simpler to send this loser to the Academy stunned to guarantee that he kicks the bucket, and inform Devir of his sudden demise. It will be simpler for everyone.”
“Is that why you broke the law and used magic?”
“Sharda, I have no faith in him. He had a great chance to save himself but he refused. Had he become a vampire and had Garbital to back him up, Devir would not have been able to do anything to him until the quest was voided. It would have only taken a year! But no, Yari decided to remain human! Besides, even as an NPC he was a no-name nobody! Average development stats, game addiction, asocial, no quests or hidden targets associated with him. Nothing at all! Had he perished in battle the System would have erased the memory of him in as little as ten years.”
“You forget – he managed to send a mage to respawn.”
“I looked into that case. If Devir had known Monstrichello’s nature he would have won that battle. Without a scratch. But he realized too late that Monstrichello’s immune to magic, and just as he was going to crush him with a tank Yari appeared with his machine gun. Not even him – just his torn-off limbs. The soldier, covered in shit and piss, was already dead by then. Do you think a player like that has any chance against one of the most promising headhunters?”
“Why do you think the head of our order would not speak for Yari? Or the head of the people?
“Sharda, do you believe in that yourself? Gerhard’s already up to his ears in work; why would he need trouble with the mages? As for Bartos… That’s not even funny. He couldn’t care less about his race.”
“I understand your turmoil, brother, but I will repeat the old truth – you need to have faith in the best. Who knows what is in store for this recruit? Maybe wiping him out would cause a war with the Mages. That’s good reason to give the kid a chance: why not?”
“Do whatever you want,” Archibald said, but there was obvious disdain in his voice.
That tailed beast had already written me off and was going to get rid of me! I’ll kill that bastard.
“If you want to get him up and running, you are welcome. They will be sent to the Academy in three hours. I am not going to teach him. If you want to bother with a future corpse, go ahead. I’m off to see the Head.”
“Don’t forget to send me the recruits,” Sharda reminded him, and then my consciousness decided to take a break again…
“Does everyone understand the sequence?” The first thing I heard after returning from “the nowhere land” was Sharda’s question. “If you try to remove a complete stun using the standard method your patient will become a vegetable. The body will awaken but the mind will remain blocked. So first we bring back the spirit and only then work with the body.”
If I read Sharda’s tone correctly, at this time I had the great honor of serving as a guinea pig used to teach young inexperienced neophytes. Forgetting that my body was not obeying me I clenched my fists and tried to open my eyes. I had no desire to serve as a museum exhibit. However, as soon as my eyes opened incredibly bright light hit them, as if a piece of directly aimed sunlight was set right in front of my face. I shut my eyes reflexively, turned away and pressed my palms to my face — the light was blinding even through closed eyelids.
“Had the mind not awakened,” Sharda continued to explain, unperturbed, “our patient would not have made such a frightful face and tried to cover himself from the light. He would not have cared. Remember the main rule when using magic: after applying any ability you must check the result. Because even a harmless treatment can result in a horrible death if, for example, ulcer stitches in the stomach dissolve together with a blood clot. Anything can happen.”
“Sir Shardaganbat, may I ask a question?” a male voice asked in an ingratiating manner, making it sound extremely unpleasant. “So it means that our abilities can misfire at any moment? Is this determined by something, or does the game itself determine the probability of failure?”
“That’s a good question,” responded Sharda, or Shardaganbat, as he had just been called. “When you learn your first spell or ability, your spell book will update. It will have the inscription with the ability’s name, description, requirements for use; there will be a lot of things noted there. Also, it will have a column showing how many times you have used the ability. This is a basic parameter that determines the probability of success or failure when using the ability. So the more you train the lower is your chance of failure.
I moved my hands away carefully and opened my eyes. The room had brick walls and was small, more like a cell; besides me lying on a sort of a dais there were five other creatures. Some oddity looking like a huge upstanding monitor lizard with six limbs, of which four were legs. A pointy-eared youngster that looked like a human, but was most likely an elf. An old guy so emaciated it begged the question why his body was not falling apart in pieces. A gnome about a meter tall wearing steel armor and – this surprised me most of all – Fagov! Lance-corporal Fagov, damn him! The huge two-meter bruiser with the brains of a five-year-old kid! How did he get here?”
“What, did I look like a mummy too?” Fagov asked, unwittingly providing me with a couple of hints. First: the former lance-corporal was addressing the gnome, thus revealing who was the boss here. Second: he was not the one who had asked about the abilities. Third: Fagov is a Paladin just like I am!
“Yes,” Sharda nodded turning towards the thug. “People players look like skeletons after the transformation. Now back to our question. Besides the frequency of use of the ability, there is another important thing: Energy. It is known by a variety of names: mana, magic points, internal reserve, fury, vigor, but the core meaning is the same: this is what constrains you. The more Energy you have, the more powerful and precise your spells will be, the lower the chance to make a mistake when using the ability, the stronger player you become. Never disclose this value to anyone. Your life will depend on this!”
“How can one increase it?” the elf-like guy asked, which showed that he had asked questions before.
“Now this is not a good question, recruit,” Sharda frowned. “At this time you should be asking just one thing: how do we bring Yari here” the gnome casually waved his hand in my direction “back to normal. Paladins don’t make distinctions between people, elves, gnomes and other races. As Paladins we see a brother and his problem that needs to be resolved. So take this weakling and go off to the medical office. In an hour I will be waiting for you in classroom 45. All five of you. We’ll be preparing to leave for the Academy.
The gnome turned around and went out of the room unhurriedly, leaving me alone with the four future Paladins.
“I don’t remember being carried around,” the old man rasped. His voice suited his appearance – squeaky, shaky and barely audible.
“You s-s-simply looked less-s-s s-s-scary,” the walking lizard replied in a rumbling and somewhat sibilant voice. “Yari does-s-s look like a s-s-skeleton. Let’s-s-s go, we sh-sh-shouldn’t keep th-them waiting for us-s-s.”
“I think I’ve already seen this roadkill somewhere,” Fagov frowned, looking me over from top to bottom.
I was looking at the alien and fascinating creatures, but there was no mental excitement from seeing these wonders. Nothing like “Wow, a talking dinosaur!” or “OMG, an elf!” Even the amazing presence of Fagov failed to dispel the sudden apathy once I remembered Archibald’s “motivating” words: “If you want to bother with a future corpse, go ahead.” The gnome never objected to that, just underscored that my death could be useful for the Paladins. Neither the Catorian nor the gnome believed that I would be able to stay in the game! They just wrote me off as scrap! What’s the point of caring about someone who’s about to kick the bucket? Bastards!
I regarded without interest as the monitor lizard grabbed me with cold slippery fingers and heaved me over his shoulder seemingly effortlessly, as if I were a sack of flour. I did not have the strength to lift my head and look around, so all that I could do was to stare at the lizard’s grey mantle and the green tail sticking out from under it.
“What, another human?” a voice asked in surprise and I was dumped onto a couch. The white surroundings were blinding me, so I closed my eyes. “Why are there so many Paladins spawning this month?”
“I don’t know,” the elf responded. "Sir Shardaganbat ordered us to deliver Yari to you, to put him on his feet. We are to leave for the Academy in an hour and a half… Is that even realistic? Is it possible to put THAT on its feet?”
I noted to myself glumly that in addition to Archibald and Devir I had acquired one more candidate for a heart-to-heart: the elf. Amazing, but the fantasy writers in my world were not lying about the arrogance of these creatures. Just after a couple minutes of knowing him I already disliked the elf. I know that there are plenty of jerks among people, but this long-eared one definitely had it coming for “THAT”.
“An hour and a half?” the healer grinned. “During that time you can treat anyone. And definitely put him on his feet if you know how to do it right.”
Lightness and weightlessness washed over me. Pain and strain that felt like permanent companions receded, leaving merely a bitter memory. Such a drastic change forced me to open my eyes forgetting about the blinding light. But it was not there anymore. Only blue shining was emanating from the hands of another shorty. Looks like the local gnomes had some sort of fetish for steel armor: the doc was also covered in metal from head to toe.
“I remember! You’re the crowbag from my platoon!” Fagov exclaimed joyfully. “Homie! You run for the Paladins too?
“Do you know him?” the old man frowned.
“Sure! He’s the one that popped off the mage! With the machine gun right through the skull. Bam – his head just popped! But wait! You died too!”
“So Devir is your doing?” The doctor looked at me with interest. All I could do was nod in agreement.
“Now that makes it clear why there are so many Paladins. Chosen one, guest, minion, immune and fighter. A jolly crowd.
“Huh?” Fagov’s face demonstrated such utter confusion that the gnome deigned to clarify.
“The guest is the reptilian who came to our Citadel in accordance with the agreement between Gerhard van Brast who is the Head of the Order of Paladins of Earth and Shlikandr de Zak who is the Head of the Order of Paladins of Versala, the reptilians’ home planet. If I recall correctly, brother, your name is Sartal, a level 3 minion.
“That’s-s-s right,” the reptilian nodded making a funny swing with his tail.
“Immune — brother Monstrichello, level one. Was discovered during the area clean-up following Devir’s silly attack. He is completely unaffected by magic. The System sometimes might spring a trick and create a unique one like that. Was recommended to become a player by the search team, and he chose Paladin class. Is that correct?”
“— Hehe! —Fagov’s face broke into a moronic smile. “Always wanted to be a Pal! I ran for them in Warcraft! Once they offered, I – right at once! I’ll be a tank!”
“Minion,” the gnome continued to explain ignoring Monstrichello’s words. Damn! What a name he picked! “brother Nartalim from Earth. Level 3 minion. Elf.”
“There are elves on Earth?” I was unable to hold back an exclamation of surprise.
“They are much more numerous than people!” Nartalim snorted arrogantly, nodding to everyone present. “I am talking about players. Elves play the dominant role in ruling the Earth.
“What the hell?!” It was Fagov’s turn to be surprised. “I’ve never seen no pointy-eared freaks in my TV!”
“Every day, you mor…,” the elf squinted at the frowning doctor and corrected himself, brother Paladin. “You did see us every day!”
“The guilded youth!” It was a random guess on my part but from the elf’s grinning face it became clear: I hit the nail on the head.
“True, Yari. We are the true rulers of Earth! We …
“Let’s leave Earth’s affairs aside,” the gnome butted in, stopping the discussion. “You chose Light, so follow it to the end. Next is the Chosen one. This month it’s brother Dietrich. Human. Level one.”
The old man bowed his head in greeting.
“And, finally, warrior. Yaropolk. The human who sent Devir for respawn, thus obtaining a ticket to our world. Full team for departure… Amazing. Every month the Citadel sends new recruits to the Academy. Normally just one, sometimes two and very rarely three. But five all at once… I have never seen that yet.
“Are you like, really from Earth?” Fagov continued to stare at Nartalim, stunned, ignoring the doctor’s words. “Why didn’t you tell us nothing before?”
“Yari, explain it to him,” The elf did not bother to answer, turning away from Monstrichello. “It seems you figured it out.”
“Do the explaining yourself, brother. You have all you need for that: a head, a mouth, a tongue. Or do you use them for something else?” — I quipped and immediately faced an intense stare from Nartalim. Damn him! The elf’s rating with me went down another point even though that seemed impossible. He was used to get it all at his beck and call in his previous life, and now after becoming a player this bastard continued to treat everyone with disdain, issuing orders left and right.”
“The boy forgot his place?” The elf’s eyes were lighting up with anger.
“You have any complaints, golden? Monstrichello and I become players on our own, not because of daddy! While you are nothing without his money! You are a twit! Like hell you’ll graduate from the Academy!” It was a random blow, but the elf’s widened pupils told me that it struck home!
“An initiated player always graduates from the Academy, Yari, remember that,” the doctor somehow appeared between the elf and me, stopping the squabble. For some reason the gnome was looking angrily at me, and not at the elf, as if I were the one that had gone too far. Among the present company there are only three initiated: Nartalim, Monstrichello and Sartal. Neither you nor Dietrich passed the initiation, so treat your senior brothers with respect!”
“Speaking of finishing the Academy,” Nartalim blurted out spitefully from behind the doctor’s back. “I will miss you!”
We walked to classroom forty five in complete silence. Nartalim felt like a winner, striding in the front with his head proudly raised. Amazing, but Monstrichello and Dietrich walked close to him holding back just a little. As if they were the entourage ready to jump to fulfill any whim of their ruler. It seemed like they had been together for a couple of days and the elf managed to subdue both the old man and the oversized kid. Sartal minced his steps behind the three but in a way that made it clear – he was not with that company. At the same time the lizard maintained some distance from me to show that he had no intention of joining me either. The reptilian was keeping to himself.
“You are early.” Sharda grumbled, looking at our group sullenly. Classroom forty five turned out to be just a normal gym; around the perimeter there were racks with weapons, armor and unknown gadgets. Sharda himself, still wearing the same shining armor, stood in the middle of the gym holding a small hammer and breathing heavily. Apparently we had interrupted a training session. My eyes unwittingly widened in surprise: the gnome was holding Mjollnir the way they drew it at Marvel. The legendary hammer of Thor.
“Stay, guys, there is nothing else I could do with you now,” the gnome waved acceptance at us as we tried to leave the gym. Miraculously, the hammer vanished from Sharda’s hands as if it had never been there. Magic? I didn’t think so. Most likely the hammer was replaced among his personal inventory. I ought to remember this for the future.
“Lesson number seven,” the gnome continued busily, — “every player needs to have his own main artifact. A weapon, armor, a spinner, it does not matter. The important part is: one player — one artifact. Throughout your game, regardless of how it plays out, you will develop and upgrade your item improving its properties every time. If you want your weapon to curse with every blow – no problem. Add the “Drunken Master’s Blow” and level it up to level 4. There’s no limit on the number of properties for an artifact; however, the more properties you add the lower are the chances you’d get a really great item in the end. Because you have to work on each property in order for it to work well. Any questions?”
“Where can one learn about the properties?” I asked after a short pause. For some reason other Paladins were just listening to Sharda silently, not making any attempts to figure things out in detail. As for me, it was enough to have to choose race and class without sufficient information. Regardless of my attitude to Archibald, I had to admit his words had been true. I should have agreed to become a vampire. Then I would have had a one hundred percent guarantee that I would get out of that strange Academy.
“The choice of artifact is complicated… What?” — as I was asking my question Sharda kept talking about the artifacts, but now stopped, looking at me angrily. The air around the gnome swirled lightly; Sharda himself started darkening and increasing in size like a balloon someone was blowing up. The gnome’s changes and a heavy sigh from Dietrich conveyed the main idea to me — I should not have interrupted Sharda.
“Where can one learn about the properties of an artifact?” I repeated. It was too late to retreat, so at least it was worth working on the topic in detail before facing the likely punishment. “Since they are so important for a player, it should be an informed choice... the Temple of Knowledge, with all my respect to the name, provides so little information that after you read it the only question remains: ‘What just happened?’ with all of that: “The information you need is in this scroll. Study it.” I imitated the old guy from the Temple of Knowledge.
“Have you already been there?” The gnome instantly “deflated”, looking at me with interest from the bottom up. “What was your question?”
“Comparative characteristics of humans and vampires.” Concealing the truth would be silly.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” the gnome drawled contemplatively, then looked at the elf. “Brother Nartalim, explain the gist of lesson number two to brother Yari.”
“Why me?” The offspring of high society immediately rebelled. That was funny. I had always considered the guilded youth to belong to another civilization. Not just sons and daughters of rich parents. But visitors from another world. The majority of them couldn’t care less about others’ problems; for them the value of people was determined strictly by availability of money or connections. Having fun and partying even during the lean years, traveling in expensive cars and ignoring the laws, throwing money around and demanding that they be treated as royalty — everything pointed to the elite members being from another planet. The truth revealed now was much simpler — they were partying elves. The system never showed to common NPCs, such as Fagov, the old guy and I, the racial differences of the guilded youth. Why traumatize their minds yet again?
“Because I said so,” an evil smile blossomed on Sharda’s face. “Any questions?”
“In order to receive an answer to your question, an inquiry to the Temple of Knowledge must be phrased to be as clear and certain as possible. It’s preferable to word it in such a way that it could be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” the elf surrendered. Apparently, the words “Any questions?” from the gnome served as a trigger, after which democracy ended and was replaced by a brutal dictatorial regime.
“When a player enters the Temple of Knowledge,” Nartalim continued, “a record with a counter appears for him. The counter increments with each visit to the Temple. Those players who have visited the Temple fewer than 100 times will receive the answer in the form of a paragraph or two with the maximum number of words not to exceed …,” the elf slowed down, trying to recall a specific number, and then Sharda came to his aid:
“Up to two hundred words. Given that you were interested in comparative attributes of two races the answer that was given to you would have to be as general as possible. Seems as though you received an answer, but in fact those tend to generate even more questions. As for the properties of artifacts, you can learn about those either in the Temple of Knowledge or in the Library of the Citadel, which houses all the knowledge accumulated by the Paladins of Earth. The Temple of Knowledge does not always open to seekers. Did I answer your question?” Sharda looked at me so eloquently that all I could do was nod in agreement.
“Excellent. Let’s get back to the lesson at hand. As I mentioned, choosing an artifact is a complex process. You have to look within yourselves and understand what would suit you best. Who are you? Fighters? Creators? Healers? Craftsmen? The item should be chosen wisely depending on the direction you have selected for development. History knows lots of examples of stupid choices. For example, there was once a hunter Hermes. Whatever moved him to choose an artifact in the form of sandals and suit them for flight – nobody knows. No damage, no healing power, no concealment. Nothing at all except for speed and ability to fly. Until Hermes moved on to another world he worked for his more experienced colleagues as an unskilled worker, a gopher of sorts. He specialized in delivering wine and women.”
“The messenger of the gods,” I whispered in amazement. The world turned on its head yet again. The Greek gods and heroes were mere players! Hermes, Heracles, Zeus all these creatures really did exist and at some point walked this location, until they were upgraded! Now I know that the Earth is not really a very popular place for power leveling. Following that logic, everything that I knew about mythology and religion was true! Dragons, mages, monsters, boogiemen under the bed! All that exists or existed in reality!
“There are certain constraints imposed on the choice of artifact,” Sharda continued.”It’s only possible to select an object that is associated with your class. You cannot get magical mirrors, staffs nor other knick-knacks of cheap market tricksters. These trinkets are not even here,” Sharda waved his hands around the class. “In this room we have everything Paladins are allowed to use as artifacts. Here we have just the blanks that will become artifacts after the trip to the Academy. Look, explore, feel, choose. Normally we allow the newbies half an hour but you arrived early so you have a full hour. Any questions?”
“What questions?” Monstrichello boomed and unceremoniously started for the racks with weapons and armor. “It’s all clear! I’m a tank! “I need a shield! Dietrich is a healer. He needs…”
“Brother Dietrich will make his own choice,” Sharda said quietly but it made Fagov fall silent. I just wonder, what did the gnome do during those three days of training that even Monstrichello treats him with respect?
“Brother Monstrichello is right,” Dietrich said in a grating voice. “At my age it’s too late to swing a sword about. I’ll become a healer to the extent that’s possible in our class at all. Maybe it will work out. I think I’ll take this banner.”
“A sword!” Nartalim stated with determination as he pulled out of the stand a thin curved blade that looked like a saber. “I will name it ‘Heart of Thunder’!” With its aid I will crush myriads of enemies, reach level 100 and set off for Zalta!”
“That’s a worthy goal,” the gnome nodded in approval. “Yaropolk, Sartal?”
“I chose my object a long time ago,” the reptilian rumbled, then came up to the rack with armor and pulled out a steel breastplate. “S-s-steel armor is important for a Paladin. Unless-s-s he has-s-s it he is-s-s weak and helpless-s-s. Es-s-s-pecially agains-s-s-t the mages-s-s.
“The shield is the best armor for a Paladin!” Fagov immediately started defending his artifact as a child protecting his toy.
“Everyone has his own defenses, brother Monstrichello,” the gnome reassured the thug. “Some like a shield, and some a breastplate. You need to treat the choice of your brother in arms with respect. Yari, do you need more time?”
“What is the point of the game?” I responded with a question. I did choose my class based on emotions without realizing what threats that would entail. I did not know the advantages and disadvantages of Paladins; their features, special attributes, ways for upgrading were all hidden from me. As a former semi-professional player I was quite frightened by that. With this approach to choice of character there would be only one word to describe a player: lamer! I do not want to be called that.
“The ceremony will be held in one hour,” Sharda ignored my question and the hammer appeared in his hand again. “If by that point you fail to select an artifact, you will die. This time for good. It is prohibited to use help from your brothers in arms to make the choice. Only the player shall bear the responsibility for his choice.”
“Why should we bother with him?” Nartalim dropped a phrase, staring at complex passes the gnome started to make with his hammer. Sharda continued his interrupted training session that looked more like a dance; the presence of young recruits did not bother him in the least. “Everyone knows he will not make it back from the Academy. We are just wasting time now."
I made a gesture to indicate to the elf where he could go with his suggestions and looked around. Once again I was thrown into a situation of compete uncertainty. The players who had already made their choice must be already familiar with the specifics of the class. Just the statement Dietrich made: “to the extent that’s possible in our class at all” indicates that he had some minimal knowledge about Paladins. Which could not be said about me.
What should I choose?
In general future artifacts were divided into several categories: weapons, armor, clothes made of cloth, incomprehensible devices – probably accessories banners and books.
I rejected the banners right away. Logic and observing other players making their choices told me that the main task of the banners would be to improve battle morale and other attributes of the players. Perhaps even heal them. Even though the banners looked rather attractive, I did not want to be a buffer.
I lingered at the shelves with armor looking at breastplates, hammers, gauntlets and other shining silvery metal parts. Polished to mirror shine, the armor seemed to call to choose one of them, but I kept going. Strictly speaking one needs artifact armor only in one case: if the player is likely to sustain damage either fighting other players or battling NPCs. I would try to avoid the former; for the latter ordinary armor should suffice.
Weapons… I spent more time there looking at different swords, morning stars, hammers and even clubs. I was always drawn to cold steel; a few times I even attended historical medieval reconstructionists’ gatherings, watching people with several left hands trying to hit each other with a chunk of metal. With a heavy sigh I stepped away from the racks: one needs to know how to use the sharp and pointy objects and that requires practice. However, unless I find something better I will come back here. Weapons are a universal choice, Nartalim is right about that.
As for the clothes made of cloth at first I was not inspired. Shirts, cloaks, pants, hoods… of course, a player needs all of those, but making a personal artifact from something made of cloth… I was about to go to the next set of shelves when an ironic thought wandered into my head — to take a cloak and upgrade it to invisibility. I would be able to come upon enemies unnoticed and then… The skin on my back crawled as I was hit with another revelation: invisibility cloaks were real! Some player chose that seemingly useless cloth item, upgraded it to invisibility and made history! Practically every ethnicity has legends about invisibility cloaks and clever men who were able to gain some bonuses using them.
Only now did it dawn on me that with the right upgrades any object would be useful, depending on the player’s chosen role. All that was left for me to do was to decide whom I wanted to be in that game? A tank? To run ahead with my shield proudly raised and crash into enemy lines? If someone were to suggest that to me during the first minutes of the game I would have agreed without a second thought. In all the games that I had happened to play I had been exactly that – a tank. But now I could tell for certain: never again! Sustaining damage, suffering pain clenching my teeth and hoping for healers’ skill —Monstrichello can have it. Natural immunity to magic and an artifact shield will make him a good tank. What was left was a healer or a fighter. I needed to make a choice.
Actually, that was an interesting question: why was I thinking using standard concepts? Tank, healer, fighter… Role constraints in computer games were introduced only for one reason: to simplify writing of the code. Why should I treat as dogma a solution by some ancient developer? Players don’t even have properties, so the difference between a tank, a healer and, for example, a dancer would be purely due to the skills of the player and his clothes, but not due to virtual strength, agility and intellect.
The decision on who I wanted to be in the game appeared immediately once I stopped following the standard model. My mind had been trying to work it out for some time, and now it presented a solution. Given that I had ended up in a world that had dragons, vampires, princesses and other bogeys, I would like to study it in every detail. Explore everything that could be explored. Study it and start trading in knowledge. Because it was clear already now: the most important thing in this game was not strength but information.
“I need information on an object from this hall that would be optimal as an artifact for the explorer of the world!” I stated to the air a question as specific as possible. Remembering in time Sharda’s words that not everyone is allowed in the Temple of Knowledge, I added: “the player who initiated me did not tell me anything about the game!”
“Was that allowed?” Nartalim drawled in surprise; then a message appeared in front of me:

Request is granted. Access to Temple of Knowledge is provided.
For the duration of study of information time for player Yari is suspended.

The hall with the racks full of future artifacts was replaced by the already familiar white room. The gray-haired man greeted me and pointed at the coffee table. I opened the character properties and grinned — a new parameter did in fact appear: number of visits to the Temple of Knowledge, which currently equaled two. Where there are two, there is a hundred. I opened the scroll and started reading the text:

Explorer of the game — a development direction for a player who chose the path of knowledge, discovering new lands (cartography), new monsters (monstrology), elixirs and potions (alchemy) and other areas of research <list of fields>. The most optimal artifact for world explorers from the hall of blanks of the Citadel of Paladins of Earth is the Book of Knowledge (accessory). Location of the Book of Knowledge in the hall of blanks of the Citadel of Paladins of Earth is shown in the figure <figure>.
Advantages of the Book of Knowledge as an artifact: accelerated replenishment of Energy; adaptive intellect of the Book enables it to read information from any source and systematically arrange it in accordance with the specified criteria. The Book of Knowledge can be upgraded to automate any areas of research <list of fields>. Drawbacks of the Book of Knowledge as an artifact: no player attack or defense properties.

“You received the necessary information,” the old man reminded me of his presence as soon as I finished reading the scroll. “You need to select your artifact and complete study in the Academy. Remember: the doors of the Temple of Knowledge are always open for seekers.”
“It didn’t work? Loser!” Nartalim laughed as soon as I returned to the gym. For the players my disappearance and return went unnoticed. That gave me an interesting thought: the Temple of Knowledge could be used not only as a place where one receives information. I must think of a question that the system will consider compliant with the requirements and grant me a visit to the Temple, plucking me out of the world around me. For example, when I need to think about something thoroughly. That would be useful for the future.
The scroll with information stayed at the Temple, so I approached the rack with accessories guided by memory. I was not going to react to the elf’s words. I would need to find out whether conflicts between players of the same class are allowed. Not now, but in a couple of years I will remind Nartalim of the way we first met.

Item is received: Book of Knowledge. Item type: personal artifact. To initiate the artifact visiting the Academy is required.

The Book of Knowledge turned out to be a thick А4 tome bound in smooth black leather. Despite its impressive size it weighed practically nothing. Rough yellow pages were empty, there was only an inscription on the flyleaf: “Book of Knowledge of <undefined> Paladin Yaropolk". I automatically pressed the word in the parenthesis without thinking of whether it was allowed or not. I wanted to see what “undefined” meant. What would the choices be anyway? The System decided that I my actions were within the game logic, so additional text appeared before me:

Allegiance options: Light; Darkness. To select allegiance initiation is required.

The number of questions grew in geometric progression: what does that mean: Paladin of Light or Darkness? What advantages are conferred by allegiance of one type or another? What does allegiance mean anyway? To whom or to what is it? To gods? Did it not become clear that gods were just high level players? Or was I mistaken? The questions appeared one after another, sometimes unrelated to each other, but there were no answers to them. I would have to find everything out for myself. Following a habit I had acquired back in the days of the computer games, I opened my small virtual shelf and placed the artifact on it. What else drag it around in my hands all the time?
“Remember for the future, brother Yaropolk, you should not hide the Book of Knowledge in your personal inventory,” Sharda addressed me. “The specific feature of the object you chose is that in needs to gather knowledge continuously. In inventory it will gather only dust. Don’t forget that.”
“You know how to us-s-se the inventory?” Sartal asked with interest; he had already put on his armor. Miraculously it fit the player, adjusting itself for the unusual reptilian body. “I was-s-s told that before the Academy it’s-s-s imposs-s-s-ible.”
“Why?” I frowned. “Can you not see the status bar?”
“Everyone can see it,” Dietrich said as he approached us. “It’s such an eyesore: useless and covers up some space.”
“Strange… then how did you choose your names?” I remembered my first experience of interacting with the game interface, but the frowning faces of the reptilian and the old guy told me that my question was inappropriate.
“Recruits choose the names, but they are granted by their mentor,” Sharda clarified, coming over to us. “The option of choice is provided only to those recruits who became a player via a kill. Enough talking – it’s time to go! The ceremony for welcoming the Paladins will start in just a few minutes.”
“Welcoming?” I was unable to refrain from asking.
“The Academy is located outside of time,” Dietrich answered because Sharda started towards the door out of the gym without bothering to respond to me. “We were told at the first lesson that one can stay in the Academy even for all of eternity. For everyone else we will either instantly turn into Paladins, or no one will ever remember us again. The Academy will completely wipe the losers from memory.”
“What is the Academy altogether?” I asked the old guy, finding a good topic for conversation.”
“We weren’t told much about it. It seems to be sort of huge obstacle course. Everywhere there it has teachers and training sites so the player chooses on his own how to level up. The number of teachers with whom you can study is unlimited the important part is how to reach them. Because they are scattered throughout the site and as you can guess it’s bloody hard to figure out where the most useful ones are. In order to graduate from the Academy you need to complete ten mandatory lessons. There we will learn to use the main functions. It does not look complicated, but those ten are not located in the same place either. First you have to find them, and then survive trying to get to each one of them.”
“Thank you!” I thanked the old man sincerely. Now I had at least some idea about the Academy. "Dietrich, where are you from?"
“From Germany.”
“But we still understand each other,” I noted with surprise
“There is only one language within the game, and all players speak it,” Sharda who was walking ahead of us deigned to answer. “That was in lesson number one.”
“I missed the lessons,” I reminded the gnome.
“Preparation for the Academy starts three days before departure; the fact that you were clinging to your former life and were unwilling to become a player is your own problem. You cannot burden others with it.” Sharda was not hesitating to hit the soft spot, reminding me how he felt about me. Neither he nor Archibald believed that I would return. Another wave of rage washed over me, but I did not let it take over. I should not succumb to emotions. Instead of getting mad at the gnome I started looking at the Citadel around. We were walking on a blue-green carpet covering the floor of a long and wide corridor. Every twenty steps we passed two doors set in front of each other. On both sides of each door statues of lions stood about a meter and a half tall. I was completely certain that in case of an unforeseen attack the statues would turn into formidable fighters. But on the whole there was nothing unusual or outstanding about the corridor. Nothing that would tell a random visitor who happened to find himself in the Citadel that he was in a fantasy game world and not, for example, in a hallway at Versailles.
Our goal was the twenty-first door. Sharda fiddled with the lock for some time, grumbling a few choice words about some Volson who had not oiled the lock in time. Finally, the obstacle was surmounted and we entered a small dim room lit up by blue light of a portal. There was no way THAT could be anything else.
“Put that on,” Sharda ordered and only then did I see five suits of steel armor, practically identical to the one the gnome was wearing. “Keep your artifacts on. They will combine with the outfit.”
The portal looked so incongruent to the customary world that I had a hard time tearing my gaze from it; then I went to the nearest heap of metal. I picked up the helmet glumly and looked at the gnome sideways: there was no way I could put on all of that by myself. The ancient knights spent hours wriggling into their armor with the help of their squires, while we were allocated just a couple of minutes for the whole thing.
“Just start putting something on,” Dietrich suggested to me; he was turning into a steel monster as I looked. “The elements will fit themselves in place.”

Class suit of armor received

“Amazing,” I whispered as soon as the last element of the armor fit in place. The moment I put my head through the opening of the breastplate it fit into the right location, adjusting itself to my anatomy. Turning into a steel colossus did not feel uncomfortable: the armor felt weightless and did not restrain movement. Had it not jingled when you knocked on it, you could think that you had put on a comfortable track suit. But the most amazing feature was a special holder for my book on the right thigh. Just as I touched it to the holder it attached to it as if it were part of the armor. And again, no constraint or discomfort. I was starting to like being a player.
“If you put on the helmet and lower the visor, you can go under water,” Sharda said, noticing the stunned expressions of the five faces. New players were taught how to dress, but no one had mentioned that we would be given our own sets before going to the Academy.
“Before the irrepressible Yaropolk asks," Sharda added, looking at me with a grin, “only players can see the armor. As for NPCs, instead of the steel they will see whatever clothes are most appropriate for a given situation: formal dinner clothes, track suit, shorts, or even underwear. The System takes care of that. Remember situations when some celebrity constantly appears in public, wearing a different outfit every time? You think it’s because they have vast wardrobes? Yea, right! It’s just a common player who likes to be fawned over by NPCs. Newbies frequently go bonkers once they realize all the perks of the game. So a few words about the armor. The most important thing you must remember for the future: you may take it off only in the Sanctuaries. If you want to have sex, either do it wearing the armor it will allow you to do that or go to a Sanctuary. There are no other ways. Any player will be happy to send you for respawn as soon as he sees you without the class armor. Now put on the helmets and lift the visors, everyone. In the Academy you will learn how to make them invisible, but you are supposed to show up in full regalia for the ceremony.”
“But where are the weapons?” Monstrichello asked. Packed into a steel suit of armor with his shield at the ready he was a frightening sight; however, the confused expression of a little child who did not receive the promised candy told it all.
“All you are allowed to bring to the Academy is your artifacts,” Sharda explained. “No other weapons. “You will receive your sword after you return. This is true for the others, too, except for Nartalim. Enough talking. They are waiting for us!”
Passing through the portal was memorable. Despite my past game experience it’s one thing when you place your character into the brilliant circle of light while you are sitting in a comfortable cozy armchair and it’s an entirely different matter when you personally have to step into the lightnings and feel all the “pleasures” of the transition yourself. Sharda had never said anything about the operating principle of the portal, so it was unpleasant to feel a short stab of pain, as if someone had quickly pulled me in all directions and immediately compressed me back into my original shape. The pain was so intense that dark circles danced in front of my eyes for several moments. As soon as my vision returned back to normal I looked around and…
“What the hell…!” Monstrichello and Dietrich whispered at the same time, practically taking the words off the tip of my tongue. Nartalim scornfully snorted, as if he saw nothing unusual in the fact that we were transported to the stands of an enormous amphitheater. Having settled in a free seat the elf was looking with a bored expression at one of the several hovering screens broadcasting to the players in the upper rows what was going on in the arena. Even though it would be a stretch calling our places top rows: there were about fifty rows filled with players above us. On the other hand, there were a lot more rows below us and they were also filled with players. There were those who had tails, horns, wings, who were tall or short; the variety of game races was stunning. The only common feature among the players was that they were all humanoid: two legs, two arms, one head and walking upright. At least in the area of the stands visible to me.
A barely audible pop sounded from the right causing me to turn to look. In the few seats still available some red monsters in Paladins’ armor had just appeared and I was barely able to keep my jaw from dropping once my brain compared the appearance of our new neighbors with the image stored in my memory. Orcs! They looked exactly like the orcs from “The Lord of the Rings” movie, only their skin was red!
“Shardaganbat, your recruit wants to tell us something?” one of the Paladin orcs growled. It dawned on me only then that I was staring at the orcs like a sheep staring at a new gate, and they did not like it.
“Grygz, friend, good to see you!” Sharda exclaimed gladly, standing between the orcs and myself seemingly inadvertently. — “Oh, I see you have two candidates this month? How did you get them?”
“Wiped out one long-eared monster, so we got a chance to turn a minion into a player,” Grygz replied, looking at Nartalim with obvious meanness. “And you are still teaching people and elves?”
“Someone’s got to do it,” Sharda grinned. — “Why not me?”
“Oh here you are!” we heard a pleased male voice. “Sharda, you are bloody had to find!”
Gnome suddenly deflated, turned around and looked glumly at something behind my back. The change in the appearance of my mentor was so different from his normal cheerful appearance that I could not resist the urge to look at the new guest. If someone can intimidate Sharda that much, I should treat him with caution as well. Then later I will be able to …. Damn that!
A rather attractive smiling player wearing the loose robe of a mage was standing next to us. Grey streaks at the temples suited amazingly well to the deep black eyes making the mage potentially extremely attractive to any woman. The man’s smile was so sincere that it would have made me feel that I liked that person, even though I didn't intend to, but for one thing. Those black eyes were the last thing I remembered from my previous life. The owner of these eyes calmly and without unneeded emotions had killed a squad of special force troopers; then his own death turned me into a player. And now Devir, who appeared in front of us accompanied by two other mages the same as himself, wanted to accomplish one of his quests: kill the insolent pest.
“Just try to attack him!” The gnome said glumly, but made no attempt to stand between Devir and myself. If the mage had decided to destroy me nothing would have stopped him.
“Sharda, I am not going to do anything with him myself!" laughed the mage. “Just think: would I be able to get any experience points from him? Why would I bother? I transferred the quest.”
“WHAT?” the gnome exclaimed in amazement, but the mage was not listening to him any more. Turning to his companions Devir started describing the task:
“Target number one is Yaropolk, he is a priority. The one who manages to destroy him in the Academy will receive my personal favor. The main task is to prevent him from coming back. If Yaropolk graduates from the Academy, you would be all better off not coming back at all — I’ll wipe you out myself. Target number two is that bear over there. You ought to be careful with him: he’s immune to magic. He has already passed initiation, so my gratitude will be proportionate to the number of times he dies. If he returns from the Academy as a level one player, that would be excellent. Any questions?
“You don’t dare sick your recruits on Paladins!” Grygz roared coming up to stand next to Sharda.
I have already dared, you atavism of the past,” Devir smiled murderously. “I need to train and develop my recruits, and why should Paladins be treated better than other classes? Besides, all my actions are justified: as a mentor I have the right to share my quests with recruits. It’s all within the rules of the Game. Or are you going to challenge my right to revenge?”
“Fight like a player!” Grygz continued, while Sharda stayed silent. “Give him time!” If you want to help your newbies develop, allow Yari to reach at least level three; then you can start your bullying. There is little honor in a first level player. If you are training new headhunters, prepare them for the fact that your prey can fight back.”
There was a pause. Devir looked at Grygz in contemplation with eloquently raised eyebrows. Sharda kept looking at the mage glumly, without the slightest attempt to come to my defense, while the surrounding players watched with interest the free drama with a potential bloody outcome. Paladins against mages, and the mages were within their rights. Somehow I didn’t like being the main character of this drama.
“Mentor, are those the weaklings someone is going to try and turn into headhunters?” A female voice asked, and another participant joined the drama. The Paladin orc at whom I had stared insolently for a long time turned out to be a female. I would have never guessed: the armor concealed all the sexual attributes, provided that race had them altogether. The femorc contemptuously looked Devir’s companions over and snorted. The young mages returned the look but did not even move a muscle. Devir had trained his recruits even better than Sharda.

“Target number three — femorc Logir,” Devir recovered and continued with the task description. “It’s hard to admit it, but that relic is correct: you need to be tested in battle. You have been coddled for too long. You are allowed to attack all three after they complete training with five teachers. Until then do not interfere with them; moreover, you ought to help them. I will not be very pleased if they croak before the specified time.”
“You have no right to attack Logir,” Grygz grinned bloodthirstily. Now I failed to understand anything at all, because Grygz seemed pleased. There is a hunt announced against his student, and his mentor does not move an eyebrow; moreover, he radiates extreme pleasure and joy! Is he actually crazy?
“Why would Zagransh need good-for-nothings, who are unable to overcome hardships?” Devir smiled no less murderously. “It will be a pleasure to prove that she is not worthy the name of ‘player’”.
I will wipe you out, mage!” Logir shouted out defiantly, but to me it had too much flourish. Too elaborate. “But first I will wipe out those puppies of yours! Two mages… Phhh!”
“Two?” Devir frowned, then smiled. “Red-skinned wonder, from what kind of hole did you crawl out? “All the six hundred and three mage recruits will be hunting you, not just this pair. If you return from the Academy with bonus levels — good, you will have demonstrated that you have prospects as players. If you return at level one … better not to. As for you:” Devir gave me a head-to-toe look — “aren’t you an unlucky lad! If you had chosen mages, it could have all played out differently.”
Devir turned around and quickly strode off.
“I’ll be right back,” the femorc dropped, rushing after the mages.
“You shouldn’t've gotten into this,” Sharda said, looking at Logir’s retreating back. Devir is dangerous.
“I know,” Grygz replied. “Logir wants to become a headhunter; Devir is the only mentor who agreed to train her. We have been discussing that with him for a while and he finally agreed. Logir will watch over Yaropolk so that he will not do something stupid and then would die when the mages need it. These are our arrangements. In addition I will be able to see how well she learned.
“So you are in cahoots with him?” Sharda frowned. “That’s why; I thought it looked odd, because where would the old orc find the guts for that? I thought you were looking for an official excuse for a battle.”
“Sharda, it’s no secret to anyone that Yari is already a goner. If he's not wiped out in the Academy, after the ceremony Devir will not let him leave the Sanctuary. I have a chance to pull my daughter out of Zagransh and I am definitely going to use it. If this requires sacrificing a Paladin... oh well, that’s his destiny.
“So this show with the five teachers…” Sharda started to say, but Grygz interrupted him:
“That was Devir’s wish. He needs fighters, not baby-killers. They will help Yari to get to level 3 or 4 and then will start killing him.”
The rosy aura of heroism that had colored the femorc for a few minutes now faded at once: Devir sent a snitch with me, by the way, providing me with very interesting information: players’ relatives do not become players automatically. In any case they have to go the standard way: minion – recruit – Academy. Associations flooded my mind again: the gods of Ancient Greece and their children. The gods themselves, as was illustrated by Hermes, were players, but their offspring were only minions. Close to players, but still mortal NPCs. Only a few were able to attain the status of gods that is, players. As far as I recalled only Heracles was able to follow that path through to the end. Ok, I would remember that and take note. As for the femorc, I’ll deal with my problems in the order in which they appear. It’s just unpleasant to be reminded again that those from the game class you chose consider you merely a waste. Again.
“Does Logir know?” Sharda kept asking.
“Why would she? Her task is to watch Yaropolk and help him in everything. The mages will do the rest.”
“I see. Do you know that Yaropolk can hear us?” Sharda asked with sudden mirth. "What do you think: will Logir be glad to find out about the role assigned to her if Yari were to tell her everything?"
“WHAT?!” Grygz looked at me, stricken, then at the grinning gnome and then at me again. “But I have cast the Curtain of silence!”
“There are three reasons for why he can hear us. First, he is a world explorer. Second, he is not initiated and has already been subjected to a full stun. You know very well what happens to players like that.
“And you said nothing!” the orc exclaimed in anger, leaning over the gnome.
“The third reason,” the gnome continued, completely unfazed he was not at all afraid of orc in the way he was of Devir “I let him under the curtain myself. I was worried the first two reasons would not work. I know very well that Yaropolk will die in the Academy and that now is the last time I am seeing him. But it is he who is our brother, not the mage! It seems your love of your daughter has clouded your mind, since you have forgotten the basics of the class. We are Paladins! Our brother’s problems are our problems! So if you betray one of us to the mages, you betray us all. I will report your actions to the management. Farewell, brother!”
Sharda pointedly turned to the screens, clearly indicating the conversation was over. The orc hanging over the gnome deflated as Sharda had in front of Devir a while ago. The orc even seemed to become practically the same height as the gnome; the weight of Sharda’s words pressed him to the ground.
“Don’t do this…,” the orc finally groaned. “She is everything to me!”
“It’s already done!” the gnome cut him off. "Gerhard van Brast has been informed of your actions. He will make the final decision after the ceremony of return, but in any case, expect Archibald to show up. That is not something that can be forgiven!”
“But he refused to teach her!” The orc roared, attracting the attention of those around us to the conversation. Apparently there was no silencing spell over us any more, as Paladins started to whisper, discussing what was going on.
“That’s her problem.” Sharda was adamant. "If the Catorian decided that she is not worthy, then it is so. He is rarely wrong."
“But he is sometimes!” the orc insisted.
“It happens.” Sharda looked at me for some reason. “We’ll find this out literally within half an hour.”
“Teacher, I followed the mages and they did not notice me!” Logir returned, interrupting the strange conversation between the gnome and the orc. In the Academy they will be dead meat!”
“Excellent,” Sharda praised her and added: “Logir, brother Yaropolk would like to tell you something”.
Since only three stares zeroed in on me, the curtain of silence must have been replaced over us. The players outside could not hear us, and gradually lost interest in what was going on here; their attention shifted to the arena. It was then that banners were brought out to it: the welcome ceremony was beginning.
“So?” Logir asked, bewildered, a couple of seconds later. I was silent, shifting my eyes from Sharda to Grygz, cursing them both silently. What should I tell Logir now? That she had been used without her knowledge, so as to pull her out from some location? How will she react? Will she grin and say that she knew all along? Refuse to become a player? Attack her father or myself with her fists? Perform a ritual suicide? Who knows what orcs are liable to do? I definitely don’t. But I know something else: a Paladin, whose image I had held high since childhood, would never tell. If I am destined to stay in the Academy, I should do it with my head unbowed.
“The way you move is very graceful,” I said finally, having made my decision. The problem with the mages is my own problem. If Logir is supposed to protect me, then may it be so. “Would you give me a few lessons? Unfortunately before I became a player I did nothing of the sort. I would not want to be the bottom student dragging everyone back."
“Who is everyone?” frowned the femorc.
“She will help,” Grygz was quick to answer, sighing with relief. “She has never tried herself out as a teacher, so this is quite a worthy challenge.”
“Still, who are everyone?” Logir would not let it pass.
“There will be seven of you working together in the Academy.” For some reason Sharda stared at me again. “Five of my recruits and two of Grygz’s. The main task is for everyone to come back from the Academy, despite the mages. An additional task is to attain level seven.”
“I will not work with an elf!” the femorc yelled immediately. Her scream never made it beyond the curtain of silence, so Nartalim did not even bother to protest or respond scornfully.
“Oh yes you will,” Sharda’s face broke into one of his murderous grins. “Paladins don’t see elves, people or orcs. They see a brother and his problems. Any questions?”
“She will work as part of a team,” Grygz summed it up. “Even with the long-eared beast. Got that?”
The last question was addressed to Logir. For a while the orc and his daughter played the game of “crush your opponent by your charisma”, then the girl surrendered. Grygz was obviously stronger.
“Our team will include seven intelligent beings, and our main goal is for everyone to come back,” she repeated in a lackluster voice.
“Excellent!” Sharda even rubbed his hands, enjoying his victory over the orcs. "In this case, let’s get back to the others. The ceremony is already underway.”
In fact, by that time the ceremony of bringing out the banners was complete. As soon as the last banner was in place, a blue-skinned creature took the floor.
“Welcome to the welcoming ceremony!”
“It’s the viceroy of the Emperor!” Logir, who was standing next to me, whispered. Of course, an orc’s whisper sounded like a thunderous rumble, but I didn’t mind enduring it for the sake of information. “He is the third highest ranking person in the Game, after the Emperor and his Counselor. My mentor said it’s the viceroy who decides at what location in the Academy a player will appear.”
“Are we not all going to be transported to the same place?” I frowned. I did not want to lose my freshly acquired team.
“No, of course not!” The femorc looked at me as if I were crazy. “Did they not tell you about the principles of going through the Academy?”
“Quiet!” Sharda hushed us. “Show some respect to the viceroy! You will have plenty of time to talk later. All seven of you will be sent to the same place because you are a team!”
Silence fell over the arena as new players hung onto the viceroy’s words.
“Today is one of those rare days when we are sending over thirty two thousand recruits to the Academy; one thousand and forty two of them have already passed the class initiation! We have not seen that in eight hundred years! We have every chance to set a record and within one month receive twelve hundred players! I am calling on non-initiated players! Fight and struggle! Fight each other tooth and claw, but return from the Academy! For a new record we need fifty nine non-initiated players to return, and we believe that you will be the ones!
I did a quick mental calculation. The ratio of 58 to 31,000 yielded an overwhelming result of 0.2 percent! The viceroy is hoping that at least two recruits from every thousand would come back from the Academy! Unless my calculation was off, those who came up with the Game have obvious problems with rationality.
“I bet ten Granis that the record will stand,” I heard Sharda whisper.
“Go find another fool!” an unfamiliar voice responded, but I did not look back: my attention was fully occupied with the theatrical show that now started on the arena. The viceroy had already left the dais, and actors began showing complicated skits using magic without hesitation. Once a fire-breathing dragon appeared in the arena and was immediately overcome by the conjured knight without fear and beyond reproach even the arrogant elf’s jaw dropped in amazement, and he never bothered to pick it up. The rest were not even worth mentioning: players in all the stands, with the exception, perhaps, of smirking mentors, were still as wax figures in Madame Tussaud's museum.
The dance the actors performed was enthralling. I was never a connoisseur, but now I could easily see when the actors presented various emotions: pain, despair, hope, faith, betrayal. The scenes followed each other continuously, and at some point I felt tears flowing down my cheeks from being overcome by “joy”.
“Good luck to the players!” the viceroy’s voice boomed as soon as the actors stopped in elaborate poses. Tears were still standing in my eyes, but I was able to gather my strength to look at my neighbors. Everyone was crying: Logir, Dietrich, Sartal, Monstrichello, an orc who had not yet been introduced to us, and even Nartalim! I shifted my eyes to Sharda, looking at his recruits with a smirk.
“Prove that Archibald can be wrong too!” The gnome suddenly said to me. “Return from the Academy. We’ll figure out what to do with Devir!”
Before I had a chance to make any response everything around me drowned in complete darkness lit only with a snow-white message:

Welcome to the Academy









Chapter Three. Initial Knowledge





“WAKE UP!” I heard a rough voice, followed by a ruthless kick to the stomach. I felt no pain because of the armor, but it was unexpected and unpleasant, so I opened my eyes prepared to show my indignation. But that was impossible! I was able to open my eyes, intending to voice all the thoughts I had – mostly very expressive curses. But my intentions remained just intentions: someone’s hands were covering my mouth. I was pressed tightly to the ground by three players wearing mages’ robes; another two were looming overhead.
“Quit wriggling!” one of the mages growled as soon as I realized my situation and tried to struggle free. Accompanying his words with another kick to the stomach, which was again blocked by the armor, he bent down right to my face: “Listen here, you dead meat! You got a choice – to croak calmly without trouble, or with pain and emotions. If you follow our instructions, we’ll kill you without extra torture. If you try kicking, I’ll send you for such a respawn you’ll curse the day when you became a player. Nod if you got me.
“So you want to do it the hard way,” the mage continued bloodthirstily, failing to extract any reaction from me. Frankly speaking, I was not being heroic – I was scared! After I realized who had surrounded me and held me down I was so frightened, I didn’t even understand what they were saying to me. There was just one thought in my head: ‘Help!’ and it flooded my entire consciousness.
“Let’s drag him over to the teacher,” my captor ordered and stepped aside.
“What do we do with these?” His partner asked, pointing somewhere next to me. "They will sleep for another hour at least. The mentor said the Pals never give any potions to their recruits.”
“What do you mean, ‘what do we do?’” the lead mage sneered. "Devir told us clearly what to do with all the Paladins.”
The mages laughed, and before they lifted and carried me off somewhere I heard six stifled death-rattles. One did not need to be a prophet to realize that our entire team had just been sent for respawn. Another wave of chilling fear rushed through me: Dietrich and the nameless orc were non-initiated level one players; there will be no respawn for them. Neither will there be one for me! They will just strangle me and forget my name! The only reason I was still alive, albeit temporarily, was Devir’s order!
I was saved from further descent into panic as literally a minute later I was thrown to the ground like a sack of grain. The impact of the ground made sparks dance in front of my eyes; however, that helped me keep conscious and drove away the fear. Devir ordered the mages to help me level up till I reach the fifth teacher; so until then they would not do anything to me. I needed to develop as much as possible, level up and figure out a way to escape. For this I needed a clear mind without fear and a feeling of inferiority. There will be time to be scared later, after I return from the Academy. Not “if” but “when”, besides.
I heard a calm, drawling, and somewhat old voice next to me:
“Welcome, recruit, now I will teach you to use the artifact you have chosen. Stand up and hark to my wisdom!”

Learning progress: You have reached teacher 1 of 10

“You were told: stand up!” Another rude shout from a mage, and a kick, this time on the head. The sparks reached a new level: now they turned into full-blown fireworks, so when I came to I was already upright. Two mages were holding me under my arms so that I would stand upright in front of the teacher. He looked exactly like the old man from the Temple of Knowledge.
“Present your artifact,” the old man addressed me. He could not care less about what was going on, as if nothing unusual was happening. So what if a group of mages is holding a Paladin, kicking him periodically? That’s the Paladin’s problem. What if they are into erotic games like that? Once you interfere, they’ll blame you for something …
“Did you hear?” The mage who had never said his name started again, but I decided not to provoke a new fit of rage. I needed to show my kidnappers that I was broken and ready to follow any order from them. Until I reach level two I cannot afford to die, or else I’ll end up like Dietrich. So I’ll play along with the mages for now, and then we’ll see.
I detached the book and held it out to the teacher.
“Book of Knowledge?” for the first time the old man’s face showed some emotion.
“I will be an explorer,” I mumbled, making an exaggerated move to hunch my head into my shoulders, as if expecting a blow. Let the mages gloat. A chorus of loud laughter from the five players and a weakening of their grip showed that I had chosen the right tactic: they did not perceive me as a serious opponent anymore. The mages surely must be betting among themselves whether I had already soiled my pants. Because what else are those Paladins good for…?
“That’s a worthy choice,” the old man ignored the mirth of the mages. “Do you want to transfer to the book all the knowledge you have gained since you became a player until now, or to start from a blank page?”
“Transfer,” I managed to blurt out before the mage had time to bark: “From a blank page! No damned need to hang around here!”

Artifact is activated

The world around me changed again, leaving me one on one with the old man in the midst of a rather strange forest. Oaks in there neighbored tall pines, poplars grew next to palms and birches next to cacti as if nature had decided to completely ignore the logic and biological features of tree growth. As far as I recalled from school, tall pines would obscure the sunshine, so deciduous trees would not be able to grow next to them they would become lanky and weak. But local nature could not be bothered with that: it decided to create a melee of trees, and did so by the right of the strongest. Anyone who is unhappy is welcome to submit a written application on company letterhead signed by the director. In other words: not at all.
Automatically I noted there were several trees not familiar to me, and then:

Book of Knowledge received +1 Experience

“This is precisely how your artifact develops,” the teacher’s voice distracted me from studying a new line in my character properties. I was surprised to discover that section kept extending. That line was not there before. “Book of Knowledge can do a lot, but it is just a medium for your memory and attention. If you did not notice something, failed to see it, did not pay attention or ignored it, don’t expect for a note to show up in the book. The book will receive additional experience only when you consciously pay attention to something or reach the right conclusions. As an explorer you will have to continuously study the surrounding world, otherwise your development will come to a halt. Being an explorer is simple and hard at the same time.”
“Are there any consequences if development stops?” I frowned. "Will the book start degrading?”
“No, once the knowledge is in the book it stays there forever. There is a different problem: a player’s artifact must develop continuously; moderators keep a very close eye on that. As soon as development stops, the player is no longer interesting for the Game. For that reason many choose battle artifacts: it is easier to receive experience with them.”
“So then the player who chooses the Book of Knowledge as his artifact is doomed for sure?” I frowned even more. “Knowledge is finite. Sooner or later there will be nothing left for me to explore.”
“We are all mortal,” the old guy noted philosophically, shrugging his shoulders. “The Game will take everyone.”
“The Game… What is it, anyway?” I immediately asked the question that had been bothering me for a long time. “How did it appear? Who created it? What was there before?”
“You are asking these questions of the wrong rational being,” the old man’s face showed some emotion for the second time in our entire conversation. “My functions include only training in the use of the artifact and assistance in selecting its first attribute. Nothing else.”
“The wrong one…,” I drawled, looking at the smiling teacher. “Whom should I ask these questions?”
“The one who has the knowledge and can share it.” The old man was obviously amused.
A sudden guess flashed through my mind:
“Is there someone in the Academy who knows the answers to my question about the Game and is capable of sharing this knowledge?”
“Of course.” His smile grew wider. “This is the place for receiving knowledge. It has all sorts of things!”
“Where would one find this being?” Getting information from him was like pulling teeth.
“In the Academy where else?”
"Where in the Academy is that being located and what is the shortest road to it?" I asked in the most detailed way, following the principles used for working with the Temple of Knowledge.
“That is the wrong question, recruit, so our conversation is over.” The smile instantly faded and the old man again turned into a statue without emotions. “Are you ready to transfer the information you received earlier into the book?”
“I am ready,” I drawled with displeasure, scolding myself internally. Who would try to find out the information so obviously?
“Remember everything you want to transfer into the book,” the old man clarified; after that the Book of Knowledge burst from its holder on my thigh and flew into the air, hovering right in front of my eyes.

Artifact update process initiated

The Book changed. The pages that had been empty were now partially filled with text and pictures. The moment I fixed my eyes on some area in the book it would mysteriously zoom in, enabling me to read the text. At this time the book was showing a detailed report of my meeting with the first teacher: the old man’s picture, a full record of the conversation, a panoramic view of our surroundings, including the names of trees and plants. Some of the plants had question marks floating over them, indicating that I had no information about the object at this time. In effect, the Book of Knowledge turned out to be sort of a video recording device that registered everything that I looked at. Stop. I had the video activated! Why would I need to remember things when I could just watch the record again?
“That’s an interesting solution,” the old man drawled as soon as the Book of Knowledge occupied its place at my thigh. Thanks to Archibald, my video recording had been activated ever since we met and now, once I pushed the “Video record” a thin white thread seemingly made of thick white fog formed between the icon and the Book of Knowledge. After a few moments it disappeared, and so did the “Video record” icon from the status bar. The unpleasant part was that now “Video record” did not show at all when I opened the properties. It simply was not there! I was about to get upset when new messages appeared before me:

Video recording integrated with artifact
Book of Knowledge received +1 Experience

“Now that all your player knowledge is in the Book, you need to select the initial artifact trait,” the old man continued as soon as I was able to tear myself away from the updated artifact. Pictures of Archibald, Sharda and our entire former team occupied places of honor there. However, it took time getting to them: the Book had no navigation, search, or table of contents. In order to find information you needed, you had to leaf through the book page by page, looking at the contents. Basically, the Book of Knowledge was like a huge Wikipedia, with each page dedicated to one specific subject. For example, “Academy Teacher No. 3”, “Archibald”, or “New player welcome ceremony”; the pages had references to each other, sort of like hyperlinks. Actually, that’s how I was able to find Sharda and other Paladins I knew. Including Dietrich, whose page said: “Killed in the Academy”.
“Do the traits include the possibility for information structuring and search?” was the first thing I asked the old man. It would be totally stupid to be a world explorer and not have immediate access to the notes in the Book.
“Could you explain what you mean?” The old man came out of the ‘statue’ mode again and regarded me with interest. Since I had the page on him still hovering in front of me, I could see information updated in real time. A new line appeared in the Book:

“Academy Teacher No. 3 is favorable towards recruits who seek information. Never ask him direct questions on how to do things. The method to use is indirect hints and a circuitous approach.”

“There are two points. The first thing is: upon looking at any object at a mental command I would like to have in front of me all the information about it available in the Book of Knowledge. The second thing: even if there is no object available, but I have a clear understanding of who or what is the subject, at a mental command I would like to have all that information as well.
“Is my understanding correct that you need to search?” the teacher clarified, and mischief danced in his eyes. That was an amazing combination — an outwardly calm old man with eyes dancing with mischief.
“Not just search,” I began cautiously. ”Intelligent perception and comparison with available information, structuring the available information, table of contents and, of course, the search itself."
“In effect, you need context search with mental control?” the old man clarified again. “Catalog capability, tags, table of contents, index, navigation and other things: it includes all that. Also, comparison of outside world objects and information in the Book. This trait is actually called ‘Context search’. Do you want to add this?”
“I would like to verify what is the path for upgrading this trait.” I remembered in time that in the Game everything develops. Including artifact properties.
"At level one, which you will receive now, search and comparison will be available,” the teacher started explaining. “The second level will have navigation and an alphabetical index. The fifth: table of contents. The tenth will provide tags. At level fifteen there will be a capability for downloading information. Further upgrades will depend on the development path that will be chosen at level fifteen, so I will not describe that now. Do you want to add this?”
“Yes, let’s,” I nodded, and messages flashed in front of my eyes, informing me of the addition of the new trait.
“Actually, this completes your training with me. This is all I have for you. Move on to other teachers and may luck be with you!”
“Wait!" I yelled and the surroundings that were starting to dissipate became firm again.
“Is something unclear about the artifact?” the teacher was surprised.
“No, it’s fine,” I already checked out the semitransparent pop-up window with information. The search worked like clockwork. “I have a different question: after we return to the Academy, will we be in the exact same place or is it possible to alter the point of return? Even if it were just by a couple of meters?”
“Where do you think we are right now?” The teacher raised an eyebrow in a question.
“In an extratemporal subspace of the Academy,” I ventured a guess. “You need to instruct thirty two thousand recruits. Even if you spend a minute per person, that training would take twenty two days without sleeping and eating. But you spent about twenty minutes with me just now. Therefore, we are in a temporal pocket, and hardly a moment will have passed in the Academy.”
“You answered your own question,” the teacher cornered me. “No matter where you go within this world, which is limited by this small clearing, you will still return to the same point in space and time from where you left to train with me. You will not be able to escape from the mages this way.
“So you did see all that?”
“Do I look like I’m blind? The mage recruits, prior to arriving at the academy, took a ‘Mihonarium’ potion which enabled them to wake up immediately; they organized themselves and, while everyone else was still asleep, dragged you over to me. People do that frequently.
“And you are going to do nothing about it?”
“What for? Sooner or later you will die you have arrived at that thought yourself. Why should it not happen sooner? You will serve to provide experience to your peers. In the Game nothing is wasted. If that was the only question for which you stopped me, I have to leave you now. As you rightly noticed, there are thirty two thousand new recruits waiting for me.”
The space around me shifted and in a couple of moments rearranged itself into the Academy and the mages holding my arms.
“Your artifact is activated and the information has been transferred,” said the teacher. — “There is nothing else I can teach you!”

You receive +1000 Experience
New level attained
You receive +1 Energy level

“Excellent!” The leader of the five mages replied with satisfaction to the teacher’s statement. “Four more teachers and then we’ll finish him off. Let’s clean up everything here!”
I was finally able to take a good look at what the Academy actually was. There was a huge area littered with players, as if they were bodies in an enormous battlefield. The heaving chest and nervously twitching tip of the tail of a reptilian lying next to us made it clear that he was just sleeping. Apparently, the players would be waking in succession so as to avoid a crush around the teacher; but now there were only six players on their feet: myself and the five mages: three humans, an elf and some strange winged creature. I could not see the murdered Paladins from my team. Most likely they would be at a respawn point; I didn’t know how long this process took. I hoped Logir would be able to find me and fulfill the task posed by Sharda. I did not have much hope for the others. At the opposite side of the clearing by the sleeping players there was a steel and stone jungle – a jumble of stone boulders, twisted steel rails, wooden studs and hell only knows what else. As if at some point a tall multistory building had been standing here and then, due to some catastrophe, it collapsed into pieces, baring all its internal works and not quite falling to the ground. From where we were standing it was possible to see two passages into this crazy three-dimensional labyrinth.
“Every one of them?” the elf said, confused. “Olzar, but there are a couple of hundred of them here! Devir said nothing about the other players, and the Pals will respawn only after an hour.”

Book of Knowledge received +1 Experience

“Every single one!” sharply said Olzar, the lead of the mage recruits. “Each player you leave alive is a potential enemy. Besides, don’t forget – there may be not just first levels here, so we’ll get experience points. Wipe them all out!”
“What do we do with him?” A mage nodded in my direction.
“He won't go anywhere, right?” Olzar smirked bloodthirstily bending over the nearest player. “We already broke him. You wouldn’t mind standing here, right, little Paladin?”
Knowing what was expected of me, I quickly nodded, and even gasped when the player Olzar strangled vanished as if he had never existed. Even the grass was not crushed. Like myself, Olzar had no weapons, so he had to have killed the player with his bare hands.
“I bet a granis that I’ll get a level 2!” the mage of unknown race yelled merrily, rushing to the players on the ground. The mages who had been holding my arms were not far behind joining Olzar and the rest; almost immediately I heard one of them shout with joy:
“Yes! This one is level two! Crap! Olzar, did they show you how to turn off these messages in front of your eyes? It’s OK now, but later there will be more and more of them!”
“Look at the character properties,” the leader responded angrily, moving on to the next player. Judging from his mood he was getting just first levels. “The options will open when you click on the name. Enough: stop distracting me!”

The mages set to work diligently while I was gradually moving, step by step, towards the labyrinth of stone and steel, remembering to startle after each joyful shout. Attacking five level 3 players would be pointless: they would overpower me and tie me up even without their abilities. The teacher near whom we were did not provide training on spells and ways for working with them, so the mages had to kill the recumbent players using only their hands, by strangling them. Struggling with the players who immediately woke up required their complete concentration, so for a while they forgot about me. Besides, really, to where could I escape from them? There were only two roads leading away from this area, and they were certainly controlled by groups of other mages. That meant I could not use the conventional paths available to everyone else.
“Hey, where’s the Paladin?!” a stunned exclamation from Olzar was music to my ears. It took me about ten minutes of moving step by a cautious step to reach the border of the steel-and-rock labyrinth, another moment to make sure that all the mages were occupied with their opponents, after which I crouched behind the nearest boulder. My heart was racing like crazy, I was gasping noisily, but I was in no hurry to get up and run ahead full tilt. A year of service as a trooper combined with clashes with real fighters that Sintsov arranged periodically had been drilled into me: I started thinking. I slowly crawled into the jungle for a couple of meters, then, making sure to keep some boulders between me and the clearing, started climbing upwards. My body was shaking from an adrenaline rush, so I had to control my every movement. Falling down headlong would take just one wrong move. The image that I was trying to create would lead them to believe I was frightened and weak, so the mages should be supposing now that I must be running as fast as I could into the heart of the maze. Some messed up headhunters indeed! If I were to be testing them I would be throwing them out on their ears for incompetence!
“Sirin, Belket?”
“He’s gone!” voices replied from right and left. I was correct: mages controlled the passages. That meant there were not five of them in this team but seven. They were not completely clueless after all.
“Did he try to go straight through?” There was even more confusion in Olzar’s voice now. “Who can recall – where was he standing?”
“Here somewhere, I think!” someone replied. “You said he was done in?”
“I did! That’s what Devir said!”
“Damn it! Where are we going to catch him now?”
“Jerk… let’s run to the respawn point! Yari is level two, it’s impossible to survive in the jungle, so in a couple of hours he’ll show up there. Let’s go.”
“We are not going to finish off the rest?”
“Let them live, we’ll get them later. The most important thing is to be there first, otherwise we’ll have to fight tooth and claw for it. Every team wants to get a reward from Devir.”
“What, are we not going to follow him into the jungle? He could be standing right at the edge laughing at us!” one of the mages asked in surprise. I clenched my fists helplessly – who made that smart-ass open his mouth?! I so wanted to strangle him!
“Into the jungle?” It was not even Olzar who laughed but the other mages. “Dude, only after you! What, did you miss all the lectures?”
“I didn’t, but we still ought to check!”
“I already checked!” A new voice I had not heard previously replied from practically underneath me! I clung to the steel beam on which I was lying and held still. The eighth mage! How many are there all together?! “There's no Pal and no tracks. Looks like this idiot is just running headlong at full speed. Olzar, why in hell didn't you guard him?”
“What are you doing here?” Olzar was taken aback. I would give a lot for a glance at the new arrival but moving was out of the question. The slightest noise could betray me.
“Watching over you, morons! There were no Paladins at our spawn point, so after the training we rushed to the nearest teacher, which was here; and you are doing hell knows what!”
“Yari is ours! We found him first!”
“Just because you spawned at the same site with him does not mean you have already won. To lose a first level player! This is complete nonsense!”
“He’s already level two, we went through the training,” since Olzar was the one who answered every time it seemed the status of the new mage was much higher than his own. There was a possibility he was one of that pair that showed up together with Devir during the welcome ceremony. The one that behaved like he was the center of the universe. There was nothing else that could explain his tone.

Book of Knowledge received +1 Experience

I guessed right?! Judging from the new message that appeared, the capabilities of the Book of Knowledge were much broader than I had supposed. Using some attributes unknown to me, maybe voice, smell or body movement patterns, or maybe something else, the book identified the player and, since I had guessed correctly who it could be, counted it as a correct answer. Immediately I brought up in front of me the page with information I had available for the guy and was barely able to hold back a sigh of disappointment: without my help the artifact was unable to determine which one of Devir’s companions was standing underneath me right now. Both portraits were shown with an exclamation point before them. So it was one of the two. No name, no description, nothing. Just a note that this was one of Devir’s companions and probably a student of his.
“What are you standing here for?! You expect me to finish off the bodies for you?”
“But…”
“All three respawn points have been under control since the very first minutes, so Yari will not get away. Strangle the rest. The fewer non-mages there are left among the non-initiated, the better!”
For thirty minutes I sat on the steel beam listening to death-rattles. This time there was no elation, the mages were just doing the work. The number of concurrent sounds told me that another group had shown up at the clearing. That meant the second spawn point of the players and, consequently, the second teacher, were not that far. I definitely could not go there. When yet another message appeared notifying me of experience received by the artifact I had enough and followed Olzar’s advice: changed the settings and removed notifications of experience received, damage and other stats leaving just the most important ones: updates or receiving quests, general information and global information messages. I could see everything else in the properties, while constantly staring at Book of Knowledge received +1 Experience was not very tempting. If I live to see something “constant” anyway…
I sat on the beam for about an hour. The mages had cleared the field of the players who never woke up, then left about twenty minutes ago. Gradually new players started appearing, making it in groups to the current teacher and learning the principles of functioning of their artifacts, but I kept sitting in the same place, unable to move. The adrenaline dissolved, leaving apathy in its wake: the mages’ hunt was not just an empty threat. No matter where I could try to go now, only one thing would be there for me: groups of mages waiting for me to approach the teachers.
Panic and depression were creeping up on me, so I used the tried and true method for retaining an adequate perception of reality: I started thinking. I already knew that there was only one way to leave the Academy: completing training with ten teachers. The main question that would determine all my further existence was – are those ten specified and fixed or not? If the answer is yes, I could as well jump down head first, respawn, lose a level and surrender to the mages. It would make no sense to try and do anything further. But if one needed to train with any ten teachers, ‘ten’ being the key word, I had a chance. The Academy was full of teachers, the trick was to find them. If I were to stay away from the main passages, I might survive. There was nothing else left for me. Now it was necessary to understand why the mages were so afraid of the labyrinth. Even though calling this mess of stones, reinforced concrete structures, steel beams, rods, wire and wooden boards a "labyrinth" or a "jungle" would definitely be a stretch. "Obstacle course" would be more accurate. I looked down, swallowed and instinctively clung to the beam again. As I was trying to hide I had climbed about five meters up. It does not seem too high, but still quite a ways to fall.
The beam on which I was sitting turned sharply a meter above me and leaned towards one of the passages. I stopped grabbing convulsively everything that came to hand and started climbing upward: I needed to see for myself how and where the second teacher was situated. If I were to move along the tops, did I have to constantly look down or could teachers be waiting above ground? If the latter were true, then I would not even get down to the ground; I’d turn into Tarzan!
“Derv, there is another teacher in the clearing right ahead!” I heard from below the excited whispering of a player just as I climbed the beam and settled on it with a sigh of relief, trying to get my breath back.
“Would you be quiet!” Someone hissed angrily in response. “Is the field clear?”
“No, there are three mages there. They are standing next to the teacher waiting for someone.”
“Mages…” there was so much hatred in Derv’s voice that I had a hard time refraining from coming down to hug the comrade who shared my hatred of the mages. That wasn't why I had spent so much time climbing up. “We are leaving. There’s nothing for us here.”
“But… why? You saw for yourself that at the last teacher’s location they didn’t bother anyone… except for Paladins… But we are Rogues!”
“Listen, I’ve had enough of you! You want to be killed – go alone! At the last teacher’s they didn’t bother people ‘cause there were too many players of other classes. And here there’s no one other than themselves, so they’ll send us for respawn for sure. The two of us can’t harm them!
“But then what should we do? We are already… Did you hear that?!”
Not only Derv heard THAT, but I did as well. Besides, unlike the rogues, I could very well see the source of the low throaty roar: a few meters below a huge black panther appeared out of nothing – that’s the only way I could describe it. The black tail was whipping her heaving sides frantically. All the panther’s attention was on those standing below: the rogues.
“We must get out of here!” was all Derv had time to shout, then the panther roared menacingly and rushed down like black lightning. There were two screams of agony, then a few moments of silence followed by remote yells: “What was that?” and “Get to the paths, everybody! They are safe!” The players found out with surprise about a new condition: in the Academy not only other players are a source of danger, but also the creatures of the Academy itself. I was sure that the panther was not the only local creature; there must be others.
It took me half an hour to calm down the shaking and then make myself move on. The latter took a lot longer: my fear of wild animals was much stronger than fear of other players. After I finally forced myself to crawl for a few meters pretending as well as I could to be the ‘invisible man’, I saw a "Ý" symbol in front of me. Dusty and partially hidden by stones, the symbol seemed to try very hard to stay unnoticed. Had I not been crawling along the beam with my nose to its surface, I would 99% guarantee that I would have missed it.
My progress slowed down again. I discarded the possibility that the symbol indicated the direction towards the nearest teacher right away: the nearest teacher was standing a dozen meters away in the direction opposite to that shown by the symbol. And no one would be creating symbols special for me: Archibald’s words that the system couldn’t care less about any of the players were etched deep in my mind. Particularly given the latest events. So, the arrow must be pointing at something else. But at what?
As could be expected, the system did not welcome me with open arms hurrying to explain what was going on. I made sure that the Book of Knowledge recorded the appropriate line and the map… I got that sinking feeling – how could I forget that in this world I could record my location? Just because the information about the world around me was continuously recorded by the Book of Knowledge even without my active participation did not mean the map would necessarily follow suit. A semi-transparent window popped up in front of me and I barely contained a sigh of relief: the map did update automatically. The Academy was a huge rectangular site obscured by dark fog; only a tiny colored spot showed on the bottom right: the field where I first appeared here. At least in this the Game was similar to the games I was used to: all the available Academy space was shown to the player from the start. Had the map had no boundaries it would have been impossible to estimate one’s progress in exploring its territory. However, the map header “0.0001% of Academy territory explored” was grounds for optimism. Everything is possible within the Game; the main thing is to avoid players and animals. However, I was quickly able to see the drawbacks of the map: when I zoomed in on my current location, the map offered me a rather funny 3D picture showing the path I covered. What was above or below this path was unclear: the map properties did not record the areas that I had not seen. So if I were to try and explore the entire 100% of Academy territory I’d have to try extra hard.
I made it to the entrance within the obstacle course uneventfully; either the panther did not notice me or the two rogues were enough for it. Constantly jumping from the steel beams to the stones and back, eventually I found myself above a passage two meters wide and three deep. There was a path covered in yellow sand leading within. The stones and steel structures stopped miraculously at the entrance, forming the elaborate corridor Diablo players like so much. Over ten minutes that I observed the path, four teams of ten players each went under it; there were neither mages nor Paladins among them. Most of the players were carrying weapons; it seemed like they did not concern themselves too much with the choice of artifacts. "The shiny and pointy blades are all we need." When I come back – not "if" but definitely "when" – I must make sure to find out why bladed weapons are preferable to projectile ones or, say, something energy-based. I would have thought that the players would be running around with blasters, pulse cannons and other sci-fi equipment rather than swords, bows and similar antiques. However, they did not. So I would definitely have to look into that in detail.
I had no desire to initiate contact with the unknown player teams; so I waited till yet another group went by, then followed them cautiously along the steel beams above the path. With each passing minute I became more convinced that the seemingly chaotic structure of the obstacle course in fact followed a strict algorithm. For example, the steel beams served as guides along which one was supposed to move; the symbols "Ü", "Þ" and "Ý", located at the beginning and end of each beam, suggested movement somewhere toward the center of the Academy, serving as road signs. Stone boulders and pieces of wood served as guards or handrails, or were purely decorative without any meaning. The road above ground was not easy: you had to continuously climb up and down, leap from one beam to another or make a hard choice when the beam split and its ends led in opposite directions. In those cases I clenched my fists, as I was very intrigued by the goal indicated by the arrows but still kept moving above the path. The teacher was more important now…
It took me an hour to reach the second teacher. He was located in the middle of a small clearing, about twenty meters in diameter. It was surrounded by the steel and stone jungle, but it stopped miraculously, the same way it did for the paths, forming a clear space. The positive findings were that there were three paths leading away from the clearing to subsequent teachers, so it would be much easier to find them; the negative: there were ten mages standing next to the teacher, acting as gatekeepers. About twenty players of other classes accepted this rule, forming a line. The mages thoroughly searched each subsequent player, then let him through to the teacher and started searching the next. They paid particular attention to fat players. As if they could be hiding someone within. Me, for example.
No one was eager to challenge the mages’ insolence, perceiving their total control as a normal turn of events. I spent about ten minutes on the beam trying to figure out a way to get to the teacher, but in vain. The mages were very thorough in their search and were not distracted for a moment. Feeling that I would not be able to gain anything there, I started to crawl back cautiously when I heard the metal clattering right below me and a loud scream turning into a gurgle. Someone was drowning in their own blood. Was there another panther?
My curiosity was stronger than my instinct for self-preservation, and I crawled to the clearing once again. After all, what could threaten me at this height?
“Quick, get help!” someone shouted, and immediately two mages dashed out of the clearing. I was about to wonder why there were only two, as three paths led out of it, when I heard beneath me more clatter and the familiar, practically welcome, booming voice of Monstrichello:
“I’ll crush dem freaks! Where are they?”
The space around the eight mages suddenly and miraculously emptied: players of other classes decided not to join the skirmish between Paladins and mages. The area directly below me was obscured by boulders, so I had to impatiently bite my lips to keep from yelling from joy and rushing down. Monstrichello could be alone and even he would not have a chance against eight mages. And if I were to join him it would not improve his chances: I had never had to consciously kill a sentient being, so I would not be much help. The events at the cemetery trailer did not really count, as I had literally run amok.
“Let’s work as we did before,” Nartalim joined Monstrichello, and it was the first time when I was glad to hear the elf. Even despite his contempt for everything alive in his voice.
“Maybe we could make an agreement?” one of the mages stepped forward and then the four Paladins stepped into the fighting space. Powerful Monstrichello, holding the shield in front of him and acting as a breakwater. Nartalim, playing with his sword, following right behind the tank. Sartal, his armor-covered tail whipping in irritation. And Logir holding a weighty hammer. Neither Dietrich, nor the orc whose name I never knew were among them. Two out of four Paladins who had chosen weapons as artifacts, together with Monstrichello’s protection, were quite capable of standing up to the mages, even if there eight of those.
“There’s nothing for us to agree about,” Monstrichello roared, but Nartalim held him back:
“Wait. Let’s try.” Just as I supposed, the elf had become the leader of the team. “You give us free access to the teachers, this one and all the subsequent ones; we stop hunting you. Yaropolk’s fate is of no interest to us, you can do whatever you want with him. I have no intention to return from the Academy as a level one player because of just one twit.
“It’s a reasonable demand. Is this the view of your entire team?”
“This is my view and therefore everyone’s,” Nartalim said curtly and, to my great surprise, the other Paladins said nothing. Even Logir! My team just turned me in!
“Let’s wait for Dangard, he will confirm our arrangement,” the mage exhaled with obvious relief, as if he really did not want to do battle. Which was understandable: there is not much one can do with fists against weapons.
“Who’s that jerk?” Monstrichello asked with all the political correctness he ever had.
“One of Devir’s students,” the mage started explaining. He and Ahean were appointed the leads for passing through the Academy and fulfilling the teacher’s tasks. He should be close to here, so we won’t have to wait long. Oh, there he is!”
The clearing was quickly filling with mages. The Paladins, who crowded together and stood back to back, were surrounded, but no one touched them: the sword and the hammer cooled the belligerence of the players. Even if a crush were to begin, Nartalim and Logir would then likely send at least several players to respawn, and I was not sure that the mages had already passed initiation. Nobody wanted to sacrifice a level and become one step closer to being wiped out. Finally, Dangard appeared in one of the passages, and the Book of Knowledge started vibrating markedly — one of the two Devir’s companions was recognized.
“Where’s Yaropolk? Having exchanged a few words with the mages who were guarding the teacher, Dangard leisurely approached the Paladins. His movements, voice and demeanor conveyed such confidence and strength that it made you feel worthless against your will. I shook my head, dispelling the illusion. I could not get rid of the feeling that the mage had a way of influencing others’ minds, suppressing his opponent’s will.
“I have no idea,” Nartalim stepped forward. “When we respawned he was not there anymore.”
The mage stared at the Paladins for some time as if they were funny animals in a zoo, then his stare returned to the elf.
“We need to talk privately. Follow me.”
In the same relaxed and slow gait of a mafia boss, Dangard strode by the Paladins to the edge of the clearing. The spot the mage selected for the conversation was just a dozen meters to the right, and I felt an irresistible itch in my backside to listen in on them. Knowing that I was doing something unforgivably stupid, I carefully started along the edge of the clearing to the coveted spot. I needed to be in a strategic location before Dangard hobbled to the edge of the clearing. Once I slipped on the beam and was barely able to avoid falling, grabbing at a boulder at the last moment, bloodying my fingers. There was not much noise, but I still froze listening to the sounds from the clearing – had the players gotten alarmed? Everything was quiet, so I moved on.
“Elf, we have no issues with you,” I heard Dangard’s muffled voice, and stopped again. It would not make any sense to keep going – I could hear everything very well from where I was.
“Just with me?”
“I would say with the lizard as well. The femorc and the wardrobe boy will leave the Academy at the first level. That is not subject for discussion.
“Pff!” Nartalim snorted with disdain. “I couldn’t care less do whatever you want with them. If no one interferes with me going through with the teachers, those two are yours.”
“I am glad we understand each other. At the next teacher my fighters will deal with that pair. Now about Yaropolk: I need him. Really need him.”
“Listen, I really don’t know where he is. We came to at a respawn point, he was not there and…”
“I already heard that,” the mage cut the elf off. “If you run into Yari, just send him for respawn, immediately and without asking unneeded questions. Make that clear to the others.”
“He is not dead yet?” Nartalim asked in surprise.
“Now let’s talk about you,” Dangard ignored the Paladin’s question. “As I mentioned, we have no issues with you, so no one will bother you much.”
“Much?” Nartalim asked, when the mage fell ominously silent.
“They might catch you by accident it happens, you know. To guarantee protection you need to buy it. I think the price of one granis is quite adequate. One privilege of protection – one granis.”
“What?! A whole granis?!”
I frowned. I was losing the idea again this time of the process of price determination within the Game. I received my granis after I killed Petrovich, an ordinary NPC, of which there were hordes on Earth. So then, two Petroviches would yield two granis. Then three, four and up to seven billion; as far as I recalled that was the population of Earth. So why was Nartalim so surprised?
“Are you objecting? I should count you together with the other two?” Dangard clarified derisively, openly mocking the elf.
“I don’t have a granis,” the Paladin was practically weeping. I frowned: Nartalim cracked! The selfish elf a member of the guilded youth broke down during this conversation with the mage! This is impossible!
“You are initiated,” the mage continued to sneer. “Let’s make a deal, and after you graduate from the Academy you will repay the debt to me.. I am not even going to charge you interest.”
“A… deal?”
“Call the Game to witness that two days after you leave the Academy you will hand me a granis. Voluntarily, and without me having to remind you. That will be enough.”
“But…”
“Enough! Either you hand me a granis, or I am sending you for respawn right now! Five. Four. Three…”
“Two days after I leave the Academy I will give a granis to Dangard,” the elf practically shouted. “Voluntarily and without being reminded. Is that it? Are you happy now?! Am I now free to go?!”
“Now you are free. Completely and utterly.” There was an electric crackle, a stifled rasp from Nartalim, an indignant yell from Monstrichello, a tussle and rattle of steel, several more electric crackles, and then I heard the quiet and contemplative voice of Dangard:
“Where do they make these morons? Promising something without specifying conditions… Paladins…"
I clung close to the beam. The electric crackle made it clear: the mages had reached the teacher who trained in the use of abilities. Now one could expect anything from the players: an electric kick, a burst of fire, a water tornado and other magic tricks aimed at killing enemy troops. Now attempting a one-on-one fight would be dangerous for me: I am not immune to magic like Monstrichello.
“The Paladins have been killed, we lost seven,” I heard quick steps and then some player smartly reported the current situation to Dangard.
“What about Yari?”
“Nothing. He did not appear at any of the respawn points; we are controlling all the nearest teachers, he was not seen there either. Dangard, why did you take that Pal aside? I had even thought we were actually going to make an agreement with them.”
“I bilked him out of a granis, I need to work on my artifact after all. I put him off his guard, subdued his will and forced him to make a promise to the Game.
“Come on! An entire granis?”
“I don’t like traitors. Since it’s impossible to punish them any other way in the Academy, I’ll make them feel the pain by taking their money.”
“Cool… what are we going to do about Yari?”
“Look for him what else? This Pal turned out to be smarter than Devir thought. In any case, he will soon croak without food. We’ll wait. Are you done with all of the local teachers?”
“No, I just came up to the fifth when Hendy came running screaming like mad about the Paladins. So I had to drop everything and rush here.”
“That’s right, the quest is the priority. Let’s go, we need to finish training…”
The mages left the edge of the clearing, leaving me to my new chunk of information: it’s necessary to eat something in the game, or else you will die. By my estimate I had been a player for a little longer than a day; however, I was still not feeling any hunger. I was neither hungry nor thirsty; moreover, I had not thought of it until now. I assessed my condition and frowned: my body felt no discomfort. Despite spending a day without external nourishment, my body was not screaming that things were dire and I needed to go and eat a piece of bark right away. Meanwhile the mages were certain that soon I would starve and then die. Why were they so convinced that they were right?
There was no benefit I could get from the current teacher, so I carefully continued moving. All the nearest training points were controlled by the mages, therefore, it would be pointless to attempt to go there either. Seeing no other option I decided to move into the depths of the Academy, following the arrows. They should lead me somewhere after all, right? The most important thing would be to not encounter local animals…
The first signs of exhaustion started appearing two hours later: my Energy level dropped to 40 units and refused to come up to its original level even after I stopped to rest. Moreover, during the thirty minutes of rest the Energy level dropped by another two units, which enabled the Book of Knowledge to make the appropriate entry: players in the Academy are doomed for continuous respawn. If one were to suppose that there is no food in this jungle of stone and steel (forget about the panther and whatever other living things for now), then sooner or later my Energy level would drop to zero and the mages at the respawn point will have their day, catching me with their greedy paws. By the way, it meant that a non-initiated player would not be able to stay in the Academy forever: sooner or later he would run out of levels and die for good.
I did not feel any discomfort from the loss of Energy other than minor weakness and shortness of breath, but those could be attributed to having to constantly play Tarzan. Moving along the beams, constantly moving up and down, was not easy. I realized that staying in one place would mean certain death, and kept moving. Even if I were to be sent for respawn, at least I would die fighting rather than hiding under some stone. One thing pleased me: as I was moving along the beams I did not encounter any local fauna, as if the intertwined and multi-level steel bands were a safe route. While I have Energy, I should use that to the fullest. There will always be time to die.
“Suppose you manage to creep by the guards and reach open space,” a slightly hoarse voice out of nowhere made me freeze, despite an extremely uncomfortable position (I was hanging in the air trying to hook my feet onto the nearest beam). “But will you like what you find there?”
Completing a trick that would be practically impossible for an ordinary person, pulling myself up and jumping onto a beam, I turned around. No one there.
“A quick one, aren’t you,” the invisible one mocked. The voice came from everywhere at once, so it was hard to figure out where the old man could be. I had no doubts the hoarse voice belonged to an old guy; it was quite similar to the voice of the first teacher.
“My greetings!” I said, looking tensely into the jumble of steel and stone. Could I be so lucky as to find a hidden teacher? “Would you allow me to partake of your wisdom, teacher?”
“Not just quick, but also a smartie-pants.” The voice did not become one iota less sarcastic. “He wants to learn, doesn’t he? Wants to partake of wisdom. You, dearie, should first figure out how to get to me, before trying to partake of whatever you can reach.”
I was thinking of asking the old guy where he was located, but my memory immediately brought up the conversation with my first teacher. We had conversed quite well, but as soon as I attempted to ask about location of the source of knowledge, the conversation died at once. Something was telling me that I was dealing with the same thing here.
“Getting to a place is not the problem,” I started cautiously. “What guards do you mean?”
“Guards?” I could hear surprise in the voice of my invisible interlocutor. “That’s a sudden question. A funny one. And not an ordinary one…”
“So what about the guards?” I said just in case, as the voice fell silent for an entire minute. “How can one sneak by them? Anyway, who are they? Are they panthers?”
“What do panthers have to do with it?” The voice returned.
“I saw one of the panthers kill two rogues…”
“Pffff! He saw! Do you at least understand what you saw? How can there be a panther in the Academy?”
“There really was one!” I insisted. “It’s true, I did not get to see how it killed the rogues, but I did see the panther with my own eyes! I even have a picture of it in my Book of Knowledge!”
“Right, because of such sloppy explorers we get wild tales about the Academy. We don’t have any panthers here! Not a single one at all! You saw an ordinary level 5 player, a druid who has passed initiation and specializes in transformation. An ordinary headhunter!”
“So then who are the guards?” I was taken aback.
“Oh yeah: the guards, right?” The sarcastic note slipped back into the old guy’s voice. “OK, take a look. Here’s a prominent representative!”
There was a reinforced concrete slab not too far from me; it created a convenient path and led away from the steel beam. Had it not been for my decision to strictly follow the arrows, I would have been unlikely to find any reasonable objections against walking on that slab. It looked really good and led to quite an interesting passage in the stone boulders. I frowned, thinking the voice was mocking me again, but then the slab started moving. There was no vibration, no cracks, no dust; in literally a moment the slab moved to a vertical position, somehow fitting through the top layers of the labyrinth; a huge red eye was staring at me, shining with a blood-tinged light right from the middle of the slab. The concrete slab was alive! Thin tentacles appeared at the edges of the monster and rushed towards me.
All that was so unexpected that I swayed back, slipped and almost crashed down; at the last moment I held on to the beam, skinning both my palms. The tentacles were just a touch too short to reach me, barely over a meter remained. From fear I shut my eyes, pulled my body up to the beam and hugged it with both my arms and legs, as if it were my closest relative whom I never wished to let go. Fear washed over me in waves, pushing me to abandon the beam and fall down, but I struggled. I did not know what for, but I still resisted.
Suddenly everything stopped and the fear subsided as if it never was there.
“While you are holding on to the guiding line, the guards won’t do anything to you,” I heard the old man’s voice again, and dared open my eyes. The tentacles disappeared and so did the monster. There was nothing except the concrete slab leading to the mysterious passage. Just for some reason looking at that passage made cold rush down your spine.
“A guard can assume any shape,” the voice continued, as soon as I was sitting on the beam again. “It can be a slab, a stone, a branch. The only thing it cannot be is the guiding line. If you were to stop touching it for over ten seconds, they will start a hunt for you.
“Another one?” I smiled bitterly. “Seems like too many hunts for just a single me.”
“That’s why I decided to talk to you. I don’t really like what the mages are doing: with each killing the number of trainees diminishes further. This needs to be stopped.”
“Then why are killings allowed in the Academy altogether?”
“Life is so complicated! You need to win the right to be a player, even if you are fighting against an opponent who is bound to be stronger, and who took a banned potion.”
“Mihonarium?” I exhibited my knowledge.
“Yes.” I could hear bitterness in his voice. “The players were supposed to wake up gradually, so as not to interfere with each other’s exploration of the Academy, but the mages spoiled it all. I don’t like it, so I want to spoil things for them, too. So that’s why I need you. In four hours you will die …”
“WHAT?!” I was unable to contain my emotions.
“Practically everyone dies in the Academy. This is normal. Unless a player brought some food with him, every twelve hours he will respawn. The Academy was created to complete training with the teachers, not to hang around here all your life. If you want to survive you will have to work hard for it. First of all, you have to return to the team with which you came here.”
“They betrayed me to the mages!”
“Not all of them: just the elf.” The voice was resolute. “Alone, you will not get out of the forest, even the guiding line will not help you. In this area of the Academy there are just five common and three hidden teachers; that will not be enough to go all the way back. You will have to go into open space.”
“So this is not an obstacle course around me, but a forest?” I frowned, thinking of the old man’s words. It was hard to admit it but he was right: with Monstrichello and Logir with her hammer by my side, we could fight the mages off. The Paladins did that before. If we were to forget about the elf’s betrayal and make use of his saber, my chances of reaching the teacher for class attributes would only increase. The question remained, however: was I ready to meet the Paladins who were willing to sell me out to the mages?
“Would you help me reach the hidden teachers?” I could not but ask, thinking I would decide on rejoining my team later. “It would feel a lot less nervous meeting the mages with four levels under my belt.”
“Why do you think that each teacher would give you a whole level?” The voice was surprised. “At level one you need to train with one teacher to get an extra level. At level two it will already take two teachers. At level three it will be three and so on. If one goes quickly through all the teachers the player comes back from the Academy with level four and rosy thoughts. Not more than that.”
“But the hidden teachers can teach me things to improve the odds of survival and help to stop the genocide of players begun by the mages!” I would not give up. “I am not likely to have much fighting success with my bare hands against lightning bolts!”
“Not only a quick and smart one, but also slippery as an eel,” the voice was once again sporting snide notes. “Going to fight, indeed… Forget that word! You are an explorer! Your only weapon is hanging onto your leg and sponging up information right now. Use it. No need to lug around swords, cudgels and other metal scrap. You are the knowledge warrior!”
“Yeah, right. History knows heaps of those,” I grumbled mulishly. “Giordano Bruno, for example. His knowledge didn’t really help him to avoid being burnt at the stake.”
“You are confused, Paladin. What happens among NPCs should not concern you. Even if they were to blow up the planet the players would move to another game world and keep developing there. Lose the habit of being mortal. If you want to become a real player, you need to reject the world of your past. The Game does not start a large-scale purge so that the players would then reflect on times past. You need to keep going forward constantly!”
“How did it come about anyway, this blasted Game!” Sad memories of my lost family overwhelmed me again, and, upset, I cursed mightily. I never asked anyone to turn me into a player! Had it not been for Devir, I would have returned to my family without a problem and lived the rest of my life peacefully, not having to worry about being hunted down.
“Just like any other game: it was created.”
“By the Emperor?” I ventured a guess. “The mysterious three-eyed moderator?”
“The Emperor monitors compliance with the main laws, but after all he is also an ordinary player, even though a very high level one. The Game was created by specific individuals for a specific purpose, and currently it fulfils all its tasks. If you want to find out more about it, find me. I am not even going to hide: I am located at the very center of the Academy, on the island, in the third tower. If you crave knowledge: welcome to my abode. Goodbye for now; the time left till your respawn is melting away unstoppably. I agree that you need help; your map will constantly show the current location of your team and — alright! — one of the hidden teachers. He will teach you a lot. Hold on to the guiding line, stop the mages and find me — I have a lot to tell you, explorer.”


The map has been updated


Chapter Four. Genocide





IT TOOK ME about an hour to reach the point marked on the map. At the beginning of the way I was seeing a guard practically in every stone, so I tried to avoid touching things if I didn't need to. But when I almost lost my balance, I stopped caring, and continued on my way grabbing on to everything I could, taking care to make sure that at any given time some part of my body was touching the guiding line. Actually, speaking of body parts… a rather long time had passed since I became a player, but I still had no urge at all to visit the bathroom. I knew that I was losing precious time and looked like an insecure little boy, but I still couldn’t resist it: I pulled down my steel chausses and looked at what the Game had endowed me with in terms of my male equipment. I could not contain a satisfied chuckle once I made sure that everything I had before had stayed with me. Based on a visual inspection my everything looked healthy and — again, I couldn’t help checking! — after several quick strokes it reacted the way it was supposed to: I had an erection. With a heavy sigh I rid myself of the temptation, then dressed and kept moving. The guards of the forest of stone and steel were not the kind of audience I would want to regale with the sight of masturbation, even though it would have been really great to relax right now. As soon I as squirmed out of trouble I would definitely find a woman for a night. Sex is the best method of stress relief.
The first thing I realized once I saw the teacher was: it would have been impossible to find him on my own. If you had not known that there was a grey-haired old man in this particular spot, it would have been extremely hard to find him in the middle of a jumble of reinforced concrete. It took me several minutes to orient myself and locate a barely noticeable steel beam a meter below me, disappearing under a huge stone. Having carefully climbed down and made my way along the new guiding line, I ended up nose to nose with an old man covered with dust, sitting in the lotus position. The only sign indicating that he was still alive were two blue eyes in his motionless face, watching my approach intently.
“Welcome, recruit, I will be training you. Now harken to my wisdom!”

Learning progress: You have reached teacher 2 of 10

“You will have to choose what I am going to teach you,” the old man continued in a hoarse voice, as dust fell away from his face at every word. Apparently, this teacher had not talked to any players for some time.
“What options do I have?” I asked with trepidation. Had I finally got lucky, after all?
“I can replace any of the ten mandatory teachers. But only one. It is within my power to teach you how to use either the artifact, game interface, defense, attack or secondary class abilities, specialty, craft, attributes, class outfits, or teach you the basics of the Game. Choose what is most interesting to you at this point. I would like to remind you that you need to choose one thing only.
I took a few deep breaths, fighting a strong desire to study the attack capabilities, so I could go beat the mages. As the unknown voice had said, knowledge was my weapon, so that’s what I needed to increase to the max. Choosing my words carefully so as not to give the teacher a reason to pick on something, I started questioning:
“Before the Academy I didn’t have a chance to go through the initial training, so it’s hard for me to choose an area of training based just on names… If you were to give me the names of all ten training units, the choice would be more rational and logical. As of now I am being overwhelmed by over-the-top entropy."
“There is nothing forbidden about this information.” The teacher did not put on airs. “Your artifact is already activated, so you know very well what you can learn in this unit.
"In the game interface unit you will learn to open and close virtual windows and use buttons; you will receive clarifications on all the functions of the game interface and the ways to update it.
"In the unit of class abilities you will learn one of the three paths for development of the Paladin and learn to use various class abilities.
"The specialty unit will enable you to choose the path for your development regardless of the Artifact you have chosen.
"The crafts unit provides technical specialty basics. You will be able to improve your equipment, make elixirs and other things of that nature.
"The attributes unit will teach you the specifics of working with attributes, and clarify what they are and how they are different, for example, from class abilities.
"The unit of class outfits provides information on how you can upgrade class armor, how to work with your inventory and how to expand it.
"And, finally, Game basics unit will give you an understanding of the overall principles of the Game, starting from the Auction to the development and political framework. What would you like to learn?”
“What is the ‘development path’?” I frowned in bewilderment, not understanding the purpose of specialty in the least. “What does it mean – ‘regardless of the Artifact you have chosen’?”
“If this is what you would like to know, you would need to learn the use of specialty. Is this your choice?”
Lately so many unpleasant and unexpected things had happened to me that it took me an enormous effort to stop myself from socking the old guy one in the kisser. Is it so difficult to answer a question? Is it really necessary to make a problem out of everything I ask? What kind of stupid approach is that?"
“Yes, I would like to learn how to use specialty,” I said, trying to calm down and looking over the list of training units once again. I would learn the class abilities later they are not crucial now; all the rest, with the exception, perhaps, of the general basic principles of the Game, were not particularly important for me at the moment. However, I did not want to use the entire teacher to learn the rules for using the Auction, while the specialty issue really bothered me. What did it mean: "path of development"?

Process of specialty choice has been activated.

The space around me changed, turning into the clearing I had seen previously, surrounded by the strange forest. Even though I was sure that this clearing was completely identical to the one I had already seen, I still looked around the entire space that I could see, fixing my eye on the small details: the reddish leaves of the trees, the grass that looked like blue plantain leaves, and noticing the sun was not visible even though the weather was generally clear. The Book of Knowledge needed to be leveled up all the time.
“Specialty is the cornerstone of the player’s development,” the teacher started explaining as soon as I finished exploring the area. “In essence, it’s the way the player uses his game skills, his profession. Through a symbiotic relationship with the Artifact or independent action, the specialty maximizes the player’s necessary qualities that would enable him to express himself to the fullest in his chosen profession.”
“…?” my face so vividly conveyed all the understanding I had of what was being said to me that the old man grinned, and suddenly asked:
“Tell me, Paladin, how do you see yourself in this game?”
“…?” — another vivid reaction.
“What attracts you the most? Fights with other players? Battles with NPCs? Politics? Dungeons? Searching for treasures? Exploring the world? Something else?”
“I was planning to explore…”
“What for?”
“Any information has a price: I was thinking of selling it,” I gradually relaxed, taking an active part in the dialogue. At least now I could understand what the teacher was talking about and what his question was.
“A price?” The old man was surprised. “Since when does something available through a simple query have a price?”
“Not everyone has access to the Temple of Knowledge,” I quipped, having figured out what the old guy meant.
“Nonsense! It’s accessible to everyone! Moreover, the more you ask for help, the easier it is to enter the Temple. I heard you – you were planning to sell information. To whom? Those players, who, as you put it, don’t have access to the Temple of Knowledge, won’t be able to pay you. They simply don’t have the money!” While those who would be willing to open their purses and pay their granis for information are unlikely to buy information about the Game on the side. It’s much simpler and more beneficial to fly over to the Temple of Knowledge and find everything out there.
“What do you mean – ‘don’t have the money’?” I was quite stunned, as this turn of events was totally unexpected to me. “Do players have money problems?”
“Are you planning to charge NPC money for information?” The old man was even more surprised.
“Well, actually, that was my initial plan,” I said slowly, trying to figure out what to do. My plan for a carefree existence was creaking under my feet, because if the old guy was right, no one would care a crap for the information that was currently accumulating in my Book of Knowledge.
“It’s a rather stupid plan, I would like to point out, but it’s up to you. If you decide to concentrate exclusively on relations with the NPC, I am not going to try and talk you out of it. That’s exactly why I asked what you like most of all. I would like to recommend selecting as a specialty some wonderful occupations such as “Speaker” or “Inventor”. They will combine very well with the Book of Knowledge and will enable you to become a popular and famous person.”
“Wait, so specialty is a profession that would have within the game world?” I ventured to guess.
“Not quite. What you are going to do in the world will depend on the creative profession that you choose. It sounds similar, but there is a global fundamental distinction. Specialty is the direction for the player’s development and application. For example, a “Speaker” could be anyone: a boxer, a street sweeper, or jobless. The specialty will manifest itself in his personal attitude to various phenomena of the game world. In this example, the boxer will, at each win or defeat, regale the public with wonderful public statements that come from the depths of his being. The sweeper will, with each sweep of his broom, speak such philosophical statements that he will acquire followers. I think you understand the point. That would not be the player’s main profession, but the direction of development that he had chosen.”
“Can players be street sweepers?” I was surprised.
“Why not? It’s a profession. There is payment in the same granis for cleaning territories as for completing dungeons or killing other players. Not all the players like chasing each other or NPCs. Some like it quiet. Have you never noticed that some of those grey-haired, huge, bearded sweepers are very nice, communicative people with their own set of views on life, their own philosophy? That regardless of their social status one wants to talk to them, feel their attention? NPCs have even made up a special word for that: “charisma”; but now you know why that actually happens. It’s just that someone chose the “Speaker” specialty. By the way, I do wish that to you as well, if you decide to sell knowledge. Who knows you might be able to convince someone to buy some from you.
“Does this mean that being a world explorer does not pay?” I said with disappointment.
“Not at all; being an explorer not only pays; it’s one of the most well-paid player development paths. The question is simply how to use the knowledge you acquire. It’s unlikely that you’d be able to sell it to players, although nothing is impossible.”
“I'm all ears,” my breath caught from this news, but the old guy returned to his previous line:
“That’s why I asked you about your preferences in the game. You need to decide here and now what it is that you want to do; then I will be able to provide you recommendations on the specialty most suitable for you and your Artifact. Or, if you have already made a choice prior to entering the Academy, you may simply name it.”
“It’s hard for me to choose a single thing,” I admitted some time later. “Everything that was listed, with the exception, perhaps, of fighting other players, interests me. Politics, exploration, searching for treasures, and many other things. Is there some generalized specialty for a world explorer?”
“Why not…? There is everything here. Without a large variety of options, but it does exist. As I already said, the main task of the explorer is to find a way to use the information he has acquired. The more of it there is, the more experienced, educated and wise the explorer becomes. That’s why the specialty “Judge” suits them like no one else. The explorer accumulates knowledge of an object or event, then delivers a verdict: “guilty” or “not guilty”, and assigns punishment in case of a “guilty” verdict. Then it would depend on circumstances: the sentence may be passed on to headhunters, may be executed by the Judge himself if he deems it necessary, may be deferred, etc.”
“I don’t want to be constantly judging people,” I grumbled, astonished. Of all things that was something that I really didn’t need for sure.
“You are once again confusing specialty and profession. This is just a direction for development. For example, you became a member of a team that performed a dungeon raid. You completed the dungeon, acquired some loot, and now it’s time to divide it up. The raid leader proposes that everything be divided equally, but the Book of Knowledge immediately tells you that the girlfriend of the raid leader did not take part in any of the battles with the monsters, and that she was away from the team, so she does not deserve a share equal to everyone else’s. If you have the attribute “Context search” and you have leveled it up to level 15, you make this information available to all the raid participants, and then a joint decision is made regarding the fairness of dividing the loot. If needed, you could even call on the Game to help you, but I would definitely not advise that you do that. That would have consequences. Being a Judge does not mean sitting on a chair and listening to the arguments of the parties. Being a Judge means exploring the world actively and recording its downfalls.”
“You are describing this specialty in such rosy terms that it immediately begs the question: what’s the catch? Now it all looks too good to be true.”
“There is a drawback.” The teacher was not going to deny it. “There is always one. The Judge has to be objective.”
“…?”
“The Judge has no friends or enemies; he has only truth that he must follow. If his friend — a player or an NPC, it doesn’t matter — breaks a law, the Judge must deliver a verdict. Regardless of whether he wants to or not.”
“But there is much room for abuse.” For some reason arrangements for corruption appeared in my mind at once. We are such strange creatures after all: instead of rejoicing and thinking of the bright side, we immediately start looking for ways to circumvent the law.
“It’s possible; frequently that is what Judges do. But it’s not so simple. Any verdict is checked by the moderator — the Emperor. The Game provides to him all information concerning the event, and if the moderator decides that the Judge was not objective, the moderator will send a headhunter after him.”
“So all he does is check verdicts?” I was surprised. “Or are there just a couple of players who are Judges? How come the Emperor has so much time on his hands?”
“Actually, Judges are not numerous; in each game world there are probably not be more than a hundred, and they belong to different classes. As for the time for review… Yaropolk, you need to stop being used to your former life. In the Game time is not uniform. Will a single second pass in the main world while you are training at the Academy? No. It’s the same with verdicts. The Emperor can spend a hundred years to review all the verdicts delivered in a day, but it will not be noticeable in the main game world.
“So who controls the Emperor? Who can guarantee that he reviews verdicts properly and correctly?”
“The Game itself does that. Its creators wanted to eradicate in all players a craving to break the law, but there were only enough system resources for the Emperor. Thus, he is the most pure and righteous creature in the entire Game, and his every word is the law. If the Emperor decides that the verdict was delivered improperly, the Judge will lose one level: headhunters will send him for respawn.”
“And if the verdict is correct?”
“You get a bonus. You will know what it is after the very first verdict.”
“But one could still manipulate.” For some reason various schemes occurred to me of how one could get around the rules. “Keep sitting at the lower levels so that it would be easier to level up; then, even if you are sent for respawn it won’t be a major problem.”
“It’s a good thought but you are not the first one to whom it has occurred. A Judge has the right to deliver one hundred wrong verdicts. Once he makes the hundredth wrong decision, he will be wiped out, as someone who has not lived up to expectations. If he has any levels left by then, that is.”
“Fine.” I thought for a while, then requested a clarification: “Is my understanding correct that a player whose specialty is “Judge” can actually be doing whatever, even herding cows, but if someone breaks a law in front of him, the Judge must study the issue from beginning to end and deliver a verdict?”
“In general that’s correct, but there is one thing: the Judge doesn't have to study the issue in detail; he may deliver his verdict guided purely according to his experience and attitude to events. The Emperor will later decide whether the Judge was correct or not.”
“But I don’t have to choose this specialty, right?”
“You don’t. I have told you about the specialty most suitable for the development path you have chosen. You can choose any other one and it will be immediately assigned to you. If that is the case I am waiting for you to name the specialty. What will your choice be, Paladin?"
“I think I will ask you a few more questions. Is a Judge always obligated to deliver a verdict? With respect to any violation that occurs in front of him?”
“Yes this is the drawback of this specialty. However, each misdeed has a certain period of limitation for action. If during this period the Judge does not have enough time to investigate the case event, the case will be closed and the perpetrator will be deemed not guilty.
“But this is…” I started saying, but the old man interrupted me:
“Let’s not state the obvious out loud.”
“How many cases can a Judge have open concurrently?” It seemed to me that I had found a decent loophole. If I don’t feel like investigating something, I could just blow it off.
“Ten. If the Judge runs up against a necessity to deliver an eleventh verdict, he would have to deliver it here and now, based purely on his attitude to what’s going on. So it’s not recommended to accumulate unfinished cases: you risk losing a level.”
“And would I have to deliver verdicts for everyone? Both players and NPCs?”
“No; whatever NPCs do is determined by the algorithms of the Game. A Judge would be working only with players and minions. Nobody else. You don’t have to pay any attention to whatever NPCs might do – the Game itself will take care of it.”
“How many Judges are there on Earth?” I made a last-ditch attempt to postpone the obvious choice. It was shameful to admit, but the mere thought that I would be able to hold players and minions responsible for their misdeeds was so attractive that, really, there was no other choice.
“Thirty-two.”
“And how many have been wiped out already?”
“Three thousand two hundred and seventeen.” The teacher shocked me. “For some reason Judges on Earth are not very much in favor of following the main requirement of this specialty: being objective. What is your choice, Paladin?”
“I agree with the suggested choice,” I finally decided. “I accept the specialty “Judge”!”

Specialty has been selected
Character adjustment in progress

Fireworks exploded in front of my eyes, and I lost consciousness from unbearable pain.
“How did you get info on this teacher?” Through the darkness of faint I heard a voice sounding more like a growl. Knowing very well that time was working against me, I tried to open my eyes, though unsuccessfully. My brain was overwhelmed by a chorus of a thousand voices combined with the crescendo of a symphony orchestra. Grabbing my head with my palms, I began moaning and rolling around on the ground trying to make all that noise subside. It was quite hard for me at the moment to perceive the surrounding reality in an adequate way.
“Should I just send you for respawn to put you out of your misery?” The growling voice was kindness itself, but it was that phrase that enabled me to switch from feeling the pain to perceiving the reality around me. The hum was still there, but it faded into the background, which enabled me to do the incredible: open my eyes and look around. Three things drew my attention immediately. First: the teacher sitting in the lotus position, having completed his mission for training me. Second: a huge panther looking at me, her head tilted in contemplation. Third: the game interface has changed. The third thing was so unusual that it pushed even the panther into the background.
In the left top corner of my field of vision a verdict counter appeared; under it there was a line “Case No. 'None' ”, and another line “Case investigation”. Based on the fact that currently it said “0%”, it was supposed to indicate the depth of my “delving” into the situation. The status bar showed an additional icon; pressing on it showed a list of active cases, of which there were none at the moment. But the most fascinating thing was something else: in the top center there was an unusual icon: a shining semicircle with a futuristic arrow, resembling a speedometer. At the moment the arrow pointed strictly upward, without leaning to either of the sides, which were a bright light on the right and total darkness on the left. My mischievous hands (well, eyes, really, in this case) immediately clicked on the mysterious speedometer.

Allegiance has been activated. Current value: “Neutral”

“Hey, Paladin! Hello! Anyone home?” The panther roared in a human voice, distracting me from studying the game interface.
“Bagheera, ” I drawled with a smile for some reason, focusing my eyes on the panther. “'We be of one blood, ye and…”
“You really are a twit, rather than a creature ‘of one blood’,” the panther cut me off and then – I actually had to rub my eyes in surprise turned into a girl.
“I repeat the question: how did you get information about this teacher?”
Unlike the throaty growl of the panther, in human form the girl had an amazingly charming voice. A strange patchwork outfit could probably be called a sort of a dress if it were not for parts made of chainmail and metal plates. However, even this incredible outfit could not conceal how tiny the girl was. On her feet the former panther wore not elegant green booties intended to underscore her graceful shape, but two heavy boots, looking more like army boots. But her face was the most amazing of all. I had not seen such so well formed, charming and attractive a face in my entire life. At first glance the girl looked human: twenty two or three years old. Two bright sapphires for some reason looking cold as the arctic at the moment were watching my every move; her long chestnut hair was drawn into a simple pony tail, so as not to interfere with her movements. This shapeshifter, or, as the Book of Knowledge helpfully suggested, druid, was not wearing any headdress that I could see.
“One of the local teachers shared it,” I told her honestly, understanding that quarrelling with the panther at the moment would be impolitic.
“What teacher?” Her cold eyes showed some interest.
“As far as I understood, the chief one at the Academy.” I decided to inflate my value. If she was the very girl who had sent the two rogues for respawn, she would not have much trouble doing the same to me. I needed to interest her. “He got in touch with me from a remote location and provided the coordinates for this very yogi.”
“How do I reach him?” The druid kept asking. I looked at my Energy level and sighed sadly: there were just ten units left. In a couple of hours I would end up having to face the mages.
“He is not in the forest; he is sitting in some other place. If you want, we can set out to reach him together.”
“Pf!” the druid snorted contemptuously.”Why in hell do I need you? To distract guards while I run away?”
“Why do you run away from the guards?” I was surprised. “Don’t you know…”
“Don’t I know what?” Despite being pint-sized, the girl practically loomed over me as soon as I fell silent, biting my tongue. Why should I share important information? “There is a way to pass by the guards?!”
“Of course there is. Or how would I have gotten here? Since I have no weapons.”
“I see that… What’s the way to do it?” I nearly jumped with joy once I figured out that the druid did not know about the guiding beams. I could turn that to my advantage!”
“No, it doesn't work that way. I am offering a partnership. I share information, you help me get away from the mages.”
“No partnerships and no agreements.” The girl grew suspicious. “From whom do you want to get away?”
“From mages. In an hour, or two at best, my Energy will drop down to zero and I will be sent for respawn. Mages are waiting for me at all three respawn points. I need help.”
“So you are the one they are hunting?” The druid was interested. “What would prevent me from turning you in to them?”
“Information.” I shrugged my shoulders indifferently, even though I had a sinking feeling inside. “The mages don’t have it, or else they would have rushed after me into this forest. Since you don’t run on the ground, additional knowledge about the guards would be useful to you.”
“How did you gain it?”
“I am an explorer of the world. I had to figure out how the local monsters work. Have they ever caught you?”
“Twice.” The girl cringed. “And another forty times I got away. For some reason they would just stop the chase. Oh! Do you know why?”
“I do,” I confirmed, once again barely able to contain my joy. The panther rushing to get away from the guards must have managed to touch the guiding line, and the chase after her would stop. Even now the girl was standing touching just one foot to the beam.
“So, to sum it up — you will share information on how to avoid the guards; in exchange you want me to help you to get away from the respawn point where you will end up going in an hour since you don’t have any food with you. Right?”
“As if you have some,” I mumbled grumpily, looked at the druid and drawled in amazement: “Oh really? From where?!”
“I was taught to use inventory prior to the Academy,” the druid said proudly. “You can’t bring food here directly only stored in your inventory.
“Would you share it?” I said too quickly, and immediately scolded myself silently. I should not show how much I need to replenish my Energy.
“No, it doesn't work that way,” the girl mocked me. “How can one avoid the guards?”
We tried to stare each other down for about a minute. Neither one of us wanted to surrender first, as there were no guarantees that the other would keep his word. Since she refused to enter into an official agreement, one would have to rely on the other’s word only.
“Yaropolk.” I didn’t know what else to do, and stretched out my hand, introducing myself. Time was money, and in my case time was life. I couldn’t afford to waste it. “Paladin. You may call me Yari for short.”
“Dolgunata, a druid.” The girl hesitated for a moment, then returned my handshake. Despite the fact that I was wearing armor and the druid’s hands were covered with thick leather gloves, the feeling of close contact with her graceful hand was unforgettable. “Nata for short.”
“There are eight teachers in total in this forest.” I decided to give up some information to establish a partnership. “Five are open and available to everyone, and three are hidden. You can see here one of the hidden ones. I don’t know where the other two are.”
“What about the guards?”
“You need to be touching the guiding line…” I told her about the steel beams, without mentioning the symbols, however. That was not part of our unwritten agreement.
“What did you mean by the ‘chief teacher’?”, Nata kept asking, making my face darken. The girl was in no hurry to keep her part of the bargain.
“Food,” I reminded her, but was immediately put in my place:
“We have no agreement and you are not in a position to bargain. I am waiting.”
Good luck to you in the Academy,” I grumbled, then turned away and walked off. Dolgunata clearly demonstrated the main principle of the game: sink your opponents at every turn, while taking advantage of them to the max. I hoped for the girl’s sensibility and waited for her to call me, but she did not. Before jumping onto the main steel beam, I turned around — the girl lost all interest in me, involved in talking to the teacher.
Bitch!
Despite the fact that after meeting the druid my mood was right through the floor, I moved towards the Paladins. We needed to join forces. The map showed that my team was staying in place, not trying to move anywhere. Having spent fifteen minutes to get to another clearing while remembering to touch the steel beam, I peeked out from behind a stone boulder and assessed the situation from four meters above ground. It was, to put it mildly, not to the advantage of the Paladins…
In front of me I saw a wide clearing with a huge three-meter stone on it, all covered with mysterious runes; they were emitting an evil green light. As I watched, a small ball of sun-bright light appeared at the bottom of the stone; it quickly grew and turned into a cursing player. Someone was extremely unhappy at being sent to respawn. This was a respawn point! There was only one path leading to the clearing; now it was blocked by a crowd of mages. A lightning bolt flew from the hands of one of them, hitting the newly respawned player right in the head. There was an electric crack, a scream of pain, a corpse on the ground that disappeared at once and the raucous laughter of the raving players. It horrified me even to think what kind of person would enjoy killing! The mages needed to see a psychiatrist right away, and beg him for a lobotomy. There would be no other way to cure them at this point.
On the other end of the clearing, keeping the respawn stone between themselves and the mages, was my team. Behind Monstrichello, whose face was drawn and glum, there were Logir, Nartalim, Sartal and three more Paladins whom I did not know. Apparently also victims of the mayhem created by the mages. Despite an impressive company, the Paladins were not in a hurry to fight the mages for the right to leave the clearing, while the mages were in no hurry to finish them off. This was a stalemate which the mages broke up periodically by killing respawned players. During the ten minutes while I was sitting there trying to figure out a rescue plan, ten players were killed that way.
“Bastards!” A guttural roar from my side was so unexpected that I nearly tumbled into the clearing from my vantage point. The panther twitched her tail frantically a couple of times and turned into a girl.
“Eat!” she ordered, handing me a green patty. “This will fully restore your Energy.”
“Why?” I could not help asking, while nevertheless chewing the patty thoroughly. It had no taste, no smell, the texture felt like plasticine, but the growing Energy bar was making me euphoric. I gained an additional 12 hours of life!
“I needed to check if you were saying the truth. That’s number one. Number two – I needed to understand how far you would be willing to go to save yourself. Creeps and sellout scum should be eliminated. Number three – I need information.
“How did you find the location of the previous teacher?” Despite her help, my attitude to the druid was guarded. The anger had subsided, but an unpleasant aftertaste remained.
“I was running away from a monster when I heard your scream. It was too long and full of suffering for a guard victim, so I ventured to look, particularly since the guard was not chasing me anymore. You were squirming on the ground in front of the teacher, so I decided to question you first, and then kill. You know the rest.”
“Kill?”
“Never mind. What are you planning to do?”
“Even if I were to join the Paladins, there is no way we could fight through the line of mages. I would take them to the forest to the hidden teacher, then we would make a circle. There is a limited number of mages, so they are all distributed among various teachers and respawn points. We would catch small groups and kill them. Want to join us”?
“If you kill the mages, what next?” Dolgunata ignored me.
“We would train with all the teachers in this forest, then we’d go looking for the rest. There are five more somewhere else. If we keep together, we’ll be able to survive.”
“Reasonable. What can you offer for my help?”
“Information.”
“I am not ready to risk levels for knowledge that will be of no use in the main world.”
“In that case… what would you say about a granis?” I remembered the currency in my possession. If Dangard was so happy about getting a granis out of the elf, maybe the druid would also like that price.
“Are you initiated?” Nata’s eyes narrowed.
“I am not.”
“Then it’s not an option. If you were to be killed for good, you wouldn't make it out of here. Who would give me my granis then?”
“You will get a granis here and now if you help us,” I said, but the girl’s astonished look told me that I have no idea about the game currency.
“But you are not initiated! How did you get it?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied cryptically, trying to hide my own confusion. I received mine from Archibald, as a reward for the NPC I killed. Can it be that prior to entering the Academy recruits never killed anyone? Somehow I had a hard time believing that. So why was Nata surprised? “Agreed?”
“What do you want from me?”
“Call the Game to witness that you will help me and most of these 'pretty boys',” I nodded towards the Paladins huddling together pass through ten teachers and finish the Academy successfully. As payment for this I will now give you a granis; the only thing is, I’ve never done this, so the transfer may take more than one attempt. But I guarantee that I will give it to you. If it is possible at all in the Academy.”
“No agreements,” after a rather prolonged staring match the druid forced through her lips. “Either you give me the granis and I help you, or we part ways.”
“Thank you for the food,” I said with regret. Staying in the company of this charming beauty was nice, but it did not help me get closer to my final goal. Given that at least four of the Paladins huddling beneath had weapons as artifacts, even if Dolgunata’s claws were to help us, it wouldn’t be crucial. “If I tell you where the chief teacher is, will you give me a couple more patties?”
“One,” the girl reacted quickly. “My reserves are also limited.”
The exchange was completed without an agreement, as if Nata had some kind of a hangup about that. Casting a parting glance at the clearing, the druid turned into a panther and left me. She was weird… beautiful but weird …
“You are so pissing me off!” Another electric crack and scream, and the guffaws of the mages were heard from the clearing. Someone else was unlucky. By the way, that’s a thought! Why should we only help Paladins? My experience of talking to Dolgunata demonstrated that other classes may include players who were, even though weird, still sane enough. And that a granis is quite a valuable thing in the game world. If we managed to get away from the mages, why shouldn’t we propose to other classes that they join our team? Many players, especially non-initiated ones, would readily give up everything they have in order to stay alive. We should use this!
It took me half an hour to circle the clearing and carefully climb down: the guiding beams wound and twisted in a complicated pattern, so frequently I had to move away from the respawn point rather than risk being caught by a guard. Holding onto an overhead beam with my hand, I reached practically the edge of the stone forest when I heard the Paladins talking:
“ I have two hours worth of Energy left,” said an unfamiliar voice. Must have been one of the Paladins who had newly joined the group.
“Same crap here,” Logir responded to him, and then I finally peeked out from behind the stone.
“Let’s kill all dem freaks!” Monstrichello rumbled, causing a howl of laughter from the side of the mages. It would be hard not to hear the tank’s roar.
“What killing: it’s my last level,” a lanky Paladin said despondently, then whispered with a hysterical note in his voice: “I don’t want to die!”
I was just starting to try to figure out how to call the Paladins without attracting the attention of the mages, when I heard a wild and horrible roar coming from behind me. A large cat dashed by me like black lightning, and behind her… she was followed by flying steel. Dolgunata had encountered a flying monster that looked like the nightmare of a person taking heavy drugs: a jumble of steel rods partially covered in black fog; it had three bright red eyes. The creature glided, breaking every law of physics, periodically emitting wild screams. My breath caught. I froze like a statue, and just noted from the corner of my eye that my hand was still clutching the guiding beam. It should not go after me…
“What kind of nonsense with a tail is that?” I heard surprised shouts from the mages, after which I felt better. The flying monster stopped oppressing my mind and turned itself into a detail of the forest, looking so much like an integral part of a nearby wall of reinforced concrete that even though one knew the nasty thing was there, it was impossible to see it on the stone.
“Quiet – I am one of us!” Nata growled quietly, so as not to draw the attention of the mages; her tail twitched nervously. The Paladins had regrouped; they managed to place Monstrichello, who was covering himself with the shield, between themselves, the mages and the druid. "If you want to live, follow me.”
“Who are you?” Nartalim piped up at once. “Why should we listen to you?”
“Because you’ll just die here!” The panther shot back, and, making sure the flying monster left her alone, in one jump landed in the clearing in the stone forest. Follow me! I am with Yari!”
“But there are monsters there!” the lanky Paladin whined, but for Logir my name served as sufficient reason to believe the panther. Slowly, so as not to provoke the mages to action, she approached the panther, swallowed nervously and looked inside the stone jungle. She lingered, then swallowed and made a step towards the forest. Only now did I realize that I could clearly see the invisible line that separated the safe clearing from the horrors of the reinforced concrete chaos, and that just now Logir crossed that line, starting a ten-second timer. If during that time she did not touch a guiding line, a monster would appear.
“Here, quick!” I stepped from behind a neighboring stone. “Grab onto this block!”
“Why?” The femorc frowned, but then Nata came to my aid:
“Do what he says, or else a guard will appear!”
“Fine! But I don’t understand…,” Logir didn’t have to be asked twice; in just a couple of moments she was standing next to me. “Are you alive?”
“That’s a stupid question,” I grumbled. “No, I’ve been dead for a freaking year, and now you are talking to a ghost.”
“Logir, are you OK in there?” we heard Nartalim shout, and I had to show him by gestures that shouting was not optimal. I was right, as then we heard the mages yelling from the far side of the clearing:
“Hey, Pals, who’s that pussy running around with you there? Where are you hiding the femorc?”
I slanted my eye at Dolgunata, who had indifferently put her head on the steel beam and closed her eyes. By her entire appearance the panther was showing that she was resting, and nothing going on around concerned her in the least. But her heaving sides indicated that just a few minutes ago the druid had had to run for her life. The main question remained: why did she return?
“Logir, your task is to get all the Pals here, into the forest.” I looked into the dark eyes of the femorc. “If you hold on to this beam, the guards will not come. By moving through the forest we can cover all the teachers without running into mages.”
“Yari, I…”
“Let’s talk about it later, about why and how you were going to turn me in to the mages, ok?” I cut the femorc off. “Now the most important thing is to get you all out of the clearing. If the mages try to follow us the guards will make short work of them. Are you with me?”
“Your own people wanted to betray you?” Dolgunata said with surprise as soon as Logir returned to the clearing and started to explain something to the Paladins, constantly pointing in our direction. “Then why are you helping them?”
“Why did you come back, by the way?” I ignored the druid’s question. “We decided for sure that there wouldn’t be any agreements between us.”
“There won’t be,” the panther agreed, turning into a person. “But you did not tell me all the info on the guiding lines! You wanted to send me to respawn? After I shared food with you?!”
“What?!” Even though I was taken aback by this unexpected accusation I could not allow her to blame me for such nonsense. “I told you everything I knew! Instead of saying thank you and sharing food you made that idiotic test and now you are accusing me?! Are you bloody crazy?”
“Now I am bloody crazy?!” Dolgunata was not holding back. “Fine, then explain why the beam onto which you are holding is a guiding one, and this one is not?” The girl pointed at a piece of steel sticking out from some reinforced concrete. “What’s the difference?”
“What do you mean, what’s the difference?” I frowned. They are different… even the color…”
“Like crap they are different! There is no difference between these two pieces! But for some reason you are holding onto that one! I nearly got killed because of you!”
“Wait…” my anger at the girl suddenly left me. I was shifting my eyes between the two different pieces of metal and became more confused by the minute. In fact, if one were to disregard the color, there was no difference at all between the two pieces of steel: They were the same size, the same shape and even the same length! But still I knew very clearly that the greenish color of the guiding beams meant safety while everything else meant death. Since the guards were, well, on their guard.
“Onto what are supposed to hold here?” I was drawn out of my deep reverie by a booming voice. I focused my eyes and frowned — the Paladin who approached us was a catorian. It immediately brought up an unpleasant memory of Archibald, but I tried to stuff it deep down again. Whoever this Pal was, it was not his fault that Archibald was a jerk.
“We’ll wait for you!” The mages rough laughter was heard from the clearing, and the remaining Paladins showed up following the catorian.
“Hold on to this beam, now!” I ordered them and started towards the forest. “Those who are not touching the beam will be eaten by a guard in ten seconds!”
“Homey!” Monstrichello beamed, as he, totally unembarrassed, wrapped me in a hug. “They told us they wiped you out!”
“Here, here, I am alive!” I extracted myself from the tank’s embrace as Dolgunata snorted, and prepared to move on. “Come on, there is a teacher ahead.
“You think this will save you?” Nartalim snorted contemptuously, but he put his hand on the beam nonetheless. "The mages won’t let you out of the Academy alive.”
“Most important is that they should let you out, pretty boy,” I retorted with open anger. “I suppose Sharda will be glad to hear that one of the Paladins betrayed the order!”
“You’ll never prove anything, you goner! Monster, send him for respawn, will you? If we turn him in to the mages, they won’t bother us!”
“But…” Monstrichello lingered. "But he’s, like, helping us…”
“What helping? This is a trick!”

Case received: Nartalim’s Betrayal (Slots available for: 9 more cases)
Description: Reasons have arisen to suspect that Nartalim, level one Paladin, betrayed the foundations of his class
Task: Investigate the case and deliver your verdict on it
Case investigation: 64%
Period of limitation of action: 3 months

The recently added interface changed, filling with newly received data. The inscription appeared, the status bar filled in, but the starkest change was that above the head of Nartalim, the suspect in the case, a bright yellow number “64” appeared, reflecting either my progress on the case investigation or the extent of the elf’s guilt as the system saw it.
“Monster, I don’t get it – why are you stalling?! Kill him!”

Case investigation: “Nartalim’s Betrayal”: 65%

“Nartalim!” I said, and my voice was full of hatred. If the elf had not tried to dig his heels in, I would have postponed delivering the verdict until the return from the Academy. Probably by then he would have corrected his behavior and realized how wrong he had been; then we would have found a way to resolve the issue peacefully. But since the elf decided to stand in my way, so be it! Case investigation at 65 seemed sufficient for me to make my decision. Even if it were based on emotions for the most part! “I pronounce you guilty of betrayal and attempted murder of a Paladin, and I sentence you to…”
“You sentence me?” Nartalim, laughed interrupting me. “Who the hell are you, to sentence me? Have you gone completely bonkers?”

Please verify your status

If there were not a laughing elf standing in front of me, I would have given more thought to the message that appeared. But the sight of a contemptuous sneer on Nartalim’s lips left me with just one desire – to wipe that smirk off of his face, so I growled through my teeth:
“Who am I? I am a Judge! And I sentence you to be stripped of your initiation and die! You are not worthy of being a Paladin! You are not worthy of graduating from the Academy! This sentence is final and not subject to appeal!”

Status is verified
Verdict is confirmed
Verdict is deemed: harsh
Case No. 1 “Nartalim’s Betrayal” is closed. The task is assigned to the nearest Headhunters
Reward allocated to Headhunter:1 granis

“What the…?!” I heard three surprised voices at once: Nartalim’s, Logir’s and Dolgunata’s, but I was concerned with something else at the moment. The arrow on my virtual speedometer moved to the dark side and “1” appeared over it. I grinned: the Emperor confirmed my verdict as just, but excessively harsh, and changed some parameter towards the dark side. Kindness is not my thing. Following a sudden guess, I opened the properties window and confirmed that I was right: from now on I was “Yaropolk, Paladin of Darkness”.
“Yari: are you raving mad?” Nartalim roared wildly, when for a few seconds mysterious red light flashed around him. “Return it back the way it was! I’ll complain to my dad, he’ll bury you! We paid for the initiation!”
“Yari, I can’t…," Logir whispered, giving me a stunned look. "I am not ready… This is cruel…”
“I’ll do it!” Dolgunata dropped, turning into the panther. Nartalim screamed like a stuck pig, drew his sword and tried to run it through the panther that dashed towards him, but Nata was too quick for an inexperienced swordsman. Claws flashed, we heard a stifled rasp and there was one less player in the Academy. Nartalim could be blotted from memory.
“Down them!” the catorian screamed, attacking Dolgunata. A member of his class had just been killed in front of him, so the offender should not go unpunished. Following his emotions rather than his mind, the catorian made a decision and started acting in accordance with his own understanding of justice. A true Paladin!
“FREEZE!” My shout was probably heard even by the mages at the respawn point, but I couldn’t care less. “Anyone who as much as twitches I’ll wipe out to hell!”
I had no idea what stopped the catorian – my scream, Dolgunata’s scowl or some personal system messages, but he did freeze just a few steps before reaching Nata.
“Listen here!” I continued to roar, pouring out all the rage and anger accumulated over recent events. “Nartalim wanted to turn us all in to the mages. I personally heard his conversation with Dangard who is a leader among them. It’s harsh, but he got what he deserved! There will be no traitors among the Paladins! Now we shall move to a teacher, complete the training with him. If someone is unhappy about something, you are welcome to return to the clearing where the mages are waiting. They will welcome you with open arms. Any questions?”
I looked at the remaining group, frowning. Logir and the lanky Paladin looked down; from Sartal’s appearance it was impossible to understand what he was up to, even though the tip of the lizard’s tail was twitching nervously. Monstrichello was shifting his eyes from one player to another in bewilderment, not knowing what to do and whom he should beat up. The catorian was staring daggers at me. It was only the third of the newly-joined Paladins, who looked like some sort of gnome or maybe leprechaun hell knows who was staring at the landscape vacantly, as if all this had nothing to do with him.
“If there are no questions, let’s move on. Our objective is to reach the teacher.”
“What good would that do?” the catorian said in a forced tone. “Soon our Energy will run out and we’ll respawn anyway.”
“What’s your level?” I turned around but faced six pairs of eyes looking sown. Nobody was in a hurry to share personal information. With a deep sigh, trying to calm down, I clarified: “Guys, if you are at the first level, the training will level you up to two. This will help the non-initiated players survive the respawn. There are no mages at the location of the teacher to whom I am leading you. It’s quite possible that each leveling up fully replenishes Energy. If you want to survive and pass through the Academy, you’ll have to trust me and tell me about yourself a little more than is strictly speaking the norm."
After this statement everyone responded, making me curse thoroughly and with feeling. By now everyone was at level one; all three of the Paladins who joined the team had not passed initiation and had ten units of Energy each. Two hours tops. We needed to hurry.
“Did you not forget something, Judge?” Dolgunata asked as soon as we reached our goal. The Paladins immediately rushed to the teacher, saving themselves from the final death, so for a few minutes Nata and I were left alone.
“Like you’d let anyone forget anything.” I tried to relieve the situation, but the druid’s eyes told me that I had failed. The anger at the elf drained away, and, while we walked towards the hidden teacher in complete silence, I had been turning the situation over and over in my mind trying to justify my verdict. It was confirmed to me that it was fair, but I could not get rid of the thought that my punishment of the elf was excessively cruel. Judging from the looks they cast in my direction, the Paladins thought the same. Not understanding very well how to give Nata her granis, I opened the list of delivered verdicts and highlighted the only line present there at the moment. A button immediately appeared in front of me saying “Complete task”; clicking on it materialized a brown coin in my hand. Granis.
“Your reward.” I handed the coin to the druid. Thank you for accepting my assignment!”
“Was this necessary?” Dolgunata’s eyes turned into two cold splinters of blue ice. “He had a weapon; passing through the Academy with him would have been easier.”
“It was.” I confirmed sadly. “If not now, he would have shown his true self later. And if he had done it during a battle with the mages, we would have all been in deep…”
“The Energy is filling up!” The joyful cry of the lanky Paladin who completed the training cut off my thought.
“I get what you’re saying,” Nata lingered a moment, then took the coin. So: a Judge?”
“So: a Headhunter?” I answered a question with a question. “I would have never thought…”
“That’s the idea,” Nata grinned. “Who would suspect a Headhunter in a lovely maiden? Particularly if she can do this: “nya!” …”
The world became still. Somewhere far away there were the merry shouts of the Paladins who completed their training, but that was completely irrelevant: a creature of divine beauty appeared next to me. I did not dare breathe lest I startle her somehow. The huge blue eyes of the goddess charmed, enthralled and made you forget the whole world. Tilting her head slightly and shifting her feet slightly, as if she were shy and not daring to do something, the goddess looked at me from under her lowered eyelashes, said another magical “nya!” of hers and smiled. Now not only did the world become still; time itself stopped! Losing my cool, I rushed towards the goddess and embraced her, wishing only one thing – to cover her lovely face with kisses. The goddess avoided my embrace deftly, while still allowing me to retain some hope. Once she was bored with the struggle, she grabbed my head, bent to my ear and breathed into it noisily a few times, making my body tremble with languor and longing for delight; then she said:
“You get close to your victim, make it lose its head and surrender to you; then you carefully run a dagger through its eye socket and turn it three times. Once to kill it, twice – for pleasure.” The magic of the moment disappeared in an instant and my awareness returned in a snap, but the druid held my head with a hand of steel, preventing me from moving. How could a delicate girl be so strong? Turning from an unearthly goddess into an ice queen in a split second, she added bloodthirstily: “No armor could save them! That’s how a real Headhunter should be.”
"What was that?!” I exhaled noisily as soon as the druid released my head, and I took a few steps back. "You invaded my brain!”
“Ph! Like I need your brain!” Dolgunata snorted. “You are a Judge; I a Headhunter. You have the right to Judge, I have the right to execute.”
“What you did had little resemblance to punishment for the guilty," I grumbled, looking at the girl in a completely different way. A beauty who was not too hard to get along with, and moving with certainty from the category of an “acquaintance” to “close acquaintance” or even “friend” suddenly showed her true face and put a sign “deadly dangerous!” all over herself. Judging by what happened to me, Dolgunata used some kind of tricky ability the Headhunters had. Devir’s student had been able to suppress Nartalim’s will in a similar manner. Now the druid had just showed me that mental attacks in the game were as real as physical ones. I urgently needed protection from such influence.
“It happens,” Dolgunata shrugged her shoulders calmly, refusing to get further into the topic.
“Since you are a hunter, you must have a mentor.” A close look at the druid activated the Book of Knowledge, bringing up a separate page of everything I knew about the girl. There was abysmally little information, so I decided to clarify the most important part: “Is Devir your mentor?”
“What difference does it make to you?” Dolgunata frowned. “Even if he were, what does it matter?”
“It matters a lot. Devir wants to destroy me. It is on his orders that the mages are wreaking chaos in the Academy. If he is your mentor, I suggest that we part right away. I don’t want to kill you.”
“You haven’t grown yourself a killing tool for that.” Dolgunata thought for a moment, then added: "I have nothing to do with Devir. The rest is not important: you already know way too much about me. We are done with questions: there is little time.” Nata turned to the training Paladins and shouted: “Hey, Pals, are you done?”
Having agreed in advance that the Paladins would ask the hidden teacher to train them in anything they wanted except activation of artifacts and use of interface, we started on to the point where we had appeared in the Academy. The Paladins from my team had never been allowed to train with the first teacher; this lapse needed to be corrected. In additional, I wanted to test the battle worthiness of the team to see if we could fight against the mages.
“There are seven in the clearing,” whispered Teart, whom I had sent scouting a leprechaun Paladin from the world called Karval. Teart was just about the only Paladin in Karval; he even had to look for a mentor in a different world. Paladins were extremely unpopular among the small, red-bearded sly humanoids known in our world from Irish fairy tales. Once you imagined Teart wearing a green hat, it immediately made you want to grab him by the lapels and demand your pot of gold. However, shaking a treasure out of the leprechaun would have to be postponed, because Teart had a truly unique gift in the Academy: like myself, he could see the guiding line. Unfortunately, trying to find out why he could see the right beams did not yield any results: the leprechaun simply did not understand what I wanted from him. The beam was green and that was it, and the fact that others could not see it was their own problem. They needed to open their eyes then.
“There are three more at each pass,” I added, trying to organize the available information, but it wasn’t working out too well for me. I was not a fighter. As soon as I realized that, I immediately tried to transfer the responsibility for making a decision from my poor head on to the entire team. If someone were to be wrong, at least let all of us be that “someone”: “What shall we do?”
“Dat’s no thinking deal!” Monstrichello was in his usual style. “Let’s kill dem freaks!”
“Not so fast, my tank-headed friend,” Logir cooled the bruiser’s urge, which made him drop his gaze and fall silent. The only reason my jaw did not drop was because I was wearing a helmet: Monstrichello submitted to the femorc! Logir put her hand on the giant’s arm and suddenly addressed the druid: “Dolgunata, what would you advise?”
“We shouldn’t come out to the clearing right away: the risk is too high,” the druid started explaining, completely unabashed, as if she had expected to be asked. “The optimal move would be to test ourselves on a small troop, when we would have an opportunity to retreat into the forest right away. One option would be to clear one of the passes.”
“That’s what we’ll do! Yari, lead us to the right pass.” Imperceptibly to the rest, the femorc took the lead in our team. Of course: she is the daughter of a well-known Paladin! It’s not as though anyone protested; on the contrary, no one wanted to assume the responsibility, but the fact itself amused me: while the Paladins trundled from the respawn point to the teacher, no one had any doubts as to who was the leader. The one who saved all the rest was the leader. But as soon as you showed people a visible light at the end of the tunnel at once there would appear alphas, omegas and other letters of the Greek alphabet trying to bend everyone else to their bidding.
I did not bother to fight for the leadership of the team: that wasn't what I needed. It would be impossible to turn me into a prince on a white horse leading his brave warriors forward onto enemy lines. I would prefer to live a quiet and orderly life somewhere in a house in the country, surrounded by beautiful women. Knowing that the mages stood between me and my ideal house from a dream, I decided to follow Logir and her orders until they contradicted my moral principles. Nodding in agreement, I led the team towards a passage away from the clearing. Tough luck for the three mages guarding it: they would be our guinea pigs.
“Monster, you go first.” We stopped a couple of meters above the pass and Logir started to work out the tactics of the impending battle. “Let’s do it the way we did before, but instead of Nartalimа we’ll use the panther… You’re with us, right?” The femorc stopped briefly, as before this moment she had not given any thought to the reasons why on earth the druid should be helping us.
“I am,” Nata grinned, for some reason looking at me. “What will Yari be doing?”
“He doesn’t have any weapons, so nothing.”
“So he won’t get experience points for killing then?”
“Oh, that’s what you are talking about… No, let him stand to the side for now. He is an explorer, not a warrior. So let him explore whatever is around. No need for him to be underfoot down there. Let’s set out!”
The Paladins started climbing down, but Dolgunata still looked at me, not taking any action. I had to nod to her indicating that I agreed with Logir’s decision. Without saying a word Nata followed the others. The hunt for the mages began.
“Hey, what the hell?!” I heard a wild scream from below, followed by electricity cracking, several dull clunks and death rattles. I tried to see what was going on, but a jumble of boulders and beams obscured my view. Thus, all that was left for me was to fidget, waiting for the results of the first foray. There were no Paladins seen. The waiting was becoming unbearable and I started thinking about climbing down when Monstrichello’s booming roar came from the clearing:
"All the way! Mages are bitches!"
Having no idea whatsoever as to what was going on, I rushed along the guiding beams to the edge of the clearing to evaluate the situation and decide whether it was time to panic or everything was going according to plan. I was there at the finale: a group of twenty mages was raining fire and lightning on Monstrichello, who was moving towards them, completely ignoring the chaos wreaked all around him. The rest of the Paladins huddled together right at the entrance to the clearing, making no attempts to come closer to the battle. Monstrichello had come practically up to the mages when they suddenly started falling on the ground one after another, blinking and then disappearing as if they were being sent to respawn. I frowned, trying to understand what was going on; then a sudden insight made the whole puzzle fit together: each time one used an ability it ate up the Energy! Sharda had mentioned it before! The logic of the Paladins’ actions became clear at once: in the Academy the level of Energy governs respawning, Monstrichello is not affected by magic, and the mages had become used to being able to resolve everything with a single lightning bolt; so, it was necessary to deprive the mages of Energy. It wouldn’t matter how many mages come out against Monstrichello: one, two or a hundred! Having become used to the power of magic the players became weak. Good thinking for the Paladins… But they could have warned me: I was worried!
“Regroup!” Logir commanded as soon as the last mage disappeared. Paladins led by the femorc stepped into the clearing, lined up behind Monstrichello in an attack formation and started moving towards the crowd of scared players who had moved to the edge of the clearing to stay out of the way.
“Let us complete training with the teacher!” I heard the voice of one of the players. “Your battle with the mages doesn't have anything to do with us!”
“Consider that it’s not your day!” Logir was adamant. “Onward!”
Today was truly a day for unpleasant discoveries! The Paladins, without a declaration of war and without obvious reasons attacked the players, who only wanted one thing: to train with that damned teacher! Monstrichello’s shield, the Paladins’ weapons and Dolgunata’s claws dealt death right and left, sending players to respawn in droves. My jaw dropped: what were the Paladins doing?! Even the mages did not allow themselves such excesses! Panic broke out, the players were crushing each other trying to get away from the deadly and, apparently, crazy Paladins.
“Everybody stop!” I screamed wildly, climbing down to the clearing along the boulders. It registered in my mind that I had let go of the guiding line and in ten seconds the guards would start hunting me, but in my soul I didn’t give a damn. The Paladins needed to be stopped! Crashing into the clearing as I lost my balance in the end, I jumped to my feet right away and screamed again: “Stop that!”
“Yari?” The Paladins slowed down, obviously not expecting that I would appear.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Without slowing down I ran at the team, still shouting. Perhaps it was a surge of intolerance of injustice that I received, together with my chosen specialty. It was silly, of course, but I couldn’t do anything to stop myself. I did not like what my partners were doing. I simply had to stop all of that. “Did you forget how the mages cornered you at the respawn point? Forgot that feeling when you can only wait for respawn? What makes you better than the mages now? These players are not at fault for wanting to live!”
“Yari, calm down.” Logir tried to reason with me. “We don’t need additional problems…”
“What problems?” That only aggravated me further. “What are you talking about? What can the players do to you, when they are scared to the point of fainting? Interfere with your training? But it only takes a moment!”
“You get experience points for each killed player who is above level one.” Dolgunata came out from behind Monstrichello’s back. The pause enabled most of the players to get away from the clearing; some stayed at the pass waiting for the outcome of the situation. “Experience points mean levels. Levels mean replenished Energy and not going for respawn. Would you be willing to sacrifice yourself or us for the sake of some players you don’t even know?”
“You have all gone raving mad!” I whispered in astonishment, realizing that the Paladins were killing other players on purpose.
“We don’t have time nor desire to sort them,” Dolgunata cut me off. “It is not a threat to initiated level one players; as for non-initiated ones… This is the Academy, people die here sometimes. It’s time for you to get used to it.”
“I’ll add you to the team,” Logir offered. “You’ll get experience points, together with all of us.”

Request received for adding player to team

“No!” I said icily, pressing the “Reject” button.” By killing players in the Academy you are not breaking any game laws or rules. But you are breaking another law, no less important: the law of humanity. Being a player does not mean you have to be a freak. There is no truth in what you are doing…”

Do you wish to initiate a case “Improper Behavior of the Paladins”?

“Yes!” Whatever that means! By killing other players, the Paladins are behaving in a manner unworthy of their class!
“Ok: no is fine.” Logir shrugged her shoulders indifferently. “My task is to finish the Academy with as high a level as possible. You helped us believe in ourselves and showed us the right way to kill the mages. For that I thank you. But I will not let you stand in my way. If you are not with us, you are against us. Farewell, Yari! It’s a pity we couldn’t pass through it together.”

Before I had a chance to do anything or object, Logir’s heavy hammer came down on my head; my consciousness shattered into a million tiny shards, and darkness came over me.


Chapter Five. Studying




“SO HOW LONG are you going to lounge here?” Dolgunata’s scornful voice trickled through the darkness, returning me to reality. Once I opened my eyes, I saw a fascinating view: against the background of the blue sky of the Academy was the tilted dark head of a blue-eyed panther with her tongue lolling out; her whole face showed so much sarcasm that I could not contain myself and grumbled:
“Bugger off, you imp!”
“What, is he, like, alive for real?” I heard Monstrichello asking from somewhere off to the side.
“Of course he is alive, as if that could harm him.” The panther looked off to the right. “Sometimes it’s useful to wear a tin bucket on your head. Saves you from obsessed femorcs.”
“He’s a dead man anyway! Even if it is not I, someone else will destroy him!” There was so much open hatred in Logir’s voice that I was cut to the quick. Ignoring the thunderous bells sounding in my head that started as soon as I tried to lift it, I sat up and glanced around from under my brows. We were in the same clearing with the teacher where the femorc had attacked me. Other than the familiar group of seven players and the teacher the clearing was empty: either the Paladins finished everyone off, or everyone had run away. For some reason I wanted to believe it was the second option. Monstrichello was standing a couple of steps away from me, holding Logir in his huge paws; the other Paladins were standing behind them with guilty looks, staring down. Only the panther was pleased: to the extent that she was just about jumping around impatiently. As soon as I frowned, wondering what was going on, since the panther’s actions were completely outside of the logic of the situation at hand, the messages that appeared in front of me made it clear:

Case initiated: “Improper Behavior of the Paladins” (Slots available for: 9 more cases)
Description: You consider that players Logir, Sartal, Monstrichello, Teart, Refor and Dirion behave in a manner unworthy of the name of Paladin by having initiated a genocide of players of other classes. In addition, with the connivance of the other team members, Logir attempted to send for respawn a comrade in arms.
Task: Investigate this case and deliver a verdict
Case investigation: Not applicable; the case was initiated by the Judge himself
Period of limitation of action: None

The panther was eager to receive her next granis.
“Why?” I asked hoarsely, fighting the headache. The femorc’s hammer blow was really strong. Suppressing an impulse to sentence everyone and everything to life in some kind of forsaken prison with regular cruel respawns, I decided to figure out what was going on. I needed to understand why representatives of my class had turned out to be such villains. It would be useful for life after the Academy.
“Go to hell! Logir practically spat out. “I am not going to explain myself to some scum! If you want to play judge, go right ahead!”
My brows crawled up in bewilderment. Logir, who was an initiated trained Paladin, the daughter of a mentor, a creature that one could readily consider an experienced and reasonable player, was behaving like … I couldn’t even figure out what to call it … some totally messed up freak!
“What happened here?” I asked Dolgunata, understanding that I wouldn’t be able to get any useful information from the femorc. There should be someone who retained at least some sanity.
“Nothing much.” The druid became human, adjusted her hair and shrugged her shoulders. “The great commander showed his true self at the first available opportunity. You shouldn’t have sentenced Nartalim to death.”
“I don’t get it …” I was confused.
“Our red-skinned beauty had fallen head over heels for the long-eared one. From what I understood from the conversations, they were just starting to hit it off when you appeared and sentenced the elf to death.”
“Shut up!” Logir tried to wriggle out of Monstrichello’s grip, but in vain: the thug was holding her tight.
“Did it not seem strange to you that a headhunter refused a granis when a task appeared?” Nata continued, ignoring the femorc’s yells. “A sane, reasonable, logical hunter lost it when the object of her adoration was destroyed. That’s the reason for not wanting to add you to the team for receiving experience, that’s the cause of her anger and her urge to destroy the entire world, and the attempt to kill you as well. I figured out right away what her idea was, so I was able to push you away, and the hammer strike was just a glancing blow rather than a direct one. That’s why you just took a nap rather than going for respawn. Of course, the helmet helped to some extent, too. So, it’s a classic case when emotions overpower reason. You think she ever contemplated what she would do after the Academy with a past like that? Ha! There is a great justification for doing stuff like that: “Well, I am only a girl!” Since you are the Judge, go ahead and judge! That was an assassination attempt on you: things like that should not be left unpunished."
“Why were you killing innocent players together with the Paladins?” Dolgunata’s speech unsettled me so much that I grabbed at every chance to postpone delivering the verdict.
“Do I look like a philanthropist?” the druid snorted. “Logir ordered us to kill everyone, the Paladins followed, why should I drag behind? To lose experience? That’s a mug’s game! I repeat: judge!”
“Don’t push me!” I snubbed the druid. “Until I understand Logir’s motives, there will not be any judging done. A wrong verdict would cost me too much.”
“Is there something still unclear to you?” Dolgunata was surprised. “She wanted to kill you; I prevented her and saved your ass. The reason is simple: you sentenced the elf. What other motives do you need?”
I ignored Nata’s statement and came up close to the femorc. My emotions screamed that Dolgunata was right, I should finish up with the current case and sentence Logir to death and all other Paladins to respawn, or at least fine them, but my logic resisted, calling on my reason and pointing out obvious contradictions. The main one was Logir’s last words before she attacked me: she wanted to send me to respawn not because I had destroyed the elf, but because I was an obstacle in her way to graduating from the Academy!
That could not be right! Something here was not adding up. But what was it?
I found the description of the events that had occurred in the Book of Knowledge on the page “Logir attacking Yaropolk in the Academy”. By the way, by now the Artifact had leveled up to 488 points, filling half of the status bar of its experience. If it continued at this rate, I would have a chance to develop a new attribute or enhance the “Context search” within literally a couple of hours. I had been receiving information as a constant flow; maybe it would be even better that I had not been going through proper training before coming to the Academy.
“How soon are you going to be done?" Dolgunata asked again impatiently, distracting me from studying events. She was so impatient to get some granises! Trying to resist the provocation on the part of the druid, I decided to review the video of the attack. I did need to understand why Logir had gone mad!
"…you get experience points for each killed player who is above level one…”
The Game decided that I needed to see the events not from the moment when Logir attacked, but from Dolgunata’s speech as she was trying to explain the behavior of the Paladins. By the way, there was one more thing I found strange: I would never have thought that someone like Sartal would be so bloodthirsty. While the druid was explaining to me the reasons for genocide of the players, the reptilian and catorian together, bare-handed, were tearing into pieces some short hapless victim in a cloth outfit. Fiddling with the video settings and zooming closer to the Paladins made me frown: I had little understanding of the physiology of other races, but it was enough to understand that both the reptilian and the catorian were not themselves. They were mad. I refocused on Monstrichello’s face and my frown deepened: the bruiser’s eyes were glassed over. He was standing next to us, but didn’t see anything. I looked at the faces of all the team members and realized that only two retained an adequate perception of the world around them: the leprechaun and Dolgunata.
This confused me further. Only two of the team members remained sane; the other five turned into monsters, extremely cruelly destroying innocent players. A sudden idea made me look through the Book of Knowledge, trying to find the video on the Paladins’ appearance in the teacher’s clearing. The video was taken from an inconvenient vantage point, as I had been trying to hold on to the guiding line, but what I saw was enough to determine that the leprechaun did not take part in the battle. Unwillingly, he dragged behind the Paladins, shaking his head sadly; the other members of the group were out of their minds. Dolgunata was really going at it. While the Paladins hung close to Monstrichello, the panther crashed into the thick of the players and dealt chaos, death, panic. Nata’s sharp claws cut the players down in droves, not leaving them a single chance to escape. At the same time the first video had shown that the druid was quite aware of what she was doing, unlike the others…
“You carefully run a dagger through its eye socket and turn it three times. Once to kill it, twice – for pleasure.”
Nata’s words flashed through my mind, making me view the situation differently.
“Monster, why did you guys start killing the players?" I asked the tank who was holding Logir.
“Duh… there weren’t no more o’dem mages, and our guys showed up and it was, like, no stopping…” Monstrichello rumbled.”
“Sartal, why did you start killing?” Understanding that it was hopeless to expect an intelligent answer from the tank, I addressed the reptilian. It had always seemed to me that he was a reasonable player.
“The experience, the levels,” Sartal started, then faltered, fell silent for a little while, then hissed: “They all jus-s-st looked at us-s-s being cut down-s-s and no one would help u-s-ss! If we had joined forces-s-s-s, the mages-s-s would not have done anyth-th-thing to anyone. But they allowed them to kill us-s-s!”
“Teart?” I turned towards the leprechaun, because the reptilian suddenly froze and his eyes glazed over, as if he was remembering all the offences inflicted on him by other players “You did not take part in the battle. Why?”
“Because it’s stupid and unproductive. I hate battles. I tried to get the rest to see reason, but… you can see what came out of it.”
“Are you done?” Dolgunata came up to me, casually putting her hand on my shoulder. “Yari, we don’t have much time. Energy in the Academy does not replenish itself… Deliver the verdict and then the two of us can continue together.
“Fine,” I agreed, thinking in surprise why the thought even occurred to me to try to investigate. Everything was crystal clear: the Paladins are guilty; they need to be judged and punished! Because that’s the wish of…
Of whom? Was it my wish? Or someone else’s?
The desire to make a judgment here and now dissipated. I looked at Dolgunata, who raised a brow quizzically; noted her beauty one more time, squeezed my eyes, gathering my strength, and then said, addressing the skies:
“I need additional information to deliver a verdict! I need a description and examples of use of headhunters’ ability to suppress the will of other beings!”
Dolgunata’s eyes widened in surprise; she was about to start saying something when the long-awaited message appeared before my eyes:

Request is granted. Access to Temple of Knowledge is provided.

“Welcome to the Temple of Knowledge, young Judge,” the old man said, opening his arms in greeting. “Before you study the information, the request for providing which has been granted as justified, please explain the logic of your query. We are interested in your line of thinking.”
“We?”
“First warning, young Judge,” the old man cut me off, smiling. “Two more and you will be banned from the Temple of Knowledge for a year. Why did you decide to learn more about the specialty of headhunters? Is Logir’s betrayal not a sufficiently grave reason for delivering a verdict?”
“I am starting to get the impression that there was no betrayal,” I replied in a dead voice, becoming more and more convinced that my conclusions were right. After all, being a judge is not easy, particularly when a case concerns people who are close to you or have become so. “The Paladins’ actions defied logic. They did not correspond to the psychological pattern of the team that I had observed, so I started to dig. Reviewing the video only confirmed my suspicions: it was as if the Paladins were affected by something that made all their base feelings come out. I recalled the moment when the druid suppressed my mind, leaving only animal lust and passion; therefore I requested additional information. I need to know the capabilities of hunters who suppress other beings’ will.”
“We heard you… a coincidence… Well, that too has a place in our life. Description of the specialty is waiting for you.” The old man pointed to the coffee table, losing interest in me.

Suppressor: specialty, available to players who choose “Headhunter” as their development path. A most popular specialty for Headhunters. Players of this specialty bring out their victims’ basest desires and feelings, enhance them, remove moral and physiological constraints, take control and make the victim perform the actions Headhunters need. Limitations: initial levels require physical contact with the victim; advanced skills enable remote application. It’s impossible to force the victim to perform actions that are not its secret or internal desire. Number of simultaneously controlled beings: unlimited; determined by the level of specialty development. Active suppression of the victim’s will lowers Energy level by 20 units; maintaining control over victim requires 5 Energy units per minute per victim.
Example: Headhunter’s victim hides in safe location. Victim is known to love flowers. Headhunter specializing as “suppressor” places flowers around the victim’s refuge, then influences the victim forcing it to express its love of flowers. Victim without high moral integrity will be forced to leave safety to look for flowers.
Suppression can be avoided by: use of amulets (probability of suppression is determined by amulet strength and suppression level); absence of secret and internal desires; high moral integrity. This is not a magical ability.

“What for?!” I heard Dolgunata’s exclamation of surprise, then she stopped, having met my gaze. The Game returned me to the Academy precisely at the same moment as I was stating my request for information, so the others did not notice my absence. But Dolgunata did. One glance was enough for the druid to understand: I knew everything.
“What are you gonna do, Judge?" the druid smirked, taking a few steps back and quickly chewing an Energy-replenishing patty.
“First – I close the case that I initiated, “Improper Behavior of the Paladins” due to absence of elements of crime in their actions.” I didn’t know from where so much ice appeared in my voice, but right now all the penguins of the Antarctic would have become my avid fans. The smile started fading from the druid’s face and she took two more quick steps back as if apprehensive either of me or of my verdict.
“Second – Monstrichello, let Logir go, she is not guilty.”
“You know where you may go, you and your orders? You are a dead man!” The femorc exploded as soon as she was freed, but it did not stop me. Ignoring the hammer that appeared in Logir’s hands, I came right up to her, put my hand her shoulder and continued in the same arctic voice: “Logir, I understand your attitude towards me. Just like you, I am familiar with the pain of losing someone close. But you are a headhunter! You don’t have the right to allow emotions to govern you. Otherwise the Game will shut you down. No one forced Nartalim to become a traitor that was the choice he made himself. But you have been forced. In order to resist the influence you must accept the loss and let him go. If you want to get back at me for Nartalim, I am at your service, but after the Academy. At this time its not even as though only I need you – the whole team needs you. You’re trying to leave Zagransh; do you really want to be stuck there forever? There’s no such thing as an impulsive Paladin…”
“I…” the moment I mentioned Logir’s homeland, the femorc’s eyes cleared. There was no more fury and hatred in them: on the contrary, there was confusion and worry. Logir was able to overcome the druid’s influence: her secret attraction to Nartalim was no longer secret; strong negative emotions for her former place of residence completed the process of freeing her by pushing the druid out of her mind. Confirming my thought, the femorc whispered: “Yari… I didn’t…”
“Sartal, Monstrichello, Refor and Dirion!” Stopping Logir, I started working on freeing the minds of the remaining Paladins. Thanks to Sartal I knew the secret pain of the team: inaction of the other players. So that’s what I’d have to work with. “I know the feeling of helplessness that you experienced. Sometimes it seems that the whole world is against you, and instead of helping, other players pass you by, pretending thoroughly that they haven’t noticed your pain. You need to overcome this, grow stronger and move on. The Game is cruel. No one will ever come to your aid unless there’s a worthwhile reward for it: get used to it. The only creatures in the game from whom you might receive help for free are your class brothers. But you must be worthy of the name of Paladins! Right now I am only seeing a herd of sheep who have followed the sweet words of the druid and now do her bidding! Wake up! If you want to be players – don’t be like sheep!”
“You’re a sh-sh-sheep yours-s-self!” Sartal grumbled, returning to his normal state. Once again I had ended up having to talk a lot to find the right influence point, but the result was achieved: the druid’s influence dissipated. “We are worth-th-thy Paladins-s-s!
“What the fuck!” rumbled Monstrichello, looking around in amazement. “What, we, like, for real whacked dem all dead? Why in hell?”
“Dolgunata.” Finally, I turned around to the culprit of the whole scene. The druid had recollected herself, and was looking at me with a smirk, awaiting my further actions, but not worried for her life. Neither I nor anyone else from our group would be able to send her to respawn singlehanded, and we were very far from being a united team at this point. I knew that and so did she, so she was simply waiting to see what would happen next. The current situation amused her. “Go away. Just go away. Our ways part from now on.”
“So simply?” the druid asked mockingly, suddenly standing next to me. “Without all of the 'I sentence you to disqualification for life' or wishes of horrid punishments? Will you really let me go, darling?”
The world stopped yet again. The most desirable, wonderful and sweet girl in the word was there right next to me. I needed to love her, kiss her, adore and admire her, not send her away! How did I have the heart to tell her “go away”? Don’t I understand that if we part now I will lose here forever? Just like my mother and sister?
Suddenly the image of smirking Archibald flashed through my mind, and all of Dolgunata’s charm faded. The druid was still just as desirable and attractive, but I had regained my ability to think!
“It seems like I also need to bring to light all my secret desires.” It was hard to talk, my tongue twisted, wanting only to praise the druid, but I was adamant. I needed to go through this! “Dolgunata, I admit that you are attractive, beautiful and desirable. I admit that I wish to an incredible extent to have sex with you. To hold you in my arms and never let go until the end of my life. You are my ideal… But I am not an animal! I will not allow you play on my lust and obscure my mind. You are dangerous. You are ruthless. You are a cripple. Not physically, but morally. You don’t have principles, you don’t have boundaries, for the sake of granises you were ready to frame my entire team… Our ways part here. Good luck in the Academy."
“Amazing the kids have come to their senses, Dolgunata drawled, shifting her gaze from one Paladin to another. I didn’t even need to turn around to be able to say with conviction that Monstrichello was standing right behind me, ready to cover me with the shield at any moment; at my sides there were Logir and Refor with their weapons at ready. The Paladins had united. Each of us would be helpless and weak against the druid on our own, but together we were a force that even she would have to reckon with.

Closing the case “Improper Behavior of the Paladins” is confirmed

“I admit that I went a little too far with the control thing, but no one wanted to attack the players,” Dolgunata smiled affably, spreading her arms. “Why should we lose out on the experience points? We didn’t come to the Academy in order to think of some moral principles. The Game is cruel I shouldnt be the one telling you about it. I agree, I did want to get rid of the femorc. You could see my point here its not often that you work next to a judge who hands out granises left and right. Easy riches blinded me, and I… I am at fault, I can’t deny it, but after all nothing happened! Everyone is alive and well. Moreover…”
Dolgunata spoke beautifully and compellingly. If one were to listen to the druid, it was she who fell prey to the circumstances; moreover, we were the ones who forced her to commit all the wrongdoings of which we were accusing her. But in truth she was the white and fluffy one, poor, innocent and defenseless, even though, for some reason, we failed to see that! I smiled sadly: it would be interesting to see Dolgunata’s suppression level right now. Does she really not need to touch the players for it at this stage? And how many Energy replenishing patties does she actually have?
“Team! Listen to my command!” I shouted, distracting the Paladins from Dolgunata’s charming words. Enough suppressors for us. I still needed to sort it out with Logir – what did she choose as her specialty? I can’t afford a potential hypnotist hang out freely in the team. “Dolgunata is our enemy! Kill her!”
The hammer and the saber came down on the druid’s head at once, as if Logir and Refor had trained together for years to achieve blow synchronicity. Dolgunata only had time to open her eyes wide in surprise; then her body glimmered and winked out of existence, leaving barely trampled grass behind. I turned around and looked at the Paladins.
“Dolgunata will respawn in an hour; she will do everything she can to avenge her respawn. She is a clever and dangerous adversary; compared to her all the local mages are silly toddlers. So! Get going NOW! Rest will wait! Logir, gimme an invite…"
Functionally becoming part of a team didn’t bring me any dividends; in the top right corner a small tab appeared with the Paladins portraits that was it. Clicking on a portrait opened information on the player, but there was nothing that I didn’t already know. Maybe just the levels: killing the players brought Monstrichello to level 5 and the others to 4. With my level 2 I looked like a kid next to them. There was no other information available — nothing on Energy level, age, or specialty. The Game concealed personal information most thoroughly, and only the players themselves had the right to disclose it.
Training to use the artifacts took just a few moments, so once the last Paladin had left the teacher, I commanded, remembering my sergeant from the boot camp:
“Ready? We need to get to the next teacher! Monster first, followed by Logir and Refor I'll take the rear. Onward! On the double! Our sergeant had a hallmark phrase that would have suited the current situation very well: “If you want it done well, do it yourself or hire some Mexicans. There are no Mexicans here, so “On the double!” I needed to finish the Academy at all costs. I wanted to survive. So going under Logir’s rule would be silly and pointless; I remembered where the group ended up under her command. I had no management skills myself; however, I would rather make mistakes and take personal responsibility for my own mistakes than later kick myself for my partners’ mistakes. You end up having to do everything yourself. No one tried to contest my right to command, even Logir. Paladins took off and ran to the next teacher who would train them in using the game interface. But literally a minute later I heard an excited shout from Monstrichello:
“Kill dem freaks! All the Way!”
We ran into some mages.
The procedure for destroying the enemy we had worked out at the previous teacher’s site worked like a charm this time as well. Out of twenty players in dark robes who ran to the clearing from all the nearby passages only three had the brains to control their Energy use: those we had to finish off ourselves. The rest sent themselves to respawn without us having to give them as much as a kick to send them on their way. By the way, the outcome of the battle showed me Dolgunata’s point of view. As soon as the first mage had sent himself to respawn, the system gladly and pleasantly awarded me 200 experience points. Once for each body. 17 retarded overgrown lemmings – that was the kindest name the mages deserved – had lifted me to unprecedented heights: 3rd level, 103 Energy units. Once I saw that I had less than a hundred experience points to attain level 4, I nearly rushed off to strangle the three mages who were, stunned, looking at their hands, at us, and then at the nearest pass. Once we took just one step forward, two players streaked away, howling like mad, apparently deciding that their own skins were worth more than the potential reward. However, not everyone ran off…
Unstoppable as death itself Monstrichello moved towards the remaining mage. Being slow must have been a personal problem of this particular player, and we would be solving it for him now... But as soon as Monster lifted his shield for the final blow, the mage crashed to the ground and broke out bawling, trying to cover his head with his hands:
“Noooo! Don’t! Please don’t! It’s my last life and I am not initiated! Please don’t kill me!”
The kid, selected by the Game as a mage, was seventeen at most. Lanky like our Dirion, with fair hair that was knotted, with bright green eyes filled with primal terror, trying to protect himself with his hands against Monstrichello’s shield, the mage was a pitiful sight. Instead of the necessary anger and hatred, the only feelings he aroused were disgust and fear of touching something nasty. Our thug froze, looming over the whimpering player and looked at me, confused. Despite his limited intelligence, Monstrichello didn’t want to mar his shield with that creature.
“Have you killed any Paladins?” I asked once the thrill of the battle subsided.
“Don’t kill me! Please don’t!” All the young mage was capable of at the moment was to beg and spread spit and snot on his face. This was no way for any constructive dialogue, let alone interrogation.
“Shut up!” Monstrichello got it right: we were not going to kill the kid, so using the old tried and true method he made the mage shut his trap. Or howl from pain, actually: not every player could withstand a kick in the stomach with a steel boot. The blow threw the mage a ways to the side; he whimpered but at least stopped begging for mercy. Perhaps he also understood that we were not going to kill him right away. Or maybe he just went bonkers from fear.
“Guys, get on with the training,” I pointed at the old guy looking into space with a distant air; then I turned around to face the kid, who was now quiet: “Can you talk?”
“Ye-ea-ah…” the creature whined, flattening himself on the ground in some semblance of a bow and making me curse internally. Until now it had seemed to me that there was no way one could fall any lower, but the mage had outdone himself. Now I felt disgusted even to look in his direction. I knew that fear of death sometimes turned some people into something like animals, but still, shouldn’t there be a border below which your pride – or education, or self-respect – wouldn’t let you fall? There must be! But apparently this very mage had nothing of the sort, or else it was so low that I felt nauseated even trying to contemplate it!
“Show me your personal information,” I ordered him, overcoming my disgust; but the mage shook his head, talking a mile a minute:
“I don’t know how to do it! The elders ordered me to stand here and wait till the Paladins appear, and they expressly forbade me to come up to the teacher! They said they would allow me to train with him only after twelve hours following my arrival into the Academy.”
“Stop! Who are the elders?”
“Initiated players and their minions. Not all mages are hunting after you; some were just told as a fact that the Paladins are evil. Those who were chosen by the Game itself, the mages don’t count as part of their circle. Please don’t kill me, please! I don’t want to die!”
The mage became hysterical again, so I nodded to Monstrichello, who administered another mind-clearing kick, sending the player flying. Taking several deep breaths to get more oxygen in my blood and clear my brain, I looked at the sniveling mage and realized with finality: I would not be able to kill him. It’s not an enemy, it’s a piece of crap that one feels disgusted to step into. Let others kill him, or maybe the Game itself. With this approach, even if he goes through the training with this teacher, this kid won’t survive. But it’s his problem anyway.
“How much time do you have till respawn?” I came over to the mage still sprawled on the ground. “If we let you train, you’ll up a level and replenish your Energy. You’ll get another twelve hours of life. But I want to be certain that you won’t betray us and won’t attack at a time convenient for you.”
“Never! I’ll never betray you or attack! I don’t want to kill! I just want to survive! I don’t remember how much time has passed! I only have twelve Energy! How long will that last? Please don’t kill me, I beg you! I have nothing against Paladins, mages, and generally any living creatures! I just want to live!”
“When they gathered you all, did they tell you why the mages should hunt the Paladins?” As soon as my decision about what to do with this kid at my feet formed in my head, I breathed easier. As if a burden had rolled off my shoulders. While the remaining Paladins finished training with the teacher, I started gathering additional information. There’s never too much of that.
“N-no!” The mage’s eyes once again filled with tears. “We were just ordered to kill Paladins at the first opportunity and follow all orders from Dangard and Ahean. They are personal students of one of the mentors.”
“Yari, we’re done.” Teart came up to me. “Did you already train here as well?”
“Not yet,” I looked at the mage one last time before blotting him from my memory for good. “Don’t touch him; he’s a goner anyway.”
“Don’t leave me here!” The kid screamed once it dawned on him that we were not planning to take him with us. “Please don’t chase me away! I beg you! I don’t want to die! Don’t abandon me!”
“Shut the hell up!” roared Monstrichello, sending the mage flying yet again. Crashing on the ground like a broken doll and lying still, the black-robed player, however, did not disappear. Monstrichello had just knocked him out.
“Welcome, recruit, I will now teach you to use the game interface. Stand up and harken to my wisdom!”

Learning progress: You have reached teacher 3 of 10

“I don’t have anything to teach you, young recruit,” the teacher delivered the “good” news to me as soon as the training clearing filled the world around us. “You have excellently figured out, without my help, how to command the game interface; you have learned not only how to open and close windows, but also to bring up properties. The visit to me was simply a formality for you. I am sorry.”
“Oh really?!” I was taken aback clearly not expecting this turn of events. “It’s not possible that there could not be something else that I could learn about the game interface. Hidden buttons that appear only at certain times under specific conditions, properties that are not shown under the standard configuration, an option to adjust the interface for my own needs… There must be something!”
“There is all that you have listed and more,” the old man smiled. “But it’s not part of the Academy study program. Develop your Artifact, add a property to its Interface configuration, and you will attain additional possibilities for control. Including information on them. There are no other ways to learn about it.”
“I see..,” I drawled unhappily. “May I ask a question on an unrelated topic?”
“You may try,” the old man was slow to respond. “If it doesn’t concern your future training, perhaps you’ll get an answer.”
“I think it doesn’t. One of the teachers with whom I trained told me that in case I deliver a correct verdict I will receive a bonus. I did deliver a verdict; it was acknowledged as justified even though harsh, but I didn’t get any bonus from that. The question is – did they lie to me or is there something obvious that I am failing to see?”
“It’s the latter,” the old man’s smile grew wider still. “You were awarded a bonus for the correct verdict, it’s just that you have not had a chance to use it yet. It is quite rare to have a judgment case in the Academy. Normally, even if cases arise here, they are postponed till graduation. But you not only delivered the verdict, you also ensured execution of the sentence as you stated it in the vicinity of a Headhunter. That kind of thing is rare in the Academy; so you were awarded a bonus which you confirmed.
“Status?” I guessed what he was talking about.
“Yes, status. From now on you are a Judge, whether you want it or not.”
“And?..” I was looking at the old man with interest. “What does that give me?”
“What do you think? What is initiation?”
“Confirmation of race or class,” I frowned, as we were now talking of a very sensitive topic for me.
“Not quite. Initiation, first of all, is a confirmation. It does not matter of what. Class. Race. Chosen path for development...”
“So by confirming my status,..” I stood completely still, fearing to voice my thought.
“You became an initiated player,” the teacher confirmed my guess. “Speaking in the players’ terms, your chances to complete the Academy have improved significantly. That was the bonus awarded to you for delivering an impartial verdict.”
“Improved?” I was surprised. “Is there no guarantee that an initiated player will definitely return?”
“In theory, that’s true. One of the Paladins, Nartalim, as far as I recall, believed that as well, it seems to me. Where is he now?”
“He deserved that.” The mere memory of the elf made my chest tighten with anger.
“Did he really?” The old man raised one eyebrow demonstratively. “You delivered a verdict that Nartalim betrayed his class. But tell me, Judge, are you the head of the class? Are you the one to determine what is allowed and what is not for Paladins?”
“No,” I was taken aback at first, but immediately returned to thinking that my decision was right: “My verdict was correct. The Emperor confirmed that.
“No one is arguing that you were right,” the old man shook his head as if he was unable to get through to me. “But you sentenced to death a player who could have been of use to the class in the future. The Paladins have several game worlds that by the standards of your world can only be described as “Hell”. Despite all the horrors, those worlds are very popular: some extremely rare minerals are mined there. You could have sentenced Nartalim to a life in a world like that as a disobedient Paladin. He could have added value even as he was punished. But you decided to cut his life short… No one argues: the verdict was correct. The questions arise with respect to the harshness of the punishment. Did Nartalim deserve that? That’s a good question to which only you would be able to provide an answer.”
“No!” The old man’s words could not breach my attitude to the elf. “Nartalim’s punishment was commensurate to his deeds. Death was the only appropriate punishment. One can get out of Hell.”
That’s why you became a Dark one,” the old man said sadly, sighing heavily. “With this approach it would be hard for you to return to the Light.”
“If the Light is turning the other cheek when anyone slaps you on the right one, then I choose Darkness. Evil must be punished; any slack would only make it stronger. This should not be allowed!”
“It will be hard for you in your world with this approach to judgment. There is nothing else I can teach you. Farewell, Paladin…”
“Onward!” I commanded hoarsely as soon as the space around me turned into a clearing in the midst of reinforced concrete jungle. Despite attaining level 4, talking to the teacher left its mark: my mood was totally ruined, even though I was still convinced that I had been right: Nartalim had not deserved any other sentence.
“What shall we do with the mage?” Logir asked for instructions.
“Drag him to the teacher and wake him up. Let’s give the kid a chance, let him learn. If we meet him later in battle, we can kill him, but no need to finish him off now. We are not mages.”
We reached the next teacher without having to fight. No one attacked us, no one set up ambushes or other traps. As if all at once the mages in the Academy had decided that their plan to destroy the Paladins had failed and it would be better not to mess with us. But I had a more likely version of events: the two mages who had managed to get away had warned the others of our tactics, and the mages had decided to give us one teacher while they developed some more sophisticated ways to battle us. I couldn’t believe that they would just let us go like that.
The clearing with the teacher was overflowing with players of different classes, but at first glance there were no mages nor Paladins among them. As we approached, we could hear the hum of an overcrowded space, but as soon as we stepped into the clearing, everything became quiet. The players tensed, not knowing what to expect of the newly emerged team. Imperceptibly and sort of instantly an open space formed between us and the teacher. They were letting us through, preferring not to mess with us; however, we were in no hurry to run headlong towards the teacher. The mages had taught us to be careful. The barely audible voice of the teacher floated from the other side of the clearing:
“Welcome, recruit, I will teach you the attack capabilities of your class …”
“There are about a hundred players here,” Logir whispered. “This teacher trains recruits in attack capabilities. If they attack us they’d crush us without bothering to ask what our name was.”
“I agree.” I was in complete agreement with the femorc’s opinion. “Going in directly is dangerous. Let’s retreat. We’ll get to the teacher through the forest. We’ll come out behind him, and then train. It’s always better to have a safe space behind your back.”
“We’d lose time…” Refor started, but I cut the catorian off:
“It’s better to lose half an hour than to run into a respawn. Does anyone here know the class outfits? Who are the players here?
“Hunters, druids, rogues, warlocks, necromancers, warriors,” Logir started listing. “I’m sure there are more, but I can’t see from here.”
“Retreat! We’ll move through the forest. I don’t really trust anyone other than our class. By the way, that’s one more reason we have to go around: does anyone see any Paladins? So there... Teart, look for the guiding beam…”
Half an hour later I cursed heartily for what seemed like a hundredth time, in my mind remembering unkindly myself, my own decision, and the players who crowded the clearing with the teacher. The guiding line was so winding and sometimes was so high above the ground that time streamed like sand through our fingers. There were a few times when I wanted to abandon it all and return to the clearing. At those moments the precaution seemed excessive; however, I squashed those defeatist thoughts at once and pointed out the new correct beam to the group. Dolgunata had shown me that not only mages were worthy of respect in the Academy; that meant that among a hundred players there’d be at least one ringleader, and then a massive melee would begin.
“Yari, come here!” I heard Teart’s surprised voice from somewhere to the side. Since he, like I, had the ability to see the right way, the leprechaun was moving on the outside of the team, studying the area around. Following the interface use training, I made everyone turn on their video recording so that after they returned to the normal world we would have more comprehensive information about the Academy. Maybe now the Temple of Knowledge was capable of providing any player with any available information about the Game, but it was much more efficient to train the minions when you had a manual on hand, rather than in some other piece of virtual space. So that was exactly the manual I was going to prepare. One has to cover one's living expenses after all.
“What’ve you got?” It took me a few minutes to figure out, using the map, where Teart was, and then reach him holding on to the beams.
“I've got some weird shit here,” the leprechaun mumbled in bewilderment, pointing at a small pile that looked as if it were post-construction trash.”This crap keeps coming back.”
“What keeps coming back?” I wasn’t sure I understood Teart. “The trash?”
“Don’t look at the trash,” the leprechaun said curtly, irritated. “Look at what’s underneath!”
Under Teart’s unfaltering stare I moved the pile of trash with my foot, but still found nothing. I looked at the Paladin in bewilderment, but he was just making impatient gestures to demand that I should keep moving the trash. I cursed the one hundredth and first time, set my foot on the guiding beam to ensure that I would avoid issues with the guards, then shoved the entire pile aside. If Teart was sure there was something under it … What was that?
Under the trash there was a small rectangular inscription with text written in a language I did not know. The text had a caption, or at least it would be logical to suppose that the few words at the top of the rest of the text served as a caption for whatever was concealed by the unknown symbols. Part of the text was written in bolder font than the rest, as if someone wanted to attract attention to its most important parts.
“What do you think this is?”
“Well, it’s some kind of shit all right.” I agreed with the leprechaun’s initial assessment. “How did you find it?”
“Well…,” Teart was hesitant, so I had to press him:
“If you have some information regarding the Academy, we all need it to survive!”
“No, I have nothing,” the leprechaun finally ventured. “It’s just that I was going to become a Searcher, so I, like, prowl around everywhere.
“A Searcher?” I frowned. “Did you mean to say, an Explorer of the world?”
“No. As the teacher told me, a Searcher is someone who discovers new worlds, new knowledge, and such like. A Searcher is something that fits my soul. Searching for treasures, troves, secret shelters… I am a leprechaun, it’s our fate to look for treasures.”
“So the pot of gold is not a myth?” I grinned, but as Teart’s face tensed I figured that I had hit on a topic that was sensitive for him. “Never mind. So, you found a pile of trash, and it seemed suspicious to you, so you disturbed it and found this inscription?”
“Not this one,” leprechaun exhaled with relief, seeing the conversation had moved away from his pot of gold. What a naïve one! I would need to get him talking and figure out what in those fairy tales is truth and what is fiction. But that will come later. “This is already the third pile, and under each of them there were their own inscriptions. I can tell right away that they are different. The principle is the same: header and then text, parts of which were highlighted, but the symbols were different.
“Did you photograph the previous inscriptions?”
“I recorded them on video, just as you advised. Wait, I’ll give the record to you,” the leprechaun’s eyes glazed over as he started to fiddle with the internal settings.”
“In the Academy you can’t…,” I started saying, but a system message that appeared in front of me demonstrated that I was completely ignorant of all the subtleties of the Game:

Player Teart is offering you a trade. Accept?

“It works!” The leprechaun rejoiced. Information exchange in my current world was set up in the manner classic for all computer games: a panel divided into two halves, with several buttons. As soon as an icon for video file appeared on Teart’s side, one of the buttons on my side became active: “Accept”. As soon as I pressed it, the Book of Knowledge beeped, signaling receipt of new portion of information. So it seems that exchange of material objects that one can hold in one's hand is performed in the normal way for the real world: from hand to hand; and exchange of intangible items such as video, through a separate set of functions. That’s convenient! But immediately it brings about other questions – why is downloading information from the Book of Knowledge for other players only available at level 15 of the “Context search” attribute? Can I not simply download it in a way similar to what Teart did? By the way, what did he do?
“The teacher showed how to download the video,” leprechaun explained as soon as I peppered him with questions. “I knew you were an Explorer; I wanted to do something nice for you. There is a problem, however; I can’t upload someone else’s videos, and downloading my own only works for events that have occurred during the past 24 hours. After that the Game transfers them somewhere into remote backups, and downloading to other players becomes impossible. Did you receive everything?”
“It seems so,” I found the right notes in the Book and compared the three pictures. They were in fact different as if someone was using the same principle to describe various objects, phenomena or rules… RECIPES! I felt as though hit by lightning: these must have been recipes for professions!
“But this is wonderful!” the leprechaun said gladly, as soon as I shared my guess. He even started rubbing his hands, anticipating some loot. “If we get out of the Academy, what if it turns out that there is something worthwhile among those recipes? Now, in the beginning, they are quite likely to be commonly accessible, but the deeper we advance…”
“Partnership? I proposed immediately. “You will travel around the forest, working on the path for development that you selected; we’ll be at the bottom organizing access to the teachers. Once we finish the Academy, we’ll share equally all the profits from the recipes.”
“This doesn’t seem to be a very equal partnership.” Teart grinned. “I’d be working, risking an encounter with the guards, while you’d be strolling down there along convenient passages, and then we share the profits half and half? 90:10, in my view, would be the best proportion.”
“Why do you say it’s not equal?” I was actually thinking that leprechaun was right: at this stage of negotiations my position looked extremely weak. But I did have something to offer him! “In exchange I could share some information. For example, how to obtain initiation within the Academy. Interested?”
Judging by how round the leprechaun’s eyes became, he was more than simply interested.
“I would like to point out right away,” I continued, to make sure there were no unnecessary questions, “that I was going to tell this to you, Refor and Dirion in any case. You are not initiated. I learnt this from the previous teacher, and there never seemed to have been a chance to talk. Once we are done with the upcoming teacher and find a decent site, I’ll tell you the ropes then.
“Em… Then I don’t understand the point of your offer.”
“That’s what I’m saying: I’ll share information with you. Various bits of information, not just about initiation. Besides, you need a device to record the recipes you find. You have mentioned yourself that after 24 hours the video is transferred into some long-term storage and it is not clear whether it’s possible to call it up from there or not. Downloading information is one of the properties of my artifact, so there’ll be no problem with that.”
“80:20,” the stubborn leprechaun wasn’t going to give up.” What will I do with information about the Academy in the general world?”
This red-bearded one was no fool!
“Not just about the Academy. For example, do you know how to gain access to the Temple of Knowledge? Since you are a Searcher, this information would be useful for you.
Before they finish the Academy recruits cannot enter …,” Teart started, but faltered, seeing my smile.
“Three times!” I announced, anticipating his question. "Of which one time was already in the Academy, before I chased away Dolgunata. I understood the principle based on which you would be let in there. I could share it. This has nothing to do with class that was my own research. Interested?
“Damn you! 70:30! Yari, you are doing exactly nothing to obtain the recipes! I have to do it all, you are just acting as a storage facility! Have you no shame?!”
“Fine, 70:30.” I agreed to the leprechaun’s conditions. “Then let’s agree that it will apply to everything that you find in the Academy and offer for sale. Recipes, symbols, pictures and other trash. Agreed?”
“Are you sure you’re a Judge?” Teart looked at me with interest as soon as the Game confirmed our agreement. We did not even have to say any extra words: saying “I agree” by both parties generated a line in the book stating the conditions of the deal. Something suggested to me that breaking this agreement would not be a beneficial thing to do altogether. The Game would not forget it. Even though if fact it couldn’t care less. It would be more correct to say that the Judge would not forgive it. Particularly such an interested Judge as myself.
“It’s just that you seem so much like a profiteer! Just like my uncle … Oh, what the heck is this now?”
“What are you talking about now?” I frowned, since the leprechaun’s eyes suddenly glazed over.
“It’s offering to me that I should confirm some kind of status, I have no clue what that is and what I am supposed to confirm," Teart said, confused and surprised.” Do you know what it’s talking about?”
“Freeze!” I ordered, forcing myself to breathe calmly. “Don’t click on anything and listen carefully!”
It took me a few minutes to describe to the leprechaun in detail the principle for turning into an initiated player. It turned out that Teart had selected trade as his specialty. In his own world that was pretty much the only thing everyone did, so it would be silly to expect a different specialty from a treasure-hunter. Our bargaining triggered the initiation process, and as soon as the Game determined that Teart had achieved conditions beneficial for himself, suggested that he confirm his trader status. Which is what the leprechaun joyfully did.
“What took you so long? Where’s the leprechaun?” Logir started questioning as soon as I came back to the group. Teart set off looking for more trash piles.
“He is fine. Guys, we are going to take an unplanned break. It’s time we have a talk and get to know each other better.”
“It can’t be done after the training session?” Logir growled impatiently. “You’ve said yourself that the mages will become used to our tactics and then it will be harder to survive. It wouldn’t matter to Monster, Sartal or myself well make it somehow but the four of you would be as good as dead.
“The two of us, by now,” I quipped and could not suppress a smile, seeing their long faces “Teart and I have become initiated players. That’s why we need to take a break here and now. It’s time to protect ourselves.”
Skinny silent Dirion, who tried to be quiet as a lamb, had chosen a breastplate as an artifact; the first property he added was additional protection against magic. Dirion came from a world called Viels, where humans were an extremely unpopular race. Viels was ruled by elves. Dirion learnt about the Game only when an elf Paladin showed up at his door and literally dragged him off for training, killing all his family in passing. He was trained by the book, and so back at the Citadel Dirion had decided to become a keeper working at the library. Knowledge in and of itself did not interest Dirion; he was attracted to the quiet and regular life within the library behind the Citadel walls. As a specialty the teacher had suggested “Librarian”, so Dirion gladly agreed. That was a rare coincidence of the specialty and chosen path for development.
Sartal, a reptilian, came from the world named Versal. Sartal’s father was one of the Paladins’ minions, but had never made it to the full initiation to become a player. Sartal was luckier: the Paladins killed an Assassin, and that enabled them to turn a minion into a player. Sartal’s father was the lucky one, but he transferred the privilege to his son. Sartal completed full training for a minion, choosing being a fighter as his path of development. There were skirmishes between classes pretty much continuously; the fighters would be the ones to end up in the front lines first. To Sartal it seemed interesting, exciting and agitating; he even chose the specialty to fit: melee fighter. Now, that he had seen death and horrors firsthand, the erstwhile confidence of his choice had faded.
The homeland for Refor, who was a catorian, was a desert inhospitable world called Bubastis. After saying the name of the world Refor stared quizzically at me and Monstrichello, as if the name was supposed to tell us something; however, the dumb expression plainly revealed on our faces saddened the catorian. As it turned out, Bubastis was a city in ancient Egypt; it had been named after the felines. Catorians had set up pretty decent relations with the ancient Egyptians and even ruled them for a while. Bast, who was the goddess of joy, merriment and love, female beauty, fertility and the hearth, and was depicted as a cat or woman with a feline head, was no more than an ordinary catorian player. After yet another war between the players, catorians cut off all relations with Earth; therefore the locals only remembered them as gods. As for Refor himself, in his own tribe he had been a long-lived respected old man. Having survived all his wives and even children, the catorian had been doing to die in peace, when he was suddenly selected by the Game as a Paladin. As he had been involved in wine-making his entire life, Refor planned to not give up his favorite occupation in the Game; hence, he had chosen crafts as the path of development. He had not received a specialty yet: at the hidden teacher’s location he trained in defensive capabilities; however, he was planning to take something that would have to do with production. The catorian’s artifact was a saber, because in the catorian’s opinion a cutting weapon was the most suitable for cutting back vines. And in addition it turned out to be useful in the Academy as well.
As for Logir, everything turned out to be not as simple as I had thought at first. The femorc had been sent off to the Academy as a headhunter, but the more familiar she became with her future occupation, the less she was enthralled with it. Killing players because the Game desired it turned out to be an unbearable burden for Logir; that was confirmed by the situation with Nartalim. Headhunters were not supposed to have attachments. The Game would always force you to choose between your feelings and your duty; the femorc failed that test. Despite her race, Logir since childhood had been enchanted with elves, who were, in essence, blood enemies of her race. At Zagransh, which was the femorc’s home world, there were no living elves any more even among the NPCs; for that reason meeting Nartalim was a joy for the girl. Then when the elf began to allow her to admire him, showing more attention to Logir than to others, the girl completely lost her head. But then I came and ruined everything… In her mind Logir understood that it would never have worked out between Nartalim and herself, but at the bottom of her heart she was still mad at me. A headhunter was not supposed to feel those emotions, so Logir was confused and couldn’t figure out her place within the Game. She didn’t even select a specialty after training in the general principles of the Game. It looked like I’d have to talk to her again this time one on one without unwanted ears around.
As for Monstrichello, I knew much more about him than he did himself, except perhaps his specialty and artifact properties. Here Monster surprised me by how well-thought-out his choice was. As he was immune to all magic, Monstrichello added to his shield additional protection against non-magical damage: poison, cold and inertia. As for his specialty, Monstrichello became a crusader, a Paladin without fear and beyond reproach, who hurries to help the dispossessed and those who have lost the roof over their heads. According to the pleased wardrobe-boy, this specialty fit like no other with his desire to be a tank.
Then it was my turn to tell the team about myself, Teart and the method of achieving initiation. Dirion and Refor listened practically glued to the spot: an ephemeral chance to pass through the Academy and leave with the team was turning into a real possibility to stay alive and unscathed right before their eyes. That immediately brought up the question of how to make the game inquire about the status of these two, but I already had an answer to that. Dirion wanted to become a Librarian and Refor a Craftsman. So what would fit really well for both? The players frowned, not understanding where I was going with that, so I had to tell them about the recipes and my agreement with Teart. One player could keep the recipes, and the other study them.
We had to take another break and lead the group to the recipe found by Teart.
“Oh! What are you doing here?” the leprechaun exclaimed in surprise as he literally fell on top of us, but then stopped, seeing funny faces of the Paladins shining with joy, and asked excitedly: “Did it work for them too? We’ll all return home?!”
In response there were joyful screams, hugs, thanks, assurances of eternal friendship and other corny stuff that eats up time worse than computer games. Only Dirion was able to receive initiation, since Refor had not yet selected a specialty, but at least we understood the algorithm for making a true player out of the catorian. We just needed to find a teacher who would teach him his specialty. As a result, by the time we reached the teacher of attack capabilities, all the players we had killed earlier, as well as the mages and Dolgunata, should have respawned already. I needed no crystal ball to state with certainty that the only thing they would want was righteous revenge. So we needed to be careful.
“Damn that!” Monstrichello whispered, surveying the clearing from the height of four meters. “What, dey're gonna kill us for real? Damn bastards!”
The clearing was still crowded with players. The Book of Knowledge obligingly pointed out that these were the same players who had been here an hour ago. Only now there were mages among them, interrogating those present. We could not hear every word, but the overall concept was clear: the mages, using the universally understood curse language, expressed interest as to why the players had not attacked us immediately once we appeared in the pass. Because that’s precisely what their arrangement had been!
“Beautiful picture, isn’t it?” A voice came from behind us, that I had both dreamed of and dreaded hearing.
I had known that Dolgunata would find us sooner or later, but hadn't counted on it happening so fast. Were we really so predictable?
“If I were to just push you down into the clearing, the player named Yaropolk would be blotted out of the Game forever. You owe me, Paladin! And I came to recover my debt!”
“You have problems with seeing reality?” I quipped, taking a few steps towards Monstrichello. In case a skirmish started he would cover me. “If anyone here owes something to someone, then you owe me.”
“What do you think will happen if half of you were to be sent to a respawn point?” Dolgunata was obviously in the mood for only hearing herself. The panther’s tail whipped her sides angrily, her claws were out, and the entire appearance of the dark cat indicated that she was ready to attack us at any moment. Dangerous, scary, and crazy — I was not sure that we’d be able to contain her. Last time the surprise factor had worked in our favor, while now we were completely within the druid’s power. “Half of you will survive, you’re too hard to kill but still I’d be able to take a few with me. I am not afraid of respawn. While you’re together, you’re strong, but as soon as you become separated the fairy tale called “Paladins” will be over. Shall we dance?”
“Monster, catch her on your shield!” Understanding that it was pointless to talk any further, I started organizing people. Instead of cutting us down one by one, the druid wanted to talk and show how tough she was. Too bad for her! We weren’t sons of blanks either! “Logir on the right, Refor on the left, the rest get behind the tank. Want to dance?” I addressed the last question to the druid. “No problem. Ladies’ choice dance, the ladies invite the gentlemen!”
No lightning rod would have been able to stop the black lightning that rushed towards us. Dolgunata’s leap was so powerful and fast, that Monstrichello, Logir and Refor flew in different directions like bowling pins. I wanted to yell to the thrown players “Quick, to the beam!” but Dolgunata flew through the air and with all her mass – which was significant – crashed into me, toppling me to the ground, knocking the wind out of me, and then plopped on top of me with her full weight. The panther must have weighed a couple of hundred kilos, so I could neither move nor even breathe!
“Just try to move – and he’ll die!” Dolgunata roared.
“He’s initiated, stupid!” Logir returned and that calmed me down somewhat. The players were able to get on their feet and return to the lifeline beam within ten seconds. At least the guards weren’t going to show up.
“It’s impossible to pass initiation within the Academy!” Dolgunata snorted. “What he mistook for initiation was no more than confirmation of specialty and path for development. As soon as Yari is dropped to level 1, the Game will offer him a choice: either lose confirmation and respawn once more, or die forever with his head proudly raised, clutching his development path. The result will be the same: the mages will wait for him to respawn and then kill him. What you think no one has ever before thought that it would be possible to pass initiation within the Academy? You think you’re unique? If it were so simple, at least half of the thirty thousand players would’ve come back to the main world. So stand still and be quiet, and I’ll do the talking.”
“You’re already talking,” I rasped, by some miracle drawing a bit of air. There was not much discomfort from not breathing, thanks to the Game; however, the mechanics of making sounds stayed the same: it required air. Which I didn’t have.
“You can’t imagine, Yari, what pleasure it would be to gouge out your eyes,” the panther growled bloodthirstily, her claw screeching on my armor. “But you owe me, so first I’ll collect my debt!”
“I owe you nothing!” I rasped with the last bits of air, but then was crushed to the beam with finality.
“Listen to me carefully,” Dolgunata addressed the Paladins. “The mages issued an ultimatum to practically all the players: either they or the Paladins. It’s not hard to guess what everyone chose: you have seen that at the clearing. Now each teacher’s location as well as each respawn point is controlled not only by mages, but by ordinary players, too. Everyone wants experience and granises. Yes, for your heads the mages promised a reward of whole granises! That’s why I am here. That’s not a good idea, Logir. I will still have enough time to kill him.
“What do you want?” the femorc asked.
“To receive my due.”
“I don’t understand you …”
“Yari promised me a granis if I help you all to complete the Academy. I want to receive it.”
“What in hell do you think you are?” I thought that I had run out of air, however, the druid’s claim must have forced me to locate some extra reserves and express my resentment.
“Don’t you dare move!” The druid shuffled on top of me, finding a more comfortable position. “I am not done yet … What the…! Meow!”
It was not comfortable, lying underneath the panther’s huge body. Knowing very well that I had no weapons, Dolgunata did not bother to restrain my hands believing that I would not be able to do any harm or damage. On the one hand she was right; on the other, the panther had such a cute, furry and soft belly which had, contrary to all rules of feline anatomy, just two nipples, that I could not but pet it. My hands sank in the warm soft fur of her belly, and my palms covered the delicate nipples, one in each hand. Perhaps I am a pervert, but I really liked petting the druid’s belly; however, the pleasure was not mutual. Dolgunata soared into the air, having pushed off with all four paws and her tail to boot. The entire area must have shuddered from a wild and indignant scream, and then the panther’s huge body crashed back down. Only now she had protracted her long claws as she landed right in the middle of my chest. A brief flash of pain was replaced with the soft lull of the dark that yanked me out of the claws of the enraged cat. The last thing I remembered was the druid’s attempts to shred me into small bits. Apparently, the girl didn’t like my caresses. Could she be frigid?

You were killed and sent to a respawn point
You lost one level
Your current level: 3

“Dirion, grab him and drag him off! Yari, come on, wake up! Don’t be so slow!” Logir’s voice tore the blanket of darkness, yanking me from a state of complete calmness. Feeling that I was being pushed to the ground and dragged somewhere, I tried to protest. Couldn't they see I was enjoying it? Why tilt and roll me so? However, as soon as I opened my eyes, consciousness returned in a snap, accompanied by yet another system message:

You receive +100 Experience

“Monster, retreat!” I heard the next command from Logir. Dirion, grumbling something highly obscene under his breath, was dragging me towards the forest from where Teart was waving at him. From the other side of the respawn clearing I could hear elaborate cursing, the rattle of metal and players screaming; so I pushed my hands off the ground, jumped to my feet and took a look around to take a final assessment of the situation. Chaos reigned at the only entrance to the respawn clearing. Having learnt to use their attack capabilities, players of all classes were pushing forward, trying to enter the clearing and kill the Paladins who had forgotten their place. However, they were impeded by an insurmountable mountain – a two-meter giant with a shield. Standing in the center of a huge ball of fire, lightning, ice and who knows what else, Monstrichello actively wielded his artifact as if it were a club, toppling the players who attacked him. At the sides of our tank, it was a familiar sight by now to see Logir and Refor, shearing a level off the dropping players, but behind them… Dolgunata was standing behind Monstrichello, waiting for an opportune moment; after she found one, she jumped over the tank’s shield into the thick of the players and turned into a whirlwind. After just a few seconds the druid went back, accompanied by information on receiving new experience, only to repeat her leap a moment later. Experience points flowed like a river, but the crush of the players wanting to kill us never thinned. Everyone wanted those damn granises.
“I’ll be fine from here! Run to Teart!” I told Dirion who was still trying to get me to the concrete forest; then I turned to the femorc and shouted: “Logir, I’m fine! Get out!”
Dolgunata was the first to run by me, giving me a very telling look. As I didn’t want to end up in the forefront, I ran after the panther, and then, from the edge of the forest, I watched how properly and carefully the Paladins retreated, making sure to keep their backs to the forest at all times.
“Retreat! We need to get out, guys!” Teart commanded, pointing out the guiding beam to Dolgunata and Dirion. Players rushed into the clearing; some of them were still crowding the Paladins, while some rushed towards us, hoping to get rid of us in a hurry. I frowned: did the mages scare everyone so much that they just turned into such a herd? Once I climbed a few meters up, there were wild screams of horror and pain filling the surroundings. The players ran into the forest for more than ten seconds, immediately attracting the guards. We didn't need to fear a chase from that quarter.
“Yari, pleas-s-se try not to attack her at onc-c-ce,” Sartal warned me as soon as I climbed up. Dolgunata in her panther shape was sitting, looking aloof and studying her paws, as if it were not she who had sent me to respawn barely an hour ago. “First we need to make sure we get Logir here. She’ll explain it all to you.”
“Explain what?” I was taken aback. Does Logir really know why in hell this mad cat was trying to frame us all? She killed me!”
“My dearie,” Dolgunata deigned to talk to me, displaying a scowl of huge sharp teeth. “After what you did, as a decent Paladin, you only had two options: either take me as a wife or die. Let’s consider that I made the choice for you. I’ll tell you here and now – you do something like that again and nothing will save you. I’ll bury you alive!”
“I am not your dearie,” anger at the druid demanded an outlet, so I attacked her with reproaches. “You call me that again, I’ll bury you myself! Now…”
“Guys, why don’t you settle it between you two after we get the others out of there, Teart interrupted us. “I’m not sure that Monstrichello’s immortal. You’ll figure it out with the druid later…”
The operation for the safe extraction of Monstrichello, Logir and Refor took us most of an hour. For most of that time we were looking for a place where the guiding beam would come as close to the clearing as possible while not being the only beam in the area. It was clear to everyone: the players would rush after us into the forest and see the Paladins grab onto a beam. It was pointless to hope that mass madness would overcome each and every player; someone was certain to connect the dots and also grab the beam. We needed to make sure that their beam would be the wrong one.
We were able to accomplish what we intended, even though in the process we nearly lost Sartal, who was not careful, poked out from behind cover, and was hit by a lightning straight in the chest. However, either the charge was weak or the reptilian’s artifact had upgraded to such a level that it fully absorbed the hit. Sartal got off easy with just a burnt spot on his armor and an angry shout from Logir, who ordered the reptilian not to stick his tail where he shouldn’t. Once the guards came to our aid by killing players one after another, it became clear: we were able to get away.
“Now that we are relatively safe, maybe you’ll tell me what’s going on!” I turned towards the team as soon as we put some distance between ourselves and the respawn point. Nodding towards Dolgunata, I added: “Why is she alive and with us?”
“I’d be interested to know that as well,” said Teart, stepping up next to me. “Why were we supposed to risk ourselves? I admit, it was very nice to reach level five, but was it worth killing Yari?”
“You don’t know what’s going on either?” I was surprised.
“I do wish! I came to the meeting point and saw everyone discussing the major plan for saving you. But why you needed to be saved was about as clear as mud. You’d demonstrated that you were a sensible being and were unlikely to get yourself into so much trouble that you couldn't get out of it. Hence, you died in some kind of a weird way. But no one said what happened. From snippets of conversation I figured out it was the druid that put you under. But for what, how and why no one would say. And I’m curious!”
“We have an agreement.” After a noticeable pause, Logir took on the brunt of it. “We’re helping each other to pass through the Academy.”
“Congratulations,” I said testily, “but this doesn’t answer a single question I asked.
“We… it’s a condition of the agreement...” Logir said uncertainly, when Dolgunata came to her aid:
“According to the conditions of the agreement they can’t tell you anything, or else the Game’ll wipe them out. Either we all continue together, or else no one goes anywhere. I will not allow anything else.
“Even so? What are you going to do, kill us?”
“If I have to, yes.” Dolgunata showed no emotions at all, as if she never doubted her superiority. “I’ll keep sending you for respawn time after time until we reach agreement. We’ll keep going together.”
“Logir?” I looked at the femorc in confusion. Even despite her red skin I could see the blush of embarrassment. As if the femorc found the druid’s words unpleasant but could do nothing about it. I shifted my eyes to the rest: “Guys, what’s up with you?”
“Don’t look at me, I’ve got nothing to do with this,” the leprechaun responded in a voice as bewildered as mine.
“You have no choice.” Dolgunata continued with her line. “Without me you’ve no chance of surviving. You know nothing about the Academy. You think the forest is the main obstacle?”
“As if you’ve got any more information,” I quipped, trying to figure out what to do. The druid, using the right of strength, was trying to play boss, and six Paladins had to put up with that. Personally, I was unhappy with that approach.
“The territory of the Academy is a regular rectangle with spawn points for players in each corner. Along the perimeter of the Academy there is a two-kilometer reinforced concrete forest with passages, and five teachers in the vicinity of each corner. Then there is a wasteland followed by a desert; in the center of it there is a lake; in that there is an island where the head of the Academy is located. Between the forest and the wasteland there’s a labyrinth with traps; it’s only possible to pass through that as a group. I know how to avoid some of the traps. The rest we’ll explore once we get there. This is just a small part of what I know about the Academy. If we agree on the temporary truce, I’ll tell you everything I know.
“Temporary truce?” I frowned.
“For the duration of our stay in the Academy. As soon as we return to the main world, I’ll destroy you. I’ll tear you to pieces for what you’ve done! But for now we need each other. Or, actually, I need you, and if you don’t need me it’s your personal problem. The next time we’ll pull you off the respawn grounds after you die two or three times, to make you more agreeable. You don’t have a choice, Yaropolk. By the way, neither do you, Teart stop hiding behind Yari’s back thinking you can get away. I am faster anyway.”
“So you want to share information about the Academy?” I laughed in the druid’s face. “You want to buy us for data that’s completely useless in the main world? I’d thought you were a sane player.”
I tried to keep independent and calm, while working on analyzing the situation in something like supercomputer mode. What was going on? Why did Dolgunata behave as if she were fully in control of the situation? Why was it that the Dolgunata whom I had met in the very beginning and the Dolgunata who was standing in front of me now behaved like two different people? Why had she changed so dramatically? But most of all, I was perplexed by the Paladins’ indifference to the way the druid threatened me. It seemed that the Paladins had come to realize that we were all brothers and that we need to stand fast to protect each other; yet again it turns out that they’re ready to betray me just to stay alive. What could Dolgunata have promised them to gain their unconditional support? Granises? That sounded like total nonsense.
“But what else do you want?” The druid said in surprise. “Money? Then I’d like to remind you, in case you’ve forgotten, that it’s you who owes me a granis for help. Whether you need it or not I don’t really care. I want to get it and I’ll get it from you. From you or from your body. By the way, here’s another tidbit of information for your development: after the final death of a player, all his granises stay on Earth. So they’ll be mine in any case. And forget about your initiation – it won’t save you. Are we done? May I turn back into a good girl?”
“You must have also forgotten – without Teart and myself you won’t be able to follow the guiding lines. Go ahead, kill me. We’ll respawn and squirm out of it somehow. While you’d have to trundle from here through the entire forest to the nearest path, and it’s not guaranteed that even with your speed you’d be able to avoid the guards. And all of you would be just dead meat,” I looked at the Paladins. “Guys, don’t you see that she’s just using you?”
“Yari, just say yes. Believe me, Dolgunata doesn’t wish us ill.” Logir spoke as if forced. “She just wants to finish the Academy, as we do. No one is using anybody."
“Oh, really?” I looked in the druid’s mocking eyes, making my final decision. “You need my help? No problem, I’ll help. We’ll go through the Academy together. Pony up three granises. That’s my condition.”
“Why not ten?” The druid laughed. “Or a whole hundred at once …”
“Teart, have you found any new pictures?” I turned to the leprechaun, ignoring the druid.
“Yeah, I got a couple,” Teart followed our rules and sent me the trade. After a pause the leprechaun added: “Yari, I side with them. Somehow I want to live more than I want to show my attitude. If Dolgunata can help us pass through the labyrinth and provides information about the Academy, let her be the lead! Maybe the girl has some kind of hangup about leadership. Hungry childhood, wooden toys nailed to the floor, all that; so now she’s trying to force everyone to kowtow to her. I don’t see anything horrible about letting her be in charge.”
“Let her be in charge, I have nothing against it,” I shrugged my shoulders, amazed at myself. Where did I get so much courage and certainty that I could do no wrong? “It’s just that nothing comes free. Besides information I want three granises, and either I’ll get them or she can go f…”
“I warned you.” Dolgunata instantly turned into the panther and leaped towards me. “We’ll see how you sing when you run out of lives …”
There was a brief flash of pain followed by another system message:

You were killed and sent to a respawn point
You lost one level
Your current level: 4

Waking up after the second respawn was like a bright light turning on in a dark room: suddenly everything appeared out of nothing, including my awareness of myself in the said everything. I appeared next to the respawn stone, and just a few moments later another player appeared next to me. Then another. And another. And more… the clearing was filling with players of various types; they were trying to spot Paladins within the host of appearing creatures, so the decision on what to do next came together with someone’s shout “Paladin! Get him, guys!” Using Dolgunata’s tactic, I leaped straight from the spot crushing into a reptilian who had just appeared next to me. The player, who hadn’t expected my maneuver, crashed to the ground, and together we rolled on the ground right under the feet of the crowd that was running towards us. I was working on pure instinct: if you want to survive, run straight into the thick of it. Next to me strange black lightnings were flying, along with arrows and other stuff. Once an axe whistled by; however, all of that did much more damage to the others around me than it did to me.
“What in hell are you doing?” rasped the reptilian crushed under me, and I found no better answer than to whack his head on the steel boot of one of the players. The reptilian went limp and I made another somersault, using my victim as a shield.
“Where is he?!” I kept rolling on the ground creating a bigger and bigger pile-up. In their rush to kill me first, the players hindered each other, fell on the ground, tripped their neighbors; some of them even started killing their competitors, as I guessed from surprised and indignant screams. At some point I realized that the reptilian I was using as a shield had disappeared; either he had got loose in the crush, or he’d fulfilled his mission and protected me against a deadly blow. Whatever! I kept rolling, out of the corner of my eye tracking the final goal of my wild maneuvers: the edge of the forest.
Freeze, all of you! Or he’s gonna get away!” I knew that voice. The Book of Knowledge immediately confirmed: the screamer was Dangard, a student of Devir, so I redoubled my efforts. “There he is! Hit him!”
A stone boulder that was suddenly right in front of me shattered to smithereens; sharp shards drummed on my armor. I reached the edge! Without slowing down I jumped onto all fours and, like a monkey, took off in running leaps into the forest, rolling over in a random direction after each leap. I needed to put my chasers off target; lightning bolts and icicles that were missing me left and right confirmed that I had chosen the right tactic.
“Don’t let him escape!” Dangard’s shout was so close that I nearly lost my rhythm. After yet another leap I jumped over to crouch behind some boulder and raised my head for the first time, to look around and find a guiding line — I had just a few seconds left before the guards would become active.
“I ain’t going into that bloody forest!” I heard an “encouraging” yelp from behind – it gave me a couple of seconds of lead. And then I saw the greenish light. The guiding beam was just a couple of meters ahead. “The monsters!”
I was running forward, not looking at the path, periodically touching the saving beam. My intuition warned me against trying to climb up right now; there was simply no time for that. Making sure to dodge and weave, jumping behind the boulders that kept appearing in my way, I cursed myself for being stupid and naïve. Was the first time not enough to make it clear the only person you could trust in this game was yourself? No one else! Dolgunata had again found some inner fears of the Paladins, forcing them to submit. Made some kind of agreement to boot, blasted alley cat! Why in hell did she stick to us anyway? What, do you have to sacrifice someone in the labyrinth in order to pass through? There was nothing else to explain her actions.
“You’ll still die! You can’t pass through the labyrinth! I heard Dangard’s scream right behind my back; then he choked and went silent. The mage had encountered a guard. Only then did I stop, calming my madly beating heart and stilling my desire to rush on. I was practically soaking in adrenaline, so I released my emotions by screaming at the skies: “Basaastaaards! I’ll blast y’all to hell!” I was shaking so hard that I nearly let go of the beam. Only a guard’s red eye that opened barely a meter away reminded me that I wasn’t in a safe place.
It took me about five minutes to calm down. Trying to find something that would enable my brain to stop and switch to something else, shifting it from the “panic” mode to the mode of conscious actions, I started looking around trying to find anything unusual. Anything that differed from the background, anything that I could study. I was able to do that. Even twice.
The first thing that caught my eye was the frame of the team, showing that the Paladins and Dolgunata were alive and well, having received an extra level during the past hour. At this point I was at the lowest mark, with my level at 4. Teart had the 6th, Dirion and Sartal the 7th, Logir and Refor the 8th, Monstrichello the 9th and Dolgunata – I could barely believe my eyes – level 12. The druid was over 10 already! As soon as the level of adrenaline in my blood dropped to acceptable values, I did something important: left the group. I’d had enough fighting together! Because of the gift from the head of the Academy I could easily see the current location of the Paladins: they were even now going around the respawn clearing and moving in my direction, while I had no intention of showing them my location on the map.
I scowled — the druid just wouldn’t settle down! One needn’t be a Nostradamus to predict the future: Teart would lead the Paladins along safe paths toward me, Dolgunata would again give me an ultimatum, I would not take that well and be sent to respawn again. I had no intention of submitting to the druid. Did I really need that? Not likely!
The second thing that caught my eye and prevented me from immediately climbing up along the guiding beam was a strange yellowish glow that came from a pile of trash that was sitting right on the ground. I was taken aback at first, trying to understand the logic behind the glow, and then the Book of Knowledge came to my aid. A marker appeared above the pile: “97% match”, and when I mentally clicked on it I saw the entry on the recipe found by Teart. So, once you see an object, in this case a pile of trash hiding the recipe or something else you were seeking, it then would begin analyzing everything you saw and highlight similarities that it discovers? Wishing to check my guess, I ran up to the pile and brushed it aside. I smiled, seeing that there was in fact a recipe under it. Now looking for objects to generate future profits would become a lot easier; I only need to do one small thing: survive and complete this blasted Academy. The first step toward that was simple and clear: I needed to keep away from my former team.
Constantly checking the map for the location of the Paladins moving towards me as they apparently decided to check out the spot where I was before leaving the team, I moved towards the teacher for attack capabilities. My escape from the respawn point gave me an interesting tactic that I wanted to test at once: a lightning-fast attack and then a retreat, just as rapid. The training itself is instantaneous, the teacher is standing at the edge of the clearing near the forest; even if he were monitored all the time, players’ concentration would not be perfect. They are not elite fighters who have been training for many years! In the majority of cases these are tired players, intimidated by the mages and hoping to survive. Where would they get lightning-fast reactions? They would most likely linger, giving me a few seconds, and I should take advantage of that. Because now it’s time to work on my own development.
The clearing with the teacher was still full of people. Clustering into groups, the players whispered among themselves, lounged on the sand, fought – I was not sure if they were serious or just sparring in jest, to check what they had learned. The players were doing whatever one could imagine, but were definitely not guarding the teacher. The only ones who maintained some sort of concentration were the mages I knew from my time entering the Academy: Olzar and his team. They were the ones that had caught me, taken me to the first training and then lost me. Trying to make as little noise as possible, I moved directly behind the teacher’s back and listened to the conversation of the mages.
“… only 2 levels left. It’s a day of life. What then, just kicking the bucket?”
“Dangard ordered us to control this teacher, so that’s what we’ll do.” Olzar was adamant. “It’s better to croak here than to return to Devir. You’ve seen yourself what he'll do to everyone should the Paladins return. So we need to hold on.”
Oh, wow! Devir held a show of an execution in front of all the mages in the Academy? Someone was killed only to demonstrate what’s in store for those who return? Devir is obviously totally psycho!
“Olzar, but we are not initiated. There’s the labyrinth ahead we’ll just bloody die in there, and that’ll be the end of us. I don’t understand why we’re hanging out here! For the life of me I don’t!”
“I don’t myself, either… Dangard said that for those who know the rules the labyrinth would not be dangerous. But only he and Ahean know the rules. And who the hell knows in which corner of the Academy he spawned. So we’ll wait for Dangard.”
“He knows the rules, right! Ha! If he’d known the Academy as well as he says he does, he’d never have gotten himself caught by a monster. And now it looks like it’s the Paladins who are better prepared. They know the rules for moving around the forest. And that’s despite the fact that they drew the lot to be the sacrifice!”
Lots? Sacrifice? The Book of Knowledge sucked up information like a sponge, and I even forgot for a while why I came there. It’s not often that it becomes possible to listen in on such a frank conversation about the root cause of all your problems.
“Yeah, they do,” Olzar confirmed, but immediately added wryly, “but what good will it be to them? So they know how to wander around the forest: so what? All the teachers are blocked off and we control all the respawn points. Once Dangard respawns he’ll tell us what happened between him and the Paladin and why they didn’t just pop him off right away. Perhaps they used the magic again, and that huge prick absorbed it all. Sooner or later they’ll just run out of Energy and will have to get down on the ground. So that’s not the worst. I’m much more scared of the wastelands. Like really scared. From what I heard it looks like it’s some sort of real trash place! They say that… Damn! Have you gone completely bonkers there, you cross-eyed freaks?!”
Three arrows, one after another, stuck in the ground next to Olzar’s foot; they came from the players who were fighting each other. The arrows vanished practically at once, showing that they had been a creation of one of the game capabilities; a group of dog-headed hunters froze in place like they were statues. Apparently, knowing how to use the attack capabilities is one thing, and practice in using them is quite another, and some players had obvious problems in that respect.
“Do you understand that you could’ve hit us, you morons?” Olzar kept screaming, slowly approaching the hunters. — “This is the Game! Here, if it were to as much as touch me…”
The entire group of the mages moved after Olzar, willing to punish the hapless hunters, and I saw that I’d never find a better moment to get my training. If it weren’t now, it would be never. I was sitting three meters above ground, so I took a deep breath, banishing fear, and jumped towards the teacher. There was no time to climb down in comfort.
Hitting the ground almost knocked me out, but I used what remained of my consciousness to leap over the distance separating me from the teacher, and blurted with one breath:
“I want to partake of your wisdom and learn to use the attack capabilities of my class!”

Learning progress: You have reached teacher 4 of 10

“You are impatient and harsh, recruit,” the old man grinned as soon as the space around us changed. “It’s an uncomfortable feeling when I am not even allowed to say my words of welcome …”
“You know very well why I had to do this," I responded, plopping on the grass. My ankle hurt and standing on it was too much for me. Apparently, I wouldn’t make a stellar traceur.
“I know, and that’s why I allowed you to become lost outside of time. We aren’t particularly happy with what the mages are doing.”
“Fate chose the Paladins as a sacrifice,” I said, venturing a guess. “So that’s why they’re trying as hard as they can.”
“Fate always selects someone as a sacrifice, but that’s no reason for everyone to follow it blindly!” the old man responded. “Everyone’s supposed to have their own head on their shoulders! Besides, who appointed the mages as executioners? The Viceroy? For some reason I have grave doubts about that.”
“Whatever for is it necessary to choose someone to sacrifice at all?” I grumbled, pulling off my steel boot. My ankle was swollen as if I’d twisted it. That’s something I needed like a hole in the head!
“I’m not authorized to discuss the decisions of the founders,” the old guy cut me off. “Use healing with damage like this training is questionable.”
“I don’t have healing,” I grumbled, but then, remembering what Dietrich had said when he selected a banner as his artifact, I added: “Can Paladins heal?”
“Why not?” The old man was surprised. “Anyone can heal, even hunters or assassins. Healing is not even related to abilities. Don’t you know that?”
I shook my head in response, and immediately sighed in relief: I was able to find a position in which my limb didn’t hurt. Perhaps to an onlooker it would appear funny, but the absence of burning pain was more important to me. The old man fell silent for a minute, thinking of something, then apparently decided that a brief overview of the players’ physiology would not exceed his level of authority.
“From the standpoint of physiology players are not that different from NPCs. No 'life bars', 'health levels' and other bling. We are whole and indivisible. That’s why any player can heal if he has pills or potions in his inventory. Yes, those preparations have the same effect on players as on NPCs; healing a common cold with high level magic is silly and inefficient. The only class that has the ability for initial level magic healing is priests. But even they can’t heal other players only themselves. I think I’ll repeat that: it’s only possible to heal other players magically if you use high level magic which is accessible only to highly specialized players if theirs is the right artifact. Everyone else is healed in the same way as NPCs: with medicine. The main difference between players and NPCs is in the personal or class resilience. Untrained people such as you, if they fall down from a height of three meters, twist their ankles, break ribs and generally feel quite uncomfortable. On the other hand, even an untrained vampire would not notice a small jump like this even if he were to drop down head first.”
“So, if a player loses a leg it can’t be reattached?” I frowned. “It’s unlikely to grow back from chewing pills.”
“You forget about respawn, during which the player’s body would be completely renewed. However, if someone would rather not lose a level, then yes, he’ll end up limping for the rest of his life. Remember Hephaestus. Anyway, you are talking about an extreme case when respawn would in fact be necessary. But in everyday practice all players’ ailments can be easily cured with the elves’ ointment. Elves have advanced far in healing that can practically bring both NPCs and players back from the dead Some even call it magic, even though in fact it’s just a well designed marketing campaign and use of the water of life. I’d thought you had a vial with you.”
“From where?”
“Well, you did get some food somewhere. Are you ready for training?”
I moved my foot and the pain that seemed to have subdued returned with a vengeance. I had to shake my head, sighing heavily. It seemed I’d end up sitting here for a while…
“It’s a pity… Ok, we’ll wait. We aren’t constrained for time.”
“Perhaps we could talk on neutral topics to pass the time,” I ventured. “For example, I would like to know: do you live in the Academy all the time or only come here periodically in order to teach?”
“How would we know then what’s going on in the outside world?” The old man grinned, accepting my offer of conversation. “Teaching is an obligation imposed by the Game, that we have to fulfill once per month. During the rest of the time we just lead our own lives. The only constraint is the appearance. By agreeing to teach we change and lose our original appearance forever. What you see is the projection of your understanding of what a mentor is supposed to look like in other words, a creature that possesses knowledge; you are welcome to think of any other appropriate title. We look different to each race. The funny part is that if anyone at all were to believe that the wisest creatures were babies, to him we would in fact look like them. With pacifiers, in diapers, and broccoli puree on our faces. But at the subconscious level for some reason everyone believes that old people are the source of knowledge. As for wisdom, in fact a narrow specialized area of it, a sort of street smarts could be something that old people have. But knowledge… Doesn’t it occur to anyone that the physiology of all living creatures is such that the aging brain deteriorates and loses some of its functions? Old men don’t become more clever or wiser, they just become older. That’s why all long-lived players strive to keep their age at the threshold of physical aging; not everyone has the Book of Knowledge. By the way, that’s a very good choice for a Judge; combined with a good choice of abilities it will enable you to make more informed and balanced decisions.”
“Speaking of Judges,” I latched onto the topic that bothered me. “Does the Game have some set of rules, after breaking which the player is considered a criminal? How does one understand, for example, that a player who killed another player is not a criminal, but an ardent representative of his class? How does the Game determine when it is necessary to open a case and when it’s not?”
“There’s no rule,” the old man smiled. “That’s why it’s hard being a Judge. You are the prosecutor, the council and the judge at the same time. As soon as a Judge learns about some events that clash with his personal understanding of what is right, the Game will either generate the assignment itself, in case of past precedents, or propose that you initiate the case yourself. In case of the latter there’s significantly less time to deliver a correct verdict, but a successful verdict lands a much higher bonus. Based on his own understanding of what’s right and fair, the Judge delivers his verdict, which will then be approved or rejected by the Emperor. No one said that it’s easy to be a Judge, but the bonuses you receive outweigh all the drawbacks.
“Bonuses for a successful verdict depend on what the judge needs at that given moment?” I showed off my brilliance by guessing. “I was afraid to die irrevocably, so I was granted initiation as a bonus?”
“That’s right. Your chances of successful graduation from the Academy have increased,” the “old man” confirmed.
“But later I received information that this initiation is fake. That it’s just an additional level that can also disappear.”
“Not quite. Dolgunata — we are talking about the druid, correct? — is both right and wrong at the same time. It is true that as soon as you are dropped to level one the system will offer you a choice: either a final death in an initiated state, which would be stupid, or respawn with loss of initiation. In case of the latter, respawn time will increase from one hour to three, thus misleading your enemies regarding the finality of your death. Those waiting at the respawn point would leave, thinking that your death was final. Let’s make it clear though – this works only within the Academy. In the main world there wouldn't be a choice like that. The final death would be final.”
“Let’s get back to verdicts and cases. Now the mages are engaging in total lawlessness; they kill other players, prevent them from learning... My very soul rebels against it, but I did not receive any suggestions that I should open a case. At the same time, as soon as the Paladins knocked me out there was a case generated right away. Where’s the catch?”
“That within your heart you are certain that the mages are correct,” the old man surprised me, “while the Paladins’ action was out of line with your understanding of the core essence of the class. If you want to open a case against the mages, you’d have to believe that they are at fault, collect irrefutable proof and deliver the verdict. But you can’t do that because you understand: the mages aren’t doing anything that would go outside the overall framework of the Game. It’s unpleasant, it’s not nice, but it’s normal and common.”
“The Chancellor doesn’t like it.”
“There’re lots of things he doesn’t like, so that’s not a good indicator. For example, he’d prefer for us to always stay in the Academy, the way he does, but it doesn’t mean we should blindly fulfill his wishes. One needs to keep one’s own head about one's shoulders. Or heads, if we are talking about Derantians.”
“So that means that you are ordinary players?” I was surprised. “Not minions or NPCs…”
“That’s enough questions, you’ve upgraded your Book of Knowledge quite well,” the teacher cut me off. “Let me know when you’re ready for training.”
It took me about ten hours to be able to step on my foot more or less painlessly. I’d never thought that the trite saying “time drags its feet” had a right to exist. I, as a true child of modern technology, was always short on time. Sometimes you’d sit down to play a computer game for ten minutes, and somehow lose half a day… Or you might decide, around eight o’clock at night, to watch a single episode of a new interesting show, and then at six o’clock in the morning, red-eyed, you suddenly realize that you have to get up in just one hour. And then that one hour of sleep was enough for you! Moreover, there was some time left to think about the actions of all the characters and your attitude towards all of that! It’s a pity this approach cannot be used when some part of you is hurting.
“I’m ready!” I shouted happily as soon as my foot was able to fit into the steel boot. In addition, a short jog to the edge of the clearing and back did not cause me pain, just some minor discomfort which was easily bearable. For the time of my recuperation the teacher tuned out, completely ignoring my questions, so I was left to my own devices. For ten hours. By the way, I found out one more interesting thing: I didn’t feel sleepy in the Academy. Not at all. I spent about three hours with my eyes closed, diligently counting sheep, but to no avail. “So what about the attack abilities?”

Acquired Ability: Templar’s blow. Description: you strike a crushing blow with a weapon enhanced by your word. Use: before the blow you need to state out loud or silently to yourself the activating key phrase: “I am the Templar’s blow”. Critical hit chance: 15%. Critical hit is defined as striking a vital body part. Cost: 25 Energy.
In case of damage to a vital body part: gamers are sent for respawn, NPCs are killed, dungeon bosses and quest participants sustain damage that is calculated by the Game on a case by case basis.
In case of damage to a non-vital body part: gamers and NPCs can continue battle; NPCs, in addition, suffer a state of shock for a duration of 10 seconds; dungeon bosses and quest participants sustain damage that is calculated by the Game on a case by case basis.

“The book of spells that are available to you has a new entry now,” the old man continued as soon as I finished reading the system messages. “Open the book.”
After a slight confusion associated with searching for the right icon there was a book in front of my eyes, previously empty. Now its virgin whiteness was marred with the black blot of a table providing a more detailed description of the acquired ability: rollback, radius and range, number of targets and other stats that were currently of no interest to me. This blow required a weapon to be used, whereas I had none. So there was no benefit at all from learning of this ability.
“With each use the chance of a critical hit and armor ignore will increase,” the teacher continued, “up to 50%. The more frequently you use this ability, the more effective it’ll become. Oh! The! Energy cost will also diminish with each use until it reaches 3 units. That’s not bad for a professional fighter.”
“Only I’m not a fighter,” I grumbled, closing the description. “What else is there in the attack arsenal?”
“Nothing,” the teacher smiled, but my frowning face hinted to him that he needed to explain: “There’s nothing within the Academy. There are about a hundred different attack abilities available to Paladins, but you will learn about them in the main world. For the Academy a simple blow is enough. It’s a pity you don’t have weapons with you. You could have trained now. Several years of training to use the ability and bring it to the top level available in the Academy would’ve helped you survive.”
“Several years?” I frowned, considering the already trained players from a different angle. What if the mages who were hunting us decided to spend some of the eternity to level up? When I was together with Monstrichello, he absorbed all the available magic. An entire thirty lightning bolts from one player. Now I don’t have Monster with me, and it would be stupid and unprofessional to hope that each player I encounter would only be able to deal three or four blows using the ability. I need to be ready to the fact that I will run into dangerous opponents.
“These trees serve as dummies for the training of your ability,” the old man gestured toward the trees. “Time has no power over this place, and Energy doesn’t run out. So, train and develop. The whole world is open to you. And remember: the Game is a very multidimensional thing. You never know when you will win some or lose some. Tell me when you’re ready to return to the Academy. Meanwhile: farewell, Judge. It was fun talking to you.”
The teacher settled in the lotus position and fell silent. It seemed he even stopped breathing, diving in the depths of his consciousness. My foot still hurt, so I suppressed the urge to return, deciding instead to take advantage of the teacher’s hospitality and fully recuperate. Once I returned I’d have to show wonders of agility and speed, and it’s easier to do that when you are in peak form.
Time slowed down again. Once I was bored sitting in one place and randomly leaf through the Book of Knowledge, refreshing the forgotten bits of my short stint as a player, I started studying the clearing. Its width, types of trees and bushes, depth of forest to the impenetrable black wall that was hard and cold to the touch, the variety of grass cover and complete absence of animals. I was interested in everything that could up the progress of the Book’s development by another unit. By now its experience level had reached 923 out of 1000; in the near future that would bring it up to level two, thus upping the “Context Search” property by a whole unit. Search would activate and it would make using the artifact easier by an order of magnitude.
Tired of twiddling my thumbs, I even tried to use the newly received attack capability by hitting a tree with my hand. Can’t hands be called weapons? Masters like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee would not only confirm that, they would forever beat that axiom into the stupid and naïve heads of the common herd. However, reality showed that I still had a long way to go to get the level of Bruce Lee. I would hit a tree, but the activating key phrase wouldn’t work. My hands weren’t weapons like those of the famous master from Hong Kong. By the way, that was an interesting thought: was Bruce Lee a player? He was lightning-fast, he did things that were impossible even for trained fighters, and passed on from this life – in our case into another game world – while he was still quite young. As if he leveled up on Earth and moved on to conquer new heights. I should find that out once I return to the main world.
Having practically decided to go back, I still thought to perform one more experiment. In accordance with the game rules each player had a personal artifact, enhancing his abilities depending on his chosen path of development. The artifact could be a weapon, armor, clothing, an accessory, a banner or a book. Paladins are not capable of casting lightning or ice shards, so those of us who chose weapons as artifacts are extremely valuable allies. Before the druid made Logir and Refor lose their minds, I was really safe with them.
But there were three points that bothered me. Number one, Monstrichello used his shield to topple players onto the ground, knock them out, injure them in other ways, and generally tried at all times to use his artifact not only for its original purpose of protection, but also for attack. Number two: Dolgunata. I had no idea what she had chosen as an artifact, but as a panther she used her claws and teeth with perfect skill, sending players to respawn in droves. Number three: I had a massive blunt object at hand; just one blow with that could knock someone out.
So, the question of the day was – is it possible to use the Book of Knowledge as the favorite weapon of schoolkids whapping each other over the heads? Pacifism, of course, is a fine thing, nonresistance to evil by force and all that, but you can’t do good without using your fists, as wise people say. So I needed to understand whether I’d be able to fight back in the future.
First of all I tested the Book of Knowledge for strength. A weak, medium, and, finally, strong full swing blow on a tree didn’t result in any problems with the functioning of the artifact. The Book still sucked up knowledge like a sponge, and the appearance of the artifact stayed unchanged: it developed no dents or scratches. So the crucial moment came. I grabbed the Book with both hands for a more comfortable grip, aimed, said in my mind: “I am the Templar’s blow” and with all my might whacked on the thinnest tree I could find in the vicinity: I was worried about the Book. What if something were to happen to it?
BAM!

New artifact property discovered: “Weapon”. Would you like to activate it?

The clash of the Book enhanced by the attack ability and the tree resulted in such an impressive light and noise show that for a few moments I was unable to see anything around me as the stars danced in front of my eyes. If it weren’t for the system message that ignored all the effects of temporary confusion, I could easily have lost my position in space – so unexpected, loud and bright was the explosion. Shaking my head, I pushed the “activate” button without hesitation.

Artifact property “Weapon” has been activated; current level: 0
In order to use the property “Weapon” outside of the testing range of the Academy you need to bring its level up to 1 (current artifact development experience: 924 of 1000)
Artifact has been modified

As soon as the stars cleared out of my eyes, I shook my head again, chasing the phantoms away. My А4 size Book of Knowledge, which had been sitting so conveniently on my right thigh, had disappeared! Now, instead of it, on my right glove some strange device was located, sporting spikes; only under the influence of some hard drugs would anyone call that a book. Having become several times smaller than the previous version of the artifact, the thing was an odd kind of a hand weapon; one of its halves was attached to the back side of the glove, and the other to the forearm. The part that was attached to the glove sported additional spikes that had not been there before. Apparently so my words would carry more weight.

I clenched and unclenched my fist, checking for the freedom of movement of my hand, but there was none: the renewed Book sat there as if glued on without causing any discomfort. It took me several minutes to figure out the principle of attaching the book and shifting it from battle to transport mode: the holster on my thigh changed as well. From now on in order to attach the artifact to my hand and use it as a powerful knuckleduster, it was enough to put my hand on the Book and make a twisting motion. Having returned the Book to my hand, I made sure that the counter in the spell book, showing the use of the ability, has increased by one, and grinned. The moment I returned to the Academy, the Book would stop being a weapon, at least until I received the remaining 76 artifact experience points. However, there was a subtle point! I could actively use the weapon here, at the test range, thus upping the counter of using “The Templar’s Blow” and, as soon as I increased the “Weapon” property to at least one, I’d be able to fight back. The teacher mentioned something about several years of training? Not a problem let’s see how long my patience would last... or the trees…


Chapter Six. Testing the Knowledge




“I am the Templar’s blow”. BAM!
“I am the Templar’s blow”. BAM!
“I am…

I AM NOT here anymore!
For the thousandth, or maybe ten-thousandth time, I dropped on the ground exhausted. That was the consequence of those unpleasant “20% of normal” physical parameters for the human race. While in the Academy I had not encountered problems in this respect as there was no serious physical strain, as soon as I attempted any serious effort, my body started drowning in lactic acid. I tried to resist to the last, bashing madly at the trees, but the result was always the same: falling on the ground. There was one positive moment though: while at first I was exhausted literally after five minutes, now, after six months of training, I managed to hang on for half an hour.
“It’s a good day today, isn’t it?” As I was lying on the ground, I gathered just enough strength to address the teacher. During the entire time I was trying to improve myself, he didn’t make a single movement nor said a single word, even though I tried to talk to him with a determination worthy of a better cause. Back when I was still an NPC I’d watched the movie “Castaway” about a guy who ended up on an uninhabited island. A modern Robinson Crusoe, may he rot in hell. In order to preserve at least some of his sanity the character there made himself a “friend” from the materials he had on hand, and talked to it all the time. He knew that socialization was an important part of our lives. That’s why one of the worst punishments is a single cell and complete isolation. Even death is not so fearsome as the lack of a chance to socialize, or at least see another living being. Many go mad. Whether that applied to players or not, I didn’t know, but to protect myself just in case I kept talking to the old guy. I told him about my attitude to mages, Paladins, other players, weather, trees, the fact that I didn’t want to hit those damned trees; I told him fairy tales, anecdotes, jokes, entries from the Book of Knowledge… I talked about everything, just to avoid keeping silent. But the old man never responded; he couldn’t care less about my attempts to stay human.
By the way, after half a year my anger and ire with the Paladins faded, leaving just sadness and regret behind. Having fallen under Dolgunata’s influence, my former comrades-in-arms could not be considered independent fighting units. From then on they were simply druid’s satellites; and throughout my six months of training I kept thinking about the same problem: should I once again rid them of her? Risk myself for the sake of others? Or would it be better to leave things as they were, moving on alone? Both options had pros and cons; so I was in no hurry to return to the Academy, madly hitting the trees, doing push-ups and squats and telling the teacher stories. Before I saved or refused to save anyone else I needed to understand myself. What was it that I needed personally?
“In fact, it’s quite an ordinary day,” came the raspy response that made me lie completely still staring at the blue sky. It’s not so scary talking to yourself in an empty house; it’s scary to hear someone else answer! I turned my head slowly and saw the teacher’s grinning face.
“Today it’s precisely six months since you came to the training range, so I need to explain to you the conditions of extending your stay here,” the old man clarified as I was rolling to my side. I had no strength even to sit up.
“Are there any conditions?” I was able to groan, crashing onto my back again. I wasn’t able to roll over.
“Of course! Players are way too devious to just let them be. They’ll figure out a way to live forever and use it until the Emperor himself comes after them. We really don’t need him showing up here, so listen carefully, I’m not going to repeat myself. From now on each day will cost you one Energy unit, which, as you understand, won’t replenish itself. If you have food or elixirs, that won’t affect you at all: eat, drink and train on. Your friend spent two years here this way before she decided that she’d had enough of scratching the trees.
“So a hit with the claws is her attack ability and not just a physical trait of the druids?” I was surprised.
“A trait that enables you to inflict damage, ignoring steel armor? Solitude obviously wasn’t that good for you,” said the old man sarcastically. “Your thinking ability has deteriorated. Anyway, I did inform you, I have nothing else to do here. Let me know when you’re ready to go back.”
“Wait!” I barely had time to scream. “I have a question about the attack capability that I wasn’t able to figure out myself. Would you help me?”
“I’m listening,” the old man, who had practically turned into a statue, revived again.
"During six months I have leveled up the properties ‘Critical hit chance’ from 15 to 28 percent and ‘Armor ignore’ from 15 to 16 percent. Does that mean that, say, approximately with every third blow I could kill my opponent even if I were to hit him on the leg? This seems to be some mega-killer blow that completely ignores the opponent’s levels. Then why do we need 'Armor ignore'? What does that ignore with such a high critical hit chance? Or does that mean that it works for normal, non-critical hits? So, I’m confused and I need a clarification on how this works.”
“Better late than never, right?” the teacher smiled. “I was surprised the last time, wondering if you were so upset by the absence of conventional weapons that your ability to think logically had completely shut down. Clarification: besides the attack abilities each player also learns defensive ones that provide him with one of several types of protection. The class armor, even the plate type, is never used for protection: its function is different. What it is, you’ll learn from the appropriate teacher. The players receive most of their protection from those very defense abilities which can absorb, deflect or block the hits. So even if your hit is a critical one, it doesn't mean that you’ll instantly kill the other player. First of all you need to penetrate his armor. I hope you noticed that armor ignore increased only by 1% after six months? This is one of the most important parameters for players who decide to become fighters or hunters. If you can’t pierce the armor, all your critical damage will do is lower the opponent’s Energy a little. However, if the stars are right and you are able to ignore your opponent’s armor while making a critical hit, no one will be able to survive that, regardless of his level. Even the Emperor would be sent for respawn.”
“And the defense abilities must have some kind of an opposite property, like 'block armor ignore', right?” I guessed.
“It’s nice to see that you are regaining your ability for logical thinking. What you are talking about is called 'Armor resistance' and yes, this parameter determines the extent to which you can ignore the other."
“Does this mean then that two players who are at the same level and equally developed wouldn’t be able to inflict any damage on each other? Is that reasonable?” I frowned.
“You aren’t quite right. The damage lowers the level of Energy, and the stronger the hit is the more Energy it shaves off. In case of a battle of matched opponents, the most important thing becomes the agility with which the player manages to avoid blows, the strategy of using Energy-restoring elixirs and the number of those available.
“By strategy you mean using the elixirs not when your Energy is at half-bar, but closer to the bottom?” I guessed again. “And thus risking missing a critical hit that would drop it down to zero?”
“A standard elixir would restore Energy to 100%,” the teacher confirmed my guess. A player’s store isn’t infinite, so the more frequently he uses his elixirs, the more he has left in store. It’s elementary.”
“Elementary…” I smirked. “It’s classic: money is strength.”
“Is that not an axiom? It’s always harder when you’re sick and poor. Have I satisfied your curiosity?”
“Not quite,” I glanced at the progress of my artifact, and barely contained the urge to jump up, grab the teacher by the lapels and shake him, demanding that he tell me something else. I had just 14 points till the next level, so I urgently needed to have the teacher talk about the topics I hadn’t raised before. “How many Energy-restoring elixirs would I be able to buy with one granis, and is such a purchase possible here, at the Academy training range? Or within the Academy in general?”
“You have a granis too?” The man was obviously taken aback.
“What do you mean – 'too'? Has someone… Dolgunata?!”
"It’s practically unreal to earn a granis before the Academy; the Game monitors that very thoroughly. It’s possible to trade one for some services or jewels, but even so just in order for the Game itself to transfer that granis as payment for initiation or upgrade from an NPC to a minion. Not more. I don’t know of other ways to receive a granis before the Academy, so much more surprising it is to find not one, but two recruits with granis. Where did you get it?”
“I’ll offer you a trade,” I immediately figured out a way to turn it to my advantage. “I tell you how we managed that and you tell me how to activate my defense.”
“You want me to teach you the defense abilities?” From a sweet old grandpa the teacher turned into a frowning old coot, but I was beyond stopping at that point.
“Not teach, just tell me how to activate it and what to do with it. You do want to know how two granises appeared in the Academy?”
“You cannot have a granis! It’s prohibited!” The teacher even jumped to his feet.
“Offer me a trade,” I grinned, in my mind thanking Teart who taught me this. “I’ll show you what I have and what I don’t.”

<Hidden> is offering you a trade. Accept?

The Game carefully concealed the teacher’s real name, but it was impossible to miss the word “dartirian” in the window that popped up. So then, the teachers are players as well? That’s an interesting point. In this case, what criteria are used to select them? Also, this means that I at least know the race of this teacher. If I set this as a goal for myself, I could find this creature in the main world.

Book of Knowledge has reached a new level. You need to increase the level of the artifact properties: “Context search” (1), “Weapon” (1), <Choose value from the list >

By an incredible strain of will I looked away from the words “Choose value from the list” and clicked on “Weapon”. Despite an overwhelming urge to fiddle with the list of available artifact properties, I realized: without a hefty argument represented by a weapon there was nothing I could achieve in the Academy. While if I were to get into it and investigate, I’d be more than likely to find something useful that would prevent me from using the available properties upgrade unit for “Weapon”. I noted another interesting and pleasant thing: the artifact experience bar updated and now showed the current value as “2 out of 1000”. So it looked like with each new artifact level which is not, by the way, shown anywhere directly I gain an opportunity to raise the level of one of the properties; and the number of necessary experience points needed to reach the next level stays the same at 1000 points. Given the fast rate at which the Book of Knowledge absorbs information, leveling up at the initial stages shouldn’t be a problem.
As for the “Weapon” property, at level one it increased the “Armor ignore” parameter for all attack capabilities by 1%. At level 2 this quality would increase already by 2%, at level 5 by 3%, at level 10 by 4% and at level 15 by 5%. However, it was unclear as to whether these values would add up or replace one another. If they added up, receiving an additional +15% to “Armor ignore” looked like a very promising development.
“Why the defense?” the teacher, who had been frozen in righteous shock, recovered his senses. “I could tell you how to use secondary abilities, provide information about the Game, teach you to customize your armor. Why are you interested specifically in defense?
“Are there any restrictions associated with it?” I was surprised; this whole exchange convinced me even more that this particular training unit was exactly what I needed right now. If they didn’t want to provide it to me, it meant there was something valuable about it.
“There are only thirteen teachers in the whole Academy who teach defense. There are two hidden teachers in each of the four Academy training sectors, for teachers in the wasteland – they are also assigned to their own sector – and, finally, the Chancellor himself. Learning this unit at the initial stage of training provides a recruit too much of an advantage over the others. Particularly if he has items that replenish Energy. I cannot tell you how to use defense abilities."
“Well, if you can’t, then you can’t.” I was not going to give up. “I’ve already visited one hidden teacher in our sector, so now’s the time to visit the other. I’ll trade the information on granises for the coordinates of the hidden teachers of our sector. This information isn’t secret, right?”
“Only the Chancellor can…”
“What does the Chancellor have to do with it?” I cut the old man off. “You yourself train recruits prior to sending them to the Academy when you aren’t teaching here, right?” I was fishing for more information and the teacher’s widened eyes told me that I had guessed correctly. “Don’t you want to give your future recruits an additional chance to survive? I am not asking you to teach me anything, I’m just asking for the location coordinates of the hidden teachers of our sector.”
“All of them?”
“Why all? Just two. I know: if I ask for the location of one teacher, you’ll send me to the one I’ve already visited. So – two. By the way, how many elixirs can one buy for a granis and where can one do it? Do you have them? Or is there some special place?”
“I don’t have elixirs,” the old man was so slow to answer that I started worrying that I’d pushed too hard. “You can buy them from the trader. Now I understand why we have one in the Academy. I’d been wracking my brain over that.”
“There’s a trader in the Academy as well?!” I exclaimed in surprise. “Where is he?!”
“I’ll tell you the location coordinates for a hidden teacher whom you haven’t visited yet, and the trader. That’ll make two, just as you asked”, the old man smiled. “Once you buy the elixirs, come back for training – you’ll up your “Armor ignore” by another percent.”
“Umm… Is it allowed to return?” I didn’t expect that.
“Why not? No one prohibits you from coming back to a teacher and going over the training again if you missed something the first time. Or the second time. Everyone learns at a different pace. Sometimes you see such knuckleheads, it makes you wonder how they managed to survive that long. Are you satisfied with the trade?”
As soon as the system message appeared informing me of the map updates, I opened the Book of Knowledge and read verbatim the entries on obtaining granises. Both of the one received by Dolgunata, and the one that I received from Archibald. As I was relaying the information, I came up with a tentative idea as to how I obtained my granis, and the Book of Knowledge instantly reacted, adding the corresponding entry. The three diggers who extracted me from the grave had not been included by the Game in the mandatory wipe-out list. Once these NPCs had decided that I was a zombie, the Game added them to the list of those to be destroyed and offered a reward to all the nearest headhunters. I killed one of the NPCs, so Archibald gave me the granis received from the system; he must have received the message that one ought to share. Before I had a chance to talk to the catorian, this version seemed the most plausible to me; the Book of Knowledge confirmed that.
“Interesting…” the teacher drawled meaningfully once I finished talking. “Being a Judge is not for everyone, there are generally few of them in the Game, but to arrange for several additional NPCs at the time of a player’s spawn and then immediately pop them off… That’s an interesting thought; I need to work on that some more. Let me know once you’re ready to go back to the Academy.”
“Right now’s fine,” I decided, attaching the Book of Knowledge to my hand. If it was possible to come back here, first I needed to visit the local store. “Another question, by the way: besides the teachers, hidden teachers, the Chancellor and the trader, is there anyone else in the Academy?”
“Of course,” the old man smiled. “The Academy isn’t that different from the main world; you just need to look at it from the right angle. There’s a lot to be found here, you just need to know where to look. Good luck to you, Paladin…”
“What the...?” I heard a surprised yell as soon as the space around me transformed from the training range into a clearing filled with players in the midst of the reinforced concrete jungle. “Freeze!”
I had been planning the moment of my return to the Academy for the entire six months, every time I was lying on the ground completely exhausted. I had complete and detailed information on what was going on around the teacher, what the mages were doing, along with other players, what their distance was from me, who was picking their nose, how deep, and where they were looking while doing so. Unfortunately, they were all looking in my direction: falling down from a height of three meters didn’t go unnoticed. As for advantages, no one was throwing objects or lightnings at me. The players were too shocked by my unexpected tumble. That’s what I’d have to make use of.
“I am the Templar’s blow”! I shouted at a dead run, socking the face of the mage that was standing between me and the forest that would be my refuge. Of course, I could have made it even without the blow, but I really longed to test in practice the results of my six month training. No one had made the mage stay in place – he could have run off towards the sloppy hunters as everyone else did. But, since he decided to show vigilance and continued to guard the teacher, that was his problem.

You receive +200 Experience

A hit on the head proved fatal for the mage. Amazingly, besides information on receiving experience, there were no other messages. For example, that was the first player I had killed; surely there should’ve been some special achievement for that. If those exist in this game at all! Besides, for some reason I received as much experience for killing someone on my own as I did as a team member. That was strange…
“Stop!” Someone screamed again, and only now a lightning hit the boulder behind which I dove. I was lucky there wasn’t a single headhunter among the so-called guards here: those were much quicker to react to changes. Having climbed to a safe height and left a couple hundred meters between the clearing and myself, I sat down on the guiding beam and started studying the updated map. I needed to figure out what would be closer – the teacher or the trader, remembering to avoid running into the Paladins. I already had a plan for what to do with them I just needed to prepare.
The trader was closer.
I’ll probably never figure out the principle by which the hidden creatures are placed within the Academy. I reached the location I needed, but there was nobody there. I climbed down. Nobody. Climbed all the way to the top. Still nobody. And only once I climbed down yet again and in a futile rage hit the reinforced concrete with my fist, it turned out that nothing was simple in this Game. The concrete block turned out to be a portal.
“Greetings, recruit!” I heard the joyful voice as soon as the swirls of the portal faded. I was standing in a small cave lit by a few dim torches. All of the cave walls were covered with cabinets, but getting to them wouldn’t be easy: there was a counter between myself and the cabinets. And a smiling leprechaun standing behind it. “Oh! You have granises as well! Decided to buy something for yourself?”
“I did,” I confirmed, looking at the content of the cabinets. The Book of Knowledge huffed and puffed, soaking up new information, while I was trying to figure out the purpose of the skulls, sticks, vials and other surprising items more suitable for an alchemist’s shop than a trader within the Academy. On the other hand, what do I know about the traders in the Game? Maybe it’s those objects that are the main goal for half the players, while I’m so naïve that I know nothing about it. Remembering the fall, I decided to kill two birds with one stone: “I need an Energy restoring potion and elves’ ointment.”
“That I have.” The leprechaun rubbed his hands, anticipating a sale. “I’ll tell you right out: there’s no trade in goods in the Academy. You’ll have to buy it at the price I name, or not buy it at all.”
“So how many elixirs can I buy with a granis?” I tensed. In the absence of a working anti-monopoly agency the leprechaun could set the price so high that afterwards I’d be in debt to him for half a lifetime.
“Three hundred vials,” the trader stunned me with his answer. “The price is the same for Energy or ointment. I can see, though, that you’ve got no place to put them. The initial inventory space fits only thirty elixirs. I can offer you advice: buy an inventory expander, to extend it by three times at least, and then one hundred and twenty elixirs. A hundred for Energy and twenty for health. They’ll fit right in. Deal?”
“That’s for one granis?” I drawled in astonishment. Actually, I’d thought to be able to buy maybe ten or at most fifteen elixirs, but I couldn’t even hope to receive such a generous proposal. But the leprechaun thought differently, considering my rhetorical question to be an ironic one.
“Nothing more would fit in the inventory, but I could add some with that… I don’t know, everything takes space in the inventory though… Do you want fewer elixirs instead?”
“How about information?” I found a solution at once and gestured around the store. “For example, what are all those things for?”
“Oh! Information! I get it!” The leprechaun rolled his eyes indicating that all the granis in the Game wouldn’t be enough to learn the secrets of the little pot shards, empty glass bulbs and frog legs.
“In addition, I need to know the language in which all the recipes are written that can be found in the Academy,” I finished, ignoring the theatrical antics of the trader. By his behavior the leprechaun indicated that information was not one of the fixed price items, so now he was trying to figure out how much he could charge for selling it to me. Wasn’t he a naïve one! I had been a computer gamer for longer than he had lived! I had had dealings with hundreds of greedy goblins and tight-fisted gnomes! Even though I dealt with them in virtual worlds, practice showed that very many things there were similar to my current reality. Why not take advantage of that?
“Ahem,” coughed the leprechaun who hadn’t expected a new demand. “Recipes?”
“Sure,” I confirmed. “It’ll take a while to reach the crafts teacher; meanwhile I need to know here and now what I’m finding. What if it’s some kind of nonsense?”
The bargaining started in earnest. The leprechaun wrung his hands and repeated that I was not just robbing him, but depriving his brain of the last crumbs of knowledge, and then the half-witted creature would end up as a single father for twenty little hungry kids, as his wife would certainly abandon him, but I was adamant. I needed information in order to develop and if the trader could provide it I did need to pump him dry. Finally we agreed that he would tell me about applications for all the goods he carried and decipher the recipes that I already had. The trader refused outright to teach me the language in which the recipes were written. Well, not exactly outright, but he demanded a whole granis for it, which was not possible in my case.
“What, do I need to put them there by hand?” I said in surprise after we made our agreement and the leprechaun gave me 100 bottles with blue liquid and 20 with red along with three shimmering pieces of wood. As soon as I touched one of the pieces, my small inventory shelf appeared before my eyes; one edge was shimmering. I touched the new board to the shimmering part and it bound at once; I received the informational message about increased inventory space. The remaining two boards followed the first one, but the elixir bottles refused to jump into the inventory on their own. I had to load all of them in manually:
“Isn’t there a more convenient method?”
“No,” the trader shook his head. “Only by hand. So, what are those recipes you have there?”
“That just doesn’t make sense,” I grumbled as I finished with the vials. “The recipes I can only open in the Book of Knowledge. Will you be able to see them there? Oh, and one more thing! If we hadn’t agreed, you would have to give me some change, right? How much would that change have been?”
I didn’t ask him directly about money denominations in the Game — the trader could’ve thought that I was trying to get more information out of him. So a neutral question about the change was quite appropriate.
“Let me think…” the leprechaun said slowly, turning pensive for a moment. “120 elixirs and three inventory space units come to 0.9 granis, so I’d've given you ten gold coins for change. And then it would've been your problem where to put them. You could’ve stuffed them in your boots, I suppose.
“You use gold in the Game?” I was unable to refrain from asking, and the leprechaun’s face drooped:
“Oh, you didn’t know? Oooo…,” the trader’s face turned into such a funny grimace that I couldn’t help smiling.
“Is it normal gold or something special?”
“Gold game coins.” The leprechaun was so upset he looked really pitiful. “Here, there’s your information. Nothing much, just general initial recipes, you can buy them from any teacher. As for gold, we use it to pay the NPCs. One game coin is worth two kilos of gold, so then granis, as you can easily guess, is two hundred kilos. It’s amazing what the NPCs are willing to do in order to become even minions.”
“We? So you’re also a player?”
“Emm… So I’ve fulfilled my part of the agreement; I sold you the vials; you’ve received the information on recipes and everything I have for sale here. Thanks for visiting my store.” The trader suddenly began bustling about. “Once you get more granises, come again. The portal lets through only players who have granises. See you soon!”
Before I had a chance to say anything in response, the cave faded and threw me out back to the Academy. Annoyed, I kicked the former portal which had now turned into an ordinary stone. At some point I’d have to learn to keep my mouth shut if I wanted to receive information. Maybe there’re some courses for that? For example, “Special skills: fishing for information” or “Interrogation: Theory and Practice”. I’d need something to help me understand what was going on a little better.
Actually!
The thought that appeared was so unusual for me – for what I used to be that I almost forgot to touch a guiding line. Only when the nearby boulder moved it reminded me that I was surrounded by a dangerous forest full of monsters. One of the teachers had called me a follower of Darkness, telling me with regret that some “Light” was closed for me. If so, why was I behaving like a follower of the Light? I needed information and I knew a rather effective method for obtaining it; I just needed to receive my ability for defense. That’s what I needed to do right away!
“Welcome, recruit, I will be training you. Now harken to my wisdom!”

Learning progress: You have reached teacher 5 of 10

With the defense abilities everything was even simpler than with the attack ones. Only one defense was taught in the Academy; it was charmingly called “Energy armor”. The ability required 20 Energy for activation and 1 Energy unit per minute to maintain it. Not really a cheap deal for those who had no elixirs or food. It was simple to upgrade the defense as well: you needed to activate and maintain the armor for 5 minutes; then the Game added +1 to its use. Over the free six months of training that I spent in the test range I was able to reduce the activation cost to 18 Energy and increase “Armor resistance” from 15 to 16 percent. That was all I was able to achieve; nor was I successful in getting the teacher to talk. Either the teachers communicated with each other, or I ran into a particularly reserved and withdrawn representative of the profession, but he would say nothing beyond the standard phrases. Could it be a feature specific to hidden teachers? Talking less and doing more?
In any case, I decided to implement the plan I had developed during the half a year of training. I needed information and I was going to get it.
“Paladin!” A player shouted as soon as I stepped out into the clearing with the teacher. In my sector there were two more teachers available in the open, and one hidden teacher; by now I’d abandoned all hope of finding the latter. However, I was not going to neglect the training: I needed to be prepared before arriving at the Labyrinth, whatever that was. I looked over the clearing, spotted the mages among other players there, and slowly, inexorably like fate, moved towards them. My knees were shaking, my chest was tight with fear, my hands were trembling, but I clenched my teeth, made a poker face and walked on, holding my head high. I needed to test everything I learned, and the only way I could see for it was a good fight with the players.
“Stop right there,” the mage ordered, but seeing that his words had no effect he screamed hysterically: “Kill him!”
“I am the Templar’s blow”! I answered, dealing a straight blow to the warrior who rushed at me. The player was one of those select few who’d chosen a weapon for an artifact, so I didn’t bother dodging his blow, taking it on my energy armor. I understood very well all the risks I was taking – whatever protection I had it would not have withstood a simultaneous hit from a hundred players. That’s why I chose the furthest clearing from the attack abilities teacher. The number of players capable of enhanced attack should be minimal here.
Silence fell over the clearing when the warrior who attacked me dissolved in the air like fog in the gust of wind. Enhanced hit on the head proved fatal for the player while he in turn only took 1 Energy unit off of me. That’s what it took to block the sword. What saddened me most was the amount of experience received: a mere 10 points. Apparently, the player who attacked me had been at level 1, and if he hadn’t been initiated that mean that I had just completely killed a living being. What did I feel? Regret? Sadness? Remorse? Phh! The warrior knew what he was getting into trying to stuff me with steel, so it was his own fault. I am the truth!
There were no volunteers among the rest of the players to repeat the feat; practically immediately a wide path formed between me and the mages. A few more arrows hit on my shield, but they petered out fairly soon: the players made a collective decision to give me to the four mages. If they needed a Paladin, they’d have to take him themselves.
“Die, you bastard!” The leader of the local mages shouted with such hatred it sounded as if I’d killed all his kin, having maimed and raped them first. Four lightning bolts hissed off the mages hands, and impotently licked my protective shell. The A-hour had struck; that was the moment I feared the most; however, the reality proved not so terrifying. 10 Energy for each lightning, and neither of them was able to penetrate my “Enhanced defense”. I allowed the mages to strike again, then took another Energy elixir and, finally, rushed toward the mages. Now it was my turn to attack.
“I am the Templar’s blow”!
Six months of training and destroying the trees hadn’t been in vain: I needed to use my attack ability only once. The mages didn’t have an active defense, so my precise blows of the spiked knuckleduster reduced their heads to a bloody pulp: the mages had no skills for close combat. The physiology of players and NPCs were the same, and the appearance of a piece of steel inside the brain never made anyone better off. One after another my opponents dissipated, sent to respawn; however, my plans were a bit more extensive than a simple massacre. Dolgunata had taught me that in the game it was possible not only to be killed but also to be knocked out. So I used my spikes to crush both legs of the local mage leader so that he wouldn’t run off. Then I took off my artifact and socked him one in the eye to put the guy to sleep.
“Bleagh!” I whirled sharply, hearing an unfamiliar sound. The statues, pale as sheets, that used to be players, froze in righteous terror from the sight. Some particularly impressionable ones who hadn’t expected such a bloody payback were retching where they stood. However, no one hurried to help the mage sprawled in the middle of a bloody puddle. My opponents had leaked a fair amount of blood, but I took it in stride. They had wanted to kill me. I killed them as I fought back. I would never have thought that I could be so bloodthirsty and untouched by the pain of others. Perhaps the world, after all, managed to kill the naïve and humane Yaropolk, who had come to the Academy wanting to conquer the world, and it would take me a long time now figuring out who had appeared in his place.
“Any more volunteers to stop me from training?” I growled, addressing the “statues”. There was silence. Recruits who’d become players just a few days ago were still not used to the realities of the Game. Not everyone had had a chance to think all the events through. It took me a year, so now I looked a lot more mature than the rest of the present company. “Guys, work on your own development! Stop listening to the mages! If you don’t train with the teachers, you’ll simply croak without reaching the next level!”
The statues revived and startled to grumble something in response, but I wasn’t listening to them. Grabbing the mage who was still unconscious I dragged him towards the teacher. Before I worked on obtaining information I still needed to train.
Welcome, recruit, I am going to teach you your specialty presently. Now harken to my wisdom!

Learning progress: You have reached teacher 6 of 10
You have already completed specialty training; this teacher does not count
Learning progress: You have reached teacher 5 of 10

“Why do you need the mage, recruit?” the teacher asked as soon as the space around us turned into the training range.
“He’s my source of knowledge,” I scowled bloodthirstily. “I never had a chance for decent training prior to the Academy; this gap needs to be filled. The recruit I selected is quite suitable for this.”
“I don’t like what you’re planning to do with him,” the old man sighed. By inflicting pain on someone you consciously drive yourself into Darkness.”
“Darkness. Light. Aren’t those two names for the same thing?” I wasn’t going to give up. “What is meant by 'allegiance to Light'? What is meant by 'allegiance to Darkness'? Following some rules and traditions? But they don’t exist!”
“You’re mistaken!” my musings had affected the old man. “The Game defines clearly what is Light and what is Darkness! What the Light ones can do and what the Dark ones can do! I’d like you to know that ever would a single Dark one be able to enter the gate of Vargolag! A unicorn would never accept a Dark one never!! Never will a single Dark one touch the hand of the great Iurm!
“You have some problems with the Dark ones?” I guessed after hearing 'never' a few times too many.
“Dark ones killed all my kin!” The old man tried to retain control, but it was obvious that he was shaking with rage. “They shouldn’t exist!”
“You still never told me what’s the difference between Light and Darkness!” I wasn’t going to surrender. Just because the old guy had trouble communicating with the Dark ones didn’t mean that it was a bad path. It was simply different.
“My duty is to teach you a specialty, Paladin.” The teacher seemed to have regained self-control and turned into a block of ice. “If you want to find out about the difference between the Light and Dark development paths, talk to the Chancellor. He’d be glad to reduce you to dust, Dark one!”
There was a pause. The old man was standing with his head raised high, showing with his entire appearance that there was no way I could extract from him any additional information I needed so much. All that was left to me was to sigh heavily and say, suppressing my pride:
“I’ve got nothing else to do here …”
Having come back to the Academy, and seeing that the players in the clearing still hadn’t regained their composure, I dragged the unconscious mage further into the forest. I needed to justify being called “Dark”…
“Noooo!” the mage’s wild scream could probably have been heard throughout the entire sector. He was trying to crawl away, but his broken arms and legs prevented him. It was funny: his emotions didn’t affect me! There was a half-maimed living being lying right in front of me, and all that concerned me was when the mage was finally going to talk! I perceived the torture not as something outstanding, but rather like a normal game process. Once I killed the mage (and there was no doubt that I’d kill him), he would respawn safe and sound again. What I had been able to find out from him by now was his level: level three.
“Arius, do understand: you have no choice,” I repeated one more time. “Until you tell me everything I want to know, I won’t let you go.”
“Go to hell, you!” The mage had blurted out, overcoming the pain and attempting to attack me with lightning yet again. But not so easy! Knowing very well that the player could have used the key phrase several times, draining his own Energy and going for respawn, I had broken both his arms. And legs, just in case. Moreover, I had done it so carefully that even though he didn’t have a single unbroken bone, Arius did not bleed to death: the artifact allowed me to retract the spikes. Besides, after some training sessions I had learned to extend them at will, instantly or slowly. Certainly, that did not add any pleasant sensations to my subject: no one would enjoy sharp three-inch spikes piercing his flesh slowly and inexorably like an approaching train, ignoring any obstacles.
“Oh well, to hell with hell,” I sighed, extending the spikes to pierce the mage’s shoulder. It was horrible even to imagine what this player must feel right now; personally, I wouldn’t have been able to hold on for so long. To prevent the mage from escaping, I periodically applied some ointment to the pierced area to stop him from bleeding. That was an expensive method, but I saw no other choice — I needed information! Another scream of pain echoed through the forest and the mage fainted. He was lucky this time.
“Enjoying yourself?” Dolgunata’s appearance was so unexpected that my heart jumped in my chest. I constantly monitored the Paladins' movement on the map, but couldn’t see the druid’s location. I had supposed she was with them and had forgotten that the panther could use her speed to outrun the guards. Apparently, I’d have to pay for being careless. “Decided to take your anger out on this poor soul?”
“This ‘poor soul’ was trying to kill me,” I shot back, jumping to my feet and activating my protection. The druid should’ve killed me outright: she might not get another chance. “Now it’s time for payback.”
“You could’ve just killed him. Why all this bother?”
“I need information. He refuses to talk, so I have to extract it. Did you want something?”
“You owe me,” the druid started her same old song.
“It’s too late, beautiful. I’ve visited the trader. Shall we dance?”
“How did you…”, Dolgunata tensed, but a moment later shifted from a panther into a person. “Listen, I’m fed up playing those games. Let’s talk?”
“Oh, we’ve graduated to an urge to talk,” I quipped, extending the artifact spikes and extracting an Energy elixir from the inventory. Dolgunata is not a mage — you have to be careful with her. “Don’t you think it’s too late?”
“It’s never too late to talk,” the druid returned, sighed, and then blurted out, practically gluing me to the spot: “For the past seven years I’ve been Archibald’s personal student. He sent me with this particular group of recruits so that I could help you graduate from the Academy. Whatever you did affected him; he even broke the rules casting a complete stun on you. I think that’s the reason you can see the guiding line. Teart also was hit with a full mental block before he reached the Academy. In this way you’re similar and, I think, that’s why both of you can see the way. There’s no other way to explain it. Archibald gave me clear instructions: to provoke you constantly, thus making you develop. He considers that’s the only way you’ll survive. You should agree: he was right and I was able to needle you above and beyond normal. You’ve covered practically all the teachers within the sector; the next quest is the Labyrinth. It’s impossible to complete it alone. I propose that we cooperate until the end of the Academy. I need to complete my teacher’s assignment; you and the Paladins need to survive. I lost my head when you… touched me, and so sent you to respawn. I had to tell everything to the team, hoping that I wouldn’t have to tell you anything. I supposed that you’d be scared of death and would start playing nice. It’s my mistake: I’m ready to accept punishment, but only after we return. What do you say to that?”
“Why didn’t you explain everything from the start?” I frowned. I had never expected any help from the catorian; so Dolgunata’s story was that much more surprising.
“It’s Archibald’s condition. If I had been able to help you pass through the Academy without telling you anything about myself, my reward would’ve been a lot higher than what I can count on at this stage. That was the reason why I didn’t want to enter into any agreements with you until now. I could’ve betrayed myself in some way.
“So in addition to all of that you get a reward?”
“Naturally.”
“Why did you decide to be so frank now?”
“Because the mages have figured out how to fight Monstrichello. The Paladins barely got out alive from the last teacher. Alone they won’t make it to the Labyrinth.”
“Why, all of a sudden, such affection for our class?”
“Have you read Saint-Exupéry? I do agree with what the Fox said about those things.”
“You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed...” I drawled, but immediately it dawned on me: “How much were you promised for each Paladin?”
“A granis per non-initiated head,” Dolgunata responded defiantly. “You protest against your brethren surviving?”
“Far from it. I support that entirely. After the next teacher I was going to rid them of you, supposing that you had taken them under your control again. But you didn’t right?”
“After I was sent to respawn I didn’t use my abilities on Paladins I swear by the Game!” Dolgunata said and for a few seconds a light glow shimmered around her. The druid was telling the truth.
“ …”
“It’s simpler than trying to prove something to you,” she said in response to my silent question. “You never said... shall we continue together?”
“No!” I answered after thinking a while. “Our paths part from now on.”
“WHAT?!” Dolgunata was astonished to the extent of being unable to hide her emotions.
“What you heard. I now know how much a granis is worth, so I realize that you’re vitally interested in making sure that Teart, Refor and Dirion graduate from the Academy. There’s no point in taking them away from you. It’s your problem now. Logir, Sartal and Мonster are already initiated, so they aren’t in danger. So they’ll kick the bucket a couple of times: big deal… They are no one to me. So you say the mages figured out a way to fight the tank? I’ve been down there and seen the mages fight. They can’t put up a good fight against you. Take the Paladins around to the remaining teachers, make sure they get the training. I’ll give you the location of another hidden one make sure everyone learns defense, I dont need to tell you how important this is. That’ll help you survive. But we’ll go down different roads. You can report to Archibald that you didn’t just fulfill your task, but have overdone it: now I don’t believe anyone. Did you really think I’d trust a creature who wanted to frame my entire team, and who killed me twice? That I’d trust you just because of a connection to Archibald a freak, whose tail I look forward to breaking as soon as I get out of the Academy?”
I told Dolgunata the hidden teacher’s coordinates; after that we stared daggers at each other for about a minute. Neither I nor Nata wanted to look down first, like two teenagers fighting to establish who's tougher. Finally, the druid gave up, dropping her gaze, but only to immediately look at me, not with the eyes of a teenage girl, but an experienced and cunning woman. The change was so drastic that for a moment I was taken aback.
“The boy has grown up. The boy has become a man,” Dolgunata drawled in such a languid voice that I felt as if everything inside me was melting, and my libido hit the stratosphere. She was trying to control me again! What a bitch!
“Stop that!” I growled with the remains of my sense, trying to push Nata out of my head. It seemed like I was starting to succeed when the druid used her trump card: suddenly moving very close to me...
“Stop what?”
“I am ….” I had no other choice but to kill Dolgunata. The druid was dangerous. But for some reason my thoughts were moving so slowly that I only managed to push out two words before Nata practically finished me off:
“Stop this?”
The druid’s green dress opened, revealing the girl’s perfect form. My world toppled, and all my troubles floated away. How could a being so perfect be evil? Had I really wanted to hit her just a moment ago? That was unforgivable of me! I was saddened to note that she had underwear on that concealed the beauty’s breasts. Size B, my favorite. Not huge tits like a cow’s and not little lumps like those of flat-chested skinny girls. This breast would fit in my hand just right, allowing me to enjoy its tenderness and sweet softness and …
“You’re weak and helpless, Paladin,” Dolgunata whispered, bending down to my face. I jerked forward, trying to kiss the goddess who had descended to me from the sky, but she easily moved back, not allowing to touch her velvet lips. “You’d never compare to my teacher! Learn, risk the Labyrinth on your own; once you understand that you are just a no-name nobody, I might agree to help. But I warn you outright: if you want me to help you’d have to crawl to me on your knees! I opened to you, offered you a helping hand, but you pushed me away. Too bad for you. Until we meet again, Paladin. I don’t know what the teacher saw in you...”

You were killed and sent to a respawn point
You lost one level
Your current level: 4

“Paladin!” The players scream, to which I was becoming accustomed, informed me that I was at the respawn point again. “Catch him!”
“I am the Templar’s blow”!
I was using up Energy elixirs at the express rate. The players were trying to get to me from all sides, but unlike the last time, I wasn’t attempting to run away. On the contrary, I openly rejoiced at being in the center of a huge crowd of players wanting to kill me. At the previous site it was enough for me to kill a warrior and the players had parted, letting me pass; but here, at the respawn point, no one was in the mood to retreat. In my current state I actually needed that, since I needed to vent my emotions on someone. Dolgunata had yet again shown me my place, demonstrating that even six months of leveling up my defenses was no guarantee of safety. She’d made me lose my concentration, and then the protective shell had dissipated as if it had never been there. So the local players were out of luck: I was angry.
“Regroup!” I heard Dangard’s order and for a few moments I was left alone. Another empty vial was set on the shelf and I turned towards the mages. Socking in the face the rogue who rushed towards me, I moved on, fatal like an avalanche, towards the leader of the “Say no to Paladins” movement. Instead of catching me by my arms and legs, pressing me to the ground and finishing me off, so I wouldn’t be able to get up, the players were trying to be the first to hit me, getting in each other’s way and enabling me to collect my bloody harvest. Just five minutes of this melee not only restored my level 5, but actually brought me up to level 7. I looked at the mages who clustered together, and immediately a funny plan occurred to me, as brilliant as it was original. There was nothing left for me other than to start implementing it immediately.
“Hi! Shall we talk?” I said, stopping within just a few steps of the mages. One half of me wanted to tear and crush everything within reach, but the other half, including my consciousness, stifled that urge, and worked on extracting maximum advantage from the current situation. Information! I needed information, and Dangard was the only player who possessed it. The Book of Knowledge, working like a live video relay, showed me that a crowd of fifteen players gathered around my back, but was in no rush to attack. The players still couldn’t figure out how it was possible that an ordinary Paladin, not even armed with a sword, had been able to send to respawn over fifty bodies while not sustaining any visible damage. If they’d only known that this battle had cost me half of my store of elixirs, they probably wouldn’t have stopped …
“Let’s talk,” to my surprise, Dangard turned out to be quite a sensible player, who adequately saw his chances for victory. At this point he saw none, so he was trying to stall for time: the runners must have already gone off to the neighboring clearings; soon reinforcements would arrive. “Did you find a hidden teacher somewhere and learned defense?”
“It wasn’t only that,” I saw no reason to hide the obvious along with the fact that I was still holding an elixir in my hand. The teacher was right: at the initial level the defense really did make a player invincible. I needed to use this fact to the max.
“I see. But sooner or later you’ll run out of elixirs you understand that, right?
“Right.”
“And you understand that we have no choice: either we destroy you, or Devir will destroy all of us.”
“I know that as well.”
“In that case I don’t understand what we could talk about.”
I need information about the Academy. What, where, how and why. You have it. The point of my offer is simple: you share information with me, I stop hunting you and let you through to the Labyrinth at a level higher than one. Otherwise I’ll just trap you all here and will keep you here until the majority are dead. You are the only initiated mage in our sector, right? I’ll make it so that you’ll have to keep going by your lonesome. I don’t care what Devir will do to you later I care what I’ll do to you now!”
“I am the Templar’s blow”!
It would’ve been pointless waiting for a response. The mages weren’t ready for this dialogue now. Dangard’s pose, expressions and body language indicated that he wasn’t taking my threats seriously; so I did what the druid had taught me: attacked first. The mages were sent to respawn without even as much as throwing a lightning at me; or it was possible that by then they didn’t have enough Energy to do it. Seven blows, seven slowly disappearing corpses.
“Everyone’s free to go!” I turned towards the remaining players. They never dared attack me, deciding to wait for the outcome of the showdown between Dangard and myself. I checked the map and pointed towards the center of the Academy: "The Labyrinth is there! The longer you are cooling your heels here the less time you have. Or does someone have a secret wish to get back at me? I’ll count to ten and then kill everyone who remains in the clearing. One. Two…”
There were no stupid ones, and for a while I was completely alone. Amazing, but Dolgunata had been able to wake in me something that I hadn’t even known was there. Anger. Thirst for killing. The impulse to crush and stomp. During the hour several groups of mages ran into the respawn clearing and I sent them to take a rest and respawn without much ado. . I had only forty two vials of elixir left, but I wasn’t going to give up and abandon my plan. I needed information!
Taking a position close to the point where players appeared, I extended the spikes to their maximum length and started training on precise hits to the head. Players appeared one after another; yet during the first three hours I decided not to bother sorting them, simply sending everyone to respawn. My actions were the same as the genocide started by the mages; the Chancellor would certainly not like that, but at this point I didn’t care anymore. Light is not my thing.
“I agree, damn you!” Dangard yelled, appearing in the Academy after the third respawn in a row. During the three hours of non-stop fighting I had managed to reach level 10, and was starting to seriously contemplate totally wiping out all the one hundred and twenty seven players who were caught in the respawn mill. I let no one escape – neither the mages, nor other class players who were caught in this crush accidentally. Everyone got it bad.
“You’ll get the information! Stop this!”
“You forgot to add that until the end of the Labyrinth the mages and your local minions will forget about the Paladins."
“Fine. Game is the witness — we won’t touch the Paladins until the wastelands!” Amazing, but Dangard had broken down too fast. Either his level had dropped too low and he realized that dropping it further meant major problems, or he completely hadn’t expected such cruelty from a non-initiated player. By all accounts I should’ve run off to a dark corner and sat there trying not to attract attention, but I didn’t like playing according to the pre-established standards any more. I stepped aside, allowing the next mage to appear, and looking at Dangard all the while. He was supposed to signal that there was no need to attack me, that we’d reached an agreement.
There was no attack.
“What do you want to know?” It took Dangard about ten minutes to recover and collect his thoughts. During that time most of the players respawned and decided that the respawn point wasn’t the best place to hang around. Only the mages stayed at the clearing; they couldn’t figure out what had happened and why their leader was suddenly talking with their main intended victim.
“Everything you know about the Academy. Teachers, hidden teachers, traders, tricksters, crapsters, completing the Labyrinth… I need exhaustive information.”
"I’ll figure out a way to get through your defenses,” Dangard growled with hatred, looking me straight in the eye. For a moment I felt a weak urge to take off my armor and embrace my brother, who by some fluke had turned out to be a mage, but I only grinned, and the temptation passed at once. Compared to Dolgunata, Dangard was nowhere close to being able to control other players well. Had the druid’s influence on us been at the same level, perhaps I would still be among the Paladins. By the way, by now they must have made it rather far from the territory discovered by me. They must be approaching the mysterious Labyrinth.
“The Academy is divided into four large sectors,” Dangard started, as he realized that the attempt to take me under control had failed. “Each of the sectors …”
Listening to Dangard, I clenched my fists in impotent rage, understanding that I had simply missed out on a certain part of training in the Academy. Why were there hidden teachers in the Academy? They didn’t teach you anything special, just enabled you to select the sequence of training, and in essence didn’t affect your return to the main world? Dangard explained what my mistake was: if one were to refuse the training and offered wisdom, the teacher wouldn’t count. Instead the recruit would receive additional information on the current Labyrinth setup and the key to one of the tests that had to be passed there. The Labyrinth was the only part that always changed from one batch of students to another, and so it was impossible to prepare for it outside the Academy, only inside it. In addition, it was set up in such a tricky way that refusing to train would make the process of passing through the Labyrinth much easier: if you were to find all the hidden teachers in the sector and refuse to train with them, you could collect three keys from the four tests. And the final nail in the coffin of my hopes was the caveat that only one recruit in each team was able to use the keys; he could take up to ten players with him. So, if two players on the same team were to turn down the training, only one of them would be able to deactivate the test; all the other group members’ keys would be destroyed. Now it became clear what Dolgunata had meant by saying that she knew how to complete part of the Labyrinth. She had become a key master! I was unable to hold back a curse: in a bout of kindness and desire to save my “brothers” in class I had presented to Dolgunata the location of the second hidden teacher! Now half of the Labyrinth would be practically easy as pie for her! Where was Dangard a couple of hours ago?!
The mage didn’t have much information regarding the wastelands, only a generic notion: the wasteland inhabitants were divided into Light and Dark ones, diligently killing the opposite factions. The point of completion was that one had to choose one's side while in the Labyrinth, and use assistance from allies in the wastelands. Dangard did not refuse to explain what was Light and Darkness; he just didn’t have a lot of information about it himself. Everything turned out both simple and complicated at the same time. First of all, all players in the Academy were supposed to form an allegiance with their “hue”; there was no place for neutral ones. If a player were unable to take a side, the Game would wipe him out. Once the recruit returned to the main world, the top scale disappeared and the selected side would be the player’s side to the end. What was the effect of this, Dangard didn’t know. He knew one thing only: it was important to be “Light”, for Devir wouldn’t teach the “Dark” ones, even though he wouldn’t kill them either. I looked at my scale and frowned: the arrow rested almost halfway down the dark die. If I were to continue with my atrocities, it would reach the end, and then I’d receive the first level of Darkness. Like everything else in the Game, players’ allegiance leveled up as well. What benefits that would give me, or from what it would protect me, nobody knew.

Book of Knowledge reached a new level. You need to increase the level of the artifact properties: “Context search” (1), “Weapon”(1), <Choose value from the list >


After I was alone again I decided against testing fate, and returned to the forest. While working on the available properties I’d become vulnerable. Agreement is one thing, but someone among the players might decide that it wasn’t made with him personally, and send me for a spin. So I climbed up, made sure the Paladins were still as far off as before, and opened the list of the available artifact properties. Improving the Book of Knowledge or attack capabilities seemed excessive to me at the moment. The battle with the players had demonstrated what I was lacking. I had issues with availability of free Energy; before investing in something I needed to make sure that issue was resolved.

Chapter Seven. Partner




I APPROACHED the last of the generally available teachers in the reinforced concrete forest with a clear understanding of what I wanted from this life and from the Game specifically. I’d spent about three hours working to figure out the artifact properties and selecting the ones most suitable for the current situation and future game; at the same time I contemplated the strategy of my further actions. I even tried to gain access to the Temple of Knowledge a few times, but to no avail: the Game must have considered that my need for new knowledge wasn’t vital. So I had to study the list on my own, and in the end selected the three properties the description and use of which seemed the most understandable: “Acceleration”, “Protection” and “Thoroughness”.
“Acceleration” reduced the cooldown time for all abilities and increased the rate of Energy restore. It was a somewhat marginal quality for now, given that Energy doesn’t replenish within the Academy, but given the inevitable return to the main world that quality looked quite advantageous. The only thing that concerned me was a rather narrow applicability of this property: it would be useful only to fighters and defenders, but not, really, for a world explorer.
“Protection” enhanced “Armor resistance” and reduced the amount of Energy needed to block a blow; that would be extremely useful both within the Academy and beyond. In time the other players’ probability of dealing a critical hit would increase, and I needed to be ready for that. The drawbacks of this quality were that it did not affect Energy at all and required a continuously activated energy shield.
“Thoroughness” reduced the amount of Energy drawn by the use of all abilities by a certain value; it was also useful to players who had chosen a creative path by mysteriously lowering the rate of “low quality results”. Given that I’d been unable to discover any properties that directly increased the level of Energy, this one would have to do.
As before, the description of each property was only available to level 15, so, having thought out all the pros and cons, I decided on “Protection”. Here in the forest I was a tough and hard to kill player. But by the wastelands the mages would have studied defense and it wouldn’t be beer and skittles any more for me. I needed to protect myself.
“Welcome, recruit, I will tell you about the basics of the Game. Harken to my wisdom!”

Learning progress: You have reached teacher 6 of 10

“How interesting, a practically darkened recruit!” The teacher said with surprise as soon as the world around us turned into a training range. “That’s rare for the initial stage of training!”
“Would you stop pointing that out to me already?!” I lost my temper. “Would someone finally explain to me what’s the difference between Light and Darkness?!”
“You need to revise your behavior; a Judge shouldn’t be so emotional,” the old man said coldly. “What’s good for a berserk isn’t acceptable for others. Especially for you.”
“I lost my temper, I admit,” I agreed. “But I am so often reproached about Darkness without any explanation that I couldn’t contain myself any longer.”
“You broke down, that’s a fact,” the teacher confirmed. “But it didn’t happen just now. The emotional breakdown started immediately after respawn; you still can’t come to your senses. Explain: why did you need that massacre? You could have easily avoided it and preserved a huge stock of elixirs.”
“I needed the levels.”
“Do you even believe that yourself? You killed seven players to the final death and brought another twenty recruits to level one. Was that worth your levels?”
“Yes,” I had no doubt that I was right. “I was not the first to unbury the hatchet of war, so it’s not up to me to bury it. They wanted to kill me I fought back. So you say I killed someone? That means there was no place for them in the Game!
“Stop!” The teacher said suddenly. “Record your current emotions. Describe them! What do you feel?”
“Indignation,” I decided to follow the teacher’s advice and listen to the emotions roiling in my chest. “Yearning for justice. Desire to set things in order and eliminate injustice.”
“Actually, that’s why you turned Dark,” the old man smiled. “Judges are rarely Light anyway.”
“I still don’t understand anything,” I honestly confessed to the teacher.
“In the Game the difference between Light and Darkness is minimal, strange as it may sound. The difference is in how the player replenishes his Energy. What is Darkness? It is absence of Light. What is Light? It is radiance from any source. Actually, that's the difference. Light makes it possible to replenish Energy using external sources: holy relics, artifacts, symbols of faith and other similar objects. Darkness replenishes Energy directly from the surrounding world, pulling it out of emotions and everything that is not a material object. You have to remember: as soon as Light appears, Darkness disappears; that’s why an ordinary Dark one cannot enter the places that you are used to calling churches: for the majority of dark players the amount of Energy spent is equal to the amount of Energy received; so if you take away the source, it will result in practically instant respawn or death. The same thing is true with respect to the sources themselves. For example, the closer you place a Christian cross to a witch, the weaker she becomes, up to dying. As you understand, both Light and Dark players can be good or evil; the difference is just in the way they restore Energy.
“Then why do they loath each other so?” I answered in surprise. “If the difference is so insignificant?”
“You weren’t listening carefully. The Light ones replenish Energy from physical sources, and the Dark ones from emotions. But what do you do if in the environment around you there aren’t enough emotions?”
“Take an elixir.”
“That’s an option, but we’ll discuss that later. Suppose you have no elixirs. What would you do?”
“I’d need to generate emotions,” I guessed.
“That’s right! Do I need to explain further or will you guess yourself why the Dark ones aren’t well liked?”
“Generating emotions…,” I was rolling the thought around in my brain until a sudden epiphany froze me to the spot. “Torture. Inflicting pain. Killing their kin…”
“Artifacts of many Dark players have an “Accumulator” property which enables them to store additional Energy,” the teacher continued sadly, picking up at the point where my thought trailed off. “No need to frown; this property is not available in the Academy. It’s much simpler to fill the surrounding space with emotions of pain and despair than with joy and happiness. Questing for Energy, some Dark ones don’t care about NPCs, minions or even other players, sometimes destroying entire game worlds just to top their ‘storage battery’.”
“You are speaking with such regret as if you’re also a Dark one and those examples are not to your liking.”
“I am the only teacher in the Academy who has the right to show his true face. You’re right — I am also Dark, just as you. I’m known under different names: Father Frost, Santa Claus, Joulupukki and hundreds of other names. The overall point is to bring emotions to the worlds. Positive emotions. This is how I can save my Dark brothers to some extent and prevent them from turning into animals who are only capable of inflicting torture.”
Yet another layer of the Game was revealed to me. While I was an NPC I always wondered why most of the religions call on their flocks to be modest, peaceful, obedient, following the traditions and certain dogmas. It’s because a crowd of like-minded people have no emotions! They would, like robots, follow the instructions without generating Energy! And since there’s no Energy, the Dark ones would feel uncomfortable. They would either turn into various “Vlad the Impaler” types, or simply leave the uncomfortable game world forever. That’s why one of the teachers mentioned that I wouldn’t feel comfortable on Earth: it’s inundated with the Light ones!
“Wait… it’s clear about the Dark ones, but where do the sources of Light receive their energy? If they continuously dispense Energy, then sooner or later they must dissipate.”
“Or recharge,” the teacher smiled. “That’s exactly the point the Light ones very much dislike to discuss. Sources of Light recharge all the time by drawing Energy from those very same emotions. Only the Light ones use different words for that: Inquisition, crusade, jihad, prayer, voluntary attainment of nirvana. The Light ones came up with a million ways to replenish the sources of Light, covering cruelty with pretty words. This is, in fact, the full answer to your previous question as to why there’s a war between the Light and Dark ones. Simply because it’s a war for Energy sources! The Light ones have learned to gather it from the living, and the Dark ones, most of the time, are used to simply killing everyone. Conflict of interest its elementary. Besides, we shouldnt forget that its the Light ones who make the elixirs!
“What does this have to do with anything?”
“Think. Now you know the nature of Energy replenishment for both Dark and Light players. So why do the elixirs work for both?”
“Because it contains both a source and emotions,” I stated the obvious, but from the teacher’s look it became clear that it was just the beginning of the train of thought. “So the elixir is made from something wondrous, which has both a physical body and an emotional one... Wait… It’s…”
“The only ones who have both are living creatures.” The teacher confirmed my guess. “Sentient living creatures. NPCs. The exchange rate is quite democratic: one elixir takes one NPC, who is processed in his entirety. As I mentioned, the Light ones have a monopoly on that; in the process they also recharge their sources. Since the NPCs are going to die anyway, why let them do it quickly and painlessly? They can be useful instead.”
“But that’s horrible!” I said, stunned.
“It’s the Game.” The old man shrugged his shoulders. “You weren’t concerned about killing mobs in computer games? Imagine that you’re playing using full virtual reality immersion.”
“But why am I turning Dark?” I whispered, impressed by what I had just heard.
“Finally you become interested in what’s happening to you personally! Remember what I asked you in the very beginning: what you felt as you were killing other recruits. You didn’t say “regret”, “conscience”, “guilt”. You named “indignation”, “yearning for justice”, “desire to set things in order”. That’s where the answer lies. First of all, you needed to become Dark. You did that by killing the elf. You were fully aware of your actions, rejecting the “Thou shalt not kill” that had been drilled into you since childhood. A murder was accomplished on your instructions; however, your subconscious, shaped by your upbringing, realized that this was Evil. Actually, that’s how the allegiance is chosen in the Academy: the attitude of the subconscious towards the actions you commit. This cannot be changed. After that it becomes simpler: you committed actions your subconsciousness perceived as “bad” while your mind was telling you that it was “right”. Each discrepancy like this shifts the scale further and will continue to do so – you aren’t planning to give up killing, right?”
“So if someone has been told since childhood that killing is good, he’ll become Light? And with each killing will accumulate more and more Light?”
“You’re getting the idea. Yes. And another thing I need to tell you: the Light ones have one clear advantage: if they have a source, it’s hard to kill them. While the Dark ones can be unsettled if you throw a source of Light at them. Keep this in mind and be careful. If you have no more questions about allegiance, I’ll tell you now about other special features of the Game.”
“Wait. I have two questions. The first one is: is it possible to level up the allegiance? In other words, does it have its own levels? Second: why would the Chancellor kill a Dark player?”
“You already know the answer to the first one: just as with any other phenomenon in the Game, allegiance has its own levels. It’s unlikely that you’d receive the first one while still in the Academy, but should this happen you’d be able to use the feature of Dark players: absorb emotions from your surroundings to replenish your Energy. As for the second question: our Chancellor is a unique being, I wouldn’t state it with any degree of certainty. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t, it would all depend on his mood at that particular moment. But in general, well, he isn’t particularly fond of the Dark ones. There’s more Light than Dark in him by now.”
“What’s unique about him?”
“He is a Dark vampire.” The teacher though for a very long time before answering. “Constant struggle of Light and Darkness can drive one mad, so the Viceroy shut him in the Academy forever. The Chancellor cannot leave it.”
“Emm… But aren’t vampires Dar… Blood! Vampires have a source of energy: it’s blood! They are Light by default!” Today was the day for revelations. “But wait: how did he become Dark?”
“It’s the upbringing,” the teacher grinned. “It’s all in the upbringing. By the way, I’m looking at your logs… Don’t worry, that’s an option only available to teachers, and then only in the Academy… You could have become a vampire. With your attitude to killing things you would’ve become one more Chancellor and would have been unlikely to survive after the Academy. The Game doesn’t need freaks. If that’s all you have, let me complete your training. I still have a lot to tell you…”

Book of Knowledge has reached a new level. You need to increase the level of the artifact properties: “Context search” (1), “Weapon” (1),“Protection" (1) <Choose value from the list>

“Those who select the path of knowledge have certain advantages,” the teacher smiled when at the same time as the upgrade message appeared for the Book of Knowledge I was returned to the Academy. “Good luck in the Game, Dark one, and remember: a Judge should not yield to emotions! Dark players cannot use their own emotions, so why feed a potential enemy?”
I fully agreed with the teacher’s statement; I increased “Protection” by another point and looked glumly at the players crowding around me. There were a few mages among them. No one was in a hurry to attack: Dangard’s order had already been made known at all the locations. I walked straight through the crowd of players, keeping my face carefully blank. I had some unfinished business in the forest, and nobody present could interfere with that. Why should I jump from stone to stone like a monkey? There would be time to do that later.
Two years of training, a year each at the ranges for attack and defense abilities, brought my stock of elixirs down to 38; however, the result of voluntary solitude was worth it. I was able not only to enhance my attack and defense; I was able to organize all the knowledge I received from the trader, Dangard and the teacher. I was also able to finalize my attitude towards the Game and my place within it. What had guided me before? Emotions, impulses, desires, standards of conduct, wishes of the group – completely not thinking about the most important thing: what will the benefit be to me personally? Players enter and leave the Game alone, so first and foremost one needs to think about one’s precious self. Which is something I had not been doing at all previously. As an example, the story with Dolgunata kept coming to mind: I gave her the location of the hidden teacher, and what I received in exchange was respawn. This kind of thing should not be repeated. As for the druid herself, I could not touch her within the Academy. She should lead the Paladins through. I was not thinking from the standpoint of love for the class, but rather from the standpoint that Sharda wouldn’t let me in the Citadel’s library if he should learn that I hadn’t helped my “brothers”. The gnome did have some kind of hang-up about that. However, letting Nata off the hook completely wouldn’t do either: if I were to indulge in such folly as forgiveness, I’d stop respecting myself. The druid had to be punished; the only question was: in what way? During the training I’d been unable to come up with a clear answer. Only one thing was certain: I was in for a good fight with the panther, so I trained thoroughly not only in my abilities but also in agility, training my body, which was not at all used to physical strain. The funny part was that the emotional toll of the first six months of the first bout of training was much harder than now. At that time I had no goal or understanding of what I was doing. While now I knew very clearly why I was mutilating the trees or repeating rolls and push-ups. The Game doesn’t like the weak. If I wanted to survive I’d have to tear at each and everyone with my teeth… After all, I wasn’t Dark for nothing…
“Come on sweet, show up already!” I whispered, holding my hand above the guiding line. Following the training I didn’t immediately rush to the Labyrinth, as might have been expected; rather, I decided to test the skills I had acquired in real combat. The recruits now served as cannon fodder for me; they weren’t fit for fighting back and so there was no way to test my strength and defense ability with them. But I knew who would be a worthy opponent for me: forest guards. The fact that it was possible to run away from them meant they were relatively slow. If that was true, why not attempt to fight one of them? At worst, it’d cost me a few elixirs, one level and an hour of my time. Nothing irrevocable. However, if everything were to come out as planned, I’d gain a lot more.
My legs trembled in fear and the hand I was holding out dropped onto the guiding line by the force of inertia. The guard snuck up on me, if this term was applicable to him, from behind; had I not taken the precautions, I wouldn’t have even known what killed me. I turned around and the Book of Knowledge helpfully highlighted in red a boulder that hadn’t been there previously. I took a few deep breaths, sending some oxygen through my body to get rid of the induced fear, attached the artifact to my hand and, making sure to touch the beam, approached the stilled guard.
Test number one: testing attack abilities.
An hour later the guard started blinking and then disappeared, leaving nothing behind: no crumbles, no experience, no loot and no satisfaction. I used “Templar’s Blow” a couple of times, but did not observe any visible effect; so I decided against wasting Energy, using just “un-enhanced” blows. This chunk of stone apparently couldn’t care less what was hitting it. Once two more guards departed to rest in eternal peace bringing me nothing except fatigue, I declared test number one completed: it was not possible to level up using guards in stasis.
Test number two: testing defense abilities.

You were killed and sent to a respawn point
You lost one level
Your current level: 9

It didn’t work. Having waited for the guard and made him still, I expected to fight a frontal attack, but the blow came from behind. The stone highlighted by the Book didn’t even stir, while a beam that had been in that place to begin with turned into a horrible monster and, despite my so-called upgraded defense, killed me with one blow just piecing me straight trough. Test number two was a failure as well.
Morally preparing myself to the last foray into the forest, I wandered from one teacher to another; I couldn’t help noticing how few players were left here. While at first everything was overcrowded with players getting in each other’s way, now each clearing had at most two or three players scared of their own shadow and hesitating to approach the teacher. There were no more mages, Paladins, or organized groups: apparently, they’ve all gone to the Labyrinth. There was only one path leading to it, but again I forced myself to retreat. I had an unfinished task, and couldn’t afford to move on until I fully studied and resolved this issue. I needed to understand where the arrows on the guiding beams led…
Three hours later they led me to a rather wide clearing located about four meters above the ground. In the center there was a two-meter crater whose jagged edges indicated its unnatural origin. There was someone sitting next to the crater, thinking; at a first glance at its figure I associated him with the Predator. The creature that was unable to destroy the future Governor of California. However, after I looked a little more carefully, the similarity faded somewhat. The player was a biped sentient orthograde being with very well developed muscles, over six feet tall – even though I could be wrong on that since he was sitting. He had strong legs and something like sandals on his feet, and wore knee guards made of some strange bluish material that looked like metal and dragon skin at the same time. Above that was a strange skirt-like piece of clothing with a wide belt that had a blue crystal instead of a clasp. His torso was criss-crossed with ribbons the same color as the belt; the shoulders were covered with guards in the shape of the skulls of some unknown animals with the same bright blue crystals for eyes. On top the player wore a cloak reaching the ground. A meter-long double-pointed staff was attached behind the right shoulder. All that glory was crowned with a dog’s head that looked very much like a terrestrial Doberman, and made one think of Anubis. I wondered what kind of a strange race that was?
“I can sense you!” The stranger shouted without moving. “Come out and we’ll talk.”
I stood still for some time thinking he was addressing someone else, and expecting another player to come out into the clearing; however, there was no one hurrying to step out from behind the stones. Activating my defenses, as I had no idea what to expect of this player, I stopped at the edge of the clearing looking for a guiding line. There was none.
“It’s safe here. Come off the Way.”
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” It must’ve sounded rather rude, but I wasn’t going to believe the word of some random guy. Stepping into the clearing and holding my hand over the guiding beam, I was prepared to drop if a guard were to show up, but after ten seconds none appeared. The stranger wasn’t lying, after all: it was in fact safe within the clearing. I walked around the center disfigured by the explosion, keeping it between myself and the recruit, and stopped a few steps away from the crater.
“Zangar, a necromancer. Here because of a dorn. But was too late. Someone else came first. Sense the right of first claim."
The necromancer spoke in short phrases, pausing between his sentences. It gave me the feeling that the dog-headed player only had enough ram memory for 3-4 words, after which he hit stack overflow and froze up. Zangar was calm, as if he didn’t need to worry about his safety. The conclusion was obvious: the player was sure of his strength. Either he was actually strong, or he had some additional information not accessible to common players. There was no other explanation that I could see.
“Yaropolk, Paladin,” I introduced myself in turn, thought and realized that in fact I had nothing to lose, so I asked point blank: :What’s a dorn?”
“…”
“I was led here by the arrows on the beams, which you called the Way. I have no clue what a dorn is, the right of first claim or what all that was needed for. I wasn’t looking for anything specific purposefully, just exploring the Academy. I plan to become an explorer, so any information is valuable.”
Truth is a mighty weapon. Had I tried to wriggle and spin tales that I already knew everything but wanted to check my information just in case, Zangar might have kept silent. But having heard my frank admission, the dog-headed one folded his ears in a funny way and stared at me for some time trying to figure out if I was lying or not. Then he said:
“Dorn’s a hidden teacher. Mechanism. Teaches all abilities. Even closed because of level. Right of first claim – prerogative of finder. Possible to blow up mechanism. Earn experience. Receive artifact enhancer. Someone better than me. He made it first.”
“What’s an artifact enhancer? I’ve never heard of this thing either. What does it do, increase the level of the artifact?”
“Three levels plus,” confirmed Zangar. "The one who finds a dorn becomes strong. Like a monster in the Academy. Unstoppable.”
A guess flashed through my head as to who could’ve used the “right of first claim”. Who could attain an inexplicable number of levels even having died several times? It was amazing we were even able to kill her! Perhaps, Nata hadn’t expected a double blow with weapons. But that wasn’t the most interesting part. I was puzzled by something else: did that mean that I was purposely misled from the true way and not allowed to find the dorn?
“Did you come here using the arrows?” I verified with Zangar just in case, received a positive answer, inhaled a chestful of air and shouted with all my might: addressing the air, not worried that a strange player was standing next to me:
“Chancellor! I need explanations! You favored other players!”
“So what?” a thunderous voice replied, as it seemed, coming from every stone. “It’s my Academy, and I’ll do whatever I want!”
“This is wrong!” I wouldn’t give up. “You are caring about other players, considering the mages’ actions wrongful, but you act worse than them!”
“Then convict me, Dark one!” There was so much open malice in that voice that I shuddered. Apparently, the Chancellor really disliked everyone who differed from Light ones. “Show your Judge’s skills and deliver a verdict that I was wrong!”
“There’ll be a time when I’ll do just that,” I growled in response. The Game did not open a case, so apparently the Chancellor’s actions fully fit within the established law and order. Moreover, my internal sense of injustice didn’t raise its head either, refusing to initiate anything. My subconscious was in agreement: that one hidden teacher had now been replaced by another.
“If that’s all, I am waiting for you and your silent companion in my tower!” The Chancellor ordered. “I’ll have to decide what to do with you!”
“What does the necromancer have to do with it? We aren’t even on the same team!” I was taken aback. “He was just sitting here …”
“That’s your problem, Dark one! Since you considered him worthy of hearing our dialogue, now you are responsible for him!” the Chancellor cut me off, then continued in a completely different tone, changing from irate to interested and addressing Zangar: “Besides, I’d like to know why Levard’s minion turned out to be a non-initiated player. How long have you studied, Light one?”
“A lot,” Zangar responded mysteriously, retaining his calm. The necromancer was Light? That was something new… “Levard gave me a task. What waits beyond the wasteland. Clarified requirements. Gave me choice. I decided to take risk.”
“Funny. For a cynocephalian you talk too much."
“Many years a guest. Elves. Gandrуs. Sires. Learned language. Became a player the skill was retained.
“Come to me with this careless recruit and you will receive what you are seeking!” the Chancellor stated pompously and the sounds of the surrounding world returned. As it turned out, while the Chancellor spoke even the wind and remote cries had died down.

Quest received: “Visit” Reach the Chancellor of the Academy as part of the group; minimum group membership: necromancer cynocephalian Zangar and Paladin human Yaropolk. Coordinates of the Chancellor’s Tower are marked on your map

“There are no quests in Academy!” Zangar stated , after staring into the air in front of him for a few moments. “That’s what my teacher said.”
“So, he was wrong. Gimme the group invite, Light one. Now this is truly weird. A Light necromancer.”
“Is your world unique?” Zangar was surprised. “Necromancers always Light. Our force is the dead.”
“Why not emotions?”
“Dead have no emotions.”
“But those around do. When around the dead. Especially when close to them. Crap!” I even started cursing as I realized that I was talking like the necromancer. Apparently it’s true that "one fool makes many".
“Extra weakness. If no one around? World is Light? To die? It’s easier for Light ones.”
“Possibly. What do you have to say about the quest? Shall we form a group?”
“I wait for Way seeker!” The necromancer said mysteriously. “Came here by arrows. Can’t see Way. If you see – let’s go. I need to get to Chancellor.”
“What for?” I couldn’t refrain from the question. “If we’re to continue together I’ll need information on to expect in the wastelands and beyond.”
“That’s not equal exchange,” Zangar objected stubbornly.”From me – information. From you – nothing. Unequal. I’ll join group. That I need. Ready to sign agreement. We need good group. But information is personal. What do you offer in exchange?”
“Have you visited hidden teachers?" I needed additional knowledge as badly as air, and it was necessary to make sure that my imposed partner visits the teachers. That would increase our overall chance of survival.
“Their coordinates keep changing…” said Zangar. “Teacher didn’t name them… You know where teachers are?”
“That’s right,” I beamed a smile at him. “You share information about the Academy, I take you to the hidden teachers. You’ll become the keymaster.”
“Having one key makes no sense. There are always two passages. We can enter but can never leave.”
“I’ll give you two keys.” The necromancer had some kind of additional knowledge about the keys, so it was a matter of honor to get him to talk. “But I need full information on what you know about the Academy. Only then will we be able to finish our quest.”
“Question. Do you see the Way? Not just the arrows, but the Way itself? That is important for me to make decision.”
“Yes,” I confirmed. "I was subjected to full stun prior to the Academy, so the Game highlights the safe way through the forest in green for me.
“What does stun to do with that?” The necromancer was surprised. “It’s not related. The Way not accessible to all. So I look for explorer.”
“Stop!” I guessed. “Only explorers or searchers can see the path? Then you are in luck: an explorer of the world is standing before you. I can see the Way.”
“Then we can agree. We need agreement. That we’re partners.”
“I have an idea,” a guess flashed through my head and I decided to implement it immediately. I filled my lungs with air and shouted, addressing the Game as I had addressed the Chancellor earlier: “Game! We need to enter into a standard agreement between myself and Zangar on partnership and exchanging information! We shall not attack each other, shall support and help each other in every way until we leave the Academy, since it’s so important for the Chancellor that we visit him. I will take Zangar to the hidden teachers; in exchange he’ll tell me, in as much detail as possible, the information he has about the Academy. If he forgets something it shall be not counted as breach of agreement provided that the forgettance is inadvertent.”
“I will tell if possible,” Zangar added. “Some topics forbidden. Not everything I can tell.”

Request is accepted, the agreement is prepared

A huge sheet of text appeared in front of me; in quite simple layman’s terms it listed all the main points of our agreement. As for the last clause, I included it so as not to make myself judge Zangar later, should he suddenly remember something extra.
“Non-initiated players have advantage,” Zangar started telling me as soon as the text of the agreement received both our signatures, turned green and then disappeared. Now we were full-fledged partners. Even a special icon appeared in my panel. I’ll need to enter into an agreement like that with Teart as well; a notebook is no place for storing agreements. “Chancellor gifts them.”
As it turned out, some advanced minions enter the Academy without initiation on purpose, so as to receive an opportunity to meet the Chancellor. He would meet only with non-initiated ones, rewarding them with gifts for their determination, faith in themselves and taking a conscious risk. Zangar’s teacher received as a gift a soul catcher that was able to capture the souls of players and NPCs up to level 200. In addition, the catcher was an energy source in itself, which made Levard one of the strongest players in his world. If Zangar were to have a similar gadget, even with a lower capture capacity, he’d become a very well respected necromancer. The Chancellor strictly prohibited Levard from telling anyone the principle behind receiving the bonus; however, the clever teacher was able to find a loophole and, using the dead, made the information available to his student without breaking the prohibition.
Cynocephalian Zangar, who turned out to be a level 5 player, just hmmed, seeing my 9th. I decided against upsetting my new partner by telling him that once I was at level 10. What if he developed depression; particularly since Zangar had thought for a while before sharing information on the chosen path of development, specialty and artifact. Since we were partners we both needed to understand what we were capable of. The necromancer had decided to become an Exorcist: a player who travels between the worlds and destroys the dead that have become undead. Wild vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, other undead – the scope of work for a potential Exorcist covered a lot and they were paid quite well, which was also important. As a profession that would be the best match with his path of development: the Game had suggested “Draftsman”. A special feature of necromancers’ work was that they needed to draw icons quickly, surely and with certainty; thus, the choice was obvious. Zangar had selected his artifact in the same way I had, using the Temple of Knowledge. Showing me his pike, the necromancer called it Necrospike almost with love, to the extent that he had emotions. It was a stabbing weapon and a necromancy enhancer, all in one. As an attack capability, necromancers received a curse, “Touch of Death”; to activate it they had to draw an activation icon in the air. For quite a while Zangar refused to try the curse on me; however, I was able to convince him that it was necessary to try both his blow strength and my defense, because all sorts of adversaries could be awaiting us.
The necromancer sighed, quickly waved his pike a few times… the air between us darkened, densed, turned into a skull of fog and crashed into my defense. A second went by, and another, and a third…
“Stop now!” I shouted at the cynocephalian, replenishing my Energy with an elixir. The protection was cracking up, eating up the Energy at an express rate. Necromancers were dependent on the drafting, that’s where their weakness lay. However, as soon as they cast a curse, they could just maintain it! Zangar pointed his pike at me that was emitting the fog and now observed, with as much interest as I had, the results of his attack. Normally, it took less energy to continue using an ability than to activate it, so Zangar was a formidable opponent for any player, even one with defense capacities.
“You have elixirs,” the cynocephalian noted, stopping his attack. “You didn’t say. Is that partner-like? It has to do with Academy.”
“I didn’t tell you much yet about myself and my place in the Academy,” I shot back. “You know that the Paladins have been chosen as a sacrifice, right?”
Now I knew what the selection of a sacrifice class was. Just before the recruits were sent to the Academy, the Viceroy cast lots to select a class. Killing its members would bring triple experience points for other recruits. That class was assigned to be a sacrifice class. As a bonus, practically all members of the sacrifice class were sent to one sector. Myself and my former team had been unlucky in that: we were thrown to a place where Paladins were rare as hen’s teeth.
Zangar nodded in affirmation, which made it easier for me to tell about the mages, the players they hired, the elixirs, my agreement with Dangard on doing the Labyrinth and lots of other things. I had to warn my partner regarding my enemies, as well as telling him about my capabilities: I didn’t leave out Dolgunata either, and told him my ideas as to who could’ve found the dorn. Before encountering me the druid had purposefully been running around the forest for some reason; it was quite possible that she had run into the clearance and destroyed the mechanism.
After we were done exchanging information I took Zangarа to the hidden teachers. After refusing the training both times the necromancer received two massive brass keys that looked like they came from some treasure story. One key opened the entrance, the other – the exit. Thus, Dolgunata’s certainty that she’d be able to go through half of the tests in the Labyrinth was premature. With two keys it was possible to pass one test, not more. My partner turned out to be a silent sort, so through most of the way we kept silent without bothering each other with questions. Even though I was sorely tempted to ask him about necromancers, as the class in itself was very intriguing and mysterious to me. Given that Zangar was a minion, his desire to become a necromancer was a conscious one, and I really wanted to understand the reason for his actions. Fiddling with dead bodies and zombies is not for everyone.
“The Labyrinth,” cynocephalian said as soon as we stepped out of the forest. The change in our surroundings was drastic. I even had to squint at the bright sun that joyfully illuminated the 50-meter border between the sections of the Academy. A wide abyss, the bottom of which was obscured by roiling fog, separated the reinforced concrete jungle and a huge wall about 20 meters high. Across this abyss a road led to the Labyrinth, paved with stones and rimmed with high curbs to protect careless players from falling. The wall sported a wooden double door; right at that moment a group of players was passing through them. As soon as the last group participant disappeared into the depths of the Labyrinth, the doors shut with a resounding clang, as if informing the Labyrinth dwellers that new victims had arrived.
“That’s not where we need to go,” Zangar said as soon as I stepped onto the bridge. "We need to skip first test. It screens out majority.”
“But you said that nobody knows what the tests are. That they change constantly.”
“Tests change. Essence the same. First one hardest. Need to go around. Lead: the Way is here. There is passage there! One hundred meters.”
The necromancer pointed away from the Labyrinth, to the border between the forest and the abyss.
“From our side?” I was surprised, yet found the guiding beam and went deeper into the forest. Sometimes it’s so nice to have information! The forest was so close to the drop-off, that we had to go in deeper, it would’ve been impossible to pass along the edge. The Book of Knowledge gave us a boon: it marked on the map the approximate final point of our journey; after reaching it we ended up in a relatively clear area, which was an opening criss-crossed with guiding beams. Their presence enabled us to come up to the very edge of the abyss without worrying about the guards.
“Now what?” I was tired of looking at the practically vertical wall, so I shifted my gaze to Zangar. “There’s no more road.”
“Trust me, Paladin. I am partner. Not enemy. Give me your hand.”
Silently, I extended my hand to the necromancer, while trying to convince myself in my mind that the Game wouldn’t allow the necromancer to breach the agreement and push me down. Besides, it would make no sense for him to do so.
“Most important – don’t be afraid. Just trust,” the cynocephalian repeated like a mantra, grabbed my hand for a more comfortable grip and pushed me beyond the edge of the abyss. My feed stopped sensing support, and my chest contracted. I wasn’t afraid of respawn, I was just really scared of heights. The one thing that was positive in all that? Apparently, cynocephalians are very strong creatures capable of holding up a person wearing steel armor with one hand.
“At count of three.” My partner started rocking me, preparing to throw me over the ledge. “One, Two…”
“Mo-o-otherfu…..!!” I screamed at the top of my lungs when Zangar released me into free flight. That was something I definitely didn’t expect! All my short life started flashing before my eyes. Just as I got to elementary school, I plopped on a hard surface, shaking all the images out of my head. Opening my eyes I had shut in fear, I shut them right back: I was sitting on nothing but air!
“It’s the road of trust!” Zangar landed heavily next to me. “It’s not possible to tell. Only possible to show. Feel trust. You passed test. You trust me.”
I opened my eyes again. The necromancer was, in some unfathomable way, sitting right on the air without any visible discomfort. Overcoming my fear, I raised myself – at first on all fours, and then standing up. Even the short flight wasn’t so terrifying as standing on something invisible!”
“We go there,” now Zangar was pointing at the opposite side of the abyss where the Labyrinth was located. “Follow me. Follow every footstep.”
The necromancer slowly moved forward as if he could see where he was going. I stood still couldnt force myself take a single step. I was scared to no end! I cursed myself in every way, calling myself names like “weakling” and “coward girl”, but my internal motivators refused to work. My body seized up and refused to move on.
“I help.” Zangar returned and threw me over his shoulder, like a sack of flour. “I trained: you – no. Hard if no training. Teacher warned me.”
I didn’t even have the strength of a cynocephalian. I grabbed him hard, hanging on like a hungry tick, and it would have been a truly heroic deed for me just to unclench my fists. The entire world contracted for me to the sight of the skull on my partner’s back; I was hanging on the fangs of it with both my hands. When Zangar set me on my feet again it took me quite an effort to unclench my cramped and pale upper limbs. I would never have thought that I suffered from acrophobia! I was a paratrooper after all; I even got to skydive once! I wondered – was that the last trick my body just played, or should I prepare myself for more surprises like that? What else did I not know about myself?
Gradually I felt better. Zangar was doing his own thing, letting me regain my composure. The cynocephalian did not try to slap my cheeks or shake me back to normal – it was as if he knew that I just needed to be alone for a while. Once I regained my ability to perceive the outside world I realized that we were standing on a small ledge on the wall of the abyss, and within just a couple of meters of us there was a big door about two meters wide.
“Passage!” It was as if the necromancer felt that I could control myself again. “We skip first test. Say when ready.”
“It’s fine, I’m okay now. How do you know about the passage?”
“My teacher told. He’s great player! He’ll be Viceroy soon! Test in one year. Let’s go.”
All I could do was be surprised at the encounter my fates had arranged. I noted to myself that I needed to ask Zangar thoroughly about life outside the Academy. Once I got a chance, that is.

The group needs a key to continue
2 keys detected within group
Need confirmation of permission to use key

Three system messages appeared in front of my eyes as soon as Zangar touched the door. With a soft whispering sound it opened, presenting a dimly lit corridor of gray stone.
“Go first. You see the Way.” Zangar moved to the side. “There are traps there.”
“How are the traps related to seeing the Way?”
“They aren’t.” My partner sighed heavily and added: “You afraid of heights. I don’t feel well in dungeon. Bad concentration. Afraid to hurt group.”
The door closed with a barely audible sound as soon as we stepped into the corridor. I took a couple of steps into the corridor and then returned to the door. For some reason I briefly forgot that I needed to explore everything and my life depended on it. The inner side the door had no handles, buttons or openings. As soon as I touched the door, the familiar system message appeared before my eyes:

The group needs a key to continue
1 key detected within group
Need confirmation of permission to use key

I indicated by gestures to Zangar that we didn’t need to activate anything, stepped away from the door, lowered myself down on all fours and slowly crawled forward, studying every stone thoroughly. An outside observer might’ve thought this move stupid; however, I recalled a movie where a similar invisible road existed, the same as the one along which the necromancer carried me just a few minutes ago. Indiana Jones, and I couldn’t remember which part. If one were to juxtapose that movie with Zangar’s warning about the traps, we had to use special care moving forward.
It was the attention to detail that enabled me to see a slab that seemed incongruous to the passage cut through the rock. It was set right in the middle of the corridor. It was just under a meter wide and placed in such a way that avoiding stepping on it was practically impossible. The Book of Knowledge immediately highlighted the slab in red, indicating danger. I was about to jump over the possible trap when something caught my eye: there was a small round hole in the wall, right above the slab. It was quite hard to notice in the dim half-light of the corridor. The hole had an identical counterpart on the other side. Thirst for knowledge overpowered common sense. Having explored both walls and ceiling around me to find any extra unexpected holes, I stretched out my arm and carefully pressed down the slab.
Phphpht! Phphpht! Phphpht!
Three lightnings flashed in front of me at such speed that only the Book of Knowledge helped me figure out what had happened. Each wall had three counterpart openings. From the holes on one wall, steel arrows with barbed arrowheads were shot, flying into the openings in the other wall. One arrow was shot at the level of feet, the second about waist-high and the third close to chest height. That’s why I hadn’t noticed the top two sets of openings: I was mostly crawling around close to the floor. Repeated pressing on the slab activated the arrow again, as if the trap mechanism had an unlimited supply. I put my hand next to the hole and sighed with relief when nothing happened. Apparently, this trap did not have photo sensors, so nothing pierced my hand. But this was just the very first trap! An initial level one! Just to show sloppy players what was in store for them… More than likely there would be not only photo sensors, but other interesting things as well. Bracing myself, I aimed for a point beyond the slab and took a running jump across the dangerous area. It didn’t work out as gracefully as I planned, but the main goal was achieved — I avoided being killed.
“Zangar!” I called the necromancer. "There’s a trap here. Be careful.”
“Thanks.” My partner jumped over the slab and joined me. “I see problem. Speed is low. We could run out of food.”
“I agree with you on that one,” I stood up from my knees and leaned against the wall. Only the Chancellor knows how many traps are set further down the road. If I were to spend 30 minutes for each, that’d be a very long road indeed. “How did your teacher pass through this corridor?”
“I don’t have information.”
“Was he alone?” I was getting another crazy idea.
“He found partner. They came out together. Why question?”
“So, listen. I don’t want to move at a snail's pace. You can see yourself: that’s slow. Do you have any objections against adding another player to our group?
“No. More is easier. Where we find new one?”
“Excellent! So here’s the setup: if I die, you should go out of the corridor and wait for us at the entrance. But only in case of 'if'! Then use the second key. I’ll find a new player, take him to the hidden teachers, he’ll get his two keys; then I’ll come back and we’ll go through the corridor anew.”
“The idea is clear but I have questions. Why would you die? Why ‘if’?”
“Because I’m the one that has the protection. If you had it, you’d be the one who could die.”
“The idea stopped being understandable,” the necromancer laid his ears back.
“There’s nothing to understand." I activated the defense, put on my artifact just in case, took an elixir in my spare hand, looked again at Zangar, who never figured any of this out, then screamed: “Leeeroooooooy!” it resounded throughout the corridor and rushed in.
Enhanced defense was my only possibility of success. The idea was simple: if we were to study the passage to find the traps at the rate we were moving, we’d be stuck there for a very long time. Therefore, one needed to activate them all, preferably at the same time; well, at least as quickly as possible. Nothing else occurred to me besides activating them with my own body, and I rushed ahead before common sense had a chance to kick in and put a stop to it. I was bit by arrows, stakes popped out from the ground, fire tired to burn through my shield. Once the walls moved in trying to crush me, yet the protection held. Or, rather, another vial I downed restored my Energy before it crashed to zero. I tumbled out into a huge room, tripped over a thin string line which was supposed to have cut my feet off, and practically smashed my face on the stones. The Energy bar leveled out at 32 and stopped twitching, indicating that the troubles were over. Getting up to my feet, I looked back along the corridor and could not contain a surprised whistle: by now the Book of Knowledge had already digested all the information it received and now highlighted both the traps and the safe path. A narrow green passage framed by everything else lay in front of me!
“You are alive!” I heard Zangar’s almost surprised shout from somewhere far away. “The frame says so. Will you come back for me?”
“Wait! I shouted in response, looking around the room. “I’ll be back soon!”
The corridor had led me into a huge cave hewn in the rock; one couldn’t really call it a room. Lit by a few magic lights, the cave was mostly drowning in darkness; however, one couldn’t miss the small pedestal, about a meter high, that looked like a dais in the very center. And a thick open book resting on it.
I blew off an ample layer of dust and sadly stared at the unfamiliar letters: the open page was written in a language I didn’t know. Making sure that my artifact photographed the page well, I leafed through the entire book cover to cover, but was unable to find anything I could understand. Except for a picture showing three humanoids wearing loose hooded clothes and standing around a shining ball, their hands up in the air as if they were casting a spell. That was the only graphic in the book. Despite its significant size, the book had just twenty pages: the sheets were made of wooden boards.
It would’ve been incredibly silly to leave the book in its place, but I was really uncertain about trying to take it with me, given the kind of place this was. I was practically sure the book would have some kind of spring under it that would activate a clever trap, so that the entire cave would collapse. That was the reason I never looked at the cover: the risk was too high. There was nothing else interesting in the cave; the next thirty minutes were taken up helping Zangar avoid all the traps in the corridor.
“You studied this?” The necromancer immediately figured out the situation, seeing, just as I had, the dais with the book first.
“I don’t understand the language,” I sighed. “I recorded everything, but right now this all looks like Greek to me. Just a jumble of strange symbols.
“Cynocephalians’ language is complex. Not many know it. My teacher wrote book. Left here. Told me of it. I can read. You interested?”
“So this is not a creation of the Labyrinth?” I said gladly, heading towards the pedestal. “Then we need to expropriate it and then…”
“Stop!” Zangar yelled. “No taking the book! There’s a trap under it! Teacher took old book. Left his own! Thus he avoided the trap. You have a book? What do you give in exchange?”
“What was in the book he took out of here?” I immediately peppered him with questions. “Have you seen it? What is it about?”
“No, I never saw. Teacher protects it. In it there’s power. There’s knowledge. It will help become a Keeper. Not allowed to talk about it. Forbidden.”
“Fine, but what’s this book about?” I said slowly in dismay. If Zangar’s teacher was planning to become one of the big wigs of the Game, it would be pointless to hope for his goodwill and permission to at least study the item he stole.
“Process of Game creation. Teacher obsessed with this topic. He studies. Researches. Seeks. What he found he wrote down. The book’s five hundred years old. So long it’s been here. Teacher wrote it when he was recruit. Then found new knowledge. It’s not here. That’s old. You interested?”
“Go on, read already!” I ordered, burning up with curiosity, but caught myself in time and added: “When you read – read it in the original language and then translate at once. Additional knowledge wouldn’t hurt me.”
Zangar agreed and started moving his finger along the symbols, reading them out loud in a strange guttural tongue; then he explained the meaning. As a result the Book of Knowledge helped me read the last page without the necromancer’s aid.
The main idea of the book was that about four thousand years ago three powerful beings, whose names were unknown, came to realize that the world's setup needed to be changed. They created the Game: a sentient mechanism, into which they placed certain algorithms and transferred all their power and strength. The process of creation was what the picture showed. Those beings died, and the Game itself then developed the rules and laws which it had to follow. The mechanism randomly selected a limited number of beings from all the variety of the worlds available and turned them into players. The rest were taken under full control by the Game and forced to do whatever it deemed necessary. The difference between an NPC and a player was that the latter had a “soul” image – a copy of consciousness, knowledge and experience that the Game transferred to respawn point in case of death. A respawn point was, in effect, a 3D printer that printed a vessel into which the “soul” would then be placed and live there. NPCs had “souls” as well, but after each death the Game wouldn’t restore them; it would wipe out the memory and place those “souls” into new bodies: the children. That was the basis of all the various theories concerning reincarnation. Seeking to reduce the load on its resources, the Game chose the Emperor for itself, granted extremely broad powers to him and altered him, adjusting for its needs. The Emperor was a player, but only in terms of the presence of the “soul” that persisted. In essence, however, he was a part of the mechanism that was an inalienable part of the Game with a certain personal will.
“Teacher continued research. Always studies. He learnt name,” Zangar added as soon as the book was finished. “Name of one of Creators. It was human. A woman. All worlds know her. Madonna.”
“That’s not possible,” I frowned. “That woman lived two thousand years ago. But definitely not four!”
“Time flows vary. Somewhere faster. Somewhere slower. Problem of the Game. Not enough resources. Your world is slow.”
“Wait. So, some three guys created artificial intelligence, conferred enormous powers to it, forced the whole world to do its bidding, and after that quietly died, leaving the players to deal on their own with that creation?”
“All correct. The three were strong. All-powerful. Decided to start all anew. Decided not to kill. Created a machine.”
“Which does the killing for them. As far as I understand, only about one percent of living creatures are players! The rest are NPCs, who simply weren’t so lucky as to be chosen! Based on that logic, the quantity of NPCs is always stable: their souls are copied from one body to another. Then how can one explain, for example, the birth rate boom in my world? There, the number of people is increasing exponentially!”
“No contradiction. The Dark ones destroyed several worlds. The worlds are not there, NPCs are not there. Their souls return. Overpopulation is everywhere now. Soon new worlds will be made. Will take most of NPCs. There’ll be war. In all worlds. Preparation is underway now. They make NPCs mean. To like blood. To like destruction. Less load for worlds. Easier for players.”
“It’s a mad world order we’ve got,” I whispered in astonishment. “The Game does whatever it wants! What if it decides that the creatures are imperfect and need to be destroyed? Who would stop it?”
“I have no knowledge. Teacher studies, not I. Talk to him. He likes explorers. We need to move. Door is ahead.”
“Wait a minute,” I still couldn’t get over the knowledge I just received. I’d already decided that the Game had existed forever, that it had predated all that there was, and now it turned out that it was just a cool-looking chain leashing all the creatures. How had Zangar’s teacher found that out? Most likely not from standard open sources! Perhaps from the book that had been here before? I looked at the wooden book again, at the necromancer, who had already opened the door at the other end of the cave, and then I asked yet another question:
“What was in the book that lay here?”
“You repeat yourself, partner. I have to repeat also. Not allowed to talk about it. Forbidden.”
“I’ll start from a different angle. How did your teacher find this passage?
“He is great player. His partner is great researcher. They found together. Chance encounter.”
“Great, let’s try to unravel this topic. The passage through which we just arrived. Who said that it’s the only one? What if there are other passages? That would enable you to skip not only the first level of the Labyrinth, but also all the rest? Why did we rush in at once? We need to return and explore it in detail.”
“Only one key left. Entrance door is closed. We can open one door. Entrance to here, exit from here. No choice.”
“There’s always a choice.” I wouldn’t give up. “We can add another player to the group, take him to the hidden teachers and get a new keymaster. Don’t you want to check it out? What if I am right and there’s one more cave? And in it there’s the book about which you wouldn’t tell me anything? What do you think which will please your teacher more – that you return from the Academy, or that you’ll return from the Academy with the book?”
“With the book better,” I didn’t have to convince Zangar of the obvious. “Not clear how to return. Not possible to jump up. Invisible bridge creates fear. It checks confidence. I won’t be able to return.”
“So, my fear of heights was induced?” I exhaled with relief. “Fine, then I have another suggestion outright. We can return through respawn. We’ll just walk into one of the traps.”
“High risk. Could end up in Labyrinth. It has a stone too. Will be unpleasant.”
“I agree, it’s risky,” I couldn’t deny the necromancer was pragmatic. “But I don’t see another way to return. I wouldn’t want to jump into the abyss. What if that kind of death was final? Besides, if we were to come back within the Labyrinth, no one can prevent us from coming back into the forest. What if we had forgotten to do something there?”
“I agree with the last argument,” Zangar surrendered. “It’s possible to return. It’s not forbidden. Let’s find trap. We’ll respawn.”
“Why go anywhere?” I grinned. “There’s a trap right next to us! We wouldn’t want to leave such a rarity behind, right?”
With those words I lifted the book from the pedestal and placed it in my inventory. Zangar just grinned, and then a powerful jet of fire burnt first him and then myself to ashes. Painful, but that’s the deal. I needed to verify my guess.
“We were lucky,” Zangar said as soon as the system stated that I had only 8 levels available now. We returned to one of the respawn points near the forest, as if the Game did not count us among those who had entered the Labyrinth. “Whom shall we take as new partner?”
“There’s not much point in looking on purpose, we can take anyone. Let’s take him! I pointed at a player crouching in the shadows, cast a more thorough look at him and added, barely able to contain my surprise: “Mage, do you want to stay alive?”
I was nailed by the scared and haunted stare of the desperate player. The very same kid who had pleaded that I not kill him was sitting under the respawn stone, fearing even to breathe.
“He’s weak and helpless. Bad partner,” Zangar assessed the mage who’d curled up in a fetal position.
“I am afraid we are unlikely to find anyone else right now.” The respawn clearing was unusually empty. While before there were always players here, now just the three of us decorated the landscape with our presence. I drew in some air, remembering my army past, and shouted practically into the mage’s ear, making him jump: “Boot camp! Wake up! Ready! Front!! Recruit: name?!”
“…,” the mage, cross-eyed, tried to mumble something, but I was beyond stopping at that point.
“Check mumbling! Answer clearly, concisely, no stuttering! Name!”
“M-marinar,” the kid jumped to his feet and even stood at attention, as if he was actually familiar with the army way of talking.
“Marinar. Level!?”
“First!”
“Your world!?”
“Varnax!”
“Chosen development!?”
“Production and creation!”
“Specialty!?”
“Alchemist!”
“Artifact!?”
“Pulverizer!”
“Why did they leave you here!?”
“Weak and helpless were left behind to die!”
“How much Energy you have left!?”
“Ten units!”
“Do you want to live!?”
“Yes!”
“I can’t hear you!”
“YES!!!”
“Are you ready to follow all my orders, instructions and commands in order to finish the Academy and come out of here alive!?”
“YES!!!”