Chapter 9 (cont.)
Danny’s still blind for a good long while, and some parts of his interface are even affected. He can access crafting, but not spirits. I guess maybe it’s because crafting causes the fugue state thing? At least some of the time it does. In any case, since Danny’s almost completely out of commission, he asks his landlady Elizabeth to tell him a story of the legendary dwarves of the legendary chess set, hoping that better understanding them will help him craft them. And then the narrative switches to a depiction of some dwarves. Not, like, a recounting of a story about dwarves with the quote tags taken off, but a prose story with specific dialogue and stuff:
‘Borhg, sledgehammering damnation, where are you going?!’ a stocky, practically square dwarf, his eyebrows in a frown, watched Borhg going down into the depths of the Black Maw chasm.
It’s not a bad decision or anything, just something that felt notable to me.
In the many centuries of his people’s history no-one had yet succeeded in descending below the level of darkness. To the place where the thrown torches could not drive back the black and show what the gloomy haze concealed. The daredevils who went below this fateful threshold never returned. Those who went down on a rope were lifted back up with eyes full of terror. Dead eyes. And now another young fool had decided to explore the secret of the chasm – without a rope, trusting only in the strength of his hands and the innate agility of the undermountain people.
“Father, I’ll be quick! I have to find out what is concealed by the darkness. What kind of a chief would I be if my subjects end up laughing at me my entire life? Our people need knowledge and I will gain it for them!”
Why? This Black Maw thing kills everyone who goes inside, and if it ever spews anything dangerous back out, it hasn’t been mentioned. And who would laugh at someone for declining to enter the darkness that kills every single person who enters? The dead explorers who went before? What kind of idiot calls someone a coward over something they are themselves unwilling to risk?
Naturally, Borhg makes it back in one piece, because being the umpteenth victim of the mysterious darkness wouldn’t be very legendary. When he returns nearly a week later, he explains where he’s been:
[“]We have to change if we want to survive. At the bottom of the chasm there lives… I don’t know what to call it – there lives a something, very ancient and wise. It has been watching us for a long time. When a dwarf descends to it, it shows him what would happen to our people if we continue down the path of war and violence. Father, we will die out! We have to change! Those that dwell under the mountains have to become master craftsmen and I will do everything in my power to make this happen.”
Apparently in addition to showing the dwarf what will happen, it also drives them irrevocably insane and/or kills them. Maybe it just happens to live in a really dangerous place and none of the other dwarves ever survived the trip both ways.
After designing the dwarves in the designer (but not having actually made the pieces yet), Danny’s eyes have regenerated and so he goes to lay a trap for Elizabeth and prevent her from summoning the mist demon. Unfortunately, it turns out that her spooky graveyard ritual wasn’t actually summoning the mist demon, but was rather somehow restraining it. Once Elizabeth is trapped and unable to complete her ritual again, the mist demon shows up and gloats (it can talk!), kills Danny again, and goes about transforming villagers into goblins for the glory of Kartoss, which is apparently a thing it could do before Elizabeth started doing her ritual every week.
This chapter’s title is “Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Any Worse,” but I can imagine things getting much, much worse and we’re still coming off the end of a consistent string of amazing luck. I do think it’s worth noting here that Danny has honest to God fucked up and made things worse based purely on an understandable but preventable mistake, which is why, even though I think Survival Quest was better about this, the Kartoss Gambit is still way better about avoiding dumping fame and power into the protagonist’s lap for no reason as compared to a lot of the other dreck cluttering up the genre (notably, Threadbare is also pretty good about this, and is also my second favorite series overall – I’d be really positive about that series if it didn’t have one very aggravating flaw it couldn’t get away from).
The newly transformed goblins have made off with Beatwick’s herd of cows, and the headman asks Danny to go and retrieve them. He agrees to help, but declines to mention this is all his fault in the first place. The goblins are headed straight to Farstead. I don’t remember if Farstead is particularly the capital of Krong Province, but it’s definitely a bigger deal than Beatwick and one of the larger towns around. The beeline the goblins are making for that location rather than out towards their ziggurat in the wilderness (still intact – the higher level clan players were kicked from the region before they could find it and raze it, if such a thing is even possible) suggests that probably the mist demon is doing the same thing in other villages and the goblins are getting ready to mass their forces in Farstead and topple the city before Danny’s quest expires and players from other clans are allowed back in. Maybe they’re planning on capturing the city, converting the inhabitants, and fortifying either it or the whole province into a Kartoss enclave before the timer on Danny’s quest runs out, or maybe they just want to sack the place before running off into the woods.
The narrative doesn’t explicitly spell out those possibilities, and it’s worth noting that the Kartoss Gambit has been much harder to predict than, say, Awaken Online, but it does note that the goblins are definitely headed for Farstead, not the safety of the wilderness, and that Danny doesn’t expect anyone to be able to stop them until players show up to do it, which implies the local NPC guards will be insufficient for the job.
“Hey you, stop right there!” a rough voice brought me back to reality. I’d became so lost in thought that I’d even stopped looking around as I walked.
“Are you deaf or wot?” I finally turned around, when I realized the voice was coming from behind. The bright red glow of the names above the heads of the three players obligingly informed me who it was I ran across: PKers. From level 120 to 205. What did these goons want?
“That’s him, right?” the highest level player turned to one of the others.
“He’s got the right nick. But where’s the red headband? The Merchant mentioned it several times!”
Really? The merchant turns out to be the Kartoss coordinator all along? Or maybe they just interrogated the information out of him and he’s just a pushover NPC trying to save his own skin. Hopefully the second one, because I’ll be disappointed if, after zig-zagging Danny’s theories all over the place on the mist monster’s identity, the Kartoss coordinator’s identity turns out to be an untwist where it’s just the first guy Danny thought of on a hunch.
Either way, these guys are clearly after Danny, specifically, and are like three to five times his level each. I still never thought things couldn’t get any worse, but they’re definitely spiraling out of control, which is exciting.
The PKers (clanless, apparently?) box Danny in, give him a buff that reduces damage, and then start carving him up like a Thanksgiving turkey until he starts groaning with pain. Only prison players feel pain, so once he breaks, they know they’ve got the right guy. The PKers say they’re after the rare spider eye that Danny refused to sell to the merchant, so this might not be a Kartoss plot so much as just rank greed. In any case, the PKers threaten to torture Danny for it. This turns out to be a bad idea.
There was a clap of the teleportation portal and a Herald appeared next to us. “Good day, gentlemen. How do you like the weather around here? Don’t you find that the sun in this region has such a special glow to it?”
“My salutations, Herald,” Dratanian bowed his head. “How can we be of service?”
“Oh, just a sheer trifle. Someone here mentioned pain in relation to a former resident of a mine. Regrettably for you, I cannot allow this. This is against the rules.”
“Hold on, Herald. You are confusing something. This is an ordinary free citizen here. Is it no longer allowed to hunt free citizens in Barliona? Is this your official answer?” That leader’s no fool. He didn’t lose his nerve in front of such a high-ranking guest, is sticking to his guns and is even trying to gain some advantage from it all.
“No, not at all. Hunting is not forbidden. But torture is not allowed in Barliona. With the exception of those who descend to the torture dungeons of their own accord: they know what they’re getting into.[“]
I can’t tell if making a BDSM joke here would be a double entendre or not.
In any case, once the Herald has wagged his fingers at the PKers and told them not to get up to any torture, he teleports away, leaving Danny at the mercy of the PKers to think of some other way to extort him. They pretty soon settle on making a province-wide announcement politely informing players that they’ll be testing live ammunition AoE spells in the area, and just so happen to target them on Danny, “politely” healing him up afterwards whenever he – by purest coincidence – ends up in the radius.
After a couple of pages of interrogation where it becomes clear that these PKers are just after the eye, having bought the information off the merchant and having no connection to Kartoss whatsoever, Danny is able to make it to the edge of the forest. He’s moving at a crawl, since he gets slammed by ice rain AoE, then healed, then starts running, then gets hit by the AoE again, but when he does reach the forest, he sees goblins in there. He claims he’s an envoy of the Kartoss coordinator and calls for reinforcements, and the goblins buy it and attack.
“For Kartoss, attack!” ten green-skinned minions of the Dark Empire jumped out of the forest. Hm… all of them only level 50. Against the three PKers these were nothing. A brief distraction. But the goblins didn’t give a damn about that. A representative of the Empire requested aid, so it had to be granted. While the players got to grips with the new obstacle, I ran for the forest. Time was too precious to lose.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I was once again enveloped in the Ice Rain. “We haven’t finished our chat yet… What the hell is that?” asked Drat in surprise, when a drawn-out roar came from the direction of the forest. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Few in the game didn’t know what that roar meant: the Wild Pack. The main shock troops of Kartoss in its fight against the players: ten 200-level trolls riding their raptors. Someone’s not going to have a very good time in a minute.
Jesus Christ, there’s some serious firepower in the province all of the sudden. I was expecting the mist monster was either limited to making low-ish level goblins or at the very least would take a while to ramp up minion production, but apparently he can get the endgame (ish, there doesn’t appear to be any specific cap) stuff online pretty much immediately. Not sure why it didn’t drop any trolls on Beatwick. Maybe the villagers available for transformation play into it somehow? And these guys are guards from Farstead who were beefier pre-transformation.
Since Danny wound up getting a Kartoss force that overwhelmed his PK pursuers instead of distracting them, he’s now on the hook for pretending to be a Kartoss agent to a bunch of Kartoss goons. They return him to their secret hideout in the Krong Province. It turns out that both I and Danny have underestimated the Kartoss presence in the province a tad.
After an hour-long wild ride through the forest, we found ourselves in an enormous clearing with a Dark Citadel at its centre. My jaw hit the floor as I looked it over. There were 200-level ogres, goblins ranging from level 10 to level 100, dark orcs… The place was full of bustle and gave you the feeling that you were right in the middle of the Dark Empire. When we came up to the castle I got a sense of the full scale of the local Kartoss operation: enormous walls, around twenty meters high and five meters thick with a deep water-filled moat… A typical Dark Castle of about level 400.
Turns out the commanders of Kartoss are super gullible and Danny is easily able to bluff the goblin in charge of the place to return the stolen cattle to Beatwick, under the ruse that the Kartoss coordinator ordered it for fear that the villagers of Beatwick would discover the castle when they went looking for their cows. He’s also able to confirm that the Kartoss forces here are responsible for cursing all the crafting materials in the province, so apparently they’ve been building this up for the past two years.
Danny summons a herald – apparently you can just do that, although there’s consequences if you don’t have a good reason when they show up – and shows them the castle, then begins negotiating with Anastaria through the communication amulet she left him half the book ago on price. The whole dialogue is kind of entertaining (and intermittently mildly misogynist, but it’s laid on lightly enough that it comes off less like a theme of the book and more like a character trait of Danny’s – whether intentional or not, it’s a lot more palatable than things like Succubus).
The whole sequence feels like it’s defused a whole bunch of tension that was otherwise being built up, though. The mist demon is free and amassing Kartoss forces. Oh, no! And some PKers are after Danny, that’s even worse! He’s able to get rid of them by pretending to work for Kartoss, but then has to bluff as though he’s a Kartoss agent to the victorious Kartoss forces, which is a pretty lateral move, but gets even worse when it turns out there’s a heavily fortified Kartoss enclave here in Krong province with a sizable army manning it. It’s not even clear why they need the mist demon’s help at this point, but the stakes are definitely higher.
And then one easy bluff later and Danny has solved his original cattle retrieval quest, gotten yet another unique quest that he plans on dangling in front of Anastaria for phat loot, and has a bunch of extra information to help track down the Kartoss coordinator (most specifically, that he uses teleport scrolls to get around). That big ol’ Kartoss castle is still there and a potential source of trouble and all, but Danny’s just traded several urgent problems for one that’s very big but not immediately threatening. That’s a pretty good trade. The tension was defused like fifteen pages after it was introduced, and it’s kind of a disappointment.
In any case, Danny ends up talking to Ehkiller, the secret true leader of Phoenix, and is offered four scaling items only available to super rich players with a good reputation with a certain NPC faction.
I never imagined that it was possible to gain Esteemed with them, thinking it was totally out of reach, so Anastaria had gone up quite a lot in my estimation. This was impressive stuff. Whatever she might be in real life, gaining Esteemed with the Thricinians was worth a lot. And I could choose any four objects… Eh… I sold myself down the river, completely.
Does this translator not know what the phrase “sold down the river” means to Americans? Does it have an alternate meaning, either in British English or in Russian? Because in American English it means a grave betrayal or to send someone to a terrible fate, and is directly tied to the American slave trade. It doesn’t really fit the flippant tone of someone who’s decided the deal in front of him is pretty great and he’s going to take it.
When Anastaria shows up, she turns on her siren powers to try and get Danny to hand over his orc pawns. Danny plays along for a bit but tells her to go pound sand in the end. She asks how he thwarted her siren powers (it’s technically a type of poison, and he’s immune to poisons because he’s an honorary dragon), and…
“You’re smart and will have plenty of time on your hands to figure it out. And now, farewell,” I leaned over and kissed her on the lips. I’ll consider that a bonus. Whatever she was like in reality, right now I had a very beautiful, frightened woman in my hands. It would’ve been wrong not to kiss her. Too bad it wasn’t reciprocated. That would have been very nice. But this will do.
“I want to be completely, unambiguously clear about what happened between me and Anastaria: It was definitely sexual assault. She was frightened and did not reciprocate. Total violation of her bodily autonomy, no bones about it.” -Daniel Mahan
It does mention earlier that Anastaria can’t actually feel anything that happens in the game because she’s got a regular person Matrix capsule, but still.