Danny brings the herd back, and the village is appropriately grateful. He goes to talk to Elizabeth and asks her if she was a high priestess of Eluna, the head of Team Shiny’s pantheon in this continent, if not all of Barliona. Danny suspects she has some strong connection with the church because when he prevented Elizabeth from completing her ritual the night before, his reputation with Eluna plummeted. Elizabeth denies any association with the church, claiming it must’ve been some other Eluna priestess.
“Before meeting you Shaman Mahan never met Priestesses of Eluna. As the Emperor is my witness,” I called Barliona’s most dangerous arbiter as a witness. A cloud of light immediately formed around me and quickly dissipated, leaving me unharmed. Calling on the Emperor is the final argument in communications both with other players and NPCs. Only free citizens are able to call upon the Emperor, at least those not sporting a red headband. This would have come in really useful at the mine, especially when Bat set me up that first time by taking my Rat Skins. When a player calls upon the Emperor, a special Imitator is activated. It analyses the words of the summons, looks up the game logs, checks the truth or falsehood of the words and then surrounds the player either by a light dome, showing that he was right, or by a dark one, which comes with a three-month debuff of -50% to all stats. Moreover, the owner of the dark dome gets a special ‘bonus’: -10% to levels.
That seems like the kind of thing that would drastically alter how people interact with the world. There doesn’t seem to be any penalty, so you can invoke this oath in order to determine the truth or falsehood of anything at any time. Demanding an oath is an instant and near foolproof lie detector. And it seems like it’s being hastily retconned in just for this one scene, especially since it’s disabled for red headband players for no apparent reason. Why make it so that specifically criminals have plausible deniability as to whether or not they’re telling the truth?
With the Lie Detector of Sudden Convenience on his side, Danny convinces Elizabeth to share her story: She heard word of a brewing plot by Kartoss to take over Malabar, and she tried to tell people. No one would listen to her, so she went over the heralds and advisers heads and went straight to the Emperor, who then banished her to Beatwick for scaremongering. Danny got a Get Out Of Jail Free card from a herald during one of his various run-ins with them, which can be redeemed to retroactively make someone having been working for the Emperor, which would clear Elizabeth of all charges on account of having been secretly acting on the Emperor’s orders. Something that Danny can make true with an item. So far as MMO logic goes, that’s not too horrible a stretch, but it is kind of weird. In any case, Danny declines to hand the Get Out Of Jail Free card over just yet.
After getting back onto good terms with Elizabeth, Danny finally looks up his totem’s stats. It’s mostly pretty normal stuff, except that for some reason Draco has six different “acceleration coefficients.” A (non-lethal) duel with Draco reveals what this means: Dragons know the Kaioken technique. They can drastically increase their power up to six times (and the power boost accelerates, so they’re more than an order of magnitude stronger with all six going at once), but there’s a long cooldown on the power boost, with each successive stage of the boost having a longer cooldown than the last, so you can use Kaioken x2 a relatively frequent once per hour, but Kaioken x3 is on a two-hour cooldown. Looking forward to seeing what happens when a dragon goes super saiyan.
After the dragon duel, Danny talks to Elizabeth about blessing some of his crafting materials so that he can make uncursed items without finding some way to import material from outside the province (or just relying on his dwindling stockpile from Pryke). She can’t bless stuff very often, but she gives it a go on some local marble Danny’s brought her. He tests out what happens when you make an item from blessed materials.
Taking a moment to concentrate, I entered the design mode, moved aside the prepped Dwarf Warriors, formed an image of the piece of Marble I was holding in my hand, opened the recipe for the Rose and embodied it in stone. An ordinary Stone Rose, which I had made many times. How could this become a blessed object? By itself it didn’t seem enough. Without much ado, I placed the image of Anastaria in the central round petals of the Rose. Of everyone I knew, only she could fit the description of a ‘Goddess’.
Really? I get that she’s really pretty and all (Danny thought as much even before he’d met her in person, so it wasn’t just the siren powers), but I’d think that the girl who tried to mind control you and who you subsequently assaulted would be disqualified from divinity. Even if we’re going with a Greek god “the gods are basically just assholes with superpowers” kinda deal (and we aren’t really doing that anyway, since the gods are on Malabar’s side and oppose the evil Kartoss, and their divinity is specifically being invoked in anti-Kartoss ways right now), Anastaria’s a front for the true leader of the clan and Danny’s very recently demonstrated his ability to get one over on her, which isn’t very god-like. He ends up changing several features of her face to make her more matronly and kind anyway, as he has yet another design beamed into his head, this time for the appearance of Eluna. Danny makes the stone face into an amulet, Elizabeth takes it, and suddenly she is a priestess of Eluna again (only a low-level one, though, so apparently the divine mojo you can throw around is directly proportionate to how much bling you’ve got). Holy symbols being required to channel divine powers is nothing new to RPGs in general, let alone MMOs specifically, but it’s weird that Elizabeth never once in ten years A) figured out that all she needed was a holy symbol to get her powers back and B) never bothered actually doing so.
“If we give all the villagers pendants like these, Beatwick would be saved,” Beth continued. “I may not be the High Priestess, but even at the level of a junior novice I can do quite a lot. It will now take me thirty minutes, maybe less, to do one stone. I’ll have to think of something to restore my strength faster. The Beatwick population is small, so we should manage this in a month. Give me all the cursed Marble you’ve got. I’ll start on it right away.”
Neat, I guess, but unless someone abducts Elizabeth to prevent her from completing the anti-demon ritual again, people are going to be prevented from being transformed indefinitely. Plus, if Danny hasn’t solved the mystery of the Kartoss coordinator in less than a month, the province opens back up and the big guns come riding in with the population to comb over every inch of the province and so much power that if Kartoss can fight them off, they can march on the heart of Malabar and occupy the capital anyway.
Danny meets with all of his allies in the village to plan a for-realsies hunt of the mist demon: The headman, his two (otherwise unimportant) sons, his daughter Tisha, and Elizabeth. They plan on wearing amulets of Eluna to protect themselves and to reveal the mist demon’s true form. It only works at close range, but the demon will be unable to remove it if they can force the amulet onto it. There is a drawback: The werewolves are also affected, and will be revealed for their hybrid forms while within range.
Tisha came up to the table and took her amulet. As soon as she picked it up, as small cloud enveloped the girl and, after it dissipated, there was a Vagren standing next to us. Or a Vagrenette, even.
“What do you think?” barked Tisha, giving a hoarse laugh. Her low chesty voice was very unlike the bubbling stream of the girl’s speech in her human guise.
If you can talk in wolf form, why didn’t you say anything to Danny when he confronted you? Could’ve just been like “yo, Danny, I’m not the mist monster that killed you on your first night here, observe my lack of mist.” Her voice is very explicitly as transformed as her body, so even if Danny didn’t believe her, there would’ve been no risk of identification.
Regardless, the hunt begins.
Exactly ten minutes later, as we agreed, I began to move towards the square.
“YOU’RE PERSISTENT!” the voice behind me made me jump, “DO YOU REALLY LIKE MY TOUCH THAT MUCH? MASTER IS VERY PLEASED WITH YOU. YOU’VE GIVEN HIM MANY NEW FIGHTERS FOR HIS ARMY, ESPECIALLY THE YOUNG ONES – THERE IS MUCH YOU CAN TEACH THEM. I WAS ORDERED TO KILL YOU WITHOUT PAIN.”
Two paragraphs later:
Instead of jumping at me, it jumped about ten meters away, turned around and sped off towards the square.
So much for all that bravado.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned the blacksmith’s name in either quotes or editorial so far, so for context here, Slate is the blacksmith.
I turned into the neighboring street as I followed the monster and practically ran into someone I didn’t expect to see at all on a dark night. It was Slate, in the flesh. Where did he come from?
“I… What are you doing here? Didn’t you go to fix things around the villages?” I was really getting confused now. What was Slate doing out here? Even if he did return, he’s an NPC and should be asleep during the night! ‘Nighty-night, sleep tight and don’t the bedbugs bite’ and all that.
“I just returned. I heard you yelling about someone running towards the square. That’s why I ran all the way here.”
“Mahan, what happened?” Tisha ran up to us. “Did you see the mist beast?”
“Who?” asked the smith, but I had already realized something. I remembered the first seconds after I had crashed into Slate. The same cloud had began to form around him as around Tisha when she picked up the amulet. The Rose of Eluna allowed you to see someone’s true nature. Slate wasn’t human.
“It doesn’t matter,” Tisha waved him aside and gave me her paw. And suddenly it all clicked in my head. The smith wasn’t screaming his head off in terror that such a scary beast was standing right in front of him: which means it’s not the first time he’s seen a Vagren.
And also Tisha is super chill about it.
“Oh, Slate, you…” the girl growled, lowering her head.
“Tisha, what are you doing here?” the smith began to ask, but I chose this moment to act: I was already on the go, so with one small jump I threw the Rose of Eluna on Slate. Let’s see if I was mistaken.
“Mahan, don’t!” Tisha started to say, when mist started to swirl around Slate. In a couple of seconds it dissipated revealing a two-meter-high bear.
And apparently Slate recognizes Tisha as Tisha even in her wolf form. And he states this recognition while in his own human form, so either he’s really bad at keeping secrets or this is just not even weird for him, and Tisha knows it. If the town has a friendly werebear just lying around, why isn’t he part of the hunting party?
“MAHAN! NO!” this werebear managed to roar as I threw the trap under its feet. We’ve got you now, my pretty!
Danny has apparently not had his fill of wasting resources intended for the mist demon on incapacitating his own allies. It’s lucky for him that he’s got allies to spare this time around, not to mention these spiffy level 300 ice traps the headman set the hunting party up with apparently come in bulk. Danny spends one ensnaring Slate, and then Tisha spends one ensnaring Danny, but releases him a few minutes later to explain the situation. I don’t know why she bothered trapping him if she was just going to let him go again immediately, but Slate’s ankle is broken and Danny tells Tisha to stay behind and guard him, so upon meeting the friendly neighborhood werebear, Danny managed to a net loss of one ally.
Elizabeth (shortened to Beth, now, for context) is yelling that she’s spotted the monster, and it’s really fortunate that nobody’s coming outside to ask any questions as to why people keep yelling about how they’re hunting a monster.
Beth’s shout came from the direction of the forest, where our hunt had begun. Tomorrow morning I’ll find Slate and, ignoring the fact that he’s much bigger and stronger than me, punch in his face or, in his case, his insolent bear muzzle, and he can go…
Beth’s lifeless body lying by the stockade stopped me in my tracks.
But it turns out when Danny says “lifeless” what he means is “badly wounded.” Also Elizabeth is also insanely high level, just like the one priest guy. Say, come to think of it, when did that insanely high level priest guy come to town? Wasn’t it around two years ago, when the mist monster showed up and Elizabeth’s husband disappeared?
Danny is the next target of the mist demon’s wrath.
One had to give it to this piece of incomprehensible shit – in all our encounters it had shown considerable mastery in choosing the method for sending me for respawn. It was either the claws, or poison, or strangling. It hadn’t repeated itself once, the inventive scumbag!
“Fluffy, take it down!” a melodious voice rang in the silence that surrounded us. Mist once again spread around the beast and the silhouette of a great tiger rushed past me. There was a subdued growl and the tiger crashed into the mist. Fluffy? I lifted my eyes and saw a girl right in front of me, standing on the stockade. A player! She jumped down and walked a few paces forward, leaving me behind her. An exemplary righteous defender of the presumably innocent, dammit.
Thanks to the intervention of Meridia the level 90 rando (there is a vague hint that she’s someone Danny has met before, but we’re 89% of the way into the book, it’s pretty late to be playing that game), Danny is able to smack it with an amulet of Eluna. He’s too busy being hit with a bunch of debuffs and status effects to see anything, but his allies caught a glimpse of just what the mist demon is:
“Quick, after it!” I started to hurry the two ladies as soon as the debuffs expired. “Beth, the secret passage that you were using must be near here somewhere. Open it! Mirida, summon Fluffy, I’ll heal him. Come on, hurry. It’ll get away from us!”
“Mahan! It’s a Sklic! Are you crazy?” Mirida’s panicked voice made me freeze. A Sklic!
Oh, no! The Slovenian word for “to call or summon!” That paints a very clear picture of terribly dire circumstances!
Danny recalls that these sklics (the capitalization thing is just fantasy novels capitalizing new terms for no reason – it’s definitely an improper noun and sure doesn’t seem to be derived from a proper noun) are mimic octopuses and the personal minions of Kartoss magisters, their equivalent to heralds, which means there’s probably an endgame raid boss lurking around somewhere in Krong Province. The sklic retreats to the temple of Vlast in town.
“It went inside! After it!”
“Why in such a hurry, my children?” as soon as we ran into the temple, the priest of Vlast appeared from behind the altar. The priest’s sleeves were rolled up high, showing arms that were currently covered up to the elbow in dark blood, dripping on the floor. He had probably tried to take off the amulet.
“Father…” Beth said in a subdued hoarse voice and fell on the floor. Judging by the frames, she was under the ‘Petrify’ debuff.
“Mahan, I’m coming!” Tisha flew into the temple, saw Beth and froze, shifting a confused gaze from the priestess to the follower of Vlast. Though some follower he was… Judging from the fact that I was looking at a 400-level NPC, this was a Kartoss Magister in person.
Who could’ve seen this coming.
“But you are the one who sent me to hunt the monster,” I half-whispered, almost dumbstruck, but the Magister heard me.
“So I did. You had to find the Vagren and hand it over to me. That was the point of my assignment. When you covered for Tisha I was incensed! I wanted to tear you apart with my own hands instead of using the Sklic! But I restrained myself and was rewarded! Beatwick is finished. All of Malabar is finished! Kartoss will have victory!”
“Today, Bumblefuck, Nebraska. Tomorrow, the world!”
But y’know how Danny can call up heralds whenever he wants? Yeah, he summons a pair of them and they tie this up in a bow while Danny just kind of sits and watches the battle of the titans. Except for one loose thread: Even after the magister is defeated, Danny’s quest to find the Kartoss coordinator remains incomplete.
“MASTER!” came a wild scream from the false priest of Vlast. “MASTER, I BEG YOU FOR HELP!”
“Master? One of the four Advisers of the Dark Emperor?” I managed to ask before both Heralds froze with glassy eyes and someone entered the temple at a leisurely pace. I turned around and my jaw dropped.
‘Search for the Dark Coordinator’ quest completed
“I would’ve never thought that such a magnificent plan could fall through on account of a 20-level free citizen. Hello once again, Mahan.”
Mirida looked at me in complete incomprehension and I let the extent to which I had been a total dumbass sink in. How could I not have guessed this from the start? Everything was so damn obvious!
Of course! It was Alt from Pryke all along! His main toon is a raid boss! It all makes sense!