After the cliffhanger ending of last time, the identity of Kartoss’ dark master (not, like, the master of all Kartoss, just one of the four who advise the dark emperor) is now revealed to be…the village headman. I kind of wonder if Danny’s “now it all makes sense!” line was sarcastic? Because while this doesn’t contradict anything that came before, it does kind of come out of nowhere. The headman explains that he and his two sons were secretly evil and made no actual effort to actually track down the sklic demon, so Tisha was basically hunting for it on her own (since her werebear fiance apparently couldn’t be bothered to help), which, sure, that makes sense, but as last-minute reveals go it kind of feels like shock for shock’s sake.
The dark master has surrounded Krong in a disruptor dome of some sort, so if heralds attempt to teleport in they will arrive at a random location in the province. They instead teleport to the edge of the province and begin amassing a huge army of both NPCs and players to invade the province and scour it for the dark master’s location, by which point it will already be too late to thwart the dark master’s nefarious scheme to transform everyone in Krong into Kartoss creatures.
“The Lord’s plan is perfect. It was put together by four Masters and no room was left for mistakes. We planned for everything. You’re bluffing, Mahan. Your attempt at a delay has failed.”
“Master, let’s make a bet,” I was ready for anything at this point. It’s not like I had anything to lose. “Don’t touch me for thirty seconds and I spoil all your plans. Without ever moving from this spot. If I win, the Dark Empire owes me one wish. If I lose… You’ll think of something – you’re smart enough.”
“You are able to spoil our plans in thirty seconds without moving from this spot?” The Master made for quite an interesting sight. He was almost laughing, but was just able to restrain himself in some unfathomable way. “All right! On behalf of Kartoss, I Master Naahti, agree to your conditions! If you manage to spoil our plans, the Kartoss Empire will be obliged to carry out any wish you may have. I repeat – any – which is within our power. Including having the Dark Lord sing you a lullaby. But it comes with a limitation – the wish must only be connected to yourself. No world peace, end to all hatred or other social foolishness. But if you fail, you will work as a servant in the Lord’s fortress. You will be teleported to our capital and end up serving food. To everyone! For a year, without any increase in levels or reputation! Agreed?” the grinning Master was looking down on me, convinced that he had presented me with conditions that couldn’t be met. NPCs have become rather naive these days.
“Agreed,” I was, of course, taking a great risk, but my intuition, may it be damned, told me that the plan should work.
So what’s Danny’s plan?
I opened my bag and took out the Emperor’s ring, put it on and once again looked at the Kartoss official. Just as well I hadn’t given the ring away to Beth! “I call upon a Herald. I need the aid of an Advisor. Target destination – the Emperor’s ring!”
Wait, can it do that? Heralds can usually target their teleportation to specific players, but the dome disrupts that. But apparently it doesn’t disrupt teleporting to the emperor’s ring? It’s kind of like the dark master thing, it’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s just that we’re 89% of the way into the book and it was never really established what the dome could do or that the ring provided absolutely unerring teleportation no matter what. Like, here’s the description of the ring given when Danny acquired it:
Item acquired: The Ring of the Emperor. Description: The person presenting this ring is acting on my instructions and for the good of Malabar. Number of uses: 1
Nothing about it indicates that it can allow an imperial adviser to teleport in through an anti-teleportation spell, but it can.
Oh, also, the headman’s name is Naahti. CTRL+F confirms that name has never come up anywhere before in the entirety of the book, although it does sound kind of familiar. Maybe it was in Survival Quest? CTRL+F isn’t working on that one. Even if it was brought up, a name that was only mentioned back in book one should probably have been brought up again in book two if we were supposed to recognize it at the end.
“Advisor,” the Master uttered in a hissing growl. “You cannot stop the invasion! You are too late!”
“I too am glad to see you,” the Advisor answered in a chesty voice accompanied by thundering music, “FATHER.”
I guess it stands to reason that if the headman is secretly evil, then his rogue son is secretly good. Tisha confronts her father about being evil and makes it clear she wasn’t in on it, though, which makes me wonder how exactly Tisha’s brother was able to become one of the five most powerful and prestigious emissaries of Team Shiny without Tisha noticing and wondering exactly why her father considered him a traitor when the Emperor seemed to consider him pretty cool.
Anyway, the advisor tries to talk his father down, but Naahti isn’t having any of it, so they get ready to rumble. This is when Naahti reveals that you fool, while you tried to solve the problem with persuasion, you have already run out of time, and the mysterious Kartoss gambit is now already complete! This will later on turn out to be a lie, and it is only after Naahti finishes monologuing that the Kartoss gambit is complete, so if Naahti Jr. had just been like “fuck you, then” and attacked immediately when his father started monologuing, he still probably could’ve won. Naahti gets to have his monologue, though:
“The Malabar and Kartoss Empires have existed for a long time. They maintained constant armed neutrality: we took turns in attacking each other, but no-one tried too hard. It was just a couple of villages going over to one side of the border or to the other – everyone was happy with such a status quo. But fifteen years ago free citizens appeared in the world. They wanted something more than just raids to grab some loot. Instead of coming and quickly taking an object that caught their eye, the free citizens engaged in genocide. How is it the fault of goblins that they were born green? Or trolls? How is it a little warg’s fault that he needs meat to survive? But no, the free citizens decided that we were ‘dark’ and started to kill us off. I visited the castles that had gone through the hands of free citizens. Everyone was killed. Even the little werebeasts that hadn’t even been weaned yet. Why? We tried communicating with the Emperor, but boys like this one,” a nod in the direction of the Advisor, “dismissed our complaints. What do you say, ‘light one’?” the Headman’s last words were full of so much hatred that his son started.
Megagraph is from the original. This isn’t a terrible villainous motivation, although it is completely discordant from the themes of the book so far. MMO players do tend to engage in wholesale butchery of enemy NPCs regardless of whether they pose a threat or are even hostile. A lot of players seek total annihilation of the other side out of the same motive that drives us not to leave food on a plate or loose change on the floor. The problem is, neither Danny nor really anyone else has engaged in this kind of behavior. Danny is purely quest-driven, and the closest we get to someone seeking annihilation is Hellfire, but the only two targets he hits are 1) a pack of goblins that he mistakes for a quest target and 2) a pack of wolves that he killed specifically to antagonize Danny.
So what’s that mysterious Kartoss gambit, anyway? With the most powerful forces of players and NPCs alike massing to counterattack into Krong Province, a single dungeon, even an endgame one, is surely not going to stand up to the assault, is it? Maybe the sheer numbers of every NPC in Krong Province being transformed will give Kartoss an edge? After all, we’re never really given a good idea of just how many people are in Krong.
Turns out, no. Naahti explains the true Kartoss gambit (for context, “inverters” are just corrupters except they work on people as well as the land – in this context, the two words are basically interchangeable):
[“]An Inverter was built in Beatwick and concealed by a ziggurat, to prevent any accidental discovery. And then everything ran according to the devised plan. I sent you to catch the wolves, which started to bother our workers. At the same time, I instructed the goblins to begin hunting you. We had to get our fatso captured. To prevent you finding out too much, I personally put a defense on him. This was done to get the Heralds snooping around, inquiring about what was going on in Beatwick.
[“]In total we prepared ten potential areas for invasion and in each there was a key figure which could have relayed the information about the goblins to the Heralds. You were the only one who was able to take a prisoner and launch the subsequent chain of events. In order to spur on the heroes of Malabar, I decided to build a castle, intended to become our future base of power in this region, outside the ziggurat’s zone of effect. The Heralds had to have the opportunity to jump to it and observe it by themselves, without having to be summoned. As soon as the castle was ready it was shown to you.
[“]The merchant, to whom you were careless enough to show the Eye of the Dark Widow, became our man two years ago. We got him under our thumb straight away. He traded off the information about the Eye and the person who had it in his possession. As planned, the free citizens of Malabar, greedy and stupid, immediately went after such a prize. We could only thank the Herald that he didn’t let them kill you. And then you fulfilled your purpose: called the goblins for help. You were shown the castle, which, as you correctly noted, has four Inverters built into it. They were put into operation four hours ago.
[“]According to my calculations, it would take Malabar forces about twenty five minutes to storm it, after which the Heralds will teleport them all to Beatwick. Around five hundred free citizens above level 280 and about ten thousand Warriors and Mages from the Emperor’s personal guard of level 380 or above – that have already spent twenty five minutes in the Inverter zone of effect, and have no amulet of the kind that’s hanging on Beth’s neck. Shall I tell you what will happen in Beatwick in just a few minutes or can you guess yourselves?[“]
Way to go, Serge.
It’s all kind of hilariously overcomplicated, though. All they needed to do was get all the inverters ready, throw up the castle, then let the heralds know about it in such a way as to prevent them from suspecting that they were meant to know about it. Why not just supply the goblin leaders intended for capture with its location, then? Skip the whole bit with trickling the information of Danny’s super rare item to PKers through the merchant so they’ll trick him into calling goblins for help. That whole thing was a Xanatos Roulette. What if Danny didn’t think to call on Kartoss forces for help? His ruse of pretending to be an emissary of the dark coordinator was non-obvious. What if there were no Kartoss forces around when the PKers caught up with Danny?
As convoluted as that middle step was, Naahti does have one more actually sensible twist in his plot up his sleeve:
“So, looks like the Emperor no longer has a personal guard…” the Advisor looked thoughtful and Naahti sported a pleased smile. “But why, father? Ten thousand Warriors is quite a force, of course, but it isn’t one that our heroes would be unable to beat. Your plan was doomed to fail from the start. We would not tolerate Kartoss on our territory. Why?”
“And who is guarding the Emperor’s palace right now?” Mirida suddenly asked.
“The personal guard…” the Advisor started and immediately fell silent.
Krong Province was apparently never the goal. It was just a remote enough chunk of the empire that they could set up an entire castle without anyone noticing. Apparently Kartoss forces are planning an immediate attack with all their most powerful forces on the Emperor, whereupon they’ll use the teleporter interference trick to prevent the heralds from coming to his rescue. I guess they have a whole lot of teleport scrolls or something, because magisters and heralds and such can only teleport freely within the boundaries of their own empire. In fairness, it wouldn’t exactly be suspicious for someone to be buying up Anhurs teleport scrolls in bulk, since that’s the political and economic heart of the entire game world (for Eurasian players, at least, and people don’t seem to visit continents other than their own – I’d expect language barriers were a problem, except that Eurasia is not even close to having a unified language, and if the Illuminati can impose one on them, they can impose it on everyone). They never actually say how the Kartoss troops are getting there so quickly and in such massive numbers, though.
Naahti Jr. attacks Naahti in hopes of buying time for Danny, Elizabeth, Tisha, and Meridia to escape. Danny retrieves Theodore, Elizabeth’s husband kidnapped two years ago, from underneath the church of Vlast, and apparently has some scheme for saving Mariana and Clouter, Elizabeth’s children, from the war zone outside (Beatwick itself isn’t transforming because Elizabeth’s amulets are protecting them, but the army had come here to find the ziggurat when they turned).
Far though it was, I could see that the level of Durability of the gates was still at half full.
Aren’t these the same gates that got busted open by a herd of cows last week?
There’s no specific point in the battle that I can quote, but it’s…reasonably exciting? Danny talks his way into command of a unified player force, since he’s clanless but has the support of the heralds, so Phoenix, the Dark Legion, et al can group up under him without subordinating themselves to a rival clan. He gives orders and take reports without participating in the fighting much himself (he’s getting XP from 200 players fighting Kartoss creatures which, even split 200 ways, rockets him to level 35 almost instantly, but that’s still less than a fifth of what most of the endgame raiders in the clans have). The whole time the mass battle is going on to try and reach the villagers, open a portal for them, and evacuate them to safety, Naahti and Naahti Jr. are busy having a DBZ fight across the background, their battle surrounding them in a glowing orb of energy and taking them all across the landscape. Everyone gets through the portal, and the heralds and the advisors teleport off to try and save the Emperor.
Citizens of Malabar! Lament!
The Emperor is dead!
Your reputation with the Emperor is changed to reputation with the Emperor’s Steward
Well, we tried.
Citizens of Kartoss! Lament!
The Dark Lord is dead!
Your reputation with the Dark Lord is changed to reputation with the Dark Lord’s Steward
“Mahan, don’t even try to pretend you don’t know what’s going on,” Anastaria came up to me and the entire crowd of players stared at me expectantly. “I would never believe it!”
“A slight disagreement had taken place here, my pretty,” a pleased and imposing voice spoke in my stead. I’ve heard it somewhere before… That’s it! It was… “Let me introduce myself,” a man appeared next to me, wearing a formal dress of the courtier, “I’m Geranika. I’ve come for this sentient,” he pointed towards me.
Geranika, if you’ve forgotten, is the evil shaman who betrayed his master and has now struck down both the Emperor and the Dark Lord in hopes of becoming the single, undisputed ruler of both Kartoss and Malabar. Also, Danny’s leveling even faster and is now in the mid-60s, so I again have to wonder why we even have 200 levels if we’re going to skip through most of them at breakneck speed. In any case, the mid-60s is still less than a third of the way to endgame numbers, so the evil super-shaman is still far out of Danny’s league. And can apparently paralyze dozens of players at once at-will to prevent them from just ganking him. Turns out he’s not here just to kill Danny for giggles, though.
[“]Now I’m the only power that remains! Everyone will fall at my feet! I offer you to join me. You are still weak and inexperienced, but I’ll teach you everything I know. Make your choice, Shaman!”
My entire being screamed that I should make this bastard feel bad. And then stomp on him some more. And then jump up and down on his remains, just to be sure. “I refuse,” I decided to put my feeling into words.
“Is this your choice?!” Geranika was enraged. “You decided to oppose me? You decided that you’ll have enough strength to fight me, the one who destroyed both Emperors? The one who will be the only Sovereign in Barliona! Then take what you deserve!” Lightning bolts started to flash out of the dark Shaman’s hands,
but they were stopped by a dome that formed around me. What, another helper had joined the show?
I guess I could reuse the Dr. McNinja “deus ex machina” image, but it doesn’t fit as well here. Anyway, apparently Danny’s problems are just so special that the dragons are finally returning to Barliona to solve them. I mean, so what if Danny got sent for a respawn? He just got a billion levels, Vasily Mahanenko could’ve just ticked up the XP he got from that last battle slightly in order to compensate for losing 30% now.
Geranika retreats, and the dragon decides that Naahti is now Emperor of Malabar and his son is now Dark Lord of Kartoss. That is the opposite of the teams they chose for themselves, but apparently when a dragon tells you that you’re the emperor of a place, you don’t complain. Also, Naahti’s son is now finally getting named Regul.
“Mahan, I can see that a quiet life is not for you. At our last meeting you managed to surprise me, but now I am simply astonished. You are a worthy Dragon! Unfortunately, my presence here has disturbed the balance, so in the next hundred years Dragons cannot appear in Barliona. Try not to destroy the world,”
So apparently this dragon showed up only to swap the alignments of the only two surviving high-ranked NPCs on the continent. Having this deus ex machina taken off the table for sequels is a nice gesture, but it’s not clear why he only bothered to show up now instead of saving the Emperor from Geranika, since apparently he’s strong enough to get Geranika to retreat.
And that is the book. Wrapup post coming on Saturday, and then I’ll have to figure out what I’m doing for Monday’s update. There may be a couple of review updates missing while I sort out what to do next, since I’m now fairly certain I should let the LitRPG genre cool off for a while before coming back to it. I’ve really run out of things to say (something that’s particularly apparent now I’ve begun composing the summary review – going one chapter at a time, I can give line-by-line snark that’s entertaining, but it doesn’t always add up to anything in the end).