Excerpt for Gong and Chalice (Fayroll book 4) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Fayroll


Book Four


Gong and Chalice





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Contents:



Chapter One

In which the hero makes two decisions.


“What’s on your mind, friend?”

An older half-orc looked at me through one of the building’s windows. He was wearing a brightly colored coat and had a short sword hanging at his side.

Just wondering if it would be a good idea to join the Free Companies,” I replied. “I’m not sure if I’m a good fit.”

“What are we talking through the window for?” The half-orc gestured me toward the door. “Come on in, son, and we can talk it out together.”

I walked in. If it has to do with the military, it really is all the same. The only difference between the building I was in and my old enlistment office was that there were large paintings on the walls in place of posters. But the idea was the same: faster, farther, higher.

Welcome to the Wild Brigade Recruitment Center,” the half-orc said, walking out into the corridor. “It’s a great spot to find something worthwhile and interesting to keep you busy for a year, two, or even more, depending on the contract we sign. Fond memories and fascinating adventures are guaranteed.”

The half-orc walked over to me, his right foot dragging a little, and held out his hand.

“Sergeant Rourk, son. Free Company veteran. What’s your name?”

“Laird Hagen of Tronje, third son of my father.” I shook his hand.

Third son.” The sergeant shook his head knowingly. “A blade, some clothes, and an old nag is all you got when your old man kicked the bucket, am I right? I’ve heard that story before. You were made for us, my friend. Consider yourself at home. A little service under your belt, and your oldest brother will have nothing on you. You’ll march back to your Tronje with money and loot, and all he’ll be able to do is gnaw his toenails in envy!”

He was overselling his case, I thought. Sure, his job was to get volunteers signed up, but the whole thing sounded too good to be true.

That’s all well and good,” I replied, smiling at the sergeant, “but I still have some questions. I’d like to know what the conditions are—how much you pay, how it works, when I’d start, what I get besides the pay, and where I’d be serving.”

A hint of disappointment flashed across the sergeant’s eyes, presumably when he realized I wasn’t as easy a prospect as he first thought. Come on, his eyes said, why do these rednecks have to be so picky these days? Things aren’t the way they used to be, now that you have to explain the whole thing, show them, let them try it out…

That is your legal right, son,” the half-orc said, clapping me on the shoulder. “Let’s head over to my office.”

Rourk walked toward the door he’d stepped out of. I heard his right leg scrape with each stride—a prosthetic limb. What a great advertisement for the Free Companies he is…

Once in the office, which was scantily furnished with a table, two chairs, and a lone wardrobe, Sergeant Rourk motioned toward a chair and jumped into his spiel about life in the Free Companies.

He was obviously painting a picture with brighter colors than he may have had license to use, but his story was interesting enough to see why the Free Companies weren’t such a bad place to be.

The Wild Brigade formed almost immediately after the gods left Fayroll. The problem was that many gods, in their feuding over the hearts and souls of their flocks, threw caution, morals, and ethics to the wind. They created and unleashed a variety of undead and other evil spirits into the world in order to weaken the forces commanded by their opponents.

The gods left Fayroll, though their malicious creations did not. And, given the fact that some of the gods both erroneously and presumptuously considered themselves more demiurges than gods, their creatures began to multiply. Some of them attained such numbers that the threat of genocide began to loom over the humanoid races.

That’s when the Fayroll rulers realized how bad things were and rallied all the heroes of Rattermark to come save them. However, the War of Magic and the Second War of Hatred had left the continent largely bereft of those heroes. The ones who remained were tired of wandering the lands saving people and simply dreamed of having their own little kingdom they could rule in peace.

As time went on, the situation only worsened. Roads become more and more dangerous, and villages and even small cities were subject to constant attacks by bloodthirsty beasts. But then, something unexpected happened.

Richard the Fifth, also called Richard the Spiritual, the ruler of the West, had an advisor by the name of Arman Plessy, and Arman came up with a plan. He drew up a decree, signed by the king, that declared even the most hardened criminals had the right to leniency under the law—including a reprieve from the executioner’s noose or axe—if they spent three years fighting to protect peaceful people by clearing the roads, forests, and swamps of the departed gods’ evil spawn. If they did their jobs well and honestly, a royal pardon, a plot of land, and a loan to develop it waited for them on the other side. Professional soldiers and royal veterans were put in charge of the rabble.

Strange as it may seem, the decree turned out to be hugely popular. Plenty of murderers and other societal cancers signed up for the adjustment squad (as the Wild Brigade was first called), and they fought fervently and diligently. Small groups of them traveled the West looking for and destroying the magic scourge born in the inhuman minds of NPCs and the imagination of the developers. They even dealt a blow to the vermin native to Fayroll, figuring sensibly that they’d have to take care of them sooner or later—so what did it matter?

Ten or fifteen years later, all the more exotic creatures living in the West had been dispatched to the next world, though the Wild Brigade stuck around. They were growing, and even swelling their ranks with people who had no criminal past. The Sultan of the East and the princes of the South happily paid the former thugs in gold to take care of their problems. The northerners, who all knew how to handle a weapon, took care of their problems themselves.

Adventurers, former soldiers, and even romantics signed on to serve in the Wild Brigade, as it had come to be known. The pay was good; recruits were taught how to fight well; and retirement meant honor and respect since city guards all around Rattermark hired veterans whose service time was up. Plus, while land was no longer part of the offer, the royal pardon was. The Wild Brigade remained under the jurisdiction of the king of the West, though it became, in practice, an independent unit paying 10% of each contract amount to the king. Recruits also began to be divided by how they signed up: new volunteers from the prisons were assigned to the Wild Brigade as usual, while civilians made their way to the Free Companies. The latter were still part of the Wild Brigade; they just enjoyed more privileges and a somewhat different status. There were ten Free Companies with 100 troops in each.

It was the Free Companies Sergeant Rourk was trying to get me to sign up for. He scraped his wooden leg around, waved his arms, and described all the tempting prospects I had to look forward to. In a year, not to mention three, the Free Companies would make me more a superhero than a man. He skipped over what their casualty rates were, obviously, but I couldn’t help but note that the companies always had slots open regardless of the fact that there were only 1,000 of them in total.

I have a question,” I said.

The sergeant looked at me, amazed that I wasn’t racing to sign the contract after all the information he’d dumped on me.

“How do I sign on with a company heading down to fight in the South?”

“Why the South?” His look turned to confusion.

“Just a dream I’ve always had—seeing the South,” I said, rolling my eyes wistfully. “It’s warm, there are plenty of exotic fruits, and they say the girls are stunning.”

“All true,” the sergeant grunted. “Also, the beasts are poisonous, the jungles are impassable, there are lots of cursed areas, and the diseases are nasty. Are you sure that’s what you want?”

Absolutely,” I replied resolutely. “It’s either the South or I won’t be signing anything. I have plenty of other things to do, needless to say. But let’s go back to those conditions, too. What are they?”

We can send you south, that’s easy enough. The Seventh Company is heading to Dinjir the day after tomorrow, and I think they have slots open. But about the conditions… You get 50 gold per week, food, a uniform, a weapon if you don’t have one, and medicine or a funeral if you need it. One day off a week. If you sign a three-year contract, we pay out 500 gold as a bonus each year.”

“Sounds good. And what are the requirements?”

The half-orc glanced at me approvingly. “It’s simple; follow orders quickly, exactly, and on time. Do the work, and don’t be a coward in battle. That’s it.”

Right, soldiers shouldn’t think too much; they have to fight,” I agreed. “So everyone’s heading south the day after tomorrow.”

Rourk nodded.

One more question,” I said, having just about forgotten to ask it. “What about terminating contracts with the Free Companies? You know, if it just isn’t working out. Can you do that?”

That doesn’t happen very often,” the sergeant said with a shrug, “though it does happen. The only way out of the Wild Brigade, of course, is to get dumped back in prison. You can buy your way out of the Free Companies, on the other hand, though it isn’t cheap. There’s a one-time fee of 50,000 gold.”

Fifty thousand gold? Well, that’s serious money, and it means I’d better give this some serious thought.

“What time are you rolling out the day after tomorrow?”

“Ten in the morning. But we’d have to sign the contract first, so come at least half an hour earlier.”

“Rourk, let’s say this,” I responded, pounding the table with my open palm. “If I decide to join, I’ll be here at nine the day after tomorrow. If I’m not here, that means I decided against it. Does that work for you?”

The half-orc nodded. “You’re obviously an experienced warrior,” he said flatteringly. “Of course, you need to think. This is the army, not a walk in the park.”

We got up and shook hands.

***

The smell of pies and something else delicious met me at home.

“What’s this for?” I asked Vika in surprise, finding her running around the kitchen covered in flour.

Did you forget?” She stared at me reproachfully. “I told you on Tuesday that Elmira would be coming today. You’re the one who wanted to do this, after all.”

I searched my memory, but couldn’t come up with anything. She probably had told me, and I just hadn’t paid much attention. I did remember my suggestion to invite her over. But whatever, it doesn’t matter.

“Oh, right!” I smacked my forehead, not wanting to upset Vika. “I should probably go pick her up, right?”

“She’ll find her own way,” Vika responded peremptorily. “She’s a big girl.”

“Whatever you say, sweetie.” I had no desire to get in the middle of what was clearly a complex relationship. “What do you need me to do?”

Stay out of my way. Here, grab a few pies and go relax in the other room.”

That was more than good enough for me, so I obeyed happily.

To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of family get-togethers. Sure, it looked great in the movies when you had a huge family all drinking tea together, shooting the breeze, and sharing all their joys and sorrows with each other. That may have been common twenty or thirty years before and may still have gone on in some patriarchal corner of smaller cities, but not in the capital, with its high-speed way of life, disconnection, and drive to earn as much sweet moolah as you could while leaving as little as possible for everyone else. In that context, even family ties could hold you back.

Hunting alone, or at least in pairs, made survival a much better proposition. That was why even small families only got together for major holidays, and it was why family clans had all but disappeared. There were some families that stuck together, but that was just for Timur Kizyakov 1and his umpteen years of dropping by strange homes. They only agreed to let him in because it was their one brief moment of televised fame. In my case, while I sort of knew my cousins, I had no idea who there was beyond them… It was nothing to be proud of—just a sign of the times.

Vika’s sister turned out to be an excellent young woman. She was attractive, had a decent sense of humor, and wasn’t nearly as obsessed with the game as I’d heard, at least judging by the fact that she didn’t mention it once. Fayroll didn’t even come up once in our conversation, save for a mention of where Vika and I worked. Elmira was happy to talk about her career as a teacher, and she enjoyed listening to and laughing at our journalism stories. (They were mostly mine, as Vika hadn’t been in the field long enough to build up a supply of her own. But I knew another year or two working with our three stooges, and especially Yushkov, would more than do the trick.) The only thing that surprised me was that she turned down all the alcohol I offered, and even quite sharply. Vika just nodded slightly when I looked at her in surprise. Am I missing something? Anyway, if she didn’t want any, she didn’t have to drink it.

All right, I’m going to run,” Elmira said a few hours later. “My sister’s in good hands, so I can relax.”

Oh, because you were just so worried!” Vika clapped her hands to her face. “You probably even stayed awake at night thinking about me.”

Elmira rolled her eyes in appreciation of her little sister’s attitude.

You poor guy, Harriton. I put in my time, and now it’s your turn to live with her. Are you sure you don’t want to change your mind before it’s too late? You could still tell her to take a hike,” she said to me.

Oh, come on,” I smiled. “I’ve seen it all; you can’t scare me.”

Are you sure?” Elmira squinted. “There’s always something.”

Elmira, stop it,” Vika scowled. “You’ve been on me since we were kids.”

Let me drive you home,” I said to Elmira, catching a note of frustration in Vika’s voice. It looked like she’d been on pins and needles all evening, and I’d caught her frowning once when her sister laughed uproariously at one of my stories. I had a sneaking suspicion that she was regretting taking me up on my offer to invite Elmira over.

That would be great, especially since it looks like it’s raining,” Elmira replied, giving in without a fight.

Vika pursed her lips, though she didn’t say anything.

***

Elmira sat down in the back seat of the car, which did surprise me a little. I was about to go open the front door for her when she opened the back one and plopped herself down.

I don’t like sitting up front,” she explained, “not since I was a kid.”

Fall that year was cold, with just a hint of an Indian summer; a few sunny days before we jumped back into the constant wind and rain. Sometimes, it was a drizzle; others, it was a downpour, but it felt like there was always something coming down. There were also the gray storm clouds hanging low over the earth and blocking out the sun.

I’m so tired of those clouds,” Elmira said suddenly. “They’re the worst.”

“Agreed,” I responded. “I can’t remember the last time we saw the sun.”

“It isn’t just that there’s no sun. They’re always there hanging over you, it’s so depressing. And there aren’t any stars. Do you like looking at the stars?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “It’s been a while. Too much to do, I guess.”

Well, why don’t we go to the planetarium and check them out? It’s so romantic, taking a girl to the planetarium. Unusual. I mean, we could go to the movies, or maybe a museum—we could go see a mammoth tusk. But going to the planetarium is much more unusual.” There was a bitter irony in Elmira’s voice, though it morphed quickly into sarcasm.

The Army taught me to be ready for anything; my job taught me to think on my feet; and the previous few months had left me incapable of surprise—and that was a good thing. If things had been different, the steering wheel might have slipped out of my hands. I heard my own words thrown back at me largely unchanged from the way I’d said them to a certain neurotic woman a week before. And they say Moscow’s a big city…

I probably should have said something like, “Wait, that’s you!” or “Oh, my God, what a coincidence!” But that type of thing just happens in cheap romance novels.

“Mammoths definitely have their charms. The food at museums is better, too—they sell sodas and eclairs. I still remember that from school field trips.”

“Um, so the most important thing at museums is the food? That I did not know.”

The food is always most important,” I noted instructively. “At museums, at the theater—especially if they’re showing a tragedy—and even at the circus. Not to mention the ballet and opera, since the food is the only thing that gets you through them.”

Elmira was silent for a second. I figured she probably wasn’t musing to herself about the finer points of food within the context of modern art; she was more likely working through what had just happened. She’d probably been expecting a different reaction and was trying to decide if she was wrong or if I was just stupid.

I thought to myself, as well, Really, the whole thing is funny; I’m sleeping with my clan leader’s sister. Though if I’d tried to explain the situation to a normal person who didn’t really know anything about life online, the only answer I probably would have gotten would have been, so what?

That was a pretty reasonable response, too. However, the fact that my clan leader had been going off the deep end meant that I had no idea what to expect, up to and including a pair of cuticle scissors in my neck…from the back seat.

We’re here.” I rolled to a stop next to Elmira’s apartment building. “Vika told me how to get here.”

Her two hands snaked their way onto my shoulders. “You know what’s going on, Hagen,” she hissed in my ear. “You know who I am. Why, why do you need that kid? What does she have that I don’t? What do you want that I can’t give you? You’re lucky, you have the paper, and you have your connections—oh, I know you have connections. That idiot told me plenty without even realizing it. And I have my clan, my persistence… Just imagine what we could do together!”

Elmira, you’re way too involved in the game.” I tried to pull her hands off me. “Look out the window. There’s a life out there, a real one, even if it is dark and gray right now. It’s not made out of code; people build it themselves. What do you want to do? And where?”

“This is life,” she continued, her hands reaching toward my throat and her lips touching my ear. She smelled like cherries. “You and me. We’ll be together in both worlds—forever. Do you really think all I’m good for is teaching nonsense to kids who don’t need it? No, I can do more, but I need someone to give me the strength for the leap, someone I can do it all for.”

“So what’s the problem?” I was starting to get worried. She wasn’t hysterical, but there was a fanaticism in her hiss. “Look at all the nice guys walking around out there. Pick any one of them.”

Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand?” A power suddenly filled her arms. “What did you see in that idiot Vika? Why her? Sure, she’s my sister, and I probably even loved her at some point. But she’s trash. You just don’t know that yet or haven’t noticed. Maybe you don’t even want to see that she’s trash. All she has is her ambition and that pretty little face. But you’re not stupid—that I know for sure.”

I was finally able to wrench myself away from her, so I turned around in my seat. Elmira jumped back to the other side of the back seat, where she looked at me narrowly.

She really was beautiful in the twilight. Her eyes were blue and flashing with emotion, her face was delicate and pale, and her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She looked at me and waited for a response.

We’re here,” I smiled. “I don’t think I’ll walk you up to your apartment. I wouldn’t want to give the neighbors a reason to gossip.”

It was quiet in the car. She was waiting for me to say something else, and I’d already decided that there was nothing else to talk about.

Are you sure you don’t want to come up with me? Positive? I’m offering myself. You’re welcome to come up right now,” she said calmly a minute later. “But I’ll never open the door to you again no matter what you say—that much I’ll tell you right now.”

“I’m sure that I have someone waiting for me at home,” I explained gently. “My girlfriend.”

The car door closed, and Elmira’s heels clicked away toward the building.

***

Did you get her there all right?” Vika smiled, though it was a nervous smile.

“Of course, I dropped her off at the door. She asked me not to walk her up. Hey, I don’t know what you were going on about with her—she’s great.”

Vika’s lower lip trembled. “Honestly, she was completely unlike herself today, really fun. I didn’t recognize her. But all’s well that ends well. Don’t forget that we’re going to meet your parents next week.”

I sighed, already exhausted by the obstacle course. My parents were great people, though Vika had no idea what was waiting for her…

***

It was a normal, sunny morning in Fayroll. The breeze blew clouds across the sky, and the sun shone, as it always did in the North, somewhat weakly—almost as if it was forcing its way through some kind of fabric.

Rourk was smoking a pipe on the recruitment center porch. He waved when he saw me. “So you decided to go for it?” he bellowed grandly.

“Looks like it,” I replied. “But only if you guarantee me that I’ll be sent south.”

“A sergeant is only as good as his word,” the half-orc replied proudly. “You’ll be heading south all right. A few people will be coming over from the Seventh Company, actually, so let’s go sign that contract.”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied firmly. “For a year.”

He pulled a scroll out of the wardrobe and slid it toward me. “Just stick your finger here.” He pointed to a spot on the paper.

“Yeah, right,” I laughed. “Not without reading it first.”

The half-orc sniffed indignantly, though I ignored him and leisurely read through the document to make sure I would definitely be heading south. My old man always told me to read everything before I signed it to make sure I wasn’t signing a death warrant or a marriage certificate. And my old man wouldn’t lead me wrong.

“Everything looks good,” I told Rourk.

He snorted. What did you expect?

I imprinted my finger on the document.


Congratulations! You signed a contract with the Wild Brigade.

From this moment on, you serve in the Seventh Free Company of the Wild Brigade.

Your service will last one game year.

Service in the Free Companies can be terminated before the end of your service without penalties if you pay the Wild Brigade 50,000 gold coins.

If you desert (are absent from your company without good reason for more than seven calendar days in the game), you will be added to the brigade’s death list, with trackers sent to find and kill you throughout the rest of your term of service.

You must:

Participate in combat operations fought by the Free Companies

Submit to the commanders of the Free Companies and Wild Brigade

Take good care of the uniform and equipment given to you

Quickly and unquestioningly follow orders

You have the right to:

A portion of all trophies collected

Timely payment of the amount listed in your agreement

One day off per week

To be buried at the expense of the Wild Brigade if you die on the battlefield

When you log into the game, you will find yourself with your company or with its commander and the majority of its troops.

Joining the Wild Brigade earns you the following bonuses:

+3% experience earned

+7% ability to use edged weapons

+7% ability to use ranged weapons

+2% protection from cold

+2% protection from fire

+3% ability development speed

Title: Free Company Warrior

Successful service may result in additional bonuses being granted.

Growing prestige in the eyes of your comrades and commanders, as well as successful service, gives you a good chance of getting both usual and hidden quests. Strong prestige in the Free Companies also lets you call on comrades for help completing quests unrelated to the Wild Brigade.



So I was back in the army.

What are you just standing there for, soldier?” Rourk yelled at me. “Get out there on the porch; your fellow soldiers are already waiting!”

The expression I saw in the sergeant’s eyes was one I hadn’t missed in all my years away from the Army, and it made me want to log out of the game—forever. But…

Yes, sir, Sergeant,” I answered before hurrying out of the recruitment center.





Chapter Two

In which the hero remembers that all coins have two sides.


There were six of my future comrades tramping around the porch. Five of them were NPCs, though the sixth was just as much a player as I was. He was a Level 64 elf archer named Fattah, and I was surprised to see that he wasn’t in any of the clans.

“Hi, everyone!” I waved. “My name’s Hagen.”

The group answered discordantly as we greeted each other, sizing up the people we’d be slaughtering enemies with at the orders of our commanders.

“What brings you here?” Fattah walked over.

“Oh, just curious,” I replied nonchalantly. “I read on the forums about how you can get some nice hidden quests if you do the work.”

“It’s true,” he nodded. “There’s that, though I’m here for the abilities.”

“What do you mean?”

If you serve for a year using your profile weapon, follow the rules, don’t get marked down, and fight well, the Wild Brigade commanders give you a class ability. You can’t learn it anywhere else, no matter how much you’re willing to pay—it’s completely unique. And if you serve two years, they give you another one.”

“But a year, that’s a long time.” I shook my head.

“How long is your contract for?”

“A year.”

So what’s the problem? You can’t jump ship before then anyway—well, as long as you don’t get kicked out. Almost everyone does since a year really is a long time. Very few people make it all the way to the ability, but I will; I’m stubborn like that.”

“Respect,” I replied without a hint of a joke. “I’m just going to see what it’s like, and if I don’t like it, I’ll get out.”

Fattah looked at me in surprise. “What do you mean, get out? How? Are you some kind of underground millionaire or a politician’s kid? You have an extra 50,000 lying around?”

If I have to, I can find it,” I assured him. “Or maybe I’ll just run off, so I don’t have to pay anything.”

You can, but get used to dying,” Fattah said seriously. “The Wild Brigade doesn’t send rookie trackers after deserters; you’ll get professionals at Level 100 or higher. They’ll chase you down wherever you are, and you won’t get a warning before they finish you off. That’s it. They do that until you can buy them off, but that costs even more money.”

Sounds tricky, but what else is new? I decided to wait until I got to the South and go from there.

Soon, Rourk walked out onto the porch with an intense look on his face and looked us over.

“Everyone here? The list says there should be seven of you.”

We glanced around and confirmed that yes, naturally, there were seven of us.

Then fall into line and jump into the portal I’m about to open one by one. And look at me—if you’re going to fight honorably, you can’t be hiding behind someone else’s back like a coward.”

The portal flashed, and we trooped our way through it. The North was behind me.

Wow, this is muggy, was my first thought when I walked out of the portal. After the crisp, cool northern air, the oppressive humidity and smell of decaying plants in the Southern atmosphere sent my mood spiraling downward in a hurry.

Damn, it’s like a sauna,” muttered one of my companions, a big guy named Silv.

“What were you expecting?” Fattah noted philosophically. “This is the South, the subtropics.”

Silv didn’t look like he knew what the subtropics were, though he nodded his head in agreement.

There are probably a ton of snakes around here,” a halfling named Moldo said warily. I wasn’t sure what could have brought him to the North, not to mention the recruitment center.

Nobody had the chance to respond. “Welcome to the heroic, legendary Seventh Free Company. Attention!” came a shrill, squeaky voice.

Two of my new comrades and I reacted instantly, our reflexes kicking in. The rest looked at each other, clearly not sure what to do.

The order had come from a small goblin, probably of the mountain variety. That deduction was a matter of simple logic—he spoke coherently and didn’t lick his lips when he looked at us. He was dressed in a sleeveless camouflaged shirt and matching hat. His mug, needless to say, was exactly as nasty-looking as one might expect, and he was standing next to a large orc in an oversized jacket. The latter looked at us appraisingly, his hands clasped behind his back.

“My gods, Falk,” the orc said a minute later to the goblin. “Look at the rabble joining the Free Companies these days. Sure, we had our bags of manure in the old days, but not like this.”

Agree wholeheartedly, Master Grokkh,” the goblin replied subserviently. “Now, look at these wineskins full of all that—soft and wet.”

And I have to fight with this crap. How? Do you know how I’m going to do that, Falk?”

“No idea, Master Grokkh. I don’t know what you can do with this mob, and I’m not sure how you’ll fight with them.”

None of us was stupid enough to open his mouth. We waited for the pair, of which the orc was clearly the commander, to make up their minds and determine our fate.

Well, we’ll work with what they sent us,” concluded the orc with a final glance in our direction. His voice jumped a few decibels. “Listen up, warriors. I’m Lieutenant Grokkh of the Seventh Free Company. From this day on, I’m your commander, king, god, father, mother, grandfather, and everything else. You will address me using my rank: master lieutenant. And now, listen carefully to what I’m about to say, as I won’t be repeating it.”

The lieutenant didn’t tell us anything I didn’t already know. Everything he described over the next ten minutes I’d already heard back in my first week of service in the glorious and invincible Russian Army. The only difference was that we had a sergeant yelling at us then since our lieutenant didn’t bother with newcomers until they’d been there a couple weeks already. He was busy singing and dancing on a stage somewhere.

Everything was exactly the same. Orders aren’t to be questioned, and I’ll have both eyes on you. If something happens, well, you know. They were different realities, but the hemorrhoids they gave you were identical. At least I don’t have to think anymore—they’ll take care of that.

“Well, isn’t that a nice little sword.” The goblin stopped his self-important march directly in front of me. “You don’t want to give it to me, your best friend, do you?”

Nope,” I said, pasting an enormous smile on my face. “It was a gift, and re-gifting isn’t polite.”

“Listen up, kid. I can make your life miserable around here,” he replied with a snarl.

Then I’ll kill you.” I shrugged. “You’ll die, and I’ll just switch over from the Free Companies to the Wild Brigade.”

The orc caught a glimpse of the goblin’s narrowing eyes. “What’s going on over there, Falk?”

Nothing, Master Lieutenant,” the latter replied, his glance following me. “Just having a word with this warrior over here. We’re going to be friends to the end; I can already tell.”

“You don’t have anything better to do?” The orc went back to yelling at us. “Any questions?”

Yes, sir,” I said, taking two steps forward before yelling back. “Private Hagen, heroic and invincible Seventh Free Company.”

“Well done, very good,” the orc grinned. “You haven’t served before, have you?”

I have indeed, Master Lieutenant. In the equally valiant and fearless royal companies of Fladridge.”

Wait a second, he might have been to Fladridge. Although, even if he has, he still wouldn’t know for sure that there’s no such thing.

“I haven’t heard of them, but their sergeants certainly know what they’re doing.” There was a note of approval in the master lieutenant’s bellow. “What’s your question, private?”

When do we find out what the schedule for training and campaigns is, Master Lieutenant?” I yelled, my eyes popping out. “Just so we make sure we’re always on time. And avoid any other problems.”

“Good question. I’ll remember your name, son.”

Thank you, Master Lieutenant,” I barked, spinning on my heel and marching back to my position in line.

Remember, you beasts,” Grokkh said, his hands on his hips, “we launch campaigns at all hours of the day and night, and we rarely know where the next danger to civilians will appear. Your job is to remain always ready for anything.”

Hey, the captain is coming,” squeaked Falk.

Warriors, salute Captain Singkh!” snapped Grokkh, who also thrust out his barrel-like chest and came to attention.

Forget it, no time for that right now,” a small and older warrior wearing silver chainmail replied with a wave of his hand. “What’s going on?”

Grokkh motioned at us with his chin, and the captain glanced in our direction.

Ah, fresh meat. Good timing, too. There was a breakout from the jungle near Lanook—some treewalkers. Take fifty of your men along with these kids. If they live, they live. And if they don’t, well…the good villagers will take care of their graves. Much better than what we can offer. We’ll port out in five.”

Grokkh watched the captain walk away before going back to yelling at us. “That was Captain Singkh. He’s the only one who decides who lives and who dies around here, and his orders are God’s honest truth as far as you’re concerned. Our company got the order to prepare for battle, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Everyone to that building over there…march!”

Seventh Company, form up!” the goblin’s squeaky voice piped up near a squat shanty that humans, elves, dwarves, and even a few cave people (I assumed that’s what they were, given their size and the lack of a better description) were pouring out of.

The whole mob lined up next to the building and looked at the lieutenant devotedly. “Okay, troops,” the orc started, hands behind his back. “We’re heading out for Lanook; they’re having problems with a treewalker outbreak. Corporals Raikh, Milkus, Troot, Naig, and Dro, your squads will be taking this one.”

Master Lieutenant, I’m four short of my ten,” boomed a barbarian named Dro.

“I’m short as well,” an elf named Troot added.

Agreed,” nodded Grokkh, “which is why the first four of these bodies will be joining you, Dro, and the rest you and your ears can take, Troot. By the way, there’s one who looks like he knows a thing or two, so use him well.”

The orc pointed at me, and I immediately assumed a valiant, oafish look to make sure I fit the part.

“Okay, so that’s one, but the rest are just sword grease,” the elf muttered in annoyance. “I only have one veteran left as it is, and with these…”

Don’t argue with the master lieutenant,” snapped the goblin. “You’ll take what you're given; we don’t have crap else.”

I was convinced the elf should have boxed the goblin’s ears for that, but, to my surprise, he just sighed deeply and held his tongue.

You have five minutes to gather, and then we’re porting out,” Grokkh said, holding up his hand before leaving.

My three with me, let’s go,” ordered the elf.

Fattah, who was also assigned to the elf, the halfling Moldo, and I, ran after him.

Stay away from the front; do your best to survive. If you live through your first battle, you might make it to the end of your contract. If not, well, you’re out of luck. Does everyone have a weapon? Excellent.”

Our corporal perked up at that last bit of news.

While the group got busy putting their cuirasses, pauldrons, and other equipment on, I quickly pulled up my map to see how close I was to my main target. The map showed me that I was smack dab in the middle of an enormous expanse titled the South. The red spot I was looking for was much farther east of where I was, and I had no shot at trekking my way through the jungle and savanna that lay in between it and me. Putting away my map, I started to think, and even rubbed my chin, when I got a hefty kick from the corporal.

“Warrior, you should have thought before you signed the contract. You don’t get to think now; your job is to fight.”

Five minutes later fifty soldiers were standing on the parade ground ready for battle.

“Go through the portal with your squad,” the goblin yelled. “Raikh’s squad, march!”

We tramped across the firm ground, equipment jangling, and the first squad dove into the blue portal. They were followed by the second and third squads, and then by us.

On the other side of the portal was a small village made up of straw houses. I’d seen something like them in Vietnam, where a group of us journalists had been sent three years before. Vietnam is no Ireland, and the diseases and snakes left most of my colleagues with no desire to make the trip. I, as usual, drew the short straw. Anyway, the huts there looked like what was right in front of me. The same could not be said of the locals themselves.

Some kind of shaggy creatures lived in the village. They had monkey-like faces, and they only came up to my waist. The little things were being slaughtered by black monsters reminiscent of short, gnarled trees with long arms and fiery eyes. The Raidion developers have to be smoking something. They just have to. There is no way a healthy person could imagine what I saw there. It was just a good thing the monsters were only Level 50…

Raikh’s squad, you take the southern flank. We may push them that way, so have your troops ready,” we heard Grokkh call loudly. Oh, hey, he came with us? The respect I had for the lieutenant jumped. “Dro, you take the northern flank since you have all the new kids. Make sure they don’t circle around behind us—that’s a favorite trick of theirs. The rest of you, attack from the center in three wedges. Remember, take out their legs, since that’s their weakest part. And stay away from their fingers—if they latch onto you, they won’t be letting go.”

Now that’s a good commander right there. It was exactly what we needed to hear.

Archers, drop back and cover us!” our corporal ordered. “Swordsmen, weapons at the ready. Move!”

All three squads started their advance at the same time, encircling the slaughter in front of us in a pincer movement. Leading the attack was Raikkh’s squad, which didn’t have any archers. It did, however, have unusually strong, well-armed troops representing the humanoid races.

It suddenly crossed my mind that I’d stopped differentiating between players and NPCs. We were in the middle of actual war—not a raid, not a dungeon, and not your usual sword fight. As far as I could tell, the mission we were on was nothing unusual for the Free Companies, just another day on the job. And that’s exactly how everyone around me approached it.

Our squad got to where the villagers were under attack, and our corporal, who was at the head of our wedge of seven warriors, quickly dove in and sliced the legs out from under the first treewalker in our path. It wobbled and fell, where Ur, a Northerner following behind Troot, buried his sword in its head.

Stay on your toes!” yelled Troot, though he was just a tad late with his order.

A treewalker dashed over from the side, hooking his long fingers into Moldo’s shoulder and yanking him out of the formation.

Moldo screamed from fear just as much as from pain, and I dashed after him. An arrow, probably fired by Fattah, thudded into the treewalker, who was carrying Moldo along through the air. But there was nothing we could do; another of the black monsters came over and helped its friend tear the poor halfling’s body apart.

And this is supposed to be a game? I thought. How did they possibly get a license for something like that?

But I had no more time to think, as yet another arm snaked toward me. I threw up my shield, the wooden fingers sliding along it like fingernails on a chalkboard. Crouching slightly, I swung parallel to the ground and felt my blade meet and cut its way through my target.

The beast, its eyes flashing, toppled over, though its fingers reached for me as it did. A few jabs at its head finished it off.

The battle raged all around, though I could tell that we were winning. The remaining treewalkers turned tail and hopped off in the direction of the forest. Happy to see them go, the furry villagers let out a cry of relief, and a few minutes later the whole thing was over.



You unlocked Mercenary, Level 1.

To get it, participate in 49 more battles as a member of the Free Companies or Wild Brigade.

Reward:

+3% ability to use your main weapon

+10% respect in the eyes of your commander (isn’t lost if your commander is replaced)

To see similar messages, go to the Action section of the attribute window.



I didn’t expect an action, but they were always nice to have.

“Got it?” Fattah walked over.

I glanced up at him. “Yep. Hey, you know what I was wondering? If we were to die right here in this village as part of a mission, where would we respawn, and where would our things go?”

You should really read a guide once in a while,” replied Fattah indignantly. “That’s one of the benefits you get with the Free Companies; when you die, you take your things back with you to the respawn, which is—”

“That much I know,” I interrupted him. “Where your unit is. So if everyone’s here, I’d respawn right back here?”

Exactly. They put that in as compensation for all the downsides there are to joining the Free Companies—you may have come of your own free will, but this still really limits what you can do in the game. Just remember that only works for battles you’re fighting as part of and at the order of the Free Companies. If you just go jumping into something on your own, you’ll respawn back with your unit but without your things.”

Interesting. Still, not bad.

“Yeah, it’s pretty rough here.” Fattah slung his bow over his shoulder. “War.”

Agreed,” I replied with a nod. “Apocalypse Now.”

Well, warriors, everyone still alive?” Troot came over. “That little guy, they ripped him in half, right? That’s a shame; we’re back to being a man short.”

The elf walked quickly back to Grokkh and the other corporals.

“So this is our life now, day after day,” Fattah said thoughtfully. “For a year.”

“No, I definitely won’t make it that long,” I replied honestly. “I’ll get out sooner.”

“If you have the money, you might as well. I don’t, and I want that ability, so I’m going to put in my time.”

“What happens if I can’t log into the game? My clock will still keep ticking, right?”

“Yes, though there are lots of limitations. You’re fine if you miss a day, but two in a row means disciplinary measures and kissing the ability goodbye. You take a pay cut if you miss three to seven, and you get experience and ability penalties as well as the death list if you miss more than ten.”

There wasn’t much room to squeeze around that. If I’d read what people were writing, I might not have enlisted in the first place. Of course, I could find the money if I needed to—I had more than 20,000 as it was, and I could borrow the rest. The Witch wouldn’t turn me down, I figured, and I could ask Gedron as well. If worst came to worst, I could borrow from the Tearful Goddess Order at interest. Gunther, I knew, would introduce me to that Brother Yur. But there was no hurry. And that’s a lot of money to spend…


Battle results

Your participation amounted to 3.84% of the total.

Performance: 1 opponent killed

Reward:

76 gold

520 experience, of which:

200 is for the opponent you killed

320 is your bonus for the battle and victory

Points collected toward the hidden bonus: 2 of 1000


“Cool!” I blurted out.

“How much did you get?” Fattah asked.

“Not much gold, 520 experience. What’s the hidden bonus?”

Oh, bro,” Fattah said, his eyes squinting, “you have no idea! Once you collect a thousand points, you can head to the Wild Brigade headquarters and open the trunk in the banner room for free. And there could be anything in there. I saw a guy once who pulled out a complete set—it wasn’t for his class, but it had all four items for the set together. True, you can get crap like a potion or hair coloring, but you’re more likely to get something good.”

Well, that’s a plus. I was getting double the usual experience, and if I really worked at it…

Hey, just one thing—if you die in battle, the experience you got doesn’t count,” broke in Fattah.

I sighed. “That’s a shame.”

“I hear you. Okay, I’m going to go over and make an appearance with the commanders.”

Fattah walked away, leaving me to open my map and see where we were.

I’d gotten lucky; we were halfway across the South. I wasn’t any closer to my goal, but I could tell that a couple weeks of battles and campaigns would give me a decent shot at somewhere close to where I was going. Yeah, I think I’ll stick around to do some fighting. The experience was good, and things were lively enough. Of course, there was another thing I could tell would come in handy. Whatever the local green runt had planned for me, I didn’t think it would be that simple. To be more precise, it will probably be brutal.

Not everyone lived to see the end of the battle. Besides the poor halfling, another three warriors found their way to the afterlife, and I realized why Rourk made sure he sealed the deal with anyone who walked into the recruitment center. At the rate we were losing bodies, he had to—and I could only imagine he was getting some kickbacks as well.

“Okay, warriors!” yelled Falk’s shrill voice. “Let’s get ready to head back.”

The squads lined up next to each other, and I found myself behind a tall beanpole named Ur. Behind me was Fattah. We all stared at the lieutenant, who was discussing something with the local leader. He was just as shaggy as the rest of them, just with feathers around his head. While the leader was waving his arms around, he soon stopped, sighed deeply, and stabbed a finger at the parchment Grokkh was holding.

“What are they doing?” I asked Ur, gently poking him in the back.

Ur turned his head. “Ah, one of the newcomers. Their guy marked the paper to prove that we provided military aid. Now their prince owes us money to compensate for our losses and expenditures. We wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for that.”

So they keep track of the money, too.

You did good work, by the way; I saw you,” continued Ur. “That wasn’t the first time you’ve used a sword, I imagine?”

“I’ve been around the block.” There was no sense hiding the truth. “You’re from the North?”

“Yep. I was born near a burg named Foyrin.”

“I know it, I was just there recently.”

“Seriously?” Ur perked up. “I haven’t been back in ten years, ever since I left to wander Fayroll. How are things there? Mind telling me when we get back?”

“Why not?”

“I’ll introduce you to the rest of the guys,” Ur promised. “And I can tell you what to do around here to make sure things aren’t harder than they have to be.”

Company, squad by squad, into the portal, march!” Grokkh yelled.

And off we walked into the portal.



Chapter Three

In which we find that some decisions are made for us.


Our ten-man squad (well, nine-man already, since Moldo had been sent on to NPC heaven without even a taste of all the benefits that come with military service) turned out to be a good one. Besides me, Fattah, and big Ur, we had Garron, a talkative southerner; Ping and Pong, two happy-go-lucky brothers from the East; two westerners, Mikos and Torn; and Lane, the latest in a long line of trackers from the Borderlands—an area that split East and West and was, judging by the one native I’d met, a fun place. Fattah and I were the only players in our motley band.

The guys showed us the barracks, which is what the squat buildings near the parade ground turned out to be. Inside, everything was spartan: double bunk beds and a few tables with bow-legged chairs around them.

The main thing to remember, gentlemen,” Garron said from his bunk, “is to hold your sword tightly, keep a close eye on your friends’ backs, and follow the commander’s orders without question. If you do that, you’ll be fine. I’ve already been here more than a year, and I’m alive, my stomach is full, there’s money in my pocket, and I get drunk once a week. That’s all they allow.”

Oh, and stay away from the louse with the ears,” Lane interjected slowly.

Right, that’s important. Don’t get involved with Falk,” Garron added with a nod. “He’s a rat the likes of which you’d have to do some searching to find.”

I tensed up a little. “I already got involved with him.”

“Your first mistake,” Torn said from one of the top bunks. “Watch your back now. What did you guys talk about?”

He liked the look of my sword,” I answered honestly. “The problem is that I like it, too.”

Ping whistled; Pong grinned.

Should’ve just given it to him,” said Mikos, who was busy digging in a chest he’d pulled out from under his bed. “Your life’s going to be miserable until you do, and he might just try to kill you.”

“What’s wrong with him?” I was really starting to get nervous. A goblin-faced terror haunting my dreams was the last thing I needed.

The group jostled to tell me Falk’s unusually interesting, nay infamous, life story. He was, in fact, a mountain goblin. They were a quirky breed of villains that weren’t as easily distracted by shiny nothings or their empty stomachs. Of course, eating and thieving were part of who they were, but they also made for decent strategists, excellent spies, and the dirtiest operators in Fayroll.

Somehow—and probably through some sort of misunderstanding—this particular example saved Grokkh’s life ten years before, back when Grokkh was just a sergeant serving in the Ripa Mountains. The then-sergeant’s entire squad had been killed in an unsuccessful raid, and he was forced to drag himself through the snow to the nearest outpost. Why Falk decided to save him rather than bury him in an avalanche nobody knew. Ever since, the two had been inseparable, with the little green beast forgiven for any trouble he got into—and he got into a good bit of trouble.

“That’s why we try to keep our distance,” Mikos concluded sadly.

“If only he would keep his distance from us,” Ping chimed in with a smile.

“That he doesn’t want to do. Never has,” confirmed Pong.

It was a shame, but I was having a hard time picturing what the goblin could actually do to me, even if Grokkh had his back. He could spit at me, but I figured I could deal with that.

The group then informed us that there were three companies in Dinjir: the Third, our Seventh, and the Ninth. The Ninth was going through a rough patch, as they’d had their rears handed to them by nomads from the Sinrin Plains. Something spooked them, or maybe they’d had too much to drink—everyone knew how much the tribes like their fermented milk—either way, they’d climbed down off their camels and cornered the Ninth Company in a ravine. The battle was fierce; only about a seventh of ours survived, and the company was waiting for reinforcements. It was strange we’d been sent to the Seventh rather than to the Ninth.

Regardless, Garron was right; the service wasn’t bad, so long as you followed the rules and kept your head down. We were paid once every two weeks, there was one day off a week, and you could even use the squad’s stationary portal if you wanted to.

“What do you mean, stationary?” Fattah’s eyebrows shot up.

Each area has a portal that’s always open and pointed toward the nearest capital,” explained Torn as he hung down from his bunk. “In our case, that’s Maykong, the capital of the South, stronghold of the principalities, and the residence of High Prince of Light Mustail the Second and the Beautiful.”

I’ve seen him,” giggled Ping. “He’d make for a great boogeyman!”

“He really would!” his brother chimed in, laughing like someone was tickling him.

“Yeah, the prince really is, well, you know…” Mikos agreed more tactfully.

And he’s just a nasty guy,” Lane said. “A real brute. There’s a snake out in the jungle called a ringhal—it’s beautiful, but if it bites you, just order yourself a casket right then and there. The prince is even worse.”

Lane’s had his problems with Mustail,” Ping whispered loudly to us. Pong nodded as if to say that, yes, Lane obviously had plenty of problems with the ruler of the South, but the brothers weren’t going to say a word about them.

And really just anyone can use the portal?” Fattah couldn’t care less what disagreements a hired sword might have with the Prince of Light.

What do you mean, ‘just anyone?” Torn replied. “Only if you’re serving in the Free Companies, and you have to show your pass to the portal guard.”

I made a mental note—going to see the capital sounded like a good idea.

“Seventh Company, form up!” we heard the goblin squeal, and all of us ran toward the parade ground.

You don’t get much peace and quiet in the Free Companies,” I said to Fattah once we’d gotten back from a small town besieged by repulsive crab-like creatures that walked on two legs for some reason. We had been sent with the Third Company to push them back into the jungle, and it hadn’t been easy.

That’s for sure,” he agreed, pulling out a pipe and packing some tobacco into it. “On the other hand, we’re piling up experience. I leveled up.”

“Nice.” I winked at him wearily. “Okay, I’m headed home.”

Yeah, our five hours is up.” The elf checked the timer on his interface before catching my questioning glance and rolling his eyes. Why does nobody ever read the guides? I could hear him thinking.


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