[Book 1] [35. The Riker’s den]
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The Riker’s den - present day

The party was in a full swing. Dazzling lights dotted the thick matte-black fabric on the ceiling, blinding anyone who walked in. Under it, crystal-clear tables, full of various foods and drinks, glittered and reflected all the starlight to create a welcoming atmosphere.

The room was gigantic, and at the end of it were windows covering the entire side, seemingly without a support. Right now, the guests could see a night view of the entire city, because this den was at the top of the highest skyscraper - Riker’s Tower.

The den’s organizers aimed to overwhelm the visitors with beauty and other tricks, so they spent their money before realizing what was going on. Lucas walked in with his favorite mask on and smirked at the beauty. He wasn’t the only one in anonymity - most of the visitors hid their faces under masks.

“Focus!” Perl's voice woke him from the momentary distraction. “We are here to gather intel, not to play.”

“I know,” Lucas whispered into his shoulder. “But it would be strange not to play.” That was why he came closer to a table in the back and glanced at the monitors. Amateurs. The first game was about breaking into the sewage system’s security. Simulated one, as any in this contest, but they couldn’t even properly calculate odds!

Lucas analyzed the used codes and said, “This suits the kid, Reider. Let’s bet on him.”

“What?” the surprised and loud voice of Perl forced him to frown. “It’s ten to one!”

“He has a good head and the others have little experience with NT-3. Easy money, my friend.” Talking to himself wasn’t that much out of the norm, because some visitors even screamed at nothing than an air. His watches blinked - Pearl bet on Reider three thousand. It was as always - with some starting capital, it wasn’t hard to make money.

“Mister Lucas, wonderful to meet you again!” someone interrupted Lucas’ calculation of how much he could win if he combined the next bet. “You as well, mysterious Pearl.” The voice was familiar, and his face paled when he realized who was talking. Jeffrey.

“Logging out.” Before Lucas could react, his friend abandoned him.

The young punk grinned and raised a glass with a yellow liquor in it. “Congratulations on surviving another week.”

“Thank you?” Lucas drank his glass in one go and faced his opponent. He stood frozen, afraid that any movement would betray the fear that gripped him. Not that his feet listened to him right now.

Jeffrey's approach was slow, but his grin was spreading wider with every step. “Charlie is operating fiercer than I expected. That means I prefer to aid her. She almost faced Dmitry and that would be a catastrophe.” It was really a bizarre scene - a young kid terrified a man with a robust frame.

“Pardon?” Lucas asked, but his body wouldn't budge. Last time he fought with him and even talked, but since then he dug deeper and found out how the ring dealt with folks like him.

Jeffrey's face lit up with recognition. “Ah, an explanation is in order. Have you noticed our simulation?” Lucas could only nod. “See, that’s correct, but have you identified why?” Same as before; Lucas shook his head. Jeffrey let out a heavy sigh and couldn't help but look towards the twinkling lights of the city.

“We are captives in a never-ending loop. Only the game is ever changing. These barbaric times are our punishment.” Jeffrey walked towards the windows, and Lucas finally moved to follow him. “See, in the future, this is a humane approach to handle us. Prison? How uncivilized, the uptight government would rather give us an alternative to survive in comfort.”

Jeffrey leaned on a window and sipped from his glass as Lucas finally opened his mouth and said, “Am I simulated?”

“It’s complicated,” his companion said in a low voice. “They couldn’t imprison us for life. That would be so inhuman. We have a path to redemption - a seed in the game.”

Everything clicked in Lucas’ mind. Now it made sense - everything he uncovered in the last month. Whether Jeffrey was being completely truthful, Lucas didn’t care as long as they did not kill him. “I see.” On the outside, he had a stoic expression, but his mind worked in an overdrive.

“Tell Charlie to stay clear of other heroes. I’ll visit her soon and explain what she needs to know.” A watch blinked with light, but Lucas ignored it. “Reider lost, huh?” Jeffrey grinned and left Lucas perplexed and without money.

 

Village number seventeen - chief’s office

Negotiating prices was always hard for me. Impossible even. That was the reason I agreed to the first price he offered - a hundred gold. The unknown man dismissed his subordinates, which gathered behind me, and started examining my scan.

“Huh? What are you waiting for? Take your gold and leave,” he said after a while.

I threw my unbound hands around like Katherine to make my point, and asked, “That’s it?”

“Oh, I almost forgot.” Again, he rummaged under his table and pulled out a letter. “I sent a regional legion to your fortification. You delivered this Duke’s request, right?”

“Yes? What, an entire legion?” I couldn’t hold my surprise in and clenched an edge of his expensive table. “Why?”

That stupid cheeky bastard laughed and put the Duke’s letter back. “Not entire legion. All three thousands humans.” He must be glad to rid of them, because a glee on his face was… stupid.

“You are going to be powerless when Irwen-” I wanted to crush his confidence, but he interrupted me with a proud stare.

“We will gladly join our Queen in a rightful struggle.”

“But…” I wanted to explain about turning him into undead if he stayed and died, but he knew that. His stare told me as much. Time to leave. “Thanks for the money.”

After I left the guild building, I realized the night was still in a full swing. To finish the main quest, I needed strength. Artefacts. That was now the most important thing - to get stronger. Ruins were the most important location, but I knew about a few other locations. Sadly, if I went there without getting the information from the NPCs, the administrators could ban me. Damn!

One way of getting info was finding a lore keeper, because they always knew legends and even sometimes where to look for clues. There was standing a guard under a magic lamp, so I just came closer and asked, “Do you know where I can find a lore keeper?”

This time, I found a male guard in full armor with a spear in his hand. “He should be back there,” he said with a bored voice and pointed towards the west. “Old man loves to tell stories to children in the mornings.” Oh, it was morning already?

 

As I was hopping on the street, the world suddenly turned black, and I felt someone touched my eyes. “Guess who!” Katherine whispered in my ear.

“A small girl?” I guessed; and tried to hold a smile in. That failed because she grumbled and let me go.

“You’re no fun!” she complained, and joined me on my walk. “Whatcha doin’?”

As she walked side by side with me, a smell of fresh air, or perhaps forest, reached my nostrils. How could she smell so nice? One hundred reality, huh? The game held nothing back, that was for sure. “How did you find me? Did you follow me from the guild?”

“Wat?” She stopped and observed me as if I was an idiot. “Friend’s finder?” Yes, I was an idiot. Well, I had never used it, so it was obvious I forgot it existed.

To make the uncomfortable feeling go away, I cleared my throat. “Never mind that!” With slightly rosy cheeks, I answered her previous question, “I want to get a quest, so I’m heading to a lore keeper. Do you want to go with me?”

Katherine's grin increased a beating of my heart, and she nodded, adding more beats per minute. “Sure, I’ll stick ‘cause killin’s wasps isn’t fun.”

 

Exactly as the guard said, the lore keeper was sitting in front of a large fire with little kids littered around him. They were resting on large tree logs, and fire created dancing shadows on their faces. “Tat’ him?” Katherine asked and followed my gaze. He was an old man with white hair, a rare thing among elves, wearing a ceremonial white armor.

[Lore keeper Lv.15]
Type: 5-epic | HP: 330/330

When we entered the area around the fire, he was in the middle of a story about religion. At least that was what I assumed - children’s faces looked like mine when I read the five thousandth page of the Atriel manifesto. The first and last religious book I had ever tried to read.

“Hey old man!” Katherine stormed towards him and shouted in an excited tone. “Do ya know ’bout treasure?” Her outburst of energy left all of us speechless and everyone, including me, was only staring at her with bewilderment. “Wat?” She glanced around and tilted her head to the side.

It was me who had to salvage the situation, so I bowed and said, “Pardon my friend. She wanted to ask you if you knew any interesting stories.”

The old man stopped in the middle of his story and rose. “Naturally my children. Please sit!” He gestured with his wrinkled hand towards an empty log. We all sat down and the fire warmed my body - until now I hadn’t realized how cold it got. Ice dance perk?

“We are interested in stories about Eeleim,” I said and warmed my hands over the fire. “Although I know some myself, I’ll gladly start…” I had to end my explanation right there, because he shot up from his log and strode towards me with unexpected energy for a senior.

“What did you say?” That stupid keeper grasped my arms and shook me. “Repeat that!” I couldn’t answer, because my mind was blank, as if Patric’s bar appeared in front of me. “Now! Repeat! The name!” His piercing stare ended on my tiara. “Only the royal family is exempt from the curse.”

“You mean Eeleim?” When I said the name of the kingdom, his mouth curved into a smile so deep, I could examine all his teeth and smell his breath. “Go away!” Pushing on his chest, I forced him to stumble back and slipped from his grip under his wiggling arm. My opponent didn’t follow with another grapple and froze on the spot instead.

“You truly are a princess.”

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