When the initial stupor had passed, I grabbed Eric’s sleeve and dragged him away from the main road. I dropped my bag on the ground and squatted, rummaging through its capacious inventory. Eric shifted his feet nearby, clueless as to what was causing the delay. Finally I found what I was looking for. I looked up at Eric and handed him one of the two vials containing Red Bear’s blood. “Take it. It’s yours now. Just a trinket to celebrate my success.” Unsure, Eric reached out and squinted at the vial, moving his lips, as he read the item's ID. Then he jerked his hand away. “Any idea how much this costs? Judging by your newb kit, it’s not as if you shit gold.” “I’ve got two gold, to be precise. The rest I had to splurge on takeaways. Jail food nearly killed my palate.” “You could sell the vial for a couple grand. Three, even. In gold.” I could see he was dying to accept the gift but his honesty was getting the better of him.
My inner greedy pig, who had only a moment ago been hopping up and down celebrating my freedom and the unexpected financial windfall, squeaked and dropped senseless with shock. That was serious money. Had I known it, I’d have thought twice before giving the vial away. But claiming it back would mean a total loss of face. Besides, I liked this honest, cheerful and straightforward tower of a grunt. I grinned, “Oh, whatever. You only live once. Take it. I'll distract my inner greedy pig before he throws a fit.” Eric managed a shy smile and accepted the vial. “I’ll be damned, dude. You won’t believe how much time I’ve spent chasing after him. The bear is one hell of a mount. I'll do some work on him and he'll be slaying dragons. I owe you. Don't say anything. You're a Necro, aren't you? We'll have to check the bank. I'm sure they have something for you." "I'm actually a Death Knight," I corrected, pointing his sense of gratitude in the right direction. "I specialize in pet summoning." Overjoyed, Eric slammed my shoulder. My health bar quivered. A few guards exchanged worried looks as they passed by, tightening their grip on the weapons. “Quiet, you ox. People have been killed with a lighter touch,” I rubbed my aching shoulder. He just grinned nonsensically, pressing the vial to his chest. “Come along, then. I’ll take you to the bank, pick up the heart, then I'll go pay the alchemist a visit. My guys will freak out when they see me coming on the bear's back." "Hold your horses, will you? I'm coming along. I want me a bear, too." "Do you? Have you got another bear kit?" I gave him a wink. Eric was brimming with emotion. "Dude, you're awesome. Shame I can't refer you to our clan. You need to have combat experience to join. You haven't been in action, have you?" "I did service, sure," I hurried to explain. "Air defense. Shoot'em down, sort'em out on the ground. But I wasn't in action, no. Probably for the better." Eric nodded. "Most likely. But if we decide to start a nursery, I'll give you a reference and an invitation. You'll be a standby guy. Think you'll join?" I shrugged. "We'll see. Thanks, anyway." In the bank, everything went hunky dory. As a perma player, I was eligible for a low-rate bank account, providing my digitized status was confirmed by another perma with a solid track record. Eric fit the role fine. Among other freebies, they gave me a thirty days free texting number. All the messages arriving at the number were forwarded to my inbox. I could also use it for sending outgoing messages, but I couldn't do it myself, only through an operator. The plan was so good I signed up for automatic renewal: retaining contact with the outer world was worth the fifty gold it cost me. I tested it on the spot, sending my Mom a quick and rambling message reproaching her for sending me too much money too soon, then thanking her all the same. Then I slapped my forehead and sent her another one in all-caps: MOM! I WON'T DIE! I'VE MADE IT! YOU CAN TURN THE CAPSULE OFF NOW! I'M IN PERMA MODE!!! I felt a bit uneasy typing the last sentence, but I'd been convinced by both Eric and my failure to log out. I thought about their Internet services. It wasn't real Internet, of course—more like a paid database for perma players. You sent your search request to the operator who looked it up and sent you the most relevant search result. Twenty gold per request. A bit pricey for me at the moment, but it might come
in handy at a later date. The Olders seemed to have made it big. They basically controlled the service market. Need someone to look after your grave in the real world? Or a lawyer to take care of your offline property? Hire a nanny or a house help for your surviving family, buy whatever you fancied, check on your wife to make sure she hadn't stranded in your absence—easy. So, for a nominal sum, you could subscribe to two news feeds: one that covered the virtual and the other the real world. The moment I heard about them, I had them both hooked up to my account. I also ordered a couple of books and subscribed to new offers from some of my favorite authors. I was shaking in anticipation of the moment when I hit my bed in the Three Little Pigs, pressing the full screen button and opening the latest bestseller sequel. Finally, they offered me a choice of ID rings for instant account access. Every ring was personal, bound on equip, with various extras to choose from. "This is our local handwork," the clerk's voice rang with pride as he handed me the silver ring with a +5 Strength modifier. Regular players received a plain copper ring with no extras. Only permas were eligible for silver ones. I tried not to think who you had to be to get a gold one. Eric didn't wear his ring in public. Either he belonged to that choice category, or simply didn't want to publicize his perma status. Problems were waiting at the bank's exit. I was still studying my new ring and only stopped when my head rammed a chainmail shirt. I raised my head. Tavor, the greedy Elf, was squinting at me. I didn't like what I read in his face. During my five days in the slammer, he'd kept leveling and was now 37. He didn't waste his time, did he? Having said that, his money and items could buy him any level he wanted. Tavor grabbed my shoulder. "So, Drow savior? Fancy seeing you here. Mind following me to the arena? I've got something you might like... not." I tried to shake his hand off but couldn't. The difference in our strength parameters was quite amazing. I should probably invest more into strength: you never knew when a perma like myself might need it. Besides, Tavor wasn't alone. Three of his fellow clan members surrounded us and pushed us away from the bank doors. Their actions were quick and smooth—they must have done it a thousand times before. No idea how it all would have ended, had Eric not come out to join us. "Hey! What's going on here? Get your hands off him, quick." He rammed through their barrier and shoved the Forest Cats aside. Tavor gave him a moody look studying his level and the Veterans' clan badge. "Sorry, dude. I'm afraid it's none of your business. The kid owes me. You don't want to interfere." I struggled myself free. "I owe you nothing. You attacked me first. Then you fucked off and now you're the man? When you've got your hoods with you? Whassup, dude? Can't you manage it on your own?" Tavor spat at my feet ignoring my challenge. The ring around me drew tighter. Eric splayed his elbows, pushing my assailants aside. "He's my friend. Enough now. Are you fucking mad, settling your accounts in town? One drop of blood and the place will be crawling with guards. Give it a rest." Tavor squinted at us, weighing up his chances, then apparently decided not to push his luck. His glance happened upon my ring. "A perma, are we? Well, well, well. You know what? You're toast." He turned away and called out to his henchmen, "Come on, guys. He's not going anywhere." Eric stared after them. "You're good at making enemies, bud. What you really need is to join a clan. A strong one. Lone permas are in for a lot of trouble." "Problem?" "You could say so," he mumbled. "Just something people say about them. All of them, not just the Cats, you understand. Keep your eyes peeled now. Watch your back. Practice some invisibility spells. I also suggest you get Crystal Vision and keep it on you at all times. It'll allow you to see stealthers. Never create resurrection points in deserted areas: they might track you down and run you through your own personal hell, a death a minute for a week. They have special guys with unlimited PK counters who do just that. By unspoken agreement, permas are supposed to be immune from this kind of treatment, but... You know what I mean. Don't flash your ring in town. Your status is nobody's business. By the way, why didn't you just call the guards? While you're in town, no one can hurt you." "Yeah. Stupid of me."
"You've got to get savvy now. For you it's not a game anymore. Trust me, this place isn't as cute and cuddly as it may look." I nodded absent-mindedly. Then a thought crossed my mind. "Is it," I snapped my fingers, searching for the right word, "all this Wild West, is it really necessary? Even the Olders, what do they get out of this pissing contest with these thugs?" Eric walked and dragged me along, explaining as he went. "All these old-age citizens, all the crafters, bankers and pacifists—normally, they just don't want to go beyond level 10 so they can preserve their startup immunity. So not every noob is a newbie, if you know what I mean. Some of them take a different route. They pay to be power-leveled. After two months, they are level 200-plus and all done up in so much epic gear you'd need a raid party to get one up on them. I may be exaggerating a bit, but not much." We stopped by an affluent alchemy shop. Eric froze for a bit, checking the map. Then he pointed confidently, "This one. We'll go in together, I'll close the quest, you accept it right after me and close it, too." Once inside, I was instantly distracted by the shop's contents. Before, I just couldn't afford to use any of those potions so now I eagerly studied their choice and prices. They had some classics: life and mana elixirs which worked over a period of time, allowing you to use them in battle but not giving you any considerable leveling advantage. I picked up a Minor Health Potion. A tiny vial contained barely a mouthful of bright red liquid. It cost one gold piece. You squeezed it in your hand, and the stopper came out on its own. It started working thirty seconds after being swallowed, restoring up to 40 points health over a period of 10 ticks 5 seconds each, followed by a 3-minute cooldown during which you couldn't use it again. The idea was to minimize the time wasted on mana and hits regen while complicating protracted combat, allowing for easier soloing to those classes traditionally weak in solo leveling. Plus it helped relieve players of their money, no question about that. The shop also had all sorts of potions: various armor and attack speed buffs as well as those increasing strength, agility, intellect and crit probability. Plus Eye of a Cat, Fish Breath and Crystal Vision as well as tons of other things. Next to them stood a small collection of attack elixirs: poisons, acids and Molotov cocktails. Launching them was just like hurling gold at a target. An expensive exercise. Safely tucked behind the shop owner's back, a protective magic field glittered over a special display. I studied its contents and phewed. For five hundred gold, those little vials raised any basic characteristic 1 point. Cooldown: twenty-four hours. Max cap: 200 extra points. For two thousand gold, you could get yourself an extra Talent point. Cooldown: five days. Cap: fifty points. Oh well. Tough toys for tough boys, and prices to match. Then I heard a bear bellowing outside, followed by Eric's shrieks of delight. My heart shrunk and fluttered in my chest. Hummungus, sweet old Ted! I hurriedly approached the owner. "Is it true, Sir, that you're looking for some rare elixir ingredients?" The Elf owner, a picturesque type with bleak expressionless eyes, nodded gravely. "I am. I'm quite prepared to pay for any internal organs of rare beings." New quest alert! The alchemist shop owner spends a lot of time looking for new magic formulas. For that purpose, he eagerly buys body parts from monsters level 100 and beyond. Reward: Gold or Unknown Elixir. Pardon me? I did accept the quest, no question about that. But where's my Teddy? I felt a bit nervous. "Excuse me? Are you looking for something in particular?" The owner didn't play hard to get. "Sure. There are a few things I'd buy from you right now. Or if money isn't what you're after, I could offer a swap for the resulting monster." New quest alert! Bring the alchemist the heart and some blood of Red Bear, indigenous to the City of Light area. Reward: Money or a unique mount. Phew. Relieved, I dug into my bag for the quest objects. "I think I just happen to have what you're looking for." The alchemist, wonderfully impassive, only wished to know what kind of reward I preferred. For a brief moment, he disappeared into a side room. When he came out, he placed on the counter a bone whistle on a leather strap. Summoning Whistle. Binds when picked up. Summons a unique mount: Red Bear. I grabbed the precious object and brought it to my lips. The alchemist recoiled, shielding himself with his hands.
"Please don't! Not in my shop!" Oops. That was a bit stupid. I mumbled my thanks and rushed out. Once in the street, I gave the whistle an almighty blow. "WRRRGHRRRAAAAH!" "Hummungus!" Congratulations! This is your first riding mount. Would you like to rename Red Bear? Yes! A system window popped up displaying the mount's name. I deleted it and entered a new one: Hummungus!