''How do you feel?'' the stranger asked me, sounding troubled.
It turned out that I had lost consciousness. I shook my head, and the pain gradually went away. For a moment, it felt like everything I had experienced before was just a bad dream. The darkness, the barely visible, ghostly figures... And then my eyes settled on a bonfire with a bunch of people around it.
''What's your name?'' the man asked. This time, I recognized his voice; he was the one who'd spoken to me while I was in the shadow world.
"Vasily," I mumbled. For some reason, I was sure that it would've been a bad idea to give him a false name. Deception was still a valuable resource, of course. But since I was somewhere new, without any information, the chances of me telling a useful lie and getting good results, weren't that high.
I was lying on some sort of a rock that was tied to me. At first, I had thought that this stone was just a hallucination. But apparently, the shock of moving to another world was something natural.
"Hello, nice to meet you, Vasily. My name is Andrei." At this point, I finally made out who was talking to me. He was an unremarkable guy in his thirties, short-haired, with a barely noticeable scar on his forehead. It seemed like he was the leader of these people.
I touched my head, wincing in pain.
"You'll feel better soon enough," Andrei said amiably. ''Everyone suffers from the same thing at first. Take your time getting up.''
Nodding, I tried to get to my feet but I failed. Feeling sick, I fell on my back and hit the damned stone once again. Some guy couldn't restrain himself and burst out laughing, but was immediately silenced. Andrei extended his hand and one of the guys rushed over to help me. Thanks to them, I finally managed to get up. I took the chance to have a good look around. A group of about ten people, consisting mostly out of young men and women, had settled down near the bonfire. Only one old man stood out due to his age.
Some of them looked lost, huddling around the fire. Apparently, they had also appeared in this world a little while ago, just like me. Looking closer, I noted that all of them had the same gray stone. Some were holding it in their hands; some had prudently put it on the ground under their feet.
Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice used to say...
''Well,'' Andrei said quietly. It was clear that he was a bit nervous. He cleared his throat and continued, ''I could congratulate you on getting here, but there is no point in doing that. Each of us found themselves in this world just like you did. Where are we? I don't know. Why are we here? I can't answer that question, either.''
He said all of this in such a calm voice that, if I hadn't taken part in the deadly trial earlier and then appeared in some shadow world, it would have been such a pleasure to just sit there and listen to him. It was hard to believe that no one had gone into hysterics yet. It seemed that the deadly trial had prepared us well for the unexpected quirks of fate.
''What does it all mean?'' a girl asked, her voice trembling. Her eyes were big, and her blond braids a little bit dirty. Perhaps you'll turn out to be a crybaby, I thought. Although, admittedly — since she'd survived, gotten to this place and was now trying to make people pity her, the nickname ''Fox'' was much more appropriate for her.
''Stop fooling around! Do you really think we don't know what you did to get here?'' a young, bald guy snapped at her. His voice had come from the shade and he was standing at a bit of a distance from the rest of them.
For a split second, the pitiful expression on the girl's face was replaced with a malicious grimace, but a glance from the bald man made her quiet down.
''We don't have any information about what's really going on," the guy who had helped Andrei get me back up said tersely. "But it's common knowledge that we're trapped here and don't know how to get out..."
''So, we don't have any information?'' I decided to join the conversation.
"Well, that's not really true, we know that there is a way out of this world," Andrei added. "We know where it is, and we know how to get there. Unfortunately, it's kind of impossible to reach that place.''
''Yeah, sure.'' Suddenly, the man who was standing out by virtue of his advanced age spoke up. "The bastard who sent me here had promised that it'd solve all of my problems…''
"Valentin Petrovich," Andrei politely interrupted him. "Let me give them a briefing."
The man didn't mind, and Andrei continued. The conversation turned out to be a little bit confusing as the newcomers often asked him to repeat some things, but in the end, the picture became more or less clear. Our group consisted of ten people, and five of us, including me, had just arrived. Everybody had appeared in this world after talking with a stranger who had appeared in the form of a God, a mentor, or someone like that. I immediately remembered my new friend who had called himself the ''Great Chaos''. I wondered if I was the only one who had such a joker as a teacher. Also, all of us had gotten into trouble before meeting our mysterious ''benefactors''. Andrei made all of the newbies tell their story of how they had arrived to this world. For example, ''Fox'' thought that she had died in a plane crash and then found herself in the afterlife. But, frankly speaking, I didn't believe her story. Mikhail, a tall, thin kid dressed in expensive clothes, had gotten drunk in a club. At first, he thought that he had gone crazy. He told us how, suddenly, the dance floor turned into a bloody massacre, and how people started killing each other. The guy said that he didn't understand what caused all of it. Personally, I had some suspicions: most likely, the clubgoers had also been offered a kind of test, and the guy couldn't remember anything because he had been on drugs and had survived by accident.
My suspicions were confirmed after all the others told their stories. It turned out that everyone else had passed a test similar to mine. Unfortunately, the locals of this world didn't tell us about themselves. Andrei had only asked the newcomers to tell their story, but even this information was enough to let us draw some conclusions. Besides ''Fox'' and Mikhail, whom I'd decided to call ''Major'' behind his back since I sucked at remembering names, a young guy who had worked as a cop, and a businesswoman that was slightly over thirty were also among the newcomers. The former cop had managed to get out of a restaurant where he had been with his girlfriend. According to his story, the room began to fill with water. This, naturally, caused panic, and people began to drown and desperately fight to get air. According to him, by some miracle, he managed to find the exit, but all of the other visitors died. He tried to justify himself by saying that he tried to save those who had been left inside. But Andrei made him stop talking as the others were shooting sidelong glances at him. It would seem that our law enforcement officer sacrificed everyone else to save his own life… The businesswoman, called Olga, honestly told us that an uninvited guest, who had appeared in her office, offered her a simple choice — either she or all of her staff members would die. After telling us this, she hissed angrily through her teeth: ''Just don't tell me that you wouldn't have done the same!'' No one answered her. Then it was my turn. Feeling uneasy, I told them the truth about my own test. With one exception: I didn't say a word about the magic.
I suddenly thought how, if Olga had been a little bit younger, I'd have been glad to talk to her a bit more intimately… I needed to stop thinking about such foolish things.
Andrei nodded at everyone — just like the business coach from my old job — and began a detailed survival briefing. At this point, it all became even more interesting, and I was eagerly absorbing bits of information about this new world we all found ourselves in. Unfortunately, our instructor was not really good at this sort of thing.
As Andrei's survival briefing wound up, my attention wandered towards the solidly built dark haired man apparently pondering his own problems by the fire, Suren. Noticing my eyes and that the briefing was struggling, Suren stood and cut in to clarify the basics. We learned that the world we were now in acted on some strange principles that resembled a computer game. It was possible to die and rise from the dead. I immediately noted to myself that my God of Deception had told me the truth after all. To rise from the dead or, as it was called here, ''to resurrect'', was possible only in the special place where you had hidden your tombstone. This information was actually the answer to the question: ''Why do we need these stones tied to our backs?''
The main thing to keep in mind was that if the tombstone were destroyed, its owner's fate would be the final death. Andrei immediately calmed us down, saying that, when we got to the main camp, we'd be taken to the secret crypt of their squad, where we would then be able to hide our tombstones. On one hand, you'd want to carry such an important thing with you at all times; but on the other, if you died with your tombstone on you, it was likely to be destroyed as well. If that happened, there would be no way back. Judging by how casually the local old-timers were talking about death, this world had a lot of features, that's for sure. However, it seemed that they weren't in a hurry to teach us its secrets.
"Can I sum up the available information?" Having decided to check whether I understood everything correctly, I spoke up. I even raised my hand as if we were at school. My image of a diligent student would probably make everyone disregard me as a threat.
Andrei looked at me and nodded.
"To begin with, we know where the exit out of this place is, but it's not easy to get there," I said in a loud voice. ''Secondly, if we die, we'll be able to resurrect. Thirdly, if someone destroys your tombstone, all your previous efforts will be a waste of time! Did I get everything right?''
There was a gloomy silence, and I kind of regretted having said all of that. On the other hand, it couldn't hurt to clarify everything.
"That's right," Suren said with a smile. ''But you forgot the most important thing.''
I looked at him inquiringly. Fox and other newcomers followed my example. It even looked a little comical, despite the tragedy of this whole situation, since we were sitting with our mouths open, looking at our teachers.
"The most important thing is to survive," Suren grumbled and turned away.
"Oh, aren't we...?" Fox asked, looking confused.
''Hmph, no you're not,'' the old man answered with a grunt. ''The previous five died.''
''Valentin Petrovich!'' Andrei said angrily.
''Don't you think they have the right to know? What are you going to do about it?'' the old man asked, his face glum. I decided to call him Petrovich; a patronymic was a good nickname for this old man. ''Do you remember Olesya? Vitalik? Have you forgotten about them?''
''Stop!'' Andrei raised his voice. ''We aren't going to talk about this right now.''
Petrovich fell silent, as did the others. Andrei looked at everyone strangely, muttered something inaudible, and continued, ''We have to walk about six miles to reach the camp.'' Hearing this, one of the newcomers sighed heavily. ''It's tough, but you should know that it's the only way to get there.''
''Now it's my turn to give you some instructions," Suren said loudly. ''As Andrei has already mentioned, you'll need to hide your tombstones. Also, I want to point out that, if you want to, you can stay here on your own, and risk your life — you should understand that we don't force anyone.''
''What kind of danger lurks along the way?'' Olga asked calmly. There was no doubt that this woman had an iron grip on her emotions.
"Who knows," Suren said with a shrug. ''It could be wild animals, natural cataclysms, or even traps of unknown make.''
"I see," the businesswoman answered shortly.
''Those who put you through the test let you choose your main ability," Suren continued. ''Out here, you should count only on that. All of your other skills are barely useful, at best.''
''I got a knife fighting skill,'' the cop immediately answered.
"A disguise ability," Fox said, acting a little shy. It was definitely not a standard combat skill. As I thought, the girl wasn't that simple.
''Firearms.'' Olga managed to surprise everyone. Her tightly drawn blonde hair, black-rimmed glasses, and the strict business suit were utterly inconsistent with the image of someone shooting a firearm.
''I... I don't remember.'' Mikhail, the Major, looked confused. ''I hardly remember anything.''
Suren sighed and asked him to somehow look into his mind and then say what was written in the description of his ability. While my neighbor was wrinkling his forehead in concentration, our coach turned to me, waiting for me to reveal my specialization.
''War scythes,'' I lied, without even batting an eye. They were unlikely to succeed in finding something like this, which meant that no one would be able to disprove my story. And even if they did manage to find one — as a last resort, I could just say that the scythe wasn't a war one and that that's why the skills weren't working.
Suren exchanged a glance with Andrei, and they both sighed.
''Why is it so difficult with you…?'' our commander whispered in a faintly sarcastic tone.
''Well, listen up, guys, I'll help you get used to this new reality.'' Suren's unexpected, cheerful voice seemed to be utterly fake. ''It's kind of hard your first time, but then you'll start taking this for granted. You should relax your eyes and look inside yourself.''
Inside yourself. Easy for him to say! Looking at the other newcomers, I couldn't help but smile: Mikhail, Fox, the ex-cop, and Olga were making weird faces and involuntary helping themselves by using various gestures.
''I did it!'' Fox jumped joyfully. ''Wow, what's this?''
''That is the list of your stats,'' Suren replied. ''Strength, dexterity, endurance... If you're lucky, you won't die and will be able to increase them.''
I didn't know how, but after a while, I also managed to look inside my mind. It turned out to be quite easy, despite my fears. I was so surprised that I even took a step back. A translucent screen, similar to an image from a video projector or a hologram, it was hard to describe it, appeared in front of me.
- Cure Light Wounds
I was so confused that I almost asked a question about the intelligence stat. Fortunately, my natural prudence helped me out by ordering me to stay silent. Suren mentioned only three attributes, but for some reason, I had four of them. As Winnie the Pooh, the hero of my childhood stories, used to say, the ‘z-z-z' sound was a harbinger of trouble. That's why one had to be cautious. For a while, I was a little bit puzzled, but then it dawned on me that, most likely, my stats were invisible to everyone else. Everything was based, oddly enough, on blind trust. And that was a good sign.
After a couple of minutes, I'd already learned how to call up the screen and how to turn it off. Looking at the people around me, I could see their name and level, nothing more. This fact definitely had its own advantages and disadvantages. Geez! I was surprised when I saw that Suren had already reached level 10! The man was probably already a true hero of this mysterious world. Although, perhaps I was just jumping to conclusions — Andrei was level 12. Alexander, the guy who had helped me get up after the shadow world, was level 9. Valentin Petrovich was at 8, and the bald Igor, the one who had brought Fox back to reality, was, oddly enough, only level 5. I thought that he was as cool as Andrei and Suren.
''Well, let's try to get you armed!'' Andrei ordered. ''Look around, don't go far, and don't try to do anything stupid!''
I didn't like it when people said something like: ''Try not to do anything stupid.'' At least tell me what's stupid and what isn't. You learn to differentiate between the two only after you've already goofed.
By force of habit, I patted my pockets, and I touched something flat and solid under the cloth. I had completely forgotten about the stone and grass that I picked up in the shadow world.