The disgusting noises of the creature eating the man came from behind us. I had a strange desire to turn around, but I suppressed it and just continued to run. Even this simple run was quite hard, given the fact that I had a tombstone tied to my back.
''Damn it, wait please, help!'' someone shouted out in pain.
It turned out that Fox had stumbled over a tree root, fell, and hurt her knee. Baldy cursed quietly to himself but didn't stop. The other locals were also running away, ignoring the crying girl hobbling somewhere behind us. The newcomers followed the old-timers, trying not to pay attention to the girl that had been left behind. Sympathy seemed to not be a strong suit of these people.
On the other hand, I didn't have the right to blame them — I also wasn't in a hurry to help her. Unfortunately, I had my moral upbringing… Cursing myself for doing it, I slowed down, stopped, and then rushed back to Fox, who smiled happily through her tears and stretched her hands out toward me. What could I do in this situation? I grabbed her by the wrist and ran after the others, dragging the girl behind me, ignoring her crying. At least she wasn't in the beast's stomach.
A picture of how it could have happened even flashed through my mind. The way that giant creature could've devoured her... I grimaced since my imagination painted a disgusting sight for me. More importantly, her tombstone would also have been in the stomach of the cadaver, and that would've been the end of her.
"We lost it!" Suren shouted. "You can stop."
Exhausted after having to run such a long distance, no one argued. Even the ex-cop, who had to be the hardiest among us, looked tired. Olga, on the other hand, had done surprisingly well; she was standing up straight and looking around. I wondered whether she had had time to do some sports, along with her business career.
"We have to keep going,'' Andrei said, breathing heavily, "we're not far from the base."
Fox fell to the ground, whimpering, looking at me angrily, and then she suddenly smiled. Apparently, it took her all this time to figure out what had meant more: the fact that I had rescued her or the fact that I had dragged her despite her wounded state. In the end, she nodded gratefully and muttered something under her breath. I smiled with an effort and immediately turned away. Maybe it looked a bit noble, but in fact, I was just afraid that I wouldn't be able to get rid of her later.
"Lera, can you walk on your own?'' Andrei asked.
Right, that is Fox's name, I noted to myself. She had introduced herself, but I had forgotten it.
"I'm not sure," she said in a pitiful voice, tears streaking down her face.
Baldy snorted, showing his attitude toward such manipulations, but Alexander and Semyon quickly volunteered to help her. I realized how Lera had been living before being brought here and how she passed her deadly test. Honestly, I didn't blame her; she managed to be the last one standing. Being able to manipulate other people even while in mortal danger — such an ability was worthy of respect.
"Don't stray from the path!" Andrei warned us once again. ''Come on, friends, we're almost there.''
Our commander marched ahead, Alexander and Suren followed him, and Baldy covered the rear. Semyon helped Fox walk, holding her around her waist as she hung on his arm, periodically making pained grimaces. Mikhail was looking straight ahead, apparently being tormented by either a hangover or a narcotic breakdown. However, was it right to be so prejudiced regarding him? What did I know about addictions? Maybe the guy was just feeling sick today, and he had to run a marathon despite that.
"Why did you go back for her?" Olga came up to me.
"I don't know." I shrugged. ''I just thought that it wouldn't be right to leave her as food for the cadaver.''
"I would have left her," Olga said, gazing into my eyes.
''And why are you telling me this?'' I asked. Indeed, why was she?
''I just wanted to warn you,'' she answered, her voice low. ''I don't know all the local rules... yet. But I've already figured something out: if you want to survive, you should think only about yourself. Did you notice how no one else rushed over to help her?''
"Yep, sure did," I nodded.
"The same way no one would've helped you," Olga said. ''Or me. Think about it.''
We walked in silence for five or maybe even ten minutes. Only Fox and the ex-cop could be heard whispering about something.
"What were you doing before all of this happened?" The businesswoman finally broke the silence.
I thought about it for a moment before answering. I didn't really want to talk about the fact that I'd been working as a laborer or about how I've been struggling, searching for my own path in life.
"I was engaged in various... projects," I said after a while.
''I can respect that,'' Olga commented. ''I like those who promote their own projects. As for me, I was the head of a bank. What exactly were you doing?''
I wondered what she was talking about. Apparently, the woman had decided that the vague word ''projects'' somehow related to the sphere of business, and she saw a soulmate in me. It was kind of funny, as she didn't really know anything about my ''projects''.
''IT sphere, kind of,'' I blurted out. At least I didn't lie, I had indeed been playing some games.
"Nice," Olga said. It seemed like she was a bit disappointed. "I guess this is the settlement we've heard about."
The path had led us to a clearing protected by a rock on one side. On the left, there was a small brook, and on the right, a thin forest.
"Congratulations for making it! Here it is. Our small camp," Andrei announced.
A sigh of relief swept through our ranks, and someone immediately sat down on the ground, putting down the heavy baggage.
"You're back?" a happy voice came from somewhere.
A tall, awkward boy with curly red hair came out from behind a rock and headed over to us. I noted that he was the eleventh member of our group. He approached and greeted everyone, shaking hands with the newcomers in a funny way.
''Dmitri,'' he introduced himself when he came to me.
"Vasily," I answered quietly.
"There are a lot of us now!" Dmitri exclaimed, looking around at everyone. ''This is really great!''
"There could've been one less," someone said in a familiar, hard voice.
Petrovich was alive and unharmed. He was only a little rumpled, looking wicked and dressed like a hobo.
''Thank you, Igor,'' he said, looking fixedly at Baldy. Then he spat at his feet. ''Thank you for that wonderful experience.''
''You're welcome!'' The bald man smiled impudently, looking straight into Petrovich's eyes.
"Valentin Petrovich, I'm sorry, but I hope you understand that we had to do it," Andrei intervened.
''Why didn't you do it to yourself, then?'' the man asked angrily. ''Or to this one?''
Petrovich roughly jabbed his finger into Badly's chest, but the young man hit his arm sharply, chuckled, and then stepped aside.
''This one'', indeed, was an interesting person.
It was clear that the cadaver left us alone only because it was busy having lunch, courtesy of the old man's body. Against his will, Petrovich had saved all of the newcomers. However, it was unpleasant to think about how something like this could also happen to me. If I hadn't been a newcomer, and my tombstone had been in a safe place, I might have been in his spot. Also, I was wondering whether Petrovich had mentioned his horrible experience without any reason or if he had indeed regained consciousness before he had died. As I imagined it, a shiver went down my spine.
"Well, if it had been necessary, I'd have done it myself," Andrei answered bluntly.
"But I solved the problem first," Baldy interrupted him. ''Valentin Petrovich, do you have a problem with that? Andrei is our leader, he's not the one who's supposed to carry out orders...''
''Igor, stop this!'' Andrei suddenly raised his voice.
"As you say…" Baldy said amiably. "My point is simply that someone had to make this hard decision anyway."
Then he turned around and left, leaving Andrei to talk with the still mumbling old man as we just stood around and watched. The redhead Dmitri, meanwhile, began to examine Fox's leg, then ran off somewhere and brought back a box full of medicine and bandages. It seemed like, despite the tough leadership style, there were still disagreements within the group. It was unfortunate, considering that we all had to survive as a unified group. I was mostly worried about Igor since he seemed to be the most dangerous person here. It was clear that I wouldn't want to have him as an enemy. On the other hand, despite the fact that he wasn't at a high level, for some reason, he was the type of man one wanted to have as a protector. We were having a rest when Baldy returned and took us to another briefing, which — it is worth mentioning — was much more detailed and more comprehensible than the previous ones had been.
''So, newbs.'' It felt like his voice thundered over the glade. ''Here is our current base, where we come back to life if we're unfortunate enough to die. There is a bunker in the rock where you can hide your tombstones, Dmitri will open the door and show you everything. I hope I don't need to explain why entering this place is normally forbidden.''
It was hard to argue with this rule. If you took into account the threat of losing one's tombstone, it was not an unwarranted precaution.
''In the evening, we'll go on your first campaign during which you will train your skills. And maybe...'' he looked around, doubtful, examining our faces, ''you'll even reach level 2. Keep in mind that the higher your level and stats, the longer you can survive here. Now you'll get some equipment that will slightly increase your chances in this world. My first lesson for you is that your endurance determines what type of armor you can wear. Is that clear?''
''Yeah!'' we answered in chorus.
''Glad to hear it!'' Baldy nodded. ''Dmitri, show them where to place their tombstones and give them their starting equipment.''
The guy nodded and, with an inviting gesture, asked us to follow him. We entered the rock through a huge, rusty door, which had been neatly camouflaged using tree branches. The small bunker, in which we saw six neat tombstones sticking out of the ground, was hidden behind that. The number corresponded to the number of old-timers. There were also some stone pieces scattered around as well — it seemed to be nothing special, except for the fact that one of the fragments had a perfectly flat edge. Was this what had remained of someone's destroyed tombstone?
"Leave your tombstones here." Dmitri made an inviting gesture. ''It's a secluded, safe place, so don't worry. You will resurrect here if... hm... you die.''
Everyone placed their heavy stones and covered their bottom parts with dirt to prevent them from falling over. I considered it for a little while and decided to hide my own further away, almost at the very wall, and cover it with twigs too. That piece of stone with a smooth edge was bothering me. I then heaved a sigh of relief as the huge, cold stone wasn't tied to my back anymore.
"Now follow me, I'll show you our shelter," said the redhead. This nickname fit Dmitri perfectly.
It turned out that there was a huge cave in the rock, with a long corridor that branched out numerous times, and at the end of each branch was a small room.
"This is where we sleep," the redhead explained. ''Several of the rooms are unoccupied, so you can choose any of them. If you want, you can share it with someone, there should be enough space.''
Olga immediately expressed her wish to sleep alone and Fox also chose this option, despite the many hints the ex-cop sent her way. Apparently, poor Semyon had no clue what this girl was all about, not realizing she was only trying to look weak and harmless. In fact, Fox was a very smart and dangerous predator; if a man succumbed to her tricks, in the end, he would get nothing more than a grateful smile. I knew something about that kind of girl; I had already made a similar mistake once.
When he finally realized that he had no prospects there, Semyon asked me to join him, and then the Major proposed that we don't break up our group and instead occupy one of the rooms together, all three of us. I didn't really like this idea, but I chose not to argue about it. There was enough space, so I decided not to go against the will of the collective.
It wasn't surprising that there was no comfort to be had in our cave. We were supposed to sleep on mattresses stuffed with something weird, with our heads lying on not so clean pillows. Oddly enough, the bedspreads looked more or less decent. In the end, we settled down and then followed Dmitri into the big hall at the end of the main corridor. It was a place for meetings, and at the same time, a warehouse with various kinds of weapons on display. The choice of armor and clothes for our squad was limited — helmets, gloves, overalls, and high-laced boots. Apparently, the old-timers had taken all of the decent stuff for themselves. It seemed like we'd have to get all the things we needed on our own. At least we could console ourselves with the fact that we looked similar to the members of special forces in our new clothes. After I put on all of the available clothes, my protection increased by 8 points — it wasn't much, but it was at least something.
"Are you finished?'' Andrei looked into the hall. "You can go into your rooms and rest. We'll be on duty, but keep in mind that, soon enough, you'll also have to do the same thing. By the way, don't forget that you have your first military campaign this evening."
It was raining outside, but at least we didn't have to stand guard. I finally realized how tired I actually was; I hadn't had much rest since yesterday evening, which had started on Earth and smoothly moved on to a new day in this new world. I had no clue how time flowed here, but it seemed that it wasn't very different in comparison to Earth's time. While we had been getting acquainted, telling our stories, and traveling to this settlement, the morning had come, and now it was already near noon. It dawned on me that I hadn't slept for more than 24 hours. Apparently, everyone else among the newcomers was in a similar situation, but they weren't in a hurry to rest. As luck would have it, when we got back to our room, my roommates decided to have a brief conversation.
"I'm really curious about where we are," Mikhail said, scratching his chin thoughtfully.
''They said it's another world.'' The ex-cop shrugged. ''I'm more worried about other stuff, for example, how can we get out of here? No one has explained anything to us, and we have no clue where this damned exit is!''
"Vasily?" The Major poked me in the side. "What do you think about all this?"
"To tell you the truth, I don't care," I answered, trying to hide the displeasure in my voice. I didn't like being touched. ''Everything will depend on the circumstances. The main thing is that there is a way for us to return home, so we just have to find it.''
"That's right," Semyon agreed. "I just don't like the way the old-timers behave. Petrovich was left behind to distract the monster; no one ran to help Lera except you. Well, I also wanted to help her," he explained immediately. "But you beat me to it.''
I pretended that I hadn't paid attention to his words. For some reason, I was sure that he hadn't been planning to run in and help Fox, the same way he hadn't tried to save his girlfriend and those other visitors in the cafe before that.
"This place is really scary," the Major added. ''Do you remember what Petrovich shouted about some girl and… those other people? If we can all resurrect, how did they die?''
''You know, it's not so nice to rise from the dead," Semyon recalled with a shudder. ''It was really awful. I still remember the pain, I still feel the very last moment before my death... I can see it very clearly. Then there was this emptiness, and shortly after that, you're already alive... with your head once again on your shoulders.''
The guy began to re-tell how it had felt, and I didn't even notice when I fell asleep despite my roommates' chatter.