Another arrow thunked into the target down range, striking dead-center on the painted ghoul silhouette's head. Sir Kristoff of Wyemoor—formerly Chris Palowowski of Skokie, Illinois—nodded in approval.

"Excellent shot, Pelmar. With you in our ranks, the dead will have much to fear when we enter the Crypts."

The man beamed at his lord's approval. "Thank you, milord."

Always praise more than you criticize, thought Sir Kristoff.

It was one of dad's old management maxims. Even now, more than a world away from home, he could hear it in the voice of his father, "Big Bill" Palowowski, the Used Car King of Greater Skokie.

A boisterous personality and self-made businessman, Big Bill had provided a comfortable, almost picture-perfect life for Chris.

Sometimes, when he had a quiet moment, he found himself wondering how his father had handled the accident.

His mom, too.

He'd been close to both of them, much closer than most kids his age. He'd done his best to stay in touch regularly, even when he was living on campus down at Ball State. In fact, he'd been on the phone with his dad when it happened, planning a surprise visit home for Mother's Day.

He had no time to get out of the way. He just barely had time to register the screeching of tires, and the car leaping the curb.

He didn't remember much after that.

There was the light, of course. And the impression of talking to an achingly beautiful woman. A goddess, he thought, although he couldn't remember her face now. Only the fact that he wanted to be in Her presence forever.

Even now, trying to remember Her, he felt a profound sense of sadness and loss.

She'd asked him some kind of question. Given him some kind of a choice. He didn't remember what She wanted him to choose, exactly. Only that he had to go... somewhere.

Whatever he'd said, he ended up here, in Avalis.

I hope you're okay, dad. Wherever you are.

Fact was, Sir Kristoff couldn't worry about it. That was another life ago. Don't focus on what you can't change. Focus on the problem in front of you. That was another of dad's maxims. And the problem in front of him was that he'd been reincarnated into a world like something out of a game.

No... not reincarnated, exactly. More like "spawned." He woke up in Avalis in his own college-athlete body, with all his old memories intact.

Reflexively, he brought up his stats.

Long way from those early days, he thought.

He'd changed in the years since coming to Avalis. He'd fought and he'd won. He'd lost and he'd learned. The scared, newly-Reborn college sophomore who barely knew how to hold a sword was a distant memory.

Now he was a veteran warrior, a leader of men bearing a noble title.

There had been a steep learning curve in those early days, of course. He had to learn the System, had to figure out what rules governed this place. There was lots of trial and error involved. First he had to learn about the Class and Level system, then how XP was earned.

Learning about HP was a painful and scary process. He rubbed an old scar on his jawline.

Down the line, another archer—a veteran warrior in his own right—scored a direct head shot. The man's companions cheered, and Kristoff offered words of encouragement.

As he did, his mind drifted.

How many like him? How many left in the dark places under the earth? And how many more before the evil is gone?

One of the hardest lessons from those early days was that transplants from Earth—the Reborn—all had Levels. So did the monsters.

But the locals didn't.

People born in Avalis were all 0-Level. They had an average of 1-2 HP, no Classes, and no chance to gain Levels. The XP system that governed this world simply didn't apply to them.

Oh, sure. There were thieves—entire guilds of them—but no Thieves. There were hedge wizards, but no Mages.

And, as evidenced by Sir Kristoff's current endeavor, there were men-at-arms, but no Fighters.

In gamer terms, Avalis was a world of permanent hirelings and henchmen. Each and every one of them as fragile as a kitten.

Not that they weren't brave. Many of the porters, torchbearers, and men-at-arms he'd employed over the years were courageous to a fault. He and his companions on the North Continent would never have made 5th Level without all those brave helpers.

But when it came time to go farther afield—go in search of more evils to slay and quests to undertake—his Reborn companions had elected to stay behind.

He suspected he knew the real reason, of course. The mousy Thief from Tampa, FL and the Mage who'd lived as a Surfer Dude in California had grown close. With enough treasure to finally settle down...

Sir Kristoff couldn't blame them. They'd faced horrors in the dark places under the earth. True evils. They deserved a chance at peace and happiness while it was within reach.

And retiring at 5th level was, quite frankly, something few of the Reborn ever lived long enough to do.

But Sir Kristoff couldn't. Not when he'd seen what he'd seen.

Maybe it was just because he was a simple kid from Illinois. Maybe it was his upbringing, filled with things like Scouts, sports, and Christian youth group. Maybe it was just the sense of right and wrong he'd inherited from his parents.

Bottom line, once you'd killed a real live vampire, once you'd looked into the burning, hateful eyes of demons...

Well, there were two kinds of people in this world.

Those who could stand back and say they'd done enough. And those who had to keep fighting the evil, no matter where it was and how long it took.

The rumors about the Crypts of the Dune Kings had stretched even to the North Continent. Stories of mummies, liches, and ghouls, to say nothing of the untold riches and magic items.

Of course, Sir Kristoff knew he was too weak to try taking it on his own. And while he could always meet new companions when he got to Kairo, he decided to be a bit more proactive.

Take the bull by the horns, as dad always said.

Instead of meeting a new set of adventurers and hiring some local men-at-arms to help plumb the depths, why not be the man hired to plumb the depths? Why not start his own company of men-at-arms?

It was, he realized, a genius plan. His reputation would only grow. He'd earn XP, a share of treasure, plus whatever flat-rate pay he could negotiate for going on delves. He'd learn the ins and outs of the Crypts while he worked, which would help him plan his own future, self-financed delves.

It was like being paid to study.

He selected a few of the bravest, most loyal men-at-arms he'd worked with in the north. Most turned him down. A handful agreed.

Bidding his old friends farewell, he sailed for the Jewel Coast.

The unseasonable rains had kept him on the coast for months. Until they stopped, traveling the desert roads was a fools' errand. Being stranded on the coast hadn't been part of the plan, but it was a blessing in disguise. He was able to recruit more men to the banner before joining a caravan to Kairo. Now he had over twenty mercenaries with him, all united not just by a desire for profit, but in a common cause.

These were men who truly wanted to see evil driven from the face of Avalis.

Naming them after his old High School football team—the Gold Lions—seemed appropriate. He'd lettered there, and so had his dad. Besides, it seemed the right kind of name for a band of righteous warriors.

As far as he could tell, the Company of the Gold Lion were early arrivals for adventuring season. That was good. Getting themselves established before any new adventuring parties came through would be key to their success.

He wondered if there were any local groups he should reach out to. Maybe a hirelings' guild or men-at-arms' society. Surely, the best course of action would be to join their forces together.

After all, the forces of evil were strong and numerous, and only a united front stood a chance of—

A series of thunderous booms went off in the warehouse, cutting off his train of thought. All at once the air was thick with white clouds. As soon as the first wave of it hit Kristoff, his nose and throat started burning. He began to hack and cough. The more he struggled to breathe, the less air he could get.

He'd felt this sensation once before, he realized. Back in his old life. It was around the edges of campus, during all those protests. The police had deployed riot control teams, and used tear gas canisters to disperse the crowds. Just like now, the burning pepper smell was everywhere.

Sir Kristoff drew his sword. He tried to shout, to rally his troops—his Leadership skill would give them a morale bonus—but he couldn't produce a sound. All that came out was a hacking lungful of mucus.

His eyes stung, slamming shut against the white dust. He tried to force them open, but the burning pain forced them closed again immediately.

That split second was enough.

He saw the strangers storming into the warehouse. Men with weapons, attacking his own.

Then he felt the blows.

Don't spend time focusing on what you can't control. Focus on the problem in front of you.

He forced his eyes open again, to get another split-second snapshot of the room. Then he lunged straight for the biggest invader he could see.



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