Monday, October 24, 2016

The Dark Herbalist - Amazing New LitRPG/Fantasy series

The Dark Herbalist: Video Game Plotline Tester

by Michael Atamanov

The book is released! 
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"Have you ever played Boundless Realm before?" the middle-aged HR employee asked me, starting off the interview with the question I was most dreading.
In the job posting, there had been a rather unambiguous requirement that I must have: "Never played the game before." I suspect that, if I had answered "yes," the interview would have ended as quickly as it had begun.
"And have you played any other popular online games, uh... Timothy?" he asked, having finally read my name from the screen in front of him. He was at the end of a long day. He must have been tired.
"Yes, of course. I've been a gamer for about six years now. I used to be pretty active in Kingdoms of Sword and Magic."
"Gamer..." he muttered back disdainfully. The slang term, it seemed, was not to his taste. The man furrowed his brow in dismay. "And how did you do in our competitor's game? Where you able to achieve anything noteworthy, Timothy?"

Should I tell him the truth? Or was it dumb to expose such things to this total stranger? Despite my misgivings, I decided to risk it:
"For the last five years, it has been my only source of income. I didn't earn enough for a luxury yacht or a villa on a tropical island or anything, of course, but it was more than enough to survive on and pay my way through college."
"Why do you say, 'of course' there was no yacht?" He inquired. Much to my surprise, the man began laughing. "The top players from Boundless Realm easily make enough for a simple ocean-going vessel. But as far as I know, in KSM, withdrawing game money was against the rules. Would you care to tell me more about that, Timothy?"
I guess I chose wrong. I shouldn't have said anything. Was this the end? Would I be sent on my way? The man didn't insist on an answer, though. Instead, he asked a different question entirely:
"Then why did you leave KSM? Although, I guess we can skip that. The answer is obvious. The number of active players has been falling sharply. More and more people have been changing over to Boundless Realm. It’s more entertaining and realistic, after all. The money must have simply dried up."
I just nodded in silence, as I really didn't have anything to add. Once upon a time, our clan could gather five or even seven thousand players for PvP raids into enemy territory or to take down superbosses. But those times were long gone now. Yesterday, we had barely been able to scrape together fifteen players for an assault on an enemy castle, and three of them were noobs who'd only been in the game for a week. And yet we... took the castle! The only defender from the enemy clan who remained actually seemed glad to be rid of the burden, wishing us the best of luck, and trying to unload his account onto us, as he was preparing to leave for Boundless Realm.
That was when I decided once and for all that the time had come to ditch that sinking ship before the competition put it on the bottom of the sea. It was a huge shame to see all the money I'd put into the game go down the drain, though. You see, I inherited the family apartment after the tragic death of my parents but I had to sell it to pay off my sister’s medical bills. There was a decent chunk of change left over from that, though, and I decided to invest it in virtual property near one of Kingdom's capital cities. At that time, Kingdoms of Sword and Magic was growing quickly, so the purchase had seemed a sound investment. Who could have foreseen that, literally two weeks after my risky acquisition, the previously unknown Boundless Realm corporation would launch their own game servers? And could anyone have predicted that they would then go on to become the largest and richest corporation on Earth in just three years, pulling hundreds of millions of gamers from all over the globe into their extremely realistic world? Now, the value of my virtual property in Kingdoms had fallen so severely that it couldn't even justify the time I had put into building it.
The HR employee spent a few minutes reading my resume more closely, then raised his eyes to me and said with a smile:
"A level-three-hundred-ten human paladin, a level-two-hundred-seventy drow bowman, a level-one-hundred-ninety half-elf mage... Not bad, not bad at all. So Timothy, have you been made aware that, in Boundless Realm, a player can only have one character, and changing or deleting it is not possible? It's the best way to make sure our players truly mesh and sympathize with their characters as we would like. Only then do they perceive the game world as true reality."
I just nodded in silence. How could I not have known...? That was the thing that had most worried me when I first saw an advertisement for Boundless Realm game tester positions online. The problem was that I had already tried to play Boundless Realm. That was over three years ago, though. At that time, it was still just an open beta, and it had seemed a bit "undercooked" for my tastes. There weren't any training scenarios, guides or in-game hints yet. In the place I started, everything just looked blocky and incomplete. There were no "glorious beckoning horizons," or "enchantingly real sunsets," as their ads now proclaimed. Back then, Boundless Realm had nothing of the sort.
And what was more, I had only played for seven minutes. I made myself a level-one barbarian, took a two-handed ax, left the starting area and, right next to the village, found myself face-to-face with a group of vampire bats around level-seventy. A second later, I was dead. The game told me I'd have to wait a whole hour to come back at the respawn point, so I just cursed at the half-baked imbalanced game and deleted it from my computer. But now, I was hoping very much that my abortive previous experience would not be hampering my attempt to find work as a "Video Game Plotline Tester," as the official job notice called the position I was now interviewing for.
"What can I say, Timothy? You really do have a lot of video-game experience, and no physical or mental health issues. I don't see any real obstacles to your employment with our corporation," said the man, smiling at me again and extending a computer tablet with a survey. He told me to find a seat in the small room next door and complete the questionnaire, then wait for the introductory meeting to begin.
I went into the room, got out my cell phone and, pretending to take a selfie with a sleek poster of a blue water dragon, sent a message:
"I passed the interview."
Almost instantly, my phone gave a slight vibration. It was the reply:
"No rush, but what did they offer? I'll run through the forums."
Then, I found a chair and started ticking boxes on the tablet. The survey covered many questions about my health, family life, criminal history and bad habits. The second half of the survey turned out to be of a totally different type, clearly aimed at determining the game character best suited to my personality.
Next to me, there were other job seekers mashing away at their tablets. Most of the men and women were around my age, though some were older, even including a few senior citizens. It didn’t take me long to form an impression of my future work environment. I saw students, who had been expelled for truancy or failing grades, down-sized office workers, down-on-their-luck stock brokers, hopeless gaming addicts, and desperate retirees who hadn’t managed to find more suitable employment... To generalize, the people sitting around me were losers, who hadn't found themselves a place in the real world.
I didn't consider myself a loser, but I could agree that I fit into the group very organically. I was already twenty-two years old, but I didn't have a job, a girlfriend, money, or even a place of my own. So, it wasn't really clear what separated me from them. I had a good head on my shoulders, I suppose. I graduated from college with a degree in Research Chemistry. I could hold down a conversation, wasn’t especially ugly and had a reasonable talent for sports. Also, I had an easy enough time getting along with women but, for some reason, all my girlfriends had left me for other guys. Usually, when they found out I had to take care of my disabled sister, who couldn't walk, they would run for the hills. It was a shame, but I would never have agreed to trade in my baby sister for some shallow Barbie.
My sister, Valeria, was eleven at the time of the accident. My father was behind the wheel of the family flying car when it crashed full-speed into a thief trying to evade the police. The impact and resulting thirty-meter fall killed my mother and father instantly. My younger sister, though, lost both her legs and suffered many lacerations and broken bones. The police finding my father not at fault in the crash didn't make it any easier, either. I had to sell our apartment in the good part of town to pay for Val’s treatment and other expenses.
For my sister's sake, I gave up not only my parents, but also friends, psychologists and the rest of the world. It was hardest of all right after the accident. Valeria was in so much constant pain that she couldn't see a reason to exist. Many times, she asked me to give her a handful of sleeping pills so she would never have to wake up again. I did my best to comfort my sister and convince her not to commit suicide and, day by day, her will to live grew stronger. We tried many things to improve her mood, but the first thing that worked was taking walks. We used to live near a large park, and it was always pleasant there. Unfortunately, not long after that, we were forced to move from the center of the metropolis due to lack of funds, and took up residence in the outskirts of town. Soon after, the walks stopped on Val’s own request. My sister just couldn’t bear the jokes and laughter of the neighborhood kids. They called her a cripple, and even pelted her with rocks. It was just too much.
But then, she found a new way to forget about her physical handicap. Virtual computer-game worlds allowed her to blow off steam and enjoy beautiful surroundings once again. This new pastime didn't really bring us much money, though. In fact, it was more the other way around. The situation became especially dismal in the last few months, when the game world she'd chosen a few years earlier, Kingdoms of Sword and Magic, began to show obvious signs of giving out...
I shook my head, chasing away the sad thoughts, and returned to the survey. After breezing through the questions, I stopped at the very last point: "Desired method of payment." There were two options: fixed monthly income or the ability to withdraw game currency and exchange it for real money. In Boundless Realm, as in the majority of MMO's, it was normally only allowed to give money to the company. You could put real money into the game, but there was no way of taking it back out. An exception was made only for employees of the corporation. They were allowed to withdraw virtual currency from the game in lieu of a real salary, if they so chose.
As for me, that possibility was the very reason I was now so driven to find work at the Boundless Realm corporation. I mean, it was clear that no sane company would ever offer a stable salary to any of the pitiful losers in the room with me today. But with a legal method of turning game money into real money... There was no telling what could happen. My character could get rich in the game, for example. And that would immediately solve my financial problems in real life as well. That said, my sister and I had a perfect understanding that for every person that got lucky, there were thousands of people who made the wrong choice and would just be pouring their blood, sweat and tears into a job that would almost certainly end up giving them less than minimum wage. But we had made our choice, and it was a conscious, shared decision.
The chubby middle-aged accountant-type woman sitting next to me gave me a nudge. She got to a question about "charisma," and was whispering loudly to everyone around, asking what that word even meant. I couldn't make out what the guy sitting on the other side of her said, but he was clearly trying his best to maintain a serious facial expression. The woman grew a dark shade of crimson and began entering text on her tablet at the speed of a printer, covering what she wrote with her left hand. I shook my head. Well, if this was the caliber of my competition... I marked the option "Withdraw game currency" with determination.
Alright, decision made. There was no going back now. All the same, I tried to cast off the creeping sensation of dread coming from my empty bank account. And it wasn’t just that I had no money. I also had a past-due loan with interest slowly accumulating on top of it. If I couldn't pay off at least part of that loan in the next few weeks, the bank might block my card. Beyond that, my sister and I hadn't paid rent for three months. Our landlady was already threatening to evict us. It would be very, very hard to get by without a stable salary.
But I still decided to take the risk, just as I had when buying in-game property in Kingdoms of Sword and Magic. But this time, I wasn't just betting a two-bedroom apartment in a prestigious neighborhood, but everything my sister and I had left.

* * *

"Alright, everybody. Welcome!" An elegantly dressed swarthy man with dark curly hair walked out onto the small stage. "My name is Alexandro Lavrius. I am Director of Special Projects for the Boundless Realm corporation. And you all have been selected to work under me as videogame plotline testers. What's wrong with the microphone?"
The microphone was giving off a horrible screeching sound, making my ears ring. The director's young assistant, looking afraid, scurried nimbly out onto the stage, and adjusted the microphone attached to Alexandro's collar. The director cast a very unhappy gaze at his subordinate, promising the girl a chewing out, and continued:
"Alright, now that's out of the way. So then, first a short introduction. The virtual Boundless Realm you will come to occupy is in fact quite large. It’s not actually boundless, as you might think from the name but, still, it is quite substantial in size. It is already larger than the actual earth, so you can travel around discovering new and interesting locations in a practically limitless way. At present, there are around two hundred forty million players in Boundless Realm, and that number continues to grow by two to three million each month. You'd think our corporation would be proud of that, and simply rest on our laurels and rake in the cash. But, no. Our management is constantly dreaming up newer and more grandiose plans, and the development of the game is still in full swing. However, the planning department saw certain risks in the medium-term future and our directors agreed the threat was real.
We see two main problems. The first is that, despite the abundance of different races in Boundless Realm, and their unique characteristics, seventy-eight percent of players choose to play as humans. That is a clear imbalance. And, if we consider the fact that another seventeen percent play as different types of elves and half-elves, while three percent are dwarves, then we see straight to the root of the problem. Those who chose one of the other selectable races, and there are over one hundred, account for just two percent of players.
The reasons for this disparity are many. Not least of all is that potential new players have practically no positive examples of gamers using the less popular races. And this is at the fact that the game forums are full of the most detailed guides on human paladins, wood-elf bowmen, drow mages and half-elf assassins. There's nothing surprising in the fact that new players are afraid to take an untested path. Since they can only have one character, they don’t want to take any chances. The unfortunate result of this is that new players tend to create human paladins, elf bowmen or drow necromancers, and our world is already overflowing with them. Our existing users are justifiably losing their sense of uniqueness and interest in the game because, every day, they meet several exact copies of themselves.
The second problem is choosing a place to live. Before our players, there stretches out a truly Boundless Realm, which can be expanded even further whenever necessary. All the same, the currently existing map is hardly being used: ninety percent of players live in one of just a few huge megalopolises or in their immediate vicinity. The reasons for such overcrowding are also many, but above all, they are economic in nature. Resources are available in cities, money circulates in cities, and there are banks where players can safely store their property in cities. That is why, despite the high price of real estate and resources there, players still come in droves to live in these very cities. Millions of beautiful locations, created by talented designers and teeming with unique missions and local inhabitants are sitting around unused. And what is more, we are becoming aware of a growing dismay among players, who feel that 'there's nothing new to discover and it's starting to get boring.'
Why am I telling you all this? As you may have already guessed, none of you will be allowed to choose human or elf characters, and none of you will be becoming yet another knight or bowman. What’s more, you will start the game in far-off wildernesses, and getting to densely populated locations from there will be very, very problematic. Also, such a move would be looked on with extreme disapproval by our company. You will all have an alternative start to the game, which will make encountering dangers and difficulties a near certainty, and that is no accident. Our test groups have shown that successfully overcoming trying situations is the very anchor that holds our players in the game world. With time, we hope that all newbies will start in such locations, so one of your missions will be checking if it is possible to survive and level up your character in these challenging conditions.
Your group is one of many chosen in the previous weeks to attempt new atypical race and class combinations, taking bumps and bruises along the way. But at that, you will make interesting guides that eloquently describe the virtues of your unusual races, classes and professions. I warn you now: few of you will pass the trial period and be hired on permanently, as our corporation only needs the personalities and stories that garner a keen response among existing and potential players. But, even if you don't pass the trial period, this will give you all invaluable experience in the video-game field, and be an excellent opportunity to immerse all your senses in Boundless Realm through the most modern technologies.
Now, you will be given your assigned character cards, which the system automatically chose for you based on today’s test results. After that, you will have time to ask questions of my assistant. Then, you should go to the HR department before the end of the business day and sign your contracts, so you can start working tomorrow."
"Can we start playing today?" asked a chubby boy, whose pale face was abundantly smattered with the pimples of adolescence.
Alexandro Lavrius, looked over us at the clock on the wall, then quietly asked something to his young assistant, after which he answered:
"You can only start working after you’ve signed a contract. Also, don't forget that it is currently around four in the afternoon in Boundless Realm, and it gets dark at nine. After this meeting, you’ll be going to the HR department, shown to your workstation and given instructions on how to use the virtual-reality capsule. You'll then have to create a character, start the training missions and get out into the main world... You won't have very much time to find a safe place to spend the night. Night in Boundless Realm, outside the cities and other safe locations, is very brutal and treacherous. It is highly likely that you will be eaten by monsters. If that does happen, you would lose some of the experience you gained and a whole hour for respawn. But, if you want to risk it and start work today, I don't see why not. If you can survive the first night, it will be a useful experience for you and will have a positive effect on your further career as a tester."

* * *

Goblin herbalist??? I stared at the card handed to me in incomprehension. I even took out my smartphone to look up information on goblins in Boundless Realm. The first link rewarded me with the following text, taken from a forum:
"Goblins are vile little bastards who play mean tricks, steal vegetables from gardens, and attack lone travelers. Thankfully, goblins are very weak, so even a total noob can handle them. Sometimes, you find whole villages of goblins. They’re decent sources of experience, and an easy way for beginners to level themselves up. I don’t know why, but the developers made this NPC race available to players. I would personally find it hard to imagine someone dumb enough to choose this green abomination, especially considering the very restrictive penalties to intelligence and strength, which make it practically impossible for a goblin to be a decent mage or fighting class. From a purely theoretical standpoint, I could imagine a goblin player as a bowman or a crossbowman due to their bonuses to agility and perception, but I've never met someone disturbed enough to try, because all the kinds of elves have even stronger bonuses there. Oh yeah, these green freaks also have a serious penalty to relation with humans, so goblins won't be able to go to normal game locations by default."
Given that anyone about to create a character would see this text, if they were considering playing a goblin, how could the developers of Boundless Realm be surprised that no one wanted to be one?!
The person who wrote the text was called Overgrown Woodsman. According to his forum account, he played a level-two-hundred-four human druid. For curiosity's sake, I read through the next seven links from the search engine as well, but everywhere I looked, I found the same unappealing information. I sent my sister a message about the character I'd been stuck with, and continued looking intensely into guides on goblins and Herbalism.
I was distracted from my reading by a strange sound nearby. I raised my head. The director was long gone, and now the very same old accountant-looking lady who had earlier asked about charisma was arguing with his assistant.
"Is something the matter with your assigned character?" the employee asked in a calm, even boring tone.
"Is something the matter?! The fact that I'm a dryad dancer! I saw on the game forums that dryads don't wear clothes! I mean, just think about! I thought I was applying for an office job. I mean, I knew the schedule might be a bit wonky, but I didn’t think I’d be working as a stripper!"
The director's assistant was already on edge after the incident with the microphone, so some annoyance started slipping through in her voice:
"The system determined that this combination of race and class would be optimal for you. If it isn't to your liking, I’m afraid I have to tell you that you did not pass the trial period and will be first to leave the group..."
I noticed a mocking grin pass over the face of the boy who had earlier told her the meaning of charisma. The system had probably made this bizarre choice because of his misleading hint. The assistant outstretched her hand demandingly, preparing to take the character card back from the lady's hand but, just then, a young woman's voice sounded out from the back rows:
"Wait! Could I trade characters with her?" A pretty girl with a good figure and hair in a long dark chestnut braid down to her belt stood from her place and started toward the stage. "I took a look at the introductory information on dryads. Sure, their only equipment slots are for rings and bracelets, but all that is compensated by their racial bonuses. Also, the dancer class seems uniquely suited for dryads. They have bonuses to attractiveness, charm, and the reaction of any member of the opposite sex, after all."
The director's assistant agreed:
"That's exactly right. It's a good part to play, and an easy character to gain experience with. Also, the path of a dryad dancer is very unusual. There isn't a single guide out there, and leveling up a character like that successfully practically guarantees that you would pass the trial period."
The accountant-type woman cringed and muttered in dismay:
"Let's just see what kind of filth they tried to push on you... It could hardly be worse than an exotic dancer." She took the thick card from the girl's hand and read. "Oh! Yes! Yes! Gremlin banker! I've been dreaming of something like this my whole life!"
The middle-aged woman practically kissed the pretty girl she traded cards with. After that, I heard people all around me shouting:
"Would someone want to trade for a troll cannibal?"
"I'll trade a hobgoblin trickster for any other class!"
"Does anyone want an orc astrologer? I'll trade for any melee character!"
Not waiting for the end of the freak show, I stood up and headed for the HR department. Goblin herbalist didn’t seem so bad anymore. I was totally fine with my lot.

* * *

Though I tried not to show my emotions, I was under a strong impression from the opulence and luxury the corporation had on display. The Boundless Realm corporation had a huge skyscraper, which seemed to have many underground floors as well. As the elevator went down, I noticed a few floors there was no button for on the panel. But, through the transparent glass elevator doors, I could see them. They were filled with well-equipped armed guards wearing body armor and gas masks. Arthur, the kindly technician leading me to my workstation, explained that these underground floors were off limits to us mere mortals. They housed the corporation’s holiest of holies: the game servers. And it was harder to gain access to them than it was to get into a bank vault full of gold. These technical floors were crammed with an endless number of security systems and filled with poison gas to make sure no criminals would even think of trying to get inside.
After that, without stopping, we passed by the underground parking ramp. It was crammed full of luxury automobiles and flying cars. The elevator doors opened on the testing department's floor, and I saw IT: a huge room that stretched out to infinity with a great many high, raised walkways, lined with rows of small identical-looking cabins. Arthur and I walked down one of the long platforms and stopped before a translucent door. I stared blankly at the writing on it: "4-16A."
"Floor four, side A, cabin sixteen. This is where you'll be working. Go in, get your bearings and take off your jacket," he said, pointing me inside to a chair and a coat hanger on the wall, but not going inside himself. "Every cabin has a pullout desk and a built-in refrigerator, so you will be able to store food here and have snacks before work. There is one set of restrooms every fifty cabins, and at either end of the walkway, there are also shower rooms. But you should know that every row has three hundred cabins, so don't count on the showers being free, especially in the evening near the end of a shift. Alright then, I wish you the best of luck!"
As Arthur said the last sentence, his eyes were drawn away from me by a beautiful and I would even say glamorous lady with luxuriant red hair and a proud look who walked past my cabin. She was wearing a long, emerald green dress and high-heeled shoes, and a hat with a wide brim. Her fingers were adorned with gemstone rings, which glimmered up at me, catching the eye. The woman didn't stop to look at Arthur. It seemed she didn't even notice me. She walked another fifteen meters, then stopped before a standard door, just the same as mine. She beeped in with her electronic key, and the mystery girl ducked into her cabin.
"Who was that?" I asked the stick-straight technician at half voice.
Arthur jerked back to reality with a shudder.
"Who is she? How am I supposed to know? She works here. She comes around in the evening, and only leaves in the morning. She must play a night character. Clearly, she is a good player and makes good money. Once, I saw her parking in the underground garage. She drives a luxury sports car, which is so nice I'd never be able to afford it, even if I saved up for the rest of my life. But I have no idea who she is in the game. We cannot see your game avatars, we just help you set up the equipment. Generally, though, elite players get their own offices on the upper floors of the building, but she must prefer the convenience of coming right down here from the parking lot. Alright then, I'm getting off track. Get undressed, I'll size you for a sensor suit and helmet."
Just after the door closed behind Arthur, I got out my phone and told my sister I was ready.
"Call up the console and tell me the number of your virtual reality capsule and game session. I'll try to link in."
I typed a technical command into the keyboard and took a picture of it on my phone camera.
"Wait five minutes, so we can start at the same time."
I put on the suit, which was bristling with electrodes and laid down in the virtual reality capsule. Looking at the timer on the small monitor, I waited five minutes, then closed the lid of the virtual reality capsule, cutting myself off from the real world. The screen lit up before my eyes...

* * *

Damage taken: 2757 (Bite from Cursed Bat)
You have died

* * *

What the hell was that?! The message jumped in as soon as the screen loaded! The image slowly faded out and I found myself enshrouded in darkness. One minute went by, then another, and maybe a few more. Nothing was happening. Was this it then? There was no game interface, nor any other menu windows, just pitch black all around. Something must have gone wrong. Bats! That was right! They were the last thing I saw in my short game as a barbarian. That meant I would now be dragged from my capsule and fired for lying in the interview.
The world around me suddenly lit back up, and the character-creation window came onscreen. Yikes, I made it by the skin of my teeth. So, what was I seeing? A level-one goblin herbalist. I couldn't change race or class.

Character name: Amra.

Here I was again overcome by a cold sweat. When I made the barbarian, my first move had been to try and give him the name "Conan," in honor of the famous television barbarian, but it was taken. Then, I checked another name used by the famous hero, "Amra," and it was free. As far as I knew, the game rules had changed over the past three years and, now, all characters had to have two-word names: "Tony Blackheart," "Ahmed Slinking_Snake," "Ellie Very_Pretty." Things like that. But my name was only one word, and what was more, it was only four letters long...
A noob with one-word name? I guess it could help me hide the fact I worked for the company. I wasn't opposed in principle, either. It was nice to be a bit unique. Now, the time had come to deal with my appearance and stats.
I saw a green face staring back at me. It was defined by a huge set of eyes, and ears of a magnificent dimension. The system suggested I play around with the settings and turn this standard-issue goblin into something more personalized and suited to my taste, but I decided not to do that yet. A hint told me that I would be able to change my character's appearance for free all the way up to the end of level ten, so I decided I could skip this for now. I was much more worried by something else: Alexandro Lavrius had said that there wasn't much time left until nightfall, so I didn't have a second to waste.
First and foremost, I wanted to see the bonuses and penalties for the goblin race. Unfortunately, Overgrown Woodsman hadn't been lying about the penalties:

50% penalty to Intelligence increase rate
50% penalty to Strength increase rate
-20 penalty to relations with the following races: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Dragons
20% penalty to experience gain

The penalties were a very hard pill to swallow. I was especially unhappy with the penalty to experience gain. The negative characteristics of the goblin race were hardly compensated by the bonuses, either:

30% bonus to Agility increase rate
30% bonus to Perception increase rate
+20 bonus to relations with the following races: Goblins, Orcs, Kobolds, Ogres, Giants
+30 bonus to the reaction of forest and swamp creatures
30% bonus to movement speed in forest and swamp tiles

Finally, I reached the main stats of my big-eared goblin. Every character in Boundless Realm, whether an NPC or a real person, had only six main statistics: Strength, Agility, Intelligence, Constitution, Perception and Charisma. Overall, it was very standard and easy to understand. Strength governed the damage you could do with hand-held weapons and the maximum weight you could carry. Agility was important for ranged weapons and dodging. Intelligence allowed you to understand the properties of objects, and defined the amount of mana a magical character had, as well as how effective their spells were. Constitution influenced the number of hitpoints and endurance points. And perception was for a character’s eyesight, smell and sense of hearing, and also gave it a higher chance of discovering hidden objects. And finally, charisma: a stat that determined how those around your character would relate to it.
There were several ways to raise the base stats: you got to assign a certain number of new stat points every level, you could raise stats by leveling up primary skills, or you could raise them with magical objects.

0 of 100
Character level
Endurance points
Strength (S)
Agility (A)
Intelligence (I)
Constitution (C)
Perception (P)
Charisma (Ch)
Unused points
Primary skills (2 of 4 chosen)
Herbalism (P A)
Trading (Ch I)
Secondary skills (0 of 4 chosen)

The developers had assigned my character two primary skills by default: Herbalism and Trading. And though I didn't have any questions on the first one (it was, of course, hard to imagine an herbalist who didn't have a good understanding of herbs), Trading was somewhat confusing. I couldn’t delete Trading from my skills. Based on that, the developers had the notion that I was supposed to be a dainty little goblin trouncing through the forest collecting bunches of plants and selling them to local traders. So, I needed the Trading skill to make sure unscrupulous hucksters weren’t taking me for a ride. My character’s intelligence was about that of a stool, so if I didn’t have a specific skill for negotiating, I’d be getting duped out of money constantly. I was also a bit confused by the letters in parenthesis next to the skill names, but I quickly realized that they were the statistics the character gradually built up by using it.
Three free stat points didn’t seem like much! After playing around a bit with the parameters, and reading their descriptions, I discovered that hitpoints and endurance points depended only on constitution. Alright, I'd put one of the free points into that. My total hitpoints grew to 21, while endurance grew to 20.
Next, I stopped on agility. Based on the guide from Overgrown Woodsman, and what I could figure from my racial bonuses, it was agility precisely that would be the main determinant of my big-eared character's success. I put two points there, bringing it up to four. That seemed to be all. Although... At the very last moment, just before I started playing, I decided I couldn't bear how low my goblin’s intelligence was. In the description of the stat, it was directly stated that an intelligence score lower than three would hamper my ability to speak properly or understand others. That meant, as it was, I wouldn’t be able to talk to other players and NPC's nor understand missions and hints. I lowered charisma to the minimum (he already wasn't a beauty, but he became a downright monstrosity) and moved that point over to intelligence.
Now I really was done. Time to get going!

Orcish Galley

Fear. Cold. Pain. Hunger. My beaten body ached and tingled. Through the pain and fatigue, I could also make out some loud noises. What I wanted to do was just ignore them and lose myself further in a soothing dream, but the sounds kept growing louder and louder. I could hear weapons clanging, cries of rage and the screams of the dying. My nostrils caught the smell of freshly spilled blood. I strained to peel back my eyelids and discovered myself lying on the rotten-straw-covered floor of a dark room. I tried to move and discovered that my left wrist was firmly secured in a heavy metal cuff, which was attached to a chain that led to a brace hammered into the wall. So, I was a prisoner?
At the edge of my vision, I saw a tall orc dressed in leather armor run by with a crooked saber. Then, literally a couple seconds later, I saw his bloodied body fall to the ground. The orc's killer, who turned out to be a huge armored human, walked up to the body on the floor and prudently finished the orc off, driving a short spear into his chest.
"Seems to be the last of them!" he shouted out to someone far behind and was answered in a creaky voice:
"Great! Free the prisoners and bring them out to our ship! This orcish galley will soon break on the riverside cliffs!"
Now I was going to be freed! I didn’t even have time to feel relieved by that, though, before the huge soldier turned to look at me, made a disgusted face and drove his spear right through my chest!

* * *

Darkness came over again. I was lying there fully dumbfounded and could not believe what had happened. That man had killed me, or at least seriously wounded me, even though he was clearly supposed to save me! Why?
An internal voice laughed and hinted mockingly that I should have been expecting this. The goblin race already had a -20 penalty to human reaction, and I had completely stripped myself of charisma. So now, that was how every human, elf or dwarf I met would react.
The pain returned and I opened my eyes. I saw the world in dark and red tones. As before, I was lying on old putrid hay, but now that hay was also soaked with thick dark blood. My blood.

+1 HP from Regeneration

The spear wound to my stomach had almost totally healed, but my health bar was flashing alarmingly at 3 of 21. And it should be said that I didn't even know goblins could regenerate health. Why did none of the guides say anything about that? Perhaps regeneration had been put in recently to make the race more playable. In any case... the wound to my stomach hurt like hell! No matter what, I had to admit that dying was extremely unpleasant, even in a computer game.
I’m not sure what I would have thought up next, or what I might have done, because a rat suddenly scurried under the wooden bars of my cell.

Level-1 Rat

The little creature was following its nose inquisitively, bewitched by the intoxicating aroma of blood. I moved slightly, pulling my right leg in a bit. The rat instantly turned toward me, but didn't run away. Instead, it started looking at me. And what was more, it clearly had an ever-growing interest in my culinary properties. Probably, if I were in perfect health, killing such a creature would have been no problem. But now, I had just three pitiful hitpoints... It was gonna eat me right up!
Clearly, the creature also came to that conclusion and headed in my direction. What happened next, neither I nor the rat were expecting:

Damage dealt: 10 (Vampire Bite)
Health restored: +5 HP

Experience received: 8 Exp.
Object received: Rat meat (food)

Achievement unlocked: Taste Tester (1/1000)
Racial ability unlocked: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 1%)

Parameter Unlocked: Quenching the Thirst (10/15)

I sat for a few long seconds, taking in the vile flavor of rat blood and digesting what had just happened in all senses of the word. Did this mean I was a vampire? I opened my character window to check, and it left me with no doubt on the matter:

Race: Goblin Vampire

Fortunately, the second part of my race could be hidden simply by placing a check in a special field reading "Hide from other players." I read the description of the vampire race, and thanked the heavens and developers of the game that I could hide it:

-50 penalty to reaction of all living races if revealed
Penalty: Legal target for murder by players and NPC's of living races if revealed
Penalty: Cannot hide true nature when in the state Thirst for Blood
Penalty: Instant death when hit by sunlight

This put me in quite the pickle... From this moment on, my biggest priority would be keeping this a secret. It did come with some advantages, though, too. At level one, for example, a vampire could get +1 HP Regeneration per minute and an additional type of attack (and unlike most, it was neither right nor left handed):

Vampire Bite
Cost: 10 EP (endurance points)
Damage: (1-6) * Strength
Attacker’s health restored by 50% of damage done
When attacking sleeping, unconscious, or paralyzed targets, chance of success is 100%, and attacker may choose an effect: (Instant death/6-hour deep sleep/Infect with Vampirism)

I read the description of the attack again. So, this meant I could kill any creature, no matter the level? All I had to do was find it asleep, and even level-100 characters were done for. What a great source of experience for leveling myself up! And I could do it to players just as well as to NPC’s... Hold up! I rebuffed myself. If I even once used this ability against a player, my secret would be revealed. I would be hounded for the rest of my days in the game, and killed over and over, just because the rules allowed it. And every time I died, it would hurt me physically, and I would lose experience. So then, I had to be sure to keep the secret of my vampirism.
"Who's there? I can hear you!" came a voice from outside my cell, bringing my fears to life.
I jumped up in surprise and quickly wiped my lips with the back of my hand. The last thing I needed was for this stranger to see blood on my face.
"Rat I beating. He attack. Smack-smack I beat," I answered.
What the hell?! That wasn’t what I said, but the only thing that would come out of my character’s mouth were these awkward broken phrases. It turned out that even three intelligence points was not enough, after all. I shuddered to think how my character would be talking if the number had been lower.
"Rat? Yes, I saw it. It looked at me for a long time, but it ran away. Have you figured out how to get your arm out of the chain yet? I'm not strong enough."

Mission received: Escape from the Slave-Traders’ Galley
Mission class: Required, training
Reward: 80 Exp., access to main game world

"Chain I no know. Me hurt. Man stabbing with spear."
From behind the wall, I heard the other player’s strange, gurgling laughter.
"I can only imagine what your charisma must be like if they decided to kill you instead of free you. But I’m surprised you didn’t die. All the soldiers are level twenty-five. they should be able to send you to respawn in one hit. The soldiers simply didn't notice me. As soon as the massacre started in the hold, I used my Stealth skill and even managed to get it to level two before they left. But I wasn’t really thinking. Maybe they would have freed me along with the other prisoners. Or just sent me to respawn. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with this chain. I’d just come back at the respawn point, free and clear."
I froze in fear. The respawn point this creature was talking about couldn't be seen from where I was. But what if the only way to freedom for characters with such disarming appearances as mine was to die and come back? Come on, that was nonsense! There must have been other decent ways of getting out. I looked at the short, rusty, half-meter-long chain holding my arm. At first, I just tried to break it.

Your character doesn't have enough Strength to complete this action
Strength required to break chain: 7

Alright, I clearly didn’t have enough strength. But what about breaking the shackle at my wrist?

Your character doesn't have enough Agility to complete this action
Agility required to break chain: 7
Another fail. I looked closely at my left hand. I had a thin wrist. My hand was also thin, but I had a big thumb jutting out to the side stopping me from slipping out of the manacles. But what if... The idea of gnawing off my own thumb seemed utterly barbaric, but I didn't chase it off right away. I did have Regeneration, and the thumb would soon grow back. Would a real goblin seriously be above this? No, I decided. They would not.
I tore my teeth into my own flesh. The pain was overwhelming and my hitpoints started falling fast. I even had to quickly eat the rat meat to restore some health. But my idea worked! I pulled my bloodied hand from the rusty shackle. Freedom! The blood immediately stopped, leaving me just two hitpoints of my full twenty-one. But what did that matter? Regeneration would gradually restore my life to max. Just then, though, a debuff popped up...

Your left hand is injured
For the next two days, you will not be able to use any weapon in your left hand, nor swim or climb cliffs and trees
All other actions done with the left hand will be subject to a penalty of 30%

I didn't get any experience for taking off the chain. Either the developers didn’t like my method, or the mission simply wasn’t finished.
"What was that?" my acquaintance asked from behind the wall.
"Me chain off. Now go you."
I finally got up and looked into the neighboring cell. And the guy sitting there was a real freak! It was an exhausted, blue-colored half-human-half-fish with huge bulging eyes lying on the dirty floor and taking ravenous gasps of air.

Trong Diver
Level-One Diver

"You look pretty hideous, Amra!" the fish man exclaimed. His reaction to my appearance was the same as the man's.
We both laughed, then he answered the question I was about to ask:
"When making the character, I had no idea what to name myself. I figured the second word should show my profession. So now, I'm Mr. Diver, the diver. But it's nothing. I'd rather you tell me how you got that chain off."
I did my best to explain in layman's terms my method and the two-day debuff I'd gotten as a result. The fish shook his head.
"Cripes... No, that's not for me. I need to be able to dive and swim underwater. But I won't be able to do that with my left hand broken. It's easier for me to simply die and be reborn in an hour, totally free and without any debuffs or missing body parts. How about this: I'll keep trying to think up a way out of this chain, but if nothing sensible comes to mind, you can just kill me, and I’ll respawn. I need the hour away anyway. I've got mail to answer and a bunch of minor things to take care of. You can go off somewhere and eat or just take a walk, then we can keep playing together. It seems to me that it's way too hard to get out of this alone. Sound good?"
At first, his suggestion made me squirm. Trong Diver was talking so calmly about his own death. It was as if he wasn't at all worried about the pain it would cause. But afterwards, I realized that he was just a regular player without a virtual reality capsule. He was sitting at home in front of his monitor or wearing a virtual-reality helmet on his head and trying to get out of the boring training location and into the huge game world as quickly as possible, no matter what it took. That explained a lot, as any player that could feel everything their character did as I could would clearly have preferred other ways of getting free.
"Good. Agreement. I walk there, go for look," I said, answering the shackled naiad, and walked down the dark hallway.
The time had come to figure out the interface. First, I called up the location map, made it semitransparent and placed it in the upper right corner. The map, by the way, told me I was in the hold of a slavers' galley. Trong Diver, behind me, was shown on the map as a yellow triangle, while before me in the darkness, there were three red dots lying in wait. I looked at the information on the marker colors, and found out that red (as I could have guessed) indicated a hostile enemy. Yellow was for NPC's and players whose opinion of you was unknown.
I went carefully and slowly forward. It smelled of recently spilled blood, but the bodies of the prostrated soldiers hadn't disappeared, as happened after a certain amount of time in most games. I felt something with my foot, and a glass container rolled down the floor.

Empty vial
Used to store alchemical elixirs

I picked up the vessel. Maybe I'd need it. I stopped my gaze on it, trying to figure out how to make it close. A few seconds later, a message popped up:

Would you like to take Alchemy (I A) as a primary skill?

I was slightly taken aback. It was that easy to pick up a skill? No teachers or missions, no insanely expensive scrolls? Alchemy... It could, of course, be very useful to me. I would be finding a lot of herbs and roots in my profession, and this way I didn’t have to sell them raw for little money. I would be able to prepare the plants into valuable elixirs, which would probably be worth more than normal herbs. I chose the option "Yes."

You have taken Alchemy as a primary skill
Skill level: 1
Primary skills taken: 3 of 4

Only then, after a long delay, did I realize what I had just done. I had filled one of the two remaining skill slots without giving it serious thought. Even worse, it increased intelligence, a stat that the goblin race leveled 50% slower than normal! That was a considerable thing. What a boneheaded move!!!
Instead of Alchemy, I should have chosen a skill that leveled up agility and perception, the goblin's strong points. If I increased the level of such a skill to, let's say level one hundred, I would get 130 agility points (100*1.3) plus 65 perception points (50*1.3). In the end, it would have added up to a whole 195 extra stat points! But with Alchemy at level one hundred, considering the 50% penalty to intelligence leveling, I would get just 50 points (100*0.5) of intelligence and 65 (50*1.3) Agility points, adding up to a total of 115 points for my character instead of the 195 I could have gotten, if I'd been thinking with my head...
Feeling ashamed, I practically smashed the ill-fated vial on the wall, but still I tried to keep calm and took it with me. I don't know for sure where the objects went in the game’s logic I was wearing nothing but a dirty loincloth but I was still able to store things in my inventory. In any case, it had just eight slots. That was very little. I wanted to find a bag to store my things in.
A few steps later, I found another such container, then four more. There must have been a raging battle here not too long ago, based on the abundance of drying blood and deep gouges in the wooden table. The fighters were probably using alchemical substances to increase their strength, or heal themselves. The six identical containers, fortunately, took up just one slot of the eight available in my inventory.
I was getting closer and closer to the red dots on the map. I couldn't see the enemies yet, but I started walking a bit more carefully. And literally at that exact time, another message popped up:

Would you like to take Stealth (A C) as a primary skill?

I didn't rush the decision this time. On the one hand, using Stealth would level up agility, which was useful. But on the other, I’d be filling up all four available primary skill slots before I’d even started playing... This might not be the best possible choice for my character’s long-term progress. Also... I shouldn't forget that I was a vampire. Being able to conceal my primary skills from others was not something the game mechanics allowed for. It made sense that you could judge someone in a certain way when you met them, right? But if every character I came across saw that I had the Stealth skill, that would only lead to unnecessary questions. I was supposed to be a peaceable goblin herbalist, after all. With some measure of pity, I refused to make Stealth one of my primary skills, but I did make it a secondary. Though secondary skills didn't increase stat points, the very ability to move in hiding could be quite useful for a nocturnal vampire. And, critically, secondary skills were not shown to other players.

You have taken Stealth as a secondary skill
Skill level: 1

It was no challenge to enter Stealth mode. But it did make my character walk significantly slower. I wasn’t in a hurry, though, so I just walked like that as long as I could. As I was still looking at my stats, I didn't miss the moment when the empty Stealth-skill bar suddenly began to slowly fill up. Look at that little bar go! Someone might see me if I started moving carelessly. With redoubled caution, I went on into the darkness of the ship's hold.

Level-1 Rat

I noticed it while still invisible.

Stealth skill increased to level 2!

Feeling happy, I looked at the message and carelessly tripped over a little step I hadn't noticed, laying myself out on the floor. At that very moment, the rat saw me. The aggressive animal threw itself at me in leaps and bounds, but I didn't even have any weapons!

Damage taken: 4 (Bite from Rat)
Health level: 6/21

Two more bites and I was done for! I then punched the rat twice. Once with my left hand and once with my right. No damage! I missed.

Damage taken: 4 (Bite from Rat)
Health level: 2/21

No longer hoping for my weak punches to do anything, I made a determined attempt to bite it.

Damage dealt: 8 (Vampire Bite)
Health restored: +4 HP
Health level: 6/21

Ha! Hot diggedy! What was some little rat against a terrifying creature of the night! The next bite came from the rat, cutting another 4 HP from my bar, but then it was my turn again...

Not enough endurance points to use the Vampire Bite skill

What a bad time to run out of endurance! I'll be devoured whole! In despair, I tried striking at the rat with my fists once again.

Damage dealt: 2 (Punch)
Experience received: 8 Exp.
Object received: Rat meat (food)

I dismissed the importune suggestion that I choose Fist-Fighting (S C) as a primary skill. Instead, I sat down on the damp straw-covered floor in exhaustion. My hitpoint bar was flashing ominously at 2/21 HP, while my endurance was at just 1/20. Hrmph... I had to honestly admit, at least to myself, that my big-eared goblin had escaped from the encounter with the rat only by a miracle. I shouldn't keep asking for trouble, that was for sure. So, before going after the other rats, I had to prepare myself. At the very least, I had to restore my health and endurance, and ideally, I would also find a weapon of some kind.
I sat for ten minutes, just breathing. In that time, my endurance rose to ten, while my health, due to regeneration and the meat I ate, was fully restored. So, I ventured onward and, almost immediately, discovered a knife lying forgotten on the floor.

Rusty Kitchen Knife
Damage: (1-4) * Strength

It was clearly better than punching with my bare fists at (1-2) * Strength! I had barely picked up the knife when the system suggested I choose Dagger (S A) as a primary skill. I snorted unhappily. Stop trying to get me to do things without thinking them through! If agility were the primary stat in that skill, I may have even considered it, but strength with its 50% penalty... No thank you. Alchemy, with its penalized intelligence stat, was quite enough for me! I also didn't want to choose Dagger as a secondary skill.
It was much easier to take down rats with the kitchen knife, though. I would be hit with a 4 HP bite, answer with a knife strike for 6 HP, then finish the creature off with a Vampire Bite. My endurance was again sagging down in the single digits, so I had to wait. And though there was another rat in front of me, and I had already seen it, the time had come to return to Trong Diver.
The fish-man was sitting in the same pose as before, fettered to the wall with metal shackles. I called Trong by name several times, but it took him a few minutes to come to and answer:
"Sorry, I was afk. As soon as you finish your business, kill me as we agreed. I'll run out to the store and get dinner. Just make sure to wait for me to respawn in an hour, alright? We’ll make it further together!"
I raised the dagger over the naiad’s chest and drove it deep in between his ribs. And though the strike roll was not bad, doing 8 HP of damage, Trong's life bar only drooped down by a quarter. Son of a gun! His life points were one and a half times higher than my big-eared goblin's! I had to hit him again and again. After my fourth stab, Trong's life indicator was flashing in the critical zone... I stopped and asked the fish-man if I should finish him off or not. No answer followed. The player had clearly already walked away from the monitor. So, I made up my mind!
I had read about this in the forums. I had come across some information saying that, for the professions assassin or thief, it was desirable to have the Veil skill to remove or modify game logs so you could hide criminal actions from your victims, reduce the amount of time the Criminal tag would last and, with time, erase the marker altogether. And that was just what I needed! I tried to edit the last game message about the knife strike.

Would you like to take Veil (I A) as a primary skill?

No, taking Veil as a primary skill was not the right move. There was no reason for my harmless goblin herbalist to advertise his dark inclinations. But as a secondary skill, the ability was useful and then some!

You have taken Veil as a secondary skill
Skill level: 1
Effect time: 1 minute, uses 5 EP

I clicked the Veil icon. Now I had a whole minute to do all of this in secret:

Damage dealt: 6 (Vampire Bite)
Health restored: +3 HP
Experience received: 80 Exp.

Level two!

Achievement unlocked: Taste Tester (2/1000)

Achievement unlocked: Player killer (1)

Racial ability unlocked: Night vision (lasts 12 hours, costs 15 EP)
Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 2%)

Attention! Your character is has gained the Criminal marker! For the next eight hours, you will be a legal target for attack!

Trong Diver's body started flashing and became translucent. No, I hadn't acted thoughtlessly. This time, I really had done everything in a calculated fashion. I had found a target to level up my very useful Taste for Blood ability, so I took my shot. Naiads were a very rare race, after all. When else would I get the chance to add one to the list of unique species I'd bitten? But I wasn't the only one who could see the game logs. What would Trong Diver's reaction be when he discovered the messages about his death and read that a vampire had killed him? I had to do something to keep my secret.
So, what could I do with the log? I managed to open the message Trong Diver would see in fifty seconds for editing:

Damage taken: 6 (Vampire Bite from player Amra)
You have died

I didn't delete it entirely, though I could have. Instead, I edited it, changing out “Vampire Bite” for “Rusty Knife strike.” Much better!

Veil skill increased to level 2!

Not bad, not bad at all! Life was turning around! Now, I just had to assign the stat points I got when leveling up, and get back to new adventures! By the way... For some reason, two of the five points had been spent automatically. My strength had grown to three, while constitution had grown to four. Strange...
Digging around in the guides, I figured out that it was a peculiarity of the vampire race: like it or not, strength and constitution would grow every level. I'd have to make peace with that. There was nothing to be done. I had just three stat points left.
I decided I should put two straight into charisma. I didn't like the idea that every person I saw would kill me just because of how ugly I was! And my last stat point, after significant consideration, I placed in intelligence. It was time to become smarter than a stool!

* * *

The last rat was no problem, dying after just two stabs — clear evidence of my character's increased strength. After picking up a piece of rat meat, I headed further into the visible end of the dark hold where there was a stairwell leading to an upper deck. Just after getting on the first step, the map updated, now showing not the lower hold, but the oarsman deck.
On this level, there was a stench. It smelled of filth, dirty bodies and rotting blood, all mixed into a cocktail that practically knocked me off my feet. My goblin had to cover his nose with his crippled left hand. Alright, message received. Boundless Realm was praised for its hyperrealism, but did they really need to go into this much gory detail? And also, if I thought about it, how had the designers even managed to convey the horrible smells of this wretched place? Even the slight breeze couldn’t carry the stench away as it wound its way through the deck.
Slightly coming to, I took a look around. Everything near me bore witness to a recent slaughter: drying blood on the floor, oarsmen's benches broken and splintered by blade strikes, pieces of chain, and tatters of dirty clothing. There were no corpses. They had already managed to disappear in the game world. Then, on the map, beyond the markers for a few far-off Rats, I saw a yellow triangle. A player?! I stole up closer, and caught a glimpse of him, or more accurately, her:

Valerianna Quickfoot
Wood Nymph
Level-2 Beast Master

My sister! I recognized her right away. Valeria always used the same name for her main character, no matter what game she was in. I didn't come up any closer, though. My sister and I had agreed that we wouldn't advertise our relationship, or even prior acquaintance. So, I crawled forward, watching with satisfaction as my Stealth bar crawled upward.
And meanwhile, the graceful nymph with her long blue-green hair was busy exterminating rats. She was doing it in a fairly unique way, too: trying to keep her distance from the vermin, she would use a spell to take one under her control and set it against the others. I read the information on Valerianna's primary skills:

Level-2 Animal Control
Level-1 Water Magic

Suddenly, the girl froze and turned sharply.
"Who are you?" she asked, sounding more curious, or even threatening than startled.
I had given away my presence somehow, and was discovered. It would have been dumb to keep hiding, so I stepped forward.
"You're a criminal! Stay away!" The frightened nymph placed her palms together and put them in front of her. When she split them apart, there was a little flickering blue flame between them.
"I no bad-hurt for you!" I hurried to reassure her, mentally cursing my tongue-tied character. "I just to start game. Chain to take off hand. Then other fish-player say he need help. I kill he, and he reborn without chain. This only way, he say. He no can take chain off."
The nymph, a well-built, very thin girl in a short green cape, couldn't hold back a smile.
"You're funny, goblin. But you clearly don't have a great mind. Are you saying there weren’t enough strength, agility, intelligence, or perception points between the two of you to add up to seven? You could have worked together!"
I froze, surprised and embarrassed. The idea to have both of us try to pull Trong Diver's chain from the wall had truly not come to mind. It couldn’t be that my goblin's chuckleheadedness had rubbed off on me, right? It was all so elementary! Valerianna thought for a couple seconds and said with worry in her voice:
"I think I figured out what happened between you. You seem to be describing a standard PvP con. You killed a player on his request, and now have the status Criminal for the next hour. He knew that he could easily kill you, but didn’t want to be marked as a criminal for so little reason. You wouldn't lose anything from dying, while he would get just one hundred experience points. That was why he gave you the chance to level up on rats and training missions, get a few levels, then kill you. I'm sure he asked you to wait for him, so you could go on together. Or am I wrong?"
I nodded, confirming my sister's theory.
"So you see, his character must have been specialized for PvP. He probably has a tendency toward a combat stat. Strength for example, and is preparing to use a melee weapon. I'm sure he also has constitution leveled up, so he'll have a large number of hitpoints, too. With you at level three, he will get three hundred experience points for killing you, not just one hundred. That makes quite a big difference at the beginning of the game, and is more than enough to get him up to level four. Also, some races and classes get extra experience for killing players or special bonuses and missions, so your new friend is sure to kill you. That way, when he gets out into the main world, he’ll be a fairly high level, and will have a clean record to boot."
I realized Valeria must have taken off her virtual reality helmet, opened the Boundless Realm forum on the monitor, and was reading all this from there. This meant that Trong Diver's suggestion that I kill him was in fact a trap. He was letting his prey get a little exercise so it would taste better when he ate it. He must have been planning to kill me after he came back.
"If it's not a secret, what race was he?" asked the nymph, sending another rat into the distant herd of vermin.
"Naiad, diver," I answered, and my sister froze in contemplation.
While she stood motionless, the rat under her control continued fighting against its former buddies. I was surprised to see the body of the frozen nymph start glimmering in different colors. It must have been a skill leveling up. I looked at her visible stats. That was right! Valeria's Animal Control skill had gone up to level 3. By the time I’d checked that, my sister had come back into the game.
"Just so you know, naiad divers are their version of human warriors or dwarven berserkers. They get an extra ten life points for every constitution point, and double endurance points for doing various combo attacks as well as an additional bonus to strength."
"I running away?" I asked, but the nymph shook her head, and asked how long it would be for the naiad to respawn.
I looked at the time shown and answered that it would be forty minutes.
"Don't run, goblin. If he really does attack, I'll help you. I don't like tricksters and con-artists. But I'll only get involved if he attacks you first. For now, I'll raise my water-magic skill to level two, then my intelligence will go up from primary skill bonuses to seventeen."
What she said didn't get through to me right away. Valerianna was already at level two, and had already leveled up her intelligence to seventeen. But how?! I myself didn't have any stats above four, which is where I had agility, intelligence and constitution.
The nymph explained eagerly:
"My race has a bonus to charisma and intelligence leveling, and I skewed my character toward intelligence above all else. Both of my predefined primary skills level intelligence first as well. I just took the shackles from my own wrists, as I immediately figured out how the latch lock worked and simply swung it open."
After these words, the nymph called over a rat under her control, and I noticed that the animal had grown slightly larger, having leveled up against its own compatriots to two. After that, Valerianna, ordering her pet to sit at attention, released an icy blue arrow into a far-off, barely visible hostile rat, killing it in one blow. She had the same success with two neighboring rats. Again, the nymph lit up in various colors. Her water-magic skill had raised to level two.
"Cool! Another fifty or so experience points, and I'll be level three!" the nymph laughed happily. "Amra, I need to take a break for a bit and restore my mana. After that, I can cast up to nine ice arrows, each one doing an average of forty damage. No matter how much your naiad friend leveled up constitution, he won't be able to survive that. But it is important that you not let him get near me. I have only eleven HP, so he'd be able to kill me just by spitting. By the way, why are you not leveling up? There are a few more rats left. Take them for yourself."
I nodded obediently and walked out in front. And it should be said my thoughts were quite far from the rats as I did it. I could only think about the attack I was now expecting from Trong Diver. Valerianna promised to intervene if the naiad attacked. But in any case, I had to survive one or two blows from the fish-man. And, if his character really was specialized for PvP with all modifiers for dealing damage, then... I wonder how much damage he could do with one hit? It probably was no less than the nymph with her magic, and my sister had said something about forty hitpoints per ice arrow. If I took forty HP as a reference point, how could I possibly survive the attack, given that I had just twenty-seven myself?! Could I hope to dodge? It seemed that was the very way out I needed.
When the nearest level-1 rat threw itself at me, I didn't hit it right away, instead jumping back and to the side.

Would you like to take Dodge (A P) as a primary skill?

The skill leveled up agility and perception, my strongest stats! Just what I needed! I agreed right away.

You have taken Dodge as a primary skill
Skill level: 1
Primary skills taken: 4 of 4
You may take a fifth primary skill at level 10

Having already killed the rat, (it managed to bite me once, the pest, but it meant nothing. Regeneration would heal all wounds, after all.) I noticed that my Dodge skill had increased my agility to five and slightly increased my perception.
At that, of the four primary skills, only Dodge had been activated. The others were marked with an inactive gray and clearly had yet to have any impact on my stats. Was that because I hadn't used them yet? Perhaps that was exactly the reason.
I took an empty vial from my inventory and filled it with the blood of the dead rat.

Rat Blood (alchemy ingredient)

The Alchemy skill lit up. My intelligence and agility immediately increased, but just barely. So, that was how it worked! To activate a primary skill and have it start growing your stats, you just needed to use it once! What else did I have that wasn't "turned on" yet? Herbalism and Trading. I'd have to wait a bit to use Herbalism. We were on a galley. I wasn’t gonna find any plants growing on board the ship. But Trading couldn't have been easier. I went back to my sister and tried to sell her the container of rat blood.
Valerianna began squirming in disgust and, of course, refused. But I didn't have to actually sell the object. After noticing with a satisfied look that Trading had already been activated as well, raising my charisma by a whole point and slightly bringing up my intelligence with it, I poured the blood out on the floor, as I had yet to locate any kind of stopper.
I spent ten minutes evading the last vermin, as I wanted to raise my Dodge skill to level three quickly. Covered in bites and impossibly happy with myself, I returned to my sister.
"Hey dumbo, have you got far to go until level three?" the nymph asked with a bored look as she sat on the oarsman's bench staring at her well-kept nails.
"Three hundred forty experience is. Five hundred want," I reported.
My sister frowned in dismay and seemingly grew upset:
"Raise your intelligence to at least five. It's hard to understand you. But that's for later. For now, listen carefully, big-ears. We've just got to get up to the upper deck of the galley. I found a description of the location in the guides. There is an angry sea up there. The waves might crash through the broken ship. If you don't have enough agility, you'll be washed overboard, then you'll lose experience and have to wait an hour at the respawn point. Or can you swim, Amra?"
"No can. Agility is enough."
"Are you sure? Alright then. I have an underwater breathing spell, so I'll just sink to the bottom. Your naiad friend is a sea creature, so there’s no way he’ll drown. But you’ll have to lower the boat with a crane, despite the waves and weather, then you'll have to row your way in to shore. That is a side quest, so you'll get a hundred experience points for it. That means, when you reach the shore, that quest will be completed as well as the main training mission, which gives you another one hundred experience points. So, as soon as you set foot on shore, you'll reach level three. But, once you get there, don’t just kick your feet up. Either run as fast as you can from the shore, or prepare for combat. Your friend is sure to attack you, so stay on your guard. Got it? Let's go up, then. You should lower the boat without my help so all the experience will go to you. Otherwise, you won't reach level three and you'll be too weak to stand up to the naiad."

* * *

My sister was just sharp as a tack. Once above board, the only thing that kept me from going over the side was her warning. Because of it, I took hold of a taut rope as soon as I got up there, which helped me stay on the boat when a jet of water blasted me off my feet. The orcish galley smashed into the cliff and got wedged between the rocks. Huge waves rolled over the deck, taking with them all kinds of trash, barrels, broken oars and furniture.
The dingy, which had survived all this chaos only by a miracle, I spotted on the aft of the broken ship. To get to it, I had to run across the slippery, inclined deck, which had foamy breaks of water rolling over it constantly.
"I'll be waiting for you on shore!" My sister managed to shout before a wave pulled her down to the depths.
The level-2 rat my sister had been controlling swam past me. It had lost its link with its master, and was now aggressive to me again. But the rat didn't care about me at all. It was flailing its paws in desperation, trying to struggle against the raging elements. I then, after waiting for the wave to ebb, threw myself up the inclined deck toward the dingy.

Successful Agility check
Experience received: 8 Exp.

Before the next breaker slammed into the broken ship, I managed to overcome the open space and latch into the side of the canvas-covered boat.

Mission received: Use the Dingy
Mission class: Optional, training
Reward: 80 Exp., Small Bag

The dingy was tied to a set of ropes that led up to a crane on the side of the boat. I had to turn a crank on the crane to lower the fragile vessel into the water. As I was turning the mechanism, I totally forgot that I was in a game. The sensations I was feeling were just that realistic. The storm, the wind, the creak of the stretched-out ropes, the foamy waves, the cold wind and the smell of seaweed all combined to form something very close to reality. My wounded left hand burned as if on fire in the salty water. I strained to twirl the spinning device with my one good hand until, finally, the boat made it into the water.
"So then, there you are, goblin!" The satisfied voice of Trong Diver rang out from behind my back.
I turned. The naiad, smiling a toothy grin, took a seat on the side wall of the galley.
"This weather is just awesome for me! I love stormy seas. So then, you go on the boat, and I'll swim in underwater. We'll meet up onshore."
After these words, the fish-man made an agile jump overboard. I then saw that the naiad was holding a trident in his hands, but it wasn’t clear where he’d gotten it from. He suddenly had a weapon. Bad news!
I let go of the rope and took hold of the oar. Damn! I couldn’t row with my left hand, so I pulled the oar from the ring and grabbed it with both hands. This way was much easier. When rowing, I gradually lost endurance points, but I wasn't too worried. I had plenty of them left. Navigating around the jagged stones jutting up from the water, I pointed the boat at the lagoon. Beyond the reefs, which served as natural breakwaters, the sea grew much calmer. A few minutes later, I had reached a sandy point, wedging out into the sea in a thin band. My sister was already waiting for me on the shore and waving from afar. I had just touched foot on the wet sand when my body began to light up:

Mission completed: Use the Dingy
Experience received: 80 Exp.

Mission completed: Escape from the Slave-Traders’ Galley
Experience received: 80 Exp.

Level three!

Racial ability unlocked: Apathy of the Undead (lasts 3 hours, costs 20 EP)

Alright then, so where was the bag it promised me? I looked under the rowing bench and found an over-the-shoulder canvas bag.

Small bag: +10 inventory slots

Before Trong had come ashore, I set about assigning the new stat points. Strength and constitution went up by default. From the three points that remained, I put another in constitution, and two in agility. I now had 39 hitpoints.
I had barely finished with the stats when Trong Diver emerged from the salty sea onto the sandy peninsula, cutting off my path to the shore. His body was also giving off a colorful glow. The naiad had hit level three, too. The fish-man shot me a malignant grin, demonstrating several rows of needle-like teeth, then suddenly extended his bright red back fins and screeched in dismay, having discovered another player not far from me.
"Hey! That's my trophy," Trong Diver shouted, pointing his trident at me. "I've been shepherding him along since the beginning of the game!"
The nymph didn't answer the insidious naiad in any way but, between her hands, the bright blue flame of a spell being cast appeared.
"Alright, we can split it down the middle," suggested Trong Diver, and that was when my sister attacked.
The ice arrow that tore itself from her fingers instantly overtook the distance between the two and broke into a hail of pieces on the naiad's scales, at which Trong Diver's health fell by about a quarter. The spell to take forty hitpoints had only reduced the naiad's health by a third?! How many hitpoints did he have?!
"Not expecting that, were you nymph?" the fish-man laughed. "I have a natural resistance to water magic!"
After these words, Trong Diver got a better grip on his trident and threw himself at my sister to stop her from casting another spell. I, without thinking it through, dashed off after him. The naiad was almost half way to her when his path was blocked by a level-1 crab crawling out of the sea onto the sandy shore.
The naiad slowed his pace and destroyed the unexpected obstacle with a flick of his trident. But even that second of delay was enough for me to catch up to him and work my knife into his back.

Damage dealt: 9 (11 Rusty Kitchen Knife strike armor 2)

Trong Diver's life bar went down, but not very much at all, just ten percent. Hrmph, I should have taken the dagger skill. Perhaps then, I could have gotten a critical hit from my stab in the back. Now, probably feeling more surprised at my impudence than really feeling injured by the attack, Trong turned toward me.
"So, that's where you’ve gone off to, Amra! There's nowhere for you to run now!"
Another ice arrow flew into the fish-man's back, lowering the naiad's health to forty percent. His health bar changed color from green to yellow and Trong Diver winced in pain:
"It's nothing, I'll survive another icicle attack, and then I'll have two nice trophies, you and the nymph! Sixty experience points from the two of you is enough to get me straight to level five!"
At these words, the naiad made a sharp lunge forward and stabbed my chest with his trident. I tried to dodge the attack, but I didn’t manage. Son of a bitch! That hurt like hell!!!

Damage taken: 34 (Trident strike from player Trong Diver)
Health level: 5/39

The shooting pain caused me to miss the chance to hit him back. The naiad jumped away from me, making it impossible to hit him with the knife again. But, fortunately, my sister didn't hesitate, and sent another magic icicle into my attacker's back. Trong Diver's health was flashing red, but the fish-man started smiling an eerie smile:
"Ha! I survived! Now, you're dead and I'll get all my health back after I level up!" With these words, Trong jumped toward me and jabbed with his trident.
In an incredible jump with simultaneous front flip, I craftily evaded the sharp points under his raised left hand. But doing so had made my endurance points fall severely. Because he was very close, I made an abrupt strike at his fine-scaled throat, helped by the fact that the naiad was no taller than I was.

Damage dealt: 16 (18 Rusty Kitchen Knife strike - 2 armor)

Experience received: 120 Exp.

Dodge skill increased to level 4!

Would you like to take Acrobatics (A S) as a secondary skill?

So, that's what this was! In my attempt to elude the certain death flying toward my chest, I had used not only Dodge, but also Acrobatics! What could I say? It was a skill that was useful to my survival. I should take it. In the distance, the nymph lit up like a projector, having reached level four already.
After the technical matter, I took a look around. The body of Trong Diver was lying in the shallows giving off a slight glow. I bent down over it and tried to pick up the trident lying on the sand, but my fingers went straight through the object. It must have been that the laws of the game world didn't consider the weapon to have "dropped," so it was still in his inventory. Too bad. Bowing over my vanquished enemy, I tried to look at him. I didn't have to rummage through the body. The trophy window opened. My take was three silver coins, two empty vials and one with a cork, filled with a pale blue liquid.

Insufficient Intelligence to identify object

Alright, I'll figure that out later or show it to my sister. I headed to Valerianna. The wood nymph was peeved:
"All my pets die too fast, both rats and crabs. Some beast master I am. I can’t even keep any beasts under my control! Also, I now have a red criminal marker over my head. I had to attack the naiad preemptively, which means I committed a crime. Now, my character won't leave the game world for eight hours, even if I leave the game. Also, have you looked at the map?"
I shook my head, then looked at the game map on my sister's advice. There was just a tiny circle lit-up, showing discovered area: the sea shore, the two of us, and a huge black mass representing undiscovered territory. I increased the scale, but no additional markers showed on the map. Our little circle just got smaller and smaller until it became a dot. The words on it didn't add any information, either:

Coordinates ??????????
Region ????????

"So, you see," the nymph agreed after seeing the look of dismayed confusion on my green face. "We're like in the middle of nowhere, and the only known respawn point is on the broken galley, which I really don't want to go back to. Unfortunately, the weather today is cloudy and it's quickly growing dark. Night will come before we can do anything. Soon, just being out here will be a threat to our lives. But there's no reason to wait on the shore. We need to go somewhere. Maybe we'll get lucky and find other respawn points. At least then it wouldn't be so bad to die. We wouldn't have to get out of that stinking galley again."
I agreed with Valerianna that staying where we were was stupid, and went onward. The wood nymph followed after me. We started walking down the sandy beach and, just after we got close to the dark bushes, before our eyes flashed a message:

Congratulations, you have passed the training mission!
Welcome to Boundless Realm!

Surviving the Night

"It's your call, big-ears. Should we stay together, or split up?"
My sister continued playing up our original conceit, putting on a show for potential observers that we didn't know one another and had met coincidentally. Good girl. She was acting out the role admirably. For a fourteen-year-old girl, I couldn’t have asked for better. I agreed with her:
"Together good. We two be together night, no die," I answered the wood nymph and her face lit up.
"Great! Because I, to be honest, am afraid of the dark. I know it's stupid, all the more so in a computer game, but there's nothing I can do. Now is the exact time to determine how we can best complement one another. I'll take Cartography as a primary skill..."
Plant! The way I felt at that moment was probably exactly how a casino visitor feels after winning a jackpot. I forgot about everything on earth and threw myself at an inconspicuous bush with wide, lobed leaves and underripe greenish-red berries. My Herbalism skill finally activated, leveling my perception up to five, and agility to twelve.
Unlike the other bushes and trees nearby, this plant lit up green when I got near, indicating that it was possible to interact with. I ripped down a handful of the underripe berries.

Swamp Currant (alchemy ingredient)
Experience received: 4 Exp.

My Herbalism bar went up by ten percent. Cool! Nine more bunches of berries and I’d reach level two! But right after I ripped down one bunch, the bush stopped glowing. I couldn't take any of the other berries from it. I had to look for other usable plants.
"Dumbo, you need to stay on task!" my sister chided me, unhappy with the fact that I had gotten distracted by a berry bush.
But I didn't think myself at fault and tried to explain my actions:
"Plant, me getting-getting. Awareness jump on up. Good for looking nighttime. If I nine herb can find, then much better will be senses."
My visual radius really did grow noticeably as my perception increased to five, which also raised our chances of surviving the night in this forest, which was swarming with dangerous beasts. So, raising my Herbalism skill to level two and increasing my perception and visual radius in the process had become a priority mission.
Despite the confusing nature of my explanation, Valerianna understood me perfectly:
"Alright, Amra. Gather your herbs and level up perception. It's helpful to us both. I took Cartography as a primary skill. That's another one that levels intelligence. It also gives more light radius on the map, and could end up allowing us to discover many useful locations. But we need to worry about more than just seeing far; we also need to make sure no predators see us. That's why I'm taking Stealth as a secondary skill. On top of my racial bonus as a nymph of -50% to discovery radius, we shouldn’t have any problems. You also chose Stealth. I realized that as soon as we met. Also, your agility will be higher than mine, so I'm not too worried about you. Just turn off the bright colors when you level up in the game settings. After all, what's the point of us being invisible if, at the worst possible moment, you level up some skill and light up like a firework?"
It was a very practical piece of advice. I called up the game settings menu and chose the visual effects window, then turned all the colorful illumination off. Of course, all these multi-colored little glowing lights looked pretty, but they were completely inappropriate for trying to walk secretly through the forest at night.
Beyond that, I hadn't forgotten about another useful tool I had: the night vision skill I had gotten when I became a level-2 vampire. I didn't say anything out loud, but activated it when it got dark, which cost 15 endurance points. The world became more contrasting in color, and I could clearly make out a bright silhouette far in the distance, which must have been a forest creature.
"Me seeing enemy. There. Skull above him," I whispered to the nymph, and she commented just as quietly:
"If there is a red skull marker over a beast, that means the difference in levels is more than twenty, so we'd better stay away. And if the skull is black, the difference is more than fifty levels, so we’d be goners for sure."
The skull was red. It could have been worse but, still we walked a wide arc around the enemy. As we walked, I watched with unhidden surprise how quickly my Stealth skill bar was filling up. I just needed a few more meager points for the skill to hit level three. I even wanted to stay there intentionally and wait a few minutes, but my sister dragged me forward:
"I assure you, Amra, that is not the only monster in this forest. And if we have to walk a big circle around every one, we'll never get anywhere. In just one minute, according to the rules of Boundless Realm, night will fall, so there will be even more dangerous beasts about."
I looked at the timer. There were a few seconds remaining before nine in the evening. Not long after that, a few messages jumped up on my screen:

Night is not a good time for walks outside the city

Mission received: Surviving the Night
Mission class: One-time, personal
Reward: 160 Exp., +2 stat points

Additional mission received: Find Safe Shelter
Mission class: Optional
Reward: 80 Exp., one random piece of equipment

Seeing that my sister had also frozen, I realized she must have just gotten the same messages. The nymph turned to me and whispered:
"If I can complete both missions, I'll get exactly enough experience to reach level five. But now, not a word. We'll walk the rest of the night in Stealth mode without talking. Most nocturnal predators don't need to see you to find you. They hunt with their ears."

* * *

The creators of Boundless Realm had managed to recreate the atmosphere of a spooky swampy forest perfectly. Everywhere around, I could hear predators howling and roaring. Sometimes, I would hear something hooting above me then laughing wickedly, every time making my heart freeze in fear. Several times, on the very edge of my vision, I noticed some ghastly silhouettes scurrying by. Every one of them had a red skull over their head. My sister and I were constantly forced to change the direction we were walking or hide among the gnarled roots of ancient trees, waiting out some nearby danger.
There were monsters everywhere. Only by some kind of miracle were we able to remain unnoticed. Freezing in fear, we were terrified of giving ourselves away with our footsteps, breathing or just heartbeats. Once, when Valerianna stepped on a dry branch and it snapped, I practically pissed myself in a very real sense.
But at that, I was clever enough to gather some plants on our journey: swamp currant, swamp blackberry, and swamp horsetail. When I had gotten Herbalism to level two, the variety of valuable herbs and berries I found immediately grew as well. By level three, bitter lily-of-the-valley, wild heather, bitter wormwood and wild clover had all become old hat. I was elated to have found a bag, otherwise I wouldn't have had enough slots in my inventory to store all the different herbs.
At a certain point, the wood nymph carefully touched my shoulder and pointed in the direction of a far-off looming black splotch. Danger? As it turned out, it was nothing of the sort. My sister was insisting that we turn in the direction of whatever it was. Soon, I could also see why she was interested. On the local map, there was a marker showing three interlocking gray rings. As the interactive hint told us, that symbol stood for a respawn point.
Then, hiding behind a shaggy lichen-covered tree, we hid from an overgrown wolf the size of a large calf that crossed our path. After that, we rushed to the marker on the map. As we approached, I felt the earth below our feet start to tremble. In that place, I could feel some kind of natural force. The center of the anomaly was a huge boulder dug into the earth on top of a small hill. The boulder was covered with worn-down carved runes in a language I didn’t recognize.
"We can talk here no problem," my sister assured me. "NPC's don't come near respawn points. The game mechanics don't allow it. That is why the only people you need to worry about in these places are living players. Bad people commonly use a method where they provoke their victim to aggression or tempt them to steal, thus marking them as a criminal. After that, they can kill the unfortunate individual unpunished and wait at the same respawn point, killing them again and again, getting experience and dropped items as they do so. But you're not like that, are you Amra? Can I leave the game here? It's safe here, so I'll survive the night. Of course, I'd like to finish the side quest, but my eyes are starting to droop."
"Nymph sleeping. Amra no is evil. No bad goblin," I assured Valerianna, though I did get slightly upset that my sister would be leaving me temporarily.
From her perspective, I could easily understand. It was already after midnight, and the fourteen-year-old girl really should have been sleeping some time ago. Normally, I put her to bed at nine or ten, so today, she had stayed up quite a bit past her bed-time. The little nymph took a seat on an outcropping of warm stone and closed her eyes. I called out to her, but no reaction followed. My sister had signed off.
What should I do, then? Should I also just be satisfied that I finished the primary mission and go to sleep? There was an internal voice telling me not to. The longer I played, after all, the happier my employer would be. What kind of game tester was I, if I was satisfied with the slightest bit of play, and would now just sit stupidly in one place for hours? Also, I only needed seventy experience points to reach level four, and I could easily get that by gathering forest plants.
Plus, if I thought about it, where would I go in the real world when I crawled out of the virtual reality capsule? It was the middle of the night outside. The metro and trolley-buses weren't running, and I wouldn't be able to convince a cabbie to bring me to the crime-ridden outskirts of the megalopolis. Even the police stayed away from that place at night. That meant it was decided. I would continue to play alone, even though it was twice as dangerous.

Do you really want to change your respawn point?

Yes, of course. I was totally sure I didn't want to start the game over on that far-off orcish galley, if I happened to get eaten by some monster. I sighed and walked off decisively into the dark night. Three minutes later, I had already found a fairly well trodden path. On my map, it was shown as a thin red line.
If there was a trail, that meant there must have also been someone walking on it, cutting down the vegetation and keeping it in order. But which way should I go, right or left? For some reason, I couldn't make up my mind. Both ways led into the dense, deadly forest. Should I flip a coin to let fate herself make the decision?
I took a heptagonal silver coin from my inventory. It had a round hole in the middle, so you could put it on a string and wear it as a necklace. So then, if the coin fell with the fortress tower up, I'd go right. If it fell with the... what was that, anyway? The coin was old and worn and the image could barely be made out. It was probably a dragon, or maybe it was an octopus. It didn't matter. If the weird creature fell up, I'd go left. I threw the coin and caught it gracefully in the air. I unclenched my fingers. The up-side was showing the dragon or octopus creature.
At that moment, I noticed that the interactive map was showing a red dot suspiciously close to me. Too close. There was a monster next to me. I turned in fear and, a step from me, saw an overgrown wolf looking like the one my sister and I had hidden from.

Level-27 Seasoned Forest Wolf

The red skull over the forest predator's head confirmed that the difference between us was more than twenty levels. Epically bad luck. That's what I got for walking around without my sister. At least the respawn point was very close. There was absolutely no reason to run. Even less to fight...

Successful check for Seasoned Forest Wolf reaction
Experience received: 20 Exp.

The wolf's marker on the map unexpectedly changed from red to yellow. I suspect that was my goblin racial bonus of +30 to the reaction of all forest and swamp beasts. I never imagined that would actually come in handy. For some reason, the seasoned wolf didn't walk away, instead looking at me in curiosity and sniffing. What did it want from me?
I unbuttoned my side bag and took out some rat meat. The wolf’s gnashing teeth practically ripped my fingers off. I even winced for a few seconds. The wolf swallowed the food, waved its tail lightly just like a dog, and began staring at me again with its unblinking yellow eyes. I dismissed the suggestion to take Animal Empathy (Ch I) as a secondary skill, then fed the wolf the remaining two pieces of rat meat I had on me.
"That all. Food no," I told the predator and showed it my empty hands.
The wolf sniffed around me incredulously, and even stuck its impudent snout into my bag to make sure it wasn't being tricked. Only after that did the toothy predator turn away from me and retreat. The animal's marker on the map acquired a green color. Friendship. Well, alright...
"Wait! Goblin house live where? Wolf is knowing?" I asked aloud.
The thought that an animal might understand my speech seemed nonsensical. On the other hand, it was no worse than my idea to gnaw off my own thumb, which had actually worked. The wolf turned to me, looked for a long time with an unblinking gaze, then unexpectedly laid down on its belly.

SYSTEM ERROR! You cannot change class from Herbalist to Wolf Rider

Would you like to take Riding (A Ch) as a secondary skill?

I refused the tempting suggestion, then climbed up on the animal's back. The wolf stood just then and got scared, hiding in the bushes. I had to jump up so the branches wouldn't scratch my face. On the map, a whole group of red dots showed up. And as a matter of fact, we were going right in their direction.

Successful check for Seasoned Forest Wolf reaction
Experience received: 20 Exp.

Successful check for Seasoned Forest Wolf (female) reaction
Experience received: 16 Exp.

Successful check for Seasoned Forest Wolf reaction
Experience received: 20 Exp.

Level four!

Racial ability unlocked: Detect Life (lasts 3 hours, discovery radius: Perception * 2m, costs 20 EP)

I didn't manage to come back to my senses after the cascade of messages before the seasoned wolf took off at full speed, crossed a shallow stream and stopped unexpectedly before a long, dark barricade. I looked more carefully at it and recognized it as a stockade fence three times my height, thickly crisscrossed with thorny ivy and made of weathered logs driven into the earth. It was a well-made fortification. Its creators must have spared nothing in its construction. The wolf lowered down on its belly, showing me that the ride was over.
Just after I jumped onto the earth, the predator silently disappeared off into the forest, leaving me alone with the stockade. I walked the perimeter, cursing under my breath at the thick vegetation. Everything was overgrown with the horrible ivy, its flexible vines covered with sharp thorns ten centimeters in length. Soon, I came to the wooden gates. One side was ripped from the hinges and was lying on the ground, while another was coming off and just barely still standing. But both were covered in deep grooves from the claws of a gigantic predator. The fissures in the wood had grown dark with time. No matter what had happened here, it had happened quite a long time ago.
I walked carefully inside the barricade and saw a high dark blockhouse. It was constructed from huge logs nearly a meter in diameter. I could not say for sure what race this construction was made for, but it was more like a fortress than a simple residence. Its walls were incredibly thick, and it had very narrow arrowslit windows, that even a cat wouldn't be able to crawl through. And though the door of the building was sitting open welcomingly, I didn't rush inside.
First, I called up my Detect Life ability and walked a circle around the wooden opening. It was all clear. There were no creatures inside. Only then did I get up on the porch and enter the building. Once inside, I saw a heavy beam that could lock the door. I put it in its place.

Mission completed: Find safe shelter
Experience received: 80 Exp.

It was a dark room. The only source of light was the narrow arrowslits. The building had a small entryway, a stairway to the second floor and one other room on this floor, which must have been a kitchen based on the massive table and fire pit made of cement-bound stones. I got up to the second floor, scraping my way up the high steps as I went. This must have been where the original owners had slept. There was a huge bedroll made of old, stinking animal pelts, a stool, a small table and an empty box. And in the very middle of the room, there was a huge dark spot, dirty fragments of clothing and a great many old, picked-clean bones. I squirmed in horror and disgust. Based on what I could see, the previous inhabitant of this building had been eaten in this very location, and the high stockade and thick gates had done nothing to save him.
Near the site of the bloody scene, next to the pelt bed, there was a pair of leather boots that looked about size thirty standing totally untouched. If I wanted to, I could have crawled into one with both legs, and it would have come up approximately to my belt. I judged that this was the "random piece of equipment," I had been promised for finishing the quest. Yes, game developers knew how to joke, too. They just had a very particular sense of humor...
Before my eyes there appeared a yellow, translucent image: a plate overlaid with a crossed fork and spoon. That must have meant that my big-eared goblin was getting hungry. I opened a page of more detailed information on my character. The hunger bar had fallen below twenty-five percent. The hint told me that I had just six hours left before I would suffer a penalty. But much worse was that, together with the hunger, I was also threatened by Thirst for Blood. My Quenching the Thirst bar was only at 5/15, which could bring lots of problems five hours down the line. And though I could overcome normal hunger by eating the berries I'd gathered during the night, I had no desire whatsoever to turn into a vampire who'd lost his mind from Thirst for Blood, unable to control his behavior.
So, I made myself a mission. I had to eat before dawn, and it had to be meat and raw at that. That meant I had to go on a night hunt. But what could I possibly kill, if the only thing around were the very high-level monsters I’d been seeing all night? And also, if I approached the problem from a purely technical perspective, how could I kill anything? Certainly not with this pitiful kitchen knife, right? I needed another weapon, and it had to do damage that depended on my main stat, agility. Bow, for example. But the Bow skill used both hands, and my left hand was still injured and wouldn't be able to hold a weapon for another day and a half. I needed a one-handed weapon with agility. There just had to be something like that!
Finding such information while inside the Boundless Realm world was very difficult, so I called up the game menu and pressed the option "Exit Game." I opened the virtual reality capsule and crawled out, taking off my helmet and suit immediately. Sitting in just my skivvies on a chair, I took out my smartphone and, before anything else, called my sister, wanting to tell her about finding shelter. Valeria answered, but it took her some time.
"Tim, it's one in the morning. I've been asleep for a while. What do you want?"
I told her about the blockhouse I'd found where she could finish the optional quest and told her what direction it was in, but I didn't hear any enthusiasm in her voice.
"One hundred exp. is not worth sacrificing my sleep and risking the experience I've already gotten. Without you, I'll be totally blind in the dark. I'll be eaten by wolves or something, so I not only won't finish the side mission, I'll also fail the main one. But I’ll set my alarm for five in the morning, when it starts to get light again. If the nastier creatures are sleeping by that point, I'll come before sunup to your house and finish the side quest. Just make sure to send me a personal message about it in the game, otherwise there might be questions about how I was able to get the information about the shelter. Also, when are you coming home?"
I answered that I would be coming back no earlier than morning when public transportation started running again, then hung up. After that, I went into the Boundless Realm forum and set about carefully studying the advice of authoritative players on weapon choice. There were a good number of one-handed weapons with the main stat agility in the game: one-handed crossbows, throwing knives, darts, all kinds of thrown pointed weapons, bolases and lots of other things.
I was most interested in the blowgun, which allowed you to shoot needles and thorns. The guide informed me that I could also use various kinds of poisons on the thorns, which would be able to cause negative effects to my victims including loss of orientation, stat reductions and even paralysis. Blowguns used the Exotic Weapons (A P) skill, and training in it allowed you to also use lassos and throwing nets as well, though they required two hands.
A great option for me! That was that. I had more than enough thorns near my shelter on the ivy wrapping around my stockade. And horsetail, which had a hollow stem, I had seen growing abundantly along the banks of the swamp. Not wasting time, I crawled back into the virtual reality capsule and headed off to get ready. I found a nearly meter-long tube and cut it right away. I cleaned it with a thin branch and was very satisfied with the result:

Hand-made Blowgun (weapon)

It was slightly harder to gather thorns, though. They were too hard to take off the ivy vines. I had to work for a long time with the knife to get twenty spines and fill one slot of my inventory. I returned to the building, cut a few small fur-covered pieces of skin from one of the old pelts and drove each one through with a long needle.

Hand-made Blowgun Ammunition
Damage: (1-3) * Agility

And then finally, in my first test, I blew sharply and a thorn embedded itself deep into the wooden wall with a dull thump.

Would you like to take Exotic Weapons (L P) as a secondary skill?

Would I?! That was all. I'd taken the last of the possible skills. I would only be able to take another one at level ten. I trained by shooting at targets I scratched into the wall, and was left very satisfied with the result. Finally, I had an appropriate weapon for my big-eared goblin.
When I’d reached level four, some of my stat points had gone into strength and constitution by default, but I had yet to assign the others. I placed one each into intelligence, agility and perception. The detailed character information showed that, where I was, at level-one Exotic Weapons skill, considering the modifiers from agility (now 14.15) and taste for blood (1.02), I could now deal from 28 to 57 damage. I was simply a horror of the night! Beware of me!
It was already past three in the morning, so I didn't try to use the remaining time before sunup to prepare a powerful poison or anything. I understood that without a recipe, without the necessary equipment and without leveling up Alchemy a good deal, that wasn't very likely. I had to press on with normal, totally poison-free thorns for my weapon.

* * *

It was just a duck. A normal duck, all gray with little splotches of color. It was no bigger than a large turkey. The bird was sleeping on an island in the middle of the swamp.

Level-11 Swamp Duck

The words were red, meaning that the duck was quite a fearsome enemy. Though on the other hand, it was the first time I had ever seen anything in this area without the skull symbol. The level-eleven duck must have been one of the weakest inhabitants of the whole region. Not counting me, of course. I was lying in the bushes near the water, seven meters from my potential victim and couldn't make up my mind to attack. The tempting idea to get up close and kill the duck with a Vampire Bite had to be thrown out. Right next to the shore, there was a squelching thick muck that I would never be able to walk through unnoticed.

Stealth skill increased to level 6!

After seeing the pleasant message, I decided to go on the attack. I raised my weapon very slowly, aimed it and gave a firm blow! The thorn went straight into the duck's neck, right where I was aiming.

Damage dealt: 31 (48 missile damage - 17 armor)

The duck's health bar went down by a slightly noticeable amount, just seven or eight percent. Jesus! It had more life than three Trong Divers! Now I'd stepped in it! The bird woke up and turned unflinchingly in my direction, flapping its wings loudly, quacking and basically expressing the strongest disapproval of its rude awakening. I jumped to my feet and reloaded the tube with another thorn.

Damage dealt: 12 (29 missile damage - 17 armor)

No luck. I got almost the minimum possible damage. In reply, the duck went silent, made a strange swallowing motion and, spit at me! I barely managed to jump away.

Acrobatics skill increased to level 2!

Right where I’d been standing, the pebbles by the shore gave off an eerie hiss and dissolved in acid. Hey, no fair! Was this really a duck, or a horror-movie alien?! The next two shots missed. The bird sharply tore off upward and set about spinning circles above me with an uncanny quacking, periodically spitting its acid down from above. I couldn't hit the tiny far-off spot, so I decided not to waste the ammo. On the plus side, it also took no effort on my part to jump away from the duck's spit.

Dodge skill increased to level 5!

Great! Perfect timing! I was happy with the growth of the useful skill all on its own. The parallel increase in agility, which also brought with it increased damage taking and aiming ability, was even better. After making an allowance for my target being in motion, I tried to shoot again.

Critical hit: 126 (63*2 missile damage - armor ignored)

Exotic Weapons skill increased to level 2!

The thorn hit the duck right in the eye. My enemy's life bar sagged down by half. The bird was also blinded in the left eye. The duck did a few awkward somersaults in midair, then spit a few times at random, apparently having lost me from view. But after that, it discovered me again, changed tactics and decided to come in for close combat. I flipped away, dodging the pecks it was aiming straight at me. I shot it on its way back up, but missed. And again, looking like a kite in midair, the swamp duck turned around and dived straight at me. But this time, I was expecting it:

Damage dealt: 42 (59 missile damage - 17 armor)

After that, I had to contort myself again to avoid being hit. After taking a shot to the chest, the bird was unable to change its flight trajectory and crashed into the dry swamp-shore pebbles. While the duck was on the ground, I attacked it again.

Damage dealt: 30 (47 missile damage - 17 armor)

The bird, flapping its wings and scrambling to its feet, threw itself at me, but I dodged toward its blind left eye. The duck stopped, having lost sight of me.

Damage dealt: 51 (68 missile damage - 17 armor)

The duck's life bar was down deep in the red and was barely visible at all any more. It had just a few life points left. I walked a semi-circle around the bird to get back on its blind side and hit it with a bite.

Damage dealt: 23 (Vampire Bite)

Experience received: 504 Exp.
Objects received: Duck meat * 3 (food), Hand-made blowgun ammunition * 6

Level five!

Achievement unlocked: Taste Tester (3/1000)

Racial ability unlocked: 10% Resistance to Poison

Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 3%)

Now that's what I'm talking about! That battle with the duck had given me almost as much experience as the total I’d gotten up until that point! Also, my Thirst for Blood was totally sated (15/15). And, speaking of the thirst... I took the empty alchemy container and filled it with the bird's spilled blood. I walked up to the nearest tree and cut a piece of its bark out with my knife, whittled it down and made it into a cork for the vial.

Duck Blood (alchemy ingredient)

It was already starting to get light out. In just half an hour, the deadly sun was going to rise. But I was in no rush to seek shelter just yet. I needed just seven or eight more useful plants to level up my Herbalism skill. It wasn't very far to the building, so I calmly set about gathering plants.

Herbalism skill increased to level 3!

Alright, that was enough. I hurried back to the wooden blockhouse. With four minutes left until morning, I ran up onto the porch... but the door was locked from the inside! The map obligingly informed me that the player Valerianna Quickfoot was currently inside. My sister! She got here after all!
I started pounding on the door, but she wouldn't open up. Had Val gone back to sleep or something?! If she didn't open the door for me in the three minutes I had left, it would be the dumbest death a vampire had ever died in the history of this game. Not in some epic battle with a holy warrior, but right before the front door of his own home, which his own beloved sister had locked! That's what you call bad luck! Also, the respawn point was on an exposed stone square, and appearing there after the sun rose would have meant a guaranteed death...
I wrote a personal message to Valerianna to make her open the door right away, but I wasn't especially counting on being saved. Around the house, there was nowhere I could hide myself from the sun's rays. My only hope was getting inside the building. As the last minute was passing, I was in a true state of panic. Fifteen seconds. Ten...
I heard the heavy beam being moved off the door.
Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. The door peeked open a few centimeters.
"What's all the racket about, Amra?" the yawning wood nymph asked lazily from the doorway.
I flung open the door and pushed the girl from my path in one fluid motion, then dashed up the stairs. Here in the entryway, it was still too bright. The sun's rays might be able to come in through the windows. Five. Four. Three. In the two seconds before the sun came up, I threw myself at the bedroll and buried myself under a pile of animal pelts. I made it!

Mission completed: Surviving the Night
Experience Received: 160 Exp.
Reward: +2 stat points

Level six!

Number of Thirst for Blood points increased: 15/20

"Sorry, it's just time for me to get out. It was an emergency. I've got business waiting for me in the real world," I told the nymph, who was in a state of total confusion, then left the game without even assigning the stat points I'd accumulated.

* * *

After taking off the helmet and sensor suit, I sat powerless right on the floor. My hands were still shaking and my heart was pounding in my ribcage. The game had me so worried, it was as if the sun rising in the game really could have killed me torturously, not just made me lose a few hundred experience points. In the moment, the thought didn't even cross my mind that dying in the game really meant nothing. After all, I could get the experience back. No, I wanted to survive with all the cells in my body.
I calmed down a bit, got dressed and walked out of my cabin. I had an unbearable urge to use the bathroom. I rushed down to the end of the long walkway to the nearest bathroom. There were just two doors on the whole floor with a red light over them, mine and that of the redheaded lady I’d seen earlier. The other three hundred doors, as well as all the doors on the opposite walkway were showing green: free rooms. That meant just her and I were still here. So, I immediately noticed the sound of water coming out of the locked shower. At this early hour, there was someone taking a shower on the deserted floor.
Putting myself in order after freshening up, I walked up to the coffee machine. My eyes were sagging. I needed a pick-me-up. Here, at the end of the Boundless Realm tester floor, there was a break room with tables, couches, a television on the wall which was now off, and vending machines selling snacks and water. With a mug of hot coffee in my hand, I walked down the row of vending machines and looked over the selection. What I was looking for was a pack of gum drops for my sister. She loved that stuff. I tried paying with my card, but a fully predictable message came up on the screen: "Transaction denied. Insufficient funds." I had to go through my pockets to find coins. Cash had practically gone out of circulation in recent years, but snack machines still took coins. Just after fishing out all the money, I lowered the coins into the slit. What had I done to deserve this?! The baggy of gum drops got stuck on a piece of the internal machinery.
"Woah! I wasn't expecting to see anyone here so early!" A sonorous woman's voice rang out behind my back.
I turned around. Beyond all doubt, this was the very same mystery girl I had seen earlier in a chic emerald-green dress with a hat covering her fire-red hair. But now, she was standing before me with containers of shampoo and lotion in her hands, while the only thing covering her nakedness was a towel wrapped around her body.
"Excuse me, I didn't mean to startle you," I answered, but the woman laughed:
"You?! Startle me?! Believe me, I'm a pretty hard person to startle. It's just that, for the last half year, I've been the only person on this floor to work at night. I wasn't expecting to see anyone, which is why I came out looking like this," she said, pointing at the towel.
"Don't worry about it. I won't bother you. I just finished the quest 'Surviving the Night.' You know it, I'm sure. It's for beginners."
"Oh, you could say I know it," the mystery girl smiled. "I'm the one who designed it two years ago. It was the only way of getting people out of cities at night. So then, did you make it?"
"Yeah, I made it, but it wasn't easy," I answered, talking myself up.
"Good job. Lots of people try, but not many manage to survive all the way to morning. But now, inhabitants of the night do have regular prey," the girl licked her lips in a display of her predatory nature, as if to say she was personally eating the careless unfortunates.
Though, perhaps she really was. Who could say what kind of character she played? Clearly having noticed a change in my behavior, she said:
"Your eyes just grew wide in horror as if you'd seen a monster. I assure you, there's no reason to fear me at all." The woman looked at the stuck bag of gum drops and extended me a whole armful of cosmetics. "Here, hold this!"
Without a remark, I took the mountain of bottles and tubes, while the woman walked over to the vending machine and extended a hand. The machine went into action. On the upper level, a spiral began spinning, moving forward the chocolate bar the beautiful redhead had chosen. Would you look at that! She had an implanted identification chip instead of any kind of document or bank card! I had heard of such technology, but this was the first time I had actually seen it.
The bar fell top-down on the trapped gum-drop bag and plunked down together with it into the slot.
"So, you see, I don't bite," she smiled, her curly bunches of fine wet hair bobbing as she stood up. "And don't worry about being too formal with me. I'm not much older than you are. By the way, my name is Kira."
"Timothy," I introduced myself and handed the cosmetics back.
She took the products in her arms and stopped to say something, but then... the woman's towel fell to the floor. An awkward situation. Her arms were full, so she couldn't pick up the fallen towel, or even cover her body.
"Kira, let me. I'll help!" With these words, I picked up the towel and wrapped the young woman in it.
Touching her skin, tender and hot after the shower, was insanely pleasant, but I didn't take too long. Even when she kissed me on the cheek in gratitude, I didn't hesitate. This was no place for impossible dreams. Kira and I were too different and had met for too short a time.
"Thank you, Timothy. Maybe we'll see each other around. You can have the chocolate bar. I don't eat chocolate, anyway."
Kira went back to her cabin to get dressed. I spent some time standing and watching her walk away. Before my eyes, I could still see the picture of her seductive curves frozen in time. Well then, now I knew where and when Kira worked, and arranging another meeting with her wouldn't be too much work.
An hour later, I was already jangling my key ring against the door of my rented apartment. I didn't ring the bell as not to wake up Val, but my sister wasn't sleeping at all and rolled out to meet me in her chair.
"Do you mind explaining what the hell that was? You blasted me off my feet and tore into the building as if there was a whole horde of demons after you!"
I saw no reason to hide the truth from my sister, so I told her the details of my character’s dark side. Valeria's reaction was unexpected:
"Why were you being so stupid then, bro? You should have killed me with a bite right there at the respawn point, then used Veil to change my logs so no trace remained! At these low levels, a small experience loss for me would be absolutely nothing, but where are you gonna find another wood nymph for your Taste Tester achievement?"
I told her there was no way I would kill her. After hearing out my answer, though, Val shook her head in reproach.
"You know best. Alright, Timothy, go eat breakfast. Everything's warm. And, as this is how it is now, go get some sleep before another night shift. For now, I'll read up on vampires in Boundless Realm and think of how your character should progress."

Gray Pack

My sister woke me up.
"Time to get up, Tim! How long can you possibly sleep, lazy-bones?!"
I pried open my eyelids and looked at the time. It was four thirty P.M.
"Why get up so early? In Boundless Realm, it only gets dark at nine, and it takes me just one hour to get to work. You should have woken me up closer to eight," I replied. In fact, I was already practically totally rested, and was moaning only to get a rise out of her, which my sister understood perfectly.
I lowered my feet onto the floor and started looking around for my perpetually lost socks. Valeria wheeled up closer to me and opened a dresser drawer.
"I threw your socks into the laundry. Take a new pair. By the way, the landlady came by today. She was quite insistent in reminding me of our three-months of overdue rent. Also, I sold all our characters from Kingdoms of Sword and Magic today for five hundred eighty credits. Technically, we could pay a month and a half of back rent with that."
"Let's just give her one month for now. We still need to live on something, after all. I'll send it to her today so she'll hold off a little bit. You’re a smart cookie, Val. Did you find anything out about vampires in Boundless Realm?"
My sister acquired a look of despondency, rolled up to the computer desk and took out a sheet of paper covered in proper handwriting.
"This is all I found. At one point, there were a lot of vampires in Boundless Realm. NPC's and living players as well. In the very first months of the game, ‘resettlement mode’ was very popular. People would travel by boat to uncharted lands, build fortresses there, then hold the area down with their teeth, fighting back the constant attacks of legions of the unclean and undead. The Boundless Realm marketing team then made a successful ploy on human pride and attracted millions of gamers in a short time. I remember the ads from three years ago saying things like: 'Humanity is on the brink of extinction. Your blade could save mankind.'"
"Yes, I remember. As a matter of fact, when I tried to play Boundless Realm, it was just such an advertisement that drew me in," I agreed.
"Hm, alright. Well, at that time, vampires were one of the main threats to humanity, and there were many quests to destroy them. For example, human paladins of many schools were obliged to kill at least one vampire to pass an initiation quest. But what the developers back then didn't foresee was that there were suddenly too many people, and not enough vampires to go around. Vampire players were tracked down and simply not allowed to play, constantly getting killed before they could leave the respawn point. Whole hordes of hundreds and even thousands of players would gather to wait for the respawn of a known vampire, all of them hoping to be the one to kill it. There were many complaints, so the developers removed the ability to play as a vampire, and gave the ability to those that already existed to change race. I found a year-old interview with one of the directors of the Boundless Realm corporation. In it, he officially stated that there were just fourteen vampire players remaining, and they were all carefully hiding their true nature, as they understood perfectly what could happen if they were uncovered."
"And NPC vampires?" I clarified, putting on my clothes.
"They were left in, but made very rare and sneaky. They are very hard to uncover. That was why vampire missions haven't disappeared entirely. They were made unnecessary, though, and the reward was made very generous. As for NPC's, it's hard to say how many exist. According to the game mechanics, a dead NPC is dead forever, so discovering and killing an NPC vampire would be a one-time event."
Everything became clear to me. I wasn't wrong when I figured that I should be hiding the fact of my dark nature. But I had seriously underestimated the scale of the problem.

* * *

It might seem strange, but in our gaming partnership, my younger sister was always the brains of the operation. For me, games were just a fun way to pass the time and earn beer money. My sister, though, lived her whole life in virtual worlds. Reading through manuals, and figuring out magic and crafting systems brought her nothing but glee. She also enjoyed solving the puzzles we came across in games, so she usually did it for the both of us. She really liked coming up with the best possible path for our characters’ progression, and working out the best way for them to behave. At this point, she probably thought of real life as some kind of virtual reality with good graphics but a horribly dreary plot.
Once upon a time, I had encouraged her interest in video games as an alternative to sinking into hopeless oblivion. I would back down in arguments and allow her to make all the important decisions. My trust in her made her happy, so she solved all our issues with great zeal, proudly presenting me with readymade solutions. Sometimes, her methods seemed questionable, but Valeria always proved to be right in the end. And now as ever, on my way up the granite steps into the Boundless Realm skyscraper, something my sister told me was turning over and over in my mind: "You can already level up agility and perception well with your skills. Strength, intelligence and constitution are important, but are still secondary to your character so, ignore them, no matter how scary that may sound. All your new stat points should go straight into charisma."
I walked up the stairs, went through the revolving door into the massive hall and stopped before a turnstile. I placed the magnetic card I was assigned yesterday to the reader, but it lit up red and a horrible buzzing sound rang out. Denied?! I tried it again, but the result was the same. I wasn't being let in to work? But why?! I walked up to the security window and told them my pass wasn’t working. The dour muscular security guard took the plastic card from me and entered its number into his computer terminal.
"Your keycard has been blocked. Access to your virtual reality capsule as well. Your character has been banned. Mr. Lavrius ordered you brought directly to his office as soon as you showed up."
My heart simply stopped. It can't have been that I didn't pass the trial period, right? I had so many plans for Boundless Realm, and I had been fired on the first damn day! With my soul in a very gloomy place, I went up to the forty-fourth floor, where the special projects division was located. Alexandro Lavrius's office stood out from far away. There were several people milling about near his door. Among them were some of the testers I had been filling out surveys with yesterday.
The director's office doors opened, and the very same middle-aged accountant lady, who hadn't wanted to be a dryad ran out into the corridor with tears in her eyes. She led her troubled gaze over those gathered, then commented:
"I already knew this job wasn't for me yesterday. Today I made sure of that. It’s good that I didn’t waste too much time here."
The door of the director's office opened, and a fat young man in glasses came out. If I remembered correctly, it was he that had been offering a troll astrologer to exchange with any takers.
"Could anyone figure out how to take the chain off? I couldn't find any way! I spent all day suffering with those shackles on my arms before they stopped me and told me to climb out of the capsule."
"But you're a troll. Your Regeneration is the best of all races. You could have just gnawed your own hand off, and an hour later, left with a new one," I suggested to him, to which the fat man grew irritated, and answered:
"How was I supposed to know that trolls have Regeneration?"
I didn't explain to him that any player should have known that, even total beginners. I mean, how was he planning to play as a troll if he hadn't even taken the pains to read up on the special features of his race?! It seemed clear that the corporation was now sifting out the obvious losers like him. But then, why was I here? Over the director's door, a sign reading "Open" lit up, but no one from the crowd in the corridor had the balls to go in. So I, not giving a damn about whose turn it was, went inside and closed the door behind myself.
Alexandro Lavrius was sitting at a massive, old-fashioned desk. His huge picture window had an incredible view of the dark city from above.
"You wanted to see me, Mr. Director?" I asked, trying to conceal all traces of timidity in my voice.
The man turned around on his spinning chair, stared at me for a long time with a careful, studious gaze, then glanced up inquisitively at his assistant. To hurry him along, she handed her boss a folder and whispered barely audibly: "This is the vampire we were talking about." Comprehension came onto the director's face. He pointed me to a chair, then opened the folder with my dossier:
"So then, Timothy. In your interview, you told us a boldfaced lie. You said had never played Boundless Realm before..."
The conversation was going in the worst possible direction, so I took a risk and interrupted my boss. I had nothing to lose at this point anyway.
"That's not true, Mr. Director. I wasn't lying. At the time of the interview, I actually had no memory of the fact that I had played it. The raw, unfinished abomination I started up for a few minutes three and a half years ago was in such an early stage of development, I didn’t even process the fact that it was the same game as today’s Boundless Realm. The product has come so far in the meantime, that it totally slipped my mind. Actually, I already wrote this exact thing on social media, and the video hosting channel I made today as a way of promoting the goblin race."
"Wait. Is that true?" Alexandro Lavrius turned on his computer screen and started searching. "Yep, that's right. There it is, a brand-new channel. No subscribers, and just one five-minute-long clip. Not much."
"All I've done for now is tell my future subscribers that I just left KSM after six years of playing and found myself a new, more entertaining game world. I described my first, unsuccessful attempt to play in great detail. I had to have some explanation for my one-word character name, after all. I thought it could be a good thing, actually. It will make my future viewers less likely to suspect that I work for the company..."
"Well that was a very good decision, Timothy," the director interrupted me. "There are hundreds of millions of normal players, and they don't always have a positive opinion of corporate players. Some see their ability to withdraw game money into the real world and try to bribe them or buy them out. Others complain that our employees level up too fast and suspect that they are using unfair methods, like unique quests unavailable to normal people or hidden treasure troves. Some even believe they can simply change their numbers around at will. That is all nonsense, obviously. But all the same, it is for the best to hide your affiliation with the corporation."
The director went silent and stared at me. I took advantage of the pause and continued my story:
"So, due to the specifics of the vampire race, I won't always be able to be in the game during the day. But, I figured I could spin that to my advantage and use those days to make interesting video clips for my channel. I’ve only spent one day or, to be more precise, night in-game. Even still, more than enough material has piled up: my unusual method of getting out of the chain, getting up on the galley deck and lowering the boat, killing the conman Trong Diver, my dangerous journey through the forest at night, the friendly wolf pack, making my own weapons suited to my race, and hunting a poison-spitting duck. If I edit and overdub that well, it should be very interesting to potential viewers."
Alexandro Lavrius thoughtfully turned my dossier over in his hands and set it aside, but not on the pile of other papers. My heart was relieved. It seemed that my firing had been set aside for now.
"Alright, Timothy, your explanations have left me totally satisfied. I'll order the block removed from your character and your pass restored. I expect quality material from you on the goblin race by tomorrow. But keep two important things in mind. First, the viewers won't be interested in only night-time plots. Also, people may start to suspect you if you’re only active at night. If you want to avoid revealing your secret, your character must be active during the daytime as well."
"But how, if the sun will turn me to ash in an instant?"
"Daytime doesn't have to mean sun. In our game, there are cloudy, foggy, and rainy days as well. Use them to the best of your ability. The second thing you should keep in mind is that, in comparison to normal players, it will take you a significant amount more time to level. Players who choose traditional, well studied paths, usually reach level eleven by the end of the first day and, by the end of the second, they're already sixteen. So, no matter how interesting your advertising of this alternate path may be, newbies will be forced to consider, above all else, the growth speed of the character. People tend to want everything right away, after all. I hope you have already thought through how your herbalist will gain experience, given that you won't be able to collect plants on sunny days like a normal person."
I nodded curtly, not planning to describe all the details of my leveling plan to my boss.
"Then that's great. By the way, I forgot to say right away that our corporation typically pays small prizes out to people who find new things in the game or discover bugs that we didn't know about before. You have already earned two such prizes: one for your unusual method of escaping the hand cuffs, and another for the profession-change error. You get two hundred credits in total. We could give it to you via bank card, or as two thousand coins in the game."
"Bank card would be fine," I answered, my voice even crackling in anticipation. I had to repeat myself.
What perfect timing! I needed a deposit into my account so the bank wouldn't block my card. This was simply miraculous!
"Alright, you can expect the money by the end of the day. Have you got any questions about work?"
"Yes, Mr. Director. I wasn't able to find an answer to the following question in the forums: if a player kills me just because they dislike goblins or some other reason not related to vampires, but they have a quest to kill a vampire somewhere in their backlog, would the quest be completed?"
"Huh..." the director replied, thinking it over. "It would seem utterly illogical if the secret of vampirism could be uncovered so easily. As far as I see it, to finish a vampire-killing quest, you should have to fulfill some preliminary condition to make sure you actually uncovered said vampire first. Otherwise, quests to find undead in a certain village could be completed by just killing all residents wholesale. Alright, get back to work. My assistant will ask our programmers for the answer to that question."

* * *

I only finished editing the video around eight at night. Yes, it was quite the slog, but I can say without excessive modesty that it turned out quite well. In the fifteen-minute clip, I managed to convey the atmosphere of doom and gloom on the orcish galley, the raging sea, and the fervor of the battle with the naiad, as well as the spookiness of the forest at night. It was all overdubbed with ironic commentary by me. I pointed out all my errors and missed chances with no obfuscation whatsoever. For example, I directly said that "my big-eared freak is tongue-tied and pretty dumb." After posting the video, I was finally ready to continue the game.
I took a look at my character’s stat sheet before starting my second day:

Goblin Vampire
1280 of 1800
Character level
Hit points
Endurance points
Strength (S)
7 (7)
Agility (A)
8 (17.1)
Intelligence (I)
5 (5.8)
Constitution (C)
9 (9)
Perception (P)
3 (10.2)
Charisma (Ch)
8 (9)
Unused points
Primary skills (4 of 4 chosen)
Herbalism (P A)
Trading (Ch I)
Alchemy (I A)
Dodge (A P)
Secondary skills (4 of 4 chosen)
Exotic Weapons

No matter what the director said about my slow progress, I was proud of my big-eared Amra! I also liked his appearance. My sister had taken a shot at it during the day, and the result was a sweet little smile-inducing green goblin face, that no player would associate with vampires or danger. I had already loaded it into the game and confirmed that I wanted to change the appearance of my character. As my sister had recommended, I put my two free stat points into charisma.
And then, my second night in the game began. Well, actually, night had yet to fall. Just after the virtual reality capsule closed, I found myself in the bedroll inside the blockhouse under a layer of heavy, stinking pelts. I carefully poked my head out and took a look around. The sun was already below the horizon. Through the arrowslit, I could only see clouds lit up slightly pink. Alright then, the burning sun was no longer a threat to me. I could start playing. Where to begin?
The first thing I noticed was that the dark bloody spot in the center of the room was gone, and the floor now harbored traces of mopping. I couldn’t believe my sister sometimes. After that, I noticed that my goblin was hungry and, what was more, wanted to drink blood. I opened my inventory and fed my big-eared troglodyte the duck meat, sating my hunger. Now was time to drink the blood I had saved from the night before, and I could get on with my business. What the? I stared in incomprehension at the vial of duck blood. The liquid in it had coagulated and turned dark brown.

Spoiled blood (waste)

Come on! I looked in fear at the Quenching the Thirst bar. It was blinking an ominous shade of red at 1/20! I had less than an hour to drink some blood, otherwise I'd lose control! Time to get hunting before it was too late!
On the map, not too far from my building I saw Valerianna Quickfoot’s marker. There were several red dots spinning loops around the wood nymph. Was my sister in combat? I had to help her! But the group of dots continued moving measuredly with her toward the building and was now near the stockade fence. I looked out the window. Next to my sister, there were three huge brown toads hopping along.

Level-7 Warty Toad

It didn’t appear that the nymph was afraid of the beasts, so they must have been the beast master's new pets. I walked out onto the veranda. The toads froze abruptly and, after a command from Valerianna I couldn't make out, their markers on the map changed from red to green. It all made sense. My sister was telling them I was a friend.
"Greetings, big-ears. Oh, I see you drew yourself a new face. Was that so monsters wouldn't get so scared of you? I'm joking. Your new friendly countenance suits you. Why didn't you come around during the day? I've grown exhausted from boredom already. I've been all around the area. Are you ready to get going?"
My sister, it should be said, was playing a part we had agreed on earlier. The plan was to flip a coin to decide whether we would stay in the shelter for a few more days or not. But I didn’t have time for that right now! I needed to find a victim and suck their blood right away! I tried to suppress my need to hurry, though and answered that I agreed to her plan.
"Where we going?" I asked, expressing total incomprehension. "House be. Safe. Me want here, for see game."
Technically, my undergrown intelligence was now high enough that I didn't have to speak in this distorted way, but my sister and I had decided that this manner of speech gave Amra a certain uniqueness and even charm. And beyond that, it would give strangers the illusion that I was a totally moronic primordial creature. Sometimes, it’s useful to seem dumber than you really are. It makes enemies underestimate you.
"But what is there to do around here? We’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s just forest and swamp for kilometers. I mean, sure, there are two villages not far from here. One is human, seven kilometers from here. It's called Stonetown. I was there today. They greeted me cautiously, but let me through the gate. There didn't seem to be much to do there. There were only twenty buildings. They didn't even have their own blacksmith. Though they do have a healer, who buys herbs. Maybe you'd be interested in that. And there's also a goblin village to the southeast, but I didn't go there. I got attacked by the aggressive guards, who were level sixty or so and quickly died."

Mission received: Socialization 1/3
Make contact with the inhabitants of the Human village
Make contact with the inhabitants of the Goblin village
Mission class: Chain, group
Reward: 800 Exp.

"Hey!" My sister went silent, either from the new quest, or because she had just seen a large dark gray wolf at the dilapidated gates of our stockade. "Him again! That wolf has been a royal pain in the neck all day for me! This morning, he ate all my pets. Then, during the day, he did it again. But there's nothing for me to do. He's much higher level than me, and he travels with three other strays just like him. It’s incredibly hard to level up beast master with monsters like this everywhere! Every time a pet dies, I lose two skill levels!"
Though my sister had managed to hit level nine today, she had no chance of taking down a level-twenty-seven seasoned forest wolf. It was all leading to the gray-furred predator treating himself to Valerianna's entranced creatures yet again. And it should be said that the wolf was green on the map for me, meaning it was friendly. Ugh, here goes nothing! I walked out to meet the predator, who was still sitting at the gate, not having made up his mind to enter our enclosure.
"Hunger? You for meat eating!" I threw the last piece of duck meat to the forest creature.
But the wolf gave a grudging shake of its tail to the meat, didn't touch it and walked away. Then, the female level-22 seasoned forest wolf trotted over in my direction. I immediately noticed her bulging belly and swollen teats. By all appearances, the wolf was in the very last stage of pregnancy and was getting ready to be a mother very soon. After quickly swallowing the piece of meat on the ground, she stared at me expectantly. The other two level-27 seasoned forest wolves strutted out of the forest behind her, and I now had four beasts staring me down with hungry eyes.

Mission received: Feed the Pack
Mission class: Rare, individual
Reward: Variable

Would you look at that! A rare quest with a variable reward based on how I completed the mission. Very intriguing. So then, the mission was to feed four hungry mouths.
"Nymph, where you be finding toad?" I asked Valerianna, who was standing on the deck ready to duck inside the building at a moment’s notice.
"Not far away. I'll mark it for you on the map now. Go get 'em! But just so you know, toads scare easily. They dive into the water almost right away."

The player Valerianna Quickfoot would like to sell you: Local map
Price: free

Naturally, I agreed and opened my updated map. That's what I'm talking about! My sister had been very busy today: everything within a kilometer of the blockhouse had already been studied in detail, as well as roads in both directions as well. The human village of Stonetown, located seven kilometers from my current location, was also revealed, but the nymph had not gone further down the road than that. In the other direction, the discovered area along the road cut off sharply four kilometers from us. There, she had placed a note: "Danger!!!" My interest was also drawn by the other notes my sister had placed on the map: "Cave, still haven't gone in," "Flower field," "Something’s lair, horrible stench," "Copper vein in rock," and finally "Swamp with level-7-12 toads."
After placing a marker over the swamp, a direction arrow showed up with a distance number under it: eight hundred thirty meters. Approaching the wolf, whose opinion of me had increased to friendship, I looked him right in the eyes and said aloud:
"This toad, no bite. Other place, many-many same. I show and bring wolfies. You can eating all. We to road."
The wolf looked at me understandingly and lied down on the ground. I got up on the back of the forest predator and pointed the way with my finger, then fervently shouted out:
"We forward! Pack hunting!"
All four of the wolves tore off from their place and rushed off where I was pointing. I was slightly worried for the extra encumbered she-wolf, but she was also confidently keeping pace. A private message came in from my sister:
"Hey, how'd you do that?"
I didn't answer, as I didn't really know myself how I had been able to communicate with wolves. Just a minute later, the pack had reached the edge of the huge swamp and I ordered them to stop. I jumped down from the wolf and shouted to the predators, trying to make my voice louder than the deafening croaking coming from the swamp:
"Wolfies stay by pebbles. I shooting, lure to me. Lead here toad. Together, you biting."
As silent gray shadows, all four of the beasts split up in different directions and hid in the nearest bushes. I then went carefully forward, loading ammunition into my weapon. I didn't have to go far before seeing my first victim behind a set of nearby bushes:

Level 9 Warty Toad

The huge toad was the size of a fully-grown Doberman. It was croaking away with abandon, blowing bubbles out both sides of its cheeks. It didn't notice me until I shot:

Damage dealt: 53 (59 missile damage - 6 armor)

Just one shot had taken a whole third of the overgrown amphibian's life bar away. If the toad were a bit smarter, it would have realized that it shouldn't get into it with me, despite its level advantage. But in the game, just like in real life, amphibians didn’t possess very impressive brainpower. I rolled to the side. When the toad had finished its jump, it landed with a huge squelching sound where I'd just been standing. Its long, sticky tongue shot out, but I saw it coming and easily turned away and ran a few steps back from the enemy. Another jump followed to the place I had just left, and its sticky tongue shot out another time into thin air. In theory, I could have dealt with such an immobile and predictable enemy myself, but I decided it would be a waste of time:
"Sic! Catching, bite!"
The predators appeared form all sides instantly and tore their prey to shreds.

Experience received: 58 Exp.

It was very little experience in total, given that it was split between five. But that was not the point. I was more concerned with its loot. Without paying attention to the terrible groaning and bared teeth of the greedily meat-devouring she-wolf, I walked up to the trophy with my vial at the ready, and filled it with blood before the wolves were finished gulping down their prey:

Toad Blood (alchemy ingredient)

Achievement unlocked: Taste Tester (4/1000)

I immediately drank the blood I'd collected, noting that the Quenching the Thirst bar went up by just three to 4/20. Not much. Either I was supposed to drink the blood straight from my victim, or the toad wasn’t a great donor candidate for me. After noticing that my wolf partners hadn't left even a bite of their prey, I walked out to find another toad.
By experimentation, I figured out that toads lower than level-nine would dive fearfully into the water if hit, taking my ammo with them in their bodies, so I concentrated on the very largest individuals.

Level-12 Warty Toad

I didn't lure the beast to the wolves. I was just feeling too greedy to share experience with the wolves this time. Fortunately, the elevated level of my enemy had very little effect on its intellectual capabilities. This toad behaved just as predictably as the lesser specimens had. Beyond that, I discovered that the toad would quickly lose sight of me if I stood motionless. It was, as they say, my lucky day. It was no problem for me to shoot the toad from afar with my darts then kill it with a Vampire Bite.

Experience received: 640 Exp.
Objects received: Toad meat * 5 (food), Toad hide, Hand-made blowgun ammunition * 9

Level seven!

Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 4%)

Racial ability unlocked: 10% Resistance to Poison

Cool! And if you consider that I completely sated my Thirst for Blood to 20/20, and improved my Exotic Weapons skill to level three in the process, I couldn’t have been happier! After calling over my furry helpers, I showed them to the toad’s corpse. Two seconds later, there was nothing left. The she-wolf retched from overeating and walked up closer, licking my cheek good-heartedly with her bloody tongue.

Mission completed: Feed the Pack

Now, all four wolves on the map were shown as green markers. I waited for a few more "little bonuses" for completing the rare quest, but nothing further happened. Except perhaps the fact that one of the wolves laid down on the earth again, offering me a ride. The hunt can't seriously have been over already, right?! It would be too bad if that was true. I just got the taste for it. But with every second of delay, the wolves grew more and more nervous, and their anxiety transferred over to me. I had barely crawled up on the back of the gray-furred predator before it shot off like an arrow, its ears pressed to its head in panicky fear at something I couldn't comprehend. The other wolves were close on its heels.
"Amra, don’t forget that night is about to fall."
Just as my sister's message came in, I heard a fell sound from the swamp behind me, somewhat like a laugh or croak. I turned around in fear. In the same small glade where the wolves had recently torn the first frog to shreds, there was a majestic creature:

Level-42 Fetid Bullfrog Patriarch

The reason for my canine friends' worry immediately grew clear. Now, I was in complete agreement with them, and couldn’t get away from the swamp fast enough. The last thing I wanted was to die. A minute later, the wolves let me off near the broken gates of my barricade. I jumped down onto the earth and chummily clapped the back of my weary, panting mount. And it should be said that it was hard to not confuse him with his brethren. Before, I had differentiated this wolf by the color of its marker on the map, but now, the markers for all the forest predators were an identical green. I tried to make my own note under the wolf's name on the map. It turned out quite easy. The name I chose came up over his head almost instantly: "Akella."
"Give names to the others, too!" suggested the nymph, who was keeping her distance, and I followed her advice.
Next to Akella, appeared White Fang and Lobo, while the nameless female became Blanca. It was surprising, but the wolves clearly sensed the name change in some way, as they started exchanging surprised looks.
"Dumbo, the wolves are yellow to me now. They're no longer aggressive!" the wood nymph called out in surprise. "And they're all such pretty wolves, as if they were handpicked. Perhaps, when I get to be higher level than them, I'll take them as pets."
As if in reply to those words, from the depths of the forest there came a vile, bone-chilling howl, followed by a concert of yipping. The wolves all perked up their ears in unison and, staring into the darkness, bristled their fur and bared their teeth.

Mission received: Protect the Pack
Mission class: Rare, group
Required condition: Blanca must survive the night
Reward: 800 Exp.
Optional condition: All pack members must survive
Reward: Variable

A shudder ran over me. No matter who or what was approaching from the darkness, the wolves were panicking in fear of it. And their fear transferred to me. I looked at the fallen gate door. Well, I could pick it up and put it back on the hinges...

Your character doesn't have enough Strength to complete this action
Necessary minimum Strength of 200 to lift this gate door
Your character doesn't have enough Agility to complete this action
Necessary minimum Agility of 200 to put the door on the hinges

Alright then, I wouldn't be able to fix the gate and protect myself from the nocturnal beasts, after all. But if the outer ring of defensive structures couldn’t save me, perhaps it would be worth trying to convince the wolves to hide in the building?
"Akella, go in home. Take friends. Door is locking in."
I didn't have to try very hard to convince the forest predators. One after the other, the wolves headed up toward the porch and began scratching at the step. My sister ducked into the house, then I let the wolves in, and quickly followed after them, locking the sturdy door behind myself with the heavy log. Valerianna Quickfoot made a comment, standing at the very top step and looking at the gray beasts quivering in fear:
"They should stay on the first floor. During the day, I got some water in a birch-bark bucket. It's down there. They can drink if they want. But don't let them upstairs..."
The end of the nymph's sentence was drowned out in a ghastly roar that rang out from the yard. The seasoned wolves, whimpering in fear like little puppies, rushed away from the entrance door and huddled in a corner of the kitchen. I glanced cautiously out the arrowslit. Inside the fence, there were a few tall hunch-backed creatures milling about on four long lanky legs. The creatures' eyes shone out in the darkness in a bright ruby-red.

Level-54 Warg

The sounds they had made earlier had made me somewhat cautious, sure, but now I couldn’t even imagine leaving the building tonight. I was immediately reminded that my inventory still contained a huge number of various herbs with as-of-yet unknown properties. Also, it felt like time to start leveling my Alchemy skill. It had gone neglected long enough. So, in the end, being trapped in here wasn’t such a loss.
"Amra, it's time for me to leave the game." By all appearances, my sister had just caught a glimpse of the monsters in the yard as well and had little desire to get any closer to them herself. "How about, tomorrow morning, we go to the goblin village? They won’t shoot you on sight, after all, and you can tell them I’m, like, with you. We need to complete the Socialization quest, after all."
Tomorrow morning? My sister hadn't seriously forgotten, right? How could I go anywhere, if I could be killed by just one little beam of sunlight? As if answering my unasked question, Valerianna added:
"The wind will drive dense clouds over here. The whole sky will be fuzzy like a cat's tail. Tomorrow, it will be overcast and rainy all day."
So, that's what she was thinking! The inclement weather really had fully changed the situation! That was just awesome! I needed to take advantage of any opportunity to be active during the day, so no one would suspect that my goblin was a vampire, and a rainy day was an excellent opportunity for just such an outing!
"Alright. Amra there, be protecting nymph. I to see tomorrow. To go for village of my kind."


The nymph, her legs crossed, took a seat on the floor and froze my sister had left the game. Thirty seconds later, Valerianna's body began to dissipate and, a few moments after that, was totally gone. Her three pet frogs disappeared along with her. Alright, so that's what it looks like from someone else's perspective! If a character didn’t have any aggression penalties and wasn’t a criminal, they would just disappear without a trace, becoming invisible to all other inhabitants of Boundless Realm. The hint I called up told me that aggression against an NPC would increase the time it took for a character to disappear to ten minutes, aggression against a living player that didn't lead to a character becoming a criminal (for example, a legally permitted duel or a fistfight in a tavern) would bring the delay up to thirty minutes, robbing others brought it up to two hours, and killing a player made it eight.
What? It was useful information for the future. We goblins were a weak and cowardly folk. A timely log-off could perhaps be the best way to escape certain situations. What did I care if PvP-focused players shrieked in indignation and told me off for using "unfair methods?" As if a fight between a high-level warrior and a noncombat character, doomed from the outset, had any fairness in it to begin with…
Before leaving the game, my sister had spoken of approaching clouds. Now, I could already see lightning all over the horizon and hear blasts of thunder. But here, over my shelter, the sky was still clear. The light of the moon was more than enough to avoid bumping into walls in the semi-dark room, but to do more delicate work, I needed to light candles or lamps. In that I didn't have either of those things, I tried something else: I activated night vision and got to work. I placed my empty vials on the table in the living room, got clean water in a little baked-clay saucer I found in the kitchen and spread out a rag I had found among the bedroll pelts. Then, I hung bundles of herbs to dry around the room, as well as wreathes of flowers, rings of mushrooms and bunches of berries. It smelled nice in the room now, like forest flowers, and for some reason, honey. The room started looking like an alchemy laboratory or a healer's dwelling.
So, let's get started! I already knew that eating one bunch of swamp currant would restore one hit point. The juice I pressed from these berries had the same property. It took three bunches of berries to fill one vial.

Experience received: 4 Exp.
You have created a Minor Elixir of Healing (restores +3 HP)
New recipe added to Journal

I was able to determine the properties of the simplest alchemical potions despite my fairly weak intelligence, which made the work easier. The potions that restored just three hit points were total crap, but I was still proud of myself, because it was the first elixir I had made all on my own. After swamp currant, I tried preparing a potion made of swamp horsetail.

Experience received: 4 Exp.
You have created a Weak Botanical Poison (removes 3 HP)
New recipe added to Journal

Experimenting in that way, I quickly filled all the vials I had. The time had come to try some more complicated recipes by mixing the elixirs together. I drank one of the useless mixtures down to free up a vessel and mixed the weak botanical poison and the weak elixir of confusion, which I had just made from slimy brown mushrooms.

Experience received: 8 Exp.
You have created an unknown beverage (potion)

Insufficient Intelligence to identify object

Alchemy skill increased to level 2!

Taking the vial in my hands, I looked at the cloudy white substance. I knew that, in the past, it was common practice to describe the taste of a new substance, not only for the alchemists of the far-off middle-ages, but also for well-educated chemists all the way up to the middle of the nineteenth century, who noted it in their lab journals alongside other physically observable properties. That rule had cost the inventor of Hydrogen cyanide, Wilhelm Scheele, his life as well as many other scientists. But unlike them, for me, death wasn’t that big of a deal. And I also had a certain Resistance to Poisons. Welp, here goes! I drained the vial in one gulp, after which I stumbled and almost fell over.

Damage taken: 5 (poison)
Your character is paralyzed for 0.5 seconds

By all appearances, I had created a weak poison that caused temporary paralysis. Not bad, not bad at all. Then the light in the room went noticeably dim for some reason. I turned toward the window and jumped up in surprise. Looking in at me through the arrowslit, there was a huge yellow eye!

Level-48 Cyclops

How tall must this monster have been? It was staring at me through a second story window! I grabbed for my weapon and, alternating a few printable words with an abundance of curses, I promised the monster I would do to it exactly what Odysseus had done and create a new species of eye-less giants, if it didn't stop staring at me. The cyclops sighed in pity and walked away from the window. Based on the map, there were eight various kinds of beast wandering around outside my shelter. What could they want here?! Was it caked in honey?!
I threw off the unwelcome thoughts and returned to my experiments. My Alchemy skill leveled up. Now was the very time to check whether the level of this skill would allow me to make stronger potions. I set about pressing swamp currant berries into a vial again and looked at the result:

Minor Elixir of Healing (restores +4 HP)

Bingo! I shouted in joy. Sure, the effectiveness of the potion had grown by just one HP, but that was just the beginning! I needed to look toward the future: as my Alchemy skill grew, the potions I created would become stronger and stronger. They would be better at healing, restoring endurance and, the weak poisons I made now that caused half a second of paralysis... I started grinning from ear to ear. Because... what exactly did it say in the properties of Vampire Bite?

When attacking sleeping, unconscious, or paralyzed targets, chance of success is 100%, and attacker may choose an effect: (Instant death/6-hour deep sleep/Infect with Vampirism)

What an "imba" that would be in the future! After all, I just needed a few seconds of paralysis to get up to a victim and bite. And soon, I would be able to make potions that did just that. Beware, NPC monsters! This weak little goblin just discovered a path that, with time, would allow him to become a threat to the whole of Boundless Realm!
Some strange sounds coming from below distracted me from continuing my alchemy. The wolves were growling menacingly, trying to drive off an enemy I couldn't see. I heard gnashing and cracking. I picked up my blowgun and hurried downstairs. Akella, Lobo and White Fang were standing before the barred door, their fur bristling, and were baring their frightening teeth. Lobo was scratching up the floor and door from inside with his claws. What was going on? Did they want to get out and fight with someone? And though, based on the map, there were no less than ten enemies nearby, there were none shown right out the door.
Just then, my attention was drawn by incomprehensible gnashing sounds from the kitchen and the sharp smell of blood mixed something else I couldn’t recognize. I took a cautious look in that direction. Blanca was slurping down a flexible red tube with a dismayed grumbling. After swallowing it, the she-wolf lowered her snout and began licking a tiny blind puppy clean. I made a step forward to take a closer look at the newborn wolf pup, but Blanca bared her teeth and her marker color changed from green to yellow on the map. I then stepped back:
"Amra to understand. Not get in way."
I went up the stairs to the second floor and chose the menu option "Exit Game." After opening the top of the virtual reality capsule, I didn't even get out. I just extended my hand, took my cellphone from the table and called my sister.
"I know you're asleep. But Blanca is giving birth. She might need some help."
"Have you lost your mind, Tim? She's a wolf. She doesn't need any midwifery. She’ll manage on her own. Although... I'll just log in quick anyway. I've never seen an NPC animal give birth before."
It was just after three in the morning. I wanted horribly to eat something. That's not to say that my big-eared Amra's food bar was getting low. I wanted to eat for real. I crawled out of the virtual reality capsule and took off the sensor net that sent electronic impulses to my body. I got out the bag of sandwiches and a bottle of mineral water my sister had put together. My hunger sated, I took a look down the row of cabins. Just like yesterday, there were two red lights on, and many green ones. Just Kira and I were still here. Right after I’d arrived this evening, after the conversation with the director, the situation was very contrasting. All the cabin doors were lit up red. Almost no free ones were to be found then.

* * *

When I got back to the game, my sister was already sitting next to the she-wolf and, for some reason, Blanca wasn't trying to chase her away. After turning to me, Valerianna Quickfoot made a dismayed comment:
"Blanca is afraid of you, so you should go upstairs and stay out of this. Also, we were preparing to go meet up with your countrymen this morning. Do you really want to go practically naked in nothing but a loincloth? The other goblins will make fun of you! At least take a pelt from the cot and sew yourself a fur vest and some kind of pants."
I nodded and ran upstairs. While I was standing and looking pensively at the old stinking pelts on the bedroll, my sister appeared and took a pair of the widest pelts to the kitchen for herself. I had to make do with what remained. It wasn’t at all hard to make a fur vest for my goblin. I simply cut a rectangular piece from the pelt and made armholes in it.
But the trousers took a bit more work. At first, I tried for a long time to scratch a pattern into the back side of the pelt. After that, lacking adequate needles and thread, I had to make little holes with a knife and manually attach the edges with rotting, constantly ripping thread. When I finally finished the difficult task, it had grown light outside. The morning was rainy and overcast, but that didn't stop the quest from finishing.

Mission completed: Protect the Pack
Reward: 800 Exp.
Optional condition fulfilled: Go to Blanca for reward

Level eight!
Racial ability improved: 15% Resistance to Poison

When I got downstairs, the wolves were half-asleep and looking calm. When they saw me, they jumped up abruptly, sniffing noisily, and stared me down with their eyes wide open in surprise. After that, White Fang got down on his back and began rolling around the floor. The behavior must have meant something along the lines of "LMAO."
"Amra, you may be a decent herbalist but, to be perfectly frank, making clothes is not your thing," my sister commented on my appearance, barely able to hold back her laughter.
With a shame-filled wave of my hand, I walked over to Blanca. The she-wolf was still laying in the corner of the kitchen. Next to her soft fur, there were four tiny wolf pups lying fast asleep.
"Blanca already gave me the black one second from the right. You can pick one of the others!" Valerianna Quickfoot warned me.
But I hesitated, not in any rush to make my choice. First, what did I need a wolf pup for? The baby forest wolf would clearly be advantageous to the nymph. She was a beast master after all, and she needed a pet to level up. But then, what did I need it for? Second, I had a feeling in my bones that Blanca was in no mood to give a wolf pup to me. I mean, if I demanded the reward for protecting the pack, Blanca would give me one of her pups without complaint, but the she-wolf was adamantly opposed on the inside. Third, how else could I understand the quest reward "variable?" They could have just written directly: "Reward: One wolf pup."
"Amra not taking child from mother. Blanca keeping wolflings."

The Boundless Realm game client will now be restarted
We apologize for the possible inconvenience

The world began to fade. Some technical code lines ran before my eyes. Twenty seconds passed and the picture grew clear once again. So, what happened? I was standing next to Blanca. The quest was already finished. No experience had been added, but the markers for all the wolves on the map had changed from green to blue. The popup hint told me that this color meant allies or fellow clan members.
Also, the spoon and knife crossed over a plate image appeared. My big-eared troglodyte had grown hungry again. It was time to go back on the hunt. Morning had come, so the most dangerous enemies were gone now. I opened the entrance door and walked outside. The door and wall around it bore traces of fresh scratches on the outside. Last night’s uninvited guests must have tried to break in. Some claw marks were very high up, and I got scared even imagining what kind of monsters might have left them. But the door held out, and that was what mattered.
"Pack, hunt toad!" I shouted fervently, and the wolves hurried to the exit. Just Blanca remained inside with her pups.
Taking my usual seat on Akella's back, I was already preparing to give the command to move out.
"Amra, do you think I could come with you?" The nymph asked timidly, and I gave my permission.
Lobo went down on his belly and the wood nymph scrambled up on top of him. I gave a rakish whistle and the pack tore off from their places. A minute later, we were back at our old hunting ground. Rain was falling. Visibility had fallen appreciably, and the croaking amphibians were many times greater in number than they had been the night before. After ordering the wolves to hide, I went to find a victim.
It soon became clear that only toads of level eleven or twelve could be provoked into attacking simply by attacking them. All the others, including the large level-ten frogs simply fled to safety. Bad, very bad even. It meant that soon, as my character grew in level, the swamp would become a worse and worse hunting spot for me. Nevertheless, I quickly ate my fill and even sated my Thirst for Blood. But the wolves, being level twenty-seven, were still not full.
In our search for large toads, we went a bit further than before. And here, my sister pointed with her hand at some far off elevated area, barely visible through the sheet of rain. I couldn't figure out what it was, but it seemed to me that something over there was moving.
"Big-ears, it's shown on the map as a question mark. That means it’s an unknown location. Must be interesting. We should go take a closer look..."

Mission received: Curiosity and the Cat
Mission class: unique, group, time-limited
Description. Investigate the mysterious island in the swamp within 2 days, 23 hours, and 59 minutes
Reward: 8000 Exp.

Eight thousand exp!!! My character had just 2976 experience points in total and just for completing this one quest, I was being offered this very generous reward! I would hit level thirteen just from that! The nymph was in just such a state of joyful elation:
"Ten thousand experience!!! That's what I'm talking about! That would put me up to level fourteen! But something about the name of the mission is worrying me. After all, we all know where curiosity gets the cat in the saying!”
We walked along the swamp shore to check for another way to access the island. Neither the nymph nor I could easily get through it on our own. Also, even though I couldn't get information on them from this far, seeing the monsters over there did nothing to increase my confidence. They looked like many-armed snakes or hydras of some kind.
"Alright, dumbo. Let's not waste time. Let's get out of this muck and go to the goblin village."
The predators took us back to the shelter, and Valerianna Quickfoot fed the hungry Blanca some toad meat. After that, I suggested that we ride the wolves there, but my sister cut me off sharply:
"If we do that, we'll lose the wolves. They'll be shot through by goblin bowmen. We'd better go on foot to make sure your countrymen see you and recognize you as one of their own. It isn't so far from here. We'll be there in an hour or so. And you can collect useful plants on the way. There's a crazy amount of flowers by the road."

* * *

The nymph yawned as she walked. My little sister had clearly not slept enough last night and was fighting back her weariness. Her three toads were obediently hopping behind her, waiting patiently as I stopped and ripped out forest or field flowers. We really did come across a great number of plants, and I easily raised my Herbalism skill to level four. We still hadn't even yet reached the place where goblin archers had shot the nymph from the bushes the day before when a harsh voice shouted out to me:
"Halt! Not a step further!"
I stopped obediently and made a hand motion to my sister so she would also freeze. From behind the trunk of a mighty giant tree, there came a large goblin with yellow-brown skin coloration and a full quiver of long darts on his back.

Level-48 Goblin Dart-Thrower

Lord what an ugly face! He had a huge uneven face full of small sharp teeth, wrinkly skin, and two huge yellow eyes. His right eye was torn as if by biting and his left ear was hanging broken. His nose was covered in scars. He reminded me of a fight-loving stray dog with scarred up snout attesting to all of his victories and defeats. But the ugly goblin wasn't looking at me at all.
"The mavka is back! And, this time, she's brought a friend! Just yesterday we killed one, and now we’ve got another."
Based on how the severe-looking goblin reached for a dart, the nymph could expect another death and respawn. I rushed to intervene:
"Stop! She is no enemy to goblins! The nymph is with me!"

Successful check for Goblin Dart-Thrower reaction
Experience received: 40 Exp.

"Mavkas are dangerous. They wait until the time is right and lure honest goblins deep into the forest, then attack and eat them," the scarred-up veteran mumbled, but still lowered his weapon.
I took advantage of the moment to introduce myself and my companion, after which I said that we were searching for a goblin village, and our purposes were strictly peaceful. The guard stroked his nose in contemplation and pointed his hand at something in the distance:
"Ah, well then you’ve arrived. Our village is right over there. Just past the bend in the road, you'll find Tysh. When you get there, make sure you introduce yourself to our leader Ugruem first. He must be shown the proper level of respect, or you’ll upset him. And you must go to Kaiak right after that. He's the one who gives out jobs in the village. And don't let the mavka out of your sight. It’d be a pity for there to be any unfortunate misunderstandings!"
When we'd put a bit of distance between us and the dart-thrower, the nymph asked me what he and I were talking about. I even stopped in surprise.
"But nymph was hearing! You standing close!"
"Sure, I heard that you were talking, but I don’t speak goblin!"
So then! That was it! Amra wasn't tongue-tied at all when speaking his native language. I explained the essence of the conversation to my sister in brief and, at the same time, asked why they had been calling her a "mavka."
"Well you see, to them, I am a ‘mavka.’ A ‘rusalka’ of the forest. It’s all from Eastern European folklore. A mavka is a forest spirit that leads travelers from their path and brings them to the middle of nowhere, where they disappear forever. The devs must have given these goblins Slavic mythology."
I asked the wood nymph if there was a grain of truth in the scary campfire stories, or if they were all made up from beginning to end. My Amra barely got that complicated sentence out in his faltering language. The nymph laughed mysteriously.
"You may not have noticed, but I am carnivorous and eat raw meat. It could very well be that some other mavkas really do use magic to attract lone travelers into the depths of the forest. But nymphs don't have fangs or claws to deal with their prey. Whether mavkas kill their victims from afar with magic, sic forest predators on them or lead them out to more dangerous relatives, kikimoras and leshies, is of little importance. But then, there is another well-known folk tale, a purely invented one, that a captured forest rusalka can grant three wishes. That has absolutely no hint of truth to it."
We went silent, not finishing our conversation, because we had finally reached the first line of fortifications: rows of stakes driven into the earth at an angle. Some of them were still adorned with the hanging bodies of half-decomposed monsters. Behind this first line of defense, there was a wide dug-out ditch filled with stagnant water. The smell of decomposition from that ditch was so pungent that I had to hold my sensitive nose. The nymph also squeezed her nose with her hand and commented on all the fortifications:
"It would seem various beasts regularly attempt to break into the village. But few get up to the wall, and those who do are cleaned up by arrows from those two towers there."
And in fact, the village of Tysh was very hard to break into. There was a steep hill, then a line of stakes, a ditch full of water, and a wide ravine leaving the enemy just one way in: straight down the road past the defensive towers, each of which could hold a dozen archers. And just now, we were walking right between those towers. My sister pointed me to a set of huge metal spikes sticking a meter out of the gate doors.
Right next to the village entrance itself, there were ten huge goblins butchering the body of a huge creature for meat. I noticed a great many arrows and darts sticking out of the beast’s hide. I overheard a bit of their conversation and figured out that this beast had been trying to bash down the gates, but was stopped by the village defenders. My appearance didn't arouse especial concern among the residents but the wood nymph, on the other hand, was met with shocked gawking. Still, though, no one tried to stop her.
"I need to find Ugruem," I said to one of the goblin butchers.

Successful check for Goblin Patriarch reaction
Experience received: 80 Exp.

"Consider him found, boy. What do you need?" the fat goblin butcher asked, turning to me. He was wearing a leather apron, carrying a cleaver in his hand, and was covered head-to-toe in blood.
I would swear on anything that, a second earlier, I had seen a black skull over his head, meaning he was over fifty levels higher than me. Just then, his name appeared as well:

Ugruem Butcher
Level-87 Goblin Patriarch

Level eighty-seven! I tried not to look too surprised and told him about my fleeing the slave-traders' galley and the two nights I'd spent in an old building. For some reason, near the end of my story, the faces of all the goblins listening looked clearly upset and even somehow afraid.
"So, that means you and the mavka hid in the house of the dead?" Ugruem asked and clarified that he was talking about a wooden blockhouse inside a stockade with the gates torn off their hinges.
I confirmed, not understanding what was so strange about it. The crowd of goblins began gasping in fear and chattering excitedly. Ugruem called them all to silence and said:
"Boy, that place is bad, cursed. That there house was built by ogres eight years ago. They also put up the stockade, and dug a well and cold storage for keeping meat. They were hunters. Five or six of the giants. And though they looked fierce, they lived peacefully with their neighbors. They traded with us and the people too. But then, one day, they up and disappeared. And their whole yard was just caked in blood. Since then, the same has happened to anyone who tried to live in their former hunting cabin. First was my father Uguzh. After he fought with his brothers, he decided to move into that house. He held out longer than anyone else: a whole eleven days. But on the twelfth morning, the only thing they found of him were bloody spots on the porch. And since then, both humans and goblins and all other kinds have happened upon that cursed house. But all of them died a terrible death within a few days. Our shaman Kaiak says that there is some kind of ancient curse there directed at the original ogres."

Mission received: Cursed Old House
Description: Find the reason for the many strange deaths
Mission class: Reputation
Reward: improved relationship with the village of Tysh

"Did that fatty just give you a quest?" My sister inquired, giving a chilly cringe, and then asked me to say a word for her, as the goblins in the village were still hostile to her.
More and more new goblins walked up to our little group. A large crowd started gathering. Then Ugruem wiped his bloodied palms on his dirty leather apron, after which he called over a fat, almost spherical green-skinned goblin woman with muscular arms and powerful column-legs. After pointing his fat finger at me, the local leader declared to the woman unequivocally:
"Let them live with you, Tamina. He's all weak and small. He won't take up much space."

Failed check for Tamina Fierce's reaction

The woman, her strong arms held to the side, disputed Ugruem's decision, speaking up in a shrill unpleasant tone:
"Ugruem, have you been eating too many mushrooms again? Where do you think he would sleep?! I have eleven children. There's not enough space to walk in my house as it is! Where could I put another new arrival?"
She dared argue with the local leader? I read the feisty heifer’s information, and my eyes crawled up into my forehead:

Tamina Fierce
Level-78 Goblin Warrior

For me, she was marked with a black skull. It would have been a death sentence for me if she decided to be hostile. And though Ugruem surpassed this woman in level, he didn't want any conflict either and canceled his order.
"Alright then, Amra. Walk around the village and ask the locals if anyone can give you shelter. But as for your companion, there's no room for a mavka in the village of Tysh. They are crafty and dangerous beasts. I'd never even let one near me. Just yesterday, a mavka almost stole up to our very walls. The archers shot her up good."
I realized he was speaking about my sister, who had been killed yesterday from the bushes.
"Ugruem, this is the very same mavka as yesterday. She wasn't planning anything evil. She was just finding new locations for the both of us. And actually, it’s useless to kill Valerianna Quickfoot. She's one of the undying. So, fighting with her is a very bad idea. Now she's small, just level-ten, but literally yesterday she was level-one. In about a week's time, this mavka will become stronger than most of the residents of Tysh, and a few months from now, will surpass everyone here, including you. So then, tell me, wise Ugruem: does it seem reasonable to fight with an undying mavka? She’ll just respawn anyway. Do you want her to get angry in response and start to look on the residents of Tysh as food? Is it not better to make friends with this undying mavka and have her as a defender of Tysh to help the goblins who live here? Valerianna Quickfoot only asks the right to visit Tysh in peace, speak with goblins and buy the things she needs."

Trading skill increased to level 2!

Trading? I couldn't tell how that skill had anything to do with the negotiation I was holding with Ugruem but, according to the game algorithms, the chieftain and I were in fact engaged in Trading. I checked the information on my character. That was right! As I leveled up the Trading skill, my charisma had also grown by one, which was very useful in this situation.
Ugruem was sitting in contemplative silence as before, rolling his bloodied apron nervously with his strong hands as he did so. For some reason, I didn't doubt that the goblin was thinking up ways of breaking the dangerous mavka's neck. But my assertion that the wood nymph was invincible ended up working on Ugruem. He considered it seriously. He must not have been used to working with his brain. It looked like it even hurt him, as the patriarch’s countenance was scrunched up in agitation.
While the chieftain thought intensively, having pushed those gathered out of the way, out came an old goblin with a curved staff in his hands wearing a cape adorned with the skulls of small vermin and necklaces of dried mushrooms. The old man walked in a funny-looking half-jumping gait. Also, his face was nothing but wrinkles, but the other goblins bowed their heads in respect when they saw him. Before he even started speaking, I guessed that I was looking at the local shaman:

Kaiak Badgerleg
Level-56 Goblin Shaman

Successful check for Goblin Shaman reaction
Experience received: 50 Exp.

The shaman was behaving in an unexpected manner: he bowed low, almost to the ground, first to the wood nymph, then to me. After that, he said with clear respect in his voice:
"It is with great honor that we accept two of the undying to the village of Tysh. The wood mavka shall receive the right of passage, speech and trade. In return, we expect from her a promise not to consume goblin flesh. You then, green brother, may also settle here in Tysh."

Mission completed: Socialization 1/3
Reward: 800 Exp.

Level nine!
Racial ability improved: 15% Resistance to Cold

What? How could the first mission of the chain have been completed? I still hadn't been to the human village of Stonetown!? Although... it was a group mission, and Valerianna had run up there yesterday without me. Clearly, that had been plenty. I bowed low to the shaman and answered that I was grateful for the honor he was showing us. After that, I assured him that Valerianna Quickfoot did not eat goblins, so the residents of Tysh had nothing to worry about. Just then, a private message came in from Valerianna Quickfoot:
"Dumbo, you convinced them alright! All the goblins on the map are yellow for me now. The hostility is gone."
And with that, the goblins gathered began to gradually get back to their own business. No one was paying particular attention to the "mavka" anymore. The shaman adjusted his cloak, threw a hood over his bald head and was clearly preparing to go away from us. What should my sister and I do now? Just hang around here by the gates of Tysh? As if answering my unasked question, Kaiak Badgerleg said:
"Speak with the residents. I'm sure they won't refuse a goblin a place for the night. And maybe someone will even agree to shelter the mavka. After that, both of you drop by my hut. I have something to offer you. Many missions have piled up that only an undying can handle!"

Mission received: Arrange a Place to Sleep in the Village of Tysh
Mission class: Normal
Reward: 160 Exp.

The nymph and I were left to our own devices, and the goblins went on their separate ways. Everything was basically going the way it should in any game. We introduced ourselves to the locals, got acquainted and got a new quest... But the sensation that something was amiss just wouldn't leave me. After all, if you thought about it, what need did I have for a horrid cot in a house already overflowing with goblins? I already had a spacious blockhouse of my own, after all. And though some force came active there periodically and killed NPC’s, my sister and I were living players, and our deaths wouldn't be final. In fact, if we were to see that strange something, we would complete the Cursed House mission, which would even be good.
I started getting the impression that we must have been going about our time in Boundless Realm all wrong from the very beginning. We were supposed to get on the road, and wander down it to one of the villages. In that case, all these quests to meet locals and find a place to stay made total sense. The abandoned blockhouse, was supposed to remain a location hidden in the woods, and the Cursed House quest was supposed to be for later. But due to my randomly meeting the wolves, I discovered the abandoned blockhouse before the normal villages, and even ended up moving into in that very cursed house.
What was more, the situation suited me just fine. I had my very own Alchemy laboratory, where no one would get in the way of my experiments, and I had a pack of forest wolves as guards. Sure, I still needed to spruce the place up a bit and take certain safety precautions. At first, at least get the gates up to keep out uninvited guests. But there, I was master of my own domain, and could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Here in Tysh, I had no idea at all what I could do at night with hundreds of watching eyes all around.
"Well then, big-ears, shall we go our separate ways or look for goblins in the village that would agree to give us shelter?" Valerianna hurried me along, not happy with my hesitation.
"Amra no wanting Tysh. Is home where Blanca. Amra walking shaman and to say 'no stay.'"
The nymph went silent for a long time, then agreed with my choice:
"I also don't like the idea of living here in the goblin village. Everyone I come across sees me first and foremost as a dangerous beast. Dumbo, we've got our own home, and we must start improving it, not looking for something else. I'll take engineer as a primary skill and come up with some defensive structures for our shelter. You should start training our wolves. They must get up at least to level forty. Then, they won’t have to piss in fear every time they see night creatures! I have to wash the floor again after last night…"

Night of Miracles

The conversation was going in a circle. The shaman Kaiak Badgerleg was worried by our refusal to settle in Tysh and was trying to figure out why we didn't want to help the residents of the village. My sister and I answered that we did want to help the goblins of the village with all our hearts and asked them to give us a mission. The shaman grew truly joyful at our preparedness to work and told us to go find somewhere to stay in the village. Then we were back to the beginning of the circle...
But my sister and I continued the seemingly useless conversation with the NPC, because we had both noticed independently that our relationship with the shaman was gradually rising. When we refused to settle in the village, his opinion of us fell by 10%. But, when we said we were ready to help, it grew by 15%. In parallel with the shaman's personal opinion of us increasing, the opinion of the whole village was going up as well. When the shaman had become blue for me on the map at a total of +80, a new message came in:

Mission received: Socialization 2/3
Reach a state of friendship (average opinion of 50+) with the village of Tysh
Reach a state of friendship (average opinion of 50+) with the village of Stonetown
Mission class: Chain, group
Reward: 3200 Exp.

The nymph and I exchanged glances, and Valerianna Quickfoot shook her head:
"Not now. I got a scarily low amount of sleep last night because of Blanca giving birth, and I'm still dozing off as we speak. Do this quest on your own, big-ears. You have an initial racial bonus of +20 to goblin opinion anyway. You'll have a much easier time raising their opinion to that level. I already looked around the map. There were just six key NPC's for the whole village: Chieftain Ugruem the two guards marked with black skulls at the gates, the badger-legged shaman, the feisty lady and another goblin at the other end of the village. You won’t even have to pay the others any mind. Alright then, I'm gonna sign off. While I rest, I'll be on my way to Stonetown. I'll try to get a mission to improve my standing there."
The nymph took a seat on the floor right next to the elderly goblin shaman and soon melted away. A few minutes after that, there came a private message:
"I almost forgot. I saw that you started your channel on that video site. I'll send you the video of the NPC wolf giving birth. Give it some production and upload it. They're rare scenes. The viewers will be sure to like it."
To be honest, my own eyes were already getting heavy, and I was also getting ready to take a break. So, I spoke with Kaiak Badgerleg, completing our cyclical conversation another four times and, on the fifth, got an error message:

Opinion variable of NPC-character $FF0076-AF5780 has surpassed allowable value
Error code #LOC/ER-002056
This message has been sent to Boundless Realm tech support.
We apologize for the possible inconvenience.

What was it that Alexandro Lavrius said about incentives for every bug found? In an excellent mood, I followed my sister's example and also exited the game. After that, I spent another hour of time stitching together video and recording narration. All the interesting moments of my second game session added up to a total of fifteen minutes. After that, I left the building. And I was already in the hall by the revolving doors, preparing to exit when a call came into my phone from an unknown number.
"Good morning, Timothy! This is Jane, assistant to Alexandro Lavrius. Before you leave the building, Mr. Lavrius requests that you come to his office on the forty-fourth floor."
What did the Director need from me this time? I went up in the elevator, busting my brains over the question and coming up with the most improbable suppositions. But the reality was even more bizarre. When I went into the office, my boss was watching a video of Blanca giving birth on his monitor.
"Hey, read this and sign it," he said, not feeling the need to greet me and extending me a several-page-long printout. He pointed me to the guest chair by the wall and continued carefully studying the video I'd uploaded.
The document he passed me was headed: "Changelog for Boundless Realm patch 15.48." Getting lost in guesses as to why I'd been handed these papers, I nevertheless took a seat in the chair and began carefully studying the document.
“...Casting time for the spell Ice Sphere increased to 12.7 seconds... Average hardness of mithril chests increased by 70%... Maximum communication distance for using in-game messages increased to 10 kilometers... When a Chameleon player is gradually disappearing, it is no longer allowed to choose the last part to disappear as ‘genitalia...’ Damage done by all kinds of fans reduced by 20%...”
Why did I need all this information? I looked at the list of future changes to the game until one struck me like a lightning bolt:
“The special attack Vampire Bite no longer works on paralyzed or unconscious targets.”
How could that be? I had so many plans for using this ability! After noticing by my reaction that I had found the point that concerned me directly, the Director of Special Projects made a comment:
"The other viewers of your video where not able to understand it, as they didn't have all the information, but I made the obvious connection. You could use Herbalism and Alchemy to make paralysis poisons, then your Vampire Bite would allow you to kill nearly any enemy. As such, I insisted these corrections be made to the game mechanics, and corporate management agreed with me. We could never leave such an unbalanced tool in the game to allow vampires to instantly kill any creature with no level limit. Sign at the end of the document that you have been informed of the upcoming changes and hold no grievances against the Boundless Realm corporation."
I was so ashamed as to be horrified, but I still took the gilded pen from the Director's table and signed at the end of the printout, as I understood perfectly well that, if I refused, I would be fired immediately. Jane, who walked up at that very moment, pointed to a blank space at the end of the page, and asked me to sign and date it, after which she took the papers.
"We need this for the legal department," the girl explained. "There have been precedents when normal players have taken the Boundless Realm corporation to court because they thought changes in the game mechanisms damaged their interests or virtual property they obtained for real money. But you, Timothy, are an employee, even if you are still in your trial period, so those compensation rules do not apply to you."
"Come now, Jane. No need to scare the man," Alexandro Lavrius cut into the conversation. "Timothy is still doing quite well in his job as a tester, and good work must be rewarded. We decided to let you and the nymph keep the high opinion of the NPC shaman, for example, despite the fact that you were obviously abusing a loophole in the game algorithm to get it. And yes, Jane figured out the answer to your question from the programmers. If your goblin is randomly killed, none of the many existing quests to kill a vampire would be considered complete, and the secret of your vampirism would not be revealed. But you should at least try to be a bit more cautious about advertising your second nature."
"What do you mean 'advertising?'" I asked, not knowing what he was referring to.
The director pointed to the screen, showing a still from my video.
"Think up a more or less believable explanation for your viewers on where your goblin got Night Vision."
I froze for a few seconds in fear with my mouth open, then said with a satisfied grin:
"Lily-of-the-valley! It's berries, when consumed, give a short-term version of that same effect!"
"Excellent choice!" Alexandro Lavrius nodded in approval. "I would have suggested a different one, though: when generating a character, it is possible to choose a subrace. There are six options. Night goblins have night vision. But I like your choice better, as it explains why your Amra can see normally during the day. Make sure to write about using the lily berries in the comments to your video then, before the players start asking unpleasant questions."
The director entered some kind of service command, and the detailed statistics of my Amra came up on the monitor, including a list of objects in my inventory and current quests. My eyes climbed up onto my forehead in surprise. I had no idea that he could see such detail about my character so easily. On the other hand, though, how could I be surprised? The developers had to have some way of controlling things. Alexandro Lavrius tore himself from the screen and turned to me:
"Collect a bit more lily. Then, as if it's nothing, show how much you have in your inventory and comment on it in that your modern mocking style. But, all in all, great job. Your imagination will be sure to keep coming in handy for you. Your inventive solutions to problems show great promise. Also, you’ve gotten pretty lucky, Timothy, which is of considerable importance in your profession. Getting a unique quest at the very beginning of the game is a great stroke of fortune. What's more, the corporation wasn't involved one bit. Your character discovered the very rare random location all on his own. But there is one hitch: to complete the Curiosity and the Cat mission by force, you'd need a well-equipped character of a much higher level than your herbalist. Literally one hour ago, I was arguing with some of our specialists on this very topic. Some of them think you will be able to complete the mission as is, though it will be difficult. If you are able to finish the mission, you can consider yourself to have passed the trial period. And just to up the ante a bit, the programmers set the reward to this quest as something truly amazing and I am very interested to see if you can take full advantage of it."

* * *

"Get up, Tim! Time for work!" Valeria was in an excellent mood and clearly had spent a large amount of time primping before a mirror.
I smiled at my sister, trying not to reveal the fact that my heart was filled with regret. Valeria was looking excellent at her fourteen years. She had wavy chestnut hair in little ringlets down to her waist, proper facial features, huge joyful brown eyes, a flawless smile and two rows of ideal, snow-white teeth. If her life had come together differently, boys would be swarming her. If it hadn't been for that horrible accident...
"You look wonderful," I admitted.
"I just got enough sleep, and found the time to comb my hair and put on makeup," Val laughed heartily. "I also haven't gone into the game yet today. I wanted to talk about our plans first."
"Did you find something interesting?" I inquired, and my sister nodded with a satisfied look.
As I was standing before the mirror shaving, Valeria told me what she'd found. It seemed that, over the last day, she had gotten six private messages at once from Boundless Realm players. The letters were all different, but they were saying nearly the same thing. For various reasons, they were all asking my sister to sell them her map. Some promised to help her complete missions, others offered speedy leveling on local monsters, and a third wanted to see Blanca and the wolf pups with their own eyes. Some players were simply offering money for the map. It should be said that it was utterly insignificant amounts: from thirty to one hundred coins.
"Naturally, my interest was piqued by my sudden, strange popularity and especially at the fact that everyone needed my map. I was on guard, so I started scouring the game forums and, look what I found," my sister invited me to the monitor.
They were old messages from the classifieds section of the Boundless Realm game forum:
"Offering five thousand coins for an invitation into a group engaged in the Curiosity and the Cat mission."
"Six-thousand-coin advance for a group to take on Curiosity and the Cat. No matter the loot, you can keep the money."
"Five thousand for the coordinates of the location from Curiosity and the Cat. You'll get another thirty thousand if the loot is what it should be. No scam, everything above board."
My eyes shot up into my forehead. Thirty thousand game coins was three thousand credits in real life. That was the price of a mid-range electric car, or a year of rent for the kind of room my sister and I were now living in. I typed "Curiosity and the Cat reward" into a search engine, but couldn’t find the answer.
"It's no use, bro. I already ran through all kinds of different queries on this quest, but I didn't find anything worthwhile. That said, some players must know something interesting about this mission, because they’re offering a huge amount of money just for the ability to participate. And look at the characters I got these messages from: level-one-hundred-fifty, one hundred thirty, even one hundred eight! You must be able to find an item that would be useful, even to a very high-level character. So then, my advice to you is not to give your coordinates to anyone, and not to sell the map of locations you've discovered. If there truly is something valuable there, the high-level players will simply take the reward from us by force. Perhaps we can later ask some cool players to join us on the Curiosity and the Cat quest, but first we have to figure out the true value of the reward, then try selling tickets. It might be better to keep such a valuable object for ourselves."
I started thinking hard, then looked at the view number from the video file I'd uploaded earlier today. Over three thousand views in just one day! Not bad! This was the exact video I had received Curiosity and the Cat in, and all these viewers now knew about it. What exactly had the director meant when he said "something truly amazing" would be the reward for this quest?
"Alright, Val. I'm heading for work. When I get there, I'll call and ask you about the weather. You blow through Stonetown and finish the second part of the Socialization chain. Meanwhile, I'll do the same in the goblin village."
Valeria nodded, rolled her chair over to the computer desk and picked up her virtual reality helmet. I walked up to my sister and ran my hand through her thick hair.
"Val, when we get some more money, I promise I'll buy you a real virtual reality capsule just like they have in the Boundless Realm corporation building. Then it’s really full immersion!"
My sister gave me a good-natured punch to the shoulder in response:
"You're an incurable romantic, Tim! The cheapest capsules out there cost six thousand credits, and the best models are at least fifty thousand. Just worry about paying off our debts first."
"And I will! This morning I got my first four hundred credits for my work in exposing bugs in the game. I already got a call from the bank and they said that my loan was extended by a year. And as for the virtual reality capsule, I wasn't joking one bit. Val, I absolutely will buy you the very best one out there one day, so you can really feel what it’s like to be fully in a virtual world!"

* * *

"It's overcast, but the sun is peeking through the clouds in places. You could play, but be careful."
I thanked my sister and started getting undressed before my third game session. The top of the virtual reality capsule had barely come down when, before my eyes on the dark background, there came a text on the new game update, after there came a long list of changes. I skimmed it and confirmed that I was familiar with the rule changes. After that, I opened my eyes and found myself back in the home of the old goblin shaman. Kaiak Badgerleg was right there in the room crafting something of feathers, tar and thin twigs.
"Good evening, wise shaman!" I said. I didn’t think I’d spoken in a particularly disarming way, but the old goblin still shuddered in fear and dropped his craft to the floor.
"Ah, it's you, Amra! Don't scare me like that!" The goblin bowed and, with an upset look, glanced at the strange broken object, then started looking toward the door, which was still closed from the inside. After that, he stood up straight with a groan. "I have heard that the undying reappear in the same place they disappeared, but this is the first time I've ever seen it. Have you already spoken with the residents of the village and found shelter for the night?"
That same old shtick?! I had been hoping that the programmers had fixed that bug. The decision came to me suddenly:
"That's what I'm here to talk to you about, wise shaman. You have a spacious home, and could easily accommodate another bedroll. I will only need to stay here on very rare occasions. Usually, I plan on living in another house. I won't make a racket, and I don't plan on eating you out of house and home. Will you let me spend the night here, Kaiak Badgerleg?"

Successful check for Goblin Shaman reaction
Experience received: 50 Exp.

"How could I say no to such a debonair young goblin? You can stay with me as long as you want!"

Mission completed: Arrange a Place to Sleep in the Village of Tysh
Reward: 160 Exp.

In the end, finishing the quest couldn’t have been easier. Evidence of Kaiak Badgerleg's +100 opinion of me, obviously. I thanked the shaman for agreeing to provide me shelter and went outside. Night hadn't come yet, and the residents of the village hadn't yet gone back to their own homes. Now was the best possible time to get to Socialization.
I remembered what my sister had said, that just six key NPC's defined the village’s average opinion. They were the only residents of Tysh that it was really important to talk to. Now, I had a relationship of +100 with the shaman Kaiak Badgerleg, +25 with Chieftain Ugruem, +20 with the huge Tamina Fierce, and +20 with the other three key goblins of the village. The arithmetic mean now was +34, which was my exact standing figure in the village of Tysh.
Based on the map, one of these highly-placed goblins was just around the corner. I could tell by his black skull marker. What could I say? He was perfectly good enough for me to continue with the Socialization quest.

Tarek Bigfoot
Level-77 Goblin Warrior

The goblin was sitting on a bench next to a small fire stirring the contents of a pot with a stick. In the pot, there was something thick and black boiling and bubbling. Tarek's feet really were disproportionally huge like two tree trunks. I was immediately visited by the thought that the huge boots stored in the chest of the cursed house could have been made specially for Tarek's bare feet. I stopped two steps from the key NPC and tried to figure out what he was doing. It didn't look like he was cooking food. The smell coming from the pot was pungent and unappetizing.
Then, on the very same street, there appeared a green-skinned girl, and I realized for the first time that goblins can be pretty. She had a good figure and was wearing a modest blue apron. She had a magnificent copper-red hairdo with ears that poked out into a refined point. Yesterday, my sister had admitted that she had spent forty minutes creating my ugly mug. I suspect that the programmers and designers who created this dilly had spent no less time. There was just no way she could have been a randomly generated NPC. She just stood out too strikingly from the other cringe-worthy faces of Tysh’s residents. Nevertheless, the information on the girl was utterly typical and was in no way different from the dozens of others I'd seen:

Level-22 Goblin Villager

"Did you bring the resin?" Tarek Bigfoot asked the villager as she approached.
"Father, I found just one piece, next to the road. And I didn't go deep into the forest, as you didn't give permission."
The girl handed her father a golden lump of tree sap, and the big-footed goblin threw it right into the pot.
"It's not enough. I won’t be able to seal all the cracks in the boat with just this," Tarek grumbled in dismay.
If this wasn’t beginning of a mission, I'd never played a computer game before in my life! After taking a few steps toward the fire, I stated:
"You must be such a proud father! Your daughter is simply a treasure of the whole goblin race! Tarek Bigfoot, would you please tell me the name of this charming creature?"
The wizened goblin just opened his mouth in surprise and froze like that. His daughter answered for him:
"It's nice to hear such kind words, Amra. My name is Taisha, but my friends call me Spark."
"Does your nickname come from your excellent hair?" I posited and the girl confirmed my theory with a nod. "Spark, I couldn't help but overhear your conversation with your father. I was just preparing to head for the nearby forest, so I thought could help you gather resin. How much do you need?"
"Five times as much as Taisha just brought," Tarek Bigfoot finally joined the conversation.

Mission received: Collect tree resin for Tarek Bigfoot
Mission class: Normal
Reward: 80 Exp.

The mission was clearly made for characters of the very lowest levels. I just needed five minutes to gather the necessary amount of resin from the trunks and return. But Taisha had already managed to go somewhere else, so the rest of the conversation was just with her father. After passing the resin quest, I took a seat near the fire and watched the viscous mixture bubbling in the pot.
After that, the goblin brought a small flat-bottomed boat in from the back yard and Tarek and I sealed it. It was another small quest to raise his opinion of me. With satisfaction, I noted my relationship with Taisha's father growing gradually. When I was over 60, Tarek Bigfoot suddenly declared:
"Amra, you're a good guy, but I have to advise you against trying to win my daughter’s heart!" he barked out in a threatening tone, not at all in line with his previous manner of speaking. But I didn't let that throw me one bit:
"Why not, Tarek? Your daughter is gorgeous. I've never seen such a beautiful goblin in my entire life."
Taisha's father furrowed his brow in dismay:
"Look at yourself, Amra. You're weak. There are small children in Tysh stronger than you. What's more, you're poor and barely clothed. You are not capable of protecting my daughter, much less providing for her future! The best suitors of the whole village are all after my daughter. Boys even come here from the neighboring village of Tyrym just to catch a glimpse of her rare beauty, so a ragamuffin like you has no place here!"

Mission received: Earn the Respect of Tarek Bigfoot
Mission class: Personal, reputation
Required conditions: Tarek Bigfoot must have a +100 opinion of you
Give Tarek Bigfoot a trophy from a creature level-50 or higher
Pay Tarek Bigfoot three hundred coins
All equipment slots must be filled with articles of clothing
Reward: 4000 Exp., permanent improvement of Taisha's opinion of you by +50

I was reading into the conditions of the unusual mission when a message came in from my sister:
"I just met Trong Diver not far from Stonetown. He's hit level ten and is now trying to hunt us down. His intentions are not good. After seeing me, he started saying nasty things and immediately drew his weapon. With the help of White Fang, I sent him to respawn."
I grew alarmed and began thinking. For thousands of kilometers all around me, there was nothing but little-known lands. How had the naiad managed to find us? We had already gone quite far from the shore, after all. It couldn't be... I clicked on "Exit Game" and called my sister.
"Val, we totally forgot about another risk: in our videos, I mentioned the names of the villages Tysh and Stonetown! There must be some way of finding a certain place by the name. Or at least figuring out the continent and province!"
"Hold on, brother. I'll check now."
But I had already found a way myself. I typed "Stonetown Tysh" into a search engine and checked the first link that came up:
"Stonetown. A small human village in the Lars province, Southern Continent. Three hundred seventy kilometers to the northeast of the nearest city, Weiden. Approximately one hundred residents from levels 40-70. They give a few standard quests for increasing standing in the village."
The information on Stonetown in the Boundless Realm player-made database had been added a year ago by a half-elf ranger named Garret BeerLover, who was now level-two-hundred-twenty. As for Tysh, I found nothing in the database, but that already made no difference. It was enough that the players knew the location of Stonetown.
I checked the search engine statistics. Yesterday, neither Stonetown nor Tysh had been of any interest. But today, that combination of words had been searched for by one hundred seventeen people. Probably, some of these players, using city portals and teleportation scrolls were already going full steam ahead toward the Lars province and the city of Weiden and would be going due northeast from there. If my sister and I didn't hurry, these high-level players would find the secret location with the unique mission and take the still-unknown reward from the Curiosity and the Cat quest.
When my sister called again, already having found the information on Stonetown, I said decisively:
"Drop everything and run to the blockhouse. I'll be there soon, as well. Together we can go to the swamp and think up how to be first to finish the quest."

* * *

"Where are you off to, tiny?" asked the owner of the boat, quite thrown off. "We still need to make sure the boat won't leak. There's a slew of water right nearby. We can test it there."
It looked like the next quest for further increasing my relationship with Taisha's father was being given, but it was just such bad timing! There was less than an hour to sunset, and trying to find a way through the swamp in the dark would be far too dangerous. Although... if I had a boat, it would be a great way to get around on the water. I just had to convince Tarek to drag the boat there, as I personally wouldn't have enough strength.
"Tarek, you can't seriously be telling me that you want to test your boat in that stinking ditch, right? Your neighbors will laugh at you. Why not just put it in that puddle in the middle of the village? To really put it to the test, you need a big body of water. One with waves, where we can also test the oars."
The goblin stroked his bald head with his fingers, trying to think up an appropriate location not far from the village of Tysh.
"We could test it in the swampy lake near the Cursed House. That's right! Alright, let's do the test right there!" I suggested.
"What do you mean lake? That's nothing but a dirty swamp. Also, it's pretty far, and it’s already getting dark out."
"What's that I hear?" I grew artificially surprised, egging the goblin on. "Are you afraid of the dark, Tarek? You could kill the toads there with one left jab!"
"I'm not worried about the toads. They're the least of my concern," the wizened goblin said thoughtfully. "It's thick muck over there and so full of squirming leeches you can barely see the bottom. It's just horrible to walk there with bare feet. Also, if you get a bit farther from the shore, the creatures start getting scarier than mere frogs..."
But I had gotten the idea, and couldn't be stopped:
"I have a pair of huge leather boots. Exactly the right size for your big stompers. I'll give them to you, if you drag the boat to that lake and scare away the biggest toads so they won't trip me up. And as for the predators in the depths, don't worry. I'll row the boat on my own and tell you whether it's good or not. They won't be able to kill me, as I'm undying. And if anything happens to the flat-bottomed boat, I'll pay you ten coins’ compensation, and you get to keep the boots no matter what."

Trading skill increased to level 3!

Mission received: Test Tarek Bigfoot's Boat
Mission class: Normal
Reward: 160 Exp., +15 to Tarek Bigfoot's opinion of you

"If you sink my boat, you owe me fifteen coins," the goblin moaned in dismay. He then hoisted the flat-bottomed boat onto his shoulders as if it was light as a feather and started walking. "Amra, go fetch the oars and my club. And don't delay!"
Tarek went directly to the cursed house, cutting off a big bend in the road. I was barely keeping up with the goblin, in fact. We walked up a steep slope and through a big patch of viscous swampy earth, but he just kept his pace as if on flat asphalt. A half hour later, we were already next to the blockhouse, and I ran in to get the boots. I couldn't see the Gray Pack anywhere, just Blanca feeding her pups in the kitchen, and the nymph Valerianna crafting candles from wax and wound thread.
"Goblin drag boat. Nymph helping me for go through night swamp."
My sister understood without any questions and jumped up, getting ready. In the yard, there was a surprise waiting for us. Tarek Bigfoot had set the boat aside and, holding the heavy gate door in his hands, was trying to hang it on the hinges. I ran over to help, and Valerianna came after me. Unfortunately, it was in vain Tarek had easily enough strength to lift the gate door, but even the three of us taken together didn't have the agility to put it on the hinges. Taisha's father swore and set the gate back on the earth. But when he saw the boots, he started smiling in joy and even bowed to me.
"Great shoes! I've never had the like! I simply cannot wait to show my neighbors!"
A few minutes later, we were already at the swamp shore. Night had come, and creatures were crawling out, all marked with red skulls on my map. In the distance, I saw the monster that had scared the Gray Pack half to death yesterday:

Level-42 Fetid Bullfrog Patriarch

"That green bighead is in our way. I'll chase him off," Taisha's father decisively took his spiky club in his hand, but I stopped him.
It would have been stupid to lose out on the free experience from the level-40+ monsters he would kill, and I didn’t want to waste the chance. I laid out a hunting plan for the wizened goblin and he didn't object to my taking the frog meat as a trophy. The nymph and the goblin warrior hid in the bushes and I grabbed my blowgun and went off to lure the fetid bullfrog patriarch away from the swamp.

Damage dealt: 3 (Missile damage 58 - 55 armor)

Holy crap! This creature had uncommonly thick skin, which swallowed up almost all the damage I did to it! The huge green patriarch turned toward me in disbelief.

Damage dealt: 0 (Missile damage 34 - 55 armor)

Dodge skill increased to level 6!

My big-eared Amra, who looked like a midget in comparison with this enemy, barely managed to react when a wad of acidic spit hummed past me. A dark cloud popped up where it landed, probably poisonous. Right after that, the bullfrog jumped forward. I even felt the earth shake when its big body flopped down right where I had been standing a second earlier.
An icy arrow flew into the snout of the huge frog. That was my sister joining the fight. I guess Water Magic was not the best choice against an amphibian. The bullfrog's life bar didn't even appear to go down. Then, a second later, Tarek Bigfoot ran in and, with a swing of his spiked club, took away two thirds of the bullfrog's health points in one blow. Then, with his next strike, he debrained the monster.

Experience received: 15520 Exp.

Level ten!

Level eleven!

Level twelve!

Level thirteen!

Level fourteen!

Level fifteen!
Racial ability improved: 30% Resistance to Poison
Racial ability improved: 30% Resistance to Cold

Oh, gods! I fell to the earth, not feeling strong enough to stay standing. An intense quivering overtook me. Six levels in one go! Thirty stat points for my character! This feeling was better than sex!

* * *

"If you hadn't rolled in mud, like a seizure victim, you could have also lured in the other bullfrog," my sister chewed me out for my lack of restraint and she was totally right to do so.
The burst of energy was very unexpected and abrupt. For some time, I truly lost control of my character. Tarek Bigfoot looked at my squirming and, spitting in shame, quickly gathered everything of value from the body in a business-like manner and started off back to the village of Tysh. And though there were more toad-like monsters not far away, the nymph and I were in no condition to fight them without the wizened goblin.
And so, the boat now in the shallow water, I took a seat in it, wrapped myself up in the frog's skin and tried not to move. Valerianna Quickfoot, meanwhile, was kneeling in the cold muck gathering the wet branches and bunches of cane that were all around, building a huge blind to hide the boat and oars from unwanted observers.
In that I was unable to help my sister with the camouflage, I set about assigning my stat points. Strength and constitution had grown by six points by default, but as for the remaining eighteen free points, I had to think. On the one hand, a targeted increase in charisma would bring certain fruits, helping me to speak and revealing unusual plot lines for my big-eared Amra. That was very important, in that only truly unique and unusual stories would attract viewers and the interest of my employer.
On the other hand, I was strongly upset and on guard about the fact that my character was incapable of wounding more serious enemies. The damage done was so pitiful that it was totally absorbed by the armor. To fix the situation, I needed a serious boost to agility. After carefully weighing all the factors, I put eleven free points into charisma and seven into agility.
Beyond that, when I reached level ten, my goblin got the ability to take another primary and secondary skill. I immediately moved Stealth (A C) from secondary to primary skills. The viewers of my channel already knew that Amra often had to move in the dark, and I had told them that I had this skill in my secondaries.

You have taken Stealth as a primary skill
Skill level: 6
Primary skills taken: 5 of 5

My agility grew immediately by almost eight points. The eighteen extra hitpoints it gave me would also be quite welcome. But then, with the two secondary skills I could now choose, I paused to think. Shamanism, Lock-Picking, Diplomacy, Leadership, Silent Step, Fishing, Leatherworking, Farming, Light Armor, Animal Empathy, and hundreds of other skills existed in the game... My eyes were spinning from the abundance of options, and I chose to just wait a bit with this choice.
"I took Illusion Magic for myself," my sisters voice came in, drowned out by the branches. "I'll make myself look like a toad now, and I'll cast an illusion around your blind so it looks like a small hill. It'll make ideal camouflage. I should have done this at the beginning... Woah! Big mistake! The huge toads sense the use of magic! Book it, Amra! Make sure to finish the mission to compensate me for the loss of experience!!!"
I felt my boat get shoved forward, and overheard a distant fast squelching. After that, my little boat rocked on the waves. A frightened squeak carried to me from the nymph and, next to the green dot on the map, there came a red skull. It was all over in an instant. The sign next to the name Valerianna Quickfoot, that showed her online changed to a gray circle. The player was dead...
It was eleven thirty at night. Due to the heaped-up weight of the wet branches, my flat-bottomed boat was seriously low in the water. The black liquid was almost coming overboard. Very carefully, making sure the oars wouldn't creak or squelch, and so the swamp water wouldn't come over the sides, I turned my overloaded boat around. After that, I very slowly began moving toward the far-off marker on the map showing the unique mission location.
Moving through the swamp teeming with horrible freaks didn't scare me one bit. But it did take a long time and was hard to enjoy. I was navigating the red skulls on the map and trying to avoid the large clusters of monsters. I had to go as unhurriedly and carefully as possible so the inhabitants of the swamp wouldn't perceive the bunch of branches boating through the swamp as anything but a natural hill.

Stealth skill increased to level 7!

My boat had now entered the visual radius of a whole group of red markers. My Stealth bar, even after reaching level seven, continued to quickly fill and, a few minutes later, I was nearing level eight. What kind of creatures were lurking here in the expanses of this swamp-side lake? I wanted horribly to move the branches blocking my view just a little bit and look, but the name of the quest gave me pause, so I didn’t. I went unhurriedly onward, just one or two paddles per minute. Yes, it was slow going, but none of the local monsters noticed my camouflaged boat.

Stealth skill increased to level 8!

In front of me on the map, I could see a small island, thickly sewn with red and black skulls. But I wasn't interested in them at all. In the very middle of the concentration of beasts, there was a golden triangle! That must have been the target of my adventure! I called up a hint and read the description.

A golden triangle marker signifies a unique creature in Boundless Realm. As a rule, these creatures are intelligent, and a great many rare missions with very unusual rewards can come from finding and working with them.

As the map showed, the direct path to the island was blocked by a thin shoal and a few hills. On the island, there were many dangerous beasts as well. I had to take a slow wide arc boating around the obstacle. When my overloaded flat-bottomed boat had already managed to get near the island, it was five in the morning. I already realized long ago that my boating venture would be a one-way trip, as there was no way I could manage to return to my shelter before the sun came up. And morning, no matter how unfortunate, was expected to be sunny. Even through the twigs I could see the sky steadily growing pink in the east.
Very slowly, I neared the shore, teeming with red markers of deadly dangerous monstrosities. I wonder what distance is needed to complete the unique quest? A thud rang out. My little vessel had hit on the bottom and stopped. There was just seven meters between me and the nearest monster. But the mission still wasn't completed.

Stealth skill increased to level 9!

What did I have to do to get the reward? I probably had to at least see the unique creature and recognize it, I guessed. I began cautiously moving the branches aside, widening a viewing window. First, I saw the monster nearest me and looked at it in detail from close up:

Level-51 Swamp Wyvern

It was a three-meter-tall toothy black lizard wound into a ball with wings furled up on its back. And only later, having raised my eyes, did I see HER: a huge winged snaked of a malachite-green color:

Kayervina, the Mother of Flying Snakes (unique creature)

The snake mother was incredible. Her flexible thirty-meter long body covered in scales that was constantly in motion, sometimes winding itself into a tangle, other times falling into rings as if carrying out an endless dance. The snake's pointy head had two whitish unblinking eyes with vertical black slits for pupils. Its two pairs of clawed feet looked like those of a lizard. And on her back, there was a pair of huge wings with bright red skin membranes! I took a few screenshots to remember the deadly dangerous beauty by.
But the mission still wasn't finished. Why?
I wrote out a private message to Valerianna Quickfoot. The nymph was already supposed to have respawned long ago and, based on the green marker next to her name, was playing. But I didn't wait long enough for her to answer. Most likely, my sister was already sleeping in bed, simply having left the game running. I had to think on my own.
So then, I had reached the prophesied island. I could see on it a plethora of wyverns of levels forty to seventy and one giant winged snake by the name of Kayervina. My mission was to finish the unique quest and get the reward. Time limit: forty minutes. After that, the sun would come up and my goblin vampire would inevitably die as the burning rays of the sun penetrated the piled-up branches over me.
"Sorry, I was sleeping. I found information on other similar missions. The unique creature has to see you. Even if it attacks and kills you, the mission will still be considered finished."
Woah! That meant it would be enough for me to attract the attention of Kayervina in any way possible. I now had a clear idea of what I had to do. I had to make sure the other wyverns didn't kill me before the snake mother noticed me!
I looked at the wyvern nearest me. It was sleeping, wrapped in a ball on a grass-covered hill. I realized I really did have a very effective method of attracting the attention of all the island's inhabitants. There was just seven meters between the neck of the flying snake and myself. By the way, my potential victim was level-fifty-one, so I had to be sure to take some kind of trophy from it for Tarek Bigfoot's mission.
After first opening my inventory and moving the window to the side so it wouldn't block my vision, I set about removing branches and clearing myself a path. I took a heavy sigh, preparing my body for activity. Now! With all my might, I tore off toward the sleeping wyvern and took a drink with my fangs from the snake's throat.

Experience received: 4080 Exp.

Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 5%)

Achievement unlocked: Taste Tester (5/1000)

Level sixteen!
Racial ability improved: Resistance to Poison +35%

Like a flock of startled crows, the winged snakes all rocketed upward at once, flapping their wings with a deafening roar. That was all. I had been noticed. My goblin had just a few seconds left to live. But why had it given so little experience?! The amount of experience I’d gotten from killing the level-42 bullfrog with a group leveled me up six times, so for solo killing a level-51 wyvern, I was expecting to get at least ten more...

Mission completed: Curiosity and the Cat
Reward: 8000 Exp.

Level seventeen!

Fame increased
Present value: 1

Racial ability improved: Resistance to Cold + 35%

So, that was it?! I got just one level for the unique quest, and no loot whatsoever? Convulsively, not even looking, I popped the trophies I'd gotten from the wyvern into my bag, when I suddenly saw IT. In the place where the huge snake mother had just been sitting, there was a strange glowing yellow object:

Wyvern Egg (unique object)

My legs were thrown forward to the loot before my mind recognized what I had seen. So, that was the amazing reward! I dodged abruptly, letting the wyvern diving at me hit the bare ground. Then, I rolled forward as not to fall beneath the stream of boiling poison from the other enraged snakes.

Dodge skill increased to level 7!

Acrobatics skill increased to level 5!

I jumped forward, slipping on the damp clay soil and letting one of their scaly bodies fall over me. After that, I jumped over a long tail sweeping under my feet. I turned away from a set of jaws snapping right in front of my nose, jumped and let a wing strike pass over my head. I tripped over something moving and leapt, extending my arms forward. I made it! Not losing even a single second, I stuck the invaluable trophy into my inventory and raised my head just as the snake mother breathed a stream of boiling poison directly at my face.

You have died
3015 Exp. lost
You will respawn in 59 minutes, 58 seconds at the last respawn point you set

The book is released!


  1. This is so unfair, is there any chance it can be released sooner. I just can't wait to find out what happens next.

  2. well, since it's a new series, we're going to post at least haf of the book before release (Maybe even 2/3). Just watch for a library post (pinned). Thanks for reading! :)

  3. Great teaser, cant wait to get the book to continue the read. Luckily two other litRPGs are being released soon to tied me over, Alexey Osadchuk's Mirror World book 3 and The Phantom Castle by Vasily Mahanenko, they should help the time go by.

    If I don't finish them too fast.

  4. Thanks! We're trying to make our releases without big spaces between them. But translation is a tricky thing. Quick translation is almost always bad translation.

  5. sigh i love it so far but wish you hadnt released the teaser

  6. But how else can we control y... I meant, thank you! We'll post more soon :)

  7. Pretty good, will check it out.
    Will the author continue with perimeter defense?

    1. Yes, there is going to be book IV, series final. But it is not yet complitely written and translation is also going to take time...

  8. Neeeeeedddddd mooooaaaaarrrrr!!!
    Read it on the RRL page when I saw it come up there, and I somehow followed through links to get here. Say hello to the crushed dreams that there might've been more on here yet!
    Any ETA? IK that stuff like translation can be, and is, quite difficult, but you give us a bunch of awesome stuff and then make us wait! That's phycogical torture that is!
    That's why I almost prefer when authors don't allow pre-orders, because you don't know that the book is coming out xD
    Thanks for these chapters though!

    1. This is indeed an awesome and very addictive series... And we can't let our readers being tortured! So we'll post more soon! :)

  9. Wow, nice story.
    At first I thought it was a copy of Legendary Moonlight Sculptor. Poor MC, new VRMMORPG, sick sister, no relatives, no money, want to get rich playing, meets beauty while playing, etc. But even though there are so many similarities, the story is unique enough and makes you want to read more.
    Looking forward reading the whole book (series)

    1. Thanks! We like this series as well! I'm not sure if author ever even heard of moonlight sculptor (I'll ask him though!), but I know that the series was inspired by discussion between him and Vasily Mahanenko.

  10. this is looking like being an excellent and addictive book.

  11. looking forward to tomorrows book release

  12. Replies
    1. Summer 2017. Michael finished writing it a few weeks ago and it went to translation.