Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Dark Herbalist, book 3: A Trap for the Potentate

A Trap for the Potentate
by Michael Atamanov

Release - January 17, 2018
Pre-order now -

Quick nav:

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

New Director

"Did you call?" I asked, knocking politely and walking through the wide-open doors of my new boss's office. Before entering, I pumped the breaks for a second, reading a copper plaque that a workman was screwing into the door:

Max Tohner
Director of Special Projects

He was the fourth person to occupy this office in a month. Truly, it was a cursed position. The new head of the special projects division didn't look all that glum about it though, reflecting confidence, gravitas and power with his whole appearance. When I entered, he gave a scant nod and pointed to the guest chair.

It should be said that my recent late-night conversation with the Keeper had given me the completely wrong picture of my new boss. Based on the voice and behavior of his glowing winged character, I supposed that the person playing the Keeper was a fairly young man, maybe even my peer. But sitting in the immense, wide director's seat left behind by the rotund Mark Tobius, there was now a short, fifty-year-old man with a noticeable gray streak in his otherwise dark chestnut hair. He had a huge bald patch that practically reached the back of his head. And I was also struck by his eyes. They were chalky, cold and had a very light-colored iris. They looked somehow inhuman, like those of a snake or fish.
"You already know my name," Max Tohner said with a nod to the plaque, "and I know yours. So then, let's get straight to business. Timothy, what kind of character do you play?" 
"A Goblin Herbalist," I answered, surprised at his ignorance.
How could he not have known that?! After all, he had met me in Boundless Realm, seen my big-eared Amra with his own eyes and probably read the race, profession and level as well! Had he seriously forgotten? But, as it turned out, it wasn't forgetfulness or ignorance that served as the reason for his question.
"So then, you're an Herbalist, not a Pirate, or a Wolf Rider or a Beast Master! But meanwhile, Herbalism is your most waning and neglected skill! You still haven't even leveled it to its first specialization, even though your character is at level forty already! That's a downright mess! The corporation hired you to do a specific job: show our users all the advantages of playing as a Goblin Herbalist. But somehow, you just keep doing things other than your explicit profession!!!"
With every new phrase, my boss raised his voice more and more. By the end of his incriminating speech, he had built up to a scream. I tried to vindicate myself, reminding the director with a smile about the great hunt for my Amra and how I had to constantly flee, so I didn't have much time to gather plants.
But I should have just kept my mouth shut...
My boss thought my reaction was inappropriately jocular, which he found very disagreeable. He also clearly disliked having a subordinate try to contradict him. A stream of reproaches and cursing poured out onto me. I was accused of not respecting my superiors, insubordination, boorish behavior, negligent attitude to work and damn near treason against the Boundless Realm Corporation. Only at the very end of his hateful monolog did Max Tohner begin to calm down, noting justly in a more or less normal tone:
"Timothy, the great hunt for you ended several days ago. But you have missed a number of work shifts since then, and your goblin didn’t gain a single level in Herbalism over the whole ten hours of your last gaming session. Your character didn't grow in any other way, either. You just flew to your heart’s content over the desert at night and lollygagged instead of working."
I really had no way of denying his last accusation. After leveling up the Royal Forest Wyvern to the point it could support my small weight, I really had forgotten about everything on earth and just enjoyed the sensation of flight, while my Orcish army made its way across the Great Desert. But there were plenty of other accusations without the senselessly wasted gaming session. I was in shock and didn't even know how to behave.
No one had called me out like this in a fairly long time. I suppose the last time I'd gotten such a chewing out was ten years ago from my school principal for missing my final algebra exam without a good reason. At that time, I was poorly prepared for an important test, so I thought I’d be clever and skip it, claiming I had sharp chest pains.
I was only ten at the time, and I naively supposed I would simply be allowed to go home, then take the test a day or two later, after asking classmates what the questions were and finding the answers to them in the comfort of my own house. However, it all turned out wrong. My awkward attempt at faking illness was quickly uncovered by the ambulance doctors and, instead of maximum points on the test, I got a call to an enraged school principal...
But then, ten years ago I could have guessed before that the school director wouldn't have anything good to say, and was morally prepared for his stream of sharp enraged proclamations. Now though, the new special projects director for the Boundless Realm corporation had caught me off guard with his fervent criticism. I didn't know how to act. I could either demonstrate submission and agree with his accusation or, on the other hand, tell the boorish man what I thought about treating subordinates that way and sign my resignation right then and there.
In the end, life did exist beyond the Boundless Realm Corporation. I'd find myself another job with more adequate leadership. And also, the half million credits I'd earned in the great hunt allowed me to have an optimistic outlook on the future and not worry too much about losing this job. But I still didn't rush such an irreversible decision. My boss had already said his fill and blown off steam, and was returning to normal. He also had said some things that were completely correct.
What was more, I noticed that he looked tired, as if he hadn't gotten enough sleep. His excessive irritation was probably rooted in that. After all, Max Tohner had most likely gotten an emotional send up from the upper leadership to give him the necessary push to adapt to his new position, and had just transmitted this rage to his underlings.
Nevertheless, I was counting on an entirely different evaluation of my playing. In one way or another, Amra had kept the wonderful flying mount, acquired a unique mythical hound for the Gray Pack, made it away from the big chase and basically just acted interestingly and significantly, as my video clips enjoyed grandiose success among viewers. Taking advantage of the pause in the stream of the director's rage, I reminded him of my successes.
Nevertheless, on that account, the leadership had a totally different perspective:
"Timothy, I don't see anything to your credit in your sudden spike in popularity. You getting the unique forest wyvern was nothing more than one stroke of good luck. I don't know all the details of what happened, but I've heard rumors that your much-vaunted quest was not entirely free of foul play, and that other directors of special projects were fired over some of the murky details. From there, you just rode the current. The reason your clips were so popular wasn’t because you’re such a brilliant player, but simply because the players were interested in the valuable trophy of the great hunt. Soon, your fleeting glory will pass, and all that will remain is a barren remnant an abominable Goblin Herbalist who hasn't even developed his professional skills."
I wanted to disagree and even opened my mouth slightly, preparing to speak, but just kept silent and lowered my head. I suppose, on this account, I was ready to agree with the director. Max Tohner then continued:
"If you were just a normal player, no one would have said a word to you about your weak skill leveling. But you're employed by the Boundless Realm Corporation, and everyone knows it! You must serve as an example for the others, show the advantages of playing as an Herbalist, reveal the potential of that path and then, at the very least, not lag behind the others in your profession. But what we have on our hands now is a rotten mess. The average level-forty Herbalist has their Herbalism skill at around level forty-two, or three. But yours is just fifteen... I'm not afraid to say that that is a shame for an employee of a game developer. How much time do you need to correct the error? Will one week be enough?"
"More than," I answered with an even and absolutely confident voice, trying not to show my feelings.
Inside I was cringing in horror. Was it really possible to raise my Herbalism skill by thirty levels in one week?! Even if I crawled around the forest and swamp day and night collecting herbs and flowers, it wasn't certain I'd make it! But I didn't want to show my lack of confidence in front of my boss. I was still a senior tester, a quite famous player, and wanted my boss to see me as an experienced employee who knows his value.
"That's great then!" Max Tohner lit up. "Then let's get back to this issue in a week. And for now, Timothy, I say we should look over how to use your unique flying snake for the shared interest and benefit of the whole Boundless Realm Corporation. There are very few flying mounts, and your advantage over the other players needs to be constantly emphasized. How about exploring some undiscovered lands?"
It cost me great effort to hold back an acrid comment. It was hardly possible to both actively gather herbs for the whole next week and take VIXEN on prolonged flights. But I didn't provoke my boss, instead answering that I was already working on something like that.
"A wyvern is, of course, good. But it alone isn't enough for long scouting missions. The flying snake is still small and weak. She gets tired quickly and has to land often. In any place inhabited by dangerous monsters, we'd be devoured as soon as VIXEN landed. And also, don’t forget about flying beasts. Boundless Realm is full of those. And in far-off unknown places, the levels of such monsters will be beyond high. VIXEN and I won't even be a mouthful to them. But as it turns out, I currently have about three hundred orc cutthroats under my command. Of course, I could just let these NPC pirates go free, but I consider that an error. No matter what, they are a valuable resource, which just needs to find the proper application. I'm thinking of using this force to organize a big expedition to hard-to-access undiscovered territories of Boundless Realm."
"Continue," the director replied, his interest piqued. He folded his hands together and leaned over the table toward me.
"My division is moving through the Great Desert and, today or tomorrow, will have crossed it in the narrowest part. I told the orcs how to go, then spent all night flying back and forth on the Wyvern, bringing strength-restoring water to my division from a spring near the copper mine. The water is a special elixir to eliminate weariness but, as it turned out, it spoils quite fast. So, I had to deliver it on my fast Royal Forest Wyvern to get it there before spoiling. At any rate, my cutthroats are moving fast, and will soon cross the desert and reach a deep, wide black river, on the very edge of the known world. I could make a map of these new territories and even, if I'm dreaming big, construct a defended outpost on the river, where players can wait out the dangerous nights in safety."
The director turned on his computer screen and spent a few minutes checking something, scrolling through text on his monitor. Then he sat back in his leather armchair and looked at me with a smirk:
"Timothy, you have no idea what you're talking about right now. That black river you're leading your orcs to is called Styx. It's also known as the river of death, because it contains water that is dead and absolutely unpotable. What's more, the river has overgrown swampy banks, with infectious bloodsucking animals, and that's an easy way to catch an untreatable disease. But the biggest attraction of those areas is the abundance of high-level dangerous creatures. What's more, further upstream, the monsters get deadlier, and have bigger sharper fangs."
"The law of game worlds is the same everywhere: the further you get from easily reachable places, the harder the conditions, more dangerous the beasts, but also the more valuable the loot," I noted in an even tone, although the information I got from the director put me on high alert and upset me.
"That is true," the director agreed. "And the upper reaches of the Styx hide a great many interesting locations with unique trophies. But taking them is extremely difficult. I found some curious information, saying that twenty-six big expeditions have already been organized, and by quite serious clans at that. And as for how many lone travelers or small groups have tried to find the upper reaches of the Styx, I can't even count. None of them have made it. They all turned back sooner or later. And you want to tell me that you hope to make it where much higher-level and better-prepared players got clobbered?!"
Nevertheless, I didn't give an unambiguous answer to the director. I just promised to think as seriously as possible before evening, then tell him my decision in this very office at eight PM. On the one hand I was, of course, not glad to hear that the river I had seen from VIXEN's back, was the legendary and ghastly Styx. On the other, I had a flying wyvern at my disposal, which significantly simplified the mission of reaching remote locations.
My boss, then, was left none-too-satisfied with my cautiousness, and began to openly goad me into agreeing:
"Timothy, if you can manage this mission, I'll take back all my insults about your worthless Goblin Herbalist! What's more, in that this mission is directed at exploring Boundless Realm and will be useful to all players, I will try to get the leadership to give you a valuable reward, appropriate to the difficulty level."
But I just repeated my promise to seriously think about it, said goodbye and left the office. Despite the obvious difficulty of the mission, I had a reason not to rush to say no. The perspective of Amra’s video clips falling in popularity after the end of the great hunt gave me an unexpected shock. You get used to popularity and glory quite fast. They're like a drug. And after having millions of people waiting with bated breath for your video clips each day, suddenly becoming an unknown loser... would be unbearably painful.
I was personally ready to participate in this resounding and dangerous adventure, if it could help restore viewer interest in the adventures of my big-eared goblin. But such important decisions needed to be discussed in advance with my little sister. No matter how you sliced it, we played as a team, and dragging Val to such gloomy and unwelcoming places without her agreement was something I would never do.
Just after waking up, I rushed to my computer to see how many viewers had watched my morning clip about the orcs’ journey through the Great Desert and my riding the wyvern. Two thousand one hundred four people. Not so very long ago, that many viewers would have made me jump to the ceiling in joy, but after the recent millions of views, it looked pitiful and didn't make me happy at all...
No matter what you say, my boss was right today. My Goblin Herbalist's glory was fleeting. With that sad thought, I went out into the hall... and stopped short.
Kira was sleeping on the sofa, covered with a light blanket. Her glamorous red hair was spread out on the pillows and she was squeezing a huge plush rabbit. Precisely when my girlfriend had come into the apartment I did not know, because I had been sleeping like a rock for half a day, making up for my active night. But now, I didn't even know how to behave. Probably, for a start, I should at least get dressed so I wouldn’t be wandering around the apartment in nothing but my underwear. Trying not to be too loud, I walked back into the bedroom on my tip-toes. But my girlfriend woke up nevertheless:
"What time is it?" Kira asked in a sleepy voice, not peeling back an eyelid.
"Seven PM."
She responded with a dismayed bleating:
"Damn, seven already. Time to get up. But my head is just humming... Timothy, do I have to go to work today?"
I smiled at the owner of my apartment’s strange question and answered with a happy chuckle that I personally had nothing against giving my girl a day off. But as it happened, Kira was my boss somewhere high up in the corporate hierarchy, and maybe even the president of the Boundless Realm Corporation, so me telling her how to act would be crude insubordination.
Kira opened her eyes and threw the comforter aside, revealing that she was in nothing but a semi-transparent nighty. She sat up on the edge of the sofa and said:
"You're funny, Timothy... How long have you been working as a tester for the company? A month? Are you seriously saying that, in all that time, you never bothered to find out who is in charge of the Boundless Realm corporation?"
I grew embarrassed, lowered my gaze and shrugged my shoulders. Yes, I was just a senior tester, and my job was to play a flap-eared Goblin Herbalist in Boundless Realm. All these appointments and changes of directors, stock payouts to beneficiaries and other lofty topics were not quite in my sphere. Kira shook her head in reproach and, looking me shamelessly right in the eyes, started to illuminate me:
"The President of our corporation is named Thomas Heywood. He's a tall stately dark-haired man with singular charisma, excellent education and a surprisingly broad perspective. I feel like he knows everything on earth! And on every floor of the company skyscraper there are portraits and quotes from his speeches! How could you not have noticed?! Anyway, as it turns out, I personally know Thomas very well. Once upon a time, my grandmother Inessa was trying hard to marry me off to him. Thomas and I even dated for a while, but we had a mutual break up after not too long. I was of no interest to him as a woman, he needed a tool to influence the Board of Directors, and a convenient stepping stool to reach the heights of power. All that said, we remain good friends and periodically cross paths at private parties for the upper reaches of the company and at various get-togethers for city elites."
I don't think Kira was purposely trying to make me feel low but, in the end, that is exactly what she did. The beautiful redhead had never before allowed herself to point out the bottomless pit that separated our social standing. All around, it was a very painful slap to the face, although it was honest. Yes, my girlfriend was an elite and, although she didn't advertise it on every corner, a financial bigwig of the metropolis. The chic lady only allowed me to be near her out of a fleeting whim, tired of rich admirers from her circle and people searching for unusual distractions.
No, I didn't say anything to Kira and didn't show that her words had hurt me in any way. But it was precisely at that moment that I decided finally and irrevocably: I needed to find the upper reaches of Styx! Even if my sister refused to accompany me. Yes, I headed to the kitchen and put some coffee on for me and Kira, reached for the mugs, but my phone rang, stopping me. The ringtone was unusual, and also the number was unknown... strange. Nevertheless, I accepted the call.
"Hi, Amra! When will you be back in Boundless Realm? I've started to miss you and am horribly tired after this never-ending day. This red-hot desert has simply finished us all off. Even the orcs with the highest endurance are staggering. No matter where I look, in every direction there nothing but scorching hot dunes..."
Taisha?! What the hell?! I shook my head and even gave myself a hard pinch to make sure I wasn't sleeping or losing my mind. I had just gotten a call in the real world from an NPC from a game! This was just not possible! Probably, it was just a friend playing a trick on me!
I asked the suspicious voice a few questions to check, knowing that only my NPC bride could have the answers. And she did! All my doubts passed. This was definitely Taisha, a computer character from a virtual game!
"How'd you find out my number, and how did you manage to call the world of the undying?"
The green-skinned beauty cracked up laughing, clearly satisfied at the effect she'd produced:
"Amra, you're the one who showed me how to do it! You even said your number in front of me, when you called the ambulance. Did you forget?"
No, such things are not forgotten... I remembered the ghastliest moment in my life perfectly. My frightened flap-eared goblin was holding his unconscious Forest Nymph sister in despair, as Valeria died in the real world... I really did call right from the game and say my address to the emergency phone operator, also giving my telephone number. But the last thing I was thinking about at that moment was that my NPC bride would memorize that information and call me in the real world.
But I had to answer Taisha somehow. I tried to reassure and perk up the NPC thief by promising to come into the game as soon as the sun set, when my Goblin Vampire would no longer be threatened by the rays of the sun. I also asked Taisha to pass along an order to my first mate Ziabash Hardy to continue marching. They needed to cross the Great Desert no matter how hard it was to travel over the red-hot sands. Taisha promised to transmit the order and hung up. I lowered my hand with the phone.
"Timothy, who was the girl that just called you, and what language were you speaking?" Kira asked in agitation, standing in the kitchen door, having found the energy to get off the couch and come figure out who I was speaking to.
"What do you mean 'what language?'" I answered with a smile... And sharply froze. She was right! I had just been speaking not my usual native language but... what even was that? Goblin tongue? I couldn't find any other explanation, and answered just that to the owner of the apartment. I also said that I had been called by an NPC thief by the name of Taisha, a computer character from the game Boundless Realm.
"Are you mocking me?! Do you think I'm the kind of naive fool who would buy such a tall tale?! Tell me the truth right now, or I'll be very angry at you!" Kira shouted, boiling over.
But I stayed firm, repeating again and again that I had said the whole truth. I had really just now been called by a computer character asking when I would be coming into the game. My redheaded girlfriend started hissing like an enraged cat, and said through her tightly clenched teeth:
"I of course, will give you a chance and check your story with corporate specialists, even though it sounds like obvious crap. But if it all turns out to be a lie, and you make me look like a fool in front of serious people, I... I..."
Kira didn't finish her sentence, just turned sharply and went into the other room, slamming the door loudly as a grand finale. I still didn't know what exactly the redheaded fury was planning to do, if the NPC thief's call had not been detected by any corporate workers. Would she break up with me? Kick me out of the apartment? Complain about me to her influential grandmother? And if it wasn't any of those things, I could be sure that would lead to something nasty.
When I came back into the room a few minutes later with two mugs of aromatic freshly-brewed coffee in hand, Kira had already left the apartment...
I didn't catch Val in the hospital room. Her wheelchair wasn't there either. Maybe she'd just popped out for a minute and would be right back? But a nurse walking down the hallway told me she had just seen my sister in a room on the lower floor talking with some other kids. My eyebrows shot up in surprise. My shy and unsociable Valeria had taken it on herself to go on a walk and talk with peers? Until I saw it with my own eyes, I'd never believe it!
But the nurse was not wrong. Even from the stairs I could hear happy childish laughter and cries of joy, with Val’s voice mixed in. I stopped sharply. For a girl who had tried to kill herself just a few days earlier because the "real world is unbearably gray and boring," positive emotions were as necessary as fresh air. And it was definitely not a good idea to pull my sister out of the common room away from her active playtime and immerse her in my problems.
So, I didn't interrupt the children's game and returned to my sister's hospital bed. Time was pressing, and I needed to go to work very soon, so I just left a bag of fruits and a gift for Val on the bed, leaving a short note on the table:
"I talked with the new director. I'm supposed to raise my Herbalism. When you have the time, see what has to be done to raise that skill by thirty levels in a week. I'll see you in the game at nine tonight."
This morning, I had promised the new director I’d tell him my final decision about the journey to the upper reaches of the Styx at precisely eight tonight. It was already near eight, and I was really afraid of being late to a meeting I’d set myself. That would be a sign of extremely irresponsible behavior and disrespect of my superior. So, in a lather, I flew up the building steps, ran to the elevator and, at seven fifty-five, was standing at the door with the plaque reading: “Max Tohner. Director of Special Projects.”
But the door was locked... Had the director not waited for me?! Then my phone gave a beep. It was Max Sochnier, my friend the Naiad Trader.
"Hello, Timothy. Have you already talked with the new director?"
I sensed a certain subtext in that seemingly normal question, so before answering, I asked my friend why he wanted to know.
"Well, I just left his office ten minutes ago. I'm sitting, just awash with despair... If he hadn't been called to some kind of emergency meeting, I'm afraid he would have bit my head off. Leon is sitting next to me at the table. He's all pale, his arms are shaking, he's smoking inside."
I could hear the former builder's shaken-up voice:
"Yeah, they really got me worked up. If I get fired for smoking, then to hell with this job! As it was, it took me a lot not to break that old bastard's jaw off with an uppercut!"
I admitted that, this morning, I had about the same feelings when talking with Max Tohner. I was not used to having someone shout at me so flagrantly. And I didn’t know whether or not to be glad about the fact that I was standing in front of the locked door of his office and the second half of that difficult conversation would be put off.
"Yep, I get that!" Max Sochnier smiled. "Then come down here to the tester floor. Leon and I are sitting in a nook by the vending machines waiting for you. There's a lot to discuss."
Precisely three minutes later, I left the elevator on the tester floor and headed over to my friends. Both Leon and Max Sochnier stood up when they saw me, and we greeted each other warmly.
"Guys, the new director is a wild animal," said the former music teacher, raising the relevant topic. "He shouted at me and threatened damn near prison time just because I withdrew money from my character's game account. I really did convert thirty thousand in-game coins into three thousand credits. I was planning to trade in my old electromobile for a more modern model."
"Was there something criminal in that?" I asked. "I mean, you're an employee and, if your contract allows it, you absolutely have the right to withdraw money."
"That's what I thought!" Max Sochnier flared up. "But it turned out it wasn't so simple! The finance department complained to the director about me. Like, my character the Naiad Trader is holding lots of loans and client money. They said our boss had to figure out the situation and calm down the financiers. Instead of that, he started shouting at me, saying such a withdrawal of money from Boundless Realm could be seen as embezzlement, which breaks corporate rules, and tax law in general. It's totally surreal. I cannot get my own salary without the agreement of an auditor appointed specially by the corporation, who will check the legality of every withdrawal! I'm a trader, and I will always have some money that technically is an advance from someone. Why should that mean I sit here without any kind of salary?!"
"Yeah, that's total nonsense," I agreed. "And what if you change the form of payment in the work contract to a fixed salary?"
Max Sochnier gave a glum chuckle and said that was exactly what the new director had tried to force him into today. But in that case, his salary would be four times lower...
After that, Leon told the story of his talk with the new boss. He tried to use only appropriate words, but my straightforward friend didn't always manage. The director was unhappy with absolutely everything: the Ogre Fortifier's low level, the lack of a sensible game-plan, the sharp drop-off of character growth, and even his romantic relationship with a tester employee. It was all used to make the former construction worker feel guilty.
I also shared my experience with our new boss, after which my friends got totally sad and hung their heads. Seeing their gloomy state, I steeled my nerves and told them my plan: going together to places where nary a foot had fallen, and not just human, but of any player of any race. The upper reaches of the Styx!
"And how will that help us?" Leon asked sullenly.
"Popularity, unique trophies, and not only that," I chuckled. "The department head will be forced to treat us with respect, if we announce for all to hear that we are corporate employees and are carrying out a special, extremely complicated mission for the good of all Boundless Realm. We could even say that the mission was given to us in the name of the corporation by our boss, and call him by name!"
Max Sochnier and Leon exchanged glances and both snickered, imagining the face of our boss after getting that kind of news.
"He'll definitely come at us for that..." the cautious Frenchman noted.
"He won't. First off, he was egging me on to take this adventurous journey, so it's the pure truth. Second, I'll try really hard to get a bunch of players watching our campaign, I've got a couple trump cards up my sleeve. We could even do not short daily video clips, but live streams without any cutting, showing all the problems, dangers and deaths. But the most important thing for us is to present the situation in such a way that all viewers will associate us not with the private initiative of a small group of players, but with a project organized by the Boundless Realm corporation. We need to make it so that our success or failure will be associated not with us, but with the corporation itself."
My friends went silent in thought. Finally, Max Sochnier stopped drumming his fingers nervously on the table and spoke up:
"That's all well and good, Timothy, and I'm prepared to accompany you on this adventure. But I'm not really getting how you plan to create the necessary interest in your video clips. After all, there are thousands and thousands of streamers in Boundless Realm, and only some of them manage to become popular."
I gave a sad chuckle and, with a heavy sigh, admitted to my colleagues:
"I have one very important difference from the other streamers. My character is infected with vampirism! He was made that way from the very beginning of the game and, all that time, my Goblin Vampire has been forced to play only at night and regularly drink blood. I think now is the very time to tell the whole world about that secret. We can even present that fact as yet another whim of the developers."
My friends stayed silent for a long time, shocked at my admission. Finally, Leon squeezed out:
"A lot of your Goblin Herbalist's behavior is clear now. Both how you play at night, and how you take blood samples for 'antivenoms.'"
"I bet people really will watch your streams," Max Sochnier continued in deep thought. "Just think one of the very last vampires in the game! What matters now is for our group not to be set upon by a huge group of paladins, fighters of the undead and various other vampire hunters..."
My friend's fears were very well founded. I had already thought them through, though.
"That is precisely why we'll announce the vampirism only once our crew is a bit further from inhabited areas. If someone wants to bag a vampire, let them follow us into the gloomy and dangerous lands around the river of death. I imagine there won't be many impatient enough for that, if any such busybodies are even to be found. Most players will watch our journey and wait for our division to return, hoping to catch my Goblin Herbalist when he gets back from the dangerous trip."
"But sooner or later, our campaign will end," Leon noted justly. "And what will you do then, when your Vampire comes back and hordes of players are waiting for you with wooden stakes, silver crosses and rings of dried garlic?"
I shrugged my shoulders indefinitely. Why worry now about what might happen in the very distant future, and may not even happen at all. What was more, there was an important nuance: it wasn't enough for the players to merely know about the Goblin Herbalist's vampirism from my video clips. In the game, that knowledge wouldn't help their characters one bit. In order for the quest to kick in, they'd need to reveal the vampire in the game itself, and I was certainly not planning to help with that. What was more, my level-20 Veil skill allowed me to hide my name, and my sister could give my big-eared goblin any appearance with her illusions. And then, try to find the Vampire in the crowd, if he looks totally different and has a different name! Also, no matter what, I always had the option of flying away on VIXEN and losing them again. In general, I didn't consider myself doomed at all, and was even sure I’d be able to squirm out of it.
My friends and I spent another hour sitting at that table, arguing and vividly discussing the concrete details of our forthcoming campaign. Above all else, in order to solve the problem of supplies and provisions and, at the same time, help Max Sochnier avoid chicanery from the financial control service, we agreed to buy supplies for three hundred orc pirates with all the money the Frenchman had borrowed from me. We agreed on the array of purchases and delivery location carefully and in great detail.
Beyond that, I asked my friends to look for any old maps left after the twenty-six unsuccessful expeditions to the upper reaches of the Styx. I was certain these maps wouldn't be publicly available. I'd already checked, but maybe we could find a player willing to sell.
What was more, we also needed more companions, preferably NPC's, who could serve as guides and recon in the wild and dangerous places. Neither we nor my goblins and pirates had the requisite experience and knowledge to survive in the severe swampy climes. But such characters could probably be found in the game, so I asked Max Sochnier to find and hire them in ports and cities, where his trade route on the Tipsy Albatross passed.
We discussed plans after that as well, but then my alarm rang out at nine, and I came to my senses. It was time for me to go into Boundless Realm.

Lost Oasis

So then, loading. There weren’t any new messages, which served as yet another confirmation of the fact that my Goblin Herbalist's popularity had fallen among both players and viewers. During the Great Hunt, I was reminded, I had grown tired of digging through the huge mountain of incoming messages. Alright then, I'd hope this was all just a temporary phenomenon.
A table with my character's stats jumped before my eyes.

Goblin Vampire
513172 of 540000
Character level
Hit points
Endurance points
Strength (S)
42 (42)
Agility (A)
49 (150)
Intelligence (I)
5 (21)
Constitution (C)
44 (55.5)
Perception (P)
3 (45.3)
Charisma (Ch)
78 (96)
Unused points
Primary skills (6 of 6 chosen)
Herbalism (P A)
Trading (Ch I)
Alchemy (I A)
Dodging (A P)
Stealth (A C)
Exotic Weapons (A P)
Secondary skills (6 of 6 chosen)
Animal Control

No matter how you spun it, my Herbalism really was limping with both legs. My other skills needed attention, too. But this was business as usual with a character that earned experience primarily for completing quests, and not by slogging through hours’ worth of farming. At any rate, I'd think up something to correct the situation.
So then, the world finally loaded. It was late evening. The sun was already hidden beyond the horizon. Lots of stars were scattered in the sky. Orcish tents were densely packed all around me and, behind them, I could hear a dismayed crowing from many throats and bickering in elevated tones. I stood next to a small fire pit, where a group of orcs was boiling a pot of something that didn't smell too appetizing. My arrival was met with a storm of adulation:
"Captain! Captain Amra is back! He can solve this for us!"
I could already tell by the shouts growing stronger behind the tents that my immediate intervention was needed. I pushed the pirates aside and hurried to the din of the fight. I had come just in time. There were already sabers and knives drawn. As far as I could tell, one of the groups of rioting pirates was led by the shaman. Against him was a horde double its size commanded by my first mate.
"What is going on here?!" I shouted. My rage-filled cry stopped the knife fight, and both sides of the conflict hurriedly sheathed their weapons.
Fortunately, I made it in time. Only a Troll had been hurt, but the huge green giant had perfect regeneration, and pulled a curved blade that had gone in to the very hilt from his chest, and returned the weapon to its owner in silence. First Mate Ziabash Hardy took a step forward and set out the essence of the conflict:
"Captain Amra, I got an order to continue our path through the desert. But my guys are dead tired, and have already been walking for days on red-hot sand without a break. More and more often, they ask me where they're even going. The sea, after all is in the complete opposite direction, and before us is only sand and death... Still, I drive them forward, as I was ordered. But the crew is reacting less and less to my angry shouting. It’s practically reached the point of open rebellion!"
"We nearly died today under this unbearably scorching sun!" rang out the dismayed voice of an orc.
However, the speaker preferred not to tell it to my face, and hid behind the others.
"So then..." sensing the attitude of the crew, the first mate continued his speech now much more confidently. "Our last day in the desert was a total shitshow. Our water reserves were gone by midday, and the sun just kept burning mercilessly. Any of us would have killed for a gulp of water. Only by evening did we find this tiny oasis, lost amongst the dunes."
The troll, whose wounds had already fully healed over, continued the orc's speech:
"Here we have shelter from the sun, and water but, as for food, it's totally barren. A couple palm nuts for three hundred hungry mouths is basically nothing. And meanwhile, none of us have had a bite to eat in two days. A dozen volunteers headed by Shaman Ghuu headed out on a hunt toward those cliffs to the south. But they didn't manage to get even a thousand steps from camp before an Ifrit attacked..."
Now an Ifrit... We already had enough problems without that... I understood my crew’s dismay perfectly, but I didn't understand what I should do in this situation to reassure the pirates and restore order.
"Ifrit?" Valerianna Quickfoot had now also loaded up Boundless Realm and reached the clutter, jumping right into the conversation. "Are you sure it was an ifrit?"
"Yes, miss enchantress," said the shaman Ghuu Gel All-Knowing, stepping out in front. "It was a Sandstorm Ifrit, level-77. A huge semi-transparent spirit, looking like it was made all of sand and flashing lightning. My guys and I didn't even manage to get our weapons before that demon spun up some dust storms around our division. Lashing, howling wind and sand blasted us right in the eyes. we stopped seeing anything or being able to orient ourselves. And after that, as if in a ghoulish nightmare, the sand under our feet opened up, and three orcs fell in up to their belt. They were crying out in such pain that it was as if they were being skinned alive. And with every moment, they were pulled deeper and deeper..."
"It was horrible, captain!" confirmed the very orc who had stabbed the Troll in the chest with his saber a minute earlier. "The shouts of those three unfortunate souls is still ringing in my ears. We turned to stone in fear and couldn't move. We just stood and watched as our comrades died. A few moments later, they were pulled completely under the sand and their screams stopped. After that, it was as if our invisible fetters fell off, and we could move again. We ran away in panic."
"And I beat a retreat with the rest, captain. My magic was powerless against such a ghastly demon..." the shaman told me, lowering his head. "As soon as we got back to camp, I immediately performed a spirit summoning ceremony to get advice. And the spirits answered me that the further we went in the desert, the worse it would get. There would be more and more Ifrits like that, and the demons would get stronger. The spirits advised us to turn around quick, before it’s too late! The spirits said that, from here on, only death awaits us!"
The pirates all started to discuss feverishly. There were some who thought we should return to the copper mine as the shaman suggested. Now here was some grief... I hadn't even considered the fact that my pirate crew might not want to make the dangerous journey to the upper reaches of the Styx. What should I do now?
Fortunately, my sister came in with a very timely comment about the Ifrit, although it was from a slightly strange perspective:
"Well I can’t believe what a stroke of luck this is! Ifrits are considered great sources of loot by the undying. They exist for hundreds and thousands of years collecting lots of treasure. Somewhere near where it attacked you, there should be a lair with all his riches. Normally, Ifrits live in caves with very well-concealed entrances, including using magic. But Captain Amra is good at finding hidden places, and I can draw back the magical curtain. I think we should return to the site of the attack and look carefully for the entrance to the treasure cave!"
I could immediately sense the mood of the horde changing. Just a minute ago, the Sandstorm Ifrit had caused the Orc Pirates to feel nothing but tense horror and the desire to get as far from it as possible. But now, my cutthroats were hesitating. Their fear of the ghastly demon was struggling with the temptation of its riches. And while the scales were tipping, I needed to support my sister's idea.
I took a step forward, calling for silence with a gesture and announcing loudly, so all the pirates would hear me:
"It really is rare luck on our part to find such a monster. Whoever of you was first to see the Ifrit will get a reward of fifty coins from me personally! If he is alive, of course," I said with a happy chuckle, and many of the orc pirates laughed.

Foreman Skill increased to level 27!

"Ifrits are dangerous only because they catch you by surprise, but a well-prepared team can take down such a monster without particular problems," the mavka assured everyone just in time, and the last doubts of the pirate crew passed without a trace. Now, everyone saw the ghastly monster as nothing but a valuable trophy.
"We really were lucky to find the Ifrit. We'll have to clear the desert spirit’s cave, so our suffering through the Great Desert won't have been in vain. But only the strongest and bravest will come with me for the treasure. I can’t have my team scampering away as soon as the wind picks up..."
"I'll go!" without even listening to the end of my sentence, my NPC wife Taisha called out. She was decked out in a full suit of green dragon-pelt armor and looked very impressive and resolute.
I gave a positive nod, and the goblin beauty threw herself forward with a joyful cry, hanging off my neck. After that, Shaman Ghuu walked forward, squeezing his gnarled staff and muttering something about having to dig through the demon's treasure. After that, gathering a team of volunteers was very simple. There turned out to be more than enough takers.
"I hope, sister, that you weren't wrong and we really will take down the monster," I whispered into the mavka's ear when we'd gone away from the pirates and could talk one on one. "Otherwise, I'm afraid my authority as a successful captain of a pirate crew will be lost irrevocably."
"I also hope we can manage," Valerianna Quickfoot answered me just as quietly. "Although I still advise you, dumbo, to get over to those far-away palms. I see a respawn circle there..."
"The best part about Ifrits is that the weakest defense they have is to physical damage," the Forest Nymph informed me, already having studied the article on Ifrits in the Boundless Realm Bestiary. "Ifrits are magical creatures. They are very hard to kill with magic. They even have complete immunity to air magic. But at that, they are very vulnerable to normal arrows and simple physical weapons. Also they are not at all known for their intellect. It's generally recommended to send one or two tanks with good armor and high HP against an Ifrit, then have others shoot it from a distance. A pretty dumb strategy, but it works."
"Do you mean to say that that desert demon doesn't even have enough brains to dodge the arrows?" I asked, somehow doubtful.
"Tim, what intellect can you really expect from simple desert winds? If you throw away its huge size and ability to summon whirlwinds, an Ifrit is just an idiotic stream of burning air and sand, brought to life by demonic magic. And it will stubbornly attack whatever enemies are found nearby. So, if we use our troll, pack him in some decent armor and let him take the hits..."
I imagined the plan and repudiated it:
"No, Val. A level-77 monster will quickly shake our level fifty-four troll down, no matter how much armor and regeneration he has. And even healing magic from our shaman won't help. The level difference is too great. So, I say we use Taisha and I as lures, darting around before the Ifrit's very nose. Meanwhile, twenty orc bowmen will be killing the beast, while Taisha and I dodge the whirlwinds and shifting sands. The shaman will support us, increasing our Strength and Agility. And you can help, creating tons of copies of us with your illusion magic, so we can really throw the Ifrit off his game. We can even take the Gray Pack and our Goblins Irek and Yunna with us. No matter what, they cannot die, and extra experience for them wouldn’t hurt."
The plan was extremely simple, and I had no doubt in its efficacy. Here the main thing was provoking the Ifrit, forcing him to expose himself and crawl out of his hiding spot. Then, from there, we could handle him quickly. In theory, it was all simple, but the reality brought us a surprise. The Ifrit didn't want to show himself no matter what. We spent a whole hour in groups and alone wandering around the night desert, but the malicious sand demon wasn't even thinking of crawling out. I walked the supposed area up and down, activating my Search for Life and Night Vision skills, but didn't discover a thing.
"Maybe you were wrong after all, and this isn't the right place?" the mavka asked the shaman for the umpteenth time. But Ghuu Gel All-Knowing continued assuring her that he was not mistaken, and this was the very place where the Ifrit had attacked the orc hunters.
The shaman's words were also confirmed by a trail of huge orc tracks I found leading from the oasis and back. They cut off abruptly. The dust devils the Ifrit had conjured must have wiped away all traces, leaving nothing but unmarked desert sand.
"Maybe, the sand demon ate his fill with those three orcs and is resting now as he digests his prey. Or maybe he gathered strength and changed location." Valerianna Quickfoot suggested, but Taisha, standing not far away and looking at something, shook her head no.
"No, the Ifrit definitely isn't full. He died..."
"What?!" my big-eared Goblin was instantly next to the NPC thief. Taisha pointed at a small colorful rock half covered with sand:

Sandstorm Ifrit Heart (alchemy ingredient)
Insufficient Intelligence to identify object characteristics

Successful Perception check
Experience received: 160 Exp.

The stone seemed wet. Strange. Water in the sands of the Great Desert? Perhaps it was just dew, of course. But where would the dew have come from at the very beginning of the night, which had come after such an unbearably hot day? I picked up the strange stone. It was fairly heavy and really was wet, and somehow sticky. It didn’t seem to be water. I looked a bit closer. It wasn’t water at all!

Ifrit Blood (alchemy ingredient)

A very rare thing at the very least because of how extremely difficult it was to come across an Ifrit. For my vampiric collection, it was completely invaluable! Only Taisha and Valerianna were nearby at that moment, so I had nothing to hide. Not wasting time, I stuck the stone in my mouth and sucked all the moisture off it.

Achievement unlocked: Taste tester (42/1000)

The message was, though pleasant, entirely predictable, so I wasn't surprised. But the next events showed me how little I knew about Boundless Realm. The stone suddenly gave a pulse in my mouth, as if the Ifrit heart was still alive, and my Goblin swallowed it in surprise... I coughed and fell down on a knee, because the stone was fairly large and it took a good bit of effort to pass it through my character's throat. Still, I managed to work the stone down my gullet. The next message that appeared made my Goblin perk up his ears in surprise:

Fame increased
Present value: 5

You are the first player to use an Ifrit Heart in this way
You have activated a magical item
You may choose one effect:
·        One-time experience-gain of 500,000 Exp.  
·        Permanent +5% defense against air magic
·        One item in your inventory will be stripped of level and skill requirements

Holy crap! A half a million experience points could instantly level up my Goblin Herbalist to 51! Eleven levels in one go! Although... I imagined what the director would say then, "your character is at level fifty-one, but Herbalism is still at 15," and my enthusiasm noticeably crashed. So, defense against air magic or... I also had Fenrir's Claw, which I could not use at all due to level requirements! That was right! I opened my inventory. There it was:

Fenrir's Claw amulet (unique item)
Gives +250 Constitution, +250 Strength, +50% resistance to physical damage, +50 to reaction of the following creatures: Dogs, Wolves, Wargs, Volkodlaks
Attention! Your character's level is too low to use this object
Requisite level: 125

A great candidate for removing level requirement! I chose to use the Ifrit heart for that. For five seconds, nothing happened, and the information on Fenrir's Claw didn't change a bit. I even got worried it hadn’t worked. Although... I could now place the amulet in the proper equipment slot, which I immediately did. And, just then, the game system started spewing a whole bedsheet of text:

You have equipped two items from the Cursed Set of Fenrir
Hidden mission completed: True Alpha of the Gray Pack
Experience received: 40000 Exp.
Maximum Gray Pack member limit increased to ten
Set bonus unlocked: all members of the Gray Pack will receive a bonus of +50 to Strength, +50 to Agility, +50 to Constitution, +25% to movement speed, +25% to experience gain

Level forty-one!

Level forty-two!

Animal Control skill increased to level 15!

Mission received: Fenrir's Legacy (1/4)
Mission class: Unique, personal
Description: Collect and equip the four remaining items from the Cursed Set of Fenrir
Reward for each item: 100000 Exp., +10 to Animal Control, +50 to Strength, +50 to Agility, +50 to Constitution, +2 to maximum Gray Pack member limit
Optional condition: Equip the full Cursed Set of Fenrir
Reward: 1000000 Exp., Fame +3, Gray Pack member limit removed, making number depend only on Charisma and skills

If mission Optional Condition is completed, your character will receive the Criminal tag, visible to all players and active until your character unequips all items from the Cursed Set of Fenrir
Your character's death will not remove the Criminal Tag

It took me some time to carefully read and digest all that information. The game had offered me a unique quest, which was a very rare occurrence all on its own. What was more, a path was revealed before me, that would allow my Goblin to achieve truly limitless power. No more Gray Pack member limit! That would mean... My breathing seized from the number of possibilities. Just raise character Charisma, level Animal Control and, at the same time probably Foreman, and many hundreds of fearsome predators would join the ranks of my pets!
And at that, in the settings of each one, I could choose the specialization Pack Hunter, and the strength, hardiness and combat abilities of each fanged beast would grow proportionally to the total number... Plus, the pets would also be strengthened by my skills... Plus the bonuses from the Cursed Set of Fenrir...
Yes, a permanent Criminal tag was an extremely unpleasant thing, giving anyone I came across the right to kill my big-eared Goblin Herbalist, but my vampiric character was already preparing to become a wanted criminal, so nothing would really be changing for me.
All that remained was one tiny issue: I had to find the four items. And before I could do that, I needed to find out their names and purposes... After all, I didn't even have a near appreciation as to what I needed to look for. Boots, or maybe a helmet and cloak? My only clue was that in the name of the object would most likely make reference to the huge mythical wolf Fenrir.
I took a heavy sigh, returning from the heavens to unhallowed ground. I didn't have enough information. Finding unique items based on what I knew, given there was only one copy of each in the huge Boundless Realm would be very, very difficult. Although... I had a flash of inspiration... Perhaps they were still in the hands of players who had killed Fenrir a few months earlier! Drawing a circle around the participants of that notorious event wouldn't be all that hard. After all, there were a ton of video clips, and associated topics on the game forum. There was probably a detailed chronicle of the final battle practically down to the second!
Although... the players that got those trophies may have sold them long ago, or given them to someone, not seeing any value in the cursed items. I suspected that these items hadn't been associated as a set until quite recently. After all, the Ring of Fenrir, which was now part of it, had been made for me by the game admins just three weeks ago. The players had seen just a heap of odd items in the loot left behind by Fenrir and his army of wolves, and a lot of it was fairly useless, and also cursed, making it nearly impossible to remove them.
Just then, I was visited by another mystery. After all, even if I was able to find the third item from the cursed set, I wouldn't even be able to put it on! The amulet said I had to be at least level one hundred twenty-five! Probably, the other items also had very high requirements...
Overall, I needed to think about this. I called the Forest Nymph, and told her in detail about my unexpected discovery. My sister immediately dug out the most important bits:
"Timothy, you should cruise the Boundless Realm forum tonight to find the other items from the Cursed Set of Fenrir. That whole story with the fall of the Gray Pack didn't end so very long ago, and I'm sure there should be some traces left. But it should all be done as delicately as possible, so none of the forum lurkers notice the suspicious interest in cursed items and strange search queries. Lots of players hang out on the forum, and some are very savvy, on the lookout for such strange activity in the hopes of making off with items of underestimated value. I should probably do it, Tim. I'll be better."
I was in complete agreement with my sister's assertion. Val was quite a bit better than me at such missions, and she did it all much faster and more delicately. But I told Valeria another search path just in case:
"All alone, these items have no practical value, although they were considered unique, so it is totally possible that one of their owners simply put the trophies up for auction. Then you could find the traces. Also, Val, you should check all currently active auctions in all provinces of Boundless Realm. Maybe someone just put an Ifrit Heart up for sale. It's just an alchemy ingredient, no one has any idea of its true value yet. If we're in luck, maybe we can buy one or even a few. Pay for fast delivery using a magical messenger!"
"Alright, Tim, I'll do it. The doctor said I shouldn't spend more than four hours a day in the game anymore, so after midnight I'll have to log off. Then I can look through the forum and auctions. But for now, seeing as the Ifrit died unexpectedly, go look for his lair."
The entrance to the cave was discovered soon after my sister cast Dispel Magic. Of course, we could have done that earlier, but we weren't exactly burning with desire to fight the high-level magic being in dark and confusing underground corridors. Now though, with the danger of meeting the terrible Ifrit passed, we equipped some torches and, one after the other, snaked into the narrow, short hole.
"Careful! There's a trap here!" Taisha warned everyone, walking first in the file.
The pretty thief spent three minutes studying a gap in the wall and stones cast about the floor, after which she confidently pressed on an unremarkable rough patch in the low ceiling. A mechanical click rang out, and Taisha lit up with colorful flames, having reached level thirty-three.
"Alright, trap disarmed, we can go," the green beauty assured us. "But the entrance to the Ifrit's lair isn't where it seems. That path..." Taisha pointed to the only corridor leading into the darkness, "leads to a cave-in, and most likely, death awaits careless treasure hunters down there. The real corridor goes down that way, right into the wall."
The mavka increased the power of her magic torch and carefully looked through the obstacle.
"Hey, Taisha's right. That wall is an illusion," my sister agreed and quickly removed the illusory barrier.
The Ifrit's lair was a fairly small cave, the floor of which was covered in a thick layer of old dry bones mixed with rotting fabric, tarnished silver and bronze tableware, as well as ancient weaponry. The amount of coins mixed into the trash heap was so great that my sensitive eyes began to hurt from the many flickers reflecting our torches. But the main thing was that my nostrils picked up on the scent of fresh blood. Orc blood, as I could immediately tell.
After getting my bearings, I carefully walked toward the source of that vampire-intoxicating aroma. I threw back a carpet and discovered three thoroughly gnawed fresh corpses... Although... my gaze unexpectedly met with a the utterly maddened eyes of the orc. With huge effort, I recognized this sailor as being one of the oarsmen from the White Shark. He didn't have any intact parts left, just open wounds.
"Cap-ptai..." the bloodied sailor from my crew rasped out almost inarticulately, having focused his gaze on me. "I... I sa... it all with my ow-wn ey... two whirl-rl-winds... Fighting... Sand... creatu... lookin... and... and... something else... even nicer..."
With his last words, blood sputtered out of his mouth, and his eyes glazed over. The shaman standing behind me, without saying a word, removed his hat. I kept silent and read into the lines of an incoming system message:

Mission received: Something Even Nicer...
Mission class: Unique, group (no more than eight), time-limited
Description: Find the Sandstorm Ifrit's killer within 23 hours and 59 minutes
Reward: One Wish Granted

"What does 'Wish Granted' mean?" Valerianna Quickfoot had also received the quest and could not hide her surprise. "This is the first time I'm hearing about such a strange reward. Wish? But what if my wish cannot be described in stat and skill numbers?"
I had also never before seen or even heard of quests with such a strange reward. This unique quest was so unique, that it was offering something extremely out of the ordinary. But then everyone was struck by Taisha. The green-skinned NPC thief spent a long time in silence, as if she was looking at something we couldn't see, then asked in surprise:
"Amra, what does 'Mission received' mean?"

Taisha's Wish

NPC's cannot receive and independently complete quests, that's a basic rule of any virtual game, an inviolable truth, a dogma! After all, what use are living players, if the mobs can deal with all their problems without us?! Yes, NPC's generate missions for players, accept finished quests, and even sometimes get experience and objects after an assignment is completed. But they never get quests, period! That made it all the more surprising when Taisha, got a unique mission at the same time as us two living players.
Valerianna, who also understood perfectly that what happened was impossible, was looking at me with her eyes wide in surprise, not capable of giving my NPC bride any kind of explanation. I had to bluff my way out of it:
"Taisha, remember when you made your wish to become exactly the same as the undying? It would seem that the gods of Boundless Realm heard your prayers, and you are now becoming more and more similar to us, the undying. You are reborn after death, you are capable of making independent decisions, and now you're also seeing missions, and getting experience and rewards for them. Maybe in a little bit, you really will be able to enter the world of the undying!"
When I made these pompous statements to my bride, I was reassuring and encouraging her, but at the same time I was thinking about something completely different. Unique missions were so abnormal that most players got them quite rarely. Of course, I didn't have any concrete statistics before me but, somewhere on the forum, I had stumbled upon information that, even among experienced high-level players, over eighty percent had never received a unique mission. So I simply didn't believe it was possible that my bat-eared Goblin Herbalist had gotten two of them by complete coincidence in less than ten minutes. That just couldn’t happen!
What was it then? It looked like the admins were interfering in our gaming, watching carefully to see how the situation would develop. But at that, I had the firm suspicion that they wouldn't do such a thing just for the sake of my Goblin Herbalist. Amra wasn't such a high flyer that they would rewrite the rules and change the surrounding world. And the admins also wouldn't intervene on behalf of Valerianna Quickfoot, even though my sister was a remarkable player. But in my inner circle, there was one curvaceous green-skinned NPC-girl, who had aroused the interest of the Boundless Realm specialists for quite some time with her bizarre behavior and strange computer algorithms. I suspected that the NPC's call to the real world was the last straw and they had now decided to look seriously into Taisha.
"Well, what do you say, dumbo? Should we complete the unique quest right away, or invite other participants?" My sister's question brought me back to reality.
What did she mean, right away? I stared in incomprehension at the Forest Nymph and asked her to explain. My sister then chuckled with a gloomy smile, as only she could do, when my mental capacity came into great doubt yet again.
"Amra, you aren't seriously saying you don't know what killed the Sandstorm Ifrit, right?!"
Her question made me embarrassed. I blushed in shame. I confirmed that I didn't even have any near guesses about the killer's identity. Valerianna turned to Taisha and asked her the same exact question. If the NPC had answered positively, I would probably have died in embarrassment at my slow-wittedness, but the green-skinned thief also admitted that she didn't know the answer. The mavka gave a heavy sigh and started unhurriedly giving us one hint after the next:
"The dying orc pirate said that two whirlwinds were fighting... But meanwhile, in the bestiary of a great many computer games, there are plenty of transparent creatures that resemble whirlwinds, and hate Ifrits... They and Ifrits are mortal, inconsolable enemies who will always fight to the death when they meet... Amra, you cannot seriously not remember yet, right? They usually grant three wishes, if you free them from a bronze lamp!"
"Genies???" the answer tore itself from Taisha and I at the exact same time.
"That's right!" the mavka gave a few claps, applauding our mental epiphanies. "This cave is full of old junk the Ifrit dragged from caravans he robbed. I suspect that, somewhere among all these bones and bronze plates, there must be a lamp. All it would have taken is a light touch to make the genie trapped inside it burst out and see his mortal enemy before him!"
In fact, my sister's guess looked very, very believable. The Ifrit had dragged the three captives down under the earth and, in this small cave, one of the still living orcs might have touched an old magic lamp. It was already too late for that to save the orc but, at that, the genie he released got revenge, killing the deadly Sandstorm Ifrit. By the way... I was reminded that not nearly every genie in fairy tales was blazing with gratefulness at his liberators. In fact, it was more the opposite. In most cases, these magical creatures tried to kill whatever impudent fellow had dared to disturb their many-century slumber...
"There's an old oil lamp, but it's empty! And here's another! And another! And here's a whole bag of them!" Taisha dug out from under a carpet a whole array of kitchen and domestic implements, including oil lamps.
But for some reason I no longer wanted to experiment with releasing a genie on my own. At one point, Kira had given me some great advice: "If you find a unique quest, but aren't sure you can handle it yourself, sell it!" This seemed like just such a case.
Boundless Realm has hundreds of millions of players. Some of them are quite wealthy in real life and put a significant amount of money into the game in premium credits. And at that, some inveterate gaming addicts would be willing to sell their last pair of pants just to somehow stand out from the crowd and distinguish themselves in a rare mission or participate in an interesting mass event. And here, there's a unique quest ready to go, and eight players are promised a mysterious wish granting, if they successfully complete the mission. And although three places were already taken by me, Valerianna and Taisha, I could sell the other five!!!
But they would need to get here to a nameless oasis that was quite far from large cities, so a real problem arose of how to get the players here in less than a day. My orcs had taken a whole night and practically the entire next day to get here from Dotur-Khawe, the city of dwarves. And sure, mounted players can move faster, but still they'd need many hours to reach us. Although... there was also the Legion of Steel, the strongest and one of the richest clans in Boundless Realm. They had five fleet-winged Silver Pegasuses, so they could get to this oasis from Dotur-Khawe quite quickly. And what's more, the Legion of Steel still had teleportation scrolls to the city of dwarves and the Prika Mine, where they had guarded the place I'd be coming back into the game.
I had the contact information for a representative of the Legion of Steel, Alexander the Great3st, a level-230 Priest of the Sun, who had offered to help my Amra during the great hunt. I wrote a paid message to him with a description of the unique quest. I wasn't really expecting any answer before morning, so it caught me by surprise when a purple magical devil messenger appeared in the cave a few minutes later, handing me a scroll that read:
"It might be of interest, but I need to gather info about the quest and talk with the clan leader first. Don't sell your five slots to any other players for now. My phone number is down there. Call me in twenty minutes, and I'll tell you my answer.
Alexander the Great3st. Human. Level-231 Priest of the Sun [LEGION]"
The telephone conversation turned out to be surprisingly short. He was of a quite advanced age, based on his creaky old-man's voice. Instead of greeting me, he got right to business and asked just one question: "What do you want in exchange for the quest?" Trying not to betray my agitated state with my voice, I named a few wishes: food for three hundred hungry orcs delivered to the middle of the desert, as much of a map of the river Styx as the Legion of Steel had, and Ifrit Hearts, at least a few, and maybe more.
The Ifrit Hearts were a last-minute addition, and I was expecting negotiation or some kind of limiting conditions, but he calmly heard out my demands and answered shortly that the Legion of Steel agreed. From what I understood, the powerful clan's stores contained all kinds of alchemical ingredients in sufficient quantity and he didn't have any doubt in their presence.
In the end, the old man asked me for the coordinates and answered after a few minutes of silence that a Silver-Pegasus-rider would reach us in an hour and a half, after which he would activate a portal scroll, and the other players would come through that.
When I came into the game and told my sister the results of the conversation, Valerianna was very unhappy:
"Tim, it was very stupid of you to reveal our interest in Ifrit Hearts! I was gonna dig through the auction announcements from various regions tomorrow morning or even tonight to look for them! Now it's no use. If there was anything there for an acceptable price before, it's probably already gone... The Legion of Steel, and all other TOP clans have very strong analysts. Naturally, your unexpected interest in such a resource won't have slipped past their attention, and the best alchemists and crafters of the Legion of Steel are probably already studying the hidden properties of these items. Our secret, if it hasn't been uncovered yet, will stop being a mystery to the Legion of Steel very soon, after which all Ifrit Hearts on all three continents of Boundless Realm will be bought up in a matter of minutes!"
My sister was probably right, speaking about the missed chance. Although, on the other hand, I had chosen the option of receiving a few alchemy ingredients for certain instead of a hypothetical chance to find more later at auction. First of all, there was no guarantee that there even were more than two Ifrit Hearts at auction, much less that we could win them. Second, once again, we were not insured against the potential that our interest in the ingredient might give rise to stubborn research into them by big clans, and then we would be left the fool all the more. Overall, I preferred one in the hand to two in the bush.
While the orcs following my orders carefully sorted through the heaps of bones and garbage, removing everything valuable from the Ifrit cave, Taisha my sister and I returned to the tent encampment. VIXEN came down from the sky, set a barely living level-21 Desert Monitor before my feet and stretched out her long neck in expectation of her portion.
"Who's my pretty little girl? You never let your master starve or get thirsty!" I said, stroking the soft scaly skin under the wyvern’s lower jaw. The flying snake lied down on her belly and even slightly closed her eyelids, entirely dissolving in bliss and delight.
There were no other people looking, so I killed her prey with a Vampire Bite.

Experience received: 105 Exp.
Achievement unlocked: Taste tester (43/1000)
Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 25%)

After equipping the Claw of Fenrir, my Strength had grown to 294, and I could deal from 367 to 2202 units of damage from a single bite, so a player or monster of equal level to me would hardly survive even one such attack. And the over fifteen hundred Endurance Points I had allowed my Goblin Vampire to bite enemies nearly without end.
I tore the Desert Monitor's body in half with my bare hands. One half I fed to the hungry wolves of the Gray Pack, and the other I brought to the hard-luck chefs, who were still boiling their unappetizing, disgusting smelling stew in the vain hope of turning it into something edible. The wild orcs didn't throw the bloody meat into their pot, or even roast it over the fire, tearing it to pieces and devouring it raw on the spot. I'll admit, that shook me:
"On White Shark, there was a decent chef, who knew how to cook. Where'd he go?" I asked my crew of cutthroats.
"Well, Captain, our cook died during the that sea battle with the undying!" one of the orcs told me, wiping his bloodied toothy maw with the backside of his hand.
I see... What can I say, the idea of structuring and organizing this collection of wild cutthroats left to me by the last captain had long been maturing in my mind. I suppose the time had come. I demanded that the orcs pour out the stinking mess they were boiling in their pot somewhere far away from camp, and invited First Mate Ziabash Hardy and Shaman Ghuu over to the fire.
"Captain, I don't understand. You want to turn our pirate crew into a regular army?" Ziabash Hardy asked, not too happy, and stroking the back of his head with a huge paw.
"You might say that," I answered, agreeing with his assessment of my plans. "Any orc is bigger all on his own, stronger and fiercer than a warrior from the human or elvish race. But when it comes to big divisions or armies, humans defeat the orcs time and again, driving them from territories and capturing orcish cities!"
Ziabash Hardy bared his teeth and snarled, but I continued to insist:
"That is the truth, however bitter you may find it. Tell me of even one large battle, that orcs have won against humans. Not some attack on yawning agriculturalists or a lagging wagon train, but a real battle between two armies. What, none come to mind? No surprise there, seeing as how no such examples exist! People, weaker creatures by their nature, have always won due to their harsh discipline, good weapons and armor, better training and collective action."
"But orcs are just naturally different, not like people," the shaman objected. "People have their aristocratic families leading and are trickier and less honorable. They’re always first to enslave their brothers and sisters and vilely eliminate other pretenders and even their own parents. Human commanders always stand behind their divisions and send others to die. Orcs are much more honest in that regard. Orcs have braver and stronger rulers, who have earned respect through their feats on the battlefield, and not by the ancient origins of their family. And our commanders always go in the first rows, setting an example to others with their bravery and..."
"Are the first to die in battle, leaving their army dejected and rudderless..." I said, finishing the shaman's ardent speech.
Shaman Ghuu choked mid-word and stopped, forced to admit I was right after a pause. I then continued:
"We won't have the kind of army that battles for far-off kings and spills its own blood for others and barely comprehensible interests. Orcish warriors, honest and direct, need a clear and easily comprehensible goal. All of our fighters need to know what they personally stand to gain when the whole division accomplishes its goal. And everyone needs to understand what exactly they must do for victory. So, I will no longer stand to see my fierce and strong soldiers forced to make their own food, hunt for themselves, pitch their own tents and wash and mend their own clothing. This should be done by those who are trained and have the right skills!"

Foreman Skill increased to level 28!

For the first time, I saw a little fire of curiosity light in the eyes of my orcs. My words managed to break through the ice of doubt and conservatism. For the first time, the pirate cutthroats started imagining a different future than burials at sea. My first mate, shaman and the other orcs gathering in greater and greater quantity around our fire were carefully listening to their captain. I needed to take advantage of this moment and gradually lead the cutthroats to the idea that it was necessary to take a dangerous trip up the river of death, Styx.
"I want to build a strong and organized division, capable of surviving in this cruel world and holding its own under any circumstances. A trained, brave and audacious team that reacts in good time to changes in the external situation. One where everyone is certain of their place in formation: scouts to find the way, soldiers to cut down hordes of enemies, healers to mend the wounded, mages to support the others with their magic, and decent cooks to make tasty food."
When they heard me talk about food, I heard the grinding of teeth and moaning of hungry stomachs. Good, let the pirates think again that the present state of things was utterly unacceptable, and needed to be changed.
"In this world, which the undying call Boundless Realm, the very rarest and most valuable trophies are found far from the beaten path, and getting to them is very difficult indeed. But only there can one find a good haul of truly valuable loot, the kind that can provide for all of us! I want us to have stories we can tell our children and grandchildren over a mug of foamy beer with pride. But now, we merely make do with pitiful scraps from poor fisherman and freight ships that can barely make ends meet themselves!"
"Captain, that's all well and good, of course. But I'd like to know where we can find places with such rich bounty?" Ziabash Hardy asked.
"It wasn’t too hard to find out..." I said, beginning to answer and immediately noticing all sounds around me go quiet. The orcs, it seemed, even stopped breathing and tried not to say a word. "The closest such magical location is past this desert up the black dead river, which is known by the name of Styx. Rumor has it that there is unheard of treasure hidden in those wild and scary places. But getting there will be hard, and you still aren't ready for such severe trials!"
I heard many orcs give a dismayed, insulted roar. The whole pirate crew thought their captain shouldn't be doubting their strength and mastery. But I just chuckled, twisting up my lips:
"Just one lone Ifrit today was enough to put the fear of god in you. That creature sent a group of my best warriors running on their heels! That’s where you’re at now! But around the upper reaches of the Styx, the monsters are quite a bit scarier and more dangerous than some mere Ifrit! So, before heading off somewhere, you should get well trained and organized. And also, you all need good armor and weapons. I've already paid for them, and the galley Tipsy Albatross, loaded with supplies, will reach the Styx any day now, where we will meet them. But for a start, you need to be fed. It doesn't befit my brave team to walk in hunger! So, your Captain paid some undying to come here to the very center of the hot desert, and bring you tasty food and strong drink! Before sunup, I swear by my green ears that you will all be full and happy with life!"

Trading Skill increased to level 19!

Foreman Skill increased to level 29!

Foreman Skill increased to level 30!

The loud sound of their elated screams made my big sensitive goblin ears nearly fall off. My crew had never before experience such admiration and adoration of a captain! And the most pleasant part was that, when the din slightly abated, my sister jumped up and pointed her hand at a barely visible bright spot in the starry night sky:
"There's the undying rider now! Put more wood on the fire so he'll notice us!!!"
The arrival of the Legion of Steel turned out brilliant and impressive. A level-290 scout flew overhead on a huge Silver Pegasus and, without even landing, threw a pulsating item down and opened a large ovular portal right on the surface. From the bright, unbearably shining gates poured a huge river of terrifying soldiers encased in armor, mages in bright robes, severe necromancers and priests chanting mantras. And at that, they were all on the most unimaginable mounts and surrounded by an innumerable variety of pets. I didn't see any of them at a level lower than two hundred. I even saw some characters with levels over 300. The last to flitter out of the already flagging portal were four TOP players of the Legion of Steel astride Silver Pegasuses.
I don't think the whole clan was represented here, probably just the rapid response force. But even so, on the small patch of the Great Desert, in a matter of seconds, there was such an all-crushing concentrated might that even the demons and gods of Boundless Realm would shiver. I don't know for whose benefit all this magnificent splendor had been organized, but even the wildest orcs were impressed. My cutthroats started crawling out of their tents, crowding up around the edge of the oasis, commenting vividly on the never-before-seen spectacle. But none of the pirates was afraid. The forces were so immeasurably mismatched that the thought of conflict didn’t even cross their minds.
The Legion of Steel got into formation three hundred meters from the oasis. Before the frozen rows of high-level players, bound in armor suits, there landed five Silver Pegasuses, from which jumped the leaders of the clan. Overcoming a slight timidity, I ordered my orcs to stay in place, myself not moving forward on the snow-white shaggy Fimbulthul, level-58 Mythical Hound. Behind me, the Gray Pack was gathered in full force: Akella, Lobo and White Fang, the level-38 Hardened Forest Wolves, Blanka the level-37 she-wolf, and also Darius and Darina, two level-32 Wargs.

Successful Perception check
Experience received: 400 Exp.

The nighttime breeze carried the quiet conversation of the clan leaders to my keen ears. They were discussing my big-eared Goblin Herbalist:
"Seems to have quite a lot of pets for one player, and not the type you’d expect."
"Mhm. An Herbalist really shouldn't have that many."
"And notice: the pets are of a higher level than they should be."
"He's either a cheater, or the Boundless Realm Corporation fudges the numbers for their testers."
They thought I was a cheater! It was a shame, although during the Grand Hunt, I saw all kinds of accusations and insults thrown my way! And in large part, I didn't care what other players thought of me, even if they were world-famous stars from the very strongest clan in the game. Leaving the Gray Pack ten steps from the players, I jumped onto the sand from my huge white hound and read the information about them:

Kristina Mozzi [LEGION]
Level-332 Valkyrie

Leon Shadow_Hunter [LEGION]
Drow Elf
Level-305 Assassin

Violetta Bestia [LEGION]
Light Elf
Level-323 Chaos Mage

Antionio de_Pirienne [LEGION]
Level-317 Inquisitor

Strange. I had read unambiguously on the forum that the leader of the Legion of Steel was a player named Till Quick_Fingers, a level 350+ Thief, the deadliest and highest-level player on the Southern Continent. And he was also supposedly in possession of one of the five Silver Pegasuses, which the Legion of Steel had won in a large PvP clan tournament. All five pegasuses were here, though. Four were standing on the ground, and the fifth was still being ridden by the scout, spinning circles in the night sky. But none of the five riders fit the description of the clan leader. Maybe he was using the Veil skill to hide his real name?
After all, I had read about a big clan tournament and the winners... And here my memory obligingly provided me the names and classes of the fortunate prizewinners, who'd gotten flying mounts. There was definitely no Inquisitor among them.
"Till Quick_Fingers, I presume," I said with a bow, turning to the Inquisitor standing to the far right.

Veil Skill increased to level 14!

Based on the Inquisitor's reaction, I already knew I wasn't wrong. The player exchanged surprised glances with his companions, but they just shrugged their shoulders. A moment later, instead of the severe old Inquisitor, his eyes burning with a fanatic fire, before me was standing a tall man in clothing the color of a moonless night, his face obscured by a hood.

Till Quick_Fingers [LEGION]
Level-357 Thief

Together with their master, the pets also changed appearance. Instead of the trio of ghastly looking hellhounds, next to the thief appeared a dark shaggy spider the height of a person, a little gremlin with a miniature crossbow in his paws and a semitransparent ghost that looked like a barely noticeable boy in the dark.
"Have you found the lamp yet?" the Chaos Magess joined the conversation, immediately confirming my sister’s guess.
"We found eighteen lamps. Which of them it is, we do not know yet. But we have them all arranged in a row next to the cave exit. We haven’t touched them with our bare hands."
"Rational caution," the Magess replied, praising our actions. "This is only the fourth time this quest has fired in the game. The last three times, the attempt to call the genie ended fatally for the one who found the lamp and, what's even worse, the genie himself ran away and moved to a different place. Do you know the level of the monster?"
I shook my head "no." I could be sure the genie was higher than level-77, as it had defeated the Sandstorm Ifrit in its very den, but the question was: how much higher?
"We'll treat this mission with all due seriousness. The most important thing is not to allow the genie to flee." Till said, turning to his companions, then he turned to me. "You need to include five players in the group, I'll send the list in a private message!"
And just then a private chat window flickered open, and I familiarized myself with the information. Now that's a surprise. Four of them were standing right in front of me, but the fifth was not the owner of the fifth Pegasus, or even a player from the Legion of Steel at all!

Larsen Lucky
Level 237 Trader

Surprise must have shown on my face, because Till Quick_Fingers hurried to explain:
"He's an old friend of our clan, with whom we have certain understandings. What's more, he pays generously for the chance to take part in such activities."
And really, what difference did it make to me? I included the five names into the list of quest participants, after which the players standing before me grew noticeably happier and more relaxed. They couldn't seriously think I was tricking them, and didn't have any unique quest, right?!
 "Yes, it's all on the up and up, like we agreed," the Valkyrie confirmed. "And now I ask you not to interfere, or even come close to the place where we complete the quest! We'll call you when the mission is done, and the time to collect the reward has come! Our diplomat will give you the map and ingredients. The provisions are already unloaded. Your hungry mobs can wolf down everything there as soon as our soldiers walk away."
The starving orcs were devouring their food. They weren’t "feeding," or "eating." What they were doing could only be called "devouring." Hurriedly shoving food into their tusked maws, they were all trying to tear off the biggest pieces, swallowing, gagging, belching and champing. The spectacle was fairly unsightly, but I understood that this was not the right moment to teach manners to my wildlings. The humans, though, who weren't used to Orcish ways, gave dismayed winces and turned away from the barbarians.
The only member of the Legion of Steel who stayed with us and didn't take part in the battle with the Genie was Alexander the Great3st. The level-231 Sun Priest was riding a huge level-150 Tyrannosaurus. He'd stayed behind as a rear guard instead of going to fight the genie. At first, I was surprised at that fact, but remembered soon enough that the diplomat was of an advanced age and didn't ask a tactless question. All the same, the old man soon confirmed my guess:
"At eighty-two years, one starts to value calm, not the search for vibrant sensations. Without me, there are already enough people in the clan willing to spill their own blood fighting monsters. They value me for other talents. I'm quite a good organizer, and my great life experience helps determine which type of rhetorical approach will work best on a person. That helps in negotiating."
The old man fell silent, staring at the twinkling glow where the quest was being completed. The mages of the Legion of Steel had covered the location with a semitransparent dome, allowing them to enter, but nothing to leave. Based on the ghastly whelping coming from that direction and flickers of lightning, my caution hadn't been misplaced, and the genie had tested the magical boundary's strength several times.
A trade window opened. Alexander the Great3st was offering me three Ifrit Hearts, and asking for zero coins in return. Naturally, I agreed immediately.
"Today, our mages discovered that these hearts have a property we hadn't detected before..." the man began with a crafty chuckle. "I'm sure, Amra, that you already know about it. Half a million experience points is only interesting to a noob. Level 200+ characters get that much for killing just one monster. Removing level requirements from objects is also only useful to beginners. But improving resistance to air magic is a very interesting thing indeed. In fact, we can now even farm cloud palaces and the heavenly fortresses of air elementals. Before, those places were too harsh even for TOP alliances. So, the price of Ifrit Hearts is sure to take off into the heavens, and they'll soon be in very high demand. Now as for the maps..."

Alexander the Great3st [LEGION] offers you a private contract

I opened the contract and read the conditions. I was being offered to buy a map for zero coins. He waited for my agreement, and asked only after that:
"May I inquire, Amra, why you needed a map of such desolate and far-away places up the black river?"
It wasn't a secret, so I honestly told the old man that my boss at the Boundless Realm Corporation had given me a hard mission as a tester and employee to go to the upper reaches of the Styx. My boss told me that the owner of a flying mount was the very person for scouting new territories, and that such exploration would be to the benefit of all the millions of players of Boundless Realm. My boss also told me that many before me had tried to go up the black river, including large clans. So, I wondered about a map of those places, supposing that the Legion of Steel may have been just such a group.
"You've been given a very hard mission..." the old man said after a long silence. "The Legion of Steel was planning to make an expedition up the Styx a year and a half ago, when the developers had just added these regions to the game. New locations, new quests, unique resources. All of that represents a fairly great value and attracts us. But then a war came to a head between us and an alliance of three other clans, so the expedition never happened. After that, we simply watched other large clans break themselves one after the other trying to explore the river of death. I have no idea at all why the developers made these regions so impossibly hard to get through, or what reward is meant to compensate all these difficulties, or if such a prize even exists..."
The old man fell silent, but then sharply shuddered, as if he had seen or heard something I hadn't noticed. After turning his Tyrannosaur toward the quest location, the diplomat commented:
"It's over Amra. The genie has been pacified. Call your friends. The time has come to take your rewards."
Along with Valerianna Quickfoot, Taisha and I walked over to the shining dome, which many Legion of Steel mages were holding up with obvious effort. Guards placed along the perimeter advised me to proceed on foot, because the spell wouldn't allow NPC's, including pets or mounts. I jumped off Fimbulthul, and stopped, offering to let the girls go first through the magical barrier. I had serious doubts about Taisha, and I was already mentally preparing to ask the mages to remove the dome, but my NPC wife passed through without any resistance. Not wasting time, I followed after her. 
Based on the dozens of breathless bodies lying all around and black blotches of glassed-over melted sand, not long ago it had been very, very hot here, in the literal and figurative senses, and the Genie had made them pay handsomely for his freedom. Soon, I saw the one at fault for all this mess, a nearly transparent, pale blue essence was chained with a great many brightly glimmering power lines to a ball about one and a half meters in diameter hovering motionless in the air.

Al-Hassan Godsbain
Genie Sultan (unique creature)

A unique creature! His marker on the mini-map was golden! The rarest type of being in Boundless Realm, of which only one could exist. I could not determine its level. To me, the Genie Sultan was marked simply with a black skull, which meant the difference was higher than fifty levels.
Kristina Mozzi, the level-333 Valkyrie came out to meet me and my companions. After calling for our attention with a raised pointer finger, she led us through a quick set of instructions:
"To be brief, the mission conditions are thus: this son of Shaytan doesn't want to create anything material, but all the same, the 'wishes' he can grant can be of nearly any nature. The only limit is that the wish must be clearly described with numbers and statistics. You can reinforce a stat, raise a skill level or resist, determine the coordinates of a rare object or quest... Basically, just try some stuff out. We've already made our wishes, now it's your turn!"
Hmm, it would be interesting to hear the wishes of TOP players from the strongest alliance in Boundless Realm! Probably, after all, they needed something extremely rare, very interesting or global! Most likely, we were invited late precisely in order to leave us in the dark as to the demands of the leaders of the Legion of Steel.
For my own wish, I'll admit, I was lost. It seemed like I’d had a lot of time to think over a wish, but I still put the decision off for later, thinking I'd figure it out when I was there. But now, nothing sensible was coming to mind. Valerianna Quickfoot, seeing my hesitation, was first to take a step forward to the restrained being:
"I wish to double the effect from my Insect Swarm specialization to the Animal Control skill!"
The genie didn't say anything aloud, but clearly my sister got some kind of answer, because she immediately adjusted her wish:
"Alright, if doubling is impossible, then increase it by the forty percent the game rules allow!"
Based on what I saw, the genie agreed, because the Forest Nymph spent a few seconds standing in silence, then jumped for joy:
"Amra, I now have not twelve, but seventeen hornets! And they all have reinforcement bonuses from the total number of insects in the swarm! Dang, this is cool!"
After my sister, I stepped forward to the tethered genie, already more or less having formed my thoughts:
"I'd like to know where the items from the Cursed Set of Fenrir are!"
"Not possible," came a voice in my head. "For one wish, you may receive information about only one unique item."
"Alright, tell me the location of at least one item from the Cursed Set of Fenrir," I said, agreeing to his limit. But before the genie managed to answer, I hurriedly added: "except those I already have!"
"Ugh... You ruined such an amazing joke with your last words," the genie answered, clearly upset. "Alright. You can find the Boots of Fenrir in the Harpy village of Sini-Nalle in possession of a Minotaur rag-dealer named Rho."

Mission completed: Something even nicer...
Reward: One Wish Granted

Fame increased
Present value: 6

What was that about Sini-Nalle? Where was that exactly? And although I didn't yet have any idea about that place, I was certainly preparing to find out! I now had a new goal in the game!
But meanwhile, Taisha was in no hurry to tell the genie her wish. Instead, my NPC wife turned to the Valkyrie standing nearby:
"And what will happen when the last of the eight wishes is granted by the genie?"
Kristina Mozzi gave a predatory chuckle, displaying a set of snow-white teeth:
"The genie thinks we'll let him go after that... So naive! Who would refuse the chance to kill a unique creature?! That's both huge experience and unique loot, and also fame growth for everyone who takes part in the battle! So, make your wish quick, we're already getting sick of waiting. Also, it's night time, and lots of us have to work tomorrow."
"Alright, I won't keep you any longer..." Taisha turned around and walked in an unhurried gait to the doomed creature.
I'll be honest, at the very last moment, I had guessed what Taisha would wish for, and froze in horror from the sensation that a grand tragedy was inevitable. And my intuition didn't mislead me...
"I wish for the Genie Sultan Al-Hassan Godsbain to be set free!"
Taisha said this in Goblin tongue, so very few understood her. But I did. And so did the Chaos Magess Violetta Bestia, because the She-Elf gave a blood-curdling scream of horror and tried to protect herself, raising her magic staff for some kind of spell. But she wasn't fast enough. And it should be said that no one else nearby was either...

You have died
55808 Exp. lost
You will respawn in 59 minutes, 58 seconds at the last respawn point you set

Adjustment in Plans

I crawled out of the virtual reality capsule, soaked in sweat and feeling like a mouse that just escaped a cat. My arms were shaking in pain. I wasn’t as overexerted as after that long-ago night of rowing with heavy oars, but I felt not only depleted, but depressed. Just to think, my NPC girlfriend Taisha, who I'd known for many weeks now, had not only killed my character with her actions, but had also humiliated me in the ugliest way possible before very, very influential players!
I reached for my phone and called my sister. Val answered instantly, as if she was already holding her phone.
"Bro, I can't say I have good news. I lost a level and a whole hour for respawn. And although my forest nymph has the Polyglot skill, I still am bad at understanding Goblin tongue. What just happened?!"  
I explained exactly what Taisha had wished for. In reply, my little sister couldn't hold back her emotions and started cursing in the most natural fashion. This time, I didn't even tell my sister off. I had similar feelings myself.       
"And what now?" Valeria wondered. "If the loss of experience from death is noticeable even to us, just imagine how mad the high-level Legion of Steel players are gonna be! It's much harder for them to gain a level. They take a few days to level up, maybe even a week!"
"You’re right..." it was hard not to agree with my sister in this matter. "I feel like I can no longer count on their help..."
"Timothy, call their diplomat right now, apologize and explain what happened," Val suggested. "If you do, the Legion of Steel might not think we set it all up on purpose, and put us into their KOS list (kill on sight)."
It was the right idea, and I dialed the familiar number of Alexander the Great3st. All the same, the old man refused the call, not even wishing to speak with me. Bad sign, very bad sign! It meant an official representative of the strongest clan in the game was mad at me.
Such a large clan could express its anger at my big-eared Amra in many ways. And they wouldn’t have to join forces with the Goons and loudly declare a hunt for me, include me in their KOS list, or set a bounty for my big-eared head. If they wanted to, they could simply ruin this game for me once and for all.
For example, they could buy an item from Fenrir’s Cursed Regalia, thus stopping me from ever getting the full set. After all, I had technically just revealed my character-development strategy, and the representatives of the Legion of Steel had heard my wish. Or, for another option, they could simply kill all my orc pirates. For soldiers of such a high level, such a thing wouldn't even be hard. Without the help of the NPC orcs, it would be practically impossible for me to complete my new mission, and reach the upper parts of the river of death.
So, there were options and, to be honest, my shoulders were slumping due to all that happened. My mood was as low as could be.
As if sensing my gloomy state, I got a call from Val with words of encouragement. My sister understood that I was having a hard time, and assured me that the run of bad luck would end eventually. Beyond moral support, my wonderful little sister told me that she had found something interesting in an auction in the Lars province: a unique item called Wolf Claws, which seemed to be gloves.
"What, is that right?" I shuddered, gradually returning to life. "Tell me more!"
Valeria, with clear pride at the work she'd done, started telling me. There was no game-wide auction in Boundless Realm, each province had its own trade squares. So, she’d begun her search from the regions where Fenrir's Grey Pack had once raged. All in all, it was logical, seeing how the majority of battles had taken place in the Urtez and Lars regions, and the players who’d faced off against the wolves were primarily from there as well. She had done a context search for wolf, gray pack or Fenrir in active and old auctions and, fairly quickly, she turned up the Wolf Claws.
In the description, there wasn't a single word about the object being part of any set, and the gloves also had fairly weak characteristics:

+4% melee damage
+15 Agility +20 Strength
7% of damage dealt is transferred into healing
Immunity to fear

But the object was related to wolves, had first gone up for auction around the time of the Gray Pack's defeat, and was also unique and cursed! According to my sister, the owner of these gloves had placed them up for auction several times, trying in vain to palm off the unique item on any takers. The price had decreased in the previous months from thirty to eight thousand coins. But at that price, there still wasn’t a single taker for the cursed yet mediocre gloves, which could never be removed. Now, the auction would be over in just five days, yet not one bid had been placed. They were still valued at eight thousand, though. For thirteen thousand, I could buy the item now, without waiting for the auction to end.
"It looks a lot like what I'm looking for, but I'm still not that sure. But thirteen thousand coins is a totally acceptable price for an attempt, I need to try! Val, look at the list of trader players from the Lars region. They usually relentlessly advertise their services on the Boundless Realm forum. Pick one that’s active now, at night, but make sure he's reliable, with a good history. Pay all his costs and commissions, let him buy the lot and immediately send it on..." I thought for a few seconds... "to Dotur-Khawe, the subterranean city of the dwarves. As soon as I respawn, I'll fly there on VIXEN and pick them up."
"Timothy, I'd be glad to do all that, of course, but there is one little detail. My mavka simply doesn't have that much money!"
"Don’t worry, I'll send two thousand credits to your card now. Just use it to buy in-game coins. Twenty thousand coins should be more than enough for all the commissions and delivery."
I said this sentence, myself not even fully believing that these words belonged to me. Just a month ago, two thousand credits had seemed an unrealistically huge amount of dough, so much I may have even been willing to commit a crime for it. But now, I was spending two thousand real credits without a second thought and not even to buy a virtual object I definitely needed, just hoping I had found the right one!
Valeria hung up, planning to do as I said. I then opened the player made Boundless Realm database and looked for the village of Sini-Nalle, where the djinn had pointed me to, and where one of the items from the set was definitely located. Unfortunately, there was no information about any location with such a name. A search on the forum with all kinds of variations also didn't bring me any useful information. Fail...
There was still some time before I could go into the game, so I got dressed and went out into the main hallway, preparing to drink coffee and have a bite to eat. The only cabin in use tonight belonged to Kira. The Queen of the Harpies was hard at work despite the fact she had said she was tired and wanted to play hooky this evening. By the way... the djinn had said the village of Sini-Nalle was inhabited by Harpies. So, who better than their ruler, Kirra'ellita Huntress of the Night, to ask about this question?
Sure, when we had parted ways this evening, it hadn't been on the most pleasant of terms, and Kira was angry at me. But now, she had most likely figured everything out about Taisha's call into the real world and understood I was right. If that was so, the redheaded beauty should have forgiven me and may have even been feeling stupid for starting a fight.
I grabbed my phone and scrolled down my contact list until I reached Kira. There was no reason to call her now. She was in a virtual reality capsule, so she wouldn’t answer, but I sent her a message saying to call me. An automatic reply came in instantly:
"Invalid number. The destination number is not in use."
What the hell?! I had called this number several times before! Maybe Kira had set up a block on incoming messages because her high status drew lots of spam? To check, I tried to call Kira.
"Invalid number. The destination number is not in use."
Now that was really bad. Either my girlfriend had changed her phone number, or added me to her block list. Basically, nothing good...
As soon as the one-hour penalty for entering Boundless Realm was over, I hurried into my virtual reality capsule. My big-eared Goblin appeared next to the respawn stone on the edge of the desert oasis. Just like Valerianna Quickfoot, I had lost one level due to the stupid death, and my Goblin Herbalist was now back down to level-41.
It was a shame but, over the past hour, I had already managed to digest all my negative emotions on the matter and was not going to waste any time on lamenting, indignation or pulling my hair out (especially because my bald Goblin had was no hair to pull). I needed to leave it all in the past and act from there.
First of all, despite the high cost of communicating via magical messenger in the game, I sent a request to Kirra'ellita Huntress of the Night to find out about the village of Sini-Nalle from her Harpy subjects and buy the Boots of Fenrir for me from a Minotaur rag-dealer by the name Rho. I promised to compensate her immediately.
Having already sent the magical messenger, I belatedly decided to add to Kira that there was really no reason for her to be mad at me and block my phone number. My seemingly unbelievable words about a call from the Goblin Thief Taisha to the real world were probably already confirmed, after all. The Legion of Steel had also learned today that the NPC by the name of Taisha was very, very unusual. I paid for another message, but the little winged devil just spread his tiny hands helplessly:
"There is no a player in Boundless Realm by that name. I regret to inform you, but you spent the money on a postal messenger for nothing."
"Cut the crap! I sent her a message just a minute ago!"
But there was no one to listen to my outraged cries anymore. The messenger had dissolved into thin air without a trace.
The forest nymph appeared one step from me, surrounded by a whole swarm of huge ghastly hornets. The Mavka was obviously yawning, covering her predatory-sharp teeth with a hand.
"I did everything just as you asked," my sister praised her efforts. "I found a trader and payed for his services. The Wolf Gloves have already been bought, and I paid for express delivery to the Trader's Guild warehouse in Dotur-Khawe. The gloves will arrive in around an hour. Listen, big-ears, you're gonna fly off for the goods soon anyway, so there's no reason for me to stick around here. What's more, I’m dying to sleep. I'm just about to pass out. So, I guess I'll be logging off until morning. But first share the map of the black river of death you got from the Legion of Steel. Tomorrow, I'll study it at my leisure. Maybe I'll find something interesting."
I created a personal contract for Valerianna Quickfoot, added my entire known map of Boundless Realm and set the desired price at zero coins. My sister received the contract and, after wishing me pleasant gaming, logged off.
Approaching the orc camp, I had no idea what to expect. Perhaps there would be ashes instead of tents, heaps of bodies, a Legion of Steel ambush, or even an enraged djinn, having decided to hang around a bit and send me to respawn one more time. But everything was surprisingly calm. All the tents were in place, the pirate crew was sleeping peacefully, and I even noticed a night patrol, walking around the camp and maintaining order.
My very highest captain's tent, or now more like chieftain's, was also where it belonged in the middle of the camp. Having eaten their fill, the wolves of the Gray Pack, with the mythical hound Fimbulthul, were dozing off peacefully near the entrance to the tent. Blanca lazily lifted her head a bit and moved her ears when she saw me approaching. It was all insanely calm and ordinary, as if there hadn't been death and destruction just one hour earlier. I opened the tent door and went inside.
Irek and Yunna were sleeping near the entrance on pelts. Darius and Darina were back in human form snoozing away, hugging in their sleep. I was walking carefully, trying not to wake my companions. Taisha was dozing in the middle of the tent, languidly collapsed on a pile of blankets and pelts. The goblin beauty was wearing nothing but a nighty. Something was different with my companion, but I couldn’t tell what it was right away. Then it hit me. Taisha was at level-51! How? When? Just an hour ago, she was only level-33. Could it be...? I opened my bag to test my suspicion. There it was! I had only two Ifrit Hearts of the three I had gotten from the Legion of Steel diplomat. How?! I couldn’t believe Taisha had been brazen enough to rob her companion and husband!
Before waking her up and starting a fight, demanding explanations for her most recent strange behavior, I opened her info and familiarized myself with the current state of my unpredictable companion:

Taisha Spark
Level-51 Thief
Hitpoints: 580 of 580
Endurance points: 452 of 452
Primary skills:
Lockpicking (A I) level 27
Trap Disarming (A I) level 14
Dagger (S A) level 20
Stealth (A C) level 22
Dodging (A P) level 24 * Perk taken: Arrow Dodging
Crossbow (S A) level 3
Silent Step (A P) level 1
Secondary skills:
Pickpocket (A P) level 16
Athletics (C S) level 18
Culinarian (P A) level 13
Light leather armor (C P) level 12
Riding (A C) level 11
Lothario (Ch P) level 9
Shadow of the Leader (I Ch) level 1

Typically for a character who had leveled quickly through quests and other bonuses, her skills were quite low for her level. However, my Goblin Herbalist was in a similar position. So... that meant, at level fifty, Taisha Spark had taken Silent Step as a primary skill. What could I say? It was a totally natural choice for a thief trying not to give herself away with too much sound. But then as for the skill Shadow of the Leader, which she had taken as a secondary? I called up the in-game information and read the description.

Shadow of the Leader (former name Acolyte): A skill that allows the lower-level companion of a strong leader to project some of their master's glory onto themselves and act as their representative. As this skill grows, it will allow the companion to receive increased experience and boost their basic statistics. The effect is linear, based on the difference in levels between master and companion.
ATTENTION!!! This skill will not work or level if the companion and master are equal in level, or if the companion has surpassed the master.

I'll admit, this was a very strange choice for Taisha, considering that, after using the Ifrit Heart, the thief was higher than me by ten whole levels. It would be quite a long time before my companion could get even a slight return from this new addition. Alright, noted. I looked a bit further through the information.

Next missions to trigger: Taisha's Envy (normal, personal), Taisha's Disenchantment (unusual, personal), Taisha's Rebellion (unique, personal)

I could receive a unique quest??? Would you look at that! My experience as a player in all kinds of computer games was simply screaming at full volume that I must not miss this chance under any circumstances. I would have to create the necessary conditions to receive the unique mission, even if the Taisha's Rebellion name implied something problematic. The names of the other quests were also not too positive either, in fact.
So then, finally, Taisha's opinion of me. Now that was unexpected... Just +50 (friendship)?!  Considering the positive modifiers, the base value was just a pitiful +30. How?! Not very long ago, her opinion was the maximum possible +100. I also had a crazy high bonus guaranteeing that any check for Taisha's approval would succeed, excluding only the very most impudent and ill-advised. I had also fulfilled a bunch of quests, raising Taisha's opinion of me. Where had that all gone?
It seemed the time had come to wake the NPC thief and figure this all out! But how should I wake her up: with a tender kiss, a shake, or maybe a firm slap on the behind, in order to immediately show my upset mood? The beginning would determine the rest of the conversation, or so I thought.

Successful Perception check
Experience received: 40 Exp.

I noticed a flicker in Taisha's eyes through her squinting eyelids. The girl was not asleep and was watching me carefully. Alright then, one problem down...
"How am I to understand your behavior with the djinn and stealing the valuable alchemy ingredient from my inventory?" I decided to go right on the attack.
Taisha stopped pretending and opened her eyes. With a languorous stretch, she sat up on the bedroll and answered with two questions.
"What has you so surprised, Amra? The fact that I didn't allow it to end illegally?"
I choked on my next words, after the unexpected rebuff. Before I could come to my senses, Taisha threw herself at me with reproaches:
"Amra, you have huge ears, so you probably also heard the Valkyrie from the Legion of Steel. The undying had promised to set the imprisoned djinn free, but instead, they were going to kill him! You must have heard all that perfectly, admit it! But you did nothing! How are you any better than the undying that tricked the djinn, or destroyed my home village of Tysh, considering them mere mobs to be killed unceremoniously?! After all, these cases have a lot in common!"
Well damn. My own virtual girlfriend had made me feel shame! And I didn't know how to answer my NPC companion to make her understand. I couldn't just explain to a computer program that it would cause me huge problems both in Boundless Realm and the real world if I had tried to stop the Legion of Steel. And if I had purposely set the Djinn Sultan against them, it would be even worse! But Taisha was not going to close her mouth, continuing to dress me down:
"Anyhow, if you had simply expressed disagreement, the most powerful Djinn Sultan Al-Hassan Godsbain would have spared your life! Al-Hassan is the only one there who acted nobly and honestly. He didn't kill all the undying, even though he had both the ability and right to do so. Al-Hassan Godsbain killed only those who had tricked him and prevented him from getting free. And right before he disappeared, scattering most of his enemies and driving the rest away, the sultan of the djinn returned to me and thanked me for his freedom! And, seeing how I wasted the valuable wish on his freedom, the djinn promised to come help me and bail me out of problems three times!"
Woah! She now had a very powerful ally, who had proved himself capable of dispersing a well-organized team of TOP players all by himself. And she could call him three times! Taisha's wasted wish had earned her a very cool companion! That didn’t do much for me though. After waiting for the beautiful Goblin to say her fill, I asked her what had happened after the djinn got free.
"At first, all the surviving undying were very angry, confused and didn't understand what had happened. But after that, they very quickly realized I had set the djinn free."
"Did they curse at you? Threaten you?" I guessed, but was mistaken.
"It was actually the opposite. I was asked a few questions about my race, my life and my relatives. The undying wanted to know literally everything! I told them honestly about my childhood in the village of Tysh, my family, meeting you, and our marriage. There were so many unbelievably powerful and blindingly beautiful members of every race under the sun! I have never before felt such attention from the undying! I was praised for doing the right thing and not letting the glorious Legion of Steel break an oath. I was showered with gifts and asked to join their clan. I have never been heaped with compliments like that in my entire life!"
Taisha smiled from the pleasant memories. Clearly, my companion was very happy with the attention and streams of flattery poured on her by the Legion of Steel, competing in eloquence and applying their whole arsenal of charms, spells and skills.
"The head of the clan Till Quick_Fingers [LEGION], the best thief in all Boundless Realm, offered to let me be his companion! He promised to teach me all his thief wisdom in just a week, so that I could go with him on all kinds of interesting adventures! But still I refused, because I swore before the gods to be with you, Amra. That is precisely what I said to him. He didn't argue, and soon went back through the portal. But before they left, they asked me to think hard about whether to stay weak and pitiful with you, or rise up to the level of the gods of Boundless Realm with them."
Everything became extremely clear to me the players of the Legion of Steel quickly realized how unusual an NPC Taisha was and were interested in her. And really, how could they not be? She was an NPC that got quests, calmly walked through their barrier, which only players could cross, had her own point of view, and basically just behaved totally independently!
Blowing up at her with rage for releasing the djinn was totally senseless, and the strongest clan in the game would never act so low. But they still did try to take the unique NPC thief girl away from me. They had praised her to the heavens, given her gifts what girl, even if virtual, didn't love gifts and compliments? They'd probably told her a bunch of negative things about me. What was it that I'd heard slip through in Taisha's speech: "weak and pitiful?" That must have been where the fall in loyalty came from too. It was actually strange they didn't manage to convince her in the end. Clearly, my connection with Taisha was very strong to begin with, as even these players from a TOP clan were not able to tear her away. But they had significantly weakened that connection... And Taisha's next words confirmed that:
"I'll admit, Amra, I don't feel that you need me at all. All this time, you’ve never said a single word of kindness to me. You have no interest in me at all, you're always busy with your own stuff. Over the last five days, you've showed up a few times, and didn't even find any time to talk to me. Just tell me, what good is a husband like that?"

Mission received: Taisha's Disenchantment
Mission class: Unusual, racial, time-limited
Description: Manage to convince your NPC wife in less than ten minutes that you really are good enough to be her husband
Reward: 16000 Exp., +5 to Taisha's opinion of you, +1 Charisma
Penalty for failure: -30 to Taisha's opinion of you, event Taisha's Departure will trigger

Taisha's departure?! Now I really was afraid. No matter how flighty the green-skinned beauty was, I really didn't want to lose her. Sure, I couldn't get used to the idea that I had an official wife in the game, and didn't experience the tender feelings that Taisha wanted. But I was accustomed to her, and found her fun and useful. Also, one of the reason my clips were so popular was my beautiful goblin companion. So, I would have to fight for Taisha.
Just ten minutes? So little time! But I understood that pouring out like a nightingale and starting to whisper sweet nothings to my wife now was senseless, as was telling her I'd had a sudden flare-up of passion. First of all, Taisha was smart and would easily detect that I was being false. Second, I was sure not to outdo the Legion of Steel's professional charmers, who had brainwashed my NPC companion just an hour ago. I needed to act a bit differently. But how?
What separated me from the other players? I was a goblin just like Taisha. I should take advantage of that, all the more so given that the quest description said "racial." 
"Taisha, the last few days have been harder than I was expecting, and I haven’t had the time to give you the attention you deserve. But I'll correct all that tonight!"
"And how are you gonna do that?" my green-skinned girlfriend asked.
"Tonight..." I said, fitfully trying to think something up, "is the Night of the Wolf Riders!"
"I've never heard of that..."
"What are you talking about?!" I asked, feigning amazement. "It’s one of the most celebrated Goblin holidays! Maybe, in your village of Tysh there weren't any wolves to ride, so you didn't celebrate it? It was actually Goblins that invented riding in the first place! Our far-off ancestors were the first to saddle a wolf many centuries before humans even tamed the first horse! Ever since then, there has been an ancient connection between goblins and wolves, and Night of the Wolf Riders is one of our most beloved holidays, especially among young goblins!"
I was spinning pure nonsense, whatever came to mind, all the time keeping an eye on the countdown timer, which showed how long I had to finish the quest. Taisha then nodded unconfidently, digesting the information. Finally, the girl inquired:
"And how is this night celebrated?"
"Young Goblin boys and girls ride their wolves as far into the night as they can. To places far from the prying eyes and ears of their meddlesome parents, where there are no nosy neighbors, and they won't be tripping over curious babies. When they get away, they act foolish, chase one another, compete in strength and agility. This is the celebration where young boys meet their future girlfriends, and couples can finally be alone together without the older generation bothering them."
Taisha thought intensively in silence. It seemed to me that I had made a wrong move and led the situation into a dead end, having gotten caught in too deep a lie.

Successful Charisma check
Experience received: 160 Exp.

Successful check for Taisha's opinion
Experience received: 400 Exp.

The redheaded beauty started smiling unexpectedly. Her eyes lit up with a happy flicker:
"What a wonderful holiday! Too bad it wasn't celebrated in Tysh. And this is a moon-lit night, just right for a romantic outing. But I don't have my own wolf, and all members of the Gray Pack belong to you and only listen to you. Also, after a whole day walking in the desert, I have no interest in seeing more of these dreary sand dunes all around. But I'd never refuse flying with you on the wyvern!"
"Ehh..." I tried to object. "But VIXEN is too little to fly with two on her back!"
"If that's what you call little!" Taisha snorted. "Your flying snake has already shot up to eight steps long! She could swallow a person whole! But if you're right, and she still doesn't have the strength... Do you want to know how to give your winged snake a few levels in one go? After all, you have two more Ifrit Hearts!"
Wait, stop! I asked Taisha how she even know about the contents of my Inventory, and how she wasn't ashamed to steal my things?! Her reaction was unexpected:
"That isn't true! I didn't steal anything! I just looked at your things when we were standing next to the djinn. And so what? Is that not allowed?! And I only took what belonged to me. After all, I found the Ifrit Heart! You just asked me to look at it but, instead of giving it back, you popped it in your mouth and wolfed it down!"
What a bizarre interpretation of events... For a second, I even wished I'd failed Taisha's Disenchantment. But I quickly got myself back together and didn't even express myself too rudely. Instead, I ordered my companion to remove every more or less heavy item from her inventory, and promised to do the same, so the Royal Forest Wyvern would be able to take off with both of us on her back.
Taisha didn't argue. Thirty seconds later, on a carpet in the center of the tent, there was a towering mountain of seven-sided silver coins, a heap of magic scrolls, a whole set of armor and weapons from the Kingslayer set, a porcelain statuette of a dancing girl (which I had been looking for, thinking I'd forgotten it on White Shark), a leather case with a bunch of magic elixirs, a heavy ring of lock picks, a dwarven monkey wrench, and a few pretty baubles and trinkets the thief had managed to pilfer during our journey.
Taisha had taken only a couple daggers, and was wearing only the practically weightless thief's outfit I'd given her so long ago. I also took almost all the coins and the majority of my things out of my inventory, leaving just the minimum necessary reserve of alchemical elixirs, my blowgun and some ammunition.
VIXEN came to my first call and, although she did give a few dismayed hisses and flashes of her poisonous fangs, even allowed both riders to get up on her back. I had to sit first, otherwise my winged mount refused to obey. It was too bad. I had been hoping to hold onto my companion’s nice body during the flight. She looked so beautiful in the form-fitting dark clothes.
"We're flying toward Dotur-Khawe!" I told Taisha, and she didn't object in the slightest.
"Let's get on our way! I finally feel like your wife! Let's celebrate this wonderful night!" the girl shouted out provocatively, embracing me firmly by the shoulders.
I set my mount's trajectory for the subterranean city of the dwarves, and VIXEN tore off into the night sky, flapping her huge wings.

Mission completed: Taisha's Disenchantment
Reward: 16000 Exp.
Taisha's opinion of you has increased to +55
Charisma increased by +1

Riding skill increased to level 19!

Animal Control skill increased to level 16!

Level forty-two!

It seemed the situation was gradually starting to blow over. I'd already gotten back the level I'd lost by dying, and my relationship with Taisha was getting back to where it had been. I was hoping greatly that it was a good sign, meaning my unlucky streak of difficulties and failures was over, both in real life and the virtual world.
We flew in the night sky over the desert. From this perspective, it seemed to be made of pure silver. Taisha howled in elation and thanked me for the wonderful journey. But just taking my NPC girlfriend for a ride on my winged mount was not my aim. And also, my boss might not like to see me spending my time this way, which he would see as pointless, even if I was flying to Dotur-Khawe not just because, but to get a package I'd acquired at auction.
I still had the potential unique quest Taisha's Rebellion. So, for that reason, continuing to laugh and joke with my green-skinned girlfriend, I thought through the options of how to bring Taisha to that state. I could see that I needed to act extremely delicately here. On the one hand, I needed to make her upset, but I could not afford to allow an irreversible situation like Taisha's Departure.
We'd already been flying for around a half hour, and I still couldn't think up anything good enough for the quest. VIXEN then started to clearly sag. The flapping of her broad leathery wings was becoming more and more frequent and abrupt. I was looking for somewhere flat and secluded to take the wyvern in for a landing.
 "Great," said Taisha, approving of my actions. She was no longer in a fun mood and had sharply grown serious. "This is just what we need: a solitary place for a most serious conversation."

Release - January 17, 2018

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