Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Dark Herbalist, Book 2: Stay on the Wing



The Dark Herbalist: Stay on the Wing
by Michael Atamanov


release - June 2, 2017


The Tail-End of a Long Story


 "AMRA, ADMIT IT. At the end of the day, all our searching has turned up nothing. There’s no trace of them!" said the morbidly thin wood nymph in a light frock sitting on a fallen tree and yawning wide, demonstrating a set of sharp predatory teeth.
My sister hadn't gotten any sleep all night and was clearly beside herself. And the only reason she was up at this ungodly hour was me, not the light and not the dawn. Valeria had expressed her disapproval in sharp terms and refused to enter the game for some time. But the risk that some of the many killers after me might show up near the Cursed House was absolutely real, so in the end, Val apologized and agreed to come play with the rest of our group.


Max Sochnier, who I'd called on his cell phone, had promised to come in to work as soon as possible and catch up to us near Stonetown. And even Leon, after a moment of thought, asked me not to leave without him. I understood perfectly how difficult this choice was for the former construction worker, too. On the one hand, he had the half-destroyed goblin village of Tysh, where his character, an Ogre Fortifier, had work lined up for a month, providing him a steady stream of missions, experience and leveling. On the other hand, he was being asked to cast in his lot with our group, fleeing from hired assassins in peril and anonymity. Leon chose the option of staying with his friends, and I deeply appreciated that. By now, he would have already arrived by taxi to the Boundless Realm building, and should have been entering the game at any minute. After that, we could all run for our lives to Stonetown.
Taisha walked up to me, wrapped tight in my coat and accompanied by the clearly limping Akella. The beautiful green-skinned goblin lowered her eyes in response to my inquisitive gaze and shook her head.
"I’ve got nothing. I walked around the Stonetown stockade and checked the gates a few times, but the lady wasn't there. I looked over the tracks left by the farm workers again, too. There are a lot of footprints, but none from a lady. The runaway must have left a few days ago. I sent Tamina Fierce’s children with Lobo and White Fang back to check the road from Stonetown to Tysh in the opposite direction. Although, as you must understand, the chances are low. We've already looked there a couple times..."
I swatted at a level-4 Fly buzzing peskily around my ear (our Naiad Trader hadn't been exaggerating — near the river, there were flies the size of a fist) and plopped down wearily next to my sister on a fallen log. Taisha carefully found herself a place next to me.
Day was dawning. The sky in the east was growing noticeably pink. But today, I wasn't afraid of the sunrise, because I could already see plenty of thick rainclouds dashing about the sky like dark tattered rags. It would probably start raining any second, then our search for the missing dark-haired girl would become utterly useless — the rain would wash all remaining evidence away. The wolves of the Gray Pack would no longer be able to smell her trail, either. The rare Gray Pack's Past quest threatened to remain unfinished. But I had big plans that were entirely reliant on finishing that mission — it would give me the ability to include ferocious and swift-footed wargs in the Gray Pack, which was very, very tempting!
I took a heavy sigh and removed the brightly colored headband I'd found in the warg's lair from my inventory and spun it in my hands. To look at it, it was just a headband as average as they come, the kind village girls wear to keep their hair back but, when I found it, the next mission in the Gray Pack chain initiated. We couldn't just let that pass us by and let the runaway escape. I sincerely hoped we still had a chance. If not, we might have bungled the whole Gray Pack mission chain, which would be terrible. In vexation, I slapped my palm against an impudent fly landing on my forehead, crushing it.

Damage dealt: 18 (Slap)
Experience received: 4 Exp.

Object received: Dead Fly (bait)
Your character is missing the requisite skill to use this object
Skill required: Fishing (P A) level-3

I flicked the fly away. It was useless to me anyway. Then, I shouted in a fit of anger, not clear who I was addressing:
"There's no way a pregnant lady could just go up in smoke, much less with her young niece and nephew! After all, there must have been some reason for her suddenly fleeing after such a long stay. Just imagine how hard it must have been for her to walk! Damn, all these flies really have me worked up!"
As a matter of fact, a whole swarm of the buzzing insects had come in place of the one I’d killed, and were now cutting circles above our heads with a vile whirring sound. Valerianna Quickfoot shook her right fist, and all of her hornet pets moved out to help us, taking down the insolent blood-suckers in a matter of seconds. Taisha, on seeing the dangerous overgrown wasps, crouched down and tried to cover her head with her jacket. I, meanwhile, whistled respectfully, having counted at least ten wasps, which were either black and brownish-yellow or orange-red. I even saw that some of them had already reached level sixteen.
A bit more leveling and they'd reach twenty, then the Beastmaster could choose useful perks for them. Knowing my sister, I had no doubt that Valerianna Quickfoot had already thought through a development plan for her pets down to the smallest detail, considering both the strong and weak points. Clearly, the wood nymph hadn't selected her swarm at random, given the several distinct types of wasp within it. My sister, obviously flattered at the attention paid to her variously-shaded pretties, sent her flying pets away and answered me:
"Why she ran is, of course, clear. In the last few days, eleven of her friends have been killed. She likely knew they were wargs. She might not be, but she began justly fearing for her own life all the same. Although, Tim, we might be wrong. Maybe the dark-haired girl had absolutely nothing to do with it, and her leaving the farm is just a coincidence. In any case, we should come to an agreement on the runaway as quickly as possible — we can't just stick around near Stonetown. When the sun comes up, there might be assassins about. My opinion — we should stop searching and leave right away."
My sister then went silent abruptly and got on edge, seeing a bare-footed gray-haired old man dressed in a dark chlamys walking in our direction from the houses of the village. But based on how Valerianna immediately breathed a sigh of relief, I realized that this old man was familiar to her and presented no threat. I quickly read his info:

Umar Bonesetter
Level-45 Human Witch Doctor

This must have been the Stonetown doctor the wood nymph had met on our second day in game. She’d told me about him on a number of occasions. With a short nod to my sister, as if greeting an old friend, the gray-haired bearded man stopped next to me, looked me over and gave a kind-hearted laugh:
"You must be the big-eared goblin herbalist who moved into the Cursed House! I've been expecting plant deliveries from you for quite some time! You're late!"
If the old man thought he could shame me with those words, he was wrong. I was seeing him for the first time. I had no obligation to sell him plants, so I didn't feel at all guilty. What was more, I didn't even have enough plants to practice Alchemy with, so the witch-doctor was absolutely wrong to be counting on me. But the man wasn't even expecting me to answer and had already turned his attention to Taisha. Under his harsh gaze, my companion grew embarrassed, shrunk and wrapped herself tighter in the jacket, covering over her thin thief's outfit, still burned through in many places.
"In my time, girls would have been embarrassed to walk around looking like that," said the old man, shaking his head judgmentally. "You may enter the village. The guards at the gates know you. They'll let you through. My home is the second on the right from the gates. You’ll find a needle and thread on the shelf in the entryway. Sew that wretched outfit up."
Taisha turned to me and, after getting permission, jumped up off the log and scurried off to mend her clothes. The witch-doctor immediately took her place, croaked out like an old man and sat down next to me on the fallen tree. He gave Pirate a scratch behind the ear, truly unafraid of the level-17 Forest Wolf, dozing away under Valerianna Quickfoot’s legs. Being honest, I was taken aback by the old man's lack of caution. I mean, my sister's pet Pirate was a wild predator, after all, and this old man couldn't possibly know how the wolf would react to an attempt to stroke it like that. But the wolf just twitched his ear lazily, as if chasing off a gadfly, and continued dozing.
A private message came in from Shrekson:
"Me and Leon just entered the game and are hurrying on our way to you. We're going as fast as possible, but we still need an hour to get to Stonetown. Wait for us."
So, I had one more hour to pick up the runaway girl’s trail. In that time, the sun would be coming up. And after that, we would have to run as far as possible from Stonetown. The chance of us meeting a high-level enemy was increasing with every minute. Also, the residents of the human village would be waking up soon. They would be sure to take an interest in our search, making it impossible for the wolves of the Gray Pack to work effectively.
As if reading my thoughts, the old witch-doctor spoke with an old-man's growl:
"Come to think of it, this is some strange business. A whole group of goblins with a pack of wolves and a dangerous mavka came to our human village and, now, they’re all crawling about stubbornly trying to sniff something, or somebody out. One might start to think you have ill intentions for our village. Perhaps I should send a runner to the garrison for more guards…"
I turned in fear to the old man and discovered that he was smiling and could barely hold back his laughter.
"I'm just joking, dumbo," the witch-doctor hurried to reassure me. "The mavka told me who you're looking for yesterday. It's just that you aren't talking, Amra. I'm only trying to start a conversation."
"We is looking after runaway farmhand from long-away plantation. Many farmhand is run, master no understand where and why workers is leaving," I said, purposely distorting my words.
But the old man answered, beaming all the brighter and shaking his head in reproach:
"Oh, goblin, you're a bad liar... Never in a million years would I believe that the greedy Kariz would go search for missing workers, especially near the end of the season when pay time is coming. For him, the farm-hands disappearing is a good thing — it means he has to part with less of his coin."
I looked thoughtfully at the man, who appeared wizened by a long life... and decided to tell him the whole truth as it was, hiding nothing. And I even spoke in normal human language without my tongue-tied "goblin accent." Umar Bonesetter listened to my story about killing the wargs and discovering their lair very carefully, without a single interruption. And when I reached the part where I discovered the headband, leading to my suspicions on the runaway dark-haired woman, the witch-doctor said thoughtfully:
"The runaway was named Belle. I knew from her first day in town that she wasn't just a simple villager. She’s a short girl with short hair. She showed up in the village five months ago. The farm owner, Kariz, hired that group of farm-hands in the spring for sowing and asked me to give the lady a checkup. She looked far too thin, beat-up and unhealthy. It was as if she were ill. And also, her short hair aroused suspicion. What kind of girl would just cut off her braids like that? It spoiled her womanly beauty! The only reason I could think of would be typhus or some disease."
The old man stayed silent for a bit as if trying to remember then continued, noticeably quieter:
"At that time, Belle's belly wasn't noticeable at all. No one had any idea she was with child. But when I was looking her over, she just told me all about it. She said she'd fled back-breaking labor, squabbles, and humiliation. Even worse, she told me of her master’s daily unwelcome advances. She couldn’t even walk around the farm without being harangued. She told me that her former master's wife had cropped her hair like that to stop her stealing her husband away. I took pity on her, so I didn't tell Kariz anything about her pregnancy. Otherwise, he wouldn't have taken her on."
"So, what made you realize she was unusual?" the wood nymph inquired. "From my perspective, she sounds like a typical browbeaten village girl with a difficult lot in life."
For some reason, the old man looked ashamed and started coughing, then continued his story, now barely audible:
"Every woman asks the witch-doctor for help giving birth — healing elixirs, herbs, painkillers. That sort of thing. The prescription for birthing has been known since the beginning of time. It's always one and the same. First, a decoction of meadow heather, so the seed takes and turns head-down in the womb when the time comes. Then, a drink of wild honey, white chamomile and Saint John's wort, which gives her the strength needed for the birth itself. Women need many things to cope with childbearing, and I can prepare them all. But Belle asked me for something else entirely: wolfsbane, red mandrake, and enough strong sleeping potion to knock a mountain titan off its feet. Where did a poor browbeaten village woman get the money for such expensive elixirs? It didn't fit with her story. And though I’m not certain why she needed a sleeping potion, wolfsbane is known not just for its stupefying effect, but also for the fact that it stops shapeshifters from changing form. And that was when realized something was amiss and started keeping an eye on the young woman. But still, I didn't give Belle up to the villagers, because she was behaving herself. Also, wolfsbane must have meant the girl didn't want to become a beast even at the very height of the full moon. But the birth of her child was approaching inevitably. She'd never hide the truth from the midwives, so Belle fled together with her nephews."
Having said his fill, the old man fell silent, staring with chalk-white teary eyes at the nearby forest emerging from the fog. I asked the witch-doctor when he'd last seen the runaway.

Check for Umar Bonesetter's reaction failed

"Listen here, nimble one," the village witch-doctor cringed, upset. "If you don't wish to help me gathering plants, you can't expect me to help you. For a young buck such as yourself, it should be easy — you can gather everything you need in the blink of an eye. But for me, with my injured legs, having to wade through the swamp gathering blackberries and currants..."

Mission received: Plants for the Witch-Doctor 1/3
Mission class: Class-based, training
Description: Gather five bunches of Swamp Currant, Swamp Blackberry and Swamp Horsetail for Umar Bonesetter
Reward: 160 Exp., Herbalism skill +1

So, that was how I was supposed to level Herbalism! Instead of wandering through the dangerous forest at night, shivering at every rustling in the bushes and constantly fearing an encounter with a blood-thirsty monster, I could have just walked up to the witch-doctor and leveled Herbalism in training quests. On the other hand, how could my goblin have gone to the human village earlier, knowing that he would have been instantly sent to respawn due to his low Charisma and -20 penalty to human reaction? Also, I wouldn't have managed to come during the day and, at night, people tend to sleep, so the gates of Stonetown would have been closed!
I looked in my inventory. I had the plants I needed and in sufficient quantity, so I was free to just complete the first witch-doctor mission right away. However, I only needed to gather a few more plants to reach Herbalism level seven, so it would be stupid to waste the free level-up. There was still time before the ogre and naiad would arrive, so I found out from the old man where to go to reach the nearest swamp and headed off to gather plants. It wasn't far, and also the mission was very simple — the plants he asked for grew densely nearby so, twenty minutes later, I returned with my Herbalism skill already at level seven.
Umar Bonesetter was still sitting on the log, speaking peacefully with the wood nymph. I walked up and handed the old man the plants he requested in silence.

Mission completed: Plants for the witch-doctor 1/3
Experience received: 160 Exp.
Herbalism skill increased to level 8!

"Good! What took you so long?" the old man exclaimed joyfully, stashing the bundles of herbs in his rumpled and dirty sack. "Alright then, I'll answer your question, as promised. I last saw Belle on the same day the undying came, packing our village to the brim. It was some time in the middle of the day. I’d be more exact, but I don’t remember. She was standing by the dock and gathering water from the river in birch-bark buckets."
I felt like a light-bulb switched on over my head. That was it! River. Boats. How hadn't we guessed that right away?! Based on the way the wood nymph turned toward me with her eyes burning in enthusiasm, my sister was thinking the same. But then, she froze, grew sad and wrote me out a private message.
"Somehow, the timing isn't coming together. This means Belle must have run from Stonetown BEFORE we killed the first wargs. The death of the shapeshifters couldn't have been what spooked her. She was already gone."
I answered my sister, also in a private message:
"It seems she didn't know about the death of the eleven wargs, but fled anyway. Her due date must have been growing near, and she was afraid to be revealed. Or maybe she left later and the old man simply didn't see her for those few days. But taking a path down the river really does suggest itself — I mean, we didn’t find any footprints on land, and a boat would be the simplest way for a pregnant lady to get far away from the village."
"Have any boats disappeared from Stonetown recently?" I asked Umar Bonesetter directly, to which I got another indignant facial expression from the old man, and a second quest about engaging my main skill for the witch-doctor:

Mission received: Plants for the witch-doctor 2/3
Mission class: Class-based, training
Description: Gather ten bunches of Mountain Lily, Common Holly, Saint John's Wort of the Field, and Fire Poppy
Reward: 320 Exp., Herbalism skill +1

I read the description and froze briefly. I hadn’t seen any of these plants in my last few days of gaming. In fact, other than Fire Poppy — I had never seen any of these flowers at all. Naturally, I asked the old witch-doctor where they grew. The old man's answer was not at all to my liking:
"As a goblin, you should know better than me. Far as I know, whole fields of these poppies grow next to the village of Tysh, somewhere beyond the graveyard of burning skeletons."
That was absolutely unacceptable. Even riding the Gray Pack, getting to Tysh and back would take much more time than we could afford. Well, here goes nothing! I decided to offer the old witch-doctor another option:
"Listen, Umar Bonesetter. Even though the plants you want don't grow right under our feet, they are still very commonplace. There's plenty of them in the neighboring forests, and you can easily find them yourself or send someone else out after them. Instead, I’d like to offer you the true wealth of an Herbalist — I've got hundreds of the rarest plants drying on the second floor of the Cursed House — White Lily, Shaggy Currant, Goblin Berries, Wolfsbane, and Colorful Mandrake. And near the stairs, there’s a way down into a cave with a stream. Down there, you'll find Red Stinker mushrooms, Cave Morels, Black Moss and lots of other stuff you'd never find on the surface. Let's make a deal — you can have all these riches for yourself, and I don’t have to stomp the wet road to Tysh in the rain."
By the way the old man's fingers were shaking, I could immediately tell that my offer was extremely interesting to the witch-doctor. Yet he was still hesitating:
"So, you want me to go to the Cursed House? Come on... You're undying, Amra, so you will be fine no matter what. But what if some monster living there eats me alive?!"
"Don't you worry about that, old man. Last night, I killed the creature that was murdering its inhabitants. It was called a Midnight Wraith. Now, it's all safe."

Successful check for Umar Bonesetter's reaction
Experience received: 40 Exp.

Trading Skill increased to level 12!

"You better not be lying, big-ears..." the old man grumbled, upset, trying to hide his joy and impatience with all his might. "Alright, I agree to the trade."

Mission completed: Plants for the witch-doctor 2/3
Experience received: 320 Exp.
Herbalism skill increased to level 9!

Mission completed: Plants for the witch-doctor 3/3
Experience received: 480 Exp.
Herbalism skill increased to level 10!

The witch-doctor considered the goods I offered valuable enough to immediately complete two steps of his quest?! Say what you will but that was unexpected. I smiled ear to ear in satisfaction, but my joy wasn't long-lived:
"No, no boats have disappeared from Stonetown. All three of them are still at the dock. Go check for yourself."
It seemed to me that the old man was really glad that he'd managed to put me in a bind with his answer and trade such banal information for a whole load of valuable plants. And indeed, Umar Bonesetter was quite pleased with himself. He even explained the reason:
"Understand, goblin, the run-away lady was very kind to me, so I don't want anyone finding her, much less pestering or threatening her. So, as long as you don't have any more questions for me, I'll be on my way — I'll need to get a cart for your plants."
The witch-doctor stood with a creak and slowly walked toward his home, leaning on his cane. He was just seven steps away when my sister shouted out to him:
"Umar, can you tell me anything about Belle's nephews? Or are you going to make me complete some task to get the truth?"
The healer turned unhurriedly and frowned. Just when I’d decided we wouldn’t be getting an answer, the old man surprised me:
"Sure, I'll tell you about those two. What's to hide? They’re Belle’s niece and nephew. The boy’s name is Dar, and the girl is called Dara. They’re around twelve or thirteen. A pair of thieves, villains, and hooligans — not much more to be said about those two young whippersnappers. If something went missing in our village, or a child was hurt, there could be no doubt it was their doing. A couple of born criminals, whose misdeeds can only be recouped by hard labor, or even the chopping block. They have no education, no discipline, and no respect for their elders. And also, the girl is no better than her brother. Completely hopeless. The villagers punished them many times: caning, locking them out in the cold, and even bringing a whipping post into the center of Stonetown... Nothing helped. When their aunt wasn't so big-bellied, Belle reined them in at least somewhat. She'd give them a good thrashing with either the rod or the whip. It was so intense that I could hear their hollering all the way at the other end of the village. Those two madcaps were afraid of her. They obeyed her. But when she got heavy, there was no longer any control. I'll be honest: I was quite glad to hear that those hooligans were finally out of our village. You can be sure no one was too upset about that."
After these words, the old man spit on the ground in annoyance and walked into Stonetown. And at that very moment, the skies opened up, and a real downpour began. The witch-doctor, displaying a surprising agility for such a hoar-headed old man, stuck his cane under his armpit and hopped like a hare into the village. My sister and I, on the other hand, had to quickly run under the nearest wide-branched tree in order not to get soaked. There, I voiced a thought:
"I'll be direct. It sounds like these kids were pretty rough around the edges. Perhaps, we'll be able to try and find the three of them by asking in the neighboring villages about two hell-raising youths. If not, we clearly won't get anywhere — this rain will wash away all their footprints."
My sister was looking at me strangely — with condemnation or even pity.
"Tim, you're really off your game today. 'Your girly' isn’t even around to distract you with her curves, but still there’s a big lag in your thinking. Even though he didn't want to, the old man gave a clear hint with his answers. You really didn't pick up on it?"
I considered it, but was forced to admit that I had absolutely no idea what my sister was talking about. The wood nymph had to chew over the facts before it reached me:
"Belle was seen at the dock on the same day all the players came en masse to Stonetown to kill the unique flying snake Kayervina. All three of the local boats are still at the dock, so the runaway couldn’t have used them. But there was one more boat, remember! On that very same day, a Naiad Trader you know well by the name of Max Sochnier came to Stonetown in his own boat, full of fresh and dried fish! But the naiad was forced to leave the boat full of goods and dive underwater, because PK-ers attacked him right next to Stonetown! Well, that fourth boat must have ended up somewhere!"
"Val, you're a genius! I owe you an ice cream," I smiled, admitting the soundness of my little sister's idea. "They're not likely to have tried taking the boat against the current — it's hard for a pregnant lady to constantly paddle like that, even with two teenagers. That means we should search down-river. But we won't catch the runaways on foot — the banks are swampy, overgrown and stony, plus they’re teeming with aggressive beasts of all kinds. We need a boat. A few boats, in fact. Our whole group won't fit in just one."
"You're being obtuse again, big-ears," said the mavka, shaking her head helplessly. "No normal flat-bottomed boat would be capable of holding our gigantic ogre. And also, you're forgetting that we are gonna have to hide as well. So, there's no reason to leave our pursuers such an obvious hint as stealing boats from Stonetown."
Valeria was right again, just like always. I opened my map. The naiad trader had previously sent me his discovered map, so I could see the whole path to the ocean. A few kilometers down from the village, the nameless river made a sharp bend, curving around a thickly forested narrow headland. I zoomed in as much as possible on that part, and noticed pine tree symbols. I figured that was exactly where I should be going. I wrote out private messages to the ogre and naiad, sending them the coordinates of the place we should meet. At the same time, I asked the ogre fortifier how long it would take him to build a sturdy raft capable of holding our whole group along with the wolves. An answer came back almost instantly:
"I have the tools with me. If there really is a good pine forest there with tall, straight trunks then, with my current skills, it should take an hour and a half to build a raft, two at most. Could be less, especially if I have help."
"We'll be sure to help you. After all, it's in our shared interest," I promised.

* * *

I'd never before had the chance to see the ogre fortifier at work. Without any exaggeration, I can say it was a fantastic and captivating spectacle. Fifty-year pines fell to his ax with incredible ease. Bark and twigs flew like from a fountain. The giant carried the thick logs as if they were reeds. An hour later, Shrekson Bastard was pushing the finished raft made of heavy, tightly lashed logs into the shallows, helping the others, then finally getting on it himself.
Although the rain had grown noticeably quieter, it was still not letting up for even a second. The sopping-wet wolves of the Gray Pack were shivering, pressed up one to the next, stumbling on the slippery logs as our craft bobbed in the water. The canines were staring longingly at the nearby shore, but still, none of them had the gall to disobey my orders. Taisha and Valerianna, hidden from the rain and cold wind under a black warg pelt, were clattering their teeth in syncopation. Tamina Fierce's children, the wolf riders Irek and Yunna, despite their unseasonably light clothing, were surprisingly vivacious and happy. The goblins were laughing and joking, not even trying to hide their joy and excitement.
The weather meant nothing to the ogre, and I also was bearing the icy rain with aplomb, just yawning occasionally, tired after a sleepless night. But Max Sochnier felt best of all. The fish-man was finally in his element, sitting on the bow of our raft, excitedly stabbing river fish with a harpoon and occasionally commanding the giant to steer in one direction or the other.
For the first few minutes of our trip, I was slightly worried for the sturdiness and steering of the raft, but a half an hour on, I was now fully reassured. We were traveling at an even pace, going around obstacles and sandbanks with no effort, easily snaking around all the river's curves. According to the naiad, the path to the ocean should take about six hours, so I was hoping to get some restful sleep, taking shelter from the rain under the warg pelts. But before I managed to find a comfortable spot on the back of the raft, Max Sochnier cried out hectically:
"To the right! Over there, in the reeds!"
I grew alarmed, throwing off the warg pelt and looking. In the reeds near the shore, I saw a half-sunken boat sticking out of the water.
"That's my boat! I recognize it!" the naiad continued, his bright red back fins extending in agitation.
The fish-man jumped off the float, quickly scooping with his webbed hands and tail, trying to dig out the sunken oar-boat.
"We should pull up on that shore and do a quick search!" I ordered, and the ogre fortifier turned the rudder sharply.
We made it through the thick patch of riverside reeds with some effort. I even had to cut a passage in them as the ogre jumped overboard and pushed our raft on shore. Finally, we came upon dry land. I was planning to assign the wolves a mission to search for signs of the people, but before I even had time, Irek had already shot up the bank and was calling the group to come see what he’d found.
It was a small hut, which looked to have been made relatively recently, a few days ago at most. The leaves on the branches it was made of were still green. Next to that, we found the remains of a fire pit and a ton of picked-clean bones from what looked to be a huge ruminant of some kind. The wolves came up to where we were standing, sniffed, then their fur bristled up and their tails went between their legs in fear. They scampered away from the remains of the feast. I though, took a closer look.

Successful Perception check
Experience received: 80 Exp.

On most of the bones, you could see the traces of sharp teeth and raw meat fibers. I picked up a few bones to make sure of my suspicions. Yes, the predators, whoever they were, had torn their prey to bits and devoured it. But there was something else — some of the bones had clearly been boiled in a pot. When I told my companions this, their reaction was somewhat surprising:
"Hey, we could stand to eat something, too," the ogre mumbled. "Since morning, I've had a yellow fork and knife icon flashing in the corner of my screen, and just now, it went red..."
For some reason, everyone turned toward me, as if I was supposed to be carrying food for the group. Where did they think I was hiding it?! My big-eared troglodyte was hungry himself, which I told them immediately.
"I could catch fish. I've got tackle," the naiad offered. "That would take some time, though, and I'd need bait."
"There's a crap-ton of bait by the river!" I answered, slapping yet another a red fly on my face and offering up its little corpse for the common cause. "One fisherman is not enough to feed our whole big team, though. We should go on the hunt and catch something bigger all together. I'll call my wyvern right now. She can look for prey nearby from above."
I hadn't brought VIXEN to Stonetown for obvious reasons — a horde of wolf-riding goblins was sure to attract unhealthy attention from the locals as it was. But then, if our cohort had been traveling with a three-meter flying snake, we surely would have been the object of heated discussion for many days to come, a fact that would certainly not have gone unnoticed by the undying on my trail. At any rate, it took the level-16 Royal Forest Wyvern just one minute to fly in to my call. The snout of the flying snake was smeared with fresh blood.
"What a smart cookie you are! You caught something and ate it all on your own!" I said, stroking the dangerous beast affectionately on the shoulders, at the same time noticing that my pet had leveled up and increased in size.
My forehead pressed to the head of my winged mount, I tried to communicate the mission to her as clearly as possible in vibrant images — find large creatures from the air in the forest nearby. Enough to feed our whole big team. I do not know how well she understood but, after some time, VIXEN flew off, flapping her wings and disappearing into the low rainclouds.
"Amra, what mission did you choose for your mount in the settings: scouting, patrolling territory or hunting?" my sister inquired. I answered honestly that I did not know myself, and told her about my experimental approach to communicating with the wyvern.
The wood nymph shook her head doubtfully.
"I don't think that will work. There's a normal game interface, with popup menu describing all possible options for missions one can give pets and mounts. The option 'search for large game' is not among them, though. You could have tried using a combination of existing commands, but I’m not sure that would work either..."
Valerianna then went silent, though, because VIXEN was already back. Flapping her wide wings, wet from the rain, the green wyvern set down on the grass and crawled in my direction, not so much walking with her legs as slithering like a snake. The emerald green winged beast bowed her head and carefully touched it to mine. Before my eyes, there came a kaleidoscope of pictures, reminiscent of screenshots taken from flight.
Breaks in the clouds. Riverbank visible. Thick brush. In it, a big animal is standing and chewing young shoots contemplatively. It’s a huge Bull Moose. Wide hooves and branching antlers. Powerful back and hump. Thick black beard. Column legs. And a red skull symbol, meaning that the animal surpassed the wyvern in level by more than twenty.
I tried to figure out where these pictures might have been taken. The river was behind me. Higher up the river, it gradually turned to the left. Yep, this was about what it should have looked like from the sky. And as a matter of fact, higher up the river, I could see a hill overgrown with brush in the distance. It seemed that was precisely where we'd find our prey. I loudly announced as much to my friends:
"A half kilometer that way, there's a big moose grazing in the bushes. It's approximately level forty or fifty. I say we go hunt it."
In reply, I got a long silence, then Max Sochnier inquired cautiously:
"Fifty? And what if it decides to come hunt us? I mean, we're non-combat characters. We can't fight like that!"
"Amra, we won't even be able to seriously wound it with such a high difference in levels!" the ogre fortifier exclaimed, supporting his friend's doubts.
I exchanged surprised glances with my sister. The wood nymph didn't understand their unplaced hesitation, either.
"I’m sure we can take down a level-fifty animal as a group without any losses. But no one will force you to run at the hardened creature with your trident and sledge-hammer," I reassured the construction worker and trader. "It's just an NPC animal, even if high level. We can take it down with tricks!"
"That's right!" my sister chimed in, bolstering my point. "We can dig out a pit like the one near the Cursed House. We can stick sharpened stakes in the bottom, put branches over top and draw the moose toward us! It will all be very simple! The main thing is us going far enough away so the animal won't see us or suspect a trap."
"Uncy Amra, I can make a little horn out of bark that will bellow like a moose in spring," Yunna offered. "Shaman Kaiak Badgerleg taught me. It isn't spring now, but a mature moose will race to the call to catch a glimpse of whatever freak dared invade its territory."
And that's what we decided to do. The ogre fortifier was working at the speed of an excavator with a normal shovel, and had already been breaking fresh ground for several minutes. The space was surely big enough for a large moose, now. As he dug, the others had been gathering logs and branches, which we'd use both as stakes and cover for the trap. Taisha and I placed the branches over the pit — we were the two in the group with the highest Agility, which meant we had the lowest chance of falling into the hole.
All that was left was to solve the last problem — how to lure the animal toward the trap and force it to stand on top? Here, my sister came to our aid:
"Give me a few minutes, and I'll make an illusion of an insolent young male moose. But first, I'll need a picture of a moose..."
Valerianna Quickfoot froze motionless, and I figured my sister must have taken off the virtual reality helmet, minimized Boundless Realm and was looking at pictures of moose on her monitor, trying to find the most suitable representation. A minute later, my sister came back to life:
"Found one! Alright, go hide in the woods! And tell Shrekson to blow the horn — he'll be able to make the loudest sound!"
We laid down in a streambed, sending the wolves and wyvern away, so they wouldn't upset our scheme. The deafening bellow that rang out was more reminiscent of a locomotive whistle than an animal's call, but Yunna and Irek assured me it was working exactly as intended. Shrekson ran up to us and also dove into the ditch. Nevertheless, nothing happened.
"Didn't work?" I supposed, but the wood nymph stuck a finger to her lips, calling for silence.
"Quiet! He's coming," Valerianna whispered, barely audible. "I see him on the mini-map. You'll see him soon as well, big-ears."
Not even a minute later, I saw a red skull marker on the map. The moose was slowly approaching, taking long breaks to look or sniff at something. Something here was setting off the animal's sixth sense.

Successful Perception check
Experience received: 16 Exp.

Wind! That’s must have been it! The wind was blowing over the trap. The moose could smell the wolves, goblins, and other creatures. All those smells were bound to be obvious, yet there was no scent from its rival — a self-assured young moose! I wrote my theory in a private message to my sister.
"Well, what can I do with that? I can't create illusory smells."
So, I answered the wood nymph:
"Change the bait. Make it a female moose."
"Tim, this isn't the season. And still, there wouldn't be any smell."
"I've got an idea! What about a young and stupid wolf, who not only won't run away, but also has the gall to bare his teeth at the proud and strong moose! There is a wolf smell, so it might work. The moose will want to teach the impudent wolf a lesson and chase it off his territory."
Valerianna wriggled her lips, conjuring something or just repeating the new mission to herself out loud. It worked! The Bull Moose saw the newly-created illusion and started trumpeting out to the whole forest so loud that the sound Leon made earlier now seemed like nothing but a pitiful parody. This bellow was not only deafening, and literally at that, it hit all of us with a whole array of unpleasant effects:

Damage taken: 34 (level-31 Fear spell)
3 second Panic effect
15 second Deaf effect

Successful Perception check
Experience received: 80 Exp.

Successful Constitution check
Experience received: 160 Exp.

Health level: 179/216

I can't really say what two negative effects Amra managed to avoid, but those he'd been unable to stop were bad enough as it was. I got control back over my character but, by that time, the terrified goblin had already started racing off through the forest, not at all caring about finding a path. I collapsed in the grass, hoping sincerely that the bull moose wouldn't pay any mind to a little goblin hopping away in the distance, and would instead be distracted by its intended target. Irek dashed past me, his mouth open, screaming out wordlessly — he had also clearly fallen to panic. Finally, my hearing returned. Behind me, I heard the elated clamoring of my friends. I could make out distinct shouts of joy. Had it worked? The NPC marker on the mini-map changed from yellow to aggressive red, but it wasn't moving and was approximately in the spot where we'd dug the trap pit. Now more confident, I started off toward the trap first at a fast clip, then at a run. Still, though, my friends reached the trap first.

Level-48 Bull Moose

The powerful beast had fallen exactly the way we’d planned but, by some unimaginable luck, it had managed to avoid being seriously wounded by the stakes at the bottom of the pit. A few of the sharpened wooden spears had torn through the animal's hide or scraped along the ribs, leaving abundant bloody lesions. But the moose's life bar hadn't really gone down much and was still in the green. What was more, regeneration was restoring the moose's health faster than the bleeding was bringing it down. A minute later, the life bar of the cornered animal was already back up to maximum.
The moose stood looking at us in silence, though he probably could have given his terrifying bellow another try. It might just get rid of us. The moose slowly turned his head and looked over the weak creatures who'd captured him one after the next. When my turn finally came, I saw the proud beast staring at me. Looking into his teary eyes, intelligent in a seemingly human way, I started feeling unwell. Yes, I understood perfectly that the being before me was nothing but a piece of programming code made to be slaughtered in a virtual game. There was no true moral imperative stopping us from roasting its meat over a fire and simply gorging ourselves but, for some reason, I felt unwell. I didn't know how to explain to my comrades that I'd changed my mind and no longer wanted to kill the handsome moose, but suddenly the ogre fortifier burst out:
"Friends, I'm taking a pass. I can't watch him in torment like this. Split him up, but leave me out of it. I won't touch the moose meat. I'd rather go hungry or make do with mindless plants and fish."
I wasn't expecting such sentimentality from our giant. Although, I was reminded that seeing the torched goblin village of Tysh had also made a very strong impression on Shrekson, giving him a nervous condition and insomnia. Despite his thick-skinned appearance, the former construction worker was quite impressionable and kind-hearted. The ogre turned away and, with a decisive step, started tramping off in the opposite direction of the trap pit.
"This moose would make a great mount. It could support the weight of the ogre..." the wood nymph said thoughtfully.
All at once, everyone suddenly turned toward Shrekson. The ogre stopped sharply, as if he'd hit a stone wall, turned around and... A miracle happened — the red dot of the moose in the trap instantly changed to blue, meaning ally. Over the antlered head of the animal, there appeared a name: "Lil_Timbo."
"Just a name, no worse than Vixen or Pirate," our giant hurried to assure everyone, though no one had really looked surprised or laughed at the strange, fairly inappropriate name for the huge beast.
I didn't go help the moose out of the pit — there were plenty of helpers as it was, and the ogre would also have managed easily on his own. But, taking advantage of the commotion, I took a vial of the forest giant's blood:

Moose Blood (alchemy ingredient)

I walked a bit farther from the others back toward the shelter we'd found, crawled into it under the cover of the twigs and drank the vial down.

Achievement unlocked: Taste tester (14/1000)

My Sating the Thirst bar was practically filled, showing 18/20, so my goblin vampire could go another eighteen hours without the blood of any victims. And also, my desire to sleep was growing ever stronger. I was yawning practically nonstop. A little bit longer, and I would simply collapse from exhaustion.
I crawled out of my hiding spot and froze, drawn to some bizarre sounds. Not far from me, there was a muted combination of growling and whimpering. I entered Stealth Mode and walked toward it. I carefully moved back the bush branches and discovered the whole Gray Pack gathered in a little glade, digging into the earth with abandon. Intrigued, I walked up closer.
The wolves were throwing back the damp loose earth with determination, digging out a shallow pit. It was clear that the dirt was fresh and gave easily. There was something strange buried there. I pushed aside the forest predators, leaned over and pulled out a dirty canvas bag. I stepped back and emptied the contents onto the grass — I saw some rumpled rags, and a pair of battered woman's sandals. I stood up and started sorting through my findings.
Clothing. Village-woman’s clothing. On top was a dirty, very patchy old dress. It was unclear what color it had been originally. Along with it, I found a ripped sleeveless blouse and a pair of short canvas pants, or more likely, boy's shorts. Under that, there was a relatively clean, though also very wrinkled pinafore, a set of dirty work clothes, some cheap glass beads, a pair of well-worn woman's sandals, and a four-colored headband like the ones village girls put in their hair — identical to the one I had in my inventory.
Was that all? I looked carefully at the clothes laid out on the grass.

Successful Perception check
Experience received: 40 Exp.

On the dirty gray dress, I noticed and removed a long black hair stuck to the fabric. It was sixty centimeters long and too coarse to be from a human. I wrapped the strange hair around my fingers, trying to figure out what it belonged to.

Successful Perception check
Experience received: 80 Exp.

Warg tail hair (waste)

The runaways we were searching for had scuttled their boat, hunted and eaten their fill, after which they'd buried their old clothes in the depths of the forest and changed their human appearance for an animal one. It must have been a few days earlier. Now, the warg pack could be anywhere, and the ceaseless rain had made searching for their tracks cursed to failure from the get go...

Cards on the Table


NOW, WE HAD to think about what to do given that the lady we were searching for had managed to get away. My friends suggested we set up a temporary camp and look for tracks in the nearby forests. I didn't see a particular reason for that, but I didn't argue with the collective opinion, either. Not wanting to nod off from exhaustion and be an example of idleness while my friends were hard at work, I exited Boundless Realm. My sister promised that our group wouldn't go far in the next day, so I wasn't especially worried. I knew I could catch up to them when I got back.
Already out of my virtual reality capsule, I spent a few minutes sitting on the stool in my work cabin, coming to my senses. It was quite the tiring and nerve-wracking game session. But my tribulations weren't in vain — my big-eared Amra managed to revive all his dead NPC companions and leveled up a good amount. I opened my stat window:

Name: Amra
Race:           Goblin  Vampire
Class:          Herbalist
Experience, 139777 of 150000
Character level, 27
Hit points,    196/216
Endurance points, 185/185

Statistics:

Strength (S) 28 (28)
Agility (A)     30 (82.6)
Intelligence (I)        5 (15.5)
Constitution (C)      29 (35.5)
Perception (P)        3 (25.7)
Charisma (Ch)       54 (66)
Unused points       0

Primary skills (6 of 6 chosen):

Herbalism (P A)     10
Trading (Ch I)        12
Alchemy (I A)        15
Dodging (A P)        9
Stealth (A C)          13
Exotic Weapons (A P)      6

Secondary skills (5 of 6 chosen):

Veil    5
Acrobatics   8
Athletics      8
Foreman      5
Riding          4

I had yet to choose my last secondary skill, still a bit bewildered at the abundance of options. My sister was strongly in favor of me choosing Animal Control (I Ch), improving the stats of my pets. And there was a certain sense in that — I already had the Royal Forest Wyvern and four Seasoned Wolves, with the perspective of including another two beasts to the Gray Pack as soon as the opportunity presented itself. And yet, I was still hesitating — Diplomacy, Eloquence, or Animal Empathy would also be very useful for my character, letting my goblin freely access human villages or increasing the chance of survival when meeting monsters.
And then, finally, the time came to edit and upload another clip to the video hosting site about the escapades of my green troglodyte. I had plenty of respectable material in the back-log, but my crowning achievement was, of course, VIXEN. There was no longer any sense in hiding the fact that I had a flying mount — the assassin whose pride I'd wounded had probably already blabbed about my flying snake to any and all listeners, so I made the Royal Forest Wyvern the main subject of my clip. I made the secret method of hatching the flying snake egg a separate paid video, which could be downloaded by those who so desired for just ten game coins. I devoted all the remaining time to the process of the half-meter overgrown worm growing up gradually into a beautiful winged serpent.
Perros Ruthless got some attention as well, though. His unhealthy interest in my big-eared goblin had seriously impeded my gaming for the last few days, so I felt he deserved it. I used particularly chiding expressions describing the intellectual capacity of the assassin, who'd somehow managed to die eleven (!!!) times in the last two not-even-full days. And what was more, from what I was able to piece together, his last three deaths had been due to the defensive systems of the Goons' castle, where Perros had demanded he respawn. From what I'd seen, Mariam Standing_Right_Behind_You [GOONS] had fulfilled her promise despite that, and accepted the star-crossed assassin back into her clan, so I didn't spare her any acrid expressions, either. One might say I was playing with fire by goading such a powerful enemy and perhaps that was true, though I didn't see what difference it could make — the Goons had already declared a two-week-long hunt for me, so I just wanted to get payback by whatever means I had available. And satirizing her like this would lower the reputation of her clan, which seemed a fitting retribution.
I kept silent about the Midnight Wraith for now, as I remained about my nighttime visit to the Cursed House in general. Naturally, the clip didn't have a single word about building the raft, or our travels down the river — it was for the best to let my opponents think, that Amra was milling about somewhere near the Cursed House, just as before. So then, my business taken care of, I headed home to sleep it all off, making a stop on my way to buy groceries. I was yawning in exhaustion and it took me real effort to think. Because of that, completely on "autopilot," I got on the electrobus to my old rented apartment in the criminal outskirts of the metropolis, and nearly let it leave. Just imagine how those gangsters would have lit up when they saw me!
I noticed just in the nick of time though, jumping out of the electrobus and getting onto the proper line. A half hour later, I was already at my destination. When I came inside, Val wasn't playing Boundless and met me in the entryway on her wheelchair. Pointing in surprise at the bag of groceries, she exclaimed:
"A box of macaroni, frozen cutlets, a bag of potatoes... Tim, it looks like you forgot we don't have a kitchen at our new place. We don't even have a decent microwave here, which is to say nothing of a stove. Last night, I found a café-bar eight floors down, but I felt uncomfortable in there alone — it was all a bunch of guys drinking alcohol and making a racket. Everything is obviously overpriced. The bar and tables are too tall. It was uncomfortable for me in my chair, and I couldn't see a thing..."
"So, are you hungry?!" I guessed.
"Well, I did buy some chips and mineral water from a vending machine. I finished the hazelnuts I found in my backpack... But basically, yes. I could stand to eat a square meal," my sister admitted.
I clapped my palm against my forehead. What a mutton-head I was! While I was out yesterday having a grand old time, my disabled sister was all alone in an unfamiliar apartment with almost no money and no food. And I had the gall to call myself her brother! I immediately transferred Valeria thirty-five credits — half of everything I had left.
"I also can't figure out where I'm supposed to wash and iron my clothes," Valeria complained. "Plus, I need to buy detergent. And I need some curtains for my room. The sun here reflects off the mirror windows of the skyscraper out the window. It's blinding! I can hardly sleep. And another thing..." Valeria started sobbing for some reason. Little tears were welling up in her eyes. "Tell me, Tim: why is it so easy to live in computer games? In the so called 'real world,' life is just hard, boring and sucky..."
I didn't answer her strictly philosophical question, just walked up and embraced my little sister warmly, trying to reassure her:
"Don't you go worrying like that. I'll go buy detergent myself. I'll look for an iron too. I mean, in Boundless Realm, I've got five thousand in bank notes, and another fifteen hundred in coins. I'll turn it into cash as soon as possible. We can buy a microwave and curtains," I promised my sister. "Don't cry, we'll get this place up to snuff, little by little. We'll make it comfy. And for now, let's go down to that cafe and get something to eat."
Just then, my cellphone started ringing. It showed an unknown number but, when I accepted the call, the peeved voice on the other end was unmistakable. It was Kira:
"Timothy, were you thinking with your head when you published that last clip?"
"What’s not to like? The wyvern?" I suggested.
"Of course, the wyvern! What else? The pissed-off chatter on the Boundless Realm forum is already at such a pitch that the moderators can't delete the repeat threads fast enough. And that’s to say nothing of banning players who lose their temper. Around a hundred new topics are being made every second on your wyvern. It's absolutely impossible to read all of them. And that's just the beginning. By the end of the day, it'll only get worse. Such a stir, in my memory, has only come about once before — when the Boundless Realm developers fundamentally changed the experience-gain algorithm and took stationary NPC dungeons from the game. That was where the top alliances used to quickly level their newbies, so they were understandably upspet."
I explained to Kira that my hand had been forced, and I had to show the wyvern, because an enemy had seen it. I tried to justify my position — better for me to describe the situation with the flying pet from my point of view than to let someone else do it for me. This way, I could hide a few touchy moments and emphasize others. And also, once again, the clip on raising a wyvern from an egg was for money, which could not possibly hurt in my situation.
"You know best, Timothy. Though, in your place, I wouldn't enter Boundless Realm right now. Just live without the game for a week or so until the hubbub quiets down. And in the future, try to do everything you can to distance yourself from your character as much as possible — no one can be allowed to associate you with the green goblin. Not your old childhood friends, not your work colleagues and not your neighbors — no one. And that's for your wellbeing and peace of mind."
It was sensible advice. But I couldn't possibly spend that long out of game — it was my job, and I could quite easily be fired if I missed that much work in a row. Also, Taisha might go any number of places while I was gone. Then, finding my NPC companion in the huge Boundless Realm would be an extremely challenging task. In the end, I thanked the beautiful red-head for her advice, but was not planning to actually follow it in any way. Kira then, convinced that I grasped the gravity of the situation, changed the topic:
"Timothy, do you still have that card I gave you? Good. I’ve had it reprogrammed. Now, it will let you take the elevator up to floor three hundred thirty-three and open the door to the apartment we were partying in last night. It's already all picked up. Feel free to show up and spend the night whenever you like. In fact, if you’re feeling like it, you could even move in. It would be much easier for you to get to work and — who knows? — maybe I'll drop by for a visit every once and a while. Before we ever met, I'd already paid that whole floor off for a few years in advance, so there’s no need for you to waste the money. And another thing: I took your painting to my house — it really was a fitting and unique gift."
Kira said goodbye, leaving me in a pensive state with a telephone in hand. I really didn't like depending on anyone, or feeling obligated but, in this case, Kira was offering to help me for nothing, just selflessly. What reason did I have to not take advantage of her offer? It was a big apartment, fully furnished with all kinds of appliances, plus it'd be twice as close to work. And also, my sister and I could always come back here if something in the new place wasn't to our liking, or if my relationship with Kira soured.
"Tim, you asleep or what?" Val asked, tugging at my sleeve. "Let's go eat! You promised!"
I lowered my gaze to my sister, she looked tired. I could make out dried tears on her face. She was clearly not doing well here. This cheap hotel was no good for the physically disabled, much less teenagers. The people who lived here were unmarried specialists from the neighboring large office buildings, modestly-living freelancers and young couples without children — at least, that was the contingent of neighbors I’d noticed. That must have been why there were so many bars, pubs and restaurants in the building, but no decent establishments aimed at families with children.
Choosing my words carefully, I told Valeria:
"A girl, you don't know her, said we could move into an empty apartment she owns. The conditions there are much better than here — it has a real kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom with a jacuzzi, a big living room and the view from the windows can be changed like the channel on an old-fashioned TV. What do you say, Val?"
"In terms of the girl, I can't say anything without seeing her," my little sister said, not missing the chance to quip. "But as for the apartment, it all depends on how much she's asking per month in rent."
"She’s actually offering it for free, which is what has me so apprehensive," I admitted.
"Yeah, that does sound a bit weird," my sister agreed, serious beyond her years, tossing me a long careful gaze. "Maybe she just has a crush on you, Tim? It was for her, after all, that you bought a new suit and that super expensive present, right?"
Well, she guessed it. I didn't deny it, and nodded in confirmation. Valeria smiled:
"Then let's consider these expenses a kind of rent payment for the apartment. My opinion — we should agree and go live at your friend's. All the more so given that I absolutely hate it in this abominable hotel. And this way, the cutlets and potatoes you bought won’t go to waste!"

* * *

I was awoken by the tantalizing aroma of frying potatoes and cutlets. I had to rush and peel my eyes open so I wouldn't choke on my drool.
"Time to get up lazy-bones! Food's ready, and it'll be time for you to go to work soon," my sister said as she pointed me to a small table near my bed. On it, she was placing my freshly made dinner.
"We could eat in the kitchen or the living room. Why'd you bring it into the bedroom?" I asked in surprise. In response, Valeria laughed happily:
"I couldn't help myself. I already ate in the kitchen. Plus, I don't know a single better way to wake you up than the smell of tasty food on the stove!"
I thanked Val, but didn't eat in bed, first heading to wash up and get myself in order. When I came out of the bathroom, Valeria was extending me a telephone:
"Someone named Jane called for you. She didn't want to talk to me, but said someone was waiting for you, and that you would know where. After that, she hung up. I hope you at least understand what she wanted to communicate."
Yes, I understood perfectly. Jane was the pretty assistant of Mark Tobius, director of special projects for the Boundless Realm Corporation and my direct boss. That meant my boss wanted to see me, which probably had something to do with all the chatter on the game forum after my clip showing the winged mount. My chest was seizing up a bit — being called to meet with the director, as a rule, meant unpleasant things. On the other hand, if my boss really was upset, Jane would have said as much in no uncertain terms.
"That wouldn't happen to be the same girl whose apartment we’re moving into, would it?" my sister clarified.
I laughed and answered that Jane was a totally different person who had nothing at all to do with our new place.
"Good. Because, based on her voice, she really didn't like me. I was even worried she’d had a change of heart on the apartment."
While I was stuffing my face, my sister told me about the results of the day in-game. As I figured, the search for warg prints had ended fruitlessly, although my friends had checked the surrounding forest very thoroughly and even looked over the opposite bank of the river. They did find something of interest though: a respawn stone in a secluded glade. Valerianna Quickfoot had suggested the ogre and naiad change their respawn points to it, so they wouldn’t end up dozens of kilometers through forest and swamp away from the group, back near the Cursed House.
After that is when it all started...
"In the next half hour, I was literally flooded with letters and private messages," my sister complained. "And they weren't even all free, meaning the sender was within a ten-kilometer radius. Some were actually quite expensive. All the messages and letters had one common theme slipping through: they wanted to know where to find a Goblin Herbalist by the name of Amra. Some simply asked politely, some offered money. Some even tried threatening me. Max Sochnier and Shrekson Bastard also complained that they got a huge amount of spam. Then, I closed the game and went on the Boundless Realm forum to figure out the situation. It took me just a couple minutes to grasp the scale of the problem. Tim, there are a huge number of people searching for you, and most of them have the very unkindest intentions. Because you were offline at the time, they tried searching through other players — all the ones you mentioned in your video clips. I advised our friends not to answer such letters under any circumstances and leave the game for a day. I sent our goblin companions away to an inn we discovered, gave Taisha plenty of money and told her and Tamina Fierce's children to stay inside until we came back. Lastly, I told the Gray Pack to hunt deep in the forest, then logged off immediately, because I saw a big boat full of players coming down the river from Stonetown. Fortunately, I saw them before they saw me..."
"What was that about an inn?" I asked, hoping to clarify part of my sister’s story.
Val told me passionately about her find:
"Today, in the process of searching for the wargs, I hit upon a road. It was approximately five kilometers to the west of our camp. By the looks of things, the path was fairly well trod. I rode Pirate four kilometers to the south on it and, at a fork, I found a huge sturdy building, or maybe more like a small fort. A group of kobolds run the place. There must be around fifty of them. They have a copper mine not far from there and, near the inn, they have a copper storehouse with wood coal and ore, as well as a little trade depot. Merchants and travelers can stop at the fort. Staying the night there isn't expensive at all, and the food is more than tolerable. I thought this was the best possible place to hide 'your girly.' I mean, your green-skinned girlfriend is too conspicuous — the players instantly notice her attractive face and alluring curves. So, I decided to just let Taisha sit for day or two among NPCs, not poking her head out."
I praised my sister for the very proper and reasonable actions in the complicated situation and started getting ready for work. The municipal electrobus took about fifteen minutes to bring me to the Boundless Realm corporation skyscraper. It was seven thirty in the evening, so I was counting on catching the director at work. However, Mark Tobius wasn't in his office, just his assistant Jane, looking bored as she polished her already well-kept nails.
"So, as promised," I said, handing the director's secretary the chocolate I still owed her. "Where's the big man?"
"Mark didn't come in today. He called in this morning and said he twisted his ankle. So, the big man is at home resting his leg," Jane answered in a none-too-affable tone, without even looking at me and not stopping her nail-care routine for even one second. "Tim, who was the young girl that answered the phone for you?"
What? I smiled back happily, because what I was hearing was very unexpected, but completely distinct notes of jealousy came through in Jane's voice. Strange. What was all that about? I didn't think I'd ever shown any interest in my boss’s secretary, not even subtly or vaguely. Also, she was accustomed to expensive gifts, luxurious attire and apartments in the very center of the metropolis, so she was not likely to be looking on me as a perspective beau. I told her about how I lived with my sister. Janey finally tore her gaze from her nails and put the file in her cosmetic bag.
"Oh, with hazelnuts, just like I asked!" she exclaimed, giving a very positive evaluation to the chocolate bar lying before her. Then, suddenly wanting to return the favor, she offered to make me some coffee.
"Timothy, I actually called you just for myself. I thought you might appreciate what I have to tell you. Today, I put Mark through to all the head corporate honchos — marketing guys, economists, creative types. At one point, they were all together on one big conference call, and I involuntarily overheard. It was mostly about you..."
The girl went silent next to the coffee machine and turned, clearly expecting some kind of confirmation that I was interested in the topic. I then inadvertently noticed how dressed up Jane was. My boss's assistant always looked glamorous but, today, she was dressed in a bright red ultra-short party dress (a few centimeters shorter and it would’ve been inappropriate) with a very deep neckline. She was also wearing a red-coral-bead necklace, a pair of earrings, and gold rings on almost every finger. Finally, the girl's intricate hairstyle had clearly been done especially for this day. Was Jane celebrating something? Maybe it was her birthday? That said, I didn't see any flowers or presents on my colleague's desk.
"You look nice!" I admitted, and the girl smiled sorrowfully.
"Thank you for the compliment, Timothy. I had some plans tonight, but they didn't come together. Here's your coffee."
Jane extended me a glass of burning-hot liquid and, as I took little sips, she continued telling me about what she'd overheard from the leadership:
"Your video clip caused quite the fuss! A lot of players were very unhappy with the fact that such a valuable mount went to, forgive me for the harsh words, a totally green noob, who barely even knows how to play the game. And that included veterans and even top players, who've devoted years of their lives to Boundless Realm and earned their popularity and authority among the players. There were even a few petitions signed by famous gamers threatening to leave Boundless Realm if the situation isn't rectified."
"It's gone that far...? I didn't think a player's mount could raise such a commotion," I said thoughtfully. Jane exclaimed emotionally in response:
"Timothy, I've actually been understating things! You should have heard what the directors were really saying! The public relations director used nearly only curse words, shouting in annoyance at Mark that this incident could eradicate the trust of our player-base, which is fragile enough as it is. There’s been a stream of hateful messages coming in from players to the developers in all day and it won't let up. In fact, it's only picking up strength!"
These were the same general terms I'd already heard from my sister, but I was interested in finding out the opinion of the corporation's employees on what had developed. And that, as it turned out, wasn't the greatest either. Jane continued sharing her discoveries:
"Initially, the forum admins harshly banned the most unrestrained, but then they got an order from the upper directors to soften their position and not to touch high-level players or any members of top clans. The corporation has always positioned itself as sensitive and open to player opinion. That is why the highest directors are now meeting to come to a decision that will allow them to take advantage of the current frenzy of activity for their benefit. They're talking about letting the players blow off some steam and voice their frustrations. After that, they plan to 'act in line with user opinion,' add some new rules to the game and redirect the negative attitude of the crowd at something other than the developers..."
Jane went silent, offering to let me think over the rest.
"Am I understanding right that they want to direct the rage of the masses against me?" I hazarded in fear. Unfortunately, I was correct.
"Yes! The details are still being discussed but, overall, they have come to an agreement. It will be a big hunt that will be announced to all of Boundless Realm tomorrow, and you will be its target. They will imbue an object in your inventory with the ability to control your flying mount — a token or an amulet, and there will be a certain chance for it to drop every time you get killed. If that amulet does drop, the player that kills you will become the owner of the unique flying mount! The directors did a survey of some top clans, and the results are in — they all found the idea intriguing. Seeing that, the hullabaloo must have been unprecedented."
"I have no doubt..." I said gloomily, my view on the situation growing dimmer with each passing moment.
My mood sunk below the floorboards. The leadership wanted to deprive me of my VIXEN — the pretty little wyvern, which I had earned fair and square, and raised from an egg. Was that really just?! Where in the game rules was it written that a successful player has to part with his property in order to calm a faceless herd of less-successful losers? I asked that last question out loud.
"Such a thing is, of course, not in the rules," the director's assistant agreed. "Appropriate bylaws will be written in, though, and along with them, your voluntary agreement to play the victim in the hunt will be obtained."
Seeing my slain state, Jane smiled and tried to perk me up a bit:
"It's not all that bad, Timothy. As far as I know, the hunt will only be for a limited time. And the biggest thing is that, at the end of the hunt, if you do manage to keep your pet, you can officially sell it at a Boundless Realm auction and legally convert the game currency to cash. I heard them mention a figure in the millions!"
I looked at Jane incredulously, but she reaffirmed her statement. For faithfully executing the role of victim of the great hunt, if I could manage to keep the trophies to the end, the Boundless Realm corporation would give me an official, public job offer. That was exactly how the directors were planning, not only to once again hype working for their company, but also to explain the legal method of withdrawing game currency. However, I would be strictly forbidden from revealing the fact that I was working for the Boundless Realm corporation until the end of the hunt — otherwise, I would just be fanning the flames of a false narrative that the corporation greased the wheels for "their people," and preferentially awarded unique quests and objects to corporate employees.
There really was something to think on here, as well. Mark Tobius had said before that there were buyers ready to invest ten million coins of in-game currency just for an unhatched wyvern egg. Now that she was at level 16, my Forest Wyvern had to be worth a bit more, especially if sold at open auction, where she could be bought by any player with enough cash. But a million credits in real life was a ton of money. That could provide a comfortable and safe dwelling for my sister and me. That could be our future provided for. That could be a pair of new biotic legs for Val. That possibility was the very reason I had gone to work for the Boundless Realm corporation in the first place. But getting that million would be damned hard work. Otherwise, the corporation wouldn't have set up this whole mass-hunt spectacle in the first place...
"I see, Timothy, that the gravity of the moment has already reached you," said Jane, standing up from her desk and walking over to the doors leading into the hallway, then locking them from the inside with a key. "And now, I want to have an even more serious conversation. Just accept this as a fact –– without outside help, you'll never manage to keep your pet. Already, your character is under thick cover from a few large clans and tomorrow, after the hunt is officially announced, your goblin herbalist won't even be able to enter the game without being killed immediately. After that, the players will wait for you at the respawn point, killing you off again and again. Sooner or later, the item will drop, and you'll lose your wyvern. And you won't be able to do anything with that. All your attempts to hide or change the respawn point will have no effect, because you have no concept of the methods being used to track you."
"I’m starting to suspect you have an ulterior motive for telling me this. Do you have a concrete offer for me?" I asked carefully. The girl laughed:
"That's exactly right, Timothy. You're a good guesser. I wanted to offer you a mutually beneficial transaction. You see, my position as director's assistant allows me to stay in the loop on a great many processes underway in the corporation. Finding out about upcoming events, items and new rules in the game world, as well as various cunning tactics used by players. The directors and other highly placed employees don't take me seriously, thinking me just a classic dumb blonde — a living piece of furniture or a wordless coffee-fetcher. Just so you know, I have a very good education, high ambitions and my own plans for life. Also, my current hair color is not natural. All that said, director's assistants don't get paid very well. Without alternative revenue streams, I’d never manage to survive, if you understand what I'm talking about..."
I nodded curtly, confirming that I understood all the advantages and subtleties of Jane's work, and also the girl's high demands. She sighed sorrowfully:
"On nothing but a secretary’s salary, a young lady would never manage to rent an apartment in the center of the metropolis and provide herself with good cosmetics and decent clothing. My last boss understood that. He valued me and sent me bonuses at every opportunity, or even just gave me valuable gifts. But when Alexandro Lavrius left, the situation changed. Mark pretends not to understand my transparent remarks. Maybe he really doesn't. But I, meanwhile, am having trouble making rent — I mean, my salary is lower than the monthly on my one-room downtown! My offer — I'll tell you how to not get caught, and you help me with rent money. I need seven hundred credits."
What a request! I had thirty in my account right now all told so, despite the attractiveness of Jane's offer, it was beyond my means. The thought of in-game money flickered by — the fifteen hundred coins my big-eared goblin had could have been withdrawn from the game in the form of one hundred fifty credits. But that wouldn’t be enough, either. The rest of the funds in my character’s possession were in the form of promissory notes from the Most Reliable Bank of Gremlins and the Subterranean Bank of Thorin the Ninth. Getting to a branch of theirs would be absolutely impossible under present conditions. Amra would just die repeatedly, if I tried. I’d never even leave the respawn point. Although...
"Here are the keys for a two-room suite in a hotel," I said, extending Jane a clinking key-ring. "It's a long-term hotel for young specialists in a calm residential neighborhood. The room's paid up two months in advance. It wasn't good enough for my sister and I, because it isn't adapted for non-walking disabled people, but there was no way to get our money back. If that sounds good, here’s the address."
If I were in Boundless Realm at that time, I'd surely have seen a series of lines on raising my Trading skill run past. Jane grabbed the keys from my hand and wrote the hotel's address in her phone.
"Thanks! You really bailed me out, Timothy! Now, listen carefully. Probably, before you enter the game, you'll see a bunch of messages from unknown players. And that's no coincidence — your pursuers are not so naive as to expect an answer. They just need to know you received the message — if you did, you must be within ten kilometers. After that, they can place a circle with a ten-kilometer radius on the map — the receiver must be inside. From that point, they can narrow down their search. They go five or ten kilometers away and try sending another free message to the offline player. If it works, they draw another ten-kilometer radius and look at where it intersects with the previous one. Then, a few hours later, they’ve got a fairly small area to search for their victim in. By the time the victim decides to return to the game, the location of the character has already, as a rule, been established to within a few meters. Then, they set up an ambush there and wait for the victim to enter the game. Usually, these murderers work in a group — in that case, figuring out the location of the offline character can be done in less than an hour. Avoiding this method of pursuit is not hard, though. All you have to do is change your private-message receipt settings for free messages from unknown players."
What could I say? It was really valuable information. On its own, though, it was hardly worth seven hundred credits.
"That's all well and good, but what should I do if the killers are already sitting there when I enter the game?"
Jane laughed. Now, the expression on her face was very similar to the look of sympathy my sister wore when I was acting blatantly stupid, misunderstanding elementary things. I had already figured it out on my own, though, coming up with methods to get rid of them off the top of my head. So, I asked Jane not to get distracted and tell me about the other methods of detection — after all, Boundless Realm was huge and, in the majority of cases, players could not count on finding a given character within ten kilometers of their location.
"It's impossible to turn off paid messages in the settings — the Boundless Realm corporation gets a steady income from them and it's pretty considerable. There are very many forms of paid message, one of which involves the players using magical messengers. The pursuer sends out such a magical being and simply notes the direction it was traveling with a compass, drawing a straight line along that trajectory. After that, they ask a partner to send the victim a message from another city, or use a teleportation scroll to another city and do it all on their own. On the map, they see where the lines intersect, and that's where the runaway must be. It's a fairly inexact method and, in the majority of cases, it gives an area dozens of square kilometers in size so, from then, they use free or cheaper private messages to determine the exact coordinates. Sometimes, an entire clan will engage in a search using these methods."
What could I say? The information I got from Jane was very valuable. As it turned out, there was nowhere, even in the farthest reaches of Boundless Realm, for my big-eared goblin to feel truly safe. But all the same, I saw some weak points in the detection methods — after all, finding out approximately where a person is located doesn’t amount to much. They need to be able to get there, as well. But if that place is in a distant wilderness, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest city and there are no teleportation scrolls easily at hand, they'd have to walk for days through mountains, forests and swamps. After that, they'd have to just comb the wilderness in search of the runaway, at which point they’d discover that the victim hadn't been there for some time, and was now a thousand kilometers in the other direction. After all, no one had outlawed teleportation scrolls. Amra just needed to get his hands on a few.
An incoming message beeped out. Jane walked over to her desk and read the text on the screen.
"Tomorrow morning, Mark Tobius is preparing to come in to the office, despite his injured leg. He just gave me the assignment to get in touch with you and call you back here in the first half of the day. He'll almost certainly be telling you about the final decision of the board and the rules of the 'great hunt.' I hope, Tim, that you understand that our conversation must remain a secret. So, try to act surprised tomorrow and get at least a bit outraged, just for appearances."
I promised the girl I’d put on a real spectacle for the director tomorrow, so he wouldn't have any doubts that I was in the dark, and felt truly incensed.
"But, look, just don't overdo it. Mark has a pretty short fuse and can easily get out of control. I mean, he recently fired an employee just for having the gall to argue with him. I hope you have enough tact and acumen to drop your guard when the time comes to accept his offer."
"Don't you worry about that. After all your warnings, I'm morally prepared for a conversation with the big man."
Jane smiled in satisfaction and, pumping her thighs alluringly, walked up to the door and opened it, showing me that we were done talking. I bid the girl a polite farewell and headed for the exit. But when I walked past her in the doorway, she unexpectedly grabbed me by the hand and turned me toward her, placing her hand on my shoulder.
"I really hope, Timothy, that we can work together for a long time to come. I really do have something to offer a successful corporate tester. And, if you play your cards right and follow my advice, you’ll have plenty of money to afford my services."
Jane stood up on her tip-toes and kissed me right on the lips. To be honest, I was completely caught off guard. Also, now, her offer of other services sounded like it had a good deal of double meaning. But she was satisfied with the effect she’d produced, smiled and pushed me out into the hallway, wishing me happy gaming.
Already in the elevator, thinking over my conversation with Jane, I concluded that the fancy clothes she was wearing, her saying her plans for the evening hadn’t come together, and Mark Tobius not showing up to work due to a suddenly sprained ankle, were possibly connected. At some point today, Jane had realized I could serve as a backup, probably when she overheard upper directors talking about the grand hunt and its main prize.

* * *

On my floor, it was very crowded and noisy — the work day was just coming to an end. The corporate testers were all leaving the game together to go home. I took advantage of the crowd and hurriedly slipped through to my work cabin — there was absolutely no time for me to get acquainted with and talk to my new colleagues. I did notice that Kira was already at work, though — over the door of her cabin, there was a glowing red light. My sensor suit already donned, I was still in no rush to enter the game. I just loaded up my character's "work space," changed the message receipt settings and opened my mailbox.
Yes, there truly had been a great deal of messages... I didn't waste my valuable time reading them, just took down the names of those who'd managed to send me free messages — they must have been relatively nearby and so would be the most dangerous. There were twenty-six such players. I placed all of them on my black list, so I could always know whether they were in Boundless Realm or not. Three of them put me particularly on guard. They had sent a few messages each at intervals of thirty to sixty minutes. It looked very much like they had determined the location of my goblin by the method Jane had described.
None of the perfidious trio was playing now, but that didn't really mean anything. Valeria and I had quite often used the "login-trap" in other games when a person we'd marked for death noticed the threat and managed to leave the game. We would just log right off after them and watch from another account to see when our victim logged back in, at which point we would also enter and kill them.
But in Boundless Realm, a player could only have one account, and I could hardly imagine someone convincing a partner to help them with an endeavor like this — there was little joy in sitting watch for hours at a stretch to see when the victim entered the game, especially at night. Also, the main prize for killing me now — the ability to join the Goons — was only for one person, and had already been claimed. Nevertheless, I was in no rush to start playing. It was only around ten, and night had already fallen in Boundless Realm, but two players from my black list were still in the game for some reason. That put me on guard.
I called Valeria and asked her to check if she'd also received messages from these characters, and what they wanted. But while my sister was finding that information, the green circle opposite one of the names changed to gray — the player left Boundless Realm. Of my pursuers, the only one left in the game was a woman, a level-80 Elemental Mage. Based on her high level, the night monsters of this area were of no threat to her whatsoever, so I had no hopes the magess would be leaving the game any time soon.
"Answer her message," I suggested to my sister, "and better to talk in a private channel. If they ask about me, say I definitely won't be playing until morning. You can think up a good enough reason on your own."
Three minutes later, the last of my pursuers had also left the game, after which I almost instantly got a call from Val:
"Yeah, she really was asking about you. But I feigned ignorance. I just told her gladly and willingly, that you were studying for a test and wouldn't be coming back today. After that, I asked her to accompany me to Stonetown. I pretended like I didn't manage to get into the protected village before dark and was now afraid to go alone through the scary dense forest. But the magess said she had stuff to do in real life, apologized and left."
"Good, Val. Then log in and check the area! If everything near the camp is clear, give me a call," I replied, then crawled into the virtual reality capsule, ready to log in at a moment's notice.
However, it took no less than six minutes for my sister to confirm that it was safe near the camp. I closed the virtual reality capsule and, thirty seconds later, found myself standing near our shelter, getting accustomed to the darkness of the night.
"What took you so long?" I asked, jumping on Valerianna Quickfoot with reproach. But I abruptly went silent, as there was a bright crimson criminal marker shining out like a beacon above the wood nymph's head. My sister's life bar was also in the orange, and there was an arrow with red fletching sticking out of her right shoulder.
"There were two players by the river keeping watch for us," my sister explained, wincing in pain. "A berserker and a bow-woman. They didn't notice me at first. They were too busy doing... something else. This will serve as a good lesson for them — this place is a dangerous world with full PVP, and not a bedroom in a whorehouse, after all... Basically, I got lucky."
I helped the wood nymph remove the deeply embedded arrow and gave her some Healing Potion.
"Oh, now that's a lot better!" the mavka said, instantly starting to smile, her health now almost fully restored. "Amra, there are many pieces of equipment on the shore over there, sitting in the grass. Go look through them, maybe something will be of use to our wolf riders."
On the bank, there was a complete mess including a whole set of berserker armor and, right next to that, there was a carefully folded dress, chain-mail, a helmet, and pair of boots. It wasn't all from a surprisingly generous drop, it was just that the owners had removed their own clothing, caught up in an unexpected surge of passion. Why they hadn't placed their clothing in their inventories, I did not know. Clearly, they didn't think it sufficiently romantic. I didn't see the star-crossed lovers in the flesh, though. Their bodies had been carried away by the flow of the river.
After gathering the equipment, I called the Gray Pack. The wolves were close at hand. No more than five minutes away.
"Amra, take this. It's a more complete local map!" the wood nymph said, sending me a transaction offer for zero coins. "Look! Just half a kilometer from here, there's a respawn stone. You should make sure to visit it and add it to your list of stones. But before that, I have a pleasant surprise for you!"
Valerianna headed for the thick bushes on the riverbank, waded up to her knees in the water, fiddled about for a bit, then pulled out a stringer of live fish.
"The naiad has been fishing since morning. I asked him to leave a portion of his catch for you. One of each species. All fresh, alive and full of blood — just the way you like them! If you're too ashamed, I could turn away."
"No matter, go ahead and look..." I said, taking the stringer in my hand and looking at the silvery flopping fish:

Level-4 River Catfish
Level-2 Common Roach
Level-13 Mature Bream
Level-8 Muddy Tench
Level-1 Common Redeye

Five new species all at once! The perfect gift for a vampire! Let the feast begin! As they say, I won't stuff my face, but I might take a nibble!

Damage dealt: 30 (Vampire bite)

Experience received: 20 Exp.
Object received: Catfish meat (food) * 2
Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 8%)

Achievement unlocked: Taste tester (15/1000)

Damage dealt: 89 (Vampire bite)

Experience received: 96 Exp.
Object received: Tench meat (food) * 4
Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 9%)

Achievement unlocked: Taste tester (16/1000)

...

Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: 12%)

Achievement unlocked: Taste tester (20/1000)
Regeneration improved to 3 HP/Minute

My big-eared troglodyte burped in satisfaction and patted his puffed-out belly. Great! I managed not only to sate my hunger, but also to fill my Thirst for Blood bar to maximum. This had to have been the fastest and safest method of leveling my vampiric abilities in the game. I'd have to visit the fish market of the underwater village of Ookaa — I suspected that, there, I would find a true abundance of different fish and a happy hunting ground for bloodsuckers like me.
"Stuffed, big-ears?" Valerianna inquired compassionately. "Then let's not stick around here. The Gray Pack has already come to your call. Let's hurry. We need to mount the wolves and get on our way!"
Despite the late hour, we managed to reach the respawn stone without meeting any of the dreaded forest creatures. After that, I told the Gray Pack to head for the kobold inn — I'd have to get Taisha, Irek and Yunna out of there. We passed the eight-kilometer ride on wolfback in just half an hour. On the way, I raised my Riding skill to level 6, and Athletics to 9. Akella was limping badly and lagging behind the rest of the pack, but we were trying not to let them out of sight, though they would wait for us if need be — a wounded level-28 lone wolf would be easy pickings for the kind of creatures that roamed these woods.
With two hundred meters between me and my target, I jumped off the wolf, hoping not to frighten the inn workers with the predatory canine. The wood nymph and I made the rest of the way on foot.
"Stop, who goes there?!" a sentry called out. Hearing that, I raised my head and saw a small figure wrapped in a dark cloak lurking up a tree with a crossbow in hand.

Level-62 Kobold Guard

Perception check failed

I suspect that the guard was not, in fact, alone, and had friends hiding in the thick crowns of the neighboring trees. But I didn't manage to detect any other archers.
"My going in tavern eat-eat! There many goblin. That my friend."
"But why is mavka? Mavka — tricky and sharp-tooths."
"Mavka already be here today in daytime. Eat tavern, coin pay for kobold. Now she go with me."
Although kobold language was similar to goblin, it did have its differences, so we spoke in clipped, awkward phrases. But still, we understood one another. Valerianna, though, was patiently awaiting the results of our negotiations.

Successful check for Kobold Guard reaction
Experience received: 80 Exp.

The gate opened with a creak, letting us inside the walls. Despite the late hour, the inn was bubbling with life. There were lit oil lamps hanging from posts lighting the way for a chain of gray- and blue-skinned kobold workers loading heavy bales onto a great many carts that belonged to a traveling merchant. All of this was, of course, performed under the watchful gaze of the merchant’s guard team. No one paid my sister and I any mind. We walked over to a two-story building separate from the walls. In its windows, there burned a bright light, and I heard the sound of dishes clinking.
"No vacancy for sleep in night! All room to guest occupied! Only you can is going in munch-hall," a big fat kobold standing at the dining hall entrance cried in dissatisfaction.
But I reassured him that we weren't looking for rooms, we were just going to eat dinner with our friends — I pointed at Taisha, Irek and Yunna, sitting modestly at a corner table. On hearing my voice, our friends turned and ran to meet me with joyful whooping. And although Irek and Yunna just ran up and stopped, Taisha jumped right up onto my shoulders, saying:
"Where have you been all day, Amra?! You can't just leave me in a strange place like this!"
I nearly collapsed under her weight — my character was still not distinguished by particular Strength, but I embraced my NPC bride tightly and even managed to twirl her around.

Athletics Skill increased to level 10!

Whoa there! Even the game system considered my actions strenuous and exhausting. Nevertheless, I joyfully assured Taisha that I had come after her at the first opportunity. The people eating at the neighboring tables (clearly more of the merchant's guards) watched us two goblins kissing with a fair degree of hostility, but they didn’t say anything or try and stop us. Nevertheless, my sister touched my shoulder and said:
"Big-ears, that's enough PDA. You and your green beauty are attracting attention. Tomorrow, the players searching for us will ask the local NPCs and quickly figure out that you were here. We need to leave and get as far away as possible."
"You know, you're right," I agreed. Then, I turned to Taisha: "The wolves of the Gray Pack are waiting for us beyond the gates. We need to leave."
Taisha let go of me, looked at the empty table in sorrow and asked:
"Can we please wait for the dinner we ordered first? It's just that Tamina's children and I are hungry, and we've already paid," the green-skinned beauty begged. "We've been sitting here for an hour already, but they still haven't brought our food."
The wood nymph and I had to go figure out what was taking so long. I wasn't allowed into the kitchen, but the kobold chef came out on his own and, wiping a shaggy blue arm on his sweaty brow, started speaking:
"It is devil's delight this of evening. Important merchant men is coming. Twenty-five guard with hungry gullet. They need eat. Many pan I use, all fire is took. And too, is birthing human, aristocrat lady. She want food also, with two grown children. And now is for her almost finish the food. Your goblin be next."
The chef pointed at a wooden tray stacked with dishes and plates meant for the human woman, who had either already given birth or was preparing to do so in the near future. My sister and I exchanged glances without a word. A woman giving birth, and two grown children with her? Interesting. Very interesting...
"Am can bringing tray for lady human. Like this, you no losing time and can cooking dinner for hungry goblin," I suggested to the chef.

Successful check for Kobold Chef's reaction
Experience received: 80 Exp.

"Good. Goblin take and bring — help," the chef mercifully allowed and handed me the plate-laden tray. "Going stairs up and door is of left."

Successful Agility check
Experience received: 16 Exp.

I nearly spilled. Due to the large size of the tray, I couldn't see in front of myself and tripped on the first stair. The wood nymph helped me, setting the plates and glasses back in their places on the tray, and speaking with a trembling in her voice:
"I seem to have caught a bit of the jitters. It is now night, and those people are like, supposed to change into their alter ego. I mean, what if it isn't just some harmless big-bellied countrywoman and her nephews behind that door, but a pack of hungry killer wargs of an unknown level?! Or what if they're people now, but go alter-ego when they find out we've discovered their secret?"
I stopped sharply. What was there to say? It really was a very possible way this situation could develop.
"Hold the tray!" I said, passing it to my sister. "I need to take some precautions first. I have a tiny bit of wolfsbane in my Inventory. Just one lone leaf, but it should be enough to powder up and add to one of the big food dishes. If they don't attack us right away, and start eating, we'll neutralize the biggest of them right off the bat. And if we're wrong, and those people aren’t our wargs, the garnish won't do them a bit of harm."
Valerianna returned me the tray of goodies, pushed her green hair out of her eyes, and took the wand in her hands.
"You go in, leave the tray on the table and start the conversation. They're expecting someone to bring in food, so they won't be surprised. In the meantime, I'll wait and see how this plays out behind the door. I'll butt right in if something goes wrong. Try not to die too quickly. If it starts going bad, lead them out into the hall. There's a bunch of human guards there, and they'll be able to help us against the predatory wargs. And also, our goblin allies can come help..." said Valerianna, thinking things over. I could read alarm and indecision in her face.
"Let's go up there, Val. At the very least, we won't know who's in the room until I've opened the door. So, here goes nothing! Let’s hope they're just humans."
Holding the tray in one hand, I politely knocked and entered the room. And... I stopped dead in my tracks. When my sister and I were considering the two options — humans or wargs — we hadn't even considered this possibility. It all turned out much worse...

Until the Hunt Begins


ALL THE WORDS I had prepared in advance for the NPC runaway got caught in my throat. I mean, they weren't going to be tricking the character before me now. I found myself being stared down by a living player — a woman with dark, short hair of thirty years in a long bright-red dressing gown. Even her loose clothing couldn't hide her huge stomach and impending birth.

Belle Sweetypie
Human
Level-78 Druid

Not really believing my eyes, I opened the information on the character, and my last doubts were finally unraveled. The person before me really was a player, I could even read her primary skills:

Animal Empathy (P Ch) level 56
Transformation (C S) level 44
Thick skin (C S) level 39
Animal Control (P Ch) level 29
Hand-to-Hand Combat (S A) level 50
Tracking (P A) level 89
Stealth (A C) level 67

Well, well! I had no words. My little goblin Amra had no chance against her, even considering the woman's present extra weight and difficulty in maneuvering. On a carpet next to the pregnant woman, there were two NPC children sitting and playing quietly with stuffed dolls: a boy and a girl.

Darius Violent
Level-19 Human Townsperson

Darina Violent
Level-18 Human Townsperson

The room was immersed in gloom. The oil lamps on the walls were not lit, but there was a candelabra on the table with three candles, giving off just enough glow for me to make out everything. I took a quick look around. It was a spacious room, with expensive furniture. The floor was carpeted with thick rugs. On the wall, there was a painting of a battle scene. All three of the windows were adorned with thick blackout curtains. By the standards of the modest kobolds, this wasn't just a room, but a true palace.
In the prolonged silence, I made a few steps forward and placed the dish on the table. The woman looked at the dinner, then at me and said quietly, not hiding her surprise:
"What is this all about then?"
I decided to return to my initial plan, and answered the high-level player innocently:
"Down here is NPC chef, very busying. Merchant to come with guard division. All is hungry. I saying to help kobold man. Me bring plates. We was hungry already, and chef is making food slow for goblin. No me expect see undying here."
"I see..." the woman replied, unable to hold back a smile as she listened to my incomprehensible gabbing. "Alright then, boy. You've done your job. You brought me and my companions dinner. Now leave us so we can eat in peace."
I was being forced out the door. Fairly politely, but still adamantly. Should I just leave? Or was it better to find some pretext to chat, so I could find out a bit more about this mysterious Belle? I pointed at her big stomach and asked:
"Is really a woman play Boundless Realm with so big tummy allowed? Is dangerous in virtual world. Stress, worry, heavy lifting. Game can to harm baby health. Is especially bad in last of pregnant time."
Belle laughed heartily, tears welling up in her eyes:
"Boy, you must understand perfectly that we don't always look the same in the game as in real life. I mean, do you really walk around with green skin and massive ears outside Boundless Realm?"
I shook my head so hard my ears started flapping.
"So, you see! I just play a big-bellied lady, but in reality, I’m not even considering having a baby. It's just a quest. Very rare. I have to bear it and pretend to be pregnant."
Just then, the girl sitting on the floor, who was wearing a well-kept light-colored dress and playing with toys made an unexpected incursion into our adult conversation:
"Aunty Belle, what are you talking about? Does this mean you've been tricking me and Dar, pretending to be pregnant? Aren't you going to give birth to Fenrir's heir?"
Fenrir's heir?! I strained to pick up my fallen jaw.

Mission renewed: The Gray Pack's Past
Mission class: Rare, Group
Description: Find the owner of the headband in the room and return it to them
Reward: 2000 Exp., the ability to include Wargs in the Gray Pack

What was there to figure out? The pregnant Belle had a stylish short hairdo. For her, the headband would be nothing but an extraneous nuisance. Darius was a boy. And although he did have long braids below the shoulders, young boys wouldn’t wear such girlish attire. The only person in the room who could possibly have a need for the headband was Darina.
While I read the message and thought over the simple choice, the aristocrat chewed out the girl for crawling into the conversation uninvited. Belle's pretty face transformed into an evil grin as she spoke:
"Darina, how many times have I told you not to interrupt! No matter what, you don't understand even a third of what Amra and I are talking about, and only prove your ignorance! You will be punished very severely!"
"Yes, aunty," said the frightened girl, lowering her head and starting to play nervously with her waist-length hair.
"Amra, the quest updated for me!" Valerianna Quickfoot messaged, confirming my own observations. "It looks like you’re on the right track!"
"Yeah, I know. But don't come into the room. There's a player in here over level 70, and you've still got the criminal marker for all to see. I'm gonna give the girl the headband now and go out into the hallway. We can think about what to do next together."
"Fenrir's heir?" I asked, latching onto the girl’s incautious words. I then said with feigned surprise: "This is huge evil wolf tall as house with two story? You are must confused, Darina. Your aunt... how is little kid saying... she normal person, not lady of wolf. No is head-sick zoophile, making unnatural such couple. And also, hard to imagine how to start process with such size in difference."
The girl didn't answer, just smiled barely perceptibly with the very corners of her lips. But then, her brother couldn't hold back and burst out laughing, which garnered him a stiff wallop from his aunt.
"Is that all, Amra?" Belle asked, no longer trying to hide her annoyance.
"Almost. Last topic and goblin is leave. Amra is also having quest long time. It may is boring and not so unusual as with Belle pretending pregnant. Goblin to be in Stonetown. Man in there is asking goblin to look for owner of headband to return lost-and-found item. Saying only vague: 'niece and nephew of pregnant human woman, were live in Stonetown, but is leave, not known where.' Honest admitting, I was thinking that mission is useless and 'jammed' — real bad hard finding such people in huge Boundless Realm. But before eyes, I seeing pregnant human aunt lady. See nephew. See niece. So Amra is ask kids: you in Stonetown no is losing this headband so pretty with all colorful?"
The girl turned in hesitation to her severe aunt, awaiting her reaction, but then lowered her eyes. The boy then unexpectedly stood from the floor and extended an arm demandingly:
"That's mine! Dara gave it to me so I could keep my long hair out of my eyes!"
"You're mistaken, Darius," the lady said with tension in her voice. "We were never in Stonetown. It's just a similar headband."
The child somehow shrank and collapsed. Nevertheless, I managed to slip him the band:
"Here! Goblin is give for you! This long hair go in back, not in front of seeing!"

Mission completed: The Gray Pack's Past
Experience received: 2000 Exp.
Ability gained: you may now include Wargs in the Gray Pack

On the mini-map, the yellow NPC child marker changed to green — the character was now friendly to me. Taking advantage of the spontaneous break, I got a second headband out and handed it to the girl:
"Here! Goblin is see that you is want, but of shame to ask. Gift for you!"

Passive use of artifact: Ring of Fenrir

Successful Charisma check
Experience received: 16 Exp.

Despite the druid’s angry shout and the obvious threat of punishment, Darina decisively grabbed the headband from me and placed it in her dress pocket.

Hidden mission completed: Gray Pack's Past (additional, wolves)
Experience received: 4000 Exp.
Charisma increased by +2
Default relationship improved by +5 with all NPC creatures of the following types: Dogs, Wolves, Wargs, Volkodlaks, Rougarous, Canine Chimeroids, Hellhounds

"Get out of my room!" Belle Sweetypie demanded, her voice raising to a shriek and her eyes growing dark with rage.
I understood that, if I didn't get out of the druid's room immediately, the high-level player would attack me and, naturally, kill me quickly. So, I hurried to apologize and leave, closing the door behind me. My heart was beating frantically in anxiety. From behind the door, I heard Belle screaming, reproaching her "niece and nephew," but I smiled to the wood nymph, who was standing a few steps from me:
"It worked! Alright, there's nothing else keeping us here. Let's go down to the dining hall, get the goblins fed, give Irek and Yunna the new duds we took off the star-crossed lovers and get the hell out of here."
When we reached the stairs, my sister started bombarding me with questions:
"So, did you see Dar and Dara? Were they really wargs? Can they be included in the Gray Pack?"
"They're the pets of a level-78 druid, and the player is not prepared to give up her acolytes. But I gave them the headband and completed the quest so, if we do come across any wargs now, we could try and take control of them and add them to the Gray Pack."
They'd just brought in the goblins' dinner. The fat chef was setting plates on the table. Time was of the essence, so I asked Taisha and Tamina Fierce's children to wolf down the food then, together with Valerianna Quickfoot, went to visit the trade depot. Kobolds being night creatures, there was little surprising in the fact that the trader was awake to greet us in a room piled high with boxes and bales.

Would you like to choose Poisoner (A I) as a secondary skill?

I needed a few seconds to figure out why I'd gotten that message: Belle Sweetypie had begun eating her specially seasoned dinner. No, I didn't take the "Poisoner" skill, but my mood was dramatically increased — the high-level druid would not be able to take her combat form for some time, so we didn’t have to worry about dangerous aggressive animals. And that was perfectly fine by me.
"For some reason, he's only got trash," the wood nymph said, frowning in dissatisfaction as she looked over the kobold merchant’s truly modest assortment. "Big ears, it looks like we've already outgrown all the equipment and weapons they suppose might be of use to the newbies who come upon this place. Hold up, someone's calling my cellphone."
The wood nymph froze motionless — my sister went afk. Meanwhile, my gaze caught on a pair of short spears with wide flat tips — they seemed well suited to a pair of goblin wolf-riders. They could be used from wolfback, or standing. The merchant didn't accept bank notes, so I had to pay in coins — ten pieces of silver for each spear. After counting the money I gave him two times, the shop owner strung the seven-sided silver coins with holes in the middle onto a leather strap and hung it from his neck.
I realized a bit belatedly that I had slightly too much in the way of bank notes from the Most Reliable Bank of Gremlins and the Subterranean Bank of Thorin the Ninth. I opened my finance window once again and couldn't believe the reality of what was happening — I now had promissory notes from Boundless Realm banks to the tune of over eighty-six thousand coins! Could it really be that over eight thousand players had bought my paid video clip on how to hatch and raise a wyvern? It seemed they had! And at that, the sum was gradually increasing before my very eyes — the sales were ongoing. I'd have to make my way to some big city to cash in these notes soon. I already had up to eight thousand credits worth. That could provide Val and I with a decent car! And if I could get another two thousand credits, I'd be able to afford biotic prostheses for my sister.
The mavka started moving again — my sister was back in the game.
"It was Max Sochnier. He's also been reading the Boundless Realm game forum and, to put it lightly, he's in shock. The mess on the forums just won't die down. There's a bunch of new petitions demanding they confiscate your flying mount. As an argument, they're writing that you had an unfair advantage, exclusively available to goblins — the method of hatching the egg was known only to the NPC shaman Kaiak Badgerleg, and he would only share it with other goblins. A player of any other race wouldn't have such hints on how to grow a wyvern from an egg, and the fetus would have surely died. The admins are doing their best to call for patience, assuring the players that they'll announce a decision on the wyvern tomorrow. Max is asking if we need his help. He says he could get the ogre fortifier, too. Apparently, they’re both well rested and are ready to enter the game. Max can pick Leon up in his car, and they could both be in Boundless Realm in forty minutes."
"Yeah, have them both come!" I replied, joyful at the unexpected help of my friends. "Tell them we'll meet up in forty minutes at the forest encampment, then we can keep going from there together. By the way, ask the naiad when the merchant ship comes to the Ookaa docks. Max Sochnier once told me about a sailboat that comes once a week with human NPC merchants to buy up the fish caught by the undersea residents."
My sister "froze up" for another few seconds, then said elatedly:
"Tim, you're a genius! The merchants should be coming tomorrow at the crack of dawn. They'll only be there for an hour, then they go on to some far-off islands. If we can get on that ship, it would be a very unexpected tack for our pursuers!"

* * *

Unfortunately, we were not simply allowed to leave the inn in peace. Just a hundred steps past the gates, I saw Belle Sweetypie five meters ahead of me in the dark forest, accompanied by her niece and nephew. Over the big-bellied lady's head, there was a black skull symbol hovering ominously — the player surpassed me by over fifty levels. And though the druid didn't have any apparent weaponry in hand, she didn't really need to. The druid’s strength was her ability to morph into a predatory beast at any moment. Considering the fact she was level seventy-eight and had very well-leveled combat skills, Belle Sweetypie could take us all down in a matter of seconds.
"First, let’s just talk," the woman said with a predatory smile, noticing the criminal marker over the wood nymph's head with satisfaction. "'Just talk' means I talk and you answer honestly and in detail. If your answers are to my liking, I might let you go. Except the mavka — I'll be sending her to respawn no matter what, because it is not in my habit to let lawbreakers off scot free."
"Why so lopsided? I'd also like to ask a few questions to such an interesting character as yourself," I said, understanding that I was being quite impudent, but not prepared to audition for the role of helpless victim. "First, answer me honestly: are you really carrying Fenrir’s child?"
The druid winced in discontent. I suspect that Belle thought we would be shaking in fear when we saw her, terrified to make a peep and risk upsetting such a strong player. But our calm demeanor astonished her. And also, my big-eared goblin's ability to speak normally, I suppose, came as an unpleasant surprise as well. I thought the woman might not answer my question, but she did anyway:
"Alright, I'll answer that one question. Yes, I was one of the many wolves in the Gray Pack. One day, I caught the Pack Leader's attention. It was in the last days of Fenrir, when the Gray Pack didn't even have a tenth of its former numbers. We had just lost three battles in a row, and all our strongest and most battle-hardened predators were dead. They had once formed the military backbone of the Gray Pack, so we were done for. Players hunted us down day and night, chasing us into the impassable swamps east of the city of Lars. Fenrir was wise and understood perfectly that the end was near. But while the Leader was alive, the pack continued to fight. That moonless night, the Great Leader lay with me, then ordered me to go and take all the pups over an unsteady dike his wargs were building by placing branches over the bog. Initially, there were around ten pups, but only these two managed to make it through the swamp," the druid said, pointing at Darius and Darina. "A few days later, I found out that Fenrir had fallen heroically in an uneven battle with undying, and his Pack was disintegrated. At that time, a chain of unique quests started for me about rebuilding the Gray Pack. I am carrying Fenrir's heir, and my child may one day rally the beasts of this forest and lead the Pack back to its former greatness!"

Mission received: Leader of the Gray Pack
Mission class: Rare, group
Description: The Gray Pack can only have one Leader. Eliminate your competition!!!
Attention! If you die, the chance of losing the object Ring of Fenrir (cursed item) in this battle has been increased to 100%
Reward: 8000 Exp., +1 to maximum Gray Pack member limit (up to seven)

The druid went on for a bit longer, giving a passionate retelling of how she confused the tracks and found a new place to live, all the while avoiding encounters with other players. Then, she described how she went into the wild unknown parts of Boundless Realm and taught the two surviving warg pups how to behave properly in human society and how to approach humans. But suddenly, the woman clammed up and looked at me in surprise as if she was seeing me for the first time.
"Well, well! How interesting. It's been a long time since any mission about the Gray Pack updated for me. Probably two months at this point. So then, Amra, you must understand perfectly that I can no longer let you go alive. Attack!"
At the very beginning of the druid's long speech, I already understood that our encounter would not be ending peacefully. For that reason, I’d already given my sister a curt warning and prepared my throwing net, taking it into my hands and starting to wind up. I had no desire to attack first and get the criminal marker for myself but, if there was aggression against me or any of my allies, I was prepared to strike back at a moment’s notice.
Despite the gravity of the moment, I was forced to laugh as I watched the enemy camp start a maneuver that looked like a high-speed striptease competition. Both Belle's niece and nephew managed to undress in a matter of seconds and get down on all fours, quickly changing their appearance to that of fur-covered long-legged toothy predators. The druid also removed all her clothing but one piece, probably placing them in her inventory, then fell down onto all fours. But, unlike her pets, the druid didn't change appearance, remaining a big-bellied vulnerable human woman.
I cast my net at the druid, hoping to immobilize our strongest enemy.

Exotic Weapons skill increased to level 7!

But then, my sister completely surprised me — the figure of the wood nymph instantly split into two, then both copies did the same. Now, there were four identical mavkas running in different directions and starting to cast freezing spells on the still-kneeling pregnant lady. The wargs took bounding leaps at the nearest figure but when they tried to bite the delicate green-haired girl, they found themselves jumping through a phantom.
Belle gave a few twitches, trying to find the path of least resistance, then saw the wolves running across the field and the wyvern darting downward and... exited the game!
She was attempting an emergency logoff in the hope that we wouldn't manage to kill her character within thirty seconds, at which point she should disappear. Considering the huge number of hitpoints she had (many of her primary skills leveled Constitution), her incredibly high resistances and her well-leveled damage-absorption skill Thick Skin, the tactic just might have worked. But Belle Sweetypie, whether out of inexperience or ignorance of game mechanics, missed one very important factor — although she had yet to attack anyone, her warg pets had already managed to come at my sister, thus giving their master a thirty-minute delay before she could leave Boundless Realm. If she had ordered them to attack me or any of the goblins accompanying me, Belle Sweetypie would have become a criminal, and the leaving penalty would have been eight whole hours, but a half hour was plenty for us, given no resistance.
After losing their connection to their master, and not receiving new commands, both wargs simply laid down on the ground and looked on indifferently as dozens of malicious hornets stung the woman's body, goblins poked her with spears and daggers, and enraged wolves tried to damage the high-level druid. The wyvern, meanwhile, was spitting down acid from above. My sister was trying out various spells from her magical arsenal, blanketing the kneeling woman with a sheet of ice, or shooting her with icicles. Belle Sweetypie's life bar was going down very quickly, and had already reached the red zone. I also shot a few thorns from my blowgun, but both times did no damage and just placed the weapon back in my inventory, as it was no longer needed. Finished! All told, it took us a little under a minute.

Experience received: 780 Exp.
Achievement unlocked: Player killer (5)

I got "Player Killer?" That meant one of my NPC pets must have made the final blow. The experience gain was quite paltry, though that wasn't too surprising — we had to share the prize with a fairly large crowd.
I stopped Irek and Taisha from throwing themselves at the defenseless wargs, and also ordered the Gray Pack to lie down and get some rest. My attention was drawn by a frantically pulsating game icon, the one used for controlling mounts and pets. Oh, that was new! New lines had appeared in the Gray Pack settings, but only the first two were available to choose:

Young female warg, level 18
Young male warg, level 19
Garm, level 0 (inactive)

Garm?! I tried selecting the last line a few times, but it never worked. What was more, the line quickly went pale and I watched as the words slowly faded into nothingness. "Garm, the greatest of dogs…" The huge four-eyed monster from Scandinavian mythology must have not been born yet. It was a great pity to miss out on the unique creature, but I was forced to make do with what I had. I put a tick next to the two wargs, confirming their inclusion in the Gray Pack. A moment later, the NPC triangles changed color from red to blue — allies.
But the quest wasn't considered complete something must have remained unfinished. I walked up to the body of the druid lady and opened the loot window. Coins, nearly two hundred. Raw meat. Two vials of human blood. A pair of woman's boots with unknown properties. There it was! A dark metal chain with a pendant stylized in the form of a predatory claw.

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

Based on that, the level-78 Belle Sweetypie had also been unable to use this object and was just carrying it around "to grow into." As soon as I took the amulet in my hands, the quest finally completed:

Mission completed: Leader of the Gray Pack
Experience received: 8000 Exp.
+1 to maximum Gray Pack member limit (up to seven)

Level twenty-eight!
Racial ability improved: 60% resistance to cold

A light was glowing over my head — my Royal Forest Wyvern had reached level 17 and was now on top of the world, contorting herself into one highly complex shape after the next.
"Oof, we barely managed!" said Irek, walking up in disbelief to the body of the dead druid and poking it with the tip of his spear.
"Not at all, goblin. It was all very predictable," Valerianna Quickfoot disagreed. "Sure, Belle Sweetypie in the form of a she-wolf, or whatever else she was preparing to turn into, could have killed any of us with one swing of her clawed paw. Probably, the pregnant druid in human form also could have 'one-shotted' us with a slap. But who among us would have allowed the encumbered lady to get within striking range? Amra and I were shooting her from afar, and you two have slings. Of course, the battle would have taken longer, and she might have spent some time healing up, but the result was obvious from the very beginning. The druid just made our job easier by logging off."
Technically, I agreed with my sister — a vicious horde such as ours really could have brought down a level-78 player with strong debuffs to movement speed such as the pregnant Belle. But Valerianna stayed tactically silent on the fact that someone would have also had to distract the wargs from biting down the wood nymph, who was our main damager. Also, the slightest miscalculation or slip-up could have led to losses in our ranks.
"Am I to understand that these two man-eaters will be traveling with us from now on?" Taisha asked squeamishly, clearly meaning Dar and Dara.
I wanted to object to my green companion, saying something like, "what makes you think that, just because they're wargs, they eat people?" But instead, I turned to the new members of the Gray Pack and... stayed silent. Hrmph. The spectacle of the nephew and niece devouring their "aunt" was, to put it lightly, unpleasant.
"Woah! What are you doing? Have you gone totally mad?! Darius, spit out that filth! Darina, what are you doing?! Get away from there!" I tried to drive the predators from the corpse, but was met with two pairs of utterly wild animalistic eyes. I couldn't detect even the slightest signs of intelligence in their gaze.
I had to immediately open the Gray Pack control menu and command the two predators to go elsewhere. The wargs obeyed, but they still continued greedily inhaling the scent of fresh prey and licking their blood-caked snouts.
"In this form, they're just wild animals and cannot understand human speech," my sister said sorrowfully, also in shock. "Now, they'll remain that way until sunup, and you'll have to constantly watch them. On the other hand, that does have some pluses — they'll run like beasts, so we won't get slowed down. I'll grab the clothes and give them back in the morning."

* * *

The way back stuck in my mind because we came across a pack of Ancient Wolves who were around level fifty. They followed us for some time, but their intention seemed to be either just curiosity or trying to drive competitors from their territory, as the markers for the NPC's on the mini-map remained yellow. Our wolves, "modded" for speed, were easily able to evade the chase. And also, Akella's lameness came to an end just in time. He no longer lagged behind his high-level wolf brothers in speed. What was more, I had just raised my Riding skill to level 8, increasing the speed of my mount by 1% for each level. My sister had found some developer comments on the Boundless Realm forum saying that the skill also worked passively on creatures belonging to the player or in the same group as him, even if not being ridden.
Shrekson Bastard and Max Sochnier were waiting for us at the forest camp. The huge moose Lil_Timbo initially had a slightly apprehensive reaction to the wolves and wargs, but he soon calmed down and then simply paid the predators no mind. Before going anywhere, we took a short ten-minute break — my sister went to bolster her strength with sandwiches. I, though, climbed out of the virtual reality capsule and met with my friends at the employee break area near a coffee machine.
I already knew Leon quite well, but this was the first time I was seeing Max Sochnier in real life. He really was a Frenchman, too. He was a young man of average height and intelligent appearance with dark curly hair. Max used to work as a piano and recorder teacher in a music school, but had been downsized a few years ago when, everywhere on earth, most living teachers were replaced with computer programs and robots.
I heard about it all on the news. At that time, there were protests in most major cities from the newly out-of-work teachers. From what I'd heard, these episodes of civil disobedience were very harshly cut down by the police, who arrested all activists and even shot some. Max Sochnier, in his own words, was not an activist in the protest movement, but also fell in the field of view of the criminal justice system, even spending a few months under house arrest with an ankle monitor.
Branded in his personal record as an anti-government radical, it was hard for him to find work. In fact, Max couldn't find any normal employment for the next year and a half. One day, by complete coincidence, he saw the game plotline tester vacancy with the famous Boundless Realm corporation and applied without particular hope he would succeed. He didn't spend too long trying to perfect his game alias, and just went with his real name. The former music teacher considered successfully completing his trial period a sign that fate had given him the chance to return to a normal, stable life.
"But why did you get assigned the Trader class, instead of something musical, like Bard? I mean, the system was supposed to choose a character close to your interests."
The man just shrugged his shoulders in response:
"My father worked as a salesman for many long years, so I have some familiarity with sales and negotiation. Maybe that's why. Music just brings up sad and unpleasant memories for me now anyway, so Bard would definitely not be the right class."
I asked him to listen to me with great attention, and told him about the upcoming Great Hunt, which was to remain a big secret, as well as methods players might be using to track us. Max Sochnier, thoughtfully stroking the bridge of his nose, answered:
"Hrmm... You're really in a jam, Timothy. But I'm with you. You can count on me all the way! Participating in such a massive event on the side of the fleeing victim is, after all, a unique opportunity to strut my stuff, raising my fame and value in the eyes of the corporation. I'm sure our boss will look positively on us, if we can just wriggle away for some time and not let them catch us right off the bat. Even if it is just for a few days, we need to hold out!"
Leon said approximately the same thing, but in simpler language. Both my friends refused to believe I'd manage to hold out until the end of the hunt, but still they offered their unconditional help to draw out the unusual event as long as possible.

"Good. Let's finish our coffee and get back to the game, then. I saw that our raft is still on the riverbank. Let's use it. We need to get to the ocean before sunup, then destroy the raft and meet the NPC fish-merchant at the Ookaa docks. Max, our shared mission will be using our Trading skill and other abilities as much as possible to convince the people to let us come with them. My sister Valeria already figured out that the Boundless Realm player-made knowledge-base doesn't have any information on the route of the trading ship and, actually, there's nothing about its existence at all. So, this move will be unexpected for our pursuers, and we'll gain a few hours’ head-start."

release - June 2, 2017


5 comments :

  1. Thank you for the free chapter I look forward to June when the whole book is released =)

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  2. A nice little teaser. I'm hoping that the rest of the book will live up to this. Looking forward to another chapter soon

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  3. Another chapter or two please!

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  4. Another chapter or two please!

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  5. here you go, guys. A new chapter!

    ReplyDelete