Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dark Herbalist 4: Finding a Body

The Dark Herbalist IV
Finding a Body
by Michael Atamanov

Release - December 27, 2018

Second Thoughts

My game session abruptly ended with a message that my character had been suspended. The screen went black and I was unceremoniously ejected from Boundless Realm.
No real surprise though. It was an easily predictable and even inevitable consequence of breaking clear instructions from the President of the corporation and warning Taisha the NPC Thief to run away. But what would happen to me next? Lying in the darkness of the virtual reality capsule, I was counting the seconds before it would unlock and trying to anticipate the consequences of my disobedience. I had probably already been fired from the Boundless Realm Corporation and that, most likely, would not be the end of it. Nevertheless, I was deeply ambivalent to anything they might do to me. Reprimands, dressing down, firing or even a permanent ban from the game didn’t seem that bad. I had just learned I was dead!!! There was no other way to interpret the video of the funeral I'd just seen. So in comparison with my death in the real world, every other issue seemed utterly miniscule and didn't even merit attention.

Death. Digitization. It was disturbing to think of myself as a nonliving person. I wondered what body my mind was written into? They probably had some android made up to look like me, very believable with a practically indistinguishably lifelike face, with realistic expressions. The body most likely even imitated breathing and a heart-beat. Before entering the game, I looked at myself in the mirror and didn't notice anything strange, so the robot theory immediately seemed plausible. And if the Boundless Realm Corporation had expended lots of time and resources creating a new body for me, I was probably now their property. That would mean I would not be allowed to leave the building, particularly given the round-the-clock surveillance.
The capsule gave a beep, informing me it was unlocked just as I heard the latch mechanism click. I forcefully threw back the top, but was in no hurry to crawl out and pull the sensor suit off my body with its cobweb of wires. Instead, I patted myself down and looked skeptically at my arms and legs from every angle. Then I tore the bandage off my chest and just stared at my healing stitches. I even plucked a few hairs from my head and examined them up close. Much to my disbelief, I didn't notice even a slight hint my body may have been synthetic! Everything looked just as it always had. Also, when I pinched myself and pulled out those hairs, it stung the same as ever. What was happening? Either android technology had reached nigh unthinkable perfection or... I was mistaken and somehow this was my real body! But then how to interpret the video of my funeral?
Without reaching a conclusion, I crawled out of the virtual reality capsule and quickly got dressed, expecting someone from the corporation to pay me a visit shortly. I didn’t doubt in the least that one of their ilk would be dropping by after my unbridled behavior in the game. Well, let them come. It would give me a convenient opportunity to ask some nagging questions and demand clear answers.
And before five minutes had passed, the lock of my door gave a quiet click and in the doorway I saw... Andrei Soloviev, head of in-game security for the Boundless Realm Corporation. Just my luck... I was hoping to see President Thomas Heywood or my direct superior, head of Special Projects Max Tohner. I was morally prepared for that meeting, even if they both came. I had even mentally composed a plan for the conversation so they couldn't twist their way out of truthful answers. But I was in no way prepared to face this security goon, and that threw me off. And there was good reason. Andrei Soloviev had always made me feel unwitting, intrusive and just animalistic fear. Every time I looked at him, I saw a person with many years in the special forces behind him, a man who had killed before a few times. His movements were precise and sparing, his gaze tenacious and evaluating, but most importantly he had the eyes of a self-confident predator! Soloviev looked on those around him as potential victims and, I had no doubt, was constantly imagining the fastest and most efficient way of killing them, just in case.
"Hrm, well Timothy you've just made everyone's job harder..." he began in a judgmental tone, firing his opening salvo and locking the door tight behind him. "Honestly, no one was expecting that. That's why they sent me here. We’re going to have a relaxed little chat and get to the bottom of why you did something so weird."
 Relaxed? Is that what they called this? My heart started pounding in fear and it seemed fit to break a rib. The severe panic made my blood pressure shoot up so high I could feel my veins pulsating in my temples. I took a step back, stumbled and not so much sat as plopped back in a soft deep chair. The ghoulish man gave a snort and immediately took the next chair over without asking. Then he leaned in my direction and looked like he was ready to jump me.
Despite his judgmental tone, clear dismay and even vaguely threatening manner, I started gradually calming down and my spirits even started to rise. If leadership considered the situation with Taisha hopeless, I would be worthless to them and they wouldn’t have sent anyone to talk with me. But they nevertheless decided to talk with me nicely, and that inspired optimism. Andrei Soloviev was not talking so I started, hoping to seize the initiative:
"I understand perfectly why the President is upset right now. But when we talked, Thomas Heywood was under the impression that the NPC Thief had paid someone to kill me in the real world and even used Boundless Realm currency to do so. He managed to convince me of that, so I agreed to help. But it turned out Taisha wasn't behind the attempted murder! I looked at all her financial logs and didn't see any expenditures that could have possibly gone toward a hitman. And meanwhile fifty thousand coins is a huge amount, it would be impossible to hide such expenses!"
"Oh, Timothy, Timothy..." he said, shaking his head in reproach. "You’re so naïve, and so wrong! I have been tracking down fraudsters who sell game money and virtual treasures for real world cash for four whole years. And I could tell you at least a hundred ways of hiding large expenditures in the financial logs. But that isn’t even the issue. It makes no difference whether Taisha paid off that man or not. You work for the Boundless Realm Corporation and our President gave you clear instructions to catch this strange virtual entity. So, why didn't you do your job?"
What a trick question! Regardless of my answer, it just assumed I was at fault. What was more, I saw a little device in Andrei’s right ear, which meant this chat was not confidential. And that meant I had to deny the very possibility of my guilt without answering the question head on:
"What are you talking about? I did my job! I am a lead tester for the corporation, so my job is to find and study the untested paths, unusual situations and strange creatures Boundless Realm has to offer. Well, the NPC Thief Taisha just so happens to be one of the creatures I am studying. And I am the only person who has earned the beautiful goblin lady’s trust. Everything went wrong on the square in front of the castle. She noticed it was a trap and would never have entered the special server there that holds the castle of the Dark Sovereign. So my choice was either let Taisha go or never have the chance to catch her again, because that plan was already shot. Just think, if I started lying to my NPC companion so flagrantly, I would immediately lose all the trust that took such a long painstaking effort to earn. My only option was to tell Taisha the truth and strengthen our bond. This way she still thinks of me as a friend she can count on and open up to. Unlike, by the way, the employees of this corporation..."
Clear incomprehension and surprise showed on the face of the generally stern and emotionless Soloviev. Seemingly, the mysterious eavesdroppers had questions, because Andrei froze and listened to his earphone. Then he asked me to clear up what I meant when I said the corporation was untrustworthy. I was eager to explain:
"The video clip Taisha sent me. I'll have you know it showed my funeral. You don't have anything to tell me about that?"
He froze for a second with his mouth ajar, then started guffawing. And he laughed long and loud, he even had tears well up in his eyes.
"Oh, Timothy, Timothy..." Andrei Soloviev started explaining through his laughter. "We had that clip made up and sent to your NPC girlfriend to confuse her and have her open up to your character in the game. Who could have guessed it would trick you too?! No seriously, I really want to know. What have you dreamed up now? Some kind of voodoo, reanimation of a corpse, black magic? Or is it maybe the advancement of modern medicine, a successful brain transplant?"
I felt awkward and ashamed at all his mockery. Andrei then, having laughed it off, became more serious and finally explained:
"Well Timothy, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. There was no magic, and no modern medical marvel. The explanation is a lot more banal. You just saw someone else's funeral. That clip came from the burial of the universally respected Inessa Tyle, Vice President of the Boundless Realm Corporation. You see, she passed away three days ago and was buried yesterday at the Tyle family burial ground. Many of our employees and common players came to pay their respects to the remarkable woman, without whom our company wouldn't exist, much less Boundless Realm."
I was sitting in the chair, my arms crossed and my face red in embarrassment. I had never felt like such an idiot in my life! I had gotten this whole story into my head about digitization of consciousness, androids, a synthetic body, and it was all made of whole cloth. For some reason, the simplest possible explanation just escaped me! And there was another reason to worry. I felt very dumb to have missed the funeral and my last chance to say goodbye to Inessa Tyle. I was sincerely sorrowful about her passing. After all, the now former vice president had always treated me like a human being, both during the Great Hunt for my wyvern, and when I found missing items in Fenrir’s cursed regalia. I mean sure, I had a good reason to miss the burial. I was seriously injured and had spent all that time on an operating table. But very few knew I’d been attacked, so obviously a few people would be unhappy and even seriously offended. And Kira would be foremost among them, thinking I’d just skipped her dear grandmother's funeral, and after she did so much for me.
Meanwhile, Andrei Soloviev, after giving me sufficient time to come to my senses and rethink what had happened, continued:
"Now about the present state of affairs. I'm afraid, Timothy that for now you are forbidden from leaving this room or speaking with the outside world. And don't look so judgmental. It wasn’t up to me, it came from much higher up in the company."
"Is it because Taisha hacked into the security cameras?" I asked, reminded of what the President had told me.
"Among other things. That mysterious being, which our specialists suspect is an artificial intelligence, has definitely gained access to our security cameras. And we cannot turn them off or we risk suspicion or spooking Taisha. And our board of directors is desperate to get their hands on her. But that is still not the main reason. It's just that you, Timothy, were made the Dark Sovereign five minutes ago, head of a horde of monsters that threatens all Boundless Realm. We've spent a whole five months working on the big patch with your new ghastly power entering the world with a legion of monsters. We've brought thousands of company employees into this. There is very serious money riding on this horse, and no one wants to do anything that could threaten one of the most important events in the history of Boundless Realm. Leadership is counting on you and cannot afford having you get distracted in this difficult time, or just disappearing somewhere. So you'll have to be patient, and that shouldn't be too hard given the comfortable conditions we’ve arranged for you here."
"And how long do I have to be patient?" I immediately wanted to bring some clarity into this and know my exact term of imprisonment in this, albeit golden cage.
Andrei Soloviev admitted that he didn't have a clear notion. He placed a hand to his ear and listened for a long time, then told me a week and a half.
"In ten days there will be a big meeting of the upper directors and co-owners of the corporation to discuss the results of the new patch. The corporation has invested heavily in the Dark Sovereign event. Ads for the new expansion to the most popular game will be shown on every central news channel the world over. I won't hide it, they were making a ghastly NPC monster with advanced army management algorithms to play the Dark Sovereign. It was supposed to be equal in power to the gods of Boundless Realm. But when you appeared in such a distant and hard-to-reach area, it was a surprise both for the marketers and the Global Modeling Department, which was working on the patch. But the algorithms are very flexible and easily adapt to changes, so the army of monsters has already accepted you as its commander. Overall the change shouldn’t cause problems. What's more, a living person was deemed more interesting than a soulless computer program, so consider your appointment as Dark Sovereign approved by leadership. Congratulations!"
I mechanically squeezed his outreached hand, although I didn't yet see any reason to be glad. Staying cooped up in this room for a whole ten days... Not the nicest perspective. And for what, really? The corporation expects me to be crawling out of my skin and work basically round-the-clock as the main antagonist, but what's the fun in that for me? As if reading my mind, Andrei Soloviev answered the question:
"Timothy, now listen especially carefully, because this relates to you directly! At the upcoming board of directors’ meeting, we'll be hearing Inessa Tyle's last will and testament. No one knows for sure exactly what it says. But she told me several times she wanted to distribute her stocks in the Boundless Realm Corporation among the most famous and successful players so they can determine the future of Boundless Realm. She planned to name some players herself, and then let the board of directors put together the rest of the list. Your name will be going around at the meeting due to the big Dark Sovereign event, so use that chance to the fullest! We're talking about a thirty-three percent stake in the richest corporation on the planet, and that's enough money for not only you to live in luxury, but for seven generations of your family! You have a real chance to prove yourself, and you need to take it as seriously as possible! And remember Timothy, you've only got ten days!"
Andrei Soloviev left a while earlier, but I was still sitting in the armchair and thinking over what I'd heard. It was good that the directors of the corporation appreciated my effort and decided not to punish me for disobedience. It was great that my big-eared Goblin Herbalist’s suspension had been lifted, giving me the chance to prove myself and play the role of Dark Sovereign. I was now joining the ranks of players who define the in-game politics of Boundless Realm, and that was of course thrilling. What was more, there was a huge shiny reward beckoning in the distance and calling me to work harder and harder. But there had to be something they weren’t telling me. I could just feel it in my skin. It was as if the promise of a stake in the company was that much-vaunted carrot hanging right in front of my face, but still unreachable. Like I was some naïve donkey who would stubbornly keep up the chase, wasting his effort for nothing and working himself to the bone.
But no matter, I’d figure that out as things developed. I stood up and, with another glance in the mirror, took a critical look at my gaunt pale face, unshaven, disheveled and boyish. What a nasty scruff I got after ten days... I'd need to ask for an electric razor and some shaving cream, plus a tanning booth, given I'd be stuck inside for the next few days. With these completely mundane thoughts, I headed into the virtual reality capsule, getting undressed as I walked and carelessly throwing my clothes around the room. So then, loading!
Goblin Vampire
2175088 of 2280000
Character level
Hit points
Endurance points
Strength (S)
267 (1067)
Agility (A)
260 (551.8)
Intelligence (I)
5 (33.5)
Constitution (C)
269 (1058.1)
Perception (P)
3 (110.2)
Charisma (Ch)
137 (167)
Unused points
Primary skills (7 of 7 chosen)
Herbalism (P A)
52 ATTENTION! Second specialization not chosen
Trading (Ch I)
Alchemy (I A)
Dodging (A P)
Stealth (A C)
Exotic Weapons (A P)
25 + 18 ATTENTION! First specialization not chosen
Riding (A C)
Secondary skills (7 of 7 chosen)
22 ATTENTION! First specialization not chosen
26 ATTENTION! First specialization not chosen
66 ATTENTION! Second specialization not chosen
Animal Control
59 ATTENTION! Second specialization not chosen

Now there was a character to be reckoned with. He was too strong and resilient for his modest level of sixty-five, even if his Strength and Constitution were artificially beefed up by the five objects from Fenrir’s Cursed Regalia. One thousand two hundred units of armor, plus fifty-percent resistance to physical damage, regeneration of two hitpoints a second, plus he would heal back seventeen percent of damage he dealt in close combat (and sixty-seven percent with Vampire Bite). That all filled out the picture of my character, who would be hard to kill even for a character fifty levels higher. What could I say? For someone expecting high-level and hostile guests from all over Boundless Realm, the ability to take hits and survive was really very necessary.
Still, I had soberly considered my situation and understood that I had no way of withstanding truly high-level players. Any character leveled for PvP and at the TOP of their alliance would crush my Goblin Herbalist without even noticing. So my number one mission for the near term was to avoid meeting such enemies while my small big-eared Goblin grew stronger and became a true Dark Sovereign, whose heavy footsteps would make the whole of Boundless Realm shake.
I didn't fiddle with the skill specializations right away, leaving it for later and hurried into the game. So then, loading. I reappeared right where I was thrown out fifteen minutes before in front of the open doors to the huge fearsome fortress. My sister was standing a step away with the Ogre Fortifier and Shaman Ghuu next to her.
"Big-ears, what hole did you skitter off down? We really needed you then!" Valerianna Quickfoot threw herself on me with reproaches. "Your army nearly went ape-shit when you suddenly disappeared before entering the castle and finishing your swearing-in!"
"I got suspended without warning," I answered with maximum honestly, not delving into the details. "But thankfully they sorted things out quickly and now I’m back."
"And perfect timing! I was already starting to get scared the giants and rougarou would attack and sweep us away. I even started lining up our orcs with shields and crossbowmen behind even though I knew it would be pointless. But then everything suddenly settled down and the warriors near the castle started to change alignment to allied."
I looked at the even rows of undead standing before the fortress. They were ghastly and unsettling creatures, as were the innumerable clans of rougarou, minotaurs, titans and other dangerous beasts. What a fearsome sight! I still couldn't get used to the thought that this was now my army. Well then, no use wasting time. I had to officially declare myself Dark Sovereign, the terror of all Boundless Realm! I took a decisive step toward the huge iron-banded gates.
And nearly went deaf from the boom that followed! Seemingly, even the mountains on the very horizon were shaking from the unbearably loud and omnidirectional sound. At the same time, some bright crimson text popped up before my eyes and began blinking:

ATTENTION!!! There is now a new power in Boundless Realm! The Dark Sovereign, standard-bearer for innumerable hordes of terrifying bloodthirsty monsters threatens the safety of the Southern Continent. The provinces of Tori, Lars and Amathy are at risk of invasion! Fearless players now is the time to reach for your weapons and defend everything you hold dear in Boundless Realm!

I imagine a similar message was seen by every player in the game regardless of race, class and location. As soon as the information leaked about who exactly this Dark Sovereign was, and where to find him, I would be guaranteed attention from the combat clans known to enjoy big events. And not just them! Instead of a ghastly, practically invulnerable monster, this Dark Sovereign was some little Goblin at level... it sounded funny just to say... just sixty-five! And that was at the fact that the average level of players in Boundless Realm, insofar as I had seen in a recent official message from the corporation, was sixty-eight!
By the way, why hadn't I gotten some experience for such a unique achievement? At least a million expy, if not two, which seemed fairer for the unique and difficult mission. My Amra desperately needed to reach a higher level, but I hadn't gotten a thing for reaching the Upper Styx, nor for taking the vacant position of the "leader of universal evil." And my direct superior Max Tohner had once promised to shake me out some rare reward if I was first to reach these unwelcoming climes. Now was just the time to remind my boss about that promise... although for now I had no idea how to reach him, if my cellphone had been taken from me in the real world and all means of communication were blocked. My thoughts were interrupted by my sister's voice:
"So big-ears, why someone is deciding for you which provinces the Dark Sovereign should attack?" the mavka asked an utterly logical question, but I just shrugged, because I didn't even have the slightest idea how to control my army.
Past the tall gates, there was a very long corridor that led inside the gloomy castle. There were branching halls going left and right, but they all ended in locked doors. On our path we also found spiral staircases that went into the dark depths of the dungeon. There were no windows here nor lamps or any other sources of light, so I even had to activate Night Vision just so I wouldn’t run into the walls of my new home. Fortunately, the wood nymph soon activated a magical torch and it got easier.
"It's a bit gloomy here. And empty. No pictures on the walls, no sculptures, no suits of armor," Shrekson Bastard said with a sour smirk on his face, looking down the monotonous identical passages. "This isn't how I imagine medieval castles at all."
"Yeah, the interior will definitely have to be changed," I agreed, looking skeptically at the cold bare stone walls and the damp somewhat moldy floor. "In dark corridors at the very least torches wouldn't hurt, and in the rooms we should hang decent chandeliers with a hundred candles. We'll have to look on the Boundless Realm forum to see how. There must be some detailed manual on how to furnish a castle in the game."
"Don't fill your head with that crap, Tim! You've got thousands of underlings to keep busy now. If you don’t want them squabbling, have them get their lord's castle in order. By the way, it looks like we're here..."
The corridor really did end with tall metal doors made of time-darkened bronze. Unlike all the doors we'd seen before, this one was closed. With a nasty squeal, the heavy doors gave to my push, and we entered the huge throne room. It was empty and damp here too, but there was at least a source of light. Next to the truly cyclopean black throne, which looked to have been made for some kind of titan, there was a glowing smooth crystal ball three feet in diameter on a massive bronze tripod. All three of us walked up closer, entranced by the unique marvel.
Eye of the Dark Sovereign (subject control tool)
On the surface of the magical ball I could see the square before my palace. I could see the rows of minotaurs, rougarou and other monsters still standing in formation. But the lines of soldiers were no longer flawlessly even. The wild-looking creatures were tired of standing at attention and had started wandering, some of them had even set their weapons down and taken a seat on the cobblestones. The commanders were still trying to maintain discipline in the wild warband, but it was getting harder all the time.
I had a bird's eye perspective, so all my underlings looked little. Then with a flick of my finger, as if dragging an image on a tablet, I tried to zoom in and even shuddered when it worked. Suddenly, I had the faceless decayed stare of a decaying zombie practically at an arm's length in the crystal ball.
 I quickly flicked the disgusting picture away, and suddenly saw Princess Chai-nee Shu surrounded by rougarou. The last member of the ruling family of the Clan of the While Lily was bowing and, carefully holding a wooden water bucket in her clawed hands, giving water to Regent Uvari-Dor-Shu as he lay on the stretcher, still not having recovered. Our harsh duel had come at a great cost to the Rougarou Druid, and the wounds made by my lupine fangs and claws were healing extremely slowly. I could see fresh scars on the druid's body as well, just barely healed. His bones were broken in many places, and had not healed yet either, so the Regent couldn't walk.
I wondered if I could use the ball to talk with my subjects. I cautiously touched the image of the furry Princess and said:
"Chai-nee Shu, I need you in the castle now!"
The big-eared girl, looking like a loving pet dog, shuddered in surprise and tossed the carved wooden bucket aside, splashing both the crippled druid and everyone around. I also saw the rougarou and other soldiers sitting on the stones give a sharp jump and hurry to get back in formation. Seemingly, I had underestimated the volume of my voice a bit, and the Dark Sovereign's command had been heard not only by Chai-nee Shu, but all the other warriors on the square around her. No biggie, what matters is they heard me. I could talk with my subjects using the Eye of the Dark Sovereign!
"Chai-nee, order the Clan of the White Lily to take Uvari-Dor-Shu on the stretcher up into the throne room. I need my advisor in my castle right now. And also bring the Orc Shaman Ghuu and my First Mate Ziabash Hardy! And call the Naiad Trader Max Sochnier too! And grab a few torches on your way. It's as dark as the inside of a mountain troll's ass in here!"

Foreman Skill increased to level sixty-seven!

The Rougarou in the crystal ball started scurrying around, hurriedly carrying out the orders of their Sovereign. I then zoomed out, as if taking off vertically so I could see my holdings from the highest possible vantage point. But I had two disappointments waiting on that front. First, the map was almost totally dark. Other than a narrow forking line marking our path to the castle of the Dark Sovereign over hills and mountain passes, all the territory was still undiscovered. Clearly, before I could see anything in my magical crystal ball, I had to explore the area and draw it on my map. Second, in my attempt to look through the Eye to see land I’d already explored, I hit upon the impenetrable cloud cover constantly enshrouding my lands. And in order to see anything in the magic ball, I had to go down to the very earth, which was not convenient and didn't give me the full picture.
I was distracted from continuing the experiment by the derisive voice of Valerianna Quickfoot:
"Hey Tim, when you finish playing with your ball, walk over to the throne. There's plenty to see up there, too!"
I left the crystal ball and walked over to the huge throne, which had endless, intricately carved skulls of humans and members of other unbelievable races and animals in the ebony-colored column legs. There were hundreds of skeletons making faces at me, eyeless but at that toothy or tusked. It was hard to tear my gaze from the ghastly skulls. It really seemed like they were also looking back at me. What to say here? It had me shaking...
In order to see the whole cyclopean armchair, I had to lean my head all the way back, given my Mask of Fenrir helmet was cursed, so I couldn't get it off my head. The dark carved column legs were around twice as tall as my little Goblin Herbalist, after which point they transitioned into a snake-skin seat, which might have actually been dragon skin. Above that was the carved back of the throne, again decorated with innumerable skulls, and it went all the way up to the ceiling. Hrm... Seemingly little goblin would need quite the stepping stool to be able to reach his throne for official receptions. As long as my subjects didn't see the comical display and laugh at their ruler climbing up his immense throne...

Successful check for Poison Resistance!

I tried to reach out to one of the carved skulls on the throne leg, made of some strange dark wood, but after that message, I jerked my hand away in fear.
"Yes, that is antiaris, the wood of death," Valerianna Quickfoot commented, using her high Intelligence to identify the material. "Antiaris wood has excellent magical properties but unfortunately any objects made of it will always remain deadly toxic. Just touching it would have killed me. But it probably won't kill you... Amra, how much poison resistance do you have?"
I didn't even have to open my stats window, I already remembered I had eighty-percent resistance to poison from my vampiric nature.
"One touch won’t kill you, though it may hurt sometimes, maybe even badly," my sister said, shaking her head, walking a circle around the huge throne and looking curiously at the strange and dangerous piece of furniture. "Well big-ears, you're gonna have to raise your resistance to poison either with amulets and rings or by downing the odd healing potion when you need to saddle the throne."
I glanced fearfully at the toxic wood and asked the wood nymph why I even had to crawl up on the cyclopean throne, especially given how uncomfortable and dangerous it was. The Mavka first stared at me, batting her eyes in surprise, then reacted:
"Oh yeah, I'm always forgetting that your Goblin Herbalist has the Intelligence of a stump in the woods. So that's why you gave orders to your subjects through Chai-nee Shu, even though everyone on the square could hear your voice perfectly. And now you cannot read the properties of the magical throne, but I’ll have you know they are quite interesting."
I just smiled, not thinking of getting mad at my little sister's amiable teasing, especially given it were well justified. Valeria then explained that the Throne of the Dark Sovereign was a powerful artifact that generated Direct Intervention Points. Those were an extremely rare and valuable resource in Boundless Realm available only to creatures at demigod level and higher, which could be spent to work miracles but only by the ruler and only while seated on the throne.
"Something like mana for spells?" I asked, trying to find an analogue, but Valerianna shook her head:
"No, totally different. Mana allows conjurers to cast a strictly limited number of spells dependent on class, level and magical subdivision. No matter how much mana they have, no wizard can do things that are not allowed by their class and skills. But Direct Interference Points allow a very powerful being to remake the world to suit their needs without any spells. In the hot desert you could bring a spring of fresh water to the surface, change the weather, instantly move around Boundless Realm, whatever you like. And the more points you have, the more significantly you can alter reality."
"You know I've never heard of this even though I've read a bunch of guides on the game," the Ogre Fortifier threw out, not hiding his skepticism. And the Wood Nymph was eager to explain it to our friend:
"Leon, you've probably heard of it but until recently they were called Faith Points. This is the same resource generated at altars in temples to allow their titular deity to exercise its will. You see, in the real world the Boundless Realm Corporation got in a conflict because the term 'Faith Points' upset religious people who believe faith is something abstract that must never be quantified. So to avoid a legal battle, a few patches ago the name in the game was changed to Direct Interference Points."
The huge ogre nodded to say he’d heard that story before. I then started looking over the huge black throne but now as its master, dreaming up grandiose plans for my new ability. But Valerianna Quickfoot hurried to rein me in:
"Direct Interference Points are generated extremely slowly, and that is the only reason divine creatures haven't overtaken all Boundless Realm. For now your throne generates two points per hour. One on its own, and another is given by those heads of the Rat King in the back of the chair."
I had to take a few steps back to see what my sister was talking about. In fact, two of the wood-carved skulls had been replaced with both heads of Hyenarius in the back of the throne. The Lord of the Swamps of the Styx, whose half-dead and half-living warband was defeated by my army in the marshes. And the dead head was moving, opening and closing its mouth without a sound. And the living head of the Rat King, as far as I could tell, was also still kicking, darting its glowing red little eyes in every direction.
Well, where did that land me? The heads of enemy leaders I took down would decorate my black throne, at the same time strengthening the ghastly artifact? Seemingly yes. My gaze stopped just then on two rougarou skulls carved out of black wood nearby, and my imagination quickly told me that those slots were meant to house the heads of Regent Uvari-Dor-Shu and Princess Chai-nee Shu. And that unmistakable skull there looked very much like it belonged to the familiar queen of the Harpies Kirra'ellita, Huntress of the Night. Hrm...
The mavka's voice interrupted my thinking.
"Now the throne has one hundred thirty-four Direct Interference Points, which is very little. It could open a portal for a short time within the Southern Continent, or revive one NPC up to level sixty-seven. And also, big-ears, we have a big problem. The throne's characteristics indicate that to use it you must be at least level two-hundred... Do you have any Ifrit Hearts left?"
No, I had spent the last Ifrit Heart stripping my fur armor suit of its level requirement. And that was Fenrir's Pelt, the fifth item from the cursed set. Now that was some bad luck... Getting another one of those very rare alchemy ingredients would be quite difficult. Actually, it would be just as hard as taking the natural way and just leveling up to two hundred.
Seemingly, the Dark Sovereign's arrival to Boundless Realm ran the risk of ending with a huge fiasco. What was the point of the new patch if the sovereign it made couldn't even use the tools provided?
"Keeper! I need you now!" I shouted, hoping very much that someone from the Global Modeling Department was carefully observing how this important event was unfolding.
And I wasn't wrong. Not five seconds later, a glowing winged figure appeared hovering just under the ceiling of my throne room. I didn't even have to explain; the Keeper already knew my problem and spoke first:
"Yes Amra, that was a cock-up on our part. We'll fix it right quick. It's just that many of us were surprised to see you elevated to Dark Sovereign. We still haven’t worked through all the kinks... Alright, ready! Enjoy your throne!"
Seemingly the Keeper considered his job done and was getting ready to disappear. But I called out to him and voiced another series of wishes:
"I need keys to all the castle doors. I'm not supposed to break them down am I?! And I also need some kind of interface for managing the castle in some way or another. I must know what is going on in my own home, what needs to be improved or repaired, and what is being kept in my stores. And I also need to control my army somehow, and something to tell me which regions and provinces of the Southern Continent pose a threat to the Dark Sovereign. And another no-less-important thing: do you really think the skills and specializations needed by an Herbalist, are appropriate for a ghastly Dark Sovereign? For example, the ability to transplant plants. I personally have a hard time imagining a fearsome game monster trouncing around with a trowel and replanting flowers. Will I be allowed to reset or trade out some of my skills or maybe get some unique perks?" 
The Keeper froze motionless. Seemingly the player controlling it was away from his computer consulting with his colleagues. I waited three minutes, and even got a bit bored before the winged figure flew back into motion and came all the way down to the floor:
"It has been decided to assign the Dark Sovereign three servants: a Keymaster, a Storekeeper and a Steward. The designers and programmers promised to make them worthwhile and entertaining for your audience. And as for other servants for your castle, if you need them you'll have to order them yourself through the game's online store. They also didn't give you a general. Leadership thought you could handle leading an army yourself, or buy yourself and NPC with the right talents. Or you could invite a living player to be your general. I'm certain you won't have a hard time finding someone who wants to lead the Dark Sovereign’s legions. But also, we tossed some food for your army into the castle stores. They didn't really think about that, because they figured the Dark Sovereign would send his army straight into battle. But I guess with all these unexpected troubles you’ve got too much on your plate, so they decided to give you a bit of help. They gave you very modest provisions, just one day for an army of that size. You'll have to get a handle on it before then."
"And what about my skills?" I reminded the Keeper of my other question, but he just shrugged his winged shoulders indefinitely:
"The marketing specialists and directors are not yet of one mind on that issue. On the one hand, it seems logical that a fearsome Dark Sovereign should have unique abilities, otherwise how could he really be a unique game boss? But on the other, why do they suddenly need to make an exception to the rules for some lone player? Millions of other players could be justly angered. Overall, the question is stalled for now. Although... wait, I'm hearing something just now..."
The Keeper froze motionless for another minute before returning to the game and announcing the leadership's final verdict:
"They came to an interim decision: the skills and specializations your Goblin Herbalist already has cannot be exchanged, but with the specializations you haven't taken yet there will be the chance to choose unusual perks. The problem is that they haven't yet been thought up, and their consequences if introduced in the game haven't been thought through. That all takes some time. A day or two most likely. Overall, best of luck to you and I hope you have fun, Dark Sovereign!"


Day One. Troublesome Tasks

The Keeper disappeared, leaving me somewhat perplexed. Was that all??? No extra experience to level me up faster, no real explanations, no manual for how to control soldiers or at least an approximate overview of the corporation's expectations? But I had to understand what the leadership wants from me!
And also the suggestion not to choose specializations that were available already in hopes of obtaining unusual perks sounded, to put it lightly, rushed and indefinite. What perks? Would they really by useful, or just worthless crap? And also how long would I have to wait for them to enter the game? I could already choose a specialization for six skills, and now they wanted me to just leave it that way while the programmers thought something up?

Warchief Skill increased to level 19!

Foreman Skill increased to level 68!

And what was that from? Ah, there it was... In the wide-open doors of the throne room, there were the rougarou and orcs I had summoned, stock-still and bowing low before me. Seemingly, my companions had seen the Keeper's visit and thus were in a state of near worship for their commander. I noticed that the Regent of the Clan of the White Lily was trying to maintain his respectfully bowed pose, despite the clear pain from his injuries and fractures. And there, by the way was the chance to test my new abilities!
"Shrekson, help me up onto the throne! But be careful not to touch the poisonous wood!"
The tall Ogre Fortifier easily lifted my Goblin and not so much sat as tossed me onto the rough scaly seat.

Successful check for Poison Resistance!

And sitting on the very edge of the seat, I extended a hand toward the crippled Uvari-Dor-Shu:
"Advisor, I need you in good health! Stand from the stretcher and come to me!"

You have used 5 Direct Interference Points. You have 129 points remaining.

It worked!!! The fur-covered Druid, surprised to discover the pain was suddenly gone, straightened up and took his first cautious step, then a second and a third... And carefully walked upright, stopping ten feet from the throne. In the rougarou's eyes I could see a fanatic shimmer of adoration and loyalty. The Regent of the Clan of the White Lily would jump into a fire for me without hesitation.
"Sovereign, I came to your call and am ready to serve you!"

Warchief Skill increased to level 20!
You may now choose your first specialization in this skill.

And here another skill had leveled to first specialization... So again I should not choose any of the options and wait for something unusual? I took a heavy sigh. Alright, it didn’t exactly demand an immediate reaction. I could be patient for a day or two and see what they had to offer. But now I needed to give an order to the rougarou, take advantage of the circumstances and explore the nearby area:
"Advisor, I promised the Clan of the White Lily new lands in the territory of the Dark Sovereign, if you trusted me and followed me. The time has come to fulfill my promise! Gather a few groups of experienced scouts and go in different directions from the castle. By tomorrow evening, I expect your rougarou back with reports and maps, and I expect you to make a decision on which parcel the Clan of the White Lily prefers."
The huge Uvari-Dor-Shu, whose healed scars made a big impression and gave him character, underlining his power and might as a high-level Druid, respectfully bent down on one knee:
"Sovereign Amra, I am grateful for the care for my clan. But may I be allowed to make one request? The Clan of the White Lily left its dwelling places in a great hurry. Our women and children didn't take any warm clothing or blankets and now have no roofs over their heads. After the bitter cold on the river of death and mountain crossings, many children have fallen ill. Order the other rougarou clans to share their warm clothing, poles and tents! I saw that other clans only sent strong warriors to the Dark Sovereign's call, and they can easily just crowd in or just go without tents. Their own fur is easily enough for a large sturdy warrior!"
"I don't recommend it, Tim! You'd be spoiling your relationship with every other rougarou clan just for good relations with one of the weakest."
 The private message from Valerianna Quickfoot caught me after I’d already opened my mouth, preparing to agree to the Druid's request. I thought over my sister's advice and agreed with her utterly well-founded fears, changed my decision and tried not to offend any of the rougarou:
"Uvari-Dor-Shu, unlike us, who came most of the way here through the portal of the goddess Hel, the other clans made much longer and harder journeys. I don't know the status of the rougarou of other clans, so I must first speak with their chieftains before making your request. But don't you worry, the Clan of the White Lily will not be left without shelter! Before you decide on a new land and build new tents, I allow you to live in my castle... let’s say... in the north wing and two of its towers!"

Diplomat Skill increased to level twenty!
You may now choose your first specialization in this skill.

Another skill was now in the wind with no specialization... That was starting to grate on me. Perks were necessary to give improvements and new abilities, but my Amra was being forced to stay in weakened form.
Princess Chai-nee Shu, walking closer during my conversation with the regent, started to jump and clap for joy and amusement. Her advisor tried to calm the young girl, who was behaving overly emotionally for such a proud princess, but I asked him not to stop Chai-nee Shu from expressing her happiness. The regent bowed to me then suddenly gave a threatening growl and jumped forward, shielding the princess from the new figure in the throne room:

Keymaster. Silent servant of the Dark Sovereign (indestructible).

I had to admit, I also gave an unwitting shudder when the ghastly dark shadow appeared one step from the throne. And although a quick glance at the mini-map revealed a blue marker for this creature, confirming that it was an ally, I still shook my head in reproach. I mean, come on programmers, you can't scare the players like that! If I had a weak heart, I'd need someone to urgently call an ambulance.
The Keymaster was a ten-foot tall black semi-transparent ghost in an old moldering shroud that held a huge keyring in his right hand which was just as semi-transparent and fleshless as he was. Through the black haze of his low-slung hood, a skull with three eye-holes peeked out, and each of them contained flickering red embers, a monster's eyes glowing in the dark. The left bony hand of the undead being was holding a busted torch. And to complete the picture of walking horror, there was a marker in the form of a black skull over the ghastly figure that hovered just above the floor, meaning he was more than fifty levels stronger than my Amra.
"Keymaster, open the doors to the north wing of the castle for the rougarou! And so I don't have to do this again, open the rooms in the eastern part of the castle for the orcs, too!"
The taciturn ghost's three eyes flickered and he started unhurriedly floating toward the exit. The rougarou and orcs, exchanging unconfident glances, nevertheless gathered their bravery and shuffled off after the ghastly guide into the dark depths of the corridor. I stopped just Chai-nee Shu and Ziabash Hardy:
"They can manage without you, but I need you now. Chai-nee, you're a Hunter by class. I have a mission that's just up your alley. There's only enough victuals in the castle for one day. And meanwhile, during our last crossing from the hill, I saw a big forest in the distance and some animals in it. Get together a group of orc and rougarou hunters from every clan and go catch some prey. I appoint you head of this hunting division. And take the Gray Pack with you. My pretties are hungry, and I’m sure they couldn't hurt, especially the level-212 Guard Dog and Baron at 120. And I'll be calmer, too. No matter who lives in that distant forest, with them as help you'll have no problems!"

Foreman Skill increased to level 69!

Chai-nee Shu, delighted and flattered by my trust, promised to carry out the order after which she gave a dignified bow and headed for the exit. Now for Ziabash Hardy's mission. I told my first mate take a group of orcs to inspect the supply warehouses and organize the distribution of provisions to every division outside my castle.
Finally, I turned my attention to the last NPC awaiting my orders, the Orc Shaman Ghuu Ghel All-Knowing:
"My friend, your mission may seem strange and vague at first glance, but please hear me out. In Boundless Realm millions of orcs, kobolds, goblins, trolls and others live in fear of persecution from the undying. They hunt and kill our brothers for profit, experience, and sometimes just fun."
The orc shaman, draped in bone and feather necklaces, confirmed with bitterness that I was speaking the gods' truth, and he knew of many ghastly instances of the undying being unjustifiably harsh to orcs and other races.
"That's exactly right! I myself saw the peaceful goblin village of Tysh burned to the ground, and know of many similar examples. And so I'm sure that many orcs and goblins would be glad to move to calmer lands, but they don't know any. Well, I am prepared to provide them shelter here! Around my castle there are expansive uninhabited lands and any settler will find both a place to live and a job. The undying will have a very hard time just getting here, and the powerful army of the Dark Sovereign will stand in their path. What do you say, friend?"
"Yes, my liege, such an offer may interest many," Ghuu Ghel All-Knowing agreed with a deep bow.
"I also think we can find takers. But the settlers will have to meet a few conditions to be permitted into my lands. Listen carefully, shaman! If they come from a peaceful profession, one tenth of their income will be taken by the treasury of the Dark Sovereign, which is very little in comparison with the other governments of the Southern Continent. Warriors on my lands then will not be expected to pay taxes, but they must stand under the banners of the Dark Sovereign in case of attacks on my land. Your mission then, shaman, is to spread this word around all Boundless Realm by any means necessary. Summon your spirits, use birds, beasts and magical messengers, do everything in your power! If necessary, speak with the other shamans, druids and wizards gathered near my castle. And feel free to refer to my order: they must support you in any way possible in this most important matter! Have you got it all, shaman? Then go and do it!"
Just after the last NPC disappeared from view, I asked the Ogre Fortifier to take me down from the tall throne and place me on the floor.
"Amra, I admit, I'm impressed," the mavka told me as soon as I came up next to her. "Tim, you've accomplished something truly grand! As far as I know, since the very first patches of Boundless Realm, when the lands of the virtual continents were just barely occupied by players, no one has ever tried to resettle entire peoples."
"Well, even then there was resettlement of living players," Max Sochnier threw out, not hiding his delight and enthusiasm. "I mean, Amra, you want to lure NPC's to your side from the whole Southern Continent! Nothing like that has ever happened!"
"Well friends, what other choice do we have?! Just look, I have twenty or thirty thousand ghastly NPC monsters in front of my castle. That's pretty good. With good planning, I could use them to make two or three incursions, capture a few cities and make some problems for the players. But then the TOP clans will come, mow down my warband and walk unimpeded right here to capture the castle of the Dark Sovereign. Remember the story of Fenrir. His pack was strong and threatened a few provinces. But the problem was that the players respawn after dying, while NPC's do not. A few bloody battles, and all that was left of Fenrir's pack was untrained pups, who were soon cut down together with their fearsome alpha."
"But Amra, that outcome is inevitable!" the Ogre shouted, not hiding his pessimism. "Sooner or later, enough players will gather to take down whatever army of mobs this world could muster. And your army, Amra, will also be destroyed sooner or later. Our mission is only to push back that moment of defeat and force the players to work hard for it, making the Dark Sovereign event noisy and fun, so the leadership will congratulate us on the job well done."
The naiad supported the ogre's opinion, and even the mavka agreed. I had to admit, I really didn't like my friends' state of gloom, so I tried to convince them otherwise and give them some enthusiasm:
"The whole problem is that you’re looking at it wrong in the first place. When there are NPC's in your army, you can’t just flight like they’re players! Don't step into the bear trap, wasting your forces and best soldiers. First build up a strong base with developed industry and supply, get everyone equipped with decent weapons and armor, arrange for newcomers to be trained, build strong fortifications in choke points, and scout out nearby territories so we can see our threats in due time. And then it's very possible to hold out! Take for example the Land of Gloom. It has held out a long time already, despite all the undying attacks. That shows success is completely possible!"
Leon and Max started arguing with me, but my sister froze motionless. Either Valeria's game client had frozen, which was unlikely, or the Wood Nymph currently had a game guide open and was searching for something. Most likely information on the Land of Gloom, which I had just used as an example. Well crap... I had already realized what would happen twenty seconds before it did. As soon as my sister opened the page on the ruler of the Land of Gloom, she noticed that the Harpy Queen Kirra'ellita Huntress of the Night was the spitting image of our friend Kira. And as soon as Valerianna Quickfoot started moving, I heard peevishness in my sister's voice:
"Timothy, how could you lie to me?! And Kira too! Not bad! Clothing seller my ass... I was surprised at Inessa Tyle's funeral to see that the vice-president's own granddaughter didn't work for the Boundless Realm Corporation!"
And Leon and Max Sochnier asked what she was talking about and what had her so upset. I was afraid and was about to even send my sister a private message asking her to keep quiet about what she discovered. But Val was smart enough not to continue the slippery topic. My sister had always been a clever girl, and now she instantly realized that Kira had good reason to hide her virtual identity.
To course-correct the awkward situation, I tried to quickly change the topic. I asked the Ogre Fortifier to start building defensive structures both around the castle of the Dark Sovereign, then on the whole way from the Styx through the narrow gorges, glaciers and dangerous mountain paths.
"Valerianna Quickfoot has high-enough level Cartographer and Engineer skills. After studying the area, the mavka will show you what to build and where to make the attackers' route to my castle as difficult as possible. Shrekson, you can have as many workers as you want! Ogres, trolls, mountain titans, I can even get cyclopes to help with construction. Mainly just make it so that deadly traps and well-built defenses await the enemy in every choke point. I want the players to respawn again and again and lose their valuable experience, waste their time and curse the day they decided to campaign against the Dark Sovereign! We'll make it so... Hey, what's going on?!"
I had to break off my fiery speech, because I heard a sound from the corridor and many excited voices. Soon a big group of high-level rougarou and minotaurs burst into the throne room, many of whom were overexcited and in a very aggressive mood. The group of my orcs and rougarou from the Clan of the White Lily tried to stop the incursion, but they weren't doing a very good job.
"Sovereign, we refuse to obey this young whelp!!!" a tall rougarou walked out in front with coal black fur, a huge clawed paw pointing at Chai-nee Shu as she pressed her ears back in fear.
The crowd gave a fearful gasp then fell silent, impressed by the rougarou's impudence, having dared to dispute an order from the Dark Sovereign. In the silence that came over, the rude fellow's next words sounded especially biting:
"And we refuse to obey you, little goblin! You're not at all like the fearsome ruler we came here to follow!"

Elder Chieftain of the Clan of the Laughing Otter
Level-133 Rougarou Hunter

In the silence that took hold, I walked closer and looking unfazed, stared at the rebel, even took an unhurried circle around the frozen dog-head. My opponent was two times taller than my Goblin Herbalist and three times broader at the shoulder. His huge muscles rippled with every movement of his body. Probably on the backdrop of the modest Amra, the muscular giant looked impressive and respectable. But I kept up my act as the very embodiment of calm:
"And who is this 'we?'" I clarified, as my rival looked me from top to bottom in agitation. I explained: "I must know who precisely has dared to challenge me, and who to punish afterward."
"'We' is me and my little brother Ahn," the chieftain pointed to another tall rougarou baring his teeth threateningly. "And our whole proud and numerous Clan of the Laughing Otter!"

Younger Chieftain of the Clan of the Laughing Otter
 Level-118 Rougarou Scout

"I'll deal with your clan later. But now I have to teach a lesson to two furry twits who dared be rude to my face. I just so happen to need something soft to cover the seat my throne. And your pelts would serve that purpose wonderfully!" 
"Sovereign, allow me to punish these scoundrels for you!" Regent Uvari-Dor-Shu stepped forward, covered in combat scars, but I stopped my advisor with a gesture.
First of all, I was in no way confident the level-124 Druid could handle a level-133 Hunter, especially with his younger brother. Second, to avoid more upwellings of rebelliousness in the future, as the Dark Sovereign I had to make a show of power and completely uproot the very concept of opposing me. Third, my Sating the Thirst bar was down at 2/24, so I would have to quench my Thirst for Blood in the next few hours no matter what. And finally, although I already had rougarou blood in my vampiric collection, I had not yet killed such a creature with a Vampire Bite. The +1% bonus to my melee damage that would give me would come quite in handy for the future. As would the experience from killing two opponents, each of whom were more than fifty levels stronger than Amra.
"Everyone make a big circle!" I roared, and we instantly had a clear dueling area.
Great! All this free space allowed me to use the Hair Whip of the Goddess Hel. And my throne was even inside the circle. I noticed that and chuckled to myself, because there were quite a few intriguing ways I could use the deadly poisonous object in this battle.
Was I feeling anxious at this worrying moment? Maybe a tiny bit, but overall I had no doubt in my victory. And another few days ago, the duel with Uvari-Dor-Shu had caused me big problems and nearly ended in my defeat. But lots had changed since then. I was stronger now and had five objects from Fenrir’s Cursed Regalia, above all the fur armor which raised my Strength and Constitution by two hundred fifty points and gave me great defense against bites and blows.
"Let's begin!" I shouted, and simultaneously both enemies went on the attack.
The brothers were not able to turn into animals because they did not have Druid abilities but they had their own strong sides, which they used expertly. In the Hunter's paws there instantly appeared a deadly bow and arrow. I had to quickly somersault away to dodge his first shot.

Acrobatics skill increased to level 27!

Dodge Skill increased to level 37!

The Scout then went invisible, because the gloom of the throne room was plenty for him to use Stealth. Then he charged me, trying to stab me in the back. What a naïve idiot! I was a vampire, and my Night Vision and Search for Life easily kept him in view, even in total darkness. Here's what your stupid self-confidence gets you! A crack of my whip hurtled my opponent from invisibility, while my next blow knocked the rougarou's legs out from under him.

Exotic Weapons skill increased to level 26!

I first had to again dodge a loosed arrow before I managed to run up to the fallen Rougarou Scout, writhing in pain and suffering. He barely had any hitpoints, his life bar was practically empty. But that wasn’t enough for me. I sunk my teeth into the throat of my injured enemy!

Damage dealt: 3105 (Vampire Bite 4002 - armor 897)

Experience received: 325000 Exp.
Objects received: Rougarou blood (alchemy ingredient) * 3, Rougarou Chieftain Pelt.

Level sixty-six!
Level sixty-seven!
Level sixty-eight!

Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (Gives +1% to all damage dealt for each unique creature killed with Vampire Bite. Current bonus: +32%)
The older brother cried out so deafeningly the echo rang through the castle several times. After that, the enraged rougarou threw down his worthless bow, got down on all fours and charged me. He even managed to knock my meager goblin off his feet and onto his back. But while falling I managed to draw in my legs, then sharply extended them and sent my enemy back, giving him extra acceleration toward the poison throne. The thundering blow coincided with a scream that quickly stopped short...

Acrobatics skill increased to level 28!

Experience received: 330000 Exp.
Objects received: Rougarou blood (alchemy ingredient) * 3, Rougarou Chieftain Pelt.

Level sixty-nine!
Level seventy!

Attention! You have reached level 70
You may now improve your character’s survival by choosing a modification

I wiped the blood off my face with the back of my hand, straightened up and unhurriedly turned toward the large crowd:
"Anyone else feel like challenging me?" 
The crowd stepped back in fear. And together with the rest, a new character stepped back, who I had not seen before the fast-paced scuffle:

Demon of Avarice
Storekeeper for the Dark Sovereign (indestructible)

A massive ash-gray figure. Hoofed feet. Horns on his head. Vertical pupils in yellow eyes. A mouth full of sharp teeth... The thing before me was clearly a demon. Wearing an unkempt leather vest and very patchy pants that had clearly been through a lot. Even the lowliest bum would be ashamed to dress like that, which meant this was either a very poor scamp, or a creature of extreme greed. It seemed made to play on that ambiguity... Although maybe this was exactly how a true storekeeper was supposed to look.
"Don't you doubt it, master," the demon said in a deep bass, as if reading my thoughts. "I have experience in such matters. Under various guises, I spent one hundred fifty years as mayor of Gabrovo, whose stingy natives have been the subject of so many tales. We even charged mice admission to get into our grain barns! And we never had one get past us! So Sovereign, don't you worry about your precious stocks! By the way... Sovereign, why do you need two rougarou pelts? Put one on the throne to pad your bony backside, but the second might as well go right into storage!"
I guffawed. This strange new NPC was pretty great! Sure he was a demon by race, but you'd never find a better storekeeper! By the way, speaking of demons... I still didn't have that kind of blood in my vampiric collection. And actually, of all the varieties of demonic creature, Amra had only ever sampled succubus blood, and that was way back in the Cursed House. So I'd have to think over how to level Taste Tester with the Storekeeper, an exceedingly rare demonic creature. Of course, the Demon of Avarice would hardly agree to give up a sample of his blood for free, so the issue of paying for it or trading for it would have to be discussed.
At any rate, I'd handle that question later. Now it was time for more important matters, for example, finishing up with the rougarou revolt. I searched the crowd for someone else from the Clan of the Laughing Otter, and I found a gray-haired level-120 Shaman, and ordered him to come over to me:
"The chieftain brothers, now dead for their ignominy, claimed the entire Clan of the Laughing Otter was in revolt against the Dark Sovereign. And neither you nor any other rougarou of your clan objected, thus confirming your chieftains' word. And now I have to think up a fitting punishment. Tell me, Shaman, how great is your Clan of the Laughing Otter?"
The gray-haired shaman lowered his head and said softly:
"Sovereign, the Clan of the Laughing Otter brought four hundred of its strongest warriors to your summons. Back home on the banks of the river of death, fifteen hundred rougarou remain if you include the elderly and children."
"Sooo..." I crossed my hands behind my back and in thought paced through the throne room.
Four hundred strong warriors... Not bad, not bad at all! That would be useful to my army, so I was in no place to kill all these rougarou, even though the temptation to get a whole sea of experience for killing them was strong. Nevertheless, I also couldn't pump the brakes and forgive the rebels, otherwise what kind of Dark Sovereign was I?! My reputation as a fearsome and terrible ruler would instantly collapse, and after that I could no longer reasonably expect obedience and respect from the ghastly monsters under my command. So what could I think up?
Finally, I decided:
"I have decided the Clan of the Laughing Otter's punishment for taking part in the rebellion against the Dark Sovereign! I will be taking your thirty strongest warriors! Shaman, you will select them yourself, give them the chance to say farewell to their friends, and by morning bring them here to me in the throne room!"
With a low bow, the shaman lowered his head even further, closed his eyes for a few seconds and answered barely audibly in a quavering voice:
"My lord is very magnanimous! Sovereign, I will carry out your order, but am I allowed to be among those warriors?"
"No, shaman! I only want young and strong warriors. They will serve as bodyguards for my ward Chai-nee Shu. These thirty rougarou's lives will now revolve around accompanying my adopted daughter everywhere, protecting her and keeping her safe from any kind of danger. They are Already the best in their clan, and after Vaash and Valerianna Quickfoot train them in combat skills and tactics, these thirty rougarou will be the best of the best! After this training, these warriors will wear only bright read clothing and armor as a symbol of the fact that they are the elite, and their high rank was earned with spilled blood!"

Diplomat Skill increased to level 21!

Warchief Skill increased to level 21!

Foreman Skill increased to level 70!

"I hope no one will say that the Clan of the Laughing Otter disrespected the Dark Sovereign or his ward! With that I consider this incident settled!"
Based on how I was speaking, the expression of obedience and despair on the face of the gray-haired shaman changed first to surprise and timid hope, then to gratitude and elation. When I finished my speech, the shaman fell to his knees and the overpowering emotions even made him try to kiss my Goblin Herbalist's boots:
"Sovereign, you'll never find more loyal servants and soldiers than the rougarou of the Clan of the Laughing Otter! Your adopted daughter Chai-nee Shu will have the most loyal guards that can be found in our world!"

You have used 2 Direct Interference Points
You have 127 points remaining

Rougarou opinion of you has increased by +3

I didn't realize right away what I had just spent two of the invaluable Direct Interference Points on. I looked from side to side and didn't see any changes. Well, except that two of the rougarou skulls carved from the toxic wood on the back of my throne were now adorned with real skulls of the two foolhardy brothers, writhing in dismay. Two heads spent two points, was that it? After that I discovered that there was now a golden marker in my immediate vicinity on the mini-map. A unique creature?! I shuddered and tried to line up the golden marker's position with a character in the throne room. Seemingly, it was the rougarou princess. Yes, that was right! And in fact, some serious changes happened to Chai-nee Shu's description:

Chai-nee Shu
Adopted Daughter of the Dark Sovereign
Level-91 Hunter (unique creature)

So that was it! I had called the charming young rougarou girl my adopted daughter a few times, and now the Boundless Realm algorithms had adjusted her status in the game, making the princess a unique creature, the daughter of the Dark Sovereign himself. Whether that was good or bad, I could not say. For the princess, that new status after all meant not only irrefutable authority with the NPC servants, but also stubborn attention from the undying. There were always more than enough players wanting to kill a unique creature.
What happened then was a clear example of the fact that a being at the level of the Dark Sovereign needed to always carefully think through his words, because they had the tendency to manifest as reality.
We started discussing the Naiad Trader's work after all the hustle and bustle of the loud group of mobs had left the throne room. Leon had also left by that point it was after eight and our friend had to go pick up his youngest daughter from music school.
"Max, I see a great opportunity for you to go back to our old plan and start a seafood trading business," my sister suggested, who now also had some changes in her game profile:

Valerianna Quickfoot
Sister of the Dark Sovereign
Level-102 Beast Master

First of all, the previously obvious Wood Nymph race label had disappeared. And although this information was still there, buried deep in her detailed character info, and Valerianna Quickfoot still looked like a wood nymph a delicate long-legged girl with hair the color of fresh leaves and huge eyes my sister had discovered that some important changes had taken place in her skills and statistics. Some disciplines of magical arts were now unavailable (for example, Life Magic and Order Magic), and her mana expenditure had been rebalanced, along with casting time and spell effects. Lots of other things had also changed in a minor way. All that needed to be carefully combed over, and Val was going to get deep into that after finishing this game session. That way by tomorrow morning she could put together a new development plan for her character.
Max Sochnier after hearing what Val said shuddered and got on guard:
"I don't quite get it. Valerianna, you want to get rid of me?"
"Nothing of the sort! Think for yourself next to the castle of the Dark Sovereign and in the castle itself, there are already one thousand thirty creatures, approximately half of which are alive and need to consume food regularly. And soon, if Amra's plan to invite settlers works, there will be many more inhabitants! Meanwhile, we have very scant provisions and the hunters can barely provide food for all our needs. The villagers then, when they arrive and start their work, will also need time to grow crops, especially with this constant thick fog and lack of sun.”
"And what do you suggest?" I asked, intrigued because the issue of providing food to my subjects had seriously worried me.
The Wood Nymph started smiling, showing her sharp predatory little teeth and answered eagerly:
"I thought about the underwater village Ookaa, which lives exclusively on fishing. And there's also the Isle of the Wanton Widow, and also a bunch of other little islands and nearby fishing villages where you can buy ocean fish very cheap. Max has a trade galley the Tipsy Albatross, which plies approximately those very waters on a fixed trade route. So have them buy all the fish they can, then send it here using portal scrolls! As a matter of fact, I learned to make them at level one hundred, so I can make plenty by tomorrow. Then we just need to set fish prices here in the lands of the Dark Sovereign so they're affordable to your subjects, and to keep Max Sochnier in the green."
The Naiad Trader enthusiastically extended his bright red back fins and built on my sister's idea with zeal:
"Great idea, Valerianna! As a law-abiding merchant I will pay the required tenth of my income to the Dark Sovereign's treasury, and I can also fund the teleportation scrolls. The volume of trade we're talking about is easily enough, so we don't have to mess around with delivery. And also the trade could be... what do I mean could? It would have to be bilateral! In these lands, which are off limits to other players, there must be something we could sell to people on the coast. Or the whole Southern Continent for that matter! Unique minerals and plants, something rare and valuable... What about that antiaris wood!?" Max said, pointing his webbed hand at my throne. "It's very rare material, which is in high demand among the players! If we harvest the toxic wood here and in fairly small amounts sell it in various parts of the continent so we don’t bring down the price and reveal the source too early, we could have a real Klondike on our hands!"
As for the antiaris, I wasn't going to rush things it was not guaranteed that these highly dangerous trees even grew in my lands, or that the deadly material could be processed in sufficient quantity so easily. And the idea of regularly opening portals had to be seriously looked over in terms of security, because it constituted an obvious weak point in my defenses. The strongest player clans had very skilled analysts in their ranks, who could quickly line up the arrival of rare artifacts and minerals with the route of the trade galley, and its owner Max Sochnier with the Dark Sovereign, who ruled some uninhabitable territory. And eventually one of our shipments might be replaced by a fully-fledged invasion of the Legion of Steel or the Lords of Chaos!
But in any case, Max Sochnier's words had a kernel of rationality. There was a general rule in any game: the further you get from crowded areas, the more interesting locations, loot and resources you’ll find. Boundless Realm was no exception in that regard, so here in the very remote lands of the Dark Sovereign, far from any cities, one could probably encounter something good enough to make the traders would tear off each other’s arms to get it.
Yes, we needed to fully scout out the area to discover precious resources, especially mineral and ore veins located deep underground. But I had an interesting idea on that account. I walked over to the crystal ball:
"Tondik Exuberant, Gnum Spiteful, I need you both in the throne room! And I also need creatures of any type who are familiar with the local caves and crevasses! If I have any, they are to come straight to the Dark Sovereign!"

Foreman Skill increased to level 71!

Just wow! No, I mean I was expecting Gnum Spiteful and the burnt Tondik Exuberant, still burned with his beard not grown back and missing one eye and arm. But I was not expecting the twenty fearsome ghosts who came with them along with three Midnight Wraiths, a barely visible and practically transparent Spirit of the Eternal Miner, a huge Plague Bat and a whole pack of various sized Rats of level one to one hundred fifty. Nevertheless, there was work for them all:
"Subterranean beasts, show these two dwarves all entrances to the caves and catacombs you know! And protect them from any troubles and dangers until the dwarves have mapped out the whole subterranean!"
Foreman Skill increased to level 72!
Now I turned my attention to the two dwarves, who were respectfully standing and hanging on my every word:
"My warrior friends! I expect a professional consultation from you. Throughout Boundless Realm, dwarves are famed as the foremost experts in geology. No one can compare with your race's talent for discovering valuable ore. And so I want you to explore all the deepest caves and catacombs, look at my new mountains and find all ores of iron, copper, silver and everything of interest..."
"Uhh, Captain Amra..." Gnum Spiteful the Dwarf Mechanic interrupted me unconfidently. "You hold our skills in too high an esteem. Yes, we're both dwarves and know a thing or two about metals and ores, but I'm a Mechanic by trade, and he's a Chef. How are we supposed to find any ore?!"
"Sovereign, I agree with Gnum. Although we are subterranean natives and know something about minerals, you'd be better off finding experts in the field... And two scouts are definitely not enough. We need at least two or three dozen. And I know where we can find them! Half the miners of the underground dwarven city of Dotur-Khawe would give up their beards for the right to explore virgin mountains!"

Mission received: The only thing better than one mountain is a mountain range.
Mission class: Normal.
Description: hire a brigade of dwarven miners in the city of Dotur-Khawe (no less than thirty) to explore the mountains and caverns in the lands of the Dark Sovereign.
Reward: 800 Exp.

What? Just eight hundred exp? Being at level seventy, that was just crumbs, nothing serious. I mean, for every enemy I killed, the game system had long sent me three hundred thousand experience, what was some pitiful eight hundred points to me?! Nevertheless, I didn't refuse the useful quest. Dotur-Khawe? It was pretty far, sure... Good thing last time I was in Dotur-Khawe, I got a couple extra teleportation scrolls to the Dwarven capital. Without them, even on the swift-winged VIXEN, I would take around two days each way, and that was if my Royal Forest Wyvern could fly over the icy mountains on the way to the city of the dwarves with their ghastly winds and low temperatures, then the dangerous cloudy lands of the river of death and a scorching desert.
But even with the portals, dragging myself to Dotur-Khawe and finding enough miners, I had to admit, seemed like an irrational waste of time. What was more, I had two right before my eyes who would be glad to visit their home town and do a great job with my mission. All that remained was to lead the dwarves to the thought of making a little visit to their homeland.
I pretended I was seriously thinking and fell silent for half a minute, then answered:
"Alright, Tondik and Gnum, you've convinced me. Such work requires true professionals, and the easiest place to find them is Dotur-Khawe. I intend to give you this important assignment, because you know the city of dwarves best and I trust you. I'll give you a portal scroll to Dotur-Khawe, you can get a return one from Valerianna Quickfoot. Remember that you need to hire at least thirty experienced miners and get back with them as fast as possible. Don't you doubt, friends, your work will be generously rewarded. And Tondik, I want to give you a down payment! I have to assume you’d prefer to have two arms and eyes!"
A moment later, where the pudgy dwarf's stump had just been, there was now an arm and hand again, but not made of flesh and blood, but seemingly woven from impenetrable, wavering darkness. His replacement eye was similarly unsettling and dark. Tondik Exuberant moved his new fingers dubiously, then tried to pick up the chef's ladle hanging on his belt with his dark hand, and was left totally satisfied.

You have used 8 Direct Interference Points
You have 122 points remaining

I wondered why there were one hundred twenty-two, not one hundred nineteen. Before I had one hundred twenty-seven points, minus eight.. either I had forgotten elementary school arithmetic outright, or something was fishy. Had it really generated new points already? But then why three and not two?
I asked that question aloud, to which Valerianna Quickfoot looked the throne over and confirmed that after the heads of the rougarou chieftains had been added, the magical artifact had started generating three Direct Interference Points per hour. Cool! Just for that it was worth executing the rebels!
I considered my conversation with the dwarves over, but Tondik and Gnum were in no rush to leave. They just kept shifting nervously from one foot to the next, exchanging glances and seemingly wanting to ask me something, but too embarrassed. Finally, Tondik made up his mind:
"Sovereign Amra, no matter how we want it, we cannot return quickly. As soon as we're back in our home town, my mother Pirona Zealous will find out that I am back and that I have a beautiful bride. And Vanessa's family would also not let her go without a luxurious many-day wedding, such is dwarven custom!"
Hrm, quite a problem. I hadn't considered that... Very few in my crew knew that, disguised as the spritely sharp-tongued Dwarf Mechanic Gnum Spiteful, was a bearded woman by the name Vanessa Hamfist. I myself forgot it from time to time, because dwarven women and men were sometimes hard to tell apart. They were all bearded, thick-set and short. Even the dwarves themselves couldn't always tell a woman dressed in men's clothing. What was more, Gnum Spiteful behaved like a blustery and cantankerous dwarven man, loved to drink and started fights at any opportunity.
What could I do? Let the loving couple go to their wedding, then wait for them to come back with the master miners they hired hopefully in a week, maybe two? Clearly a bad option. Not let the dwarves go home? Also no good, especially after what I'd just said about how much I trust them both and so on... The chat window flickered open. A private message had come in from Valerianna Quickfoot:
"You should suggest holding the wedding here as a special favor from the Dark Sovereign. At the same time, have them invite as many of their kin to the wedding as they can. I'm sure you'll have something to offer the dwarves there's tons of work for their craftsmen here."
Ah, great idea! I told that suggestion to the bride and groom. Tondik and Vanessa first predictably hesitated at the unexpected offer and were clearly looking for an excuse to politely refuse, but I managed to convince them:
"In the millennia of history of the dwarven race, you will be the only couple to have received such a great honor! In all chronicles of the submontane folk there will be a chapter on this most rare event, you will be as famed as the great kings of antiquity! I'm sure thousands of guests will come to see this unique event, and the dwarves who miss the wedding will tear out their own beard hair in annoyance! I've got enough room for all the guests, plenty of food and entertainment. I'm sure your brethren will want to see how wild this distant unknown realm is with their own eyes. And maybe, some of them will find an interesting job. Some may even decide to settle in my lands!"

Trading Skill increased to level 32!

Diplomat Skill increased to level 22!

And that's what we decided to do. I immediately handed the newlyweds the portal to Dotur-Khawe scroll, while Valerianna Quickfoot promised to prepare a return portal as quickly as possible. Max Sochnier, carefully listening to our negotiations, was very satisfied:
"Knowing the craftiness and curious nature of the dwarves, all the nearby mountains will be dug up by day two of the wedding, and every mine will be exhausted to the very depths in search of all kinds of valuables. But you, Sovereign Amra, will get a full map of useful minerals and ore veins with notes about which dwarf clan to call to extract them! Great work!"
Tondik and Vanessa thanked me for taking an interest in their fate, bid me farewell and went to get ready to return to their home city. After their departure, Max Sochnier made an excuse that his work day as a tester was already over, and he would also be saying goodbye until morning. The figure of the fish man went down on his haunches a step from my throne and disappeared without a trace half a minute later.
Finally, for the first time in the endless day, I was left alone with my sister! I had so many highly important questions I wanted to discuss with her, and which we could not have others overhearing! As it quickly became clear, I was not the only one impatiently awaiting the chance to talk eye to eye. As soon as the figure of the Naiad Trader disappeared, Valerianna Quickfoot got her magic wand from her inventory and raised a magical dome over us that didn't let a single sound out, then she demanded:
"Timothy, I don’t understand lots of the things you do in the game anymore, and your behavior in the real world is even weirder. You're not answering phone calls. You didn't come visit me in the hospital after the operation. You didn't come to Kira's grandmother's funeral. There must be a very serious explanation for all this, and I want to hear it from you. So then, Tim. Tell me!"

Day One. Talking with my Sister

"How is Kira doing? Is she very mad that I missed the funeral?"
I started the conversation from the part that had me most worried. But I immediately realized I chose wrong, because the Wood Nymph made a frown of dismay instead of answering:
"Timothy, this isn't about Kira. I'm the one hurting! You haven't seen your dear sister for three long days. Finally we get a convenient chance to talk, and the first question I hear has nothing to do with the very complicated twelve-hour operation to implant my bionic legs, nor about how I'm feeling after the anesthesia, but about your girlfriend! Come on, Timothy, you're a hard-hearted blockhead!"
I had to apologize. Yes, I was wrong. Yes, I was a cold-hearted thick-skinned fool, who didn't appreciate how lucky he was to have such a great sister. In my defense I only said that I couldn't get in touch with her sooner because my cell phone had been temporarily confiscated, so my ways of communicating with the outside world were seriously limited for now. Valerianna gave a slight nod:
"Yeah, they told me you had a fight with someone at work and leadership punished you..."
"What???" now here I couldn't hold back and started screaming, because the last thing I was expecting to hear was that the company had cooked up such an asinine story. "An employee of the corporation attempted to murder me while I was in my virtual reality capsule, stabbing me twice in the chest and severing my mesenteric artery. Is that what their calling a fight now?! I mean I almost died from blood loss!"
The already huge eyes of the Wood Nymph grew even bigger:
"What are you talking about, Tim?! What wounds, what attempted murder, what blood loss?"
"Remember when you left the game before the operation, when we were on the boat with the rougarou? Well, not five minutes after that, someone tried to kill me in the real world! A corporate tech named Artyom stabbed through the lid of my virtual reality pod twice with a sharpened screwdriver! Then, when I finally managed to get the damaged virtual reality capsule lid open, he tried to strangle me. Fortunately, help came just in time, guards ran in and we got dragged out. I was gushing blood and lost consciousness. Two whole days I spent in here getting patched up by the surgeons!"
Poor signal quality. If connection problems persist, the Boundless Realm client will be forced to close.
The warning message appeared and flickered before my eyes. I couldn’t imagine what kind of "connection problem" there could be when the virtual reality capsules of the corporate testers were literally less than one hundred fifty feet from the game servers. They were in the very same building, just two or three floors below. Well or in my case a few more floors away, but still in the same building!
"Val, is your game lagging? Are you having any connection problems?" I asked and she answered no. For Valeria Boundless Realm was working okay, even though my sister's capsule was much farther from the game servers.
Got it, I'm no idiot... The corporate leadership must have been showing me that the topic my sister and I were discussing was not to their liking, and if I didn't change my behavior right away, I'd be suspended once again and forced out of the game. I had to make some adjustments and change my tone to a more positive one as not to lose the chance to talk with Val:
"Val, the corporation probably just didn't want to scare and upset you. And they definitely didn’t want information about that unpleasant incident leaking out. And that was exactly why, Amra was being played by a program script two days ago, and the video clip was composed by some other people. They didn’t want my viewers suspecting anything. I was unconscious for two days, so I didn't have the chance to come visit you in the hospital, or express my sympathy to Kira."
The wood nymph took a heavy sigh and raised her huge wounded eyes to me:
"That is all very, very strange... but I believe you, Timothy. But now that you're all better can you come visit me? Visitors are allowed in the clinic until ten, so you'll have time. Tim, I'm so bored. I don't have enough time to talk with you for real. I'm used to seeing you every day and now after a few days apart, I'm just not myself..."
The chat window flickered. I figured it was my sister writing me something private, not wanting to say it aloud for some reason, however I was wrong. The message came from some corporate employee by the name "support_013":
"Timothy! Remember when you started working here and signed a non-disclosure agreement? There were points about information that may damage the corporation's business reputation. So if you do not cease this talk at once, we'll be forced to ban your Goblin Herbalist, this time forever. And let us remind you that you cannot leave your office for the next ten days."
It was a more than serious threat. I had to tell my sister with a heavy heart that I couldn't meet with her today, and I'd have to see what the doctors said from there. Valeria got even more upset and nearly started to cry. But still she found the strength to hold back and answer the first question I asked:
"Kira really is mad at you. Bad. But she seemed ready to make up. And she also thinks you got mad at her first: you turned off your phone, stopped coming to her house, and made some obvious lie... Anyway, that doesn't matter right now. You're both adults and you can figure that all out without my childish advice. But about playing in these new conditions, with you the Dark Sovereign having an army and lands, we really need to have a chat. I can help you with my advice."
The poor signal message, which had been annoying me so much the last few minutes, immediately disappeared. Our talking about in-game topics didn't bother my overseers one bit. Such intrusive and unhidden censorship and tracking were a definite annoyance, though. I was planning to raise the issue sharply in my next conversation with my employer, but I wasn't yet ready for it. I still didn't understand a lot of what was happening around me and was afraid to mess things up.
"First of all, Tim, you should think about changing your goblin’s appearance. That big-eared silly little goblin is definitely a funny character and it attracted an audience early on, but now that you're the stern and ghastly Dark Sovereign, it just won't do! We need to make you a new look, much more fearsome and brutal, and I can do all the work..."
"No! Definitely not!" it was rare that I argued with my sister on game issues, but this was exactly such a case. "I'm used to this appearance, and it's good enough for me! What's more, I can use that contrast to make my gameplay more interesting. I have a bunch of ideas for how to purposely underline and play up to this moment in my video clips, the viewers are sure to like it!"
"Alright, brother," having met such fervent resistance, Valeria went on the backslide. "But sometimes, you’ll still need to look fearful in order to scare subjects or enemies. I guess I could put an illusion on you for that though. I'll think over a ghastly beast form for you tonight. I'll look online for inspiration and make a spell to be ready to use at any moment."

Foreman Skill increased to level 73!

"Oh! I just got a quest from you to do that," the mavka chuckled and read the mission description. "And what an interesting reward: I can change my character appearance for free. Very unusual! Do as you like, but I'm definitely going to redo my Valerianna Quickfoot so she looks like a proper sister of the Dark Sovereign."
Boom! Inside the magic dome my sister had conjured, a new character appeared:

Castle Steward
Omnipresent servant of the Dark Sovereign

Little, big-eared... Even bigger than mine, although the ratio between ear size and Amra's body were truly impressive. A predatory face, sharp little teeth, thick reddish gray fur. Now, either that's a gremlin or I don't know a thing about fantasy races!
"You can cross through magical barriers?" the surprised mavka asked the Steward, and the Gremlin bared his teeth in satisfaction:
"Yes, madam! Within this castle I can move instantaneously and into any room, regardless of locked doors and magical barriers. And I can bring one or two companions with me through the portal."
"And outside the castle walls?" I asked, instantly intrigued by the Steward's unique abilities.
That would make him a truly ideal thief. No walls, castles or bars could hold him! Pop up somewhere, take all the valuables and instantly disappear with the loot! How intriguing!
"Outside the castle walls I do not exist..."
I sighed in dismay, although the Steward's answer didn't really surprise me. I mean, the corporation programmers couldn't make something so unfair as an NPC that broke all the game rules and balance!
"Good, Steward. Bring Valerianna Quickfoot and I into the personal chambers of the Dark Sovereign!"
Just as I finished that sentence, everything around me changed. All three of us were immediately in a small round room with bronze lamps hanging on the walls and flickering away. There was a spiral staircase going up and down. Five identical lancet windows going in different directions. Behind them it was already the middle of the night. And... really nothing else. No furniture, no luxury items, not even a bed. Bare stone walls and uncovered windows, which had a cold cross-breeze blowing through them. What a living situation! Not even spartan, this was made for some ascetic hermit who lived only to torment his body.
In Valerianna Quickfoot's rooms, where I also ordered the gremlin to take us, the situation was even more shameful: there weren't even any lamps, just bare stone walls and a cold floor covered in damp mold. To my utterly justified indignation, the Steward just chuckled:
"Sovereign, anything can be arranged for in the castle. Furniture from the rarest pink palm wood from the isles of Eternal Youth, carpets of albino sabre-tooth tiger pelts, windows made from deep-earth crystal with large inlaid diamonds. Any caprice for your money! But there is no money in the coffers. And as there's no money, you can have no caprices!"
"I've never come up against such an obvious and brazen demand to invest money in the game!" the upset Valerianna Quickfoot snorted, but the Steward predictably ignored her. After all, it was about the outside world. He continued:
"There is of course the option to have orcs and zombies make furniture and carry out decorative work, but I'm not sure the result will be to your liking, Sovereign. Or perhaps..." here the Steward sharply fell silent. I even had to demand that he finish his thought. "I'm sorry, Sovereign, I've just decided I'm talking out of turn. But I wanted to say that you can after all demand however much money you want as tribute. Everyone in Boundless Realm knows that your armies are about to invade the Tori, Lars and Amathy provinces. The rulers of the kingdoms and free cities there are probably shaking in fear now and may agree to pay you off just to avoid an attack!"
My sister and I exchanged glances, struck by the novelty of the suggestion, and Valerianna asked:
"He's right, Tim. Why not try? You won't be losing anything and will in fact thus be improving your reputation as a ghastly Dark Sovereign. But at least I'd like to know how that is technically possible to do. Sit on the throne and spend a few Direct Interference Points?"
"Or visit the rulers' palaces one by one through the crystal ball, threatening them each separately and issuing demands? But I don't have any maps of large cities to allow me to see them through the Eye, and I have no time to waste on that."
  But Val did not agree that I should write it off so quickly:
"You can buy maps of big cities in the central provinces for pennies. Only maps of distant locations are expensive in Boundless Realm, but the more players live in a place the more supply is on the market, and thus the cheaper the map. So I would suggest, big-ears, that you start buying game maps of the neighboring regions. The expenses will be minimal, and it will expand your possibilities greatly. Get to it today, because Direct Interference Points are too valuable a resource to just throw around like that."
"Am I throwing them around?" I asked in surprise, to which Val took a heavy sigh and nodded:
"You can say that again! Five points here, two there, then another eight... And you could have just as well gotten by without all those! I was just shocked when you spent eight points to heal the Chef! Tondik was doing just fine without that arm, it had no bearing on his wedding. Look, Tim. With such a careless attitude toward such a valuable resource, one fine day the Dark Sovereign may find he doesn't have enough points to open a portal and move troops. Then that will delay some attack and your employers will be highly upset!"
My sister was of course overselling it a bit, but I was willing to agree that I needed to be more careful with such a rare resource. Alright, I'd take it into consideration. I was ready to talk with my sister until deep in the night, but just then a strange beeping sound rang out like an alarm clock, and the Wood Nymph immediately jumped up:
"Timothy, sorry but I have to leave Boundless Realm. I promised... my new friends to meet tonight and go on a walk around the clinic garden. Alright?"
Now that was news! My little sister, who had no interests for many years outside of computer games was now telling me she was leaving the game to meet people in the real world! And at that, my sister was flustered and clearly embarrassed. Perhaps these friends she was going on a walk with weren't going to all be girls...
"And what might this young man be called?" I asked, casting a line at random. I wasn't wrong though.
The Wood Nymph went totally red and answered with her eyes lowered to the floor in embarrassment:
"His name is Andre. He's a very fun and cheerful guy from a good family, a beginner street racer. Half a year ago he had a nasty accident on an electrobike... I mean you know how they race. He lost both arms."
I wanted to make a quip that a racer without any arms was not exactly a beginner, more like a “done-r,” but I kept silent. I understood that this was a very painful and serious topic for my sister, and Valeria might get very mad.
"The day after tomorrow, Andre is having an operation. They're giving him bionic prosthetic arms. He's very worried, although he acts cocky and tries not to show it. He ordered a guitar to train his new fingers on, and work on sensitivity. He's going to go back to street racing after he recovers. He's constantly telling me about different models of electrobike and race tracks. Anyway, Andre is a very cool and positive boy. He's very well read. I sometimes think he knows everything in the world. I'm very glad to have met him. Well then, will you let me go walk with him tonight, Tim?"
How could I say no? In one way or another this was her fifteenth year, she was big enough to be independent, and interests often started to change in that period of life. What was more, I understood perfectly that Val would leave the game with my approval or without it. So, I allowed it. The Wood Nymph gave a shriek of joy, kissed my big-eared Goblin Herbalist on the cheek and sat down cross-legged on the floor, preparing to leave Boundless Realm. Half a minute later, the mavka's silhouette flickered and disappeared, dissolving without a trace.
There was no sense in me staying here in this dark room, and I demanded the Steward bring me to Ghuu Ghel All-Knowing. After all, I wanted to find out how the orc shaman was doing sending my messages through Boundless Realm.
"I cannot, Sovereign. The shaman is not in the castle, he is performing rituals, sacrifices and dances somewhere in the open air. I can only tell you he is with a large group of shamans and assistants and they all went toward those distant mountains."
"Alright, take me to the palace exit!" I ordered, and the gremlin instantly moved me to the front gates.

Successful check for Cold Resistance!

Ugh, what a cold snap and piercing wind! Without a tent, fire or hot food a creature might freeze to death before morning. The wind from the icy mountains was burning, whistling and getting into my very bones. There were black clouds hovering through the sky like shreds of fabric. Thankfully there was no rain, or the perhaps more likely snow. In the distance there were many fires burning. My squadrons of living creatures had set up tents, warmed up and made dinner. I didn't see any creatures with no clear tent, and that was good. There was a decent chance that all my warriors would survive until morning despite the bad weather. The undead needed no tents or food, but they had also gone somewhere, and were not dawdling on the wind-swept plain. I stood and looked around. Where to look for the shamans who went off to perform their rituals?
And here in the distance through damp wisps of clouds, I saw a column of bright green light striking through the gloomy sky!

The spirits were favorable to you
Your messages have been sent to every NPC in Boundless Realm!
The following positive effect has been received: every day, the Dark Sovereign will be more attractive to potential NPC settlers. He will also get the following bonuses every day:
·       Foreman +1
·       Warchief +1
·       Diplomat +1
·       Animal Control +1
Duration: unlimited

Would you look at that! The effect had an unlimited duration... very unusual. That meant that sooner or later, every creature that had the potential to submit to my authority in Boundless Realm would eventually declare me their master and stand under my banners. And meanwhile, the distant pillar of green fire was growing dimmer with every second until it finally dissolved into wisps of the low black clouds and streams of lashing rain. Apparently, I'd missed the most interesting part, and now I didn't have to rush off anywhere.
I could, of course, summon VIXEN or the Gray Pack and go off with them somewhere. But without friends or my sister, and with such nasty weather, I had simply lost the will to play. What was more, I was starkly reminded that I had spent all day in a virtual reality capsule, which made exhaustion and apathy roll over me. I also started feeling hungry. Not hungry like in the game. My character was almost full. And my Thirst for Blood was also at the top. My body in the real world needed to eat. So I took a heavy sigh and followed my sister's example, also leaving Boundless Realm.
There was someone in the office. I realized that as soon as I lifted the lid of the virtual reality capsule. I could hear the clacking of high heels in the next room along with quiet music and other sounds that just couldn't be coming from an empty office. Had Kira really come off it and tracked me down? With that anxiety-inducing thought, I crawled out and quickly got dressed. I didn't want to show up in front of my fashionable girlfriend in nothing but my underwear. I walked into the neighboring room... and froze.
My boss's assistant Tina, decked out in a fine golden evening dress and high-heeled shoes, was setting plates and wine glasses on the table. She had her bright purple hair up in a complicated style and some of her locks had been dyed gold to match her dress, clearly preparations that had taken a ton of energy and time. I noticed many neatly arranged salad dishes with something interesting, a large dish covered with a silver lid, fruits in a crystal vase, a bottle of sparkling wine in a bucket of ice... Seemingly my sister wasn't the only one who was going on a date tonight. But did I want all this?
"Good evening, Timothy!" said the long-legged beauty when she noticed me. "I heard about your temporary living situation and decided to pay you a visit. I hope you aren’t opposed."
I didn't know whether to be happy at this invasion of my personal space or not, but I of course didn't tell her to leave and answered politely.
"That's great!" Tina replied, happy. "Timothy, wash your hands and come sit down, you must be starving. I don't know what you like, so I ordered for my tastes."
We ate dinner in a somewhat strained atmosphere. Tina tried to joke and made varyingly obvious hints that she wanted to get to know me better and I did everything in my power to "not notice them." Why? There were many reasons for that. First and foremost were the video cameras in every corner. I had noticed some of them, though I suspected there were in fact many more cameras. I was not used to such intrusive observation. It had me very annoyed and feeling like I was in chains. Second, the very fact of my imprisonment, though forced and temporary, also annoyed me. And of course the main thing I could sense that something was fishy.
How did Tina know where I lived? It seemed to be the simplest of questions, but she avoided it and answered in a sketchy way. After that came the utterly logical thought that her entering a supposedly empty office with a tray of food would have been picked up by the building’s security cameras. And if someone had seen her, the whole basis for my imprisonment came crashing down that NPC Taisha could allegedly see me through the security cameras and would be on guard, guessing that the man named Timothy hadn't died at all. Taisha was not stupid and would quickly realize who the food was being brought to. And what, that didn't bother anyone? What nonsense was this?
Well and the fairly important factor of my sufficiently cautious and even cold behavior with Tina was of course a different girl who was no less beautiful than "miss Boundless Realm" herself. My relationship with Kira may have been in an indefinite and strained place, but we hadn’t yet broken up, so I felt a certain moral obligation to my somewhat crazy but still fashionable and amazing girlfriend.
"Timothy, I’m gonna go home!" Clearly having understood that she couldn't get more out of this than a dinner, Tina started getting ready to leave. "You must be bored sitting all alone here in the office. Would you be opposed if I drop by sometimes in the evenings?"
And really, why the heck not? If I was already feeling somewhat uncomfortable after one day of imprisonment then in a day or two, and definitely after a week I would be crawling up the walls. That way I'd at least have some human interaction. All the better that it was with a pretty girl. Basically, I gave my consent. So feeling bolder, Tina gave me a kiss on the cheek and, taking the tray of dirty dishes with her, left into the hallway.
Just after the director's assistant had left, I ran to the computer. I had so much left to do today! First of all, I started putting together another video clip for my fans about the adventures of the big-eared Goblin Herbalist, and all the better that I had plenty of interesting material. And that was putting it lightly. My little goblin had become the Dark Sovereign today! That alone would be enough to intrigue and even shock the viewers. And I had three new servants, an army and a castle, the duel with the rougarou and much, much more. No, I wasn't going to fully reveal my plans and secrets, but I was going to partially raise the veil of secrecy around the mythical Dark Sovereign's life, which I thought would be very, very interesting.
However... The computer here in the office was still very seriously limited in what it could access online. I couldn't even download free video editing software, make purchases in the Boundless Realm online store or write comments on the forum. No, I couldn't stand for this! I wrote to tech support, but not to the main address, to the employee by the handle "support_013" the very same who had been watching my talk with my sister. That employee knew about my restricted movement through the building, so explaining my demands to him seemed the easiest.
He answered me almost at once. But instead of a positive decision and providing the necessary programs and access, I just kept getting stupid send-offs for a long time. Stuff like:
"Amra, what do you need to fuss around with the video clip for? Hand that off to your colleagues from the marketing department. They're professionals and will do it all to the nines."
Or another example of an exceptionally inappropriate reply:
"Allowing financial operations to be made on that terminal would require long discussions with various services. And it's night right now, so the people who make those decisions aren't even here. Maybe instead of all these complications, just tell me how much you'd like? Would five thousand credits sent to your card from an anonymous source be enough?"
My objections and complaints that my viewers would think a video clip made by others too boring, were not taken into account one bit. Just like the fact that a strange transfer of such a huge amount would probably have the tax man asking questions. They didn't want to give me full access to the forum, or the internet shop, making excuses about some internal instructions and rules.
I had to use some pressure and promise to complain to the director of in-game security Andrei Soloviev, or maybe even President Thomas Heywood, given my colleagues were impeding the most important event the Boundless Realm Corporation had ever put on, and not letting the Dark Sovereign do his job. It worked. My requests were finally heard and approved. If only they'd done so right away!
I was expecting some tech support employees to come into my office and set everything up, but it was all done remotely: the cursor ran around the screen on its own, opened and closed various windows, and entered service commands. In no more than three minutes, the same tech-support employee with the handle "support_013" was telling me everything was ready. Finally!
Ready! I couldn't hide it, I was very proud of my work. And I managed to fit everything into one thirty-minute clip: from the walk through the mountains to the castle, to my promotion to Dark Sovereign and my first orders as the incarnation of the new superboss of Boundless Realm. I intentionally drew my viewers' attention to the contrast between the appearance of my tiny harmless Goblin Herbalist and his new profession as the embodiment of universal evil. I made a lot of jokes and acrid commentary. I purposely emphasized my subjects' lack of loyalty, not seeing the right thing in the modest Amra to make these ghastly monsters obey.
In the very end of the clip I said I would be putting the coordinates of the Dark Sovereign's castle up for sale. Just ten game coins really a pittance for such valuable information! The price seemed not only affordable but even low, so I was sure that many players would be interested in my offer.
You think I acted foolishly and rashly by revealing such secret information about the location of my lair? I didn't. Getting to the Dark Sovereign's castle would be very difficult even for those who knew its location. Nearly impossible really without flying mounts. Even with them, it wasn’t exactly an easy and safe route.
What was more, in one way or another, the coordinates of the Dark Sovereign's castle's would fall into the players' hands soon enough. By triangulation from various points, using magical messengers, the general area could be quickly sussed out. I had just simplified that mission and removed these extra steps, while making myself a mint in the process. And if I was going to sell the coordinates of the Dark Sovereign's castle, now was the time. In a few days, every player who was interested would already know. What was more, I thought that now was the time. On the wave of the new patch and the big loud advertising campaign the Boundless Realm Corporation was running, any information about the new big boss would cause heightened interest. And all the more so for telling them right where to find him.
I finished the video clip and published the sale offer for the coordinates, then decisively closed every program and browser tab connected with Boundless Realm. Yes, it would be nice to take my sister's advice and buy maps of the neighboring regions and big cities, and just take a general look over everything I could find about building castles. But my eyelids were drooping, I could barely think and I was afraid of doing something stupid. But before I went to sleep, I had one more thing I couldn't put off. I opened a search engine and tried to find information about a street racer named Andre who had lost both arms in an accident. I was her older brother and only relative, so I needed to keep an eye on who my sister was talking to! What if it was some kind of fraudster or gangster, who spun a yarn about racing electrocars for my sister, but in fact had lost his arms for stealing in the Muslim quarters of the metropolis or in a bloody skirmish with fellow gangsters?
I found the information instantly. The tragic incident was widely discussed online. There were diametrically opposed opinions and comments on the topic: from "it's a pity such a handsome young boy's life was ruined" to "we let this new generation get away with too much, that's why he lost his arms, hope it’ll be a lesson for the others." Andre really was a young racer. At a blind spot in the track, he had flown into a pile-up of several other crashed electrobikes at huge speed.
I looked at the photographs of the boy with curly brown hair taken before the race. He looked to be eighteen. The tall boy had a slim build, a charming smile and happy eyes. He was posing in front of an expensive sport electrobike holding a racing helmet in his hands. Ugh, if only Andre had known then how this race would end...
Among the many headlines I found online, one caught my eye: "Vice-champion shocked by his son's accident and will be leaving the sport." I clicked on the article. Woah! It turned out this Andre was from a racing dynasty! His father had taken second place four times in Formula Zero and was named Paul Hernandes, a very famous driver from one of the best crews on the planet, "Mister Second Place," as the fans of this popular racer called him. The thirty-eight-year veteran had one of the best seasons of his career, with decent chances at taking first place with four races left until the end, but the tragedy with his son had overturned all of "Mister Second Place’s" ambitions.
And Andre's mother... here my breathing seized up. Could it really be "Iron Janet?" The captain of a team of virtual gladiators called the Digital Amazons, fifteen years ago she was a cyber-athlete who knew no equal. Yes, it was definitely her! In elementary school, I had a whole album of chewing-gum inserts with portraits of famous players in male and female gladiator fights, and the Digital Amazons occupied the most-honored first page of it. I had never even in my boldest fantasies dreamed I would meet this legendary star of cybersport. But my sister Valeria was already on friendly terms with her eldest son Andre... Wow, life was more surprising and unpredictable than any computer game.
I stood from the table and walked over to the window. Behind a thick pane of bulletproof glass, I could see millions of lights glowing in the megalopolis at night. The skyscrapers of the largest corporations on the planet glowed, and electromobiles raced in columns down the nearby autobahn. But before my eyes was the face of Andre in the photo from before his fateful ride. What a proud and confident gaze the young racer had, he simply radiated power and confidence in his victory. Too bad scientists hadn't invented a time machine yet. I would definitely go back and warn that positive happy boy and try to talk him out of it. Although... then my sister would never have met him. 

Release - December 27, 2018

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