Saturday, January 19, 2019

Respawn Trials: Edge of the Abyss by Andrei Livadny




Respawn Trials, Book I:
Edge of the Abyss
by Andrei Livadny



Release - April 10, 2019





The Legend of the Guardians states: One who is pure of heart and desperately needs help, will always receive it.

 Chapter 1



The unexpected phone call came late in the evening. I was still awake and answered at once. "Hey. What's going on?"
My nephew and I got along pretty well, although he hadn't called or visited as often over the last few years. He'd all grown up. He had his own life now.
He said hello and then proceeded to breathe heavily into the phone without even asking after my health.
"Denis, why don't you get to the point?" 
"I need your help."
"Tell me," I said as I limped over to the window. The street was obscured by an autumn drizzle. The edge of the metropolis had crept right up to the village and the low clouds were snagging on the tips of the rising skyscrapers. The old house that I had inherited from my parents would soon be slated for demolition, and there was nothing I could do about it.
"I've been invited to join an expedition. For three months. Somebody needs to keep an eye on the apartment... I've also found a side job, you see, a pretty good one. I don't want to lose it."
"Any more details? Where's the expedition heading to? What kind of job? Of course, it's no trouble for me to water the plants and feed the cat."
"I don't have a cat, you know that! The work's simple, from home. Nothing heavy. You'll fix your health up, too."




"Interesting. What kind of side job provides medical treatments as well?" I smiled distrustfully.
"I can't explain in two words. Can you come over?" 
"What, right now?"
"Yes. I'm short on time. I kept dragging it out, hoping to find someone else to replace me, but it didn't work out. I'll call you an air taxi right now and pay for it. Will you help me out? My flight to Irkutsk leaves in three hours."
"Fine. We'll talk when I get there."
"Thank you! See you soon." He disconnected at once, probably to avoid any additional questions.
Denis had graduated from university the year before last. He had majored in Geology but, unfortunately, rapidly developing technology had made his profession redundant. All the corners of the globe were being carefully watched from orbit and the search for mineral resources was performed using powerful computers and scanners. The same thing had happened in many fields of human activity. Of course, machines weren't capable of completely replacing us, but they were faster and more effective at solving highly specialized problems.
In summary, Denis couldn't find a job in his field and for him to receive an invitation to join an expedition was an unmissable chance to launch his career.

* * *

My nephew’s small rental apartment was located on the 102nd floor of an enormous living complex. As I ascended in the high-speed elevator, my ears became blocked several times from the changes in pressure.
"Hi, come on in!" Denis was clearly happy to see me. "I didn't interrupt any of your plans, did I?"
"Oh, what plans?" I waved him away. "What sort of expedition are you going on?"
"A private one." He replied vaguely. "If everything goes well, they're promising to employ me as per my specialization. I simply couldn't miss a chance like this."
"Why didn't you call me earlier?" I sat down in an armchair and looked around. The modern apartments are fully automated. All the furniture is inbuilt so there are no separate rooms. The required piece of furniture comes out of the wall or descends from the ceiling. It’s called 'transformable space' but I think it looks empty and uninviting.
The only thing that stood out in Denis' apartment was a VR capsule made from dark tinted plastic, through which I could see the twinkling of indicator lights. It stood on a massive base and was slightly tilted, about 30 degrees relative to the floor. I'd seen such devices before. They were being heavily advertised over the last few years.
"You see, everything was only decided last night!"
"Okay. What's the side job? What exactly would I need to help you with?"
"Are you familiar with virtual reality?"
"Computer games, you mean?" I raised an eyebrow. "I played them in my youth."
Denis shook his head reproachfully. "Man, you've really fallen behind the times," he said and touched a sensor. Something hissed in the wall, a recess opened and a tray with two disposable cups extended towards us. I didn't touch mine – coffee this late in the evening was a bit over the top.
"Computer games are the ancient past. They've been replaced by full-scale virtual reality. It's basically an endless world where you can live."
"Live?" I smiled skeptically. Truth be told, I had heard something similar but had not taken it seriously.
"You'll understand if you try it yourself," Denis looked at me with obvious hope.
"Where’s the capsule from? It costs a lot of money, right?"
"I took out a loan and I'm paying it off little-by-little."
"I thought you couldn't find a job?"
"Yeah, so this is my job," he touched the convex side of the VR capsule. "Two to three hours a day and it's enough to live on."
"And what do you do in there?"
"I perform various tasks. They're quite simple. I've left a brief description of what you'll need to do. Have a read of the instructions file, I've set it up so that it will automatically download as soon as you... well, I mean, my character, will enter the game. Help me out, please? I’ve got nobody else to ask! Here's the access chip to my account. The automated system in the VR capsule will adjust all the necessary settings. Believe me, you have nothing to worry about, it's all completely safe. The system will fine-tune your body at the same time. The life support system inside is top notch."  
"Fine," I glanced at my old-fashioned analog watch that I wore out of habit. "Your plane leaves in an hour. You're not going to miss it?"

* * *

Once I was alone, I sat back down in the armchair and took a sip of cold coffee. My sleep had evaporated anyway. I glanced at the VR capsule with some alarm. I wasn't against progress but I also wasn't a slave to the latest gadgets. Everyone had heard about virtual reality, of course, it was all they spoke about on the spherovision these days, but I’ve always been skeptical about this kind of information. I reckoned all the fuss was just advertising for these very expensive 'immersion' devices. Honestly, how could anything replace real life?
I'd been through the Asian Conflict and had been wounded twice, once seriously. After several years spent in hospitals, I was forced to retire. Yes, I had fallen behind the times. My brother – Denis' father – was working on the Mars Project and was currently about thirty million kilometers away from Earth, on his way to the Red Planet. As far as I understood, VR capsule technology was first developed for long-distance space flights and only later adapted for commercial use.
The doubts, wariness and a growing sense of curiosity made me skim through the instructions.  
It seemed quite easy. Finishing off the cold coffee, I undressed and caught my reflection in the smoky plastic of the VR capsule. What was I waiting for? It's not like I was leaping into the line of fire.
A familiar chill formed in my chest. Seriously? Could I be afraid?
The motors hissed softly. Two segments moved apart and down, sliding along the sides of the capsule. The interior reminded me of a solarium. The bed looked firm, with a block with lots of openings at its head.
I climbed inside and lay down. It was uncomfortable. How do people put up with this for several hours?
The first impression turned out to be false. The hard surface suddenly changed its properties, becoming pliable and conforming to my shape, as if I was sinking into a thick, gel-like mass.
A sharp hiss came from the head of the bed. Ten flexible servocontrollers suddenly shot out of the openings and wrapped themselves around my body. I felt the touch of numerous sensors, the sharp, almost painful prickling over my temples and back of the head. I jerked automatically and tried to sit up but the cords held me tightly. The outer segments slid back into place, cutting off the light. A spicy scent sent my mind to sleep in a few seconds.
My eyelids felt heavy. A belated panic flashed through my thoughts. Denis never mentioned anything like this. He didn't really tell me anything!
Physical data does not match the last account records.
Bioscanning will commence and VR capsule parameters will be adjusted.
Please wait.
My muscles twitched involuntarily. There were occasional flashes of pain. The tingling in my temples turned into stinging.
Testing is complete.
Life support parameters have been adjusted.
Feedback (immersion) level has been reduced to 25%.
Please note, you perceive fewer sensations and receive less experience at low feedback levels.
You can always increase the sensory level above recommended but you are responsible for the consequences (see item 213.2 of the User Agreement).
Welcome to the Edge of the Abyss virtual reality!
I was expecting anything but birdsong and simply froze in the first moment due to emotional shock.
The view from the town wall was incredible. I was surrounded by the predawn light, the rough stone was cool under my hand and the respawn circle glinted around me, but it was the birdsong, once so familiar and then completely forgotten, that pierced me to my core. It was as realistic as if I had been transported back to my childhood.
The air was clean. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves and carried the scent of freshly mown grass.
It's hard to explain the gamut of emotions that I felt. My surroundings didn't feel fake. Digital reality had exceeded all my expectations.
I took deep breaths. The meadows, copses and scattered hills, the floodplain covered in morning fog – the whole landscape bewitched me.
I didn't hear the footsteps and didn't even notice the shadow until a sharp blade touched my throat and I heard a whisper, 'Don't move or I might accidentally cut you.'
My reflexes would have probably kicked in in the real world. I would have broken the jerk's arm, but I unexpectedly felt completely helpless here and stood still, my eyes bulging.
"Three seconds. You're free."
I turned around. A young guy stood behind me, dressed all in black.
"Don't get aggro," he said quite conciliatory. "I'm leveling up my Stealth skill. Why'd you freeze? Are you lagging?"
I didn't understand a word of what he’d said.
"Contact tech support," the guy suggested and disappeared, melting into the shadows as if he'd never been there.
The respawn circle (located on the fortress tower) lit up with a string of unfamiliar symbols and the figure of a well-built warrior appeared among the flickering glow. His armor was splattered with blood. Ignoring me, he rapidly headed to the stone steps leading downstairs.
"How come you're so early today?" A guard stopped beside me. He held a torch in one hand, while the other rested on the pommel of his sword.
"I couldn't sleep," I answered automatically.
"Remember our agreement? You owe me five coins by this evening."
I wanted to ask, 'what do I owe you money for?' but then stopped myself. I didn't know what Denis did in this world. He had left me very sparse instructions.
"What if I don't manage to get so many?"
"Then you won't enter the town at night," the guard snapped back. "If you can't pay, make sure to finish your business before sunset!"
"Sure, I will." There was no point in arguing. I had to figure it all out first. I strongly disliked his dismissive tone, however, and the scornful way he had said 'business'.
"That's better."
The respawn circle lit up again. An attractive young elven woman appeared.
Elusive_Wetta. Light Elf. Detective, Level 29. 
"Hi, Dan," she nodded to me like to an old friend. "So, you’re stuck in the sandbox? Still working as a mule?"
I simply shrugged, unsure of how to answer.
"Well, cheer up. One day you'll save up enough for a normal account and then you'll be able to play properly, instead of running errands for those assholes."
She left and I turned back to examine the town.
Anchor. Capital of this province. Location status: safe.
A small castle rose in the center of the hill. Two defensive walls encircled it below, while one- and two-story houses formed quarters, divided by twisting streets.
I descended the stone stairs, proceeded down the street to the nearest square and looked around. The traders' stalls were still closed. Time here seemed to match the time in the real world.
To avoid drawing the attention of the occasional pedestrians, I sat down on the worn front steps of a building and tried to call up the interface.
I succeeded after a few attempts.
Dan_23214, Human race, Warrior class.
Current level: 10.
I glanced through the character's main characteristics. Why go into the details? I'd just stand in for Denis and not level up anything. I noticed that Dan had a clear imbalance towards Strength and Stamina, while other characteristics were at baseline.
Okay, what else could I find out?
An advertising block suddenly appeared in my field of view in response to the mental query. The system was persistently encouraging me to switch to the new tariff plan.
It turned out that Denis had a Trial account. I focused my gaze and received a hint. The first month was free, then fifty credits per month. Restrictions were that you couldn't develop your character beyond level 20 but you could level up peaceful professions, for which certain skills and abilities were unblocked. Access was possible from any device. The Trial account (for introductory purposes) could be used not only by the registered user but also by their family members, whose social contacts were automatically confirmed.
The next type of account, which the system was encouraging me to switch to, was a Standard account. Access was only through a VR capsule and the single restriction was that a character could reach a maximum of Level 100. The monthly fee was 500 credits. No way! That's a solid amount of money in the real world!
The subscription fee for the Advanced account was 1,000 credits. There was the ability to transfer game currency... I didn't read any further since this obviously wasn't for mere mortals.
Following the links, I proceeded to study matters of interest. I was greatly surprised to find that millions of people all over the world owned a Standard account, according to the game statistics. I didn't think there were that many rich people.
Aha, so VR capsules could be rented! It turned out that residential districts in megacities had special entertainment centers where equipment rental was quite affordable for the average user.
My nephew sure led a strange life. He didn’t have a job and yet had taken out a loan to buy a VR capsule, rather than just renting it. I glanced at the prices. The cost of the budget model started at 10,000 credits. The numbers didn't add up in my head...
Fine. I'll figure it out later. There must be an explanation. But why doesn't Denis pay for a Standard account, staying on the Trial one instead?
Attention, you have a message!
The letter icon flashed. I opened it. As expected, the letter was from my nephew.
Hello. I'm fine. I'm guessing that you've logged in already. The most important thing is to play on low level. Don't accept any quests, whatever you do! Keep an eye on the character's progress. If you think that you're about to go up a level –  kill yourself. If you get to Level 11, you'll lose the protection and other players will be able to attack you. Believe me, even safe locations are full of hardcore players and dropkicks.
If you've got any questions, shoot me a line.
Dan.
Perfect timing. What did he mean by 'kill yourself'? Jump off a wall?

* * *

I noticed that the sun had risen and it was time to get down to business. The town was gradually filling with people. Stalls were opening and pedestrians appeared on the streets.
I found the list of tasks in a separate folder. Places were marked on the map. It was suggested that I visit several stores and then make a foray beyond the town walls. The reason wasn't yet clear.
The first control point was located nearby, only a hundred or so meters away. With the semitransparent minimap hanging in the right upper corner of my vision, there was no way to get lost. I followed the winding streets. Some were paved while others were mired in mud, creating a typical medieval environment.
The mark on the map matched the Alchemist's store. I pushed open the door and entered. Judging by the frame, a player stood behind the counter.
"Hey there, Dan. Here," he passed a heavy bag over to me. "Tell Hulk that the next batch will only arrive the day after tomorrow."
That was the end of the conversation. Seeing that I was still shuffling my feet, the merchant called Miserly_Borg raised an eyebrow. "Is there a problem?"
"No, no, nothing."
"Then why are you standing here? Get a move on! Time is money!"
How rude and confusing. I could hear the same dismissive tone as in the guard's voice. 
I simply shrugged and exited the store, deciding to avoid asking any questions for now. 
The day was warm and bright. It was so realistic that it sent shivers down my spine! My mood improved again. I headed to the next spot marked on the map, staring at everything as I went past. Nobody paid me any attention. Stopping at the Smithy, I spent a long time watching the craftsmen, fascinated by their work. Where could one see such a thing in the modern world?
I visited two other shops and received some food supplies and a dozen vellum scrolls. That's it. My inventory was full and the weight was close to maximum.
So, Denis works as a courier here? Sort of like a delivery service? None of the merchants demanded any money from me for the goods. Now I understood why Denis had spent all the available points on Stamina and Strength when he created the character.
I checked the map. Yes, I'd finished all the tasks in town and now my route lay beyond the wall, first along the road and then down a forest path. I had to reach a marker in a small clearing before midday. It was going to be a long walk.

* * *

I strolled through the forest, admiring its beauty and breathing the dizzyingly clean air. The level of authenticity in the digital world continued to astound me. The scarcely visible path gradually led me deeper into the trees. I began to come across mossy roots, shadows gathering overhead among the dense branches. I felt like I was in a national park, a place that no longer existed in the real world. Now I understood why most players rented VR capsules. It was a completely different level of perception! All the senses: touch, smell, the breeze, taste… I picked a berry, tried it and spat it back out. It had a bitterly sour taste.
You have received mild poisoning (10 seconds - 1 HP/sec).
Would you like to obtain the Herbalist skill so that you can identify plant properties?
I selected 'No'. My nephew explicitly asked me not to level up the character, which meant that he wanted to get Dan_23214 back in the same state as I had received him.
Well, I was fine as it is. In the gray reality, I had forgotten the very word 'nature' as cities grew rapidly in size, throwing tentacles of communication towards each other and the technosphere sucked up all the resources, turning whole regions into wastelands. It made this world look even brighter and more attractive. This world had a ban on technology. It had been replaced with magic, which I hadn't seen any evidence of so far.
I was deep in thought, admiring my surroundings. Like a child, I examined the thicket with unfeigned interest, touching the tree bark and feeling its texture.
So unbelievably real!
Even the fatigue was gradually making itself known. Another realistic aspect of immersion, since I hadn't gone on any extended walks in a long time. Oh, and I'd stopped limping! I couldn't feel the effects of my injuries at all.
I focused on three indicators in the interface. One was showing the current number of HP (health points). The second and shortest one showed the amount of mana (mental energy). The third bar was currently wavering in the middle. This was my physical energy, known as Stamina in gaming slang, which was spent on every action but quickly regenerated. The Stamina parameter was responsible for it.
My thoughts were interrupted by a noise. Someone was crashing through the undergrowth! What was I supposed to do?
While I was trying to think of something, an enormous bear entered the small clearing. The surrounding frame was red, with a skull symbol. The mob exceeded me significantly on all levels!
I stood still, hardly daring to breathe. My only weapon was a dagger. Even my distant knowledge of gaming was enough to mentally curse Denis for his carelessness. Daggers required a high level of Dexterity while Denis had spent all his points on Strength and Stamina! He's just a mule! I looked around and spotted a thick tree branch on the ground. Maybe if I grabbed it and used it as a club, I would inflict much more damage than with the teeny knife?
This was a grave mistake. Getting into a fight with an adult brown bear turned out to be a stupid idea from the beginning. The difference in our levels was too great but I had been startled by the bear's sudden appearance.  My reflexes kicked in – there's a reason people say that the self-preservation instinct manifests as two extremes – fight or flight.
Grasping the heavy branch, I received several messages at once.
You are overloaded (you have exceeded the maximum transportable weight possible with your current characteristics).
Your mobility is reduced by 50%.
You cannot effectively use the club (you lack the Heavy Crushing Weapon skill).
"AAAAAH!"
I discarded the useless branch and bolted away.
You have used a war cry. Your Strength and Stamina have temporarily increased by 1. The aggro radius of the NPC enemy has increased by 10 meters.
You have attracted the attention of the adult brown bear.
A spine-chilling roar sounded behind me.
The mob became completely enraged for some reason. A crushing blow of its paw snapped the pine trunk where I had stood just a second ago. A sweet woody scent filled the air.
I ran at breakneck speed, crashing through the blackberry brambles. The prickles tore at my skin and clothes. System messages appeared one after another. Luckily, the message window was located in the lower part of my field of view so the signs didn't obscure my vision.
Outfit durability is reduced by 20%. Protection from physical damage reduced by 2 points.
You are injured. Bleeding 30 seconds (1 HP/sec).
The bear's roar sounded closer and closer.
The thicket suddenly ended. I found myself on the steep shore of a relatively narrow but turbulent river. A mossy log lay over the rapids. Quick, to the other side!
I was roughly halfway across when I slipped, lost my balance and fell. I felt a chill in my chest, there was a fountain of droplets and my breath was knocked out of me. The strong current immediately began to drag me over the rocks.
Injury from falling 25 HP. Stun negative effect for 10 seconds.
The bellowing of the disappointed bear came from behind me. I had passed a bend in the river by this point and was tossed into the deep. I was drowning!
The branches of a weeping willow hung over the pool. I grasped desperately at the thin branches that reached down almost to the water, but they slipped through my hands, leaving only leaves behind.
A shadow flashed through the water and I even managed to read the frame.
Carnivorous catfish, Level 15.
The Swimming skill is available. Would you like to select it?
NO!
The Stun debuff had passed. I managed to grab the exposed tree roots, cling to them and climb onto the shore.
I lay there completely exhausted, gasping for breath. My clothing was in rags and my whole body was burning. The Life bar had shrunk by two-thirds, taking on an alarmingly orange color.
After a little while, I caught my breath and sat up, my back against the tree trunk. I stretched out my arm – the fingertips were shaking slightly. I listened apprehensively to the sounds of the forest, in case there came the crunch of a branch or the rumble of an animal.
The water gurgled softly, the trees rustled overhead and the birds trilled their songs.
Right, so what do I do now? While my HP slowly regenerated, I opened the location map, first reading and deleting the annoying message,
Life support system recommends: urgent exit.
No way. Firstly, I feel relatively okay. Secondly, I had business to attend to.
I'd lost my way. The route trodden by Denis was somewhere off to the side. Now I'd have to make my own way through the woods.
Oh, and this place was called the Peaceful Forest according to the map. I wondered what the traveler could expect in the Wild Lands, whose boundary was about twenty kilometers north of here!
I should have found a weapon more appropriate for my character! It was too late now to regret my carelessness. I had thought that I would stroll through the forest, breathe the clean air and complete a simple task, combining the pleasant with the useful, but it was not to be.
The leaves rustled as something crawled by. To be honest, my heart jumped at the noise. Keeping completely still, I read the frame.
Adder. Level 7.
It didn't notice me and disappeared among the dense patch of ferns.
I wonder if mobs attack each other? Or do they only attack players?
I approached a witch hazel bush and used my dagger to cut off a long branch. Using a piece of rope that I found in my inventory, I attached the blade to my improvised spear and looked at the result.
A crooked makeshift spear. Cannot be thrown. Stabbing damage 2-5, multiplied by the current Dexterity score. Special attack: deep lunge. Chance of critical hit 1%.
You have successfully created an item. You have gained 30 Exp. The Craftsperson skill is available. Would you like to accept it?
I selected 'No'.
I hadn’t managed to trick the game with my makeshift spear. The modifier was still Dexterity, which my character had at the base level (5). Hence, the spear's damage was 10-25, which was the same as the dagger.
Having rested and waited for the Life bar to regenerate completely, I headed into a tangle of ferns, moving in the direction of a wooded hill a couple of kilometers away, where the coveted marker glinted in a small meadow.

* * *

I must have met the bear by accident. I had simply been unlucky. I spotted only a few small animals on my way, which I easily avoided.   
A withered tree drew my attention at the foot of the hill. It stood out so clearly against the background greenery that a person simply couldn't pass it by. I became curious, of course, so I came closer and saw a circle of yellowed grass and rough-hewn rocks that jutted out from the ground.
You have found the location Mysterious Hill.
Quest available: Dried Up Spring. Type: normal.
Find and remove the rock that is blocking the spring.
Reward: 100 Exp, +1 reputation with the residents of the nearby village.
I didn't have time to lug around rocks. I had to deliver the goods first and then decide if it was worth coming back here.
A few steps later, I stumbled across some yellowish bones peeking through the moss, as well as a rusted pickaxe with a rotted wooden handle lying beside it.
Quest available: The Secret of Forest Hill. Type: normal.
Find out whom the pickaxe belonged to.
Reward: 500 Exp.
I didn't disturb the remains. I was intrigued, of course, but there was no time left for a search. Work was waiting and I was running late enough as it is! Yet I still lingered. Something glinted dully in the grass. Interesting... I squatted down and saw a large, teardrop-shaped crystal with a simple amulet beside it, adorned with the stylized image of a shield.  I picked up both objects and examined them.
You have obtained the Soul Crystal.
Unrecognized artifact. You do not have enough Intellect to determine its properties.
You have obtained the Guardian's Amulet. Unrecognized artifact. You do not have enough Intellect to determine its properties.
The Secret of Forest Hill quest has been updated. The quest type has changed to personal.
Find out if the Soul Crystal and the Guardian's Amulet are somehow related to the digger's remains.
I placed the amulet straight in my inventory but examined the crystal, noting that a tiny and delicate flame had sprung up inside from the warmth of my palm. I looked at it more closely. What a strange flame! It was edged in black.
What could it mean? I had no idea. I'd try to find some information about the Soul Crystal later but now I had to hurry!

* * *

It was after midday when I reached the forest glade with the marker.
I smelled smoke from a fire and picked up my pace, but then stopped when I heard the voices.
"A hundred gold. Hand them over and we'll go our separate ways. You'll wake up in respawn."
There was a sickening moan in response.
"Hey, Wang, heal her up a bit or she'll kick the bucket before long."
I carefully made my way through the bushes framing the clearing, crawled to the top of a small rise and peeked through a gap in the tree branches.
"Assholes! Let the girl go!" came a voice from a deep hole.
There was a camp set up in the clearing. I stared at the roughly assembled cages. A wounded wolf sat in one of them and a girl about five years old huddled at the bottom of the other: frightened, in rags and with a tear-streaked face.
The three players looked quite average, except that their avatars emanated a strange, misty aura.
"Worry about yourself instead," snapped back Impatient_Wang, Dark Mage, Level 30. He was easily distinguished from the others with his long staff and draping garments. He approached the edge of the hole and cast a spell. The red light of the special effect briefly illuminated the unsightly details. I managed to spot the same female elf that had I met this morning. She had landed in a trap and was caught on the sharpened spears at the bottom. The elf's Life bar was almost empty but the mage's intervention had extended her suffering. The healing spell made her HP jump to the middle of the bar and change to a yellow color.
"What the hell do you want with this NPC?" asked Savage_Hulk, Dark Assassin, Level 30, as he also approached the edge of the hole. He seemed to be in charge. "Did you accept a quest from the village elder to free her?"
"Have a heart, filth!" The elven woman wheezed out. "She's but a child."
"Yup," Savage gave her a crooked smile. "She's a piece of code wrapped in a soppy avatar," he pointed out. "It's only a game, or have you forgotten that? You've got your quests and we've got ours. You want to free the girl? Not a problem. Another hundred gold coins and she's yours."
"I don't have that many..." The elven woman moaned in pain again.
The third PKer (the usual name for player killers) sat off to the side, beside the fire. Fierce_Zarek. Dark Warrior, Level 31. 
Is this how Denis earned his money? Nobody would trade with criminals and the town guard wouldn't let them near the town, but this didn't seem to be much of a problem. My inventory was full of parcels of food, vials and parchment, everything that they needed, delivered straight to their forest camp.
"Alright, have a think, maybe it'll make you more talkative," Savage_Hulk lost interest in the female elf and returned to the fire.
"Dan's running late today," noted the Dark Warrior. "He's still got to take the loot back to town."
Indeed, there was armor, weapons and chunks of some kind of ore laid out not far from the cages.  
"You're going to get banned, scumbags," groaned the elf.
"Nope," Savage replied lazily, "Nobody's going to touch us. Even if you write to support, we'll show them our logs. You fell into that hole by yourself. Wang here was healing you, trying to save your life. What's the problem? There's no torture. Plus, we've got Dark auras, remember?"
I didn't understand a lot from their dialog. My body was suddenly flooded with uncontrollable rage. I thought that I'd gotten rid of such feelings long ago and had regained my self-control, leaving the past in the past... but a crimson mist descended over my mind.
The trembling quickly reached my scalp and made the skin there feel too tight for my skull. My fingers clenched the shaft of my makeshift spear.
You cannot attack other players while you are under the Immunity Aura. Reach Level 11 to unblock the PvP option.
The message didn't calm me in the slightest. My heart felt like it was ready to jump out of my chest. I couldn't think straight.
'Breathe in...out... In...out... Think... It's easy enough to die a pointless death... You're alone, unprepared, practically weaponless...' Snatches of thought flashed through my mind. 'Look in the inventory. What did you bring for these jerks?'
I could feel my blood singing in my veins, my heartbeat thumping in my ears.
The scrolls wouldn’t help. I didn't know how to use them. What about the vials?
I noticed that the crystal I had found had begun glowing again. The orange flame with the black border leaped and flickered inside.
The letters on the labels grew blurry. I read the names with difficulty. This one would do. And this one.
Now, I had get a grip on myself and pretend that nothing was happening. I was still trembling. The adrenalin couldn't find a way out.
I crawled backwards, stood up, brushed my clothes off and walked through the shrubs, no longer trying to hide. As I walked past the pitfall, I surreptitiously dropped two large healing potions, a levitation potion and a couple of poison vials into it. There was no time to read what kind of poison it was.
"Dan, where the hell have you been? You're late!" Savage reproached me.
The elven woman understood everything and immediately sent me a private message.
Thanks. I'll deal with them. If you want to help, free the girl. Grab her and run. There's a path beyond the fire that turns to the right. Follow it. The village elder will protect you. I've dropped a marker.
"You've got a bear around here!" I snapped back. "Level 30, at least! It almost tore me to shreds!"
Savage spat to the side scornfully.
"Fine, drop off your stuff, take the loot and run back. You need to deliver the goods to the trader before evening."
"Yep." I gave him the parcels of food, parchment and vials, then, barely holding myself back from punching Savage in the face, approached the stolen goods. I spotted a morning star among the weapons. Quashing the rage inside me, I focused my gaze with difficulty and read the object's properties. It was the perfect level for me...
"What are you lagging for?" the Dark Warrior was watching me closely.
"Yeah, coming. What an interesting object," I picked up the weapon and pretended to examine it.
A suspicious noise came from the pitfall.
"Wang, go and take a look!" Savage ordered at once.
"She's trying to escape!" Yelled the mage.
Using the moment when they were all distracted, I smashed the morning star into the cobbled-together cages. The wood splintered into pieces. The girl turned out to be a bright one and ran towards me.
You have completed the first part of a secret quest, Rural Days.
You have gained 500 Exp.
You have reached a new level.
Attention, now that you have reached Level 11, you have lost the Immunity Aura. PvP mode unblocked.
The Rural Days quest has been updated. Take the girl to the village.
I picked up the girl. Now I’ve got to get out of here!
The freed wolf shot past me like a gray shadow. Wang gave a full-throated scream as the animal sunk its teeth into his ankle, disrupting the casting.
The levitation glow died down in a shower of special effects. I could hear shouts and the clash of weapons behind me but I didn't look back. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, past the fire and to the right, onto a path that led steeply down the slope.
I wasn't being followed yet but I doubted that the elf would last long alone against three opponents. The girl clung to me, sobbing. 

Chapter 2


There was a logging area immediately beyond the hill, then the path took me to the forest edge and joined a dusty country road.
My strength was ebbing away rapidly. My Stamina was almost at zero. I had to watch the green bar constantly, switching to a fast walk to let it regenerate a little.
"I see him!"
The shout sounded dangerously close so I started running again. The road dipped into a narrow valley between the hills. It was damp and muddy, with horse tracks visible.
My chest was hurting. I was out of breath and wouldn't last much longer.
You ran for three kilometers without stopping. The Field Athlete skill is available. Would you like to select it?
There's no time... I'll sort it out later... The road went uphill again while my pursuers drew closer and closer.  With a low-pitched buzz, a fireball shot past me and set the grass alight.
The mage was going to aim better next time. I zig-zagged instinctively. There was a splash of flame and clouds of smoke and steam. You missed me, jerk!
Where was the village?!
There! Another three hundred meters... I wasn't sure that I was going to reach the palisade that the peaceful farmers had built around their village. Only one thing cheered me up –  the gates had watchtowers and I'd been spotted.
Would they help? As if in response, there came a shout, "Bandits! Bandits! Sound the alarm!"
Arrows whistled over my head, dampening my pursuers' fervor. The local farmers weren't so helpless after all!
The gates trembled and began to open. Men ran out to meet me. They were armed with all sorts of things: plows, axes and pitchforks, but there were many of them! Their frames were yellow, meaning that they were neutral towards me. Their levels were 30 and higher.
Staggering a little, I slowed down to a walk.
There was the village elder. Short, silver hair, walking with a limp. "Granddaughter!"
The second part of the quest Rural Days has been completed.
You have gained 500 Exp.
That's it... I can't go any further.
I fell to my knees. The girl was no longer crying, she slipped out of my arms and raced towards her grandfather. I fell on my side.
Emergency exit from virtual reality is recommended with a reduction in the realism level and feedback calibration.
Call an ambulance?
With a flick of my pupils, I canceled the recommended actions. I wasn't finished here yet. I wanted to see these bastards getting pitchforked!
But no. Savage and his gang decided not to get into a fight with a crowd of villagers. The mage set alight a wheat field with his fireballs and the Dark players retreated to the forest using the fire as a cover.
The elder approached me. His frame was now green.
"Thank you, stranger. You have saved my granddaughter!"
The message icon blinked. I opened it. It was a note from Savage,
You're dead. Don't think that you can hide out in the village.
I dropped the three into the KOS list. Now the system would automatically warn me if they were to appear nearby.
The envelope symbol appeared again. The message was from the elf this time,
They killed me. Respawn in 20 minutes. How are you?
…  
I'm in the village. I got the points for your task. I went up a level.
Dan, I can hardly recognize you, but thanks anyway)
A word of advice – kill yourself a couple of times. Or write to support and say that you went up a level by accident. Maybe they'll give you the Immunity Aura back.
I'm not going to do that.
I caught my breath a bit. The men were putting out the fire, the village elder helped me to my feet and critically inspected my clothes, which were now in tatters.
"This won't do. Come, I have some old leather armor. It will fit you perfectly. I haven't seen you around these parts before. What is your name?"
"Dan."
"They call me Craig." Said the old man and his frame immediately displayed his name.
We entered the gates. It was a small village, only about twenty houses.
"What are you defending yourself from?" I indicated the palisade.
"These are dark times," complained the elder. "Sometimes it's bandits and sometimes it's wild animals."
"What kind of animals? Bears? I met one today."
"If only. We hunt those with bear spears. Werewolves have appeared in the woods again," he sighed heavily. "We haven't suffered any for ages. They must have returned to their old den. Maybe you will vanquish them? I have an infusion of a rare root, from days long gone. I have never tried it myself but my father told me that if you drink the potion, the beasts will think you are one of them and won't attack. It doesn't last long, however."
"Where is their den?"
"There's an old cave in the forest. I can show you from afar, if you like, or note it on the map. Will you kill them for me?"
"I'll try."
You have received a new quest: Rural Days. Monsters' Lair.  
Figure out how to deal with the werewolves.
Reward: 1000 Exp.

* * *

I didn't spend long in the village. As soon as I received a set of old leather armor from the village elder, the surrounding world went crimson.
There was no time to understand what was happening or even get scared. I was suddenly enveloped by darkness with a message coming through it: Emergency exit, then I heard a hissing sound and a dull light flooded the capsule.
I lay on the bed, my breathing irregular. The bed of the VR capsule had again become a smooth and rigid surface. A signal was nervously beeping at the head of the bed.
To my surprise, the interface was still there. I could still see the semitransparent icons and a message window.
Metabolic correction completed.
Warning, access to the VR capsule has been blocked for 8 hours until the medicines finish acting.
In accordance with the User Agreement (item 234.1), you have been implanted with a standard interface module. Data is displayed via contact lenses.
I reflexively touched my right temple, where I had felt a strong burning sensation when the game was loading. That's right. I could feel a small swelling beneath the skin, like a tiny ball had been inserted there. I didn’t feel the contact lenses but I could still see the icons, although they had grown duller.
I lay there and listened to my body. It ached as if all my adventures in the virtual world had taken place for real. Was it the feedback? My muscles received nerve impulses and tensed according to those 25% of realism?
I was starving. I couldn't remember the last time I had felt so hungry! How long had I spent in the game?
A message instantly appeared.
You have played for 6 hours and 39 minutes.
It is now 12:24 pm. The outside temperature is 12 C, the forecast is cloudy with some drizzle.
I was shown the menu of the nearest cafe offering home delivery, then I was told that I hadn't logged into my social network accounts since I had registered, invited to use the latest search system, shown the currency rates...
Close!
I'm not against progress but this was too much. The last thing I needed was to start getting news from all over the planet! I didn't bother configuring the unexpectedly obtained interface right away but simply switched off the information input.
Emergency service notifications and biomonitoring data cannot be switched off.
Fine. I minimized the window and clambered out of the virtual capsule. Wash my face, eat and sleep... I had no other desires.
The range of icons before my gaze immediately changed. Now I could see the controls for the smart house. How convenient! I held my gaze on the image of the shower and a wall panel slid aside, exposing the entrance to the hygiene module. I focused on the funny icon for 'rest' and a section of the wall began moving, with a made-up bed descending from the alcove. Maybe many people were wrongly afraid of neurotechnology?
A minute later, standing under jets of hot water, I felt much better. I was overcome by a pleasant sensation of fatigue, as if I had really gone for a long walk through the forest.
My eyelids were drooping but the feeling of hunger was stronger. I turned off the water and began to look for a towel, which wasn't there. On the other hand, one of the icons in the interface grew slightly larger, as if inviting me to activate it.
I focused my gaze on it. Warm air blew from tiny openings. This truly was a smart house.
I stepped out of the shower and found a set of clean clothes ready on the table. The semitransparent menu waited for me to pay attention to it. I got dressed, ordered and only a few minutes later, heard a hissing sound in the wall. The pneumatic delivery service worked promptly and my late breakfast was served.

* * *

I slept for six hours and woke up feeling well-rested and refreshed. First thing first, I walked up to the VR capsule and put in the activation code, but to no avail.
Please wait for metabolic correction to be completed.
Fine. I decided not to call Denis just yet. I really wasn't impressed by his shady deals in virtual reality but the world itself had made an indelible impression. I wanted to return there. I couldn't help it.
Right, what time is it?
7:07 pm.
The VR capsule would unblock at around 9:00 pm. I should at least find some general information about the project. How do I develop my character? Are there ways of making money that I'd find acceptable?
I washed my face and ordered dinner. I ate slowly, at the same time studying the information that my online search had produced. Passions were running high online, opposing opinions clashed and nobody held back their emotions as they fought to defend their point of view.
The Edge of the Abyss was the first project using full immersion technology. The incredible realism had won over billions of people all over Earth but had also pushed many away.
The prevailing opinion was that the game was too difficult. A person couldn't increase the level of some sensations but dull down others. Most players didn't want to experience pain but wanted intensity in everything else. Very few safe territories. Poor selection of races.
Frequent demands to switch off the PvP mode. Complaints about cruelty and the domination of Dark characters. We came here for fun but we keep getting killed by other players!
A storm of emotions, basically.
Right, and what do the developers say to all this?
There are actually numerous different races but nobody wants to play them. The immersion technology has led to the predictable problem of psychological incompatibility between the human mind and the body it must inhabit if it chooses an exotic character.
Realism in everything. That's the defining feature of the Edge of the Abyss. The developers openly warned about the possible risks and suggested that people start on 10% immersion, which they said was completely safe since a deadly wound would feel like a bruise or a deep scratch, no more...
It looked like the world had gone mad. Everyone wanted to visit the Edge of the Abyss but hardly anyone was willing to look into its depths.
Between the inhabited lands and the unexplored territories lay the so-called Dark Frontier, consisting mainly of destroyed towns united by ancient fortifications where (according to the virtual world's storyline), long-lost civilizations tried to withstand the invasion of the Abyss. 
The frontier was controlled by the mysterious Shadow Clans. Some players joined them, mainly fans of hardcore. They were called Dark because of their characteristic smoky aura, which they gained from completing quests...
The timer beeped.
The VR capsule was ready for work but I hadn't yet decided on how to develop my character.
Wait. Why am I clinging to it? I'm clearly not going to continue Denis' so-called work, so perhaps I should create a new account and start from scratch?
Perhaps I will. But today I'll go in as Dan and have a better look around.

* * *

"Oh, your potions work miracles, Markusha!" 
A hunchbacked old crone was leaning over me, murmuring something unintelligible. The pungent smell of herbs filled the small room. I lay on a hard bench. The light from an oil lamp left Craig's face mostly in shadow. "The spirits have been kind to him and have allowed him back into our world," the wise woman took a step back, adding, "I have done what I could."
The village elder went to walk her out while I sat up and looked around. Yes, this is the room where the emergency exit from virtual reality occurred. But why did my character remain here instead of disappearing?
A brief hint appeared.
You were being carefully watched by the key NPC of the location.
"You're a tough one," Craig smiled and sat down at the end of the bench. "What will you do now?"
"I'll return to town."
"Just don't forget my request. It's almost a full moon. You need a full moon to kill a werewolf for certain."
"Why?" I was surprised.
"An ancient belief," he shrugged his shoulders and didn't explain further. "You have the potion. We are depending on you. By the way, you can spend the night here. It's dangerous to cross the forest at night."
"No, thank you. I have things to do."
In truth, I felt odd being there. Something seemed to press down on me, as if an evil lurked in the village. I wouldn't be surprised if one of its residents was a werewolf.
I bid the village elder farewell and went out into the yard. The moon floated among cumulus clouds, with only its edge visible. The night was warm and still. A distant and drawn-out howl came from the forest, making my skin go up in goosebumps.
"How do I reach the road?" 
The villager guarding the gates opened them slightly and pointed in the right direction.
"Turn left when you reach the fork beyond the hill."
"Thank you."
My plan was simple. The road should be patrolled by the guards. All I had to was reach it. With my leather armor and makeshift spear, I felt much more confident than a day earlier. Moreover, the territories around Anchor were starting locations. The mobs here were no higher than Level 15, except for the rare quest animal, like the werewolves, or the brown bear that I had met by chance.
I could see the fork in the road in the dim moonlight. It was a couple of kilometers to the forest. There were fields all around so I had a clear view of my surroundings. Oh, a cluster of red markers appeared on the minimap.  I drew cautiously closer.
Wild rabbit. Level 7.
Nibbling on cabbage.
There was another one but it looked rather odd! It was larger than normal, with an unusual smoky color. It ignored the cabbage and crept closer to something else, acting just like a predator.
???. Spawn of the Abyss. Level 10.
It made a lightning-fast jump and there was a squeak. I had enough time to notice a fading frame.
Field mouse. Level 2.
It was hunting other mobs!
Creatures that have been to the Abyss undergo random visible changes. Be very careful! If you can study the new species and enter its description into the Game Encyclopedia, you will receive +1 to fame. Each increase in fame automatically gives you 25% Exp that your character requires to reach the next level.
Hmm, quite a promising way to develop! I wasn’t in a hurry right now so I could observe the behavior of this strange animal.  
The ??? stood up on its back legs and sniffed the air. It wasn't interested in its fellow rabbits. Picking up my scent, it suddenly turned around and began taking huge leaps towards me.
Hit!
Ability found: leaping attack (damage 20 HP).
Ability found: spinning attack (damage 25 HP).
Ability found: venomous bite (damage 5 HP + 3 HP/second, duration 10 seconds).
I was thrown back several meters, that’s how strong it was!
Blood poured down my cheek. The pain was tolerable but the poison burned and my head felt fuzzy, as if I was in a fog. I anticipated the next jump. It wasn't too difficult. The creature attacked in a straight line so all I had to do was prop the butt of the spear against the ground and angle it slightly forward.
You have inflicted critical damage!
I sure did! The smoky rabbit was pierced through by the spear's blade, twitched and fell still.
The action of the venom finished. The short fight had taken away half my life points but the mutated beast was dead. Examining the body gave me 'a piece of poisoned meat' and a 'strange skin' (properties unknown).
You have discovered a new type of creature from the Abyss. Would you like to name it and enter the information into the Bestiary?
Well, why not?
I agreed and called the mob Smoky Rabbit.
The system didn't torture me and offered a possible description.
A normal rabbit that has been to the Abyss and has doubled its Strength and Dexterity points. At the same time, its Stamina has decreased and the number of life points halved.
Abilities: leaping attack, spinning attack, venomous bite.
Confirm?
Sure! It all made sense and there were no errors.
Congratulations. Your article has been published. You have received 395 Exp and +1 to fame.
A new skill is available: Naturalist.
I didn't take the skill. I had to first decide in which direction I was going to develop. I was glad of the gained experience, though. I was close to reaching Level 12.
It was time to keep going. My wounds had already healed a little thanks to natural regeneration. My life bar would fully recover quite soon. Wandering through the countryside was interesting but I had to find a suitable weapon, preferably with scaling damage from Strength and minimal Dexterity requirements. 
The incoming messages icon blinked. It was a screenshot this time. The fork in the road and me leaning over the rabbit carcass. The description underneath proclaimed, Player Dan_23214 discovered a new species of Abyss-altered creature!
I didn't know what this fame would get me. I suspected I wasn’t alone in this. Others undoubtedly have more achievements. It still felt nice. 
I continued my journey in a better mood. The night cool was invigorating.
The plowed fields soon ended and the cart track was replaced by a rather decent paved road. I could see abandoned manors not too far away, along both sides of the road. I couldn't understand why they stood empty. The area seemed peaceful and the location was low level. A place to enjoy life.
It was still quite far to the main road and I was overcome by curiosity. Whom did the abandoned buildings belong to? What had gone wrong here? The gentle breeze made the clouds part and moonlight flooded the area. Why didn't I turn off the road and explore the abandoned buildings?
That's what I did. I found a gap in the decorative fencing and cut across the fruit garden, heading towards the dilapidated structures, their roof tiles smashed, the doors flung wide open and darkness pooling in the windows.
Weeds grew thickly between the trees. Every step was accompanied by the rustle of tall grass. The minimap was empty, with not a single worrying marker. It looked like the mansion had been abandoned long ago and even mobs avoided this place. Why could that be?
Holding my spear in front of me, I reached the path leading to the house. It used to be wider but the earth had sunk in many places and the stone blocks were lost in the dirt. Interesting... I kept stumbling across overgrown holes that looked suspiciously like funnels. The gaps in the house façade bristled with broken bricks.
I had seen dozens of these abandoned buildings from the top of the watchtower! What had happened here?
The unexpected attack came from behind and to the side, knocking me to the ground.
"Well, naturalist, how does it feel to be famous?"
I tried to leap back to my feet but no such luck! I was under a Stun debuff.
"Tie him up!" Savage_Hulk kept throwing glances in every direction as if this place terrified him.
A noose tightened around my throat and my wrists and ankles were bound as well. There were three Dark players. Impatient_Wang winked at me. He was the one who had applied the magical fetters that didn't let me move. Fierce_Zarek, the Dark Warrior that I had seen in the camp, kicked away my makeshift spear.
"Wondering how we found you? You shouldn't have advertised your achievements! Stupid newb," Hulk spat scornfully. "You think I wouldn't recognize the area on the screenshot, where you looted that hare?"
"Savage, we really shouldn't hang around here. Let's take him to the road and torture him there. Or crit him now, but you've got to decide quickly."
"I'm not sending him to respawn!"
"Then let's drag him away from here and find a calmer place."
"No. We'll teach him a lesson. One that he'll remember for the rest of his life. Go into the house and find signs of a portal. When you find one, try to activate it!"
"Are you completely out of your mind?" Wang looked seriously frightened. "What if the Shadows start coming?"
"We've got auras! They won't touch us!"
"Yeah, have you checked? Have you?"
"Calm the heck down! Do what I tell you or you can piss off." Savage snarled back.
The Stun had worn off but I still couldn't move. There was no point in talking to these bastards. I'd survive the pain somehow, and learn the lesson too.
Looking at my frame, Hulk pulled out a dagger. The dully glinting blade suddenly grew longer as the metal was shrouded in a black flame. Slowly, with obvious experience, he sunk it into my back, not too deeply, however. Blood spattered and there was a flash of pain. My life bar shrunk by a third.
I clenched my teeth.
"Patient, are you? Stubborn? How long are you going to last?" The blade went in a little deeper and twisted slowly, producing another burst of pain that made my vision darken. "You will delete your account," the Dark player promised. "Or you'll become a dribbling vegetable," he added, pulling the dagger out of the wound and casting a minor regeneration charm. "Take him into the house!"

* * *

I kept my teeth clenched and said nothing. I wasn’t going to demean myself by talking to such scum. Nobody could convince me that they would somehow be different in real life, turning into normal guys. Even in that distant time when virtual worlds only existed on consoles and PCs, you could tell who was who. Reality with full immersion only made these differences more pronounced.
"Wang, did you find a portal?"
"Over here!" The voice of the Dark Mage came from some distance away.
I was dragged through a series of trashed rooms. I noted quite a lot despite the pulsating pain. A serious battle had taken place here once upon a time. The furniture had been swept aside and the walls were covered in slashes and burn marks. A fire had also ripped through the building. Frost patterns could be seen here and there, as if the combat magic had left its mark on the columns and friezes.
This used to be a rich mansion. I doubted that it had been developed and built for an NPC. More likely that this used to be the home of a player who had donated plenty to the virtual world. What had caused all the damage?
"Here!" Wang pointed to the sunken floor tiles forming a stone circle. "This is where the Abyss burst through. Listen, Savage, maybe we shouldn't risk it? Who knows where the portal will lead?"
"Cast it!"
"Fine. But if we get wiped out, you owe me compensation. I'm not risking my stuff and they'll definitely drop because of our auras!"
"All right, enough whining, cast it!"
Fierce_Zarek dragged me to the wall and threw me down like a sack of potatoes.
My eyes met those of Savage_Hulk. He must have read a lot in my gaze because he immediately lost it, "What, you think we'll get in trouble? Ha, suck on it. You'll kick the bucket, of course, but not by our hands! An incredible series of respawns awaits you," he promised balefully as Wang set out black candles and drew a circle of symbols.
"Ready. Move back, you two, and he goes into the circle!"
"Where will the portal open to?"
"I have no idea! It's totally random!" Wang bared his teeth in a grin. "Let's hurry it up before something makes its way from over there!"
I was dragged along the floor again and pushed into the dip formed by the sunken tiles.
A purple-black flame shot up silently.  I felt like a splinter swept up in a violent torrent. My mind went dark and then came back.
I couldn't see anything. There was the sound of dripping water. It stank terribly and I seemed to be lying on a pile of refuse, barely alive.
Messages flashed before my mental gaze.
You have used an abandoned portal, left over from the time of the Abyss invasion.
Contact with the previous point has been lost. The closest respawn circle has been activated.
My HP bar was barely in the red. No weapons.
It was pitch black. The grim sounds echoed back and forth.
Hissing. Scuttling steps approached from different directions. My body was pierced by terrible pain as if someone had splashed acid on me and then a large sign appeared before me.
YOU HAVE DIED.
You have lost 1290 Exp.
You have lost an item: makeshift spear.
Respawn in 19:59, 19:58...
Would you like to leave the VR capsule?
Warning, frequent emergency exits lead to increased use of the sensory gel. Don't forget to obtain more consumables.
Twenty minutes of waiting? I'll suffer through it somehow. I had no desire to purchase additional consumables. I didn't even know how much they cost.
Leave the VR capsule?
The sign blinked at me persistently.
I selected 'No'. I had ways to occupy myself since the interface still worked.
I opened the logs and read,
You have moved ????? kilometers.
You have found a new region: (Enter name).
Achievement gained: Trailblazer. Nobody has been here since the Abyss invaded. You are the first (+1 fame, +5% to land travel speed, +395 Exp).
New quest available: Survival Environment.
Find a way to survive and rapidly advance to level 30.
Reward: Your Adaptability will increase by 2 points. Time to complete: 48 hours.
New quest available: Terra Incognita.
Explore your surroundings and uncover at least 50% of the map.
Reward: +1 to fame.
I must have missed these messages when I lost consciousness. Oh well. They should be listed in my quest journal. I'll be able to accept them once I respawn.
All right, who killed me? It happened so quickly and unclearly. I turned to the logs again.
You heard a noise.
Unidentified creatures.
??? attacks with toxic spit. Damage over time 10 HP/sec.
??? attacks with toxic spit. Damage over time 10 HP/sec.
??? attacks with toxic spit. Damage over time 10 HP/sec.
You have died.

* * *

The timer continued its countdown. Why don't I just leave virtual reality and to hell with it all?
I've mucked up the character (in the state that Denis needed it). I went up a level and lost the Immunity Aura. It was unlikely that the helpless and unevenly leveled up mule could find any work now and he would be easy prey outside the town walls. It would be easier to create a new one.
So why was I digging around in the interface, stoically awaiting regeneration?
The answer was simple – I was hooked. So much had happened in less than a day. I'd plunged into the virtual world like into a whirlpool, hungrily absorbing the incredible realism, feeling young and full of energy once again.
I had no idea how it would all turn out but I wanted to get out of the trouble that I'd found myself in, return to the starting location and get back at the Dark ones. That's just to start with.
It's decided. I'm staying. I'll see how it all works and if my first impressions turn out to be true, I'll get my own account. Where will I get the money for my own virtual capsule? Only time will tell. I'll solve the problems as they come and in the meantime, I'll use the available access.
No weapons. I doubt that I can kill someone with my bare fists.
00:49
Am I ready?
00:10

Chapter 3



What a creepy place. I'd respawned underground, on the shore of a tainted and reeking creek. The thick fumes, gloom and rustling... My nerves were wound up tight.
A long building with a wide crack in the ceiling. The gap emitted a weak light with some plant roots hanging through it.
The respawn point was marked with a flat and roughly hewn stone.
Without moving or showing any other signs of life, I continued to examine my surroundings. My eyes became gradually used to the dimness. Not far from me, on the damp and slimy wall, hovered a revolting-looking creature.
Centipede. Level 13.
My throat closed up. Everything looked way too realistic here. I was lying on a mountain of garbage piled up beneath the crack, trying to pretend to be nothing but rags, and with good reason. The creature was close and I was probably within its aggro zone. I wouldn’t be able to break through its chitin with my fists. I needed a stick at least.
The nervous tremble wouldn’t leave me. Very slowly, I stretched out my hand, feeling the various junk beneath my fingers.
The centipede noticed me after all and curled itself threateningly. Why wasn’t it attacking?
Only then I noticed the thin, rapidly fading golden lining marking a circle around me. A hint immediately appeared. Apparently, I couldn't be attacked by mobs in the first few minutes after respawn, but as soon as the aura faded completely, so would my temporary protection!
I hadn't felt so many acute emotions in a long time. Denis wasn't lying, it really was a full-scale virtual reality, a digital world where one could live!
Or die a painful death – I could see venomous saliva drip from the disgusting creature's mandibles. I frantically dug through the junk but nothing appropriate turned up. I was going to be killed by a few venomous spits!
Another mob came scuttling along the wall. My hand touched something solid and a message appeared at once,
You have found the remnant of a rusted sword.
Durability 9. Damage 4-5, multiplied by the current Strength score.
I snatched up the weapon and attacked at once. The sword struck the stone wall and produced a shower of sparks. Did the creature swerve out of the way?
No! It wasn't fast enough... It was too flimsy and was sliced in half. I got rid of the second one just as easily. Phew... I took a few steps back, sat down on a rock and breathed heavily. So much stress!
A blurry, hunched over silhouette suddenly flitted through the gloom. Some kind of undead? It was hard to tell in the dark. I leaped up and turned, but it was too late. With a powerful thrust, the zombie drove its spear right under my ribs!
The pain and surprise made me scream and hesitate, and I immediately received two more hits.
The surroundings grew darker and were replaced by a blood-black fog. A large sign appeared:
YOU HAVE DIED.

* * *

The time between a virtual death and respawn is not only a serious psychological test but also the chance to plan further actions.
Lines of system messages glowed in the dark.
You have died.
You have lost one level.
Durability of torn clothing: 0.
Yep, one of the inventory slots now contained 'rags'.
Well, what did I expect? Savage_Hulk clearly predicted my near future. He knew that the Abyss portals lead to locations where my character couldn’t survive.
I felt mad. They've messed with the wrong guy! I simply wasn't expecting an attack from behind!
I opened the character panel.

Dan, Level 11.
Race: Human.
Race bonus +2 to Adaptability.
Class: Warrior.
Class bonus +1 to Strength, +2 to Stamina.
Life points                         10
HP 200/200

Strength                             11
Liftable load 55 kg
Physical Protection 11+20.3
Dexterity                            5
Dodge Chance 5%
Agility 5
Stamina                            12
Physical Energy 60
Faster Regeneration 6%
Intellect                              5
Mental Energy 25
Learning Ability 5, Mental Defense 12.5
Adaptability                      7
Resistance 7%
Adaptive Leveling (none)
Luck                                   5
Successful Hit Chance 2.5%
Chance of Finding Items 2.5%
Charisma                            5
Attractiveness 5
Possible number of NPC followers 1
Damage (fists)                   22
Damage (magic) 0              
Damage (broken sword) 44-55
Effect of the Abyss 0
Mutations 0
Primary skills:
Secondary skills:
Swordsman + 5% damage when using swords.
Battle technique + 5% to physical defense when using light
and medium shields.
Abilities: none (first ability available from Level 25).

Required to reach next level: 1500 Exp (current: 0 Exp)

I had another ten minutes until I could return to the game.
I should look at my equipment and inventory, see if anything could serve as a weapon.
So, what did I have?
Torn clothing. Durability 0, defense 0.
Old leather jacket (light armor). Durability 25, defense 8.
Old leather pants (light armor). Durability 15, defense 5.
Old leather gloves (light armor). Durability 7, defense 2.
Old leather boots. Durability 17, defense 5.
It's interesting how the character's outfit panel was designed. There were slots for everyday garments, so I could wear my rags under my armor.
A quick calculation showed that I currently had 31.3 units of Physical Defense. Twenty of them came from the gear, 11 from Strength and another 0.31 as a Dexterity bonus. Why was I adding up these numbers? Because I was planning to survive. Simply put, my defense would be automatically subtracted from the incoming damage. If, for example, the physical damage from an enemy sword was 50, I would be hit with 18.7 points. With my current HP, I would be able to survive 10 such hits but the 11th would send me into respawn. Things were much worse with my Resistance. Toxins, poisons, bleeding – my character couldn’t really cope with any of this. Seven percent of resistance was too low. I would have to evade venomous spits and other such nastiness.
I was leaning towards the thought that the underground zone was a simple water drainage system located under a large town.  The tunnels would surely have vertical shafts that I could use to climb up to the surface.
My mind was glitching. I felt overwhelming terror at times, which would quickly fade away. There were plenty of reasons for fear and doubt. I'd landed in a digital environment whose rules I was not familiar with. Would my life experience help me?
I looked through my inventory again. Apart from my outfit, I had a flask of water, a vial with a potion given to me by Craig for the quest, a stale piece of bread, and the mysterious Guardian's Amulet and Soul Crystal. 
It certainly wasn’t much. On the upside, I could run quite quickly over short distances since I had good Stamina and the character was carrying only 25% of the maximum load, which also increased speed.
It's decided. I'd explore the nearest tunnel. Perhaps I’d get lucky and find a way to the surface straight away.

* * *

The reeking gloom obscured my vision.
I wished I had a torch. I could try and make one out of some branches and rags, but how would I get a fire going in these clammy catacombs? A chilly dampness came from the wide arched doorway. Tendrils of fog drifted along the ground.
The vapors were quite acidic! I got used to the smell but the system messages about the gradual reduction in my outfit's Durability made me wonder if I should be barging straight ahead.
I looked around me. No centipedes so far. The zombie was about twenty meters away from me, digging through the garbage. I couldn’t read the frame from here but his leather armor and a spear with a rusted tip made him a dangerous opponent. I wouldn’t head that way.
The tunnels were full of toxic vapors. Why did I think that? My throat started to burn and tickle whenever the light underground breeze carried the reeking miasmas towards me.
A section of the thick brick wall near the respawn point had been shattered. Another tunnel could be seen beyond the uneven hole, which was clearly not part of the rainwater catchment system. I'd leave that tunnel for later.
The fog grew thicker in the meantime. The mustard streaks were no longer drifting close to the ground but rising higher.
Well, let's see what my life experience was good for. Was the digital world realistic enough that a few simple tricks would work here?
I took my ragged clothing from the inventory and dampened it with the water from my flask, thus making a primitive breathing mask. It would filter out some of the poison.
The zombie had noticed me in the meantime. He dropped what he was doing and was watching me from a distance but not yet attacking. Not the best neighbor. There was no more time to waste, I had to get out of here!
Four tunnels led out of the collector. Two to the right of the respawn circle and two to the left. I could discern a faint green glow of unknown origin coming from one of them. Yes, it could be dangerous, but pitch blackness was worse. Forwards!
I took a deep breath, held it and ran as fast as I could. Through the poisonous fog, splashing through the fetid puddles. The light gradually grew brighter. Not even small animals lived among the toxic vapors. My Stamina dropped quickly, and I had to slow down to a walk when the bar got to almost zero. Yep, it was regenerating, but slowly.
I took gasping breaths of air.
You have sustained mild poisoning (2 HP/sec).
Effect: dizziness and weakness. Strength has been reduced by 1 point until the effect of the poison wears off. Stamina regeneration is slowed down by 25%.
Swaying and holding onto the wall with my left hand, I finally got out of the toxic cloud and found myself... in a dead end!
The tunnel had been destroyed. The roof looks like it was about to collapse at any moment. There were signs of mudslides everywhere. The most impressive sight, however, were the moss colonies emitting the green glow.
The debuff continued to weaken me but the risk was worth it! Now I could make a torch.
There were two types of moss. The first spread out like a carpet. The second type looked more like seaweed, with a profusion of glimmering threads hanging down from the ceiling. I gathered some and wound them around a stick that I had found in the same spot, getting quite a good source of fluorescent light as a result, which dispelled the darkness by about a meter.
I waited for all the negative effects to pass, then held my breath again and raced back.

* * *

I was sitting on the regeneration stone and waiting for my strength and poison-affected health to recover. I'd noticed that HP regenerated twice as fast at the respawn point. It was a valuable observation, considering that I didn’t have any potions.
Hey, the zombie had crept closer! He was hiding behind a pile of broken bricks, thinking that I couldn’t see him. I didn't like having him so close. I really needed to get rid of him but lacked the strength for it right now. His weapon was longer, too. By the time I got close enough to strike him with my sword fragment, he'd be able to stab me several times with his spear, despite the slowness of the undead.
All right, no time to sit around. My Life bar had almost completely recovered and the poisoning had worn off.
To the next tunnel! I held my breath and ran as fast as I could. The handmade torch turned out to be a great help. At least I didn't trip over any rocks underfoot. I rapidly crossed the dangerous part, reached a section of tunnel clean of vapors and immediately spotted an arched doorway in the wall. I stopped to catch my breath, then looked through it. Perfect! A stone shaft with rusted brackets led upwards.
Without waiting for the poisoning to pass, I start climbing, having secured the torch behind me.
I saw a rusted grate. Excellent, I'm nearly there!
The hinges made a long screech and debris showered down on my head. I lifted the barrier up a little and looked outside. It was dark and damp. Another underground level?
I'd find out in a minute, as soon as I recovered some Stamina.
I sat on the floor and looked around me. The room appeared abandoned, like it hadn't been used in a very long time. A stone gutter ran up at an angle, ending at a nailed-up archway. Pale rays of daylight could be seen through the gaps.
I used the sword fragment to lever several boards loose. I'd made it!
"Guards!" Came the sudden female screech. "It’s a necro! It’s coming from the old sewerage system!"
I heard the clatter of boots and jangling of weapons. I was almost blind after the darkness in the dungeon.
"Get ready to fire! Burn the monster!"
"Wait, it looks human!"
"What human? Can't you see his green aura? He's a necro for sure!"
Whom were they talking about?
"Hey, guys, I haven't got a necrotic aura. My moss is glowing!"
"Burn the monster!"
I recoiled instinctively and tumbled down the sloping gutter just in time. A fireball knocked out the remaining flimsy boards and the roaring flame scorched the stone walls, leaving soot behind.
"Hey! I'm just lost!"
My voice was lost in the thunder. The spinning, smoldering sparks went out and something burst open with a sharp twang and a shower of icy fragments. Frost rapidly spread along the walls. Oh, so if I hadn’t been burnt to a crisp, I'd be killed by the ice? The town guards were terrified of the underground for some reason and weren't willing to take the risk. They must have had good reasons, but what was I supposed to do?
"Block the entrance!" came the order. "Quickly! Fire and ice aren't going to stop it."
Damn it. It seemed like they had taken me for a highly dangerous monster.
The ground shook. Elemental power was being used. High-level mages must have joined the patrol surprisingly quickly, as I doubted that the average person was capable of such a thing – the walls suddenly lost their solidity and began to melt as if the stone had turned to wax.
I didn't have time to retreat into the shaft. There was a crunch of bones, an instant of unbearable pain, and a system message appeared among the crimson darkness:
YOU HAVE DIED.
You have lost one level.

* * *

I must have lost not only a level but also consciousness because I didn’t remember anything from the twenty minutes between death and revival. I came to in the respawn circle.
A reeking creek gurgled quietly. Rats squeaked among the piles of refuse.
A centipede stopped in a corner of the vaulted ceiling but wasn't yet reacting to my appearance.
I lay without moving.
The stench no longer caused me to retch as I had gotten used to it. But if this kept going, the sensory realism would be the end of me. The aftermath of the pain kept me paralyzed but I was in no hurry to get to my feet. I surreptitiously inspected my surroundings. The familiar zombie was sitting with his back to me, stolidly digging around in the packed garbage.
My eye was twitching. There was a nervous tic in my cheek. My wheezy breathing sounded too loud in my own ears, loud enough to make that freak turn around...
What a great reality we have invented. The very embodiment of kindness and civility, we're intelligent creatures after all, right? So why does our imagination create such things?
Away with these thoughts. Philosophy wasn't going to help me here. It was just my nerves.
I sat up with a groan and checked my inventory. I hadn’t drop anything during my virtual death. The sword fragment and the handmade torch were still there. I looked at the moss threads wrapped around the stick and tried to read their properties.
I thought the game would inform me that my low intellect didn’t allow me to identify the item, plus the fact that I lacked the Herbalist skill, but the system unexpectedly offered a pop-up hint.
Crooked handmade staff.
Additional: weak necrotic aura. +10 response from the undead. -50 response from any living creature. 1% chance of recovering a small amount of health when striking an enemy.
Warning: prolonged use of the item may project the aura onto its owner. Effects have not been studied.
I threw away my handicraft with fear and disgust. I would be more careful in the future.
The pain in my chest wouldn't go away...
The aura surrounding the resurrection stone hadn't yet faded when a system warning suddenly appeared:
Session time allowed as per medical indications has run out.
Additional metabolic correction required.
Forced exit commenced.
Apologies for the inconvenience. During the time that you undergo medical procedures, your character will remain protected at the resurrection point.

Chapter 4.

It was already evening in the real world.
I didn't feel too good, that was true. I was tired. My muscles were aching. I didn't know what exactly the metabolic correction system was doing to me but I couldn't see much benefit from my time in the VR capsule.
I needed to get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow was another day. I took a shower and was just about to have supper when I heard a suspicious noise. A quiet whine, as if a servomotor was idling somewhere.
I listened carefully. The sound seemed to be coming from the front door. The indicator lights were green on the security panel so could there be a fault in the system?
They say that full immersion in the digital space doesn't affect a person in any way. What utter crap! After hours spent in the virtual capsule, I was still on edge. The stress from the virtual deaths still hadn't let go of me. I didn't feel safe, as if Denis' apartment was an extension of the underground.
Who was it scratching at the door?
I hadn’t removed the contact lenses so I connected to the security camera through the smart house control interface.
As I thought. Three young men, strangers, were in the corridor. Two were glancing around, clearly nervous, while the third squatted down by the access panel and was trying to break the electronic lock using a compact device.
The camera's microphone was working and I could hear their hushed voices. "We shouldn't have come... We've sent him to be rekilled and that's that. Why take the risk?"
"Dan owes us money now!" Hissed the guy trying to break the lock. "We missed the caravan because of him!"
"Since when?"
"He helped the elf woman escape and she reported us! The town guards would have never gone into the forest otherwise!"
"And since you can't get to her, you've decided to take it out on Dan, is that it? Use your head! This isn't VR. If we get arrested here..."
"Wang, shut up! I owe five grand in real life now! The caravan was not supposed to reach the town. He's ruined all our plans."
"What do you expect to get from Dan?"
"We'll see. How long is this going to take?"
"We could have just buzzed the door. We used to party together!"
"Ha, like he'd open the door for us! I bet he's sitting inside and shaking in his boots! How much longer?"
"Here, I've opened it!"
The front door jerked aside. The three guys pushed their way into the apartment and stopped to stare at me.
"Where's Dan?"
"He's gone for a walk."
"And who the hell are you?"
"Not anyone you should worry about. I suggest that you leave before I call the police. You're not going to get away with just a warning for breaking and entering."
"I'm gonna snap your bloody arms!" One of the guys pulls out a rubber truncheon with a taser. "Sit down and shut your trap!"
"Or what?" I stirred him up on purpose. They didn’t see me as a worthwhile opponent. Fools. I thought the blond, sturdy youth of about twenty was Savage_Hulk.
"You've asked for it!" he charged at me but his strike landed on thin air while the discharge from the taser only damaged one of the apartment's subsystems. Sparks flew from the wall and tendrils of acrid smoke began to seep from a barely noticeable gap in the paneling. The fire alarm started screaming at once.
"Let's get out of here!" Wang shouted.
"Oh no, you don't!" I ripped the police truncheon out of Hulk's hands and the rest was all on automatic. Wang got zapped with the taser and went limp, I struck Savage on the shin, making him howl with pain and collapse without reaching the door, and I stopped the last guy, who must have been the Dark Warrior, with a powerful stun to the head. He wavered, his gaze growing dull and looking like he was about to faint. 
"Would you like to talk now?"
"You're dead! You're so dead!" Savage hissed.
We didn't get a chance to have a heart-to-heart. I was going to call the police myself, but the keepers of the peace responded surprisingly quickly. A patrol car must have been nearby and my "helpful" neighbors obviously heard the disturbance.
The police acted by the book, I must say. They handcuffed me first. Right out of the shower, wearing only my boxers and with a cudgel in my hands, I must have looked highly suspicious, while the three young men groaning on the floor appeared to be victims at first glance.
I didn't resist arrest. We'd sort it out soon. 

* * *

"Why are you injuring people, Andrey Dmitrievich? They came to visit a friend and you attacked them. Have you been drinking today? Have you taken anything? You don't look very well."
"That's not how it was, Captain. They broke into the apartment."
"Really? The three victims are reporting the opposite аnd they're not contradicting each other. There is no record of a break-in as the discharge destroyed the security system. I think you did that on purpose. By the way, where did you obtain a police taser? It's not something one can buy in the store."
This was looking bad. I was literally being set up. I couldn’t figure out why the captain wasn’t interested in finding out the truth and was taking the side of the Dark players but I lost all interest in talking to him. I would just be wasting my time.
"I have the right to make one call."
He raises an eyebrow. "To your lawyer?" He was practically laughing in my face.
"Something like that. Give me back my communicator. I won't say another word. One call and you can lock the cell."
He gave me the communicator with a dismissive gesture. "I'll be present for the conversation."
I shrugged and dialed a number. It took a while for the person on the other end to pick up the phone since it was the middle the night. "Max? Did you recognize my voice? Good. Police Precinct 214. Come at once. Yes, problems. Got it, I'm an adult. OK, I'll be waiting."
"That's it?" The captain became wary. "Who is Max? Your drinking buddy? Another army veteran?"
"You'll see soon enough."

* * *

The lock clicked and the barred door slid aside with a rustle.
"Out you go," Max Pekhov, my old platoon commander, shook his head. "You haven't changed at all, Drey. You're still as reckless as before."
"Rich boys?" I shook his hand and nodded subtly in the direction of the 'victims'.
"Nope. This has nothing to do with the golden youth. They're the offspring of local gangsters. Come on, I'll drive you home and we'll talk on the way."
"We need to drop into my nephew's apartment first."
"What for?"
"I have to collect the access ship to his account."
"You surprise me. Have you gotten hooked on VR?"
"It's a matter of principle." 
"You haven't fought enough in real life?"
"Max, stop nagging. Thanks for getting me out of that mess. I'll sort the rest out myself."
"No, you won't."
"Meaning?"
"Not here. The walls have ears."
Yeah.  Some popular expressions have become literal in this era of high tech.
"Fine," I decided not to argue.
Our paths diverged several years ago, during the Asian Conflict. We kept in touch but rang each other only rarely. I never returned to the forces after my injury. Life had scattered us far and wide.
The sky above the megacity had turned a predawn gray. An old, unpretentious CUV stood idling in the parking lot, a little way from the patrol cars.
I got into the back seat and Max sat in front. The driver turned around and stretched out his hand in greeting, "Alexei."
"Andrey," I said and shook his hand.
"Max, where are we going?"
"To the Enthusiasts Avenue and then we'll see."
"Okay," the car pulled smoothly out of the parking lot and I sensed a real beast hidden under the hood of the unassuming CUV. Clearly a supercharged engine, custom built.
We drove to Denis' apartment, I took the chip and wondered what to do with the broken door.
"Don't worry," Max noticed my hesitation and patted me on the shoulder. "I've already sorted it out. The technicians are coming, they'll fix the lock and alarm the apartment as well. It won't do to leave the capsule unguarded," he sat down in an armchair. "So, tell me, how did you end up in the Edge of the Abyss?"
My story was pretty short, as you know. It only took five minutes.
"A word of advice?" Max looked at me, his eyes narrowed.
"Yeah?"
"Don't go back into VR."
"Why's that?"
"Because of the level of realism. Not many can handle it, trust me."
"Can you explain?"
"You only die once..." he glared at me. "This phrase is no longer true, don't you see? Everything is different there. You die and are reborn, again and again."
"I'll manage."
"Are you sure?"
"No, I'm not, but I intend to try again. I've got some unfinished business. I can always reduce the sensory level."
"That's what everyone thinks. That's what the developers want you to think. In reality, the reverse is true: even at 10% percent of realism, frequent respawns can send a person mad."
"Then I'll try not to die!"
"So, persuading you is pointless? All right, it's your decision," he shrugged. "You've got the chip? Let's go, it’d be best if you lie low in the real world for a few days."
"Wait. Thank you for your help, but why do I need to leave?"
"Let's go, don't get stubborn now. The local thugs have found out your address and they won't leave you alone. They'll send somewhere better."
"Seriously?"
"Times change quickly," Max smiled crookedly in response to my surprised look. "Criminals are striving to get into the digital world. It's much simpler there. Almost no accountability since everything is part of the gaming process," his lips twisted in a grimace again. "You've seen it yourself. They won't stop at anything. If someone gets in their way in VR, they'll find them in the real world."
It all sounded quite persuasive. Max obviously knew what he was talking about and wouldn't be joking about such things.
"All right. Let's go."
We went out onto the street and got into the car. Alexei immediately drove out of the yard and joined the flow of vehicles. 
"How do they make money in there?" I resumed our interrupted conversation.
"Oh, on everything. For example, low-level locations have a lot of paid items. These are expensive outfit items on weak characters. People hunt them down and kill the players, mainly using high Luck scores or Special Abilities in case of drops. The obtained equipment ends up with the traders. The end goal is to sell stolen goods and convert game currency into real money.
Considering the amount of jargon coming out of my old platoon commander's mouth, he'd spent a while in the Edge of the Abyss!  
"Isn't attacking another player in safe locations punished with an account block?"
"It is," Max agreed. "However, there are many ways to trick an inexperienced player into PvP mode, causing them to break the rules and become a justified target. Anyway, a player is under the Immunity Aura for the first 10 levels and then they have to protect themselves. Don't forget that the Edge of the Abyss is virtual reality, meaning it fully imitates real life." 
"Without any laws?"
"No, why? There is an acceptable PvP range. It is calculated simply as the level of your character +20. There are no bans within it, except that you might end up with a negative aura and ruin your relationship with the local NPCs. Basically, anyone can choose whether to remain in town and be protected by the guards, join a powerful faction or risk going off alone beyond the town walls. Most people take that risk. The Edge of the Abyss statistics show that millions of users log into it every day from all over the world. People want fun."
"And land in a meat grinder?"
Max only shrugged. "There is an excess of blood and virtual deaths. Almost nobody sticks to the 10% realism that the developers recommend. The digital space presents too many temptations for the modern person. This world turned out to be harsh but it is the result of our actions, which can't be denied."
"You mean there's no way to fight the Dark players?"
"No, why? You can, using the game’s methods. Which is the surest way, actually."
"I don't understand." 
"Capturing and controlling territories. Creating truly safe regions, where a Dark aura is no good even for quests."
"Is that what you're doing?"
Max hesitated but then nodded. "I'm a member of the Mongoose Clan. We ensure safety on our lands."
"Can I join you?"
"No, not yet."
"Why?"
"Firstly, I don't decide who gets to join. Secondly, your level of realism is too low. Our test for respawn is at least 75% of immersion. Thirdly, a player needs to have a Standard account and be at least Level 40 to join the Clan."
"Why is it so strict?"
"Would you take complete newbies into battle with you when your regular enemy has a hundred kills and can put up with pain that you can't tolerate?"
I was silent. The sensory realism really does change everything.
"Don't feel bad. I'll give you recommendations for upgrades and permission to log in on our lands. You'll be able to take a good look around, try yourself against mobs and only then decide whether you want to stay."
"Thank you for the offer but it won't work. Unless I can delete a character and create a new one."
"Why?" Max was surprised.
"I'm somewhere in the Dark Frontier right now. Savage and his gang sent me there using an ancient portal."
"Why didn't you say so before?" Max perked up.
"What's so special about my situation?"
"The Dark Frontier is located beyond the Wild Lands. Not many have been there since the Abyss invaded. We tried to organize a raid but we haven’t reached it so far. I'll be blunt, information from your map would be very useful. Frontier items are priceless!"
"Right. It's easier to draw water with a sieve than farm there. My character has already dropped to Level 9."
"What was your level before?"
"Level 12 when I landed there."
"Are you willing to log-in again?"
"I'll try."
"Then keep it together. We'll get to you. Do you have a recording of when the Dark players opened the portal?"
"No, there was too much going on."
"That's a shame!" Max was genuinely disappointed. "You certainly know how to find trouble," he chuckled. "As I've said, people don't change with age."
"Where are we going?"
"To be honest, we're just doing circles right now."
"Are you trying to decide whether to take me to your secret base?" I felt hurt.
"Don't sulk. It's not my base, it belongs to the Clan. I'd sent a request and was waiting for a reply."
"Did you get it?"
"Not yet. Lex, let's head to our place," he told the driver. "Circumstances have changed."
"No problem."
We turned sharply, circled around the old city lanes for a while, making sure that we weren't being followed and then headed to the center of the megacity again. Thankfully, it was still early morning and there was no traffic.
"May I see the account information?" Max asked.
"Here," I gave him the chip.
He activated his personal nanocomputer, entered the login and password that I gave him. Max's eyebrows rose in surprise. "How long have you been playing?"
"Less than a day if you add up all the sessions."
"Yet you've already received a personal mission and related artifacts!"
"Do you mean the crystal and the amulet?"
"Yup.
"What's so special about them?"
"They're unidentified items. Which means they're from the Abyss." 
Alexei pulled into a parking lot while we were talking.
Holographic ads glowed on every side. There was a great number of cars despite the early hour.
Mainstream Digital Entertainment Center.
"Seriously? This is your base?" I must have looked completely baffled.
"Mongoose is a combat clan," Max replied. "Renting a fully-equipped center gives us a lot of advantages." 
"For example?"
"We don't destroy families and don't place our loved ones in danger. We work in shifts. A day in the capsule, two days at home. When we need everyone online, for example, for a raid or an attack on our lands, there are enough capabilities here. This place has everything, from back-up VR capsules to rest zones."
"So, players from other regions can't be members of your clan?"
"There are other centers. Sorry, I can't answer many of your questions right now."   
We made our way inside through the service entry. We passed along the internal second-floor balcony above the dancefloor and bar. There were a lot of people below us and it was impossible to tell who had come to party and who was relaxing after a combat shift.
"In here," Max opened an inconspicuous door. We found ourselves in a long, radial corridor. "This is the guest wing," Max said curtly. "This is your room, I'll leave you to settle in while I make my report. Get some sleep. We'll talk later."
I followed his advice without too much musing. It had been quite a night. I was utterly exhausted.

* * *

I was woken up by a dual tone.
"Open."
The door slid aside and Max walked into the room.
"You've had quite a snooze," he smiled broadly and sat in the armchair. "Time to get up and wash your face!"
"Right. You're giving me orders now?" I tried to joke. I actually felt quite tense. My life had changed so abruptly.
I came back after about 5 minutes. The small table between the armchairs had dishes laid out on it. A light breakfast.
"Have you got any good news for me, Max?" I took a sip of the juice and was surprised to find that it was real juice.
"It's all quiet at Denis' apartment so far. Considering that you refused to work as a mule for the Dark players, your reputation is in the positive with our clan."
"Max, I have a request. I know the information is out there on the net, but I don't have time to dig through the flood and separate fact from fiction. Explain what's going on, will you?"
He nodded as if had expected the question. "What exactly are you interested in?"
"Why is the world called the Edge of the Abyss? Who are the Dark ones? Where does their aura come from and what advantages does it give them?"
Max took a sip of his coffee. "Have you head of the Land of the Chosen?"
"No."
"Ten years ago, it was an elite private club for very wealthy people. The first full-scale virtual reality and, to access it, fully immersive capsule technology. A sensory realism of 100%, plus it was a fantasy world set in the pre-industrial age with an untouched biosphere. A digital Eden, basically. There was a large dollop of magic, mysticism and alchemy added. It contained a leveling up system, boundless territory for exploration, stunningly beautiful towns – all for a small number of users, who had absolute power in that world."
"So how did they share it?" I couldn't help but ask.
"They didn't, initially," Max replied. "Their paths didn't cross at all, unless they wished it. Each one had their own town and endless space, as well as thousands of NPC subjects, who were generated by neural network technology."
"What's the problem, then? There's a reason why you started with this, right?"
"Do you remember the beginning of the Asian Conflict?"
"A rhetorical question. It was scary. Personally, I thought the nuclear strikes were a realistic option."
"You weren't the only one. That was when the Land of the Chosen began to show signs of strain. When the global economic crisis hit, compounded by the fear of possible nuclear strikes, many financial empires collapsed. You remember how it happened. Sudden bankruptcies, currencies soaring and crashing, defaults..."
"To be honest, I wasn't really interested in the global economy in those days. We were right in the thick of it. Have you forgotten?"
"No, I haven't," Max touched his personal nanocomputer bracelet and the holographic image of an elderly man appeared in the air between us. "Ernst Goodman. Founder of the first digital shelter. He had lost his fortune in the space of a few days and people say he was suicidal before he found a way to fix his situation. Goodman owned one of the islands in the Land of the Chosen. It was all that he had left. When the conflict escalated and the world balanced on the edge of a nuclear war, he bought a bunker that nobody wanted, left over from the Cold War. He took out a loan, bought a batch of VR capsules, and offered anyone who wanted to save themselves a place in the Land of the Chosen."
I snorted.
"His plan worked," Max continued. "He got his fortune back within a few weeks. Places in the VR capsules cost an astronomical amount but the fear of what was coming was stronger and all the available spots were snapped up. The idea was picked up at once since the owners of the digital worlds were the richest and most influential people of the world. The continents and islands of the Land of the Chosen were populated at an incredible rate. It turned out to be an incredibly profitable business. The manufacture of VR capsules had been perfected and put into production by that point. The plan was to use them for long-distance space flights. By the time the Asian Conflict reached its peak, the population of the digital world was several dozen million people. Global tensions rapidly found their way into virtual reality and the digital Eden began to arm itself, with the first clans being created. Things didn't progress to large-scale confrontations as the Asian Conflict was finally resolved, but full immersion technology had reached the masses. When the hysteria subsided, it became clear that the past was not coming back. The exclusive club for a select few became a densely populated virtual space. People didn't want to abandon it."
"I was recovering in hospital at the time."
"And I had quit and was trying to find a way to make a living. We were lucky, in a way."
"Lucky?!"
"The Land of the Chosen was hacked. You won't find any official information about this, only rumors on shady forums.   
"The Abyss is a virus?"  
"I'd put it another way. The Abyss is content that has been altered. Nobody knows the exact date of the attack. There were no obvious glitches but there were gradual NPC mutations. Cults of the Abyss appeared in some regions. The NPCs started praying to some sort of Shadows. Then came the catastrophe. A section of the digital space disappeared. Portals appeared in other zones, from which poured forth disfigured but incredibly strong creatures. The Land of the Chosen underwent an emergency shut down. They avoided a lot of casualties that way. They wanted to completely freeze the project but it didn't work. Over a billion users all over the world had given away all they had for a place under the digital sun. If access was taken away from them, mass rioting would have swept through the Earth in days. A multinational management corporation was urgently created and given control of the project. They tried to recover the Land of the Chosen but the rollback didn't work."
"So how did they find a solution?"
"Strong NPC factions were introduced by the developers. They wiped out the beasts that had invaded and closed most of the portals, but they couldn't move past the Dark Frontier, a mysterious network of empty towns and crumbling fortifications surrounding the heart of the Abyss. That's all I know."
"Did they find the hackers?"
"No, but everyone knows it was done by the New Asia conglomerate. They couldn't accept their defeat in the real world. The digital zones belonging to them were going to be annexed but instead they disappeared, swallowed up by the Abyss. No one’s found a way to stop mutations among the NPCs. It's impossible to delete the defective content without destroying the virtual world. Some believe that the Abyss was created using gaming techniques."
"Gaming? Is that even possible?"
Max nodded, explaining, "The initial co-owners of the Land of the Chosen had enough power and the right to alter the digital space using 'magic' within their own territories. Many of them occupied quite senior positions in the New Asia conglomerate. That suggests certain things, doesn't it?"
I finished my juice and was silent for some time, trying to process what I had heard. Then I asked, "Where do the Dark players come from?"
"Players with Dark auras appeared about six months after the Abyss invaded," Max replied. "They had reloaded the reality by that time, corrected the leveling system and created safe regions where small groups of users could gradually explore the Wild Lands and even reach the edge of the Dark Frontier. In those distorted forests and deadly dungeons, and sometimes among the ruins of abandoned towns, live mutated NPC characters. If you have reached Level 30 and use 50% of realism, they will speak to you and offer you a test and a reward for the future belongs to the Abyss." Max quoted with a crooked grin. "Meaning that it has always existed and will soon swallow everything up again."
"What's the point of it all, Max? What advantages does the smoky aura give people?"
"It's all relatively simple and practical, like in real life. The Dark players are rewarded for killing other players. They gain experience, unique weapons, apparel and abilities that they cannot get any other way. But first, you must dedicate yourself to the Abyss. For that, you accept a task, for example, obtaining a certain item. The player follows hints but eventually discovers that this trinket (always a different one) is a sacred object in a small village somewhere.  Hence, the dilemma. They won't give you the item willingly. You can't buy it. You can only steal it or take it by force. There are no other options. You must decide. Many think, ‘Oh, what's the big deal, an NPC village, they'll respawn. Meanwhile, I’ll complete the quest and get a pile of goodies that I've been promised.’ It's easy to become a killer in the digital world. I guess the usual moral brakes don't work."
"Yup. Seen and heard it myself. 'It's only a game and the NPC is just a chunk of code, nothing more'."
"Exactly. One minor detail, though. A child always gets in the way, who must be murdered."
"A humanity test?"
"More like an inhumanity test. Yet many pass it. They turn away or close their eyes. Remember the phrase in the classic? 'I'll pray for my sins later'," Max curled his hands into fists. "But it's not so easy to wash the blood off your hands, even if it's virtual. As soon as the task is complete, you get a smoky aura. Many don't return to complete the quest but a day passes, then another, yet the aura doesn't dissipate. You can no longer enter normal towns with it. You can't discard the item that you obtained from the inventory. Any player or NPC has every right to send you for respawn. I'm just stating facts, I'm not feeling sorry for them. There are some that delete their character. Others become bandits and form gangs. And some return to the Dark Frontier. As a reward for the first murder, they receive a fully-fledged Dark aura, which adds points to their characteristics, gives them the ability to use items, outfits and weapons altered by the Abyss, and unlocks a dark magic branch on the skills tree." 
"And there's no way back?"
"Theoretically, there is. There are cleansing amulets out there, but nobody has found one yet. Dark players take the side of the Abyss. We don't know their real hierarchy yet. Nobody has traveled further than the Wild Lands so far, and those who reached the Dark Frontier either deleted their accounts or switched to the Dark side. There is another category, however, the most detestable, in my opinion. Savage_Hulk and his gang belong to it. They get to Level 30 and head to the Frontier. They accept the mission and obtain the aura, but serve only themselves and not the Abyss."
"What's the advantage in that?"
"Once they obtain the aura, they don't need to worry about their accounts. They won't get banned because they now belong to an 'enemy faction'. Dark players can be eliminated face-to-face but that's it."
"And nothing can be done?"
"That's not true. But we have to use gaming methods, as I've already said. We don't let them set foot on our lands. We protect new users and players with peaceful professions. Fifty percent of realism is a lot, believe me. Death is still death, and after a dozen respawns it begins to terrify."
I nodded, deep in thought. "What about me?"
"Do you truly want to stay?" Max narrowed his eyes. It was a familiar look. We had been through a lot together.
"After everything that you've told me? Yes, I do!"
"Justify why."
"I won't. It's not something I can explain. To live the remainder of my life in front of the spherovision when I have an alternative? Max, don't act dumb. You know me."
"Fine. Let's consider it a rhetorical question. But there are complications."
"My health's still good."
"That's not what I meant. We would like to ask you not to get a new account. You'll remain Dan."
"Why?"
"Your inventory contains unique items with hidden abilities. None of our people received the Secret of Forest Hill personal quest, although they went there alone and in groups. There is no dry tree and no remains. There are no rocks or the dried-up spring either. You’ve been to a place generated just for you. And the deciding factor is that your character has been teleported further than any of our explorers have been."
"Will I get support?"
"Here, yes. But not in the Edge of the Abyss. It's impossible. The section of underground that you have discovered hasn't helped us in any way, we haven't been able to find it so far.  You will have to level up and escape from there on your own. But the Clan is willing to pay for the information. Any discoveries that you make will increase your reputation among us. You can join the Mongooses as soon as you find your way back. Now, about the real world. It's dangerous for you to return to Denis' apartment or to your own. You'll stay here for now. We'll provide you with a VR capsule.
You have a lot to think about. If you come back alive, you'll have payment and stars on your shoulders. And if you perish, well..."
The door opened suddenly and a guy of about eighteen entered the room. He was holding a nanocomputer tablet.
"Hi. Are you Dan?" he glanced at me.
"Didn't anyone teach you to knock?"
"Oh, sorry, I was thinking about stuff. You're Dan, right? I'm here about your character."
"Andrey, let me introduce you to Sasha, he's our analyst and tactician."
"Yeah, nice to meet you." A section opened in the floor and another armchair rose from the recess. "Right, fellows," he sat down. "the character has some crap skills but he'll live. I checked the logs. I estimate the overall level of the undergound as 25+. It's pretty passable. I reckon it used to be just a normal set of subterranean locations for a large town. Dan's Stamina is pretty good, you just need to quickly level up your Adaptability and you'll be fine."
"I get killed." I reminded him.
Sasha deigned to look up from the tablet. It was weird, he seemed to be focusing over my head as if he was looking for a frame.
"Andrey, despite all the 'respect your elders' crap that I get hammered into me here, don't be a newb, OK?"
"I wasn't the one who created the character."
"Yeah, but you're the one playing. Can I continue?"
"Go on."
"OK." he focused on the tablet again. "This is what we do. We increase the realism level to 50%. This will allow you to accrue additional experience points. Your goal is to go up 5 levels and get your Adaptability to 12 and then you'll be the king of this dump."
I choked on my juice.
Max was listening in silence. My eyelid was twitching while he was trying not to smile. He was enjoying this.
"What's wrong?" Sasha asked in surprise as if these few sentences were a detailed lecture that could explain everything.
"I'll kick the bucket. It will be incredibly painful! There’s a zombie with a spear hanging around. I've only got a broken sword. Why do I need to level up my Adaptability? Can you explain properly, since you're a specialist?"
"Like Luck, Adaptability affects all characteristics. But while Luck is random, the effect of Adaptability is quite predictable. Many simply underestimate it. Basically, when the character was created, the five available points should have been spent on Adaptability, then additional progress bars would have appeared beside each characteristic in the interface. They fill up gradually and don't reset to zero if you die. It's called 'adaptive leveling'. Meaning that the fastest-growing characteristic is the one being used the most in that particular moment. If you carry heavy loads – your Strength increases. If you climb trees or shoot a lot with a bow and arrow, the additional bar next to Dexterity will gradually fill up and," Sasha snapped his fingers. "bingo! you get +1 for that characteristic. Get it?"
"Now I do." I nodded.
"Adaptability actually has lots of hidden advantages. As soon as you get it to 12 points, you'll be able to use certain items and equipment that aren't typical for your class, and when your Adaptability reaches 15, you'll have the option to create a multiclass character."
"Multiclass?" I asked in surprise. "What for?"
"When you meet a Warrior of the Abyss, you'll understand why. We'll discuss that later. Right now, we need to quickly get you up 5 levels. You're a former soldier, right?"
"Yup."
"Then I don't see any problems," he concluded cheerfully. "You know how to group together correctly? You know what rolls are?"
I nodded curtly.
"Your opponent has a spear," Sasha continued. "Which means that he has two types of attack: stabbing lunge and spinning strike. You simply avoid the stabbing move. The mob is vulnerable at the end of the forward lunge. You jump back to get out of range of the spinning strike, then find the right moment and attack. I saw in the logs that you were killed with venom as well?"
"Yup. Centipedes."
"Super!"
I couldn’t understand what he was so happy about.
"You can buff your weapon," Sasha explained patiently. "Smear the centipede along the wall with your first hit, then dip your blade in the slime and it will inflict additional poison damage for a period of time. The zombie's weak spot is its neck, so you need to go for the throat or the base of the skull from behind.  This is called a critical hit. During a crit, your sword will produce 150% of the base damage. Get it?"
"I get the general gist. I'll have to try it out."
"All right. Get your Adaptability to 12 and then we'll discuss what you need to do next. Remember that the virtual world isn't simply realistic. You can use different events to your advantage. Anyway, go and experiment. For more detailed instructions, I'll need the logs and video of your next session."
"Well?" Max asked when Sasha grabbed his tablet and ran off to continue his other work. "Will you risk it?"
"Yes, I'll try one more time."
"In that case, here's an additional chip and a personal nanocomputer," he gave me a thin bracelet and added, "Wear it on your wrist. In normal mode, the information is displayed on your contact lenses or as a holographic tablet, whichever you prefer. When you're using the VR capsule, the chip allows you to create a personal digital space."
"What do I need it for?"
"The gap between a virtual death and respawn is twenty minutes. You can spend that time in comfortable surroundings. It relieves stress. Each member of our Clan has such a chip. It helps if you have to spend several days in a virtual capsule, during a raid, for example."
"Can you explain how it works?"
"You'll have access to a builder and will be able to create a virtual room with a familiar interior. You'll also be able to expand your personal space if you have enough imagination. You'll work it all out yourself, it's very straightforward."
"So, I won't need to leave the capsule at all?"
"In theory, yes. But I don't recommend abusing that option. It's better to exit, have a proper meal and a proper rest. One more thing, you have internet access in your personal space. If you need to get some advice or find information on the gaming forums, you can safely press 'log out'. Just don't leave your character in dangerous spots."
He touched a sensor on a wall control panel. A section of the floor moved aside and a VR capsule rose up.
"Ready to begin?"
I was silent.
"Then dive in," Max patted me on the shoulder reassuringly. "Fifty percent of realism is very motivating, trust me!"




Release - April 10, 2019



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