Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones by Dem Michailov

Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones
by Dem Michailov

Release - March 5, 2020
Pre-order - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B082J7P2X2

The series is a joint project of Magic Dome Books and 1C-Publishing

Chapter One
Anything to Stay! Your Gaming Session Has Been Terminated Unexpectedly.
The bright flash before my eyes made me squeeze my eyes shut. When I opened my eyelids again, I saw an iridescent vortex spinning slowly. I exhaled, frustrated, and shut my eyes again without waiting for another vertiginous moment of nausea. My bandwidth is way too low. The equipment is rather outdated, too. Hence the long few minutes of waiting for the server to identify me, check the medical sensor data, and apply the matrix.
I waited for another minute before opening my eyes; I was relieved to discover myself staring right at a nondescript gray brick wall. Finally.  I stretched, clenched and unclenched my fists a few times, and shook my head.

Everything seemed to be just fine.
A near-transparent message popped up before my eyes, accompanied by a pleasant ringing. It kept getting whiter and more opaque with every second.
The World of WALDYRA is happy to have you with us!
There are over seven million of us now . . .
I winced, annoyed, as I shut the greeting I'd already been sick to death of, and looked around myself, having taken a few steps back away from the wall. I was in a tiny room, nine feet by nine, with a regular wooden door with a ball-shaped copper handle in the opposite wall. The ceiling was low and made of stone, without anything resembling a window. There was absolutely nothing on the walls—not a single painting, or etching, or indeed any other sentimental object to decorate them. The situation with furniture was similar—there was none.
A pile of stuff lay in the far corner next to the door, with a torn cape thrown over it haphazardly for the sake of appearances. It contained the bare necessities—a meager supply of decent mana and HP potions, a few specific elixirs boosting certain stats temporarily, and a small set of reserve armor and equipment. I had some gold and silver in the city bank; their nearest branch was located right across the city square. That was that. Those were all the things I needed to play comfortably. I hardly ever appeared in my private room—that would normally happen whenever I would log into the game or log out.
Apart from that, my in-game bank account kept growing, so there was no reason to lament the Spartan decor and the lack of comforts in my Private Room. That was my personal space—my gateway to the boundless world of Waldyra so very long ago. Oh yes, a lot of time has passed since then . . . and all of it would end very shortly.
My game account was of the lowest class—Wooden. Such account would often be derisively referred to as "logs," and their owners were known as "Pinocchios." The class suited my needs just fine, but all good things come to an end. The only way of staving it off was to keep paying hard-earned cash for playing. Once the last cent on the account would run out, a scarlet red message saying ACCOUNT BLOCKED would flash before my eyes, and I would immediately find myself flung back into the real world.
I had no way of topping up my account. I simply had no money. My company had gotten bankrupt all of a sudden, with all of the staff, including yours truly, getting the axe. I ended up flat broke. Speak of double trouble. I lost my job and my favorite hobby in one fell swoop of fate. A two-pronged attack targeting my most vulnerable spots, if you will.  I was technically entitled to some severance package—half a month's salary and basic social coverage—but clawing that out of a bankrupt company would be a challenge taking more time than I had. The boss disappeared without a trace, and it is said that he had taken all the remaining liquid company assets with him. He must be sitting in a comfy lounge chair somewhere on an ocean beach and savoring his tropical cocktail . . . the bastard!
I drew a deep sigh, thought for a moment, my eyes boring the alluring door like gimlets. It led to a world of incredible adventure, wild passion, and mortal danger. It drew me like a magnet.
However, I had to hold my impulses in check. The first thing I did was activate the control interface. I went through a couple of menus, barely moving my index finger, found the necessary option and called out the timer counting out the hours and minutes I'd had left in the game dispassionately, pinning it to my main "screen."
The numbers were anything but reassuring.
I dwelt on this for a while, and then decided to color the constantly changing numbers bright red and place them in the upper left corner so that they would always be in my field of vision. Now I could see the remaining time whenever I'd look to the side.
A warning message popped up before my eyes.
We are obliged to inform you that visible interface elements interfere with complete immersion into the world of Waldyra.
I chuckled bitterly, dismissing the message. It sure does interfere. However, I wouldn't want to become a laughing stock for other players by missing the right moment and getting thrown out of the game in the middle of a conversation. So I should somehow manage without "complete immersion." I wouldn't be able to cite a sudden blackout or a network problem as an excuse. Every cocoon had an autonomous power supply with enough juice to finish the longest battle, let alone wrap up a conversation or reach a safe location. Then you could press the Exit button in peace. Network errors were extremely rare. Game cocoons were linked to the main server as nodes of a single network independent from the Internet or the local ISPs. Glitches in their work were extremely uncommon.
I am a quiet type normally, and I prefer action to talking to other players. What was the point of idle chitchat, anyway? You could talk IRL, after all. What had drawn me to Waldyra in the first place was adventure—battles against monsters and the exploration of unchartered territories. That was the very reason why I had chosen the Ranger Archer class.
However, this time I had only intended to talk. Not a step outside the city. Today I had to do absolutely everything within my power to scrape up enough funds for yet another week of fees for my Wooden account. And that would require precisely that which I had tried to keep to a minimum—namely, communication. I would have to talk to vendors and fighters looking for quality weapons, armor, or accessories. Basically, I had to sell all the junk gathering dust in the corner of my room for "real" money. Should I fail to succeed immediately, my only remaining option would be to auction the stuff, but in that case I'd have to wait for 24 hours at least—a whole day. I would therefore have to log out and use a simple monitor app to track the sales.
Just a week. That was all the time I'd have to horse around. A small vacation before I'd be forced to hunt for yet another job. Well, why not? I was single and lived on my own, after all. The fridge of my one-room apartment was chock full of cheap but filling food. My rent and my Internet bills had been paid for a month in advance. So all I wanted now was a little entertainment. Absolute immersion into the game with a bare minimum of logging out. An endless whirlwind of events and adventures.
I could go hunting orcs at the Black Ridge—my level would suffice for that. Another option was to take a trip to the faraway coast of the Southern Sea where I could admire their unique sunsets with both suns dipping under the horizon at once. Those lucky enough to have seen this sight claim it to be one of the world's greatest wonders. I could save on teleportation scrolls, so it would take five days tops to get there. I could accept easy quests from the locals en route . . . a gamer's dream and no mistake.
Anyway, I wouldn't be short of activities the coming week. Provided I managed to scrape up enough to pay for my account, obviously.
I scrutinized my tiny room, regretting the fact that I had never bothered about investing so much as a cent into the decor of my Private Room. I could have sold it to some greenhorn player lock, stock, and barrel for half the price now. However, back in the day when I was relatively comfortable financially, I used to spend all the gold I would earn in the game on boosting elixirs, stronger armor, and better weapons. My class was another thing—it was of the "pure" variety, regarded as suited for nobility and the new rich players. I had never bothered to learn a craft. Not that there had ever been a shortage of NPCs eager to teach me their skills—I could have become a lumberjack or a miner, after all . . .
But the prospect of chipping away at rocks with a pickax in hopes of finding a gold nugget or an uncut gem had always bored me to tears. Ditto prancing around swinging an ax and singing I'm OK. So that's what I ended up with. I never could have guessed the game would become so addictive and turn from a hobby to what technically amounted to my main occupation.
There was also the fact that the NPCs (or the locals, as we all call them) only gave you basic-level skills, and you'd have to be really naive to think you'd automatically start raking in the money. What you could expect is that your pickax would break less frequently and that you might find precious metals a teensy-weensy bit more often . . . That was that. You'd need to hone your skills day and night to achieve anything more. As in putting all your elbow grease into that ax or pickax from dawn till dusk. Not that there was any shortage of those who'd enjoyed it. Those were the so-called Socials—players who'd rather spend their times on crafts, trade, and the like. This class of player needed no bread or spectacles. However, they'd sell their souls for a rich precious ore vein, a few bundles of elven silk, or a mithril pickax with inlays.
The thought of making a long-distance call to my parents and ask for some financial assistance for their prodigal son left my head the instance it popped up. That would be an exercise in futility. My mother would get stress, and my father would start calling me every hour demanding my immediate return to the family domicile where he would instantly find a fitting job for the apple of his eye (yours truly, that is). Now, how did that saying go? "You don't raise sons, you raise heroes?" Nah . . . I'll paddle out on my own somehow.
One small step for me, one giant leap across the room. Then I started to stuff everything I had into my backpack. Why everything? Why wouldn't I cherry-pick? Well, I'd probably break down and cry seeing myself put away the Gray Archer's bow that I had obtained with so much effort—a weapon with excellent stats, accompanied by a quiver capable of repairing broken arrows on its own, as well as a number of other items, each of which had had sentimental value. In other words, I had a near-terminal case of unwillingness to part with my property. 
The last items were a bunch of potions that clinked dully as I put them away. Nothing remained in the room but dust. I'd have collected that, as well, given a chance someone would buy it.
I put on the backpack—its size remained the same, and the answer to "how" is always "magic" in such cases—and started towards the door, throwing a glance at the relentless timer involuntarily.
I'd have to hurry.
The door clicked shut softly, and I set off making no sound whatsoever. Ah, the silent steps of a true ranger. I may have perambulated as quietly as any elephant IRL, but here in Waldyra I was but a silent ghost. The ideal scout. The best players with a similar character class and beefed-up skills can break dance on broken glass without a single shard making a sound.
There was no need to bother about locking the door—no one but me would have managed to get in, anyway. The only way another player can enter my Private Room is if I invite them. Also, there was no point worrying about a completely empty room.
I dashed downstairs to find myself in a spacious hall with oak-paneled walls and a wide open door leading outside just across.
There were paintings and embroideries on the walls with scenes of hunting and battles against monsters. Every scene was based on a real event, immortalizing the players' achievements and valiant deeds as described in the captions on diligently-polished copper plaques underneath. The polishing was done manually, by the way—by the "local" workers keeping things clean and orderly with the utmost diligence. There were all sorts of achievements—not all of them had to be battle-related.
"Sir Lancelot fights a red dragon single-handedly," read one. The picture portrayed a warrior with unnaturally wide shoulders, clad in a suit of armor, fearlessly attacking a fire-breathing spiky lizard-like beast with a sword raised over his head. Oddly enough, nothing was said about the outcome of the fight. I could attack a red dragon single-handedly too—I just might be foolish enough. But what would be the result of such a battle? The dragon would probably get its breakfast.
"Twain the Canny makes the first 100K deal in the history of Waldyra." The caption was underneath a portrait for a puffy-cheeked chubby fellow smiling from behind a table laden with gold. The player had obviously chosen the path of a trader. Their kind never have to worry about paying their fees . . . but isn't that boring? On the other hand, different strokes for different folks. It might be his vocation, after all.
"The foundation of the very first clan in the history of Waldyra!" There are ten players of different classes standing in the yard of a small castle and swearing their allegiance to the clan with their hands held out in front of them. The clan in question was the Architects—one of the most powerful ones.
"Kraken the Silent slays the Orcish warlord with a single arrow." There's an archer standing on one knee and about to let loose an arrow from a disproportionately large crossbow. I'd spent a lot of time studying this picture, awash in jealousy for a luckier player who'd managed to get his name written into the chronicles of Waldyra. On the other hand, if I had a crossbow like that, all covered in boosting runes, I would also have killed an orc with a single arrow, from any distance . . . probably . . . Anyway, I never liked crossbows much, relying on longbows most of the time. And just to consider his nickname. "Silent" Kraken, my foot! Some people just have no imagination, brother!
Right, and what do have here?
Oh, yeah, a really "ancient" painting that's been here for quite a while.
"The Galesian Ichtyander reaches the bottom of the Quanton Trench." All you can see on the painting is a blurry silhouette of a diver hanging upside down, visibly tense, and touching the rocky bottom with the very tips of his fingers against an almost completely black background of the deeper ocean reaches. The Quanton Trench is over ten miles deep, if memory serves. There's no way anyone could dive that deep IRL. You could only do it in Waldyra, and only if your character belonged to the underwater race. Otherwise the pressure will squash you flat. Incidentally, rumors have it that even though Ichtyander had managed to reach the bottom, he never made it back up, ending up as a snack for the creatures of the deep, record breaker or not. Those creatures are enormous—and always ravenous. Jeepers . . .
There were paintings everywhere. Starting with the level of one's chest and rising all the way up to the ceiling. The first clan castle built, and the first player to have amassed a fortune of a million golden pieces. Once again, Twain the Canny was the one who had received the achievement. Speak of shrewd merchants . . .
I took a short look at the paintings and hurried towards the door, nodding to the girl behind the semicircular counter who had wished me a good morning. She wasn't a player, but rather an AI-controlled NPC capable of self-education. That was one of the gimmicks that gave Waldyra its charm and verisimilitude.
"May luck shine over you today, Mr. Khrushchot!" the girl added with barely traceable notes of ennui in her voice, which was the epitome of courteousness otherwise. 
The poor thing must be really bored here. Not a soul to talk to. Players would just dash back and forth minding their own business, and the girl hardly got any chance to converse to anyone.
On the other hand, perhaps she wasn't as bored as all that. My cursory glance scanned a cheap necklace made of blue beads on her neck. Low-ranking "locals" never wore any jewelry—that was one of the game's features. Still, any player could give an NPC a ring, a necklace, or a chain as a present. A piece of jewelry worn on the neck implied that this doubtlessly beautiful woman created by a talented designer had an adorer—one of the players paying her a visit every now and then. And those visits must have entailed something other than small talk.
The game's ranking spoke for itself—it was 18+, and enforced zealously. No children or teenagers were allowed anywhere near a full-immersion experience of this sort. One could even get married, buy an orchard, and enjoy all the advantages of a quiet family life, given the inclination. Or, perhaps, one could opt for the none-too-quiet option—one would normally choose a partner according to one's tastes, after all. Many players did just that. After all, few things are as pleasant as to be welcomed by a gorgeous spouse first thing upon returning from yet another heroic quest.
The marketplace greeted me with a deafening din. You could always expect to see a few hundred players here, half of whom were traders, always ready and willing to sell you whatever they may have found across the vastness of the world of Waldyra or made themselves for a maximum profit. Others wished to purchase what they were selling as cheaply as they could. Every party would haggle zealously and very loudly. I couldn't hear a single word for the noise the first time I came here. It was much easier now, though. I must have gotten used to it all—the loud haggling, the milling crowds, and the thieves dashing to and fro all the time.
"Rings with semiprecious gemstones! A substantial boost to your mana! Just two left! Level 10 and up!"
"Shirts! Linen shirts! Get two beautiful shirts for just a single silver piece!"
"Giant crab shells! Whole and powdered! Just what an alchemist needs!"
"Hot food! Hot food!"
"I'm selling all my stuff! Level 20! Make your offers!"
"All your lighting needs covered! Glowballs! Magic headlamps! Glowing necklaces and belts! Just two camp post with simplified activation left! One is charged with daylight, and the other, with regular light! Affordable! We can make a deal!"
Posts were stationary lighting devices resembling, well . . . pillars or posts, I suppose. Hence the name. What else do you call a brightly-glowing cylinder five feet tall? So that was the name the players chose. Everything was perfectly clear to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Waldyra slang. Daylight was the same as sunlight. It provided perfect lighting as well as protection from any creature shunning the sun. Glowballs were another lighting device. The player's bread and butter must have come from making and selling lighting equipment.
"I'll fix your weapons and armor free of charge! Absolutely free! No guarantees on the result, though!"
"Charmed wooden flasks! Extra capacity! You won't regret it!"
"Pelts! Really cheap hare pelts! I have hare eyes, too, for those who want them! Seventeen altogether!"
"Eight silver-plated buttons for sale! Tailors! Get them quick! These are one-off pieces! Look at how beautiful they are!"
Buyers would usually walk around in silence, scrutinizing everything with feigned indifference and taking their time raking through the items on sale. There was a reason why this spontaneous market came into existence here—there was a fountain with clean water nearby that could be used by anyone for drinking or filling one's flasks, a hotel right nearby, and an auction where any player could sell any rare item they had just some twenty paces away. That's where I headed, ignoring the throngs and the admiring sighs of jealous greenhorn eating my equipment with their eyes.
There was a semitransparent veil in front of the auction, and you had to pass through to get in. That was just what I did. I took a step and the veil became thicker, examining me, and dispersing instantly in an invitation to come inside. The magical veil did not let any player with a level under 15 get involved in any trade, returning them to the square instantly with a light slap on the back and a whispered "Grow up first, kid."
I decided against ascending the broad granite staircase leading inside the building. Instead, I headed left. There were over a dozen of players hanging out next to a wall, all of them of different classes and races.
That motley crew of chatty traders was my destination. They were the unofficial "black" auction. The prices they offered were much lower, but they paid up at once. That's where anyone would go if they needed to get rid of their wares quickly and get paid in real money rather than the game's own gold-based currency.
The sheer variety of buyers was mind-boggling. There were elves, dwarves, humans, drow, half-orcs, and even achylotes—I certainly didn't expect to see any of their ilk here. Well, there was only one of them, really, and he'd been doing just fine for someone who'd needed gills to breathe. On the other hand, why wouldn't he, with an aquarium like his? The achylote player didn't move much, suspended as he was inside an enormous bubble of sea water placed right on the paving and looking extremely flimsy. You didn't encounter too many underwater beings in this city—it may not have been built in the middle of the desert, but it lay just on its fringe.
I remember my amazement when I first learned about the existence of a strictly underwater race of players in Waldyra. There were actual underwater towns and villages—as well as caves, and, obviously, monsters. However, I did not choose the achylote race, my curiosity notwithstanding, even though they had a large number of available classes. It just didn't feel like my kind of thing. Apart from that, I prefer to stand on my own two feet—spending most of the game in a suspended state would be bothersome. It would be like living in a zero-gravity environment.
I barely managed to open my mouth when a tall half-orc approached me, nodding at my backpack and asking me in a guttural voice,
"Got anything for sale?"
"I have," I said, taking off my backpack nonchalantly. "But I'm not selling it cheap. It's one-off stuff. Some of it is technically rare!"
The half-orc grunted derisively. Well, the fanged warrior had every right to, given the quality of his equipment. His silver coat of mail emitted a soft glow and was covered with an intricate runic pattern, with pauldrons, bracers, and greaves to match. A full set, no less—with all the stat bonuses it entails. There was a black silk shirt underneath the armor. The half-orc's hands were covered by gauntlets, but I was certain he'd had a magic ring on every finger and a few protective charms around his neck. And I didn't even mention his full-metal boots. His entire presence emitted a powerful magical aura—his every garment and piece of armor were steeped in it. Few could have taken out someone like him—although I could have given it a try, at night and on a rough terrain.
The buyer made sure he'd made an impression, and grunted lazily,
"Gold or real money?"
"Real money!" I blurted out, opening my pack at once. "I don't need gold."
I instantly called myself a moron as I saw a glint in the half-orc's eyes. It was clear to him I was in dire need of money. What a mark I am. Feigned indifference was never my strong suit.
The warrior grabbed my backpack casually and started to rife through it, occasionally emitting a grunt or a clucking noise that could have meant anything. It didn't take him long to appraise the goods I'd hoarded painstakingly over the years. He named his price almost instantly.
"Fifty bucks for everything, including the pack. I could throw in another five, and that's that."
"You must be kidding . . ." I uttered dejectedly. "I'd get three times as much at the auction. How about a hundred? Everything is in perfect condition—no repairs needed."
"You won't," the half-orc shook his head with a thick mop of black hair. "I'm sure of it. The auction house will give you seventy-five, eighty bucks tops. That's it. See for yourself. You just have the basic stuff here—no runes, no rare items, no set items . . . All your stuff will go right to the next leveling-up recruit eager to let it go to waste due to lack of skill and experience."
"Does it make any difference?" the warrior grunted, with some chagrin in his voice this time. "Anyway, as I've been telling you, there's nothing particularly valuable here. With the possible exception of the bow and a couple of throwing knives. The rest is just bulk. I'm only buying it because it's in perfect repair. Anyway, I can give you fifty-five bucks right away—just give me your account number. If you don't trust me, ask the others, I don't care."
I pondered this for a moment, then made a sullen dismissive gesture and agreed with his price. The half-orc had no reason to lie. There wasn't anything unique in the backpack, after all. Just a bunch of quality items and weapons.
"All right, then," the half-orc roared, showing off an impressive set of fangs. "By the way, the bow you have dangling on your back . . . I'd buy it for twenty right away. If you throw in your belt as well, there'll be another tenner in it for you. So, what do you say?"
"My bow?" I exhaled sharply, turning my head to take a look at the weapon behind my shoulder. "No way . . . I could have parted with the belt . . ."
"Your call. I'm just here to make an offer."
"Oh, screw it," I grunted, resolutely removing the bow and the shoulder-belt and handing it to the trader. "It's yours."
"Can't scrape up enough for your daily fix, eh?" the warrior squinted somewhat mockingly as he grabbed my weapon and stuffed it into his backpack.
"Got it in one," I said morosely as I tore the belt off my waist. It gave a great boost to Agility, and a 5% bonus to Stealth. A dream belt, in other words. And there I was parting with it . . . for a measly ten bucks. Well, what was I to do? Keep the belt and proudly log off?
"Give me your account number. Or your e-wallet number, whatever.  Chef's choice."
"E-wallet," I replied, telling him the number I'd had memorized.
"Hold on," the half-orc grunted, shutting his grayish-green eyelids and looking meditative for a moment.
I saw his ember eyes stare at me shortly afterwards.
"It's done. The money's been wired. If you come across any other worthy stuff, DM me at once. I'm here most of the time. The nickname is Gray Boar. Got it?"
"Sure," I nodded. Then I asked him, "Hey, but how did you manage to wire the money? You didn't even log out . . ."
"Why would I? Oh, hold on a second . . . You come from the glorious Pinocchio stock, right? A Wooden account?"
"Well, yeah . . ."
"Well, nothing. The account you choose decides everything. Anyway, good lock. Drop by whenever you come by anything good."
Gray Boar nodded me goodbye and retreated lazily, waving my backpack around in a careless manner. Where did that leave me? Out of weapons and equipment, but with eighty-five bucks on my account. Provided that the half-orc trader made no mistakes and wasn't planning to rip me off, of course.
Once I parted the magical veil again, I sat down on a sun-warmed bench next to a fountain with a dozen jets of water shooting up and hastened to leave the game. There was a twinkling and a flash, and I was staring at the iridescent whirlwind again. Then came darkness.
I tore the helmet away from my head, opened the cocoon's semitransparent lid, and pulled the computer monitor installed on a mobile console without getting up. I was online, anyway, so it didn't take long to check my electronic payment system.
The Boar had told the truth. I received a transfer of eighty-five dollars and one cent. One cent, really! The guy should try the local stand-up circuit; he'd be a barrel of laugh with his displays of lavish generosity. Given that I'd already had seventeen dollars on my account, I was now a proud owner of 102 dollars, proudly ignoring that measly copper.
A weekly fee for the cheapest (Wooden) account was exactly sixty-five bucks. Not exactly the cheapest entertainment available on the market. Basically, I was set—I'd just received enough to pay for a week in advance. Seven days of pure unadulterated joy in the world of Waldyra. Damn . . . I shouldn't have hurried with selling my favorite bow. On the other hand, that was when an insidious thought crept into my head. Just another twenty-three dollars would buy me a whopping two weeks of playing. Two whole weeks! I should have just about enough food in the fridge . . . it seemed like an enticing prospect. I didn't really want to borrow—on the other hand, I didn't need much, either. But where would I get the remaining money?
Relatives were definitely a no-no. Ditto neighbors. Not that I was on good terms with any of them, anyway, with the exception of Vassily—resident of the first floor, a hard worker with magic hands who could fix anything, and a former power lifter to boot. Or, rather, he'd been one before his wife left him. Since then, he'd been drinking regularly, and those crafty hands of his became two shaking claws of an alcoholic. If anything, he'd ask to borrow some money off me the instant he'd see my mug. So, a non-option there as well . . .
Where did that leave me?
Having pondered this for a few more minutes, I made myself rise from the cocoon's elastic bed and reach the bedside table next to my single bed—there was a shoe box on it, stuffed with bits and pieces of paper, ancient business cards, and similar junk. I dumped all the contents onto the made bed, rifled through the pile of papers, and finally fished out a piece of paper with a mobile phone number and the short name Gosha written diagonally upon it.
Gosha lived in a twelve-story building that was part of a posh gated community right across, but, more importantly, he was a fellow Waldyra player. And not just any player, either—his was an experienced gamer elite case. His extremely well-developed character with a bunch of expensive stuff was some three times stronger than mine. Apart from that, Gosha was a prominent figure in a fairly well-known clan—with a castle and lands, and even some villages of their own. This was someone who'd get me. We were the same age—24 each—and had even been to a few parties together. Not that we were close friends—our interests and our social circles were way too different.
I pulled the telephone toward me and dialed the number hastily, hoping for Gosha to be home. He should be, by any account—it was evening, him being a married man, and all.
Three beeps on, I heard a click, followed by Gosha's irritated voice.
Gotcha, Gosha!
"Hey, Gosha, how's things? It's me, Ros. Well, you know, Rostislav."
"Oh! Hi, Ros. Look, I'm a little busy now, could you call me later? I was just about to dive in."
"Won't take a minute, Gosha!" I blurted as fast as I could. "Uh . . . Look, the thing is . . . Could I borrow a few bucks off you? I only need twenty-eight. I mean, $27.99 would be fine, too."
"Come again? $27.99?" Gosha chuckled. "Dude, you're really something. Why that particular amount, if I may ask?"
"I won't be able to afford a two-week fee otherwise," I fessed up. "My company, well . . . it went belly-up. The boss disappeared without a trace, leaving nothing behind him but unpaid bills. So I'm temporarily unemployed."
"No probbo, amigo. Do you want cash or an e-transfer?"
"An e-transfer would be even better," I said, overjoyed. "Thanks, Gosha! I'll definitely pay you back in a month!"
"I'm in no hurry," Gosha said with a certain amount of gravitas. "Right on, I'll wire it to you in a sec. What's your e-wallet number? I'll just go get my laptop."
I told him the number, doing this the second time in the last 30 minutes, and then went silent, listening to the rustling in the receiver as well as the humming of the PC behind me. In a second I'd hear the clinking sound informing me of 28 dollars landing on my account. A few minutes later, they'd all be on my gaming account, and after that I'd be free to play my favorite game for as long as I can afford.
However, there was no clinking sound. Instead, I heard Gosha's voice in the receiver again. He sounded somewhat pensive this time.
"Hey, Ros . . . Have you got a minute or sixty?"
"What do you mean?"
"Have you got any free time at the moment? About an hour or so?"
"Sure," I answered in the affirmative, somewhat perplexed. "I told you I was unemployed, didn't I? It's just that I'd been intending to dive, too."
"You'll have all the time in the world for it," Gosha said reassuringly. "Come on over to my place in the meantime. Tell the security guards I invited you, and they'll show you the way to my apartment. Just make it quick, right? I need you here ASAP."
"Got it . . . Hey, Gosha, sorry, but what's up with the money? If you have none on your account, how about a tenner?"
"Ros, give over with the silliness already. Get over here. There's stuff to discuss. Are you coming?"
"I am! I'll be there in five minutes." There was nothing but beeping in the receiver.
I scratched my head in bewilderment and headed for the door, taking a light sports jacket from a built-in wardrobe. Just the piece I needed to complete the look and complement my wrinkly track suit pants and a formerly white t-shirt.
I was really curious about why Gosha would want to talk to me at such haste.
Damn . . . With the timer ticking, I really had to hurry.

Chapter Two
An Offer You Cannot Refuse
The security guards were obviously unimpressed by my appearance, but neither of the two tough guys keeping watch in the lobby said anything out loud. They had heard me out with absolute equanimity, and then escorted me to the door I'd needed ib the politest manner possible, handing me over to Gosha who had just emerged from his apartment.
He appeared to have become even more buffed-up since the last time I'd seen him. His forearms looked massive as they emerged from underneath the sleeves of an XL t-shirt, and his shoulders were just too wide for one to offer any commentary. How did he manage it all? There was his work, his wife, the gym, and a daily Waldyra routine to boot. I'd have given up on one of the items a long time ago, had I been in his shoes. Actually, that was exactly what I have done. I was unemployed and had no potential offers, and as for staying fit . . . I have to recollect what that phrase means at some point.
"Hi," Gosha said to the guard gruffly, grabbed me by the shoulder, and pulled me inside his apartment… although the term "luxury suite" would be more fitting. Having thrown a single glance over the lavish decor, I came to the conclusion that Gosha was doing rather well.
The door's latch clicked shut, and I was dragged further and further into the apartment, which never seemed to end. We only stopped when we reached a small corner room, which was obviously used as a study.
There was a computer that looked so powerful you didn't have to know its specifications, right next to a gaming cocoon for Waldyra, with a thick bunch of cables as thick as my wrist connecting it to the wall. All the players affectionately called it "the umbilical cord." That made sense—their purpose was roughly the same. The "umbilical cord" contained a mains cable and another one connected to a reserve battery in case there's a blackout, and, of course, the network cable that connected the player to the Waldyra game server directly, as well as a bunch of other things. An umbilical cord by any other name… The player is the child, or the embryo; the warm cocoon is the womb, and Waldyra is perfect for the role of the mother.  
I was pushed into a leather armchair and given a glass filled to the brim with neat whisky. Gosha managed to accomplish all that in just two measly minutes. I had a feeling I was beginning to understand how he managed to juggle and dovetail everything. If he was visiting me, we'd still be shuffling around in the lobby.
"Down the hatch." Our glasses clinked and he placed himself in the armchair opposite mine. "To us!"
"Sure," I nodded, bringing the glass to my lips. "To us."
"And now, let's get to business. So you're unemployed now."
"That's right. The company went bankrupt. Belly up."
"That's great news."
"Give me a reason to call it great news." I failed to understand Gosha's unfounded mirth. "What's so great about being unemployed?"
"The fact that you have a lot of spare time on your hands, which can be used for a good purpose and let you earn enough for your beer and so on. You'd be able to cover rent, too."
"Gosha, are you offering me a job?" I raised my eyebrows, surprised. "But I'm…"
"I don't care about your occupation!" my muscled friend interrupted me. "Sure, you could put it this way, I have a job for you. The kind of job you'd never even dreamed of. I want you to dive into Waldyra and spend as much time there as you can. What do you think?"
"I don't get it . . ."
"Don't get what?" Gosha was obviously beginning to lose patience and develop doubts about my ability to think clearly."
"I play as often as I can, at any rate. What would I be paid for?"
"You'll play by my rules now," Gosha grinned, looking satisfied, and took another swig of neat Scotch.
Could he be drunk? Even if he was, it didn't show.
"If you agree, of course," Gosha added. "So, have you made up your mind?"
"Gosha! Give me a second before prodding me about whether or not I'd made up my mind." I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and took a good swig from my own glass. There was a pleasant rush to my head. "Can you actually explain what you want? Think of how this all sounds to another person. It makes no sense whatsoever!"
"Well, yes . . ." my interlocutor said after reflecting for a moment. "OK, you're right. Let me give you a breakdown, item by item, while you sit here and listen. Is that OK with you?
I nodded without saying anything, and he continued.
"First, I pay for your two-month Waldyra account. You get the best kind—a Diamond account. The assignment is also for two months, give or take a week or two. Quiet, Ros! Just listen!
I barely managed to pick up my jaw from the floor and nodded affirmatively to show him I was listening. Gosha's words really sounded like some lunacy.
"Second, you get some personal spending money. Food, booze, rent, and other basic things. You'll be on a payroll. Let's say . . . $1,500 per month. If you accept my offer, you get some of the money right away.
Gosha made sure I turned into a mute mummy and continued.
"Those were the pleasant parts. And now for number three: as I have told you, you'll be playing by my rules. More specifically, you'll need to help a certain player achieve success in two specific missions.
 "Uh . . ."
"Is there anything else you don't get?"
"Gosha, do you realize how much a two-month Diamond subscription costs?"
"You want to teach me arithmetics?" the owner of the luxury suite quipped sarcastically. I shut up, feeling embarrassed.
That much was true . . . Compared to me, Gosha was an arch financier. Incidentally, he did work at a bank, didn't he? Something related to investments . . .
I decided not to press it and just asked,
"Is that all?"
"No, it isn't. There's just one more thing. You'll have to delete your active account and create a brand new character from scratch. And that's the long and the short of it."
"Delete my character?! Gosha, don't you know how much effort I'd put into my Khrushchot?" I jumped up, barely managing not to spill my whiskey. "You could simply upgrade my account from Wooden to Diamond."
"I couldn't," he said flatly, finishing off his whisky in a single swig. "Why aren't you drinking?"
I downed half the glass automatically, without even feeling the taste of fine Scotch. Kill Khrushchot? I've spent months developing him, and we've had so many adventures together . . . it was another me by any account.
Regardless of the subscription class, an account could only be linked to a single character. No doubles were allowed. If one wanted a different character, the previous one needed to be erased, and one started from scratch all over again. That was the company's policy. It wasn't so much about the rules of the game as the cocoon itself and one's personal settings. There was something involving step-by-step mental adaptation and getting used to a "new" body. That was the very reason why one couldn't run around as a mighty half-orc warrior for an hour, and then jump into a different body—an elegant, albeit somewhat languid, drow mage. One could easily go cuckoo that way. One couldn't choose a character of the opposite sex, either.
"Ros, believe me, I understand you perfectly well," Gosha said with unexpected sympathy in his voice. "But that's the only way. You'll have to delete Khrushchot."
"But why? I get it already, you want me to help a player complete a mission. However, my Khrushchot has decent stats and good gear—I'd be in a much better position to help  someone with a stronger character. What's the point of deleting him and starting all over?"
"Because the first objective of the player you'll be helping is located in the Crèche!" Gosha replied, and I shut up.
We were talking about a small quarter one could find on the outskirts of every starting city. The Crèche . . . a sandbox for greenhorn players. That's where everybody started their game, with no exceptions. It was relatively safe, there were many easy quests that helped you get some XP and earn a little money, and the NPCs were quite friendly. Finally, players couldn't attack other players there. An ideal place to learn the ropes and get started. A kindergarten, in other words. There was, however, a great big "but." Once you left the Crèche, you could never return.  Players who'd pass through the arch of the internal gateway could not get back, ever. The magical veil in the arch wouldn't let them through. This made sense—"grown-up" players had no business in a kindergarten. Only NPCs could come and go freely if they so wanted.
You'd have to become reborn to get back to the Crèche. This entailed deleting your old character, resetting cocoon settings, and taking your first steps in Waldyra yet again. Damn . . .
"Get it now?"
"I do, but, Gosha . . . There's nothing in the Crèche! Just a handful of quests, and that's that! What exactly would I need to do there?"
"Win a tournament," said Gosha calmly. I looked at him in bewilderment once again.
"But there are no tournaments there! You can't even define your character class! No spells, no combat skills, nothing! Everybody is identical like peas in a pod and wield sticks for weapons just like Neanderthals!"
"There is a tournament. Don't argue. If I said there was one, there is one. Anyway, Ros, either you're in, or you're out. If you're out, I'll lend you some money, you'll go home, pay your subscription fee, dive in, and ride your precious Khrushchot into glory and adventure. If you're in, we keep talking. Make up your mind. I'll have a swig of whisky in the meantime. Trust me, Ros, I understand what it means for a true gamer to delete their alter ego. The player who needs your help will do the same—and, trust me, they'll have to sacrifice a lot more than you."
"A higher-level character than mine?"
"Nailed it. But there's other stuff to consider, too. Levels and tchotchkes are just a matter of time and effort, and as for the rest . . . Think about it."
I surrendered. "There's not much to think about. I'm in. Given the conditions you offer . . ."
"It would be utterly silly to decline such an offer," Gosha finished my sentence. "That's right. OK then, now let's discuss the remaining details.
"Gosha . . . There's just one thing. Why on earth would you choose me? There are players with a lot more experience."
"Because I know you," my buffed-up companion said as he eased himself into the armchair again. "And I know you in real life, too—not just in the game. You know me enough to realize I don't intend to rip you off. And there were a few other important factors—you have a lot of gaming experience, you're no fool, and your unemployment resulted in you having a lot of spare time on your hands, which can be used to our mutual benefit.
"I'm happy to know you don't think I'm not a fool," I grinned lopsidedly. "That's a weight off my chest."
"Is there anything else you'd like to ask? I'm a bit short on time."
"Uh . . . Gosha, what's the point of the whole thing? Why would you want someone to win a kindergarten tournament in the Crèche? Why go through all this trouble and spend a crapload of money while you're at it?"
"Now, that is something you have absolutely no need to know about," Gosha said curtly. "Sorry, Ros, but that's clan business, and you want no part of it."
"I get it," I nodded. "Not a fool, as you said. My lips are sealed. I'm not discussing anything with anyone."
"I know you won't. And I'm glad you understand everything correctly. So . . . Now about finance."
Having emptied another glass, my former acquaintance, who'd been just someone I could count on if I needed a few bucks until payday, and who has miraculously transformed into my employer in a blink of an eye, plopped down in front of the monitor and entered a series of commands with machine gun speed. He'd studied the monitor for a few seconds, then made a satisfied grunt, opened a drawer and rummaged inside. There was a brief rustling sound, and then I saw a small wad of greenish-gray crispy bills right in front of me.
"Five hundred bucks," Gosha said casually. "Consider it an advance payment. Another two and a half K have already been transferred to your e-wallet account. All yours."
I took the money, feeling like the ultimate Judas for a brief moment. I have sold Khrushchot for thirty pieces of silver…
However, I didn't have much time to mope about it and cry bitter tears of remorse. I was lifted out of the chair just as quickly, got an encouraging pat on the shoulder and was pointed in the right direction. In a moment, I was out of Gosha's apartment, and he was offering me his final words of wisdom.
"Delete your account, reset the cocoon settings, register again, and then give me a ring. Just make sure you're quick—I'm already late, and there are clan treasury issues that I need to take care of in Waldyra. One more thing. Don't dally as you delete your Khrushchot. The more you procrastinate, the harder it will be."
"So you're a treasurer?" I looked at him, flabbergasted.
Clan treasurers were almost mythical figures. Imagine a person with direct access to all the wealth accumulated by the clan. Such a position couldn't be filled by just anyone. It's not just someone you trust—it's someone you trust completely and absolutely.
"Ros, get going! Clop those hooves and run like a racehorse!"
So off I went, forgetting all about the elevator and skipping three steps at once.
I just managed to reach the lobby, where I was warmly greeted by the guards I'd met earlier. A claw that felt like iron grabbed my right arm, and a deep voice boomed in my ear,
"Now, where would you be running to? Where did you get that money, eh? Well?"
I just realized that my crumpled and filthy track suit with a pair of beat-up slippers on my feet did not mesh well with the wad of US currency in my hand. Especially considering that the other one was clutching a near-empty glass with a little ember-colored whisky at the bottom. I must have been quite a sight.
While I was trying to think of a response, the second guard had already decided everything for me. He talked to someone on the phone briefly, winced, and grunted,
"Let him go, Nikolai. Everything's OK. Sorry to have kept you."
"Uh-huh," I shook my head and dashed off, feeling somewhat addled in my brain. The body moved automatically, and my head rang with silence. No thoughts, no emotions. That was the very state I'd needed to maintain, lest I start having second thoughts and chicken out at the very last moment.
The yard, usually nearly empty around this time, was but a brief blur before my eyes. The entry hall's dirty staircase became an iridescent veil. In a second, I stood in front of my door. A quick turn of the key, the creaking of an opening door, two steps across the short corridor leading to the room past the kitchen, and there I stood in my room. The cocoon was my first priority. I needed to flip open the plastic lid covering the cocoon's control panel. Then I lifted another little square transparent lid covering a red button. Its very design reflected its purpose. I pushed the button hard enough to hear a barely audible click. A warning message popped up on the screen of the computer hooked up to the cocoon.
Are you certain that you want to completely reset all personal settings?
Attention! This operation is irreversible!
"Of course I'm not," I said, confirming character deletion. To hell with everything!
Evenly-glowing green lights on the cocoon's panel instantly changed their color to a warning yellow and started to blink. The cocoon started to grind its contents into a pulp methodically.
And now for the final step.
I had to activate the account page. Personal Settings, Personal Account Operations, Delete.
A flurry of warning messages in red, once again. Those endless reminders of the operation's irreversible nature. Warnings that I was about to do something incredibly stupid.
Yet I click my mouse furiously, and finally achieve my goal—a pristine screen empty of everything. My account has been deleted.
Only then did I allow myself to exhale. The deed was done, and there was no turning back.
I noticed the glass with the last of the whiskey at the bottom, got up, rose my glass to an empty wall and finished it in a single gulp. 
Farewell, Khrushchot. Rest in peace, brother.
I remembered the last time I saw my character, sitting on a bench warmed by the sun and looking at the fountain, watching jets of water as they reached for the sky. A good place to die. So quiet . . .

It took over an hour for the cocoon to reset completely. Then I had to wait for another half hour while default settings were being loaded.
I didn't waste that time—I clicked away with the mouse as I registered my new Waldyra account. An elite Diamond class account, no less. The registration procedure was standard, and Waldyra's server swallowed $2,400 in a split second. The only surprises were at the end when I started on the creation of the character itself and was about to choose its appearance.
Previously, I would just enter a nickname I'd fancied time after time, only to be greeted by the mocking message telling me the nickname had already been taken. Now, however, something clicked as soon as my cursor started to hover over the necessary box, and I got a message:
Would you like to familiarize yourself with names reserved for elite users?
Wow! An elite user! So, what was I before? I sure wanted to take a look at the list.
An incredibly long list popped up on the screen—it would take a while to scroll through it all. There were more than a thousand names, and I'd only taken one look at it so far. The incredible number of available nicknames made my head swim.
I was somewhat taken aback by such unexpected abundance of options, so I decided to use the search box and entered the letter R. The list may have become somewhat shorter, but I didn't notice that. I pondered this for a while, and added O and S after R. Now the list looked manageable with just over twenty nicknames beginning with "Ros." I have eyed the list sceptically, and as I saw the nickname Rosgard, I had a hunch that might be it.
Rosgard . . . Well, why not? It might not make a lot of sense, but it would still sound nice. And, at any rate, it was quite unlike the nickname of the deceased Khrushchot.
I chose the nickname and proceeded to the next page. My jaw was beginning to travel floorwards once again. Instead of the usual two dozen appearance options, I was looking at hundreds of settings that could be used to make one's avatar in the game look unique. However, I had absolutely no desire to sort through it all. I'd breezed through the settings, and settled on a near-default look for my character—the only changes I made concerned hair color (black instead of light brown), and eye color—dark brown instead of blue. The race was human. That much was a given.
There were more auxiliary options, a suggestion for a beginner's reading list, an offer to complete a basic training course, an invitation to a short tour of Waldyra where you could get a bird's eye view of the most famous local sights . . . All canceled.
Finally, I heard a bugle call and saw the long-awaited message on the screen.
Congratulations! Your character Rosgard has been created!
This was followed by another standard greeting phrase against the background of the company's golden logo.
The World of Waldyra is waiting for you!
I exhaled with relief, got away from the computer and into the cocoon that stood nearby.
It was rather uncomfortable—with all settings reset to defauts, the cocoon had no data on my body parameters. Anyway, the surface was elastic, and would adapt to the shape of the body. In the meantime, I'd just have to tolerate this minor inconvenience.
So . . . Hey ho, let's go!

Chapter Three
Back to the Crèche. Day One.
The iridescent vortex took about twice as long as usual to go away—the birth of a character was no routine login procedure. Yet all things came to an end, and there I was standing in the middle of a narrow street, feeling the dry road dust with my bare feet.
 I was in the Crèche.
Behind me was a portal covered by a silvery veil—according to the official mythology, that was where people from another world, one that had been slowly collapsing, arrived from. Us, in other words. We were technically refugees. We'd made an uninhabitable mess of one world and were now looking for a sunnier place . . . Not much of a back story, really.
In front of me was a row of houses, most of them just simple single-story buildings of the rustic type. Well, that's what one would expect to find at the outskirts of town, anyway. The Crèche occupied a fairly large plot of land with some 30 houses, a shop, a tavern, a few warehouses, some sheds, and vegetable gardens.  That was all I could recall from memory. It's been almost two years since I'd last visited, and I didn't stay long the first time. As far as I remember, I took a few easy quests from the local NPCs, completed them, and made haste to the main city.
"Wow! So cool!" a squeaky girlish voice came from behind my back.
I turned around to see a girl who'd plopped down onto the ground, a pile of road dust in her hands, watching it trickle through her fingers in a state of near-trance.
"Just like the real thing! Far out!"
"Her first immersion," I thought to myself, stating the blatantly obvious. Then I studied my own character. Jeepers . . .
A shirt of coarsely-woven fabric with many tears in it and a pair of trousers to match. No shoes. Barefoot, my heels blackened with dirt. A thin bag was hanging over my shoulder. I didn't look inside—I knew there'd only be two items in the bag: a small loaf of stale bread and a chipped ceramic bowl. The latter was needed to get some water from a well or an irrigation canal, if need be. You could quench your thirst without one, too, but the game developers thought it would be unethical and an off-putting sight to boot if human beings stood on their hands and knees, drinking from rivers and canals like animals. Ethical and aesthetic considerations, in other words.
I had nothing remotely resembling a weapon save for my own fists and legs. All my basic stats were at minimum values — easy enough to check, all it took was to call up the stats menu.
Character's Basic Stats:
Strength: 1
Intellect: 1
Agility: 1
Stamina: 1
Wisdom: 1
Now, wasn't that just peachy?
I drew another frustrated sigh, stepped aside and squatted with my back against the brick wall. Then I resolutely pressed the Logout button and returned into the real world.
It was high time to notify my new employer that all the tasks he'd given me have been completed successfully, and find out what to do next.
I barely managed to dial the number — the telephone rang before I could touch the receiver.
"Hi Ros. Gosha here."
"Hey! I was just about to call . . ."
"Hey, have you reset your account already? Deleted your character, and so on?"
"Yeah, just as we had agreed."
"Damn! You could have used it for another few days . . ."
"So I didn't have to, after all?! Gosha!"
"Nope, everything's proceeding according to the plan. There's just one complication—she cannot come to the Crèche right now."
"Say what? She?"
"Yeah, the player is a girl. Anyway, it will take her around two days to get there. Possibly, a while longer. That's how the cookie crumbles."
"Three or four days?! Gosha, really! I've already deleted Khrushchot and registered a new character! What am I supposed to do now?"
"What do you mean? I don't see what your problem is," Gosha said, sounding surprised. "You can easily find something to do for a while. You've got money. Visit some friends, throw a two-day party, pick up a girl. You can handle two days without playing, can't you?"
"Nah, I get it, of course," I drawled disappointedly. But, damn it . . . I'd been planing to dive in. All right . . . I'll be expecting to hear from you. My new Waldyra nickname is Rosgard. He's at the Crèche, near the entrance.
"Account subscription class?"
"Diamond, just as we'd agreed. Also, Gosha, look . . . I'll be in the game. I could at least run around the Crèche and see what I can do. Should you need me, send me a DM."
"Two days?" Gosha chuckled. "You'll go crazy there. I'm telling you—pick up a girl and have some fun. If you don't know anyone, I can make some introductions. So, how about that?"
"No, thanks," I declined. "I'd much rather just hang out in Waldyra. Anyway, I'll be expecting a call from you."
"You're . . . You're really something, Ros," Gosha muttered vaguely. "OK. Most importantly, do not join any players' groups, stay on good terms with the tavern-keeper, and, obviously, don't leave the Crèche.  It's really important. Got it?"
Not leaving the Crèche was perfectly reasonable and understandable. But I did not get the conditions about avoiding joining a group with other players or why it was so important to stay on good terms with the tavern-keeper. Still, I decided against asking anything about it.
"I got it. No groups, good terms, and I stay put," I replied after a short pause. "Look, this tournament thing . . . What will I have to do? How do I develop my character? You can't learn or buy any spells in the Crèche, and the same is true about classes and battle skills.
"That's really simple. You said it yourself — Neanderthals with sticks. Go for an evenly-balanced all-around character with an emphasis on physical damage. This tournament isn't particularly hard, it's just . . . special. You can handle it without battle skills. Most importantly, don't make any blunders before the tournament—too many things depend on special conditions that have to be met. Some of them need to be fulfilled in a specific sequence. So, you really mean to hang out at the Crèche for two days? Hm . . . Well, in that case . . . good luck, Ros . . . gard."
Our bizarre conversation ended there, with me sitting on the bed and staring at the opposite wall, the receiver, now silent, clenched in a sweaty palm. Two whole days! At the Crèche, of all the places! What would I be supposed to do there?
Anyway, I thought I'd sort it out. I might try to find out why I should remain in the tavern-keeper's good graces. Curiosity was incurable, after all.

Logging in.
The World of WALDYRA is happy to have you with us!
My new character had been waiting for me right where I'd left him—sitting two paces away from the Source (the exit) and staring into space morosely. The surroundings haven't changed. The girl I saw the previous time—the one so keen on the realism offered by the virtual world—had long departed, but there were three males looking around them in a businesslike manner. Too businesslike. Those were no newbies—these guys were clearly experienced and knew the ropes.
"Hey! What's up, dude?" One of the newcomers greeted me. "Come on, join us! I know this game like the back of my hand! Join forces with us, and Bob's your uncle! Maximum overdrive with a minimum of stops.
I barely managed to open my mouth to tell the "wellwisher" off when he started talking again, drawing a picture of a glorious future with the brightest crayons in his box.
"First you swing your stick at whatever comes our way. Once we scrape up some money, you'll become a healer and a buffer! A doctor! Got it? Join us and let's go! We're leaving the Creche at once—there's nothing to do here!"
"Well, why don't you leave, then?" I said gruffly, rising to my feet and shaking road dust out of my ripped pants."
"Come again?"
"Get on your bikes!" I roared. "I'm not planning on joining any groups or becoming a healer. Do you read me?"
"Hey, come on! Let's go together, Rosgard!" The guy had already read my nickname, and kept on pestering me, but I turned away and started walking, making a dismissive gesture with my hand.
Let him find other marks. I could never stand those assholes that keep their vulture watch at gates and confuse newbies. They'd make you join their group, do a blitz of several quests, and saddle them with a useless class or skill, using the poor newbie to level up quickly. Then comes a point when the addled player realizes they had never planned on becoming a healer or a buffer, and always wanted to become a warrior, or, perhaps, a shaman . . .
"Oh dear, this is horrible!" My train of thought was interrupted. I raised my head and saw a chubby rosy-cheeked housewife-like figure looking at me from behind a wooden fence. "Young man, what's the matter with your clothes?"
"Greetings, ma'am," I smiled automatically, keeping in mind Gosha's cryptic phrase about not getting on the tavern-owner's bad side. She wasn't the tavern-owner, but, nevertheless, an NPC. What if she's his wife or special lady friend . . .
I knew the routine already, and the woman from the outskirts of town didn't disappoint.
"Oh my goodness, will you look at those trousers! More rips than fabric! Your shirt is all torn, too. Where did you wander, poor thing? Wait a moment, are you going to the city square? Dressed like that? Our Watch is not too keen on hobos! They'll have you behind bars in no time at all to discourage others!"
"What's a poor lad supposed to do, my good woman?" My face melted into a wide grin, sweeter than any saccharine. "These are my only possessions! I haven't got a spare shirt or a spare pair of pants. That's how it goes."
The woman flung up her hands. "Why, it's not that bothersome a thing. Nothing like a good darning, and your clothes will be good as new! Well, almost. I don't think it's that hard to borrow a needle and some thread!"
"Thank you, kind lady! But I wouldn't know what to do with a needle for the life of me. Would you help a poor traveler? I'll be delighted to do some chores around your house to repay your kindness."
"Oh, of course I'll help you! It doesn't take long," the woman reacted instantly, opening the gate for me. "Take your shirt off. I'll darn this in a second. Get inside already, you're not planning to expose yourself in the street, are you?"
The first optional quest had started and was progressing successfully. I got a congratulatory system message in an azure frame that popped up before my eyes.
The character's appearance plays an important role in the world of Waldyra!
"As if I didn't know," I chuckled mentally, stepping into the yard. None of the important NPCs would give you any quests if you looked like a hobo. They won't even give you the time of day. The Crèche was the only place with a lax policy on such matters. All the "locals" here are invariably kind-hearted and generous.  
The square yard looked very cozy indeed—swept clean, with a few flower beds framed with rocks, and a few vegetable patches a little to the side. In the middle of the yard stood a wooden table, with the tabletop scraped so clean it was almost white, and two low benches.. A wooden well parapet could be seen in one of the corners; near it stood a bucket with a piece of rope tied to the handle.
The general idyll was only spoiled by the sight of six dry trees forming a row by the fence from the inside. The trunks were as thick as a grown man's thigh, dry twigs and branches extending in every direction and "decorated" by abandoned birds' nests. The bark was black; pieces of it had peeled off and were now adding to the general messy impression.
Here comes the quest . . .
I didn't wait for a reminder—just dropped my bag onto a bench, took off my shirt, whose seams sounded like they would start coming apart every moment, and then my trousers, which left me almost naked. Only the loins were covered by a white piece of fabric, so clean it almost shone. It resembled a diaper most of all. Another case of sacrificing realism for the sake of aesthetics—your underwear never got dirty. Even if I rolled around in a muddy puddle like a pig, these glorified diapers would stay shiny white, in stark contrast to the rest of my mud-covered body. I had firsthand experience of this scenario once when I had to cross a small swamp to complete a quest that had involved hunting for specific herbs. Once I got back, all my equipment was covered completely in mud, stinky swamp water running down my body, and the diaper mocked me by its dazzling whiteness of fresh snow.
The diaper also had a few special abilities—it could not be destroyed, and I was the only person who could remove this piece of cloth covering my nether regions.
The last rule was introduced after a couple of incidents when stronger players stripped the weaker ones naked and forced them to walk around the city like that. The pranksters were heavily sanctioned, the victims received consolation bonuses, and the underwear bottoms (and tops, in case of women) could only be removed by their owners. There were never any rapists in the game—should a cocoon register an attempted rape of another player or an NPC, it would instantly terminate your session. For good. Deleting your player, too. There were never any problems with consensual sex. Players were free to have as much fun in bed and as many orgasms as they liked.
Oh, by the way—I nearly forgot! Losing a diaper was also impossible—a mental command would make the pristine white piece of cloth materialize on your loins automatically. It was a truly amazing artifact, and every player had one.
By the way, where was the kind and hospitable lady of the house? Standing in the middle of the yard almost naked was hardly my idea of a good time.
"Well done, dear! I'll darn your clothes and make them look respectable," the woman started chattering as soon as left the house, holding an already threaded needle. "Didn't you volunteer to help me with some of my chores? I'd really appreciate that. There's no man in the house; I just cannot do it on my own.
"I'll be glad to help, good woman," I made a semi-bow, resisting the urge to cover the silly diaper with my hands. "But how?"
"See those trees?" the woman reacted instantly, pointing at the ugly dry trunks with her needle. "What a disaster that was! Some fifteen years ago I planted little oaks, and they started growing at once. They gave shade as well as acorns for my lovely piggies, but then someone must have cast an evil eye on them—they all dried up at once. How horrible… Well, I'm a weak woman, after all. Imagine me swinging an ax around. And you're a strapping young lad with some broad shoulders on you. Fell one of the trees if you can, and I'll take care of the twigs and branches myself. I'll remember your kindness forever if you help me."
"Why not help a kind person?" I decided to stay in my role. "Can I trouble you for an ax, good woman?"
The woman smiled broadly, looking immensely pleased, went into the house, and soon returned carrying an ax. A regular ax with a long enough wooden handle. The iron was coarsely forged and spotted with rust in certain places, but the edge of the blade gleamed the way well-polished metal should. I reached for the ax, took it, and instantly felt its heaviness. This was a tool with some gravitas. Given the fact that I only had one point of Strength, that was perfectly normal.
I barely managed to hold the ax in my hands and headed toward the first tree on the left. I had chopped it down once, only for it to grow and become dry once again. While I was at it, I dismissed the iridescent message that had appeared before my eyes.
Congratulations! You have received your first quest.
Achievement unlocked!
You have received an achievement: Helping Hand, Tier 1.
You can see the table of achievements in your character's menu.
Your reward: +0.1% to the chance of identifying an object.
Current chance of successful identification: 0.3%
I instantly had to close another message:
You have received a quest: Help around the Yard.
Help a woman living on her own chop down the dry trees in her yard to the best of your strength and ability.
Minimum quest completion requirements: make a notch at the base of at least one tree and fell it.
Your reward: Your clothes will be darned (repaired), which will make you look more respectable.
I swung the ax clumsily, and froze in this awkward pose like the Tin Woodman.
Hold on a second . . .
I lowered the ax, quickly accessed the character skill table and stared at one of the entries for a while.
Item Identification: 0.3%
I receive two tenths of one percent for my Wisdom and Intellect, both at 1, and another tenth came from the achievement. Nothing of this sort happened the previous time. I did receive achievements in the very same manner, but they never gave any bonuses. The conclusion was obvious—the account's Diamond class gave me a bonus, even if only a very tiny one. That was some food for thought.
I whistled in surprise, closed the information panel, swung the ax widely again, and chopped at the oak's trunk, hard as any steel. The ax made a barely noticeable notch on the blackened and gnarled bark, bouncing back enthusiastically and nearly hitting my leg. I barely managed to avoid having the ax tor out of my hands altogether. Party time . . .
The fence was low, and it did not conceal much of what was happening in the yard. Given that the arch of the gate was nearby, and new players kept emerging, I didn't lack for company. Gamers passing by looked at a wimp in a white diaper with some surprise as he kept chopping at the tree that was only shaking very, very slightly. Most just passed by, reluctant to waste their precious gaming time on conversing with the likes of yours truly. However, some would stop by, observe me for a minute or so, and then start giving unsolicited advice.
"Swing higher!"
"Your angle is wrong."
"Look, you'll never manage to chop down the tree like that. You just won't budge it."
"Why don't you find a saw? Who uses axes, anyway?"
Once they became convinced I would not take any unwanted advice, they'd walk off, and I kept chopping at the damn tree, which refused to fall in the most irritating way. Not that I was getting anywhere with the chopping—I had barely managed to hack through a quarter of the trunk, and I already felt exhausted. I put the ax down, breathing heavily, and shut my eyes waiting for my virtual body to restore itself—with a Stamina of 1, you get fatigued very quickly, and the stat bar kept dropping into the critical red zone.
Another player who'd been running by with a look of determination on his face, couldn't help stopping and coming over. He leaned against the fence and said in a lowered voice,
"Hey, brother! Don't waste your time on trifles like that! I know this quest—the only reward you'll get will be getting your clothes darned shoddily. I have studied the forums, and it appears there's a yummy quest available—you get 30 coppers as a reward. Enough to buy clothes in a nearby store. Come along!"
"Thanks for the advice, my friend," I nodded. "But I need to finish what I'd started."
"Suit yourself," the stranger shrugged and hurried off, paying no more attention to me. He must have thought me a fanatic obsessed with completing every available quest, even if it gave no ostensible reward. And I wasn't about to explain to this well-wisher that I'd be stuck in the Crèche for two more days. Damn that Gosha!
"Are you tired, my good lad?" the lady of the house asked me. "Out of breath? How about a glass of cold water from the well?"
"I'd love one, my good woman," I said hoarsely, feeling genuinely grateful to her as I pulled myself away from the tree trunk.
I really wanted a drink — pure water accelerated Strength restoration and mitigated the feeling of hunger. I wasn't hungry yet, but restoring my strength would be just what the doctor ordered. How I wished for my favorite Khrushchot flask filled with a special potion that restored Strength . . . Ah, well, a man can dream.
Having downed half a jug of water so cold it had given me a brain freeze, I was restored enough to grab the ax and keep going, one fraction of an inch at a time. The wood was so hard it felt more like rock. I wondered how strong you'd have to be to chisel away at solid rock. I started to feel real sympathy for poor miners.
Chop, chop, chop . . . The abrupt sounds of the axe chopping into the tree became an endless and monotonous sequence.
Another chop produced a long splinter that broke off and buried its sharp end right in my cheek. I cursed, checked my status, and was completely unsurprised to see HP loss. A very minor injury, to be sure, but an injury nonetheless.
HP: 67/70  Mana: 15/15
Now, wasn't that just great? Two more hours, and I would effectively kill myself. Basically, I had expected that—the previous time I felled a tree, I ended up with a mere 40 HP.
The first event that pleased me took place when I chopped through about one half of the trunk. After a particularly hard blow that took the rest of my strength, the tree shook visibly and started to creak loudly. I got a short message:
Your Strength is up by 1!
Your Stamina is up by 1!
Finally. The previous time it took me longer for my stats to start increasing. Or was it just an illusion brought on by weariness?
I finished off the water from the jug to celebrate, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and got back to work with twice the strength—literally so. My Strength was a 1 previously. Now it was up to 2. My attacks became more powerful, dealing more damage, and an increase in Stamina meant I wouldn't get tired as quickly. I also got a slight overall HP increase. I opened the menu and called up the base stats window.
Character's Basic Stats:
Strength: 2
Intellect: 1
Agility: 1
Stamina: 2
Wisdom: 1
This was already a less sorry sight—unless you compared those measly values to those of the late great Khrushchot.
In another hour the tree creaked loudly, then came the crackle of breaking wood. It shook heavily, and, finally, fell to the popping sound of breaking branches. One oak down. I have just defeated my first opponent in the game, and the battle was long and grueling, even though the oak did not fight back. On the other hand . . . Having checked my HP, I realized that this dry piece of firewood did fight back, after all, and it gave as hard as it got—I was down to 30 HP, my maximum value being 80 at the moment.
The deed was accomplished. I lowered my weapon wearily and started to assess the information I saw.
You learn a new professional skill: Lumberjack.
Your Lumberjack skill is up by 1. Total: 1.
Your Stamina is up by 1!
"How can I ever thank you? You've done me such a good turn!" The lady of the house reacted at once, having observed the process of me mutilating the tree very attentively. I've already fixed your clothes. Every tear has been darned, and every hole has been patched! Here you go!
Two years ago I did exactly that—took my clothes, which had been repaired perfectly, returned the ax and said my casual goodbyes to the owner of the house. That had been enough to complete the quest.
This time, however, I was in no hurry to get my clothes. I had absolutely nowhere to hurry, after all.
"Hold on, my good woman," I smiled wanly, taking a step to the felled tree and picking up the ax, which started to feel less heavy just recently. "There's a lot of work to do here still."
"It must have been the Gods of Light themselves that had sent you to me!" The woman instantly got her bearings. "Well, then! I'll give you a nice feeling meal as a gesture of my gratitude. So, what do you say?"
"My thanks to you, good woman. That would be splendid."
"It's agreed, then!" The woman nodded, placing my carefully folded clothes on the bench and walked unhurriedly towards the house. "Just let me fire up my stove. I'll cook a real festive dinner!"
The quest continued.
I looked at the bright blue sky, wiped the sweat off my face, and continued fighting my foe—downed, but not surrendering yet. I had to hack off all the branches and twigs, and then chop them up into smaller pieces. I also needed to stack up the firewood somewhere in the corner.
Some 90 minutes later I was done—and barely able to stand. It wasn't so much fatigue as the meager eight HP that I had left. A few sharp splinters flew off a couple of times, and there was another occasion where I made a misstep and hit my leg instead of a thick branch I was aiming at with an axe, losing 10 HP in one go. The reward for all this suffering was getting my Lumberjack professional skill up by one again. Now the value was at 2.
Your Lumberjack skill is up by 1. Total: 2.
"This is odd. I don't think I ever got my Lumberjack to any value higher than one," I chuckled as the ax bit into the tree trunk.
Having reached the well, I very barely managed to pull up a bucket of water and drank deeply, lowering my fatigue and restoring 3 HP as a result. I felt a little steadier on my feat. I could have drunk more, but I couldn't due to game limitation. I would be able to have another drink in some 20 minutes. However, I was counting on the woman's home-cooked meal. Food would restore my HP much faster.
Having realized that another stray splinter might result in my untimely demise, I decided to fill the time left until dinner by trying to forge a primitive weapon. The woman wouldn't part with the ax, and it would be too short for me, anyway—I was never much for melee combat. A powerful bow with a long range was a lot more up my street—a single well-aimed arrow could take an opponent out completely.
I chose a relatively thick and straight branch, took the axe again, and chopped a piece off either end with a few careful blows. I ended up with a gnarled staff reaching up to my shoulder. I could have called it a battle staff, but this unassuming stick did not deserve so proud a name. There was a simple quest that I had planned on completing later, and a staff would really come in handy there. I got a better grip on the ax, carefully hacked off all the twigs, peeled off the rough bark, and exposed the yellowish sapwood underneath. That seemed to be it. I was unlikely to get any better result. Unless I ask the kind lady for a kitchen knife and use it to peel off the remaining pieces of bark and other rough parts.
Achievement unlocked!
You have received an achievement: Weapon-Smith, Tier 1.
You can see the table of achievements in your character's menu.
Your reward:
+0.5% to the quality of forged weapons.
+1% to the chance of forging a weapon successfully. 
Another dubious achievement. I had never planned on making my own weapons. It was much easier to buy them or get them from monsters.
I grabbed the staff with both hands, examined it, and instantly received comprehensive information:
Oakwood Stick. Two-handed weapon. Damage: 4-8. Damage type: bludgeoning. Durability: 29/30
This didn't even qualify as a low-quality staff. No attack bonus or stats bonuses, either. It was just a massive and unbalanced stick that can be applied with sufficient strength to the opponent's impertinent head—or another part of its anatomy. That, in itself, already counted for something. The very weapon for my level. Fair's fair.
I placed my new weapon next to my meager possessions on the bench and then plopped down myself, looking around me lazily and anticipating a hearty meal—the smells coming from the kitchen were nothing short of heavenly.
The procession of "newborn" players outside the fence seemed endless. They looked about them curiously, loudly expressing their amazement at how realistic the virtual world was, and kept on going without looking back. The woman who had invited me to dinner would usually stand at the gate and offer to mend their clothes in exchange for doing a small chore for her, but the women was currently busy in the kitchen, and the players were in for a bit of a disappointment. Not that I minded any of them impassioned by the prospect of chopping down a dry oak—they would have to wait for their turn. It wouldn't be long. Two days tops . . . Ahem.
The lady of the house was in no particular hurry. I managed to take another trip to the well, finishing off the water remaining in the bucket, restoring a few HP and finally getting rid of my fatigue.
A few chickens came out of the chicken coop that I hadn't noticed earlier. They roamed the yard now, clucking loudly. I was already beginning to assess them as potential sources of protein when the woman came out of her house in a cloud of mouthwatering steam, placing two full bowls in front of me.
One contained a thick and filling stew, and the other, some sort of porridge made of white grain cooked until absolutely soft. The smell was incredible. I'd been given a massive spoon, and I dug in ravenously, feeling my HP count go up with every bite I swallowed.
I swept through the table like a tornado, leaving nothing behind but my bowls, licked clean—it's a wonder I hadn't eaten those as well. On the other hand, my health was almost at 80%. I felt like a powerhouse.
"Well done! You've really pleased the cook—look at those bowls, not a bite left anywhere." The hospitable woman radiated delight as she collected the dishes. "Now your road will be much easier! You'll weather them all!"
"My heartfelt thanks for the dinner, ma'am," I responded in the same key. "But I'm not ready to travel yet! There's a lot to be done here still.
You had to see the woman's face at that moment. Surprise doesn't even come close.
"A lot to be done, you say?"
"Of course! Those five trees won't cut themselves," I nodded toward the row of dry trees. "Unless you mind, good woman."
"Mind? Me?" the baffled woman started babbling, placing my clothes on the bench for the umpteenth time. "I'll only be delighted! It's just that I have no other means of showing you my gratitude."
Was that a test? Players hardly ever help NPCs free of charge. This specifically concerns boring routine tasks that won't give you an opportunity to level up quickly or any tangible bonuses. There may be a reason for that. However, I did not receive any information about completion, and the woman did not chase me away . . . I might as well go all in. The only thing I'd need would be some food lest I expire of hunger and hypothermia.
"I expect no reward," I said dismissively in the voice of a man who owns half the world. "But if I manage to get some supper tonight, I'll be extremely grateful to you!"
"But naturally! You've saved me!" the woman started blabbering again. "I'll get you supper and a bed in the shed to protect you from the cold.
"It's agreed, then," I smiled as I rose from the table. "I couldn't possibly wish for more, ma'am."
The woman nodded silently and watched me attentively, with a slight look of disbelief in her eyes, as I grabbed the ax and started on the next tree without saying a word. My glance fell on the trunk, felled and stripped of branches. I turned to the woman, clearly in a state of stupor by now, and inquired in my best happy idiot voice,
"Wouldn't you happen to have a saw, good woman?"
"But of course . . . Certainly . . ."
"In that case, I can chop and saw you some firewood!" I blurted, nearly killing the poor woman by such an ostentatious display of willingness to help. "Just find it and bring it to me, please. I'll do the rest myself."
The silence in the yard was almost deafening.
I shrugged, grinned a half-crazed sadomasochistic psychopath grin, and swung the axe.
This time the result of my minuscule leveling-up was visible at once—the blade didn't bounce back, and made a two-inch notch in the wood. The ax that had once seemed so heavy was also much easier to wield now. An extra point of Strength as well as two points of the Lumberjack skill were beginning to pay off. Things were moving at last!
I managed to fell three more trees before sundown. It took a lot less time now. There were just two puny oaks instead of six, and the yard became covered in a near-impenetrable layer of felled trunks, dry leaves, and abandoned bird nests. I rummaged through the nests on a lark, but there was nothing but rubbish there. Oddly enough—and pleasantly enough—it took me less and less time to fell each oak. The second tree surrendered in three hours; the third and the fourth needed two hours each. I didn't touch the felled trees yet, proceeding from one oak to another. There'd be time to take care of the branches later.
The only breaks I took involved drinking from the well. I would constantly take trips to the bucket and try to pour as much life-giving liquid as I could.  I could also catch my breath during these moments. Water only restored a few HP, but that was enough—there were a lot fewer loose splinters flying in my direction. The Lumberjack skill paid off! After the third tree—the last one I felled today—I received a few useful bonuses.
Your Strength is up by 1!
Your Stamina is up by 1!
Your Lumberjack skill is up by 1. Total: 3.
You learn a new skill:
Axe Wielder (non-projectile). Its level goes up by 1. Total: 1
Excellent! My HP were up to 90, and my Strength and Agility were three each. If I reach Level 5 in my Lumberjack skill, I can visit their guild in town and get the rank of an Apprentice. Slashing weapons, on the other hand, were a lot more interesting . . .
I got curious, so I opened the information menu and attentively studied the message I had received.
Axe Wielder 1.
The Wear and Tear factor is down by 1% during usage either as a weapon or a tool.
Damage dealt by axes is up by 1%.
The chance of successfully repairing an ax is up by 0.5%.
"Not that big a bonus, but a bonus nevertheless," I concluded as I dismissed the message.
The reminder about Wear and Tear got me worried a little, so I quickly opened the tab with the ax's properties.
Cheap Lumberjack's Ax. Two-handed weapon. Damage: 8-12. Damage type: slashing. Durability: 102/120
I could relax. There was no point worrying. The ax was designed for use in quests, which gave it extra durability and hardiness. I wouldn't be surprised if Durability eventually got restored on its own; some items had the self-repair function. This modestly-looking ax was wielded by a multitude of players hacking away at rock hard trees frenziedly, doing the same quest I was doing now. If this was not the case, the owner must have a whole storage room full of axes, but that version didn't seem to hold water. Thief roles were legit, and players who would break into a small and cozy house and discover a few hundred axes in the kitchen, stacked meticulously. A very low-key house of horrors, that's what it would be . . .
Another cloud of heady smells and steam floated out of the open door—the second time today. Then the woman called me in a very gentle voice.
"The meal is served, my dear lad! Enough for today. You must be exhausted.
"Fancy moving closer without expecting anything only to see her produce an ax from some hidden place, split my head open, and stuff me into the oven." I nearly laughed out loud. My imagination tends to run wild. Actually, Waldyra had human NPCs aiming to kill players such as forest gang members, but this wasn't the case here.
Incidentally . . . The ax's Attack was also a few points higher—both the maximal and the minimal value. The purpose must be to let a fresh player fell a hard tree without cursing their very existence.
"I am coming, good woman, I am coming," I answered, trying to suppress my giggles and stepping over the felled trunks.
I couldn't help it, and so I hacked off some of the branches from one of the trunks so as to have less work to do tomorrow.
This time there were three dishes—the same stew and porridge and a bowl of roughly-sliced vegetables. I barely managed to say my thanks when a board with sliced bread and a formidably-sized mug of homemade kvass[1]. I stuffed my mouth full of scalding hot food, rolled my eyes, and nearly moaned with delight, making the lady of the house very happy by my appreciation of her cuisine.
"I'm Vlasilena, by the way," the woman said all of a sudden, and I nearly choked.
When NPCs tell you their name, it means their attitude towards you has moved from neutral to friendly at the very least. My willingness to help Vlasilena with her problems must have impressed her.
"Ros . . . Rosgard," I answered as soon as I managed to swallow the bite I had in my mouth. "A pleasure to meet you, Vlasilena!"
"So, we know each other's names now," the woman nodded, rising. "I'll go make your bed. It's getting late."
"Thank you!" I shouted as she was leaving, and then hastily stuffed the bread from the table into my bag, which, fortunately, was right next to me, so I didn't have to rise from the table. A three-course supper was perfect, but I might want to have a bite later. Bread is the quintessential staple food, after all.
I barely managed to reach the shed, where a mattress and a blanket were waiting for me on top of a pile of straw, holding my suddenly enlarged stomach—I have polished off all the food I'd been offered, washing it down with delicious kvass (which, incidentally, also gave you an extra Strength point temporarily). Oh, Vlasilena. Why hadn't you offered me some kvass from the very start? I would have spent less effort. On the other hand, why would she share it with a stranger? My reputation with her must have grown a lot by now, but when I first met her, I was just another stranger in rags. There are lots of us roaming all across Waldyra, and Vlasilena's kvass resources must be limited.
I slumped onto the mattress, stretched, covered myself with a blanket up to my chin, and shut my eyes wearily. The first day was over. Time to return to the real world and feed my actual body.
A flash.
Well, hello there, rainbow. 

[1] Traditional fermented soft drink popular in Russia.

Release - March 5, 2020

1 comment :

  1. No comparison between this professionally done translation and the original version. It was pretty horrific, but good enough to pull you into the story.