Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dark Herbalist 4: Finding a Body

The Dark Herbalist IV
Finding a Body
by Michael Atamanov

Release - December 27, 2018

Second Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Foreman Skill increased to level sixty-seven!

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

Successful check for Poison Resistance!

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


Release - December 27, 2018

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