Sunday, February 16, 2020

Rogue Merchant by Roman Prokofiev

Rogue Merchant by Roman Prokofiev
book 1: The Starlight Sword

Release - March 23, 2020

Dear Readers,

We’re relaunching this LitRPG series by Roman Prokofiev - or rather, we’re relaunching Book One. Some of you might have already read its previous version released a while ago by another publisher under the title Cat’s Game. The author has completely reworked the book’s first chapters; he’s also already completed Book Two of the series, fully intending to keep the story going. And we fully intend to release the whole series in English.
Rogue Merchant is a classic might-and-magic-style LitRPG series with the elements of manapunk. It’s set in the Sphere of the Worlds: a worldwide multiverse comprised of hundreds of worlds, from horrible Infernos ruled by Demon Lords to mechanical worlds inhabited by sentient constructs, and gigantic markets that have sprouted at the crossroads of trade routes.
Players use astral ships to travel between worlds, otherwise they have to venture into the perilous underground tunnels of the Endless Paths. Dozens of powerful clans share this delicious pie, scheming or waging wars against each other.
The series’ main character is Cat, a wannabe merchant who specializes in procuring in-game valuables to sell them for real money. He is a Free Merchant, which is both his character’s class and his playing style - as well as his preferred problem-solving method. Cat is a cunning trickster who wriggles his way out of trouble thanks to his quick wit and his trading talents. His credo is, “Anyone can be bought provided the price is right”.
Cat starts from scratch, using every opportunity to advance his plans. This book is the story of a common trader’s rise to greatness until he becomes the world’s new legend, the most famous merchant in the entire Sphere of the Worlds.
The series focuses on the economics of a game world, including various trade methods such as regular and auction trading, as well as social and political interactions between clans and players. Plenty of intrigue and espionage, betrayal, trade wars, besieged castles and epic air battles of flying ships - all this has already made the fantastical universe of Rogue Merchant popular with thousands of Russian readers.
Now it’s your turn to enjoy it.


“THIS IS OUR final offer. Are you ready to sign the contract?”
The man I spoke to said nothing, his eyes glued to the majestic view. Hawkish silhouettes of dozens of spaceships were set against the background of a white-green planet. They surrounded the flagship, an enormous destroyer rigged with an asteroid cannon. I knew that the entire universe of COSMOS had no more than ten such colossi.
“We’re counting on your word,” the man said slowly. “After all, this is a huge amount.”
“As soon as you sign the contract, all of it will become the property of your alliance.”
The in-game wallet blinked, indicating a new payment. The number of digits was awe-inspiring—I had never seen such a sum on my account. It was the biggest deal of my life.
Keeping my glee at bay, I confirmed the transaction and nodded at the buyer.
I had just sold an entire space fleet. Too bad it hadn’t been mine.
I was only a middleman in the deal. Not quite officially, though—the real owner of the ships was convinced that I represented the buyer, while the buyer thought I acted on the behalf of the seller. A little bit of cunning, psychology, and social engineering, and I got a tidy sum in my pocket.
Actually, that was my profession. I was a trader of in-game items.
“When can we collect the ships?”
“Very soon. In a few minutes,” I replied with a smile.
There was only one thing left to do—transfer the money, minus my fee, to the real seller. Cheating them wasn’t part of my plan; the sum was too big. I was bound to get into a lot of trouble if I decided to appropriate it. It was better to settle for the fee.
I found the account number of the real owner of the fleet, entered the numbers, and activated the transaction.
Transaction denied. Please contact the administrators to learn more.
The next moment, I received a red message spanning the entire screen.
Your account has been blocked on suspicion of fraud.
* * *
Cat: So that’s how the story goes. I can’t log in from any of my accounts or create a new one.
Humorist U: You got banned…permanently—both by your ID and hardware. Congrats! Try sending an email to the admins begging them to unblock you.
Cat: I did. The answer’s the same…blah, blah, blah, RMT, get lost. I still have tons of money on my accounts. I’ll be torn apart.
Humorist U:Agreed. NOT fun.
Cat: Yeah, I’m totally screwed.
Humorist U: There’s some of my money there, too.
Cat: What do you suggest?
Humorist U: I dunno; I need to think. See ya.
Irritated, I banged on the keyboard, closing the chat window, then once again switched to COSMOS ONLINE to see a big red notification:
I couldn’t believe my luck. A huge deal had just gone wrong, leaving a vast sum of in-game currency on the blocked account. The seller wouldn’t get their money, the buyer wouldn’t get their ships, and both would see me as a fraud. The COSMOS admins didn’t give a damn; they had just cut me off from the game for good. Twelve accounts that had been a stable source of income for almost five years and, most importantly, a swag of property connected to virtual wallets were no longer available.
So how much had I lost? At least several dozen millions of in-game currency held on the accounts, about as much in items and equipment, plus the cost of the accounts themselves, considering the high-level characters they contained. Tens of thousands of terro in real money and the giant sum for the ships made it astronomical. I felt scared. From the looks of it, I owed money I didn’t have.
It was a resounding defeat. I had invested five years of my life into the game. It seemed to be the winner among the VRMMOs that had swept over the world after the advent of neurointerface—total immersion, a seamless world, and most importantly, an opportunity to deposit and withdraw real money. If you found a way to make money inside the game, you could live comfortably in the real world.
I had always been a hardcore gamer, having studied the world of COSMOS inside and out and attempted numerous ways of earning before finally finding my favorite occupation: trade. Step by step, I gained reputation and made connections, creating my merchant empire. I could find and sell anything—from an in-game resource to an exceedingly rare item—act as a mediator, or help with the delicate issue of cashing out. The monopoly on financial transactions belonged to the administration, but as always, a lot of dealers fed at the trough, immediately resulting in a black market and clandestine gold-sellers. There were always people who didn’t want to wait, wishing to buy low, sell high, and avoid paying the tax. They were our clientele.
My partner and I created COSMOGOLD, an underground Internet portal where anyone could bypass the rules to exchange in-game currency for real money, order an in-game item, or clinch a shady bargain. In all modesty, COSMOGOLD quickly became popular. Nick was in charge of the website, managed the operations, and controlled the marketing, while I used my in-game connections to act as a middleman, maintaining a stable inflow of currency. For a long time, the admins turned a blind eye to our work, and it seemed like we would string them along forever.
Until one day, I got banned, completely and irrevocably, by my hardware ID and retinal imprint read by the VR capsule at logging in. The way into COSMOS was closed for good.
So, where was I? I had fifteen hundred terro left on several card accounts, around a thousand in cash at home, and…
“Alena!” I called my wife, who was watching TV in the bedroom. “Come over here, will you?”
My dark-haired sleeping beauty was wearing a crimson robe that revealed her long legs. Annoyed, she stuck her head out from behind the door.
“Can you send me the bills?”
“Bills?” She came closer, yawning. “Which exactly?”
“Credit, utility, our subscriptions, everything.”
“All of them? Why?” she asked me, surprised.
“I want to establish our budget.”
My calculations were simple, and they sent shivers down my spine. Mortgage, credit payments for the capsule, utility bills, smart house subscription, wireless Internet access, and other small expenses totaled more than three thousand terro a month. Over the recent years, COSMOS had been making enough money for me to believe that it would always be like that.
I had no safety net, and the money I had wasn’t enough to bay the existing bills. I had only a month to fix the situation. The laws of the Confederacy were cruel to non-paying citizens, and if I didn’t find some money, I could start having problems resulting in a trial, foreclosure, and loss of social status, plus a blackmark on my credit history that would never let me get credit. I didn’t like those prospects.
I shook my head, dismissing the dark thoughts. I still had COSMOGOLD, our online portal with lots of linked accounts and property in various games. My partner—strong as ever—and I were sharing the profits, and it had been a while since I took my share.
I needed to sleep on it. The next day, I would ask Nick to transfer the money I was due and discuss the situation while we were at it. Maybe we could figure something out. Worst-case scenario; that amount would last me two or three months until everything hopefully worked out.
As I closed the annoying windows of COSMOS ONLINE with the BANNED sign—a real eyesore!—I misclicked and opened an obnoxious colorful 3D advertisement. “THE SPHERE OF WORLDS AWAITS THOSE WHO ARE WORTHY,” the glossy banner said. Just like in any other fantasy game, there were pictures of a voluptuous female elf wearing an armored bikini and a ruthless-looking overly muscular orc holding an axe—just the usual. I sighed, closed the window, and headed to bed.
* * *
I checked my email first thing the next morning. Unfortunately, all my requests to the COSMOS support team, submitted from various email accounts as well as on behalf of my banned characters, received a standard write-off response: You have been banned for violating the developer’s terms of service. Paragraph... blah, blah. RMT!
I was worse off than I had thought the day before. I wasn’t the only one affected. Apparently, the administration had long since cast its net, looking for shady traders of in-game currency. A lot of accounts got blocked, and anyone directly or indirectly connected to RMT was caught in the crossfire.
The official section of the COSMOS website featured the result of the ongoing operation ANTI-RMT:
·       About a thousand accounts directly associated with RMT permanently banned…
·       From one to three trillion frozen on RMT wallets…
·       Tens of thousands of RMT transactions canceled…
The forums were a mess. Threads were popping up all over: WHERE’S MY MONEY??!?!?!; WTF> MY WALLET HAS NEGATIVE THREE BILLION CREDITS???; MONEY GONE FROM MY ACCOUNT; I’VE BEEN BANNED, HELP!; and so on and so forth. Feeling uneasy, I opened the browser and went to our online store. It was unavailable, as if the servers were down.
The nagging icon of the Courier, an instant messenger, appeared on my screen. Someone was requesting a conversation. Unknown caller, hmm… I put on my headphones and clicked the speaker icon.
I recognized the calm voice of my latest client, the alliance leader who hadn’t received the ships. He was inside the game; in the background, I could hear a woman’s voice belonging to a COSMOS starship AI.
“So, you recognize me,” he said, correctly guessing the reason for my silence. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said slowly. “I was banned. I’m trying to figure out a solution.”
“See, we’ve already found out that you’re not the owner of the ships,” the voice said softly. “You’ve tricked us. A deal’s out of the question. We want our money back.”
“It’s impossible. It’s on a blocked account.”
“Cat, that’s your problem.” The voice was scarily measured. “We’ll accept an equivalent amount in real money.”
“It’s impossible. Listen, it’s an emergency, everyone got—”
“It’s you who should listen, Cat!” he said, interrupting me. “I think you misunderstand something. It’s not my money. It belongs to our alliance, to lots of people. You need to give it back.”
“Contact the COSMOS administration to return it,” I said slowly.
“It’s you we made a deal with.” The voice chuckled. “So, you don’t want to do this the easy way…”
Not seeing a point in further conversation, I cut the call off. My contact apparently wanted to talk more, as the incoming call icon blinked again. I had to block the bothersome number. Where had he gotten my contact information, anyway? I could understand his anger—the scope of the deal was enormous; it was a painful blow to a thousand-player alliance—an astronomical sum. But what could I do? Only offer my sympathy. I had nothing to compensate their losses with.
Putting aside those unpleasant reflections, I dove into the depths of the web, studying the official forums. The extent and the fallout from the wave of bans were disastrous. Everyone who had sold or exchanged in-game currency bypassing the administration or used third-party applications, bots, macros, or scripts was blocked forever without any possibility of unblocking. The buyers had the purchased sums deleted from their accounts, often resulting in a negative number.
I silently applauded the COSMOS security team. They had put a lot of effort into studying the logs and tracing the chain of accounts and transactions that crafty traders like Nick and I had used to close our deals, covering our tracks. It didn’t help.
That’s the gist of what the admins wrote:
·       If you break the rules, we’ll seize your money and property.
·       Buy real money via the administration, or you’ll get banned.
·       Avoid cheating, and you’ll be fine.
In the meantime, my erstwhile partner appeared online. I tried making a few voice calls, but he canceled each of them. Finally, I wrote him via Courier.
Humorist U:Can’t talk right now, stop calling!
Cat: We have to talk. It’s urgent!
Humorist U:Write here…
Cat: Why is COSMOGOLD unavailable?
Humorist U: Have you read the forum? I closed the store temporarily. We don’t need extra attention right now. It’s us who’ll take the fall here, you should understand that.
Cat: What are you suggesting?
Humorist U: Look, it was your scheme the admins exposed. Deal with it yourself.
Cat: We kinda shared the profits though…
Humorist U: Cat, you’ve gotta understand it’s getting really serious. No kidding. Your latest clients have already contacted me. It’s a lot of money. You’ve basically scammed them.
Humorist U: So, here’s the deal. I don’t know you; you don’t know me.
Cat: Transfer my share for the recent months.
Humorist U: Don’t be stupid! What money? I’m trying hard not to lose my own.
Humorist U: Anyway, I gotta go… Was nice working with you.
Humorist U blocked Cat.
I was officially bankrupt. Trying to contain the outrage that was threatening to consume me, I managed to pull myself together and start thinking. What did I know about my partner? I had met him while playing COSMOS ONLINE. Nick lived in Moscow, the former capital of our country. I had seen him twice in real life. A man about ten years my senior, he liked to describe himself as a gamer from the 21st century. He switched to the COSMOS currency after our meeting, previously farming gold, leveling up characters, and selling rare items in other long-forgotten MMORPGs.
I realized I knew nothing about him, other than his messenger contact and his phone number. I didn’t have his full name or his address. We shared no mutual friends. Still, that was ok. I was smart; I would come up with something. Only what? Obviously, there was no point in contacting anyone inside the game. From the looks of it, I really had lost all my money. In my head, I started to formulate vague ways of getting even with Nick. We’ll see about that. Mental note taken.
As I was having breakfast, I continued to consider my options. What am I going to do next? For the past five years, all I had known was making money through COSMOS. I had no other source of income. It’s not like I could do anything else, either, as I had abandoned any attempt to find a real job back when I was a teenager. All I had ever done was trading in the online gaming world. First, it had been War Online and Project Titan, then I switched to COSMOS full-time.
But coming back was impossible. It looked like it was time to find something else. I needed a project that could make me some money.
A few search requests and gaming forums kept bringing me to the newest hit MMO—top one in the ratings, THE SPHERE OF WORLDS. Let’s see what kinda beast it is. Isn’t it the SPHERE that Alex wouldn’t shut up about a few months ago? I opened the website thinking of my old friend.
Multiple distinct worlds!
Unique quests for each player!
NPCs that come alive!
Free PVP! Social interactions and politics! Clan wars for territories!
Epic events involving thousands of players!
Play for multiple races and tribes!
Cash in and cash out using real money!
I shook my head as I read the raving reviews about the game. No matter which way you looked at it, Sphere of Worlds had drawn more than thirty million players across the world over the last year, constantly occupying the top spot. That said, after the 30s and the capital of Russia being transferred to New Tokyo, the superiority of Russian and Japanese developers had become clear.
The game had a trial version, allowing a potential player to check it out. Well, a picture is worth a thousand words. But first, I wanted to get some first-hand information. Time to call a friend, seeing as he was already online and available for calls.
“Hey, Alex!”
“Oleg! Hi! Haven’t heard from you in forever. How have you been? Still in Kazan?”
“How’s life in New Tokyo? The stuff they show on the news is totally next level!”
“That’s right!” my friend confirmed, sounding important. “What else did you expect? There’s fourteen million of us already, a real anthill. Mostly the Japanese, of course. But lots of Scandinavians, too.”
“The new center of the world?”
“Looks like it, buddy. How are you doing? Still playing COSMOS?”
“Not really. Listen, so why I’m calling... Remember telling me about that SPHERE game? Are you still playing it?”
“Ever since the release date. It’s been more than two years,” Alex confirmed. “Why? Thinking of checking it out?”
“Maybe… Tell me more.”
“There’s lots to tell, man. It’s a blast!” Alex laughed. “So… I recommend playing asa human. It should be easier for a newbie.”
“That’s what I thought, too.”
“World of birth: choose Dorsa, nation: Eyre. Have you memorized it? It’s important, ’causeI’ll be able to help.”
“Dorsa. Eyre,” I replied obediently.
“When you create your character and finish the training, drop me a line on messenger or in-game. I’ll find you and help you out a bit.”
“How do I find you there?
“My nickname’s AlexOrder.”

Chapter 1. Character Creation

COMPLETE DARKNESS suddenly turned into an image of a colorful sky. It felt like I was falling from somewhere high. A few seconds later, the feeling changed to that of flying, which was more pleasant. An invisible force carried me above the clouds, between which, I could see vast green valleys down below replaced by mountains, bright blue oceans, and yellow desert sands. From the bird's-eye view, that unknown force flipped me once more and placed me among the clouds overlooking an incredible sunrise.
Flashing in front of me or inside my mind were captions accompanied by a contralto voiceover. Four diamond-shaped icons popped up in front of me, carefully and skillfully decorated by fantasy ornaments. Let’s see, what do we have here?
WOODEN ACCOUNT was the lowest type of account. As I focused on the icon, it increased in size and lines of text appeared on the screen. The contralto voiceover began speaking.
Wooden account is the basic account in the SPHERE OF THE WORLDS. This account is completely free…”
Turn off the voice interface,” I snapped. The voice-over always annoyed me, preventing me from being able to focus. The voice died away, and I focused on reading. So, wooden account. Completely free, a trial of sorts. This was the point ZeroAlex had told me about. Limited list of races and character features. The max SP was 1000. Is it much or not really? I would start off with just a few items. Crafting skills were disabled as well as combat skills and quests. The reputation level was limited to ‘Respected’. Joining tribes was disabled.
SILVER ACCOUNT. The price was three hundred. Limited races, worlds and appearances. Leveling-up and reputation were unlimited. It came with a certain Wanderer’s kit for free. Maybe this was the most common account in the SPHERE: neither too cheap nor too expensive, it allowed you to play, even if it lacked uniqueness.
GOLD ACCOUNT came with a subscription of one thousand red ones and featured all races, worlds, and appearances. It also had a special Starter Kit from the admins that included a scalable artifact. A unique pet or mount for free. Free stuff with each payment. Access to priority support line. This account was for all the fancy kids, I concluded, for those who didn’t count money and liked to show off. I wondered if the unique pet affected the game balance.
The last account choice — DIAMOND for five thousand terro — bewildered me. Instead of a perks description, a notice popped up saying those wishing to purchase this type of account would be contacted by the admins within five minutes who would explain all available benefits. I hadn’t seen this kind of approach in any other game before. I wondered what kind of perks they were offering for that amount. Just to give you some context, a bottle of beer cost about one terro, and for the price of fifteen to twenty thousand, you could buy a decent car.
Well, I’m here to find out whether it’s the game for me. I can always pay later if it makes sense. I chose the icon for the WOODEN account and an invisible force picked up my virtual body taking me down to the valleys, square fields, mountains, and seas. I was thrilled as the wind blew in my face. It was very well made, I’d only experienced that before in VR-avia simulators. Having arrived at the spot with the mountains in the background, I was looking at the ruins of ancient columns. The notice blinked:
“DORSA!” I commanded, seeing a long list of worlds with all kind of names.
Most of them were disabled. Their named appeared as either light gray or dark red. DORSA lit up green, available to newbies, just like Alex promised.
Information on the world was showing on the screen.
AVERAGE ONLINE: 450,000 players, 4th level popularity.
A colorful map and description appeared below.
The vast world of Dorsa is among the oldest in The Sphere of the Worlds. It was here, a thousand years ago, that the mysterious Ancients lost the Great War. Since then, the various fragments of this world have been weak and scattered. The House of Darkness, revived by Goddess Ananizart, who returned from the Abyss, is trying to make Dorsa submit to its power ...

And so on and so forth. I didn’t want to read all that nonsense and moved on…
I looked at the long list of available races. Wow! At least half a hundred names, from regular humans, to elves, dwarves, exotic rakshasas, centaurs, and demons. There were also underwater races such as tritons and mermen. Some races’ names appeared in red or gray which meant they were unavailable in this world. Out of curiosity, I focused on the Elves icon. The system immediately suggested a variety of sub-races and nations: High, Grey, Valley, Sun, each with their own unique bonuses, traits, appearance and detailed descriptions…. It would take me days to get into it and I only had a couple of hours.
Back to selecting races!” I said. “Race — HUMANS.”
Humans are Dorsa’s most numerous race. Human settlements can be found almost everywhere. The physical and mental powers of humans are well balanced, while their customs, morals, and appearance can vary greatly ...
Skip the description, Next, selecting nation. The system returned a long list, where, among the Heyviness, Invars, and Tolu tribes, I found the Eyre People that Alex had recommended. Selecting this one…
Following the fall of the Ancients, waves of Nomadic invasions from the Great Desert swept their former possessions in the north-west of Dorsa. Bloodthirsty Naasy and ferocious Hittites devastated the lands of the fallen empire for hundreds of years. The ancient blood almost dried up, but its strength, although dormant in the inhabitants of these lands, runs within the proud Eyre People. In Kann-Elo, the forgotten language of the Ancients, Eyre means "possession, land, right ..."
The system accepted my choice and suggested an avatar template. I had an option to use my real appearance or to randomly generate one. I chose the latter, and my 3D digital copy appeared against the background of mountain and columns. A handsome man, I concluded, quite pleased with myself, as I looked at my digital reincarnation from various angles and then proceeded with making adjustments. The account didn’t feature a wide selection of hairstyles, hair colors, and other appearance settings, but what was available was more than enough for me. I adjusted the height, making myself taller, widened my shoulders, added some muscles, although not too much. I colored my shoulder-length hair dark-blue, almost black, then changed the shape of my eyebrows and my chin. I pondered a bit more, then made my face scruffy, at the same time, making my character appear slightly younger. That’s good! That what I could’ve looked like seven years ago, if I were a bit taller, had colored my hair, and, of course, been to the gym.
This username is taken,” the system prompted indifferently. Ok then...
This username is taken.”
Looks like it will take me a while here. Apparently, my favorite nickname was very popular among online games users. Five minutes later, having gone through various combinations from CATinTHeBag to Catt2025, I gave up. I said a command requesting a list of available usernames containing the word CAT, and almost immediately chose HotCat. Like a hotdog, only with the word cat. Funny. I liked it. After I tried the game, I could always delete the character and create a new one. So, I entered the name… Whats next?
A semi-transparent window popped up in front of me, containing a character “dummy,” that looked like an ideal representation of a human being. It was Da Vinci with lots of interesting icons, characteristics, and skill choices. A local chart-list, I concluded. I thought how well everything was drawn, giving credit mentally to the game’s designers, who had developed the interface. Lots of information, symbols, little icons, yet everything seemed intuitive and clear.
Before immersing myself in the game, I checked out various forums and guides about SPHERE OF THE WORLDS. The game didn’t feature the traditional system of classes and levels. Instead, a system of skills was implemented: they leveled up as the game progressed.
Everything seemed quite simple at the first glance: all you had to do was run around leveling up your athletics skills, fighting with swords, developing one-hand weapon skills. Each skill featured ten grades — from newbie to legend — that were represented as skill points. That was about the only thing I understood. The rest was all Greek to me. More advanced skills were made available as you leveled up your basic skills. The learning speed coefficient of the more advanced skills was significantly lower, and it seemed, the more you continued to level up a skill, the longer it took for each level. People wrote that level of difficulty was progressive.
Maxing a skill required thousands of SP and took a very long time; it seemed to be nearly impossible. The amount of total SP a character had illustrated how cool and skilled that character was. Specialization was represented by a few different types, which partially resembled traditional classes in other games. The system assessed the sum of all developed skills and assigned a player an archetype, following combinations of all possible individual abilities, which were, sometimes, quite unexpected.
The main difference constituted an ability to acquire several archetypes simultaneously. However, active archetypes, meaning those that could be activated at the same time, were limited to three. As time went by, archetypes could be swapped and developed to acquire new abilities. There were many archetypes, from common to legendary, which the greatest minds of online worlds were losing sleep over trying to master. Hum… so far, not so clear. I guess I’ll have to try it for myself.
Eight points for seven basic attributes… Not much. Having thought a little longer about the contents one of the guides I had read, I assigned a point to each attribute, and used the last available point to increase Stamina. Why? Stamina was one of the most important characteristics at the beginning; it directly affected the avatar’s stamina level and how many hits it could inflict during combat. It also accounted for how long the avatar could walk, run, or carry items.
Constitution was represented by hit points and the amount of damage the character could suffer. Durability dictated damage that can be inflicted and the ability to lift heavy weights. Charisma skills helped win the allegiance of NPCs (non-playable characters) and, consequently, to undertake more interesting quests. Intelligence affected the damage done by magic and the amount of mana points available to the character; I didn’t really need it. And then there was Luck, too… the subject of the most vicious holy wars on various gaming forums. Some players believed it to be the least useful skill while others believed it to be the most useful. Basically, that was it.
The variety of available skills was bewildering. The descriptions alone would take half a day to read. The skills were sorted into various groups: Combat, Craft, Social, Magic, and many others. I picked Combat, and of course, there were lots of subtypes: One-handed weapons, Two-handed weapons, Hand-to-hand, Shields, Mental weapon, Archery — these were just the basic ones. Each group featured subgroups of advanced skills, which required first developing the basic skills in order to level up. Having opened the one-handed weapon category, I spotted skills for long swords, short swords, daggers… in order to obtain the skill, one had to be at least level three in One handed weapon 300/1000 SP and so on…
Sounded harsh. I only had 50 starting skill points. I confidently invested them all in trade skills. Why? So I could gain access to the game auction, the functionality of which I was going to try first off. Yes, having gained access to the auction, one could do all kinds of trading, but only after having developed the necessary skills.
What the heck is it? My mouth dropped, but the system gave good news:
The character dummy now featured two new icons. The first one was clear:
SMART. Your mind is quick. You can gain experience faster than other players and are able to learn quickly. +10% to experience gained.
Nobody warned me about that — a nice bonus! Now I can level up quicker. However, the description of the second icon was confusing.
ANCIENT GENE. Ancient blood is dormant in your veins, but nobody knows when and why it may awaken.
Mysterious. Well, I guess we’ll find out.
Hell yeah! Here I come, Sphere! Watch out!

Chapter 2. Tutorial

OH, I SEE. The usual. After the neural interface was developed, the developers faced a serious dilemma regarding user pain sensations. The internet rapidly flooded with all kinds of rumors and horror stories about people going nuts or even dying from heart attacks when fully immersed. Naturally, there could not be a true experience of pleasure without also experiencing pain; the two feelings were deeply intertwined. Like spicy food is a matter of taste, some like it hot — others can’t stand it. Oddly enough, a solution was found by the super popular web portals featuring… umm… virtual girls and adult VR entertainment. Fighting the mandatory legal limit on full immersion, the (50-60%) that was considered safe, they came up with a progressive scale, based on individual tolerance. The idea was well received and rapidly implemented across various VR services, looking as follows:
Immersion level is a scale where 100% is the maximum pain threshold a particular user can endure. It varies from one individual to another. While one person might pass out from a slight pinch, another can endure the sensation of touching hot metal. Thus, 100% immersion did not represent the realness of pain, but rather the limit a given individual could endure. Just to be safe, at the dawn of the VR, a technology known as ‘mental block’ was developed: capsules that didn’t feature this technology couldn’t get certified. Various indicators, triggered by body signals, went ahead and disconnected the user from the internet. That made dying from pain in the game impossible while immersing oneself to 100% pretty much guaranteed an extreme and unforgettably real experience.
According to millions of excellent game reviews all over the internet, all the five senses were within the framework of the game, featuring worlds with outstanding levels of reality detail. Physically, the game was allegedly implemented on the molecular level.
I don’t know, we’ll see. I shifted the immersion level control to the middle. 50% would be enough to get a sense of it.
Training? I guess a small tutorial won’t hurt.
Finally! Everything around me turned dark and then I was given my virtual body.
LOCATION: DORSA world, continent DORSA, city GOLDEN FAIRS, sewage, top level.
QUEST: Sewage and rats
TRAINING QUEST: You’re surrounded by abandoned city sewers. Get out of the dungeon, finding your way up.
REWARD: Experience, artifact
WARNING: This is a training task designed to get you familiar with the basic principles of the game. Entourage and features are limited to the status of your account. You can cancel at any time.
So, I was down in the sewage. Penetrating the surrounding darkness, a dim light came though the barred skylights. I was standing ankle-deep in water in what appeared to be a semicircular tunnel, about double my height. The stone walls were covered with a slippery-looking brown-green mold, and a cobweb hung from the ceiling. Yeah… not exactly a pretty starting location. The quest description implied that conditions depended on one’s account type. Because I had a free wooden account, I ended up down in the sewer. The discrimination was amusing. No doubt those who had selected the silver account started somewhere in the valleys, in the light of day, surrounded by bunnies.
So… Water, or whatever the liquid was that was running beneath my feet. It was cold and wet, but it didn’t smell like sewage. I wondered if that was due to the 50% immersion level setting. Perhaps, I should’ve gone deeper. I moved my arms and feet: everything seemed to be in control, just like in reality. Everything around me looked so real. I jumped and touched the dirty, gray robe I was wearing. The fabric felt rough, as if it was made from a potato sack, with lots of holes in it and thick ugly seams.
“Interface on” I said, a standard VR command. A semi-transparent character interface appeared in front of me. It was surprisingly empty, just a character list and various settings. It didn’t feature the quests log or system chat. The inventory wasn’t there either. Just three bars on top: red for HP, blue for mana, green for stamina. After a minute’s revision, I discovered I was wearing two items:
Beggar Rags, cloth, durability 2/5 and Beggar Pants, fabric, durability 3/5.
Both items reduced my Reputation by 10 points. Beside these, I had nothing else. No weapon, bag, or even shoes. Yeah, they didn’t exactly provide a welcoming experience to the new users.
“Heeeey…” I shouted into the depth of the dark tunnel. The echo bounced off the wales. It’s kind of spooky here, I thought. Rushing to leave, I headed in the direction the water was coming from. But about ten steps into my journey, I tripped on something underwater. At my feet, I was looking at a wooden club. I picked it up. The system lit up the artifact:
One-handed weapon
Quality: common
Material: wood. Durability 13/20
1-3 physical (crushing) damage
Hurray! At least now I had some kind of weapon. Anything was better than being empty handed. Where’s my training? Let’s go further. The sewer tunnel was dark and damp, and something was constantly dripping on my head. From the depths, there came a perceptible cold, musty breath. Yes, I knew these were just neural interface signals fooling my brain, yet everything looked frighteningly real. It felt so familiar. As a child, I used to sneak into the old sewers with friends.
The tunnel led to a large room with an uneven spherical ceiling. Above me, shone a gaping hole from an unlatched hatch, and right below it, in the middle of the room, a pyramid of trash, that had been piling up for quite some time, evidently made of garbage dumped from above. On top of the pile, and all around it, I finally saw the game’s first living creatures: gray and shabby with long bare tails. Rats! I smiled to myself. Hundreds of computer games, including the classics, started similarly with a quest where the hero had to kill rats. Nothing original, damn it...
The rats were big, the size of a cat, I thought. Their aggro zone seemed to be wide enough, as no sooner had I appeared, then they started to hiss and crawl towards me. Not crawl, rather attack! I was glad I was still a few meters away. The first and the quickest was crushed by my club. Then, I felt a sharp pain in my feet — the creature had managed to bite me. I jumped away and kicked the rat with my foot, but many more had reached me by then. The little notification started to blink informing me of the damage points being inflicted. My green hit bar was decreasing rapidly. They’re gonna eat me alive! Despite 50% immersion, I could clearly feel the pain: it felt as if I was being bitten by a horsefly. Mostly, I felt disgust and a touch of panic. I was swinging my club and trying to kick as many rats as I could. The only available system chat was flashing with notifications, communicating the damage I inflicted or received. Finally, one lucky hit sent a rat flying and smashing against the wall, securing my first perk:
Your One-handed weapon skill has been increased by 1! Current level: 1/1000.
Damned rats, I was sweating, trying to hit as many creatures as possible. I had to back off (feeling ashamed) and moved to the narrow tunnel where I could smash them one by one. By the end of combat, I was literally out of breath, sweating all over, and only had half my hit points and half the club’s durability. On the positive side, I had acquired my first four skill points for One-handed weapon, which added +0.4% to my club inflicted damage, and +1 to Athletics — the skill responsible for walking speed, running, and ability to endure other physical loads. My stamina bar was nearly empty, and my state dropped accordingly. I took a few minutes to rest and decided to look closely at the bodies of the dead rodents. An unpleasant surprise awaited me as I focused on a dead rat’s body. The system prompted:
A dead rat? Do you want to take it?
Impossible. You don’t have a bag.
So, what else I could do, I wondered. Fighting natural reluctance, I touched the body.
Do you want to cut it?
Impossible. You don’t have the appropriate tools.
Whatever. Damned rats. There had to be something in that room for me. I hadn’t been fighting them for nothing, had I? Poking around dark corners with my club, and then the pile of trash in the middle, I finally found a few valuable items:
A rusty key.
A piece of apple. Food. Restores 1 HP
Having nothing to carry it in, I decided to leave it. The rooms served as a merging point for three different tunnels. I chose the one opposite to where I had come in from and headed onwards. So, who do I fight next? By then, my stamina level had almost recovered; I felt ready for new combat. Then, I found myself suddenly at a dead end. Mounted to the wall was a metal ladder, leading upwards. An exit? Perhaps. The only thing was… next to the ladder, there sat a skeleton. I approached it carefully and looked at the terrifying object, though, there was nothing that terrifying about it, just a white skeleton, like one they use in an anatomy class. There was not a cloth around. The skeleton appeared to be chained to the wall with a heavy rusty chain. Next to it lay a rusty sword, and one of the eye sockets was lit up from inside. Perhaps there, I might find something of value. I leaned forward trying to see what it was, but jumped back in horror, as the skeleton suddenly moved. The chains rang as the bones moved with a creaking sound. The dead man came to life, rising to his feet, a rusty blade in his hand. A whistle from the swing came as I jumped back in an attempt to dodge. The skeleton was now walking towards me. I could see clearly that the object lit-up in the skeleton’s eye socket was an ominous-looking bluish stone.
I tightened my grip on the club, mentally welcoming the system tips. Well, this was only a training. Whatever happened, happened! The skeleton raised the rusty serrated blade once again. His strokes were quick and unpredictable. I tried to block his sword with my club, but only gasped, feeling the extent of his power.
You blocked the strike! One-handed weapon skill increased to 5. Rotten Stick durability decreased: 8/20.
The skeleton tried to reach me with a thrusting blow to the chest, but I managed to turn around, pressing my back against the tunnel wall. I shamefully retreated to a safe zone. The chains containing the enemy prevented him from pursuing me. The skeleton froze, holding up his rusty sword in a fighting stance. So… looks like keeping defense, is not an option. His moves are slow. Maybe try getting past him really quick?
I jumped into the mud and then into the water. Rolling over the stone floor, I scraped my knees and elbows, but did manage to get behind the skeleton and, while he was turning around, I whacked his white skull with my club, as hard as I could.
You have inflicted 3 points of damage. One-handed weapon skill increased to 6. Rotten Stick durability decreased to 7/20.
The enemy's lower jaw dropped to the floor with a bang, but this didn’t affect his combat capability. He deflected my next attack with the club, with his sword, reducing my club’s durability by another two points. He was now counter-attacking, forcing me into the dead end by the ladder. The stick cracked in my hands and fell apart, leaving me holding a small stump. I suddenly realized that my back was now pressed against the wall leaving me nowhere to retreat. A rusty iron blade, flashing before my eyes, plunged deep into my stomach with a nasty smack. I think I screamed. The sensation was way too real as if you were a tin can cut open with a rusty piece of iron. While the pain was bearable, I had the nastier feeling of being pierced through. Those who have undergone surgery at some point in their lives will probably understand what I am talking about.
The hit point bar decreased dramatically, and an alarming bleeding icon was now flashing beside it. My hands, which I instinctively pressed against the wound, turned red. Damn it, he’s gonna kill me!
I was horrified to see the enemy raising his weapon, which was already covered in my blood. The next blow was aimed at my head. The world shuddered and seemed to split into pieces. I then found myself in the safety of the darkness that had consumed me.
The skeleton dealt a critical strike! You received 21 damage!
HP 0/40. You are dead.
Would you like to respawn?
WARNING — failing tutorial does not result in a penalty for dying.
No. EXIT. The capsule lid opened, and I got out. I grabbed a bottle of mineral water from my table and swallowed it with a single gulp. My heart was pounding, and hands were shaking.
Honey? Are you ok?” Alena asked, entering the room.
Yeah… just a scary thing in VR. Horror. Real horror.” I tried to smile.
Horror? Wow, let me see. You know how I love it!”
Hm, I can’t reprogram the capsule for you myself. It would have to be a technician.” I lied. The last thing I needed was to get my wife hooked on VR. I couldn’t afford another capsule. I was still struggling to pay off her car loan.
I see. Just like always.” She didn’t seem to buy it and was looking offended. “Whatever. You carry on with your VR, I’m going to hang out with Leyla.”
Leyla was an obnoxious little dog, who a friend of Alena had asked us to look after while she was on vacation. I hated this particular breed of dogs and I figured the dog felt the same way about me. Having calmed down a little, I got into the capsule again. I was angry. How could I, practically a veteran of VRMMO, be defeated by the first tutorial skeleton? No, I’m not gonna leave it like that!
There I was again, in the middle of a sewer tunnel with full HP, but empty handed. The club was no longer there, and the rats’ dead bodies had not disappeared. That meant my progress had been saved. That was good.
Revising my stats, I noticed a fourth bar had appeared below my HP, mana, and stamina. It was gray and semi-transparent, filled to about a quarter. What was that bar? Experience. 25 out of 100. Yes, having checked the log, I realized, for each of the rats I had killed, I got 5 experience points. Interesting. The SPHERE didn’t feature levels. What’ll happen when I get 100 experience? Let’s find out.
The skeleton proved to be a dangerous opponent. Remembering my first death, this time, I decided to think more carefully. I figured, in order to defeat him, I had to explore the other tunnels. Where do I go? Of course, to the left.
The left tunnel from the Rat’s Merge was long and dry. Just as I suspected, it led nowhere. Though, this time, there was a door. The thick wooden door that turned green with age, had thick copper strips. I pulled the handle. No use. The door was locked. I pushed against it with my shoulder trying to force it open, but the system kindly informed me, I needed 50 Durability, when I only had one. 50! How do I get it up to 50?
I remember finding a rusty key, somewhere near the pile of trash. I didn’t pick it up because I had no pockets and carrying anything besides my club was inconvenient. The key must open the door. Could it be that simple? Perhaps not. The key I had picked up didn’t fit in the lock. It clearly belonged to a different lock. Or maybe it was just a useless piece of trash. The only thing left was to check the tunnel to the right, which looked most unpleasant. Long, wet, and barely lit, it led uphill. The dark bubbling knee-deep water running through the tunnel was dirty. The tunnel ended with a drain hole where the stream of muddy water disappeared out of sight. The bars blocking the hole hid trash that I really didn’t feel like digging in, but forced myself to anyway. As a result, I found a small purse with a long strap, old, wet, and worn.
Purse, 4 places, up to 3 kg
Durability 6/30
Yeah… it didn’t look very presentable. It was barely holding together, but it still functioned. Figuring out its unusual fastening, I pulled out a lockpick. Rusty and sharp, there were 7 metal tools hanging on a ring. Each counted for one point of durability. Apparently, I would have 7 attempts. I headed back to the wooden door. The first lockpick broke right away. I struggled to get the sharp end out that had got stuck in the keyhole. The second one broke too. Carefully handling the third, I managed to feel something inside the lock. The system prompted a reward:
Your Lockpicking skill has increased by 1. Current value: 1/1000
Heh! I struggled with the lock for another ten minutes increasing my Lockpicking skill by three more points. The sixth lockpick clicked opening the door and letting me in. The system notified me of my first achievement:
CONGRATULATIONS! You have broken your first lock. You have achieved the status of Junior Lockpicker! Gain 100 XP. Next achievement: pick ten locks.
No way, guys. That was definitely not my path. The whole experience was way too real as if I had been picking a real lock. I wondered if I could use the skill in real life. Though, nobody really uses those old metal locks anymore except grandmothers, perhaps. My experience bar, filled all the way, was now blinking impatiently.
Congratulations, you have received 100 XP! As a reward, you receive a free attribute point.
Note! Every time you gain 150 XP, you receive a new attribute point that can be invested into any attribute. Current XP value: 25/150
A new attribute point? Having opened my character dummy, I realized they were referring to DURABILITY, STAMINA, and AGILITY. Using a free attribute point, I could increase any of these characteristics. That’s how I could level it up — with experience. Next step, 150 XP, not that much. Hmmm… I was tempted to increase Durability and check how the damage inflicted increased as I fought the skeleton, but contained myself. I needed to understand the game first, see the game development tree, come up with a competitive build… Then…
Behind the door was a dark dusty room filled with cobwebs. The room was small, like a small attic of sorts with a few old caskets, tons of rusty flare coasters, some broken tools, and a chest, an old chest, carefully pushed all the way into the corner. It was the chest that the key fit perfectly. Inside, I found only two objects: a sword, seemingly similar to the one the skeleton used, and a book.
Rusty Bastard Sword
One-handed weapon
Quality: common
Material: iron
Durability: 27/50
4-8 physical damage (slashing)
It had a bent, rusty blade, the handle wrapped in strips of worn out, disintegrating, leather. However, this was a real weapon! Having appreciated its pleasant weight in my hand, I felt a surge of confidence. Ok, so now let’s fight!
Battered Bestiary
Skill book
Quality: common
Contains: 1/25 pages
Uses 47/50
The book was old and worn out, with a peeling cover and battered corners. Having opened the first page, I saw a detailed engraving of familiar, gray creature. Below was a description and an article describing the habits of rats. As I scanned the page, I heard a pleasant notification sound resembling a bell.
Congratulations, you have discovered a new skill category — Zoology! Your Animal Knowledge skill was increased by 1! Current value: 1/1000
Oh, that’s right! I remembered reading about it in the guides. Some items could only be leveled up upon acquisition of Skills Books. Zoology, Animal Knowledge? Why would I even need them in the game? The book contained the answer. First, I could learn about animal habits, their abilities, habitat and weak spots, attacking which could result in an ability to inflict critical damage. I learned about other weaknesses and tactics as well as their vulnerability towards specific types of damage. Second, with each development invested in the skill, the damage I could inflict to animals grew by 0.1%. Given the appropriate scheme of leveling up, one could multiply base damage by 100%. The skill turned out to be useful after all…
As I learned the skill of Animal Knowledge, I increased my Crafts point by 2. The read bar of the battered bestiary flashed 50/50, and as soon as this happened, the book fell apart in my hands. That’s interesting... turns out, reading new Books of Skills with zero readings, gives you the opportunity to raise your skill by fifty points… something to think about. Shame the book didn’t contain anything on skeletons. It was time to try again. I'd already lost more than an hour on this learning task.
The enemy was waiting. His jaw had not grown back. There was a large blood stain near the ladder. Seeing me, he got up pulling the chain to its limit. Well, hello there! This time I’ll be more careful.
Blades rang and grated, colliding. I prudently kept the enemy at the border, at any moment ready to leave the radius of reach. Last thing I wanted was to die for the second time. The skeleton was quick and vicious. I decided to act as straightforwardly as I could and, five minutes later, I realized he used only three chopping strikes and two pokes. Once I was used to his fighting technique, repelling his strikes proved to be fairly simple
Note! You have blocked 5 strikes in a row. Your One-handed weapon skill has increased by 5.
Having run out of stamina, I walked away, took a deep breath and regained my durability. This was nothing but a training, and the enemy was just a bot, a mannequin for practicing fighting skills. I realized, had it not been chained to the wall, I would not be alive. What if there were a few of those, unchained, chasing me through the annals of the dark dungeon? I was sure THE SPHERE featured a whole variety. Brrrr… I shrugged.
Having practiced defense, I decided to improve my attacking skills. I came to realize; the enemy was focused exclusively on attack. The skeleton never once tried to block my strikes, even when it was the only sensible thing to do. It took about 5 hits to get done with him. He dropped on the floor, falling apart, nothing more than a pile of bones. His skull rolled across the floor; the blue glowing stone had fallen out of his eye socket and was now sitting at my feet. Interesting artifact! I thought to myself.
Soul Reviving Stone.
Magical stone. Personal. Unique.
Cannot be lost or stolen. Returns your soul to the place of checkpoint. Recharge: cyclical, 1-8 hours.
REWARD: 100 XP, Soul Reviving Stone. Current XP: 145/150

Chapter 3. Superchick

Location: DORSA world, DORSA continent, city: GOLDEN FAIRS.
WARNING! You are now connecting to in-game chat-rooms.
You have discovered a new locality: Golden Fairs!
You received 55 XP. You received one free attribute point.
AN UNFAMILIAR CONSTELLATION shone brightly above me in the night sky. A light, salty breeze from the sea touched my face with its weightless breath. THE SPHERE OF THE WORLDS seemed to be greeting me with the pleasant coolness of the night, stars, and a taste of the sea on my lips. A rumble of sounds was filling the surrounding space: the screams of market traders, people’s conversations, the haggling of buyers and sellers, shouting together with laughter, and the roars of animals. Here there was the bustle of many characters, players and NPCs, rushing about their business. Nobody paid any attention to me.
I was definitely in the hustle and bustle on the outskirts of the main square that were paved with gray stone. Despite the late hour, life was in full swing. There were a lot of stalls and tents, crowds of people, strange roaring animals in cages, strolling guards, and players driving back and forth or riding all kind of animals — from horses to incredible beasts that seemed to come from the pages of children's fairy tales: lions, unicorns, griffins, cave bears… Everything seemed so... real.
Just a few meters away, a giant dragonfly with huge mandibles invoking terror, soared upward, and the wind from the wings blew into my face. On its back rode a player who controlled the creature with a sophisticated harness. I watched him go, watching several winged silhouettes flash against the dark sky. Suddenly, blocking the stars, something huge floated over the square. The outlines of the object resembled Columbus' sailboats with their slender masts, clusters of sails, and raised sterns. Was it a ship? A flying ship?!
Chats — I just noticed that my chat use was enabled, and it came alive with flooding messages. I had to write to Alex. I slapped myself on the forehead. It took me a moment to understand how to work the local chat, customize the interface, and turn off some channels I didn’t think I needed.
HotCat: Hey. This is me, Cat!
AlexOrder: Hey. Where did you turn up?
HotCat: City of Golden Fairs, main square.
AlexOrder: Darn! Why so far away? Did you decide to take the training or what?
HotCat: Yea... I did... Shouldn’t I have?
AlexOrder: No. I wish you hadn’t, but it’s my fault, I forgot to tell you not to… Otherwise, you would’ve turned up in Eyer.
HotCat: …
AlexOrder: Ok, wait for me by the teleporter. I’ll be there in twenty.
OK, Let’s take a look around. I was mostly impressed with how hard it was to distinguish real players from NPCs. It was nearly impossible. Nicknames were hidden, and in order to obtain information about a specific player, I had to focus on a character, which brought up a transparent icon. For example: Alien The Invincible, clan CHAOS, and Uti-Puti, Defender of Tombs, clan Silver Guards. An NPC guard, an enormous guy wearing armor, showed as Tremor, Falirri, Guard of Fairs.
That was it. I had read about it but was experiencing it for the first time. You could always find out more about a character by earning Reputation points or when the players decided to reveal more info if they wanted to. Two structures in the middle of the square drew my attention. They were surrounded by concrete fences with silver patterns of exquisite carving. The structures resembled three horns with intertwined dragons drawn on top for them, a rainbow-colored fog between them. People gathered around them, partially blocking the view. I decided to get closer and take a better look.
Get outta my way, noob!” From within the fog came a beautiful fair-haired girl wearing a red robe with a complex pattern and lamellar brigantine beneath it. The golden crosshair of a sword she was carrying showed from behind her shoulder. I hesitated, but a forceful push of her graceful hand sent me to the pavement. She passed by, her companion following her, a tall warrior in a green cloak. He gave me a calculating look, his eyes snake-like, cold and empty. My stomach sunk.
Alayna and Crete, PROJECT HELL clan.
I followed them with my gaze, making a mental note. So, this must be the teleport. While I still have time, let's see what they are selling here ... I walked over to the nearest counter, which offered, judging by the products on display, various rings, chains, and amulets. Seeing me, a merchant, a curly bearded NPC, squinted and threw a cover over the counter, hiding his goods.
Trade!” I said looking at his icon (Einar, merchant) and not finding anything resembling a shopping interface.
Trade?” the man replied. “With who? YOU? Have you seen yourself? Get lost, don’t distract me!” I didn’t get it. How was that possible? He didn’t want to trade with me?
I want to have a look at your goods.”
Didn’t you understand me the first time, bum?” he said, raising his voice. “Get the hell out of here before I call the guards!”
Your Reputation with Einar decreased by 5 points. Value: -15, antipathy.
Oh… there we go, I get it now. The way I looked, and the beggar robes I had been wearing until now, decreased my reputation. They looked at me and saw a bum and wanted nothing to do with me. I guessed they might go through with the threat of the guards. I laughed to myself, picturing the way I looked — a dude in bum’s clothing, a worn bag over my shoulder, and a silly, rusty sword in my hands, barefoot. Walking away to be safe, I opened up the character interface. After completion of the manual, a few more options were available. One of them was Reputation. By default, there was a list of all the game factions. But now, there were only two lines:
TRADE FAIR FAYERS GUILD: -10 (Antipathy) and its one sub-branch: Einar, merchant -15 (ANTIPATHY)
I liked the settings since I could access the reputation log and see how and why the reputation went down. With a negative value, NPC didn’t assign quests, didn’t trade, and, as I had just witnessed, behaved quite arrogantly. I realized that if my reputation had decreased further to HOSTILE, they would have called the guards. If you went below that to HATE, you couldn’t even get into the city. As the guides suggested, leveling up one’s reputation level was possible by completing quests, and increasing it to a positive value required killing a few mobs and giving their valuables to a specific NPC. So, if I managed to change into something decent, my reputation would go up. Yet, something told me, they would not have been so keen to trade with me if I were naked either.
AlexOrder: I’m at the portal! Where u at?
The personal messages chat blinked and a message from Alex came through. I was about to head towards the teleport but realized I couldn’t. The entire square was now in motion. Pushing me away, a few players came running through, seemingly in panic. I could hear screams: people seemed to be fleeing the square. As I stood there, frozen, unable to comprehend what was going on, a character wearing a white robe over his armor and a helmet with an interesting pattern ran into me. He looked at me closely, squeezed my shoulder, and pulled me along.
Cat? What are you waiting for? Run! Quick! SuperChick is coming!!!”
Huh?” was the only sound I could produce. Then I saw her. In the scattering square, a young girl, or what looked like a girl, was now walking past us, as if in a dance. She wore light clothes and a short tunic that revealed most of her body. She laughed loudly as she walked. An intricate shining amulet hung from her neck, and a fiery halo was glowing around her, emitting heat that scorched my lashes and eyebrows.
RUN!” AlexOrder’s bearded face winced as he forcefully pulled me along, squeezing both of us through a gap in the fortress wall. He reached for something in the bag attached to his belt, something resembling a scroll that immediately disappeared. Next, we were surrounded by a bluish-crystal glow. Without stopping, Alex drew a complex sign in the air that immediately flashed blue and projected it onto the stones beneath our feet.
You are under the Ghost Shield! Magic damage resistance increased by 50%!
Alex went on drawing mysterious signs in the air. The symbols flashed and twined around Alex’s wrist. As if obeying a gesture of command, they stuck to my body and faded.
Rune Algiz was summoned! Resistance to all types of elemental damage increased by 25%.
Rune Teyvaz was summoned! All your attributes have been increased by 10.
And then, from behind my back, came the devious, obnoxious, whistling laughter of SuperChick overpowering all other sounds. The fire flashed and lit up everywhere around us filling the whole area with flames. I could hear the agonizing screams of the dying players and NPCs, who had no time to escape. An unbearable wave of heat consumed us as we pressed ourselves against the stone wall, covering our faces to protect ourselves from the flames.
SuperChick inflicts damage! You receive 50 fire damage! Your HP: 190/240
SuperChick inflicts damage! You receive 50 fire damage! Your HP: 140/240
SuperChick inflicts damage! You receive 50 fire damage! Your HP: 90/240
Your Fire magic resistance increases by 1%!
SuperChick inflicts damage! You receive 50 fire damage! Your HP: 40/240
You are under the effect of Rune Plastur! You receive 30 HP every three seconds! Your HP: 70/240
“Damn it!” AlexOrder lowered himself onto the stones looking at the dancing flames that were now fading away. His face was sweating.
When will she quit? I hate her!”
Who was that?” I asked feeling my burned face.
That was SuperChick,” my bearded friend laughed. “Welcome to the SPHERE, Cat!” I could finally see him, AlexOrder and the clan WATCH.
Apparently, Alex, too, had slightly altered his appearance in the game. While he was tall and broad-shouldered with a neatly trimmed beard, in the game, he looked quite athletic. From how I remembered him, he was at least 30 pounds heavier in person. He wore a white tabard over chain mail, a round metal helmet covered with intricate engraving, as well as a sword and a small leather bag with a sophisticated, etched pattern attached to a wide, leather band. Noticing my gaze, Alex patted it with his hand.
That Chick, to hell with her, almost burned me together with my little presents!”
Where is she?” I asked looking around the square. Stalls and tents were still in flames, and many burned bodies lay about.
She was killed by the guards. She comes in almost every day and hangs out until her Reputations drops to HATE. Then she deletes her avatar, creates a new one, levels it up for a week and does it all over again. You got real lucky coming here today. There you go!” Alex handed me a heavy, hexagonal token made of dense yellow metal. I wondered whether it might be made of gold.
You have received a portal token. CHARGES: 3/3.
“Did you see the portal? Let’s go. Press on the token when you get in and select the city of Dan-na-Eyre. Remember?”
When the darkness of transition faded, I found myself at the top of a small hill, covered in thick, tall grass. Behind me, the portal stood shimmering. Not too far away, the wind played with the canopy of beautiful trees I did not recognize. I was looking at the mossy city walls up ahead in the distance, surrounded by a moat filled with water. The city was called Dan-na-Eyre.
AlexOrder straightened his shoulders enjoying the pleasant sensation of the cool, night breeze on his burned face. Two warriors, who had been conversing by enormous granite boulders nearby, were looking at us in surprise. Then, one of them approached us.
“Alex?! What are you doing here?” The guard sounded surprised.
“I’m supposed to be here,” my companion replied briefly and looked at me.
“Follow me, Cat.” We headed in the direction of the city that the locals called Eyre. The city had hundreds of narrow streets that ran and intertwined within its mossy walls and houses. The city of the northern winds, tall towers, and beautiful night stars. I followed AlexOrder into a half-empty tavern. He sat on a bench, gesturing me to sit opposite him. The tavern guy, who looked bored to death, waived to Alex and approached.
Hi, Karn!” Alex said. “Meet my friend Cat.”
Hi there, Alex. It’s been a long time…” the tavern guy, an older NPC with a light beard, looked at me. He glanced at Alex with a smile and periodically tapped him on the shoulder as if he were an old friend.
Any friend of Alex is a friend of mine. Nice to meet you, mister HotCat.”
You received a personal recommendation! Your reputation with Karn increased by 100. Current value 90/100 (Neutral)
“What would you like?”
Four pints of dark beer, and two charcoal grilled steaks,” my friend smiled softly. “And your special grilled veggies on the side.”
I took you from Fairs because it’s very dangerous there,” Alex said when the tavern guy had left.
You’re gonna live here. Eyre is a good place. And not too hot…”
Here,” he threw a leather bag over to me. “There’s a hundred. Should be enough for starters. Then, you’ll make some money yourself.”
Thanks man, but I can’t accept it…” I said, hesitating.
Take it, Cat. I won’t take no for an answer,” Alex insisted. “It’s really nothing. But ask for a room key from the tavern guy, he’s the innkeeper. You can live here… and there’s something else…” Alex dug in his bag and took out a black, leather belt with a strap, slightly worn in appearance, with rings for knives and a small bag on the side.
Take this instead of the rags from the trial. Get rid of the rags. I remember wearing them as a noob,” Alex sighed. “Go ahead, try it on.”
You have received a new artifact: Pantherskin Belt with Chest Strap
Quality: rare
Material: leather
Durability: 63/90
Weight: 1 kg
3 quick access slots
2 item binding slots (used slots: small traveler's bag, leather sheathe brace)
+3 Agility, +2 Physical Defense (chest), +3 Charisma
Light Armor skill used when worn.
“Cool!” I whispered, touching the rough leather. The artifact was glowing a shade of blue, a rare characteristic, but most importantly, it felt so real and great quality, too.
“That’s not all,” Alex smiled as he placed more items on the table: two hand-crafted books with elegant leather covers and copper-bound corners. They had intricate double buckles, dull metal in the shape of dragon faces... Opening one, I found pages full of maps with notes and explanations; the second book was blank with a dozen, pristine white pages.
You have received a new artifact: AlexOrder’s Complete Atlas
Quality: rare
Crafted by: AlexOrder
Contains: 29 maps, scalable
Do you want to open the Atlas?
“Alex, I don’t know what to say…” I said, throwing up my hands. “I’m lost for words!”
Allow me to feel like Santa at least once in my life!” Alex laughed. “Besides, I’ve been meaning to have a sort out of my chests for a long time. That’s all I could find that would fit your skill levels.”
What’s with the empty book?” I asked curiously.
It’s for spells, rituals, recipes, and blueprints. You’ll figure it out,” Alex said mysteriously.
Look. The beer’s here! Thank you, Karn. Let’s drink, and then you can tell me what you think of the game!” Blowing on the white flakes of foam, I marveled at the reality of what was happening once again. My mortal body was now inside a capsule, and I, having completely forgotten about it, was chatting with an old friend over a beer. The beer was good and cold, reminiscent of Irish ale. And the table was… felt sooooo… wooden. I pinched myself in the forearm and it hurt. It was like a drug!!!! A second life, damn it. Alex nodded, looking toward the kitchen, rolling his eyes dreamily.
Hey, how do I turn on smells,” I asked, having completely forgotten about it. “And what level of immersion do you use?”
Full, of course! You can activate the smells. There’s a little tick in the settings. You can even do it from within the game. But level of immersion can be changed only after re-entry.”
Won’t it hurt? I’m playing 50% and sometimes… brrrr…” I remembered the skeleton poking me with its rusty stick.
Kinda. But manageable. Everyone who’s serious about the game plays with a high level of immersion, and there are reasons for that,” Alex replied, finishing his first pint.
I didn’t read about that in the forums… Interesting.”
First, they don’t like to write about it. The skills level up quicker when you’re fully immersed. Your brain mobilizes when it knows something is going to hurt, and you get the maximum from your avatar. As a result, you do everything faster and better. You get quicker and stronger. The second reason is hardcore. It just feels good to be able to immerse in it fully and feel something you could never feel in real life. Have you ever tried deer cooked on a fire in the woods? Have you ever felt the adrenaline rush of chopping someone’s head off?”
What’s the third reason?”
Sex!” Alex said laughing. “You’ll figure it out soon enough.”
The sizzling stakes arrived with grilled vegetables in round, clay pots on the side, and bread on a large wooden platter. The silverware looked almost like ours, only with a medieval twist. The elaborate nature of the game, together with this level of attention to detail amazed me. How did they manage it?
The developers are geniuses,” Alex went on, “have you heard about Balabanov?”
The name rings a bell…” I was confident I had heard the name in gaming circles.
Yeah… You’re out of touch with the modern world playing that COSMOS of yours. Balabanov, Svechkin, and their team developed and released SPHERE three years ago. They incorporated all VR technology advances, developed a unique game engine and procedural generator. They received a Nobel prize nomination on the basis of this game alone. They integrated a scalable, new generation artificial intelligence, and digitalized pseudo-personality. SPHERE is a masterpiece!”
This was exactly what I had read in the reviews. Every NPC in SPHERE’s worlds was unique, had pre-programmed character traits, habits, behaviors and was supported by a separate AI. Shortly after the associative AI invented by Takia, passed the Turing test, it became possible to create ‘thinking’ machines. In other words, it became impossible to distinguish AI from a real person, and this contributed to a huge advance in game realism. If you were to try to expose an NPC for what they really were using abstract concepts and conversational topics, another, more powerful AI ​​would immediately be connected that was able to converse at any level. The technique was called ‘scaling’ AI. Some NPCs were digitalized from real world people, with all their character and habits, copied from historical figures. Horrific!
Yeah, the details are mind-blowing. I gotta give it to the designers, I can’t begin to imagine the effort it took,” I said, twirling before my eyes a heavy double-toothed fork, covered in an elaborate engraving.
Designers?” Alex burst out laughing. “You seriously think that all this was drawn by artists and game designers?”
Well, who else then?”
Cat, there are hundreds of worlds in SPHERE. Only three hundred and forty of them have been discovered. There are hundreds of thousands, even millions of NPCs, plus a huge number of cities, fortresses, villages, forests, everything! Did you know that the area of ​​Dorsa world alone is as big as ​​Eurasia? You think all this was manually developed to achieve such high levels of detail, every fork in every tavern?”
Like I said, the Balabanov’s team are geniuses. There’s only about a hundred of them. Most of the work was done by the procedural generator they invented.”
Procedural generator?”
That’s right. It works on the basis of random numbers. When a new location is created, initial conditions are set. Then, using the generator's algorithms, it randomly determines parameters such as size, climate, ecosystem, presence and location of rivers, mountains, creeks, settlements, resources, minerals... There are rules that don’t allow certain generations, for example, it won’t let it create a blooming green valley in a volcanic world or place a desert in the middle of a forest. Then the NPS population is generated from a set list of races; their biography and so on is written based on real world history, and so on and so forth…”
You’re saying all this was created by a generator?” I asked, looking around the tavern.
Almost everything. The designers came up with an initial set of rules for generation. The generator proceeds by assembling various tasks, kinda like a Lego constructor. Anything you want: a sword, castle, or a cave in the snowy mountains. There are countless patterns and templates covering all aspects of the Earth’s culture that are implemented at generation stage, including myths, tales, movies, books...”
Wow! I can’t believe it. All this is unique?”
Exactly! All NPCs, cities, worlds, as well as their quests are different. Balabanov’s team had only to set a task and choose templates and styles, for example, a medieval city, and the generator accepted the job. Well, they’d clean up any little nuances and glitches occasionally, but as a rule, the procedural generator is so perfect, there are rarely any errors.”
Alex sighed as he was finishing his steak. I was deep in thought, trying to figure out how this information might aid or hinder the implementation of my plan.
The thing is though… Balabanov died,” Alex continued, “… in a plane crash three months ago. Their entire team, about seventy people, flew to the Mauritius on Christmas vacation… team building and all that stuff… The corporation paid all the expenses as a bonus, a reward for hard work. But they all died…”
I remembered reading about it right before New Year. The internet was buzzing with the news. Signals were lost. The plane came down somewhere in the sea and was never found.
Now a new team is working on SPHERE. Agasyan, the main investor, pulled together the best of the best… but they could never be as good as the original Balabanov team… I only hope they stay away and don’t start messing with the generator…”
Yeah… You know what they say… If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” I joked.
Exactly. I haven’t noticed any changes so far. Listen, Cat… Sorry I’ve been talking non-stop. Beer, right…? Do you have any questions?”
Why Dorsa?” I wondered.
This is a Russian world. There are plenty of foreigners, of course, like Germans and Polish, but mostly, everyone speaks Russian. Convenient time zone, easier to adapt. The world itself is very interesting… The resources and dungeons.”
What about cashing out game currency?” I asked, trying to hide my true motivation was pointless. Alex knew me like the back of his hand.
Cash-in and cash out all you want, no limitation, via gaming auction, you know, the regular stuff. Admins charge 10%. The conversion rate is floating, one to ten.”
You think I can make some money?”
Of course. Take me, for example.” Alex hesitated for a second, “Well… we really shouldn't talk about it, but I’ll tell you, anyway. I left my job and am now making more money here playing 8 to 10 hours a day.”
Interesting. Go on. What does your wife think about it?”
What difference does it make to her, whether I’m at work or inside the capsule? When it comes to my income, I’m on a fixed salary in a clan.”
Are there any vacancies…” I asked jokingly, “with a fixed salary?”
I thought about it, but they don’t accept noobs in Watchers,” Alex replied looking serious. “You’ll have to get at least 10,000 Craft skills. That’s the minimum required to get accepted. When you level up, we can talk about it some more. You know, I’ve been playing since the release date… well, almost. That’s why I was able to… and I learned a few useful tricks along the way, both for myself and my clan.”
I see. Here’s another question, then. Since there aren’t any classes, what should I work on? What are your skills?”
I’m developing quite a few archetypes, something like a multi-class. I’m good at sword fighting, not a super pro, but I know a few things, and as you may have seen, runes. I’m also a cartographer. What you should level up at is a hard question to answer. There are so many skills. Everyone sorta needs to develop their athletics initially, and some close combat skills. It’s handy to master the technique of strikes, dodging, parrying — learn some basic fence and bow. As you go on, you’ll get the simplest archetypes, and then you’ll figure out what to develop depending on your game style.”
What about magic?”
Forget about it. It’s a good skill, but super hard. This game is really hardcore. You can’t develop magic from the beginning. First, get some basic skills, and then you’ll figure everything else out.”
Looks like everyone can be a warrior, mage and archer simultaneously? If everyone can do everything where’s the interest?”
No,” Alex shook his head. “There are many skills, but you’ll never develop them all. It’s a good idea to have one main discipline that’s excellent, and a couple of supporting ones; not great if they are opposing ones. For example, if you’re trying to level up as a mage and a warrior, you’ll be lousy at both. For example, mastering a skill depends very much on your durability and intellect… and those are leveled up by items of clothing, mostly. Mages wear spiritual and intellectual items while a warrior wears items for durability. I’m talking basic terms now. In reality, it’s much more complicated than that.”
Oh, I get it,” I said, throwing my hands up. “There aren’t classes as such, but there kinda are…”
Something like that… and there’s one more reason. You can only level up a skill while you’re actively using it. If you stop using it, take Defense, for example, you’ve leveled up, but you don’t use it, you start to forget the skill. The rate is approximately 1-3 of leveling up. It makes sense to develop one or two types of skill categories that are closely intertwined that require similar attributes. And ones that are constantly used.”
But what about your multi-class? It looked like you were exactly that, a mage and a warrior, no?”
I’m not a mage. I’m a rune master. That’s different. If you’re talking about the scroll I threw at you, that was the clan scroll… You’re right though. A Multi-class is much more difficult to level up. But that said, there are more perks. By the way…” he said, changing the subject suddenly, “Let’s see what you look like. Open your info, let’s see…”
It took me a few minutes to find the right option for turning on and off information displayed to other users. As I intuitively understood, it was normal for players to hide as much info as they could. Obviously, it was much easier to find a counter-attack if you knew your opponent’s stats.
Look, don’t delete this character,” Alex said, looking at my character list. “You’re lucky! You got a rare trait.”
Ancient Gene? What kinda trait is it?”
I’ll tell you more about it,” Alex switched to a whisper even though the tavern was empty. “It is precisely because of the Ancient Gene that our clan is located here and our noobs are from the Eyre Nation.”
Oh wow! I’m lucky then.”
It’s super rare. Only 3 or 4 characters out of 100 get it. Not completely unique, but still. By default, only the nation of Eyre, the descendants of the Ancients, can get it. Not a lot of people know about it.”
What’s the benefit?”
Both in Dorsa and certain other worlds, there are a few difficult dungeons left by the Ancients. The rewards and loot aren’t bad, putting it mildly. There are also caches and mechanisms that can only be activated by those who possess this gene. In other words, when we end up in this kind of dungeon, we always have to have at least one character with us who has it. Only two… no, three people in our clan have it.”
Just as I opened my mouth to ask another question, Alex signaled to me to be quiet, as if trying to listen to something within himself. A few moments later, he suddenly got up.
Sorry, Cat. I’ve gotta go. I’ve been called. If you need anything, let me know.” Then, he rushed out of the tavern, almost at a run.
I was left sitting with my new clothes and overwhelmed by what I had just learned. The innkeeper approached to take the dishes away. I realized he served every visitor personally.
Erm… Excuse me,” I said, “Alex told me you’re renting?”
I sure am,” the NPC nodded. “I’ve got three rooms available upstairs. I can give you the one Alex rented. Ten silver coins per day and three golden ones per month. Two meals per day included. Would you like it, mister?”
Of course! And no mister, Karn! Just Cat!”
Your reputation with Karn has increased by 5 points. Current value: 95/100. (Neutral)
Having received one golden coin in advance, the innkeeper gave me two keys, one large and one small. When I asked what the second key was for, he looked at me as if I were a fool (I never thought an NPC could do that). Then he politely explained that the second key was for the chest in the room.
The keys did not occupy any inventory space, which was nice. Having opened my wanderer’s bag attached to the belt, capacity 12, up to 10 kg, I found a thin, unlocked bronze ring fitted inside a small pocket, to which I conveniently attached the keys. On the same ring, they were displayed in the corner inventory interface. Apparently, you could add an unlimited number of keys to the ring. On the way up, I realized the staircase in Karn’s tavern, which, by the way, was called “Merry Mill,” squeaked in much the same way as the stairs in my country house.

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Release - March 23, 2020

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