Friday, May 8, 2020

In the System by Petr Zhgulyov

In the System
by Petr Zhgulyov
Book 1: City of Goblins

Release - October 7, 2020
Pre-order on Amazon -



Everything once created will die someday. Our world is no exception. The heat death of the universe... For most, this fact is too far in the future and too doubtful to worry over. Having accepted one's death, it is much easier to accept the destruction of all and sundry. There were god-like beings, however, who could last until this moment and had no desire to obediently await the inevitable. It seemed that one of them had found a solution. If the problem was that energy gradually disperses in space, would it not be better to gather it all himself? A desire of madness, even for a deity.
The Devourer began a war, consuming star system after star system, waging battles against his own kind and taking their power... Slowly, too slowly. The universe is enormous and most of its inhabitants had no desire to be consumed, and so it came about that everyone took up arms against him. There came a moment when the Devourer realized that he was bound to lose, but he did not admit defeat. Instead, he destroyed himself and created the System. The Great Game, which drew in countless worlds and continued to constantly spread. A Game in which his enemies continued what he had started.
A System that would allow the universe to come to its end, and then, using the energy absorbed over billions of years, create the world anew.


Attention! The System has granted you the status of one of the seven First Gods of Order. Please select your incarnation from the regional list.

Europe. France. A young woman, casting a regretful glance at Aphrodite, picks the one slightly higher on the list.

Attention! The Greek Pantheon has been generated. Hera has come into this world!

Eastern Asia. PRC. An elderly Chinese man makes his choice.

Attention! The Asian Pantheon has been generated. Guan Yu has come into this world!

Africa. Nigeria. A youth barely out of childhood...

Attention! The African Pantheon has been generated. Great Set has come into this world!

North America. USA. An office clerk grimaces, picking uncertainly among the local gods. Maybe he's heard of this one before?

Attention! The North American Pantheon has been generated. Quetzalcoatl has come into this world!

South America. Brazil. A tourist lounging on the bed...

Attention! The South American Pantheon has been generated. Inti has come into this world!

Southern Asia. India. A monk in one of the numerous temples in this land...

Attention! The Indian Pantheon has been generated. Shiva has come into this world!

Europe again, northern this time. Denmark. A minor official...

Attention! The Scandinavian Pantheon has been generated! Odin has come into this world!

Chapter 1. Activation

There are plenty of good things in life, and one of them, undoubtedly, is sleep. There is a reason that people say you should ‘sleep on it’. If you're sad, afraid or lonely, go to sleep and it will all pass. At least, until you wake up again. This method had always worked for me before, cutting off my problems better than alcohol or drugs. Besides, I never had much interest in the latter, and it's not like I had money to splurge after being recently fired. Hmm...
This dream was different from the thousands I'd had before, not least because I clearly remembered everything that came before and knew that I’d definitely gone to bed. I knew this a bit too clearly for a dream. A standard menu appeared before my eyes,

Start Spiel?
Ja/No (Die)
[0] — I have read and agree with the Terms of the Contract.

Why the mix of languages? Bad localization? Man, my mother did say that nothing good would come of these games... Ten or fifteen years ago. Who would have thought that it wouldn't happen immediately, but many years later?
This thought didn't stop me from agreeing to the terms of the contract without reading the text, by moving the cursor left and choosing the first option. Yes.


In the very same minute, thousands of people around the world saw a similar menu, although it varied slightly for each person. Different languages, slightly different phrases and fonts...

Start Game?

A man who was president of a large company didn't like to rush important decisions and his intuition told him that this decision was important. And urgent. However, experience told him never to agree to the terms without checking everything first. It took him only a minute to skim through the Agreement but when he finally, prodded by a vague anxiety, reached for the left button, he found that it had already disappeared. The remaining option glowed and shifted into the center, transforming from the brief 'No' into the frightening 'Death'.  What?

Trial failed. The Player's position has been taken.

This message was the last thing that he, and three other candidates, saw before they turned into clusters of energy and information. The creation of a player was an energy-intensive process and the System preferred to save its internal resources, concurrently adding new information about this world to its database. Only one person passed in a pool of 5-6 candidates – the one who first accepted the offered terms. Perhaps it was unfair, but the mechanism couldn't care less if it didn't get in the way of reaching the Goal.
The man died in his sleep, from severe exhaustion, the doctors later said. Around five thousand such deaths took place that night. A drop in the ocean of humanity, and so nobody noticed the loss. A drop from which the first one thousand players were born.


Attention! You have passed the preliminary trial!
The System (75%) is active. Connecting to the Server (50%)… Status obtained: Player!
Creating database for the new world…  Scanning character. Checking parameters. Please wait.

I floated in emptiness with no awareness of my body and no idea about what was happening. About a minute later, when I was getting seriously worried about being stuck here forever, a table popped up.

Ivan V. Susanin

General ID: unknown.
Local ID: Z-8.
True name: Ivan V. Susanin.
Age: 24 years (8954 days).
Race: human (97%).
Gender: male.
Level: 1 (0/20 System Points).
Available: 0 System Points (SP).
Strength: 6/10.
Agility: 7/10.
Intellect: 7/10.
Vitality: 6/10.
Endurance: 6/10.
Perception: 7/10.                   
Luck: 2/10.
Race parameter:
Intuition: 9/10.

*For the human race, 10 is the maximum possible natural value. First Barrier.

System Skills:
Player (F)
— Intuitive interface (F, 1/1).
— Help (F, 1/1).
— System Language (F, 1/1).

Achievements and titles:
Eighth (personal, unique) — sometimes ill-luck is so great, that great fortune passes close by. Special skills are hidden.

It was like in a game. The slowly growing panic retreated slightly. I glanced over the text and fastened my gaze on the last line. I wasn't given time to study what was written, however, as a new message appeared.

Attention! Do you wish to change your tag?

(60, 59, 58…)

A timer? I confirmed my ‘wish’ immediately and mentally erased my surname and middle initial. This didn't seem sufficient so I erased my first name, too. Right, now my tag... Eighth? A chill ran down my spine. No, better not use my achievement as a name. Or is it a title? OK, whatever...

(52, 51, 50…)

Despite my decision, the timer remained and continued its countdown, so I had to hurry. Just Ivan? No. Even ignoring the fact that half the villains in Hollywood movies were called that, it was my real name. Should I pick a foreign one? That felt fake. Something flashy like Superman or Night Shadow? I'm not a twelve-year-old boy.
It will be... it will be... Vasya. Well, why not? In that case, let it be Vasily. Confirm

System Name: Vasily

Truly an ‘intuitive interface’. The controls were straightforward, reminding of a standard OS.
The System accepted my decision without even trying to add a couple of numbers to my tag. Which wasn't that surprising, considering the number assigned to me. If I was indeed the eight, it was unlikely that the others have already taken the most popular nicknames. Of course, if there was even a restriction on originality. My real name didn't disappear, it simply dropped one line down and was labelled ‘True’. What was the point of that?

Attention! Do you wish to hide your True Name?

Of course. The System thought for a moment and the word ‘hidden’ appeared in brackets next to my name. I felt instantly calmer and finally returned to studying the table. Well, was there a help menu?
There was. As soon as I focused on one of the parameters, a brief description appeared.

Strength (6/10) — corresponds to physical fitness.

Helpful... They might as well have written “strength corresponds to strength”. Although, if this was a dream, I had nobody to blame but myself for the puny description. But the more things unfolded, the less I was sure of my initial conclusion. The question wasn't even if it was a lot or a little, but rather how much it corresponded to reality?
If one assumes that only a few people in the whole of humanity had a 10, then world athletes could only get 8 or 9. Perhaps a couple of years ago, I would have scored a solid 7, but I'd become less active since I'd returned from the army and started working. I didn't have the time, nor, to be honest, the desire for regular training. Still, you wouldn't call me a weakling...

Agility (7/10)corresponds to overall mobility.

An equally useless description, but the number was acceptable. I hadn't gained any extra weight, after all, and remained quite, um, mobile. Plus, I'd done a lot of stretching in my childhood.

Intellect (7/10) — corresponds to memory, processing speed and brain development.

Seven. Almost too much. I'd finished university but couldn't boast of any high marks, and I'd done plenty of stupid things during my life. Nevertheless, according to the System, I was a long way from a genius.

Vitality (6/10) corresponds to wound healing, immunity and life expectancy.

Well, a 6 for vitality looked rather poor. If I took 120 years as the maximum, 1 point was equal to roughly 12 years. Hence, the System predicted my death at around seventy years of age...
Bloody hell, why was I taking these numbers seriously? Although... why wouldn't I? It was a strange situation but right now, all I could do was keep calm and wait for events to unfold. Why not take the situation seriously in that case? If this was reality, I would be at an advantage, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn't lose anything by it.

Endurance (6/10) — reduces the accumulation of fatigue, determines the time required for proper rest and sleep.

There was nothing surprising there, it was the obvious consequence of my past year of sedentary work.

Perception (7/10)responsible for the senses and attention to detail.

A 7 was quite good, I'd never complained about my powers of observation. Perhaps it was due to my little hobby? It's well known that as people get older, they become more and more absorbed by their own thoughts and pay less attention to their surroundings. Once I’d noticed this tendency in myself, I consciously forced myself to note minor details. If you keep your eyes open, you'll always spot something interesting. And it will be harder for a person to spring something on you.

Luck (2/10) — corresponds to probability.

I only had a 2 here... Hmm... All my life, I preferred not to believe in luck, considering it a kind of compilation of events that couldn't be predicted.  All our problems are the results of our actions, and blaming them on the powers that be or something similar is not a good habit. Nevertheless, I was hard put not to admit that I was suspiciously unlucky at times. For example, I would randomly pick the most difficult question in an oral exam, and then pick the same question when I was retaking the exam. Such things didn't always happen, but they happened often enough. Still, I'd never slipped on a banana peel and had somehow survived almost a quarter of a century. And two was more than zero.

Intuition — allows decisions to be made based on ambiguous facts. Maximum for the human race —  10.

Unlike the previous parameter, this one was close to maximum. Which was surprising, considering the example with the exam questions. Perhaps I had drawn out the unlucky piece of paper again not by chance, but because it had seemed vaguely familiar? After being handled by students, the papers lost their anonymity. One acquired a slight crease, another had a barely noticeable spot. Perhaps it wasn't even bad luck? After all, even if it had been a difficult question, I didn't give into the temptation of not studying it, and eventually passed the exam. Hmm...
I didn't know what to make of that, I had to keep going. But where? Surely, I wasn't going to remain here forever, in this emptiness? The System unfroze and reminded me again of its existence.

Attention! Select a primary skill (74%).

Minor magical ability (F, 1/5).
— Sword fighting (F, 1/5).
— Dagger fighting (F, 1/5).
— Axe fighting (F, 1/5).
— Mace fighting (F, 1/5).
— Spear fighting (F, 1/5).
— Hand-to-hand combat (F, 1/5).

I skimmed through the list. There were plenty of options, covering almost all bladed weapons. It was hard to miss the fact that all the skills were combat ones. There were no offers of teaching me to grow flowers or play chess with great skill. It didn't take a genius to figure out that the game would focus on fighting. Not the cheeriest conclusion to make.
The events seemed less and less like a dream and more like virtual reality, in the way science fiction authors liked to describe it.  Sadly, scientists had never managed to invent those ‘full-immersion capsules’. Like any potential psychopath, I couldn't accept the possibility of my own madness, just like other, even crazier theories. Let's not get carried away. Let's assume that I really will have to fight, and I need to pick the most useful skill right now. Of course, I would have preferred a firearm, but there were no range weapons in the list. There was magic, however...

Minor magical ability
Rank: F.
Level: 1/5.
Type: Characteristic.
Uncovers the Wisdom parameter (86%) +1 point.
— Instills the basics of magical ability, however, you will need to go a long way before you can gain some benefit from it.

The first thing I noticed that it was a characteristic and not a skill. Basically, it was a way to gain a ninth parameter. As the help showed, the numbers in brackets that kept popping up were the ‘match value of the term’. It seemed that wisdom was responsible for magical abilities, while the term itself was taken from a game and reflected the matter quite closely. For those 86%.
What idiot would say no to magic? But something stopped me from acting rashly. Was it really the best option? Could it be a trick? For example, there was no guarantee that there would be combat spells available. Or if there were, that they would be strong enough. Everyone had at least a vague idea of how to use a sword, but what about magic? Not even magic but something similar to this term? It's quite an ill-defined notion in Earth's culture. I started at the table, deep in thought, looking for a hint.

Attention (Intuition)! The existing combat skills are insufficient. The characteristic is not recommended as the first choice.

Aha... Looked like it was a bad idea. The hint actually gave me more than it seemed at first glance. If magic was not recommended as the first choice, did it mean that there would be opportunities to obtain it later? I hoped so. I couldn't see any classes here, so I shouldn’t hurry and follow clichés. Let's go over it all again...
Why is it here at all, if it's not recommended? As a trick? Or is it simply an option for those who are already masters of combat? Or professional soldiers at the least? Whatever, what's next on the list?

Sword fighting

Rank: F.
Level: 1/5.
Type: skill.
Teaches one how to use a sword.
— Slightly adjusts the body for the chosen weapon type.

I scanned the list of other skills. They were surprisingly repetitive, with the only difference being the kind of weapon I'd learn to use. I had the same problem here as with magic. I had to hope that I would be given a weapon later on, otherwise I'd have to choose hand-to-hand combat. Since magic was not recommended...

Attention (Intuition)! The characteristic is not recommended as the first choice.

Or not. These types of hints appeared with a delay, almost reluctantly. But nothing of the sort appeared when I looked at the weapon skills. Therefore, it made sense to assume that I’d be given a weapon. Let's stick with that. Otherwise, I could end up being too clever for my own good.

Attention! If you do not make a selection in 5 minutes, the skill will be chosen randomly.


Yet another timer forcing me to hurry. Grr... What was the point? Well, five minutes was quite enough to review my options again. Especially since the timer seemed to apply to choosing a skill and not as an overall limit.
The choice of optimal weapon usually depended on the balance stipulated by game developers, which could be completely different from real life. Since I had no other options, I decided to base my decisions on reality. As much as I could, really, considering that my knowledge of medieval weapons was mostly theoretical. It was based on books, films, and games, of course...
Alright, let's start again. The sword is the ‘king of weapons’ and seems like the obvious choice. I'm sure that most players, who don't pick magic, will pick a sword. Whether this is the right decision will largely depend on opponents. For example, what am I going to do with a sword if I have to fight against wild animals? Such as a bear? Plus, a sword is quite a broad term. It can be two-handed, one-handed or even a mix of the two, a bastard sword. It could have a variety of sizes, weights and shapes of the blade and cross guard. And this variety is not just for fun, each option is designed for a particular situation and a particular opponent. Still, it wasn't a bad option.
Magic. Let's go over it again. I would have to be guided by common sense and guesses rather than facts. I didn't need to mention how ‘strong’ it was in real life, but it was endlessly popular in gaming. Mages are usually powerful in later stages of the game, but have difficulty leveling up and are weaker than fighters at the beginning. And there was no guarantee that I would be given combat spells. Should I ignore the warning? No, if I was sure that I’d have access to magic only at the start, I’d have done so, but... For some reason, this time I was certain that I would get another chance.
Daggers? Not a serious weapon. They're too short and are only good against an unarmed opponent. It's more of an accessory weapon. To finish off a wounded enemy, to slice some bread... I discarded the idea.
Axe... Not only a weapon but also a useful tool. However, it's almost impossible to block attacks with an axe and it requires a shield to go with it, or better yet, a full suit of armor.
Mace... Worse than an axe in many ways, although it has its pluses. It’s unlikely to get stuck in an opponent's corpse. And there'd be less blood. In the Middle Ages, warrior monks had used blunt weapons specifically to circumvent the religious ban on spilling blood. Not that I had taken such vows, so I might as well look for something else.
I glanced down the list and stopped at the next item.

Spear fighting
Rank: F.
Level: 1/5.
Type: skill.
— Teaches one how to use a spear.
— Slightly adjusts the body for the chosen weapon type.

Not the most obvious option but probably the most universal. I had no idea whom I'd have to fight against, while a spear was suitable against both animals and humans. The main advantage, and simultaneously, the disadvantage, was the weapon's length. It limited its use indoors and at close range, but enabled one to keep an opponent some distance away and, in most cases, to land the first blow. In a bout between a swordsman and a spear fighter, with no armor and roughly equal skill, I would probably place my bets on the latter.
In addition, if I wasn’t issued a spear after all, I'd be able to make a primitive one myself. If the location allowed me to find a stick, of course.


Time was slipping away and I couldn’t put my decision off any longer...

Attention! Do you wish to study the skill 'Spear fighting'?


As soon as I made my choice, the world seemed to explode and unfamiliar knowledge poured into my brain. The foundations... Types of spears, stances, how to correctly hold, thrust and slash, how to care for the weapon. Having obtained the basics, I followed my intuition and focused my attention on one of the memories, in which a young warrior skillfully used an infantry spear.  It was two-meters long, with a wide blade that allowed him to stab and slash. It wasn't created for fighting in formation, it was a loner’s weapon. As soon as I concentrated on the image, the flow of memories changed, focusing on this type of spear in particular. It was as if I had gone through many months or even years of training in those short moments.
The ‘teachers’ passed by in quick succession, but their opponents remained only blurred silhouettes. Shadows. The picture gradually dulled and began to fade, indicating that the course was coming to an end. I felt disappointment, as if there was something missing. Something important for my... survival? I needed... I needed more. If I would be forced to kill, I needed more than bare theory.

Attention! Checking access rights of (Eighth)... Approved. Censoring (51%) has been removed!

What bloody censorship? The picture grew brighter again and shimmered as scenes of battle appeared. The opponents became flesh and blood, and new knowledge flooded into me, albeit of a different kind. How it feels when a weapon plunges into flesh, pleas for mercy and the splash of blood on the face. The shock of the first kill, replaced by the indifference of a hardened professional. And corpses, corpses, corpses. Mainly human, but there were other creatures whose names I didn't know. One who wants to live needs to be able to kill. It was not my thought but it felt so right.


I came to, lying on the floor and struggling to catch my breath. I had a body again. I tried to remember the last battle scenes, but the faces of those killed were blurry as if decades had passed, and evoked no strong emotions. My cramped muscles were gradually relaxing. The very same muscles that I needed for spear fighting, and many of which I hadn't used since birth. The stone floor wasn't especially cold but I knew that such sensations could be misleading and made myself get up. It seemed that I had been lying here for quite some time...
I was right. No matter what this was, it felt nothing like a dream. Such dreams didn’t exist – everything was too realistic, my thoughts were too clear, everything was just... too much! I wasn't wearing any clothes, which I could consider as indirect evidence that I had landed here straight from my warm bed, since I normally slept naked. My own body looked utterly familiar, including the moles, scars and even dental fillings. I pinched myself, already knowing the result. It hurt.
"Looks like I'm here in the flesh," I muttered just to hear my own voice. "The question is, where is ‘here’?"
A chill ran down my spine, intermingled with anticipatory fear. It looked like this would be interesting, at the least. Not the cleverest and in many ways, artificial thought, but right now, it kept the panic at bay. If life had taught me anything, it was to keep myself under control in critical situations.
I was in a strange room of around ten by ten meters, with a slightly glowing ceiling and a single set of doors. Or perhaps they should have been called ‘gates’, for doors seemed too trivial a name for them, stone-bound and decorated with an ornament, even if they were a bit small. I hoped it was a real exit and not some sort of fresco.
The temperature was rather comfortable and I had enough air, although I couldn't see any source of ventilation. There was nothing in my memories to tell me how I’d gotten here. The last thing I remembered was coming home and crashing into bed. I could have had a memory blackout, but it seemed unlikely...
“Fine,” I licked my dry lips. If I couldn't get out of here, I didn't know what would kill me first: a lack of air, thirst or fear.
I was forced to console myself with the thought that if someone had cast me into this room, it was unlikely so I could die in here needlessly. I had to keep going, especially as the route was clear. And no, I didn't mean the gates. A semitransparent bag hung in the air nearby. So, this was virtual reality, after all? My whole life experience contradicted the facts, so I couldn't quite puzzle it out. It was pointless to keep guessing, but if this wasn't a hint, then I knew nothing about games. As soon as I touched the strap, the bag became solid and dropped over my shoulder. It didn't feel too heavy but it certainly wasn't empty.

Bottomless bag

Class: F.
Status: System artifact.
Bag for a beginner. Part of a basic kit issued to all players.
Allows system items to be carried between locations (83%). Items not belonging to the System will disappear on transfer.
— Conceals the size.
— Reduces the weight of stored items tenfold.
— Slightly slows down spoilage of stored items.
— Scalability (1/7). Can be improved by combining with identical items.

The help worked in the ‘real world’ too, and the descriptions were quite helpful this time. I tipped the bag upside down and spilt its contents onto the floor. Bingo! A pile of clothing, underwear, boots, a flask of water. I screwed the cap back on. Judging by the smell, all these goodies hadn't appeared out of thin air but had been lying in storage for many years.
Remembering the System's love of timers, I tried to get dressed as quickly as possible. As I did, I tried to examine the items I'd been given, but the clothing was very simple with a paramilitary style. Pants, shirt, a jacket with pockets for... armor plates? It reminded me of a bulletproof vest. The clothing was free size and was easily adjusted to fit me using archaic belts and ropes. The boots were a little big but fitted fine with foot wrappings. I hopped on the spot, noting that the outfit was surprisingly comfortable.
Although the flask was silver, the water inside wasn't of great quality, stale but still drinkable. I hoped so, at least. I rinsed out my month, put it back in the bag and finally noticed a small steel plate with an image of a spear on it.

Execute initial activation of the Weapon Card?

Yes. Images of different types of spears appeared in my head, as if inviting me to choose. Long and short, throwing spears and cavalry spears, they zoomed through my mind in endless succession. I focused, trying to imagine the right type, since I doubted that I would be given a choice every time. A beam of light finally shot out of the card, which formed into a spear.
"Damn it," I muttered, grabbing the shaft. "Life didn't prepare me for this."
The spear was around two meters in length, and made from a type of hardwood. The wide, leaf-shaped tip could be used to slash and stab. Yari? Bear spear? I had trouble with the classification but it was the exact type of spear that I had focused on during my skill training. It was exactly what I wanted to get. Apart from a machine gun, of course.

System Spear

Rank: F.
Material: gun steel, unknown wood.
Length: 2 m.
Weight: 3 kg.
System Weapon. Enables the owner to absorb 40% of the spiritual and life force of the victim.

So, what could I tell from all this? Firstly, there were no damage indicators typical of games. Secondly, the weapon was of high quality, but I doubted that I was its first owner. There were slight scuffs on the shaft, dark spots and fine scratches on the blade...  The spear had clearly been used long and hard.
I looked at the card again. It had changed after activation and was now showing the exact spear I held in my hands and not some abstract one. The card itself now looked faded. I immediately wondered if I could return the weapon. The answer was simple. As soon as I touched the spear to the card and made a wish, it instantly turned into a beam of light and disappeared inside, while the card regained its colors. Here and now, alongside everything else, this seemed quite normal. Also, I tried to guess the size of the ‘armor plate’ pockets in my jacket and found to my surprise that they matched the dimensions of the card.
I recalled the weapon and made a couple of practice moves. The spear felt perfect in my hand, as if I had spent a long time mastering the craft. Or was it just a skill for now? I tried a spin but it wasn't too impressive – my new-found mastery didn't extend to such tricks. There weren't many moves but they were extremely practical. The level of a soldier from the Middle Ages rather than a Shaolin monk. Save one's strength, don’t leave oneself open and, whenever possible, land the first blow. Not necessarily a mortal one, for even a superficial wound sharply reduced an enemy's fighting ability. Pure pragmatism...
I suddenly felt a mild alarm but didn't understand the reason at once. There wasn't a clear warning this time, but somewhere at the edge of my consciousness, an invisible timer was counting down the last few minutes given for preparation.

(2:34… 2:33… 2:31)

I wasn't going to check what a delay would entail. I returned the weapon to the card, slid it into a pocket on my chest, slung the bag over my shoulder and headed to the one and only ‘door’. If this was a dream, I would believe it once I woke up. If this was virtual reality, then, considering the lack of such technology on my home planet, I would probably wake up in the tender tentacles of some aliens. Well, if this was something else... At some point, the situation would become clear. There was no point in torturing myself with doubts, I needed more facts.
As soon as I pressed my palm to the gates, a new message appeared:

Attention! Destination selection is impossible!
First trial!
Select difficulty level:*

Minimum (F)/Easy (E)/Normal (D)/Above normal (C)/High (B)/Very high (A)/Maximum (S)

*The higher the level, the higher the reward.

Right, and the higher the likelihood of defeat. I’d have to be an idiot to choose the maximum difficulty without having any idea of what was going on. Especially since the default level was F. But would that be too cowardly?
I paused and then moved the cursor one step to the right. Strangely, this calmed me down. I dropped my head to one shoulder, moved the cursor a bit further and felt a stab of fear. Even further? I felt even worse. OK, let's stop at easy level.

Attention! Decision has been recorded!

Task No. 1
Type: Defense.
The Celestial City of Sar, once belonging to a race of... searching for counterpart... goblins (83%).  Their... searching for counterpart... gods (57%) were defeated and vanquished. However, for as long as not all altars are captured and the city still stands, the battle continues and hope remains!
Number of players: 1000.
Global aim:
Difficulty level: A.
— Reach and defend the central altar. Repel the assault on the city.
City defenders.
— Allied Players.
Presumed enemies:
System Creatures.
— Chaos Creatures.
Local aim:
Chosen difficulty level: E.
— Survive for a minimum of 24 hours.
— Obtain Level 2.
First mission bonus: earned System Points are doubled.
— The Player's rank increases.
— Shard coordinates.
— Soul Stone.
— Temporary access to the Server.
Penalty for failure:

All I needed to do was reach Level 2? It didn't sound that difficult. Probably...
The door opened but all I saw beyond was a strange mist. I cautiously stuck out my card, and once I had made sure that nothing happened to it, took a step forward. Time was running out, and what other choice did I have, anyway?

Chapter 2. All You Need is to Kill.

I fell from a decent height and rolled along the ground, my body painfully striking several rocks. I kept silent despite the pain and immediately got back on my feet and pulled the spear out of the card. Although I couldn't see any danger nearby, I didn't bother putting away the weapon.
The world around me looked... strange. Heavy clouds obscured the sky and hinted that it was going to rain soon. I had expected to land in the midst of battle after such a briefing, but if there had been a battle here, it was long over. The houses, their style reminiscent of the European Middle Ages mixed with Ancient Rome, were not quite in ruins but had fallen into disrepair, and had been abandoned by their inhabitants quite a few years ago. Not centuries, though, since even the wooden structures were still standing, to say nothing of the stone ones.  Could it be that the intelligence obtained by the System was several decades out of date? As if it was reading my mind, the System reacted,

Attention! Correcting task!

Task No. 1

Type: Looting.
The Celestial City of Sar, once belonging to a race of goblins (83%). Their gods (57%) were defeated and vanquished. Although their enemies withdrew, a necromantic curse (65%) hangs over the capital. The city's central districts are controlled by the undead (93%), while the outskirts are being looted by the surviving defenders and their descendants. Formerly allies, the living and the dead now fight each other for access to the altar.
Global aim:
Difficulty level: A.
— Capture the altars(?) of the fallen gods and dedicate them to a new owner.
Varies depending on the choice.
Players (1000/1000).
Assumed enemies:
System Creatures.
— The Undead.
— Goblinoids.
Local aim:
Chosen difficulty level: E.
— Obtain Level 2.
— Survive for 24 hours.
First mission bonus: earned System Points are doubled.
— The Player's rank increases.
— Soul Stone.
— Temporary access to the Server (50%).
— Shard coordinates.
Penalty for failure:
Unknown... Correcting...
— Player status reduced to Hero status (84%).
— Inability of system return to the home location until the global aim is achieved.

I read the last point and frowned. Change in status to Hero level? Following the game's logic, this didn't sound promising. Inability to return to the ‘home location’? Did it mean Earth? On one hand, this didn't sound good at all, but on the other hand, it suggested that if I achieved the local aim, I would be able to return home. It was better than the uncertainty before the information had corrected itself.
I automatically licked a scratch on my arm and pulled a face. All the stats, tasks and parameters indicated a game, but the taste of blood, dirt and saliva were real. I kneeled, examining the grass growing between the pavement slabs, pulled out a stalk and turned it around in my hands. A bird chirped overhead. Taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight were all too realistic for me to believe that it could be a mirage. Although my body felt unusually light, as if a weight had dropped from my shoulders. I performed a little jump. Was it higher than normal? Either I had suddenly gained a lot of strength or the gravity here was slightly lower. Not a huge difference but certainly noticeable. How would it affect my reflexes?
Deciding where to go wasn't much of an issue. If you have neither map nor compass, all you can do is wander blindly. First, it would be good to find some cover.
I strode towards the closest building that looked like it hopefully wouldn't collapse in the near future. It was immediately clear that I hadn't been the first. The house had been completely cleared out. Even the furniture had been chopped up for firewood, although the fireplace hadn't been lit in a long time. I remembered the second briefing. It was hard to imagine that the looting had been done by the undead. It seemed more logical to assume that I had landed somewhere near the outskirts and had every chance of meeting some goblins. Or something similar, since the match value was only 83%. They could look quite different to the ‘traditional image’. It was something to keep in mind.
As I had rightly worried, even a small difference in gravity had a substantial effect on the accuracy of my movements. Familiar actions required a different amount of force and my body needed time to adjust. I found a suitable area and spent about ten minutes performing careful spins with the spear to get used to the changes, trying not to make too much noise and not forgetting to glance around from time to time. It wasn't enough, I really needed weeks of training but I didn't have enough time. I had to keep moving since I was only given a day for everything.
Since I had nothing better to do, I started collecting samples as I walked, throwing bunches of unfamiliar grasses into my bag. I threw them in with the roots intact since they didn't take up much space. If this was a different world, even the weeds had enormous research value. Although, judging by the description of the bag, I'd have difficulty bringing them home. But perhaps I could level it up to Level 2?
I could see no enemies nearby, nor allies. Which was odd, considering the declared numbers. How were they doing, anyway?

Remaining players: 453/1000.

"Son of a..."
The counter blinked and the number changed to 451/1000. These losses reminded me to be cautious and I gave up on my weed collection. My allies were being massacred. Less than 30 minutes had passed and more than half of them were already dead. And it didn't look like this game had a respawn point. What would happen if I died here? I had no intention of finding out. Until I saw a respawn with my own eyes, I would behave as if I had been given only one life.
Sometime later, I discovered that the number of allies had more or less stabilized and felt a little calmer. I could only guess the reasons for such massive losses, but then I remembered the task correction. It was possible that some of the players, who had chosen the lowest difficulty level, had been dropped closer to ‘past allies’ who were now the undead. While those who had selected the higher difficulty levels had been sent to the front, where the goblins now wandered. There was a reason why they had been removed from the list of allies, right? A mistake. If I still believed that this was a game, it would have been easier to accept. Something gave me the chills again. Damn.
Carefully checking that the beams were still sturdy, I climbed up to the roof of a nearby building. I couldn't make out very much from the third floor but the city took up a huge area, sprawling below me in all directions.
Not far away, I spotted a lazy drift of smoke, an obvious sign of human presence. Or, in our case, goblins. I decided to head over there. Task, weapon, enemies. It wasn't hard to figure out how to gain experience points here. Time was passing and there was a chance that I wouldn't meet anybody if I kept wandering aimlessly. I didn't know if I would have the strength to fight a goblin, but I definitely had no desire to tackle the undead. Even if knew where to find them...
I laid aside the fact that I was planning to kill sentient beings. If goblins were even slightly like humans, they were bound to give me a cause for aggression. It was unlikely that I would come across women and children in a city filled with the undead, so I would probably find wandering warriors. The big question was which of us would die... The answer lay ahead of me.


I always suspected that modern people have problems with the sense of self-preservation. As soon as something explodes or bursts into flame, they run towards the source as if they're immortal. It looked like I was no exception.
A desperate, pain-filled scream came from beyond the houses and was sharply cut off.  Clearly, someone had just died and this was a powerful argument for heading in the other direction. Nevertheless, I did the opposite, carefully moving towards the potential danger.
What can I say... I was right. There were three goblins, and despite some differences with the ‘classical image’, they generally looked as I had expected. Black skin, around five feet tall, with unusual facial features and pointed ears that stopped me from confusing them with any human race. They didn't look like complete savages in the way that goblins are usually portrayed. Their clothing appeared quite decent, albeit slightly old-fashioned. Pants, kaftans and even some kind of armor. They were also quite well-armed, with simple but obviously metal weapons: a bear spear, an ax and a club.
By the time I arrived, my ‘fellow sapiens’ were almost done stripping a player's corpse. His equipment kit looked like mine, while this slightly overweight imbecile had picked a sword as his weapon. Why imbecile? Because he had been killed with the very same weapon, his neck half-severed. One of the goblins was admiring the trophy and in his hands, the relatively short weapon looked like a bastard sword. I narrowed my eyes, activating the help.

Goblin. Level 2

The same signs appeared above the heads of his companions, glowing blood red to clearly signal their enemy status. I felt a sense of dark satisfaction observing this scene. The question of whether killing goblins was ethical had smoothly transformed into a question of whether I would have enough strength for it.
Even while pillaging, the natives remained on guard, and my appearance was immediately spotted. I considered my prospects, put on a fake smile and headed towards them, casually holding my spear. How strong were they? How fast? Did I have any chance of winning? I judged my chances of running away as even lower since the modern world hadn't equipped me for endurance running and the goblins seemed smallish but hardy. Despite my expectations, they didn't rush to greet me with happy squeals, their faces instead showing something akin to fear. It appeared that they had met humans before and were wary of them, to say the least.
"No. Player mumble-mumble. Mumble-mumble strong!" growled the leader, leaning on the sword and beating himself on the chest.  Although I couldn't understand most of the speech, a few words were quite clear. It seemed that the goblin knew several System words but it clearly wasn't enough for a proper conversation. There were other possibilities, of course... One of which my predecessor had tried, judging by the drawings in the dirt.
I didn't get a chance to inspect the scratches. One of the goblins, seeing the direction of my gaze, bashfully erased the evidence of past negotiations with his foot. The second creature hurriedly hid the severed head behind his back. What a picture — the player had tried diplomacy but was unsuccessful. They broke his legs, took his sword, made him kneel and then tried to chop his head off with the same sword, finishing the job using the axe. I didn't bother listening to them but switched to a run.
The goblins backed away, their leader swung the sword but needn't have bothered, obviously lacking the sword-fighting skills.  I slowed down and let the blade pass before me, then swung the spear and sliced through the goblin's throat. For a moment, I felt something pass through the spear shaft and into my body...

Attention! You have gained 4 SP! (4/20).

I twitched from the strange energy wave that swept through my body. Hmm, four System Points at once, not bad. A light appeared around the fallen goblin and a card floated away from his body and hung in the air. What the?
The brief distraction almost cost me my life. I barely managed to deflect the second goblin's spear, which he simply threw at me. Considering the lack of armor and close distance, this could have been the end. The third goblin leapt forward but his abilities didn't even reach Level 1 of the system skills. Easily parrying the swing of his club, I stabbed the spear into his chest without any pity. He had practically impaled himself on it. The goblin's eyes bulged, he clutched at the shaft as blood ran from his mouth, jerked several times and then died.

Attention! You have gained 2 SP! (6/20).

It was only half of what I had gotten last time, so it seemed that the number of System Points directly correlated with the enemy level. Hell, this isn't the time...
The spear head had gone in too deep, so I discarded it and picked up the trophy one.  Luckily, my opponent took this chance to escape rather than attack. I took a run up and flung the spear with all my might after him. It whistled through the air and pierced him in the back. There was no message this time, so after collecting my own weapon, I cautiously approached the fallen enemy. Was he pretending? No, the goblin was dead and unlike the leader, he wasn't wearing any chain mail so the spear had gone right through him. An impressive pool of blood had already gathered under the body. The corpses looked quite realistic in this ‘game’ and I could have probably used them to study goblin anatomy if I so wished. Hmm, coming back to collecting samples, should I stick one of them in my bag? A goblin weighed about 40 kilograms and even if my bag reduced the weight tenfold, it would still be four extra kilos. Moreover, even though the corpse was still glowing, there was no guarantee that I could take it with me. Fine, I'd leave that for the future.
The triple murder and the bodies lying on the ground triggered no special emotions in me, as if I had done this dozens of times before. No feelings of disgust or a need to empty my stomach. Even the smell of blood seemed vaguely familiar... for all that today had been the first time I had killed an intelligent being, even if it wasn't human.  I doubted this was due to my natural equanimity, more likely a consequence of the learnt skill. Although the absence of guilt was likely unrelated to that. I really did think that the goblins deserved to die. I am sure that given the chance, they would have happily finished me off.
Speaking of which, I hadn't gotten any points for the last kill. I even jabbed my spear into the body a couple of times but to no avail. I concluded that I had to kill using the System weapons, otherwise it didn't count. A total of 6 SP for the skirmish, while I needed 20 to reach the next level. So, to complete the task, I needed to kill another seven first-level goblins. A victim number that not even many maniacs could boast of...
Nevertheless, these thoughts didn't stop me from looting. I first approached the semi-transparent card that still hung in the air against all laws of nature. Looks like the game has loot? As soon as I grabbed it, the card solidified and turned into a blank steel plate. Interesting.

Clean skill card

Rank: F.
Allows one of the Player's skills to be recorded by paying for it in full.
0/10 SP

Why do I need it if I can purchase any skill directly from the System? Or... Mentally, as if I had done this hundreds of times before, I called up the menu and found the relevant section.

Attention! Connection with the Server is lost! Skill base is unavailable!

Great, just great. I remembered the thousands of skills that I hadn't even looked through properly, believing that there would be time in the future. If leveling up was random here, this severely limited my choice of strategy.  Plus, it was going to be harder to obtain magic. There was some good news – I didn't need the connection to look through skills I’d already acquired. I could even improve them. The second level of spear fighting cost 20 SP. Alright, now wasn't the best time for digging around in the interface.
There was no other System loot but there were the dead player's items.

System Sword

Rank: F.
Material: steel.
Length: 75 cm.
Weight: 1.3 kg.
System Weapon. Enables the owner to absorb 40% of the spiritual and life force of the victim.

I swung the blade a few times but felt no enthusiasm. Without the appropriate skill, the sword was more dangerous to me than to my opponent. It took some time to find the card, which I eventually found on the main goblin. I inserted the sword back inside it and stuck it into one of my many pockets.
Remembering about the bottomless bag, I took the second one, reread the description and, without thinking too much about it, tried to put the new bag inside the old one. The bags resisted. It was like trying to connect two magnets, but I eventually succeeded.
Do you wish to combine items?

As soon as I picked ‘yes’, the bag made a hungry chomping sound and swallowed its twin. That's it?

Bottomless bag (2/7)

That's it. The bag's appearance didn't change at all and its characteristics remained at the same level. To complete the transformation, I had to feed the cannibal bag another five of its fellows. Where would I get them? A rhetorical question. I doubted this was going to be the last time that I would meet some goblins. Plus, sooner or later, I was going to come across other players.
Having finished my pillaging, I placed the other player's equipment in my bag, as well as the few goblin items that were worth keeping. The axe, a couple of silver ornaments, a small pot, a handful of coins, several bags of grain, salt, a knife... I thought about it and also took their water flasks. Although not much time had passed, mine was already half empty, and I had no idea where to find water. The state of the local microflora, bacteria and other such things also remained an interesting and unanswered question. One that I wasn't going to worry about right now, since I could do nothing about it. Easier to discard these unhelpful thoughts than to try and find evidence of a strange alien disease in myself. Interestingly, the player kits, although similar, also had minor differences. Another small detail to add to my collection of facts.
I threw the extra weapons into some underbrush. I didn't touch the bodies since I had no way of hiding the evidence of the slaughter. I simply covered the fallen human with the goblin's cloak, which wasn't long enough and left his head and feet sticking out from underneath.
The easy victory did not go to my head as I was aware of how closely I had skirted death. If everything had gone a bit differently, if there had been more goblins, it would have been my body lying on the ground. My next step was clear — find other players. Of whom 402 still remained, including me. The drop in our numbers had slowed down but hadn't stopped. I needed allies. Only an idiot would try to fight alone when there was an opportunity to join with others like him. The humans were bound to start gathering in bands, and if I didn't find companions now, I was likely to have problems with more than goblins in the future. I was certain that sooner or later, someone would have the bright idea of checking how many points were awarded for killing a human. Not now, but closer to the System deadline. It was a big city and it took time to find goblins... Humans too, but I doubted that the System had dispersed us too far. Or perhaps my view of things was overly gloomy?

Release - October 7, 2020
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