"It's your call, big-ears. Should we stay together, or split up?"
My sister continued playing up our original conceit, putting on a show for potential observers that we "didn't know one another and met coincidentally." Good girl. She was acting out the role admirably. For a fourteen-year-old girl, it was just a perfect job. I agreed with her:
"Together good. We two be together night, no die," I answered the Forest Nymph and the girl's face lit up.
"Great! Because I, to be honest, am afraid of the dark. I know it's stupid, all the more so in a computer game, but there's nothing I can do. Now is the exact time to determine how we can best complement one another. I'll take Cartography as a primary skill..."
Plant! The way I felt at that moment was probably exactly how a casino patron feels after winning a jackpot. I forgot about everything on earth and threw myself at an inconspicuous bush with wide, lobed leaves and underripe greenish-red berries. My Herbalism skill finally activated, leveling my Perception up to five, and Agility to twelve.
Unlike the other bushes and trees nearby, this plant lit up green when I got near, indicating that it was possible to interact with. I ripped down a handful of the underripe berries.
Swamp Currant (alchemy ingredient)
Experience received: 4 Exp
My Herbalism bar filled up by ten percent. Cool! Another ten bunches of berries and it’ll be level two! But right after I ripped down one bunch, the bush stopped glowing. I couldn't take any of the other berries from it. I had to look for other usable plants.
"Big-ears, you need to stay on task!" My sister chided me, unhappy with the fact that I had gotten distracted by a berry bush.
But I didn't think myself guilty and tried to explain my actions:
"Plant, me getting-getting. Sight jump on up. Good for look nighttime. Nine herb finding. See all, good."
My visual radius really did grow noticeably as my Perception increased to five, which also raised our chances of surviving the night in this forest, which was swarming with dangerous beasts. So raising my Herbalism skill to level two and as a result increasing my Perception and visual radius had become a priority mission.
Despite the confusing nature of my explanation, Valerianna understood me perfectly:
"Alright, Amra. Gather your herbs and level up Perception. It's helpful to us both. I took Cartography as a primary skill. That's another one that levels Intelligence. It also gives more light radius on the map, and could end up allowing us to discover many useful locations. But we need to worry about more than just seeing far; we also need to make sure no predators see us. That's why I'm taking Stealth as a secondary skill. On top of my racial bonus as a Nymph of 50% to discovery radius, that should be no problem. You also chose Stealth, I realized that as soon as we met. And also, your Agility will be higher than mine, so I'm not too worried about you. Just turn off the bright colors when you level up in the game settings. After all what's the point of us being invisible, if at the worst possible moment, you level up some skill and light up like a firework?"
It was a very practical piece of advice. I called up the game settings menu and chose the visual effect window, then turned all the colorful illumination off. Of course, all these multi-colored little glowing lights looked pretty, but they were really inappropriate for a forest at night.
Beyond that, I hadn't forgotten about another tool useful to my survival: the Night Vision skill I had gotten when I became a level 2 Vampire. I didn't say it out loud, but activated it when it got dark, which cost 15 Endurance points. The world became more contrasting in color, and I could clearly make out a bright silhouette far in the distance, which must have been some kind of forest creature.
"Me seeing enemy. There. Skull mark," I whispered to the Nymph, and she commented just as quietly:
"If there is a red skull marker over a beast, that means the difference in levels is more than twenty, so we'd better stay away. And if the skull is black, the difference is more than fifty levels, so we’d be goners for sure."
The skull was red. It could have been worse, but still we walked a wide arc around the enemy. As we walked, I watched with unhidden surprise how quickly my Stealth skill bar was filling up. I just needed a few more meager points for the skill to hit level three. I even wanted to stay there intentionally and wait a few minutes, but my sister dragged me forward:
"I assure you, Amra, that is not the only monster in this forest. And if we have to walk a big circle around every one, we'll never get anywhere. In just one minute, according to the rules of Boundless Realm, night will fall, so there will be even more dangerous beasts about."
I looked at the timer. There were a few seconds remaining before nine in the evening. Not long after that, a few messages jumped up on my screen:
Night is not a good time for walks outside the city.
Mission received: Survive the night outside of city walls
Mission class: One-time, personal
Reward: 160 Exp, +2 stat points
Additional mission received: Find safe shelter
Mission class: Optional
Reward: 80 Exp, one random piece of equipment
Based on the fact that my sister was also frozen, she had just gotten the same messages. The Nymph turned to me and whispered:
"If I can complete both missions I'll get exactly enough experience to reach level five. But now, not a word. We'll walk the rest of the night in Stealth mode without talking. Most nocturnal predators don't need to see you to find you. They hunt with their ears."
* * *
THE CREATORS of Boundless Realm had managed to recreate the atmosphere of a spooky, deadly swamp forest perfectly. The howling and roaring of predators could be heard from all directions. Sometimes we would hear something hooting above us and laughing evilly, every time making my heart freeze in fear. Several times, on the very edge of my vision, I noticed some ghastly silhouettes scurrying by. Every one of them had a red skull over their head. My sister and I were constantly forced to change the direction we were walking or hide among the gnarled roots of ancient trees, waiting out some nearby danger.
There were monsters everywhere. Only by some kind of miracle were we able to remain unnoticed. Freezing in fear, we were terrified of giving ourselves away with our footsteps, breathing or just heartbeats. Once, when Valerianna stepped on a dry branch and it snapped, I practically pissed myself in a very real sense.
But at that, I was clever enough to gather some plants on our journey: Swamp Currant, Swamp Blackberry, and Swamp Horsetail. When I had gotten Herbalism to level two, the variety of valuable herbs and berries I found immediately grew as well. By level three, Bitter Lily-of-the-Valley, Wild Heather, Bitter Wormwood and Wild Clover had all become old hat. I was elated to have found a bag, otherwise I wouldn't have had enough slots in my inventory to store all these different herbs.
At a certain point, the Forest Nymph carefully touched my shoulder and pointed in the direction of a far-away looming black splotch. Danger? It turned out to be the opposite. My sister was insisting that we turn in the direction of whatever that was. Soon, I could also see why she was interested. On the local map, there was a marker showing three interlocking gray rings. As the interactive hint told us, that symbol stood for a respawn point.
Then, hiding behind a shaggy lichen-covered tree, we hid from an overgrown wolf the size of a fatted calf that ran across our path. After that, we rushed to the marker on the map. And also from afar, I felt the earth below our feet start to tremble. In that place, I could feel some kind of natural force. The center of the anomaly was a huge boulder dug into the earth on top of a small hill. The boulder was covered with worn-down carved runes in a language I didn’t recognize.
"We can talk here no problem," my sister assured me. "NPC's don't come near respawn points. The game mechanics don't allow it. That is why the only people you need to worry about in these places are living players. Scoundrels commonly use a method where they provoke their victim to aggression or tempt them to steal, thus making that person get the Criminal marker. After that, they can kill them unpunished and wait at the same respawn point, killing them again and again, getting experience and dropped items as they do so. But you're not like that, are you Amra? Can I leave the game here? It's safe here, so I'll survive the night. Of course, I'd like to finish the side quest, but my eyes are starting to sag."
"Nymph sleeping. Amra no is evil. No bad Goblin," I assured Valerianna, though I did get slightly upset that my sister had temporarily left me.
From her perspective, I could easily understand – it was already after midnight, and the fourteen-year-old girl really should have been sleeping some time ago. Normally, I put her to bed at nine or ten, so today she had surpassed her average activity level by a good deal. The little Nymph took a seat on an outcropping of warm stone and closed her eyes. I called out to her, but no reaction followed. My sister had signed off.
What should I do, then? Should I also just be happy to have finished the primary mission and go to sleep? There was an internal voice telling me that option was obviously mistaken, and would not make my employer happy. What kind of game tester was I, if I was satisfied with the slightest bit of play, and would now sit stupidly in one place for a few hours? Also, I only needed seventeen experience points to reach level four, and I could easily get that by gathering forest plants.
And, if you thought about it, where would I go in the real world when I crawled out of the virtual reality capsule? It was the middle of the night outside. The metro and trolley-buses weren't running, and I wouldn't be able to convince a cabbie to bring me to the crime-ridden outskirts of the megalopolis. Even the police tried not to go there at night. That meant it was decided. I would continue to play alone, even though it was twice as dangerous.
Do you really want to change your respawn point?
Yes, of course. I definitely didn't want to start the game over from that far-off Orcish galley, if I did get eaten by some monster. I sighed and walked off decisively into the dark night. And three minutes later, I had already found a fairly well trodden path. On my map, it was shown as a thin red line.
If there was a road, that meant there must have also been someone walking on it, cutting vegetation and keeping it in order. But where should I go, right or left? For some reason, I couldn't make up my mind. Both ways led into the dense, deadly forest. Should I flip a coin to let fate herself make the decision?
I took a heptagonal silver coin from my inventory with a round hole in the middle, which was to allow you to wear it as a necklace. So then, if the coin fell with the carved forest tower up, I'd go right. If it fell with the... what was that, anyway? The coin was old and worn and the drawing could barely be made out. It was probably a dragon, or maybe it was an octopus. It didn't matter. If that weird creature fell up, I'd go left. I threw the coin and caught it gracefully in the air. I unclenched my fingers. The up-side was showing the dragon or octopus creature.
At that moment, I noticed that the interactive map was showing a red marker suspiciously close to me. Too close. There was a monster next to me. I turned in fear and, a step from me, saw an overgrown wolf looking like the one my sister and I had hidden from.
Seasoned Forest Wolf, level 27
The red skull over the forest predator's head confirmed that the difference between us made up more than twenty levels. Epic fail. That's what I got for walking around without my sister. At least the respawn point was very close. There was absolutely no reason to run. Even less to fight...
Successful check for Seasoned Forest Wolf reaction
Experience received: 20 Exp
The wolf's marker on the map unexpectedly changed from red to yellow. I suspect that was my Goblin racial bonus of +30 to reaction of all forest and swamp beasts. But I never imagined that would actually come in handy. For some reason, the Seasoned Wolf didn't walk away, instead looking at me in curiosity and sniffing. What did it want from me?
I unbuttoned my side bag and took out some Rat meat. It's gnashing teeth practically ripped my fingers off. I even winced for a few seconds. The wolf swallowed the food, slightly waved its tail just like a dog, and began staring at me again with its unblinking yellow eyes. I dismissed the suggestion to take Animal Empathy (Ch I) as a secondary skill, then fed the wolf the remaining two pieces of Rat meat I had on me.
"That all. Food no," I told the predator and showed my empty hands.
The wolf sniffed around me incredulously, and even stuck his impudent snout into my bag to make sure he wasn't being tricked. And only after that did the toothy predator turn away from me and retreat. The animal's marker on the map acquired a green color. Friendship. Well, alright...
"Wait! Goblin house live where?" I asked aloud.
The thought that an animal might understand my speech seemed nonsensical. On the other hand, it was no worse than my idea to gnaw off my own thumb, which had actually worked. The wolf turned to me, looked for a long time with an unblinking gaze, then unexpectedly lay down on its belly.
SYSTEM ERROR! You cannot change class from Herbalist to Wolf Rider
Would you like to choose Animal Riding (A Ch) as a secondary skill?
I refused the tempting suggestion, then climbed up on the animal's back. The wolf stood just then and got scared, hiding in the bushes. I had to jump up so the branches wouldn't scratch my face. On the map, a whole group of red markers showed up, indicating hostile creatures. And we were going, as it were, right in their direction.
Successful check for Seasoned Forest Wolf reaction
Experience received: 20 Exp
Successful check for Seasoned Forest Wolf (female) reaction
Experience received: 16 Exp
Successful check for Seasoned Forest Wolf reaction
Experience received: 20 Exp
Racial ability unlocked: Search for life (lasts 3 hours, discovery radius: Perception * 2m, uses 20 EP)
I didn't manage to come to from the cascade of messages before the Seasoned Wolf took off at full speed, crossed a shallow stream and unexpectedly stopped before some kind of long, dark barricade. I looked more carefully at the object and recognized it as a stockade fence three times my height, thickly crisscrossed with thorny ivy and made of weathered beams driven into the earth. It was a well-made fence. Its creators must have spared nothing in its construction. The wolf lowered down on its belly, showing with all its appearance that the ride was over.
I had barely jumped onto the earth before the predator silently disappeared into the forest, leaving me alone with the stockade. I walked the perimeter of the fence, cursing out an oath from the thick bushes. Everything was overgrown with the horrible ivy, its flexible vines covered with sharp thorns ten centimeters in length. Soon, I hit on the wooden gates. One side was ripped from the hinges and was lying on the ground, while another was coming off and just barely still standing. But both of them had deep grooves from the claws of some kind of gigantic predator in them. The fissures in the wood had grown dark with time. No matter what had happened here, it had happened quite a long time ago.
I walked carefully inside the barricade and saw a high dark blockhouse. Long ago, when the builders had made it, they had used beams of approximately a whole meter in diameter. I do not know what race this construction was made for, but it was more like a fortress than a simple residence. Its walls were incredibly thick, and it had very narrow arrowslit windows, that even a cat wouldn't be able to crawl through. And though the door of the building was sitting cordially open, I didn't rush inside.
First, I called up my Life Detection ability and walked a circle around the wooden opening. It was all clean. I couldn't detect the presence of any creatures inside. Only then did I get up on the porch and enter the building. Once inside, I saw a heavy beam that locked the door. I placed it in its slot.
Mission completed: Find safe shelter
Experience received: 80 Exp
It was a dark room. The only source of light was the narrow arrowslits. It had a small entryway, a stairway to the second floor and a neighboring room, which must have been a kitchen based on the massive table and fireplace made of cement-bound stones. I got up to the second floor, scraping my way up the high steps as I went. The sleeping room was clearly here. There was a huge bedroll made of old, stinking animal pelts, a stool, a small table and an empty box. And in the very middle of the room, there was a huge dark spot, dirty fragments of clothing and a great many old, picked-clean bones. I squirmed in horror and disgust. Based on what I could see, the previous owner of this building had been eaten in this very location, and the high stockade and thick gates had done nothing to save him.
Near the site of the bloody drama, next to the pelt bed, there was a pair of leather boots that looked about size thirty standing totally untouched. If I wanted to, I could have crawled into one with both legs, and it would have come up approximately to my belt. Based on that, this was the "random piece of equipment," I had been promised for finishing the quest. Yes, game developers knew how to joke, they just had a very particular sense of humor...
Before my eyes there appeared a yellow, semi-transparent image: a plate overlaid with a crossed fork and spoon. Based on that, my big-eared Goblin was getting hungry. I opened a page of more detailed information on my character. The hunger bar had fallen below twenty-five percent. The hint told me that I had just six hours left before I would suffer a penalty. But much worse was that, together with the hunger, I was now threatened by Thirst for Blood. My Sating the Thirst bar was only at 5/15, which threatened lots of problems five hours down the line. And though I could overcome normal hunger by eating the berries I'd gathered during the night, I had no desire whatsoever to turn into a Vampire who'd lost his mind from Thirst for Blood, unable to control his behavior.
So I made myself a mission. I had to eat before dawn, and it had to be meat and raw at that. That meant I had to go on a night hunt. But who could I kill if there were all these monsters of a much higher level than me walking around? And also, if I approached the problem from a simply technical perspective, how could I handle it? Certainly not with this pitiful kitchen knife, right? I needed another weapon, and it had to do damage that depended on my main stat, Agility. Bow, for example. But the Bow skill used both hands, and my left hand was still injured and wouldn't be able to hold a weapon for another day and a half. I needed a one-handed weapon with Agility. There just had to be something like that!
Finding such information while inside the Boundless Realm world was very difficult, so I called up the game menu and pressed the button "Leave the Game." I opened the virtual reality capsule and crawled out, taking off my helmet and suit immediately. Sitting in just my skivvies on a chair, I took out my smartphone and, before anything else, called my sister, wanting to tell her about finding shelter. Valeria answered, but it took her some time.
"Timur, it's one in the morning. I've been asleep for a while. What do you want?"
I told her about the blockhouse I'd found where she could finish the optional quest and told her what direction it was in, but I didn't hear any enthusiasm in my sister's voice.
"One hundred exp is not worth sacrificing my sleep and risking the experience I've already gotten. Without you, I'll be totally blind in the dark. I'll be eaten by wolves or something else, so I not only won't finish the side mission, I'll also fail the main one. But I’ll set my alarm for five in the morning, when it starts to get light again. If the nastier creatures are sleeping by that point, I'll come before sunup to your house and finish the side mission. Just make sure to send me a personal message about it in the game, otherwise there might be questions about how I was able to get the information about the shelter. Also, when are you coming home?"
I answered that I would be coming back no earlier than morning when municipal public transportation started running again, then hung up. After that, I went into the Boundless Realm forum and set about carefully studying the advice of authoritative players on weapon choice. There were in fact a good number of one-handed weapons with the main stat Agility in the game: One-handed Crossbows, Throwing Knives, Darts, all kinds of thrown pointed weapons, Bolases and a lot of other things.
I was most interested in the Blowgun, which allowed you to shoot needles and thorns. The guide informed me that I could also use various kinds of poisons on the thorns, which would be able to cause various negative effects to my victims: loss of orientation, stat reductions and even paralysis. Blowguns used the Exotic Weapon (A P) skill, and training in it allowed you to also use Lassos and Throwing Nets, though they were weapons that required using both hands.
A great option for me! That was that. I had more than enough thorns near my shelter on the ivy that wrapped around my stockade. And Horsetail, which had a hollow stem, as far as I'd seen, grew abundantly along the banks of the swamp. Not wasting time, I crawled back into the virtual reality capsule and headed off to get ready. I found a nearly meter-long tube and cut it right away. I cleaned it with a thin branch and was very satisfied with the result:
Hand-made blowgun (weapon)
It was harder to gather thorns. They were too hard to take off the ivy branches. I had to work for a long time with the knife before getting twenty spines to fill one slot of my inventory. I returned to the building, cut a few small fur-covered skin pieces from one of the old pelts and drove each one through with a long needle.
Hand-made blowgun ammunition, damage done (1-3)*Agility
And then finally, in my first test, I blew sharply and a thorn embedded itself deep into the wood wall of the building with a dull thump.
Would you like to choose Exotic Weapon (L P) as a secondary skill?
Would I?! That was all. I'd taken the last of the possible skills, then only at level ten could I add anything new to my character's abilities. I trained by shooting at targets I scratched into the wall, and was left very satisfied with the result. Finally, I had an appropriate weapon for my big-eared Goblin.
Of the stat points I'd received at level four, other than those that went by default into Strength and Constitution, I placed one into Intelligence, Agility and Perception. The detailed character information showed that where I was, at level one Exotic Weapons skill, considering the modifiers from Agility (now 14.15) and Taste for Blood (1.02), I was capable of dealing from 28 to 57 HP of damage. I was simply a horror of the night! Beware of me!
It was already past three in the morning, so I didn't try to use the remaining time before sunup to prepare a powerful poison or anything. I understood that without a recipe, without the necessary equipment and without leveling up Alchemy a good deal, that wasn't very likely. I had to press on with normal, totally poison-free thorns for my weapon.
* * *
IT WAS JUST a Duck. A normal Duck, all gray with little splotches of color. It wasn't even the size of a large turkey. The bird was sleeping on an island in the middle of the swamp.
Level 11 Swamp Duck
The words were red, meaning that the Duck was quite a fearsome enemy. Though on the other hand, it was the first time I had ever seen anything in this area without the skull symbol. Based on that, the level-eleven Duck was one of the weakest inhabitants of the whole region. Not counting me, of course. I was lying in the bushes near the water, seven meters from my potential victim and couldn't make up my mind to attack. The tempting idea to come closer and kill the Duck with a Vampire Bite had to be thrown out. Right next to the shore, there was a squelching thick muck that I would never be able to walk through unnoticed.
Stealth Skill increased to level 6!
After seeing the pleasant message, I decided to go on the attack. I raised my weapon very slowly, aimed and gave a firm blow! The thorn went straight into the Duck's neck, right where I was aiming.
Damage dealt: 31 (Missile damage 48 - armor 17)
The Duck's health bar went down by a slightly noticeable amount, just seven or eight percent. Jesus! It had more life than three Trong Divers! Now I'd stepped in it! The bird woke up and turned unflinchingly in my direction, flapping its wings loudly, quacking and basically expressing the strongest disapproval of its rude awakening. I jumped to my feet and reloaded the tube with another thorn.
Damage dealt: 12 (Missile damage 29 - armor 17)
No luck. I got almost the minimum possible damage. In reply, the Duck went silent, made a strange swallowing motion and, spit at me! I barely managed to jump away.
Acrobatics skill increased to level 2!
In the place I was standing, the pebbles by the shore gave off an eerie hiss and were dissolved in acid. Hey, no fair! Was this really a Duck, or an alien from a horror movie?! The next two shots missed. The bird sharply tore off upward and set about spinning circles above me with an uncanny quacking, periodically spitting its acid down from above. I couldn't hit the tiny far-off spot, so I decided not to waste the ammo. On the plus side, it also took no effort on my part to jump away from the Duck's spit.
Dodge Skill increased to level 5!
Great! Perfect timing! I was happy with the growth of the useful skill all on its own. The parallel increase in Agility, which also brought with it increased damage taking and aiming ability, was even better. After making an allowance for my target being in motion, I tried to shoot again.
Critical damage dealt: 126 (Missile damage 63*2 - armor ignored)
Exotic Weapons skill increased to level 2!
The thorn hit the Duck right in the eye. My enemy's life bar sagged down by half, and also the bird was blinded in the left eye. The Duck did a few awkward somersaults in midair, then spit a few times at God-knows-what, apparently having lost me from view. But after that, it discovered me again, changed tactics and decided to come in for close combat. I flipped away, dodging the pecks it was aiming straight at me. I shot it on its way back up, but missed. And again, in a kite-like motion, the Swamp Duck turned around and dived straight at me. But this time, I was expecting it:
Damage dealt: 42 (Missile damage 59 - armor 17)
After that, I had to contort myself away again to get away from the hit. After taking a shot to the chest, the bird was unable to change its flight trajectory and crashed into the dry swamp-shore pebbles. While the Duck was on the ground, I attacked it again.
Damage dealt: 30 (Missile damage 47 - armor 17)
The bird, flapping its wings and scrambling with its feet, threw itself at me, but I dodged toward its blind left eye. The Duck stopped, having lost sight of me.
Damage dealt: 51 (Missile damage 68 - armor 17)
The Duck's life bar was down deep in the red zone and was barely visible at all any more. It had just a few life points left. I walked a semi-circle around the bird to get back on its blind side and hit it with a bite.
Damage dealt: 23 (Vampire Bite)
Experience received: 504 Exp
Objects received: Duck meat * 3 (food), Hand-made ammunition for blowgun * 6
Achievement unlocked: Taste tester (3/1000)
Racial ability unlocked: 10% resistance to poison
Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (+3% of damage done for every unique being killed with Vampire Bite)
Now that's what I'm talking about! That battle with the Duck had brought me almost the same amount of experience my character had received up until that point! And my Thirst for Blood was totally sated (15/15). It should also be said, as for thirst... I took the empty alchemy container and filled it with the bird's spilled blood. I walked up to the nearest tree and cut a piece of its bark out with my knife, whittled it down and made it into a cork for the vial.
Duck Blood (alchemy ingredient)
It was already starting to get light out. In just half an hour, the deadly sun was going to rise. But I was in no rush to seek shelter just yet. I needed just seven or eight more useful plants to level up my Herbalism skill. It wasn't very far to the building, so I calmly set about gathering herbs.
Herbalism skill increased to level 3!
Alright, that was enough. I hurried to the wooden blockhouse. With four minutes left until morning, I ran up onto the porch... but the door was locked from the inside! The map obligingly informed me that the player Valerianna Quickfoot was inside the building. My sister! She got here after all!
I started pounding on the door, but she wouldn't open up. Had Val gone back to sleep or something?! If she didn't open the door for me in the three minutes I had left, it would be the dumbest death a Vampire had died in the game's history. Dying, not in a battle with a holy warrior, but right before the front door of his own home, which his own beloved sister had locked! That's what you call bad luck! And also, the respawn point was on an exposed stone square, and appearing there after the sun rose would have meant a guaranteed death...
I wrote a personal message to Valerianna to make her open the door right away, but I wasn't especially counting on salvation. Around the house, there was nowhere I could hide myself from the sun's rays, only inside the building. As the last minute was passing, I was in a true state of panic. Fifteen seconds. Ten...
I heard the sound of the heavy beam being moved off the door.
Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. The door peeked open a few centimeters.
"What's all the racket about, Amra?" The yawning Forest Nymph was standing in the doorway.
I flung open the door and pushed the girl from my path in one fluid motion, then threw myself up the stairs. Here in the entryway, it was still too bright. The sun's rays could come in through the windows. Five. Four. Three. In the two seconds before the sun came up, I threw myself at the bedroll and buried myself in the pile of animal pelts. I made it!
Mission completed: Surviving the Night
Experience Received: 160 Exp
Reward: +2 stat points
Number of Thirst for Blood points increased: 15/20
"Sorry, it's just time for me to get out. It was an emergency. I've got business waiting for me in the real world," I told the Nymph, who was in a state of total confusion, then left the game without even assigning the stat points I'd accumulated.
* * *
AFTER TAKING OFF the helmet and sensor suit, I sat powerless right on the floor. My hands were still shaking and my heart was pounding in my ribcage. I really had worried in the game as much as if I was living in the real world, and the rising sun really could have lead not to just the loss of a few hundred experience points, but to a painful death. After all, the thought didn't even cross my mind that "if you think about it, dying in the game is nothing. I'll get the experience back." I wanted to survive with all the cells in my body.
After growing a bit calmer, I got dressed and walked out of my cubicle. I wanted unbearably to go to the bathroom. I rushed down to the end of the long balcony where the nearest bathroom was. There were just two doors on the whole floor with a red light over them, mine and that of the red-headed lady. The other three hundred doors, as well as all the doors on the opposite walkway were showing green: free rooms. That meant just her and I were still here. So I immediately noticed the sound of water coming out of the locked shower. At such an early hour on an empty floor, someone was taking a shower.
Putting myself in order after freshening up, I walked up to the coffee machine. My eyes were sagging. I needed a pick-me-up. Here at the end of the floor for employees of the Boundless Realm Corporation, there was a break room with tables, couches, a television on the wall which was now off, and vending machines selling snacks and water. With a mug of hot coffee in my hand, I walked down the row of vending machines and looked over the assortment. It should be said that I was trying to buy a pack of gum drops for my sister. She loved that stuff. I tried paying for the food with my card, but a fully predictable message came up on the screen: "Transaction denied. Insufficient funds." I had to go through my pockets to find coins. Cash had practically gone out of circulation, but snack machines still took coins. Just after fishing out all the money, I lowered the coins into the slit. What had I done to deserve this?! The baggy of gum drops got stuck without falling down into the hole.
"Woah! I wasn't expecting to see anyone here so early!" A sonorous woman's voice rang out behind my back.
I turned around. Beyond all doubt, this was the very same mystery girl I had seen earlier in a chic emerald-green dress with a hat over her fire-red hair. But now, she was standing before me with containers of shampoo and lotion in her hands, while the only thing covering her nakedness was a towel wrapped around her body.
"Excuse me, I didn't mean to startle you," I answered, but the woman laughed:
"You?! Startle me?! Believe me, I'm a pretty hard person to startle. It's just that the last half year I've been the only person on this floor to work at night. I wasn't expecting to see anyone, which is why I came out looking like this," she said, pointing at the towel.
"Don't worry about it. I won't bother you. I just finished the quest 'Surviving the Night.' You know it, I'm sure. It's for beginners."
"Oh, you could say I know it," the mystery girl smiled. "I'm the one who designed it two years ago. It was the only way of getting people out of cities at night. So then, did you make it?"
"Yeah, I made it, but it wasn't easy," I answered, talking myself up.
"Good job. Lots of people try, but not many manage to survive to morning. But now, inhabitants of the night do have regular prey," the girl licked her lips in a display of her predatory nature, as if to say she was personally eating the careless unfortunates.
Though perhaps she really was. Who could say what kind of character she played at night? Clearly having noticed my changed behavior, the beauty spoke:
"Your eyes just grew wide in horror as if you'd seen a monster. I assure you, there's no reason to be afraid of me at all," the woman looked at the stuck bag of gum drops and extended me a whole armful of cosmetics. "Here, hold this!"
Without a remark, I took the mountain of bottles and tubes, while the woman walked over to the vending machine and extended a hand. The machine went into action. On the upper level, a spiral began spinning, moving forward the chocolate bar the red-headed beauty had chosen. Would you look at that! She had an implanted identification chip instead of any kind of document or bank card! I had heard of such technology, but this was the first time I was actually seeing it.
The bar fell top-down on the trapped gum-drop bag and plunked down together with it into the slot.
"So you see, I don't bite," smiled the red-headed beauty with curly bunches of fine wet hair. "And don't worry about being too formal with me. I'm not much older than you are. By the way, my name is Kira."
"Timur," I introduced myself and handed the cosmetics back.
The beauty took the products in her arms and wanted to say something, but then... the woman's towel fell to the floor. An awkward situation. Her arms were occupied, and the woman couldn't pick up the fallen towel, or even cover her body.
"Kira, let me. I'll help!" with these words, I picked up the towel and wrapped the young woman in it.
Touching her skin, tender and hot after the shower, was insanely pleasant, but I didn't take too long. Even when the red-headed beauty kissed me on the cheek as thanks, I didn't hesitate. This was no place for impossible dreams. Kira and I were too different and had met for too short a time.
"Thank you, Timur. Maybe we'll see each other around. You can have the chocolate bar. I don't eat chocolate, anyway."
Kira went back to get dressed in her cubicle. I spent some time standing and watching her walk away. Before my eyes there was still the picture of the seductive curves of the woman's naked body, frozen in time. Well then, now I knew where and when Kira worked, and arranging another meeting with her wouldn't be too hard at all.
An hour later, I was already jangling my key ring against the door of my rented apartment. I didn't ring the bell as not to wake up Val, but my sister wasn't sleeping at all and rolled out to meet me in her chair.
"Could you explain to me, what the hell that was in the game? You blasted me off my feet and tore into the building as if there was a whole horde of demons after you!"
I saw no reason to hide the truth from my sister, so I told her the details of my character’s dark side. Valeria's reaction was unexpected:
"Why were you being so stupid back then, bro? You should have killed me with a bite right there at the respawn point, then used Veil to change my logs so no trace remained! At these low levels, a small experience loss for me would be absolutely nothing, but then where would you find a second Forest Nymph for your Taste Tester achievement?"
After hearing out my answer, that I definitely wouldn't be killing my own sister, Val shook her head in reproach.
"You know best. Alright, Timur, go eat breakfast. Everything's warm. And, as this is how it is now, go get some sleep before another night shift. For now, I'll read about Vampires in Boundless Realm and think up how your character should progress."
A new LitRPG series from Michael Atamanov, the bestselling author of Perimeter Defense! Video Game Plotline Tester (Book One of The Dark Herbalist series) is available for preorder on Amazon.
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