Fear. Cold. Pain. Hunger. My beaten body ached and tingled. Through the pain and fatigue, I could also make out some loud noises. What I tried to do was just ignore them and lose myself further in a calming dream, but the sounds kept growing louder and louder. I could hear weapons clanging, cries of rage and the screams of the dying. My nostrils caught the smell of freshly spilled blood. I strained to peel back my eyelids and discovered myself in some kind of dark room on a floor covered in a layer of rotten straw. I tried to move and discovered that my left wrist was firmly secured in a heavy metal cuff, which was attached to a chain that led to a brace hammered into the wall. So I was a captive?
At the edge of my vision, I saw a tall Orc dressed in leather armor run by with a crooked saber. Then, literally a couple seconds later, I saw his bloodied body fall to the ground. The Orc's killer, who turned out to be a huge armored Human, walked up to the body on the floor and prudently finished the Orc off, driving a short spear into his chest.
"Seems to be the last of them!" He shouted out to someone far behind and was answered in a creaky voice:
"Great! Free the prisoners and bring them out to our ship! That Orcish galley will soon break on the riverside cliffs!"
Now I was going to be freed! I wasn't even able to feel happy before the huge soldier turned toward me, took a close look, then made a disgusted face and drove his spear through my chest!
* * *
DARKNESS CAME over again. I was lying there fully dumbfounded and could not believe what was happening. That man had killed me, or at least, seriously wounded me, even though he was clearly supposed to save me! Why?
An internal voice laughed and hinted mockingly that it couldn't be any other way. The Goblin race already had a -20 penalty to human reaction, and I had totally removed my Charisma. So now, that was how every Human, Elf or Dwarf I met would treat me.
The pain returned and I opened my eyes. I saw the world in dark and red tones. As before, I was lying on old putrid hay, but now that hay was also soaked in a thick dark blood. My blood.
+1 HP from Regeneration
The spear wound to my stomach had almost totally healed, but my health level was flashing alarmingly at 3 of 21. And it should be said that I didn't even know Goblins could regenerate health. Why did none of the guides say anything about that? Maybe regeneration was recently put in to make the race more playable? In any case... the wound to my stomach was causing severe pain! Whether I wanted to or not, I was forced to admit that dying was extremely unpleasant, even in a computer game.
I’m not sure what I would have thought up next, or what I would have done, because a Rat suddenly scurried under the wooden bars of my cell.
Rat, level 1.
The little creature was following its nose inquisitively, bewitched by the intoxicating aroma of blood. I moved slightly, pulling my right leg a bit in. The Rat instantly turned toward me, but didn't run away. Instead, it started looking at me. And what was more, he clearly had an ever-growing interest in my culinary properties. Probably, in a healthy condition, my Goblin would have an easy time dealing with such a creature, but with just three pitiful hitpoints... It was gonna bite me to death!
Clearly, the creature also came to that conclusion and headed in my direction. What happened next, neither I nor the Rat were expecting:
Damage dealt: 10 (Vampire Bite)
Health restored: +5 HP
Experience received: 8 Exp
Object received: Rat meat (food)
Achievement unlocked: Taste Tester (1/1000)
Racial ability unlocked: Taste for Blood (+1% of damage done for every unique being killed with Vampire Bite)
Parameter Unlocked: Sating the Thirst (current status 10/15)
I sat for a few long seconds, taking in the vile flavor of Rat blood and digesting what happened in all senses of the word. So, I was a Vampire? I opened my character window to check, and it left me with no doubt on the matter:
Race: Goblin Vampire
It should be said that the second part of my race could be hidden simply by placing a check in a special field reading "do not show other players." I read the description of the Vampire race, and thanked the heavens and the developers of the game for the ability to not reveal myself:
-50 penalty to reaction of all living races upon discovery
Penalty: Legal target for murder by players and NPC's of living races upon discovery
Penalty: Cannot hide your true nature when in the state Thirst for Blood
Penalty: Instant death when hit by sunlight.
That was quite the pickle... From this moment on, my biggest mission of all would be keeping that secret. There were good plusses, though, too. At level one, for example, a Vampire could get +1 HP regeneration per minute and an additional attack (to the right or left hand):
Vampire Bite, cost: 10 EP (endurance points)
Damage done: (1-6)*Strength of Character, 50% of damage dealt goes to Healing
When attacking a sleeping, unconscious, or paralyzed target, special attack has 100% chance of success. Vampire's choice of: (Instant death/6-hour deep sleep/Infect with Vampirism)
I read the description of the attack again. There was no limit on the level of the creature killed? That meant I could now kill even a level-one-hundred monster with one bite, if I could get lucky enough to find it sleeping? What a great source of experience for leveling the character! And I could do the same to players... Stop! I rebuffed myself. I only had to use that ability against a player once and it was over. My secret would be revealed. I would become a victim of the hunt, and time after time I would be killed just because the rules allowed it. Every death would bring physical pain and loss of experience. So then, I had to keep the secret of my vampirism safe.
"Who's making noise over there?" As if bringing my fears to life, I heard a voice beyond the bars.
Then I jumped up in surprise and quickly wiped off my lips with the back of my hand. The last thing I needed was for this stranger to see blood on my face.
"Rat to beat. To attack. Hard you beat," I answered.
What the hell?! That wasn’t what I’d actually said, but the only thing that would come out of my character’s mouth were these awkward broken phrases. All the same, even three Intelligence points was not enough, and it was scary to imagine how my character would be talking if the number had been lower.
"Rat? Yes, I saw it. It looked at me for a long time, but it ran on. Have you figured out how to get your arm out of the chain yet? I'm not strong enough."
Mission received: Escape from the slave-trader's galley
Mission class: Required, training
Reward: 80 Exp, access to main game world
"Chain I no know. To pain. Spear stabbing. Man."
From behind the wall, I heard the strange, gurgling laughter of the other voice.
"I can only imagine what your Charisma must be like if they wanted to kill you instead of save you. But it's strange that they didn't kill you. All the soldiers are level twenty-five; they should be able to send you to respawn in one hit. The soldiers simply didn't notice me. As soon as the massacre started in the hold, I used my Stealth skill and even managed to get it to level two before they left. Though I rushed to hide. Maybe they would have freed me along with the other prisoners. Or sent me for respawn, and I would come back over at the respawn point, but out of the chain."
I froze in fear. The respawn point this creature was talking about couldn't be seen from where I was. But what if the only way to freedom for characters with such disarming appearances as mine was through death and subsequent rebirth? Come on, that was nonsense! There must have been other normal ways of getting out. I looked at the short rusty, half-meter long chain holding my arm. At first, I just tried to break the chain.
Your character doesn't have enough Strength to complete this action
Strength required to break chain: 7
Alright, I clearly didn’t have enough Strength. But what about breaking the shackle at my wrist?
Your character doesn't have enough Agility to complete this action
Agility required to break chain: 7
Another fail. I looked closely at my left hand. I had a thin wrist. My palm was also thin, but I had a big thumb jutting out to the side stopping me from slipping out of the manacles. But what if... The idea of gnawing off my own thumb seemed utterly barbaric, but I didn't chase it off right away. I did have Regeneration, and the thumb would soon grow back. What way out of this situation could possibly be more fitting of a true Goblin?
I tore my teeth into my own flesh. The pain was overwhelming and my hitpoints started falling fast. I even had to quickly eat the Rat meat to restore some health. But my idea worked! I pulled my bloodied hand from the rusty shackle. Freedom! The blood immediately stopped, leaving me just two hitpoints of my full twenty-one. But what did that matter? Regeneration would gradually restore my life to max. Just then, though, a debuff popped up...
Your left hand is injured
For the next two days, you will not be able to use any weapon in your left hand, nor swim or climb cliffs and trees
All other actions done with the left hand will be subject to a penalty of 30%
I didn't get any experience for taking off the chain. Either the developers didn’t like my method, or the mission simply hadn't been fully completed.
"What was that sound?" My acquaintance asked from behind the wall.
"Me chain off. Now go you."
I finally got up and looked into the neighboring cell. What a freak was sitting there, too! It was an exhausted, blue-colored half-human/half-fish with huge puffy eyes lying on the dirty floor inhaling air greedily.
Level One Diver
"You look pretty freaky, Amra!" The fish's reaction to my appearance was the same as the man's.
We both laughed, then he answered the question I had yet to ask:
"When making the character, I had no idea what to name myself. I figured the second word should show my profession. So now, I'm Mr. Diver, the Diver. But it's nothing. I'd rather you tell me how you got that chain off."
I did my best to explain in layman's terms my method and the two-day debuff I'd gotten as a result. The fish shook his head.
"Cripes... No, that's not for me. I need to be able to dive and swim underwater. But with my left hand broken, I won't be able to do that. It's easier for me to simply die and be reborn in an hour, totally free and without any debuffs from a crippled body. How about this: I'll try a bit longer to think up a way to get free, but if nothing sensible comes to mind, you can send me to respawn. I need the hour away anyway. I've got mail to answer and a bunch of little issues to take care of. You can go off somewhere and eat or just take a walk, then we can keep playing together. It seems to me that it's way too hard to get out of this alone. Sound good?"
At first, his suggestion made me squirm. Trong Diver was talking so calmly about his own death. It was as if he wasn't at all worried about the pain it would cause. But afterwards, I realized that he was just a regular player without a virtual reality capsule. He was sitting at home in front of his monitor or wearing a virtual-reality helmet on his head and trying to get out of the boring training location and into the huge game world as quickly as possible, no matter what it took. That explained a lot, as any player with full ability to feel through his character would clearly have preferred other ways of getting free.
"Good. Agreement. I wander and looking there," I stopped the shackled Naiad and walked further into the dark room.
The time had come to figure out how to control the game. First of all, I called up the location map, made it semitransparent and placed it in the upper right corner. It should also be said that the map told me I was in the hold of a slavers' galley. Trong Diver, behind me, was shown on the map as a yellow triangle, while before me in the darkness, there were three red markers lying in wait. I looked at the information on the marker colors, and found out that red (as I would have guessed) indicated a hostile enemy. Yellow meant NPC's and players whose opinion of you was unknown.
I went carefully and slowly forward. It smelled of recently spilled blood, but the bodies of the prostrated soldiers hadn't disappeared, as happened after a certain amount of time in most games. I felt something with my leg, and a glass container rolled down the floor.
Empty vial. Used to store alchemical elixirs.
I picked up the vessel. Maybe I'd need it. I stopped my gaze on it, trying to figure out how the container should be sealed. A few seconds later, a message popped up:
Would you like to choose Alchemy (I A) as a primary skill?
I was slightly taken aback. It was that easy to pick up a skill? No teachers and missions, no insanely expensive scrolls? Alchemy... It could, of course, be very useful to me. I would be finding a lot of herbs and roots in my profession, and this way I didn’t have to sell them raw for little money. I would be able to prepare the plants into valuable elixirs, which would probably be more expensive than normal herbs. I chose the option "Yes."
You have taken Alchemy as a primary skill
Skill level: 1
Primary skills chosen (3 of 4)
Only then, after a long delay, did I realize what I had just done. I had filled one of the two remaining skill slots with a totally random skill, which also leveled up Intelligence, a stat that the Goblin race had a 50% penalty to training speed for! Nothing to sneeze at. What a muttonhead I was!!!
Instead of Alchemy, I should have chosen a skill that leveled up Agility and Perception, the Goblin's strong points. If I increased the level of such a skill to, let's say level one hundred, I would get 130 Agility points (100*1.3) plus 65 Perception points (50*1.3). In the end, it would have added up to an improvement of stat points by a whole 195! But with Alchemy at level one hundred, considering the 50% penalty to Intelligence leveling, I would get just 50 points (100*0.5) of Intelligence and 65 points (50*1.3) Agility points, adding up to a total of 115 statistic points for my character instead of the 195 I could have counted on if I'd been thinking with my head...
Feeling ashamed, I practically smashed the ill-fated vial on the wall, but still I tried to keep calm and took it with me. I don't know for sure where the game thought I could put objects – I was wearing nothing but a dirty loincloth – but I was still able to store things in my inventory. In any case, there were just eight slots in my inventory. It was very little. I wanted to find a bag to store my things in.
A few steps later, I found another such container, then another four. In that place, based on the abundance of drying blood and deep gouges in the wooden table, there had been a raging battle, and enemies had applied alchemical substances for strengthening and healing. The six identical containers, fortunately, took up just one slot of the eight available in my inventory.
There was less and less distance between the red dots on the map and me. I couldn't see the enemies yet, but I walked a bit more carefully. And literally instantaneously, another message popped up:
Would you like to choose Stealth (A C) as a primary skill?
I didn't rush the decision this time. On the one hand, using Stealth would level up Agility, which was useful. But on the other, I’d be filling up all four available primary skill slots before I’d even started to play... What if I needed something else entirely to develop the character? And also... I shouldn't forget that I was a Vampire. Being able to conceal my main character skills from others was not something the game mechanics allowed for. When meeting characters, you had to be able to figure out who it was in front of you, right? That would only raise the logical question of why a peaceable Goblin Herbalist had the Stealth skill. With some measure of pity, I refused to make Stealth one of my primary skills, but I did make it a secondary. Though secondary skills didn't increase stat points, the very ability to move in hiding could be quite useful for a nocturnal Vampire, and also secondary skills were not shown to other players.
You have taken Stealth as a secondary skill
Skill level: 1
It was no challenge to enter stealth mode. But it did make my character walk significantly slower. I wasn’t in a hurry, though, so I kept walking in stealth mode. As I was already looking at my stats, I didn't miss the moment when the empty Stealth-skill bar suddenly began to gradually fill up. Look at that bar go! Someone might see me if I started moving carelessly. With redoubled caution, I went on into the darkness of the ship's hold.
Rat, level 1
I noticed it while still invisible.
Stealth Skill increased to level 2!
Feeling happy, I looked at the message and carelessly tripped over a little step I hadn't noticed, laying myself out on the floor. At that very moment, the Rat noticed me. In huge leaps, the aggressive animal threw itself on the attack, but I didn't even have any weapons!
Damage taken: 4 (Rat bite)
Health level: 6/21
Two more bites and I was done for! I then punched the Rat twice. Once with my left fist and once with my right. No damage! I missed.
Damage taken: 4 (Rat bite)
Health level: 2/21
No longer hoping for my weak punches to do anything, I made a determined attempt to bite the enemy.
Damage dealt: 8 (Vampire Bite)
Health restored: +4 HP
Health level: 6/21
Ha! Hot diggedy! What was some little Rat against a terrifying creature of the night! The next bite came from the Rat, cutting another 4 HP from my bar, but then it was my turn...
Not enough endurance points to use the Vampire Bite skill.
What a bad time to run out of endurance! I'll be eaten right away! In despair, I began striking at the Rat with my fists once again.
Damage dealt: 2 (Punch)
Experience received: 8 Exp
Object received: Rat meat (food)
I dismissed the importune suggestion that I choose Manual Combat (S C) as a primary skill. Instead, I sat down on the damp straw-covered floor in exhaustion. My hitpoint bar was flashing alarmingly at 2/21 HP, while my endurance was at just 1/20. Hrmph... I had to honestly admit, at least to myself, that my big-eared Goblin had escaped from the encounter with the Rat only by a miracle. I shouldn't keep asking for trouble, that was for sure. So, before coming across any more Rats, I had to get ready, at least by restoring my health and endurance, ideally also finding some kind of weapon.
I sat for ten minutes, just breathing. In that time, my endurance rose to ten points, while my health, due to Regeneration and the meat I ate, came back all the way. For that reason, I risked going onward, and almost immediately discovered a knife lying forgotten on the ground.
Rusty kitchen knife
Damage done: (1-4)*Strength
It was clearly better than punching with my bare fists at (1-2)*Strength! I had barely picked up the knife when the system suggested I choose Dagger (S A) as a primary skill. I snorted unhappily. Stop trying to get me to do things without thinking them through! If Agility were the primary stat in that skill, I may have even considered it, but Strength with its 50% penalty... No thank you. Alchemy, with its penalized Intelligence stat was quite enough for me! I also didn't want to choose Dagger as a secondary skill.
It was much easier to take down Rats with the kitchen knife. I would take a 4 HP bite, answer with a knife strike for 6 HP, then finish the beast off with a Vampire Bite. My endurance was again sagging down in the single digits, so I had to wait. And though there was another Rat in front of me, and I had even already seen it, the time had come to return to Trong Diver.
The fish-man was sitting in the same pose as before, fettered to the wall with metal shackles. A few times I called Trong by name, but it took him several minutes to come to and answer:
"Sorry, I was afk. As soon as you finish your business, send me to respawn as we agreed. I'll run out to the store and buy dinner. Just make sure to wait an hour for me, alright? We can make it further together!"
I raised the dagger above the Naiad and drove it into the fish-man's chest. And though the strike roll was not bad, doing 8 HP of damage, Trong's life bar only drooped down by a quarter. Son of a gun! His life points were one and a half times higher than my big-eared Goblin's! I had to hit him again and again. After my fourth stab, Trong's life indicator was flashing in the critical zone... I stopped and asked the fish-man if I should finish him off or not. No answer followed. The player had clearly already walked away from the monitor. So I made up my mind!
I had read about this in the forums. I had come across some information saying that, for the professions Assassin or Thief, it was desirable to have the Veil skill to remove or modify the game logs in order to hide criminal actions from your victims, reduce the amount of time the Criminal tag would last, and with time erase the marker altogether. And that was just what I needed! I tried to edit the last game message about the knife strike.
Would you like to choose Veil (I A) as a primary skill?
No, taking Veil as a primary skill was not the right move. There was no reason for a peaceable Goblin Herbalist to advertise his dark inclinations. But as a secondary skill, the ability was useful and then some!
You have taken Veil as a secondary skill
Skill level: 1
Effect time: 1 minute, uses 5 EP
I clicked the Veil icon. Now I had a whole minute to do this all in secret:
Damage dealt: 6 (Vampire Bite)
Health restored: +3 HP
Experience received: 80 Exp
Achievement unlocked: Taste tester (2/1000)
Achievement unlocked: Player killer (1)
Racial ability unlocked: Night vision (lasts 12 hours, costs 15 EP)
Racial ability improved: Taste for Blood (+2% of damage done for every unique being killed with Vampire Bite)
Attention! Your character is marked as a Criminal! For the next eight hours, you will be a legal target for attack!
Trong Diver's silhouette started flashing and became semitransparent. No, I hadn't acted thoughtlessly. This time, I really had done everything in a calculated fashion. I had found a target to level up my very useful ability Taste for Blood, and Naiads were a very rare race. When else would I get the chance to add one to the list of unique species I'd bitten? But I wasn't the only one who could see the game logs. What would Trong Diver's reaction be when he discovered the messages about his death and read in the logs that a Vampire had killed him? I had to do something to keep my secret.
So what could I do with the log? I was able to open the message Trong Diver would see in fifty seconds for editing:
Damage taken: 6 HP from the player Amra (Vampire Bite)
You have died
I didn't delete it entirely, though I could have. Instead, I edited it, changing out Vampire Bite for Rusty Knife Stab. Much better!
Veil Skill increased to level 2!
Not bad, not bad at all! Life was turning around! Now I just had to distribute the stat points I got when leveling up, and get back to new adventures! By the way... For some reason, two of the five points were automatically spent. My Strength had grown to three, while Constitution had grown to four. Strange...
Digging around in the race guides, I figured out that it was a peculiarity of Vampires: like it or not, Strength and Constitution would grow every level. I'd have to make peace with that. There was nothing to be done. I just had three stat points left.
I decided I should put two straight into Charisma. I didn't like dying from the first person I saw just because of my ugly face! And my last stat point, after long consideration I placed in Intelligence. It was time to become smarter than a stool!
* * *
THE LAST RAT didn't cause me any troubles, dying after just two stabs; evidence of my character's increased Strength. After picking up a piece of Rat meat, I headed further into the visible end of the dark hold where there was a stairwell to an upper deck. Just after getting on the first step, the map updated, now showing not the hold, but the oarsman deck.
On this level, there was a stench. It smelled of filth, dirty bodies and rotting blood, all mixed into such a cocktail that I was practically knocked off my feet. My Goblin had to cover his nose with his crippled left hand. Alright, message received. Boundless Realm was praised for its hyperrealism, but what was the point of making such an unpleasant location? And also, if I thought about it, how had the designers even managed to convey the horrible smells of this wretched place? Even the slight breeze wasn't carrying away the stench that wound its way through the deck.
Slightly coming to, I took a look around. Everything around me bore witness to a recent slaughter: drying blood on the floor, oarsmen's benches broken and splintered by blade strikes, pieces of chain, and tatters of dirty clothes. There were no corpses. They had already managed to disappear in the game world. Then, on the map, beyond the markers for a few far-off Rats, I saw a yellow triangle. A player?! I stole up closer, and was able to see him, or more accurately her:
Level 2 Beast Master
My sister! I recognized her right away. The disabled Valeria had always used the same name for her main character, no matter the game. I didn't come up any closer. My sister and I had agreed that we wouldn't advertise our relationship, or prior acquaintance. So I crawled forward, watching with satisfaction as the Stealth skill level bar crawled upward.
And meanwhile, the graceful Nymph with her long blue-green hair was busy exterminating Rats. She was doing it in a fairly unique way, too: trying to stay far from the vermin, she would use a spell to take one under her control and set it against the others. I read the information on Valerianna's primary skills:
Level 2 Animal Control
Level 1 Water Magic
Suddenly, the girl froze and turned sharply.
"Who are you?" There was no hint of having been startled in her voice, more like curiosity or even warning.
I really had given away my presence somehow, and was discovered. It would have been dumb to keep hiding, so I stepped forward.
"You're a criminal! Stay away!" The frightened Nymph placed her palms together and put them in front of herself, and when she split them apart, a blue little flame shone up from a spell she must have cast.
"I no bad-hurt for you!" I hurried to assure her, mentally cursing my tongue-tiedness. "I just to start game. Chain to take off hand. Then other fish-player say to help. To kill. He be reborn without chain. No other way. He no can did take chain off."
The Nymph, a well-built, very thin girl in a short green cape, couldn't hold back a smile.
"You're funny, Goblin. But you clearly don't have a great mind. Are you saying there weren’t enough Strength, Agility, Intelligence, or Perception points between the two of you to add up to seven? You could have helped one another!"
I froze surprised and embarrassed, as the idea to have both of us try to pull Trong Diver's chain from the wall had truly not come to mind. It couldn’t be that the Goblin's chuckleheadedness had rubbed off on me, right? It was all so elementary! And by the way, Valerianna thought for a couple seconds and said with worry in her voice:
"I think I figured out what happened between you. It is a standard PvP con. You killed a player on his request, and now have the status Criminal for the next hour. That player knew that he could easily deal with you. But there would have been no point to kill you at the very beginning of the game. You wouldn't lose anything from dying, while the enemy would get just a hundred experience points. That was why he gave you the chance to level up on Rats and training missions, get a few levels, then he'd kill you. I'm sure he asked you to wait for him, so you could go on together. Or am I wrong?"
I nodded, confirming my sister's theory.
"So you see. His character must have been specialized for PvP. He probably has a tendency for some kind of combat stat, for example Strength, and is preparing to use a close-combat weapon. And I'm sure he also has Constitution leveled up, so he'll have a large number of hitpoints. With you at level three, he will get three hundred experience points for killing you, not just one hundred. That makes quite a big difference at the beginning of the game, and is more than enough to get him up to level four in one go. Also, some races and classes get extra experience for killing players or special bonuses and missions, so your acquaintance is sure to kill you to get out into the main world already fairly prepared and without the eight-hour Criminal marker."
I realized Valeria had taken off her virtual reality helmet, opened the Boundless Realm forum on the second monitor, and was reading from there. That meant that Trong Diver's suggestion that I kill him was in fact a trap. He was letting his prey get a little exercise so it would taste better later. He must have been planning to kill me after he came back.
"If it's not a secret, what race was he?" asked the Nymph, sending another Rat into the far off herd of vermin.
"Naiad, Diver," I answered, and my sister froze in contemplation.
While she stood motionless, the Rat under her control kept fighting against its former buddies. Unexpectedly, the body of the frozen Nymph lit up in different colors. That must have been a skill leveling up. I looked at her visible stats. That was right! Valeria's Animal Control skill had gone up to level 3. By that time, my sister had come back to actively playing the game.
"Just so you know, Naiad Divers are their version of Human Soldiers or Dwarven Berserkers. They get an extra ten life points for every Constitution point, and double endurance points when doing any combo attack as well as an additional bonus to Strength."
"I running away?" I clarified, but the Nymph shook her head "no," and asked how long it would be for the Naiad to respawn.
I looked at the time shown and answered that it would be forty minutes.
"Don't run, Goblin. If he really does attack, I'll help you. I don't like tricksters and con-artists. But I'll only get involved if he attacks you first. For now, I'll raise my water magic skill to level two, then my Intelligence will go up from primary skill bonuses to seventeen."
What she said didn't get through to me right away. Valerianna was already at level two, and had already leveled up her Intelligence to seventeen. But how?! I myself didn't have any stats above four, where I had Agility, Intelligence and Constitution.
The Nymph explained with gusto:
"My race has a bonus to Charisma and Intelligence leveling. So I skewed it toward Intelligence above all else. Both of my predefined primary skills leveled Intelligence first as well. I just took the shackles from my own wrists, as I immediately figured out how the latch lock worked and simply swung it open."
After these words, the Nymph called a Rat under her control over, and I noticed that the animal had become slightly larger, having leveled up on its own compatriots to two. After that, Valerianna, ordering her pet to sit at attention, released an icy blue arrow into a far-off, barely visible hostile Rat, killing it in one strike. She had the same success with two neighboring Rats. Again the Nymph lit up in various colors. Her Water Magic skill had raised to level two.
"Cool! Another fifty or so experience points, and I'll be level three!" The Nymph laughed happily. "Amra, I need to take a break for a bit and restore my mana. After that, I can cast up to nine ice arrows, each one doing an average of forty HP damage. No matter how much your Naiad friend leveled up Constitution, he won't be able to survive that. But it is important that you not let him get near me. I have only eleven HP, so he'd be able to kill me with just spit. By the way, why are you not leveling up? There are a few more Rats left. Take them for yourself.
I nodded obediently and walked out in front. And it should be said my thoughts were fairly far from the Rats. I was only thinking about the attack I was now expecting from Trong Diver. Valerianna promised to intervene if the Naiad attacked. But in any case, I had to survive one or two blows from the fish-man. And if his character really was specialized for PvP with all modifiers for dealing damage, then... I wonder how much damage he could do with one strike? It probably was no less than the Nymph with her magic, and my sister had said something about forty hitpoints per ice arrow. If I took forty HP as a reference point, how would I survive the attack, given that I had just twenty-seven myself?! Could I hope to dodge? It seemed that was the very way out I needed.
When the nearest level 1 Rat threw itself at me, I didn't hit it right away, instead jumping back and to the side.
Would you like to choose Dodge (A P) as a primary skill?
The skill leveled up Agility and Perception, my strongest stats! That was the one for me! I agreed right away.
You have taken Dodge as a primary skill
Skill level: 1
Primary skills chosen (4 of 4)
You may choose a fifth primary skill at level 10
Having already taken care of the Rat (it managed to bite me once, the pest, but it meant nothing. Regeneration heals all wounds, after all.), I noticed that my Dodge skill had increased my Agility to five and slightly increased my Perception.
At that, of the four primary skills, only Dodge had been activated. The others were marked with an inactive gray and clearly had yet to influence my main stats. Was that because I hadn't used them yet? Perhaps that was exactly the reason.
I took an empty vial from my inventory and filled it with the blood of the dead Rat.
Rat Blood (alchemy ingredient)
The Alchemy skill lit up. My Intelligence and Agility immediately went up just barely. So that was how it worked! To activate a primary skill and have it start influencing your stats, you just needed to use it once! What else did I have that wasn't "turned on" yet? Herbalism and Trading. I'd have to wait a bit to use Herbalism. We were on a galley. No flowers would be growing here. But Trading couldn't have been easier. I went back to my sister and tried to sell her the container of Rat blood.
Valerianna began squirming in disgust, and the Nymph, of course, refused. But I didn't actually have to sell the object. After noticing with a satisfied look that Trading had already been activated as well, raising my Charisma by a whole point and slightly bringing up my Intelligence with it, I poured the blood out on the floor, as I didn't actually have a cork for it.
I spent ten minutes evading the last vermin, as I wanted to raise my Dodge skill to level three quickly. Covered in bites and impossibly happy with myself, I returned to my sister.
"Hey dumbo, have you got far to go until level three?" The Nymph inquired with a bored look as she sat on the oarsman's bench looking at her well-kept nails.
"Three hundred forty experience is. Five hundred want," I reported.
My sister frowned in dismay and seemingly grew upset:
"Raise your Intelligence to at least five. It's hard to talk with you. But that's for later. For now, listen carefully, big-ears. We've just got to get up to the upper deck of the galley. I found a description of the location in the guides. There is an angry sea up there. The waves might crash through the broken ship. If you don't have enough Agility, you'll be washed overboard, then you'll lose experience and have to wait an hour at the respawn point. Or can you swim, Amra?"
"No can. Agility is enough."
"Are you sure? Alright then. I have an underwater breathing spell, so I'll just sink to the bottom. Your Naiad friend is a sea creature, so he won't drown in any case. But you will have to lower the boat with a crane, despite the waves and weather, then you'll have to oar your way in to the shore. That is a side quest, so you'll get a hundred extra experience points. That means, when you reach the shore, that quest will be fulfilled as well as the main training mission, which gives you another one hundred experience points. So, as soon as you set foot on shore, you'll reach level three. But once you get there, don’t just kick your feet up. Either run as fast as you can from the shore, or prepare for combat. Your friend will definitely be attacking you, so stay on your guard. Got it? Then let's go up. You should lower the boat without my help so all the experience will go to you. Otherwise you won't reach level three, and you'll be weak. The Naiad would be sure to kill you, then."
* * *
MY SISTER REALLY was a clever girl. Once above board, the only thing that kept me from going over the side was her warning. Because of it, I took hold of a taut rope as soon as I got up there, which helped me stay on the boat when a jet of water blasted me off my feet. The Orcish galley smashed into the cliff and got wedged between the rocks. Huge waves rolled over the deck, taking with them all kinds of trash, barrels, broken oars and furniture.
The dingy, which had survived all this chaos only by a miracle, I spotted on the aft of the broken ship. To get to it, I had to run across the slippery, inclined deck, which had foamy breaks of water rolling over it constantly.
"I'll be waiting for you on the shore!" My sister managed to shout before a wave pulled her down to the depths.
The level 2 Rat my sister had been controlling swam past me. It had lost its link with its master, and was now aggressive to me again. But the Rat didn't care about me at all. It was flailing its paws in desperation, trying to struggle against the raging elements. I then, after waiting for the wave to ebb, threw myself toward the boat up the inclined deck.
Successful Agility check
Experience received: 8 Exp
Before the next breaker slammed into the broken ship, I managed to overcome the open space and latched into the side of the canvas-covered boat.
Mission received: Use the dingy
Mission class: Optional, training
Reward: 80 Exp, Small bag
The dingy was tied to a set of ropes that led up to a crane on the side of the boat. I had to turn a crank on the crane to lower the fragile vessel into the water. At that moment, I totally forgot that I was in a game, so realistic were the sensations I was feeling. The storm, the wind, the creak of the stretched out ropes, the foamy waves, the cold wind and the smell of seaweed all combined to form something very close to reality. My wounded left hand burned as if on fire in the salty water. I laboriously twirled the spinning mechanism with my one good hand. Finally, the boat made it into the water.
"So then, there you are, Goblin!" The satisfied voice of Trong Diver rang out from behind my back.
I turned. The Naiad, smiling a toothy grin, took a seat on the side wall of the galley.
"This weather is just awesome for me! I love stormy seas. So then, you go on the boat, and I'll swim in underwater. We'll meet up on shore."
After these words, the fish-man made an agile jump overboard. I then saw that the Naiad was holding a trident in his hands, but it wasn’t clear where he’d gotten it. He suddenly had a weapon. Bad news!
I let go of the rope and took hold of the oar. Damn! I wasn't able to row with my left hand. So I pulled the oar from the ring and grabbed it with both hands. This way was much easier. When rowing, I gradually lost Endurance Points, but I wasn't too worried, as I had plenty of them left. Navigating around the sharp stones jutting up from the water, I pointed the boat at the lagoon. Beyond the reefs, which served as natural water breaks, the sea grew much calmer. A few minutes later, I had reached a sandy point, wedging out into the sea in a thin band. My sister was already waiting for me on the shore and waving from afar. I had just touched foot on the wet sand when my body began to light up:
Mission completed: Use the dingy
Experience received: 80 Exp
Mission completed: Escape from the slave-trader's galley
Experience received: 80 Exp
Racial ability unlocked: The Apathy of the Undead (lasts 3 hours, costs 20 EP)
Alright, so where was the bag it promised me then? I looked under the rowing bench and found a canvas bag that could be carried over the shoulder.
Small bag +10 inventory slots.
Before Trong had come ashore, I set about assigning the new stat points. Strength and Constitution went up by default. From the three points that remained, I put another in Constitution, and two in Agility. I now had 39 hitpoints.
I had barely finished with the stats when Trong Diver emerged from the salty sea water onto the sandy peninsula, cutting off my path to the shore. His body was also glowing in various colors. The Naiad had also hit level three. The fish-man shot me a malignant grin, demonstrating several rows of needle-like teeth, then suddenly rolled his bright red back flippers and screeched out in dismay, having discovered another player not far from me.
"Hey! That's my trophy," Trong Diver declared, pointing his trident at me. "I've been shepherding him along since the beginning of the game!"
The Nymph didn't answer the insidious Naiad in any way, but between her hands there appeared the bright blue flame of a spell being cast.
"Alright, we can split it down the middle," suggested Trong Diver, and that was when my sister attacked.
The ice arrow that tore itself from her fingers instantly overtook the distance between the two and broke into a hail of pieces on the Naiad's scales, at which Trong Diver's health fell by about a quarter. The spell to take forty hitpoints had only reduced the Naiad's health by a third?! How many hitpoints did he have?!
"Not expecting that, were you Nymph?" The fish-man laughed. "I have a natural resistance to Water Magic!"
After these words, Trong Diver got a better grip on his trident and threw himself at my sister in order to stop her from casting another spell. I, without thinking it through, dashed off after him. The Naiad was almost half way to her when his path was blocked by a level 1 Crab crawling out of the sea onto the sandy shore.
The Naiad slowed his pace and destroyed the unexpected obstacle with a flick of his trident. But even that second of delay was enough for me to catch up to him and work my knife into his back.
Damage dealt: 9 (Rusty kitchen knife stab 11 – armor 2)
Trong Diver's life bar went down, but not very much at all, just ten percent. Hrmph, I should have taken the Dagger skill. Perhaps then, I could have gotten a critical hit from the stab in the back. Now then, probably feeling more surprised at my impudence than really feeling injured by the attack, Trong turned toward me.
"So that's where you’ve gone off to, Amra! There's nowhere for you to run now!"
Another ice arrow flew into the fish-man's back, lowering the Naiad's health to forty percent. His health bar changed color from green to yellow. Trong Diver winced in pain:
"It's nothing, I'll survive another icicle attack, and then I'll have two nice trophies, you and the Nymph! Sixty experience points from the two of you is enough to get me straight to level five!"
At these words, the Naiad made a sharp lunge forward and stabbed my chest with his trident. I tried to dodge the attack, but I didn’t manage. Son of a bitch! That hurt like hell!!!
Damage taken: 34 (Trident strike)
Health level: 5/39
The shooting pain caused me to miss the chance for a return strike. The Naiad jumped back and pulled away from me, making it impossible to hit him with the knife again. But, fortunately, my sister didn't hesitate, and sent another magic icicle into my attacker's back. Trong Diver's health was flashing in the red, but the fish-man started smiling strangely:
"Ha! I survived! Now, you're dead and I'll get the experience for level four from you, bringing my health all the way back up!" With these words, Trong jumped toward me and jabbed with his trident.
In an incredible jump with simultaneous front flip, I craftily evaded the sharp points under his raised left hand. But doing so had made my Endurance Points fall severely. In that the enemy was very close, I made an abrupt strike at his fine-scaled throat, helped by the fact that the Naiad was no taller than me.
Damage dealt: 16 (rusty kitchen knife stab 18 - armor 2)
Experience received: 120 Exp
Dodge Skill increased to level 4!
Would you like to choose Acrobatics (A S) as a secondary skill?
So that's what that was! In my attempt to elude the certain death flying toward my chest, I had used not only Dodge, but also Acrobatics! What could I say? It was a skill that was useful to my survival. I should take it. In the distance, the Nymph lit up like a projector, having reached level four already.
After figuring out the game parameters, I took a look around. The body of Trong Diver was lying in the shallows giving off a slight glow. I bent down over it and tried to pick up the trident lying on the sand, but my fingers went straight through the object. It must have been that the laws of the game world didn't consider the weapon to have "dropped" and was thus still in his inventory. Too bad. Bowing over my vanquished enemy, I tried to look at him. I didn't have to rummage through the body. The trophy window opened. My take was three silver coins, two empty vials and another with a cork, filled with a pale blue liquid.
Insufficient Intelligence to identify object
Alright, I'll figure that out later or show it to my sister. I headed to Valerianna. The Forest Nymph was peeved:
"All my pets die too fast, both Rats and Crabs. What kind of a Beastmaster am I with no beasts at my service?! And also, I now have a red Criminal marker over my head. I had to attack the Naiad preemptively, which means I committed a crime. Now, my character won't leave the game world for eight hours, even if I leave the game. Also, have you looked at the map?"
I shook my head "no," then looked at the game map on my sister's advice. There was just a tiny lit-up circle of discovered area: the sea shore, the two of us, and a huge black mass representing undiscovered territory. I increased the scale, but no additional markers showed on the map. Our little circle just got smaller and smaller until it became a dot. The words on it didn't add any information, either:
"So you see," the Nymph agreed after seeing the look of dismayed confusion on my green face. "We're like in the middle of nowhere, and the only known respawn point is on the broken galley, which I really don't want to go back to. And, unfortunately, the weather today is cloudy and it's quickly growing dark. Night will come before we can do anything. Soon, just being out here will be a threat to our lives. But there's no reason to wait on the sea shore. We need to go somewhere. Maybe we'll get lucky and find other respawn points. At least then it wouldn't be so bad to die. We wouldn't have to get out of that stinking galley again."
I agreed with Valerianna that staying where we were was stupid, and went onward. The Forest Nymph followed after me. We started walking down the sandy beach and, just after we got close to the dark bushes, before our eyes flashed a message:
Congratulations, you have passed the training mission!
Welcome to Boundless Realm!
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