When the crimson haze had dispersed, I found myself back at the forest opening where I'd entered Tsuyokute new saga. It wasn't quite the same, though. The forest had become black and white. My ears didn't detect a single sound. I was hanging suspended inside a slowly rotating crystal sphere. A countdown blinked before my eyes, Resurrection in 5... 4... 3... With every count, the world gained in intensity and depth. At zero, the sphere burst with a jingle sending an avalanche of sounds, smells and colors. I shook like a wet dog and congratulated myself on my safe homecoming. I wasn't too upset about my sudden death. I'd lasted five levels which wasn't bad for a newb: they normally died in droves in the beginning. I was a bit annoyed with the power-happy idiot who'd dragged his train across the whole location right over the low-level players' heads. The guards by the city gates would make a quick job of the gnolls. But how many others had they destroyed on their way? Even worse, they could lose their enemy and fall behind halfway, then walk back to the caves and attack the young hunters from behind. I squinted at the location's chat room window and grinned. The place was rife with swearing as everyone cursed the idiot runner. I hadn't lost my hard-earned experience, though. Up until Level 10, the game was in evaluation mode and didn't even demand paying. There was no penalty for character death and the player was temporarily immune to PK—that is, couldn't be killed by other players. By the same token, he or she couldn't choose specialization, either. Nothing new there: a drug dealer often offers the first fix for free. Admins had to have their pound of flesh. It wasn't for nothing that the corporation's annual profits were on a par with an average country budget. My group chat was flashing. Cryl didn't mince words. "Did you remember the motherfucker's name? I'll blacklist him. I'll kill him every time I see him!" "Relax. This is game in progress. Plenty of this sort of stuff. Leave it. What you gonna do now?" "Dunno. It's eight minutes till forced logout. I'll have to play 3D, and I hate it. After FIVR, it feels as if you're handicapped. I might check the shops to get rid of the loot and pop into the guild to get my Talent points from the Master. And you?" Good question. I'd made level 5. I needed to go see Grym. Then I had to do the corpse run to retrieve my gear. And it was high time I started thinking about somewhere to spend the night. Enough leveling. Time to get some daily bread. "Same, more or less," I answered. "I've added you to my friends list. Until next time. It's been a pleasure playing with you." "Likewise. I've added you, too. What time are you online, normally?" Oh. I didn't want to lie to him. Nor did I want to talk about my hopes and plans. You never know. "I'm taking some downtime, sort of. I'm online whenever I want. Knock and it'll be opened, if you know what I mean." We exchanged smilies and I left the group. I inspected the white diaper that seemed to be an integral part of my body and lovingly felt my six-pack abs. They looked great. Freebies always do. How many years had I been dreaming of something like that? This is what made the virtual reality so appealing: it made the impossible possible as your dreams came true making you river deep, mountain high. Millions of slim fat girls, billions of pretty uglies... I swatted a mosquito on my neck (what's wrong with those developer people? Or was it AI's idea?). Using a compass to find my bearings, I walked to the hermit's cave. As I went, I killed half a dozen rabbits. The level-one monsters gave no experience but added a few points to your hand-to-hand skills and dropped enough meat and pelts in the bargain. This is how Grym saw me this time: in my underpants, lugging an armful of pelts and meat in front of me. Seeing his eyebrow raised in silent question, I attempted to restore my plummeting authority. I bowed and laid the game on the table. "This is all for you, dear Grym. You live alone and spend a lot of time reflecting on lofty subjects. I don't think you have time left to hunt. These pelts could make a nice cloak, too." Skeptical, Grym poked at my offerings and wiped his finger on his robe. "I thank you. You could use a cloak yourself, by the looks of it. Did someone wrong you?
Has our forest
been sheltering robbers? What's all this about you walking around in your undies?" I gestured vaguely. "It's complicated. A lady's honor..." Grym guffawed. "I knew I could help you." He rummaged through some heaped-up rags and produced a scuzzy bundle. Unfolding it, he shook it a few times raising a cloud of dust and handed me the garment. "There! At least you'll have something to cover your privates." Your relationship with Grym the Hermit has improved! You've received an item: Wind-Patched Cloak Item class: Unusual Durability: 8/40 Armor: +5 Intellect: +2 Appearance: -10 Well, well. That was a poisoned chalice. Despite its excellent characteristics, wearing it in public could prove not just embarrassing but also harm me in quite a few ways. They could easily bar my entry to the city or raise shop prices. Even deny me a quest, whatever. "I thank you, dear Grym. I have another question to ask you. My hunt has been a success and I've acquired a bit of experience. Could I stay to become your apprentice?" Grym nodded. "I can see you didn't waste your time here. Indeed, you deserve a reward." Congratulations! You've received 3 Talent points! "Now go. I need some rest. Come back when you've doubled your strength." The familiar gust of wind grabbed me under my arms and led me out gently but insistently. I'd forgotten to ask him about the guild—again. Not expecting much, I tried to wriggle my way back in, but received a message to come back once I reached level 10. I neatly folded the filthy cloak, placed it onto the wet grass and sat down. The idea struck me with its significance. I was supposed to become one with the world. Only why had I put the cloak under my backside? Was I afraid of getting virtual hemorrhoids or of soiling my snow-white underpants? I'd done it mechanically, just the way I'd have done it in real life. How wonderful was that? Come on, brain, keep growing into this reality. This wasn't a game anymore, this was our new home. Keep going. I opened the Magic Talents panel and stopped, thinking. I needed to summarize today's experience. I was quite pleased with the Necro. The pet was great, Life Absorption did the trick and the DoTs were awesome. Still, I'd have loved the spell to deal more damage and heal me better accordingly. So I had to invest an extra point into it. Congratulations! You've learned the spell: Life Absorption II. Cast time: 1.7 sec Mana expenditure: 22 The spell deals 15 points of magic damage to an enemy target simultaneously giving you 15 XP points. See Wiki for more details. At the moment, I was still unable to improve the summoning spell. Once I was level 10 and had chosen specialization, the summoned creature would be losing one level per player's every five. At the same time, once a Necro reached level 10, he had a new skill tree branch open, dedicated to pet leveling. It could give the pet a considerable boost. A Death Knight, however, could only have that branch open after level 30 which meant that for Death Knights, pets became superfluous. So most Death Knights would level into some sort of armored high-DpS tanks while more group-oriented ones became the same with a higher potential of casting curses and mass debuffs. I kept switching between branches and reading descriptions until finally I opted for two Death Skill spells. That gave me a damage-absorbing buff and control magic in the shape of a freezing spell. Congratulations! You've learned the spell: Bone Shield. Cast time: 2.9 sec Mana expenditure: 23 This personal buff creates a magic shield that absorbs 40 points Damage. Duration: 20 minutes. Congratulations! You've learned the spell: Deadman's Hand. Cast time: 1.5 sec Mana expenditure: 19 Freezes target for 2 sec I moved my new skills to the quick access panel. There were still plenty of slots left, enough for ten spells.
In the future, however, I might need to think carefully to decide which spells to stash away and which to have at hand at all times. I tested them straight away. First I activated the shield. A mesh sphere snapped open around me and, spinning, disappeared, replaced by a new buff icon just out of focus. In search for a target to test my control magic, I headed for the Gnoll Hill. I still had to pick up my stuff. After a couple dozen paces, I met another bunny rabbit. I selected it as target and glanced at the spell icon to activate it. The ground bulged. A decaying hand reached out and grabbed the bunny's leg. The rabbit screamed and struggled, trying to free itself. Really, this spell stuff could leave you scared for life. The rabbit finally pulled itself free. It covered the distance between us in three long leaps and clawed me with a vengeance. A familiar knock was followed by a combat chat report telling me that the Bone Shield had absorbed 6 points Damage. It worked. The shield lasted five more hits. Not much, but this was only the first step. Later, when I invested more points in it, I could expect more impressive results. Most importantly, the shield absorbed all damage allowing you to concentrate on casting the spell despite the hits received. I finished the bunny off, picked up the pelt, refreshed the Shield and trotted toward the Gnoll Hill. You couldn't miss it. My tombstone flashed like a beacon on the interactive location map. I selected it as destination and set off, following the compass which showed direction and distance left. How's that for GPS? The scenery had now changed. The forest parted, letting me through toward the hills. Wary of entering the aggro zone bustling with mobs, I gave a nearby gnoll gatherer a wide berth and crouched by my grave. I knew of course that back in the real world I was probably heading toward the same end: a small wonky tombstone with my name on it. Surreal, wasn't it, me sitting here admiring my own sepulcher. I reached out to shake off the dust and dirt. The stone vibrated under my touch. Laith, Level 5. The grave will be teleported to the City of Light North Graveyard in 2 hrs. 12 min. Would you like to collect your possessions? Yes/No Yes. The tomb crumbled leaving behind a bag with my stuff. I kicked the gray handful of dust. I'd live. The moment I crouched over my bag, a female player ran up the hill pulling a train of four gnolls. She rolled down the slope and turned to face the mobs. Despite her level 11, she seemed to have bitten off more than she could chew: a level 7 overseer and three level 5 workers. The Elfa didn't seem to know what she was doing. Such low-level mobs wouldn't give her much loot or experience. A growl came from behind her back. A messenger gnoll rushed to his buddies' aid and joined in the scuffle. The Elfa noticed the new threat and shook her head in dismay. Our eyes met. She sized up my embarrassing level-five frame, bit her lip and hurled herself back into what now looked like a hopeless fight. I dug deep into my bag and produced the dagger and a couple Soul Stones. Too little time to rummage through the rest of it. My mana was at 75%. Not much but I couldn't allow a lady to be wasted in front of me. I'd done enough eye-averting in real life pretending I had no business in other couples' fights. I raised the pet—only a level 3 zombie, dammit. Had neither time nor mana to raise another one. Rover, attack! Try to pull a gnoll or two, pup, even if for a moment. The gnoll who until then hadn't received a single hit and hadn't gained any aggro, switched to the zombie with ease. I chose the weakest messenger and cast the DoT. Then, clutching the dagger and the spare Soul Stone, I lunged into close combat. The Elfa didn't appreciate my efforts. She swung her bangs out of her eyes and snapped, "Run, you idiot!" "Relax, babe. We'll do 'em," I shouted back. She shrugged and continued fighting. Now it went quicker. A gnoll collapsed, slain by the girl. The zombie groaned and gave up the ghost. My opponent followed. We were two against four. Throughout the brief fight I kept casting Life Absorption, aiming to kill my gnoll as fast I could. Which was why I came out of it with full life but only 25% mana. The gnoll worker—who'd kicked the shit out of my pet without losing more than 20% hits—now turned his attention to me. I received a couple of hearty blows before I could cast Deadman's Hand, draw out and raise a new pet. Success. Level 4. Rover, attack! His mana dropped to zero. I waited a few
seconds for the pet to gain some aggro, sneaked up behind the gnoll and put my Grym-awarded hole puncher to good use. When we had done away with all of the Elfa's enemies but one, her life bar was already blinking in the red zone. The girl was finished. Still, she was full of surprises. She raised her sword and shield and activated some spectacular skill, completely restoring her life. Apparently, she wasn't a warrior but rather some hybrid class. With her heavy steel armor, the sword and the shield, could she be a paladin? The amazing skill had to be Holy Hands which allowed you to heal completely once every twenty-four hours. I remembered reading about it at some forum or other. She could have probably done without me. Then again, maybe not. The wet blades kept slashing flesh. Another minute's worth of growling and two agonizing sobs later, we'd run out of enemies. We, however, were still very much around. Taali—that was her name—began looting the corpses. The Elven auto translate offered a prompt: Ta meant a fox, while Ali stood for a shadow. A Shadow Fox. Apparently, I shouldn't have wasted my time waiting for signs of appreciation. "You're welcome," I mumbled and began dressing. The rustle behind my back stopped and I could barely hear her guilty voice. "Thanks..." I turned round and gave her an encouraging smile. "Not bad for a train. What was it, a pull gone wrong?" Taali stood there looking over me as if wondering whether I was worth continuing the conversation. She swung her bangs again, squinted at the sun and lowered herself into the meditation position. Finally, she condescended, "Yeah, kind of. Pulled a couple too many." "What's the point? Virtually no experience, is there? They're small fry for you." Taali cringed. She didn't seem to be too forthcoming. Still, eventually gratitude got the best of her. She took the gnoll's bracelet out of her bag and showed it to me. "Do you farm them?" I asked. "Are they for sale?" A tear glistened in the corner of her eye. Biting her lip, she nodded and looked away. I just didn't get it. She got sadder with every question. Better leg it, if I didn't want to get stuck here for the next thirty minutes serving as a shoulder to cry on. I crouched over my gnolls and picked up my loot. The gnoll worker dropped a couple coppers and a pretty blue stone. "Sorry," I couldn't help asking. "One last question. Any idea what this is?" She barely glanced at it. "A laurite. A rare drop. In a shop they'll give you three silver for it." "And if I offer it to other players?" "Could be four. Could be more. Those who level jewelry, they buy them sometimes." Then she lost all interest in me and stared ahead, meditating, as she waited for hits and mana to restore. The girl could use a bit of cheering up. I fumbled with the stone and handed it to Taali. "A present. Take it. From a surviving partner in combat." She looked up at me, surprised, and shook her head with apparent regret. "No, thanks. You keep it." "Just take it. It's my second one today," I lied. I forced the stone into her narrow hand and smiled. "I'm off to town, then. Good luck and good hunting!" The girl gave me a shy smile. "Thanks." "Come on, Rover. Great deeds await us!