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[Nature Mage] and [Druid] were different Paths but often shared skills. Paths were a fancy way of saying ‘classes I’d trained in’ and Ranks were how the game tracked levels. Only there were no levels because that implied a cap on skills. The game didn’t believe everyone should cap at the same point because different people showed different abilities. Demonstrated skills weren’t official yet but close and served as the virtual world’s way of acknowledging the player being onto something.

The world had a lot going on within it, but at the same time most of the terms and statements were self-explanatory. Wield a sword, get a [Sword] skill. Stab someone, get a [Stab] skill. Sneak around, get a [Sneak] skill. Combine them and get good at being a stealthy backstabber with some fancier skill name. Those were only barroom rumors to me. I knew the basics. A lot of the basics, which came from re-rolling characters thirteen times.

I could say that [Woodworking] skills were insanely well respected on the central planes of [Arcadia]. On the third continent to the east, part of some extra territory a player had unlocked, kingdoms rose and fell every month, but [Winemakers] were treated like lords.

For anything Druid, nature was key. It sure beat Priest Paths where we had to believe in gods, or their in-game equivalent, Voices. Each Voice had their own little corner of behavior. Games in ages gone by had handed each God a portfolio. Doug the Great and Powerful Twit might oversee anything related to hookers and meth. Which ruined lives but hey, believing in him would give related powers. Priests were the same in Continue Online.

Short story long, Druids were probably more my speed, especially since my two trips down Priest land had soured. Somewhere out there were Voices who hated all Fridays.

The first dozen yards into the forest were peaceful. No monsters or anything else. I stopped under the large tree and searched for fallen nuts. Each tree had a few but it would be impossible to know for sure which ones might take root and which wouldn’t. I decided to finally engage in social pleasantries. “What’s your name?”

The girl paused and frowned. I spared her a quick glance to confirm the silence matched her expression but kept walking. Time online was a factor, and the better I did in this stupid dungeon, the quicker we’d earn money. Money meant drinks. Drinks meant a nice relaxing vacation after a shitty work week. That was the point.

“Rose,” she said. “Can’t you see it?”

Her question was put on hold while I took stock of the time. Twenty minutes in-game passed and I’d gathered a few dozen nuts. Half were partially sprouted and might take root if I put them into top soil. I’d have to find a good clearing where players had chopped away the woods.

“I don’t have an Inspect style skill yet. Don’t like them, and this character was started last weekend.”

“Really? My characters a month and six days old.”

“That’s specific.” My chatter was mostly to kill time while I gathered. I’d offered to help Rose with some skills, but she didn’t seem interested. That was fine, I guessed. We were different people and she may already know all the tricks.

“I have good cause to remember.” Rose caught up and paced me. I got a sidelong glance. “Do you really only play on weekends?”

“Mostly. During the week I do nothing but work and sleep. Check the news. Take day classes. Mostly work though. They’re long shifts so I try to really enjoy the longer weekends in here.”

Her head cocked to one side. “You just started, and they want you to heal a dungeon?”

“This isn’t—” I stopped before my talking ventured into a dangerous admission. I didn’t want to reroll to Friday the 14th so soon after starting the 13th. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve healed lots in other games. I can heal in this one too. Plus, I might be able to tell you how to get some skills too. I used to play—” I paused again. “I know about a lot of shortcuts to the early Rogue stuff.”

“Really? You have like, six depth. How do you know stuff?” Rose asked.

She knew my stats better than I did. I’d barely bothered checking since they rarely mattered. The game rewarded players based on how they acted and played. If players wanted to be stronger, we had to do stuff that required strength. If players wanted to have more [Depth], which was the machine’s fancy way of measuring personality, I guessed, we needed to demonstrate more complex thoughts. My [Depth] was utter shit in every game.

We kept chatting. I’d certainly been around the block enough to have something to talk about. Rolling twelve characters and doing different things with all of them helped, which I leveraged to build stats. It all went back to my understanding of the game’s system. I had theories on how the machine gods measured it but didn’t really care. That served as a good reason for a low [Depth] score. [Knowledge] on the other hand, all the little facts I knew, could go through the roof. It’d gone up another two points as we chatted.

“I can heal. At least a Rank One or Two dungeon. Three or more would be hard. In most of these starter places we only need to mix up damage and healing, then pause between pulls. Though I don’t remember this place. Where were we going?”

“Widow’s Children,” Rose reminded me.

I nodded. The name didn’t help. It could be spiders. It could be a crazy lady with zombie children. It could be both.

“Do you know anything about it?” I got the impression she’d either played other games or been around the block on other characters like myself. Mostly from her knowledge of a random dungeon like Widow’s Children after only a week in-game. She may have been smart enough, but old age and treachery beat young age.

“There’s some lore but I don’t have it stored. It’s—undead I think. I remember some lady turned her children into vampires or something to be with them forever. I’d have to check for more information. Sure you don’t want to be a priest?”

“God no. I did—” There I was again, for the umpteenth time, about to spill knowledge about the prior Fridays. “Priests are tough to play in this game. Me and the Voices have issues. I haven’t found one I like yet.”

“I’ll bet,” she said. “Though there’s a Voice for everything. I’m sure there’s one for egotistical old men who think they can be healers in a few hours.”

I lifted an eyebrow and puckered my lips. We had another thirty minutes to search for nuts before I’d have to rush off and plant them. Hopefully, I could put up with her until then. Young people were all over this game and most of them were quick but stupid. It had been the same in every game I played. Shooters were filled with children who praised themselves for high reactions and still lost when it came to cooperating with their team. They were often the loudest and their whiny voices could be heard over voice communications giving impossible suggestions.

It didn’t matter. I shook my head and returned to the subject at hand. “Like I said, I can heal this place.”

It might be worth it for twenty-five gold and part of my stash back. Then I could delete myself and re-roll Friday the 14th if the consequences for admitting my ties to another character got to be too much. Re-rolling cost nothing except a few points knocked off at the start. Those could be recovered easily enough.

“Really? I’ve known a lot of healers in other games. You can’t just step into it, no offense.” Her eyes were dull and flat. I got the impression she didn’t mean the “no offense” part.

“I can. I’m a doctor. You should call me Doctor Friday, if you please.”

Trait Demonstrated: [Arrogance]

Pseudonym created: Doctor Friday

Warning!

Actual Doctors will take offense if your skills can’t back up your mouth.

Great. I was on my way to being an [Arrogant Pervert]. It shouldn’t matter too much if I demonstrated enough skills to cancel it out. The game made allowances between earned arrogance and unjustified ego. I had healed in lots of games. Continue Online was hardly my first, though it was often the most surprising once I got past the starter Ranks. There were plot twists to the world that scared me from time to time. No other game made me feel as—targeted—for lack of a better word.

“We’ll see. How many of those are you going to pick up?”

“More. A lot more. I’ve got thirty minutes though.” I finally remembered a better way to do this than dealing with all the hard work myself. “Johnny! Find me nuts.”

Johnny’s autopilot, who’d been suffering in silence near us this whole time, glanced around and grabbed his crotch. “Four gold,” DapperSeed said.

My eyes rolled. “Not those nuts. Like these. As many as you can.”

“Three gold,” DapperSeed countered.

“How about you help me so we can win this bet for one fifty.” During this entire conversation I’d continued searching. My hands felt grimy from sifting through the dirt but the game might make a [Druid] class easier if I rolled around in mud instead of simply digging. I’d try that as a final resort. Though it’d be kind of fun to get all muddy and not have to worry about scrubbing my skin raw come Monday.

“It’s three hundred,” DapperSeed said. “And I can turn it into four hundred if you let me have ten gold now.”

“Find me more seeds.” DapperSeed was impossible to talk to until we promised gold later. He only bothered me if he wanted money, in-game. He always had another plan. Most of them were utter shit.

“I need ten gold,” Johnny’s character said. “No refunds but I can make it thirty by tomorrow, for sure. There’s wyvern racing going on and no one knows that Chuck’s dragon, Tingle, can’t fly straight since he’s molting.”

My eyes fluttered. Arguing with Johnny’s autopilot was more work than avoiding a clingy ex-girlfriend. I should know since I’d deleted a few characters to do exactly that.

“I’ll certainly think about giving you gold if we beat this dungeon.” I wouldn’t—at all. That was mine for the bar tab. In fact I’d probably harass Johnny for more of whatever the actual amount had been. “But I need you to work hard to get us gold, okay?”

“Right! Then you can give me gold to bet on Tingle. Let’s go. I’ll find all the nuts. Dragon nuts are worth a lot.”

I was fairly sure he’d wanted to bet against Tingle a few minutes ago. It simply became proof that Johnny had been attempting to con us.

He dashed off. I was fairly sure he’d be able to handle a few basic monsters that might spawn nearby. Or maybe not. He’d been playing a long time but if this were baseball, he’d be third or fourth string in any dungeon. I hoped our tank, which was a fancy way of saying someone who got punched in the face so the rest of us didn’t have to, was mildly competent. There was no way I’d reclaim all my Friday Legacies and their associated baggage just to win one hundred and fifty gold.

Johnny picked nuts farther away than Rose. I didn’t know when she’d started help but I figured she’d probably get some sort of [Spot] skill if she tried hard enough. I went back to plotting out this nonsense adventure. Widow’s Children had undead. [Nature] based magic generally worked well against rot, mostly by turning them into more plants. [Nature] did crap against [Fire] and [Ice] style abilities. Which almost made sense considering trees burned and winter stymied plant growth. The whole thing would be a complicated mess and once I had it figured out, some specialty class would come along and blow the whole thing up. Like a [Frozen Naturalist] who would be half a streaker and thinks ten degrees Fahrenheit was too hot.

I couldn’t figure out if that made the game extremely complex and deep, or simply versatile enough that anyone could find a niche if they wanted. I did know it made player versus player combat a mess. Wars were almost constant as people decimated each other in every Trillium game. They weren’t my thing since fighting players often involved traveling away from the bar. Bar brawl, sure, war in the trenches for days on end where players fought to earn [Contribution] points with their factions? Count me out. It was a waste of time and sanity.

That and fighting players gave real pain as feedback. Sure, we could turn it down, but that would impact the rest of the game’s sensations. Turning down pain feedback would turn down sexual pleasure, drunken swaggers, and anything else. Everything went hand in hand. Higher immersion would be rewarded and punished at the same time. I could skip using the in-game map and draw scribbles on parchment for a few points. I could not use the player inventory, that let me store items in an invisible box that barely counted weight, for a few more points. Or I could not get lost and not have my hands full. I scrambled for skills to heal with, not an extra point of [Constitution] for carrying my supplies.

Time passed while I dwelled upon the game’s structure and how to abuse it to my advantage. I’d come up with three solutions and could only hope the game would give me an actual spell to cast. [Lithium], the game’s spell casting language, sounded stupid but worked like a charm. I only needed one healing spell to handle a low Rank dungeon. My lightning spell would fill in between fixing the group up. Knowing my luck I’d have to do both to cover DapperSeed’s shortcomings. The man’s best skill was being a distraction and finding treasure. After all these months in-game he still hadn’t figured out being sneaky, fighting tougher monsters, or how to keep money.

“I’m not sure we can hold anymore,” Rose said from behind me. I turned to find the two of them, loaded with seeds. Johnny stood next to her.

“That’s fine. It’ll take another hour to pop these into the ground. And”—I sighed abruptly and shook my head—“crud. We’ve still got to travel to the other side of town. I don’t know about you but running is not my forte.”

My characters didn’t run. They walked. They dashed. They did not sustain long term travel at high speeds. It could be a weakness but it was more about not feeling the need to rush everywhere. If age had done one thing, besides give me lots of [Knowledge], it’d also made me laid back. A low health bar couldn’t compare to a man bleeding out in reality, never to re-roll. Kids forgot that.

“You’re kidding. You didn’t figure travel time?”

“Nope. Johnny, how far is this place?”

“Twenty miles outside of town,” the autopilot answered.

My eyelids fluttered again. They’d picked a dungeon that would take too long to get to by walking. I could try to figure out a travel skill that might enable my laziness but none came to mind. Items like [Shadow Movement] required a few other skills first, none of which could be gained in the hours remaining. I couldn’t use any warrior skills since most involved short dashes at enemies or to friends to block a blow. I could unlock Friday the 9th since he’d been the escape artist, but his skills were more about “I was actually over here and you didn’t notice” and had a fancy title I’d blocked out.

“We can rent a horse,” she suggested.

“Horses could make it. They also cost money. Never mind, I’ll figure out something. First, I need to get to planting.”

Traveling to a barren plot took too long. I’d suggested multiple times that Rose leave and find some horses to borrow or a player who wanted to practice teleporting people. We might end up missing a leg depending on their Rank, which the game would take great delight in, but it could also save us time. I decided to skip going to an empty field and planted on the path toward the dungeon. That took another hour. A long boring hour of poking holes in the dirt, walking twenty feet, and doing it again.

This should have been DapperSeed’s job since he was inspired by Johnny Appleseed but had decided he wanted to be more snappy sounding. His clothes canceled out the possibility of dapper being an applicable adjective. He should have been DesperateSeed.

“Is that enough seeds?” Rose asked after about fifty holes had been dug and nuts buried. Johnny could dig them for me, but planting felt to be my job. It wouldn’t make sense for the game to give me a reward if I had another person doing it. Unless it wanted to give me some stupid Path like [Overseer] or [Foreman] or [Government Supervisor].

“You guys should start running to the dungeon. You might get some stats if you go fast enough, plus have time to rest. Don’t trip on anything or the game will give you a debuff.”

“I know how to play,” Rose said.

“Well then you know it’ll take over an hour to run twenty-six miles.” Even a Rank One with lots of points in physical abilities couldn’t run faster than an Olympic Athlete. “You should go now.”

“I can make it,” she insisted. Rose’s lips puckered in a frown.

She was in the starter town and couldn’t be more than Rank Three on any given Path. Maybe a few Rank Twos on side paths. She may know the basics but Continue Online loved temporary penalties like [Sprained Ankle] and [Concussion]. Oh well, I would plant the last dozen seeds, try one or two more things, and figure out a way to catch up without running. The best part about this game, there were alternate ways to get by the challenges.

That also applied to my own problems with past versions of Friday. Deleting characters happened to be easier than dealing with situational drama. I came to the game world to avoid deep thought and serious thinking, not be embroiled in a long drawn out affair that poked all my sore spots.

“You’ll be there?” she asked.

“I’ve got a few tricks to try still. But yeah, I should be on time.”

I figured out the answer to traveling far with minimal effort. A river ran from town toward the east somewhere. It’d get us closer and we could use the last hour to travel toward the dungeon. The water was shallow enough to stand in but deep and wide enough to float along without bumping into much. It would get me clean after all that playing in the mud.

“Well I’m not going to waste time. I’m sure Dipper here will sucker another healer if you don’t show up.”

“No can do! Friday’s the best. He’s a natural at healing. A one plus best sauce all the way. Cheap too. Give him drinks and away he goes.”

I frowned briefly. Johnny’s autopilot indicator had vanished, which meant this was him and not a machine imitation. I smiled and pretended none of this mattered. Johnny’s quest for money might be a giant scam. It wouldn’t surprise me, except Rose clearly had believed him so there must be something to it.

“He’s your friend,” Rose said and shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”

“Best healer ever. Saved my life more times than I care to remember.”

I sighed heavily and pretended their banter wasn’t about me. “That’s enough. You guys need to go. I’m going to use a shortcut. That should give me enough time.”

“You know shortcuts?”

My head dipped in a brief but tired nod.

“Druid thing, I think. Requires a river. Every town has one and we’ve been traveling right next to the main one that runs toward the ocean. That way, I think. Well one of the sixteen. There’s too many oceans in Arcadia.”

[Minor Geography] knowledge demonstrated!

The path we were on had a river. Most cities I’d been at were placed along water veins of some sort. This fit with civilization development in the real world. People congregated around water sources or trading points. Video game races did as well. Except for weird creatures that didn’t drink water.

“You’re going to be a druid, Friday? That’s new. Have you been one before?”

I shook my head. “Seemed like the best option.”

“Yeah that priest—” His words died as I ran over and slammed a hand over his mouth. Johnny had made the mistake of getting too close to me. I mean, he’d been helping by digging holes for me but that meant nothing in the face of what he’d almost uttered.

“Ixnay on the priestay, or whatever.” Pig Latin wasn’t my forte. “We don’t talk about any Friday but this one. Right? There’s nothing but this weekend.”

“Meight,” he muttered under my hand.

I stared at the smaller player and waited until he nodded a second time. I lifted my hand.

“Fifty gold and I’ll forget all about them,” he said.

My eyes rolled. He knew I didn’t have money. Any gold I’d kept was an accident aside from rolling the secret stash over between characters.

“You stole all my gold. You and Pile Pounder. That’s how you got me into this whole thing, remember?”

“I didn’t steal it!”

“Did you show him where to find it?”

“I can answer that for three gold.”

“We’re all broke. So this is dumb. You two done?” Rose asked.

“Today,” I said. “We’ll see how next Friday goes. Or the one after that. We’ve had this conversation before.”

“We have. If you want all the dirt on other Fridays just let me know. I’ll cut you a deal. Twenty gold for the past lives of Friday.”

“There were no other Fridays. This is the only one," I insisted.

“Why do you keep doing that? Are you trying to avoid the legacy system?” Rose said.

I waited a few seconds before answering with a nod.

“Really? How many Fridays haven’t there been?” Rose said. She caught on quick but didn’t understand how sneaky the system could be. Simply saying there had been other characters named Friday would give me all sorts of bonuses, mostly carried over from the prior characters, but it’d also attach their backstory to this Friday.

“He’s on unlucky thirteen,” Johnny answered for me while smiling. He held out his hands toward Rose and grasped in a clean sign for money.

She smiled and shook her head. “You’re in for a surprise.”

With that, she turned and ran away before I could ask what that meant. Thirteen wasn’t an unlucky number, was it? I glanced up and around the area. Johnny had no answer and simply shrugged, then ran off as well.

“If you get tired, I can carry you for gold!” he shouted.

I didn’t stop either one of them. It seemed better to simply ignore Rose’s ominous statement and get on with my own skill building. There were twelve seeds left, and only so much time before I had to meet the others. The [River Walking] skill I was about to try might work great. It might fail miserably. It might put me somewhere random but more interesting than the [Widow’s Children] dungeon.

Seeds first.

I went toward the river bed. Not all the way in because I knew that this world might flood the waters and drown my seeds. Trees shouldn’t be planted in riverbeds, but the shore outside where all the rocks, sand, and pebbles were should be fine.

These holes went slower. I took a deep breath before each one and tried to think positive nature thoughts. Happy vibes of trees growing up strong. Those trees would become huge and drop seeds which would in turn spawn more. Some would die. Some would live. Life would go on.

If there was one fact I understood, both in the real world and this simulated existence, it was that life continued on in some form. Pollution, humans, disasters, and anything else be dammed. Life found a way.

I think that was the main reason I liked the idea of being a druid. Not because some could change into animals, that nonsense wasn’t for me. But the idea that nature persevered despite the circumstances of life, had appeal. It gave me a strange sense of hope everything I’d been through over the years had a purpose.

I planted the last seed, and while I didn’t want to admit it, I thought of my parents. My mom, vanished to who knew where, and my dad, a heart attack in his forties. It seemed so young now, in light of my own age. I didn’t feel like an old man and he’d died, a simple few years older than me.

It especially felt strange to think that if I took care of myself, I’d be older than him. Never mind that he’d barely been a parent since Mom vanished. Never mind that we came from a long list of terrible fathers. I stuck the last seed in and hoped this simple act of planting might work out well. Even if I deleted this Friday, my thirteenth such character, something might live on.

Never mind that. Real life needed to stay out of the game, mostly. I had to keep talking out loud to earn skills.

“I don’t know what’s better. Planting trees and hoping that means something. Staying to tend them. Going my own way?” I stared at the latest pile and put words to my thoughts. Because the game didn’t give a crud about what we thought compared to what we did. “Sometimes I wish there were real guides instead of vague windows. I mean, I get it. You want us to explore. That’s the point. To earn everything that’s given to us.”

What had I earned so far? A lightning bolt skill. Some basic traits. Half demonstrated abilities that meant nothing. Even the [Arrogance] only meant something with my autopilot. I refused to use one. When I logged in, it was me. When I logged out, there was nothing. Though being called arrogant over saying I had a medical degree irked me fiercely.

“I really am a doctor,” I said then deflated. “For all the good that does. A useless one. Out there, I’ve been replaced by a machine. Hell I barely remember anything anymore. Stupid stuff. Bruising and blood pools. The machines tell me what everything means faster than my own memory works.”

I had a machine to do everything. My former job goal had been replaced. Maybe if I’d been cutting edge, or the best of the best I could have remained a doctor. Instead, I was reduced to less than a nurse in a mobile station that existed somewhere between operating rooms of old and an ambulance.

My body heaved with a deep sigh. I came here to avoid real life. I came here to unwind. Continue Online, Advance, or Progression, any of the many Trillium games were meant for escape.

I stared at the seed I’d planted then felt sorry for it. I was using it for momentary gain then would walk off at a moment’s notice. It didn’t matter, I’d probably end up being a shitty [Druid] too and re-roll before things got too hard.

“You’ll be okay without me. Nature knows what it’s doing better than I ever will. Especially in here,” I said.

Nature would do its part. Life would continue with or without me. I nodded, pooled dirt over the shallow hole, and closed my eyes tightly. It wouldn’t need me. Nothing did.

Event!

Nature versus Nurture

You’ve shown yourself suitable for the path of a [Druid]! The road is long and time is the greatest factor, but that’s nature for you. While waiting, riddle yourself this, oh neophyte of the dirt; what grows faster, a tended garden, or a wild one? Is it better to plant and run, or to stay and watch over the life you ? Answering this will help you grow on the path of a [Druid]. For now, take a reward.

[Nurture] skill demonstrated

[Aged Fool] trait demonstrated

[Animal Understanding] skill gained!

[Branch of Life] spell gained!

+2 [Depth] added

The box didn’t make me feel better. Admitting my issues with reality had granted me points I didn’t want. But the game continued on and I couldn’t get drunk without success.

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