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I checked the abilities to see if they were useful. [Branch of Life] served as a minor heal over time. It wouldn’t cure scars but could sooth inflamed muscles and close wounds. The name implied that there might be higher spells named [Trunk of Life] or [Tree of Life], that kind of thing. It didn’t matter. [Branch of Life] did crap in a dire situation so I’d have to be careful.

[Aged Fool] told me that I hadn’t grown wiser as I grew older. That was fine. This trait, like any other traits, would only affect how Locals interacted with me. It only judged my character in-game. The real me was different.

[Animal Understanding] did stuff with animals. I flicked it away in hopes that I’d never fight a bear in the winter.

The [Depth] increase made me scratch my head. It was like the game had enjoyed me talking about the real world. Like I wasn’t a person until I admitted my flaws and personal challenges. [Depth] was a weird trait in that it helped all the other mental traits a little bit. In theory. Maybe.

Then there was the last bit. The questionable event text that implied the challenge between nature and nurture. Was it better to leave and let the life grow on its own or stay and subject it to my own flawed abilities.

I had no clue how to take care of a tree. There wasn’t enough time to really ponder it either. I had to go to this dungeon, zap undead with lightning bolts, heal whichever people walked into traps and enemies with their faces, and get enough money to drink away my problems for the weekend.

“Right, into the water I go.”

My shoes, low end items that came with the new character, were taken off and shoved into my storage space. A chill brushed across my skin causing goosebumps. Shivers raced up and down my arms as the shirt came off.

I rubbed at the chill and smoothed arm hairs back into place. My eyes drifted to the stream. It was wide enough for a man to lay in and be carried away, but shallow enough to stand in. Even if I waded into the center it would only come up to my chest.

There was a small outcropping that had been eroded by water. I sat on the edge and dipped my toes in. Small minnows stopped and nibbled me before letting the water carry them onward. My chest heaved with a sigh. This might not work but it was worth a shot. Though it wasn’t as simple as setting an alarm and taking a nap.

“I know this river wouldn’t carry me there fast enough if I just let it carry me away,” I said. Birds chirped. I could hear bugs of some sort in the bushes. Something fuzzy, probably a [Coo-Coo Rill] scampered up a tree much like squirrels in reality did.

“But I’m going to try and let go. To go with the flow and end up where I’m needed. I’m counting on you to take me there.”

I didn’t know the river’s name. It might have made a difference. Addressing landmasses by name felt like a druid thing to do. Or maybe it wasn’t. Not knowing the answer was exciting in its own way.

I did know other things. River water doesn’t run faster than a person in a full out sprint. Not if it’s meandering through. A gushing river brought on by waters dammed up stream can go faster for a bit, but it’ll even out after a few miles.

I didn’t know the exact numbers and those shouldn’t matter, since this was a video game. The whole point was shortcuts existed if a player got in the right mindset. There might even be skills I could gain to build this [Druid] path up. Three or four more abilities would give me a [Druid] Rank Two, in theory, and should provide a few bonuses.

Rank One didn’t provide anything beyond a title and treatment from the world. I mean, there was a minor percentage bonus to any magic titled [Nature] and made it so passive critters like the [Coo-Coo Rill] wouldn’t try to rob me in my sleep unless I had something really valuable. There was a system box for it but I’d clicked out quickly due to boredom.

I gave bar drinks more attention than class descriptions. The boxes wouldn’t do anything if I didn’t use the skills or talk about my knowledge out loud. That brought me back to prepping myself for this travel technique that might not work.

“I mean, I know it’s possible. I’ve heard about it before. I just have to trust the river. I mean you.” I was in a game talking to a lifeless object. With my feet in the water. Being nibbled and tickled by fish that didn’t exist.

At that time, I stopped and realized how insane virtual reality could be. None of this was physical. None of it mattered. Yet I craved living here as an escape of my problems out there. I slapped my foot onto the water’s surface and watched as the ripples scared off a dozen tiny fish.

Being a [Druid] meant they got over the disturbance quickly and were soon back to nibbling. They didn’t have teeth and were utterly harmless. My monolog continued.

“I mean, people talk when they’re drunk. About secrets. About special methods of getting around. There’s this one guy, swore that he could step through shadows. But only if the shadow was cast by a lantern with blue flame. But I couldn’t do that, I’m—” I buttoned up then sighed. Rogues were hard for me. Sneaking and blending in with darkness simply didn’t occur me. I hadn’t liked darkness since I was a boy. The one character I'd snuck around on had ended badly.

“I mean they talk a lot. Another druid I knew. A celestial, said that everything in nature is connected. That it’s all some big cycle. Life. Death. Water. Earth. Which is weird because there’s way more elements than five but…” The game didn’t want me to criticize it. There were enough angry folks out there to do that.

I wanted to relax and enjoy myself. I needed gold to do it. Somehow the talking helped and it felt as though this might work. Which was a weird thought. I didn’t have a pop-up box. I didn’t have skill notifications, but almost felt like this would work. It was as though my toes tingled from more than cool water. My fingers curled into the embankment and felt almost rooted.

“Water. He said it was easiest with water. Not air. Not dirt, but water. Because we are made mostly of water.”

Event!

Distant Druid Dictates

You’ve acknowledged that your druidic know-how comes from another person. Find this person to gain important information about your Path! Or don’t. Perhaps the key to learning is self-discovery.

[Distant Mentor] notation added!

[Druid] mentoring effect gained!

My feet paused and held still. A branch from downstream bounced off my leg and spiraled on its way, ignoring the brief obstruction. Mentor skills were all the same. This meant that as long as I acknowledged my learning from another person out loud, I’d gain skills related to that faster. It also meant they’d get notes about me and a responsibility for my actions, which I didn’t like.

That was pushed aside for now. The man I’d had drinks with seemed nice enough in the bar but maybe he’d get me caught up in some drama. Continue Online might send some stupid Locals after me because he’d pissed people off over his game’s career. I’d dwell on it later.

For now, it was back to the travel spell. Could I really use nature to quick travel somewhere else on my first try? There had to be a lot of people who knew about shortcuts in traveling but most stuck to horses and teleport scrolls. They had their bind points and safe harbors to [Recall] to.

Given how this river travel was meant to work, I could see why some avoided it. It required feelings or whatever. Emotional triggers were tough. All I had to do to travel was lay in the water and let myself cry about something deeply meaningful and super important. That's how the story went, tears from inside me would join with the water. That would somehow join with all water. It'd sounded really profound after five beers and a lot of ranmbling.

“This is nothing. I can do this.” The words felt hollow. How long ago had it been since I’d felt sure of anything? I shook my head. The child of years ago was gone, and I’d supported myself for decades without needing to rely on others.

But for this, I had to rely on the game and nature to help. That bothered me. It didn’t matter because I had to give it a go.

I bundled the rest of my clothes down to the drawers and tucked them into player inventory. Player inventories couldn’t hold a lot and using one reduced any immersion bonus that may or may not exist, but I’d rather have them dry on the other end.

It was time to be one with nature. A digital nature which clearly didn’t make sense but whatever. It’d be like swimming in the sky, which I saw a video of once. Apparently with the right equipment it could be done, in reality.

Before my mind could wander further, I bent my knees, plunged in and completely submersed. The chill from earlier felt weak compared to the freezing sensation that now swallowed me whole.

For a moment, I remembered being out on patrol in the endless crappy deserts of the Middle East. I remembered being yanked to the hospitals of rural China on the Army bases that were set up after the war. They’d both been cold. Empty dreary places.

I felt small and lost, despite the rational part of my mind screaming that all I needed to do was put my feet down.

My head broke the surface; my hearing became overwhelmed by the sounds of splashing water. Arms flailed. How long had it been since I’d swam at all? Continue Online flashed messages in dull boxes that were lost in the uneven surface tension.

Then I saw a face. A hazy one belonging to a long-vanished ghost. Hair, also wet, clung to transparent skin that faded almost as soon as I’d noticed it. I searched for recognizable features and saw eyes that looked like mine. The woman’s mouth moved but nothing came out.

I lay there as the river pushed its way around me. The pieces and flashes of what happened replayed over and over as I spun in circles, searching for the mystery figure. Either it had been a monster, an event, or I’d hallucinated the whole thing. All were possible inside this digital world.

The features came together and spun apart. She’d been wearing a blue one piece. There’d been a hint of crow’s feet around her eyes, but the person had to be younger than I was now. Then I realized what had happened. It was Continue Online screwing with me—hard.

“Fuck you!” I shouted at the river while splashing wildly. My body twisted and turned in circles until I ran out of breath. Both arms felt heavy and my back hunched.

As soon as my tantrums died the river returned to normal. What I’d done meant nothing to nature. It was simply a moment that passed with a few lingering ripples left behind. Like so much of life.

“Dammit!” I screamed.

That face had been my mother. At least, it might have been. We’d gone swimming every weekend until she went away. She’d dunked me, taught me to float on my back, and how to doggy paddle. I couldn’t remember what she’d used to say beyond a few flashes. Time had robbed me of the memories.

My eyes tightened. It didn’t matter anymore. If the game wanted to screw with me then so be it. I’d play through this weekend and re-roll if needed. Life was that simple. A game couldn’t throw me off my chosen goal. Get drunk and drown out reality.

It seemed like a lot of bull crap to put up with for a simple drink, but in a way gaining stats and listening to Johnny try to con people served as entertainment. It wasn’t real. It was all in good fun. I stood straight, brushed water off me and realized I was still mostly naked standing in the middle of a freezing stream.

“Right, back to important matters. One with nature. One with nature,” I repeated the words until they became a barely discernible mumble. I leaned back, letting the water take on my weight. My legs bobbed and banged against the riverbed then a chill took the feeling away. “One with…”

A druid, a good druid, could be carried where they were needed by nature. That was part of the gig, as it had been explained to me. Water would be the easiest since humans were made up of so much liquid.

I mean, as a doctor I knew that it wasn’t exactly water. That whole whatever percent figure people tossed around included blood, mucus, snot, spinal fluid, and every other bit of nonsense that made up the human body.

Water was easiest. It was everywhere. In everything. In Locals, Travelers, monsters, underground caves, even the desert. Moisture on the moons. Continue Online was meant to be realistic, as real as a game with fireballs and dragons could be. Realistic, but a game. My mind tried to parse that bit of contradiction then I remembered this wasn’t the point.

“One with…”

Chills eventually died down as my body went through the early stages of hypothermia. My fingers felt numb and my chest a bit warmer. The brief illusion of warmth faded as my heartbeat sped up. Then I’d have to pee, and it would be impossible to tell if it was in the game or real life.

My body wasn’t here. I lay back in a second hand virtual reality bed with a helmet over my skull. The realization didn’t stop my heart from racing as signals from fancy technology pounded me with one of the later stages, delirium.

“One with her,” I mumbled.

It’d been ages since I’d been with a real woman. Not a virtual one who had all their features refined to some stupid level of perfection that was almost glossy. I meant a real woman. How long had it been since I’d given up dating in reality? Years. I tried to count them but came up with numbers that didn’t make sense.

My mind drifted further away until it felt like a detached creature with a separate thought process than the real me. The thoughts were disconnected bits of nonsense because nothing felt right. I’d sat in that river, or maybe I was still in it, for too long. I’d been trying to travel in the game to somewhere near. Somewhere I would be useful. That’s how druids transported.

They went where they were needed. That’s what I’d been told. That’s what I’d trusted the game to do.

A fresh cool breeze brushed across my arms. Goosebumps puckered skin and one arm jerked abruptly. A freeing sensation had replaced the thick restriction of water. All four limbs flailed as feeling started to return. Air pelted me and flattened my cheeks.

I almost found the strength to suck in air but failed. I moved too fast and my body still tingled from the remaining numbness. Which might have been for the best, because when my eyes opened, I was falling toward the ground at high speeds.

My mind reeled through a dozen questions. How had I gotten into the sky in the first place? What sort of spell was this? How bad would the game’s pain feedback be?

Then I hit. My body squished and flattened. Every muscle tightened. Arms pushed out and I found myself rapidly lifting off the ground into a standing position.

Legs wobbled. My eyes were wide and heartbeat loud. It was damn cold. Not simply a chill from sky diving without clothes or going for a ride in a river. I mean, it was the without clothes part.

My arms wrapped around my chest as I tried to defeat the bumps on my skin. My nipples could have cut glass. There were system messages, but my eyesight had blurred. It annoyed me that the game chose to apply poor eyesight to game messages. Other times the system messages were the only thing visible. It was like the game went out of its way to remind of me that none of this was real, but it was close.

I fumbled for clothes and tilted my head to one side. Water slowly poured out an ear canal and by the time I’d put my pants on, my ears were clear of water. My hair clung in strings. This character needed a haircut but being in the service had made me like longer hair.

“How much gold did you get for that?” a male asked.

People laughed. Lots of people. I knew I wasn’t alone and decided to retain a little bit of pride by standing up straight, righting my pants, then turning around with a hopefully charming smile.

“The show’s free, but I charge for a test drive.” It almost made sense and caused another round of laughter.

Twenty people stood nearby. I felt amazed that I hadn’t seen them on the way down but attributed it to the weirdness of traveling by water.

“What spell was that?” Rose asked.

She sat on a chair. There were chairs. I took in the scene again and tried to really understand where this whole gathering had started. I’d been all over the game world but Continue Online had too many different hide-y-holes tucked away. A hundred people could play for weeks in the same zone and never run into each other unless they wanted to.

We were outside a run-down manor. A large brick wall ran left to right separating us from the looming building in the background. It had to be a few miles away and still stood large. It might have been a trick of the game’s perception, or maybe ten Hollywood moguls had gotten together and bought a mansion big enough for them and all their adopted children and their children. Which seemed more likely given the name of the instance.

“Arcadia to Friday,” someone said.

It was the same male voice from earlier. I glanced down and blinked a few more times. DapperSeed stood nearby with Rose and another wall of muscle next to him. These crappy chairs must have been robbed from a servant’s quarters.

“Where did the chairs come from?” I asked.

“What spell was that?” Rose countered.

“Druid…” I faded off and finally took note of the system messages that had piled up. There were a lot and my own personal choices made Continue Online remove all but the highlights.

“Druid fast travel spell. Natural Water Ways,” I said. A finger thumbed away the spell and floated down to the text below. I’d be at reduced mana for an hour. Then I’d actually regenerate mana faster when partially submerged, as a result of the new affinity with water. But that mana could only be used on nature spells.

“You guys got a druid? They’re such shit at low Ranks,” someone from one of the other parties said. “Easier for us I guess. We got a paladin.”

“A Rank One paladin. He’s barely a warrior or a priest. I mean, seriously?” someone else countered. “Plus I saw him. He couldn’t cast a heal to save his own life, much less yours.”

I turned to glance at the others. Everyone wore cruddy new player gear. The person who’d been insulting the paladin seemed to be a priest, judging by the robe and staff adorned with a crystal. It could have been a mage, they were generally pompous jerks as well. Or pyromaniacs. Or whatever the frozen arcane missiles of doom versions were called. Frostmaniacs.

Johnny hopped on his short feet. A tall and far too handsome guy loomed over him with a long handled maul slung over one shoulder. As if real construction workers were dashing in crappy low-level clothes.

“Friday,” DapperSeed said. “Did you bring the money?”

Johnny asking for gold before I’d gotten my shirt on was a bit much. It was my second day with this character and I’d managed to get two real spells, a Path, make it out of town, use a travel spell, and he was pestering me for money. If I’d decided to be a warrior, it would have taken longer to get out of town. No one gave warriors weapons, they had to earn anything more complex than a broom, and even those cost money.

Staying in town might have been better. My eyes closed as I counted to ten.

“No. You took all my money with Pile Driver, remember?”

“That was yours?” the looming man with a maul asked. “Oh Voices, you guys are absolutely screwed. This guy’s got nothing. No gold. No gear. And he’s a druid!” Pile Driver, I think, poked a finger at the top of DapperSeed’s head. “Your gold’s as good as ours. You should have brought a priest like I did.”

A third guy stood next to the priest and they both smirked. Either their characters were related or they were in real life. Both had the same eyes, same grin, same smug stance. Their third member was tall, thin, with no muscles on his chest and everything in his arms. It was a weird look, but I’d bet he was a melee master of some sort. They got fancy Paths like Pugilist, Boxer, or Monk, or whatever.

“The gold’s not yours yet. We’ve all paid into the pool. Any one of us could win,” one of the other twenty said. There were too many people here for me to sort them all out and my vision hadn’t completely cleared.

“Sure, sure. You and the mousy mage behind you might win.” Pile Driver waved off the man in one of the other parties. “But we all did the math. A full party can’t be more than Fifteen Ranks. My group’s four just like it shows on the betting crystals. These guys are like two and three each.” The man laughed sharply then pointed at us, “Hell, Dapper’s party isn’t even ten total, unless you count his absolute mess of a character with all it’s weird single rank paths.”

That made me blink for a moment as I tried to catch up. There’d clearly been a lot of conversation before I got here and at least Pile Driver cleared up some of the confusion. They’d apparently set a bet upon doing the most damage to monsters in this instance. They’d put a cap on who could come by Rank in Paths. Newbies rarely had many Paths so my Rank Two, which had somehow been triggered by semi-drowning myself, druid counted a little bit. The others would have Rank Three or Four in something. DapperSeed had a lot of stuff at Rank Two or Three, probably more than Pile Driver knew or could tell. Honestly, he’d called me a ringer because I’d played so many characters, but Johnny’s abilities were pretty numerous.

“Whatever. Bet was Fifteen Ranks cap. We’re all under the wire. We’re using the jewels to keep track. Whoever comes out on top at the end of gets the pot. Are we still doing only four hours or going until sunrise?”

“Sunrise might be better.”

“I don’t have that much time.”

There were too many people talking so I focused on something simple. I still couldn’t get over the chairs. Someone must’ve gone into the mansion, stolen two dozen chairs, and brought them out here. They all leaned against the wall. I could tell someone had tried to build an overhead to keep rain off them. There were signs of a stolen carpet that nature reclaimed by growing over it with weeds. I scanned the side, this might have been a porch for people to wait at. Maybe a medieval bus stop.

“So, four hour time limit. Points for each monster killed. We’re using tracking stones,” Johnny said while nodding.

“Damn right we are. None of your cheap tricks, DipperDweeb,” Pile Driver cut off my short friend.

“What about pee vee pee,” someone asked. I blinked and ran that through my mental internet lingo decoder. They were talking about players fighting each other. We could do that, and it would probably be a mess. Hunting down and somehow killing Pile Driver wouldn’t get me my staff back soon enough for a beer.

Johnny nodded. “There’s five wings to the mansion. Travelers can fight each other if they want but there’s no points for it. I’m not a fighter, unless you pay me.”

The person asking about player versus player combat belonged to a group made up of one guy and three girls. They huddled together wearing dilapidated cloaks and face paint.

“An entire party of rogues, disgusting,” Rose muttered. I didn’t think she got the irony of her statement but the words were almost covered up by DapperSeed going over the rules.

“The pot’s fifty gold per party. Winner takes all.”

That mention caused another party to start babbling at each other.

“Seems easier to gamble,” a person said.

To which his friend replied, “But this is more fun. We gamble, get skills, fight each other. I mean what’s the point of playing if all you’re going to do is gamble? It’d be easier to get a slots program and go to town. Have you seen the altered reality glasses they have now? Makes them a show.”

“Really? Then I’d rather go to a real casino,” another responded.

“Yeah but we can do high stakes in here. Poison drinks randomly. Russian roulette, then what, we come back in a day? Plus we get to murder undead monsters! And we’re already here.”

Their conversation continued, and I yawned. Their group sounded like children. Technically they were closer to twenty. They had a general ignorance that came from people who hadn’t seen much of the world.

They were right and wrong in my opinion. Continue Online’s sense of realism was beyond any mere program. That was the point of playing these games. Otherwise I’d download virtual porn and a bar then play all I wanted with pretend money. There were all sorts of programs out there on the internet that could fill any need.

But none of them felt as good. The only thing better was actual reality. If only I had a bit of self-control or didn’t have so much trash in my head I wanted to wash away.

My body shook. A sign that I should be wearing a shirt at the least. I put the ragged top on and felt strangely refreshed. It was like swimming in a pool then coming out heaving and panting but elated. The perception was a trick caused by digital endorphins.

The groups separated out. Most of their conversation I’d missed during my musings and study of the surroundings. It should have been the standard “we’ll beat you losers” banter followed by trash talking. The games had changed but the mentality of college aged people hadn’t. Chest thumping, that’s what it amounted to. Even the girls talked trash.

I’d seen it in the military. I’d seen it in school after that. Maybe being raised by a single father who’d spent most of my life checked out warped my own views, but it was too late to change all that now. I was who I was.

“Did you get a spell?” Johnny whispered. “I can’t heal. None of my Paths are good at it.” He’d grown closer, along with our other two companions. They’d moved into some half-formed huddle to discuss strategy and I’d been too busy mentally sighing. Bars were better than this grouping thing. I’d once been in a raid of some two hundred people and hated every minute of it.

“He appeared out of a water cloud. I mean, that screams Druid to me. He has to have a healing spell. It’s a staple.” Rose shook her head and fiddled with an item that might have been a kitchen knife at one point. Layers of animal hide around the handle implied entry level [Tinkering] skills.

“He can’t heal without something. I mean, bandages only go so far,” the granite colored wall of muscle said. He loomed over everyone, making Johnny seem even shorter in comparison. All that mass probably came with passive bonuses to [Brawn] and [Toughness] but might reduce his [Limberness]. “Though I have maybe a dozen. They’ll fix bleeds and, maybe I can do a splint. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to make one.”

It’d been ages since I had to make one too, but that was reality and not the game.

“Friday?” Johnny asked.

I stopped trying to gauge their skills and answered the question with a nod. “I did, but only one. A heal over time. Should work. I don’t even have to chant lithium.” The game’s spells weren’t too bad. Most spells on a [Mage] style path could be spoken in poetic gibberish, or whatever. Priests said prayers in perfect English. Druids didn’t.

“How does it work?” Johnny asked. “I’ve never met a low-level druid. That’s what you were planting all those seeds for right?” His head shook quickly. “I saw the event messages. Did you really get me naked? Jesus. My dignity. That’ll be ten gold.”

Johnny’s character had the best gear out of all of us. That didn’t mean much since it was clearly worn by age. The leather clothes he wore had no tears or signs of being cobbled together out of a thrift store, it was simply faded. He also had no weapons. Though I knew Johnny kept an endless trail of string and coat hangers. Most of his tricks involved a combination of the two.

I went back to his question. “Getting you naked helped. I got a medic skill which should compound a little with the heal. The spell’s a touch, well, a rune.” I reviewed the spell text. [Branch of Life] functioned like [Tiny Lightning Bolt]. Both required me to draw a symbol in the air with my fingers. This one seemed to be tracing a tree outline like a constellation then pressing on the top branches, which made sense given the spell name.

A higher spell should finish closer to the middle. It’d take more mana, which I was running low on due to the teleportation by river to raincloud. Also a higher level spell would have a more detailed rune. It’d help to try it out and see what happened, but it’d be better to wait until the other groups were gone.

My lack of experience with the [Druid] spells didn’t bother me. Being thrown into a dungeon scenario with it might be bad for normal people but I’d been around the block with so many characters now that it shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe three or four seconds the first few times plus I’d get bigger skill bumps for working under adverse conditions, up to a point anyway.

“Anything else?” Johnny asked. “You had something from drinking last weekend, right? I mean, it was Friday. Is. You are,” his words sputtered. Johnny had found this character earlier today, but he knew me well enough to suspect the first thing I’d done was something stupid that resulted in a bump from the machine.

I rolled my eyes and smiled. Drunkenly arguing with a storm from a building top had given me a spell, and an affinity. There were two now. One for water, one for lightning, and if I got three more I could form a [Mega Druid] or whatever.

“A lightning bolt, minor. Has a stun that should work on small stuff, and ghosts, if there are any. Energy I guess.” I studied that spell too. “Looks like it has a polarization factor, so it’ll curve toward the ground or solid objects. Should go for walls and the floor, not ceilings, I think.”

Rose shook her head. “Lightning magic is hard to use. Metal rods screw it up, any of us using metal?” The men shook their heads. “I’d rather we had some flame for the shufflers. Or energy. Ice. Those have nature versions, right?”

I shrugged. My understanding of a druid was based on drunken conversations and a few hours of playing. As long as no one asked me to turn into a bear everything would be fine. Shapeshifting made my stomach twist into knots. I’d tried it once on a mage.

“And I have enough brawn to fight off a fleet of kindergarteners.” I checked my stats and sighed. “Though reaction’s a bit sluggish. It should improve after a few dozen heals and bolts. At least to about twenty, after that it’ll slow down.”

“Twenty’s pretty high,” DapperSeed said. “Mine was at twenty once. Now it’s at fifteen.”

“Only because you keep dying and losing points,” I responded. Fifteen meant nothing at higher Ranks, but we were in a low-end area.

Before he could get upset I turned to Rose. “What’s your role?”

“I can handle melee,” Rose insisted. “And StoneMason can tank.”

StoneMason lifted a hand and rubbed the back of his head. There was a grating sound like a broom over asphalt. He gave a brief goofy smile.

“I’m a newb tank though,” he said. “But I have a high Brawn for this Rank and took on the wolves outside of town easily enough.”

“The wolves scale so it doesn’t mean anything,” Rose responded with a frown almost as big as the hulk’s smile. “Though everything does, so it’s more about fitting together. If you can really heal, and I can handle melee damage, and probably tank lighter stuff. Either way, we’ve got a good start. DapperSeed, you’re a scout?”

“I’m really good at finding traps and treasure.”

“He usually finds the traps with his face,” I added. “He’s half a cockroach though. The guy survives almost anything. It’s insane.”

Johnny beamed. “Friday would know. He’s patched…” his words died off as my head snapped sharply toward him. He was about to spill the fact of my other Fridays aloud and that’d bring drama I didn’t want.

Maybe it was paranoia. The [Legacy] system seemed to trigger off other players talking directly about old characters. It went faster if I talked about them by name. I swear I’d had some of them link together simply by thinking about my prior character, but that happened less as I started over more.

DapperSeed got the message quick and nodded. “Right. We don’t talk about the others.”

“Others?” StoneMason asked. He sounded as young as Rose. His weird mix of features made it hard to tell an actual age. Giant-size and bent shoulders coupled with a gruff voice to imply immense age. His goofy slack jawed face threw all that out the window and brought him closer to a child in a hulk’s body.

“Fridays. We don’t talk about them,” DapperSeed said and grinned wide enough to show two rows of oversized mangled teeth.

“There’s one every week,” StoneMason said.

“He’s avoiding the legacy system,” Rose clarified.

“Oh,” StoneMason said and nodded. “Makes sense. Old characters come with baggage. Lots and lots of baggage.” Even his slow bobbing head made him seem dimwitted. Obviously, he had a decent brain since he’d caught on fast.

“Great. See, we can do this. You’re all people who’ve played other virtual games, with high end experience.” Johnny rubbed his hands together and continued, “All that gold will soon be ours.”

We’d all restarted characters, sure, but the other parties could be re-rolls, have tricks, have scouted this place out or had extra quests that might pull monsters to them. The bet being so loose made no sense to me, but whatever plan Johnny had, we’d probably come out slightly ahead.

“How much gold was it?” Rose asked.

“At least five,” I answered. “Hard to tell with Johny. Money’s constantly in flux.”

“It was five. Which I can make into fifty, if you pay me now,” Johnny responded. He smiled and there was a literal gleam in his eye that told me either was either screwing with us or he was dreaming of striking it rich.

“I like gold,” StoneMason said.

“Who doesn’t?” Johny responded quickly. “And stick with me. There’s plenty to be had.”

“No. Don’t give any to DapperSeed or you’ll be broke,” Rose warned.

Johnny snorted and glanced at his wrist. Nothing was on it, but he nodded like he’d seen the time. I wondered who in this world or the real one still used wrist watches. They’d gone out of style when I was a kid.

The other parties were already moving. I turned away from our huddle to watch them leave in packs. It was oddly orderly for a bunch of people betting against each other.

Pile Driver’s group was the last to leave, aside from us. He cupped his hands and shouted, “Time to go. See you losers inside!”

I thought back to the exchange when Johnny had been explaining the rules. He’d asked me for money then somehow my mind had wandered off topic. “Did anyone actually give him the gold?” I asked.

Johnny chuckled.

“Nope,” Rose answered. Then her head cocked to one side. “How did they all overlook that?”

Johnny chuckled some more and scuttled off, through the large archway onto the manor grounds belonging to the [Widow’s Children] dungeon. Which was above ground and a manor. The term dungeon felt like a misnomer, but a generation of video games meant the label stuck.

“Maybe he’s got a distraction trait,” StoneMason said and lumbered onward. That was the problem with giant characters, no matter how they moved, it always seemed like lumbering.

“He does. You should check your gold,” I suggested to Rose.

She paused, put up a finger and touched the space in front of her. Rose’s eyebrows tightened then she patted a pocket.

“How the hell?” Rose’s face went through half a dozen different expressions. I took a moment and checked my own gold. It was all still there. By the time I looked away, Rose had run off after the other two, cursing the whole way.

This time I laughed. StoneMason had been right, Johnny did have a weird mix of skills that any real rogue would be envious of. Somehow, he managed to distract people by asking for gold, and often ended up with their gold despite them saying no. It was never large amounts, petty thievery or something. I’d never figured out the skill or trick to it.

Johnny had many flaws, but he didn’t use his abilities on me. He never had. I wasn’t sure what that said about our relationship.

I ambled after the others. That’s what normal people did. Amble.

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