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By the time I caught up, Rose had her kitchen knives out, ready, and aimed at DapperSeed. The not-a-hobbit smiled happily like he wasn’t about to be stabbed by a woman for the umpteenth time.

“Where’s my gold?” she demanded.

We were maybe forty feet into the courtyard. No monsters had tried to murder us. I stared at the grass and wondered if there were secret [Druid] powers to summon plants against the potential zombies. If there were, they were not triggered by thought alone.

Thinking about plants murdering undead served as a slightly better distraction than watching yet another person be tricked by Johnny.

“Don’t worry. I’m going to triple it by tomorrow morning. Quintuple! Maybe more.”

“Guys,” StoneMason said.

I waved my fingers and hummed. The grass did not respond. My face twisted in a frown and I went about setting up my interface. We’d walked in as a group so the system automatically put us in a party. There were bars to one side. I could play without them but honestly, I’d never understood the point of turning the whole interface off. Especially as a healer.

It wasn’t like real life where I needed to analyze where someone got hurt. Sure, I could poke and probe, and would to better healing. The bars were more about being preemptive.

“I want my gold now.” Rose inched closer to DapperSeed. My drifting gaze took note of everyone’s feet.

“Where are your shoes?” I asked abruptly and did a double take. They were all without footwear. “Why does no one wear shoes?”

“Where are your shoes?” Rose countered.

She was right. I hadn’t put my shoes back on yet. The earth felt strangely comfortable but cold. I looked up and noticed Rose’s gaze had shifted away from DapperSeed altogether. My tiny friend looked left, right, took a few steps back and paused.

“Guys,” StoneMason said. His large arm waved from my peripherals.

“Giving me flack over shoes when you’re also barefoot. That’s stupid,” Rose continued. Her comment distracted me from looking at whatever had StoneMason’s attention.

“I took mine off for a spell,” I defended with logic. “I didn’t want to show up with soggy shoes. And it helps me get closer to nature.”

Event!

Dirty, Dirty Druid

Your [Druid] Path grows! You’ve learned that maintaining a physical connection to nature is about more than simply breathing the air. It’s about feeling the earth with your very soul. Or soles. Never mind that your underwear is still wet.

Either way, shoes are for those annoying city dwellers. Real [Druid]s go bearfoot.

[Natural Vibe] skill gained

[Grubby] trait demonstrated

+ 2 [Toughness]

[Bearfoot] skill gained!

[Bearfoot] – a skill that implies you have tough feet. As this grows it may turn into actual bear feet! With claws and thick soles. For now, you’ll just have hairier toes. No one will notice.

I waved away the message and went back to Rose’s counter argument. “But my missing shoes doesn’t explain why you’re missing shoes. Rogues need shoes. For butt kicking.”

“Guys,” StoneMason repeated.

Rose frowned at me and glanced at her own feet. “They broke while running here. Completely torn to shreds. We’re going inside so it should be fine, and you can heal anything that’s almost dead.”

“You should put on bandages Stony? You had some?”

He didn’t respond to my question. I moved on.

“We can make our own too. I can give you a shirt, or we can use a curtain. Maybe some cushions,” I said. We were headed into a building that was probably rotted with time. It’d be a wreck if the floorboards snapped and tore up her feet and everything else. There was no way I’d want to heal a reoccurring bit of damage because Rose couldn’t put on something more durable.

DapperSeed took another few steps back. I ignored his slow escape without worry. He wanted money, so he’d catch up eventually, and mark traps, monsters, everything. We’d see him when least expected. DapperSeed couldn’t stay alive because he happily took money for getting himself killed during heists, not because he couldn’t think clearly.

“Mobs! Undead dogs,” StoneMason said seconds before a series of gargled barks filled the air.

Rose and I both glanced over in time to see a small pack of ugly rotting corpses running in our direction. StoneMason’s arms lifted as an object materialized.

“Say that earlier!” Rose responded. She turned away from me and brandished her knives with the air of a woman whose stabbed monsters for years. Which, given kids today, might be accurate.

I glanced at my hands, the mana bar, our group’s health, and nodded. I’d been helping save real lives for years. Virtual bodies weren’t nearly as stressful to heal but now would be a perfect time to test these spells. We’d also get to see if StoneMason could hold the monsters’ attention.

His arms were wrapped around a tree trunk. He twisted, leveraging sheer [Brawn] against the weight of his makeshift weapon. There was a rustle as branches snapped.

Two undead dogs disappeared into the branches with muffled yelps. DapperSeed’s eyes widened and he threw himself to the ground without even turning around.

“Seriously!” Rose shouted as the weapon careened for her. StoneMason’s face pulled back, making him look like a cry baby while his body continued to spin. My stomach knotted as the tree continued a smooth arc toward me.

Lightning wouldn’t work on a tree but it’d work on StoneMason. My cast wouldn’t go off before he finished swinging. I took a page from DapperSeed’s book and threw myself on the ground.

The uprooted tree continued in a full circle before skidding along the ground and halting. Two more yelps signaled the death of the dogs. I propped myself up with an arm and glanced around.

That final swirl knocked Rose back along the ground, destroyed the attackers, and left torn up piles of dirt that unearthed disgusting writhing bugs. They weren’t attacking so I pretended not to see them.

Rose groaned then managed to get herself up. “That’s it? We’re clear?”

StoneMason nodded but Rose couldn’t have seen it, so she asked again, “Is everything dead already?”

“Yeah, but they were undead. They take extra damage from nature and blunt.”

“Is that why you used a tree?” Rose asked. She stumbled toward me with a stiff leg. I blinked, stared at her bar, and pushed myself up. It was time to do my job and heal someone.

StoneMason nodded while I frowned at Rose’s body. She lifted a hand like a visor and glared across the distance then lowered her hand. Her chest heaved a sigh and her face twisted in brief pain. From the way she postured she’d probably broken a virtual rib, or at least suffered serious damage on one side.

Her mouth opened, and a second flash of mild agony crossed her features. I sighed and moved closer.

“Hold still. I want to use the spell right over the damaged part,” I said.

“You can’t just heal me?”

I shook my head. “I could, but it might ache for the rest of the night. Spells work better if they’re targeted. Healing doubly so. It releases where I cast. That’s why it’s a touch spell.”

I would also get an increase to [Basic Medic] and anything else related to healing. Nothing huge, though Continue Online gave bigger bonuses for first encounters and dire situations. If a leg had blown off, in-game, then I could stay composed and work on stitching her together. In the end she’d either be sent to twenty-four-hour lockout from dying or be alive and I’d have a bunch of skill bonuses.

Rose winced when I pressed the sore spot. My fingers lightly traced the radius of her wound. It was hard to identify the extent under her two shirts and leather chest piece, but it was probably bruised and not fractured. The fact that she could walk and breathe were fair clues.

I looked up. Rose’s eyes watered but she glared straight at me. Determination lay in those eyes. Strength I rarely saw from those in pain. I tried to remember if I’d ever seen eyes like those before. A bit downturned at the edges but with a hint of blue like mine.

“Got it, hold on,” I said. One hand traced the rune. The other kept me on target. A glowing green marker trailed after my fingertips as I followed the curves and dots in the spell formula.

Finally, my pointer finger landed on the top branch and the piece flared almost neon green before fading away. Her health bar slowly increased. It stopped briefly before reaching maximum, with a small block knocked off. She’d probably be unable to reach perfect health without time or a better healing spell.

Rose pushed back and stood straight, gasping in relief. I turned to StoneMason and started the lecture. Any seasoned player should have known better and clearly StoneMason wasn’t as good as he thought, or simply hadn’t been thinking about group members.

“You can’t keep using that move, especially if we go inside,” I said. “Any move like that. Pick a smaller stick. Don’t spin around. Area of effect abilities are dangerous.”

“I didn’t think,” StoneMason started.

My hand went up. “I know. Everyone forgets friendly fire is a thing and we’re learning new classes. That’s fine, but Johnny had the right idea when he was checking my abilities. We need to know what everyone is able to do.”

Of course, Johnny hadn’t finished asking everyone about their skills. There were probably a few reasons, but some of it was Johnny getting distracted and distracting others. His abilities turned people into goldfish.

“The tree’s a good weapon though, but maybe a smaller one.” I didn’t know player inventory could hold an uprooted tree. Our secret stashes typically didn’t store living anythings, with a few exceptions. Trees could be considered living if they were replanted soon enough, or at least, so I’d thought. Maybe finding out would increase my [Druid] skills.

“I have others,” he said. “That was the biggest. Thought I’d have to handle them all on my own.”

I nodded. That made sense because none of us had responded to him. I’d blame that one on Johnny but really it’d been my own fault too. I didn’t play with groups often and my last two Friday characters weren’t heavy into combat.

“Use them for weight training. It’ll help your brawn, but when we’re fighting, something smaller. Size appropriate, okay?”

“Okay,” he said.

Rose snorted. “Leave it to a guy to think bigger is better,” she said.

“Youth does that. Eventually you learn there’s a different tool for every situation,” I responded with half a thought. Then I realized Rose hadn’t been talking about weapons. My shoulders lifted. It didn’t matter, my response applied to pretty much any version of that conversation.

Rose found it funny. StoneMason did the awkward bashful thing that young kids do. I remembered being ignorant once upon a time and shook my head.

“Where’s—” Rose started.

“Gone. Johnny should, if he does what he normally does, be scouting ahead. He’ll mark traps, monsters, and everything else for us. But you won’t see much of him unless there’s a lot of gold or we somehow find treasure before him.”

“Oh,” Stonemason said. “He’s one of those sorts.”

“He’s a bit of a thief, a bit of a conman, and a really bad gambler.” Johnny had other strengths too, but they were all in the same vein. The one thing he didn’t do well was direct confrontation. “The best way to put it, if you can picture a task that involves scuttling around, Johnny’s the man. At least until you get to Rank Six or Seven stuff.”

“Why?”

“I thought I mentioned it, but he dies too many times to build higher skills. Instead he’s got a lot of really low-level ones with all sorts of weird quirks. Like distracting people and taking their gold.”

“That little…” Rose’s words trailed off and she stomped a foot. She brought her knives out and started hacking away at the branches on StoneMason’s discarded tree. She’d get an entry level [Woodworking] skill if she kept it up, but it’d also take a good portion of our dungeon running time.

“See? You’d forgotten about it until I brought it up. It’s one of his skills.”

“Sounds like mind control,” StoneMason said. “I don’t like that.”

“Okay.” Complaining about mind control, while thoughts were beamed into our heads, seemed hypocritical.

I flipped through my interface, brought up two items and set them to the side. One was our counter for the dead monsters. Johnny must have had that magical do-all party crystal in his inventory, but since we’d been put into a group the results displayed for everyone. Our undead dogs showed up on the tracker. Our collective group ranks and people still alive showed as well.

I’d never really considered the effort someone put into making a magical item like these crystals. Someone had sat down and developed an item that tracked all those items, then made it an item that could be carried. I shrugged, it wasn’t something I knew a lot about either way.

The other display was more important. A map of the local area. I’d never been here on any characters so most of my map was pitch black. A vague outline of the manor displayed because of my earlier gaze across the courtyard.

It’d be easier if I had a real [Cartographer] skill. [Cartographer]s could add stuff to their map by simply walking around. They’d get extra information regarding special items in the room, secret doorways, perfectly drawn walls, quest locations, and pretty much anything of note. This character wouldn’t be around long enough to get any explorer skills or Paths.

While my own skill was nonexistent, Johnny’s skill had reached the higher end of what weaker players could achieve. Plus, he had enough experience to add notes to the map. Anything his skill didn’t automatically note, Johnny would type in. Even now, I could see results.

“There, map’s already being filled in. Looks like Johnny went straight for the bedrooms.” I pointed toward the manor in the distance. One of the windows lay open, waiting for us to follow if we dared.

“Why there?” StoneMason asked.

“He’s a thief. This is a mansion. There’s jewelry in the bedrooms,” Rose answered for me. “And what’s this? Look, he’s actually keeping a tab for every note he adds. Seriously, finding a trap costs two gold?”

I checked the note. Sure enough, there was a trap in the bed, of what sort I couldn’t tell. Johnny left a note that read [Trap ??? 2 gold].

“Ignore it, and let’s go before more dogs spawn and Stoned here knocks us all out.” I reconsidered our goal. Murdering monsters would work in our favor but being out in the open wouldn’t generate as many enemies. Fields, in my experience, came with less foes to fight. Indoors, tunnels, abandoned buildings, those were either full of little monsters, or home to one big angry one.

“It’s StoneMason. Stone. Mason. You know what a mason is, right?” StoneMason frowned.

“Sure. My great grandpa was one of the last masons. They were a sort of secret order. Or so—” I sighed and cut myself off. “It doesn’t matter. Come on. No monsters murdered, no money.” There were a few more minor packs in the distance. One near a tall tree that had been a center piece to some bit of faded topography.

“They make buildings,” StoneMason said. He followed me jabbing a palm with his fingers. As if that somehow emphasized his point.

Rose stopped hacking at the makeshift weapon StoneMason had uprooted. Most of her ire had died out during that brief flare. She seemed tired, both mentally and physically. Low stats may have been working against her, or she might have been putting up a mask to keep real life issues separate from the game world.

She pointed. “There. He’s marked a patrol on the map. Let’s go for that next. Then toward the building and see if DapperSeed left us anything of value. Maybe we can break even tonight even if we lose the bet.” Rose went toward one of the monster patrols between us and the house.

I stared across the way then returned my attention to the map. The detail filled in a bit and I could see the note she’d mentioned. DapperSeed was moving quickly through the house and seemed to be noting outside objects from the windows as he passed by. StoneMason and I nodded then followed Rose.

StoneMason jogged a bit faster to get in front of the group. He pulled out a smaller stick that might have been pried off a barstool.

Thinking about barstools made me miss my healing staff. That had been the key to a grand scheme going back a few Fridays and the weapon was missing in action. DapperSeed had promised to help me get it back. I needed to recover at least the top part of the staff. Thinking about it would only make me mad, but if we had a chance to fight Pile Driver, it might be worth killing his character for the chance at my loot dropping from his corpse.

My brain went elsewhere for a bit then wound back to our upcoming fight. Healing skills were important. Knowing how fast I could regenerate people’s health bars would help. I watched my mana rebuild after the one healing spell. A single cast had set me back around ten percent of the total bar. It took five minutes to recover. That meant ten heals in rapid succession but they took time to cast. Rose’s one heal might have repaired more but she’d capped out, so I couldn’t tell how effective the heal over time aspect had been.

“More dogs,” Rose whispered. “Looks like that patrol is transforming the terrain. I haven’t seen that in low Rank areas before. But I haven’t been low Rank in ages.”

I blinked and looked away from all the game windows I’d been digging through. Four dogs circled a tree in front of us. The tree lost luster as the undead mongrels pranced. With each pass a leaf curled up and fell to the ground. They must have been transforming the area somehow, creating a [Blight].

I poked some notes from the game and typed the word blight into an internet search box. Sure enough, there were entries out there on the web in vague code. The code was due to Continue Online’s “no internet guides” policy. Either way, there was enough out there in sideways speak to imply that some monsters might be able to change the terrain. Killing them would revert it. It was like fighting a disease or virus by acting as an antibody. Kill the carriers, repair the damaged area, push it back to the source.

“Gross.” His bulky form shuddered. “We need to move quick. Before a second group joins. Maybe do a pull?” StoneMason asked. “Your bolt?”

His choppy sentences were easy enough to decipher. We could bring the monsters to us with a spell instead of leaping into the battle. StoneMason demonstrated the ability to learn, which is more than I could say when I was his apparent age. It’d taken months for basic training to sink in, and even longer for me to feel like half a medic.

“I can do that. Just one until I see how far my mana dips.” That was the worst part about being a new player. So much of the game was discovery. Do stuff, things happen. Study objects, get skills. “You can probably handle them easy if I miss, right?”

StoneMason smiled and brought out yet another thick branch. I was beginning to think he hadn’t picked up any real weapons. Just a bunch of uprooted trees. I hoped it was less than one hundred because it would be unfair for me to plant all those nuts and still not be able to make up for my temporary teammates’ destruction.

I studied the dogs again briefly. They still circled the tree but the leaves fell faster now. “Plus, I think we can get me nature brownie points if we stop them from rotting the whole place.”

They both nodded. I lifted a hand to trace the jagged line for a [Tiny Lightning Bolt] and thumbed the final dot. The spell took two seconds to trace. My hand tingled and energy crackled. I tilted my palm upward and hoped that it wouldn’t go wild and hit my team.

Electricity arced into the air and back down like a lobbed bomb. It missed the dogs and hit the tree. I cringed as wood charred. Bark snapped and a small fire flared.

“Whoops,” Rose muttered while creeping forward.

The undead dogs flinched. Fire fell from the burning tree and landed on one’s hide then spread, chewing up undead flesh with ease. I traced a second bolt and lobbed it as the biggest of the four dogs glanced our way. My second bolt traced a better arc and landed near enough to make the big dog jerk abruptly as all four legs gave out.

“Stunned him,” I said.

His two unhurt companions charged for us. Strangled barks came out and a tooth fell to the ground. The fourth on fire dog dropped to the ground and rolled to beat out the flames.

“Let me,” Rose shouted and dashed forward.

I tossed any concept of sneaking out of my mind. Rose clearly didn’t believe in stealth, she simply wanted to stab monsters quickly. She reached the dogs, knelt, and came up with her knee sharply jabbing into one of the dogs. It spun to the side while Rose brought her knives to bear at the second dog.

“Watch out!” StoneMason shouted.

The plan for a single bolt went out the window and I threw two back to back, chewing up almost thirty percent of my mana. It’d recharge once we got out of battle, but I could risk one more [Tiny Lightning Bolt] and still have enough to heal us each at least once. With my current recovery rate, getting back to full would take too long.

But if I drained my mana to the bottom and kept casting as it came back, I’d probably get a skill. Or I could dunk myself in a bathtub of water. Or both. There were advantages to always playing on the edge as the game adapted around each Traveler’s style.

I tossed my third bolt at the leader. It shrugged off the damage and associated stun then snarled. Flecks of slobber and grime dripped to the ground causing dirt to sizzle. The stop, drop, and roll dog recovered and ran toward us. It quickly overtook the larger dog and lunged for Rose.

Paws and teeth latched onto Rose’s body. StoneMason barreled toward her with a huge stick in hand. I sighed heavily and tossed another [Tiny Lightning Bolt] at the dog Rose had kneed in the side. My mana hit bottom.

It felt wrong to kick a dog, even a rotting undead butchery of one. Not that I loved animals or relished them, but this creature might have originally been a normal hound belonging to this manor. Something friendly and happy. Or maybe it’d been a murderer hunting down foxes. Either way this current state resulted from the [Blight] effect.

If we had time maybe I could work with the others to destroy whatever caused this problem. It’d be nice to remove a dungeon from the game, at least, until some other idiot screwed up the area with some terrible quest line.

A new dog leapt at me. I sidestepped badly and tumbled over. My [Reaction] skills weren’t high enough to punch the critter in our exchange. My body hit the dirt which shook me. Vision spun and the dog’s lunging form came to me in snapshots.

StoneMason’s weapon could be heard thudding into monsters, coupled with shouts of “bad dog!” Rose had zero witty banter. Maybe she’d been saying more but it was lost under the harsh, broken yips assaulting my ears.

Luckily, this wasn’t the first time a canine had attacked me, in-game or in real life. Working an ambulance had put me against people’s animals more than once. Being in a combat zone had put me against guard dogs. I righted myself and got both feet under me. The dog twisted in an unnatural bend that made me sick to look at.

I offered an arm, because attack dogs were stupid after training. Fantasy dogs were rarely more than loyal. This was a game, so it would hurt like heck but none of the damage would last long.

“Stupid tank,” I mumbled as the dog found my vaguely defensive limb with its teeth. They crunched. Pain lanced up my shoulder and across my chest. My body curled, dragging the dog and its clawing limbs with me. Its meaty neck and rotting body shook. Muscles tore. It all hurt but could be ignored.

I pushed through it. The amount of pain people could suffer and still walk away was amazing. I saw it every day in the real world. This? This was just a game. A simple stupid game that tried its damnedest to make me forget this wasn’t reality.

Two spells. [Tiny Lightning Bolt] would hurt me as well as the dog and I couldn’t cast it anyway. More pain might send my character into a death spiral. None of the others could be trusted to heal. [Branch of Healing] took less than the bolt. I used my free hand, thumbed out the tree. The dog shook, interrupting my spell.

“Undead,” I mumbled.

“On Friday!” Rose shouted.

“What?” StoneMason said. “It’s Saturday.”

They were too far away to be useful. The big dog proved tougher than expected and Rose couldn’t look away. I rolled around trying to get the one on me under control and recover my arm. My shoulder jerked. A wet sloshing sound drowned out whatever Rose said next.

Pressure on my arm loosened. I pulled back and punched the dog in the side. It yelped, spun, and tried to bite me with a gross, now toothless jaw. The bar for my health plunged. We twisted around again and this time I managed to lock knees around the back of the dog’s neck. It struggled. My head swam and vision muddied.

I traced [Branch of Healing] again. A thumb went down on the last dot and the picture flared to life. My red bar, one of the few visible items, showed that the spell wasn’t fixing my health. Mana disappeared regardless, so I’d cast it upon something. Then I realized that the body under my hand felt weird.

“Friday?” Rose questioned.

My ears rang. I rocked slightly and remembered this feeling. This feeling of being under fire in enemy territory. It’d happened before. I’d been wounded. I’d been trying to apply a medical kit to a flailing person, like the dog under me which had stop snarling.

There’d been no health bar back then. There’d been nothing but dying people and holes too big to patch up. It hadn’t been red like in the training. It’d been an ugly dark color mixed with mud and sweat.

“Clear. Except whatever’s under you,” StoneMason said.

I sat, mostly upright, with a dog’s body pinned under my legs. It still moved. But the skin felt different.

“I’m okay, I’ve got this,” I said.

I took a slow staggered breath and cast the spell again. Once again mana drained and the noises under me changed. Instead of mush and writhing maggots, I felt fur. Real fur. My vision hadn’t fully cleared. A hand swept away mucus and other mess then looked at the results.

The dog wasn’t an undead monster anymore. I sat up and the canine squirmed away. I thumbed out a third healing spell and watched what remained of my mana go under half. This time I managed to cast the spell on my own arm. Broken flesh pieced together and displaced teeth fell toward the ground. They faded away before reaching the shifting earth below.

Even the ground changed as a result of my healing spells. The dirt, which had been terraforming like the large tree, showed signs of fresh grass. It continued to improve as we stood there.

Rose was the first to speak, “Okay, that sucked. I forgot how bad pain feedback is at low Ranks.”

StoneMason nodded and glanced at his abused stick. It hadn’t fared well. “We need to build up toughness and get some reduction traits. I got a few but that’s because of the Stone Wall Path.”

“Stone Wall?” Rose responded. “There’s a Stone Wall Path? Is that like Iron Breaker or Heavy Knight?”

I glanced around. Other creatures were in the distance, but they were far enough away for us to be safe. The map showed DapperSeed inspecting one room rather thoroughly. He had a note about a secret passage in one of the master bedrooms. I brushed it off. At this rate we’d die well before getting to half the stuff he’d mentioned.

“Kind of. Bonuses to only using natural items. Unrefined stuff. Like, smithed stuff will remove the bonus.”

“Is that why you’re using trees?” Rose asked.

I didn’t pay attention to StoneMason’s response. My mind went back to the fight. Our second battle was a bit of a mess. A quick brutal mess that ended up turning one of the undead dogs into a normal retriever of some sort. Barely pointed ears, a floppy tongue, and dirty fur that might be gold after a bath. It circled me like it’d found a best friend. I frowned and almost deleted my [Druid] before this could get any worse.

“New friend?” Rose asked.

It took a moment for me to realize she was talking to me. I shook my head and answered, “Maybe. Not really into companions though. And you two seem okay.” They’d fared far better than I did.

“We’re built for it. Casters are a bitch until you get mobility. Unless you claim a legacy. I’m not sure if that’s cheating with this bet though.” Rose stared up briefly and counted on her fingers. What she counted for, I couldn’t say. “We’re capped at Fifteen Ranks, right?”

She had a point. Claiming the other Fridays would certainly come with bonuses to all sorts of stuff and make life easier. They just came with too much other drama. [Mobility] skills were outside my normal play style and the only Friday I had with lots of them had been on the run from a bunch of royal knights.

“What about the healing thing? Looks like it reverses the effects. Impressive. For a Second Rank,” StoneMason said.

“Sure, for now.” I shrugged. “But healing the source might off the monster spawns. If we can get ahead and clear the center of this, we might be able to win with less work. I mean, we can only hang out here for so long before they overwhelm us.”

“Right. If we simply kept killing monsters out here, the game will throw bosses at us,” StoneMason said while nodding.

“Or do nothing until we step inside,” Rose countered. “Continue’s dynamic. It’ll do whatever challenges us. Until we die, adapt, or run away. Or stay logged on too long.”

They were right. Continue seemed to increase in difficulty the longer a person played in a single session. Even hanging out in a bar ended up with issues if players didn’t log off now and then. Then there was the dynamic comment. On all the characters I’d played, the game felt more like a narrative than any prior video game. Grinding skills in prior games involved doing the same thing repeatedly. Continue Online could do that too but trying new stuff led to faster growth for every skill.

“Whatever we do, we should try to remove this corruption,” I said. “My bet is finding a source. The Widow I guess. I imagine some undead matron that’s half a spider being in the secret area Johnny marked.”

I stood and went over to the large tree. There had been a pack of dogs circling it, but they were gone. The dog I cured plopped down and curled up next to the tree. It glanced around and every time one of us moved, golden eyes would stare at us. I ignored the dog and tried to see if studying the tree would help my [Druid] path. At least it showed signs of reverting to normal.

Rose walked up next to me and stared at the tree. Her lips curled in a frown. “Is that the man after beer money talking, or the game brainwashing you with the druid path?”

I glanced at the manor in the distance. Sunset turned the entire place spookier. Something about the shadows and dimming light felt wrong. Straight wrong. It’d been a while since anything in Continue Online had made me feel this way. The nearness of that pain, fumbling blindly to heal someone despite being a mess myself. It reminded me of being a younger naiver man. But the past lay behind me. Maybe it was planting all those trees and letting nature take its course. Maybe it was the [Druid] Path speaking like Rose suggested. Either way, I had an alien desire to do something besides drink myself silly in a bar.

I wanted to fix this place.

“Yes,” I answered.

“To which one?”

“Both?” In my mind, fixing this place and removing the [Blight] source would be great for the [Druid] Path. An added bonus would be all the stuff the game threw at us during this process. We’d run into a lot of monsters trying to set things right. We might even find real treasure worth keeping, that way, even if we lost, we’d still walk away with something extra. Plus, if we solved the problem before the four hours was up, it might screw the other people we were betting against. There were too many ways it would work in our favor.

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