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I’d expected to find myself dead and unable to get in for the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday. Instead, I was able to get back into Continue Online partway through Sunday morning. Time was always hard to keep track of when considering the game’s perspective shift.

As a doctor, I’d wondered how on earth the game managed to make people live four times as long inside the game world. I’d found a few studies, videos, forum posts, and decided that the time compression was sort of a lie.

Those thoughts kept me busy as I loaded up the game again.

The world had darkened considerably. I didn’t have [Night Vision] on this character yet. I’d have to swallow questionable gunk or be blessed by a magical creature like Friday the Second. Instead, I tried to key in on the intangible senses provided by [Natural Vibe].

My back was nearly on dirt. The skill didn’t help me figure that out, but lumps poking into me did. If [Soreness] were a character trait like [Brawn], mine would be high. We weren’t in the plagued area anymore. Or somehow the curse had been lifted. I based that on the stable feeling in my stomach and the lack of squishiness around my toes.

My legs felt abnormally warm. I curled my feet and rolled them at the ankles. Something lightly nipped at me. Wet pressed against skin and I heard a series of yawns. Other weights shifted around. My hand reached to feel what had me locked in place. I found small furry bodies.

“This is the weirdest wakeup I’ve had in a while,” I said. It didn’t matter if anyone heard me. I talked for the sake of hearing someone.

The separate bodies implied all five virtual puppies were still alive. I missed the days when we could log into websites and raise animals, then forget about them three months later and not feel guilt. I’d forgotten about one dragon cat creature before, and when I came back the site told me it ran away after being abandoned. Honestly, it was for the best. I’d been going on deployment the week after that.

“Can you guys move?”

The dogs shifted slightly but didn’t give me enough room to lift a foot. If anything, they had me more securely pinned. Someone laid across my thigh.

Light blinded me as some flap was shoved to one side. I lifted my hands in defense. The dogs were oblivious and my lower half stayed locked in position.

“Friday, you’re awake.”

It took a moment to recognize the face in the doorway. It took longer to realize it wasn’t a doorway at all, but some cheap tent flap that had to be made of a thick material. Behind Rose was a campfire along with the disproportionate forms of Johnny and StoneMason. Johnny’s tiny hands moved in frantic gestures while StoneMason nodded.

I swallowed then patted around and found my staff. With a thought [Illumination] went off, brightening the entire room even more. That stirred the pack keeping me in place. I pried loose while responding. “Technically. I was out handling real life. Thought I died but I checked my feed. Looks like you guys won?”

“Not exactly. We survived and escaped. Along with your litter. I tried to get them off you with food but they refused. Even the chubby one on your toes barely budged.”

“They’re clingy. I guess. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them.”

The lead puppy, at least I assumed it was the leader, sat up slowly. His companions kept resting.

“Did we win the bet at least?” I asked Johnny.

He shook his head.

“Did we get enough gold to drink ourselves silly?”

Johnny smiled. “If you let me hang onto half of it, by tomorrow I can get us all stallions and saddles. We could go on adventures! Or one Griffin mount.”

“Not my thing,” I said. The tent wasn’t tall enough so I jabbed the others back with the dull end of my staff and crawled out. “At least, not this weekend. Maybe next weekend. It’s hard for me to group since I only play a few days a week.”

“We can work with that,” Johnny insisted.

Outside the tent were a lot of trees. Like, an absurd amount. They weren’t full grown, but sprouts that reached three of four feet tall. I looked at the road and almost recognized the area.

“What happened here?”

StoneMason shrugged huge shoulders. “Druid grove. I guess. Grows with Rank. You’re higher?”

I checked through notices. A good number of them resulted from my near death fight. It was always weird how quick the starting levels, or whatever Continue Online called them, went. It seemed to go faster with each character.

“So all these trees. Were planted. Everywhere?” StoneMason looked around. Now that we had more time and weren’t in the middle of one fight after another, I could pinpoint why his speech bothered me. The pauses reminded me of asthmatic kids struggling to breathe after a long run.

“Yeah. We picked them before the dungeon. Then planted them so he could get a Druid Path. I didn’t know they’d all clump like this though. It’s neat, and weird, but makes sense.”

I flipped my staff over carefully. The pointy end often caught on everything in the universe. If the game system were perfect, I could have pulled out my prize without needing to take the darn weapon out of player inventory.

“I guess there’s a power bonus. If I read the message right, animals of equal or lesser Rank to the grove will be friendly. There’s no need to eat or drink while in here for around two days. Though I guess that’ll get more powerful as the trees grow and the grove gets taller.”

“That’s cool. I want to. Be a druid now.”

Rose smirked. “You could try to get the Path. All he did was plant a bunch of seeds.”

“It’s not quite that easy,” I said while fumbling for a small coin-sized slot on the staff’s bottom. My nails weren’t long enough to get a hold on the secret compartment.

“That’s all you did. Unless it’s some side effect of playing other characters?”

I said nothing. It felt as though I’d babbled entirely too much about the other Fridays. The system had even warned me. I paused my actions to bring up the system message. There were no obvious progression bars or dangerous colors, but the window gave me an ominous feeling. Once those other Friday characters linked to this one, I’d be in for a world of annoyance.

I shrugged it off and dug through my player inventory for anything suitable to pry open the staff’s bottom. One copper coin later, and I’d broken into my staff. Out slid a small vial. The container along with its contents resembled seasoning for cooking, but thinner and tinier grains.

“What is that?”

“Salt,” I said.

It wasn’t salt, not exactly. It was a container I’d hidden in the staff’s handle called [Vile Dram]. I’d had to hide it due to switching characters. The vial and its cap came from a stone I’d stolen out of a magical river in some forest on another Friday. The resulting item had only one ability, it spawned small grains inside called [Salty Tears].

I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d crafted it either. I’d been drunk on yet another Friday and toying with items. Most broke into unusable pieces. I vaguely remembered the cap coming from a mercenary group I’d worked with. Part of the commander’s lucky boots or something. I’d assembled it then noticed the grains stacked up throughout my time with the company.

There had been loads of Travelers who joined up for a tour or two and died frequently when being used like cannon fodder by the Locals. They cried, my item gained another grain each time. [Salty Tears]. I’d found only one use for the [Salty Tears].

“One sprinkle of this and a beer will hit like a freight train,” I said. “Two, and you’ll be having a party on the roof all night. Best part? Come morning you log out and no real life hangover.”

“Wait, you have—” Rose squinted at some invisible text near the vial. She had been about to say more but instead doubled over laughing. “Did you see the description?”

“What?” StoneMason asked. He squinted at my [Vile Dram].

Apparently I was the only one without an [Identification] style skill.

“So, about those drinks?”

Rose shook her head, but had enough of a smile to let me know things were alright. We practically ran from the grove to the nearest bar. Five overexcited puppies chased us the whole way.

People gave us looks, but rarely bothered to do a double take. I guess a giant, five dogs, a ratty druid, and a waif with knives wasn’t unusual in Continue Online, much less in a town made up mostly of Travelers. I didn’t see Johnny, but he’d already be ahead of us. He always knew when it was time to drink.

“Johnny!” I shouted while pushing in the barroom’s swinging doors. I loved their old western feel. It didn’t go with the rest of the bar, that couldn’t decide if it was Victorian or Greek, but that door swung and it made me happy.

Sure enough, the short not-a-hobbit was standing in front of two Travelers wearing nearly nothing. “Just a few coins and I can easily get you that sweet deal you’re looking for.”

“Dapper, we told you, if you want to play, you’ve got to pay. A girl’s gotta make some money,” one of them said. She leaned over and StoneMason put up a meaty fist to block his view. Rose whistled and nodded.

Johnny, a good two feet too short, couldn’t appreciate the view. I did but had more pressing concerns. My feet quickly wove a path through the crowded room over to Johnny’s character.

“Johnny.” I brought my hands down on his shoulders. He could probably escape but I hoped he’d get the hint.

“Oh, honey, you need a bath,” one of the possible prostitutes said.

“I’m not here for you, at all. I’m on a strict real-women-only diet. But I’ve got to talk to my friend about a debt.”

“Friday, you’re ruining my plan!” he whispered.

“You started it.” I pushed him toward the bar counter where an unimpressed bartender stood. He looked at StoneMason and put out a hand.

StoneMason didn’t even ask what that meant. He fished in his pocket for some small piece of paper. I lifted an eyebrow. In all the times I’d gotten drunk, I’d never seen anyone get carded, in a video game. I’d thought the age limits made that sort of thing obvious. He saw me standing there, Johnny still firmly under my hands, and smiled sheepishly.

He pulled out a card and checked it while explaining.

“It’s the race,” StoneMason said. “I have to have approval from a council to drink and show I’m in good standing and of…” He squinted at the card in his hands. “Steady headed temperament while under the influence. I guess if I go crazy I get bad marks on my record. Or sent to Hill Giant jail. I don’t know.”

The bartender checked out the card. I blinked. The person behind the counter was a Local so maybe he had to be more careful about the rules. Players could typically just wave screens at each other all day.

Still, the man said nothing.

“Good sir, a round of drinks for the four of us. My friend here is paying,” I said.

Johnny looked up at me with his tiny weasel-y face. “But, Friday—”

“Mmmmhm. Nope. I don’t believe you. You took all my rainy day funds, remember? And you can’t tell me you didn’t steal from Pile Driver when he had you cornered, right?”

“Hey. Yeah, where’s my gold, you little thief.”

“Hey, yeah. Drinks are on Rose! Thanks, girl. But if you let me keep the lantern you got, then I can get us a secret path into a lord’s castle.” Johnny pulled out a few coins and slammed them down on the counter. Rose dove for them but the bartender was quicker. He bit a coin then leaned over to glare at Johnny.

Rose fumed. “No. That’s mine!”

Subdued by the bartender’s stare, Johnny pulled out two more coins and put them on the counter. Rose snatched one this time before the drink server grabbed the other. He stared at Rose then rubbed his fingers at Johnny.

The short guy protested. “Without me you would have never noticed that spy shield enchant!”

“Please, that was your talent adding extra perks.”

The bartender rubbed his fingers again and frowned. I was fairly sure he’d been frowning the whole time but it took on a new dimension of disapproval.

“And the natural fabrics on big balls pants!”

“Also your talents.” She pointed at the bartender and lifted her eyebrows while staring at Johnny.

“They’re called skills, and for ten gold I can fiddle with everything you own to see what other secrets they may hold.”

“Really?” I asked. “She’s like twenty and you’re forty. Don’t be gross. And pay the man!”

“Forty’s the new twenty-five!” Johnny shouted. His tiny form hopped.

“Pay the man,” I repeated.

Johnny realized his usual attempts at distraction wouldn’t work on the Local. He fished out some more coins. Two were fake, two more were scooped up by Rose, and the last few apparently satisfied the bartender.

You are gross,” StoneMason said. “Though some of these races. Make it hard to tell. I once saw this. It was like. You know those stem cell. Addicts? The ones who are sixty but look thirty.”

StoneMason’s words were dangerously close to discussing stuff I didn’t want to think about. I scooped up the drinks and put them on a serving plate. We wove a path to a table.

Rose and Johnny still argued about who owed who what. She paused repeatedly and fought off the short man’s skills. I set out a drink in front of each person and held up the [Vile Dram]. It wouldn’t be fair to supply them with any of this material if they weren’t serious. Plus, if they said no, I could keep more for myself.

“You sure you all want to try this?” I asked.

StoneMason and Rose exchanged a glance. Johnny grabbed his mug off the table and shoved it under my nose. Eventually the other two nodded and I sighed. If only they’d said no.

I unscrewed the top and put a few grains into all the drinks. Then I remembered my week out in the real world, and added a few more [Salty Tears] to mine.

So, after we’d all been set up. I took a long swig then asked the important questions, “What ever happened to Pile Driver?”

“Oh you should have seen Rose,” Johnny started.

I smiled. It sounded like it would be a good story to pass the night with.

Turned out it wasn’t that great a story. I felt kind of happy I’d missed out. Rose and StoneMason took turns badly explaining how they’d set up some complicated plan to ambush PileDriver’s team, when he died to a boss. Johnny repeatedly explained how he’d kited the Travelers by the master suite of the mansion in hopes of triggering the final battle.

He’d succeeded, but I’d been too busy herding dogs, which was a backwards job. Johnny stole all his goods and everything else not nailed down, and they’d barely finished up when I typed a message into party chat.

That got them racing. I shared about the dogs, who were all strangely well-behaved and huddled under the table. One kept nosing StoneMason’s lap for food he’d ordered.

By the time we had our second round of drinks, my grip on the surroundings had faded pretty far. I bought fries and some slab of material that might have been bacon in reality. It tasted closer to fried butterscotch.

“Going to bed now. Night night.” With that, StoneMason’s head hit the table top at high speeds. The room shook from a thud. His character faded as the player logged out of Continue Online.

Two of the dogs immediately fought over his chair, searching for crumbs.

“Wuss,” Rose said. Her head reeled back with wide eyes. I laughed. We were beyond toasted. The walls were almost melting.

“Come on, Friday! I want to stab something and need you to heal me. It’ll be good. We can train the dogs. Maybe get some cooking skills.”

“Dogs?”

Four voices yipped at me. The fifth bit my bare bearfeet. I frowned. They’d been normal feet a moment ago. I couldn’t focus on the words on my screen to figure out when they’d reached a new level of skill. Did dogs chewing on my toes increase the skill?

I wiggled my feet and blinked as they slowly returned to normal.

“God. I don’t want to shapeshift,” I mumbled.

Rose waved an arm wildly. “What? Let’s get some food for the road, and more of this. Jesus. This tastes like unfiltered ass but I can’t stop smiling.”

I hadn’t really noticed what expression she wore while telling the story. My brain had wandered.

Rose abruptly screamed. No one at the other tables even flinched. “Where’s Johnny? He stole my gold again.” She charged out of the bar.

I motioned to the dogs. “Go keep her safe, yeah?”

Only the leader seemed to understand my words. I’d have to think of a good name for him. He nipped his litter-mates and herded them out the door after Rose. I hoped they’d keep each other busy while I attended real life again.

I logged out and washed up. As a doctor, with a worthless degree, I knew the importance of stretching and moving around regularly. That’s why I ate a harried dinner while standing up and pacing the room. A few squats and stretches got me into vague shape. Luckily digital liquor didn’t interfere with the physical body.

The haze of my digital escapades faded and I started to feel clear headed. That bothered me. Being clear headed meant all the horrible shit from this week would wiggle its way back into my thoughts. I finished a brief exercise routine then put on my helmet and logged back in.

A lot of trees were around.

“Fuck you, Fuzzy Faced asshole!” Rose shouted. “Rat bastard! It’s all your damn fault.”

I took note of my surroundings. Apparently my character had been on autopilot, which was the fancy way a game kept continuity in the game world. A virtual copy of me tried its best to act as I did while real me went about life. I normally didn’t use autopilot but must have forgotten to turn it off. Or I’d blacked out.

My mana bar had dropped a lot. There were messages about new skills. I flicked past one that showed me an upgraded version of [Branch of Healing] called [Winds of Renewal], which was a fancy ranged spell, but it did less healing overall. I’d also finally received a mana regeneration increase called something boring. The pool had gone up a bit, and my [Knowledge] increased. None of the bonuses were ground breaking, but they’d make my life easier in the future.

Sadly, there were no event notices to put on my wall of amusement.

“I’ll gut you and wear your skull as a hat!” Rose threw rocks.

“What?” I asked. My hearing didn’t seem in sync with everything else, which is how I knew my autopilot had continued drinking heavily. I poked my interface. I’d ordered a lot of beers to go, paying with whatever gold I’d earned during the dungeon crawl.

She screamed at a rat monster. I could almost remember us wandering into the woods for a fight but it didn’t make sense. My mind got stuck on trying to remember how I’d earned any money at all.

Rose engaged the oversized rat.

“Dog pile!” I shouted, hoping the command to action worked.

A swarm of angry puppies dove for the enemy.

A dozen more rats came out of places my brain couldn’t conceive of.

My dogs scattered. Rose continued to fight the good fight. I panicked and threw out [Winds of Renewal] after the scattering dogs to keep them from dying.

“Heel!” I shouted.

“I don’t need healing,” Rose bellowed. She hacked away at a rat until its brains were pulp. “I need my child’s father to fucking be a dad.”

Her words registered slowly. A second later my face slammed into the ground. Pain flared and I curled into a ball, clutching what felt like a broken nose.

“NNoooww.” I badly merged two words together while shaking off the hurt.

Those were easy enough to set. It was the healing after that sucked. Fingers gripped the nose and pressed the tip back into cartilage. My eyes watered and I gasped. I counted to ten while eying my mana bar, then performed a shaky [Branch of Healing]. Learning a new version didn’t mean the old one went away.

I might have been able to simply cast the spell, but setting a bone first helped. There were uses for basic medical skills that magic and my skills acknowledged.

The baby-like squeals of dying rats faded. Dogs yipped. Rose counted to three, then four, then three again, and finally reached five. I stood and glanced around. The dogs were gathered in the middle of a messy pile of corpses. My head shook slowly. Those pups had survived on their own. Either they’d been mainly a distraction, Rose was insane enough to think they’d win, or we’d gotten lucky and these rats were exceptionally weak.

“You okay?”

My nose tingled and I fought back a sneeze. “I told you, I’m a doctor.”

The system didn’t agree, but I did get another Rank in [Field Medic] for fixing my own nose.

We repeated the exercise of murdering forest monsters until the dogs and I were exhausted. They did amazingly well considering they were so young. Though maybe my eyes were playing tricks because the leader, who I still hadn’t figured out a good name for, seemed bigger than he had been.

He barked and the others went into action. The two female dogs were a bit sleeker and disappeared into the bushes frequently. I couldn’t tell but the fatter, distracted one, seemed to be taste testing all the dead animals then yipping when he found something worth eating. As for the fifth, his mission seemed to be making sure I didn’t go too far. Or he huddled against my legs the entire time and nipped me when Rose got too far away. It was like I had a fuzzy minder.

After a few dozen messy battles against low Rank enemies, Rose stumbled back toward the Traveler made town. The dogs stayed in front of me, wagging tired stubby tails.

She flopped onto the roadside in front of a Local guard. The guard didn’t even bat an eyelash. Rose’s eyes were glazed over and she gestured to me.

“What?” I asked.

“Give me more. This is a goddamned pity party of two and I need to be properly sauced.”

“Sauced?”

“Old-fashioned word for drunk as hell.”

The guard, who’d been ignoring us, caved with a brief snicker. I asked, “All the murder wasn’t cathartic enough?”

“Doesn’t matter how much I get distracted. As soon as I’m done here, out I go. Back into the real world with real problems,” Rose said.

“Don’t I know it.”

I pulled out two more drinks. Rose’s ability to keep up was impressive, or the game interface had gone easy on her.

“I hate it. Everything I see reminds me of him.”

“So, stop looking at people as hard. I don’t pay much attention myself.”

“I noticed. You’re still wearing those starter clothes. They smell like shit warmed over and you’ve hardly commented on the fact that my ass is hanging out of these pathetic leggings.”

I shrugged. “Starter gear is like that. Everyone looks kind of dull and unrefined. Nothing sparkles. Plus, like I said, there’s no point in caring what people in here look like.”

“How do you not care about people’s faces and stuff? I mean, you brushed off those whores in the bar without even a second glance. They had everything just—” Rose gestured at her chest. “All over.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people over the years. You know? I guess getting older means some things stop mattering. Everyone goes into boxes, or whatever is socially acceptable to call boxes. Plus no one in here looks remotely like what they do in real life, so what’s the point?”

“You got that right. I had a man, met him in real life. Thought he was still cute until he pulled a vanishing act on me.”

I remembered my own life choices and stared at my drink. I mumbled, “Maybe he had a good reason.”

“What?”

I sighed in relief. She hadn’t heard my stupid drunken admission.

We kept chatting. Rose unloaded a lot about this father of her child. I’d forgotten how much some people babbled when drunk.

“What about your life? All those characters, you must have seen some shit.”

“It’s a lot like real life. Kind of funny actually.”

“Oh yeah? You’re going to talk about those prior characters?”

“Nope,” I answered then took a long hard swig of beer. “But I heard about this one guy named Friday who…” The words dragged off in a sound reminding me of a distorted phone call. The world spun and my long sought after peaceful oblivion finally arrived. The world went black.

I found myself standing, staring at the ground. The guard from before had changed to a woman in armor. She stared at me with one hand on her sword. Five dogs were nearby, barking up a storm.

“Quiet those animals, sir, before I’m forced to throw you all in the stocks for disrupting my sanity,” she said. I found the slightly British accent charming and confusing.

“What happened?”

“You regaled the girl with tales of some other man’s heroism, then she vanished. As you Travelers do.”

“Oh.” My fingers flipped through the system notices in fear of seeing one talk about my [Legacies] being claimed. There were none. There were no notices at all. I frowned but considered myself lucky that black out drunk Friday didn’t make tipsy as heck Friday wet himself in fear.

Either way, Rose had left me alone with five mouths to feed. I said a silent prayer that her real world problems would turn out okay. Based on what I could recall, she had a young baby her mother was watching for the weekend.

The dogs milled around, sniffing the ground.

“Okay, puppy. We’re going to try healing you all, a lot,” I told the dog. “And other stuff. We’re going to try all the spells. We’re going to do them backward. Daddy needs some skills!”

The leader puppy backed up with a whimper. The other four huddled behind him.

“Fine. I’ll try it on myself!” I lifted a finger to trace a mirrored version of [Branch of Healing], to see what would happen, then I blacked out.

Eventually the world came into focus. I could be sure time had passed because now I stood in a new location feeling both sick and elated. One armed tingled with energy while the other had a clammy feeling to it.

My eyes were having a hard time focusing. [Branch Of Healing] probably hadn’t been intended to be traced backward but it still did something. I sniffed. The ground smelled, gross. It reminded me of the entire area around [Widow’s Children]. I stared and wondered what the heck this meant. Had I reversed the healing spell and turned it into some sort of anti-life ability?

The city wasn’t in sight anymore. This looked vaguely like the forest grove with the saplings growing in it, only now the trees were much taller and thicker. At this rate they’d be towering monsters in a few weeks.

I took another swig of my amped up alcohol and blacked out again.

Time moved strangely. Continue Online’s game presence came to in blips. Part of me worried, because the time dilation and being only in a virtual game should have lessoned the effect or inebriation, but at the same point I was too drunk to give it much thought.

Shadows moved as the sun spun overhead. I’d been on an in-game bender for almost two days, stopping only to take care of real life physical issues before diving back into beer land. The entire time I fumbled through the motions.

Rose appeared later the next day. She’d found me in the grove and stared hard across the distance. “Still here?”

“Sure is. Am. For shores. Want to stitch up a chicken? I used to do this all the time in the service. Might get a skill out of it. You might. I got one,” my words came in a heated rush. In front of me was a mound of dirt I’d dug from the ground somehow. I’d been firmly blacked out and returned to find it waiting for me, like a strange altar.

“Sure,” Rose said. “But promise to take a bath.”

“I did take one. Used soap and everything,” I answered while cheering myself on with both fists shaking.

“In-game.”

“Fine. Next time it rains.”

I spent another hour drinking myself to oblivion and teaching her the finer points of using dead animals to practice on. After I logged out to go the bathroom, she’d left. I vaguely remembered my promise and screamed at the sky for rain.

So, it rained. Feeling proud of my impending bath, I took another sip of beer and the world went black.

When I came to, I stood at the edge of my grove on the road. There, I shouted incoherently. After a second of mental hoop jumping, I figured out that my shouting had purpose.

“I need dog food!” I bellowed. The world kept spinning. It felt like the puppies were about my legs but looking down proved harder than expected. My nose still tingled, even though I was fairly sure I’d broken it a day ago in-game, maybe two. Time proved difficult to track and my interface hid from me.

My loud rant for assistance continued, “Don’t let these pups starve! Free healing for dog food!”

I searched for some cardboard to write my slogan on. It would have been easier with Johnny getting people for me, but he’d run off a few hours ago. Or days. I couldn’t tell. I was fairly sure he’d shown up.

Three Travelers were headed to town along the path that my grove had been growing near. It still made no sense how these trees had sprouted so darn fast.

“I can heal you for food. I’m a doctor dammit!” I shouted.

One of the Travelers plugged his nose and waved at me. “Don’t listen to him. He’s clearly drunk and not a real doctor.”

Another one muttered, “I didn’t know there were homeless in-game?”

The third shook his head.

“Hey! Hey fuck you all and the horse you rode in on. I’m not a quack, I’m a goddamn doctor. I earned my degree.” My arms were out of control. They spun. I spun. The world continued to go in circles around me and I couldn’t find a tree large enough to keep from falling into the sky. Or the ground. It was hard to tell.

“Just trying to earn money,” I mumbled. My fingers traced out the [Branch of Healing] spell for the umpteenth time. “Goddammit.”

Clouds sat overhead. Either from my earlier possible summoning of a storm or some other natural phenomenon. I didn’t know if the pack of pups would survive a week without someone watching over them. I didn’t know anything that would happen. They’d need food. They’d need shelter.

I could barely take care of myself, in-game and out there in the real world. Now I'd drunkenly set myself about taking care of virtual pets.

When I’d been young, life had had so much promise. Everything in the world to offer for a boy who could do anything. That’s what I’d told people all the time.

“I’ve got this. I can do anything,” I mumbled, but I hadn't believed that in decades.

Wallowing did no good. I decided now was the best the time to stop drinking and set about making a shelter for the dogs. I stumbled to my feet and flipped through a blurry interface. Some of the trees were large enough that I could weave the branches together. If I was lucky, it’d turn into a dry spot for the dogs.

Maybe the game would let them create a den. That seemed like a [Druid] thing to do.

“Dig there.”

The five of them looked at me blankly. I dumped out anything resembling food from my inventory, which wasn’t much, and followed up with a, “Stay. I’ll be back in a lot of days.”

Then before any more self pity could rear its ugly head, I logged off.

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