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He lay sprawled on the floor far longer than he should.  His mind warred with itself whether he should laze forever or to rise and continue on.  He’d been too destroyed to even check if a new exit had appeared.

He knew at any moment the wrath of Tygerion would fall on his head for being a slacker.  The aggravating knowledge prevented him from fully relaxing like his body demanded.  Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and sat up on his elbows.  Sharp pains indicated he’d either scraped or bruised them.  Probably both.  He rested on his hands instead.  He gasped as the pain took his breath away.  His hands were now useless.

Careful not to bump any hurt body part, he struggled to sit the rest of the way up.  He examined his left hand, the worst of his injuries.  The Metal statue had sliced it deeper than he first believed.  His fingertips were also burned, the blistered flesh ripped off.  Some of the bloody skin still hung on, and the sight churned his stomach.

He began breathing rapidly, and averted his eyes before he became more queasy.  He reflected on how he was never destined to become a doctor.  He hated blood.  As a teenager, he’d hyperventilated at his sports physical exam when they took blood samples.  His entire track team found it hilarious as he shivered with anxiety under a blanket on a ninety degree summer day.  Thankfully, he’d gotten a bit better about the sight of blood in recent years, mainly due to watching violent movies.  But it wasn’t the same as whenever he’d see it for real.

His wristband held a soft glow, tempting him with a distraction, but his hand needed immediate attention.  On second thought, he wondered if he’d gained a new Physical skill as a reward... he could use another one of those healing effects.  He lifted his arm and focused on the glowing silver band until the interface appeared.

[You have been awarded 5 NPs for completing the second preliminary challenge.]

Nothing else was written.  Well whoopty doo.  He only experienced Hell and nearly died three times over for the trouble.  He gained no skills or anything else immediately useful.

He focused on the Player Statistics tab and the screen switched to his character sheet.  He had 9 NPs again.

He glanced around and spotted his white t-shirt in the corner of the room where he’d made his final toss of the Water statue.  Grunting as he gained his feet, the first satisfaction he experienced was in finally being able to stand upright again.  He stretched his back, luxuriating in not having to hunch over anymore.

He limped to his shirt, favoring his left leg.  He’d probably hurt it somehow but couldn’t recall when.  His blood-soaked shirt appeared to have seen better days as well.  He picked it up, careful not to use his raw fingertips.  With his teeth, he ripped off a less dirty strip of the flimsy fabric.  He wrapped the cloth scrap snuggly around his hand, becoming light headed from the pain.  The psychological aspect of treating his own wound didn’t help matters.

Once finished, he stuffed the rest of the shirt in his back pocket, letting it hang down his leg like a worker’s rag.  Even though the shirt was ruined by civilization’s standards, it was one of his only assets.  He was taking it with him.

He looked around the rest of the room.  While treating his hand, a new door had appeared where the five alcoves had once been.  He sighed… he would get to that in a moment.  He spotted his blue shirt towards the middle of the room.  He limped over to retrieve it.  It was wet, and he did his best not to focus on how.  

“Congratulations on completing the preliminary trials,” spoke a familiar feminine voice.  He looked over his shoulder, unsurprised to see the life-size blue holographic Tutorial Guide.  The smiling image began walking towards him.

“Does this mean I can go home now?” Nathan asked.  He’d already had more adventure today than all of his hiking, rock climbing, camping, and kayaking trips combined.

“I’m afraid not, my dear,” she responded.  Her regretful expression looked surprisingly sincere.  “This was just the initial test to weed out the weakest players.  Everyone selected had high unenhanced statistics, but there are many deficiencies missed by the body scans that the preliminaries highlight.”

Nathan found his ire rising.  “Killing people is hardly the best way to find… deficiencies,” he spat.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Nathan stared at her in disbelief.

She coughed awkwardly.  “My apologies.  Perhaps my attempt at humor was in poor taste.  Essentially, unlike these first challenges, the majority of budgeted resources are allocated for the main arena.  Removing weaker players at the beginning is simply cost effective.  Not my words, mind you.  Tygerion the Maker made these decisions.”

Nathan had a bad taste in his mouth.  He wasn’t predisposed to violent thoughts, but throttling Tygerion kept sounding more attractive with each mention.  “Yeah, why waste resources on innocent people?”

“Precisely.”  The Guide smiled warmly, failing to notice his tone or choosing to ignore it.  “How did you enjoy your second challenge?  Quite a simple puzzle, but more failed it than not.”

“How did I enjoy it?” Nathan asked incredulously.  “You can’t be serious.  I don’t want to be here.  I nearly died.  Kean did die!  I don’t want any of this!”  He found he was shouting by the end of his rant. 

The Guide held her hands up in a calming gesture.  “That seems to be a popular response to that question,” she smiled wryly.  “But this is also an opportunity.  You can become much greater than yourself.  You will have to push your body to its limits, and then we will help you go beyond them.  The trials are harsh, but the nanites are not able to augment you to your full potential unless you push your mind and body to the extremes.”

“This sucks,” he replied sulkily.  While the emotion was justified, he also knew he was wasting his opportunity for information.  “How many questions can I ask this time?”

“After that one, you have five remaining.”

What?  That counted against him?  Johanna was right, the Guide was horrible.  Worried he would inadvertently waste another question, he didn’t respond immediately, taking the opportunity to think.  He would need to keep a tight lid on what he said.  But what to ask?  There were too many questions to limit them to only five.  He decided he should start with the question most important to him. 

“How do I get back home… to Earth?”  He quickly added, “And not just dropped off in some random tricky place like the desert, I mean my actual apartment.”

“Your species must win the trials.  You also have to personally survive to the end, but that is kind of a given.” 

He nodded.  For the first time, he had confirmation his hopes of going home weren’t in vain.  He still had four questions left to gather more critical info.

The Guide apparently wasn’t finished with her explanation because she continued speaking.  “If you need further motivation, you will also want to win for the rewards; your planet will be in dire need of them soon.”  The Guide exaggeratedly covered her mouth with her hand as if realizing a spoken blunder.  “Oops, I wasn’t supposed to mention that last part.  But Tygerion the Maker didn’t expressly forbid me to say it either.  I calculate it was likely an oversight on his part.  So no harm, no foul, as you would say.”

“Earth will be in dire need?” Nathan asked by stunned reflex.  His mind raced as he imagined various doomsday scenarios.  Nowhere else in the trials had there been mention of threats to Earth.  He hoped nothing bad was happening to his home right then.

“Yes.  You have three questions left by the way.”

Seriously?  This freaking Guide!  He needed to stay far away from yes or no questions.  He would learn nothing if he wasn’t careful.  Should he ask another question about Earth, or switch to topics that would help him win?  As curious as he was about what she’d let slip, he decided the latter was more important for him personally at the moment.

“How do we win?”

“Your species must receive credit for killing the tier 6 dungeon boss in the central zone during phase three of the arena trials.”

From a gamer standpoint, he understood what she was saying.  He had to beat the big bad to win the game.  But he lacked a frame of reference for tiers, zones, and phases.  He needed to understand what he was supposed to accomplish so he could strategize accordingly.

“What is the central zone… I mean what are zones?”  He was able to catch himself mid-question and make it more open ended.  She seemed to give more information the broader the question became.  But if he went too far and the question became too vague, then she would answer in a way he unintended.  He had to hit the goldilocks area in between.

“Zones are divided sections of the arena,” she replied. 

Obviously.  What kind of lame answer was that?  He needed to phish for elaboration while being careful not to phrase it as another question. “There must be more you can tell me about the layout of zones.”

She chuckled at his thinly disguised question.  “I apologize; humans ask such questions it is hard to resist answering in amusing ways.  I will elaborate more since you are being a good sport.  The main arena world is circular shaped.  You will begin in one of the starter zones that line the edges of the arena.  You will need to cross a second layer of zones before then reaching the central zone.  All other zones are locked for now so you don’t have to worry about them for phase one.” 

He considered asking more about the arena geography but only one question remained.  What was most important to ask?  Information could be the difference between survival and dying.  She probably knew what would help him but if he didn’t ask her the right question she would never tell.  Huh, maybe he should just ask her what she thinks?  “What is the most important thing I should know for the trials?”

She chuckled.  “An interesting final question, although flawed.  I may not have the best perspective in understanding what would be most beneficial to you personally.  Hmm, very well.  I have decided I will tell you about nanites and their relationship with skills.  Without them you will not make it far. 

“Your choker will continuously inject nanites, which are advanced microscopic computers, into your body as needed.  It will also manufacture new nanites from elements in your body so it is self-sustaining as long as you are eating enough food.  Each nanite contains an artificial intelligence which monitors your body and can modify you on the cellular level when you learn a new skill or upgrade an existing one.”

While fascinating, Nathan decided that her answer was not very helpful.  Asking her what was most important had backfired.  She was an A.I.; to her the nanites were the most important thing happening to him.  While knowledge of food, water, monsters, dungeons, or pretty much anything else would’ve been infinitely more practical.

“How do I learn more skills?” he asked, hoping she would let another question slide by.  She did basically cheat him out of one earlier.

Surprising him, she actually answered.  “New skills are awarded when it’s determined you have performed worthy feats.  The nanites act as impartial judges.  By monitoring your brain and the activities you perform they will award you accordingly.  Rewards can be earned by doing predetermined actions, defeating monsters, eliminating players of other species groups, clearing dungeons, helping your own species group, or more abstract feats up to the discretion of the nanites.  As you learned earlier by staying in the Room of Choosing for the full time limit, challenging yourself to more difficult tasks can earn you additional rewards.”

She paused and smiled at him.  “And with that, we are out of time.  Did you want to join your preliminary allies in the main arena, assuming they survived?  If not, I could start you in a different zone.”

“I’ll join them.  Did they pass the second challenge too?”

Her smile widened.  “You are out of questions.  You have a little time to relax while we wait for the rest of the preliminaries to finish.  The door leads to a room with food and water.  The bread is fairly basic, but the spread is packed with super nutrients that will supplement your stat gain growth.  Good luck during the arena trials, I will be watching with interest.”

The holographic woman disappeared.  The empty room became lonely now that he was by himself again.  He hobbled towards the door as best he could.  He was in rough shape, and with every passing minute he was growing stiffer.  He hoped by saying he had a little time to relax… she actually meant a lot.  He pulled the door open to find another circular room with a water bowl pedestal.  Thankfully, the water was slime free.  A picnic table with more bread and paste sat to one side, and a basic wooden cot on the other.   

He ate one of the two bread loaves with a generous helping of nutty paste, washing it down with the blessedly pure water.  He also splashed water onto both of his shirts to ‘clean them.’  The blood and vomit would’ve rinsed out better if he dunked them in the bowl, but he wasn’t willing to contaminate his only water source yet.  

He approached the cot, looking forward to resting as much as he had to eating.  The bed had a small amount of padding but otherwise was a flat slab.  He stretched out, finally relaxing for the first time that day.  His wristband was glowing again so he held it up to read his messages, knowing he would fall asleep soon otherwise.

[You have been awarded 5 NPs and two additional rewards for fully completing the Preliminary Trials.]

[First Reward.  Please choose one of the following two randomly selected Wood skills:]

That’s more like it, he was receiving a new skill!  If he wasn’t so tired, he would’ve danced.  The healing side effect of the skill learning process was exactly what he needed.  He was especially delighted he would get a choice.  He continued reading.

*[Earth Shield I: Requirements - Wood 3. (Activated Skill - increases resistance to the Earth element by 20% for one minute – cost: 15 EPs.) (Gain +2 Mental.)] 

There was a lot of information to absorb but luckily his tabletop gaming background helped him interpret.  The skill required an affinity in Wood which he hadn’t seen before.  With his Wood 3 affinity, he was covered there.  In fact, it was likely the nanites wouldn’t even offer the skill if he didn’t meet the requirements.  

The Activated Skill descriptor was also interesting.  It must differentiate it from passive skills like his Language skill.  If he was understanding correctly, it granted a temporary effect that would only last for one minute after activation at a cost of 15 EPs, whatever EPs were. 

His best guess was that EP stood for a new type of internal resource cost.  In games, skills usually had costs or cooldowns to limit a player from spamming activations of the skill over and over again.  The resource used to fuel the skills was called something like mana, chakra, rage points, or some other functionally similar semantic.

He then read his other skill choice.

[Wilderness Survival I: Requirements - Wood 2. (Learn basic knowledge of edible plants, makeshift tools, and other survival techniques.) (Gain +1 Physical; +1 Mental.)]

The fact the skill existed hinted that the arena would last for a significant period of time, at least long enough for the survival skill to have a purpose.  How many days and nights would he need to keep himself alive?  He’d probably need to find food, water, and shelter.  These kinds of logistical concerns could kill as easily as any monster.  Considering the plants in the forest were alien to him, he needed some way to determine if they were edible or poisonous.

He thought back to the first choice.  Resistance against the Earth element, while no doubt useful, likely had a narrow application.  And while its +2 Mental boost was incredible, it probably wouldn’t heal his battered body like the Physical stat gain from Wilderness Survival.  As banged up as he was, he wouldn’t stand a chance in the main arena.

He was supposedly receiving two rewards but only the first reward options were listed.  He assumed the second reward would be presented after he’d chosen the first.  He focused on Wilderness Survival I, selecting it as his choice.

Unlike before when the pain concentrated either in his head or the rest of his body, the survival skill nailed him everywhere at once.  He experienced the overwhelming sensations for a few seconds before passing out.

***

He woke to what seemed only a moment later.  Was he already done?  The learning pain affecting Physical and Mental simultaneously had been so much worse it was actually better in a way.  He hadn’t been conscious long enough to suffer.  He hopped off the cot and could immediately notice the difference.  His body was incredibly sore in places, but not debilitating like a few minutes before.  His burned fingertips were still sensitive, but new skin had grown to replace the damage.  He unwrapped the bandage from his hand, finding his cut improved as it would naturally over a long period of time, but still not completely healed.  The +1 Physical gain hadn’t healed nearly as much as the +2 had earlier.  

The skill was also supposed to teach him survival techniques, but he wasn’t sure if it had.  Nothing new was jumping out in his mind.  If anything, his mind even seemed a bit disjointed.  The Mental stat gains were nothing if not confusing.  After receiving the Language skill, he’d certainly felt similarly weird, but he assumed it was due to the overwhelming nature of finding himself in an arena game.  Now with time for self analysis, he couldn’t help but notice the strangeness of his altered thought processes.  Like going to the dentist for a crown, and being hyper aware of the new fitting for a day or so before becoming accustomed to the changes.

Worried if the skill had credited him correctly, he opened up his character sheet.  He verified his stats had indeed increased to Physical 129 and Mental 116.  Well, he could figure it out as he went along.  He rewrapped the bandage on his hand and then flipped back over to his message log.

[Second Reward.  Please choose two of the following five randomly selected tier 1 rewards:]

*[20 NPs - common.]

*[Gain +1 Physical - uncommon.]

*[Gain +1 Elemental Affinity of Player’s Choice - epic.]

*[Gain +1 Mental - uncommon.]

*[Leather Bracers (Tier 1) - common.]

These were only tier 1 rewards?  They were honestly pretty awesome, more in line with the amount of torture he’d gone through to earn them.  Getting to pick two for the price of one was a sweet bonus.

He studied his options.  The first choice of 20 NPs was a massive sum, about what he’d received for the entire preliminaries so far.  But it was strangely only labeled as common.  Were NPs not valued highly or was the common tag just a descriptor of its rarity?  He’d need to learn more about the game system before he could accurately appraise each reward’s worth.

The Physical and Mental stat gains were both attractive options since they permanently enhanced his body.  Seeing his numbers go up was an addictive drug, but he dreaded the torture they represented.  Why did the skill and stat learning process have to be so horrible?  Pain was the body’s natural mechanism for telling a person to stop doing something.  But that was in direct conflict with the old adage, ‘no pain, no gain.’  Both stat upgrades were considered uncommon rewards which he assumed meant they were rarer than the NP choice.  If he hadn’t just received a Physical stat boost and its life saving healing effect, he’d have selected it in a heartbeat.

The gain to elemental affinity was labeled epic which surprised him.  Perhaps it was more unique since it gave him a choice of whichever element he wanted?  Regardless of the reason, the rarity indicated elemental affinities were far more difficult to upgrade than his Physical and Mental stats.  The increase would give him an additional 5% resistance to whichever element he picked too.  Both Wilderness Survival and Earth Shield skills required elemental affinities to learn, meaning higher affinities likely opened up potentially even more powerful skills.  He decided improving his affinities would be the strongest choice for his long term growth.  Plus it was epic; he wouldn’t have the chance to increase them as often.

He still reviewed the final option.  The leather bracers were only a common item.  The existence of medieval armor helped him deduce the main arena would feature weapons from antiquity instead of modern warfare.  He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.  Either way, he didn’t want to fight anyone or anything.  But since he knew he’d be forced to participate, already having a piece of armor could be a distinct advantage for his survival.  His clothes were already tattered so any piece of equipment would make a big difference.  He only wished it was a larger piece that covered more than just his forearms, such as a breastplate.

After he’d sufficiently considered his options, he made his first selection.  Gain +1 Elemental Affinity of Player’s Choice.  A new prompt appeared allowing him to select which of the Five Elements to increase.  He selected Wood, intent on making his primary element more powerful by increasing it to 4.  A strange tingling sensation spread through his body and once it reached his core, he experienced a few minutes of chest palpitations.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as when he’d drunk the green elixir, but back then he’d been changing several affinities at once. 

Once the affinity gain was finished, he chewed back and forth on which option to select for his last choice.  He almost went with one of the stat upgrades, particularly the Mental stat to shore up his weaker area, but he desperately needed a respite from pain.  He wouldn’t be doing himself any favors if his mind broke from torture.  Johanna had compared the stat gain pain to childbirth, and while he was unable to verify the comparison for obvious reasons, he could at least agree the agony was the worst he’d ever experienced.  

If he’d been playing the arena as a tabletop RPG from the safety of his living room, the min-max decision would be easy.  He’d be stacking Mental stats all day long.  But he wasn’t in his chair at home.  His mind was still adjusting to the changes he’d already gained.  He was exhausted.

He glanced down at his body.  His ruined clothing and lack of assets decided it.  He chose the leather bracers, his psychological desire for a tangible reward winning out.  Considering how many times he’d already injured his arms in the preliminaries, they were bound to be useful… and he wasn’t even fighting anything yet.

After making his selection in the interface, he wondered where he would get the bracers.  His curiosity was soon answered in the form of a blue projection directed at the ground next to him, the shining light originating from his choker.  The projection contained an even more intense blue beam that scanned back and forth on the highlighted spot.  His armor quickly materialized under the futuristic lasers.  From start to finish, the entire process took roughly twenty seconds.

Nathan clambered off his cot to inspect his reward.  The bracers were crafted of hard dark brown leather, each fastened by six sets of straps.  He placed one on his right forearm and clumsily tightened the straps with his left hand.  It was incredibly difficult.  He now understood why knights had squires to help with armoring up.  Once fitted, he put on the other.  He was worried it would cover his bracelet, but was pleased when the bracer sat directly above it.  He marveled at how well they fit his arms.  If he ripped off his shirt sleeves, he’d look like a decent cosplayer of Kevin Sorbo from Hercules.  His Physical stat improvements certainly helped the look by toning up his biceps.

A robotic voice reverberated through the room.  “The main arena will begin in thirty seconds.  Please gather your belongings.”

Already?  He gave one last longing look at the cot, then scrambled to get ready, quickly realizing he was already wearing everything he owned.  But there was still one loaf of bread on the table.  He snatched it up along with the empty ceramic bowl, which could be useful.  Last time they’d forced him to drop the pottery.  This time they could pry it from his cold dead fingers.

Without any additional warning, a blue light blinded him.  For the love of God, why the shining stuff in his eyes all the time?  His skin warmed and his stomach lurched.  He’d experienced this once before and didn’t look forward to it again.  Thankfully, he was able to keep the contents of his stomach right where they belonged for once.  He was a pro teleporter now.  Or was it teleportee?  He supposed he could invent whichever word he wanted considering he was the pro.

Of course, the disorienting effect caused him to drop everything in his hands.

As his senses came under control, he could hear insect noises.  An unfamiliar bird cawed in the distance.  He opened his eyes slowly as they adjusted to the increased brightness.  He was back in the forest standing on the overgrown trail.

He glanced down.  The bowl lay shattered on the ground where it struck an inconveniently placed rock.  He sighed, not even able to summon the appropriate outrage.  At least the bread was unharmed, albeit slightly dirty.

“Asahi?  Johanna?” he called out.  He’d chosen to start with them but they were nowhere to be seen.  He must have arrived first.  Or did they want to be placed in another zone?  That’d be disappointing; he felt a strong connection to both after surviving the first challenge together.  He couldn’t wait to hear how their second challenges went.  The thought they may have failed entered his mind briefly before he buried it so deep it ceased to exist.

He glanced down to see his wristband pending with a message.

[The main arena trials have begun.  There are a total of three phases.  The objective for passing phase one is for your species to defeat the third floor dungeon boss in your starter zone 14.  You are limited to five day and night cycles for your species to complete the task, thus unlocking access to other zones in region 4 and beginning phase two.  All species in your starter zone who fail to meet the objective within the time limit will be terminated.]

[Day One Challenge – roaming monsters will attack players every hour.]

As he finished reading, rustling noises in the distant brush caused him to jump a solid foot to the side.  He froze where he landed and listened, adrenaline pumping through his veins.  It didn’t sound like anything big, but something was definitely moving through the vegetation.  If he’d been hiking in a national park, he wouldn’t think twice at the noise.  Squirrels and birds lived everywhere in nature.

But here, everything was unknown.  After reading the message stating monsters would periodically attack… yeah, he was freaked out.

He tiptoed away from the sound while he scanned the ground for a weapon.  He spied a small jagged rock about the size of a softball peeking out from under a plant’s grass-like stalks.  Ironically, it was the same rock his bowl had shattered against.

Bending down, he studied the rock.  It was partially embedded in the dirt but he figured he could pull it out.  Using both hands, he yanked the stone free from the ground, unintentionally grunting as he did.  The bushes rustled louder.  He froze in place, terrified to make another move.  He maintained his crouch and waited as the shifting noises came closer. 

After a few tense seconds, a creature the size of a small dog hopped out of the foliage.  The fur covered rat thing landed eight yards away, turning to face Nathan on the overgrown trail.  It locked eyes with him and let out a loud screech.  The godawful noise was gut wrenching, not what he usually associated with large rodents.  Maybe more like a dying vulture shriek, although he’d never heard one.  It was just how he imagined a dying vulture would sound. 

A twisted conical pair of horns on the rat’s oversized head glinted in the light.  The alien mutation surprised him even more than the heart stopping screech.  The rodent lowered its head, pointing the sharp ends his way.  With only a moment’s hesitation, it charged.  

Nathan readied the rock in his hand.  His elaborate plan basically boiled down to ‘see rat, smash rat.’  

The creature moved fast and when it was about two yards away, it leapt.  Its intention was obvious.  It planned to impale him in the guts with one or both of its eight inch long horns. 

Nathan clumsily stepped to the side of the airborne rodent’s trajectory, swinging downward with the rock.  He connected with its right horn, spinning the small creature into a bush, the monster proving to be far lighter than he expected.  

He let out a sharp breath.  He got so lucky there.

The creature struggled to free itself from the plants.  Nathan slammed the rock down on its back while he held the advantage.  It connected, but the rock fumbled out of his hand to the ground.  The creature let out a pained version of its bird screech in response.  Nathan reached for his weapon.  The creature spun far quicker than expected, biting at his appendage.  Of course, it avoided his armored bracer entirely, sinking its teeth into his exposed hand.

Nathan screamed.  Horrified, he desperately snatched the rock with his other hand.  He smashed it down on the rat’s head, feeling its bite release in response.  Now using both hands, he bludgeoned it again, the creature collapsing below the onslaught.  It squirmed pathetically, it shrieks not much more than a whimper.  Nathan’s stomach twisted in disgust.  But spurred on by adrenaline and fear, he didn’t relent, smashing its head once more.

After he was sure it stopped moving, he blinked in shock as the furry body began to glow.  The light emitting from the creature intensified and Nathan scrambled back.  Why did everything tend to glow here for no reason?

The body transformed into thousands of small diamond shapes, glistening and spinning.  He found the pixelated light strangely beautiful.  

Then the pixels rapidly decayed, dissolving into nothingness in moments.  Nathan took a moment to process the bizarre turn of events.  The rat had completely disintegrated, not a single atom remaining of its body.  It had happened so suddenly, he wondered if he might’ve hallucinated the whole ordeal.

He reached out dumbly at the missing form.  He was holding out the hand still clutching the rock.  He dropped the instrument of murder to the ground.  He bowed his head forward while wiping tears from his eyes.  He’d not realized he was crying… or even the reason why.

He wiped his face with his shirt.  As he pulled it away, a few new splatters of blood were revealed on the shirt.  He didn’t think they were his.  For some reason, the creature’s blood hadn’t disappeared with its body.  His mind wanted to contemplate this further while at the same time needing to focus on anything else. 

It’s not like he cared about the stupid rat thing or its death.  Yet the violence was difficult to come to grips with.  He’d never fought anything before.  It surprised him how shockingly fast the battle happened and finished.  He’d always imagined fighting for his life would be less crude somehow, perhaps more organized.  A skilled fighter dancing back and forth with grace as he struck blows and blocked attacks.  But it was wrong.  It was a beatdown fueled by raw emotion.  The bigger creature overpowering the weaker.  He’d be dead if he tried the same brute tactic against a monster larger than a miniature poodle. 

Real life wasn’t an anime.  The world here was not romanticized like one of his fantasy books.  It was a brutal reality.  He must overcome his lack of training and inexperience.  He’d need a proper weapon.  

No offense meant to you Mr. Rock, you did great.  His attempts to praise his improvised smashing device were sad even to him.  He recognized it for what it was… a coping mechanism.  He said a few more nice things to the rock anyway.

Trying to ignore the blood dripping down his fingers, he mentally commanded his glowing wristband to open his log. 

[You have been awarded 1 NP for the solo defeat of one tier 0 monster.]

1 single NP.  He couldn’t believe this garbage.  He’d committed mortal combat with a freaking monster… for 1 lousy NP.  He glanced once at the nasty bite wound on his hand, shaking his head in disgust.  The nanites had no idea how to design balanced game rewards.  He fumed until he read the next line. 

[Due to your first victory against a tier 0 monster, you have been awarded an appropriately themed activated skill for which you meet the requirements.]

[You have learned the Attack Up I skill.]

That’s more like it.  Then he cried out feebly as his body was overtaken by pain.

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About the author

Gilgilad7

  • United States
  • Aspiring Author

Bio: I love games in all forms.

Small sample of my favorites:
Boardgames - 7 Wonders, Agricola, Ticket to Ride, Dominion.
CRPGs: Wizardry VIII, Bard's Tale III, Final Fantasy VII, TES III Morrowind.
MMOs: World of Warcraft, Eve Online.
Shooters: Goldeneye, Halo, PUBG.
CCGs: Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone, Pokemon TCG.
RTS: Dune II, Red Alert, Warcraft II, Starcraft II.
4x Strategy: Alpha Centauri, Civilization III, Endless Legend, Age of Wonders III.
MOBAs: Vainglory.

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Mister Bill ago

Thanks for the chapter! I like where this is going.

Vylric ago

Been waiting for this. Thanks for the fix.

Avexion ago

I was hoping he would also find one of the 8 Horns, so he would have a stabbing weapon if he tied some cloth around it. Or all 8 horns when he wakes up and the leather from the rat in strips so he can tie them instead of his shirt around them. Or use a few for stabbing a few for throwing.

    Gilgilad7 ago

    Making a weapon from monster components could certainly be useful. I don't want to spoil anything too much but will say that monsters can and will drop useful things at times, but not always. Also to make it clear, the rats only have two horns each, not eight. :)

    Gilgilad7 ago

    I do agree it was a tough choice for him. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, trying to get in his head when he made the choice. The armor does seem lackluster if I was playing the game from the safety of a video game console given that other rewards could permanently enhance the body or mind. From a min-max perspective, its no question.

    But Nathan has just been battered to Hell, his clothes are in tatters which has a strong psychological effect so acquiring something to wear is more appealing than rational, while enhancing stats hurts horendously. Pain is the body's natural mechanism to teach us to avoid doing something. He desperately needs relief from the torture, if even momentarily. People do things they would never believe themselves capable when being tortured to stop the pain for even a moment.

    All that being said, I could probably do a bit better job in the text explaning what I just did in this comment.  I might add a one-liner to help explain his thought process better.

Elaborate ago

He only experience -> experienced

unless if -> unless

Vexeris ago

Honestly.. considering how much of a difference the stat increases seem to make, I would argue that a point upgrade would probably be worth more to his immediate survival than some leather bracers.

But seriosuly, his mental statistics seem to fall short of pretty much everyone he's met so far and he's also been mocked for it by the AI. He had a choice to start solving that problem with a free mental stat upgrade and he decided he wants some leather instead? it seems his stupidity is so severe he can't even think to start solving his problem even when it's offered to him on a silver platter. This shouldn't have been a choice it was so obvious.

I have a hunch the author is going to force the scene to make use of his leather bracers to try and justify his choice, but that was painful to read.

    Gilgilad7 ago

    I appreciate the feedback, thank you. I agree with you actually, I would be stacking as much Mental as I could get my hands on. But I'm also not the character making the choice, nor am I having to experience the torture of stat gains that come with my decision. Pain sucks. We would all have crazy fit bodies if we go to the gym and work out everyday. But most people don't despite the logic of it.  And stat gains are way more painful, the worse pain Nathan has ever experienced.  Johanna even compares it to childbirth.  How many people want to go through the pain of childbirth right after the worst experience of their life? He's dead tired.

    I basically wanted to illustrate the difference between making a choice while playing a safe video game since it's a min-max decision, as opposed to actually being there and experiencing it and how that changes decision making.

    I will think more about it though and make tweaks as I continue to edit.  Thanks for the perspective, I will keep it in mind as I work.

Macdaddy1800 ago

Sorry, but I had to stop reading to comment this. Why, if he was expecting or hoping to get a "Physical stat improvement for the healing benefit if nothing else", would he not check for that immediately and instead try to manually fix his wound? If he thinks there is going to be an instant health regen, then why wouldn't he check for that first?! It just doesn't make any sense to me.

    Gilgilad7 ago

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree with your comment and will look at adjusting it some later today. I could easily just say he is traumatized and not thinking clearly as an in-text explanation, but in this situation I don't like that. Will alter the scene slightly instead, thanks for pointing it out.

    Edit: Fixed now.  Thanks again!

Iliad ago

I thought he was going to bring his -1 back to a 0 in metal affinity, and then grab a physical +1.

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