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He’d always blacked out when learning a skill.  The pain always too great for his body, his mind shutting down to protect his sanity.  Until now.  

He suffered through the five minutes fully conscious… and it royally sucked.

Perhaps his increased Physical stat made him strong enough to endure through the torture?  If so, it was a side effect of becoming tougher he didn’t appreciate.  The only upside of his new ability would be staying alert for danger during the learning process… though a lot of good that would do.  He could watch helplessly as a rat monster ate him instead of sleeping through it.  So... yay!

The learning process only triggered when he specifically read the line mentioning it, meaning he should only check his messages when he was somewhere safe.  Did such a place exist?

His wristband wasn’t currently glowing, so accessing it right now should be fine.  The blue screen popped up and he selected his character sheet.  He’d improved to 130 Physical, which indicated he gained +1 from the new skill.  Despite the blood smeared across his hand, the bite wound was completely gone, though a small discolored mark on his skin remained as a reminder of the healing.  Otherwise, he seemed healthier, at least in body if not mind.  He also noted he now had 15 NPs.  Seriously, only 1 stupid NP for that fight?

He focused on the new skill in his list, eager to see what it did.

[Attack Up I: Requirements - Fire 2. (Activated Skill - next attack does 20% more physical damage - cost: 16 EPs.) (Gain +1 Physical.)]

[Upgrade requirements to level II: 15 NPs, Physical 120, Fire 4.]

So he gained an activated skill and a Fire affinity one at that.  He’d assumed he could only learn Wood skills, but was obviously wrong.  He must be able to gain other element skills as long as he had the required affinity levels, even if it wasn’t his Prime.  His Fire 2 affinity was enough for level one, but it's staggering Fire 4 upgrade requirement meant he wouldn’t be leveling it up anytime soon.  He would likely never advance as far in any Fire skill as he would in Wood.

He also had a new line on his sheet; Energy Points: 34 / 34.  He must have unlocked it with the activated skill.  He read the expanded description.

[Energy Points, or EPs, are expended to pay the cost of using activated skills.  The energy pool refills steadily with the passage of time.  Allow one hour (Earth standard) to completely regenerate the EP pool from zero to maximum regardless of the player’s maximum EP amount.  Certain skills or items may increase the regeneration rate.] 

He considered the implications.  Regardless of his max EPs, the regeneration rate had a fixed time frame of one hour.  So increasing his max EP pool would also increase the rate a single EP would regenerate.  He continued reading.

[The maximum EP amount is calculated as follows: each level in the player’s Prime affinity adds two EPs, each level in all other affinities adds one EP, and every five points of the Mental stat adds one EP.]

So increasing his affinities and Mental stat would raise his max EP total and thus his EP regen rate.  Growing his EP pool as large as possible would allow him to activate more skills and reuse them quicker.

He closed his interface to discover his wristband had gained a small digital counter displaying the number 34.  The counter was positioned so he could track his current EPs with a quick glance at his wrist.  Nifty.

Time for tests!  He wasn’t sure how to activate the skill but assumed it was done mentally like his interface.  He started by visualizing the skill in his mind.  Nothing happened that he could determine.  Next hepictured the words ‘Attack Up.’  No luck.  He searched for the Fire energy inside him like some kind of cultivation martial artist from fiction.  It didn’t work.  He finally opened his character sheet and tried selecting the skill from the screen, but there was nothing to select.  Why did this game not have a freaking tutorial? 

His stomach growled reminding him of his body’s demand for calories after learning a new Physical skill.  In his scuffle with the rat monster, he’d apparently stepped on his loaf of bread, imprinting it with a dirty shoe outline.  He was so hungry he didn’t care.  He brushed off the debris and then chowed down.  In only a few moments, the last of his food was gone.  Satisfied, he turned back to his tests.

Perhaps he needed to be in combat before he activated it?  He picked Mr. Rock back up.  He envisioned the words ‘Attack Up’ as he smashed the rock into a nearby tree.  The rock hit solidly with a thud.  Nothing special happened that he could determine; just rock hitting wood.  How would he even measure an extra 20% physical damage anyway?  

His EP counter still read 34 so he assumed it most likely didn’t trigger.  He kicked a fern-like bush, letting out his frustration. 

He would try one more thing.  He gripped the rock tightly and tried to channel his inner anime character.  He yelled out “Attack Up!” with exaggerated emphasis.  The birds and insects went quiet in response.  He immediately realized how stupid it was to shout in a monster infested forest.  

Surprisingly, his body reacted.  His blood began pumping harder.  He sensed a readiness in his muscles he couldn’t explain.  The sensation was unfamiliar, but not strange to him.  He was tensed like a viper, coiled and posed to strike.  Ah yeah!

His wristband gained a small red symbol, a flaming sword with an arrow pointing upward.  His counter changed to 18 EPs, having automatically deducted the skill cost of 16.  He opened his character sheet and was pleased to see there was a new line at the bottom.

[Current Status Effects: Attack Up I.]

He focused on the effect and additional text appeared.

[Attack Up I - next attack does 20% more physical damage.]

He did it.  Though he only had to yell out the skill name like a ridiculous Dragonball Z character.  

He wondered how long the buff would last.  It likely would stay active until he made his next attack, then it would trigger its effect and disappear.  He was using the word ‘buff’ since that was common terminology in the games he played.  Depending on whether a status effect was beneficial or not, it could be either a buff or debuff.

Since he could actually feel the effects of the buff, it was both a boost to his physical abilities and his morale.  He had enough EPs leftover he should be able to activate it once more before running dry.  It would be absurdly powerful if he could stack the effect.  Stacking buffs in RPGs was huge since you could have the effect going multiple times for extra power.  

Feeling confident, he yelled, “Attack Up!,” causing the birds to halt their songs.  He winced at the noisy nature of his test, but knew it was necessary.  He checked his wristband, finding he was still at 18 EPs.  Disappointingly, this meant the skill couldn’t be stacked.  As he stared at the counter, the number ticked up to 19.  At least the EPs would replenish themselves.

Another terrible screech pierced through the forest air.  The constant ambiance of insect noises muted for a few seconds in response. 

The sound originated from further up the trail out of sight.  Or should he call it down the trail?  His friend Logan always made a point to argue the opposite terminology to whichever Nathan would say.  For a split-second, he thought about how much he missed his friend.  Then he pushed the home sickness aside.  There was a monster nearby, no time for that. 

As he stepped towards the noise, he began second guessing himself.  Should he actually investigate the sound?  He could run away instead... 

But he wouldn’t.  He knew how RPGs worked.  The early game would feature weak monsters, fodder for easy experience... or in this case NPs.  He would spend those points to upgrade skills to become stronger, allowing him to face tougher challenges later.  If he neglected farming for points now, he would be too weak to survive when the monster difficulty inevitably increased.  The dungeon boss in the zone was certainly no pushover.  Being too weak was the same strategy as accepting death now.  His only long term path for survival lie in winning the trials.  To do that, he must be proactive in killing every enemy critter that moved.

A distant shout caught his attention.  That was a human!  His previous waffling was pushed aside.  Nathan cautiously jogged up, or down depending on the point of view, the derelict trail with his trusty Mr. Rock.  Yes, he now had a name.  He stepped on or over random plants and stalks that threatened to overtake the path.  As the trail passed between clumps of thick trees, a scene of violence came into view. 

A horned rat monster lay on its side while a camo clad Asahi kicked it in the ribs.  Red energy misted and swirled around his leg and foot, lending the scene a surreal quality.  A vicious stomp to the head with his black combat boot and the rat turned to pixels.  

Asahi stumbled forward due to the unexpected disappearance of the creature, but caught himself on a tree.  The soldier studied the vacant spot where the body once rested, expression perplexed.

A branch snapped under Nathan’s foot, and the soldier dropped into a practiced fighting stance.  He whipped his head towards Nathan.  Recognition lit his face and he smiled, relaxing his pose.

“Nathan-san.  I knew you would make it.  You look… well?”

The man faltered over his last words as he took in the sheer amount of blood covering Nathan’s tattered outfit.  Asahi’s uniform, on the other hand, looked immaculate.

“I’ve been better.  A couple stat gains have put me right again though.”

“Ah, I see.  Have you seen Johanna-san?”

“Nope.  Can’t be too sure she wanted to start with us though, what, with the way she left.”

“Indeed.”  The man began a series of stretching exercises as they talked.  His wristband became visible from under his uniform sleeve, revealing a ruby red gem set in its center, similar to his own green one.  Beside the red gem, the man’s EP counter displayed the number 18, and Nathan deduced the soldier had unlocked his energy system too.  Additionally, there was blood on the back of the man’s sleeve. 

“Your arm.  Did the rat do that?”

“Rat?  Do you mean the beaver?  The flat paddle tail and the large incisors protruding from its mouth are beaver-like.  But I allow we are both technically wrong.  The dual horns negate any Earth-related distinctions.”

“Uh, yeah.”  They still looked like giant rats to him.  Regardless, had Asahi intentionally avoided his question?  The man might be embarrassed about taking an injury.  Nathan normally wouldn’t pry into someone else’s business, but he needed to know if his ally was hurt.  “So did the beaver get your arm?” 

“No, not the beaver.  In the challenge… I was too slow and one of the blades grazed my arm.”

What the…?  “Um, blades?”

“You had to have seen the blades.  When I matched the two hoops correctly, I failed to duck the blade trap.”

Holy crap.  “Oh man, that sounds crazy.  My challenge was totally different.  I had to place statues on certain colored tiles.  If I was too slow... the ceiling would squish me.  By the way, thanks for teaching me that rhyme about the elemental cycle.  You saved my life… again.”

“I am pleased to learn it helped.  Interesting, so we had different challenges.  Not an efficient method from an experimenter’s standpoint.  If each player has a different challenge, how can they establish the experiment’s baseline for comparison?”

“Hmm...,” Nathan mused as he considered the question.  He began emulating his companion by doing a few of his old stretches from track practice.  As he touched his toes, he found he was surprisingly limber, like he was nineteen again instead of twenty-nine.  “They could be running multiple experiments.  They did say they have ten thousand people from each species.  That’s plenty of sample sizes.”

“Perhaps you are right,” the man said, resting in a horse stance.

“But I honestly don’t think research testing is their main goal.”  Nathan had been suspecting something like this for a while now.  “They’re probably more interested in the entertainment factor.  Players facing different challenges are far more interesting, you know, for the viewers.”

“Hmm, I had not considered that.  But yes, this is good for us.”

Nathan glanced over at the man.  “How so?”

“If we are here for entertainment, we might engender viewer empathy as they cheer for us to succeed.  But if we are experiments, there is clinical detachment to our well-being.  And test subjects are usually disposed of at the end.”

“That’s a horrifying thought.”  Nathan stood up and scratched the back of his head, pondering what the Immortal Collective was like.  His opinion wasn’t favorable since they apparently got their kicks out of watching people struggle and die.

“I see you acquired forearm protectors.  May I see?”  Asahi stepped closer and he held his arms out for examination.  “Yes, very nice.  My injury would have been prevented if I had similar.  They appear sturdy and functional.  Where did you find them?”

“They were one of my rewards for finishing the prelims.  What did you get?”

“For the first reward, I chose the Fire skill Power Kick I.  For the second, I selected a skill with no affinity named Team Player I and picked an additional +1 Physical stat gain.”

“Cool.  What does Power Kick and Team Player do?”

“Team Player increased both my Physical and Mental stats by 1 and passively boosts my basic teamwork related natural abilities, though I do not know how.  Power Kick is an activated skill that increases my physical damage by 50% while kicking for the cost of 16 EPs.”

“Oh yeah, I saw the tail end of your Power Kick.  That was all the red mist swirling around your leg, right?”

“Hai.  I activated it as I was about to kick.  I guided the strike, but my leg struck with more speed and greater mass than should have been humanly possible.”

That was incredible.  With actual combat skills, they might actually stand a chance out here.  “I learned a skill called Attack Up.  Sounds a little different than yours.  It only gives me 20% damage on my next attack, so quite a bit weaker.  But I think I can use it on any attack, not just kicks.”

Asahi nodded.  “I see.  A weaker effect but with greater versatility.”

“And the fact they are both percentage based skills means they will scale off our natural ability.  The harder you naturally kick, the greater your additional damage will be.”

“I see.  Then it is fortunate I have practiced martial arts my entire life.”  He didn’t look like he was bragging, only stating a relevant fact.

Nathan’s allowed his hope to rise.  His ally already knowing how to fight increased their chances drastically.  “There’s one more difference between our skills. Power Kick sounds like it must be activated as you are about to kick.  I think my skill can be prepared beforehand.  See my buff symbol?”  He held out his wristband to the man.

“Hai, I see.  You can activate it now and then allow your EPs to regenerate, thus potentially entering combat with the, as you say ‘buff’, and a maximum EP pool at your disposal.”

Nathan was glad to see Asahi understood the strategic implications of the skill immediately.

The man looked back at his glowing wristband.  “I should read my message log; perhaps I have learned another skill after defeating the beaver.  Please keep watch while I check.”

“Sure.”

The man sat down and began reading his interface.  Within moments, he cried out in pain and convulsed on the ground.  Guess he got a skill, Nathan chuckled to himself.  He kept a look out while Asahi squirmed and made strange agonizing noises.  Nathan’s memory of the skill learning pain was strong enough it hurt him to see it happening to someone else. 

Once the process was over, Asahi spryly regained his feet and checked his interface.

“Anything good?” Nathan asked.

“Hai.  Injury Stabilize I.”

“The name sounds useful.  Can you read it to me?”

[Injury Stabilize I: Requirements - Mental 125, Wood 2.  (Activated Skill - stabilize target’s injuries for twenty minutes - cost: 20 EPs.) (Gain +1 Mental.)]

An incredible support skill.  A literal life saver.  But the high Mental requirement would keep Nathan from learning it anytime soon despite it being a Wood skill.  He was glad the other man received it at least. 

“It’s amazing, congratulations,” Nathan said.  “What are your stats now?”

“Physical 130, Mental 126, and 34 EPs.”

The man was a beast.  They had identical Physical and max EP stats now, but the soldier's Mental stat was a vast mountain peak while Nathan's was sitting at base camp.

A scream pierced through the air and both men swiveled their heads around.  The sound came from the direction Nathan had originally traveled from. 

Nathan’s first instinct was naturally indecision.  But as he pondered what they should do, Asahi was already jogging along the trail in the direction of the noise.  Glad to be able to follow his lead, Nathan fell in step behind.   

They quickly passed the area where he’d started.  Nathan’s grip on Mr. Rock was white-knuckled as additional human noises could be heard.

Around the next bend, Asahi paused.  Nathan stepped up beside him to see the source of the man’s gaze.  A woman on her knees was smashing a rock against a tree repeatedly.  She cursed loudly in the multiple languages provided by the Language skill.  She looked haggard.  Her clothes were ripped, and blood was smeared on her face and hair.  A yellow gem set into both her choker and bracelet symbolized she was an Earth Prime.  Her EP counter indicated she possessed an activated skill of some sort. 

Asahi coughed loudly to gain her attention.  The woman startled, dropping the rock as she scrambled backwards in a crab walk.  Nathan experienced a similar surprise when he received a better look of her face.  It was Johanna.  He barely recognized her.

“Johanna, it's us,” Nathan said.

“Asahi?” Johanna asked, on the verge of weeping.  “You’re really here?”

Nathan frowned at being excluded from her greeting.  What was he, chopped liver?

“It is good to see you again, Johanna-san,” Asahi said with a brief head bow.  “We have been searching for you since we arrived.

Nathan saw no reason to contradict Asahi’s white lie.  “Are you okay?” he asked, trying to politely inquire about her wounds.  He knew he didn’t look so great himself, but the blood on her face was not encouraging.  It was seeping down from somewhere in her hair. 

“Do I look okay?” she said, her tone turning venomous.

Nathan flinched.  He wasn’t really sure how to respond to that.  He wasn’t really okay either.  He supposed nobody sane could be given their situation.

“I just need some water,” she said, her tone diminishing a little as she took in his expression.  “I had to kill a crazed beaver with a rock.”

Ah man, she called it a beaver too.  Nathan hung his head defeated.  That made it two to one in the beaver versus giant rat debate.  

Pushing the silly thought aside, Nathan considered her strange vendetta against the tree.  He looked down at his own Mr. Rock.  He thought he knew how she must be feeling.  Violence didn’t come easy for some, and the initial reactions to it weren’t always rational.

Asahi stepped towards the Swedish player.  “We both faced a beaver as well.  It seems we each won our battles.”

“I don’t want to fight battles,” Johanna said.  “I nearly died and my head is throbbing so bad.”

“Didn’t the skill reward heal you?” Nathan asked.

“No.  Why would it?”

Nathan and Asahi shared a confused glance.  Nathan said, “The Physical stat gains have healed my hand twice now.”

“Well, I’m no brute.  I’ve been gaining Mental skills.”

Nathan frowned thoughtfully while Asahi knelt next to her.  “Johanna-san, I have a new skill that might help with your injuries.  Injury Stabilize.  Would you permit me to activate it on you?”

“You could heal my head cut?”

“Maybe.  Would you allow me to try?”

She briefly hesitated before answering.  “Okay.”

“Please sit down.  I do not know exactly how it will affect you.”

Johanna sat down.  She leaned her back against the same tree she’d previously been smashing with the rock.

Asahi reached out to her.  She visibly trembled, likely fearing the skill’s unknown effect.  The man carefully placed his hands to both sides of her face.  She relaxed a little at his touch.  Asahi calmly spoke a few words in Japanese.  It dawned on Nathan he must be invoking the skill activation in his native language instead of in English.  

A glowing greenish light surrounded the man’s hands and Johanna’s face.  A moment later, the glow disappeared into her skin.  Asahi dropped his hands away.

Johanna’s worried expression softened.  “That was… not unpleasant.  I feel relaxed, like I’ve finished receiving a massage.  Did it help?”

Asahi studied her wounds from his close vantage.  “Difficult to say, but I believe the bleeding has stopped.  The skill effect lasts twenty minutes.”

Nathan noticed a new buff symbol on both her choker and bracelet.  It was a green plus sign, similar to the red cross symbol for protection and neutrality on Earth.  The difference in color was likely due to the skill's alignment with the Wood element.

“But is it healed?” she asked, her voice sounding hopeful.

“No,” Asahi said, shaking his head.

Nathan had been thinking about how the skill might work since he’d heard its description.  “The skill says it stabilizes wounds, not heals.  So it will likely temporarily keep it from becoming worse or infected while the body heals naturally.”

Johanna’s expression became crestfallen when she heard his explanation.  “So nothing’s changed then?”  

Realizing his insensitivity, he was quick to add, “But I’m sure if the wound is stabilized, it will heal up easier with less scarring.”

Johanna nodded grimly before standing back up.  She removed her outer shirt, pulling it up over her head, leaving her yellow undershirt in place.  Asahi must have realized how close he was to her since he hurriedly backed away. 

She used the removed clothing to wipe the blood off her face and hair.  Then she wrapped the shirt over the top of her head and underneath her chin like a bonnet, tying a bow to hold it in place.  It was a good idea, if it started bleeding again when the stabilize skill ran out, she would already be bandaged.

Asahi was studying the trees and plants around them, pointedly not looking at Johanna.  “We should forage for food and water before the next round of attacks.”

“Actually, I might be able to help with the food part,” Nathan said.  “I have the Wilderness Survival skill.  It supposedly helps me identify edible plants.”

Asahi nodded.  “That is indeed fortunate.”

Nathan could clearly see their only reasonable course of action.  “If we follow the trail, it should eventually lead us to water.  That is unless the aliens want to screw us over.  I wouldn’t put it past those jerks... they broke both my bowls just for spite.”

“They broke your what now?” Johanna asked, as amused as she was confused.

“Nevermind, long story.  Anyway, as we hike, I’ll look for plants we can eat.”

“Hai, follow me.”  Asahi set off down the path in the direction they were already travelling.

Johanna followed two strides behind the uniformed player while Nathan brought up the rear.  As they trampled over plants on the overgrown trail, he studied the lead player’s outfit with envy.  The man was lucky enough to be wearing his field uniform when brought here.  The woodland camo material was probably durable enough to avoid ripping on sticks and thorns, not to mention it blended well into the forest environment.

Nathan stared at the man’s black combat boots the most.  They’d looked especially impressive when he was stomping that horned beaver earlier.  Nathan glanced down at his own blood covered office clothes.  He grimaced at his comically impractical dress shoes with their slick soles.  He’d always liked the shoes for their stylish look.  They were great for dancing at a wedding or a party.  But in the arena, their only specialty was in giving him blisters.  At least when he received Physical stat gains, the blisters would heal leaving new callouses.  An intense resistance training regimen for his feet.

Thinking about his slick shoes, he wondered if he should scuff up the soles to give them more traction.  It couldn’t hurt to try.  Seeing a large rough rock next to the path, he called out to the other two to wait a moment.  They both turned around quizzically.  Nathan started rubbing the bottom of his shoes vigorously over the rock while still wearing them. 

Asahi nodded in approval.  He sat down with his back to a tree, studying his character sheet while he waited.  Johanna sat down as well.  She found a spot unnecessarily close to the soldier where they were basically touching hips.  She began casually massaging her calves.  Asahi’s brow furrowed as he continued reading.  He appeared to be trying very hard not to notice her friendly proximity.  The awkward sight caused a small smile to reach Nathan’s lips.

Nathan slid the soles of the shoes forward and backward over the rock one at a time.  After a couple minutes, he reached down and touched the bottom of the soles, noting the additional texture. 

“All done.  Let’s go!” Nathan called out to his companions.  Asahi leapt up quicker than usual and led… or fled, depending on the interpretation, down the trail.  He didn’t even check over his shoulder to see if they were following. 

As they returned to their hike, Nathan glanced down at his wristband in disappointment when he didn’t see it glowing.  He’d half hoped his spur of the moment solution to his slick shoes problem would’ve been worth a couple NPs.  The nanites were supposed to be judges who rewarded feats or something like that.  What actually counted as a feat?  Granted, scuffing his shoes wasn’t really clever, but he’d let himself get his hopes up.  There had to be a way to abuse the reward system to his advantage.  Unfortunately, Tygerion’s game system had super A.I. helpers who’d catch any easy exploits.  Nathan once again reminded himself he wasn’t actually in an anime despite the similarities of circumstance.

After about five minutes of travel, Nathan glanced up at a particularly large tree overhanging the path.  There was a vine clinging to its trunk.  A strange thought pattern invaded his mind, so startling it caused him to stumble.  He knew there was something important about the vine.  He racked his brain, searching for the knowledge he sensed was there.  His brain synapses connected.  Yes.  He was now certain... that vine bore edible nuts.  He blinked in surprise.  The strange knowledge had come from... somewhere?  

He took a few deep breaths to reorient himself.  Then he understood, his mouth widening into a grin.  Wilderness Survival had finally made its appearance.  

He called out to the other players to stop.  Nathan pushed some blue flowery weeds aside to peer closely at the vine.  Several small round green pods hung from it, about the size of walnuts.  He plucked a pod from the vine and peeled its squishy skin open, exposing green mushy fibers.  Hidden within the mess was a green nut, resembling a cashew in shape.  His strange thoughts informed him this one was not quite ripe.  But it was edible, which was what he truly cared about.

He popped it into his mouth and crunched down, noting it was harder than a cashew.  He crunched until it was ground up and then swallowed, suffering a bitter aftertaste.  Edible or not, he decided he should find the ripe ones instead.

He showed his allies what to look for and they began searching the vines around the trees, collecting every pod they could find.  It was difficult pushing through the vegetation to get to the various trees, but the vines were prolific so they never had to travel far.

He ate a dozen of the ripe nuts, savoring the calories going into his body.  The few handfuls of nuts partially sated their hunger, but it required excessive time and effort for not much volume of food.  The bitter unripe nuts he saved in his pockets for later when his hunger might be desperate.

After fifteen minutes and all their pockets being loaded, they ceased foraging.  They could have collected more, but they still needed water, ideally before they were attacked again.  They resumed their hike.

“Hey Johanna, how did your second challenge go?” Nathan asked.  

“I…”  Her voice faltered as she trailed off.

“Yeah, I know.  It was rough for me too.  But did you get any new skills?”

“It…”  He could hear the whimper in her voice.  “Please, I don’t want to talk about it.”

They hiked for another twenty minutes on the trail, keeping a decent pace but also wary of danger.  He tried twice more to encourage Johanna to open up, but found her reluctant to share for some reason.  Perhaps she thought if she didn’t discuss it, it was like it never happened?  

Frankly, he was worried about her mental health.  He was hardly a psychiatrist, but even he could see she was in the denial stage of coping.  Her irrational behavior aside, they needed to know her skills so they could be an effective team.  How could they pool their resources if they didn’t even know what she had to offer?  

He sighed.  They would have to wait until she accepted her situation and was ready to share.  Given the threat of monster attacks, they needed to stay quiet anyway, so he let the issue go for now.

While hiking, the only other useful plants Nathan discovered with the survival skill were not actually edible.  They were for making fire.  The first was a dried out moss growing on the underside of a fallen tree.  His alien knowledge informed him it would make a suitable fire starting material by burning slowly to create embers.  The other plant was a dead looking brownish grass, an excellent tinder.  He placed samples of both in his pockets, eating a few bitter nuts to make room.

He was pleased his Attack Up symbol was still displayed on his wristband, presumably still active.  His EPs had maxed out to 34, meaning he could activate the skill twice more in a row after the already active buff was used up.

Asahi would cautiously stop at every rustling bush as he led their group.  Each time nothing came of the noise so they continued on.

Nathan would’ve enjoyed their hike if not for the context placing him there.  The terrain generally consisted of forested rolling hills that were pleasing to both his sight and smell.  The exotic flora held his fascination.  Even the trees provided plenty of shade which helped against the stifling humid air.

The trail led them down to the bottom of a valley where they discovered a small creek bed filled with flowing water, about a yard and a half wide and only ankle deep.  The trail led across the creek and then back up the forested hill on the other side.  

Nathan wondered if the water would be safe to drink.  He knew from his previous hiking trips that running water was safer than stagnant water.  But being in an alien world, he didn’t know if the same rules applied.  For all he knew, alien parasites might especially thrive in flowing water here.  He shuddered as he remembered a friend telling a story of an Amazon River parasite that would swim up a careless person’s urine stream.  He wasn’t sure if it was even true, but it had fueled his nightmares for a week.

He focused on the water, willing his survival skill to feed him information.  It stayed silent.  He frowned in consternation.  Maybe he needed to level up the skill?  Or perhaps his heart wasn’t really in it; he had so much else on his mind.  He took a deep breath and then tried again, shoving distracting thoughts to the side.  He visualized the water, willing the flow of knowledge to come to him.  The strange thought patterns in his head shifted, but only the slightest amount.  But it was enough.

He now knew the water was safe in the starter zones.  The water could still be contaminated by players, but it was unlikely to have happened on day one already.

“It should be safe to drink according to my skill,” Nathan said.  For good measure, he scooped up a handful of water and sniffed.  It smelled fine.

He was startled by a loud noise and dumped the water.  A screech reverberated through the small valley, causing the insect noises to dim for a few seconds.  

Had it been an hour already?

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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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