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The beaver, confused by its sudden freedom from David’s vanished body, struggled to stand up. Before Nathan could react, Maya pierced it with her spear. It converted into glowing pixels.

Zhang continued to stare in disbelief. Lilly dropped to the ground and began sobbing. Maya lifted up her spear and examined the bloody tip clinically. Before she turned away, he spied her reddened watery eyes.

Nathan was speechless. Even though he knew the arena was fatal for most of its participants, seeing death happen in front of him was... surreal. With Kean, he hadn’t witnessed exactly what happened to his body when he died. But David had pixelated before his eyes, as if he was only a randomly generated monster. It didn’t make sense.

He’d rather liked the big man even though they only just met. It was sad the only thing he knew about him was that he was Canadian and had a wife. No, a widow now. He clenched his jaw. The arena was cruel and ridiculous. The players might as well be rats like the one that killed David, running and jumping for the amusement of their alien captors.

He couldn’t help but fixate on the way David had pixelated like the monsters. The man had been a human player yet dissolved along with everything else he’d been wearing. Even his choker and wristband disappeared. Was the arena imaginary? The Guide had said it was real, but had she lied? What if they were in an advanced computer simulation? They could just be a bunch of ones and zeros in binary code, running around in three dimensional avatars fighting other series of ones and zeros.

“Are we real?” he asked.

Maya wiped her eyes and turned back towards him. “You think we’re fake? David died...” She trailed off, not finishing her thought.

“Yeah, I dunno. He just disappeared like the monsters. It’s weird.”

“It is. I don’t know either…”

It was his dark train of thought which made him question if he was already dead. The arena could be some deranged afterlife. No, he had to believe he was alive. That he was real. Nathan recalled a famous quote that summed up his feelings and he spoke it aloud. “I think, therefore I am.”

“Descartes?” Maya asked, cocking her eyebrow questioningly.

“Uh, sure, I guess. I honestly just knew the quote since it's commonly said where I’m from. But it's true. As long as we have our minds, we are alive.”

He thought about how the increases to Mental stats might change who he was… what it had already changed. Had he always been so internally philosophical? He didn’t think so. His mind was definitely changing, ever so subtlety. That was even a darker train of thought and he avoided it for now lest he fall into further despair.

Maya cracked a grim smile. “I know what you're thinking. How about we just assume the world isn’t a bloody computer program? Treating it otherwise is not helpful. The nanites are likely to be the culprit anyway... those alien hitchhikers. They must be the reason for the destruction of the bodies.”

Nathan nodded, her theory as plausible as any. “The Guide said the monsters were controlled by nanites. She also stated these collars would inject us with nanites too. So if this was a computer program, why would they even bother making us put on collars to inject the nanites? They could just program them to be inside us all along. In fact, if they are programming everything, the nanites would be redundant.”

She turned away to blow her nose before looking back. She seemed unsure where to clean her hand, so ended up wiping it on her pajama pants. “That’s a valid point, the simplest explanation is usually the most likely. Nanites that can make elaborate changes on the cellular level, like the ones inside us, could feasibly destroy a body on death. Whereas a full on computer simulation tricking us into thinking everything is real is way more complicated. Not to say it isn’t within the realm of possibility for the Immortal Collective, just that it’s several orders of magnitude less plausible.”

While he agreed, the devil’s advocate inside him had to counter her explanation. Anything to distract himself from thinking about David’s death. “I looked into the Wood orb back in the Room of Choosing. My mind could’ve lived the rest of my life in an infinite cycle of life and death. Compared to that, a computer simulation would be nothing to the aliens.” He took a deep breath. “But despite that, I still think you’re probably right.”

She gave him a weak smile, an obvious facade. He returned it with one as fake as he felt. He was tired, drained from the battle, David’s death, and his own existential crisis. He rubbed his face, feeling the grime covering his skin.

Maya began cleaning her spear on a large leaf while Nathan studied his two new allies. Lilly had picked up David’s spear, her grip holding it tight. She then gathered up Mrs. Rock with her free hand and angrily launched it into the tall plants. Nathan frowned. That was not a nice way to treat a rock.

Zhang somberly walked over and claimed the spear the goblin dropped. Nathan felt a moment’s possessiveness for the spear, but decided to not make an issue of it and let the man have it. He didn’t have the energy right then for confrontation. Besides, his staff worked well enough. With the new weapons, they each held a pole style weapon making them an actual armed fighting force.

“We should return to the others,” Maya said, rubbing her nose with her lavender t-shirt.

Shouldn’t they do something to honor the fallen player? A gesture of some kind like a funeral to show respect. They didn’t have a body to bury or burn, but doing something to symbolize the man’s passing was the only way he thought he might be able to accept things to continue on.

An idea formed and he bent down and grabbed a loose bit of dirt from the ground. He stood over the place David had fallen. He slowly let the dirt fall from his closed palm onto the now empty spot. When he finished, he stepped back. Zhang had already grabbed his own handful and repeated Nathan’s gesture. Catching on, Maya did it as well. Finally, Lilly sprinkled dirt too. He knew the symbol probably had no particular cultural significance, but he appreciated that they’d all chosen to participate. He regretted he’d done nothing for Kean. He resolved to have a ceremony of some kind when Asahi and Johanna were both well and able to participate too.

Nathan nodded to each of the other players. Tears began to pool in his own eyes. About time. He was beginning to worry he’d become emotionally dead, unable to grieve like a normal person. He looked at the others. He was afraid to break the silence, not knowing what to say that would do the life of the man justice. Finally he opened his mouth, surprised by the poignant words that came out unfiltered by his brain. “This sucks.”

Maya barked an awkward laugh while both Zhang and Lilly nodded solemnly.

Lilly opened her mouth, then hesitated and closed it.

“Now’s the time to say what’s on your mind,” Maya said.

The taller woman nodded, then took a deep breath. “David and I went through the preliminaries together. Saved my life, gave me hope. We were the only two who made it of the four of us... we only just met Zhang on the trail...” She trailed off as she began sobbing. She then screamed out enraged, causing the others to flinch. “It’s not fair!” she shouted. She swung David’s spear and knocked down a branch from a nearby tree. “Why am I the only one left?”

No one had an answer. Nathan looked at Zhang. The man had apparently been traveling solo after the prelims. Was he the only survivor of his group?

After an uncomfortable few moments, Maya looked up at the sky and said, “It’s noticeably darker which is strange. That was only the fourth monster attack so we know only four hours have passed. Therefore, the main trial must have begun in the afternoon. The prelims must have eaten up the entire morning.”

“Or else their days are shorter here,” Nathan said.

“The Guide assured me the arena world is Earth-like so fairly close to twenty-four hour days. It’s our advantage for being the newbie species.”

“Huh,” Nathan said, considering the implications. “Phase one is supposed to be five days long. But day one is really only a half day meaning we only have four and a half days to beat the dungeon boss.”

Maya nodded. “You could be right. Anyway, we need to get back.”

“We should run back instead of walk,” Nathan said, worrying about the players they left back at the creek. Had they survived their monster attack too? “We have less time to prepare for night than I thought. Also, Asahi needs these supplies as soon as possible.”

“Alright,” Maya said. “Follow me everyone.”

Maya led them in a moderate paced run. After a couple minutes, Lilly raced past her and said. “Too slow, your friend needs the root, right?” Lilly took the lead at a fast pace, and the rest followed behind. She was quite the runner, totally confident running barefoot on the overgrown trail. Maya, wearing her fuzzy striped socks, appeared to struggle with the speed as her breathing became labored.

Nathan’s stress dissipated as he submerged himself into the familiar motion of running. His need for food proved to be the only damper on the activity. He was unaccustomed to missing a meal in his normal life so was a bit soft when it came to doing without. His survival skill hadn’t kicked in once on anything new during the hike to the flower roots. He’d even missed the nuts growing on the vines they gathered the first time. He had to admit he’d been more interested in his conversation with Maya than paying attention to the vegetation. They weren’t talking now so he wouldn’t repeat the mistake again.

He briefly examined every plant they ran past. He made note of details such as how the leaves were shaped or the way the branches grew. Shortly after he started his examinations, an alien thought intruded his mind regarding a short green leafy plant to his left. The plant hadn’t flowered yet but it didn’t matter. The plant’s tubers were highly nutritious.

He called out to the others and pointed out the plant. Zhang, who was closest, wordlessly began digging it up with his spear.

“It’s a yam,” Lilly said, once the man had pulled it from the ground.

“Sort of,” Nathan said. “Functionally similar but this particular vegetable doesn’t grow on Earth.” Wait, what? The skill hadn’t told him that but he’d blurted it out it as if he knew. Or had it told him? He knew little about yams in general. In Tennessee, they ate sweet potatoes which he was pretty sure weren’t even the same thing.

The knowledge from his skill must be seeping into his normal memories. He supposed that would make using the skill less awkward but the implications made him uneasy.

They each spread out and to find more of the yams. Once he collected one of his own, Nathan examined the edible root, unsure if it was ripe or not. His skill gave incomplete knowledge; just enough to help but not enough to know what he was actually doing. He brushed off the yam as best he could and then broke it in half. He bit from the inside, hoping to eat less dirt that way. It made an audible crunch and he chewed. It wasn’t particularly good, but not bad enough to cause him to spit it out either. It was like eating a raw carrot in texture but with a unique taste. He reflected sourly on how they might actually taste good if they were cooked. But he was hungry, so the raw taste didn’t stop him from wolfing it down.

All four of their wristbands had been glowing since the previous fight, but with the tragic aftermath, none of them seemed eager to check it right away. He wasn’t thrilled about the potential for pain either, but also didn’t want to let the advantage of any reward slip by forever; he would never be so negligent as to skip reading it before the next scheduled attack. Since it seemed as good a time as any, he sat down to open his system message log and read the first messages.

[Your (4) participating group members have been awarded 2 NPs each for the defeat of four tier 0 monsters and one tier 1 monster.]

[Due to your victory over a tier 1 monster with a pole type weapon, you have learned Pole Weapons I.]

The expected spasms began. It didn’t seem as bad as before but it was still incredibly unpleasant. Once the pain ended, he checked to see his Physical stat had increased by 2 to a total of 132. He looked around. The others were checking their messages too but by the lack of squirming, none had learned a new skill like him.

So David, Lilly, and Zhang had fought four beavers, not just the three he’d heard screech out. He must’ve missed counting one in the heat of the battle. Four beavers and a goblin… no wonder they had a casualty. As expected, the attacks were becoming tougher as they progressed, so it was inevitable there would be losses.

He also took note how the nanites awarded only four participants instead of five; they hadn’t included David in the rewards. It made sense, but saddened him all the same.

Split four ways, it was odd they received 2 NPs each. The beavers were worth 1 NP and the goblins 3 NPs so they should have gotten 1.75 per player. He concluded rounding must be involved.

He had one more message waiting.

[Due to your show of respect for a fallen ally for the first time, you have been awarded 1 NP.]

These freaking aliens. He closed his screen in disgust. The nanites giving him a reward for a funeral was just sick. Their lives and deaths... all just some big game to them. He hadn’t given David a final gesture for some kind of artificial reward.

He realized his jaw was clenched so released it. He couldn’t do much about nanites... but he could dig up yams. He began tilling up the ground with intensity, pushing his frustration into the task.

After a few minutes, they gathered together their haul, finishing with a pile of eight yams after eating two each. Zhang took off his jacket and placed the yams and the medicinal roots in it like a bag. He tied it in a way that it looped over his spear while he held it over his shoulder. The ease with which he did it indicated he might’ve done similar before.

“Ready to get going?” Nathan asked the others.

“Sure,” Maya said. “We can return tomorrow to gather more.”

Nathan nodded, though her statement was assuming they would still be alive tomorrow, which wasn’t necessarily a given.

They ran the rest of the way uneventfully. He didn’t find any other food sources except for the nuts pods which they skipped for now. Upgrading his survival skill to level two would likely reveal more useful plants but he was still 1 NP short of the 25 cost.

The stream came into view and he was surprised to find a new group of players at the camp. Two men and two women. Harrison and Emma were conversing with them. Their body language read as relaxed which was a positive indication that everything was fine. He spied Asahi on their far side, awake and sitting up next to a still unconscious Johanna.

“Hello,” Nathan called out. “I see you made some friends.”

“G’day,” Harrison greeted back as they approached. “These guys waltzed down the trail, right in time to help us fight off a gray mongrel and a pack of beavers.”

“That’s brilliant!” Maya said, wheezing to catch her breath after their run. “Let me drink first then we can talk.”

Nathan waved to the group but skipped introductions since he wanted to finish the medical procedure on Asahi before it became too dark.

He checked his EP counter: 30 out of 34. He could buff himself with Attack Up but decided against it in case he needed the EPs for an emergency First Aid. He decided his new strategy going forward would be to only buff himself when his EP pool fully maxed out. That way, he would have his energy ready for any situation. Of course he’d never let his points sit at max, that would be wasteful since they’d stop regenerating.

Nathan glanced back at the sky. Evening was approaching rapidly.

Before crossing to meet Asahi, he stopped to wash his hands in the creek right as Maya was finishing quenching her thirst.

“Next attack is in exactly 30 minutes,” Maya said, looking at her own EP counter on her wrist.

“Exactly 30?”

“Yes,” she said. “We can keep time based on our EP regeneration rate. I’ve been using my only activated skill periodically to lower my EPs and watching them regen as a timer.”

Nathan nodded. “Nice work, I knew it could be done, but keeping up with the math while fighting monsters... well, I lose track easily.”

“You have 34 max EPs, right? It takes one hour to max out from zero so just make sure to check your EP amount at the beginning of the hour. For our purposes, the hour begins when monsters attack. So your EP count at the moment the monsters appear is really the only number you need to try to remember. When you regain 34 EPs from then, the next attack will happen. Easy.”

“Huh, yeah, I guess it is when you put it that way.”

“I’ll break it down even further,” she said, obviously enjoying the opportunity to teach. “Half an hour for you will be 17 EPs. Fifteen minutes is 8 and a half EPs. Ten minutes...”

“Thanks, I think I got it now,” he grinned. He had to interrupt her before she listed every figure imaginable. She barked a laugh in response as she went to speak with the new players.

Nathan mashed one of the medical roots, placing the paste on a large green leaf. He crossed the creek, bringing the medicine to Asahi. The man’s choker displayed a white cross, symbolizing the First Aid recovery buff still being active. The tourniquet was still wrapped around his thigh.

“Hello, Nathan-san. How are you?” Asahi asked. Despite his polite greeting, his face didn’t look well. He’d lost a lot of blood.

“Doing fine. Got some new medical supplies for you.”

“Arigatou,” he said in Japanese. “I also wanted to thank you for your help earlier. I am not sure if I would have made it this long without your assistance.”

“Well, you also saved my life when you ambushed that rat leaping for me. That makes three times now you’ve saved my butt. This antiseptic is my small way of repaying the debt. I’ll put it on your wound.”

“I see. Then I am in your care,” Asahi replied formally.

Nathan removed the bloody bandage and applied the paste to the wound, being careful not to focus his eyes too much on the disgusting lacerated flesh.

The older man said, “I have been activating Injury Stabilize on myself every time my energy refills. Emma has been loosening the tourniquet while I am under the skill’s effect to give my circulation temporary relief. Then she re-tightens it as the twenty minutes near their end. My skill is quite unnatural, but extremely useful. I have 19 EPs so can activate it again in another minute.”

“Good. You’ll want to be stabilized before we begin the next part.”

Nathan sat down and unpinned a needle from his pants. He used it to unravel the thread from the top of his knit dress sock, collecting about a half yard of string.

Emma left the group of players discussing their skills and came over to watch him work with interest. The French player now sported a new pair of sandals. He assumed another player either loaned or given them to her. A bloody green bandage still covered her left foot.

“Here, have some of this antiseptic for your hurt foot,” he said.

The pale woman accepted the offered paste and applied it to her injury. She finally spoke up as he struggled to thread the eye of the needle. “You know, I studied Fashion Design at uni. Let me try.”

Her English was clear and grammatically correct, with only a slight French accent. So she learned the Language skill while he was away. Why it improved her English even though she already spoke it he couldn’t say. It seemed opposite to what he knew about the skill since his own English was left untouched. He finally concluded a player had to reach a certain mastery of a language to not let it be overwrote by the skill.

“Thank you,” he said, happily surrendering the needle and thread. He was relieved someone else was taking over. He’d been dreading the procedure since the moment he thought of the idea.

Emma competently threaded the needle in one attempt and tied it off.

“Will you hold the wound close?” she asked.

Oh no. His relief at being given an out to the procedure evaporated. He grimaced, but moved to help all the same.

Emma leaned down to the side of Asahi and examined the wound. Nathan washed his hands in the creek again and then knelt on the man’s other side.

“Asahi, active your skill s’il vous plait.”

The man spoke in Japanese, and green energy surrounded his hand as he pressed it to his own leg. The green plus sign appeared on his collar as he came under its effect.

Nathan cautiously put his fingers to the edges of the man’s wound and pushed it together.

Asahi winced. When Emma paused the needle’s approach and looked at him questioningly, he said, “It is fine... the yellow flower root has mostly numbed the pain. Please proceed.”

“Yellow flower root?” Nathan said. “Nice, I like the name. But it numbed the pain? The survival skill only told me it was an antiseptic.”

“It must also have analgesic properties,” Asahi said.

The root was more versatile than he’d realized. Perhaps he needed to upgrade his skill level to learn more about it?

Emma began to sew the stitches while Nathan held the wound together as best he could. Her professionalism was the main thing boosting his own confidence in the procedure. He didn’t know if she’d ever sewn on humans, animals, or just clothing... but she didn’t hesitate. She speared the needle through his flesh and pulled the thread through with precise motions.

His other main task was to not throw up. He hated touching the wound, in fact it was a miracle he’d done as much as he had for Asahi with the tourniquet. Adrenaline and desperation had kept him going then. Now unfortunately, he had too much time to think about it.

The sight of the needle moving back and forth through the flesh and the thread pulling the skin tight together was disturbing. He was feeling nauseous. He shut his eyes and continued to hold the wound together, although he had to peek at it occasionally to make adjustments. Even at the mere sound of her working with the needle, his stomach rebelled. He tried to breathe deeply. He couldn’t get the sight of the wound out of his mind. Uh oh. He turned his head in a panic and puked some yam flavored stomach acid onto the ground.

“I will finish from here alone,” Emma said, now staring at him with concern. “Go and feel well.” Nathan rose unsteadily to his feet. As he turned away, she said, “Merci.”

Humiliated, Nathan went to the creek and washed his mouth out. Everything about that situation had sucked.

He checked back on Emma’s progress after a few minutes, activating his Attack Up skill in route. He breathed a sigh of relief as he felt the energy course through his body. It was strange that he found comfort in the alien pseudo-magic.

It was dark enough he was beginning to have trouble seeing. Emma luckily didn’t have an issue as she finished the stitches by tying off the thread. The stitches were neat and uniform so he assumed she’d done a good job.

He’d subconsciously underestimated the quiet woman back when they’d first met since she didn’t participate in the monster fight, letting Harrison and Maya do the fighting for her. He’d found out since she was a rural farm girl who’d left home to study fashion design in Rome, apparently able to put that background knowledge to use in life saving ways. Seeing her competence actually reinforced the platitude that every player here was exceptional, even if they handled their stress and applied their talents differently.

Both their wristbands began glowing. He opened his, the log informing him he’d earned 1 NP for rendering aid to a fellow player. He became excited. He now had the 25 NPs needed to upgrade Wilderness Survival to level two.

The extra stat gains could make a huge difference in the next fight if he upgraded it now. Alternatively, he could save the upgrade for an emergency healing later. He considered the merits of both strategies, and finally decided the additional stat improvement would help his fighting ability, which in turn could prevent him from being injured in the first place.

Did he have enough time to do an upgrade? He checked his EPs to figure out the time remaining until the next attack. He’d accidently let them max out while working on Asahi so he may have wasted a few points thus messing up his timer. He’d need to be more mindful, EPs were his most valuable resource. He guessed they had maybe fifteen minutes? Plenty of time; his learning speed had been improving as he grew stronger. A new upgrade would take only three minutes or so.

Emma cried out next to him as she was reading her own screen. Her face and arms contorted as she flopped around on the ground. Then her eyes closed as her breathing deepened. She was learning a new skill.

Harrison ran over to check on her. The man clasped her hand and sat next to her, waiting. It was kind of sweet so Nathan nodded to him in approval. It seemed the two players had something going on between them already. The two older players, Asahi and Johanna, had likewise been making eyes at each other earlier.

Frankly, he found the whole notion of romantic endeavors totally out of place in this setting of blood, sweat, and grime. It had only been that morning since they were dumped into the death arena, and he had a million other worries on his mind. He supposed for others it was how they were coping with the traumas... different strokes for different folks and all that. But for him, dating had always added additional stress to his life. In his normal world, that could be fun and exciting. But here, he really didn’t need more issues.

Without wasting any more time, Nathan opened his screen and focused on the option to upgrade. The pain came as expected and it stunk like usual. His back arched as his muscles clenched. A lightning storm in his brain tried to render him a vegetable. He forced deep breaths, letting air flow in and out. The pain finally passed and he sighed in relief. He opened the skill description to see the changes.

He gained another point in both stats bringing him up to 133 Physical and 120 Mental. Hitting the 120 threshold for Mental was especially key since it increased his max EPs to 35. Every 5 Mental points gave 1 additional EP to his pool. The new skill description for Wilderness Survival II stated he had ‘intermediate’ survival knowledge instead of the previous ‘basic’ from level one. He hoped that would make a huge difference in his foraging and gathering.

Emma woke shortly after, having been affected longer by the skill learning process than Nathan. She sat up slowly. “That is not nice.”

“Ya alright?” Harrison asked.

“Oui, I learned a new skill.” Her expression changed into a grin. It was the first time Nathan had seen the girl smile.

She opened her character sheet and translated the skill aloud. It might be the most powerful skill he’d seen so far.

[Advanced Healing I: Requirements - Mental 132, Water 4 (Prime). (Activated Skill - heal minor and moderate injuries and illnesses instantly and improve natural recovery rates by 6x for twelve hours - cost: 40 EPs.) (Gain +2 Mental.)]

It was a better version of his First Aid skill. The most astonishing difference between their skills was that hers healed ‘moderate’ injuries instantly instead of only ‘minor.’ Its natural recovery buff was double the effectiveness and lasted twice as long too. Sadly, he’d never be able to learn it since it was a Water Prime exclusive, not to mention its crazy high Mental requirement. Emma was most likely their most important player now.

“How do I activate a skill?” she asked.

“You have to find the energy within yourself, then force it to obey while speaking its name,” Harrison said.

“Huh?” Nathan said. “For me, I don’t have to find the energy. I just yell the skill name out with intensity and that seems to work.”

Harrison shook his head. “That’s stupid, ya don’t have to yell.”

“I actually tried something like your way at first, but it did nothing. So maybe it’s how we each think it should work that’s important?”

The taller man snorted. “Or maybe ya just like sounding like a retard?”

Nathan clenched his teeth but didn’t respond to the jab. “Emma, the next attack will be in less than ten minutes. Any chance you can heal Asahi with your new skill? We’ll need him.”

Emma knelt next to Asahi and placed her hands on his leg. “Guérison,” she whispered, using the French name for the skill. Nothing happened. She spoke instead in English. She then tried Italian. She failed each time regardless of the language.

“Maybe you don’t have enough EPs?” Nathan said. “The 40 EP cost is steep. What’s your max?”

“37,” she said, reading off her interface.

“Ah, yeah, that’s the problem. You need to increase either your elemental affinities or your Mental stat to raise your max EP amount. 37 is pretty good though. What are your other stats?”

“After the new skill, 114 Physical and 134 Mental. Yes, I see what you mean. I will prioritize Mental improvements.”

"Good," he said. He thought back to how she didn't participate in the first goblin fight a couple hours before. That wasn’t going to cut it. "You'll need to help in the fights, you know? If you sit out, you won't get skills or NPs. Your healing skill is amazing, but it's worthless until you gain enough Mental to use it."

She grimaced and looked away. He didn't regret saying it, ignoring the facts in a death arena would get people killed. He truly appreciated her medical skills, but facing danger like the rest of them was only fair. That being said, her new skill was too valuable to lose. Death usually came fast and unannounced, and she didn’t have any combat skills to his knowledge. He decided to propose a compromise. "Look, you don't have to be on the front lines every time. But you have to help if you want to get the skill rewards necessary to survive here. At least throw a rock or something so you’ll get credit, okay?"

She finally nodded, saying nothing.

Nathan looked at the sky. There was a red tinge to the clouds along the forest treetops as the sun continued to set. It seemed the next monster attack would come right at dusk. The low light would make fighting tricky. Nathan reflected on how they were totally unprepared for the night. They didn’t have fire or shelter. And if the attacks continued throughout the night… things would get sketchy.

He decided he’d spend the next couple minutes introducing himself to the new players. Since they might all die together, it was only polite they knew each other's names.

“Hey everyone, I’m Nathan.” The players halted their conversation about game mechanics, turning to face him. Between the four new players and everyone else including Asahi and Johanna by the tree, their numbers totaled twelve now.

“Hello, Nathan,” a woman with an Eastern European accent greeted.

“I’m from Nashville in the United States,” Nathan said. “My best skill is probably the Wilderness Survival II skill which helps me find food and medical herbs. What about you guys? What’re your best skills?”

“I’m Iliana,” replied the same woman. “I’m from Bulgaria. I learned the Language skill so can speak English now. My best skill is… um, I guess it's this Metal skill called Thrust.”

“Cool, what’s it do?”

“So when it's activated, it lets me ignore 50% of my target’s physical defense. Maya was just explaining how she thought it worked. I’m not so good with these kinds of games.” She shrugged. The slim Bulgarian woman was tall, though still shorter than Lilly, with a light brown complexion. She wore a green long sleeved shirt, black skinny jeans, and tennis shoes. A silver stone indicated she was a Metal Prime.

The next player began his introduction. “Angelo. New York City. My parents were Italian immigrants so I’m a second generation American. I own a laundromat with my brother in law. I got to say I’m too old for all this baloney.” The man did look to be over forty years old to Nathan. The only people older were Asahi and Johanna, but unlike them and the rest of the overly fit players, he was a bit round in the middle. The man was a Water Prime and spoke with a thick New York accent. He was wearing a black sweater, a pair of blue jeans, and black leather shoes. He also had dried blood caked to the side of his balding hair.

Only a mid-twenties latino woman and a tall dark skinned boy were left to speak. “Hi, I’m Maria,” the woman began, her accented English obviously enhanced by the Language skill. “I live in Costa Rica…” She trailed off as she was interrupted by a chorus of yips.

Nathan spun to the noise. It had begun.

On the hill to the other side of the creek were three shapes outlined by the dim sky. Spears were held in each of their hands. They marched down the trail towards the creek in formation. Two more shapes with spears followed behind them. Apparently, the alien game masters had decided to spice things up.

The five shapes revealed themselves as the familiar spear wielding goblins. Nathan hesitated a moment, searching for where he’d lain his staff. He spotted it by the water’s edge.

Maya and Harrison were already holding their weapons and were the first to act. They reached the creek about the same time as the front three goblins reached their side of the water. Both sides halted, warily pointing weapons at each other. Nobody wanted to strike first. Nathan stepped up beside Maya with his recovered staff. The dark skinned kid he hadn’t met yet stood on her other side but Harrison shoved him back.

“Get back boy,” Harrison told the youth. “Watch the sides and circle around if you get the chance.”

The creek was a yard and a half wide and neither side wanted the disadvantage of crossing the water first. Whoever did would lose the advantage of the high ground to the opponents on the opposite bank. Nathan mused that unlike the dumb beavers, the goblin’s had to possess some level of intelligence to be able to think tactically.

The other human players fanned out both ways down the creek’s bank and the remaining two goblins did the same on their side. Nathan liked their odds, they outnumbered the monsters two to one. That was until he heard the dreaded screeching noises heralding beaver reinforcements.

The goblins, lined up five wide on their side of the creek, continued to hold their sharp crude spears out before them. Nathan’s heart hammered in his chest. This was going to be a battle, like a serious battle. Nathan’s legs began shaking on their own as he inadvertently performed an Elvis dance impersonation. The wait was terrifying.

He couldn’t see the beavers yet but he counted at least four different screeches coming from behind the goblins. He glanced down at his wristband to see his EPs had recovered to 25. He still wanted to test his Analyze Enemy skill. It cost 8 which would leave him 17 left over, enough for another Attack Up activation too. He also confirmed he already had the symbol for the attack buff already active. Good. His first attack would do extra damage.

Harrison yelled out, “If ya have a real weapon, you’re fighting the grey mongrels! Everyone else kill the beavers. Once they’re dead, come help bugger these uglies in the rear.”

Maya added her own instructions, “And unless you’re Bruce Lee in disguise... don’t use your bare hands. Find a bloody rock to use.”

Two of the newer players, Angelo and Maria, both scrambled to find rocks. Nathan approved, chuckling to himself despite the dangerous situation. The other two already wielded the improvised weapons.

Only five players in their growing group had more sophisticated weapons, if they could even be called that. Maya wielded her spear in the middle position with Nathan to her right. Lilly with her spear took a position on Nathan’s other side to the far right wing. Harrison, hefting his heavy club, stood directly to Maya’s left with a spear wielding Zhang holding the furthest left wing.

The middle of the five goblins stepped into the water first. The rest of the goblins followed a second later, each squaring off with the player across from them. The height difference of the shorter goblins in the lower creek bed versus the taller players on the high bank was encouraging to Nathan.

A foreign train of thought entered his mind. The way he held his staff was all wrong. He changed his grip and it became more comfortable, relieving an itch in his mind he’d not known was there. Then a sense of wrongness in his stance forced him to adjust, shifting his feet and weight. He bent his previously locked knees to change his center of balance. Nathan knew these instinctual changes were being directed externally of himself; the nanites must be helping him thanks to his new Pole Weapons skill. The weirdest part about the changes were how natural they felt as if he’d trained to ingrain the muscle memory. Of course, he’d never taken any fighting or martial arts lessons in his life.

Maya decided to strike first. She thrust at the middle goblin in her spear’s range as it took its second step. The goblin deflected her attack wide and then counterattacked by thrusting at her midsection. Her spear moved fractionally downward, just enough to efficiently knock it off course and miss. Following her example, Lilly to his right whipped her spear forward. Nathan didn’t see what happened next because his own goblin was charging at him.

Mindful of not hitting his allies to either side, Nathan swung his staff downward as hard as he could at his enemy. He aimed for the goblin’s head, hoping to knock it senseless. Red energy poured out of his arms as his attack buff triggered, putting more mass and acceleration behind his stick than was strictly natural.

The swing partially worked. The goblin horizontally blocked over its head with its spear but was not strong enough to fully stop Nathan’s skill assisted blow. The force of the staff hammering the goblin’s spear caused the goblin’s shaft to knock back in its own face. The creature staggered back a step. Nathan advanced forward off the bank to strike again.

A whir of motion came from his left and he ducked by instinct, a spear passing over his head. Thanking the increases to his Physical stat, he realized Maya’s goblin had used the opportunity to blindside him. Nathan’s forward movement had the unintended consequence of exposing his flanks. He chided himself. He was on a battlefield, not playing a freaking game. There were no fair duels or rules. If he wanted to survive, he needed to stay aware of his surroundings.

Maya seized her chance while her goblin was off-balance from its missed attack on Nathan. She struck it hard and fast in the chest. The wooden spear partially penetrated its thick furry armor. Despite the protection of the pelt, the force of the blow made it stagger back.

Nathan turned back to his own goblin; it had recovered and was preparing to attack again. It swung its spear horizontally and Nathan dodged by jumping backward up onto the bank. The goblin followed through its swing with a charge, spear lowered. It aimed to gore Nathan as he landed.

Lilly, who only had Nathan to her side to keep track of, used the opportunity to thrust her own spear at Nathan’s charging goblin. It never saw its death coming. Her spear tip drilled straight through its temple. The goblin pitched sideways, splashing in the water between Maya and her adversary causing both to jump back in surprise. For a few seconds, the entire battlefield became lit from the glow of its pixelating body. It was five against four now.

The goblin Lilly was supposed to be facing used her distraction against her. It swept its spear low and cracked it against the outside of her right knee. The tall woman cried out in pain and stumbled in the water, losing her balance. She landed on a rock shelf by the bank. The goblin slammed its spear down and she barely rolled out of harm’s way. Its weapon struck the rocky ground, breaking in half with a loud crack. The goblin tossed aside the broken shaft and reached under its furry armor and pulled out a knife. The weapon featured a simple wooden handle and a sharp double edged blade. It leapt forward intending to take the fight up close and personal with its larger prey.

Nathan was already moving, jumping into the water as he swung down at Lilly’s goblin. He aimed for its head as he'd done before in his earlier opening attack. The goblin moved frantically aside and was caught by the staff on its shoulder, forcing it to reel backwards.

Analyze Enemy!” he shouted as his weapon made contact. Green misty energy swirled out of the goblin’s shoulder and funneled through Nathan’s staff into his hands like a vacuum cleaner. The sensation was weird. He doubted it was harmful to the monster though; the skill was only supposed to give information. When the energy transfer finished, Nathan’s wristband lit up with a unique green glow different from the normal message indication. He didn’t have time to investigate.

The goblin fell into the shallow creek, dropping the knife. Not wanting to give quarter, Nathan ran forward and smashed his staff down on its head. The goblin quit thrashing and lay still in the water. He whacked it again for good measure.

Without waiting to see if the monster pixelated or not, he scanned the rest of the battle. Maya was parrying a thrust from her goblin. Past her he could see a groaning Zhang lying on the bank, clutching his side. Harrison was in a standoff with another goblin. That made two enemies still on their feet. The rest of the players were up the trail fighting beavers, but he couldn’t worry about them yet.

Nathan moved to approach the goblins from behind. He splashed to the opposite creek bank and followed it upstream. He came in behind Maya’s opponent. While Maya blocked a high spear thrust, Nathan set up in a baseball batter’s stance. He swung his staff at the monster’s head while it remained oblivious to his presence. The staff clobbered it, snapping its neck like a twig. The creature crumpled to the ground. Maya stepped forward and stabbed its exposed neck, resulting in another brief glow to illuminate the creek.

Nathan found it strange that Maya wore the same smile as she executed her enemy as she did when teasing him. Was she some kind of psychopath? No, it was a bit different. Her jaw was too tense. Her body was trembling. There was no joy being had here today.

The remaining goblin took a crushing blow from Harrison’s club and collapsed. The man smiled self satisfactorily, then slammed down a shockingly brutal finisher on the creature’s head. “Hell ya!” he shouted. Nathan didn’t know what to think of the man’s obvious enjoyment.

He heard some water splashing behind him and spun. Lilly’s spear was finishing off the last goblin, the one Nathan had downed earlier. She was breathing hard and leaned on the weapon, favoring her injured leg. Unlike Maya’s strained smile or Harrison’s glee at killing monsters, Lilly looked pissed off. Nathan wondered what he looked like during the fight. He didn’t feel exhilarated or angry from the violence, only scared. Maybe a little determined too, he reassured himself. He’d have to ask someone else how that manifested on his face.

Emma and the Bulgarian woman, he thought her name was Iliana, ran down the trail to join them. Iliana shouted out, “The beavers are dead.”

The battle was over.

He stood in the water, chest heaving from exertion. He sure hoped they wouldn’t have to do that again any time soon.

He laughed humorlessly. Yeah, right. Tygerion was as likely to land here on a magical rainbow handing out free spa gift cards.

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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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