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Nathan sprinted to the wailing Iliana and knelt down. A glance at his wrist informed him he had only 8 EPs. He winced. First Aid took 20. He could smell her cooked flesh which twisted his stomach.

“Her burns... let’s get her to the water,” Lilly said.

“Okay, grab her legs.” He did a quick calculation in his head, a task becoming easier as he became more accustomed to tracking time with his EPs. “It’ll take twenty minutes until I can use First Aid. We’ll definitely be attacked again before then.”

He clasped the Bulgarian woman under the arms while Lilly lifted her kicking legs. Iliana thrashed about but their increased Physical stats ensured they maintained a good grip.

Ignoring the bite of thorns and branches in their path, they made their way as the smaller woman continued screaming. They slid down the bank and set her in the creek. Iliana immediately dunked her head underwater, her cries turning to gurgling sounds.

“Are you okay?” Lilly asked as the smaller woman brought her head back up.

“No! I am not okay!” Iliana cried. She was breathing hard, on the verge of hyperventilating.

“It’s okay,” Nathan said, trying to sound reassuring. “I will activate First Aid on you soon.”

“I’m burned!” she wailed, her voice difficult to understand through her shrieking sobs. “My hair, it’s burned!” She pitched forward into the water, dousing her head in the liquid for any relief it would provide. Her shoulder was bleeding as well, her bloody shirt sleeve dangling off her arm by only a few threads. A cursory glance told him the wound wasn’t as bad as feared, at least relative to other injuries he’d seen in the last two days. He let out a sigh of relief. The spear must’ve only nicked her skin, mainly only shredding her shirt.

“Go and get Emma, she has First Aid too,” Nathan said. He took a yellow flower root out of his pocket, one he’d pocketed that morning just in case.

“Not enough time,” Lilly said, shaking her head. “She went with Harrison to forage, I may or may not find her before your own EP gauge fills. Plus, another attack will happen in less than fifteen minutes, I can’t leave you both.”

Nathan nodded, unhappily agreeing with her assessment. “Okay, please make sure she checks her messages, a Physical skill can heal her. I need to go collect our weapons before we’re attacked again. Every second without a spear makes me feel naked.” He broke the yellow flower root in half and tossed her one half. “And start mashing that up too.”

Lilly nodded, so he dashed up the bank and through the now well-trodden underbrush. He snatched up the first two fallen spears he’d found, and continued to search for a third. Iliana may be injured, but that was no excuse for her to be unarmed.

He soon spotted her discarded spear, but his gaze drifted past it to the scimitar sword the chief dropped. If Iliana didn’t gain a Physical skill to heal her from the battle, he suspected she could at least use the sword to potentially learn a Metal weapon skill and get the accompanying +2 Physical.

He headed back with the two spears and sword and found his teammates right where he left them.

“Any luck with her skills?” he asked Lilly who was studying Iliana’s wristband while the other woman moaned in pain.

“Not exactly. There’s a choice but I can’t read it and she’s not cooperating. Maybe you can try?”

Nathan nodded, turning to Iliana. “Iliana, how’re you doing?”

“My hair…” she shrieked. He glanced at her scalp and grimaced. Her hair was burned off in the top center of her head, revealing her red blistered scalp. It had to hurt like hell. Iliana continued to dunk her head in the water for relief.

Lilly began mashing the yellow flower root. He nodded gratefully, Iliana would need that pain relief.

He squatted down behind the injured woman and read her interface over her shoulder. There were several messages so he started with the first. He frowned as he realized it was in Bulgarian.

“Iliana, I need you to read this to me.”

She continued to cry. He sighed.

“Please, Iliana. Another attack will be coming soon.”

She sniffled, and began reading it out loud between sobs and moans of pain. He had to listen carefully because her voice was hard to understand.

[Your (3) participating group members have been awarded 9 NPs each for the defeat of four tier 1 and one tier 1 Mini-Boss monsters.]

So that chief goblin had been classified as a mini-boss. No wonder it had been crazy tough. Mini-bosses in games were usually stronger than normal monsters of the same kind but not quite as strong as bosses. He continued listening to her translate.

[Due to your victory against your first tier 1 Mini-Boss monster, you have been given a choice of rewards.]

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

*[Gain +1 Mental - uncommon.]

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

*[Learn skill - rare. Fire Shield I: Requirements - Water 3. (Activated Skill - increases resistance to the Fire element by 20% for one minute.) (Gain +2 Mental.)]

*[One-handed Mace (Tier 1) - uncommon.]

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

“Thank you, Iliana. I know how hard that must’ve been.”

He thought over her rewards. The nanites gave her no Physical stat increasing options which she could’ve used for healing so she’d have to wait for Nathan to First Aid her burns. He just hoped they were classified as minor. She didn’t receive Blunt Weapons either, likely since she kept thrusting with her spear instead of bashing.

Of the reward options, the skill was the obvious choice, and he couldn’t help but notice the appropriateness of her gaining a Fire resistance skill given her current circumstances. For a Metal Prime, increasing her resistance against her destructive opposite of Fire would come in handy. Thanks to her lucky Water affinity increase in the prelims, she met the Water 3 requirement to learn it.

“She should get the skill for her first pick,” Lilly said. She was busy mashing up the root with a rock. “I could really use her one-handed mace reward though if she wants to trade. It’s more suited for my Blunt Weapons. Will you trade me, Iliana?”

Iliana was now alternating between sobbing and wailing, oblivious to the question.

“Hmm,” Nathan said. He was planning to give Iliana the chief’s high quality scimitar sword since she hadn’t unlocked a weapon skill yet, so trading the mace to Lilly who had Blunt Weapons and could use it best would benefit their team as well. But Iliana’s condition made discussing it difficult. But they needed to make their choices, and preferably before the next scheduled attack. “What were your reward options?” he asked Lilly.

She opened her interface and read her rewards to him.

*[Gain 20 NPs - common.]

*[Yellow dress (Variant 17) - common.]

*[Wooden club (Tier 1) - uncommon.]

*[Learn skill - rare. Improved Spleen I: Requirements - Earth 3 (Prime). (2x the natural speed of debuff removal from the player’s body.) (5% resistance bonus to all five elements.) (Gain +2 Physical.)]

*[Leather satchel - common.]

He immediately focused on the skill. It had two written effects and a +2 stat gain. He hadn’t seen a skill with that many abilities, and resistance to all five elements seemed highly versatile. He now recognized a pattern with the improved organ skills; there appeared to be one for each Element. Maya had Improved Heart and it was a Fire 3 Prime skill. Iliana had Improved Lungs for Metal Primes. So presumably there were also Water and Wood organ skills. Each appeared powerful so he looked forward to learning the Wood version.

“The only things you can trade to her are the dress, club, or the satchel. I honestly wouldn’t mind the satchel myself.” He scratched at a particularly nasty bug bite he’d gotten earlier on his bare chest. Having his shirt on his body instead of being used to carry crawfish was fairly high on his wishlist. “Do you want the club though? It’s a blunt weapon too.”

“Not really. I’ve seen Harrison swinging his about two-handed and it doesn’t appeal to me. It’s all offense and no defense. A one handed mace can be used with a shield. If the shield the mini-boss dropped isn’t salvageable, I’ll try making my own.”

“Fair enough, let me check my own rewards real quick to see if I have anything to trade for that satchel.”

Lilly finished mashing the yellow flower root into a paste and began applying it to Iliana’s scalp. Asahi had mentioned the root numbing his pain almost immediately, so hopefully it would soothe her burn immediately.

With her being taken care of, he sat down to check his own interface. He skimmed the message where he received 9 NPs for the battle, bringing him up to 28.5.

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

*[30 NPs - uncommon.]

*[Gain +1 Physical - uncommon.]

*[Sleeping bag - common.]

*[Learn skill - rare. Rapid Recovery I: Requirements - Water 2. (Boosts natural health recovery rates by 1.5x.) (Gain +1 Physical.)]

*[Leather Gloves (Socket: Empty) (Tier 1) - rare.]

As far as he’d seen, everyone was given at least one guaranteed rare choice or higher. He was lucky he’d been given two rares. He glanced at his other options. The 30 NP lump sum was tempting; it would give him enough to upgrade Pole Weapons to level two. The sleeping bag was cool but was honestly a luxury item he could live without, albeit miserably. The +1 to Physical was decent but not so special since every skill gave some stats and more. The rare options were the most interesting to him.

The Rapid Recovery skill was plain awesome. It permanently boosted his natural recovery speed. As easy as it was to be injured in the arena, recovery was an invaluable skill since there were no abstract hit points. In most games with hit points, a player could soak up tons of damage without any of it affecting their performance, and recovery was stupidly easy. Whereas in the arena, he had to follow the laws of reality which weren’t so forgiving. Asahi had been sliced by a tier 0 beaver and would’ve bled out without intervention. Zhang had been stabbed once and nearly died. Being able to recover from the nasty and realistic wounds they were guaranteed to receive from constant fighting was a necessity. And if he was lucky, it would stack with First Aid’s recovery bonus for some souped up recovery action.

The last option was even more intriguing. The leather gloves would be useful in their mundane function, from digging up yams to having some protection in combat. He’d already injured his hands more than any other place on his body. But what really interested him was the socket descriptor. Nathan figured most players would be clueless to its meaning, but he pulled out the EP orb from his pocket and wondered. It couldn’t be that, surely? His buddy Logan had been obsessed with a particular RPG video game from their childhood. The game contained a magic system where you placed magic orbs in armor and weapon sockets to add corresponding magical abilities to the characters. Logan had incorporated many aspects of those mechanics into their own RPG campaigns.

“I want that satchel so bad,” he told Lilly, “but I have two options that I’d be stupid not to take instead. And I suspect one of them will allow Emma to finally have enough EPs to use Advanced Healing.” He held the EP orb for her to see.

“That would be incredible, what were your rewards?”

He read her his reward options and briefly explained his idea for the purple orb. Then he said, “For loot distribution, since Iliana will get the scimitar from the mini-boss, do you think it’s fair if I take the orb? You can have the next loot that drops and we can keep rotating, giving item priority based on need.”

“Yeah, that’s fine with me. Especially if you’re using the orb to help Emma, which in turn helps us all. I doubt Iliana will care.”

Iliana for her part, had calmed somewhat as the numbing from the yellow flower root took effect. But she stared blankly as she sat in the water, her breathing still not quite under control.

Nathan checked his EP counter, figuring they had seven minutes till the next attack. “Alright, I suggest we table the loot talk for the moment and go ahead and learn our new skill rewards while there’s still time before the next attack.”

Lilly nodded and focused on her screen, selecting her skill reward and starting the learning process.

Nathan did the same, selecting Rapid Recovery I. The process was as terrible as always but he thought it might’ve lasted a hair shorter than the time before. A good trend. He opened his character sheet and noted he now had a 135 Physical stat while his Mental was still sitting at 120. Curious about the required stats to upgrade his new skill to level two, he focused on the skill.

[Requirements - 30 NPs, Physical 125, Water 4.]

While he was excited by his new skill, he couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling his skill list didn’t synergize well. Both Iliana and Lilly had clear roles their skills were steering them towards; offense and defense respectively. But his own skills were all over the place. He remembered the Guide saying Wood Primes were balanced. Did that mean he’d be a ‘jack of all trades?’ He frowned slightly. The other half of that phrase was ‘master of none.’”

Instead he decided to look at it another way. He was the utility and support player, with skills ranging from survival to crowd control. That role sounded a lot better to him.

He checked his EPs as Lilly was regaining her feet. They had a few minutes still. Since Iliana seemed more lucid, he tried talking to her again. Normally he wouldn’t keep bothering somebody about loot while they were dealing with immediate physical trauma, but he was worried there would only be two fighters fit for the next attack and they needed to be as ready as possible. “Iliana, is it okay if I use the orb you found if you take the chief’s sword instead as your loot?”

“Huh?” Her eyes focused on him, and she blinked, as if she was seeing him for the first time. “Uh, okay. Whatever…”

He nodded. He figured that was as good of permission as he was going to get. He selected the gloves for his second reward. Similar to when he received the bracers, a blue projection beam from his collar highlighted the ground on the bank. On his other side, Lilly leapt back in surprise, having not seen the process before. Within twenty seconds, a new pair of dark brown leather gloves appeared under the lasers.

He collected his reward items, inspecting them. They were thick but made of a soft suede leather. He put them on. The wrist openings were large enough to fit over his harder leather bracers, eliminating any skin from being exposed between. They even matched in color. But it also had the unfortunate flaw in covering up the all important wristband interface.

After a few moments of lamenting about not being able to see his EP counter during battle, he startled when the glove began to change. A silvery liquid the consistency of mercury permeated through the glove material on his left wrist, reforming into the solid shape of the bracelet on the outside of the glove. Whoa, he’d not expected that. The wristband could be adjusted for different wardrobes.

Wondering what would happen if he removed the left glove, he tried. It was stuck to his wrist, the wristband preventing its removal. That wasn’t good. He didn’t want to wear the glove for the rest of his life, he still needed to give it to Emma for his test. After tugging on it for several seconds, the wristband turned liquid again, seeping back through the material where it reformed on his wrist. He took off the glove, studying the bracelet beneath. Oh, thank God. He put the glove back on, repeating the strange process.

Examining the gloves further, he discovered the right glove had an additional black circular design on the back of the hand while the left glove didn’t. Was that the socket? The design was flat so he was disappointed to realize there was no obvious place to fit the EP orb. He studied the circle design further and noted it was about the same size as the purple orb. He held the orb on the circle to compare, and was startled again by a purple flash.

When his vision fully cleared, Nathan saw the result. The orb had melded with the material. Both gloves sported a new dark purple circular design that glowed faintly when examined closely. He opened his interface and selected his character sheet, checking for changes. There was a new line at the bottom of his statistics labelled Equipped Effects. It was a different line than the Current Status Effects where Attack Up usually appeared. Only one effect was listed under Equipped Effects.

[Leather Gloves (Socket: EP orb): Increase maximum EP by 5.]

He checked his EPs on his sheet. It displayed 14 / 40. Holy crap. He had 40 max EP now. His EP regeneration rate would increase significantly as well, meaning he’d be able to heal Iliana even quicker now.

But his EP counter also indicated it was time. He and Lilly took up battle positions around Iliana, who was still sitting dazed in the water.

A chorus of screeches echoed down the creek. He let out a sigh of relief. It was beavers… Thank God. Given the way events tended to turn out, he’d fully expected a tier 2 bear or something worse. By this point, dispatching beavers had become routine as long as they stayed alert and didn’t make any rookie mistakes. The increasingly larger quantity of beavers didn’t make any difference since the creatures still attacked one at a time.

Lilly and Nathan handled the battle while Iliana sat it out. He called out to the woman a few times, encouraging her to participate for the rewards, but as expected she was unresponsive. Eight dead beavers later, they rested on the bank. Nathan checked his interface, seeing they gained 4 NPs each for the two participants. Having less fighters meant a greater share of the rewards.

Now they waited on his EPs. Nathan stared at his energy counter, willing it to move faster. His heart ached with the burned girl. It wasn’t just the physical injuries he was worried about, if she didn’t recover mentally, she would die soon. The scheduled monster attacks wouldn’t care about her depression.

As soon as he had 20 EPs, he activated the skill directly on her head. She cried out from his touch, but as soon as the five colored energy entered her skin, she moaned in relief. Most of the burnt skin repaired itself right before his eyes. Relief swelled up in him. It was working. But he had to avert his gaze from the disturbing sight, knowing full well that others would’ve been fascinated to watch the process in his place. But since First Aid was healing the burns immediately, they were ‘minor’ by the skill’s definition. She was extremely lucky.

After a few moments, he returned his attention to her. He grimaced at the state of her unevenly burnt hair and exposed white scalp.

Iliana saw him flinch at the sight of her. Oops.

“No, no… oh God!” She wailed. She covered the sight of her head with her hands.

“Poor girl,” Lilly whispered loud enough for only him to hear.

Iliana’s hair was still long on the sides and at the back of her neck, and with her hands covering the top of her head she almost looked normal. At least from a distance... and if he didn’t look directly at her.

“Don’t look at me!” she cried.

“We won’t,” Lilly said. The Kenyan player looked at Nathan questioningly. Unfortunately he didn’t really know what to say to her either.

“Take your time,” Nathan finally said. “You’re healed and safe now.”

“I look like a monster now,” Iliana sobbed. “Like ones of those goblins.” The hysteria in her voice was palpable.

“No, you’re so beautiful,” Lilly said.

“I used to be,” Iliana said, snorting snot back up her nose. “Now who would want me?”

“Your hair will grow back in no time,” he added reassuringly. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a skill that helped.”

“Really?” Iliana asked, peeking up at him.

“It’s possible,” he replied. “Emma has that Advanced Healing skill, and I have a solution to get it working. Maybe one zap of her skill will grow your hair back.” Nathan kind of doubted it would, but it’d still be worth a shot. The important thing was calming her down so their team could continue functioning. Their thirty minute attack clock didn’t halt for personal crises.

Iliana removed one of her hands from her head and wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve. She looked up at Lilly and then back at Nathan, her eyes bloodshot. She slowly removed her other hand, watching for their reactions.

Nathan forced himself to maintain a neutral expression. She had a large bald spot on the top and back of her head, beginning in the front next to her forehead and running straight up the middle. Basically in the worst place possible for trying to fix it. To the sides of the bald area, the hair was unevenly burnt, with random full length strands interspersed throughout creating a rather strange look.

Nathan approached her slowly and examined her head from a few feet away. Her exposed skin on her scalp was smooth, showing no signs of ever having been burned. He considered the implications. He’d seen before when his skill healed something immediately, it reversed all the damage leaving it unblemished. It had happened here, but unfortunately hadn’t regrown the hair in the process. He had no way of knowing if her hair would grow back in the bald place given the unknown nature of his healing skill. In general, his healing skill worked differently than healing from Physical stat gains and was usually better. That other form of healing would leave scars as had happened with Johanna’s stomach wounds.

“Wow, it doesn’t look bad at all,” Nathan said more enthusiastically than strictly warranted. “First Aid healed the burns and you don’t appear to have any scars which is fantastic. You have some hair missing but nothing a haircut couldn’t fix. I think you’d look pretty good with short hair. What do you think, Lilly?”

“You would look very striking with shorter hair,” Lilly agreed. “I’ve always cut my own hair so I could give you a good look too. I’ll do it with the knife when we return to camp.”

“Really?” Iliana asked, wiping her nose again. Her voice carried a twinge of hope.

“Sure, it’ll be fun.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Nathan said. “Before we go, Iliana, you should learn your new skill, Fire Shield.” He gave her a warm smile, “I think you’ll like it.”

Fire Shield...” Iliana said, her eyes still red and watery. She forced a smile. “Good.”

“Want to trade your other reward for one of mine?” Lilly asked. “I could really use that mace for my fighting style.”

She thought for a moment then said, “Okay, I don’t see why not.”

Lilly crouched down next to her. “Thanks, I really appreciate it. So let’s see, I could trade you a wooden club, which is a blunt weapon. We’ve already agreed you can have the chief’s sword which will work better with your Thrust skill, but you could trade the club to someone back at camp for something else.”

Iliana was frowning at the idea. Lilly continued on, “Or how about a leather satchel, which will let you carry things? Would be pretty useful.”

Iliana’s frown became a bit less severe, which seemed to encourage Lilly as she listed off the last option. “And lastly, a yellow dress.”

The burned woman’s eyes widened. “A dress? What kind? What size?” They were the most passionate words out of her mouth since the mini-boss fight.

Nathan chuckled, glad to see the change in her mood. Only a few minutes earlier he was seriously afraid she might die from apathy, lying in the creek water until the next group of monsters killed her. The arena was cruel that way.

“Not sure what it looks like,” Lilly confessed. “Only that it’s yellow. But a dress is kind of low importance compared to a weapon or a piece of gear, right?” She turned to Nathan for confirmation.

He shrugged. “I think if Iliana wants the dress, I say go for it. Her current clothes are completely non-functional, even before the last fight ruined them further. She can’t even walk or fight properly in them.”

“But a dress is the worst choice on the list,” Lilly said.

“As opposed to a club she doesn’t need? The bag would be pretty useful I must admit, but so would clothing. Fighting is important, but surviving is too. Suffering from psychological issues will kill just as quickly here as physical... maybe even quicker. And being forced to fight and survive day to day completely naked is not going to be helpful for anyone’s mental health.”

She nodded. “Alright, fair enough. I wouldn’t mind a new dress myself, but I need that mace more.”

Iliana sniffed loudly to draw their attention. She stood up, soaking wet from where she’d been in the water. “I’m right here, you know. If I’m going to trade, I want the dress.”

“Alright.” Lilly selected the dress for her reward and Iliana selected the mace. After both items materialized from projecting blue light, they traded.

Lilly’s new one-handed mace had a heavy iron head shaped in a cone with one large spike on the top. The handle was polished wood, much sturdier than the crude goblin spears they’d been using. She swung it around, testing its weight and balance. With her weapon skill, the movements appeared well practiced and natural. She wore a satisfied smile.

Iliana’s reaction to the dress was much more dramatic. She gleefully grinned as she touched the fabric, unfurling the dress from where it had been rolled up. The long sleeved dress was a pastel yellow with white accents, easily passing for an outfit a peasant girl would’ve worn straight out of medieval Europe.

Nathan turned around so Iliana could change clothes. Once she finished, he turned back. The grin around Iliana’s face made him smile too. The dress was a little long, dragging on the ground, likely due to being made to Lilly’s taller measurements. But thanks to her additional muscle growth, the dress fit her well otherwise. It hugged snugly around her waist with a brown strip of material.

“Maya has extra needles at camp which could hem it up,” Nathan offered.

“You look beautiful,” Lilly said cheerfully, finding Iliana’s smile infectious.

“Thanks,” Iliana said, spinning around with glee. Slowly her smile faded as she ran her hand over her bald head again.

Before she could dwell on it too long, Nathan prompted, “Why don’t you go ahead and learn your new Fire Shield skill so we can get a move on?”

She nodded, opening her interface where she stood on the bank and selected the skill reward. As the learning process took hold, she fell limply into the water, twitching and convulsing. Her head landed dangerously close to going underwater.

Nathan shook his head as he stepped towards her. He dragged her back up on the bank so she wouldn’t drown herself. He sighed. She was a work in progress still.

Once Iliana finished, she sat up. She was frowning, and looked like she was about to break down in tears once again.

“Here,” Lilly said, holding out Iliana’s discarded green shirt. She wrapped the shirt around the tanned woman’s head, tying it off in a complicated series of movements. She stepped back, smiling at her work. The wrapped shirt worked like a fashionable head covering as they wore in many African countries.

“Thank you,” Iliana said, touching the covering gingerly. New tears began welling up, but this time not from despair.

Nathan glanced down at his EP counter. As touching as the scene was, they needed to get moving. “Okay, let’s go back to the obelisk and loot the camp and then get out of here.”

“Obel-what?” Iliana asked.

He smiled. “Obelisk, the tall stone statue over there.” He pointed back where they fought the mini-boss.

Lilly stretched her back. “Sounds good, let’s go.”

“Iliana, you ready?” Nathan asked.

“Yes…,” she said hesitantly. “Um… thank you… for healing me I mean.”

“You’re welcome. C’mon, let’s go.”

She nodded and bent down to pick up Lilly’s discarded spear.

“Here, take this instead, it's way better quality than these fragile sticks we call spears.” He handed her the thin curved blade from the mini-boss. “Though it's up to you if you rather keep the spear.”

“Um… I guess I’ll try the sword,” she said reluctantly. She hesitantly took the weapon by the hilt. Nathan bent down and collected her discarded spear, setting it on the bank. He’d carry it back to camp as a spare when they were finished here.

The Bulgarian woman swung the scimitar around a few times and then shrugged. She looked at her dress, confused on how she should transport it.

“I guess you’ll have to carry it in your hand. We can check around the goblin’s camp for a sheath if there is one.”

“Okay,” Iliana said sadly, her rapidly changing moods turning again.

He wondered briefly if she had bipolar disorder, but dismissed the idea since those kinds of issues would’ve disqualified her from being selected for the arena. He figured her moodiness must be stressed induced from the horrors of the arena which was no surprise. Though while he was far from being a psychiatrist, he suspected she might have some self-esteem issues based on how greedily she lapped up compliments and praise to her appearance. If the Mental stat was an average of many different Mental aspects, her self-esteem stat was probably dragging her average down. He knew she had to be more intelligent than she acted given she passed the second puzzle challenge. Low self-esteem could make someone act less competent than they truly were.

One of the players in their RPG group, Jill, had a similar issue, due mainly to her abusive upbringing. By socializing and role playing with their group over the years, she'd been able to move past some of her issues and realize her self-worth. Unfortunately, the arena was neither fun nor safe like their tabletop gaming space.

As team leader, how could he best help Iliana? By encouraging her? Advising her to increase her Mental stat and hope that improved her outlook? Her burns wouldn't be the worst situation they faced. She did have the Hardened Mind skill that reduced mental damage... perhaps it would allow her to stay grounded, especially if she were to upgrade it to level two?

They found the clearing again and searched for anything of value. Most of the spears were broken, with only Iliana’s original spear still intact. That made three total they could take back to camp.

Lilly grimaced as she picked up the remains of the chief’s broken shield. The wood was useless for anything except firewood. She then gained a thoughtful look. She flipped the remains over, untying the leather straps serving as its handle and removing them. “These are still good.”

They proceeded to scavenge through the pathetic looking campsite. It was barely better than their own camp back at the trail, but smelled way worse. The sleeping furs were disgusting so Nathan passed on taking them. Lilly picked up the tribal headdress loot the mini-boss had dropped. She placed it on her head and gave a laugh. The funny hat clashed heavily with her blue mini-dress and Nathan had to chuckle too.

Then Lilly gasped. She reached up, caressing the headdress with awe.

“You’re probably feeling an equipped effect,” he guessed. “Can you check your character sheet?”

She opened her interface and read the new entry aloud.

[Guthark Chieftain’s Headdress - reduces the EP cost of Fire and Earth skills by 10%.]

She said, “Incredible. This will make my Stun and Defense Up skills more efficient to use. I would like to take this for my loot item.”

“Sure. I was about to suggest it too since you’re the only one on our team with affinities for both Fire and Earth.”

He was pleased they each got a special item. He’d taken the EP orb, Iliana the scimitar, and Lilly the headdress.

The only other valuable thing they found was a slightly rusty black pot sitting beside the fire pit. Nathan examined it inside and out finding the heavy cast iron material to be solid. He was so taking it back with them. It had a nasty fish smell but he could rinse it thoroughly in the creek before use.

Satisfied with their loot, he took one last look around. His only regret was in not finding a sheath for Iliana’s sword.

Before turning away, he walked up to the stone obelisk and studied the worn pictures carved into the side of it. The engravings were of elaborately detailed flames that seemed to move slowly even though it was rock. It was incredible. Nathan wondered if Tygerion the Maker assigned an A.I. to design it or if he’d done it himself. He reached out and touched the depiction.

As he felt the stone, he was startled as his interface screen projected above his wrist, all on its own. It had never done that before. He read the text.

[Congratulations Player! You have discovered an Obelisk of Fire! The first team of players to discover each Obelisk will earn a reward for their entire species group in the zone. There is one hidden Obelisk for each Element in every zone.]

[+1 Fire affinity for participating in the discovery.]

[+1 Fire affinity for every player in Species Group-D in starter zone 14.]

His jaw was hanging open. He couldn’t believe it. They just straight up gave him +2 Fire affinity? Every other human player got a +1 reward too? Freaking awesome!

He suddenly clutched at his chest as his heart began palpating erratically. Ugh... no pain no gain.

Once recovered, he re-opened his interface. He switched over to his character sheet, and sure enough, he now had Fire 4 affinity instead of 2. So that’s another way he could increase his affinities. If another species had found the obelisk first then the humans would’ve lost out on the reward. Exploring was now much more important to winning the game than he’d originally thought. There were still four more obelisks in their zone and no telling what other secrets hiding in the mess of thick plants and forested trees. He hoped the other statues hadn’t been found yet.

“Did either of you ladies just get a boost to your Fire affinity?”

Lilly opened her character sheet while Iliana continued to touch her burnt hair oblivious to his question. Lilly clutched at her chest and sat down, breathing heavily as the affinity increase made changes to her. Once she looked normal again, she responded. “Yes, my Fire affinity went from 2 up to 4 now. We also got a reward for everyone else!”

Nathan smiled. “Yep, we discovered the secret area.”

Lilly nodded, though he didn’t think she caught his reference. “My max EP increased by 2 from the affinity boost as well.”

He opened his character screen and confirmed his EPs had increased as well. He now boasted an EP maximum of 42, meaning he would gain 21 EPs between attacks now. “Our base Fire resistance goes up by 5% for every point in the affinity as well. So I have 20% Fire resistance now.”

“Fire resistance?” Iliana said, perking up at the term. “What does that mean exactly?”

“It reduces the damage you take from Fire. That’s what your new activated skill does too,” he said. He was glad for it too; elemental damage was scary dangerous. Iliana hadn’t even been struck with the flaming sword directly yet had taken elemental damage. He did a quick calculation, finding that with her new positive 1 Fire affinity and her Fire Shield skill activated, she now only had -10% Fire penalty instead of -35% as before. He considered the other benefits to her too. If she could bump her Fire affinity up by one more, she’d be able to learn both Fire and Metal skills, which was crazy considering they were the two most offensively oriented elements. If she could grab one of those speed Fire skills, their team damage dealer had the potential to become a serious killer.

He noticed Iliana had finally opened her interface screen, breathing deeply as she clutched her chest. Once it finished, she maintained an unusually intense expression while she read over her character sheet. Good. She needed to get more serious about the game mechanics.

Nathan pocketed three small rocks he found; ammunition to trigger his Snare skill. He then studied his own character sheet, debating if he should spend any of his 32.5 NPs. He was now eligible to upgrade Attack Up to level two thanks to his Fire affinity increase. The buff skill had its downsides, but its most notable use was in helping him penetrate the thick hide of the tier 2 bear which was critically important. Plus, it was cheap to upgrade, only costing 15 NPs. He’d been saving for Pole Weapons which cost 40 NPs, but the bargain value of Attack Up II was worth it.

He went ahead and selected the upgrade. He suffered through the spasms of learning, cursing Tygerion the entire time. Once the pain was over, he opened his character sheet. The upgrade left him with 17.5 NPs and increased his Physical by 1 bringing him to 136. Level two of the buff skill boosted the bonus damage of his next attack to 35%. It also became more efficient to use, costing only 13 EPs. The fact the higher level skills cost less EPs to use was awesome. It meant that once he had high level skills, he’d be able to use them repeatedly before running dry. Before he closed his interface, he checked the requirements for skill level three, seeing they were substantially steeper: 150 NPs, 132 Physical, and Fire 6.

Having had enough adventure, they collectively hauled back to their camp the pot, spears, and anything else of potential use, such as discarded skinny jeans.

Splashing as he led, Nathan daydreamed of the moment he would finally satiate his gnawing hunger, of using the cast iron pot to boil the crawfish in mass, even adding the minty herb he’d found earlier for added flare. His stomach growled loudly in response to his thoughts. There was a price for power, and stat gains demanded calories. Luckily, they had a couple hundred crawfish. He could already imagine the smiles on everyone’s faces as they savored the properly cooked meal.

As they came into sight of their campsite fire, Nathan spied a large group of players conversing around it. The tension left his shoulders at knowing the other foraging group must be safely back already.

As he drew closer and could make out faces, he pulled up short. Who the heck are these people?

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A note from Gilgilad7
Spoiler: Nathan's Character Sheet

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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