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“How many of your players survived yesterday?” a Russian accented man addressed Maya. She was flanked by her team of Asahi and Angelo as they faced the new group beside the fire pit. Including the speaker, Nathan counted four new players. The man was speaking in Spanish, but with the Language skill it might as well have been English.

The place seemed crowded, even considering Harrison’s group of three weren’t actually back yet. Zhang and Johanna were both sleeping next to a tree higher up on the path, still recovering from their injuries.

“Eleven… we lost one in last night’s big fight, and one right before,” Maya replied morosely. There was a long pause as everyone digested her statement.

When Maya spotted Nathan and his team returning from the creek, her expression brightened. As her eyes landed on Iliana’s head covering and new dress, her lips shifted to her mischievous grin. He could tell she was about to attempt saying something clever. Nathan winced, worried that wasn’t the reaction Iliana needed.

“We had an incident,” Nathan spoke hastily, cutting off any joke attempt.

Maya’s smile dropped as her expression grew serious. “What happened?”

He glanced at the recovering Bulgarian woman. Iliana fingered her head covering, tears forming in her eyes.

“Well,” Nathan said, thinking how best to explain. “We fought a goblin mini-boss who had a flaming sword. Iliana lost a bit of hair, but Lilly is going to give her a pretty sweet haircut.”

Maya glanced down at the scimitar in Iliana’s hand and nodded, taking in the other woman’s mood. “Oh, wow. Hey, Iliana… I’ll get my hair cut too, that way we can match.”

Nathan smiled at the Indian woman in appreciation. Judging by the tangled mess that hung to her shoulders, it hadn’t been a high priority during their survival so far.

Iliana sniffled once then blanched. She peered at Maya with horror. “You can’t! Your hair... I… you can’t do it… please don’t. I’ll die if you do!”

Maya held her hands up reassuringly. “I want to, okay? My hair isn’t practical. I mean, dying from a goblin yanking it would be beyond embarrassing, right?” She illustrated by grabbing a section of her loose hair and pulling her own head down, making a goofy face as she did.

Nathan and Lilly laughed, and even Iliana gave a weak smile. The Bulgarin woman wiped her nose and then her eyes lit up. “Oh,I know! I can braid yours… if you want.”

“You can?” Maya asked, sounding surprised. Her hand reflexively began brushing a tangle out of hair.

“Sure, it’s easy,” Iliana said, her confidence gaining.

“My hair clips disappeared when I arrived,” Maya lamented, now idly examining the ends of her hand strands. “Maybe they counted as a weapon, or I might pick a lock or something, so our jailers confiscated them. Anyway, thanks Iliana, I’ve never had a braid before. That would be really nice, I think.”

“Okay, let’s do it now!” Iliana’s depression was seemingly forgotten as she attacked the other woman’s hair before she had a chance to respond. Maya’s shocked expression was so amusing it made Nathan’s entire day.

While fending off the Bulgarian woman, Maya managed to check her wristband. “Wait. Hold on, Iliana…” She managed to shake off the more muscular woman with a twist, then turned to announce to the group, “Monster attack incoming in the next minute, get ready everyone.”

The statement sobered the crowd, and the players lined up facing both directions on the trail under Maya’s directions, keeping their injured players between the two fronts. The new players had no trouble joining ranks, obviously having done similar before.

Shortly after, a monster screech caught the entire group of players’ attention. Eight beavers ran down from the opposite hill one at a time.

Having been facing the other direction, Nathan ran to the side with the fighting, but there were so many players doing the same they got in each other’s way. It made an easy battle far harder than it should’ve been. Nathan finally decided to hang back, letting others deal with the critters since he’d only add to the mayhem.

After the one-sided battle was finished, the lack of a new notification on his wristband meant he hadn’t been given participation credit or any NP rewards. The mob of players perfectly illustrated why having smaller teams was better for rewards.

But why were they seeing so many beavers? He could only conclude the beavers represented filler fights. They allowed the players to farm NPs, and gave them a chance to rest or stretch between the harder fights. Though not knowing if the next battle would feature tier 0 beavers or tier 2 bears, it forced them to stay hyper alert throughout the day which was mentally draining.

The players began regrouping by the fire. Technically, there were now two fire pits. He surmised Maya’s guard group had built a second fire from scratch in order to gain the NP reward achievement for those who hadn’t received it yet. He now assumed Asahi had unlocked the Ignite skill too.

Nathan lifted the heavy cast iron pot and placed it next to the active fire pit. The action caught most of the players attention. “Found this baby. Who wants crawfish soup?”

He was immediately rewarded with a chorus of cheering.

“Oh yeah, we did one more thing...,” Nathan said, enjoying bragging about their spoils of war. “Have you checked your Fire affinity recently?”

“That was you?” the Russian accented man asked. “My Fire affinity went up by 1.”

“How? Explain,” Maya demanded from her sitting position on the ground. Iliana had begun weaving the woman’s hair into a braid from behind. As usual, any game related phenomena always received Maya’s undivided attention, even if she was in the process of a makeover.

Nathan recounted their encounter at the Fire Obelisk and the rewards they received. Maya asked several questions, making sure he left nothing out.

Maya relented her interrogation once she drained him dry of info. With the room for new conversation opened, Asahi began formally introducing Nathan and his team to the newbies. Once he’d finished, the new players began introducing themselves in kind.

The four players had been communicating with each other in Spanish. Two of them spoke it naturally while the other two through the Language skill. Language I gave access to five different languages so it made sense other groups would naturally use a shared language other than English.

Alexander was the Russian accented man and appeared to be their leader. He was in his mid-twenties, sporting scruffy facial hair looking about two weeks old, obviously having not shaved well before the trials even began. He was a Metal Prime from Russia, having never been outside his country before. He was a freelance writer for various news websites.

As for his clothing, he wore dirty black pajama bottoms with no shirt or footwear, though Nathan’s eyes were drawn to the armored leather skirt he wore outside his pajama pants. They had the look of armor lifted straight out of Gladiator. But if he was being honest, the skirt didn’t look nearly as cool on the man, at least with the pajamas underneath. Alexander carried a wooden spear and had a few Earth and Metal aligned defensive skills making up his core build.

Gabriel, the second player introduced, was from Mexico. He was tall and extremely well built with broad shoulders. He wore a green soccer jersey that was a size too small with equally too tight black shorts. The twenty year old Fire Prime held a goblin spear in one hand and a guthark steel knife in the other.

Nathan was impressed with Gabriel’s list of skills since they held a lot of synergy. Quick Step II permanently boosted his acceleration and movement speed, Quick Reflex I gave him the reflexes to match, and an activated skill named Haste I sped up time for him. More specifically, it slowed the passage of time relative to Gabriel by 15% for eight seconds, which was kind of nuts in the overpowered sense. Between these three Fire skills, Alexander bragged that the Mexican man was lightning fast and their best fighter.

Matias was the other natural spanish speaker; a dark brownish skinned teenager from Peru wearing a striped tank top, dirty jeans, and work boots. He maintained an unfocused expression as he stared upwards at the sky, allowing the others to introduce him. He was a Wood Prime and Alexander admitted he wasn’t sure about the man’s skills or stats. Matias had gone into a state of shock after their battle the night before and refused to speak more than a single word when asked a question. Matias notably carried no weapon.

The last member of their group was Ava, a slightly overweight teenage girl from Scotland who held a spear in trembling hands. The Water Prime had bleached blonde hair with red roots beginning to show. Her light blue golf shirt, blue jeans, and running shoes were stained red with dried blood. Nathan was about to ask about her skills but was interrupted by Alexander who had begun recounting their story.

“We were fourteen players yesterday. We were doing well, winning all the battles and gaining NPs. But as it became dark, a big group of the pig men attacked and some of our players panicked. This caused others to panic too. Only half of us stayed and fought to the end, and we still lost a couple in the process. Only five of us survived. The others who ran are dead, easy pickings for the monsters who chased them. Our fifth survivor, the Egyptian player Seth, died this morning to a tier 2 bear monster, saving our lives in the process.”

Nathan’s stomach was sick at the grisly news. They lost ten players? In comparison, Nathan’s own group had fared way better, even with the loss of David and Maria. “Did you search for the ones who ran away?”

“We didn’t need to,” Alexander replied, his face becoming even grimmer. “Ava’s Maps skill has verified they are no longer in the zone... which can mean only one thing...”

Ava spoke up in English, her meek voice carrying a distinct Scottish accent. “With only five of us left, we knew we couldn’t fight off ‘nother massive attack. We looked around like, what kin ye do? So we hiked this morning to meet ya. My Maps I skill shows me all the human players in the zone. We are on the map, and ya are on it. The others who ran away... aren’t.” She looked down at her feet and shuffled them once before looking back up, her eyes wet. “Here, I’ll show ya.”

She activated her wristband and selected a map tab only she possessed. A two dimensional projection about ten inches wide appeared vertically above her wrist’s interface. She wrinkled her forehead in concentration and the map grew to five feet across. The display was a symmetrical shape with a convex curve on the bottom and a slightly shorter concave curve on the top. There was no detail on the map except for dots. The most numerous dots were blue and appeared concentrated in the bottom left corner along with one red dot. A big black dot sat in the center.

“This is our starter zone 14,” Ava explained. “The Guide said there are several hundred human players per zone depending on how many passed the preliminaries.”

Nathan now recognized what he was seeing. The curve on the bottom was the edge of the world. He recalled from their earlier discussion the arena was circular with sixteen starter zones lining the edges. So the bottom, or South, of this map was the arena world’s edge. The sides of the map must be the borders to adjacent starter zones, while the top, or North, was the border to the next interior zone of harder difficulty.

“The little blue dots are human players.” She pointed to the Southwest corner of the map. “That was how we found ya. This camp was the closest group of dots to us.”

Nathan could see the blue dots were separated into seven different clusters in the Southwest corner. So the human groups weren’t too far from each other. There were also a few other smaller groups of blue dots scattered around in-between the bigger clusters. Stragglers, most likely.

“This is us,” she said as she pointed specifically at one of the clusters further North than the others in their corner. She then pointed at the big black dot in the center and said, “I think this is the dungeon for our zone but I’m not sure.” She pointed to a large red dot next to their group. “This appeared about an hour or so ago. I think it’s the Fire statue ya found.”

Maya spoke up, “What is the scale of this map? How far are these dot clusters from each other?”

“We faced six battles during our hike here,” Alexander said. “So judging by that, about two and a half hours total walking time when subtracting time for our rest stops. We started by traveling East over hilly grassy fields for two hours till we found this trail along with a field of ripe melons. We ate as much as we could. It took another thirty minutes hiking South on the trail through the forest to reach here. So based on how far your group was on the map, the next group of players is further South about another two hour hike.”

Nathan tried his best to memorize the map and the location of the dots. If the black dot in the center truly was their dungeon goal for phase one, it would take them over half a day of fast hiking to reach it, not even counting time for battles. They’d need to make sure they began the journey with plenty of time to spare before their five day time limit was up. Considering they were only in the middle of day two, they still had some time to deal with other immediate concerns, but they couldn’t lose focus on their ultimate goal.

He wondered about the alien players in the arena. He hadn’t been entirely sure if the different species were isolated to their own zones or if they were spread out in every zone. The statements provided by the Guide and his own interface messages had been somewhat ambiguous. As the aliens had been out of sight, they’d been mostly out of mind too.

“So the humans in our zone started somewhat together,” he said, making his observations known. “The rest of the map is either wide open for us, or it's filled with the other alien players.”

“Looks like the latter,” Maya said. “The day one message specifically said ‘All species in your starter zone who fail to meet the objective within the time limit will be terminated.’ Note the wording, ‘all species.’ We should assume there is at least more than one species in our zone 14.”

“We’ve only seen humans,” Alexander said. “Shouldn’t we have met an alien by now?”

“Not necessarily,” Maya said. “At first, it did seem statistically odd we’ve only met human players if the different species shared the same zones. But if each species started in their own corner of territory within the zone, that would explain why we haven’t made first contact yet. Look at the map, if you divide our zone into a nine square grid, we would fit perfectly in the bottom left square. With the dungeon in the center square, that leaves seven other squares open for seven other species.”

Nathan nodded along with her illustration. Now he couldn’t see anything other than nine distinct sections on the map. “That’s a great point. I’ll also add that the Fire obelisk message made it sound like finding the statues was a competition between the different species in our zone.”

Asahi stepped forward. “Indeed, all signs seem to suggest we share this zone with competitors. With our group being the furthest North of the human groups, we will likely be the first to encounter enemies either by accident or intention. Engaging the enemy early would be to our advantage. We would have the element of surprise, and the arena masters would certainly recognize our tactics by awarding new skills and NPs. Not to mention the weapons, armor, and equipment we could potentially acquire from the enemy.”

Angelo scoffed at his teammate, “Why don’t we save ourselves the trouble and commit suicide instead?”

Lilly stepped forward, her large form imposing, “Go right ahead if it’ll make you feel better. But we need to be stronger to get ahead. It's the only way we can protect ourselves.”

Suddenly, the commotion of every voice trying to speak at once prevented Nathan from understanding anyone. Tempers flared as the discussion devolved into shouting. It seemed the fear and tension of their ongoing survival had reached a breaking point.

Nathan sighed before pulling Gabriel, the large Fire Prime, to the side. He gestured at the two hills on either side of them. “Hey, which way on the trail did you guys come?”

“That way,” Gabriel said as he pointed towards the hill on the same side of the creek with the fire pit.

Nathan took a moment to orient the map to their surroundings. So the trail was going roughly North to South and they’d built their fire on the North side of the creek. The yams, nuts, and yellow flower roots were all on the South trail. The creek flowed from East to West.

Gabriel turned his attention back to the argument while Nathan stepped away from everyone to gain a moment’s peace.

He felt Iliana grab his arm in an iron grip, tugging him towards the fire pit. She said, “Hey, forget this. Let’s cook some lobster fish! I’m starving!”

Nathan’s stomach grumbled. He glanced once more at the pointless discussion. “Alright, yeah, let’s get the water boiling while we wait for things to calm down.”

Iliana grinned from ear to ear and raced over to the bag of crawfish. Braiding Maya’s hair had placed her in a perky mood. Maya, for her part, was practically glowing from her new hairstyle too. Even while trying to shout at the others for order, she kept touching her new braid without seeming to notice.

It took some time for the black pot to begin simmering with all the crawfish and the minty herbs inside. Iliana enthusiastically stirred the contents with a stick as their catch began to cook.

Nathan left it to her while he went to answer nature’s call. Remembering they needed to go in pairs, he recruited Angelo to keep watch for him. The older man had been sitting out of the argument too, despite having been the one to start it in the first place.

Together they went to a suitable location at the top of the hill. Nathan went first, quickly finishing up his business. Then he kept watch on the trail while he waited for Angelo to take his turn.

And then he waited... and waited… and waited.

Nathan kept checking his EP counter, annoyed at how long it was taking the New Yorker. He kept calling out to him to hurry, and Angelo kept assuring him he was almost done. They’d already had the same conversation five times by this point. Nathan gritted his teeth as he became more and more anxious about the upcoming attack. He could already see the other active players were positioning around the fire pit, weapons ready. Maya was now pointing up the hill in Nathan’s direction, yelling something angrily at the others.

He glanced once more at the underbrush Angelo was squatting behind. The man was taking longer than considered reasonable by any metric. Should he leave him? Nathan’s EP counter ticked up to 37, meaning the attack was imminent.

“Angelo, you’re freaking done. Now! I don’t care whatever state you’re in. Get your spear ready.”

“Alright, alright, I’m done,” the man said, stumbling out of the brush while pulling his pants back up.

A screech sounded from below. Nathan spun towards the direction of the creek. A beaver jumped out of the vegetation, landing on the trail halfway between Nathan and the other players down by the fire pit. That was odd. The beavers never jumped into the middle of the group before. Attack from two directions… sure. But from the middle? That had never happened.

The players by the fire pit were the same distance from it as Nathan, except for two notable exceptions; the sleeping forms of Zhang and Johanna. The recovering players were lying just a couple yards below the beaver on the trail. He blanched. Why hadn’t the other players grouped up around them? Had their argument distracted them? Was that why Maya had been yelling just now? He’d have some harsh words for the others after this, although he sheepishly knew he was partially responsible too. Thanks a lot, Angelo.

“Zhang! Johanna!” Nathan yelled out, trying to warn and wake the vulnerable players.

Nathan sprinted down the hill, covering the distance quickly thanks to the decline. The beaver facing Zhang turned to meet the charging madman running towards it. Without slowing, Nathan raised his spear as the beaver began its spring. As if an unseen entity was guiding him, his Pole Weapons skill informed him of the optimal angle to swing. As soon as the beaver left the ground it was met with Nathan’s spear striking the right side of its head with a loud snap.

Another screech was followed by a second beaver. It leapt from the underbrush a few yards on the other side of Zhang, right in Nathan’s path. He was still running full speed so he let his momentum continue to the new target as he leapt over the sleeping man. The skill helped guide his spear out of the backswing so his grip and balance were set up for the next motion. The spear flowed, hitting the new beaver on the left side of its head with a crack.

Another screech and a third beaver appeared before him as he was still following through with his previous strike. Without hesitation, he pulled his spear back and thrust as his feet glided him forward. The creature didn’t have time to leap before Nathan skewered it clean through its body causing immediate pixelation. The entire sequence of events took mere seconds.

Then he ran straight into Alexander who had been charging up the hill. They both went down in a crashing heap.

“Ow,” Alexander grunted from beside him on the ground.

Nathan pulled himself up to a sitting position, panting for breath. “Uh, sorry man.”

“No problem,” Alexander said, gaining his feet while he spit out blood from a busted lip. “You just one-hit killed all three!”

The Russian man outstretched his hand to Nathan who took it, allowing himself to be hauled up.

Nathan grinned broadly, but a growl from behind caused him to turn around. Three wolves had entered the trail, standing side by side between him and the sleeping forms. Neither injured player had woken up from the commotion yet. One wolf was facing Nathan while the other two turned to eye the helpless prey on the ground. The wolves were covered in black fur and the one staring down Nathan snarled, revealing large fangs. Its eyes were unnaturally red and the sight caused him to involuntarily shudder.

Angelo, holding his pants up with one hand at the top of the hill, had unfortunately stopped following when he assumed the threat was over. Honestly, they both should’ve known better. By now the arena never sent only three beavers at a time, their raids had scaled up to eight or more. And multiple monster type attacks like this one tended to be even tougher.

“Zhang! Johanna!” he shouted again as he pulled a small rock from his pocket, one of the three he pocketed earlier. His hand trembled as he readied his throw. If he missed, someone was likely to die.

Snare!” he cried, imbuing the rock with his Wood energy as he whipped his arm forward. The green glowy orb zipped towards the leftmost wolf nearing Johanna. Even before it struck the target’s back, the middle wolf dashed towards Nathan. Nathan’s eyes widened, but relief washed over him as a flash of green informed him his rock had flown true. But the feeling didn’t last. Besides the threat of the wolf attacking himself, there was still the third wolf closing in on Zhang. And he only had time to deal with one of the two.

“Cover me,” he shouted back at Alexander or whoever else might be there.

Instead of readying his spear to defend against the incoming wolf, he pulled out a second rock. His hand shook even more, but he had to have faith someone else would have his back. He had enough EPs for one more skill. “Snare!” he shouted as he launched the rock in a side arm throw towards the wolf nearing Zhang.

“Oof,” escaped Nathan’s lips as a force struck him, driving the wind from his stomach. A sharp pain shot through his side, the world flipped upside down, and then everything went black.

***

When he opened his eyes, he could register activity happening around him but was too disoriented to make sense of it. He lost track of time until he heard someone calling his name.

“Nathan. Nathan. Are you alright, Nathan?”

He opened his eyes. Maya’s dark brown eyes gazed down at him with concern. His head was throbbing with pain, and the sunlight was way too bright. Weakly, he muttered, “…What?”

“What?” she mimicked in exasperation. “You nearly got killed is what. I stabbed the wolf that clobbered you. That’s at least two you owe me now. Alexander and Angelo finished off the two you cast plant spells on. Nice job by the way, I had no idea you had ranged magic.”

Someone muttered something behind her and she snapped at them, “I know, I know, it was energy channelled through a thrown rock... semantics.” She turned back to Nathan. “The wolves couldn’t move their legs, they were basically helpless.”

He was having trouble keeping his eyes open and wanted to go back to sleep. “Ugh, everyshing fushy.”

“Stay awake, you probably have a concussion. You smacked your head hard on a stone.”

“Joshanna? Shang?”

“They’re fine. Johanna has awoken but Zhang is still sleeping.”

For some reason, Maya gasped and spoke quickly to someone behind her. “Oh my God, look at the symbol on his collar...”

Maya continued discussing some symbol but he didn’t understand the nonsensical conversation. He glanced over to the side, noticing the stone Maya had indicated. It was Mr. Rock. What were the chances?

Nathan chuckled, though it came out weakly. His first weapon must’ve been upset at being abandoned. He glanced back at Maya, blinking until his eyes refocused. She appeared concerned. Probably because he was randomly laughing at a rock. He laughed again because that was hilarious.

He realized she was talking and he focused on her words mid-sentence. “...symbol on your collar, we think you’ve been debuffed by the wolf...”

His concentration waned and he wasn’t sure what she was saying. He couldn’t think with these freaking cotton balls in his head. Why not heal himself? He touched his head and said, “Fihst slaid.” Nothing happened.

He only caught partial phrases being spoken around him. “...needs more EP... energy to cast...”

He tried to answer. “Cast it? It ishn’t magich. It’s science-sh magich.”

Maya was speaking and he focused on her again. “...slurring your words and acting delirious. We think you’ve been poisoned...”

Huh. He must indeed be delirious because he thought she said ‘poisoned.’

A new person leaned down next to him. Her skin was really white, like vampire white.

“I’ll First Aid him and see if that removes the symbol,” the vampire said. Strangely, it had a French accent. A French vampire? he scoffed. Everyone knows vampires are from Transylvania. Except for glittery ones.

A cascade of various colors appeared before him, and he relaxed as he let the pleasantness wash over him. Then his mind seemed to snap back into focus.

“Wow, that’s a lot better,” he said, looking up at Emma with newfound clarity. Apparently Harrison’s foraging team had returned. He tried to sit up, but immediately began gagging on liquid pooling in his throat. He couldn’t breath. He turned his head, sputtering and coughing, expelling the contents. All the gathered players jumped back in either surprise or disgust.

“Nathan,” Maya stated calmly, crouching beside him. “You’re coughing up blood. We think it's related to the blue symbol of a skull and crossbones on your collar. We need to know what it means, so please look at your character sheet and read your status effects.”

What the…

He weakly raised his arm and opened his interface, selecting Status Effects. He frowned at how slow his arm seemed to move. He began to read.

[Current Status Effects: First Aid I, Banewolf Poison.]

*[First Aid I - improve natural recovery rates by 3x for six hours.]

*[Banewolf Poison (Water) - poison debuff lasting one hour. Causes 50% slower reactions. Damages living tissue if not removed, proving fatal if allowed the full hour duration. Natural recovery bonuses and resistances will lessen harmful effects and speed up natural removal of poison.]

Nathan coughed more blood into his gloved left hand.

“Nathan, what does it say?” Maya asked, frustration evident in her voice. She couldn’t see his screen from her angle. “What does the symbol mean?”

“Here.” He turned the screen so she could read it herself.

“Bloody Hell,” she swore after reading. “Those banewolves must have poisonous claws. It raked you across your side. You were either really brave or really stupid, leaving yourself open like that. The wound itself wasn’t too bad since it was healed instantly by First Aid, as was your concussion. But unfortunately the skill didn’t remove the poison status effect.”

Nathan nodded, the movement causing Maya’s form to spin in his vision. He took a deep breath. “Looks like it will go away on its own. I have 3x recovery from First Aid, and 1.5x from my Rapid Recovery skill. So if they stack together, I have 4.5x recovery bonuses. I’ve got 10% Water resistance too.”

Maya nodded. “So the poison effect will last twelve minutes with both recovery effects active and if your 10% Water resistance translates directly into reduced time. That’s assuming everything stacks. If they don’t, then we can assume the highest recovery ability of 3x will take precedence, meaning you’ll lose the debuff in twenty minutes. This is actually a brilliant opportunity to measure how the mechanics work.”

Asahi knelt down on Nathan’s other side and held out his hands to Nathan’s chest.

“Asahi, wait,” Maya said to the uniformed soldier. “If you use your Injury Stabilize now, it might mess up our testing of his recovery speed and we won’t learn if his effects stack. We’ll test Injury Stabilize next time someone is debuffed to see what happens.”

“Hai.” Asahi nodded and stepped back. “Sorry, Nathan-san. While harsh, Maya-san makes a valid point. Understanding our abilities is the key to using them properly.”

“Uh,” Nathan said. The potential for death mentioned in the debuff’s description wasn’t filling him with confidence. But despite his reluctance, he decided they were right. Lives could be saved if they knew the underlying mechanics behind their healing abilities. “Alright,” he sighed. “Use me as a guinea pig.”

“Brilliant!” she said, clasping her hands together like a mad scientist.

Nathan decided he was vastly less enthused by the ideal experimenting conditions than she seemed to be. As his view of the woman slowly began to spin, he laid his head back down. The poison’s debuff to his reaction speed made even small movements more difficult than they should’ve been.

“Sorry,” Maya said softly. She sounded genuine this time which oddly made him feel better about the whole thing.

He took a few deep breaths. His stomach ached and his body burned internally in random places. He didn’t know if it was a typical sensation from being poisoned or not, seeing as how he’d never been poisoned before. The arena was great for new and fun experiences like that.

Once a wave of nausea passed him by, he rolled his head towards Emma. “Thanks for healing my head. How did your team do?”

“We survived,” she said, shaking her head. “We nearly died from a bear. Thankfully Jackson blinded it and Harrison crushed its head. They’re adding our gathered yams and nuts to your crawfish soup right now.”

“Awesome.” He strained to give her a smile, but gave up. Besides, the poison was spoiling his appetite despite his need for nourishment.

Emma turned to the other players crowding the trail. “Pardon me, I need to refresh First Aid on Zhang.”

The players moved out of her way as she walked up the hill towards the sleeping man.

“Emma, wait,” Nathan called out.

She glanced back, arching an eyebrow.

“These gloves will help.” He held his hands up to show her.

“How so?” She eyed the gloves with disgust as if he was offering her a dead rat. He glanced down, realizing why. Blood and gore coated the gloves, some of which probably really was from a dead rat. His own stomach twisted in revulsion. Now he had a second reason for wanting to get them away from himself as fast as possible.

He plowed on, “They will increase your max EPs by 5 when you wear them. Put them on and you should be able to use your Advanced Healing skill.”

Emma’s expression instantly transformed. “Is this true, Nathan? I can use my skill?”

“As best I know. It’s possible the gloves are keyed only to me or something, that’s common enough in games. But there’s nothing like that mentioned in the description. Here...”

He began to take off the gloves, struggling due to his poisoned reaction speed and the slipperiness of the blood. Once they were removed, the energy connection he had with them suddenly snapped off, as best as he could describe it. He made a mental note to not unequip items like this in the middle of a fight, it could prove distracting. He began wiping them off on a nearby plant, but it did little good.

Emma snatched the gloves, no longer caring about the bodily fluids on them. Once equipped, she gasped, feeling the new energy source connecting with her body. Then she smiled broadly, a rare sight for the woman. She glanced at her wristband. “Not enough EPs. I can barely wait to recover to 40.”

While her energy regenerated, the players dispersed, most heading to the fire pit to try the crawfish and yam soup. Nathan was envious, but he knew he couldn’t eat in his current condition while he recovered from the poison debuff. He continued to lie on the dirt trail.

After some time passed while he stared up at the tree tops, a great weight suddenly lifted from his body. He checked his wristband, noting his reaction speed had normalized and the skull debuff symbol had disappeared.

He smiled. Then he had to turn his head as he coughed up more blood. The internal damage was still there of course.

He glanced at Maya by the fire and gave her thumbs up that he’d recovered. She glanced at her EP counter and started calculating the time to determine how long he was afflicted with the debuff.

He looked at his own wristband, seeing he had 16 EPs. He tried to do the calculation himself, but it was tough while still feeling like crap. He remembered he had 37 EPs at the start of the battle, and he’d used two Snares costing 16 each, leaving him with 5 EPs remaining. At 4.5x bonus recovery and his 10% Water resistance, the poison should’ve only lasted 12 minutes. But that wasn’t all he had to consider. He hadn’t been given First Aid right away, which skewed the poison timer longer. Additionally, he took off his gloves mid-way through, changing his EP regen rate he was using to keep time.

He sighed, thoroughly confused. He hated math. He really needed to grab more Mental stats when he had the chance. He was sure Maya was accurately keeping track.

He decided his best guess was that, yes, his Rapid Recovery skill, First Aid buff, and 10% Water Resistance all stacked together. That was good news.

Once he had 20 EPs, he used First Aid to finish healing off the lingering damage the poison had inflicted. He immediately noticed the difference. Breathing became easier and the weird pain in his stomach disappeared. He no longer felt nauseous.

He stood up, pleased by his restored reaction speed. He did a series of stretches as if he was warming up for a track race. He was more limber than he remembered, realizing the stat gains were having a profound impact on his body.

He checked his interface, discovering he’d gained 3 NPs from the fight with the three tier 1 wolves and three tier 0 beavers after it was split between four participants. He also received 2 NPs as an achievement for recovering from his first debuff. Unlike most achievement based NP rewards, he wasn’t going to recommend intentionally going after the reward to the others given it required being clawed by a banewolf. Totally not worth 2 NPs.

He looked around the camp, noticing again the rock he’d hit his head against. He blinked in surprise... that wasn’t Mr. Rock. How had he been so confused? Relief flooded through him. It had all been a case of mistaken identity while he was concussed. He soon spotted the actual Mr. Rock by a tree where he last left him. Sorry for doubting you little buddy.

Once he was ready, he joined the others as they were eating the soup. Someone had solved the problem of no bowls and utensils by tipping over the cooking pot and letting the water drain out. Nathan was irritated, knowing lots of the nutrients and flavor had been wasted in the dumped liquid. He called out, “Hey, who dumped the soup?”

Iliana was stuffing a crawfish in her mouth as she talked around her chewing. “Mmm, I’m sorry. Maya already yelled at me though.”

Nathan glanced at Maya. “I didn’t yell... just instructed,” she said defensively. As Iliana turned back to eating, a smirking Maya whispered to Nathan, “But now it won’t happen again, will it?”

“Remind me to never have you as a drill sergeant.” He grabbed a cooked yam and bit in. It was the best tasting thing he’d eaten since the nutty paste in the prelims.

“Since when do soldiers get to pick their sergeants?” She grinned. “Now get down and give me twenty.”

He intentionally saluted with the wrong hand though she didn’t see. She was looking at her wristband. Her expression became serious in an instant. She raised her voice for everyone to hear.

“Enemy attack in two minutes. I want all players, even sleeping ones, grouped together for attacks from now on. Same goes for teams when they’re away from camp, they should stay together. No more idiotic formations that cause poison wolves to spawn on our injured.”

At the scheduled time, annoying shrieks heralded an army of nine beavers, attacking from both directions on the trail. The players crushed them, but Nathan only gained 1 NP with the rewards split so many different ways, increasing his total to 23.5.

Seeing the beavers again reminded him of the experiment he’d conceived earlier. “Hey everyone, help me capture one of the beavers next time. I want to see if I can remove its horns before it dies.”

“Good idea,” Lilly said, nodding her head. “I’ll help.”

“We randomly had a horn drop yesterday,” Alexander said. “Was very sharp, very useful. Unfortunately, one of our players who fled in last night’s battle lost it when they died. I will help you too.”

Nathan nodded, appreciating the pledge of support.

After the battle, Emma’s EPs had neared 40. The players gathered around Zhang and Johanna, intent on watching the miracle skill in action.

“Johanna-san first, please,” Asahi requested. “She has been unwell the longest; since yesterday afternoon.”

Nathan thought Asahi might be showing a bit of favoritism for the Swedish woman since she was in their original prelim group, but as long as both players were healed it didn’t make much difference to him in which order it happened.

Emma shrugged, and placed her gloved hands on Johanna. She softly spoke, “Guérison.”

A kaleidoscope of various shades of blue colors released from the point of contact with Johanna’s stomach. From his close proximity, warmth washed over Nathan. Pleasant emotions rose to the surface of his consciousness. The tension in his shoulders and jaw relaxed as he watched the blue energy spiral outward. Yet only a fraction of the energy even reached him, the vast majority seeped into the sleeping woman through her pores and mouth. As the injured woman breathed in, she inhaled the glowing energy. As the blue light faded, Johanna opened her eyes. She wore the most pleased smile he’d seen on anyone since being in the arena.

A blue plus sign symbol appeared on the Swedish player’s collar, replacing the white plus symbol already there. Since it wasn’t in an addition, it signified the two skills didn’t stack with each other, with Advanced Healing overwriting the weaker First Aid’s recovery effect.

Once finished, Emma collapsed to the ground. Harrison rushed to her side, checking to ensure she was still breathing.

“I’m okay,” the healer said weakly, sitting up and clutching her forehead. “Expending so much energy so quickly, it took everything out of me.”

While Harrison rubbed the middle of Emma’s back with his palm, Asahi knelt to the other side of the fully awakened Johanna, clasping her hand. “Johanna-san, how do you feel?”

“Wonderful,” she said in awe. She touched her stomach where she’d received her original injuries. “I feel like I took a bath in a hot spring while having my body massaged, all while listening to my favorite music and eating chocolate.” She had a strange wistful look on her face.

Asahi, who had been leaning over her, looked mildly embarrassed. Nathan glanced at Maya and they shared a look of amusement with each other.

Nathan was genuinely impressed with Emma’s Advanced Healing skill. It healed ‘moderate’ injuries instantly and also gave 6x recovery speed for twelve hours meaning it only needed to be refreshed twice a day. It would also work twice as effectively against the banewolves’ poison debuff than First Aid. Johanna’s injury had originally been quite serious, fatal even, so Emma’s healing skill shouldn’t have been able to heal her instantly. But Johanna’s recovery from the +2 Physical stat gain the day before had helped tremendously, if not completely. By now, the injury must’ve improved from the ‘serious’ to the ‘moderate’ category, allowing Advanced Healing to do the rest.

“The skill affected me all the way over here,” Maya said. “I’m thinking Advanced Healing might help some of the players with psychological damage too, not just physical.”

“Could it help Matias?” Alexander asked, pointing towards the Peruvian man by the creek. The traumatized man stared into the water, oblivious to everything around him.

“We’ll find out soon,” Emma said, as Harrison helped her to her feet. She took off the EP boosting gloves and handed them back to Nathan.

He waved in refusal. “Your skill is more critical to our survival than any other. Hold on to them until you increase your natural EP max to 40 and can cast the skill on your own. How many more Mental stats do you need?”

Emma nodded weakly, obviously still feeling the negative drain of her skill use. “I need three more Mental stats to reach 40 EPs without the gloves. I currently have 137 Mental.”

Nathan nodded appreciatively. She was so close.

Harrison called out, loud enough to gain everyone’s attention. He adopted a smug look. “Since Nathan’s done showboating his gloves, I’ll show ya what buildings we can buy.”

Nathan was stunned. Not by the casual slight, but by the rest of the statement. “Buildings?” Nathan stammered, his mind racing to the base building mechanics he’d seen in numerous games.

Harrison looked well-pleased. “That’s what I said, ya need First Aid for ya head again?”

Nathan was so overcome with new possibilities he thought he just might.

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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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Comments(33)
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loomeceus ago

I think the change from an accountant is unnecessary. I am one and I am terrible at basic math in my head, my spreadsheets do all the calculations for me. My main skills are knowing what to do with the numbers, organizing them, and developing a plan with the numbers. Not actual math

    Gilgilad7 ago

    I agree with you actually at face value. My older uncle was a former accountant and his mental math skills are unbelievably good, being able to do long division and multiplication in seconds. But I have a friend who is an accountant and closer to my own age, and he relies on his software, spreadsheets, calculators, etc. It is certainly a generational skill that is becoming obsolete.

    While I did take all this into consideration, the fact that I had multiple readers confused by an accountant not being able to calculate figures quickly in his head still happened. Many people are not really familiar with accountants and make unconscious assumptions regarding their skill sets and Nathan didn't really conform to expectations.

    While not strictly necessary, the change to a data entry clerk was relatively painless to implement, and will hopefully cut down on future confusion and additional explanations.

     

Soncikuro ago

Thanks for the chapter!

The way he killed the beavers and snared the two wolves was very smooth.

Maya's anger is confusing in its origin. Perhaps he got disappointed at being yelled at by one of her closest allies? It's hard to say.

They should have a talk and make a "no mercy" rule when fighting the aliens. Kill them even if they beg, otherwise they'll be the ones dying.

They may also want to explore, finding another obelisk would be very beneficial, but if they are spread out evenly, they'll be hard to find, especially when considering the monsters and other players.

heridfel ago

Hmm. I'm not sure whether it's good or bad that they've unlocked buildings. They know that they need to explore to find the other obelisks, and while they aren't getting as many NP going around in a big group, it's certainly safer.

At least that Maps skill means that any smaller groups or solo humans can be found and join up.

grigori ago

Considering what we've been told of the awesome passives some of the others have, as well as some of their prior experience with combat, it feels odd that Nathan went from leading the charge to an obelisk to almost immediately one hit killing three mooks to and tying down two more to save the injured and generally being the only relevant combatant.

Even with us following his perspective and his injury I think the others ought to stand out more than that in a story that values consistency. Maya stands out which is awesome but that can be tied to her role as a love interest. Harrison does as well but he's looking to be a foil for the protagonist. Nathan's the window to the story but the supporting cast are interesting and should clearly exist even when not engaging with the protag. I did like the Illiya and Maya interaction though. Also Alexander's PJs and Maya's pout.

    Trikki ago

    In a story with so many characters, it's incredibly difficult for more than a few of them to truly shine... but I think the author has done a more or less good job so far.

    That said, I agree with you on Nathan standing out a bit too much. It's enjoyable to read about him in combat, but considering that the author advertises this story as a rational fiction, I wouldn't expect Nathan (someone who had approximately the lowest average starting points) to be so much in the lead during fights. At first I though it was his Wilderness Survival skill, but now I just suppose it's the good ole' protagonist powers.

      grigori ago

      Yeah I kinda liked the support/utility focus but still leading in combat despite others having synergising combat relevant skills, better stats and more battle relevant backgrounds is disappointing

      Gilgilad7 ago

      Thanks for the feedback. I will be keeping this in mind as I write. Nathan has great utility, but he won't be the only one who will stand out. Many of the other players will have their own oppurtunites to shine. Some already have, but we are not actually following their narrative so Nathan's moments are much more memorable though.

      Like Nathan, most of the players aren't naturally inclined to battle. Asahi is the only one with military training, but he has zero actual live combat experience before the arena. He certainly has an advantage, but he is really the only one in that area. We didn't actually see Asahi's battle against the bear, but Maya admits that he was the main reason they weren't dead now.

      I'll give a few examples of other players standing out in case if they were missed:

      Harrison defeated three beavers by himself on day one without a weapon skill, only a few hours after starting the combat portion of the arena. While Nathan killed three beavers in a row this chapter, his Pole Weapons was guiding him through it and he'd also already fought tons of the beavers already. Harrison's feat the day before was much more impressive in my opinion.

      Jackson blinding a bear and Harrison crushing its head was probably pretty epic too.

      Even though Nathan led the battle at the Fire Obelisk, Lilly was the MVP. She killed two goblins, each solo. She also stunned the mini-boss with her skill, being the only player to actually land a blow on the chief with a weapon. She then proceeded to make the killing blow on the mini-boss meaning she took three of the five kills.  Nathan only killed one of the goblins solo, the other was actually killed by Iliya. He also only kept the mini-boss busy, not actually do any damage to it whatsoever. Iliya destroyed its shield making it more vulnerable so actually contributed more towards actual damage than Nathan.  It's just that when following the MC's narrative, its hard to notice what the other characters are doing, even if its amazing. I'll have to work harder to make sure their accomplishments aren't missed.

SadLeech ago

Harrison needs to chill the f*** out.

AlejoTheBear ago

woo i am PUMPED for next week! thanks for the story friend.

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