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The last fleeing frogman seemed to be running in slow motion. Beginning with Alexander’s death, the subsequent series of horrific surprises in the last minute had separated Nathan’s mind from his body on some level. It was like watching a play at the theater, except he was also one of the actors.

But despite everything, pretty much every conflicting part of him knew for certain that allowing the last remaining frogman to escape would be bad. Really bad. The frog-like alien players were their rivals in this contest, and as far as Nathan knew, he and his team had made first contact. Not just first contact between his camp and these frogs, but first contact between all humankind and an entirely new alien species. And like it was usually depicted in cliche sci-fi movies, the violent and narrow minded humans had given their new neighbors a bloody welcome, flushing all avenues for diplomacy, mutual ceasefires, or possible alliances down the drain in the process. Not only that, but the frogmen might even be roused for revenge, their camouflaging techniques making them particularly dangerous if they decided to murder the humans in their sleep.

His eyes bored into the back of the escaping frogman. The enemy player was the only factor determining whether the rest of its kind found out about their ambush or not.

He blinked and his surrounding vision rushed back into focus. He could hear Lilly attempting to calm a hysterical Iliya, but they were both obscured from view in the grass. How much time had passed as he came to grips with reality? Judging by the mere forty yards the frogman had travelled downhill, it couldn’t have been long.

Nathan was unsure of himself in many ways, but running a footrace wasn’t one of them. His body lunged forward into a sprint, committing himself to the chase before his mind even agreed to the action. He’d have to figure out how he felt about it later.

The frogmen were tough. Scary tough. The fact one had survived Lilly crushing its head in and bursting out its eye like a grape, not to mention its ability to still flee despite its injuries, spoke volumes about their resilience. This one hadn’t even used any active skills either, at least not that Nathan had seen, so he wasn’t sure which elemental affinities it had at its disposal. He needed to be careful since it might have a maxed out EP pool, whereas Nathan had already used up his combat skills and needed to save his remaining EPs for First Aid on his teammates.

There could be more of those camouflaging green assassin types around too. A spike of fear swept through his system at the disquieting thought. If they decided to ambush him while he was running by, he might be dead before he even knew it. Of course, if there were any of them still hidden out there, they could just as easily remain in hiding and take back word of what happened here anyway, rendering his efforts to catch the runner moot.

But he couldn’t do anything about those kinds of hypothetical possibilities. He just knew if he let the brown one get away, it was possible their location and actions would be reported. He couldn’t let that happen.

For all the frogmen’s defenses, it quickly became apparent their rotund bodies weren’t built for speed as Nathan gained on his quarry. Its meaty legs looked powerful, but carrying the large body mass above them couldn’t have been efficient. Maybe if the frogman was oriented on all fours like an actual crocodile it could’ve exhibited bursts of acceleration, even if it lacked the human proclivity for long distance endurance. But it held itself tall, back mostly straight. The coincidence of how the first alien species humankind had ever met also had an upright humanoid posture was a mystery. He would need to ponder it later, and at a much more convenient time.

The frogman soon reached the crevasse of the valley where the ground leveled out. Nathan continued to gain hot on its heels, now about ten yards back and closing. He considered throwing his spear at the back of his enemy, but calculated it would be too risky. He might miss the moving target entirely, or even if he did hit it, the enemy might have a defensive skill that would let it survive the attack. His previous attempt to throw his spear at one of the frogmen had only given it a surface wound due to its Earth aligned defensive buff, his attack amounting to not much more than a distraction, timely though it was. But this time he didn’t have Lilly with her mace to take advantage of the creature’s surprise.

He almost launched the spear anyway, his anxiousness for the battle to already be done enticing. But the main reason he refrained from the hasty move was that he would become unarmed afterward. And worst case scenario, the frogman could potentially commandeer Nathan’s own weapon, turning the tables on who was the hunter and who was the prey. Nathan already held the advantage so there was no reason to throw it away, in both the figurative and literal sense.

The unarmed frogman must’ve heard its pursuer since it came to a sudden halt, clawed feet digging into the ground as it spun around quicker than its running speed would have suggested. It raised its two empty clawed hands in what Nathan could only assume was a defensive posture, though he knew very little about the alien player’s anatomy or behavioral tells.

Nathan slowed his sprint to an appropriate running speed to initiate his attack. He would go with an aggressive strategy to end the fight before the creature had a chance to use any of its unknown skills. Given his momentum, weapon advantage, and the injuries of the alien player, he should be able to overwhelm it in a single series of moves. One strong thrust to its neck flap would finish it off.

What Nathan hadn’t expected was for the creature to kick its clawed foot up in the air and release a silvery glowing rock towards him. Nathan’s eyes widened since he couldn’t dodge it the way he was running forward. He instinctively moved his spear out of its attack position to parry. The rock didn’t have a lot of power behind it so Nathan was able to deftly deflect the projectile with the shaft of his spear before it hit his chest. Unfortunately, the impact with his weapon still elicited a silver flash of energy, and his wooden spear suddenly weighed as if it had a lead core. What the...

He nearly dropped the pole and lost his footing before he was able to shift his grip on the now stupidly heavy weapon to compensate. The spear’s weight had increased from two pounds to around thirty or so in the span of a second, which was about the most unexpected outcome Nathan had anticipated. A freaking gravity attack?

His entire attack run was ruined as he staggered toward the frogman as he fumbled with his spear. The alien player must’ve been waiting for its debuff skill to take effect, because it dived at him head first as soon as the silver flash impacted with his spear.

Luckily for Nathan, his body hadn’t been affected as the enemy intended. He recovered enough to juke to the left and leapt the tackle like a running back in a football game. The agile movement exhilarated him given that two days ago at his lower Physical stat, the maneuver would’ve been essentially impossible.

The thrilling sensation evaporated as one outstretched claw caught the hem of his khaki pants. His momentum continued forward while his leg was held fast. He immediately dropped his unwieldy spear to brace himself as he crashed to the ground in a belly flop. His leather gloves protected the worst of his skin scuffing on the hard trail.

He immediately kicked forward then backwards and was rewarded with the sound of ripping fabric as the claw was torn free from his pants leg, the injured frogman dragged to its side in the process.

Nathan rolled over, grabbing his fallen spear in one fluid motion. He was pleased to find it had returned to its normal manageable weight, the debuff’s duration having expired. He sat up, intending to lash out at the frog’s head before it had the chance to shuffle its fat body away.

Instead, a stab of pain lanced through his ankle as a hand clamped onto it. Claws pierced flesh and tore viciously as Nathan cried out in response. He tried again to strike out with his spear, but was stopped as a silver flash emanated from the frogman’s hand. Nathan fell back against the ground as his lower body was inflicted with a massive weight pressing down on it, though the heaviest area originated from his ankle where he’d been grabbed. He struggled to sit back up, finding the weight change had essentially paralyzed him from the waist down.

With a grunt of exertion, he swung his spear using only his unaffected arm muscles. He couldn’t see from his prone position, but he felt the sharp edge of the beaver horn bite into the reptilian arm. The clawed hand released his leg as the frogman croaked in response. Nathan thought it sounded distressed, but the sounds were so alien it was difficult to know for sure.

The creature rose to its feet and Nathan swung his spear between them threateningly. He wished he had a Strong Body skill like Iliya, increasing his passive strength so he could power through the weight change with pure brute force. As a Metal Prime, she would be resistant against the debuff to begin with so would’ve been ideally suited to battle this particular foe. But she wasn’t the one lying on the ground afflicted by the debuff. He was. And as a Wood Prime with -1 Metal affinity, he received a 35% penalty against Metal elemental attacks. It was likely why the gravity effect was so stupidly strong against him. He swung the spear through the air again. He just needed to buy enough time for the effect to wear off and then it was go time.

He could now clearly see the frogman’s interface wristband and its silver stone, confirming the alien player was indeed a Metal Prime. He also tried to gleam how many EPs it had remaining on its counter, but the number displayed was unintelligible to him, consisting of weird triangle shapes in what he assumed was the alien’s numerical language. Regardless, Nathan guessed it probably couldn’t use its Metal crowd control skill again based on what he knew of skills and their typical EP costs. Even Nathan could only use his Snare skill twice in a row with his maxed out EP pool.

Surprising Nathan, the frogman had a different idea than attacking its downed foe. It turned and began running down the trail, fleeing once again. It was still weaponless and probably thought it had a better chance at escape than continuing combat now that it had depleted its EPs.

Nathan waited about three more seconds before the great weight lifted from his body as the debuff dissipated. Now it was payback time.

But as he tried to stand up, a horrifyingly sharp pain in his ankle took his breath away when he placed his weight on it. He flopped back on his butt, gasping for air. His leg was way more injured than he realized, the adrenaline in his body allowing him to ignore the pain to this point. He now understood why the alien had been confident it could outrun him instead of fighting to the finish.

The frogman veered off the trail, cutting cross country through the grass. It likely hoped to make it more difficult to be followed, both to assist its escape as well as to not lead the humans back to its own camp. It was probably the correct move too, since Nathan was neither a hunter nor tracker to be able to follow its tracks through the grass.

Nathan tried to stand once more and gasped out in agony. He couldn’t do it. A quick glance at his bloody and torn khaki trouser leg made him grimace. Unlike the heroes in his anime shows, a strong force of will wasn’t enough to overcome the agony of a ruptured achilles tendon among the other flesh and ligament damage inflicted by the alien’s claws. He had to heal himself first.

He sat back once again, hating himself. There was no way he would catch the runner now. He had failed. But as easy as it was to want to wallow in self-pity, he needed to get back to his team. They were injured too.

He reviewed his options and settled on the most feasible. First Aid might or might not heal him, but he didn’t have enough EPs to cast it yet either way. What he needed was another Physical stat gain and the sped up natural healing side effect it provided. Learning a new skill or upgrading an existing one would do the trick. But he was exposed lying on the trail and would be helpless during the learning process. He needed to take cover in case the frogman decided to come back, though he doubted it would.

He crawled off the trail, dragging himself deep into the tall grass. Once under the illusion of safety, he opened his interface, hoping his rewards would be sufficient to heal him.

[You have been awarded 5 NPs for your first meeting with a player from species group C.]

[Your participating group members (3) have been awarded 18.5 NPs (21.5 NPs - 15% modifier) each for the defeat of five players from species group C. The enemy players’ NP reward scores are as follows:]

[Player C-5467: 9 NPs.]

[Player C-4534: 13 NPs.]

[Player C-2570: 12 NPs.]

[Player C-7423: 11 NPs.]

[Player C-2499: 11 NPs.]

There were more messages but Nathan stopped reading for a moment to let his shock at the massive payout sink in. Earning 21.5 NPs in a single battle was by far the most lucrative NP reward of their arena careers. Alien players were worth astronomically more than monsters.

Once he had time to digest the news, he had to frown in disgust. The game’s priorities were twisted, though he shouldn’t have been surprised. Tygerion was actively encouraging them to commit xenocide on the other alien players, and for the aliens to do likewise against them. Nathan couldn’t help but feel guilty for his part in committing the atrocity against the unsuspecting alien players.

Even though they looked like monsters, they were still sapient beings. Ones intelligent enough to have space faring capability, something they had to have developed long before the humans. His own species were considered the newbies here, according to Maya via her talk with the Tutorial Guide. That meant that humans were likely the least technologically developed species.

Not that having advanced civilizations would do many of the aliens any good in the arena. The frogs were even completely naked, though that might be culturally normal for them. Only the two green ones had any type of clothing that he’d seen, wearing a shawl of soft looking blue material around their waists. One of them had even been wearing armored leather bracers like his own. It was this shared facet between him and one of the alien players that really drove home that these players were in the same boat as the humans. Lost... scared… desperate to survive.

He took a deep breath and buried his pity that arose from attempting to humanize the aliens. Focusing on the moral implications of their actions against the enemy was not helpful at the moment. He instead studied the NP rewards for each frogman player and the variation between them. Some players were worth more NPs than others. Perhaps it was based on how many skills, stats, or NPs that player had accumulated? The more accomplished the player, the more NPs they paid out to their murderer. He sighed and continued reading the rest of his messages.

[Due to your first victory against a player from species group C, you may learn your choice of a new skill.]

[Please choose one of the following two randomly selected skills for which you meet the requirements:]

*[Quick Step I: Requirements - Fire 2. (Boosts acceleration and movement speed by 8%.) (Gain +1 Physical.)]

*[Floral Choking Aura I: Requirements - Water 2, Wood 2. (Activated skill - for 30 seconds, all other players and monsters within 10 meters of player's body will have their Water and Wood elemental resistances reduced by 25% - cost: 20 EPs.)]

As much as he loved receiving options and thus being able to influence his build, sometimes the choices were just too dang hard to pick between. He could always save the choice for later since the pending options didn’t start the skill learning until he made his selection, thus having an emergency healing in reserve if it was a Physical skill. The main downside to that strategy was that he wouldn’t be able to see any new messages or gain any other rewards while it was pending, which was problematic. Though none of that mattered at the moment since he needed healing right then.

The first option, Quick Step I, was a skill he’d seen used by Asahi and Gabriel to great effect. A permanent speed boost was all upside for any player. It being a Fire skill, Nathan had the required affinity to upgrade it to the second level too. It also had the benefit of giving him a Physical stat which could heal his torn up ankle, though that wasn’t the sole determining factor since he could always upgrade another skill if necessary.

The second option, Floral Choking Aura, was much less straightforward and required careful consideration. The first thing he noticed was that it gave no stat gains so he wasn’t sure if he should consider it a Physical or Mental skill. Also unusual, it required both Water and Wood affinities meaning it was a dual element skill. He’d seen the guth chieftain mini-boss use a Fire and Earth hybrid skill back when they fought it, but as far as he knew none of the players had been offered one yet.

If he were to activate the skill, everything around him would become more susceptible to Water and Wood elemental damage and effects. Only his Snare skill could take advantage of this aura effect, but it was a highly inefficient usage of his EPs. For the high price tag of 20 EPs, he could essentially increase the effectiveness of his Snare by 25%. But for a cheaper 16 EPs, he could simply just cast Snare a second time. At this early stage of his development, he would never use the aura, at least for his own benefit.

The aura was obviously best employed as a team oriented support skill since his allies would also gain the benefit of their skills working better against the enemy too. But it was a double edged sword since it would lower his own team’s resistances as well. He supposed with careful coordination with his own allies, he could ensure only they benefited from it. And in late game, it would eventually become powerful. But by that point, he’d likely gain other skills as good or better anyway. It just wasn’t worth having another activated skill vying for his limited EP pool when he could opt for a permanent speed boost instead.

Without regret, he selected Quick Step I, one of the most desireable passive skills he knew about, and welcomed the unpleasant pain that came with learning it.

Once recovered, he flexed his foot and breathed out a sigh of relief that he could actually do so. He tentatively leaned forward and placed his weight on the ankle. It was still badly sore, but the pain was totally manageable. He wiped the rest of the blood off his leg onto the remains of his shredded sock, and could see new scars had formed where the claws had pierced and torn the flesh around his ankle. The injury must’ve been worse than he originally thought to hurt this bad even after a +1 Physical gain. But he could run on it again which was all that mattered.

Since a few minutes had passed while he learned the skill, the frogman had long since made good on its escape.  He searched through the grass where he’d seen the frogman flee, and was surprised when he found evidence of the alien’s passage.  Wilderness Survival kicked in hard, making the tracks incredibly obvious.  Green blood smeared on grass blades, turned ground from the frogman’s clawed feet, and depressions from its heavy weight all hinted at the player’s passage.  

He followed for about thirty yards, but decided against continuing on given how far of a headstart the creature had and how slow his tracking efforts were in comparison.  Not to mention he could be easily ambushed in the tall grass, the frogman already having proven to be resourceful. But the main deciding factor was that Iliya needed his medical help and the next monster attack would be arriving soon.  He couldn’t leave them behind while he tracked cross country.

Nathan took solace in the fact that the fleeing frogman would need to face a monster group too.  Fighting solo and weaponless, it might never even reach the safety of its kind.  A part of him was even relieved he wouldn't have to do the deed himself, leaving its fate to the vices of Tygerion and the arena.

Having committed to returning to his team, he made one final check of his character sheet to ensure there were no more surprises. He also checked the upgrade requirements of his new speed skill. They were 30 NPs, 125 Physical, and Fire 4. He already met all three requirements.

He also improved his Physical stat to 139. Considering the average human sat at only 100, he was approaching the ranks of a world-class athlete if he wasn’t already considered one. Even sensory abilities like his vision and hearing were improved with each upgrade too. His NP total had also increased to 51.5 with the slew of notifications. As tempting as it was to upgrade another skill right then and there, he needed to check on his teammates so they could get the heck out of here.

Nathan ran back to the others, marveling at the increased speed of his body. Even though he’d been a competitive runner for years and thought his running form perfect, he had been wrong. The differences in how his hips turned, the way the muscles in his legs and core contracted and expanded, and the placement and alignment of his feet were each minor things individually. But many small changes together provided efficiency greater than the sum of their parts. He’d never moved this fast before with such ease, even at the peak of his collegiate training.

As he returned, the location of their intense battle was immediately apparent. Various spears lay strewn about between rents in the ground from the alien’s clawed feet. Green blood was liberally splashed everywhere. He glanced at the grassy area Alexander had fallen, seeing what looked like red paint dripping off of grass blades in the sea of green.

He heard Iliya sobbing from somewhere in that green ocean.

“Nathan, is that you?” Lilly’s voice came warily from concealment.

“It’s me,” he confirmed. He mentally berated himself for not providing verbal assurances to his teammates immediately. “I chased the last one… it got away.”

He moved through the grass, approaching the place he could hear crying.

Iliya’s face was a bloody mess. Lilly was holding the woman’s head in her lap, stroking her hair. It was difficult to tell exactly with all the blood, but he figured two of the claws had caught her above the eye and tore down. It ripped through the flesh of her cheek bone and split through both of her lips, exposing her gums and teeth underneath.

Nathan knelt down next to her. He was relieved she’d survived, but his heart ached to see the woman injured so. He checked his counter to see he had 17 EPs. “It will take four-ish minutes before I can activate First Aid.”

“Should we have her learn a Physical skill to heal?” Lilly asked. “She should’ve gained Blunt Weapons in the previous monster attack for +2 Physical.”

“No, not yet,” he said with a shake of his head. “It will leave scars on her face through its rapid natural healing while First Aid won’t. Scarring her face would be devastating for her.”

He figured it was a toss up if her injury was considered minor or moderate and if his healing skill would work to heal her immediately, but he kept that to himself. First Aid had the benefit of reversing all damage, leaving the skin unblemished, which made it the preferred method for healing. He dearly hoped it would work.

“Do you have the healing paste?” Lilly asked. “She is in a lot of pain.”

He fished in his pocket for the yellow flower root, handing it to her. “If you want to try applying it on her, you might have another shot at learning First Aid.”

“I don’t think it will be enough to learn a skill, but I will try. Those who’ve learned it needed to do something additional like make a tourniquet, set a bone, or sew stitches.” She shifted Iliya off her lap and rose to find a rock to mash it to a paste.

Iliya began sobbing louder as the other woman moved away from her. Soon she began screaming hysterically from the pain.

Nathan hated leaving her like this until he had enough EPs, but if he could keep her from being disfigured, he would try. As he watched Lilly work on the paste, he noticed her favoring one arm. He only then remembered she was injured too though she hadn’t complained.

“We will need to leave soon,” Nathan said. “Go ahead and apply the paste to her and then learn your own new skills to heal your arm. I’ll get us ready for departure while my EPs restore.”

He left Lilly making the paste while he set about collecting the weapons. There were six extra spears counting Nathan’s spare,and the two gladius short swords. Surprisingly, the leather bracers he had spotted on one of the slain green frogmen had remained behind, though the blue shawl it wore around its waist was gone. Given that clothing on dead players usually disappeared with their bodies, the shawl’s disappearance was no surprise, but he wondered why it was different with the bracers. He looked at his own bracers and gloves. Could it be that system generated rewards didn’t pixelate like normal clothing?

On a hunch, he searched through the grass where Alexander had died, and confirmed his theory. The Russian player’s pajama bottoms had pixelated, but the armored leather skirt the man had received as a reward was lying among the grass. He also found the man’s knife and tucked it into his own waistband. Nathan held the leather skirt up reverently for a few moments, trying to remember the man he’d only met that day. Nathan was ashamed to admit he couldn’t completely recall his face.

He piled all the weapons and gear in the middle of the trail before taking the two swords and trudging through the grass to the field of melons, collecting several to take back to their base camp. For transport, he decided to make melon kabobs by spearing three melons onto the blades of each of the gladius-es. Or were they called gladii? That sounded kind of latin, didn’t it? He wasn’t actually sure about the plural of the sword name so added it to the long list of crap he didn’t know.

He returned with his two melon kabobs back to the trail and saw he had reached 20 EPs. He approached the injured Iliya where she lay in the grass. Her shrieks of pain had intensified. Lilly was next to her, grunting in pain as she went through a skill learning procedure to heal her arm.

He knelt next to Iliya and immediately activated his healing skill. He held his breath in anticipation as the multicolored energy flowed into her squirming body.

After it finished, he saw her facial injuries remained unchanged. He grimaced. She had to have at least moderate classified injuries which were beyond the scope of First Aid. The blood flowing freely out of her mouth and facial wounds punctuated this point. She had gained the natural recovery buff symbol on her collar which wouldn’t hurt, but she needed more immediate help.

They had only two options now. They could have her learn her new skills, healing herself in the process but potentially leaving her face scarred. Or they could take her back to camp and have Emma use her Advanced Healing and restore her face back to its original look. Unfortunately, he knew the latter was unfeasible. They would be attacked by monsters before they could get back, and he didn’t like Lilly and his odds of fighting them off without a third player’s help. That was even assuming they could transport the injured woman to begin with. They didn’t have Asahi with his Injury Stabilize skill to help and he doubted she would move of her own volition.

Not to mention Emma needed her EPs for other injured players too. She had probably healed Zhang by now, but what about Matias? What if someone else was injured in one of the other groups and needed healing too?

It was a hard choice, but he had to think about the safety of his team first. They had a solution to heal her right in front of them. He hardened himself and committed to his decision.

“Iliya, listen to me,” he said gently. “You need to open your interface and learn Blunt Weapons or any other Physical skill. It will heal you.”

Iliya was sobbing uncontrollably, interrupted only by her occasional coughing need to spit blood out of her mouth or risk gagging on it. Nathan was having trouble looking at her face given her gruesome injuries, but he did his best to gauge whether she was listening to him. By all appearances, she wasn’t.

“Iliya, open your interface… please,” he pleaded, this time more urgently.

“My face is ruined,” she cried out pitifully in response. Nathan could barely understand her through her injured mouth. Snot dripped from her nose, mixing with her blood. He had to look away again.

“I’m so sorry, Iliya. But you have to heal yourself.”

“No, I can’t,” she cried out. Then she screamed, followed by her body wracking in time with her violent sobs.

Nathan’s unsuccessful attempts to have her open her interface continued on for another minute until Lilly finished her skill learning. He switched his focus to her, briefly explaining his plan and rationale. He was relieved when Lilly agreed with his decision to have Iliya heal herself through a Physical stat gain.

“Iliya, you have to do it before the next monster attack,” Lilly said. “You are losing a lot of blood. We need your sword arm. We need you.”

Finally, Lilly’s words were enough to get Iliya to comply. She opened her interface and blearily stared at her messages. A moment later, she shrieked in pain and her body convulsed.

“Her face is growing back!” Lilly exclaimed, fascinated by the process.

That was all Nathan needed to know. He couldn’t bear to look at the wound as it healed. “So what skills did you learn?” he asked Lilly to distract himself.

Blade Weapons from using a sword in the fight before last. Then I received two choices for defeating my first frog person, though I haven’t picked yet. The first is a Fire skill called Power Punch, which is very similar to Asahi’s Power Kick skill. It seems weak compared to my other choice though. I’m going to choose Shield Ally.”

“Sounds interesting, can you read it to me?”

Lilly opened her interface and read.

[Shield Ally I: Requirements - Earth 3 (Prime), Fire 3. (Activated Skill - to shield an ally, move at 4x speed - cost: 20 EPs.) (Gain +1 Physical.)]

“That’s… impressive,” Nathan stammered. “A hybrid Earth and Fire skill too. Doesn’t give extra defense, but lets you move fast enough to get where you need to be to shield a teammate. Nice one!”

Despite his encouraging words, Lilly’s expression was dark. “Alexander had to die so I could learn it. We had to murder other players so I could learn it. It’s…” She trailed off and slapped at a blade of grass with a loud scream of frustration. When it didn’t provide a satisfactory whack, she instead began frantically ripping the grass blades out of the ground, grunting in anger all the while.

Nathan watched her, unsure if he should intervene. He’d been pushing similar thoughts out of his head while he dealt with other matters.

When Lilly slowed down her angry destruction of the grass, she glanced back at Nathan. He took this as he cue to say something.

“I feel guilty for everything,” he admitted. “Alexander’s death… it was my idea to ambush the frogs.”

“Yes, it was,” Lilly replied tersely as she ripped up another blade of glass.

Nathan winced. That reply wasn’t making him feel any less guilty.

She must’ve regretted her response since she took a deep breath before speaking again more softly. “But we all agreed to the ambush, Alexander too.”

He glanced at Iliya as she struggled on the ground. This wasn’t the first tragedy, and most certainly wouldn’t be the last, before the arena was over. He looked back at Lilly. “We knew we’d eventually have to fight the other player species.”

“Yes, and we murdered those frog people.” Her voice choked as she spoke. “They did nothing to us, yet we brought them war. How did we not realize what they were?”

Nathan plucked a grass blade of his own, holding it between his fingers idly.  He’d already given her question some thought since thinking about the aliens was infinitely easier than focusing on Alexander’s death. “Because it's easy to make assumptions when things conform too closely to our expectations. Did you ever watch Star Trek? The original show, I mean.” When Lilly shook her head that she hadn’t, he said, “Well, they portrayed many different aliens on this old television show. But due to their limited budget, the aliens just looked like humans except for green makeup or pointy ears. Even the most elaborate aliens were just actors wearing cheap costumes. It was totally unrealistic, because how could all these aliens from different planets look so similar to the human shape? They should’ve each had totally divergent evolutionary paths and been nothing alike.

“Now consider the frogmen aliens. Two arms, two legs, two eyes, with an added frog theme pasted on top. They are like Star Trek aliens, which is totally within Tygerion’s design realm. We already know he’s borrowed from creatures found on Earth in the other monsters he’s created; horned beavers, poisonous wolves, mutated bears. Even the guth spearmen just look like short ugly humans with grey skin.”

Lilly cocked her head to the side. “So you’re saying because the frog people looked too human in shape is why we subconsciously assumed they must be monsters and not players? I want to say it sounds like a stretch, but it oddly makes some sense. For me, when I saw the frog people appearing in between the scheduled attacks, it did seem strange, but since it happened once before during the Fire Obelisk I didn’t think much of it.”

“That’s what I was thinking too. Anyway, now we know they're players. It would be a good idea for us to treat any other new monsters as potential players from now on too, even if they look like bunny rabbits or whatever.”

Lilly cracked a smile, but it disappeared just as quickly. “The green color frog people, you know the two with the camouflage? They are nasty little things. How do we fight something we don’t know is there?”

“Yeah, those rogue types will give me nightmares tonight, I’m sure. Maybe there is a skill to increase our perception to see through their disguise? I don’t know what else we can do other than stay vigilant. One other thing I found weird was how they didn’t have a normal skill energy signature when they shifted their camouflage. The lack of an energy glow could be a part of their skill, because what good is a camo technique that gives itself away? But I can’t help thinking that it might be a natural ability of their alien species, not an actual skill. A racial trait, if you will. The two small green ones both had the camo ability while the brown ones were bigger and stronger. I think it might be a gender difference, though I have no idea which ones are the males and which are females.”

“That would fit. Many animal species have greater differences between their sexes than humans.”

A muffled sob came from Iliya’s prone form so they both turned to greet her as she sat up. She had a perplexed expression on her now healed face. But the healing had taken its toll. As he feared, two horrific scars ran diagonally across her face, starting from her brow, crossing one eye, and running down through the middle of her lips to her chin. Nathan schooled his expression, knowing that Iliya would likely be sensitive to the slightest grimace at her appearance. The head covering on her head already hid her burnt hair, but the scars on her face and lips wouldn’t be so easily covered up.

“Am I healed?” Iliya asked hopefully.

“Yes, you are,” Lilly said. “You look just as beautiful.”

She flinched as if she’d been struck. “Why would you say it that way? Did it leave a mark?”

Lilly glanced at Nathan with a question in her eyes. She was basically asking him how truthful they should be with her. He honestly had no idea.

“Um,” Nathan began, worried about how to break the news. “You are completely healed from the Physical stat gain. We tried First Aid beforehand, but the injury was worse than the minor classification it covers. You might’ve died from your wounds without intervention.” He knew he was procrastinating so took a deep breath before plunging ahead. “It has... left a scar…” When he saw her pleading eyes change to a crestfallen expression, he hastened to add, “but it isn’t too bad.”

“You look like a proper warrior now,” Lilly stated.

Nathan latched onto that statement like a drowning man given a piece of driftwood. “Yes, you look awesome now. Like a super hot amazon warrioress!”

“Really?” Iliya asked doubtfully. She gingerly felt at her face and traced her finger along the twin claw marks. She must’ve been able to feel them since a new round of tears and wailing began. She was inconsolable despite their best efforts to calm her for the next several minutes.

“What do we do?” Lilly finally asked him.

“We need to get back to camp. If we’re fast, we should only face one monster attack. It will arrive in about three minutes.”

Lilly nodded.

“Iliya, do you think you can fight?” Nathan asked hopefully.

She didn’t answer him as she moaned in self-pity. She was a strong combatant, but not necessarily their most reliable player when faced with adversity. She’d been getting better with her Mental enhancements, but the trauma she kept experiencing tended to outpace her improvements.

Nathan wanted to help her more, but he needed to get everything else sorted before they could leave. He quickly hid five of the goblin spears in the grass off the trail since they didn’t have enough hands to carry them, marking a place in the dirt trail so they could find them again. He would carry his fused spear, one spare spear, and one of the melon sword kabobs. Lilly would take her mace and the other kabob.

For the spare spear, he went ahead and fitted the extra beaver horn Alexander had harvested. He wrapped one of his vines around it to bind it in place and was pleased by how well it did. The leather strap was clearly superior, but the vine still got the job done. He didn’t have the EPs to fuse it yet for the modification bonus, but at least he’d upgraded it manually in the meantime.

“Lilly, I think you should wear Alexander’s leather skirt,” Nathan offered. “Your clothing is in the worst shape of any of us so you’ll get the most benefit. Plus, your defensive build and the short range of your mace means you’ll often be on the front lines or protecting others, so it's about time you got some proper protection. I’ll keep his knife if you don’t mind, since I’ve learned from the last few battles I need a backup weapon when the enemy gets within my spear range.”

“That’s Alexander’s armor, I can’t take it!” the Kenyan player protested out of hand.

“I understand your hesitancy, but he can’t use it anymore,” Nathan said. “We have to be pragmatic and use the resources we have. We are still alive and need to remain so. You using his armor is about the best way to honor his memory.”

When he continued to hold the skirt out to her, she eventually sighed and accepted it reluctantly. She fitted it over her soiled and torn mini-dress, tightening the leather strap snugly high around her waist. The skirt reached to about mid-thigh on the tall woman, protecting her lower waist and hips as well. Despite Lilly’s hesitation to take their fallen comrade’s possession, he could tell she was relieved to finally have a more modest covering for her lower half.

For the extra bracers, he decided to give them to Iliya, hoping they might cheer her up. Lilly put them around the woman’s wrists and fastened the half dozen straps on each. Iliya continued to sob throughout the process. After Lilly finished and stepped back, Iliya spent a few moments studying her new fashion accessories, her sobbing transformed to a moderate sniffling as she did so. The bracers had successfully worked as a distraction for her mind if nothing else.

A yipping noise from the forest side of the trail drew his attention. Goblins again? He was at 7 EPs so the attack was right on schedule.

“Iliya, there are guths coming, grab your sword and get up,” Nathan said firmly.

To his surprise, she did as he asked, wiping snot and blood away from her face with the back of her hand as she moved to gather her weapon. It made him wonder if her Mental stat improvements had actually been making a difference after all.

The three players lined up on the trail to face the incoming threat. As five goblin forms came into view, Nathan ran forward launching his spare spear.

The unfused beaver horn spear sailed through the air, catching the middle guth in the stomach and knocking it back. The sharp horn sliced straight through the fur pelt it wore for armor. Unlike before, Nathan held his fused spear in his other hand so that he would still be armed when he finished the ranged attack.

That left four goblins against their three. As difficult as their battle against the frogman had been, he was confident they could handle a few pathetic goblins now.

***

Nathan and his team returned to their camp out of breath, coming to a stop next to the medical tent. The three of them took a couple minutes to rest from their run before they were fit to share their story with the other players. For Nathan, even with his enhanced body, carrying a sword with three melons skewered on it along with his two spears was enough to wind him while racing down the trail.

Their fight with the goblins went smoothly, earning each of the three players 5 NPs each, putting Nathan’s total to 56.5. He hid the additional five spears the goblins dropped with the others before running back to camp. They would try to make a trip later to gather the ten spears.

Nathan had also finally gleaned the new skill the depressed swordswoman had chosen for her reward against the frogmen. Iliya had picked a Metal knowledge skill called Analyze Weakness, which gave passive insight in determining vulnerabilities in her enemies, both in their bodily defenses and in their fighting styles. He was somewhat jealous. She’d be able to find the weakest spot on an enemy then attack it with her destructive Thrust skill making a potent combination. The skill also improved her Mental stat by a point, which Nathan was glad to see for his teammate’s general well-being.

Zhang had been healed by Emma’s Advanced Healing and was up and about again. With the open vacancy in the medical tent, Nathan suggested Iliya take a bed next to Matias. Nathan wasn’t sure how much it would help her recover mentally, but the bed rest in general would do her well regardless.

Looking around, he wasn’t surprised Maya’s foraging team hadn’t returned yet since their own trip had been cut short. So Nathan and Lilly explained to the remaining players at camp their encounter with the frogmen players along with the details of Alexander’s death. Ava and Gabriel, the Russian player’s former group members, were the most distraught over the news.  Ava had even seen one of their player dots disappear from her Maps tab, but she didn’t know who it had been until she saw the three of them arrive without her former leader.

As for the players at camp, they had been productive. Harrison and his helpers finished making the South barricade halfway up the hill between the medical tent and the creek. A massive fallen log three feet in diameter made the base layer of the barricade, with various smaller logs, large boulders, and smaller rocks stacked around and on top of it. This made the barricade about five feet tall and three feet wide. It was just wide enough for a spear to reach over from a defensive position. While it would work great for defending, it was a hassle to climb over anytime a player wanted to go down the hill to the creek. But such was the price for security.

After hearing the news of potentially hostile, camouflaging assassin frog players to the North, the human players were sufficiently motivated to begin work on a new barricade. They decided to place this second barricade slightly North of the outhouse which they considered the edge of their fledgling settlement.

Nathan even took some time to try out the new outhouse, finding it strange to pee into a hole in the ground, but otherwise pleased with the building’s improvement to their privacy and sanitation.

After he finished testing out the new facilities, he joined the rest of the players as they began work on the barricade next to it. While the planned fortification would help their defense, he thought it needed something else. He glanced at the forest, players, and the building around him, wracking his brain for inspiration.

Then he had it. He pulled Lilly aside and explained his idea, her excitement rising as she considered it. With her help on this new project, they had a way to massively improve the effectiveness of their defenses. With alien players to their North and a boss monster attacking at dusk, they would need to have a few tricks up their sleeves.

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A note from Gilgilad7

I've already done a lot of work on the next chapter 22 so will have it edited and ready in only one week this time.  The next chapter will finish up all the setup before the book one climax chapter(s).

Next Chapter Target Date:  Wednesday March 18

 

Nathan's Character Sheet:

Spoiler: Spoiler

 


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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