Given the back to back raids by the croc-frogs and the boss monster, escaping the evening with only one casualty was nothing short of a miracle.  Despite the victories, it was hard to be satisfied with the outcome.  Nathan found himself already missing Angelo’s constant complaints.  The camp was too quiet now.

The older man hadn’t been the most popular in the group, but the surviving players' mood was somber as everyone learned the news of his death.  A few players cried.  But for many of them, including Nathan, after two days of grueling hell and heartache there weren’t many tears left to shed.  Though the desensitization to death imparted a sense of guilt in him.  Shouldn’t he be more upset?

Of those injured, Maya’s moderate injuries had thankfully been healed immediately by Emma’s Advanced Healing skill.  Zhang fully recovered due to having Asahi’s Injury Stabilize effect and learning a new Physical skill.  Ava healed likewise once Asahi regenerated enough EPs to stabilize her too.  Gabriel had been knocked unconscious by the icy AoE, and was currently one of the patients at the medical tent, awaiting on Emma’s EPs to regenerate for a healing attempt.  They weren’t exactly sure how the improved recovery effect of the medical tent helped players in Gabriel’s state, but with enough stacking recovery abilities on a person it did seem to slow any deteriorating conditions and improve stable ones.

...An ice spear striking Angelo in the chest…

Nathan halted his walk and took a few deep breaths as the intrusive memory faded.  He’d been mostly able to dissociate himself from the death and injury of his allies during the fighting, but now that it was over... not so much.  Just don’t think about it.  

He composed himself and continued on towards his destination of the medical tent.

While they expected everyone to have a full recovery, the only exception was Lilly who had lost her left hand.  Learning a new Physical skill after the battle hadn’t regrown the lost limb, nor had it re-attached the missing one.  Emma had even tried holding the severed hand to Lilly’s injured wrist as she underwent the learning process, but skin only grew to cover the wound of her new stump.  Emma’s Advanced Healing hadn’t helped either, at least at its current level one.

Nathan entered through the tent flaps to see Lilly lying on one of the cots and Gabriel unconscious on the other.  She glanced at him but otherwise didn’t give a greeting.  Matias sat in the corner, reading his interface.  He didn’t even look up.  The man was responsive if spoken to now, but otherwise stayed withdrawn from the world.

He moved next to Lilly’s cot.  “How’re you feeling?”

“We lost a player again,” she stated dispassionately. 

Nathan nodded.  “I know.  It's awful.  But we are becoming stronger, better able to keep everyone safe.”

“My own stupid platitudes thrown back at me....”

He took a moment to consider his next words.  “Alright, no more platitudes.  Is there anything I can do for you?”

She turned her head away.  “Get me a new hand.”

“It might be possible," he said optimistically.  "Emma is only two Mental stat points short of the 144 she needs to upgrade her healing skill to level two.”

She finally looked directly at him.  “Do you honestly think it will be that easy?”  

He shrugged.  “Maybe, maybe not.  But the game system is pretty deep.  Limb regeneration tech is probably nothing for the Immortal Collective.” 

“You almost give me hope.  You know, I wanted to be able to protect others, keep everyone alive…”  She held up her stump and gave a bitter laugh.  “But how can I now?  The funny thing is, I unlocked the Shields skill after the battle.  Utterly useless...”

Nathan nodded in sympathy.  The discovery of another Earth aligned weapon skill was significant, but Lilly didn’t need him geeking out over game mechanics at the moment.  She needed actionable support.  “You don’t need a hand to use a shield.  My Wilderness Survival skill is already bouncing ideas around my head of how to secure one to your arm.”

“As good as a hand…” she snorted sarcastically.

He flinched, but continued on with his encouragement despite her cynicism.  “Well, you were amazing in the battle.  You were yards away from Iliya yet still shielded her.  You saved her life.”

Despite her dark mood, she gave a smile, the first since her injury.  “I’m just glad she’s safe.  Using Shield Ally made me feel like a god.  I’m considered one of the fastest women in the world, yet I’ve never experienced anything like it.  I think the system knows what we want and offers skills accordingly.”

Nathan paused as he considered that.  “Huh, that makes a lot of sense.  I was worried during the tutorial about finding food when all the plants were alien to me.  One of the first skills I was offered was Wilderness Survival.  I can think of several other examples too, like when Iliya had a bad experience with Fire and immediately received Fire Shield as a reward option.  Of course, a lot of the skills do seem truly random, but some of them fit the circumstances like a glove.

The tent flap rustled as Emma dipped under it.  “That’s enough badgering of the patient.  She needs rest.”

Emma was clutching the shaman’s human skull staff as she shooed him out of the tent.  Since gaining the creepy stick, she’d not put it down, even though the equipped effect could only be used once every four hours.

[Ice Mage’s Staff - (Activated Skill - Boosts potency of next activated Water skill by 50%. Cooldown: 4 hours.)]

While an obvious tool of war, as demonstrated by the boss powering up an ice rocket to breach their barricade, in the right hands it was a life saving medical device.  The players had unanimously given ownership of the weapon to their best healer.  Maya even attributed the ease of her own recovery to Emma using the staff since her injuries were potentially borderline serious classification.

“So it will work?  Attaching a shield to my arm?” Lilly called out after him.

“It will,” he stated confidently.  “I’ll have a fused version ready for you in the morning.”

He saw the woman’s relieved expression right before Emma closed the tent flap.

Outside the tent, it was night, and half of the camp was already asleep.  It was quiet save for their alien prisoner’s loud croaking, an annoying sound at best.  

Of the two captured croc-frogs in the pit traps, one had died during the boss battle from a combination of its wounds and the banewolf poison.  The other frog player had managed to extract itself from the spear tips it was impaled on, and healed itself with a skill.  But it was unable to climb or jump out of the pit while under the effect of the slowing banewolf debuff which it couldn’t cleanse.  For lack of a better option, the human players assigned a guard to watch over its pit prison, at least until they could think of a better way to house a prisoner.

The prisoner croaked ceaselessly, probably in agitation, terror, or mourning.  He could only imagine how it must be feeling, alone and helpless in a pit.  They didn’t even have a way to communicate with it yet.  Regardless, the noise was beyond irritating for the sleeping players and more than one person suggested it would be a mercy to either kill the alien or release it.  But Maya was adamant they keep it safe until she found a way to learn its language, and everyone was too tired to argue the point.

Learning the fate of the other raiding croc-frogs who had retreated North had been one of Nathan’s first priorities after the battle.  Along with Jackson, Iliya, and Asahi, they had scouted the North trail for a quarter mile until finding evidence of a battle.  Discarded spears, reddish monster blood mixed with the greenish croc-frog fluid, and ice rocket style destruction churning the ground and shattering nearby trees, all provided fairly damning evidence they had fought a boss too.

Perhaps the monsters and aliens killed each other?  Nathan could only hope.  But he suspected the croc-frogs were the victors, given the fact no monsters remained.

He spotted Ava returning from the outhouse, and became curious for an update on the zone map.  He knew Maya could give him all the details, she was constantly pestering the girl, but thought it would be better to go straight to the Maps skill source.

“Hey Ava,” he said, grabbing her attention.

She startled at his voice.  Her confusion didn’t abate even after realizing who was talking to her.  Was it really so surprising he would speak to her?  He winced as he supposed it probably was.  That was the strangest thing about his Mental enhancements, he seemed to notice these kinds of issues much more often now.  He knew he had been hanging out with only a select few people in their group, his previous life on Earth being no exception to this social tendency, so was probably cultivating a reputation of being cliquish or elitist or some such.  He’d mostly ignored Angelo too, dismissing him as a complaining old man and nothing more.  He resolved to do a better job of being inclusive going forward. 

“Um… what is it?” she asked guardedly.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I was wondering if you had any news on the other humans in the zone?”

“Oh that.  I… I already showed Maya…”

“Okay, no problem.  I can ask her.  Didn’t mean to bother you.”

“No wait.  It’s okay.  Here.”

She opened up her interface and expanded the zone map above it.  Nathan stepped closer as he peered at the blue dots that represented human players in their zone.

His mouth dropped open.  Where once there had been seven distinct groups in their Southwest corner, with many scattered dots in between... only four groups remained.  And every single scattered dot was gone.  Wiped out. 

He inhaled sharply, processing what that meant.  Those missing dots had to represent roughly a hundred people.  He sincerely hoped most of the scattered players had joined up with one of the larger groups, but knew in many cases that wasn’t true.  He couldn’t count the number of players in the clustered dots to get an accurate accounting of players so it was difficult to say for certain.  

Then he noticed there was a small group of three dots South of the four main clusters.  How in the world did only three players manage to take on a boss themselves?  Or were they just the survivors of a larger group?

“Thank you, Ava,” he managed to say after he’d fully analyzed the map.  His voice was shaky.

“Aye, you’re welcome.”  She closed her interface and looked up at him with swollen red eyes.  “During the battle, I was injured, but I couldn’t help but watch the map.  It was as if I was under a compulsion.  I watched as each and every single dot disappeared.”  She shook her head sadly and turned to walk in the direction she had been originally headed.

There was no question in Nathan’s mind regarding their mission in the morning.  He called out after her, “Tomorrow.  We’ll make contact with the other groups.  Join forces.  No more disappearing dots.”

She stopped and looked back at him, a determined expression on her face.  “Aye.  That sounds good.”  She nodded, then headed back down the hill to the campfire.

Nathan walked down the trail until he found what he was looking for.  A rock sat in a clump of thick grass, ignored by everyone as if it was a worthless piece of debris.  He sat down and held the rock up before him.

“Why hello there, Mr. Rock.  How are you?”

Nathan smiled and sat Mr. Rock down beside him.  He didn’t know why talking to a rock made him feel better, but it did.  He wasn’t going to argue with results, even if it might suggest there was something wrong with him.  

He pondered on his bizarre life for a moment before finally opening his interface.  The players had intentionally staggered their post-battle reward collection and skill learning, only opening their interfaces a couple players at a time so their entire force wasn’t helpless all at once.  The injured players had been given first priority to learn their skills so Nathan had volunteered to read his messages last, given he was one of the few mostly unharmed from the battles.  He began to read.

[Your participating group members (14) have been awarded 2 NPs (2.5 NPs - 15% modifier) each for the defeat of two players from species group C. The enemy players’ NP reward scores are as follows:]

[Player C-4924: 16 NPs.]

[Player C-3363: 14 NPs.]

Nathan was glad to see everyone received credit, including the medical support players like Emma and Matias.  But the players only received credit for defeating two of the croc-frogs, specifically the ones killed.  They had injured far more than that.  This meant they only scored points for enemy deaths, indicating that brief skirmishes weren’t worth jack for gaining points.  Only mass murder paid out a large score, driving home the brutal nature of the arena.  

Unlike many of the other players, Nathan had already fought the croc-frogs and gotten his first kill reward for their species earlier that day.  No extra bonus reward for the second time for him.

The boss battle rewards were much more interesting.

[Your participating group members (11) have been awarded 20.5 NPs (23.5 NPs - 15% modifier) each for the defeat of fifteen tier 1 monsters, two tier 2 monsters, one tier 1 Mini-Boss, and one tier 1 Boss.]

[Due to your first victory against a tier 1 Boss you have received two rewards:]

*[First Reward: Gain +1 Elemental Affinity of player’s choice.]

Nathan took a moment to study the messages.  Only eleven players received credit for the boss.  The missing players were Ava and Zhang, who had been injured in the previous croc-frog fight, and Angelo who died during the battle.

He studied the NP rewards.  Maya had already done some calculations based on the data they’d accumulated so far and determined tier 1 monsters were worth 3 NPs, tier 2 gave 8 points, the mini-boss awarded 15, and the boss had been valued at 150.  Since both the mini-boss and boss were tier 1, they received a 5x and 50x bonus respectively to the base tier 1 reward of 3.  While interesting, he moved on to his other rewards.

Choosing which affinity to strengthen wasn’t difficult.  Wood held his favorite skills like Snare, Wilderness Survival, and Equipment Fusion.  It was also his Prime affinity so he would gain two to his max EPs whereas any of the other affinities would only give one.  The larger his EP pool, the more skills he could cast in battle. 

Based on the discussion the players have been having all night, he knew he needed to make his selection before he would be shown the second reward.  He went ahead and selected Wood, increasing his affinity to 6.  The process gave him a few minutes of weird heart palpitations but the sensation eventually passed.  He then checked out the next reward.

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

**[10x Deluxe Travel Rations - common.]

**[Gain +1 Mental - uncommon.]

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

**[Gain +1 Physical - uncommon.]

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

The travel rations were tempting given how hungry he currently was, but with their newfound ability to harvest monster meat he could live without.

His eye was drawn to the only rare option, the leather pauldrons.  The two pieces of armor he currently wore had proven useful in a few different fights already, and additional pieces would make him that much more protected.  The pauldron reward would complement his bracers and gloves in protecting his upper body, and it even had a socket allowing for additional effects whenever they found another ability orb.  He selected it for his first choice. 

Once the armor materialized, he found the pauldrons were hard dark brown leather, matching the color of his bracers and gloves.  He put them on, noticing they rested comfortably across both shoulders and protected about half of his upper arm as well.  He unfortunately couldn’t tie the straps on his back by himself though.  He had to request Asahi, the nearest player, to help secure them in place.  

Once finished, he inspected it.  There was now only a gap of exposed skin exposed around his elbow, but otherwise his arms and shoulders were fully protected.  The armor had a black circle on the back of the right shoulder which he recognized as the empty socket, awaiting another orb.  He wasn’t sure if he would be able to sleep comfortably with the pauldrons on though, and it was going to be a pain to have someone help him with the straps every time he had to take it off or on.  Such is the price for keeping himself from being killed.

For his second choice, he narrowed it down between the leather greaves and the +1 Mental stat option.  He found this decision closely mirrored his first such choice, back at the end of the preliminaries.  At that time, he’d decided to take the leather bracers instead of the Mental stat.  The armor had undeniably proven useful, and after seeing Lilly’s missing appendage where a bracer could’ve helped protect, he was glad to have them. 

So while he had solid rationale for not picking the Mental stat back then, in hindsight he’d also grossly underestimated the importance of Mental on his survival.  Ironically, his increases to his Mental made this realization so much clearer. 

He glanced at Mr. Rock and patted him on the head.  He’d been using the rock as an emotional crutch, but had relied on him less and less as he connected with the other players and his team.  The increases to his Mental stat had lessened this emotional dependence too.  But the flashes of deaths that continued to debilitate him at random times were becoming a serious problem.  At his original unenhanced Mental stat, he wouldn’t have been able to understand the trauma he was now carrying, much less admit to it.  But he’d advanced enough to be aware he needed help, and matured enough to have the willingness to seek it. 

So even though the leather greaves likely matched his other armor pieces, he had to regrettably pass on them.  He wanted, no he needed, to fortify his mind, and improve his ability to withstand the constant hardships of the arena.  He selected the +1 Mental option.

After undergoing the tortuous migraine of improving his Mental stat to 124, he took a few moments to allow his mind to orient again.  Did he think differently?  Perhaps, maybe?  After a Mental gain it was always confusing, but this time he thought he could spot the difference.  

He focused back on Angelo’s death.  There was no panicked overwhelming memory, only a dull regret.  He then imagined Alexander, then Maria, David, and finally Kean.  The pain of the memories were still there, but that’s all it was.  Just normal grief, perhaps as if it had happened a few years ago instead of being fresh trauma happening over the course of the last two days.  

He breathed a sigh of relief.  The Mental stat gain had healed his mind slightly, just like a Physical stat gain restored his body.  Whether the mental healing was a placebo effect or not, it didn’t change the fact he might be able to get some actual sleep now.

He opened his interface to read his final messages.  This is what he’d been most anticipating.

[Due to surviving the last roaming monster attack on your second day, you have been awarded a 10 NP (11.5 NPs - 15% modifier) survival bonus and a Unique Skill Synthesis.]

*[Unique Skill Synthesis - please choose two of your currently learned skills to combine to form a new unique skill.  The selected skills will be lost.]

It then listed the thirteen skills he’d already learned.

Nathan stared at the reward with a mix of anticipation and nervousness.  The NP reward, along with the earlier ones, bumped him up to 41.5 NPs.  But that was only secondary to the real prize; a unique skill synthesis.  

He already knew about the unique reward from the other players, but what none of them knew was what they would receive from any given combination of skills.  A few players had already combined their skills, and Nathan tried to learn everything he could from their selections.  The new skills apparently inherited both affinities of the two combined skills if applicable.

Asahi had already found out how combat skills could be massively powered up in a straightforward manner by synthesizing them together.  He’d combined Power Kick I, which added 50% physical damage to his kick, with a new Fire skill he’d learned called BurnBurn I was an activated skill that inflicted a burn debuff on enemies when he struck them, causing 50% additional elemental Fire damage over the following twenty seconds based on how much physical damage was caused from the blow.

After sacrificing the two skills, the new unique skill the older man gained caused a massive 200% extra physical damage plus 100% additional Fire elemental damage while kicking.  Not only that, it added a 200% Fire burn debuff.  The new skill was called (Unique) Vulcan’s Kick I, named after the mythological Roman god of Fire.  The skill cost 22 EPs to activate, so was slightly more expensive than the original skills, though not outrageously so.  The fact the two effects were now combined into a single skill made it significantly more energy point efficient to use.  The skill also gained the man +2 Fire Affinity while losing him a point in Water affinity.

From what he’d seen, the synthesis was always a net gain, though the end result might not be what was expected if the two skills had less inherent synergy.

For instance, Jackson had selected his damage dealing Metal skill, Serrated Strike I, and combined it with a utility Water skill, Rapid Recovery I, which passively improved his natural health recovery rate.  These two seemingly random skills had merged to create the (Unique) Vampiric Serration I skill, giving him +1 to both Metal and Water affinities, and -1 to FireThe new skill dealt 20% extra elemental Water damage when striking and ignored 20% of the physical defense of the target.  It also deviously inflicted an additional 200% pain.  This part was a clear upgrade to Serrated Strike and added a Water element to the Metal skill.  But it also now stole that extra 20% damage and healed Jackson by that amount.  This vampiric effect was totally unexpected and only loosely related to the original Rapid Recovery.  Jackson gained a powerful new ability but at the cost of losing his passive recovery buff.

Nathan sat back down and reviewed his skill list again.

[Language I, General Fitness II, Wilderness Survival II, Attack Up II, First Aid I, Analyze Enemy I, Pole Weapons I, Snare II, Rapid Recovery I, Equipment Fusion I, Group Leader I, Ranged Weapons I, Quick Step II.]

While he couldn’t know the exact unique skill he’d gain, he could reasonably predict the type of skill he wanted based on his selections.  He needed to decide if he wanted his build to be catered towards combat, support, or crafting.  He also needed to consider which elements he wanted it to have and if he wanted it to be a Physical, Mental, or hybrid skill.

“I see you upped your Mental.  Good choice.”  Maya plopped down on the ground next to him.  “And nice shoulder pads.  You look ready to take on a comic book convention.”

He smiled over at her.  There was no hint she’d been hit with an icy artillery blast only an hour before.  Emma’s Advanced Healing was the real deal.  “Thanks, you’re wearing your jealousy well too.”

“Hah, I am, aren’t I?  But alas, I’m not tempted by pretty outfits.  I prefer good old boring stat upgrades.  So which skills are you thinking about combining for your unique?”

“Was just debating that.  What’re you choosing?”

Group Leader I and Language II.”

Nathan took a moment to consider.  “Interesting, so two Mental skills?  I guess you’re doubling down on a leadership build?”

“Bingo,” she said, brushing a few strands of hair behind her ear.

“Why Language though?  That’s not a skill I’d thought you’d be willing to sacrifice.”

“I upgraded it to level two after the battle, hoping it would give me the ability to speak with the captured croc-frog.  But it didn’t.  Level two gives access to the rest of the languages spoken on our homeworld, not just the five most common ones.  It also grants knowledge of the Immortal Collective standard language, but I’m not sure what good that is right now.  And level three of the Language skill costs 400 NPs, so yeah, not really an option yet.”

“Whoa, expensive,” Nathan mused.  “But you know every language on Earth now?  That’s kind of cool.”

“Cool, yes.  Useful?  Not really.  I can already communicate with all the humans here so the extra languages are overkill.  Anyway, I hope by using it as fuel for the synthesis, it could upgrade and allow me to talk with the alien players.”

“A good theory, but what if you lose the Language skill entirely?  The Immortal Collective standard language probably has some purpose or Tygerion wouldn’t have designed it as part of the skill.  Maybe it's needed for a puzzle later?”  As he brainstormed aloud, the answer suddenly came to him.  “Wait, if the frog upgraded its Language skill to level two as well, then you both could communicate through the shared IC language!”

Maya's face contorted in surprise.  “That’s brilliant.”  Then she mouthed a curse before adding, “And totally obvious now that you pointed it out.”

“Didn’t see the forest because of all the trees?” he grinned.

“You know, it seems that Mental stat gain made somebody cocky,” she laughed as she punched him lightly on the arm.  “I guess I was so frustrated I didn’t learn the croc-frog’s language, I disregarded the other implications.  But to be fair, I only upgraded the skill ten minutes ago.  I would’ve thought of it soon.”

“Sure…” he teased.

She barked a laugh before her expression turned thoughtful.  “Hmm, it's going to be difficult to explain to a traumatized alien captive, one that doesn’t understand us, that it needs to upgrade its skill.  Most players won’t spend their hard-won NPs on the Language skill by accident.”

“I dunno, the croc-frogs seem pretty smart.  If it has enough NPs, it might try upgrading it on its own anyway.  It has to be terrified not being able to talk to its captors.”

“Good point.  I’ll try to communicate with it again in the morning before I combine the skills just in case it figures it out overnight.”

“So you’re still going to risk losing Language even after my ‘brilliant’ discovery?”  He made mocking air quotes as he emphasized brilliant.

“Definitely cocky,” she smirked.  “It’s important to never forget your hillbilly roots.”

“You mean redneck.  There’s an important cultural distinction.” 

“Oh my,” she said in a poor imitation of a Southern drawl before talking normally again.  “I’m sure that would make for a fascinating discussion, you know… outside of a survival death arena.”

“Apology accepted.  And you still didn’t answer my question.”

“Incorrigible,” she said, shaking her head.  “Right.  Well, I think yes, I’ll combine it.  Even if it doesn’t do what I hope, the Language skill could potentially morph into a long range communication skill or something else vitally important.  It could be game changing.  Since I speak English and Hindi naturally, which everyone here knows, I’ll get by well enough even if I lose the other languages.  It's worth the risk.”

Nathan nodded, respecting her decision.  He began focusing on his own choice.

A couple combos jumped out at him immediately.  Rapid Recovery and First Aid seemed to go hand in hand.  Though whatever healing skill he might receive, it would no doubt be outclassed by Emma's healing capability.  Wilderness Survival and Analyze Enemy also made a good pairing.  It could improve his ability to scout and learn as much about the arena as possible.  Though he wasn't excited by the prospect of potentially losing access to his survival knowledge if the skill turned out differently than expected.

Snare was his favorite combat skill he decided.  It allowed him to disable an enemy which was crucial as the difficulty of the fights kept ramping up.  Their group had relatively few crowd control skills so his Snare was an important asset to their survival.  He had several good candidate skills that could be combined with it.

As for the crafting path, Equipment Fusion had so much potential.  Many of the players only contributed through combat, but only the Wood Primes had access to this non-combat skill.  The fused ranseurs made a huge impact in their victory that evening, and the players would only grow collectively stronger as they were outfitted with better gear.  

That being said, Nathan wasn’t the sole crafter anymore.  Both Matias and Zhang had announced they were going to try combining Equipment Fusion with another Mental skill to see what they would receive.  They both wanted a non-combat role going forward.  Matias, though recovering, could no longer hold a spear in battle after his mental break.  Zhang similarly was having his share of psychological issues after being seriously wounded in combat a second time.  Crafting armor and weapons was probably the best way they could contribute going forward.  Nathan was genuinely happy they both found their calling, though he hoped they would recover enough to be able contribute in fights again too.

“What do you think?” he asked Maya.  He decided to focus on his two favorite skills.  “Snare or Equipment Fusion?”

She took a moment to consider.  “Snare.”

“I was leaning that way myself, but care to elaborate your thoughts?”

She hesitated before responding, and her smile turned mischievous.  “I would hate to knock you down so soon after your ‘brilliant’ discovery...”

Nathan laughed and motioned impatiently for her to get on with it.  She liked to always dance around the issue.  “C’mon, I need a straight answer more than a fluffing of my ego.”

She laughed.  “Alright, here goes.  You shouldn’t pick Equipment Fusion because your Mental stat is still really low...”

“Ouch,” he said amusedly.  “And I just raised it too…”

“I know, I know, and believe it or not, I’m actually going somewhere with this,” she said with a grin.  “Equipment Fusion is Mental based.  Speaking in game mechanic terms, you won’t be able to upgrade a crafting skill very far with your low stat.  Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with your actual competency...”

“You think I’m competent?”

“...or the lack thereof,” she smirked.

“And there it is,” he stated flatly.

“That aside, you do have an impressively high Physical stat and array of combat and utility skills.  Your ceiling for improving battle skills is much higher than crafting.”

“That’s a fair point.  But everyone has combat skills though.”

“Sure, but not everyone is suited for them.  If you look at me, I’ve been trying so hard to be a battle leader, gaining mostly Physical stats and acquiring combat skills, but I honestly suck at the actual fighting despite that.  I completely froze up when Angelo was struck by the ice spear.”

“That’s pretty normal.  The same thing happened to me when Alexander died.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that…”

“I think ignoring death in battle gets easier with practice... as horrible as that sounds.”  He realized he was resting his hand on Mr. Rock.

“It was... shocking.  Besides that, while my body is dramatically transforming from these changes, I’m still relatively short in height and have half the mass of natural fighters like Harrison or Lilly.  That’s a physical disadvantage not easily overcome.  So I know my talents lie in a different direction, like organization and planning, which is why I’m going to combine two Mental skills.  You, on the other hand, have the talent of a warrior.  You're always in the thick of things, racking up the kills.”

“Thanks, I guess." He had to sigh at the exaggerated praise.  He held up Mr. Rock, and studied the imperfections on its surface.  “But what kind of warrior hates the sight of blood?”

“Maybe a good one?” she offered with a shrug.  “I’ve never once seen that quirk of yours stop you from getting the job done.  That’s all that matters in the end.”

He nodded, considering her words.  He wasn’t the same bewildered Nathan who had arrived at the arena in his office elevator.  “I appreciate the perspective.  Thanks, Maya.”

“You’re welcome.”  She smiled warmly, but her exhaustion was evident on her face.  She punched him lightly on the arm again and stood up.  “I’m going to get some sleep.  Good luck on your unique skill.”

“You too,” he said as she moved away.

He made up his mind.  He would focus on the path he was already building towards.  He would select Snare.  Besides, it wasn’t like he was losing Equipment Fusion.  He’d still be able to craft on the side.

So what to combine with Snare?  There were several promising options.  Attack Up, Pole Weapons, Ranged Weapons, and Quick Step stood out the most.

He eliminated the two weapon skills, not wanting to lose access to the knowledge provided by either.  His combat capability would be crippled without them.

He examined his final two choices.  Attack Up might allow his Snare to become more powerful or do extra damage.  He liked the idea of streamlining two activated skills together since his limited energy pool made using his wide array of skills difficult.  He just didn’t have enough EPs to use every skill in battle and combining them together would make using both effects more cost efficient.  Attack Up was also a Fire skill and Snare was Wood, which happened to be his two strongest affinities.  It would help him upgrade his unique skill to a higher level later.

He then considered his other Fire skill, Quick Step.  Would it make his vines faster?  Would he be able to cast it quicker?  The biggest weakness of Snare was having to strike the enemy before he could trap them.  And the vines had a lag time as they bound the target.  This combo could shore up that weakness by improving its speed.

Attack Up was the safer choice, being a weaker skill that wouldn’t be much loss when sacrificed.  Quick Step was a much bolder choice, given the skill was already amazing.  Just as he’d been cautioning Maya, could he risk losing it?  If the end result would become more powerful, than sure.  Both skills were level two as well, so if that had any positive impact on the end result, all the better.  Using strong skills seemed bound to create a better unique skill than picking from lackluster options.  At least he hoped.  It was impossible to know though, which made the choice so agonizing. 

Ultimately, what did he want Snare to do?  He wanted it to control the battlefield.  Imprison enemies to make the odds more in their favor.  Attack Up would likely make it do some damage, but that wasn’t what he needed it to do.  He wanted his unique skill to more effectively imprison and control enemies.  Quick Step seemed much more likely to improve upon his ability to do exactly that.

He nodded, decision made.  He focused on what he wanted the unique skill to become, hoping his desire affected the outcome like Lilly had theorized earlier.  He selected Snare II and Quick Step II, and prayed that Tygerion didn’t screw him over.

A note from Gilgilad7

Book one Final Chapter Target Release Date: Wednesday, July 1st.

Status Update:  While finishing up these last few chapters, I've also been doing some editing work on my earliest chapters.  As of today, I've re-edited the first five chapters and have already updated them with the new versions.  I'm doing no significant plot changes (and if I do, I'll let you know), so you have nothing to fear on that front.  Basically, I've been mainly restructuring poorly phrased sentences, eliminating unnecessary words, and removing repetitive lines.  A few completely pointless paragraphs have gotten the axe too.  I am finding the process strangely satisfying, revisiting my earlier chapters and seeing the evolution of my writing.  

Next week will be the final epilogue chapter.  I can't wait to reveal it!

Nathan's Character Sheet:

Spoiler: Spoiler


About the author


  • 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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