A note from argusthecat

We're now beyond what I initially wrote for this as my candy project.  I'm still having fun with it, and it's neat to see how my talents as an author have changed in the last year or so.

[Skill unlocked : Observation - Scent. It's in the air.]

The smell of cooking meat filled the cooling evening air. Getting my barbeque down the steps of my apartment had been an adventure all its own, netting me a point in strength for the task, but it had been worth it. Getting everyone to pitch in perishable food to the meal we were putting together had happened so organically, I didn't even level up anything doing it. And now, eight strangers gathered together in this bizarre new world we found ourselves in, practically drooling as we waited for the burgers to finish up. Some of them sat at the polished sand-and-wood table that one of our number had magicked into existence, one of them stood at the grill, and I diligently worked off to the side turning vegetables into neat slices.

[Skill improved : Knife +1]

"Oh yeah. These are gonna be good." The words were spoken by a man named Zane. He was broad shouldered, curly black hair, and persistent stubble over the tanned skin of his chin. He was also our group's first foray into specialization. Specifically, he was our cook.

We'd come up with the idea as a group. If we were going to be leveling up in things, then yeah, for stuff that took our limited resources - food, in this case - it really made sense to focus the points into one person who could really take advantage of it. Zane had already gotten cooking to six, and his proficiency with the grill had visibly improved. He'd also scored an ability called Nutrition Boost, which would probably keep us all alive for longer, and was therefore critically important. He'd hugged me when he'd gotten the notification, and I got the feeling that the big guy wasn't used to people relying on him, or finding him useful.

[Stat Unlocked : Empathy. Feel their hearts. Empathy rated at 5.
Connection Unlocked : Zane Magnus
Pool improved : Kindness +1]

This whole thing was really refilling my kindness rapidly. It felt good to just sit with people, and be part of a community for a bit. I'd never gotten to know my neighbors that much, but here and now, under the burning orange and purple sky, in the middle of a goddamned desert, with about an hour to go until 'monsters' happened? It felt like we were building something special. And it felt good to just talk to people.

[Skill improved : Etiquette +1]

We didn't really go into our lives as of yesterday. Instead, we shared ideas about the System. About our skills and stats. What we wanted to explore, what we thought might keep us alive.

[Skill improved : Planning +2]

We were getting good at it. Kristi, the woman with the cat (our quite official ninth member), had started forming abilities that let her communicate and empower her feline friend. Zane, in addition to being a cook, found that he could barely pick up anything heavier than a spoon without getting a notification about his strength; he blamed his build and muscles, since he'd initially only been rated a 2 in the stat. Dover, who'd made our table, had spent almost the whole time waiting for the food screwing around with his sand and stone magic, and was starting to get impressive with it. I'd joined him at one point, throwing out a few Sandblasts, flexing my magical muscles and finally unlocking something that looked like a real mana stat as the two of us compared the effects of skill levels.

[Pool unlocked : Grit. Dig deep, show them what you've got. Grit set to 8.
Spell improved : Sandblast +2
Step take : Acolyte's Steps +1]

"Oh good, it's got a sense of humor!" I'd shared my notification with Dover, who confirmed that he'd gotten the same pool for his own sand and earth spells. Apparently the System understood humanity enough to give us puns, which was nice of it. The problem, of course, was that my Grit was pretty low, and I'd burned through half of it with just a couple casts. And Dover's casts were *powerful* compared to mine.

He'd still high fived me after I'd nailed one of the cans we'd set up as targets, ablating it to shredded tin with near perfect aim. He was magnanimous, even if he was super focused on his specific magic. I also learned what refilled Grit, as I got a spray of rough sand in my mouth.

[Spell improved : Sandblast +1
Pool improved : Grit +1
Connection Unlocked : Dover Imperison]

"Food's on!" Zane called us over, getting cheers from everyone else who'd been watching Dover and I have our little sand-kicking contest. "Come get your burger, and load it up with what you want!" He summoned the crowd over.

[Philosophy improved : Optimism +1]

As I sat down with my own sandwich on a plate, piled high with veggies and sauces, I tilted my head to the woman sitting across from me. "So Martha, you said something earlier about an assessment notification?"

She was in her seventies, but apparently, that didn't do much except make it even *easier* for her to level up her Vitality and Vigor - stats I didn't even *have* - and her broad smile made me really understand the love of life she must have to have gotten those.

[Stat improved : Empathy +1]

"Oh, yes dear!" She answered me while carefully cutting her sandwich in half, and I spotted the telltale sign of someone swatting aside a level up notification while she did so. "You know, I thought we all would have gotten them? I suppose it must be random when they hit us. But would you believe all it wanted to tell me was how old I was?"

"No!" I put my hand to my chest in mock shock as she let a laugh bubble past her lips. "It didn't!"

[Stat improved : Charisma +1]

"Oh, it did!" She ran a hand across the smooth skin of her face, searching for the wrinkles that had lived there for the last twenty years, but were now absent. "You said you got one for a game, and oh I suppose I'd feel silly if I'd been rewarded for my backgammon habit, but it does feel a little guilty to get a 'Perfecting Form' just for being old." Martha sighed, before shaking her head with a little more energy than she needed to. She was still getting used to her revivified body. "No matter. Eat your food! You don't need to see me mope!" She chastized me. "And don't try to distract me, either, young man! You were going to tell me your own magic, yes?"

[Connection unlocked : Martha Giles]

It wasn't really a suggestion. From someone who could have been my grandma, the words were an almost iron command, and I responded almost instinctively, even as I realized that this must be what it felt like to be hit with a social skill.

[Resistance unlocked : Social. Sticks and stones, and nothing else.]

"Well, I've mostly gotten spells for Compassionurgy." I told her, trying to explain the strange magic I'd acquired. "It seems to use kindness to empower things? I know it also ties into my Arcane Gardening, but I don't have a specific spell for that; more that I have this weird knowledge of how to use the spells I have to help plant life. Oh! And I can do this!" I stood up a bit, and everyone around the table suddenly seemed to be focused on me as I channeled a whopping twenty points of kindness through my main spell. A smile formed on my face, and then, around me. It grinned the air and tilted the pavement of the parking lot around us, and suddenly, everything seemed just a little *sharper*.

We weren't just survivors, we were a community; a *pack*. The table, the dinner, the gathering, were all brought into focus as the first steps of our burgeoning bond. The burgers smelled like slices of the divine, and I saw those who had bites in their mouth be practically swept away by the flavor. The wind kept flowing, but it was no longer kicking stray grains of sand into our eyes. Overhead, the sunset gleamed. Everything, for just that moment, was *delightful*. We could die now, happy. But we wouldn't, because that was not the fate of the satisfied.

[Spell improved : Lorwyn's Smile +3
Magic improved : Compassionurgy +2
Step taken : Acolyte's Steps +1
Stat improved : Magic +1
Philosophy improved : Nihilism +1
Path unlocked : Persuit of Unity. Step forward, together, and claim your destiny.]

No one had much to say after that.

We ate together in near silence, and I tried to remember the other people at the table. I knew one of them was an electrician, who'd also gotten an assessment that had unlocked a battery spell for him. I also knew that one of them was a teenager, and her parents hadn't come home in time. That must suck, and I felt a pang for the kid who may never see their folks again. But she still looked delighted as she chowed down on the burger, so I didn't linger too long on it.

[Pool improved : kindness +1]
Skill improved : Observation +1
Skill improved : Observation - Taste +1]

The biggest problem, though, was that we were now at about half an hour to monsters. And with the meal finished, it was starting to set in that this might have been our last. A few members of the table went off downwind to politely light up their smokes of choice, and I was amused to notice that they all in unison made the hand-sweep to remove a notification; presumably leveling up their cancer resistance.

[Skill improved : Observation +1]

As I stood up, and exchanged looks with Zane, who gave me a knowing nod, I was stopped by the middle aged man who'd been quiet the whole time. He hadn't been standoffish, just that he hadn't voulenteered information. "Mark." He offered, extending a hand to shake, which I took. "I want to help. I was a soldier." He said. His grip was firm, and I found myself matching it almost instinctively.

[Etiquette unlocked : Military. Those who soldier bear a culture all their own.]

I found the influence from my own skills kicking in almost reflexively now. I'd sized him up in a moment, trying to take the measure of his stats, but mostly just trying to gauge what kind of person he was. And I found, of course, that I was rewarded for the combined efforts of my skills and stats.

[Ability unlocked : Analyze Heart. See the secret truths. Synergies detected, Analyze Heart set to 6.
Skill improved : Observation +1]

Mark didn't want to fight. He'd been hoping someone would save the day, fix the problem without needing him. But he couldn't see that happening; we were just as lost as he was. Hell, we were sitting around eating instead of building defenses. And only now were two of us going off to try to plan a defense and find some weapons in the scant time left. He felt like we needed his help. But he hated his weapon, and he hated that he'd been gifted something he found evil by the system. I could see it, as the skill activated; the lines between his feelings and some of his numbers. High dexterity, a stat called stability, an assault rifles skill, and a technique called Guided To The Heart. The line connecte to that one was red with resentment, bitter angry that he was trying to force down as he shook my hand.

[Connection unlocked : Mark Harrigan
Step taken : Persuit of Unity +1]

"Okay." I said, firmly. "We're going to gather anything that might work as weapons for those that don't have combat magic yet. Dover is resting and... running his hands through the sand, I guess... to replenish his magic, then he and the kid are gonna try to put some defenses together for our little chunk of apartment here. Do you have anything in your apartment that..."

"Yeah." Mark said, bitter.

I didn't push him on it. "Okay." I nodded. "Also, did either of you get anything when Quests unlocked? This is legitimately the longest I think the system has gone without popping something up."

"No. Remarkable restraint from it, considering." Zane rumbled, running a hand across his stubbled chin. He tried to hide it, but I *saw* the brief pause and cocked eyebrow as his eyes flitted across a popup. "Does it change our plan?"

"No." I shook my head. "We need to get everyone at least a little armed. Armored, too, if that's gonna matter. I'm hoping this isn't going to be too bad, but we should be prepared for anything." I nodded to Mark. "Meet us back here in fifteen?" He blew a long breath out through his nose, but nodded, and then turned on his heel and stalked off toward his apartment.

[Skill improved : Planning +1
Connection improved : Zane Magnus +1
Philosophy improved : Optimism +1]

The two of us nodded at each other, and proceeded into our apartments to look for anything of use. I grabbed a couple kitchen knives, which felt distressingly comfortable in my palms. Those got slotted into my belt with a flourish.

[Skill improved : Knives +1]

Snorting, I cracked the hall closet, and started making a pile on the balcony outside my front door of anything that looked remotely useful.

A couple leather coats; those things were heavy, and *thick*. Might stop a hit, if we were lucky. A baseball bat, for batting. A crowbar, which I actually decided to only offer if we couldn't find anything else; these things were actually really bad as weapons. An old bike helmet. It had seen better days, but it would tank for the skull in a pinch.

[Skill unlocked : Scavenging. Find treasures in the dross.]

Suddenly, lines of intent seemed easily visible around the apartment. The uses for things popping into my head with ease. Fireplace poker? Usefully brutal weapon, especially if I applied Sharpening to it. Food? The plants on the back deck were already blooming; they'd produce edible veggies within the day. I knew this firmly, now. Tools? My guitar was propped up right there; no *way* that wouldn't hold a path for me. And hey, didn't someone have a skill for manipulating metal? I had this whole water cooler jug full of loose coins just *sitting here*. This wasn't just a post-currency-world prop anymore, this was *ammo*.

I gathered everything into the pile. Except the plants; they could relax for now.

[Skill improved : Scavenging +1]

It was with a wary eye and a small sigh that I looked at the jug of change, and tried to puzzle out if it had actually been this full before. After we got the monsters thing sorted out, I was really going to need to sit down and talk to the system about what exactly skills *did* to the world.

[Stat improved : Perception +1
Skill improved : Planning +1
Milestone hit - Planning rank 10 : +3 Free Path Points]

Oh. Huh. Okay. One more thing for the later pile.

Bundling up my haul as best I could, I made my way back downstairs, trying to keep an eye on how little time we had left. I ran into Zane in a similar hurry as we made it back to the parking-lot-turned-courtyard together.

He was carrying a fire extinguisher, a much heavier looking baseball bat, a couple sets of padded sports armor - probably hockey from the look of it? - and what looked like four bottles that used to contain whiskey and now contained Molotov coctails.

"Oh yeah," he nodded at my raised eyebrow, "got a skill for that one."

I was unsurprised.

And then, Mark joined us. Walking in percise steps, with a matte black monster of a rifle slung over his shoulder. It beat a rhythm in tune with his steps, small concussions of phantom shots echoing through the air. The barrel smoked softly, despite no actually bullets having been fired. It pulsed with an angry energy that I could feel wash over me as Mark stepped up to us.

"Alright, I got my gun." He said.

I had a million questions. But there was both no time, and also absolutely no way to ask them without offending this angry man. So I said nothing.

[Skill improved : Etiquette - Military +1]

There was a tense feeling in the air now, with only minutes to spare. The rest of the group, inlcuding the cat, seemed to be clustered around us now. As if seeking safety from the people who looked like they knew what they were doing. But it was kind of a ruse; I was only keeping my head together because of Calm, and that pool was draining *rapidly*. Zane had something similar, and I saw that Martha was hugging everyone and whispering reassurances to them.

Dover had built a waist-high wall out of compacted sand around the apartment, and I gave him an unenthusiastic high-five when he told me about the three points of sand magic he got from it.

We handed out what weapons we could. The smokers smoked what might be their last. We stood, together, and watched the desert as the timer ticked down to zero.

[Spawning of monsters has begun! Struggle, for your right to exist!]

Reality rippled. It felt like the universe was vomiting. And then, a burst of pressure, and nothing.

[Spawning stage one has initiated! Stage two will begin in 265:00 hours. Good luck.]

No, not nothing.

Out there, past the low slope of the dunes, down below the hill our mangled apartment complex perched upon, something moved. I pointed, my eyes the only ones sharp enough yet to spot it in the fading light and at that distance, and the others looked. They'd unlock what they needed to see soon enough, though they wouldn't like it.

[Skill improved : Observation +1
Ability improved : Low-Light Vision +1]

Out there, ancient and yellowed bones rose from the sands, assembled themselves, and began an orderly and terrifying march toward our bastion.

Skeletons. Some bearing swords, some with javilins, some with just their clawed hands and sharpened ribs.

And there were a thousand of them, at least.

"Oh, fuck no." I said. "*Hell* no." My Calm was almost gone in an instant, but I was still standing at the wall. I was speaking, but I wasn't running. "No fucking way. No. Dude, no." My pointing toward the oncoming army was no longer one of perception, but of defiance. No. I decided. No. This wasn't *fair*. What kind of tutorial was *this*?

[Ability improved : Chanting +1
Chant improved : Cadance of Denial +1]

My words met the oncoming force. They stalled, just briefly. All the hundreds of animate bone nightmares. Every one.

Oh. This was the tutorial, I realized. This was it. The low-level challenge, designed to get us a start in this new world.

Oh fuck. We were supposed to be ready for this.

Oh dear.

[Resistance improved : Fear +1
Condition applied : Despair. You are doomed. Despair set to 8]

Spoiler: Spoiler



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About the author


Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!

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