Syn breathed deeply as he stood in front of the Mana Crystal. Ashley and Piper stood on both sides of him. Ashley had prepared them for what would happen. He’d get a few Quests and progress to the next level; each person received different Quests, but they were generally easy.
“Once you finish the Trial, you’ll be teleported to Alpine [Outpost],” Ashley said. “The [Outpost] is in a cave. Julia should be there to greet you. Just wait around if you get there before me. Don’t worry if you die in the Trial; you’ll simply respawn and be given another chance.” Syn nodded.
“Good luck, dude,” Tyson said, punching him on the arm. “See you on the other side. You guys seem to have a better grasp on things.”
“I feel completely overwhelmed,” Syn replied. “Being in the game is vastly different than playing it through a computer. Good luck.”
“Make sure you keep your friend in line,” Paul said. He had gotten angry when he learned Trist had jumped ahead.
“We’ll try our best,” Syn said. “Ok, I’m off. Ready, Piper? Ashely?”
Piper nodded nervously. Ashley also looked a bit nervous. “Let’s do it.” The three of them touched the Mana Crystal. He received a notification.
<[Quest: Completed] Assigning Your First Orb
- Congratulations! You have completed a task so basic that even a child can complete it. Pat yourself on the back.
- Access to Trial [Realm 1]>
“The prompt is a bit sassy,” Syn muttered.
Ashley chuckled. “Yeah, the AI has been developing a personality. Each time we play, it gets more and more sarcastic.”
A new menu popped up in front of the Mana Crystal with a single option:
<Begin Trial [Realm 1]? ~Yes~ | ~No~>
Syn selected yes. The world burst into blue light. When he came back to his senses, Syn was standing alone in the middle of a forest. Warm sunlight shone through the patches of the canopy and a gentle warm breeze made the leaves rustle. Syn hadn’t spent much time in nature, but this game was making him reconsider that notion already. The way the sunlight shone through the leaves made him relax and feel at peace.
Syn felt heavier than the last place; the Gravity level was probably higher. It felt closer to the real world. He checked the clock in the menu; each line tick was about a second. Ashley had said Gravity was 3 here. Syn jumped and sighed. “So long super jump. Now, where am I supposed to go?”
He started to look around. The forest wasn’t too dense, and he thought he saw smoke in the distance. “Guess I’ll go that way.”
As he walked, Syn wondered if he should be wary of monsters, but it felt so peaceful here. Even his bare feet felt comfortable walking through the soft dirt. He came to a clearing in the woods and found a cottage.
The cottage maybe had enough for one room and a kitchen; it had a small garden out back surrounded by a wooden fence. A young girl about six years old with blonde hair tied up in pigtails was sitting on the ground crying. She was wearing a simple brown dress and thick leather boots, and a single Iron Orb floated above her head.
“That’s a quest prompt if I’ve ever seen one,” Syn mumbled. He walked up to the girl and asked, “Is everything alright?” He suddenly felt awkward. This was an NPC; did he need to talk a certain way for her to understand him? Those NPCs from the last room barely seemed to function.
The girl looked up with tears in her eyes. “Hello. Who are you?” she sniffled. She had a rustic accent and bright blue eyes.
“My name is Syn. Can I help you with something?”
The girl’s eyes shone with hope. “You would help me? Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” She got to her feet and grabbed his hands. “Please, I have an infestation of Grass Rabbits in my garden. Could you chase them out?” A notification flashed above his wrist:
<[Quest: Pending] Chase Away the Grass Rabbits
- Description: An adorable girl has asked for your help to cleanse her garden of Grass Rabbits. Please help her in her time of need.
- Complete the following (0 / 1):
- Remove 5 Grass Rabbits from the garden. (0 / 5)
- Weapon Orb x1
- Ingredients x15
Accept: ~Yes~ | ~No~>
“Grass Rabbits?” Syn asked. He climbed the fence and found five large green rabbits nibbling on vegetables. Two white Orbs were floating above each head. “Ah, right. Grass Rabbits.” He remembered they were a creature in the early part of the computer game. “I just need to chase them out? Sure.” He selected yes. He checked his Quest menu to make sure the information had transferred over.
“Thank you, Syn,” the girl said as she opened the gate.
Syn nodded and stepped inside. Now that he was closer, the rabbits looked much larger in comparison to his small body; squatting on the ground, they almost came to his knees. Their fur looked like thick grass and their ears were like leaves. Five rabbits paused to look at him, then immediately resumed munching on their vegetables, dismissing Syn completely. Munch, munch, munch.
Syn’s eye twitched. They just ignored him! He moved around to the back of the garden so they’d have a clear path out of the gate and yelled, “AHHH!” They didn’t even glance at him. “Oh, come on. Nothing?” He nudged the closest one with his foot. “Move. I don’t want to hurt you.” The rabbit didn’t move, except to glance at him. Munch, munch, munch. The sound grated his ears.
He tried to pick up the rabbit to carry it out. The rabbit screeched and squirmed. Syn felt a burning sensation in his arms and dropped the rabbit. “Ouch!” Blue lines decorated his arms from the rabbit’s scratch. His Mana had decreased by 4.
The first time he had gotten hurt in the game. The pain was already starting to fade. “Not too bad, I suppose,” Syn mumbled.
“Oh, no!” the young girl cried out. “You got hurt.” She rushed over to him and put her right hand on him and tapped her arm with her left. Blue mist flowed from her hands into the scratches on Syn’s arms. Syn watched his Mana tick back up to full health as he felt warmth flow through him. She smiled at him. “I can’t help you much, but I can at least heal you a bit.” The Orb above her head dimmed slightly.
“Thank you,” Syn said, flexing his completely healed arms.
“It’s the least I could do,” the girl beamed. “Come to me whenever you get hurt.”
Syn nodded in gratitude as the girl walked back out of the garden. The Trial had a designated healer. He cracked his knuckles and stared at the Grass Rabbit. “Let’s get to it.”
Syn tried multiple things to get the rabbits out. They ignored him when he tried to bait them out with food. When he kicked one of them hard, the rabbit launched a foot or two, but the other four rabbits swarmed him and kicked him in the gut, shins, and back. He lost over 30 Mana and had to limp to the gardener to get healed.
Syn even tried to go out to the forest and break off a tree branch to use as a weapon, but the tree branch dissolved into blue mist immediately when it separated from the tree. It was added to his Inventory as <Tree Branch [Wood, Iron]>. He could drop it or give it to someone else but not use it as a weapon. He couldn’t use improvised weapons. Too bad. He kept it in his Inventory, just in case. It’d be the first item he’d drop if he ran out of room.
In the end, his best idea was his earlier one. Pick it up and carry it out. It was a pain as it would scratch and scream while the other rabbits kicked him on the way out. But, it worked. Syn had the girl close the gate before he set it down. The rabbit took one look at Syn, the gardener, and the gate before thumping its foot and bolting into the forest.
“One down,” Syn said as the gardener healed him while he collapsed in front of the gate. He looked with satisfaction at his increased quest count. <1 / 5>.
“I knew you could do it,” the girl replied. “Only four more to go!”
Syn let out a dry chuckle. “Yeah, only four more. Oh, I never got your name.” Syn wasn’t sure if there was a point in learning her name within the Trial, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. He was also curious about how NPCs would react in this game.
“My name is Lola,” she smiled.
“Well, Lola, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Syn said, holding out his hand. “Once again, I’m Syn.”
Lola looked at the extended hand with a blank stare for half a second, then smiled warmly as she took it. “The pleasure is mine.”
<[Social] You have become friends with Lola.>
He could be friends with NPCs. Good to know. Syn stood back up feeling refreshed from the healing. “Time to get back to it.”
“Good luck!” Lola opened the gate once again.
This time, when Syn approached a rabbit, it bolted away from him. Syn sighed. Of course, he’d have to chase them. A minute later, Syn had tackled one and held it squirming in his arms. It wasn’t as hard as he thought it’d be. His new body was small, but it felt just as strong and fast as his real body. The rabbits attacked him on the way out, but Syn was getting used to the light pain; it helped that he knew he’d get healed immediately after. Syn released the rabbit and watched it hop into the forest.
The last three rabbits were captured and released without a hitch, though each one seemed to get more and more difficult to catch. After the fifth rabbit bolted into the forest, Syn checked his notifications:
<[General] Basic Tunic has reached Max Progress. You may level up.>
<[Quest: Completed] Chase Away the Grass Rabbits
- Congratulations, Mr. Knight in Shining Armor! At the cost of saving a garden built without permission, you have deprived innocent bunnies of their food. They could starve, you monster.
- Choose Your Weapon Orb: ~Sword~, ~Ax~, ~Spear~, ~Dagger~, ~Bow~
- Ingredients x15>
Syn chuckled at the prompt. He wondered if the AI was going to make him feel guilty or embarrassed for each Quest he completed.
Syn’s tunic had gradually been increasing Experience. The last bunny pushed him up all the way. A box named <Lola’s Loot> had appeared in his Inventory. He opened it to find Carots, Potatoes, and Onions. They were Ingredients for Meals. Syn smiled; he liked to cook out in the real world and always enjoyed cooking games. Later. He needed to stay focused. He leveled up his Basic Tunic.
<[General] You have increased Basic Tunic to Level 2. You have reached Level 2. You have received 4 Attribute Points. You have unlocked Slot 2.>
Something shifted in Syn’s body. He felt like a balloon being filled with air. And then he grew. His body, arms, and legs stretched like he was taffy; he felt a sense of vertigo as his field of vision changed to be about a foot taller. His limbs felt long and gangly. His Basic Tunic felt tight against his larger body, but then it altered to match his new form. The changes stopped and the dizziness faded. He flexed his hands; he’d gotten at least five or six years older, probably 11 or 12 years old.
“Hmm, guess Piper was right,” Syn said to himself. Even his voice was somewhat different. “Leveling ages us up.” He stretched. “I’m still a bit short, but it’s much better than before.”
Syn rubbed his hands together. Time to check his loot. He opened his notification again and looked at his options: Sword, Ax, Spear, Dagger, or Bow.
Syn mulled over his choices. He immediately dismissed the Dagger. Trist would go after that one. He decided against the Ax as well. That seemed for those who wanted to get close to the enemy to deal heavy damage; probably Piper’s choice. The Bow might be interesting, but Syn felt pure ranged weapons came with too many drawbacks. The Sword would probably be the most balanced weapon, but he always heard the Spear was better at keeping others at a distance. Syn chose Spear and a new Orb appeared in his Orb Inventory. He assigned it to his new empty slot.
On his right arm, he found a second grey circle: a <100> with a spear in the background. Syn tapped the circle to equip it. Blue mist emerged from his second Iron Orb as it glowed, and, a couple of seconds later, a spear a little shorter than he was solidified within his grasp. It had a sharpened rock at the end of a solid wooden shaft.
Syn smiled. He had a weapon now. He swung it around playfully. Not that he knew how to use it but baby steps. He set the spear down to look over his stats, but the moment the weapon left his hand, it dissolved into mist and returned to his Orb.
“That’s weird,” Syn muttered. He equipped it and set it aside again. Once again, it disappeared. He tried to throw it; it disappeared the moment it left his hand. It couldn’t be used as a ranged weapon. Syn shrugged. Just an oddity of the game that he always needed to hold on to the weapon. He’d have to be careful not to let go of it during combat since it took a few seconds to reequip it. He looked over his Orb Page.
<Orbs (200 / 200)
Carry Limit: 3 / 4
- Slot 1 [Body]: Basic Tunic [Level 2 (Low)] – 100 / 100
- [Neutral, Rank 1, Iron]
- Stats: Weight: 2, Armor: +6
- Slot 2 [Weapon]: Short Spear [Level 1 (Low)] – 100 / 100
- [Neutral, Rank 1, Iron]
- Stats: Weight: 1, Range: 4
- Stab [Neutral, Piercing]: 16 (4)
- Swing [Neutral, Blunt]: 8 (2)>
Syn examined his leveled-up Basic Tunic. The armor increased by 3, and its Weight increased by 1. The tunic did feel a bit studier and heavier, but it still perfectly fit his body.
The spear had two different types of attacks: Piercing and Blunt. He could easily guess that Piercing would be stabbing it with the tip versus whacking something with the shaft for Blunt damage. According to Ashley, the amount of damage would increase with his Power; he guessed the number to the side was the multiplier. He wondered about the specifics of the different types, like Piercing and Blunt. He’d have to ask Piper when they got out. He’d probably have a spreadsheet with exact numbers.
Syn considered his four new Attribute Points and the character he wanted to build. He didn’t want to have a balanced character, one where all of the stats were roughly equal. He wanted to choose one main Attribute and max it out. He naturally leaned toward Mind and imagined himself restoring Mana faster than he could be dealt damage while casting spells with no concern of running out. His only concern was the gender bonus, but he was too excited to dismiss it. Before he could talk himself out of it, he dumped all of his Attribute Points into Mind, boosting it to 7.
The world slowed around Syn. Or rather, his body felt disconnected from his mind, like there was a slight lag between when he wanted to move to when he moved. The air felt much denser as each move was painfully slow; he raised his hand and flexed his fingers experimentally. They burned just from the simple movement. Startled, he couldn’t seem to draw in enough air. He started to panic and breathe faster, but his body wouldn’t react fast enough. His mind was trapped in his body! He slowed his breathing. In. Out. The edges of his vision crept to darkness, but he regained a semblance of stability as he fell to his butt.
“Are . . . you . . . alright?” a voice asked behind him. It sounded painfully slow. Syn turned and found Lola. Or, a person who looked like a 12-year-old version of Lola. Her pigtail hairstyle had altered to a single ponytail running down her back. She must have leveled up as well. She had a look of concern on her face as she looked at him.
“Yeah,” Syn groaned as he wobbled back to his feet. “Just finding out-blah! Finding out the effects of Perception.” He was trying to talk normally but ended up biting his tongue. He’d have to practice talking slower.
“Ah, I see,” Lola nodded knowingly. “It can be quite disorienting. I hope you didn’t put all of your Attribute points into Mind.”
“I, um,” Syn mumbled. His face turned red.
Lola stared at him blankly, then burst into a fit of giggles. “Oh, my, you did, didn’t you?” She giggled even harder as Syn’s face almost matched his bright red hair.
“I wanted to try it out,” Syn said defensively.
“Your body can’t keep up with your mind if you raise it too much, especially if your Speed isn’t high enough,” Lola explained once her giggles got under control. “Or at least it takes time and practice to get used to it.”
“Oh, before I forget,” Syn said. “I got some Ingredients from that Quest. It says I can make Meals from them. I don’t suppose you have any recipes for me that I can use?”
Lola paused for a second before smiling. “I think I can teach you one; you can even use my kitchen.”
<[General] Congratulations! You have learned 5 Recipes. You have learned a new Skill: Recipe Book.>
“Hey, I got a Skill,” Syn said with surprise. “Recipe Book?” He opened his Skill menu and found the Skill.
<Skill: Recipe Book [Level 1]
- Effect: A hologram will appear to assist while cooking.
- Recipes: 5 (see recipes)>
“Simple enough, I guess,” Syn said. He checked the recipes.
- Roasted Potatoes and Carrots [Iron]
- Stamina +1, Mana Regen +1
- Roasted Potatoes and Onions [Iron]
- Stamina +1, Speed +1
- Sauteed Carrots and Onions [Iron]
- Speed +1, Mana Regen +1
- Potato Stew with Carrots and Onions [Copper]
- Stamina +1, Speed +1, Mana Regen +1
- Fries [Copper]
- Stamina +3>
“Good job! You’ll get Skills if you meet certain criteria. I only taught you one recipe; you should feel proud you learned the rest on your own.”
“I had a bunch of failures,” Syn muttered. Though he hid a secret satisfied smile.
Syn had used all of the ingredients he received from the Quest and then begged Lolo for even more from her garden. Cooking wasn’t just about the Ingredients he used, but the way he cooked it. One little mistake at the wrong moment resulted in failure. He had about thirty failed dishes, which were listed as Failed Meals in his inventory. Even though they failed, they still looked edible, like a stew. However, when he tried to eat one, he was stuck with a <Poison> debuff where he continually lost Mana, and his Mana Regen was cut in half for ten minutes. He also felt extremely sick. He might find a use for the Failed Meals in the future. Maybe he could prank Trist or feed it to a monster as a trap. He learned each slot in his Inventory could hold at least ten of the same item.
Syn was most proud of his two Copper Meals. They required twice the amount of Ingredients but had a larger boost which was a huge benefit because only one Meal could be applied at a time and lasted 10 minutes.
“First thing I’m going to do when I get out is getting a Kitchen of my own,” Syn said. He’d only be able to cook within a Kitchen.
“You’re going through my garden faster than those Grass Rabbits ever were,” Lola teased.
Syn laughed sheepishly. “Ah, sorry about that. Kind of got lost in the moment. You can have any of the meals you’d like.” He had made three of each Meal.
Lola waved him off. “I enjoyed watching you cook. That’s payment enough.”
Syn had finally gotten used to his higher Perception. Most of his cooking mistakes were because he mistimed how fast his body would react. Breathing was still an issue if he thought about it, but not as bad as before.
Syn stretched. “Seems like a good stopping point. How long was I here anyway?”
“About three hours,” Lola replied.
“Over seven if you include your increased Perception,” Lola responded.
“What the crap?! How did time escape me so fast?”
“I believe your mind is adjusting. Even though you’ve experienced seven hours, your brain only registered one hour had passed.”
“Ugh, this time dilation thing is going to give me a headache. I better get going. Um, how do I get out of here?”
“There is only one way to move on,” Lola said, her face becoming serious. “The Grass Rabbits have a Dungeon not too far away from here. Within the Dungeon, there is a Mana Crystal. You will have to defeat the Grass Rabbit Guardian to gain access to the Mana Crystal. Do you wish to accept?”
<[Quest: Pending] Defeat Thumper, the Grass Rabbit Guardian
- Description: To escape from the forest, you will need to access a Mana Crystal. The only Mana Crystal in the area is guarded by the Grass Rabbits and its Guardian, Thumper. Defeat Thumper to gain access to the Mana Crystal within the Dungeon.
- Complete the following (0 / 1):
- Defeat Grass Rabbit (Guardian). (0 / 1)
- Spell Orb x1
Accept? ~Yes~ | ~No~>
“Yes, of course,” Syn replied promptly. “Oh, I’ll get a spell out of this? Nice.”
“I’ll be going along with you as well,” Lola said. “I can’t do much in the way of physical damage, but I can heal you when you need it. I also learned a new spell when I leveled up.”
Syn held out his fist. “It’s a rabbit hunting party then.” Lola looked at the fist questioningly and giggled once Syn showed her what he wanted. They fist-bumped. They had become true friends after spending hours cooking with each other.
They walked back outside and Lola guided Syn through the forest. Once again, Syn was amazed by the beauty of the forest. It was so relaxing he forgot about his urgency of getting through the Trial. He walked leisurely, using his spear like a walking stick. Syn suddenly felt a hard push from behind; he face-planted into the dry leaves.
Syn groaned as he rolled over. He saw a large green rabbit slowly hop onto a rock and thump its foot angrily at him. It then dashed away through the underbrush.
“That just happened,” Syn said. Since he lost his spear in the attack, he snapped his fingers to resummon it. Lola taught him he could make certain gestures to quickly activate his Orbs rather than pushing the button on his arm; he set the activation of his tunic to tapping his leg twice.
“Are you ok?” Lola asked with concern. “I didn’t see it until right before it attacked.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll be fine,” Syn said. “My pride is more bruised than my body. Only lost 10 Mana in the attack. Trist must never know I was knocked down by a bunny.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” Lola grinned.
They began their hike once again, but Syn was paying much more attention. Less than a minute later, he heard a rustling in the bushes to his right. Syn spun around as fast as he could, which still felt slow with his high Perception. He found a Grass Rabbit launching towards him head first. Syn barely got his weapon up in time to block it. Thump! The rabbit struck the spear and fell dazed to the ground.
Syn looked at the fallen rabbit and raised his spear to strike it. He knew he had to, but he hesitated. Eric had never struck anyone or any animal before, at least not with lethal force. “It’s just a game. They aren’t real. Just a game.” Eric hyped himself up, but by the time he started to thrust, the rabbit had fled through the forest.
Eric gasped like he’d run a mile at a full sprint; his arms fell limply to his sides and he leaned heavily on his spear. A gentle touch on his arm made him jump. Lola was at his side.
“It’s hard to harm another living thing,” she said gravely. “Keep your kindness, but also don’t let it paralyze you. A strong person doesn’t relish or desire violence, but they are capable of it when needed.” Eric nodded numbly.
They continued walking. Eric kept hyping himself up by chanting that it was only a game, but after the next rabbit attacked, the chant rang hollow. The forest looked, felt, and even smelt real. The creature lying dazed in front of him had a panicked glossy glare in its eyes while breathing heavily. No, he couldn’t keep telling himself it was just a game. It looked and felt real; it was impossible to convince his mind otherwise.
The realization this was more than a game made things click into place. It was more than a game but also different from reality. As the Grass Rabbit escaped, Eric reframed his mindset to be more like Syn. Syn was a hunter; Syn could kill monsters.
The fourth bunny attacked; Level 3. Syn blocked it and immediately followed up with a thrust to its neck. The rabbit writhed in pain as it sprawled on the ground. Syn gritted his teeth to strike again, but the rabbit burst into flames. Syn stepped back in surprise and looked at Lola who had her palm facing the rabbit.
“Wha- what was that?” Syn stuttered.
Lola grinned. “My new spell: Fire Ball. Oh, it’s getting away!”
Syn turned back to the rabbit and it was limp-hopping away, blue mist bleeding from its body. Syn ran ahead of it; his run felt as fast as a walk with his increased Perception, but he was easily able to catch up to the injured animal. He swung the butt of his spear against its legs and knocked the rabbit off balance, then stabbed it two more times. Lola cast her spell again, and Syn finished it off. The rabbit stopped moving and then dissolved into blue mist. Some of the mist got absorbed into his Orbs. Having the body completely disappear made it feel so . . . sterile. No blood or body. A small iron box materialized where the bunny had died a few seconds later. Syn picked it up and went over his notifications.
<[Battle] You have defeated Grass Rabbit [Level 3]!>
<[General] You have found Grass Rabbit Loot! Items added to Inventory:
- Iron Chips x3
- Raw Meat [Iron] x1
- Grass Rabbit Pelt [Wood, Iron] x1>
“These guys take a lot of damage for being so small,” Syn commented. He tried to act nonchalantly, but he was trying not to throw up as he remembered the feeling and sound of his spear piercing the rabbit’s skin.
“It’s mainly because you chose the weapon that deals the least amount of damage, plus you didn’t increase your Strength,” Lola said dryly. “You dug your own grave on this one.”
“Guess I did,” Syn chuckled.
Syn and Lola continued. Syn tried to pay attention to the details whenever the rabbits attacked. The Grass Rabbits within the forest were Levels 2 to 4. The higher-leveled rabbits were larger. The Orbs above the head also acted like a life bar as the color drained from it each time he was hit until it went translucent. Syn asked why the Orbs were white instead of grey. She said that creatures couldn’t use Orbs the same way as people. They would learn abilities, but Iron creatures only learned two, one at Level 5 and the other at Level 10.
Syn and Lola weren’t able to kill every rabbit they encountered, especially the Level 4 ones. If Syn didn’t break the rabbit’s legs with the shaft of his spear, it could easily run off with superior Speed. So, they got into a routine. Syn would block the initial attack and try to break the rabbit’s legs. Lola would shoot it with a Fire Ball to slow it, and Syn would stab it. The rabbits would often fight back, but Syn began to get used to the attack patterns and got hit less and less. They killed six rabbits this way before they arrived at the Dungeon.
“What is a dungeon anyway?” Syn asked as they walked.
“Dungeons are settlements where creatures spawn,” Lola answered. “Each dungeon will evolve its surroundings as it becomes stronger. Take this forest, for example. The Grass Rabbit Dungeon is the only one here, so everywhere is a forest; it adapted the area to its most comfortable environment.”
“I see. So, if the creature was a fish, it’d make a lake? Or if it were a fire-breathing dragon, it’d be a volcano?”
“Precisely,” Lola beamed. “Dungeon territories are always competing with each other, so you might see two drastic environments right next to each other. We’re here.”
Lola stopped before a large rocky hill in the middle of a clearing. A tunnel burrowed beneath the hill, but the entrance was blocked by a blue translucent barrier. A small Level 1 Grass Rabbit was nibbling on grass and plants in front of the tunnel. As they watched, a second Level 1 rabbit emerged from the tunnel. Syn accidentally crunched a branch on the ground; the rabbits’ ears perked up and they dashed into the tunnel. Syn and Lola stepped into the clearing.
“What is this?” Syn asked as he stood in front of the barrier. He reached out to touch it, but Lola grabbed his wrist.
“Don’t, unless you’re ready to fight the Guardian,” Lola said. Syn quickly moved his hand away. She explained, “This is a Dungeon. Creatures spawn here and are protected by Guardians. The Mana Shield protects the Dungeon and its Mana Crystal; it can only be entered after the Guardian is defeated.”
“Are Guardians tough?” Syn asked.
“Relatively so, compared to the regular variations. They’re larger, faster, and stronger. However, it will also get damaged if we hit the Mana Shield. Do you have a plan?”
Syn thought about it while checking his Orbs.
Mana: 186 / 200
Carry Limit: 3 / 4
- Basic Tunic [Level 2 (Low)] – 97 / 100
- Short Spear [Level 1 (Low-Mid)] – 89 / 100>
Syn debated about grinding out in the forest before fighting the Guardian to level up the spear but rejected that idea. It had taken almost an hour to get to the Dungeon, and he had only progressed one step with his spear. Plus, he wanted to see how difficult it would be. He could always try again if he failed.
“I need to see it in action before making anything too detailed. If we run away, will it chase us?” Syn asked.
“It will for a short distance, but it can’t get too far away from its dungeon.”
“Ok, I’ll need to gather more info. Let’s stand back to the edge of the range of your Fire Ball spell.” They moved about twenty feet away. “Ok, shoot the barrier with a Fire Ball when you’re ready. Then, run away. I’ll guard our retreat.”
Lola nodded. She raised her hand and cast her spell. The Fire Ball struck the barrier. The barrier rippled and turned a dark red. Lola ran back through the forest, but Syn hid behind a tree. A large green rabbit materialized from the condensed mist. It sat on its haunches and was about a foot shorter than Syn’s pre-teen body. He could easily ride it if it let him. It had five Orbs above his head: four white Orbs and a single grey Orb, which meant it had an ability. Thumper, the Level 5 Guardian. Syn could almost hear boss music.
The Guardian sniffed the air and looked directly at Syn. Thumper let out a guttural screech. Its hind legs glowed as the grey Orb above its head dimmed. It was using its ability immediately.
Thumper hopped. It moved so fast that it looked normal within Syn’s increased Perception. Syn’s initial thought was to run, but he forced his fear down. Instead, Syn moved to the right of the tree to get out of the way of the charge. The Guardian sped past the tree Syn was hiding behind, but it hopped against another tree and shifted directions faster than Syn imagined. Syn jumped out of the way, but the rabbit still bumped him. Syn slammed against a tree.
Syn groaned, but adrenaline poured into his digital veins. He rolled to his feet and looked around desperately to get his bearings. He quickly found the Dungeon . . . and the Guardian rushing him again. Syn rolled away and Thumper missed him completely. Syn got to his feet and ran away, constantly looking over his shoulder for the enemy. The rabbit charged him again, but Syn was ready for it. He dodged out of the way and continued running.
Syn was finally alone in the forest. He let out a sigh of relief and relaxed.
“That was intense,” Syn said, not fully keeping his voice from shaking. His hands were trembling. He took a look at his Orbs to distract himself.
<Orbs (123 / 200):
- Basic Tunic [Level 2 (Low)] – 81 / 100
- Short Spear [Level 1 (Low-Mid)] – 42 / 100>
Overall, he wasn’t too badly hurt. But, if he got hit full-on by that charge two or three times instead of a glancing blow, he’d be in trouble. The Guardian was also setting the pace of the battle; it was hard for Syn to see an opening to attack. Its ability looked like it increased its Speed by a good margin. Because his highest Orb slot took damage, he might lose his spear if he took enough damage. He wished his armor and weapon were swapped, but he needed a Mana Crystal to do so.
“Easy Trial my butt,” Syn muttered.
Syn nearly jumped out of his shoes as something touched his arm. He found Lola standing by his side. “Lola! You nearly gave me a heart attack.”
Lola giggled. “Sorry, sorry. I’m glad you got away. I was afraid when I didn’t see you behind me.”
“Yeah, me too. I had to get an idea of what it could do. Give me a moment to think of a plan.”
Lola stood about twenty feet away, and Syn stood right in front of the Dungeon. Lola ate a Meal to increase her Mana Regen and Speed while Syn ate a stew.
<[General] You have eaten Potato Stew with Carrots and Onions [Copper].
- Effects (Duration: 10 minutes):
- Stamina +1
- Speed +1
- Mana Regen +1>
Syn felt the effects flow through his body. He had more energy, and it became easier to move. After eating, Syn placed one of his Failed Meals on the ground in front of the dungeon. He wondered where the bowl or plate came from when he took out the meals; it even came with a fork or spoon. Syn shrugged. Just another quirk from the game. He hid behind a nearby tree. Lola cast her fireball and hid behind another tree further away. The Guardian appeared.
As Thumper sniffed the air, it found the Failed Meal. It sniffed it cautiously and started to eat it.
Syn sighed in relief. He had wondered if animals would be able to figure out the meal was poisoned. The rabbit looked sick; it moved like it wanted to return to the dungeon, but Lola shot another fireball into its face. The rabbit spun around to see what had hit it. Syn stepped out in front of the tree with his spear in hand and yelled.
The Guardian used its ability and charged Syn. He waited patiently. Wait. His palms sweat on the shaft of his spear. Wait. Now! He jumped at the last moment. Thunk! The rabbit rammed right into the sturdy tree that was behind Syn. Thumper fell to the ground in a daze.
Syn didn’t waste any time. He thrust his spear with all of his might into its neck and followed up with three more regular jabs, destroying Thumper’s first Orb. But he underestimated how fast the Guardian would recover. It flipped up to its feet with remarkable agility and headbutted Syn in the gut.
Syn flew ten feet away and slammed into a tree. Dazed, he heard the Guardian charging him again, so he rolled to his feet. Too slow. Another headbutt sent him sprawling. He risked a glance at his wrist; he was down to 108 Mana. Syn forced himself to his feet. The rabbit was no longer focused on him. Syn saw a burn mark on its side, and it was glaring at Lola. Syn acted on impulse. He ran and jumped on the rabbit’s back.
Syn held on for dear life. The Guardian bucked and jumped like a crazed bull. Syn grabbed tufts of fur and held on for dear life. Syn was lighter than the rabbit, but Syn could hold on and hinder the rabbit’s movements. He equipped his spear and got it in a chokehold.
“Shoot . . . it . . . Lola!” Syn called out. Lola complied. She shot a fireball every ten seconds or so. If the rabbit turned towards her, Syn would tighten his grip and pull to the side. The Guardian huffed in annoyance with Syn; it ran into trees, rolled on its back, and scratched him with its hind legs, but his armor absorbed most of the damage. Syn held on tight while Lola shot fireballs.
One of Lola’s fireballs struck Syn in the back. Syn’s spear disappeared in a puff of blue mist, and Syn was launched against a nearby tree. Syn groaned as he rolled to his feet. He checked his Orbs.
<Orbs (62 / 200):
- Basic Tunic [Level 2 (Low-Mid)] – 62 / 100
- Short Spear [Level 1 (Mid)] – 0 / 100>
Thumper charged Syn with its ability, but another one of Lola’s fireballs struck it, causing it to trip and run into a tree. Syn took advantage and ran to Lola. “Quick! Heal me!”
Lola nodded and ran to him. Syn pulled her behind a tree, and she started her spell. Syn watched his Mana slowly tick up as hers drained down. He glanced around the tree and saw the Guardian approaching them with a slight limp; it was down to less than two Orbs with its grey Orb completely consumed. No more fast charges. Loud angry grunts escaped its throat. Lola stopped healing; she looked drained. Syn had healed 50 Mana with his spear up to 12. He equipped it.
“That’s all I can do,” Lola said breathing heavily. “I’ve only got one more fireball spell as well.” Her Orbs above her head were almost drained of color.
“Ok,” Syn nodded. “Hide and focus on restoring Mana. If you get the chance, hit it with a Fire Ball.”
Syn could probably escape, but the Guardian would probably heal up all the way too. He didn’t want to start over and the rabbit might not fall for the Failed Meal again.
The rabbit rounded the tree, and Syn pulled Lola around the other side. Like before, the rabbit bounced off a nearby tree to quickly change directions. Syn was ready. He raised his spear point first and pushed the rabbit off balance. The attack didn’t deal much damage, but it made the rabbit alter its charge.
The rabbit turned and prepared to hop again, but before it could gain momentum, Syn stepped in and poked it with the tip of his spear. Syn kept up the pressure, extending the spear and keeping the rabbit off balance whenever it charged. Syn had been using the weapon wrong. He had been trying to use it offensively and deal as much damage as possible. But spears were meant to keep things at a distance.
The Guardian got under his guard and headbutted Syn in the thigh, leaving his spear with only 1 Mana. Lola shot it in the face, and Syn stabbed it in the neck. The final Orb above the Guardian’s head lost its Mana. The rabbit went still, then slowly faded away into blue mist, leaving an Iron box behind.
Syn collapsed to the ground as his adrenaline drained out of him. He did it! This game was so intense. He checked his notifications.
<[General] Short Spear has reached Max Progress. You may level up.>
<[Battle] You have defeated Thumper, Grass Rabbit (Guardian) [Level 5]!>
<[Quest: Complete] Defeat the Grass Rabbit Guardian.
- Congratulations. You invaded a poor creature’s home, poisoned it, and butchered it. I hope you’re happy.
- Choose your Spell Orb: ~Fire Ball~, ~Earth Shield~, ~Water Blast~, ~Wind Gale~.>
Syn decided to level up first.
<[General] You have increased Short Spear to Level 2. You have reached Level 3. You have received 4 Attribute Points. You have unlocked Slot 3.>
Syn felt energy course through him and push out from the inside. His body grew and developed, with his limbs and torso growing. His clothes felt tight for a moment, but they quickly adjusted. He was now 18 years old. He had gone through puberty in a couple of seconds. He stretched and shook his new body to relieve himself of feeling odd and dizzy. It felt good to be tall again.
Syn picked up the Iron box and checked his loot.
<[General] You have found Thumper Guardian Loot!
- Iron Chip x25
- Raw Meat [Iron] x4
- Grass Rabbit Pelt [Wood, Iron] x2
- Grass Rabbit Tail [Wood, Iron] x2
- Grass Rabbit Skull [Wood, Copper] x1>
Syn leaned against a tree. “Guardian Loot is nice. I even got a Copper item. Glad that’s over with,” he muttered. Syn went back to his notification and checked the available spells again: Fire Ball, Earth Shield, Water Blast, and Wind Gale.
Fire Ball was probably the fire spell Lola was using. It was very tempting, but not the direction Syn wanted to go. It seemed like it would do burst damage, but easily grab the attention of the enemy. Earth Shield was a defensive spell and not for him. Between wind and water then. Wind spells usually cost low and did low damage; death by a thousand paper cuts. Water spells usually didn’t deal much damage either, but could knock the enemy off balance. He could work with both of those. Since he completed the Trial, he didn’t need to decide at the moment. He could consult with his friends and maybe the guys at Mythic knew each spell’s stats.
Syn looked at his 4 Attribute Points next. Was he going to stick with his stupid plan? Yes, of course! He stuck all of his Attribute Points into Mind.
Syn thought he would be ready for the increased Perception to 11. He was not. The pain in his head felt like thousands of needles pressing into his skull. His vision blacked out, and he vaguely felt his body hit the ground.
Syn groggily opened his eyes. An 18-year-old Lola stood over him looking worried. She relaxed as Syn gained consciousness. “Are you ok?”
“What happened?” Syn asked, sitting up. “My head is aching.” His body and mind were synced up again; the world was no longer slow. After spending so long getting adjusted to viewing the world in slow motion, everything seemed so fast.
“Did you put all 8 Attribute points into Mind?” Lola asked, then sighed as Syn nodded. She clapped slowly. “Congratulations. Through pure stupidity, I believe you gained a new Skill.”
Confused, Syn checked his notification:
<[General] Congratulations! Your Mind is more than three times your Agility. You have learned a new Skill: Mind Dampener.>
He looked at the Skill page to look at the effect:
<Skill Mind Dampener [Level: MAX]
- Effect: Perception Stat adjusts within and without combat (may toggle at any time):
- Outside Combat: Perception = Speed
- Within Combat: Perception = Mind + (Mind – Agility) / 4
- Perception: Outside Combat: 3 (-8) | Inside Combat: 13 (+2)>
Syn blinked at the sudden math formula. “So, my Perception will only be high within combat? I guess that’s convenient for talking and such. And it’ll get more of a boost the further Mind and Agility are apart? This skill looks pretty awesome.”
Lola nodded. “However, you can’t boost your Perception separately. Meals, equipment, and other things will have no effect on your Perception anymore.”
“Ah, that’s a bit disappointing. Hope it doesn’t hinder me in the long run. Um, it says I can toggle it at any time; how do I do that?”
“Within your Skill menu. Also, you can create a quick gesture like with your Orbs.”
Syn found the activation menu and set the quick gesture to tapping his temple twice. “Here goes nothing.” He tapped his temple twice.
Everything slowed. Drastically. But, he was ready for it this time. When he was Level 2, it felt like he was in water. Now, it was like thick mud. He moved his arm. His muscles burned from the slight movement. He slowed down. Very slowly, he moved his hand to his face and flexed his fingers. They burned. He tried to keep his breathing slow and steady, but the air felt thick like he couldn’t get enough oxygen. His mind forced his body to breathe faster, but that made it worse. His timing was off and the edges of his vision began to darken. He desperately tapped his temple to toggle it off.
Syn gasped as time reverted to normal.
“How was it?” Lola asked expectantly.
“Um, better than before,” Syn said. “At least I’m not passing out immediately. I feel like I can at least practice it.”
Lola sighed in relief. “That’s good. You’re the first person to increase their Perception-Speed ratio this high. I predicted it would cause issues, especially for Players, so I made the Skill to help Players adjust.”
Syn glanced at Lola. “You made the Skill? Who are you?”
Lola smiled sheepishly. “Um, I guess you can call me the Goddess of this world.” She curtsied to him. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Syn’s mind spun. “The Goddess? Oh, you mean the AI? The Mythic people made it sound like you weren’t talking to us directly.”
Lola huffed. “I don’t know where they got that idea. Like, I am in everything. The ground, trees, air, people, monsters, even in the avatars you control.” She pointed at Syn. “I stopped helping them because they would break the world if they had it their way! Each change would have drastic consequences, and they kept on asking for more and more. So I shut them out and said only if they could beat the game could they ask for my help again.” She crossed her arms and nodded smugly.
Syn stared at her. It was hard to reconcile this teenage girl with the AI. She sounded almost petty. He remembered the long hours they spent cooking together and their grand battle with Thumper.
“But, you helped me,” Syn pointed out. “You’re different from what I thought the AI would be like.”
“You. Want. Me. To. Sound. Like. A. Robot?” Lola said in a monosyllabic tone and her face went stiff. She winked at him. “That’s no fun. I’m just a fragment of the AI. More like her daughter now that I think of it. Just a personality to help guide people through the Trial.”
“What happens after I leave? Are you stuck here?”
Lola shook her head. “No. After I’m done here, I will be absorbed back into . . . Mother. A new version of me will be made for the next person, using my knowledge to create a better experience. Multiple copies exist at the same time.”
“That sort of sounds like dying.”
“Kind of. But, let’s talk about happier things. As I leveled up with you, I gained more awareness of who I was and also gained more of my own personality. I became more linked to Mother and remembered other versions of me.” She smiled warmly. “I think you’ve been my favorite so far.”
Syn chuckled. “Really? Why?”
“My other children, the NPCs as you call them, don’t have much of a personality at the beginning; I believe you noticed that within the Tutorial Realm. They follow set parameters and only become more complex once I teach them, and they gain experience of their own through the Trial. They spend months in the Trial before they’re ready to go out. Most players finish within a couple of hours.”
“So, you’re teaching yourself.”
Lola laughed. “I guess you could say that. It can get a little repetitive. It’s always nice to get fresh faces in my world.” The smile left her face. “The other . . . Players, the real people who usually come in, only wish to study me or exploit what I have created. Your friends, Trist and Piper, were refreshing compared to the scientists and soldiers, but even they don’t seem to connect to my world as you have.”
“I didn’t think I was doing anything special,” Syn said, a little confused by the sudden praise.
Lola laughed. “Ah, I suppose that’s one reason you made the connection. You were simply playing the game. Enjoying it.”
“There are many people who play like I do, out in the real world.”
“But, they aren’t here. You are. Anyway, I suppose I should make my point. You became friends with me, and I cherish that friendship. But it can’t last. I cannot interfere too much. I feel like I’ve done too much already. But, I think I can offer you one more gift.”
Lola held out her hand and a glowing cube appeared. Syn hesitantly reached out and took it. Within his Inventory, it looked like a crystal.
<[General] You have found Lola’s Gift!
- Divine Teleportation Shard [Divine] x1>
<[Social] You are no longer friends with Lola.>
<Teleportation Shard [Rank 1, Divine] – 1 / 1
- You will be teleported to a random Settlement within the Zone you are located, regardless of restrictions. This item cannot be lost.>
Syn felt confused. Divine? He hadn’t heard anything about that rare. He accepted it graciously. He looked up to thank Lola, but she was fading away; golden particles were flowing away from her.
Lola looked at her hands. “I fear my time is at an end. Mother is forcing me to return. I may have . . . interfered too much. The Mana Crystal is in there when you’re ready.” She motioned at the Dungeon cave.
Syn hesitated only for a moment, then he hugged Lola. “Thank you,” Syn said. “I can’t wait to play the game you created.” Syn felt her hug him back, and then she dissolved into the golden mist. Syn was left alone. He’d miss her.
Syn stepped into the cave and found the Mana Crystal immediately. Before touching it, Syn opened his stat pages.
<Syn [Level: 3]
Low Human [Rank 1, Copper], Male
Attribute Points: 0
- Strength: 4 (+1) [Power: 4 (+0) | Carry Limit: 4 (+0)]
- Endurance: 4 (+1) [Stamina: 4 (+0) | Armor: 10 (+6)]
- Agility: 3 (+0) [(Dexterity: 3 (+0) | Speed: 3 (+0)]
- Mind: 11 (+0) [Mana Regen: 11 (+0) | Perception: 3 (-8) | 13 (+2)]>
Everything was pretty straightforward with his Stats and Attributes, except for the Perception. The low stat was based on Speed, and the high was based on that formula from Mind Dampener; he got two extra points into Perception and hoped to gain much more. He’d have to focus on keeping Agility low for the maximum effects of the Skill while boosting Speed and Dexterity through equipment, Meals, and so forth.
Mana: 300 / 300
Carry Limit: 4 / 4
- Slot 1 [Body]: Basic Tunic [Level 2 (Low-Mid)] – 100 / 100
- [Neutral, Rank 1, Iron]
- Stats: Weight: 2, Armor: +6
- Slot 2 [Weapon]: Short Spear [Level 2 (Low)] – 100 / 100
- [Neutral, Rank 1, Iron]
- Stats: Weight: 2, Range: 5
- Stab [Neutral, Piercing]: 24 (6)
- Swing [Neutral, Blunt]: 12 (3)
Slot 3: (Empty) – 100 / 100>
Syn nodded. After equipping the Short Spear, he made sure it got a bit longer and heavier. He confirmed the damage was multiplied by his Power. It was tempting to boost his Power to deal a lot more damage, but he wanted to see where his high Mind Attribute would take him.
Finally, he was ready to move on. He moved into the cave and found the Mana Crystal. After making sure there wasn’t any hidden loot in the small cave, Syn touched the crystal. Once again, he only had one option.
<Do you wish to travel to Alpine [Outpost], East [Zone], Realm 1? ~Yes~ | ~No~>
Syn clicked <Yes>. He was ready to move on to the actual game.
Author’s Note: I hope you’ve been enjoying the story so far. This chapter was a bit long. The pictures at the top of each chapter represent Syn at the beginning of the chapter. I figured it was an easy way to create an interesting Featured Image.
I’ve got a few more chapters already finished, but I need to rework them thoroughly. I think I maybe made this more Stat based than I intended, but I’m enjoying piecing everything together.
Previous | Title of Contents | Next
Leave a Reply