Mason looked at his broken legs, then back at the horrible red waters he’d just escaped.
“There’s a giant crocodile in there. And I didn’t see any fish.”
The crone just stirred and shrugged, as if such petty details were beyond her concern.
Mason watched his flesh slowly heal, and sighed. He knew his bones would take considerably longer, and he didn’t get the impression this crone meant he should go fishing after a few hours. After a minute or two of building up the strength and courage, he crawled back into the water.
He swam back through the darkness, then back into the murky waters with a quick glance to check for giant crocodiles. He gave a brief glance at the bottom, hoping somehow his bow had dropped to the bottom and would just be lying there for him to retrieve. No such luck.
After swimming onward with excruciating speed and considerable agony, Mason stopped bothering to try. He closed his eyes, held onto the nymph’s charm around his neck, and channeled his mana into Speak with Nature, doing his best to think of fish.
[Come to me. Now.]
Not the giant crocodile, he thought, not the giant crocodile.
He opened his eyes and practically snorted. No doubt Blake would have something to say about his ridiculously stupid superpower of talking to fish.
He waited several long moments, no idea what else he would do if this didn’t work, before noticing the red water flash with something pink. He blinked again, and saw a thick, maybe salmon swimming happily along, straight for him.
He was practically too stunned to react, but waited until it was close before he summoned Claw. Still the fish came right onward, just as instructed, and with a fast beating heart he skewered the animal straight through the center. It did its best to swim away, ripping the wound further until it swam no more.
With a sigh of relief, Mason dragged the fish back through the darkness and into the cave, sliding it up towards the crone.
“A salmon,” she said, as if that meant something. “How interesting.”
“I caught the first fish I found,” Mason shrugged. And the crone smiled with her few remaining teeth.
“I’m sure you did. So tell me, ranger and druid of the great forest—you talk of protecting others. What do you want for yourself?”
Again Mason truly considered it before he answered, having no desire to lie to the crone. He smiled as he thought about a future away from all the madness, just him and Haley and Rebecca living in some secret forest near water. Maybe Blake and his woman a little down the coast.
“I have women in my life, family,” he said. “I would make them happy. Give them children. Live in peace. That’s all I want.”
The crone snorted, then dragged the salmon by the tail up her little hill. “All males want the same. To spread their seed far and wide. But you need feel no shame, for that is the way of things.” She tore chunks from the fish and dropped it in her cauldron, working and cooking in silence until she retrieved it with some kind of tongs. She placed the bits and pieces of soggy fish in a cup, and walked to Mason’s side.
“Eat and drink everything in the cup,” she ordered, then limped back to her chair.
“And I’ll gain some new knowledge?” Mason asked, sniffing and recoiling at the smell.
“You will,” the crone nodded.
Mason felt entirely uncomfortable with the smell of the ‘stew’, but decided he had little choice. He opened his mouth and took in the slimy chunks, forcing himself to gulp down swallow after swallow, until every drop of the liquid was gone.
The crone watched him carefully now, her face expressionless.
“I have not seen anyone finish the cup,” she said, then shrugged. “Perhaps you will survive.”
Mason fought the gag and retch that followed, growling as he clenched his jaw and focused on the pain in his body instead of the awful taste in his mouth. But the taste turned to a burning, which flowed down his throat and into his gust, twisting with terrible coil.
“Did you poison me?” he growled when the pain didn’t diminish.
“Of course,” said the crone. “Suffering is not the only path to wisdom. But it is the fastest.”
He tried to climb towards her, but his limbs were suddenly weak and numb and he collapsed to the stone. His vision swam and filled with strange color, and he began to hear the crone chanting in a language he didn’t understand. She walked to him, and filled his vision, and the ancient woman flickered in his gaze with another, younger version, beautiful, raven haired and wild.
She closed her eyes and pressed her forehead against his as she chanted, holding her cauldron stirring stick in the air, which Mason now saw was a gnarled staff. Then she smiled and kissed him gently on the lips, wiping her thumb across to wipe off the moisture she’d left.
“Rise, child,” she whispered in a lilting voice, then stepped away and aged and withered until she was the crone again.
“You survived,” she croaked. “I always did like surprises. Congratulations.”
[You have gained the unique power: Blessing of Gaia. Your body and spirit are infused with primal life.]
[Objective gained: Earn a blessing from every ancient druid in the world.]
The poison Mason had felt faded almost instantly. He rose up and stared at the text, then the crone, his eyes wide. “You’re a druid?”
“Once,” the old woman cackled. “The power of life has left me now. Only wisdom remains. Go. Be useful. Protect the world from what is to come.”
“Which is what?” Mason felt his heart beat faster at the words. “What do you mean?”
The crone rose and walked towards her pool, leaning heavily on her staff. “The same thing that always comes, young buck. Death. Now leave me in peace. I sleep with my ancestors.” Without another word, or looking back, she tipped over, splashed into the water, and disappeared.
* * *
For a little while, Mason just lay staring at the strange cave. His body still hurt, though less so with every passing moment. What exactly Blessing of Gaia did he had no idea. Infused with primal life? That seemed pretty much useless as a description.
But it was time to pick a new power, so he pulled up the options.
He still had the stealth package of powers he’d never touched and still didn’t think was worth it. If he was alone, maybe it made sense, but it seemed life now was pretty much always defending others.
Ranger’s Mark was getting tempting. Between the giant plants and the dungeon bosses, it seemed there were plenty of targets he needed a boost to bring down.
Then the druid had a collection of spells, like Healing Wind and Stinging Swarm. They all sounded pretty excellent, but remained difficult choices because of Mason’s mana.
Even so…some kind of insect swarm into an opponent’s face in a key moment…the ability to heal a dying person...
After long seconds of staring, he took Ranger’s Mark, and checked his profile.
Primary Class: Ranger
Secondary Class: Druid
Titles: Killer, Early Lead, Soloist, Crazy like a Fox, Burnt the Boats, Progenitor, Hit the Ground Running, First Blood
Powers: Power Shot, Crippling Strike (enhanced), Regeneration, Predator’s Strike, *Nature Affinity, Ranger’s Claw, Endless Quiver (enhanced), Trapmaking, Aspect of the Cheetah, Blessing of Gaia, Ranger’s Mark
The complete lack of description remained infuriating. He supposed he’d just have to try it like everything else, except it didn’t seem to have any kind of ‘active’ ability. He could at least turn it off, apparently, though he had no idea what it did or why he would. It didn’t seem to take any mana.
He hoped perhaps the nymphs could tell him something.
First, he needed to rest, then find a way out of the damn dungeon. He lay back and closed his eyes, hoping for a few hours of sleep in the cave. Then he heard something like boiling water. He opened one eye, and soon saw the crone’s pool was starting to overflow. A moment later, a piece of the roof fell just as it had outside.
“Figures.” Mason rolled over and groaned as pain flared in his ribs. More of the roof began to collapse, and Mason crawled back into the water as debris splashed and sloshed all around him. If anything the cave’s collapse was increasing in speed, and with painful effort Mason returned to the magically dark passage and beyond.
As he again entered the red waters of the main dungeon, it felt somehow…different. It was like the water was draining him somehow, as if it were freezing cold and sapping his warmth, except it seemed lukewarm. The feeling continued, and Mason again dove down to search for a tunnel or anything to get him out and to safety, or at least somewhere else. Anywhere else. But he saw nothing.
He took deep breaths and tried not to panic. He clutched his nymph charm, perhaps just for something comforting, as he saw the giant shape of the crocodile ahead. It seemed finished with its meal, slowly touring around the central pillar.
Mason could have sworn he saw it more clearly now. Rather than just a dreadful dark shape he saw the huge maw, the green scales, the hanging legs dragging through the water. Had his eyes become sharper somehow? He blinked, trying to decide, then he understood—the water was clearing.
The red tinge was growing dimmer and dimmer, and Mason realized the feeling of being drained was diminishing. He looked at himself and saw a faint green light, similar to what Calypsa had shed when she was cleansing the pools. He would have been thrilled, if it wasn’t for the crocodile.
By the beast’s movement he knew he couldn’t possibly outswim it. In a last ditch panic he activated Communicate with Nature, and as he did he felt the presence of the beast’s mind as he’d felt the wolves. He was about to scream a command, an insult, anything that meant ‘don’t bloody eat me’ when he heard the impossibly deep voice of the crocodile.
Thank you, druid, for cleansing my pool.
Mason tread water, somewhat dumbfounded, as the croc continued towards him. You’re welcome! He was trying to shout. Don’t eat me! I’m hardly a snack!
Then the beast turned its jaw away, one of its forelegs snatching Mason with impossible strength, dragging him down into the depths.
Go in peace, said the voice from the deep. But do not return.
Mason plowed through the water like he was being dragged behind a boat. Then the feeling stopped, and he was hurled down towards the bottom of the cave. He opened his eyes to see another swirling pool, helpless to stop himself from diving straight in.
He didn’t bother to try, and the world darkened and sucked him from one place to another, and yet again his vision transformed.
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