Blake shivered as his body felt squeezed through an invisible hole. Then he was standing in the familiar gloom of the great forest, Seul-ki and the raven-haired nymph holding his hand and arm. By the soft, orange light piercing the canopy, he guessed it was about mid morning.
Rebecca stepped out in front of them.
“Where’s Mason?” she panted, looking around the woods as if she might find him.
“He will emerge when he can,” said the nymph, letting go of Seul-ki and Blake.
“What?” Rebecca ran her hands through her hair. “We’ve gotta find him. We can’t just sit here, I mean y’all have no idea what’s happened, or if…”
“We can’t,” the nymph explained. “For us, the dungeon no longer exists. We cannot re-enter.”
Becky looked back and forth between them, eyes growing increasingly wild.
“We can’t just leave him. He’s my…we can’t…”
“I love him too.” Blake smiled gently, sending another soothing blast with Mental Influence. “But I’ve known Mason my whole life. The only thing he ever needs saving from is himself. Give him some time. He’s alive, I promise you that. And we need to get back to Nassau and make sure my people and your friends are still doing alright. OK? There’s other people who need you, who need protecting.”
Rebecca took deep breaths through her nose. “OK.” She wiped a few tears from her eyes. “I trust you. Though I’m not sure why.”
Blake smiled with most of his charm. “Because I am an extremely trustworthy individual. Calypsa my dear, can you help guide us back to Nassau? I’m not saying we couldn’t find it, but Mason tends to…handle that sort of thing…”
The nymph frowned. “I can. If Mistress Rebecca desires.”
The farm girl blinked and looked between them with total confusion as she went slightly pink. “Um, sure?”
“As you wish,” said the nymph without emotion. “Follow me.”
They eventually followed, walking largely in silence behind the nymph for a time. Blake checked out his profile and his new options, happy with what he found but not ready to choose.
He knew he had every logical reason to be worried about Mason, but…he just didn’t. He couldn’t.
To worry about Mason was to believe he could be killed. To believe Mason wouldn’t have survived and come out even stronger was just something Blake was incapable of accepting. So he didn’t worry at all, and was having a rather pleasant walk, as far as walks in forests went.
So he did his best to cheer up the others.
“In case I didn’t say it often enough inside that awful place—you all did wonderfully.”
Rebecca smiled politely, so he gave her a shot of pride and confidence with Mental Influence before he punched her in the arm. “Those shields are bloody incredible, darling! I can’t imagine what else you’ll get as you level up.”
She brushed some hair away from her face and smiled more genuinely. “I leveled twice in there. I can choose a kind of force attack, or like a personal shield that lasts longer. Maybe you guys could help me pick? I was hoping Mason would, but I only have an hour.”
“Of course we can! Why don’t you tell us what you’re thinking?”
Rebecca walked through her rather boring thoughts on her options, and Blake focused on fake active listening.
“Incredible! Truly incredible. I can see why you’re struggling to decide. What does your gut say?”
She frowned. “The shield, I think. Sorta seems like my job. Maybe I can get in there a bit better without using so much energy.”
“I find the gut is usually right. I agree. Take it.” He smiled encouragingly. “Want to test it out?”
Rebecca smiled shyly but shrugged like she might as well.
Calypsa turned with a scolding expression before softening it as she looked at Rebecca. “There are creatures that detect magic in this forest, please wait until you’re somewhere safe.”
“Oh.” Rebecca gave one of her annoying blushes, and Blake rolled his eyes.
“Don’t worry you’ll get your chance. I’m very pleased you’ve joined us, Rebecca, you and yours. I think you’re going to be a major part of the town. And I can see you make Mason happy.”
“I hope so,” her eyes welled slightly with tears and he regretted mentioning Mason. But still, he smiled with all the confidence in the world.
“I know so.”
“Because that’s what I do, my dear.” Blake winked. “I talk too much, and I know things.
“You make a good couple, then,” she said, then started going pink. “You and Seul-ki, I mean. It’s just…Seul-ki doesn’t say much. I mean that’s OK, I like it, I just mean…oh I’m so bad at this, I don’t mean nothing.”
Blake laughed, and Seul-ki provided a polite smile. “I am not offended, Miss Rebecca. I speak when I wish to speak. But you’re right, it’s nice to have Blake do most of the talking.”
Blake took a breath and put a comforting hand on the country girl’s shoulder. “You’re a very sweet girl. But you don’t have to worry about offending us. Hell, we’re practically family.”
“Quiet,” Calysta hissed from ahead.
“Well that’s a touch rude,” Blake muttered, before the nymph held up her hand and pointed at a cluster of trees, the base of their trunks obscured by bush.
“There’s something watching us,” she whispered, easing her spear from her back.
The shrubs shook, and Blake saw movement and something red just as it emerged and came running forward.
“Please help!” A young woman almost completely covered in blood took several steps before dropping to her knees. Her voice was hoarse and afraid, and she looked up at Blake and the women with veined, desperate eyes. “Please help me.”
Then her bruised, puffy face slackened, her pupils flickered and rolled, and the young woman collapsed to the dirt with a few twitches before she stilled.
“I’m thinking we take a short rest,” Blake said wryly. “I don’t think we can carry her without Mason.”
The nymph put away her spear, stepped to the prone body of the stranger, and lifted her over a shoulder.
“We can proceed.”
The girl kind of mumbled and groaned so at least she was still alive.
On something of a whim, Blake decided to tap into her mind. He activated Mental Influence, and knew instantly something was wrong.
The normal cascade of options flickered then vanished, replaced by dark, terrified images that assaulted his vision.
The world before him swam like the air above a fire. His head pounded and he felt almost trapped in the girl’s mind.
He reached desperately for Seul-ki, fighting the dark tunnel that swelled in his vision. But it kept squeezing, and kept squeezing…he was pretty sure he screamed.
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