Blake vaguely recalled entering an unconscious person’s mind.
He found himself standing in a strange, shadowy world, with blinking scenes of poorly lit structures.
People ran everywhere. Beasts howled in the dark, their footfalls and dragging claws scraping against concrete. None of it saw or bothered Blake.
He walked on and observed the people were young and in uniforms, almost like a high school. He followed them into the buildings—into long corridors filled with rooms that looked all the same.
Yes, he decided, a school. Yet everything seemed somehow…off. Too plastic. Too many missing details. Like a school plucked from a child’s memory.
But the dying seemed real. Giant snakes slithered through the halls. Huge worms with frightening maws ripped from the earth and devoured people whole. Packs of orcs dragged girls screaming into the dark.
The bloody stranger whose mind Blake was in ran through it all. She carried an emergency fire-axe dripping blood, limping as if hurt. Her nametag said ‘Annie’.
Then an orc stepped in her path and growled. She leapt through the air with a wild, almost feral scream, her little arms swinging the axe in a brutal, double-handed overhand chop. The orc first jerked in obvious surprise, then because there was a fire axe buried in his brain. Annie smashed him to the ground and practically roared--which was more like a girlish squeal. Then ripped the axe out and stared straight at Blake.
“Please. Help me. I don’t want to do this anymore!”
Blake felt a little like the surprised orc. He came back to himself and sighed, then tried to use Mental Influence to do...something. Instead the darkness shimmered and popped like a kernel of corn as he activated the power, and the girl’s eyes rolled back until she collapsed.
The darkness vanished.
Blake opened his eyes to find Seul-ki holding him on the ground.
[Hidden Psion Class Power Discovered: Dream Walk]
He sat up, pleased at the power but entirely unhappy at the loss of control. He stood with a groan and saw the girl was also fluttering awake, and lost the pleasant mood he’d had since the end of the dungeon.
“Set her down,” he commanded.
Calypsa glanced at him but made no move to obey.
“Your town is close. If you’re capable, we should continue a little ways further and you can see to…”
“Don’t mistake my charm for a lack of authority,” Blake barked, no longer wearing his pleasant mask. “Set her down. Now.”
The nymph reacted the same as most people when Blake lost his patience. Her eyes opened slightly in surprise, and she set the girl on her feet.
“You’re safe, Annie.” Blake noticed even the girl’s nametag was entirely coated in blood. “We’re taking you to a safe place now.”
Her hugely dilated pupils shot between his eyes. “You…you were in my mind. In my dream. How did you…”
He smiled apologetically. “Only to help. I can see you’ve been through quite an ordeal.”
She nodded and clearly fought a sob.
“Was that a tutorial I saw?”
“Yes,” she swallowed. “I just left it.”
Blake raised a brow and glanced at the others. “Just? Ours ended ages ago.”
“The headmaster...it said...it said I couldn’t go in until my eighteenth birthday.” The girl wiped at her face in some kind of nervous tick. “I was in a…strange place, a fake world. Most of the people weren’t really people…they were like robots. Then they said I was ready and gave me a class, and took me to the tutorial. There was a lot of us, and we were supposed to figure out how to get out of this old building, but we couldn’t. And then there were all these creatures. And they broke in and found us. And they started...killing everyone.”
Annie went pale and closed her eyes as she stopped speaking. Blake was too curious about her situation to remember to do the human things he should have.
But she was a player, he realized, not a civilian, so he flooded her mind with Mentally Influenced comfort and trust.
“How very interesting,” he said, looking at the canopy. “Have any of you others seen children in this new world?”
They all shook their heads.
“It seems our wise overlord took them all…elsewhere,” Blake shrugged, “as if it’s preparing them for the new world somewhat. Then when they’ve ‘come of age’, they’re brought to the party. Very interesting indeed.”
“I haven’t seen anyone older than maybe sixty or sixty five, either,” said Rebecca. “Phuong is the oldest.”
“How old is he exactly?”
“Not sure. Sixty four, I think he said.”
“Hmm.” Blake was grinning because there was few things he liked more than gaining information. “It seems roboGod has decided, or else thinks we’ve decided, that approximately from one to seventeen and sixty six and older are outside the rules. One wonders exactly what it does with the older ones.”
Then he put that knowledge away and turned back to the girl. “Well, Annie. You’ve survived when many others didn’t, and that’s something to be proud of. You’re welcome to come with us, we have a place for you. A town where you’ll be safe.”
“Oh thank you.” The girl threw her arms around him and sobbed. He decided underneath all that blood she was rather cute and buxom, and just the kind of thing he would ordinarily not mind pressed up against him. But this one seemed a little…chaotic…
“I didn’t know what to do,” she went on crying. “And I saw these giant snake creatures. They were eating a deer, or I don’t know what. This place is just as bad as the tutorial. I saw you, but that woman, she looked not quite human…and I didn’t know…I was afraid…”
Blake raised a brow at the others. “There there. You needn’t worry now. I always know what to do.” He checked his watch. “Should we take a rest? Continue after a little lunch?”
Calypsa didn’t look quite so keen to tell him otherwise, which pleased him. But he raised an eyebrow as if waiting for an answer, and she frowned.
“I can invigorate you all with magic to renew you, if you wish.”
“Oh? Well that’s handy.” Blake turned to Annie. “Are you alright to walk for a little while? You look a bit…worse for wear.”
“Oh. It’s not my blood,” she said with a somewhat haunted expression. “Anything that gets me out of this forest, I’ll do.”
An inappropriate joke nearly touched Blake’s lips, but he fought it down.
“There’s a brave girl. Well there you have it, then. Invigorate away, mistress of the forest.”
The nymph closed her eyes and muttered some words, and a green light grew from her chest and consumed them all.
Blake watched it all very carefully, trying to understand, cursing his lack of true arcane knowledge or how to identify anything. Seul-ki knew more and he’d ask her later. But for now it felt rather wonderful.
Then they were all practically running back to Nassau like a collection of speed-addled teenagers, Blake cycling through the numbers of pi just for something to do.
“Wow.” He ran a figure eight around some trees and turned to the others. “This must be how Mason feels all the time.”
He saw Rebecca noticeably deflate at Mason’s name, and cleared his throat.
It felt like hours, but likely wasn’t. Then the square walls of his beautiful settlement came into view, and all the dirt and itchy life of the woods would soon be a memory.
“I can’t wait for a shower,” he muttered, mostly to himself.
* * *
“Thank you, Calypsa,” Blake smiled at the gate. “Would you like to come in? Look around? Do you, er, eat or drink? I feel I should offer you something.”
The nymph stared at Rebecca as if Blake hadn’t spoken at all. “I will return to my sister, mistress. Goodbye.” She turned and walked back into the trees, and Blake blew a little air.
“Life of the party, that one.” He turned to Rebecca with a grin. “But I suppose she has her uses.” The girl turned a satisfying red, so Blake left her alone. “If someone wouldn’t mind taking our guest in and showing her around a bit?”
“I can do that,” Rebecca said, getting the hint.
“Thank you.” Blake smiled. “If that’s alright with you, Miss Annie?” The girl nodded enthusiastically, eyes wide as she took in the settlement. “Very good. I need to check in with my subordinates. Seul-ki?” Blake extended his hand, then walked with his lover through the gates.
As he walked he kept his smile and nodded to the many well-wishers and new citizens of Nassau. He hadn’t been lying—he did need to check in with his subordinates, but first things were first. He walked straight to Mason’s house.
Haley opened the door, and Blake walked right in without being invited. She looked somewhat confused, and only when the door closed did Blake drop his smile and let a little concern show.
“Your contract with Mason. Is it still in tact?”
The beautiful blonde—who Blake already considered a sister-in-law—stepped back as if slapped before her eyes glazed as she examined her profile.
“Yes, it’s fine…why are you asking if…”
“Mason ran into trouble in our little dungeon.” Blake let out a few hours worth of anxiety in a single breath as he sat at the table. “He’s him, so I didn’t expect anything else. But, it’s nice to know for sure.”
He saw the concern spreading across Haley’s face and sighed.
“I’m sorry to have asked you. I didn’t truly doubt him. Not for a second.”
“Nor I,” Haley said, and they exchanged a tight lipped smile.
“Well.” Blake stood and pushed out his chair. “Things to do. Settlements to run.” He paused and let out a little truth. “I haven’t told you…how pleased I am, that you’re with us.” The French Canadian smiled, and Blake certainly understood his brother’s attraction. “I know I’m…”
“Incorrigible?” Haley finished. “Annoying? Perpetually selfish?”
“I was going to say demanding.” Blake shot her a teasing glare. “But I feel like you’re part of the family already. That’s all I meant to say. That you can share some of our burdens.”
The usually stoic Haley actually teared up a little, and Blake decided it was time to leave. All that sentiment was a bit too much.
“Mason will be back soon, I have no doubt. But I expect Rebecca won’t wait very well. She may…end up loitering, near the gate, possibly, or…”
“I’ll check on her,” Haley said, the wetness gone from her eyes.
“Thank you,” Blake smiled one last time then opened the door, putting Mason’s women from his mind.
He’d left Garet in charge of the players, and his old friend Hank the fisherman in charge of the civilians. Hank he trusted with his life—he’d already saved it once—but Garet…well, he was the best option in a currently average pool of talent.
Though by all accounts old Phuong would be an excellent replacement, if the transition and relationships could be managed…
“Hank!” Blake waved when he saw his civilian master inspecting some craftsmen at work in the new section.
“The chief returns.” Hank grinned, then Blake went forward and shook the older man’s hand, genuinely happy to see him.
“How goes the town?”
Hank shrugged, but looked pleased. “We’ve figured out the blacksmith, some of the tannery tools. We’ve even made a few decent pairs of pants and gloves.”
He gestured to a table where a middle-aged Filipino woman worked at some leather.
“Cynthia here was a seamstress in Manila in the old world. She’s been teaching us all a thing or two.”
“Sir Hank is too kind,” said Cynthia. “But yes, I know how to sew some things.”
Blake gave her a winning smile. “You’re too modest. And for every piece of gear someone uses, you’ll earn points to use in the growing storage. So keep it up.”
“About that,” Hank said somewhat lower as they stepped away from the station. “We’re not running out of food by any means, but we are losing…diversity. Things like basic carbs—potatoes, wheat—they come back fast, along with some of the canned goods. But meat comes back slow. So do most of the more desirable ‘treats’. I’ve had to lock storage because folks try and hoard it. I think we need to start hunting and gathering.”
Blake sighed, thinking about the many predators they’d found in the woods.
“Alright. Good work. I’ll talk with the players, and we’ll figure out something.”
“I know you will, kid. There’s complaints and problems, no doubt, but overall things are good. The civilians love the new entertainment hall. Most spend all their evenings there.”
“Glad to hear it.” Blake smiled and turned towards his hall, eager to get to his chair and start looking for Mason and exploring more of the world and…checking the minds of all his players…
But he supposed he should talk to them first. See how things faired. After not taking any of them to the dungeon, he expected to find a far less enthusiastic welcome.
Oh hi there.
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