Mason’s vision swirled from black to blue, then a soothing, familiar green. He gasped for air, watching Apex Predator’s effect still save him as he instead took in a mouthful of water.
He spun in a circle with open eyes, finding a small pool with a waterfall and covered in maybe giant leaves. He grinned, and pushed upwards, bursting out of the water to see the nymph’s grove in all its safe, peaceful glory.
Thea spun from atop her frond, shrieking in panic as her eyes widened and she fell into the water. Mason was too tired and wounded to leap after her and comfort her. He paddled to the side of the pool and grabbed the side, sagging in relief.
“It’s just me,” he muttered. “The druid. Most of him.”
Thea rose from the water with eyes blazing green, her hands held like a sculptor as she muttered something beneath her breath. Then she blinked, and her nostrils flared, and the glow in her eyes vanished as her whole beautiful face curled into a concerned smile.
“Druid! But how did you?” She raced forward and wrapped her arms around Mason’s chest.
“Easy, easy,” he groaned. “I came up from the tree. Through a pool.”
“You’ve learned to Waterwalk?”
“What? No. Wait, waterwalk?” A giant croc tossed me like a ragdoll, he thought but didn’t say. “I found some kind of portal.”
“You’re wounded. Let me help you.” She helped him out of the pool, where he slumped at the edge and groaned as he closed his eyes. Then he heard Streak barking, surprised as the animal came running from the side of the pool to lick his face.
“Woah, hey to you too, buddy. Where the hell did you come from?”
“He arrived at our tree in something of a panic,” Thea explained. “It seems he ran here. From your human town. He felt you were in danger.”
Mason gave the wolf a good scratch before he groaned to a sit. Thea was already fussing with some plants and poultices, slathering his skin and muttering some kind of spell. “Wait,” Mason squinted. “He ran here? That would have taken at least a day. How long since we left for the tree?”
“Two days, druid.” Thea bit her lip as she ran her hands down Mason’s chest, and he got the feeling it wasn’t strictly necessary for his healing.
Two days? How was that possible? It meant he’d somehow lost at least twenty-four hours and probably more. The others would likely think he was dead, or at least in serious trouble. Shit.
“I can tend all your ills, druid.” Thea’s rubbing was getting more intense by the moment. “These plants will speed your natural healing along with the magic of the grove.” She rubbed it over more and more of his skin, working her way down towards his waist. He had to admit, it did feel rather pleasant.
Something touched his cheek, and he flinched before realizing the vines had stretched from the walls, curling gently around him.
“They are happy to see you, druid,” Thea beamed. “Already they have grown considerably.”
“Well.” Mason cleared his throat. “You can tell them I’m fine. They don’t have to worry.”
“Tell them yourself,” Thea said. “They would love to hear your voice.”
Mason activated Speak with Nature. Don’t worry, I’ll live.
The vines stilled, then slowly recoiled, returning to the wall before entwining amongst themselves.
“You’re different, druid,” Thea looked almost flushed as she inspected Mason. “More alive, somehow.”
He snorted. “Thank you. But at the moment I don’t feel it.”
“Well.” She leaned forward, giving him a clear view of her ample cleavage, then running her body lightly against his skin. “You’re free to stay here as long as you wish, until you are fully convalesced.”
As usual, Thea was half naked. And gorgeous. Despite feeling like a ton of shit in a one pound bag, Mason felt his body reacting to her presence with arousal.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about Rebecca and Blake not knowing if he was alive or dead. If it was him he would want to know they were OK as soon as possible.
“No,” he said with difficulty. “I can’t stay. But the tree is cleansed. And I’ll be back, I promise. We need to talk about where I find the others.”
Thea beamed and hugged him, which hurt. “I’m sorry,” she kept hugging despite his grunt. “I’m just so pleased.”
“Where’s Calypsa?” Mason glanced around the grove again as he slowly pushed Thea away.
“She accompanied your friends back to their lair. Now she is Treewalking and scouting the other Great Trees for further cleansing. She’ll return soon. If you wait, you can give seed to both of us!”
The way Thea just so casually and excitedly discussed getting Mason off was damn near impossible to resist. But he managed. Barely.
“I shouldn’t.” With another grunt he forced himself to stand up and leave the edge of the pool. “I’ll come back in a few days,” he said, ignoring the nymph’s pouty eyes. “Oh. Do you happen to know what the Blessing of Gaia means?”
The nymph blinked. “Of course. Every sister of Gaia has this blessing.”
“But…what does it do?”
Thea smiled. “I sometimes forget you are a very young and inexperienced druid. The blessing of Gaia is what gives us our eternal youth, and our…” here she smiled. “Our effect on living things.”
“You mean the power that basically froze me while you seduced me?”
She looked a little embarrassed, then he actually thought about what she’d said.
“Wait, what was that about eternal youth?”
The nymph’s smile returned. “These bodies are not immortal, but they do not age. At least not as most living creatures understand it. Gaia’s waters renew us, wherever they are found.”
Mason blinked, repeating her words again and again in his mind. “You mean, you’re saying, you live…”
“Forever. Yes. As long as we have access to the pools. Though of course we can be killed in other ways.”
Mason suddenly needed to sit down. His head felt heavy and he braced himself against a giant mushroom. “And…what if a man, a druid like me…were to receive such a blessing?”
Thea’s eyes widened. “Oh, druid! I knew I sensed a change! Has Gaia blessed you? Please tell me it’s true.”
“Yes.” He wasn’t sure what else to say. “In the pool I met an ancient woman who claimed to be a druid. She made me eat a fish, and drink from a Pool of Wisdom, as she called it. And that was it.”
Thea put her hands over her mouth, then practically leapt with joy. “You’ve found an ancient! Then you are immortal like us. You will never leave us! And to be blessed so young.” Her eyes roamed him hungrily, her hands on his shoulders. “I must taste your seed. The power of it now. You must stay and…”
“When I’m back.” Mason tried to politely disentangle himself. Thea suddenly looked like a starving animal, and Mason was pretty sure he’d come apart if he tried to satisfy her in his current condition. “I promise. When I’m back.”
With that he backed slowly to the edge of the tree, Thea following him with her hands still roaming his body. He set one palm on Streak, then the other against the outer wall of the grove, and accepted the prompt.
“See you soon,” he managed before the world went dark.
He looked up at the familiar canopy of his forest, letting out a long breath in the cool night air. “Right. Immortality, apparently. Just another day in the woods.”
He tried desperately not to let the ramifications and emotions of such a thing overwhelm him, for the moment facing reality as it was, one practical problem at a time.
He supposed in his heart, he thought somehow this game was going to end. That things might somehow go back to a kind of normal. Or at least stop being so dangerous. But…immortality? How long was this God damn game going to last?
Streak licked his chops and stared out at the trees in anticipation.
“We’re not going full speed for awhile.” Mason rolled his shoulders and groaned. “I’m still hurt. So go bloody easy on me, alright?”
He turned towards Nassau and moved to a jog, and the wolf yipped and flew past him at top speed.
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