Chapter 82: You’re in good hands
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In total Mason and the others hunted and killed six worms before sunrise. They kept patrolling for some time after, but Streak’s ears raised back up and he stopped growling, tongue lolling and tail wagging, seemingly happy to just run in a loop around Nassau all day.

“They might be nocturnal,” Mason shrugged as the sun kept up its steady rise.

“Or we killed them all,” said Garet, with a tone that implied he doubted it.

“Either way, time for breakfast.” The older Phuong grinned and patted his thin stomach, and Mason’s growling gut had to agree.

“Alright. Let’s head back. Hopefully the town didn’t have to deal with any more. But Blake would have called us if they needed help.”

He saw the other men visibly calm at that logic, and he sort of did too. Haley and Rebecca were smart and capable and he expected (and hoped) they were still lying naked in his bed. But he might get Haley to cook a little before he restarted their session…

The walk back was fast and the men were all clearly happy to be finished with hunting things that they couldn’t see. Ghostly text drifted before Mason’s eyes as he reached the walls.

 

[Devouring Worm Invasion defeated. Experience awarded based on contributions.]

[Title earned: Defender. +1 to a random stat.]

 

“You boys get that message and title?” He quirked a brow and the others all nodded, looking rather pleased. That was something, he supposed.

They walked in and Mason was relieved to see the town looked fine. Most of the people had cleared away from the hall, or perhaps rested inside, and there were a few holes that looked patched. But that was it.

Blake was still outside with a few players and waved them on. Garet and Alex both embraced some civilian women, and Aila came to greet Phuong.

“You shouldn’t have gone with them,” she scolded. “You need more time to heal from your injuries!”

“Not from what I see,” Mason clapped the swordsman on the shoulder. “This old man could teach a class or two on worm killing.”

Phuong bowed slightly with a small smile. “The young master is too kind. But it’s true, I did my part.”

Blake stepped into their little circle and sighed. “We may need that class. We killed four worms inside the walls and stacked them over there,” he gestured a hand Eastward. “How many did you guys kill out there?”

“Six. Not sure how many we missed.”

Blake shook his head. “Very strange. Where did they come from? It just seems so random.”

“Welcome to the robopocalypse.” Mason shrugged, doing his best not to say ‘I told you we shouldn’t be stuck somewhere that doesn’t move.’ But he had to admit, there were advantages.

Rebecca emerged from the hall in what looked like pajamas, and Mason frowned when he saw her. Ignoring his look entirely, she sauntered down and threw her arms around his chest.

“I left very specific instructions,” he said unhappily.

“They needed my help at the hall,” Rebecca answered and rolled her eyes. Then, before he could ask: “Haley came too. She said she can break your orders when it comes to self-preservation.”

Oh shit, Mason realized. It occurred to him she was a bonded contract and had to obey his orders. He’d have to be more careful with his words going forward.

“Well, let’s go find her,” he said. “I’m thinking breakfast…and then, back to that…very important thing we were discussing.”

Rebecca grinned and got on her tiptoes to kiss him.

“I’m afraid it’s going to have to wait.” Blake interrupted. Mason stared daggers but his brother didn’t even flinch. “I want you and that handy wolf of yours to go down the river again. See if we can figure out where these worms are coming from. I have it on good authority it’s that direction. They might have a nest or something.”

Mason practically groaned at the thought. He wanted to say ‘can’t you send someone else?’, but knew he couldn’t. No one else had his speed. No one else could even find the damn worms.

“I suppose it’s just a coincidence it’s the same direction to probably find you more recruits?”

Blake just smiled, and held out a bag. “Haley made you breakfast. Oh.” He turned around, and Mason’s heart beat faster when he saw what his brother had somewhat hidden behind his back. “And here’s your bow. I saved it from that crumbling dungeon while you were falling to your doom.”

Mason took the weapon with almost trembling hands, for a moment unable to come up with any witty insults.

“Thank you,” he said instead, and his brother slapped his arm.

Rebecca threw her arms around him again and closed her eyes.

“Be careful, darlin’. I wish I could go. But you’re too damn fast and I’ll just slow you down.”

He raised her chin and kissed her, fighting images of her naked and squirming beneath him. Then Streak was whining and nestling himself between them, pushing his nose higher and higher between their chests.

“I’ll be fine,” Mason said as he tried and failed to palm the wolf’s growing head. “Anyway, if I get in trouble, I can always leave this guy as bait and climb a tree.” The wolf looked between them and whined a little, but mostly just seemed happy to be included.

Rebecca lowered her voice. “When you get back, Haley and I will give you a reward.”

Mason damn near tossed Streak aside as he pulled closer. “What kind of reward?”

“The kind that will make you forget all about your stress.” Rebecca trailed a finger down his torso.

“I dunno. I may have a lot of stress.”

Blake cleared his throat. “Time waits for no man, brother. Chop chop and all that.”

Mason narrowed his eyes but didn’t look away from Rebecca. “I can’t believe we’re in the damn robot apocalypse and literally nothing with my brother has changed.” Then he saw Blake was about to launch into some dreadful speech so he waved a hand. “I’m going, I’m going.”

He took a few steps toward the gate, then turned to Phuong, Alex, and Garet.

“Hey wormbait.” The men all turned with mock glares and Mason grinned. “You got the town protected while I’m gone?”

They all nodded without hesitation, and Mason was starting to like them all. “I believe you do. See you soon. You’re in good hands,” he said towards the civilians, wanting to build the men up in their eyes.

Then he clicked his tongue for Streak, and ran out from the town towards the river without another glance back.

He felt at home as usual as he entered into the trees, pulling up Wayfinder and inspecting the map. No more moving at half pace because of being with others. No more worrying about anything other than the path ahead, and the world around him.

And yet he enjoyed the company of the other players. He enjoyed having the people he cared about safe and comfortable in the settlement, the feeling of returning to them. Though he knew perhaps he shouldn’t. That it was weakness and one day might get him and them all killed.

He stretched out his legs and body and ran at least for the moment without concern or holding back, feeling the woods as usual somehow bend around him.

Whether he was druid or ranger, man of Nassau or man of the forest, old world or new, it didn’t matter when he was running with Streak at his side.

All he knew for certain, all that mattered for now, is that it was time to hunt.

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