Chapter 83: Carlton
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Mason ran along the river with his bow and bag slung over his back, legs pumping in long, quick strides. While he had a spare moment to himself, he glanced over his profile and inspected his stats and powers.

Mason Nimitz

Level: 14

Primary Class: Ranger

Secondary Class: Druid

Strength: 11

Dexterity: 16

Vitality: 16

Intellect: 6

Will: 10

Presence: 4

Luck: 4

 

Titles: Killer, Early Lead, Soloist, Crazy like a Fox, Burnt the Boats, Progenitor, Hit the Ground Running, First Blood, Defender

 

Powers: Power Shot, Crippling Strike (enhanced), Regeneration (enhanced), Predator’s Strike, *Nature Affinity, Ranger’s Claw, Endless Quiver (enhanced), Trapmaking, Aspect of the Cheetah, Blessing of Gaia, Ranger’s Mark

 

Things had changed pretty considerably since he wandered into the tutorial. But he knew it was best not to get cocky. Only roboGod knew what was coming next, and Mason sometimes wasn’t even sure it knew.

His mind wandered as he ran, and he thought back to hunting worms with the other players. Truth was, he’d enjoyed it. Enjoyed their company and hunting in a pack. And they’d impressed him, too. They could help protect the people he cared about, protect him while he slept.

Yes, he had to admit, the tribe was useful. But he’d sure as hell never admit it to Blake and Haley.

He glanced at Streak loping comfortably at his side, and on a whim used Speak with Nature.

[How fast can you run? Want to race a hairless ape?]

The wolf loosed a guttural growl, ears flattening as his limbs flexed and surged him forward.

Mason laughed as he followed at full sprint.

They flew down the bank of the main South river, Mason doing his best not to skewer himself on a branch or trip headlong over a fallen trunk. His heart raced and he couldn’t wipe the smile from his lips, having only enough spare attention to think: life is good.

A strange thing to think in a re-shaped and terrifying world. And a quiet concern followed that he tried to push away—to tell himself that just because things were good it didn’t mean disaster was coming. But he couldn’t.

“I just have to be smart, and careful,” he muttered, maybe trying to convince himself. If Blake and the girls wanted Nassau, so be it, he had to accept that and think tactically.

If that was home base he’d start doing everything he could to make it safe. Starting with building relationships with all the players, learning more about the other people he might have to rely on.

He didn’t have to be a leader. He could just be a soldier who belonged there with the other soldiers. Yeah, he decided, he could do that. But they needed to start bloody scouting and guarding the perimeter so they were ready before threats reached the walls.

Then he realized Streak had stopped ahead of him, and damn near ran the creature over.

“What is it, boy?” He stopped and focused his senses, for a moment unable to hear much over the beating of his own heart.

Streak growled low and menacing, and the message was clear: danger.

With his mysteriously attuned understanding of the creatures’ ways, he somehow knew it also meant: other wolves.

Mason frowned. Hopefully it was another pack and not the one he’d told to go North, or else he’d have to make a decision on what to do with them.

Either way, he had to go find out.

 

* * *

 

Carlton Walker closed his eyes and focused his mana. His body shimmered and his vision lit with choice of where to place his decoy, which at the moment didn’t make much difference. He chose beside a rock formation, at the edge of where the worms could hunt. He would return to Sanctuary soon, so he burned a little extra mana to make the decoy explosive, and smiled.

Chew on that you slimy bastards, he thought, then turned back home with a sigh. Another day, another risk.

Sometimes it felt like he and his whole community were living on borrowed time. ‘Sanctuary’, their settlement, only had two players to protect fifteen civilians. Or at least they used to.

But Aaron still hadn’t returned, gone now for five days with no sign or word. Silvie—their unofficial mayor—and the other civilians still spoke as if he was alive, as if they expected him any minute. But Carl was too old and had seen too much tragedy for naive hope like that.

No. He was alone now. The only player to protect a town of mostly young women, hardly a practical skill between them.

They had to get help, soon, or flee for their lives. That was the reality. No matter how safe Sanctuary seemed, their location was perilous and getting more so. The worms were increasing in number, that was clear. The nearby settlement of creatures was stirring, and wolves and God knew what else roamed all around them. Sooner or later, something would overcome their defences, and Carl wouldn’t be able to stop them alone.

But he couldn’t do anything about that now. He walked along his patrol route, checking on old decoys and traps, hoping to reduce the predator’s numbers a little. Fortunately the town had enough food, water, and other supplies, but the worms could get under the walls.

And if they were safe, which they weren’t, they couldn’t just stay trapped inside forever. They’d all go crazy. The young women wanted something to do. Somewhere to go. They wanted men.

Carlton was fifty-two and would have thought himself too old for such nonsense. But then he’d met Silvie, and though she was twenty years his younger, he’d been pleasantly surprised to learn he wasn’t.

She was a good woman. More than he could have ever hoped for in his old life.

Oh he might fantasize about having some kind of harem in the town, but they didn’t want an old man like him, and frankly the idea exhausted him. He had two daughters the age of the girls, and thought of them all as his own already.

From about day two, he and Silvie became mom and dad of the whole settlement, and he just wanted them to be safe and happy. Right now they were neither.

He walked past three of his old markers and traps along the river and found no takers, which he supposed was a good sign. He walked on, at the very limits away from the town now and he knew he should go back. But things couldn’t go on. He had to find something, someone to help.

A little farther this time, he told himself. Just to the edge of the bend.

He was level six now and powerful enough—a hybrid rogue/caster, sneaky and clever with powers that let him hide and escape. He could handle it.

There was a mountain on the horizon, too, and he was sorely tempted to take a closer look. Back before he’d found Sanctuary, he’d even heard rumors from a wandering civilian that there was another town further North and West along the river. But no one who’d gone had come back to confirm. It could be they made it and didn’t want to come back. It could be they just died.

As usual though Carlton enjoyed his walks alone in the woods. They reminded him of his time back home in Montana. If it wasn’t for the damn worms potentially popping out and ruining his day, of course, he’d enjoy it a lot more.

He passed the bend in the river and looked up ahead. There was a copse of trees past a small cliff, and he frowned, telling himself just past the copse.

A little ways more and he took a swig from his water flask, deciding he should really make a fire and boil some more. But not yet. A little further.

The river was dangerous, he knew that. Most animals hunted their prey somewhere they had to go. Somewhere they needed. Yes, predators loved water, but he could risk it.

Finally the sun dipped to the edge of the horizon, and Carl looked up and sighed. Time to admit it—another day with nothing new, no chance of changing the circumstances of his town. It was far better to make a fire early than in the middle of the dark.

He picked a decent camping spot that wouldn’t flood him out if it rained, and began building a fire. He’d boil some water, eat some mushrooms and ration packs, look up at the stars a little before he…

Carl froze. He could have sworn he saw something bubble up from the river, but they were too big for fish. How strange. Had he imagined it?

The water splashed. Carlton jerked in surprise as a creature emerged growling. It was a wolf, black fur dripping wet. Another rose up beside it, shaking water off its head. What in the name of God?

Carlton’s senses caught up to his panic, his Prescience passive power screaming imminent danger. He activated his Decoy and Shadow Leapt backwards, warping several steps before running further away. He heard the wolves leap on his decoy and tear it apart.

More golden eyes appeared in the trees. Two more wolves snarled and saw him or maybe smelled him through his passive Stealth, but his Decoy needed time to charge. He couldn’t think of anything except the trees. The bastards could swim, but could they climb?

He turned and sprayed a Color Spray, sending the closest wolves scrambling with enraged and frightened howls. Then he leapt for a branch he could reach, and pulled himself up. With somewhat embarrassing effort, he managed to climb about half way before he saw the wolves circling below.

They made no move to follow, and he closed his eyes and breathed. Then he realized: he’d left his water, and he was already thirsty. The wolves sat, and watched. One even drank from the river, perhaps just to taunt him.

With no idea what else to do, or how patient the creatures were, he sat on his branch, and waited.

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