Mason watched the pack hunt their prey. It was a player, apparently, which he supposed explained why he was in the middle of nowhere on his own. Mason had nearly interfered as the wolves stalked him from the river, but then he’d used some kind of cloning power, or impressive illusion, and escaped. At least for a minute.
Now he was hiding and didn’t seem like he wanted to face a pack of wolves. Mason found this slightly comforting. This meant he either wasn’t powerful enough to deal with them, or that his class just wasn’t suited to a direct fight.
He didn’t actually know what sort of class he was. Caster seemed the most obvious with the illusion power, but some kind of rogue was possible. It reminded Mason that he actually had very little idea of what other people could do.
It also made him think of the start of the game and choosing his class. He’d had an instant aversion to casters of any kind, but he could have been a rogue. Deep in his heart, though, he’d known sometimes a pack of wolves with gills just fucked up your day, and in those moments all your sneakiness didn’t mean a damn thing.
He watched the stand off and sighed. It wasn’t Streak’s pack. They looked healthy, not desperate, which meant they didn’t fear men in the slightest. That meant they’d likely killed them before. Mason just couldn’t let that stand.
He stepped out from his downwind hiding spot, and raised his bow. His target was forty yards—a difficult shot, back in the old world, or when Mason had first arrived. But things had changed. With little more than a snap draw and moment of aim, he summoned a steel broadhead with Endless Quiver, and loosed a Power Shot.
The drinking wolf blasted half a pace off its feet, whined in shock, then slumped to its side with a pierced heart.
[You have slain a Great Taiga Wolf. Experience gained.]
The others all turned and raced in a kind of defensive circle trying to figure out the threat as Mason stepped out and activated Speak with Nature.
[Hairless monkeys are not food. They are predators.]
Frankly he was hoping they’d run. But this pack was strong and successful, and it gave them the courage to wait on their alpha. A huge, mostly grey beast emerged from the center, crouched and pacing forward with teeth bared. He was about to attack. Then he got into Mason’s aura.
[Apex Predator activated.]
The big wolf’s eyes glazed with something like terror, and his lips snapped shut over his teeth.
Mason frowned, not sure what to do with them. He couldn’t very well send every wolf pack far away, plus for all he knew he was sending them towards more people.
[If you eat more hairless monkeys], he said with another use of Speak with Nature, [I’ll track you down, and kill you. Now go.]
The creature practically pouted as it turned, the rest of its pack loping behind it with tails between their legs. Whether or not they’d actually listen he had no idea. But it would have to do.
Mason looked up to find the man in the tree wide eyed and staring. He didn’t seem armed, or at least if he was the weapons were subtle. With Mason’s resistances to magic he kind of hoped he was a caster type, and therefore almost no threat at all.
“You can come down now. They won’t hurt you.”
The man looked between Mason and Streak at his side, and didn’t look particularly convinced. Mason held up his bow.
“If I wanted you dead, that tree wouldn’t help you.”
The older man winced in recognition, then with several grunts and curses, slowly climbed back down to the ground. He was somewhere around fifty, in decent shape physically with hair too long to look good on his balding pate. He wore good, practical clothes that suited a man in the woods, and didn’t seem uncomfortable.
“Thanks for the help,” he said, brushing needles from his clothes.
“Not a problem.” Mason raised a brow. “What brings you out here alone?”
“Who says I’m alone?”
Mason snorted, liking the bluff. “How about this—I’m Mason, this here is Streak. And we’re out here hunting giant worms. You seen any?”
The man frowned, then stepped forward and extended a callused hand. “Name’s Carl.”
Mason was fairly confident in his ability to kill this man whatever his class, so he stepped forward and took it. Carl smiled a little before he went on.
“Guess I’m exploring, which sounds not so smart when I say it out loud. I come from a settlement. A ways off.”
A settlement? Mason could practically feel Blake behind him, prodding him on. “Me too. A settlement, I mean.” He balanced his own never-ending caution versus Blake’s desire for allies, and sighed. “North, up the main river fork. Nassau, we call it. And we’re always looking for new friends.”
Carl failed to hide his excitement, which Mason hoped was positive and not predatory.
“You have many players? Strong as you?”
Mason said nothing at that, and supposed he stared a bit harder than he’d intended. Carl went a little pale and licked his lips.
“I don’t mean…what I’m asking is…” he ran a hand through his balding hair. “Thing is, I don’t have much choice. I’ve got to trust you. My settlement, you see…we need help. Protection. There’s not enough players, and there’s more creatures all the time. If I can’t find recruits, I think we need to abandon our settlement and join another, something stronger.”
Mason kept staring until he decided he believed him. “Look, Carl, I’m just a soldier. So I can’t really say much of anything. But our town patron would be tickled pink to talk to you and yours about…some kind of deal, if that’s what you folks want.”
Carl nodded, eyes alight with enthusiasm. “Would you be willing to come to our town and speak with our leader, at least? We’re not too far, and they’d love to see a new face. Can you speak for this Nassau at all?”
Mason practically groaned at the thought. What he really wanted was to hunt worms and go home to his women, then maybe go exploring somewhere else. Talking with ‘leaders’ and pretending to be a diplomat was the exact kind of thing he wanted to avoid.
“Like I said,” he shrugged, “I’m mostly just a soldier.” As he watched the older man’s shoulders practically slump in disappointment, he fought the eye roll and kept on. “I can listen, and take whatever offer you have to my brother.”
Carl’s eyes shot up slightly at that. “Your brother? You mean your real brother? You’ve found family?”
“That’s…amazing.” Carl licked his lips again. “I mean, I have kids, brothers, sisters, lots of family. You…well, you give me hope.”
Mason didn’t much like the notion of being an example for anyone, and maybe ‘hope’ in general. “I wouldn’t hold onto much of that if I were you.”
Carl lost a bit of his enthusiasm as he stared at Masons’ face, then cleared his throat.
“My town is along the river, like yours. Maybe twenty miles South as the crow flies.
Twenty miles wasn’t that far, all things considered, and Mason knew he was screwed.
“Alright,” he forced himself to say. “That’s the way I’m going anyway. I can’t really speak for anything or anyone but myself. But I can listen. Let’s head to your leader and have a chat.”