Mason and Carl walked painfully slowly along the river bank, attempting to make conversation. Mostly, Mason just wanted to put an end to these creatures, then run at full speed back to his girls. But he supposed things could be worse.
“So,” he said, hoping to at least get a little information, “you have experience with these worms?”
“You could say that. They’ve been attacking us for several days.”
Mason decided that was a good sign. They’d only caused Nassau problems yesterday, meaning they must have started here or close by.
“Do you know if there’s a source? A dungeon?”
Carl quirked a brow.
“A, uh, lair, or hive? Some kind of…worm queen?”
“Hmm, no, nothing like that.” Carl’s tone seemed careful, and something about his face made Mason think he wasn’t telling him everything. He shrugged. “We know they’re worse to the East. So that might be where it is.”
Mason left it alone for now, but the deception put him on edge. “So why are you alone out here? You’ve so few players you can’t send two?”
Carl cleared his throat. “I…had a partner, but he’s missing now, for several days.”
The way he said it told Mason what he needed to know. “Sorry. But there’s no replacement? No offence, but if you’re scared of a few wolves, you really shouldn’t be out here alone.”
The older man frowned, and stole a side-eyed glance. “I should probably just level with you. You seem like a good kid. And you’ll see for yourself soon enough.” He sighed, and seemed to struggle to say it out loud. “I’m the only player left in the settlement.”
Mason felt his his eyebrows raise, for a moment not sure what to say.
“Our town…has excellent natural defences,” Carl explained. “When we found it, there was already walls and automated turrets that shoot something like rifles.” He shook his head. “It was a Godsend. Nearly our whole group of civilians came out of a single tutorial, lost and desperate in the woods. All their players were dead except my former partner. They’re very close.” His tone improved slightly. “We have a mayor, Silvie. She’s my woman, and…good at this stuff. But even with the walls and turrets, I just…can’t keep them all safe. Not for long. But they might need some convincing to leave. I guess I’m…kind of hoping you can help with that.”
Mason fought the sigh, not sure how he’d convince anyone of anything, especially since he didn’t much care. Carl’s face scrunched and he turned to look at Mason.
“Wait, why are you alone? Doesn’t your settlement have enough players to send teams?”
His tone was slightly sarcastic, but he was also obviously curious. Mason shrugged.
“People slow me down. Besides, I have Streak here.”
Carl looked at the wolf and smiled politely, some obvious concern in his eyes. Mason chuckled.
“Don’t worry, this one won’t eat you. Unless I tell him to.”
They walked on along the river, down slightly into a natural valley, where finally the forest terrain seemed to change to something slightly rockier. The trees grew sparser, the ground more clay, and sand. Ideal for giant worms, Mason thought with a bit of hope.
Carl made a little small talk. He asked about Mason’s tutorial, which he described without much detail. Mason told him about Nassau, and roughly how many players they had, which practically brought a tear to Carl’s eye.
“Yeah,” he said, mostly to himself. “We need to join you, and we need to do it fast.” Then he cleared his throat, seemingly unsure about what he meant to say next. “Do you, um, have a woman back there in Nassau?”
Mason narrowed his eyes.
“It’s uh,” Carl ran a hand through his thinning hair. “All our civilians are women.” Mason had no idea what to say to that and Carl gave a helpless shrug. “Most were college kids, your age. And there’s some useful knowledge in there—science degrees, pre-med and the like.” He chuckled. “I don’t suppose the couple law degrees are much use now. Anyway, they wouldn’t mind a few more young men around.”
“I have a woman,” Mason said, not really imagining the need for more than Haley and Rebecca in his bed.
“Too bad,” Carl shrugged. “You’re a strapping lad. There’ll be a lot of disappointed girls in town. There’s not much to do, and they’re all pretty stir crazy.”
Mason had no idea what to do with that information, and just stayed silent.
They walked the rest of the afternoon, until the sun drooped and it was obvious Carl was getting desperate for a rest. More than once throughout the walk he’d given Mason a sweaty side-eye, clearly wondering when he’d call to stop.
“Could we push all the way to your town? If we kept going?” Mason asked just before Carl dropped his bag.
The older man practically scoffed before he realized Mason was serious. “It’d take half the night. Better to camp. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see so well in the dark.”
Mason held back the long suffering sigh, thinking I see pretty well, actually. But he wouldn’t risk the other man getting hurt. Another night without the girls, he thought. God damnit.
Apparently he wasn’t that subtle.
“Sorry to keep you so long.” Carl said with a grunt as he dropped his gear. “Want to take turns keeping watch?”
Mason found some rocky ground, hoping it would prevent a worm from randomly chomping him in the night.
“We have Streak,” he said, putting a hand idly on his companion as they both lay down. Without further explanation, any interest in Carl’s camping routine, or any intention of building a fire, he nestled down and leaned against a rock, and closed his eyes.
* * *
Mason dreamt of a gentle tide on a clear blue day. He sat on a mountain overlooking the sea, a warm breeze blowing across his face.
“Dinnertime! Yes, Husband, that means you too!”
Mason smiled at the French accent. Husband meant him, and he turned to see his house by the woods. Haley stood at the door in an apron with a swollen belly. At least five children were running from all over the yard, laughing and calling each other’s names.
“Come on, Daddy!” a little blonde girl waved, and he smiled and waved in return.
Rebecca was by a swing set, wrangling children as she laughed and looked up at Mason with a wink.
It all seemed so peaceful. So full of love.
“There you are! Ha, I can’t believe this actually worked.”
Mason blinked as Blake stepped out of the nearby trees, perpetually smug smile on his lips as he glanced at the sky and the yard.
“I’ve brought drinks.” Two small glasses appeared in his brother’s hands.
“What…I mean, why, er how…” Mason took a glass as his brother made a lawn chair appear out of nothing and sat down.
“I’m in your dream, brother. Best not to ask any questions. Suffice to say I can do that now, and it’s much easier with people I know well. You’re doing fine, I trust?”
Mason nodded, looking out at his women and children.
“They look so peaceful. So happy.” He frowned. “How do I know you’re not just part of my dream?”
“You’ve got me there, I suppose. Why don’t we just pretend I’m not, in case you’ve something useful to tell me?”
Mason sighed. “I haven’t found the worm lair, but I think I’m close. I have found a settlement, I think. I’m with someone who says he’s from there anyway. I think they want to join us.”
“Well! That sounds like cause for celebration. I’m glad I’m drinking.” Blake took a swig of his maybe whiskey and sighed. “I know it’s not real. But that Cipher fellow from the Matrix was right. At some point, who even cares?”
As usual, Mason had no idea what his brother was talking about. He had the urge to go to his dream family and nearly stood before Blake’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
“Tell this settlement they are absolutely welcome. And be friendly, and polite, brother. And bring them personally!”
“This is getting closer and closer to a nightmare.” Mason scowled in Blake’s direction. “I’ll do my best, my lord.”
“Stop that.” Blake finished his drink in a giant swallow. “Well. What do we do now? Shall we look around your unconscious a little while? See if Freud was correct?”
“Anything that stops you from talking.”
They stood and walked towards the woods, moving more like ten paces with every step, like they were floating through the land.
The peaceful trees went by in a blur, until they stood on another mountain looking out over a forest with half a dozen great trees that rose nearly as high.
Mason stared in amazement, filled with awe at the sight.
Then something like darkness seemed to spread from the far end of the woods. The sun was high in the sky without a single cloud, yet a black tide swept over the forest until the great trees withered and shrunk, looking like giant skeletons looming over the land.
The forest burned and withered, until Mason could see a dark castle in a growing barren plain at the centre of the forest. Men and monsters emerged from both sides, screaming as they charged and clashed in the clearing.
“I have no idea what Freud would say about all this,” Blake muttered at Mason’s side.
“Shut up and pay attention, this seems important,” he said.
“It’s a dream, brother. We just cleared corruption from one of your magic trees. Is it really so surprising you’d dream of it? Frankly I was hoping you’d be in bed with those women of yours, and I’d at least get a nice eyeful of…”
“Shut up. Look at those creatures in the clearing. Those look like orcs to you?”
Blake looked meaningfully and shrugged. “They do.”
As they watched the battle, fallen men and orcs both shook on the ground and began to rise—legless corpses dragging themselves towards the battle, headless torso’s lifting their weapons.
“How lovely,” Blake muttered as a chill went up Mason’s spine. He thought of the crone from the cave in the great tree, and as he did the dream world shimmered and blurred.
“Interesting.” Blake put a hand to his head at Mason’s side. “Something is…forcing me out, brother. I’m losing the connection. I’ll see you in Nassau. Be careful. And bring me those new civilians in one piece!”
Then he was faded and gone like everything else, and Mason lay again on the floor of the crone’s cave, his legs and ribs shattered.
The crone frowned at him and stirred her cauldron.
“He’s going to die, young buck. They’re all going to die. Only you will linger, trapped in life forever and ever. All alone.”
“What do you mean?” Mason crawled towards her, his heart beating faster in his chest.
“You will lose everyone you love,” croaked the crone, “that is the blessing and curse of Gaia. Endless death. Endless rebirth. You must be strong, so very strong, to be timeless and untouchable, aloof and above the petty needs of things.”
“What things?” Mason thought on his dream. “Brotherhood? Love? Children?”
The crone sighed and took a bone from her pot. “Children you may have. But not for long. Interfere all you wish, in the end it will not matter. That is the curse of immortality. And of power. Do you still want it? To see all the works of creation fall to ruin and rise again? Are you sure you want to collect the druid seeds?”
“Yes.” Mason didn’t accept what this old woman made by some robot God said. “I can still protect them all their lives. I can still stop what I see in my dreams.”
The crone met his eyes. “Can you? And what if you couldn’t?” She snorted. “Still the ranger. You aren’t yet fit for druid dreams. There are ancient prophets who could see the future and the past for what they were, young buck. We are but droplets of water mixed in the same pool. No different when combined.”
“Don’t give me riddles, old woman. Tell me where to find the next druid blessing. I know there’s more.”
The crone laughed, and for a moment she was a young, wild woman again, her dark hair as untamed as her spirit. “Good luck, young buck. Good luck with what is to come. I am rooting for you, I truly am.”
Rooting for him? Mason shivered, feeling slightly mad in this robot’s fictional world, lost in a constructed reality that seemed just as real as anything he’d ever known.
“What’s coming? More corruption? The dead rising? Is this a damned zombie apocalypse next?”
The crone and her cave faded like everything else, until only the small fire of her cauldron remained, twinkling like a star as Mason’s vision narrowed and darkened, until all went black but a single line of text.
[Objective gained: unravel your druid dreams. Prevent their worst prophecies from occurring, before it’s too late. Reward: Unknown.]