Chapter 87: Survival and procreation
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Mason woke in a cold sweat. The strange, realistic dream clung to him like frost, and he hugged his arms around his chest until the trembling stopped.

“You alright?”

Mason flinched and opened his eyes to see Carl was watching him with a bit of panicky concern. He wondered what he’d been doing in his sleep exactly, and hoped it was just moaning.

“I’m fine.” He wiped spit from his face and glanced around at the dawn. Apparently it had rained and possibly stormed in the night, and they were all soaked to the bone. Very strange that this hadn’t woken him. Concerning, and strange.

Carl had come close, apparently, and put up a little shelter of leaves above them. Mason had slept through all of it.

“I tried to wake you,” Carl explained. “Figure out the shelter. But, uh, you were out like the dead.”

Mason nodded. “Sorry. Guess I was tired.”

Streak was under the leaves as well, equally soaked and looking miserable. Mason dug through his bag for some venison and fed the wolf by hand.

Then he looked back to Carl to find the man still pretending not to stare.

“What? Did I curse in my sleep or something?”

“Uh, no, it’s just…” the older man trailed off and shrugged. “Your eyes. They’re…well, they’re…sort of glowing green. Is that normal?”

Mason’s eyes were, in fact, brown. Also, glowing? He blinked and looked around, not noticing any different in his vision or the feel of his eyes. He shrugged, not wanting to seem taken aback.

“I’m a druid,” he said, as if that explained everything.

“Right. Course,” Carl said, then shouldered his pack. “Well, I don’t think any more sleeping in the cold and wet will do us much good, I’m ready to move when you are.”

Mason stood and moved instantly, stretching aching, sore muscles but otherwise feeling fine.

They walked in silence for maybe an hour before the world seemed to quiet and still, and a voice filled the sky and the trees and probably Mason’s mind.

 

[Greetings, players and civilians. Congratulations on your ongoing survival. Your progress continues to impress and inspire us. Today is the thirtieth day of the Great Game and marks the end of Phase One. Tomorrow, biological imperatives will increase in both speed and intensity. Please prepare accordingly.

Helpful Tip: avoid wilderness and dungeon areas without suitable strength or protection. All risks and rewards have increased.

Good luck. And as always, we are rooting for you.]

 

Mason glanced at Carl, who very clearly heard the voice as well.

“That didn’t sound good,” he said.

“It certainly didn’t,” Carl agreed. “What exactly do you think it meant by ‘biological imperatives?’”

Mason sighed, pretty sure he knew very well. “Survival and procreation,” he said.

“So…” Carl squinted. “Things are about to get more violent, and uh, horny?”

Mason nodded, not sure what else to say. He was a little surprised when Carl grinned.

“Well hurry up, then. I’d best get back to my woman.”

Mason matched the expression, thinking yeah, me too.

They picked up their pace, not wanting to waste what sounded like their last day of current circumstance. The terrain continued to change, growing ever less like forest and more like mountainous plain.

As they crossed a particularly high rise, Mason looked out over clear ground for miles ahead, and stopped to stare.

“Something wrong?” Carl stopped beside him and looked across the horizon.

“No.” Mason shook his head. “I just haven’t seen anything but forest since this all started.” He frowned and blinked, squinting as he tried to understand what he was looking at. “Is that…a castle?”

“Oh. That.” Carl smiled somewhat sheepishly. “That’s some kind of…” he cleared his throat, “monster fortress? Orcs, mostly. You know, green men with tusks. That sort of thing.”

Mason stared until the man had the good grace to look away.

“You failed to mention that, Carl.”

“Well.” The older man shrugged and kicked at the ground like a lying teenager. “They haven’t bothered us so far. We just keep well clear.”

“Maybe they’re just waiting for phase 2,” Mason muttered with a sigh. There wasn’t much to be done about it, so he started down the hill.

It wasn’t long after that they saw the walls of ‘Sanctuary’.

They were impressive, just as Carl said, with clear turrets in an organized ring on the ramparts.

Mason and Carl made their way down to the gate, and just as they were about to reach for the stone, two large looking crossbows from the wall above turned and pointed straight at Mason.

“Uh.” He glanced at his new friend and tried not to get concerned. “Your settlement is pointing at my face.”

“Sorry.” Carl looked genuinely confused, and a little flustered. “I’ve never seen that happen before.” He tried and failed to open the gate. “Suzanne?” he shouted. “Kiko? Is someone there?”

“Carl?” A young woman poked her head over the edge of the wall.

“Yeah, it’s me. Damn gate won’t open. Can you click the thing?”

“One sec.”

Carl glanced somewhat sheepishly at Mason again, then a mechanical latch seemed to open, and the several feet of stone slid inward with greased precision.

“There we are.” Carl grinned and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “No trouble.”

Mason detected continued embarrassment rather than deception. Though you just could never know with great liars. Mason would know—he’d lived with one his whole life.

In any case he wasn’t afraid, and walked into the settlement beside Carl and Streak without much concern.

He saw no reason in the world for some kind of ambush of a random player, especially a man, and especially a random player who wouldn’t die easy. But then this was the robopocalypse…

Sanctuary seemed very similar to Nassau. Broad streets, a few larger buildings that were likely to do with crafting or a central gathering place, otherwise neat rows of something like condominiums.

He assumed they were going to the main gathering hall, and started moving that direction until people started flooding from practically every direction.

Instinct took his hand to his bow, his eye back to the gate to ensure it was open and he could still flee.

“Easy there, friend, they’re just, uh, curious I guess,” Carl muttered at his side. “I told you they didn’t have much to do.”

Young women in various states of dress ranging from pajamas to maybe blacksmith apron wandered out to stare like tourists. Some looked excited, others wide-eyed with something like…fear? A few ran off towards the main hall.

“Is it the, uh, wolf?” Mason said, and Carl continued to look genuinely perplexed.

“Not sure, being honest. Let’s go. Silvie is this way.”

They walked on through what became an eerie silence as the girls continued to stare. The main doors of the hall opened before they’d manage to arrive, and a woman maybe in her late 30s emerged with her messengers.

She approached and stopped at the bottom of the slight rise that led to the hall, eyes moving back and forth between Mason and Carl.

“You alright?” she asked, then held the eyes of her fellow townsman.

“I’m fine, what the hell is wrong with everyone?”

Silvie flicked her gaze to Mason and back. “Your friend here is a tier 1 player.”

“Oh. Well, I guess that doesn’t surprise me much, Sil, he already…”

“And he’s practically glowing red with violence and player kills.”

Carl’s words caught in his throat, and Mason winced. He’d honestly forgotten about that, and supposed he should have said something...

“I, uh…” Carl’s face went slightly pale as he took a half step away.

“What have you brought inside our gates, Carl?” Silvie whispered.

“Alright, let’s all stay calm.” Mason raised his hands, which unfortunately held his bow.

Carl was still taking little steps away, and his hands were getting pretty stupidly close to the now obvious knife on his belt.

“We both know what’s going to happen if you pull that blade,” Mason said with slightly less patience. “I could have killed you long before the gates if I’d wanted to.”

“But then you couldn’t have got in,” Carl said with a neutral tone.

“I sure as hell bloody could have,” Mason said back. “The old owners of Nassau were raiders and murderers. I had to kill them to stop them, including their patron. I didn’t take any pleasure in it. Well, not much pleasure.”

Carl and Silvie exchanged a look.

“So it was…self defence?” Carl asked.

“Uhh.” Mason pursed his lips. “Ish? Look, I found a pile of corpses they’d left by the sea. Then they took my brother. I don’t let people like that live.”

Several long seconds passed in silence.

“You’ll understand,” Silvie broke it. “Since we don’t know you, your presence is still…frightening. And we can’t know if you’re lying.”

Mason shrugged. “I’d assume I was. Carl here asked me to come, so I did. If you want me to leave, I’ll go. Nothing personal, but honestly I don’t really care.”

He heard Blake shouting articulate profanities at him in his mind, but whatever. Carl gave a rather meaningful nod to Silvie, and the woman seemed to deflate, aging five years as she shrunk like the weight of the world was crushing her.

“Thank you for being reasonable. What’s your name?”

“Mason.” He sighed. “From Nassau. I guess.”

Yet again Silvie and Carl exchanged a look, but this time Carl spoke first.

“He was hunting worms to the North, near the river. Saved me from some wolves. Or at least saved me a hell of a lot of trouble.”

Silvie looked at Streak. “Then I suppose I should be thanking you. But tell me, why are you hunting worms so far this way?”

“Just following the trail,” Mason said. “I think they have some kind of nest near your settlement.”

Silvie frowned. “Wonderful. Well. It’s nice to meet you, Mason.”

“You too.”

It was clear everyone was still uncomfortable, which matched Mason’s general feeling around people. But he reminded himself this was the new world and he didn’t have to play by old rules.

So now that the pleasantries were over, and it seemed the good folk of Sanctuary had decided at least not to start a fight to the death, Mason was feeling a little more natural. And also impatient.

While the others seemed at a bit of a loss on what to say or do next, he glanced around at the settlement with fresh eyes—the eyes of someone violent and entirely without scruples.

He saw a lot of benefit and not very much risk. Carl and the civilians obviously thought their walls and defences would keep them safe from players.

But Mason knew they were very wrong. You wouldn’t need someone of Mason’s power. A few mid-tier players could break the towers and scale the walls easy enough. Kill the valiant defender Carl, and boom, Bob’s your uncle. A town full of young, attractive women.

“So, uh,” Mason met Silvie’s eyes, “no offense, but, how exactly is a civilian like you in charge of this place? And, how do you even get it with two players?”

A little fear returned to Silvie’s grey eyes. “What makes you think we only have two players?”

Mason snorted. “Carl told me. Even if he hadn’t, I know anxiety when I see it.” He spoke up, so all the girls watching could hear him, too. “But it’s not me you need to be afraid of. You’re weak, and surrounded by danger. And I’m assuming you heard the same message today I did—things are about to get worse.”

Silvie stared with obvious annoyance, but her face crumpled with something like resignation as she turned towards the hall.

“Maybe we should go talk in my office.”


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