Mason followed his hosts up the hill and tried to ignore the stares. The inside was nearly the exact same layout as the one in Nassau, and Silvie had chosen the same office.
She led him inside and closed the door, then took a glass bottle from her desk.
“The settlement gives us a little of this every week. It’s not whiskey, but it’s better than nothing.” She poured two glasses, handed him one and waited.
“You should know,” Mason swallowed it, taking a moment to enjoy the burn. “If that’s poison, it’s not likely to kill me. But I still won’t be very happy.”
Silvie snorted and drank hers, then poured them another round.
“We were all in the same tutorial,” she said as she sat. “It was almost like a school with a bunch of tests, except failure meant terrible punishments or death. The civilians out there, the ones who passed and escaped, they’re mostly all college girls.”
Mason said nothing, just waiting. Silvie’s eyes lost focus into a thousand yard stare.
“We’d had such a hard time of it, and our little group had done 'so well’,” she shook her head, as if this were a joke, “it rewarded us, you see. The system. Or whatever the fuck it is. It gave us this town. Said our tutorial ‘wasn’t intended to be so difficult’, like it made some kind of fuck up.”
Mason frowned. “I thought people didn’t actually die in tutorials. They just…respawn, or whatever.”
He hadn’t actually seen it, since he hadn’t died, but Blake had told him all about his.
Silvie’s eyes went far away, her jaw clenched as she looked out the window. “The respawn point got trapped. Somebody fucked up a test and these…gates closed down, and water came up, and in the place where people came back got filled with water, and they couldn’t get out. They just drowned, over and over, every two hours until the tutorial ended. Then they drowned for the last time.”
Mason was somewhat speechless, but he realized it was very likely the exact same thing that happened to all the other people in his tutorial. Killed on cooldown by monsters until they didn’t respawn.
“And your tutorial?” Silvie snapped out of it and grinned a little as she asked. “I imagine it was all sunshine and rainbows?”
“Something like that.” Mason said without expression, and Silvie dropped the grin.
“I don’t suppose you get to be a tier 1 player without a considerable amount of blood.”
“No. I don’t suppose.”
Finally Silvie turned to her man. “Well, Carl, you brought him here. Maybe you should tell me why.”
“You know why, doll,” Carl said quietly. “He’s from a settlement. The rumored settlement to the North. They have players, a patron, lots of people.”
Silvie took a deep breath.
“How can you know for sure? And even if it’s true, how do you know they’ll really help us?”
Now it was time for Mason and Carl to exchange a look.
“You can’t stay here,” Mason said matter of factly. “Not by yourselves. And sure as hell not anywhere near that fortress I saw East of here. That’s a time bomb.”
“They haven’t bothered us.”
“They could be breeding those worms, for all you know. And if it’s not them, it’ll be some hungry players waiting to kill Carl here and turn your girls into slaves. Trust me. I met some of them.”
“This place was a miracle for us.” Silvie clenched her jaw. “We can’t just leave it.”
Mason shook his head, trying to think what Blake would do. Why the hell wasn’t he the one doing this? Then it occurred to him.
“You get patron points, Silvie?”
The woman did her best to hide her confusion, and Mason knew he had her.
“Didn’t think so. Our patron gets some kind of currency with the system. He can buy buildings that just sprout up like magic. More people, more points. I suspect with a little time, we’ll turn our town into a fortress. With your people adding to our numbers, it’ll make the place better, stronger.”
Silvie stared at him for quite some time, then finished her drink. She flicked her eyes at Carl. “I could let him become ‘Patron’ and then we’d get access to those points, too.”
Mason shrugged. “No doubt you could. But you wouldn’t have many, and you couldn’t get more. You need more people. To actually accomplish things and level up. Only players are going to win this ‘game’, and you don’t have any.”
Silvie clenched her teeth, then relaxed. “You make it sound like Nassau is the answer to all our problems. I feel like asking what the catch is.”
“No catch.” Mason shrugged. “Except you have to stay in our town. You have to tolerate my brother.” Here she raised a brow and Mason waved it away. “He’s fine, it’s just…you’ll see. We’ve got a crafters hall with all kinds of things, and a big hall full of games and whatnot where I guess folk mingle. Frankly I haven’t stepped inside. We haven’t got a lot of single men, but a lot more than you have here.”
She looked at her glass again, turning it slightly as she considered. Mason’s patience was doing that thing again.
“I don’t mean to be rude, ma’am, but I don’t see that you’ve got much choice.”
Her eyes flared in a quick glance, and he supposed he should be gentler. “I can see your tier 1,” she said. “Are all your players like that? Your brother, too?”
“No,” he said. “Just me. My brother’s more suited to things like…talking to settlement mayors with manners, and leading towns.”
Silvie at least smiled a little at that. “And what are you suited for?”
“Well,” Silvie sighed, “we have a lot of problems. Most of which will be solved if we live in Nassau. So, how do we get there?”
“We walk.” Mason winced. “Or run, preferably. I’d rather we made it one day and night but I doubt it’s possible.”
Silvie’s face scrunched like she’d aged another year. “I was hoping you’d have some kind of…magic teleporter, or vehicles.” She looked to Carl, who gave her a tight-lipped smile. “We can try, but I’d sure love to wipe those worms out first. Have you figured out where they are?”
Mason shook his head. “I suspect your dead player did. We’ll try going East. If you want, I can go deal with it now. Gives you time to prepare. When I’m back we can leave.”
“We haven’t technically agreed,” Silvie said.
“We both know you have. Either way I’m going back to Nassau after I wipe out those worms. You can come along, or you can stay here.”
“You’re very confident you’ll succeed,” Silvie said, tone showing she was still a little indignant about the whole situation.
Mason cracked his neck and shut the images from his mind. “I’ve seen worse than giant earthworms.”
Carl cleared his throat. “I think I’ll go with him, Doll.”
Silvie twisted like she’d been struck. “We need you here. Going out on patrols is bad enough. We’re practically defenseless without you.”
“Yeah. And I need to get stronger,” Carl said in a tone that didn’t leave much room for discussion. “That is,” he cleared his throat again and spoke more tentatively, “if Mason here doesn’t mind me tagging along.”
“Not at all.” Mason shrugged. “Though I can’t promise there’s not any wolves.”
Carl narrowed his eyes and squared his shoulders a little, and Mason fought back the grin.
“I’ll be fine, thank you. You haven’t seen half my tricks.”
“I look forward to seeing the rest.”
Mason and Carl exchanged a good natured grin, and Silvie watched them and sighed.
“Men. Well. Hurry back.” She fidgeted with a piece of paper on her desk, opening her mouth once or twice before she found the words. “But should you…rest, a little, first? I’m sure you’re tired from the road.”
Carl blinked and gave Mason a ‘please say yes’ sort of expression. He sighed and supposed he finally understood a little how Blake sometimes felt.
“Daylight’s wasting. Twenty minutes. Then I’m going.”
Silvie and Carl both smiled in relief, not hiding their excitement very well.
“Why don’t you head on over to the cantina, Mason? We have an excellent chef. She’ll whip something up for you, then we can go hunt your monsters with a full belly.”
Mason wasn’t exactly a foodie, but talk of eating made his gut rumble, and something other than dried rations sounded pretty damn good.
He turned and walked out without another word.